It was a bright, beautiful day outside of Buffy's bedroom window, doubly bright thanks to the three feet of snow that was covering most of northern Ohio. It was also freezing, maybe not literally because of the blue skies and sunshine, but it wasn't far off of it. You'd have to be crazy to want to play outside, which was why when Xander and Willow had cheerfully planned an excursion to the slopes for some good, old-fashioned family sledding, Buffy already had the perfect excuse not to go.
She knew that lying to her friends and family was wrong, but she couldn't help it if borrowing one of the cars was a lot easier if they weren't there to give her 'Are you sure that's really a good idea?' looks. And it wasn't like she couldn't drive at all! She'd taken the classes in school and Mr. Pole had only been joking when he'd sent that letter home to her mom asking that she never come back. It was only occasionally that she got the gas and the brake mixed up, it wasn't like she did it all the time! And she'd driven in Rome! If that didn't prove her superior driving skills, nothing would, and she'd only crashed Faith's Mini a little.
Sure one of her friends would probably offer to drive her when they knew where she was going, but this was something she really wanted to do herself. She didn't want it to become a joint venture. It was a little selfish but, honestly, she wanted all the credit for this.
She just had to give them a chance to get to the other side of the woods, where they wouldn't see her passing on the lane - just in case they did something stupid, like panic and call the cops for her own safety - and then she could grab the keys to the jeep and be on her way. That gave her about twenty minutes to keep researching.
She pulled a face; she was never a fan of researching at the best of times and if anything, the monsters in this book were even more disgusting than usual.
Reluctantly, she picked 'Everything You Need to Know About Pregnancy and Childbirth' back up and opened it at the bookmark. Instantly wincing, she thrust the book to arms length and turned her face away, remembering why she'd put it down in the first place. Nobody wanted to see that!
Mustering her courage, she peeked back at the glossy page. The precious moment captured was seconds after something red, wrinkled and covered in gross goo had started to emerge from the poor woman's vagina. It couldn't be natural; and from the mother's face, caught in a silent scream, the woman knew that. She was probably yelling for someone to hurry up and stake it already! That poor woman. It was traumatizing for Buffy just to have to look at a photo of it!
She skimmed the writing on the page, just to soak up the bare facts. She didn't expect to have to be anywhere near Faith while this part was going on -- she'd have the best doctors and nurses and midwifes that Giles could afford for that. And then, idly flipping back through the chapters, she settled on a page through complete random selection, that just happened to outline the benefits of perineal massage. She re-read the section again, just out of curiosity. She didn't have any plans to personally use this information either but preparation, preparation, preparation and all that. Maybe Faith would ask about it one day.
She was furtively reading it for the third time when her cell phone rang, making her shut the book with a snap as she jumped. She hid the cover with her hands as if the interruption had been a knock at her bedroom door instead of a phone call, took a deep breath and then calmly picked up the phone.
"Hey, B, what'cha doing?"
She looked around at all the baby books on her bed; the ones she had been secretly reading in her spare time for three weeks. "Not a lot, you?"
"Bored!" Faith dragged the word out.
"How can you be bored? It's Christmas Eve."
"Might as well be August third 'round here."
"Why, what's on the third of August?" she asked, trying to think.
"Nothing, that's my point. I'm all alone out here, B. All alone! And it's even making Christmas boring. I got no decorations, no Christmas music, no eggnog! It's depressing."
"Told you not to move out."
"Not looking for I told you so's."
"Then what are you looking for?"
She stood to gather up the books and shove them to the back of her closet. It still remained drepressingly light on clothes since Toni's departure - making Buffy's list to Santa fairly straightforward this year - but pushed into the corner with a pair of boots placed artfully on top they were inconspicuous."
"Company," Faith admitted quietly. "And some of Andy's Christmas cookies."
Buffy smiled. "Faith, you can't be that lonely already. You only officially moved in there last week and I've been around four times since then. You have to give yourself time to adjust to living there on your own and you won't do that if I keep running over there every time you call."
"But it's Christmas Eve!"
"I know, which means everybody is out being busy anyway." If you could call sledding down a mountainside busy. "I'm here on my own right now. You could come over here," she offered eagerly because she knew what the answer would be.
"I'm too fat to drive!"
Buffy hid her quiet laughter by covering the mouthpiece. Faith did not take jokes about her pregnant girth well at the moment. When she was sure she could speak without a chuckle giving her away, she moved her hand.
"It won't be for much longer. And besides, tomorrow you're coming over here. Xander's picking you up just before lunch, right?"
"Yeah. Don't expect to have any presents from me to unwrap, though. If I have to wait until lunch to see you guys, I'm gonna open them myself."
