House of The Setting Sun: Demon In Red
Episode Ten of the House of the Setting Sun Series

Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters, nor do I make any profit from writing about them. No copyright infringement intended.

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Episode Ten
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Act Four

"He's strong," Buffy grunted, still struggling against Santa's claws.

Faith was only halfway through her pre-charge battle cry when Santa's maw closed to an almost human width and he said, "Come any closer and she loses a head."

Faith paused on her toes, hands clawing, frustrated, at the empty air in front of her before closing into tight and deadly fists. "If you're gonna bite her head off either way, what's to stop me from coming over there and kicking your ass?"

"This way you get to say goodbye," Santa explained, his tone kindly and, freaking hell, he actually sounded jolly.

"Trust me, we've already said our goodbyes," Buffy said sarcastically and Faith couldn't believe she was putting their problems ahead of her own life.

"B, shut the fuck up!"

"See? Why would I want to stick around for that?"

"So me having an opinion on us gives you a death wish? B, you're even more screwed up than I thought."

"I know what you're doing." Santa allowed Buffy to stand up, sort of; she was still crouched in an awkward position but her head wasn't at a weird angle any more. His grip must have been wicked strong though because while Buffy still struggled she never gained an inch. "You're trying to convince me you won't taste very good."

"Hey, I taste really good!"

Santa looked at Faith over the top of Buffy and she shrugged, "Dude, I can't remember. She hasn't let me eat her for months."

"Hey!" Buffy snapped again, twisting her neck around to glare at her.

Santa looked confused. "She is a slayer; she is the essence of good."

"Oh, that kind of good." Buffy twisted back around to look at him. "I'm not that good. I'm actually pretty bad as far as slayers go."

"I'm a slayer too. Not that anyone ever cares."

Santa looked over Buffy again. "You are?"

"Yeah."

"Innoki."

Faith didn't understand the word and she wasn't expecting it because the elves in the room had been keeping a wary distance since she'd re-entered, but suddenly there were a dozen swarming her, lifting her up and carrying her closer to Buffy and Santa. By the time she was aware of it, it was too late and Santa had a firm hold on her arm.

"Good going," Buffy snapped. "Now we're both screwed."

Faith struggled and saw why it hadn't helped Buffy at all: Santa had claws like iron manacles. She sighed; she'd wanted to rescue Buffy - although who the hell knew why - and now she was just going to get eaten right along beside her. She'd known that being with Buffy would one day be the death of her, but for fuck's sake, they'd broken up now - shouldn't that let her off the hook?

"Thought you'd be happy you don't have to get chewed on alone."

"I may hate you right now, Faith, but that doesn't mean I want you dead!"

"See, true goodness," Santa said with a smile.

"You hate me? We go from a little fight to you hating me?" Faith rolled her eyes to the bearded beast. "Does that sound like a nice person to you?"

He hesitated.

"Don't turn this around! You've been an asshole since the day we met!"

"Maybe I was when we met, but I'm a better person than you now!"

Santa cleared his throat. "You have robbed me of my feast of innocent children and I am ravenous, but you are larger than children and so I will only eat one of you today. I need to save some room for the fair in Boudenver. So which of you is really the good one, I wonder?"

There was a pause before both of them said, "I am!"

"That is unhelpful." He sniffed first Buffy and then Faith as if that would be more helpful.

"I'm the good one," Buffy promised. "Everyone knows it. Eat me."

"Nah, she sleeps with vampires and shit. I've never done that. Eat me."

Santa's port-red nose wrinkled and he drew his face further from Buffy.

"Yeah, but she sleeps with a lot of humans. A lot! And she kills them. I'm gooder than her."

Now Santa was wrinkling his nose at both of them.

"Hey, she screwed me just for the thrill of doing someone bad!"

"She what you?" Santa looked mortified.

"Oh yeah, didn't I mention she's a dirty lesbian? That's bad, right?"

"Excuse me? Pot, you're black!"

"And she's racist, see? She'll totally taste of evil!"

Santa was holding Buffy further away from him while practically drooling on Faith's shoulder as he listened to them.

"Hey! I am not a racist, and I am not a dirty lesbian. I'm a clean lesbian! I screwed you because I loved you, not for some kinky thrill. You're the one who only did me because you were desperate for sex!"

"What the hell? I've loved you since before you barely knew I existed! You breaking up with me earlier made me want to die. And take a few people with me!"

Santa was holding them both at arm's length now, looking between them like they were slimy newts not two hot slayers. Faith caught Buffy's eye - and it wasn't something she'd planned, what she'd planned was delivering another insult - but when Buffy nodded she knew what to do. Wrapping both hands around Santa Claus' elbow, Faith swung her legs up and kicked him in his barrel chest. He fell back in his chair at the surprise impact, jolting Faith back down but giving Buffy the chance to bring a foot up into his face, knocking his half-moon specs askew.

He let go of Buffy but his hold on Faith was as strong as ever. It didn't matter, she had enough room now to raise her boot and stomp on his knee, making him utter a growl of pain. Buffy, finally free from his grasp, jumped onto his lap, curled her left hand in his curly white beard, holding him still while her right hook pounded into his jolly, red face.

Elves swarmed them again, but even held as she was, Faith was able to kick most of them back. Buffy mostly ignored the ones that made it past her, only throwing the odd elbow back into them.

It took a dozen punches before Faith was dropped into the wave of elves and Santa raised his arms to defend himself.

"This is deplorable," he yelled; he couldn't find the room to hit her back properly so he was bashing at her head with his furry white cuffs, trying to dislodge her. "You're both going on my naughty list!"

"Good!" Faith grunted, throwing elves off left and right as she was finally able to join in the attack. "'Cause it sounds way healthier than your 'nice' list!"

His cheeks were turning from rosy to purple under their fists and his beard was streaked bright red - kinda festive, like a hairy candy cane - with blood from his nose and lips, but Santa Claus must've missed Faith's Christmas letter again, because she apparently wasn't getting what she wanted most this year either - this fat demon bastard dead!

If anything he seemed to be getting more resilient. His face was puffing out, swelling, but not from their assault, more like he was one of those giant blow up Santa's you saw on roofs and right now someone was over-inflating him. His nose was getting broader, his cheeks plumped, his beard and eyebrows grew longer and fluffier and then he . . . he burst into a cloud of shiny red, gold and silver glitter and the jingle of Christmas bells tinkling in the air.

The magical moment was broken by the sound of Faith's fist smacking hard into the back of Santa's empty chair with an accompanying "Ow, fuck!" and an "Eep!" as Buffy fell through three feet of thin air to land on an elf. He probably tried to 'Eep!' too and Faith just couldn't hear it because it was muffled by Buffy's ass.

Faith sucked on a split knuckle as she looked wildly around the room. "Okay, where'd he go?"

"I think he . . ." Buffy followed suit, jumping to her feet before she could be gnawed on by an elf. ". . . he exploded. I also think I swallowed him," she spat some glitter out of her mouth. "Great, now I truly have the spirit of Christmas in me."

Faith chuckled and moved her attention closer to ground level. There were a lot of elves staring back at her and she braced for their angry onslaught.

Then the chief elf suddenly fell on his knees, head down, unmistakably groveling. The others fell in behind him and in heavily accented English he thanked them again and again.

"This is weird," Buffy muttered, edging closer to her. "Minions usually try to finish what their master started."

Faith shrugged. "Let's not look a gift elf in the mouth." Louder, she added, "So what just happened and is he coming back or what?"

Innoki stood back up but kept his head respectfully bowed, "He has left this dimension and I do not know, he has never departed without my brethren and his reindeer before."

"So you think that means he's coming back soon?"

The chief elf gave her a genuine and beautiful smile, "No, I think it means he will be gone for a very long time."

"Explain," Buffy demanded, but the strength of it was diminished by her screwing her mouth up and spitting again.

"His presence in this realm relies on people accepting him without question. Now he is no longer fully accepted, thanks to you," he smiled again. "But you must finish what you have started and spread the word that Kris Kringle no longer exists; it is the only way to stop him from ever coming back."

Faith shared a knowing smirk with Buffy. "Tell the world Santa's a fake? Yeah, we'll get right on that."

Innoki bowed low before them and then within seconds there were no elves left in the Grotto.

Faith rubbed her arm where Santa had gripped her, and glancing up noticed Buffy was rubbing her shoulder and the back of her neck too. "You okay?"

"For a fight where I threw more punches than I took I'm in a surprising amount of pain."

"Yeah, his hands made a damn tiger bite look gentle," Faith agreed, still rubbing her arm.

They were alone now, surrounded by gifts and twinkly lights and tinsel, and they both fell silent as they rubbed their sore places and looked around uncomfortably.

"So we won," Buffy murmured. "The children are safe now."

"Yeah. Feels good."

"Would have felt better if we'd actually killed him."

"Yeah."

Another minute of silence ticked by.

"I don't hate you!" Buffy blurted.

"Yeah, well," Faith looked up at the lights. "I do love you."

"Really?"

Faith switched to looking at a pile of square, red-papered gifts, wondering if there was actually something inside them or if they were just for show. "Sure."

"Really?" Buffy asked again.

She turned her head, feeling irritable. What, did the chick need it in writing or something? Didn't she get it was hard enough for her to say the first time? Finding Buffy staring intently at her, not looking like she was trying to be difficult but instead unsure and little scared, Faith's irritation melted and she smiled softly.

"Yeah, I do."

Buffy smiled too, but then looked down at her feet. She met Faith's eyes again only for a second as she said, "Maybe we should, uh, un-break up. I mean, just for today at least. It's been a stressful day and we probably shouldn't make big decisions in the middle of, uh, stressful days."

She shrugged. "Yeah, okay."

"You don't have to sound so . . ."

"B?" Faith pleaded as she turned to her and took a step closer. "Don't."

"Yeah, okay," Buffy said quietly, nodding.

There was a beat where nothing happened and Faith started to feel awkward, like she should say more but she didn't know what. In the face of her uncertainty her mind turned practical: they should probably be getting out of there. There was a line of kids outside and it wouldn't look good if they were there and Santa wasn't when they started trooping in. She was about to say as much when Buffy walked closer, reaching out to take both of her hands in hers.

She looked at the bleeding knuckle for a second, raising it to blow a warm puff of air across the cut, before dropping it back between them and squeezing both hands gently. "I know you were trying to save me before."

Faith nodded, squeezing back. "You were trying to save me too."

"And that means something."

"Means we don't want each other dead." She chuckled. "Which is a start."

"Does it mean more than that?" Buffy asked hesitantly.

"You know it means a lot more than that."

Buffy grinned. It was bashful and adorable. "It means you love me?"

Faith grinned too, "Don't make a big deal out of it."

"Okay, it's not a big deal."

Faith pulled on Buffy's hands, letting go of them just before their bodies bumped together and wrapping her arms around her to keep her close. "Can be a big deal if you want."

"I want."

"You want, huh?"

"If you make this about sex, I may have to punch you," Buffy warned, but there was a teasing light in her eyes.

Faith capitalized on it. "If you don't let me kiss you now, I may have to punch you."

Buffy frowned and smiled at the same time, "That sounded so wrong. I think you may need to see a therapist."

Laughing lightly, Faith pulled her closer, pressing the side of her head to Buffy's and dropping a sweet kiss just below her ear, where her neck poked out of the collar of her big, puffy ski jacket. She straightened up right after but Buffy had other ideas and pulled her back in, burrowing her face into Faith's much more accessible neck and holding her tight.

The hug lasted until Faith started to feel fidgety and she pulled away, taking a step back and rolling her shoulders. She felt embarrassed now, for being so sappy even if it had only lasted a few minutes, but . . . she was okay with it, providing she didn't have to do it again anytime soon. It felt good to finally get those words off of her chest, better than she'd thought it would, but she wasn't an idiot despite what some people thought and saying 'I love you' and having a hug wasn't going to cure all of their problems.

Buffy was pouting. "What are you doing all the way over there again?"

Faith laughed, she was like a foot and a half away! Close enough to still see grains of red, gold and silver making Buffy's lips and cheeks sparkle. Reaching out a thumb, she swiped some away from her bottom lip.

"I don't really hug much, B. In fact I think that was my best personal time in terms of full body contact that isn't leading down a naked and sweaty path. And as you don't want me to make this about sex . . ."

"We could make it a little bit about sex?" Buffy grinned, stepping close enough to slide her hands over Faith's shoulders, fingers massaging a little and even with the backwards angle it felt good on her sore muscles.

"How do you make something a little bit about sex?"

"I don't know," Buffy dropped her voice to a purr, "want to go and roll around in those presents together and find out?"

It was the slay talking, all that power and energy coursing through her bloodstream, titillating her superhuman hormones and making her want to get down and dirty on the nearest flat surface as soon as superhumanly possible. Faith was feeling it too but she was also feeling like her shoulder had recently been ripped from its socket and then she'd been shook around like a rag doll by demon-Santa and, honestly, she felt more like taking her clothes off so Buffy could give her back a real massage than for anything else. But! A little bit of sex was better than no sex and who knew if Buffy was gonna even take that off the table once her buzz had worn off.

"Nice idea, but those presents look kinda lumpy. Let's just do it a little bit right here."

She barely had time to waggle her eyebrows suggestively before Buffy's lips were on hers. The kiss was hungry and needy but for the first time in days it wasn't angry and Faith ate it all up.

"We should, um, the ground," Buffy mumbled.

"We should what the ground?" Faith mumbled back. Her hands were already roaming, she couldn't help them, and she was too busy trying to figure out how far a 'little bit of sex' allowed her to go - it had to make her tits fair game, right? - to care what issues Buffy had with the sawdust covered floor.

"We should get on it."

"No worries, B, I'm already on it," she promised, and if that wasn't a green light what was?

She palmed both tits . . . correction, she palmed the area where they should have been, or still were but unreachable right now. Damn snow jacket was even worse than the Wonder Woman costume, at least that had allowed her to see the goods.

"I meant get on the floor, moron," Buffy laughed against the side of her mouth. "And coats usually have these shiny things, right in the middle, they go up and down if you tug on the little tongue, some people have even found they're useful in getting to what's underneath."

"Smart mouth." She had her fingers on the zipper but forgot the instructions on how to use it when Buffy started to kiss down her throat. Her head tipped back. "God, I love your smart mouth."

"You love all of me," Buffy sucked at the base of her throat and Faith could feel her smirk.

"Don't ruin it," she joked and received a slayer-strength swat on her ass. "I'd say ow, but I kinda liked it."

Buffy giggled against her and started to unbutton her jacket. Oh, right, she'd been doing something. Unzipping the coat, Faith pushed her hands inside and . . . groaned.

"Damn, B, how many layers are you wearing?"

"Three more, four if you include my bra."

"We're in Ohio not Antarctica! It's easier to find diamonds in Africa than your tits right now!"

"Just shut up and start digging for those jewels." Faith bit hard on her bottom lip and then smushed them as tight together as possible, willing not even the tiniest sound to come out. Buffy sighed, but her own amusement came through. "If you laugh at me for referring to my breasts as jewels, I'm not going anywhere near your diamonds."

It worked, although she was definitely remembering that one to tease her about later, in front of as many people as possible. Willow and Kennedy would get a kick out of it for sure.

"Fine, but I ain't digging around in the dark for them."

"Huh-what?"

She answered Buffy's question with an action. Grabbing the hems of the sweater, the long sleeved t-shirt and the thermal vest - thermal vest? - she yanked them up as far as the arms on the unzipped coat would allow.

"Faith!"

"Buffy." She admired the newly uncovered skin, now only marred by a white sports bra. She pushed that up too and then nodded in greeting. "Buffy's tits."

"That's okay, Faith, just expose me in Santa's Grotto, that's completely okay." Despite the sarcasm she didn't make a move to cover up. She just stood there looking, well, as horny as hell actually.

"Good, sorry if my hands are cold."

"Please blow on them, your hands, I mean, first."

"Grow a pair, Buffy," she said, but the blonde was shivering so she quickly did as asked, huffing on her palms to warm them up and then rubbing them together and then . . .

"Santa!"

"Santa Claus!"

"Wait, kids, you can't just . . .!"

"Faith!"

Buffy slapped her hands away in a panic, which was pretty stupid considering they'd been the only thing covering her 'jewels' when a dozen kids came running into the Grotto, trampling the remains of the curtain under this little feet and chased by a couple of human-elf attendants.

Obviously they'd gotten bored of waiting in line and now they were standing there, eyes bugging at the show Buffy was accidentally putting on.

"Uh," Faith began as she stared back at the intruders, but had no idea what to say to make this look less bad. She ran a hand through her hair, and looked to Buffy for suggestions.

Buffy was bright pink in the face and she was tugging down her clothes and straightening them, frantically and compulsively, hands tugging at and smoothing the sweater long after it was necessary.

Faith felt like laughing, because while this wasn't a good situation, on another level it was a freakin' hilarious situation. She knew she couldn't laugh though because Buffy would probably kill her. That was enough to stop her for all of thirty seconds, but looking from Buffy's blushes to the kid's confusion to the human-elves wide-eyed stares, and taking into account how elated she felt right now, she couldn't keep it in.

As her laughter bubbled out, gaining strength quickly until she had to put her hands on her knees to brace herself, Buffy shoved at her shoulder in horror at her reaction. That was to be expected, less expected was, when Faith couldn't stop her laughter on cue - and she really did try for Buffy sake - Buffy joined in! Not quite so freely but there was definitely soft chuckling and there was mirth present in with the embarrassment in her distraught eyes.

"Faith!" she snapped, with nowhere near as much anger as she was probably trying for.

Doing her best, Faith straightened back up and held her hands in the air. "Sorry kids, didn't mean to scar you with the best experience of your lives. We'll just be going."

She waved for Buffy to escape first but one skinny, three-foot white boy stepped in front of them first, piping up with, "Where's Santa? We wanna see Santa."

A Chinese girl, no more than four years old, stamped her foot like a pro. "We waited hours and hours!"

Faith shrugged, "Sorry, kids, no Santa today."

As every kid in the joint started protesting loudly, Buffy dug her in the ribs from behind. "Don't be mean!"

Faith turned to mutter at her. "You think it's better they wait here for him to come back?"

"Good point." Buffy raised her voice to carry over the noise. "Hey, kids, Santa doesn't actually exist. There's no such thing. It's just an old, creepy, fat guy in a suit."

Eleven kids started wailing, the twelfth said, "I knew it!"

"I wanted to tell them that," Faith griped.

Buffy smiled at her sweetly, "So I figured, but I got there first."

"Bitch," Faith muttered, smiling. She twisted around and planted her lips on Buffy's before the blonde could stop her. Surprisingly, Buffy didn't even try and stop her.

As they drew slowly apart, one kid, who looked way too old to believe in Santa anyway, asked in a mournful voice, "So Santa Claus ain't gonna bring us what we want this year?"

"'Fraid not, dude," Faith apologized as she took Buffy's hand.

"Speak for yourself," one of the human-elves said as he watched them go with wide eyes, and possibly a little drool at the corner of his mouth. Faith was pretty sure it was Greg's friend from the card game.

Faith shot him a smirk as she and Buffy left the Grotto. Damn straight! She had her perfect little Christmas gift walking right next to her. That for sure made up for all those times Santa had neglected her in the past.

As they stepped out into the snowy darkness, the biting wind instantly shredding the warmth they'd felt inside, she knew she didn't want this feeling, this buzz between them, to end just yet, so she asked hopefully, "You wanna go back to the cabin? Cause some steam? Celebrate our victory?"

"No." Faith felt her heart sink until Buffy turned to look her right in the eyes. "Actually, I'd like to go to the bar, to talk, but properly, about how we're gonna make this, us, work long-term, because I never want to feel like we can't again. Is that okay?"

Faith nodded slowly, grinning widely. "I'm down."

Buffy smiled and then bumped her with her shoulder and took her hand again. "Also, you need to get me really drunk to forget about the humiliation I just suffered."

Faith laughed softly, repeating, "I'm down."


"I'm sorry, what did you just say?"

Kennedy's step-father gave her an indulgent smile at her incredulous outburst and repeated himself. "I'm asking you to run our Ohio branch."

"You don't have an Ohio branch."

"But we will, in about three months." He nudged the paperwork that she hadn't looked at yet closer to her. "You don't want to go to college, and that's fine, it's not for everyone, but I know you Kennedy. You have leadership skills that shouldn't be wasted."

"I have a job."

"One that you won't give us any details about, which makes your Mom and I think you might be a little ashamed of it."

"I'm not ashamed of it! I just can't . . ." Kennedy looked blankly down at the papers. "I work in a school, it's a good school and my job is important. I can't just ditch it."

"You work in a school that's only existed for four months."

