But the Witch,
Willow Rosenberg hated Christmas. From the discomfort of her dilapidated porch, she stared down with a frosty glower at the peaceful town that lay at the bottom of the hill, her callused fingertips drumming distractedly on the rough wooden doorframe. Willow hated everything about the holiday season. She hated the Tri-County area championship football game, played annually on the field at Whoville High. The jubilant cries of the screaming fans wafted up the gentle slope, and the victory hoots-an homage to the school's mascot, Whitley the Whooping Crane-pounded their way into her brain every time the home team scored. She hated the traditional bonfire, which was held after the game. The pungent, piney smoke curled up to her home and the scent, no matter how tightly she sealed the windows, always managed to permeate every room, displacing the markedly preferred aroma of cabbage and dog. She hated the rampant consumerism-the signs in the front windows of every store, boasting the best prices for the gadgets you simply had to have; the television advertisements touting products that were the perfect gift for Mom or Dad; even the sickeningly colorful fliers, which began appearing in her mailbox come late November, every year like clockwork.
Most of all, Willow hated the singing. The syrupy sweet, cheerful songs that played endlessly on the radio were, to her ears, like a rusty knife scraping over ceramic dishes. As awful as the radio jingles were, however, they weren't nearly as bad as the caroling. Every Christmas, the parents of Whoville would lead their children from house to house, belting out renditions of traditional seasonal tunes. The songs were supposed to be joyous and merry, but when Willow heard them, she couldn't help but think of a screeching cat with its tail in a blender. She hated the singing most of all because it conveyed a sentiment that she couldn't abide: that the citizens of Whoville were a loving, caring people, who wanted to share their joy, and wanted include everyone in their community of revelry. And that, Willow knew, was a big, fat lie.
"Hey, Rosy Burger, wait up!" Larry Blaisdell called out.
Willow kept her head down, trying to push her way through one of the crowded hallways of Dr. Theodore Geisel Middle School. The jeering taunts echoed down the corridor, following her progress through the sea of students.
"Burger! We just wanted to know how the folks over at Goodwill were doing; we figured you'd know!"
Six different spells rattled through Willow's mind. She could make all their hair fall out. No, no-she could make their clothes suddenly disappear. She peeked over her shoulder to see whether she had escaped, and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the boys weren't keeping pace. Willow didn't know what she'd done to garner the unfortunate attention of the Pop Warner youth football team, but whatever it was had offended most of the cheerleaders, as well. Rounding a corner, Willow ran nose-first into Cordelia Chase, who recoiled from the contact.
"Watch it!" the girl shrieked. She brushed at her jacket where it had touched Willow, as though ridding it of something unclean. "Ew. Now I need to get this dry cleaned," she remarked to one of her entourage. "Who knows what kind of disgusting germs she's got growing on her."
"Yeah, she probably hasn't had a shower in weeks."
"And I'll bet that old house is a serious breeding ground for all sorts of gross things."
Willow ground her teeth as the girls continued to speak about her as though she weren't standing directly in front of them. She could make them blind. Or, better yet, she could give them all horrible acne. Willow tightened her fingers into fists, her neglected fingernails digging mercilessly into her palms. The cheerleaders moved on, pointedly giving the redhead a wide berth, and their snide remarks faded down the hallway. With a target for her rage no longer present, the throbbing fury spilled over into misery, and Willow flew down the hall before anybody could see the tears begin to fall.
That had been her last day at school, Willow recalled. When she'd finally broken down and revealed to her parents the hardships she was enduring five days a week, they'd pulled her out immediately to begin homeschooling. Things got easier after that. While at school, Willow had been so full of doubt and anxiety that she couldn't focus in her classes; at home, she excelled at her studies, easily mastering material intended for students several grades higher.
