"Oy! Fatso! Sod off out of it!"
Even as the words left his mouth, Spike was asking himself what the hell was the matter with him.
As if he didn't already know the answer.
He jammed his hands harder into his duster pockets – the night air was nippy – and scowled up at the roof of the house next door to Buffy's.
"What's it to you?" The voice that floated back down to him had the indignant tone of a man interrupted going about his lawful business. The sleigh perching precariously on the roof tiles rocked from side to side in an alarming fashion as its occupant turned to glare down at Spike where he stood on the roadside below.
And it wasn't just the occupant. No, eight pairs of beady reindeer eyes had swivelled round in Spike's direction too and were now regarding him with open hostility. One of the reindeer snorted and blue flame came out of its nostrils.
Spike embellished his scowl with a mocking head-tilt. He might not want to know quite why he'd started this but he was sure as hell going to finish it.
"What's it to me?" he echoed, in a sarcastic voice. "This is my town, mate. I'm the Big Bad around here and no stupid great berk dressed too warm for the climate is gonna throw his overweight self around without my say-so."
"Yeah?" came the indignant voice again. "We'll soon see about that, asshole. Just you wait till I get down there."
There was the sound of a whip cracking and a horrible grinding, tearing noise as the sleigh runners scraped across the long-suffering tiling. Then, with a loud jingling of outraged bells, the whole rattletrap contraption was plummeting towards the ground at top speed and Spike had to leap out of its way if he didn't want to get flattened.
He took cover behind a tree and watched as, at the last minute, the cocky bastard hauled back on the reins shouting, "Woah! Woah, there!" and the sleigh landed on the road. It skidded along, sparks flying from its runners as the reindeer strove to defy their forward momentum.
By the time the vehicle came to a halt, there were two deep parallel gouge marks in the tarmac running for at least three hundred yards. Spike felt marginally less of a disappointment to his vampiric upbringing when he saw them. He might be about to do something that verged horribly on the not-evil, but at least the road maintenance department of the city council would have something to complain about.
He glanced quickly in the direction of Buffy's house, afraid she might have heard the racket and would come out to investigate. But the windows remained dark, and all through the town nothing was stirring - except for distant sirens, probably from the Fish Tank's annual Christmas Eve party drawing to its usual rousing conclusion.
He emerged from behind his tree and approached the sleigh warily. The reindeer were still staring at him. Their hooves pawed the ground, striking more sparks from the road surface. The lead reindeer – Donner, if Spike wasn't mistaken – looked quite pissed off, and no wonder with all those poncy bells jingling around his neck.
The sleigh's driver was standing up, hands planted on hips and glowering. In spite of his threatening pose, he made a sad spectacle in Spike's opinion. Clearly, he'd fallen victim to his own publicity.
Spike could remember a time – not that long ago as vampire un-lives were reckoned – when the sleigh driver's name had been spoken in terrified whispers even among other demons. The bloke wasn't called 'Claus' for nothing, after all. Of course, he'd been younger then – three or maybe four hundred, but no more– and a great deal thinner. He'd dressed in green and had a hungry look about him, and his beard had been mostly black. Only the stupidest human would've expected anything good to come from him, hearty laughter and mistletoe notwithstanding.
And now look at him, Spike thought, shaking his head sadly. Personally, he blamed the commercialisation of Christmas. The bloke was going on twenty stone if he was an ounce and his enormous belly spilled out over his broad leather belt. He wore bright red – and it definitely wasn't his colour – and his hair and beard were white and sort of sticky-looking, like candyfloss.
Only his eyes hadn't changed, like black chips of glass – obsidian, that was the stuff – set a little too close together and brimming with spite and demonic hunger.
"Vampire ain'cha?" Claus growled. "What's your problem? I got a job to do here and you're getting in my way."
"What job's that, then?" Spike took his pack of smokes out of his pocket and lit one. He inhaled deeply then blew smoke in Claus's face.
Claus coughed irritably. He motioned with his head at the house next door to Buffy's.
