Finally, after a much longer delay than I'd planned, here's the beginning of the next episode.
House of the Setting Sun 10:
Demon in Red
It was too chilly to be standing around outside. Buffy pulled her jacket sleeves down over her hands and stamped her feet vigorously. People in town were saying it was too cold for snow. How could it be too cold for snow? Wasn't snow what happened when it got cold? She stamped her feet again and tried to look over Faith's shoulder.
"Quit crowding me."
"I'm not crowding you! I'm just osmosing your body heat."
Faith laughed. "It's not that cold."
"It is that cold. Did you see the weather forecast? It's minus-six! That's six less than what it takes to freeze to death!"
"Poor little So-Cal Buffy," there was still a chuckle in Faith's voice. "You don't have to stay out here if you don't want."
Buffy tried to get control of her shivers. "No, we agreed an hour each way every day. This is your hour. I can handle it."
"I'll be happy to take my hour tonight; say after patrol in my room?"
"No this is better."
Faith looked over her shoulder.
"Not better as in better," Buffy said quickly. "Just better as in, yunno, safer."
"What do you feel ya gotta be safe from, B?" Faith bent back under the hood of the truck. "'Cause I've been a fricken saint as far as touching you goes."
"I know." And Buffy knew Faith was being really patient, but her tone alone was a valid reason for not spending time in her room after she'd been slaying. She was obviously on the edge of pushing things further and Buffy still wasn't ready. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me; just pass me the socket wrench."
"The sock wench?" Buffy squatted to look through the tool box but was clueless. All of the metal instruments looked the same and… sock wench? What kind of stupid name was that anyway? Nothing in the box looked like a sock.
"Socket wrench!" Faith stooped down and found what she wanted immediately. She showed it to Buffy before standing up. "I think I need to loosen some bolts."
Buffy straightened up with her. "Be honest, do you even know what you're doing?"
Faith shrugged. "I know more than Xander. I ran with this guy who was a mechanic for a while. Used to enjoy watching him fix up cars."
Buffy nodded, she could relate. Despite the freezing temperatures she was enjoying watching Faith get all oily as she worked around in the truck's brain. Right now she was working on something that made the curves of her biceps visible even under her light jacket. It was enough to make Buffy step even closer, and maybe she didn't need to be so safe. The thought of those arms around her, or either side of her, holding Faith up as she…
Unhelpful thoughts! Thoughts that would lead her down a path to. . .greatness, possibly? What was really so wrong with that? Okay, so maybe she was more ready that she had realised but she still wanted to wait for the right time, the right moment. Planning to meet Faith in her room later wasn't spontaneous or romantic and she wanted, well, greatness to lead to the greatness.
"Can you pass me the valve lapper?"
"It looks like a metal stick with rubber cups at each end," Faith said, clearly exasperated.
"Oh." Buffy squatted down. "Not seeing anything like that."
Faith looked over her shoulder. "It's there! Right next to the scissors. They're those blue handled things with the two blades that you can press together to cut things."
Biting her tongue Buffy picked up what she assumed must be the valve lappy thing.
"Thank you," Faith said sarcastically as she took it. Unaware that she had just taken a major step back from the possibility of having sex that month.
Buffy watched her work silently for a moment, talking herself down from the angry place.
"So, date night tomorrow?"
"Yeah, tomorrow's not good. Xander's got a shipment of insulating tiles coming in from the West Coast and the sooner they're in the dorms…"
"You're putting tiles before our date?"
"What date? Not like we'd planned anything yet."
"And yeah, stopping the girls from freezing their asses off comes before dancing to Bette Midler and Celine Dion and not getting to do more than peck your cheek at midnight. Damn, this thing is stuck like a bitch!" Faith complained, her suddenly very unattractive biceps standing out harder than ever. "Can you hand me the rubber mallet? It's the thing shaped like a mallet and made of rubber."
Buffy had already found it and was holding it raised above Faith's head.
Kennedy sat a few feet away from Willow on the bedroom carpet, watching a pencil float languidly in the air between them.
She had been back from her ten day break in New York for a little over two weeks and, so far, re-entry had been going well. She and Willow had been getting on okay. They hadn't made any great advances on renewing their relationship, but time was being spent together and no new arguments had surfaced.
The pencil went up a few feet in the air and then it came down again to settle between their line of sight.
Kennedy lay down, propping her head and shoulders against the bottom of the bed.
"Is this boring you?" Willow asked, the pencil bobbing anxiously between them.
"No!" Kennedy chuckled reassuringly. "Call me a voyeur but this is nice; relaxing, you know?"
The pencil stabilised in the air.
"Obviously magic is about more than floating writing utensils, but it's important that I keep focusing on the basics," Willow spoke as if she was trying to convince herself that she wasn't boring. Like that could ever be possible.
