Author: Chris Cook
'Twas a dark and stormy night, which is a horrible cliché to start a tale with, we know, but the fact of the matter is that it was night-time, though what hour exactly none could say, on account of the sundial's cheap glow-in-the-dark gnomon which ne'er worked since the day it came out of the box, and it was stormy, with winds tearing the tiles from rooftops, and squalls of rain then moving in, coordinated-like, to drench the unhappy occupants, who cursed the buxom lass the town crier had employed as weather-girl, for be she e'er so comely, and stacked out to here, she clearly knew nowt o' isobars and El Nino, and her predictions of sunny and twenty-seven were in the gutter, and no mistake.
From which details of timekeeping and newsagency, not to mention eccentric vocab, you may gather, gentle reader, that our tale is set in Days Of Yore, and furthermore ye should be forewarned that so far as historical accuracy goes, this one's in the gutter with the weather-girl's forecasts. So populating yonder imagined landscape were the typical smattering of homely peasants tending their fields, guards in rusty breastplates lounging surly-like at the town gate, taverns full of ne'er-do-wells engaged in various activities involving alcohol and vulgarity, monks cloistered in their monasteries doing whatever it is monks do, best not ask, and scattered about the place assorted brigands, thieves, highwaymen, lowwaymen, confidence-tricksters, criminals organised and disorganised, and the local nobility, all doing their darndest to skive a living off the efforts of the aforementioned honest peasantry, who were understandably upset that it would be several hundred years until the advent of collective bargaining. Add too a handful of magical and mystical what-nots to brighten up the place, in the hopes of catching the eye of a Hollywood producer with hopes of making the next Harry Potter film, ogres and trolls and elves and the usual assortment of Tolkien off-casts, and - don't forget - blanket the whole shebang in a torrential downpour that had the local populace scurrying for cover, and the sky's complement of dragons, pegasi and so on diverting to other airports while cursing the cost of fuel and wondering if they could sue the weather-girl, who'd better hope someone invents, in order, the printing press, newspapers, and the Page Three Girl right promptly, because it doesn't look like her current career has legs.
The scene thus haphazardly set, let us now narrow our gazes, zooming vertiginously in from out all-encompassing wide shot of this eventful and eccentric land to a close-up of a bedraggled traveller, soaked to the bone, making her muddy way up a path towards a sturdy cottage on the outskirts of town. She pauses, lifting a pale hand to the hood of her supposedly rain-proof cloak, which had sadly proven itself nothing of the sort some time ago, raising it slightly so as to peer at the sign standing in front of the house, which proclaims the following:
(lic. Guild of Barbarians, local 21)
Bespoke Heroic Arse-Kicking
Enemies driven before,
Lamentations of women (enemies') engendered,
Jewelled thrones crushed beneath feet (sandals extra)
Bemused but determined, our intrepid wanderer presses on to the front door, hammering with the kind of intensity you get when a wooden door is all that's between you and not being the target of several gallons of express-delivery deluge. Vague sounds from within penetrate the rain's din, and at last the door opens, admitting the object of out attention to the interior where, blinking in the light and shivering violently, she opens her mouth to speak the reason for her ill-favoured trek across the swamp that's become of the landscape, thusly:
What cryptic message is this? Alright, no good pretending: the poor woman's caught a cold, so the helpful dollop of exposition that was on her lips will have to wait until she's had a blanket and a cup of hot cocoa, or perhaps hot tea may be preferable, since cocoa's yet to be discovered so it'd be a long wait. But we're getting ahead of ourselves - let's skip back a moment, thus to have ample time to introduce 'Faith the Barbarian (and associate)' before our rain-soaked traveller interrupts their evening...
The interior of the cottage was, thanks to foresight and very determined repairs on the roof last Autumn, cosy, warm, and dry, and just as well, for the first of the two inhabitants on which we cast our view was anything but dressed for the cold. There's a solid rule of fantasy adventure that it must contain a suitably racy woman in skimpy attire, for the cover artist to use should this tale become a paperback and need to attract the notice (and gratefully-received pennies) of horny teenagers, and indeed Faith the Barbarian - for it is she - has brought a marathon's worth of racy, and some to spare. We could just say 'chainmail bikini' and be done with it, but come good souls, where's the fun in that? so be assured that said buxom barbarianess wears (if that's the right word) an ensemble that'd make Red Sonja feel indecently exposed, consisting of minimal scraps of mail affixed to her athletic and certainly not underdeveloped form by way of mere string, and not particularly tightly either, such that the merest motion, or even breathing, set things a-jiggling quite remarkably. In fairness, it must be observed that our underdressed warrioress has made some concessions to practicality: the armour preserving what little modesty she chooses to retain is in fact wool painted silver, rather than chain, for real chainmail next to bare skin, not to mention sensitive bare skin, is no laughing matter, and pinches most vexingly. Oh, and she's wearing heavy winter boots - there'll be some travelling later in this tale, and we're not so unkind as to have her schlep about the countryside barefoot. (Foot fetishists, skip ahead a few scenes, if you like, to where she takes the boots off for a bit.)
A fetching image fit to whet the appetites of anyone used to purchasing magazines in plain brown paper bags, and add too that she's stretched out luxuriously on a sphinx-fur rug, basking in the glow of a roaring fire that has her bronzed (and coincidentally freshly-oiled) skin gleaming like a centrefold, and we're practically guaranteed a movie deal out of this. But it's not Faith and her fabulously exhibitionistic tendencies that this story's about, so we're sure you're eager to move on, dear reader... not quite yet? No harm in lingering a moment longer, we admit we like the view too, and oh look, she's rolled over onto her stomach, and forsooth that g-string covers naught of her backside, does it? Is it warm in here? Must be the fire.
But we must press on apace, for there's more to do than perve at Faith - alright, we'll make all the footage from that scene a special feature on the DVD release, promise - so let us wipe the drool from out mouths, present a composed appearance, and turn our attention to the other inhabitant of Faith's cottage, whom thus far we've identified only as 'and associate'. A blonde she is - like the visitor from the last scene, only obviously not the same one, since she's still slogging around outside at this point - and a striking contrast to Faith, for while the latter lounges around in barely enough clothing to outfit Tinkerbell, And Associate is rather more modestly garbed, in a stylish yet affordable tunic and trousers combo, with soft leather boots, and since her desk is away from the fire, a sweater to stave off the winter chill, emblazoned with the rich heraldry of the Royal Jousting And Peasant-Baiting Cheer Squad. Her attention is on a venerable old tome bearing the legend 'Monstrouse Creatures and Denizens of ye Foul Pitte of Hades (A Spotter's Guide)', a guidebook kept and well-referenced by all the greatest freelance adventurers, although on closer inspection it's just providing cover for the copy of 'Nobility Weeklie!' magazine, which blondie has stashed inside the larger book, and is e'en now catching up on the latest gossip from the royal court of far-off Hollywood under the guise of doing job-related research. Her name, for reasons that will likely never become clear, is Buffy.
