"Are you sure you want to do this?" Buffy gently asked her sister.
Dawn nodded, her throat full. "It's what she would want. It's what I want."
"Okay." She carefully opened the box, inhaling the scent of pine and Joyce Summers, a wave of sadness enveloping her.
"All right?" Dawn whispered.
The younger girl sighed. "Yeah. So. By the chimney with care?"
"Where else would you put stockings?" Buffy smiled.
* * * * *
"Whoa, what's all this?" Xander asked, halting his stride as he stepped into the living room.
"A slice of normalcy," Buffy promptly replied.
His eyes wet. "It smells like her in here."
"I know." She took his hand and squeezed harder than she intended. "Sorry."
"It's all good, Buff. My knuckles needed cracking anyway." He rolled his neck. "So where's mine?"
"Right there," she said, pointing toward the end of the mantel.
He stepped closer, peering at the red felt covered with miniature toy soldiers. He looked to the left and smiled at the pale yellow velveteen with dancing teddy bears. Anya's name was spelled out on the lip of the stocking in gold glitter. He then looked to the right and startled.
"Yeah." He gently traced her name with his finger along the edge of the midnight-blue velvet, which was dotted with silver stars.
"I miss her, too."
She winced at the trace of bitterness, but couldn't blame him. "Really," she said with more conviction. "Maybe it's the holidays. Maybe it's how much we've all lost, but I do miss her. I miss when things...made sense."
He barked out a laugh. "And when was that?"
She grinned. "I don't know. That one week we were all happy? You with Cordy, me with Angel, Will with Oz, and Giles with...with J-Jenny." She watched him swallow. "That was some week."
"Best of my life."
"Oh." Her eyes widened as she took in the stockings, her own sandwiched between those of Oz and Tara. "Oh," she breathed.
"Okay, Will?" Xander whispered.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay. It...it doesn't hurt. That's weird, huh?"
"Nope. It's nice."
She smiled. "It really is." Her smile became a beam as Buffy passed her a mug of cocoa. She sipped and gave a blissful sigh. "It tastes just like hers."
"Dawn made it," Buffy said. "Mom would never give me the recipe."
"Maybe it's because you burn water?" Xander asked.
"Maybe you'd like me to take the lump of coal in your stocking and shove it up your ass?"
"I knew you had a thing for ventriloquist dummies, but I thought Faith was the kinky Slayer."
"I will feed your body to dogs. Ugly dogs."
"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas," Willow sang.
"Well," he huffed, removing his coat and hanging it on the hook by the door, "I'm here as demanded. What is so urgent?" He walked into the living room, carrying a bag of essentials, including crucifixes, holy water, and his most oft-referenced books.
He was at once assaulted by Xander and Willow. The witch grabbed his bag and threw it in a chair, while Xander forced a ridiculous Santa hat on his head. Most offensive was that the rim was lined with infernal jingle bells!
"Oh, cram it, Scrooge," Xander chirped, pushing the Watcher down on the sofa and snuggling up next to him. "It's Christmas!"
"Yes. Well...yes." And try as he might, Giles couldn't keep the smile off his face. He wrapped an arm around Xander's shoulders, and gave a contented sigh when the boy rested his head on his shoulder. "Very well, then. Cocoa?"
"Coming!" Buffy called from the kitchen.
She raced up behind him and deposited another mug on the coffee table, careful to use the Rudolph coaster which Dawn had placed there earlier. She then deposited herself in Giles's lap.
"One snide question about how many Christmas cookies I've eaten, and Jack Frost nipping at your nose will be the least of your worries." She eyed him. "There are more sensitive appendages."
He nodded. "And your sister?"
"Nestled all snug in her bed."
"Sugarplums and everything," Xander added.
Willow selected a book from the shelf, brought it over, and plopped herself on the empty side of the sofa. She held it out to Giles. "Read."
His lips twitched as he took the book from her hand. Xander cuddled more closely, as Buffy shifted some of her weight into his lap, resting her head on his chest. Willow burrowed into Giles's other side and peeked up at him from beneath her lashes. Heart in his throat, he struggled for words.
"Don't worry," Buffy whispered. "I spiked your cocoa."
"Oh, thank goodness." He opened the book. "'Twas the night before Christmas..."