Author: Chris Cook
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, except for a mouse.
It was a wind-up toy mouse, and it skittered erratically across the snow-caked flagstone pathway leading from Santa's jolly workshop down to the town square, about which the various cosy houses and toy factories of the North Pole were gathered. From a workshop window, a worried-looking elf watched the toy mouse's progress, counting under her breath.
And then, in a twinkling, she heard on the roof the prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As the toy mouse skipped from stone to stone, eight reindeer leapt from the roof after it, sending a cascade of snow down from the tiles. The elf watched them, shuddering at the sight of their steel jaws and belching rocket motors, then as they pounced on the mouse in a frenzy of savagery, away from the window she flew like a flash, racing around the side of the workshop towards a small, sturdily-built concrete bunker not far off. The reindeer, absorbed in tearing the metal mouse to pieces, didn't see her, but a massive, hulking silhouette perched on the rooftop turned a pair of red, piggy eyes on the fleeing figure and, with a clawed hand outstretched, growled a command.
"Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!"
Eight reindeer heads snapped up, eight pairs of glowing mechanical eyes fixed on the tiny elf as she struggled through the snowdrifts. More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, hurtling just above the snow with their cyborg engines screaming, but the elf was at the door of the bunker, wrenching it open, darting through, and slamming it with all her diminutive might. The grating of the heavy door's bolt came just as the reindeer reached it, slamming their armoured heads into it, then, in frustration, belching huge plumes of sooty fire into the bunker. And the smoke it encircled the door like a wreath, but when it cleared the sturdy bunker was undamaged.
Inside the elf worked an old, forgotten radio with shivering hands. The antenna was wired to the transmitter with care, in hopes that salvation soon would be there, and at last, in a trembling, high-pitched voice, she spoke into the microphone:
"This is Emmy the Elf, from the North Pole, can anyone hear me? Condition red! They've taken the workshop - I repeat, they've taken the workshop! Is there anyone out there? There's only twenty-four hours until Christmas, and if he's not stopped by then... please, if anyone can hear me, send Willow and Tara! Send Willow and Tara!"
On the rooftop of Santa's workshop, the dread silhouette spoke not a word, but went back to his work.
"Stick this in your pentagram, Maclay!"
Cordelia Chase leapt into the air, swung both hands tightly clenched together, and drove the volleyball over the net, beyond Tara's reach, and down towards the opposing corner.
"Buffy!" Tara called, even as she landed from her attempted block. The smaller blonde hurled herself towards the ball, flipping it into the air just as she hit the smooth floor and slid out of the court.
"In!" Harmony yelled, earning a venomous glare from Cordelia. The brunette steeled herself as Tara jumped up behind the falling ball and, just as it was about to drop into the net, spiked it right at her so fast she had no time to react. The ball thudded off her forearm and onto the floor, and the small crowd gathered in the school gymnasium cheered.
"Lucky shot," Cordelia muttered in Tara's direction. "...Congratulations," she added with poor grace and a brittle smile, as the P.E. teacher glared at her pointedly.
"Blessed be, Queen Bee," Tara replied smugly, before turning to high-five Buffy and the rest of her team.
"Didn't wanna win the stupid Sporty Santa volleyball game anyway," Cordy groused to herself.
"Go Tara, she's the best, her team won, and... something rhyming with 'best', like next or breast or- no, not breast! No seedy cheers... Um, behest? That's kind of formal, not that cheerleaders can't use big words, but there's a certain tradition to follow in terms of lexicon and so on and so forth (I wish 'take that Cordy' rhymed with 'best', that'd work)."
In the stands, Willow Rosenberg waved a pair of improvised pom-poms made from strips of environmentally-friendly recycled newspaper to accompany her impromptu cheer, ignoring the looks she was drawing from her fellow students. Tara spotted her, and pausing only to grab a towel from her bag beside the court, came to meet the redhead, as the stands emptied.
"I know that makes you feel awkward," Tara smiled. "You don't have to, you know?"
"I do too!" Willow insisted. "I'm your best friend, what good am I if I don't make a fool out of myself cheering for you when you win? Uh, the cheering, rather than the foolishness, being the important thing there..."
