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A Sunnydale Summer

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This story is No. 1 in the series "A Different Future". You may wish to read the series introduction first.

Summary: What happened to Cordy and Buffy the Summer after Graduation? Prequel to ‘Making the Quota’.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
BtVS/AtS Non-Crossover > GeneralCordyfanFR1310116,251119618,57831 Aug 1311 Jun 14No

Chapter Six

Summary:  What happened to Cordy and Buffy the Summer after Graduation?  Prequel to ‘Making the Quota’.

Pairings:  None at present

Disclaimer:  I don’t own Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Notes:  This is set between the third and fourth seasons of BtVS.

 

Many thanks to my beta and sounding-board Vidicon

 

 

1630 Revello Drive, Sunnydale, California – June 15th 1999

“But why do I have to go today?  The college doesn’t start ‘til September.  And less than three weeks since I graduated,” Buffy complained, shovelling cereal into her mouth as if she’d never eat again.

“Don’t whine with your mouth full, dear.  Going to your college campus for the first time at the beginning of semester is never a good idea.  Better that you find your way around and generally familiarise yourself with the place beforehand,” Joyce replied as she stood squeezing more oranges for her daughter’s morning juice. 

“I’m the Slayer.  We don’t get lost – not easily, anyways,” Buffy countered nervously, really not wanting to visit UCS just yet.  The prospect of a September start was scary enough and it was best to keep the whole thing at arm’s length, she told herself.

“ ‘Familiarising yourself’ doesn’t just mean finding your physical bearings, Buffy.  We both know you don’t do change and unexpected circumstances very well – not all of your trouble at Hemery or Sunnydale High was due to your Slaying, and you know it – so getting a feel for the campus is essential,” her mother retorted.

Buffy had been terrified of going to kindergarten.  She’d been weepy about Elementary School and chewed her nails down to the quick before starting Hemery.  Her first day at Sunnydale hadn’t exactly been a bed of roses, either.  True, in each case, Buffy had very rapidly settled in and, moreover, she was eighteen – an adult – now.  Still, the symptoms weren’t totally dissimilar, Joyce noted.

“Change?  I handle change like a – um – a changey thing…” the Slayer struggled for the appropriate words. “Broken fingernail, paper-cut, vamp chewing on my neck – all new experiences.”

Joyce shook her head, and looked at her daughter in exasperation. “You aren’t going to quip your way out of this, young lady.  I can tell when you’re nervous at a hundred paces.  It’s only college, for pity’s sake.  The start of the best days of your life.  No one’s asking you to face the Mayor again…”

Buffy blanched slightly.  She’d had a few nightmares about that encounter.  Usually the bomb didn’t go off, or her friends and mother were devoured, or she was eaten. Or all of them. And Faith was often there, taunting her for her failure.

“Sorry, honey.  That was a bad comparison…” her mother apologised, stepping away from the press to put an arm around Buffy as her daughter grimaced.  It was clearly too soon to make such jokes.

Buffy affected a shrug. “He’s dead, I’m not.  A few bad dreams and I’ll get over it, same as always.  Which is more than I can say for the dead snake.”

Aside from a general unpreparedness, nervousness and even possible crying sessions – Buffy had long since gotten over the peeing herself in terror episode before the first day in Kindergarten, happily - Joyce also had other concerns about her first year at UCS.  Buffy had a very small circle of friends from Sunnydale High, with only Willow and Oz choosing to attend the same college.  While Joyce knew that such a situation wasn’t uncommon – indeed, it was part of growing up - and that most of her own school friendships hadn’t survived her freshman year, it was potentially much more worrying on account of her daughter’s calling. 

Quite simply, as Slayer, Buffy needed a solid support mechanism.  No doubt Xander and Giles, the latter now as unofficial Watcher, would also continue to help her, but the new circumstances might not allow for the regular meetings and fellowship that had grown in Sunnydale High Library.

On the other hand, Joyce also knew that it was unreasonable to expect that the others would continue to focus their lives, at least partially, on helping out with the Slaying.  No doubt Oz and Willow would develop numerous new interests at UCS, while Xander would soon be in employment, and Giles no doubt would also be seeking a new job.

But maybe she was worrying unnecessarily.  After all, Buffy’s friends had demonstrated a remarkably unselfish attitude over the years, especially given the incredible dangers they faced as mere teenage High School students.  Whether or not the Scooby Gang remained as close-knit as it had during the High School years, or not, Joyce wished them all well.

“I’ve got a whole heap of stuff to do at the Gallery,” Buffy persisted, realising that this was a battle she probably wouldn’t win.

“Work I’m paying you to do, honey.  Or rather, not do today.  And as I’m the one paying the wages, I get to call the tune, to mangle that particular metaphor.  Just consider yourself lucky that I’m happy to pay you normal working rates for no work,” Joyce firmly laid down the law.

Actually, if a few visits to UCS over the vacation saved her from having to deal with some of Buffy’s emotional fallout – and Slayer or not, she was convinced there would be some – then it was cheap at the price.

“Bet you didn’t have to visit your college over the summer vacation,” Buffy pouted.

“Don’t pout, Buffy, you’re eighteen, not eight!  And you’d lose that bet, by the way,” her mother replied with a smile, not about to admit that she’d had the same conversation with her own mother.

“So did you have that big Midget Hair?” Buffy asked innocently.

“Gidget, nor Midget, Hair.  As you know very well, young lady.  Now eat your breakfast and I’ll drive you over to UCS.  Where you’ll spend the whole day, having a wonderful time and getting properly acquainted with the place, before I collect you,” Joyce directed.  “And don’t scowl at your mother like that, dear.  If the wind changes…  Hmmm, I think it already did.”

Fortunately for Buffy, given what she was muttering under her breath, Joyce didn’t have Slayer hearing.

 

University of California, Sunnydale, California – June 15th 1999

Buffy stood in the middle of UCS central library and looked around her with something approaching awe.  The place was the size of a barn – no, more like an aircraft hangar – not that she’d ever seen the inside of one of those, and she didn’t know there had ever been so many books published in all of history.  Especially when there were another four library facilities on campus.  There weren’t too many students around at the moment, aside from a sprinkling of grad students and some visitors, but Buffy guessed that this place would be packed around exam time.

She hovered uncertainly in middle of the library, wondering where to visit next.  UCS had provided a glossy map and information pack, with way too much information – it seemed as though she wasn’t the only would-be freshman visiting the campus over the vacation – but it was all so big after Sunnydale High.  Also, she reminded herself brightly, totally lacking a Hellmouth under the library.  So that was a definite plus. 

Not that there wasn’t some real badness here.  UCS was, after all, still within Sunnydale’s city limits and close enough to be affected by Hellmouthy happenings.  Nevertheless, the student mortality rate was far lower here than at Sunnydale High School, even the town as a whole, and the general weirdness level was nowhere close.  Buffy was quite sure of that, having researched the campus’ level of evilness some time before.  Giles would be proud of his Slayer, she mused.  She might not know what classes she intended to take as yet, but she did know the likelihood of her fellow students becoming vamp-food.  Hopefully, she could make a dent in the death rate at UCS, too.

“Can I help you?  Buffy Summers, isn’t it?” a smiling girl approached.

“Uh, yes…” Buffy answered warily, always uncomfortable and on guard when a stranger knew her name.

Though she did seem somewhat familiar, on second thoughts.  Fairly tall, quite solidly built though not overweight, and light brown hair.  Her name was escaping Buffy for the moment, however. 

“Patsy MacLeish.  Devon MacLeish’s sister…  I was in the grade above you at Sunnydale High,” the girl introduced herself.

The Slayer nodded in sudden recognition.  She’d never actually talked to the Dingoes’ singer’s older sister, but knew who she was.  Oz had once described her as the sensible one of the family.

“Uh, sorry - my bad…  Brain’s just a bit confused by the general overwhelming bigness…” Buffy admitted, pointing to the high ceiling and row upon row of book stacks.

