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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.
Rating: R
Summary: Episode Ten in the House of the Setting Sun series. Tis the season, whatever that means. The Scoobies spend the holidays trying to figure it out. Meanwhile, Boudenver is in the festive spirit 'cause Santa Claus is coming to town.


Episode Ten

Act One

The kitchen was crowded when Faith finally braved going downstairs the next morning. That wasn't unusual. Only at breakfast was pretty much every Slayer, Watcher, Watcher-wannabe, Witch, family member and hanger-on in the same room at the more or less the same time. It was why Giles normally called meetings for immediately after breakfast, so no one had a chance to wriggle out of them - and the only reason why Faith was always happy to start work early.

She could see she was going to have trouble making a quick escape today though. Miranda and Cici were hogging the toaster to make a mountain of pop tarts and Craig was just using up the last of the coffee pouring himself and Andrew a cup each.

Faith hovered by the stairs, half listening to Alison talk to her about the training schedule and watching as Buffy buttered herself a couple of rounds of toast. Buffy hadn't noticed her yet, she still had time to slink out, but she was as hungry as everyone else and she knew these vultures well now. If she waited and came back later to eat, there would be nothing left but crumbs and grease smears.

Talking of greasy food, Alison was munching through a strip of crispy bacon and there were more rashers held loose in her hand.

Interrupting her, Faith nodded to them, "Give me those, Ali."

Alison stopped mid-crunch, surprised by the direct order. "There's plenty on the counter," she mumbled around her mouthful.

"Then ya can grab yourself some more, can't you." Faith made a 'give-them-here' gesture with her hand.

Alison reluctantly handed over her breakfast to her superior and strutted off indignantly. Obviously she didn't want to talk to Faith so much anymore, which saved her the bother of pretending to listen.

She devoured the three strips of bacon quickly. Buffy still wasn't aware of her presence. That seemed unlikely. Sure the kitchen was overcrowded right now but she could probably pick Buffy out of Grand Central Station blindfold if she had too and she didn't doubt for a second that Buffy could do the same...if she wanted to.

So she just didn't want to then. The fact that they were both avoiding each other should have made Faith feel better. It didn't. Her avoidance was justified, Buffy's wasn't.

The bacon had been salty. A plastic carton of milk was left out on the table with just a few inches remaining. Faith reached between Kennedy and Reece to snag it.

She was on her second swallow when Dawn half-yelled over the hub-bub. "Ew, Faith. Can't you use a glass! Just because my sister likes you doesn't mean we all want your cooties, you know?"

Faith finished the milk and threw the empty carton into the can by the door. "So don't go licking stuff out of the garbage and you won't get my cooties."

She paused, realizing her sarcasm had taken a wrong turn somewhere there. In that pause she also realized Dawn's righteous anger had called everyone's attention to her, the very thing she had been trying to avoid.

After everyone went back to what they had been doing, including Dawn, Buffy's eyes remained stuck on her. Annoyingly, hers remained stuck back. Only Willow and Kennedy, side by side and halfway between her and the blonde, noticed the silent staring match.

"Hey," Buffy said quietly.

"Hey," Faith responded and then had to clear her throat.

"Oh my God," Willow was looking between the two of them excitedly. "Last night! Did you two make with the..."

Buffy cut sharply through the end of her sentence. "Not now, Will."

"But...but...this is good!"

"Really?" Kennedy asked. "You're getting 'good' from this?"

"Well, uh..." Willow's happy expression fell a little.

Faith wiped the milk from her mouth with the back of her hand. She'd already been feeling uncomfortable, now she was feeling downright embarrassed and it wasn't fair, she hadn't done anything to feel embarrassed about. Unless you counted putting herself out there in the first place, and okay, yeah, that was hella embarrassing in hindsight.

"Nothing happened, Red, so keep your panties on," she muttered. "Lord knows, Buffy did."

"Hey!" Buffy's tone was a lot sharper this time but when Faith stared at her she didn't seem to have anything else to add.

"Screw this, I gotta get to work."

"No you don't, Faith." She glared at Giles for needlessly getting in her business but he seemed perfectly serious. "You have the day off, remember, because of your appointment."

"Oh, right." She glanced at Buffy, who looked as freaked as she felt. "I'm gonna cancel it. Go next week instead."

"You can't just cancel it."

"Yeah, I can actually," she countered. "I can cancel for personal emergency, bereavement and unavoidable work commitments. Didn't you bother to read the contract you wrote up for me?"

"I did. And which category would you say this morning falls into?" Giles asked.

"The work one obviously. Gonna snow any day now, gotta get those insulating tiles in the dorms. Plus the truck still ain't running smoothly and you'll be glad of that when the bad weather hits, trust me."

"But none of that is your concern today, Faith," Giles was speaking calmly but not quite patronizingly, the difference was pissing her off because it wasn't giving her the excuse she wanted to get mad. "Because I granted you the day off of work."

"You're not my boss," she said stubbornly.

Giles scoffed, "I think you'll find I am your boss."

"Not when it comes to the maintenance stuff. Xander is."

"Hey, Faith," Xander said with forced brightness, knowing the next words out of his mouth were going to cost him later. "Take the day off. Andrew can help me with the tiles."

"I can?" Andrew asked excitedly, not seeming to get the underlying tension.

Faith glared at Xander for a moment before turning back on Giles.

"If Faith wants to work, let her work," Buffy said. "We should reschedule."

"See!" Faith waved an arm at her.

"No," Giles said firmly. "Faith's continued presence in our home is not something I am prepared to let either of you put in jeopardy. You will keep the appointment even if it kills you both."

"But if it kills them en't that likely to put Faith's continued presence in our home in jeopardy?" Craig asked with pretend innocence.

Giles was just close enough to give Craig a soft cuff to the back of his head. "Choose your allegiance more wisely or I'll put your continued presence in my home in jeopardy."

"Oh, whatever!" Faith and Buffy said simultaneously, without realizing, and both stormed out of opposite exits.

"I still think they had sex," Willow murmured once the back door and swing door were closed again.

"If they did," Kennedy said, "I'm thinking it was bad sex."

Willow glanced at her quickly and then back at her empty cereal bowl. "But at least it was, you know, sex."

Kennedy rolled her eyes.

After being forced into giving Faith the day off, Xander had decided to grant himself one too. There wasn't anything that desperately needed doing anyway. The insulating tiles were really a two person job and Andrew could technically help him but he had a habit of talking non-stop about Craig these days, and as much as Xander prided himself on being open-minded and all-encompassing with the gay love, until Andrew learned the difference between polite obsession and the total divulgence of things best kept in the bedroom, he didn't want to spend too much alone time with him. Besides it would take like half the time if he just waited for Faith.

As for the truck - he was definitely a carpenter and definitely not a mechanic.

In respect for his day off he was eating his second plateful of breakfast and was still in his pajamas - or rather the sweat pants and long sleeved jersey he had substituted for his pajamas a few weeks ago, winters sure were different in Ohio, and by different he meant frickin' freezing!

The kitchen was quiet now everyone had cleared out for their day's activities and while he munched he lifted the paper over a patch of congealing baked bean sauce and dropped it next to his plate so that the back page was facing up. He'd never been much of a sports fan. Up to Junior High he had been too weedy to be any good at them, and when he hit High School and could have held his own, he got all the exercise he'd needed helping Buffy with the slaying, and then some.

Add to that his Dad's love of all 'Men's' sports: football, basketball, baseball, boxing... it had been easy for him to not give a crap about them. He remembered the time he had told his Dad he'd made swim team - he'd never been called a pansy so many times in thirty minutes in his life!

He was trying a new thing though. He'd only met his therapist once, for twenty minutes the Friday before. He was supposed to have fifty minute sessions but he'd been too weirded out, too tense to stay and fulfill his promise to Giles of giving it a real go. He'd been on his feet in fifteen. The therapist had convinced him to stay and hear him out for another five. That was when he'd given Xander the advice: Pick a team.

It was supposed to give him something to channel his energy and anger in to. A way to let off steam. Xander seriously doubted it would work, he couldn't imagine getting that invested in any sport, but he also seriously doubted he would ever make it through a full session of therapy and he knew Giles was dipping into his own funds to pay for it - although he claimed he was laying it off against expenses - so the least he could do was try the guy's advice on his own time.

He scanned the back page as he lifted a forkful of egg to his mouth. Some football team had management issues. Definitely not his thing. He turned the page. There were some luge try-outs happening in Michigan, no thank you. He scanned the opposite page and the word 'Monsters' jumped out at him. He read the headlines and first few paragraphs quickly, expecting to find that a soccer team had been eaten by demons in the Andes. Instead he learned about the ups and downs of a local hockey team. According to the reporter they were new to the game and had already found their losing streak.

He looked again at their logo just below the headline and chuckled. The demonic Bessie head just poking out of the water appealed to him; he'd had team mates that had ended up looking just like that.

Xander had found his team. However disturbing that was.

He was just finishing the article when Dawn came through the swing door and hovered over his shoulder.

"Ew, looks like something waiting to be slayed."

He read their stats again. "I think they're already being slayed."

"Do you mind if I turn the page?"

He couldn't see Dawn where she was standing but he could feel her just leaning over, not quite touching the shoulder of his jersey. Maybe his other senses were finally kicking up a notch. That would be good.

"Go for it." He turned his head to her anyway, not ready to trust his extra sensory senses yet. "Looking for something in particular?"

"Fen just texted me about something she heard on the radio."

"A shoe sale?" Xander grinned.

Dawn closed the paper and then flipped it completely. "No. That."

She pointed to the headline but Xander was already reading it.

Child Deaths Surge to Five.

"What the hell?" he asked rhetorically.

He pushed his half eaten breakfast away and leaned lower over the page. Dawn stooped to the same level, her arm going around his shoulders for balance.

"Fen said she'd heard of four yesterday," she muttered. "She can't have seen today's news yet."

"Which means there's been another overnight," Xander summed up. He re-read a few paragraphs. "Yeah, judging by this there's been one every night for the last five. All the kids between four and ten. This is bad!"

"You think?" Dawn's sarcasm was lost in her worried tone. "It says here that they've all been staying at local resorts."

"And that they've all been found half eaten. The head half!"

"So does that rule out a psycho human serial killer?"

"I frickin' hope so!" Xander speed read the rest of the article. "There's not much more detail here. Just pleas from the parents and police evidence."

Dawn was reading too. "Of which there is apparently none!"

"You know how it went in Sunnydale, Dawnie; the cops keep this kinda thing to themselves."

"But that doesn't help us."

"Not even a little. We need to call in our own cavalry."

"But Buffy and Willow are both on their way to Cleveland."

"So, the angels are out, let's call on Charlie." Xander stood, paper in hand, and led the way to Giles' office.

Buffy waved goodbye as Willow drove away from the curb to seamlessly join the flow of traffic. She glanced at Faith as she turned to face the shiny white stone and glass high rise. It looked like an expensive place.

"We're a little early. Did you want to grab a quick mocha before we go in." she gestured to the coffee shop across the road from them.

Faith checked her watch. "We're only four minutes early."

"I did say quick."

"Let's just get it over with," Faith's tone was emotionless as she led the way through the automatic doors.

They took an elevator up to the sixth floor - not even a fifth of the way to the top but the muzak was already grating on Buffy's nerves as the doors pinged open. Or maybe it was Faith's mulish silence. Couldn't she tell Buffy was really nervous here? Would it kill her to throw a few reassuring words her way?