"You said it, sweetie," Tara told her, putting a hand on her arm and giving a little squeeze. "You're my best friend. That being the important thing there."
"Right, and best friends cheer each other," Willow nodded. "Not that I'm saying you don't - I mean, I'm sure you would, if I played any sport. You cheer me up, that's ample qualification for best friendness right there." Tara shook her head, with an affectionate grin, then raised an eyebrow as her own voice emerged from Willow's pocket: 'You have mail, sweetie.'
"Oops... 'scuse me," Willow said, retrieving her phone and opening it to access the wireless internet link inside. Her excitable grin turned into a worried frown as she read.
"What's up?" Tara wondered.
"Are you busy this afternoon?" Willow asked. "For saving the world, possibly?"
"I'm all yours," Tara smiled.
Willow bustled through the front door of her house, with Tara in tow, to find Tara's mother in the living room, in a towel.
"Hi Mrs. Maclay," she said, preoccupied, and got half-way to the dining room before her eyes widened in surprise.
"Oh, uh, hello," Mrs. Maclay said as she turned back. "Hello honey," she added to Tara. "I was just helping Sheila carry the Christmas tree back from the store. And had to take a shower, because, you know, pine needles, itchy..." She waved a hand around vaguely. "Do you want to help decorate it? First ever Jewish/Wicca Christmas tree, that's probably a historical event."
"Sorry mum," Tara shook her head. "We have to take a trip to the North Pole."
"Picking up presents?"
"Santa's workshop is under siege, or something," Willow explained. "Intel's sketchy, but it looks like we may need to save Christmas. Also the world."
"Oh, good luck then. Don't atomise anything with a soul."
"We won't," Tara promised.
"Willow," Mrs. Maclay added, "your mother mentioned a new package had arrived for you, it's in the garage - a box with 'gravitational hazard' written on the label?"
"Oh, right," Willow nodded to herself. "Nothing to worry about, I've got the whole containment thingy all figured out. Sorry, gotta run, we'll be back in time for dinner. Love to mum."
"See you later," Tara smiled as Willow took her by the hand and led her out of the living room. A moment later the door to the garage opened and closed, and then a whirring, rumbling noise began to reverberate through the house.
"Ella, is that Willow?" Shiela's voice came from the direction of the kitchen.
"Yes," Mrs. Maclay called out to her.
"Did you tell her about the package?"
"Yes, she said it was nothing to worry about."
"The crate last week said 'weapons grade' on the side," Sheila mused sceptically.
"Really?" Mrs. Maclay made a face as she pondered this, then shrugged. "Look on the bright side, all those patents she keeps registering will look quite good on her college application." The rumble built into a whoosh, and a large shape blocked out the sunlight shining through the curtained windows overlooking the driveway.
"Is she gallivanting around the world again?" Sheila's voice asked.
"Yes. Don't worry, Tara's with her."
"Well, at least Tanya will keep her out of trouble." From outside there was a thunderous crack that shook the house. Mrs. Maclay reached out absently to stop a vase from falling off the coffee table.
"For heaven's sake," Sheila said, annoyed, "how many times have I asked her not to break the sound barrier until she's off the driveway?"
At the North Pole, the rabid reindeer ceased their festive prowling and looked up at the sound of an aircraft. They peered to the limits of their cybernetically-enhanced vision, but the theatrically dark and storms clouds above were too dense, and as one they turned to the misshapen form lurking beneath a nearby fir tree.
Rudolph the reindeer emerged from his lair, stomping malevolently forward on bulky hydraulic ram legs, and under his stablemates' insistent gaze, turned his glowing red nose skyward. A beam of blood-red light shot into the clouds, liquefying tiny snowflakes as it scanned for whatever had intruded onto the reindeer's territory. As the beast's red nose turned this way and that, a battery of cannons mounted on his armoured back swivelled to follow its crimson gaze.
