Hi, guys. Happy Holidays! This seems like the perfect time of year to try and finish the holiday episode of House of the Setting Sun . . . that I only started a year and a half ago! So here's the start of Act Four and the rest will be up by New Years Day (at least, that's the plan) :)

Thanks for the reviews for the last update, I've lost track of who I've responded to individually, but thank you all, I love receiving your feedback.


Suddenly convinced she'd missed some danger inside, Faith tried to fumble pack and cigarette into opposite pockets as she turned to dash back in, dropping both to the snow without realising. Not that she would have stopped to go back if she had.

She ran back through the curtain, pulling it down around her in her haste, to see Santa Claus trying to pull a struggling Buffy towards his wide open jaws.

"Buffy!"

Act Four

"He's strong," Buffy grunted, still struggling against Santa's claws.

Faith was only halfway through her pre-charge battle cry when Santa's maw closed to an almost human width and he said, "Come any closer and she loses a head."

Faith paused on her toes, hands clawing, frustrated, at the empty air in front of her before closing into tight and deadly fists. "If you're gonna bite her head off either way, what's to stop me from coming over there and kicking your ass?"

"This way you get to say goodbye," Santa explained, his tone kindly and, freaking hell, he actually sounded jolly.

"Trust me, we've already said our goodbyes," Buffy said sarcastically and Faith couldn't believe she was putting their problems ahead of her own life.

"B, shut the fuck up!"

"See? Why would I want to stick around for that?"

"So me having an opinion on us gives you a death wish? B, you're even more screwed up than I thought."

"I know what you're doing." Santa allowed Buffy to stand up, sort of; she was still crouched in an awkward position but her head wasn't at a weird angle any more. His grip must have been wicked strong though because while Buffy still struggled she never gained an inch. "You're trying to convince me you won't taste very good."

"Hey, I taste really good!"

Santa looked at Faith over the top of Buffy and she shrugged, "Dude, I can't remember. She hasn't let me eat her for months."

"Hey!" Buffy snapped again, twisting her neck around to glare at her.

Santa looked confused. "She is a slayer; she is the essence of good."

"Oh, that kind of good." Buffy twisted back around to look at him. "I'm not that good. I'm actually pretty bad as far as slayers go."

"I'm a slayer too. Not that anyone ever cares."

Santa looked over Buffy again. "You are?"

"Yeah."

"Innoki."

Faith didn't understand the word and she wasn't expecting it because the elves in the room had been keeping a wary distance since she'd re-entered, but suddenly there were a dozen swarming her, lifting her up and carrying her closer to Buffy and Santa. By the time she was aware of it, it was too late and Santa had a firm hold on her arm.

"Good going," Buffy snapped. "Now we're both screwed."

Faith struggled and saw why it hadn't helped Buffy at all: Santa had claws like iron manacles. She sighed; she'd wanted to rescue Buffy – although who the hell knew why – and now she was just going to get eaten right along beside her. She'd known that being with Buffy would one day be the death of her, but for fuck's sake, they'd broken up now – shouldn't that let her off the hook?

"Thought you'd be pleased you don't have to get chewed on alone."

"I may hate you right now, Faith, but that doesn't mean I want you dead!"

"See, true goodness," Santa said with a smile.

"You hate me? We go from a little fight to you hating me?" Faith rolled her eyes to the bearded beast. "Does that sound like a nice person to you?"

He hesitated.

"Don't turn this around! You've been an asshole since the day we met!"

"Maybe I was when we met, but I'm a better person than you now!"

Santa cleared his throat. "You have robbed me of my feast of innocent children and I am ravenous, but you are larger than children and so I will only eat one of you today. I need to save some room for the fair in Boudenver. So which of you is really the good one, I wonder?"

There was a pause before both of them said, "I am!"

"That is unhelpful." He sniffed first Buffy and then Faith as if that would be more helpful.

"I'm the good one," Buffy promised. "Everyone knows it. Eat me."

"Nah, she sleeps with vampires and shit. I've never done that. Eat me."

Santa's port-red nose wrinkled and he drew his face further from Buffy.

"Yeah, but she sleeps with a lotof humans. A lot! And she kills them. I'm gooder than her."

Now Santa was wrinkling his nose at both of them.

"Hey, she screwed me just for the thrill of doing someone bad!"

"She what you?" Santa looked mortified.

"Oh yeah, didn't I mention she's a dirty lesbian? That's bad, right?"

