Chapter 1: Prologue
"Hey, Willow. It's Dawn. Right, well, I guess you'd know that from my voice and stuff. Um, things aren't going too well here at Dad's. He was called out of town on business or something at the last minute, so we're coming home early. The first flight back that was available is on Christmas Eve. You don't have to worry about picking us up at the airport, though. My dad fixed us up with a cab."
A long pause resonated through the house.
"I know we don't have a tree up or anything, but maybe, could you, like, stick my present to Buffy in front of the fireplace or something? We were gonna exchange gifts when we got back home, anyway. It's in my closet on the top shelf, just behind Mr. Quackers. Oh, and Buffy's present to me is on top of the fridge in the kitchen. I know it's kinda stupid, but, well, it'd make the place feel a little more Christmassy."
Another pause filled the air before Dawn's voice continued, cracking slightly.
"Willow, are you there? If you are, could you pick up, please?"
"Sorry. Just, you know, missing my mom and stuff. So, uh, guess I'll see you and the rest of the gang on Christmas Eve. Bye."
The tape automatically began to rewind, leaving a stunned vampire standing in the living room of the Summers home.
The call had been made hours ago, but he was the first one to hear it. He was also going to be the only one to hear it. Xander had surprised Anya with a ski trip to Colorado as an early Christmas present, and the two of them were currently swooshing down the slopes. Willow had managed to convince Tara the previous night that she was, in fact, giving up magic for good, and the two reunited Wiccans had decided to celebrate with an impromptu trip to Disneyland. Spike didn't even bring up the irony of going to the Magic Kingdom for the occasion. Giles was, of course, still in England.
Willow had stopped by his crypt before leaving, asking him to pick up the mail and keep an eye on the house. So here he was, the big bad: a house sitter.
Spike immediately told himself that he shouldn't be bothered in the least by the Nibblet's message. After all, it wasn't even meant for him. Still, he supposed he could at least stuff the presents by the fireplace and have done with it. With a roll of his eyes, he climbed the stairs and proceeded into Dawn's room. He smiled in spite of himself as he opened the closet door and saw a cute little yellow duck seated on the top shelf. Obviously, this must be Mr. Quackers. He picked up the stuffed animal and groped around behind it, searching for the gift. A flat, thin, square package wrapped in green paper and topped with a red bow was revealed. He stared at it.
"She got the Slayer a calendar? That's her only Christmas gift?" he said aloud in disbelief. There was nothing else it could possibly be. "Huh. Kids."
He shoved the present under his arm and went downstairs to the kitchen. There, sitting atop the refrigerator, was a Kleenex-box-sized package wrapped in gold and red striped paper. He picked it up and gave it a good shake. Something thunked softly inside. His curiosity getting the better of him, he pulled out a pocketknife from his duster and carefully slit the tape, making sure not to harm the paper. His eyebrows raised in confusion.
The box did, indeed, contain a pair of plain, light blue, terrycloth slippers.
He'd known that the two of them were strapped for cash, but judging from their practically bare stockings, they were far worse off than he'd imagined. Grabbing a roll of tape from a nearby drawer, he fixed the wrapping on Dawn's slippers, then carried the meager presents into the living room and plopped them in front of the chimney.
Pathetic did not begin to describe the scene.
No tree. No decorations. No family. No friends. And this is what Buffy and Dawn would be coming home to on Christmas Eve after their father had dumped them once again.
Spike stood by the fireplace, his eyes squinting with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, Buffy hadn't even spoken to him since the night they'd taken Dawn to the emergency room. The Scoobies were, as usual, barely tolerant of his presence. On the other hand...
"I am evil. I am evil. I am evil," Spike started repeating to himself like a mantra. "I am evil. I am evil. I am...," his eye caught the photograph of Joyce which was sitting on the mantle. She seemed to be staring directly at him. "... not going to let them have a miserable Christmas," he finished in a resigned tone.
Three days remained between now and Christmas Eve. With a sigh, he grabbed the pen and paper by the phone and jotted down a brief list of things to accomplish. If he was going to do this, he was bloody well going to be organized about it.
Chapter 2: December 22: Decorate
Due to the very real possibility of impaling his heart while hanging ornaments, Spike decided not to get a real Christmas tree. Anyway, he remembered seeing a box for an artificial tree in the basement when he'd been stealing pictures of Buffy last year. He could only hope that it had been on a high enough shelf that it wasn't destroyed in the flood earlier that fall. Flipping on the switch as he went down the stairs, Spike was hit with the smell of mildew that had become an integral part the Summers basement ever since the pipe explosion. He wrinkled his nose in disgust.
Which was probably why he didn't see the pile of laundry sitting at the base of the steps and tripped, coming down with a most undignified crash on the cement floor. A very loud ow, followed by a torrent of curses, flowed from his mouth as he staggered to his feet, rubbing his offended posterior. With a grunt of displeasure, he began searching through the shelves on the basement until a red and green box emblazoned with the words "Winter Woodland Fantasy" caught his eye. After hoisting it onto his shoulder, he discovered five more boxes of varying sizes stashed behind it, all labeled "tree" in black marker.
"Five boxes? It's only one tree. How they fit that much on it, anyway?" he grumbled to himself. Still, if he was going to do this, he was going to do it right. After depositing the tree box in the living room, he returned for the others. As he stooped to stack the boxes, he noticed two large plastic cartons on the floor, each bearing the word "X-mas."
"You've got to be kidding."
Three trips up and down the basement stairs later, Spike was certain his earlier fall had bruised more than his dignity and it was beginning to irk him. Sighing, he surveyed the pile of boxes arranged in a disordered heap around the fireplace. He'd come to the conclusion that was the proper place for a tree, what with Santa coming down the chimney and all.
"Small tree," he muttered as he looked at the three-foot carton in front of him. "Well, best put that up first."
Opening the box, he expected to find a fake pine tree. Instead, he confusedly pulled out...
Green artificial tree limbs were scattered all over the floor in moments. Spike was deeply confused. At the bottom of the box were a strange looking metal contraption and two tubes full of little holes. He stared at them with his eyebrow quirked so high it was in danger of disappearing into his hair.
"What the bloody hell?"
Joyce's picture stared at him from the mantle, seeming for a moment to register displeasure.
"Um, sorry," he mumbled in the photo's general direction. Then he slapped his forehead for feeling guilty about cussing in front of something processed by Kodak.
Despite his penchant for his plans tending to fail spectacularly, Spike was not stupid. The directions that had come with the tree were nowhere to be seen. He noticed the screw threads on one of the tubes, and quickly figured out that they fit together. After another few moments, he eventually realized that the other weird looking thing in the box must be a stand, so he stuck the now-six-foot-tall pole in the center and tightened the screws on the base. Proudly, he stood back to display his handiwork.
The trunk resembled the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
With a grunt, he tried to straighten the pole again, compensating for the heavy slant to the right, then stepped back once again.
It was now listing heavily to port.
With a growl that would have sent demons scurrying, he wrestled the center support into a perfect ninety-degree angle and turned the screws until they nearly broke the plastic. With a flourish of leather, he whirled round and surveyed the tree-to-be.
"There we go. Perfectly straight," he purred with manly satisfaction. "Now all I have to do is stick in the branches. Child's play."
Experimentally, he grabbed one of the larger limbs and stuffed its metal tip into a hole in the trunk near the floor.
Instead of going down as a normal branch would, it stuck up at an odd angle. Spike blinked in confusion. The second branch he put in did the same thing, as did the third.
"It's almost like the tree... is... upside... down..." he said slowly as realization dawned. He'd put the trunk in topside to the floor.
"Excuse me for a moment," he said as he turned Joyce's photo to the wall and proceeded to use language that would have melted glass. By the time the picture faced the room again almost half an hour later, the trunk had been replaced, right side up and straight, in the stand. "There. Much better."
Now all he had to do was put the branches on the tree and he would be well on the way to Dickens-ing up the Summers house. There was just one slight problem. He had no idea what order to put the branches on in. He'd found a few limbs that had what appeared to be color-coded stickers on their ends, but he'd found a much larger number of those same stickers littering the bottom of the box like so much sticky confetti. Almost two-thirds of the branches had no identifying marks whatsoever. The only thing to do was try to stick them on in the appropriate order by guesswork.
Over three hours later, a vaguely tree-shaped thing stood beside the fireplace. Spike's hands were scratched from the wire needles, he had ripped his T-shirt on one of the branches, and he was in a very bad temper. His mood was not helped by the blatant fact that the tree was not perfect. Several branches stuck out at weird angles, and the middle of the tree was narrower in some spots than the top part. No matter how many times he rearranged the stupid overgrown green pipe cleaners, the tree refused to be symmetrical. At long last, he turned the most abnormal side of the monstrosity towards the wall, and nodded in grim acceptance.
"Not perfect, but it'll bloody well have to do."
