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

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


Episode Ten

Act Three

The kids were still clamoring excitedly about the appearing and disappearing little folk as the bus swept down the long driveway to the hotel.

"Are they seeing what we're seeing?" Faith murmured. She was unable to take her eyes from the legion of sharp-featured elves.

"I think they're seeing the magick of Christmas," Buffy began wistfully, then her tone turned darker. "And we're seeing the stinky yak cheese behind it."

This situation was suddenly a whole lot worse than she had been expecting. She hadn't been worried about a pack of hell hounds; she'd slayed their kind before and they weren't that tough if you caught them one by one and avoided their teeth. This though, she didn't know how to go about catching one elf, and even if they were running to keep up with the bus and they were seeing the same ones over and over again, there still had to be a hundred of them out there.

Between the two of them they were going to have their work cut out and Buffy was thinking it might be wise to ask Giles to have the other slayers on standby. They might not be able to flood the resort on a whim without causing too much chaos but if the other girls could be outside the fences maybe, they could rush in and help when Buffy gave the signal.

She was about to suggest this to Faith when the bus pulled to a stop and Patch, or whatever real his name was, stood up and started giving out instructions. Buffy hadn't taken much notice of him before but she studied him now as he spoke. He was definitely human. His pointy ears were plastic and although he was short, he was no shorter than her. The elves that had been tracking the bus couldn't have been more than three feet tall and they were really skinny; Patch wasn't.

So he was human, someone legitimately hired by the resort and probably not worthy of suspicion. Were the others employees too? Everyone else on the bus seemed to assume so, but was it feasible that the owner of Snow Dunes had hired non-humans? And if he had, had he known what he was hiring? What about the other resorts? There had been attacks at each one in the past couple of weeks. Had they all been to the same Rent-an-Elf?

"Are you gonna sit there all night?" Faith broke into her thoughts. "Do I need to climb over you?"

She had been staring so hard at Patch, her mind racing, that she hadn't realized that the bus was already half empty. Faith was standing up beside her, trapped next to the window by her legs.


Standing up, she tried to reach into the overhead compartment for her hand luggage but she wasn't tall enough. Faith nudged her out of the way and grabbed the two bags, carrying them both off of the bus before handing Buffy's to her.

"Thanks. I just need to get my suitcase."

"How spaced were you? Patch said they'd be taken to our cabin. We just have to go get our key. Which is gonna take forever now 'cause, thanks to you, we'll probably be last in line."

Buffy didn't reply, obviously their short-lived truce was over again.

Why did they even need a truce when they were supposed to be in love? Shouldn't all the time be truce time? They were worse now than before the visit to Faith's therapist. At least before they'd both been trying to make an effort. Now it seemed that the shrink's advice had just given them a reason to stop trying. It really worried her because she didn't know how long she could put up with it, or how long Faith would. Surely there had to come a time when you cut your losses and moved on before you both went crazy. For Buffy, though, that had usually been at the end of the relationship, not at the start of it.

It was depressing to think that she'd put all this time, months now, into wanting Faith, only to have it be a non-starter. More than anything she didn't want that to be the case. Faith was everything she wanted, only now it seemed like she wanted something that didn't really exist, like the girl she had fallen so hard for had disappeared when Faith had gone back to prison. She didn't know why she felt this because Faith was very definitely still Faith and she hadn't changed except in good ways. So had Buffy changed? But how could that be if she still wanted Faith like she had before?

Ugh, it made her head hurt, and considering that they had bigger problems to deal with, Haywater's advice suddenly seem like a good idea again. Distance was of the good. If they could make it until after the holidays without killing each other, they could re-evaluate in the New Year.

Of course, she realized as they were standing at the back of a long line of other guests in the hotel reception, distance wasn't going to be easy until they'd killed all the elves. Also, as if to add to her pain, all the other guests were happy. The couples were smiling and laughing with each other as they waited in the queue, commenting on the pretty red and silver decorations, how big the Christmas tree was and how lovely it was to see real holly right outside. The ones with kids were cheerfully reining them in when they started getting a little boisterous with the excitement. Buffy looked around in despair as each couple seemed happier than the last. She and Faith were supposed to be happy like that and here they were standing there like strangers, not looking at or speaking to each other as they waited. Faith had been pricklier than the holly outside ever since they left the bus and, not only did it make Buffy feel sad, it was going to blow their cover too.

She sidled closer to Faith to whisper in her ear. "We have to act more couply."

"Fine," Faith sighed without looking at her. "Want me to feel you up right here? That'd be couply."

"Can't you take this seriously?" she hissed.

"The mission or our relationship?" Faith hissed back. "Oh, stupid me, according to you we don't have a relationship."

"I never said that!"

"You were the one who wanted a break."

"I never said that either! Your therapist did!"


"Fine!" Except not fine, at all. "You agreed to it readily enough. In fact, you jumped on the chance to break up with me for a little while."

Faith gave her a sidelong look and sneered, "Can't imagine what might make me wanna do that."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"Let's just say when I pictured having you as a girlfriend, it was better than this."

Buffy turned to her, eyes hard as she folded her arms. "Go on then, explain how being my girlfriend is the worse scenario ever for you."

"What, right here?" Faith gestured at the crowd; several people already seemed to think they were the opening act as they glanced over.

Buffy noticed people were staring too. That was bad. They hadn't even been able to maintain the pretense of being a happy couple long enough to check in. She sighed deeply. There was only one thing left to do: make it real. She just hoped Faith had the brains to play along.

"It's no good you starting an argument with me in public, honey," she began, "if you're just gonna get stage fright before you can win. Not that you're gonna win," she added, and winked at the smirking mother in front of them.

Faith just glared at her for a moment and Buffy thought she was genuinely too angry to stay in character but then she shook her head with a smirk of her own. "Who started the argument? You've been bitching at me since we left home. So much for our romantic break, huh?"

"I wanted it to be romantic!" Buffy shot back. "I guess I forgot you didn't have that bone in your body."

Now Faith turned to the man with the smirking woman in front of them. "Can you believe this? I planned this trip as a surprise for her. She's always wanted to do the big Christmas getaway thing, so I worked double time for three months to make it happen and this is the thanks I get?"

"Women!" The man agreed, earning an annoyed slap on the chest from his wife.

Well, at least if they couldn't be the perfect happy couple, they were bringing everyone else down with them. Also, Buffy realized, she didn't have a good come back to that. Now she looked like the spoiled girlfriend and Faith had come up smelling like roses. Damn, that was annoying, and it meant she had to switch gears again to save face.

She tried not to grit her teeth as she said, "You know I appreciate it, honey, I just hate flying. I would have preferred a break closer to home."

"Yeah, not many Christmas Wonderlands in California," Faith said sarcastically, "but now that I know I'm allowed to do things half-assed in the future, I will."

Before Buffy could think of a suitable reply the woman was asking, "So you two are from California?"

That could be an awkward conversation on its own but at least it got them out of their fake - but not-fake-enough - argument.

"Buffy is. I'm from Boston but I've been living down there with her for a while now."

"How long have you been together?" The man asked.

"Jeez, I dunno. I'm bad at anniversaries, dude. I know we met in '99."

As she marveled over how good Faith could be at this when she tried, Buffy did math quick in her head. "We had our four year anniversary just last month!" she said with just the right amount of fond exasperation . . . she hoped.

Faith nodded, getting a faraway look in her eyes. "Damn, that was a good party. Hardly surprising I don't remember much of it, if ya know what I mean," she said, grinning at the guy.

He nodded, grinning too, "Our tenth was like that."

"I practically had to carry him to bed," the woman said, looking mildly annoyed with the memory.

It was Buffy's turn to nod and she pointed a thumb at Faith, "I know what you mean."

As the couple took their turn at the front desk to claim their key, Buffy breathed a sigh of relief. She had to return one last bright smile as they called their little kid to heel and bid the slayers a 'Happy Holidays', and then they were gone.

"We did okay," Buffy murmured as they stepped up to the desk.

"Definitely could have gone worse," Faith agreed.

"I'm sorry, Willow," Kennedy apologized when they finally had a minute without people coming up to congratulate them. "This is definitely my Mom at her worse."

"It's not so bad."

She knew Willow was lying. She was still shaking slightly for one thing, plus it had been bad. She couldn't believe her Mom had pulled this stunt. Everything Rosie had done in the past had been over the top, but not publicly like this. This surpassed everything and Kennedy felt hot and embarrassed by it so she could only imagine how Willow was feeling.

"I think she's gone into overdrive, you know, because I've been away from home so long. She's overcompensating."

"So we should blame The First?" Willow asked with a little smile.

"I think placing the blame on something supernatural would make me feel better," Kennedy admitted.

"What if that's true?"

Kennedy chuckled but Willow looked serious. "You think my Mom's a demon? I'm pretty sure I'd have realized by now."

"No, not a demon, obviously, but . . . but maybe possessed or something."

"You think my Mom is possessed by something that makes her want to see me happy and in love?"

Willow shrugged, "It wouldn't be a bad possession as possessions go. It's just that . . ." she looked around at all the people the room, those that caught her eye gave her big smiles, a few gave the thumbs up sign. ". . . you have to admit this is . . . kinda weird."

Kennedy looked around too and sighed, "No, this is just my family."

"Go fish!" Xander told Alison, although it came out as a mumble as he shoved some more chips in his mouth.

The young slayer sighed and took a card from the pack. "I am losing like you wouldn't believe."

"Oh we believe it," said Vi, who was doing really well.

"I still think we should be playing for money," Rona stole the bag of chips from Xander's side of the table. "Or better yet, were playing a game that made it worth playing for money."

"Yes, I still don't get this game," Reece complained, he was also losing a lot.

"What's not to get?" Dawn asked cheerfully. "I've been playing this game since I was five. Obviously Buffy always used to cheat so I never won but the rules aren't exactly rocket science."

"Buffy wouldn't cheat, would she?" Miranda asked, sounding horrified by the idea.

"Buffy used to cheat all the time! She used to make up fake rules to games so I lost," Dawn laughed. "I remember her having the biggest tantrum when Mom told her she had to let me win sometimes."

"But you know she loves you and that's what counts," Xander said, sounding like a Sunday school teacher to himself.

He was feeling out of his depth. Buffy and Willow were both gone, Giles was in his office researching like crazy and so he was doing his best to keep the troops entertained, but all he really wanted to do was go down to Barnies and grab a beer.

He knew he could do this entertaining stuff, it was the one thing he was usually good at, but right now - without his sidekicks - he was feeling a little lost. Buffy and Willow had been pulling him through his dark patch, or dragging him though it possibly, but either way it had been working. Without them around that pit of despair was looking mighty good again.

The game had moved on without him. He'd missed his turn but he couldn't find it in himself to care. See, that wasn't normal! He tried to concentrate as Miranda had to hand cards to Naomi who in turn asked Cici for some fives.

Oh, jeez, he needed to get out of here! But he couldn't, because he was the only adult on the premises - other than Giles, who, as previously mentioned, was holed up in his office, taking no notice of them at all.

Cici was going fishing as the phone rang and Xander leapt up to grab the receiver from the wall - he'd reinstalled after all, it was his right!


"Xander? Hi, it's Alex."

"Alex, hi!" Did he sound too enthusiastic? He didn't really care. "What's up?"

"I spoke to my Dad, he okay'd you guys coming on the hunt."

"Cool, a wolf hunt! Should we bring anything: binoculars? A bunny on a fishing rod? A picnic?"

Alex was gruffer than usual as he answered, "Do you have your own guns?"

Xander though about that. "We have a few tranq guns."

"That's it?"

"We're not really gun people."

"Hard to be annoyed about that," Alex admitted. "So we're meeting in the morning, about six by The Mouth. Can you make it?"

Xander shrugged, "We'll be there."

"Thanks, Xan." And Alex hung up.

Xander took his seat back at the table, not sure how to feel about the prospect of wolf-hunting in the morning. On the one hand it was great of Alex to give them the go ahead - someone needed to be there in case the guys from town caught something they couldn't handle. On the other hand, there was a reason he didn't willingly patrol anymore and if the guys did corner a demon in the woods, he might have to be the someone who stepped up and handled it for them. He felt a twinge of pain where his missing eye should be at the thought of coming face to face with a hellhound. It had been scary enough the last time one had tried to bite his face off and back then he'd never thought twice about leaping into the fray.

Buffy, after lots of training together with tennis balls over the past month, had declared him ready for patrolling again, providing he was careful, but it wasn't just his physical capabilities that had been the problem. So yeah, he was definitely feeling the pre-date nervousness. But it wasn't like he could leave Giles to face it alone! He just had to man up and get on with it.

It might even be fun, if he could relax for a second, him and Giles teaming up. Butch and Sundance back together again, just like the old days after Buffy and Willow had started college.

"So we're wolf hunting tomorrow?" Alison asked excitedly.

He didn't get a chance to answer before Naomi said, "You know we won't actually be hunting real wolves, don't you?"

"Of course I know that! I can't wait to see a hellhound."

"But we're Vampire Slayers," Miranda sounded nervous, which wasn't unusual. "Shouldn't we, like, call in the hellhound slayers to deal with this?"

Cici chuckled, "Come on, Miranda, can you even remember the last time we saw a vampire? I think if we want to slay anything at all while we're here we have to be ready to diversify."

"Besides," Naomi began, "a slayer's duties are hardly so specific. You need to be prepared to defend the world from any supernatural threat that arises. If you focus too closely on vampires, how will you know what to do when a Hornbee emerges from its chrysalis under the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and starts stinging everyone in the city to death?"

"Or some big ugly pops out of a portal at you," Dawn agreed. "Anyway, hellhounds can't be any worse than werewolves and we dealt with those just fine. Personally I can't wait to handle a little demon butt again." She blushed, glancing at Reece. "Not that I actually want to, you know, handle it!"

"That's a relief." Smiling, Reece leaned over in his chair to kiss her.

Grinning sickeningly sweetly at Reece, she asked Xander, "So what time do we leave?"

"That's the thing, Dawn," he braced himself for the teenage indignation coming his way. "You're not."

"What?! That's not fair! Did Buffy tell you to say that? Just because I'm not a slayer she thinks I'm a baby."

"Buffy didn't tell me to say anything." Although he wished she had; it would let him off of the bad guy hook. "This is my call, you can't come."

"You can't make me spend Christmas Eve alone while the rest of you go demon hunting! I might not have slayer strength but I'm every bit as useful as the rest of you."

"You shot a cop in the leg the last time you were allowed on patrol," he calmly reminded her.

"That was ages ago!" she reminded him, not so calmly, right back.

"And yet the two outings will be eerily similar: cops and demonic dogs aplenty! You can't come, but don't worry, you're not being left out 'cause no one else is coming either. It'll just be me and Giles."

"What?" Alison threw her cards on the table in a fury. "You have to take us! We're the slayers. You can't go hunting monsters without us. It's not fair!"

Now Xander knew how Giles had felt when they were younger and Buffy had loudly proclaimed that anything she had to do that she didn't want to do was unfair. It was annoying. No wonder Giles had frowned so much all the time.

"Think about it," he said to Alison but then turned his head so that he could look at each of the slayers as he spoke. "How is it going to look if we turn up with all you girls?"

"Since when are you a chauvinist?" Rona looked like she wanted to call him a much worse word than that.

"Hey, talking of things that aren't fair!" He said, hurt. "But think about it, guys. Alex's Dad was already wary of letting us join them and this is his show. They don't know you're slayers and how do you think the sheriff is going to react to teenage girls trying to join their wolf hunt? At the very least he'll send you all back home again because he thinks it's too dangerous. At the worst he'll send all of us packing because he thinks we're a bunch of amateurs."

Surprisingly Reece backed him up. "Mr. Harris is right and even if the sheriff did agree, we can't risk any of you arousing suspicions by slaying the hellhounds in front of them."

"Thank you!"

"However, Mr. Harris, I don't see how my presence could arouse suspicion, so unless Mr. Giles tells me otherwise I will be joining you."

He'd known it was a trap, okay maybe not really a trap, but definitely a hoodwink. He wasn't sure how to respond either. He didn't want Reece coming because, well, A) he didn't like him, but also because he didn't want the boy being a part of what he was now thinking of as his and Giles' time. But how could he say that without actually telling the truth?

"Reece, the sheriff isn't going to take us seriously if we turn up with a minor either," Xander congratulated himself, that was honest without being too offensive.

Reece wasn't offended, but he wasn't backing down either. "I'm eighteen, nearly nineteen, and Jimmy the electrician is going and he's only seventeen."

"Yeah, but . . ."

"And I think you have to agree I have more knowledge of what we might face than any of the older men do."

"Book knowledge, sure, but . . ."

"And I've been out in the field a lot more than you have recently, so I think if either of us should stay at home with the girls . . ."

Okay, that was the last straw! Xander was restless and nervous, he wanted a beer that he knew he shouldn't have and on top of that, Reece just really pissed him off even when he wasn't being an ass.

"Kid, I have slayed more than my fair share of demons! Just because you think you're the big shot Watcher around here now doesn't mean you know a thing about being out there and getting the job done. I've known big-shot Watchers; they usually end up dead or working for a vampire."

"I get what your problem is now . . . you're jealous of me," Reece sneered at him. "You desperately want to be a Watcher, but you know in Rupert's eyes you'll never be more than a handy man."

"Reece!" Dawn snapped, half angry, half worried.

Xander didn't have an answer. All he desperately wanted right now was to beat the boy to a pulp but that wasn't him, it was his dad talking and he'd spent years tuning that voice out.

"Maybe you're right," he said eventually, a little smile on his lips. "But you're still not coming."

"Perhaps we should let someone with an ounce of authority decide that." Reece looked up at the door to the living room. "Mr. Giles?"

Xander turned quickly in his chair to see the doorway, half expecting it to be a fake out, but no, Giles was there.

"I assume we've been granted permission to join the hunt?" he said as he walked into the kitchen to make some tea.

"Uh huh, we have to meet them at six tomorrow morning."

"That's good. A little early for me, but we'll make do."

"Mr. Giles," Reece began. "I see no reason why I shouldn't join you tomorrow."

"Really?" Giles turned to him with a deadly smile, "Because I heard several reasons in the two minutes I was standing on the other side of that door."

Reece stood up, "But sir . . .!"

"You won't be joining us, Reece, and as someone with several ounces of authority that is my final decision on the matter. However," and now he turned to Xander and his expression was still deadly-ish. "Robin, Andrew and Craig will be joining us. I trust you're okay with that?"

"Sure, if you think it's a good idea." The victory over Reece was worth giving ground on his Butch and Sundance time. He had to ask though, "But Andrew . . . really?"

Giles' smile turned teasing, "If all else fails we can always use him for bait."

"Uncle Rubear!" Naomi said, shocked.

Xander just had to laugh.

They'd passed several large cabins before reaching their own so Buffy was surprised by how small it was. Not that it didn't look inviting but she distinctly remembered the words 'lap of luxury' being mentioned and this was more like . . . a pocket of luxury. The squat timber cabin was nestled in the edge of the forest, its sloping roof blanketed thickly in white. Sweet-smelling wood smoke pouring from its chimney, the smoke pale against the clear, dark sky. It was, well, quaint was the only suitable word she could think of, but after seeing some of the other cabins, Buffy had been expecting a wooden palace, not a homely woodcutter's cottage.

Faith was obviously thinking along the same lines. "Didn't Giles pay . . ." Buffy nudged her as subtly as she could in front of the other people. "I mean, didn't I pay an arm and leg to stay here? How come we get this titchy little hut?"

"These are the couples cabins," their guide - another man dressed as an elf - informed them. "They're not as big as the family cabins obviously but you do get more privacy out here for doing couple-type things." He winked and leered at Faith, who couldn't be bothered to play along this time, before handing her an information pack and ambling off with the rest of his group of guests. He called back over his shoulder as he remembered something else. "Oh, plus you get the hot tubs. Dinner's at nine."

"Okay." Faith gave a slow nod. "Hot tub could be a fair trade off on size."

Buffy tempered her own excitement at the thought of a hot tub. While it sounded like the best thing in the world right now when she was cold and tired, she wasn't sure sharing it with Faith was a sane idea. Maybe they could take turns or something. Work out a hot tub schedule so they didn't need to be in it at the same time.

"Let's just take a look inside, shall we?"

She slipped the key into the front door lock and let them in. The first thing that hit her was the glorious warmth. The fire blazing in the stone fireplace heated every inch of the room until Buffy felt like she had stepped out of winter and into a summer's day. The second thing to hit her was just how small it actually was inside. It wasn't even a proper pocket of luxury; it was the tiny little pocket you got on jeans that was just big enough to stick your thumb in.

Buffy glanced nervously from the bed to Faith, who was also looking at the big king-sized bed, although less nervously. It was hardly surprising that was the focus of their attention, it was pretty much the only thing in the room to focus on.

"The quilt is very, uh, festive, don't you think?" Buffy said, referring to the intricately embroidered snowmen to break the awkward silence.

Faith ignored that and smirked. "Tight quarters, should get interesting." She closed the front door behind her. "Maybe it's just as well we're miles from everyone else."

"Sharing a bed doesn't automatically mean we have to have sex."

"Hell, if anyone's taught me that, B, it's you. I just meant we won't break our cover if no one can hear us yelling and bitching at each other."

"Oh, you're right. That's good." She looked quickly to Faith again. "Not that I want to yell and bitch."

Faith smiled at her, "I know." And then the smile dropped as she crossed the room. "You just can't help yourself."

"Well, no, I agree it's difficult . . . when you're being such an ass!" she snapped. Lifting her suitcase onto the bed she unzipped it. "I'm taking the right side."

"Well then it's gonna get real interesting, 'cause so am I."

"You can't!"

"Wanna bet?"

"We can't both sleep on the same side!"

"Then you might wanna sleep on the left."

There were three doors on the other side of the room; Faith tried each of them in turn, finding the ensuite bathroom first.

"But I called dibs on the right side."

"We're in the wilderness now, B, and there ain't no dibs in the wilderness. There's just the law of the wild. This is where Want Take Have really means something. I want the right side of the bed; I'm taking it unless you can stop me. Same goes for everything else too, especially food so watch your plate at dinner."

The middle door was a walk-in closet. Faith gave the inside a look over and then threw her bag in and closed the door again.

"You come near my food and I'm stabbing your hand with a fork and we're hardly in the Wild West, we're staying in a $400 a night resort. And aren't you going to unpack and put your clothes away?" she added, exasperated.

"I just did put my clothes away."

"I meant properly!"

"I'll do it later." Faith opened the third door. "Score!"

As Faith left through the door Buffy had to leave her clothes half-unpacked and check out what had her so excited. When she saw, despite how annoying Faith was being, she couldn't help but grin herself. The cabin had a back porch which was enclosed up to shoulder-height but open to the cold night air above that until a low sloping roof kept the snow from coming inside. Faith had found a button that not only turned on the electric lights overhead but also activated the outdoor heaters set into the roof and the wooden walls and even one under the boarding if Buffy's suddenly toasty toes were anything to go by. And in the middle of it all, half-sunk into the wooden planks of the floor was the hot tub. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen! And almost big enough for her to swim laps in.

There was a sound of another switch being flicked and then the motor under the tub started with a hardly noticeable thrum. Bubbles began to appear on the surface of the water and in next to no time it began to steam gently in the cool air.

Buffy turned to Faith, about to mention her idea on hot tub schedules, only to see that Faith was already down to her underwear and not slowing down. Okay, that was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

Faith took off her bra and flung it on to one of the wooden benches with the rest of her clothes and then stared at her defiantly. Buffy only noticed the defiance when she looked up high enough again to meet her eyes and then, realizing she was busted, looked away sharply. Even as she was doing so she wondered why and with another jerk of her head faced Faith again. She tried to look defiant too but she knew her smirk was ruining it.

Faith didn't seem to know what to do now that she'd lost the shock-factor she'd been aiming for. "Uh, I was gonna try it out."

"I figured as much."

"You got a problem with me going in naked?" she asked, raising an eyebrow, daring her to say yes.

Buffy saw no reason to argue, no reason at all. "Nope."

"Oh. Good then." Faith pushed her panties off and stepped out of them.

Buffy didn't let her eyes wander down but she couldn't stop smirking at her either, letting both of them know she wanted to. It wasn't a surprise to her; she might not have been ready to have sex yet but she was more than happy to see Faith naked again in this harmless way - it had been way too long.

Faith apparently was surprised by it though. "You're looking at me like you want something, B."

"I do want something."

"Let me guess, you want me to put my clothes back on?"

"Damn, you stole my punch line!" Buffy chuckled.

Looking pissed off and disappointed, Faith turned away from her and climbed into the hot tub. Buffy took the opportunity to check out her butt and suddenly the air around her felt more tropical than wintery as she warmed up from the inside-out. She smiled secretly, savoring the desire. At least, even if all else was failing them, that was still as strong as ever. It also reminded her why she didn't make a habit of seeing Faith naked at the moment - it made temptation almost too hard to resist.

Faith sighed deeply with a happy 'ahhh' groany sound as her chilled body sank into the hot water and that was Buffy's cue to move, because any more sounds like that and she'd be vaulting the side fully clothed to be in there with her.

She didn't leave right away though. Faith was sitting with her back to her, trying to ignore her, so she didn't notice when Buffy stepped up to the side. She bent the short distance until her mouth was close to Faith's ear and was speaking before Faith was aware of her being so close.

"I lied. All I really wanted was to stare at you." She leant forward enough to kiss her cheek and then walked inside before Faith could answer.

Back in the room, she felt way too warm to be wearing so many layers, and she didn't think it had much to do with the fire either. She took off her coat but her skin was still burning so she stripped off her sweater too and kicked off her snow boots. What she really wanted now was to go and join Faith in the hot tub but at the same time she wondered how wise her words to Faith had been. They'd been true, God, had they been true, but they were asking for trouble. If she wasn't ready it wasn't fair to say that kind of thing but if she didn't say that kind of thing when she was feeling it wasn't that just as unfair to Faith?

"There's logic in there somewhere," she muttered as went back to her unpacking. "Just wish I knew where exactly."

The only thing she was completely sure of was that she wanted New Years to be here right now so that they could put this temporary break behind them and try and make this thing work again - instead of both being stubborn enough to do the exact opposite.

"In that case you have a weird family," Willow said, "but still way more loving and attentive than mine, so, yay!"

Kennedy smiled as she gestured around. "What would your folks make of this?"

"Well, my Dad probably would have walked out as soon as he realized what it was for. He's not big on the whole 'His only daughter being a lesbian' thing. He wanted me to marry a nice Jewish accountant. And my Mom would be doing ethnographical research."


"You know how when you're a kid you have an ant farm so you can see how they live and act and stuff?"


"Well, imagine that you did and that's how my Mom would be treating this party."

Kennedy grinned, "And you think my parents are weird?"

"I did give them a 'yay'."

"True. So, you ready to . . ."

She'd been about to say ditch but Roxy appeared at her side as if she could read her mind.

"You can't leave!"

"Why not?" she asked.

It wasn't like they usually hung out. When she'd been back the month before, Roxy had still been in school so they'd only seen each other for one day of the weekend. Roxy had been asked to come home and visit - or bribed, Kennedy had thought at the time seeing as her sister obviously hadn't really wanted to be there. She wondered what had changed.

"Because there is no one else cool here! Not that you're ever cool," Roxy added as an afterthought. "And Willow, no offense, but you're obviously not either."

"Um, none taken," Willow said with an offended shrug.

"Hey!" Kennedy snapped on her behalf. "Willow outcool's you by miles. And so do I!"

"That's why you're standing in the corner of your own party, is it?"

"You're standing in it too," Willow pointed out and Kennedy grinned at her.

"That's only because you're the only other people here under thirty!" Roxy complained. "I told Mom I wanted to invite some of my friends but she wouldn't let me. She was worried they'd overshadow your special night - which you know they would - and so . . ."

Kennedy spoke over her rant, "Wait, you knew about this party before today?"

"Of course I did. Mom's been planning it for a week."

"And you didn't think to warn us on the drive from the airport?"

"Warn you?" Roxy looked confused. "Why would I need to warn you about your own . . .?"

Rosie all but ran passed them, grabbing her youngest daughter's arm on the way and sweeping her along in her wake. She looked back over her shoulder with a bright smile and said, "Sorry to interrupt but I need Roxanne's help in the kitchen!"

"Help in the kitchen?" Roxie griped as she was dragged along. "You don't even help in the kitchen!"

Kennedy watched as they had a hushed argument by the kitchen door. She did her best to eavesdrop but there were too many conversations going on around her.

"Do you think that's something bad?" Willow asked.

Kennedy frowned, "Probably." She took Willow's hand and gave it a pull to get her moving. "Come on; let's get out of here before we have to find out."

Faith had spent an awesome half an hour in the hot tub alone - and what she had done in that half hour Buffy never needed to know. It was the blonde's fault anyway, saying that to her and then just walking away. She'd been confused by it at first, and then pissed off because it felt like Buffy was playing with her, but then she thought, what the hell, and let the horny win through.

When she'd finally gotten out, shivering instantly after the heat of the water, she grabbed her clothes and used them to cover her just enough to be decent as she hurried inside. Buffy had been in the bathroom, showering, but she'd left a towel on the bed for her and Faith took her time drying in front of the fire, hoping Buffy would come out, see her nude again and wouldn't walk away this time.

They were both dressed, though, by the time Buffy did come out. Faith didn't say a word about her earlier comment, not wanting the other slayer to know it had bothered her either way. In fact, they barely exchanged more than a few words about how hungry they were before leaving for the dinner in the main hotel.

The three course meal had been amazing and between that and the hot tub she could see Giles' money had been well spent after all. The experience was a little marred by all the kids running around, shouting and screaming as, bored of sitting still, they played among the tables. Faith did her best to ignore them and concentrated on eating.

Buffy seemed enchanted with the little brats and at one point in their mostly silent meal had asked, "Do you want children?"

"I think I'll stick with the beef," she'd replied with her mouth full and Buffy had rolled her eyes and left it at that.

Faith wondered if she'd made another relationship faux-pas by dismissing the subject so flippantly but, honestly, she didn't care. Kids were something happy couples talked about, not ones who could barely look at each other through a two hour meal.

Once dinner was over there was entertainment in the hotel lounge but they'd both decided they didn't want to stay for it. Outside the reception area, both shivering and stamping their feet in the snow, they finally had another conversation.

"We should probably patrol." Buffy didn't sound very happy about it.

"I could certainly use a slay," Faith agreed, "but you sure you remember how?"

"I still patrol, Faith!"

She held her hands up in surrender. "Whatever you say, B."

"And just because I don't do it that often any more doesn't mean I'm going to forget how!"

"Okay! So let's do it." Faith gestured to one of the many pathways leading away from the hotel.

Buffy sighed and didn't move. "There's so much ground to cover. We could be trekking through the snow three miles that way and the . . ." she dropped her voice to a whisper ". . . elves could be three miles in the other direction."

Faith nodded; that was a problem. Snow didn't bother her as much as Buffy, she was used to it growing up in Boston, but it was deep and to do a proper patrol they'd have to leave the beaten track. Wading through knee high snow would take forever!

Then she had a thought! "Wait here."

Back inside reception, she scanned the notice board until she found the list of bonus excursions that Patch had mentioned on the bus. No one was looking so she took the whole list and went back outside to Buffy.

"How do you feel about a husky ride?"

Buffy smiled, her whole face lighting up. "That sounds nice. Maybe we can do it after . . ."

"No, B, there's one that leaves in . . ." she read the list. "It says after dinner so I'm guessing any minute now."

"While I'm over the moon you've finally found your romantic side, we shouldn't really waste time on fun stuff 'til after we've completed the mission."

"What's romance got to do with it? I was thinking we could patrol faster if we had a team of huskies."

"Oh." Buffy's face went back to being carefully blank. "That's a good idea. Where is it?"

Faith shrugged as she checked the list again. "Behind the stable block."

"Which is where?"

"Are you under the impression I've been here before?"

Buffy huffed and crossed her arms. "I thought that paper might tell you."

"It's a list, not a map."

"Fine." There were still people regularly leaving the reception area and now Buffy stopped a family to ask, "Excuse me, do you know where the stable block is?"

The mother smiled at her, "Sure, just head up that path and take a right between the buildings, it's right behind there. Are you doing the husky safari? We did it last night, it's magical."

Buffy nodded as the father chimed in. "And your kids will love it. The elves run along beside the sleigh singing Jingle Bells."

"We don't have any kids," Faith said abruptly. Buffy shot her a look which she ignored.

"Well, I'm sure you'll still enjoy it," the woman didn't sound so friendly now that they couldn't bond over brat stories. "It's worth every penny."

"Thanks," Buffy said to them. "We're definitely going to give it a go." Once they were gone she turned to Faith to hiss, "Why did you have to say that?"

"Tell the truth, you mean?" she asked, perplexed. "I thought that was what you were supposed to do. Did the rules change? Is lying a virtue now?"

Buffy ignored her and took the path alongside the hotel to find the gap they were supposed to walk through.

Faith walked beside her, grumbling quietly. "Just as well we don't have kids in tow. Least they won't get eaten!"

Buffy scoffed at that. "You don't have a kid in tow but I do."

Faith thought about possible comebacks and settled on, "So any chance I'll get eaten tonight?"

Buffy laughed, realized she was laughing and tightened her lips against the remaining smile. "There's a higher chance of me feeding you to a husky."

Faith smirked, "So that's not a 'no chance' then?"

Buffy shook her head, but she was still sort of smiling. "How about we just go back to not speaking?"

They really tried their best to do just that, but it was impossible when they realized the couple they'd met in line earlier was on the ride with them.

"I'm Jan," the woman said cheerfully once they were all seated. "And this is Tim."

Tim gave them a wave which ended up pointing at their son who was sitting on his knee. "And this is Oliver. Olly, say hello."

Oliver declined, which made Faith smile.

"I'm Buffy," Buffy said and then hiked a thumb at her. "That's Faith."

"Nice intro," she muttered, not loud enough to carry to the opposite bench.

Buffy smiled sweetly at her. "Faith's still grumpy, aren't you honey?"

"I'm not grumpy!" Realizing how 'grumpy' that had sounded she rolled her eyes and forced a smile on her face. "I'm not grumpy, but I just ate a big meal. I should be sleeping it off right now, not riding around behind a pack of dogs."

"I know what you mean," Jan said. "I'm exhausted after traveling all day. All I want to do is sleep! But Tim and Olly went on and on about the darn huskies!"

Faith grinned, "So did Buffy. Things you gotta do, huh?"

"Exactly. If I didn't love him . . ." she nodded her head to the side to indicate Tim, ". . . I'd be in my pajamas already."

"You and me both."

"Aww, does that mean you love me, honey?" There was a subtle tone to Buffy's voice that the other two didn't register but Faith did, loud and clear.

"Sure do, sweetie!" Faith hammed it up and wondered if Buffy would still get the resonance of truth in her voice.

She hadn't said the words yet and she didn't know if she would any time soon, but it would be nice if Buffy could understand the message without her having to spell it out.

Apparently not this time. Buffy just gave her a neutral look and said "Aww!" again.

Faith took a chance then - after all they were supposed to be pretending to be a happy, loved up couple - and she leaned over and kissed Buffy full on the mouth. Buffy didn't dare pull away and blow their cover and so she kissed back. There was even like half a second of tongue action.

She only pulled back when she heard Oliver ask his dad, "Why are two girls kissing?"

Tim laughed uncomfortably. "It's okay for two girls to kiss if they love each other, son."

"So does that mean I can kiss boys?"

That was too much for Tim and he coughed up a fake hair ball rather than answer. Jan had to take over.

"It's okay, Olly, but only if you love them and they love you. Do you understand?"

Oliver nodded solemnly and went back to being engrossed in the huskies.

"Sorry, he's at that inquisitive age," she apologized and Faith shrugged to show it was no big deal.

The huskies took off then, jolting them all in their seats, and while the family opposite were adjusting Buffy muttered, "Now you're corrupting little kids?"

"I prefer to think of it as educating," Faith muttered back as they they both turned to face the way they going, glad to have a legitimate reason to put their backs to their 'new friends'.

They were still playing 'Go Fish' and Alison had been engrossed in the game, finding it nice to have some mindless fun for a change, but she'd done badly in the last few rounds and was losing interest.

She couldn't believe she wasn't allowed on the hunt because she was a girl! Considering the sitch that should have been a point in her favor, not against! She'd bet if Buffy, Faith or Kennedy had been around they wouldn't have stood for this. She respected Mr. Giles too much to argue about it, but it still burned. She was a slayer! She had the strength and ability even if she didn't have the experience yet, and how was she supposed to gain the experience if she wasn't given the opportunity to? There was nothing she could do about it though so, sighing irritably, she took another terrible card and moved on.

The phone rang again and Xander got up. "We've never been so popular."

"My Mum usually rings on a Wednesday," Reece said, although he didn't look up from his cards.

"I should call my Dad before Christmas," Craig muttered under his breath.