“Guessed as much,” Patsy pointed to a badge on her t-shirt. “My job to help people like you.”

“There’s a lot of people like me?” the Slayer asked, surprised that anyone else could be wandering around like a pathetic lost sheep.

“You’d be surprised how many students visit the campus during the Summer Vacation.  UCS pays us – a little – to help out.  Meet and greet, do the tour, that sorta thing,” the other girl explained.

“I could really use the tour thing,” Buffy told her. 

She’d also signed up for a few sample lectures in the afternoon and a number of pre-induction sessions.  UCS was actually quite the well-oiled machine, compared to the organised chaos that seemed to permeate every other public institution in Sunnydale – the police, Town Hall, Sunnydale High, and so forth.

“I remember the feeling.  But I’m collecting another group outside the library in twenty minutes, so can I buy you a coffee while we wait for the others?” Patsy suggested.

The Slayer allowed herself to be led from the library, glancing once more at the seemingly infinite shelves of books.

“We don’t really have to read all that, do we?” she asked, only half-jokingly.

“No, but some people might try,” Patsy laughed.

“Yeah… I got a friend like that,” Buffy smiled, thinking about how excited Willow would be to see this never-ending collection of books.  She could almost hear the squeals of geeker joy right now.

A few minutes later, they were sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop close to the central library, with Patsy patiently answering questions and offering general advice, just as she’d been doing almost since the end of the academic year.  Buffy had as many questions as the average soon-to-be freshman and most of the same anxieties.

“My advice is to pick your classes now, Buffy,” Patsy told her, as the Slayer studied a list of UCS offerings. “The most popular ones tend to fill up pretty fast.  The ones that are left?  Usually a good reason why…  Though I’m not supposed say things like that to you, as an official UCS guide and helper.”

“Well, my lips are absolutely sealed, so please tell anyway, so that I don’t wind up with something I totally hate,” Buffy replied. “Already had the lecture about choosing classes from my mom.  And how pathetic is that?  Eighteen and about to start college and mom’s still on my case…”

“More moms are like that than you’d think.  Especially those who live nearby.  And those who’re paying the fees, kinda like mine…” Patsy sighed sympathetically. “But she’s right.  So what’ve you got?”

Buffy passed her a list, with a number of classes speculatively underlined. “Can I have the brutally honest version instead of the official one?”

“Sure.  ‘Psych 101’?  Good choice.  Professor Walsh is pretty strict – make that totally harsh - but she really knows her stuff…  ‘Images of Pop Culture’?  Forget it.  Professor Riegert’s a control freak – likes nothing better than to humiliate students and the course is a load of pretentious crap.  And I never said that…  You’ll need more than psychology, at any rate…  Maybe a history class or literature?” Patsy suggested.

“That means knowing something about history and reading, doesn’t it,” Buffy replied dubiously.

“I don’t want to sound preachy here, Buffy, but college is way different from High School.  You’ll only get out as much as you put in.  If you look for easy classes rather than something that interests you, at best you’re gonna be bored out of your skull and at worst, you’ll find they’re much harder than you’d hoped,” Patsy told her.

“Mom said that, too,” the Slayer muttered.

Patsy grinned. “That’s ‘cause moms are always right.”

“Not always,” Buffy corrected. “Just most of the fricking time.”

She studied the list once more. “I suppose I could take a history class and one from literature – don’t fancy ‘The Modern American Novel’, but ‘The World of Poetry’ might be a good one…  Poems are short, right?”

Her guide laughed. “Yes, poems are short, but you’ll be studying a lot of them.  Professor Lillian’s a great teacher, though.”

“Okay, so ‘European History’ and ‘The World of Poetry’.  And I have to take either a math class or another science,” Buffy recalled poor Doctor Gregory – she’d enjoyed his classes for the brief period he’d taught her and her science grades had always been passable. “Chemistry 101, I guess.”

The ability to make things go kaboom might be useful for a Slayer, even if her professors might not approve, she told herself, with an inward grin.  After all, it had certainly worked at Sunnydale High.  Who’d have thought that Giles’ misspent youth had also included some experience with improvised explosives, even if it had also taken some of Oz and Willow’s research abilities to optimise the mixture.

She suddenly noticed that Patsy seemed slightly fidgety, either expecting something to happen, or wanting to ask a question, but unsure whether or not she should.

“Something the matter?” Buffy asked, part of her wondering if she was about to be attacked, the other part hoping she wasn’t making some sort of hideous fashion faux pas.  Or perhaps there was a zit erupting on her nose.

“Sorry…  Just wondering – uh – about you...” Patsy mumbled.

“What about me?” the Slayer asked, rather more sharply than she intended.

Her guide winced, now wishing she hadn’t opened her mouth. “I was – uh – just wondering if something might happen.  You are kinda like a weirdness magnet…”

“Thanks,” Buffy growled and stood up to leave the table.  It was just like Sunnydale High all over again.  “UCS really knows how to welcome a girl.”

Patsy held out a hand to stop her. “Sorry, that really didn’t come out the right way.  Hanging around my brother too much, I guess.  I just meant that I know – think I know – a little bit about you.  At Sunnydale High, you had a habit of being around when weird things happened.  Helped a whole lot of people when there was bad stuff…  Heck, I was in the Bronze once, when…  I can’t really remember, but you were there and stopped the – uh - whatever it was.”

Sunnydale Syndrome, Buffy told herself, with an internal groan.  Admittedly, remembering that something bad had happened was actually more than the majority of Sunnydale residents could manage.  Even her mother hadn’t remembered a thing about having Darla’s teeth sinking into her neck.  On the other hand, Buffy was pretty sure that few, if any, of those who’d participated in the Graduation battle would ever forget the terrifying experience.  Some things could never be forgotten, after all.

“It wasn’t a gas explosion, was it?” Patsy asked quietly.  She hadn’t been at Devon’s Graduation, for the simple reason that Snyder had rationed seats to a maximum of two family members.

Not that her parents were talking any more than her brother about the incident.  It was unusual for the latter, who was normally talkative to an annoying degree.  He refused, however, to talk about the events of Graduation, while her parents – who’d escaped the scene very early - seemed to have erased the whole afternoon from their heads.

“No, it wasn’t,” Buffy replied.

Judging by her demeanour, Patsy decided that she wouldn’t get any more from Buffy on that particular topic, and nor would it be wise to try.

“We’ll just be happy to have you around.  Keeping us safe from – uh – stuff…” she offered vaguely.

“I’ll do my best to draw the weirdness away from everyone else,” the Slayer replied, equally ambiguously.

Patsy nodded, then moved onto another and much safer topic. “So…  You gonna pledge?”

Buffy snorted dismissively. “Really not with the whole sorority gig.  Round Buffy in a square hole – it so wouldn’t work.  Even if they’d have me, which I pretty much doubt!”

Besides, between her studies and continued Slaying, she’d have more than enough to keep her occupied.  In her mind, at least, sororities were no more than a collection of stuck-up Cordette-clones – the sort Cordelia would probably despise – with an even greater superiority complex and a whole range of stupid rituals.  And if they were anything like the fraternity guys, probably a demon snake in the basement, which demanded frequent virgin sacrifices. 

No, she’d definitely pass on the sorority crap.

 

The Bronze, Sunnydale, California – June 15th 1999

Charles and Melody Kendall paused for a moment outside the Bronze.  Though it was midweek, the club was nevertheless quite busy, a steady stream of High School and UCS students coming and going in the pleasantly warm early evening.

“Might as well ask around again,” Charles told his wife.

Harmony had now been missing for about three weeks and her parents had already worn out a great deal of shoe leather, walking the streets of Sunnydale in search of at least some clues as to her whereabouts.  Sunnydale PD had, needless to say, been as useless as ever and had listed Harmony as ‘a teenage runaway, probably on her way to porn-starletdom in LA, we’re not going to waste time on that,’ with Chief Roddenberry’s usual tact and loud voice through the door showing just what he thought about her ‘pushy parents’.  But the Kendalls weren’t about to give up anytime soon.

