The car sped along the winter roads as fast as the slushy lanes would allow, which wasn't very fast. The five people in the car were divided on the issue of whether Giles was being sensible or over-cautious. He was more than happy to accept this, it being preferable to Buffy and Faith complaining about having to be in the car in the first place.
"You're a Brit, G! You've seen snow before," Faith griped from the passenger seat.
"Not usually quite this much. And us Brits have more sense than to drive in conditions such as these."
He had both hands firmly in the ten and two positions on the steering wheel and his eyes were glued to where the white land met the grey sky in front. It wasn't snowing at the moment but the Weather Girl had promised more that afternoon and the last thing he wanted was to be traveling these country roads in the blizzard-like snow storms they'd been having for the past week.
"The conditions are fine," Kennedy promised, the only relaxed person in the car as she sat in the backseat between Buffy and Willow, holding Willow's hands to give them extra warmth. "And Xander put the snow tires on last week so you can put your foot down a little if you wanted to."
"I don't think that's necessary." Willow was looking nervously out of the side window at the road. "It looks kinda slippy out there."
"Long as we get to the airport on time," Kennedy said easily.
"We're not even gonna get to the damn airport until it's time to fly back at this rate," Faith complained.
"That's fine by me," Buffy piped up from behind him. "I'd rather face icy roads than icy sky."
"Flying's safe," Kennedy promised her. "There's like a one in a hundred thousand chance of dying on a plane but a two hundred and fifty to one chance of dying in a road traffic accident."
"That's good," Buffy said. "Keep saying things like that."
"No don't!" Willow said as the car skidded slightly to one side as Giles pulled up at a stop junction.
"Would you prefer her to say there's a good chance your plane is gonna crash, Red?"
"No! Can we maybe just talk about something else?"
After checking both ways and finding no traffic approaching, Giles pulled away again. "You're perfectly safe, Willow, I assure you, but now probably would be a better time to discuss your itinerary rather than impending death."
"What's to discuss?" Kennedy asked. "We're getting a flight out of Cleveland to La Guardia. My Step-Dad will send a car to meet us at the airport and then it's just ten days of eating, sleeping and opening presents til we make the return journey."
"I was referring to Buffy and Faith's itinerary."
"You've told us so many times already, G, that I could recite it backwards!" Faith groaned.
"Go on then," he encouraged. For all that he had told them over and over he was still convinced that they had spent more time sniping about it between themselves than listening.
"You pick us up from Snow Dunes, we pack, we slay the demon . . ."
Giles grit his teeth against his smile. "Not in reverse chronological order, Faith. Please begin at the beginning."
Buffy took over, sounding as irritated by it as Faith. "You drop us off at Cleveland Hopkins. We fly out at ten-fifteen to the Buffalo-Niagara airport in Buffalo. We spend a couple of hours doing the touristy thing at Niagara Falls before we head back to the airport at three . . ."
"At two," he corrected. "You have to check in for your return flight at three."
"Why are you going to Niagara Falls anyway?" Willow asked. "I thought the demon was staying at one of the Boudenver resorts."
"It is, but we're undercover," Faith said, grinning for the first time since getting into the car.
"Giles thinks we'll look more like real guests if we arrive via the airport."
"There's a welcoming committee apparently," he said, slowing down to accommodate more bends in the road. "It's all part of the Christmas extravaganza at the resort. All of the guests booked in this week get special treatment and Buffy and Faith would immediately stand out if they weren't among them."
"So Giles told us to pick a place an hour out of Cleveland," Faith said.
"And I've always wanted to see Niagara Falls. When I was younger I always thought it sounded so romantic," Buffy added wistfully.
Beside him, Faith cracked her neck and turned to stare out of the passenger window - probably not quite as casually as she had hoped.
"And after you've seen it you will . . ." he prompted.
Buffy sighed, "Get on another plane to come back to Cleveland. Meet the welcome committee . . ."
"Ride on a bus with a bunch of Christmas worshippers," Faith butted in. "Check into our room . . ."
"It's actually a log cabin, not just a room," Buffy said, and Giles finally detected a slightly more upbeat tone to her voice too.
"Ooh, at least that will be romantic," Willow said.
"Yeah," Buffy and Faith said together and the upbeat tone was once more gone from both of them.
"This really is wasted on you two," Kennedy chuckled, adding to Willow, "Maybe we should have postponed our trip east."
"No, I'm looking forward to it!" Willow said brightly. "Except . . ."
"Except . . . Your parents, are they . . .? I mean, you went back there when we were, like, broken up and, well, now I'm going with you and . . . Are they gonna hate me for making you miserable?"
Kennedy laughed, "No, Will, they're gonna love you because I do."
Giles did his best to tune out the sound of them kissing and wished he hadn't refused to turn on the radio now. Luckily it only lasted a moment.
"Actually, I should warn you," Kennedy continued, "they're really gonna love you."
"Why do you have to warn me about that?"
"Well it's just my Mom we have to worry about really. My Dad'll just be normal 'cause he's too busy to get that invested and my sister is . . . well , sixteen and self-involved is probably the best way to describe her." Kennedy chuckled and then paused, sucking in a breath, "But my Mom, she's kind of a special case."
"What do you mean 'special case'?" Willow asked worriedly.
Kennedy laughed again, "I don't think psychologists have a word for it yet."
"Is she not well?" Giles asked, concerned. Kennedy's late Watcher had made no mention of mental illness in the family in his diary.
"No, just . . ."
A deer bolted from one side of the road to the other just feet in front of the car and Giles had to slam on the brakes much too harshly for this weather. The deer crossed safely, jumping gracefully over the hedgerow but no one was able to appreciate its beauty.
Giles cursed, Buffy yelled, Faith whooped and Willow screamed as the car slipped and skidded a hundred and eighty degrees; coming to rest facing the wrong way and with its back tires in the ditch that bordered the road.
"I don't think I'm ever going to warm up again." The airport was probably fine temperature wise but Buffy was still wearing her thick coat and gloves, rubbing her hands up and down her arms.
"We were only outside five minutes," Faith said, rolling her eyes.
"I know what you mean, Buffy," Willow was shivering too.
Now Kennedy rolled her eyes, more playfully than Faith had. "Baby, you didn't even get out of the car!"
"No, but I had the window open to shout encouragement."
"You could have just used magick to lift us out of that ditch," Buffy said. "Then none of us would have had to get out!"
"I can't use magick for personal gain, Buffy, you know that."
"Seems there's sometimes a fine line between personal gain and greater good." Faith dropped her carry-on luggage - her only luggage - and stretched her arms above her head. "What if it had taken longer to lift the car out and we'd missed our flight to Buffalo?"
"You'd have had to hide out here for the afternoon before you met your welcome party?"
"That's a great idea!" Buffy's eyes lit up, she didn't want to get on one plane today, let alone two. "Why didn't Giles think of that? Can we do that?"
Faith shrugged, "If you want. But thought you wanted to see Niagara Falls."
She really did and some of her enthusiasm faded for Plan B. Although it was true; she'd rather see it in the summer when they could drive there and it was warmer.
"Changed your mind about it being all romantic now?" Faith asked in a way that made Buffy's lip curl - and not in a smile.
"Actually I do want us to go to Niagara Falls . . . so I can push you over the edge!"
"Aww, babe, you do that every day."
"Are they calling us?" Willow asked in a hurry. "Can you hear them calling our flight?"
"No," Kennedy said, laughing, "but I think we should make our way to the gate anyway before their bad mojo gets all over us."
Willow nodded. "Me too! Have fun, guys!"
Buffy accepted and returned a quick, tight hug from Willow. "Stay safe, Will. Enjoy New York. Remember everything so I can visit vicariously through you later."
"You too. Have a great time. Try not to get eaten by any hellhounds or anything, 'kay?"
"I'll do my best."
When Willow released her Buffy stepped back, watching as her best friend hesitated over what to do about Faith. The other Slayer seemed happy to just give a wave but Willow felt different and put her arms around Faith's shoulders in the most self-conscious looking hug ever.
"What'cha doing, Red?"
"What friends do."
"Huh." Faith patted Willow's back twice in a gesture of camaraderie before claiming back her personal space.
"Have a nice time," Buffy said to Kennedy while the other two were being weird.
They went to hug but glanced at Willow at the same time - she was still uncomfortable with their friendship - and settled for grinning at each other.
"Holiday high-five instead?" Kennedy asked, raising her hand.
"Merry Christmas," Buffy said, slapping her palm.
Then the gate for La Guardia really was being called and the foursome parted with final shouts of Happy Holidays and Your present is under the treeeee!
"Can't remember when we last high-fived," Faith said, picking her bag back up and turning to figure out which direction their own gate was in.
"It's gonna be a long week."
"I wasn't trying to start a fight!" Faith said impatiently.
"I know! I just meant it's going to be a long week. Maybe romance might be out of the question but we could try and start it amicably." Buffy raised her palm to Faith.
Faith looked at it and Buffy saw her own hand twitch in response but then she hefted her bag over her shoulder and started to walk away. "Maybe we should just start it by trying to catch our flight on time."
"Okay, now you're trying to start a fight!"
Faith chuckled, "Maybe I am."
Buffy rolled her eyes and sighed as she followed her.
"It's busy, some might say too busy," Xander said as he stood surveying the crowds by the entrance to the mall.
The others were excited and oblivious as they scampered off in search of last minute gifts.
"Did you hear me?" he called. "I said: Some might say too busy!"
"What did you expect, Mr. Harris, it's the holidays," Miranda said, one of the few people he'd ferried over here who had bothered to stay beside him.
"Call me Xander," he said absently, trying and failing to keep track of where Dawn and Reece had run off to.
"Okay," Miranda giggled.
He'd agreed to drive a bunch of them out to the mall on the outskirts of Cleveland because Giles was busy taking Willow and the others to the airport. It had never been a thrilling prospect, but he didn't trust Reece driving the truck in this weather, and besides, the beer was cheaper here than it was at the village store. He hadn't expected it to be so busy though. Even at Christmas, in Sunnydale you'd been able to see space between the shoppers.
"I'm in charge! I'm supposed to be keeping an eye on you all. I can't do that here!"