He and Andrew had joined the game just ten minutes before and had both looked startled to learn what they would be doing first thing in the morning. Yet another reason for her to be pissed off. They didn't even want to go! Okay, Craig had gotten excited about it once it had sunk in but his initial expression had spoken volumes - he was scared! So his place should have been given to someone who wasn't scared, i.e. - her!

Xander held the phone out towards the table. "Alison, it's your Mom."

All the color drained from her face. "What?"

"It's your Mom," he repeated, shaking the phone a little to indicate she should come and take it.

"What does she want?" she muttered as she stood up.

She'd told her parents not to call her here. They only had the number at all because Mr. Giles insisted on every parent having contact details - it was part of the whole posing as a school deal. For a second she wondered if it was an emergency, what if her Dad was sick? Or one of her brothers? It made her move more swiftly around the table, almost snatching the receiver from Xander's hand when she reached him.

"Hello? What's wrong?"

"Nothing dear," her Mom chuckled on the line. "No need to sound so agitated."

"Then why did you call?"

Her Mom sounded hurt by her tone but tried not to show it. "We were just thinking of you and how you haven't called recently."

"I was only home a month ago!" Alison, aware that everyone was watching her curiously, huddled over the counter with the phone pressed tight to her ear. "I can't check in all the time."

"No one's asking you to check in; it would just be nice if you wanted to speak to us. We miss you, Alison."

Over the line she heard her dad say, "Tell her why we're really calling and maybe she'll cheer up."

"Okay . . . Joey won his Under-elevens State Karate championships."

Hearing her little brother's news did cheer Alison up. "That's great news. Tell him I'm proud of him."

"It gets better. His next competition is next month . . ." She really didn't like the way her Mom paused to build the suspense. ". . . in Columbus!" Yep, she'd known she wouldn't like it. "We thought we'd get a flight a few days earlier and . . ."

"You can't stay here!" she said quickly. "We, uh . . . we don't have enough room."

"No, we assumed as much, but we thought we could at least come visit you while we're out that way. Wouldn't that be nice?"

Alison went cold all over. "I'm not sure if it'll be convenient."

"Convenient?" her Dad croaked. "You can't spare a day to see your family?"

"Dad, you know it's not . . . Can I call you later about this?"

Her Dad started to say something but her Mom shushed him and firmly said, "Yes, you can call us back to arrange what day would be best."

"No, I meant . . ."

"Ally, we're already missing spending the holidays with you, please don't begrudge us one little visit."

"But . . ."

"If you won't do it for your Dad and me, at least do it for your brothers. They can't understand why you don't want to spend time with them anymore."

"I do want to spend time with them, it's just . . ."

"That's settled then." Alison sighed, that was her Mom's end-of-discussion tone. "Call us when you can to arrange a date. Love you!"

"You too," she murmured and hung up the phone.

"So what did she want?" Dawn asked eagerly.

Obviously they'd all heard her side of the conversation so there was no point pretending it had been about something else. She turned back to the table but didn't take her seat again.

"My family want to come out and visit me next month."

"That sounds nice," Andrew said.

Miranda chuckled, "Wish my Mom would travel this far north in the winter to visit."

"I'm not sure Mr. Giles will be happy to have my family poking around here."

"He'll deal," Xander promised her. "We can make arrangements. Hide the weapons, put sunglasses and a trench coat on Goorzie."

"Yeah," she agreed, wishing that was all she had to worry about. "I think I'm going to go watch some TV."

She headed for the living room, not noticing how Xander watched her thoughtfully as she left.

Elves were following their sleigh now, light enough to run nimbly across the deep snow, fast enough to keep pace with the huskies. It had started off just one or two but now it was unmistakably a pack.

"There's one," Faith muttered, keeping her voice low so that Jan and Tim wouldn't overhear her unease. "Shit, there's another."

"I know, it's like they're everywhere!" Buffy looked around wildly before hunching close to talk into her ear. "Okay, I have a question: how are we supposed to go and slay when we have these guys watching us?"

Faith didn't know. For some reason she'd expected them to be alone aside from the driver - or whatever you called the dude controlling the huskies - and then it would have been easy to jump over the side without comment. Now that they had spectators - and spectators that knew their names - they couldn't dive into the wilderness without it looking weird.

"Maybe I can say I wanna stop for a cigarette?" she tried.

"By jumping off a sleigh going twenty miles an hour into butt deep snow?"

"You got a better suggestion?" Faith asked, annoyed.

"No, that's why I was asking you in the first place!"

They couldn't argue, not without drawing suspicion, so Faith counted to ten and backed down - not that she'd get any credit for it later. "So we call tonight recon. Let's just try and figure out where the elves are coming from or . . . I don't know, going to. Maybe from that we can learn where they're hanging out and come back tomorrow."

"That's actually a good idea." Faith inwardly seethed at the 'actually'. "I didn't spot any following us until we passed that little building near the ski lift."

Faith hadn't either. "So we can start our search there tomorrow."

She sat back then, or rather stayed sitting forward but relaxed, tracking the elves on her side of the sleigh only so that she could see when they disappeared again. The ride was exhilarating. The freezing wind rushed past her face, invigorating her and making her want to laugh out loud as the husky dogs tore across the snowy fields.

She could tell Buffy was enjoying it too and subtly turned after a while from watching the dog's high tails as they got their mush on to watching Buffy's face. Her cheeks were bright red from the cold and tears were streaming down her cheeks from the wind but she was beaming so fricken hard it must have been painful. She'd never been so beautiful and Faith found the words on her tongue after all.

"I fuckin' love you."

They were softly spoken, whipped away by the wind and lost under the sound of the panting, yapping dogs but Buffy sensed something and turned her head.


Smiling, Faith shook her head, "Nothing, B."

Still beaming, Buffy nodded and turned back to face the way they were going. Faith looked down at the foot of bench between them and then glanced over her shoulder at the happy, cosy family behind them. What the hell, right? Looking back at the huskies, feigning nonchalance, she slid closer and put an arm around Buffy's waist.

Buffy immediately stiffened under her touch and Faith tried not to react in kind. "Cold again?"


It was a moment before Buffy took a chance of her own, relaxing enough to lean comfortably against her.

The sleigh rushed into the woods, drawing 'Oohs' from the couple behind them. Faith could see why, the trees were pretty thick here and it felt like they could crash into one at any moment. It wasn't total darkness though, the route was marked by twinkling white lights wrapping loosely around the firs.

"Ooh, pretty," Buffy coo'ed before adding, "You know, if you don't look at the elves."

Elves had been the last thing on Faith's mind since she'd put her arm around Buffy, but as the huskies whooshed through the trees she noticed the pack had gained numbers on either side of them.

And then the singing started.

She had been expecting them to sing, but she hadn't expected them to be so good at it. Never much of a fan of Christmas songs, they were usually lame, she tilted her head, finding pleasure in every note of this version of Jingle Bells. It was almost hypnotic - which would have worried her more if she wasn't currently being hypnotised by it.

She came out of it in a rush, and so did Buffy, when one of the elves leapt from the trail and jumped onto the sleigh behind them. Spinning around, Faith saw it crouched in front of Oliver, who screamed his head off at the unexpected visitor. A snap kick sent it back up into the air and over the side where it landed in the snow, rolled once and then ran away clutching its chest.

Jan and Tim noticed nothing of the flash of violence as they laughed at their boy's reaction and tried to calm him down. Buffy gave Faith a 'well done' nod for dealing with the situation so swiftly. An hour ago it would have been condescending, but now she was feeling all loved up and with the adrenaline pumping through her, Faith just grinned.

"Silly, bub," Jan was saying as she cuddled Oliver to her. "He was just trying to say hello."

Obviously she hadn't seen the elf's razor sharp teeth up close like her son had!

"Look, he even brought you a present, Olly," Tim picked up a gift-wrapped package that had fallen to the floor of the sleigh.

Panicked, Buffy shouted, "Don't open that!"

Tim, trying to coax Oliver into cheering up with the shiny paper, looked up in alarm. "Why not?"


Faith came to her rescue. "One of the Mom's earlier was talking about prank gifts. Yunno, things that go bang or pop up when you open them. Guess they're supposed to make the kids laugh but with Olly already so freaked . . ."

"Oh." Smiling, Tim held the package like he didn't know what to do with it now. "Thanks for the warning."

"Why don't I open it for you?" Buffy offered. "That way if it . . . goes bang," she said with a look at Faith. "I'll be the only one scared."

Tim handed it over gratefully and Buffy carefully unwrapped the paper. Nothing went bang, nothing did anything in fact, and after a few second of peering into the box she pulled out a small wooden train engine.

"Oh, I guess this wasn't one of the prank ones," Buffy said, obviously feeling stupid. "Do you want me to wrap it back up for him?"

"No, that's fine," Jan said with a smile. "Hey, Oliver, look what Buffy's got for you?"

Oliver turned to Buffy with big, wet eyes but they lit up in excitement at the sight of the toy.

The study was lit only by a desk lamp, giving the small room a cozy, secret-hiding-place feel, which technically it was so that worked out nicely.

Willow was pushed up against the edge of the desk, her butt sorta perched on it but with her toes still touching the carpet, and Kennedy's arms were tight and secure around her lower back, holding her close. They'd been kissing since about eight seconds after Kennedy had twisted the key in the lock and while Willow really wasn't complaining about this, they'd been 'hiding' for a while now and it was getting kinda intense.

Very intense, in fact. Kennedy's hands were sliding, rubbing, squeezing . . .

The sound of sudden braying laughter on the other side of the door jolted Willow from the moment, reminding her that there was a whole party going on just the other side of it.

"Gah-air-air," she spluttered, hands switching from resting on her girlfriend's shoulders to pushing at them.

Worried by her reaction, Kennedy moved backwards. "What's wrong?"

"Feeble human here!" she joked. "I need a more regular intake of oxygen than you."

"My lips were suffocating you?"

Willow grinned, "Yeah, but not in a bad way. Just in an 'I was about to die' way."

Kennedy regarded her dubiously in the soft light. "So you couldn't breathe that whole time?" She glanced at the clock on the wall. "I don't think that makes you feeble, baby. In fact being able to hold your breath for nearly a half hour actually makes you pretty amazing."

Willow's grin turned sheepish. "Not buying the lack of oxygen excuse, huh?"

"Not so much."

"Would you buy the 'I'm not real comfortable having sex on your Dad's desk' excuse?"

"What?" Kennedy stepped back even further, breaking all contact. "I'm not comfortable with that either!"

"But you were . . ." she pointed at her own butt. ". . . with the touch-y."

"You can't blame me for that. You try being me and not touching your ass when you get the chance. Can't be done. But I wasn't going to . . . to . . ." Kennedy grimaced. ". . . defile you or the desk like that, Will."

"That's a relief. I thought we were entering dangerous psych. territory for a second there."

Kennedy wrapped her arms around her once more. "Do I look like a girl with daddy issues?"

"No, you're more of a mommy issue girl . . ." Kennedy's eyebrow twitched upwards, Willow backtracked, "Not that that's even an issue, at least not a relevant one, so . . . we were kissing?"

"Sure you want to risk it? I might throw you across my Step-Dad's leather chair and have my wicked way with you."

"For the record, the 'wicked way' part I'm good with, it's just the location that's skeeving me out."

Kennedy laughed, "So the car in a busy parking lot is fine but a locked study isn't just because it has a few pictures of my father on the walls?"

"Exactly. Plus the car windows were all steamed up."

Kennedy smiled at her, the love in her eyes so real and pure and strong it made Willow feel giddy with emotion. Willow didn't know why she'd spent so long trying to fight, ignore and deny this feeling, but she was glad that she'd had the sense to stop now.

"I'm not going to jump your bones in an office, Willow," Kennedy softly kissed her lips. "Not when we have my nice big bed upstairs just waiting for us, where we can take our clothes off. . ." Fingers flirted under the hem at the front of her shirt making Willow giggle and feel giddy for a whole 'nother reason. ". . . and take our time. We've wasted too much of that already and I never want to rush being close to you again."

"Me neither," Willow murmured, and kissed her, trying to convey as much emotion with her lips as Kennedy had with her eyes.

The fire was still burning strong when they rushed into the cabin, eager for warmth after so long in the cold. They stood in front of it together, soaking up the heat but not speaking, because they both knew what came next.

Eventually Buffy had to break the silence. "So, we should go to bed. Breakfast is at seven."

"Yeah." Faith fidgeted, holding her hands up to the flames and then rubbing them together. "Or we could have a drink first, like a night cap."

They each looked around the cabin but there was no alcohol in evidence.

Buffy sighed, "Guess that option's out."

Faith perked up hopefully as an idea came to her. "We could go to the bar? First round's on me."

Buffy thought about it, a drink or two would help her relax, but then again getting tipsy before she - gulp - shared a bed with Faith probably wasn't a good idea. Sure they'd shared a bed before, for a whole week in fact when Faith had first arrived in Boudenver, but things were just so much more strained between them now. Even being alone together in the room felt awkward.

"Actually, I'm feeling pretty sleepy. I think I might have jetlag."

Faith's laughter was warm, relaxing her some, "We're only ten miles away from home, B."

"I know, but there was all that flying to get here." Silence fell for a minute until Buffy nodded decisively. "I'm going to get into my pajamas."


Buffy grabbed them and went into the bathroom to change. While she was brushing her teeth she tried not to think about lying next to Faith all night but naturally that's all she could think of. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. She really was tired; with any luck she'd fall asleep immediately. Or, she could end up lying there all night, totally awake and aware of Faith's every breath.

In the main room Faith was still standing by the fire but she'd turned to stare at the bed like it might attack her if she got to close. At least Buffy wasn't the only one nervous about it. It also gave her the opportunity to win the 'side of the bed' competition and she rushed around to the right side and scrambled beneath the heavy covers before pulling them up to her chin.

"Ha! Looks like you get stuck with the left side after all."

"Don't bet on it." Faith smirked at her.

Buffy braced herself to be physically ousted from her position but when Faith moved it was only to pull her jacket back on.

Disappointed, she asked, "Are you going for a cigarette?"

"Nah, gonna head to the bar for a few."

"Without me?"

"I did ask you to come," Faith reminded her irritably.

Buffy pushed the covers down and sat up. "Yes, but . . ."

She'd assumed that Faith was just as nervous-excited about sharing the bed together as she was, but now it turned out that Faith just couldn't wait to get away from her and the difficult situation. It didn't feel right to ask her to stay though, not when they were on a relationship time-out and the only thing she could offer was more awkwardness.

". . . It might not look very good if you're there without me." That was a good; it walked the fine line between the truth and a lie nicely. Unfortunately Faith didn't appreciate her genius.

"If anyone asks where you are I'll use your jetlag line. Say you're out for the count and I couldn't sleep or something."

They'd left their boots by the door and Faith slipped hers and bent to do up the laces. Buffy stared at the top of her head, trying to come up with another reason why Faith shouldn't leave.

"It might even be useful," Faith said without looking up. "I might overhear something about the elves."

"That's a long shot."

"Well, I'll get some of the staff talking then."

"Don't flirt!" Buffy said more abruptly than she meant to.

"I'm not an idiot!" Faith snapped back as she straightened up. "Far as they're concerned I'll be your doting girlfriend. Happy?"

Their cover had been the last thing on her mind just then but she nodded anyway. "Okay."

"See ya later then." Faith turned in the doorway. "And when I get back, you better believe that side's mine!" With a wink she left the cabin.

Buffy smiled once she was gone and settled down beneath the covers. The bed was so cozy and warm. Yawning, she made up her mind to stay awake until Faith got back, because there was no way she was losing her comfy spot without a fight.

Santa looked around the Grotto with satisfaction. It was one of the nicer ones he'd stayed in this year. Eventually they all started to smell like the piss of small children of course and he hated that smell. The last place had stunk of it before he'd even arrived. The manager should have changed the name from Santa's Ski Resort to Santa's Last Resort, because he wouldn't be going there again next year unless he was particularly hungry en route to somewhere more appealing.

People just did not know how to treat the old gods anymore. He missed the days when he could just climb down a chimney to eat.

This one was perfect though. Both rustic and cosy, and at least half a mile from the center of the resort. That was rare these days. At some point in the last half a century most managers had exchanged realism for convenience. He had been to one last year that had simply used a conference room decked out in tinsel and fairy lights! He hadn't been able to eat once during his stay. How were children suppose to believe in the magic of Christmas if they only had to walk down a corridor or across a courtyard to experience it?

"Are the reindeer settled?" he asked Innoki.

"Yes, sire. They have been fed and watered. The stable block is quite comfortable, although they are not very happy about sharing."

"I am not surprised; they are magical creatures in the presence of common mutts and deer-shaped donkeys." Sitting down in the red velvet armchair provided, he wriggled his voluptuous backside around as he evaluated its comfort level. "Now, the feast is almost upon us. Have you begun the preparations?"

"Yes, sire, the scouts are already out."

"And they all have a copy of the list?"

"They do, sire. By this time tomorrow they will have singled out all of the good children."

"Then thank Goodness. It irks me, Innoki, to be around these base, unmagical humans. I wish to be back in hibernation as soon as possible."

Trying hard to keep a bright smile on her face, Willow looked around the lavishly decorated room. It was still full of guests. She'd told Kennedy they should mingle, because that was what you were supposed to do at parties. Kennedy had reluctantly agreed, failing to pick up on the fact that Willow thought they should mingle together. Now her girlfriend was on the other side of the room talking to people she knew, and she was on this side of the room not talking to people she didn't know.

She was actually okay with the not talking, although she was wishing more and more that Buffy and Xander were with her so she didn't look like a complete loser. As she was wondering if she should move about a bit so that she at least gave the impression of active mingling, a wave caught her eye.

Roxy was sitting on an antique wooden cocktail trolley against the far wall and she didn't un-slouch or look less bored as Willow approached.

"So, you enjoying your party?"

"It's nice." Willow glanced around again; it didn't look any less full of strangers from this angle. "A little unexpected."

"Yeah, sorry." Roxy didn't particularly look it. "I know Ken thinks I kept quiet deliberately but I seriously figured you'd have received some kind of polite notice of it, or at least a copy of the invite."

Willow shook her head.

Roxy picked a breadstick up from a plate of them by her thigh and gestured with it. "It's typical of Mom, though. Spending all this on a surprise party for Ken. Do you know she wouldn't even get me a limo for the Winter Formal?"

"I think you mentioned it."

"And do you know what Dad's reaction to me mutilating myself was?" Sighing melodramatically, Roxy grabbed a handful of her dyed hair and pulled it around until she could see it. "'It's very pretty, sweetheart; blonde suits you.'"

"Well maybe be was just saying that," Willow offered sympathetically.

Roxy looked up, dark eyes flashing just like Kennedy's when she was angry, "You don't think my hair looks nice?"

"No, no, I do, it does, it's just . . ."

"You don't think it's enough?" Roxy guessed, stabbing the breadstick in Willow's direction. "Do you think I should cut it too? Or shave it off?"

"Are you sure you want to shave your head over a limo?" Willow grinned, "You might want to save some of that teenage rebellion for, you know, if you get grounded over grades or something."

"Are you saying I'm too stupid to get good grades?"

"Oh, Hecate," Willow gulped, wishing she could call on the Goddess for real to get her out of this conversation. "I didn't mean that you were stupid . . ."

"Chill, Willow, I'm just playing with you. Little sister's privilege, right? Gotta test out the new family member. Like I'd ever shave my head." She finally bit into her breadstick with a crunch and looked around as she chewed.

Willow chuckled nervously, "Heh, playing with me, that was fun, um, new family member?"

"Can you believe this though? Seriously. I bet you guys only wanted something small too, right? Fancy cocktail parties have never been Ken's thing but no expense can be spared when the prodigal daughter finally returns. I think it's a saving face thing. Mom and Dad were hella embarrassed when she just ran off like that without a word. I mean, sure Chuck had just died, but still . . ."


Roxy eyed her suspiciously for the first time. "She never told you about Chuck, her tutor? I thought you two were supposed to be as serious as it gets?"

"How serious is as serious as it gets . . ." Then it dawned on Willow who she was talking about. "Oh, you mean Charles her Wa . . . tor . . ."


"No, not whator, tutor. I said tutor."

"Whatever." Roxy rolled her eyes. "Anyway, it was just a few days after he was stabbed in that mugging that Ken took off."

"Right," Willow nodded uncomfortably. "I think she just needed some time."

"But a year? She wouldn't even give them a number to call until August."

That was because they hadn't really had a number until they'd arrived in Boudenver. Nobody had been allowed to give out Buffy's number towards the end and then they'd been moving around all summer. She couldn't explain that to Roxy though.

"Mom was worried stupid and guess who she took it out on?" Roxy grimaced and took another chunk from the breadstick before going on. "And it really didn't help when everyone kept asking where she'd disappeared to. Telling people she went off to 'find herself' pretty much adds up to 'turned her back on her family and everything they've done for her' around here."


"Yeah, plenty of these lovely people you've been meeting tonight . . ." With a sneer she waved the half of breadstick around at the guests. ". . . have disowned their kids for less."

Willow frowned, "Really?"

"For sure. But you fixed that."

"I did?"

"Oh yeah. Soon as Mom learned you were coming for the holidays she was able to switch the story. Kennedy went from being the runaway to the golden child in three seconds flat - all grown up and settled down. Just what Mommy always wanted and everyone here expects of their firstborn."

Willow knew from her Mom's comfortably middle class lectures that high society was traditional but it was hard imagining a Kennedy-shaped peg fitting into such a stifling hole as the one Roxy was describing.

"But we're not settled down. We only just got back together a few weeks ago."

"Yeah but you're on your way now right?"

"We are?"

"Duh, why else would Mom have thrown you this party?"

Willow was about to ask exactly that when Roxy hopped off of the cocktail trolley.

"Breadsticks are really dry. I'm gonna try and boost some champagne."

She'd walked off before Willow could get her question out.

The hotel bar was even more exclusive than the restaurant. Everyone was sitting in the plush armchairs around one of the three fireplaces or at the tables in the bay window nooks. They all seemed to have changed into the best clothes for the evening and Faith was still dressed in the jeans and sweater she'd been wearing all day.

Many of the couples looked up as she entered, as if she'd brought a cold draught or a bad smell in with her. Those that caught her eye smiled politely before going back to their private conversations. Buffy had been right, more right than she knew actually; not only was it obvious to the other guests she'd come in alone, she stuck out like a sore thumb thanks to her clothes too.

She should have just stayed in the room with Buffy; hard as it was to believe, it would have been less uncomfortable than this.

She took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer.

"Would you like to choose a table, Madam? We'll bring it right over to you."

"Madam?" She smirked in disbelief. "Nah, I'm fine right here thanks."

That threw the young barman and his mouth hung open for a moment before he snapped it shut with a shake of his head. "As you wish." He turned to a fancy bottle cooler behind him and then placed a Bud Light in front of her.

She gave it a look, and then him the same one as she said, "I'm not driving."

"Excuse me?"

She gestured at the bottle. "I asked for a beer, not alcohol flavored soda."

It took a minute but as comprehension dawned on him it also dawned on Faith that she shouldn't be making a fuss about the beer, it was just drawing attention. Then again, she'd done that just by walking in, so she might as well at least try and get a decent buzz out of a bad situation if she could.

The barman, by this point very bemused, removed the Bud Lite and put a regular Budweiser in its place, along with a glass, which he sort of nodded at with his chin as she went to take a sip straight from the neck of the bottle.

Sighing, she was a good little girl and poured half the beer into it. "It's just more glass cleaning for you, dude."

His lips twitched in a little smirk, but it didn't show in his voice as he said, "Enjoy your drink, Madam, and if you need anything else don't hesitate to holler, genteelly of course."

He gave her the ghost of a wink and then left to pour drinks at the other end of the long bar. Faith followed him with her eyes, smiling appreciatively at his ass as he bent to a low shelf. Her smile grew as he straightened up and caught her gaze but she only let the eye contact last for a second or two before turning away.

No flirting, Buffy had made that clear, but Faith had a mission. She couldn't go back to the cabin with no new information, and you had to give a guy a reason to grease his palm if you wanted to get anything out of him.

She made her beer last twenty minutes, keeping her back to the room but straining her sensitive hearing to catch shards from every conversation she could. No one seemed to be talking about killer elves but thankfully she didn't hear anyone talking about the lone chick at the bar either.

She caught the barman's eye a few times, accidentally on purpose, and then deliberately on purpose when her drink was gone. She tapped the side of her empty bottle and he came over at once, bringing a fresh bottle and glass with him.

"So are you enjoying your stay so far?"

"Can't complain." She leaned back on her stool, stretching her arms above her head, and watched his eyes stray downwards before springing back up to her face. "Pissed my girlfriend fell asleep so early though."

His eyes shaded with disappointment until he blinked them clear. "Oh, that's right, you're the lesbians in cabin seventeen."

She laughed, "Blunt; I like it. And bi, actually."

His cheeks reddened. "I didn't mean to be impertinent."

She shrugged, "Didn't know you were. So. . ." she read his shiny name-tag ". . . Greg, the bars where I come from are usually a little more lively than this. Did someone die or something?"

"No, why?" He looked to his left and right and then leaned on the edge of the bar, getting closer to her. "Did you hear something?"

"No," she said slowly, leaning closer too. "Did you?

He held her gaze and the moment filled with suspense before his eyes flicked away over her shoulder and something about his countenance changed. He stood back, grinning guilelessly.

"Sorry, we had a murder mystery weekend a few weeks ago. It's hard to get the role-playing out of your system sometimes."

He left to fill another drinks order and as soon as he'd stepped away Faith turned in her seat to look behind her. A manager-type was standing just inside the door, frowning at Greg. Suddenly his gaze was on Faith, but rather than be perturbed that she was staring at him, he just smiled and stepped back through the door.

Faith turned back to her fresh drink. It was impossible to tell what had just happened - maybe none of the staff were supposed to get to chatty with the guests or maybe Greg was a known slacker and the managers always kept an eye on him. Or maybe the manager knew who she was, and what she was doing here, and was warning Greg not to talk to her. Or it could have been a dozen other reasons.

Greg hadn't sounded like he was role-playing though - not that she knew him well enough to know that. So now her mission was pretty clear, she'd have to get to know him better to figure this shit out.

'Sorry, B, hope you're not waiting up,' she thought as she finished her glass quickly and signaled him for another drink.

The game of Go Fish had broken up once the Slayers had left for patrol. It was Rona's night off though, so Reece didn't have to leave the warmth of the house. Normally he went anyway, for the experience and because there were limited Watchers to go with the inexperienced girls, but with Robin in residence this week he was happy to relinquish the duty for once.

Robin wasn't an official Watcher, of course, but Reece had seen him train and had to admit, for now at least, the black man would be far more adept in a physical confrontation - if it ever came to that around here - than he.

Dawn was ecstatic to have him around for the whole evening and it was hard not to love the attention the young Summers' lavished on him. It would, of course, be much better if Harris hadn't stayed in the kitchen with them but the pointed look Reece had given him half an hour ago had only reinforced the man's insistence that he stay in the room.

Dawn was forbidden to go into the boys' dormitory at night - something she reluctantly abided by because it kept her sister off of her back the rest of the time - and he could only imagine the wrath he would bring down on his head if he ever entered her room after dark. He thought about suggesting they go and watch telly in the living room but he knew Naomi and Rona were with Mr. Giles in his office, researching, and the door was probably open, and it would be even worse snogging Dawn in front of the senior Watcher than it would be in front of Harris.

So they made do with playing footsy under the table while they played round after round of Snap with Andrew and Craig, and Xander read the paper at the other end of the table, sipping on a beer.

"Any of you know anything about sports?" he suddenly asked as he stared down at the small newsprint on one of the back pages.

"Football, rugby, cricket or tennis?" Reece asked, not looking at him.

"Hockey," Xander clarified.

"I played hockey in school," Craig piped up.

Reece sneered at him, "Are you soft? That's a girl's game! Wait, I forgot who I was talking to."

The animosity between them had dulled since they'd been forced to live together but it would never truly die.

"Get a hockey stick around your ankles and then tell me it's soft," Craig sniped back.

"I think Xander means Ice Hockey anyway," Dawn said diplomatically.

She played the pacifier between them a lot, he'd noticed. So did Andrew, but to a lesser extent because he knew the boy didn't like him much and so tended to take Craig's side even when he was trying to be the voice of reason. The four of them often hung out together now because Dawn genuinely seemed to like Craig, much to Reece's puzzlement.

In the beginning he'd assumed it was for Andrew's sake, because the two of them had been friends since they'd left their hometown in rubble, but the more time they all spent together the more obvious it became that Dawn and Craig had clicked on some level. In fact, with the exception of Buffy - who still kept a distance between herself and Craig - and Faith - who barely seemed to notice any of them were there unless she actually had to talk to them - everyone at the camp had taken to Craig. Reece couldn't understand it; the lad was a twat after all. And in contrast hardly any of them seemed to have the time of day for him.

He wasn't an idiot; he knew he could be an arsehole sometimes. And he understood why Buffy didn't much care for him - he was shagging, or trying to at any rate, her little sister. And he could see why Giles was hard on him - none of the Masters at the Academy would have let him get away with the stunt he'd tried to pull earlier either. And, well, Harris - there was as much mutual animosity between them ever since the man had gripped him up against the wall in the dorm as there was between he and Craig. Everyone else, though? Oh, Kennedy and Rona both gave him a certain amount of grudging respect since Halloween but it wasn't on a personal level.

He'd always been the popular one, at primary school and at the Academy, and he wasn't quite sure why that had changed so drastically since he'd moved to the States. It was hardly any wonder he basked in Dawn's attention, was it?

The phone rang, jolting his attention back into the conversation.

"I know they play it on ice," Andrew was saying unhelpfully.

"Now who's calling?" Dawn asked, checking her watch. "It's nearly ten."

"Might be Buff calling to check in," Xander said as he rose from the table.

"She hasn't done that yet?" Now Dawn sounded worried. "But they've been gone hours. What if something . . .?"

Reece reached across the table and took her hand. "They're at a five star resort, remember? They were probably having fun and forgot the time."

He felt Dawn relax through the contact of their hands and then she smiled at him. "I guess. Thanks. I just worry about her, I know it's stupid."

"It's not stupid. It's nice that you care so much about your sister, but you know she can take care of herself." He gave her his most reassuring smile and, as her eyes lit up playfully, knew the seductive undertones of it were just a bonus. "Besides, she has Faith with her. They'll be fine together."

"Thanks," she said again, rubbing her socked foot up to his shin. "What would I do without you?"

"Can I ask who's calling?" Xander said into the phone.

"Um, Buffy and Faith together might be fine from the Hellhounds," Andrew said. "But are we sure they're safe from each other?"

"Yeah, I saw them at breakfast," Craig mock-shivered. "Not a happy couple."

Dawn looked worried all over once more, "What if Faith was just waiting to get her all alone to try and kill her again?"

Inwardly cursing Craig and Andrew, Reece squeezed her hand. "They'll be fine. They like each other too much to do anything like that. It's just relationship drama . . ."

"Reece, it's for you." Xander held the phone out to him. "Some girl called Patricia."

Reece froze, and then cursed himself for freezing because Dawn detected it through their joined hands.

At first, she just asked curiously, "Who's Patricia?"

His mouth opened but he didn't have a ready excuse. He closed it, swallowed, and then tried again, but by that time Dawn's grip had already stiffened around his own.


The bar had closed for the night ten minutes before but rather than heading back to cabin seventeen, Faith walked beside Greg towards the rear of the hotel for some after hours entertainment. The ground here had been cleared of snow and their footsteps rang out sharply in the freezing air as they crossed a courtyard to the entrance of a narrow alley that was lit only by the overlooking shade-less windows of the kitchen. The alley smelled like dirty water and food scraps and the rumbling of a heavy duty dishwasher could be heard along with the metallic clinking of cutlery being cleared away.

Faith hadn't been counting the number of beers she'd had. After realizing that she'd have to get Greg away from work to learn anything useful, she'd decided to stick around until his shift was over but having no one to talk to had left her with nothing to do but drink and think about the situation with Buffy. Wanting to avoid the thinking as much as possible had left her drinking a lot faster than usual but the number of empty bottles she'd racked up hadn't been high enough to dull her sense of smell or her wits. She tensed as they entered the dark space, one fist curling and creeping up her body in case she needed it fast. She wasn't really considering Greg a threat, but she'd been asking a lot of questions back at the bar and she knew her brand of snooping lacked subtlety sometimes.

Besides, dark alley, way too charming to be real guy . . . if he had plans to try and take this play-date to a place she didn't want to go she might need her fist anyway to discourage him.

The low, steady drone of sound became thumping and irregular. At first Faith thought a nickel had wound up in the dishwasher but a few steps more distinguished it as a heavy bass line coming from the other end of the alley. Up ahead a door opened, a departing employee (non-elf) was silhouetted within the sudden rectangle of light and a surge of loud rap music escaped into the night before the door closed again.

Faith relaxed, chuckling, and gestured ahead of them, "Why am I getting a serious Dirty Dancing vibe right now?"

"Well, you said you wanted some fun." Greg turned to shoot her a wink as he reached to open the door for her. "Don't tell me you don't dance?"

Faith smirked at him and nodded for him to go in first. Their walk had been a short one but the air was icy enough to take your breath away. The blast of heat and smoke as she walked through the door took it away all over again.

She took a look around with a sarcastic smirk, "Nice."

"Hey, what did you expect?" he bumped her shoulder with his arm. "We don't get the five star treatment, we just work here."

The staff room was a cabin but it didn't look anything like the one she was sharing with Buffy. There were a half dozen cafeteria tables with plastic chairs around each and two scruffy red and grey striped couches were positioned around an eighteen inch television screen in the corner. The TV was on; tuned to Beverly Hills Cop and Eddie Murphy's mouth was moving a thousand miles a minute. Eminem on the stereo drowned out the dialogue with his own. There was no dirty dancing going on but the space was crowded with people drinking, smoking and having fun. Despite her sarcasm, Faith felt at home.

There was a card game in session at one of the tables and Greg introduced her to the guys and girls playing with a, "Hey, this is Faith."

Everyone looked up to say 'Hey'.

One of the guys, drunker than her, stood up to shake her hand and then peered at her more closely. "Hey, it's the lezzer! Gotta tell ya, your girlfriend's hot!"

Faith's smirk tightened as she stepped back in mock indignation, pointing to herself. "Hotter than me?"

He looked her up and down, slowly enough that she almost punched him for needing so long to think about it, but when he met her eyes again he was grinning. "I'd say you were a good match."

"We like to think so," she lied then took his seat at the table. "So what are we playing here?"

Kennedy waved goodbye to some more guests at the front door, promising to visit them before she went back to Cleveland, before going in search of her girlfriend.

Willow was saying goodbye to guests herself, all cheerful and awkward as they wished her a Merry Christmas and a pleasant stay, inviting her over for cocoa and promising that 'so-and-so' would love to meet her. Willow wished them all a Happy Hanukkah but ummed and ahhed nervously over the invitations.

Kennedy hung back, just enjoying watching her. Once Willow was alone, she wandered up behind her, circling her waist with her arms and resting her chin on the taller woman's shoulder.

"You could have come over and saved me, you know?"

"One day this is all going to be mine," Kennedy raised a hand to wave at the house and the remaining guests. "So you need to get used to being the Belle of the Ball."

"Won't Roxy get half?"

"She can fight me for it." She nuzzled Willow's neck. "We know who'll win. So, you ready to go upstairs?"

"Wouldn't that be rude?"

There were still guests in the room, showing no signs of being ready to leave, but it was late and Kennedy knew that soon all the men would disappear into the other lounge with her Step-Dad to drink scotch and talk business and the women would wind up in the kitchen with her Mom and a bottle or two of wine, bitching about the men. There was no reason for them to stick around.

She said as much to Willow, who seemed more than ready to give in afterwards. Kennedy took her hand to lead her into the foyer and they both called goodnight to Roxy who was sitting in an arm chair with a can of coke and a bowl of chips. She was sulking, Kennedy could tell by the roll of her eyes as she said goodnight back. She didn't know why, but then Roxy could sulk about grass being green if she was in that kind of mood, and right now Kennedy didn't care. All she wanted to do was be alone with Willow. Since they'd pulled their relationship up by the bootstraps in that parking lot, all she ever wanted to do was be alone with Willow and she couldn't see how that could be a bad thing. They were in love now, and not only did they both know it, for the first time since they'd met they were both happy to go with it.

The last year had been bumpy, what with apocalypses and Oz, but Kennedy was past all that badness. The way she felt now, Oz wasn't even a blip on her radar, and even though she knew he would still be in their lives - one of the reasons she had wanted to take it slow, just in case nothing had changed - she couldn't imagine being jealous of him ever again. It just wasn't possible to feel anything negative about what she had with Willow now.

She was done, she realized, smiling gently. She was with the person she'd be with for the rest of her life and it was a really good feeling.

"So do you know what I realized earlier?" Willow asked as they crossed the foyer to the stairs.


"Tonight's our anniversary!"

