Chapter Fourteen: Party Games

Private office at the Sunnydale Zoo, Sunnydale

December 31st, 1996


Dr. Weirick poured himself a drink – expensive, twenty-year-old Scotch – to celebrate his recent achievement. { It's finally done. Well, almost! I've gotten approval to apply for the import permits from the Fish and Wildlife Service, anyway. Sure, it might take a while before I'm able to legally bring those hyenas into the country, depending on how fast the government takes to process my application, but – }

"Dr. Weirick?" one of his assistants poked her head in through his door. "Just wanted to let you know, the zoo's closed for the day – and we're all heading off to watch the evening's fireworks. I wanna get there early, make sure we find a good spot. Do you want to come with us?"

"Ah, no, thank you," Weirick smiled at the young woman absently. "I've still got a lot to do, after all."

The female zookeeper sighed. "Is it that hyena thing again? Honestly, Doctor, you're almost starting to get obsessed with that project! Seriously, it's New Year's Eve – so what is it that makes that breed of Crocuta crocuta brevirostris so important?"

{ Damn. I obviously haven't been as careful as I thought, not if she's started asking questions this way, } Weirick thought to himself in chagrin. Quickly deciding on the best way to throw off his colleague's curiosity and half-formed suspicions, the zookeeper got up from behind his desk and said, "Nothing. And you're quite right, of course. It's New Year's Eve, and all that can wait until tomorrow. Tonight, it's time to party!"

"Well, that's more like it!" the woman nodded as Dr. Weirick joined her. "C'mon, let's go!"


Demon bar informally known as 'Squishers', Sunnydale

Not long after sunset

Spike strolled into the seedy-looking establishment, taking a good look around. There was loud music playing, and people – well, demons – were drinking heavily. Still, that wasn't exactly surprising – it was New Year's Eve, and some demons liked to party as much as the blood bags when it came to this particular night. Especially the types that had been born here in the States. Or hatched, whatever –

Spike made his way to the bar, and sat down on a stool. The bartender – who actually had a real, forked tongue – nodded and said, "Sssspike."

"Hullo, Dave. I'll 'ave the usual," Spike said, looking somewhat bored as he dug some money out of his pants pocket. "Business is boomin' tonight, 'ey?"

"Yesssss," the bartender semi-hissed. "Tonight isss New Year'sssss."

"Yeah, I know. Not so much for us vampires, though – reckon ya know how we prefer celebratin' during the Solstice, don'tcha?" Spike asked, before taking a big gulp of the booze. "Oy! Any chance ya can gimme a blood chaser to go with that Scotch? A big one?"

"Of courssssse," Dave replied obligingly. After he served the vampire, he said, "Do you want me to put thissss on your tab?"

"Yeah, why not?" Spike shrugged. "'Ere, Dave, anything happening tonight in the back room? Could do with some extra dosh ta help pay off what I owe ya this month, after all!"

"Yessss," Dave nodded. "The otherssss are already in there, if you wish to partissssipate."

"Right, then! Thanks for the drink, reckon I'll see ya later," the platinum-haired vampire grinned as he tossed an ironic salute to the barman and wandered off.

Once he walked in Spike automatically checked out the back room for traps, but there were none – just lots of shelves filled with liquor boxes, and the sound of voices. "Evening, all!"

"Spike," one of the demons – a floppy-eared one with folded, loosely attached skin named Clem – nodded back.

"Right then, lads, what's the game tonight?" Spike demanded, taking in the demons sitting at the table. Apart from Clem, there was one demon with way too many eyes, one with scaly skin and a bunch of tentacles that looked like dreadlocks, and another one with a green face and horns.

The green demon shrugged. "The same as always, Spike. You want in?"

"Yeah, mate. Why not?"

"You're a vampire," the many-eyed demon growled.

"Too right I am. You got a problem with that?" Spike sent him a hard look.

"Yeah, blood rat. I got a problem with that," the many-eyed demon glared at him, the prejudice and ingrained antipathy towards the undead clearly visible to all concerned.

Spike just reached down and pulled the demon up out of his chair, wanting to punch his lights out. He didn't, though; that was something which was against the demon code of conduct he had been brought up to follow. By Dru... and Angelus...

Spike just shoved the many-eyed demon out the open door, before locking it and sitting down in the now-empty seat and picking up the demon's cards. "Anyone else got a problem with me sittin' in on this game?"

Clem shrugged. "Not me. Well, as long as you can ante up."

The three demons all reached under their chairs, quickly producing a small kitten. They put the kittens in a basket on the table, ignoring the baby felines as they began to mew. Clem looked at Spike and said, "Well?"

