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Sucker love is heaven-sent
You pucker up, our passion’s spent
My heart’s a tart, your body’s rent
My body’s broken, yours is bent
–Placebo, "Every Me, Every You"

 

I: XANDER

She laid one leg across his, crept it slowly over him like she was doing something sneaky. Will was like that – always with those big, uber-innocent eyes looking somewhere above the level of his gaze, pretending she hardly noticed he was there. Don’t mind me, hell no – just slithering across the bed naked – hey, how long have you been there?

She knew, though. She knew just what it did to him, the ripple of her small, squirming body as it pressed against him, the bone of her hip in the soft part of his thigh, her belly stroking light then heavy against his hard cock, her small breasts rolling this way and that way across the broader surface of his chest. Aw, baby. Willow, what you do....

First Xander’s hand, then his lips glided up her shoulder. Will’s skin, just as soft and sinfully comfortable as the warm satiny sheets of his parents’ king-sized bed under his back. Soft and soft, sin and sin, and holy shit, the touch and the taste of Will, his girl, his brainy, crazy, loving goddess girlfriend, his wacked and wonderful other half.

Bright eyes, finally right on him, in through Xander’s sex-clouded eyes and into his perpetually sex-with-Willow clouded brain. Her lips parted in one of those smiles, that was so unbearably sweet, and yet wicked in ways that no all-American high school sweetheart should know enough to be, and it knifed through Xander again, how bad he wanted her, how she was his first, his best, his witchy Willow Rosenberg....

The first time they made love was in Xander’s back yard, inside his battered, army-green Boy Scout tent that was so full of worn holes that the porch light shone in through them and cast planetarium-like speckles all over the tarp. There was nothing there, nothing but Willow and a bedspread and a little transistor radio – he remembered that the Spice Girls were involved in there somewhere.

They’d known since the funeral that afternoon. It was too awful, too cruel and nasty and wrong to talk about – what they were doing to faithful, soft-eyed Oz, what they were feeling right there in front of Cordy who’d died from the shock, practically. So they didn’t say anything to each other at the funeral, but it was in the way Xander couldn’t hold her tight enough and the way Will fit so perfectly into his arms, her back pressed against his chest and hitching with the force of her silent tears. But that night he waited for her in the tent, too scared to do anything that might make it look like he expected – but knowing anyway, why Willow would be there.

It was always perfect like that between him and Will. Made in heaven, like his mom always said – only she said it like it was the punchline to some particularly devious Penn-and-Telleresque joke, and Xander could really feel it, believe it all the way down to the heart. Not his heart, and not Willow’s, but some phantom heart that was them, the two of them taken whole.

He had been so unbelievably awkward, and Will too shy to speak a single word, just looking at him with trusting eyes like two full moons and her face flaming to the touch with her nervous embarrassment. God, he’d been inept, he could tell from the way she flinched when he tried to push into her, and even after she helped it had been all wrong for a minute, or two, or what felt like forty years in hell, but after that–

After that he found his angle, and Willow found their rhythm, and it got easier and easier until they weren’t just two teenagers screwing in the backyard, but skin and bone stretched tight over fiery souls, together in the way they’d been stumbling blindly toward for all their lives. Xander knew he didn’t have the same kind of destiny that Buffy did, the kind stamped on his birth certificate right next to his little inky footprints, but he was seventeen and narcissistic and it was easy to believe that he was born to wind up here tonight, in a moth-eaten tent flooded by starlight and porchlight and Willowlight.

At the end, when they laid side by side under the blanket, nose brushing nose, and Willow smiled that sly, kittenish smile at him, Xander began to suspect that he’d been duped. She’d known all along that they were looking at the big picture here, all her talk of accidents aside. Willow had known from the beginning of time that she was for Xander and him for her, and he was finally catching up to her, late like always. Slow on the uptake, one more time.

Willow’s perfect knowledge, knowing him and his slowness and his strength and the rage and confusion that could smoke and stutter inside him, and knowing the way he had been looking all his life for someone to need him, someone he could shock by being more than he seemed. How dumb could you get, making it all complicated by wanting someone who thought nothing of you, just so you could go surprise! I’m a real-live person, not some cartoon doof who can’t spell ‘obnoxious,’ ironic, huh? When really it was as easy as holding as tight as humanly possible to the one person who could see, spell, and get him, right from the beginning.