Next came the problem of trimming the tree. The first box Spike opened contained dozens of round glass Christmas tree ornaments of various jewel shades: shimmering reds and golds, frosted pinks and blues, twinkling silvers and purples. In spite of himself, he smiled. They looked like happy, multi-colored bubbles.
"Hanging stuff on a tree. Anyone can do that," he told himself confidently as he grabbed up an armload of ornaments.
Unfortunately, he didn't quite comprehend just how slippery the thin glass bulbs were. Before he could stop them, the globes skittered out of his hands and pelted to the floor, reduced to a pile of shattered shards.
Joyce's picture was once again turned to the wall.
After the Big Bad of Sunnydale had swept all the bits of glass into a dustpan with a little flowered whiskbroom and dumped them in the trash, he decided to hang the remaining ornaments one by one. Meticulously, he tried to distribute the colors evenly around the tree, but no matter what he did, it seemed one section or another was always too heavily red or blue. At long last, he stood back and gazed at the tree, coming to the conclusion he'd done fairly well, all things considered.
The second box contained what appeared to be a load of wire scattered with little sparkly things.
"Oh, no," he groaned quietly. "No, no, no..."
Spike decided to leave Joyce's picture with its back to the room for the rest of the day. He'd forgotten to put the lights on the tree first.
After he'd taken off every last bulb, threaded the long strands of Christmas tree lights through the branches, and almost tied himself to the tree in the process, he plopped the plug into a nearby outlet to behold the glory of his illuminated masterpiece.
Said masterpiece did not illuminate.
He unplugged and replugged the lights desperately, trying vainly to get them to glow. Nothing worked. Finally, he went over each and every individual strand, and realized that two of them had blown out, which meant none of them were working. He stripped the lights off the tree, removed the offending dead lines, and re-arranged the remaining ones. At long last, he plugged in the lights and...
Nothing happened again.
With a battle cry, he tore the lights off the tree one last time, checked them again, got rid of yet another line of dead lights, and proceeded to arrange the working strands on the tree with the plug in the socket so it was already lit.
At long last, after much fiddling to try to eliminate the worst of the dead spots, the lopsided tree was moderately, though still unevenly, covered in colored lights. Gingerly, Spike rehung all of the ornaments he'd already taken down, managing to break only another half dozen in the process.
The third box contained yet more ornaments, though these were not, for the most part, breakable. They appeared to be homemade, and each had been wrapped very delicately in tissue paper as though they were indescribably precious. With an unexplainable lump in his throat, he found himself hanging up Popsicle stick Santa Clauses and cotton ball snowmen yellow with age, construction paper framed pictures of a little blonde girl with pigtails and a little brunette girl who was sticking her tongue out at the camera, and, with a small sigh, he hung in a place of honor an unidentifiable lump of hardened playdough that had the words "For Mom" unevenly scrawled across it in purple crayon.
After thoroughly blowing his nose and drying his eyes, due, of course, to the inordinate amount of dust that had collected in the tree branches, he opened the fourth box. It held a pile of shredded silvery strings. Tinsel.
Suddenly, Spike found himself having a blast. With wild abandon, he threw clumps of tinsel on the branches, thrilled that at last he didn't have to worry about something breaking. He stood back to survey his handiwork after the entire box had been emptied.
He then spent the next hour straightening the tinsel so that it was meticulously arranged on each branch.
Finally, he opened the last box. Inside it, he found exactly five items: three Christmas stockings, a star and an angel. He hung Buffy and Dawn's stockings on the mantle, but he was rather at a loss for what to do with the burgundy sock that bore the name Joyce in loopy cursive. To hang it with the others seemed like it would be painful for the girls, but to put it back in the box seemed disrespectful somehow. At long last, he decided that perhaps the best place for it was the tree. He placed it on a branch with a fond little pat. Then, he turned his attention to the matter of the tree-topper.
"So, what'll it be: the pretty star, or the ugly poof? I think you, Mr. Halo, can stay right in your little cardboard coffin until next year," he said with a small sneer as he closed the lid on the slightly offended-looking celestial being. With the help of a stepladder, Spike plopped the star on the topmost branch.
At long last, the tree was decorated. Spike looked at it critically. It wouldn't have made the cover of a decorating magazine, but it looked a lot better than no tree at all. As it was, he'd spent so long putting up the tree that dawn was already breaking outside. There was no way he could get back to his crypt. With a yawn, he made his way back down to the mildewed basement and collapsed on the cement floor, sound asleep in less than a minute.
Chapter 3: December 23: Presents
Loud growling woke Spike from a rather uncomfortable sleep around eleven in the morning. It took him a few seconds to figure out that it was no homicidal monster inhabiting the recesses of the basement that was making the racket. It was his stomach.
Yawning widely, he trudged up the steps, rubbing the offending tummy, and yanked open the fridge before he remembered that the Summers girls probably didn't keep a supply of O negative hanging about. With an annoyed grunt, he kicked the door shut and stumbled down the hall to the front door. Wrapping his hand in a nearby woolen throw, he opened the door a slit and thrust his arm outside, fumbling about until he grabbed hold of the morning paper.
Flopping onto the couch, he looked at the day's headlines: "Deputy Mayor Involved in Embezzlement Scandal," "Children Await Santa with High Hopes," and "Cholesterol: Is It Really Bad for You?" He noticed with a sardonic grin that fifteen mysterious murders of the night before had been relegated to page two. Sunnyhell had perfected the art of turning a blind eye.
As he was flipping through the sections, his eyes alit on the words "SALE! SALE! SALE!" scrawled in letters that were almost obscenely large and printed in eye-burning red. After shaking his head in an effort to adjust his understandably light-sensitive eyes to the page, he realized it was an advert for a department store's pre-Christmas shop-a-palooza. Apparently, they were going to be open all night.
Perfect. Now all he had to do was figure out exactly what to get each of the girls. Being a demon, he felt no qualms at all about tramping up the stairs and searching through Buffy and Dawn's bedrooms. He still had a difficult time believing how many clothes people owned today. When he'd been alive, he'd owned exactly three sets of clothes: summer, winter, and Sunday best. Buffy and Dawn had each been known to wear four different outfits in the same day. Mind-boggling didn't begin to cover it.
Getting gifts for Drusilla had been easy. Find something made of silk or velvet, preferably dripping in lace, nothing that would show her dainty kneecaps, and he was all set. Barring that, he could just kill someone wearing pretty jewelry and present it to her. Somehow, he had a feeling that the taste of his current gift-recipients was going to be far, far different.
After a cursory glance at the Nibblet's closet, he'd come to the conclusion she liked things that were pretty but casual. There were lots of pink and other pastel colors hanging from her bar, but there was a fair amount of neutral tones, as well. Grabbing a shirt he'd seen her wear repeatedly, he checked the tag and found she was a size small, while one of her preferred skirts was labeled a two and her shoes were size seven.
Buffy's closet looked a bit barren by comparison. Puzzled at first, he quickly figured out why. Fighting, it stood to reason, would have to be hell on her wardrobe. Dawn's clothes could easily last her years, but Buffy was probably lucky if a new blouse didn't get fried, dust-covered, stained, bled on, or covered in orange goo the first time she wore it. Consequently, with money being so tight, her sister's clothes from last year were still holding out pretty well, but Buffy's were slowly being winnowed away. He checked her sizes, noting that they were the same as Dawn's save for the shoes, which were a six, and that she was also a "petite," whatever that meant.
Armed with the necessary information, he returned downstairs, wrote everything down so he wouldn't forget it, then jammed the paper in his pocket and scuttled quickly out the door and to his car, gray blanket smoking like a barbeque on July 4th. Setting his jaw grimly, he pointed his Desoto towards his crypt and burned rubber up Revello Drive.
Flinging open the door, blanket still smoldering, a sudden realization hit him, one that didn't present an immediate solution. He pulled open the door to the fridge and grabbed himself a couple bags of blood, then carried them downstairs. His moneybox was hidden beneath a lose flag of the stones on the floor. Grimacing, he opened the box and saw one very limp portrait of Jefferson returning his gaze. Twenty bucks. He'd had to spend the rest of his money paying off the literal card shark last week. Siamese did not come cheap. Absentmindedly, he bit into the bags and slurped down his breakfast, almost forgetting to shudder at the repellent coldness. Couldn't be helped. His microwave had been what he'd hocked in order to get the money to buy the kittens in the first place.
A sudden idea occurred to him. There had to be something else around here that would bring him a few quid from the local pawnshop. Vainly, he searched the room for something relatively portable that was worth money. The record player and albums weren't going to do the job. The bed and the rest of the furniture were all far too large for his Desoto, plus he strongly doubted Smiling Sammy, the proprietor of Sunnydale's Pawnshop Pavilion, would be interested in his mode of décor anyway. Red vinyl dentist chairs just weren't selling like they used to.