The elevator opened onto a reception area with one large, central desk and several cherry wood doors leading from it. Mahogany leather couches and arm chairs sat in clusters near each door, a step up from the hard-backed chairs which were usually standard issue in waiting rooms. Buffy liked the carpet, she decided, as she followed Faith to the reception desk, it was a deep blue with threads of white weaved into it, reminding her of the sea on a sunny day. It would have been calming, if anything could calm her right now.

Faith quietly told the lady behind the desk her name. From a few feet behind, Buffy strained her ears to hear the elusive surname but she must have missed it. Once she was signed in they walked around to one of the seating areas. There were people waiting outside almost every door, it was pretty busy really, but nobody looked up as they passed. Realizing there might be some kind of privacy rule here; Buffy jerked her eyes away from checking out the other clients.

She settled on one end of the couch, expecting Faith to sit next to her. Faith chose an arm chair opposite instead. It seemed to be more out of habit than a desire to annoy her so Buffy bit her tongue and tried not to look to irritable.

They sat in silence. Buffy fidgeted; the couch was comfortable enough but she was sitting too formally to appreciate it. Faith looked perfectly composed apart from the fingers of her right hand soundlessly tapping her thigh.

"Do you want a cigarette?" Buffy whispered; she didn't know why, it just felt like whispering place.

"You got one?"

"No, I just..." Buffy nodded at her agitated hand. "You look like your fingers need a distraction."

"What?" Faith looked down. "Oh." She stopped the tapping clenched her fist to avoid any accidental twitching. "Better?"

"I didn't mind the tapping."

Faith nodded absently and half a minute later her fist unfurled and the soft drumming began again. Buffy kept her eye-roll to herself and looked around for a more satisfying diversion.

The door had a small, tasteful brass plaque beside it, declaring only that it was Dr. Dorothy Haywater's office. Nothing interesting there considering Buffy already knew her name.

"So what's she like?" she asked, still with that whisper.

"I already told you."

"Yeah, but, I mean, is she friendly or scary?"

Faith shrugged. "She's a shrink."

Buffy tried a different line of questioning. "Can I speak freely in front of her?"

Now Faith rolled her eyes. "She's a shrink."

Buffy gave up, she would just have to wait and see. Faith had told her some about her therapist but mostly only appearance and first impressions. The two of them talked a lot more than they had a month ago but they still never seemed to get into the deep conversations about anything. She didn't think it was from lack of trying on either of their parts, but something always seemed to come up - usually an argument between them or another housemate butting into the conversation with needs of their own - and while Buffy inquired politely after every one of Faith's sessions she never pushed for more than the little detail that Faith gave readily. It was mostly from fear, a desire to put off thinking about the session she would have to attend or, as it was now called... this one.

"Are you normally kept waiting this long?"

Faith shrugged again. "Depends."

"What is your problem?" Buffy finally snapped. "Do you not want me to be here? 'Cause I can go if you want. This wasn't my idea anyway and I'd hate you to think I'm trying to muscle my way into your 'me time'!"

Faith looked up, so surprised and confused her voice was soft and innocent. "Why are you yelling at me?"

The door opened halfway through her sentence and the doctor looked between the two of them appraisingly.

Buffy shot to her feet in nervous surprise and then hissed at Faith, "Thanks for making me look like the bad guy already!"

She walked through the door without waiting to be invited, figuring her first impression was already ruined.

She heard Faith chuckle from the waiting room, "Actually, for an accident, that was wicked perfect timing."

In a huff, Buffy threw herself down to lie on the couch, crossing her arms defensively while she waited for them to join her.

Willow was driving around outside the mall looking for a parking space. This close to Christmas it was a long job. At this rate they wouldn't get parked before they had to leave to pick Buffy and Faith up again.

Kennedy was checking constantly out of all the windows trying to spot a space before Willow made good on her threat to make them some room by teleporting one of the already parked cars into another dimension.

"So how do you think they'll get on?" she asked idly.

"If the ride over here was anything to go by," Willow mused. "My guess is they'll have broken up by the end of the session."

Kennedy chuckled. "Well if that does happen at least we won't be around for much of the initial fall out."

They were leaving for New York in two days time. Kennedy had only been there a few weeks before but that short break had just reminded her how much she missed her family. The year or so of being forced away from them because of the First hadn't been so hard, boarding school had prepared her for it she supposed, but the perpetual chaos they lived in now made her realize how lucky she was to have a stable family unit to escape to occasionally.

She was nervous about introducing Willow to them. Not because she didn't think they would love her immediately but, well, she had never introduced them to a girl she really cared about before. The girls she had taken home pre-Sunnydale had rarely meant a thing and looking back now she could see a pattern - the more her mom had shown an interest in them the faster Kennedy had moved on to the next one. Probably because her mom's interest always expressed itself as nervously over-enthusiastic, like every one was the one.

For that reason she hadn't spoken too much about Willow during her vacation. Not knowing if they were going to get back together or not had hurt enough and having her mom pushing her to make it work would have ruined her reasons for going home in the first place.

When she'd called home to tell her mom Willow was joining them for Christmas, she had warned her to be cool. A warning her mom had heeded at the time but would probably forget the moment they walked in the front door. She should probably warn Willow too, about what to expect, but she didn't want to say anything that might change her mind about the trip. They were doing better every day but they were still feeling their way back into the relationship, taking it really slow so neither of them could get the wrong impression...

"Do you have me on a sex ban?"

The frank question made Kennedy splutter, "What?"

"Like Buffy has Faith on," Willow said, her eyes still looking around for a parking space. "Are you not gonna have sex with me until I prove I'm a good girlfriend again?"

Kennedy laughed. "What brought this on?"

"I was thinking about Buffy and Faith."

"Thinking about Buffy and Faith makes you want to have sex?"

"No, thinking about you makes me want to have sex."

Kennedy grinned out of the passenger window.

"It's just... we haven't, for like... ages," Willow stressed the last word.

It was true. They hadn't made love since... wow had it really been September? Kennedy had always had a pretty healthy sex drive but so much had been going on... She'd only wanted Willow since she'd met Willow and with the badness that had occurred between them over the past few months sleeping together just hadn't been appropriate. But wow, nearly four months was a long time.

"You're not on a sex ban," she promised.

Willow looked at her briefly to smile. "Good."

"But we're not officially girlfriends again yet," she reminded, teasingly.

Willow nodded a few times and then asked, "So, no nookie until we are?"

"I don't know. Did you want to do it sooner?"

"I want to do it now!"

Kennedy grinned again, not hiding it this time. "Right now?"

Willow sighed, "Well maybe we should find a darn parking space first."

The first thing Faith saw when she entered Haywater's office was Buffy on the couch: arms crossed, staring at the ceiling, pout firmly in place. She chuckled under her breath but the sound carried to Buffy's slayer-ears and the pout became more pronounced.

Ignoring her for the moment Faith took her usual seat in the arm chair in front of the shrink's low, informal desk. Haywater took her seat opposite, barely offering Buffy a glance.

"So, how are we doing today, Faith?"

She hesitated because she didn't know how she was doing. Normally she sailed through these weekly sessions by rambling as much honesty as she could handle and bullshitting the rest but she couldn't do either with Buffy here.

She hadn't liked this idea much from the start but Haywater, Giles and Deb Devenrowe had insisted it would be helpful so she'd gone along with it in theory. When Buffy had let her down by not running a mile at the suggestion she had become resigned to it. Now it was here. And now she was freaking out. And last night had just made it all the harder to speak her mind in front of Buffy.

"Okay, I guess."

"You don't sound too sure."

No kidding. She tried for something a little more certain. "Work's been going well."

"Yeah, all she does is work," Buffy muttered.

Faith flinched at the sound of her voice but Haywater ignored her. "That's good. So you're getting on with Xander better now?"

"He's alright."

"He's better than alright!"

This time Faith didn't flinch. Haywater still ignored her. "Are the two of you becoming friends?"

Faith sighed. "I don't know if I'd go that far, but he's a good guy. He doesn't crowd me. He's even giving me more responsibility. Not sure why he would trust me after everything I've done but, I dunno, maybe I'm finally winning him over." She waited for a snarky comment from Buffy but it didn't come. "It's good; feeling comfortable with him."

"Is this a new feeling?"

"With him or in general?"

Haywater studied her for a moment. "In general."

Faith shifted in her seat. "Yeah."

"You don't usually feel comfortable with people?"

"Never had much cause to."

Haywater nodded and wrote something on the pad in front of her. Faith had given up - long before she met Dorothy Haywater - asking what shrinks wrote on their little pads. They never revealed.

"Other than Xander is there anyone else at home you feel comfortable with?"

As Faith hesitated she was sure she heard Buffy holding her breath. Distracted by that, she didn't answer.

"What about Giles?"

"A little."

Haywater checked her notes. "What about Willow?"

"Not really." Faith thought about it though, and changed her mind. "Actually, maybe. I never thought it would happen but yeah, we kinda get along now."

"What happened to change things between you?"

Faith frowned, she was sure they'd already discussed this before. Shrugging, she answered anyway. "Guess you could say we bonded when B and Kennedy had their thing."

Buffy sat up on the couch. "We never had a thing!"

Faith looked over her shoulder but Haywater just asked another question. "So you have made a friend of your own since you've been living there?"

Faith hesitated again before answering. "We're not best pals or nothing but yeah, I guess we're sorta friends."

"Anyone else?"

She thought for a moment. "Ali, I guess. She's more of a work buddy, but we spend a lot of time together."

Haywater checked notes she'd made in a previous session. "Alison is your Slayer?"

Faith chuckled. "She's not my Slayer, but I patrol with her most nights. She's pretty good too. Thought she'd be as green as grass but we work well together."

Without looking she could sense that Buffy had swung her legs off of the couch and was even more alert than before. She couldn't remember if she had told Buffy her shrink was Council or not, but if she hadn't surely Giles would have.

"So you have two people, plus your job, that you are invested in. That's good, Faith. This is really good progress. One of your parole officer's concerns was that you wouldn't be able to form attachments in Boudenver, but it looks to me as if you are doing well on that front."


"Miss Summers, would you like to join us now?"

"Who me?"

"Yes. You can stay where you are if you wish. Most people don't like to lie on the couch, it's a little too cliché for them, but if you'd prefer..."

Buffy was already jumping up, protesting, "I'm not a cliché! It was just... comfortable. And it wasn't like you two seemed to notice I was in the room."

"On the contrary," Haywater said as Buffy took the other chair. "Faith is very aware of your presence. She is being extremely reticent and normally I can't shut her up."

Faith smirked at her. "Thanks."

"So, Miss Summers... May I call you Buffy?"

"Please do."

"Buffy, what did you hope to get out of today's experience?"

Buffy looked at Faith in alarm and then back to the shrink. "I don't know. I was just asked to come here."

"I see." Haywater's pen scratched across her pad.

"What are you writing?" Buffy asked.

"Just some notes. Nothing to worry about. Faith, what were you hoping to achieve?"

Faith thought about it seriously. She could feel Buffy watching her closely, waiting for the answer. "I think Giles thought it'd be a good idea 'cause of all the bad history we have, but I think, for me.. we're just in two different places right now and we don't wanna be... only we can't seem to fix it ourselves."

"Exactly," Buffy said, nodding.

Faith smiled, pleased that she'd got it right for once. It wasn't always easy. Sometimes it felt like Buffy's wants changed by the hour. Just when Faith thought she had the situation nailed, Buffy would move the goal post. Just slightly but enough that Faith would feel like she was starting all over again. It probably wasn't deliberate, but it felt like it.

Haywater nodded too as she made some more notes.

"Seriously, what are you writing?" Buffy asked, sounding more anxious than annoyed.

Haywater smiled soothingly. "So, Buffy, where do you think you are right now?"