"Huh?" Kennedy, kicking herself for forgetting, counted back months quickly and was relieved to find that Willow was wrong. "We didn't start dating until January."

"No, but a year ago today you turned up on our doorstep, all waif-like and cocky."

Kennedy thought about it again and realized that Willow was right. She and Molly and Annabelle had arrived in Sunnydale with Giles on December 23rd last year. It didn't seem that long ago, definitely not a whole year. Her two travel companions flashed into her mind, both dead now, and she squeezed her eyes shut to will them away. It didn't work so well, but she didn't want to dwell on them now when she was about to be alone with Willow. Thinking about dead friends would really put a downer on what she had planned.

So she distracted herself. "Can you be cocky and waif-like at the same time?"

Willow mused on it for a moment. "I guess not." She grinned again. "Maybe you were all cocky and hot-like instead."

That worked. "Hot-like? You thought I was hot when you first saw me?"

They were at the top of the stairs now but Kennedy stopped just ten feet from her bedroom as she asked her question, wanting to be looking into Willow's eyes as she answered.

"Totally hot! The other two were all meek and shy and then there was you." Willow's hands caressed her sides before resting just above her hips. "All force of nature-y. I felt so guilty because I couldn't keep my eyes off of you."

"If it helps with the guilt, I couldn't keep my eyes off of you either."

Willow smiled and leaned in to kiss her lightly on the lips. "So, happy anniversary."

Kennedy grinned and then took Willow by surprise by pressing her against the wall with the length of her body, and keeping her there with her lips. When Willow 'mmm'd' against her lips in appreciation, Kennedy nearly forgot where they were. Somehow she found the presence of mind to pull back from Willow's delicious kisses because fooling around in the upstairs hallway would probably be worse than doing it in her Dad's study.

"Happy anniversary," she murmured back and nodded her head towards her suite of rooms. "Wanna go celebrate it properly?"

Willow nodded, "Uh huh!"

Kennedy took her hand again to lead her there but couldn't take her eyes off of Willow as they walked. Willow was the same, which was why they were almost at the door before Kennedy saw her Mom standing in front of it with her arms crossed.

"Oh, hey!" she said, caught off guard. "We were tired so . . ." Seeing her Mom's expression she added quickly, "We said goodbye to everyone before we came up."

Her Mom stayed leaning against her bedroom door as she smiled. "That was very polite of you, thank you. I'm not surprised you're both tired, with the traveling. You must both want to get to sleep as soon as possible."

Kennedy nodded and waited for Mom to get out of the way. She didn't. "So, we're going to go to bed now."

"Okay," her Mom uncrossed her arms and pushed off of the door before turning to open it. "Let's get Willow settled in."

Kennedy stared after her as her Mom entered the suite ahead of them. Finally she got it together enough to ask, "Huh?"

"Oh, didn't I say?" her Mom said cheerfully as she crossed the small living room to open the bedroom door. "I had the bed in the guest room downstairs made up for you, Kennedy."

She blinked a few times. "But we never use the guest room downstairs."

"Which is why I had to have the bed made up down there." She turned to Willow. "I know it can be a little weird spending the night in a strange place but you'll be comfortable in here. The bed's from Sweden. But if you need anything in the night just pick up the phone and dial zero. Heidi's on call all night and she'll get you anything you need. She's from Sweden too."

"Okay," Willow squeaked. She stood there looking unsure for a moment but then rushed into the bedroom before turning to face them. "I feel comfortable already."

Kennedy grinned at her before glaring at her Mom. "She won't need Heidi. I'll be here."

"No, you'll be downstairs. I'm no fool, Ken, I know exactly what you'll be up to if I let you share the bedroom."

Kennedy didn't blink for a full minute, she was that baffled. Behind her Mom, Willow looked embarrassed but Kennedy couldn't imagine why.

"We've lived together for a year but you won't let us share a room?"


"But . . . we're together. You know that!"

"I do, and I'm very happy for you, but you broke up a short time ago which makes me think you can't be that serious . . ."


". . . and so as your mother I'm going to insist you sleep in separate rooms until I know you are. I wouldn't let Roxy have one of her boyfriends sleep in her bedroom either."

"Roxy's sixteen!"

"But you're both my daughters so you get the same treatment."

"You've never cared about my girlfriends sleeping in my room before!"

"And as you've pointed out to me many times, Hun, I've made a lot of mistakes with your previous girlfriends. I don't want to repeat them. I'm sure you can understand that."

Kennedy glared at her Mom, who continued to smile back. Willow was still hovering nervously just inside the bedroom.

"It's our anniversary!" she tried.

"I heard, congratulations. Sounds like even more reason to keep you apart tonight," her Mom grinned, clearly not realizing how serious this was.

Kennedy was silent for a while, but she kept up the glaring. She knew she was beat; there were only two people she couldn't stare down, Buffy and her Mom. Oh, and Faith, so there were three people that she'd never win a staring match with.

So eventually she looked away before wheedling, "Is there anything I can do to make you change your mind? Shovel the driveway? Sing Christmas carols? Go visit Grandma?"

"Wow, you must be serious . . . ly horny," her Mom joked.

"Mom! Don't use that word!" Kennedy shouted, but she noticed Willow was grinning again, bright red mind you, but still grinning.

"My mind's made up, Kennedy. Until you two can prove how serious you think you are you're sleeping downstairs."

"But . . ."

"Goodnight, Willow," her Mom said firmly, taking Kennedy's arm. "Sleep well. Don't be shy to call Heidi if you need to, she's on double time tonight."

Kennedy could have shaken her Mom's hold off, could have thrown her right out the door and locked it if she'd wanted to, but it was her mom so she didn't. She didn't exactly go meekly though, her Mom had to drag her out by her arm.

"Sorry about this, Will!" she called over her shoulder. "My Mom's gone crazy! G'night. I love you!"

"I love you too!" was the last thing she heard before her Mom pulled the door to her suite closed.

Now she shook her off and stalked away. "I can't believe you did that!"

"Kennedy, I love you, and as Roxanne pointed out to me earlier you don't realize it because I let you get away with everything."

"Rox did this?" she fumed.

"Leave your sister alone," her Mom said. "She was right. You do get away with everything. You ran off to LA without a word. Then you moved to Cleveland without telling us about that either."

"I moved to Sunnydale, not LA, and it was smaller than Queens and had a population the size of West Hampton!"

"But you didn't tell us where you were going."

Kennedy ignored that, because how she could answer it without lying? "And Boudenver has less people living there than there were at this party tonight! I'm not living a wild life, Mom, honestly. If anything my life is more boring now than it ever was in New York."

That was true of Boudenver at least. Aside from the occasional vampire or lizard demon, the most she had to contend with was lust spells and Halloween parties.

"Then why do you do it?"

Her answer was both the truth and a lie, "Because of Willow."

"So you two really are serious," her Mom said as she shepherded her down the stairs and towards the usually unused guest room at the back of the house - about as far from where Willow was sleeping as was possible without making her sleep in the back kitchen.

"Like an uber-vamp," she replied without thinking. Seeing her Mom about to question the phrase, Kennedy caught up and added, "Very serious."

"Then I'm sure you and Willow will be sharing a bed before you know it. But not tonight! Heidi's on double time for a reason. Sweet dreams, Honey." She bent down to kiss Kennedy's cheek.

"Goodnight," Kennedy said, resigned to spending the night alone.

She closed the door and her nose wrinkled at the musty smell of the room, but she ignored it and headed straight for the bed. This blew! She'd been really looking forward to a night of passion with Willow and now . . .

As Kennedy shed her clothes and climbed between the fresh sheets, she knew she had to find a way to convince her Mom that they were more than serious enough to share a bed. Otherwise she'd be stuck down in this cold room alone for their entire vacation.

Buffy fidgeted on the bed and pulled the covers taut over her knees as she listened to her Watcher scold her over the telephone.

When she could get a word in over the British ranting, she said, "I would have called earlier but we've been kinda busy, Giles. The resort has an itinerary that's even more intensive than yours! Although, way more fun," she admitted, before excitedly gushing, "Did you know they have husky rides through the snow?"

"Buffy, you are not there to have fun! You must not enjoy the huskies until after you have . . ."

"Too late. Besides it was work-related. We were doing recon."

"Ah," he said, slightly mollified. "And what did you see?"

"Wait, you made me get ahead of myself with all your scolding. Faith and I are pretty sure we're not dealing with Hell Hounds after all."

"I've come to the same conclusion myself, although I'm afraid I haven't been able to come up with another theory yet."

"We have!" she said triumphantly. "It's elves."

"Elves? But . . ."

He stopped talking but she could hear paper rustling and imagined him flicking rapidly through the pages of a book. She pushed her legs flat so that the blankets made a hollow tent above them and then she poked a finger into the middle, making a crater. What was Faith doing right now? Probably not making bed-cover volcanoes and listening to an old guy umming and ahhing over the phone. Buffy's eyes narrowed as she glanced at the clock and noted that she'd been alone for nearly three hours. Faith had better not be making bed-cover volcanoes considering she definitely wasn't in her own bed right now.

"Elves," Giles repeated. "Are you sure? There are very few documented cases of them associating with humans from what I can tell. Not that the books I have here say much about them at all! We're still a long way from replacing my collection in Sunnydale and with the Council's main library in ashes . . . Honestly, the books we have now are a travesty! I don't know how we're expected to save anyone with . . . "

"Giles, focus!"

"Yes, quite, sorry. If only Willow were here to help. I can still hardly find my way around this blasted machine she forced me to buy. I really should not have let her go while we have such a situation on our hands."

"Willow needed a break. She nearly died last month from that spell and you know she's still feeling low about her magick. A week away with nothing to do but Kennedy is exactly what she needs." There was a pause on the line and Buffy grinned. "Are you cleaning your glasses right now?"

"No," he said firmly, "and nor do I disagree, but she really couldn't have picked a worse week."

"There's never a good week. So what else do your books tell you?" Slayer of the twenty-first century she was, but she still trusted Giles' ancient books more than the internet when it came to demon lore. "You said they don't associate with humans but then how much associating do you need to do to bite the heads off of little children?"

"True, but the passage I've found says that they are, but for one or two notable exceptions, a benign race. They are helpers, in fact. People used to leave milk out for them because it was believed if they came close enough to your home they would bring good luck."

"I'm thinking the ones around here aren't so much about the bringing of good luck."

"Perhaps not. How many have you seen? Was it just the one or . . ."

"Try one hundred! Or fifty at least. They were tracking our bus as we drove to the resort."

"Oh dear."

"Exactly." Buffy shuffled her feet under the covers before pulling her knees up again. "Faith and I are going to patrol on foot tomorrow now that we think we have an idea of where they were sprouting from. Maybe we'll get lucky and find the giant spotted toadstool they live in."

"I think that's gnomes."

"Really? I was just making the toadstool up."

"No, I'm pretty sure gnomes live in toadstools."

"So many little people, it's hard to keep track."

They had the thought at the same time.


"The Piskies!"

Buffy smiled and imagined Giles doing the same at Sunset Camp.

"I'll have someone talk to them first thing in the morning."

"Why not do it yourself?"

"Buffy, the last time I interacted with our little friends I was taken prisoner, knocked unconscious and cast into oblivion."

She had to chuckle, "You're scared of the Pixies?"

"Not scared, just . . . wary." Giles cleared his throat. "Anyway, if you have nothing else to report I'll let you get back to your evening."

"Okay." She didn't want to be left to get back on with her evening, not when she was alone and Faith was out doing who knew what. "Wait, how's Dawn? Is she behaving herself?"

"Dawn's fine . . . physically at least."

Uh oh, she wished she hadn't asked now. "What's wrong?"

"I'm not sure exactly. She had a falling out with Reece earlier and stormed upstairs, but Vi and Rona are with her now."

"Oh." It was hard to feel bad about her little sister having an argument with her creep of a boyfriend. It was all she could do not to jump out of bed and do a little cheer. "Well, as long as she's not alone. How's everyone else?"

"Everyone seems fine. Alex called to invite us on the wolf hunt tomorrow which is good news."

"Even though we're not hunting Hell Hounds now?"

"But you never know what else we might turn up out there and, besides, I'm just happy the people in town are starting to accept us. It will make life much easier for . . ."

Buffy suddenly heard boots stamping right outside the door. "Sorry, Giles, gotta go! Bye!"

She canceled the call and turned off the bedside light at the same time. Chucking her phone on the nightstand, she snuggled down beneath the covers and pretended to be asleep.

The key scraped against the lock twice before sliding in and Buffy raised an eyebrow in the dark. It was a big key with a big keyhole to match; it shouldn't have been that tricky. Once the door was open, Faith plodded heavily in with a rush of freezing air, causing Buffy to bury even deeper under the covers.

The door slammed shut and Faith muttered an apology to it. Buffy raised her other eyebrow. Faith was drunk!

She tensed under the covers with the effort of not saying anything as she listened to Faith stumbling around while trying to get her boots off without undoing the laces. The room was almost completely dark but there was just enough light coming from the dying fire to see Faith hopping from the side of the bed to the wall and back again as she quietly cursed about her boot.

Buffy bit her lip to stifle her giggle and strained her eyes harder to see what Faith would do next. It turned out to be pitching face first onto the floor, too busy yanking at her boots to save herself. Buffy snorted in amusement and then pulled the covers up over her nose to subdue any more evidence of her laughter. Faith was lost in shadow at the side of the bed and Buffy couldn't look at her now without drawing attention so she made do with listening. Faith's cursing had increased, mostly about her bruised nose, but she still kept her voice very low so as not to disturb Buffy's fake slumber - it was sweet.

Faith used her time on the floor to remember how boots worked and Buffy listened as they were unlaced and then pulled off with what sounded like a great deal of effort. She grunted in satisfaction once she was free of the heavy boots and got back to her feet. Attempting to kick the boots to the side, out of the way, made her stagger and begin cursing again over a stubbed toe.

Faith started to strip then in the near-darkness and Buffy watched, holding her breath with trepidation and delight as, layer by layer, Faith got naked. It was only as the other slayer discarded her underwear that Buffy realized what this meant. There was no way she was sharing the bed with a completely naked Faith! As much as naked and Faith in the same sentence pleased her no end, this wasn't happening! But she didn't say anything, keeping quiet and still beneath the blankets.

Faith straightened up, swaying slightly, and looked at the bed. Buffy closed her eyes quickly, hoping Faith hadn't noticed them being open in the first place.

"Now which side's the right?" Faith wasn't totally slurring her words but it was close.

No way.

Faith seemed to take ages to think about it before Buffy finally felt hands on the bed just inches from her.

No way!

The covers were pulled at and even though Buffy felt like she'd been holding onto them like an eighteenth century virgin, she couldn't keep her grip. The blankets were thrown back and Faith had a knee up on the bed when Buffy finally buckled.

"Faith, no!"


Faith startled at her voice, swaying from side to side even more than she had been on two feet. Buffy almost hoped she'd fall flat on the floor again but she kept her balance by gripping the mattress.

"Buff, you're awake! You missed a hell of a night. I played cards with them!"

"The elves?"

Faith laughed, "Nah, with the . . . the, what do you call 'em, people that like, uh, pour drinks and . . . do stuff."

"The staff?"

"No, the stuff!"

"The staff do the stuff!"

"What stuff? We was just drinking."

Buffy opened her mouth to either yell in exasperation or laugh her butt off at the total confusion showing on Faith's face, she really wasn't sure which, but Faith leaning more of her weight on the bed brought her back on topic fast.

"Where have you been, Faith?"

"I went back to the dirty dancing room after Greg finished his shift."

There was nothing about that sentence that didn't make Buffy's stomach plummet. "And what did you do there?"

"Duh, played cards! I won, I think. If there's fifty bucks in my pocket I did." Faith patted her bare hips and thighs, searching for pockets, before giving up with a shrug.

"So I've been sitting here alone while you were playing cards and getting drunk?"

"Yeah." Something in Buffy's expression must have fought its way through her drunken haze because she quickly added. "I got info on the elves!"

"Like what?"

Faith was still swaying with one knee up on the bed, still very naked. It was getting really hard for Buffy to concentrate. The only thing that was stopping her from doing something stupid was the drunken chatter, which was managing to be both too annoying and amusing to be sexy.

"Like, uh, they . . . they don't work for the resort. Greg said they only employ humans to dress like elves."

"You asked him about the elves?"

"No! I . . . Maybe. I made it sound like I was joking, I think. He definitely thought I was messing with him," she added, nodding a lot. "Anyways, he said the elves work for Santa."

Buffy's eyes widened and then she tilted her head on the pillow almost sympathetically. "I think that was him messing with you."

"No!" Faith giggled hard. It was such an unexpected sound coming from big, bad Faith that Buffy found it adorable, even if she had to put up with drunk-Faith to enjoy it. "The Santa they hired for the week, I mean. They rent a Santa to give the kids presents and the elves come free."

Buffy pulled a face. "So they latch themselves onto some jolly, old, fat guy and eat the kids he's trying to make happy? That's gotta be the lowest of the low!"

Faith nodded again. "We should get G to see if this same Santa has been used at the other resorts. Might help us pinpoint where they're coming from. Greg didn't know what company they used."

Buffy was more interested in where this Greg had come from, he seemed to be in Faith's every other sentence, but she bit her tongue. "Yeah, we'll call him tomorrow."

"So, I did good, right?" Faith asked, grinning.

"Professionally, yes. But coming back at half-past midnight out of your skull doesn't do you any favours with me."

Faith looked confused for a moment but then she grinned again. "You'll get over it when my intel helps us nail those elf bastards. Now move over."

"No way."

"Told you I was taking the right side, B."

"This is the left side."

That confused Faith enough that she had to lean back and look around, doing some complicated 'left' 'right' math in her head. "No it's not!"

Laughing, Buffy pushed her back when she tried to just climb in. "I'm not moving. I've made this spot all warm and cozy now."

"I know, why do you think I want it?"

"You're not having it!

"Yes I am!"

They were almost wrestling now as Faith managed to unsteadily get both knees up on the bed. Their hands were clasped as they pushed against each other for dominance. Faith might have been drunk but she still had plenty of strength and the advantage of leaning over her and Buffy swiftly surmised it was only a matter of time before she lost and Faith wriggled her way into her space.

Faith didn't seem to realize this herself and gave up unexpectedly. "Fine, you can stay there."

Buffy breathed a sigh of victory. "Thank you."

"We'll share the right side!" Faith flopped full length over her and squirmed as if she was trying to make her Buffy-mattress more comfortable.

Buffy gasped twice, once in surprise at the full contact and then again with desire, thanks to the squirming. She gripped Faith's arms and tried to push her off but Faith had made herself a dead weight over the top of her, her arms pushed under the pillow Buffy's head was on to anchor her and her chin comfortably nestled in the crook of her neck.

"Faith, move!"

"I'll move to let you shift over, but that's it."

"I'm not shifting over! You shift over."

"No can do, B, I'm hella comfy right now." To prove it Faith's voice was already drowsy.

"You can't sleep on top of me!"

There were many reasons why, but the only one Buffy could think of right now was because there was no way she'd be able to sleep like this. She could barely think straight like this! One of Faith's legs had slipped snugly between her own and even breathing was difficult right now because each shallow, excited exhale caused slight friction which was sending a certain low down tickle crazy. How many lonely nights since September had she fantasized about having a naked Faith in her bed? Probably nearly all of them. But she'd waited, building up her own anticipation so that their next time together - which she was planning on calling their 'new first time' - would be fantastic. Was she really going to make all of those empty nights, all of their arguments too, pointless by giving into urges now just because Faith was a stubborn drunk and she was a stubborn sober?

No, she wasn't. Their new first time would be special, dammit, and special did not include Faith being so hammered she probably wouldn't even remember it in the morning. This situation was awkward but not dire, she could control herself, it was just lust, and lust wasn't that powerful, right? If Faith wouldn't move on her own, Buffy would just roll to the side and make her fall off of her. Simple. She put her hands on Faith's back, to steady her as she rolled sharply to the left, but then snatched them away again at once. Faith's back was all warm and smooth and, more importantly, bare, and that was not the way the controlling of lust lay.

She tried something different. "Faith, I'm not comfortable with you lying on top of me."

"Sure you are," Faith murmured.

Buffy couldn't find the resolve to deny it because, physically at least, she'd never been so comfy. Faith wasn't heavy, just snuggily.

"I meant because we're on that break, remember? We shouldn't be this close right now."

"S'okay, B, I'm not gonna try anything. I just wanna sleep."

Faith's breath was warm and enticing on the side of her neck, pushing any idea of sleep far from Buffy's mind. She closed her eyes tight and gritted her teeth for a moment, willing the naughty thoughts away again.

"Okay, I'll make you a deal. And it's a good deal, full of compromise and both of us getting at least half of what we want, so you have to pick one."

Faith took a while answering and Buffy thought she had already fallen asleep, but then she muttered, "I have to pick a deal?"

"Okay, so it's not so much a deal, it's more of a multiple choice quiz. Well, not really a quiz, more of a . . . a . . . I'm going to give you two options, very fair options considering I did call dibs on this side first."

There was another pause before Faith murmured, "I'm listening."

"Promise you'll pick one."

Faith sighed and snuggled even deeper into her neck, "Cross my heart, B."

"Good. Option one, I'll give you the right side but you have to put your pajamas on. Option two, you can stay naked but you have to move to the left side."

Faith groaned, "That's cheating, you know I don't own pajamas!"

"So what were you planning to wear to bed all this week?"

"What I'm wearing now."

It was like a cold wet sponge had been squeezed over her desire. "God, Faith! Didn't you think that might be inappropriate considering how things are between us? Didn't you think about my feelings at all?"

"No, I just didn't think of pajamas! Jeez!" Faith pushed herself off of Buffy and slid off of the side of the bed. "Why do you have to make a drama out of everything?"

Faith went to the wardrobe and yanked open the doors. Buffy thought she had sobered up until she almost fell head first into it. By the dying light of the fire she watched Faith rummage in her bag on the floor and then she was pulling on a tight t-shirt and a pair of panties.

She stalked back to the right side of the bed. "Happy? Now move!"

Buffy had made the deal and now she had no choice but to honor it. She started to slide reluctantly across the big bed and Faith was in her warm patch with the covers pulled up to her ears before she was even half way across.

Sighing silently, she moved the rest of the way over to the left side. The sheets were cold and unwelcoming, chilling her previously toasty body, and this pillow seemed lumpy compared to the one she'd left behind. Oh, and there was a complete lack of playful, snuggily Faith on this side of the bed. Actually there was a complete lack of playful, snuggily Faith in the bed; only angry, stone-like Faith was left, with the covers pulled up as high as they'd go and her back turned to Buffy like a wall to keep her out.

Buffy could lay there and berate herself for causing the drama, for pushing Faith away again when it had been a perfect opportunity for them to get closer, all night, but how would that help them? Especially when she could hear Faith already snoring softly. So she turned over and tried to get comfortable again so that she could fall asleep too.

Obviously that didn't happen soon, so she did the berating thing anyway - it helped pass the time.

The next morning Buffy awoke in much better spirits. She was warm and cozy and the bed had become ridiculously comfortable overnight. She knew without opening her eyes that it was still dark outside so she tried to fall back to sleep, but the next second the thing that had roused her in the first place rang again.

It was probably Giles, calling with info. She should sit up and answer the call but it was still dark! And she was so comfy! How could it hurt to get the info just an hour later?

She was still arguing with herself - 'Get up!' 'No!' 'It could be important!' 'I don't care!' 'Answer the phone!' 'But my pillow smells so good!' - when the ringing stopped and she heard Faith's throaty morning voice say: "Hey".

Buffy didn't move except to languidly stretch while she listened to the short conversation. She was a little concerned with how her toes grazed deliciously down a smooth leg that was not her own but was distracted from it when she heard Faith put the receiver back down.

"Giles?" she asked.

"Wake up call. Breakfast is in an hour."

"An hour? But it's still night time!" She finally opened her eyes and was startled to find Faith's face just a few inches from her own. A few inches above her own. She swiveled her eyes down to her nose and chuckled nervously. "Heh, look at that. I seem to be using your boob as a pillow."

"Looks like we shared the right side after all," Faith chuckled too and, if anything, sounded more nervous. "Bet you're glad you made me put the t-shirt on now, huh?"

"The jury's still out," she admitted, but then pushed herself away, back to the left side of the bed. "Oh, God, that's freezing!" Without thinking she scrambled beneath the bed-covers to wrap herself back around the heat of Faith's body.

"I think the fire went out." Faith craned her neck up, trying not to dislodge her. "Yep, it's out. We should probably be making a move."

"You're crazy if you think I'm getting out of this bed, I'll freeze to death!"

"It's not that cold."

"Yes it is. It's a wonder my drool hasn't turned to ice!" Faith looked down at her t-shirt and Buffy quickly placed her hand over Faith's breast. "Don't look at my drool! Don't even think about it."

"Trust me, B," Faith looked down at her hand with a big smile. "Drool ain't exactly the bodily fluid that's coming to mind right now."

"Eww, Faith!" But then Buffy looked at where her hand was resting and realized what she meant. She couldn't help smiling shyly. "Really? No, don't answer that." She removed her hand from Faith's breast and tucked it back down against her side. "The fact remains that I am not leaving this bed until it warms up in here."

"Then stay here, babe, but I'm starving."

"I'm hungry too." She was aware that she was whining, but she was hungry and that brief moment she had tried to fend for herself had made her so cold her skin still felt goose-bumpy, and that was beneath the blankets. She didn't want to think how cold it must be outside of them. "Could you re-light the fire?"

"From here? I doubt it."

Buffy gently pinched her side. "No, from over there. There's wood and tinder and kindling and matches. You just have to put it all together."

"I know how to make a fire, B."

Buffy tilted her head to give Faith her nicest smile. "Then could you go do it, please?"

"But that means me having to get out in the cold."

"But you were going to do that anyway."

"Kinda changing my mind since you groped me."

"I didn't grope you!" Okay, that was not the tone that would get her what she wanted. "I mean, please baby?" She batted her eyelashes for good measure.

"I'll give you two options . . ."

Buffy groaned but her smile remained. She'd really been hoping that Faith had been too drunk to remember any of last night but obviously she remembered it clear as day. "And they are?"

"Well, seeing as we're all about the compromise these days, option one: I'll get up in the cold and light you a fire if you make it worth my while. Option two: we stay exactly as we are."

Buffy gave it some thought. Option two sounded good because she was all cosy-warm pressed against Faith's side without it being sexual. She could easily imagine cuddling Willow or Xander like this in the same situation, although she had to admit she would in no way be enjoying it as much. On the other hand, she wanted breakfast, which meant moving, which meant . . .

"I don't think sex in exchange for a fire is really even."

"Never said nothing about sex."

"Oh. What did you mean then?"

Faith shifted her head on the pillow so that she could look her in the eye better and grinned. "Second base?"

"That's . . . Faith!"

Faith held a hand up. "Hey, no pressure. You can always get up and make the fire yourself."

That wasn't happening. Buffy chuckled nervously again. "Second base? We haven't even gone to first base in a week."

"So let's start there."

Faith's lips were on hers before she had time to say no, and after it had happened she didn't want to say no. She kissed back with nervous enthusiasm, pushing herself up on an elbow so the angle of their mouths wasn't so awkward. She could do this all day she realized, although it wasn't a new revelation, just one she'd tried not to think about all week.

When Faith's hand pushed beneath her pajama top she felt the need to break the kiss, even though the hand was doing no more than resting lightly in the dip of her waist.

"Too quick?" Faith asked and then answered herself by removing her hand and placing it back on the outside of Buffy's pajamas. She kissed her again and, reassured, Buffy melted back into it.

Maybe another five minutes of the sweet indulgence passed before she felt Faith's fingertips sliding up her skin again. Her lips faltered for a second or two but she didn't pull away this time. Second base was nothing to be scared of! Hell, they'd been dating four months! With false bravado she pushed her hands under Faith's tight t-shirt but they only made it as far as her ribs. She stroked the skin between the ridges, noting with pleasure that Faith had put weight on since she'd been out of prison. She felt healthy again, the bumps of her ribs softer on Buffy's palms than they had been the last time they'd made love.

She felt Faith's fingertips reach the underside of her breasts, tensed a little as she felt them slide around the sides before moving firmly over the top. She tensed a lot as she felt palms caressing her nipples, her body wanting - needing - more even while her brain was insisting she stop and think before she let Faith's touch talk her into something she'd regret. Buffy struggled with the decision, splayed hands flexing uncontrollably and slightly dangerously against Faith's ribs as she battled between pushing them higher and pulling them away.

See this was why she had to be so careful with the boundaries, because if just the feel of Faith's fingertips brushing over her nipples combined with the dizzying feel of Faith's tongue wrapping around her own was enough to get her in this state of crazy, she'd lose her mind if . . .

. . . Faith started massaging her breasts more boldly while bringing a thigh up between hers and moaning all sexily into her mouth!

"OhmyGod!" she panted breathlessly, jerking back at the shock of such a sudden and intense escalation of her already spiralling desire. She pulled her hands free from the heat of Faith's t-shirt and rolled away fast to sprawl on her back. Staring up at the ceiling, eyes wide, her sharp, shallow breaths made white puffs in the frigid air.

She felt the bed shift as Faith sat up beside her and out of the corner of her eye she saw her about to speak. She couldn't listen to her voice yet though; it might be all it took to send her over the edge - both literally and figuratively. So she didn't give her a chance to speak.

"Okay, I'm a lot warmer now. Thanks!" Buffy jumped up and was out of bed and already rushing for the bathroom as Faith slapped the mattress, shouting in frustration.


Willow lay in the big bed all on her lonesome, looking up at the ceiling and twiddling her thumbs above the covers. She sort of expected Kennedy to come and join her in the night, once the rest of the house was asleep, but she'd woken up alone.

She didn't know what the time was. There was an old fashioned alarm clock on the table beside the bed but it read two-thirty, so either she'd slept really late or it was wrong. The curtains were the thick lustrous kind, keeping the room nice and dark, but there was a slither of sunlight showing through where they met, so she knew it wasn't that early either. She wasn't sure what she was supposed to do. Should she get up? She didn't want to wander around the strange house on her own, however welcome she had been made to feel. What if she couldn't find her way back downstairs and became lost in the upper hallways? What if someone saw her lost and mistook it for her snooping around? What if she accidentally walked in on Kennedy's Step-Dad in the bathroom or something?

As her 'what-ifs' grew more outlandish and she came to the conclusion that she wasn't even budging from the bed until someone came to fetch her, her cell phone rang.

"So much for that plan."

Willow padded across the thick carpet, loving the way it felt under her bare toes, to retrieve the phone from her bag. Hopefully it would be Kennedy with directions to the kitchen. She was disappointed to find it was the camp instead - she'd had . . . what? Not even a twenty-four hour vacation! - but a little pleased at the chance to talk to someone familiar.


It was Giles, needing information on elves.

"Elves, really? Don't we have enough demons to worry about without going after Santa's little helpers?"

He explained the situation, convincing Willow to take it seriously. She still felt bad about not staying to help with the nasty child-eating threat as it was, the least she could do was a little research for them.

"I'll help, Giles, but I don't know when I'll be able to get to a computer. I'm not even sure I can find my way downstairs yet." She looked around the room for inspiration, or a floor plan. She spotted something else instead. "Wait; Kennedy has a laptop."

Willow switched her cell to loudspeaker and set it on the desk beside her as she opened the laptop and pressed the power button. It was a really nice machine, nicer than hers and hers was no slouch, and it started up quickly.

Almost at once the screen called for a password. "Um."

She tried Kennedy's first name, then her surname, then she typed in 'Suki'. Next she tried Kennedy's date of birth and the name of her favourite band. She wanted to try her favourite soccer team next but couldn't remember what they were called. Lastly, feeling self-conscious, she tried her own name. That wasn't it either.

"Sorry, Giles, I can't get in without Kennedy's help. I'll try again later though."

He wasn't very happy, but wished her a good day and made her promise to phone as soon as possible.

As she cut the call, Willow sat on the edge of the bed, narrowing her eyes at the blinking cursor on the screen as if she was challenging it to a duel.

Xander wasn't a naturally early riser. He'd grown used to it working construction and for the first few months of living in Boudenver he'd had to be up at the crack of dawn most days; it had been the only way to fit everything in he'd thought was expected of him. Since Faith had been helping him out, his mornings started later. The fact that she was rarely ready to begin before eight gave him an excuse to sleep in too.

So the five am start this morning was really screwing with him. He couldn't remember ever being up this early, unless it was because he hadn't gone to bed yet. Tara had said something once about it being better to see the sunrise from this way round, but he didn't agree. He'd much rather be sleeping through the sunrise altogether.

He drove the truck slowly along Main Street. He had to go slowly because once again a crisp overnight frost had turned the slushy streets to brittle ice. It was going to be great fun walking around in this!

Giles yawned and muttered 'Sorry' but the apology didn't stop Robin from yawning too, and then Xander couldn't prevent his own yawn.

Robin smiled. "Guess they really are contagious, huh?" No one bothered answering. It was just too damn early.

Xander slowed the truck down even more as he approached the rendezvous point; mindful of the ice under the tires but also to give them all a chance to check out the group of villagers already waiting there. It looked like The Mouth was holding an open audition for a remake of The Mountain Men.

The diner wasn't usually open this early but they extended their opening hours for special occasions and obviously this counted as one of them. Several of the men waiting out front held mugs of coffee and the door was wide open. Pulling the truck into a space, Xander hopped down, eager for some hot coffee, too. As his boots hit the ice he had to hug the door to keep his feet under him.

"Hey, guys!" He laughed nervously and waved a hand as several of the grim-looking men turned towards him, eyes frowning from under the bills of their baseball caps and beards unsmiling. "You guys really go all out with the checked flannel, huh? Are we ready to catch some wascally wabbit or what?"

Nodding to one of the relief barmen from Barnies and high-fiving with Donnie from the lumber yard as he passed him, Xander walked around to open the tail-gate for the boys. They remained huddled together where they were, wrapped in the thick sleeping bags that were kept in the back for the slayers.

"Come on, get out."

"It's too cold," Andrew complained.

"And too early," Craig added.

"You're right, it is. Now get out."

They began to show faint signs of movement and Xander left them to it. Giles and Robin were still standing beside the truck, apart from the main group.

"There's more people here than I thought there would be," Robin's voice was hushed. "I guess this isn't going to be a stealth mission."

"They think they're hunting wolves," Giles kept to the same low volume. "And they think crashing through the woods like idiots is the way to flush them out."

"Could we try not insulting the burly guys with the hunting rifles?" Xander asked. "At least until I've had some coffee?"

"Do you see Alex?" Robin asked, looking around for the only face that would be familiar to him. Spending most of his time on the road on the way to meet with newly found slayers, he knew next to nobody in town.

It was still dark and many of the men stood in tight clumps, talking quietly, making it hard to tell one person from another. Xander thought he spotted Al on the edge of the throng but it turned out to be the sheriff. He was a big and intimidating man, and although Xander had sat at the bar with him a few times, he wasn't keen on the idea of going over and reporting for duty. Not when the sheriff thought they were there to represent a wildlife club.

He pointed him out to Giles and apparently the Watcher shared his reluctance. "Let's just try and blend in until we're surer of how things are going to proceed."

Blend in? Xander had to laugh. The three of them were standing apart from the seasoned hunters, in regular street clothes and without a gun or a beard to their name. When the boys finally joined them, holding hands and with a sleeping bag still wrapped around Andrew shoulders, he laughed again.

"Oh, yeah, now we're blending in a treat."

Robin saw the funny side too and grinned. "Maybe if we put tranq. guns in their other hands . . .?"

"Nah, let's face it, we're destined to be the sore thumb of this expedition. Might as well accept it."

"There is a more positive way to look at it."

"And that is?"

"We could be the thumb of equality instead. One black guy, one disabled guy, two gay guys and . . ." Robin gestured at Giles ". . . one foreign guy. We have the minorities covered."

Xander flinched at being labelled disabled however teasing Robin's tone had been. He blocked it out, stamped down the hot jolt of dread in his stomach and pretended it didn't bother him at all.

"Not totally, we're one down," he said, his own tone as untroubled as he could make it. "We shoulda brought one of the girls after all."

Reece had been disturbed by Craig getting dressed. The bugger had been complaining the whole time; pissed off that he had to get up so early and go out in the cold, completely disrespecting the opportunity he was being given. The opportunity that should have been Reece's. It had annoyed him so much that they'd rowed about it and after Craig had finally left, Reece was too wound up to go back to sleep.

After laying there for a while, wide awake and fretting about the events of the night before, he'd decided he had only one sensible course of action - inflict his misery on as many others as possible.

Banging on the door to the Slayers' dormitory while blowing one of Kennedy's training whistles had soon gathered him all the company his misery could want. After a not-so-rousing but nevertheless successful speech about the danger everyone else was facing while they were sleeping the day away, they followed him through the snow, in boots and bed clothes, to the kitchen.

There they all sat around the kitchen table waiting for the room to hurry up and get warm while Miranda made hot drinks and he forced the rest of them into reading Giles' books.

