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Palms sweating. Sweaty palms. Not attractive. Just breathe, breathe, and it's going to be okay. So she's Cordelia Chase. You've kissed her before. You've -- stuff before.

God she was like a Goddess with the running and the bouncing and the cheering. It was easier to ignore the Goddess-like stuff when she was being a bitch, which usually accounted for ninety-five percent of her conscious, waking hours. When she was doing this, though; when she was cheering, there was nothing like her. She shimmered and shined as she shimmied and shook and there was a reason all the girls either hated her or wanted to be her.

And by some unspeakably kind and cruel twist of fate, she wants me. Maybe. I guess it's time I found out. Broom closets are fun -- man alive -- but there comes a time in every man's life where he's got to make a commitment. Or be humiliated totally.

Saturday cheerleading practice wasn't for everyone, but Cordelia always put in the extra effort. It was something people never really noticed about her; something I never really noticed about her. All the vain meanness and lack of tact hid what a hard worker she was, what a consummate perfectionist she became when it concerned something that was truly important to her.

 

When Cordelia Chase cared, God help anyone standing in her way.

"What are you doing over here? Stalking me much?"

At the moment, it appeared the person standing in her way, was me.

"Forgive me, I was blinded by the copious amounts of pompoms," I said.

She blew an irritated breath out. "You are such a cretin." Her voice was loud and the Cordettes laughed in an appropriately nasty manner. She leaned in closer to him, but not close enough that it could be misinterpreted by anyone watching. Her voice lowered considerably. "What?"

All thought left my brain. It was like a low humming 'duuuuuuhhhh' for a minute there. Then, precious verbalization: "Uh, I was just wondering if you wanted to maybe, you know, if you've lost all possession of your senses, ditch out of cheerleading practice and maybe go for a picnic with me. Or something."

Her eyes narrowed. Her voice remained low. "A date?"

 

"Secret date," I corrected quickly. I didn't want anyone I knew knowing about it anymore than she did. This compulsion I had to kiss her was some kind of temporary disease that would work its way out of my system in time. Until then, I just had to humor it.

Cordelia seemed to be considering me for a moment. Either that or she was trying to remember how much hairspray she'd used that morning, or if she had to reapply her lipstick before she went back out there. "I'm not ditching out of practice," she said at last, with great finality. Time for me to bow out gracefully.

"Sure, no problem, figured you wouldn't want to anyway--"

"Check your damage, Xander," she muttered. "I'm not ditching, because it's beneath me. But if you want, I'll meet you. After. We should be done at two."

The urge to do the Snoopy dance right then and there was almost overwhelming. Only the certain knowledge that she would roll her big brown eyes at me and dismiss me with her super expensively manicured hand kept me still.

"Do you, uh, remember where we all used to play when we were little?" It was a risk; bringing up the fact that Cordy hadn't always despised me with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns could backfire. Then again, her face could get all soft and nostalgic like it was doing, and damn, well played, Harris.

"That place in the park," she said softly, "behind all those trees. God, I forgot about it."

"It's been a few years," I said.

"I'll meet you there at two-thirty," she said.

"I thought practice ended at two?"

She rolled her eyes at me. "I've got to change my clothes. I may look beyond fantastic in my cheerleading uniform, but I'm not psycho enough to wear it around town."

"Two thirty it is," I said in what I hoped was my Suave Guy voice. Given the disgusted way she turned away from me, Suave Guy may need a few more tweaks.

****

True to her word, Cordelia arrived promptly at two thirty, and if my eyes did not deceive me, she was actually wearing jeans.

"They're the only things I own grass stains won't bother," she said defensively when I stared too long at her denim-encased legs. Really, it wasn't the jeans that grabbed my attention so much as the legs, all long and limber and making me think very, very bad thoughts.

"I brought a blanket," I said, and this time it was me being defensive. Sometimes, I didn't even know why I liked her. She was just so harsh, and icy, and totally, completely out of my league in every conceivable way. It went the other way, too: most of the time, I didn't know why she liked me, or if she even did.

