Faith vaulted the fence with ease and walked across the gravel, her boots crunching. She wasn't paying much attention so she didn't notice the girl waiting there until it was too late to slip away unseen. "Shit," she murmured under her breath. She squared her shoulders and went up to the tracks.

"How's it going?" the girl asked.

Faith said nothing. If she was quiet the girl might get bugged and leave. It didn't work. The girl seemed perfectly comfortable to stand there in silence all night. Faith shifted her weight, put her hands in her pockets, took them back out.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

The girl looked at her. "I'm leaving town. I think I'll catch the next one." She extended a hand toward Faith. "Wanna come?"

Faith looked at the hand, then back to the girl's face. Her face was unreadable. The dark Slayer turned away and began to walk back the way she had come. At the edge of the right-of-way she glanced back. The girl stood by the tracks, her narrow frame looking forlorn.


"...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, Oz and Willow were standing in the aisle, waiting for him.

"Hey, about time that British drama-queen thing came in handy," Xander observed. "That really didn't suck."

"Thank you. A man could ask for no higher praise." Giles' voice was dry.

"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. Oz offered a brief nod, which the Watcher interpreted as approval. He looked at Willow, a question in his eyes. Willow shook her head.

"She's not here." The redhead glanced down at her feet. Giles shrugged and tried to smile.

"Okay," Cordelia said. "I sat through this whole thing. That means that you're obligated to come to the pageant tomorrow night."

Xander leaned in close to her. "Uh, Cor, I thought you didn't really want us to come."

She looked annoyed. "We need a full house. Just don't embarrass me."

"Gee, whut makes yew thank Ah'd dew tha-yut?" Xander asked in his best Cletus-the-Slack-Jawed-Yokel voice. Cordelia glared at him.

"I was hoping she would be here," Giles said.

Willow patted him on the arm. "We all were."


Buffy walked, putting one foot in front of the other with no purpose other than movement. Christmas Eve. No vampires. Maybe the craziness of the last ten days was abating.

Tomorrow was the big day. Her mom was actually cooking Christmas dinner. What the two of them would do with a twelve-pound turkey was a question too mind-boggling to contemplate.

"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."

Angel tried hard to be casual. "Did you see Giles do 'A Christmas Carol'?"

She shook her head. "No." Buffy shook her head. "I hate that story. It's so sickly sweet, like everything else 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." He thrust his hands in the pockets of his coat and looked up at the stars. "We need to talk."

Buffy closed her eyes. "Angel, it was a moment of weakness. I was stressed, I reverted back to habit, it--"

"It's time to stop pretending."

"Pretending about what?"

Angel looked into her eyes. "Tell me it didn't feel right to you." He stared at her until she looked away. "It felt right to me, too. That's the problem. It opened a door we both want to keep closed."

Buffy's eyes were red-rimmed. She sniffled. "I'm going to play dumb right here about this door you're talking about."

"Then I'll do the heavy lifting." He sat down on the curb and stared at his clasped hands. "Do you remember what I said about remembering you when I was... in that place?"

"Yes," she whispered. She felt the warmth of a tear slip down her cheek.

"One thing that couldn't be burned out was what I feel for you. I love you, Buffy. I've tried to deny it, I've even tried to use what happened as an excuse, a reason to say I couldn't feel anything for you, but that's a lie. In some weird way, knowing that you did the hard thing that had to be done makes me love you even more."

"You... You love me even more because I sent you to Hell?" Buffy swallowed. It felt like a Rubik's Cube was lodged in her esophagus. "What sort of sick guilt trip is this?"

"It's not guilt. You're not guilty of anything." Angel looked at her. "You'll do the right thing, even when it costs you. That's part of why I love you." He stood up. "Now, tell me to my face that you don't love me."

"I... I don't..." She bit her lip to keep it from quivering but it was no good. Her entire body began to shake. Her knees started to buckle but he was there to wrap his arms around her and hold her up. "I don't want to love you," she whispered.

