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all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile

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Xander’s been awake and in bed for almost two hours.

He can hear the clatter of pans and laughter in the kitchen. He can smell sugary goodness, and the entire house is filled with a homey warmth that only seems to come with the baking of cookies. Yet for some reason he can’t summon the energy to do anything other than stare at the patterns in the textured ceiling of his bedroom.

He’s been feeling that way a lot lately: exhausted, removed, apathetic.

Everyone else—Willow, Dawn, Giles, Buffy…even Andrew—has already adjusted to their shiny new lives in Cleveland. But Xander's stuck feeling—well—stuck.

After all, just when he’d gotten his life together in Sunnydale, the whole town had to go and become a giant crater in the ground.

Freaking Hellmouth, always ruining everything.

It’s not like Cleveland’s a terrible place to live or anything, but it’s definitely a major change.

For one thing, the weather is absolutely insane. Even though he’d adjusted to the one-eyed lifestyle, the construction company he’d gotten a job with didn’t take much work during the harsh winters. Since he's a newbie and hasn't exactly made an impression on the bosses, he isn't getting called in for the jobs the firm is working. To compensate for the lack of paycheck, Xander had been picking up shifts at the Magic Box Mk 2, which isn't really his idea of a good time.

Of course, there's also the whole still-living-on-a-Hellmouth thing. Even though the cosmic scales have been tipped in good’s favor, what with multiple Slayers running around, living on top of a mystical convergence isn't exactly a picnic.

Plus, since visiting with his parents, he’s been especially resentful toward the holidays. The trip was every bit as horrifying and dignity-robbing as he feared it would be, and it had left a lingering bad taste in his mouth, which was only made worse in contrast to everyone else’s sickeningly cheery attitude. Their glee was chaffing on his nerves, making him feel more and more alienated.

The cherry on top of the super depressing cupcake, of course, was Spike.

Xander had been trying his best to get along with the guy since Buffy and Dawn found him a month ago, really. Just ‘cause he was all soulful and self-sacrificing didn’t mean Xander could forget all his previous bitter feelings, though. Spike was still a destruction-happy prick, and Xander longed for the time when the Scooby Gang thought he was gone for good.

So, yeah, he isn’t exactly feeling the yuletide spirit.

There’s a jarring clang on the first floor followed by a barrage of laughter and loud talking. With a groan, Xander hefts himself out of bed and trudges down the stairs, still in plaid pajama pants, a white t-shirt, and a zip-up hoodie.

Buffy, Dawn, Willow, and Spike are all in the kitchen. The island counter is covered in a thick dusting of flour and various ingredients and cookie cutters litter every available surface.

“Well, well, well,” Spike says, smirking. “If it isn’t Patch O’Malley, awake at last.”

“Can it, Bleached Bother, or I’ll stick a wooden spoon through your heart faster than you can say ‘I’m an unwelcome leech’.”

Buffy purses her lips and regards Xander with a pitying stare that makes his stomach flip uncomfortably. “How did you sleep?” she asks.

“Fine,” he says bluntly, sitting as far away from Spike as the kitchen table allows.

“So that wasn’t you I heard out of bed at one in the morning?”

Xander scrubs his hands over his face. “I’m fine, okay?”

“Oh, right. Absolutely burstin’ with good tidings of great joy,” Spike says, cocking an eyebrow.

“Shut up or you’ll be burstin’ into ashes.” Xander mocks Spike’s accent scornfully.

“If you two can’t play nice, you’ll be taking turns in the time out corner,” Dawn says, pointing a stern finger at both of them.

“You heard the lady,” Spike says, grinning mirthfully. “One more death threat and you’ll have to wear the dunce cap.”

Xander narrows his eyes and tries to hold back a frustrated scream.

“Spike,” Buffy says, a warning in her voice. “We need more icing. Go downstairs and see if we have some.”

He frowns playfully at her and she cocks her head, daring him to disobey. After a second, he smiles and gets up, stopping to kiss her on the temple before moving on toward the basement door.

Xander imitates the sound of a whip, but instead of being goaded, Spike turns back to him and shrugs like ‘yeah, what of it?’

“You two,” Willow says, shaking her head at Xander after Spike disappears down the stairs. “You remind me why I don’t go for testosterone anymore.”

“He started it! I swear, every time I turn around he’s ready to strike with a new pirate joke.”

Dawn scoffs. “Just last week you told a customer at the Magic Box that your name was Trusty Grotesque and you’d just gotten back from plundering on Lake Erie.”

“That’s different,” Xander says, crossing his arms over his chest defiantly.

“You know he’s just doing it to get a reaction,” Buffy says. She takes a tray of sugar cookies out of the oven and sticks in a pan of layer bars before adding, “The more it agitates you, the more it encourages him.”