Nothing about her surprised him, either. When she said I think I know how to bring Cordelia back, Xander had been like, if I knew how to do that, I’d tell Mrs. Lovett to take her chem midterm and shove it up her ass. Not surprised that Willow could bring somebody back from the dead, just surprised that she could go about her life being so basically normal, the whole world looking right at her and not getting the whole direct hit of Willow’s knowledge. The power bundled inside that floaty, skinny little body was way past what anyone but Xander had a fucking clue about. Even Willow passed it off, said it was the Wicca, said Giles was teaching her. Managed to screw it up, somehow, when she thought too hard about it. But when it was just Willow and the need, the knowledge raised its head up and breathed fire, and it never surprised Xander even the littlest bit.

Maybe once. Maybe just that one time, when he saw Cordelia’s eyes open, and saw Cordelia in there. Not that he hadn’t thought Willow could do it, if Willow said she could do it, but—

It gave him the wig. A little bit.

Because what was he, Xander L. Harris, average American adolescent male, doing in bed with Glinda, the Good Witch of Southern California and the – undead? Once-dead? Pre-dead? Ex-dead body and soul of Cordelia Chase –

Cordelia’s heat was pressed against one side of him, making the other side seem about thirty degrees colder and more naked by comparison. The hot ocean of her hair didn’t help things – it was like when you got out of the water at sunset, cold in a way you never were until after you were out of the cold water and burning your feet on the sand.

Xander’s logic, crooked at the best of times, was spiraling around on itself in a mad, Eschery frenzy, like a trapped animal chewing its own leg off. Cordy was a heat like a brand, or a cold vacuum sucking him towards her like in Black Hole which was the only movie his dad ever took him to at the Ski-Hi Drive-In Theater back before it closed. She was the sand on his feet after he’d come up for air – no, she was the chill in the air, and Willow was the red sunset.

It didn’t make any sense, but none of this did. Xander only knew that Will was sinking slowly down over him, balancing herself with her hands heel-to-heel across his stomach, and that being buried inside Willow was a privilege he never earned, he was just born to the purple, born to doofishly and unintentionally be the one who made Willow sing from the inside.

He threw his head back, and there was vast, wide knowledge of Willow, and a sharp punch of madness – Cordelia’s arm pressing across his chest, her fingernails digging into his shoulder. The thing that made it all sick and freaky was...

The way he knew that Cordelia was clinging to him. The way he could feel her fear, her lingering doubt that this was all real.

Because Willow was scary – Cordelia was scared – and Xander could feel just the first, rippling echo of that thing he felt once before. The thing where he was meant to be right where he was.

 

II: CORDELIA

She nestled up against him, long since used to the weirdness of finding Xander Harris big and handsome and comfortable – no, comforting. There had been so much weirdness for Cordelia lately that some of it just had to get chucked by the wayside, and so she hadn’t thought much lately about how she shouldn’t get this fluttery, keep-me feeling in her stomach when she was crushed warmly under Xander’s arm.

The sounds and the scent of him, and she’d always loved the weirdness of Xander – how he could be dumb as meatloaf sometimes and still always be the first one to spike any snarky comment she made back at her, how he had the body of an athlete and a smile that was like warm butter pouring all down your back but still think that he was the most ordinary person in the world and never display a flash of arrogance or attitude, the way she’d wanted him to want her from the beginning because he seemed like the only person who didn’t, and the way she wouldn’t have felt so real in his arms if she hadn’t known she wasn’t Cordelia Chase, Center of the Universe, but just a little corner of Xander’s broad, colorful life.

Xander was just the right level of weirdness.

She drew her leg up along his, which used to make Xander go crazy – leg man – but this time he hardly seemed to notice. Cordelia’s knee bumped Willow’s leg, making her jump a little at the sudden feel of soft, shaved skin. By touch alone, there was nothing much to tell Willow’s leg from Cordelia’s. Maybe that was why the whole idea of lesbians had always given Cordy the wig, kind of: could anyone ever find anyone else attractive without the allure of mystery? Wouldn’t another woman know all the tricks, all her secrets, and wouldn’t it be like it was with all Cordelia’s chick friends, where no flattering unknowableness softened the cold facts of your imperfect beauty, your imperfect grace, your imperfect confidence?

The sounds and the scent of Xander and Willow, and she’d always envied their history together, they way they spoke eye-to-eye in a way that shut everyone else out at a glance. They even breathed together as they fucked, long rasping ins and outs, the rhythm jerky and velvety at the same time. Without realizing it, without being able to escape it, Cordelia found her own breathing keeping time perfectly.

She didn’t want to breathe this way, coiled around the outside of the tight clasp of Xander-to-Willow-to-Xander. The desire to sob and scream was more pressing, and yet something all too familiar took control inside her, prohibiting it. Stronger by far than the need to run and hide from this new and prize-winning level of weird was the pressure to conform. This wasn’t the first thing Cordelia had done because Cordelia Chase couldn’t be the only one not doing it.

