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Christmas Care(ol)
 
Christmas Care(ol)
 


As Charles Dickens himself said in the epigraph for A Christmas Carol, a story worth far more in message and measure than this silly thing:

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.


 

    “And this one’s for you,” Buffy said, handing her mother a box. “It’s from Spike and me.” It was Christmas Eve, and everyone was at Buffy’s mother’s place. Giles was still blind and thousands of miles from mother England, Spike was still technically Buffy’s husband even though they hadn’t really had a full night together since their honeymoon, Xander needed to be under constant protection from demon attacks, and he hated holidays with his family anyway, and Anya had no family beyond the leader of the vengeance demons, who regarded her with disappointment. Willow was still missing. The only way any happy holidays could happen was with everyone together. The Christmas tree sparkled and the fireplace roared, and Joyce was happy to put Xander and Anya up in the guest room and Giles on the couch.

    Joyce opened up the cardboard box and exclaimed. The necklace glittered in the light with iridescent rainbow shimmers, the medallions clicking as she held it up to examine it. “It’s beautiful!” she cried. “Where on earth did you get it?”

    “Spike made it,” Buffy said.

    “Buffy and me,” Spike said with a bit of a grin. “She killed the demon.”

    Joyce put the necklace down hastily. “D-demon?”

    “They’re scales from something called a Ghora,” Buffy said. “Kind of a dragony thing. They mostly live underground, but with Xander all demon-tasty...”

    “It came out for a bit of sport,” Spike said. “Your little one took it out.”

    “You helped.”

    “I only cut off a head,” Spike said modestly. “You took the heart.” He bent down and kissed her just below the ear. “Took mine too,” he whispered to her.

    Buffy shrugged him off, but not entirely unhappily. This was a good day. They’d managed to avoid starting an argument now for a good four hours. Joyce helped. She was a comforting presence to both of them, and tended not to take sides when something seemed to be escalating. “It’s from a demon?” Joyce asked.

    “Not a sentient one or anything,” Buffy said. “Just kind of a big lizardy thing. Spike was the one who said the scales were pretty. I said shame we can’t make a necklace or something, and he took over from there.”

    “I didn’t know you made jewelry,” Joyce said.

    Spike shrugged. “Not real well or anything. The scales shaped themselves. Drill here, chain link there, hook it all together. Easy.”

    “Still, it was very thoughtful of you,” Joyce said. “I will bet that no other mother in the world has something like this.” She hugged her daughter. “Thank you Buffy!”

    Despite the fact that the necklace really was beautiful, Buffy had the feeling it was going to go filed in the jewelry box alongside the clay bead necklace she’d made for her mother the year she was eleven. It was troublesome that her greatest gift lay in killing things. Even Spike, deadly murderous demon, could at least create something out of all that death. Buffy was simply... slaying. “I also got you a candle,” she added, and handed her the wrapped glass jar.

    Joyce breathed in the scent of cranberry and sighed. “Lovely,” she said. She set the candle on the mantlepiece and lit it immediately. “You know, this reminds me of last Christmas, when it was so hot, and then it got so cold.”

    “Yeah, I nearly froze my ears off, trying to camp out,” Xander complained.

    “You should have come and had Christmas with us,” Joyce said. “Faith was here, and then, what, didn’t Angel come over for a...” Joyce trailed off at the joint white faces that had both jerked up to stare at her.  Buffy and Spike were both staring at her in a desperate horror, silently begging her not to finish that statement. “How is Faith, anyway?” she added, but that didn’t seem to make things any less stressful for Buffy.

    “Still in a coma,” Buffy said.

    “Didn’t you stab her?” Anya asked bluntly. Xander tried to hush her.

    “Who’s Faith?” Spike asked, unaware of the touchy subject.

    “Oh, it doesn’t matter,” Joyce said, lightly. “Just an old friend of Buffy’s. I’d forgotten they’d had such a falling out.”

    Joyce hadn’t known the details of the attack on Faith. Buffy had only told her mother that Faith was injured trying to kill Angel – which was more or less the truth, though it left a lot unsaid.

    “Buffy and I will talk about it later,” Joyce added, with enough inflection that Buffy knew she wouldn’t be able to deflect that story next time the subject arose. “Giles, how’s the house hunting going?” she asked.

