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Feedback? Yes, please. I live for it.

Suggested listening:

"You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" by Gary Hoey
"Angels We Have Heard On High" by Adam Again
"In The Bleak Mid-Winter" by Kevin Smith

This one's set in season 4. It's an update of the Christmas episode from the alternative senior year, which is entitled "What Child Is This?"


A Very Buffy Christmas
By
Michael Walker

"Nothing says Christmas like Perry Como blasting out of a three-inch speaker." Buffy Summers looked around at the crowds of people and imagined she was a rock holding steady in the middle of a roaring river. Plastic wreaths hung from shop doors and windows were festooned with bright lights of red, green, and blue. All of Sunnydale seemed determined to get into the Christmas spirit. All of Sunnydale except the Slayer, that is.

"Look at that." Joyce Summers touched her daughter on the arm and pointed. "That window is so adorable."

Buffy did her best to conceal a wince. The window her mom loved was some sort of gruesome "Santa's Workshop" theme executed with various kinds of candles. "Yeah, mom. It's a real stitch. And I mean that literally."

"Well, aren't we quite the Grinch." Joyce's tone was light and teasing.

Buffy's was not. "I gotta be me."

"Could you try being someone else?" Joyce asked. "Someone who doesn't hate Christmas?"

Buffy looked straight at her mom, holding eye contact. Very slowly, she said, "Ho, ho, ho."

Joyce shook her head. "I give up. You really are Scrooge."

"Bah, bug, and hum," Buffy said. Her mom squinted at her in irritation. Buffy pasted a big, insincere smile on her face.

"Hey, what's up?" Xander Harris shouldered through the crowd, dressed in a shapeless dark sweater with a bright yellow horizontal stripe and khaki cargo pants. "Hi, Mrs. Summers."

"Hello, Xander." Joyce smiled. She liked Xander, although she couldn't shake the feeling that he was a bit strange.

"Hey," Buffy said. "Where's Willow?"

"At home." Xander shoved his hands into the pockets of his pants. "Christmas isn't exactly Willow's cuppa joe. Plus there's the whole Oz thing."

Buffy snapped her fingers. "That's right. I need to get her a Hannukah gift. What about you?"

"No need." Xander shrugged. "I'm a Gentile."

Buffy's eyes narrowed in mock threat. "Cheap shot. I meant, what are you doing here?"

Xander looked around at the crowd. "Oh, you know. Just getting out, getting a little air." He shrugged again and looked down at his shoes. Buffy realized that she couldn't hear Perry Como anymore. Now it was Whitney Houston singing "Do You Hear What I Hear?"

Joyce checked her watch. "Buffy, I have a couple of things to get at Harrah's. I know that you're not really into the shopping thing this year, so why don't you stay with Xander, and I'll meet you at the coffee shop in, oh, forty-five minutes?"

This time, Buffy's smile was the real thing. "Thanks, mom."

Joyce waved. "Forty-five minutes." Buffy and Xander watched her disappear into the crowd.

"So," Xander said as the throng bore her away, "are we not exactly brimming with Christmas cheer?"

Buffy gave her mom one final wave. "Hey, what can I say? It's been a crappy year."

"Well, then," Xander said, "you up for a cup of coffee?"

"Oh yes," Buffy replied. "Many cups of coffee." They headed toward the Espresso Pump. "Truth time," Buffy said. "You avoiding the family?"

Xander picked up the pace. "You know it."

************************************

One of Liz Blankenship's packages slipped and almost fell. A quick, rude vulgarity hissed out of her mouth. She almost wished the damn things would fall; almost falling was somehow more frustrating.

Sunnydale paid a price for its quaint downtown, and that price was lousy parking. All the lots were a few blocks off Main, a few blocks that seemed like a few miles to a weary shopper who had spent too much and stayed too late. It was already dark and she still had to make dinner shen she got home. Thinking about dinner made her walk faster, and that's when the package finally fell. Liz stopped, trying to figure out a way to re-organize her burden.

"Could I lend a hand?"

Liz jumped at the sound of the voice. She spun. A young man in a dark coat stood on the sidewalk.

"Sorry," he said. "Didn't mean to startle."

"It's all right," Liz said. "I'm a little jumpy."

"So," he said, "could you use some help?"

Liz hesitated, and she saw her own reticence reflected in the stranger's face. He held up a hand. "Sorry. I should know better. Too many wackos about to trust anyone. Even at Christmas." He turned to go.

"Wait." Liz held out a hand. He stopped. "I'm the one who's sorry," she said. "It's late, and I'm in a hurry." He looked so nice, and besides, anyone with an accent like that couldn't mean any harm, could they? "I guess what I'm trying to say is, yes, I'd really appreciate some help."

"Then allow me." He stepped forward and picked up two bags, and she noticed that his hair wasn't so much blond as white.

*********************************

"This seemed like a much better idea outside," Xander said, surveying the roiling crowd inside the coffee shop. "If all of Rome was at the baths, then all of Sunnydale must need a latte."

"Yeah, nothing like watching a desperate horde of crazed shoppers trying to repair a year of dysfunction by finding the perfect pair of tube socks." Buffy scanned the crowd while she balanced her cup.

"Y'know, maybe it's just the weather this time of year, but we seem to be catching a lot of icy Arctic blasts lately." Xander snapped his fingers. "I know. It's every time you open your mouth. Ouch!" He rubbed the spot on his arm where Buffy had pinched him. "Was that necessary?"

"I thought so." Buffy looked around the room again. "There." She nudged him with an elbow and headed off toward a fleeting glimpse of white Formica. She was the Slayer; no one was going to beat her to a table.

Except the table was already occupied. A girl sat there, a tall, thin girl with long, dark hair and hazel eyes. She wore a voluminous trench coat over a ratty rollneck sweater and faded jeans.

"Sorry," Buffy said. "We didn't know the table was taken." She started to turn away.

"Wait." The girl used her foot to push out a chair. "No need to waste a couple of seats in a madhouse like this. Sit. Enjoy."

"Thank you, don't mind if I do." Xander slid into the proffered seat. "I'm Xander Harris. This is Buffy."

The girl smiled. "I'm Josie." It was a very pretty smile, but as Buffy joined them, she didn't like it.

***************************

Sunnydale payed a price for its quaint main street, and that price was parking. Liz could see her car, sitting all alone in the corner of the lot. Her benefactor trudged along beside her, carrying the bags in silence. As they drew near the car, Liz began to fumble for her keys.

As they reached the vehicle, the good samaritan asked, "Is it all right if I set these down here?" He indicated the spot with a nod of his head.

"Yes, and thank you. Do I owe you anything?" Liz started to reach into her purse, but he stopped her with a raised hand.

"Not a cent," he said.

"Then... thank you. Thank you so much." She turned, keys in hand to unlock the trunk. As the lid swung up, she realized that she didn't hear any receding footsteps. She turned back.

He was still there, only he was different. Yellow eyes glimmered, and streetlights reflected off long, spit-covered fangs. She opened her mouth to scream, but he was on her before the air could escape, bearing her down to the pavement, fangs fastened in her pulsing carotid artery.

When he was finished feeding, the vampire hoisted her pale body and dumped it into the open trunk. He took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his mouth and hands, and let it fall. The linen square fluttered down, floating over Liz Blankenship's face and covering her shocked, staring eyes as the trunk lid slammed closed.

Spike walked away, whistling a little tune: "Christmas Time Is Here."

**********************************

Buffy took a sip of espresso and listened to Xander chat up Josie.

"So," he was saying, "do you go to UC-Sunnydale?"

She looked down at the table, a small smile on her face. "No. I'm just passing through."

"Ah, a woman of mystery." Xander was intrigued. "Passing through to where?"

"Wherever I go next."

"Okay." Xander grinned. "Second try. Passing through from where?"

"From the place I was last."

Xander hunched forward, elbows on the table, and tried his best Christopher Lee accent. "So you're telling me that you just happened to be roaming the countryside, and fate has placed you here, in this place, at this moment in time? Well, I don't buy it, young lady, I don't buy it at all."

Josie's face twitched, then she burst out in a laugh. "I'm so sorry," she gasped, "but that's the worst British accent I've ever heard."

"It is? Well, that's because it was a... a French accent."

"That would be even worse."

Xander looked abashed. "Belgian?"

Josie's laughter calmed and she looked down at the table. Buffy noticed that Josie spent a lot of time looking down at the table. Josie's head flipped up, locking eyes with Buffy.

Almost like she's reading my mind, the Slayer thought. "S-so, where do you live?" Buffy stammered. Get a grip, she commanded herself.

"You know," Josie said, "you two are showing an awful lot of interest in someone who just happens to be sharing a table with you."

"Well," Xander said, "that's because we're people people... uh, people, uh, persons. I mean--"

Buffy interrupted. "What Should-Be-Silent Bob here is trying to say is that we're sorry if we're prying."

"Actually, that's not--" Xander shut up when he saw the look Buffy shot his way. Josie got up from the table.

"Listen, it's been really nice talking to you guys, but I gots to go." She was still for a moment, and Buffy was struck by just how very pretty she was. "Maybe I'll see you around."

"Be careful." Buffy was very serious. "Sunnydale's not the safest place after dark."

Josie's laugh held very little mirth. "If I've learned one thing, it's that no place is safe after dark." Buffy watched her move through the crowd, slipping between patrons almost as though they moved aside for her. She walked out the door, and stood in the pool of radiance from a street light while she gathered her coat around her.

The hiss as Buffy inhaled caught Xander's attention. "What's the matter, Buff? Coffee too hot? Or tongue too sharp?"

"And that was supposed to mean?" Buffy tried, without complete success, to keep the edge out of her voice.

Xander produced an elaborate shrug. "Oh, nothing. Just don't think you'll be nominated for any of the Friendly Awards this year."

"Hey, Xander, why don't you open wide and bite me?"

Xander spread his hands on the table. "I'm tryin' to be the empathy guy here, I really am. I know this hasn't been the easiest year for you. But it hasn't been Mr. Toad's Wild Ride for the rest of us either."

Buffy calmed herself. "Fair enough, but what exactly did I do just now that was so awful?"

"Well, you basically sat there and gave off the same cordial vibe found on any episode of WWF Smackdown." He raised his cup to drain the last sips.

Buffy opened her mouth for a cutting comeback when a familiar voice stopped her cold and sent a fierce chill down her spine.

"Well, isn't this cute? I guess we could call it 'Portrait of Two Losers'."

With a great act of will, Xander refrained from crushing his cup in his hand, and instead, with great care and deliberation, placed it on the table, then turned to greet the newcomer.

"Hello, Cordy," he said. "Come to steal Christmas?"

***********************************

Josie pulled her coat around her as she walked down the street. Intellectually, she knew that it was warm, but she couldn't adjust to this climate, and she felt cold. The evening breeze billowed her coat, flapping the tail behind her. She bent her head into the wind, moving swift and light through the crowd, paying scant attention to the people she passed.

She passed one of the many benches the Chamber of Commerce had placed on the sidewalk. This one was burdened with shoppers taking a break, just like all the others, but one of these patrons noticed her. His head snapped up, swiveling around to catch a glimpse of her back as she slipped into the crowd.

"How now, brown swiss," Spike breathed as he got to his feet and began to follow her. "What's this?"

*************************************

"Don't worry, Xander. Even if I were the Grinch, I'd only steal from boys and girls who actually had presents."

There she stood, Cordelia Chase: that hair, those eyes, those teeth, those cheekbones, those-- Xander shook his head. Don't go there, he commanded himself. She wore a red silk T-shirt over black wool pants, and she looked great.

"Jeez, Cordy." Buffy offered her fakest smile. "We thought LA had eaten you up."

"Please." Cordelia slid into the chair Josie had vacated. "Can't a girl come home for Christmas?"

Xander savored the moment, then jabbed the needle home. "And what home would that be, Cordy?"

Real hurt and pain flashed across Cordelia's face, and Xander felt his triumph turn to ashes and dirt. Maybe they had broken up. Maybe she had fawned over that spineless Wesley. Maybe she had moved away. But she had also helped fight a lot of really evil demons, and he knew that she deserved better than a cheap shot. "Listen," he mumbled, "that was way, way outta line. I'm sorry. Really."

Cordelia took a deep breath and shook her head. "Apology accepted. I guess that 'Two Losers' crack was a little much."

Buffy knew it was as close as Cordelia would, or maybe could, come to an apology. "So," she said, "let the love fest begin. It's... it's good to see you. What brings you back to Sunnyburg?"

"Well, I needed a break. LA is just so big and impersonal." Cordelia leaned forward. "Plus, to be perfectly honest, I haven't really made that many close friends there."

Xander opened his mouth to say, "What a surprise", but a yelp of pain came out instead. Buffy smiled, the picture of innocence. He reached down to rub his ankle.

"So, I just thought I'd take a few days, come back, check the old home town." Cordelia stood up. "I've gotta go to the ladies' room. Be back in a few." Xander found himself mesmerised by the motion of her hips as she walked away.

"Is your tonge on a roller, like a little window shade, or do you store the extra in a little compartment?" Buffy asked.

"Huh? Oh, uh, just, um... Hey, it's good to see Cordelia again, isn't it?" Xander fidgeted a little.

"Oh, ultra-smooth." Buffy sipped her coffee. "I think I need a shower after your vulgar display of voyeurism."

Xander narrowed his eyes. "That's right, try and take the moral high ground after breaking my ankle."

"_Moi_?" Buffy's eyes widened. "Why, I was just stretching my leg." She showed him a slow, wide smile. Xander fumed.

At that moment, Joyce Summers entered the coffee shop, and as she made her way to the table, Xander could see, as if it were ordained by fate, Cordelia exit the bathroom and head their way. They arrived at the table like two lines intersecting at a point, and that point was Xander Harris.

"Why, Cordelia," Joyce said, as she saw the dark-haired girl. "How are you? Oh, I was so sorry to hear about your parents." She stepped forward and gave Cordy a brief hug. "It's so good to see you. You look great." Joyce turned to Buffy. "Are you ready to go?"

Xander saw his chance to get even for the kick. "Hey, Cordelia, where are you staying while you're in town?"

"Huh?" The question caught Cordy off-guard.

Xander's face was as innocent as a baby's. "Where are you staying?"

"I, uh, I thought I'd get a motel. I just got in, and I haven't had a chance... " Cordelia's voice trailed off. Too late, she saw where he was heading.

"Wow," Xander said in his best Leave It To Beaver voice. "That's terrible. Coming back home for Christmas, with no place to stay."

Joyce, her face full of concern, turned to Cordelia. "Is that true?"

Cordelia stalled. "Well, technically, yes, but I can make arrangements. I couldn't possibly intrude--"

"Nonsense." Joyce's tone was familiar to Buffy. It was the tone Meryl Streep used at least once in every movie, the tone that meant she had made up her mind. "No one should spend Christmas alone. We have a guest room. I insist that you be our guest and have Christmas dinner with us."

"Um... well," Cordelia had the look of a trapped wolverine. "It's really not fair to Buffy for me to intrude on your Christmas."

"Stop it." Joyce turned toward her daughter. "Buffy, won't mind, will you?"

"No," Buffy said through gritted teeth.

Xander beamed. "Now see, this is great. It's almost like a special Christmas episode of The Waltons." He blanched at the looks both Buffy and Cordelia shot him.

"Come on." Joyce herded Buffy toward the door. "Do you need a ride, Cordelia?"

Cordelia snapped out of what appeared to be a deep trance. "No, no, I have my own car. I'll... I'll be over later." She gave Xander one more 'I-wish-you-were-dead' glare.