Melody nodded her agreement. “Harmony loves coming here and most of the kids must at least know her by sight.”

The Kendalls had agreed that they’d continue to refer to their daughter in the present tense, until they had undeniable proof that she was no longer alive.  Privately, Charles was already close to accepting the worst, but his wife still refused to even countenance it.  Certainly, something had gone badly wrong at Graduation and even though they’d run for their lives, along with most of the other parents, both certainly recalled the Mayor turning into something monstrous and the students being attacked by beings that looked mostly human, but obviously weren’t.  Most of the other parents couldn’t even remember that much and even the Kendalls’ memories were growing vaguer by the day.

Nevertheless, they needed some answers soon, as the uncertainty was really taking its toll.  Surely someone knew something and given that there weren’t many teen hangouts in Sunnydale, talking to the Bronze’s usual clientele surely offered the best chance of uncovering at least a few titbits of information.

“D’you mind if we show these around inside?” Charles hesitantly asked the doorman, holding up a stack of recent photographs of Harmony. “Our daughter’s missing and we hoped that someone inside might have seen her…”

The bouncer extended a large, heavily muscled and tattooed arm and took one of them and studied it for a moment. “Can’t say I’ve seen her around, but I’ve only been here two weeks.  Maybe you’ll have more luck inside.”

He hadn’t been in town for very long, but had quickly discovered that this club seemed to go through an abnormally large number of bouncers.  It wasn’t, however, due to either poor wages or bad working conditions.  Either they disappeared, like the attractive blonde in the snapshot, or they died of improbable causes like wild dog attacks or impaling themselves on a barbecue fork, or falling victim to PCP gangs.  Or maybe even exploding schools, for that matter, since three of his predecessors and two barmen had been hired to provide assistance at the Graduation buffet and hadn’t returned to the Bronze. 

The rest of the population seemed to be similarly unfortunate and Sunnydale made him feel distinctly uncomfortable.  Not that he’d seen anything untoward.  Crime was low and he hadn’t yet seen the ravening packs of wild dogs and PCP-addled gang-bangers who supposedly infested what was, at least outwardly, an attractive town.  Still, he felt uneasy and if he hadn’t needed the money, he’d have jumped back on the Greyhound and tried his luck elsewhere.

Certainly, he’d been given a few odd instructions when he accepted the job.  Chief amongst them was a firm order not to try to break up any fights which included a small blonde girl and her friends.  Not only would he likely come off worst, but they weren’t there to cause trouble.  On the contrary, they’d often saved the patrons from some very dangerous situations, though his boss hadn’t elaborated, nor encouraged him to enquire.  One evening, the same boss had pointed out two of them – the aforementioned blonde, barely over five-foot tall, and a mid-height brunette – and they certainly didn’t look like the sort who’d either cause trouble, or pose much of a threat to anyone.  He wondered if his employer might just be yanking his chain.

Charles withdrew his wallet from a pocket, but the doorman shook his head. “No cover, not for this…  And I sure hope you find your girl soon.”

The Kendalls thanked him and walked inside, leaving the doorman shaking his head.  This town was just too weird – and not in a good way.  Elsewhere in the country, a town of this size would have been turned upside down if a young woman, no, a girl barely out of high school, with caring, obviously upper middle class parents, disappeared.  In Sunnydale, however, different rules seemed to apply.  As soon as he’d saved a little money, he was determined to try his luck at finding a job elsewhere.

 

Inside the Bronze, the Kendalls split up and wandered from table to table, or circulated amongst the milling students standing around various parts of the club.  In many cases, the photograph wasn’t necessary, as the greater proportion of the regulars at least recognised Harmony’s name, even if the majority didn’t necessarily know her personally.  Nevertheless, no one seemed to have any new information to share.

Across the floor, Melody suddenly spotted Gwen Ditchik, one of Harmony’s close acquaintances at school.  She hesitated to use the term ‘friends’, as most of that circle, with the exception of Cordelia Chase, had been somewhat fickle in their friendship.  Indeed, it had been a real shock when Harmony and Cordelia, the closest of friends since a young age, had seriously quarrelled.  After over a year of estrangement, they were only beginning to talk again just before Graduation.  She hadn’t seen Cordelia since, though the girl’s name was on the list of High School survivors compiled by Sunnydale Police Department.  Melody had attempted to contact her, hoping that she might know something, but the landline to the Chase mansion had been disconnected and Cordelia’s cellphone was also inoperative.  She’d certainly heard rumours that the Chases had sold up and left town, but it seemed their daughter had also left immediately after Graduation, just like a number of her classmates, almost as if they were desperate to flee the town.  Melody could, in truth, hardly blame them after the events of that afternoon. 

It was nevertheless rather distressing that Cordelia had left without saying goodbye, given that there was a time when she’d been like an aunt to her daughter’s friend.  Away from the rest of the herd, the youngest Chase had been utterly unlike her parents and a good friend to Harmony, and Melody missed her.  But her own relationship with Cordelia, who she suspected was deeply unhappy at home, had inevitably and abruptly ended when the two girls stopped talking.

Gwen Ditchik, on the other hand, was a totally different creature.  While Cordelia had layers, if anyone cared to look, young Ms Ditchik – like many in that circle – seemed to have no redeeming features whatsoever.  Still, maybe she’d heard, or remembered, something.

The former Cordette/Harmette looked up from her drink and conversation with Hogan Martin, former star of Sunnydale High’s basketball team and Gwen’s latest boyfriend.

“Uh…  Hi Mrs Kendall…” the former Cordette sounded vaguely uneasy, but Melody decided that now wasn’t the time to be overly diplomatic or polite, this was about Harmony and this girl’s reaction now, and previously, hinted that she might know more.

“Hello Gwen.  Charles and I are asking around again, just in case anyone’s heard something – or remembered something – about Harmony.  I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything, have you?”

Gwen shook her head. “Nothing new, I’m afraid, Mrs Kendall.  But I’ll call you if I hear anything.”

“Me neither, but I’ll keep my ears open,” her boyfriend added.

Melody’s shoulders slumped just another fraction and she walked away dejectedly, her small reserves of optimism drained even further by another evening’s lack of results. She’d really hoped that Gwen would cave in and tell her the truth this time.

“Someone has to tell them.  This is just too cruel…” Hogan shook his head sadly.

“Are you volunteering?” his girlfriend asked with a sigh that turned into a strangled sob. “ ‘Hi Mrs Kendall.  Sorry to tell you this, but some people saw Harmony being dragged away with a vampire’s teeth in her neck.  So she’s either dead, and her corpse is rotting in some sewer…  Or she’s one of them now, and you’re just wasting your time’…  I can’t do it, Hogan!”

Gwen winced as a thought suddenly hit her. “They’re out there, searching every night...  And they don’t know the rules.  What if something bad happens to them?”

Hogan shook his head sadly. “Unless we tell them the truth…  God, this town totally sucks!”

Gwen nodded. “Hogan? Let’s get the hell out of here as soon as we can, okay? Get a job next to college, anything, just… Let’s get out of here.”

 

Carver Engineering Inc., Bay Road Industrial Park, Sunnydale, California – June 16th 1999

“Don’t hesitate to call if you’ve any queries, sir.  I’ll just be on the other end of the phone, or an e-mail away.  And being new to this business, if I can’t help you, I’ll certainly find someone who can answer your questions,” Cordelia smiled winningly at the customer.

“For someone who’s new to the business, you’re doing a wonderful job, my dear.  Beautiful and very competent.  I’ll be sure to pass along my compliments to your boss, on attracting such talented new staff,” the man responded graciously.

It might be a tad – way more than a tad – OTT, but Cordelia wasn’t feeling particularly patronised.  She’d been on the receiving end of much worse from some of her father’s smarmy friends and this customer seemed genuine, if also somewhat unused to handing out compliments.