"You can keep an eye on me, Xander," Miranda said, then giggled again, and then blushed, and then quickly said, "Actually I have to go in here!" She darted off so quickly he didn't have to time to see where 'here' was.
"She has a crush on you," Alison said as she stepped up beside him, her tone implying Miranda was oh-so-immature because of it.
"Really?" Xander asked gleefully but then shook himself out of it. "No, that's wrong!"
Alison laughed, "Why's it wrong?"
"She's just a kid." He smiled. "Nice to finally have a slayer have a crush on me though."
"I thought you and Faith had thing once?"
Xander grimaced, "The only crushing there involved my windpipe. And other bodily parts, I guess. . . but you're not old enough for me to tell you about that! And anyway. . ."
Alison laughed again. "Want me to be your seeing-eye dog through this particular crush?" she asked, pointing at the crowds. "Wait, was that offensive?"
"Kinda, but to you as much as to me. Lead the way, Lassie."
"Cool, well I say we get a hot chocolate first, 'cause I almost froze my girl parts off in the back of that truck."
"Yeah, sorry about that," he said as he followed her through the mass of shoppers to the nearest café. "I'd have used the jeep but it's low on diesel."
"No problem. The cold only makes me stronger."
Xander chuckled, "That sounds like something I would say."
"So here it is." Faith gestured out in front of her. "Everything you hoped for?"
They were standing by a guardrail overlooking the falls and it was impressive -although perhaps smaller than Buffy expected. Now she could see why everyone looked at her the same way. It would be more impressive though if she could stop shivering for two minutes and enjoy the scenery.
"Almost. You know, a good girlfriend would lend me her coat."
"Probably a good thing I'm not your girlfriend right now then, huh? Wouldn't want to freeze to death just so some chick could look at a waterfall."
Buffy huffed, not prepared to argue when Faith had a good point. Besides, Faith's jacket looked hardly enough to keep anyone warm. The black denim was tough but ended at her waist and the only concession to the fact that it was winter was the fake-fur lined collar. Next to Buffy in her ski boots, thick puffer jacket, scarf and woolly hat she looked very unseasonably dressed. She wasn't even wearing gloves! Buffy should probably offer her coat instead. Not that that was happening.
Trying not to sound petulant, she said, "Look, let's just go if you're not appreciating it."
"Wait a minute, B."
She stopped walking away and looked back, "What?"
"Just look at the falls," Faith said, and when Buffy did, she stepped up behind her.
Buffy finally smiled as arms curled around her stomach and Faith's body pressed to the length of her back. Her shivers died instantly as if the only reason she had been cold in the first place was due to a lack of Faith.
"Better?" Faith murmured by her ear, the word almost lost in the pounding rush of water in front of them.
"Yes." She snuggled back against Faith.
"Don't get too cozy, we're just friends here," Faith said before kissing the side of her head.
Buffy laughed softly. "I'm good with that . . . for now."
They stood that way in silence for some time, staring out over the drop to the waterfalls. The observation point was close enough that Buffy could feel the rising mist on her exposed cheeks and nose; it was cold but with Faith holding her tight from behind it was refreshing rather than freezing. The low clouds were breaking up as the day wore on - this part of the world wouldn't be getting any more storms today - and sunlight made the snow on the banks bright and Christmas card-y and the water droplets hanging in the air sparkled and made rainbows.
Buffy wrapped her arms over Faith's, gloves pressing over Faith's hands to keep them snug and warm and against her stomach.
"This is what I was hoping for," she said, breaking their silence in more ways than the present one.
"In that case," Faith snuggled her face closer to the side of Buffy's and breathed her in, although she was probably mostly breathing scarf. "Now that you got the full experience, any chance we can get out of here?"
It wasn't really the response she had been hoping for but she schooled herself not to show it. After all, coming here had always been her idea. Faith's suggestion had been to fly to Milwaukee and spend the afternoon drinking in the airport bar. Which probably would have been cheaper and warmer.
She had to ask though, "Don't you think this is even a little romantic?"
"What I think is that I haven't been able to feel my feet for ten minutes and I'm pretty sure my ass is about to fall off with frost bite."
Buffy chuckled, "Now, if you'd said your hand I'd have made you stay out here all afternoon, but I kinda like your ass where it is so . . ."
"So we have two options: either you do something here to warm my ass up, or we head some place warmer - like Mexico warmer."
"Want to go and get a coffee somewhere? If you like I can pour it over your ass."
Faith laughed as she let go and stepped back. "Kinky, I like it."
"Correction: I'll look the other way while you pour it over your own ass."
"Damn, and I finally thought we were getting somewhere," Faith said as she walked away.
Faith held her hands up innocently but didn't look back. "Not starting, B, just saying."
Faith 'just saying' was Faith starting, and Faith deliberately saying 'just saying' in that passive aggressive way was also Faith starting. But of course, if Buffy said anything then she would be the one 'starting' and then . . .
Grumbling under her breath the whole time, Buffy followed her through the snow to the coffee shop near the bus terminal.
Xander carried two mugs of cocoa through the crowded café to a table at the back. Somehow it was even busier in here than the rest of the mall, as if every shopper had decided to take a break the moment he'd headed in. Alison had offered to get the drinks but he didn't want her to think he wasn't capable of doing something so simple. He already had the impression that the younger slayers pitied him and for a while he hadn't cared enough to let it bother him. Now it did.
"Hey, watch it, asshole!"
"Sorry!" Xander apologized even though he was pretty sure he had been the bumpee rather than the bumper and then winced as hot chocolate splashed over his hand. "Owie!"
The man he'd collided with, now visible to him, was middle-aged, short, skinny and thinking Xander weak because of his instant apology, obviously saw an opportunity to best the bigger man.
He started to give a lengthy, curse-riddled lecture on the etiquette of not bumping into people but as he turned he saw the eye-patch and his words stalled on his tongue. "Uh. . .Shit!"
"You should see it without the patch," Xander quipped uncomfortably and carried on edging his way towards Alison.
"Everything okay?" she asked as he set the drinks down, keeping the spilled one for himself.
"Yeah, just a misunderstanding." He sat down opposite her and used a napkin to dry the back of his hand.
She had obviously heard everything. "Want me to go and teach him some understanding," she asked, flexing her fist.
"I think he learned his lesson."
Alison sipped from her mug and then made a face as if it had burned her tongue. "You get that a lot?"
"Bumping into people? No, it's usually inanimate objects. Aside from the Christmas Ball I haven't really ventured into crowded spaces much since my. . . it happened."
"I meant the way he looked at you when he saw your eye-patch."
"Oh." Xander looked down at his mug. When he looked back up, she was looking at him intently. He shrugged. "Boudenver's small and most people know me now. When we first arrived, just before you did, the guys, they all asked me what happened, so, naturally I lied, but they were just curious, they weren't fazed." He smiled again. "The women mostly looked and then looked away again real fast. Now if they see me they talk to this ear." He touched his right ear, furthest from his bad eye. "The kids were a different story! Did I tell you about the time they chased me?" he asked, warming to his theme.
"Yeah," Alison chuckled, "but you can tell me again if you like?"
That threw up warning signs. Did she have a crush on him too? Because that was inappropriately awesome. Or was this more pity? Let Xander have his stories because that's all he has left now?
"Why are you so interested in all this anyway?"
"Dude, it's funny! You got terrorized by a pack of eight year olds!"
So it wasn't pity then. Probably not a crush either. Just good old fashioned teenage insensitivity at play here.
Seeing his smile didn't meet his eye, she added, "Sorry, didn't mean to offend you. I'm just interested because I'm interested."
"I've been on the end of a few awkward stares myself," she said, shrugging again and sipping carefully from her mug.
"You?" He looked her over, trying not to give off any dirty old man vibes. She was slim, blonde, not stunning but definitely pretty. He had her pegged as more of a tomboy than the other two girls but she had a confidence that could have boys lining the block to see her smile. "Believe me, I bet those stares aren't for the reason you think they are."
She smiled graciously but hid behind her mug. "Oh believe me, they are."
Something about the way she said it made him pause with his mug halfway to his mouth. He was about to ask a leading question when Rona and Miranda came running up to their table.
"There you freaking are!" Rona sounded out of breath, which was a rare thing for a slayer.
"We have a shoplifting problem!" Miranda squealed.
Xander stood up fast. "Dawn?"
"What? No!" Rona snapped. "Vi!"
"Vi?" Alison started laughing.
Xander almost did the same because it was ridiculous. "What did she take?"
"Nothing!" Miranda said, confusing him. "One of the elves crawled into her bag and fell asleep and now she's being accused of trying to steal him!"
"Elves?" Xander scratched beneath his eye-patch elastic. "Say what now?"
Rona slapped his arm to get him to focus - as if he wasn't already doing that to the extreme - and Miranda grabbed his hand to drag him from the café.
Giles took his cardboard cup of tea from the vendor and sailed out into the sea of library shelves. He wasn't altogether comfortable with being in amongst the books with a beverage in his hand but everyone else was doing it - the coffee shop was right there in the library! - and he couldn't deny he needed it to warm up.
The earlier detour into the ditch had broken one of the car's rear lights and a brake light and, already leery of driving in the bad weather, he had decided to spend the money to get it fixed right away rather than drive home and risk a ticket or an accident on the slippery country roads.
He'd found a garage in the city center easily enough - his choice based on what was open so close to Christmas rather than the price - and had left the car there on the promise that it would be fixed by three that afternoon.
That had been just before eleven and he had spent the first hour shopping - buying the slayers gifts as part of their year-end bonus - and mailing some last minute cards to acquaintances in England. They wouldn't arrive until after the Holiday now but so much of his time was taken up with Council correspondence he barely had time to write a grocery list for himself these days, let alone personal mail.
Still left with hours to wait he had wandered into the library out of habit, but once there he knew what he should do. Now, holding his cup away from anything important it might leak on, he asked the assistant where the local history books were kept.
They were in a far corner of the ground floor and he was pleased to see he was completely alone there. Setting his cup down on the nearest table, he quickly went to work, easily lost in the joy of research.