When she wasn't studying her coursework, Willow was honing her craft. Her mother, Sheila, said it was a talent that made her special in a way the other children would never be able to understand. She taught Willow to move in the same direction as the magic, to harness it with grace and reverence. To Shelia, magic was a gift; to Ira, Willow's father, it was a science. Ira stressed discipline, impressing upon Willow that having such power necessitated precise control and nearly limitless willpower. While her parents' approaches to magic were otherwise distinct, they converged at one point: to use her powers against another living being was strictly forbidden. No good could ever come of it, they insisted.
The rising whoop of the fans carried up the hill, causing Willow to retreat into her house. From this distance, the dull cheering sounded like the hollow wheeze of a dying person's last breath. Willow was intimately familiar with the sound; tomorrow would mark the eight-year anniversary of her parents' deaths, but she could still hear the echo of her father's shallow, ragged gasps as his body wound down. They had been young-barely fifty years old-when a drunk driver had broadsided their car at the intersection of Highland and Cedar after one of the football games. The impact had been on the passenger side, and her mother had been killed instantly. Willow had received the call at work, and had spent the next forty-six hours in the hospital, leaving only once to race home so she could feed Scooby, take a five-minute shower, and switch into clean clothes. She had been holding her father's hand when he died, at five twenty-seven in the evening on Christmas Day. That night, when the carolers had climbed the long, twisting drive that wound its way up the hill to her house to share their tidings of comfort and joy, Willow had conjured a storm. The gale had taken out jagged sections of the house's front porch, and sent the singers scampering back down the slope.
A shaggy head brushed up against her fingers, and they unconsciously curled into the soft hair. Willow knelt by her dog's side and pulled the animal into a gentle embrace, which it responded to with heavy panting. When Scooby's rough tongue rasped across her cheek, Willow pulled away, making a face and wiping the skin with the palm of her hand. "Hello to you, too," she chuckled. She contemplated the retriever for a moment, before remarking, "You could really use a haircut, you know that? I'm going to have to dig up those clippers one of these days." The dog, as though able to comprehend her intentions, spun and skittered across the kitchen's hardwood floor. Her gaze followed the animal as it retreated, its unkempt coat making it look like some sort of hairy arctic beast.
Then she got an idea!
Willow's eyes widened. The rest of the world shifted into slow motion as a moment of clarity sank in. It was the perfect idea. Willow knew exactly what needed to be done.
She spent the remainder of the evening and most of the night gathering all of the necessary ingredients and preparing for the spells. It took her the better part of an hour to locate a tiny vial of distilled olibanum resin-it had been years since she'd dabbled with combining magic and aromatherapy-but she finally discovered the oil among a number of unlabeled bottles on a dusty shelf in the basement. Unfortunately, it was the wrong season for cicely blooms; all she had were a half dozen of the feathered leaves pressed between the pages of an herbology index. Ultimately, she was forced to tweak the spell to make use of anise, instead. The last ingredient, chamomile, Willow had in abundance; she had experimented with the flower to varying degrees of success after the nightmarish hospital stay had rendered her unable to find peaceful sleep. The modifications to the spell took longer than anticipated, and when the last note was written Willow was so tired she didn't even bother to climb the stairs to her bedroom. Instead, she curled up on the settee in the study, uncaring that the cushion she used as a pillow was covered in dog hair.
The early afternoon sun began creeping in through the windows on the western side of the house, warming Willow's skin. During her sleep, she had displaced the afghan she'd thrown over herself as a blanket; it now lay in a rumpled pile on the study floor. Scooby trotted into the room, the tags on his collar jingling merrily. His wet nose sought out the sleeping girl's face, and pressed up against the corner of her mouth with unerring precision. Willow snorted a breath full of dog, her face twisting in disapproval, then she flopped onto her other side, presenting her back to the animal. Scooby sat and waited patiently, but when no food appeared after a minute, he wandered off to check the bowl in the kitchen again. In her semi-lucid state, Willow's mind registered the scent of the dog and the clinking collar. Her dreamscape swirled...
"But why do we have to take him back into town?" Willow asked, pouting. "He's only been here a week!" Her arms were wrapped possessively around a beige puppy, whose head seemed entirely too big for the rest of his tiny body.