The bleached-hair vamp shrugged. "So, who's gonna advance me a tiny tabby, get me started?"

The demons all groaned, before the scaly one reluctantly reached under the table and gave Spike a Siamese kitten. It said, "Now, are we gonna play poker or not?"

The game quickly got started. Just like a human poker tournament, there was gossip and drinking, plus constant bluffing and calling as the midnight hour crept closer and closer.

Finally, it came down to one winner-take-all pot. Spike looked at his cards, grinned, and put them down on the table. "Anyone able ta top that?"

Everyone groaned and threw down their cards, after seeing that the vampire had a Straight Flush: 4-5-6-7-8 of Clubs. There was some grumbling from the losers as Spike smiled and stood up, opening the lid of a basket and putting the kittens in. { Hopefully, this li'l gift is gonna make Dru get over her snit with that puppy last week! }

The green demon growled, "You got real lucky tonight, Spike."

The scaly demon nodded. "Yeah. You cleaned us all out. You ask me, no one's that lucky."

Clem looked at Spike distrustfully. "Yeah, he's right. Man, I'm starting to think you cheated, too."

Spike looked completely affronted. "Me? A cheater? Bloody hell! He's got X-ray vision!" he exclaimed, pointing to the scaly demon.

"I'm not using it," the scaly demon replied, somewhat defensively.

Clem stood up angrily. "We're not the ones who've been cheating at cards!"

Spike looked at him, or more specifically, at the floppy-eared demon's arm. An Ace of Spades was stuck in the folds of skin. Looking embarrassed, Clem pulled it free as the others started to glower at him.

"I-I-I had no idea that was there. Otherwise, I'd have gotten rid of it before tonight's game," Clem said, somewhat insincerely.

"And we're s'posed ta believe ya? Pull the other one, mate!" Spike snorted, before looking around at the others. "So, what's the going rate on exchanging kittens for cash?"

"You want us to give you money, after cheating at kitten poker?" the scaly demon demanded.

The green demon shook its head. "Leave your winnings and go, Spike. Otherwise, things could get ugly."

"That the way it is, then? You're a bunch o' sore losers who can't stand seeing a vampire beat you at cards?" Spike demanded, sneeringly.

"Hey, guys – now, now hang on a minute! I mean, we're not gonna fight about this, are we? 'Cause that's, that's totally against the demon code of conduct!" Clem yelped, getting up out of his seat and heading towards the door.

Spike instantly dismissed him as a potential threat, focusing on the green demon and the scaly demon. { The hell with that bloody code o' conduct! } Then Spike offered them one of his trademark smirks. "What's-a matter then, lads? Thought you wanted ta get yer tabbies back? Well –"

With that, he slipped on his game face; fangs, ridges, leer and all. "Here we are now..."

Spike immediately punched both demons hard and fast, sending them to the floor as the brawl got started.

"Entertain us!"

Clem quickly exited the back room, only to hear the bar patrons all shouting "HAPPY NEW YEAR!" – and then one of the female demons gave him a quick, hard kiss on the mouth, as the New Year's celebrations got started in earnest.

Back at the site of the poker game, Spike was still celebrating the birth of 1997 in his own unique way –


1630 Revello Drive, Sunnydale

January 4th, 1997

As the delivery men started to unload their family belongings off the truck, Buffy looked around at her new home.

The house was a two-story, American Craftsman style residence, with a big basement; she'd inspected it earlier. The laundry facilities were down there – plus the hot water tank located along the back wall, and a flight of stairs against the wall to the right which led upstairs. The stairs to the basement were entered from the kitchen, oddly enough –

{ Huh – I wonder what the architect was smoking, when he designed this place! }

The main floor was occupied by a foyer that led into the hallway. Off of which, facing away from the street, the dining room opened up on the right and the living room on the left. A sitting room was located at the end of the hallway. The kitchen lay beyond the dining room, offering access to both the sitting room and the rear porch.

Which was a good thing, as far as Buffy was concerned – they could open the windows and let some fresh air into the kitchen, whenever they needed to. Her cooking skills weren't exactly the greatest, or so she'd been told –

A short flight of steps led from the back porch into the backyard. And a staircase led from the foyer of the house to the upper floor of the residence. Buffy liked that; if she needed to get upstairs in a hurry, she didn't have to detour around anything.

The second floor contained three bedrooms and one bathroom; the master bedroom, and two others. Buffy already knew her mom was going to take the big bedroom; luckily, she had a choice of which room would become her bedroom, and which one would be used for storage space. Two gables projected from the roof, one over each of the picture windows.

There was even a small attic, but Buffy hadn't gone in there; the place looked dusty and full of mildew, eww!

