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The 2002 Holiday Project

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Merry Bloody Christmas

Paradoqz

DISCLAIMER: Disclaimers: Every concept and character mentioned therein belongs to Joss Whedon. The story contains minor spoilers for Season 7.

***

"But..."

"It's Christmas Eve!"

"I'm NOT a kid!"

"This is demeaning!"

"ENOUGH!" Buffy Summers closed her eyes, cutting off what in the Slayer's immediate circle of friends and family was referred to as the 'you've-just-pushed-my-last-nerve-and-now-I'm-going-to-decapitate-you-and-nail-your-head-in-front-of-the-townhall-as-a-warning-for-all-eternity' glare.

Xander was rather proud of coming up with the name and surviving the experience.

Speaking in a tone much too reasonable to inspire feelings of safety in the people who knew her, the girl chosen to guard humanity against its nightmares enunciated with excruciating clarity, "All right. I'm willing to listen to all your bitching. One. At. A. Time." She opened her eyes staring grimly at the closest person. "You. Talk. Now."

Xander smiled weakly. "Heh. Umm ... and ... uhh ..."

Buffy's left foot began to tap in a blatant show of impatience and Xander suddenly regained his powers of speech.

"It's Christmas Eve! Can't we just sit this one out? I mean - eggnog! And with the missing of the presents!" He half turned to look behind him imploringly, "Will, back me up here, huh?"

"Sorry." The redhead grinned, biting into an oatmeal cookie. "Jewish, remember. Christmas is just another day."

Xander blanched at the blasphemy, mutely gesturing at the pile of gifts strewing the floor of the living room and half-hidden under the shade of the towering pine tree. "Just another day? That's it, forget your present. You're cut off! Traitor."

Maturely, Willow responded by sticking her tongue out and stealing another cookie.

Shaking his head, her friend turned back to face the Slayer in a last ditch appeal. "Come ooooon! What's the worst that can happen? So a little itty bitty demon with a horrible penchant for human brains is loose on the streets, anyone in their right minds is off the streets tonight anyway and we're going out there into the merciless cold and blizzard aren't we?"

"Yes." Buffy frowned. "Well ... if by merciless cold and blizzard you mean 65 Fahrenheit."

Xander sniffed and half-heartedly swung his axe in a practice motion. "Don't wanna."

"You can stay, y'know." Buffy noted with a positively Olympian grip on her temper. "I can handle this alone. And I distinctly recollect NOT asking for help."

"What kind of friends would we be if we didn't volunteer?" Willow seemed genuinely perplexed and Xander shot her a disgusted look, sticking a dagger into his bag. "The sane kind."

"I'm not a kid!"

Buffy very slowly pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed before turning to regard her younger sister with a flat, unfriendly stare.

Dawn hesitated for a brief second, evaluating the volatility of her older sibling, but then narrowed her eyes and returned the glare in full. "Well, it is my turn! And I'm NOT a kid!"

Buffy's eyes glinted in the amused but unspoken insinuation that Dawn was certainly acting like one and the youngest Summers flared. "I don't need a babysitter!"

She scowled. "I should be coming with you, guys."

The Slayer smiled, clearly enjoying the opportunity to win the ancient argument. "You invited the guests, remember? What're we supposed to do, tell them to get out, Chistmas is cancelled on the account of zombie demon?"

Dawn's scowl darkened as she realized that she was being boxed in and she cast around for the effective counterpoint. "Well... I still don't see why SHE has to be here!"

"Yeah ... Hey!"

Dawn looked a little guilty as Anya's brows furrowed at unexpected insult. "Umm... that came out a lot meaner than how it was in my head." She qualified hastily. "What I mean is that I don't need anyone to be here. I'm old enough to take care of things and ... stuff."

Anya sniffed and shrugged imperiously. "And I don't see why I have to do this. I am 1103 years old, you know. I have other things to do. I did not renounce my demon heritage just to supervise children ..."

"I am NOT a kid!"

"... and I am very wealthy, you know. This is much too undignified for a woman of means. Like myself."

"Anya is not here to watch you, Dawn." By this point, Willow decided, it would be quite fair to classify Buffy's calm as inhuman.

"She isn't?" Dawn appeared to be taken aback by Buffy's simple statement.

"I am not?" Anya appeared only slightly less confused than the Slayer's sister.

"No." Buffy's eyes flickered slightly toward the deathly still figure in the dark corner of the room, otherwise bright with light. "She's here to watch him."

The semi-cheerful banter died suddenly, as every person in the room grew conscious once more of the vampire in their midst. Spike sat unmoving in the Joyce's old knitting armchair; just as he had for the most of the day. Eyes open and staring, empty of thought. The body taut and motionless, the unkempt blond hair falling in haphazard mess over his eyes.

It was Dawn who first broke the uneasy silence as she flipped her hair out of her suddenly narrowed and coldly dismissing eyes. "What, Mr. Zombified over here? What's he going to do catatonic us to death?"

"I gotta go with Dawnmeister on this," Xander assessed the tomahawk speculatively before shoving it into the bag as well. "Besides, even if Captain Demento there does wake up, what's Anya gonna do anyway?"

"Hey!"

"Sorry." Xander sounded anything but and Willow stifled a sigh, catching Buffy's eyes in an understanding glance. It was clearly going to be awhile before Xander would get over Anya being asked out by that lawyer guy. Willow grimly pocketed another cookie for later. It was obviously going to be a long night.