She huffed a little, but spread the blanket out while I started unpacking the plastic grocery bag full of food I procured. There were juice boxes and egg salad sandwiches I stole from my mom; they were supposed to be for her friends, but her friends usually got drunk before they got around to serving food, so I figured I was pretty safe. If she asked, I'd just tell her dad took them, and they'd be in a knock-down drag-out tonight anyway, egg salad sandwich theft or no. If I were really lucky, they wouldn't drag me into the middle of it.

"Oh," I said, as I reached the bottom of the sack, "I forgot, I brought this for you."

 

And then I handed her a package of grape flavored Pop Rocks.

Now, I have never considered Cordelia Chase to be a sentimental person. It's not really that she's cold, or that she has no sense of humor, or no soul, or anything like that. She's just practical. I've always known that, but in the face of the abject humiliation she insisted on heaping over me and Willow day in, day out, it was easier to just... forget. To forget that beneath the surface of Cordelia Chase, Ice Queen, there was Cordy, a girl I'd known all my life and only sort of hated since high school.

The girl who looked like she might start crying over a pack of grape flavored Pop Rocks.

"You used to eat these," she said. "We dared you, we dared you to eat them and wash it down with Pepsi and you did it."

"I was thirteen," I said. "Death meant nothing to me." Cordelia had meant something to me, though. Willow had been my best friend, but Cordelia had been the object of my burgeoning lust. And back then, she hadn't assembled the Cordettes yet, hadn't started calling me a cretin yet. We weren't friends, but we weren't what we turned into yet, either.

"God, that was so long ago," she said.

"Four years," I agreed.

She laughed. "Four years," she said, and I got the impression she was talking to herself. "Can I tell you a secret, Xander?"

"You can tell me anything." It only took me a second to realize it was true. Damn. That did not bode well for the future of me not getting my heart smashed by Queen C.

Cordy took a deep breath. Then she said the three little words every guy dreads hearing: "Xander, I'm dead."

Had you there for a minute, didn't I?

I thought about whipping out a cross and yelling 'Back, fiend, back!' but considering it was broad daylight and the sun was actually making adorable little shadows as it bounced off Cordelia's profile, I decided she probably wasn't a vampire. Most of the other assorted monsters Buffy fought on a daily basis didn't consider themselves to be dead, so much as demonic, so Xander figured she probably wasn't going to lunge across his mom's egg salad sandwich and try to disembowel him. And if she were, would she really have tipped him off beforehand?

Obviously, it was just some kind of bad joke that rich girls knew.

"Sorry," I said, "you've lost me. Not an easy task, I might add, as I am King of the Non Sequitur."

"I'm dead," she repeated. "I've shuffled off this mortal coil. I am no more. Cordelia Chase has left the building. You following me now?"

I blinked at her. "Okay," I said slowly. "If that's the case, you're doing a remarkably accurate living breathing Cordelia Chase impression."

She sighed. "I don't even think I'm supposed to be telling you -- oh, forget it. I'm not exactly up with the rules girl. Look, here's the deal: when you die, if you've been a very good girl, and have a few... connections... you can get something you want, if you want it badly enough. When I died... they owed me. They owed me about nine months of my life, but that's another story."

I was so unimaginably glad she wasn't starting another story in the middle of this one, I could do little more than nod as though I had any concept of what she was saying.

"When you die," she said quietly, "sometimes, they let you go back. They let you do things you always wanted to do, visit people. Some people spend a day with their kids, or go to their favorite place, or look up the long lost loves of their lives."

"Are you saying I was the love of your life?" I wasn't sure I believed any of this, but man, just the thought stroked the 'ole ego a bit.

"No," she said with a disgusted tone to her voice. Ego deflating, ego deflating, red alert! Man the torpedoes! "I don't -- I don't know if I really had a love of my life," she said, and she seemed to be giving it some serious thought, then shook herself. "But that's not the point. The point is that you were my first love--"

"Wait, you love me?"