And now we arrive where we left off, with a hammering upon the front door, Faith arising and bounding pneumatically to said portal, her immodest bikini dangerously close to slipping out of position (don't say we never do anything for you), and opening it (the door, not the bikini) to admit a visitor with an urgent sneeze.
And with this brief introductory interlude out of the way we're back where we were a moment ago, with our unfortunately ill-waterproofed newcomer sneezing main mightily, so while Faith blinks in surprise and Buffy hurries to usher their visitor inside, shut the door upon the thoroughly inclement outdoors, and offer comfort of the blanket-and-hot-beverage variety, let's settle in for some dialogue at last...
"Thank'ee," the newcomer ventured, her shivering subsiding before the warmth of the fire, sipping her hot cocoa gratefully - let's be anachronistic, it's cocoa weather if it ever was - while Faith peered at her curiously, and Buffy sat by her side ready to refill her mug.
"What brought you out on such a curséd night?" Buffy asked, glancing between the blonde and Faith to see if anyone had noticed her authentic ye olde pronunciation of 'cursed'.
"I've come in search of th-the legendary Faith the Barbarian," the blonde replied.
"Hot damn, I'm legendary!" Faith grinned, bouncing in excitement.
"Y'are the... um... the, the very same Faith?" the blonde enquired of her, her powers of speech somewhat hampered by the bountiful Faithettes jiggling right in front of her - yes, she's Tara, and of course she'll remain faithful (pardon the pun) to Willow, even though the Willster hasn't actually turned up yet, but she can't help but look, they're right there in front of her.
"I am!" Faith gleefully confirmed, performing a mischievous curtsey. "And may I present my trusted and overdressed associate Buffy."
"Not all of us are rampant exhibitionists," Buffy griped, before offering the newcomer a warm smile.
"Uh, p-pleased to meet you," the blonde said, returning the smile with a side order of mild panic, as if she wasn't quite certain what she'd strayed into, and can you blame her? "I'm Tara, o-of the Clan MacLae."
"Historical!" Faith declared, crouching down in front of her; Tara tried to avoid staring into her cleavage, which was sufficiently abyss-like that it'd probably have stared back, as the saying goes. "So, you're looking for me and you found me, what can I do for you? Anything? At all?" she added with a less than subtle wink.
"I-I, uh, I need to hire your services," Tara admitted weakly.
"Not a problem," Faith assured her. "I do graduation parties, stag and/or hen's nights, and corporate events, Buffy can hook you up with our regular caterer, the rules are you get four hours non-stop dancing with a sword prop-"
"Uh- no?" Tara interrupted her. "As a barbarian warrior, I mean. A mercenary? There's been a... um, a theft, or rather there will be, a theft most villainous, and I need to stop it."
"Oh, right," Faith nodded. "Okay, a real-sword job. Theft, you say? I'm your girl, valuables guarded with a money-back guarantee, and there's a discount if you let me nail down whatever it is they're trying to steal. That really does work."
"What's going to be stolen?" Buffy, the pragmatic one by a long margin, asked.
And now, with that dramatic revelation ringing on our ears, let's leave Faith the Barbarian (and associate) (and guest) for a moment, and head down to the local docks - don't worry, the rain's settled down to a bearable drizzle - where we may find the other of our two soon-to-be lovebirds, and also handily knock off one of the challenge requirements. Huzzah!
"Um, excuse me?" a redhead, huddled beneath an enormous coat and waterproof cape, but looking around herself hopefully, ventured, as she stood alongside the end of a gangplank. "Would anyone like to contribute to a collaborative encyclopaedia project?"
Around her the crew and passengers of the recently-arrived good ship The Armadillo (there we go) gave her curious glances, then - being a non-communicative bunch, and not vital to our tale anyway - resumed their courses towards the nearest inn, hotel, tavern, ale-house, or other source of inexpensive inebriation.
The redhead, heaving a dispirited sigh, balanced the hefty tome she carried on the gangplank's rail and, using a portable inkwell and quill, added the note: "Not inclined to be diverted from the prospect of strong drink upon disembarking," under the sub-heading 'crews' on a page titled 'Ships'.
"I know, it's personal research," she muttered to herself, "but we're never going to get anything done otherwise..."
Armadillo, check. Back to Tara, who'll hopefully be explaining the who, what, where, when, and why of the theft of Christmas. Although we can likely take the 'when' as read that it'll be on or around December 25th...
"What-mas?" Faith asked.
"Christmas," Buffy echoed.
"No, I'm trying to stealthily indicate that this is a medieval-fantasy setting with no real-world religions," Faith said out of the corner of her mouth.
"The introduction mentioned monks, ergo Christianity, so it's plausible to have Christmas," Buffy pointed out, as Tara watched them in escalating bemusement.
"Oh, Christmas, right!" Faith hastily said, her bust swaying even though her 180-degree turn was a mere metaphor.
"How can someone steal Christmas?" Buffy asked Tara, while Faith grumbled "could've been Oriental monks, it didn't specify," to herself.
"Well, you see... perhaps I should start at the beginning?" Tara suggested.
"If you want," Faith shrugged. "But it's cold out there, you sure you want to do the walk up the path from the front gate all over again?"
"Uh... no," Tara shook her head. "I meant-"
"Just tell the story," Buffy advised. "Trust me, it's better that way."
"...Alright," Tara conceded. "It's about my brother, Donnie. A few months ago he took a job as a Hired Goon with a woman who was travelling through the region-"
"Hired Goon?" Buffy and Faith echoed.
"Our father raised him alone," Tara said apologetically, "after he and mother went their separate ways, he didn't have the best education, and he got kicked out of the MacLae Clan Ale-Drinking and England-Warring Society because the clan tartan kept making him go cross-eyed."
"So, Hired Goon?" Buffy prompted.
"Right," Tara nodded. "The pay's good, and he knows how to wear a helmet with a full-face mask, so... Anyway, a week ago I had a letter from him. His employer had made a villainous monologue explaining her evil scheme-"
"Naturally," Buffy nodded.
"Good to see the old ways being kept up," Faith agreed.
"-and Donnie overheard that she's planning to usurp Christmas for her own ends. He didn't know what to do, so he wrote to me, and... um, here I am," the blonde finished.
"How can you usurp Christmas?" Buffy wondered. "It's just a bunch of eating and singing carols, what's to usurp?"
"I'm not sure," Tara admitted. "Only, Donnie said that his employer had learned that something big and wonderful was in the works at the North Pole, something called a Santa Claus, and that's what's going to be stolen."
"Santa clause," Buffy mused. "Something legal?"
"It's not a misspelling of 'Satan' is it?" Faith suggested. "I fight demons a lot, it's the second most popular Barbarian occupation, behind quaffing ale."
"Is that like drinking?" Tara asked.
"It's what you do after you're too drunk to get the ale in your mouth reliably, but don't want to just spill it on the floor. Takes special training."
"So what is it?" Buffy asked, fulfilling her contractual role of steering the conversation back on track.