"I get it; it's like when I run drills with the girls. Sure, punching and kicking empty air looks lame, but without that foundation where would we be in the field?"
"Exactly!" Willow nodded. "But do you want to see something else?"
"Like what?" Kennedy wasn't really that bothered, magick wasn't her thing. She was only here now because it was time spent close to Willow.
"Hand me that boot and…and the Orb of Thessula."
Kennedy already had the boot in her hand but now she looked around clueless. "The what?"
"That round thing on my desk. It's for conjuring lost souls. I like to keep one handy." Willow re-settled herself with crossed legs as she took the boot. "But it's also good for stopping my thesis from flying around the room when I open the window."
Kennedy got to her knees and picked up the unremarkable glass globe. It didn't look any more magical than her left pinkie. She handed it over as she slumped back into her previously lounged position against the bed.
"Are you going to conjure the boot's lost sole? 'Cause I think you'll find it's still attached to the bottom."
Willow smirked and then the boot, the pencil and the Orb of Thessula started to rotate in the air as if she was juggling with her mind.
Kennedy smirked in return. "Impressive, but what would happen if I threw a chain saw into the mix?"
"Hopefully nothing bad, but possibly carnage. There's a reason I'm still practising this stuff."
Kennedy nodded once. "We won't try that yet then."
"So what are you doing tomorrow night?"
"I don't know, patrol. Why?"
Willow caught the items in the air one after the other and set them aside. "Well, Saturday night, official date night and all…"
Kennedy sat up straight again. "I have to take the kids into Cleveland. Giles has finally realised there's nothing around here worth training them on, so…"
"But Miranda and Cici? Don't they have the basics by now? They could go with Reece and Naomi and you could do something else."
Kennedy felt bad, but not that bad. She'd asked Willow out last week but the witch had been pre-occupied with a web-conference with Althenea. So, yeah, she could blow off patrol, but one-sided commitment wasn't the proactive solution she wanted for their relationship.
"There's the new girl, Rebecca, to think of, and that Watcher exchange student. If I let Ishmael go out with Reece and the girls alone he's going come back traumatised; and he's too promising to screw up."
"I understand," Willow said quietly, packing up her practise-apparatus.
Kennedy felt like an ass. "Maybe one day in the week we could do something?"
Kennedy slumped again and closed her eyes. She couldn't do right for doing right.
The shop was crowded with high school and college girls looking for that special outfit and Faith was not enjoying herself. She wouldn't wear a damn thing in here unless she was paid, and even then she would have to be paid a lot!
"What about this?" Buffy held up a blood red dress with thin straps and a full skirt.
"It would look good on you." That had been her standard response for half an hour.
"I have my dress!" That had been Buffy's standard response for the same amount of time. She pointed over her shoulder to the elegant pale blue dress that Dawn was guarding with her life along with her own; as if Faith had had a chance to forget it was there. "There's just you to buy for now."
"Still not getting why I need a dress," Faith huffed as she flicked through racks of boring-ass evening gowns. "You know it's not my style."
"And normally I love your style..."
Faith turned to her, not able to help the warm smile on her face. "You do, huh?"
She wasn't all that sure why she felt the need to try and fight the smile all the time, or any of the other happier emotions that came with being Buffy's girlfriend, but she did try and fight them all the same. Maybe she just wasn't used to them.
"Yes. You and leather pants?" Buffy made a mock growling sound and for once broke their 'no-touching-out-of-town' rule to drag her fingers down Faith's stomach to the top of her jeans. "Edible. But we're going to a Christmas Ball, Faith. You have to wear something pretty."
"We're going to Boudenver's Christmas Ball, at Barnies," Faith reminded her. "Other than you, the best dressed chick there is going to be wearing a denim skirt and a straw hat!"
"Hey!" Dawn griped from behind them.
Faith ignored her. "Long as you look phenomenal, what does it matter what I wear."
"You're going to be on my arm," Buffy explained with strained patience.
"Huh?" What the hell did that mean anyway? "So I'll keep my distance if it helps."
"God, you're insufferable!" Buffy marched off to the other side of the store.
"Yeah, heard that before," she drawled, watching her go.
"Then maybe you should try working on it," Dawn said before flouncing off after her sister with their dresses trailing over her shoulder.
"What about this one?" Willow held another dress up against her body.
How was she supposed to decide when Kennedy said 'It's nice' to every dress she picked out? She fumbled through the racks for a minute before picking out another one.
"It's a ruffley, neon green monstrosity!" Willow gestured with the dress violently. "How could it look nice?"
