"Woah! Woah!" Spike tugged hard on the reins as the sleigh wobbled violently, almost tipping right over. For a single terrifying moment, he could see the moon swimming through the clouds the wrong way up. Then the sleigh righted itself and flew on through the chill night sky.
"Watch where you're going, you bastards!" Spike yelled. "Could've got us all killed then."
"I think that's their plan," said a voice from somewhere near Spike's feet. Spike looked down.
"Slayer? What're you doin' under there?"
Buffy crawled out from under the driver's seat, grabbed an armrest and hauled herself back up next to him. She looked a little green about the gills, which clashed with the bright holly green of her very fetching - and extremely brief - elf costume.
This gig did have some compensations, Spike thought.
"Been asking myself the same thing ever since Lapland," Buffy said, or rather growled.
"I also," said a voice from somewhere behind and below them. They turned, to see a single long fingered white hand, veined with cobalt blue, gripping the sleigh's rear guardrail. Of the rest of Illyria, former God King of the Primordium, there was no sign.
Buffy knelt on the seat and peered into the dark. "Oh boy, it's a long way down. " Raising her voice, she called, "You okay, your godliness?"
"I endure," Illyria replied, grimly.
Buffy turned to Spike. "Your...er, friend's hanging off the sleigh by one hand. Slow down so I can haul her up."
Spike spat out windblown strands of nylon fake beard. "I'll try."
Hauling back on the reins again, he called, "Woah! Woah, there."
After a moment, when their speed hadn't slowed at all, Buffy said, "It's not working. Maybe you have to say their names, like in the poem?"
"Bloody hell!" Spike contemplated the stars above for a moment, as if it was all their fault. Then he shouted, "Donner, Blitzen, Cupid, Prancer, Dasher, Dancer, Comet and Vixen, sodding well slow down, all right?"
The reindeer in question took no notice, except to snort sparks from their nostrils, which lit up the night sky like miniature fireworks, and toss their heavy antlers so that the bells around their necks jingled merrily.
Spike narrowed his eyes. "I said, slow down, you bastards." He hauled on the reins once more, but if anything the sleigh sped up.
"Ask them nicely!" Buffy hissed in Spike's ear.
"Like hell," Spike growled, but at that moment the sleigh jerked wildly again, and Illyria's hand went sliding along the rail. She was hanging on by two fingers now.
"The ground," Illyria remarked, "is a very long way down and this shell is fragile and easily broken. I require assistance immediately."
"Spike!" Buffy glared at him. "Do something!"
Spike gritted his teeth. "All right, all right." He turned to the reindeer again. " Donner, Blitzen, Cupid, Prancer, Dasher, Dancer, Comet and Vixen, slow down. " He drew a deep breath. "Please."
The sleigh flew on at the same breakneck speed as before. Spike gritted his teeth even harder. "Pretty please."
At this - reluctantly, as if it were a vast concession - the reindeer began to slow their headlong gallop, until they were almost cantering and it was safe for Spike to let go the reins and help Buffy haul Illyria back into the sleigh. The process was rather undignified for all concerned - at one point Illyria's knee was in Spike's ear - and not surprisingly, Illyria didn't look happy at all.
Blue, unblinking eyes looked Spike up and down with cold distaste, as if he were a very unappetising snack.
"I am displeased," Illyria announced. "Very seriously displeased. When I had my kingdom, if a pet of mine had humiliated me in this way I would have drawn out its horrible death for a millennium. Then I would have revived the wretch and done it all over again."
"Yeah," Buffy chimed in. "And I'd have held her coat." She frowned. "Pet?"
Spike looked from one angry woman to the other, feeling put upon. "Well, it's not like I asked you to come with me," he grumbled. "Either of you. Could've managed perfectly well on my own, thanks."
Buffy sneered. "Like hell. If I hadn't been with you when your duster snagged on that chimney in Tasmania you'd still be hanging there now, like a giant bat with a fake Santa beard . And it's not like I had nothing better to do. And you so did ask me anyway."
Spike wilted under her tirade. Hunching his shoulders, he stared straight ahead through the reindeers' antlers, at where a shooting star blazed across the sky in short-lived glory. Bit like him in the Hellmouth, he thought, with a sigh.
"Was more of a suggestion really," he muttered. "Didn't expect you to say yes."
Buffy wasn't listening. "I mean, one minute I'm partying on down in Rome with my handsome but morally ambiguous not-boyfriend. Then my cell phone rings and you're all, hey Buffy, doing anything tonight?" Her voice grew shriller and shriller. "Next time, if it's not too much trouble for you, I'd appreciate a heads up - first that you're not in fact a pile of ash at the bottom of the Hellmouth as you let me think for almost a year, and second that going anywhere with you would involve dressing like..like..."