Xander’s skin was becoming slippery with sweat, and as his shoulders flexed without warning, Cordelia lost her grip, her hand skidding along his chest. Dark panic threatened to claim her – crack of wood giving way, nothing holding her, falling through emptiness....

Back in the day, Willow didn’t have the strength to look Cordelia Chase in the eye, but ever since she brought Cordelia back from the dead, all the fear was gone. She walked right up to Cordelia by the soda machines, and only a little subconscious fluffing of her coppery hair betrayed any self-consciousness on Willow’s part.

On her side, Cordelia didn’t have the strength to rebuff her. Pathetic, how Cordelia was so desperate to have somebody not afraid of her that she didn’t even care anymore that it was just Willow. Everybody else – even Xander, even Buffy – was still a little tripped by the fact that Cordelia showed up for class two weeks after she was buried. Some of them actually seemed a little pissed off, like Cordelia was inconsiderate for coming along and negating all those hours of primo mourning they’d done. Flowers, assemblies, little street-corner altars with her picture on them – it had been pretty choice, from the videotapes and newspaper clippings Cordelia had seen. Even Cordelia had kind of felt like her existence was an anti-climax.

Which explained why she was okay with Willow walking right up to her and talking, even though when she was home alone and thinking about the last two weeks, she hated Willow with a fervor that only barely stretched to cover the bottomless terror Cordelia had of her.

Nothing, nothing explained why Cordelia had listened to her, and let herself be talked into this.

Gratitude? The thoughts made Cordelia itch just under her skin, but she had to admit that there was a – a debt there. Willow may have been the cause of Cordelia’s death, but it still couldn’t have been easy to resurrect her, and nothing had made Willow do it. She’d just done it. Brought Cordelia back from the dead, given her back all the chances Cordelia had not yet found peace for having missed – for Xander? To ease Willow’s own guilt? Because she was just that kind of soft-hearted witch? Surely not for Cordelia Chase, who had been nothing but a problem for Willow since they were six years old. Ten years of mocking Willow, shaming her, excluding her, stealing the only guy Willow ever cared about, and then forcing her to act like Cordelia was a friend – and still she brought Cordelia back.

Cordy doubted she would have done the same thing, if their positions had been reversed.

And maybe that was why she’d agreed. Because it closed the gap between them, made Willow slightly less the better person. Sure, she was the big hero, the big savior, giving Cordelia her life back. But she was also asking for something pretty twisted, and Cordelia could tell that she wanted it. Really wanted it, even if it was just on Xander’s behalf. So Cordelia said yes, and it wasn’t exactly like saving Willow’s life, but it opened Willow up to her, made her less the diva of magic and more just one more person hoping Cordelia wouldn’t reject them.

There was a deal struck there by the vending machines, and a little of the power passed back into Cordelia’s hands. Cordelia had trained herself to recognize the signs of power, and she could see it in way Willow turned and walked off, a little more jittery, her head and shoulders ducked a little more than when she’d walked up. The flush of excitement that had stayed with Cordelia for the next day and a half had nothing to do with the exact nature of the bargain, and everything to do with the fact that she was on her way back up, and Willow on her way back down.

The thing that Cordelia didn’t really know, the thing that might or might not change things, was why Willow had agreed to this. Didn’t she know that she was the one losing, here? Not only was Xander slipping through her fingers, still part Cordelia’s even though he swore he was Willow’s man through and through, but he’d gotten Willow to help him do it. She’d mis-stepped badly, going in two months from the girl who could steal Cordelia Chase’s boyfriend to the witch who got to decide all by herself if Cordelia would live or stay dead to the fake-brave little girl who had toed the edge of the tile and said "if you want to – you and Xander – and – and me–"

Was she too stupid to realize that Cordelia was the one granting a favor now, and Xander was the one living out every guy’s fantasy, and Willow was getting taken for everything she was worth? Jesus, Cordelia should feel sorry for the girl. Willow had never been any good at the politics of relationships.

So why didn’t she feel sorry for Willow? Why didn’t she feel stronger, better than before? Cordelia was taking back control, proving that Xander would still do the unthinkable to have her, that Willow was still too weak to keep Cordelia from making her look like a loser.

Because it felt good. Because it felt so much better than all the nights alone in her room, not knowing how it was supposed to feel or who she was supposed to be now, jealous of everyone, missing Xander, so bitterly alone that she almost missed the bleak silence of death. Cordelia had been the one granting the favor, but she needed it. More than Willow, more than Xander. She needed it because no one else had offered her any alternative to the loneliness. Which meant that all Cordelia’s power was a trick, only existing until someone saw through it. Nothing to rely on – especially when Xander was involved, because Xander had seen right through her before, and never left her with anything that wasn’t her. That was the good thing about Xander, but also the danger.