From the outside, a wide concrete sidewalk led from the curb through the middle of the front yard, past palm trees and other trees and through a gap in a low hedge that fronted the porch, to a short flight of steps that led up to the front door of the house. On either side of which were picture windows flanked by tall, narrower windows. The porch, spanning the entire width of the house, was overhung by part of the residence's roof – which was supported by four pillars, the two beside the steps having brick pedestals.

Which was another good thing, in Buffy's view – quakes were a common occurrence in this part of southern California, and she didn't want her roof falling down on top of her!

There was a driveway on the right hand side which passed alongside the house to the backyard. No garage, unfortunately. The backyard itself was fairly large, and had a rear fence and a gate which opened into a nearby alley.

Perfect for kids to play in, according to the real estate agent who'd shown them around not long ago. Too bad she didn't have any younger siblings; doubtless, they'd have loved horsing around back there!

Buffy sighed and said to her mom, "Do you think we oughta offer to help take in the furniture and stuff?" whilst gesturing to the busy delivery men.

"No, dear, just – let these gentlemen do their jobs. We'd simply get in the way, I'm sure," Joyce said quickly. Gesturing for her daughter to move back as two of the delivery guys carried in the new couch, the former Mrs. Summers said, "And just so you know, I've got a surprise for you a bit later on."

{ A surprise? } Buffy asked herself, instantly feeling alarmed. { Oh, I don't like surprises! These days, any kind of surprise is usually a bad one! }

Luckily, her fears remained hidden as the moving company employees finally unloaded the truck completely, and took everything inside. Joyce directed those guys to set up everything the way she wanted it, including taking the beds upstairs and setting up the fridge in its alcove – and even putting the coat rack in exactly the right spot! Buffy grew more and more impatient until everything was more or less in place, and the delivery men left. "Okay, mom, what's the surprise?"

"Buffy... I know things haven't been easy since you came back from Las Vegas. I mean, Christmas was ruined, and you didn't appear to be in the mood for celebrating New Year's Eve a few nights ago – not that I could blame you for that," Joyce said, before exhaling loudly. "Sweetheart, I'll admit that life hasn't been – good – for quite a long time, now. Your father and I aren't together anymore –"

{ For now, } Buffy immediately thought to herself stubbornly, unwilling to give up on that dream yet. She was counting the days until May, after all!

"– and even though that's not in any way your fault, Hank did mention to me how you were thinking it was – that night you two came back from Nevada," her mom continued on. "So, please, try to think of it this way; this house, this town, this life – it's a brand new start for both of us. And to commemorate that new start, I got you – this."

She brought out a small gift-wrapped package, and Buffy smiled at her mother as she started ripping the paper apart. "Mom! You shouldn't have. And gee, I always wanted –"

The Slayer paused, as she examined the present closely. "– a tiny pink stuffed pig," she said in surprise.

"Yes, I know you're almost sixteen now, but I also know how much you liked that sort of thing when you were younger. Anyway, I just thought it might be good for you to have a symbol of how much I still care about you, and love you," the middle-aged woman smiled at her.

"Thanks, mom," Buffy couldn't help smiling again. And it was true enough, as a little girl she used to adore plushie farm animals; especially goats and pigs. "And I love the gift. I think I'll call him – Mister Gordo."

"Gordo? Doesn't that mean, uh, 'fat' in Spanish?" Joyce asked quizzically.

"Yeah, but he's so plump and adorable, the name just sorta fits! And like I said, I love the gift," Buffy gave her mother a quick hug, but careful not to squeeze too hard. Slayer strength and all that.

"Thank you, dear, I'm glad you like it. Well, I suppose we better get busy putting everything away," her mom gestured around to all the boxes. "All these things aren't going to unpack themselves, you know."

"Yeah. Guess it's too bad we don't know anyone yet, around here. We could get them to come over and help," the Chosen One commented, as she grabbed the nearest box of kitchen supplies. "Not to mention have a housewarming party!"

"Well, your birthday is coming up soon. Maybe we can have a party for you then, instead," her mother shrugged.

{ Yeah, right, } Buffy mentally snorted to herself, even though she didn't say anything in order to spare the parental unit's feelings. { Mom, have you totally forgotten what it's like to be my age? Even if I do make some new friends by then, a birthday party with only two or three guests in attendance? Lame-o! }

"Actually, mom – I'd rather just go to the ice show with Dad, same way we do every year," Buffy said glibly, coming up with a valid excuse on the fly. "I mean, kinda hard to throw a good party when you don't know who the cool crowd at school is yet, right?"

"Oh. Right. Well, whatever you wish, dear," Joyce said absently, picking up a box before putting it down again with a frown. "Now, where did I put that blender...?"

