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Anya stands at one of her undraped living room windows, tapping her favourite sun-catcher. It’s after nightfall this Christmas Eve, but the lights of Dallas and her home street outside Deep Ellum pour into the segmented circle of glass – red and green and gold, together and separate.

Christmas music is playing on the radio. The Carpenters – poor Karen, Anya thinks – are singing. They’re together and separate too.

If Rupert were home, she wouldn’t get to listen to this. He would mutter something about the vileness of the arrangements, middle-American mid-century sentimentality blah blah, and then he’d put on that Austin bluesy Christmas thing or the CD of English carols she got him. Either of these is acceptable, of course, but Anya likes sentimentality blah blah in its own way.

She’d rather have him home than listen to music, though. It’s their anniversary, and it’s stupidly a hard night for her, she knows it’s stupid, and --

And she taps the sun-catcher so it spins, bigger and brighter in the circle. Watching the colours means she doesn’t have to think. He’ll be home soon enough.

That’s weird. She rises to her tiptoes, looking above the happy Christmas colours, and squints at the Blind One’s windows across the street, one floor up. The shutters are half-open. They’re never open like that, and she can see dark movements beyond the barrier.

She turns away from the window, frowning. The annual good wish circle is done, this time with the extra hands and new voices around because of the recent goblin crisis. They all held hands – she holding onto Rupert, and to Dawn who didn’t sing the round with everyone else because of pitch problems – and the Blind One lifted the candle high while the guitars on the wall hummed the perfect note.

It was a perfect wish too, she thinks, but the time of year has tired the Blind One out, just as the darkness always did. Doesn’t make sense that he’s letting in the dark now....

She tells herself not to worry, the boss knows what he’s doing. She’s got her own old bits of dark floating around, her own open window, and her own tasks to complete.

As she hovers between kitchen-dining room and living room, between the captured lights in the glass and the sparkles on their Christmas Solstice Winter Holiday tree (not fairy lights, thank you, she knows far too much about the wicked faerie to even want to invoke their name in her safe space), she thinks about her stuff. Champagne and his combination present ready for tonight, check. Turkey defrosted and ready for tomorrow, check. Quorn equivalent ready for vegetarian guests, check. Nourishment for everyone, check....

She sinks down onto the floor, curves her arms around herself, listens to the Carpenters, mournful even if sentimental. She doesn’t want to think any more.

He’ll be home soon, she tells herself. Only good wishes tonight.

...................................................

Dawn taps at the wind-chime Tyrone has hung here in front of the window in their new kitchen (their kitchen, oh my God), and listens to the merry clink. Sounds off, somehow. Hollow.

"Hey, Ty? What are you doing?" she says loudly, as the last notes fall.

When he shows up in the doorway, she catches her breath. Which is dumb, they’ve been together for a year now, and she’s known him longer than that. But he’s so tall, dark and handsome, really, like the male model he used to be. Still wears better clothes than she does, too, especially now that he’s got that management job at Neiman Marcus headquarters. Watchers don’t really need great clothes, although she likes them...

But he’s wrapping a cashmere scarf over his Italian wool coat, and he’s flashing the sheepish Will Smith grin, which means trouble. "Hey, Dawn. I, um, forgot the rolls for tomorrow’s big dinner. I mean, it’s the only thing Anya told us to bring... Be back in a bit, okay?"

"Well, you don’t have to go out. Maybe I can make some."

"Burn some," he says, for which joke she tackles him against the wall.

Between punitive kisses, she manages, "It’s not... not like you... you’re just as bad a cook as I am."

"I know that’s right," he says, after one more kiss. Then, his hands holding her at arms’ length, "That’s why I’m off to Tom Thumb before they close. Not even you and I can screw up brown-and-serve."

She smiles at him. He’s making this first Christmas together, her first Christmas without her sister, as easy as it can be. "Good thinking, hotshot."

"I know that’s right, too," he says smugly.

"Watch it. I can still reveal your dark, deep secret to Shanice and Giles and Lindsey."

"What’s that?" he says, already almost out in the hall.

"Your love of smooth jazz! How lame is that, and you know how your sister will tease–"

"Hey now! Someone’s being a bad, bad girl.. And I’ll deal with you later. Maybe put a bit of coal in your stocking, huh? Or somethin’ somewhere..." He leers at her, a comical expression which she shouldn’t find as cute as she does, then heads out. Trailing behind him before the door shuts – "Babe, reminds me Shanice might drop by with one last present, you might want to be ready to answer the door."