To the reindeer's considerable surprise, a tiny object spiralled down out of the sky, avoiding the search-beam, and stuck to his nose. He squinted down the length of his own monstrous face and, with eyes watering from the strain, just managed to make out a suction cupped dart fitted with tiny wings and a propeller, a small sphere with miniature warning labels on it, and also a sign which read: 'Sorry about the mess.'
Rudolph frowned in confusion, then the dart erupted into a roiling explosion which sent him rocketing back into the treeline, and scattered his fellow reindeer all over the courtyard of Santa's workshop. Before they could get back to their hooves, or in the case of Blitzen who had been unfortunately close to the blast, before he could locate his hooves, Tara burst through the low clouds, hanging beneath a parasail and clad in a form-fitting HALO suit, with a pair of complicated-looking plasma blasters slung under her arms.
"I'd like to preface this by saying I'm opposed to indiscriminate violence, and this is a matter of strict necessity!" she called out, before opening fire and obliterating the evil cyber-reindeer before they even knew what hit them. She landed in the midst of the resulting reindeer-decorated craters just as Rudolph, his upper body reduced to a robotic skeleton protruding from his tattered hind quarters, hauled himself back to his feet and began to charge at her. Calmly, Tara rested one of the cannons over her shoulder and blasted him out of existence.
"I'm okay with taking a certain pride at being good at strict necessity," she admitted with a shyly triumphant grin, as the remains of the robotic reindeer decorated the trees behind them in a rather grisly approximation of tinsel and baubles. She composed herself as Willow's aggressively rainbow-coloured hypersonic jumpship descended from the clouds and landed in the now-reindeerless courtyard in front of the workshop. The jumpship's ramp lowered allowing its armoured personnel carrier to deploy, which in turn hinged open at the front to allow a sleek sports car to drive out, the windscreen of which slid back to reveal Willow on a motorcycle, which she gingerly steered over towards Tara.
"Sweetie," Tara said with a raised eyebrow, "is it possible you got a bit carried away with the whole vehicles-inside-vehicles idea?"
"Uh, maybe?" Willow allowed, barely managing to park the bike without tipping it over. "Still, I left the speedboat at home - figured we wouldn't be doing any sailing up here. Plus, even if there were a lake, it'd have frozen over."
"Are you alright on that thing?" Tara asked, as Willow awkwardly climbed off the motorbike.
"Actually it's for you," she said brightly, now that both feet were on solid ground. "You know, since you do most of the running around and zapping evil monsters and robots and so on... plus you've got a sense of balance, unlike me... and I thought, y'know, you'd maybe like it...? You'd look good on it, I bet."
"Thank you," Tara blushed, straddling the bike and gunning the engine experimentally. "But what about you?"
"Not a problem!" Willow declared, reaching over to press a button between the handlebars, which caused the back of the bike to open and pop out a segway. "All taken care of."
"The vehicles-inside-vehicles bug really bit hard, huh?" Tara smiled.
"A bit," Willow grinned. "Plus I had this lying around anyway, from when I got it to see how the whole gyro thingy worked. Waste not want not, and all that. So," she added, looking around at the craters, "evil cyborg reindeer. How do reindeer turn evil and cyborg?"
"All the other reindeer didn't let them play in any reindeer games?" Tara suggested. "I've always felt a bit sorry for Rudolph, to tell the truth. Not this Rudolph," she admitted, nudging his disembodied infra-red nose with her toe. "Just in general."
"Being picked on because he was different," Willow nodded.
"Partly," Tara said, picking up the nose and tossing it over towards where the rest of Rudolph was scattered about. "Plus, all the other reindeer are all suddenly friendly to Rudolph when they find a use for him. It doesn't seem very sincere. I bet they all went back to normal once it wasn't foggy any more..."
"That would be consistent with the lovely social microcosm that is high school," Willow agreed glumly. Tara shrugged, and looked around.
"Looks like that was all the welcoming committee," she said. "Where do we go from here?"
"The S.O.S. came from an elf transmitting from the Santa's Workshop Emergency Siege Bunker," Willow said, studying her phone's screen, on which she accessed a general map of the North Pole. "Which should be..." she said, pointing, "...right over there."