"We've got to take him to the veterinarian," Sheila explained. "She'll take a look at him and make sure that he's healthy, that he's eating the right foods, and that he's being looked after properly."
"But Scooby doesn't want to go to town! He's fine, here. We're taking great care of him!"
Sheila sighed. "Oh, good heavens, Willow, you're acting like a child," she groaned. "Come on, get changed. I'm taking Scooby to the vet, and you're coming with me. You can't avoid people forever, you know."
For nearly nine years, Willow had done exactly that. After being taken out of middle school, she had never made an effort to befriend any of the other children. For years, Willow had been perfectly content spending her days with her parents or on her own. She could keep herself amused for hours playing with the chemistry set her father had bought for her thirteenth birthday, or sitting in the den with her nose planted firmly in a book.
When she passed her high school equivalency test-she scored a staggering ninety-nine percent, a shock even to her parents, who had witnessed her rapid improvement over her struggles at school-Willow insisted that she did not want to attend college. Hearing this, Sheila demanded Willow find a job and begin paying rent if she were to continue living under their roof. The lecture she gave was stern, but the meager rate she charged made Willow believe her mother was not entirely displeased with the decision.
She was awake, now. Her dream hadn't abandoned her, yet, and she lay still, savoring the memory. This was her favorite part...
A bell above the door jangled as they entered the clinic. Willow carried Scooby in her arms; she had refused to let her mother stuff him into a carrier for the short trip into town. A young woman at the counter, maybe a year or two older than Willow, and heavy with child, glanced up at the sound, and smiled in greeting. The redhead instinctively moved behind her mother.
"Hi, Mrs. Rosenberg," the girl said.
"Hello, Tara," Sheila replied. "Your mother asked me to bring in Scooby today for his one week checkup."
"Sure," Tara nodded. "She should be available shortly, if you'd like to take a seat for a minute."
"Thank you." Sheila gave the waiting room chairs a cursory glance. "How are you feeling?"
Tara looked down at her extended belly, and shrugged. "Tired," she admitted, "and sore in places I never even thought about." She rested her hands at the small of her back and tried to straighten her posture. "For a couple of months, I thought it was getting easier, then...oof." She gave the older woman a wry smile.
"Maybe you should be sitting down," Sheila chuckled.
Tara shook her head. "That's one of the places that's sore," she explained. Peering around Sheila, she added, "Hey, Willow. I haven't seen you in ages."
So it was Tara Maclay! Willow had wondered when she'd heard the name, but the plump young woman at the counter looked so different from the scrawny, timid creature she'd watched try to fly under the radar in middle school. She hadn't known the girl well, but she had seen enough to determine that if anybody at Geisel had it nearly as rough as she did, it was Tara Maclay. The mousy outcast had been a common target of harassment for Larry, Cordelia, and their ilk. They decried her wardrobe, teased her mercilessly about the clunky lunchbox she carried to school every day-her mother packed lunches that were suited to her vegetarian diet-and ridiculed her stuttering speech.
Willow took a mental snapshot of the woman at the counter, eager to replace her decade-old image of the girl. She seemed to have been instilled with an inner confidence that had always been missing, and she radiated an aura of peace and tranquility. Her skin was clear and rosy, and her flat, pale hair had matured to a lovely golden mane. When she smiled, one corner of her mouth curled slightly higher than the other, projecting an impish glee that made Willow think she shared an inside joke with life.
Sheila had filled Willow in on the details during the trip home. Tara, the younger of the two Maclay children, had gone off to college, returning home between semesters to help her mother out at the clinic. She must have found something good at the University, because every time she came home, she was happier, more outgoing, and full of life and laughter. With more options for her diet available at the school, she'd filled out her spindly frame after several semesters. During one visit home, she'd caught the attention of a greatly matured Larry Blaisdell-the very same young man who had been so awful to her during her early school years-and he had spent the next year and a half courting the blonde. Their relationship had been short-lived; both had quickly learned that their mutual desire for a "normal" relationship wasn't nearly strong enough to sustain a life together, so they had eventually settled into a comfortable friendship. Of course, the pregnancy had complicated things...