Kennedy caught her wrists around the waving dress. "You look good in green." With a smile she nodded at the pile of discarded dresses. "You also looked good in the blue, the black, the silver, not so much in the amber, but the pale yellow taffeta worked a treat and so did the short, lacy lilac number…" Kennedy's eyebrows jumped a few times.
Willow smiled bashfully. "But you said they all looked nice."
"That's because I want you to wear what you think is nice."
"But I want to look nice for you."
"And you will. Even if you go for the amber, I'll still be the best dressed girl there."
Willow's nose scrunched up. "How do you figure?"
"Because you'll be on my arm."
Smiling, Willow leaned in to kiss her but was interrupted by Buffy storming over to them, catching the tail end of their conversation.
"God, I wish I had your girlfriend!" Willow looked at her sharply and Buffy held her hands up. "Not literally, obviously."
Willow gave her a firm 'that's-okay-then' nod and turned back to Kennedy. "So the lacy lilac?"
As Kennedy grinned excitedly, Willow finally got around to kissing her, not caring that Buffy was standing next to them uncomfortably in the over-crowded store.
"Are we sure it's legal to just cut down trees?" Buffy asked nervously, not that she was going to stop decorating the beautiful fir if someone said it was, she just wanted to be prepared for when the feds knocked on the door.
"It was on our land," Kennedy reassured her, invisible to Buffy on the other side of the thick, green branches.
"Yeah, Xan cut it down this morning. Shoulda seen him out there in the woods, wielding that chain saw with his shirt off." Faith got a sudden faraway look in her eyes that she blinked out of fast. "Not that his shirt makes any difference or whatever."
Buffy smirked at her. "You got a little crush?"
Smirking back, Faith shrugged. "Maybe. Jealous?"
"Maybe," Buffy returned playfully, but then her eyes narrowed. "Should I be?"
Faith laughed. "No way, babe. Just, you gotta appreciate a dude with a chainsaw, you know? It's like…a rule."
"So you're saying Leatherface is your ideal man?" Kennedy asked, laughing at her.
"Hey, why not, least the boy does as he's told," Faith laughed along.
"And you'd never go hungry."
"Dude! And I thought I was sick."
As the two bantered and bickered on, Buffy rolled her eyes, grinning at Willow.
"We're dating children."
"I've noticed. You gotta admit this hard labour's making Xander all buff again, though," Willow said with a twinkle in her eye.
Buffy hadn't really noticed; the only person she found her gaze lingering on these days was Faith. She'd have felt bad and neglect-y if she wasn't sure of herself in other areas of Xander's personal growth.
"Maybe next time I throw tennis balls at him I'll make him take his shirt off first."
"How's he doing?"
"Eight out of ten yesterday. I wanna try a night session though. If he really wants to get back out there with us on patrol eventually, he's gotta get used to things flying at him in the dark too."
"Maybe wait until he's on ten out of ten," Willow said, almost falling into the thick fir as she tried to put an ornament too high.
Buffy pulled her back from toppling the tree onto Faith and Kennedy. "That's what Giles said, but I can tell Xander's getting frustrated with what he thinks should be simple. Maybe more of a challenge will keep his enthusiasm solid."
"Told me the other day he finally gave G a go ahead on the therapy."
"He did?" Willow looked hurt. "Why didn't he tell us?"
Buffy didn't realise she was being spoken to at first because she was too busy thinking how adorable Faith looked hanging shiny baubles on the tree.
"Huh? What? Oh, well she works with him all day. It probably just came up in conversation, right Faith?" Buffy waggled her eyebrows at her lover – could you call someone a lover if you weren't actually having sex? – to get the message to agree across.
Although Faith was looking at her, she didn't get it at all. "Not really. I asked him."
"I should have asked him," Willow said dejectedly.
"Probably." The subtle hint might have passed Faith by but she read the death glare just fine. "But, you know, Red, I'm seeing a shrink too so it's easier for me to bring it up."
"How's it going for you?" Kennedy asked, showing a rare flash of interest in Faith's well-being. Or maybe she was just nosy.
Faith shrugged. "It's going. Nothing I ain't done before."
"But it's different this time, right?" Buffy asked hopefully. "I mean, its really helping?"
"It helped before, not that I let anyone know it." Faith met her eyes. "But this time is definitely gonna be different, starting next week."
Even as Faith's smile boosted Buffy's mood, her heart sank at what she meant. Next Monday was going to be the first session she attended with Faith. Four days before Christmas. She had tried to subtly suggest wouldn't it be better to leave it until January, but again Faith had been immune to her subtleness. Buffy knew this was necessary for Faith and possibly vital for their slowly growing relationship, but all she could think of was how it was marring her holiday spirit. Selfish, sure, but she wanted to enjoy her first proper Christmas with Faith, not spend the run up to it panicking about seeing a therapist.
"Why?" Kennedy asked.