"I know," he said. "It's too dangerous."

"Too dangerous," she repeated. They stood there until her legs felt steady. It might have been five minutes, it might have been five hours. Time suspended itself during their embrace. Finally she stepped back. "So what do we do?" she said, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her coat.

"We acknowledge it. We remember it so that we don't act on it." Angel closed his eyes. "Buffy, we can't be together. There's no sense staying within arm's reach when we can't touch each other. It's beyond tempting fate."

She nodded. He reached out but she took a step away from him. "We might as well start now," she said in a shaky voice.

He nodded. "You should know that I'm thinking about leaving Sunnydale."

Her eyes reflected the glittering light of the stars. "I see." She tucked her coat in around her chin. "Listen, I've got to go. I, uh, I suddenly need to see some people."

He stood and watched her walk away into the night, her slender frame growing smaller and smaller until his searching eye could no longer see her.


The last notes of "Angels We Have Heard On High" rang out over the auditorium and faded. The spotlight held for a moment on the final arrangement of the holy family, the shepherds and the magi, then clicked off, plunging the audience into darkness. Applause filled the chamber as the lights came up.

"Wow," Willow said, clapping furiously. "That was just so... so... exotic!"

Xander smiled at her. "Will, you are just a great big tub o' nutty, did you know that?"

Giles stood with his hands in his pockets, looking very calm. "It was rather pleasant, wasn't it?"

Xander made herding motions with his hands. "We should probably head for the lobby. Cordelia will meet us there."

"It's not called the lobby in a church, is it?" Willow asked.

Xander's eyes widened. "How would I know? They've probably got some churchy word for it, but I bet it still means lobby."

Oz nodded toward the back of the church. "Hey, check it out." They looked and saw a petite figure sitting in the last pew. She raised a hand and gave a little wave. They hurried down the aisle as she slipped out of her seat to meet them. The Slayer looked pale and drawn as they approached.

"You came," Willow exclaimed, grabbing her in a hug. "I thought you weren't coming."

"Yeah, Will, I came," Buffy said, untangling herself from the embrace. "You know, you were all coming, and how often do we get to see Cordelia look this goofy?"

Xander looked knowing. "There is a high goofy factor."

Oz studied Buffy's face as the group made their way to the foyer. "So, did you enjoy?"

Buffy looked at him for a minute, then smiled. "Yeah. I kinda did."

Cordelia slipped through the departing crowd, still wearing her angel costume. She looked at Buffy. "You said you weren't coming." Her tone was accusatory.

Buffy looked at her. "Gee, Cordy, not very angelic."

"Maybe we should take the holiday cheer out into the parking lot while Cordelia changes," Oz suggested.

"Excellent idea," Giles seconded. They straggled through the doors and out onto the asphalt. They stood there in the night air, a loose confederation of friends surrounded by a departing tide of parishioners.

"So," Willow said, "is Josie gone?"

Giles looked up at the stars. "Yes, I suppose she is."

"Who is what?" Cordelia demanded as she joined them.

"Josie. Gone." Willow explained as briefly as she could.

"Thank God," Cordelia said, straightening the collar on her coat. "She hung around like Banquo's ghost. What?" she asked of the staring faces around her. "We spend half our lives in the library. I get bored. I read." She was finally satisfied with her coat. "I'm glad. I'm tired of creepy stuff happening when she's around." She realized that she was catching dubious looks again. "Okay, creepier stuff. And don't pretend you didn't think the same thing."

"Hey," Buffy said, "I'm feeling the need to be surrounded by friends. How's about we all invade the Summers' home? I'm pretty sure we've got all the fixings for hot chocolate."

"That would be cocoa and milk," Oz observed.

"Do you have A Charlie Brown Christmas on video?" Willow asked. "Because I haven't seen it yet this year."

Buffy sighed, throwing her arm around her best friend. "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.


End of "What Child Is This?"