"Excuse me? Pot, you're black!"

"And she's racist, see? She'll totally taste of evil!"

Santa was holding Buffy further away from him while practically drooling on Faith's shoulder as he listened to them.

"Hey! I am not a racist, and I am not a dirty lesbian. I'm a clean lesbian! I screwed you because I loved you, not for some kinky thrill. You're the one who only did me because you were desperate for sex!"

"What the hell? I've loved you since before you barely knew I existed! You breaking up with me earlier made me want to die. And take a few people with me!"

Santa was holding them both at arm's length now, looking between them like they were slimy newts not two hot slayers. Faith caught Buffy's eye – and it wasn't something she'd planned, what she'd planned was delivering another insult – but when Buffy nodded she knew what to do. Wrapping both hands around Santa Claus' elbow, Faith swung her legs up and kicked him in his barrel chest. He fell back in his chair at the surprise impact, jolting Faith back down but giving Buffy the chance to bring a foot up into his face, knocking his half-moon specs askew.

He let go of Buffy but his hold on Faith was as strong as ever. It didn't matter, she had enough room now to raise her boot and stomp on his knee, making him utter a growl of pain. Buffy, finally free from his grasp, jumped onto his lap, curled her left hand in his curly white beard, holding him still while her right hook pounded into his jolly, red face.

Elves swarmed them again, but even held as she was, Faith was able to kick most of them back. Buffy mostly ignored the ones that made it past her, only throwing the odd elbow back into them.

It took a dozen punches before Faith was dropped into the wave of elves and Santa raised his arms to defend himself.

"This is deplorable," he yelled; he couldn't find the room to hit her back properly so he was bashing at her head with his furry white cuffs, trying to dislodge her. "You're both going on my naughty list!"

"Good!" Faith grunted, throwing elves off left and right as she was finally able to join in the attack. "'Cause it sounds way healthier than your 'nice' list!"
His cheeks were turning from rosy to purple under their fists and his beard was streaked bright red – kinda festive, like a hairy candy cane – with blood from his nose and lips, but Santa Claus must've missed Faith's Christmas letter again, because she apparently wasn't getting what she wanted most this year either – this fat demon bastard dead!

If anything he seemed to be getting more resilient. His face was puffing out, swelling, but not from their assault, more like he was one of those giant blow up Santa's you saw on roofs and right now someone was over-inflating him. His nose was getting broader, his cheeks plumped, his beard and eyebrows grew longer and fluffier and then he . . . he burst into a cloud of shiny red, gold and silver glitter and the jingle of Christmas bells tinkling in the air.

The magical moment was broken by the sound of Faith's fist smacking hard into the back of Santa's empty chair with an accompanying "Ow, fuck!" and an "Eep!" as Buffy fell through three feet of thin air to land on an elf. He probably tried to 'Eep!' too and Faith just couldn't hear it because it was muffled by Buffy's ass.

Faith sucked on a split knuckle as she looked wildly around the room. "Okay, where'd he go?"

"I think he . . ." Buffy followed suit, jumping to her feet before she could be gnawed on by an elf. ". . . he exploded. I also think I swallowed him," she spat some glitter out of her mouth. "Great, now I truly have the spirit of Christmas in me."

Faith chuckled and moved her attention closer to ground level. There were a lot of elves staring back at her and she braced for their angry onslaught.

Then the chief elf suddenly fell on his knees, head down, unmistakably groveling. The others fell in behind him and in heavily accented English he thanked them again and again.

"This is weird," Buffy muttered, edging closer to her. "Minions usually try to finish what their master started."

Faith shrugged. "Let's not look a gift elf in the mouth." Louder, she added, "So what just happened and is he coming back or what?"

Innoki stood back up but kept his head respectfully bowed, "He has left this dimension and I do not know, he has never departed without my brethren and his reindeer before."

"So you think that means he's coming back soon?"

The chief elf gave her a genuine and beautiful smile, "No, I think it means he will be gone for a very long time."

"Explain," Buffy demanded, but the strength of it was diminished by her screwing her mouth up and spitting again.

"His presence in this realm relies on people accepting him without question. Now he is no longer fully accepted, thanks to you," he smiled again. "But you must finish what you have started and spread the word that Kris Kringle no longer exists; it is the only way to stop him from ever coming back."

Faith shared a knowing smirk with Buffy. "Tell the world Santa's a fake? Yeah, we'll get right on that."