“Exactly,” he says. “Bully logic.”

Willow rolls her eyes. “It’s not like you treat him with respect, either.”

Before Xander can craft a response to all the indignity, Rona walks into the room, unwrapping a scarf from her neck and carrying a stack of letters in one mitten-clad hand. “Mail call!”

“Oh, whatcha got?” Buffy asks, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.

“The book Dawn ordered for her demon translation project came in,” Rona says, tossing Dawn a hefty package.

She squeals and rips the yellow-orange pouch open. “Finally! I’ve been trying to convince my World Lit professor for months that The Epic of Gilgamesh is so far from the first great piece of literature. This is going to help me shatter his world.” She bounces off for her room.

“Come back down in an hour,” Buffy calls after her. “We’re going to decorate the cookies!”

“Sure thing,” Dawn yells back, muffled, before her bedroom door slams shut.

“Little Bit, the demon scholar,” Spike says, coming back from the basement with several cans of colored frosting in his arms. He shoves them onto the counter—knocking over an unopened package of sugar in the process—and then wraps his arms around Buffy from behind. “Surprised academia hasn’t had the same reaction to her as it did to big sis.”

“Well, Dawn knows how to cite her sources convincingly,” Buffy says proudly, pressing herself back against Spike. “Which is a good thing because if they kicked her out of university for being a heretic, Mom would come back from the dead just to kill me a third time.”

“You’d find your way back. Us heroes always do.” He raises an eyebrow at her, and she hums happily before kissing him on the lips.

Rona makes exaggerated gagging noises at Buffy and Spike’s PDA before pulling an envelope out of the stack. “Willow, got another letter from Kennedy for ya.”

“Another?” Buffy asks, surprised. “I wasn’t aware you two were talking again at all.” Willow shrugs, accepting the letter and turning it over in her hands a couple times. Buffy lowers her voice and asks, “How are you doing with that?”

“It’s not like we split on bad terms, so it’s been okay. Kind of comforting and kind of awkward…overall it’s, you know, okay.” Willow folds the letter and half, tucks it into the waistband of her jeans, and then goes back to cutting stocking-shaped cookies out of dough, effectively putting an end to the discussion of her love life.

“Faith and Violet both sent Christmas cards,” Rona says, moving on, “and apparently there’s a memorial in the works for the people we lost to The First.” Everyone in the room shares a silent moment of remembrance before she continues passing out the mail. “Spike, Angel sent something for you.”

She hands him a plain-looking envelope. Spike rips off the end, slides a piece of notebook paper out, scans it, and then turns a little red in the face, frowning.

“What’s the matter, Spikey?” Xander taunts. “Daddy reflecting on another year of disappointments?”

Spike sneers at him. “Har, har.”

“What is it?” Buffy asks.

He clears his throat, clearly embarrassed. “An old tradition…something we used to do around the new year,” Spike says vaguely.

She smirks. “God, you two are so in love.”

“Right, like you’re one to talk, Miss Epic Romance” he says, rolling his eyes at her. “’m just gonna go and…”

“Write a response?” She guesses cheekily.

“Oh, stuff it.” He gives her the finger as he leaves, and her smirk grows more pronounced.

“Anything else?” Buffy asks Rona as a timer goes off.

“A few things for Giles. Oh, and you got letters from Chao-ahn and Violet asking for some advice on challenging battles they’re facing.” When Buffy gives her a knowing look, she shrugs. “I peeked.”

Buffy holds her hand out for the letters. “It’s like they think I have a manual or something,” she says, but her wide smile makes Xander think she really doesn’t mind playing all-wise counselor.

“Do you have anything for me?” he asks Rona.

She leafs through the remaining letters. “Doesn’t look like it. There’s some junk mail, if you’re interested.”

Xander shakes his head. “Story of my life.”

When he gets up to leave, Willow asks, “Aren’t you gonna decorate cookies with us?”

“I’d rather spend a day with Spike,” Xander says.

He turns away—ready to go back to bed—but not before he catches Buffy and Willow sharing a concerned look.

###

“Andrew, get that thing out of my face, would ya?”

Xander swats at the camera that’s been shoved at him and continues to the kitchen. Giles gave him the day off from the Magic Box (probably because he’s been snapping at the holiday shoppers), and he’s trying to enjoy it in peaceful solitude.

But Andrew’s being an insistent little shit.

“When you get old, you guys are going to feel all nostalgic about your demon hunting days, and then you’re going to feel bad about putting the kibosh on my home video efforts.”

“Yeah, well, there’s every chance we’ll die before that happens,” he says, putting a kettle of hot water on to boil.