"In a scary shrink's office?" she tried. Seeing that was getting her nowhere she took a second to come up with a better answer. "I'm in a healthy place. I've told her I love her. I've tried to be there for her. I'm in a one hundred percent 'in this' place. She's the one who..."

Haywater raised a hand to cut her off. "Faith, where do you feel you are?"


"Hardly," Buffy said. "She hasn't even..."

Again Haywater held up her hand. "Just a minute, Buffy. Faith, what do you mean by same?"

Faith glanced at Buffy but she was looking down at her knees. "I'm 'in it' too. Wouldn't be here if I wasn't."

"So you're already more or less on the same page." Haywater closed her pad and put it on the low desk between them before sitting back and smiling. "That's a great place to start."

"Really?" they both asked at the same time.

Dr. Haywater chuckled at the dubious and slightly frightened look they shared.

It was cold outside and the car windows were already steaming up. That was good, because their initial tentative smooch had already turned into something a little heavier. Okay, maybe more than a little heavier. Not that Willow was complaining, no siree, no complaints at all about the way Kennedy's hand was moving around beneath her winter coat and thick, fuzzy sweater.

"Are you sure this is what you want?" Kennedy asked again, the question more breathless than five minutes ago but no less sincere. "Maybe we should wait 'til we get back."

"No, here's good." She didn't want to give Kennedy the time to change her mind about this.

"I just thought it might be more comfortable in your bed."

"Our bed," Willow corrected her and that seemed to curb Kennedy's thinking for a while because there was less talking and much more kissing.

She wondered if it was too forward to suggest they hop into the back seat together, the front seats with the gear shift in the middle weren't really made for this kind of thing. They should have brought the truck! That had a lovely long, wide, bench seat they could have snuggled on but then Buffy and Faith would have gotten really cold riding in the back all the way from Boudenver to Cleveland, not that the ride hadn't been cold enough thanks to the two of them anyway...

Willow realized her brain had gotten side-tracked when it really should be making the most of every second of this when Kennedy - having already unbuttoned her coat while her mind was elsewhere - started to push her jumper up.

"Too cold?" Kennedy asked, halting her upwards shift of the sweater when Willow pulled back, suddenly needing more air.

"No," she grinned, "you'll keep me toasty."

She took her coat off and raised her arms, giving Kennedy the opportunity to remove the woolly impediment altogether. She wore nothing but her bra underneath and her smile grew as Kennedy's eyes darkened with need and the slayer lurched forward, lips grazing first neck, then clavicle and then collar bone as her hot hands crept up Willow's chilly stomach to tease the material of her bra.

Willow's head fell back against the window, demisting a patch of it, as she reveled for a moment or two in Kennedy's touch; it had been absent way too long. Soon enough though she moved her hands to the front of Kennedy's pants, licking her lips in anticipation as she unbuckled the belt, so ready to take this to the next level.

The sharp tap tap tap at the driver's window made her yelp and sit up sharply. Kennedy, by contrast, went very quiet and still.

"Please tell me we parked by a tree I didn't notice and that the wind suddenly got really strong," Willow whispered.

"I didn't see a tree," Kennedy murmured.

"But that doesn't mean there wasn't one," Willow tried, desperate to hang onto any explanation but the obvious. "We were sorta distracted when we found a space. It could be..."

The tapping came again, making them both jump slightly this time. "Please step out of your car, sir!"

"So it's a talking tree," Willow whispered. "Rare but not..."

Kennedy gave her a look that told her to give it up and then gingerly wiped a circle of steam from the window glass. She tilted her head to see who owned the voice outside and Willow twisted her neck to do the same. The police officer bent down to peer through the clear circle at the same time.

"Shit," Kennedy muttered.

"Oops!" Willow started scrambling for her sweater but Kennedy was still leaning over her making it impossible to reach.

"I apologize," the cop cleared his throat. "Would you please step out of the car, ma'am."

"Which one of us?" she squeaked.

"Both of you."

He opened the door, letting a gush of icy air into the car. Willow folded her arms over her chest, as much for warmth as modesty.

"Do you mind!" Kennedy snapped as she squeezed past to jump out of the car and shield Willow from the cop and passers-by.

"With all due respect, ma'am, if you were that concerned about privacy I doubt you'd be engaging in sexual activity during business hours in the middle of a parking lot on one of the busiest shopping days of the year."

"We weren't having sex, we were just... changing out of wet clothes before going into the mall," Kennedy improvised.

The police officer eyed them thoughtfully and her ruse might have worked, if Willow hadn't chosen that moment to see the funny side and start giggling.

Giles dropped the newspaper onto his desk and sat back in his comfortable leather chair. "It's not much to go on, unfortunately."

"But we agree it's demony?" Dawn checked from the less comfortable chair on the other side of the desk.

"I would certainly be inclined to think so. Five young victims of unexplained decapitation..."

"Is it still just called decapitation when they've been bitten off right down to the belly button?" Xander asked. He was leaning against the wall and looked as sick by his question as he'd made Dawn look. "Forget I asked, I don't want any more details than necessary."

"No witnesses. Five different resort locations full of holiday makers, all of which are situated around the Hellmouth. I'd say if it's not demonic..."

"We're dealing with one pissed off reindeer," Xander joked, and then stepped forward as he had a thought. "Hey, come to think of ridiculously dangerous wildlife, maybe we should give Alex a call."

Dawn shook her head and pointed to the newspaper. "You said yourself the cops are no help. They play this stuff too close to their chests."

"Not to mention that I'm starting to think the police are trained to be deliberately stupid when it comes to dealing with the supernatural," Giles added.

"But Al's not like other cops. He's smart for one and he's our friend. He'd help if he could."

Giles nodded thoughtfully but then shook his head. "I expect you are right, but I don't want him too involved in our business." Xander went to interrupt but Giles didn't let him this time. "For his own safety as much as ours."

"Sounds like a waste of a useful resource to me," Xander said. "And it's not like we have that many resources to use around here."

He had a point and Giles conceded it with a nod. "Perhaps, off the record, you could inquire after the 'strange animal attacks' you've seen in the news this week. From that I imagine you'll be able to gauge how much he knows and how much he's hiding."

Xander grinned. "Sweet; I'm always up for a little off the record fun at Barnies."

As Dawn playfully rolled her eyes, Giles gave him a stern look. "If you honestly think Alex can be a useful ally to the Council in the future then it is important that you take this task seriously."

"Sure," he agreed easily - too easily.

"I mean it, Xander," he said to force the point home. "Something like this would normally fall under the duties of an official Council Operative."

Xander's smile had dropped. "Want me to call Robin for you?"

"No, I think despite your lack of official status you are the right person for this job, but please, all I ask is that you approach it with the same care you have shown to renovating the shower block."

Xander still looked grumpy but when Giles finally gave him a smile, the young man nodded.

"Now, if you could in fact call Robin and anyone else in residence today, we'll reconvene in the kitchen to discuss what other avenues we have for researching this threat."

The office was getting warmer. Maybe someone had cranked the heat up to the max to compensate for the freezing day outside or maybe it was all the intense pressure to say the right thing making Buffy sweat.

She pulled at the rolled collar of her polo-neck for relief as she tried to find the best way to answer the current question.

"I guess I just feel that everything comes before me. Work, slaying, school, even socializing..."

Faith scoffed at that. "The only person I socialize with is her!"

"That's not true. You go to Barnies all the time without me."

Before Faith could snap back Dr Haywater asked, "How often is all the time, Buffy?"

Buffy thought about it, wondering if mentioning this stuff was petty. Was it really what they were here for? To bicker about trivial matters. Didn't they do enough of that on their own time? But the Doctor's question had been fairly specific: What annoys you the most about where your relationship stands now?

"She goes once or twice a week for the evening alone and sometimes after patrol if Alison isn't with her, and I know she and Xander always stop for a drink if they have to go to the lumber yard for supplies. That counts as socializing without me, right?"

Haywater didn't answer her, instead turning in her seat enough to face Faith. "Would you say that was a fair assessment?"

Faith shrugged.

"And would you like to respond? Share your view of the situation?"

She shrugged again. "What's there to say? I work my ass off during the day, I patrol nearly every night and in-between I'm going to night classes, seeing Deb D and coming here. If I wanna chill in my spare time with a beer I think she should understand that. It's not like I have a lot else that's just for me right now."

Buffy turned angrily in her seat, finally talking directly to Faith again. "That's my point. You're supposed to chill with me. I get that you have to do all that other stuff, we've been through it enough times, it's why we're taking it slow. But when your crappy day is over I'm supposed to be the one you want to spend time with; not the old men at Barnies, me! I'm supposed to be the thing that's just for you."

Faith chuckled bitterly. "Don't make me laugh, B. You ain't mine. You want me to be yours, sure, but don't kid yourself it goes both ways."

As Buffy stared at her, having no idea how to respond to such an unexpected accusation, Haywater sneaked in a question.

"And Faith, what annoys you the most about where your relationship stands now?"

Buffy tensed, waiting for her to say 'lack of sex' and take this session to a whole new level of needing therapy. Faith thought about it, the long silence just making Buffy even more edgy.

"Is it really that hard to pick just one thing," she joked feebly.

"Think it's probably all part of what I just said," Faith began eventually. "I'm sick of being the underdog all the time."

"Who said you're the underdog?"

"You don't have to say it, B! It's in everything you do..." Faith looked away as she muttered. "...or don't do. I get no say. I just have to follow you and do what you want to do, when you want to do it; but Buffy, I'm not a follower. I sure as hell ain't your follower. So if we can't be equal in this relationship..."

"What?" Buffy asked, her voice as cold as the shiver running down her spine. "You'll break up with me?"

"No, not gonna do that. I'll keep spending my evenings drinking at the bar."

"That's why you do it! You're rebelling?" Buffy shook her head. "Newsflash, Faith: We won't be on equal terms until you start putting some effort into what we have here and that's never going to happen if you keep going to Barnies to avoid me!"

"Effort?" Faith shouted. "You want frickin' effort? What do you call last night? Did you even think for a second how long it took me to wrap myself up like that? Or, more importantly, wonder how into this relationship I must be to make myself look like such a total dick for you? Huh? Do you think something like that comes natural to me? I made an effort, B, I keep making an effort. You, on the other hand, can't even be fucked to get up off your ass in the evening and meet me at Barnies."

After the outburst the only thing Buffy could think to say was, "You've never asked me to meet you there."

"Should I have to? If we're really together shouldn't you wanna do stuff like that without me having to ask? I keep hearing from your friends how screwed up and abandoned you feel 'cause all your exes and your dad left you and how I made it all ten times worse when I ran off, but really B, I live in the same house as you and you still make me feel like that every day."

Buffy stared at her in silence for so long she was surprised the doctor didn't tell them their time was up before she spoke again. About halfway through the silence Faith stood abruptly and went to the water cooler on the far side of the office. She helped herself to a plastic cup of water and then stayed, facing the wall, while she slowly sipped from it.

Buffy glanced at the therapist, whose face remained impassive, waiting to see how she would respond, and then tried to swallow the golf ball sized lump in her throat.

"It's different," she managed. "I haven't abandoned you. You're the one who did all the abandoning. I was right here waiting for you. I still am."

Faith didn't turn around. "Then why, when I'm with you, does it feel like the opposite?"

Buffy shrugged sadly. "I don't know."

The kitchen, although full, didn't seem right to Dawn. Without Buffy there, or Willow - or even Faith - it didn't seem like a real meeting. Other than Giles, who admittedly could make an evening watching funny sitcoms feel like the annual general meeting of a boring TV committee, and Xander, who was standing behind the counter as if offering to make tea for everyone would disguise the fact that he was having a liquid lunch again - and the liquid wasn't tea! - and seemed to be only half listening to what was happening now, she was the most senior Council member there, if you looked past the fact that she wasn't really so much a Council member and more just Buffy's little sister who just happened to be stuck there whether she wanted to be or not.