Innoki bowed low before them and then within seconds there were no elves left in the Grotto.

Faith rubbed her arm where Santa had gripped her, and glancing up noticed Buffy was rubbing her shoulder and the back of her neck too. "You okay?"

"For a fight where I threw more punches than I took I'm in a surprising amount of pain."

"Yeah, his hands made a damn tiger bite look gentle," Faith agreed, still rubbing her arm.

They were alone now, surrounded by gifts and twinkly lights and tinsel, and they both fell silent as they rubbed their sore places and looked around uncomfortably.

"So we won," Buffy murmured. "The children are safe now."

"Yeah. Feels good."

"Would have felt better if we'd actually killed him."

"Yeah."

Another minute of silence ticked by.

"I don't hate you!" Buffy blurted.

"Yeah, well," Faith looked up at the lights. "I do love you."

"Really?"

Faith switched to looking at a pile of square, red-papered gifts, wondering if there was actually something inside them or if they were just for show. "Sure."

"Really?" Buffy asked again.

She turned her head, feeling irritable. What, did the chick need it in writing or something? Didn't she get it was hard enough for her to say the first time? Finding Buffy staring intently at her, not looking like she was trying to be difficult but instead unsure and little scared, Faith's irritation melted and she smiled softly.

"Yeah, I do."

Buffy smiled too, but then looked down at her feet. She met Faith's eyes again only for a second as she said, "Maybe we should, uh, un-break up. I mean, just for today at least. It's been a stressful day and we probably shouldn't make big decisions in the middle of, uh, stressful days."

She shrugged. "Yeah, okay."

"You don't have to sound so . . ."

"B?" Faith pleaded as she turned to her and took a step closer. "Don't."

"Yeah, okay," Buffy said quietly, nodding.

There was a beat where nothing happened and Faith started to feel awkward, like she should say more but she didn't know what. In the face of her uncertainty her mind turned practical: they should probably be getting out of there. There was a line of kids outside and it wouldn't look good if they were there and Santa wasn't when they started trooping in. She was about to say as much when Buffy walked closer, reaching out to take both of her hands in hers.

She looked at the bleeding knuckle for a second, raising it to blow a warm puff of air across the cut, before dropping it back between them and squeezing both hands gently. "I know you were trying to save me before."

Faith nodded, squeezing back. "You were trying to save me too."

"And that means something."

"Means we don't want each other dead." She chuckled. "Which is a start."

"Does it mean more than that?" Buffy asked hesitantly.

"You know it means a lot more than that."

Buffy grinned. It was bashful and adorable. "It means you love me?"

Faith grinned too, "Don't make a big deal out of it."

"Okay, it's not a big deal."

Faith pulled on Buffy's hands, letting go of them just before their bodies bumped together and wrapping her arms around her to keep her close. "Can be a big deal if you want."

"I want."

"You want, huh?"

"If you make this about sex, I may have to punch you," Buffy warned, but there was a teasing light in her eyes.

Faith capitalized on it. "If you don't let me kiss you now, I may have to punch you."

Buffy frowned and smiled at the same time, "That sounded so wrong. I think you may need to see a therapist."

Laughing lightly, Faith pulled her closer, pressing the side of her head to Buffy's and dropping a sweet kiss just below her ear, where her neck poked out of the collar of her big, puffy ski jacket. She straightened up right after but Buffy had other ideas and pulled her back in, burrowing her face into Faith's much more accessible neck and holding her tight.

The hug lasted until Faith started to feel fidgety and she pulled away, taking a step back and rolling her shoulders. She felt embarrassed now, for being so sappy even if it had only lasted a few minutes, but . . . she was okay with it, providing she didn't have to do it again anytime soon. It felt good to finally get those words off of her chest, better than she'd thought it would, but she wasn't an idiot despite what some people thought and saying 'I love you' and having a hug wasn't going to cure all of their problems.

Buffy was pouting. "What are you doing all the way over there again?"

Faith laughed, she was like a foot and a half away! Close enough to still see grains of red, gold and silver making Buffy's lips and cheeks sparkle. Reaching out a thumb, she swiped some away from her bottom lip.

"I don't really hug much, B. In fact I think that was my best personal time in terms of full body contact that isn't leading down a naked and sweaty path. And as you don't want me to make this about sex . . ."