Clarence Digby wasn’t a big customer, but he was a regular.  Moreover, he was always very exacting in his requirements and often rather gruff and difficult to handle.  Cordelia’s employers now, however, trusted her to deal with what was a very small order on this occasion – though nevertheless important for future business - and she’d risen magnificently to the occasion.  Digby was over seventy and had been an engineer all his working life.  Usually, the crusty old man wasn’t impressed by what he regarded as girly-girls playing around in his man’s profession.  Furthermore, most people who met him were convinced that he wouldn’t change his antiquated attitudes anytime soon, if ever.  Bob Carver had, therefore, decided to test Cordelia’s mettle with one of his trickier regulars, wondering if she’d lose her cool.  He did, however, know that an acid tongue and no-shit attitude lurked just under the surface.  Carver also knew that Digby was always impressed by anyone – male or female – who stood up to his often abrupt attitude and challenging demands.  What he hated was a shrinking violet, someone who wilted before the onslaught.

Cordelia hadn’t blown a fuse, nor had she been at all dismayed.  One of the guys from the workshop had quietly warned her in advance and she’d been more than ready for Digby.  Years of watching her mother and father schmoozing their way through some downright slimy and unsavoury company had also taught her to turn on the charm when need be.  Digby wasn’t a smarmy creep, just somewhat grumpy and old-fashioned, and a gentleman once his external armour was pierced.  He’d been no match for Cordelia’s charm offensive and she’d gone through his defences like a stake into a vampire.

“It was a pleasure doing business with you, sir,” Cordelia held open the door, continuing to smile just enough.

“The pleasure was all mine, Miss Chase.  And I look forward to doing business with you and your boss again in the near future,” Digby replied amiably, as he took his leave.

From the other side of the heavy glass-panelled door separating the office area from the workshop, Bob Carver watched her appreciatively.  Cordelia had turned the old curmudgeon into putty in her elegant hands, and with a minimum of effort.  She was learning fast and doing well, and seemed pleased with herself at the latest transaction, which she had every right to be.  Unfortunately, it also made his next task all the more difficult.

Carver stepped into the office, just as his new assistant was about to sit down at her desk once again.

“Can I have a quick word in my office, Cordelia?” he asked neutrally

“Yes Mister Carver.  I’ll just bring Mister Digby’s order with me, to check that I’ve listed all the widgets and doodads properly,” she replied, following him inside.

“Nice work with that cantankerous old dinosaur,” Carver acknowledged, motioning to her to take a seat.

Cordelia shrugged. “He’s not so bad, really.  Actually, quite nice once you get to know the guy.  Old-fashioned chauvinist, but that’s way better than the young version, who ought to know better.”

“Most people never manage to make him smile,” her boss chuckled, before his face turned serious.

He passed over a standard letter, threatening a customer with legal action if debts weren’t settled forthwith.

“Do you recall sending this letter, Cordelia?” Carver asked.

“Yes Mister Carver.  It was on the list you gave me at the end of last week…” Cordelia’s voice trailed off, as her boss frowned at her.

Had she made some humungous error?  She was very careful with every little aspect of her work, not just because she desperately wanted to keep her job, but because it was a matter of principle to prove herself and show how efficient she could be, given the chance.

“That was Pepperidge Metallurgy in Oxnard, Miss Chase.  You sent a letter to Pepperidge Heavy Engineering in San Diego.  Our largest and most important customer.  And they are, rather understandably, somewhat annoyed with us,” Carver said sternly.

Cordelia swallowed, trying to imagine how she could have made such an error.  Getting a ‘Miss Chase’ from her boss could, moreover, only be a bad sign.  He’d only used her given name from her very first day of work.

“I know mistakes happen, but we really can’t afford carelessness of this type.  This is the type of thing which costs orders and reputations and even puts small companies like this out of business,” her boss continued. “What have you got to say for yourself, Miss Chase?”

Cordelia had a horrible feeling, right in the pit of her stomach, that he was about to fire her.  It was a hundred time worse than being fired by Mrs Finkel.  She’d hated working for the old battle-axe, but working here was entirely different.  Cordelia was beginning to enjoy her work here and she liked her boss.  And, moreover, being fired would leave her staring into the financial abyss once more.

“I can’t see how it happened, Mister Carver,” Cordelia desperately tried to keep a plaintive note out of her voice and to stop her bottom lip from quivering. “You gave me the reference code and the name of the company.  Or part of the name, anyway – Pepperidge.  And that’s all the computer spat out.”

Maybe Buffy and her mother would offer her their spare room, or even the couch, when she was evicted from her apartment for non-payment of the rent, Cordelia reflected in resignation, as her boss continued to frown at her through narrowed eyes.  But that would be totally humiliating, losing a job twice in a short space of time and being unable even to pay for her current hovel.

“Two totally different companies, Cordelia,” Carver had at least reverted to her first name, she noted, feeling her heart pounding unnecessarily fast. “Pepperidge Metallurgy, Oxnard.  About the size of my company, but a much smaller turnover and habitually doesn’t pay, so I finally lost patience with them.  Pepperidge Heavy Engineering?  About a hundred times our size and over a hundred times the turnover, with regular major contracts in naval shipbuilding.  The owner is – was – a good friend of mine, a very reliable customer.  A major mover and shaker in the business and his sister is married to a US Senator.”

He removed a bulky file from a shelf behind him.  While Carver had a perfectly serviceable computer on the desk in front of him and knew perfectly well how to use it, he’d never quite gravitated away from paper copies wherever possible.  Using computers was, he frequently reminded himself, why he hired assistant.

Flipping open a page, he stabbed a stubby finger onto the paper. “This is the master list, Cordelia.  The reference numbers are totally different and would produce different results.”

“I’m sure I got it right, Mister Carver,” Cordelia persisted.

The frown became a glare. “Making an honest mistake is one thing, Miss Chase, but refusing to acknowledge it…”

“Do you mind if I use your computer, Mister Carver?” she ventured quietly.

Either she’d be proved right in a moment, or would quite possibly be unemployed.  But she had to at least try.

“Be my guest…  But it’s the same software and database as the machine on your desk,” Carver folded his arms.

The computer seemed interminably slow as Cordelia opened the customer database and entered first one code, then the other.  Carver watched over her shoulder as both produced the same address.

“Okay, looks like I owe you an apology, Cordelia,” her boss offered after a moment. “Your predecessor was supposed to transfer the contents of this file onto the computer.  She obviously entered the address of Pepperidge Heavy Engineering twice.  Why the system didn’t crash when the invoice program registered non-payment by the other people, then couldn’t match the address on that database?  Beats the Hell out of me, but nothing to do with you, and a problem for our IT consultants to solve.  Consultants we pay a lot of money to keep these systems running...  I’m sorry I doubted you, Cordelia.”

Cordelia smiled wanly. “When my parents’ paperwork screw-ups brought the IRS down on their heads?  Even if they deliberately ‘forgot’ to pay their taxes?  Kinda makes me mega-careful about things like that nowadays.  If I’d known there were two companies called ‘Pepperidge’, I’d have wondered why only one showed.”

She chewed her bottom lip. “I was so scared you were about to fire me, Mister Carver.”

Her boss smiled apologetically and shook his head. “I try to avoid firing people for simple mistakes, Cordelia.  Especially their first mistakes, so long as they’re truthful about it.”

Carver ruefully reminded himself that he’d almost convinced himself that she wasn’t being truthful, by not admitting the mistake.  In future, he’d always check for computer error, before even making accusations.

He passed over the file. “Unfortunately, now you have to cross-check every address in there with those in the computer.  Hopefully, this is a one-off mistake, but there could be others.  You also win a trip to San Diego, by the way.”

“I do?” Cordelia asked in surprise.

Carver nodded. “I’ll be personally going down there to make nice with my buddy, Harry Pepperidge.  You’d have been coming with me, either way.  If it had been your screw-up, then I’d have taken you to explain, apologise - and grovel, if need be.”

“And now?” his assistant wondered. “You want me to take the heat, anyway?  ‘Cause I can do that, if it means you won’t lose the contract.”