Willow – who knew what Willow could do? That was a bottomless pit.

Sooner or later, unless Cordelia found someplace to go to ground, something that she could put up to protect herself, they would know the truth. They would know that Cordelia Chase had whored herself out to them, naked and lonely, not the one they loved or needed, but still giving them what they asked for.

Back in the day, Cordelia chose her companions – pseudo-friends and practically-lovers alike – by how badly they wanted her, how ready they were to lay aside all false idols and swear that Cordelia was everything and forever.

Somehow, Cordelia knew it would never be that way again.

It would be good to close her eyes, to block out the sight of Xander and Willow gazing raptly into each other’s eyes. That way, Cordelia could put herself back in the middle of it instead of on the fringes. In the middle, in the spotlight, Queen and superstar – the Cordelia that she always wanted to be, the one she believed she was, deep inside. If she could close her eyes, blur this bed down to heavy breathing and warm skin against her, she could be all of that for the first time since her fall.

But she couldn’t. Her eyelids didn’t answer when she spoke to them, ordered them to shut. There was just no response, and she could still see Xander’s hands splayed across Willow’s curved spine, Willow’s slickened and shiny lips parting as she leaned down over him.

Those lips were somehow entrancing. She could see Xander’s tongue press up between them for a fleeting moment, before Willow leaned further down and consumed his mouth whole. For the first time since Cordelia had gotten here, there was a moment when she didn’t think about herself, her own strange role in all this. She thought about Willow’s mouth, how warm and lusciously wet it would be on Xander’s tongue as she took it in.

It would feel around Xander’s tongue a lot like Cordelia’s cunt felt as her first fingertip, then a second, slipped inside it, disappearing into heat and slippery flesh. Cordelia’s breath fell out of sequence for a moment as she swirled her fingers in a slow circle, but then she licked up the side of Xander’s jaw, and that close to his mouth, she couldn’t help but pick up the rhythm again, and join in.

 

III: XANDER

His orgasm was incredibly wet – not just on and around his dick, which was wet for the obvious reasons, but wet all over him, like he was being licked by dozens of giant, invisible tongues. Of course, on the Hellmouth those kind of thoughts had weirdly plausible dimensions, but always better not to think about things like that.

Just Willow, and they way they were locked together, the perfect latchkey fit, the perfect connection.

In the rush of pride and triumph that muddled up Xander’s brain even as it made him feel invincible, he rolled toward Cordelia, only to be brought back to his senses by a yiping little shriek, and Cordelia’s sharp fingernails gouging his back. "Get off my hair, you big loser," she said, and somehow her voice was as expressive as always, roaming up and down through the full range of an octave or two for maximum effect, even though she was speaking through gritted teeth.

"Sorry," Xander managed thickly, and he tried to get his elbow off her hair immediately, though it ended up taking longer than a person might think, what with Cordelia having a lot of hair and Willow’s arms still around him, weighing him down a little. He could still feel the sting of torn skin warming his shoulder blade.

It ticked him off a little, and it turned him on a little, too. Maximum Cordelia.

The balance of emotions, neither able completely to swamp the other, hit a general midpoint that made Xander not exactly rough and not exactly passionate, but mostly just clumsy. He reached out without much precision, and his hand found Cordelia’s face, her lower lip under his thumb, the convex slope of the ball of his hand knocking softly against the mirroring curve of her cheekbone, his fingers vaulted like a high ceiling over the hollow of her eye socket. The touch was awkward, but light – his kiss was not. Xander forced her lips open with his tongue, determined to stick with the things that had always worked on Cordelia before: kissing her until she forgot to be better than him.

Xander and Cordelia were the worst fit ever, a permanently severed connection practically since the second they met.

Kissing her until Cordy kissed him back even harder, his equal here and nowhere else....

The debate about what Xander saw in Cordelia had been completely monopolized by the Status Symbol faction and the Pure Sex faction. Like a national election, there were only the two choices, unless you wanted to throw your vote away on a third-party candidate. Love, the Ross Perot of Xander’s social life.

Xander himself had never really taken sides. He knew it wasn’t just the thrill of the class clown being picked by Queen C – it wasn’t thrilling enough to make him put up with Cordelia’s leonine ego, by a long shot – and it wasn’t just that she was hot enough to melt formica. There was something about Cordelia, all spikes and spines and spats aside, that was good to be with, that was just...good.