"Fine. That'll give us a chance to make up the guest room. Don't be too late." Joyce and Buffy left the café, Buffy burning holes in Xander with her eyes. He settled back into his chair.

And got another kick in the shins. "Ow!" he cried. "Couldn't you at least kick the other one?"

"You are so dead!" Cordelia hissed.

"Why am I the bad guy?" Xander was all innocence. "I'd say I've just arranged a Christmas miracle."

Cordelia stood, car keys in hand. "It's a Christmas miracle that I don't harvest your cojones to use as ornaments."

Xander recoiled. "My cojones?" He leaned forward. "Would you be wearing leather while you did this?"

"Aargh!" Cordelia growled and spun away.

"Uh, Cordy?" Xander said.

"What?" She whirled back.

"Could I ask you for a Christmas favor?"

Her eyes narrowed. "What favor?" she spat out through gritted teeth.

"Well, if it's not too much trouble, I could really use a ride home. It being after dark and all." Xander put his most beseeching expression on his face.

Her jaw clenched, and for a minute he thought she was going to lose it, but she got herself under control. "Fine," she said. "Maybe I can roll the car over on that side."

******************************************************************

"There." Rupert Giles stepped back and surveyed his Christmas tree. It was, in his sight, absolutely perfect, all dark green needles and white lights with glinting ornaments. Pachelbel's 'Canon in D' played softly on the stereo. The kettle was beginning to whistle. All was right with the world, or at least it seemed so. Yet Giles felt an uneasiness, a sense of something afoot.

The kettle screamed. Giles roused himself and went into the kitchen, where the ritual of making tea provided a welcome relief from pondering his misgivings. Everything in order, he carried his cup of Earl Grey into the living room and placed it on the coffee table. He sat for a few moments and looked at his tree as he sipped his tea, then placed the cup back in the saucer and picked up the book from the table. He opened it and began to read from the beginning.

******************************************************************

"Color me impressed." Xander checked out the interior of the Ford Explorer again. "The acting gig must be going well if you can afford this."

"I told you before, it's not mine. It's a rental." Cordelia checked her mirror.

"Still, it's not like I could even afford to rent it." Xander flipped on the radio. A soft piano version of "Christmas Time Is Here" played. He shifted in his seat. "Listen, it's Christmas. Let's, y'know, bury the hatchet."

"You mean like how you just set me up to spend said Christmas at Buffy's?" Cordelia's tone was frosty.

"Well, yeah." Xander looked out the window. "But you really didn't have anywhere to stay, did you?"

"Not yet. But it's not like I'm incapable of checking into a hotel." A moment of silence, then Cordelia said, "Okay. We'll forget what happened. So I have to spend time with Buffy. It's probably not the worst thing in the world."

Xander watched the street flash by. At last, he said, "Cordelia, do you ever... I mean, do you think- hey." He pointed out the window. "I met that girl tonight."

"Oh, you met a girl. That's such progress." Cordy held up a hand. "Sorry. Consider the hatchet buried."

"Crap!" Xander exclaimed. "Turn the car around," he said to Cordelia.

"Excuse me?" she said. "I buried the hatchet, but just because we see some little girlie you just met and--"

"It's not her, you idiot." Xander pointed again for emphasis. "I just saw Spike following her."

"Hang on." Just as Cordelia stomped on the brake and spun the wheel, Xander remembered reading about how SUV's had a high center of gravity, and how it made them easier to roll over. Then tires were screeching, he could smell burning rubber, and he couldn't be sure, but he thought he felt the Explorer go up on two wheels. The vehicle completed its 180 degree turn with him suspended by his seat belt.

"Nice," he croaked. "Still watching 'Speed Week'?"

"And how," Cordelia said as she stomped the accelerator. Tires smoked as the Explorer leapt ahead. As they passed Josie, Cordy slewed the wheel left, running the front tires up over the curb and onto the sidewalk.

Xander jumped out of the truck. Josie looked a little spooked, but then having a truck jump the curb in front of you could explain that.

"Hey, remember me?" Xander looked over her shoulder, searching for Spike. The vamp was nowhere to be seen, but he had to be close by.

"Yeah." Josie had moved from spooked to puzzled. "You're the guy from the coffee shop."

"Hey, quite a memory you've got there. Steel trap." Xander could feel himself babbling, but couldn't stop. "Why don't you let us give you a ride home?"

"Thanks." Josie spoke slowly, as though addressing an infant, or a mental patient. "But I'll be fine."

"Yeah, I'm sure you will, but I have to help someone to get my Boy Scout Good Samaritan merit badge. Whattya say?" He spread his hands.

"I said I'll be fine. It's a nice night."

The driver's door slammed open and a dark-haired girl popped out. "Will you just get in the damn car!" she yelled at Josie.

"Okay," Josie said, climbing into the back seat while Xander checked the street. He seemed very nervous as he climbed in and slammed the door. She leaned forward between the front seats. "Boy, I had no idea you guys took hospitality so seriously."

"Where to?" Cordelia asked Xander, ignoring her.

Xander took a deep breath and blew it out. "I don't know." He turned to Josie. "Where to?"

Josie looked at him, then at Cordelia. "Okay, but you're not gonna like this."

As the Explorer pulled away, Spike stepped out of the bushes. He watched the truck pull away. "If I believed in coincidence," he drawled to himself, "this would be spooky."

****************************************

"I just can't believe you did this." Buffy dropped, or rather threw, the pillows on the bed in the guest room.

"Did what? Asked one of your friends to spend Christmas with us?" Joyce moved the pillows and turned down the blankets.

"Mom, this is not one of my friends. This is Cordelia."

Joyce looked at her daughter, face puzzled. "Isn't Cordelia your friend?"

Buffy struggled with her reply. "Okay, she's a friend. But she's not a 'hey, come on over and sleep at my house' friend."

"Oh." Joyce arched an eyebrow. "And what kind of friend is she? A 'risk your life helping me save the world, but you can't come into my house' friend, hmmmm?" She turned back to the bed.

Buffy stared at her mother through narrowed eyes. "Ohhhh, you're good, you're very good. That--" she waggled a finger "-that was truly below the belt."

"Really?" Joyce turned around. "I thought it was right on target." She laid a hand on her daughter's shoulder. "Seriously, Buffy, I know Cordelia can be a handful, but the last year or so has been really hard on her."

Buffy raised a hand. "Hello, not exactly been an easy year for me."

Joyce nodded. "I know, you have gone through a lot. But she's on her own, in a very big city. Do you think it's easy for her to come back here? Don't you think it reminds her of everything she's lost?"

"Then why did she come back?"

"Because Sunnydale is as close to a home as she's got." Joyce wrapped her daughter in a tight hug. Buffy squirmed.

"Y'know, mom, this is starting to verge on ick."

"Oh, well, can't have that." Joyce stepped back. "I know you have a lot of responsibility, but you also have loyal friends, you have Mr. Giles, and you will always, always have your mother. How many of those does Cordelia have?"

"Okay, okay, point made." Buffy rolled her eyes. "That dead horse is just about gristle by now."

"Thank you." A small smile played on Joyce's lips. "I thought I drove it home pretty relentlessly."

"Yeah," Buffy muttered. "Like Tony Robbins on a sugar high." Someone knocked on the front door. "I'll get that," Buffy said, grateful for the interruption. She scooted down the stairs in record time and looked through the front window. It was Cordelia.

Buffy swept open the door. "Welcome to the Hotel Summers," she said. Cordelia stepped in, duffel bag slung over her shoulder.

"Is that all your stuff?" Buffy raised a questioning eyebrow.

"Yeah," Cordelia replied, looking around. "I wasn't expecting any formal occasions. Listen, I--"

"Cordelia." Joyce came down the stairs. "You made it. Buffy and I were just about to watch A Christmas Story on video. Care to join us?"

"Gee, Mrs. Summers, that sounds like a lot of fun, but I'm really, really tired. I thought I might just go to bed."

"Really?" Joyce sounded vaguely surprised. "Well, the guest room is at the top of the stairs, across from--"

"Oh, Buffy can show me where everything is." Cordelia shot Buffy a look.

"Nothing to show, really," Buffy said. "It's not--"

"No," Cordelia insisted. "I really, really need you to show me where everything is." She was doing everything but rolling her eyes and hopping from foot to foot.

"Oooooh-kayyyy." Buffy turned to her mother. "Mom, I guess I'm going to show Cordelia where everything is in the guest room."

Joyce waved a hand. "I'll start the popcorn."

"Okay," Buffy said, closing the door of the guest room. "Care to explain that little homage to the Marx brothers you were performing? My mom does know I'm the Slayer."

Cordelia sat down on the bed. "So you tell her about all your dirty dancing with the undead?"

Buffy had to admit Cordelia's point. "No. I do try to spare her most of it."

Cordelia's smile as good as said 'I told you so.'

"All right. What's up?" Buffy hated it when Cordy was right.

"Something weird happened tonight."

Buffy sighed. "Cordelia, it's Sunnydale. Something weird is always happening."

"I know that. I used to live here. That means that this was extra-weird, since it was weird enough to notice." Cordelia's eyes flashed. "Now, can I go on? Thank you.

"I was taking Xander home, and he saw this girl that you guys met at the Espresso Pump, and--"

"Wait." Buffy held up a hand. "Why were you taking Xander home?"

"Because he asked." Cordelia waved a hand. "I don't know. Anyway, can I finish this?"

Buffy nodded. "Sorry."

"So, we see this girl you guys met, and Xander says he saw Spike following her."

"Hold it." Buffy's antennae were up. "Josie? Tall girl, long hair, something odd about her?"

"That would definitely be her. I didn't see Spike, but Xander swears he did, so we stopped and got her in the car."

Buffy's forehead furrowed in concentration. "So where is she now?"

"At Willow's."

"_Willow's_?" Buffy headed for the door. "What were you thinking? How could you do that?"

"Buffy, calm down." Cordelia grabbed her by the shoulders. "Where were we supposed to take her? Here? Xander's house? Please." Cordelia's eyes rolled. "Or maybe we should have given Giles a surprise Christmas guest."

Buffy shook off Cordelia's hands. "What if she's not a damsel in distress? What if she's working with Spike? What if this whole thing is just a trick, and now you've put her in Willow's house."

Cordelia crossed her arms. "Well, doesn't someone think she's the smartest kid in class. I know we're not exactly Barbie and Skipper, but I'm not stupid, Buffy. Xander and I stayed there until Josie went to bed, then Willow put binding spells around the door. Whatever's in that room will stay there until morning."

Buffy stuck out her chin. "Why didn't you just drop her where she was staying?"

Cordelia pursed her lips and looked at Buffy. "Because she was squatting in the old abandoned church on Whittier."

"The one that burned?"

"That would be why it's abandoned."

Buffy shook her head. "I don't like it."

"You don't like her."

"What?"

Cordelia shrugged. "Xander suggested Josie come here. She wouldn't. She said you didn't like her. I thought that was crazy, but now I'm beginning to lean her way."

Buffy took a deep breath and let it out. "Okay. I guess everything will be cool for tonight, but there is something about that girl that gives me the wig."

Cordelia stretched out on the bed and looked at the ceiling. "She reminds me of Faith."

"What?" Buffy's tone was sharp.

Cordelia shrugged again. "She reminds me of Faith. Don't know why. I mean, the hair color's close, but the build and face are all wrong. Faith never had cheekbones like this girl."

Buffy voice was soft. "Something's not right about her." She went to the door. "Listen, I'm going to call Willow, then sit with my mom. Want to come down?"

Cordelia shook her head. "I really am beat. I think I'll just go to sleep."

"Okay," Buffy said. "Sleep tight."

After the movie was over, Buffy and her mom went to bed. Buffy checked on Cordelia. The dark haired girl was fast asleep. For some reason, Buffy thought she looked thinner.

***************************************

It was the wee hours of the morning, outside the Rosenberg house. In an hour or so, the sun would be up. A dark shadow detached itself from an old oak tree. Spike stepped into a patch of watery moonlight and looked at the house.

"I'll get you, my pretty," he said to himself, "and your little dog, too." Then he turned and was gone.

As he disappeared down the street, a figure crept around the corner of the house and watched him from the shadows.

"Spike," Angel whispered. "What a coincidence." He settled back against the house.

***************************************
"Well, she's definitely not a vampire." Willow settled herself on the couch in Buffy's living room.

"Proof?" Buffy asked.

"Okay, I undo the binding spells this morning and sneak in, and she's standing in front of the open window, not bursting into flames."

"Okay." Buffy nodded. "Go on."

Then, she comes downstairs, where I have fixed the traditional Rosenberg breakfast of super-gluey oatmeal. Josie eats two bowls." Willow looked around, eyes wide.

Buffy raised her hand. "Question. Where does it say a vampire can't eat oatmeal?"

"Oh, well, technically I guess it doesn't. But it seems like the sort of thing they would avoid."

Buffy considered this for a moment, then nodded. "All right. We'll go with intuition on the oatmeal issue. Anything else?"

Willow shook her head. "Nope. She got dressed and left. Said she had things to do."

"Did she take her stuff with her?"

Willow shook her head again. "Still in the guest room. Such as it is. Her stuff, I mean, not my parents' guest room. It's a very nice guest room."

Buffy sank deep in though. Willow fidgeted. Cordelia continued her performance piece, 'Girl In A Coma.' The clock ticked with a sound like little jail doors slamming shut. Willow counted thirty-one ticks before Buffy stood up.

"There's only one thing to do," she announced.

Willow looked up at her. "Giles?"

"Yup. Giles. You in?"

Willow jumped up. "Me in."

"Cordy?"

Cordelia thought for a minute. "No. You guys run along to nerd central, though."

*************************************

Too bad there's no money in wandering the streets, Xander though as he strolled along. It was a sunny day, but it could have been raining toads (which, come to think of it, was possible in Sunnydale) and he would still try to be out of the house before his parents got up. It just seemed so much easier that way.

"Lost in thought, or just lost?"

He jumped and whirled and maybe, just maybe, made a little yipping noise that could be called a scream. Josie stood there.

"Whoa," he said. "Was that really necessary?"

She shrugged. "I suppose not, but it sure was fun. Are you on your way to work?"

"Nah, I don't go to work until the afternoon."

She waved a hand toward the street. "So why're you out walking around?"

"Well," Xander said, "it's part of a personal odyssey, a crusade, if you will, to memorize the entire street system of Sunnydale inch by inch."

"Wow." She was mock-impressed. "Sounds challenging."

"You know it."

She cocked her head to one side. "Don't get along with the family?"

Xander shrugged. "Spoken like someone who knows."

"Yeah, I kinda understand it."

Xander resumed walking. "Is it so hard for people to just get along? And not in the Rodney King, 'please let's stop killing each other' kind of way. I mean, in a 'hey, we're blood relatives, let's treat each other better than crap' kind of way."

"That bad, huh?"

Xander's laugh was a bitter parody of amusement. "It makes for a seriously warped Christmas."

Josie cocked her head to look at him. "But it's not like you're the only one with this problem. From what I gathered last night, Cordelia's family's kind of screwed."

Xander smirked. "Ah, but you see, that's different. Cordelia had everything. What happened to her, that's just the great equalization process of the universe. Her own karma biting her in the ass, so to speak."

"Ouch." Josie faked a wince. "You guys have a history, huh?"

"You could say that. Or you could say that I was king of the idiots."

"Don't think I'll pick that scab anymore. So you're family's a mess. What about Buffy?"