"Santa? Donnie's letter didn't say," Tara shrugged. "Just that if it fell into the wrong hands, you'd better look out."
"You mean 'watch out'?"
"Oh, r-right. Yes, that was it."
"So how come you're here?" Faith asked. "Doesn't the Clan MacLae have, like, warriors and stuff? Highland laddies? Berserk drunk guys in kilts, that kind of thing?"
"Well y-yes," Tara hesitated, "but 'tis a busy season, and they're all... um, out visiting their relatives, or... Look," she huffed, "do you want to be in this story or not?"
"Is there money in it?" Buffy asked. "We're not a charity mercenary service."
"I'll accept 'endless gratitude'," Faith offered, batting her eyelids. "Especially if you lean forward and say it all breathy-like, so we all know what you mean by it? No?"
"I've brought a hundred gold pieces," Tara said, shooting Faith a warning glare. "Is that enough?"
"I... don't know, actually," Faith admitted. "B?"
"Depends on the historical period, how dilute the gold is in the coins, how much weight the mark on the coins carries in whatever the heck nation it is we're supposed to be in..."
"A yes or a no will do."
"Let's say yes?" Buffy shrugged.
"Good, done deal," Faith smiled, extending a hand for Tara to shake. She took it, ready to jerk back at the first sign of flirtatious hand-kissing, but for all her spicy talk Faith knows better than to mess with a canon couple, so the blonde's hand remained un-ravished (for now, just you want, promise).
"North Pole is it then," Buffy said, picking up her Spotter's Guide to Random Encounters, quickly shoving the enclosed magazine out of sight, and gathering up various backpacks and sundry adventuring equipment conveniently placed about her desk.
"How do we get there?" Faith asked.
"We go... north?" Buffy suggested, unrolling a map and peering at it. "Axial north or magnetic north? Has magnetism been discovered yet?"
"I don't have a compass, if that's what you mean."
"Let's assume axial," Buffy muttered. "So, according to this, if we just head upwards..." she frowned in though, studying the map's various instructive and decorative features. "...that's fifteen 'here be dragons' zones, half a dozen 'abandon all hope ye who venture here' signs, and betwixt one and three edges of the world. You know what this means?"
"We need a lot of dragon repellent?" Faith suggested.
"We need a better map," Buffy sighed. "Let's go see Willow before we leave."
"Willow?" Tara asked, instantly intrigued for reasons that weren't at all clear to her, but let's face it, will save time in the long run.
"Do we have to?" Faith asked. "She's crazy."
"Who's Willow?" Tara asked.
"She's not crazy," Buffy countered. "She's..."
"Loopy?" Faith suggested.
"Who is she?"
"Quirky?" Tara offered, desperate to find a way into the conversation somehow.
"Quirky will do," Buffy decided.
"Pray tell, who is this Willow?" Tara tried once more.
"Let's go see," Buffy said, ignoring Faith's long-suffering sigh.
'Who's Willow?' indeed! Has not fair Tara ever read the Kitten board? Oh, right, no internet back in Ye Olde Days of Yore - and we think it's a pain when the broadband drops out for five minutes. Truly this is a strange and primitive time, bereft of the miracles of Google, email, and freely-available porn - though Faith kinda qualifies there - but rest assured, gentle reader, there is one far-sighted visionary who's noticed the inherent problems of living in the murky mists of history, and has decided what it needs is an information superhighway driven through it. And here she is (again):
The trio of Faith the Barbarian, Buffy the Serious One, and Tara the Main Character Of The Story stood, a brisk and umbrella-huddled walk later, outside of a building that had 'Wizard's Workshop' written all over it - or rather, it had, until someone had nailed up a sign over the writing, declaring: 'Willow of Rosenberg, President & CEO, League of Big Knowledge Women (applications for membership welcome)'.
"Willow's a wizard?" Tara asked. "I-I've heard it's not wise to meddle in the affairs of such people..."
"Nah, o-old Giles the T-Tweed lets her use the w-workshop while h-he's o-off travelling," Faith said, her speech hampered somewhat by her chattering teeth, which is what happens when you refuse to compromise your principles re: wearing chainmail bikinis and naught else when the mercury's dropped so far it's come out the bottom of the thermometer and dribbled away through a gap in the floorboards. Also the substitution of wool for metal is proving main vexing in the rain, since if it shrinks any more this story'll become R rated just for the sight of her, not that she minds that terribly (nor would much of the audience, truth be told, ye be a randy crowd and no mistake).
Erratic signage aside, the workshop was still a set designer's nightmare - and not just the kind where you show up to work naked (though maybe that too, with Faith standing outside of it), but the full-on crazy kind you get after you've eaten some strange cheese before going to sleep, and maybe done acid as well. The two storeys seemed to be derived from different buildings, with the upper kept from sliding off the lower only by force of will and a handful of metal brackets, the shingles on the roof were of every conceivable size and shape apart from 'the same as the one next to it', and formed a pattern best described as the kind of jigsaw puzzle Cthulhu would while away the hours with, a rickety tower sprouted from one corner like an adventurous mushroom, and was weighed down by so many aerials, antennae, astronomical instruments and a full-sized telescope poking out of holes in its walls and peaked roof that it was probably far too unstable to exist, and will have to be done in CGI after filming's done on the rest of the building, and even the humble brickwork looked like the proceeds of a touring robbery of every quarry in the known world. It says something about the quirkiness (Tara had indeed hit on the perfect word) of the sight before our disbelieving eyes that the only part of it that could be said to be normal was a small notice pasted to the front door, reading: 'No frogs, frog-related inquiries, or requests for spells requiring frogs or frog-like products. PS that goes for toads as well.'
The three were just debating which of their number would press the strange nodule that could possibly have been a doorbell, and suffer whatever consequences may eventuate, when they were approached from the flank by the morose-looking young woman from Scene Four, still clutching her enormous book beneath the shelter of her equally enormous coat.
"Can I help you?" she asked cautiously, no doubt unused to visitors, let alone any looking like Faith, unless they were looking for the nearby Ye Pink Pussycat Club of Licentious Cabaret and had gotten lost. She relaxed, cringed, and did a double-take respectively as Buffy, Faith, and Tara turned around.
"We've got a job for you, Red!" Faith declared heartily. "We need to get to the North Pole in..." She glanced at her wrist, forgetting that it was several centuries before the wristwatch would be invented, then shook her head. "...real soon, and you're the only one crazy enough to guide us without demanding a stupid load of money. Interested?"
"North Pole?" Willow frowned. "Axial or magnetic?"
"We've been through that, no-one's discovered-" Buffy began.
"Actually I've got some ancient philosophical scrolls that go into the subject in some detail, I could show you if you'd like?" Willow countered hopefully.
"Later," Faith shook her head. "And by later I mean no. North Pole, can you do it, or do we put a collar on B and hope that makes her a guide dog?"
"Wait, what?" Buffy yelped.