She looked up sharply, knowing that he'd obviously done some research. What else did he know? She'd trust Jesus with her life but not necessarily the knowledge of what she was doing with her life.

He read her look, rightly or wrongly she didn't know. "Hey, I'm not saying it's a front for a money laundering business or anything. I'm sure it's legit, but does it pay a hundred grand a year?"

No. She did the math in her head, taking into account her 'salary' as a slayer and the fact that she got free bed and board, and frowned. It probably evened out at about forty grand a year, give or take.

"Twenty days vacation a year. Full health insurance. Company car," he wheedled.

Kennedy smirked a little. "What's the catch?"

Jesus smirked back. "Good girl, there's always a catch. In this case there's two. You have to do the job properly and make me the money I'm paying you - you're not just a figurehead, I'm gonna need you to work your butt off. And, there's the reputation of the company to think about."

Kennedy scowled. "I thought we were cool, Dad. I'm never going to date one of your corporate assholes to make you look better."

"Firstly, language, Kennedy! Secondly, since when am I an asshole in your eyes? You and Willow . . ."

"I'm not breaking up with Willow!"

"Calm your tongue, young lady!" She seethed quietly until he continued. "You and Willow are serious with each other, your mother and I can see that, that's why I'm sparing no expense to open a new office in Cleveland instead of offering you a lower position back in New York."

"I don't get how your reputation comes into this."

"Morales Industries has always been a family orientated business and we get a lot of good press because of that. Good press we can't afford to lose. If you take this position you're going to have to live up to that."

"And that means what?"

"You can't fool around with your personal life," he told her straight and then held his hand up when she was about to shout at him. "Don't! I'll be the first one to tell the media by beloved daughter is an out and proud lesbian, but I can't have you in that position if you're promiscuous."

"I'm not! I love Willow. She's the one, Dad! I can't imagine ever . . ." she shook her head. "I am as serious about her as it gets."

He smiled in a way that made her wonder what she'd just missed and then reached across the desk to pat her hand.

"That's good to know. Read through the papers." He nudged them towards her again. "I'll have a contract drawn up by the middle of January."

Kennedy grinned, "I haven't said yes yet."

He grinned back. "You will 'cause your Momma didn't raise no idiot."

The office door suddenly flew open and Kennedy turned in her seat to see her Momma standing there like someone had cancelled her manicure appointment and nobody had told her.

"What's wrong?" Jesus asked, standing up in concern.

"Willow ran away!"

Kennedy stood up and turned so fast her chair rocked back before hitting her knees on its return. "What did you freaking say, Mom?"

"Nothing! We were talking about how good you two could be together and then she left to go to the bathroom and never came back!"

Kennedy breathed a sigh of relief. "She's probably just hiding from you in the bathroom."

"Don't you think I checked that? After twenty minutes I went to offer her a laxative . . ." Kennedy cringed on her girlfriend's behalf. ". . . and she wasn't in there. I've had Heidi check the whole house . . . I'm sorry, Kennedy, she's gone."

Kennedy went from a standing start to a sprint, she probably looked blurry to her parents but she didn't care. She took the stairs three at a time and dashed into her bedroom. All of her clothes were still there, so . . . where was she?

She didn't blame Willow for escaping her Mom, but it was dark out and Willow didn't know her way around and . . . oh God, what if something happened to her out there and she never got to kiss her again or tell her she loved her one more time?

Okay, she was thinking like a mere mortal, not a slayer whose girlfriend was one of the most powerful witches on the planet - she was thinking like Andrew! She just had to stop for a second and think. Willow's shoes! She'd only brought two pairs, her sensible heels and the snow boots she'd purchased with Buffy last week. Her shoes were right there in front of the closet and her boots had been left by the front door with Kennedy's. If they were still there then she was still in the house somewhere. If they weren't there, Kennedy just had to go out looking. Providing Willow had stayed on her feet and wasn't flying or teleporting around, Kennedy could cover the ground faster than her.

She walked back out onto the landing, just as her Mom and Step-Dad caught up with her. They must have run too, because her Mom was out of breath from scaling the stairs.

"How did you do that?" her Mom accused, pointing a finger at her.

"I'm the Phys Ed teacher, I'm in great shape," she lied, already moving past them.

"I don't believe you."

"Well, how else would you explain it?"

She didn't care what theories her Mom might come up with at this point. She just had to find Willow. They'd been great the past week but things were still a little awkward at times. Just because they were on the same page now didn't alter the fact that they hadn't been for a months. What if her Mom really had said something that had scared her off? Willow wasn't a fickle teenager, she wasn't just experimenting with her sexuality and she wasn't scared of being in a committed relationship, but Rosie Morales had been known to accidentally scare off the stoutest of hearts.

Roxanne came down the stairs from her converted attic room and blocked her path before Kennedy could leave the landing. "What's going on? More family drama? I'm so glad your back," she drawled sarcastically but with a real smile.

"Move, Rox, I need to find Willow!"

She was careful not to barge past her, because the mood she was she'd probably send her flying.

"You so suck at Hide and Seek."

"What?"

"Willow's right there," she pointed to the other end of the long landing. "Trying to hide behind Mom's stupid potted tree thing."

Kennedy spun around, so did her Mom and Dad, and Willow sheepishly stepped out from behind the stupid potted tree thing.

"Hey." She gave a little wave to them all, shivering from head to foot.

Kennedy rushed over but her Mom got there first, enveloping her in a massive hug. "Oh, I'm so glad you came back. I thought I'd scared you off for forever!"

"No, you didn't scare me off," Willow's teeth were chattering despite how warm it was up here. "I just stepped out for some air after my phone call. Sometimes I forget I'm not in Sunnydale anymore. Sorry I didn't come back to our chat."

"Oh, that's okay!" Her Mom hugged her again. "We can talk more later!"

"Yay," Willow said with zero enthusiasm but a bright smile to make up for it.

"My turn." Kennedy nudged her Mom out of the way and hugged Willow. She was wearing a heavy coat that definitely didn't belong to her - it was about three sizes too big to start with - but was vaguely familiar anyway. "Don't ever let my Mom scare you off, okay? Even if it means I have to disown these guys to make you stay," she joked, earning a backhand to her shoulder from her Mom.

"Keep the door open," her Mom said, ushering her Step-Dad and her half-sister down the stairs. "And dinner will be in one hour and after that we will be going to Mass."

Kennedy left the door to her suite open and the door to her bedroom as she pulled Willow inside by her hand. "What happened? Where did you go? You're freezing, and there's no way you would have stayed in the backyard for that long just for air. And whose coat are you wearing?"

"Robin's." Kennedy quirked an eyebrow. "I had to go to Boudenver," Willow admitted. "Giles called and they needed me urgently. Obviously I couldn't tell your Mom that."

"Is that safe?" she asked, peeling Willow out of the coat and then pulling her towards the ensuite bathroom. "Teleporting all that way, I mean?"

"I wouldn't have done it through choice, but you know our business, rarely much choice involved. I feel fine though, just a little light-headed from the trip back." Willow smiled, "You're undressing me. I think your Mom would disapprove."

Kennedy finished pulling her pants down her legs and waited for her to step out of them. "You need a hot shower; I have no ulterior motives . . . right now. So what did Giles need?"

"Some elf translation. Turns out they're not the ones eating little children. It's Santa."

Kennedy stood and started pulling Willow's Hanukkah jumper off. "I wish I was more shocked by that."

"Join the club. So what did your Dad want to talk about?"

"Can I . . .?" she hesitated. This was obviously something she needed to share but she wanted a few hours to think about it on her own first. "It's pretty big. Do you mind if we don't talk about it until tomorrow?"

Willow looked worried, but automatically said, "No, that's fine, sweetie. Um, do I really have to go to Mass?"

Kennedy relaxed into a smile, "You're Jewish, babe, not Satan, you won't burst into flames when you set foot in the church."

"Thanks for clearing that up," Willow said wryly and then grinned and pointed behind her to the shower. "You wanna get wet with me?"

Kennedy groaned, "You have no idea how much . . . but," she added when Willow was about to pull off her top. ". . . I'm terrified my Mom's sixth sense will trigger and she'll break down the bathroom door with our fire axe and I don't need her giving you any more reasons to run scared." She kissed Willow's pouty lip. "I love you too much to risk that."

"And I love you too much to be scared," Willow returned. "Nothing your Mom can do will make me leave you, Kennedy."

Heart a puddle in her toes, Kennedy leaned in for a longer kiss, only to be pushed back.

"But we probably should respect her rules anyway," Willow said, mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

Kennedy groaned, "Sometimes I hate you, though." But after stealing another quick kiss she left Willow to have some privacy in the bathroom.

It wasn't like she didn't have enough to think about to keep occupied anyway.


Thirty Minutes Ago...

The calling had started as soon as Willow had vanished back into thin air. He'd looked around people, feeling stupid even as he did so, to see if she was hiding behind Robin or Giles or Xander but no, she was just gone.

"Drat and blast! She's not picking up," Giles complained, cancelling the call before muttering about 'the blasted things' under his breath as he tried to press the small buttons on his cell phone with pudgy, gloved fingers.

Robert - Robin? Robson? Whatever - also had a phone to his ear. "I'm trying Faith."

"Someone call the house," Xander was saying to the younger boys. "If Santa really is behind this then Christmas Eve is gonna be his main event. We have to get in there and stop it right now."

"Get in where though?" the English kid asked as Andy pulled out his phone. "Does he have a lair he's holed up in or . . . Are we storming the mall?"

"The line's busy," Andy said, hanging up. "Dawn's probably gossiping with Fen again." He sounded both chiding and wistful.

"Hey, Legolas," Xander gave the elf still in his possession a little shake. "Where is your master?"

"We should have asked him that before Willow went back to New York," Giles grumbled. "Someone get her back again."

"Can't keep a signal."

"You can't expect her to teleport straight back here, she'll get sick again."

"Well, what do you suggest we do? Hundreds or more children could die this very night if we don't stop it."

"I think there's going to be a snowstorm." That was Frazer.

All of this and more was going over Alex's head, and only partly because he was now on his knees checking Willow's footprints in the snow. He was an experienced animal tracker, but even if he hadn't been it wasn't hard to tell the girl-sized grip-less slipper prints from the heavy snow boots the rest of them wore. She'd done some shuffling on the spot and had taken a few steps this way and that but the thing that had him concerned was that they didn't, in any direction, go beyond the rough circle the men's feet had created when they'd first gathered around. The tracks they'd all made when first rushing in here were already healed over with the fresh snowfall, leaving most of the alley floor a blank canvas. He could see Craig's tracks heading through unbroken snow to the common ground behind the town, and Andrew's – exactly the same brand of brand new hiking boots, just a size smaller – going the other way towards the The Mouth's main entrance but that was all.

Alex had seen a lot of things he couldn't explain and a lot of things he wished he'd never had to see, through being a youth counsellor and in his time with the sheriff's department. He'd seen kids beaten half to death by their own mothers and whole families of campers mauled to death by wild animals that were never caught or seen again. It was the kind of thing that would be too much for a fainter-hearted soul but the grisliness of these encounters had only ever made him baulk on a sympathetic level.

Even before that, just growing up in Boudenver was like an initiation into the strange. The place just had so much history, so many founders myths and legends that it was impossible not to get sucked into it as a kid. It didn't help that the area just seemed to attract weirdos. From the crazy academy that raised kids too smart for anyone's good to those wacky old idiots that used to own Sunset Camp and upset everyone on a weekly basis with their antisocial nonsense.

At twenty-five Alex was starting to think he'd seen it all, but nothing had prepared him for this bunch of loons!

If little purple toys that talked and a beautiful elf-thing weren't enough, Willow had just disappeared as instantly as she had appeared.

"Where did Willow go?" he asked, his voice quieter and shakier than he meant it to be.

Despite the low volume Xander was standing close enough to hear him over the melee of noise in the alley. "I expect she was eager to get back to her vacation in New York."

"But she was just right here!"

Xander shrugged. He was still holding the elf-thing and didn't seem to know what to do with it now.

"I can't get through to Buffy," Giles was saying again, phone still held to his ear. "She's not picking up."

"You have to," Andrew sounded frantic. "It's Christmas eve, Mr. Giles! If she doesn't know it's Santa there's no one to stop him from gorging himself tonight!"

"Don't you think I know that!"

"Plus, if they start killing elves willy-nilly, that's going to be some really bad karma," Craig put in.

"Oh my God we're going to start an Elf war," Andrew breathed like that was suddenly a way worse threat than children getting eaten by . . .

Alex rose to his feet like an erupting volcano, all mass and fire. "Are you seriously suggesting that Santa Claus is responsible for killing those children?"

"You saw the writing in the air as clearly as we did, Al."

"Yes, but . . ."

No! No way. They were playing some trick on him. Some sick, twisted trick. He had seen the writing, but there had to be plenty of ways they could have made that happen. He'd seen magicians as a child and had never been able to work out how they performed their magic but that didn't mean he didn't know that it was all just smoke and mirrors now that he was an adult. This would prove to be the same, eventually.

"Faith's not picking up either," Robin said, ending the call and immediately trying again. "You don't suppose they're in trouble?"

"Oh Buffy and Faith together and in trouble, what are the chances of that?" Xander said.

"Is anybody trying the house," Giles snapped in response. "Buffy might've already called there with news if something is happening."

Xander was about to when it rang in his hands. "Hey, speak of the devils." He answered and turned it to loud speaker. "Hi Dawn, what's up? You'll never guess what we found . . ."

"Santa Claus is eating the children!" was shouted tinily through the phone. "And we can't get hold of Buffy and Giles' line is engaged! What do we do?"

"Well, first of all, way to steal our thunder, Dawn! And secondly . . ."

"Buffy, answer your blasted phone will you!" Giles suddenly shouted into his own cell. "We have it on good authority Santa Claus is the culprit and we need to formulate a plan of attack immediately!"

Okay, enough was enough! Alex didn't know how Dawn was in on the trick too, it felt like overkill, but he was done listening to them make light of this matter.

"That's it!" he bellowed. "You're all under arrest!"

Everyone stopped and turned to him with varying degrees of gaping. The cramped alley was silent apart from his own heavy breathing.

Until Dawn's tinny voice piped up, "Um, all of us too?"

"Yes!"

"But it's Christmas," Andrew whined.

"Uh, Alex, are you feeling okay?" Xander took a step closer to his side. "You look a little . . . meltdowny."

"No, I am not okay!" He felt a little meltdowny. "This has all gone beyond a joke. Santa is a fairytale. He doesn't eat kids. He can't eat kids because he doesn't exist! You almost had me with these . . . these . . . this prop," he barked, prodding the elf in the chest and making him sway to and fro in Xander's grip. "And that thing," he added, pointing hard at the purple whateveritwas. "But Santa? Please! Do you think I'm a simpleton?"

"I assure you, there is not one of us who thinks this is a joke," Mr. Giles told him sternly, already re-dialing. "Your ignorance in this matter is understandable but it's putting innocent lives in jeopardy, so kindly be quiet."

"My ignorance? I don't get the reason for your prank, maybe you actually think it's funny, but it's you who's risking innocent lives with it."

They glared at each other until the English kid said, "The elf ain't a prop. You saw it speak."

"I've seen ventriloquist dummies speak too and they're just props!"

"That's not the sound argument you think it is," Xander said, with an oddly nostalgic smile.

"You saw it run," Craig continued.

"Yes, but . . ." He had seen it run, but not up close. "Wires," he stated, sure of himself, because what other explanation could there be?

"We don't have time for this," Giles snapped and turned away from him.

Ha, the old boy didn't like being found out, did he? Hardly surprising considering this trick boiled down to 'subverting the course of justice' whether they even realized it or not.

"I've been where you are," Xander suddenly said, sympathy oozing from his voice and irritating Alex to no end. "My first experience was vampires, so you kind of have it easy, but I get that it probably doesn't feel like it to you."

What the . . .? Vampires? He didn't even know what Xander was trying to pull now, but they didn't know when they were beat. He'd sussed out their stupid game, but they were clearly going to be sore losers about the whole thing. He felt betrayed, he'd thought Xander was his friend, and a good friend too even though they'd only known each other a few months, but obviously he was no better than the others.

"But here, maybe this will help."

Xander handed him the elf and he took it because, well because he was curious maybe. It had seemed almost alive while it was being interrogated but now it hung as limply from his hand as it had been from Xander's. Alex gave it a few prods but it remained as silent and as inanimate as he'd expected.

"And just what was that supposed to prove?" he asked, dropping it to the snow in disgust.

"Yeah, what was that supposed to prove?" Dawn asked through the phone. "What did you give him?"

"An elf," Andrew said helpfully.

"You caught an elf?" came Dawn's excited reply.

"No, they gave me a toy!" Alex said angrily.

"And where is that toy now, Deputy Sheriff?" Giles asked.

He looked down and sure enough it was gone. "You made Willow disappear, I'm sure you can make that thing go too."

"Doesn't it strike you as strange, Al? That we made Willow disappear?"

He opened his mouth to reply but nothing came out, because he still hadn't worked that one out at all.

"Lat ma aat heem!"

He didn't see where the voice came from but suddenly Robin was holding the little purple doll out on his hand. Alex picked it up, gingerly because it really was a weird, freaky little thing. It was warm to the touch, unlike the elf, and he nearly dropped it when it wriggled in his hand. But you could buy mechanical puppies that wriggled in your hand too so he wasn't really concerned . . .

Until it leapt from his loose grasp and caught hold of his thick jacket. He went cross-eyed trying to look down at it as it climbed up hand over hand, and then before he knew it, it had a firm grip on his newly grown beard and was using his bottom lip as a foothold.

"Thenk A'm a fegment o' yaw emagaanation, do yow?" The purple thing said unintelligibly. "Yow rud, ansensitave Biggar!"

He barely had time to think 'What the hell?' before the thing headbutted him right between the eyes.

He was vaguely aware of Xander breaking his fall to the snow before everything went black.


Now . . .

The bar was warm and cozy, perfect after so long out in the cold, and Faith stripped layers like she was in her own living room, going all the way down to her wifebeater before stretching her arms high over her head, smirking as Buffy watched the lithe movement appreciatively.

"See something you like?" she asked as she dropped down into a comfortable arm chair in a quiet corner.

Buffy blinked out of her perving, but wasn't fazed about being caught out. "Sure, that's a nice vest thingy. Where did you buy it? I wish I'd asked for some for Christmas."

Faith gave her a 'seriously?' look, and Buffy just shrugged with a too-innocent smile.

"Sorry, B, prison issue."

That wiped the smile clean away. "Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to . . ."

Faith laughed at her, "I'm lying, I bought a pack of them at Target a few weeks ago. You need to lighten up about my state-paid vacation, B. I did a crime, I did my time, no need to turn it into a mini-drama every time it's brought up."

"I know that. And I am light about it," she lied awkwardly. "I just didn't want you to think I was making a snide remark about it, just then, because I really wasn't."

Faith shrugged easily. "I know. I can tell when you're trying and when you ain't. So, you ready to get our drink on, because I know I am."

"Yes please."

Laughing lightly again, it was a nice change of pace having B eager to please, she raised a hand above her head again, this time to signal Greg over.

It wasn't as busy as the night before but he still took his time getting to them. Buffy sat forward to remove a couple thousand layers of her own clothes, but she was still wearing more than Faith when she was done, and Faith lounged back, idly listening to the couples around them complaining about the shitty Santa grotto – apparently the hired Santa Claus had quit before any of the kids had had a chance to see him, go figure. There was talk of people demanding their money back; if there was any justice in the world, Faith figured the money should all come to them for saving their whiny brats from making the 'nice' list.

"Sorry to keep you waiting, ladies," Greg was in full-on employee of the month mode again, but he broke the act just long enough to give Faith a wink. "What can I get you from the bar this evening."

"I'll have a white wine and soda . . ."

Screw that! Buffy had said they could get drunk, and that was her territory. "Eight shots of, no wait, we have a tab, yeah?"

"It goes on your room account, yes."

"Then make it sixteen shots of that spiced rum you introduced me to last night and four beers." Giles could afford it, or the Council could anyway, and with her shoulder and neck still feeling beaten to crap they deserved a little bonus for getting the job done. "B can still have her wine too if she wants."

Buffy was already looking a little pale over the drinks order and hastily shook her head, "No, that's okay. I think wine on top would put me into stomach-pumping territory."

Even Greg looked kinda worried. "Are you sure you want sixteen? They can be a little . . ."

"It's Christmas, dude, and you're not my mother – actually my mother would probably think I was being a pussy just drinking eight – I also ain't a mother, meaning I got nothing special to get up for in the morning, so how about you get our drinks and leave me to worry about my hangover."

Greg nodded and left the table.

"What about my hangover?" Buffy muttered.

"Like I said, we can sleep in late as we want."

