The first thing he sees in the hospital room is the vase overflowing with sunflowers and daisies and gladiolas. Xander's, he figures, judging by the unopened card still turned towards the door. Their fragrance clashes with the room's antiseptic smell, giving the whole place a suggestion of cheap, fake-floral perfume.
He's not even quite sure why he's here. It just seemed like the thing to do, visiting the girl who fell through a floor while she was running away from where her boyfriend was kissing your girlfriend.
She's lying on the hospital bed with her back turned toward him, and for a moment he thinks she's asleep and he can leave, duty done, without ever having to see her face. But she must have heard him, his footsteps or his breath, because she rolls over just far enough to see who it is.
"Hey," he says.
She's pale, her eyes shadowed and reddened both. Her hair, never one gleaming strand out of place when she showed up for dates with Devon, is dull and stringy.
"What are you doing here?"
"Just checking up," he says. "Heard there were demons on the kitchen staff." At her eyebrow, skeptically raised, he adds, "Looks like the food hasn't gotten to you yet, though."
"I, uh, kind of don't know what to say here. 'Sorry my girlfriend made out with your boyfriend'?"
She snorts, and then starts to cough. "Ow! Ow."
"Bummer about that rebar," he says.
"Oh, it was loads of fun. Trust me." A pause, and then, "You didn't bring a latte by any chance, did you?"
She huffs a sigh that lacks the strength of disdain of a usual patented Cordelia sigh. "Figures."
"So, they letting you out soon?"
She rolls her eyes. "Oh, you know, once they've taken this test and that test and made sure those stitches hold. You know what this one guy said? He looked at the big freaking hole in my stomach and he said, 'We'll get that closed up and you'll be good as new. Just like magic.' And I wanted to say, Buddy, I know something about magic, and at no point does it involve prodding me with those sharp pokey things."
She isn't really looking at him, her gaze fixed somewhere between his arm and the flowers. Her eyes are glistening. "And if there were a Prince Charming – which, in Sunnydale? He'd probably turn into a frog demon – then he's not going to love me forever or take me to the movies or keep his lips to his own damn self!"
Abruptly she rolls back over, giving a gasp as she does. He winces at the sound. He waits to see if she'll turn back and expect him to be there, if she'll ask why he hasn't left yet, if he can think of anything else that needs to be said. If there is, it doesn't come to him. When he picks up the salty scent of tears, he turns to go.
"Could you... could you dump those flowers? Some idiot delivered them to the wrong person."
"Sure. Will do." He grips the vase with the card addressed to her, holding the vase against him to keep from tipping all the blooms out. "Take care."
She doesn't answer.
The next time, he stops by the Espresso Pump first. When he gets to her room she's sitting up, a textbook splayed open on her lap and papers littering the thin hospital blankets. She looks up. "You again." Then her eyes fall on the paper cup, and her whole expression opens. "If that is a latte, then you are on Cordelia Chase's List of Acceptable People." Her tone and her eyebrows indicate the gravity of this honor potentially his.
He hands it to her. "I've never really been a list kind of guy."
She wraps her hands around it. "Mister, right now you are the list." A sip. "Oh my god, real coffee." Another sip, and then the brow creases. "Not that you haven't just justified your entire existence, but why are you here, again?"
He shrugs. "I got my appendix out a few years ago."
"And now you feel nostalgic for lame-o hospital décor?"
"Less the curtains and more my Aunt Maureen."
"She came most days. Kept me company. I might have had an out-of-body experience otherwise – I was pretty bored."
"Oh. Right. Well, as you can see, I am not in any way bored by the pile o' homework that came to me, seeing as I couldn't go to it."
"I see that." He's not sure whether those papers are notes, essay drafts, or sanskrit translation –not that he can really talk. He catches a name that looks familiar. "Government with Kutner? I took that class."
"I could quiz you."
She makes a face. "Now that sounds boring." A beat. "Okay, fine. I have a stupid make-up test as soon as I get back. Ask me about those government house guys who write laws and take bribes."
It takes him a moment to untangle that. Then, "The House of Representatives. Right. Although you realize some state representatives are women."
"Whatever. Now, quiz."
For a while he does, although he finds himself explaining as much as he quizzes. It's a good thing he was still going to Kutner's classes this time last year.
Without warning, Cordelia reaches over and snaps the book shut.
"I guess we're done with government," Oz says.
"Is Xander miserable?"
He blinks. He stares at your locker every time he walks by, he could say. Or, He stirs his ketchup with his fries but doesn't eat them. Or, He tried to apologize to me and the wolf wanted to tear his throat out, so I walked out before he finished. But all Oz says is, "He's not the happiest clown in the car."