'And I'm the one who found the threat in the first place, she thought as her mood went from proud to depressed in the space of one stream of consciousness. 'Not that anyone's acknowledging that now.'

Actually, it had been Fen who found the threat, but as Fen didn't really know what she had seen in the newspaper, Dawn felt comfortable accepting the credit - if anyone bothered offering it to her.

"And so, until anything turns up that can rule it out, we will be treating these attacks as supernatural and taking an active role in trying to decipher what is behind them," Giles was saying.

As Dawn saw a few of the Slayers faces go blank she helpfully chipped in, "We're going to investigate them and see if we can stop the demon."

"Yes, quite. So far the information we have is very scarce. In fact," he sighed ruefully, "it's whatever details we could glean from this morning's newspaper."

A few people shuffled their feet and muttered about how much use that wasn't.

"I'm aware of that, which is why I propose a couple of you head out to the store now and buy a copy of any other local newspaper they stock. Nationals too. This has been happening for five days so there's a chance they've picked it up already and I imagine their reporters are a little more vigorous in their search for particulars."

"How did this happen under our noses without us picking it up?" Rona asked and there was a murmur of agreement from the other slayers.

"I'm afraid that's something that..." Giles began, his voice hesitating because he really didn't have a good excuse.

"With you guys all going through the intensive training program in Cleveland the last few weeks local patrol has been neglected," Dawn said. "Plus none of you go onto private land, so if this demon's been hiding out at various resorts you wouldn't have come across him anyway."

"Yeah, but now he's made five moves and we haven't made one yet," Alison said.

Dawn knew she was right. Wasn't anyone reading the local news to see what was happening? Buffy used to scan it daily back in Sunnydale, usually just the headlines and the obituaries true, but at least it was something.

Seeing that Dawn had lost her momentum with that comment, Reece stepped in. "So let's make a move now. Rona and I will go to the shop for the papers. Alison, why don't you come with us? We can ask the old bloke behind the counter if he's heard anything too."

"That's a good idea, but be discreet," Giles cautioned. "I'm still not sure what to make of that fellow."

Reece turned to Dawn with a smile. "Would you like to come?"

She returned the smile with one even bigger but declined. "I'd better stay here, just in case I can be useful."

"Okay, see you later." He gave her a kiss on the cheek before heading for the back door. Along with Rona and Alison, Miranda went too.

Behind them, Xander turned the radio on. "Almost time for the news," he explained as he lowered the volume to unobtrusive.

Giles nodded at his idea.

"Someone should check the local news websites too," Dawn suggested.

"I can do that," Cici offered. "I'll just get my laptop from the dorm."

"Next on the agenda," Giles said with a frown. "Somebody has to go to the morgue and identify the condition of the bodies."

"Ew." Vi pulled a face. "Do we have to? Wouldn't their parents already have done that?"

"Not to identify who they were," Dawn clarified, "but to identify any marks that might lead us to what type of demon it is."

"Oh," Vi said, understanding. "Eww."

"I'd like you to do that if you don't mind," Giles asked Robin.

Dawn's ex-principal didn't look very happy about the undertaking but nodded solemnly. "Of course, I'll just need the address. And do we have any protocol for this kind of covert mission?"

"In Sunnydale we did, but here I'm afraid we're making it up as we go along for the time being."

"Can Craig do glamours?" Dawn asked. "That's what Willow uses for jobs like this."

Craig was sitting on the side counter behind everyone else, not really involved in the discussion, but he spoke up now. "I've never done one before but I'm up for it if someone shows me how."

"Maybe it's time Willow started passing on some of her trade secrets," Xander said as he finally handed mugs of tea to her and Giles. "Nothing too heavy, just glamours and locator spells, the stuff we used to use all the time back home."

"I'll just go along and if I can't get in without raising too much suspicion, I'll come back and wait for Willow to make me glamorous. Might be useful to have a partner for this mission too," Robin added hopefully.

"Yes, you're right. Ahh..."

While Giles was still deciding Dawn half lifted her hand. "I don't mind going."

Giles smiled at her, "Thank you for offering, Dawn, but I'm afraid Buffy would never allow it."

She shrugged. "Buffy's not the boss, you are."

He smiled again as if she were still eleven and had said something cute but stupid and then dismissed her. "Actually... Naomi, if you don't mind such a gruesome task..."

Naomi stood from her seat at the table with a sigh. "This is what I get for demanding some fieldwork, isn't it?"

Giles grinned at her affectionately. "Yes."

Dawn figured the partnership had more to do with Giles thinking that if big, black and muscled didn't work to intimidate their way in, then petite, blonde and gorgeous might be enough to charm their way in but she kept her conjecture to herself.

"Would you like us to call in at the sheriff's department too?" Robin asked. "I doubt they'll tell us anything but it doesn't hurt to ask."

"No, that won't be necessary," Giles said.

"Are you sure? We'll be going right past it."

"I'm sure. Xander's going to deal with that angle."

"Fair enough." Robin gave a nod, and then after Cici had found the addresses for the two closest morgues, he and Naomi left.

"I suppose that leaves the rest of us to study the resorts where the murders took place," Giles looked around at the rest of them. "Perhaps their locations are a good place to start. Vi, would you fetch the map of Boudenver District from my office, it's on top of the bookshelf. Andrew, are you ready?"

Andrew had fixed up the white board in a corner of the kitchen but now he'd been called upon realized he had no pen to write with.

Dawn pulled a black marker out of the dresser drawer and threw it to him.

"Thanks," he said absently as he pulled the cap off.

Dawn gave a hard-done by sigh.

Kennedy was at the wheel now as they drove back around the city to pick Buffy and Faith up. She was still feeling flustered after their experience with the cop, her skin still flushed pink despite the window being open to clear the last of the fog from the inside of the glass.

"I can't believe you started laughing," she snapped mildly, and not for the first time since they'd left the parking lot. "I had him fooled until then."

Just at the mention of it Willow started chuckling again. "I couldn't help it!" she insisted. "It was just... you looked so freaked... a-and he was trying to be all professional and it was... funny."

"Yeah, a five hundred dollar fine is really funny," she sniffed.

Willow calmed down, if only to humor her. "It's not ideal, I agree, but we'll get the money and at least we don't have to pay it until after the holidays."

"You should pay all of it. It was all your crazy idea in the first place!" Willow looked horrified for a moment and Kennedy finally gave in and smiled at her. "I'm kidding, Will. I'd put it on my emergency credit card but I can't have it showing up on a statement. I'm supposed to be showing my parents how mature and responsible I am so they'll restart my allowance and I don't think a fine for sexual misconduct will help somehow."

"No, probably not." Willow was quiet for a moment before softly chuckling again. "It was fun though, right?"

Kennedy grinned, remembering what a turn on it had been getting reacquainted with Willow's body and the extra buzz of knowing they were in the car in the middle of the day and Willow was so hot for her she didn't care.

"Oh yeah."

Faith was sitting back down, albeit with her ass on the wide back of the chair and her feet on the seat, and now Buffy was the one up and pacing. Faith followed her with her eyes.

"I don't know what you want me to say," Buffy barked, and then turned to Haywater. "I don't know what she wants me to say!"

The therapist kept her tone soft, trying to stay as low profile as she could. "Just answer the question as honestly as you can, Buffy."

"I answered it last night!" Buffy looked close to tears.

Faith wasn't feeling particularly moved. "No, you said, 'I can't, sorry' and then you ordered me out of your room."

"And that was my answer!"

"So why couldn't you?" When Buffy didn't speak Faith continued. "You wanted to wait, to take it slow, I was on-board..."

"You were never on-board!"

"Okay, I was running alongside hardly complaining, same diff, but it's been nearly four months now, B! What are we waiting for exactly? Does the world have to nearly end again before you're ready? 'Cause I don't know if I can wait that damn long!"

"So if I'm not ready before the next apocalypse season you're gonna leave me?" The anger was making her voice tremble.

"Hell, if you won't even tell me why we're waiting, why the fuck should I stick around?"

"Wait a moment, Faith," Haywater interrupted.

Faith turned angrily to tell her to butt out, but the doctor was looking at Buffy, an inquisitive compassion in her eyes that showed she'd seen something Faith hadn't.

"What?" Buffy snapped quietly, not liking the scrutiny.

"Do you mind if I give my opinion on why I think you're not ready, in front of Faith?"

Buffy's trembling had increased but she gave a quick 'go ahead' nod.

"Thank you." Haywater took a glance at her watch. "I'll keep this simple because we're nearly out of time, but I think you're scared to commit to Faith in a physical sense because you're convinced it will mean more to you than to her."

"Why the hell would she think that when I'm the only one who seems to want it?" Faith asked.

Haywater turned to her now, but still kept glancing at Buffy.

"Your relationship is unequal, but not in the way you both think. Faith, you feel that Buffy is calling all the shots, controlling the relationship to the point where you have no say. Buffy feels as if she can't control the relationship and has no say in how you deal with the things you are going through, including how they relate to her. In short, you are both fighting for control, which isn't surprising considering how alike you are, but that's not the way to forge a healthy relationship and you're never going to be happy together until you give up that way of thinking."

"So you're saying Buffy isn't having sex with me because she thinks I'm controlling this relationship? That's bullshit!"

"Faith's right. If I let her control anything we'd be doing it twenty-four-seven! How much is Giles paying you for this crap?"

Dr. Haywater rolled her eyes as they proved her opinion without realizing it, and stood up. "Well, that's all we have time for today. I'll see you the first week in January, Faith."

"Wait, that's it?" Buffy asked, her anger turning to panic. "You're supposed to be fixing us!"

Faith stayed stubbornly seated, waiting for more too.

"I have another appointment in ten minutes..."

"Then you have ten more minutes to help us!" Buffy said.

"No, I'm afraid this session is at an end," Haywater said firmly, but relented enough to add, "but I'll give you some advice. Forget about your relationship for the holidays. Don't try to be a couple. It's a stressful enough time of year for couples anyway and you're only going to make things harder. Just try to be yourselves, have fun, go to parties - Faith, you mentioned there was a Christmas Ball in Boudenver this week?"

"Yeah, tomorrow night. Why?"

"I suggest you go separately, leave the uncertainty you feel together behind and concentrate only on your own happiness for a few days. I think it'll make you feel much better when you re-evaluate your relationship in the new year."

Faith glared at her until she'd finished speaking, it felt like Haywater was saying they should break up and she wanted to shove the words back down her throat with her fist, but then a glance to her left showed Buffy's steely but thoughtful expression and - screw this! - wasn't like the relationship was doing her any favors anyhow. A break was exactly what she needed.

"Done!" She jumped off the chair and stalked to the door.

"Best advice ever!" Buffy agreed, following her, looking like she would have punched through the door if Faith hadn't automatically held it open for her.

Dorothy Haywater watched them go with a worried frown but when the door slammed shut behind them she gave a small smile. They'd be okay... hopefully... as long as they followed her advice. If they didn't they probably wouldn't last until New Year and she dreaded to think how Faith's future sessions would go then. She picked up her notepad to record her final observations, noticing regrettably that she now only had two minutes to go until her next client.

Barnies looked completely different tonight. A large Christmas tree was set up in one corner, complete with fairy lights, shiny red and silver baubles and a sparkling angel on the top. More strings of white fairy lights, dozens of them, hung across the ceiling from beam to beam and between them fluttered long, glittery strands of red, green and silver tinsel - some hanging across the ceiling and some dangling down like shiny, festive waterfalls that shimmered in the light.