"Behind the concrete debris covered in reindeer claw marks?" Tara asked.
"...oh," Willow grimaced. "This doesn't bode well." Tara revved the bike into action and slowly neared the remains of the bunker, with Willow scooting along behind her.
"They did a pretty thorough job of demolishing the place," she said quietly. "Aren't reindeer supposed to have hooves?"
"They had claws bolted to their hooves," Tara told her.
"Ah. I guess they thought claws have more evil-cred than hooves. Whoever did this must not know how heinously destructive a horse can be."
"Right, sweetie," Tara smiled indulgently. "If it was demonic half-machine ponies, then we'd be in trouble... wait a minute..."
"What? It's not demonic half-machine-"
"No," Tara said, stopping Willow from turning as white as the snow falling around them. "It's an escape tunnel... and it hasn't been broken open." She cleared some rubble to reveal a battered and dented, but still intact, steel hatchway. Willow peered over her shoulder.
"Where does it go?" Tara mused.
"I don't know," Willow frowned. "It's not on my map. But that means it might not be on the maps of whoever is behind all this evilness, so they wouldn't know either, ergo they might not have been able to ambush our elf at the other end."
"There's a keycode lock," Tara pointed, brushing some concrete dust off it. "It's been scrambled."
"Hmm and other noises of cogitation," Willow said to herself, sitting down in front of the hatch. "This isn't Lost, so hammering at it and waiting for the season finale won't do any good... If the elf who set this is the same one who sent the distress call, they would've been expecting us to come find them. So maybe it's keyed to us somehow." She typed in w-i-l-l-o-w-a-n-d-t-a-r-a, but the hatch refused to budge.
"Maybe the other way round?" Tara suggested.
"Okay, round two," Willow muttered, but t-a-r-a-a-n-d-w-i-l-l-o-w yielded the same result.
"Phooey," she frowned. "Okay. Our names and permutations thereof, no result, but maybe that's to be expected since the reindeer could easily have assumed we'd be the ones to be coming to the rescue and they'd know our names and therefore be able to type them in and open the hatch themselves, thereby defeating the whole purpose of locking it-"
"Breathe," Tara reminded her, with an eye on her watch.
"Thanks," Willow nodded, taking a breath. "Okay, so... Something we'd know, and our mystery elf would know about us, but evil reindeer wouldn't know."
"Try 'mocha'," Tara suggested. Willow shot her a look, but typed the word in. From beneath the hatch there was the scraping noise of a lock drawing back.
"Good guess," Willow grinned, tugging at the hatch. "Ugh... I think there's another bolt still in place."
"There's another half to it," Tara reasoned. "'Mocha' for you, because mochas are full of goodness..."
"...so evil reindeer wouldn't consider them important enough to remember..." Willow filled in.
"...and your love of mochas is legendary, so even at the North Pole they've heard of it," Tara finished. "It's convoluted and irrational, but-"
"-so are evil cyborg reindeer," Willow said. "So the other half of the code is something about you that's unmistakeable, and full of goodness."
"Any ideas?" Tara shrugged. Willow thought a moment, then nodded and typed in s-m-i-l-e. The hatch swung open.
"Smile?" Tara asked.
"You know, that smile you do," Willow said. "Where you... smile."
"My smile is full of goodness?"
"Better than mochas."
"O-oh," Tara said, casting around awkwardly for something to take the attention off her blush. "If... uh, the tunnel's not big enough for the bike."
"Hm? Oh... so much for that idea," Willow shrugged.
"I like the bike," Tara said quickly. "It'll be useful other times, I'm sure. I'll go first. Just because the reindeer didn't get in doesn't mean there aren't other ironically evil festive-themed nasties down there."
Deep underground, one such ironically evil festive-themed nasty watched Willow and Tara clamber down into the tunnel via a surveillance camera hidden in a bauble on a nearby tree. He heaved his red-clad bulk around in his parked sleigh and jabbed a claw at the screen.
"Deck the halls with boughs of holly!" he rumbled maniacally. "Hahaha ha-ha, ha-ha ha ha!"