Her employers were, she decided, good people and worthy of a little self-abasement, if that’s what it took to help them out on this occasion.

“You most certainly won’t, young lady!  You simply get to come with me and practice some of that magic you worked on old Digby, while I do the grovelling,” Carver clarified.

Cordelia almost responded that magic wasn’t her department and maybe he should call Willow, but she bit her tongue just in time.  Just occasionally, Sunnydale’s secrets threatened to pop out at unintended moments.

Carver held up a hand. “Oh, one other thing I meant to talk to you about…  I seem to recall from your résumé that you’re quite skilled in Spanish?”

“My best subject at school, Mister Carver.  I’m pretty near fluent and I read Spanish literature.  Uh, I do the last part for fun, actually…” Cordelia confirmed, slightly awkwardly – her reading habits had been a well-kept secret in High School, lest she be branded a nerd.

Her parents had always staffed the house with cheap Mexican labour, from the kitchen – aside from their French cook – to her own nanny.  From a young age, they’d all helped teach her Spanish, her parents surprisingly not objecting, given that they had numerous holdings south of the Rio Grande and still expected her to join the family business at some point, their contempt for her very existence at times notwithstanding.  Spanish was also taught quite comprehensively in Southern California schools, so Cordelia had enjoyed an advantage from the beginning.

“My wife and I will be travelling down to Guadalajara next month for two or three days.  We’ve been asked to tender for a contract and I think we’ve a pretty good chance of securing it, too.  Katherine and I have some Spanish, but it isn’t wonderful.  The locals all speak good English, but it’s useful to have someone fluent in the local language,” Carver explained.

“You can count on me…  But I might have to learn the Spanish names for some of the gizmos you make and some engineering terms,” Cordelia admitted.

A few days away from Sunnydale was definitely an unexpected bonus to this job.  More importantly, it sounded like a great opportunity.  If she could persuade the Carvers that she was a worthwhile long-term investment – one worth more than her current starting salary – it might even be worth ditching the acting option and staying in Sunnydale.  Cordelia couldn’t quite believe she was even contemplating that much, but it made sound and pragmatic sense.  They were good employers, the work was okay, and the firm seemed to be on a solid footing.

Okay, she stopped herself short.  Maybe it was too early to make such a decision.  After all, a successful acting break would earn her far more than she ever could hope for working here.  At the very least, however, she could stay on a while longer and try to save something to support herself during the inevitable audition process.  She wasn’t naïve enough to believe that acting success would come immediately.  It would take half-a-dozen quality auditions, at least.

“Cordelia, you don’t even know most of them in English,” Carver chuckled.

He paused, then pointed to her smart, if still budget, business clothes. “But now I need you in coveralls, hard-hat and boots.  You and me have to check the stock in the materials store.”

Cordelia suppressed a grimace.  If there was one part of the plant that she hated, it was the materials store.  It was nothing more than a particularly grimy and smelly warehouse, containing all manner of metals and chemicals used in the various small-scale and bespoke manufacturing processes, in which Carver Engineering specialised.

“I did warn you that the job meant getting your hands dirty, now and then,” Carver reminded her with a grin.

 

Judy’s Crypt, Sunnydale, California – June 16th 1999

Gagged and terrified, the woman lay on the cold floor of Judy’s Crypt, hands tied behind her back.

Harmony’s sire folded her arms and looked sternly at her Childe. “You want to eat?  There’s your dinner.”

Up until now, Judy had, more often than not, to kill Baby Doll’s prey for her, the young – in every way – fledgling being clumsy, unskilled and unusually for a vampire, somewhat squeamish.  On the few occasions the newbie had actually successfully made the kill, even nicely tied up and presented on a metaphorical plate, her technique tended to be protracted and messy.  There was a place for protracted and messy, of course, when the victim was supposed to suffer.  Every vampire liked a little bit of torture once in a while, though some liked it more than others.  But when it simply came to feeding it was a waste of blood and meant that more than one victim might be needed.  And killing too often was something which a careful vamp, or at least one who wanted to have some unlife expectancy in a town with a Slayer, needed to avoid.  So if Baby Doll didn’t want to go hungry and have a long and full unlife, she’d have to learn how to capture, kill and feed more efficiently.  

Harmony licked her lips uncertainly. “Do I kill her first, or just start with the drinking?”

“We’ve been through this before.  Your choice, Baby Doll…  Easier to deal with if they’re dead – though this one’s securely tied up for you, so she can’t struggle too much – but the blood flows easier if the heart’s still pumping, so less sucking needed.  Just open your mouth and enjoy…” Judy replied, with a shrug.

She ignored the doomed human whimpering in terror behind her gag.  The sooner Baby Doll dealt with this one, the sooner she could be back out there, finding some prey of her own.

Harmony nodded slowly and vamped out, the woman’s whimpers turning to muffled screams.  Somewhat gingerly, she approached her evening meal.  Then the vamp in her suddenly seemed to awaken.  With a vicious smirk, she pounced, forcing her victim’s head to one side, sinking her teeth into warm, exposed flesh, and greedily starting to feed.

Judy nodded her approval, as the woman went limp.  At least, Baby Doll was beginning to act like a real vampire, though she was still probably the most pathetic fledgling her Sire had ever encountered.  Nevertheless, sooner or later she’d have to face the dangers of Sunnydale.

“Can you bring me a guy next time?” Harmony ventured hopefully, wiping the blood from her lips. “Not just for the eating.  I’m getting kinda…  Well…  Uh…”

“Horny?” Judy smirked. “Goes with the vampire package, Baby Doll.  I’ll provide food for you, but if you want something to screw, then you’ll have to catch him yourself.  Decoy works best…  Lure them in and given them what they want.  Young guy, looking for something different, can’t resist the offer of sex in a crypt…  At least he’ll die happy.”

To her chagrin, her Childe wasn’t yet showing the slightest interest in her, not in that way, anyhow.  Still, like any vampire, Judy had all the time in the world, and was quite happy to wait.

“I’m really antsy now…” Harmony whimpered, knowing she was still some way from being allowed out to hunt.  It was just so boring being shut up in this crypt twenty-four hours a day, especially when a girl – or vampiress – whatever, had needs.

Judy pointed to a wooden chest in the corner. “I’m just going out for a while, but I’ve a good collection of Playboy and Playgirl.  Maybe you can use those to help take care of yourself for a while…” And maybe get some ideas about women and not just guys, she thought to herself, wondering how broad her hints would have to get, or when her patience would run out and she’d eventually just take what she wanted.

Harmony grinned and started rummaging around in Judy’s comprehensive porn stash, while her Sire cleaned house by dragging the corpse towards the door.  Judy really didn’t like messy leftovers cluttering up her crypt.

“Can you get me some gum?” Harmony asked hopefully. “I’m nearly out…”

“That stuff’s bad for a vampire’s teeth, Baby Doll.  And what am I?  Your personal shopper?” Judy growled, shaking her head. “Next week, Baby Doll?  You and me are gonna hit Sunnydale together.  Then you won’t need me to fetch and carry for you!”

“That’s gonna be so cool!” Harmony bubbled excitedly.

Judy shook her head in exasperation.  Of all the people to turn, she had to choose the blondest blonde in Sunnydale.

 

Buffy’s Training Room, Joyce Summers’ Gallery, Sunnydale, California –June 17th 1999

“So are we doing it with or without clothes today?” Cordelia asked with a smirk.

Training sessions with Buffy usually had them properly clothed, in sweat-pants and t-shirts.  Sometimes, however, the two girls were stripped down to their underwear, so that the Slayer could observe her movements properly, or for specific and rather unconventional training, such as the pen and magazine exercise, another that involved hands covered in chalk, and a third which saw both of them armed with feathers.  With the latter, Cordy had admittedly wondered if the Slayer had a previously undetected kinky streak, but it had actually been very useful training for the reflexes.

“Uh, with the clothes Cordy.  And you make it sound like we’re having some sort of hot lesbian affair…” Buffy raised an eyebrow.