The frantic clacking of claws on the kitchen floor finally forced Willow to open her eyes. She sat up gingerly, her aching joints protesting the cramped sleeping position to which they had been subjected all night. Squinting at the window, Willow was shocked by the late hour; it was well past noon, and she still had a number of preparations to complete before nightfall. Grumbling, she dragged herself from the study. After a quick meal for both herself and Scooby, she ran through her agenda. There were the two glamours, but those were merely afterthoughts. She had to triple-check the formula for the Somniculosus, and figure out how to boost the patterns for the Promoveo without endangering herself or Scooby. She needed to refamiliarize herself with the Introvallum. And finally, trickiest of all, she had to test the Denuo Temporis. Cracking her knuckles, Willow gave herself a curt, decisive nod and tackled the hardest obstacle first.
Then the Witch said, "Giddap!"
All their windows were dark. Quiet snow filled the air.
Willow caught her own reflection in one of the house's front windows, and it momentarily stalled her in her tracks. Bundled up against the elements in a puffy red coat, she looked all the part of Father Christmas. The simple glamour she had cast minutes before leaving her house gave her the extra padding around the middle, the bushy white beard, and the pink cheeks, but it was the hat-deftly lifted from a snowman in the yard-that sold the look. She turned slightly to examine her rotund profile, and her reflection assumed a sinister smirk.
From the deep pockets of her coat, she withdrew a cheesecloth sachet and a lighter. Chanting the words of the Somniculosus, she set the small bag alight, and heaved it onto the roof of the house. As the packet smoldered, eerie wisps of milky white smoke collected in the air above it. Wavy tendrils spiraled out from the cloud, and curled their way down the chimney. Willow counted to twenty in her head while keeping a wary eye on the road. She removed one of her mittens and pressed her hand to the cold vinyl siding of the house, then disappeared.
Teleportation through solid surfaces always disoriented her. It was only a few feet of space, but her body felt like it had just run a hundred laps around the maypole. She immediately sat down on the living room floor, and let her sense of balance reassert itself. There was a Christmas tree in the room, festooned with gaudy ornaments and lights. Piles of gift-wrapped presents littered the floor underneath the lowest branches. Willow imagined how the room would look devoid of its seasonal trappings, and a smile cracked her face.
She checked the bedrooms first. An older couple lay utterly motionless in a king-sized bed. Panic seized Willow. Had she made the spell too potent? Had the substitution of anise caused unintended side effects? She stood paralyzed until a rolling snore gurgled from the throat of the woman, and Willow's breath rushed from her lungs in relief. Quickly, she moved from room to room, gathering up the stockings, which were stuffed from hem to toe with goodies, and any decorations she could find. After a quarter of an hour, she'd created a heaping pile of holiday debris in the center of the living room floor.
Willow turned the lock to open the front door, and was greeted by a frosty blast of December air. She propped the door open and stepped outside, staring across the yard. Parked on the lawn next to the hatless snowman was her ride, a massive cutter sleigh with pinstriped fiberglass, wooden runners, and black and red, button-tufted upholstery. Tethered to the front of the sleigh was Scooby. He sat back on his rear haunches in the snow, digging with a hoofed foot at the patch of fur behind his right antler. When he picked up Santa's scent, he leapt to his feet, panting happily, with his tongue lolling over his lower jaw. Willow sighed. Scooby made a terrible reindeer.
His glamour had turned out more complicated than her own had been, mostly because Willow knew next to nothing about the anatomy of a reindeer. Then, in her haste, she had mistranslated one of the spell's phrases, and ended up with first an iguana, then later an armadillo. By nightfall, however, Scooby was resplendent in his new form, though admittedly lacking in function.