"Kid in there's been in a pain in the ass all year. He steals, he gets in fights at school, he bullies smaller kids -last week he swore at his mom and told her he wished she was dead. That means – "and his voice became the drone of someone reciting by rote –" by the Treaty of Gl'garg ratified in 1506 at the Demonic Congress of Worms between the Lower Beings and the Monks of St Nicholas the Bloody-minded - he's mine, buddy. Hunt your own prey."
Spike glanced back at the house in question. A family had moved in there fairly recently – the third set of occupants, Dawn had told him, since the Summers women came to Sunnydale. It seemed the attrition rate among the citizenry went up exponentially the closer to the Slayer they lived.
He shrugged and blew out more smoke. "M' not your buddy, Claus – " he was having none of this 'Santa' crap – "an' I have my reasons for keeping this neighbourhood peaceful. Besides, everyone and their Aunt Bertha know the Monks of St Nicholas were excommunicated after the Congress and the treaty declared null and void. Stick that under your Christmas tree and...and open it."
He treated Claus to another mocking head tilt. But the bloke was looking more pissed off with every moment and Spike didn't really want any trouble. In fact, quite the opposite. Too much noise and the Slayer'd be out here wading in where she wasn't needed and Spike was pretty sure he'd get the blame for everything, as usual. He held up his hands in a placating fashion.
"Still – each to their own. You wanna disembowel some brat and eat his liver for breakfast – be my guest. Just do it well away from here, where me and mine can't see it."
Claus's eyes narrowed.
"What's your racket? Vamps don't do charity work for nobody. You have to be onto something and I want a cut of it."
"No racket." Spike changed his balance just slightly, coming into a fighting stance and making sure that Claus noticed it. Maybe that'd be enough to scare him off on its own? "Just trying to protect what's mine, that's all."
Claus gazed about him, obviously puzzled as to what a vampire could value in such a neighbourhood. In the distance, the sound of sirens grew louder and the ancient demon cocked his head in that direction.
"Sounds like quite a party," he said, in an insinuating tone. It did, and Claus wasn't the only one to wish Spike were there instead of here. The Fish Tank Christmas party was always good for a decent brawl.
But Spike stood his ground. The Slayer might hold him in utter contempt and be very annoying but she was still his girl whether she liked it or not, and that meant that - like Dru before her - she got whatever she wanted. And after all that stuff with her mum being ill and that tosser of an ex of hers up and leaving, due to something that could (if you squinted) be regarded as (possibly) Spike's fault -she deserved a quiet Christmas surrounded by friends and family – and that meant no visitations from bloodthirsty demons masquerading as kindly old philanthropists.
"I'm not budging," Spike told Claus. "Sod off now, there's a good myth."
Claus's eyes glittered. Then he flung back his head and roared with laughter, his enormous belly shaking, while the reindeer wore identical expressions of supercilious amusement.
Spike frowned. He ground out his cigarette beneath his boot-heel.
"What's so funny?" he demanded, when at last, Claus was reduced to clutching his sides and wheezing. "What's the sodding joke?"
Claus looked up at him under bushy white eyebrows. He tried to speak, then gasped and choked, before unsheathing a set of nasty-looking yellow claws – his namesake – and jabbing himself with them, which stopped his laughter at last.
"Ouch!" he said, feelingly. Then, "I do not believe this. This is all about some broad, ain't it? She know you're sweet on her, vampire, or is this one'a them unrequited love deals?"
"None of your sodding business!" Suddenly, Spike no longer cared whether Buffy woke up or not. All he wanted was to beat the crap out of this bargain basement store Santa's grotto reject for seeing through him quite so easily. "Come on then –" and he rose onto his toes ready – "let's see what you got, lard arse!"
"Okay, vampire, you asked for it!" And with no more ado and unexpected agility, Claus was off the sleigh and barrelling towards Spike, and a moment later Spike was down with what felt like a monster truck sitting on his chest while meaty fingers wrapped around his throat and tried to choke him.
Spike struggled but he didn't make much headway. It was like trying to budge an elephant that had taken a dislike to you. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the reindeer circling round so they could see the action better. They were still staring in a disdainful fashion and Donner – Spike could swear – was smiling.