"We could make it a little bit about sex?" Buffy grinned, stepping close enough to slide her hands over Faith's shoulders, fingers massaging a little and even with the backwards angle it felt good on her sore muscles.

"How do you make something a little bit about sex?"

"I don't know," Buffy dropped her voice to a purr, "want to go and roll around in those presents together and find out?"

It was the slay talking, all that power and energy coursing through her bloodstream, titillating her superhuman hormones and making her want to get down and dirty on the nearest flat surface as soon as superhumanly possible. Faith was feeling it too but she was also feeling like her shoulder had recently been ripped from its socket and then she'd been shook around like a rag doll by demon-Santa and, honestly, she felt more like taking her clothes off so Buffy could give her back a real massage than for anything else. But! A little bit of sex was better than no sex and who knew if Buffy was gonna even take that off the table once her buzz had worn off.

"Nice idea, but those presents look kinda lumpy. Let's just do it a little bit right here."

She barely had time to waggle her eyebrows suggestively before Buffy's lips were on hers. The kiss was hungry and needy but for the first time in days it wasn't angry and Faith ate it all up.

"We should, um, the ground," Buffy mumbled.

"We should what the ground?" Faith mumbled back. Her hands were already roaming, she couldn't help them, and she was too busy trying to figure out how far a 'little bit of sex' allowed her to go – it had to make her tits fair game, right? – to care what issues Buffy had with the sawdust covered floor.

"We should get on it."

"No worries, B, I'm already on it," she promised, and if that wasn't a green light what was?

She palmed both tits . . . correction, she palmed the area where they should have been, or still were but unreachable right now. Damn snow jacket was even worse than the Wonder Woman costume, at least that had allowed her to see the goods.

"I meant get on the floor, moron," Buffy laughed against the side of her mouth. "And coats usually have these shiny things, right in the middle, they go up and down if you tug on the little tongue, some people have even found they're useful in getting to what's underneath."

"Smart mouth." She had her fingers on the zipper but forgot the instructions on how to use it when Buffy started to kiss down her throat. Her head tipped back. "God, I love your smart mouth."

"You love all of me," Buffy sucked at the base of her throat and Faith could feel her smirk.

"Don't ruin it," she joked and received a slayer-strength swat on her ass. "I'd say ow, but I kinda liked it."

Buffy giggled against her and started to unbutton her jacket. Oh, right, she'd been doing something. Unzipping the coat, Faith pushed her hands inside and . . . groaned.

"Damn, B, how many layers are you wearing?"

"Three more, four if you include my bra."

"We're in Ohio not Antarctica! It's easier to find diamonds in Africa than your tits right now!"

"Just shut up and start digging for those jewels." Faith bit hard on her bottom lip and then smushed them as tight together as possible, willing not even the tiniest sound to come out. Buffy sighed, but her own amusement came through. "If you laugh at me for referring to my breasts as jewels, I'm not going anywhere near your diamonds."

It worked, although she was definitely remembering that one to tease her about later, in front of as many people as possible. Willow and Kennedy would get a kick out of it for sure.

"Fine, but I ain't digging around in the dark for them."

"Huh-what?"

She answered Buffy's question with an action. Grabbing the hems of the sweater, the long sleeved t-shirt and the thermal vest – thermal vest? – she yanked them up as far as the arms on the unzipped coat would allow.

"Faith!"

"Buffy." She admired the newly uncovered skin, now only marred by a white sports bra. She pushed that up too and then nodded in greeting. "Buffy's tits."

"That's okay, Faith, just expose me in Santa's Grotto, that's completely okay." Despite the sarcasm she didn't make a move to cover up. She just stood there looking, well, as horny as hell actually.

"Good, sorry if my hands are cold."

"Please blow on them, your hands, I mean, first."

"Grow a pair, Buffy," she said, but the blonde was shivering so she quickly did as asked, huffing on her palms to warm them up and then rubbing them together and then . . .

"Santa!"

"Santa Claus!"

"Wait, kids, you can't just . . .!"

"Faith!"

Buffy slapped her hands away in a panic, which was pretty stupid considering they'd been the only thing covering her 'jewels' when a dozen kids came running into the Grotto, trampling the remains of the curtain under this little feet and chased by a couple of human-elf attendants.

Obviously they'd gotten bored of waiting in line and now they were standing there, eyes bugging at the show Buffy was accidentally putting on.