Upstairs, the pickings were still slim. Corpses generally did worse than dentist chairs as far as pawnbrokers went. At last, he noticed the marble angel that graced his front room. The statue was about four feet tall, relatively pretty, and, quite frankly, he'd never liked it much to begin with. With a grunt, he hoisted the heavy statue over his shoulder, threw the blanket over them both, dashed to his car, deposited Hortense, as he'd taken to calling her, in the back seat, and was soon on his way to Sammy's.
Happily for Spike, the alleyway in back of the pawnbroker's shop was covered, and he was able to lug the sizable statue through the back door with little trouble from Mr. Sunshine. Why, he asked himself, did California have to be so bright and cheerful by day even in winter? Bells above the door jingled off-key as Spike, starting to feel that hernias and vampires may not be an impossible mix, trudged into the store. The dank, unpleasant smell in the air reminded him of when the sewers had backed up in the subterranean apartment he'd shared with Dru in Paris. Disorganized huddles of objects of all sorts - appliances, clothes, jewelry, toys, TV sets that looked like they dated from the Nick at Nite era - littered the countertops, shelves, and floor.
"Whatcha want?" asked a sullen voice from a corner.
"How much you give me for this here statue. Rare. Antique. Hand carved marble from the early 1800s. It's been in the family for generations, but I need the cash," Spike invented quickly.
Smiling Sammy, a wizened, bitter-looking old man who greatly resembled a grumpy toad, emerged from a set of shelves and looked at the statue with a critical eye.
"Gotta chip in its wing," he muttered.
"Yeah. Adds to the charm, don't you think? That distressed look is very in for spring, I hear."
Smiling Sammy grunted. Or it's possible it could have been a belch. It was rather hard to tell.
"That's a genuine antique finish. Don't want to remove the patina or it'll devalue it."
Smiling Sammy shook his head disapprovingly. "I can give you eighty bucks."
"Eighty!" Spike yelled, enraged. "That's highway robbery. It's worth five times that! Give us at least two hundred fifty."
"Two hundred fifteen."
"Two... wait, you went down, not up, on that last one."
"That's right. Try me again and the price goes down to sixty, take it or leave it. Ninety dollars."
"Sammy, my friend, you're cracked! Look at the workmanship on this beauty! The lines! The artistry! Here, you just can't see it properly," Spike enthused as he grabbed the angel none too gently and, in a fit over the low price he was getting, plopped it down on top of a nearby table that was right next to an appallingly tacky bronze and maroon floor lamp from the seventies.
And Smiling Sammy could indeed see Hortense much better... for the whole two seconds that the statue sat upon the table before the table legs collapsed from the weight. Spike's reflexes, fast as they were, weren't anywhere near quick enough to save the angel from breaking into a pile of marble chunks all over the floor.
"Whoops is right. Ten cents... might be decent for making a gravel walk if it's thumped down a bit. That means you only owe me $6.90 for the table you broke," Smiling Sammy declared as he made sure to step on the fallen table's $2.00 price tag, hiding it from view.
"Look, I need the money. Bad. I've got this red vinyl dentist chair..."
"Black and white TV. Classic model. Hardly any static."
"Same one you tried palming off on me last week? It only got one channel. Not on your life."
He had no idea how he'd get by without it, but... "There's a small refrigerator. Working order."
Smiling Sammy pointed towards a group of ten refrigerators lined up against one of the walls, "See those? Been here months. They don't sell. No."
"Oh, come on! Cut me a break here! I'm a desperate man."
The old shopkeeper's eyes suddenly raked over Spike's form appreciatively, and he grinned, the first time Smiling Sammy had smiled in probably a month. It was not a nice smile.
"Hold on just one minute! I'm not quite that desperate, you old perv..."
"Not you. The coat," he said, walking around Spike and examining the garment in question. "Real leather?"
"Ehm, yeah," Spike apprehensively answered. "Why?"
"I'll give you a hundred and fifty."
"For... for my duster?" Spike felt a bit sick. "Nothing doing. I've had it for over twenty-five years!"
"What, was it your baby blanket?" laughed the old geezer croakily.
"I mean, it's over twenty-five years old. And no. No deal."
"Your choice, kid. It's probably the only thing of any value that you possess, though."
"Yeah, well, I'm just gonna keep right on possessin' it," he growled as he turned towards the door. He was almost out of the shop when he saw an almost unbelievably kitschy painting of a little girl with long brown hair and enormous, oversize, pathetic-looking blue eyes. There was a little tear coursing down her badly painted cheek. Spike stopped for a moment, marveling at just how horrifying the ox-eyed girl looked, but, in spite of himself, feeling guilty as sin.
Whirling around, his beloved duster fanning out behind him in its accustomed manner, he called out, "Two fifty."
"Two hundred twenty-five."
"Two ten, and I won't charge you for the table."
Two minutes later, a very naked-feeling Spike found himself the owner of a handful of money and a squashed card table. He gave his beauty a loving pat on his way out the door and willed himself not to think about what he'd just done. It smacked far too much of selflessness for his moral taste.
After a few minutes drive, Spike was within view of the Sunnydale Mall. His mouth was agape in shock. Cars. Vans. ATV's. Buses. As far as the eye could see. It seemed as though every single vehicle in running condition, and several that weren't, had gravitated to the shopping complex by an unseen force. Every parking spot was taken, and shoppers had begun improvising by turning the vacant lot across the street into overflow spaces. It was just after one in the afternoon. There was no possible way he could hike across the treeless, shadeless expanse of concrete from all the way out in the boonies without his duster. He'd be reduced to ashes before he was even halfway there. Feeling like a moron, he began to slowly drive up and down aisles of parked cars, wishing mournfully that someone would magically pull out of a spot close to the door. Several times, he sank so far as following a package-laden shopper down a lane, only to have the person either open the trunk, deposit their bags inside, and then head back to the mall, or suddenly cut across three other rows of cars at the last minute, the open spot disappearing to another, luckier driver. It took him a full two hours to find a person who pulled out of a space close enough to the building so he could get inside without turning into vampire flambé.
By that time, he was livid, and being packed inside a gigantic building with thousands of people he couldn't even eat, as well as what he thought had to be the tackiest giant plastic Christmas decorations on the Pacific seaboard, was not improving his mood in the least. He'd figured he'd already be back by this time, and he hadn't even begun shopping yet!
The stores also didn't seem to be arranged in any logical order, either. Shoe stores were next to candy stores that were next to bookshops. When he'd notice a shop he wanted to get to on the floor above him, there was no visible way of getting there. By the time he'd managed to find stairs or an escalator, he invariably had lost sight of the place he wanted to be and couldn't find it again. Through all of this, people were milling about in equally ill tempers, pushing, jostling, swearing, and looking completely miserable. Above all the pathetic, almost psychopathic shoppers hung a banner proclaiming, "Joy to the World!" Spike found himself wishing fervently that Christmas had remained exactly as it had been when he was a boy: a plum pudding, carols around the out of tune parlor piano, home-made gifts, and an orange in the toe of his stocking. As he remembered, he'd enjoyed it a lot more than this hubbub.
What made matters worse was Spike didn't have a bottomless wallet. After all, even after the gifts were bought, he still had other expenses to attend to. In spite of all the supposed sales going on, the prices didn't seem much lower, and the vampire suspected that everything had been marked up 15% before it was marked down 10%. Normally, he'd approve whole-heartedly of such tactics, but being on the receiving end made him feel rather differently.
Slowly but surely, after the horrors of snippy salespeople wishing him a merry Christmas in tones that suggested they wanted him "buried with a stake of holly through his heart," the agony of being unable to elbow back plump suburban housewives who all but tackled him out of the way to get the best finds, and a brief delay caused by his inability to believe what was hanging in public view in the front window of Victoria's Secret, he managed to find a few well-chosen gifts for the ladies in question. Dawn would be receiving two pretty shirts, one pink and one violet, a music box that played "Swan Lake," and three CD's from bands she'd mentioned to him. Buffy, on the other hand, would be the owner of a pair of brown suede pants, a silk blouse of ocean blue, workout sweats, and a jewelry set made up of earrings, a necklace, and ring, all with emerald-colored stones that reminded him of her eyes. Checking his supply of cash, he realized he had just enough left for some cheap wrapping paper and a gift certificate for the local movie theatre so the two sisters could have an evening out together before he exhausted his money for the day.
His final purchases made, he lugged everything back to his car and tipped the bags into the backseat next to his newly acquired broken table before driving back to the Summers home to begin wrapping up the presents. He figured it should be done in about five or ten minutes.
Spike... such an innocent.