"Good. Because he should be miserable."
But it takes two, Oz didn't say.
"I wasted a year on him. A whole year. Harmony and everyone told me what a loser he was, and did I believe them? No, because I was standing up for myself. I was proving that nobody messes with Cordelia Chase. And boy, I showed them."
He gives her a careful look, but he doesn't think she's going to cry again. He starts thinking about edging towards the door. He'd really rather not hear about Xander's many faults just now.
"But you know the worst part? I liked him. I liked loser Xander Harris. I put a picture of him in my locker, , and I said it was because I looked good in it – which was true, I did – but that wasn't the point. I lied to him because I didn't want to admit how cute I thought he looked in that goofy hat, and Cordelia Chase isn't afraid of telling the truth to anybody. I was going to go bowling with you guys. Do you know what that could have done to my image? I was going to do that. Because he wanted to."
She slaps her hand over her eyes, and he suspects he was wrong about the crying. "I mean, how stupid am I?"
He tells her what he told himself that first dawn after he'd seen Willow with someone else. "People are worth taking a chance on. It's not stupidity. It's wisdom."
She heaves a couple of breaths, and then she peers through his fingers at him. "You think?"
"What's the point of life, otherwise?"
He waits while she breathes, and finally she drops her hand. "I'm done talking. You talk."
Now he does want to use that door. "Not really a talking kind of guy, either."
The eyebrow lifts. "You don't say. Look, the rest of us are all miserable and I'm pretty sure you are, too, but who'd know? So, talk. Share the misery." She tilts her chin, and he has no doubts whatever about why Willow calls her Queen C.
It's a little strange, because at this point anybody who cares already knows this about him: how much words mean, so that it's worth saying nothing if he can't say it right; and how little they mean, when actions say it all so much clearer.
Willow's actions were pretty damn clear.
He leans back against the footrail, just thinking, but Cordelia must seen an intent that he doesn't feel, because she waits with un-Cordelia-like patience.
Finally, he begins, "I must care more about her than she does about me, because I would never do this." He stops, but apparently Cordelia's serious about this sharing thing; she doesn't bust in and take the conversation over again like he half-hoped she would. She just watches, eyes big and brown and make-up free.
"Then I think, she's different from me. Maybe she doesn't see the kissing thing the way I do. And then I think, maybe she should. If she doesn't, then that's no good either."
"I'm pretty sure Little Miss Boyfriend Stealer knows what kisses are for," says Cordelia.
"Probably," he concedes. He's been giving Willow all the benefit of the doubt he can find, because he's still so angry he can't hope to be fair to her otherwise. But in this, yeah, he thinks Cordelia is probably right. "So then I think, it's a Xander thing. A Xander-and-Willow thing. They've known each other so long, and she liked him for a lot of that.
"I know I'm not the consolation prize with her, or I wasn't. We were good together. I mean, we were us. Together." This concept is much clearer in his head than in his mouth, but Cordelia looks like she knows what he's talking about.
He finds he can't look at that clear-eyed gaze. Cordelia's truths are simple and undisguised, a quality he usually appreciates in her, but they're merciless truths and he's not sure he can face them. "But I'm not sure it matters now what we were. Because we aren't."
"And they might be," said Cordelia.
"Well, I don't think they are," he said. In fact, it looked to him like they were avoiding each other pretty hard, when they weren't keeping Buffy handy as chaperone. Which, hey, nice thoughts. Too bad they didn't think of them sooner.
"We're too good for them," she declares.
"Not too sure about that," he says. For one, Cordelia's seven kinds of cruel when she wants to be, and for another there's the wolf. It's always back there, crouched in the hindbrain and sniffing for prey. Someday, he thinks, it'll find some he won't be able to save.
"Seriously," she says. "I rule Sunnydale High, and you're, like, king of cool."
"The guitar helps," he pointed out.
"You know, once I got hold of some conditioner and lipstick, I'd let you take me out."
The queen's favor, bestowed upon him. He's never wanted it, but now, for a split second, he considers. They're companionable, and he'd never have guessed that. But her hair is brown and she doesn't babble and whatever she wore to the multi-cultural dance, it had nothing to do with Eskimos, and all these facts, neutral in themselves, are deficits when compared with Willow.
"Not saying I don't appreciate it," he says, "but I think you're too tall for me."
"True," she says. "And no way am I giving up heels."
It's time to go. He's said all he has to say, everything he knows. The well of words, shallow at best, runneth dry. A last thought occurs to him. "Listen," he says. "If you get any more flowers, read the card before you send them landfill-ward."
Sovereign of her domain, she considers him, eyebrow aloft. "Deal," she says. Token accepted, fair knight. Ride on.