"Uh," Faith began as she stared back at the intruders, but had no idea what to say to make this look less bad. She ran a hand through her hair, and looked to Buffy for suggestions.

Buffy was bright pink in the face and she was tugging down her clothes and straightening them, frantically and compulsively, hands tugging at and smoothing the sweater long after it was necessary.

Faith felt like laughing, because while this wasn't a good situation, on another level it was a freakin' hilarious situation. She knew she couldn't laugh though because Buffy would probably kill her. That was enough to stop her for all of thirty seconds, but looking from Buffy's blushes to the kid's confusion to the human-elves wide-eyed stares, and taking into account how elated she felt right now, she couldn't keep it in.

As her laughter bubbled out, gaining strength quickly until she had to put her hands on her knees to brace herself, Buffy shoved at her shoulder in horror at her reaction. That was to be expected, less expected was, when Faith couldn't stop her laughter on cue – and she really did try for Buffy sake – Buffy joined in! Not quite so freely but there was definitely soft chuckling and there was mirth present in with the embarrassment in her distraught eyes.

"Faith!" she snapped, with nowhere near as much anger as she was probably trying for.

Doing her best, Faith straightened back up and held her hands in the air. "Sorry kids, didn't mean to scar you with the best experience of your lives. We'll just be going."

She waved for Buffy to escape first but one skinny, three-foot white boy stepped in front of them first, piping up with, "Where's Santa? We wanna see Santa."

A Chinese girl, no more than four years old, stamped her foot like a pro. "We waited hours and hours!"

Faith shrugged, "Sorry, kids, no Santa today."

As every kid in the joint started protesting loudly, Buffy dug her in the ribs from behind. "Don't be mean!"

Faith turned to mutter at her. "You think it's better they wait here for him to come back?"

"Good point." Buffy raised her voice to carry over the noise. "Hey, kids, Santa doesn't actually exist. There's no such thing. It's just an old, creepy, fat guy in a suit."

Eleven kids started wailing, the twelfth said, "I knew it!"

"I wanted to tell them that," Faith griped.

Buffy smiled at her sweetly, "So I figured, but I got there first."

"Bitch," Faith muttered, smiling. She twisted around and planted her lips on Buffy's before the blonde could stop her. Surprisingly, Buffy didn't even try and stop her.

As they drew slowly apart, one kid, who looked way too old to believe in Santa anyway, asked in a mournful voice, "So Santa Claus ain't gonna bring us what we want this year?"

"'Fraid not, dude," Faith apologised as she took Buffy's hand.

"Speak for yourself," one of the human-elves said as he watched them go with wide eyes, and possibly a little drool at the corner of his mouth. Faith was pretty sure it was Greg's friend from the card game.

Faith shot him a smirk as she and Buffy left the Grotto. Damn straight! She had her perfect little Christmas gift walking right next to her. That for sure made up for all those times Santa had neglected her in the past.

As they stepped out into the snowy darkness, the biting wind instantly shredding the warmth they'd felt inside, she knew she didn't want this feeling, this buzz between them, to end just yet, so she asked hopefully, "You wanna go back to the cabin? Cause some steam? Celebrate our victory?"

"No." Faith felt her heart sink until Buffy turned to look her right in the eyes. "Actually, I'd like to go to the bar, to talk, but properly, about how we're gonna make this, us, work long-term, because I never want to feel like we can't again. Is that okay?"

Faith nodded slowly, grinning widely. "I'm down."

Buffy smiled and then bumped her with her shoulder and took her hand again. "Also, you need to get me really drunk to forget about the humiliation I just suffered."

Faith laughed softly, repeating, "I'm down."

"I'm sorry, what did you just say?"

Kennedy's step-father gave her an indulgent smile at her incredulous outburst and repeated himself. "I'm asking you to run our Ohio branch."

"You don't have an Ohio branch."

"But we will, in about three months." He nudged the paperwork that she hadn't looked at yet closer to her. "You don't want to go to college, and that's fine, it's not for everyone, but I know you Kennedy. You have leadership skills that shouldn't be wasted."

"I have a job."

"One that you won't give us any details about, which makes your Mom and I think you might be a little ashamed of it."

"I'm not ashamed of it! I just can't . . ." Kennedy looked blankly down at the papers. "I work in a school, it's a good school and my job is important. I can't just ditch it."

"You work in a school that's only existed for four months."

She looked up sharply, knowing that he'd obviously done some research. What else did he know? She'd trust Jesús with her life but not necessarily the knowledge of what she was doing with her life.