Once he'd brought in all the shopping bags, he dug out the Scotch tape and scissors from one of the kitchen drawers and prepared to wrap the Christmas gifts. Granted, the red paper with blurry sprigs of holly on it wasn't exactly posh, but it was the best he could afford. With a flourish, he unrolled the paper across the kitchen table... and was stunned when it seemed to run out very quickly. There wasn't a whole lot of paper on the cardboard tube. In fact, it was downright skimpy. Squinting his eyes, he was able to barely read the words "twenty square feet" on the crumpled label. Instead of a roll of paper twenty feet long, he'd gotten one less than six.
"Nothing to be done about it now," he grumbled as he took the first package, Buffy's suede pants, out of their bag. Quickly, his fingers dived back into the bag to fish out the box.
They came up empty.
"What the...? They forgot me boxes!"
Spike, inexperienced Christmas shopper that he was, had no idea that boxes were not included unless he asked for them. Consequently, he'd never asked. Frowning in fury, he painstakingly folded the pants into a lopsided rectangle and placed them on the paper. It would simply have to do.
His next task was to wrap the paper around the pants in question. With a loud snick, he cut around the pants, leaving what he thought would be a generous amount of paper on all sides. He then pulled the extra paper on top of the suede and tried to stick it in place with tape. Two things were revealed to Spike when this occurred.
Number one: the paper was not, unless it was made of rubber, going to cover the item in question.
Number two: he'd cut a large, rectangular hole in the Summers's lacy second best tablecloth.
The next three hours were spent attempting to wrap the packages. In that time, Spike succeeded in taping his fingers to the paper four times, giving himself a ghastly paper cut on the fleshy part of his right hand between the thumb and index finger, and running out of paper long before he ran out of gifts. Beggars not able to be choosers, he wound up covering the remaining presents in tin foil and the Sunday comics. He'd managed to give himself a matching slice on his right hand with the serrated edge of the foil cutter.
Midnight had long since chimed when the blond stacked the presents under the tipsy tree. In the right setting and very dim light, they didn't look so bad. Not as bad as empty stockings would have looked, at any rate. Exhausted from the day, Spike securely closed the drapes in the living room and hunkered down on the couch for the night. After all, he needed to be well rested for the battle that loomed ahead later that day. The vamp was asleep in less than a minute, visions of sugarplums dancing in his head. They were bloody annoying.
Chapter 4: December 24: Food
Spike didn't get much sleep that night. Only a handful of hours after his head had hit the cushion on the couch, he was groggily pulling his eyelids open and pushing himself unsteadily to his feet. Sunrise was still quite a ways off.
Mumbling to himself blearily and rubbing his fists in his eye sockets to knock the sleep away, he padded barefoot into the kitchen and took stock of the provisions in the fridge. He'd managed to stick a couple bags of blood from his crypt in there the night before after stowing them in a cooler in the Desoto's boot all day. Breakfast, however, wasn't his first priority. After all, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas for the two humans in question if they didn't have a decent supper to look forward to.
As he drained the AB-, he noted a stack of violently orange processed cheese squares that were still unexpired, a half full gallon jug of still-good milk, five eggs, some apple juice boxes, a few cold cuts of indeterminate variety, and a loaf of bread a third of the way gone. Not exactly the makings of a feast. The cupboards, he was happy to note, did contain flour, sugar and salt, all of which appeared to be completely untouched. Apparently, baking was not a common activity around here. Still, nowhere near as bad as last summer.
He had one other thing to find, though. It only took a moment or two for him to spy the cookbooks stacked on the counter. He ignored the volumes that looked brand new and instead took out a spattered, disheveled book whose cover was held on by a rubber band. There was no doubt that this one had been Joyce's favorite.
A brief perusal of the index guided him to the pages he wanted: Roast Turkey, 336; Mashed Potatoes, 89; Steamed Peas, 18; Cloverleaf Rolls, 206; Gingerbread Men, 239; and Apple Pie, 218. He jotted down the missing ingredients and stared uncertainly at the very long list. Then he pulled out his remaining cash and stared with even greater uncertainty at the $50 in greasy bills. Well, he'd just have to do the best he could.
Nightmarish did not begin to describe his trip to the supermarket. The same plump housewives from the mall seemed to have descended upon the produce, hogging all the spices, blocking aisles with their carts, and forming crowds five deep at the meat counter. The vampire had hoped to avoid the holiday rush by showing up early. Instead, everyone else seemed to have had the same brilliant idea.
What was worse, he was having some serious problems coming up with all of his ingredients. Disheartedly, he wound up throwing a bag of dinner rolls in his cart, finding them cheaper than buying the mammoth "economy" sizes of yeast and bread flour, the other shoppers having already picked the normal sizes clean on these items. He flat out refused, however, to cave in and buy Insta-Spuds in place of mashed potatoes. Necessary spices for the gingerbread men, though, turned out to be very pricey, and he found himself reaching into the corners of his pockets and picking through the lint to find change so he could manage to afford the turkey, peas, and apples. Normally, he would have snuck the apples into the handy-dandy deep pockets of his duster, giving himself the five-finger discount, but that was now out of the question.
The line at the cash register seemed to stretch on forever. An annoying, bratty three-year old sat in the cart in front of him, his mother having wandered farther ahead to speak to the lady pushing the cart ahead of hers. The kid was wailing at the top of his lungs.
"I WANNA SUCKER! I WANNA SUCKER! I WANNA SUCKER! I WANNA SUCKER!"
Angelus's methods of torture had nothing on this tot. It was like listening to an air raid siren from the war, only that had been more in tune and it would, eventually, stop. The mother paid no attention at all to her errant offspring's eardrum-splitting cries. Spike's eyes unfocused, his cheek developed a tic, and his hands clenched the cart's handle so tightly he could no longer feel his fingertips. Finally, he snapped.
"You want a sucker, squirt? I'll show you a sucker," he growled quietly as he let his fangs descend and his forehead become ridged. He gazed furiously at the boy through yellow, demonic eyes, intent upon frightening him into shutting the bloody hell up.
The response was not what he expected.
"MAN FUNNY! MAN FUNNY! MAN FUNNY! MAN FUNNY!" the little bundle of joy shrieked in delight between full-throated giggles. He didn't let up until he was out of the market, his hysterical laughter floating back to the deeply embarrassed vampire as the automatic doors swished shut.
Spike's bill was rung up by the cashier, and he came up exactly four cents short.
"Oh, come on, sweetheart," he purred in his most seductive tone, purposely playing up his accent. "It's Christmas and all. Be a luv and let it go, eh?"
The cashier, whose nametag bore the word "Wanda," eyed him with a world-weary glare.
"Use the take-a-penny, leave-a-penny tray," she drawled slowly, as if speaking to a very small child.
Feeling like a dope, he selected four battered copper coins from the dish by the register and added them to the rest of his money on the conveyor belt. It had taken every last cent he had. Not only would his stocking be empty tomorrow, but so would his fridge.
Spike shuffled out to the parking lot, strategically placed brown paper bags covering his exposed skin. Transients were looking at him suspiciously by the time he reached his Desoto, threw the groceries in next to the table he was still hauling about, and made his way back to the house to begin a day's worth of, unbelievable at it might seem, slaving over a hot stove.
Cooking had changed a lot since he was mortal. First of all, he didn't need to haul in any kindling to get the oven going, which was just as well considering he wasn't overly fond of either fire or small pieces of wood. Still, he'd never so much as touched most of the gadgetry that paraded through the kitchen, mocking him with their blinking electronic buttons. The microwave, admittedly, had become an old friend, but that wasn't going to be called for today.
With a determined set to his jaw, he opened the cookbook to the first recipe: steamed peas.
"First, shell the peas. Shell?" he said aloud, no longer caring he sounded dottier than Dru.
He picked up the plastic bag full of pea pods and dug back through his memory, vaguely recalling his mother sitting in the back garden and taking the little parcels apart, separating the small green spheres from their leafy wrappings. Ripping things asunder. Spike smiled. Now this he could handle that.
With gusto, he began shucking the shells, depositing the peas in a large bowl. In a few minutes, thanks to some pent up rage and some good old-fashioned supernatural speed, he'd left a pile of disemboweled little green canoes on the counter.
"Line a pot with large, wet, green lettuce leaves," he read. "Lettuce, check."
He pulled a few leaves off the head and stuck them under the faucet, sousing them thoroughly before he suddenly stopped.
"Wait... how big is large? How wet is wet? How many does it take to 'line a pot'? And how big a pot, at that?"
The cryptic tome before him held no answers.
With a shrug, Spike decided that if it wasn't important enough to the writers to mention, it couldn't be that crucial. He slapped about ten sopping wet leaves into the largest pot in the cupboard then added the peas and plopped the whole mess on the electric range.
"Add 1 teaspoon sugar and 2 to 4 tablespoons water. Bloody Americans! Why can't they just go by weights," he grumbled as he hunted through six drawers for a set of measuring spoons. He plopped the sugar in, but was unsure about the variance on the water, so he went with the least amount.