"You don't know?" Willow sounded surprised. "Buffy has to go with Faith next week."
"I don't tell Kenny as much as you, Will," Buffy said with a smile, although on the inside she was a little surprised herself that she hadn't told the younger slayer.
Since Kennedy's return from vacation Buffy had continued to act as a kind of personal trainer, but by some unspoken agreement they had distanced themselves for the benefit of their relationships – with Willow. It was ridiculous and unnecessary, but you do what you have to do.
Kennedy pulled apart some branches to see her now. "And you're cool with that?"
Apparently she wasn't that convincing because Faith gave her a worried look. "You don't have to, ya know? If it's too weird for you, I got this."
"I'm fine, looking forward to it," she lied. When Faith still looked sceptical, she added. "I have seen a therapist before, you know."
"When you were in the mental institution?" Willow asked, with the non-sympathy that came with friends who knew you too well.
"You were in a nut house?" Faith looked shocked.
"Why didn't you fricken tell me?"
"It was only for a couple of weeks." Buffy was getting really annoyed at the way Faith was staring at her. "Why, does it make a difference? Does prison-girl have a problem with me spending a very short amount of time in a psych. institute?"
"No of course not! But you knew I was in prison, B. And you know a lot more besides that now too. You're so big on talking and sharing all, that I've been spilling my guts like an offshore oil rig. When were you going to tell me that, huh?"
"It was before I met you. It's not relevant!"
"Relevance ain't got shit to do with it, and you know that!"
They glared at each other for a moment but when it was clear Buffy didn't have a leg to stand on Faith thrust her length of red tinsel into Kennedy's hands and stormed from the room.
"Sorry," Willow muttered.
Still staring after Faith's hasty departure, Buffy waved her hand to indicate no apology was necessary. "Relationships suck, this isn't news."
She was distracted by the sound of laughing beside her. Kennedy was lifting Willow up so she could place the star on top of the tree and they were both giggling like loved up kids.
"Okay," Buffy sighed. "My relationships suck; still not news."
Kennedy held a stack of brightly coloured boxes as high as her nose. "Just because I'm a slayer doesn't mean you can use me like pack horse."
Willow slapped her ass lightly as she walked past. "Giddy-up, Gee Gee."
Kennedy followed her to the next store grumpily. "You do realise over-worked horses have a tendency to kick and bite?"
"And a few years ago that would have terrified me, but now I carry sugar lumps." Willow's arm slid around her waist and a discreet kiss was placed just below Kennedy's ear. "Do you like my sugar?"
Kennedy laughed, relaxing a whole lot. "I love your sugar." She was about to let her horse analogy go until something occurred to her. "What did you mean when you said it would have terrified you a while ago? Did someone hurt you?"
She was thinking Oz, and she knew she shouldn't, but as much as she was trying to put that part of Willow's past – and their present – behind her, she couldn't seem to help thinking the worst of him.
"No, I was just scared of horses," Willow said with a chuckle.
"Oh." Kennedy rolled her eyes at her rapid jump to assumptions. "But you're not now?"
"I still don't trust 'em, but Tara forced me to meet a few, we even went riding a couple of times, and now I don't think they're the spawn of Satan anymore."
"Oh." Kennedy said again. Tara, of course. If it wasn't Oz it was Tara. She wasn't going to let on to what she was thinking, but then she remembered Buffy and Faith's argument the day before, about keeping secrets. "That bothers me."
They'd entered a second hand bookshop and Willow was looking for something for Giles, so she asked distractedly, "What? Why?"
"The Tara thing."
"What Tara thing?"
Kennedy wasn't sure what to say now. She didn't want to upset Willow or provoke an unnecessary argument but she'd started so she had to say something. It annoyed her that Willow didn't automatically get why it would just generally bother her.
She decided to play it safe and go with vague honesty. "The thing where she was so much a part of your life that she still seeps naturally into our conversations."
"I can't help that," Willow said tightly.
"I know. I'm just saying it bothers me."
Willow turned to her, a heavy book in each hand and Kennedy had a feeling she was about to box her around the ears with them.
"Would you prefer me to never mention her?"
"No! Willow…" Kennedy put a hand on her shoulder. "I don't want you to feel you can't talk about her. I'm just… apparently I have this big, fat jealous streak I never knew about until I met you and I'm just trying to be honest – calmly and rationally with no fighting or shouting or breaking up – about it."
"I don't know what you want me to say."
"Maybe we should talk about it later."
Willow shook her head. "Maybe we should talk about it now."
Kennedy sighed. "Pay for your books first and then I'll buy you a soda."
Willow frowned, "Why?"
"Well, we won't ruin the library hush in here for one, but mostly I'm thirsty."
Willow almost smiled. "Just give me a minute."