He read her look, rightly or wrongly she didn't know. "Hey, I'm not saying it's a front for a money laundering business or anything. I'm sure it's legit, but does it pay a hundred grand a year?"

No. She did the math in her head, taking into account her 'salary' as a slayer and the fact that she got free bed and board, and frowned. It probably evened out at about forty grand a year, give or take.

"Twenty days vacation a year. Full health insurance. Company car," he wheedled.

Kennedy smirked a little. "What's the catch?"

Jesús smirked back. "Good girl, there's always a catch. In this case there's two. You have to do the job properly and make me the money I'm paying you – you're not just a figurehead, I'm gonna need you to work your butt off. And, there's the reputation of the company to think about."

Kennedy scowled. "I thought we were cool, Dad. I'm never going to date one of your corporate assholes to make you look better."

"Firstly, language, Kennedy! Secondly, since when am I an asshole in your eyes? You and Willow . . ."

"I'm not breaking up with Willow!"

"Calm your tongue, young lady!" She seethed quietly until he continued. "You and Willow are serious with each other, your mother and I can see that, that's why I'm sparing no expense to open a new office in Cleveland instead of offering you a lower position back in New York."

"I don't get how your reputation comes into this."

"Morales Industries has always been a family orientated business and we get a lot of good press because of that. Good press we can't afford to lose. If you take this position you're going to have to live up to that."

"And that means what?"

"You can't fool around with your personal life," he told her straight and then held his hand up when she was about to shout at him. "Don't! I'll be the first one to tell the media by beloved daughter is an out and proud lesbian, but I can't have you in that position if you're promiscuous."

"I'm not! I love Willow. She's the one, Dad! I can't imagine ever . . ." she shook her head. "I am as serious about her as it gets."

He smiled in a way that made her wonder what she'd just missed and then reached across the desk to pat her hand.

"That's good to know. Read through the papers." He nudged them towards her again. "I'll have a contract drawn up by the middle of January."

Kennedy grinned, "I haven't said yes yet."

He grinned back. "You will 'cause your Momma didn't raise no idiot."

The office door suddenly flew open and Kennedy turned in her seat to see her Momma standing there like someone had cancelled her manicure appointment and nobody had told her.

"What's wrong?" Jesús asked, standing up in concern.

"Willow ran away!"

Kennedy stood up and turned so fast her chair rocked back before hitting her knees on its return. "What did you freaking say, Mom?"

"Nothing! We were talking about how good you two could be together and then she left to go to the bathroom and never came back!"

Kennedy breathed a sigh of relief. "She's probably just hiding from you in the bathroom."

"Don't you think I checked that? After twenty minutes I went to offer her a laxative . . ." Kennedy cringed on her girlfriend's behalf. ". . . and she wasn't in there. I've had Heidi check the whole house . . . I'm sorry, Kennedy, she's gone."

Kennedy went from a standing start to a sprint, she probably looked blurry to her parents but she didn't care. She took the stairs three at a time and dashed into her bedroom. All of her clothes were still there, so . . . where was she?

She didn't blame Willow for escaping her Mom, but it was dark out and Willow didn't know her way around and . . . oh God, what if something happened to her out there and she never got to kiss her again or tell her she loved her one more time?

Okay, she was thinking like a mere mortal, not a slayer whose girlfriend was one of the most powerful witches on the planet – she was thinking like Andrew! She just had to stop for a second and think. Willow's shoes! She'd only brought two pairs, her sensible heels and the snow boots she'd purchased with Buffy last week. Her shoes were right there in front of the closet and her boots had been left by the front door with Kennedy's. If they were still there then she was still in the house somewhere. If they weren't there, Kennedy just had to go out looking. Providing Willow had stayed on her feet and wasn't flying or teleporting around, Kennedy could cover the ground faster than her.

She walked back out onto the landing, just as her Mom and Step-Dad caught up with her. They must have run too, because her Mom was out of breath from scaling the stairs.

"How did you do that?" her Mom accused, pointing a finger at her.

"I'm the Phys. Ed. teacher, I'm in great shape," she lied, already moving past them.

"I don't believe you."

"Well, how else would you explain it?"

