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Santa Claws by Lilachigh
Chp 6 Consequences
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Chapter 6 Consequences

The very air seemed to glitter as the two couples and Eric walked deeper and deeper into the cavern. The
little boy's energy had come back with a rush. Of all of them, he seemed the least effected by the spell
that had cast them all into such dark despair.

The shelves and stacks of glorious toys and gifts seemed to be growing brighter and brighter with every
step the five of them took. It was growing lighter and warmer every second.

Spike cast a couple of nervous glances upwards, but he felt they were still inside. Whatever the light was,
it wasnt the bloody sun, thank god.

Xander risked a nervous sideways glance at Anya. She'd said very little since the red rage of jealousy had
faded from his eyes, but he could tell by the thin line her mouth had become that there was still a
reckoning to come between the two of them.

Some time soon they would have to sit down and talk out the whole Buffy thing. He sighed silently. He
knew only too well where his possessiveness came from. Buffy had been the only female friend he'd ever had
- apart from Willow - and because they'd been together since infancy, Red was beyond counting.

Buffy would have been blind over the years not to have noticed the way hed grown in stature when he was with
the two of them. But there'd always been Angel, although he'd hoped and waited - and then,
miraculously, he'd fallen for Cordelia. And for a short while, he'd been a Xander who was an OK guy, who
got the girl, the pretty one, too.

Then Spike had kidnapped him and Willow, Cordy had been injured and he was loser Xander again, the one
who messed up, the one who lost out. Okay, he had Anya now, but - he stared at the blond head of the man
walking in front of him - he didnt know how to forgive Spike for being the force behind Cordy leaving him.

Anya suddenly called out. "Buffy, how much further are we going to walk? We're miles from where we started
and there's still no sign of Santa Claus."

Buffy stopped and turned, her hand on the orphan's shoulder. "Eric thinks he knows where the other kids
are being kept."

The ex-demon shook her head. "You can't rely on the little boy," Anya went on. "This dimension is changing all the time. Time and distance have no meaning that we could understand. I mean, we seem to have been here for about an hour, but days might have passed back in Sunnydale."

"Oh great," Xander groaned. "Now you tell us." He swung a fist at a giant toy snowman standing sneering at him and yelped as his hand went straight through it.

"Buffy! Look the snowman - its not there. Its just --"

Disbelieving, Buffy pushed her hand through the snowmans head and frowned. "Thats weird."

"It's a hologram," Xander said.

"A portal, luv?" Spike asked.

Buffy nodded and turned to Eric. "Does this look familiar to you? Did you come this way?"

The little boy looked suddenly uncertain. "It was dark, different," he whispered. "I'm sorry, but we've walked an awful long way."

"OK, kid," Spike said. "Don't worry about it."

"So, we go through," Buffy said wearily. ""I need to find this Santa Claus before he does any more damage.

"You can't just hurl yourself through a mystical portal without knowing what's on the other side," Xander said.

"He's right," Anya added brightly. "I've told you before about all the different types of dimensions that exist. That doorway could lead anywhere - and Im getting hungry."

Spike strolled up to the snowman and kicked its knee. "Well, you might get lucky. Could be a world made of
burgers and chocolate shakes."

"Wow!" Erics eyes widened in anticipation.

Buffy sighed. "Knowing our luck, it'll be some disgusting fish world," she said. "But we've no choice. Xander - Anya - you can stay here if you want. Spike --"

A scarred eyebrow lifted as she turned to look at him. "I hope youre not going to do the brave little Slayer act, pet, and insist on going alone. You need someone to watch your back. I'll be right behind you."

"I'm going with Spike," Eric piped up, and the vampire looked down, startled to find the little boy had taken a firm grip of his hand and was clinging to it like a limpet.

"Oh, well all go," Xander said. "You're not leaving me to explain to Dawnie that we lost you in Toyland, Buffy."

"OK, we all go. Stay close."

With Eric between them, Buffy and Spike launched themselves at the snowman. There was a blinding flash, a bitter chill, and then they were rolling over and over on the ground on the other side. Seconds later, Xander and Anya followed.

"Well, about time! I've been expecting you for hours. What does it take to get you people to move a bit faster, Slayer?"

Buffy rolled onto her knees and froze for a second. Then she lifted her head, refusing to believe what she
was seeing. They were in a modern, streamlined office. One wall was lined with computers that flashed and buzzed, obviously dealing with vast amounts of information.

A large desk in the centre of the room was empty - except for a bottle of brandy. Sitting behind the desk squinting at them through a half full glass, badly in need of a shave, his feet propped up in front of him, his shirt half unbuttoned, was

"Ethan Rayne!" Buffy said in cold horror.

The renegade Englishman smiled warmly. "Slayer, how very nice of you to drop by. You can't imagine how delighted I am to see you."

"What the heck you mean, you're Santa Claus?" Xander blustered, looking appalled. "You can't be. You're in
prison in Nevada. You're evil."

"For my sins and I mean that quite sincerely, yes. But human prison doesn't matter to old magic. I was Chosen last year and I refuse, repeat, simply refuse to do it this year. Chosen or not, I'm retiring. Goodbye Santa Claus, hello world."