    “Ah, slowly,” Giles said. “I’m having trouble finding someplace that will accommodate all of us, but I have my eyes on something. Or… my realtor does, anyway. If I can get it down to a reasonable price, it might do.”

    “I can live in a crypt or a warehouse or a hole in the ground, if it actually gets me in a place with my wife and out of Xander’s basement,” Spike said.

    “And me out of Xander’s basement,” Anya said. “I swear, Spike spends more time with Xander than I do lately.”

    “Anya, we discussed this,” Xander said. He was jumpy. Willow’s demon magnet spell was really starting to weigh on him. Three weeks of constant demon attacks, and everything made him nervous. He clung to Spike or Buffy like a limpet any time he left his basement, and jumped every time a noise made him think something else was coming for him. The demons who attacked were bad enough. It was the ones who tried to mate with him that creeped him the hell out. Some of the demons – like Clem and some others – just liked to stop by to see him every couple of days and say hi, (Spike had started a bi-weekly poker-game for the regulars, as he called them) but for the most part the demons were not after mere conversation and a casual game. “I need Spike or Buffy like... all the time.”

    “I know, but there’s no private room in your basement.”

    “I keep telling you I don’t mind watch–”

    “I mind!” Xander said loudly. “Joyce, tell me more about Angel? He was here last Christmas?”

    It was cruel of Xander to bring him up again, but he knew it would get the subject off his sex life. “Only for an hour or two,” Joyce said. “After it started snowing. He and Faith got on surprisingly well.”

    Buffy had gone white. “Can we talk about something else?” Buffy asked. “Hey, Spike’s out of blood. Anyone want to get Spike more blood?” Buffy usually hated talking about Spike’s dining preferences.

    “Did you need any more to drink, Spike?” Joyce asked. “I got some lamb’s blood from the butcher.”

    Spike made an interested noise. “Never had lamb,” he said. He was still new to the whole butcher’s blood thing.

    The rest of the evening went fairly well –only two demon magnet attacks, and one of them was only Clem, who stayed for half an hour talking Knight Rider with Xander – but the shadow of Angel never really left the party. It was after midnight before Joyce suggested it was bedtime. Xander and Anya retreated up to the guest room, and Buffy was left to make up the couch for Giles. By the time he was snuggled in by the crackling fire, Spike appeared to have gone. Buffy half hoped he’d left with Clem without saying anything, but she doubted it. Sure enough, he was waiting for her in her own bedroom when she got up there.

    He looked strange, there. Red shirt and black t-shirt and white hair. He was sexy as all hell, and he was in there. He’d never been in her bedroom before. Never. This was not a room where she’d ever had sexy thoughts about Spike. Deadly, hey he’s going to kill me, and Angel, tell me more about how dangerous he is thoughts. But never sexy ones. “Hey,” she said.

    Spike wrapped his arms around her waist. “Merry Christmas, Buffy,” he whispered, and he kissed her. Buffy’s heart beat wildly and she felt her skin flushing as it always did whenever Spike touched her. They’d had so little time together, and this spell – because it had to be a spell – fired her so wildly she could barely understand it. For a moment she considered abandoning her resolve and just falling into bed for – she’d counted them – only the fifth time since their honeymoon, but no. No. This was home. This was her childhood bedroom (or at least her high-school bedroom.) Denigrating it by falling into wild demon-sex with Spike seemed a new low.

    Not that she and Angel hadn’t done some rolling around on her bed before things had exploded so spectacularly. Of course... Buffy wasn’t sure that wasn’t the problem. This bedroom was steeped in memories of Angel. The window where he kept sneaking in. The drawer where she still kept his ring. The closet, the floor... there was no part of this bedroom where she could not remember Angel standing or talking or pacing or turning all vampy. He’d been here last Christmas eve, weeping, panting with desire, wanting to throw her onto the bed....

    This room had always been for her and Angel.

    She pushed Spike off gently. “Um. There’s a cot down the basement,” she said. “Might... might be safer for when the sun comes up.”

    Spike pulled her close again. “I think we can pull the curtains,” he said with a seductive grin.

    Buffy stepped away. “I’d... um....”

