Disclaimer: All these characters belong to Joss Whedon, and possibly the WB and UPN. I make no money, I'm just playing with them. This story refers to events in the Buffy Season 3 episode "Helpless," as well as to developments in Buffy Season 7 and Angel Season 5.
Buffy's birthdays were regarded with superstitious terror by her inner circle. She would have preferred not to celebrate them at all, but Dawn wouldn't let her get away with that, and her friends made a show of rallying 'round. That first winter in Rome, after they had settled into their new training rhythms and before any worldwide crises arose to separate them, they decided to go all out. They made jokes about it all week, but they threw themselves into baking, shopping, and decorating. Buffy smiled and quipped as was expected, but she couldn't help quietly bracing herself. She noticed, too, that everyone came to the party armed, and Willow set wards around the doors and windows when she thought Buffy was busy in the kitchen.
When the phone rang in the middle of the festivities, no one wanted to pick it up. In truth, they'd been waiting for it all night. If hers were a normal life, it would have been her father or her boss or an old school friend calling with birthday greetings. If hers were a normal household, she would not have seen her own unspoken fear reflected back to her in every face. As it was, they all knew, and Xander moved toward the phone to spare her; whatever had happened, she needn't hear it directly. She stopped him, lifted the receiver to her ear, and heard Angel's hoarse, choked voice. She listened to him – he had only a few words – and said quietly, "I'm so sorry." She hung up, took Xander's hands, and led him into the hallway. He blinked in confused anxiety.
"It's Cordelia," she said. It took only a second to tell him the rest. The look in his one good eye as his tears began to fall made her truly, truly wish she had never been born.
Late the following night, he packed his funeral clothes (they'd all had their own sets for years) and got on a plane to L.A. Buffy had thought about going with him. But he hadn't asked her to come, and neither had Angel. She wasn't sure if her presence would help or hurt them. Xander would be seeing Anya alongside Cordelia in that casket, and he needed to bury them both. Angel would be locking a part of himself into the earth alongside her, and Buffy wasn't sure how much of his heart would be caught up in the loss. She felt she could best respect their grief by keeping her distance.
Cordelia was to be interred during a late evening service in California, a time that matched the early sunrise in Rome. Buffy woke before dawn without trying to. She walked to the living room bookshelf, found Willow's copy of their high school yearbook, and carried it out to the balcony to catch the first faint colors of morning. She flipped through the black and white pages. Cordelia was everywhere. It shouldn't have surprised her; Cordelia had always been photogenic, and in their senior year she had made it her mission to be seen at the head of every popular contest, amateur play, cheerleading rally and dance. Buffy paused over a shot of Cordelia in her typical navy skirt and heels, leaning confidently against her Corvette under the headline, "Most Likely to Succeed."
Buffy remembered that car and that outfit. It must have been later the same day, or maybe on another day just like it, that Cordelia had wandered into the library and found Buffy in tears and Giles near breaking.
"Cordelia, will you please give me a ride home?" Buffy had asked.
"Of course," she'd said.
They'd driven through the dark streets, Cordelia talking all the way. Buffy couldn't remember a word she'd said – even at the time she hadn't been listening – but she could remember her voice, inane and overloud and cheerful. When they'd pulled to a stop by Buffy's front lawn, there'd been a moment of awkward silence.
Then Cordelia had flicked a switch to pop the lock on the passenger-side door and said, "Okay, Buffy. This is your house. Right here." She'd pointed to Buffy's front door with an air of exaggerated helpfulness, still attempting to dispel Buffy's non-existent amnesia. "Go on in. Oh, and don't worry if you run into a lady with a bad case of late-eighties hair and surprisingly even skin tone. It's just your mom."
Buffy had climbed out of the car without a word, and walked up to the house (where she had not found her mother). That had been her eighteenth birthday, the one that had convinced her she was cursed.
How odd that, on this morning, Buffy should be remembering that car-ride. It hadn't been pleasant, it hadn't forged a friendship or forestalled a danger – it hadn't meant anything much. But it had been so tangibly Cordelia. And there had been something restful about it, something comforting about sitting next to so much sunny, innocent self-absorption. It seemed impossible that the girl behind the wheel was dead now, at the age of twenty-three.
Cordelia and she had never really been friends, and she wasn't going to cry for her. She hadn't cried for Tara, or Anya; even for Spike she had found few tears. But as the sun rose and she pressed her hand against the glossy yearbook photo of that million-megawatt smile, Buffy wished that she had thanked her for the ride.