Christmas Eve in California. Not exactly your picturesque white Christmas, with snow blanketing the sidewalks and anticipation like a frozen breath in the muffled quiet. For one thing, there was no snow, not down in the valley floor. The mountains ringing Kirkwood were capped with white, but in the valley itself the ground was bare, and the air, while chilly, wouldn’t have sustained a proper frost.
Also, for a traditional ‘Silent Night’, the night really wasn’t all that silent.
“Buffy, head’s up! Got a second one headed your way!”
Buffy, already wrangling with one eight-foot demon, twisted away to see another rushing at her, this one even taller. She suppressed a groan of frustration. Buffy grabbed the arm of the first demon, and digging her heel into the soft earth, swung the demon at the newcomer. The two collided, and crashed into a pine tree behind them, which shuddered and rained cones and needles onto both demons.
They didn’t stay down. Snarling, the demons scrambled to their feet. They were truly ugly beasts, with gray leathery skin that was covered in unattractive bumps and ridges, and the twisting horns protruding from either side of their skulls were a horrendous, sickly shade of yellow. Not exactly a festive sight.
“Come on,” Buffy quipped. “Shouldn’t you be in bed? You know, Santa won’t come if you’re awake.”
The demons dove for her. She sidestepped them both, letting them stumble forward -- right into the waiting trap. Giles and Willow stood behind a pair of pine trees, and as the first demon stood on the sigil scraped into the dirt, they threw down the last handfuls of herbs and shouted a spell. Immediately, both demons went up in flames.
The fire blazed for a blinding moment, then vanished. Except for two scorch marks on the forest floor, there was no sign the demons had been there at all. Buffy stepped up, peering down at the earth.
“Is that it?” she asked.
“Those were definitely G’lash’ak demons, so I believe so,” said Giles.
“Where’d the second one come from? I thought it was only going to be one.”
There was rustling behind them, and Buffy turned to see Xander and Andrew emerge from the trees. Both were panting, having been herders in the fight. Behind them followed Spike and Dawn, who, having been staking out the perimeter, were less winded. Weakly, Xander pointed at Andrew.
“He figured out it out. Said it had to be a mated pair.”
Andrew nodded, his hands on his knees as he caught his breath. “We found the nest too far from its hunting ground,” he explained. “G’lash’aks only travel to hunt if they’re mated.”
“That also explains the number of missing hikers,” Giles commented. “Good work, Andrew.”
Andrew looked deeply pleased with himself and drew himself up. Although the temperature hadn’t yet hit freezing, he was bundled up in a thick sweater, hat, scarf, and gloves, all patterned with little reindeer and snowflakes. At least he hadn’t worn the Santa hat with the bells, Buffy thought.
“So, demons are dust -- or ash, I guess,” Dawn said. “We should head back. Two hours back to San Fran, and I want a Christmas eggnog before bed.”
The others mumbled in vague agreement, and so they set back off toward the dirt road just past the treeline, where Xander had left his car. With a little help of a few words of power from Willow, the car could comfortably seat all seven of them; Xander and Willow took the front, while Giles, Dawn, Andrew, Spike, and Buffy all squeezed into the magically enlarged backseat.
But when the last door slammed shut and Xander turned the key, nothing happened.
Xander tried again. The engine remained silent.
“Oh no,” said Xander.
“Oh, that’s just lovely,” grumbled Spike. “Now the sodding car’s gone and kicked it, and we’re in the middle of bleeding nowhere.”
“It’s just the battery,” Xander said quickly. “We need a jump-start.”
“Want me to give it a try?” said Willow, holding up a hand, which glowed green at the fingertips.
“What? Hell no. Don’t you remember what happened when you tried to charge my phone for me?”
“I misjudged,” Willow mumbled apologetically. “But come on, you let me expand the back of the car!”
“That’s not the engine. Look, I’ll just call triple-A.”
“We’re going to call a triple-A employee all the way out here on Christmas Eve?” Andrew said, sounding distressed.
“Hey, they could be Jewish,” Willow pointed out.
“And it’s their job,” Buffy put in. “Just like we were all the way out here on Christmas Eve doing our jobs.”
Andrew still scowled petulantly, but didn’t argue further as Buffy handed over her cell phone (Xander hadn’t yet replaced his). Xander reached over Willow to retrieve his AAA membership card from the glove compartment, and then punched in the help number.