    “What?” Spike said. He petted her hair and tilted his head. “Been a while, huh? I can’t forget the last time we snuck up to your dorm. Do you want me to try that again?”    

    “Try what?” Buffy asked, wishing he wasn’t so damn sexy.

    “That, ah... thing with your neck...?” he said, bending down to put his mouth on it. “You know, that made you forget how to–”

    “No,” Buffy said, shrugging him off. “Not here.”

    Spike pouted. “Why not?”

    “Hello! Home. Mom,” she hissed.

    “We’re married,” Spike said. “I’m pretty sure your mum knows you’re not a blushing virgin.”

    “Yeah, but this is my room.”

    “What, and Angel never slept here?”

    Angel had slept there the very first night she’d ever invited him into her home. “I–” Buffy stopped. “That’s not the point.”

    “I think that’s exactly the point,” Spike said, annoyingly astute. How did he always manage to guess exactly what she was thinking? He stepped back. “You think I’m not good enough for you.”

    “Spike–”

    “No. I’m good enough for your dorm, but not for home. College is where you can experiment, but as soon as you take me home to your mum–”

    “Mom was at our wedding!” Buffy said. “But this is my bedroom, and she shouldn’t have people going at it on Christmas eve in her own home–”

    “Xander and Anya are at it right now, down the hall,” Spike pointed out.

    Buffy couldn’t hear a whimpering woman as clearly as Spike’s vampire ears could, but she didn’t doubt it. It still bothered her. “I don’t want to.”

    “Fine,” he said, without apparent annoyance. “But why are you kicking me out?”

    “Because it’s my bedroom!”

    “And I’m your husband.” Spike glared. “You don’t even want me to hold you here?”

    The idea terrified her. She’d never just snuggled down with Spike. Their honeymoon had been sweet, then fierce, then heated, then like a dream. They’d only had a weekend. If she’d slept at all, she didn’t remember it. She suspected she’d been too keyed up to sleep. Then Spike had gone back to Xander’s and she’d been at the dorm. They’d had a few torrid trysts in her dorm room with Xander downstairs in the lounge, and they’d had some sordid and hurried moments in Giles’ bathroom, and a few behind buildings or out in the cemeteries while they were on patrol. But they couldn’t leave Xander alone for long, and there hadn’t really been any space anywhere. Nowhere private enough.

    “Spike, I just feel weird about it.”

    Spike stared at her. “You feel weird,” he said. “You didn’t feel weird by the dumpster behind the magic shop,” he said. “Or under the slide at the elementary school.”

    “It was two in the morning! There weren’t any kids.”

    “There aren’t any kids now,” Spike said. He straightened his shoulders. “You don’t want to sleep with me.”

    “Spike–”

    “No, you don’t. We’re married, but... you still think it’s a spell, don’t you.”

    “It is a spell.”

    “So? We’re married. I get if you feel weird around your mum, but... I just wanna hold you.” He came up and pulled her closer to him, his cool hands sliding around her shoulders. “I just want to hold you. Curl up beside you... feel your heat against me... pet my wife until she purrs....”

    Buffy’s breath caught, but she shrugged him off anyway. “No. If you stay, you know we’ll–”

    “So?”

    “So, I don’t want you here.”

    Spike glared at her. “That’s not the problem, actually,” he said. “You do want me here. You want me outside, and at school, and down on the counter in the kitchen. And the whole idea of that scares the hell out of you.”

    Buffy rolled her eyes. “Spike, you don’t understand–”

    “Yeah, actually, I do,” he said. He stepped away. “I do understand you. I think it’s you who doesn’t understand.” Spike was clearly hurt. Buffy felt bad, but she didn’t know what to do about it. She was terrified to touch him. If she did, she feared she’d break her resolve. “I love you, Buffy.” He shook his head. “But you won’t let me. You stood by my side and you bear my ring on your finger. You’ll fight beside me, and you’ll buy my blood, and you’ll shag me, but you won’t let me love you.” He stepped away. “I don’t know what you think a marriage is about, but this? Not it.” He pulled out a cigarette. “Yeah,” he said, sliding it unlit into his mouth. “I’ll be in the basement in the morning. Night, pet.” He headed down the stairs, and Buffy caught a whiff of smoke before he made it to the front door.