"What's out there?" Willow asked, as Tara peered cautiously through the hatch they had reached at the bottom of the tunnel.
"A hallway," Tara said quietly. "Empty." She crawled through the hatch, with Willow following, guiltily sneaking glances at her bottom.
"Someone's been decorating," she observed, gesturing at the holly strung up along the length of the hallway.
"Well it is nearly Christmas," Tara noted. "If ever there was going to be a yuletide-friendly workplace, it'd be the North Pole."
"Holly," Willow mused. "Fah-la-la, la-yikes!"
Tara spun around and lunged to catch Willow, as a tendril of holly that had snagged around her ankle tried to yank her off her feet. At the same time another tendril whipped the blasters out of the blonde's hands.
"Hey!" Tara protested, as she caught Willow around the waist one-handed. "Willow gave me those, give them back!" With her free hand she produced a retro-chic ray gun from a hidden pocket and disintegrated the length of foliage that was trying to drag Willow away.
"You okay sweetie?" she asked Willow, in between zapping the holly trying to drag her blasters away.
"Fine, I'm fine," Willow murmured - the holly's last tug at her had caused Tara's grip on her to slip upwards from her waist to just beneath her shoulders, and incidentally become rather personal. She was hoping Tara wouldn't notice for a minute or two.
"This isn't getting us anywhere," Tara muttered, zapping away as she somewhat reluctantly released Willow and backed them both to the end of the hallway.
"Are we in trouble?" Willow asked, peering around her shoulders.
"I can hold them off, but picking them off one by one isn't clearing a path quickly enough." She chuckled ruefully. "Shame we didn't bring some kind of laser-powered weed whacker, or something."
"Hmm," Willow frowned contemplatively. "Can I borrow a spare ray gun?"
"Sure," Tara shrugged, handing her the exotic weapon and switching to her blasters. She concentrated on keeping the holly at bay, and was thus oblivious to the brief frenzy of invention going on behind her.
"Here y'go," Willow said cheerfully, offering her a bizarre construct that looked like her segway had been attacked by a special effects department.
"What on Earth is this?" Tara wondered.
"Laser-powered weed whacker," Willow replied triumphantly. "Hold the handlebar end and wave the wheels at the holly." Tara looked at the device in bemusement, then switched it on and took a swipe at the advancing greenery, which was quickly sliced and diced.
"Have I mentioned lately that you're a genius?" she asked, and she and Willow moved down the hallway, de-decking it as they went.
"Aw," Willow blushed. "It's nothing, I just have a knack for mad science."
"I'd say 'quirky'," Tara corrected her.
"Quirky science," Willow tried it out. "That works for me."
Tara nudged open a door and peered into what appeared to be a break room for the toy factory's elves.
"Hello? Is there anyone in here?"
There was a 'twang' and a suction-cup arrow flew out of the shadows, which Tara caught one-handed.
"I'll take that as a yes."
"Is there an elf in the room?" Willow added, appearing behind her. "I mean, suction arrows don't seem very evil, so I'm guessing..."
A small head appeared above a packing crate. It was a pale lilac colour, with long pointed ears, and wore a cheerful green cap and a worried expression.
"Emmy the Elf?" Willow asked.
"Um... yes?" the elf replied. "Who're you?"
"Tara Maclay," Willow pointed, "champion of goodness extraordinaire," Tara blushed, "and I'm Willow Rosenberg. I invent stuff."
"You're Willow and Tara?" Emmy asked incredulously.
"Yes," Tara nodded. "Is it the hair? I just had it done a couple of months ago..."
"Uh, no... I thought you'd be, um, older." Emmy shook her head in confusion. "You've saved the world seventeen times, right?"
"Eighteen," Willow said. "I haven't got around to putting the rampaging giant pork pie incident on our blog yet."
"You save the world, and you're teenagers?"
"Our school principal started up an extra-curricular activities program," Tara explained.
"So I chose 'invent stuff' as my extra-curricular activity," Willow continued.
"Stuff?" Emmy asked.
"Yup. Supersonic aircraft, plasma generators, pocket fusion reactors - you know, stuff."