Using the same magic that propelled the sleigh, Willow carefully levitated the pile of Christmas cheer and funneled it outside, thinning it in midair to better navigate the narrow doorway. One by one, the items hovered across the snowy yard and lowered to the spacious floor of the sleigh. At first, Scooby chased the parcels across the span, but after the first two dozen, he gave up and flopped down on the ground, exhausted. Willow wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead and admired her handiwork. "Not bad at all," she admitted to herself, then took a deep breath. "Now for the hard part."
She stepped back into the welcoming warmth of the house, and moved to the center of the now barren living room. The floor was littered with pine needles, but otherwise there was no indication that the room had ever been festively decorated. Willow sat down on the varnished wood floor, concentrating on the top panel of a mahogany grandfather clock, which was three minutes away from sounding four o'clock in the morning. She began murmuring the Denuo Temporis, allowing her body to relax. Reality pulled at her mind from sixty-three different angles, and it was all Willow could do to keep her sanity together. She felt something snap, and a mechanism cleared.
The clock chimed three o'clock.
It was three o'clock in the morning when Willow arrived at the last house in the town. Although her body felt as fresh as it had when she set out, her mind was stretched to the breaking point. She had begun to think about calling it quits forty houses ago, but the perfectionist in her wouldn't let her stop until she'd scoured every last home. For the last (and first) time, she invoked the Somniculosus, ticking the lazy seconds from one to twenty in her head, then sent herself through the wall.
The first thing she noticed when her head stopped spinning was that the house smelled like vanilla and lavender. Willow hadn't smelled the particular combination in years-not since she was a child, when her mother had let her pick out scented candles, and she'd chosen the exact pairing for her bedroom. When the family had adopted Scooby, though, all efforts to keep a nicely smelling house had been tossed out the window: nothing mixed with dog.
Willow had developed an efficient system for clearing out the houses. She first moved the tree and its surrounding presents to the center of the room, then made a quick run through the house, noting where all the larger items were located; sorting the pile by size inside the house made loading up the sleigh much easier. By now, she was convinced that the incense would keep the residents asleep, so Willow tromped through the rooms without fear.
Countless houses ago, she had discovered that she liked watching the victims sleep. At first, the realization had made her uncomfortable; she had wondered if she was unearthing some kind of creepy voyeuristic streak. It had bothered her for many more houses, until she finally figured out what the feeling was. She enjoyed the company. Willow had always been terrified of people, because she knew they'd bark and bite at her. They'd tease her, taunt her, and cast her as a stepping stool, which they would use to boost themselves higher than the rest of the crowd. But in slumber, they couldn't do any of these things. Willow could be around people without anxiety, without doubt, and it felt wonderful.
Her entire body flooded with doubt, however, when she entered the first bedroom in the hallway. Although she'd replayed the memory countless times, Willow hadn't actually seen Tara Maclay in over nine years. No, eight, Willow amended-Tara and Mrs. Maclay had been two of only a handful of people who had attended the funeral for Willow's parents, but she had been so broken in spirit that she'd only barely noticed. But seeing her lying in bed, in the flesh, sent Willow's mind reeling.
She had once considered Tara skittish and scrawny. Later still, she had found her lovely. Now, Willow updated the status to downright beautiful. She hovered just inside the doorway, hesitant to approach the bed despite knowing that the woman would not wake. A lump formed in her throat, and she choked it down. Conflicting thoughts dueled in her head. She didn't know Tara-she couldn't know her, for they had only crossed paths a handful of times-but it didn't feel right to rip her Christmas, and whatever senseless happiness it might bring, away from her. But then, she couldn't compromise her plan, could she? The thought of making an exception in just one case sent uncomfortable ripples through the intricately woven fabric of Willow's moral justification.
Willow staggered out of the bedroom, retreating to the relative safety of the living room. She sat heavily on a plush sofa and looked over the unimpressive pile of presents. She wondered which gifts were for Tara, and what they contained. Did she get a lot of animal-themed presents? Did she actually own a pet? Willow hadn't seen one, the entire time she'd been in the house.