Buffy carefully folded her coat in her lap; Faith knew what was coming, the gist anyway, but kept her weary sigh to herself. If she let it, this could easily turn into another spat, but maybe if she refused to get sucked into it it would pass without either of them getting pissed off with each other.

"But it's Christmas. Don't you want to wake up early like you did when you were a little kid? You know, get a head start on all the festive-y magic of the day?" Faith gave a blank look. "You know, that feeling when you jump out of bed and race downstairs to open all your presents and eat too much chocolate and watch seasonally appropriate cartoons and sing songs around the tree . . . What?"

"I don't even believe you did all that, so I don't know why in hell you think I did."

"But I did do all that. Until my parents divorced anyway. Christmases in Sunnydale were more about keeping the monsters from breaking the tree ornaments and, you know, keeping my boyfriends from going crazy and walking into the sun, but Mom still always made an effort with the turkey and the presents and the singing."

Faith let out that sigh now because Buffy just didn't get it. She was looking at her so expectantly, waiting to hear some of Faith's happy holiday memories. Well, fine, she could probably dig up a few – she didn't want to make Buffy feel bad.

"One year my mom got sober for four months, she got a job at a toy factory, no really." She remembered the build up to Christmas that year, the promise of every toy she wanted heavy in the air. "She lost it a couple weeks before, not her fault, the holidays ain't a good time to stay on the wagon, ya know? Can be depressing and shit. She made good on her promises though. I got like a dozen presents that year."

She'd only found out a few days later, when each and every one had broken in some way, that her mom had stolen them out of the rejects skip behind the factory, but she didn't tell Buffy that part.

"And another year my school did caroling. We sang at churches and community centres all over Southie. We were pretty good. So good some important dude heard us at his church and arranged for us to sing at this outside event he was putting on. I sang in front of five hundred people.

"It snowed hard that night, though, and we didn't have enough for decent winter clothes. I got a little sick and spent four nights over Christmas in hospital."

"That's horrible! Was your mom allowed to stay with you?"

"Nah, she never even knew I was there. She just thought I'd run away again."

Buffy's face fell. She probably should have kept that part to herself too. Their drinks arrived then and Faith pushed a shot into her hand as a distraction.

"Take your medicine, B."

She did, fast, and then pulled the weirdest damn face afterwards and made the kind of noise that proved it had hit all the right places going down. Faith downed two, just as fast, and wiped a hand across her mouth before taking a sip of her beer.

"Christmas wasn't all that festive in my house," she shrugged. "No big deal. Come on, have another."

Buffy did, and then gurgled out, "That's horrible," again. It was hard to tell if she was talking about the rum or Faith's childhood. "Christmas is supposed to be about family."

"I spent the last few in prison. This year I'm just happy to be out, to have all this alcohol to drink, to have an uninterrupted lie-in tomorrow morning and to have you around to do it all with."

Buffy melted, her smile giddy and beautiful – she was already drunk! Then again, she must be feeling pretty tipsy too to have said all that in the first place.

"We'll sleep late," Buffy promised, and eying the next shot Faith was passing her, added, "Not that I think I could do anything but after all of these." She swallowed, then 'yerghed' with a cute little shudder. "And then we'll open our presents . . ." Faith had already handed her another shot but it stalled halfway to her mouth and went back to the table again. "Except we don't have any presents here! I did buy you some, I swear, but I left them at home . . . well, back at the ranch anyway. With the way you were acting before we left, I came to the conclusion you didn't deserve them. Sorry."

Faith lifted one shoulder carelessly. "No big deal, I didn't bring yours either," she lied.

"Ooh, you got me a present? What is it?"

"You'll have to wait until we get back now to find out."

"But that's two whole days away!" Buffy took shot number four self-pityingly. "I can't believe I have to wait that long for all of my presents. This Christmas sucks!"

Faith felt anger flare in her, because thanks a fucking lot. Wasn't just being with her enough, because it was for her. All of their crap aside, this was already the best Christmas Faith could ever imagine having.

"I thought Christmas was about family?"

Buffy looked up sharply, well not that sharply because her movements were already getting kinda uncoordinated with the rum in her system. "It is! But I'm not going to be with my family either, am I? Except you."

That was almost enough to make her lose it, the hurt-fuelled rage was already bitter on the tip of her tongue. She was just never going to be good enough for Princess fuckin' Buffy was she?

And then, as Buffy drank her fifth shot without any encouragement, her mood turned in an instant. "Not that that's all bad. Alone time is good. We need alone time. And now we can have alone time with a Jacuzzi, and there's nothing bad about that scenario." Faith relaxed a little as Buffy stared despondently into number six. "I just wish, just a little, that our much-needed and wanted alone time wasn't happening right over Christmas."

She drank, she 'yerghed', she burped and looked shocked by it.

Faith laughed. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but maybe you should slow down a little."

"And maybe you should speed up a little. You're four behind!" Buffy blinked a few times. "Oh this can't be good, I'm drinking you, Faith, under the table."

"You wish."

"Still, I should . . ." she didn't elaborate, just pulled her phone from her coat pocket and fiddled with it, staring at it hard like she'd never used it before.

Faith took the downtime to catch up a little. Letting two more rums work their way down inside her, warming her insides deliciously.

"Oh my, fuck!"

Yep, B was drunk.

"What's up?"

"I have, like, nineteen missed calls and seven text messages!"

She remembered the cell ringing a few times when they were in the grotto, but nineteen? Jesus!

"Who are they all from?"

Buffy was already trying to work that out; it was taking her longer than usual. Faith finished one of her beers and was taking a sip from her second before she got an answer.

"Ten calls from Giles, four from Dawn, three from the house phone and one from Willow! I have, like, a thousand voicemails! Check yours."

If everyone had been calling Buffy she didn't know why they'd call her, but she checked anyway. "Five from Robin, one from Xander, two from an unknown number and three from . . . Kennedy? What the fuck? Why is she calling me?"

Buffy looked up, eyes hurt and confused. "Why is Kennedy calling you?"

"Jealous, B?"

She huffed and paid attention back to her own phone, pressing buttons for her voicemail. She pulled it away from her ear after a minute. "The first two are just Giles shouting at me to phone him. This'll go quicker if I just call them all back."

Faith's first voicemail had been Robin saying the same thing, so she gave up even quicker. She was more interested in why Kennedy had called anyway. They still weren't anything like friends, although they did tolerate each other better now, ever since the incident with those lizard demons. Kennedy and Willow were in New York though, nowhere near whatever was going down in Boudenver to make everyone phone-crazy, but it was unlikely she was just calling to wish her a Merry Christmas.

She didn't call her back; she wasn't wasting her credit, even if she wasn't the one who paid for it. If it was that important Kennedy could call again.


Kennedy paced her bedroom – well not her bedroom, but the guest room she was being forced to sleep in. She was supposed to be getting ready for Mass but there were too many thoughts in her head for that, so instead, she was pacing.

Jesus' offer was a good one. Really good. If she took the job it could set her and Willow up comfortably for life. Of course her inheritance would also do that, but she wouldn't put it past her parents to live to a hundred – and her mom definitely, stubbornly would if Kennedy turned their offer down. Rosie Morales especially was big on those kind of life-lessons.

Her biggest stopping point was whether she could still be an active Slayer if she took the position. She'd have to work her ass off to get the new branch off the ground and that would mean long hours at least to start with. It would make patrolling until the early hours every night difficult. And she definitely wouldn't have time to be a useful 'teacher' too.

A comfortable income would be nice, but was it worth giving up a life she already enjoyed the way it was now?

There was also the sneaking suspicion that there was some ulterior motive involved. Like getting her away from a life they didn't find appealing? Her parents had always pretty much let her choose her own path as long as she was happy and not being lazy about it, but that was before she'd run away for three months without a word.

She needed a second opinion. Someone to hash it out with who wouldn't have subjective opinions about her ultimate decision. That ruled out Giles and Buffy. She wasn't being egotistical when she knew they would both want her to stay. Whether they actually liked her as a person or not was irrelevant; neither of them would want to lose one of their best trained slayers.

She knew Willow would do her best to be objective, but her girlfriend could never really understand what it meant to be a Slayer. No, Kennedy had to make at least a tentative decision on her own before she started inviting her girlfriend's thoughts on it into the mix.

That was why she'd called Faith, because she would probably love it if Kennedy upped and left but at the same time she knew how it felt to have this calling. And she'd had to give it up for a few years, maybe not voluntarily, but she'd know how it felt to go without that nightly rush of power.

Yeah, Faith would be the perfect person to talk to, if Faith was bothering to pick up her damn phone!

It was nearly time to leave now and her mom would kill her if her cell started ringing in the middle of Mass. Jesus had given her to the end of their Christmas vacation to make her final decision and what would happen next if she said yes was detailed in the booklet fanned out on her bed. She'd have to switch to part time patrolling as early as the middle of January, then maybe give it up completely by the end of the month. It didn't seem long enough to come to terms with giving up the dream she'd held since she was nine.

She flicked through her contacts list, still pacing, finally settling on Dawn's number. They hadn't been as close for the past month but she was still technically the nearest thing Kennedy had to a best friend. She'd also been through some pretty messed up shit in her life and still managed to be one of the smartest and most level-headed people Kennedy knew. At the very least she'd make a good sounding board.

"Hi, how's New York? Oh, Merry Christmas!"

She smiled, "Merry Christmas. New York is snowy and weird. How's Ohio?"

"The same. So did you call for an update or did you already hear the news?"

"I, uh, I called because . . ." She chickened out. Saying it out loud would make it real. "What news?"

"The kiddie eater is Santa."

"Oh, yeah, Willow told me. Do Buffy and Faith know yet?"

"Nobody can get hold of them, but that probably just means they're already slaying him."

Normally Dawn would be way more concerned about the lack of communication and combined with her almost lacklustre tone, Kennedy surmised, "Is something else going on too?"

There was a pause and then, "Nobody worth wasting a long distance phone call on."

That had to mean boy-trouble. She wondered how Reece had shown his true colors at last, and she would ask eventually, but she didn't have time right now.

"Okay. Uh, Dawn, I didn't just call to check in."

"What's wrong? Is Willow okay? You know I'll kill you if you don't bring her home in one piece. You two didn't fall out again, did you?"

"Willow's fine, aside from freaking out about what to wear to Mass. I just had some really unexpected news and I need to share it with somebody."

"Oh, okay, fire away with the unexpected."

"I've been made an offer I don't know if I can refuse."

"I see." When Kennedy didn't say anything else, she added, "Is it a bad offer?"

"No, at least not on paper."

"Did a singing demon ask you to be his bride in the underworld?"

"Uh, no."

"Is it gang-related? Or Mafia related? Or Demon-mafia-gang related?"

"Nothing to do with gangs, organized crime or demons," she stated, grinning at the places Dawn's imagination could jump to on such short notice. "It's a family thing."

"Well that doesn't sound too scary."

"It is scary."

"Tell me already!" Dawn demanded.

"I've been asked . . ." There was a knock at her door. "Hang on, I think Willow's here."

She heard Dawn ask, "What can't you tell me in front of Willow!" sounding concerned again, as she opened the door.

It was her mom standing on the other side. "Kennedy, my precious love, I hear you have spoken with your father," she breezed in, closing the door behind her with zero care for the fact that she was obviously on the phone.

"Who's that?"

"My mom, I'll have to call you back." Cancelling the call, she turned to her mom, who was already folding the clothes Kennedy had left strewn around the room. "So was it your idea, to create this job for me?"

"No, of course not, it was entirely your dad's," her mother didn't need to switch gears to reply smoothly to the abrupt enquiry "Now, when are you going to say yes and put us—him, out of his misery?"

"He's not in any misery, and I don't know if I'm going to say yes or not yet."

"But you are thinking about it?"

"It's a tempting offer," she admitted cautiously, fighting the teenage urge to go and ruffle the clothes her mom was tidying up. "But I do already have a job."

"Yes, one where you and Willow are forced to live in a house with a hundred other people."

"It's hardly a hundred . . ."

"But still, wouldn't you rather have a place of your own to share?"

There was nothing about accommodation being thrown in in the booklet, so Kennedy kept quiet to see where this was going. A place of their own would be good. There was no such thing as privacy at Sunset Camp. There was always a slayer here and a watcher there, not to mention the assorted visitors that just dropped by whenever they felt like it. She may have been thinking of one particular visitor more than the others. If they didn't live where they worked, she wouldn't have to put up with mangy werewolves thinking they were the alpha dog on her territory.

Her mom was watching her closely, which made her try and shake away her jealous thoughts before she was asked anything, but her mom had already sensed she'd touched on a weakness and capitalized at once.

"Obviously we wouldn't expect the two of you move to such a big city as Cleveland without a little somewhere to call your own."

"How little?" she asked automatically. Not that it really mattered; a shoe box would feel spacious if it was just the two of them.

Her mom lightly laughed and then changed the subject. "Anyway, this is not why I came down here. I have a little something for you."

She took a small jewellery box from her silk jacket pocket and held it out.

"It's Christmas, Mom, you could have at least wrapped it."

"I thought you could do that, if that's how you choose to give it. They were your grandmother's. I know you, Kennedy, and so I am almost sure you haven't bought Willow a real present, now you can give her something that truly proves how serious you take her love."

"Abuela's diamond earrings?"

She'd seen them a hundred times. Her mom had always promised they would come to her one day, but even though she could appreciate just how beautiful they were she'd always told her mom they weren't her kind of thing. Obviously her mom had found a way to make her accept them anyway, even if she wasn't the one who wore them. She was actually kind of touched by the gesture – and they would make an amazing present for Willow – so she took the proffered box with a warm smile.

Her Mom stopped halfway out of the door and leaned back into the room, "Willow is a lovely girl, Kennedy, and I don't think she scares so easy as your former . . . girlfriends. You should respect that and do your best to live up to it."

"I'm trying," she said softly.

"See that you always do."

As if Dawn could sense that her mom had just left the room, her cell phone rang.

"Hey."

"Hi. What is going on? I tried to be patient but you did kind of leave me on a cliff-hanger there, Kennedy."

"Sorry, my mom wanted to talk."

"About this mysterious offer?"

"Sort of." Maybe her mom's thoughtful words and gesture had simplified things up or maybe it was the chance of moving out into a place of their own – they both amounted to the same thing really, the chance to build something lasting with Willow. "The thing is, my parents made me an offer I might be an idiot to turn down. It won't be easy, but it would probably mean Willow and I could have a better life than we do right now."

"What's wrong with your lives now?" Dawn sounded perturbed, but mostly just genuinely curious.

"You mean other than me risking my life on patrol every night and Willow getting life-threateningly sick because some mysterious wacko doesn't like the job she does?"

"I get your point, but you're scaring me a little here, Ken."

"Sorry, the thing is," she idly opened the box to see the earrings sparkle. Something sparkled back at her alright, but definitely not what she was expecting. "What the . . .?" she muttered, bewildered, and then it hit her and she scoffed, "Like I'm going to give Willow an engagement ring for Christmas?"

This was the last straw, her mom was going down!


"Sorry, the thing is . . ." Pregnant pause. Dawn held her breath too, the anticipation killing her after such a build-up. Her mind raced with ideas as she listened to the crackly line. ". . . like I'm going to give Willow an engagement ring for Christmas?"

"What?" her breath came back so hard she coughed out the question. She so hadn't been expecting that. "Are you serious?"

The last thing Dawn wanted to do was rain on Kennedy's parade, but this was the worst idea in the world! There was no answer, just the sound of air whistling past the phone.

"Kennedy? Kennedy? Kennedy?" Dawn chanted into her cell phone with increasing frustration. "Kennnnnedeeeee!"

"What happened?" Her exasperation had pulled Vi out of her chair and Rona sat forward, like Dawn's wail was an alarm bell.

Dawn was feeling very alarmed and if she'd heard correctly then some kind of bells might be in their future, but right now she needed quiet. She flapped her arm in the air at the assembled slayers and trainee watchers and held her cell tighter to her ear. If she hadn't been so focused, she would have marvelled at the way the whole room piped down at her amateur sign-language, they didn't even do that for Buffy! It was for nothing though, where before there had been the swooshing of background noise now there was only a dial tone.

Kennedy had shared and split, like it was just okay to drop a bomb of that freaking proportion and then not stick around to fill in the details! Like how she'd obviously suffered a blow to her head in New York and it had totally altered her personality.

"I don't know," she said, "but I think something might have happened to Kennedy."

"Oh goodness, did she just get eaten by Santa Claus too?" asked new girl, Rachel.

Dawn looked blankly at her for a second; just where were they finding these newbies?

"Um, no," she cleared her head with a little shake, finally lowering the phone from her ear. "She just disappeared on me."

"Then how do you know?" Miranda sounded really worried and even more fearful of the unknown that usual.

Finding out that Santa Claus was a real person (so to speak) and real hungry for the heads of little children could do that to a person. Dawn was feeling a little scared of the truth herself. How many times had she sat on Santa's lap as a child? Okay, never if you wanted to be technical about it, but that didn't change the fact that she could remember doing it lots. Especially around the time her parents had divorced and they'd been vying for the most coveted parent award.

She shuddered at the thought of it even while she marveled at the Old One's skills in propaganda. There weren't many demonic beings that had the nerve or the know-how to invite their pray to come willingly and sit on their knee.

Probably.

"It's kind of like a Venus Fly Trap, I think," she said to herself, feeling fascinated as well as icked out by it.

"Kennedy's been eaten by a flower?" Alison asked sceptically.

"It is a carnivorous flower," Vi reminded them.

"And have you forgotten what happened our first week here?" Cici touched the ends of her auburn hair. The damage had grown into a stylish bob ages ago but Dawn didn't blame the girl if she still felt traumatized. "Poor Kennedy."

Reece was furiously speed-reading through books he'd already browsed earlier, trying to find anything he could have or must have missed about Boudenver's festive visitor. His head was bowed, his blond hair messy from a day of running his hands through it and she noticed it was long enough now to have a natural curl at the ends. He was so watcher-y like this, it was cute. So intently focused on the book, his pose screamed 'Late-night researchy Giles'; if Giles had ever been eighteen and that hot.

"Poor Kennedy?" Oops, they'd disturbed him. Dawn quickly averted her eyes to the fruit bowl on the breakfast bar so he wouldn't know she'd been staring. It wasn't her best cover, there wasn't even any fruit in it thanks to the kitchen full of greedy slayers. "Are you serious? She has not been eaten by a bloody flower!"

She could hear the sneer in his voice and she almost wanted to refute him for the heck of it, but the actual truth was just too insane not to share immediately.

"She didn't disappear, exactly. I think she just hung up on me."

"Then why the shriek of distress?" Rona demanded. "Something must have happened."

"I think it's more about what's going to happen. Guys, she said she's going to propose to Willow for Christmas!"

There was some appropriately stunned silence before the uproar began.

"No way!" Vi breathed, a huge smile lighting her up.

"Didn't they like just get back together?" Rona asked rhetorically.

"That's so romantic," Miranda gushed. "Did she say where she's going to do it? I bet it'll be somewhere really romantic."

"I bet she forgot to get her a present and she's banking on this being her 'Get out of the dog-house free' card," Alison laughed.

"I'd rather my boyfriend proposed to me than got me a stupid gift," Miranda retorted. "You can get gifts from anyone but a proposal is a special, once in a life-time thing."

"Says the kid whose parents are still together," Dawn said sarcastically. "Come on, guys, getting married is so . . . everyone knows it never works out, right?"

She'd so picked the wrong room to share that sentiment as one by one everyone else claimed to be the products of a long-lasting union.

"Seriously? All of you come from happy marriages?" she asked dubiously. There was no way that could be true. The newspapers were always full of the statistics claiming the exact opposite. "All of you?"

"I don't know how happy it is, but my folks are still together," Rona shrugged.

"My parents divorced in ninety-four and then got remarried in ninety-seven," Miranda smiled, like this was her basis for how romantic proposals were.

"My parents were very happily married until my father passed away," Reece offered. "I doubt my mother will ever get over him leaving us so soon."

Dawn felt a pang for him; it nearly brought tears to her eyes. It was natural, she guessed; he had been her boyfriend until yesterday.

"I don't exactly come from a happy marriage," Alison said, sounding so awkward she drew every eye in the room.

"See!" Dawn pointed at the blonde slayer. "Exactly my point. Thank you, Alison."

"Not really. My parents are married and happy, it's just . . . I'm adopted. So I didn't really come from them. They found me . . . uh, found me at the adoption centre I mean and took me home. You know, once it was all legal and everything."

"Oh, you never said before," Cici smiled kindly. "Are your brothers adopted too?"

"Uh, no, they're real, I mean," Alison chuckled at herself. "Real as in really my parents. So, uh, Kennedy's proposing tomorrow?"