Kennedy waited by the door, it wasn't like she could do a lot of browsing anyway with her arms full of gift boxes and she wanted to take the time to formulate her thoughts on why Tara – dead as she was and no threat – still troubled her.
Fifteen minutes later they were sat on the fake wall around the edge of the food court, sipping cokes and opening take out burger cartons.
"Why did you order a veggie burger?"
Willow looked behind her at the open front of the Doublemeat Palace before saying, "I like to know that what it says is what I'm getting."
Kennedy frowned at the cryptic comment and bit into her Medley burger.
"I'm Kennedy," she said with her mouth full. Willow looked about to get pissed so she quickly added. "I'm kidding!" She swallowed hard, trying to ignore the way the partially chewed bun stuck in her oesophagus. "Look, what I said is no big deal okay, so chill."
"So what's the small deal?" Willow finally started her burger, obviously expecting Kennedy to carry the conversation for a while.
She shrugged and picked up a crinkled fry. "You shared so much with Tara. Horses, magic, a home, hell you came out with her! Those are all really big life things, okay maybe not the horses. It just makes me wonder what I have to offer in the way of new experiences."
"You came out years before you met me, and I'm not jealous," Willow said between bites.
"But I never fell in love until I met you. You've done that twice."
"I never dated a Slayer until I met you."
"Okay, you know that's a lame comparison, right?" Kennedy asked, chuckling softly.
"Yeah," Willow admitted sheepishly. "But there are tons of new and exciting firsts we can have together."
"Well…" Willow ate a few fries while she thought about it. "I've never taken a trip with a girlfriend before; we could do Disney Land or Las Vegas together. Or there's my frog fear, way worse than my horse fears ever were, you could cure me of that, but no because that might mean me having to touch an actual frog and I don't think I could really do that. Not when they're all green and. . ."
"What about the Hamptons?" Kennedy interrupted Willow's frog-babble before it could turn nasty. "Have you ever been there?"
Willow shook her head.
"So would you still be interested in coming to meet my parents for Christmas?"
Willow smiled. "I didn't think you would want me to now."
"Then, yes please."
Kennedy grinned as she bit another chunk from her burger.
Faith bit off another length of scotch tape and handed it over. "Can't we do this later?"
"You can, but you'll be wrapping your presents on your own because I want to do mine now."
Faith sighed. "Nah, fairs fair, it was your turn to choose what we did for an hour." She sighed again and gave Buffy her best puppy dog eyes. "It's just when you invited me up to your room I thought we'd be doing something else, yunno?"
Buffy laughed, "Sorry, but I want to get these wrapped so I can put them under the tree tonight. Besides, doesn't it get you excited?"
"You asking me up to your room? Yeah, that was my point."
Buffy threw a metallic gold pen at her but she was still smiling. "I meant the presents!"
Faith looked around at the gifts scattered all over the floor. "Why would it? None of them are for us."
"It's the holiday spirit; all the shiny wrapping paper and the smell of glitter and gold pen in the air!"
Faith pushed her bare toe into a loose corner of paper on a present for Xander. Even though she knew what it was, she toyed with trying to rip it open until Buffy slapped her foot away.
"Guess I lost that a while ago."
Buffy glanced at her sympathetically until Faith glared at her and then she went back to making sure the paper edges on Dawn's gift were perfectly symmetrical.
"Why's this stuff so important to you anyway?"
Buffy looked at her like she was stupid. "It's Christmas!" Then she relented and actually explained. "I haven't had a proper one since my Mom died. We tried the first year but Willow wasn't well and Tara didn't feel she could come over, Dawn was secretly being a Klepto, Xander and Anya were more interested in their wedding plans because of, oh I don't know, something or other, and Giles was in England. Last year we had Potentials arriving and everything was a nightmare because of the First. I guess I was just hoping this year could be special, yunno, because all of the people I love are going to be together again. Tape."
As Faith was biting off another piece Buffy's alarm clock caught her eye. "Shit! I gotta…Shit!" she said again as she had to rip a piece of tape painfully from her lip. "That truck of cross beams is arriving right now."
"But you've only been here twenty minutes!" Buffy pointed out unhappily.
"What do you want me to say? I gotta jet, babe. See ya later, yeah?"
She planted a kiss on the top of Buffy's head as she scrambled to her feet. She caught Buffy's murderous look but what could she do about it? This was work and it wasn't often Xander trusted her to take big deliveries like this. She wasn't going to screw it up by missing the guy because she was wrapping presents with her girlfriend. Especially now she knew it wasn't a euphemism for something dirty.
She'd make it up to Buffy later, she decided, as her bare feet slapped down the back stairs, do something special and Christmassy.