Her stomach lurched at the quiet voice. Willow's head swiveled slowly, and her gaze fell upon a small child, a girl of no more than eight or nine years. How was it possible? The Somniculosus should have kept her soundly asleep. The girl's tiny mouth fell open in a round expression of surprise.
"Are-are you Santa?" she asked.
The Witch had been caught by this tiny Who daughter
But, you know, that old Witch was so smart and so slick
It took Willow a moment to find her voice, and once her mouth opened, it seemed to be on autopilot. "N-no. I'm not Santa," she answered. "I'm a-a substitute."
"Oh. Like a teacher, for when other teachers are sick?" The girl considered this for a moment, and her face fell. "Is Santa sick?"
Willow shook her head. "He's not sick. He's-he's really tired. He couldn't get out of bed."
The girl shuffled her feet nervously. "I thought maybe...that Santa wasn't really...real." She looked up with wide, plaintive eyes. "Do you think he knows? Would he be mad?"
"Oh, I don't think Santa's mad at all. It's not a very Santa-like way to be, right? But you know what Santa does know? He knows when you are sleeping, and he knows when you're awake-so why don't you get back into bed, so you can have nice dreams, and when you wake up, it will be Christmas, and then you can open all of these presents!"
The girl seemed restless. "Do you want some cookies?" she asked, dodging the question. She pointed to a plate that had been set out, which contained a pair of gingerbread men and a few carrot sticks.
Willow took an Oreo cookie and grinned, despite her best attempts to distance herself from her task. The little girl reminded her too much of how she herself had been as a child. "I'll tell you what," she offered. "I need to get a lot of work done, tonight, do I'll make a deal with you. You get three questions, but after that, you've got to promise to go straight to bed. Okay?" It was a trick Willow's father had often employed to get her to go to sleep on nights when she was being particularly rambunctious.
The girl thought carefully, and asked, "Did you bring the reindeer? Can I see them? Oh, but that's only one question."
"I only needed to bring one reindeer, and yes, you can see him, but you can only look through the window, okay? He's not good with strangers," Willow cautioned. She motioned toward the window, and Tara's daughter pressed her face to the pane, cupping her hands above her eyes to block out any reflections.
"Whoa," she said, awe clearly evident in her voice. "Which one is it? Dasher? Dancer?" She paused. "That wasn't a question, either," she insisted.
"Panter," Willow said. At the girl's dubious look, she clarified, "He's not one of the famous ones. So what's your second question?"
"Um...are you a boy or a girl? You look like a boy, but sound like a girl."
"I'm, um-I'm a girl. The Santa beard and everything is a disguise. For being a substitute, you know?"
The girl nodded, satisfied. "It's really good," she declared.
"So what's your last question?"
Tara's daughter concentrated very hard. Finally, she asked, "Am I going to get another mommy?"
Little bits of Oreo were snorted down Willow's throat in a sharp intake of breath. She coughed fitfully to clear the passage, and felt her eyes water. "Another mother?" she wheezed. "What's wrong with-is something the matter with Tara? Is your mommy sick?" Willow's heart skipped erratically in her chest.
The girl shuffled her feet. "Nuh uh. That's what Mommy keeps asking for every year; she says she wants us to get another mommy, so we won't be just us two all the time."
"Um, I...I don't know if you'll get that, this year. Maybe if you've both been really good, and-and you wrote to Santa...and...uh, I guess if he can find the right person, then-then maybe. But that's three questions, and you made a promise, so...good girls keep their promises, right?"
"Okay," the girl pouted. "I'm going, I'm going." She walked backward, slowly, out of the room, never taking her eyes off of the stand-in Santa. At some point in the next five minutes, Willow's heart resumed beating.
It was quarter past two...
So technically, she was light one house's loot. And though her heart was no longer entirely backing the plan, her brain quelled any chance of mutiny by a series of sternly delivered mandates: Don't go soft. Stick to the plan. They deserve it. But did they really-all of them? Don't go soft. Stick to the plan.