The hands on his throat tightened and Spike could feel the notorious disembowelling claws beginning to dig into him. He had only seconds longer before he was filleted. He felt his face change and suddenly his senses narrowed down to a hunter's tunnel vision. He began to jerk his body violently, and at last succeeded in raising his head far enough to give Claus a Glasgow Kiss he wouldn't forget in a hurry. Claus yelled, bright red, human-looking blood streaming merrily from his nose, and Spike used the distraction to twist one leg free and knee the bloke in his massive gut.
The next moment he was scrabbling away from him, just far enough to unleash some claws of his own, and then he was back in the fray, fists and fangs at the ready.
The battle could have gone either way for a while. Claus had bulk – not to mention those claws of his – while Spike had speed and ferocity. In the end, though, it had to come down to who wanted it most, and Spike reckoned that was – and always would be – him.
At last, he had his hands round Claus's neck and was banging his head over and over against the side of the sleigh. The reindeer were shifting their feet and jingling a lot, and under the driver's seat, the gift-wrapped parcels of already-collected entrails were sloshing about nastily.
Claus was trying to gasp out his reindeers' names – call them for help, maybe? – but Spike kept up his choke-hold, even when a crowd of drunken revellers meandered past and someone waxed indignant about 'that Goth guy strangling Santa.' When the idiot came nearer, Spike flashed some fang at him and listened in satisfaction to the fast-fading shrieks of terror. And meanwhile, Buffy's house remained gratifyingly dark and peaceful.
In the end, though, he got bored with trying to cave Claus's head in and he'd worked off his temper a bit too, so he stopped banging and glared at the old demon, whose face was as red as his outfit.
"Give up, do you?" Spike demanded. "Gonna toddle off to – oh, I dunno – L.A. maybe, and leave us small-town demons in peace?"
Claus's eyes were like dying coals ready to burst back into flames at any moment, but he gave Spike a sullen nod. Spike eyed him suspiciously. Then he let go and stood back. He'd made his point, he reckoned, and you couldn't really kill a myth, could you?
Claus massaged his neck where the marks of Spike's fingers were. He cleared his throat experimentally. Then he climbed back into his sleigh and re-arranged his parcels while Spike wrinkled his nose at the smell coming from them, which wasn't as fresh as it might be.
Spike took out his smokes again and lit another one, feeling the side of his jaw where a claw-filled right-hook had left a nasty gash in it. Then Claus cleared his throat again.
"Donner, Blitzen," he shouted, "Cupid, Prancer, Dasher, Dancer, Comet and Vixen – lets blow this burg – go somewhere the vampires ain't so whipped."
"What?" At once, Spike was furious again. "Take that back, you pillock!"
"Kiss my ass!" Claus yelled, and at the same time, he cracked his whip and the sleigh started to move. Soon it was careering along the deserted roadway, past the parked cars and the silent houses with their Christmas wreaths on the doors and with Spike running along behind it yelling. He grabbed hold of the back of it just as it began to lift into the air and the vehicle lurched crazily before righting itself. Spike felt sick at once – he'd never flown before – but he hung on grimly.
"I am not whipped!" he shouted, the sleigh's gathering speed tearing the words from his mouth and tossing them to the wind. "Take that back, I said, or I'll kick your fat arse all the way back to whichever hell you came from."
Claus looked back at him over his shoulder, a spiteful grin on his face under the candyfloss beard. He had too many teeth for a human.
"Hey, you spoil my fun, I piss on your big manly display. Get over it. Kid you saved won't even thank you and nor will anyone else, specially not this girl you wanna impress."
Well, that was all too true, Spike thought, though just for a change, impressing Buffy hadn't actually been on his agenda for the evening.
They were coming around in a big circle now and Buffy's house was passing by underneath them.
"This is where you get off," Claus snarled and suddenly he'd jammed one of those impressive claws of his right into Spike's clutching fingers. It hurt, and Spike couldn't help himself. He yelped and let go. He went tumbling backwards through empty air with Claus staring down at him, one finger raised malevolently.