    Buffy felt bad. What would have been so bad about letting Spike stay? Now that the door was open, she could clearly hear Anya and Xander taking advantage of a private room, guarded from demons by a slayer in the house. Their rhythmic breathing was muffled as they tried not to disturb the household, but... it was a small house.

    Buffy closed her bedroom door and rubbed her eyes. God dammit. This night had been going so well, and now... but she just couldn’t face the idea of Spike in her bed. Not with the ghost of Angel still here haunting it.

    She sighed and slid between the sheets, wearing her silky red pajamas. It had been a long time since she’d been home. She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, with the lights from her neighbor’s Christmas display glowing through the window.

    As she lay with her eyes closed, the dim glow seemed to grow brighter, and then brighter, and she opened her eyes to a sparkling swirl of Christmas lights, twirling and twirling in her bedroom. Demon! she thought, and sat upright, ready to do battle. But the swirling lights slowed down to reveal a little girl, her dress trimmed with Christmas lights as if she were a tree. Buffy was going to ask what the hell kind of demon she was when she realized she knew her. “Celia?” she asked.

    It was her cousin Celia. Celia who had died when she was only eight years old, killed by the demon Der Kindestod, which Buffy had finally managed to take out a couple years ago. “Hi, Buffy!” Celia said. “Do you like my dress?”

    “Celia, what are you doing here?”

    “I’ve come to play,” Celia said. “That’s what kids do, don’t they? They play? Do you like my Christmas dress?” She swirled again, and Buffy was dazzled by the light.

    “It’s beautiful,” Buffy said. “But... I thought you were dead.”

    “I am,” Celia said. “But I wanted to spend Christmas with my favorite cousin. Now that you really are Power Girl,” she said.

    Her childhood name stabbed at Buffy, and she scrambled out of bed. “I’m sorry, Celia,” she said. “I should have been able to save you.... I... I couldn’t see the demon at the time, I–”

    “That’s okay,” Celia said. “Christmas is Christmas, even if I can’t be here now. I was there then. Remember?” Celia swirled again, and the sparkles from the lights seemed to turn the whole world with them. Buffy found herself in her livingroom. But it wasn’t her own livingroom in Sunnydale, but her livingroom in LA. The Christmas tree stood in the corner, bright and sparkling, and a younger Buffy and little Celia in a princess tiara were playing around it. Buffy had a toy sword taken from a nut-cracker, and Celia was playing the captured princess, about to be rescued by Power Girl. The two girls laughed joyously. Buffy remembered that Christmas. She missed Christmases like that. Ones that made sense. “Christmas used to be happy,” Buffy said.

    “Was it?” Celia asked. The glowing lighted Celia looked up at her, unseen by the two playing children.

    “Yes,” Buffy said. “I remember this Christmas with you. Santa brought you a toy puppy, and I got a make-up kit. We had so much fun.”

    “Christmas wasn’t always like that,” Celia said.

    “Yes it was,” Buffy said. The scene changed, and there was Buffy, and Joyce, and Hank, around a Christmas tree, opening presents. Buffy had just opened a doll, and was hugging her, and her parents were beaming happily, and Buffy looked pointedly at Celia. “See?”

    “You’ve forgotten, haven’t you.”

    “What do you mean?”

    A crash of thunder resounded, and rain began to fall outside. Buffy didn’t want to know where – or rather when – they were, but she did.

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Hank shouted. They were in the kitchen. The Christmas tree was in a different spot in the livingroom, abandoned. No one was huddled around it. There were presents, but they were sitting there unopened. Ignored. They were only things that didn’t matter. Rain poured from the California sky, and echoed the thunder in the kitchen.

    “You’re kidding me,” Joyce said. “You spent this kind of money on plane tickets to Spain, and you thought I wouldn’t find out?”

    “It was a business trip! I told you I was going to a conference.”

    “Yeah. I was thinking Fresno. I was thinking work. Not taking your goddamn sex-retary on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Mediterranean!”

    “It was work,” Hank exploded. “I had to take Paige. She’s part of the team!”

    “I see you weren’t paying for Ted’s tickets, or Andy’s, or even Angela’s! They’re all part of the team too!”