"Nobody likes soggy peas... leastwise, it doesn't sound appetizing," he reasoned. "Now all I have to do is 'cook for twenty minutes until tender.'"
He stared at the different markings on the burners. Low, Medium, Medium High, and High all glared at him in bright, shiny writing. "Which one?"
The cookbook kept its secrets well, offering no advice to him. Apparently, this was such basic knowledge that no one would need to ask -- no one except vampires who were trying to cook Christmas dinner for a bunch of mortals, and he was willing to bet they weren't part of the book's original target demographic.
"Right then. When in doubt, go with high," he decided. Ratcheting the heat all the way up, he plopped a lid on the pot and left it to bubble away.
"Next up, mashed potatoes. 'First, cook the potatoes.' Fine, so how do I do that?" he yelled at the book.
Once more, the book kept silence on the topic.
With a grimace, Spike stared at the potatoes. "Use your brain, you dolt. Even Harmony can probably mash a spud. Okay, they need to get out of the skins, I'm betting, so, knife. Yeah, that sounds reasonable."
He opened the silverware drawer and, completely ignoring the bladed article that was, in fact, a potato peeler, he grabbed a steak knife and set about removing the brown, rather dirty-looking peels from the potatoes in question. Spike had, in his time, been quite handy with a knife. The problem was, the victims in question had never been vegetables. Consequently, before he'd managed to finish the job, he'd lost enough blood to be feeling a little woozy.
Next, he threw the peeled potatoes into the deep pot Joyce had used for spaghetti, but was undecided about what to do next.
"Well, suppose you have to cook 'em in something... best fill up the pot with water, I guess," he declared, taking thepot over to the sink and filling it nearly to the brim with water. With a satisfied grin, he plopped the pot down next to the one containing the peas, turned this burner up to high as well, and slammed the lid down. This was just too easy! Of course, he had no idea when the potatoes would be done cooking, but why worry yet?
"Apple pie next on the agenda. Let's see... need a crust. Well, can't be too hard to do that, now can it?"
About ten minutes later, Spike had assembled the flour, salt, butter and water. "Mix together one cup of flour with 1 teaspoon salt," he mumbled. With a loud plop, he dumped the flour in a bowl and sprinkled the salt on top.
"There. Mixed. Cut in 1/3 cup butter. Huh. If you say so, Mrs. Crocker."
He threw the butter on top of the flour and hacked at it a few times with a knife.
"Must melt together in the oven or summat. Alright, now all I need to do is flatten it out," he reasoned.
The rolling pin was not going to happen. It was too wimpy and far too domestic. If he wanted a pair of flat pastry crusts, he was going to smack it until it was paper-thin. With a blood-curdling battle cry, he flung himself at the dough and began pounding it as though it were the Skasnak demon who had once insulted his cheekbones. Unfortunately, the result wasn't exactly what he'd had in mind.
Flour dusted his face, his shirt, his jeans, his hair, and even his Docs like so much drifting snow. The dough was covered in tiny splits that showed the butchered tablecloth underneath. In retrospect, he thought it probably wasn't such a brilliant idea to neglect removing that first. A loud sneeze, thankfully directed over his shoulder instead of at the pastry in question, actually made his teeth rattle. Okay, brutality wasn't working here. He was being defeated by flour. This called for drastic action.
A few minutes later, a deeply mortified Spike was not only wielding a rolling pin, but had actually sunk so low as wearing Joyce's white apron that had "Kiss the Cook" written across it in an annoyingly feminine script. The dot over the "i" was a daisy with a smiley face. Before him on a cutting board lay what had to be the thinnest two circles of pastry ever, barely stretched out through a liberal, perhaps overly liberal, dose of water.
"Okay, it's rolled out. Now how in blue blazes am I supposed to get it off the board and in the tin?" he asked the air around him.
The process was long and complicated, and by the time the first crust was in the pie pan, Spike had utilized a spatula, a butter knife, two canapé spreaders, three chopsticks, a pancake turner and a set of coasters in the delicate operation. When he was finished, he stood back in admiration. It had only ripped three times, and he'd managed to pinch all the edges back together. It even looked as though it was only a little too small for the pan. Now all he had to do was peel the apples…
And stop the giant geyser erupting on top of the stove.
By this point, Spike had resorted to swearing in Esperanto as he had exhausted his usual treasure trove of profanity. He had, of course, completely forgotten about the potatoes. Boiling water was frothing over the burner. The vampire pulled the pot into the sink and dumped out the water to find very brown chunks clinging to the sides of the pot.
"Um... guess I can cut off the burned bits. They're just going to get mooshed anyway," he mumbled as he began to scrape out the pot.
It was at this point that plumes of smoke started to erupt from pot number two.
Obviously, he'd forgotten the peas as well. Unhappily, he wasn't quite so lucky this time. A black, coagulated mess of lumpy, putrid-smelling muck wrapped in charred lettuce was revealed to his frustrated gaze when the lid was raised. Shoving them into the other basin of the kitchen sink, his eyes now turning gold with demonic impatience, he proceeded to walk, with as much calmness as he could muster, back to the table.
"No one," he assured himself, "likes peas."
Deciding to simply pretend that none of this had happened, he returned his attention to the pie. What was the saying? Easy as pie? He hoped that whoever had coined the phrase shouldn't have been sued for bending the rules about truth in advertising.
"Peel and slice five large apples, then add to pie with butter, sugar, and cinnamon," he rolled his eyes once more at the lack of any amounts to go with the last three ingredients.
In a short while, there were five peeled, chopped apples resting in the pie tin quite prettily. The fact that he had named the apples Riley, Angelus, Harmony, Dracula, and Darla respectively while he had removed their skins may have had something to do with Spike's semi-improved mood. He plopped a full stick of butter on top of the apples, then added five tablespoons of sugar. The cinnamon had him a bit puzzled. It smelled quite nice, very Christmassy, but he had to make sure there was enough left for his gingerbread men. At long last, he decided that holding the shaker over the pie and thumping its bottom five times - once for each apple, of course - would be sufficient.
With a smug grin, Spike popped the other pastry crust on top of the pie and gazed in awe at his creation. It actually didn't look half bad. Now all he had to do was pop it in the oven and bake it at 375. Of course, he had no idea what the word "preheat" meant, so he simply shoved the pie plate in the oven, turned it on, and remembered to set the timer after his last fiasco.
At long last, only the gingerbread men and the turkey remained. An end was in sight. Deciding that after all he'd been through a spot of whimsy might be in order, Spike flipped to the section on making little, edible humans. For a moment, the horrible thought that the chip might zap him if he ate one gave him pause, but he soon came to his senses and concluded he'd been inhaling far too much flour.
Spike actually had some fairly homey memories of eating gingerbread men when he was a lad, which was why he'd chosen that particular cookie. He could remember his mum taking them out of the oven, piping hot and steaming, the rich scent tickling his nose. He remembered being a holy terror to the poor woman as the cookies cooled, asking, "Can we ice them yet?" at least three times a minute. But when she finally nodded her permission, the wait had been well worth it. Practically an entire village with slightly askew faces populated the kitchen, only to be devoured greedily with a glass of cold milk. Ah, the good old days... perfect training for a vicious vampire-to-be.
Promenading down memory lane wasn't getting him anywhere, though, so he quickly scanned the recipe in question. Finally, things seemed to be going smoothly. The molasses may have taken forever to pour, and he'd spilled a bit of it, accidentally put his hand on it, and then absentmindly run his hand through his hair, but at least he couldn't see the result. Sifting the flour had created another sandstorm of powder, but his Docs really couldn't have gotten much whiter after the pastry incident. The brown sugar had fought him valiantly, but he'd eventually vanquished it and plopped the required amount in the bowl. At long last, he had lined up on the table almost the entire contents of the spice rack.
"One teaspoon each," he read. "Well, not too hard, that."
With a flourish, he leveled the teaspoon against the top of each metal box in turn: salt, allspice, ginger, cloves, cinnamon. The only problem was, there wasn't enough cinnamon left after the pie. Frantically, Spike clawed through the drawers vainly searching for another box. Unbelievably, he found one, and it too was added into the mixture.
Happily, the aroma of the spices was starting to take away the acrid aura of burned peas, and Spike caught himself humming a bit as he stirred the dough together, pleased to see that it was, in fact, looking quite normal. The rolling out went a bit more smoothly than the piecrust, and Spike was soon confronted with a smooth, empty canvas of brown dough.
There were no cookie cutters to be found in the kitchen, so Spike once more wielded his trusty steak knife. Several of his gingerbread people looked like Quasimodo, but there were a few that bore some resemblance to regularly shaped humans. The finished products were scooped onto the cookie pans he'd found shoved behind the microwave, and it was at this point that he encountered a problem.
One oven. Two temperatures.
Somehow, these jolly fellows needed to be baked a full 25 degrees cooler than his pie.