"Yes and there's no way it's a good idea," Dawn shared.

In her experience the whole wedding idea was a bad one. Look at her own parents. Look at Xander and Anya. Look at half of America! Look at the fantasy she'd had of walking down the aisle to a top hat and tailed Reece! Relationships sucked and Willow had faced enough heartbreak with Tara dying. Dawn couldn't bear to see her deal with any more. And Kennedy was impulsive by nature – she was a slayer after all – and probably hadn't even thought it through beyond the holes it could fill in their relationship right now.

"They did just get back together," Rona reminded them all again.

"Which brings to mind the fact that they just split upfor a month," Alison agreed.

"Kennedy is still very young," Naomi contributed to the conversation.

"True," Vi nodded. "There's no way I'm getting married until I'm at least twenty-five. You know, assuming someone wants to marry me when I'm twenty-five."

"Um, can they even . . ." All eyes turned to Rachel the new girl and she ducked down behind the book she'd been reading. It was a few seconds before she popped back up as far as her nose. "Sorry, I was just wondering, is it even legal for them to get married?"

Dawn thought about it. "I don't think so, but . . . but that's not really the point. The point is they shouldn't even be contemplating it. Not for like another six years anyway."

Xander and Anya had been together for three years before he proposed and then chickened out and ran away from his wedding. Maybe after double that time, she might allow that Willow and Kennedy were ready to take the plunge.

"I agree," Rona said, "But it's not really our business, is it?"

"As their close friends, who care about them, shouldn't we make it our business to stop them from making the biggest mistake of their lives?"

Everyone gave Dawn's speech due consideration. Except Reece who was already back to reading – he looked way less cute doing it now.

"Wouldn't that be kinda insensitive?" Miranda asked, still trying to keep the dream alive.

Everyone gave that due consideration too. Dawn even saw Reece smirk, even though he didn't lift his face from his stupid book.

After a communal shrug at Miranda's expense, Alison asked, "How would we even do that, exactly?"

"Yeah, it's not like we can all race to Long Island to stop her," Vi said "Although that would be cool. It would be like we were in a movie."

"Shame the only one of us who can afford a private jet then, is the one in Long Island doing the proposing," Rona said.

"We could call her and tell her how we feel," Dawn suggested.

Three or four girls said, "Not it!" at the same time.

"This is Kennedy," Reece drawled without looking up. "Do you really think that would work anyway?"

"What do you suggest then?" she demanded of him.

He declined to answer.

"Fine, I'm calling Buffy!"

"The first good idea I've heard in half an hour." Now he looked up. "Perhaps while you're sticking your nose into Kennedy's private life you could also mention how the children are getting eaten by everyone's favorite Christmas hero, Santa Claus, too."

Oh, right. In the excitement and dread of Kennedy's proposal plans she'd kind of forgotten about the Big Bad. A wave of guilt rushed in. She tried Buffy's number for like the tenth time.

It went straight to voicemail this time, which could be progress after all of the ringing and ringing it had done before. Unless her phone had just died because of all the ringing and ringing it had done before!


"Yes, Father Christmas is the culprit. You need to apprehend him immediately!" Giles made an irritable noise at the back of his throat, but to be fair Buffy's failure to understand wasn't really the cause. "Santa Claus then! Father Christmas is Santa Claus and Santa Claus is the one eating the children!"

"Done and done, Giles. Done-squared. Done-diddy-done-done. He burst into Christmas glitter an hour ago."

"Oh, are you sure?"

"Couldn't be surer-er. Faith held him, I hit him, he went poof, I swallowed some of him. He didn't taste like Christmas is supposed to taste, end of story."

Well, okay. That was unexpected, but really he should expect that with Buffy.

"And the children?"

"There are some bumps and bruises, lots of tears before bedtime, but no, no children were eaten at Snow Dunes on our watch."

"Good, that's good, Buffy."

"I thought so. So what's happening at home? Is everyone sipping eggnog around the fire already?"

She sounded so wistful, Giles was loathe to disappoint her, but he was also in a situation himself and didn't have time for sentimentality.

"Actually, I have no idea what's happening at home. I'm stranded in the alley beside The Mouth currently."

"Why?" she laughed merrily, it kind of made him want to throttle her.

"Because Alex disrespected the supernatural and was knocked out cold by a pixie for his insolence. So as much as I'd like to chat, I really must go. Enjoy the rest of your stay."

He cancelled the call on his mobile – or at least pressed the button he hoped would cancel the call – and dropped it into his pocket.

"Is he still not coming around?" he asked wearily. It had been ten minutes.

"Worn ay hets em ay hets em arrd!" Josiah, back on Craig's palm, declared proudly.

"Yes, and thank you for that." Giles stooped to check the man's pulse with his un-gloved hand once more.

He didn't expect for anything to have changed and he wasn't wrong. Alex's pulse was as strong as one could expect and his breathing was unlabored; he was simply suffering the natural effect of a concise blow to the head and his brain was taking a while to come to terms with it.

Honestly, Giles was more worried about the other things his brain would need to come to terms with once he was awake again. Things like . . .

"I don't get this, but I know I don't like this. This isn't natural and it isn't possible and you folk are all in cahoots with the little . . . demon-thing that just killed Alex and that makes you all just as evil!"

"But Alex isn't dead," Andrew tried to reassure the panicked local lad. "He's just really unconscious."

"And Josiah isn't evil, he's just purple."

Frazer had initially followed his friend to the snow to check him for fatal wounds and try to shake him awake. When he found none of the first and failed to achieve the second he'd backed against the wall of the alley, still on his knees, and ever since had been spurting the same brand of gibberish as this, occasionally going so far as to keep them at bay with a cross made of his index fingers. Giles commended Craig on his forethought to subtly kick the lad's abandoned hunting rifle behind them into deeper snow, just in case, but he and Andrew weren't being of much help to the situation now.

Craig held his pixie-laden palm out towards Frazer. "See, how could something this cute be evil?"

Frazer's heavy boots kicked up snow as he tried to push himself back through the wall of The Mouth. "Arghh, keep it away from me. Keep it away from me!"

"He's obviously seen Gremlins," Xander said in a way that for some reason sounded like he felt vindicated.

"Mr. Giles, we have to stop his panicking before someone comes out of the diner to investigate," Robin said as he came back from glancing through the plate-glass window. "There's a lot of people in there and most of them look like guys that were on the hunt."

"It's not that I don't agree with you, but how exactly?" Giles replied tersely. "Ask the Piskie to knock the boy out too?"

"It's one idea," Xander agreed.

"Alwyse aapy tow eelp, Watchoor!" Josiah said proudly, drawing up to his full height of four and something inches. Almost as if he was standing to attention.

Not wanting to admit the only word he'd understood was the derogatory use of his professional title, he gave a little shake of his furrowed brow and turned to matters he could understand due to his frequent dealings with them.

"Our identity in these parts must not be compromised. It's the only way we'll stay ahead of the things heading here that are actually evil. What we do and who we really are must remain a secret at all costs."

The only person in the alley who he wasn't addressing had something to say about that. "Oh, so now you're going to say it's okay you killed Alex? Because you're secret agents? Are you going to kill me too? What kind of secret agents even are you? Who do you work for? Do you have any ID? Did Alex die because he found out you're secret agents or because you're evil secret agents and he found out you were stealing secrets from our government? Come on, it must be one of them, because there's no way I'll ever believe Alex was mixed up in evil stuff . . ."

He shared a look with Xander and Robin as the boy's rant went on and on. It was clear that whatever they said, Frazer wasn't going to be believe his eyes had played tricks on him. The mild-mannered boy who'd been holding a rifle to exact safety precautions all day was gone and he'd left a terrified and fanciful youth in his place. He wasn't going to listen to a word of sense like this.

"Fine, fine, fine," he continued, scrabbling for something in the pocket of his heavy weather coat. "If you won't tell me, maybe you'll tell the police! Even if you kill me you won't get far before the Sheriff catches up with you. Not when I tell them you've murdered his son with that talking purple weapon-thing!"

And as Frazer produced his cell-phone they were out of time, something drastic had to be done and now.

"You know, in the state he's in, maybe we should just escort him to the door of the Sheriff's department and let him run his mouth in front of whoever's in there while we come back and deal with this guy," Robin said in a low voice, nodding down at Alex.

"And what would that achieve?" Giles asked, angry that Robin didn't care about their identity being discovered.

"Well, look at him," he nodded at Frazer this time, who was still splayed out letting the snow soak through the backside of his trousers as he dropped his phone over and over in his rush and panic to make the call. "Anyone listening to him for five minutes is going to think he's out of his mind. You see it all too often in the public school system – kids suffering from delusions and paranoia after some major family trauma or life event. It'll only take one of us to explain how Alex's gun went off right in the middle of us all and then somehow Alex got knocked out a few minutes later and it was all too much for the kid. People will be too busy trying to make him better to stop and wonder if there's any truth in his ramblings."

There was some merit to the idea, Giles had to admit, and with time and options running out, it might prove to be the fastest way forward.

"You wouldn't dare."

Giles looked from Robin to Craig to see his Godson's dark eyes burning with disgust for the other man.

"It wouldn't be for long," Robin defended his idea. "We know there's nothing wrong with the boy's mental health in general, and when he displays no other symptoms after this one supposed psychotic break, so will everyone else. There really is no long-term . . ."

"Are you taking the piss?" Josiah, completely forgotten, was suddenly left swinging by his hands from Craig's sleeve as the angry boy stepped up to challenge Robin. "Or are you really stupid enough to believe that?"

"Craig!" Giles cautioned his language and his impertinent attitude.

It was a moment of glaring before the boy turned to him, still angry but pleading for understanding. "Uncle Rubear, you can't seriously agree with him? People don't just forget you have a 'psychotic break'. He'd have to move across the country to ever be allowed to forget it himself! And the more he denies there's anything wrong with him, the more they'll believe there is!"

"Now listen, Son," Robin began gently.

Craig whirled to him again, accidentally kicking the prone form of Alex – who grunted at the impact of a winter boot in his ribs, and thank the Lord at least he was capable of grunting again.

"Don't call me that. I'm not your son. I have a father, thanks, and I haven't forgotten about him even if the rest of you have!"

Damn and . . . damn! Ethan! Of course. He kept meaning to look into his situation in more detail, but . . . it was Ethan and there was always seemed to be something more, well, important to do. It did explain Craig's suddenly short fuse however.

Fathers and sons and the damage they could do to one another. He shook his head tiredly, but with Alex groaning, Frazer still trying to get uncooperative fingers to dial the Sheriff's department and Craig about to have his own psychotic moment – of rage – he didn't have time to get philosophical.

"Craig, calm down. Nobody here has forgotten your father, although I don't imagine the person you're taking your frustration out on has ever even heard of him," he added pointedly.

"Yeah, well, it was his stupid idea."

"The idea isn't stupid, just inappropriate in these, and most, circumstances," Giles continued as diplomatically as possible because he wasn't entirely sure he didn't think it wasn't appropriate for Ethan Rayne. "More importantly, we need another idea."

Xander raised his hand, "I have one. Can't say it's not equally stupid. Wanna hear it anyway?"

"No, we don't have time for that." Xander deflated before his eyes. "Just get on with it," he instructed.

"Huh?" Xander came out of his imminent slump in mood so fast he gave himself a cough. "H'Ohhkay."

Gently he plucked the Piskie from where it was dangling on Craig's jacket and dropped to one knee in front of the still ranting boy. Robin's idea may have been unacceptable in current company but Giles had to maintain it would have worked like a dream with Frazer's present fixation.

"Double agents," Xander said calmly, keeping Josiah out of sight for the time being. "That's what we call the evil agents that want to steal our great government's secrets. Now son, I'm Agent Harris, FBI, and I'm going to need you to calm down for me nice and quickly, can you do that? Here's my badge, see?" Frazer was treated to a flash of something credit-card shaped from inside Xander's pocket. "My colleagues and I are here as part of an undercover investigation into the child deaths that occur in this region every year and you, son, are this close to blowing our chances of capturing the fiends responsible."

"But . . . but . . . that can't be true, you've been here months now . . .!"

"Well, if we were going to successfully infiltrate the community . . ."

"And you can't be FBI. The FBI would never kill Alex!"

"Alex isn't dead, just stunned." Xander pulled the Piskie out from behind his back. "With this. It's special issue equipment, used only in highly sensitive cases like when we need to, um, knock someone out . . ."

As Xander's extemporization stalled for a moment, it was surprisingly Andrew who picked up the reins. He stepped up and went down on one knee in what he probably thought was a suitable FBI agent pose – although the wince as the snow seeped instantly through his trousers took something away from it. Carefully he took the purple menace from Xander and thrust it closer to Frazer, who despite having calmed down enough to listen, still shrank back against the wall again.

"When innocent men, good men, need to be kept out of harm's way, we use the Pixie 3000 on them. It automatically connects with the human skull at the safest point of impact to ensure instant and painless unconsciousness while emitting special thought waves into the person's eyes that makes him dream happy dreams while he's out of commission. And it comes in this stylish purple color, see?"

"But why did Alex have to be 'out of commission'?" Frazer asked. "Shouldn't he be helping you?"

"He was to begin with," Xander said, "but now it's safer for him to leave the rest to us. This way the criminal gang will have no reason to target him if they retaliate, get it?"

"Not really."

"He was becoming a liability," Giles snapped. "He was in danger of revealing our identity to the, uh, criminal gang and such. Now, why don't you be a good boy and go with Andrew and Craig. They'll explain the rest and staying out here isn't safe for you."

"But why?" Frazer pushed up to his feet, rubbing his gloves over the wet rear of his trousers and looking around the alley. "There's no one here but us."

"You can stay if you want," Xander shrugged, irritating Giles to no end. "But we'll have to use the Pixie 3000 on you too. You know, just to be on the safe side. If you stand still it doesn't hurt . . . much, and you should come around in two-to-three hours tops."

Frazer looked from Alex to the Piskie sitting obediently still in Andrew's hand to his watch. "I don't know; I'll miss dinner."

They'd been walking in the snow for close to twelve hours now with nothing but cold sandwiches and flasks of soup to keep them going. He didn't blame the boy for being preoccupied with the idea of a hot meal. Perhaps Xander had even counted on it, because next he said,

"Oh, you can't eat after having the Pixie 3000 whammy you. Not for hours, unless you want to see it again real soon, from two different perspectives, if you know what I mean."

Giles lip curled at the imagery, but while he was shooting Xander a 'Was that really necessary?' look, Frazer came to a decision.

"If you're just going to knock me out anyway I'm going home."

"Wise decision," Giles felt more genial now that one problem was almost taken care of. "Andrew and Craig will see you to the door to make sure you're safe. Thank you for all your help today."

"The FBI won't forget it!" Xander added cheerily.

Giles tapped Craig's shoulder before he could join Andrew by Frazer's side and whispered to him. "Make sure he knows he mustn't mention any of this to anyone."

Craig nodded and the three boys walked away. They were exiting the alley way when Craig's voice drifted back to them, "No, that's because Santa Claus is the criminal gang's code name. Because they only attack at Christmas. It's an FBI thing."


"And then he hung up!" Buffy ranted as they made their way back to their cabin.

"Yeah, you said."

Like ten times!

Faith was really regretting ordering so many shots now. Buffy hadn't let the side down, but now she was wasted. Don't get her wrong, Faith was feeling a good buzz from all the spiced rum too, but she could just hold her liquor better – which really wasn't a surprise.

"And Willow didn't even pick up because she's all off playing happy family Christmas special in New York!"

"I swear if Willow moves to New York I'm gonna . . . gonna . . . what's a suita . . . sweeta . . . suitata . . . what's a good punishment for moving to Newark?"

Faith frowned, "Newark?"

"New. York." Buffy tried to say clearly. Still sounded more like Newark to Faith.

"I dunno. All that traffic and shit?"

"Traffic. I remember traffic," Buffy said morosely. "I miss traffic!"

Faith laughed, even though she was up to her knees in snow. They were taking the long way back to their cabin, by accident.

"Xander didn't pick up either."

"He's with Giles, isn't he? So if G is busy, stands to reason Xander is too."

"Whatever. He could have taken the time to just say hello."

"Yeah, I guess."

"My family is falling apart!" Buffy suddenly wailed.

Faith started to shush her and then realized she didn't care. There was no one around anyway. She was pretty sure Buffy was leading them back out into the wilderness instead of towards their cabin. She really should have insisted they went and got something to eat, even though Buffy had refused the first three times she'd suggested it might be a good idea to soak up some of that alcohol.

They'd left the bar before Faith was ready. Buffy tripping over her own feet and face-planting the floor when she'd got up to go to the bathroom had kind of made that a necessity. You know, what with them being asked to leave and all. By Greg of all people. Ungrateful shits. Half of the resort's kids would have been eaten without them around; the management should have been paying their tab, not cutting them off. She had half a mind to go to the papers about it. Except, you know, not, because how did you even do that? Go to the papers? Dawn'd probably know. Dawn was a smart ass like that. Maybe she'd ask if Dawn ever cut the attitude with her.

"Faith? Are you even listening to me?"

"Nothing's falling apart, B. The guys are just busy. Why don't you try Dawnie again?"

"What's the point? She'd rather suck face with Reece . . ." Buffy pulled a face. ". . . than talk to me anyway. She's a terrible sister!"

"Sure, okay."

They trudged on for another five minutes and Faith half-listened to Buffy grumbling under her breath about how her whole family had abandoned her at Christmas. She only half-listened because she was grumbling under her breath too about the snow soaking into her jeans and how her feet were about to fall off.

"Serves you right, I did tell you to get a snowsuit this morning," Buffy said in a rare moment of not being drunkenly self-obsessed.

"Yeah, you were right, Chica, looking like ski-bunny dork would really be making me feel better now."

"I do not look like a dork! I look cute!"

"Yeah, ya do, but that's despite the dorky ski-bunny outfit not because of it."

Buffy tried to backhand her but missed by a foot because that's how much distance was between them. "What even is a ski-bunny?"

Hell if Faith knew, it just sounded like something you should call chicks who wore ski gear when they wanted to look the part without having the skills to back it up.

"Oh, thank God!"

"What?" Buffy asked with a frown.

They'd made it back to the cabins. They'd been coming up from behind them so the large round globe lights that marked the central paths hadn't been visible until now. Faith caught Buffy's hand and dragged her through a deep drift between two cabins to the salted pathway.

"Civilization, yay!" Buffy cooed and tugged on Faith's hand to give her a kiss. On the lips! "My hero!"

"You might wanna save the excitement. We still have to find our cabin."

That wasn't a problem. Now that Buffy was somewhere familiar she confidently pulled her along for another two minutes and then they were home. Home for the next two nights anyway.

The first thing Faith did after kicking off her wet boots was get the fire going.

The first thing Buffy did was twirl around on the spot with her arms out to the sides and say, "My mom would have loved this cabin!"

"Why's that?"

"It's rustic. And she would have loved this duvet, with the Christmassy-ness of it. My mom loved Christmas."

"What the fuck is a duvet?"

"The thing on the bed."

Fire crackling and catching flame, Faith straightened up and caught Buffy by the hips.

"Maybe you should stop before you toss your cookies on it then."

"I'm not going to barf, Faith!" Buffy staggered a little on the spot after Faith stopped her momentum. "Actually, maybe you're right."

"First time for everything."

Buffy smiled and held onto Faith's shoulders. "Don't say that! You're always right."

"Now I know you're wasted."

"I miss my family, Faith," Buffy sighed.

"I know."

"I miss my mom."

Something wrenched deep in her chest. Maybe it was the amount of sorrow in Buffy's voice or maybe it was that deep down she kind of missed her own mom a little bit too, even if her mom didn't deserve it in the way Joyce did.

"I know, B."

"But I'm glad I'm here with you."

Faith smiled, and then had it startled from her face by Buffy kissing her, passionately.

"I'm glad about that too," she promised when she had the chance.

Buffy kissed her again and mid-kiss started fighting with Faith's denim jacket. Giving up after a brief spurt of energy, she pulled back breathlessly to insist, "This, off!"

Faith obliged, shedding the jacket so it dropped behind her feet.

"Don't stop there," Buffy said with smirk. "I want it all off."

Faith's t-shirt hit the floor without any hesitation. She was reaching for the button on her jeans when Buffy's hand closed over hers.

"Actually, stop." Faith's heart dropped, but Buffy was really drunk so she refused to get mad about it. Openly anyway. "You should go and put the Jacuzzi on before you take any more clothes off. It's cold out there."

That didn't sound so bad.

"Really, B? Gonna get it the hot tub with me?"

"Oh yeah." Buffy's torso fell against her and she kissed her again. "Go turn it on, baby. Tonight I plan to show you everything I've been missing!"