"Her mom's cool. She gets along pretty good with her dad."

"So Buffy is the one who's got it made."

Xander smiled. "I wouldn't say that."

"Well, gee, sounds like you don't know anybody with a good deal."

"Is there a point to all this?"

Josie shook her head. "Not really. I just saw you walking, thought I'd thank you for helping out last night. Even though I didn't need it."

"Oh, yeah." Xander stopped walking and turned toward her. "'Cause, holing up in an abandoned church is like, that latest travel craze among the rich and famous."

Josie stepped close to him. Xander could smell her hair. He felt a little dizzy.

"You're funny," Josie said, her voice just a notch above a whisper. "But you shouldn't hide behind it."

Xander blinked. Her voice sounded like it was coming from far away. "Excuse me?" he said. As she stepped away, he called out, "Are you going back to the church?"

She crossed the street. "No. I'll be staying at Willow's. She's nice." She grinned. "Get happy. It's Christmas." She turned and walked away from him, taking long, confident strides down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street.

"Well, Dick," Xander said, to no one in particular. "I give it a ninety-eight on the wig-o-meter. It had a good beat and it definitely freaked me out."

**************************************

"So, why's she here?" Willow asked.

"I don't know," Buffy replied. "She just showed up at the coffee shop and said she was back for Christmas."

"But her parents are... away," Willow said. "There's not a single reason for Cordelia to come here for Christmas."

"Will, I can't think of a good reason for ninety-nine point nine percent of what Cordelia's ever done." Buffy squinted up at the sunny sky. "Maybe my mom's right. Maybe she's here because it's the only place she had."

"Well, that would be really sad." Willow caught herself. "Not that Sunnydale's sad, but it's sad that it's the only place Cordelia has, especially since she wanted to get away so bad."

"Yeah." Buffy was quiet for a moment. "Kind of a downer at Christmas."

"Hey, Buffy, are we actually working up sympathy for Cordelia?"

Buffy shrugged. "Maybe for all of us. Life's pretty much kicked us all in the teeth this year." She looked up, relieved to see they were at Giles's house.

They had to knock twice before the door opened. Giles peered around the corner at them.

"Uh, hello," Buffy said. "Is anything wrong?"

"What? No, no. What could possibly be wrong?" If a voice could be fidgety, Giles's was.

"So, could we come in?" Buffy asked.

Giles dithered for a moment, then caved. "All right. Come in." The door swung open. Buffy entered, with Willow close behind. Giles closed the door.

Buffy's eyes widened. "Giles," she asked, "why are you wearing that?"

************************************

Cordelia slipped through the door of the old deserted mansion. Despite the surfeit of sunshine outside, the interior of the house was twilight-dim. She stopped in the entryway.

"It's me," she said to the empty room.

No doubt a beautiful door of oak or cherry had once graced the portal in the opposite wall. Now, a thick, dark curtain was draped over the opening. The curtain twitched back, and Angel entered the room.

"Any news?" he asked.

Cordelia crossed her arms. "Could you please tell me what's going on? Or would that be asking too much? It's not like I didn't have way better plans for Christmas than hanging out on the Hellmouth."

A sound that was half-grunt, half-sigh, and all exasperation came out of Angel's mouth. "Should we have this conversation again, or can we just fast-forward to the part where I tell you, again, that something is wrong?"

Cordelia stamped her foot. "This sucks."

"You eloquent statement is duly noted. Do I need to remind you that you're the one whose vision brought us here?"

Cordelia glared. "That is so unfair! I have one blurry fit that I think might, might have something to do with Sunnydale, and we're off like what's-his-name, that coyote who always chased Bugs Bunny."

"Wile E. Coyote. And he chased the Roadrunner." Angel knew he should get the conversation back on topic, but he'd learned that once Cordelia got the bit in her teeth, it was best to let her run. You got back to the point just as fast, and with considerably less bruising.

"What_ever_." Cordelia's voice was petulant. "I'm not even sure it was a vision. It could have been PMS. That causes headaches, too."

Angel shook his head. "I don't think so. Things are definitely edging into the red zone around here."

Cordelia said nothing, but arched her eyebrows and tapped her foot.

"It was busy last night," Angel said. "All kinds of vampire activity, couple of shapeshifters, handful of various demons, all out, all prowling, all looking for something. And I saw Spike."

That snapped Cordelia out of her funk. "So did we. Or, at least, Xander says he saw him."

"When?" Angel's intensity ratcheted up a notch.

"He was following some girl Xander met at the Espresso Pump." Cordelia wrinkled her nose. "Figures those two would have the same taste in women."

"What do you know about this girl?"

Cordelia shrugged. "We stopped and gave her a ride. We ended up taking her to Willow's house. She was squatting in an abandoned church. Dressed like it, too."

Angel almost smiled in spite of himself. "The greatest sin of all." The grinning urge vanished. "Ready for an unbelievable coincidence?"

That got Cordelia's attention. "Tell me you didn't see Spike at Willow's."

Angel lifted an eyebrow. "Okay. I won't say it. But that doesn't make it less true."

************************************

Giles looked from Buffy to Willow and back again. "I do not," he said, "have to explain what I choose to wear in my home."

"Yeah, but that?" Buffy waved a hand.

Giles drew himself up. "This is an historically accurate reproduction of a nineteenth century dressing gown."

"Yeah, well, it makes you look like an historically accurate reproduction of a nineteenth century doofus." Buffy was very amused.

Willow raised her hand. "Um, can I just ask why?"

"It's part of my costume."

"Costume?" Buffy and Willow spoke in puzzled unison.

Giles reached into the pocket of the scarlet silk robe and pulled out a small book. "For my performance of Dickens' A Christmas Carol." Blank looks met this announcement. "On Christmas Eve," he elaborated. "At the Vandivort?"

"Oh." Willow jumped as though she'd just discovered a snake in her pocket. "The community theater downtown."

"Yes." Giles returned the book to his pocket. "I'll be doing a one-man reading. Patrick Stewart's been doing one for years."

"So, you'll be shaving your head?" Buffy was the soul of innocent curiosity.

Giles pursed his lips and gazed up at the ceiling. "I do hope that these assaults on my dignity were not your sole reason for calling."

"No," Buffy admitted. "This was just a pleasant surprise."

"I'm glad I was available for your sport," Giles retorted. "Now, what do you really want?"

**********************************

"So, you've met a stranger, Xander claims Spike was stalking her, and from this you've extrapolated some grave danger?" Giles's voice held no little disbelief.

"Other than that crack about the straps, yeah, pretty much," Buffy replied. Something's not right about this girl."

"And you believe this based on your 'spider sense'." Giles inclined his head toward Buffy.

Buffy ignored his skepticism. "She makes it dance wacky."

Willow leaned forward in her chair. "I had an idea. Could she be part of the Initiative?"

Giles removed his glasses. "It's possible, but based on your descriptions of her, I would say it's unlikely."

"I don't think so either," Buffy said. "Her vibe is definitely supernatural."

"Really?" Giles packed a heavy meaning-per-pound ratio into that one word.

"Oh, yeah." Buffy took a deep breath. "This is going to sound so weird, but when she left the coffee shop, just for a minute, I thought she... glowed."

There was a moment of silence, then Giles said, "That does sound strange."

"Glowed?" Willow's eyebrows threatened to disappear into her widow's peak. "You mean, like a light bulb?"

Buffy considered this for a moment, then shook her head. "No, it was more like one of those glow sticks you get at a concert."

"Oh." Willow's hands jumped around, the way they always did when she was excited. "So she was fluorescent instead of incandescent."

"I guess," Buffy mumbled.

"If that's true, then there should be something written about it." Giles ignored their deconstruction of Josie's supposed luminescence. "Willow, do you know if she will be returning to your house?"

Willow nodded. "I think so."

"Then keep your eyes open. Observe her behavior. Take note of anything that seems in any way ritual. I'll do some research, see if I can find anything on glowing girls." He got to his feet.

"And me?" Buffy asked as she and Willow headed for the door.

"You should continue to patrol. The crowds at this time of year can be an irresistable treat for the undead."

Buffy pouted. "I always have to be the responsible one."

"Yes, well, it's your burden to bear in life." Giles started to step outside, remembered his costume, and remained inside the threshold. "Since this girl is at Willow's house, I'll call her as soon as I learn anything."

"Have fun rehearsing," Willow said. Giles bowed and closed the door.

************************************

Thirty more seconds, and she was gone. If Angel wanted someone to follow this girl, he could do it himself.

"Oh, but that's right. You can't, Mr. I'll-Burst-Into-Flames-If-I-Go-Out-In-The-Sun," Cordelia muttered under her breath. "So I get to do it. How unfair is that?" She looked around for a bench to sit on, a tree to lean against, anything. If Josie posed any sort of threat to world safety, it was probably boredom. Cordelia had watched her amble rather aimlessly around town all afternoon. If her wanderings held any pattern, it was lost on Cordy.

That's it, she thought. Thirty seconds are up. She turned to go.

"Hey, Cordelia."

Busted. She turned back. Josie was running across the street toward her, that asinine coat billowing around her. Calling on years of cheerlead training, Cordelia summoned up a smile and pasted it on her face.

"Why, Josie, how are you? Isn't this a coincidence, us running into each other like this?"

Josie cocked her head. "If you say so. I could swear you were following me."

Cordelia ratcheted the smile up another notch. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Right. And Teletubbies don't speak gibberish." Josie locked eyes with Cordelia. "Besides, I just wanted to say thanks."

"For what?"

"For the ride last night. I was fine, but it was really nice of you and your boyfriend--"

Cordelia's anger flared. "He's not my boyfriend."

Josie's eyebrows lowered in a quizzical look. "But there is a history there." Statement, not question.

"_History_ is the operative word."

"Bad breakup, huh?"

Cordelia's smile turned bitter. "You could say that." She almost touched the scar where the steel rod had impaled her.

"Wow. Sorry." Josie shrugged. "Too bad. You deserved better."

"Oh?" Queen C was back. "And you know what I deserve how?"

Josie stared into her eyes again. Cordelia found herself unable to look away; the other girl's hazel eyes bored into her, through her, rendering her transparent.

"You're better than you let them see."

Cordelia shook her head. Why did she feel so cobwebby? "What?"

Josie's voice was very soft. "And you're better than you let yourself see." She looked away. Cordelia almost stumbled, like someone had pulled away a chair she was leaning on. Josie was walking away. "Listen," she said over her shoulder, "you can follow me if you want, but I'm just going back to Willow's."

Cordelia watched her walk away. I'm not following you anywhere, she thought.

*************************************

Buffy hitched up the strap on her Slayer bag. Giles had been right; it was vamps a'poppin' tonight. She'd already staked three, and number four was just ahead. She reached under her jacket and brought out a stake as she dropped the bag. The hulking figure of the vampire stood in the middle of the park's playground equipment. Buffy sidestepped toward him, using great cautioun, until she realized that he was unaware of her presence. He kept looking from side to side, then shaking his head like he was trying to dislodge something from his ear.

"Screw the stalker approach," she murmured, and rushed him. She was within three strides of the bloodsucker when he noticed her, but by then it was too late. She hit him like Cordelia hitting a Lancome sale, coming in low and hard and flipping him over her back. Buffy rolled to her feet, ready to fight. The vamp struggled up and lunged at her. She ducked, avoiding him with ease, but he spun, displaying unexpected agility, and jumped at her again. She stepped back. He landed at her feet. One hand grabbed an ankle and pulled. She landed on her back with a thud. The vamp reared over her, growling and shaking his head. As he fell on her, Buffy raised the stake, point up. The demon could see his own death coming, he just couldn't do anything about it. "Yeah," she said as he impaled himself on the stake. "It sucks to be you." The vamp exploded.

"Bleghh." Buffy rolled over and pushed herself up on all fours, spitting out gray ash. As she got to her feet, she wondered why the vamp had acted so strangely. Great, she thought. What does it mean when the vampires start acting weird? She picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder.

It was a small movement, off to her left. Most people wouldn't have noticed it, but most people weren't the Slayer. In fact, no one was the Slayer except her, and only her peripheral vision registered that something was wrong with the light coming through that hedge. She stared straight ahead, letting the hedge stay at the edge of her field of view. There it was again; something on the other side of the hedge was blocking the light, and whatever it was was moving. Buffy began to walk, forcing herself to keep an even stride, her mind working.

There was a gap in the hedge, about fifteen feet ahead. As she drew even with it, she let the strap slide off her shoulder. She threw herself to the left, through the gap, turning to face whatever it was, swinging the bag around in a wide arc.

The heavy bag caught Angel high on the shoulder and ricocheted up to his head. He staggered, but didn't go down. Buffy stared at him for a split-second, then swung the bag back-handed, smacking into his mid-section. She was very pleased with the loud "oof" this produced.

"Hey," Angel hissed. "It's me!"

"I know," she said. "That's why I hit you so hard."

"Huh?" He straightened up.

"What are you doing here? And why are you watching me? Haven't we covered this already, or is this a special encore presentation?"

Angel held up a hand. "I'm not here because of you."

"Oh, really?" Buffy's body language screamed out "liar".

"Really." Angel nodded. "Something strange is happening."

"I say once again, 'Oh, really?'"

Angel fixed her with that stare. "Now may not be the best time to be sarcastic. The level of supernatural activity around here scares even me."

"All right." Buffy dropped the Slayer bag at her feet. "Then it's time for you to come clean. What do you know about whatever weirdness is infesting us?"

Angel ran a hand over his chin. "Not much. The vi- information was pretty vague. But I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the Hellmouth."

"Would it also have something to do with someone about five-nine with dark hair?"

"Huh?" That puzzled look on Angel's face was the real deal.

"Well, I'll find out." Buffy picked up her bag and headed back through the hedge.

"Where are you going?"

"Willow's house." Buffy turned and pointed at him. "And you stay away. Understand?"

Angel held up his hands. "I make no promises." He wheeled and stalked off into the night, black coat swirling.

*************************************

It always amazed Xander that he continued to walk around Sunnydale's streets after dark. Of course, he knew what prowled those streets, and as every good fan of horror movies knows, you fear that which you don't know more than what you know.

Which means I should be most terrified of women, he thought. Anyway, he was wearing a cross, and besides, you could slip in the bath tub and break your neck, a truism his mother never tired of repeating. Usually at the top of her lungs, like she was tonight, which was why he had so quickly agreed to come over when Willow phoned.

He was just a couple of blocks from Willow's house when he saw the commotion. Willow being Jewish, he didn't think that was a living Nativity. With every brain cell screaming 'retreat', he began to run toward the house.

**********************************

Buffy was steamed, no two ways about it. She was so busy being angry that she almost blundered into the vampires surrounding Willow's house, or rather clumped around Willow's house. Buffy ducked behind a tree to take stock.

She counted six vamps, four on the lawn, two on the roof, all on the same side of the house as Willow's bedroom. And the guest room. Buffy reached into her bag and slipped out the crossbow. She loaded a bolt, brought the weapon to her shoulder, then stepped out from behind the tree and whistled. As they all turned to look, she drew down on the biggest one. The crossbow's sights were right in the middle of its chest. She squeezed the trigger; it broke clean and launched the bolt straight and true. The hardwood shaft whistled through the air and into the demon's chest, penetrating the heart and coming out the other side.