"Nothing for it but to wait until the tart comes out," he grumbled.
However, he still had a pot full of slightly crunchy potatoes to mash, so his hands would be far from idle. Since the second step in the recipe titled "Mashed Potatoes" was, unhelpfully, "mash your potatoes with salt and pepper," he wasn't quite sure how to get them into the desired pulverized state. He dumped the spuds into yet another bowl, taking the time to note that he was beginning to run out of crockery and that the sink was starting to look very frightening, then rummaged through a utensils drawer, clueless as to what he was looking for. Nothing seemed to suit his purpose. Then, his eyes alit on something he'd had a bit of experience with at the librarian's: a blender.
"This ought to work," he purred defiantly as he plopped several of the potatoes into the glass pitcher, sprinkled in the salt and pepper, sagely put the lid in place (after all, he wasn't a moron), and then hit frappe. The appliance complained loudly, but it eventually bent to his will and cut the potatoes into chunks, then bits, then... glue.
"Add warmed milk... not saying how much, what a shock," the vampire snarked. Considering the potatoes all but resembled milk as it was, he decided less was more. The microwave soon chimed happily and he poured a mug of warmed milk, then hit frappe once again. Soon, the paste had turned into light, fluffy mashed potatoes... well, actually, no. It had turned into soup. But Spike was trying desperately to convince himself that this was not the case, and he was succeeding in doing so rather well.
At this point, the timer on the oven buzzed loudly. One apple pie coming up, he thought happily as he pulled on a pair of flowered oven mitts and opened the stove.
What he saw inside confused him mightily.
The top crust of his lovely tart had a huge, gaping hole in it the size of a fist. It also appeared that the pastry was a very deep shade of ebony, which was unsurprising as he'd been using a recipe for a one crust pie without doubling the amounts, while the apples were in a haphazard state, not quite fully cooked except for the chunks of fruit that had poured out of the rent in the top crust and landed on the oven's floor, resembling a blackened lava flow. Hanging like a bizarre chandelier above the pie, the missing piece of pastry dangled from the roof of the oven, charred to a crisp, obviously having been blown there when the steam trapped inside the pie had erupted through the crust since it lacked any vent holes.
Soon, the pie was keeping company with the peas in the bottom of the kitchen trashcan. He rationalized frantically that only one dessert was actually necessary or even desirable at a single meal. He turned the dial down on the oven and left the door open, both in hopes of making the temperature inside drop faster and so the ashy, burnt smell had a chance to dissipate a bit before it permeated his gingerbread men.
It was at this point that Spike realized things were perhaps not going so well. Dazedly, he wondered if Ming's Oriental Palace delivered on Christmas Eve. But he was not one to give up without a fight. His honor was at stake here. Setting his jaw with a level of determination that made his cheekbones stick out like coat hangers, he shoved the pans of cookies in the oven, set the timer, and confronted his greatest enemy.
It lay there in the refrigerator, mocking him with its featherless skin and its gaping body cavity. Its dangly wings flopped about in what he almost fancied was a show of aggression. He would have stared the bird down, but the lack of head made that rather impossible.
"Alright, you big... turkey," he snarled at the bird in question. It was a mark of just how bad things had gotten that he couldn't come up with a better taunt. Then again, the mere idea that he was taunting a dead turkey probably wasn't a very good indication of his current status either. "You are going to come out golden brown and succulent, just like in the picture on the front of the cookbook, or else."
The bird's neck returned his feral gaze coolly.
"Okay, first, I wash and dry you," he growled. The sink, unfortunately, was overflowing with dishes, and it took him a few minutes to put them on the counter and lower the carcass into the basin. With great vigor, Spike proceeded to rinse every last inch of the turkey so thoroughly that his hands were wrinkled. Emeril would have been proud. He then washed his own hands in time to pull his cookies from the oven and set them on a cooling rack while he continued to read the instructions.
"Fill it with stuffing? What kind of stuffing?" The book kept mum. He vaguely remembered the Slayer making Thanksgiving dinner over a year ago, and that bits of cut up bread and celery had been distributed in a bowl around the table, though at the time he'd been ogling the gravy boat hungrily. Hoping against hope, he opened the vegetable crisper and, oh happy miracle, found two stalks of limp celery that hadn't gone fuzzy. He chopped them up and tore apart several slices of bread, slamming them into the turkey.
At long last, the bird lay, breast side down, in a very large pan, ready to be popped in the oven. All he had to do now was cook it for...
"FOUR HOURS!" he yelled disbelievingly. A glance at the clock confirmed his suspicions. It was now five o'clock. Buffy and Dawn could be home at any time. "Well, if it takes four hours at 325, it must take two hours at 650."
He spun the dial to the desired degree and waited a few minutes for it to gain the required, nearly white-hot intensity before shoving the turkey in the oven. Now, all he had to do was ice his gingerbread, clean up the dishes, and set the table. Easy. No problem. Nothing to go wrong. And if he just kept repeating that to himself, he might start to believe it. Maybe.
The royal icing was, thank evilness, fairly simple to make, and as the gingerbread people were lined up in front of him on their cooling racks, he could barely suppress a grin. This, at least, was something he wouldn't foul up.
Precisely, using his highly attuned vampire eyesight, along with a toothpick, he began to paint faces and clothing on the cookies. Almost subconsciously, he started to make them resemble the Scoobies. Sure enough, a pair of glasses perched on the nose of a gingerbread librarian and a fist of dollars was clutched tightly by the gingerbread ex-demon. A sprightly gingerbread teen was grinning mischievously up at him holding, what else, a ring of keys. A pair of gingerbread witches sat side by side, making eyes at one another. The gingerbread construction worker, for some reason, seemed to have a rather unintelligent expression on his face, which may or may not have been accidental. Finally, only two cookies remained. Carefully, he iced in the Slayer's eyes and mouth, being very precise in getting the shape of her nose just so. The cookie wasn't complete, though, until he'd added the requisite stake in her hand. That left just one cookie, and he had plans for it.
Moving with great care, Spike traced in hair standing straight up, a sloping brow, and somewhat dull-looking eyes. The nose was on the large side, and the mouth was slack, creating a baffled, yokel-like expression. A few more deft strokes succeeded in painting on a tutu and ballet slippers. He stood back to examine his masterpiece, and, as a finishing touch, added a crooked halo falling over the figure's right temple.
"There we are. A nummy treat for yours truly. At least I'm getting one cookie out of this," he declared as he proceeded to merrily bite off his nemesis's head.
A moment later, the same decapitated head was arcing through the air like a cannonball shot from Spike's mouth.
"HOT! HOT! HOT! HOT!" he hollered as he sped to the sink, wrapped his mouth around the tap, and turned on the cold water, emitting a high pitched whimper through his nose all the while.
When he finally removed his head from the sink, Spike looked as though he'd been through a war. His tongue was lolling out of his mouth, and his face was beet red.
He knew the cookie had cooled off. It had to be something in it. His eyes fell on the little tin boxes of spices still lined up on the countertop, and he read their labels again.
"Allspice. Ginger. Cayenne. Cloves. Back it up a second... cayenne? What happened to the cinnamon?" He stared at the large red letters. Obviously, he'd been in a bit of a rush when he'd been searching for another container of cinnamon. There was enough powdered cayenne pepper in his pretty little cookies to start a five-alarm blaze. He glared at the headless vampire ballerina cookie that lay on the table.
"I strongly dislike you," he mumbled pathetically as he hit his head repeatedly against the fridge, "and this is your fault. Somehow. Not sure how. But it is."
With a miserable groan, he dumped his masterpieces down the garbage disposal and watched them whirl to their little cookie deaths. The chip, slightly confused, gave him a sharp twinge of pain.
"Bloody lovely," Spike groused as he tramped off to the bathroom and downed a pair of asprins to chase away the migraine.
When he returned, it was with exactly two resolutions. The first was that he was going to make the best of this damned dinner if it was the last thing he did. The other was that, the second everything was done, he was going to go home and get plastered. How, he had no idea, since he hadn't a single dime to his name, but even if it meant terrorizing the bums on the corner for spare change, he was going to be flying higher than Santa's sleigh come midnight.
"So, all I have to do is wash the dishes, set the table , pull the bird out of the oven, and scram," he told himself. "They've got one of them dishwasher thingies, so it can't be too bad..."
Spike swung open the door of the dishwasher to find a note hanging from the top level.
I knew you'd forget it's broken! Good thing I put this here or you'd have flooded the floor... again... for the fifth time.
Your I-told-you-so sister
"It's busted? I have to do all of these by HAND?" he moaned. The tottering piles of pots, pans, bowls, measuring cups, cutting boards, and various apparatuses he didn't even remember using stood around him like so many skyscrapers. He briefly considered smashing all of them to bits, but then sighed and started in on the nearest set, shuddering to think of what Angelus would say if he could see him now.