    “They have a higher income than Paige,” Hank said. “They could afford their own tickets.”

    “Did you pay for her hotel room as well? It doesn’t look like it!” Joyce accused. “What? Did you share to save costs?”

    Buffy wanted to do what she had done in real life – hold her hands over her ears and flee to her bedroom so she wouldn’t have to listen. In a way, she did. She looked down on her own fifteen-year-old self, holding onto her head in her bedroom, sitting on her bed, pretending the whole fight downstairs wasn’t happening.

    “Wasn’t this Christmas, too?” Celia asked.

    “But other Christmases weren’t like this,” Buffy said. “Christmas was a happy time.”

    “Was it really?” Celia asked. She spun again, and Buffy caught flashes of moments in the swirling lights. Buffy and her mother setting out cookies, and all alone, because Hank was off at work that year, and hadn’t bothered to come home for Christmas. More fights. The Christmas morning when Joyce ran away and started to cry – Buffy never did find out why. Almost every Christmas had a moment – even if it was only in Buffy’s childhood periphery – where something sad or terrible happened, and she hadn’t let herself see it. Joyce spent a lot of her Christmases in bed, alone.

    Just like Buffy was, right now.

    “Why are you showing me this?” Buffy said. “I don’t want to remember all this.”

    “But this is Christmas,” Celia said. “Don’t you want to remember what Christmas was like?”

    “Not like this,” Buffy said. “I remember Christmas as perfect. Isn’t it supposed to be perfect?”

    “Nothing’s ever perfect,” Celia said. “But that’s okay. I couldn’t stay long anyway. You know I couldn’t. Someone took me away.”

    “I’m sorry about that,” Buffy said.

    Celia shrugged. “People go away,” she said. “That’s what happens. You can’t be perfect, either. You saved other kids, right?”

    “I try,” Buffy said.

    “You go, Power Girl,” Celia said with a grin. “I always knew you’d save the princess.”

    “But never get the prince,” said a darker voice behind Buffy.

    Buffy whirled. “Faith?”

    Celia, and her glowing Christmas dress was gone, and there was only Faith, standing in a dark room, as if in a spotlight, sultry and dark and dangerous. “Faith, hope, and charity,” Faith said. “Isn’t that what they all say around Christmas?”

    “I thought it was Faith, Hope and Redemption.”

    Faith shrugged. “One or the other. Or none, in my case.”

    “Mom was asking after you,” Buffy asked.

    “Was she?” Faith asked. “She’s a sweet gal, your mom."

    “How are you?”

    “Should I say five by five?” Faith asked. “More of a one by five. I can understand you, but there’s barely any signal.”

    “Is that what that means?”

    “Old radio jargon,” Faith said. “But why I know that is the purview of the past, and that’s not what this little jaunt is for.”

    “What is it for, then?”

    Faith shrugged. “Dunno. Someone said hello.” She stepped out of the darkness and into another pool of light, and Buffy followed her there. To Buffy’s surprise, there was another Faith, not dressed in a midriff revealing black t-shirt and leather pants, but pale, still, locked in her coma, lying in a hospital bed, hooked to monitors and an IV. And she wasn’t alone. Someone sat by her side, holding her still hand, with a sad look on his face.

    “Is that Wesley?” Buffy asked. “What’s Wesley doing here?”

    “Merry Christmas, Faith,” Wesley said quietly. “I thought, since I was pretty sure you too were alone this Christmas, you might not begrudge an old watcher a few moments. I thought I might read to you a bit.”

    “Don’t do me any favors, Pryce,” Faith said, but she said it softly. “You’re only here ‘cause you’ve nowhere else to go.”

    Buffy wondered at that. She hadn’t heard from Wesley Windham-Pryce since he’d left Sunnydale after graduation. He’d been planning on going back to England, but Giles had said something about him being fired by the watchers council, and deciding to hang on in America. Giles was right, Buffy supposed. And here he was alone, spending his Christmas eve... with Faith.

    “I’m sorry, Faith,” Wesley said then. “I’m sorry I failed you. I was a poor watcher, and I failed both my slayers. But in particular, you. I’ve been thinking... perhaps if a more experienced watcher had been sent... perhaps there could have been someone who understood you better... could see the path you were heading down before you’d gone so far... maybe you wouldn’t be here now.”