“Geeze, someone remembered to put their cranky pants on this morning. Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if pants really could affect your mood. Then Bruce Banner could put on his relaxed pants every morning, and he’d—”

Xander cuts Andrew off. “You never get tired of hearing yourself talk, do you?”

“Well,” Andrew starts.

“No, don’t answer that.”

“Are you making hot chocolate?” Andrew asks as Xander pulls out the box of Swiss Miss from the pantry.

“No, I’m whittling some stakes.”

“You know what, mister? Your bad attitude is noted, but I’m not your personal punching bag. I have my pride!”

The kettle starts to whistle. “Oh yeah,” Xander says, “since when?”

Andrew purses his lips and levels Xander with what he probably thinks passes for an intimidating look. Xander smirks but pulls two mugs out from the cabinet. Andrew bounces happily in place, merriness effectively restored.

“Hey,” Rona calls urgently from the foyer just as Xander sets a steaming mug of cocoa in front of Andrew. “Anyone home? We need some help out here.”

The boys share a panicked look before sprinting toward the front door, the latter readying his camera.

“Oh, good, Xander’s here,” Dawn says in lieu of greeting. She’s dressed in a thick coat and a stocking cap, thoroughly dusted with snow.

There’s a hefty evergreen tree stuffed partway through the door.

“I resent the implication that you’re not glad I’m here,” Andrew says. Dawn rolls her eyes.

“Do hurry,” Giles’s voice comes from outside.

“Yeah,” Willow says. “I’m getting a pine needle shower out here. Smells good but feels prickly.”

“You had me thinking this was serious demon business,” Xander says to Rona. “You’re a slayer. Can’t defeat a wittle Christmas tree?”

Rona narrows her eyes, looking ready to start a fight, when Dawn cuts in. “Dimensions!” she says excitedly.

Andrew gasps. “Is it a demon tree from another dimeson? Did you bring it home to learn its customs and language?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Giles says.

“No,” Dawn says, leveling Andrew with a pointed stare. “What I meant was we need Xander’s eye for, like, dimensions and stuff. If anyone is able to fit a square into a circle—or a tree into a doorway—it’s Xander.”

It’s her nervous giggle that really makes Xander suspicious. “Okay, what’s going on here?”

Before anyone can answer, Giles shoves the tree inside where it lands with a torrent of needles and an unceremonious thunk in the foyer.

When everyone stares at him accusatorily, Giles takes off his glasses and pulls a handkerchief out of his jacket pocket. “There is only so much painfully obvious pandering I can put up with,” he explains.

“But we had a plan—an agreed upon plan—and you just went and you….” Willow waves her hands around at the doorway and frowns sternly at Giles.

“Yes, well, Xander was hardly susceptible to your less-than-subtle baiting. I gave the plan a chance to play out, but I must get back to the shop. I will see you all this evening.”

Giles replaces his glasses, brushes some needles off his shoulders, and leaves, closing the door behind him.

“Hey, I see what was going on here,” Xander says, narrowing his eyes.

“You do?” Dawn asks, wincing.

“You were acting all helpless because you thought I needed to feel like a hero or something.”

The fact that none of them answer but they all divert their eyes is confirmation enough.

“Well save it, okay? I don’t need anyone to cheer me up. Just leave me alone.”

He stomps up the stairs, hot chocolate forgotten and bad mood exacerbated.

###

Buffy, Willow, Giles, Spike, and Xander go patrolling two nights before Christmas, and—as usual—Xander’s been put in charge of the weapons, exiled to the sidelines with Giles.

Buffy and Spike are taking on a pack of Gnarol demons while Willow stands on top of a mausoleum, getting inside their heads and anticipating their next moves.

"Xander, axe!" Buffy calls urgently, ducking to avoid a flaming demon fist.

He selects one out of their giant, black tote and tosses it to her, which she catches and uses to decapitate the oncoming demon in one fluid motion before jumping on the back of another.

Next to him, Giles clears his throat for the umpteenth time.

“Christ, just come out with it, old man.”

Giles chuckles and removes his glasses to wipe snow off the lenses. “I am being quite obvious, aren’t I?”

“What can I say? Learned to read you after all these years. Just say what you gotta say.”

He clears his throat and replaces his glasses. “It’s come to my attention that you’ve been rather, well, unkind lately.”

“The munchkins have finally complained to daddy, have they?”

Giles looks like he wants to roll his eyes, but he refrains. “I wouldn’t say that. Your friends care about you, and they’re worried about your behavior. As am I, I might add”

“So, what, you’re going to hit me with some father-figurely advice? Tell me to drop the attitude and get over it?”

Giles draws in a deep breath and stands up taller. “Now, it’s no secret that I often find you tiresome. I don’t care for your slapstick humor or your antics.”

“Nice pep talk,” Xander snorts. “Feelin’ the love.”

But,” Giles emphasizes, removing his glasses again, “I’ve always thought you to have the heart of a hero.” Xander does a double take. “You fight for what’s right, and you don’t let your emotions stop you from seeing what’s important, what’s at stake.”

A lump forms, heavy, in Xander’s throat. “Can I get that in writing? Tell the historians; Rupert Giles paid Xander Harris a compliment!”

“Yes, well, you’re ruining the moment," Giles says, but he smiles fondly and squeezes Xander's shoulder. "You'll get through this so long as you don't turn away the people who are trying to help you."

Xander diverts his gaze and nods.

Both men jump when a body lands at their feet, rustling up a flurry of snow that soaks into Xander's jeans.

"Sorry 'bout that," Spike says, rushing over and twisting the demon's head clean off. "Busy night, eh?" He cocks and eyebrow at Xander and lights up a cigarette.

"T’was two nights before Christmas, and all through the cemetery demons were scurrying to mark a bit of C-town territory."

Spike snorts.

"Whatdaya say," Buffy says, twirling her axe showily and bounding toward the group as the last demon falls to the ground. "You guys up for visiting another graveyard tonight?"

Willow joins them on the ground, shooting Spike a knowing look. "Maybe we should call it a night. I mean, look," she gestures to all the slain demons, "job well done, right?"

Buffy pouts. "You guys are no fun. C'mon, I'm all keyed up. I've got another hour of warding off the forces of darkness in me. At least."

Giles groans and Willow yawns.

"Boo," Buffy says. "Spike, I can always count on you to be ready for more pummeling. How about it?"

"We could always work off that energy in other ways, love." Spike touches his tongue to his teeth suggestively. Buffy smacks him in the stomach.

And just when Xander was kinda, sorta feeling okay with his presence…"I'm going to be sick," he says.

"I'm feeling a bit nauseated myself," Giles says.

Spike smirks. "More patrolling it is then. Buffy and I can go it alone, if you're all ready for quittin' time."

"It's a plan," Willow says, nodding at Spike.

"Right then," he says, giving her a meaningful look as Buffy grabs his hand and starts dragging him away. "We'll, uh, be in touch."

"What's up with you?" Xander asks Willow, zipping the weapons bag and hefting it onto his shoulder.

"What do you mean?" Willow replies, the lilt in her voice way too innocent.

"You and Spike were all…" Xander waves a hand about. "I don't know, signal-y."

She glances over her shoulder to see how far away Spike and Buffy have gotten before whispering to Xander, "Spike has a surprise planned for Buffy as a sort-of early Christmas present. We should hurry up and drop the weapons off at home so we’re there to meet Dawn at the rink."

“The rink?” Xander asks.

At the same time, Giles says, “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll be turning in early. I can take the weapons back with me.”

“Thanks, Giles,” Willow says cheerily, taking the weapons from Xander and pushing them into Giles’s waiting arms. “Let’s go!”

“The rink?” Xander repeats.

“Spike rented an ice skating rink for a couple hours,” she explains as she cuts through a parking lot toward town.

“With what money?”

“Spike can be charming when he wants to be. Plus, I don’t think he paid with cash so much as demon extermination.”

“Well that’s just…” Xander struggles for the right word.

“Thoughtful,” Willow guesses.

Annoyingly thoughtful,” Xander corrects.

“C’mon,” she says, nudging him with her shoulder. “He’s all soulful and he makes Buffy happy. Can’t you at least try to be nice to him?”

“Well, I could, but it would cost me my pride.”

Willow rolls her eyes.

Forty-five minutes later, after all the twinkly lights have been hung and the group's finally figured out how to work the building’s fancy broadcast system, everyone’s rushing to find a hiding spot because Buffy and Spike are approaching.

“Slayer, hurry your ass up.” Xander hears Spike's voice distantly complain.

“Not until you tell me what we’re doing,” Buffy says.

“That part’ll be evident as soon as you get your pretty little bum over here.”

“Is this some kind of sneak attack? Are we breaking up a nefarious meeting? Or is this some kind of kinky business?”

“I swear on my mother’s grave,” Spike huffs, his voice right outside the arena.

After a second, Willow’s voice calls out, “Now!”

Everyone pops out from their cover and shouts, “Surprise!”

“What—who—but…aww!”

Spike smirks, satisfied by her reaction, and says, “Merry Christmas.”

“This is so cute,” she says, beaming at him. “Thank you.”

Spike looks all proud and glow-y as Buffy cups his cheek in her hand, and, for a moment, Xander’s struck by how, well, human he looks…and he definitely relates to that reverent look Spike’s giving Buffy. The 'you're my hero' look.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Spike asks. “Let’s skate!”

Everyone crowds the shoe rental area before heading out onto the ice. Xander puts in about ten minutes of halfheartedly gliding around the edges of the rink before skating over to the bleachers and popping a squat.

He watches his friends having fun without him—laughing and generally being jovial. Buffy's absolutely radiant, alternating between showing off and teaching Dawn tricks. Andrew's hanging onto Rona's shirt, his legs spread comically wide as he tries not to fall on his ass. Willow's skating after them, trying out spells to give Andrew more balance and set Rona free.

After observing them for so long, Xander forgets that he's an active part of their lives and not just some removed third party.

So when Spike settles on the cold, metal bench next to him, Xander gives a rather embarrassing screech.

"Didn't mean to startle you," Spike says, grinning mirthfully.

"S'fine," Xander says quietly, clearing his throat.

"Ice skating's not your thing either, eh?" Spike asks. When Xander doesn't answer, he continues, "I appreciate the athleticism of it, don't get me wrong. 's all too delicate for my tastes, though. The funny outfits, the fancy twirls…yeah, not my style."

Xander grunts in lieu of responding.

"Alrighty then," Spike starts to slide away. "Can see when I'm not welcome."

"Wait," Xander says. When Spike looks at him expectantly, he swallows over the acidy taste in his throat and says, "I'm sorry. I've been…kinda difficult lately."

Spike slides back over. "Don't much care about that," he says, shrugging. "Always thought you were a pain in the ass."

"Least I'm consistent," Xander says, pumping his fist in self-depreciation.

"'s important to be true to yourself," Spike replies, flashing Xander another one of his shit-eating grins.

They sit in silence for a while, watching Buffy gracefully land after an impressive leap.

"This was cool of you," Xander says eventually.

Spike looks taken aback by the compliment—so vulnerable and hungry for approval—that Xander has to divert his gaze to continue.

"I mean, it's clear that Buffy's really happy with you, and Buffy's happiness is important to me. So, you're alright in my book. I guess."

"Well, that's…" Spike trails off, obviously not sure how to complete his thought.

"But watch your step, buddy. The second you hurt her, I'll stake you dead."

Spike nods once, accepting this. "Wouldn't expect anything less, Harris."

"Good, then. We're on the same page."

"The same page," Spike agrees.

They sit in peaceful coexistence for the rest of the night.

###

The night before Christmas, Xander locks himself in his room with a bunch of Christmas-themed paper, tape, and scissors to wrap his gifts for everyone.

For Andrew, he got a gift certificate for the comic book shop downtown and a Captain America hoodie.

Rona's getting a joint gift from him and Willow: an enchanted rapier that’s bound to her will…or her adrenaline. Maybe both. Xander didn’t really ask questions about the magic.

For Giles, a bottle of fine scotch and a gag gift in the form of a gift card to the Magic Box.

He got Dawn a set of journals and a striped blazer.

He’d splurged a bit on Willow and bought her a new iBook laptop and a gift card to the magic store on 27th Street that has a better assortment of crystals than the Magic Box. (He plans to give it to her out of Giles’s sight, though, since Willow’s shopping there is the subject of many snits.)

He got a portrait of Buffy and Dawn framed and a pair of designer heels for Buffy.

And for Spike, Xander had picked up a carton of cigarettes.

After everything is covered in the wrapping paper—which features disgustingly cheery penguins and polar bears—Xander sits on his bed and surveys all the packages.

He’s pretty sure he hit a home run with everyone. (Well, except Spike, but Xander isn’t exactly concerned about that, even considering their recent civil conversation.) Seeing the physical evidence that he has a lot of good people in his life—and imagining their reactions to opening their gifts—should be enough to put him in a good mood, should make him chock full of holiday spirit.

But even as grateful as he is for his friends and no matter how much they care about him, Xander can still feel a disquieting numbness weighing him down.

He wipes away a stray teardrop and then methodically gets up to turn off the overhead lights, folds back the covers, settles into bed, and then frowns into the darkness until his consciousness graciously cedes to sleep.

###

Even despite his—ehem—lackluster evening, Xander can feel the crackling energy of Christmas morning when he wakes up. For the first time in a while, he doesn’t linger very long in bed.

Dawn and Andrew are already downstairs, making pancakes for the house and snacking on sugar cookies.

“Good morning,” Dawn chirps happily, offering Xander the stump of her Christmas tree-shaped cookie.

He accepts it, popping it in his mouth and letting it dissolve on his tongue. “You know, I think it is.”

“I see Santa stopped by someone’s room in the middle of the night with the gift of joy,” Andrew says.

“Yes, that is the exactly the creepiest way you could have phrased that,” Xander says.

“Santa’s real, you know,” Dawn says, flipping a batch of pancakes.