Over the course of the night, she'd made countless trips to the high school, dropping off load after load of the Whoville's precious Christmas cargo onto the fifty-yard line. Now, she rubbed her hands together for the finale. She could have done it the easy way-a simple Ignus spell would have torched the entire pile-but that lacked the intimate, personal touch she was hoping would ease her mind from its lifetime of bitterness. Willow removed from the sleigh the last of its contents: two plastic jugs of lighter fluid and a fireplace lighter. Tonight, Willow was having her own bonfire.
Two hours later, she sat on the lowest step of the bleachers, idly clicking the lighter on and off, and glaring across the field at the massive heap of unlit trees, presents, and decorations. Nearby, Scooby paced; he wasn't used to leashes, and the restriction of range imposed by his tether was making him restless. Willow could hear the constant jangling of his collar, which had remained present despite the glamour. She felt despondent, weary, and more than anything confused. Wasn't this the plan all along? To wrench Christmas from the grasping hands of the town that had torn her down, and set it ablaze for her own night of revelry? She held the flickering flame between her eyes and the pile, for the hundredth time imagining Mt. Christmas going up in a billowing inferno. The image did little to satisfy her. Ruefully, Willow realized that the pieces that were missing from her heart wouldn't ever be sated by vengeance.
Movement from the far side of the field caught her attention. She stood and peered nervously across the expanse. Somebody was getting out of a car. Oh-a police car. Willow had watched cop shows, where an officer would pull over a vehicle for some routine traffic violation, and the perpetrator would floor it, taking off down the highway. She had always commented on the inanity of such a decision; and yet now, before her ultra-sharp brain had even had a chance to chime in, she found herself aboard the cutter, fumbling through the opening phrases of the Promoveo. The sleigh lurched slowly through the snow at first, but as it gained speed it rose to the surface, and soon it was gliding effortlessly toward the open gate at the north end of the field. A glance over her shoulder revealed the police officer climbing back into his car, and the lights atop the vehicle blinked to life.
She spurred the sleigh forward, propelling it ever faster with her fading reserves of energy. She had assumed Scooby would hop aboard, but the reindeer, antsy from hours of interminable downtime, raced ahead of the sleigh, looking for all the world like he was capable of towing such an impressive vehicle. Had Willow possessed the stamina to look, she might have enjoyed the vision of the creature in full glory; instead, she kept her head down, exerting only enough effort to hang on, and poured her already taxed will into the magic.
Willow neither saw nor heard the truck that plowed into the sleigh. The collision only registered an instant before her body, flung wildly from the seat, impacted the cushioning softness of the snow. It still jarred her, pushing the air from her lungs and twisting one ankle well past its normal range of motion. Then, in a rush, the last few seconds caught up to her-a blaring horn, sliding tires, a high-pitched yelp, the sickening snap of collapsing fiberglass, the groaning compression of snow.
The world bobbed lazily back to the surface, and Willow's eyes fell upon the crumpled form of Scooby. He was lying on his side at the edge of the road, one slender leg kicking out into the air as spasms shook his body. His breath was shallow, and he blinked rapidly, the bulk of his antlers turning his head to an unusual angle. Willow crawled to his side, shock making her numb to the pain that shot through her foot. Her arms flew over his body protectively, and her cheek rested gently against his flank, which was matted down with blood. The texture surprised Willow; she recoiled with a sharp breath and raised a hand to her cheek. Her fingers came away a glistening Christmas red. Scooby's eyes stopped fluttering, instead fixing the drift with a glassy stare.
The witch's insides boiled. She stood, and hobbled out into the street. The sleigh was toppled on its side; the entire front section had been caved in. She straightened her shoulders and rose to her full height, staring down the other vehicle. Inside, a single occupant was struggling with both the seatbelt and an inflated air bag. Willow's power lashed out, sending the truck scraping ten feet straight back before overturning the vehicle in the road. She collapsed to the pavement, the jolt of pain lancing up her leg finally registering. Willow reached deep inside herself, and drew on the very last vestige of the waning mote of her magic...