It was beautiful and Buffy was glad she'd spent two hours getting ready after all. It had seemed like a waste of time while she was bathing and applying her make-up and slipping into her new dress, but now... now it almost felt worth it. Even if she was here alone...sort of.

The whole household had come out tonight all in all their finery, even the younger slayers. Alex had told Xander it would be fine, provided no one under twenty-one was drinking alcohol. Buffy had figured he was counting on them to fill the usually quiet bar up, but she was obviously wrong - the bar was already jam-packed with locals and tourists. In fact, they had trouble all fitting into the spacious tavern.

Buffy went to the bar with Giles, Xander and Willow but Alex waved them away, promising to bring drinks over in a minute. On the one hand she was pleased she didn't have to wait at the crowded bar, on the other she had a feeling it would take more than a minute for drinks to arrive and she was feeling a serious need for alcohol tonight.

Faith, despite all odds, had found them a table. Ugh, Faith! She was trying not to think about her or look at her - even though she was stunning in her short, black dress with the red laces cats-cradling across the deep-set V of bare skin at the front. The dress had come with black string, but Buffy knew Faith had substituted the red laces from her new boots to do the job. It should have looked stupid, and Buffy had expected it would, but it looked awesome and... Faith-like.

Gah! She wasn't supposed to be thinking about her. Buffy turned her back on the table and scanned the crowd. Dawn was already dancing with Reece on the small dance floor and Buffy took a moment to appreciate how fluidly Dawn danced, prepared to take it as a compliment to her own dancing skills because she'd taught her when they were younger; except not really, she supposed. But hey, Dawn was made from her, so they were still her dancing skills. Happy with that logic, Buffy almost joined her, but she didn't really want to dance with Reece and her sister probably wouldn't welcome the interruption anyway.

That didn't help her antsiness though. "Will, wanna go dance?"

"If Kennedy wants to," her friend didn't look away from smiling at the younger slayer.

"In a little while," Kennedy said. "Let's have a drink first."

The way she pulled Willow in for a full on kiss made Buffy think a drink was the last thing on Kennedy's mind, and she rolled her eyes good-naturedly before leaning closer to Xander.


"Why not!" He grinned and grabbed her hand to lead her over.

When they were dancing she raised her voice to be heard over the music. "You seem chipper tonight."

"It's something I'm trying out."

"It suits you."

"Giles gave me an assignment yesterday."

After the disastrous visit to the therapist, Buffy had indulged in solitude for the rest of the day, not even going down for dinner. She had spent most of today the same way, apart from a quick meeting with Giles where he'd told her about the suspected kid-eating demon - and could she just say how very much she was looking forward to slaying that asshole!

"An assignment? What does he want you to do now? Paint the house with a toothbrush? Isn't he working you hard enough already?"

"Not as hard as you're working me," Xander quipped, referring to their one on one training sessions. "And not that kind of assignment."

"Oh. Then what kind?"

"It's a secret."

"Is it really a secret or are you just saying that to make it sound more important?"

"I dunno, but it's definitely one of those."

Buffy didn't press him for more info. She was just happy to see Xander grinning so cheerfully again. Between him and Willow they were almost back to normal; she was the only one still finding it hard to smile. She wasn't dwelling on that tonight though. She was living it up, kicking up her heels, forgetting all about a certain someone sitting not far behind her. She had to, it was doctor's orders.

Faith sat leaning comfortably back in her chair, one arm around the back of Naomi's, as she people-watched. She was idly deciding who in the bar was screwable while she waited for her beer to turn up.

Her first choice would have been the chick sitting next to her but that might be a little close to home for her these days. It was getting annoying 'cause every time her eyes wandered to check out other prospective one-night partners they kept landing back on Buffy, who was shaking her sexy ass on the dance floor with Xander.

She knew if there was any sign that Buffy didn't want her to follow Haywater's advice, she wouldn't even be trying to think this way, but Buffy hadn't so much as said a word to her since leaving the shrink's office yesterday afternoon, so obviously it was what Buffy wanted. She was free, for damn sake, for a week at least, so why couldn't she get her head off of that blonde bitch and back in the game? It was a game she was usually so good at too.

She leaned closer to the young Watcher, catching her attention with her eyes, but all she could think to say was, "So any idea when these drinks are showing up?"

"I'm afraid not, no." Naomi looked like she was about to go back to a conversation with Miranda, but then slyly spoke to her again. "Faith, there's a bowl of punch by the bar. Do you think it has alcohol in it?"

Faith noticed the large bowl for the first time; well it was more a glass bucket really. There were kids helping themselves to cupfuls and no adults were chasing them away.

"Doubt it."

Naomi nodded. "Then do you think you could spike it for me?"

Faith gave a surprised laugh. That was the last thing she'd expected to come out of the English girl's mouth. "What?"

"I haven't had a real drink in months," Naomi complained with a smile. "I am legal back home," she added like that made any difference to Faith.

Faith nodded, liking the way Naomi's eyes lit up as they talked. "I'll see what I can do, cupcake."

Willow and Kennedy had managed to find one seat between them. That was fine with Willow; she sat comfortably across her girlfriend's lap as they kissed. When they parted for a moment to take a breather, she looked around and noticed that Xander was at the bar and Buffy was dancing alone now. Well, not completely alone, Cici and Alison were dancing beside her, but Buffy didn't look like she had noticed.

When Kennedy leant up to kiss her again, she turned her face slightly to the side so that Kennedy's lips fell against the side of her mouth, not wanting to put her off but needing to be able to speak.

"We should probably go dance with Buffy now."

"I'd rather keep doing this." Kennedy kissed her way across to Willow's lips until they were securely joined again.

Willow happily indulged her for a minute before breaking away to say, "We're gonna get fined for public indecency again if we keep going."

"Good point." Kennedy smiled as she sat back and then looked over at Buffy. "What do you think's wrong with her?"

"I don't know. She's barely spoken a word since we picked them up yesterday." Willow twisted on Kennedy's lap to look at Faith. She was flirting with Naomi; at least it looked that way. "And Faith's acting strange too, or actually she's acting normal for Faith, but that's strange 'cause she hasn't since she's been back."

Kennedy nodded, eyes flicking between her elders, one on the dance floor, one sitting just ten feet away, and then focused back on her.

"Okay, five more minutes of us-time and then we'll go dance with her."

"Maybe we should make it three," Willow said, liking the idea but worried about Buffy, and Faith, weirdly enough.

"Okay," Kennedy said agreeably.

As soon as their lips touched again, and Willow lost herself in the feeling, she mumbled, "No, actually, five minutes is good."

Buffy tried dancing with the newbies but they made her feel old; the seven year gap between their ages really showing itself with their different dance styles. She turned to dance with Dawn instead but less than half a song had passed before Reece gracefully swept her sister closer to his body and she had to turn away to avoid punching his lights out. Xander had said he'd only be a minute but was still nowhere in sight. It was time to go in search of the promised alcohol.

Luckily, she didn't have to go far. As she reached the table, Alex arrived to set a big tray of drinks down. Thanking him, she took a beer and sipped it. That was when she saw Faith and Naomi acting all friendly together. What was that about? Naomi had turned Buffy down because she was straight but now she was giggling about something with Faith? Was it her? Did she turn women off the second she got close to them or something?

She turned away from the table and drained her beer in a series of gulps. Then, hoping no one noticed, she grabbed another.

Xander washed his hands again as a guy came out of one of the stalls. At this rate people were going to start thinking he had some kind of obsessive compulsion but that was a better reputation than the one he would get for loitering in the Men's room doing nothing.

Alone again, he checked his watch and winced. Yeesh! He'd been in here nearly twenty minutes. Maybe catching Alex in here wasn't such a good plan after all. Had to be better than standing around the three deep bar for any longer though. Getting his feet trodden on, beer spilled down his pant leg and people constantly jostling his blind side - something he doubted he would ever get used to no matter how long he trained with Buffy - while unsuccessfully trying to attract the barman's attention.

Xander's enthusiasm for his appointed task had started to drop until he'd heard Alex shouting over the music to his assistant that he was taking a break in five minutes. It looked like he either hadn't found a good time to escape from behind the bar yet or he hadn't needed to use the restroom on his break.

The door opened again and he looked behind hopefully but it was just Andrew. This was getting ridiculous - actually it might have been ridiculous to start with.

"Hey, Xander, I didn't realize you were still in here." Andrew went into a stall to pee. "Is everything okay? It wasn't my Fiery Mussel Spaghettini was it? - the shopkeeper swore they were fresh but have you noticed how we never see him with a fresh fish delivery van outside?"

Andrew came out of the stall and Xander stepped to the side to let him get to the sinks. The door opened and Xander looked up eagerly but was disappointed again as Craig came through, focused solely on Andrew.

"There you are. I wouldn't have been waiting out there for you if I'd knew you were waiting in here for me." His hands landed on Andrew's hips, pulling him closer, and his lips were almost on Andrew's when Xander hurriedly cleared his throat. "Oh. Alright mate, didn't see you there."

He still gave Andrew a kiss but it was more innocent than Craig had originally intended. Although not that innocent! Great, now not only was he loitering in a Men's room he was doing it while watching two boys making out. Xander averted his gaze to the mirror, realized that made no difference at all - he was just seeing it inverted - and turned completely so that his blind eye was to them. Finally losing an eye had a bright side!

"Uh, guys, maybe this isn't the best place to be..."

Andrew pulled away from his boyfriend, cheeks flushed with a mixture of excitement and embarrassment. "Sorry!"

Craig chuckled and took Andrew's hand to pull him out of the restroom.

Xander gave up and followed them out - he didn't really want to spend the entire Christmas Ball in the bathroom - trying to figure out how else he might catch Alex alone tonight.

Spiking the punch was a no go. Sneaking something into it would be easy enough - Faith's past had its uses - but there were kids of all ages helping themselves to it. She didn't much give a crap if Naomi got drunk, in fact she kinda wanted to see the prim and proper English chick with her respectability down, but her conscience was too active these days to let a bunch of fourteen year olds get wasted without even realising it.

There were other ways to go about it though.

If Faith hadn't been a slayer there was no way she would have been able to carry the large round tray of drinks all the way from the bar to their table. It was so busy she couldn't even go in a straight line, having to weave in and out of groups of locals with the tray held over her head like a well-trained cocktail waitress. When she set it down on the table top, gently using the edge to nudge empty glasses out of the way, there wasn't a drop spilled. Moving swiftly and efficiently, she doled out the beverages with both hands, passing a soft drink one way to a minor and the shot of choice to the legal adult the other way, helping herself to a couple of shots as she worked. It was all done so smoothly even if anyone had been paying much attention they wouldn't have noticed the way one shot glass tilted in Faith's half closed hand and was placed on the other side of the tray empty.

As she finally took a seat again Faith grabbed her beer from the tray and passed Naomi's orange juice to her.

"Cheers," she said with a wink and clinked their glasses together.

Naomi echoed her before raising her glass to her lips. Tasting the vodka in the orange juice she licked her lips with a smile. "Thank you."

"No problem. Just let me know when you want a refill." Faith leaned casually closer as if just getting comfortable. "Or when you want to dance."

Naomi watched her face as she took another sip of her drink, trying to figure her out if Faith was any judge. "Won't you get into trouble?" she murmured.

Faith shrugged. "No rule against slayers dancing with watchers far as I know."

Naomi's clear blue eyes slowly moved to the other side of the table and back again. She could have been looking at her uncle but as Buffy was talking to Giles, Faith guessed she was the recipient of the deliberate look.

"Nah, she won't give us any trouble," Faith said lightly, keeping the bitter taste of the words to herself.