"Okay. Careful out there, wind’s pretty bad–" But the door shuts before she can finish, and she’s alone.

One last finger to the wind-chime, one last merry, hollow clink, and she goes out into their living room. After she plugs in the Christmas tree lights, she stands looking at the sparks amid the green, thinking of holidays gone. She can’t remember much about her false childhood, but she remembers her mother that last year, tired and drawn yet trying to be merry, Buffy mirroring the effort. You could always see Buffy trying so hard, she thinks.

The last few years in London were different Christmases – Buffy and Spike playing Goofy Mom and Dad, brother-substitute Andrew babbling in the corner, Robson as genial patriarch with candy canes sticking randomly out of cardigan pockets, lots of Slayers running around big-eyed and loud and shiny. Xander’s ritual Snoopy dance was always a hit with the little ones, even with Faith’s affectionate heckling... but what she remembers most clearly is standing outside last Christmas Eve, feeling the just-before-rain cold and breathing in mist, hearing carols from down the street, with Buffy holding onto her, laughing against her coat. Buffy didn’t have to try so hard any more. Ease was just... there, even with a demon insurrection threatening in the Camargue.

And then Dawn had flown out the next day to take over her new Slayer down in San Antonio. She’d stopped over here in Dallas first, though, and Ty, Giles, and Anya were at the airport waiting for her, their arms open wide then closing tight around her.

Now little Slayer LuAnn and her family have moved here, and Dawn calls Dallas home too. New home.

Smiling, she turns around. The movement, the circle, reminds her of Robson’s management innovation – "only several decades old," Ty always says, laughing – the ‘quality circles’ of communication between Home Office and field Watchers, between Watcher and Slayer. She’s already filed her report on the goblins’ attack in Canton, which had been summoned by an old mirror in a forgotten armoire on sale at a First Monday and stopped by a combination of Slayer, Watchers, and the Blind One’s specially expanded forces. Time to call LuAnn, make sure she’s recovered and ready for patrol tomorrow night.

The dark will stay away that long, Dawn thinks, and if she feels a little hollow when thinking of what’s gone, well, she’ll just look at the lights, maybe turn on some Christmas music.

...........................................................

Anya’s still huddled on the floor when she hears Rupert downstairs, but his footsteps get her on her own feet. She’s behind schedule, she should have set the table and finished lighting the candles in here, she’s late, she’s screwed up –

"Back in good time, darling," he says, already inside the door, already smiling at her. As he sheds his long coat and hangs it on the coat rack: "Safe arrival, all present and accounted for, and the exchange went as planned."

"You make it sound so dangerous, honey," she says, caught between lights, between actions.

"Of course. Quite a cloak-and-dagger operation." He stops and looks at her, that Watcher-gaze which still can make her quiver. "What’s wrong?"

"Nothing. Um, so, do you want the anniversary champagne now, or do you want to sit and I’ll light the candles, and–"

Her words are cut off by a Rupert-hug. He’s finally recovered all the way from Los Angeles, she thinks with a flash of gratitude even though he’s almost crushing her ribs; even better, for once he’s unscathed by their magic use or goblin-evil. Then he lifts her up just a little to kiss her, and yes, it’s Rupert all the way – until he lets go too soon and says, "Anya, for fuck’s sake, what are you listening to?"

"Mid-century sentimentality blah blah," she says. "I’ll turn it off."

"No, that’s all right. Stay there." His hands come around her face, and he’s gazing at her again. She can’t stand it when he treats her like a Watcher-problem, really, but she endures his close scrutiny without complaint. It was always complaint, before, that did it... No. No thinking.

It’s so comforting when he uses his thumbs like that on her cheeks, anyway. She closes her eyes on the lights and the dark, and enjoys, until he kisses her eyelids and says softly, "I’ll get the champagne, love. You get the candles."

When she opens her eyes to hazel warmth, she smiles. "Okay," she says just as quietly, although she can still hear the stupid mournfulness hovering.

So can he. He frowns a little, then lets go. "Right. Champagne, coming right up."

She steadies herself with lighting the candles on the coffee table and the end tables, flicker flicker flicker, and a swirl of cinnamon and vanilla. Together and separate. Even that stray thought isn’t enough to shake her now, she tells herself.

The small but expensive present she got him is already in the present-giving area. One present only – this year they’ve confined themselves to one anniversary-Christmas-solstice gift apiece, because in February they’re flying to London to hear Eric Clapton. (The Blind One assures them that any apocalypses can be managed for the space of their holiday.) She knows how much Rupert needs to be in England now and then, how much he longs to touch that old part of home. Not like her.