Quickly he was able to narrow his search from Ohio to the Cleveland area which left him with only four books to go through and he took them back to the table. He checked all of the indexes first, marking down page numbers and chapter titles in the notebook he always kept in his pocket. In three out of the four books there were mentions of winter abductions and deaths. He discarded the fourth book for the time being and focused his reading on the pages he'd noted.
There were several mentions of wolves coming over the border from Canada. Also several that said bears - traveling east because of the hard winters - were responsible. The rational part of him wondered why these supposed killer bears weren't busy hibernating around Christmas, while the side of his mind more prone to worry hoped that Buffy and Faith didn't have to deal with a sleuth of formidable werebears.
He read on, finding theories that the perpetrators were instead human. There were some eye-witnesses apparently - although their number was few and vague - but definitely something human-shaped had been witnessed. That didn't necessarily rule out some species of werewolf, or a werebear, if it had been dark.
1953. Ski resort closed down after 8 children go missing. All assumed victims of the wolf and/or bear attacks.
1968. Woman sees her son led from the path by a resort employee dressed as elf. Reported missing 3 hours later. All park employees questioned but no arrests. Boy never seen again.
1975. Little girl (7) dragged from a junior ski slope by a bright red wolf ?
1987. 2 boys abducted from the area behind their family's chalet. Last seen feeding an injured robin with breadcrumbs. No sign of a struggle.
1996. Dismembered bodies of two missing children found in the west woods. Evidence of gnawing on the bones and signs of wolf habitation.
As Giles made notes he reached for his tea. It was lukewarm now but he didn't notice.
The most recent account he could find had occurred three years ago, in 2000. Again involving a resort employee being questioned by police after a young girl had failed to return from a visit to the Christmas grotto. He'd been released without charge due to a lack of evidence and when the little girl's body was finally discovered the following spring the employee had disappeared.
When forensic proof emerged that the death had been caused by animal bite the search was dropped and the case, like so many others, had been closed.
Giles shut the book and sat back, finding the details of so many child deaths harrowing. There seemed to be so little that connected them all - only Christmas and the local resorts featured in every horrible story. And, if he assumed that all of the deaths and abductions had a single perpetrator, he was inclined to think it wasn't a pack of hell hounds after all. They were single-minded creatures, intent only on killing their prey; they would not have the cognitive skills or the patience to lure a child away before attacking.
He had to inform Buffy and Faith that they would not be facing the foe they expected, but he couldn't even guess right now what they might be dealing with instead. A glance at his watch told him it was nearly time to pick up the car but also that his slayers would still be in Buffalo. It would be hours before he could contact them to tell them anything at all.
The departure lounge at La Guardia was much busier than Cleveland-Hopkins. Willow was worried she was going to lose Kennedy in the crowd as she darted this way and that looking for a guy holding her name up on a card, grumbling about how he should have been waiting by Customs for them.
At least Kennedy was carrying both of their suitcases so she only had to manage her small carry on bag. Still she felt guilty and annoyed every time she bumped someone with it. It would be so easy just to say a few words under her breath and clear them a path, but she resisted grumpily.
Eventually they'd covered the whole area and finished up by the doors. A fan was blowing hot air down on them but it was still freezing every time the automatic doors opened, which was every few seconds.
"Should we just get a cab?"
"It's a two hour drive, babe, and as much as I'd like to dump that fare on my dad for leaving us stranded he'd probably just take it out of what's left of my allowance." Kennedy dropped a suitcase to pull her phone from her pocket but before she could dial a number someone was calling to them.
Willow looked at the girl coming closer, pushing her way through the crowds as if they weren't there. She was short and blonde with skin the same rich color as Kennedy's and she was obviously in a huff.
"Didn't you hear me calling? I've been chasing all over this damn place after you."
Kennedy turned, putting her phone away. "What are you doing here?"
"Nice to see you too. You walked right by me at Customs! After I waited like an hour for you!"
"You dyed you hair," Kennedy said.
"And so suddenly you don't recognize me? Dad refused to get me a limo for the winter formal."
"Because you dyed your hair?" Willow blurted, confused.
"No, that's why I dyed my hair. I take it you're Willow. You've got a weird name by the way."
Willow smiled weakly. "I know. Um, sorry I don't know if you have a weird name or not."
"I don't. And from that I'm guessing Ken hasn't even mentioned me before."
"No, she has . . . probably." Willow turned to Kennedy for some help.
The slayer sighed. "This is my little sister, my little half-sister: Roxanne."
"Oh!" Willow beamed at her. "It's nice to finally meet you, Roxanne."
"You too," the girl said with only half the feeling of Willow's greeting. "And it's Roxy. Come on, I've been in here waiting so long the car's probably been towed."
Kennedy picked up the suitcases again and nodded for Roxy to lead the way.
Roxy gave her a strange look as she picked up both bags. "Are you going for Butch of the Year or something?"
Kennedy shrugged. "They're not heavy. And you never said what you were doing here. Where's James? What car do you have?"
"Mom needed James to take 'the ladies' home before he picked you up and I convinced her he wouldn't make it on time." Roxy grinned and twirled some keys around her finger. "She couldn't stand the thought of her first born being stranded here like some orphan so she lent me her Porsche."
"No way! You've only had your license three months! You stole her keys didn't you?"
As the sisters talked and bickered too fast for Willow to keep up, she walked behind them, still bumping into people as they left the terminal and headed for the parking garage.
She didn't really know what to make of Roxy yet. When she had imagined Kennedy's little sister she'd thought of her as sweet and ingratiating, kind of like Dawn had been a few years before. Her first impression was nothing like that; in fact this teenager kind of scared the inner-nerd that still lived deep down in Willow the same way the popular kids had in high school. It was too early to mark her down as Cordelia-esque though, she decided. Maybe Roxy was just grumpy from having to wait so long for them, or maybe she had pms.
At the car, and it was a Porsche - a black one, all sleek and shiny - Kennedy offered to let her sit up front but Willow just shook her head and climbed into the back. The roads here probably weren't as bad as the ones outside Boudenver but only being able to see the verges was preferable to being able to see the slippery expanse of asphalt in front of the car.
"Mom's been dying to meet you," Roxy's eyes were on the slow moving traffic ahead as they drove towards the link road.
There was something in the way she said it that didn't sound altogether reassuring. Willow was sure she must just be being paranoid now though, reading something bad into it because of Roxy's less than enthusiastic greeting.
"Rox!" Kennedy said, touchily.
Okay, maybe she wasn't totally paranoid.
"What? Am I wrong?" Roxanne looked in the rear view mirror to catch Willow's eyes. "Mom loves Kennedy's girlfriends."
"She does? That's nice." In a teasing tone, she added, "How many girlfriends do you have exactly?"
"Just you," Kennedy promised.
"Oh, I didn't mean she has more than one at a time. I mean, there's only so much sex you can have in a day, right Ken?"
"When we stop at the next red light I'm going to punch you," Kennedy said, her teeth obviously gritted.
"Ooh, I'm real scared," Roxanne taunted, reminding Willow that Kennedy's family didn't know she was a slayer.
That felt kind of weird. It was a long time since she'd had been around people that didn't know about slayers and magick. She would have to be careful not to mention anything that would sound crazy to them. Hopefully it might even help her self-discipline to be around regular people for a while.
"The thing with mom, Will," Kennedy was saying, making her tune back into the conversation. "She . . . well, she . . ."
"Oh for God's sake," Roxy snapped, and took over the explanation. "Mom is a wacko!"
"What?" Willow laughed nervously.
"It's true," Kennedy said glumly. "Don't get me wrong, she's the sanest, smartest woman you'll ever meet . . . until I get a girlfriend."
"Okay, now I'm scared."
Roxy laughed, "Don't worry, she's not going to boil your bunny or anything. She's not that brand of crazy."
"But I thought your mom knew you were gay."
"She does! I came out when I was ten!"
"You were twelve," Roxy corrected.
"Whatever. But the thing is, my mom is totally independent and feminist about everything. She worked for her degree in women's studies after she married Roxy's dad and she helps run a shelter for abused women in Manhattan."
"I'm not really sure where you're going with this."
"She has a blind spot," Roxy said. "A big blind spot, when it comes to Kennedy. Me, I could spend my entire life working eight 'til late and whoring around with gorgeous men to fill my spare time and mom would be happy I was fulfilling my full potential as a free and autonomous human being, but Kennedy here . . ."
"She wants less for me."
"Well, she'd probably say it was more. As soon as my love life is on the table she gets all . . . I brought my first girlfriend home when I was fourteen. . ."
"It was funny as hell," Roxy put in.
"For you, maybe. She came on so strong she scared Kelly off completely. I mean, she wouldn't even talk to me after in case it trapped her in an arranged marriage!"
Willow laughed and so did Roxy but when it was clear Kennedy didn't find it so funny, she sobered up. "It couldn't have been that bad."
"The second girlfriend I took home found it hilarious. She told the whole school. I was a laughing stock for weeks."
"Until you beat the crap out of her and Jenny Malone," Roxy said, obviously enjoying that memory.
"How do you even know that? You were a kid!"
"Greta's sister was in my class. How like you not to remember that."
"Can it. The third girl I took home . . ." When Kennedy paused, Willow almost asked her not to go on. It was obviously painful for her, and it wasn't filling Willow with any happy thoughts either. ". . . that was the restraining order."
"What?" she blurted, the seatbelt locked as she tried to sit forward in shock.
"Not against me," Kennedy hurried to explain. "I didn't do anything inappropriate. But Cate's parents somehow got the impression that my mom was trying to kidnap their daughter."
"How did they get that impression?" Willow asked, even though at this point she was scared to hear the answer.
Kennedy just shrugged, so Roxy answered, "Mom only wanted her to come to Mexico with us to meet the family. It was only a vacation, but Cate's parents were racist assholes."
"They weren't racist," Kennedy said. "They just . . ."
"Excuse me? They found out a bunch of Mexicans were taking their lily white daughter to Mexico and they freaked out. Bet if we'd been going to Aspen for the week instead they'd have been fine with it."
"Whatever," Kennedy shrugged again. "The point is, Willow . . ."
"Oh, good, I was hoping you had one."
Kennedy pulled her seatbelt forward so she could turn in her seat, catching Willow's worried look.