"A bit part player in a bad Will Ferrell movie?" Spike suggested, helpfully.
Buffy glared some more. "Yeah, that." She pointed at Illyria. "And how come she doesn't have to wear the same as me? She's a Santa's Little Helper too."
They both looked at Illyria, who stared back at them, eyes still unblinking.
"Oh, okay," Buffy said, at last. "I guess I get why she doesn't have to. Anyway, green really isn't her colour. But I don't see why I'm the only one who has to dress the part. I mean, look at you. You're not even wearing a Santa hat."
Spike looked from her accusing finger down at his black leather duster, black jeans and scuffed DMs. "That's not fair. My head's too big for the sodding hat anyway, and I did make some effort." He tugged at the strands of the unpleasant white nylon fake beard concealing his upper lip and chin. "An' this thing tickles."
"Well boo-hoo -" Buffy began, in a sarcastic tone, but Illyria interrupted her.
"This conveyance has halted," Illyria declared, stonily. "And your work -" she emphasised the 'your' -"is far from done. Did you not say we still had the whole of North America to cover before sunrise?"
"Bloody hell!" Spike picked up the reins and shook them. "Mush, you lot. Mush."
The reindeer, who had been standing in empty air as easily as they stood on solid ground, listening to the conversation with interest, turned as one to look at him down their long noses with identical expressions of malice-tinged superiority. They didn't move.
Spike rolled his eyes. "Oh come on, play nice. The sooner this is over, the sooner you get away from me and back to your nice, warm stables at the Mythical Animals Petting Zoo, yeah?"
The reindeer looked at each other, appearing to consider this. Then, the lead reindeer, Donner, snorted and shook his head, scattering sparks from his shaggy mane, before breaking into a leisurely trot. Soon, they were jingling along at a steady pace again, while the world, wrapped in winter, swung by below them. They were flying over the ocean. Icebergs glinted in the moonlight.
"I guess it is beautiful," Buffy said, after a moment, sounding a little less annoyed. "And at least it's not cold. Though it should be, shouldn't it? How does that work?"
Spike had fumbled a pack of smokes one handed out of his duster pocket. He stuck a cigarette in his mouth and lit it, blowing a blue cloud into the frosty air. "S'part of the Santa magic, innit?"
Buffy coughed and waved her hand through the smoke. "About that. Tell me, just how did you become Santa Claus?"
Spike grimaced. "It's a long story."
Buffy folded her arms. "Hit me."
She turned to Illyria, who had raised her fist. "Not you, your godliness. I meant him. And I didn't mean hit hit. I meant, tell me."
"Oh." Illyria let her hand drop, looking disappointed. "The imprecision of your language is most perplexing."
Buffy blinked. "Whatever." She looked at Spike expectantly. "Go on, then."
Spike sighed. "Well, you see, Slayer, it's like this. Three years ago in Sunnydale, I was lurkin' in the bushes outside your house one Christmas Eve, mindin' my own business, when...."
Buffy's mouth - and a very pretty mouth it was too, Spike thought - was hanging open in astonishment.
"You killed Santa?"
Spike stubbed out his cigarette against the side of the sleigh and gave the reins another desultory shake.
"Well...yeah. But I explained that. He wasn't the nice guy you humans think he is, and..."
"Yeah, I know," Buffy cut in. "Anya told us. Not so much with the present giving, more with the ritual disembowelling. And you said he claimed he even had a right to do that? What is with these centuries old demons and their sense of entitlement?"
Spike blinked. "I never even mentioned Angel."
Buffy scowled - and even scowling she was beautiful - "Don't get smart with me, mister. Where did this Santa guy get off already?"
"Well," Spike said, in the resigned tone of someone repeating himself for the hundredth time, "he said that his right to disembowel misbehavin' brats was down to 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. But, like I told the bloke back in Sunnydale, everyone and his Aunt Bertha knows that the monks were excommunicated after the Congress and the treaty declared null and void."
Buffy was staring at him in bewilderment. "Think you lost me when you started talking about worms. Also, you have an Aunt Bertha?"
Spike rolled his eyes and prepared to repeat himself for the hundred and first time, but then Buffy said, "Okay, I got it, I think - except for the worms part - but I still don't see why you've ended up as Santa Claus. I mean if these monks were excomm-whatevered and this treaty thrown out, and what's more you've gotten rid of Santa, why are you even doing this? "
Spike shrugged. "Couple of reasons. First, as it turns out - and which none of the histories mention - the abbot of the order of the Monks of Saint Nicholas the Bloody-Minded just happens to be a very powerful demon sorcerer."