Over an hour later, Spike had prune hands. He had detergent burns. He had scalded his forearms. He had even manged to get cayenne pepper in the cut he'd gotten from the tinfoil box. He had also used every last dish towel in the kitchen. But the dishes... ah, the dishes were done! Clear countertops as far as the eye could see greeted his weary countenance.
He grabbed an armload of the good china and a red tartan tablecloth from the linen drawer, and began to set the living room table. Unfortunately, since the entire dinner was going to consist of storebought rolls, a turkey and very runny potatoes, the board looked rather barren. In an effort to spruce things up a bit, Spike grabbed a pair of candlesticks off the fireplace and plonked them on the table. It actually did make things look a bit more festive. Reaching in his jeans' pocket, he pulled out his Zippo and lit the candles. On impulse, he crunched up the day's newspaper, shoved it under the fireplace grate, put on a few more pieces of wood, and started a merrily crackeling fire, creating a warm, festive glow in the Summers living room. What with the tree and the and the presents, the stockings hung from the mantle and the good china set out, even though things weren't quite perfect, it looked downright cozy.
"Not bad, old boy, if I do say so myself," he said, giving Joyce's picture on the fireplace a cocky wink. "Not bad at all."
It was, of course, at this moment that all hell chose to break loose.
Chapter 5: December 24 (later): Finishing Touches
The fireplace flue had been open, of that he was certain. The smoke from the fire was going up the chimney just like a charm. So why were clouds of blackish air wafting past his nose?
"No," he murmured quietly. "No, not... not the TURKEY!"
The last word was a wail of Wagnerian proportions as Spike scrambled towards the kitchen, tripping over his own feet, becoming momentarily ensnared in the red and green plaid tablecloth that puddled on the floor, and at last stumbling haphazardly into the a room nearly obscured by clouds of smoke pouring from the oven. Shoving on the potholders once more, he flung open the oven and was witness to the turkey's second death.
The bird was on fire. At least he though it was the bird. It might have been a lump of charcoal by this point. Flames were licking at the pan, and the sudden rush of oxygen from the outside had caused the embers to ignite into a full-blown conflagration. Thinking quickly, he pulled the fire extinguisher off the wall and sprayed the poultry with the foam, suffocating the fire. He then picked up the pan with his covered hands, dashed across the room, flung open the back door and hurled the carcass into the yard. It landed with a sick crunching noise and a splash in the birdbath.
For a few long minutes, the vampire stood staring at the smoking mess in the clamshell basin. Granted, his plans never really had a penchant for turning out well, but this, this was ridiculous. Spike turned back to the house with a stricken expression on his face. There was no dinner for the girls, unless he counted the liquefied potatoes. The kitchen was covered in a thin layer of soot. The oven was full of foam. And there was smoke everywhere, even with the turkey gone.
"It can't get any worse than this," he consoled himself dolefully.
That was when he heard the heavy crash followed by the tinkling sound of breaking glass.
His eyes bugging out in disbelief, Spike ran to the living room to find that not all of the remaining smoke was from the decimated turkey. When his foot had caught in the tablecloth, he had unwittingly pulled the edge of the cloth off the table so that it landed in the fireplace. The table was now ablaze. However, this was not his only problem. The unconfined flames had succeeded in catching the wrapping paper of the Christmas presents on fire, which led a perfect path to the tree. The pretty Christmas decoration had apparently been highly flammable. Currently, it lay on its side across the rug, surrounded by pieces of twinkling, multicolored glass. Thankfully, the plug for the lights had been pulled free of the socket by the tree's fall.
The fire extinguisher was pulled out of the kitchen once more and the entire living room liberally soused with foam as Spike cradled the phone on his shoulder, shouting instructions to the 911 operator to get a fire truck to Revello Drive quickly and blatantly refusing to leave the residence in the meanwhile. By the time the red engine pulled up the driveway, the blaze had begun to get a bit beyond the vampire's control.
Ten minutes later, the flames were out. The table was scorched, the tree was a skeletal mess, the presents were unsalvageable, the walls were water damaged, and the carpet had a burn mark eight feet wide.
"Hey, buddy," one of the firefighters asked gently, "you okay?"
Spike turned disbelieving eyes on the man. "Not particularly, no."
"Think of it this way," he said sympathetically. "The house is still standing and nobody got hurt. There's no damage done that can't be fixed."
The vampire nodded stoically and stumbled into the kitchen once more as the firefighters pulled away from the house. What was he going to do now? Not only had he been unable to give Buffy and Dawn a happy place to come home to after their deadbeat bum of a father had let them down again, he'd trashed their living room. He'd made things worse. In his mind, he could see Buffy looking at him with vacant, listless eyes, the same eyes she'd had ever since her return, and Dawn surveying the damage he'd caused with a trembling lip. Suddenly, a horrible thought leapt into his mind.
He was so terrified that he couldn't run, didn't want to see what had happened, but he was compelled to do so. With even, measured steps, he slowly entered the living room and steadfastly turned his head to look at the mantel.
Joyce's picture was a vacant, blackened square, nothing more.
Spike sank to his knees in shock before the hearth. Of anything in the house he could have destroyed, it had to be this. Perhaps it was a sign: evil, soulless things had no business trying to treat others with kindness.
As he knelt there, the phone rang. The answering machine picked it up, and Spike cringed inwardly.
"Willow? You're, um, you're there, right? Must be in the shower or something. Buffy and I just landed at the airport. We're going to take a taxi home, so we should be there in about twenty minutes. Willow?"
The long, empty pause that followed was threatening to make the answering machine start weeping.
"Oh. I guess we'll see you in a few minutes. Merry... merry Christmas?"
With that last note of uncertainty and disappointment, the phone went dead.
The Little Bit was going to be devastated, he thought, and an odd pain shot around his heart. Well, twenty minutes. With vampire speed, he could do a lot in twenty minutes. He hoped.
The third best tablecloth was quickly flung over the charred table, and the throw rug from the hallway almost succeeded in covering the burn mark. The tree was dragged through the back door, and the vacuum cleaner whirred to life in an attempt to clean up the smashed ornaments. A damp sponge was applied to the counters in the kitchen and, as a final touch, he used the cheese slices that were possessed of a color not found in nature to make a couple grilled cheese sandwiches.
With only a minute to go, Spike set the table with the plate holding the sandwiches, which, frankly, did not look particularly appetizing as he hadn't known to use any butter. Even the addition of the tureen of potatoes, which were, or course, cold as ice, did little to make the room look less pathetic.
In fact, it looked terrible. Sadly, Spike sank into one of the dining room chairs and stared about him. Darla had been right. He was a numbskull who was incapable of doing the smallest thing correctly. Everything he touched turned to manure.
Just then, the sound of a car pulling up the driveway broke through his thoughts. Taking one last look around, he straightened a picture on the wall that didn't need to be straightened, then headed for the back door. At least there was one Christmas trauma he could spare them... having to be in the same room with him.
As Spike's hand reached the doorknob, a very strange thing happened, though he was completely unaware of it. Everything stopped. The cab driver who was waiting for his fare was frozen, the Slayer digging through her purse was immobile, and Dawn's hair, which she was in the process of flipping over her shoulder so she could grab the bags out of the trunk, hung suspended in midair. Even a leaf that had been blown from its resting place on the roof hovered motionless a few inches above the ground.
In the middle of the perfect stillness, three female figures appeared in the kitchen. The first one stared long and hard at Spike.
"He did give it the old college try, I'll give him credit for that," said a dark-haired woman. "I'd have quit round about the time he had to use the funny pages to wrap the gifts."
One of the other women nodded sympathetically and patted the immobile vampire gently on the shoulder.
"He can be a good boy, sometimes. Not that he'd admit to it, of course," she added quickly.
The third woman smiled broadly at her. "No, I don't tink dat would be somting he'd want bandied aboot."
The first woman ran a finger down the side of one of the cabinets, the tip coming back with a black stain on it. "What a mess. Can't believe he accomplished this much this fast."
The second woman had walked into the living room by this time and was surveying the damage. Shaking her head dismally, she picked up the sandwiches and eyed them critically. "I don't think these are edible. At least, not unless you're starving. Jenny, do you remember if Ming's Oriental Palace delivers on Christmas Eve?"
The brunette woman shook her head, "Nope. They close early today."
"Dis is a shame," the smallest of the women cried out suddenly. "Your picture is all black wit soot. See?"
Joyce nodded sadly. "Look, do you think we can possibly ask for a small intervention? I mean, my girls have through a lot in the last year. Buffy's hanging on by a thread. Dawn's probably a second away from turning into a juvenile delinquent. And Spike... well, he tried. Doesn't that count for something?"
Kendra shook her head uncertainly. "I pulled some strings tree years ago wit dat snow. I'm not sure if dey'll grant us anodder favor or not."