The Slayer had to admit that if she was into girls, Cordelia certainly should have matched her model of the physical ideal.  Stick-shift, however, definitely remained her inclination.  Her sole experience in the other direction had been in seventh grade at Hemery, comparing breast sizes and practicing kissing with a friend, and she’d come out of it convinced that her future was with guys.  Not that it mattered right now, as she was totally single and rushing headlong towards spinsterhood, after being dumped by Angel.  No matter how noble his intentions, the stupid, broody, poop-headed guy, to quote Willow.  And if he came back tomorrow, Buffy knew she’d still forgive him in an instant.

“So doesn’t the thought of you and me together get your panties all damp and knotted up, Buffy?” Cordelia purred, feeling in a particularly mischievous mood today, though she wasn’t quite sure why. 

“Cordy!” Buffy exclaimed in surprise, and more than a little shock.

Cordelia generally employed more sophisticated humour, invariably of the sarcastic variety, and crude comments like that weren’t usually the other girl’s style.  The Slayer wondered for a moment if she was somehow possessed.

“Close your mouth, Slay Girl.  Just yanking your chain,” Cordelia responded with a grin.

“Not a good idea with the Slayer who’s teaching you to fight, Cordy…” Buffy cracked her knuckles menacingly. “And what’s with the ‘Slay Girl’ thing?”

“Short memory, Buffy?  Remember before Graduation, when you were giving us the spiel about your plan…  And I said you were ‘Slay Girl, Ms Little Likes to Fight’?  I reckoned it’d be a pretty nifty nickname for you,” Cordelia shrugged.

Buffy contemplated that for a moment.  The only nicknames she’d been given in the past, when she’d been a nasty bitch at Hemery, had generally been spoken behind her back in tones or fear, or hate, or both.  As nicknames went, this one wasn’t bad.  Besides, if she protested too much, Cordelia would inevitably persist, if only to push her buttons.

“I can live with that.  Of course, it means I’ll have to think of a really good one for you…” Buffy replied, with just a hint of threat.

“Do your worst,” Cordelia sounded completely unconcerned.

She changed the subject – they’d messed around enough for this afternoon and she felt suitably relaxed and ready for the day’s training. “So you said we’d move onto actual fighting training today…”

Cordelia hoped it wouldn’t be too painful, but she was here to learn.  They’d had a couple of weeks of exercises for Buffy to gauge her capabilities, generally work on her fitness – which was already quite good – and to train her in some basic moves, other than cheerleading ones.  Now they were about to move up a level.

“What style do you use, anyway?  Karate, Taekwondo, Jujitsu?” she asked.  The names were at least familiar to a former cheerleader, who’d been immersed in Sunnydale High’s thriving sports community for years.

“None of them,” Buffy replied flatly, to Cordelia’s surprise. 

She’d already had enough of being the target of her mother’s martial arts-related humour this afternoon  First, Joyce had played ‘Kung-Fu Fighting’ over the gallery’s music system, which was usually reserved for classical tracks.  Buffy could only retort that she hadn’t even been born in the old days, when that cheesy song was a hit.  Then Joyce had followed up by calling her Hong Kong Phooey.  Buffy could only vaguely recall the cartoon reruns from when she was a child, but she really wasn’t amused at being compared to a not too bright cartoon dog.

Sighing inwardly, she decided to explain, hoping she wouldn’t sound too Giles-like.

“There’s so much hype and crap around these martial arts.  They might have been designed for serious business way back whenever, but it’s all about competitive style - and sometimes macho posturing – nowadays.  Someone skilled in any of those can be pretty lethal of course, but they’re also predictable.  Specific moves and usually trained to meet somebody else with the same skills, on a training mat,” she continued.

“So what d’you use?” Cordelia asked in puzzlement.

Buffy shrugged. “I just fight.  Adapt my moves to fit the situation and whoever – or whatever – I’m fighting.  Just so long as I don’t get predictable, ‘cause then the bad guys can spot your weaknesses.”

Hence Giles’ constant lecturing about dropping her shoulder when she was about to throw a punch, thereby signalling her intentions.  Admittedly, most Slayers were trained – and from a young age – in one of the traditional martial arts, adapting it as they grew more skilled.  Buffy hadn’t been given the luxury of time and Giles – and Merrick before him – had therefore trained her just to fight hard and dirty, improvising as necessary.

As an approach, it also worked very well in practice, and both Watchers had recognised that such fighting methods were probably better-matched to a Slayer’s innate combat instincts, contrary to Council teachings.  And not merely against vampires and demons.  Buffy had been able to match Kendra, trained in a more formal style, move for move.  If she’d been serious, she would have taken the other girl apart.  Faith had been a somewhat different proposition, with her own street-fighting take on unarmed combat, but ultimately Buffy’s far greater experience, including her earlier fight and sparring against Kendra, and even Faith, had given her a distinct edge.

She’d actually only began to think through a lot of this recently, especially after being asked to train Cordelia.  While Giles had effectively thrown away the Slayer Training Manual in her case, he’d still tried to teach her using the Council’s preferred methodology of forcing knowledge down her throat.  Buffy’s Watcher had never really encouraged her to develop her own critical faculties, but that’s exactly what she found herself doing in teaching Cordelia.  Now, for example, she found herself thinking about the moves she typically used in a fight and why she used them, how she might have responded differently in some circumstances, and so forth.  The net result was simply to add to her lethal repertoire and to her vampire opponents, she was becoming ever more unpredictable in a fight.  Which was why the surviving bloodsucker population was currently taking such a beating, especially without a master vampire to lead and inspire them.

“We fight with what we’ve got, Cordy.  I usually have to fight things that are bigger - and don’t you say a word…” she wagged a warning finger under Cordelia’s nose, just as the other girl was preparing a suitable jibe. “...Sometimes stronger, maybe with a good set of teeth and claws.  So I use my size and speed.  I’ll also use a weapon – any sort of weapon – if I can.  Armed combat beats the unarmed type any day of the week,”

“So what does that mean for me, Slay Girl?” Cordelia asked, slightly impatiently.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out for two weeks, genius,” Buffy shot back. “First, you’re stronger than you look.  Possibly as strong as Giles and Xander.  Not much between those two, though they both tend to hold back in their attacks, I think. Still afraid to hurt me, even when I’ve shown often enough that they really can’t…”

“Actually stronger than Xander,” Cordelia averred with a small smile.

“Is that the ego talking, or do you have proof?” the Slayer asked.

Cordelia looked embarrassed for a moment. “Yeah…  Well, all those times we spent in closets, making out?  Usually it didn’t get past the kissage, but a couple of times there was tickling involved, too.  Xander never attacked first, but he wasn’t good on the defence, either.  I could pin him down, hold him on the ground, and tickle him ‘til he was near-hysterical.  Not easily, but still…  So stronger, but only by a little bit.”

The last such session had convinced her that it was time to go the final step with her then-boyfriend.  Only for him to cheat on her, before they could sleep together, she recalled sadly.

Buffy nodded thoughtfully. “You’re also fast-moving and you’ve got really good reflexes to match, kinda what I expected with the cheerleading and gymnastics, with a bit more besides.  Plus you’re really, really bendy – same reason, I suppose – and you learn moves quickly,” Buffy told her, ticking off attributes Cordelia could exploit in learning to fight.

“Never forgot a cheerleading move,” Cordelia declared proudly.

The Slayer grinned. “Me neither, though I did collapse the pyramid once…  Anyhow, you’re taller than me – only four or five inches, but it still gives you more reach – and you’ve got longer legs.  And that ballet training, gymnastics and cheering?  You’ll know how to high-kick in just about any direction.”

She took a step back and considered her trainee. “The bit about being able to hold Xander down?  I want you to forget that.  Going all wrestling superstar is a really bad idea, ‘cause it means getting up close and personal with someone, or thing, that might be way stronger than you. Consider that he was your boyfriend and he’s insanely protective of us girls…”

Both girls made a face and rolled their eyes.