"Don't look so scared," she said with a smile. "Mom's a nice person; it's just she gets real Latina when it comes to me finding someone. It's why I didn't take anyone home after Cate until . . . you," she smiled again. "But the reason my mom screwed everything up before is because I wasn't serious with any of those girls, not even kind of. But we are, right?"
Willow smiled and took Kennedy's hand as she poked it between the seats. "Yep."
"So what's the worse my mom can do?"
"Ken, you might want to sit back," Roxy said grimly. "I think we're about to have a police chase."
Willow twisted in her seat to look out of the rear window and saw the flashing lights of a police car right behind them.
Kennedy yelled at her sister, "I knew you stole the fricken keys!"
"We're very sorry, officer," Xander said, giving the security guy in the tight, blue polyester uniform a wave goodbye. "I promise it won't happen again. Just, you know, teenage girls, holiday spirits, bad mix. Next year we'll stay away from the mall."
Finally turning away he rolled his good eye. "Vi, what were you thinking?"
"It's not like I knew he was in there," she defended herself as they walked away.
"Didn't your bag feel heavier?" Alison asked.
"No, it felt as light as usual. I can't help being superstrong!"
Alison and Rona both chuckled while Miranda joined Xander in looking back at the little fella who had caused all the trouble. He was staring after them, his large, slanted eyes still sleepy. He was two feet tall but so slender it was easy to see how he had crawled into Vi's unsupervised rucksack unnoticed.
"So he's a real elf?" Miranda asked him.
"Guess so. Can't say I've ever met one before."
"Isn't it weird he has a job here though? 'Cause he's not human I mean."
"That's sweet," Xander chuckled. "You're a slayer and you still think stuff is weird."
"But where I grew up the elves in Santa's grotto were people dressed up."
"Where did you grow up again?"
"Maybe real elves don't like going that far south. He seemed harmless anyway," Xander decided, "not a big deal."
Santa Claus shouted an order and gradually his reindeer came to a stop. He stepped off of his sleigh and his black boots sank several inches into the fresh snow.
His head minion came running at his call. Not quite three feet tall and slender as a candy cane, his green boots barely made an impression in the snow as he ran over.
"We will be at the next resort in an hour, Santa."
"I know, but it will take time to set up and I am hungry now."
Innoki looked around. "We are in the middle of the forest, Santa."
"And?" he asked, his expression saying it all.
Innoki thought quickly and then sniffed the air. "There is a herd of deer a mile west."
"I cannot eat deer! It upsets Rudolf, sensitive runt that he is."
"Of course, Santa." Innoki nodded and then sniffed the air again. "There is a dwelling, a large one." He pointed east.
"Are there children there?" he asked, his mouth already watering in anticipation.
Innoki sniffed again. "Teenagers."
"Ah well," he sighed. "Needs must. Are they, at least, respectable and virtuous?"
Innoki's nose wasn't that good but he valued his position, so he lied. "I think one of them is an honour student, Santa, and a virgin."
"Good. Go ahead and secure our arrival."
The elf disappeared and Santa climbed back onto the sleigh. Teenagers weren't as tender as seven year olds but they were better than deer. He cracked his whip over Blitzen's back and the reindeer started to move again.
Gleefully, he sat back in the seat and let the icy wind rush over him, happy to be alive. "Ho Ho Ho!"
The bell made the slightest tinkle and Giles looked up at it as he walked into the shop.
"I tried to fix it," Owen said in his oddly familiar accent. "But no matter how much I bend it this way and that it doesn't want to ring properly."
"You should probably count that as a blessing," Giles said as he approached the counter with a friendly smile. "I had one in my shop and the thing gets bloody annoying after a while."
"I imagine so, sir. Now what I can do for you?"
Giles hesitated. He had planned to stroll around the shop for a few minutes, choosing a few items to purchase, but because the old man had spoken to him directly he'd forgotten his ruse.
"Tree lights," he said eventually. "I was wondering if you had any?"
"Ah, yours have fused right out of the pack too?" Owen asked, walking out from behind the counter. "Mine seem to do that nearly every year."
"Not exactly. We only bought one lot and they're leaving the tree looking rather bare." That much was true, although he had already purchased a further two packs in Cleveland.
"Well I have white ones, red ones, green ones and multi-colored ones. Though I'll be honest, they'll probably only live through this holiday season."
Giles nodded as Owen took him right to the rack. "That's fine. As long as I have something festive for the girls this week. Er . . .I was also wondering . . ."
When he hesitated Owen gave him a bright smile, "What's that, sir?"
"You know about what we're doing up at the camp?"
It was a deliberately leading question but Owen merely looked helpful. "You're running a wildlife tracking program. It's a wonderful idea. So much wildlife around here and maybe you taking an interest in it will finally see some of our more at risk animals being conserved."
"Indeed. So, in light of that, I was wondering if you had any information on the current wolf attacks?"
"Yes, the spate of children being carried off from resorts."
"Oh." Owen looked sad and shook his head a couple of times. "That's a terrible thing. But I'm afraid I can't tell you much. I haven't joined the hunt in many years."
Owen gestured at himself. "I'm getting too old to run through the countryside, sir."
"Ah," Giles stammered for a moment, it was impolite to pry into another's frailties of age and as a young boy he had received many a clip around the ear from elderly Watchers for doing just that. "Actually, I was looking for more of an historic perspective on the matter."
"I'm not quite that old, sir," Owen chuckled but there was something in his eyes that hadn't been there before.
Suspicion? Fear perhaps? Giles wasn't entirely sure he wasn't imagining it, and so he pressed on.
"You've been running this store for several years now, yes?"
"Yes, ever since my father passed it on to me."
"And that was when?"
"Nineteen-eighty-seven, I believe it was. He passed away soon after."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Giles said automatically.
"He was old." Owen walked back to the counter, straightening merchandise as he went. "So, tell me, what kind of store did you run back home?"
"Hmm, I'm sorry? Oh, a . . . a . . ." He couldn't very well say a magic shop. He grabbed a pack of the white lights and another of the red and followed him to the front of the store. ". . . a, well, I sold curios and rare books mostly."
"So you've taken quite a career turn, sir."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I don't imagine there was much call for troubled teenage girls and wolf hunts in your last profession."
"No, no," Giles chuckled. "You're quite right." Owen gave him an intent look, obviously waiting for the story behind this. "I started to feel old, stuffy before my time."
"I know how that feels, sir."
Owen rang the tree lights up on his ancient cash register and Giles realized he had to be more direct if he wasn't going to be ushered out of the door before he'd made his inquiries.
"So you've lived in the area for nearly twenty years then?"
"Longer than that, sir. I've spent the best part of my life in Boudenver."
"Do you know when the wolves first started attacking children in the area?"
Owen licked his lips and then shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't, but I'd imagine it's been since there were children here to attack."
Giles nodded. "Is it always children? Has a grown woman never been dragged off? A man has never been cornered by them in an alley?"
"Not to my knowledge, sir."
"Have you ever seen them?"
"A long time ago, perhaps."
"And what did you see?"
Owen hesitated and Giles didn't think he'd ever seen him do that before. It made him sure the shopkeeper's next words would be a lie.
"Enough to know they're merciless, when they're hungry at least, and cunning enough that a horde of villagers waving pitchforks and flaming torches aren't going to outfox them."
That hadn't sounded like a lie, but it had made the old man very uncomfortable. Owen busied himself behind the counter now, facing the other way, tidying rows of cigarette packets that had been neatly displayed already.
"But they were wolves?
"Wolves are as good a name as any?"
Before Giles could ask him to explain the bell above the door gave the faintest of tinkles and one of the local ladies came hurrying in. He couldn't remember her name but her hair was a bright orange color - that he secretly suspected might have been a wig - and she wore a bright lime green snowsuit. She stamped snow off of her boots as she entered and her cheeks were pink from the cold wind.
She gave Giles a polite but neutral smile as she passed him and then beamed at the shopkeeper.
"Owen, I was wondering if you would put up a flyer for the RBC's Winter Festival?"
"I usually do." Owen held out his hand to accept one of the rolled posters she had under her arm.
"I know, but this year, well we've had a stroke of luck," she handed over one of the flyers as if she was reluctant to let him see it.
He unrolled the paper quizzically. "I see. No. I'm afraid not, Pamela. I do not advertise crooks and tricksters in my store."
"He's not a crook," she argued. "He's the same guy who's been touring the resorts. He's not even charging us."
"I'm sure he's not. No, I'm sorry, but I cannot promote the Winter Festival this year as I will not be attending."
"Don't you think that's over-reacting?" Pamela asked.
"No, I don't, but I'm an old man set in my ways, perhaps the latest additions to our little town would like to check it out."
Owen turned the poster around so that Giles could take a look. It was nicely designed, obviously done on someone's computer, and he could see nothing offensive about it. It promised hot chocolate, caroling, carnival rides, the chance to pet a reindeer and a visit from Father Christmas - there was a picture of the red robed holiday icon himself at the bottom of the poster. It looked harmless and outdated, just like everything else the locals got up to.
Giles knew he shouldn't complain but Boudenver really was a poor excuse for the center of a mystical convergence.
"Oh yes, it looks like jolly good, clean fun."
"It is, something those girls of yours could probably benefit from," Pamela sniffed haughtily and turned away from him. "If I can't change your mind . . ." she began, about to take the flyer back from Owen.
"Actually, perhaps Mr. Giles would like to take this one. Show it to your girls. See if any of them would like to attend. I'm sure they'll find it right up their alley."
Bemused, Giles took it from him and re-rolled it without another look. The festival was on the twenty-sixth, only four days away. They'd be too busy trying to catch this demon - or wolf, or whatever it was - to go to Winter Festivals. He'd just have to pet a reindeer another year if the urge ever took him.
After bidding Owen and Pamela goodbye, he left the store. There was still one more stop to make before going home to make some sense of his notes. Hopefully he could do it all before Buffy and Faith called him from the resort.
"So tell me again, B, how we got stuck with this mission?" Faith frowned as she looked out of the plane window. Everything, everywhere, was white.