Five minutes later, AAA was on its way, and an uneasy silence descended over the car.
“So,” said Willow finally. “We’ve got some time to wait.”
“About an hour. Maybe two.” Xander agreed.
“I guess we’re not getting home until like three in the morning,” Dawn sighed.
“We could play a game,” Andrew suggested. “Never Have I Ever?”
Spike snorted softly. “Sorry. Didn’t bring the travel liquor.”
“I didn’t mean a drinking game.”
“I’m not sure there are enough secrets between us for Never Have I Ever to have a point without alcohol,” Dawn replied.
“Oh. Um. Truth or dare?”
Spike groaned abruptly and popped open the door. “Not waiting in the car for two hours,” he declared. “‘S stuffy in here.”
Buffy followed him out the door and swung it shut behind her. Spike leaned against the side of the car, and Buffy settled herself next to him, staring out and the landscape spread before them. Rock and dirt sloped gently into a quiet lake, which glimmered under the shine of stars and the half-moon. Mountains were misted shadows in the distance. Buffy exhaled, and her breath hung in the air.
The doors on the opposite side of the car swung open, and Willow and Dawn got out. “I think you have the right idea about fresh air,” Willow commented.
“Close the door, if you don’t mind!” Buffy heard Giles protest. “It’s cold out there!”
Willow obliged, although Giles protested again when Xander climbed out next. Dawn hopped up to sit on the trunk of the car, while Willow stood next to her. Xander simply plopped down to sit directly on the cold earth.
“You know, I keep thinking about that fireplace in my new, amazing, rent-controlled apartment,” Xander said wistfully.
“You’ll have all of Christmas Day to sit in front of it,” Dawn told him. “At least until Andrew’s dinner.”
“What about my dinner?”
“Close the door!”
Andrew winced and scrambled out the door, shoving it shut behind him. He stood next to Buffy, tucking his hands under his arms. Curiously, he glanced at Dawn. “What about my dinner?”
“Just that Xander will have to pull himself away from his fireplace to come to it.”
“Oh. I have a fireplace too, you know,” Andrew told Xander helpfully. “And I got those funny color-change logs at the grocery store.”
“You know you can make the fire change color by throwing wrapping paper on it, right?” Xander said.
“Only if you have the right kind of wrapping paper.”
“What, you think I wouldn’t make sure I used special flame-changing wrapping paper?”
There was a click as, finally, Giles decided to join the others. He stood slightly stiffly off to one side, staring out at the lake in front of them. He hugged his arms around himself.
As Buffy’s gaze slid over the group, she felt a pang. Here it was Christmas Eve, and they were stranded in the middle of a national forest. It was their first Christmas with their new apartments, which were now all strung up with tinsel and lights. There were candles in the windows, and Willow’s menorah was still up in the sill. But tonight, the lights were off, the candles unlit. Her friends shouldn’t be here, Buffy thought morosely. They should be curled up in front of fireplaces with thick sweaters and fleece pyjamas, mugs of eggnog in hand. Dawn should be relaxing, luxuriating in the end of semester exams at Berkley. They all should be enjoying the evening.
Sometimes, it felt like things were changing. There were thousands of Slayers across the world, and Buffy didn’t hold the one and only save-the-world shift anymore. Some days were just about listening to Willow’s day at work and hearing about Dawn’s lectures and curling up against Spike on the couch. Those days were Xander and Giles playing video games, and Andrew showing up with a fresh-baked plate of cookies. Those days, Buffy felt normal.
But the next day, there were vampires under the Golden Gate Bridge, and there were demons in the forest. Conversations halted, videogames paused, and cookies were left uneaten on the kitchen counter. And, some days, holidays were uncelebrated.
Buffy was the Slayer. Sacrifices came with the territory. She was used to that. She just wished she didn’t keep pulling her friends down with her.
“Hey,” Spike said quietly. “Somethin’ eating you?”
She met his eyes. A sad smile pulled at her lips. “Not an ideal Christmas Eve,” she admitted, low enough so only he could hear. “Not only does the Slayer and her friends have to work on Christmas Eve, but we get stranded out here. I’d kind of been looking forward to a snuggly evening with my snowflake pyjamas and cable Christmas specials. I’m sure everyone else was too.”
“You need a union,” Spike replied.
Buffy huffed something that wasn’t quite a laugh.
“But seriously,” Spike continued. “‘S’not so bad out here. Bit pretty, really.”