After another quick kiss, Buffy stepped back – or actually she had to push herself back with Faith's shoulders and then wobbled for a minute – before unzipping her snowsuit, seductively slowly.

The twinkle in Buffy's eyes was making her even wetter than the kisses had. "I should, uh, go . . ." Faith hiked a thumb over her shoulder towards the door that led to the outside deck.

Buffy pulled the snowsuit down her arms and then sat on the edge of the bed to pull it from her legs. "Go, I'll be out there in a minute . . . naked."

It was Faith's turn to trip on her own feet, but she only nearly face-planted the floor. She raced outside, hitting the button to turn on the Jacuzzi before stripping off the rest of her clothes. Fuck, it was freezing! It had probably been this cold last night too, but she'd been too cocky to care. Now, despite being so horny it felt like she was on fire, the cold was biting into her bare skin. She stuck a hand in the tub; it was already warmer than the air and that was good enough for her. With a hand on the side she vaulted in and sank into the lukewarm bubbles with a happy sigh.

I'm getting laid tonight! The blood in her veins sang to the snowy mountains surrounding her. Like a naughty 'Sound of Music', she snickered. She spread her arms along the sides and let the bubbles tickle her skin while she waited.

Five minutes later the Jacuzzi was bubbling and steaming just right but she was still alone. What was keeping Buffy? Had she changed her mind? It was familiar territory, but Buffy's timing always sucked.

Faith waited another few minutes before getting annoyed. If Buffy had changed her mind she could have at least poked her head out and told her!

Launching herself out of the tub, feeling the air immediately sink its teeth into her and causing her to shiver uncontrollably, Faith stormed back into the cabin to give Buffy a piece of her mind.

The scene that greeted her wiped that straight out.

Buffy was passed out, sprawled on the end of the bed, naked from the knees up. Her snowsuit, black leggings and a pair of Christmas themed panties were still caught around her ankles. She'd obviously tried and failed to pull them all over her massive snow boots at once before the struggle and the warmth of the open fire worked its magick on her fatigued, inebriated body.

The sight was adorable. Something Faith didn't go in for, unless, apparently, it was Buffy. It was also wicked hot because Buffy was all, you know, naked and spread and kind of at her mercy. The things Faith could do to that body . . . The urge was definitely there, to wake her up and convince her to carry on, but honestly, they'd waited this long . . .

Faith watched her sleep. She looked so peaceful, so different to how she was when she was awake. Especially today. She didn't want to wake her up, she just wanted to make her happy. Make that look be on her face even when she was awake.

Ten minutes later she was dressed again. She fetched a blanket from the shelf in the closet and draped it over Buffy. She wasn't benevolent enough to finish undressing her or anything. She was actually kinda hoping Buffy would wake up alone and discover herself in this compromising position and be all embarrassed. Hey, you could take the girl out of the evil, but that didn't mean you could take all of the evil out of the girl!

As an after-thought she went and turned off the Jacuzzi and drained it in case Buffy wandered out there looking for her and fell in and drowned.

Soon she was walking paths slick with ice and snow even though they'd been salted just hours before, heading for the dark, central heart of the resort. Where the happy holiday cheer was tattered around the edges, the red and green paint not so bright, the snow more muddy than pure and white, and the staff had less motivation to be polite. Behind the scenes, where the real action was. This place owed them, whether the managers knew it or not, and Faith was ready to collect. It was a long-shot, probably a really stupid idea, but somehow she was going to make this the best Christmas Buffy had had in a hella long time.


"Obviously I struck a nerve but what's the deal with his dad?" Robin asked.

"I'll explain another time," Giles promised. "I'm more concerned with if Alex is ever going to wake up. I wouldn't mind a hot meal myself soon."

Despite heavy-duty gloves and three pairs of socks, his extremities were starting to go uncomfortably numb now that they'd been simply standing around for an extended period of time

"How long did it take you to wake up after you were head-butted by a pixie?" Xander grinned.

"Longer than I want to wait out here for," he admitted, looking up at the narrow strip of black sky visible between the buildings. It was flecked with white again as yet more fresh snow started to fall and settle on the adjacent rooftops.

"We could carry him into The Mouth. Laying on this wet snow can't be good for him anyway."

"And how do we explain his unconscious state, hmm?"

It was a small miracle or perhaps proof that the deputy sheriff's skull was much thicker than his own, that Alex started to groan and mumble to himself only a few moments later.

"Okay, bigger issue: how are we going to explain his unconscious state to him?" Robin asked.

Xander held a finger up. "Having a thought!"

As Alex started trying to dizzily sit up, Giles snapped, "Have it quicker!"

"Jeez, okay Mr. Impatient Pants!" Xander looked over his shoulder to make sure the boys were definitely gone first. "Craig was right, messing with that kid's mind would have been totally wrong, but . . ." Xander paused and Giles had to really resist the urge to shake his idea out of him. "We wouldn't have to actually make Alex think he was crazy for it to work on him, right?"

"Right, what?"

"No, I get it," Robin nodded at Xander and then, before Giles could protest that they weren't ready yet – because he was hardly on the same page – the man was reaching down and yanking the woozy deputy sheriff up by the hand. "Man, are you okay? That was one hell of a bump to the head you took."

"Huh?" Alex staggered on his feet.

Xander grabbed his other hand as Robin let go and his shoulder to steady him. "Yeah, jeez, Al, you scared the crap out of me. You've been out for like half an hour. Do you feel okay now? Do you need to see the doctor?"

"What? The doctor? What happened?"

Xander moved him back so he could lean against the wall as Robin explained. "Xander thought he saw a wolf run into this alley, do you remember? So we all gave chase but, I don't know whether you slipped in the snow or if Andrew got in your way, but you suddenly went over and cracked your head on this wall here."

"I did? Damn. Explains why the room is spinning." Alex held his hands to his head for a moment. When he looked up again, he asked, "Was it a wolf?"

"Cat." Xander laughed awkwardly and gestured to his face. "You know, one eye, hard to tell the difference in the dark. Sorry I got you hurt."

Alex shook his head and then winced. "Don't worry about it. Honest mistake. Was Willow here?"

Xander laughed again. "Willow? Why would Willow be here?"

"Willow's in New York," Giles said calmly. "Why do you ask?"

"I don't know."

"Maybe you should see a doctor," Robin said.

"No. I'll be fine in a minute." He looked around dazedly. "Where are Frazer and the kids?"

"Frazer was slightly distressed over your predicament," Giles said, "So Craig and Andrew took him home a short time ago."

"Good. That's good of them." Alex held his head again. "Damn, I had the weirdest dream while I was out. Concussions, huh."

Giles shared smiles with Robin and Xander; guilty but triumphant smiles.

"Wait, are you sure Willow wasn't here at some point?"


It had taken ten minutes of standing under the fast running hot water before Willow felt like her bones had stopped shivering. After that she relaxed and enjoyed her shower, marvelling over how many varieties of soap, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, bath foam and exfoliating, emolliating and perfuming products were neatly arranged on the shiny shelves in the shower cubicle.

It was overwhelming, like a display cabinet at The Body Shop, so many colors and fragrances to choose from. And this was just their holiday home! What must her bathroom at her real, every day home be like?

Well, she knew that, didn't she? She'd been in the girls' dorm enough in recent weeks to know that Kennedy's personal toiletries shelf boasted one bottle of no tears hair and body wash, one can of deodorant spray and one economy sized bar of lightly fragranced soap – standard issue for all Slayers courtesy of Giles. If the girls wanted anything more extravagant, they were expected to purchase it out of their own money. It was fair, at least for the people who still had their own money to spend on that kind of thing.

Using a different scent for everything – a squirt of banana shampoo, a splodge of cocoa butter conditioner, a thick orange trickle of mango shower-gel – it reminded her of potion-making, of experimenting with a little more eye of newt and a little less tongue of bat until the required effect was achieved. It was really more like science than witchcraft, and safer than trying to pull the proverbial rabbit out of an empty hat. Maybe now that Magick was getting to be like an extreme sport for her, with very little reward for the danger she had to keep putting herself in, it was time to rethink her career path. Something more mundane could be equally as worthwhile. Something that involved more substance, in a down to earth kind of way, than the flash-bang of high-octane magick.

Chemistry could be interesting.

Or Medicine.

Or Forensic Anthropology.

Or Divination . . .

Okay, the last one was less down to earth, but what did it take to become a 'Seer'? She'd never completed her degree, what with UC Sunnydale crashing to the bottom of a gigantic crater and all, making it kinda hard to attend classes and dissertation meetings. So maybe it wasn't too late to switch things up a little.

She breathed in the assorted aromas mingling in the hot shower steam as she dried off on the fluffiest, largest blue towel she'd ever encountered. Chemistry definitely made rooms smell better than her magick ever had.

It was only as she was dressing she realized she hadn't really packed anything church-y in her suitcase. Wicca called for earthy-toned, flowing garments – and in some circles, the less of them the better – and Willow had always leant more towards bright and/or fuzzy clothing, so her wardrobe these days tended to be a combination of both styles. It didn't seem formal-esque enough for a strict religious occasion though.

Once dressed, Willow had waited as long as she could for her to come back, but the longer she waited the more time she had to nervously glance at her reflection in one of Kennedy's full length mirrors. The more time she had to do that, the more she was able to convince herself that the amber blouse and the long, charcoal skirt screamed outsider, and possibly Heathen too. She needed a second opinion, her girlfriend's opinion if possible, in case her attire was as inappropriate as she feared and she needed to start all over again.

Kennedy had left her suite a while ago to get ready in the spare room, back when Willow was still showering away the icy shivers caused by that snowy Boudenver alley. She knew that room was on the first floor, Kennedy had said it was somewhere near the kitchen – well, she'd said something like that including several imaginative curse words anyway – so all she had to do was head for the kitchen and start knocking on doors.

Right?

It sounded so easy and not scary when you said it quickly. It was silly, it wasn't like there was going to be a stranger behind every door! Most of the rooms would be empty anyway and even if they weren't, Willow was sure she had been introduced to every single person the Morales' had ever met at the party the night before. Except for Roxie's friends, who hadn't been allowed to attend and, if she was having a moment of honesty here, it was kind of Roxanne that she didn't want to come face to face with if she knocked on the wrong door. She liked Roxie, at least she didn't dislike her and her brusque approach to conversation was like . . . it was kinda like Anya, she realized with a fond smile for her old friend, but with some human stuff like a sense of humor already built in. Her smile turned to a giggle as she remembered the hours Xander had spent trying to teach Anya the concept of the Knock-Knock joke. Come to think of it, he'd done the same with the Buffybot. No wonder they'd gotten along so well. Anya had never been the person to go to for reassurance though, and Willow – as mature and adult and stuff as she was now – quailed inside at the idea of letting the out-spoken teenager critique her appearance when she was in a self-conscious mood already.

She didn't have the ingredients to do a locator spell, and expensive shampoos and body lotions might smell better than a bubbling cauldron full of tumbleweed and eggs but you couldn't find a solitary slayer in a mansion this size just armed with a bottle of Truffle shampoo – unless you were a werewolf and the slayer had recently used the shampoo, because then it was probably even easier than doing a spell.

Now she was just procrastinating.

Willow crept through the quiet house. She didn't mean to creep, she just couldn't help it. The house was just so majestic that even though she'd received such a warm welcome, when it felt empty like this it inspired creeping. Wandering the halls was unsettling, especially when everyone else seemed to have vanished.

Feeling very much alone, she descended the grand central staircase to the first floor. That had gone well. Now she just had to find this spare room of Kennedy's. It shouldn't be that hard. 'Near the kitchen' narrowed it down and she knew where the kitchen was . . . It was on the other side of the house surrounded by living rooms, family rooms, studies, store rooms, reception rooms, dining rooms, games rooms and rooms whose only purpose seemed to be a way of getting from one room to another – and no she wasn't talking about hallways, although there were plenty of those too; she was creeping along one right now, and yes, still with the creeping. She'd be up on her tiptoes next!

She should have just waited in Kennedy's suite of rooms for her girlfriend to come back, but she wasn't even sure she knew the way back there now. She really should have left a trail of breadcrumbs.

She passed through the kitchen, smiling when Sookie raised her greying muzzle to give an enthusiastic sniff in her direction. She crossed a corner of a small, cozy dining room and went through an anteroom with tables still stacked with cardboard trays of dirty glasses from last night's party.

Their engagement party, ha!

Willow giggled again as she thought about it. About how dramatic it had all felt yesterday and about how easy it was to blow a few ambiguous comments into something huge and ridiculous like an arranged marriage! The idea of her and Kennedy 'tying the knot'! She couldn't wait to share that one with Buffy and Xander!

Actually she really couldn't wait and she fished her cell phone from her small over the shoulder bag to text one of them as she strolled through the large function hall where they'd held the party. It wasn't really a function hall, obviously, but it was clearly a room designed just for entertaining and the 'large' part was totally on the money. She was no longer creeping, her amusement and the fact that she hadn't bumped into anyone yet had given her back some of the confidence it had taken a few years of high school and Buffy's friendship and Oz's love to acquire in the first place. She was walking casually now, but stopped when she heard voices from Mr. Morales' study door across the room.

Finally!

She hurried to it when she heard Kennedy, but this wasn't Giles' office back home so she did the polite thing and raised her hand to knock. Only to drop it back to her side when she heard:

"I can't believe this!"

She took a step back in surprise. That hadn't been her girlfriend's indoor voice. That was her reaming out a slayer for dropping her stake in training voice. What had her mom done this time to deserve it?

She could hear Rosie answering her daughter but it was calmer, quieter and accented and Willow could only make out a word here and there.

Not wanting to intrude on the family argument, she stepped away to wait for Kennedy to emerge on her own. Softly humming the theme music to 'The Young and The Restless' with forced nonchalance she went back to the text she'd been about to type before finding a better distraction in the large ornate mirror that hung over the mantel.

Hmm, maybe there was something in what Buffy said about expensive mirrors being more flattering, because she didn't look half as 'heathen-y' here as she had upstairs.

"How can this not be too much? This is bribery, Mom! . . . No, I didn't say that, but shouldn't that be up to Willow and I?"

Oh shoot, they were arguing about her! What could have possibly been said now?

Kennedy had been . . . well, not necessarily hiding something from her earlier, but she had implied there was something she was keeping to herself. A something that had arisen after she'd spoken to her step-father in that very room. Were the two connected? And if so, how did they connect to her? On second thought, did she really need to know?

She turned to go. She didn't really feel the urgent need for a second opinion anymore and she'd rather wait for everyone else to be ready in a different room, one well out of range.

"Well, let's see what Willow has to say about it!"

Oh no! She was not getting dragged into a confrontation with her girlfriend's mom! Not when the woman had been nothing but kind and welcoming to her. Yes, she was a little over-whelming, but that wasn't a crime and she'd take it over disinterested, which is how her own parents came across most of the time. As the door flew open more to allow a fuming slayer to march out, Willow shrank back against the wall beside the mirror, grateful the house had so many healthy, leafy house-plants even in mid-winter. They made such good hiding places.

Willow watched as Kennedy stormed across the room and out through the door she was pretty sure led back to the main entrance hall and the stairs. Probably heading back to her own suite of rooms to find her. She waited until Kennedy was out of sight before leaving the camouflage of the potted plant, planning to slip out of the room after her and wait in the foyer for everyone to assemble for Mass.

She was walking past the study door on her way to do just that when voices from inside once again made her stop in her tracks. She'd thought only Rose had been in there with Kennedy, but now she could hear Mr. Morales' speaking. He sounded business-like in a mild-mannered way and there was no doubt that now Kennedy had gone, he was the calmest person in the room and his wife was kinda agitated.

With the door wide open from Kennedy's swift departure, Willow couldn't help but overhear.

"I don't see why we couldn't just threaten to withhold her inheritance."

"You know Kennedy. She ran away to join a lesbian commune this summer! Do you really think she cares about her inheritance?"

"Then why are we offering her this opportunity at all?" Mr. Morales sounded lost in the conversation.

"Do you not want me to have my dying wish fulfilled?" Rosie ranted. "I accept she loves women. I accept she would rather run around in dungarees than wear pretty dresses. I even accept that she wishes to live on the other side of the country with her penniless, hippie friends!"

Willow took umbrage to that; they were not hippies! Just because there were about twenty people in the house and they liked to grow their own vegetables and, okay one time they may have had a little accidental free love going on did not make them hippies, thank you very much!

The umbrage was completely forgotten in the next minute as Rosie went on.

"But I will not accept never having the chance to be at her wedding and I do not accept a life without grandchildren!"

Whoa! What? Oh boy!

"I think dying wishes only count if you're actually dying," Mr. Morales said reasonably.

"You know the women in my family are cursed, Jesus! You know we are destined to die young! Have you forgotten what happened to Aunt Agnes? My time is running out!" her voice petered out on a sob.

"Rosetta," Mr. Morales said soothingly and Willow imagined him putting his arms around his wife to comfort her.

"I just want her to be happy and settled before I go, is that too much for a mother to ask? And Willow is good for her, we can already see that. They are happy together and they keep telling me how serious they already are. If I honestly thought she was just another girl Kennedy was wasting her time with for the sake of sex I would never be even thinking this. This is different, Jesus, I can feel it. Even Roxanne feels it, even if she says she thinks Willow is a little strange.

"Strange how?" Mr. Morales asked, echoing Willow's thoughts to the letter.

"You know, I can see dead people strange. That's how she put it. She can be such a silly girl sometimes, but I know she thinks Kennedy has finally met her match, because she said that too. She thinks she was being sarcastic, but I know my girls, both of them, and Willow really is the one, Jesus. But Kennedy can also be a very silly girl and I want to make this so she cannot screw it up. She will thank me on my death bed and I will die young but happy and that way I will have beaten the curse that takes my life away from me."

Outside the study, Willow was rooted to the spot with all she was hearing. All of their assumptions had been true, and that was weird and bad enough but . . . did Kennedy know about the curse on her family? Was that the news she'd only received a few hours earlier? Would it change Kennedy's opinion on the subject of marriage? And kind of more importantly, did it change hers?

Marriage was a big whoa and not an idea Willow had ever really entertained. Even with Tara when she'd assumed they'd be spending the rest of their lives together anyhow. With Kennedy, well she really didn't believe in happy ever afters anymore, but the young slayer did make her happy now and if marriage had never been that important to her, was it really a big deal one way or the other? Was fulfilling a warm, kind, doting woman's final wish really that hard if she wasn't dead set either way? Then again, it really was kind of a big final wish to wish for, especially from someone you'd only met for just two days!

This was big; that was pretty much the only thing Willow felt sure of as she stood there. It made for flustered-y feelings, feelings of distraught and likewise. She worried her bottom lip with her tongue and clenched the phone in her hand hard. Just what was she supposed to do with this information?

More than anything she longed to be back home, because if anything ever had, this called for a meeting of the Scooby gang! Awkward sitch, check. Life-changing event, check. Curses, double check!

Movement on the other side of the room caught her eye and she looked up to lock gazes with a tall blonde woman. The elusive Heidi! How long had she been there? Startled to find the woman staring at her and embarrassed to be caught eavesdropping on her hosts private conversation, Willow turned tail and fled back the way she'd come.

Inside the study, unaware that they'd ever had an audience, the conversation continued.

"Sweetheart, you must stop this cursed business." Jesus held his wife close to his chest as he comforted her. "You are not going to die young. You are going to live to see plenty of grandchildren."

"You do not know that! Aunt Agnes . . .!" Rosie cried dramatically.

"Auntie Agnes lived to be eighty-four!"

"Exactly! Which means at best I only have another forty years to live! Do you really think Kennedy is capable of getting married in the next forty years if she is left to her own devices?"

Kennedy hadn't been able to find Willow after storming out of her step-father's office and it was probably for the best. Her mom made her so freaking mad sometimes, but going to Willow and shouting about what an over-bearing ogre her mother was for wanting their relationship to work out would probably give the wrong message.

Willow had promised not to let herself be scared off and Kennedy had to trust that. It wasn't that hard to do, not when she knew what Willow had faced in her previous relationships. Werewolves and infidelity; witches and insanity and murder. A suffocating middle-aged Latina woman with a heart too big and no sense of discretion was nothing compared to that. They just had to keep their heads down for the rest of their vacation and dodge any of her well-meaning relatives' wedding-mania the following day.

More of a concern was how it all tied into her step-dad's offer. It was a good one, she couldn't deny that. A team of financial advisors wouldn't be able to either. Nor a team of health-specialists. And they wouldn't need to buy a crystal ball to know their life expectancy was bound to go up the moment they left the slaying behind, and that was what Kennedy wanted. As many years to enjoy being with the woman she loved as she could possibly glean from the universe.