{ Yup, that's my mom. Total party animal, } Buffy thought to herself in amusement, before she started lugging stuff around in her brand new home.


4 Parkview Crescent, Sunnydale

January 8th, 1997

While Darla was killing a hapless young man within the empty halls of Sunnydale High, Xander was brooding and definitely not enjoying himself at Cordelia's sixteenth birthday party.

To be honest, he hadn't even wanted to attend this particular shindig. There were a number of reasons why; including – and especially – the fact that he wasn't on friendly terms with any of the guests here tonight. The popular crowd from school were pointedly ignoring him; and neither Jesse nor Willow had been invited to tonight's festivities. Under different circumstances, he would have simply given his birthday gift to Cordelia and quickly left the house –

Only problem was, his parents back home.

Xander knew his mom and dad were definitely taking more of an interest in his life nowadays, ever since the old man had given up the booze and his home life had dramatically improved. Not to mention his sixteenth birthday last month; and the role Cordy had played in getting the 'rents to understand how he only had two, possibly three friends in the whole world.

Given the whole Oracle thing, it was almost enough for Xander to wish that his mother and father were still ignoring him the way they used to, before last summer!

Anyway, his parents had insisted he attend Cordelia's birthday after receiving the invite from Queen C's dad. Hell, they had even given him some money in order to buy her a decent present! Well, decent by his family's standards, anyway. Knowing Cordy and her expensive tastes, she'd probably turn her nose up at the gift and just throw it into a corner of her room in disgust, for Lupe to pick it up and put it into the trash later on –

{ Oh, sweet mamalooshin. I am being kinda bitter tonight, aren't I? } Xander asked himself ruefully. { I mean, geez louise; I already knew how Cordy was gonna say that us kissing in my backyard was a big mistake, after Willow called her up and arranged that little summit meeting. But sure as hell, I definitely wasn't expecting to feel so broken up about it afterwards! }

It had been kinda confusing, too, he had to admit. Xander knew he wasn't the smartest guy in Sunnydale, but he also knew (or thought he knew) Cordelia as well as he knew Willow and Jesse. In his book, she was the richest girl in town who was blunt, tactless, opinionated, one heck of a good kisser – and that was all. When did feelings for her start to get in the way of the neat little pigeonhole he had created for that girl?

Wait a minute. He had feelings for Cordelia? As in, Cordelia Chase?

{ Yup. Took ya long enough to figure it out, huh? } that snarky and annoying voice replied, from the back of his head. { Maybe those people who gave you that special needs test back when you were seven were wrong, after all. Maybe you are mentally challenged, as well as slow to understand some things like math and spatial relations. }

Hey! I am not!

{ Really? Well, then, you tell me why it's taken this long to realize that Cordy isn't the total bitca you used to think she was, before last summer, } Snarky & Annoying voice replied snippily.

Uh... well, we've not exactly spent all that much time around one another?

{ Oh, please! Midsummer's Day. The first day of sophomore year – both at school, and later on at her house. That night in the snake-a-licious frat house. The day she first kissed you. The night you first kissed her. So that argument ain't gonna cut it, I'm thinking. }

Aw, shaddup! I mean, it's Cordelia for crying out loud. We've been fighting since the third grade!

{ Yeah, when you spilled that milkshake all over her dress and she decked you for it. So, whose fault is that? }

Well, it's not just my fault, that's for damn sure! Cordy broke my nose that day –

{ Sure, sure. Heck, everyone knows that. But ever wondered how, if you'd been a little bit more coordinated back then, you and her might have become an item long before now? }

What?

{ I mean, if you'd managed to remain friends instead of becoming enemies, then you and Queen C might have discovered how you like playing tonsil hockey together years ago. }

Never woulda happened! I wouldn't have gone after my best friend's girl that way!

{ Except she's not Jesse's girl, and she never has been, } Snarky & Annoying voice pointed out way too cheerfully. { And here I thought you'd finally learned that lesson, after Cordy literally slapped it into you. }

Okay, fine! Xander glumly acknowledged to himself. Maybe – just maybe – Cordelia and I might have started with the making out long before now, if all that had happened differently. But for damn sure, my friendships with Willow and Jesse wouldn't have survived it. And I'd choose friendship over tawdry teen lust any day of the week!

{ Oh, friendship, schmendship, } Snarky & Annoying voice sounded remarkably like Jerry Seinfeld for a moment. { Besides. Who's to say Jesse and Will wouldn't have eventually come around? They're both pushing you hard enough in Cordelia's direction nowadays, you hafta admit. }

Well, that's only on account of they're both terrified that I'm gonna die if I don't marry her, and all the rest of that crap Madam Devora said would happen!