"Try to resist." Buffy noticed the time. It had been over twenty minutes. "Effie, I have to go, but I'll see you tomorrow okay?"
"Fine, thought you were my friend, B, but whatever," Faith grumbled. "You got something better to do than keep me from going stir crazy then go do it, I don't care."
Buffy chuckled, "I do actually, and I have to go and do it now. Talk to you later, baby."
She hung up before Faith could say anything that would convince her to stay on the line. If she left it too long the window of opportunity for grand theft auto would close and then all her big plans would be ruined.
Downstairs she left a note saying where she was going and promising to keep the jeep safe; she didn't want a search party. After pulling on a coat worthy of the arctic weather she snagged the keys from where they hung, grabbed her purse and locked the house up as she left.
Halfway to the garage she turned around and went back.
When she left for the second time she had a Tupperware box full of Andrew's Christmas cookies under her arm.
The local outlet mall was heaving with people and when Buffy finally pulled into a parking space it was a relief to cut the engine. No matter which way she'd turned, idiot pedestrians had kept walking in front of the jeep. She was pretty sure she was never that stupid on foot.
"Hey, you can't park diagonally like that!" Some guy yelled out of his driver's window.
"Why not?" Buffy looked at the car, trying to spot the problem: the side mirrors were still attached, nobody had any dents.
"You're taking up three spaces!"
She smiled apologetically, "It's a big car."
The guy stared at her incredulously for a moment before being overcome with road rage. "Move that God-damn piece of sh . . ."
"Sorry. Gotta go!" She darted off through the cars before he could finish ranting.
Inside was even busier, mostly because it was so small. There were a dozen shops and only a couple of those were big named stores. The rest were small local businesses. It wasn't exactly a shopper's Mecca but it was where you went if you couldn't be bothered to drive to Cleveland. Buffy didn't have the time for the hour long trip and even she didn't trust herself driving that far in the snow. Besides, this place would do today. It had everything she needed. She went into a store even more decked out in Christmas decorations than the others, mostly because it was selling them cheap.
She grabbed as much glittery stuff as she could carry and went to the cash register to wait in line. It was a long queue but at least her arms weren't likely to get tired. While she waited her attention settled on a little boy roaming around free. He ran from one overflowing bin of shiny goodness to the next, stopping to stroke some red tinsel here and gingerly prodding some dangling fake snowballs there. His eyes got as big as Giles' favorite Christmas puddings when he saw the shelf of dancing Santas and he stood there transfixed.
Buffy smiled at his reaction. He was kinda cute, in his big winter coat and snow boots, a look of wonder lighting up his face.
From somewhere she heard a woman call out in a panicked voice, "Ricky, don't you dare!"
And as if that was his cue, the little boy threw himself at the shelf trying to grab one of the moving dolls. His pudgy hand closed around a leg and as he pulled it forward it fell, knocking into several other dolls and scattering them. Suddenly there were dancing Santas everywhere, jerking about all over the floor. Buffy, along with several other shoppers, had to step back out of the way. Ricky's mom stepped over them with a look of murderous intent. Grabbing Ricky's wrist in one hand she gave his butt a swat with her other.
As he started bawling the mother dragged him from the shop and Buffy could hear her saying, "Well, how many times do I have to tell you not to touch? Do you not want Santa to come tonight?" It just made Ricky scream louder.
Buffy turned her back on the Santa massacre. Kids were so not cute!
On the other side of the store a woman no older than her was holding a baby of maybe six months - if Buffy's research was paying off - in one arm and was dangling some of the fake snowballs over her face. There was no way the kid was old enough to know what Christmas was but she obviously knew what she liked. The little girl was giggling unstoppably as she tried to bat at the hanging white balls with her tiny hands. Buffy found herself smiling again.
"Miss. Miss? Excuse me, Miss!"
She jolted out of the scene. "Oh, you mean me? I'm Miss?"
As the counter girl nodded wearily Buffy stepped up to pay for her purchases. What was wrong with her today? Actually it wasn't just today; for the past month her brain had been fixated on babies. It was getting annoying. She wasn't the one having a child, for crying out loud, so why couldn't she stop thinking about them?
It had to be only because she didn't have anything else to focus on. She hadn't had any luck finding a new job yet. Giles seemed happy enough to cover her rent and living expenses until she did, so money wasn't a problem, but she really needed something to take her mind off of, well, babies.
"Do you have any Christmas work available?" she asked the counter girl hopefully as she took her credit card receipt.
"Christmas is over after tomorrow." "So that's a no?"
The girl nodded and called, "Next?"
She'd triple her job searching efforts after New Year, she decided as she stopped behind a truck to make sure the angry driver had gone before running to the jeep. Stowing her purchases in the back she then drove slowly around to the rear of the mall to the lot at the back.