'I'm enjoying myself, I'm enjoying myself, I'm enjoying... Are they going to dance?!' Buffy forgot she was talking to Giles and turned away from him as Faith and Naomi stood up, laughing like old friends, and squeezed their way through the crowd to the dance floor.

"I can't believe her!" she snapped, not realizing she had spoken aloud.

Giles switched conversational gears as easily as her but obviously hadn't seen what she had. "Faith or Dawn?" he asked politely, making her wonder just how predictable she was these days.

"Dawn's fine. She's in love, she has a boyfriend who wants to dance with her, her Christmas is going to be just peachy." Buffy fell into a brooding silence but it didn't last, the urge to rant was just too strong. "And what kind of crackpot shrink did you send us to Giles? Huh?"

"Only the best in the business. Is there a problem with Dr. Haywater?"

"Only if you don't wanna be alone on the holidays. Which I didn't! But I'm sure if you're an unfeeling bitch like..."

"Buffy, be careful of what you are saying in the heat of the moment," he cautioned.

"I know exactly what I am saying, Giles!" But his concern had taken some of the heat out of her temper. "I was hoping that this year, finally, I could have a happy, family Christmas again - almost like when Mom was alive - but I guess I'm just not supposed to have one of those any time soon."

"Who says?"

She ducked her head. "Faith and I are going from bad to worse. In fact, we're so bad that your great doctor has prescribed us a trial separation. So, I don't even get to spend the holidays with my annoying, selfish girlfriend because now, for the next week at least, I don't even have one of those!"

"That all sounds" Giles didn't know how to finish his sentence.

"I was okay with it until I realized how much she was going to enjoy her freedom," she continued, waving a hand vaguely in the direction of where Faith was dancing. "You know what? Never mind. I have just as much freedom as she does and I can enjoy it just as good. I just need alcohol to do it." She scanned the tray of shots Faith had recently carried over; they were all empty now. "She drank my drink too?!"

After taking a sip from the vodka and orange at the bar, Faith switched the glasses in her hands as she walked away, handing that one to Naomi and keeping the straight juice for herself.

"You're good at this," Naomi said.

Faith gave her a grin. "I used to be a delinquent." Back at the table the grin fell when she realised Buffy was waiting for her. "What?"

"You drank my drink."

"Pretty sure I never bought you a drink."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"Wasn't really supposed to make you feel anything."

"Like you're obviously not?"

Naomi was still standing at her side looking perfectly composed but Faith felt uncomfortable having a witness to Buffy chewing her out.

"B, we're not supposed to be doing this, remember?"

"It's a drink, Faith, it's not like I'm asking you to dance with me."

"Fine," she sighed. "I'll go buy you a drink."

"I don't want you to buy me a drink, I want you to have bought me a drink."

Faith gave her a blank look. Why did Buffy have to make everything so damn difficult?

"Whatever," Buffy snapped. "I'll take yours!" And she'd taken the glass out of her hand before Faith could stop her.

"B, wait..."

Buffy downed it in one, pulled a face, smacked her lips and pulled the glass away to give it a funny look. "Is this just orange juice?"

"Well it was."

"Why aren't you drinking?"

Naomi smiled at them both nodding towards where Miranda and Alison were sitting. "I'll give you some privacy. Fetch me if you'd like to dance again."

Buffy watched her go and then turned back to Faith. "Well?"

"I'm pacing myself. It's early. No need to get wrecked in the first hour, B," Faith calmly gave the excuses as she thought of them. "Not like I got any sorrows to drown this week, right?"

Hurt flashed across Buffy's face but then something seemed to occur to her that she found amusing. Her lips twitched in a small smile.

"Are you staying sober to impress Naomi?"


"Oh." She was more hesitant as she asked, "Are you staying sober to impress me?"

"No," she repeated softly. "Look, I'm not even planning on staying sober, got the whole night ahead of us... ahead of me... to get drunk. Don't rush me." She gave Buffy a half-smile and then slipped around her and away.

Knowing she shouldn't, Buffy turned anyway to watch her go. On the other side of the table Faith fell back into her chair. Immediately Naomi turned to her, whispering and giggling. The demure girl didn't normally relax so easily. Faith said something, shook her head, said something else and then laughed. Were they laughing at her? Buffy wished she could eavesdrop but the noise level in the bar made it impossible. She watched Faith take a big gulp of Naomi's orange juice before handing it back, like they were already so close that sharing drinks was nothing, before she turned away.

Was she about to be replaced that easily? By agreeing to Haywater's stupid advice had she sealed their fate once and for all? But she hadn't agreed first! Faith had been the eager one, Buffy just hadn't wanted to lose face. Oh God, did that mean Faith had wanted this opportunity for a while?

Head full of horrible thoughts, Buffy wandered away from the table, stopping subconsciously within the comfort bubble of Willow and Kennedy. They stopped kissing reluctantly when they noticed her.

"Are you okay, Buffy?" Willow asked, taking in her friend's sad expression.

"Yeah." She shrugged. "I'm taking my medicine."

Willow and Kennedy shared a confused glance.

"What's up between you and Faith?" Kennedy asked.

"We're on a break."

"What, like Ross and Rachel?" Kennedy said.

Willow shook her head. "Ross and Rachel weren't on a break!"

"'Course they were," Kennedy countered, grinning. "She said she wanted a break. Can't blame the dude for thinking she meant it."

"But it didn't count! They were in the middle of an argument..."

"Thanks, guys," Buffy smiled sarcastically. "You've been a lot of help."

She walked away.

"Oops," Willow said ruefully.

Kennedy nodded but then looked up at the mistletoe above them. She pointed at it. "Still..."

"Good point," Willow smiled and they got back to what they had been doing before. They had so much lost time to make up for.

Xander had eventually given up on catching Alex alone for the night. Now he was using his initiative, determined to see his mission through somehow.

He was standing by the DJ alcove and with all the speakers facing in the opposite direction it was just about possible to have a casual conversation with Alex's cousin - their electrician - without shouting.

Always friendly anyway, the steady pay check Xander offered him made the boy more than happy to talk while he worked. They'd already covered the delights of the Christmas Ball and each other's holiday plans.

"That's bad business in the news, huh?" Xander played it cool.

Too cool apparently. "What news?"

"About the... the... kids, yunno, being attacked and stuff." Okay, that was less cool.

"Oh, right." The boy nodded, but was more intent on scanning the track listing on a CD case of Christmas songs. "Sure is. Not unusual though, is it?"

Xander frowned. "How do you mean? Do kids get bitten in half all the time 'round here?" His tone was joking but he was genuinely concerned. Was this not a recent thing? How many had they missed then?

The boy looked up, suddenly seeming to realize the conversation he was having. Xander hoped that didn't mean he was about to clam up.

"'Course, forgot you guys were greenhorns. You haven't spent a Christmas here yet have you?"

"No, this'll be our first." When the boy nodded and went back to his music, Xander asked, "Why?"

"This happens almost every year. Bunch of kids get snatched from outside of town. It's wolves. They come across the border when the snow makes hunting hard. Take the vulnerable little ones."

Horrified, Xander asked, "It's really that common?"

"Sure as sugar is sweet I won't be letting my little boy wander off on his own this time of year."

Xander took a moment to digest that. Surely a normal wolf couldn't bite a kid in half. But a werewolf could.

"The newspaper didn't seem to think it was wolves."

The DJ shrugged. "None of the journalists are from here though, are they? They all want a big scoop so they... what's the word... speculate. They come up with their own theories, serial killers and stuff, but you ask me, well anyone around here, no human could do what's done to those little kids."

Xander agreed with that much at least. "Is Alex doing anything about it? If he knows what it is already?"

"He'll mount a hunting party, same as every year, but they don't usually catch the critters responsible. Wolves are territorial, see; they come down here to hunt but then they scamper back to where they belong and Alex hasn't got jurisdiction in Canada."

Xander nodded. "Yeah, that would be a problem."

"Hey, you're thinking your little club could do something about this, aren't you? Protect the wolves or something."

"No way! When it comes to big bad wolves we are definitely on the side of Little Red Riding Hood, but I think Giles will be interested in the... the phenomena," he said, thinking fast. "You know, for our records and stuff."

"You guys really want to learn about the wildlife around here, you should join the hunting party. Learn more in a day on the trail than you do sitting around that camp," he said amiably. "Maybe not the girls though. Might be a little tough going on them."

Despite the chilling subject matter, Xander had to smile at that.

Faith was back on the alcohol, that didn't mean Naomi wasn't still drinking too. She was coming up with more and more inventive ways to pass the spiked drinks because it was making the Watcher laugh, and the more the Watcher laughed the more Faith enjoyed herself and, damn, she deserved a night of enjoying herself with a hot chick.

Sure, she'd prefer that hot chick to be Buffy, but that wasn't happening, not this week anyhow. And if she had to pick a substitute... Naomi wasn't a bad one.

She had her arm on the back of her chair again, sharing stories, and Naomi was acting pretty encouraging, so Faith almost - no actually she really did - jump when Willow bounced into the chair on the other side of her.

"Drunk, Red?" she asked with a smile.

"No, just curious."

Faith knew she hadn't done anything wrong but that still made her feel on edge. "What about?"

"You and Buffy." Willow looked around her. "Hey, Nai! Having a good time?"

Naomi smiled. "Yes thank you. Yourself?"

Willow's head turned to smile wistfully at Kennedy for a second. "Yep. I never thought I'd get a second chance. Second chances are really lucky, aren't they Faith?" She was still smiling but her eyes were steely.

She held a hand up. "Hey, Willow, I don't know what B's told you but...."

"Just that you're on a break."

Faith relaxed. "There ya go then."

"But breaks aren't always a good idea. You know what happened to Ross and Rachel."

"Who?" Beside her Naomi started giggling and Faith turned to her. "Who she talking about?"

Willow's face dropped. "You really don't know?"

"Not a clue."

"Well, let's just say it didn't end well." She looked around Faith to Naomi again. "You don't want to be the Xerox girl do you?"

Naomi giggled again but then cleared her throat and forced herself to calm down. "We're just having a laugh," she promised. "I'm not gay."

Willow gave her an unconvinced look. "Really?"

Faith was still more confused than she ever liked to be and she was watching the conversation between them like a tennis match.

"Really. The only woman I have ever kissed is Buffy."

Faith's gaze swung Naomi's way real fast. "What?"

Naomi held both hands up in surrender, but she couldn't help chuckling again. "It was because of the lust spell. No feelings involved whatsoever, I promise you."

Faith glared at her for a moment before deciding, "In that case you owe me a kiss."

Naomi giggled some more - obviously the drink was starting to affect her - but didn't actually say no.

"How did you jump to that conclusion?" Willow asked.

Faith ignored the question. "Haywater said something interesting yesterday, Red."

"What was that?"

"She asked if we were friends. Double D's got this big thing about me making my own attachments here and the shrink asked if I had one with you."

Willow went to speak automatically but stopped herself. It made Faith feel nostalgic for a time when Willow couldn't help but say what was on her mind. Naturally she had always kept her at arm's length back then, but now, when she really needed her total honesty, she missed wasting that opportunity.

"Is this a trick question?" And the old Willow definitely wouldn't have asked that, at least not so cynically.

Faith thought about letting her off the hook, but that was just an excuse to hide from the truth. "No."

Willow nodded thoughtfully. "We're friends, Faith. I care about you, but..." There was always a but; Faith even already knew what this one was going to be. "...Buffy's my best friend. I'll always be there for you, providing you don't go homicidal again obviously 'cause then you're on your own, and I'll keep your confidences, but I won't watch if you wanna hurt Buffy."