{ True, that. But still, what difference does it make? Queen C's damn hot, you have to admit. Fetish fuel fantasy material. }

It makes all the difference in the world, God damn it! If I ever get together with Cordelia freaking Chase, it has to be for the right reasons! And hey! Stop fantasising about her that way!

{ After the way she kissed you? Dream on, bud. Even if everything Fortune-teller Lady said was complete bullshit, you're never gonna forget your first kiss from that girl. Hell, it wouldn't surprise me if by the time you're totally old and wrinkly, just thinking about Cordelia will still be enough to get it up for you! And that's assuming you don't marry her after high school, of course. }

That's enough outta you! Xander mentally snarled. No more thinking about marrying Cordy! Not after she made it totally clear that kissing me was just a humongous mistake!

{ Well, could be she'll change her mind, eventually, } Snarky & Annoying voice somehow gave the impression of smirking amusement. { I mean, high school ends June '99 – and two and a half years later, that's January 2002. Cordelia's twenty-first birthday, and old enough to get married in all fifty states. Old enough to drink, too, come to think of it. So, maybe you and Queen C will get totally smashed during her birthday party that night – and decide to elope to Las Vegas? }

Xander couldn't help shuddering at the very concept. Are you freaking kidding me? A drunken Vegas wedding? Not only is that tacky as hell, but Cordy's father would kill me afterwards! And her mother would cheerfully rip it off and shove it up my ass!

{ Oooh, nasty visual. But tell me getting laid by that girl after saying "I do!" wouldn't be totally worth it. }

No thanks. I'd like to live long enough to have kids one day!

{ Well, if Cordelia's gonna be their mother, you can bet the family jewels that they're gonna be smart and beautiful. Ditto the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, which a certain black lady happened to mention once. }

Will you shut up about that? I get enough of that crap from Willow and Jesse! I mean geez, does it sound like I'm even remotely ready for something that huge? That grown-up? Do you think Cordy is, either?

{ Well, you know what Uncle Rory always says: 'the years pass quickly, kid.' Might be worthwhile keeping something like that in mind, if Tact Girl eventually figures out you're the one she really wants. Unlikely as that sounds right now, granted. }

Xander blew a mental raspberry at Snarky & Annoying voice, and started surveying the party from his spot near the right hand corner of the room. And not a moment too soon –

Tor, Heidi, Kyle and Rhonda were making their way towards him.

Xander briefly thought about trying to run for it, but quickly abandoned that idea. Showing weakness in front of those four bullies was the equivalent of giving himself a shallow cut with a razor blade, and then sticking his arm into a tank full of piranhas. Totally suicidal.

Oh, it was pretty doubtful Tor and Kyle would do anything here and now, but soon enough –

"Enjoying the party, Harris?" Kyle sneered.

"No," Xander replied simply, refusing to even look at him.

"Whatcha doing here all alone, Xander? It's supposed to be a party, shouldn't you be mingling with the other guests?" Rhonda sniggered briefly. "Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. None of them want to even be near you! Heard more than one person talking about the 'Harris trash in the corner' tonight, after all."

"Yeah. Doesn't surprise me. But then, I'm not the one here pretending to be something I'm not," Xander replied, not looking at her either.

"Meaning?" Tor asked challengingly.

Xander abruptly lifted his head and stared Hauer right in the eye. "Only reason I'm here is 'cause Mr. Chase personally invited me. Probably still grateful that I saved his daughter's life few months back. But why are you here, Tor? Or Heidi, or Kyle, or Rhonda? You think any of Cordy's so-called friends like you? That they actually want you here? You think they're not sayin' worse things about you and your posse behind your backs, than they are about me? You're an idiot if you do. And one thing I'm sure of, it's the fact that you're not an idiot."

"You seem just awful sure 'bout that, Xan," Heidi replied, her eyes narrowing. "Care to gimme a for-instance?"

Xander nodded towards the centre of the room. "Guests bad-mouthing you and yours? Harmony, for sure. Gwen and Joy, probably. Aura, can't be certain; her family's nouveau-rich, after all. She might remember what it's like to be an ordinary person, and not an intolerant harpy like the rest of the Cordettes."

"Cordettes, huh? Wonder what they'll think after hearing the nickname you came up with for them, Harris?" Kyle sneered again.

Xander just smiled. "Kyle, you think I actually give a damn about whatever Cordelia's friends think? Then you really were dropped on your head once too often, when we were little kids."

Infuriated, DuFours started to step forward – but Rhonda quickly grabbed hold of his arm. "Not here, hon," she hissed at him. "Too many witnesses. Especially Mr. Chase over there, see?"

