Hands clasp, heads bow over a grouping of candles on the table. The chant rises over the flames, and the guitars on the wall resound with a cascade of power.
Anya squeezes Lindsey’s hand, who squeezes Terrence’s, who sends it back to her with more force, and then the Blind One says from behind them, "Make the wish."
Keeping herself from all personal thoughts and the man she longs for, she sends out the wish for peace and joy, good will to all. When the handclasps come back around, when the Blind One claps twice, the guitars ring out louder as if heralding their magic.
"Wish granted," the Blind One says, his voice strained. His cane taps against the floor, and Anya looks up to see him struggling to his chair. "It’s too bad we can’t do more, reach out further than our small sphere of influence, but for this night we’ve done what he can." He sinks down and sighs, as the three standing around his table drop their hands.
The boss has had a difficult few weeks, she knows – trying to keep everything together in a time which although supposed to be bright is the darkest of the dying year, what with the general population’s stress (financial and interpersonal), and the cold, and the mystical threats to the web of protection which he holds so gently in his claws.
And maybe he misses Rupert too, although not in the same way she does.
The Blind One sent her poor man, with appropriate Bytnok amulet and sixteenth-century ritual, to the Pacific Northwest a fortnight ago so that he could negotiate with the real and recently relocated Santa Claus, in order to stop this year’s sacrifice. On behalf of the New Watchers’ Council, Buffy provided Faith and Xander to assist him, instead of Willow and Dawn whom he’d asked for – which, Anya believes, proves who the actual vengeance queen of the Scoobies is. At any rate, Rupert has been holed up for far too long in a crappy dive, well, medium-priced business hotel somewhere in Seattle, undergoing various trials of conversation and magic so babies can be saved from disembowelling.
Fourteen days and nights. Two thousand miles. Twenty-five dwarf-knights of Santa, with their swords ready to rip through her beloved’s warm masculine flesh at the first mistake –
"My dear, return to us." The Blind One is laughing even through his exhaustion, and she blinks herself into attention.
"We know what you’re thinking. When did your man say he’d be back?" Terrence asks, as he begins to knead the Blind One’s shoulders.
"He didn’t. This morning he said he didn’t know." And he sounded so weary, her poor honey, almost like he did last spring right before the end of Sunnydale. She’s tried to keep up his spirits with their daily phone calls and regular phone sex, and healthful light breakfasts or suppers that she orders long-distance from his hotel’s room service, but it’s been difficult, especially with the demands of Magic Places in the all-important retail season. Now it’s Christmas Eve, the darkest time of the year, and anyway – "Didn’t he call you to report in?"
Terrence and the Blind One look at each other, and then without warning the Blind One raps his cane sharply against wood so that the sound echoes like gunfire. "Lindsey. No."
Lindsey’s been sidling toward the door; when he stops at the Blind One’s word, his cowboy boots slide a little, and Anya thinks about the sleet that was beginning to fall an hour ago. Inside, the floor’s highly polished; outside, the streets will be getting slick, dangerous. Lawyer-talk is like polish and sleet: "Sir, honestly, I wasn’t gonna–"
"Lindsey. You know better." That’s a growl from the Blind One: more echoes like gunfire, this time from another dimension.
He’s been watching McDonald closely ever since the spring, she knows. Lindsey went to Los Angeles for apocalypse-assistance, but when he came back in June his eyes were haunted, the blues written in the tightness of his mouth. Anya and Rupert haven’t been able to figure out what’s gone wrong, but she does worry about him. Sort of.
So she walks over and gives him a short, hard hug. "It’s okay, Lindsey," she says, even though they both know she’s talking blind. "Are you still coming over tomorrow for Christmas dinner?"
He hugs her back – and he keeps his hands to himself, which is a pleasing sign of respect, whether it’s for her or her absent man. "You bet, darlin’. I’ll be the one with the cornbread stuffing and the big smile."