"Uh," Tara spoke up, capturing the redhead's attention. "W-we really need to get there. My brother may be in trouble, and it's possible there's a scheme most dastardly underway. We really need your help," she finished, unwittingly giving Willow both barrels of an imploring stare that had roughly the same effect as tying her up and dragging her wherever it wanted her to go.
"I can help!" she replied quickly. "I know a lot about geography, and transport, and cartography, and, well, anything that doesn't have to do with frogs- it doesn't have to do with frogs, does it?" she asked, in a sudden panic.
"No," Tara shook her head. "No-one's mentioned frogs in any capacity, so far as I know."
"Whew!" Willow mopped her suddenly-sweaty brow. "Okay then, let's go do whatever it is you want me to do, shall we? Anything at all," she added dazedly, as Tara smiled at her.
"Do you need to get anything?" Buffy asked, pointing to the workshop.
"No, better not," Willow said, taking her by the arm and steering her away. "Believe me, oh, the weather inside is frightful."
"Don't you mean outside?" Tara asked.
"No, inside," Willow said. "I was doing an experiment in practical meteorology, and it kind of got out of hand. Luckily I've got everything I need right here." She heaved her enormous book up and into Faith's arms, and flipped through its pages as the disgruntled barbarian staggered beneath its weight.
"North Pole, here we go, disambiguation page. You don't mean the North Pole pole dancing club, do you?"
"N-no," Tara shook her head. "The one where they handle Christmas. Your grimoire's got, uh... dancing clubs in it?"
"It's only slightly grim. North Pole (Christmas), here we go." She flipped through the pages. "It's got everything in it - or it will do. That's the idea, anyway, to collect all the knowledge in the world into one easy-to-access encyclopaedia."
"You got an extra 'a' in there," Faith pointed out, trying to wedge a knee beneath the tome to take some of the weight off her elbows.
"No, this is medieval fantasy, so we're all talking British," Willow muttered, concentrating on finding the right page. "Didn't you notice your accent?"
"I just thought I was coming down with a cold."
"Here we are," Willow jabbed at a page triumphantly. "North Pole, location of specialised paraphernalia and trained artisans involved in the creation of Christmas. Sub-heading, directions... we need to go west."
"...you didn't look up 'West Pole' by mistake, did you?" Buffy asked after a moment.
"The docks are to the west," Willow pointed out. "We'll need a ship."
"Right," Buffy said quickly. "I knew that."
"Luckily I was just down there, and thus I saw one ship come sailing in-"
"No, one," Willow frowned. "Cut to the next scene!"
"You want to go where?" Captain Cordelia Chase, the dreaded Fashionista of the Seven Seas, asked, casting a sceptical eye over the eccentric quartet lined up on the gangplank.
"North Pole," Willow, Tara, and Faith said.
"Not the West Pole," Buffy added. "I'm just saying. It's an easy mistake to make, really."
"As in the North Pole, hundreds and hundreds of miles through uncharted oceans the likes of which even daring and fearless nautical lasses of great repute such as myself have never ventured into?"
"That's the one," Willow nodded, missing Cordelia's sarcastic tone by a nautical mile. "Not the whole way, of course - according to my records there's a sleigh station a few miles south of the pole, that'll be far enough. From there we'll just go dashing through the snow in a one-horse closed sleigh."
"Open sleigh, surely?" Buffy asked.
"Not in this weather - if it's cold here, imagine what it'll be like in the Arctic."
"Normally I'd say you're crazy, but sure, the crew could do with a change of scenery," the Captain shrugged, standing aside to let the party on board.
"That was easy," Faith mused.
"Shush!" Buffy hissed. "Don't draw attention to the convenient plot contrivance, or it'll take us all day to find another ship."
"Lucky for you we often go up north where the rivers freeze during the winter," Cordelia went on, oblivious to the shortcomings in her realism being noted, "so we've got an icebreaker."
"Like, a smaller expeditionary vessel that launches from the main one?" Willow asked, quill at the ready to note down anything that looked even vaguely like knowledge.
"No, him," Cordelia said, pointing at an eight-foot-tall giant with a leather harness fitted over the shoulders of his fur coat, and carrying a colossal hammer. "Say hello, Olaf!"
"Hello Olaf," the giant replied cordially.
"Who's he?" Willow asked.
"The icebreaker," Cordelia explained. "We lower him down in front of the prow, he swings the hammer, you get the idea."
"Let's assume it does. Now, do you four want separate cabins?"
"We don't mind rooming together," Buffy said, indicating Faith and herself. "I'm used to her."
"She loves me," Faith grinned.
"Separate beds, please?" Buffy added.
"Hokay," Cordelia said, with a wave of a hand as if to indicate that their problems were theirs alone and they were welcome to them. "You two together as well?"
"Uh, w-we could share a r-room," Tara said hesitantly. "If you don't mind?" she added quickly, giving Willow an apologetic glance.
"No, I mean yes, we could," Willow nodded. "I'm okay with that, provided you are. You are, right? I mean, you don't have to, if you'd rather not, you don't have to be fine with it just because I am, there's no pressure to be fine."
"No, I am fine," Tara insisted earnestly. "Really, I just didn't want to assume you were, when maybe you'd, um, rather not-"
"Oh no, I'd rather," Willow assured her. "No 'not' attached in any way, so long as it's okay with you, of course, I wouldn't want to impose."
"You really wouldn't be," Tara smiled shyly. "I'd like the company... i-if you wouldn't mind-"
"Yes, alright, we get the idea," Cordelia interrupted them. "One cabin, done. Weigh anchor!"
"Pretty heavy!" a deckhand shouted back, testing the chain.
We're sorry, dear readers, we really are - that pun was low even by the sorely wanting standards we've established for ourselves thus far. So let us skip the technicalities of clewing the mains'l and jibing afore the wind, leeward-fashion, d'ye see, and all that nautical jargon that's open to scurrilous double-entendres, and skip straight to bedtime, whereupon we find Willow and Tara sharing a cabin. Oh, no, wait, we promised a scene with Faith for the foot fetish enthusiasts, didn't we? Alright, it won't take a moment, and those of you who aren't into that sort of thing can use the time to go get a coffee.
"I'm only doing this," Buffy pointed out archly, as she kneaded away at Faith's tense instep, "because massage is a valuable skill and I need the practice."
Faith looked back over her shoulder and gave Buffy an impish wink. She was stretched out belly-down on one of the two beds in their shared cabin, all agleam in the firelight (let's assume they've got a cabin with its own stove, unlikely as that seems), having discarded her boots, and incidentally her chainmail bikini top - truly, this is the part of the video that'll get worn out by repeated rewinding and re-viewing, and no mistake.
"You just keep telling yourself that, honeybunch," Faith replied, settling her head back atop her crossed arms with a contented sigh, and even more flagrant disregard for historically-accurate speech than usual.
Promised and delivered - now, we were about to check in with Willow and Tara, neither of whom are quite as naked as all that (yet), but as much as we wouldn't say so to Faith's face, for fear of hurting her feelings (or sending her into a berserk rage such as might demolish the place), we all know who we're really reading this to see, don't we? Darn tootin'.