Although maybe only a class clown could take Cordelia Chase’s good and find a place for it. The Zen of comedy, the way Xander saw it, was to take something completely normal and turn it all – funny. Into what it wasn’t, or what didn’t fit, or something that was a little too much or a little too far afield for ordinary thinking. And when you were the comedian, you were the one everyone wanted to be with. Not a witch like Willow, but a kind of wizard anyway, one who could turn everything crazy. Presto, change-o, watch the puff of smoke disguise the Hellmouth and pretend that the rabbit hiding in the hat was more real than the things no one wanted to watch with eyes wide open.

And then there was Cordelia, who was like comedy anti-matter, because for Cordy, things were only one way. Reality, in all its brutal, competitive, mortal glory. She could see through Xander’s tricks like Superman through cotton candy, and what Cordelia saw was the unvarnished truth.

She had her hands up to the elbows in Xander’s fear that, deep down, things really were...just what they were. It had to either scare the shit out of him, or make him love her. There was no middle ground with someone who was that immune to Xander’s powers of illusion.

So, yeah, Xander had loved her, there at the end. Not enough, he guessed. If he’d loved her enough, he wouldn’t have hurt her – at least, that was what Will always said about her and Oz, and it sounded so sensible when Willow said it.

But when you left sensible back in the dark and quiet place where Xander usually liked to keep it, you kept coming back to this weird feeling Xander had been misdirecting himself away from for quite a while now. Like there was two of him, and one was Willow’s from the beginning of time to the end, and the other had never met anyone who could love him as purely and truthfully as Cordelia could.

One of him was twelve years old forever, and Willow was the girl in his treehouse. All-American though it seemed, Xander actually did have a treehouse when he was a kid, and he and Willow did hang out there when they were twelve. It faced east, and Xander remembered watching out the window, watching the advancing grey of twilight, the first visible stars, the lights coming on in the kitchen as his parents came home from work. He remembered how much better it was playing Crazy 8s and drawing cartoons of their teachers to impress Willow, how unwelcoming the greyness and the shadows falling across his house had seemed in comparison. He’d never heard of the Hellmouth back then, but he knew that the world on the ground didn’t care ten cents for Alexander Harris, and Willow did. She was Door Number Two, what Xander could get and keep if he didn’t go home, didn’t go back to his life, didn’t give in to the inevitable pull of curfew and bedtime and reality.

The other Xander had never been that young, and his universe had certainly never been that small. He was too busy watching the shadows and waiting for the other shoe to fall to make wishes or wonder if there wasn’t any more to life than Sunnydale, California. He just took his comfort where he found it, letting himself ease into the little things in life. Good cheesecake, the green-y smell of Cordelia’s hand lotion, how his dad let him play poker with his buddies now sometimes and how he’d figured out the suave way to open a car door and help Cordelia in without hitting her head. Little, isolated pockets of normal being alive and even growing more or less on schedule into a man. Real life, which could sometimes seem unspeakably valuable in the face of Bezoar eggs and wife-beating androids and vampires with multiple personality disorder.

Willow was the girl in his treehouse, now more than ever. Cordelia was the girl he’d held in his arms while she bled all over him, the girl who was still alive and staring at him with lost, lonely eyes when the EMTs pried her out of his grasp and lifted her off the stake.

If he’d loved her, he wouldn’t have hurt her. If he’d loved her, he wouldn’t have driven her away. If he’d loved her, he wouldn’t have broken her heart. If he’d loved Cordelia. If he’d loved himself the way he was, instead of himself the self he wanted to be.

Her hand was so much smaller, more graceful than his, and it seemed like he could fold it up completely inside the hollow of his palm. It stopped moving when Xander cupped it, stroked the backs of her fingers and then nudged them gently aside, just enough to replace them with his own fingers. For once he wasn’t clumsy. He stroked a soft, crescent curve along the outside of her clit, back and forth and back and forth with a touch that came -- for once -- as light and easy as words came for Xander.

They were eye to eye, and trying to connect that way, trying one more time and one more time almost figuring out how. It didn’t come naturally – nothing seemed to come naturally for Cordelia and Xander, but at least they didn’t seem to be losing any ground. He still saw her desire for him in her eyes, saw that she was looking for the way in. There was so much that Cordelia only gave away with her eyes, and only when he was holding her like this.

Even though he was only holding himself up by the strength of one arm, Xander found a way to work it out from underneath him, and better yet without undue interference on the part of Cordelia’s hair. He stretched his arm up over his head so that he was still leaning on it, but not on top of it, and his fingers were freed to play with the waves of her hair. It was always so warm, like it was actually alive in and of itself – but the one time he’d tried to tell her that, Cordelia hadn’t taken it as a compliment.

Still, Xander wound his fingers into the threads of her hair, and it was almost like making a connection. It almost stood in for knowing what the hell to say to Cordelia, and her eyes softened on his face while he did it, like she knew that he, too, was looking for the way in, and at least they were united in wanting each other and never knowing which way to turn.

 

IV: WILLOW

Pressed up flush against Xander’s warm back, Willow could feel every twitch of movement. Everything, arms and legs and the slow twitching that defied being pinned down to one location, had to pass through the complicated net of muscles through Xander’s back, and the rippling massaged its way deep into Willow, who was still quivery and vulnerable in the aftermath of fucking him until she was smothered in blind, impenetrable pleasure.

Xander was trembling. Not just general eagerness, a regathering of his energies as he turned his attention on Cordelia, but scary-trembling.

Willow ran her foot over Xander’s calf, hoping that it would calm him a little, and settled her arms more securely around him. She overbalanced a little, though, and her foot slid off the far side of his leg, kicking squarely with the arch into Cordelia’s perfect, sleek shin.

She didn’t think Xander even noticed. She felt the muscles jump a little in Cordelia’s leg, and then quiet, and it was almost possible to believe that Cordelia had forgotten she was there. That would be typical, Cordelia forgetting that Willow was even alive, unless something brought her to Cordelia’s attention with a sharp, though light, blow to the shins.

Some things never changed. At least, Willow kind of wanted to think so.

She let her leg stretch out, and pointed her toe so that the back of her foot nestled into the soft blankets on the other side of Cordelia. Cordelia’s leg brushed softly against Willow’s heel, silk across her calluses, so perfect that Willow knew her cheeks would blossom out in bright, poppy red if Cordelia hadn’t forgotten about her in the face of gorgeous Xander’s perfect kisses, forgotten Willow was even still there....

Perfect. Still.

Cordelia had even been perfect in her coffin, rich red velvet dress covering up the wound through her stomach. Having very little fear of dead bodies anymore, Willow had gone right up to the edge of the casket at the funeral home, looked right over the side and down on Cordelia Chase, whom she had practically murdered. She’d been perfect, frozen eternally, her eyelids shadowed in the softest silvers and golds imaginable, her hair swept back from her forehead and forming patterns on the white satin pillow like plants bent into curves by steady winter rains. Once Willow had sprinkled a little potpourri around her, along the outline of the casket, masking the chemical scent with a little violet and wisteria, everything about Cordelia’s final public appearance had been just as perfect as Cordelia herself could have demanded.

Thanks to those unromantic chemicals, however, Cordelia was still surprisingly perfect when Willow – herself soaked with sweat and dirt that was turning to mud, or at least to filth, on her body – had finished digging, pried up the lid of her coffin, and helped Buffy drag her out of her grave. Sure, she hadn’t looked exactly...alive by that time, but she’d still looked recognizably Cordelia, and as perfect as you could imagine anyone who’d been dead for eleven days looking. More so than you’d imagine, actually.

Raising the dead, as Willow had realized in a flash of intuition after six straight days of research, was mostly a matter of avoiding the easy out. A soul was a snap to lure back into its body; souls gravitated back toward earth, if they saw the chance, and all the sorceress had to do was open a door. That was how people raised zombies, and when your correspondences were sound and your timing was solid – timing was the hardest part of magic, the make-or-break part – then it was like falling off a log.

But zombies were dead things, with no vitality, no ability to grow, or really to live at all. They were just personalities rattling around in the fishbowl of their old bodies. What you needed, to turn back time and correct your terrible mistakes, was something to gum the soul back to the body, something to make it fit back exactly where it had been before. You couldn’t just dump a soul back into a dead body. You had to restore it, which took patience, attention, and at least a modicum of magical dexterity, but it was a job you could apply yourself to. It was more craftsmanship than genius, and actually not all that different from altering the circuitry on a computer’s motherboard. Just know what it should look like, then touch it up, tease it into shape. Willow could work the invisible stuff of souls and sorcery just like she could the fine hairs of resistors, capacitors, and conductors.

By the time she was done, Willow had spent about half an hour catching hold of Cordelia’s strayed soul, and about three days cultivating it, helping it to root its way back into Cordelia where it could stimulate her from the inside out, waking dead tissue and making cells want to reproduce themselves again. And once the process started, the act of living took on its own momentum, making it so that Cordelia would go through the world alive and growing again, animated by a soul that was at home inside her, instead of just inhabiting her body.

And it wasn’t unnatural, not at all, no matter how Giles stared her down over the top of his glasses and warned at her in his most stentorian and most English voice. No matter how strangely Buffy looked at her, and then away. No matter how sad Oz’s eyes had been, and how it cut her down to the center and twisted her open in half to hear him say, "Don’t you think it’s time you left Cordelia in peace?" They didn’t understand. Until Willow had done it, even she hadn’t understood how dazzlingly natural it all was. It was just making something grow, the way everything wanted to.