“Even if it isn’t necessary.  So he really wouldn’t have gone all out with you. Also…” Buffy coughed and smirked. “He seems to like strong women, so you sitting on top of him might have tickled more than just-”

“Okay, enough, I get it! Wrestling the doofus, cheating, ex-boyfriend for fun in a broom closet is not the same as wrestling a bad guy!” Cordelia held up her hands in defeat, flushing slightly.

“But I’ve seen him fight and I still think I could take him,” she persisted stubbornly.

“Now?  Maybe, maybe not,” the Slayer allowed, still grinning. “But by the time I’m finished, you’ll be the leanest, meanest fighting machine, short of a Slayer, that I can make you.”

“Darn tootin’, Slay Girl!” Cordelia agreed, then realised that she sounded a little like Willow.

Buffy’s smirk widened, then she sobered again. “Okay, back to class again…  You need to use your speed to keep space around yourself and keep moving.  Use striking blows – feet, fists, hands.  If you do have to get in closer, then knees, elbows, shoulders, even your head.  Heck, even your teeth – wouldn’t be the first time biting someone saved a girl.  Actually, I remember Giles telling me about a certain someone who bit a vampire that time the Master opened the Hellmouth…  But try to avoid the holding and throwing.  And think about those target areas…”

Cordelia nodded, carefully noting everything she was told.  Buffy had already given her a list of vulnerable areas.  Some were only to be attacked in extremis, as the results could be lethal or permanently disabling, the Slayer had cautioned.  Knee-joints, groin, eyeballs, nose, windpipe, temples, and a number of others.  Cordelia now had a picture of a human body in her apartment, indicating all of the target areas, which she regularly studied.

“Okay, that’s probably enough of the Buffy-lecture.  Let’s get to the fighting…” the Slayer pointed to a pile of protective items – a boxer’s padded head-guard, gum-shield in its wrapping, elbow and knee-pads, and boxing gloves.

“Aren’t you wearing any of this stuff?” Cordelia asked a few minutes later, feeling a little silly in the protective gear, the gum-shield feeling rather uncomfortable.

Buffy shook her head. “Never do when I’m sparring with Giles.  I take harder knocks than you can ever give me, every night, from vamps.  If you can actually raise a bruise, and that takes more than most normal people can manage, it’ll be healed by tomorrow, tops.  ‘Sides, you have to land a blow first.”

The Slayer did, nevertheless, don a pair of boxing gloves.  Bare-knuckled and even pulling her punches, she’d do too much damage to Cordelia, so they were needed to protect the other girl.

Cordelia bounced on her bare feet as the two girls faced each other across the mat. “Fighting talk…”

Quickly as she could – and hopefully without telegraphing her intentions – Cordelia aimed an enthusiastic kick at Buffy’s face.  The Slayer dodged the blow as though it had been in slow motion, retaliating with a kick of her own to the side of her opponent’s head-guard.  Cordelia staggered backwards and Buffy followed up with a quick jab to the solar plexus.  A winded Cordelia doubled up and the Slayer’s elbow caught her just under the chin, knocking her backwards onto the mat.

As she hit the floor in one of the controlled falls she’d already been taught, Cordelia kicked out at Buffy’s legs, hoping to bring her down.  She only just made contact and her trainer teetered slightly before managing to regain her own equilibrium.  Cordelia was already scrambling to her feet, gloved hand swinging with gusto towards her chin.  Buffy dodged that blow, but this time her trainee was able to follow up, in unconventional fashion, by the simple means of stamping on her foot.  Taken by surprise, the Slayer also failed to avoid a follow-on kick that struck her upper arm, and quite hard at that.

Ignoring the stab of pain in her bicep, Buffy lashed out with a kick of her own, taking Cordelia’s legs from under her, watching approvingly as the rookie rolled into a properly arrested fall, then regained her footing very rapidly.

“How am I doing, Slay Girl?” Cordelia asked eagerly, words slightly distorted by the gum-shield.

“You’re doing great, Cordy.  A few more weeks and you’ll be kicking butt with the best of them,” Buffy offered encouragingly.

She was deliberately slowing her own movements and responses today, to give Cordelia at least some opportunity to land a few blows.  As Buffy could easily have avoided every strike Cordelia had landed so far, while penetrating her defences with ease - and taken her down, permanently, in the first ten seconds of the fight – curbing her innate abilities in such a way actually took a considerable amount of skill.  Buffy was actually feeling rather pleased with herself that she had such control.  Such restraint was, of course, essential for building Cordelia’s confidence at this stage, since getting the crap beaten out of you all the time wasn’t fun. It was, after all, the reason those of equal skill were matched up in most sports training. 

Her plan for the afternoon was quite simple.  Breaking the session up into a number of short bouts, after a few minutes of fighting they’d sit down and assess the sparring session, move by move, before moving on to the next match-up.  From now on, however, the emphasis in each afternoons’ training would be solely on fighting and building Cordelia’s skills.  Buffy, for her part, really was quite impressed so far.  She suspected that it wouldn’t only be Cordelia who went home with some bruises tonight.  The other girl had a real killer instinct and aptitude for unarmed combat.

From Queen C, to Killer Queen, the Slayer reflected with an inward smile.  Who’d have guessed it?

She refocused just in time to avoid a kick to the jaw, then almost casually landed a haymaker on Cordelia’s padded helmet, once again knocking the trainee off her feet. They’d have to work on Cordelia’s balance and footwork, both still being more suited to cheerleading and ballet than fighting, Buffy noted, but she was definitely enthusiastic.  

 

Special Projects Division, Wolfram and Hart, Los Angeles – 18th June 1999

Professor John didn’t scare easily.  He’d faced serious injury and death too many times in his life to be frightened at the drop of a hat.  This time, however, he was distinctly nervous.  An invitation to talk with Wolfram and Hart’s lawyers could mean all sorts of things, most of them not particularly good for his continued well-being.  The law firm was a byword for the sort of evil you just didn’t screw around with, whether in normal human criminal circles, or the supernatural variety.  Even with two bodyguards in attendance, if the lawyers decided he wasn’t going to leave this building in one piece – and he’d heard of such things more than once – then he was a dead man.

Holland Manners looked up from his desk at an unremarkable, grey-haired and balding elderly man in an old-fashioned hand-propelled wheelchair.  Professor John, no surname recorded, he noted from the files.  Research would have to do much better than that.  Even if the individual in question didn’t want to use his family name, for whatever legitimate or illegitimate reasons, he must have had one at some time.  Moreover, for the purposes of day-to-day living, he’d also at least need an alias.  Nevertheless, Manners knew he could only work with the intelligence he was given.

“Professor John?  Welcome to Wolfram and Hart,” Manner affected his best welcoming smile.  “I believe we have some business of mutual interest to discuss?”

“We do, Mister Manners?” Despite the growing ball of fear in his belly, Professor John was doing his best not to show it.

Manners nodded and rubbed his chin, perusing a file for a moment. “I understand that you took part in a certain competition in Sunnydale last year...  One by the name of Slayerfest Ninety-Eight, to be exact?”

“Not sure I know what you’re talking about…” the other man wasn’t sure he liked where this was going.

Manners smiled even more, seeming to have more teeth than a crocodile. “Please, Professor John.  In this office, all conversations are confidential and we don’t need secrets in matters of common interest, do we?  After all, we already know a great deal about you.”

“You do?” the Professor – if he was even entitled to use the term, Manners reflected – responded worriedly.

“Of course.  We know all about our clients and also those whose activities affect them.  You, for example…  Somewhat diverse interests.  An expert in electronic tracking and surveillance.  Business activities run from fraud – classic and computer-based – to extortion, bank robbery, kidnapping, murder and acts of terrorism.  Always financially motivated, though you also seem to be something of a thrill seeker.  Typically, you employ mercenaries for your wet-work, and there are a great number of outstanding warrants for your arrest, of course under various aliases, though they do seem to be closing in.  Interpol have a particular interest in you right now,” the lawyer summarised.