    “I’m here now because B here stabbed me in the belly,” Faith said with a bit of a grin, tossing herself onto the bed beside her own comatose form. “But you shouldn’t be all guiltified, man. I didn’t want to be understood. I wanted to get one over on you.”

    “I thought I’d read you my favorite Christmas story. It reads aloud very well,” Wesley said. “A Christmas Carol. Stave the first.”

    “You’re gonna read me a Christmas Carol?” Faith asked, speaking over Wesley. “I suppose I should expect a watcher to start reading me something by some dead, boring English guy. I don’t suppose you wanna read me some sports stats? Or better yet, skip all that and find me some good solid porn. I’ve been sitting in this bed for months, and I haven’t gotten my freak on save that once... and I don’t suppose that really counts, now, does it.”

    Buffy did not want to ask what Faith meant by her last statement. She hoped Faith had only been talking about some kind of dream, though... no. Anything else didn’t bear thinking about.

    “Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail,” Wesley read, unable to hear Faith. “Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

    “If you want me to stay in this coma, keep reading, Wes!” Faith said, but Wesley seemed to be enjoying the play of words on his tongue. Buffy had to admit, Wesley’s accent seemed made to read Dickens.

    “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.

    “Sounds familiar,” Faith said. “I wonder if he’s trying to reform me.”

    The truth is, it did sound familiar. Not the greed and the covetousness, but secret, and self-contained, and solitary... hard and sharp as flint....

    The image of Spike striking up his lighter for his cigarette, in a desperate need to do something with his hands flickered in Buffy’s head.

    “I’m done with this,” Faith said. “Wanna see who else is having a blast this Christmas?”

    “I–”

    But Faith took Buffy’s arm and ran with her back out of the pool of light and into another one. And there was Angel, with Cordelia of all people, decorating a Christmas tree. Angel... did not look miserable. He never looked perky or anything, but Cordelia certainly did, and Angel seemed pleased to be with her. “So, Angel’s doing just fine without me,” Buffy snapped. “Is that supposed to bother me?”

    “I dunno. But he’s out here with Cordelia, not holed up in his room brooding.” She shrugged. “I guess he knows it’s better not to be alone. Not like you and me, huh?” She rolled her eyes. “I can still hear Wes reading.” She was acting as if she hated it, but Buffy could see the lightness in her eyes. The dark slayer was secretly pleased she hadn’t been forgotten.

    “Let’s see if we can find somewhere with more action, huh?” She ran on with Buffy, until Buffy found herself at a party in a room she didn’t recognize. But she recognized a lot of the people at the party. They were older, by a few years, but most of them had been at her old highschool in LA. They were classmates of hers. They were all together, dancing to pop music. Together at Christmas.

    And as Faith pulled her on, Buffy saw that boy... what was his name? Jonathan. Playing Dungeons and Dragons with two other boys, with a Christmas wreath on his head. What appeared to be a Star Trek Christmas album was playing in the background. She hadn’t realized Jonathan had friends. She was glad of it. And then there was –

    “Willow!” Buffy cried out. There was Willow, looking very tall, talking earnestly with a sad-faced girl in what sounded like German. The room was decorated for Christmas, and a romantic dinner was clearly set up, but one of the wine glasses was broken, and the girl had a bruise on her face. Was Anya right, was Willow a vengeance demon? It certainly looked as if she could be about to take vengeance for this girl. Buffy hadn’t known that Willow spoke German, after all. Buffy found herself pleased that the beaten girl wasn’t alone.

    And then there were others, people Buffy didn’t recognize at all, curled up with lovers, or talking to family, or hugging children, more and more and more, scene after scene, people, friends, families, all together at Christmas. “Who are these people?” Buffy asked.

    “Who do you think?” Faith asked. “These are people you saved.”

    “What?”

    “These are people you’ve saved,” Faith said. “Friends, family. They’re all together now, here, at Christmas, because you rescued them from vampires or saved them from demons or took them out of harm’s way. Really, you’ve saved the world; technically, I could take you to any house at all and it would be full of people you’ve saved.”