The only downside was knowing that the life expectancy of a lot of other people could go down if she left the slaying behind, and who the hell knew what could happen if Willow left the world save-age behind.

Jesus hadn't actually come right out and said that 'no marriage meant no job' but he'd said a lot about presenting the best image for the company and her mom had gushed about how perfectly it was all slotting into place – new job, new house, new wife, new beginnings – and it was hard not to feel a little swayed by the persuasiveness of her arguments.

She just really didn't know what to do and Dawn had been no help on the phone. Faith still hadn't called back. Buffy and Giles she wanted to keep as last resorts. She was going to have to try Xander next.

It would have to wait though, because it was time to leave for Mass.

Willow was already waiting in the grand foyer, while the rest of her family were too busy or absent-minded or disinterested to be anywhere they were supposed to be on time. She stood alone, in the middle of the polished floor, looking beautiful in a long, flowing charcoal skirt and an amber colored, collarless blouse and it took Kennedy's breath away.

The future didn't matter, not tonight anyway. All that mattered was that they were good just as they already were. They'd made it through a stormy patch and come out stronger the other side. They could weather anything together, including her crazy mother, and she couldn't wait to start.

"Hey," she disturbed Willow's meditative staring match with the far wall as she descended the last of the stairs.

"Hey!" Willow shouted and then shrunk into her shoulders, embarrassed. "I mean, hi. Um, hey. How you doing, baby?"

"I'm good, you?" she asked, bemused with the anxious mood her girlfriend was in. "Do I have to start locking up the caffeinated tea? You look amazing by the way."

"Ha, good one, baby. No, no, no, um, no I'm fine. Just excited. Can't wait to get my liturgy on and break some bread with you, baby."

Okay, so Willow was just nervous about attending Mass. It was fine. Kennedy was kind of nervous about Willow's religious services too. That coven thing they'd crashed back in Sunnydale had been totally weird.

No big.

She walked forward to try and conquer some of Willow's nervous energy with a kiss, just as her mother and Roxie made an appearance, bustling into the foyer and bickering as usual.

"Ahh, Willow, you look lovely. Is that shirt designer?" Whether at being dropped so fast from the conversation or at her mom's question, Roxie scoffed and Willow blushed.

"No, I don't think so, but thank you."

"Oh, no matter dear. It could be soon, yes?" Had her mom really just winked? "You sit with me, Willow. I want to hear all about your life, your dreams, your family . . ."

Kennedy sent her a helpless apologetic look as Willow was dragged away on her mother's arm to sit on the middle bench seat of the people carrier Jesus always kept in the garage at the holiday house for family trips. Then she made sure to elbow Roxie hard in the ribs – but not too hard didn't want to accidentally break any – as she followed her into the rear seat.

"Oww, what was that for?"

"Shut up, I need to send a text."


Xander was in the middle of being jovial when he really wasn't in the mood to be when his cell phone beeped. It would have been a welcome distraction if he was in a position to be distracted.

They were all in The Mouth now, regaling the other 'hunters' with their tales of the day. The waitresses had supplied them with mugs of cocoa and bowls of turkey soup on the house as soon as they'd sat down, but Xander's were both long gone and all he wanted now was a beer. He'd earned one today. No he'd earned three at least!

Naturally most of their story was centered on the last hour of their adventures, which had been left to Xander to describe because he was the only one of them the townsfolk really trusted and Alex couldn't give an accurate account because he'd been out cold for much of it and was still a little fuzzy with a suspected concussion.

It was neat the way all the grizzled old men rallied around the deputy sheriff, inspecting the lump on his forehead, fetching him a bag of frozen peas to ease the swelling, offering him a chair to put his feet up and generally fussing like a bunch of gnarly mother hens in a way that was obviously making Alex embarrassed. All except his father, the sheriff, who just gave him a friendly thump on the shoulder and told him to hurry and eat his soup because his report on the hunt wouldn't write itself. It might have sounded cold but it perked Alex back up, allowing him to become business-like again instead of bewildered and lost.

"So what made you run down the alley again?"

Xander tried not to twitch nervously. He didn't want to lie to his friend, but he knew it was necessary for now. He liked it even less when every man in the diner had pulled a chair up to listen in.

"I saw something run across the beam of my flashlight and it was, I don't know, the right shape I guess for a wolf and I just reacted."

"So you didn't see it clearly before you ran into the alley?" Alex had his notebook out now and was writing out his replies with one hand and holding the bag of peas to his lump with the other.

"No, it was just a shape darker than the snow."

"We flushed something outta the bushes on the edge of the woods," one man said. "Didn't get a good look but it was heading this way."

"It was probably a dog," another said. "There's always a few strays hanging around."

"Probably," Xander agreed.

"I think he knows the difference between a dog and a wolf," Alex argued.

"He's only got one eye," chimed in a younger man. "He probably can't tell the difference between a teapot and a turkey in the dark."

Offended and self-conscious, Xander let the argument about his eyesight go on and shrugged off Giles and Robin's concerned looks to stand and excuse himself.

"I'm gonna give Andy a call. See what's keeping them."

"Xander, we haven't finished," Alex reminded him and he was being a lot chillier with him than usual.

It made him wonder just how much of what really happened he remembered. And how much he was prepared to pretend he didn't for peace of mind.

"I'll be right back."

In the privacy of the tiny bathroom he removed his patch and splashed water on his face – freezing water because the hot tap wouldn't let out more than a tiny gurgle – and then found the bottle and squeezed some eye-drops into his wounded socket. His palm slapped the discolored tiles beside the tiny mirror when it stung like a bitch. It always hurt more when he was tired and right now he was exhausted. He'd forgotten just how tiring patrolling could be and he'd been doing it for twelve hours today.

When the sting faded he wiped the rest of his face dry on paper towels and pulled his patch back over his head and into position. He felt better . . . but he still needed a beer.

Andrew picked up immediately but Xander could hear him laughing before he said, "Hello?"

"It's Xander. Where are you? What's so funny? Did you get Frazer back okay?"

"Oh, hey Xander . . . I mean Agent Xander. Yeah, everything's cool. Frazer's mom invited us in for dinner and his dad has been telling us stories of when HE worked with the FBI as a rough terrain guide . . ." Xander mentally face-palmed. "There was this one time he had to convince the Patterson's to give up their cow as evidence and it . . ."

"Yeah, yeah, sounds hilarious, Andy. Tell me the rest later. I just wanted to make sure you guys were still alive, you know 'cause you didn't come back like you were supposed to."

Andrew made some semi-sincere apologies and then explained Frazer's dad had insisted on giving them a ride home after dinner. Xander didn't care, other than feeling a little jealous about it because he was stuck there.

The text he'd received was from Kennedy and it didn't make a whole lot of sense.

'Hey, Merry Christmas. If you had to choose between living a long, comfortable life with the woman you love and living a short, crazy but maybe more rewarding life with the woman you love, which would you choose? Oh yeah, and the comfortable life comes with a company car and a generous salary but the short life comes with slaying and familiarity but over-crowding and cold showers. And, you know, in light of you and Anya, how do you feel about marriage in general?'

Even after reading it again he had no idea what to make of it and he wasn't exactly pleased about having a question about Anya thrown at him out of the blue. Was it a riddle? An insensitive one. Or some kind of cryptic cry for help? If it was the latter, how was he supposed to help? It wasn't like he could teleport like Willow. She should have texted Buffy; not that Buffy could teleport but she was the slayer and if help was needed . . . well she would always be the one he turned to.

He read it again. No, it had to be a riddle, or some kind of joke that he was just too weary to get.

So he decided to take it at face value and sent back: 'Obviously I'd choose the long, comfortable life but that hardly ever happens in our world so don't get your hopes up. I wish I'd married Anya. If I'd known what the real future was going to bring instead of the fake one I was shown, I wouldn't have hesitated. Merry Christmas.'

He'd just pressed 'send' when Alex came through the door. "You've been in here a while. Everything okay?"

"Didn't realize this thing had a timer on it," he joked weakly, patting the wall.

Alex didn't crack a smile. "We're waiting for you to finish up your statement."

It was a statement now?

"Look, Al, if this is as serious as you're making it sound, maybe you should just cart me to the Sheriff's office."

He thought Alex was going to take him up on his blithe comment for a moment but then he softened, just a little bit. "I'm just confused about some of the stuff that happened in that alley."

And Xander just wanted to tell him the truth, even if it wasn't the best idea for Slayer secrecy. "Then maybe we should go to the department."

"No, no, let's just . . . keep this as straight-forward as possible. Just a few more questions." He followed Alex out of the restroom, close enough to hear the muttered, "For now."


"So, I have some questions and I think you guys are the ones who can best answer them."

About twenty elf heads shot to the doorway in surprise. She'd faced down demons so much bigger than them and a way lot badder but it was still unnerving. Their pretty faces and piercing eyes and unwavering attention . . .

Faith cleared her throat. "Yeah, so . . . I guess you guys salvaged it okay. That's good."

She'd been worried that she'd arrive at the husky shed to find it deserted and would have to somehow make her way back to the bluff the sleigh had crashed on. As she'd approached the closed wooden doors the sound of hammering, sawing and whispered instructions had been music to her ears, even if she couldn't understand the instructions themselves.

"Did you get all the pieces?"

Some fairy-lights had been dragged in from the pathway outside to provide light to work by, but it still took Faith a moment to realize it was the same elf that had been spokesperson earlier that was approaching her now. It wasn't like they looked all that different, even close up.

"We did indeed," he said in a sweet, musical lilt. "Why do you ask, Slayer?"

So they knew who she was. Not a big surprise.

"Need any help?"

"You are a carpenter?"

"Well, I'm no Xander, but he's taught me a few tricks. Give me a nail, I can hammer it in the right place without catching my thumb."

The head elf appraised her silently and then with a smile that even rivalled Buffy's, handed her a hammer.

As they worked, the huskies deeper in the shed whined and whimpered occasionally. They probably weren't all that happy with the disruption but Faith liked the sound of them. She'd always wanted a dog. She took short breaks to go and fuss them and they whined more when she went back to work. The reindeers - both the flying kind and the regular ones, she couldn't tell the difference between them – stamped their hooves and snorted now and again. They gave the shed a musky, pleasant smell.

The sleigh was more than half put together when the head-elf, who she now knew was called Innoki, gently reached out strong but delicate fingers to take the hammer from her and asked:

"Why do you help us, Slayer?"

"I need a favor," she admitted.

"Which would be?"

"A ride home for me and my girl. Tonight."

He smiled. "Most humans would book a plane ride."

"No planes tonight and we're not most humans. Look, it's only a couple of . . ."

"We would take you all the way to India for the good deed you did us today. Although our method of travel is not for the faint-hearted."

"Yeah, we're not all that faint-hearted either."

Innoki handed back the hammer.

It was another hour before the sleigh was ship-shape again and Faith was starting to worry about Buffy waking up, dehydrated for a glass of water, alone. It didn't take the elves long to organize themselves though. Eight of the reindeer were walked out of the stalls and harnessed up in front of the sleigh.

"We ready? Should I go get B?"

"There is still something we are missing."

"What? Come on! This ain't going to be the thing it's supposed to be if she's fuckin' pissed at me!"

"Patience, Slayer." Innoki walked away from her and all of the other elves seemed to shrink away, pressing back against the walls in some kind of reverence. "Are you ready my deer? I am so sorry you have been kept in the dark for so long, but now is the time for you to truly shine."

Faith had noticed a faint red glow coming from the far end of the stalls since she'd entered, but she'd assumed it was the one light they'd dared put on because it wouldn't have called attention to them through the windows. It brightened as Innoki neared the far end and then Faith stood agape as a reindeer, smaller than the rest, was led towards her.

"You've got to be kidding me!"

Its nose was bright red, almost blinding in the dim light of the barn, and glowed so much the dark walls were painted crimson.

"No fucking way," she breathed.

The reindeer was walked to the front of the already strapped in herd and then Innoki set gently about strapping it in too.

"Seriously? Is that . . .?" No way. Had she fallen asleep in the hot tub and was dreaming all of this?

"Slayer Faith, you may come and meet Rudolf if you choose."

"Fuck, yeah."

His nose burned her palm, but it didn't leave a blister. Just a sensation of extreme heat. She rubbed her hand between his small antlers; this was way more awesome than meeting Santa Claus.

"How does his nose glow so bright?" she asked.

"Nobody knows. Magick maybe. Are you ready? We're about to open the doors."

"Wait! I need to go get Buffy. Can you meet us on the lawn in front of cabin Seventeen?"

"No, but we can meet you on the roof above cabin Seventeen. Go, we will be waiting."


Buffy woke up to someone shaking her shoulder. It wasn't a good awakening.

"Really hope you're a demon and not the housekeeping staff because I'm about to . . ." A red fire-bucket, now sand-less, was pushed under her face just in time and she hurled into it. Three times.

"Feeling better?"

That was Faith's voice, which was better than demons or housekeeping staff, but . . . she'd just thrown up in front of Faith! So not cool and sexy.

"Give me a minute." She looked down at herself. She was covered by a blanket she couldn't remember fetching and she was so naked beneath it! "Actually, could you give me five minutes?"

"Yeah, but that's all you get. I have a surprise waiting outside for you."

A surprise? That sounded nice.

"Need to be sick again?"

She thought about it.

"No, I don't think so."

"Then pull your clothes back on, brush your teeth and let's go!"

"What? If we're going out I need to get changed. Why are we going out? Where are we going?"

Those questions were all good, but Faith just shrugged and gestured for her to hurry up. "Do you have another snowsuit?"

"No, I only bought one."

"Well, you're gonna need the one you bought, I think, so you'll have to change when we get where we're going."

"Which is? Or where is? Faith, what is going on?" She struggled to do as she was told. Faith had to step in and help her in the end, when her arms wouldn't bend right to fit. She grimaced when her underwear felt cold and damp against her. "There better be a good reason for this."

"You're telling me," Faith muttered and took her hand to lead her outside.

Snow was falling again, thick flakes slowly wending their way through the still night to the white blanket covering everywhere. Buffy couldn't remember the last time she'd seen grass. The air biting at her exposed skin was enough to shake the lingering fog of too much alcohol; could you say 'Holy f-f-f-frostbite, Batman'?

Still being led by the hand, Buffy was soon out of range of the golden globes of light along the main path and up to her knees in the loose snow. Now she understood why Faith had insisted she would need her snow-suit, but no closer to understanding anything else that was happening.

Faith was taking her away from the cabin. Oh, please don't let this be a return visit to the bar! She had enjoyed their drinks together earlier, from what she could remember of it, but her stomach was no way stable enough for a return visit . . . this side of New Year.

"Okay, look."

"Look at what?" she frowned. She could see the backs of some buildings, a few slime-green safety lights glowing here and there, and a whole lot of snow. Which thing, exactly, was supposed to be interesting enough to drag her out here for? "Nice . . . electricity pole?"

Faith let out a guttural sound of frustration, but Buffy really wasn't trying to play dumb. "I get it, electricity is important, I-yargh . . ." Gripping a handful of the puffy shoulder in her fist, Faith none too gently twisted Buffy around so fast her feet made a circular welt in the deep snow before she ended up on her knees. "Faith!"

"Moron!" Faith snapped back.

"Jerk-face!"

"There!"

That was . . . less cutting than Faith's usual insults. What was a There? Was it prison lingo for bitch, or worse? Now she was wildly waving her arms around and Buffy leaned back and held her hands up in surrender. She didn't know how they'd gone from almost hot-tubbing it naked to swinging fists all over again, but pride be damned she knew she couldn't take Faith on in this fragile state and win.

"Christ, how are you still this wasted?" Faith bellowed, causing a low-pitched squeal to come down from on high. Bemused, Buffy tipped her head back to see what was going on up there, but there was nothing but thousands of swirling snow-flakes to see. She turned her attention back to where Faith wanted it, on her face. Except no. "There! See? Look? There!"

The roof? There was something on the roof? "If Santa's back you'll have to call in the Scoobies, I am so over Christmas and . . . and, um, Faith, why is there a herd of reindeer on our roof?

"Surprise!"

"Yuh-huh. I bet they're pretty surprised too. How did they get up there? You didn't carry them all up did you? Faith! Giles will kill us if one of them falls off and breaks its leg!"

It took five minutes for Buffy to get it. It might have been quicker if Faith hadn't littered her explanation with opinions about how Buffy had to 'ruin every nice damn thing she did for her' and questions about her sobriety and level of intelligence. She felt like retorting that she wasn't the one flunking her GED, but was just about sober and intelligent enough to not kick that hornet's nest.

Faith's abusive ranting was obviously down to her disappointment over Buffy's initial reaction and two minutes later Buffy was proving that her first reaction was meaningless, her climbing skills and her love for Faith by shimmying up an icy drain-pipe. It would have been a catastrophe if the pipe wasn't so iced-up that her snow-wet gloves (and the knees of her snowsuit) stuck to it.

She had her hands on the tiles, trying to pull herself the rest of the way up, when Faith's voice came from just below her ass. "Don't look directly at Rudolf, he gets shy."

Buffy rolled her eyes with a little 'points-for-effort' chuckle at Faith's joke and felt a little bad when she accidentally dumped a bunch of loosened snow directly into her face. The chuckle died in her throat, however, for an entirely different reason when she noticed that - A), Faith had been telling the truth about what was up here and B), there was a definite red glow in the air above the cabin.

"What's going on, Faith?" she asked, feeling a little unnerved by the dozens of elf-eyes trained on her.

"Christmas," Faith clambered up the sloping roof next to her now. "You remember Buffy?" she said to no-elf in particular and then motioned to the sleigh. "Get in, B."

Faith had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to orchestrate this . . . whatever it was, and not wanting to 'ruin' anything else, her boots slipped and slid on the icy tiles and she did as she was told. Once she was seated she looked around. This wasn't like the sleigh they'd been in earlier. The wood was old, the paint faded, and the lead reindeer had a red nose!

This was waaay weird.

Almost as soon as Faith was in a pretty voice said, "We must go, we have lingered too long before midnight."

It meant nothing to Buffy.

Faith grinned and said "Giddy up, then."

"What? Wait, what? O. . . ." The sleigh started moving, abruptly, and fast. " . . . kaaay!"

The reindeer started to run along the roof. The roof was, what, fifteen feet long? And that was being generous! "Oh, oh, oh," and then suddenly, "Ohhhhhh, Faaaith!"

"I know! It's freaking weird. Just hold on."

"I . . ." Oh crap! Abruptly the sensation of moving so fast was replaced by a whooshy weightlessness and Buffy had to twist quickly as far over the edge as she could without falling out. When she was sure she was done, she sat back down with a sheepish smile. "Sorry."

An elf handed her a green handkerchief to wipe her mouth.

"I thought you said you were not the faint-hearted kinds," another elf said to Faith with mild amusement.

"It's not her heart that's faint, dude, it's her stomach. Too much Christmas cheer, if you know what I mean."

"Ah. We carry bags for that kind of incident," he said and then lowered his voice and discreetly pointed to another elf. "Ribourgo occasionally suffers from motion-sickness."

A paper bag was produced and handed to Faith who handed it to Buffy. She took it with a grateful and not at all sarcastic smile of thanks. It was a little late for travel sickness bags when she'd just decorated the roof of the resort restaurant.

It occurred to her that she'd been in a position to throw up on a roof at all, and with the sleigh now sailing through the snowy sky so smoothly she could have been in a car on a well-paved highway, her stomach was calm enough to let her feel some of the wow-factor.

Right up until she realized she was flying with nothing more than a few planks of wood and some magick reindeer between her and the snow-covered peaks of certain death they were hurtling towards!


Willow sat on a pew about halfway from the front of the church sandwiched between Kennedy on her left and Rosie on her right. Literally sandwiched because the building was packed. Kennedy had whispered to her that it was only like this on Christmas Eve and Easter, but that the Midnight Mass – which would be in another three hours or so – would be even busier. It was hard to comprehend how they'd fit any more in. Or why so many people would want to spend a winter evening in a cold, stone building at all.

The service, though, was pleasant, if not exactly to her taste. There was less preaching than she'd expected and more story-telling and giving thanks to the baby Jesus. There were no dreary hymns, only rousing Christmas carols that she recognized from the radio or from the carol singers that had dared to knock on the Rosenberg's door only to be stopped half-way through 'Away in a Manger' to be given a lecture on the perils of not respecting religious diversity, the first amendment and the illegalities of trespassing on somebody's doorstep.

She was pretty sure her house was the only one that got egged more often on

Christmas Eve than on Halloween.