“Sweet, naive, Dawnster,” Andrew says, patting her on the shoulder, “Santa is but, alas, a beautiful dream cooked up to give children a glimpse into the wide world of magic they will most likely never explore.”

Dawn snorts and stuffs a cookie into his mouth. “Xander, tell him.”

“As far as I know, it’s true. Santa’s a demon who disembowels children.”

Andrew’s jaw drops and the cookie falls to the floor. “I like my version so much better.”

Buffy and Spike walk into the kitchen then. “I smell something yummy,” Buffy says, going directly over to Dawn and kissing her cheek. “Merry Christmas to us.”

“Pancakes for everyone and to all a good pancake” Dawn jokes, leaning into her sister. “I made funny shapes in honor of Tara.”

Buffy squeezes Dawn’s shoulder. “I think Willow will like that.”

After breakfast, everyone gathers in the living room while Dawn and Andrew pass out the gifts.

They go around the room taking turns opening presents. There’s a lot of hugging and gushing and laughing and eye rolling…it’s easily the most relaxed and pleasant Christmas Xander’s ever experienced.

That is, until he gets to a haphazardly wrapped package that has 'For Xander' written on it in pencil. He doesn't recognize the handwriting.

Inside, he finds what would have been Anya's wedding ring welded together with his wedding band to create a kind of sphere. The hunk of metal hangs from a long chain so delicate, it slips through Xander's fingers like water.

He glances, bewildered, around the room.

"Right," Spike says. "Uh, merry Christmas."

"You did this?"

"Saw they'd been sittin' out on your dresser. Thought maybe it'd be a nice gesture. Could probably pry them apart again if you don't like it."

"No this is…" Xander's not really sure what it is, but the room is filled with palpable tension as everyone tries to anticipate how he'll react. "This is fine. Thanks."

Spike nods, pleased with himself, and Xander slips the chain over his head. The rings hang low, just past his sternum in the empty space between his ribs.

They feel heavy.

He's so distracted for the rest of the gift opening that he doesn't hear all the compliments he gets for the portrait of Dawn and Buffy. He barely even realizes they've finished because everyone lingers in the living room, content to hang out and bask in the total lack of urgency.

Around one, though, people start going their separate ways. Rona leaves to visit her aunt and uncle's house. Willow moves into the dining room to setup and tinker with her new laptop. Andrew goads Giles, Dawn, Spike, and Buffy into a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

They invite Xander to play, too, but he declines, hanging back on the couch and watching the nerdliness from afar.

He dozes during the first half of the game, nodding off while Buffy and Spike argue over the characters they’ve been assigned.

He's startled back into consciousness nearly three hours later when Spike shouts, "Ah-ha! I knew it. I knew there was a town close by. And you wanted to keep following the bloody river."

Xander feels disoriented and yawns, checking the clock on the wall. It's just past 4 and the sun is on its way down, filling the room with dusky light.

Buffy pushes on Spike's shoulder. "I can't believe you're getting competitive over navigation in a roleplaying game."

"Oh, right, and you're completely above getting competitive, aren't you Slayer?"

"Of course."

"Tell that to my character's spear wound."

"Hey, you should’ve stayed back and let the real warriors work their mojo." She flexes her arms and Spike snorts. “Plus, it's not my fault you're a druid and wound easily.”

"And this warrior mojo of yours includes throwing pointy objects and missing your target, does it?"

"Andrew's responsible for the shitty roll, not me."

"I told you, I was nervous and slipped!" Andrew says. "It was a high stakes battle, and you know I don't do well under pressure."

“Yes, let us not forget The Lord Voldemort Incident,” Giles says.

“I warned you about sending me for undercover work. I panic and I can’t remember my cover story…and whatever happened to forgive and forget, huh?”

Giles smirks and glances down at his watch. “Perhaps now is a good stopping point.”

"What are we doing for dinner?" Dawn asks, stretching. “I’m hungry.”

“You’re always hungry,” Buffy says teasingly, but she swivels to look at the clock. "Oh wow, these games really are a big time suck, huh? I never took the turkey out to thaw."

"Could always order in," Spike says.

“And make some poor minimum wage worker deliver us food on Christmas?” Dawn protests.

“We’d tip well,” Spike says, earning a smack on the shoulder from Buffy.

Willow, having heard their conversation, comes into the room, apron on and hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. "Did someone say Christmas dinner?"

"Me!" Dawn raises her hand. "I did!"

"I've been working on it; no takeout necessary. Should be done in about an hour, but a couple of extra hands might make it sooner," she says.

Buffy, Andrew, and Dawn follow Willow back to the kitchen and Giles excuses himself to his study…which leaves Xander alone with Spike.

"Hope I didn't overstep my bounds with the rings," Spike says after an uncomfortable stretch of silence.

Xander had almost forgotten about the present, and he fingers the pendant gingerly, feeling put on the spot once again.

"Right. You're just a well-intentioned vampire." He’s going for playful derision, so even Xander's surprised by the anger in his voice.

Spike cocks a pointed eyebrow and gets to his feet, leaving the room without a word.

Feeling a peculiar and unnerving kind of impotent rage, Xander stalks his way upstairs and slams the door to his bedroom. He paces the full length of the room a few times before kicking his nightstand. His toes catch the edge at exactly the wrong angle, and he lets out a surprised yip of pain.

Falling onto his back on his bed, Xander starts to cry in earnest: hot, slick streaming tears of fury.

There’s a tentative knock at the door, and he does his best to stomp down this alarming rush of emotion. Dawn’s voice asks, “Xander, are you okay? We though we heard a shout come from your room.”

He clears his throat and tries to answer in the most level voice possible. “Peachy keen.”

He can practically hear her skepticism. Thankfully, though, she doesn’t push the issue. “I’ll let you know when dinner’s ready.”

“Great,” he says, his voice thick.

Once he’s sure she’s gone, he gets up and goes to his closet to retrieve the bottle of Johnnie Walker that he keeps in the back on the top shelf.

Turning it in his hands, Xander gets back on his bed and sits against the wall. He takes off the cap, smells it, and then takes a daringly large swig. It makes his nose twitch and his chest burn, but the pleasant haze the trickles over his consciousness is certainly welcome.

The bottle clinks against the ring necklace when he lowers it to his chest, and just like that he’s crying again.

About 35 minutes later, Dawn comes back upstairs to get a very drunk Xander with red-rimmed eyes for dinner.

“Someone smells lush,” Spike says as Xander takes his place at the table, the last to arrive.

“Hush, or I’ll gonna—I’m gonna smoosh a wood into you.”

“Intimidating,” Spike says, and his nostrils twitch. The concerned look he shares with Buffy makes Xander itch for more alcohol.

“Um, does anyone want to say something before we feast?” Andrew asks, shifting in his seat.

“I will,” Buffy says, trying to hold Xander’s gaze. But he’s purposefully staring into his plate and nowhere else. “I know this past year has had its ups and downs, and I’m so grateful that all of you stuck with me when I decided to put roots back down—especially since we’re rooted over another Hellmouth. I would not be the person I am today without your love or friendship. Merry Christmas.”

Everyone at the table, even Xander, raises their glasses to toast. “Merry Christmas.”

Dishes are passed around and conversation ceases as they ravage the late supper. Though Xander’s mood isn’t exactly righted, he does start to feel a bit better (and less drunk) with food and water in his stomach. He relaxes into his chair and glances around at his people, who look happy and glowy. Though the latter might be a side effect of the alcohol.

“Who’s up for desert?” Buffy asks once everyone is done, collecting plates.

“I couldn't eat another bite unless the size of my stomach magically increases,” Willow says.

“You know, there’s a spell for that,” Dawn says. “Giles and I were just studying demonic organs, and I found one.”

“Well, the spell to which you're referring is not for the stomach specifically,” Giles says. “It’s often used to combat complications with pregnancies.”

Buffy’s lip curls. “Pregnant demon. Now there’s something I hope I never see.”

“It's unlikely you ever will. The most advanced breeds use hosts…weaker species such as humans.”

Andrew wraps his arms around himself and gasps. “Tres rude.”

“And the disturbances keep on coming,” Buffy agrees.

“Now that we all have these lovely mental pictures,” Spike says, grinning, “how about some pie?”

Everyone at the table groans at the suggestion, but Buffy nods. “Coming right up,” she says, disappearing into the kitchen.

Giles gets up to help her, and they come back with trays of sugar cookies and a couple of pumpkin pies.

Dawn immediately drags one of the pies in front of her and starts to slice into it before frowning at Buffy. "You burned it," she says.

Buffy shrugs apologetically. "Hey, my specialty is hack-n-slash. Domestic confection results may vary."

"Isn’t that, like, a Summer’s holiday tradition?" Willow asks, quirking an eyebrow teasingly at Buffy.

Dawn smiles. "Mom’s baking was pretty volatile."

"While we're on the topic," Buffy says, smirking as she turns to Spike, "You never did tell us what your new year tradition with Angel is."

"Was an intentional omission, love."

"C'mon," she goads, poking him in the side, "spill."

"Like bloody hell I will."

"Pleeeeease?" Spike shakes his head. "Pretty please? Cherries included?"

"Drop it."

"Aw, c'mon," Dawn joins in. "Just tell us. What kind of holiday tradition do two 200-year-old legendary vampires keep?" She thinks about it for a moment and her nose scrunches. "On second thought, maybe we don't want to know."