Even if the process itself had been more invasive, more Mary Shelley-esque than it really had been, it still would have been natural, just because...Cordelia. There was nothing in the world more natural than Cordelia making noise, Cordelia striding through the halls of Sunnydale High, Cordelia tossing her hair back without even checking to see if it would lash someone behind her across the face, Cordelia arching her eyebrows and pursing her perfect, bowed lips in a thoughtful gesture that was half mocking and half shrewd. Cordelia was born to be alive and awesome and beautiful, and the unnatural thing would have been – well, anything else.

The other unnatural thing was Willow surrendering her beloved, her Xander whom she loved more than anything and so much that it took her breath and squeezed it dry. Her fear of this threesome was overwhelming, towering so high in her heart and mind that it had shadowed out everything for the last week, since she and Xander had first discussed it. It was thoroughly unnatural, and Willow had almost made herself sick with dreading it – because how could he ever forget what Cordelia was like if Cordelia herself, graceful and perfect and desirable, was there to remind him? Sometimes she was so sure that she would lose Xander this way, it almost seemed like it had already happened. Now that she had her heart’s desire, it was nothing if not unnatural to risk it of her own free will.

But Willow had been loving Xander most of her life, and she knew better than anyone – certainly better than Cordelia Chase – exactly what the job entailed. It wasn’t complex, really. It just mattered that you stay strong, because invariably Xander would lose his nerve at the last minute, try with all that rapid-fire, twisting-turning eloquence of his to talk you back into what was safe and familiar, even if you and he both knew he hated it before and would keep right on hating it. Xander lost his nerve all the time, and if you were Xander’s love, Xander’s lover, it was all on you to keep him from bolting, to lead him where he wanted and needed to go.

Because what Willow knew about Xander, the secret that the two of them shared, was that he wasn’t as straightforward and simple as he seemed. In fact, there was something inside Xander that seemed to delight in tangling up everything that came his way and prevented even Xander from knowing his own opinion on things most of the time.

No matter how easy Xander was to get along with, how stable and predictable his responses to certain basic stimuli were, at heart Xander was trapped in the mazes of his own brilliant, sparkling illogic. He was too sweet, and too intuitive when it came to seeing the virtue buried in everybody. How could Willow, or anybody else, expect him to choose, to rank people against each other when Xander was so good at sinking himself into whoever needed him most? It wasn’t infatuation, not with Xander. It was just an inability to stop loving people when it wasn’t convenient anymore, which was the best of Xander, the bright heart of his Xanderness. He was a lover, everyone’s love, a veritable slut for it. And love made him better, made him more the hero that she knew Xander would never be whole until he could see in himself as clearly as she could.

She wouldn’t take it away from him. She would hold strong, for Xander, like she always had, and however it scared him, however it scared her, she wasn’t giving up on Xander until she lured him out of his doubt and gave him the best thing she had: certain faith in Xander, pure and genuine confidence that there was nothing wrong and everything right with the way he fell in love and couldn’t pull back out of it again. It was just natural, just how Xander was.

The only other thing that Willow kind of worried might not be exactly natural was something that seemed to be starting in her, not in Xander at all. It was forgiveness, and Willow rarely forgave and never forgot, but somehow this time forgiveness had just shown up without warning, sitting comfortably and immovably inside her. There was a lot of Cordelia to forgive, but even though a few anger shadows lurked around in the corners of her memory, Willow felt better near the center, where there was a flickering but clear little light that made her glow, put a fond and sweet dessert-like warmth at the back of her throat at the taste of Cordelia Chase’s name. Cordelia that she’d wanted to be like, Cordelia that she’d wanted to notice her, Cordelia that she’d wanted to be and then wanted with all her might to save from....

From being forgotten. Willow was used to that, but Cordelia wasn’t. Willow didn’t want her to get used to fading from the fickle memories of secret-heavy Sunnydale. It was unnatural.

The way Xander kissed down the gentle swells and curves of Cordelia’s body was so beautiful that for a minute it was almost like he was touching Willow in that slow, reverent way. When she came back to her senses, there was one little pang of loss, and then just the warm friction of Xander squirming against her, lowering down toward the foot of the bed..

She brought her leg back up, first over Cordelia’s hip, and then Xander’s. As he moved, Willow kept her leg still, until her thigh rested against the side of his chest, along his ribs. Automatically, Xander moved his arm, lifting it to drape across Cordelia and make room for Willow’s leg, and for a brief, timeless period, it seemed like all three of them forgot that they were having kinky three-way sex, totally caught up in little shifts and wiggling and making adjustments to fit against each other, locking against and around each other in an odd, rounded, breathing and stretching glyph, some symbol that Willow could probably find in a book somewhere, that maybe meant "whole" or "with" or even "intimate," in an obscure magical language.