"I thought you were some kind of elite government secret agents," Emmy said. "And all that equipment you use came from Area 51, or something..."
"Actually most of the parts I get from eBay," Willow smiled. "And let me tell you, bidding for fusion lasers and anamorphic hypermembranes gets fierce. Which reminds me, gotta check I haven't been outbid on that miniature black hole..."
Emmy nodded vaguely, then noted Tara's affectionate smile at Willow, as the redhead checked an auction on her cellphone.
"You two are... together?" she guessed.
"Oh, uh, we're friends," Tara shook her head. "I play a lot of sports - reactions, hand-eye coordination, that kind of thing."
"I'm a bit of a spaz," Willow admitted, closing her phone. "Good at making nifty gadgets, not so much at using them. So I figured, who at school would be best suited to all kinds of actiony adventures..."
"And here I am," Tara finished.
"Plus, you're my best friend," Willow added, flashing the blonde a smile.
"Sweetie," Tara grinned, unconsciously fiddling with a strand of hair hanging over her cheek.
"Right, not 'together' at all," Emmy muttered slyly to herself.
"So," Willow said loudly, dragging her attention away from Tara's fingers and Tara's hair and Tara generally, "what's going on here? We got your distress call, and obviously there's evil cyber-nasties and unfriendly festive decorations scattered about liberally... Someone's been not very nice and very, very naughty?"
"It was Santa," Emmy sighed. "He was always, you know, erratic - part Pagan figurehead, part Turkish saint, part commercialised selling point, not surprising he ended up a bit unstable, not to mention the hangovers after all those sherries all in one evening. I don't think the Tim Allen movie helped either. Anyway, he came up with this idea to summon dark and ancient powers to do his bidding, instead of relying on us elves, since he got annoyed by us always trying to get him to get therapy for his personality disorders, or at least a detox for the sherry..."
"Dark and ancient powers don't sound good," Willow frowned.
"That's what we said," Emmy nodded. "And we turned out to be one thousand per cent right there. Santa summoned some kind of demon which possessed him, all hell broke loose - literally - and here we are. All the other elves went to fortify Elftown... I stayed to try to get a message out."
"That was very brave of you," Tara said admiringly.
"Very terrified of me, mostly," Emmy shrugged helplessly. "But I had to - if Santa's not stopped soon, he could conquer the world! As soon as Christmas Eve falls the sleigh's magic will kick in, and he'll be able to get to every chimney in the world with a tree in front of it, all in one night!"
"I suppose it's too much to hope that he'd be handing out presents?" Willow asked.
"Only if you think H.P. Lovecraft wrote happy endings," Emmy shook her head.
"Oh-kay," Willow said, wide-eyed. "So zapping Santa would seem to be the order of the day. What's between us and him?"
"Well, there's the reindeer..."
"Met 'em," Willow said.
"Blew 'em up," Tara added.
"Lasered. Anything else?"
"A whole army of toy soldiers?"
"That's not good," Willow frowned. "Okay, I need... Tara, can I borrow that blaster? Right. What have we got lying around here?"
"Um," Emmy glanced about. "A water cooler, a microwave, a box of suction cup bow and arrow sets someone left lying around..."
"Hmm, this could be tricky."
"Oh, and there's one of those little desk toys," Emmy added, "you know, the little metal balls on rods that swing back and forth?"
"Okay, now we're talking!" Willow grinned. "Quirky science time."
Tara borrowed Willow's phone while she worked, and dialled her mother's cellphone.
"Hi, mum? Oh, Mrs. Rosenberg... no, fine. Yes, it's nice up here. Slightly infested by demons, but we're working on it. Is my mum there? Oh... okay. Uh, no, nothing urgent, I just wanted to let you know we should be home in time for dinner. Well, an army of toy soldiers and some kind of demon Santa, but Willow's working on some kind of gadget so we should have it wrapped up pretty soon. Okay, love to my mum. Bye."
"Was that my mother?" Willow asked, as Tara handed the phone back. "I thought you dialled yours?"