"Ruth and I will be there too," Terrence says. His daughter is quiet, a little broken after a terrible car crash and a worse relationship with a man who deserved vengeance, but she makes the most lovely wish-catchers for sale in the shop. On Anya’s birthday Rupert bought her one too, a trailing beauty of dyed leather strings in shades of green beneath the circle of enspelled lace to catch the good wishes and the ragged centre hole to let the bad ones out, and it hangs over their bed in the (not quite) expanded flat. Her bed’s so empty without him moving around and muttering and then wrapping her close, it’s been less than a year together yet she no longer enjoys sleeping without him–
Ignoring the painful sensation of yearning which gnaws at her somewhere under her breastbone, Anya makes herself beam at them all. "Great! Great! But, um, Great One, are you sure you won’t join us?"
"I can’t, my dear, but I’ll have Terrence bring me a plate. Save the wishbone for me." When he smiles, his scales flash more brightly, and the candleflames seem to fill the emptiness. "But I want you to go on home. Hurry now, Anya."
"Yes, sir. Happy holidays, see you all later!" she says to them all with a wave, before sliding past Lindsey and tripping down the narrow stairs.
Blind Willie’s is closed for the holiday. Her footsteps echo in the hollow dark of the club, bounce against black mirrors and glass and then come back to her. Back to her – oh God she wishes for Rupert, and she can ask for him safely now that she’s away from the magic. It won’t do any good, but she wants to anyhow.
She bows her head as she did upstairs, holds her hands out, and says his name. It resonates in the dark just like the guitars do in the Blind One’s room, a long thread of sound that might pull her to him if she wishes hard enough – but then the thread snaps, the club is dark and empty, and she is still alone. She is also unsurprised.
Fourteen days and nights. Two thousand miles
As she heads out into the cold, she begins to think about the turkey she’ll bake tomorrow, her first, and the wrapped presents for Rupert (cufflinks, a vintage silk tie, an off-dimension Book of Atlantean Secrets he’s been craving, the complete Blake’s 7, and a riding crop, which could be more for her, actually) under the tree. He’d told her not to send them to Seattle, even though she’d offered – and yesterday two small, beautifully packaged gifts for her had arrived in the mail. Apparently he doesn’t understand that presents are to be shared, not all kept where only one partner has access to them. He still doesn’t understand how she needs to be able to give him things.
The sleet is really coming down now, striking against the pavement like knives, like bad spells; it hides the skyline, hides the sky. She pulls her coat more tightly around her body and hurries with caution into the all but empty street. Only the Arcadia’s open tonight, and even they have just a muted hum of drinking and music coming through the closed door. The traffic’s almost non-existent, although she can hear the hum of trucks on the interstate.
But there’s a light on in Michael’s gallery, she suddenly realizes, just as she steps into the shelter of Magic Places’ overhang. A shape’s moving inside, but Michael is at his dead lover’s parents for the holiday, he left at four. She should call the cops, maybe –
And that’s when the light snaps off and then the gallery door swings open. She can’t quite tell who or what it is, with ice-glare and dark pooling so and the distortion of the glass. A shape, tall and broad-shouldered and with a funny tilt to the head like a rakishly cocked hat – and she recognizes love, and she shrieks, "Oh my God! Honey, is that you?"
"Hello, love," he says as he shuts and locks the doors, and then he steps into blue-shaded light. She runs inventory: long, swirling overcoat; the fedora he does like, even though he says he doesn’t, pushed back a little off his noble forehead; leather gloves on his hands; a smile on his lips, a gleam off his glasses. He opens his arms. "Come here."
She’s already on her way, heedless of the ice; in fact she slips, crashes forward, nearly knocks him over. But he catches her, as he always does, suppressing a groan she’ll have to investigate later, then bands his arms around her and lifts her clear off her feet. The welcome-home kiss is long, and deep, and oddly tasting of toothpaste-and-tea. When he slides her back down his body – there’s a little something bulgy and gift-like in his coat pocket – she says breathlessly, "Merry, merry Christmas, Rupert! But, um, where’s your luggage? And why–"
He kisses her again, his tongue sweetly teasing at hers like he’s tying her up already, yay. Then: "I’ve been home for half an hour. I just remembered I needed to collect one of your presents. Michael left me the key so I could fetch it myself."
"A half-hour? But –" She nods toward the Blind One’s windows, the lights around the edges.