"No harm in asking," the Rom woman said with a shrug. "Worth a shot, anyway."
A long pause ensued, followed by three women beaming at one another happily.
"Suppose we should leave now," Jenny suggested.
"Oh, just one second," Joyce called from the kitchen. She gave Spike a quick kiss on his floury, sticky, molasses streaked forehead before rejoining the others. "Okay, let's go."
And with that, time suddenly thrust into motion once more. Spike continued tugging on the back door in an effort to flee, but the door refused to budge one inch. He thought desperately of kicking it down, but then realized that Buffy couldn't very well afford to replace it and he'd done enough already. As he dashed to the window in an attempt to escape, the front doorbell rang loudly.
"Willow!" Buffy's voice called. "I can't get in! Dawn left my keys at my dad's place by mistake."
"I so totally did not!" A pause. "Okay, okay, I did. Can you let us in? Please?"
Spike dragged his palms over his face, considering his options: let them stand out there until next Tuesday when the witches came home, or open the door and see their disappointed and most likely disgusted faces in the case of Buffy. It was a close call, but eventually he found himself marching to the front door, head lowered in resignation, and undoing the lock.
"Merry Christma... you aren't Willow," Buffy said in shock.
"Good one, Slayer. Very astute deduction."
In a second, though, he had an armful of hyperactive Nibblet, who was giggling and gushing and actually succeeded in knocking him into the wreath on the front door.
"Easy there, Sweet Bite; your arm's not healed proper yet," he cautioned as he rubbed his arm where the pine needles had stabbed him. That's when it hit him.
He hadn't hung a wreath on the door.
"What happened to you?" Buffy asked bemusedly. "You look like you got caught in an explosion at a bakery."
"Yeah, about that," he began, but was cut off when Dawn breezed past him into the living room and shrieked loudly.
"Buffy! Come here! You have to see what Willow did!"
"Great, what now?" she grumbled as she shoved her suitcase and Dawn's duffle bag into Spike's arms and stomped into the living room. Spike shut his eyes and mentally started to count. Three. Two. One.
"Willow!" Buffy yelled.
"Um, she's not here, Slayer," Spike said as he readjusted the bags that were blocking his face. "She and Tara reunited and are off to Disneyland."
"So who did all this?" she asked quietly.
"That'd be... me..." Spike answered quietly as he set the bags down on the stairway and turned to face what would probably be a stake in his heart.
That's when he saw the tree. It stood in the corner, just where he'd put it, only the branches were in perfectly. The ornaments twinkled happily as the Christmas tree lights glowed warmly. Beneath the tree was a pile of presents, and from their shapes Spike could tell that they were the same ones he'd seen go up in flames earlier, only now they were wrapped beautifully in red and green iridescent paper and topped with golden bows. The stockings were once more hanging by the fireplace, telltale bulges showing they held treasures inside. The table glittered with the red plaid tablecloth and two place settings of the best china, the candlesticks lit. A bowl of emerald green peas topped with melted butter shone in the firelight, flanked by a basket full of crispy rolls and a covered soup tureen. On the opposite end of the table sat an apple pie, its perfumed steam making even his jaded taste buds water, and a plate full of gingerbread cookies identical to the ones he'd iced earlier that day. Glittering in the center of the table was a silver, covered dish. Stunned, he raised the cover to reveal...
"Turkey!" Dawn squealed.
It was, indeed, a perfectly golden-brown turkey. Beside it sat a bowl filled with stuffing and a gravy boat. Spike stared at it as though he'd just witnessed Giles enthusiastically joining in the mosh pit at a Sex Pistols concert.
He glanced at the mantelpiece once more, and there was Joyce's picture, perfectly fine, grinning back at him conspiratorially.
"You did this?" Buffy asked in a strangely blank tone.
"Um... I think so?"
Buffy looked around the room as if she wasn't quite sure what she was seeing was real. Her face was very strange. Spike couldn't quite tell whether she was about to laugh or cry, but then he realized that it was the first real expression she'd had since her return, the first one that had reached all the way to her eyes. And when she walked wonderingly over to the mantle and stroked the fuzzy velvet of her stocking, she actually smiled. Dawn wrapped her free arm around her and the two of them turned back to Spike.
"Thanks," she said quietly.
"No trouble at all," he lied quickly. "I'll be off then."
"Aw, do you have to go?" Dawn said quickly. "It seems like everyone's always leaving."
"Best let you and big sis eat your dinner before it gets cold," Spike said with a note of gratitude. It was nice that the Bit wanted him about, but still, he doubted that the feeling extended to her sister.
"Spike," Buffy started, and then stopped suddenly, seeming unsure of herself. "Stay for dinner. You shouldn't be alone in a moldy old crypt on Christmas Eve, especially after all the trouble you went to."
Spike blinked. Okay, now he knew he was in an alternate dimension. But it was a nice alternate dimension.
"Um, maybe I'll stay for a mug of gravy, anyway," he agreed.
Dinner was actually a lovely affair. Dawn bustled an extra place setting onto the table and conned Spike into trying a bit of everything, even the very strange potato soup. The two girls were thrilled to hear again in detail about the reconciliation between the two Wiccas, and the news that Xander and Anya had taken off for the ski slopes was greeted with warm grins. As they lingered for a while over pie and gingerbread, Spike decided that however all this had come about, he wasn't complaining one iota. There was only one thing missing, he thought idly, but there was no way that would ever...
There was a loud knock at the door.
"Who would be out on Christmas Eve?" Dawn asked.
"With our luck, one of Santa's elves trying to end the world," Buffy replied with a strong trace of her old banter. She got up from the table and went to the door, squinting through the peephole.
With a loud gasp, she flung open the door and threw her arms around the person on the other side.
Not Angel, not Angel, not Angel, Spike silently chanted.
"Happy Christmas, Buffy," he heard in an immediately recognizable voice. "Um, yes, haven't lost any of your strength at all."
Dawn whizzed to the front door to receive her hug in turn, and Spike strode out from his place at the table.
"Rupert... nice of you to grace us with your presence," Spike said in what he hoped was an effective scowl. In all honesty, he was quite happy the Watcher had flown in. "How long you back for?"
"Yes, well, about that," Giles said with some embarrassment as he placed a suitcase in the hall. "I'd barely gotten back to England when I came to the conclusion I'd been, well, somewhat amiss in my actions."
Spike cocked an eyebrow at him. "You mean you realized you'd acted like a moron."
"As usual, Spike, you manage to spew the truth a bit too well. I, ehm, won't be returning to England. I've come to the conclusion that my place is here, if you'll have me back?"
Buffy's eyes filled with tears and she pulled her Watcher into yet another tight hug, her lips curling into a smile. "Of course we want you back!"
"Well," said Spike, breaking the moment quite well, "this is turning into a bleeding Norman Rockwell painting, so I'm getting out of here. Watcher. Bit. Slayer."
"Yes, um, happy holidays, Spike," Giles said with a smile as he went to raid the icebox for some cold turkey.
"Bye, Spike. Oh, think I can stop by in a couple days and you could help me out with that history paper?"
"Sure thing. See you then." Spike tried very hard to ignore the way Dawn pointed at Buffy and then at him from behind her sister's back, as well as the smooching faces she was making as she left the room.
"Yeah, well, night Slayer."
"Night," she said as he walked onto the porch. "Oh, why not," she muttered to herself as she followed him out. "Spike?"
She reached out and shyly gave him a soft, warm, surprisingly tender kiss on the lips. For an instant, the vampire thought he was going to melt away entirely.
"What was that for?" he asked after she'd pulled away. "Not that I'm complaining, mind."
"Just following orders," she said, pointing at him with a grin, then going back in the house and shutting the door.
Spike looked down and had never been more humiliated in his entire unlife, even when Angelus had forced him to read his journal out loud to the minions. He was still wearing Joyce's "Kiss the Cook" apron.
When Spike got back to his crypt that night, he was completely exhausted. Without a word, he crashed onto a sarcophagus, not even bothering to go downstairs to his bed, and proceeded to sleep until noon the next day. When he awoke, it was to a rumbling belly. Flopping off the coffin, he wandered automatically over to the fridge and took out a bag of O+, downing it happily. That was when he remembered his refrigerator was supposed to be empty. He opened the door again and found several bags of blood lined up neatly on the shelves, but that wasn't the strangest thing. Sitting atop the old, dirty, off-white appliance was a large box. Curious, he opened the lid only to pull out his own duster.
"What the...?" he mumbled blearily. He slipped the coat over his shoulders and examined it. There was no question about it; it was his. There was the mark from where Doc had knifed him, and over there were the teeth marks from when Dru had chewed on it during one of her more bizarre episodes. But, patting it down, he felt something strange. Reaching into his left pocket he pulled out an unfamiliar object.
In his hand, he held a large, heart-shaped piece of coal.