"It's nothing bad, Bit."

"Oh, the plot thickens as the hints are dropped. Tell us!" Andrew says.

"Well now that you're all desperate to find out, what'll I get in return?"

"No further mention of this asinine fixation, one can only hope," Giles says under his breath. Xander's inclined to agree with him.

"We could finally pick up more Weetabix," Willow says. "You're always complaining that we run out so quick."

"Tempting," Spike says, his eyes gleaming, "but I think you guys can do better."

"It's no fun if you're going to lord it over our heads," Buffy says, pouting out her lower lip.

"Are you kidding? It's loads more fun this way."

Xander slams his hands—palms flat—on the table before anyone can say anything else. "Can't you guys behave like normal people for once? Who the fuck cares what Spike and Angel do in their spare time? It's probably some stupid bet about who can accomplish more in a year or some bullshit like that."

Everyone blinks, dumbfounded by his outburst.

Spike is the one who breaks the strained silence. "He's not that far off, actually."

Xander feels his nostrils flare.

"Oh my god," Buffy says. "Do you two make a competition out of everything?"

"Oh, please," Spike starts, but he cuts off when Xander stands so swiftly he knocks a chair over.

"You know what holiday tradition I should honor? Sleeping outside so I don't have to put up with your dumb squabbling!" And, with that, he storms out the front door.

It doesn't take very long for Willow and Buffy to join him at the bottom of the stoop. They sit on either side of him, and Xander lets out a breath he'd been holding.

"You know, mister, keeping emotions all bottle-y is never good. I know from experience," Willow says, resting her chin on his shoulder.

He's silent for a moment before admitting quietly. "Once you start bottling, it's hard to stop."

"Hey, been there," Buffy rubs his back. "We've been trying to give you space to deal, but I think it's time to uncork."

"I've been holding on to all of these emotions for so long, I don't even know where to begin. I don't know if I want to let it all go."

"Talking about your problems doesn't suddenly make them not yours anymore," Willow says. "It just means that other people are helping shoulder the burden."

"That's just it. I'm tired of always being the burden."

"What? Xander, that's crazy talk," Buffy says. "You are so far from being a burden. I depend on you to carry so much of the weight of my infinite problems. You are an essential part of this team."

He can't help but feel touched at the earnestness in her voice. He thinks about what his friends are saying, about what Giles said to him two nights ago, and suddenly it's all tumbling out.

"So last year, we were epic monster fighters, right? We traveled the world and kicked ass and I got to experience things I never dreamed I'd be able to, you know? When I was in high school, the fact that I might get to leave Sunnydale never even occurred to me. And it sucked, feeling like I was doomed to that one place the rest of my life. But then high school was over and things started looking up. I got a stable job that I was good at. I had a person by my side who I loved more than anyone. I had purpose and it felt like maybe I'd finally proved everyone wrong. Like, the Xander Harris who'd been destined to work in fast food forever and drink up to his parents' legacy had just been a lame nightmare.

"But then Sunnydale didn't exist anymore. And all that work I'd done to be someone is just pointless. I don't have a stable job, I lost an eye, and I miss Anya so much," his voice cracks on her name and he grasps their would-be wedding rings in his fist, "especially now. My entire life went to shit around me, and I stood and watched but couldn't do a damn thing. I feel so goddamn powerless."

Buffy and Willow both hug him tightly. "Oh, Xander," Willow sighs. "It sucks to feel that way, but you're not powerless."

"Right. Like you could ever understand what I'm feeling. You two are the power twins."

"Just because we feel powerless in different ways doesn't mean we can't sympathize with how everything that's going on is affecting you," Buffy says. "Life makes you start over sometimes. That doesn't mean you did anything to deserve it. You just gotta pick yourself up and try again."

"But it took me so long to get anywhere I wanted to be the first time. At this rate, I'll be dead before I'm happy again."

"You don't have to start from scratch this time, though," Willow says. "You know what you're good at, you're still fighting the good fight…and you have us."

"We're your family, Xander. Not those people you left behind in California. They don't get to define who you are."

"Not even after how I acted tonight? Or this entire month?"

"Of course not," Willow says, nuzzling her head into his chest. "You're going through a rough time. All mistakes are justified and already forgiven."

"Just don't make a habit of the drunkenness," Buffy adds.

"Perish the thought," Xander says, smiling a little. Something cold hits his forehead then, and he looks up just in time to catch a snowflake in his open mouth.

"Whaddya know?" Willow glances toward the sky. "They get the white stuff on Christmas here in Cleveland."

The three of them sit and watch the snow fall gently from the sky, enjoying the company and peace of the moment. For the first time in months, Xander feels hopeful that something better might be coming.