When the squad car pulled up to the scene of the accident, the officers were baffled. An impressive Dodge Dakota appeared to have been overturned by, of all things, a scruffy Labrador Retriever, who lay motionless beside a child's toboggan.
The whistle of the teakettle pulled Willow's red rimmed eyes away from the grungy window. She shuffled gingerly across the kitchen and shifted it to a different burner. Retrieving a mug from the cupboard, Willow poured the steaming water over a packet of chamomile tea. She returned to her uncomfortable perch on a kitchen stool, and sipped at the drink as the first of the sun's rays crept over the horizon. "For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn," Willow spat bitterly.
She hadn't found sleep all night. Over and over in her head, Ira and Sheila Rosenberg impressed upon her the dangers of using her powers against people. Nothing good will come of it, they insisted. It will come back around, they warned. Willow knew how disappointed they would be with her, were they still alive, today. She moved about the house mechanically, attending to her usual chores, pausing for thought only when she caught herself mixing a dish of food for Scooby. When the sun arced high into sky, her exhausted body finally gave in, and Willow tumbled unceremoniously into bed.
And she did hear a sound rising over the snow.
But the sound wasn't sad!
The singing roused her from a troubled slumber. Willow's sense of temporal passage was currently on leave, and she couldn't locate a timepiece. She slipped out of bed, knocking a pillow to the floor in the process. Muttering under her breath, she slipped a bathrobe over her clothing-she hadn't bothered to undress when she went to bed-and tied a loose knot, then eased down the stairs, favoring her sprained ankle. As irritating as the singing was, at least these carolers could carry a decent tone.
Now to the Lord sing praises,
Willow flung the door open in annoyance, and her hateful recriminations caught in her throat when she recognized the visitors. Tara Maclay and her daughter stood on the front step. In the child's hands was a flickering candle; in Tara's, a braced and bandaged retriever, whose eyes lit up when he saw the redhead.
"Scooby..." Willow breathed.
"Hi, Willow," Tara smiled-that same mischievous, knowing smile. Seconds later, her face was being showered by kisses as she found herself in Willow's grateful arms. "Whoa, whoa!" she squealed, trying her utmost to keep her hold on the squirming dog. "Let's get Scooby inside, shall we?"
Willow stood aside and let the blonde carry the animal into her home. When Tara lowered him carefully to the floor, Scooby hobbled on three legs directly to the empty patch of hardwood where his bowl should have been.
"How-how did you-?" Willow couldn't get the question out.
"I recognized the tags," Tara explained. "It was a while ago, but...well, there aren't many people around here who'd have the gall to name their dog Scooby," she teased, then her voice took on a more serious tone. "His bell was rung pretty badly, and I haven't seen many leg injuries like that, but give him some time. He might make a full recovery." Tara felt her daughter by her side. "Willow, I'd like you to meet my daughter, Cindy; Cindy, this is Willow. We went to school together, a long time ago."
The girl nodded. "We've met," she said.
Tara grinned. "Oh, yes. Willow, you dropped your hat." She pulled out a folded Santa hat from her coat pocket, and offered it to the redhead. "They found it on the side of the road with Scooby," she said, adding as an afterthought, "The driver wasn't hurt."
Willow's mouth wasn't keeping up with her mind. She sputtered out sounds that could only loosely be considered words, but Tara silenced her with a shake of her head.
"You don't have to-Willow, I understand why you did it. And I'm-I'm really glad you didn't go through with it. Mostly I'm relieved that nobody was hurt." She looked at Scooby, and added, "Badly."
Willow finally found her voice. "How could you-I mean, you know about-?"
"Cindy unraveled your incense-what was it, a Somniculosus?"
"You did it wrong," Cindy insisted. "You're not supposed to use anise."
"She's already better at it than I am, and she's only nine," Tara said proudly, ruffling her daughter's hair. The girl beckoned her mother closer, and whispered something in her ear.
"Right," Tara nodded, standing straight. "Willow, Cindy and I would like to invite you for Christmas dinner...if-if you don't have other plans?"
Although in all probability, it was more like eggplant gratin.