"They knew I was on my way home to you, knew I wanted it to be a surprise. When I spoke to Terrence during my layover in Denver, he said you lot didn’t need me for the magics." Another kiss, and the wind drives the sleet off the road and onto them, stinging in the few places they haven’t protected each other. He smiles down at her and takes her hand, his glove cold against her skin. "Er, shall we go in where it’s warm?"
They talk fast and over top of each other’s words as they go in, lock up, and climb their stairs. A good last few days has given Magic Places a record holiday season, she says; Xander and Faith send their best, he says; she says Dawn’s coming to Dallas for a visit after New Year’s, which means they need to hurry the contractors to finish the office/guest room in the space they’re adding; he says the babies are safe, Santa agreed to accept the Blind One’s amulet after all the sodding trials Rupert had passed but only after a Wolfram and Hart representative showed up unannounced the day before to offer security for the transaction. "Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, if you can believe it – oh, you might not remember him," Rupert says, holding their home’s front door open for her. "Ex-Watcher, embroiled in some mess with bloody Angel and Wolfram and Hart –"
"Lindsey’s old firm?"
"Yes. There’s something strange going on there. Oh, right, and you’ll never guess – Spike’s been resurrected!"
"No way!" She slams the door and then takes off his coat. God, he looks good – he’s wearing one of his nicest suits, only a little wrinkled from the day of travel, and his tie is loosened in just the way she likes best. Still: "You said he was all burnt up when the Hellmouth closed!"
As he strips off her jacket and lets it fall to the floor, he says, "He was. I don’t know...." When he trails off, he’s got a speculative gleam in his eyes. "I need to talk to the Blind One. Lindsey was in Los Angeles during the twin apocalypses, wasn’t he?"
"You think Lindsey had something to do with either Spike being crisped or his coming back?"
They stare at each other for a brow-furrowed moment, both thinking hard. And then his look changes, her look changes, and it’s not about work and mystery, it’s about love and holiday and how much they’ve longed for each other. "Sod it, we’ll worry about it tomorrow," he says in that husky sandpaper voice he gets sometimes, and he bands his arms painfully tight around her and lifts her off her feet again.
She manages to hook one arm around his neck and then use the other hand to collect his hat and his glasses and toss them onto the sofa before he starts walking. It takes her a second to hoist herself up and wrap her legs around his waist – another muffled groan from him, not a good sound – and he loosens his hold to slip one still gloved hand under her bottom for support. The leather makes his fingers feel strange, thicker and stiffer or something, against the silk of her now crumpled skirt and her lingerie. When he readjusts his hand to cup her, his thumb beginning to trace the line between her buttocks, she wriggles against him. "Oh, honey, I’m missed you so much," she says, as one of her shoes falls off and clatters on the floor.
"Bloody hated being away from you, love. Let’s not do that again," he murmurs against her neck. Second shoe off, second clatter on wood.
Of course he’ll go if he ever feels he has a job to do, she knows her Rupert by now, but it’s so lovely to hear him speak with this river-deep craving, so wonderfully arousing to feel him trembling in her embrace. She kisses his ear, tongue following the curves so he shudders, then breathes into the moistness, "I love you, Rupert."
"Love you." And then he unhooks her arms and drops her into billowing warmth and brightness.
It takes her a second to catch her breath and realize she’s lying on their electric blanket, switched on to her preferred setting – who knows where the comforter went – and that the pillar candles on each of their nightstands are alight, sending aromatic smoke into the chill. She raises up on her elbows, curls her stockinged toes into toasty blanket, and demands, "When you went out, you left candles burning? Honestly, do you have any concept of fire hazards, or –"
"Stop." One gloved hand covers her mouth, catching her tirade. She lets herself fall back onto the pillows, lets herself smile against the leather-covered palm. He lifts his hand away and bends over the bed, resting his weight on his hands on either side of her head. He’s smiling back. "Let’s begin this again, Anya. Love you. Now I’d like you to unbutton my suit jacket, please."
Her fingers at work even before he stops speaking, she says, "Happily, gladly, joyously."
"And talkatively, it seems," he says. When the suit jacket falls open, he braces himself and then catches her wrists. God, the leather feels so good – "Er, I’d prefer not to tie you up tonight, so if you’ll stay still for me, that would be very much appreciated."