Faith nodded; it hurt a little but she hadn't expected anything less.

"If it's any consolation I'll be mad if she tries to hurt you too."

Faith gave a short laugh. "Yeah, it is. Thanks, Willow." She took a deep breath. "But right now me and B are on a mutually agreed break and I can flirt with any straight girl I want, so if you don't mind."

Willow looked like she did but nodded and stood up anyway. "Just remember what you'll be losing if you let her go, Faith."

"Not planning on letting her go, Red. That decision'll always be hers."

Willow's nod was more confident this time and she smiled again.

"So you are flirting with me?" Naomi asked with a tipsy smile after she'd gone.

Faith laughed. "Yeah. But you're straight, so it don't count, right?"

"Right." Naomi grinned in a way that made both of Faith's eyebrows go up.

"What did she say?" Buffy grabbed Willow's arm before she'd barely skirted the large round table.

Willow looked alarmed and automatically said, "Nothing."

"You were talking for ten minutes and she said nothing?"


"Are you taking her side? I thought we were okay now!" It hadn't happened over night, but she and Willow had been steadily rebuilding their friendship since Thanksgiving.

"We are okay. And I didn't think there was a side. Faith said it was mutual."

"So she did mention me!"

"I mentioned you."


"She loves you, Buffy, I'm sure of it. So maybe this break is a bad idea."

"It wasn't our idea!"


"Her stupid shrink came up with it. She thinks we're putting ourselves under too much pressure to be a couple so we should try not to be until New Year."

"Oh," Willow said again. "That's not actually a bad idea." Buffy glared at her. "You two are the two who went along with it!"

Buffy's glare softened. "I don't think we had much choice. We can't seem to. . .get going, yunno? If a break is what it takes to fix it... it's worth it, I think."

"Then why aren't you okay with it?"

"I was until I saw her all over Naomi tonight."

"Nai's straight."

Buffy gave a dark grin. "I thought I was until I fell for Faith."

"You kissed her first," Willow blurted.

Buffy frowned, "No, Faith kissed me first. In the basement. We were fighting about her taking the girls to the Bronze and then..." Now she was smiling again, it was hard to do anything else when she thought about that evening.

"No, you kissed Naomi first!"

Buffy came back to the present fast. "Who said that?"

"You did, before, and Naomi did. Just now."

Buffy's eyes narrowed but then she shrugged. "Lust spell. We all did things that day we shouldn't have." She gave Willow a pointed look but smiled to show she was teasing.

"I'm just saying if anyone introduced Naomi to the girl-love it was you."

"Thanks, Will," Buffy nodded thoughtfully and then shook her head. "That really doesn't help."

Willow grinned. "Sorry. So, are you going to take advantage of the break?"

Buffy was still watching the Slayer and Watcher laugh on the other side of the table, she wasn't even trying to hide it, but her face was calm. If she hadn't known better Willow would have assumed the sight of them didn't bother her at all.

"Do you really think she will?"

"I don't think so, but this is Faith we're talking about."

Buffy nodded and then turned away from them with a sigh. "That's exactly what I think too. And to answer your question, no I'm not. But if we do break up by New Year then I'm thinking of ending my abstinence with a bang. Do you think I'll suit being a slut?"

Willow laughed, "You could just sleep with Faith, you know."

Buffy chuckled. "Nah, that'd be too easy."

"So now we know it's definitely a demon, what's our plan of attack?" Dawn asked in a business-like manner.

She was sitting with Reece, Giles and Robin in a small group set back from the rest of the table. Robin and Naomi hadn't been able to get access to the morgue the day before and had returned again that afternoon with some of Willow's best hacker work in their favor. Between the false documents she had provided them with and the fake school letters sent out to the Slayer's families over the summer, Willow was turning into a master forger. Dawn wondered if it was worth asking for a fake ID for Christmas.

Robin pulled a face, "Well, I'm not sure I'm qualified to say it's definitely a demon but whatever killed those children did definitely do it with its teeth. Very long, sharp teeth I'd say."

"You saw bite marks?" Giles asked.

"Not on all of them. Four were cleanly... chomped, but the third one we checked had...," he pulled another face, this time not so much indecisive as disgusted. "...chew marks. The wound was ragged compared to the others and below it the skin was punctured - very deeply. The holes were about two millimetres in diameter. My guess is the attacker didn't have a good grip on her and had to take a second bite."

"Right, thank you, Robin. I'm sure the photos Naomi took will prove you correct and help us to determine exactly what we are dealing with."

"It was a little girl?" Dawn felt sick and she held Reece's hand tighter while her other pressed to her mouth.

For some reason she had assumed all of the victims had been boys, not that that made it better but somehow knowing it was a little girl still made it worse.

"Are you okay?" Reece checked gently, ducking his head to meet her eyes.

Giles was also looking at her with grave concern and perhaps a little guilt. "I'm sorry, Dawn, I didn't think. Maybe you would prefer to step away from the table while we have this conversation."

The gross feeling in Dawn's stomach disappeared with her annoyance. "I can handle it."

He smiled. "I know, but you don't have to so why put yourself through it?"

She looked properly at Reece, trying to gauge if he felt the same way.

He misread it. "I don't want to listen to it either," he said with a sympathetic grin. "At least not tonight. So, if Mr. Giles doesn't mind filling me in tomorrow, why don't we go and dance some more?"

Giles looked caught between telling Reece he did mind him shirking his duties to dance and keeping Dawn happy.

Dawn saved him the angst. "I don't want to dance. I can handle it," she reasserted and turned to Robin, the only one who hadn't implied she couldn't. "So the little girl probably put up a struggle, unlike the little boys," she added with a sharp glance at Reece and Giles. "Good for her. Did you collect any samples?"

Robin gave her a 'good for you too' smile as he answered.

Kennedy slipped between Buffy and Willow, throwing a casual arm around both of them. She'd been dancing with Vi and Rona for a while but the distance from Willow had been too much.

It was funny - all those months of pining for her, convinced there was no way back, no easy way anyhow, had evaporated like the steam from the car windows the day before. It wasn't like it had never happened but now it was okay that it had. Kennedy had been falling in love before and then her heart was broken. Now it felt as if it had broken because the pieces weren't in the right place to begin with. They were like a broken bone that had never been set properly and you had to re-break it to make it perfect. It had sounded more romantic when she had whispered it to Willow in their bed the night before, she hoped.

"Wanna dance, baby?"

"Not right now, honey," Buffy said with a shrug. Kennedy laughed, Willow didn't. "Joke, Will."

"Go joke with your own girlfriend."

"Not my girlfriend tonight."

"So, that doesn't mean you can't talk to her. How are you going to resolve anything if you don't talk for the next week?"

She might have had a point but Buffy just shrugged again anyway. "She doesn't want to talk to me right now."

"Well you can stay with us but..." Kennedy took her arm from Buffy's shoulder and pointed up at the mistletoe - it wasn't luck that she kept catching Willow under the white-berried plant, it was hung all over the bar. "I'm about to take this tradition graphic."

She now had both arms wrapped around Willow and as she went in for the kiss it was clear she wasn't planning on taking a break for some time.

She heard Buffy mutter, "Okay, okay, I'll go find Faith!" and gave her a thumbs up without breaking the kiss that Willow was enthusiastically returning.

Oh yeah, they were on the same page now.

Faith wasn't in the seat she'd occupied for most of the night, which was just typical when Buffy wanted to find her. She scanned the rest of their table and then the whole of the bar, what she could see of it anyway. There were so many bodies that she couldn't see very far in any direction and she wasn't tall enough to see over many heads.

As she began maneuvering her way through the crowd, still searching, she passed Xander coming back the other way. "Seen Faith?"

"Heading outside for a smoke. When you get her can you both come back to the table? I'm calling a meeting."

"You're calling a meeting?"

He grinned at her. "What, do you think you're the only one allowed to do that?"

"Of course not." She just couldn't remember Xander ever doing it before. "What's it about?"

"The kid-eating demon."

Buffy groaned, "Do we really have to discuss that tonight?"

"It might be important." Even over the music she could hear the pleading note in his voice.

She reminded herself that having Xander back in the game was a good thing - even if did happen at an annoying time. She patted his arm as she squeezed past him. "Okay, just give us a minute or two."

Buffy had to wait in a line to get out of the main door. Some people in front were calling goodbye, while others were reaching into their pockets for cigarettes and lighters. Alex reluctantly allowed smoking in Barnies but tonight there were signs up at the bar and on the walls requesting people take it outside. Maybe he didn't want it around the kids or maybe he was scared that with all the people it was fire hazard. Buffy didn't know, she was just grateful she didn't have disgusting smoke stinging her eyes all night.

As she was trailing out of the door behind a couple of guys with unlit cigarettes already sticking out of their mouths, drinks in one hand as they pulled their coats closed against the frigid air, Buffy wished she'd thought to grab hers but she wasn't going to start this journey all over again. She was already half-wishing she hadn't gone looking for Faith in the first place, especially as Faith probably wouldn't be glad enough to see her to make it worth it.

Make that really not glad.

Naomi was huddled against the side of the tavern, being kept warm by Faith's body - which in itself didn't make sense seeing as out of the two of them Faith was the one without a coat. They were talking and laughing as they had in the bar but even though the green mist was threatening to descend over Buffy's eyes and make her furiously jealous, she could see that it didn't look like more than that. Their close proximity aside, their conversation didn't show any signs of intimacy.

In a way that was the proof she needed that Faith wouldn't take their 'break' too far - tonight anyway - and she even thought about heading back inside without saying anything. If the shrink was right and what they needed was space from each other, why mess it up for no reason?

Still, she had to let them both know there was a meeting about to start and that they were supposed to be there. If they chose to stay outside anyway, giggling and freezing their butts off, that was up to them.

Her heels - not really sensible in this weather but she hadn't thought about that when she'd bought them last week - made strange crunches in the snow but it was more or less drowned out by the music and no one noticed her approach.

Just a few feet away she saw Faith offer her half-smoked cigarette and Naomi reach up to take it.

"You're making her smoke!" she blurted.

The cigarette dropped from Faith's fingers as she turned in surprise and sizzled out on the snow.

"Hey, I don't have many left!"

"I didn't make you drop it." Buffy crunched the rest of the distance to them. This wasn't the friendly start she wanted for the conversation and she tried to make her voice calmer, until she saw the beer bottle in Naomi's hand. "You're letting her drink too?"

"B, keep your voice down!" Faith snapped as she snatched the bottle away from the young Watcher. "You wanna get us all kicked out of here?"

Buffy eyed the bottle - nearly all gone - and then Naomi, whose rosy cheeks probably didn't just stem from the cold, before glaring at Faith.

"No, but I'm thinking getting you kicked out might be a good thing."

"Screw you," Faith said mildly as she searched her pockets for another cigarette. "What do you want anyway?"

"I came to tell you we're having a meeting, but that hardly seems important now that I know you're out here feeding Naomi cigarettes and alcohol!" Buffy crossed her arms because she was cold but it felt suitably chastising too.

"I haven't had so much as a drag yet, Buffy," Naomi said with an impatient sigh.

"A what?"

"I haven't had a cigarette! I haven't smoked since I was in the fourth year, I just... fancied one tonight."

"You smoked when you were eight?" All of Buffy's preconceptions about the well-bred English Watcher started to unravel.

"No, I was fourteen!"


Naomi shook her head. "I'm an adult, whether your stupid country wishes to recognize it or not!" she snapped before stealing the cigarette when it was halfway to Faith's lips. She took a long drag on it, started coughing and handed it back to Faith mid-splutter.

"Now I feel better," she said and burst into tears.