"How about: Me falling for you somehow turned the world on its axis and now up is down and wrong is right and good karma is bad karma." Buffy's voice came out strained, her fingertips were digging into the armrests as the plane ploughed and furrowed through the bad weather. "And so, instead of spending Christmas with my loving family - which would be a fitting reward for saving the world again last summer - I'm stuck on this recycled soda can with possibly the least affectionate person on the planet."
"Hey, I'm affectionate!" Faith unclipped her belt, leaning closer to the pressurized window, trying to make out any landmarks that suggested they were nearing what passed these days for home.
"Yeah, when there's something in it for you." Buffy said through gritted teeth as the plane shook them about. "Uh, Faith, the seatbelt light is on."
"Yeah, I know. And I just held you for an hour at Niagara Falls!"
"And can you honestly say that wasn't only because you were freezing your butt off and I had a warmer coat than you?"
"Minor detail." Faith gave up her sightseeing - once you've seen one wall of snow, you've seen them all - and settled back in her seat. "Are you still scared of this shit?"
"Scared of hurtling through the air at five hundred miles an hour, thirty seven thousand feet above the ground in a storm offering zero visibility? Maybe a teensy bit, because, you know, I'm normal!"
"Don't give me that, you've been like this since we left Cleveland," Faith smiled. She kinda liked Buffy being all scared and girly for a change - even if it did turn her into even more a bitch.
"Then stop asking me!" Buffy turned away from her as much as the seatbelt would allow. "How long until we can get off this thing anyway?"
Faith took a guess, "Half hour maybe. Look, B, there's nothing to be scared of. The pilot does this a million times a day. . ." Buffy glanced at her sceptically. ". . . You know what I mean. He's a professional, and they have computers and stuff for in case he gets drunk. . ."
"He's drunk-flying? Don't they have laws . . .?" Buffy paused, giving Faith a hard look when she started laughing. "Funny Faith," she turned away angrily again. "Just because the only fears you have are emotional and psychological doesn't mean my real ones are fair game for you to make fun of."
Faith sighed, "No need to get personal, I was just messing around."
"I'm sorry," Buffy muttered. "You know I don't mean it. I'm just a little freaked. I hate being at someone else's mercy like this. And if he's a drunk someone, I like it even less."
"He's not," Faith promised.
Buffy stared fixedly at the big blank screen at the front of the economy-class cabin so that she wouldn't accidentally catch a glimpse of the outside. She looked more than a little freaked out. The whites of her eyes were more visible than was attractive and her teeth were clenched so hard together as the plane shook, rattled and occasionally felt like it was gonna roll, that her lips were pulling back from them a little.
Faith gave a slight shake of her head and leaned to the side, sliding her arm around Buffy's shoulders. Her other arm she slid across Buffy's stomach, like a second seatbelt.
"Uh Faith, what exactly is it you're doing... to me... right now... on a very public plane?" Buffy didn't look at her as she spoke.
"It's called being affectionate, B," Faith chuckled in her ear. "Apparently when people get scared, like you are now, they like to be comforted."
"I'm not sure the airline would like your idea of comforting me, though." Buffy looked around at the other passengers. "People are looking."
Faith lifted her head from where she'd rested it on Buffy's shoulder. "No, they're not."
"But if they looked, they could see," Buffy sounded distressed by the idea.
"See what, B?" Faith grinned. "I'm giving you a hug, not trying to join the mile high club."
"Oh. I mean, I knew that," Buffy looked casually away again. "I just, well we don't know the rules, do we? They might have, uh, rules against hugs."
Faith's grin grew wider. "Don't go changing the subject. What were you worried people might see, huh? Just how much comforting are you gonna take?"
"I'm still getting over the shock of you taking it this far," Buffy admitted, smiling now.
The plane suddenly jolted hard, and for a moment it was possible to realize just how fast they were going before deceleration started.
"What the hell was that?" Buffy had gone as white as the outside of the window and she clutched onto Faith's arm across her waist like it was the safety bar on a roller coaster.
"It's okay, we just landed. See, we're slowing down now." Faith lifted her arm from Buffy's shoulders to point out of the window.
"What happens if the plane skids on all the snow and ice?"
Faith shrugged, it wasn't like she had all the answers. "Our all-expenses-paid trip to a luxury resort will begin with one hell of a bang, that's what."
Buffy chuckled and finally released Faith's arm as the plane pulled up beside the airport. Faith removed her arm as the seatbelt light clicked off.
Faith looked up from getting her hand luggage together. "No problem."
"I mean it," Buffy went on, although she too was getting her things together instead of making eye contact. "I wasn't being very nice to you but you still. . ."
"Save your thanks, B. I was planning on copping a feel the first chance I got, figured you'd be too distracted to notice."
Buffy looked up to glare at her. "Why do you do that?"
Faith shrugged, still not looking at her. "Well, I ain't gonna get to second base any other way, am I?"
"Not with that attitude," Buffy snapped and then slotted her way into the people shuffling past for the exit.
Faith couldn't do the same right away and was forced to yell over the seats to get the last word. "My attitude's just fine; it's your attitude that needs to grow up!"
Buffy showed no indication that she'd heard her and Faith threw herself back in her seat, fuming, and waited for the last of the passengers to file past her, in no hurry to catch up with her travel partner.
So far they'd only been on this trip half a day and it was already horrible. There'd better at least be something decent to slay at the end of it all.
"Home sweet home," Roxy coo'ed sarcastically as they pulled into a wide circular driveway. "Did you miss it?"
"This isn't home," Kennedy snarked and then smiled as she threw open the drivers' door. "But yeah."
After their two minute police chase and half an hour sitting on the freeway while the police officer called Kennedy's Mom, Kennedy had been told to take over the wheel. Roxy had been pissed, Willow had been terrified. Kennedy's driving was way more erratic than her sister's! But Willow hadn't let on and she tried to hide her shaky legs now as she climbed out of the back seat.
"It looks even better in summer," Kennedy said, going to the trunk for their luggage.
It looked pretty great in the winter though too. The soft-hued stone, red-roofed house was the size and had the same charm as a country hotel. The driveway had been cleared of snow but the rest of the landscape, and there was a lot of it, was a stunning, untouched white. Even the small statues lining the drive looked more like cultured snowmen. It was beautiful.
Roxy read her expression and winked at her. "Wait until you see inside."
Coming back around the side of the porches, Kennedy rolled her eyes. "Willow's not like your boyfriends, Rox. She cares about more than parental acreage."
That might have been true but Willow still really wanted to see the inside. Although she was a little worried about meeting the parents, acreage aside, after the stories she heard during the car ride.
She smiled nervously at Kennedy. "So, this is where we go in, right? And meet your Mom?"
Kennedy grinned. "Relax, Will, I swear she's not as bad as Roxy made out."
"What about as bad as you made out?"
"You can put that down to me being nervous too. I've never introduced her to someone I'm actually in love with."
For some reason that made Willow even more nervous. She dallied behind the other two as they walked up the path. Sensing this, Kennedy dropped their suitcases and came back to her. She took her hand and gave it a comforting squeeze.
"We'll do this together," she promised, and then dragged Willow up the path to the front door before she could say anything.
Roxy had already entered so the actual door gave Willow no time to resist. Before she knew it she was standing in a lushly carpeted foyer.
"Shouldn't I take my shoes off?" she asked as she was tugged onwards.
"No one else does."
"Then how does the carpet stay so creamy?"
"Maids live for this stuff."
"Oh." Willow's eyebrows rose and then she frowned. "Are you sure?"
Inside the airport was heaving; it looked like half the people in the world had come to Cleveland, Ohio for the holidays. Or at least, half the world's kids. They were everywhere, shrieking and crying and getting in everyone's way.
Faith wasn't a kid person and right away she could see that was going to be a problem. This place was geared up totally for the noisy little shits. There was going to be no getting away from them.
"You okay?" Buffy asked as she approached, dropping her suitcase by her feet.
"Too many damn brats," Faith said as she looked for the exit.
"Well, that's what Christmas is all about, isn't it? The children."
"Not when I was one. Where do you think we're supposed to get this shuttle bus to the resort?"
Buffy pointed across the room and Faith saw the man dressed as an elf holding up a big placard.
"This way to Santa's Secret Grotto, Snow Dunes," Faith read. "Guess that's us."
She hefted her duffle bag higher up her shoulder and walked purposely towards the elf.
The kitchen wasn't as huge as Willow was expecting but you still could have filled it with a dozen cooks. It was homely and nice, actually. A fire burned in an open grate with an elderly Labrador sleeping in front of it and the scent of nutmeg and cinnamon hung in the air.
"Mom?" Kennedy called out.
A man appeared instead. Dark haired, olive-skinned, about fifty maybe. Willow thought he might be the butler until he came over to give Kennedy a hug. "She's upstairs getting ready. She'll be down any second though if she saw the car pull up. How was the flight, honey?"
"Fine. Dad, this is Willow. Willow, this is my Step-Dad, Jesus."
Willow went pink, for several reasons. "I'm sorry, Jesus?"
The man rolled his eyes, cuffing Kennedy's shoulder gently as he released her. "It's pronounced 'Hey-soos' but my daughter here likes to wind me up."
"Oh, that's a relief." Seeing his confusion she pinked even more and blurted, "I'm Jewish."
He gave her a smile and a wink, "I'll try not to hold that against you," and then offered his hand.
She shook it formally and tried not to let her grip shake. She'd never met parents before! Well, she'd met Tara's Dad but not under the best circumstances. And she'd met Oz's but only in a 'Hi' 'Bye' kind of way - they'd hardly ever been around and they hadn't shown much interest when they were.
"It's really nice to meet you, Willow. Make yourself at home. I'll see you both at the party later." He gave Kennedy's shoulder one last squeeze and left the kitchen.
"He seems nice."
"He is." Kennedy moved deeper into the kitchen, heading for the fridge like a typical slayer. "Oh, and that's Suki."
The grizzled lab raised her head at the sound of her name, gave a gentle wuff in Kennedy's direction and then went back to sleep.
"She's fourteen so don't expect much, but throw a stick and she'll still walk after it."
Kennedy came back with a tray of mini quiches. She stuffed two in her mouth before saying, "Help yourself."
The only thing she'd eaten since breakfast was a packet of peanuts on the plane and she gratefully took two of the savoury bites. The first one was halfway to her mouth when the yelling started.
