Disclaimer: They are not mine, nor do I claim them to be.
A/N: This is the fifth story in my little 'verse/series/thing that contains Those Things, Pride, Love and Pancakes, and Something Beyond. You don't really need to read those to understand what's going on, but you might get more out of the story if you did.
Buffy eyes the present Riley sets on the table between them. The box is a little taller than it is wide, a bit smaller than the monitor of the computer that sits mostly unused in the office, but big enough that Riley has to scoot it to the side of the table for them to easily meet eyes once he sits down. It's wrapped up in blue and silver wrapping paper and topped off with one of those little bows that stick when the backing gets peeled off. Buffy likes the bows you have to untie better, when you pull one end of the ribbon and the whole thing slowly comes undone, but she doesn't say anything.
"Did you buy me a Hanukkah present?" Buffy asks. Hanukkah is blue and silver, right? Or blue and white? But, except, Hanukkah's over, isn't it? Unless Willow was too nice to say anything earlier.
"Oh," says Riley. "They did it in the store. I didn't really think about that, I was just looking for something that didn't have cartoon reindeer on it."
"I like reindeer," Buffy says. She picks at the seam in her cup with her fingernail.
The Starbucks is quieter than the Espresso Pump ever was, and much better for conversation, but Riley and warm takeout cups of coffee have rekindled that ache inside of her that longs for the place she called home for seven years.
"It's not really a holiday present anyway," Riley says. "It was Sam's idea. It's more of a goodbye present."
"Huh," says Buffy. "Never had one of those before." She says it lightly, to let him know she's joking. Or to let him know that she's doing whatever the closest thing to joking is that's still telling the truth.
Riley frowns a little at the present as Buffy takes a sip from her mocha. "Actually, I think it's supposed to be an apology gift."
There's probably a lot for Riley to apologise for. Sending a girl running after a helicopter isn't the nicest thing to do, but she knows he was right to do it, if not right in the way he did do it. And she knows that Xander had been right as well, that night, and that maybe she has some apologising to do too.
"For last night," Riley says. "I didn't handle all of… that… the way I should have."
Buffy nods, because he really hadn't, but tells him, "It's okay. It's kind of a lot to take in."
Riley makes a little bit of a grimace, but it's mostly playful. "It kind of really is," he agrees. He brushes his fingers over the large, purple bruise on his chin. "Not really used to him hitting back."
Buffy smiles a little around the lid of her cup. "And Spike's face will heal fine. It always does."
Riley laughs. "I guess you'd know."
Buffy's smile falters and she bites her lip. She spins the cardboard sleeve around her cup. "It's not like that anymore," she says. "It really isn't."
"I say something wrong?"
It's weird, sometimes, when she thinks about how little of her he ever saw. How Riley was only there for so little, and how he missed so much, but she still sometimes thinks of him as something big, and not just because he seems to get taller every time he turns up.
"I believe you," Riley says. "I'm just not used to seeing the two of you not fighting all the time." He reaches out, almost as if to touch her, but thinks better of it and puts his hand on the present instead. "I saw the three of you last night and I knew. And… I guess I didn't show it very well, but I'm glad you're happy, Buffy."
Buffy uses her left hand to hold her right hand still, stops the spinning, and looks up at Riley. Her smile slips back. "I really, really am."
"Then that's what matters." Riley looks back at the present consideringly. He takes his hand off the top and scoots it closer to her, just a little, but not enough to spill her drink. "Actually," he says, "I think it's a wedding present. For the future. If you end up marrying a guy named Spike." He pauses for a second. "And another guy named Angel."
Buffy sticks her cup between her knees, holds it there firmly, but not tight enough to crush it, and pulls the present all the way toward her. "Should I open it?"
For several years, starting at about age twelve, Buffy got really obsessed with proving that she was more mature than Dawn. If little Dawnie put her elbows on the table, Buffy made sure to spread her napkin across her lap and hold her knife in her right hand when she cut her meat. If Dawn refused to do her chores, Buffy went and finished hers before her parents even had to ask. And when Dawn eagerly shredded the wrapping paper to get to her Christmas presents, Buffy slid a fingernail under the tape and kept the wrapping pristine enough to reuse for her birthday presents.
And while that desire is somewhat less prominent these days, now that Dawn is older and more mature and (hopefully) college-bound and all, patience in the face of gifts is a habit, and Buffy peels the tape away carefully before letting the paper fall open.
It's a fondue kit.
She laughs and grins broadly at Riley. "Fondue! You remembered I like cheese!"
"I did. Sam helped though," he admits. "I'm glad you like it."
"I do," Buffy says. "I do like fondue."
Riley grins back. He smiles at her as she examines the box.
Enough to serve twelve people. Does she even know twelve people? She and Spike and Dawn can each be four people or something.
Actually, that would probably happen even if they did know twelve people.
Riley scoots his chair back from the table and stands.
"Are you leaving?" Buffy asks. "I don't have a present for you. Kinda caught us when our thoughts were pretty Finn-free."
"That's probably how they should be," he tells her. He picks up his coffee from the table and walks around to her side. "I'm glad I met you again, Buffy."
Buffy stands and presses the still-sticky bow so that it clings to the breast pocket of Riley's flannel overshirt like a cheap wannabe carnation. She hugs him and holy moly was he always this gigantic? "Me too."
As soon as she fills her mouth, Dawn knows she's made a terrible mistake.
She slams the mug back down on the counter where she'd gotten it from. The drink sloshes over the sides and onto her fingers and into the spaces between the counter tiles, but she can't worry about that now, or about how Spike is staring at her with his eyebrows raised, because she needs the sink.
She bolts across the kitchen, hands flapping in a panic, and spits, coughs, and, for a really gross second there, seriously worries about vomiting.
"Ew!" It's the first word her brain can come up with and the first thing she can get out of her mouth that doesn't make her want to puke. "Ewww!"
"What happened?" Buffy calls from behind her. Dawn can hear her footsteps as she hurries to the kitchen. "What?"
She can also hear Spike trying and completely failing to not laugh at her, and the scrape of the ceramic mugs as he drags them over the countertop, probably switching them back to how they should be. "Just grabbed the wrong mug is all," he says. "Be fine in a minute."
Or never. Be fine never. Dawn chokes and coughs and tries to hold back her thoughts and queasiness and ignore the total ick of the situation long enough to grab a mug from the cabinet and get herself some water.
When she looks over, Buffy is holding a roll of wrapping paper in her hands, wielding like a sword. Her eyes narrow at Spike. "Did you feed blood to my little sister?" she asks. Her fingers tighten around the wrapping paper like she might just swat Spike over the nose with it like he's some kind of bad dog.
He totally deserves it, too. Laughing at her misfortune like that. Jerk.
"Hey." Spike holds his hands up. "'Feed', Slayer?"
Dawn gargles her water and spits into the sink. "It's not blood," she says. "But it's not hot chocolate either. It's just warm, chocolatey-ish marshmallow goo mush." Even the words taste like sick on her tongue and she gags and turns back to the sink.
Ew, ew, ew.
After a moment, Buffy seems satisfied that Spike doesn't have any plans to turn her into a vampire, because Dawn can hear her begin to walk away. Like she doesn't need to scold Spike for leaving disgusting things out, just so long as it's not blood.
"Okay," Buffy says. "You two can solve this one on your own."
Gee, thanks, sis.
"Use your brains," she adds.
Dawn coughs and splutters out her mouthful of water into the sink, body shaking. Ewww.
Just as cruel. No wonder Buffy and Spike can't stay apart.
"No," Dawn says, between gags. "No brains."
Spike hmms, and reaches out for her. He pats her on the back awkwardly, but at least that's better than brains.
"But it's Christmas Eve." Dawn pouts at them across the room while Spike, seated in the armchair, does up his laces and Angel hunches over the weapon's chest.
"Well, yeah," Buffy says, "for us, maybe. But it's not Christmas Eve for demons."