It was Sunday night, which meant Kennedy wasn't for once rostered to go on patrol. Willow still admired Kennedy's dedication to her slayer duties but it felt like since her return from New York, her ex had been using them as a reason to not spend the night together. Willow had said she could move back into their bedroom anytime, but Kennedy seemed to have suddenly decided she liked living in the dorm with the other resident slayers because she wasn't budging.
Well, that was gonna change. Willow had planned a special evening for the two of them in the bedroom. She had low lighting, some snacks to nibble on and a bottle of wine to open a little later and Melissa Etheredge playing softly on the stereo. It was perfect and maybe Kennedy still wouldn't want to stay the night, but at least she would get a reminder of why staying the night sometime soon was a good idea.
"So why are we sitting in candlelight?" Kennedy asked, sitting cross legged at the other end of the bed. "Are you going to practise more magick?"
"No, I just thought it would be… romantic," she smiled and edged closer along the comforter.
Kennedy didn't seem to notice. "I suppose it could be romantic, but I thought we were just going to hang out."
"We can't hang out romantically?" Willow shortened the distance between them by another few inches.
Kennedy shrugged, "Could that include playing cards?"
"Strip poker," she asked hopefully.
Willow sighed, "I already am."
"Not to sound like a fifteen year old boy, but, well, you're kinda making me feel like a fifteen year old boy here, Kenny."
"You know, trying to subtly entice my girlfriend to make out with me without sounding too horny so she runs a mile before I can get my kissage on."
"Oh." Kennedy laughed. "Do fifteen year old boys use candles?"
"The sensitive ones do… probably."
"And the really desperate ones."
"Can I be both?" Willow couldn't fail to notice that they still weren't making out. Kennedy started to move off of the bed. "Where are you going?"
"Well if you really want that teenage boy experience we should probably make out on the couch in front of the TV."
"But…but…it's more private up here and…and sexy," she finished in a seductive whisper.
Kennedy, already standing, looked at her for a long, quiet moment and then at the bed itself. Her eyes grazed the many lit candles and then took a trip to the carpet before she looked up at Willow again.
"There's this programme on soccer I kind of wanted to watch. If I'd known this was… this, I'd have called dibs on the video recorder, but now Giles is taping some documentary on BBC America and, well, you know."
Willow did know. Dawn still hadn't been fully forgiven for switching the video from recording an Only Fools and Horses marathon to an episode of Charmed over a month ago. They'd rowed about it for hours.
Willow's eyes narrowed though as she thought about Kennedy's viewing choice. "A programme about soccer?" Kennedy looked shifty, confirming her fears. "You want to pass up alone time with me to watch a soccer match!"
"Giles is out on patrol and Xander's at Barnies so It'll still just be you and me. I promise to make out with you all through half-time," she wheedled.
Willow harrumphed as she pushed herself off of the bed and started blowing out candles. "I want kisses every time there's a…a touch-down too or one of the, uh, penalty pass thingies."
"Penalty pass?" Kennedy frowned and then took Willow's hand determinedly. "Come on, it's obviously about time you learned how awesome soccer is."
"Yay," Willow muttered dejectedly as Kennedy led her from the room, already explaining that you got goals not touch-downs. "That's exactly what I wanted to do tonight."
Faith had gone out on patrol that night – just for a quick sweep of the town with Alison – so Buffy wasn't surprised when there was a knock on her door just after ten.
She was still pissed off with the way Faith had run off from their 'together time' earlier though. She got that Faith had to work and she totally understood that she couldn't not go and meet the delivery man, but she could have come back after, or at least been there at dinner instead of taking a plate out to the garage so she could work some more on the truck.
So she called out, "Just give me a minute," before taking her time to finish wrapping Faith's present.
"I kinda need you to let me in right now," Faith called back.
Oh yeah, Faith was all about urgency when she wanted to spend time together, but when Buffy wanted to… "You'll have to hang on, I'm not decent."
She applied the last strip of tape lovingly to the gift and slowly smoothed it down.
"I'll keep my eyes closed!"
Buffy looked up in surprise at the very un-Faith-like reply. "What's wrong?"
"Just open the door."
She quickly pushed the present under her bed and threw a sweater over it. "Just come in."
"I can't! Open the fricken door. Hurry!"
Buffy quickly stood and crossed to the door, worried now. "What's up? Oh!"
"Merry Christmas!" Faith smiled nervously. Buffy couldn't help herself and burst out laughing. "Hey!"
"I'm sorry, but…"
Faith was covered from ankles to chin in bright, festive gift wrapping. Only her feet, face and forearms were bare. She was wearing a red Santa hat too, with a fuzzy little white bobble on the tip.
"…it's just…" Buffy had to lean over and clutch the door frame. "…a few months ago you complained about wearing pajamas with elephants on them and now…and now! You're wearing paper covered in cute little snowmen riding reindeer!"