She didn't care what theories her Mom might come up with at this point. She just had to find Willow. They'd been great the past week but things were still a little awkward at times. Just because they were on the same page now didn't alter the fact that they hadn't been for a months. What if her Mom really had said something that had scared her off? Willow wasn't a fickle teenager, she wasn't just experimenting with her sexuality and she wasn't scared of being in a committed relationship, but Rosie Morales had been known to accidentally scare off the stoutest of hearts.

Roxanne came down the stairs from her converted attic room and blocked her path before Kennedy could leave the landing. "What's going on? More family drama? I'm so glad your back," she drawled sarcastically but with a real smile.

"Move, Rox, I need to find Willow!"

She was careful not to barge past her, because the mood she was she'd probably send her flying.

"You so suck at Hide and Seek."

"What?"

"Willow's right there," she pointed to the other end of the long landing. "Trying to hide behind Mom's stupid potted tree thing."

Kennedy spun around, so did her Mom and Dad, and Willow sheepishly stepped out from behind the stupid potted tree thing.

"Hey." She gave a little wave to them all, shivering from head to foot.

Kennedy rushed over but her Mom got there first, enveloping her in a massive hug. "Oh, I'm so glad you came back. I thought I'd scared you off for forever!"

"No, you didn't scare me off," Willow's teeth were chattering despite how warm it was up here. "I just stepped out for some air after my phone call. Sometimes I forget I'm not in Sunnydale anymore. Sorry I didn't come back to our chat."

"Oh, that's okay!" Her Mom hugged her again. "We can talk more later!"

"Yay," Willow said with zero enthusiasm but a bright smile to make up for it.

"My turn." Kennedy nudged her Mom out of the way and hugged Willow. She was wearing a heavy coat that definitely didn't belong to her – it was about three sizes too big to start with – but was vaguely familiar anyway. "Don't ever let my Mom scare you off, okay? Even if it means I have to disown these guys to make you stay," she joked, earning a backhand to her shoulder from her Mom.

"Keep the door open," her Mom said, ushering her Step-Dad and her half-sister down the stairs. "And dinner will be in one hour and after that we will be going to Mass."

Kennedy left the door to her suite open and the door to her bedroom as she pulled Willow inside by her hand. "What happened? Where did you go? You're freezing, and there's no way you would have stayed in the backyard for that long just for air. And whose coat are you wearing?"

"Robin's." Kennedy quirked an eyebrow. "I had to go to Boudenver," Willow admitted. "Giles called and they needed me urgently. Obviously I couldn't tell your Mom that."

"Is that safe?" she asked, peeling Willow out of the coat and then pulling her towards the ensuite bathroom. "Teleporting all that way, I mean?"

"I wouldn't have done it through choice, but you know our business, rarely much choice involved. I feel fine though, just a little light-headed from the trip back." Willow smiled, "You're undressing me. I think your Mom would disapprove."

Kennedy finished pulling her pants down her legs and waited for her to step out of them. "You need a hot shower; I have no ulterior motives . . . right now. So what did Giles need?"

"Some elf translation. Turns out they're not the ones eating little children. It's Santa."

Kennedy stood and started pulling Willow's Hanukah jumper off. "I wish I was more shocked by that."

"Join the club. So what did your Dad want to talk about?"

"Can I . . .?" she hesitated. This was obviously something she needed to share but she wanted a few hours to think about it on her own first. "It's pretty big. Do you mind if we don't talk about it until tomorrow?"

Willow looked worried, but automatically said, "No, that's fine, sweetie. Um, do I really have to go to Mass?"

Kennedy relaxed into a smile, "You're Jewish, babe, not Satan, you won't burst into flames when you set foot in the church."

"Thanks for clearing that up," Willow said wryly and then grinned and pointed behind her to the shower. "You wanna get wet with me?"

Kennedy groaned, "You have no idea how much . . . but," she added when Willow was about to pull off her top. ". . . I'm terrified my Mom's sixth sense will trigger and she'll break down the bathroom door with our fire axe and I don't need her giving you any more reasons to run scared." She kissed Willow's pouty lip. "I love you too much to risk that."

"And I love you too much to be scared," Willow returned. "Nothing your Mom can do will make me leave you, Kennedy."

Heart a puddle in her toes, Kennedy leaned in for a longer kiss, only to be pushed back.

"But we probably should respect her rules anyway," Willow said, mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

Kennedy groaned, "Sometimes I hate you, though." But after stealing another quick kiss she left Willow to have some privacy in the bathroom.

It wasn't like she didn't have enough to think about to keep occupied anyway.