"Speaking of which, I gotta motor," Xander said, pushing himself off of the wall and stepping around the pack of bullies. "Need to have myself a conversation with Cordy's dad."

"Mind if I ask what that conversation's gonna be about, Xan?" Tor asked, with a deceptively lazy tone.

Xander again locked his brown eyes with Tor's blue ones. Then he said, "You don't think I'm gonna be talkin' about you and your friends with Mr. Chase, do ya Tor?"

Hauer slowly shook his head. "Naw. I don't."

His girlfriend abruptly smirked at him. "Well, then, lemme wish ya good luck asking permission to date his daughter, Xan!" Without waiting for a reply, Heidi grabbed her boyfriend's arm and dragged him away into the crowd. Scowling, Kyle and Rhonda quickly followed them.

Shaking his head, Xander quickly sought out Cordelia's dad and quietly asked for a private word with the man. Looking surprised, the husband and father nodded and told him to go wait on one of the nearby balconies; that he'd be joining Xander there in a few minutes.

Xander nodded and left. He would have preferred somewhere more private, like the library where he and Cordy's father had talked last time; but as one of the hosts of the party, Mr. Chase couldn't afford to disappear that way for too long. It wouldn't be – seemly.

It pained Xander greatly to realize that he was now able to think of the appearances that way. Obviously, he'd been hanging around Cordelia long enough for stuff like that to have sunk in, somehow. Damn it.

"All right, Alexander, what's this all about? And please, make it snappy; we've got a birthday celebration to get back to," Mr. Chase said impatiently, before Xander turned to look at him.

"Couple things, sir. One, my name is Xander – and I'd appreciate it if you started using it," he said, before locking eyes with the older man. "And two, why'd you invite me here tonight? 'Cause none of these people are my friends. Not even Cordelia."

He could easily see the mild surprise as Cordelia's father said, "Hrmm. And here I thought you were the only one my little girl really had her heart set on attending tonight –"

"If that's true, kinda weird how Cordy hasn't said even one word to me so far," Xander interrupted, sounding a lot harsher about that than he'd been intending to be.

Mr. Chase sighed. "Yes, good point. Her mother has kept her busy, saying hello to all the guests – apart from you. I don't think it's any secret Julia doesn't like you, Alexa – sorry, Xander," he shrugged, before shaking his head. "My apologies, son – but I honestly don't think I'll ever be able to call you that name. It simply doesn't seem to fit you, in my opinion."

"So what does fit, Mr. Chase? I mean, seeing that the last time we talked, you accused me of wanting hush money," Xander said, almost without meaning to. Hesitating for less than a moment, he then decided to plunge on and say, "You thought I was trying to blackmail you about something?"

Mr. Chase seemed to look him over carefully. "So, you weren't?"

Xander shook his head at once. "Not sure what your daughter's told you about what I can do, sir –"

"Not a darn thing, actually. So, you've discussed this with her?"

"Nope," Xander shook his head again, still maintaining eye contact with the older man. It was risky, but nonetheless he still did it before saying, "Look, Mr. Chase, I don't know whatever it is you think I know. Whether you believe it or not, whenever my eyes change color and I – say things – I can never remember what it is I say afterwards."

"Really?" Mr. Chase asked musingly, looking as if he was trying to believe that; but not succeeding too well.

"Yeah, really. Sure, I kinda figured out you're into something illegal, but whatever it is you've done? Sir, I don't know what it is – and I honestly don't want to know, either. Guess what I'm really trying to say... is that if you're trying to bribe me to keep quiet about what you think I know, by inviting me to Cordelia's birthday and trying to push the two of us together? No point. Seriously –" Xander started to say.

"WHAT?!"

Both he and Mr. Chase turned around, to see a red-faced and infuriated-looking Cordelia glaring at them both. And personally, he'd never seen Queen C look so angry before.

Never, ever. Not even that long-ago day she'd broken his nose for needlessly ruining her formal dress.

{ Oh, crap }


Chase residence balcony, Sunnydale

A moment later

Cordelia was feeling utterly livid. Infuriated. Pissed off –

First of all, Mother had been running her ragged tonight instead of letting her relax and enjoy the party. Plus, it hadn't taken long to figure out how the parental unit was deliberately keeping her away from one corner of the room, where the Dweeb was sulking alone. She honestly didn't get it – why did her mother dislike Xander so much?

It couldn't be just because the Harris family wasn't rich and members of the Sunnydale Stables and Country Club, could it? Surely the woman who had given birth to her couldn't be that shallow and snobbish? Personally, Cordelia doubted it, especially with the way Daddy was friends with Mr. Harris –

But that was a question for another day. She'd finally had enough and given her mother the slip, looking to find the Dork and apologize for her – somewhat rude – behavior. But he'd disappeared from the corner he'd staked out for himself. Cordelia had almost started panicking at that point – surely the Doofus wouldn't have just left without saying goodbye to her? That would have been totally beyond tasteless and offensive!