"Not right now I don't," she said tightly.

"Sorry." I did feel bad. More for me than her, because man was this ever the hallucination to end all hallucinations. Either that or she was playing some kind of cruel and twisted prank on me. "Please, go on."

"This is my favorite day," she said with a melancholy little sigh. "My mom and I ate breakfast together, my dad called me from an office not yet repossessed by the IRS, and at cheerleading practice all the girls in the squad copied my new move. Buffy and I never crossed paths today, no demons or monsters jumped out to attack me, and you, Xander Harris, for some bizarre reason I will never, ever figure out, started looking at me like..."

"Like?" It wasn't my most eloquent moment, but I hopefully made up for it with earnestness; I really wanted to know how she thought I looked at her.

"Like I'm your whole world," she said. "There was no one else but me for you today, nothing distracted you, and when we were out here, when we weren't even kissing, you were looking at me like I was your whole world. A girl tends to get her head turned by that sort of thing."

"Even if that girl's Cordelia Chase, heartbreaker extraordinaire?" Flippant helped; it wasn't every day you found out you were basically a figment of your dead girlfriend's imagination. And I was positive that was the case; no way would real, live Cordelia ever be this open about anything.

"Especially then," she said.

"So, uh... you pay anyone else one of these little visits?" But she just couldn't be for real. Maybe she was some kind of wily succubus demon preparing to steal my virginity. Actually, that wouldn't be so bad; bring it, evil Cordelia-beast.

"One or two people," she admitted.

"Ah, so I'm not really so special after all," I said with both triumph and resignation. I was back to believing her again. "What am I, third on your afterlife speed dial? Please, God, don't tell me I'm lower."

"You're second, actually," she said. "And you are special."

"Yes, just not most special."

"Special in different ways," she insisted, and she looked like she was getting a little fed up with me; maybe it was real Cordy after all. "I -- I owed someone else, all right? I owed him pretty much everything, and I had to... I just had to. For him and for me and for a bunch of other people I love. He needed closure and I needed -- he just needed me, okay? This, today, you -- don't you get it, Xander? This is for me. Just for me."

"And me," he said.

"No." She was shaking her head like I'd made a funny joke. Why did girls only ever find me funny when I was trying not to be? "You aren't -- I told you, you aren't real. You're just--"

"A figment," I grumbled.

"An echo," she corrected. "There's -- jeez, Xander, I can't possibly explain it to you."

"Try."

She sighed deeply. Good to know the dead could still sigh. "It's -- everything, memories, time, all that's come before, it still exists each day we move forward as..."

"Echoes," I offered helplessly.

"What do you think memory is?" she countered. "Our brains storing up information so we can revisit and retain. How about dreaming, how vivid it can be, how real -- God, Willow could explain this so much better."

My eyes widened. "Will could explain this so much better?"

Cordelia grinned. "Not your Willow; my Willow."

"Your Willow." Maybe it was just pod-Cordelia.

"You've got a life," she said. "A whole life that exists beyond this day, beyond this year."

"So I'm not real." This was just getting worse and worse; I'd been downgraded, from figment, to echo, to nothing.

"You were real," she said, as if that made it better at all. "And in some ways, you still are."

"I don't understand what we're doing here," I said, and I sounded petulant, but I didn't care at this point.

"You're an echo of my favorite day, dumbass," she snapped. "And I should have known you'd figure out some way to screw it up."

"Hey, you're the one that had to unburden yourself or whatever," I argued. "We'd still be doing our Cordelia the Friendly Ghost act in secrecy if it weren't for you."

She glared at me and I glared right back. This was such a stupid idea. I don't even know what I'm thinking, trying to have something meaningful with her royal bitchiness. Clearly, our relationship always found itself existing in broom closets because that was all it was good for. And her! Man, if I bugged her so much, I don't see why this stupid day was...