She holds a finger to one of the flames, just close enough to feel the heat, consider the effects of searing flesh –

Then a happy, brightly wrapped little package lands in the present-giving area, and Rupert’s pushing her down onto the couch. "Sit, sit," he says, unnecessarily because his shove has already done the job.

"But there’s still the overly sentimental music playing..."

"I’ll bear up under the burden just this once." He puts the flutes down on the coffee table – flames reflect off the facets of glass – and then goes back to the kitchen.

She watches the flames in glass while the cork pops, while hissing fills their apartment for a long minute. The fire is leaping, merry, warm. She makes herself concentrate on that.

The happy, brightly wrapped little package looks promising too, of course.

He’s back before she knows it, carrying the good bottle of non-vintage French champagne he chose. When he takes the first flute, the unmediated flame makes her jump (which is stupid, obviously). She turns her attention to strong male hands, to the tilt of faceted glass and the slide of golden liquid, to the way it levels off after it foams – not that it foams much, because he is very good at pouring and at control.

She doesn’t have to make herself smile this time.

They lift the filled glasses to each other, and her smile widens when she considers him. Her partner. Rupert. "To us," he says, "to good years past, to many years ahead."

Even while the fear rises, she celebrates, she clinks the glass with his, she drinks. It’s excellent champagne, dry and sweet at the same time.

She only gets a quarter of it down, however, before he takes her glass from her and then all but tackles her onto the couch. She squeaks, just a little bit for form’s sake – it encourages middle-aged feistiness, she’s found – then lets him roll her into his arms and wrap her up. They stretch out together, Rupert behind and almost over her. He’s arranged them so that they both can watch the candles and the Christmas Solstice Winter Holiday tree lights, flicker flicker flicker, spark, spark. His sweatshirt is soft against her skin, and his commitment band touches her skin too, cold but good cold.

They lie there for a minute, then he whispers, "Er... Is it zombies?"

"Yep," she says, with an odd rush of relief, with a less appealing rush of tears. "Stupid, ugly, shambling zombies." It’s visitors now and horrors past, it’s dumb mistakes that sneak up behind her when she should be...no, when she is happy. It’s just... "I’m sure you know what they are. I hate the suckers."

"Yes. But tell me."

She closes her eyes for a minute, suppresses hot burning saltwater, takes a safe journey back. "Okay, here’s one. When I was small, we didn’t... well, obviously, electricity wasn’t a feature. And in winter it got dark and stayed dark so long, all dark all the time, and I asked my mother if the sun was ever coming back. She said, only if you’re a good girl." Even in his arms, for a minute she feels the bone-chill, the roughness of their clothes, the howl of the dark. "I tried to be a good girl, I did, but then...I got upset about something and was too loud and then accidentally broke a cup, and my mother told me I was bad. And I thought, the light’s never coming back, and it’s all my fault."

"Anya..."

She figures that’s enough. She doesn’t need to tell him how scared she still gets, how many cups she’s broken, how much wrong... well, he knows.

He kisses the back of her neck, just under her hairline, where his touch travels down to all important erogenous zones. "What can I do?"

"My zombies, honey, my problem. We’re... together but separate. It’s not you."

"But we are together. Always, Anya." His voice is deep and utterly comforting, utterly sure.

"Yep," she says again, more relieved, more almost-tearful. She wriggles around to look up at him – he’s so nice to look at, all nice lines and colours, silver and white and tan, and eyes gone green in this light. "How ‘bout you? Any zombies stirring?"

He looks at the candleflame for a few minutes, his smile a curve of funny joy. "Do you know...not a one. Zombie-free, darling."

"Oh my God! Let me up, let me up, I have to go call Channel 8 or The Morning News or someone!" she says, only half-kidding.

He snorts before rolling over so he’s squishing her in the nicest possible fashion. "You’re a sharp-tongued beauty, but I wouldn’t have it any other way," he says, laughing, and then his thigh presses against her and he’s kissing her, still laughing, so the aim’s not quite right and the tongue’s a little wild but it’s wonderful, it’s Rupert. Then he says, "Of course, ask me tomorrow once our first few guests arrive, and I’ll no doubt be guilt-ridden and whingeing as usual."

"No doubt," she says, then squeaks again when he bites her ear. But she does have to add, "Any, um, special guest that worries you?"