"Yeah I get the irony," Faith said through clenched teeth. "Now let me in!"
She waved her past the threshold. Faith waddled in like a penguin, only able to move her feet an inch or so at a time without ripping the paper. It set Buffy off again and she had to lean on the door as she pushed it shut, trying to get her ribs and lungs to stop spasming with the hysterics.
"What happened? Did you get attacked by the Ghost of Christmas Presents on patrol?" Buffy asked, still giggling. "Or, don't tell me, the baby slayers jumped you, didn't they? I did tell you to be a little nicer to them."
"I did it," Faith muttered.
"I did it! For you! I thought you'd get a kick out of it," Faith said grumpily.
Buffy pointed at her own face as she slid down the door, helpless all over again. "Mission accomplished!" she wheezed.
"Not quite the kick I was looking for," Faith admitted as she awkwardly perched on the edge of the bed. There was a loud sound of ripping paper. "Shit, I think my ass just split!"
"Oh God!" Buffy crumpled over on her side, body shaking as she howled with laughter. "I think you broke me!"
Faith waited patiently for her to calm down – she was waiting awhile. "I felt bad about earlier; this is me making it up to you."
Buffy was still lying on her side on the floor but giggles were only bubbling up at random intervals now as she gazed up at Faith.
"Don't get me wrong, I really appreciate all the effort you put in, but you could have just said sorry."
"Now you tell me." Faith finally smiled again. "But you like it, right?"
"I do. No one's ever even worn a bow for me before, let alone gone this far."
They looked at each other in almost comfortable silence for a minute or two. After her fit of laughing Buffy felt relaxed enough to melt through the floor anyway and Faith couldn't have looked less physically comfortable but she seemed happy enough to sit there smiling at her. Until, that was, she started to pull funny faces. Buffy ignored them at first, until Faith's face was contorting so weirdly it looked like demon bugs were crawling around under her skin.
"My nose is itching."
"So scratch it."
Faith flapped her forearms uselessly, much like a penguin again.
Buffy fought the urge to dissolve back into giggles and dragged herself to her feet. "You didn't really think this through, did you?"
"Do I ever?"
Buffy gently rubbed the tip of her nose with the back of her knuckles. "Better?"
"Yeah, thanks. Could you get my ear too?" Buffy started to rub her left ear. "No, the other one."
Buffy switched ears. "You know, I've seen you now, you could take the paper off. Or rip out of it, Hulk-style." She went a little dreamy as she imagined Faith doing that.
"It's your present, you have to unwrap me."
Buffy smiled until she saw the hopeful glint in Faith's eyes. She took a wary step back. "Please tell me you're not naked under there."
"I'm not naked under here."
"I don't believe you."
Faith smirked. "Guess you'll have to rip the paper off to find out which one of us is right."
"Faith!" Buffy slapped her shoulder. "I'm not unwrapping you."
"That's a bit ungrateful, B, don't you think? I went to all this trouble; least you can do is open your gift."
Buffy sighed playfully. Well I don't want to be rude." Faith's whole face lit up. "But it isn't Christmas yet, so I probably shouldn't. Think you can go wait under the tree until next Saturday?"
Faith tried to punch her but with the limited movement couldn't reach. "You're killing me here, B, seriously."
Buffy looked her up and down, smiling, feeling really touched by Faith's behaviour. She would never have expected the tough, often thoughtless slayer to think of something so sweet, and would never have pegged her as having the stones to carry out such a blatantly corny gesture even if she did.
"Well, I suppose it can't hurt to have a feel. See if I can guess what's inside."
She stepped closer, hands running up from Faith's elbows and over her shoulders. The smooth paper rustled under her touch, making her smile. Faith tilted her head back invitingly and Buffy dropped a kiss onto her lips and then another.
"You can't just feel along the sides, babe," Faith was smirking between small kisses. "Gotta give your gift a proper manhandling if you wanna figure out what it is."
"I'm building the anticipation," she murmured, teasing her fingers along an edge of paper running down the centre of Faith's chest, deliberately ignoring her festive boobs. Even through the wrapping you could have hung tree ornaments on her nipples. "Now, shhh, before you give away the surprise."
Grinning, Buffy pushed her back down on the bed, not quite roughly enough to rip any of the paper, and hopped up to straddle her hips. "This one."
Joshua Warders kicked the toe of his little boot into the snow. They were standing in a clearing near the resort's main lodge, drinking hot cocoa with a bunch of other guests and he'd finished his already. He was bored! He wasn't old enough to ski, his big sister kept pushing him off the snowboard they were supposed to be sharing, and every time he asked when they were going to see Santa his lame parents just said later.