Fortunately, one of the guests – Heidi Barrie, of all people – had come over and mentioned that Loser Boy was talking with her father on a nearby balcony. And when she'd haughtily asked why she'd even be interested in where Xander Harris was, the irritating blonde had merely smirked and said "Good luck!" before melting back into the crowd.

Puzzled, Cordelia had headed off for the balcony in question, arriving just in time to hear the damned schmuck say something like that!

"WHAT?" she hissed again, glaring both at Daddy and the jerk he'd been talking to. "Xander, what are you talking about?! What do you – what the hell do you mean, I've been some sort of bribe?!"

"Uh, you'd need to talk to your dad about that one, Cor, not me. 'Cause I didn't do it, and I wasn't there, and you kaint prove nothin' no-how," the lamer babbled nervously, slowly inching backwards.

"Oh, spare me, you idiot! Well, Daddy?" Cordelia focused her glare on her father. "What have you got to say for yourself?"

"That I made a serious mistake about Alexander's intentions a few months ago," her dad shrugged, and out of the corner of one eye, she saw Harris roll his eyes at the use of his full name. "Still, having said that, sweetheart – this young man is honest, forthright and capable. And I've known that since the day he saved your life from those frat boys, and the crazed gang members they'd gotten involved with! So with regards to a father's stamp of approval, my opinion of him hasn't changed, despite what Alexander just told me in private; you could definitely do a lot worse than him as your boyfriend," he said calmly.

"Mother would have an absolute cow if she heard you say that, Daddy. More like a complete herd," Cordelia said, more or less on autopilot – as most of her mind was still trying to process what her father had just said. { He'd actually prefer Xander to any of the jocks and preppies and musicians who want to date me? Wow! }

"Unfortunately, I can't disagree," her father sighed. "Well, I'd best get back to the party. You two kids stay here and talk things out, okay?"

"Uh, actually? It's getting kinda late, I think I oughta get going –" Cowardly Lion Boy started to follow Daddy back into the mansion, before Cordelia grabbed him by the ear and hauled his ass backwards. "OWWWWW! Hey – hey, no, Cordy, c'mon!"

"Oh, stop complaining! Jerk," she said huffily, as Xander glared at her and she let go of him. "Now. I want to know what you and Daddy were talking about, in detail! Understood? So spill, mister, or you'll be sorry!"

"Sorry. But like I said, that's something you have to talk to your father about, not me. Way I figure it? It's totally up to Mr. Chase to tell ya about all that stuff. I mean, how'd you like it if I told him some of your secrets?"

"Like what?!"

"Well, how about the fact that if you hadn't been stupid enough to deliberately ditch your chaperone that night – those frat guys would have never gotten the chance to drug you and serve you up as a meal for their demon master?"

WHAP!

"How dare you try to blackmail me with something like that?" she hissed at him in pure fury, after slapping him.

"Hey, who said anything about blackmail? Geez. I guess you inherited more than just your hair from your dad, Cor; you definitely got his ability to jump to conclusions as well!" Xander replied, looking annoyed as he rubbed his rapidly reddening cheek. "You really thought I was gonna try to blackmail you? Seriously, not only would that be totally pointless – but what with the whole Oracle thing? You've got a lot more dirt on me than I do on you!"

"Dammit. You're right," Cordelia exhaled crossly, before quickly calming down. "I – I'm sorry I slapped you, Xander. That was – you didn't deserve that, and I apologize for it."

"Apology accepted," he shrugged. "Now, I'm gonna go –"

"No. Wait just a minute! I mean – Daddy knows about what you can do, doesn't he?" Cordelia almost felt like lightning had struck her brain, as she suddenly guessed the truth. "That's why he thought you needed to be bribed about – whatever! You said something to him, he – he witnessed that whole green-eyed Oracle crap happen at some point, right?"

"Yup. The night I came over to give you that stuffed Gund bear, actually," Xander admitted, not exactly surprised that Cordelia had somehow managed to figure it all out. That annoyingly snarky voice at the back of his head reminded him how this girl was a lot smarter than the airhead image she liked to project in public. "And that's pretty much all I know, the rest is just pure speculation. So –"

"Uh-uh. You're not going anywhere yet, Harris!" Cordy grabbed him by the ear again before he could leave the balcony, and forced the guy to face her. "Look at me, dammit, and start performing!"

"Uh... Cordelia? Um, when you say 'perform', err, what exactly do you-?" Idiot Boy started to say nervously, after she let him go.