Buffy was staring round the room. "This is--"

"Christmas Headquarters. Oh, thereve been a lot of changes. All automated now, you know. The elves had to go. That was the first thing I did when I got here. Very unhappy about it they were. Went around muttering about pensions and retirement bonuses. They're still lurking about outside somewhere, waiting to cause trouble. All very boring."

Xander was staring at the computers, reading some of the screens. "So these are all--"

Ethan yawned and took another swig of brandy. "Boring little lists from boring little kiddies all over the world. All stored and noted. It isn't a difficult job, just bloody wearying being good all the time. And jolly. I dont do jolly."

Buffy crashed her fists down on the desk and swept his feet down onto the floor. His chair flew backwards and he went tumbling head first.

Spike leapt forward, hauled him up by his collar and dangled him, his toes an inch off the ground, in front of Buffy. "C..c..cant …b.br..br..breathe," he gasped, as the slim hand on his neck tightened its grasp.

"And you won't again if you dont tell me what you've done with the children," Buffy snapped.

"They're back home," Ethan gasped and at a sign from Buffy, Spike gave him a final shake and dropped him.

He staggered over to his desk and leant against it, massaging the red marks on his neck. "I only took them
because the elves refused to finish up all the intricate work before they left. I needed little fingers and the kids provided them. They've been perfectly happy. I gave them shakes and burgers."

"Cheap child labour," Anya said, her eyes brightening. "That's quite a good idea."

"So why take Eric?" Spike asked, swigging brandy out of the bottle and ignoring the glare Buffy sent in his direction.

"I had to make sure you'd find me - fast. I gambled on you getting in touch with D'Hoffryn and I knew he'd send you in the right direction, but you could have got hopelessly lost out there in the warehouse. I knew Eric would remember the way. I just hadn't banked on the dimension walls changing so much. That's why I had to make the portal, to get you here before Christmas Day. Can't you stop him drinking my brandy, Slayer?"

Buffy stared at him, bewildered. This old sparring partner of Giles always landed them in the deepest trouble. How the Powers had made him Santa Claus was beyond her. "You still haven't said what you want us for?"

"Ah - well - you see, as I told you, I refuse to be Santa any more. I'm taking early retirement, but the only way I can do that is to Choose my Successor."

"Yeah, like thats going to happen," Spike said. "You reckon were just going to sit back and let you push one of us into this job? You're crazy."

Ethan picked up his chair and sat down behind the desk. He stared at the four adults and Eric, then sighed. "To be truthful, Slayer, I had hoped dear Rupert would be with you today. I hadn't realised he was in England. I'd set my heart on him taking over from me."

"Look, no ones taking over from you. You've been Chosen. Live with it. I have to."

Ethan shook his head sadly. "Yes, you do, but you see, I don"t. Theres a sub-paragraph in section D, appendix AA of my contract that specifically states that if I voluntarily retire and forfeit my salary for the final three months, then whoever I suggest becomes Santa Claus. And sadly, he - or she - doesn't have a choice."

"You have a contract?" Buffy asked.

Ethan yawned. "Of course there's a contract, Slayer. I expect you have one, too. But dear Rupert probably never let you know. Itll be filed away somewhere in the Council headquarters. Mind you, I don't think youve got a get-out-of-gaol card like mine. Slayers are Chosen until death. Santa Claus has a little more latitude. But I expect there will be lots about working conditions, hours, holidays, that sort of thing."

Buffy dragged her mind away from the enticing possibilities of annual holiday leave and killing Giles because hed never told her. "So all this was just to get Giles here so you could off-load your job onto him."

Ethan finished the last drop of brandy in his glass, glanced wistfully at the bottle Spike was holding well away from him and nodded. "I've got plans to spend the holiday in St. Lucia, sitting on a beach, under a palm tree. It would have made everything perfect if I could have imagined Rupert fighting with the elves, trying to work the computers, delivering the presents, wearing the costume. Its the beard, you know, thats the problem. Scratchy."

"Well, Giles isnt here. So you'll just have to get on with it, won't you?" Buffy snapped. "Now tell us how to get back to Sunnydale? I want to check on those children and god help you, Ethan, if one hair on their heads has been harmed...."

"Tch, tch," the Englishman drawled, frowning. "You never used to be so touchy, Slayer." He shot a penetrating glance at Spike. "Not getting any recently, is that the problem?"

Spike growled and vamped out, but Buffy managed to grab the sleeve of his duster as he leapt forward. "Listen, Ethan. Send us back, or I'll let Spike do whatever he wants to you and then another Santa Claus will be Chosen."

"Slayer, Slayer, you're forgetting I'm human. Maybe not a particularly nice one, according to your grading, but are you really going to let your pet vampire kill me with all the consequences that will have for him? No, I'm leaving whatever you say or do, so there will be no Santa Claus working tonight, Christmas Eve. And so, end of the world, big bang. What fun."

"That's probably true," Anya broke in brightly. "An old magic contract like this, immense power surge if it gets broken. Like a million hydrogen bombs going off at the same time. Earth would just explode into tiny pieces."