"Don't eat that! Don't eat that!"
Startled, Willow dropped the quiche altogether and it landed soft side down, smooshing on the tiled floor. Embarrassed she went bright red again. "Oops, I'm sorry!"
"That wasn't your fault. Mom, was that necessary?"
"Yes!" And then Eva Longoria swished into the kitchen and snatched the tray from Kennedy and Willow nearly dropped the other quiche too! "Give me those."
With some fumbling Willow kept hold of the quiche long enough to drop it back onto the edge of the serving dish as she gawped at Kennedy's Mom. Okay, so she didn't look exactly like her, she was maybe twenty pounds heavier and her hair was several inches shorter, but she did look like The Young and the Restless actress. Not that Willow watched that kind of show, no siree, she definitely hadn't become hooked on soap operas - including several foreign language ones - while she was moping around during Kennedy's absence. Aww, she wondered how Geniveve and little Pepe from. . .
"Wow, you're a nervous one. Won't take me long to scare this one off, heh?" She elbowed Willow playfully as she addressed her daughter. "Suki, snack time!"
The dog struggled to his feet and lumbered over to clear up Willow's mess. She smiled at him appreciatively and then offered her hand to Kennedy's mother. Seeing it was coated in quiche she rubbed her palm quickly on her jeans before offering it again.
"Hi, I'm Willow!" The woman bypassed her hand and went straight for the bear hug. "Oh, okay!"
"It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Willow. Call me Rosie. I'm glad you could join us for the holidays. We're all very excited to get to know you . . ."
"Would you prefer me to tell your friend we are not excited to meet her?" Rosie let her go abruptly as she bickered with her daughter. "Fine, it is a total drag to have you here, Willow, please try not to get in the way."
"I cannot win." Rosie threw her hands in the air, smiling at Willow, who smiled nervously back. "Now get your friend a tissue before she rubs any more crumbs onto her lovely clothes." She swept away to put the dish of quiches back into the fridge. "And leave the party food alone, I can't ask the caterer to make more this late. There is pizza in the freezer if you are that hungry."
She left the room, heading out of a different door to the one she'd entered. Suki finished licking at the tiles and went back to the fire. Alone for the first time all day, Kennedy took advantage, sliding her hands around Willow's waist and pressing her back against the central chopping station.
"Don't you want to get the pizza?"
"In a minute." After a quick kiss Kennedy leaned back to talk. "How are you holding up?"
"I'm okay. Aren't I? Did I not do okay? It was the wiping my hand on my leg thing wasn't it? I panicked and . . .!"
Kennedy calmed her with another kiss, smiling after. "You were perfect."
She smiled back. "Really? Your parents are nice. Do I really have lovely clothes?" She looked into the few inches between them, down at her bright yellow feathery coat and her fleecy orange pants. Her ensemble looked vaguely familiar and she wrinkled her forehead as she tried to figure out why.
"Oh great!" She threw her arms either side of Kennedy. "I met your family dressed as Big Bird! No wonder your sister wasn't all that impressed by your taste in women," she huffed.
Kennedy just chuckled, confirming her fears that she really did look like a Muppet. "Well, I think it was a success. My Step-Dad normally has too much going on to be so emotionally available, so he must have liked you on first impression, which is basically what he judges everyone on so that's a good sign, and my Mom actually came across as relatively normal. She didn't weep happy tears all over you because now her. . ." Kennedy switched her accent so that it sounded more like her mother's. ". . . little baby girl has finally found someone to love and cherish for her life!"
"You downplayed it in the car, huh?"
Kennedy grinned, "I had to get you through the front door somehow. She actually seemed cool though. Maybe she's finally calmed down. Either that or she's planning to surprise us with something even worse than the usual," she joked, leaning in for another indulgent kiss.
When they parted, Kennedy went to look for the pizza in the fridge-freezer. Willow looked over at the army of squeaky clean wine glasses lined up on a counter. Facing off against them on the opposite counter was a smaller but more imposing army made up of liquor, champagne and wine bottles. Either Kennedy's family were high-functioning alcoholics or they were ready to throw one hell of a party, and then she remembered.
"So, what's the party for tonight? Is it Christmas-themed? Because that's okay but I'm carrying around my Menorah. I think I've worshipped Santa and the baby Jesus more than enough for one year."
"We don't usually have a party until New Years Eve, this must be for . . . something . . . else. Oh No!" Kennedy froze, and then threw open the fridge to see all of the trays of catered food waiting inside. "Oh shit!"
"It's okay, I didn't really bring my Menorah," Willow said, misunderstanding. "I don't actually have a Menorah. I usually prefer fat, dribbley candles now . . ."
"Not that. I just realized who the party's for!" Kennedy sounded in great distress and then she yelled out as loud as she could, "MOM!"
Barnies was usually empty at this time of day, except for the semi-retired men who always seemed to be gathered around the back. This afternoon it was not. It was crowded with tourists.
So much for having a discreet conversation with Alex; he would be lucky to even get his attention. Giles politely edged his way to the bar and had to wait five minutes before he could ask one of the staff where the landlord was.
"He's on duty. You might find him at the sheriff's department."
The curtness of the reply could have been because of how busy the bar was or because that was how many of the locals still spoke to them. Four months of living there hadn't procured many warm feelings towards them in this tight knit community and he wondered how long they would have to suffer the cold shoulder before they were accepted.
He didn't have time to dwell on it today, not with the prospect of heading to the sheriff's office ahead of him. It was one thing to pop in here for a quiet pint and pick Alex's brain about the wolf attacks in the name of club research, quite another to engage him on such an upsetting subject while in his professional capacity.
He considered leaving it. Xander had done a good job with the cousin, perhaps he could be persuaded to come into town that evening to talk with Alex too. He was loathe to leave it any longer though, now that he was so unsure once more what was causing the attacks and with Buffy and Faith already heading for the front line.
The storm had abated by the time they all trooped outside to the waiting buses, but everywhere was still white. Snow on the ground, snow covering the trees and the buildings, and snow still heavy in the low clouds above.
The only color came from the lurid ski-wear most of the guests seemed to think was the height of fashion. The elf-man leading the way blended in better than Faith had thought he would, his fir-green hat and tunic and berry-red pants and shirt fitting naturally against the blank canvas scenery.
Faith felt like a blot on the landscape in her blue jeans and blue denim jacket.
"Think I stand out?" she whispered to Buffy as they stood in the crowd, listening to the elf shout instructions before they boarded the bus.
Buffy gave her a quick once over. "Yeah."
"Thanks, B." Faith shook her head as she sighed. "Can always count on you to make me feel better, huh?"
Buffy gave her a strange look. "What? I thought you liked standing out? At least, that's the impression you always give. If I got it wrong, I'm sorry, but Faith, you do send a hell of a lot of mixed signals all over the place. You can't expect me to be on top of every single mood swing you have, a few are gonna sail right past me."
Buffy was smiling at her, but Faith just felt irritated and turned away. "Whatever."
"Oh God," Buffy groaned under her breath. "Why did I let myself get dragged into this assignment? We're going to hate each other by the time we get home, aren't we? Why can't we just be normal for once?"
Faith frowned, finding it hard to argue against the truth. She didn't even know why they were bickering more than ever the last few days. It wasn't her fault. Buffy just always seemed to know the right thing to say to push her buttons; or at least one button - typically, the one marked 'Do not push'.
"Sorry, just antsy," she muttered. "Ignore me."
"Yeah, like that's possible," Buffy nudged her with an elbow. "God, my feet are going to fall off with frostbite if we don't get on this bus soon. Why do we need instructions to sit on a bus anyway? I know how to do it, I've done it before; you just . . . sit. There, easy peasy."
Faith chuckled, "If you were listening instead of whining, you'd know ol' Patch up there was giving us our schedule for the next five days."
"And he can't do that on the heated bus?"
"I think we're supposed to be soaking up the, whatdoyercallit . . . ambience."
"It's an airport. We're outside an airport. Admittedly it has more snow than some other airports, but otherwise," Buffy looked about them, "not all that exciting."
"But it's a magical place, B," Faith smirked, spreading her arms wide. "Can't you feel the magic in the air?"
"Our kitchen is a magical place, F; if that were important to me, I'd have stayed there; it's warmer for one thing."
"Where's your Christmas spirit?"
"Sitting by a fire somewhere, listening to jolly Christmas songs and drinking eggnog."
Faith laughed as she stamped her chilled feet, "Smarter than us then."
Willow stood anxiously by the fireplace, sipping her warm and spicy mulled wine and wishing she was anywhere but there. It might have seemed odd to most people, considering how luxuriant her surroundings were, but there were mitigating reasons for her uneasiness.
The main living room (apparently there were three altogether) in Kennedy's parents' holiday home was already filling up nicely, much to Willow's dismay. Dismay because she had to greet each of them personally. She'd already said hello and made small talk with eight cheerfully bemused couples - which was sixteen more strangers than she was usually comfortable talking to at parties. It was made worse because they were as bewildered as she was. They didn't seem to know why they'd been invited to a party just to meet her but they were all polite and jovial enough to do so with gusto. Willow had been under the impression that most rich people weren't all that nice - admittedly most of that assumption was based on her experiences with the likes of Cordelia and her wealthy friends - but Kennedy's parents were obviously the exception and they seemed to know all the other exceptions too, on the East Coast anyway.
She was trying not to be a sourpuss about the whole thing. It wasn't every day someone threw a party this lavish in her honor after all. She just wished Buffy were there or Xander, or even Dawn so there was someone else in the room who felt like a fish on dry land too.
Kennedy was perfectly comfortable, understandable because these had been her people since she was four or five, but she wasn't trying so hard with the not being a sourpuss thing. She was openly scowling most of the time. She wasn't rude to any of the guests, smiling and asking after people Willow had obviously never heard of, but every time they were alone again she had a face like really angry thunder.
"Is it me?" Willow whispered eventually. "Are you wishing you hadn't invited me now?"
Kennedy's expression instantly softened and she turned to her. "No. I'm glad you're here. I just wish here was somewhere else right now. Honestly, Willow, if I'd known my Mom was going to throw us a big 'coming out' party I would have jumped at Giles offer to spend the holidays monster hunting."
