It's a time for giving, a time for getting
The Order of Aurelius was an ancient lineage of vampires, marked by their power, discipline, and brutality. Thus anyone foolish enough to be wandering around the corridors of Sunnydale High on yule-eve would be surprised to find two of the Order's strongest sons struggling to juggle cardboard boxes overflowing with fairy lights, candles, tinsel, ornaments, a huge tea chest full of fake snow, and ... a giant inflatable Santa with painted-on fangs and fake blood dripping down his chin.
"I've killed slayers, terrorized whole villages, and turned more virgins than the population of Cyprus. This is a waste of my talents," the platinum-blonde vampire known as Spike complained while sucking on a half-smoked cigarette.
"Yeah, and I swore I'd never come back here unless it was to suck Snyder dry," his companion, an open-faced vampire who still went by his human name of Xander Harris, replied. Open-faced, until one looked upon the deep chill of his eyes, when even the most courageous human would look away.
Xander led the way into the gym, kicking open the door with his heavy boot. Inside was a flurry of activity, enough that the loud bang made by the door hitting the wall went largely unnoticed.
The two vampires carelessly dumped their load at the side of a make-shift stage against other boxes haphazardly littered around the area, spilling a few glass ornaments which broke and showered the hardwood floor with tiny broken pieces. Neither made any effort to do anything about the mess.
A slim hand reached down to brush the shards of glass into a pile, using an upturned rose as broom.
"Naughty boys! You mixed up all the ingredients! How can Miss Edith make pudding with no ingredients?" a thin female vampire in a flowing red chiffon dress shrieked.
"I'll get you some more, Dru," Spike drawled.
"But Miss Edith needs pudding now," Dru pouted.
"Miss Edith needs to go on a diet," Xander sneered. "With all the crap that you feed her, she can wait a few hours or so while my brother and I take a break. We'll bring you some more baubles later."
"But Master said --"
"I know what Master said," Xander snapped. "We're just gonna do a run through town, then we'll bring you lots of pretty shiny toys, I promise. Lots."
"Or she'll forget about it in two minutes," Spike murmured under his breath.
Xander rolled his eyes as he looked around the gym. Human, vampires, and demons alike were huddled in small groups, busy with their assigned tasks. It was totally unnatural, in his opinion.
"What the hell are we doing here?"
"Trying to save lives," Giles the senior watcher said, his weary eyes not leaving the trio of dangerous vampires across the gym.
"You and Wesley play politics all you want; why involve us in this -- what is this?" his senior slayer asked, flicking an errant piece of bright pink wrapping paper away with the back of her hand. Buffy was watching the group just as closely as her watcher, her whole posture a picture of alertness as her eyes darted around the room at the various groups of demons. Her back was against the wall and she had almost all the windows and doors within her line of vision.
"A suckfest is what this is," Faith the second slayer interjected. "It's enough that we can't stake vamps anymore, but to have a -- what are we having?"
"I think it's a good idea," slayer #3 said. Kendra was supposed to be Buffy's successor and therefore #2; but her serious and studious nature was overwhelmed by Faith's bluster and she wisely decided to stay low profile. "Reminds me of that time when the Germans and English played soccer and sang carols. World War One?"
"You're absolutely right, Kendra! I didn't think of that connection, now I know the truce is going to work out," Giles enthused. "They called it the Christmas Truce; may be we'll call ours the Sunnydale Peace. We're making history."
"Oh great. We have mafia vampires and you two are talking about making it into the history hall of fame. This is stupid, Giles. They're animals, how can we expect them to have sense and follow rules? You're gonna get innocent people killed. It only takes one weak vamp," Buffy spat.
"The Master has them very well controlled," Giles argued. "I don't care how he does it as long as the vampire population keeps humans off their menu."
"I'm with Buff. Slayers slay, not wrap presents," Faith added her voice of dissent, disgust clearly written on her face. "Though, getting a decent meal out of this deal is five-by-five in my books. Talking about menus, what's there to eat?"
"No fucking way. You got the hots for that one? You're delusional," Xander did a double take at Spike's declaration. "She'll have you staked if you even looked at her twice."
Spike sneered. "I've had two slayers. I will have my third. You're just jealous."
"Oh suuuure. Get over yourself, Spike-y Boy," Xander retorted. Yet could not help but leer at the slayers with undisguised lust. "There're other slayers to go around. Take Faith for example; no woman should be allowed to have that much skin on display."
"Don't let all that skin dupe you, she's Ms Psycho Slayer, not Blondie over there," Spike nodded at Buffy, who was scowling at being buried in wrapping paper. He sniggered and lit another cigarette. "So, I get Buffy and you get Faith; who gets Ms Tightarse?"