"All right. Merry Christmas, honey," she says, and then reaches up by herself to wrap her hands around the bedstead.
"Christ, love, you’re a wonder," he murmurs, his smile deepening. After another kiss, he gets off the bed.
It’s cold in here – the subcontractor hasn’t tweaked the heating system to her satisfaction yet – but the electric blanket has been set just where she likes, and the contrast between warm back and cold air is exciting somehow. Though her angle of vision is oddly distorted and the candlelight throws shadows on their white-washed brick walls here in the new bedroom, she watches him push off his shoes, then reach into the inner pocket of his suit jacket for a small box, which he places on the pillow beside her. Then he walks over and hangs his suit jacket and then his tie in the closet. He’s wearing braces; they alter the drape of his trousers so that his ass is emphasized, they make his shoulders look even broader. "You chose the suspenders instead of a belt today just for me, didn’t you?" she says.
"Do we have to go through our vocab lessons again, Anya?" He grins at her over his shoulder, then turns. He’s still wearing his gloves, which could be a sex-thing but also has her partner-sense twanging like guitars, like alarms.
When he comes toward her, a slow steady walk, a long even gaze, so delicious, she fights off desirous lassitude – "Fun with words in a minute. Honey, what happened to your hands?"
"They became cold, so I put on gloves. It’s a fairly common practice." He crawls up on the bed, kneels over her. God, he’s warm, and big, and... and those leather-clad fingers dance over her, push her skirt up to the crease of her thighs. Cold and warmth and that different feel of his hands – oh, happy holidays, Anya. He slides his index fingers under a garter on her inside left thigh, a garter on her inside right, teases at her skin. He’s all shadows and concentration in the light thrown by the flames, and she’s melting for him like she always does –
"Time out!" she snaps, even though this is so sweet and arousing, and her own hands go to his. She tugs at the tops of his gloves; he resists. "Rupert, let me see. You promised."
"Anya, really." Sighing heavily, he lets her take off the gloves. As the right hand is revealed, she holds back a gasp. The skin on the back of his hand is red and inflamed, looks like it has been scraped to rawness and then imperfectly tended; another raw patch on his left, this one looking like teeth have been digging at him. Even as she cradles his poor hands, she glares – he shrugs. "And you say you’re not telepathic, love. Er, got a bit...chewed on during the second-to-last trial. Bloody flying reindeer."
She kisses his unhurt knuckles in an attempt to remain calm. "Was it Donner?"
"Blitzen. The sodding animal didn’t like it when I tried to climb on his back." He shrugs again and attempts a smile. "I’m ordinarily a very good rider, so this is just embarrassing."
"Any other injuries?"
"Kicked by Comet. A little bruised, perhaps, nothing serious."
She kisses his knuckles again. "It’s probably too warm for them in Seattle, they were acting out because they’re displaced."
Smiling, he pushes her hair back out of her eyes. "That must be it. Now, shall we–"
"Still time out, honey. You need to explain why you didn’t tell me about this."
He looks away for a moment, then exhales before he lies down next to her. He’s long and solid in her bed, and she can’t help but slide her arms around him, he does the same, and they hold each other while the candle flames leap into the cold. She can hear the sleet hammering on the roof, on the windows, just like it did their first night together. When the human silence goes on too long, though, she kisses him – so nice, even toothpaste-and-tea – and says, "Rupert, come on."
"I felt stupid. I despise feeling stupid." He nuzzles her, pulls her against him so she can feel his cock hardening against her.
But she’s been putting things together, and constructing an unpleasant picture in her mind. "Honey, was this trial D’Hoffryn’s idea?"
His shudder tells her she’s hit the apparently painful target. "Yes. Well, you know. Santa’s list, figuring out who’s naughty and nice – right up the Vengeance Chief’s street. He came in for the last of the negotiations."
"And you got an insane, inappropriate trial because of me." She buries her face in his chest, breathing him in so that she won’t cry. She still thinks about Halfrek sometimes, thinks about the horrible ways that vengeance works on friends and family, spreading out like a noxious, fiery inversion of the peace and joy for which she now wishes. The sleet against roof and windows is louder now, and she thinks, it was bad when Halfrek was taken. It would break her if Rupert was....