"So," Tara said, sitting on her bed in her nightgown, with her back politely (and, privately, somewhat reluctantly) turned while Willow changed into hers, "the, uh, League of Big Knowledge Women? The sign, on your workshop?"
"Oh, that," Willow cringed slightly. "It's nothing, it's just a thing - no, wait, that's a contradiction, it's not no-thing, it's definitely a thing, but nothing important really..."
"I, uh... I thought it sounded interesting," Tara ventured, risking a brief glance over her shoulder, and allowing her gaze to discreetly settle on discovering Willow had finished changing. "Is it a guild of some kind?"
"Uh, yes," Willow said, visibly surprised at the turn the conversation had taken, as if any response besides 'What kind of dumb idea is that?' was strange and alien to her. She sat on the edge of her bed, while Tara lifted her legs over her bed and swivelled around to face the redhead.
"Yes," Willow repeated, hoping conversation would cover the lingering and frankly suggestive way in which she had gazed at Tara in motion. "It's a guild, kind of. A kind of guild. Like the big ones, stonemasons, blacksmiths, fanfic writers, barbarians, only, well, not, insofar as the 'big' goes."
"But you're the president?" Tara asked.
"I'm the everything," Willow admitted. "It doesn't seem to be catching on. I thought it'd be a good idea, you know? Because every other craft and pursuit has their own guild, there's even an Individualist Guild, which seems kind of strange when you think about it, but the Guild of Wizards, Scholars, and Applied Thaumaturgists doesn't admit women, and that just seemed unfair, since we've got just as much to offer the world in terms of brainpower, don't we?"
"Uh-huh," Tara nodded encouragingly, privately reflecting that they did indeed, and she was proving it by having enough brainpower to adore Willow's enthusiastic narrative and listen to what she was saying, which was no mean feat given how much mental space the adoration was co-opting for itself.
"So I started my own," Willow explained. "Although in hindsight, it might've been a good idea to hire someone from the Guild of Guild Namers, rather than just come up with 'big knowledge women' by myself."
"I-I like it," Tara offered, with a shy smile, surprising and delighting Willow for the second time. "It's got charm. Um. A-and, you do know a lot. Your book, I mean... You seem to have everything in there."
"It's a work in progress," Willow admitted with a modest blush. "I don't know if it'll ever really be finished. Although, it's kind of the point that it never will be."
"You're still writing it?"
"The idea is that everyone writes it," Willow said, leaning forwards, and missing Tara's inadvertent but not-inclined-to-argue glance down the loose neck of her nightgown in her enthusiasm. "It's called Wikipedia, it stands for Willow's Interesting Knowledge Index... pedia. I added the 'pedia' just because it sounded better that way. I spent two weeks just calling it Wiki, but people kept thinking it was a basket of some kind. Everything I learn I write down, and the idea I had was that everyone else would also write down everything they learned, and eventually you'd have all the knowledge in the world, and... and no-one would ever have to not know anything ever again. Like, if you were about to have an argument over anything, or a dispute, or a war, you could just look it up, and there'd be the answer, and there'd be no reason to argue. I just think everyone would be a lot happier if they never had to not know something they wanted to know, you know?"
"I... yes," Tara nodded. "I do."
"Only it's not really working out," Willow admitted, her shoulders slumping in a manner that made Tara immediately want to hug her. "One, the whole idea is that the entire human race contributes knowledge to it, and so far the only person who's really bothered to write anything down is me. And two, on the few occasions I have managed to get some other people at least thinking about contributing something, they mostly get into fights over whose version of whatever they're talking about is right. It's probably not going to work."
"I-I think it's a good idea," Tara said encouragingly, and truthfully, though it was also true that she'd have said anything to cheer Willow up. "And I... I think it's really brave of you. You know, that you're trying. Most people don't, they just let themselves stay ignorant, but you're learning, and sharing it, and even, even if it's difficult... don't give up."
"I... won't," Willow said, venturing a tiny smile. She turned away and pulled back the thin blankets on her bed to hide a blush. Tara leaned across their quite small cabin and put out the candles, followed Willow - her action, that is, getting into bed, not followed Willow in getting into her bed, convenient as that would be - and looked across the gap between them with her head propped up on the pillow. Willow was a pensive but pleased silhouette in the moonlight coming through the cabin's single porthole.
"Could I..." she said, hesitating mid-thought. "That is, if you think it'd be okay... I know a few things, I could, perhaps, tell you them?"
"Really?" Willow exclaimed, a full octave higher than usual. "Yes, absolutely, that'd be wonderful. Do you want to join the League? You totally can. You don't have to - I mean, if you'd rather not, it's not like it's prestigious or anything - no pressure-"
"I'd like that too," Tara smiled. "At least, if I qualify... a-as a 'big knowledge woman', you know?"
"You do!" Willow said quickly. "You're very smart, I can tell that already, just from our conversation now, and the ones we had earlier today that weren't important enough to the present plotline to be written down if this was a short story."
"What a strange thing to say."
"Yeah it is," Willow frowned, then shook her head, dismissing the thought. "There's no formal test for being judged to be endowed with big-knowledge qualities anyway - although if there was I'm sure you'd pass - and of course you're a woman. There's no test for that either, I can just see by, well, seeing that you're a endowed with womanly... um, qualities," she finished with a blush, as her higher brain realised how her imagination was luring the perfectly innocent sentence into its boudoir and introducing it to all manner of naughty delights.
With Willow trailing off into secretly scandalised wordlessness, and Tara possibly pursuing her own line of thought regarding endowments and the uses to which they might be put, the pair lapsed into a comfortable, if blush-rich, silence that lasted for several minutes, until:
"It's, uh," Willow ventured at last. "It's kind of chilly, do you want one of my blankets, maybe?"
"Oh, n-no," Tara shook her head. "No, you must be cold too, I wouldn't want to... I'll be alright."
"I wish I knew how Faith got a fire in her cabin," Willow griped.
There was a further pause, while the collective wishes of the audience worked their subtle wiles upon both Willow and Tara's thought processes.
"Perhaps-" "Maybe-" they both said at once.
"Sorry," Willow amended immediately.
"No, go ahead," Tara insisted.
"It was nothing, you go."
"I just... silly idea, that was all, what were you saying?"
"Um..." Willow hesitated, blushing brightly enough that she actually became visible. "Well, it's just a thing I read somewhere ages ago, and wrote down, that in the wild, when you need to keep warm... it's probably... I mean, no need, really..."
"You mean, um," Tara said. "B-body heat?"
"Well, well yeah," Willow said, striving to sound off-hand and casual, and succeeding about as well as Faith trying to infiltrate a nunnery. "But of course that's for proper life-and-death situations, it's not like we're going to actually freeze here..."
"No of course not," Tara agreed. "L-like you said, we're not out in the wilderness, it's not a matter of survival, so it'd just be... um, comfort..."
"Yeah," Willow nodded.
"If we, um..."
"...a bed?" Tara ventured, surprised that her stutter hadn't kicked in worse than it did.