"No. Not a one. Especially not that one." He bites her other ear more gently, then kisses down her neck. It’s almost unfair, he knows how hot that gets her, she almost can’t concentrate when he says, "I’ll be clinging to the memory of tonight even when irritants, er, irritate. In fact..."

He’s grinning that Ripper-grin when she looks up, the expression that means trouble. "What, honey?"

"Let’s make those bloody zombies dance, love," he says. "First, however, I’m going to change that sodding music."

..........................................

There are rolls in the fridge. Two bags of them.

Dawn checks again. She’d finished her call to LuAnn, she’d read the latest Watcher newsletter, and had been just dancing around to the sappy Christmas music – it’s okay, she’s alone, it’s her house – when it struck her that she did buy rolls, it was a whole roll thing.

The refrigerator hums at her, sends cold air out to curl around her fingers on the handle. She’s holding on too tightly, she thinks, but it takes another couple of cold-edged breaths before she shuts the door.

Ty’s plotting something.

Her training makes her distrust surprises. They’re so often the openings of hellmouths, or good friends turned evil uber-witches or lovers turned back into vampire sadists, or even just ordinary people changing, people leaving. Ty loves her, she believes that, but...

She looks around her kitchen for a minute, cataloguing all her favourite things. She bought her dishes on a shopping spree with Anya, who insisted on buying her and Ty some beautifully curved everyday glasses ("people must drink, it might as well be pretty," Anya’d said in her funny officious way). Giles found her that spinny-thing, the lazy Susan, when he and Anya were doing something somewhere which involved a big-box store and his grouching. Dawn keeps the little jars of spices and herb on it, and Ty likes to send it whirling around so that cinnamon and saffron and pepper are in danger of dancing out of the bottle and dotting their carefully painted apple-green walls.

She taps the wind-chime, listens to the hollow clink of empty glass. Nothing merry about that now.

When the doorbell rings, it clashes for a minute with the dying chimes, discordance, passing unhappiness. Dawn rubs her forehead, and then goes to the door. She’s too upset to bother with the peephole, and anyway she’s a damn Watcher –

"Surprise!" Buffy says, sweeping in before the door’s even half-open, and "Surprise, pet," Spike says, and from somewhere behind them Andrew says, "Hey, Dawnie! Did you guess, did you guess?"

"What?" Dawn tries to say, but her Slayer-sister’s arms are holding her too tightly, and she just gives in and tries to breathe and not cry for joy.

Somehow they all manage to move to the living room, find chairs or sofa-space, while talking a mile a minute. Dawn blinks when she hears how carefully the surprise has been arranged – " it was Anya’s idea first, which is... interesting," Buffy says with the edge she still gets in her voice about Anya, but then she says she was missing Dawn too much already, and she’s easy again, she’s not trying too hard. But it’s Ty who got them hotel rooms at the really nice Marriott downtown, and Giles who researched and did the travel booking (with accommodations for the traveller with sunlight issues) on the internet, which alteration of the natural order no doubt caused the goblin uprising and resulting cosmic weirdness. Giles even picked the visitors up at the airport, while Ty distracted Dawn so she wouldn’t suspect, and then Ty did his last-minute dash to collect them from the hotel – Giles has anniversary stuff, everyone knows better than to intrude on that and the wrath of Anya.

"Boy, I didn’t suspect at all," she says, and her hand steals down to grab Ty’s shoulder.

There’s more talking and laughing, and then she drags Ty with her to the kitchen to make some snacks. Almost before he’s inside, however, she’s pinning him against the wall again. This time the kisses aren’t punitive. They’re soft, still a little teary around the edges, apologetic for stuff she’s not going to confess.

When they have to stop to breathe, she curves her hands around his neck, one behind the other, her thumbs tickling the edge of those nice tight curls. "You’re going to get something really nice tonight when everyone leaves," she whispers.

Ty’s smile is wide and mock-smug, a perfect tease. "I know that’s right."

She kisses him again for that, slides into sweet-hot warmth and love –

"Christ, no. You’re still not allowed to do that in front of me, Bit!" Spike says from somewhere nearby, and she collapses into happiness and onto Ty’s chest. From somewhere else come the sound of wind-chimes, merry, only a little bit hollow now.

........................................................

"I’m glad I didn’t set the table as I’d planned," Anya says, as Rupert lays her down on their very sturdy dining-room table... "Or put the leaf in yet, because that would make tabletop sex less practical."

"All things work together for the best," Rupert says sententiously, then rips the buttons off her shirt. Well, actually it’s one of his old shirts that she wears around the house.