"This is a bit. . . strange," she agreed, trying to be tactful. "Did all of these people already know you were gay?"
Kennedy shrugged, "Most of them? Probably, but only because of my Mom. It's not like I put an announcement in the newspaper. But that's not the point. I don't care if they know, but this was supposed to be about you meeting my family, not half of New York."
"At least I'm making a lot of contacts, you know, in case I ever need an investment banker or a renowned plastic surgeon," she quipped, thinking of just a couple of the people she'd met so far.
Kennedy grinned but then asked seriously. "Are you okay with this though? It's a lot at once. If you're not we can bail."
"I'm okay," she said, and then quailed inside when she saw a new couple walk through the door. "Kinda. Hey, there can't be that many more people to come, right?"
"True." Kennedy looked around the room. "Only another fifty or so."
"Oh!" Kennedy looked at her with concern but Willow shook her head to make her stop. "Fifty's not so bad. We can do this."
The next couple were upon them then and Willow had no choice but to do it. It was a little easier when Kennedy took her hand this time, showing a united front. Together they went through the motions.
"Thomas, Val, it's great to see you again." Kennedy turned slightly from the middle-aged couple to introduce her. "This is Willow. Willow, this is Thomas and Valerie Steinbeck."
"Of the Philadelphia Steinbeck's," Thomas said as he shook her hand, like that meant anything to her at all. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Willow. How are you finding the Hamptons?"
"It's nice to meet you too," she said, as she had a dozen times already. "And they seem really nice but I only arrived a few hours ago. Oh! Not that I don't think they will be when I've gotten to know them better, I just meant . . ." She stopped talking when Kennedy squeezed her hand, and she finished lamely, "They're lovely."
Thomas laughed heartily and Valerie smiled and took possession of her hand. "They are, I'm sure you'll have fun here. And," she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "I can't tell you how thrilled we all are that Kennedy has finally settled down enough to bring someone home to meet us."
"What do you mean 'settled down'?" Kennedy asked.
"Well, your Mother told us how you ran off to California to find yourself. We all thought you'd be living the Bohemian life in San Francisco forever and we'd never see you again."
By the look on her face Kennedy really didn't know what to say to that so Willow stepped in, remembering to dilute the facts for the civilians.
"Actually, Kennedy came to us in California for a job. I think she didn't tell her parents in case it didn't work out, but she's definitely been settled the whole time."
"Really?" Thomas asked. Kennedy nodded. "That's wonderful. See, Val, I told you Kennedy had a good head on her shoulders."
Valerie looked pleased to be proved wrong. "And you two met while working together? That's nice."
Willow and Kennedy both nodded and then the couple were summoned by friends, and after a promise to 'catch up later' they left.
"See, not so bad," she said.
"You're shaking," Kennedy pointed out.
"So are you."
"I wasn't expecting anyone to ask where I've been," Kennedy said, acknowledging that she'd frozen.
"Was my answer okay?" Willow asked anxiously. She'd thought of it on the fly, but it hadn't seemed ridiculous coming out of her mouth.
"It was great. We'll stick with it for the rest of the night."
"Maybe you should tell your parents it too. They were obviously worried about you."
Kennedy chuckled, "Let's see if I'm still talking to them at the end of the night first."
"Oh, it's not that bad," Willow smiled now. "Only twenty-four more couples to go." Her confidence left as she saw new people enter the room. "Oh shoot, here comes another one!"
Kennedy glanced at them before tugging Willow towards the kitchen. "A lot more mulled wine will make this more enjoyable. Let's take a break."
Willow didn't argue.
It was a brisk five minute walk through the snow to the sheriff's department. The concrete steps outside had been recently salted and were clear of snow and ice but Giles held onto the iron rail anyway and it seemed to burn with cold through his leather gloves. The blue-painted door opened without restraint and he smiled as the warmth from inside enveloped him.
Sam was inside, his legs propped up on the neat desk as he watched the small, overhead television. He pulled his legs down and sat up straight when he realized he wasn't alone.
"Sorry to disturb you."
The young man seemed flustered, as if he'd been caught sleeping on the job rather than just watching television. "You didn't, I was just. . ."
"Resting you leg? How is it now?"
Sam seemed to suddenly recognize him with the question. "Oh, hello, Sir. It's better, thanks. Doc Holirown said I'd be back on active duty in the New Year."
"That is good news. I expect you can't wait to be back out there."
"Actually sir, I was thinking of asking your granddaughter if she'd shoot me in my other leg. Just enough to keep me behind this desk until spring," he joked.
Still feeling responsible for the junior policeman's injury, Giles let the granddaughter comment go this time and smiled.
"So what's up?" Sam asked, picking a black pen up from the desk and pulling a yellow legal pad towards him. "Did your place get broken into? Unfortunately we get a spate of burglaries in the more out of town residences whenever the tourists flood in. They're isolated incidents though, Sir, nothing to worry about if you're security conscious."
Giles wondered how a spate could also be an isolated incident but decided to let his curiosity remain idle; he had more pressing questions. "I was wondering if Alex was around?"
Sam shook his head. "Out on patrol. He'll be awhile. He likes to make a quick visit to all the resorts this time of year as well as his usual route. Just to make sure nobody's having any trouble."
"The usual: vehicle theft, drunk and disorderly, credit card fraud, people not paying their mini-bar bills." Sam shrugged. "Can't say I'm sorry to be missing that fun this year. You usually just get your ear talked off by the service staff whining about how Mr. So-and-So didn't tip for this and how Mrs. So-and-So let her kid do that. It's a pain in the butt. You can be stuck at each stop an hour."
"I see. So you never have bigger trouble than that?"
Sam shrugged again, "Sometimes. Want some coffee?"
Seeing an opportunity to get some information without having to speak to Alex, who always seemed to look at him with mildly condescending suspicion, Giles nodded, "Please?"
Sam stood up and went to the coffee pot on the counter. He still walked with a slight limp. "Alex is bringing milk back with him. Is black okay?"
"That will be fine." He slipped into the seat opposite the desk. "So what is the worse we should be looking out for this time of year?"
"Well," Sam thought about it as he poured the coffee into two polystyrene cups. "There are a few things."
He carried the cups over and Giles reached up to take his. "Yes?"
"Yeah, did you hear about the . . ."
The blue door opened and Alex bustled in, not alone. A drunken youth was slouching semi-conscious in front of him, propelled along by the deputy sheriff's big hands. The cold radiated off of them, making Giles shiver.
"Hey, Sam get . . . Oh, Hi, Mr. Giles. Sam, get the cell opened up. Jonathan here needs to get some beauty sleep."
"It's Johnny!" the boy slurred.
"Well, your parents said it was Jonathan and they were the sober ones."
Alex pushed him towards the cell down the corridor with Sam limping ahead to open the door. There was some unseen cursing from Jonathan and then Alex yelled at him, followed by the unmistakeable sound of a solid punch in the nose. Giles winced, really hoping he wasn't audibly witnessing police brutality. From the boy's language he probably needed a good clip around the ear but Alex was a big man and Giles could not condone him abusing his power in such a way.
He was standing to leave, deciding to send Xander down later after all rather than see something that would diminish his already tentative respect for the deputy sheriff, when he heard them coming back up corridor.
"I'll get you some snow," he heard Sam say.
"I'm fine," Alex said nasally. When they came back into the reception area Giles saw his nose was dribbling blood. "My mistake for not handcuffing him." He took several serviettes from the counter by the coffee pot and held them to his nose. "So what are you doing here, Mr. Giles?"
He sounded in no mood to beat around the bush, which was hardly surprising. Flustered from jumping to the wrong conclusion, Giles could think of no response but the truth.
"I've heard rumors about wolf attacks in the area."
"Not rumors," Alex confirmed, throwing one wad of bloody tissue away and pressing some more to his nose as he looked irritably at the coffee pot. "I didn't get a chance to buy milk. Sam?"
"I'll go to Owen's."
Sam took his sheriff's department bomber jacket from a hook and was already rushing outside as he pulled it on. Obviously he did not want to antagonize Alex in this mood, not even over milk.
Giles wondered how far he could push his luck with the burly deputy. He'd never seen him looking quite so. . . professional. He normally thought of him as being much more suited as a barman than as a police officer but it was a wonder what a punch in the nose could do.
"Do you need to sit down? I know quite a bit of first aid."
"I appreciate the offer, Sir, but I'm not a badger."
Giles tried not to show that the comment had ruffled his feathers, he was here for answers after all. "Then Perhaps you could tell me about the wolf attacks?"
"The investigation is on-going, I can't comment."
"I was referring to the previous occurrences but you're suggesting there have been attacks this year too?"
Alex looked annoyed by his slip but didn't give any more ground. "Like I said, I can't comment."
"Could you at least give me some information on the earlier incidents?" He pulled out his notebook. "I know of at least . . ."
"But the whole town seems to know of it," he argued.
Alex looked even more annoyed and then, throwing the tissue away once more, relaxed somewhat. "Every few years wolves come over the Canadian border and . . ."
"That is not true."
"What makes you say that?"
"On several occasions people have been questioned in regards to the disappearances."
Alex suddenly became serious about the conversation, poured himself a cup of the black coffee and took Sam's seat on the opposite side of the desk. "Forensics cleared them all. How do you know this?"
"I did some research at the Cleveland library. It was easy to find if you know what you are looking for."
"And how does someone who tracks wildlife for a career know what to look for?" Giles hesitated over an answer but Alex let him off the hook. "Never mind, stupid question. Look, there's been a lot of conflicting stories over the years but all the evidence leads to wolves. Nothing human could rip these kids apart like that." He took a long swallow of his bitter coffee and pulled a face. "God, I hate this stuff."
"Me too," Giles nodded and set his barely touched cup on the desk. "So if it is wolves, as you say, how can it be that the same pack has been operating in the same way for over fifty years? Surely a wolf's life span isn't that long?"
"Shouldn't you know that?"
Giles didn't acknowledge he'd slipped either. "Let me put it another way: Wolves don't live that long, especially ones that find food that hard to find every winter."
"Pack mentality. Maybe it's passed down from generation to generation."
"Perhaps. Or maybe it is something else."