Her favorite day. All the days in her whole life, and this is her favorite; a day where I took her on a picnic with crappy egg salad sandwiches I stole from my refrigerator, even knowing my mom would be pissed at me later. Even if this wasn't real, if she was just crazy -- she still thought it; still felt it.

I was such an asshole.

"So is this like, your heaven?" I asked quietly.

"Pfft," she snorted. "As if."

Counting to ten slowly. Twenty. Thirty.

She started talking again before I got to forty. "Heaven's not like that for me," she said, and she seemed to be trying to find the right words. "I was -- a conduit for the Powers. It gives me certain..."

"Perks?"

"Perks!" She smiled, big and bright. "Death perks. I get to -- well, I mean, I'm dead. Deader than a doornail, deader than Dennis."

"Who?"

"Never mind. The point is--"

"You're dead?"

She was trying to glare at me, but I could tell she wanted to laugh. I leaned in and kissed her and she did laugh, and brought her hand up to my jaw and touched me in a way I couldn't remember Cordelia -- or anyone, for that matter -- ever touching me before. It was maternal and affectionate and sexual all at once. I suppose that's what you get when an echo kisses a dead girl.

"Can you make me forget again?" I whispered against her mouth.

"What?" She looked a little dazed; I'm not ashamed to admit I felt absurdly proud of myself.

"I assume this whole last dance thing is a one shot deal," I said. "Can you make it so you didn't screw it up royally by telling me about it?"

The glaring was happening again, but it was almost affectionate at this point. Then, she leaned in and kissed me again and I thought, how deeply wrong was it that this girl who's more alive than probably anyone I've ever known, is dead.

I blinked, lost for a minute, but I was kissing Cordy and if I'd learned anything in the past few weeks, it was that kissing Cordelia Chase was an event not to space out during.

"I'm hungry," she said softly, and I remembered the sandwiches.

"Egg salad," I said proudly. "My mom made them herself."

"Will she be mad you took them?" Cordelia didn't look like she really cared one way or the other, but I figured she wouldn't have asked if she didn't, at least a little; Cordy didn't really have a dishonest bone in her body.

"Nah," I said, though it was quite the whopper; I happened to have several dishonest bones in my body.

Cordelia hesitantly nibbled on the corner of one sandwich. Her eyes opened in surprise. "Not bad," she said.

"High praise indeed, your majesty," I said, but I smiled so she'd know I didn't mean it.

The rest of the day passed that way, us exchanging barbs and smiling through them so no one took offense. We kissed a little, but only a very little, because most of what we did was kiss when we were together, and hormonal teenagers or no, we were both a little burned out on it. It was nice, talking to Cordy, hearing about her family, about her dreams, the things she wanted to do with her life. I got a picture of her then, aged about fifty years but still drop dead gorgeous, a grandmother telling her grandkids not to buy off the rack.

"What are you thinking about?" she asked me.

"That I wish this day didn't have to end," I answered honestly.

"Me too," she whispered.

 

We were lying on the ground, staring up at the sky. The sun was starting to go down and we needed to get out of here; Sunnydale after dark wasn't exactly the romantic date spot most people took it for. There was time, though, to lean my forehead against hers and be amazed that this gorgeous girl let me within ten feet of her, let alone close enough to kiss.

I didn't, though; kiss her. For some reason, it felt too much like kissing her goodbye, and I didn't want to.

"We should get home," I said instead. "Do you want me to walk you?"

"I've got my car," she answered. "Do you want...?"

"Nah," I said. "I'll walk. The night air'll do me some good."

"Assuming you aren't eaten," she said with a sigh. She stood up and brushed her designer jeans off, then started walking toward her car. "Last chance for a ride, Harris."

"I'm good," I called back. "I'll see you tomorrow."

She stopped and looked back; she never really looked back at me, but this time, she did, and I got the impression she was trying to see something, really see something. Whatever it was, she must have found it, because she smiled at me and gave a little wave.

"See you tomorrow, Xander."

****

END

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