He could get used to this; having an entire team under his command. Heads down to work because he'd ordered it. His eyes followed the v-shaped neckline of Cici's nightie as he idly fantasized about what other orders he could persuade them to follow.

"So where's Dawn?"

As Miranda called the question across the kitchen, Reece's head jerked up and his book slipped from his grasp as he not-so-casually ran a hand casually back through his hair. It needed cutting, he noted with distaste; he'd grown lax with his personal grooming since living here.

"Er, still in bed, I imagine." A bad-tempered Dawn wouldn't sooth his annoyance, only add to it. "I didn't like to wake her."

They hadn't parted on the best of terms the night before and the last thing he wanted was to piss her off even more.

"I don't know why any of us have to be up this early," Alison grumbled as she flicked through the pages, her eyes still too sleepy to follow the actual words. "Some of us only went to bed four hours ago!"

"Find something useful and you can go back to bed," Reece muttered.

He wasn't working them that hard; he'd kept the thickest book with the smallest writing for himself after all. He left it on the table, as if he'd meant to drop it there, and turned to the index.

"But why are we doing this?" Cici wasn't usually much of a complainer, she generally just went along with things, but she obviously wasn't a morning person. "We're slayers, research isn't our area."

"Rona?" Reece asked his slayer for back up.

"I'm with them." She pointed her spoon at Alison and Cici before digging it back into her cereal.

He sighed, but then Vi came to his aid. "Buffy researches, when it's important."

There was muttered acceptance of this and then the kitchen fell mostly quiet while everyone read their assigned books and ate their breakfast.

It was Rachel, the new slayer, who spoke next. "I don't mind researching, but I'm not really sure what I'm researching for. Don't we already know it's some kind of hell dog?"

Rachel was quiet, unassuming, introverted. She seemed to go out of her way to not interact with the others; choosing to stay at home instead of coming to the Christmas Ball, for instance. It was probably only because she had only recently arrived at the camp, but whatever the reason it made her boring and Reece had no time for her. That and the fact that she obviously hadn't been listening the night before when Giles had explained that they could no longer be sure it was Hell Hounds made him ignore her comment completely.

Naomi was made of softer stuff though, which was why, even though he had no authority over her, she'd left her warm bed to join the other girls in a show of solidarity.

"Rachel, it's a possibility that it's not Hell Hounds now, so we are researching other demons that habitually strike in the winter time."

"Like Bigfoot?" she asked innocently.

Reece remembered she was only fifteen and new to the idea of demons and forced himself to speak civilly. "Bigfoot doesn't exist."

"Oh, right." Rachel ducked her head back to her book, embarrassed.

"But you're on the right lines," Naomi said. "Look for demons that live in the forest, above the snowline. If the authorities are convinced it's wolves coming down from Canada, maybe they're not completely wrong. Perhaps it's something else coming down from the north."

Reece nodded, wishing he'd thought of that first but he was professional enough not to show it. "Half of us should concentrate on the local demons and the other half should look for Canadian or even," he glanced at Naomi to gauge her opinion, "demons from the arctic circle."

She nodded subtly amid the rustle of pages as some of the slayers swiftly altered their points of reference. They would always be in competition with one another while they were under the same roof - just like they had been at the academy - but Reece found it reassuring to know they could pull together when it counted too. Especially when he was in such short supply of allies.

Miranda had joined them at the table but was yet to be given a book. In the absence of literature to read she unrolled the poster Giles had discarded on the counter the evening before.

"Talking of supernatural winter visitors," she began, and then turned the poster around so they could all see it. "Are we going to this? It looks like fun."

Everyone spared it a glance, some longer than others.

"It's for kids," Rona dismissed as she took her empty bowl to the sink.

"But aren't we kids?" Miranda said.

"Speak for yourself," Vi chuckled. "I'm nearly seventeen."

"Yeah, but . . ." Miranda laid the poster flat on the table so she could look at it again. ". . . maybe I'm too old for Santa but I like the idea of meeting some reindeer."

Shaking his head irritably, Reece passed her over a book. "Start researching. We don't have time for that Santa Claus nonsense."

Breakfast was rowdier than Faith was happy with. Mornings weren't her thing at the best of times, but add to that a hangover she was trying to hide from Buffy, her general frustration with the blonde, and the fact that the kids were all extra hyper with the prospect of meeting Santa - her head was officially blown.

Seriously, if felt like she'd ruptured a brain vessel or something. All she could do was keep shovelling food into her mouth and stare at a framed safety regulations notice to the left of Buffy's head. She was shaking, from the alcohol leaving her body, from the effort of not starting an argument with Buffy about what had happened that morning, from the noise of all the little shits hollering in excitement. She was gonna lose it any second, but she had to stay in there and not lose it because they were under-fucking-cover!

The worst of it was, Buffy was oblivious. In fact she seemed to be in a better mood than she had been all week.

"Do you want that last piece of toast?" she asked now, pointing at it with her knife.

Faith did, but the only thing she had to hold on to right now, the only thing keeping her sane, was their stupid pretence, a reason to not lose it.

"Nah, you have it, babe," she said between gritted teeth.

Buffy only seemed to notice the endearment and not the manner in which it had been delivered. She smiled a sweet smile and snatched up the slice of toast, dropping it onto her plate to eat with the last of her scrambled eggs.

A minute later Faith had finished her own breakfast and was left with no distractions. Would it look really bad if she went out for a cigarette while Buffy was still eating? She hadn't been a heavy smoker since she'd left prison but in times of stress . . . yeah, she really needed one right now. Plus it would get her out of this noise. These kids were insane! She'd been housed with hundreds of women at Stockton and it had never reached this level of mayhem. She couldn't handle it.

She was about to get up and walk out, whether it looked wrong or not. She had the words to excuse herself from Buffy on the tip of her tongue, nothing elaborate, just the truth, when there was a tug on her sleeve.

She pulled it away automatically and, also automatically, had her hand raised to strike the offender away. So thank God she had the sense to look down first.

It was a little kid, holding up a toy train for her to see. It took her a moment before she recognised him.

"Olly. What do you want?" Her voice was gruff but she didn't care. With any luck she'd scare him and he'd run back to his parents.

He didn't. Instead he set the wooden train engine on her thigh and said "Vroom, vroom!"

Buffy was sitting up in her chair to see over the table, her face was all happy. "I think he wants you to play."

Faith ignored her and said to Olly, "Trains don't go vroom."

Olly was staring up at her as he pushed the train engine a little along her thigh. "Vroom!"

"They don't go vroom! They go choo-choo!"


"Choo choo!" Oh God, she was having an argument with a frickin' three year old now! Desperate to end it, she took the engine from him as gently as her temper right now would allow and ran it along the table, "Look, choo-choo, choo-choo, choo-choo."

He gave her a defiant pout. "Vroom-vroom-vroom-vroom!"

"Fine, have it your own way, kid." She set the toy on the floor and gave it a hard push so that it ran smoothly across the carpet away from the table. "Vrooooom! There ya go."

Olly gave a high-pitched laugh and ran after it.

Sitting up straight again, Faith caught Buffy grinning at her. "What?"


"Are you trying to say trains don't go choo-choo?"

"No, I'm saying you are unbelievably cute when you go choo-choo."

Faith felt her cheeks colour and couldn't believe it. She ducked her head, staring down at the table as she scoffed, "I already told ya, I'm not cute."

"Not usually no, but you have your moments, like this one."

Faith was about to retort but Olly was back, holding the train up to her.

"Play again?" he asked hopefully.

"Nah, kid, I'm all played out."



He tried to push the engine onto her lap and she tried to stop him without getting rough. Great, now she wasn't just arguing with the kid she was wrassling with him!

"Okay, whatever!" She snatched the train away. "One more time if you can remember the magic word."

Olly got a big smile on his face as he said with all of the certainty a three year could muster: "Please?"

"Nuh uh, sorry." She set the engine on the table just out of his reach.

"Faith!" Buffy pleaded on the boy's behalf.

"Hey, ain't my fault he doesn't know the magic word."

Olly's bottom lip quivered and Faith figured the only thing that stopped him from bawling was the distraction of Buffy beckoning to him with a finger. Curiously he walked around the table to her and Buffy bent to whisper something in his ear.

He seemed dubious about whatever she'd said but he walked back around the table and looked up at Faith. "Choo-choo."

Faith grinned but couldn't help herself. "I think ya cheated."

His lip was all quivery again and when Buffy said her name this time there was more steel in it.

"Okay, I'm just kidding, neither of you have to be cry-babies about it."

Faith set the engine on the floor once more and gave it a push even harder than the one before. It sailed across the carpet and Olly ran off excitedly. She was out of her seat before he'd even caught up with it.

"I'm going for a smoke before the brat comes back again."

"I take it back; there is nothing cute about you."

Even though Buffy was still sort of smiling at her, her words stung Faith more than they should. Shrugging it off, she walked out of the restaurant.

The big group outside of The Mouth had split into smaller groups before heading out. Giles had hoped their own group would be split between the others, so as to cover more ground, but Alex had refused his request, insisting they all had to stay with him and a younger lad, Fraser, from the village. The deputy sheriff said it was for their own protection but Giles was sure it had more to do with preventing them from causing trouble. While annoyed, Giles had accepted the terms without complaint and now they were trudging through the deep snow along Old Town Road.

Alex was extremely alert, eyes darting this way and that into the slowly departing shadows of the night. He held his rifle in both hands like a soldier, ready to fire off a shot the moment the need arose. Or before. He looked far too tense to be carrying a loaded weapon and Giles assumed it was because of their presence - or at least the presence of Andrew and Craig who were talking amiably - and a great deal - with Fraser.

Giles walked quietly beside Alex, keeping his own eyes trained on the hedgerows either side of the road. He sorely wanted to quiz the man on the situation again but knew now was not the time to push the matter. If they returned from the hunt with nothing to show for the experience - as he truly expected to - he planned to corner Alex, or the sheriff himself, and demand some answers to his perfectly reasonable questions. For now he was prepared to bide his time.

Xander had made small talk with his friend to begin with but Alex's terse replies had soon made him lapse into silence. Giles was pleased, because despite Buffy's assurances that Xander was physically fit for patrol - something that Giles had never actually doubted - he was concerned that his interest in the task, and therefore his concentration was still in question. His full attention now was reassuring.

Robin, however, seemed to be more in tune with the three boys behind them. He walked easily on the other side of Alex, the tranquilliser gun held loosely in one hand so that the muzzle almost brushed the snow and gazed about with interest in the lightening day.

"So why do they call it Old Town Road?"

Giles, and Xander too, both looked at Robin like he was absurd to ask, but Alex found it a sensible enough question.

"Before they built the interstates there were only two roads into the town: the one your camp is on and this one. They called the other one Lake Road for obvious reasons and so they called this one Town Road. Once they built the new road, that'd be the one you head out to Cleveland on, they just stuck the 'Old' at the front."

"I see. How old is the town then?"

"Four hundred years, give or take. It was the first place settled after the coastal regions, so history tells it. Some old guy sailed over from England, or maybe it was France, and walked west until he found a place he liked the look of. That was Pleasant Creek, which is about a mile from here. Boudenver eventually built up around it."

"That's fascinating," Robin said with so much sincerity that Alex smiled. Of course, Alex didn't know the fascination stemmed from the Hellmouth being located in Pleasant Creek. "What was the name of the settler?"

Alex thought for a moment but shrugged. "I learned it in school but it escapes me now. Owen knows the history of this whole town like he lived it himself though, so you should ask him your questions."

Giles sighed. Asking the shopkeeper questions was like talking to the Riddler - you came away more confused than when you'd begun. He was half convinced the old man was heading for senility.

"Do you know anything about the church in Pleasant Creek?" he asked.

"Not a lot, why?"

"It's a magnificent structure and there is something quintessentially English about it."

Not to mention it was built right on top of the Hellmouth; which was unusual and unlikely to be a coincidence.

"I know it was built when Pleasant Creek was, they used stone out of Boudenver quarry." Alex suddenly laughed. "We used to think it was haunted when we were kids. There was this story all the old folk used to tell about how ghosts were trapped underneath it. They'd come out and get you if you didn't say your prayers every night."

"Did you ever test it?" Xander asked, his grin belying the serious nature of his question.

"Sure, we all did, I guess. And I never saw a ghost."

Xander exchanged a look with Giles and shrugged. Giles wondered if the tales came from the ancient memory of Jupitus who had once wreaked havoc on the town before being trapped within the Hellmouth.

Robin was about to ask another question when Alex stopped, held his hand up and said, "Quiet!"

They all stopped obediently and the three boys behind them ceased talking. Alex had his rifle trained on a point at the edge of the road and twenty yards ahead of them.

"What is it?" Andrew whispered nervously.

It was almost completely light now and although the heavy snow clouds made the morning dull, Giles had noticed the movement by the ditch as soon as Alex had spoken.

He let a couple of seconds of tension roll by before he whispered, "It appears to be a rabbit."

"Okay," Alex muttered, slowly lowering his rifle, "let's keep going,"

Giles sighed, wondering if the whole day was going to be filled with stray rabbits or if something pertinent would actually show itself.

The cold air, the quiet time and the cigarette had cleared Faith's hangover up and her mood was improved by the time Buffy joined her outside.

It didn't stop her from sniping, "You took your time!"

"They served dessert with breakfast! What was I supposed to do?"

Faith got interested, "Breakfast dessert? What was it?"

"A fruit salad."

Her interest left. "Fruit ain't dessert."

"It was yummy."

"Whatever. So we're heading out to the forest, right?"

"That's what we decided." Buffy's tone had cooled to match her own.

Great, why were they only ever in tune when they were pissed at each other? Faith wasn't even pissed really. In fact on some levels she was feeling pretty damn good. She'd gotten her first handful of Buffy-boob in months that morning - if it hadn't been ripped away from her so damn fast she would have been flying high.

She just didn't get Buffy! Faith knew she had liked it, she'd been just as into the making out as her, but then she'd stopped it anyway. Why? They'd already agreed they weren't gonna go further than that so why the panic attack? Either Buffy was deliberately messing with her head or the chick had no idea what 'compromise' really meant.

"So how do you think we get there?" Buffy was asking.

Faith pointed to the large free-standing map by the trail and then followed Buffy over to it. It was encased in glass that was half-frozen over and Buffy rubbed at it with her glove so that they could get a clear view.

"There." Buffy jabbed a finger at the glass and Faith nodded.

There were several ski-lifts shown on the map but only one was anywhere near a wooded area. It had to be the one they'd passed the night before just as the elves had appeared alongside the huskies.

"So that's about . . ." Faith tried to judge the distance using the scale indicator and then calculated it in time. "A two hour walk. Three in the snow."

Buffy sighed as she agreed. "Well, I guess we don't have anything better to do." She turned to look Faith up and down.


"No need to be so defensive! I was just thinking you need better clothes."

"Gee, and why would I be defensive about that? We're not going to another stupid Ball, B, just walking through some snow."

"Exactly! You're wearing jeans, which means you're gonna get wet and then freeze and I'm not carrying you back six miles if your legs fall off with frostbite."

Faith looked her up and down now. She hadn't really taken much notice before but now she realized Buffy was kitted out in the same kind of puffy snowsuit as everyone else out here. It wasn't as garish as most of them, being white and pink, and Buffy looked kinda cute in it, but it wasn't close to being her style.

"When did you even buy that?"

"The day before yesterday. I did tell you I was going shopping for vacation clothes, remember?"

Faith did. For some reason her brain had computed that as skimpy bikinis though, not ski-wear. She shrugged, "I survived plenty of Boston winters in jeans, I'll deal."

"Are you sure? There's a gift shop in the hotel that sells suits."

Faith wasn't putting on a cutesy puffy suit. "I'm sure. Let's just go."

They didn't get a chance to. An elf appeared from through the main doors - a human elf, not a real one - and instantly a crowd appeared around him. Faith and Buffy were caught up in the middle of it.

"Okay, boys and girls," he began, speaking through a megaphone. "Here are today's activities. First on the agenda is the Grand Snowball Fight! It starts just over there." He pointed to the clear area in front of the hotel. "And begins in half an hour. No need to sign up, just pick which side you want to be on and start throwing! After that we have the Build a Snowman competition - prizes for the biggest and the most artistic and, just so no one is left out, the silliest too! After that we take a break for hot cocoa and Christmas cookies."

Faith looked at Buffy, silently asking: 'Why are we listening to this?' They started to edge their way out of the crowd, trying not to make it too obvious they were leaving.

The elf-man went on. "After the break the ski lifts open. So for all of you extra-energetic folks that's your cue to head to the slopes. For the rest of us there is Bingo and Carolling in the Christmas Diner until the Tobogganing competition starts up on the dunes. All ages are welcome to join in although we do ask that children under five are accompanied by an adult."

"Danger," Buffy said suddenly.


Faith saw that they were heading towards Jan and Tim even as she asked. Damn. They'd already been spotted too so there was no sneaking off in the other direction. She reached out to take Buffy's waiting glove so that when they reached the couple they were holding hands.

"Are you two sneaking off?" Jan joked as they drew level.

Seeing as Buffy didn't have an answer, Faith took the bullet. "I needed a smoke."

She bristled when Tim gave her a disapproving look but relaxed when Jan said, "I'm with you," and followed them out of the crowd, leaving Tim and Olly to listen without her.

Jan took a pack of cigarettes from one of the deep pockets of her ski-jacket and offered one to Faith. "Don't get me wrong, I love all this family stuff, but darn it if it doesn't make the simple pleasures in life difficult."

She offered one to Buffy too. "Thanks, but I don't smoke. My simple pleasure is breathing properly. Oh, but I didn't mean to be rude," she added in a rush.

"Don't worry about it. Tim's the same. Especially now that we have Oliver."

As the two of them began to discuss the badness of smoking around kids, Faith tuned them out. Unfortunately that meant the elf-man tuned back in.

"And after we open the last doors of the giant Advent Calendar it's time for the Magical Reindeer Ride! The ride lasts two hours, with a stop along the way for hot cocoa and hotdogs, and then you have the choice of being dropped off back here for an early supper or arriving at Santa's Grotto in style."

Faith sneered at the idea of the Grotto. She'd never been taken to visit one as a kid but she imagined it would be cheesy and unbelievable as hell. Looking around at all the kids' excited faces, including little Olly's, she wondered what the hell was so special about Santa freakin' Claus anyway. He was a myth, a lie parents told to try and keep their brats behavin' themselves all year. She suddenly had a wicked little fantasy about stealing the megaphone off of the grown man in green tights and telling all these kids the truth. Releasing them from their Santa Claus-ian shackles. Letting them know that it didn't matter if they were good or bad because Santa didn't freakin' exist anyway. They could be free of the fear of the naughty list. They'd thank her for it in the end.

Buffy probably wouldn't thank her for it today though.

"Everything okay, Faith?" Jan asked, seeing her expression.

"Oh, she's fine," Buffy squeezed her hand hard. "Aren't you, baby? Probably just cold. I did tell her she needed warmer clothes."

Faith forced out a grin. "And I keep telling her all I need to keep me warm is my girl."

Not giving Buffy a chance to stop her, Faith caught her around the waist, pulling her close while leaning in to capture her lips. Buffy's mouth tasted of watermelon and blueberries from her breakfast dessert. Faith didn't drag the kiss out but made it worth the hassle she was gonna get for it later in private. As her arms slid from Buffy's waist and she allowed her to have back some personal space, Faith licked her lips with a cocky grin.

"See, much warmer now."

"Uh, yeah, me too," Buffy mumbled, sounding a little breathless.

Jan shook her head with a smile. "I can't believe you two have been together four years, you still act like you just fell in love." Seeing the crowd dispersing, she added, "Quick, what's your secret?"

Buffy chuckled awkwardly.

Faith laughed and with an arm around Buffy's neck pulled her down for an affectionate noogie. "B withholds sex a lot, keeps it fresh."

Buffy fought free with some pushing. She was glaring but Faith's smirk reminded her to rein in her temper.

Smiling brightly, Buffy turned to Jan. "Faith doesn't deserve sex a lot, keeps it easy."

"Wh . . .?" A snowball hit the side of Jan's face, making her drop her cigarette and distracting her. "Hey!"

Ten feet away Oliver was giggling uncontrollably.

"Olly threw it!" Tim called.

"Yeah right!" Laughing too, Jan was gathering snow to make her own ball.

Buffy took the moment to punch Faith in the stomach. It might have been subtle but it was still hard!

Faith doubled over with the shock attack. When she straightened back up she launched a snowball across the three feet separating them. It struck Buffy right in the face.


Faith's laugh was genuine but it had an edge to it. "Sorry, babe, just trying to join in the fun."

"It's just so beautiful!" Willow's eyes were shining with delight as they walked down the residential street.

It was mid-morning but every house was awash, inside and out, with the twinkling and sparkling of Christmas decorations. Lawns were lit up like neon bar-signs, pronouncing to the world that Christmas was open for business. The whole neighborhood was one big shiny LED winter wonderland.

Kennedy was used to it being like this out here and she barely noticed the extravagance of the displays, but Willow was enchanted.

Kennedy squeezed her hand. "So you like it?"

"I do. I mean, obviously it's a garish exhibition of crass commercialism but . . . look at all the pretty lights!"

Laughing, Kennedy swung their joined hands between them, pleased that the vacation hadn't been found wanting so far. She'd been nervous about bringing Willow, but she was taking her crazy family in stride and genuinely seemed to be enjoying herself.

"So did you miss me last night?" she teased.

"Yep. Your bed is way too big for just one person. I was lost in the sheets. There was this one moment where I thought I'd never find my way to edge again." Willow grinned at her. "Oh, and I missed snuggle time."

"Me too."

"I kinda thought you might sneak up after everyone was in bed."

"I wanted to, I nearly did, but Heidi was wandering the halls and she's the only one of my Mom's housekeepers I've never been able to get around."

"Do you think your Mom will change her mind before tonight? Maybe if we promise her we just plan to sleep?"

"Would you believe that?" Kennedy thought about the conversation she'd had with her Mom the night before. "No, she's suddenly realized seven years too late that letting me have girls sleep over isn't great parenting. I think she's got it into her head that the reason none of my other relationships worked out was because I gave it up too easy." She laughed as she made finger quotes around 'relationships' and 'too easy'.

"Okay, not needing to hear more about those, but do you think she's right?"

"No. I think I was too young for serious relationships anyway and the few I tried to have she ruined by being insane . . . but Willow, I never met anyone I really wanted to be serious with until you."

Willow's beautiful smile made Kennedy feel shy for revealing that, but it was true. From the first moment she'd spoken to Willow she'd known this girl was different; and even if it had been all about the thrill of the chase to start with, it hadn't taken her long to realize her feelings ran so much deeper than ever before.

"So maybe you just have to tell your Mom that."

"I tried last night but I think she's waiting for some kind of divine sign that I'm telling the truth and not just saying it to get laid."

Willow chuckled, "Well, I can understand that."

"Yeah, I understand it, but it doesn't help either of us get laid tonight."

Willow let go of her hand to playfully push her shoulder and when Kennedy caught it again she tugged her towards the sidewalk. They'd reached the end of one road and rather than turning aimlessly into the next as they'd been doing for the last hour, Kennedy headed for a footpath that ran between two of the large houses.

"Where are we going? There are more displays that way." Willow pointed down the street.

"Stage two of the tour."

A few hundred feet beyond the houses was a road. Not a busy one, at least not right now, but they had to wait for a couple of cars to pass before they could cross. On the other side Kennedy walked across a wide snowy verge into a line of trees and bushes.

"This is the second stage of the tour? Making out in the bushes?"

"We're not making out in the bushes." Kennedy heard the words leave her mouth and stopped abruptly. "Although we can if you want. It wasn't where I was aiming for but I'm onboard with detours."

"Detours can be fun."

Hidden from the road and passers-by, they lost twenty minutes detouring. If they hadn't both been wearing so many layers it probably would have been longer.

"So where were you aiming?" Willow asked eventually.

"Through here." Kennedy didn't take her hand again because she needed both of hers to push through the bushes and bare tree branches. She held them back for Willow to pass through. "To my parent's country club."

"Your parents own a country club?"

"No, but the amount of fees they pay each year to belong to it they probably could have bought one of their own by now. Here, over this."

She helped Willow over the simple wooden chest-high fence and then with one hand on the upper-most bar she jumped over to join her on the other side.

"Is this legal? Are we trespassing?" Willow whispered.

Kennedy grinned, "I'm a member too, Will, have been since I was seven. It's just quicker to go this way than walk around to the front gates."


"Well, eighteen officially, but they know me."

There were bushes and trees on this side too and again Kennedy held them aside for Willow.


Kennedy looked to see what had caused the reaction but there was nothing. "What?"

"I've just never seen this much snow!"

In front of them was the golf course, gently sloping down and then up with just a few trees and flags dotted here and there. It was covered in fresh, virgin snow. The club house could be seen on the horizon, a creamy-stone building that looked small from this distance.

"We had this much snow in Boudenver," she pointed out.

"I know, but after the first day that was just a nuisance. I can't imagine ever getting bored of looking at this though."

Kennedy chuckled, "Come on."

"Wait!" When she looked back at her, Willow gestured at the ground before them. "I don't want to spoil it."

"But that's the fun of snow, Will!" When Willow didn't look convinced Kennedy walked a few steps into it - it was soft and came half way up her shins - and then turned around to face her. "Watch."

Holding her arms out she fell backwards, she landed with a smuuuch sound as the snow gave around her.

"Your turn."

"Isn't it cold?"

"Not really."

Dubiously, Willow gingerly high-stepped out and picked her own patch of deep snow. After a few seconds to psych herself up she fell backwards too, and then lay there giggling.

Back at Sunset Camp everyone was getting drowsy again. Reece knew why, the literature was too dull and the room was too warm, but he couldn't bring himself to open a window to the sub-zero temperatures outside. He was trying to think of a way to boost everyone's energy when Dawn wandered into the kitchen yawning.

"Oh, hey, what are you all doing up so early?"

"Research," Vi muttered, eyes half-closed.

"Cool." Dawn bounced over to the fridge. "Find anything useful yet?"

"Nope." Alison rubbed her eyes before going back to reading. "And I'm officially seconds away from giving up."

Dawn's head had been in the fridge but she pulled it out again fast to stare at the slayers in dismay. "You can't give up! Think of the kiddies!"

Rona shook her head and closed her book. "There's nothing in these, Dawn!"

"So you're telling me that in those . . ." she counted quickly. ". . . eight big, thick books there is nothing that could be anything like what we're dealing with?"

"Dawn, it's not a case of just . . ." Reece began.

Dawn cut him off by holding her hand up. "I believe I was asking Rona."

Rona didn't look uncomfortable about being put in the middle of them, she shrugged. "Well, I've got nothing."

"It's true," Vi said. "We can research until we're blue in the face but . . . Actually, I think I must already be blue in the face. Am I?" she asked Rachel, sat to her left.

Rachel just shook her head mutely.

"There are plenty of demons that like to eat little children but we have no way of narrowing them down."

"Have you tried widening the search area? What about demons from . . .?"

"Yes," Reece told her. "We've expanded the search to habitats all the way to the North Pole."

"Okay," Dawn took the orange juice from the fridge and went to get a glass. "What about demons that only strike in winter time?"

"We've done that too!" Reece snapped. "We've widened our parameters as far as they'll go."

Dawn hopped up onto a stool. "So what about narrowing them?"

"How will that help?"

"Well, for starters it will reduce the number of demons likely . . ."

"And what do you suggest we narrow them to?" Reece asked. "We've already tried looking for demons that only feed around Boudenver - there were none - and demons that are only present in Ohio."

"That was more than none," Naomi said. "In fact it was a surprising amount, considering how quiet the Hellmouth area is."

"Not really, when you think about it." Dawn shrugged, "All of the demons are slowly making their way here from Sunnydale, it was bound to boost the population, but maybe they just haven't made it all the way to here yet."

Rona sat back in her chair, more alert than she had been all morning. "But if this demon came from Sunnydale, how has it been eating kids here every year for decades?"

"Exactly," Reece said, trying to gain some control over his research session. "It has to be either a local demon or a demon that habitually resides in the colder climates. So we need to keep reading . . ."

Dawn completely ignored him. "Going back to narrowing our parameters. We've tried local, we've tried less than local, we've tried winter demons . . ."

"You didn't in fact try any of them. You were asleep until twenty minutes ago."

Now she glared at him. "And whose fault is that? Why didn't you wake me for the research? You woke everyone else."

Her question surprised him. "I wanted to let you sleep."

"Why? Expecting another call from your girlfriend?"

There were a few titters from the slayers but Reece ignored them. "I told you last night, Dawn; Patricia and I . . ."

"I didn't want to hear it then, I don't want to hear it now." She addressed the rest of the group again. "So what about really narrowing it down? Like, demons that only attack at Christmas or something?"

Reeling with anger, Reece snapped, "That's preposterous! There aren't any demons that only attack at Christmas. It's a Christian holiday, it's sacred, no demon would dare misuse it." When he received several sceptical looks he went on, "Look, it's like vampires and crosses."

"He's right," Naomi backed him up. "Demons can feed on Christmas Day without burning up but none of them would do it deliberately. They'd be too scared of the consequences."

"So what you're saying," Alison said, "is that a vamp could bite me on Christmas Day and he'd be fine, but if he planned to bite me specifically because it was Christmas Day he'd be in trouble?"

Naomi nodded, "Essentially, yes. I don't think there have been any studies into whether it would actually be dangerous for a demon to bite someone on Christmas Day, but that's only because no demons are prepared to take the risk and try it."

The kitchen fell silent as everyone tried to come up with a new approach to the problem. It was the last thing on Reece's mind as he seethed over Dawn's attitude. He understood that she was angry - unjustifiably so in his opinion considering she hadn't even given him a chance to explain the night before - but it gave her no right to make him look a fool in front of the slayers. All of this might be a lark for her, a welcome break from homework no doubt, but it was his career, and undermining him as she was trying to do was unacceptable.

So he was even more furious when she suddenly sat up straight and offered yet another ridiculous explanation that all of the slayers lapped up.

"What if we're not dealing with a demon exactly? What if it's some other kind of supernatural Being - one that doesn't have the same hang-ups demons do?"

"Like what?" he asked sarcastically. "The Tooth Fairy?"

She shrugged, refusing to rise to his jibe. "Or a Hell-God."

"You're forgetting the fact that Hell-Gods don't live on this plane."

She shrugged again. "Sometimes they do."

The snowball fight had started. Buffy and Faith had never intended to join in, they still had to go and find that elf-infested ski-lift, but they'd been jollied into it by their new friends. Aware that they had to be seen to be fitting in, the slayers had agreed with a subtle nod to just get it over and done with.

It was a pretty haphazard event. About thirty people were taking part and because everyone was allowed to choose which side they were on without intervention they were uneven, about twenty to ten. Buffy had used that as her excuse to pick the other team to Faith.

"It's only fair," she'd joked to Tim as she walked towards the opposing side, "Otherwise we'll slay them."

She felt a little bad at the thought of throwing snowballs at him and Jan and Olly, but not that bad because she was only planning on aiming at one person anyway.

She realized quickly, or at least after the fifth snowball landed on her face, that this might not have been the best idea. Her aim may have been deadly but her snowballs were less so, whereas Faith must have spent most of her formative years - in the winter months anyway - making these things. Plus picking the smaller side may have been noble, but it was also stupid because it just meant she had even more people chucking lumps of snow at her.

Finally getting the hang of it after ten minutes, she sent snowball after snowball at Faith's head. She was faster than the rest of her team, who were laughing and fooling around too much to be effective, and soon broke ranks to seek out fresh snow when that around her had been depleted or trampled on.

With more people on her side, Faith soon had to do the same, her aim as single-minded as Buffy's. Buffy spluttered and blinked as each snowball that hit her bare face stung like a bitch, but even half-blinded by flakes and watering eyes she didn't slow down her throws.

Days - no months - of frustration went into her assault, and knowing Faith was probably channelling the same just spurred her on to win. To settle this once and for all: I'm right; you're wrong, deal with it!

Faith wasn't getting the message though, not even when a particularly large ball smacked her straight in the eye. She fell back for a second, rubbed the sore orb, and then went straight back to launching snowballs at her.

A whistle was blown. Buffy didn't know what it was for so she ignored it; bending to grab another handful of snow.

A compatriot came to pat her shoulder, "Good show, thanks to you we nearly had them beat."

"Yeah." She slipped out from under his hand, barely hearing his words, as she found room to bring her arm back and let fly at Faith's head.

It was easier to concentrate now because there were less people around her and less people around Faith. A snowball socked her right in the mouth and she swallowed half of it in surprise even as she was scooping up more.

The whistle blew again.

She caught Faith in the throat hard enough to make her yelp. She ducked the next one aimed at her head while making her next. Olly squealed with laughter and Buffy looked up to see why. Faith had grabbed him up in one arm and was using him as a human shield! Even as she registered that, Faith's next shot hit her in the face again; right on the nose!


Using more strength than she had been, Buffy aimed between Olly's dangling legs and pulled off the perfect groin shot. Faith grunted and sank to her knees, releasing Olly to run, laughing, back to his parents.

Before Buffy could start crowing over her victory an Elf-man was running up, blowing his whistle in her face.

The rest of the hunting party were never far away, Xander realized, as Alex fired up his portable radio and the responding beep could be heard from deep within the trees to their left. This was good if trouble found one of the other groups - at least he, Robin and Giles would be within running distance - but it didn't say a lot for the sheriff's planning skills if they were all hunting through the same patch of forest - leaving lots of other patches of forest hunt-free.

As Alex asked the guy who ran The Mouth if they'd seen anything yet, Xander mentioned as much to Giles.

"I agree," the Watcher said softly, "but to be honest I don't think we're going to find anything in daylight anyway. They're hoping to flush a wolf from its den, which would make sense if there was a wolf to find, but if we're truly dealing with elves as Buffy believes, they'll be where the food source is, not out here in the woods."

"So the resorts?"

"I imagine so."

As they trudged past the lane that led to Mount Olwyn Farm, Craig bustled cheerfully between them. "Are we going to that?"

He was pointing to a poster stuck to the gate post. Xander gave it a glance and noticed it was the same as the one Giles had brought home the night before.

"I think we have more pressing matters than a Christmas fete," Giles said.

"I know that! My whole body's feeling the press of the bleeding freezing conditions you've got me traipsing 'round in, but it's still Christmas, en't it? We can have a little fun too."

"Not while children are being eaten we can't," Giles said firmly.

It wasn't easy to repress Craig's enthusiasm for life and Giles' words didn't come close. "Come on, Uncle Rubear! Look! Reindeers, carolling, Father Christmas! We have to go."

Xander grinned at him. Despite knowing his parentage, it was hard not to like the kid a little. Craig kinda reminded him of himself at that age - although he'd been less with the gayness obviously. "Aren't you a little old to believe in Santa?"

"I don't believe he exists, but what's Christmas without a jolly fat man in a red suit?" Grinning slyly, he added, "Some of my best childhood memories come from sitting on Father Christmas' knee."

Xander laughed while Giles groaned, "Please go back to pestering Andrew and leave us grown-ups alone."

Craig winked at Xander before doing just that, but called out, "Still think we should go though. It'd probably chill some of the slayers out if they sat on Santa's knee too."

Giles shook his head, muttering about the boy under his breath, until he saw Xander's expression. "What are you grinning about?"

"You just called me a grown-up!"

"My mistake. Perhaps you'd be more comfortable walking back there with the boys."

Alex was off of the radio now. "Jake's team is heading north towards the lake and Marlon's is gonna skirt around Pleasant Creek, so I say we take Juniper Lane to the west and follow it back to town. It's about another ten miles or so, you guys okay with that?"

Xander shrugged, "Sure, Al, whatever you think's best."

They must have already walked four or five miles, the most exercise he'd done in a long while. He knew he'd ache for it tomorrow but right now, with the crisp air in his lungs and his legs just getting warmed up, another ten miles sounded like nothing. There were groans from behind them though, which the 'grown-ups' ignored.

"Do any of those routes go near the local resorts?" Giles asked.

"Yeah, they all do, the local resorts being local and all," Alex said gruffly. "As I've said before Mr. Giles, we know what we're doing. Our route will take us within a mile of Snow Dunes. Jake will pass Big Fir and Winterlake. Bobby's group will practically cut through High Tops on its way back to town. The resorts are covered."

Xander latched onto one resort name only, and judging by the look that passed between Robin and Giles they did too.

With a slight nod, Robin said, "I just need to make a call." And then drifted back until he was walking behind Andrew, Craig and the other kid.

"City types, huh?" Alex said with derisive nod back towards Robin. "Can't cope without their damn cell phones."

Xander couldn't worry about Alex's intolerance, he was too busy wondering why Robin got to call Buffy instead of him or Giles, but then it clicked. Robin didn't seem like the pining type but maybe the opportunity to call a certain ex was just too good to resist.