"I did," Tara shrugged. "Your mum said mine was in the hot tub, she'd just gotten out to get some wine..."
"It's nice that our mums get along," Willow said absently, screwing down a final panel.
"How's the gizmo?" Tara asked.
"All done." She got up and proudly presented Tara with her blaster, which had been substantially remodelled, and was now three times its original size, and mounted on a hydraulically-powered harness to let Tara wield it without falling over from its weight.
"BFG-9000," Willow said.
"Big... uh, Frilly Gun?"
"Frilly?" Tara asked.
"Okay, you can guess what it actually stands for," the redhead admitted. "This should take care of that whole hundreds of toy soldiers problem. Just point, pull the trigger, and everything demonic within a 180-degree arc has a very bad day. Disintegratey bad."
"I thought," Tara said a short time later, picking bits of demonic toy soldier out of her hair, "you said 'disintegratey'?"
"Maybe more explodey than disintegratey," Willow admitted, flicking a bit of demon off her shoulder. "It's possible that demons have a higher degree of internal pressure than I thought, which could explain why they... popped, rather than just collapsed."
"Well," Tara sighed, looking around the toy factory floor which had, until ten seconds ago, contained Demon Santa's toy army, "I'm going to need a bath after this."
"Me too," Willow said automatically, then blushed as her mind went somewhere. "I, uh, I'm sorry, about the mess... I should've calculated the likelihood of explodiness more thoroughly, totally my fault-"
"Sweetie, stop," Tara shook her head, smiling. "I'm not mad at you - all's well that ends well."
"Like I could ever be mad at you," Tara grinned. Willow was about to reply, when a massive sleigh burst through the far wall, bearing a highly demonic and very irate Father Christmas.
"You've been naughty!!" he bellowed at them.
"I think he's mad at me," Willow observed.
"Nobody messes with my girl," Tara growled, hefting the Big 'Frilly' Gun and pulling the trigger. As before everything even vaguely in the direction the weapon was pointing turned white; unlike before, the demon failed to explode.
"You'd better watch out!" he roared, clambering out of the sleigh, reaching into his sack of presents, and producing a steam-powered coal cannon. "Santa Claws is coming to town!"
"Ugh, that's a horrible pun," Emmy winced. Tara grabbed her and Willow, who was muttering calculations to herself distractedly, and pulled them behind a pile of demon toy soldier bits as a volley of lumps of coal rocketed over their heads.
"I'm not entirely sure why that didn't work," Willow frowned. "That should have atomised even his atoms."
"I think the shoot-demon-with-fancy-blaster plan is out the window," Tara noted. "What else is bad for Santa?"
"Uh... don't you have to believe in him?" Willow suggested. "Maybe if we all, um, didn't believe in him, really seriously...?" Another hail of coal thudded into the mound of toy bits they were hiding behind.
"I'm going to have a hard time not believing he's out there," Tara muttered.
"I'm wondering if he doesn't have some kind of matter-energy conversion reactor inside of him," Willow pondered. "That'd explain why he can eat all those pork pies in one evening without exploding... So conventional attacks are out. What sort of unconventional weapons would work on Santa?"
"Uh, the song goes 'you'd better not pout,' maybe he doesn't like pouting?" Tara suggested.
"Maybe, but I still haven't got the teleporter working, so there's no way to get Buffy here in a hurry," Willow said.
"What with all the in-store appearances, he's developed quite an aversion to young children with weak bladders," Emmy suggested.
"I'm not sure I want to design a weapon based on that," Willow winced.
"If he gets a hangover from all the sherry after climbing down chimneys, maybe we can use that to our advantage somehow?" Tara wondered.
"He's plenty irritable enough as it is," Emmy muttered, peering briefly out from behind cover.
"Wait, that's it!" Willow burst out.
"No... Tara, blast a hole in that wall, I need some bricks." Tara looked baffled, but shrugged and blew some bricks free of the factory wall.
"Okay," Willow said to herself, using a ray gun to melt a patch of floor, "this'll do for mortar, and... lucky I got that pocket wormhole last week... put it all together... done!" She flourished her latest creation for Tara to see.