"In an entirely chaste way," Willow insisted quickly.
"And I'm not saying I have any objection to the idea," the redhead went on, her speech patterns gathering steam like some kind of large, heavy, steam-powered vehicle that hadn't been invented yet, "I'm just pointing out the, uh, well, how it might be a bit awkward, but on the other hand might not, and there'd be no awkwardness from me, no siree, I don't mean to imply in any way that there's anything about you that'd be awkward to share a bed with, quite the rever- uh, um, re, uh, reverence, I was saying, it's a matter of reverence for one's personal space, and I'm totally happy to, um, just if you felt like, like... uh?" She finally ran out of puff, and was in the middle of taking a deep breath when she felt the mattress tilt, a second load of blankets flop over the top of those already covering her, and the resulting double-layer move as Tara slid in beneath them next to her.
"B-better?" she asked nervously, her shoulder nudging up against Willow as they lay side by side.
"Much!" Willow squeaked. "Uh, ahem. Yes, much better. I'm feeling toastier already."
"Thank you too."
"It, uh," Willow said at last. "It's kind of... on one side, I'm warmer than the other..."
"Me too," Tara agreed.
"...so maybe if we," Willow went on, shuffling around to lie on her side, facing Tara with her arms demurely folded across her chest.
"I see what you mean," Tara said, mirroring her. Their hands ended up touching in the cosy - and quite small - space between them as they lay facing one another, and with a shared shy chuckle they linked their fingers.
"Much much better," Tara said softly.
"Definitely very much so," Willow nodded.
And thus ends this tender yet sweetly chaste scene. Though if we were to drop back in five minutes later, we'd find the pair of them, now fast asleep, cuddled tightly up against one another in a manner that isn't at all chaste. If their expressions are anything to go by, though, they're having very sweet dreams indeed.
Aww, they're so cute! Love is in the air, gossips, and no mistake about it - though one wonders who'll win the blushing contest that's inevitable once they wake up to discover that their bodies have their own ideas about sharing warmth involving the entangling of thighs. For the sake of brevity - this is supposed to be a short story, after all - and convenience, let us then skip ahead a bit, the better to avoid all those tedious Hobbits-walking scenes of travel without end, to Some Time Later, when the good vessel Armadillo - its sails sagging under the weight of ice (in which some wag has written 'clean me', naturally), its oars scraping against the frozen Arctic waters to port and starboard, Olaf suspended from the figurehead patiently hammering out a path with his mighty hammer, and the various dolphins and porpoises and so on accompanying the ship now doing so huddled in dolphin-sized parkas and soggy fur-lined coats - draws near the fabled North Pole...
"Pirates!" bellowed Cordelia, demonstrating the kind of volume that made her taunts the terror of her fashionably-challenge peers at finishing school. "Stand to!"
"Stand to what?" Buffy demanded, rushing up on deck to see what all the fuss was about.
"According to this," Willow said, pointing triumphantly to a page of her tome of universal wisdom, "it means 'take your assigned station in preparation to defend against enemy attack,' is that right?" She and Tara stood suspiciously close together, suggesting that whatever embarrassment they'd felt at discovering their nightgowns' tendency to come amiss during sleep had resolved itself to the satisfaction of all, and were looking rather adorable in matching greatcoats and winter hoods.
"I like her, she can stay," Cordelia nodded. Various crewmen scuttled about arming crossbows and ballistas and so forth, but since they're just extras it's not as if they're going to be swinging the tide of the battle, so they can be safely ignored. Meanwhile a daunting horde of ne'er-do-wells in matching helmets and heavy winter coats were storming across the ice - give or take frequent pauses to pick themselves up after tripping over, slipping up, crashing into each other, or winding up sliding down a slope in the wrong direction - towards the ship, more or less.
"Right, just what I need to keep me warm!" Faith declared, theatrically swinging a broadsword she'd magically found somewhere. "Deploy the ship's armour!"
"I'm sorry, the what?" Cordelia asked.
"Don't you have, I don't know, some kind of armour plates that appear out of nowhere and turn the ship into a steel-plated dreadnought?" Faith asked, looking crestfallen.
"No, and what a preposterous idea," the Captain snorted.
"Well why's the ship called 'the Armadillo' then?" Faith demanded.
"Because... I like armadillos?"
"That's... but-" Faith spluttered. "No, wait, that's silly! You only did that so there'd be an armadillo in the story somewhere, that makes no narrative sense whatsoever! You might as well just have 'coincidentally' had a trader with a cargo of gold and frankincense and whatever that other one is with the weird spelling-"
"As a matter of fact, I do-" a portly merchant who happened to be among the ship's complement spoke up.
"Don't you dare say it!" Faith shouted, waving her sword vigorously.
"Hey, don't blame me! Those two," Cordelia shot back, directing an accusing finger in Willow and Tara's direction, "have got the words wrong on every single Christmas carol lyric they've tried to recite so far. At least I did my bit."
"Well I'm going to be having words with your union after this," Faith glared darkly. "We've all got better things to do, but you don't see me dodging my narrative responsibilities - you think I like wearing a chainmail bikini when it's thirty-five below absolute zero up here? I've lost three tops already this morning just from my nipples slicing through them, and-"
"'Scuse me, luv?" the leader of the pirates - easily identifiable by being the only one whose helmet didn't cover his face - asked, tapping Faith on the shoulder.
"What?" she spun around, finding the deck crowded with foes. "Where the hell did you come from?"
"We boarded the ship," the leader explained. "While you and that bint was arguing."
"I am not a bint!" Cordelia protested. "And we weren't ready, so go away and board the ship again, and this time do it properly."
"How about, no?" the leader grinned. "Men, get 'em!"
"You asked for it!" Faith bellowed, kicking him soundly in the junk and hurling herself into combat with the remaining pirates, who obligingly attacked her one or at most two at a time, while the others stood around in a threatening manner trying to look like they were eager to get to grips, but not actually interfering until the current contender had been knocked down, knocked out, thrown overboard, punched, kicked, headbutted, in one case sent flying by a pair of boobs to the face, or otherwise put out of commission.
"Hey sis," one of the pirates said, sidling over to Tara while waiting his turn to be part of the Big Fight Scene.
"What- Donnie?" she asked. The pirate lifted his helmet briefly, hoping no-one was watching this minor violation of Hired Goon code regarding proper attire for Minions Attacking The Enemy.
"How are you? I wasn't sure you got my letter."
"Uh, there wasn't a return address."
"Oh, right. Sorry, the Dark Lord vetoed us getting letters sent here. I had to sneak out to post that one to you."
"So," Tara hazarded a guess, "these are the 'Dark Lord's' minions, are they?"
"That's right," Donnie nodded helpfully. "Dark Lord got word of a ship, figured it'd be heroes, and sent us out, under guise of piracy."
"Um, pardon me," Willow interrupted. "Hi, sorry. Willow, big knowledge woman."
"Donnie MacLae, hired goon." They shook hands, ducking as a pirate sailed overhead.