"Asshole!" his fast-fading voice shouted and soon the sleigh was nothing but a distant silhouette across the face of the moon.
"Up yours!" Spike shouted after him, because you had to have the last word, didn't you? "Know what you need for Christmas, you fat git? A gym subscription, that's what!"
He landed with a horrible thump on his back on the roof of Buffy's house and went sliding down the sloping eaves, only coming to a halt when he grabbed hold of the guttering at the edge. His head was hanging downwards off the roof right next to Dawn's open window.
"Hey Spike," Dawn said, suddenly, in a bored voice. Spike was so startled he almost let go and went plummeting the last twenty feet to the ground.
"Um – hi, Niblet," he said, sheepishly. "Nice night, innit?"
"I guess." Dawn was leaning out of the window looking at him but it was difficult to tell what she was thinking, what with him being upside down just at the moment. "You should've let Santa have Kenny next door. He's horrible – bet his own mom wouldn't miss him."
Spike hoped she hadn't heard the little exchange between him and Claus just before the battle, but he had a nasty feeling she had. His head was spinning and he still felt sick but he had to think of a way to distract her.
"That wasn't Santa," he protested. "Santa's the one that brings all you kiddies presents, yeah? Slides down the chimney an' stuff. That bloke was just some demon impostor out to cause trouble, but I sorted it, Niblet, don't worry."
Dawn was examining her fingernails. She still sounded bored. "It's okay, Spike. I know Santa's evil. Anya told us last Christmas."
"Oh." Spike felt a bit deflated. Besides, he was still finding thinking a little difficult, what with the blood rushing – albeit slowly – to his head. In the end, he managed, "Well – whatever - couldn't do that, could I – let the old git take the kid? It wouldn't be –" and he gritted his teeth – "right."
"You mean Buffy wouldn't like it?" Dawn had a smirk in her voice as well as on her face. "If she knew Kenny she might say different."
Her expression was far too knowing for Spike's liking but he already had the Slayer's mum eating out of his hand so getting well-in with her sister seemed like the way to go.
"If the kid's bothering you in school," he offered, "I can sort him out if you like. In a non-fatal way of course," he added quickly, in case she went blabbing to Buffy about him doing her favours.
Dawn regarded him coolly. "He's only eight years old," she said.
"Oh." There didn't seem much more to say after that. Spike tried to gather himself together. "Better get down off this roof, I s'pose."
"Oh yeah." Dawn smirked again. "I saw that. The world's first flying vampire. Santa must've really said something to piss you off, Spike, huh?" Her eyes danced with amusement.
"None of your sodding business." Spike tried to scowl at her, which was a lot more difficult upside down. "And shouldn't you be in bed, Niblet? This rate it'll soon be morning and you'll be too tired to open your prezzies."
"Okay," Dawn said, meekly, which he hadn't been expecting. "Everyone's coming over for Christmas dinner and Buffy and me have to help Mom get stuff ready. G'night, Spike – and Merry Christmas."
"Same to you," Spike managed. He could feel his Big Bad street cred plummeting even as the words passed his lips but at least he'd avoided the other 'C' word. "Oh – an' if the subject of Evil Santa ever comes up again, you might want to mention to big sis that old Spike dealt with that problem – and gratis too, remember?"
"Yeah, that's bound to impress her," Dawn said, in a sarcastic tone. "Same way that thing with the troll and the disaster victims at the Bronze did." Then she ducked her head in and Spike heard the window close.
Spike lay still for a while staring up at the sky, in case Claus decided to have another go at nabbing Kenny. When nothing happened, he sat up carefully and made his way down to the ground via the drainpipe. Daybreak wasn't far off and Harmony was probably wondering where he'd disappeared to. Fortunately, he knew a good way to shut her up if she asked too many questions.
He set off in the direction of his crypt, looking back once at the silent house where Buffy still slept the sleep of the innocent. He licked his sore hand where Claus's claws had punctured it. Then he hunched his shoulders and stuck his hands in his pockets.
Finally, he gritted his teeth and ground out between them, "Merry Christmas, Slayer. Hope it's a good one."