"Willow. She'll have my skin if I said this to her face, but Will used to be a straight-A student. She and Number Three have more in common than she'll admit," Xander revealed conspirationally.
"So where the hell is Willow? We never see her anymore. If I didn't know better, I say she's been playing with some toy she's hiding from us," Spike commented.
Xander shrugged. He should be bothered that Willow no longer came to him, but the Master kept his lieutenants more than adequately entertained, so he wasn't complaining. Commitment and companionship meant little to vampires.
The object of their discussion chose that moment to walk in through the swing doors of the gym. Her slim, powerful form wrapped in a translucent red silk shirt and tight, smooth leather pants was attractive enough. But it was her presence that silenced the large room, that made everyone pause at what they were doing and wordlessly acknowledge her entrance.
Xander had teasing words about Kendra at the tip of his tongue ready to greet Willow. He blinked when she strode purposefully not toward him, but headed in a beeline toward the gaggle of unfriendly slayers lounging around their watcher.
"Is she out of her mind?"
"I must be losing my mind because I smell something putrid," Buffy sniffed loudly, her mouth turned down in distaste. "I think we have dead meat around here."
She had deliberately turned away when Willow entered, and observed the redheaded vampire through the corner of her eyes. Faith sniggered at her exaggerated putdown of her former best friend and now mortal enemy.
Willow ignored Buffy and her sidekicks. A few weeks ago she would have caught the taunt straight between her teeth and torpedoed it back at the three stooges, as she privately called the slayer group. A few weeks ago she was a dumb smart vampire with a cruel streak who didn't care if she got dusted or not. A few weeks ago the Master had summoned her and Xander, ordering them to accompany him to an important meeting with the watchers.
A meeting when she first laid eyes on the newest White Hat.
She could sense the aura of hostility from the slayers. At least from Buffy and Faith. Kendra, as usual, was trying to be as neutral as a slayer could be.
She affected her most Bored Now expression and addressed Giles directly. "I'm supposed to help with decorations, or something equally stupid. For this, party that everyone seems to be having."
"Oh, Tara's in charge of decorations," Wesley eagerly provided the required information.
Giles frowned at him and Willow slowly turned to regard him with narrowed green eyes that were coldly dismissive. He visibly gulped.
"Where?" she asked quietly, exchanging a brief look with Giles.
"She said something about needing more poinsettias." Giles' smile was so faint that only the very perceptive would have noticed it.
Willow didn't bother thanking him. She turned and swept out without a second glance.
"Interesting." At the other side of the gym, Spike took one last drag of his cigarette and stamped it out with his boot.
"I don't understand the fascination with poinsettias for Christmas, some indigenous people call them excrement flowers. Totally unsuitable for the festivities," Willow's quiet voice came from behind the collection of pine trees at the flower shop. "You should use your budget for mistletoes; they're much more hardy."
"All green and no red? Leaves but no flowers? Why are you so obsessed with mistletoes anyway?" Tara felt like she should jump for joy when she heard that voice. She settled for a private smile hidden beneath her curtain of hair.
"You know why," Willow said as she emerged from her hiding place. "I'm obsessed with kissing you."
Tara looked up and their eyes met. "You're here."
Willow half-smirked. "Did you think I wouldn't?"
"I didn't know how to get in touch with you; I had to resort to code. I knew you'd figure it out," Tara's voice cracked thickly with a mix of emotions -- relief, anxiety, need.
"I miss you," Willow said simply as she took the one step that brought them face to face.
Tara didn't need to answer. She looked around the shop and, finding no one paying attention to them, leaned into Willow's embrace as they shared a brief but intense kiss. There was a sigh, a breath, but she wasn't sure if it was from her, or Willow, or them.
Willow took Tara's hand in hers, and Tara felt Willow's fingers warming at her touch. "So, you think I should get mistletoes and only mistletoes?"
"Yeah. I'm gonna hang them up all over the ceiling and I'm gonna make you walk under every single one so I can kiss you. Methodically. And when we run out, we'd go back to the first one and start again." Willow's eyes sparkled wickedly at the thought.
Tara laughed. "What about the others? Unless they want to walk around the gym like it's an obstacle course they'll have to do the same. I think the sight of Mr Giles kissing Dru will make anyone want to heave."
Willow made a sour face. "Ewww. Do you know what's more disturbing? Xander and Wesley," she smirked.
"Or the ultimate horror, Spike and Buffy," Tara added.