"Nice to meet you. I was wondering," Willow went on, "isn't it all a bit, I don't know, depressing, being a Hired Goon? I mean, take her for instance." She pointed at Faith, who had picked up a pirate by the ankles and was using him to hit several other pirates. "I wouldn't want to fight her, but it seems like your whole job description would be getting sent out to fight people like her."
"There are good and bad days," Donnie admitted. "You get special training at being beaten up, and it actually doesn't happen that often. I've been talking to some of the older goons here, one of them just a few months from qualifying as a Servile Lackey, if he gets good grades from the Dark Lord in the employee review, and they say you usually only get one day of Being Beaten Up By A Hero for every few months you spend helping a villain get an Evil Scheme up and running. Some of those schemes are pretty elaborate, building the headquarters alone can take up to a year, and the union doesn't let villains outsource construction."
"You sound like you're doing well," Tara noted. "Mum will be pleased, you know how she worries about you."
"Tell her I'm sorry I didn't send a Christmas card," Donnie said apologetically. "The mail veto, again. I'll try to get some time off work to visit in a month or so. If you guys don't thwart the Dark Lord now, that is."
"Any advice on the thwarting?" Willow piped up.
"Uh, sorry ma'am, since you're technically heroes, I shouldn't help... sorry," he shrugged helplessly to Tara. "If it's any help, our orders are to take you into custody for the Dark Lord to gloat over personally, and I promise our jailer falls asleep a lot with the keys on a ring you'll be able to reach with a broom handle left lying around in the cell. Our jail overseer's really by-the-book."
"Huh," Willow frowned in thought. "Okay, in that case..." She beckoned Tara, and whispered into her ear for a moment.
"That sounds alright," she agreed. "Faith!" she called out.
"About bleedin' time!" the pirate leader shouted. Due to the prolonged nature of the fight, and the script not having thrown any new ideas in since the beginning and there being a limited number of pirates to fight before recycling became necessary, he'd been kicked in the crotch seventeen times already, and even Faith had to admit that it had started to lose its comedy value once it got into double figures, though she had pressed on in hopes of a revival of interest from the audience once it became comedically excessive.
Truly, 'tis perilous being a minor villain - at least when you're the boss, the story finishes once you've been defeated, so it can't go on happening. So now, thanks to ingenuity on Willow's part and bloody-minded adherence to tradition on the part of their captors, we find our heroic foursome having been conveniently transported, free of charge and without needing to find the way themselves, to the nefarious Dark Lord's hideout, established temporarily within the North Pole workshop. And, one by-the-numbers jailbreak later...
The heroic and now-furtive foursome snuck through the mysterious Dark Lord's secret lair, set as it was within the North Pole workshop, each adhering to their own personal idea of stealth. Faith, a graduate of the King's Own SWAT Squad, was proceeding by a series of crouching leaps, muttering 'hut hut hut' to herself for no perceptible reason and trying to hold her broadsword as if it were a projectile weapon; Buffy, having been through all of this before, was merely strolling along in her wake, mentally tallying the number of 'huts' for later use in the next argument to break out; Willow, fearful of discovery to the point of paranoia and pursuant to her tome's section on disguise to the letter, had stolen a minion's helmet and uniform conveniently left lying around, covered that with a gigantic hooded cloak, and then concealed herself in an empty crate, in which she awkwardly waddled along trying to keep up with the group; and Tara, having gotten a word of advice from Donnie, who indeed seemed to have found his calling as a Hired Goon and become a happier person because of it, had simply put on a white coat and was carrying a clipboard, secure in the knowledge that this permitted her to go anywhere and do anything without being questioned.
Making their way thus by instinct and blind luck, they soon found themselves in a large chamber wherein all manner of arcane and frankly worrying-looking devices were arrayed about the figure of a man in clerical robes, who was in a state of disassembly, although seemingly not as inconvenienced as this would usually entail - at any rate, his head, resting on a workbench while his body was being slowly assembled some distance away, maintained an expression of bland amiability, with the occasional involuntary twitch when one of the minions working on his body accidentally dropped a spanner into his neck and had to rummage around his torso at arm's length getting it out again.
"What in the name of Tolkien is that?" Faith asked, crouched behind a row of cabinets and speaking in a loud whisper which the guards, knowing their place in this kind of scene, politely pretended not to be able to hear.
"I-I, uh, I think that might be Santa Claus," Tara guessed.
"That?" Buffy said, so bemused she forgot to be historically British and lapsed into an American accent. "I was... y'know, funny thing, I was expecting more red in the outfit..."
"Not until the 19th or 20th Century," Willow supplied, possibly proving that anachronism was communicable.
"So that's what they're here to steal, right? Okay, Red, Blondie, wait here; B, gimme the hammer and some nails."
"We're going to nail it down," Faith explained, as if speaking to a child. "I know it was a whole sea voyage ago, but it can't have been more than fifteen minutes since we went over this, if something's nailed down, it's impossible to-"
"Guards!" a voice shrieked from behind them, causing everyone to jump, in Willow's case right through the lid of her crate.
"Go for the Santa guy!" Faith shouted, as everyone in the room suddenly started running around excitedly, in most cases causing more confusion than it solved.
"Seize them!" the shouting voice followed up, imparting some sense of purpose on the ambulatory minions, but by that point Willow and Tara were huddled behind Santa's body, which Faith was holding hostage with a broadsword to its neck, while Buffy obligingly held the head in position to at least make it look like that was a threat.
"That will do you no good!" the shouty voice boomed, stepping into view at the far end of the room and revealing itself to be a haughtily-sneering woman dressed in a black outfit so comprehensively covered with spikes, sharp edges, and improbable evil-looking flourishes that she had to move very carefully to avoid hurting herself, or causing the whole thing to collapse.
"You cannot escape," she went on, suppressing a villainous. "You have strayed into my lair, and now you- Tara?"
"Oh hi," the Dark Lord said, suddenly all smiles. "Sorry, I didn't see you there."
"You're the evil villain?" Tara asked incredulously.
"You know her?" Willow, Buffy, and Faith all asked at once.
"We were in school together," Tara explained. "She got exiled from her clan for causing it to fall into disrepute."
"Why, what'd she do?" Buffy asked.
"Uh, well you know all those - really annoying, by the way - jokes about Scottish people being tight with money?"
"Yeah," Willow nodded. "A-and I totally agree, they're a scurrilous stereotype, and shouldn't be given the time of day, so there."
"Thanks sweetie," Tara smiled. "Well, she caused them."
"It's not my fault you people are so frivolous with your hard-earned money," Anya scowled. "You should take better care of it. Money needs to be looked after, and... and hugged, and loved, and when you hold it close to you, you can inhale, and fill yourself with the scent of it, and gently, tenderly, stroke it over your-"
"Point taken, thanks!" Faith interrupted her before she could lose touch with reality completely. "So what's with the theft, then? Ransom?"