"Anya is not going to be alone in any case." Buffy glanced at the clock. "I asked Clem to look in on them. He said he was almost positive he'd be here by midnight. So if we're not back by then ..."

"Clem?! You asked Clem to protect them from Spike?" Xander's incredulous snort was met by the icy stare and Buffy's reply had a ring of finality to it. "You coming or not?"

"Oh, fine, fine." The rest of the grumbled reply was unintelligible as Xander groaned and slung the bag's belt over his shoulder. "I'm ready."

"You sure?' Willow eyed him thoughtfully. "'Cause we could stop by the army base and hotwire a tank or something."

"Everybody's a comedian." Xander scowled as he strode out the door. " It's all fun and games until your brains get sucked out. Then it's suddenly not that much hilarity there anymore, is it? Be prepared is what I always say."

"I thought that was the Boy Scouts."

Xander's voice grew faint as Buffy exited the house, pulling the door shut. "I told you, Wills, the filthy bastards ripped me off. I'm suing the sons of bitches. Nobody messes with Xander Harris, the two-fisted carpenter!"

Willow's words were pitched too low to catch but Buffy could clearly hear Xander sputter, almost dropping the bag, "Willow!"

Buffy shook her head in tired resignation, following the teasing pair. The shadows of the encroaching evening slithered along the corners of the street and the noises of Sunnydale were imperceptibly beginning to give way for the sounds of the Hellomouth.

"Christmas Eve on the Hellmouth," Absently she twirled the stake between her fingers. "No, we shall not think at all about the appalling number of ways this doesn't inspire fluffy feelings in Buffybrain." She snorted, an errant annoying voice in the back of her mind pointing out that Sunnydale hardly ever needed special occasions to complicate her life. Stupid brain.

The stake spun in a blurring circle before settling snuggly in her palm and Buffy sighed. Life was way too complicated sometimes. If anyone told her three years ago that she was going to have a catatonic vampire in her living room... Well, actually by that point her life was already sufficiently screwed up so she might have taken it on faith.

She winced, remembering the fights with Xander those first days. That kinda sucked. Not that fighting with Xand was ever a pleasure, he had the tendency to for the jugular, friend or not.

Still ...

It would have helped if she didn't see his point quite so clearly. Spike was dangerous. Insane. Really crazy. Psychotic and unstable.

So he had a soul. Yeah. She was ready to kill Willow, soul or not.

So he used to be a frie--. An ally. Didn't stop her from putting three feet of solid steel through Anya.

Spike, the Slayer thought moodily, should be dust by now. The Devourer From The Down Under or Whatever His Name Was got closer to him than anyone else and Spike didn't really have control over what he did and hey, Angel did a lot of stuff with his soul firmly intact that didn't exactly qualify him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

She knew all that. She also knew a rationalization when she heard one. Not that she cared to examine her motives for keeping the Bleached Boy Wonder alive... er.. undead, too closely. Oh, no. No, thank you.

She wondered briefly if Spike would snap out by midnight, in time for Christmas.

There was no way to guess. No system as far as they could see. His first trance lasted an hour. His third one lasted thirteen.

Two weeks since it first began. Fourteen days to the hour since he first withdrew into himself, lost inside his own mind. They still had no clue what was causing it. So far he had always came back. So far.

Came back quiet and withdrawn and apathetic and not Spike at all. All guilt and repentance and she secretly looked for any sign of the old arrogance and sneering bravado. In vain.

Perhaps it was time to admit that the old Spike was gone.

She still had to fight her instinct to flinch every time he would step too close. And he knew it too and every time she would see him carefully skirt her or flinch himself as he noticed the look in her eyes ... she felt irrational stab of guilt and anger and ... stuff.

Did she still want him? The smell of leather and nicotine and blood and sex and barely controlled chaos and rage boiling under the skin ...

No.

Well, she didn't think so. But. She didn't want him gone either. He was hers.

"Man. Never an undead shrink when you need one. Maybe be I should keep the next one alive ..." She chewed on her lip thoughtfully. "Nah."

She stopped suddenly, looking around the empty and unfamiliar street. There was no sign of either Willow or Xander.

The Slayer bit her lip and sighed, summarizing the day. "Crap."

***

"Kit and Carlos are gonna be here any minute!" Dawn waved her hand in front of Spike's immobile form. "How the hell am I going to explain THIS?"

Anya shrugged, placidly correcting the couch pillows. "We could tell them he's sleepi--. Hey! Do you think he's also poseable?"

The green-eyed glare somehow managed to encompass both the former and the current demons simultaneously and Dawn scowled, gnawing on her thumb. "Hmph."

And then she suddenly smiled with slow and chilly malice. "Hmph."

Anya raised her eyebrows in silent query but, before she could put her curiosity into words, the shrill note of the doorbell rung through the house jerking her attention away. "That's must be your little friends, Dawn. I'll go get the door."

"Yeah, sure ... whatever."

At any other time Anya would have surely judged the absentminded acquiescence and total lack of response to the 'little friends' phrase as a cause for some concern. But tonight she was much too busy laying out the rules for the evening in her head to pay proper attention. She slowed down before the door and ignoring the second insistent ring, went through her mental checklist one more time before. Finally she nodded nodding in quiet satisfaction and opened the door with a wide smile she used to reserve for the regular and generous customers. "Hello. Merry Christmas! Please come in and commence having organized fun!"

Kit glanced over Anya's shoulder uncertainly. "Umm, high ... is this Dawn Summer's house?"

"No." Anya replied promptly and Kit wilted visibly, backing up in embarrassment. "Oh! I'm sor-"

"Hi, Ms. Jenkins. Merry Christmas! Whoa, look out, man... Ow." Carlos Trejo muttered something in Spanish and sat up gingerly, rubbing his ankle and winking at Kit. "What's up, bonita?"

"Hey, Carlos. " Kit smiled at him shyly as she helped Carlos to his feet. "I think I got the wrong address ..."

"No, you don't." The tall Latino squinted at the girl in mild puzzlement. "This is it. This is Ms. Jenkins, Dawn's aunt."

Anya nodded, looking pleased. "That's right. That's me. Ms. Jenkins. A valuable and contributing member of human community of the Greater Sunnydale area. Not some vagrant, socialist or demon or anything. And you, young man should be more careful running around like that."

"Sorry, ma'am."

Kit blinked, glancing between the two, thoroughly confused. "No.. but... you said Dawn doesn't live here ..."

"No, I didn't."

"No ... yes you did ... but ...remember I asked and ..."

Anya frowned at the young woman, "I told you that this house isn't owned by Dawn Summers. And it isn't. She's a codependent of Elisabeth Anne Summers, a gainfully employed Guidance Counselor at the Sunnydale High School. And my sister. Because I am Dawn's aunt. Ms. Jenkins. Me. What kind of people do you take us for that you'd think we'd live in a house owned by a teenager?" The former demon shook her head, brows gathering together in a stern line. "That's just crazy talk!"

Kit looked visibly unsure how to respond to that, while Carlos smirked quietly behind her with distinct lack of sympathy.

"Oh! I'm here! I'm here! Hey, guys. C'mon. Get in, get in!"

"Dawn." Anya transferred the stern gaze from the visibly relieved Kit to her charge. "What did your sister tell you about running in the house?"

"Umm ... not with a claymore?" Dawn grinned at Anya's disapproving look and Kit's deepened confusion and ushered her friends in. Tugging Kit's coat off the girl, Dawn motioned with her head toward Carlos who was already hanging his own. "That's Carl.. well you met him, right? Last week, when he came by? Right and this... " She squeezed Kit's shoulder, seeing that the latter was still wary an ill at ease. "... is my friend, K--."

"Kit Holburn, I assume. " Anya nodded, the shrewd brown eyes frankly reviewing the tall shy girl before her. Suddenly aware of her dark quasi-gothic clothes and smudged lipstick, Kit smiled tremulously.

"Hm." Anya shrugged. " I am sure I don't know what you meant, Dawn. She doesn't dress at all like Faith."

"Uh...We gotta go. Cake!" Panicky look entering the green eyes, Dawn grabbed Carlos's sleeve and, pushing Kit before her, disappeared into the living room almost fast enough for Kit to miss the muttered rest of Anya's sentence. "... clearly more clothes."

"Who's Faith?" Carlos asked interestedly, dropping into the middle of the couch and possessively grabbing the nearest bag of Doritos.

"Umm... My sister's coworker. From before. From her other job ... Hey, you guys wanna watch TV?"

"That's your Aunt?" Anya clearly made a deep impression on Kit.

"She was adopted. " Dawn replied quickly. "And recently in an accident."

Kit nodded in uncertain understanding and shook it off. "What're we watchin'?"

The two girls turned the expectant looks on Carlos and the boy grinned triumphantly producing the white-blue Blockbuster bag. "Check it out! Your friendly neighborhood and ethnically diverse Santa Claus is here to save Christmas! I got pure gold here. Everything a respectable Christmas Eve needs."

"Gimme that." Ignoring Carlos's indignant protest, Dawn snatched the bag from him and dumped the tapes onto the table. "... 'Chainsaw Texan Massacre I'... and II, 'Halloween,' 'Army of Darkness,' 'Evil Dead,' 'Hellraiser.' And 'Spaceballs.'"

"Classics one and all." Carlos declared proudly. "I'm the video picking God."

"You are an idiot." Dawn countered sadly. "Is this it?"

"Is this ... " Carlos stared at the brown-haired girl for a long moment, speechless. Shaking his head in disbelief he turned appealingly to Kit. "Back me up here, huh? She doesn't understand. This is like art, right there. Y'know?"

Kit was looking at tapes doubtfully. "What about 'It's A Beautiful Life'?" Catching Carlos's look she corrected hastily. "... or .. or ... 'A Christmas Story' maybe?"

"Man," Carlos smacked his forehead and grimly scooped half of the chips in the bag in one grab. "You guys are hopeless."

Dawn folded her fingers into an eloquent and highly unladylike gesture. "We're watching 'Christmas Carol.' Right, K?"

Kit nodded and shyly perched on the arm of the couch. Carlos sighed and, as the opening credits started to roll, despondently drowned his sorrows with a flood of Doritos.

*** "Hit them! Hit them with an axe!" Willow yelped suddenly and ducked yet another fist-sized rock as it cut through the air, inches above her head. "The big one!".

"I'm TRYING!" Xander hissed with exertion wrenching his weapon around for another swing at the swarming demons.

"Ahhh! Leggo my hair, you little ..."

" Hnghh! ... ohhh, you little weasel ... you aren't supposed to hit guys there! ... oh, I'm going to kill you so much ..."

Kicking out with his left foot, Xander smiled viciously as he felt the bones break. "Serves you right." Backing up to stay next to panting Willow, he reached into the bag, spitting out the blood as the circle of the diminutive demons began to slowly close around them.

"You're overreacting, Xander. We are not going out to fight an WW3, Xander." He glared briefly at the somewhat sheepish redhead standing next to him. "Are you overcompensating for your genitalia size, Xander? Riiight. And when the damn midget army attacks? Who you gonna call?" He sniffed and pulled the warhammer out of the bag.

"Glorified bricklayer and his penis envy, that's who." He smiled unpleasantly and again spat blood from his split lip. "Come on up. Gonna mess you all up."

***

"Little girl all alone. Allll ..."

The melodious singsong voice washed all over her, blending with the darkness and the silence and the ever-present presence of the Hellmouth dancing in the back of her mind.

"... alone. Little Slayer. All abandoned. Where are your friends? Not here, missing, wandering through the city, dying. Where is your vampire? Not here, trapped in his own mind. So easily made to retreat into himself. Leaving you all alone. Lonely little Slayer. Confused little girl."

The warehouse is empty and lightless. The darkness, the lack of the normal sounds and the absence of the echoes that should have been; the strangeness of it all - it amplifies the malevolent words as they slither through her mind.

"Lost little Buffy." The whisper flutteres softly from behind her and she wheels around, ready to strike, eager to lash out.

"All alone."

And then the pain comes.

Buffy gasps as the violent explosion blossoms inside her mind, driving her to her knees with its unexpected intensity and forcing her eyes shut in an unconscious defensive reflex. "Ow!'

"Little Slayer. I will drink your mind dry."

The dark shape is moving, sidling closer to her and she can feel it, see it, sense it through the closed eyelids and Buffy's lips stretch in a death-head smile.

And lets her Other out.

The creature in the darkness next to her does not expect it, and it howls in pain and shock of the sudden blow.

Its voice is not pretty when it howls, she thinks and smiles thinly, mercilessly, hungrily.

The time is passing. Strange and alien. Flowing around her. Thick and light. Feathery and heavier than the world and she doesn't open her eyes but simply reacts and it's the simplest thing in the world to react, to see, to know, to hit, to maim and rend.

The Slayer, she is the Slayer now, but she's getting tired and will not be enough in the end, she knows.

She can feel the sweat-drops run down her face and the ponytail bobbing in the erratic pattern, striking her neck as she dances the dance of death and darkness and is slowly losing. Slayer is not enough and Buffy is alone and the first time she feels the clawed presence in her mind she is almost not surprised at all.

The layers and layers of her and not her and the Slayers through time. Peeling, coming apart at the seams and she can feel herself disappearing, fluttering down into the black abyss of nothingness, losing herself in the shadows along with the hundreds upon hundreds of the girls called to stare down the night before her.

She feels herself dying and it feels peaceful.

"Little Slayer. Little Buffy. So lost. So sad."

She can see it now. The pale beautiful woman standing above her in the light summer dress. "I am your doom, little girl. I am the Winter Queen. I am the Witch of the North. I am the Forsaken. And I am going to eat you whole." She smiles leaning down and gently brushes Buffy's hair away from her eyes. "I just never imagined that it would be so very easy."

That's when Buffy with careful precision breakes her nose. "That's way too many names for a wussy little bitch like you."

"About time." Tara says and smiles a soft shyly wicked smile. "I was starting to worry."

"Oh, you know me. " Buffy struggles to her feet and grabs for the wall before the wooziness brought her down again. "Going gently into that good night is just not me. I like to party." She digs down, looking for surprise or shock or even pain at the appearance of her dead friend but finds nothing and somehow is unworried.

"Little Slayer." The Witch doesn't seem beautiful anymore as she advances, ignoring the blood streaming freely over her lips. "I shall make you pay for that. I shall eat your soul!"

"Y'know." Buffy squints gestures airily, hoping her hand won't tremble. "You got this whole butch thing going with that eating me theme. And listen, my best friend is gay but I'm sorry. You're just not my type."

"Brave little Slayer." Buffy wonderes if it's just her or is really detecting a slight tinge of desperation in the woman's voice. "It's useless. You're all alone. All alone and all mine."

"And again with the lesbian innuendo." Buffy backs up a little, trying to buy time and hoping that the nausea would abate before the Queen charges.

"Besides, who says I'm alone?" She jerkes her head toward Tara standing next to her and grins crookedly. "I've got this nifty hallucination to keep me company."

Tara glares at Buffy briefly. "I'm not a hallucination, I'm a ghost. And... Oh, we don't have time for this." The Witch suddenly lunges and Buffy throws herself to the side only barely catching Tara's next words. "Repeat after me."

***

"You know..." Willow nudged the nearest demon with her toe. "These guys are kinda cute. In the whole 'I- am-a-homicidal-dwarf-and-I'm-going-to-eat-your-heart-out-kinda-way'." She shrugged, "Apart from that though... they sorta look like little elves, huh?"

"Um ... Will ... In a whole lotta pain over here." Xander was enunciating with remarkable clarity for someone with gritted teeth, Willow noted. She helped him to his feet and he leaned against her, taking an unsteady step forward. "Whadda ya say we go fund the Chosen One and maybe make it back home before eggnog is all gone."

Willow nodded and tried to match his unsure steps. "I wonder though ..." She frowned. "Willy swore that the brain sucker was female."

"And alone." Xander snarled. "I foresee an interesting conversation with our friendly neighborhood snitch." He stumbled and grabbed Willow's shoulder to steady himself. "Umm ... later."

"Yeah." She agreed, hiding a wince. "Much later."

***

"Don't go into the basement!" Kit giggled as all three voices merged in a loud warning to Jamie Lee Curtis.

Carlos shook his head. "Dude. Like that girl is obviously not from this town You NEVER go into the basement alone."

"Oh yeah?" Dawn grinned at him. "Where did we meet you again?"

"Except if you are really dying for a smoke, I was going to add." Carlos retorted. "That's the only excuse for being stupid like that."

Dawn opened her mouth to argue further but stopped mid-sentence interrupted by the door bell. "Oh! That's probably Buffy. I'll get it!"

***

"Tell her!"

"Yeah, right." Buffy dodged another swipe of the woman's claws and scowled at Tara. "That's all I need now. Start doing what the voices tell me."

Willow's dead girlfriend sighed, looking clearly impatient. "Any minute now she's going to regain her composure and flay your mind again. What do you have to lose?"

"Sanity? Dignity?" Buffy sniffed and hit the attacking Queen with an empty crate. "Reputation?"

The pale and bloody visage of the raging Witch rose slowly from the floor, green eyes suddenly steely and devoid of expression. The empty concentration within was all the more chilling in the contrast to the bloodstained snarl.

"On the other hand ..." Buffy muttered, feeling the ghostly fingers brushing the edges of her mind. "Humility is important. Who needs a rep in this town anyway. Yo, Elvira!"

The Queen growled and Buffy glanced at Tara before shrugging and setting her shoulders. "I know who you are."

Tara sighed in audible exasperation and closed her eyes as the Witch laughed, the hollow grating sound whipping through the building.

"Do you, little Slayer? I told you who I am. But do you understand? Do you Know?" The force of her hate was almost palpable and it bore down on the Slayer with a malicious, loathing pressure as the Witch's lips pulled back in a wol;flike snarl. "What do you think you are, Daughter of Thieves! I am the Last of the Forgotten. I am the Pale Lady. Through me the People will have their revenge!"

"Well that was a spectacular plan in the whole failing horribly kinda way ..." Buffy muttered out of the corner of her mouth.

"You didn't say it right!" Tara whispered hotly. "Remember? 'I know what your-' "

"Oh!" Buffy snapped her fingers. "Right! Umm.. Sorry."

"You. Are. Sorry." The Queen appeared to be beyond rage now, her face calm and chilly and, Buffy noted with rising apprehension, not bleeding anymore.

"I wasn't talking to you." She snapped. "Morag."

***

"Um... Hi." Dawn looked at the man before her dubiously. "Did Buffy hire you?"

"Not exactly." White teeth flashed in the white beard and the reindeers yoked to the big sleigh snorted in what almost sounded like laughter behind the portly man in the white and red suit. "Hello, Dawn."

***

"That's right, bitch."

Buffy smirked and behind her Tara groaned again.

"Don't ad lib! This is important!

"Oh, all right." Narrowing her eyes Buffy stared at the pale, furious woman before her.

"The Name as the chain. The Word as the cage. By the four prophets and the lone Gods, by the Path and the Blood, I banish you, Morag. By the Old and the New. By the Promise and the Pact, I banish you Morag." She fixed the self-styled Queen with her stare and quietly finished. "You have no place here. Go home."

"You can not!"

The screech cut almost like a knife and Buffy recoiled before its force.

"I am The Lost. I am of the Hunt! I am Morag and I will have my day!"

Only the Slayer's senses and her propensity to darkness allowed her to see the faint green glimmer to the air among the darkness of the warehouse. The soft almost hypnotic shimmer drew her in as the air thickened, coalescing into a shape of something that her mind refused to define.

"Now!" Tara's hissing whisper jerked her attention to the back to the present. "Call on Them now!"

Trying her best to ignore the creeping, slimy-greenish horror lumbering its way toward her, Buffy swallowed the bile pressing at the roof of her mouth and, staring levelly at Morag, mouthed the words she didn't really understand.

"The Wayrward child to the Mother, The Lost to be found, the Pact must remain. Witness to the broken Promise, I call on the Queen and the Court and the Hunt, for Justice!"

"Nooo!" Hate, pain and searing anguish struck her and she felt her mind buckle.

***

"Oh my, my, my." The man in the red suite chuckled kindly, looking around the room with an avuncular air. "What a beautiful home."

"I can't believe you let him in!" Anya glared at Dawn, straining the ropes tying her to the chair. "Didn't I tell you? Didn't I warn you about him? Which part about ' ... he likes to disembowel children' inspired confidence in you exactly?!"

"I did not let him in! He just ... came." Dawn flared.

"Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God."

"MMmhmm!" It wasn't clear whether Carlos echoed Kit or was making an original contribution to conversation. Biting Santa Claus earned him a gag. And a rapidly purpling black eye.

"Now, now, children. Let us not be naughty."

Anya sniffed contemptuously. "Who are you calling a child, greenhorn? I was already half a millenia old when you just figured out what the privy was for."

St. Nicholas froze looking at the ex-demon in the obvious confusion. "Pardon me?"

Anya stared back unflinchingly, lips pressed together in a thin scornful line.

"Anyanka?!!" Claus goggled at the bound woman. "Wow. You must have been really naughty to deserve this. My, my, my. This is positively marvelous. I never expected this when the Missus drugged me here. Ho-ho-ho!" The corpulent man was still chuckling as he reached inside the bulging bag and produced a long, hook-nosed knife. "This shall be ever so much fun."

***

They were very pretty, was her first thought.

And also the second. In fact it kept coming back and back, flittering around in her brain like a butterfly, as they stood there watching her with lordly arrogance and clear disdain. Waiting for her to beg.

Well. Screw that. She smiled at them, filling the grin with as much offensive contempt as she could remember from dealing with Faith and dropped cross-legged to the floor, ignoring Tara's shocked gasp.

One of the tall pale girls in an expensive looking blue dress blinked and her mouth opened in a shocked "o" of indignant disbelief. Spitefully Buffy smiled at her again, concentrating all her feelings about this day in the smirk.

That appeared to do the trick as one of the men - she glanced at the pointy ears and the cruelly beautiful faces and giving up, called them what they apparently were - ... one of the elves, moved toward her with his hand on the hilt of the sword.

"Stop."

The command snapped like an uncoiled whip, jerking the moving man to an abrupt stop. Yet another tall and offensively red-haired woman moved to the forefront, the pale blue eyes looking down on Buffy with cold dislike.

Buffy, refusing to engage in a staring contest, bit her nail, grimly considering the unfairness of being 5'3".

"Make your supplication, child, ere we grow wroth with you."

With deliberate lack of hurry, Buffy raised her head to meet the eyes of the Queen Mab.

"Excuuuuse me? Supplication? Well. Isn't that interesting." She snorted .

"And here I thought that it was YOU who let That ..." She jerked her thumb toward Morag, huddled and weeping in the corner, "... loose in My city. Hm. I must have been mistaken then. And the little agreement my friendly neighborhood ghost here told me about has not been broken. And you're not at all in danger of getting your fairy butt handed to you by the Powers That Be. Sorry. My mistake. I guess I called you all this way for nothing. Bye."

The black-haired and sharp-faced man who was sitting in a half-crouch by the door chuckled darkly, absently worrying the red ears of the white hound that was nuzzling his palm. "You're playing a dangerous game here, girl."

"Well, I'm the Slayer. That's what I do. And who the hell are you anyway?"

"That's Gwyn ap Nudd!" Tara appeared to be slowly overcoming her awe and ... Buffy blinked as she suddenly realized that Tara was actually glaring at the people surrounding them. Sort of. She shook of the shock and raised her eyebrow at the brown-haired witch. "Gesundheit?"

"He's the Hunter! He leads the Wyld Hunt!"

"Hence the nifty nickname, I guess." Buffy smiled charmingly, and with all the insincerity she could muster, at the man whose pronounced cheekbones reminded her uncomfortably of someone else entirely.

"I'm Buffy. The Slayer. See 'cause like I Slay and stuff. Get it? Also I am a Guidance Counselor. What's your day job?"

Ap Nudd grinned. "Rule Annwn."

She glanced at Tara and the latter hesitated before shrugging and admitting. "Welsh underworld."

"Oh." Buffy said in a small voice.

Seeing Gwynn's grin broaden, she added spitefully. "I -thought- there was way too many consonants there for a normal language."

The Hunter laughed out loud, standing up in one fluid motion and gestured absently with his right hand. As Morag disappeared in a sudden green flash, he drawled, letting his eyes measure the Slayer from head to toe in a lazy leering review. "I like this one. I think we should keep her."

"Maybe that's because you have always thought with your dick, ap Nudd."

"Maybe that's because I have one." Gwynn offered with quiet amusement.

Buffy squinted as, with a loud snarl, a violently blond man forced himself forward. His right hand was playing with the plain but golden torque around his neck. Then she absorbed the twisting horns at his temples almost hidden by the mane of straw-colored hair and sighed morosely. Turning to Tara, Buffy inquired fatalistically. "Is that who I think that is?"

Tara looked back at her momentarily confused. "You know who that is? Really?"

"Well, yeah." Buffy got a little offended by the unfeigned surprise in her friend's voice. "It's pretty obvious isn't it?"

"Yes, but ... " Tara shrugged, "I just didn't know you read ..."

"I mean the horns give it right away! Even I know what the devil looks like!"

"... Celtic Mythology." Tara finished lamely and sighed softly . "He's not the devil, Buffy. That's Cernunnos. Celtic God of the Hunt."

"Oh." Buffy said mildly. "Gotcha."

Tara shook her head in small wordless gesture of disappointment and Buffy raised her voice defensively. "Hey, how was I supposed to know? I just hit people. And anyway..." She narrowed her eyes again. "... what's up with these guys and the hunt. I mean hello? PizzaPizza. They deliver."

Gwynn snorted again with open mirth and appeared to observe with frank curiosity as Cernunnos slowly reddened.

Behind the Celtic god, Mab cleared her throat imperiously. "My patience grows short."

She transferred her glare from ap Nudd back to Buffy. "You have summoned us, mortal. The Queen, the Court and the Hunt are here at your demand." She paused for a barely perceptible moment of tension-charged silence before continuing with visible distaste. "As is your right. The Pact has been broken. We bear the guilt for the Lost child and Tuatha De Danaan accept her misdeed as our own."

Tara attempted to tug on Buffy's sleeve and swore softly as her hand passed through the Slayer. "Make them swear! Right now!"

Cernunnos and Mab glowered at the young witch and Tara shrunk back before the nearly identical icy-blue glares. By the door the Hunter smirked, clearly enjoying the discomfort of his fellow Gods.

Finally rising to her feet, Buffy stepped directly between Tara and the glaring pair with deliberate frankness and cleared her throat.

"That's a good point. I believe you owe me some sort of recompense." She turned around suddenly beaming at Tara. "Didja hear that? Recompense! SAT word!"

"Umm ... yes. Very good."

Buffy sniffed and turned back to the Tuatha, "Nobody understands," She complained. "I'm so misunderstood."

Greeted with stony silence she sighed. "All right be that way. Cough it up. Gimme. Gimme, gimme, gimme." She grinned into the faintly appalled expressions of the fairies around her. "Tis Christmas Time!"

***

"Don't touch her!"

Nicholas Claus sighed and regretfully backhanded Kit across her face. "It's not polite to interrupt your elders while they work, kid. Be quiet. We'll get to you in just a moment."

His knife was no longer shining with the impersonality of the spotless steel. It was glistening wetly now and Anya's jaw muscles worked in silent rage as she forced herself to look at the thin lines crisscrossing Dawn's cheek.

Beside her Carlos was biting his own lip in his efforts to chew through the gag, the black eyes filled with killing fury.

Dawn herself was crying softly. Bitter little tears rolled slowly down her face, mixing with blood and falling with terrible slowness on her dress in spreading red splotches.

Nicholas chuckled good-naturedly and mussed Dawn's hair. "Now, now, kid. Don't be like that." He shook his head chidingly.

"All sullen and withdrawn." The even white teeth gleamed again and the knife spun, the crimson liquid splattering across the floor. "Scream for me, girli--"

Dawn's eyes widened suddenly and his smile grew, but before he could finish his sentence a quiet British voice interrupted him.

" 'Ey, Nick."

Twisting around, Santa Clause gaped at the pale visage of the vampire who suddenly appeared behind him, after apparently stepping out of the closet.

"Billy boy! What are you doing here?!" He smiled weakly and waved his hand in a feeble show of delight. "All ... awake ..."

Spike's eyes flickered from the knife to Dawn's face and back again. And he went very still before meeting Nicholas's gaze.

"You shouldn't have touched the girl, Nick."

***

"So." Buffy motioned impatiently. "C'mon. Let's make with the bribage. Time is money."

Mab's lips curled with acid scorn. "We owe amends to you, mortal. The Witch..." She scowled darkly and Tara slunk further behind Buffy. "... is right. So. We shall grant you one request. Anything within our power. Anything. What shall it be?"

Buffy grinned and opened her mouth ... only to abruptly stop in mid-word, suddenly flabbergasted.

Cernunnos lips twisted in a slow cruel smile.

Buffy looked at Tara. "Crap."

***

"I'm sure she's there already." Willow pointed out placatingly." Sitting in the living room with Dawn and waiting for us."

"This ..." Xander reflected darkly. "... sucks."

Carefully putting one foot in front of the other, he leaned heavier on the Willow's shoulder, the left leg of his pants dripping blood. "We're not even getting paid for this. And I don't know if my Medical covers demon bites. " Stopping suddenly he gazed at the redhead with genuine horror. "What if I get demon cooties!"

"You're not going to get demon cooties, Xander." Willow assured him and gently nudged him toward Revello Drive.

"Are you sure?" Xander glanced at his left leg suspiciously. "The damn midget took a good chunk out of me."

"You're not going to get demon cooties, Xander."

"Hm." Xander snorted, clearly unconvinced. "Well, I bet I'm not going to get any eggnog eith ... Um."

"Whoa."

"Um ..." Xander said.

"Damn." Willow agreed."

"Um." Xander said.

"Well..." Willow noted.

"Um." Xander said.

"I'm sure it's not what it looks like." Willow offered uncertainly.

"It looks like Spike is methodically beating Santa Claus into a bloody pulp with a tire iron in Buffy's front yard, Will." Xander pointed out reasonably. Albeit, Willow thought, with a faintly hysterical tinge.

That didn't make him wrong though.

***

Gwynn ap Nudd smiled at the diminutive Slayer sympathetically.

"Not an easy choice, is it?" he murmured quietly.

Buffy just glared, her foot tapping out an uneven beat.

"Anything you want." Cernunnos was clearly gloating now. Much as he had been for the last ten minutes. "Any one thing your mortal heart desires."

Buffy clenched her teeth until she felt her jaw hurt and tried to concentrate.

Anything. She could wish for anything. Angel's humanity. Death to all vampires. Peace on earth. A billion dollars. Spike's humanity. Immortality. Cure for AIDS. Cure for cancer. Death to all chemistry teachers.

"Oh, God." She muttered plaintively. "My head hurts."

Tara smiled at her, projecting compassion and Buffy tried to smile back. She had a feeling, though. that the effort was not entirely successful.

One wish. One .. .damn ... Her eyes fell on Tara again, absently fixating on the witch's pale and faintly translucent fingers worrying the hem of her shirt ...

Wish.

She turned toward the Tuatha and Cernunnos's smirk dimmed and died as he saw her eyes.

"Bring her back."

***

"So ..." Xander gripped the sides of his head in the vain attempt to ward off the oncoming migraine. "Santa Claus is a serial killer."

"Yes."

"And he came here to disembowel Dawn."

"Yes."

"And the midgets that attacked us are his posse."

"Yes."

"And the brainsucker is his wife."

"Yes."

"And Spike saved you all. And since he's not all comatose anymore Missus Claus is likely worm-meat as well."

"Are you slow or something?" Anya inquired testily as she finished bandaging his leg. "How many times do I have go through this?"

"Until it's not true?" Xander offered weakly. Anya glared at him and he sighed, finally giving up. Rubbing his temples in the deeply melancholy gesture, he asked mournfully.

"Is there at least some eggnog left?"

"Yes."

"Yay." Xander celebrated wearily. "Whoo. Hoo."

In the corner across from him Spike clenched his teeth, as Willow's nails dug painfully into his arm. "Shite. Easy."

"Sorry."

The Witch seemed pale but the results of her work were clearly visible as the wounds marring Dawn's face disappeared, leaving nary a scar. The girl quieted down, only an occasional soft sob shuddering through her slender body and into Kit's protective embrace. Behind them, Carlos was shifting uncertainly, unsure of what to do and Spike glanced at him fleetingly before announcing curtly. "I'm popping out for a fag."

The kid looked back at him blankly, still unsure of what to think about Dawn's pale British uncle that accidentally fell asleep in the closet.

Shrugging, Spike glanced at Willow, her hand still tightly gripping his own.

"I don't think you'll be needing me here for a bit?" He inquired pointedly and the redhead, suddenly realizing that she was still latched on to the vampire, blushed and jerked her hand away. "Uh ... yes. I'll need a while before I can do Xander."

Spike snorted. "The Slayer can be the bloody battery for the Whelp. I'm off."

Getting up in one smooth motion, he strode toward the door, stopping only to glance at Carlos again. "Coming?"

The boy hesitated for a brief moment but then nodded and the pair disappeared through the door. Their appearance was apparently noticed as the hushed snorting of the reindeers carried to the living room.

Xander moaned quietly, and closing his eyes took a long gulp from his mug. "Oh God. What the hell are we gonna do with those damn things." Outside Spike chuckled as he heard the muffled lament and, after lighting up, offered the boy a pack of Silk Cuts.

"Oh. Thanks, man." Carlos lit his own and grinned uncertainly. "I wasn't exactly sure if that's what you meant by a fag. Heh. Funny, huh?"

Spike stared at him coldly and Carlos's chuckle died.

"So." The vampire drawled. "What are your intentions toward my niece, then?"

***

"Do it." Buffy demanded coldly. "Now."

Cernunnos seemed taken aback and, suddenly unsure, glanced at Mab for support. None was forthcoming as the High Queen pressed her lips together and pulled her cape closer about her.

"Now!" Buffy's voice cracked like snapping string.

"We can't."

Buffy whirled around to fix the Hunter with a cold stare but the Welsh God simply smiled at her, a little sadly. "Your mother is too far for us to reach. The Dead travel quickly. It is beyond us to call her back to you."

"Anything I want." The Slayer's voice was even and chilly in her scorn, cutting even through the darkness and the shield of arrogance around the Stag Lord as she coldly threw Cernunnos's own words back into his face. "Any one thing my mortal heart desires."

The Celtic God blanched before the icy disdain and drew himself up to respond but Buffy simply spat and turned to look at Gwynn ap Nudd once more. "What about Tara?"

Behind her the young witch gasped, the small sound almost drowned in the sudden commotion among Tuatha.

Turning slightly, Buffy met Tara's eyes and her lips twisted in a whispered plea. "I'm sorry. I had to try. I had to."

"Of course, sweetie." Tara smiled tremulously but nodded firmly, awkwardly patting the air above the Slayer's shoulder. "She's your Mom. Of course you had to try!"

The Slayer's eyes softened and she smiled back, but all too quickly her face turned back into the icy mask. "I will never forgive them for making me choose."

"Oh, Buffy ..."

Tara's voice was once again lost as suddenly Mab stepped forward.

"Slayer." She met Buffy's eyes squarely and shook her head. "The witch is too far gone as well. To call her back would bring forth naught but a corruption ridden corpse."

Buffy's lips tightened but Mab continued as if she had not noticed. "But. We can give her back one week."

"Buffy." Tara's whisper, hot and urgent carried easily. "No! Buffy, just think of all the things you ca-"

"I'll take it."

"It IS DONE!"

The thunder rolled and the time seemed to slow and Buffy was almost sure she saw ap Nudd winked at her before he stepped through the wall after the rest of the Tuatha.

"Well." The Slayer swallowed chasing away any last vestiges of the regret as she turned to smile at the suddenly solid and crying Tara.

"I think we shouldn't waste any of that week, do you?"

The End

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