And nothing happened. Or rather, the unexpected happened. Instead of dissolving in a burst of gray powder, the vampire roared and charged her. It was moving too quickly for Buffy to reload the crossbow. She tossed it aside and ducked under the first charge, coming up under the monster and using its own momentum to flip it over her back. As she pushed it away, finishing the throw, she knew why the crossbow failed. Her hands dragged across rough, scaly skin. This wasn't a vampire, it was some other kind of demon, some other kind of demon that was getting to its feet. The others were starting toward her.

She lunged at the Slayer bag, but the demon was very quick. It threw a full-body tackle at the Slayer, bearing her to the ground. Rolling over, it straddled the girl, and launched a powerful punch at her head.

Buffy saw the punch and twisted her head. She felt and heard the demon fist plunge deep into the earth. As the dirt yielded, her opponent lurched forward, off-balance. Buffy planted her feet and thrust upward with her hips, throwing the demon over her head. She leaped to her feet and launched a twisting back kick. The demon ducked it and threw a hard left that caught her in the midsection. She went down, air gushing from her lungs, and landed on the Slayer bag. Trying to draw a breath, she groped in the bag, felt the handle of the dagger, and pulled it out. It had a short, curved blade, probably of Middle Eastern origin, but what made it special was the thin channel etched in its surface, a channel which a master knife builder of Giles's acquaintance had filled with silver. The demon leaped at her. Still woozy from the body shot, Buffy rolled out of the way. The demon landed face-down, a loud thud marking the spot. Buffy clambered to her feet, finally drawing a deep breath as the demon charged. A sharp squeal split the air. Buffy feinted, trying to throw her attacker off-balance, but this one learned fast. The fake didn't work. Buffy found herself face-to-face with the demon, arms pinned to her side. He squeezed. Air gushed out of Buffy's lungs. The pressure of the powerful arms around her increased. The demon's head rocketed forward, the bony brow ridge catching her above the left eye. The world exploded into stars and sparks, whirling around her. Consciousness fading, the Slayer drew back her right foot, and with all her remaining strength, kicked the demon on its left kneecap. Apparently this hurt, because it roared and dropped her. She struggled to her feet. The creature grasped its leg, cradling the wounded knee. Please, please let this demon be vulnerable to silver, she thought as she stepped forward and struck. Her request was granted. As the silver blade sank deep into its vitals (whatever they were), the demon roared, spewing smoke and a vile liquid from its mouth. The liquid, Buffy guessed, was its blood, or what passed for blood. Very stinky blood.

She heard a heavy tread on the grass behind her and she wheeled, sweeping the knife through in a great backhand arc. The new demon tried to put on the brakes, and it did avoid decapitation, but the knife scored a deep line across its shoulders and upper chest. The creature clutched its wounds, but its shriek was unheard as Buffy stabbed it through the throat.

Buffy looked up. No demons. She looked toward the house. Two figures were engaged in battling the four remaining demons, but they weren't winning. She blinked. She knew those figures. Xander and Cordelia. "Hang on," Buffy whispered, hefting the dagger as a small, grim smile crossed her lips. "The cavalry's coming." She sprinted across the lawn.

As she ran, her anger at Angel, her mistrust of Josie, her resentment of Cordelia, all of it dropped away. She had a target and a purpose. Violence was her gift, her trade, her release, even. She might not know everything that was going on, but she knew what to do next, and how to do it.

Xander and Cordelia were back to back, holding forearm-thick sticks they had picked up, improvised clubs. Buffy hit the demons from behind, stabbing one before it knew what was happening. A second tried to grab her as she went by, a stupid move which cost it first an arm, then its life. She charged on through, coming to a skidding stop and turning. The two remaining demons shifted to face her, and that's when Xander reared back and took a full, from-the-heels swing. The club connected with the demon's skull, with a sound like Mark McGwire catching a fastball on the sweet spot of a Louisville Slugger. The demon staggered forward, directly onto the blade of the silver knife. Buffy turned. Cordelia had dropped her club and jumped on the back of the last demon. It roared and swiped at it shoulders, trying to dislodge her, but Cordy was hunkered down and holding on tight. Buffy walked over and coolly stabbed it. As the demon dropped to the grass, she looked at her two comrades-in-arms.

"I wonder," she said, "if Josie knows anything about this."

***********************************

"I think this will be one of the best attended Christmas programs we've ever had. And a lot of the credit for that belongs to you, Rupert. I think this Christmas Carol reading will be an absolute smash." Jack Baker sipped from the styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand and grimace. "Amazing. After sitting in this cup for three hours, it's awful. Who would'be guessed?"

Giles chuckled. "Thank you for the compliment." He assayed a slight bow, trying to hide the delight he took in the praise. Jack was the director of the Vandivort, Sunnydale's well-respected community theater. One of his hallmarks was an outstanding Christmas show, and Giles had suggested his one-man performance with no little trepidation. Jack responded with great enthusiasm, however, and had even offered to direct Giles. The former librarian thought he knew his Dickens, but Jack, a tall man with thinning hair who covered a perfectionist's soul with a laid-back manner, provided insights that enabled Giles to discover fresh nuances in the work.

"No," Jack said. "Thank you for doing this. I think this will be a real treat for a lot of people." Giles gathered up his things, thanked Jack again for the help, and left the theater. He stopped on the sidewalk and took a deep breath of the night air. It was decidedly unfrosty, but Giles consoled himself with the knowledge that somewhere, at this very moment, someone was caroling.

************************************

Xander extended a hand with great care and spoke in a slow, clear voice. "Hey, Buff, why don't we put... the... knife... down."

"Yeah," Cordelia said. "We know you're, like, the Queen of Kill, but it's time to grab a grip."

Buffy realized they were staring at her. Her eyes followed Xander's gaze down to her hand. She still held the knife in a fighting stance, squeezing it so tightly the blade quivered. She took a deep breath and, with a great effort, calmed herself, gulping in air while her racing heart slowed.

"That's the idea." Xander eased forward, keeping a close eye on her as he reached for her knife hand. He was ready to fling himself backward at the slightest twitch, which is why he got such impressive elevation on his jump when Cordelia blurted, "Would you take the knife, you big chicken?"

He whirled on her. "Are you trying to get me killed?" he shrieked in a voice he realized was much higher in pitch than he wanted. Cordelia snorted.

"It's okay," Buffy said. The point of the blade dropped toward the ground. She looked around. "We'd better get these bodies out of sight before we go into the house."

"Ewwww," Cordelia groaned. "I was just heroic. Can't someone else handle the cleanup?"

"Grab a claw," Xander grunted, tugging on one of the demon corpses. "These things are as heavy as they look."

It took them a few minutes to conceal the infernal remains in the bushes and get themselves in order. "Okay," Buffy said. "Ready to kick a little ass? Rhetorical question." She turned toward the house.

Xander grabbed her arm. She wheeled, eyes on fire. He let go, pulling his hand back as though scalded. "I just don't think we should kick in the door and go all Pulp Fiction," he said.

"Okay." Buffy spread her arms, palms up. "I'm open to suggestions."

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Well, I know I'm not an honorary member of your loser gang anymore, but we could knock on the door."

Buffy cast a hard look from Xander to Cordelia. "You think I'm out of control? Is that what you're saying?"

"I think you've got a bug up your ass about Josie, and it's messing with your judgment," Xander said in a rush. "Besides, even if you're right, she could have a gun, or the undead equivalent, at Willow's head." One more thought occurred to him. "Or she might not know you're onto her. Busting in would be a pretty big tip-off, don't you think?"

Cordelia chimed in. "Much as it pains me to say it, I agree with geek boy."

Buffy took a couple of deep breaths, thinking. "Okay," she said, "we go in cool. I can always come back."

"That's the spirit. You can go Matrix tomorrow," Xander agreed.

"What_ever_ we've decided, can we just go in?" Cordelia shivered. "It's getting cold out here." The trio headed for the house.

"Before we go in, how did you guys show up here?" Buffy asked.

Xander and Cordelia looked at each other, then at her. "Willow called me," Xander said.

Cordelia hesitated for a moment. "I was just driving by and saw Captain Spaz embarrassing himself," she offered.

"Aw," Xander said. "That's so sweet. Why don't you just admit that you still want me bad?" Cordelia made a gagging noise. Buffy noticed Cordelia's Explorer, one front wheel up on the front lawn. The squeal she'd heard during the battle must have been the brakes.

Xander knocked on the door. It opened a crack. Willow's face peered out. "Hi," she said to Xander, then noticed his companions. "What are you guys doing here?" she asked.

"Could we come in?" Buffy rubbed her arms. "It's a little chilly."

"Cordy certainly thinks so," Xander said, staring at the brunette's chest with undisguised interest.

Cordelia crossed her arms. "I will kill you right here," she hissed.

Willow opened the door. "Sure, everybody come in," she said. Turning her head, she called over her shoulder, "Hey, Josie, Xander's here."

Josie came around the corner into the entryway, a big smile on her face. The smile faltered for a second when she saw Buffy and Cordelia, but only for a second. "Hi," she said. "Where did you guys come from?"

She was wearing a pair of Willow's sweat pants, which were too short for her, and a T-shirt that Willow used as a nightshirt because it was too big, but which fit Josie perfectly. She was barefoot, and without that huge trench coat, Buffy realized how thin she was.

She's just a girl, Buffy thought. A skinny girl who's all alone. A shudder ran through her as she remembered those months in Seattle when she was the girl all alone.

"So," Xander was saying, "sorry I brought extra company."

"No, no," Willow stammered. "It's okay. I just wanted to watch movies. We can make some extra popcorn." She managed a nervous grin. Cordelia rolled her eyes.

"That's a great idea," Buffy said. She turned to Xander and Cordy. "Why don't you guys go with Josie, get the video going, and Willow and I will get drinks." Xander and Cordelia read the message in her eyes.

"Sure," Xander said.

"Right." Cordy was a little less enthusiastic as they ushered Josie into the living room.

"Buffy, what's wrong?" Willow whispered once they were in the kitchen.

"What?" Buffy took glasses out of the cabinet.

Willow pointed at Buffy. "Your head."

Buffy leaned down, looking into the glass door of the microwave. Even in the smoked glass, she could see the swelling and discoloration over her left eye. She was going to have a hell of a shiner.

"We had a little Christmas party outside. Ran into some carolers from the Bizarro world."

"What do you mean?" Willow was thoroughly puzzled.

Buffy turned to her. "You didn't know that half-a-dozen demons were outside your house not fifteen minutes ago?"

Willow's eyes widened and a hand flew to her mouth. "No, that's not possible."

Buffy searched her best friend's face. "You didn't know."

Willow's shoulders went up and down. "Not a clue."

"You didn't feel anything? No suspicions?"

Willow shook her head. Buffy stopped, trying to get a grip. She was scaring Willow, which really took some doing by now.

Willow licked her lips. Her voice was a bare murmur. "You think it's Josie, don't you?"

"It's probably just me. Too much holiday stress." Buffy turned to the refrigerator as she tried to reassure Willow. "Giles says lots of freaky stuff happens at Christmas anyway. Tell you what. Let's get the drinks out, try to act normal, and see what happens. Okay?" Willow nodded, and they busied themselves for the next few minutes pouring sodas. While Willow carried the glasses out on a tray, Buffy got out the popcorn and slipped it into the microwave. She had just pushed the start button when she heard the door open behind her.

She turned around. "Willow--" she began, then her voice died in her throat.

"Hey, Buffy," Josie asked. "Could you use a hand?"

**********************************

Giles could still see the front door of the theater as he unlocked his car. Jack came outside and began locking up. He dropped the keys in his pocket and turned around when two figures sprang at him from the shadows. Giles dropped his garment bag and sprinted up the sidewalk. One of the attackers knocked Jack to the ground. Giles knew he would not get there in time. The assailant behind Jack opened his mouth wide; Giles saw the glint of fangs in the open maw. As he ran, Giles felt the pockets of his topcoat, trying to find anything. His fingers closed over something round and smooth. Skidding to a stop, Giles plucked the object out. It was a vial of holy water. A small crucifix on a chain was wrapped around its stopper.

Giles hefted the vial in his hand, took two steps and let fly. He didn't care for American baseball, but he'd been a fair cricket player in his day. The holy water described a lazy parabola and dropped directly onto the head of the vampire leaning over Jack. The bottle shattered, fluid soaking the head of one vampire and spattering the face of the other. Both screamed and clawed at their faces. Giles reached them, the crucifix dangling from his hand. One of the vampires, the one with the least holy water damage, reached for him. Giles swung the crucifix on its chain. The small gold cross arced through space and stuck in the fiend's eye. An unearthly howl rent the night. The vampire jerked back, cross lodged in its smoking eye socket, the chain dangling down its face. Undead flesh sizzled. The other vampire, blinded by its own melting face, reached out a groping hand and caught the chain. The cross came free, and the eyeball with it. Giles fought back nausea as the vampires struggled to their feet and staggered away. He wouldn't be chasing them tonight.

Shivering, Giles knelt over his supine friend. "Are you all right?" he gasped.

A shaken Jack stirred. "Rupert? God, what happened?"

"I'm not sure," Giles replied, trying to think of a plausible explanation as he helped Jack to his feet.

Jack brushed off the knees of his trousers and dusted his hands together. "Probably kids. They know we've got sound equipment in the theater. They think they can fence it for a few bucks to buy crank."

That sounded like a fine reason to Giles. "Yes, drugs. What a terrible, terrible scourge on our young people," he commiserated.

*********************************

"Hey, Buffy," Josie asked. "Could you use a hand?"

"A hand?" Buffy repeated.

"Yeah, as in aid, assistance, help. Willow said you were making popcorn." Josie turned to the cabinets behind her. Buffy made a quick visual survey and found no weapons available, not even a paring knife. Josie turned back toward her. "How'd you get the shiner?" she asked, placing a bowl on the kitchen island between them.

"I, uh, I ran into a tree limb." What a lame excuse, Buffy thought.

"Must have hit going pretty fast. You should put some ice on that eye." Josie opened a cabinet and took out a salt shaker.

The first kernel chose to pop at that moment, the detonation only a little louder than a rifle shot. Buffy, already on edge, tensed, then willed herself to relax. Josie watched her, scrutinizing her. Buffy shifted her weight a little bit, trying to get into a fighting position without being obvious.

"What did I do?" Josie asked.

Buffy was taken off-guard. "Do?" she said, feeling stupid.

Josie raised her hands, palms up. "This is, like, the second time I've seen you, and both times you've acted like I'm radioactive."

The popcorn was going great guns now. "That's silly," Buffy said. "I don't know what you mean."

"You don't?" Josie looked down into the bowl. Maybe she thinks the meaning of life's in there, Buffy thought. Josie looked up and said, "I don't know what I remind you of, but it's not my fault. I didn't do anything to you."

Buffy leaned forward. "I will protect my friends," she said, her voice tighter than she intended.

Josie stepped back and raised her arms. "Against me?" she asked, her voice rich in disbelief.

The microwave dinged. "Against whatever," Buffy said. They faced each other for a long moment, eyes locked.

"Buffy, I'm not the problem." Josie's voice was soft. "What do I remind you of?"

Buffy felt it welling up inside her, a great bubble that started in the pit of her stomach and expanded until her chest could no longer contain it. The words gushed out of her mouth.

"I ran away. Far away."

"And you ended up like me." Josie was matter-of-fact.

"I don't know what you mean." Buffy could feel the situation slipping away from her.

"Alone. That's what scares you, isn't it? Being alone." Josie stepped up to the island. Buffy turned a bit, presenting less of a target. "Well, you know what?" Josie said, voice rising. "You're not alone. You've got a mom, and you've got those three people in there, and you've got--" Josie stopped, clipping her words in mid-sentence.