It was later! It was gonna be dark soon and you didn't get much later than that. At least he didn't. He was aware that grown ups had a whole 'nother level of later that went on way past his bedtime but if they didn't go and see Santa right nowhe'd have to wait for tomorrow and that was ages away.
"Come on!" he begged, jumping up and down to prove how serious he was.
"Be good, Josh." His mother caught him by the puffy hood of his quilted coat to keep him still before running her hand gently over his tousled blonde head. "Or we won't go and see Santa."
He stared up at his mother with big, dismayed brown eyes. Surely she couldn't mean that!
His sister, who was three years older than him and thought she was so smart, stuck her tongue out and said, "Santa isn't really anyway."
"Angela!" Their father warned.
"But it's true! Kathy's sister told us and she's in Junior High!"
As both parents told Angie off for having a big mouth, Joshua wandered away from the group to sulk. It probably wasn't even true! Angie was just mean and everyone knew Kathy was just a…a stupid-head so her sister probably was too. She probably wouldn't even believe in Santa if he bit her on the butt.
That made him giggle, which made him feel better and look up. Whoops, he'd walked further than he'd meant to, right out of the clearing without even realising it. He was surrounded by tall Christmas trees, making it unnaturally dark from his perspective. It gave his scalp pins and needles and, hearing his Dad calling him, he turned to run back to family.
Before he could get going someone ran in front of him, cutting him off, before disappearing behind a holly bush to his right. They had moved so fast – roadrunner fast – that Joshua just stopped and stared at the spare where they had been for a second.
Recovering his sharp, seven year old wits, he realised it had to be Angie. She'd probably been sent to find him and was trying to scare him instead. Deciding to turn the tables on her he tiptoed up to the bush where she was hiding…and nearly peed his pants when something entirely different popped out from behind the prickly green bush.
"Hello, little boy."
"H-hi?" After his initial fright Joshua was distracted by leaning to one side, gawping at a really pointy ear. "Wow. You're an…"
"Do you want to meet Santa Claus, little boy?"
That got his attention back and he hollered excitedly, "I knew he was real!"
"Of course, he is very much real, and if you would just come this way…"
Joshua thought for a moment, he even went 'Hmm' like his dad did when he had to make a decision, and looked back to the group of grown ups enjoying cocoa. He knew he probably shouldn't go alone – he wasn't supposed to do anything alone, it was lame – but they'd all done what they wanted to do already and weren't they here to see Santa anyway? This might be the only way to avoid having to wait until tomorrow.
"Okay," he finally agreed. "But I can't if the line is really long cos my Mom will get mad."
"Oh, we promise to get you in to see Santa Claus very quick, little boy. He knows you are, hee hee, dying to meet him."
Joshua was taken by the hand and suddenly he was running really fast. Any second he expected to take off and fly like the little boy holding the Snowman's hand in that cartoon, but they didn't. They ran over the snow, through the trees, into the growing darkness that glowed thanks to the shiny, white ground.
He looked around in wonder when they entered the grotto. It was even better than the picture in the brochure! Joshua walked slowly forward, trying to see all the toys at once, but was propelled faster by a bony hand on each shoulder straight through the gap in the red velvet curtain.
"Santa, we bring a little boy for you."
Joshua's eyes went big at the deep, rumbly voice and he looked the owner of it up and down warily. Santa Claus didn't look the same as he did on TV. Still, he didn't want to be rude so he gamely went and climbed up onto his lap.
"I'd really like a Playstation 2, please, and some games. You can get one at Wal-Mart if your elves don't know how to make them."
"Can I indeed."
"Yes please, but if that's too much then I'll settle for a new basketball 'cause Angie, my stupid sister, burst mine on the neighbour's dog's."
Santa was helping to balance Joshua on this thigh with one big hand while he held a long piece of paper in his other – it had two lists of names on it.
"That wasn't very good of her. Perhaps you think she shouldn't receive any gifts this year as punishment?"
Joshua thought about it but then sighed. "Nah. She really wants a new bike, a pink one, and she'll just feel bad and be even meaner if she doesn't get it."
"There you are, of course, in the nice column." Santa Claus chuckled as he ticked off the name Joshua Warders from his list and then beamed down at him.
Joshua gave him a beautiful, excited smile in return, "So does that mean I've been good enough to get the Playstation?"
"I really wish it did, but I'm afraid it doesn't quite work like that."
"So how does it work?"
Santa Claus's mouth opened impossibly wide and before Joshua even had time to guess his fate he had been bitten not so cleanly in half. Blood splattered as Santa chewed and he brushed some spots from his thick, velvet robes.
"It's just as well I look so good in red, don't you think, it saves us a fortune on dry cleaning."
Thanks for reading :) Act one coming soon.