"Oh, puh-lease! No way we're ever gonna do that – well, not unless I completely go nuts, and, and we end up dating for at least a year, you pervert!" Cordelia said in exasperation. { God, does everything have to be about sex with him? Yeah, I suppose so – I mean, I know for a fact that boys his age only have one thing on their minds! }

"Okay – uh, hang on! A year, seriously? No, wait – what, what exactly did you mean by 'perform', then?" Xander seemed amazingly distracted for a moment.

"Uch! Someone Up There give me strength. Look me in the eye, Doofus! Do your magic trick, or whatever it is. You've done the Oracle thing for Harmony, for Daddy, for Mr. Herrold and that snake demon and God only knows who else! But now, it's my turn!"

Xander briefly gaped at her, before pulling himself together. "Uh – sorry, Cordelia. But, but it doesn't work that way. I mean, I can't control the... ability. Can't force myself to do it whenever someone asks –"

"How do you know that? I mean, have you tried to do it whenever you want to?" she interrupted challengingly. "Or has it been just a, an accident every time you've done it?"

"Uh – yeah. Huh. Point, I guess," Harris frowned. "It's just – well, people kinda get really upset once they hear whatever it is I tell them. Willow and Jesse are my case in point. So, are you absolutely sure ya wanna do this? I mean, odds are – you'll regret it, afterwards. No one's ever thanked me for telling them what's what, anyway," he said, briefly scratching the back of his neck.

"Well, there's always a first time for everything," Cordelia told him pointedly. "Okay, let's do this!"

"Fine," Xander shrugged, before he locked gazes with her.

"Well?" Cordelia demanded, after roughly a minute of uncomfortable silence.

"Well, what?" Xander shrugged, looking uncomfortable himself. "Told ya, I can't just 'perform' on demand! I don't know how, or if it's even possible. It sorta just happens, like I said."

"Well, try harder to do it, Dumbass!"

"Oh, geez, here we go. Nag, nag, nag – Cordy, find a new theme already!"

"How dare you say something like that to me, you lamebrain?!"

"Harpy."

"Loser!"

"Shrew."

"Total fashion victim!"

"Spoiled brat!"

"Complete and utter mor-mmrph!"

Okay, obviously a major tactical miscalculation. Do not walk right up to and stand nose to chin with the Doofus that you're arguing with. Because then he can snake an arm around your waist, pull you in closer while your face is tilted up, and –

Lean his head down, and kiss the pure living hell out of you.

{ Oh, wow. Oh ye gods, better than wow. Wait, what is happening here?! What's, what's he... ughhh... }

Several, uh, minutes – yeah, that was it, minutes later – because no way could it really have lasted hours, geez... Cordelia found her eyes opening again, both arms wrapped around Dweeb Boy's neck, and one leg curled around his with her heel digging into the back of his thigh above his knee. { Yum. I mean, ugh. Eww! }

She pushed him away and glared at the asshole. Heatedly. "Ooohh... how dare you..." Cordelia started to say, her eyes narrowed.

"What can I say, Cor? You suddenly looked all kissable, and I had a total moment of temporary insanity! And not sure if anyone's ever told you, but did you know – you actually kiss better when you're completely pissed off?" the Dumbass asked curiously.

"Really? No, none of my boyfriends have ever said – oooh!" Cordelia had to prevent herself from actually stamping her foot in childish annoyance. "Never mind! I thought I told you, Harris, we're not gonna indulge in that sort of thing! Because –"

Then it happened. Xander's eyes finally turned green and sorta sparkly and shimmery, like she'd been waiting for all this time, and then he opened his mouth –

"You were born not only with a silver spoon in your mouth, but with a silver dagger in your hand. So use your weapons wisely, for a new arrival on the Hellmouth could become serious competition for the object of your affections."

{ W-what? } Cordelia stared at him in amazement. { What, what did he-? A Hellmouth? And some other girl might be serious competition against me? }

"Because why, Cor?" Then Xander's expression changed. "Oh, boy. It finally happened, didn't it? God knows I've seen that look before! So, what did I say to you, already? 'Cause seriously, sweetheart, you look like you've just seen a ghost or something!"

{ Sweetheart? He actually called me – no. No, this is not happening! } Unable to deal, Cordelia turned around and rushed back into the mansion as quickly as she could.

Still, it wasn't fast enough for her to avoid hearing Harris say to himself, "Knew she'd end up regretting wanting to do this!"

TBC…


A/N: Oh, man, long day. But on the bright side, this story now has the third highest review count for all my fanfics - for which I humbly thank you, my loyal readers! Please keep it coming, along with all the PMs and feedback. You have definitely improved the quality of the story by doing so!