    “I suppose... that’s true,” Buffy said.

    “And they all have each other,” Faith said. “Who do you have?”

    “Uh... well, mom. And Xander and Giles. And...”

    They were back in the dark bedroom suddenly. “Sure look all alone to me,” Faith said.

    “I’m not all alone!” Buffy snapped, but Faith was gone. For a long moment Buffy felt barren and empty. The room did look very, very lonely, in the dark, colder than usual, smelling just a little musty because it wasn’t being lived in. The room seemed very big, suddenly, and Buffy found herself feeling very small.

    “I’m not all alone,” Buffy whispered. The whisper seemed to echo.

    And then, standing all alone, it seemed is if there were two Buffys, both of them standing alone, but only one of them was her. The other girl stood in the middle of the room, looking lost, small, and very young. “What are you doing in here?” Buffy asked the girl.

    The girl looked up at her. Her long brown hair was very straight and smooth, and she stared at Buffy with wide, frightened eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble.”

    “You haven’t caused any trouble,” Buffy said, instantly knowing the girl as her sister though, dreamlike, she’d never had a sister before, and she had no idea where she’d come from. She put her arms around her and pulled her close. “It’s okay.”

    “But it’s not,” the girl said. “I am trouble. So much evil seems to come from me. I don’t mean to do it, but I cause so much suffering and pain, and everyone around me dies....”

    “That’s not true!” Buffy felt an instinctive need to protect the girl. “It’s going to be all right, you’ll see.”

    “How? Look around you,” she said. “Look at what’s coming.”

    Buffy blinked, and saw legions of otherworldly soldiers in chainmaile, mustering, practicing, riding horses as if they’d punch holes through armored tanks. The brown-haired girl was before them, standing as if before a firing squad, her face pale, her eyes wide with fear. “No!” Buffy lunged for her and pulled her away, only to find them surrounded by shuffling, mad-eyed minions, muttering and shouting nonsense. One of them grabbed at Buffy, and another one started shouting at the girl. “I see you! I see what you are! Green energy, you don’t belong here! You don’t belong!”

    “Yes, she does!” Buffy shouted, and pulled the girl back, shunting her behind her as suddenly she faced a grave stone. It was silent and grim compared to the shouting army and the raving madmen, but the name on the stone terrified her. Joyce Summers. Devoted mother. She was the best of us. “No!” Buffy threw herself at the stone, digging at the ground before her, only to hear the girl she’d abandoned scream.

    Buffy whirled to see a woman in a bright red dress smiling through painted red lips as she seized Buffy’s sister. “Look what you left for me, princess,” the woman said. “And here I thought finding my key was gonna be hard. But you just gift wrapped her!” The woman tossed her blond hair and laughed. “Can you believe that some old monks thought that the slayer could protect you from delightful ol’ me? They should all know better than that. I’m too fabulous for those kinds of tricks.” She took up the girl and threw her into the sky, and Buffy knew she’d never get her back. Buffy sobbed. Her sister was gone. Her sister was gone, and her mother was gone, and Angel was gone, and there was no one in the world who stood by her, no one strong enough to stand with her to help her, no one...!

    “Take my hand, pet!”

    Spike’s rough voice cut through the despair. He stood on Joyce’s gravestone, for that extra boost of height, and he reached down and pulled Buffy up with him. “Stand on my shoulders. You can reach her then.”

    “You’ll be hurt,” Buffy said, unreasonably given the circumstances. She was desperate – why should she care?

    “Yeah,” Spike said. “Hang on nibblet!” he shouted up into the sky where Buffy’s sister waited to be rescued. “We’ll be right there!”

    Buffy hesitated. “I’m counting on you to protect her,” she said to Spike.

    “To the end of the world,” Spike promised. “Now, go!” He took Buffy’s hand and threw her into the sky after the girl, and then stood at the offence to face the supernatural woman in red. Buffy knew she could kill him, but he was still standing strong. And Buffy was falling... or flying... and she opened her eyes in her own room again.

    She really was in her own room this time. She was sure of it. Her heart was pounding and sweat stood on her brow and she was trembling. Damn slayer dreams – she knew it was one of those prophetic ones, and unfortunately, she had no idea what the hell it meant. And also, it was already fading. Dammit! She wished she’d bothered to start a dream journal like Giles had told her.