"All things work together for the best," she echoes, even though they both know better, and closes her eyes on dark and lights, the better to enjoy his hands playing with her breasts. Big thumbs teasing her nipples roughly, these are a few of her favourite things. But – "honey, you haven’t changed the music from the sentimental stuff."

"Be quiet."

She opens her eyes again to the flash of green in his ear. His anniversary Christmas present this year is a golden hoop for his ear, marvellously etched with a protection-rune she got from the Blind One and augmented by three perfect (if small) emerald chips. "I’m never taking it off," he’d announced when he opened the gift, which policy she endorses. Gods, he’s handsome, his un-spectacled eyes are sparking hazel-green too, he’s all hers. Separate, but together.

"I love you, Rupert," she says in direct contravention of his command -- just to see what happens, even on their anniversary.

"Anya, I love you so much," he whispers, "even if you’ll have to be punished," and his weight bears her back down, lifts her up warm and sunshiny. He’s already between her legs, even though they haven’t taken off their jeans, and it’s friction as he shifts and circles, hard cock promising to be inside soon, it’s more warmth and all sunshine and light.

No, that’s the candles on the sideboard – her head’s off the table, she’s looking at things upside down. She doesn’t want to fall off, and with one hand – the one whose wrist is now adorned with a chain of gold embedded with three rather larger emeralds, his anniversary Christmas gift to her – she grabs onto a table leg.

With the other hand, the one whose wrist has her (currently humming with joy, no, that’s Rupert) commitment band, she pushes him up high enough for easy access. Underneath T-shirt and sweatshirt, he’s warm, that lovely trail of hair suggesting a perfect path for her fingers to take. She’s just touching the soft-hard honeyed tip of his cock, just where their bodies are still sliding–

"Jesus God," he says, and then lifts up, leaving her alone for a minute, leaving her cold.

She scrambles back more securely onto the table. "Rupert, it’s not at all nice of you to take away yourself and your cock."

But before she can even finish, his hands are slipping over her, calluses raising pleasure-shivers wherever he touches, and her jeans and panties come off in one only semi-awkward rush. "Open for me," he says, even as he pushes her legs wide.

Then he stands there, gazing at her. It’s too much again – she can’t categorize the way he’s making her feel, can’t explain unsteadiness and stability flowing together, quivers of joy and just a lingering touch of mournfulness.

There’s something else behind his head, a nimbus of red and green and gold from her favourite sun-catcher, and dark beyond that, and the Blind One’s half-lit window across the street. That’s still weird, she should tell Rupert.

But he pulls his shirts over his head, and she has to enjoy the sight of recovered him, solid shoulders and chest and belly, the worst of the scars just a track of white on warmth, and she forgets to say anything.

He bends down and kisses her just there, a flick of the tongue against her clit, his hands pressing down her thighs so she can’t wriggle. Then he stands back up and starts to take off his jeans. "Look at the candles, Anya," he orders. "It’s all part of our spellcasting tonight. Banish those bloody zombies, make the tossers dance."

And so she anchors herself with her hands on the table legs, both her wrists adorned with gold and protection and love, and tips her head back to gaze at the lights. Flicker flicker flicker, spark spark, like they’ll never go out–

He slides inside, makes her warm, and she closes her eyes on red and green and gold.

......................................................

Dallas is bloody bright outside this Christmas Eve. Strange colours on the skyscrapers, too much light on the street. Too much light across the street, enough to see Ripper taking that wild woman of his.

Ethan’s hand closes hard on the wood of the open shutter, but he doesn’t look away. He lets it in, the dark and the light, the past and present. Chaos hums, but he is learning to ignore what he can’t have any more.

Magic’s gone, the worst of the mischief too, but he’s found an odd balance. Not that balance has ever been in his line, of course –

"Turn away," the Blind One says from the depths of the room, and "Come on, honey," Lorne says, and the guitars on the walls sing.

Ethan’s hand digs into the shutter. Too much light for him, he fears, he’s feared since they got here two days ago to help the Blind One with his small goblin-problem. "It doesn’t get much easier, buddy," that attractive cowboy-lawyer-helper murmured to him before the hand-holding and really obnoxious wish-circle. The Lindsey chap’s got it right, he thinks.

Then Lorne, who’s been singing since they got off the plane from L.A., merry as a grig, begins to lilt the plaintive opening of...gods and goddesses, it’s "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

"There’s no need to punish me, darling," Ethan says, and he closes the shutters and turns away, into the light.