Buffy stared around her, frantically searching for a solution. She could have cheerfully killed Ethan herself, let alone let Spike loose on him. "But you'll die, too," she said at last.

Ethan shrugged. "My dear Slayer, I am so bored and miserable that I would welcome death rather than be Santa Claus for even another hour."

"Choose someone else," Xander said suddenly.

Ethan shrugged. "No one else I hate enough. So I reckon I'll just let it all go with one big explosion because I'm out of here in the next half hour."

"You can't just let the world end," Spike snapped. "Bloody hell, I'll do it. Choose me. I'll even wear the sodding beard."

Ethan shook his head.

"Choose me!" The voice was hoarse, frightened, but firm.

"Xander! What the hell are you playing at?"

He turned and gave her a crooked grin. "Don't try and stop me, Buff. I need to do this."

"Why? Xander, this will be until you die! There's no going back."

Xander shot a glance towards Eric, his eyes desperate. "When Willow brought you back - you know - Spike said
to me that when you use magic there are always consequences."

"Too right!" the vampire nodded.

"I called Sweet, and we can all see the consequences of that now. I had no idea I was going to hurt other people so badly. And what's my punishment? Nothing. I need - I need to try in some way to make things better. I can't bring back the people who died, but I can at least save the world."

"But what about Anya? "

"If Xander stays, I stay." The ex-demon's voice was sharp and decisive. "I'm sure we won't need to be here all year. There are always slack times when you're running a business. We'll drop in and see you all. And," she picked up a sheaf of printouts from Ethans desk, "these stock lists are in a shocking state. Xander will never cope with these."

"If it can be done, I want to do it," Xander said firmly. "Tell Willow - well, she'll understand."

Buffy and Spike exchanged looks. There had been a note of finality in Xanders voice that made her realise he was deadly serious.

"Ethan - can you Choose Xander?"

The slim Englishman shrugged, opened a drawer in the desk and brought out a small grey stone orb. He held it in the palm of his hand and nodded at Xander. "Wouldn't have been my first choice, but if he's that keen - put your hand over mine, lad. And hurry up, time's getting on."

Xander swallowed and walked forward. He reached out one hand to Anya and placed the other slowly but surely over the globe.

Bright silver sparks shot out in a halo of fire and Buffy gasped as a glowing silver light covered Xander from head to foot for an instant. Then it was gone, Ethan pulled his hand away and the dull little grey orb remained sitting on Xanders palm.

"Right, that's done. The keys are in the desk. The reindeer need feeding and mucking out urgently and one of the runners on the sleigh needs oiling. Good, all yours now. I'm out of here. Bye, Slayer. Have a great Christmas."

And before Buffy could stop him, he snapped his fingers, a side of the office shimmered and he stepped through and vanished.

"Xander?" Buffy reached out to him, but when he turned to face her, her hand dropped to her side. The dark eyes that she'd known so well for so many years were even darker now, but tiny silver flashes burnt across them. Whatever Xander was now, he was no longer entirely human.

"You must go, Buffy," he said and even his voice sounded deeper. "It's nearly Christmas and I've got a lot of work to do."

Eric suddenly ran up to Xander and threw his arms round his waist. "You're the real Santa Claus, aren't you? I knew that other guy was just pretending."

Buffy gently pulled him back. "OK, Eric, we need to let Santa Claus get on with his job. Xander - how do we get home? Do you know?"

Her friend nodded silently, then walked round the vast desk and sat down in the high backed chair. He gazed for a long minute at Spike and Buffy with the silver glinting in his eyes. Anya stood behind him and the last thing Buffy saw was the ex-demon patting her lovers shoulder.

The cold bit into her bones again until she wanted to cry. Then there was warmth, noise and light. She could hear Willow's voice asking questions, Dawn shrieking in the background.

Buffy struggled to her feet. Spike grinned at her; he was still holding Eric's hand. The little boy was shivering violently, but otherwise seemed unharmed

"Buffy, what happened? Where's Xander? And Anya? I couldn't find a spell to bring you back. Dawn and I have been worried sick. Its Christmas Eve almost Christmas Day. Are the children OK? Is there still a Santa Claus? D'Hoffryn said--"

Buffy walked to the window and gazed out into the night sky. Christmas Eve Xander would already be hard at work on the other side of the world. She wondered how he was getting on with the elves and the reindeer. Did they make a lot of mess?

How she would miss him, but, as Anya had said, they would be back. If anyone could run a business efficiently, it was the ex-demon.

She sighed and turned back to the others to start explaining. And then she caught sight of Eric staring up at Spike, laughing, and her heart sank. Here was a problem that had to be sorted out straight away.

Spike read her mind and slid an arm round her waist. "Reckon we can cope with one small boy for Christmas lunch?" he muttered. "We'll work out what's best for him in the New Year."

Buffy hesitated. "OK. Ill ring the orphanage and tell them where he is. But, Spike, remember, after Christmas he's got to go back. He isn't a lost puppy. We don't get to keep him."

And as she raised her face for his kiss, she didnt hear a very small growl coming from the child standing next to her.

To be continued.
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