Dawn frowns up at her from her seat on the floor in front of the sofa. She's got her spindly legs all folded up impossibly beneath her and her best, most polished-up, patented look of Summers Lady Incredulity on her face. "Demons have a different Christmas Eve?"
"Dawnie…" Standing at his side, Buffy's hands twist around the handle of her scythe. "Bad things happen on holidays too. You know that. We need to be out there. Just in case…" Buffy shifts and Spike lifts his head to look her over, the way her shoulders hunch and her lips twist nervously.
"Christmas anything like your birthday, pet?"
Dawn sighs dramatically and turns her head away. She rests her chin against her cocoa mug. "Fine," she says. "Not like this'll be any different from the last three Christmases. I'll just stay here, watch A Christmas Story by myself three or four times, wait for the reindeer…"
Instead of giving her sister the eyeroll Spike expects, Buffy just looks upset. She shifts where she stands and looks first down at Spike and then over at Angel, who's straightened up and left the swords alone for the moment.
It's been a while since Spike's done anything that even pretended to bare resembelance to a proper Christmas. Spent last year alone in a bar getting hammered. Spent the year before that hung up in the caves, getting tortured by The First. Hadn't done anything even as noteworthy as those before then since Dru left, and even then it was mostly about the mistletoe more than anything else.
And from what he's seen, it's been a while since any of the others really did anything either.
He watches Buffy grab onto Angel's hand as soon as the other vampire approaches. Watches her stare into his eyes, grip tightening. What it is that's got her all worked up over this, he doesn't know, but it does just figure that Angel'd be tangled up in it in some way or another. Most of misery seemed to have him involved.
There's something in there that he can't touch. Something that doesn't die no matter how many times you tear it apart, something that both haunts them and brings them to life. Something that is secret and special and sacred that was forged when he was not around and is now something he can never truly understand but to realize that he can't understand it.
"Well, we could all stay here together," Angel says. Like that wasn't what Dawn had been pleading for for the last two hours.
But apparently Buffy's forgotten about that too, because she nods slowly, like the idea is novel for her, or like Angel's voice is some other language, something she understands when she doesn't understand anything else. "We'll all stay here. We'll be together."
"Really?" Dawn squeals.
Buffy's fingers trail over Spike's cheek and when he turns his head to face her, slightly startled, he ends up with her hand spread across his face, his chin in her palm. "You all right there, Slayer?"
"Sometimes I just don't believe it's over." She smiles at him, then leans in for a kiss. "I'm really glad you're back."
Connor's new mom sends them a Christmas card. It's a glossy photo of the Reilly family against the backdrop of a crowded ski slope, gathered around a table of takeout cups. There's snow on their hair and hats and in their faces. Connor's aunt is turned away from the camera and his little sister looks startled that Connor's thrown his arm around her. Connor grins.
They are all, undeniably, happy.
Angel doesn't read what Colleen wrote on the back. He clips the card to the fridge, even though it hurts, and leans against the opposite counter to look it over. To look at what he's given up, and to what he's missing out on.
He let Connor go because he had to. He chose to let his son live, even if it mean that the holidays were when they saw each other the least, and that most of their time together was spent staking vampires and getting splattered with demon blood.
"Whatcha doing?" Buffy asks from the doorway to the living room. She's still in her pyjamas and her hair if ruffled and unbrushed. Her mug smells like the sugar-filled coffee she was drinking earlier, but it isn't steaming anymore. She crosses the cool tile floor, her footsteps muffled by her fluffy socks, and leans against the counter at his side. Buffy shifts her mug to her left hand and loops her right arm through his, rests her head against his shoulder. "Hey," she says, nudging him, "look at that great thing you made."
Angel holds his thumb up to cover Connor in the photograph. His sister frowns at the missing shape and his father's hand rests on nothing.
Buffy smiles up at him when he looks back at her.
Angel lowers his hand, rolls his shoulders a bit, but not enough to dislodge his girl. "Yeah," he says. He smiles back at her. "Look at that."