"Oh that one is pure evil," Willow mock-shuddered, and considered how she just used 'evil' as a frivolous term. She was supposed to be a fiendish vampire, senior in the Aurelius hierarchy. Yet she was frolicking with a human girl in a flower shop -- a human who fraternized with slayers and watchers, no less. It was surreal. But strangely, the only real thing in her unlife.
She smiled as Tara's attention was caught by a lavish flower arrangement, and how the blonde dragged them both toward it with a yelp of delight. The indulgent sigh from Tara as she leaned into the bouquets and took in the scent caused tiny ripples of warmth and pleasure to spread throughout Willow. Willow didn't have much of a sense of smell anymore but the sight of Tara's exhilaration was enough for her to wish she could have it back.
She had not regretted being Turned. Willow the anxious teen genius was an embarrassment and she couldn't imagine not being who she was now. But there were occasions -- and all of those occasions were Tara-related -- that she briefly wondered how it would be like if they were both humans. She scowled inwardly and shook away the thought.
"What's brewing in that mind of yours?" Tara's soft voice whispering into her ear jolted her out of her reverie.
Willow took the deep breath that she didn't need. "Just thinking.”
"Share?" Tara hadn't moved, keeping her head close to Willow's, her warm breath on Willow's neck sending "yummy" and "just wanna sigh now" signals to the vampire's brain.
It took Willow a moment to answer. "Tonight, at the gathering. I want to kiss you. There, right in the middle of the gym, I want all of Sunnydale to know how much I want you."
Tara stiffened, her breathing involuntarily stopped for a second and her grip on Willow's hand tightened. "But, we can't. What about your Master; he'll have you dusted."
"I can handle him." Willow understood Tara's need for reassurance and pulled her closer.
"Will, he's 400 years old; you're only a few months old. Don’t underestimate him," Tara warned.
"Are you…" Willow considered her next question carefully. "Are you... ashamed of being with me?"
If it was possible, Tara stiffened even more. "No! I'm not ashamed, nor is it fear of what other people think of us. It has everything to do with what they'll do. Let's say your Master is benevolent for a change; I can't see the slayers allowing it. Buffy's gonna freak."
Tara stopped in her tracks. "How? Will, I never --"
"No, no, love. It wasn't you. You talk about the Master being wily but Giles, he's a fox under those tweeds; he just knew." Willow silenced Tara's panicked expression with a wave of her hand. "He hasn't said anything to you?"
Tara shook her head.
"I think we're naïve if we think we have his blessing," Willow continued. "He'll never give it. But if he was concerned for a minute, he would have warned or even stopped you from seeing me."
Tara was lost in thought for a minute. "Why hasn't he said anything? You're right, as a watcher he should be concerned that I'm not under your thrall or something."
Willow shrugged. She never had the inclination to try to analyze other people's thoughts or actions. Not her vampire self anyway. "I'll never hurt you, you know that, don't you?" She reached up and traced one finger slowly along Tara's jawline, relieved to feel Tara relax at her touch.
Their eyes locked and the look that passed between them was one of profound understanding that did not need to be verbalized.
Giles remembered prom before Sunnydale became a warzone. Boys and girls clung to opposite sides of the gym, shyly eyeing each other, waiting for someone to make the first move. Feet shuffled on the polished hardwood floor, hands jammed deeply into pockets, elbows urgently nudging each other.
It was just like that, he mused. Only now instead of boys and girls, it was humans and demons. The air was charged with hostility, not anticipation. The neutral territory that was the middle of the gym seemed more like No Man's Land than a dance area.
It was so quiet, he could hear himself breathe.
He cleared his throat.
A hundred eyes turned to him in unison, and he physically staggered under the weight of the glares. Blue, green, hazel, brown and yellow. Accusatory, indifferent, expectant. He felt like a powerful giant and a vulnerable ant at the same time.
"The Master and I have agreed. To break the impassé, we need to stop fighting each other and try to co-exist in a civilized manner. There is no reason why we can't, provided all groups agree to certain conditions. You all know what they are. And to kick-off what the history books will surely refer to as the Sunnydale Peace, tonight is an opportunity for all of us to relax, without fear of retribution." He knew he sounded like a headmaster telling gang kids to stop fighting and stay off drugs, but that was the best he could do. What else could he have done?
"For anything we do?" Oh, there would always be a smartass, wouldn't there?
"Stay within the rules, Spike," Giles answered wearily.
"So if I grabbed blondie slayer over there," Spike leered at Buffy, who fumed. "And sucked on her, I won't get 'retributed'?"