"What? I've got what?" Buffy demanded.

Josie shook her head, dark hair whipping around her face. "Forget it. You'd better get that popcorn out. It's going to get cold." She turned and pushed through the kitchen door. Buffy leaned forward, hands on the countertop. She was drained.

***********************************

Spike sniffed the air. "Smells like a bloody laundromat," he muttered to himself. He ran a hand over his hair; it felt like every follicle was standing on end. Whatever was charging the air, it was making him irritable. He'd already smashed in the head of some stupid fool of a vampire who'd tried to challenge him. That wouldn't do, especially not when Spike had spent the better part of an evening trailing that group of carolers, waiting, waiting for one to straggle back, to fall far enough behind the group that he could step out of the shadows, snap his neck, and drag the body away. Sure, he could have burst into the group at any time, and probably killed a lot more, but sometimes a man had to pay attention to the aesthetics of a kill; it was what separated him from the lower brutes. No, after showing all that patience and skill, he was not about to let some fresh mouth-breather get a taste.

Spike shrugged, trying to settle his shoulders inside his coat. "Christmas," he breathed. "Hate the damn season." He stalked away. "Doesn't even snow around here."

*********************************

"I don't trust her," Buffy whispered to Willow. Xander and Cordelia were saying their good-byes to Josie, the better to afford the Slayer a few minutes alone with their favorite redheaded Wiccan. "I think we should get you out of here."

Willow shook her head. "I think you're wrong about her, but if it'll make you feel better, I'll put the guards around the door again."

"That will make me feel better." Buffy looked over Willow's shoulder. Josie, Xander, and Cordelia were headed for the front door. Good-byes were offered all around as Willow and Josie followed the trio out onto the porch. Buffy, Xander, and Cordelia piled into the Explorer and drove off.

Josie and Willow stood, looking at the stars. After a minute, Willow turned toward the house. "I'm going in," she said. "You coming?"

Josie shook her head. "I think I'll just stand out here for a few minutes. Look around, y'know?"

"Okay." Willow went back into the house. Josie put her hands on the porch railing, leaned out to look up at the stars. Her gaze trailed down, taking in the tops of the trees and the upper stories of the houses, then dropped to a spot across the street. As she watched, a black-clad figure with white hair stepped out from behind a tree. Josie looked at him; Spike stared back. The world froze as their eyes locked. The moment stretched, tightened, then was gone, as Spike stepped back behind the tree and was gone. Josie watched a little longer, but he did not reappear. She turned and went back into the house.

********************************

"We should've stayed. We shouldn't leave Will alone with her." Buffy's fingers drummed on her knee, then raked through her hair. "What if something happens?"

"And what could happen?" Cordelia glanced at the fidgeting Slayer in the rear-view mirror.

Xander half-turned in his seat. "Yeah, Buff. As distasteful as I find it to agree with Cordelia, I think you're way off base about Josie."

"And why do you think that, Xander? Because she's cute?"

"Considering your recent head injury, I'll ignore that remark," Xander replied in his most dignified tone.

"Please." Buffy looked out the window, then back at Xander. "Or didn't the six demons make an impression on you?"

"Y'know, five years ago, they would've, but now, I'm just jaded. All I saw was six demons. Not even particularly ugly ones."

"Did you notice that they weren't surrounding the house? That they were all on the side of the guest room?"

Cordelia made a noise that could have been sympathy or contempt. "That is so pathetic. You are really grasping at straws, Buffy."

"Maybe Willow was practicing her spells and it attracted them." Xander liked his explanation. "Yeah, you know, like the way yodeling always draws a crowd. It may not be a good crowd, but it's still a crowd."

Buffy fell silent. His explanation made sense, but sense wasn't at the core of this. Something freaky was afoot, and she seemed to be the only one who noticed.

********************************

"Need a hand?" Josie leaned against the kitchen door.

"Sure," Willow said. "Grab a towel. You can dry."

"Gee, thanks," Josie said, opening a drawer. "I get the fun job."

"Sorry," Willow said, smiling. "I got here first, so I get to ride the crazy roller-coaster that is washing."

Glasses washed, and dried, Josie went upstairs while Willow turned out all the lights and checked the doors. As Willow climbed the stairs, Josie came out of the bathroom and crossed the hall to the guest room. She paused in the doorway.

"G'night," Willow said.

"Good night." Josie hesitated, then spoke. "Thanks again for letting me stay here, Willow."

The redhead shrugged, unsure of what to say. "You're welcome."

"You've got great friends."

"Thank you." A thought occurred to Willow. "Can I, uh, ask you something?"

"Sure."

"How did you... I mean, what happened... Do you have a family? I'm sorry if that's too personal." Willow bit her lip.

Josie looked at her feet, then back up at Willow. "That's pretty personal. Any particular reason you're asking?"

Willow shook her head. "No. I just wondered, is all."

Josie looked at a spot on the doorjamb. She raised her left hand and began to pick at the spot. Her face was turned away from Willow. "You know, you're a really lousy liar."

Willow winced. "I know. I think it's something genetic, like I have a mutation or something. But I'm not trying to be mean."

"Buffy's never talked about what happened to her, has she?" Josie raised a questioning eyebrow.

"How did you know about Buffy?"

"She told me. Oh, she didn't tell me what happened. She just told me she ran away. Was she gone long?"

Willow drew in on herself. "Depends on what you call 'long'. She was gone a whole summer. We still don't know where she went or what happened."

"And you're hoping I can provide a little insight?"

"Something like that," Willow admitted.

"You do know she doesn't like me?"

"I think... I think that's because you remind her of... that time." Willow's voice was a little shaky.

"Sorry." Josie sounded very apologetic. "Didn't mean to pick at old scabs. I'll answer your question. No. I never had a family like you or like Buffy. Not even like Cordelia, or Xander for that matter."

"Wow." Willow's voice was soft. "You've always been alone?"

Josie's shoulders lifted in a small shrug. "More or less."

"I'm so sorry." It was the only thing Willow could think of. A great sadness filled her as she thought of this girl, and of Buffy, alone with nowhere to turn.

"Thanks for the feeling, but don't be sorry for me." Josie smiled. "There's no other way for me to be." Josie hesitated. "It was no accident she came back. Good night, Willow." Josie closed the door of the guest room. Willow raised her hands and began making the necessary gesticulations to re-activate the guard spells.

*********************************

Giles shoved the heavy leather-bound manuscript away from him and pulled another book into its place. He's been at it for two hours, ever since arriving home. Something about the attack on Jack Baker bothered him. Not the attack itself; vampires were ready anytime, anywhere. Rather, it was the frenzied nature of the assault, the way the creatures seemed to be struggling with each other, and with something unseen, that drove him to his books. So far they had been of no help. Maybe they got hold of some bad blood, he thought. "Yes," he said to himself, "that would explain it. And I'll be the next queen." He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Maybe it was time to quit, to try and get some sleep. He closed the books and was gathering them when the knock came at the door.

Giles glanced at the clock. One-thirty a.m., so it wasn't the mailman. Giles rummaged in the closet and brought out the old crossbow. Whoever was there knocked on the door a second time. Holding the weapon with the stock under his right arm, he carefully opened the door with his left hand.

"That's twice you've held that thing on me." Angel didn't flinch from the crossbow. Giles noticed the blood on his face and the ripped sleeve on his coat.

"Rough night?" the former Watcher asked.

"You might say that." Angel gestured at the door. "May I come in?"

"Yes. Please come in." Giles stepped back. Angel entered. "You know you didn't have to ask," Giles said. "I never rescinded my prior invitation."

"I know," Angel said. "But it would be rude to presume."

"Oh." Giles was taken aback. "Well, sit down. Would you like something to drink?"

Angel sank onto the sofa. "No. I just need to rest. It's been a crazy night."

"How so?" Giles sat in the chair, crossbow forgotten.

"I tangled with a pack of ghouls. You know how they are. Not very smart, but they keep coming. Finally had to just tear off all their limbs." Angel stretched his legs out and tilted his head back.

Giles looked down at his hands. "I suppose I should ask why you're in Sunnydale."

Angel rolled his eyes in Giles's direction. "Because I'm supposed to be here. Haven't you noticed the atmosphere around here? It's crawling with even more goblins than normal, and they're all acting like something's driving them crazy."

Giles remembered how Jack's attackers had acted. "Something's... amiss, isn't it?"

Angel nodded. "Oh yeah. I can feel it myself. It's like a really faint buzzing inside my head."

"Any theories as to what it might be?"

"One." Angel leaned forward. "But I'm not sure. Giles, I need your help. I need your knowledge."

***********************************

Buffy looked at her reflection in the mirror, her stomach sinking. She was going to have a black eye, all right, not to mention a bruise from her eyebrow to her hairline. Oh well, nothing to do about it, she thought as she turned out the light.

And almost collided with Cordelia in the hallway. They both jumped and stifled screams.

"I thought you were in bed," Buffy whispered, not wanting to wake her mom.

"Here. I was making this." Cordelia shoved a lumpy towel into Buffy's hands. She felt the cold almost immediately. "It's for your head." Cordelia pointed toward the bruising.

"Duh." Buffy placed the ice pack on her forehead and felt the cold tighten her brow. Cordelia pushed past her toward the guest room.

"Cordelia," Buffy said. The brunette turned. Buffy held up the ice pack. "Thanks. This was sweet of you."

Cordelia shrugged. "Doesn't seem particularly sweet to me. What good are you with a concussion?" She went into the guest room and closed the door.

Buffy nodded to herself, an ironic smile on her lips. Same old Cordelia.

********************************

Giles took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. It felt as though sand had been spooned underneath the lids. Stifling a yawn, he reached for another book. Angel pulled it away.

"I think we've done all we can do tonight," the vampire said. "Sunrise is less than an hour away, plus you need sleep."

Giles tried to control his frustration; he knew that fatigue made it feel worse. "I simply cannot believe we didn't learn anything."

Angel offered an ironic smile. "We learned a lot. Mostly that none of these books can tell us what's going on." He stood up and stretched, trying to work out the stiffness of prolonged sitting. "Any suggestions as to our next move?"

Giles rested his head in his hands. "Whatever's going on, I believe Buffy is right; it's connected to this girl. Perhaps I should talk to her."

"Okay." Angel shrugged into his coat. "Wait until after sundown. I'd like to be close by, just in case."

Giles tried swallowing, but his throat was so dry. "Not a problem. It may be sundown before I can drag myself out. I'll call Willow this afternoon, then stop by on my way to rehearsal."

"Yeah, I saw a flyer for that. How's it going?"

Giles was surprised; Angel's interest seemed genuine. "Quite well, if I can keep the director from being killed by vampires."

Angel pursed his lips. "Well, good luck. You've got big shoes to fill." He started toward the door.

"You've seen Stewart's performance?" Giles asked.

Angel stopped in the open doorway and turned back, a wistful look on his face. "No. I saw Dickens'." He closed the door behind himself.

Giles blinked twice. "Well," he said to the empty room, "I doubt if I can measure up to that."

************************************

Buffy stumbled down the stairs, pajamas twisted, hair sticking out at impossible geometric angles. Joyce and Cordelia sat at the kitchen table. They looked up as Buffy entered the room.

"Eep!" Cordelia said.

Buffy stopped and fixed her with a menacing and rather pinkish stare. "It's gratifying to know that my appearance frightens you after you just went hand-to-hand with the undead and didn't utter a peep."

"Well, sure, but they were just demons," Cordelia said. "You, on the other hand..." She shivered. "Gack."

"Here." Joyce handed Buffy a glass of juice. The Slayer took a sip while her mother examined her injured forehead. "Let me guess. We had a bad night."

Buffy shuffled to the table and took another gulp of juice. "Boy, mom, hard to get anything past you."

"I try." Joyce grabbed her purse. "Listen, I have to go to the gallery."

"How's that going?" Cordelia wondered.

"Well, our exhibition of indigenous ornaments from around the world has done very well." Joyce frowned. "Will you two be okay?"

Buffy grunted in the affirmative. After Joyce was gone, Cordelia stood. "You should go back to bed," she said.

"I am pretty beat," Buffy admitted.

"There's that," Cordelia said. "But I was thinking about the chance that someone might see you through the window if you hang out downstairs."

Buffy started to glare, but decided it wasn't worth it. This was Cordelia; a glare would have all the effect of a firecracker on a tank. "What are you going to do?" she asked as Cordelia walked into the living room.

"I have to go out." Cordy's voice floated back from the other room.

Buffy pushed up from the table and followed Cordelia. "For someone who says she just came back on a whim, you seem to have a lot to do."

Cordelia shrugged. "Well, I guess that's one of the drawbacks of having a life. You should get one sometime, see what it feels like."

"Cordelia, what's going on?"

Cordelia held up her hands, car keys dangling. "I don't know what you're talking about. I just have to run some errands."

As Cordelia opened the door, Buffy played her last card. "Errands for Angel? I know he's in town, too."

Cordelia turned, closing the door. "What makes you think that?"

"I ran into him last night."

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Please. You guys 'run into' each other-" she made a little hip-thrusting motion that would have sent Xander into orbit- "every chance you get."

"Oooh. Subtle as a flying hammer. Still doesn't deal with the issue. You came back with him, didn't you?"

"Well, duh. Took you long enough to figure it out. Did you really think I just came back to visit? Full of yourself, much?"

Buffy put her hands on her hips. "What does he need you to do?"

"Gee, let's see." Cordelia ticked off the points on her fingers. "First, he couldn't drive down here. Second, there's that whole 'can't go out in the daytime' thing, which he really milks, if you ask me. Then there's the whole vision thing."

Color Buffy puzzled. "What 'vision thing'?"

"Well, it appears that just being drawn into your supernatural gravitational orbit wasn't enough. Seems I have acquired, without my consent, I might add, the ability to receive visions."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. I just get flashes of things. Angel usually figures them out."

"And you got one of these 'flashes' about Sunnydale?"

Cordelia held out her hands in a 'who knows' gesture. "Maybe. He's pretty sure that something morbid this way comes, but it could be something wicked bad, like the Hellmouth opening, or just middling bad, like the bazor, or that Eyghon guy."

"Is Josie in the middle of it?"

Cordelia hit the red line on exasperation. "I don't know, and he doesn't either. I swear, I never laid eyes on her before the other night. Listen, if you want all these answers, why don't you come with me, and talk to him yourself."

Buffy bit her lip. "I can't. I won't. We said our good-byes--"

"Yeah, yeah, the big Pretty In Pink scene. Fine." Cordelia opened the door. Just before it closed behind her, she said, "Y'know, you'd think that someone with the power to save the world would be a little less of an emotional basket case."

*********************************************

Spike surveyed the vampires gathered in the room and let loose with a deep sigh. This bunch would have a hard time finding their asses with a road map under optimal conditions, but now they were all behaving like a bunch of schoolkids who'd chased Pop-Rocks with Pepsi. Maybe it was that bloody vibration, that hum in the air. It was like standing under an electric trunk line, the air charged with so much power you could practically hear it. Well, he thought, maybe tonight's little escapade will release some of the tension. He got up from his chair and jumped up on the table.

Even the two idiots fighting in the back of the room shut up. Spike looked around him, trying to make eye contact with each and every demon.