"Pfft! No," Anya snorted derisively. "Too much hassle, and ransom's a one-off thing. Steady income streams, that's the game you want to be in. No, see, this guy," she gestured at the semi-assembled Santa, "is part of a new angle they've come up with for Christmas. Until now it's just been carols and merriment and stuffing yourself silly with turkey and pudding, but from this year onwards, Christmas will mean presents!"
"This thing's a present?" Willow wondered, taking a doubting glance at Santa. "Who for? Don't get me wrong, he looks very nice and... jolly, I guess, but if I were going to get someone as a present, I'd rather it be someone more... um..." She tried very hard not to glance at Tara, and to think of words other than 'blonde,' 'beautiful,' and 'pleasingly bosomed,' but had to give up.
"You done?" Anya asked. "Santa won't be a present, he gives presents. At the stroke of midnight, all over the world, he'll come down the chimney and leave presents for everyone to discover on Christmas morning."
"What if they chimney's too small for him?" Tara asked. "They're often fairly small."
"Or what if you've got a stove, with just a pipe to let the smoke out?" Buffy added.
"Or if you just keep warm by cuddling each other like those two did last night?" Faith finished, jerking a thumb Willow and Tara's way.
"Really?" Anya grinned. "Go Tara, knew you'd land a cutie one day. Anyway, no, don't be silly. Santa Claus is a very sophisticated construct - think about it, if he can visit every single home in the world all in one night, well, even accounting for time zones, that's more difficult than just squeezing his butt down a stove pipe."
"But why do you want to stop him?" Tara asked.
"I don't," Anya said, frowning as though it should've been obvious. "I'm just going to tweak him a little. So instead of delivering presents, he'll deliver little cards saying 'Come buy your presents at Anya-Mart, the happiest retail mega-conglomerate in the world. Santa Claus will be the greatest advertising tool in history!"
"You're a few centuries early on that," Buffy muttered.
"Quiet, you," Anya snapped. "Anyway, there's nothing you can do to stop me. I've got my minions surrounding this room, so there's no way you can escape."
"And there's no way you'll sell anything so long as we've got Santa's head," Faith countered, snatching it from Buffy. "I can't see a fat guy with no head going down well as a marketing campaign, can you?"
"Curses," Anya scowled. "True, the headless demographic is unprofitably limited. It seems we're in a... a... what's a country we've discovered so far that has stand-offs?"
"Perhaps," Tara suggested, "we could... um, compromise? I'm just saying, at the moment nobody gets what they want, so, maybe...?"
"I'm listening," Anya allowed.
"W-well," Tara pressed on, smiling nervously as she realised she was now the centre of attention, "what if, instead of people getting presents for Christmas, people give presents?"
"I don't follow," Anya frowned.
"Oh," Tara deflated.
"No, I get it," Willow spoke up. "People would still get presents given to them, so they'd be happy at getting something, fulfilling the purpose of the whole Santa scheme in the first place - the original one, I mean, not Anya-Mart - but since they'd be giving each other presents instead of just waiting for them to be delivered by some mythical figure, they'd first be buying the presents from somewhere."
"Anya-Mart!" Anya said happily.
"Sure," Willow shrugged, tagging Anya's single-minded pursuit of global monopoly as a secondary problem just now. "But it's a matter of, of how you go about it, see? Instead of Santa making people buy things for themselves, you'd have him serving as a, as a kind of symbol for gift-giving. I know I wouldn't mind buying a gift, if I was going to give it to- uh, someone, I cared about, a lot. Really."
"I don't know," Anya said warily. "It seems a bit based in sentiment and feelings and all that. I've always liked the cold, ruthless simplicity of sweet, raw, seductive capitalism, so big and strong and it just grabs you and you melt into it, and claw its back as it thrusts-"
"No!" Willow yelped. "I'm sure it'll work, I promise. You'll have all the capitalism you want, and Christmas will still be about generosity and friendliness, rather than just buying junk for yourself."
"I'm not sure I'm convinced," Anya said, perturbed at having been interrupted just as her financial dreams had been turning wet.
"It's not cost-effective to be attacked by a crazy barbarian with a broadsword," Faith pointed out. "How agile are you in that ridiculous villain get-up?"
"I'm convinced," Anya decided. "Gift-giving for all!"
Well thank heavens for that - we can't very well have a Christmas story ending with a bloodbath, can we? And if a note of capitalism has been allowed to sneak into the spirit of Christmas, well, surely it won't amount to anything much? Oh well, at least everyone's happy now. Aren't they? Let's see, as we let our gaze settle one last time upon Willow and Tara, the former having just finished watching with interest the final stages of Santa construction from Mission Control, and now wandering out to find the latter seated beneath a large fir tree which someone, in a move which will seem perfectly natural in a few centuries' time, had decorated with tinsel and baubles and all manner of gay finery. That's 'gay' in the cheerful, happy sense, rather than sexual identity, though given the adorably smitten glance shared by the two as the redhead sits down, it could quickly become a conveniently multi-purpose descriptor...
"I'm glad that's all over with," Willow said, as Tara helpfully, and not a little eagerly, draped her cloak over the redhead's shoulders, allowing the two of them to huddle together for warmth and personal enjoyment.
"Anya's not bad," Tara noted. "She's just kind of... fixed in her ways. You just need to reminder her every so often that there are things in life other than money. Oh, here's your book back," she added, heaving Willow's tome of knowledge across their laps.
"Thanks," Willow smiled radiantly. "Lots of useful information about the building and maintenance of mythological figures to add tonight. His sleigh's got something called a 'flux capacitor' in it. I'll have to try to find out more information on that. They have to have special high-speed reindeer to make it work, somehow." A blaring shout rang out across the valley in which the workshop was situated.
"Hark! The herald angels sing," the redhead noted.
"Yeah, they've been doing that every half-hour to mark shift changes," Tara said. "I always thought they'd have nicer voices. Oh hey! You got a lyric right!"
"I did!" Willow smiled, pleased with herself. "Well that's that taken care of. Now what?"
"I... uh," Tara smiled shyly, opening Willow's book to a particular page. "I made an entry."
"Really? Thanks!" Willow bounced gleefully. "New knowledge, let me at it! Here we go... Mistletoe, huh?"
"My mother's a witch," Tara explained. "She taught me a lot about plants. I thought I'd start with mistletoe."
"This is great," Willow breathed, running her finger down the list of uses, cautions, descriptions and surrounding folklore. "Oh look, mistletoe at Christmas! Tradition, meeting under mistletoe... kissing?"
Willow looked up, and noticed for the first time that, from a low branch reaching out to just above Tara's head, someone had hung a sprig of mistletoe. Tara contrived to look innocent.
"That's a real tradition?" Willow asked, grinning.
"Uh-huh," Tara said again. "Scandinavian, originally. I-I'm, uh, hoping it might catch on, in other areas..."
"It just might, at that," Willow agreed, leaning in to kiss her.
And with that heart-warming scene, we arrive at last, having defeated pirates, inclement weather, rampant capitalism, and historical accuracy - quite soundly thrashed, that last one - at: