“So, are we gonna have our own tree, or just go to Mom’s for Christmas morning?”
Spike blinked at the sudden change of subject. He’d thought they were talking about how they hadn’t seen much of Glory’s minions lately, and suddenly it seemed they were talking about Christmas decorations.
“Uh… whatever you want, love. It’s not like vampires do a lot of decorating for Christmas.”
“Well, you weren’t born a vampire. What did you do when you were human?”
“We did what we could with what we had,” he said tersely, looking down at the book he’d been reading when the conversation began.
Buffy’s eyes widened. While she knew a lot more about Spike’s time as a human than she had before they found themselves reliving the more boring parts of their previous lives, it was never a comfortable subject for him and she hadn’t insisted on more details.
“I thought you were rich? Didn’t you have servants?”
He’d told her about how Dru vamped him, and then how he turned his mother, only to stake her when her demon made it clear his sweet mother was no longer there. In the course of that painful conversation, he’d mentioned that Dru ate her way through the staff in the house. He closed the book and sighed before answering.
“It was a different time, love. A different world. We were… comfortable…as befitted members of our social class. More comfortable when my father was alive and working to make us financially secure than we were after he died, but we lived as we were expected to live. Our furniture was a bit threadbare and our staff was quite small for a house the size of the one we lived in, but we did have a few servants. Doesn’t mean we were rich. Those people had to be paid. And with it just being Mother and me… we didn’t bother much with Christmas decorations. It wasn’t the happiest time of the year.”
“Oh.” Buffy gazed at him with sympathy. “Okay. So, you don’t want any decorations? I just thought they’d make it more…. homey.”
“Sweetheart, this is our home. And if you want to decorate it for Christmas, I’m all in favor of it. Just isn’t something I’ve got much experience with. You’ll have to tell me what you want.”
“I want us to have our own tree,” she said. “Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”
“I think it’s bloody brilliant. Did you want to do it today?”
Buffy’s eyes lit up. “Yes! We’ll need to go to Home Depot for it and a tree stand, and lights, and ornaments, maybe some mistletoe, and we should get a wreath for the door—”
He groaned. “I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?”
She pouted. “You said yes.”
“That I did, love. I’m sorry. I’ll try to be a good sport about it. But if Harris tries to mock me—”
“Yeah, yeah. Rip his head off and drink from his brain stem. I got it. Let’s go.”
One tree, two boxes of ornaments and lights, one wreath, one clump of sad-looking mistletoe, one tree stand, and one cranky vampire later, they were carrying their purchases to Spike’s old car and trying to figure out how to secure the tree on the roof.
“Didn’t they give us anything to tie it on with?” Buffy grumbled.
“All that unhelpful git did was point toward the aisle where they sell string,” Spike growled, before pulling a roll of twine from his pocket. “Fortunately for him, I didn’t take offense.”
“Did you steal that?”
“Said I didn’t take offense, didn’t say I didn’t take the string.”
Buffy glared at him, tapping one foot on the pavement.
“Get over it, Slayer. I was bored to tears. Are you going to begrudge me a 98 cent bit of fun?”
“It’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing. You shoplifted.”
Spike just stared at her until she turned away, muttering, “Well you did. And it’s wrong!”
“I’ll add that to the list of things I’m prob’ly going to hell for,” he snorted. “Now let’s get this shrub up on the roof and get it home.”
“We should have a party! A Christmas party!”
“Have you been sniffing the candles again?” Spike raised his eyebrows.
“Look at this! We can’t let all this go to waste.” She waved her hand around the now gaily decorated apartment. “We’re having a party,” she said firmly. “I’m going to start telling everybody now.” She picked up the phone and continued speaking to him as she dialed her mother. “We’re having a party, and you’re going to be—Hi Mom! Hey, guess what? Spike and I decided we want to have a Christmas party…. Yes, here. What did you think I meant? Oh, well, I suppose that’s true, but I’m not really that young, you know, so I can do it….. Um… Christmas Eve, I guess?”
An hour later, Buffy had called everybody she could think of who might want to come to a party at their apartment. Everybody except Winston.
She looked at Spike as she fretted.
“We can’t not invite Winston. He’s one of us now.”
“Should have thought of that before you made all those phone calls, love. Not sure how having Winston and Max in the same small apartment is going to go. Assuming Winnie is even willing to enter the building once he picks up on the wards.”
“Ugh! Maybe he won’t care? Maybe they’ll like each other?”
“Maybe you should give him a heads up first and let him make his own decision,” Spike said. “You can just tell him our landlord is a bit of a sorcerer, and that the building is protected. Let him decide if he wants to party with another practitioner. Those mage types aren’t often friendly. Not like witches and their covens. More solitary like.”
“How do you know so much about them?”
“I’m old, love. Been around enough of ‘em to know a little bit. I trust Max, and I trust Winnie, as much as I think any magical blokes can be trusted. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to trust each other.”
“Party pooper,” she muttered.
“Just saying, love, give them a chance to say ‘yes’ before you spring it on either one.”
“So, that’s the sitch, Winston. Our landlord is some kind of a magic guy, probably not like you are,” Buffy said, laying on the flattery, “but he uses magic on the building. Spike thinks I should let you know about it ahead of time, in case you don’t want to come to our party.”
Winston gazed at her, a small frown wrinkling his brow. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Um…well, no reason! Just, Spike said magic guys don’t usually like each other, and… no reason. Really.”
Winston smiled at her. “That’s very thoughtful, Buffy. Why don’t I just come by your apartment one evening and see what kind of wards he has?”
“Oh, that’s a good idea. You can just visit us and then maybe you’ll know if you want to come to the party.”
“Buffy, I’m not worried about meeting another practitioner, he said gently. “I know how to be civil. Has Willow met your landlord?”
“Um… not really. But she’s been at our place a lot of times and she wasn’t bothered by the wards. She said she probably wouldn’t have even noticed them if I hadn’t asked if she could feel anything.”
“Well, there you go. If there are wards, they must be very weak or she would have picked up on them straight away.”
Buffy frowned, but nodded her head. “I’m sure that’s it. If Willow couldn’t tell they were there, they can’t be very…. It’s probably fine.”
“Shall I stop by tonight then? After the dinner hour?”
“Yeah, that’s good. After dinner and before patrol. Okay, here’s the address….” She caught the look on his face. “You already know where it is, don’t you?”
“I do. Being able to locate you or Spike in a hurry seemed like something I should know how to do, so I’ve had Rupert drive me by it once or twice.”
“And you never felt the wards?”
“No. But then we were moving past it in a vehicle, not attempting to enter the building or the property.”
Okay, then. See you later.”
“Winston and Giles are coming by tonight.” Buffy dropped the information casually as Spike was putting his empty mug in the sink.
“Yep. It was his idea to just come by before it was party time in case it turns out he doesn’t want to come.”
“How is that going to help him?”
“I guess he thinks he can tell from the wards how strong Max is, and whether or not it matters if he meets him.”
“He can tell that from the building wards?”
“Yeah. I asked Giles about it, and he said if the wards are weak it means one thing, and if they’re really strong, but most people can’t tell they’re there, then it means something else very different.”
“Means that whoever put them up doesn’t want anyone to know what he can do,” Spike said. “And has the ability and power to make that work.”
“Kinda sounds like Max, doesn’t it?” Buffy frowned. “What do you think it means?”
“Means it could be a very exciting meeting.” He grinned. “What could go wrong? Other than they bring down the building throwing lightning bolts at each other or something.”
“Not funny, Spike.”
“Not really meant to be, love. Guess we’ll find out, someone’s about to knock on the door.” He pointed to his ear to indicate he’d heard someone approaching.
“Well, they must have made it this far…” Buffy went to the door and opened it just as Giles was raising his hand to knock. She frowned and stuck her head out to peer around. “Hi, Giles. Where’s Winston?”
“He’s studying the wards that surround this property and the building. Apparently they aren’t what he was expecting.” When Buffy and Spike exchanged looks, he added, “Is there something you haven’t told us?”
“Well, we don’t know anything exactly. But we’ve always kind of suspected our landlord is pretty skilled at—”
“He is incredibly adept, and therefore, one must assume quite powerful.” Winston’s voice preceded him to the door. “These are some of the most powerful, and at the same time, most subtle wards I have ever felt. I’m not sure even I could construct something like this.” His expression showed how disturbed he was, and Buffy was sure it wasn’t just because he’d found something he couldn’t do.
“So, what are you saying?” she demanded. “Are we living with—under—somebody evil?”
“I don’t know,” Winston said slowly, looking around the apartment as if he could find the answer lurking there somehow. “I’ve only known one man who had this much power and finesse, but he’s—”
“Not as dead as you think he is.”
They all whirled to face the still-open door.
“Master Maxmillian” Winston said, his voice showing more awe and emotion than they’d ever heard from him.
“Winston,” Max said. “It’s been a long time.” He stood in the doorway, as if not sure of his welcome.
Buffy and Spike spoke almost simultaneously.
“You know each other?”
“We did. Many decades ago, we were… compatriots,” Max said.
“Who chose opposite sides in a disagreement. We—I have assumed he was dead.”
“You’re not going to start throwing lightning bolts at each other, are you?”
“What?” They looked equally incredulous.
“Sorry. Just something dumb Spike said a while ago.” Buffy glared at him
to show it was all his fault.
“Was just jokin’,” Spike said as he walked to the door. “Why don’t you come in, Max, and I’ll see what I have in the way of refreshment. Seems like you and Winnie might have some catching up to do, yeah?”
Max nodded and entered the room, settling himself into the most comfortable chair, leaving the couch and the less comfortable chairs to the others. Buffy glanced around the room, belatedly realizing that the apartment was woefully short of things for guests to sit on. Spike leaned against the kitchen island, leaving the seating to Winston and Giles.
“We’re going to need more chairs for the party,” she said. “Maybe we can rent—”
“You’re more than welcome to use chairs from the meeting room,” Max said. “No one ever actually meets in there anyway.”