"I know you're jumpy," he said. "I'm feelin' a bit peckish myself." A general rumble of agreement came from his audience. "But I think I've got the solution to our holiday blues." Ironic grin, some chuckles from the crowd. "Seems there's a bit of a holiday bash tonight at the Bronze. Some of you know what this means, but for those of you who don't, well, let's just say you haven't feasted until you've been at one of these turkey shoots." Excitement began to grow in the room. Spike paused for dramatic effect, then raced to the finish. "I know you're angry. I know you've been ready to tear each other apart for days. Well, tonight, we let all that go. Tonight, instead of taking it out on each other, we take it out on them!"

The room erupted in shouts and applause. Spike grasped hands and accepted words of praise and encouragement as he climbed down from the table. I tell you, I'm wasting my talents here, he thought.

****************************************

Cordelia slammed the Explorer's gear shift into 'Park' and looked at the mansion. Its gray bulk loomed above her, broken windows gaping in the façade. She sighed and got out of the truck, pressing the button on the key chain that locked everything.

Angel was waiting for her inside. "Learn anything?" he asked.

Cordelia glared at him. "Oh, let's see, Mr. Do As I Say, Not As I Do. What was it you said? Oh, yeah, something like..." She adopted a deeper tone of voice. "'We can't let Buffy know I'm here. I'll need to stay hidden.' What happened to that plan, huh?"

"We're a bit testy."

"Hey," Cordy snapped, "I spent an unreasonable portion of my evening last night outside Willow's house fighting demons." She clenched her fists. "Why can't I get away from this place? Why is it that whenever I think I'm out, they drag me right back in?"

Angel tried not to smile. Cordelia saw him and lashed out. "Wipe that smirk off your face. I wouldn't always be in these messes if it weren't for you, you and Doyle... Doyle and his... his... his damned visions." She was close to tears, although Angel couldn't be sure if they were tears of anger or pain. Maybe both. She took a deep breath and got herself under control. "So don't you ever, ever patronize me again."

Angel looked embarrassed. "Okay, I deserved that. All I can say is that I didn't expect things to be quite so bad here." He held up his left arm and Cordelia noticed the rips in the shirt sleeve and the glimpses of bandages underneath.

"Were we clumsy last night?" she asked.

"No, but we were busy." Angel sat down in a chair. "Came across a pack of ghouls. That's weird. I've seen lots of stuff in Sunnydale, but ghouls are pretty scarce."

Cordelia wiped her eyes. "That's because they're the hyenas of the spirit world. They just eat what others leave. Too many real predators around here for ghouls to feel comfortable." She noticed Angel staring at her in open-mouthed amazement.

"What?" she said. "We have books at the office. I get bored. I read."

Angel nodded. "I see. So, after fighting the ghouls, I spent the rest of the night with Giles--"

"Jeez, is there anybody you didn't see? Maybe you and Xander went out for a burger?"

Angel ignored her outburst. "-I spent the rest of the night with Giles, trying to learn whatever we could about what's going on."

Cordelia waited. "And?" she said at last.

Angel shrugged. "Didn't find out much, but after I left his place I trailed a pack of vampires to that old textile factory down by the waterfront."

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Ooooh, vampires roam Sunnydale. I'll alert the media."

Angel got very serious. "It was real close to sunrise. I was barely able to get back here in time. Something was driving them crazy."

"So you've got no ideas."

"Not many." From a safe distance, Angel looked out the window. "But whatever's happening, I've got a feeling it's about to come to a head."

*****************************************

The knocking at the door finally dragged Giles out of sleep. He tried to glance at the clock as he pulled himself upright, but his bleary eyes couldn't focus on the numbers. He draped a robe over his frame and stumbled down the stairs.

When he yanked open the door, Buffy stood there, hand still upraised, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. At the sight of Giles she took an involuntary step backwards.

"Do I really look that frightful?" he rasped.

"Oh yeah," she said. "And you sound worse. Got a minute?"

Giles pasted a ghastly impersonation of a smile onto his face. "For you always." He stepped back, opening the door. As Buffy entered and took off her sunglasses, he saw her eye.

"Good Lord," he gasped. "What happened?"

"Oh, this?" Buffy said, sweeping off the cap to reveal a purple and green bruise that disappeared into her hairline. "Tangled with a demon who had apparently seen Road House."

"Are you all right?" Giles leaned over to get a closer look.

"Worse than it looks. Give me twenty-four hours, good as new." Buffy cleared her throat. "Uh, Giles, you might want to close the robe."

"What? Oh, yes, yes, of course." He tied a hasty knot in the belt. "How did this happen?" After Buffy's brief narration of the previous night's events, Giles declared, "You really shouldn't patrol tonight."


Buffy shook her head. "Not an option. Big Christmas dance at the Bronze. Lots of teenagers wandering around, prime vampire bait."

Giles thought about this. "Well, you're right, but I'm still uneasy. Could anyone help you?"

Buffy smiled. It was so sweet when he worried about her. "Already taken care of. Willow's going to patrol with. Xander will babysit Josie."

Giles couldn't think of a thing to say. "Well," he said at last, "it does seem that you've taken proper precautions. Promise me you will get some rest this afternoon."

"Hey, I like the sound of that." Buffy snapped off a salute. "Going home to nap, as ordered, sir."

"Yes, yes," Giles muttered as he waved her toward the door. "Now, I need to get some rest myself. Out you go."

*************************************

Giles snugged up the knot in his tie and checked it in the mirror. Nice and straight. He smoothed his hair one last time, picked up his topcoat and bag, and left the house. Amazing what four or five good hours of sleep could do for a person.

*************************************

Buffy opened the door after the first ring. Willow stood there, wearing an unzipped hooded sweatshirt over a dark sweater and jeans.

"Ready to go?" Buffy asked.

Willow gave a brisk nod. "You betcha. Forces of darkness, beware!" She thrust a fist skyward in a mock-heroic pose.

Buffy smiled. "Xander at your house?"

"Oh, yeah. He and Josie were settling in when I left."

"I hope he'll be all right."

Willow got serious. "Buffy, there's nothing wrong with Josie. He's perfectly safe."

Buffy looked at her friend and opened her mouth to say something, but Cordelia chose that moment to enter the room. "You guys about ready to troll the cemetery?" she asked.

"Yeah," Buffy replied. "Sure you don't wanna come?"

Cordelia gave the offer the appearance of serious consideration. "Gee, it sounds so tempting. Leave a safe, warm house and go out looking for close encounters of the beastly kind. No thanks. I'll stick."

"Even though a lot of people will be in danger at the Bronze?" Willow asked.

"In case no one told you, we've graduated from the Bronze."

Willow started to reply to Cordelia, but Buffy grabbed the redhead by the arm. "Come on, let's go. It won't do any good to argue with her." Buffy turned in the doorway and spoke to Cordelia. "Thanks for watching my mom." A shrug was the only reply.

After they were gone, Cordelia went into the kitchen and sat at the table. Waiting. Tonight was a good night to stay in.

************************************

Giles jogged up the steps to Willow's front door. He had to ring the bell twice before Xander opened the door.

"Hey, Giles," the boy said. "Will told me about the pow-wow. Am I invited, or should I make myself scarce?"

Giles cleared his throat. "Well, I would like some measure of privacy. Perhaps you could wait in another room."

Xander considered this, then nodded. "The kitchen's always nice." He pointed toward the living room. Josie sat on the sofa, watching a Seinfeld rerun. Giles paused in the doorway.

"Hello," he said, "my name is--"

"Rupert Giles." Josie raised the remote control and snapped off the TV. She stood and turned toward him. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

Giles was taken a bit aback. "I'm sorry, I wasn't aware that we had been introduced."

Josie smiled. "We haven't, but I've heard enough about you to recognize you. Plus there's that whole accent thing. I'm guessing that's pretty unique in Sunnydale."

Giles rubbed a hand over his forehead. "Yes, I suppose that's true. I was wondering if I might have a word with you."

"Sure. Have a seat." Josie settled back on the sofa. Giles sat opposite her in a nubbly armchair. He looked at her for a full minute. She stared back, not challenging, not flinching.

Giles took a deep breath and let it out. "You're not just some wandering teenager, are you?"

Josie shrugged. "And you're not just an unemployed high school librarian, are you?"

Giles gave a small nod. "Touche. I was wondering... that is, Buffy asked me if there might be anything I could do for you."

Josie looked off to her left, then back at Giles. "That's very kind of her, especially since she doesn't really like me."

"Should she like you?"

"Fair question." That was all Josie said.

When no other answer was forthcoming, Giles plunged ahead. "Am I entitled to a fair answer?"

Josie looked at the fingernails of her right hand. She studied them with intense scrutiny, perhaps searching for some nearly microscopic flaw. She finished inspecting her cuticles and raised her head to meet Giles's gaze.

"You're not the only one who cares about her, you know. She's not entirely your responsibility."

"What?" Giles sat back, unsure of what to say.

Josie leaned forward, a new note of intensity in her voice. "You don't have to carry the whole burden by yourself. If you think about it, that's a pretty narcissistic attitude, y'know?"

"Narcissistic?" Giles voice climbed half an octave.

"Tell you what." Josie sat back, composed. "Why don't we cut the crap, and I'll be as honest as I can?"

"I think that might be fascinating," was Giles's reply.

*********************************

"Do you ever miss things like the Christmas Dance?" Willow asked.

Buffy shrugged. "They have a bunch of Christmas dances on campus."

"That's what I mean. There are lots of choices now. We can go to this dance, or that dance, or, or no dance at all." Willow was becoming animated.

"Part of life. Multiplication of options." Buffy kept searching the shadows, looking for anything out of place. They would be at the Bronze soon, and the hair on Buffy's neck was starting to rise. After days of heavy activity, all the vamps seemed to have gone underground.

"But it was kind of comforting when your only choice was to Bronze or not to Bronze." A note of melancholy crept into Willow's voice.

"Comforting, or just familiar?" Buffy patted the small of her back; stakes were still riding securely. "I mean, life was simpler when my mom picked out my clothes. I'll take the chaos of choosing my own wardrobe, thank you very much."

***************************

Giles and Josie stepped out onto the Rosenberg's porch. There was a moment of awkward silence before Josie spoke.

"Take care of yourself. Watch out for Buffy."

Giles looked down at her. "You will be careful?"

She grinned. "That's sweet. Thank you."

Giles smiled, shuffled his feet, and went down the steps. Josie watched him until he was out of sight on the dark street. She went back into the house, climbed the stairs to the guest room, and took the duffel bag holding her stuff out of the closet. She put on the trench coat and went back downstairs. Xander, holding a bag of Doritos, came out of the kitchen just as she reached the bottom.

"Hey, is Giles gone?" he asked, then noticed her bag and coat. "What's up? You going out?"

She stepped in close, looking up at him, as a hand reached up to stroke his hair. "You really are a very sweet guy," she said. He tried to say 'Thank you', but he seemed to have a lot of chips stuck in his throat. She smiled, a very tender smile.

"Listen," she said, "I'm really sorry about this."

"Huh?" he said. Josie removed her hand from his hair and touched him in the center of his forehead. Xander's eyes rolled up in his head and he slumped to the ground. Josie caught the bag of chips as they fell from his hand.

"I really am sorry," she whispered as she knelt and placed the chips beside him. "Have a nice nap." She hitched the strap of her bag over her shoulder and left the house.

She stopped at the bottom of the steps. Instead of walking toward the street, she turned toward the back of the house. Four quick strides brought her to the corner. One of the shadows was a little darker, a little more solid than the others.

"I know you're there," she said. The shadow hissed at her. "Come out where I can see you," she demanded.

Angel stepped into the light. Josie frowned.

"Angelus," she said. "I'm surprised to see you."

"I don't go by that name any more," Angel said through gritted teeth.

Josie smacked herself on the forehead. "That's right. I'm sorry, really I am. I shouldn't have called you that."

"Why are you here?" Angel asked. "Is it time?"

"Oh," she said, "now you know who I am?"

"I know. Now that I've seen you, I know." Angel was doing his best to keep from cringing.

"Well, I guess that's to be expected." Josie moved her shoulder, hoisting the duffel bag up. "For what it's worth, it's not time. At least, not as far as I know." Angel nodded slowly, starting to fade back into the shadow. "Hey," Josie said, "your... whatever Buffy is to you, I think she could use some help tonight. At some place called the Bronze."

A complex array of emotions played across Angel's face, then he turned and sprinted away. Josie watched him go, then turned her face to the sky. "What's that?" she said. "Oh, you're very welcome." She turned and began walking toward the street. "Is a lousy 'thank you' so hard?" she groused.

***********************************

The vampires milled around the alley, waiting for someone to exit. The thump of music from inside the Bronze was audible. Spike slouched against a wall, still and deadly. Low growls and grunts cascaded around him; everyone was edgy tonight.

A scuffle broke out between two burly male vampires. It was mostly a shoving match, but Spike was in no mood for it. He pushed himself off the wall and walked over to the combatants, his strides measured and unhurried.

"Here, here, boys," he said, grabbing the nearest one by the shoulder and hauling him back. "Did I give my permission for this kind of horseplay?" They stared at Spike; each of them had a good hundred pounds on him.

The vampire on his left sneered. "Don't know why we're listening to you anyway." His head jerked as though he were working a kink out of his neck.

"'zat so?" Spike said. He nodded twice, and the punch came straight off his right shoulder, the arm snapping out as the fist struck the vamp's face dead center. Cartilage and bone gave way; Spike felt his fist plow through soft matter. He couldn't be sure, but he thought he felt his knuckles graze the back of the skull. He jerked his arm back, pulling his hand free. The vampire, a hole where there used to be a face, collapsed at his feet.

"Could someone please get me a towel?" Spike demanded, holding his dripping hand away from his body. A quick scurrying produced a rag. Spike smiled at the female vampire who handed it to him and began to clean himself.

He dropped the rag and raised his head, nostrils flared wide, eyes glazed. Snapping out of whatever trance had taken him, he looked around. His gaze fell on one of the vamps. "Bruno," he said, "come here."

Bruno, a lanky vamp with greasy hair and a knife tattooed on one cheek, shuffled over. Spike draped an arm around his shoulders. "Pick out six good soldiers," the blond demon said. Bruno turned, and in thirty seconds had assembled a half-dozen henchmen.

"Excellent." Spike grinned. "Now, you seven stay here. You can eat whatever you can catch tonight." He raised his voice. "The rest of you, come with me." Murmurs of protest began to rise. "Quiet!" Spike commanded. "Trust me. What I'm going to give you tonight makes this place weak tea. Come on." He turned and was gone, walking down the street. The vampires fell in behind him. Bruno and his cohort grinned and settled down to wait for their first prey.

They didn't wait long. The front door of the Bronze burst open, heralded by a blast of fuzzed-out guitars, and three figures stumbled out.

Scott Freeman had his arm around Nikki Styles's shoulder. Todd Stoltz ambled along beside them. Even though Scott and Nikki were nominally dating, the trio was pretty nigh inseparable. They'd been having a blast at the Christmas dance, but when Todd suggested that they leave and score some beer, that sounded like a better idea.

"Trust me," Todd said, kicking a can lying in the street, "this is a done deal." Little did he know.

Scott noticed the man standing in the street. Something about his posture caused the boy to take his arm off his girlfriend's shoulder. "Hey, man," he said, "is there a problem?" The man said nothing, didn't move. The boys stopped and drew in close to Nikki. Todd swam for Sunnydale High and Scott captained the lacrosse team, but something in this guy's posture radiated more than fitness; it said threat.

And he wasn't alone. A male and a female stepped out into the street to join him. "What do we do?" Todd whispered to Scott.

"I vote that we go back to the dance," Nikki muttered.

"I'm with you," said Scott. "Let's go."

The kids turned back toward the Bronze, but four figures blocked that path. Everyone froze, then one of the women laughed, a sound that chilled the blood of the three students. The tableau held a moment, then Todd decided he had nothing to lose. He threw a punch at the nearest person.

The guy caught his fist like a rubber ball, then squeezed. There was an audible crunch as the metacarpals in Todd's hand collapsed under the pressure. The boy shrieked and dropped to his knees. The dark figures began to move in, laughing.

"My, my, did someone schedule a party and not invite me?" The vampires froze and turned toward the sound of the voice. Buffy jumped down from the Dumpster, landing on the balls of her feet and pivoting to face the vamps.

All of whom screamed and charged. Buffy barely had time to snatch a stake from under her jacket before the first one was within arm's reach. She blocked a looping overhand right and plunged the stake up under his ribs; dust showered her.

The second demon, a female in life, threw a cross-body block at Buffy. The Slayer jumped, pulling her feet up under her and allowing the vampire to pass beneath her. While she was up in the air, Buffy threw out a side-kick that caught a third vampire in the teeth, knocking him backwards. She landed and shuffled back a couple of steps.

Todd, Nikki, and Scott stood frozen, fear and awe on their faces. Willow darted in and grabbed Nikki's arm. "Come on!" she yelled. "You've got to get back inside!" With Willow pushing them, the trio was soon back in the Bronze.

Which left Buffy alone with the vamps. She managed to stake the female, but caught a powerful punch to the body from another one. She staggered back. Bruno lunged forward and threw a punch. It connected, right over her left eye where she'd been butted. The Slayer shrieked in pain and went to one knee. A vamp charged. Buffy struggled up and, almost blind with pain, thrust the stake out. It punctured the center of the vamp's chest, but he didn't explode. His arms went around her, trying to wrap her up. Buffy managed to work the stake free. The vamp's head began to descend, fangs gleaming. Buffy jabbed the stake up, and this time she got the heart. Shaking her head, trying to clear the dust from her eyes and the fog from her brain, she felt the rough brick of a wall against her back. The four remaining vampires began to close in.

"Well, Slayer, I guess now you die," Bruno growled.

Buffy lifted her stake. "That's the best line you can think of? Boy, is immortality wasted on you." The vampires fanned out. Buffy began to turn, left to right and back again. There were too many of them, and her injuries sapped too much strength. When they all charged, it would just be a matter of time.

The vamp on her far left screamed and exploded. Buffy and the three survivors looked that way. Angel stood there, holding a slat torn from a packing crate.

"Who's next?" he said.

Bruno and another vampire attacked him. Buffy was left to deal with one attacker. Even in her weakened state, she was able to stake him, although it took a little longer than normal. As she pulled herself up, she could see Angel standing between two piles of ash.

"What happened with that one guy? You had to stick him twice?" Angel asked.

"Missed his heart the first time. Guess it was two sizes too small." Buffy took a step toward the Bronze and staggered. Angel caught her, but she still gasped as his hand grabbed her injured ribs. Willow ran up.

Buffy held up a hand. "I'll be okay."

Angel draped her arm around his shoulders. "I'm sure you will, but I'd feel better if you'd let me walk you guys home."

"Well," Buffy said, dizziness washing over her, "if it'll make you feel better."

*********************************

By the time they reached Willow's house, Buffy was walking by herself. Willow trotted up the porch steps, turning at the door to wave at Buffy and Angel, who were already walking down the street. Willow opened the door, grateful to be home.

Xander was lying on the floor at the foot of the stairs. Willow ran to him and grabbed him by the shoulders.

"Xander!" she screamed as she checked for wounds. She found none, and by the time she finished her inspection he was stirring.

"W-Will?" he said, eyes bleary.

"Are you all right?" she asked in a panicky voice.

He struggled to a sitting position. "I think so."

"Where's Josie?"

He looked around. "I don't know."

Willow jumped over him and bounded up the stairs. It only took a few minutes to check the upstairs rooms. Josie was nowhere to be found. Willow scooted back down the stairs and vaulted over Xander again.

"Hey, what am I?" he demanded. "A pommel horse?"

"Josie's gone," Willow flung the statement over her shoulder as she grabbed the phone.

********************************

Cordelia sat in the living room, a cup of cocoa in her hand. It was yet another awkward silence in an evening filled with them. Joyce shifted in her seat and smiled a very stiff smile.

"So, how do you like Los Angeles? Bet it's changed a lot since we lived there."

"Uh, sure. I guess." Cordelia took a hasty sip of cocoa. The silence stretched out to uncomfortable length.

"How, uh, how is the acting going?" Joyce was floundering.

Cordelia made a 'so-so' gesture with her hand. "It's starting to pick up. It's a lot harder than I thought it would be, but I'll make it. I just feel sorry for all those girls who don't have it."

"It?" Joyce's eyebrows went up.

"Yeah. It. You know, that thing. Star power."

Joyce inclined her head toward Cordelia. "And you have... it?"

"Oh, yeah. I mean, I've always succeeded at whatever I've tried. Why not this?"

Joyce rolled her eyes. The phone rang. "Excuse me," Joyce said, grateful for the interruption.

"Hello. What? Slow down, slow down, Willow. No, Buffy's not here."

That got Cordelia's attention.

"What?" Joyce continued. "No, I really don't know when she'll be home." She noticed Cordelia waving frantically. "Excuse me, Willow, but I think Cordelia wants to talk to you."

Cordelia grabbed the phone from her. "Hello."

"Cordelia, Josie's gone."

"Are you sure?"

Even under stress, the sarcasm in Willow's voice was plain. "Reasonably. I've only looked in every room in the house and under all the beds."

"Have you tried the closets?"

"Cordelia, she's not here. Plus, I found Xander passed out on the floor. He doesn't remember anything that happened. I don't know if she left, or was abducted, or... or whatever."

Cordelia chewed her lip. "Are you going to stay with Xander?"

"I think I should. He seems all right, but, you know... "

"Yeah, I know. I'll tell Buffy when she gets home, and... " Cordelia's voice trailed off.

"You'll what?" There was a certain amount of urgency in Willow's voice.

"I'll try to find Giles and..." Cordelia's voice trailed off.

"While you're at it, try and find Angel."

"What? Does everybody know he's in town? I can't believe him."

Willow's voice was an audible who-cares. "Just do it, Cordelia. We'll deal with your issues later." She hung up without saying good-bye. Cordelia returned the phone to its cradle.

"What's wrong?" Joyce asked.

Cordelia started to answer, when the pain hit. It always felt this way, like a giant clamped a pair of pliers around her head and squeezed. Tears filled her eyes. Nausea accompanied the pain. Her stomach lurched. Dear God, she wanted to cry out, make it stop. Please, make it stop, makeitstop, MAKEITSTOP!

Images flashed through her mind, blurry and warped, like photographs taken both out of focus and under water. A building, leaning, dark. A bitter, acrid smell. A figure, distorted beyond natural perspective. Doom, doom, doom.

And then it was gone. Cordelia realized that she was on all fours. She lifted her head, peering through the hair hanging in front of her face. Joyce was reaching out to her. "Are you all right, dear?" the older woman asked. Cordelia took a deep, shaky breath.

She knew what it meant. How she knew, she wasn't sure, but she knew. She struggled to her feet. Joyce put a hand on her arm.

"What happened?" she asked. "Do you need an Advil or something?"

Cordelia shook her head. "No. No, but I need you to give Buffy a message when she gets home." She began to stumble toward the door. "Tell her to go to the church on Whittier. She'll know what it means."

"Cordelia, do you really think you should go out? What happened? Was that some sort of seizure?" Joyce followed her through the room.

Cordy turned at the door. "You could say that. Please, just give Buffy the message."

"Is this dangerous?"

Cordelia looked at Joyce and grimaced. "Probably." She turned and ran toward the Explorer, leaving Joyce standing in the doorway.

***********************************

"Here we are. Your house."

"Yeah," Buffy agreed. "My house." She faced Angel. He looked up at the sky; she looked down at the ground. The silence grew.

Buffy spoke first. It was either speak or scream. "They, uh, they never cover this sort of problem on Loveline," she said.

"You know I didn't come back to make things difficult," Angel said. Buffy held up a hand to stop him.

"I know," she said, "but it's difficult just the same." Angel nodded, pain etched on his face.

This is how the world ends, thought Buffy. Not with a bang, or a whimper, just a long pause that goes on forever.

"Be careful," he said.

"You know I will," she whispered. He turned and walked away. Buffy watched him until he disappeared from sight, then turned toward her house, shoulders slumped.

Her mother met her at the door. "What's wrong with Cordelia?" Joyce demanded.

Buffy gave a weary sigh. "Where do I begin?"

"This is not the time for jokes, Buffy. Cordelia had some sort of seizure and then ran out the house."

"Where?"

"She said something about going to the church on Whittier. Do you understand what she meant?"

Buffy groaned. "Yeah, I do." She turned and ran out the door.

****************************

Cordelia brought the Explorer to an abrupt stop, the deceleration tossing her against the seat belt. She killed the engine and looked out the window at the burned church.

It wasn't a grand cathedral, just a modest L-shaped brick building. A gaping archway, once the home of a set of double doors, gave entrance to a narthex swathed in pitch-black shadow. The brick was stained by smoke, years after the fire, and the shafts of moonlight that fell on the building gave it a weird, shifting appearance, as though this were not the front door of a building, but the entrance to another world.

Cordelia swallowed, hard, and forced herself to open the door. Her first steps across the small asphalt parking lot were tenative, but they grew quicker and more assertive as she approached the door with no mishap.

She entered the foyer, trying to avoid the worst of the ashes and dirt. After all, saving the world didn't mean you had to ruin your shoes, did it? She stopped, peering into the impenetrable blackness.

"Josie?" she hissed, trying to get her voice to carry and still be quiet. "It's Cordelia. Are you here?"

"Cordelia." Josie's pale face materialized out of the shadows to her right. Cordy leaned back and drew in a long, shuddering breath.

"Sorry. Scare you?"

Cordelia tried to quiet her panicky heartbeat as she glared at Josie. "What are you doing here?" she finally asked, breathing shallow.

Josie shrugged. "It's time to go."

Cordelia looked around at the flame-scarred sanctuary. "When did Greyhound move their station?" She pointed at the bag at Josie's feet. "Get your stuff and come with. We're going back to Willow's."

Josie didn't move. "And I told you it's time for me to go."

Cordelia put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes. "You have no idea what you're dealing with. Get in the car."

Josie opened her mouth, then closed it, picked up the bag and followed Cordelia out of the building. They were halfway to the Explorer when Cordelia saw the figures moving across the parking lot.

"Shit!" she exclaimed as she grabbed Josie's arm. "C'mon. Back to the church." They turned, but a handful of vampires were already between them and the building. Cordy jerked her charge back toward the truck. As they sprinted toward the Explorer, Cordelia thought they might make it. She took out the keys and pressed the button as she ran. The Explorer chirped; doors unlocked. She could hear running feet, vampires close behind.

They reached the Explorer. Cordelia grabbed Josie by the coat as she yanked open the driver's door. A hard shove propelled Josie into the vehicle and across the seat. Cordelia put her foot on the sill.

She was yanked backward, away from the truck. She had enough presence of mind to slam the door; maybe the prohibition against vampires entering without invitation would work for the Explorer. As the door closed with a loud thunk, Cordelia was spun around and slammed against the metal. A strong, cold hand grabbed her throat.

"Hello, Cordelia," Spike said. "Long time, no see."

Cordelia tried to pull away, but there was no chance. Spike's lips widened in that insolent, self-satisfied smile of his.

She still had the keys.

Cordelia stopped struggling, moving the key chain in her hand until the keys stuck out between her fingers.

"You're cute when you're scared," Spike said. She whipped her hand up, gouging the keys into his face, trying to poke out an eye.

Spike snarled and twisted away, then slapped the keys out of Cordelia's hand. He brought his free hand to his face. He snarled when he saw it come away bloody. He tightened his grip on Cordy's throat, lifting her off her feet.

"That," he said, "was a stupid, stupid thing to do. But then, you're a stupid, stupid girl, aren't you?" He began to squeeze. As the oxygen to her brain was shut off, Cordelia knew that she was going to die. She was going to die, and it wouldn't be quick, and it would hurt so very, very much, and she would beg for death many times, but it wouldn't come. She could read all of this in Spike's face.

She heard a door slam. "Hey, let her go," Josie said. Spike lowered Cordelia to the ground, keeping his grip on her throat, but lessening the pressure.

"What'd you say?" he said.

Josie's voice was clear and firm. "I said, let her go. You can have me."

Spike let forth a dry chuckle. "What's keeping me from killing you both right here, right now?"

"Because I'm offering to come with you, with no struggle. But you've got to let her go."

Spike looked at Cordelia. She could feel tears sliding down her cheeks. He shrugged. "That's a bad trade, ya stupid twat," he said to Josie. He released his grasp on Cordelia's throat and turned toward Josie. "But it's one I'll make." He looked around at the other vamps. "No one touches either of them without my say-so."

Cordelia slid down the side of the Explorer until she was sitting on the ground. Josie watched Spike walk up to her, looking him in the eye as he stopped.

"Not scared, huh?" he asked. A vicious backhand smacked her across the right cheek. She staggered. Spike drove a right uppercut into her stomach. The air gushed from her lungs and she dropped to one knee. Spike hauled her to her feet and clubbed her across the face. As he lifted her up again, her looked into her face. "Scared now?" he asked, just before he slung her against the side of the Exlorer. Josie slid down the sheet metal and lay in a heap on the asphalt. Spike stepped forward, wiggling his foot. "Been needin' to break these boots in," he murmured, an evil grin on his face.

Cordelia toppled over onto her side, drawing herself into a fetal position. Her hands covered her ears, but the wet, crunching sounds of the beating continued, and she wept. She wept with fear, and with rage, and with shame over the small voice deep in her brain that kept repeating, Thank God it's not me. Thank God it's not me.

***************************

Buffy sprinted down Whittier, ignoring the throbbing in her bruised head. She could see the burned-out church ahead of her. She turned into the parking lot and stopped. The Explorer sat there, passenger door open. A single body lay on the pavement. Heart in her throat, Buffy raced across the lot. She could hear sounds coming from the figure; she realized they were sobs.

She dropped to her knees. It was Cordelia; she could tell from the hair. "Are you all right?" she said, hands hovering over the other girl.

Cordelia pulled herself up into a sitting position. Her face was shiny with tears and other fluids, her voice hoarse from crying.

"What did Josie do to you?" Buffy asked.

Cordy shook her head. "N-Nothing. I-I-it was Spike. H-H-He t-t-took her. Away."

"I knew it," Buffy said. "She's working with him."

Cordelia shook her head, a gesture that turned into a violent shiver. "No. No. Oh, Buffy, he... he almost beat her to death. It was awful."

Buffy was unimpressed. "That's his SOP."

"No." Cordelia was adamant. "This wasn't like anything I've ever seen before." She shuddered again and looked at Buffy with haunted eyes. "This was personal. This was hate. He's going to torture her."

Buffy sat back on her haunches. "Was he alone?"

"No. Maybe ten with him."

"You know where they were going?"

Cordelia shook her head, then it hit her. "Angel said he tailed them to an old textile factory the other night. Maybe they went there."

Buffy chewed her lower lip. "Probably. Listen, can you find Angel?"

Cordelia nodded. "Yeah, I think so."