Once again their leaving was foiled by the happy family they'd accidentally become friends with. Jan and Tim were fine when Buffy explained they had to leave - probably pleased that the psychotic snowballers were going away - but Olly clung to Faith's leg, refusing to let go until she agreed to make a snowman with him.

The competition had started ten minutes later and considering their behavior in the snowball fight, Buffy was surprised they'd even been allowed to enter. Here they were though and now they had to act like they were in love again. It shouldn't have been this hard.

Buffy wasn't making much of an effort either; choosing a spot six feet away from Faith, she kept her back to her. She just couldn't find it in herself to turn around and make nice. Maybe because she was the only one in the competition who didn't have a partner. It was like health class all over again. Jan and Tim had obviously teamed up and with Oliver choosing Faith, she was on her own. She'd looked around hopefully to start with, expecting there to be at least one single person or spare kid that she could team up with but this place was so family and couple orientated that she had no options.

It didn't matter; she could still beat Faith at this. She could beat Faith at anything except drinking and being an asshole.

She quickly realized that was bullshit. She'd never made a snowman in her life! How hard could it be though? Apparently harder than she'd figured.

Ignoring Faith, she watched what the other couples were doing with their patches of snow and copied. She couldn't get her snowball to roll bigger; it kept breaking apart, so she came up with her own method. Scooping huge armfuls of snow into a pile, she patted it down to make a solid base. She might not win best snowman, but she was definitely a contender for the silliest. She piled snow on, determined to make it bigger than Faith's even if it looked like crap.

Glancing discretely at Faith and Olly's creation often to gauge how well they were doing, she saw when Faith patted her pockets to find her cell phone and then dug it out to hold to her ear. Buffy kept working but with less grumbling as she eavesdropped on the conversation.

"Hey, Rob. What's up?"

Buffy dropped another armful of snow onto her squarish base. Why would Robin be calling? It had better be work related! Although she couldn't imagine how it could be otherwise really. Ever since the guy had been publicly and literally dropped in favor of Buffy he hadn't made any noticeable attempts to win back Faith's affections. Then again, having taken on the role of family liaison he was hardly ever at the camp and, for all Buffy knew with their current estrangement, Faith could have been boinking him for the last week without her knowing.

Unlikely but not impossible. Not even that unlikely with Faith involved. If you believed her complaining, Faith needed sex to survive like Buffy needed regular meals, and as Buffy still wasn't giving it up . . .

"And you're telling me this why?"

No, she was being absurd. Faith wouldn't do that to her. Sure they were having difficulties but they were still together. Except not really right now but that didn't mean . . . Faith had been gone a really long time the night before, really long, and when she'd finally come back drunk she'd been going on and on about some guy called Greg . . . but that was innocent, she'd just been pumping him for information . . . oh, God, she wished she hadn't put it that way.

"So what do you want me to do about it?"

That didn't really sound work related. It probably was but . . . it didn't sound it. Squatting to pat down the loose snow on her snowman's body, she subtly watched Faith over the top of it, hoping to tell it was innocent by Faith's expression.

The other slayer didn't look bored or irritated or remotely business-like. She was grinning as she listened to Robin speak. Buffy watched as she dropped a handful of snow onto Olly's head, making him squeal and throw snow at her belly. Dusting his hair off for him, Faith indicated he should roll their big ball of snow some more; helping him with one hand while her other held the phone.

"Yeah, Rob, I get how it's a good idea but you're talking about a two-mile trek."

Buffy had forgotten her jealous musings for a moment because she was getting jealous over the perfect snowman body they were creating, but now she wondered: what was a two-mile trek? Did Giles have information on where the elves were hiding? As all she and Faith had to go on was the area near the ski lift, based on assumption and hope, any actual factual info was welcome.

Faith laughed, catching her attention again. "You want me to walk two miles just to chat to you through a chain-link fence?"

Chatting didn't sound very work related! And the idea that Robin was prepared to come all the way out here to chat to her girlfriend through a fence didn't sit well either. What could he possibly need to see her to chat about that he couldn't say in the conversation they were having right now? Obviously something he didn't want Buffy in on, that was the only explanation, which meant it couldn't be something work related at all!

Oliver had decided the snowman body was big enough; it was already level with his chest. There were bigger ones being built around them - Buffy's would be bigger if she ever managed to get a head on this mountain of snow she had piled up - but Faith was letting the boy run the show and nodded in agreement. Despite her current anxieties, it filled Buffy with happiness to see how well she was working with her little partner.

The happiness was short-lived.

"Hang on, Rob." She took the phone away from her ear to talk to Oliver. Why keep him waiting on the line? Faith often hung up on her with a second's notice when she was busy. "Okay, kid, now we gotta make the head. Want me to start you off?"

"I can do it!"

"Go for it."

Faith stepped back to watch him, putting the phone back to her ear. "Rob?"

This was where she told him she was busy and had to go, Buffy realized.

"Nah, it's cool, I'm just in a . . ." She laughed as if she couldn't believe she was about to say it. ". . . snowman building competition." Olly had a snowball formed ready to make the head - how did he do that so easy? - and Faith pointed him to a fresh patch of snow to roll it in. "Nah, not with B. Don't even know where . . ." Faith turned on the spot to find her. How could Faith not know she was just feet away? She smiled when she saw her, but the smile wasn't for Buffy. "Found her. She's . . . fuck, what is that?" Laughing, she pointed at Buffy's 'snowman'. "I think she got confused, she's building a volcano!"

Buffy glowered at her, imagining Robin laughing at her on the other end of the phone. "I'm just getting started!"

"Sure thing, B." And then Faith turned her back on her as she helped Olly put the head on the snowman.

"Screw you, Faith!"

Faith looked back over her shoulder, the phone still pressed to her ear. "We both know that's never gonna happen, B." She turned away again, adjusting the smaller ball of snow as she said into the phone, "Nah, as annoying as ever. You'd think being on semi-vacation mighta mellowed her out a little. No such luck."

Buffy stood up, fuming her ass off. Sure they were having problems but that gave Faith no right to discuss them with her one night stand. The one night stand that was Buffy's colleague no less! Stuff between them should be personal! Did Faith know nothing about relationships or was she just deliberately trying to embarrass her? Both, probably.

Faith was still talking, "Yeah it sucks but that's life." She gave Olly the carrot to stick in the center of the head as she pushed two pieces of coal into the face to make the eyes. "Yeah I should be focusing on that, but I don't know. Still thinking. I know Deb D thinks it's the be-all and end-all but it's hard, yunno? Putting that much effort into something I never seem to get right."

As Olly ran off to get his parent's attention, eager to show them the snowman he'd made, Buffy stared at Faith's back, unable to believe she was discussing this with Robin at all, let alone right in front of her!

What came next pushed her over the edge. "Dunno. Get this shit over with here and then I'm thinking it's time to give myself a break. Look for something new, yunno?"

Too incensed to think straight, Buffy stormed over to Faith and punched the head off of her snowman. It landed face down and the carrot broke and the eyes fell out. Unable to stop there she started kicking the body and chunks of snow flew through the air. When there were no big pieces left to kick she jumped on it until it was a flattened mess.

"Hey, Robin, don't bitch! All I'm saying is maybe the GED ain't for me. I can . . ." Faith noticed the commotion behind her at the same time as Buffy registered her last sentence. Faith turned as Buffy stepped guiltily backwards. "What the hell, B?"

"I'm sorry!"

Behind her a small child started wailing, Buffy didn't need to look to know who it was.

"My snowman!" Oliver cried.

Buffy quickly turned to him, dropping down on her knees to get to his height. "I'm really sorry, Olly. I'll help you build a new one."

"Hate you!" he shouted and ran up to hug Faith's legs.

Buffy felt wretched and, as she met Jan and Tim's hostile eyes, the feeling grew. "I swear I have a good explanation!" she lied.

Faith sighed, looking from Olly clutching her thighs to Buffy's panicked expression.

"Rob, it's been a blast, but I suddenly got a situation to deal with. And just so you know, dude," she sniggered, "I'm never gonna wanna walk two miles just to chat with you. I got me a girlfriend already. Call me if ya find out anything we actually need to know."

Now Buffy felt even worse.

The heavy snow clouds had been breaking up and drifting away all morning and now the sun was shining brightly, turning the waves from a grey-green to a glittering blue-white. The sunshine was nice, even warm-ish, but there was still a sharp edge to the air.

This was definitely the best way to enjoy the beach, Willow decided as she stared out over the choppy Atlantic Ocean. Back in Sunnydale, afternoons spent at the beach were a little too hot for her and she was always worried that she'd forgotten to apply enough sunscreen and would turn lobster-red at any second (something that happened often, even with liberal amounts of UV protection, thanks to her fair skin).

So as far as she was concerned, this was perfect beach weather and although the snow was deep enough to creep over the edge of her snow boots, at least she wouldn't be finding sand between her toes for the next week.

"I guess we won't be making any sandcastles today, huh?" she thought aloud.

Kennedy had been contentedly watching the small waves too but she smiled at her now. "You like building sandcastles?"

"I did when I was little."

"We could build a snowman."

Willow grinned, "Aren't we a little old for that?"

"You're never too old to build snowmen, Will."

"I didn't know that."

Kennedy laughed, unzipping her thick jacket so that she could take it off. She threw it onto the snow a few feet behind them and then adjusted her gloves comfortably.

"Come on then."

"I don't know how," Willow admitted. She'd never built anything out of snow before. "Will you teach me?"

From the size of Kennedy's smile she obviously considered the simple request to be a big deal. Willow didn't really know why it would be, but it made her own smile just as warm.

"Sure. You start off with just a snowball, big as you can make it."

She demonstrated by picking up two gloveful's of snow and squishing them tightly together. Some of the snow fell away but when Kennedy opened her hands there was a misshapen lump about the size of a baseball resting on her palm. Grabbing some more snow in her free hand she carefully melded that on to the ball too, and then again and again.

Willow watched intently as the ball grew. Soon it was big enough that Kennedy couldn't hold it easily in one hand and add to it at the same time. She set it on the ground and squatted next to it.

"You have to pack the snow carefully or it'll just fall apart." Kennedy added a few more gloveful's until it was about the size of a soccer ball and then stroked her hands firmly around it, smoothing out the snow and making sure it was solid. "Now comes the fun part."

Willow had thought the fun part was watching Kennedy's intense and animated concentration as she taught her how to make the ball. It was like a mellow version of watching her train the newbies, something Willow had always loved even before she'd fallen in love with the girl herself. Kennedy was a force of nature, just like Buffy and Faith, but unlike her best friend and Faith - who were both pretty self-involved when it came to the slayer thing, understandably, she added guiltily to herself, seeing as they'd both been Chosen One's instead of Chosen Many's - Kennedy reveled in sharing her calling and coaching others to reach their own potential.

Now she realized she'd been mistaken, the fun part was watching Kennedy's butt as she bent at the waist and pushed the big snowball along the beach.

"Are you paying attention?" Kennedy asked, sounding amused.

Willow grinned, realizing she'd been caught staring. "Lots of attention."

Kennedy straightened up and walked back to her, sliding arms around her waist. "This class is Snowman 101, not Ass Appreciation."

"It can't be both? I'm an excellent multi-tasker."

"There's going to be a pop quiz later," Kennedy threatened.

"On appreciating your ass?" Willow grinned. "Trust me, walk in the park."

Kennedy laughed and kissed her and then laughed again as she went back to the ball of snow, now double the size of a soccer ball.

Willow sighed but it was a happy sigh. She followed Kennedy to where she waited.

"This part's straight forward. You just keep rolling." Kennedy did so and Willow kept pace with her. By the time they'd gone twenty feet the ball had nearly tripled in size. Kennedy shunted it to the right a little and then began rolling it back the other way. Reaching the place where they'd started, she shunted it left into fresh snow.

"Do you want a go?"

Willow stared at the ball that was now higher than her knees! But how hard could it be to roll it through snow? It was soft after all, that's why her feet kept sinking into it.

"Sure." She took Kennedy's place and bent to put her hands on the ball.

She was able to push it along but Kennedy and her darn slayer strength had made it look easier than it was! She was panting by the time she'd made it the twenty feet and knew now why Kennedy had taken her coat off before starting. Playing in the snow was hot work.

"Okay, just take it back to where we were and that should be big enough."

How big did the thing have to be? It was already just an inch shy of her hips! Willow pushed it to the right and then moved behind it once more. It had only made a few revolutions before she'd had enough of the physical exertion.

"Isn't it big enough now?"

"No, it has to be at least up to here." Kennedy held her hand just below her breasts. "Do you want me to take over?"

Willow nearly said yes, but she didn't want her first attempt at making a snowman to be a failure.

After a moment's deliberation she said, "No, I've got it."

She took her hands off of the ball but held them just a few inches away. After taking a breath to concentrate her energies, she started forward again. The snowball rolled along without her needing to touch it.

She expected Kennedy to accuse her of cheating as the slayer watched with a slight frown.

"Is that safe?"

Willow grinned, "I'm not going to crush you to death with it, if that's what you mean."

"I meant for you."

"I don't need dark magick to make a snowman."

"But doesn't it count as personal gain?"

Willow felt a hot flash of annoyance but reason overruled it. She was the one who kept telling everyone she couldn't use magick just for the heck of it anymore after all, making Kennedy's question totally relevant. So instead of lashing out irritably, she explained,

"No one gets that magick is serious business better than me, Kennedy, but this is ultra-light. It's not all that different to the control exercises I'd be doing if we were at home. And if I should be doing them anyway, why not have a little fun at the same time?"

Kennedy thought about it until the ball was back where they'd started again. "Do you miss it? Just being able to use magick for whatever you wanted without worrying about the consequences?"

"No," she answered automatically, but this was Kennedy and she didn't want to pretend in front of her. "Actually, yes. Lots. I mean, not all the time, I'm getting used to the way things are now. And the Chaotic Nerve spell scared me even more than going dark did, I think. It definitely made me more wary of it. If my magick can go on the fritz even when I'm being careful . . . But Giles and Althenea are right, magick is a part of who I am now. I can't run scared from it, that won't do anyone any good. I have to work with it, nurture it, and treat my gift with respect and eventually - hopefully sooner rather than later - I'll find my balance."

"Did Tara have balance?"

The question surprised Willow so much that she blanked on an answer - her brain-space filled only with thoughts of her dead lover for a few moments. Kennedy never brought up Tara any more unless it was in a jealous way but right now she seemed motivated by genuine curiosity; and perhaps concern.

Willow shook her thoughts clear. "She did. Her Magick wasn't the same as mine though. Mine's all flash-bang, but Tara's was more spiritual. She could read auras and pick out emotional ley-lines; totally white. She was the Glinda to my Elphaba."

Kennedy's frown deepened. "So what does that make me?"

"The Kennedy to my Willow," she said with an easy grin.

This year Santa's Grotto was fifteen minutes away from the resort; and for the guests that was fine, but for the guys lugging all the equipment out there it was hard work.

So Simon was glad it wasn't his job. As Assistant to the Deputy Manager all he had to do was direct the others. Still, he'd left his employee accommodation in a hurry that morning and somehow that had resulted in him forgetting his thermal vest. So he was freezing his ass off and not happy to be out in a field. At least it wasn't snowing yet. The weather man had promised more this afternoon though, so this needed to be done quickly.

"Okay," he called out, teeth chattering slightly. "Put the red carpet down now." He stared incredulously at the guys carrying it. "No, not there! What's the point of putting it down there? There's a three foot gap to the door! Pull it up here."

When that was done correctly he looked around.

"Someone call maintenance, there's three bulbs out on that tree. And while we're at it, someone move the glowy reindeer off of the path before one of the kids can get electrocuted by it. Jeez! You wouldn't think we do this every darn year! Hey, you!"

To be fair though, they didn't normally have the Grotto in the middle of nowhere. It was usually a lot easier to sort out things like electricity and carpets, not to mention the hundred other little things that were on his list, but the Manager - his boss' boss - had insisted it was further out this year. He'd heard through indiscreet whispers that the old guy was getting paid to set up a more traditional grotto but he didn't know how true those rumors were or the reason behind them. His job was just to follow orders. And to try and get these idiots to follow his orders.

Twenty minutes later, he called, "Okay, looking better. Did anyone call maintenance yet? And someone get the Nativity scene back to the Nativity barn! Why would it be at Santa's Grotto? That's like saying Santa is God! Not gonna look good for us if there are any ultra religious types in the crowd, is it? That's right, get it gone. Have the presents arrived yet? Don't tell me no, we only have four hours to go."

A teenage boy dressed as an elf was running up the path with a large sack held awkwardly in both hands. "Here they are, Si."

"That's it?" Simon asked as he took the sack. "How many kids are we expecting?"

Someone shouted out, "Twenty-eight."

He looked at the sack dubiously. "And there's twenty-eight in here?"

"Eighteen," said the boy who'd brought them. "They're still wrapping the other ten."

"Nothing like organization," Simon grumbled. His irritation had more to do with his next task though. "Okay, go wait for the next lot. And tell maintenance we have bulbs out!"

Someone called for his attention but he waved them away. They could wait a minute. With a deep breath he pushed through the wooden door into the Grotto, which was just a wooden shack really. It was dark inside, the lights had been installed the day before but they weren't lit in the entrance room. He reached for the switch to flip them on but something made him hesitate.


"Hello?" came a cheery voice from deeper within the building.

It should have made him relax. It didn't.

"I've brought the gifts. Well, some of the gifts, enough to be going on with."

"That's good. Children like gifts. It relaxes them."

Good for the children! Simon was holding a whole sack of them and they weren't relaxing him. Neither was the fact that he was speaking to someone he couldn't see. He walked across the room, lit only by the dull light coming through the windows, to the area at the back of the shack that had been curtained off.

He poked his head through. "Shall I bring them in?"

The hired Santa Claus was sitting on his chair - it was hard not to think of it as a throne - and gestured him in with a welcoming wave of his hand.

"Si, it is wonderful to see you again."

"You too, Santa," he said automatically.

A small boy dressed as an elf came to take the sack of presents from him and others were milling about waiting for his instruction. Simon watched the boy with the presents with some confusion, they didn't generally hire such young children, but obviously someone must have done. He didn't approve of having kindergarten kids in the workplace, especially this workplace, but he didn't comment. He might have been a rising star in the ski resort business, but he was only twenty-two years old and hadn't risen that far yet. If his boss had okay'd using five year olds to dress as elves, Simon wasn't going to risk his job by criticizing it.

"Is there anything else you need in here, Santa?"

"No, I believe we are all set," Santa told him.

Simon realized he didn't know his real name, which felt rude. "Santa, I apologize for not already knowing, but is there something I should call you other than Santa?"

Santa smiled graciously. "You can call me Kris, if you prefer."

"Okay, Kris. I'll see you again just before we open, if that's okay."

Kris nodded.

"If you need anything else . . .?"

Kris nodded again, "I will be sure to call for you."

Simon nodded himself and then gratefully fled the Grotto. Kris Kringle looked around at his elves. "Well, that was boring. See that I am bothered by no more of these adult humans."

A couple of elves left the shadows to do just that. Innoki appeared at his side.

"Are we all set?" Santa asked him.

"Indeed, Sire. The Grotto is scheduled to open in four hours."

"You know I cannot eat from the line anymore. The parents wait right outside."

"We've made arrangements, Sire. All of the very good children have been selected in advance. They'll arrive while the main line is in progress so as not to draw suspicion."

"Good. I'm hungry. How many?"

"Eight, Sire."

Santa nodded, "Eight will tide me over. Si knows we are leaving tonight?"

"He understands you have a commitment at a children's home in Cleveland in the morning."

"Good, good. I don't suppose there is any chance we have a real commitment at a children's home?"

"I'm afraid not, Sire. We'll be spending thirty-six hours in the woods before arriving at the fair."

"Well it can't be helped, I suppose. And is everything prepared there?"

"Laniki is on his way to do that now, Sire. We believe there are approximately thirty children under twelve living in the local area."

"Ah, how I love a feast! That will be a worthy meal before I retire back into hibernation, Innoki. Now, if there is nothing else, I would like a nap before the festivities begin."

"There is nothing else, Sire."

Innoki rushed away to deal with all the final minutiae that he didn't want to bother his boss with. Santa sat back in his throne, resting his hands on his round belly, and closed his eyes for a while.

It was an hour's walk from the beach back to her parents place and so, seeing that Willow was starting to wilt a little with all the exercise, Kennedy suggested they stop for a coffee at the club before they left. Kennedy had ordered a latte and Willow had asked for a mocha with extra sprinkles and now they were sitting in a window seat, touching toes under the table but staring out of the window in a companionable silence.

"Well, well, we heard you were back." Kennedy looked up at the sudden intrusion. "Sorry we didn't make the party last night. We only got in this morning."

"Hey. Hi." Kennedy stood up, accepting kisses on the cheek from the man and woman standing by their table. "It's nice to see you. This is Willow. Will, this is my Aunt and Uncle. Angela and Carlos."

Willow stood up too, shaking the offered hands. "It's nice to meet you."

"You too," Angela said, smiling. "We've already heard so much about you."

Willow glanced over and Kennedy shrugged. She didn't know how or why everyone already knew so much about Willow when her parents had only met her the day before, but she'd long given up trying to understand the way her Mom worked when it came to her love life.

"Would you like to join us?" she asked, already pulling out the chair beside her.

"No, we won't intrude," Carlos said.

"We haven't even unpacked yet," Angela explained. "We just popped in for a pick-me-up. So Willow, have you settled in comfortably?"

"I guess so," Willow said and then realizing that they were waiting for more added, "Kennedy's bed was really comfortable last night. Oh! Not that I meant it like that! I mean, I was comfortable alone. Kennedy wasn't in there with me!"

Carlos laughed, "Well, plenty of time for that after the big day."

"Exactly! Um . . . what?"

"We won't disturb you two any longer," Angela said with a little grin. "We know what it's like. Hasn't been that long since we were in your shoes, has it honey?"

"Fifteen years," Carlos rolled his eyes playfully, "but it only feels like forty."

Angela elbowed her husband in the ribs before leaning down to give Kennedy a quick hug. "We'll see you tomorrow; we're spending the day with you." Straightening back up she waved a finger between her and Willow as she insisted, "And I want to hear all about it, okay? From the popped question to what colour the dresses are going to be."

Kennedy held up her hand to question that but Carlos had already picked up their order from the counter and they were heading for the door. She twisted in her seat to watch them leave.

"What did they mean by . . .?" Willow didn't finish her question, which was good because Kennedy had no idea how to answer it.

The peace of the moment shattered, they both drank their drinks as fast as they could. Kennedy burnt her tongue on the hot liquid but she didn't care and was already standing before she'd wiped the milk-foam from her lips.

"I think I need to speak to my Mom now."

Buffy hadn't explained her screwed up behavior over the snowmen competition and Faith had only asked once before declaring she 'didn't give a fuck'. That attitude had pleased Buffy no end, but without a leg to stand on, she'd sat down instead - inside the diner. It was so much warmer than outside that she actually started to thaw out for the first time since finishing her breakfast.

She was watching through the window as Faith and Oliver made another head and stuck it on her own abandoned snowman body. A few minutes later the judging started and it was clear they didn't win anything, which was hardly a surprise. Buffy hoped Faith would come and find her now, if only to yell at her, but she stayed outside, messing around in the snow with Olly, Tim and Jan.

Oh yeah, so she could play happy families just fine as long as Buffy wasn't in the mix!

Her second mocha arrived and Buffy accepted it with a smile, slurping some of the foam off of the top as she looked back out the window. Her not-girlfriend was still fooling about with a smile on her face. She knew attacking the snowman as she had was childish, even with just cause - which as it turned out she hadn't had - but she wasn't a bad person! She was just so frustrated with the way things were between them that for a tiny second she'd let rage take over. It shouldn't have been grounds to exile her to the coffee shop alone!

What did she do now? She'd already apologized to Oliver ten times and he'd apparently stopped caring after the first four. Not that he'd forgiven her. Faith had made her feelings on the subject clear and, in the wrong she might have been on this occasion, but with Faith's general behavior these days it was hard to keep apologizing for something as trivial as stomping on a snowman.

She was still staring out of the window, only really seeing Faith, when someone slipped into the seat next to her. She looked up at Jan in surprise and then slumped in her chair.

"Yell at me, I deserve it, I totally destroyed your kid's innocence."

Jan chuckled, "No, Tim running over his dog destroyed his innocence."

"Oh God!" Buffy put a hand to her mouth and stared out at the stump of snowman that was still visible. "That's way worse! And you're saying I gave him flashbacks?"

"No," Jan laughed fully this time, and Buffy felt indignant. "Jasper survived. He only has three legs now but he survived. What I'm saying is: you made Olly cry but he's over it already. You don't have to hide in here."

"How bad will I look if I say I'm actually hiding from Faith?"

She shouldn't have said that. Not that their cover wasn't already blown by her behavior, but she should be trying to save it, not ruining it further.

"You two are having problems, huh?"

"No!" she said at once.

Jan waved her into silence and then ordered a coffee from the waitress. "Don't say I mentioned it, but Tim and I did the make-up or break-up vacation a couple of years ago. I recognize the signs."

"But you two seem so solid."

"And we are again now. But after Olly was born we went through a . . . we had a bad year."

"Faith and I are okay," Buffy muttered.


"Did the vacation help?"

"Oh yeah, the two weeks in Bermuda was great. Gave us time to relax with each other again."

"This isn't exactly Bermuda."

Jan looked out at the snowy landscape beyond the window and laughed, "True. Look, if you want to talk about it . . ."

"I appreciate the offer, but I think we have one therapist too many already."

"We did Marriage Counseling too. Sucks doesn't it?"

Buffy hadn't really meant to voice that out loud, but now that she had she looked around at Jan, animated, "It so does! Where do they get off, huh? Like their love lives are so perfect. Do you know what ours suggested? Take a break from each other! How does that help you be a couple?"

"Beats me. I'm assuming you ignored the advice though." Jan waved a hand around to indicate what she meant.

Buffy thought before speaking this time. "Yeah, Faith was so mad she turned right around and booked us this trip."

"And you're mad that she did?" Jan guessed.

Buffy smiled and shook her head. "No, I love that we're here together. It's just that . . . I think our problems go deeper than a vacation can fix. But I'm happy to try it if Faith is."

Someone dressed as en elf came over to clear the table beside them of plates and cups, catching Buffy's attention. Nearly all of the employees were dressed as elves, but this was a shorter than usual someone and Buffy regarded the back of him suspiciously as Jan continued their conversation.

"So what kind of problems are you two having?"

Buffy caught a split-second side view of what could have been a five year old boy wearing plastic elf ears as he wiped the table down. The ears didn't look all that plastic though and she tensed.

"We're not having problems."

"Sorry, I'm being nosy. I just thought I might be able to offer some insight."

His eyes were strange too, but she couldn't pinpoint exactly why. It was sort of the shape of them and sort of the color, but neither screamed non-human necessarily. There was just something about them, but she couldn't grab him and scream 'demon' just because he had beautiful eyes. Not that she'd have done that in this busy cafe even if she'd been totally sure he was a real elf. Plus, when she took a second to concentrate on the signals her body was sending her, none of them suggested a demon was nearby. Then again, the Pixies didn't set off the spider tinglies either so that wasn't really a definitive sign.

The boy-elf moved around them to another table. Deliberately keeping his back to her? Or was that just paranoia?

"I said, maybe I can impart some wisdom," Jan said, not knowing why Buffy had suddenly spaced.

She probably was wrong, but Buffy trusted her intuition on such things just enough to not be comfortable continuing this conversation. If Jan knew she and Faith weren't the happy couple they were trying and failing to make out they were, then that wasn't the biggest deal in the world, but she couldn't risk blowing their cover in front of the enemy.

So, turning to Jan with a bright smile, she said, "Honestly, it's just a hiccup. Faith and I are solid. We butt heads sometimes, and sometimes she can cut a little close to the bone and I . . ." she gave a self-deprecating smile. ". . . sometimes beat the crap out of innocent snowmen, but that's just our thing."

Jan chuckled dubiously, obviously not understanding where this sudden turn-around had come from. "Seriously? But you two are . . ."

She paused, not wanting to be rude, so Buffy finished for her, "A relationship train wreck? Sure, sometimes, but it keeps it interesting. Besides," she stood and pushed her chair in, eying the boy-elf again, who had moved to yet another table but was still within earshot. "If you think the fighting is that bad imagine how good . . ."

"The make-up sex is?" Jan giggled as she stood up with her.

Buffy had only planned to say 'the making up is' but she giggled with her anyway, wishing she had actual experience to back it up instead of lying when she said, "Exactly!"

"Are you really sure though? It's just you were so mean to each other earlier."

Why couldn't Jan let it go? It wasn't like they were real best friends, just vacation buddies. Buffy glanced at the boy, realizing just how short he really was now that she was standing up - it had to be a tick in the not-human box. She had to tell Faith the real elves were definitely infiltrating the employees, and that they were possibly being spied on.

"Really sure." Buffy nodded her head to the door. "Come on. I bet ya Faith has forgiven me already. Her attention span isn't much longer than Olly's."

Thanks to Dawn's ridiculous interference the slayers were now researching Hell-Gods and other deities that might be inclined to attack at Christmas. Reece had shouted about it to begin with, especially when Naomi had said the idea had some merit, but no one was listening so now he fumed quietly while continuing his own far more likely-to-be-useful research of local demons.

Surprisingly, over the course of the morning the girls found a few possibilities but none that fit all of the criteria, which allowed him to feel silently smug. He didn't voice his smugness; there was no need to crow, they all knew now that he'd been right.

Instead, while the slayers grumbled that they were still nowhere, he followed Dawn to the kettle under the pretense of helping her make tea.

"We need to talk about last night, Dawn," he said, keeping his voice low.

"What can you possibly say that will make me feel better?" she didn't keep her voice low, but while he was sure every slayer was listening, no one looked up.

"The truth!" he lied.

"I don't want to hear it."

"Stop being a child!"

"Go screw yourself!"

"Patricia is only a . . ." he tried.

Dawn put her fingers in her ears. "Lalalalala. Can't hear you!"

"Oh, to bloody hell with you then." He went to sit back down, his chair scraping angrily on the stone floor as he pulled it in. "Where are we?" he barked at the quietly sniggering slayers.

"Still nowhere!" Alison snapped back. "Did you think we'd find a miracle answer in the two minutes you've been chatting about your love life?"

Reece rounded on her, raising his voice. "Now look here, you little . . .!"

Putting a firm hand on his arm, Naomi interrupted, "Reece, I have an idea. Can we talk outside?"

"Why are you going outside?" Rona asked. "If you've got something, share."

Naomi ignored her. "Reece?"

His chair scraped back even more angrily as he stood up to follow her. Catching Dawn worriedly watching him leave out of the corner of his eye didn't soothe his mood.

"What?" he demanded as soon as the back door had closed behind them.

"I don't really have an idea. I just thought it was wise to force you to breathe for a minute before you alienate the slayers completely."

"The slayers can go and . . ."

"Reece! We're not out of Slayer hearing range."

"I don't care," he snapped, but he didn't finish his original sentence either. He fumed for a while longer, glaring at Naomi, and then took a calming breath of the crisp air. Stepping out for a moment had been a good idea but now that he'd calmed down he didn't like the way his fellow Watcher trainee was watching him expectantly. "Look, Nai, I appreciate what you just did, but I have no wish to talk about my feelings."


He smiled charmingly to appease her. "I just don't think it's appropriate to talk about Dawn with you."

"I said, good."

He heard her the second time. "Oh."

"I don't intend to be your agony aunt, Reece, but for the record, you talking about Dawn is not going to hurt my feelings."

"Oh." He knew she still carried a torch for him, her recent disagreeable attitude towards him only cemented that belief, but he wasn't going to embarrass her by pointing it out. "Okay then, I understand."

"You could sleep with every woman under the sun and I wouldn't even notice."

He smiled benevolently and only just stopped himself from saying, 'That's the spirit!'

"It's Dawn I feel sorry for." His generous mood left fast, leaving a frown behind. "And Patty of course."

"For someone intent on calming me down you're going the right way to do the opposite."

Naomi went to retort, changed her mind and looked away for a moment. When she turned back, she asked, "So how is Patty? She hasn't emailed me recently."

"Fine. Although she thinks Squire may have hoof thrush."

"That's it?"

"Horace is going over there to take a look today. He's a good vet."

"I mean, that's all you talked about?" Naomi asked.

"It's Pat, what else do you expect her to talk about?" he said, irritated.

Naomi shrugged.

Reece grew even more irritable as he confessed, "She's upset I'm not going back for Christmas! She gave me an earful. To be honest, it was gratifying. Until I was listening to her whinge about it last night I wasn't even sure she'd noticed I've been gone for four months."

Naomi made a sympathetic noise and then cancelled it out by asked, "What about Dawn?"

Now Reece shrugged. "I'm not going back to live in England any time soon. There's no reason Dawn and I can't continue as we have been once she calms down."

"But . . ."

The back door opened and Naomi stopped talking.

Rachel stuck her head out, "There's a phone call for you, Reece." She disappeared back inside, leaving the door open.

Reece breathed a sigh of relief to be released from this conversation. Before he went inside though he had to make something clear. "Nai, I promise you this really isn't the same as . . ."

She cut him off. "I honestly don't care if it is. Just watch your back. The world needs all the Watchers it can get and you're not cheating on helpless girls anymore. If Buffy gets wind . . ."

Dawn bellowed from inside, "Reece!"

He nodded at Naomi while eying her suspiciously, wondering if she was planning to be the whistle-blower, and then went back inside.


"Giles is waiting to talk to you!" Dawn pointed at the phone before going back to ignoring him.

Reece walked around the table and picked the receiver up from the counter. He took a second to compose his thoughts before lifting it to his ear.

"Hello sir?"

He listened for a minute or two, his shoulders slumping more with every sentence. This was the last thing he needed right now. Not only did he have to tell the slayers he'd had them barking up the wrong tree all morning - which was sure to cause some discontent aimed at him - he also had to go and speak to the damn Piskies!

"Okay, sir, I'll go and do that right now. Did you find anything out . . .?"

Giles had already hung up. Reece cursed under his breath as he replaced the receiver. The last time he'd had any dealings with the little folk he'd been knocked out and kidnapped!

"What was that about?" Rona asked.

If it had been anyone but his slayer asking he would have ignored them, but he immediately saw the advantage.

"Rupert wants us to go and speak to the Piskies together."

Rona gave him a rare smile of camaraderie. "He asked for me to go too?"

"Yes," Reece lied.

Buffy had walked right up and thrown her arms around Faith's neck, which confused Faith some considering they'd been arguing before the blonde had stormed off. Faith was happy Buffy seemed to be over it, but she wasn't ready to let go of her own anger yet - that had been a hell of a snowman Buffy had killed, maybe one of her best - so she tried to shrug the arms off of her and step back.

"Don't," Buffy murmured.

"Give me one good reason why . . .?"

"We're a happy couple."

"Coulda fooled me."

"We're a happy couple," Buffy repeated and her twitching eyebrow was probably code for something.

Faith took a guess at what, "We being watched?"

She remembered the manager in the bar the night before; she'd never decided whether his watchful frown had been suspicious or not.

"Possibly. I think there are elves working here after all."

"Well, yeah, they're everywhere." Faith gestured as a six foot guy in plastic ears and curly boots walked by.

"No, I mean the genuine little article. He seemed real interested in hanging out near my table and yet real shy about showing me his face. Also Jan was asking a lot of questions."

"You think Jan's an elf?" Faith watched the woman play with her kid. "Pretty sure Olly would be headless by now if she was."

"No, stupid, I just meant if she's asking questions maybe others are too, or maybe others overheard my answers."

"Which you thought about before giving, right? So that they complimented our little sham here and didn't blow our cover?" Buffy's guilty silence was answer enough. "B!"

"Don't raise your voice! I told her it was just a lovers spat and that you'd have forgotten it by now."

"And that's why you're hugging me?"


Faith grinned. She was still pissed off about the snowman and about Buffy blowing their cover and about Buffy jumping out of bed earlier when she'd just been getting started, but now she saw a way to turn the tables. "I think people might take more convincing than that."

"What do you mean?"

Faith wrapped her arms around Buffy's waist. "That was a pretty nasty spat. I don't think a hug is gonna cut it."

"You want me to have sex with you right here?"

"See!" Faith was angry all over again. "You think I'm obsessed with sex but you're the one who always leaps straight to that!"

"Keep your voice down," Buffy reminded her again, more urgently than before. "I only jump there because you are obsessed by it!"

"No! You know what? Fuck this charade! I don't wanna play happy families with you anymore. I'm over this shit! Screw the cover! Let's call the cavalry in, hunt down those motherfucking elves and deal with the consequences after. 'Cause the sooner I can walk away from . . ."

Buffy kissed her.

Faith was angry enough she tried to struggle out of it, pulling her head back and pushing at Buffy's shoulders, but it turned out that when Buffy really wanted to kiss someone, they stayed kissing. As soon as her brain gave up the fight her body was free to get on with doing what it really wanted to - kiss back. Instead of trying to push her away she was pulling her closer instead as she enjoyed the mocha-sweetness of Buffy's mouth.