A brisk walk down a slippery concrete walkway and she was in a winter wonderland. A man-made winter wonderland. Not exactly as magical as the one she and Faith had gone tree hunting in a year ago to the day, but probably safer than that demon infested forest.
A lot of the trees were still dusted with white from the overnight snow but those that had been in the sunlight for the longest were just a fresh, healthy-looking green. Buffy narrowed her search to these, figuring they'd be less messy in the long run. It didn't take her long to pick out one with slender upper-branches but a bushy middle - it kind of reminded her of someone she knew right now - and pay one of the young guys running the place.
"Sorry, sweetheart, you're too late to have it delivered. Our slots are all full. Reckon we'll be working to midnight as it is," he said as he gave the bills she'd handed him a cursory count. "But if you wanna come back in say an hour I can get a couple of the guys to carry it to your car for you."
"That's okay, I've got it," she gave him a bright smile before hoisting the fir over her shoulder.
At least it wasn't half as big as last year's. She couldn't see the tree-seller properly now but he was probably staring at her in shock, but she didn't have time to avoid the 'you're-a-freak' look today. Through the branches around her face she wished him a Merry Christmas and set off in the direction of the jeep.
Now if she could just not slip going up the concrete slope, everything was perfect.
From the mall she thankfully only had to take straight roads. She was even more thankful for this when she realized that out here in the wilderness the roads hadn't been cleared. The four-wheel drive jeep handled the snow fine but it was still a little wiggy.
A half-mile from her destination she pulled the jeep to a slow halt in an apparently random place and waited.
Five minutes later a girl popped up by the passenger window. She grinned through it before opening the door and sliding into the heated cab.
"Sorry, Ma'am, I was doing a sweep in the other direction. Everything okay?"
"Yep, just making a social call. Everything all right out here?"
"Quiet as a snowflake. You're not wearing a rubber mask, are you?"
"Can I see your neck, please?"
"Sure," Buffy smiled as she started to pull her zipper down. She spread the heavy coat apart at the chest so that the young slayer could check for any rubber prosthetics she might be using to alter her appearance.
"Okay, you're clean." The girl held her gloved hands to the heater and Buffy made a mental note to ask Giles if they could afford better thermal wear. "What's the password?"
"That's yesterday's password."
Oops. She covered her slip with, "Just checking that you're on the ball. Hat rack."
"That's a go." The girl gave her another grin and opened the passenger door to get out.
"Thanks, Emma. You're doing great."
"Say hi from me," Emma said before disappearing.
Buffy went through the same process again with Kyla and Jemini - although getting the password right the first time - before reaching the parking bay by the beach. The snow was even deeper here near the lake and Buffy's feet sank into it until the coldness was sliding into her boots.
Not caring because she was too excited now, Buffy hoisted the tree over her shoulder again and grabbed the bags of decorations. Awkwardly holding all of it and trying to walk proved difficult. She made it up the three slippery wooden steps okay but trying to walk down the short slope the other side was asking too much. She stumbled in the fresh, knee deep snow and tripped. Unable to catch herself she fell hard and winced in pain as a limb broke with a loud snapping sound. She slithered face first down to the level beach and lay there panting, taking stock of her injuries and relieved to find they were minor - and besides the broken branch the tree wasn't too banged up either.
As she was dragging herself back to her feet the front door was thrown open and Faith came waddling out with a crossbow. "Who's there?"
"It's just me! Don't shoot!"
"Buffy?" Faith said with genuine delight and came closer. "Here, let me help."
"Actually, I'll probably get up quicker if you don't. Stay there."
Faith scowled at her lack of being able to do anything physically useful right now but did as she was told. Her smile came back as soon as Buffy was unsteadily on her feet.
"What are you doing here? I thought you said you couldn't come."
"Surprise!" Buffy stopped trying to brush the snow from her coat; it was frozen to the material already. "I brought you some stuff." She pointed to the half-spilled bags and broken tree. "I was intending to make a better entrance than that though."
Faith grinned, "I think it was a hell of an entrance just as it was." Then she frowned. "You didn't go and do all this just 'cause I got whiny did you?"
"No, I was already going to do all this before you got whiny, promise." She gathered up a couple of the bags and took them over to Faith. "Take these in. I'll get the rest."
A few minutes later everything was inside the lakeside cabin. Buffy closed the door to keep the warm in - there was only a central fireplace and a few space heaters, so warmth couldn't be wasted - and then turned to survey the mess of decorations and the tree on the floor.
Faith beamed at her, "Thanks, B."
Buffy walked to her, sidestepping the bump - trying to pretend it wasn't there - and gave her a hello kiss on the cheek. "I'm making cocoa and then we'll start putting all this up, okay?"
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