So she didn't sing, because she didn't really know any words, plus she just didn't sing unless there was a demon making her do it, but she stood with the rest of the congregation at the appropriate times and enjoyed listening to Kennedy's surprisingly good voice beside her and Rosie's surprisingly loud voice on the other side. At one point, near the beginning of 'O Come All Ye Faithful' or . . . something, she nearly burst into giggles when Mr. Morales looked around his wife with an affectionately sarcastic 'Can you believe the lungs on this woman' look. The urge intensified when Rosie elbowed her husband in the stomach without breaking her vocal stride – or hitting a single correct note.

During the next portion, when they were seated again and the vicar . . . priest . . . the man with the Godly plan at the front had been talking for ages already, Willow tried not to fidget. She looked down when an elbow connected lightly with her arm to see Rosie offering her a strawberry BonBon. She took one eagerly. Who knew church could be this much fun?

While she sucked on the candy to make it last, she really did try to concentrate, but it wasn't long before her mind began to wander.

Rosie was awesome and it was horrible that there was a curse on her. She wanted to speak to Giles about trying to lift it, because it wasn't fair that awesome people died young. Not that Rosie was that young, but Willow still didn't want her to die. For Kennedy's sake, and her own.

Willow loved her mom, she really did and always would, but she was so absent. Even when Willow had lived in the same house as her parents it had felt that way. Her mom tried, in her own way, but she was always so busy with her work and her next pet project. She'd been a more normal mom, like Joyce, until Willow had started middle school – she'd been at home a lot more and they'd actually done stuff together sometimes – but she'd been making her own lunches and after-school snacks since she was twelve and by the time she was fourteen she'd been eating dinner by herself four or five nights a week.

Back then she would have killed for an overbearing mom like Rosie. A mom who got up in her business whether Willow wanted her to or not. The only time that had ever happened was when her mom had insisted Oz come around to dinner and even that hadn't been the experience she had wanted it to be. Her dad had had to work late and so he wasn't even there and her mom had just asked questions like 'Does your interesting choice of hair style and color gain you as much attention as you'd hoped?' and 'Do you feel your involvement in a rock band gives you the sense of identity and control that young people crave?' like he was one of her case studies! Oz had been as cool and collected as always but Willow had been embarrassed that she couldn't just speak to him like a normal person. She dreaded the day she'd have to introduce her to Kennedy.

Not that that would be a while because her parents were in Europe. They hadn't even told her they were going. She'd received an email about it! With their itinerary attached for emergencies. When Willow had called with an emergency, to say that their hometown was now in a pit of rubble, her mom had asked her if she'd remembered to pack a pair of clean socks.

Socks!

Rosie was in a state of near frenzy because Kennedy was living in the next state instead of at home with her.

Why wouldn't she want to be a part of this family? This loving, argumentative, teasing, but above all real family.

The pastor . . . vicar . . . guy at the front was doing something ceremonial and traditional now. Kennedy took her hand and whispered, "You okay?"

Willow nodded, smiling, because for a long time, she'd really never been happier.

Once Mass was over, Kennedy stood outside church with her family, Willow's arm looped discreetly through hers, while her mom and dad chatted with the other parishioners. They were saying their Merry Christmases and arranging drinks at theirs and lunches at other peoples to make the rest of the vacation as sociable as possible.

Willow seemed to be eating it all up, but Kennedy was choosing to watch Roxanne have a snowball fight with a couple of pre-teen boys instead. She wanted to join in, but was wary of the fact that she'd probably knock one of them out if she threw a snowball.

When Willow was dragged into a conversation with Winnie and Donnie McPhee – and didn't seem too nervous about it – Kennedy excused herself to go and lean against the fence and check her cell-phone.

Xander had gotten back to her but it wasn't helpful at all. Yes, she'd want to marry Willow right now too if she thought one of them might die in the next twelve months, but if they agreed to her mom and dad's crazy idea that wouldn't be an issue, because they'd be living the comfortable, quiet life in Cleveland. And without the threat of death hanging over them Kennedy was good with waiting two, three or maybe five more years without even thinking about freaking marriage.

Xander had been no help. Now there was literally only one more person she could try for advice. She growled in displeasure even as she found the number and punched the call button.


"No, it's done. Father Christmas is dead! You can all leave me alone now."

"But what about . . ." Cici began.

"Done! The mystery is solved. The bad guy is slain. Let's all just move on."

"Shouldn't we patrol though?" Rona asked, and because it was his slayer he did listen.

"It's Christmas Eve, do any of you want to patrol?"

The slayers took turns looking at each other before chorusing, "No." and "Not really."

Naomi looked up from stacking the books closest to her in a neat pile. "Do you think maybe we should anyway? Just in case there are any other nasties out there?"

Reece didn't even have to give her a look. Vi, Alison and Miranda did it for him.

"What nasties?" asked Vi.

"There are no nasties," said Alison.

"It's Christmas Eve!" Miranda reminded them. "Surely we should be concentrating on drinking eggnog and singing Christmas carols."

"I couldn't agree more. But please go into the other room to do so."

Several slayers rolled their eyes at him, but as a group they got up from the table to file into the other room.

"You should take comfort in the fact that you weren't totally awful today, Reece," Naomi muttered as she got up to go and join them.

"Kiss my arse, I was exceptional," Reece returned jokingly and now Naomi was rolling her eyes at him too as she left the room with a smile.

"I guess I'll make the eggnog then," Dawn said with an exasperated air as she too got up from the table.

He hadn't even realized they'd been left alone until now, but it was exactly what he wanted. He decided to give her a minute on the other side of the counter before making his move to talk to her. They needed to talk, but he didn't want to rush straight in and look desperate. He wasn't proud of it, but he timed it on the kitchen clock while pretending to browse through the book in front of him.

He was making his way over when his cell-phone rang, instantly drawing Dawn's attention to his approach. She looked accusing. He glanced at the caller ID and shrugged.

"It's Kennedy. Want to check?"

With a huff she went back to her drink preparation and he leaned against the back of a chair as he took the call.

"Hello. What's wrong?"

"What makes you think something is wrong?"

"You're calling me. Did you miss-dial?

"No, it's you I need to speak to."

That was strange. "Then I can only assume something must be wrong. What is it?"

Kennedy hemmed and hawed until he sighed impatiently. He was interested to know what this was about, but it was taking up precious time. If Dawn finished and disappeared into the other room he would lose his chance to nonchalantly approach her.

"Sorry, it's just a really weird thing I'm calling about."

"Weird is my business," he said and then bared his teeth when he feared it made him sound ridiculous. "So just spit it out. Is it a demon? A vampire? Father Christmas?"

She chuckled, "No, sorry, it's not really a professional call."

There went his interest. "In that case, can you call back some other time? I'm . . ."

"No, hang on! It's not about supernatural stuff, but I guess it is kind of a professional subject."

A slither of interest returned. "Then, Kennedy . . ."

She got the hint. "My step-father owns his own company. It's a big one. He started it from scratch, in LA in the early eighties, but he moved the headquarters to New York about a decade later, a few years after he married my mom and now it has branches in like twenty-five states. He's kind of a big fish in a big pond."

Another sliver of interest joined the first. He knew Kennedy came from money, it wasn't a secret at the camp that she'd run away from a very rich life in New York when the Bringers were after her. That was all the detail he knew however, and he was pretty sure that he knew as much as everyone else – except Rupert and possibly Willow. It was an intriguing piece of Kennedy's puzzle and he was happy to be more informed. It did not clear up the confusion of why she was calling him though.

"Go on. I assume this all has a point."

"Yeah. He's about to make it twenty-six states by opening a branch in Ohio . . . but only if I agree to go and run it for him."

He didn't really understand. "But doesn't he know you have a job?"

"He thinks I'm a gym teacher, but that's beside the point. I don't have a job, I have a calling. And jobs pay better."

"Fine, you have a calling, so how would you manage to work for him as well?"

"I wouldn't. That's the problem."

"I don't see the problem. Just tell him you don't have the time. I'm sure there are people far more qualified than you anyway that he could find."

"What's going on?" Dawn suddenly asked. He'd forgotten she was there for a moment. "Is Kennedy okay?"

"Is that Dawn? I thought we were having this conversation in private!"

"You didn't actually request that," he reminded her.

This put him in a tricky position. He liked that Kennedy had come to him for advice, even if he couldn't fathom her problem, but he'd really prefer to be talking to Dawn about their problem – even if it was just as unfathomable.

To Dawn, he said, "She's fine. She just has an issue with her father."

"And she's choosing to talk to you about it?" Dawn sounded jealous. "Why?"

"I honestly have no idea, but obviously I'd like to help."

"Oh sure. I'll just leave you two to have another cosy chat then, shall I?"

Abandoning the eggnog on the counter – which seemed a waste considering it was ready – she left the kitchen stroppily through the swing door.

Reece sighed; there went that chance, and he'd managed to make matters worse just by answering his mobile. That was it, from now on he was never answering a phone again.

"Is Dawn okay? She sounded pissed. Are you two still fighting?"

He didn't bother asking how she knew, it could have come from any of the slayers or Dawn herself; they were all terrible gossips.

"Apparently we are, yes, but don't feel bad that your problem just squandered my only chance to try and put things right tonight."

"Okay, I won't. So, my dad's job offer comes with a pretty awesome package: Good salary, company car, house, full health care plan . . ."

"That'll come in useful," he agreed. "If anybody ever needed extensive health care coverage it's a slayer. I wouldn't mention that to the other girls though, they might get jealous. Or start badgering Rupert for the same. Either way you won't be popular."

"It won't matter if I take the job because I won't be there anymore. Or slaying."

"What?"

"You said yourself I won't have the time to do both."

"Yes, but . . ."

"And my step-dad is throwing in a house, like I said, so Willow and I will be relocating to Cleveland . . ."

"What?" he thundered. This had to be . . . did Americans often get Christmas and April Fool's Day confused. He certainly bloody hoped so! "Kennedy, you are a slayer! By all means get a part time job on the side to fulfil your need to be a part of normal society – or whatever it is that Buffy keeps spouting like some mentally deficient self-help guru – but you can't just leave the slaying behind!"

"Why not?"

"Why not? Because you're a bloody slayer, that's why not! I don't care how big or—" he affected a yank accent "—awesome your father's company is, you were Called to greater things. You have a destiny!"

"Yeah, a destiny to die young, Reece! Sorry if I don't want that for me and Willow!"

"Willow? Don't even get me started!" He started anyway. "If you want to walk away, on your head be it, but how can you even think of taking one of the world's greatest witches away from the battle against evil!"

"She might just be a witch to you, but she's a person to me, the woman I love, and that's how I can take her away from a battle that is going to get her killed!"

He was seething. "I had you pegged as self-involved, Kennedy, but never this selfish!"

"I am not selfish. I'm thinking of Willow and the life I want her to have!"

"You're thinking of the money and an easy life for you, don't even deny it."

She did. "I am not!"

"Well then you are delusional. The world needs you, Kennedy, and even more than that it needs Willow! If you want to turn your back on that and go and live in Suburbia, then that's up to you, but Willow will never agree. She understands the true meaning of living – to give your life to the greater cause. I thought you did too."

"I do!" The fire had gone from Kennedy's voice, leaving a sense of desperation in its wake. "Being the Slayer is all I've ever wanted to be, but . . . but there are tons of us now. I'm not needed, not really. I'm just . . . The world will still have Buffy and Faith. Is it even going to notice if I'm not there? And Willow could still help out; living with me would just keep her out of the firing line for wackos trying to target the camp and . . ."

"Kennedy, if you've always wanted to be the Slayer, then be the Slayer! It doesn't matter how many of you there are, each and every one of you is The Slayer in your own right."

"That's not what Dracula said."

"Dracula? That jumped up little Vamp?" he laughed. "Are you seriously going to take that fame-whore's word over a Watcher's?"

"He was pretty convincing."

"Well, yes, I expect he was. His sport is getting into people's heads for fun." Reece had read a lot of case-studies on Dracula, he'd been something of an obsession of his in his early teen years at the Academy. "You shouldn't take anything he has to say on board without giving it some serious research first."

The line was quiet until Kennedy eventually said, "You don't think I should take the job?"

"Not unless your father opens the branch in Boudenver and agrees to you only working part time."

"I don't think that's an option."

"Then no, I don't think you should take it, but obviously it's up to you."

The line was quiet again, until. "So what did you do to screw things up with Dawn?"

He sighed, not sure if he wanted to discuss this with her, or anyone, but in the end he was getting nowhere fast on his own.

"I received a call from a friend, a female friend, and Dawn suspects the worst."

"Is she right to?"

Reece shrugged, and then lied. "No, of course not, but try telling Dawn that."

Kennedy surprised him then, "Look, if this chick is an old girlfriend, don't just blow it off. Tell Dawn the truth. She might get pissed that your ex is phoning you, but not as pissed as she'll be if you tell her it's just an acquaintance and she figures out you're lying. If there's nothing to feel guilty about then don't act guilty. Go speak to her now, before she can get worked up about it in her head anymore."

"Okay."

"But if you are lying, Reece, and you hurt her, I'll be the one hunting you down, and I can slap a lot harder than Dawn can!"

"How will you exact revenge, though, if you're not even going to be here? If Dawn is that important to you, why would you just walk away from her friendship?"

"I haven't totally decided I'm leaving yet, but if I do Cleveland isn't that far and if you hurt Dawn the price of the gas will be worth it." He laughed even though he suspected she was serious. "I don't know what to do," she admitted. "It's a seriously good offer, but I do know how much I'll be leaving behind. I really don't know what to do, that's why I called you."

He felt a little bad that she'd called him about this personal dilemma and he'd responded by shouting at her, but he'd shout at her again if he thought she was actually going to go through with leaving.

He turned her advice back on her. "You need to talk to Willow. If she agrees with the offer, then . . . it's nobody else's business. And if she doesn't then you'll know not to go anywhere."

"Thanks, Reece. Merry Christmas."

"Happy Christmas, Kennedy."

"Go talk to Dawn before you chicken out again."

He laughed because, well it was because Kennedy knew him so well even though they barely knew each other.

"Already on my way," he admitted as he took a deep breath and went to collect the abandoned jug of eggnog. "Talk to Willow."

"On it."

He pushed his mobile back into his jeans pocket, grabbed the jug and a few mugs and went through the swing door. The slayers were sprawled over every surface of sofa and chair and most of the floor in front of the TV. So much for them singing carols! They were watching Scrooged. Well, most of them were, Dawn was sharing an armchair with Vi and Cici and they were in deep conversation.

He set everything down on the coffee table. "Dawn, can I have a word?"

"No."

"Please?"

"Oh, whatever." She shared a look with her armchair companions, convincing him he'd been the topic of conversation, before getting up and storming into the kitchen.

He followed her back in there.

"What? I'm missing the movie."

He didn't beat around the bush. "Patricia was my girlfriend. We were together for three years, on and off. When I was accepted to come here as part of the Watcher's program we sort of split up because neither of us wanted to do the long-distance relationship thing. We didn't know if it would be permanent at the time, but then I met you. I probably should have told her about us, but she just phoned yesterday to wish me a Merry Christmas and to see how I was getting on."

The relief falling from Dawn's shoulders was almost a physical thing. "Then why didn't you just tell me that?"

"You really didn't give me a chance."

"Oh, God, I feel like such a total, jealous moron now!"

Reece opened his arms and Dawn gladly rushed into them, still making apologies.

And all was right in his world again; Reece smiled.


There was no time to talk to Willow alone before they drove home and once there her mom insisted they all head into the kitchen for some cocoa before bedtime. The conversation was easy, with everyone tired and relaxed and looking forward to the day tomorrow. Even Willow was getting caught up in the seasonal excitement, exchanging stories about the Morales' past Christmases with tales of her favorite memories of previous Hanukahs.

She was trying to join in, but Kennedy was feeling a little removed from it all, her thoughts still full of what Reece had said. Was he right to be so furious? Was she really being that unfair? She'd taken into consideration how turning her back on slaying might affect her, but had she given enough thought to how it could affect others? Or was Reece the selfish one? Letting his Watcher attitude get in the way of seeing what might be best for her, and Willow, as humans? Buffy was always saying how every Watcher, with the exception of Giles, couldn't see past their Council-issue spectacles to the person beneath the Slayer – Reece was still just a kid, but he'd been brought up in that society, smothered by it since he'd been old enough to start school.

Once he'd calmed down he'd told her to talk to Willow before she made any decisions, but that didn't seem fair either, to put this on Willow. The offer had been made to her and she was the one whose life would take a new, completely different path. Willow could practice Wicca anywhere and even if she moved to Cleveland with her, once she was fully well again she'd be able to teleport back to Boudenver every day if she wanted to or was needed. She couldn't expect Willow to make this decision for her. She needed to grow a pair and make the choice for herself. It shouldn't be that hard, she'd always been fearless even before she was the damn Slayer . . .

A damn slayer. Small S. She'd never be The Slayer. She wasn't the one girl in all the world. She was one of many, one of maybe a thousand super-strong women. Half a dozen of which were her closest friends. Two dozen of which she'd seen die, some of them up close and personal. But how many more might have died if she hadn't been there with them?

Faith had never been The Slayer either and Kennedy would have died last month at the claws of that over-grown lizard if Faith hadn't been by her side.

Faith had left the slaying behind for a while too, from what she knew. Not just because she went to prison, but even before then. She'd started fighting for evil instead of against it. Was that because she hadn't been The Slayer? Had the jealousy of never reaching her full potential caused her to turn her back on being just a slayer? Kennedy wasn't about to go evil and starting killing innocents, but her walking away could cause innocents to die anyway.

Staying could cause Willow to die!

But that wasn't her choice to make any more than Kennedy leaving should be Willow's.

"No, Sunnydale wasn't really known for its festive Christmases. I mean, I'm sure people tried hard, but it was usually still warmish so it never looked like it was supposed to look on Christmas cards. We did have snow one year though!"

"I remember that," her step-dad said. "Ninety-nine, I think. I was in LA at the time on business. The whole of Southern California was having a heatwave and then suddenly there all these news reports about a freak snow-storm just a few hours north. Something to do with a cold front racing down from Canada hitting a pocket of wet air over the coastal mountains?"

"Yes, that was it! We had like a whole foot of snow . . . but it melted the next day and some houses in the valley got flooded . . . but before that it was kind of cool. My friend, Buffy, her boyfriend was kind of going through some personal stuff at the time and the snow, well, it kind of, um, really cheered him up, so Buffy was really happy and she had a nice Christmas." Willow gave a cute little shrug.

Kennedy smiled indulgently. She'd heard the story, from Xander who was so not a fan of Buffy's vampire ex – make that exes. The fact that Willow had made it sound sweet told her two things: She now thought of that time nostalgically and just how important Buffy was to her.

She'd never really doubted the latter, but it did make her think about how Buffy was important to her too. Just as important as Willow was to her, but in a totally different way obviously.

Buffy had tried to walk away from the slaying too, when they'd moved to Boudenver, only to realize it didn't sit well. By her own admission she'd gone a little nuts because of it – although Kennedy was really sure that Faith's behavior had counted a lot towards that too. But maybe if Buffy had been actively slaying at the time, Faith's antics wouldn't have felt like such a big deal because she'd have had some focus for that energy.

What was her focus going to be for that energy? She doubted channelling it into a nine-to-five job would be enough. How was she going to feel when Willow came home with tales of how a freak snow-storm had miraculously stopped an imminent personal/supernatural disaster? Would she be jealous of that too because she hadn't been a part of it?

Kennedy laughed at herself, drawing the attention of everyone in the kitchen. Huh, when had Heidi joined them? She could only assume by the looks she was receiving that she'd laughed at an inappropriate time and apologized. She hadn't been able to help it though; she was so ridiculous sometimes.

"Dad, can I speak to you for a minute? In private?"

"Sure, let's go through to my study."

As she got up to follow him Willow looked at her with concern. Her mom looked at her with a beaming smile. Roxie looked at her jealously. Ha, maybe it was a family trait. Heidi looked at her like a Russian (or Swedish) spy probably looked at people. Sookie raised her head from the tiles and looked at her like she might have a treat in her pocket.

Once they were safely secured in the warm paneled room, her step-dad took a seat behind his desk but Kennedy chose to stay standing.

"I'm sorry, but I don't think I can accept your offer. Don't get me wrong, it's amazing and generous and I really appreciate you asking me, but I just don't think it's for me . . . at the moment."

"Okay, why?"

Good question.

"I like the life I have now. I like the job I have. It might not be the best paid or offer the best benefits or have much room for promotion . . ." unless Buffy and Faith both died! ". . . but I'm happy. I'm really sorry."

"It's okay, Kennedy. To be honest, I expected as much. It would be a big undertaking and you're probably not ready for that."

"What? Then why offer it to me?"

"Because I wanted to and it was the right thing to do, but let's face it, Ken, you're a wonderful woman; loyal, caring, disciplined, but you've never been good with commitment. What I'm offering would mean hard work and long hours and I understand that you're just not ready for that yet."