She was still wary, expecting Buffy to pull away the moment she realized Faith was into this, but she didn't, not for a while anyway. Not until a faux-elf walked past them, shouting that it was time to start the toboggan races.

Faith smiled at her, running her hands up and down the outside of Buffy's ski jacket. "So, how about it? Wanna get cosy in a toboggan together?"

Buffy wasn't returning her smile. "I suppose we have to."

"You scared of a little sledding, B?"

"No, I just don't want you to think this lets you off the hook."

Faith laughed, "What hook?"

"We can't call in the cavalry, Faith, we have to make this farce work, but don't think I've forgotten any of what you just said."

"What did I just say?" She'd forgotten in the heat of the moment. Buffy heat was good heat.

"If you want to walk away from me, you really don't have to worry about me trying to stop you."


Buffy ignored her. Plastering on a fake smile she grabbed Faith's hand and dragged her over to where a line was forming for the free toboggan rental. As Faith's luck would have it they joined the queue right behind Tim, Jan and Olly, giving her no chance to argue Buffy's statement.

"Hey, see," Buffy said to Jan, swinging their hands loosely between them. "Told you she'd be over it. I am one lucky woman to have such an awesome girlfriend, huh?"

As Jan laughed and agreed that she'd been wrong and they were obviously perfect for each other, Faith grit her teeth and smiled.

They'd been walking all day! Xander checked his watch and, yep, it would be dark in a couple of hours. The sky had never really brightened despite the sun shining through the clouds once or twice, and it already felt near to dusk as they trudged another quiet, snowy lane.

He was walking back with Andrew and Craig now because the longer the day had gone on the twitchier Alex had become. It was probably out of frustration because all their hunt had turned up so far was enough rabbits to send Anya into a frenzy and a lone deer that had taken one look at the guns - or possibly just them - and high-hoofed it into the trees. Whatever the reason, Alex was a bureaucratic pain in the ass when he was on edge and had become more cop-like and less buddy-like as the day wore on, finding fault with nearly everything any of them said, including Xander's own attempts at cheering on the troops.

He was up front still, with the boy from the village walking beside him. Giles and Robin were behind them, conversing quietly from time to time, and Xander, although he'd never want to admit it, was way happier walking at the back with Andrew and Craig, listening to their silly chatter.

"So if a hellhound jumps out, do you think I can knock it out in one punch?" Craig asked.

"I don't know," Andrew thought for a moment. "Where are you going to punch it?"

"Between the eyes! Where else do you punch a hell-beast?"

"You guys know we don't think it's hellhound now, right?" Xander asked.

"Yeah, but I'm just asking for the future," Craig explained.

"Then, no, you couldn't knock it out with one punch between the eyes. Unless you're a slayer."

"Damn. So how did you survive the one you fought?"

Xander was surprised that story had gotten around, but he probably shouldn't have been. The camp was a hotter bed of gossip than Sunnydale High had been. He thought about making something up, something that made him look heroic and manly, but he knew - thanks to the gossip mill - that would get discounted soon enough.

"I wasn't wearing evening wear."

Craig frowned at him. "What's that mean?"

Andrew took up the story. "My brother trained the hounds to go after people in formal wear, like tuxes and ball gowns, so that they'd automatically head to the prom."

"Wait, your brother did that?"

Andrew looked a little sheepish. Xander whistled to himself while he waited for the kid to sort it out.

"Uh, yeah. He bought them off the black market as puppies and trained them. It was how you settled grudges in Sunnydale."

Xander went to say that was how bad people settled grudges in Sunnydale, but then he remembered his love spell against Cordelia and held his tongue. People made mistakes.

"That is so cool," Craig was about to ask for more details.

Xander couldn't hold his tongue any longer. Craig already had a question mark over his head because of his dad and the lust spell; they couldn't risk him taking a wrong turn because he thought hellhounds were awesome.

Andrew got there first. "It wasn't cool. I mean, it seemed it at the time but that guy in the formal wear store got really hurt, and Xander could have too!"

Craig shrugged, "I just meant being able to do that, not actually doing it."

Xander was mollified enough by that answer but changed the subject before Craig could start asking for hellhound puppy training tips - just out of curiosity.

"So what would you do if you met an elf?"

"I don't know," Craig shrugged again. "Give it a cookie?"

"They're the enemy!"

He was still feeling bad about letting the one go in the Mall the day before. He couldn't shake the feeling now that he should have held it for questioning or at least told Giles about its existence. At the time he hadn't thought much of it. It hadn't seemed to mean any harm; it was just taking an illicit break in Vi's rucksack. Now he wondered if it had been a spy, deliberately trying to infiltrate them. It was a long-shot because surely the elves couldn't have known they were on to them by then, but yeah it was bugging him to know that they could have had inside intel on what was going on at the resort and he'd let it go just because he couldn't get out of the busy damn mall fast enough.

"I know what Uncle Rubear said, but he's wrong on this. Everyone knows elves are good. And if you give them a cookie they grant you favors."

"You mean like everyone knows Vampires don't exist?" he asked sarcastically.

"But people do know Vampires exist. All of us for starters, plus hundreds of other watchers and operatives around the world, not to mention all the crazies and the lone Vampire hunters that have no affiliation with the council. But you ask one person who knows about elves, they'll all tell you they're good."

"But they're eating little kids!" Andrew wailed.

"Then it must be a rogue community, or . . ." Craig paused for effect and Xander bought into it because he'd never heard the English kid talk so passionately about anything other than Andrew. ". . . it's not the elves."

Xander deflated. "It is the elves. Buffy said it is."

They hadn't walked back to house. They'd started to but Kennedy was too impatient and called a cab. It picked them up a couple of blocks from the coffee shop. When it pulled up in the driveway Kennedy paid and didn't bother waiting for her change. She didn't bother waiting for Willow to get out either before she was storming towards the house.

Willow followed her anxiously and closed the front door behind her. She really didn't know what was going on but she felt, like Kennedy did, that she wasn't going to like the answer very much. She was trying not to get ahead of herself though, there was probably a perfectly good reason why Kennedy's aunt thought there had been questions and dresses. Not one she could think of, true, but that didn't mean there wasn't.


Willow took a second to wipe her snowy boots on the mat before hurrying across the foyer after Kennedy.


"In here, honey!" Rosie called from deeper within the house.

It could have been coming from anywhere as far as Willow was concerned but Kennedy followed the sound of it without hesitating.

"Do you want me to wait somewhere for you?"

Kennedy turned her head back to her without slowing down. "Don't you want to confront her too?"

"I'm a guest . . . confronting seems a little rude."

"Well it's up to you, but I'm in full confrontation mode right now."

"I noticed," Willow murmured.

She ended up following Kennedy to a little room at the back of the kitchen. It was bigger than a pantry and had a counter as well as shelves and a large chest freezer, but it was obviously used mostly for food storage. Rosie was lining up tins on the counter; it was a varied selection - everything ranging from stewed steak to apricots. Willow stayed near the door as Kennedy all but ran into the room.

"I'm just sorting things for the food bank," Rosie explained cheerfully. "They had the big drive a few days ago but with you two coming I completely forgot about it. Roxy's offered to drive them over for me this afterno . . ."

"Who cares?" Kennedy snapped. "What have you been saying to Aunt Angie?"

Rosie turned to her daughter sternly. "Did you just ask 'who cares' about the homeless? Because I'm pretty sure we brought you up to care."

Kennedy faltered, "I do, obviously, but don't change the subject!"

"You changed the subject, honey; I was talking about the food bank."


"What! I speak to Aunt Angela every day. I don't remember every single conversation we have."

"You told her something about Willow and I!"

"That I was happy you met someone? That you were coming here? What?"

"She said you said that I popped a question!"

"I don't remember saying that."

Willow watched Rosie. She'd become pretty adept at reading people over the years, it helped when you battled evil regularly, but Rosie didn't look shifty or like she'd been caught out. She remembered what Roxy had said the night before about her Mom being able to change her tune about Kennedy's disappearance now that she was on the scene.

"Everyone seems to think Kennedy and I are really serious," she said timidly.

Rosie smiled at her. "Well, aren't you? Isn't that what Kennedy was trying to convince me of last night?"

Shoot! Now she remembered what Kennedy had said about her Mom not thinking they were serious enough! This called for walking the fine line of seriousness but she couldn't explain that to Rosie in case she thought only kind of serious wasn't serious enough. She could cope for nine more nights without sharing a bed with Kennedy but after the last few months of being forced to do that, she didn't really want to if it could be helped.

So, against all reason, she said, "We are really serious . . . but . . ."

Rosie didn't wait for what came after the but. "There we go then. Nothing to start shouting at me about, Kennedy. So why don't you find me a bag for these tins and then you two can go to the shelter with Roxy."

"But . . ." Kennedy began.

"I think it would do you good," Rosie said with a pointed look at her daughter.

"I know about those less fortunate!" Kennedy yelled. "Since Jesus stopped my allowance I'm one of them!"

"He's 'Dad' to you," Rosie said mildly as she breezed past Willow and out of the room. "Thanks, girls."

When the two of them were alone Kennedy turned to her. "That's not how I meant that to go. Sorry, I choked."

"Me too," Willow admitted. "But maybe she really meant what she said."

"I think there's more chance she meant what she said to my Aunt, but she's not gonna give it up if she did." Kennedy went to the back of the room, looking on shelves near the floor for bags. "I guess it doesn't really matter though. Just 'cause my Mom's on the crazy train again doesn't mean we have to ride it too."

"I guess not. Uh, would you mind if I didn't come to the shelter with you?" she tried to ask in a way that didn't make her sound like she didn't care about the less fortunate. "It's just that I still have to look up the elves for Giles."

"Sure. Come on, I'll set you up on my laptop." Kennedy started to lead the way to bedroom. "See if you can hack into my Mom's email account while you're on it. Let's make sure she's not emailing pastors about available dates."

"Shut up!"

"B, just hear me out."

"I heard what you said loud and clear, Faith!"

"No, you heard half of what I said loud and clear! You didn't wait for the other half."

"I didn't need to!"

The slope was gentle enough but once they'd picked up speed the toboggans whooshed fast across the snow, down to the people waiting to cheer at the finish line.

"See, this is another example of you only hearing what you want to hear."

"Why would I ever want to hear that?"

"I don't know. Easy way out maybe?"

"You think this is the easy way?"

There were six toboggans in the race making vivid splashes of color on the snow-bleached hill. Theirs was bright pink - a color Buffy had picked not only because it perfectly complimented her snowsuit but because she knew Faith would hate it. See, she was putting plenty of effort into their non-relationship!

"If you'd let me finish talking before you kissed my face off . . .!"

"Oh, so now you have a problem with me kissing you?"

"That's not what I said!"

"No, it's just what you meant."

They were just inching out ahead of their flanking Blue and Yellow competitors. Purple was still in the lead and Buffy was pretty sure she'd spotted Red plow straight through a holly bush near the top.

Buffy set her sights on the purple one, head down, face determined, as she tried to ignore her passenger.

"How can you think that?"

Buffy ignored her.


More ignoring.

"Buffy! Stop ignoring me!"

"I'm not ignoring you, I'm concentrating!"

"We're going down hill in a straight line. What the hell do you need to concentrate on?" Faith dug a finger hard into her back. "You're just acting like a brat!"

"Hey!" Buffy threw an elbow back. Faith blocked it and the most damage was done to their steering. They veered off of their straight line and nearly collided with the Purple toboggan as they were about to overtake it. "Shit!"

Buffy yanked on the steering string - which was a ridiculous method for steering, it was even harder to control than a steering wheel - as she tried to right them. She pulled on it too hard and they went careening the other way so fast they tipped onto their side.

She closed her eyes as churned snow flew up into her face and she slammed her feet down in the toboggan, searching desperately for a non-existent brake pedal. She felt Faith cling to her tightly from behind, cursing Buffy and the toboggan she'd rode in on.

Miraculously they still crossed the finish line first and Buffy sat up, smiling as she wiped snowflakes from her cheeks. Faith was still bitching at her for turning them over, pushing her out of the way as she struggled to get out from between the snow and the toboggan. Buffy gave her a playful push back, shaking off her own embarrassment at their clown car-esque triumph.

"Lighten up, Faith, we won!" she muttered, very aware that they were the centre of a smattering of applause. "Stop glaring and kiss me or something."

"You wanna kiss . . ." Faith muttered back through a fake grin, dragging Buffy up after her and raising their joined hands high in a victory salute. ". . . kiss my ass."

The other toboggans were crossing the line now, taking the focus off of them, but they stayed side by side, holding hands, only letting go to clap as Jan and Olly in the blue whooshed past them.

"So I guess we don't totally suck at doing things together," Faith said quietly.

"Sure, if only life was one big toboggan race . . ." Seeing Faith's tentative smile darken, Buffy checked her sarcasm. "But yeah."

As an elf with a megaphone began to announce the winners, the two shared an almost friendly smile and Buffy reached out to take her hand again as they waited to hear their names.

They didn't, at least not until right at the end. "Red team and Pink team were disqualified for not finishing the race."

"What do you mean we didn't finish?" Faith dropped her hand and took a step towards megaphone-elf. "We finished first!"

"You crossed the line backwards and upside down," was squawked through the megaphone.

"So?" Buffy asked.

"It's against the rules." The elf-man, recognizing the menace in their voices, stepped quickly away before his megaphone could be used against him.

Buffy turned to Faith, hands on her hips as the crowd dispersed around them. "That was your fault. If you'd just shut up like I asked you to."

"'Asked'? Stretching that word a little ain'tcha? And, hey, I'm not the one who can't control a damn sled down the junior slopes."

"I'm sorry, I must have been in the self-control class while you were taking the sledding one."

"Are you saying you have more self-control than me?"

"I'm saying I have more every-kind-of-control than you, period!"

"Yeah, well you don't control me."

"I don't want to control you, you moron!"

Faith sneered at her and, picking up the long pink toboggan, started to walk after the others.

"But, Faith . . ." Buffy called after her. "I could if I wanted to!"

Faith gave her a one-fingered wave as she continued to walk away.

Buffy stamped her feet in the ruffled snow, feeling cold now that the heat of their argument was fading. She didn't want to control Faith, usually; where would be the fun in that? Half of Faith's allure was that Buffy never knew what she would do or say or think next. It was intoxicating . . . when they were getting along anyhow.

Right now she wished she did have control over the infuriating woman, the kind that came with a remote control so that she could walk Faith repeatedly into a brick wall. Maybe after bashing her head against it a few times she'd understand how Buffy was feeling.

Buffy wanted to sit out the Christmas Bingo, she'd had her fill of number games in Math class, but when Faith had heard there was a hundred dollar top prize she had insisted. Buffy had no choice but to go along and play nice.

At the front of the diner an elf - human-sized - was reading out numbers. He was annoyingly fast and she spent most of the time with her pen hovering in the air as she tried to remember what the number before last had been. It wasn't long before she gave up playing and concentrated on drinking her hot cocoa while watching Faith put dayglo blue splodges on her card at the speed of light.

"Never figured you for a Bingo queen," she mused.

"Never really played before," Faith muttered, never missing a single number. "But my Mom was screwing a Caller for a while, used to drag me along."

"That must have been fun." Faith took a split second to glare at her. "What? I wasn't being sarcastic!"

"I know."

"Oh. So not so much fun?"

"'Bout as fun as talking to you is right now."

"Hey, I was being nice!"

"Yeah, only because someone might overhear you."

Buffy couldn't deny that.

"Like I said, I'm done with that shit. You wanna be nice to me because you actually like me then I'm in, but I ain't bullshitting anymore."

Buffy was silent while she thought about it. It was dangerous for them to blow their cover but she couldn't say she wasn't also sick of pretending. Even just sitting here calmly was difficult. It hurt actually, because inside all she wanted to do was run off to a dark corner somewhere and cry over a breaking heart. All around them were actual happy couples - people who already had everything that she wanted with Faith, and she could feel the opportunity for them ever getting there too slipping away with each word said.

She didn't know how to get back to where they had once been but she did know that their forced 'break' coinciding with this particular mission had been a disastrous step in the wrong direction.

More upset than angry now, she reacted to Faith's words instinctively and reached out to take her hand. Faith's pen hand was closest and she automatically tried to pull away to keep jabbing at numbers on her card, but when she registered Buffy's insistence she stopped and let her hand be held, watching her warily.

A few more numbers were called before Buffy found the courage to speak. "No matter what's going on here or with us right now, Faith, I do still . . ."

Someone across the room shouted 'Bingo!'

"Dammit, Buffy, I coulda had those numbers!" Faith snapped, pulling her hand away in annoyance.

". . . like you," Buffy finished in a murmur.

Although she couldn't figure out why as she watched Faith walk away from her, storming outside for a cigarette

Willow could find nothing about elves on the internet!

Actually, that wasn't even a little true, she'd found lots of stuff about them - history, habitat, language, laws, customs, a whole site dedicated only to their social structure - but every link she clicked on was in some way informed by either J.R.R Tolkien, an endless bunch of other fantasy authors or the people who devoted their lives to playing Dungeons and Dragons. Willow didn't even know why Giles had insisted she search for info on them when he already had Andrew right there.

She clicked on another link. More Tolkien! She'd read all of his books as a teenager so this wasn't teaching her anything new! She was starting to wish she'd gone with Kennedy and Roxy to the homeless shelter after all. It would have been a more productive use of her time than this, plus you never knew when those good karma points would come in handy.

She looked around Kennedy's bedroom for inspiration, not that she was really expecting it to help with her current task but her mind was wandering and sometimes that led to fresh ideas. It was kinda bare compared to her childhood bedroom, but that was probably understandable. After all, this was just Kennedy's vacation home, not the place where she'd done most of her growing up. There were books on the shelves, not many because Kennedy wasn't much of a reader. They differed hugely on that score - Willow had been lapping up fiction and non-fiction since the day she'd learned to read, her insatiable thirst for knowledge insisted on it, but the books on these shelves consisted of a dozen almost pristine young adult fiction and Anne Rice novels and a few well-thumbed instruction books for fighting: wrestling, martial arts, one about fencing.

What did Kennedy's parents make of her book choices? Did they assume she was just a tomboy with well-structured violent tendencies? She'd had a Watcher since she was eight but her parents had thought they were hiring a tutor. A tutor that helped her with her studies so well they'd obviously turned a blind eye to the extra curricular training he'd been giving her. As a child, Willow, proud as punch, had showed her parents every new thing she learned to the point where she must have gotten so predictable, or annoying, that they'd just stopped being interested in her achievements. Had Kennedy come running home one day - nine years old and full of the excitement of learning something special - to tell her parents in great detail just how well she could shoot a crossbow?

Willow glanced at the books again. Maybe Tolkien had met an elf as a boy and had been itching to tell someone about it. Maybe his parents had told him not to be so silly and his friends had laughed at him. What if his fiction was actually based in fact? She thought back to when she'd first discovered vampires were real. The last thing on her mind had been a book deal but it had crossed her mind once or twice since. Write the real story, let people know what was really out there, bank a million bucks in film sales . . . But she never would because it was too dangerous, for Buffy - all slayers now - and the general public.

The pixies weren't a danger to anyone though. Willow could do a 'tell all' on the little folk that shared their home and class it as fiction. It would fit right into the fantasy genre. Of course, it wouldn't be very interesting because all they did these days was hide in the woodshed, but the principle was sound - she'd met pixies and so she could write convincingly about them.

What if Tolkien really had met elves?

Dawn looked up as Reece and Rona came back into to the kitchen. God, she hated the way he looked all sexy with his cheeks pink from the cold and his . . . actually he looked less sexy and more beat up, so did Rona.

His hair was mussed and he had a small purplish bruise forming on his cheek. Rona's top was torn up the sleeve and at the neck. Reece was sweating hard, Rona was out of breath. They didn't look good. Although Reece was still managing to look sexy, Dawn noted with chagrin.

"What happened to you two?" she asked in horror.

"Bloody Piskies!" Reece grunted as he sat heavily in his chair at the table.

"So they weren't any help?" Vi asked, getting up to hover worriedly near Rona.

"They're gonna help." Rona said, dropping her head onto the open book in front of her. "Least they said they were."

"Then why do you both look like . . . that?" Alison asked with a chuckle.

"Wonder-Watcher here insisted on barging into the woodshed without knocking. Ten seconds later . . ." she pointed between herself and Reece.

"Are you okay?" Vi asked.

"We'll heal." Rona suddenly grinned, "Least I will."

Dawn impulsively looked to Reece, "Are you going to heal?"

He shifted in the kitchen chair as if he ached all over. "Eventually. So where are we?"

"In the kitchen," Alison deadpanned and then raised her hand. "Reece, how many fingers am I holding up?"

"That's a thumb. Have you discovered anything new?"

Dawn looked down at her pad of paper. The top page was filled with the scribblings she'd made while researching but she had to admit. "No. There are no deities that only attack at Christmas. . ."

"I already told you that."

She ignored him. ". . . but there are no demons either. So either every attack over the last hundred years has been made by random demons or it really is wolves."

"Rupert says it's elves. Did you find anything about elves?"

Irritated, Dawn snapped, "You never told us to look for elves."

"I didn't know to until he called," Reece snapped back. "Did you find anything or not?"

"No! What did the pixies have to say?"

"Nothing we could understand," Rona said, "but when he mentioned elves they went into kind of a . . ."

"Frenzy?" Miranda asked.

Rona shrugged, "More of a pow-wow. They were definitely interested but they didn't feel like sharing."

Dawn was being nudged by someone's elbow and she looked to the source.

Rachel whispered, "What about the Old Ones?"

Dawn sighed, knowing it was irrelevant information. She was just going to look stupid in front of Reece for mentioning it. Still, it was something and there was that old saying about no question being too stupid, right?

Thinking of that made her phrase it like a question, which was stupid. "There's one demon, an old one, like one of the ones that came before civilization, that might fit?"

"An Old One?" Reece scoffed. "They died out before the first vampire was even created."

"Actually not so much," Vi said, pointing at a paragraph in the book before her. Dawn had already read it but she wasn't sure how useful it was. "Everyone knows that the last Old One to leave our plane made the first Vampire . . ."

"I didn't know that," Rachel said quietly and Miranda and Cici murmured the same.

"Well, now you do. Welcome to Slayer 101." Vi said, and then hesitated. "Or, unless, am I the only one who knew that?"

"The rest of us all know it," Reece sniped impatiently.

Rona shrugged, "I didn't know it."

Dawn smiled at Vi. "You're old school, it's good. Giles would be proud of you."

Vi smiled back. "Thanks. So it turns out everything we know is balderdash! According to this book anyway. Old Ones were still abundant until at least two thousand years ago and it's totally possible some still survive."

"Then how come we don't know about them?" Reece asked.

"Because they're mostly dormant," Dawn said. "They only wake up maybe once or twice a year and so their feedings are blamed on other demons."

"Okay." Reece nodded. "So what Old One are we talking about?"

Dawn had expected him to take longer to convince and it was embarrassing not having an answer for him right away. She looked to Vi to field the question, who looked to Rona, who looked to Alison . . .

Lunch was as rowdy as breakfast had been. Faith didn't mind it so much now though. After her smoke earlier, she'd gone back inside to the Bingo and won a twenty for a straight line. It had almost made up for Buffy's hostility.

Except not.

But she was just done caring about it now. She and Buffy were as good as finished and while that tore her up in ways she'd never imagined before, at least it was done. They were over and Faith had survived it, the worst had passed. It wasn't as if she hadn't been expecting it since the day Buffy had first said she had feelings for her. She'd always known it would end sooner rather than later and that it wouldn't be her choice when it did. She'd been waiting since the day she'd arrived in Boudenver for this to happen, now it had; end of, right?

Except all the expectation in the world hadn't prepared her for how much it actually hurt. She'd experienced plenty of pain in her life, but none like this. This was . . . She didn't have words, but it made her want to beat something to death with her bare hands. She wanted to punch and punch and kick and kick until that something was as beaten and bloody on the outside as she felt on the inside.

She wasn't gonna do it, hopefully, but the internal rage was definitely there, trying to battle her sense into submission. It wanted free reign and the harder she fought to keep it reined in the more manic she felt about it. It'd be a damn sight easier if Buffy didn't feel the need to keep beating their dead horse of a relationship too.

"I'm just trying to point out that as walking away from me metaphors go, you walking away from me was a pretty damn clear one."

Faith put a forkful of frank and beans into her mouth, the best frank and beans she had ever tasted, as she answered. "I needed a cigarette."

"So a cigarette was more important than me?"

"I don't know, B, is getting the last word more important than me?"

"I'm not trying to get the last word!"

"It's what you've been doing all day! Every time I've tried to say something important you've jumped in before I can finish."

The restaurant was loud enough that Buffy didn't feel she had to keep her voice down. "Well maybe if you talked about something that . . ."

"It's not me talking that's the problem, it's you not listening."

"Oh, I listened good and hard, Faith. You can't wait to walk away from me."

Faith sighed and set her knife and fork down. She wasn't done with her food yet but she had to make this clear once and for all. "I wanted to walk away from this situation, not you!"

"You didn't say that."

"Well like I said, bitch, you didn't listen to the . . ."

Buffy's knife and fork clattered to her plate too as she leant across the table. "Did you just call me a bitch?"

Faith rolled her eyes. "I didn't mean it like . . ."

"Did you call me a bitch or didn't you?"

"Yeah. But . . ."

"So you tell me you want to walk away from me and then you call me a bitch. Why would I even want to listen to you any more?"

Faith threw her eyes towards the ceiling. "I can never win with you!"

"Know where would be a good place to start? Not calling me a bitch and not telling me you want to walk away from me!"

Obviously not so concerned about their cover anymore, Buffy threw her napkin down and walked away from the table.

They were walking in twilight now, an extremely grey twilight. They'd passed the boundaries of Snow Dunes an hour ago but as Faith had declined to meet them they'd seen nor heard anything of interest. In fact that pretty much summed up the entire day and as Alex was growing less talkative as the day wore on Giles was beginning to think this had been an extremely terrible use of his time.

His mobile phone rang and, ignoring Alex's angry glare, he answered it. "Hello? Ah, yes, Willow. Considering you've had a whole day please tell me you have something useful for me?"

He listened to her half-irritable, half-excited reply.

"And you believe that has some merit?" She told him her reasoning. "Then as that's all we have I'm prepared to accept your hypothesis."

Alex was still shooting him angry looks, like his talking was going to scare off the non-existent wolves. As Willow was complaining about his less than enthusiastic reply he felt comfortable ignoring the deputy sheriff's complaints for now.

"I was not suggesting you were wrong, Willow, only that it's rather a flimsy basis. But give me the facts as you see them and I'll duly take note."

As Willow gave him a list of J.R.R Tolkien's elf specifics, Alex halted their company by planting his feet and taking aim at the hedgerow.

"What is it?" Xander asked in a hushed voice from right behind him.

"Don't know yet," Alex admitted. "Just saw movement."

Darkness was coming on fast now so Giles had to commend him on being able to see anything in the verge - if in fact he had seen anything and wasn't just irritable and jumpy. It was probably just another rabbit anyway.

Willow was still talking in his ear and Giles kept his voice to a murmur as he answered her, "But if all of them are good, why are they doing what they are doing?"

"Would you turn your damn phone off," Alex snapped out of the corner of his mouth, gun still trained and his finger on the trigger. "This is hardly the frickin' time to be talking about your stupid wildlife club!"

"Hey, Al, take it easy," Xander said calmly. "Giles is barely whispering."

Alex spun around, rifle too, to face Xander. "I'll take it easy when kids stop dying in my town!"

Giles was between Alex and Xander, something he wasn't very happy about when a gun was involved. "Deputy sheriff, do I need to point out where your weapon is aimed right now?"

Alex turned his gun away and looked again for the movement he had seen in the hedgerow. "Knew it was a mistake to bring you guys along."

Giles returned his attention briefly to his mobile. "Thank you, Willow. I'll keep in mind what you've said. Enjoy the rest of your holiday." Just as he ended the call Alex fired a shot into the verge, making him jump out of his skin at the loud retort. "What the . . .?"

Snow kicked up around the bullet's passage but Alex didn't hit what he'd been aiming at. Giles knew this for sure because less than a second after the blast something purple scurried from the hedgerow with its hands held over its ears.

Alex saw it too and swung his rifle around for another go.

The flash of purple had run between Giles legs and he yelled out, "Don't shoot!" scared that someone would lose a foot if Alex fired off a wild shot.

"Get out of the way!" Alex yelled, looking fully prepared to shoot again whether they obeyed or not.

"I got it!" Craig threw himself in front of the gun, landing on his knees in the snow.

While Giles wanted to kick him for his stupidity, he instinctively surged forwards and grabbed the barrel of the rifle instead to push it away from his God-Son's head. Already too tense and surprised at being rushed, Alex's finger accidentally squeezed too tight on the trigger and another shot rang out in the deepening darkness.

Everyone froze, except Giles who was shaking rather badly and feeling slightly deaf from the blast.

Motion and blather soon returned despite his glassy stare and ringing ears. The gun was pulled away from his fingers and then Alex had a big hand on his shoulder, urgently checking him over.

"Did I hit you, sir? Are you shot?"

"No, I'm quite alright."

"You just risked your life for a mouse, sir, I don't think you're even a little alright." Alex said gruffly and then moved on. "Was anyone else hit? Frazer, get those damn flashlights out of your pack so we can see what the heck we're doing!"

Before the young lad had completed his task it was made clear no one had been wounded by the bullet, although Andrew was wailing about how he had felt it fly past his face - it was probably just his overactive imagination - and Robin and Alex were having a heated argument about whose recklessness had been to blame.

Giles finally regained the ability to blink and shake off the after-effects of the close call. He put a hand on Craig's back as the boy was standing up again, reassuring himself that he was okay and then turned to Xander.


Xander gave a grim nod. In the beam of Frazer's torch his face looked shiny with a sudden sweat and far too pale.

"Xander?" Giles stepped to him and put a hand on his shoulder, realizing too late that he'd approached his blind side in the dark. His friend flinched hard and spun to him, batting one hand out to push him away. Giles stepped back to give him space. "I'm sorry. Nobody's hurt, Xander. Everyone's okay."

He nodded again. "I know." But he really didn't look as though he did. "I'm fine," he added, but again Giles wasn't convinced.

He watched him for a moment, until Xander became uncomfortable and stepped away. Giles decided drawing attention to his reaction wouldn't help right now and concentrated on the main group instead, but as soon as he was able he took a flashlight from Frazer and passed it casually to Xander, thinking he might feel better being in control of some of the light.

"What the hell were you thinking?" Alex was shouting at Craig, who was still dusting snow off of his knees with one hand.

"Now hang on a minute," Giles intervened, because he wanted to be the one shouting at the lad.

"No I won't hang on, and I'll get to you in a minute, sir, but for now I want you to know I hold you responsible for the kids actions as well as your own," Alex fumed.

"Now look here . . ." Giles began.

"No, look here," Craig said, not in the slightest worried about Alex shouting at him or of anything else that was going on. "This is what you were trying to shoot. Ya probably owe him an apology for that."

Craig was holding a pixie in his hands, managing to keep a firm grip while remaining respectful of the little being. Alex stepped closer to peer at it as Frazer pointed his flashlight, and then took a bigger step back, gripping his rifle instinctively tighter and obviously employing all of his self-control not to aim it directly at Craig's hands.

"What the hell is that?"

Craig held the pixie to his ear and then said, "He says his name is Josiah."

Alex might have thought the boy was playing him for a fool if he hadn't heard the whispered sentence just as clearly as Craig.

There were four sleighs lined up out the front of the resort's reception, with four reindeer apiece to pull them. They weren't plastic or even fiberglass but made of good, solid wood, beautifully carved from top to bottom and stained in red and green to reflect the Christmas theme. Each sleigh was decked out in small, white fairy lights and the reindeer all had small loops of silver tinsel around their necks that reflected the lights and made them sparkle.

She'd told Buffy point blank she wasn't going on it after lunch when she'd found Buffy in a foul mood back at their cabin. It was gonna be all romantic, riding through the snow at sunset, and she was not up for that. Not that there would be much of a sunset with the cloud cover. There was more chance of them getting stuck in a blizzard. She'd stated these points calmly and then not so calmly to Buffy; also pointing out they were here to do a job and not take rides on reindeer sleighs just for funzies.

Buffy had counter-pointed that the route the reindeer took was the same as the husky ride and if they wanted to actually go out there and do what they were supposed to be doing, they had to get to where they'd seen the elves the night before.

It was hard to argue with that, so here they were, sat on the fourth sleigh in line - she'd decided that was the best vantage point and Buffy had agreed mostly because the other three were already over half full when they arrived - with Jan and Tim sat opposite them and Olly climbing all over her.

"Hell, no, kid," she'd murmured at first, trying to push him back off, but he'd refused to be moved easily.

Now they were swiftly heading west across the snow and she was being used as a monkey gym. She could tell Buffy was loving her discomfort, although she was hiding it under the guise of a loving girlfriend, smiling at her a lot and telling her how adorable she looked. Didn't she get how much harder that made it for Faith? Or was that her intention? She'd always considered that out of the two of them, Buffy was the good one because that was her nature . . . right now Faith was reconsidering - maybe she was just a good actress.

"Hey, how about you look adorable for a while," she finally snapped.

"Nah, he likes you best," Buffy smirked, hiding her evil glee by leaning in to kiss her cheek.

"If he's bothering you," Tim began.

Faith sighed in defeat, "Nah, he's cool."

"He's a little over-excited because the magic reindeer are taking him to meet Santa Claus," Jan explained as Olly continued to climb all over Faith.

The last thing Faith felt like was a magical reindeer ride. Especially considering it was false advertising. There was no such thing as magic reindeer, just like there was no such thing as Santa - she'd figured out that little lie at a young age.

But she bit her tongue, grinned through clenched teeth and said, "Sure."

In a barn behind the main resort Innoki was shouting instructions out to his fellow elves, trying to hurry them along. Personally he'd have been happy for them to take their time, to take too long even, but that would end in trouble for him. There was a high turnover for the job of Santa's Chief Elf, for while it came with several choice benefits it was not a position to be coveted by any sane elf's standards. Innoki had been promoted only two years ago and although he didn't take much pride in his work, he did the job exceptionally well. It was that or follow the fate of so many of his predecessors and end up an elven statistic.

"Faster, faster," he called out in mellifluous Elvish. "There is no time for delay! Hyorgo, get out from under Dasher's hooves before you are squashed. Siqueri, tighten Blitzen's reins, they are trailing. Remira, bring Comet around to the front."

While they bustled around him he walked to the last stall in the line. The reindeer still inside dropped his head over the door to Innoki's level, nuzzling his hat excitedly as he waited to be led to his lead position at the head of the team.

The elf reached up to rub under his chin. "I am sorry, my friend, you will not be joining us tonight. Our mission requires stealth and you are not good at that."

A bright red nose became slightly dimmed in sadness. Innoki produced a carrot from his pocket and held it up for the reindeer to munch on morosely. He hated to be left behind, but it was the price of fame.

Ten minutes later two young elves heaved the large barn doors open and a small, plain wooden sleigh moved out slowly until its runners met the snow outside. It picked up speed until Dasher and Blitzen and Comet and Prancer were galloping along. A minute later their hooves left the snow and the sleigh was airborne.

"So where did you two meet?" Jan was asking.

"Outside a club in my home town," Buffy said. "Faith was just passing through, but she took one look at me and decided to stick around." Buffy gave her a sickly sweet smile. "It was obsession at first sight, right honey?"

Faith gave her an equally fake smile. "Obsession might be pushing it, Twinkie."

"Really? I don't think so."

They'd been traveling half an hour now, Faith was counting the minutes as she tried to hold the little boy still for five seconds. Buffy was grinning at her plight.

Snatching at a small foot as her left breast was painfully squashed, she hollered, "Hey, Ol, careful, my tits are not footholds!"

Jan and Tim frowned at her language and Buffy hid her laughter behind her hand. Faith couldn't handle much more of this! Not Olly, she could deal with the brat no matter how much she wished she didn't have to, but if she had to pretend to be a happy couple with Buffy for much longer she was gonna break. Her dramatic statements about not going along with this sham anymore were harder to uphold in front of their new best pals; she just couldn't bring herself to tell Buffy to go to hell in front of them. This was killing her though.

"How much longer do we have?" she grunted.

Tim looked at his watch. "About another hour and a half. We'll be stopping for the cocoa and cookie break soon though I think."

Faith groaned under her breath as she dragged Olly back down from trying to climb on her head. That meant they had ages until she could jump off of this damn sleigh.

"So what the hell is it?" Alex asked again, more fervently than before.