"You'd get staked," Buffy barked. "Slowly. So you feel every prick, you prick."
"I didn't say which part I'd be sucking on did I?" Spike smiled dirtily.
Kendra held onto Buffy's elbow tightly just as the senior slayer was about to explode. The vampires snickered and continued to bait the White Hats, who glowered and bristled but chose to dismiss the jibes.
"That wasn't a very good opening speech," Giles muttered to himself as he stepped off the podium and took a large cupful of punch from the table, discreetly adding a large measure of whisky from his hip flask. Dull the senses, that was his only option.
In the end, it took Clem inviting Miss Calendar for a smart foxtrot to break the ice. The temperature in the room thawed a little, but the atmosphere never got beyond tepid acquiescence all night.
"How much wine have you had already?"
Tara almost dropped her glass at the quiet voice just behind her. She was getting better at sensing, but not every time. "You're sneaking up on me," she whispered.
Willow wrapped one arm around Tara's waist and inhaled deeply, craving the giddiness that always accompanied Tara's proximity. "Why are you drinking so much?"
Tara's hand shook and she closed her eyes for a second before answering. "I'm nervous," she admitted.
"Because of what we talked about earlier?" Willow pulled Tara closer but didn't feel Tara relaxing.
"Yes. I can't help feeling like there's a big spotlight on us. I know that I can handle the looks and tongue-wagging that will be directed at me. But I worry about what will happen to you. I can't lose you, not now." She felt Willow's arms pull her closer, but not even the comforting presence of her lover or the alcohol in her system could calm her. She was strong inside; she knew that. It took an inordinate amount of calmness and courage to confront Willow that day, outside the Bronze. But there was the perpetual fear -- her vampire was so powerful, yet so vulnerable because of that power.
"Master won't do anything, he needs to show commitment to this farce of a truce that he and Giles dreamt up. Giles said--"
"You talked to Giles?"
"Yes, a fat lot of good that was. He told me to do what I think is right. His mind's too full of his precious Sunnydale Peace. I think the pressure is getting to him, did you see his favorite hip flask is almost empty? We're barely started into the evening."
"Everyone's on edge; this is so new to all of us."
"I'm not scared of anything, as long as I have you."
Tara felt the strength of Willow's conviction go through her. Willow's standing in the Order might even improve if it became known that she had taken ownership of a human -- Tara had only recently started reading about the vampires' concept of pets and possessions but she had an intrinsic understanding of that concept. She also knew that once Buffy and Faith had finished yelling at her, she would argue that Willow could become their link to the Master's inner circle. Strategically, their relationship couldn't have come at a more perfect time.
It didn't help her nerves though. Tara hated bringing attention to herself; and there they were, about to make a huge statement in public.
But not before she completed the little ritual that she found in that dusty volume in Jenny's bookshelf. It was not magic, but the resultant emotions, when performed with the right person, was described as magical.
"Will, I-i need to show you something," Tara turned in Willow's arms and looked at her lover directly and openly. "After this, there's no going back for either of us. I want to give you this. It's very important to me."
Willow could be very still when she was intense. Tara had never seen her so deathly still. She didn't have to say another word, Willow knew.
Another step. Things between them were about to change again.
At Willow's imperceptible nod, Tara brought one finger up to her vampire's face and caressed those lips open, gently tracing it over the sharp fangs.
The morph was over in one blink. Yellow demon eyes looked at Tara for the heartbeat that was needed to puncture her finger, then they were green again.
One drop of her blood into the wine. The bite was so shallow that the skin closed after giving up one precious drop. The color of the liquid did not change, though a small plume of white steam mushroomed from the bottom of the glass and flowed across the surface of the liquid before dissipating.
Tara offered it first to Willow, who sipped silently and had to suppress a moan as the familiar taste of Tara's blood slid from her tongue to her throat and warmed her body.
Willow turned the glass around and offered it back to Tara. Tara couldn't taste the blood in the wine, but she could taste the offering.
They smiled, and understood.
They danced with each other all night. At first they were just two bodies in the sparse throng of dancers huddled in the center of the dance floor. But as the night wore on and they showed no sign of leaving the other, faint mumblings could be heard in both camps.
They didn't care. And continued with the dancing, and the touching, and the comfort of each other.
"Will you come home with me tonight?" Tara asked, sometime during the evening.
"Do you want me to?"
Tara looked around, at Giles and at the slayers, who looked as tense as ever. Then she looked at the Master holding court and Dru spinning around the room with Spike in tow.
And under the mistletoe, the aftertaste of the blood wine fresh on their lips, she kissed Willow.