"Perhaps the trial was, er, exacerbated because of you. But D’Hoffryn and Santa don’t care for the Blind One, you know. Reprieve isn’t exactly in their line." With one finger he pushes up her chin, so she can’t look away from him, can’t avoid looking at her most precious possession which has been so nearly lost. His eyes, his smile even when it hurts. "But it is in ours, love."
She makes herself smile, even though she wants to howl. "Yes, it is. Although I know you’re just trying to get out of punishment because you lied to me by withholding vital information."
"Is it working?" His hands slip down her back, cup her buttocks in passing and grind her against his cock, and then go further to her garters. With one finger he unsnaps the tension, lets the garter dangle. The next garter, and the next, and the next, and she’s melting again, loving him so –
"Yes. Okay, reprieve," she sighs, and then rolls onto her back and wraps her hands around the bedstead again. It’s cold without his body-warmth, and she shivers. "Carry on, honey. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, love," he says, soft and low. But he doesn’t get to work as he normally does. He just gazes at her, so close, so sweet. "I think I’d like to give you one of your presents now. No –" He stops her movement. "Stay there."
Weight shifts, balance shifts, as he reaches over her for the box on the pillow. With a flourish he unties the bow that holds lid to bottom, throws ribbon and lid off the bed. "Merry Christmas," he says again, and she raises her head to see.
Sparkles, well-cut stones set in white gold – "Honey! Honey, those are Doster bands!"
"Well, obviously I know that." He grins at her as he takes out the bracelets – one small for her wrist, one large for his. "Barry at Magic Works in Seattle was very helpful when I asked him to find them for me."
"You bought them from Magic Works? One of my competitors?"
"Do you want them or not, Anya?" he says, dangling them in front of her nose, making the stones flash in the candlelight.
"I’ll have to take my hands off the bed, but okay," she says. Scooting up against the pillows, she takes the larger one from him; it’s warm to the touch, smooth aside from the chased, entwined magic. His will have her name, she knows, even if she can’t read it in the Doster characters; her smaller band will have his. It’s a statement. It’s a mark of the commitment they’ve already made. It’s, well... "Pledge, pledge now!" she says, at which he grins. It’s their private joke.
A kiss, a lean into each other’s warmth, and then they snap the bands onto each other’s wrists. Once on, the pledge-bands won’t come off without painful mystical intervention, which she doesn’t anticipate. Rupert might not be the best at sharing important information, but he is otherwise the most trustworthy man she’s ever known. This is easy, this is right.
"Thank you for thinking of this, honey. They’re beautiful and I love you," she says, with one more kiss, and then she lies back on the pillows and one more time wraps her hands around cold metal. "Now are you going to finally get on with the welcome-home sex, or what?"
"Maybe," he says, sandpaper-rough. He reaches into his front pocket and pulls out a little bag of white somethings, like pills or –
"Are those curiously strong mints?" she asks suspiciously.
"Yes." He pops one onto his tongue and begins to suck on it.
"Oh. Oh, Rupert –"
"Hush now, and let me work," he says around the mint. Then he lies down, curving his body around hers, warmth in the cold. He puts his head on her belly and rubs a little, so that there’s static and her silk top rides up. Warmth in the cold, she thinks again, as he smooths his slightly rough cheek against her skin. Her warm Rupert, as the sleet pounds on roof and windows, as the heater kicks on and the strings of the wish-catcher flutter in a sudden draft.
She holds more tightly to the metal as he shifts, his hands sliding under her top so he can pinch her nipples. Warm mouth on skin sliding down to her panties, cold minty breath – fourteen days and nights without him, two thousand miles, but he’s here now, he’s hers. Her fingers on the cold metal, his fingers on her nipples, and it’s so easy, so sweet-flowing like a river.
She looks overhead at the wish-catcher, the flames from the candles leaping in her peripheral vision. Bad wishes will escape through the centre hole, but good wishes will be caught – and she wishes again as she did in the Blind One’s room with the others.
Peace on earth. Joy. Good will to all –
And as Rupert’s tongue teases at her through the silk, she lets the wishes go into the night. "Oh, now this is a merry Christmas," she says, laughing, moaning a little.