“It’s not home.”
“We’ll get there,” he said gently. “And really, no one out here seems too bummed ‘bout the whole thing.”
And now that Spike said it, Buffy had to admit that for all Dawn’s complaints about eggnog, Xander’s longing for a fireplace, and Giles’ griping about the cold, the conversation was still bright, still light-hearted. Andrew giggled, and the sound was like the cheerful flicker of candlelight.
“Dawn, look!” Willow said. Her face was turned upwards, bathed in the silver of moonlight. She pointed high above them. “You can see the Seven Sisters.”
“The Pleiades,” said Giles knowledgably. “Visible in Taurus--”
“Ooh, I know Taurus!” Andrew cut in. “And there . . . Scorpius. Also there’s Libra, and Hercules.”
Giles looked slightly affronted to have his lecture cut off. Andrew continued:
“I also know some of the stars. Sirius, and Betelgeuse, and there’s Alpha Centauri near the horizon. That’s the closest star to us, you know. And there, near Omicron Eridani, that’s where Vulcan is!”
“Andrew,” said Dawn slowly, sounding amused. “You know Vulcan doesn’t really exist, right?”
“I’m going by the prime universe, not the Abramsverse. Duh.”
Xander stared between Andrew, Giles, and Willow, and then gave a little shake of his head. “How the hell do you guys know all this? I can only recognize the Big Dipper. Which is there.” He pointed. “ . . . Or is that the Little Dipper?”
“That is indeed Ursa Major,” Giles assured him.
Xander looked pleasantly surprised to be right.
“Well, I know Venus, obviously,” said Dawn, gesturing to the bright point overhead. “And I found Saturn in my astronomy elective last semester, but I don’t know where it is now.”
“It’s by Libra,” Willow said helpfully. “Right there. We’re in the influence of Saturn right now, actually.”
“What does that mean? There should be a lot of rings and hula hoops in our future?” said Xander.
Willow rolled her eyes. “More like lots of learning, mostly about time. Wisdom over time, the impact of karma, that sort of thing.”
Which was funny, Buffy thought, because right now, it felt as if time had taken the opportunity to go home for the holidays. The stillness of the air and lake felt frozen, like a long pause between heartbeats. The glittering stars were motionless overhead. The only signs of the passage of time were puffs of breath and the rhythm of conversation.
Buffy turned her head upwards, drawing her jacket in closer around her. Her eyes traced out the figure of Libra that Andrew had pointed out (or was that Hercules?). She heard Spike shift next to her, and then there was the brush of leather against the suede of her sleeve. She leaned in, just barely.
Something bright streaked overhead: a thread of light, with a hue of red along the edges. “Was that a shooting star?” Buffy gasped.
“What, no way! You sure it wasn’t a plane?” Xander asked.
“I know what a plane looks like. That was so not a plane.”
“No, I saw it, too!” Dawn put in. “That was definitely a meteor.”
“Hey, I want to see a meteor, too!” Andrew protested.
“Then keep looking,” Willow said. “There will be another in a few minutes.”
Obligingly, Andrew flopped back so that he was he was lying sprawled out next to Xander. The others all stared up as well, eyes strained to catch sight of the glimmer of a shooting star.
A timeless breath.
“This is kinda nice,” Dawn said finally. “We would never be able see the stars like this in San Francisco.”
“I wouldn’t mind doing this more often,” Xander agreed. “Without the whole breaking down bit.”
Willow’s lips quirked. “We should take a trip out of the big city every once in a while. Appreciate nature properly, get a glimpse of the stars. Make a couple wishes on the shooting ones.”
“We could do it every Christmas,” Andrew put in, sounding hopeful.
“It’s not a bad suggestion,” Spike said. He was watching Buffy, eyes gleaming perceptively in the moonlight.
Buffy met his gaze, and a small smile pulled at her lips. Maybe this place wasn’t so timeless after all. A new Christmas tradition. It would fit in well: this year was a new apartment, new jobs, new friendships, new stories. Some things didn’t change, Buffy thought. She was still a Slayer, and always would be. She still had those responsibilities. She still had her friends. But in other ways, change was a steady beat, as reliable as the tide. There would always be room for something new.
Maybe Saturn wasn’t all wrong.
“It’s a plan,” Buffy decided. She turned her gaze skyward again, taking in the universe spread out above her. “Christmas under the stars. Sounds perfect.”