"I'm not scared of hard work!"

"Okay, but you only just turned twenty and I appreciate you want to spend a few more years partying and pretending real life doesn't exist."

"I know real life exists okay, I deal with it every day, and I'm not in Boudenver partying!"

"I'm not trying to criticize you, honey. I'm sure your teaching job feels very real, but it's a world away from the level of commitment you'll have to give to work for me."

"I am committed!" she snapped.

Was she though, really? Or was he right? She couldn't have been so committed to her current life if she was contemplating leaving it behind.

"Settle down, I'm just saying . . ."

"I get what you're saying. You only offered me the job because mom told you to, right? You don't really believe I can do it."

"Your mom and I talked about it but it was my decision. I think you could do it if you put your heart into it, but your heart has always been fickle, Kennedy. Again, that's not a criticism . . ."

"I'll do it. I'll take the job."

He smiled, "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure I do not have a problem with commitment."

"That's not really the same . . ."

"I'm sure."

Her step-father nodded and reached over the desk to shake her hand. "I'll have the contract drawn up by the end of January."

"Okay."


"Wooohooo!" Faith tipped her head back and yelled into the night. Her excited howl was whipped away in the slipstream, inviting avalanches and startling a pack of wolves a hundred feet below.

"Faith, would you come away from the edge? I'm pretty sure you're supposed to keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times!"

"Yeah?" Palms up, she shrugged innocently. "I don't remembering hearing that in the safety instructions."

"The safety instructions were in Elfish."

The wooden bench seat had a smooth, polished finish from centuries of being sat on by fat Santa butt. Buffy appreciated the lack of splinters in the aged wood as her hands gripped it. Faith punched the air above her head with both fists, letting loose another thrilled cry as the sleigh raced through the night sky. Buffy rolled her eyes. Actually closing them might better, she decided, when Faith's upper body tilted over the edge to watch the landscape speed past below them.

"Faith!" she begged, but with no expectation of actually being listened to. Her girlfriend was In her element up here among the snowflakes.

Which, incidentally, stung a lot more than she thought they would. It was okay, though, because they stung in a magical way. The good kind of magical that came without a 'k'. Although, considering how far up they were and how far down the ground was, it was hard to pretend there wasn't a small 'k' in there somewhere.

Speaking of how far up they were . . . Boudenver was a hilly county, some might even say mountainous if that someone was more used to the relatively flat terrain of Sunnydale, California. Pre-apocalypse, obviously. The sleigh followed the contours of the land, rising and dipping with the landscape behind the nine graceful reindeer. Their galloping hooves kicked up the falling snow, sending the flakes back towards the passengers in dizzying, swirling patterns.

Ignoring Faith's antics for a moment, she talked as if she was actually being listened to. "I never knew snow could actually be beautiful like this. It's like I'm seeing a whole new side to it." Wincing as a snowflake lodged in her eye, she amended, "Two new sides. It's really not as light and fluffy as they make it look in the movies."

Her eyes were still closed when weight settled against her side. Too big to be an elf and the wrong shape to be a lazy reindeer, she felt safe enough leaning into it.

"That's because you're getting the real deal here, B." Her eyes opened to see Faith's eyebrows rise and fall jerkily. "The real wet, sticky, once-in-a-life-time deal."

Buffy watched her face, waiting to see if her eyebrows would do anything else to clear up her confusion, but eventually she had to ask. "Was that supposed to be an innuendo?"

Faith already had a rare pair of rosy cheeks going on, but this made her blush deepen.

"Well, that finally answers the question on everybody's lips: is there anything Faith can't make sound sexy? And the answer is, yes: snow."

"Whatever," Faith grinned, nudging her ribs with her elbow until Buffy was forced to wrap her arm around it to keep it still. "Least everybody's talking about how damn sexy I am."

"That wasn't the conversation," she laughed. "We were talking about how your innuendo was so bad it should be an outuendo. As in, you're not in there. You're outta here."

Faith eyed her long enough for the embarrassment to set in and then she smirked as Buffy squirmed. "Yeah, well, whatever. It's not me, it's the weather. It's so fuckin' cold up here even my scorching levels of hotness can't thaw out your panties. Just wait until we get back on the ground."

"My panties are fine," Buffy said wistfully. "And I don't think I ever want to land."

Now that her stomach had settled and she'd discovered that the sleigh didn't suffer from the same scary problem as planes (turbulence) she'd started to appreciate the gift Faith was giving her and she never wanted it to end. Who else could honestly say they'd ridden high above the pockets of cottages nestled in the shallow valleys on Santa's sleigh? Had seen genuine hoof prints on a snowy roof? Had met a reindeer with a shiny red nose? Not that she'd officially met him, apparently he was shy and shyness wasn't a useful thing when he was needed to lead a team of his friends through a snow-filled night sky.

"This is good. I'm happy up here," she added softly.

Faith was smiling at her. A shockingly beautiful smile because it was so vulnerable. What had she done to deserve it? Faith's chin ducked down to her chest, shielding her face a little from the constant barrage of icy flakes and as the warmth of Faith's smile was hidden, Buffy felt the shivers for the first time through their connected arms. It was enough to make her bones rattle in sympathy from within her snug snow-suit.

"Faith, you're freezing!"

"What?" Thick strands of wind-tangled hair caused even more chaos amongst the snow-flakes as Faith's head shot up at the cry of her name. "Oh, nah it's cool, B. Can't exactly pretend we're on a beach in the Bahamas, but it's just a little snow. Hardly a big bad."

"Can you say that without your teeth chattering? Hypothermia, Faith. Ever heard of it? It's kind of a big bad."

"Heard of it? I had it, beat it, stole its t-shirt to warm myself up. We're not cutting this short just 'cause I've got the shivers."

"Yeah, well . . ." There was no point directly arguing with her. Faith would just dig her heels in on principal. "This is the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me. It's the best Christmas present ever. The snow, the romantic views, the magical reindeer . . . Honestly Faith, nothing will ever top this." It certainly put the thermal hoodie she'd picked out and wrapped up for Faith to shame. ". . . but I'm ready to head back to the resort now."

"I thought a minute ago you never wanted to land?"

"That was a minute ago."

Before she'd realized Faith was still wearing her durable but hardly weather proof denim jacket and jeans that had been soaked up to the knee even before they'd boarded the craft. Buffy was feeling the bite of the wind-driven flakes in her cheeks and nose, but Faith must have been feeling it all over. There was a small drop of annoyance mixed in with concern, if Faith had just bought a damn snow-suit like Buffy had requested the day before, they wouldn't have to cut this short, but it was a fleeting moment of sourness and easily overcome by the rest of this incredible experience.

"It's kind of chilly." She faked a shiver and said "Brrr."

Faith watched her sceptically.

"Think about it, Faith. All of this amazing effort will be totally wasted if you return to earth a human popsicle. Let's get back and have some cocoa to warm up."

"Uh, that sounds good and all, but . . ."

"Anyway, we must have been twice around the resort already." They hadn't been in the air that long, but everyone knew that travel was quicker as the deer flies. "What if Rudolf gets dizzy?"

And they fell out of the sky!

Faith struggled to get words out from her vibrating jaw; finally blurting, "I paid for an hour."

"You paid the elves? Isn't that kind of immoral?"

Faith shrugged. "Just . . . enjoy the scenery."

"But you're cold," she reminded her reasonably.

It was a no-brainer. They'd had a nice time. However much Faith had paid, Buffy was sure it was worth every cent, but now they should get back before her girlfriend started turning blue.

Apparently disagreeing, Faith stood and called out to one of the elves, "Hey, Innoki?"

Five minutes of hushed stuttering and stammering later . . .

"How does it look?"

It was somehow the coolest thing Buffy had ever seen and the grossest, and on Faith the funniest too.

The elves didn't go in much for modern snow-suits. They seemed impervious to the frigid temperatures in their red and green leather tunics and felt caps – although one elf did bashfully lift his skirt to show Buffy a pair of undershorts tightly knit from lambs wool. They looked snug . . . and itchy in all the worst places. They did have some traditional garb lying around in the 'trunk' though.

Faith was standing in the back of the sleigh, in the shallow well that in storybooks was always depicted as being for sacks full of presents. In real life it seemed to be for transporting a stack of elves and a big cloth sack of reindeer munchies. Standing tall, the beautiful monstrosity flowed down her body to pool around her scratched black boots. A few inches taller and with a few more bowls of jello going straight to her belly and she might have been able to pull the red robe off.

Or maybe not.

So she told the nicest truth she could, "You look warmer already."

"Toasty," Faith winked as she sat back down, trying and failing to roll the thick sleeves of the Santa outfit up to her wrists.

Buffy's nose wrinkled at the smell of the ancient animal-hide garment. She didn't want to know what they'd used to dye it such a vivid red. The smell wasn't totally awful – like something warm and damp and a little musty – it was kinda nice combined with the uber-fresh scent of the giant winter wonderland.

"I suppose we can fly around a little longer now," she conceded, now there was less chance of Faith's body parts icing up and falling off.

"Atta girl, B." Faith's smile was infectious and it pulled Buffy closer, hoping for a kiss. She thought she was going to get one too, but Faith suddenly sat back, eyes sparkling with merriment. "Hey, do you think they'll let me drive the sleigh?"

"What?" That sounded like a terrible idea. "How do you even drive one? It has no steering wheel!"

"I don't know, like that guy?" Faith waved to an elf that was in fact sitting on a wooden crate right at the front of the sleigh – so his short arms could reach the reins? – shouting instructions to the reindeer. Buffy had just assumed Rudolf with his nose so bright was in control of that side of things.

It was faint because the wind ripped the words from the elf's mouth as soon as they were spoken, but she now realized she'd been vaguely aware of a chant that went something like: "On, Donna. On, Vixen. On, Comet. On, Blitzen!" continuously.

Buffy wanted to stay as they were, curled into Faith's firm, warm, if fuggy-smelling side, so that they could enjoy however long was left of the ride together. Until the excitement on Faith's face reminded her this wasn't just about her own romantic needs. And if this was a once in a life time experience for her – and she'd had plenty of good Christmases in childhood – then what must it mean to Faith who apparently had very few happy memories from Christmases past. More to the point, how much did it mean to Buffy to give that to her?

This time she was the one to call out the head-elf's name, although she was pretty sure she mangled the pronunciation.

Five minutes later . . .

Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap!

"Faith, slow down!" The power had gone to her head. The robes, the sleigh . . . as soon as she'd been handed the reins . . . "Faith, you are not Santa Claus! You don't have to deliver all of the presents to the little kiddies before they wake up, okay? Slow down!"

Faith turned her head to look back at her, and oh God did Buffy wish she'd keep her eyes on the . . . sky when she was driving at this speed! "Relax, B, I got this. Look."

It was true that Faith had learned a lot in her ninety second tutorial – that was how long her patience had lasted before she'd hip-checked her elven driving instructor off of his box and grabbed the reins for herself. With subtle flicks of her wrists she had the reindeer zig-zagging sharply through the air.

Buffy would have been more impressed if it wasn't playing havoc with her barely settled stomach and if she didn't see at least one elf lose his footing and tumble over the side of the sleigh. She could still see it's fingers curled over the edge, gripping on for dear life because it didn't dare try and climb back in yet. So she wasn't the only one relieved when Faith set them back on a straight path.

Wait a minute . . .

If they were going this fast in a straight line . . . what wasn't right with this picture?

Being the slayer made her naturally very agile, making it easy to jump to three separate conclusions at once:

They were being kidnapped by the elves.

Santa's robe was possessed and it had Faith under its thrall.

Faith was an idiot and was going to get them lost! They were going to crash into the side of a mountain and be stranded! Faith would be breakfasting on her leg by sunrise!

"Faith? Faaaith!"

"What? What's wrong?"

"You need to stop. Now. Stop before you go any further."

There was a pause before Faith casually said, "Pretty sure if I do what you want me to do, we're gonna fall straight outta the sky. That your plan?"

Damn!

"No." She gingerly checked over the edge though, just to see just how far straight down was. Far enough. "Okay, don't stop, but you need to turn back now. We're too far out, I can't even see the lights of the resort anymore."

In fact visibility in general was starting to get bad. The 'romantic movie feel' snow-fall was beginning to resemble the first few minutes of a horror film – the kind where bad weather forces a car of teens to spend the night in an undesirable motel. The pale hides of the reindeer were lost to her, only an unmissible red glow way up at the front was reassuring.

"Should we land?" she asked as Innoki came to stand beside her. "Isn't it dangerous to fly in this?"

He unnerved her further by laughing, then moved past her to Faith. She hoped he was about to take the reins from the beautiful but reckless driver, instead he issued quiet, firm instructions.

She heard Faith say, "We can get above it you mean?"

"No, below it."

Below it? How did they get below the snow when it was falling onto them?

Suddenly they were moving even faster than before and Buffy had to hold on tighter to the bench. So fast it felt like her eyelids were about to turn inside out! She noticed most of the elves had assumed crash positions too.

The sleigh whooshed along, its trajectory sloping down and down until evening out just twenty feet above the white ground. The leather reins smacked together, grunting and panting rose from the fast-paced herd and the red glow was brighter than ever.

The only thing wrong . . . ha, the only thing, that was a good one. The biggest thing wrong, as far as she could tell, they were still heading in a straight line! She didn't know what direction they'd started out in – Buffy looked around as if that would give her any kind of clue – but surely they would either be over Lake Erie or Kentucky any minute now.

An elf started jumping up and down behind her. "Human abode! Human abode! Human abode!"

Buffy faced front again fast. "Oh shiii . . ."

Yelling: "Hold onto your asses!" Faith entered the Matrix.

With a jingle of bells and the scrape of one errant hoof against brick, the reindeer were running on their sides . . . that was really the best way she could describe it, and all she had time for because magikal or not, apparently good old boring physics still applied and the sleigh followed suit. If Buffy had thought she'd been holding on tight before!

She could have reached out and touched the wall of the two story house if she'd been so inclined as they whizzed past it. Upright once more, Faith's zig-zagging skills came in handy to avoid a barn and then another and then another . . . Seriously, this farm had more outhouses than it had house.

Dizzy and disorientated she disjointedly heard Faith call, "Shit, this is . . .! Nearly . . . in . . . snow. . . . happens now?"

Innoki called out something unintelligible to human ears and then they were circling around. If she ever got off of this thing alive, she was going to kill Faith for nearly crashing in to someone's house, but at least she seemed to have finally gotten the message that they needed to turn around.

Except the circle kept going, twice they went around, and they were slowing down.

"Do not get too close to the trees," Innoki warned.

"I'm aiming for the back field."

"You are doing well, Slayer. Very well. Perhaps you should change your title to Sleigh-er." He tittered softly at his joke, Buffy didn't get it. "Slowly. Slowly. Bring them around more. Keep far from the fences."

There was a soft bump as the runners met the snow and a gentle swishing sound until the reindeer caught up to the fact that it was okay to stop; The sudden peace was totally at odds with the hair-raising ride of the last ten minutes.

"Wait, we've landed. We're stopping here? Why? Are the reindeer out of juice? 'Cause I have a whole bag of feed here."

And she'd feed it to them by hand if it meant getting them back in the air. They couldn't just stay here! It wasn't camping weather for one, and she'd really been looking forward to climbing into their big, warm bed in their cabin to finish what they'd started that morning.

"We don't even know where we are!" she insisted. "What are we going to do? Just knock on the door of that house? It's Christmas Eve! Not only is that really impolite, it's pretty much a given there'll be no room at the inn."

Laughing, Faith stood and stretched before shaking out her arms. "That's harder than you think it's gonna be," she said to Innoki, before saying to her, "Back door is probably still open and if the place is that crowded, you are more than welcome to share my bed," she purred.

Annoyed and distressed as she was, it still did things to her in a low down tickle kind of way. So all she could manage was a weak, "What?"

Faith thanked Innoki as she shook off Santa's robe and handed it to him. Jumping out of the sleigh, she offered her hand. Grumbling under her breath, Buffy took it and allowed Faith to help her down to the crunchy snow. It was the least she could do!

"I can't believe I thought you were awesome for arranging this. I should have known it would all go wrong. We could be spending the night in a five star resort, but no, you want us to rely on the dubious kindness of total strangers. I don't even know why I bother . . ."

Faith took her mumbling with a smile on her face – further irritating her – and then shouting a goodbye and another thank you to the elves, led her across the a white-glowing field. They stopped at a gap in a hedge and Faith nodded for her to go through first. Obviously the chivalry was over then.

It took about a dozen steps before something started tugging at her and shapes started making sense even through the relentlessly heavy snowfall.

"I recognize this," she murmured, racking her brains for why.

"I should think so, we only been gone a few days."

"Huh?" Even as she said it, it clicked. "Oh my God."

"Home for the holidays, B. Merry Christmas."

"Oh my God," she muttered again, now fully recognizing the barn to her left – it was where they kept the cars – and over there was the east wall of the girl's dormitory and up-ahead across the lawn, the house.

Lights burned brightly through the first floor and please don't let it be her imagination that she could smell hot cocoa drifting out of the vents. If the promise of spending Christmas Eve with her friends and family wasn't enough, that was. She started to run towards the back door, as excited as a kid at Christmas – pardon the clichι – only to realize Faith wasn't following. She turned back to see the other Slayer standing still, shivering again but with a strange dreamy smile on her face, and ran back to throw her arms around her neck.

"Thank you, Faith. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You are the most amazing, wonderful, gift-giving girlfriend in the whole entire universe. Thank you!" She pulled back and Faith's eyes were shining suspiciously bright in the light from the house. It only made it better. "I love you."

Faith sniffed, laughed and ran the back of her hand over her eyes before clutching her around the waist even tighter. "I love you too, Buffy."

All happy, melty sighs, Buffy snuggled into her embrace. "Merry Christmas everyone."

Faith held her for a full minute, long enough to be in danger of being buried in the blizzard, before she just couldn't hold it in any more. "Christ, B, that was so cheesy."

"Shut up," Buffy lightly thumped her shoulder. And then not so lightly, "I can't believe you almost crashed Santa's sleigh into our house!"

"Buffy?"

"Yeah?"

"I love you."

Oooh, as she indulged Faith in a deeply, um, romantic kiss she already knew those three words were going to get Faith out of so much trouble in the future. And probably land her in it, but who cared?

It was Christmas.


Willow found Kennedy outside, sitting on a wooden bench against the side of the house. She'd only cleared enough snow off for herself, but shovelled more onto the ground with her gloved hands when she saw her approaching.

"Hey, you didn't come back into the kitchen."

"Yeah. Sorry."

Willow shrugged. "That time of night, huh?" Kennedy looked confused. "For patrolling? I thought you might be missing it. You haven't, you know, slain anything since we've been here."

"I can live without slaying as long as I'm with you."

"That's sweet. Totally baloney, slaying is what you were born to do . . . literally, but really sweet." Willow cuddled into her side, taking Kennedy's hand in her mittened fingers. Kennedy was barely listening, staring out over the fresh fall of unspoilt snow that lay over the lawn. "So if you're not missing the slayage, what is wrong?"

Kennedy heaved a sigh, blowing out a stream of foggy breath. "I think I just did something really stupid."

"What?" she asked as she gingerly shifted about in her seat. It was every bit as cold as you'd expect.

"Can I tell you tomorrow?"

"I guess." Kennedy fell broodingly silent and she searched for a topic that might snap her out of it. "Your family is nice. I was a little scared of your mom and sister to start with, but now I think they're kinda cool."

Kennedy sort of smiled and then dug into her pant's pocket for something. Willow tried to control her gasp when she recognized it as a ring box. She'd figured she would have more time, assumed Kennedy would want to discuss it first, but okay.

"I'm having a strange night," Kennedy said with a chuckle, popping the box open.

Sure enough a diamond ring sparkled in the ethereal glow of the snow.

"My mom gave me this earlier. To give to you."

Willow thought about what she'd overheard earlier.

She thought about making the most of her life.

She thought about how Tara had been ripped away from her before they could ever fulfil their potential. And the time they'd wasted over silly things.

She thought about learning how to make snowmen. And how cute Kennedy looked in her soccer shirt. And giggling like a little kid in an 'adult' toy store, first from embarrassment and then because it was just funny.

She thought about Kennedy by her side, in the Principal's office in Sunnydale High, and how Kennedy's face had been the last thing she saw before the magic hit and the first name on her lips when she'd recovered enough to feel them again.

She thought about how lost she'd been when she'd feared they were over for good.

She thought about how she'd almost died without telling Kennedy how important she was.

She thought about how short and fragile life could be, but how many beautiful and amazing things they could cram into it.

She thought about all of the 'firsts' that were waiting out in the world for them to experience.

And she thought about saying no . . .

And she said: "Yes!"

The End



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