"Then do it. Tell him I'm going to the factory. Tell him I'll need backup. Can you do that?" Buffy asked. Cordelia nodded again. Buffy turned and sprinted away. Cordelia took a deep breath and started looking for the car keys.

**********************************

It was too easy. Buffy knew that. No guards at the old factory, only rudimentary locks on the doors. No vampires inside, at least that she could detect. Maybe they were out rampaging, planning on coming back before sunrise. Didn't matter. If someone was in danger, she had to help.

Now, she stood in front of a steel door, the door to what was once a supply room. She took a deep breath and pushed it open, stepping back quickly. No vampires rushed out at her. Good sign. She counted to three, then lunged through the door, going in low and rolling, then popping up. She caught her breath as her battered ribs protested.

There were no vampires, but a simple wooden chair sat at the far end of the room. A figure was chained to the chair. The head hung down, hair over the face. Buffy took a quick look around, then raced toward it.

She knelt by the chair and touched an arm. Josie raised her head. Buffy gasped.

Josie's left eye was swollen shut, or gone, Buffy couldn't tell which. It was impossible to see where all the blood was coming from, but her nose had contributed its fair share when it was broken. Her face was the color of liver and eggplant. Her lips were split, and it looked like she was bleeding from the ears. A wet wheezing came from her lungs; one was either punctured or collapsed. Three fingers on the hand Buffy could see were broken.

"Josie?" Buffy whispered. Josie raised her head, blinking her one functioning, albeit blood-filled, eye and trying to focus on Buffy. An indistinct groan escaped her; Buffy realized she was trying to say something.

"Shhh," the Slayer said, looking at the chains, trying to figure out a way to undo them. "We've got to get you out of here."

Josie tried to speak again, and this time Buffy could understand her slurred mumble. "You shouldn't have come."

"See, gents, Santa has brought us a Christmas present."

Buffy whirled. Spike stood inside the door, smirking. Buffy noticed the souvenirs Cordelia had given him; a couple of fairly deep gouges over his left eye. The other vampires filed in behind him and began to fan out.

Buffy stepped away from the chair, taking out a stake. "I think you really deserve a piece of coal." She twirled the stake. "Or maybe you'll get wood."

Spike grinned. "Oh, I've got wood already."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Brilliant single entendre."

Spike bounced up on his toes, amused. "Oh, that's grand. We've decided to be defiant. I'm glad. Begging would be so beneath you."

The repartee was too much for one of the vampires, a tall guy with ropy arms. He broke ranks and charged the Slayer from her right side. Buffy dropped into a spin kick that swept his legs out from under him. Once he was on the ground, it was quick work. After he was dust, she stood and faced the rest of her foes.

"I can kill anyone you throw at me, Spike."

"Stop." Josie's voice was a painful croak.

Spike ignored her. "I'm sure you can beat anyone, Slayer, but can you beat everyone?" He motioned, and the vamps began to advance on all sides. Buffy gripped her stake. Where was Angel?

"That's enough. Stop it." Josie again, but her voice sounded different.

Spike lifted his gaze over Buffy's head. "Will you shut the f--" His voice died. The other vamps faltered. Buffy risked a glance behind her.

Josie stood up. She didn't unlock the chains. She didn't seem to pass through them. She just stood up, and the chains stayed on the chair. Josie raised her hand to point at the vampires, a hand with all its fingers intact. Buffy noticed the swelling in her left eye was diminishing, and her nose had lost it smashed and pulpy look. Looking through a curtain of hair, Josie pointed at Spike "Go... away... now," she said.

Spike lifted his chin and looked down his nose at them. Josie took two halting steps forward, stopping just behind Buffy. The vamps formed a large half-circle around them. One of the vamps, a hungry look on his face, began to edge toward them.

"Last chance," Josie said. "Keep him back."

Spike ran his tongue over his teeth. "Oh, I don't think I'm able to do that."

The vampire charged. Buffy turned, bringing up her stake. Josie raised her hand, palm out in a 'stop' gesture. The vamp froze in mid-stride, hanging in the air. Josie flicked her wrist, almost like a backhand slap. The vampire shimmered, then disappeared. It was like watching a filmed explosion in reverse. The demon was sucked into himself and then there was nothing where he had been.

The rest of the vampires froze. Josie's eyes swept over them. "Anybody else want a taste?" she asked. The undead bolted for the door. In the span of a few heartbeats, the room was empty, except for Spike, Buffy, and Josie. He looked at the two girls, surveying them with a cool expression. They looked back. Buffy felt numb.

"Well," Spike said, "discretion being the better part of stupidity..." He took a quick step backward and disappeared through the door.

Josie blew out a long, steady breath. Buffy lowered her stake and turned toward the other girl. They both heard the sound of running feet and whirled toward the door. Angel raced into the room, skidding to a confused stop. Josie raised her arms. Buffy grabbed her around the torso, putting her own body between Josie and Angel.

"Whoa!" she yelled. "He's the cavalry." She looked over her shoulder at him. "A little late, but still the cavalry." She felt Josie relax; Buffy released her and stepped back.

Josie's injuries were gone. The dried blood still stained her clothing. She raked a hand through her hair, pushing it off her face.

"I just saw Spike and his crew running away," Angel said. "What happened?"

"That's what I'd like to know," Buffy growled as she grabbed a double handful of Josie's coat. "What the hell was that?"

Josie said nothing, just gave a little shake of her head. Buffy spun twice, building momentum, and slammed Josie into the wall. Angel started forward, hand raised. "Buffy," he said. It sounded like a warning.

"Who are you?" Buffy hissed into Josie's face. No reply. "Okay. Your call." Buffy lifted Josie away from the wall, as easily as she might lift a bundle of sticks, and slammed her against the concrete blocks again. "Feel like talking now?"

"No," Josie said. "And that's enough." She grabbed Buffy's wrists. A pale silver-blue glow enveloped the area where their flesh touched. It looked like a static spark, but it felt like Buffy had grabbed a high-voltage line. It wasn't just physical pain, either. Horror, shame, and fear poured into her as she twitched and shook. It seemed like the world was ending; she was hanging there for all eternity. When Josie released her, the Slayer staggered back and dropped to her knees. Angel rushed forward; falling to the ground, he threw his arms around her. Buffy didn't look at him, but stared at Josie.

"What are you?" she whispered. Josie didn't reply, she just looked off to her right. With Angel's help, Buffy struggled to her feet. The emotional effects of whatever Josie had done were fading, and a towering rage was replacing them.

"What are you?" Buffy asked, her voice harsh.

"What I am is not important. But we fight on the same side."

"Could you have killed them all?" Buffy demanded. "Could you?"

Something snapped in Josie. "Is that what you think I should do? Is it, Buffy? Eliminate all evil?"

Buffy rose to the bait. "Yeah, I think that would be a pretty good thing."

"Oh, gee, then, let's see, where do I start? How about..." Josie raised her hand toward Angel, and what Buffy saw scared her worse than any vampire or demon. He recoiled, his face a mask of terror, not just frightened, but mortally horrified of what was about to happen.

"No!" Buffy screamed.

"Oh, so not Angel. But isn't there evil in him?" Buffy didn't reply. Josie continued. "Then, how about your friend Giles? Didn't he once help unleash a terrible demon? How about Xander? Is he blameless?" She stepped closer to Buffy, locking eyes with her. "What about you, Slayer? Ready to face judgement?"

Their eyes locked for what seemed an eternity before Buffy looked away. Josie stepped back. "See, it's not that easy. Once you start down that road, you can't stop. You can't pick and choose. You eliminate it."

"So I'm as evil as Spike?"

"Of course not," Josie demurred. "But you're human. Good and evil both exist in you."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Oh, so the best you can do is another lame 'you can't have evil without good and vice versa' riff? Do better, 'cause I'm sick of that one."

Josie snorted. "Of course you can have good without evil, and evil without good. It's just that, as humans exist now, it's all mixed up so close together, like fudge ripple."

"Fudge ripple?"

"Sue me. First metaphor that came to mind. The point is, I can't grant pardons. It's not in my job description."

"Really?" Buffy raised her chin, defiance creeping back into her stance. "What is in your job description? That little magic trick you just showed us?"

Josie shrugged. "I'll probably be able to justify it under the 'extreme measures' clause, but I'll still be written up.

"As for my job, it's my job to observe. To wander the world and report."

"Report to who?" Buffy asked.

"To my superiors." Josie waved a hand. "Don't ask me to explain it all to you. I can't. I only know my little part. But you've got to believe me when I say that we're on the same side."

"The same side of what?"

Josie's smile was bleak. "The battle. In case you haven't noticed, there's a war going on."

"I've noticed. I've noticed that we fight and fight and fight, and it doesn't get any better. Then you, whatever you are, come down here to stand on the sidelines and watch." Josie shook her head at Buffy's pugnacious tone.

"You think you're fighting the whole war? Please." The dark-haired girl chuckled. "You're vital, but you couldn't begin to understand what I see, and I can only see a little bit of what's happening. Billions of people making choices every day, every choice affecting every other choice, across thousands of years."

"Big talk. I still don't see you getting your hands dirty fighting."

Josie raised her hands in frustration. "Should I take it on myself to impose order on the world? If I did that, what choice do you have?" She dropped her hands, shook her head. "Good must always be chosen freely. It can't be coerced."

Tears of anger and frustration welled up in Buffy's eyes. "Then what good are you?"

Josie looked down at the floor, then back up at Buffy. "How about this?" She moved forward and grabbed the Slayer in a quick, awkward embrace. Buffy felt that electric tingle again, but this time was different. She felt warm and loved. Bone-deep fatigue was replaced by energy. Her aching ribs stopped protesting.

Josie released her and stepped back. "Oh, one other thing," she said. "Just so you don't quit. We'll win."

"Yeah, well, can you give me a date on that? I'd like to put it in the old cosmic Day-Runner."

Josie smiled, a sweet, sad smile, as she reached out and touched Buffy's hair. "I don't know when. I'm not in the loop on that decision. It may not be in your lifetime. But good will win. That much I know." She picked up her bag. "Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time for me to go." She looped the bag over her shoulder and brushed past Angel, headed for the door.

"Wait," Buffy called. Josie stopped and turned. "What's your real name?" Buffy asked.

Josie shook her head. "You couldn't understand it, even if I told you."

"Try me. You owe me that much."

Josie grinned, a very warm, maternal smile, and opened her mouth, but no words came out. What poured forth wasn't like any music Buffy had heard on earth, but it was melodious and pure, sound without syllables, only pitch and tone. It rang and sang and chimed in that concrete-block room, and Buffy felt her heart lift and swell until she thought she would choke.

And then it was over. Josie said, "That's my name," hitched up the shoulder strap on her bag, and was gone. Buffy stood there, tears running down her cheeks.

"What was that?" she asked Angel.

"That," he said, voice catching, "was the music of the spheres."

**************************

Buffy walked up the front steps, dragging heavy legs from one riser to the next. The front door weighed a thousand pounds, but she was able to push it open.

The house was dark, but one lamp shone in the living room. She turned toward it. Her mom and Cordelia sat on the sofa. Cordelia had washed her face. That seemed very important. They stood as Buffy crossed the room toward them. As Buffy drew closer, she could see dark bruises on Cordelia's throat.

"Is everything all right?" Joyce asked.

"What about Josie?" Cordelia bit her lower lip.

"She's gone," Buffy said. Cordelia's hand flew to her mouth and Buffy realized she'd misunderstood. "Not that kind of gone," she said. "She left. Under her own power. Of her own free will."

************************

Buffy walked, putting one foot in front of the other with no purpose other than movement. Christmas Eve. No vampires. Not strange, according to Giles; it seemed the undead always quieted down at Christmas, and with Josie's supernatural adrenaline removed from the mix, things were very quiet in Sunnydale. Spike? Gone or laying low, she didn't care which, as long as that white-haired bastard stayed away.

Tomorrow was the big day. Her mom was actually cooking Christmas dinner. Cordelia was still at the house and Joyce had invited Giles. To Buffy's surprise, her former Watcher had accepted. Guess that's a sad, creepy approximation of parents and two children, Buffy thought with grim amusement.

"You're out late." She jumped, turning toward the sound of the voice, assuming a fighting stance out of reflex. When she saw who it was, she relaxed.

"I'm surprised you're out at all. Y'know, this time of year and all."

"Yeah." Angel stepped out of the shadows. "I'm a little conflicted."

"The whole demon slash soul thing."

"Yeah." After a long pause, Angel said, "You going anywhere in particular?"

Buffy shook her head. "No. Just wanted out of the house. Mom's overflowing with Christmas cheer."

"Bought all your presents?"

"Yeah. Got Cordelia's this afternoon. She'll probably hate it."

Angel shrugged, a small smile on his face. "Don't count on it. Cordelia is a lot more... appreciative these days." He took a deep breath and looked around. "Listen, if you're not doing anything, you might check out Giles at the theater. It'll be starting soon."

She nodded. "I know. Cordelia was going with Xander and Willow. You going?"

He shook his head. "No. I've... I've seen it before."

Buffy made a face. "I think I'll give it a skip. The story's too sweet, just like everything about Christmas."

Angel stared into her eyes. "If you think about it," he said, "it's not that sweet. The truth never is. It just gets sugar-coated in the way people tell it."

****************************

"...and so, as Tiny Tim observed, 'God bless us, everyone.'" Giles closed the book and thunderous applause rose from the audience. He took a deep bow and stepped back as the curtain closed.

After accepting congratulations from everyone in the show and stowing his dressing gown in its garment bag, he went out into the auditorium. People were still milling about. Xander, Cordelia, and Willow were standing in the aisle, waiting for him.

"Hey, about time that British drama-queen thing came in handy," Xander observed.

"Oh, Giles, that was wonderful." Willow's enthusiasm caused her to bounce up and down. "You were so good."

"Yes, yes, well, thank you," Giles murmured, accepting a brief hug.

"It's just too bad I can't tell my parents. The Jewish thing and all."

"So, what's next?" Cordelia asked.

Giles looked around. "I have no plans."

"Hey, I know," Willow said. "Let's go to Buffy's and try and cheer her up. She's been really down, what with everything that's happened and Angel showing up, and, well, y'know, everything."

They looked at Cordelia, who shrugged. "Fine with me. At least I won't have to try and lift Little Miss Mope's spirits by myself."

"Uh, guys," Xander said, "maybe you should look that way." He pointed toward the lobby. They all looked.

A single figure sat in the middle of the next-to-last row. She got up and began to make her way toward them. They walked down the aisle, meeting her just as she stepped onto the carpet.

"Buffy!" Willow exclaimed, grabbing the Slayer in a hug. "You came."

"Uh, yeah, Will, I came," she said, untangling herself. She looked at Giles. "That really didn't suck."

"Thank you," Giles replied. "A man could ask for no higher praise."

"Hey," Xander said, "we were just talking about coming over to your house."

Buffy smiled, the most relaxed smile any of them had seen in weeks. "That would be nice."

"Oh, oh, does your mom have A Charlie Brown Christmas on video?" Willow chirped. "'Cause I haven't, y'know, seen it yet."

Buffy sighed. "Will, I think my mom has every Christmas special, movie, and commercial on tape. C'mon."

They left the theater, the air as cool as it got in Sunnydale. As they crossed the parking lot, Xander looked at his watch. "Hey, it's after midnight. That means it's Christmas. Merry Christmas."

They continued across the parking lot, laughing and wishing each other well. If they had looked back, they might have seen a solitary figure, a girl in a too-large overcoat, who raised a hand to their departing figures, then turned and was gone.

The End.