"You betcha!" Willow grinned, raising the chimney onto her shoulder like a rocket launcher and standing up. "Hey Santa! Come and get it!"
"I hope you know what you're doing," Tara muttered, grabbing Willow's free hand as Santa charged towards them.
"Trust me," Willow winked.
Santa took a flying leap, and then, in defiance of physics, his considerable bulk vanished into the small chimney. Willow put it back on the ground and put her ear to it.
"Yep, he's in there," she said smugly. Tara listened, and picked up the muffled sound of crawling.
"How did you... however this sentence ends, answer it?" Tara asked.
"Simple," Willow smiled. "Santa climbs down chimneys for a living, so I figured this close to Christmas, if he saw a chimney he'd just react on instinct and go for it. And I built a small wormhole into this one, so the bottom of the chimney comes out just below the top of the chimney, and so on. Ergo, effectively, infinite chimney for Demon Santa to crawl down for the rest of time."
"Then it's over," Emmy sighed with relief.
"Willow," Tara said glowingly, "that was..."
"You did it," Emmy told the pair of them. "You saved Christmas. Only, I don't know where we'll find another Santa at such short notice..."
"Here's an idea," Willow thought out loud, picking up Santa's hat, which had fallen off as he plunged into the chimney, and without his evil influence had reverted back to its former cheerful self. She held it out like a crown, and placed it squarely on Emmy's head.
Willow and Tara sat in front of the inaugural Jewish/Wicca Christmas tree, in the customary state of lazy contentment that followed saving the world and topping it off with Christmas dinner.
"Egg nog will be ready in a minute, girls!" Tara's mother called from the kitchen.
"What is egg nog, anyway?" Willow wondered. "I know it's a drink, I mean what's it made of?"
"Well, egg, and..." Tara shrugged. "Nog?"
Willow chuckled, then took a long glance at Tara, and grew thoughtful.
"You know you're not just my Rudolph, right?" Willow said, her voice betraying a little anxiety.
"Like you said before, about how the other reindeer were nice to Rudolph while they needed his nose, but would probably go back to ignoring him otherwise. I know our saving-the-world model is based on me inventing stuff and you having the reaction speed of a hummingbird on caffeine, but you know that's not why I want to spend time with you, right? You're my best friend, and that's all that's important. A-and that's so important, you're... what I mean is, I..." her tongue caught, and she sighed, tried again, but still couldn't get the next words out.
"I know," Tara said warmly, as Willow drew breath for a third attempt.
"You know?" Willow asked.
"I really do," Tara nodded. There was a shuffling noise from the fireplace, and a pair of small, brightly-coloured presents rolled off the top of the pile around the tree and landed between the two girls. Certain scuttling noises from above indicated, perhaps, the presence of an elf on the roof, but Willow and Tara were too focused on the small gifts to hear.
"I don't remember wrapping these," Willow pondered.
"Me neither," Tara shrugged. "This one's to you."
"And this is for you." They exchanged the presents, and looked up at each other.
"Shall we?" Willow asked. Tara nodded, and together they opened the wrapping, and then the boxes inside. Each drew out a small card, with a single line printed on it, and read it, eyes widening. Then they looked back up at each other, and finally recognised what had been in the other's gaze all along.
As they leaned closer, the two cards drifted to the carpet, landing face up, displaying the identical messages: "Yes, she really does want you to kiss her."
"Egg nog's... ready?" Mrs. Rosenberg said, trailing off as she entered the living room and found her daughter and Tara kissing beneath the Christmas tree, quite oblivious to anything else. Mrs. Maclay appeared behind her.
"What's the... oh."
"Uh, I suppose," Sheila said thoughtfully, "this definitely resolves the question of how she'll react when I come out."
"True," Ella nodded slowly. "On the other hand, it could make telling them about us a bit awkward."
"Oh... I hadn't thought of that," Sheila winced.
"A retreat to the kitchen is in order," Ella said, taking Sheila's arm and pulling her along.
"Good idea, I could use some egg nog."
"Oh, is that what you're calling it now?" Ella winked.