“Oh. Okay, thanks, Max.” Buffy smiled at him, then said, “Why don’t you all sit down. Spike has beer and other adult stuff that tastes terrible but some people like it…”
Giles sank into a chair and gestured for Winston to take the couch. Buffy watched his expression carefully as he stared back and forth between the two men, one of whom seemed so young, and yet who could say it had been “decades” since the two mages had worked together. The other of whom looked only somewhat older. If asked to guess Max’s age, Buffy would have been hard put to even narrow it down to a range, never mind anything more specific. It seemed Giles was having the same problem.
“Once again, I am reminded that you are older than you seem,” he said to Winston. “I don’t suppose you’d care to be more specific as to how long it has been since you two were… colleagues?”
“I would not,” Winston said as he settled onto the couch and nodded at Spike’s silent question as he held up a bottle of beer. He accepted the bottle with a grateful smile, and took a large swallow while Spike handed out bottles of beer to the other two men. When he’d finished with their guests and handed Buffy a Diet Coke, Spike sat on the other end of the couch from Winston.
Buffy frowned at him, wondering if placing himself between the two mages was a smart thing to do, remembering his comment about lightning bolts. He smiled at her and said, “Go ahead and sit, love. If these two want to go at it, there probably isn’t much either one of us can do about it. Isn’t that right, gents?” He finished by turning his attention to the men on either side of him, smiling at first one, then the other.
“I can assure you any differences we had are well in the past, and we pose no danger to anyone in this room.” Winston glanced at Max. “Isn’t that true, Master Maxmillian?”
Max nodded. “Quite true, and please call me Max. I have not been an instructor for a very long time. I live a quiet life with few responsibilities.”
Winston raised his eyebrows. “So it would seem. How and why have you managed to remain hidden for so long? And why are you permitting me to find you now?”
“As to why and how I have remained hidden—I believe you understand why.” He gestured to the others in the room. “It is up to you whether or not you share that with your friends. The how should be fairly obvious, as even you didn’t know until you’d studied my security system and seen me in the doorway. And you’ve been living in the same small city for over a year.”
Winston nodded. “Quite right. The wards were not noticeable until I was actual close enough to test them. You and your surroundings would appear to be quite ordinary to anyone else. And so quite safe from unwanted visitors,” he added.
“See, Slayer? I told you we didn’t have to lock our door.” Spike tipped his own beer at Max, who gave him a faint smile of acknowledgement.
“And that brings us back to why you are here now and willing to let me know you’re still in the world. Not,” Winston added, “that I’m not happy to know you are, but if you wanted to remain unnoticed, I’m sure you could have found a way.”
“Probably so,” Max said with no trace of false modesty. “But it has occurred to me that the current danger could be disruptive to my need for a quiet life, and I thought it was time to acknowledge it and perhaps offer my services.”
“You know about Glory?” Buffy jumped to her feet.
“There was no way not to once I’d felt the initial spells.” He smiled at Winston and Giles. “Good job on taking care of the first one without causing side effects,” he said. “That was well done.”
Winston looked pleased, then caught himself and muttered, “Once a teacher, always a teacher,” causing Max to shrug before he continued.
“But the other spell that is hiding the Key is still in effect. I am every bit as much a part of it as everyone else—” He sent a sharp look at Buffy and Spike. “—with the possible exception of my extraordinary tenants. However, I am not unaware that it exists. And somewhat in awe of those who created it, if I am honest.”
“Yeah, those monks were pretty clever,” Buffy said blandly. “It’s kind of mind-boggling.” She managed to agree with Max, without actually saying what it was the monks had done with the Key or admitting that there might be more to their own story than he knew.
Max gave her a gentle smile and didn’t pursue it. “In any event, it is obvious that defeating a hellgod without destroying its human host, might require the combined efforts of everyone in this room, as well as Buffy’s young witch friend, who has yet to even grasp how much potential she has.”
“You mean Willow? I mean, yeah, she’s pretty powerful, but she didn’t even notice your wards until I asked her to try to find them. And you’ve never met her.”
Winston gave a wry smile. “Trust me, not being able to find those wards has less to do with Willow’s native abilities and more to do with her training.” He gave Giles an apologetic glance. “Not that I don’t sympathize with the difficulty you’ve had getting her to accept magical advice, Rupert. I wasn’t faulting you, only pointing out that at this time her abilities far exceed her knowledge of how to use them. In spite of our best efforts to guide her, she has not had the same… intensive… mentoring I have.”
Giles sighed and nodded. “My own training and abilities are adequate, at best. Only what watchers are expected to know how to do— disinvite spells and the like. And a few things from my misspent youth… none of which would be useful in this case.”
“Ah, don’t underrate yourself, Giles. You never know when we might want to summon a demon.” Buffy grinned at him as he glared at her. “Maybe we could sic Eyghon on Glory.”
“I suspect he is already on her payroll,” Winston said dryly. He turned to Max. “So, you are suggesting you are willing to help us prevent Glory from finding her Key?”
Max nodded. “If you will have me, I would contribute whatever I can.”
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