The Professor opened his mouth to speak, but Manners wasn’t quite finished. “That list of activities doesn’t only apply to the human world, does it, Professor?  You’ve also had some dealing on the fringes of the supernatural world.  As in the aforementioned Slayerfest Ninety-Eight.  Which you claimed to have won, though your two assassins - Frederick and Hans Gruenstahler, I believe – did not survive the experience.”

The Professor shifted uncomfortably in his wheelchair and said nothing, though he’d turned a somewhat interesting shade of grey.

Manners pushed a photograph of two girls across the table. “I believe these were the Slayers you claimed to have killed.  And, as such, claimed a not inconsiderable prize fund?”

“I did,” the other man admitted.

“It might interest you to know that this photograph was taken only three days ago.  And though this is Sunnydale, you’ll note that it’s broad daylight and they don’t appear to be vampires or zombies,” the lawyer pointed out dryly.

“I had no way of knowing that they weren’t dead…” the Professor began.

“Come, Professor.  You may not be deeply involved with the – ah – nightlife, but even you must be aware that the death of two Slayers would cause ripples far beyond Sunnydale,” Manners pointed out.

He steepled his fingers. “The point I am trying to make, Professor, is that you claimed the prize on false pretences.  Our client Mister Trick is no more, but there were others interested in his ingenious enterprise.  Two demon clans, the Faazi and H’Drenik, to be exact.  Both very fond of a wager – and both bet considerable amounts of money – and both very angry that they’ve been deceived.”

The other man was sweating now. “I can repay the money, with interest…”

He’d never heard of the H’Drenik, but the Faazi were an underground demonic mafia-type organisation, with a presence in most major North American cities.  It really didn’t pay to cross them.

Manners waved a hand dismissively. “They don’t want repayment, Professor.  They want what they placed wagers upon.  Namely, the heads – literally – of Buffy Summers and Faith Lehane.  Failing that, any head will suit them…”

The Professor audibly gulped at the not-so-subtle threat. “Do you want me to reconvene the contest?  There are others who might want to participate.”

The head of Special Projects shook his head. “Nothing so complicated, tempting though the idea may be.  A pity, actually, as such things ought to be encouraged.  However, as you falsely claimed the prize first time around, this is your opportunity to redeem yourself, Professor.”

“I – I’ll start making arrangements right now,” the now-deeply-concerned Professor promised.

“I’m sure you will,” Manners nodded. “We’ll be in touch.  And we at Wolfram and Hart are always happy to do business with you.  Good-day, Professor.”

A few moments later after his departure, another individual stepped into Manner’s office.

“I’m surprised you’re bothering with such things, sir,” Lilah Morgan offered.

“Details, Ms Morgan, details.  The Faazi are an immensely important client and we can’t afford to offer them anything less than the best service,” Manners reminded her.

“That isn’t Faith Lehane, sir,” Morgan indicated the photo on Manner’s desk. “She’s lying in a coma, in Sunnydale Memorial.  Should be an easy target.”

Her boss shrugged. “I’m aware of that.  This is a friend of the Slayer, Cordelia Chase.  I believe her parents are on the run from the IRS.  The point, Miss Morgan, is that our Professor targeted her, along with Buffy Summers, first time around.  To the best of our knowledge, he still thinks she’s a Slayer.  So if he’s successful this time…”

“Only one of the targets will be the right one…” Morgan noted, nodding slowly. “The Faazi won’t be happy, sir.  Or is that the plan?”

“That is, indeed, the plan.  The Professor is a loose cannon and I’d happily have him taken somewhere quiet and shot in the head.  Our clients, however, like their wager.  It’s win-win for us, Ms Morgan.  If he’s partially successful, we’ll have a dead Slayer and a dead Professor.  If he fails, the Slayer will deal with him.  And if this nonentity should also die?  I don’t really care too much.  As for Miss Lehane, a tame and thoroughly alienated Slayer would be a potential asset, would she not?  If she comes out of the coma, we should make every effort to recruit her,” Manners suggested.

“We have some rather vague intelligence about a clandestine demon research team setting up in Sunnydale.  Rather sophisticated, which suggests either government, or a rogue agency, sir,” Morgan told him, while the conversation was on Sunnydale and associated matters.

“Most likely a rogue element, from one of the three-letter agencies.  Monitor the situation, Ms Morgan, but no direct interference otherwise.  We prefer to leave the Hellmouth alone, as you know.  Doing so has a nasty habit of backfiring and thus interfering with the Partners’ objectives,” Manners reminded her.

If the government or rogue team were successful in their endeavours – and he could probably guess the aim, as it was always the same – the end result was likely to be somewhat helpful to Wolfram and Hart’s final goals, in that it would at least cause chaos.  If they failed, it wouldn’t matter.

 

Cordelia’s Apartment, Sunnydale, California – 19th June 1999

The cockroach’s antennae twitched as it locked eyes with Cordelia, ready to spring out of the way, from its perch on a dusty bathroom shelf, in the blink of an eye.  No doubt, it already knew the grisly fate that had befallen to thirty-five of its extended family, at the hands of Cordy the Cockroach Slayer, she smirked to herself.

“I will smite thee down, to your children’s children!” she intoned in best Biblical fashion, suddenly hurling a brush at the doomed insect.

Number thirty-six moved just a smidgen too slowly, as Cordelia’s lethal projectile struck home with precision, then bounced off a mirror, fortunately without breaking the glass.  Just as well, really, as things were beginning to get a little better and she could do without another seven years bad luck – and Sunnydale natives often took such supposed superstitions seriously. 

“And consider yourself smitten – smit – smited…  Whatever!”

Too bad about the bug splatter, she reflected, but at least her aim was impeccable, even sitting on the toilet. The presence in the plumbing also apparently agreed, as it bubbled with what sounded suspiciously like laughter to Cordelia’s ears.  

She glared ferociously at the ancient boiler.  It was bad enough being victimised when she was taking a shower, but the resident demon – and there just had to be one lurking in there – had now taken to perving on her even when she dropped her panties for a pee.  So had the cockroaches, but at least those she could kill.  But couldn’t a girl at least be allowed a little dignity?

“I know you’re in there…  And you can hear me, you fricking pervert!  This really won’t end well for you, ‘cause I know a Slayer, and a witch, and a Watcher.  And you’re so gonna get your ass kicked!” Cordelia threatened.

The pipework bubbled back in its most contemptuous tones.

“Oh yeah?  Says you?  Well. your mother was so dirty, they wouldn’t even let her be a sewage pipe!” Cordelia continued her imaginary conversation with the pipe fittings.

Without warning, there was a loud rumble and the apartment shook for a few seconds, jolting Cordelia off the toilet seat and onto the floor.

“Damn!  Knew I shouldn’t have that chilli for lunch…” she addressed both the plumbing and the latest cockroach corpse from her undignified, bare-assed position on the floor.

Born and bred in California, Cordelia immediately recognised the phenomenon.  Quakes weren’t unusual around these parts and they usually didn’t even have a supernatural cause.

“What d’you think?  Four-point-seven, maybe four-point-eight, tops?” she queried aloud, rising to her feet and pulling up her underwear.

Suddenly realising what she doing, Cordelia shook her head in disbelief.  If anyone heard her right now, talking to dead insects and what might or might not be a Lesser-Spotted Perving Pipework Demon, they’d think she was several sandwiches short of a picnic.

“I so need therapy…  Or maybe just a good exterminator with a side-line in exorcism,” she mused.

At that moment, a thin trickle of plaster dust landed on her face.  She looked upwards to trace the source, only to see a large crack that had suddenly appeared in the ceiling, running from the bathrooms outer wall to the inner one, and quite likely into the room beyond.

Cordelia briefly closed her eyes and shook her head in weary resignation. “Okay, God.  I haven’t always been the nicest person…  Kinda trying to change that, though.  So don’t you think you’ve had way too much fun tormenting the Cordy?”

 
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