"If it was a man coming back here every few years to kill some kids, don't you think he'd have been caught by now? The resorts keep records of every guest and we've kept records of every attack. Do you really think we wouldn't have noticed some pattern if there was one?"
Giles tried very hard not to let his expression say exactly that, but Alex saw through him.
"I'm good at what I do and so is my father, and so was the sheriff before him! Besides, the FBI have been all over this too and they decided it was wolves."
"But what if it is something else?"
"I don't think a raccoon would have the jaw strength to . . ."
"Don't be flippant!" Giles snapped. "Children's lives are at stake!"
Alex's expression turned as frosty as the air outside. "I'm taking this very seriously, Sir. It is my home that is under attack every year. It's wolves! We'll be mounting a hunt tomorrow to flush them out and exterminate them. Now if you have no further questions . . ."
"Actually I have quite a few questions left."
"Goodbye, Mr. Giles."
He reluctantly stood, aware that he was going to get no more information this way. He stopped at the door as he put his gloves back on. "I'd like to join the hunt. For research purposes."
Alex gave him a dismissive nod. "I'll mention it to my father."
It was snowing again as Giles left the building. He pulled his collar up around his neck, shivering inside his thick jacket, and set off to the car. He had learned nothing new here, except that deputy sheriff was extremely touchy about the subject. He would have to pass on his vague assumptions to Buffy and Faith and hope that was enough knowledge to arm them.
He really wished Willow was around. He respected her need for a break, he could use one himself, and he was proud that she was taking the step to meet Kennedy's family. As stubborn and uncooperative as the young slayer could be at times, she was an asset to their own little family and he was pleased that she and Willow seemed on solid ground again. However, this current foe was looking more mysterious and deadly all the time and he was concerned that Willow's magical ability and Kennedy's experienced back-up may more sorely missed.
The party felt more relaxed now, thanks to several glasses of mulled wine and half a bottle of the regular kind. Willow was finally enjoying herself, if a little drunkenly. Nobody seemed to care, least of all Kennedy, who was paying her a lot of attention and still feeding her the occasional glass of the hard stuff even though she really didn't need anymore.
"So did you want more to eat?"
Willow shook her head as she wiped her mouth and politely burped into her napkin. "One more slice of smoked salmon and bears are gonna be waiting by my bath tonight. It was all yummy though. Your Mom really knows how to cook!"
"You mean she knows how to hire a good caterer," Kennedy grinned. "I grew up on Spaghettios before my she married my Step-Dad."
Willow chuckled, "Well even if she can't cook, I love your Mom."
"Yeah, she threw us this whole awesome party," Willow gushed. "My Mom would never think to do that. She was all like, 'Oh, you're a lesbian, that's great, statistics show blah blah blah! She insisted on meeting Tara and then spoke to her for like three minutes before remembering she had a meeting and rushed off. And then after that she used to call her Terri all the time . . . Sorry."
She'd apologized because Kennedy's smile had disappeared, but her girlfriend reached over and squeezed her forearm.
"You can talk about her, Will."
"Thanks. But the thing I was saying was, your Mom doing this for you, for us, is great. It shows she really cares. And if having to say hello to three dozen people is the only price to pay I'm glad we paid it."
The sound of a silver spoon hitting crystal glass stalled Kennedy's reply and Willow looked to see where it had come from. It was Kennedy's Mom.
"Now that everyone is here, I think it's time we have a few words from the happy couple, don't you?"
There were many 'here here's. Kennedy just groaned, "God, Mom!"
"What does she mean: happy couple?" Willow asked urgently. "Is that us? I don't want to say any words!"
Kennedy looked resigned because everyone had already turned to face them in their quiet little corner. She took Willow's hand again and muttered, "Still think my Mom's awesome?"
Out loud, she said, "Thanks, everyone, for coming. Willow and I really appreciate it. I . . . I . . ." She shrugged. "I don't really know what else I'm supposed to say, Mom."
Rosie beamed proudly, "Just tell us how you feel about each other."
"Oh Goddess," Willow murmured.
"Willow and I haven't been together that long," Kennedy began with slight exasperation, "but I realized I loved her pretty much straight away. Actually, it took me longer than that to realize it, but when I did I knew I'd loved her right away. She's the proverbial 'one', you know? And we're very happy together."
"We are," Willow nodded. "She's my one too."
She said it because it fit nicely with Kennedy's short speech and it meant she wouldn't have to add anything else - and it wasn't like she didn't believe it, in the moment - but she wasn't so sure there was such a thing anymore. She'd once thought Oz was the one, and then Tara had definitely been the one. Willow loved Kennedy and she didn't want to think about losing her but she didn't put her faith in anyone being The One anymore.
So she really wasn't expecting the sudden outpouring of love from all corners of the room. There was applause, people coming up to congratulate her, the whole shebang. It was freaky.
"What just happened?"
Kennedy shook her head even as she accepted the congratulations. "I don't think we want to know."
Willow nodded as she returned a hug from someone she had only met for three seconds before. She really wished she was in Boudenver right now. Buffy and Faith had it so easy only having to track a pack of Hellhounds!
The bus raced through the forest. The snow shone a brighter white against the darkness, like it was being lit from within, but beneath the trees on either side of them the shadows just seemed deeper than ever.
"Did you see that?" Buffy suddenly whispered.
They were sitting next to each other, halfway up the bus, and the puffy sleeve of Buffy's coat brushed against the front of Faith's denim jacket as she discreetly tried to point.
Faith's mind had been wandering, but she pulled herself up in her seat. There was nothing there for her to see.
"There's another one!"
Faith clocked it this time. An elf had poked his head around a tree briefly before disappearing again.
"It's probably all part of the show." Faith said as all around them kids started squealing that they could see the elves.
"Then the resort really scores points for authentic. Look at them."
Another obligingly poked half his body into view as Faith concentrated. It was short and skinny, dressed in green from head to toe with pointy ears and sharp but beautiful features. It wasn't human, but it was easy to see how they could pass for it if you were all caught up in the magic of the moment.
"Damn," Faith muttered, as another popped up from behind a holly bush. "Think elves are demons?"
Buffy shrugged, leaning closer and pretending she was searching for the little folk in the trees like the rest of the bus as she whispered into Faith's ear. "I don't know. I've always thought of elves as white hats - not that I knew they existed until now - but I mean, they make toys for Santa and help out elderly Dutch shoemakers. What's evil about that?"
"So they're just here to earn a living. Their work's gotta be seasonal, right? Maybe they can even help us out."
"Um," Faith was trying not to think about how close Buffy was. She knew it was important that no one overheard this conversation, but for real, any closer and Buffy would have been sitting on her lap. It was making it hard to concentrate on the great idea she'd just had. "Well, if they've been working the resorts since the attacks started maybe they've seen the Hellhounds. Couldn't hurt to ask them."
"Except we're supposed to be undercover and telling the resort employees that we're really there to hunt a pack of supernatural dogs with an appetite for little children - not very undercovery."
"Guess not." Disappointed that Buffy had shot her idea down so freakin' rationally, Faith dropped her head back to look at the roof of the bus. "Not too sure what our other options are though. It's pretty wild out here and the resort itself covers, what, twenty acres? That's a lot of land to keep travelling over 'til we find these hounds, especially if we can't split up 'cause it'll blow our cover."
"Well it's not going to be easy," Buffy admitted, absently patting her leg as she continued to lean forward, "but that's why they chose us for the job. We're at the top of our profession, Faith. We are the creme-de-la-creme. No monster too big, no apocalypse too small, Buffy and Faith are the Slayers to call . . ."
Faith looked down at the hand now resting on her thigh and then turned to stare at her. "Have you been drinking?"
Buffy wrinkled her nose with an embarrassed little smile. "I never meant to do the cheesy rhyme thing at the end."
With the way Buffy was still leaning in, Faith turning her head had brought their faces close together; very close together. She could feel Buffy's warm breath on her lips and her eyes dipped to the blonde's mouth, wondering if it would be okay to kiss her.
After all the grief Buffy had been giving her since the visit to Haywater, Faith didn't even know why she'd want to risk the headache, but she was right there, she hadn't moved back even though their noses were an inch from touching, and she was still smiling at her. It was hard not to get drawn in by her eyes, and so screw the headache, screw the shrink's advice; if B wanted this too, who was Faith to deny her?
Buffy's smile slipped into a look of serious want and she licked her lips delicately. That was all the sign Faith needed and she moved to close the small gap between them.
"Oh God, Faith," Buffy breathed, making Faith feel pretty special to be getting such a reaction even before she'd kissed her. "Look! There's hundreds of them!"
"Huh? What?" Faith shot back, the back of her head bouncing off of the window as she lost her composure. "I mean, yeah."
Buffy glanced at her, only having kinda noticed her dramatic display of stupid, "Are you okay?"
"Five by five. So what are we looking at?"
Buffy gestured at the window and said slowly, "The elves."
"Oh, yeah, right."
Faith turned to the window and saw what Buffy had seen right before she'd tried to kiss her. The thing that had caused her 'sign'. Apparently scared and horny gave Buffy the same expression - she figured she should have known that already, but then it was so long since she had seen Buffy horny, or scared for that matter, it was no wonder she'd forgotten.
Outside, in the surreally lit winter forest, elf heads popped up above trees, bushes and boulders by the dozen. It was like a miniature red and green army against the white and black of the snowy night and there didn't seem to be a patch of the roadside that wasn't sprouting the little festive folk now as they hungrily watched the bus sweep by.
The kids were still hollering all around them in excitement and their parents were no better, whipping the brats up into a frenzy over the 'entertainment' so they could be sure to get their money's worth, but Faith knew in her gut something wasn't right. The things out there, the elves, were scary. Sure one or two were cute enough but banded menacingly together like this, it should have been enough to have these kids screaming their heads off to get away, not begging to meet them.
"This isn't right," she muttered, "They ain't giving little waves and friendly smiles anymore. They're gnashing their sharp, sharp teeth and pumping their fists!"
"And they really want what's in this bus," Buffy agreed.
Faith turned to her again but even though they were as close as before, kissing was the furthest thing from her mind as she saw the realization she'd come to was also there in Buffy's eyes.
Together they murmured, "It's the elves!"
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