And there was nothing Willow did better than translating obscure magics into miracles during the darkest hours of the night.

 

V: CORDELIA, XANDER, AND WILLOW

There was no difference in the shape or texture of Xander’s thick fingers and his tongue – or at least not one that Cordelia was alert enough to notice. Everything down there was soaking wet, too, so that was no help. She was pretty sure that the more mobile, elegant thing working her into spasm after spasm of intense feeling was Xander’s tongue, just because, well, Xander. But basically it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, except that she didn’t feel freakish or alone or – falling – for the first time since she came back to life.

As her sense of direction flicked out like a burnt lightbulb, the walls seemed to be turning at a nice, stately pace around her, making her disoriented but not dizzy. She could see where she was, could tell walls from windows and up from down, but there was no reason behind it – the same feeling Cordelia had felt when she’d first opened her eyes on a table in the school’s boiler room, realizing that she was in a real place, a living place, but not yet able to ask herself how it should make her feel or why it should surprise her to be alive.

On the edge of her orgasm, Cordelia did the very same thing that she’d done on the border between life and death. She reached out, slowly but without any conscious purpose, and only stopped when her fingers found and dug tightly into Willow Rosenberg’s sunrise hair.

He was at least nine million times as happy as you were ever supposed to be in high school; if suffering as a teenager built character, like Xander’s mother said, then he had just virtually guaranteed that he would grow up to be a televangelist or a used-car salesman. And it would be worth it, completely, even down to the bad suits.

Maybe it was a little bad, something he should feel guilty about, that he was just doing to Cordelia what Willow had taught him, with such Willowy patience and good humor, to do for her. Maybe he should be taking more time, figuring out how they were different, what Cordelia needed.

But then, slowing down had always been the one thing he and Cordelia never could do. And she didn’t seem to be complaining. Maybe it wasn’t rocket science, anyway, and he could just shut up and enjoy the taste of her and the quick, high, repetitive sound of her whimpering, which, unless she was *real* different from Will, meant that everything was cool.

She even screamed a little bit like Willow when she came, only her voice slipped and slid up and down – maximum Cordelia again – so that she sounded even more agonized. Why did extreme sexual pleasure always sound suspiciously like torture by the Spanish Inquisition?

Xander found himself laughing low and quiet inside his chest, almost smacked breathless by the absolute, incredible goodness of Cordy’s legs and Willow’s legs and the two of them holding close to him like they’d just fallen in love.

Willow pulled him a little closer, settling his weight back against her so that the surface of his chest was free for Cordelia to drop over against. He was midway back up to pillow level now, having sort of gotten sidetracked by Cordelia’s dark nipples, and when Willow drew him tight against her, the soft thickness of his hair rested warmly in the gentle hollow between her small breasts.

She arched around him, drawing her legs up so that top one was across his waist, her toes coming awkwardly close to poking Cordelia someplace that felt awfully warm and soft, though Willow wasn’t trying very hard to figure out exactly where. Cordelia’s legs, she could tell, were burrowed between Xander’s, changing the angle of Xander’s leg and his hip.

At the same time that she was stretching her ribcage upward, working long days and hours and weeks of tension out of her spine and shoulders, Cordelia was arching her back and stretching too. It put them both well over Xander’s head, locking him in close with their legs but with nothing at all to block the sight of each other, eyes meeting eyes as though they were strangers. They were, somehow – or at least, they’d never looked at each other before and slowed down long enough to wonder what they were seeing.

Willow reached out, stretching the tendons in her arm and twisting her wrist to crack the joint comfortably, but instead of pulling back into her own space, she laid her open palm against Cordelia’s luxurious hair, and felt the sudden strength of Cordelia’s aura engulf her hand – privilege, nobility, pride, but also a taint of uncertainty, even frustration, as though everyone else in the world understood some basic thing about people that Cordelia suspected might be completely outside her grasp.

Maybe it was magic, or maybe Willow just knew Cordelia better than she thought she did. Maybe all those years of envy and longing and bitter resentment had forged a bond – a twisted but strong bond that let her see into Cordelia as though they were networked together, sharing everything effortlessly.

Magic or miracle, the cold fusion of mutual jealousy or the sudden spark of genuine trust pulled Willow in, and Cordelia let her eyes fall closed and did not move away as Willow pressed her mouth to Cordelia’s, letting connection speak for itself.