    What had she dreamt? Celia, she remembered her, and her parents fighting. Okay. And then Faith, and Wesley, and Angel with Cordelia... okay. And then a girl... a girl.... Damn. It was leaving. Except...

    Except Spike. Spike, standing tall, hauling her up, helping her to protect. It was a mad image. Spike, the evil demon, harsh and murderous, wanting to help her save someone, save anyone at all. And yet... there he was. There he was beside her in her dream – her slayer dream – her prophetic slayer dream. Helping her. Her ally, her companion, her shield-mate. Buffy climbed up out of bed and looked out the window. Darkness shrouded the neighborhood, but glittering Christmas lights shone festively on the houses, glowing white and green and red.

    Another red glow caught her eye. A thought struck her. Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight? But it wasn’t Rudolph the red nosed reindeer. It was Spike, with a cigarette, lurking outside under a tree. She’d thought he’d gone.

    Waiting for demons, she realized. Still standing guard, so that Anya and Xander could at least have their private moment, and so that Buffy could sleep.

    A moment later Buffy found herself on the porch. “Hey.”

    Spike glanced up at her. “‘lo, love.”

    “Um... I was being unfair before,” she said. “You’re right. Mom knows we’re married.”

    Spike only gazed at her. He didn’t say a word.

    “If you wanted to come up... to bed... I....” She swallowed. She didn’t know how to ask. “I’d like the company.”

    “You sure?” Spike asked. “Wouldn’t wanna wound the old lady’s delicate sensibilities.”

    Buffy smirked. “You think you could shock her?”

    Spike grinned. “I think we both could.” He joined her on the porch and pulled her into an embrace. Power, and strength, and evil, all tempered by a love she couldn’t understand and a tenderness that somehow seemed more violent than all of it. “We don’t have to shock her. Or do anything, really. We got married so quick... I really have been waiting for a chance to just hold you...”

    Buffy closed her eyes, unable to face the ferocity of his love. He held her hand as they went back upstairs. As he curled up against her in her bed, her heart beat wildly, and she trembled. “What’s the matter, love?”

    “I’m frightened,” Buffy whispered.

    “Of what?”

    Buffy hesitated. “The last time a man held me in this bed, it was Angel.”

    Spike sighed, finally understanding. “Well,” he said. “That was a while ago.”

    “Before the spell,” Buffy said distinctly.

    “Before a lot of things, pet,” Spike said. “Before the microchip. Before the wedding.” He kissed her gently. “And before this.” He kissed her over and over again. “I love you, pet.”

    “And you really believe it’s real?” Buffy asked, not for the first time.

    “I believe you make me happy,” Spike said. “I believe I care for you.”

    Buffy frowned. She’d seen the movie, but, “Have you ever read a Christmas Carol?” she asked.

    “Dickens? Yeah, why?”

    “Did you like it?”

    “I did a long time ago.”

    “When?”

    Spike hesitated, and then gave her what she wanted to hear. “When I was still human, love.”

    “What were you like?”

    Spike chuckled. “You wouldn’t have liked me,” he said.

    “Why?”

    Spike bit his lip. “I doubt... that I would have been worthy of you. I wasn’t real strong back then.”

    “Would you have liked me?”

    “Buffy... if I didn’t worship the ground you walked on the moment you came into a room, I would have to have been blind, deaf and dumb.”

    “So... much like now, then.”

    Spike rolled her over and pinned her down with a grin. “Something like that. Why the hell are you asking about A Christmas Carol?”

    “I had a dream,” Buffy said. “Past, present, future, the whole bit.”

    Spike shook his head. “And I always pick up the ones with the visions,” he said. “So what’s to come, slayer?”

    “I don’t know,” Buffy said. “But... I think... it might be that we’re supposed to face it together.”

    “I don’t believe in supposed to,” Spike said. “But I do believe in together.”

    Buffy wasn’t sure that she did. But with Spike’s hard, cool body holding her down, his breath heady in her face, her heart beating and her blood singing with him... for just this moment, she sure as hell wanted to. “Together,” she whispered. “To the end of the world.... Merry Christmas, Spike.”