No one was answering his questions yet he had the feeling that everyone, with the exception of Frazer, knew exactly what it was. From a safe distance he shone a flashlight on the thing in the English kid's hands. He wanted to tell himself that someone had spray painted a mouse purple as a joke but he'd heard the thing speak! Actual words, that had kind of been gibberish but not gibberish enough to sound like animal noises. Plus it was staring at him, and what was staring at him looked a lot like a person. Tiny and purple, for sure, but it had the body of a person, and the eyes, nose, mouth and ears of a person.

It was a person. A tiny, little, purple person!

"What the hell is it?"

"It's a pixie," Craig finally said.

"Don't BS me, what is it?" he insisted.

"It is in fact a pixie," Mr. Giles said. "Piskie, actually, to use their true name, but you would know them as pixies."

"I do not know that. What I do know is pixies are fantasy creatures. They're make believe. So either someone tell me what it really is or I'm taking you all back to the lock up!"

Xander stepped up, speaking for the first time since the misfired shot as far as Alex knew. "Look at it, Al! It's a small, purple person who speaks English, sorta. Why would you think we're lying to you?"

He didn't know but he wanted them to be. He was a practical man, and he knew pixies didn't exist, so how could this be true?

"Giles, you gotta do your speech," Xander said.

"I really don't think that would be wise."

"Fine, I'll give my version of it. Alex, the supernatural is real . . ."

"Xander," Robin tried to cut him off.

Xander ignored him. "Everything you used to think went bump in the night as a kid, really goes bump in the night. Vampires, werewolves, monsters . . . they're all real."

Alex stepped up to his friend. "Xander, are you okay?"

"I'm fine! And I'm telling you the truth. The undead walk among us, Al, all kinds of undead."

He'd never heard his friend talk such nonsense before. Sure there had been a couple of times at the bar when Xander had started spouting stuff that made no sense but Alex had assumed he was just drunk and messing with him. He wasn't drunk now though. So maybe what he'd said at the bar had been cries for help instead. He'd assumed having these guys up at that damn camp was an improvement on the folks that had been there before, but now he was starting to think he was wrong. Obviously something really weird was going on up there, some kind of bizarre brainwashing and his friend was caught in the middle of it.

"Xan, buddy, I think you need some help," he said, warily watching Mr. Giles and the black guy in case either of them tried to rush him again.

"You and everyone else," Xander said, "but it doesn't change the fact that Craig is holding a pixie in his hand."

The little purple thing couldn't be denied and Alex looked at it again; wondering if he'd accidentally eaten some wild mushrooms on the hunt - ones that he couldn't remember eating now because he was high. He didn't feel high, but he did feel freaked out.

"Helow," the thing, Josiah, said, waving to him with a little purple hand. "I caame tow heelp!"

The accent was strange but he understood the words.

Alex shook his head. "I think I need to sit down."

"So it was fate?" Tim grinned. "You two getting together."

"Guess so," Faith said.

Olly was taking a turn at climbing all over Buffy now but she looked around him to add, "We just clicked."

Jan weighed in, smiling, "That's nice. Took Tim six months to realize he even liked me."

"Hey, not fair!" he laughed. "I always knew I liked you, it just took me that long to get my act together."

"I know that! Took B long enough to come around."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Buffy asked genially as she bounced Olly on her knees so fast he was probably about to puke with how much he was giggling.

"I mean, I was into you for a long time before you knew I existed."

Buffy gave her a look. "Oh, I think I knew you existed, Faith."

"Yeah, but not in a good way."

"And whose fault is that?"

"Not all mine."

"So you're saying you didn't . . ." Buffy adjusted her hold on the little boy now trying climb over her shoulder. ". . . do that thing you did, and then try to blame me for it, before doing it again but in a way worse way?"

Faith shrugged, "No, I did all that. I'm just saying I liked you before all that."

"Oh you did? Thanks for the update, honey. That makes it all better."

Faith had actually thought admitting that might make a difference. She couldn't remember if she'd ever told Buffy how she'd felt before the whole Allan Finch thing had happened but she'd kind of assumed she must have done or else why would Buffy have suddenly decided to be open with her feelings before the end of Sunnydale? Faith knew she didn't project much that would spur anyone to randomly fall in love with her, so she must have been throwing some signals out there. Ones that took four years to penetrate, sure, but that sounded about right.

Buffy's sarcasm proved her wrong yet again though. "Buffy, I can't change our past, okay! I wish I could. But I'm trying to not let it affect our future! Can you say the same?"

"I'm not the one who is letting it affect our future."

"Seriously?" Faith shook her head in disbelief. "'Cause you haven't really seemed on 'Team: Us' since I got back."

They were drawing attention from everyone in the sleigh now. People were openly watching their argument. Jan was trying to pry Oliver away from Buffy - who seemed only too happy to give him up but the kid wasn't cooperating - and Tim was looking out over the snow covered slopes, trying to pretend they were way more interesting than the argument.

"I told you I couldn't get over it all just like that."

"You also told me you loved me."

"Who says the two have to be mutually exclusive?

"Anyone with half a brain?"

"You really hurt me, Faith!" Buffy reminded her, voice rising.

"Blah blah blah! We both know that already. Tell me something I don't know, like . . . are you ever going to get over it?"

Buffy was obviously pissed but she held her tongue. She was hugging Olly like a teddybear now, proving anger wasn't the only emotion she was silently battling with. Faith waited, staring her down, eyes demanding an answer.

She waited too long and the line of sleighs, with theirs at the rear, slowed to a halt at the top of a bluff. It was time for the half hour rest stop. Being the first in meant they were going to be the last to disembark. Faith kept up her staring, hoping to make Buffy uncomfortable enough that she would blurt the truth out. It didn't work. As Olly jumped off of her knees, eager to run around in the snow, Buffy turned her face away.

From the look Jan gave her as she let her husband help her down from the sleigh, she'd taken Buffy's side. How was that fair? Bitch didn't even know what they were arguing about! She was used to it though, everyone always took Buffy's side, so she forgot about her the second Jan had walked away and turned back to the blonde.

"B, I need to know for sure. So if you know, tell me. 'Cause I can put up with your bullshit if there's gonna be an end to it, but . . . if not . . ." she left her sentence hanging, desperate to have a reason not to finish it.

"Then I don't know what to tell you, F. Considering that my bullshit isn't even knee-high compared to yours." Buffy hopped down from the sleigh and walked off.

Sighing, Faith stared after her. She was starting to miss the lying to protect their stupid cover story.

There was a rock, as flat as a table and thigh-high. The kid from the camp, Andrew, had brushed the snow off it for him and Alex had gratefully sat down. He felt like he should be standing, and possibly shouting, or failing that heading to see a doctor, but for now sitting quietly was good. He was feeling shaky and uncoordinated all of a sudden, but only because he'd nearly shot two people at point-blank range, not because he believed for a second that pixies existed. To believe that would be ludicrous.

Everyone else was still huddled around the purple thing in Craig's hands. He could hear them perfectly, even through the buzzing in his head, and especially that strange and hard to fathom accent.

"So it's true?" Mr. Giles was asking.

"Yis, theyme caam mos winteers."

"But they're not evil, right?" Craig asked.


"No they're not evil or no they are?" Robin tried to clarify

"Theyme nawt evaal, jus squally misgudded."

"I'm sorry?" Mr. Giles asked.

"Squally misgudded," Josiah repeated. It didn't clear anything up for Alex, nor did anyone else seem to understand it either. Getting this, the purple thing tried, "Nawt evaal, jus eel-conseellid."

Shaking his head, still not understanding, Mr. Giles asked, "Do you know their plans? What do they come here to do?"

As the thing gave more gibberish as an answer, Alex wondered who 'they' were. Was it possible he was talking about the wolves? How could that thing know anything about them? Then again, if it was an animal of some kind maybe it had some inside knowledge of the other wildlife in the area. Except that was ridiculous because no animal could speak! Certainly none that lived around here! Maybe they had talking purple mutated mice in a crazy state like California, but in Ohio they only had normal-coloured, non-talking mice that didn't look like people!

Still, he had to know. "Frazer, is it talking about the wolves?"

"No idea, Alex. I'm still trying to pretend it isn't talking at all."

"Okay, so let's just cut to the chase," Xander was saying. "Are the elves eating the children?"

"What?" Alex muttered. He must have misheard. "You said wolves just then, right?"

Everyone turned to look at him, some with sympathy and some with impatience.

"Tell me you said wolves!"

Nobody answered and Alex suddenly felt an overwhelming need to close his eyes and put his head between this knees.

The bluff was well prepared for them. Human-elves were acting as attendants, pointing people to the decorated coffee cart set up and helping to corral the dozens of little kids so that none of them jumped over the barrier set up and ran off of the edge before their parents were aware it was there. Below, the world, or the resort at least, was a twinkling mass of multi-colored Christmas lights. It looked beautiful, for anyone who was in the mood for beauty.

Buffy stood apart from the chaos, past the flimsy rope barricade and closer to the edge of the drop than people were encouraged to go. It was a ski hub too by the looks of it. She was standing just to the left of the rising wires of the ski lift, silent and unoccupied now that it was dark. She wondered whether her woolly gloves would withstand rappelling down them. She could be back at the resort level and heading for their cabin pretty quick if they could. She'd have to take time to pack, of course - dammit, Faith had had the right idea not unpacking - but in next to no time Buffy could be in a cab and on her way home.

It was a long way down though and plus there was that whole thing about children being eaten.

The coffee cart was doubling as a hot dog stand and Buffy could smell them from where she stood. She should probably be feeling hungry by now but she was too . . . Angry? Upset? Headspun? . . . definitely one or more of those. She hadn't wanted to come here in the first place, she'd known it was a bad idea, but she'd still held out the hope that once they were here the happy couplely-ness of the place would somehow work wonders on her own love life. It just went to prove she was wrong almost as much as she was right. Although judging by her track record with Faith, maybe she was just wrong . . . a lot.

Buffy's nose wrinkled as the smell of hot dogs became stronger. A moment later Faith stopped beside her.

"Want a bite?"

"No thanks."

"Just take this then."

Buffy glanced to the side to see a cup of steaming coffee being offered. She took it because she was cold right down to her toes but her thanks was barely lukewarm.

"So you made a decision yet?"

"About what, Faith?"

"About us. About whether you're ever going to let me off the hook for the past."

Buffy stared down at the twinkling lights of the resort. "Why should I?"

"Because you want us to work." Faith sounded surprisingly calm.

Buffy turned to her. "No, I mean, why should I? What have you done to make up for it?"

"I went to prison, B!"

"For a couple of years and then you broke out!"

"Hey, I broke out because I was needed, and I stayed out because you needed me. And then I went back! I was prepared to do another twenty five years but I got out fair and square. What the hell else do you want from me?"

Buffy shook her head, "I don't know."

"Then what the hell am I supposed to do? You didn't want me to go back in the first place, remember?"

"You did the right thing."

"I know I freakin' did. So what's your problem now? If this is still about me not coming back right away . . . what more can I tell you? I had issues, I fucked up, I'm the first to admit it. If you're going to hold it against me forever I don't know what to . . ."

"It's not about that!" Buffy was having trouble keeping her voice down.

She was past worrying about what anyone else thought, she knew she'd blown their cover in the sleigh, if not hours earlier, but she really didn't want to argue with Faith anymore. She was so sick of it. She'd argued with partners before, she'd argued with Angel and Riley a lot, but at least they'd had some good to counteract the bad. The last good time she could remember with Faith had been that morning, when they'd been in bed together, but even that had gone horribly wrong just a few minutes after going right. Even her relationship with Spike, such as it was, had more high points than she could remember with Faith and why the hell was that? She loved this woman, so why couldn't she stop hating her at the same time?

"Then what is it about?" Faith asked.

Buffy kicked at the snow around her feet. "I made a mistake."

"About us?"

She couldn't answer so she shrugged.


"I don't know how much you've changed."

Faith took a step back and was silent for a minute. "I've changed!"

"You're still hurting me."

"What?" Faith shook her head. "I'm not trying to anymore!"

"But you did, once, try to, and maybe you just can't stop."

"That's crap, I stopped! I was screwed up then, I'm fine now."

"If the last few months is you being fine . . ."

"No, shut the hell up, B! I changed, if you can't see that . . ."

"I see that you've changed, Faith, I just don't know if that's enough."

"Then fuckin' screw you!"

"'Cause that helps," Buffy said sarcastically.

"I'm through trying to help you. I'm through trying to help us! If you think I'm gonna be bad for the rest of my life, why should I care what you have to say about it? I can just go ahead and be an evil bitch, right?"

Buffy sighed, shaking her head. "I don't think you're evil."

"Just not good enough for you? Fine. But ya know what? I'd rather be me than you! I may struggle with my conscience from time to time but at least I do it honestly, I'm not a hypocrite!"

"How am I a hypocrite?" Buffy asked angrily.

"You've done what I've done. You've screwed people you shouldn't, you've been reckless with peoples emotions, and lives, and you've been responsible for innocent people dying!"

"I've never stabbed anyone to murder them!"

Faith eyed her silently, nodding slightly, and then said, "So you just stabbed me for the bonding experience then?"

Buffy took a step back, feeling sick. They'd never talked about it, not since they'd been together anyway. Buffy had hoped they would never have to, even though she'd always known it would come up one day. Apparently today was the day.

"I never meant to . . ." Her voice dried up, but before she could clear her throat and try again Faith was speaking.

"But you did it anyway. You stabbed me, right in the gut. So tell me again which of us is the evil one?"

Buffy was shaking and it had nothing to do with the cold. "You deserved it."

Faith hesitated, "Maybe I did, but that don't excuse . . ."

"You deserved it!" Buffy said again strongly.

"Oh you deserve it. It is truly your reward. You have been a good girl," Felara said, ushering a six year old onto the old-fashioned, slightly battered sleigh.

This sleigh had set down two hundred feet from the other brightly lit sleighs. It was deep in the forest and nobody over the age of ten seemed to realize it was there.

A few feet away from Felara, Kendalar was encouraging another child. "Santa is very much looking forward to meeting you."

On the other side of the sleigh, Raska was having a little more trouble. "But he has many gifts for you."

"I want my Mommy!"

"You Mommy is waiting with Santa," Raska tried.

"I want my Mommy now!"

Raska looked torn for a moment and then picked the kid up and threw him onto the sleigh where another elf easily restrained him. Raska looked around, making sure there were no witnesses and then hurried over to Innoki.

"Not all of the children are coming willingly."

Innoki nodded, "It is always the same." He didn't look happy about it. "Just get what you can. We must go soon."

"You deserved it! You forced your way into my life and then you screwed me over again and again. Actually, no, you didn't just force your way into my life, you tried to take my life. My friends, my family, my boyfriend! They were all fair game to you. And then when they wouldn't fall for your act you tried to destroy them instead - 'cause if you couldn't have it, I couldn't have it either? Was that it?"

"You don't know what you're talking about."

"I know you made a big mistake and then turned around and told Giles I was to blame."

"Oh don't get all high and mighty; you were on your way to tell him I did it at the exact same time."

"You did do it!"

"We were both in the alley!"

"Yeah, but I'm the only one who tried to deal with it."

"What are you talking about? I'm the one who dealt with it."

"You dumped the body, Faith," Buffy said slowly, as horrified by the memory now as she had been the afternoon Faith had told her. "That's not the kind of dealing I was talking about!"

"Well, it was the only kind of dealing I knew back then. Sorry it didn't measure up to your standards."

"My standards? Try everyone's standards, unless, I don't know, you work for the mob or are just plain . . ." she stopped talking.

She'd probably already said too much but she stopped talking anyway. It was a futile gesture. Faith plucked the hanging word from the air and threw it at her.


"I was going to say stupid."

"You were going to say evil! You think I killed that guy deliberately? Or that I enjoyed doing it?

"No . . . not that guy."

Faith took a threatening step closer and Buffy held her ground. People were glancing over to them from time to time but it was windy up on the bluff and it whipped their words away over the snowy cliff, leaving the crowd aware only of their gesturing and angry postures.

"Hurry, now, hurry!" Innoki called, looking anxiously behind him to the oblivious adults as he ushered the last of the children onto the sleigh. "No time to waste. Santa wishes to meet you all very quickly."

The majority of the children were cheering and laughing with excitement. The ones who cried or tried to scream for their parents were swiftly subdued by his crew. All but one small girl, who bit down hard on the hand covering her mouth and slipped from Hyorgo's grasp, and with tears streaming down her face ran back towards the crowded cliff edge as fast as her little legs could take her through the trampled snow.

Cursing in Elvish, Innoki chased after her. If she sounded the alarm he would be the one to not live past sunrise.

"No one ever expected you to face it alone. I tried to help you. They tried to help you. So, sure, you weren't a bad person, you just tried to put it all on me 'cause you had this little psychotic inferiority complex. But how did you rationalize blaming them? How did Xander almost get strangled? Why did Willow almost get her throat cut?"

"What does it matter now? They've forgiven me."

"They weren't to blame for you almost killing them . . . I was! I wanted you to stick around Sunnydale, I was the one spending all my free time with you, I was the one that insisted you were worth saving even though you were doing everything to suggest otherwise. If you had killed one of them it would have been on me, Faith, me! I wanted you around and it put them in danger."

"And you think I'm still so bad and evil they're in danger all over again? Thanks a bunch, B! You couldn't come to that conclusion before you fucked me in Angel's hotel? Before you came to the prison and begged me to come here and be with you? You know what I think? You don't care about me being dangerous. You loved the fact that I was. Every dude you've been with has had a dark side. You dig evil! That's why you don't want me anymore, because I'm not! You thought you were getting some evil, fucked up bitch who would feed that kink of yours and I turned out to be a big disappointment."

"That's not even . . ." The wind caught snatches of shouting to Buffy's ears and she glanced briefly at the crowd. ". . . close to it. Sane is good. But since you came back you've been . . ."

The shouting came again and they both looked over this time.

"I've been what I had to be to keep my parole officer happy. And what I thought you wanted me to be. But, hell, if I'd known what you really wanted I'd have offed a couple of the newbies when I strolled into town, cut a few of your friends for fun and then forced my way into your bed every night . . ."

Buffy's punch landed on her mouth, turning her words into a primal yell as she shook off the stinging pain and surged forward to land her own blow to the gut. Their feet sank into the snow, slowing them down and forcing them to fight in close quarters. Buffy jabbed at Faith's chin and she retaliated with an elbow smashing into Buffy's cheek, hard enough to hurt them both. Buffy grabbed the collar of her denim jacket, trying to force Faith down lower so that she could bring a knee up into her ribs, but Faith pushed back. They tripped in the shin-deep trench they'd made in the snow and slipped and staggered closer to the edge of the bluff.

"I didn't fall in love with you because you were bad, I fell in love with you because I thought I saw some tiny glimmer of good in you," Buffy ground out as they grappled for the upper hand: physically and morally.

"You didn't fall in love with me! You fell in love with the idea of having a pitbull on a short leash, but I ain't nobody's bitch, B. You want a dog, think you'll find Spike's a better name for it than Faith."

"Don't you dare bring him into this."

"Oops, just did. Does that make me evil? Hey, bet you wanna fuck me now, right?"

With a yell that was twice as animalistic as Faith's had been, Buffy hauled off and punched her right on the nose. Faith felt it break with a short flare of agony that radiated out across her face and into her brain. By the time the hot blood was gushing from her nostrils it was already nothing more than a dull ache but she came at Buffy in a fierce temper anyway, both hands closing around her throat, forcing her backwards until they were both dangerously close to falling right off the edge of the mountain.

A child's scream - high-pitched and terrified - rushed their way on the wind and tore through their rage. They stopped as quickly as if a pause button had been pressed - Faith's hands still around Buffy's neck, Buffy with one hand around Faith's wrist, trying to loosen its grip while her other hand was clenched in the collar of Faith's jacket - and looked towards the frightened cry. It came from the beyond the crowd, closer to the edge of the forest, but it was immediately clear that something was amiss with the crowd itself too.

To start with they seemed to already be in a state of panic that the solitary scream couldn't account for, but also, in the next second, both slayers realized what else was wrong.

"I can only see," Buffy was re-counting to be sure, "like, four kids over there."

"There were two dozen of them charging around when I bought the cocoa. Escaping them for five minutes was the only reason I came over to you."

The jibe went uncontested, in fact Faith was barely aware she'd made it, because as soon as realization sunk in they released each other to jump the rope barrier and run back into the midst of the reindeer ride gathering, Faith leaving dots of nose blood dyeing the snow red in her wake.

"What happened?" Buffy shouted as people turned hopefully to their rushed entrance.

"The kids have wandered off," one man said, sounding more irritated than distressed.

A woman by his side was more concerned. "I heard people in the resort say there were wolves in the woods."

An human elf was calling for calm, although he wasn't doing a good job of leading by example. "Nobody panic. I'm sure they're just playing a game. Hide and seek in the trees."

"I heard a scream, I'm sure it was Suzie," a woman wailed. "Please, we have to find them."

"They've only been gone five minutes," another woman tried to reassure her. "I'm sure they're all fine."

"They're probably trying to find Santa's Grotto," said someone else. "Grant's been exploring for it all afternoon at the resort."

"The Grotto's down there!" A man pointed to a set of red and green lights glowing brightly near the base of the small, steep mountain.

"What if they fell off the edge?"

"Nobody fell off the edge," Buffy promised. "We were right there."

Faith dropped to knees in front of one of the remaining kids. "Did you see where they went?" She had asked calmly, so as not to frighten him, but he screamed in horror anyway and turned his face into his dad's knees. Faith jumped back to her feet in alarm. "What the hell?"

"Your face is covered in blood!" the Dad said, stepping away and dragging his son with him.

"Shit!" Faith ran her sleeve over her nose and mouth, wincing as it made her nose sting like the bitch that had caused it.

Tim came running up, not bothered by the blood, or too panicked to notice it. "Olly's missing too. He's been gone more than ten minutes. We thought he followed you."

"And you were okay with that?" she yelled, not caring that Tim was distraught enough. "You didn't think to check?"

"Faith, shut up!"

"No, B, this idiot . . ."

"Shut up!" Buffy said again. "Everyone shut up!"

She was listening hard so Faith did the same. As the wind gusted towards them she heard it: a faint mix of crying, laughing and whispered instructions in a language she didn't understand coming from the edge of the forest. The darkness in that direction was absolute because of the trees and the bright lights around the bluff but there was definitely something going on over there. With one glance at Buffy they were both running towards the barely audible commotion.

"We don't have any weapons," Buffy reminded her.

"The elves are two feet high - how many weapons do you think we'll need?"

"If there's a hundred of them, maybe more than none."

They came upon the elves before they could get into an argument about it and both stopped short when they did. There weren't a hundred of them, only about twelve but that wasn't what made them stop. The elves were on a sleigh, but nothing like the ones they had rode here on. It somehow looked much more real . . . and definitely way more airborne.


"I'll take your 'huh'," Buffy began, "and raise it to a 'whoa'!"

There were kids on the sleigh, twenty or more of them, most oohing and ahhing at the flying reindeer while a few were screaming their heads off in abject fear. Faith wasn't sure whether to call them the pussies or the sensible ones. She'd definitely have been loving this at their age, but then that didn't say a lot for how smart they were.

"Give me a leg up!" Buffy called and before Faith could question it the blonde was already running towards her.

Letting Slayer synchronicity take over, Faith went into a crouch and cupped her hands in front of her. As soon as Buffy's foot stepped into her slingshot Faith used the power in her legs to spring back up and the strength in her arms to launch Buffy straight up into the sky.

A second earlier and Buffy would have landed comfortably in the sleigh.

Instead she missed it by six inches but managed to grab hold of the back-board, the old, splintery wood biting painfully at her fingers. An elf at the rear of the sleigh brought a short but sturdy branch down on her knuckles. That hurt even more and she lost her grip with that hand. Hanging by only one now she twisted her body around, trying to get her feet on one of the runners, but the elf repeated his earlier success and suddenly she was falling.

With a surprised, pained and worried yell - the sleigh was pretty high off of the ground now! - she managed through sheer force of will to clutch the very end of the runner in her throbbing fingers. She hung there for a second, pleased that she was out of range of the elf's branch, but she wasn't doing any good just hanging there!

After a few seconds of getting her breath back Buffy went hand over hand until she was in the middle of the runner. She was slowing the sleigh down and her added weight had made it dip a little and rock from side to side. She couldn't see it but the reindeer were having difficulty now. They relied on momentum to get up in the air and she was putting a definite crimp in it. Climbing up the sleigh would be a good move, if she could get her feet onto the runner she could boost up over the side, but dangling as she was and with the sleigh still moving and with a couple of elves looking down on her ready to play whack-a-mole it just wasn't happening.

"Faith, my feet!"

Faith didn't have to ask what she meant and ran and jumped immediately. She fell short by a few inches, the deep snow throwing her off as it sank under her boots, but she piled on the power on her second attempt and Buffy felt fingers grip tightly at her ankles before the sudden weight of Faith nearly dragged her arms from their sockets.

The sleigh rolled to the side with their combined effort but not quite enough. Faith pulled herself up by Buffy's ankles, pulling her knees up at the same time, and then abruptly dropped all of her weight back down.

On the third attempt - and surely just one attempt before Buffy's arms parted ways with her shoulders permanently - it worked!

The sleigh tipped onto its side, dumping kids and elves into the snow and tangling the traces enough that the reindeer were screwed, dropping out of the sky to crash into the ground. Their forward motion created a great furrow in the snow that ended only yards from the top of the ski slope.

As soon as Buffy and Faith landed in the snow they were up on their feet again. All of the kids were crying now and while Buffy called to them, gathering them into a group and doing her best to reassure them, Faith punched out every elf within reach. Many of them ran away before she could get to them, heading down the ski slope.

"You got all the kids?"

"Yeah." Buffy did a head count, which was useless because she didn't know how high she was supposed to count to, but she couldn't see any more floundering in the deep snow. "Yeah, I think so."

Faith let the escaping elves go. They could deal with them later. It was more important to get the crying kids back to their parents.

"Okay, let's go." As she took her share of kids to shepherd back to the bluff one of them turned and punched her in the stomach. "Hey, ow!"

"You stopped us from meeting Santa!" the little girl complained, trying to punch her again.

"Think we got a future little slayer on our hands, B," Faith laughed, the adrenaline rush giving way to the usual euphoria felt after a successful slay - or de-sleighing in this case. She picked the six year old up by the back of her oversized snowsuit and ignored the way her fists and feet still tried to connect with her.

Buffy gave her a quick smile and then led the way back to the anxiously waiting parents.

Kennedy opened the door to her bedroom to find Willow still hunched over her laptop. Willow didn't even look up at her entrance, obviously deeply involved in her research.

"Is everything okay? I thought you'd be done by now."

Willow looked back in surprise at her voice and then turned on the seat to smile at her. "Turns out there's a lot more to elves than meets the eye."

"Really?" Kennedy came deeper into the room, dropped her bag beside the bed and came to stand next to Willow.

"Yes and no, well, not really. I'm having to go on myth and fantasy."

"Isn't that what we usually do?" Kennedy dropped a kiss on to Willow's lips.

Willow moved over on the rectangular stool to give her room to sit down. "Yes, but usually we have Giles' books to back up it up."

Kennedy took the offered space, her arm loosely looping around Willow's waist. "And he has no books about elves?"

"Not specifically. What he has found says they're a benign race."

"And that's bad?"

"No, but not particularly useful when Buffy is sure they're eating children." Willow scrolled another unhelpful page and then turned her attention away from it. "So, was the shelter fun?"

Kennedy raised an eyebrow. "You've never been to a homeless shelter have you?"

"No, but . . . I always meant to go."

Kennedy kissed her cheek. "Not fun, but it's good to do good. Not that I did much, I didn't ladle out soup or anything, just dropped off a package."

Willow nodded and then her eyes drifted back to the screen.

"So did you check out my Mom's email account?"

Willow turned back to her. "No, I thought you were joking about that."

Kennedy laughed. "You've met my Mom; do you think she's anything to joke about?"

"Aww, she's not so bad," Willow grinned. "She just wants you to be happy."

"If that was true she'd keep her nose out of our relationship."

"I wish my Mom had asked about our relationship at least once," Willow countered.

Kennedy thought for a while before answering, filling the pause by stroking Willow's long hair over her shoulder, teasing her fingers through it and loving the way the soft strands drifted like red silk over her skin. She knew next to nothing about Willow's parents and all she did know wasn't particularly good.

"Do they even know I exist?"



"I told my Mom I was seeing someone."


"A while ago. Over the summer. I think we were in Oklahoma at the time. She said, "That's nice, dear," and then asked if I'd packed enough socks for my 'fun little road trip'. She's not big on sentiment."

Kennedy had kept her parents in the dark deliberately about where she had been because of where she had been, but Willow's parents had lived there. How could they be so casual about Willow's 'fun little road trip'? She didn't ask though. If Willow wasn't bothered by it she didn't want to give her a reason to be. Buffy and Xander's parental dramas were more than enough. Not to mention her own!

"Do you think they'll ever want to meet me?"

"Sure, but probably only on our wedding day . . ." Willow joked but then her grin turned a little uncertain; Kennedy's probably matched it. ". . . so, um, not for a while."


They sat in silence for a moment and Kennedy knew she had to do something to break that train of thought. She looked around, as if noticing something for the first time.

"Hey, we seem to be alone in my room."

Willow's grin gained strength again. "And right by your bed."

"We should take advantage of it."

"Thought you'd never ask."

Kennedy stood and offered her hand. Willow took it eagerly and together they moved over to the bed. They kissed for only a moment or two beside it before Kennedy hopped onto the mattress and tugged Willow after her. Laying down together, soon

Kennedy was being kissed with all the passion she'd missed out on the night before. Her skin tingled with delicious heat as Willow's hands slid up under her t-shirt. Needing to feel more of them she sat up, earning a sad noise from Willow. It was soon replaced by happy noises as she pulled her t-shirt off, throwing it to the side before rolling on top of Willow and hitting her with another deep kiss.

This just couldn't get any better! Except it did with every time Willow's hands stroked lovingly down the bare skin of her back and with every dip of Willow's tongue into her mouth.

Willow was pushing up against her and pulling at Kennedy's hand to encourage it between them when the bedroom door opened.

Pissed off, Kennedy dragged her mouth reluctantly from Willow's to snap: "Learn to knock!"

Expecting it to be Roxanne who had barged in on them, she was surprised to see her Mom standing there. She moved quickly off of Willow instinctively and looked around for her t-shirt.

"My point still stands," she groused as she found it and pulled it on.

"I did knock at your outer door. Obviously you didn't hear me. Perhaps if you had been paying more attention." Her Mom didn't look happy. "Sorry to interrupt Willow, but Kennedy's father would like a word with her."

"No apology necessary!" Willow squeaked. She had already pushed herself up against the pillows and drawn her knees up to her chest. "It's fine."

"It's not fine. I can't believe you brought him into this."

"I do not know what you are talking about." Her Mom came further into her bedroom and obviously planned on standing there for as long as it took. When Kennedy didn't move she nodded back impatiently at the doorway. "He is in his study."

"I'll speak to him later. I only just got back from your last errand. It would be rude to leave Willow on her own for any longer."

"Who said anything about Willow being on her own?" With a broad smile Rosie perched on the end of the bed. "I will stay and keep her company."

Kennedy laughed, "I don't think so."

"Kennedy, I am your mother, why are you scared of letting me get to know your girlfriend?"


"But you and Willow are oh so serious. You are already living together. Surely nothing I can say would put that in jeopardy? You love my daughter far too much to let me scare you off, right Willow?"

Willow's smile looked like a grimace of pain. "Uh huh."

Kennedy was mouthing 'I'm sorry' over and over to her until her Mom turned back and she quickly straightened out her face. Rosie smiled reassuringly and patted her leg.

"See, everything is fine. Go now; he is waiting."

Reluctantly Kennedy rolled off of the bed, turning once to return Willow's brave smile before going through the door.

They were hailed as heroes when they emerged enmasse from the trees, although not really once Buffy explained that the kids had just gotten lost in the woods while hunting for elves. Some of the parents blamed themselves, some blamed other parents, but everyone was happy to see their little ones returned.

Faith and Buffy shared a look. It wasn't one of mutual praise, nor was it one of seasoned slayers who knew they still had a job to do. It was one of bitterness and fear; a look that reminded them they had been in the middle of something before the emergency, a something that wasn't going to go away just because they'd saved the day. It was a something they had to deal with, even though neither of them wanted to even think about it.

Before they could come to blows again right then and there in the middle of the people still thanking them and laughing cheerily because they'd never know how much danger their kids had really been in, Faith felt a hand on her shoulder.

She twisted towards it, a fist raised because the mix of exhilaration and anger had her on edge, and found Jan and Tim waiting expectantly.

Jan smiled at Buffy, "Where'd you hide Olly?"

"What?" Buffy asked, looking from Jan to Faith.

"It's okay. We knew he'd want to stick with his new favorite people. Tim and I were just saying we should make you his Fairy Godparents," Jan said, chuckling.

"Gotcha!" Tim sprang around the back of Faith as if expecting to find his son there.

Faith was struck dumb for a minute, but Buffy tried, "Uh guys . . ."

Tim came out from behind Faith, still smiling. "Is he off playing already? Typical boy, huh," he added with pride in his voice.

Faith looked at Buffy. "Did you see . . .?" she murmured.

Buffy shook her head. "I didn't notice."

They both took a look around at the crowd. Most of the kids had recovered from the ordeal enough to start running around again but they couldn't see Olly among them. They didn't even have to look at each other this time before both running for the trees again.

"Where are you going?" called Jan. "Where's Oliver?"

Buffy thought about turning around and explaining; she couldn't imagine what might be going through Jan and Tim's minds right now. She faltered, slowed and half turned and then Faith grabbed her arm and forced her back on mission.

"You're not a hand-holder, B, you're a slayer."

"I know that, but it's their kid!"

"And every second you waste explaining shit to them is another second their kid could be getting eaten!"

Faith was right. Buffy put her head down and ran.

They reached the battered and fallen sleigh to find no elves and no kids. The reindeer were still there, they were back on their feet but still tethered to the sleigh. Buffy and Faith ignored them, calling out for Olly instead. They received no answer and a quick search of the area didn't turn him up unconscious or worse.

"The bastards took him!" Faith yelled.

Buffy agreed. "They must have gone down the slope."

They both took a moment to stare at it. It was a long and steep. From the elf prints they could see the snow was deep too.

"It's gonna take us forever to run down that," Buffy realized. She was ready to start though when Faith caught her arm again. "What?"

Faith pointed to the shack a little further up the slope. Set back in the trees, Buffy hadn't even noticed it in the dark but now she saw what it was. It wasn't a ski-hire place like the one right out on the bluff but it was plainly obvious from the goggles and ski poles outside that it was a ski storage shed.

Faith broke the lock with one kick. "You ever done this before?"

"Once, when I was younger. I sucked at it."

"Good to know I won't be the only one." Faith was pulling at the long and short skis inside, making them clatter to the floor in her haste. "Do these things go by shoe sizes?"

"I don't know and I don't think we have time to care."

"Fair point." Faith thrust a couple of the skis at Buffy, which were at least equal in length, and then grabbed a pair for herself.

They fastened them on outside, both cursing because they didn't know what they were doing, and then Buffy passed a couple of ski poles to Faith before choosing her own. Barely three minutes had passed since Faith had busted into the shack but it felt like an hour.

"You good?" Buffy asked urgently as she awkwardly walked back to the slope.

"Too good for you apparently," Faith said as she did the same.

"Does now really seem like the time?" Buffy objected.

"Do you really think there's ever a good time for someone to kick your ass to the curb?" Faith asked rhetorically and then used her poles to push off of the top of the slope. "Let's go."

Since becoming the Slayer Buffy could master most physical activities on the first try. Whether it involved running, jumping, swimming or climbing, the skills just seemed to be there when she needed them. Skiing didn't seem to involve any of those skills and she wasn't mastering it so well.

Going in a straight line was okay; her superior balance made that easy enough and even the first few gentle curves hadn't posed much of a problem, she'd just leaned slightly one way and then the other. It had gotten harder after that with sharp twists and narrow gullies to steer through at high speed thanks to the steep slope of the mountain. It might have made her feel better if she'd known she was on the black diamond run, the hardest slope in the area, and that as a beginner she was just lucky to not have killed herself on it yet, but she didn't know and it was just pissing her off that Faith was whooping and hollering like she was having the best time ever while Buffy had to keep fighting the urge to close her eyes and pray.

She'd let Faith go in front, deciding it best to follow her lead rather than try and navigate the way herself. That way, if they came to a sudden drop or a wall of rock, Faith would die first and Buffy would hopefully have time to put the brakes on before she suffered the same fate. It wasn't very charitable of her, but then the things coming out of Faith's mouth weren't very considerate either.

"I ain't dumping ya, B, and I ain't gonna cheat on you either."

The words flew back to her on Faith's slipstream; burning as much as the freezing wind that battered her face and stung her eyes. Now she knew why people who skied always wore their jackets zipped up to their noses and those silly goggles. Buffy's snow suit was built for skiing but she hadn't been prepared for it and the jacket was only zipped up as far as her chest.