Buffy and Faith shared an awkward glance as Naomi cried.

"Now look what you did!" Buffy muttered.

"Me? She was fine 'til you came over," Faith shot back.

Buffy shook her head and stepped closer to Naomi, putting a hand on her back. "What's wrong?"

Naomi wailed louder, attracting attention from the other smokers outside, and fell into Faith's arms.

Faith's arms weren't ready for it and she dropped her cigarette...again! "Damn it!" She held her arms out to the side, letting Naomi hug her but doing nothing to return the gesture. "Now what, B?" she whispered.

Buffy was inclined to walk away and let Faith deal with this on her own, but then remembered she didn't hate Naomi.

She stepped closer and rubbed the Watcher's back soothingly. "What's wrong, Nai?"

"" She stopped trying to speak until she'd had a big sniff. "I'm an adult!"

"No one's saying you ain't," Faith tried. "Been giving you booze all night, haven't I?"

"All night?" Buffy muttered.

Faith waved her into silence. "So what's really wrong?"

Naomi sniffed again. "I'm an adult, I'm on the assignment of a lifetime and..." She pulled away from Faith. She was still crying but gave her an apologetic look. "...and I'm freaking out because I'm spending Christmas away from my parents for the first time."

"Hey, so am I," Faith said sympathetically before ruining it by adding, "Gonna be the best thing about this Christmas."

Naomi gave an extra loud sob and pressed her hands over her face.

"Good going," Buffy muttered.

"What? I'm trying to help. I ain't had a decent Christmas with my folks since I was five. She should think herself lucky she's had eighteen of 'em."

If they'd been having this conversation quietly between themselves, Buffy knew her reaction would have been different, but there was Naomi - still crying - to think about and she came first right now.

"That's hardly the point. Just 'cause you had a crappy childhood doesn't mean Naomi isn't allowed to be upset."

"And just 'cause you had a perfect childhood doesn't mean you get to be all righteous about it," Faith countered.

"I'm not being righteous... and you don't have the monopoly on crappy holidays! The Christmas before my parents divorced, my Dad had to 'work late' and Mom got pissed and threw the turkey in the trash. Dawn and I had to eat Mac and Cheese off of our knees in the den while they argued in the kitchen all night. So get off your high horse already."

"Dawn was there?" Faith asked, her tone biting. "You sure about that?"

"Don't even go there!" Buffy warned.

The slayers glared at each other until Naomi gave a loud hiccup, bringing their attention back to her.

"Nai, don't let it get to you," Faith said, her tone halfway between understanding and irritated. "You only saw them a few weeks ago for Christsakes."

"I know but..."

"The holidays are different," Buffy said gently. "I do know how you feel. Since my Mom... passed away... Christmas hasn't been the same. And my Dad..." She sighed, feeling close to tears herself as she thought of it. "He invited Dawn for Thanksgiving without me and, yunno, I dealt. But then he... then he invited her for Christmas without me too!" She sucked a sob back in before it could escape. "Oh sure, there was the obligatory 'Ask Buffy if she wants to come along?' but if he really wanted me there wouldn't he ask me himself? Is a personal invite too much to ask for?"

"No, it's not," Naomi said and leant closer to hug her. "You deserve better."

"Thank you." Buffy stressed, hugging her back. "And if you really want to see your Mom and Dad I'm sure we can get you a last minute flight back to England. You shouldn't be away from them on the holidays."

Naomi pulled away. "Thank you."

"Uh, B, little matter of a demon eating kids in our town. It's kind of an all-hands-on-deck sitch, ain't it? Don't think Giles is gonna go for you sending one of his watchers home right now, 'specially when he's only got two of 'em."

"Oh, right, yeah that." Buffy looked at Naomi regretfully. "Maybe you could call them a lot Christmas Day instead?"

Naomi nodded and sniffed away the last of her tears. "I understand. Duty first."

"It's kind of the way of it," Buffy agreed. "I know it sucks."

Naomi nodded again. "Assignment of a lifetime," she muttered to herself before looking up at Buffy and Faith again. "I shouldn't be that homesick, right? I have Craig here and Uncle Rubear."

"And the rest of us," Buffy promised, rubbing the Watcher's arm.

"Indeed. I had better go inside. I think I'm about to be sick.

Buffy pulled a face. "Do you want Faith to come and hold your hair back?"

"Hey!" Faith griped.

"What? You got her drunk."

"I'll be fine."

They watched her go and then turned to each other.

"So..." Buffy began, still not sure it was wise to flout the shrink's advice. "I know what we agreed, but that's the thing, we never actually agreed anything."

Faith sighed, running a hand back through her hair. "You're gonna say we need to talk."

"Don't you think we should?"


They stood in silence.

"Wanna go to this meeting instead?" Faith asked, "And deal with this awkward crap later?"

Buffy nodded, "Definitely."

They were late but Faith didn't think she could be blamed seeing as that she'd only heard about the meeting two minutes before. The group hadn't waited for the senior slayers to start either, which seemed a little off; not like much happened without their say-so... okay, Buffy's say-so; her own was still kinda overlooked unless Buffy backed her up.

Damn, that was annoying. Not relevant right now though. Faith sipped from her beer and listened to Xander speak.

"So all the locals think it's a pack of wolves and I'm no expert but I think that means werewolf."

"But there hasn't been a full moon for two weeks," Willow said, sounding worried about it all the same.

"That's a good point," Xander conceded. His enthusiasm deflated for a moment but then he brightened again. "What about Hellhounds?"

Giles pondered for a moment. "They'd certainly have the jaw strength to bite a child in half."

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Buffy nod. "And they could be mistaken for a wolf if you didn't see it up close."

"So do we think someone's breeding them to set on the resorts?" Willow asked.

"We don't know anything for sure, Willow," Giles said. "We still need to do more research."

Faith finally joined in the conversation angrily. "And while we spend a week researching the ins and outs of these demons more kids die."

"You're right." Giles pondered some more and then sat forward with a determined look. "There are six resorts in the Boudenver district. Five of them have already suffered fatalities a few days apart."

"So you think we should stake out the sixth," Kennedy said, obviously supporting the plan.

"I do."

"Then let's get some of the girls in there tomorrow."

"It won't be as simple as that," Xander said. "These places are elite. We have you girls scale the walls to get in there and you're gonna be spotted. All fine if you can find and kill the hellhound - or whatever it is - right away, but you're not gonna get a chance to wait around for it."

Giles nodded. "That's true. And it might be a day or two before the demon shows itself again."

"So we need a team who can stay on the inside for a few days without attracting too much attention," Robin surmised.

As they were all thinking about it Alex came over to collect empty glasses. "You guys having fun?" Everyone except Faith said yes, some more enthusiastically than others. "So can I get you another round?"

After orders were placed - Xander had his priorities - he casually asked, "Hey, Al, what's Snow Dunes like?"

Alex shifted the glasses in his hand, settling in for a chat. "The ski resort?"

"Yeah, Willow's got some friends coming to visit after the holidays but we don't really have the room for them back at the house."

Alex focused on Red. "What kind of friends?"

"Does it matter if they aren't straight?" Kennedy growled, forgetting it was a charade.

Alex looked uncomfortable and answered in a rush. "No, I just meant it's not a party resort. Families only really. So if it's a couple - of any gender," he added hastily, "that'd be a nice place to stay, but if you have a group of friends coming you might wanna suggest Tall Fir. That's where all the kids go for Spring Break."

Faith chuckled. "Kids actually come here on Spring Break?"

"Yeah," Alex said, his voice was as mild as ever but he looked pissed off with her comment. "If we've still got snow anyway."

Buffy groaned, "We'll still have snow by Spring Break? Okay, who's up for Florida that week?"

Several people, including Faith, put their hands up.

"Okay, thanks Alex." Willow gave him a big smile. "I'll see if I can book them into Tall Fir."

Alex smiled back at her, happy to help. "I'll get your drinks."

"Thanks, Al," Xander said as the deputy sheriff left the table. "Okay, so that rules out us putting a bunch of slayers in there, right?"

"Yes," Giles agreed. "It will have to be a couple if we don't want to attract attention." He thought for a moment and then addressed Willow. "I think you and Kennedy are our best option."

"Um..." Willow began.

"No way," Kennedy said before her girl could add any more. "My step-dad's already bought our plane tickets. They're expecting us."

"I'd forgotten you were going home," Giles admitted. "But still, this is a rather urgent situation."

Kennedy shook her head. "No."

"It would mean an all expenses paid stay in a top notch resort," Giles wheedled.

"And not to brag, but it won't be a patch on what our stay will be like at my house." Kennedy hesitated though and looked at Red, putting a hand on her thigh. "Unless you wanna do this." When Willow didn't seem to know how to answer, she added, "I'm okay if you do. We can probably postpone the tickets for a few weeks."

Willow glanced at Buffy and Xander. Faith saw them both mouth 'Go.'

"Really?" she asked in a small voice.

"Yeah, you deserve a break," Buffy said.

"And there are other couples who can do this," Xander said.

"Like who?" Alison asked.

"We could go," Dawn said eagerly to Reece. "We're a couple."

Reece's eyes lit up too and after smiling at Dawn he turned to Giles, "All expenses paid you said, sir?"

Giles frowned but before he could say anything Buffy butted in.

"Hell no."

"Why not?" Dawn whined.

"Because you only just turned seventeen a couple of weeks ago."

"And you still haven't given me a birthday present! This could be it."

"A romantic weekend away with your boyfriend? No, I don't think so."

"But we're already sleeping..." Dawn stopped talking with a pout when Buffy put her fingers in her ears and started making 'laalaalaa' noises.

Faith tried her best not to laugh.

"It wouldn't have been viable anyway, Dawn," Giles said, trying to console her. "There has to be at least one slayer in the couple to slay the demon."

"So that rules us out too," Craig said to Andrew, disappointed.

Andrew looked relieved. Faith still couldn't make him out. On the surface he came across as a coward but he'd willingly fought beside them in Sunnydale. She considered herself a pretty good judge of character but she had to admit she couldn't put her finger on Andrew's yet.

While she was musing on the blonde geek she'd missed something, only being dragged back into the conversation by Buffy yelling, even louder than before, "Hell no!"

"You're the only other couple, Buffy," Giles was saying calmly.

"It makes sense," Xander added.

"We're not a couple this week!"

"What did I miss?" Faith asked Kennedy, the closest person to her.

Kennedy grinned. "You and Buffy are getting an all expenses paid Christmas vacation to Snow Dunes."

"Fuck that!" she blurted.

"See!" Buffy pointed at her. "That's how good a couple we are right now."

"You do not have to be a good couple," Giles said. "You just have to pretend to be."

"This is ridiculous," Buffy said angrily. "If it's just pretend send Miranda and Craig together."

"Because that'll be convincing," Kennedy chuckled.

Buffy glared at her. "More convincing than Faith and I will be right now."

"Thanks, B."

Buffy turned to her. "You think this is a good idea?"

"Not really, no."

"I'm afraid, Buffy, I am going to have to insist," Giles said.

"Insist my butt! I'm not doing it."

"Think of the children, Buffy," Willow said quietly. "Someone has to stop these demon-dogs and you and Faith are probably the only people who can do it."

Buffy looked down at the table and Faith knew that she knew she had lost. When Buffy looked at her again, helplessly, she gave a little shrug.

"We can probably ignore each other there just as easily as we could ignore each other at home."

Buffy nodded and then looked at Giles again. "We need separate rooms!"

"I'm afraid if you're posing as a couple that won't be possible."

"Damn," Buffy muttered vehemently.

Faith verbally echoed her but inside she was laughing. This was gonna get interesting!

Act Two

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