"I ain't giving it to you on a plate. You want rid of me you're gonna have to stand up and do it."

"You think I won't?" Buffy called out. "Do you honestly think I'm so desperate that I'd put up with you for any longer?"

"I think you're desperate not to have anyone know you're the one that failed in this relationship. I almost don't blame you. I mean, in a relationship that includes me it's gotta suck hard to know you were the problem all along."

"I didn't fail! You can't fail at something that you never stood a chance with in the first place."

"You stood a chance, B. You stood every chance. I put up with beatings every other day for a month to make sure you had that chance. I got paroled to give you a chance. I traveled across the continent on fifty bucks, even though every ounce of me told me I should be running in the other direction, to give you that chance. And I've been putting up with you running hot and then cold and then colder for three months just waiting for you to take that chance. But you can't do it, can you?"

Buffy was silent, partly because she'd only missed skiing into a jagged rocky outcrop by three inches and was still trying to remember how to breathe again and partly because she was digesting everything Faith had just said.

"You keep telling me how I don't know what being in a relationship is all about but now I know it's you who can't be in a relationship. You just don't have it in you. Now I get why a smokin' chick like you was single for so long. I used to buy into that whole self-pitying crap about how you just had bad luck with guys. Hell I used to think Angel was a prize idiot for walking away from something so good. Now I think the dude should get a medal for sticking it out so fuckin' long!"

"And I'm starting to think you picked up the motto 'Get some, get gone' from all the boys who must have said it to you, 'cause God knows it's what I should have done!"

"Yeah, well, screw . . . Whoa!"

Buffy's worst fear of the last ten minutes was coming true. They'd hit a drop and Faith was airborne! Buffy didn't have time to stop - she didn't know how to stop! - and seconds later she took off too.


The slope continued ten feet away and it turned out jumping was a required skill after all. She didn't know if it was the right thing to do but Buffy pulled her knees up and tucked her elbows in, canonballing through the air. Ahead of her Faith was flailing her arms and legs, the total surprise of the jump stealing her wits for precious seconds, so that when she landed it was less than graceful.

She crashed into the snow, face first and with a sharply cut off yell of pain. Right behind her Buffy landed smoothly, still in a crouch, but concern for Faith outweighed her pride at the successful landing. She stuck her poles into the snow and dropped back onto her butt, not knowing any other way to slow down. She stopped sliding down the slope about ten feet below Faith and after looking anxiously to the base of the mountain - they were wasting time here - she turned back to look up at Faith.

"You okay?"

Faith had already moved into a sitting position and was using one hand to refasten the straps on her skis. "I'm fine."

"That'll go faster with two hands."

"Only got one right now." Faith grunted as she used a ski to hold her opposite foot steady while she hauled on the strap.

"You cut off your hand!" Buffy got gingerly to her skis expecting to see a pool of blood forming in the snow around Faith. Faith gave her an incredulous look. It didn't sound that far-fetched; she'd seen someone lose three fingers in an ice-skating collision once. Faith still had both hands, and all of her fingers. "Did you break it?"

"Dislocated my shoulder. I'm fine." Faith pushed herself up with one ski pole, leaving the other in the snow. "Come on, we're wasting time."

Faith tried to push off with the one pole but her skis didn't cooperate and she nearly slipped over again.

"And you skiing in circles is going to save us time?" Buffy said sarcastically as she awkwardly walked back up to her. "Let me help you." She stopped in front of Faith. "Uh, how do you want to do this?"

Faith's look was scathingly weary of her this time. She placed Buffy's hands where she wanted them and then set her injured arm against Buffy's shoulder. "Like you could ever help me." With a grunt she thrust forwards and there was a loud smacking sound as the joint popped back into the socket.

"It's all I ever wanted to do," Buffy promised, although her tone wasn't exactly friendly.

"The only thing you've ever been good for, Twinkie, is bumping up against," Faith sneered and bent down to pick up her other pole.

Buffy stepped back, hurt and angry all over again. "Okay, I give. I've had enough. We're done, Faith. Soon as this is over I never want to see you again." She turned around so that her skis were pointing in the right direction. "And if you want to tell everyone it's all my fault, go right ahead. I'm pretty sure they'll never believe you anyway."

"Thought you loved me?" Faith asked mockingly.

"I thought I did, but obviously you really are completely unlovable."

That was her last word on the subject. Buffy shut down emotionally, channeling her distress in a way it could actually help. It didn't matter that her heart was silently breaking; there was a child in danger and she had a job to do.

Jabbing her poles into the snow, she pushed off fast, leaving Faith to eat her snowflakes.

"So, Old Ones." Vi was in Andrew's usual place beside the white board. "This is what we know." She read what she'd already written down. "They're old. There's more than one." She capped her black marker with a sigh. "Is it bed time yet?"

It was dark outside already but barely past five. Dawn was getting worried, not only by the lack of information they were coming up with, but also because Giles and Xander weren't back yet and apparently Buffy had promised to call in this afternoon and hadn't yet.

"We know more than that," Reece said tiredly. "Like how it isn't an Old One eating the children, but elves."

"But elves are good," Naomi said. "You know that as well as I."

"We've been at this twelve hours!" Alison griped. "Why can't we just admit we're not as good at this as the Watchers?"

"We are the Watchers." Reece irritably flicked a finger between himself and Naomi.

"I was talking about Giles and Xander and Willow."

"Xander and Willow aren't Watchers," he snapped.

"Yet they're still better at this than you."

"Go easy on us, Ali," Naomi said, yawning. "Uncle Rubear, Mr. Harris and Miss Rosenberg have a lot more experience than we do and they still don't know what's really behind this either."

"What's really behind it," Dawn muttered. Then she turned and grabbed Reece's forearm where it was resting on the table. "What's really behind it?"

"I beg your pardon?"

Dawn stood and took the marker from Vi before scribbling on the white board. "What's really behind it? If the elves are so good why are they being linked to the deaths?"

"Because your sister saw a lot of them at the resort."

"Are we sure they aren't just working there?" Vi asked. "Like the little guy at the mall?"

"Buffy apparently said they're not, but that the ones they saw were showing an unusual amount of interest in the children on the bus."

"So, maybe they serve another purpose." Dawn stepped to the side to show a hastily drawn flow chart on the board.

At the bottom was the word 'children', above that was 'army of elves'. Unfortunately above that was just a big question mark. There were several groans.

Miranda's was one of them. "That doesn't help."

"Yes it does," Dawn countered. "Now we can narrow our research down to what Old Ones might use an army of elves."

Out of everyone in their section of the hunt, Xander was the only who'd ever really had a conversation with a pixie and the job of deciphering what the little guy was saying had fallen to him. The only problem with that was he usually relied on short sentences and a whole lot of miming and that just wasn't cutting it in a serious conversation about murderous elves.

"We need Willow here to do some kind of translation spell," he finally said in exasperation.

"Willow's in New York with Kennedy," Andrew reminded him.

"I know that!" He tried again, speaking slowly and clearly, "How do you kill elves?"

"Yow darn nivie quell ann eef," Josiah said, also speaking slowly but not so clearly.

Xander threw his hands up. "I give up. Let's head back. Alex looks like needs a stiff drink before he passes out anyway."

He was getting cold now that they had stopped walking and he was sick of standing in the dark lane. It wasn't like they were doing any good there. Besides, Giles still seemed to be watching him closely - like in case he was about to turn into a gibbering wreck and start running around with his underpants on his head - and the scrutiny was making him crazy. Although not underpants-on-the-head crazy . . . yet.

With nothing else to suggest, Giles agreed and Alex was past the point of being in charge. He kept shooting sharp glances from Josiah to him to Giles before staring blankly down at his feet for long periods of time. When the group started moving back towards the town he walked passively beside them; he was still holding his shotgun across his body but he looked less dangerous with it than he had done all day, and his finger was nowhere near the trigger. Xander had seen on TV that some people found comfort in carrying a gun, that's why so many little old ladies had them; right now Alex was treating his high-powered rifle like a teddy bear.

Craig and Andrew were still trying to get some sense out of Josiah, asking him shorter and shorter sentences in the hope that it would make his answers simpler.

"If the pixies planned on sending someone to help us," Robin began, "Why did they pick one who couldn't speak English?"

"It is English," Giles said.

"Not any English I've ever studied."

"It's a very old dialect; regional to the southwest of the British Isles. It shares some roots with Gaelic and Cornish I believe but evolved independently."

"Besides I think Beryan's the only one who speaks the good English," Xander said. "And I can't see her royal smallness coming all the way out here to us."

The lane they were following came out onto a larger road and, as they'd all lost their bearings during the long day of endless walking, when Alex turned west they followed.

The cop raised his radio to his mouth. "This is Alex. My party is heading back. The rest of you finish your sweeps and then head to the bar to report in." He didn't wait for replies before thumbing off the radio and fixing it back to his belt.

Xander glanced at him, wondering what he was really making of all this. He hadn't spoken to any of them for a while now, like as if he was trying to block them all out. Xander almost didn't blame him; although it wasn't their fault a pixie had shown up, or that the Alex's home town happened to have been built over a Hellmouth. He should be grateful they were there, to help him get through the initial freak out that came with learning that the supernatural was real. It would probably be a while before he got around to saying thank you though.

Something suddenly bolted out of the hedge towards him and Xander side-stepped in a panic, knocking into Giles before swinging around and raising his flashlight to illuminate his attacker. The discarded paper bag from the general store hesitated in the beam, shaking all over, before a gust of the strengthening wind blew it further into the road and Alex trampled it underfoot without realizing.

While Robin, Craig and even Josiah chuckled, Giles gently asked, "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. Stop asking me that." Xander turned the flashlight back the way they were going.

"You do seem a little jumpy," Andrew pointed out.

"I'm not jumpy, I'm alert. Primed for action. Ready for anything."

"Like killer paper bags?" Craig asked.

"Anything means anything."

What he was mostly ready for was food. He hadn't had anything since the sandwiches Andrew had packed for lunch and his stomach was starting to think a Fyarl demon had torn out his throat. A hot shower would be great too because somehow he'd managed to be both sweaty and freezing for most of the day. His feet especially were starting to feel like two slabs of frozen meat, but not quite numb enough yet to dull the ache of nearly twelve hours of walking. Either the two pairs of thermal socks he was wearing weren't enough, or he'd walked right through them over the course of the day. He should have put on three pairs. And thirdly, he was ready to be sat in his spot on the couch in front of the television, with nothing to do for the rest of the evening but occasionally flick through the channels and raise his bottle of beer to his mouth.

It wouldn't be long now; they'd just walked past the first cottages that signaled they were right on the outskirts of the village. It was quiet even though it was still early. That wasn't unusual. Boudenver wasn't exactly known for its nightlife and it was too cold for anyone who didn't need to be out to want to be out, but Xander still found the quiet unnerving. It was probably because they were tramping along the road, all seven of them, making barely a sound because of the soft snow under their feet. He couldn't help wondering who else might be taking advantage of it and looked behind them several times until he caught Giles staring at him with that concerned psychiatrist look again.

Trying to ignore the feeling of unease, Xander calculated how much beer he had in the fridge, taking into account that tomorrow was a holiday and the store wouldn't be open. He should probably pick up another six pack just to be on the safe side. A sharp flapping sound broke the silence on his right and Xander's step faltered as he whipped his head around for a clear view of the . . . poster attached to the lamp pole on the edge of the road. The beam of his flashlight bounced off of Santa's jolly face.

Josiah started speaking excitedly as they walked on, his words coming out faster and even less intelligible as he wriggled in Craig's hand.

"Didn't think you fella's would be into Christmas," Craig said, grinning as the pixie tickled his palm.

"I thought they'd be pagans," Andrew said.

"Many of the traditions associated with Christmas began with pagan rituals," Giles was saying.

Xander was only half-listening; most of attention was still on looking around because the main street had undergone a transformation during the hours of daylight. Christmas lights had been strung up between the light poles and bunting fluttered above them too. Candy canes were hanging from the regular trees in people's gardens and tinsel was decking nearly every garden gate or wooden bench. On the small green opposite Barnies a rough wooden pen had been set up with a sign on the fence declaring it was for 'The Reindeers' although Xander couldn't see any in there. Other booths had been arranged along the edge of the road, all dark and empty at the moment but they promised to offer 'Cotton Candy', 'Snow cones' and 'Hotdogs' come fair day. Further down the road he could see that the Christmas tree that had been standing bare in the parking lot of The Mouth for a week was now decorated and more twinkling lights were wrapped around its branches. Beside it, silent and still, was a merry-go-round with an assortment of large plastic ducks, deers, bears and fire engines for children to ride on.

Josiah was still chattering, wriggling and pointing. Xander was doing a good job of blocking out the high pitched nonsense but it was getting on Alex's nerves.

"Can't you shut that thing up?"

"Prob'ly not without getting bitten," Craig was having enough trouble just trying to keep hold of him.

"Then just get rid of it. I'm gonna go for a coffee and then I have to get back to the bar. I don't think there's any point in you guys staying for the post-game wrap up," Alex added gruffly, "but thanks for your help."

"Actually, deputy," Giles began politely. "I still have rather a few questions about . . ."

"Mr. Giles, I have work to do; I don't have time for you right now . . ."

The general store was in sight, the only lot on the main street that didn't seem to be decorated, or at least not as extravagantly as everywhere else. A holly wreath hung on the door and some simple white fairy lights were lining the bottom of the plate glass window, highlighting the merchandise inside, but otherwise the store seemed to be abstaining from the universal merriment of the village. While Giles and Alex bickered, Xander made a beeline for it. He wasn't interested in hanging out at Barnies tonight anyway, not just to listen to the men discuss the failed hunt. He'd much rather be drinking alone, with a blazing fire on one side of him and the TV on the other. Maybe he'd get two six packs, just to be really safe. Actually if he was going to do that he might as well get a case of twenty-four because as much as he might want to be drinking alone he probably wasn't going to get that opportunity.

He was still working it out, factoring in how much Giles and Robin might consume - and wondering whether Reece, Andrew and Craig would just help themselves when he wasn't looking, and maybe he should get two cases just to be really, really, safe - when something ran out from under one of the booths. To his credit he barely jumped this time because he thought it was a cat, but he swung his flashlight around to it fast anyway.

It wasn't a cat! It wasn't a pixie either.

"Hey!" he shouted. "Hey, hey!"

Giles jumped to attention. "What is it, Xander?"

The thing had stopped running briefly at his shout but then took off again. Xander instinctively ran after it as it crossed the street and headed for the alley between the diner and the store.

"Elf!" he called as he ran.

"Wolf!" Alex brought his shotgun up and looked wildly around ahead of Xander to spot it.

"Elf!" Everyone else yelled impatiently as they chased after Xander.

His flashlight bobbed up and down but he did his best to keep it on the little creature. This alley was much wider than the rest and some light was shed into it from the window of The Mouth, but Xander knew if the elf reached the end of it he'd be out on open ground. Cursing that knowledge, he tried to run faster. He had a head start on everyone else and there was no slayer present to overtake him. If he didn't catch the thing it would get away.

And it was just about to, because even with all the training he'd done recently, the elf was much lighter on its feet, barely making a dent in the snow while Xander had to plough heavily through the deep drift between the buildings.

"Wait!" he yelled, seeing the thing about to outrun the beam of his flashlight, and then in a moment of stupidity he pulled back his hand holding the heavy flashlight and launched it at the creature.

It should have gone wide by a mile. He should have been left with no way of seeing where the little critter was running while it made its escape. He should have been left looking like a reckless idiot when everyone else caught up.

All of that should have happened, and Xander was already beating himself up in readiness, except the flashlight connected solidly with the back of the elf's head, sending it sprawling forwards into the snow.

"It's a Christmas miracle!"

Running to the end of the alley, he was just in time to grab the thing by the scruff of the neck as it groggily pushed itself to its knees.

"I said wait! Maybe you'll listen next time and save yourself the headache."

Hooking his fingers into the collar of its tunic, he lifted it up until they were at eye level. Despite looking terrified it gnashed its sharp teeth at him and Xander subtly gulped. On the spur of the moment he'd forgotten that they ate people. Sure, he was no child-size meal but still! He held it a little further away from him as everyone else caught up.

Alex was the least out of breath. "What is that?"

"An elf."

Alex looked from the pixie to the elf and took a big step back with his hands up. He didn't leave but he clearly didn't want to be the one asking questions anymore - or hearing any answers to the questions he might have.

"Right, well," Giles panted, "Well done, Xander. Now what?"

"I figure we interrogate it."

"Of course. Go ahead then."

"Me? I already did the hard work."

They all stared at the elf dangling from Xander's hand for a few moments.

It was Robin who finally cleared his throat. "Uh, are you planning to eat children at Snow Dunes?"

The elf seemed to understand him perfectly because he answered at once. Unfortunately he was even harder to interpret than the pixie because he wasn't speaking anything like English.

"Can yo

u speak English?" Robin asked.

If he did, he didn't use it to answer.

Robin shook his head and tried, "Do you speak Spanish? Or French?"

The elf spoke again, but it wasn't in Spanish or French as far as Xander could tell.

"Maybe Josiah can understand him," Andrew said. "He could translate."

"And then who's going to translate Josiah?" Xander asked and everyone's shoulders slumped even further.

"This may be our only chance to help Buffy and Faith," Giles said.

Xander nodded, "Agreed, so it's time to call in the big guns."

Now Giles nodded, sighed and then took his cell phone out of his pocket. "She's not going to be very happy with the interruption."

Willow sat at the head of the bed, against the pillows with her knees drawn up to her chest. Her arms were around her shins and she was hugging them tight but they weren't much comfort. She'd rather have a blanket to hide under. Kennedy had only been gone five minutes and while at first Willow hadn't been too worried about being left alone with Kennedy's mom . . . now she was doubting her first instinct.

Because Rosie was lovely, in a truly terrifying way!

"So you don't have to worry, Willow. I know what Kennedy thinks of me, but we're not trying to pressure her into anything, we want you girls to take things at your own pace, okay?"


Having a mostly absent and unintentionally indifferent mom of her own, meeting Joyce Summers for the first time had been a revelation. From the start Joyce had bestowed as much love as she had for her daughters on Willow too, welcoming her into Buffy's life with warm, motherly arms from their first meeting. In hindsight it had probably been because Joyce thought Willow was safe compared to the kids Buffy had been hanging out with at her previous school, but that had never mattered to Willow. Having a Mom around who asked about her day and stuff and actually listened to her answers - even if it wasn't her own Mom - had been a big deal.

Rosie was taking that to a whole new level!

"If you two want to have sex . . ." Willow groaned quietly but Rosie went on with a small smile. ". . . I don't want to have to stand in your way. Sex is good; it's life-affirming, and we want you to be happy and enjoy yourselves."

Willow was waiting for the but, desperately, but it wasn't coming yet.

"Sex is an important part of a serious, adult relationship. You're a few years older than Kennedy, yes?"

"A couple."

"Then you know what I'm talking about more than Kennedy does. For Kennedy sex is still a childish thrill. She does not understand the deeper meaning to it."

"Um, I think, yunno, with me she, uh, probably does," Willow said awkwardly, face burning.

"I hope so, Willow, I truly hope so." Rosie patted her foot. "Because . . ."

Beside her, Willow's cell phone began to ring. She glanced down in relief but it would be rude to answer it, right?

"Mrs . . ."

"Call me Rosie."

"Okay. I think you're wrong about Kennedy. She knows how important sex is. Honestly. She's the one that wanted to wait before we did it again, you know after we got back together." A dark, expensively sculpted eyebrow shot up and Willow backtracked hurriedly. "I mean we both wanted to wait. We're still waiting."

"That's very reassuring." Her phone hadn't stopped ringing yet. "If you need to answer that . . ."

"No, it's okay."

"It is just that Kennedy has been very frivolous with sex in the past. She always follows a part of her body that isn't her head," Rosie chuckled, "or her heart, if you know what I mean . . ."

Beyond mortified by the conversation now, Willow snatched her phone up after all. "Maybe I should just see who it is!"

It was Giles and he needed her there, wherever 'there' was.

"I can't right now," she told him, "I'm kinda busy."

Rosie, assuming she was about to hang up, continued, "She enjoys sex, there's nothing wrong with that. I enjoy sex. Her step-father and I have a very healthy sex life. Just last week we made love on the . . ."

"Okay, just give me a rough location!" Willow squeaked into the phone. To Rosie, she said, "Sorry, I need to use the bathroom. Please could you give me a minute? I'll be right back."

"Of course." As Willow walked through the suite, Rosie called out, "Kennedy's bathroom is just here."

Willow hesitated, looking between the closed door to the ensuite and the main exit. She couldn't do what she needed to do in there. Not with Rosie waiting right outside the door for her. "Um, I can't use that one."

Rosie laughed, "Why not?"

"I'm a . . . a nervous pee-er!"

Wincing in embarrassment, Willow bolted out onto the landing and after checking each way to make sure no one else was around she closed her eyes and concentrated. She hadn't done this in a while, at least not voluntarily, but the words she needed were like a muscle memory and a few moments later she disappeared.

"Hey, guys. What's up?"

They all spun around to see Willow standing behind them.

She gave them a wave and then held both hands up, smiling nervously. "Why is there a gun pointing at me?"

"How did she get here?" Alex demanded as he whipped the rifle out of her face and rounded on Andrew, "You said she was in New York."

Andrew shrank back against Craig, "She was, but you heard Mr. Giles just call her."

"Two seconds ago!" Alex looked around warily as if he was half-expecting to find a helecopter waiting back behind the town. Of course there wasn't one. He turned to Willow again, looking her up and down. "How did you get here?"

"Can we save the physics lesson for later? Only I'm kind of freezing and Kennedy's Mom thinks I just went to pee."

While Robin hastily removed his coat and wrapped it around her shivering shoulders Giles got down to business. "You might wish you had come up with a better excuse than that."

"Tell me about it," she groaned.

Xander cut to the chase, "We caught an elf." He gave the creature in his grip a little shake.

"And we'd like to interrogate it," Robin said, "but it apparently doesn't speak English."

Willow looked expectantly at Andrew, he just fidgeted on the spot. "Oh come on, don't tell me you don't know basic Elvish!"

"There's no such thing as basic Elvish! I tried learning Quenya in eighth grade because my brother told me it was compulsory for high school, but it was really hard, so I concentrated on Klingon."

"Because that's going to turn out to be useful someday," Xander said in exasperation.

"Oh yeah, well . . ." Andrew puffed up his chest indignantly. "What other languages do you speak, Xander?"

"Hey, I happen to speak pig-latin fluently, I'll have you know!"


Xander looked shifty, "Maybe a little Klingon. Look, I think we're getting off track here."

"You're telling me," Robin said.

"Actually, pig-latin and Klingon are the only two things about all of this that are making sense to me," Alex said.

"Okay, enough," Willow said over the top of him. "I need to get back sooner rather than later, and anyway, what makes you think I speak Elvish?"

"We didn't; we were hoping you spoke pixie better than us?" Craig held up the little purple being on his palm.

"Oh, hey," Willow waggled her fingers at him. "I didn't see you there."

He waved back. "Aloo."

"Josiah can understand the elf, but we can't understand him," Giles explained. "At least, not more than the occasional word."

"I don't speak pixie either, but I'll try." Willow held out her own hand and Craig let Josiah jump to it. "Okay, fella, what has it told you so far?"

"Iis caaled Rygorni, iis darnt aate baern. Iis scooten fer tha feer, meeken shar s'aal reedeh. Iis Mawther . . . eh? . . . leadeh es caaled Innoki, he tall Rygorni tow scoot, buu Rygorni nay aate baern hissen."

Willow listened to him intently and then looked up. "Yep, I don't speak pixie."

Giles sighed - everyone sighed, but Giles the loudest. "I hate to ask, Willow, but . . ."

"You want me to do a translation spell."

"Can you?"

Now Willow sighed. "I'm supposed to be on vacation. Recuperating even! But I guess so. It's not like we have any choice."

"But you don't have any ingredients here for a spell," Craig pointed out.

Willow smirked, feeling a little of her old cockiness return at the chance to show off in front of the boy. She'd pay for it later, but if she had to stand out here in the cold and do the spell anyway why shouldn't she get something out of it.

"You have so much to learn."

"Padawan," Andrew blurted. Willow raised an eyebrow at him, "Um. Padawan was the word you were looking for, right?"

"I wasn't looking for a word, I'd finished." She looked around, getting her bearings. It wasn't easy because she'd teleported into an alley but she recognized the parking lot of The Mouth at the other end of it. "Can you go and get me some coffee beans? Not grains, has to be beans. And a mug of boiling water. Oh, and see if they have any camomile - a camomile teabag will do at a push."

As Andrew nodded, Alex said, "Can you just grab me a coffee? White, two sugars. Anyone else?"

Xander laughed, "Al, Will isn't placing a drinks order."


"Never mind, I'll get both," Andrew said before running up the alley.

"Then what does she want the coffee beans and hot water for?" Alex asked, bemused.

"Craig, can you find me some harewort? You know what that is, right?"

"Sure, does it even grow out here?"

Willow looked out of the end of the alley they were closest to. "It's popular enough on open ground and the cold doesn't kill it off, you should be able to find some. You might have to dig through some snow for it though."

"No probs," Craig ran off in the other direction to Andrew.

"Giles, would you?" She tried to hand the pixie to him but he shrank back. "He's six inches tall, Giles!"

"Aye nawt gowen tow heem!" Joshiah put his hands on his hips and glared at the watcher.

"Whatever you said, I assure you the feeling is mutual."

It was Robin who took him in the end. He hadn't met a pixie before today either, but Giles had informed him of their habitation at the camp and so he'd taken it a lot more smoothly than Alex had. He held Josiah up to eye level, looking him over. He grinned when the little purple being looked him over in return.

Willow squatted down and dug a round hole in the snow.

"Might be hard to make a fire out here," Xander said.

"If the water is only just boiled when Andy brings it out I won't need a fire."

"What is going on?" Alex demanded.

Willow looked up, a twinkle in her green eyes, "Magick."

This company was so much more fun than Kennedy's Mom's. If interrogation was to be done, she'd much rather be giving it than taking it.

Andrew and Craig arrived back at more or less the same time - Andrew overheated from his excitement and Craig shivering from clawing about in the snow.

"Thanks, boys." Willow dropped the beans and harewort into the steaming mug and then split the teabag and dumped the contents in on top. She used a cheap pen she found in Robin's pocket as a stirrer. "Now watch and learn, Craig."

As she muttered a few words, Alex took another step back and asked again, "What the hell is going on?"

Pale brown smoke plumed out of the mug and Willow waved it towards Xander.


He didn't need to worry, it targeted the worried elf's nose and mouth until it was all sucked into its body.

Once it had all disappeared, Willow plopped back onto her butt. She didn't care that the snow was soaking through her pants as weariness outweighed her cockiness.

"Will, you okay?" Xander stooped towards her, accidentally danging the elf in her face.

She batted it away. "I'll be fine. Just ask it some questions before the spell fades 'cause I don't have time to do that again."

Giles went first. "Are you and your brethren eating children?"

"Oh, this is getting ridiculous," Alex snapped.

The elf spoke in the same unintelligible language he had been all along and Giles huffed in annoyance and disappointment. "It didn't work."

"Give it a sec," Willow said.

As she spoke pale brown smoke issued from the elf's mouth and flimsy, streaky words appeared in the air in front of it.

"My brethren and I do not eat children."

The smoke quickly dissipated on the breeze blowing through the alley.

Giles smiled, but grimly. "I do not believe that to be true."

The elf said something, a few seconds later the brown words appeared. "It is."

"Then how do you explain all of the child deaths in your presence?"

More elf speak, and then hanging in the air, "I am not at liberty to explain them."

Everyone was taken by surprise and had to step back as Alex pushed between them to close his large hand around the elf's slim throat. "Are you at liberty to die? Because you're not human, in fact I'm pretty sure you're just a figment of my imagination, so if you don't tell me what the hell is going on in my town I have no issues with killing you! Do you understand?"

"Easy, Al," Xander cautioned.

"Easy?" Alex dropped his rifle and gripped the front of Xander's jacket with his other hand. "I don't know what's going on, I'm pretty sure you guys drugged me at lunch, but if there is even a fleeting chance this . . . this thing knows what is killing the kids around here, I'm not going easy on it!"

Xander remained surprisingly calm. "But crushing its windpipe, or mine, isn't going to get you any answers either."

Alex let them both go and stepped back, but only by a few inches, and he continued to glower at the elf. "Get it to talk."

The elf coughed and rubbed at its throat.

Giles clicked his fingers in front of its beautiful face to get its attention back. "Tell us what is going on."

They'd reached level ground once more and were pushing themselves across the deep snow as quickly as they could. Their lack of skill in the skis was showing itself now and it was becoming hard work to just scoot along.

Faith paused for a breather and Buffy slid to a stop a few feet ahead of her but didn't look back.

"You see that?" Faith asked.

"It's the Santa Grotto."

The small, brightly lit building was maybe half a mile in front of them, impossible to miss in the dark night.

"I meant the elves running towards it."

"Yeah, I saw them."

"Think that blob they're carrying is Olly?"

"I'm sure of it."

"You ever gonna speak in words of more than one syllable to me again?"

"Doubt it. Come on."

Faith pushed off on her skis again. "What's our plan?"

Buffy waited until she was beside her and then dug her poles into the snow to gain some leverage. Side by side, without once sharing a glance, they set off again.

"We won't get there in time to keep them out. So we storm it."

"Storm Santa's Grotto?"

"Can you think of a plan that's . . . not that?"


"Then let's do it."

"Nice job of keeping to one syllable."

"I know. Thanks."

Despite the language barrier Alex had gotten his point across.

The elf spoke and everyone waited for the brown words to appear.

"We only live to serve our master."

Josiah squeaked something at him and more brown words appeared as the elf answered the pixie. "It is not a servitude we chose. To not serve is to die."

The whooshy feeling of doing powerful magick gone, Willow finally stood back up and rubbed at her unpleasantly wet butt. "So it's your master who eats the children?"

"Yes!" hung in the air between them all.

"And who's your master?"

"What Old One would have elves as servants," Reece murmured. "Who do elves work for?"

"At Christmas?" Miranda unrolled the poster once more. "How about him?"

They all stared at it some more until Reece shook his head.

"That's a fictional character."

"Um . . ." That drew all of the attention to Dawn. "He might not be entirely fictional."

"What do you mean?" Reece asked.

"He might be real."

"That's impossible!"

"Reece is right," Naomi began. "That's completely impossible."

Dawn shrugged. "Anya said he was real."

There was a moment of silence and then, as the kitchen erupted into chatter about this development - and most of it not entirely mission related - Vi said, "We need to call Buffy and let her know."

Reece agreed and looked to Dawn, "You should call her."

"Shouldn't you do it?"

He smiled, "You led us to the answer."

Dawn smiled back as she took her phone from the pocket of her robe. "Thank you."

Reece nodded, still smiling, and didn't feel the need to point out that he didn't have Buffy's number anyway.

They'd left their skis behind and crept through the deep snow to the back of the Grotto . Out front was a line of kids, waiting to meet Santa, and neither slayer needed to be told they had to deal with the elf problem before the kids were allowed in. Urgency was, well, urgent.

Buffy was pressing her ear to the back wall. "I can hear Olly crying."

"So he's still alive, that's good. I think the only way in is the front door."

"We barge past all those kids we're going to cause a scene."

"And if we don't one more of them is gonna end up dead!"

"Good point. But let's try and sneak around. The less people that see us the better."


Buffy's cell phone started to ring. "Crap!" She checked the caller ID and it was just Giles; he could wait. She cancelled the call and slipped it back into her pocket. "Okay, I'm ready."

"Any idea how we kill elves?" Faith asked as they inched their way around the building.

"Personally I'm just going to pretend they're all you, should make stomping on their heads pretty easy."

"Screw you."

"Not again in this lifetime."

They reached the front of the Grotto. A line of kids stretched out from the door as far as the eye could see but because neither she nor Faith were dressed as elves they were as good as invisible.

Buffy stopped by the door. "Look, we can't argue when we get in there."

"Not even planning to acknowledge you're alive, Twinkie. You do your job, I'll do mine and let's just splat as many elves as we can."

Buffy nodded and much to Faith's displeasure didn't even cast a hesitant glance in her direction before bursting through the wooden door.

The light was dim inside but not so much that Faith couldn't make out the dozens of elves in the room. She set to work at once, knocking the little bastards left, right and center. She probably wasn't killing them with one blow but she was certainly putting them on the back foot.


She turned instantly to Buffy's shout and saw her charging towards a curtain at the other end of the room. Buffy was just pushing it to the side as Faith caught up and she saw what Buffy did. They both paused, not sure what the hell was going on.

Olly was still alive and kicking . . . really kicking as he screamed his head off in the elf's arms. But Santa Claus was there, telling the boy to calm down, everything was okay, there were presents . . .

"Did we read this wrong?" Faith breathed. "Maybe it's all part of the show and they just picked a hysterical kid as the prize winner."

Buffy glanced around at Santa's inner sanctum - at the piles of brightly wrapped gifts, rows of twinkling Christmas lights strung around the walls and the little plastic reindeer with the red fiber-optic nose - it certainly didn't scream horror and death. "You might be right. I think we might have the wrong elves."

"So we just back away quietly?"

Buffy nodded, "Probably for the best."

Her cell phone rang again, causing Santa to pause in dragging Olly onto his red velvet knee. His beady black eyes behind the half-moon spectacles focused on them at the first note of the piercing ring and at the same time several of the elves they'd steamrollered through to get to the curtain dashed through after them.

"Uh, hi." Buffy gave a little wave.

"We were just . . ." Faith began.

"Seize them!" Santa Claus growled.

Faith's hands and knees were grasped by several elves, anchoring her in place. She looked down disdainfully and with a simple flick of her wrist sent three of them flying through the air to crash-land in a pile of shiny gifts.

"Hey! No!" Buffy shouted.

Faith didn't look up as she kicked her leg out, freeing it from four more elves. Buffy could handle herself, and if she couldn't this particular time . . . Faith was inclined not to care all that damn much. If the stuck-up princess wanted zero acknowledgement, she could have it. She had her own problems to deal with right now and, well, Buffy getting eaten by elves would actually probably solve one of them.

An elf flew past her face and hit the far wall as Buffy shouted again. "Olly!"

Wondering what was wrong with the brat to make Buffy shout like that, Faith's eyes cut through the faint, twinkling light to find him. He was still with Santa, but no longer on his knee. He was held high in one plump hand, dangling above the fat man's face, and as Faith watched a gaping red maw appeared within the depths of the curly white beard.

"What the f-?" Faith yelled

Oliver screamed at the top of his little lungs as she fought her way out of the pool of clinging elves between her and Santa Claus. She had no weapons but she didn't care, she was going to kick his jolly, red ass all the way back to the North Pole in Hell just fine without. If only she could get to him! Arms free, Faith resorted to picking up the damn elves two at a time and chucking them out of the way.

Buffy reached him first, snatching Oliver away from his hands just before the unthinkable happened and Santa's hugely wide jaws snapped shut around the loose top of the boy's puffy hood. As Buffy turned to run with him, the hood was ripped from his coat, making the boy squeal in pain as the fastened coat pulled tight against his throat, but at least he still had a throat to squeal from.

Buffy didn't get more than a few steps. The elves in front of her slowed her down and Santa gripped her from behind, stopping her in her tracks before pulling her back towards him.

"Faith!" Buffy launched Olly through the air as soon as she looked up. "Get him out of here."

Faith caught the boy easily in her arms. "What about . . .?"

"Don't worry, I'll be fine."

"Not actually what I was gonna ask."

Faith was already kicking and shoving her way back towards the curtain, holding the kid high so the elves couldn't grab his boots. She just had time to hear Buffy call her a bitch before pushing through to the outer room of the Grotto. There were very few elves here now because most had chased them inside; those left were unconscious or groggy.

Outside, Faith set Oliver down on the snow. He was still crying and clingy as hell but she gave him a sharp push to get him away. "Run, ya little idiot. Go on, go find your folks."

He still looked scared to leave her side, snot dribbled from his little red nose and he held his arms up with a plaintive whimper of "Faif!"

"Go!" she snapped. "Or do you want me to take you back to the boogie man!"

That did it. He ran off, tripping in the snow, crying for his Mama. Faith didn't hold that against him anymore. The line of clueless kids were still waiting, and now they called to her, wanting to know when it was their turn to meet Santa. Faith ignored them as she patted her pockets for her cigarettes.

She was just working one loose from the pack when it occurred to her to look over her shoulder. Where was Buffy? It shouldn't have taken her that long to trample over the elves and get out.

Suddenly convinced she'd missed some danger inside, Faith tried to fumble pack and cigarette into opposite pockets as she turned to dash back in, dropping both to the snow without realizing. Not that she would have stopped to pick them up if she had.

She ran back through the curtain, pulling it down around her in her haste, to see Santa Claus trying to pull a struggling Buffy towards his wide open jaws.

Act Four

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