Buffy frowned. "How nice for him. What does that have to do with anything?"
"Seems he was so pissed off about being excommunicated he cast a spell to protect the old Santa Claus - the one with the actual claws - so that anyone who kills him has to take his place for eternity."
"Give or take a millennium or two," he added, into the shocked silence, broken only by the whistling of the arctic wind in their ears.
For a moment - just for a moment - Buffy looked gratifyingly stricken. Then she looked furious. "Okay, not that you don't totally deserve it for letting me think you were dead, but we are going to find a way to break this spell, because there's no way I'm spending every Christmas Eve dressed like this. Soon as we're done here, I'll get Willow right on it."
Spike only realised he was grinning a big, stupid grin when she scowled even more horribly and said, "What?"
"Oh, nothing." He turned back to face the reindeer. "Mush, all right? Mush."
Suddenly, a small, very hard hand grabbed his chin by the long, false beard and yanked it back in Buffy's direction.
"What're you looking so pleased about?"
Spike couldn't help it. His big, silly grin got bigger, and sillier. "You said every Christmas Eve. You'd really come and help me out like that?"
Buffy stared at him, the wind blowing the strands of blonde hair spilling out from under her elf hat around her shoulders. Then her eyes narrowed like an angry cat's. "'Course I would, you idiot. No one - least of all some old religious guy with a bug up his butt- messes with my boyfriend."
Spike's mouth dropped open. "Boyfr-lff."
Buffy had put her hand over his mouth. "Don't say it. Just...next time I tell you something when you're burning to death in front of my eyes, don't argue, okay?" Still glaring, she took her hand away.
With an effort, Spike repressed his grin - which was hard, because it was one of those irrepressible ones.
"Got it, Slayer. No arguing. Flmf!" This last was all he could say when he found Buffy's warm lips pressed to his and a demanding Slayer tongue inside his mouth. By the time she let go, it wasn't just Spike's lips that were warm. Other parts of him felt distinctly overheated too.
Buffy spat strands of nylon out of her mouth. "A beard doesn't suit you," she announced, in a decisive tone. "The sooner we break this spell the better."
"I agree," Illyria intoned, from behind them. "I have learned all there is to learn from this futile experience. What territories have you conquered? What tributes gained? None. I see no profit in it."
Frowning, Buffy hissed in Spike's ear," Why is she along anyway?"
Spike grimaced. "Bit difficult tellin' her no, to be honest. She's keen to learn all about our ways and customs so I thought it'd be educational for her. Also, " he admitted, "thought she might come in handy if any of the kiddies turned nasty on us."
"Oh?" Buffy had moved closer to him. In fact, you could almost say she was snuggling. "I thought I was the muscle?"
"You are," Spike assured her quickly. "But it never hurts to have backup."
"True," Buffy agreed. She gave Illyria a dubious look, while Illyria stared stoically at the moon. "Don't get why she called you her pet, though."
Spike hurried to change the subject. "I'll explain later. In the meantime, land's coming up. Better get ready to drop off more presents."
"Okay." Buffy bent down to fumble in the big sack under the seat, coming up holding a gaily wrapped parcel, while Spike tried to look innocent, and not as if he'd just been ogling her butt.
Buffy weighed the parcel in her hands. "I still don't get it," she said. "If the original Santa Claus was just a demon entrails fetishist, now you're Santa, why're you going around delivering presents? I mean, it's not like anyone was actually doing that, outside of the stories, right?"
Spike shrugged. "Not so keen on entrails, as it happens. Acquired taste, I think." He gave her a sly look. "Could force myself maybe for the worst of the horrible little bleeders - if I really had to."
Buffy's eyes widened in shock, but then he raised an eyebrow at her, and she scowled and punched him on the arm.
"Yeah, yeah. Very funny"
"I thought so." Spike rubbed his arm. "Ow!"
Land was coming up below. Lights twinkled in velvety blackness, like a reflection of the stars in a dark mirror.
"Oh, pretty," Buffy exclaimed. She looked sad for a moment. "Guess if we break this spell, there won't be a Santa Claus any more at all, will there?"
Spike cleared his throat again, embarrassed. "Er..yeah. There's that. Happens to be the second reason why I'm doin' this - you know, apart from the mystical compulsion thing?"
"Oh? What's that?" Buffy asked, frowning.
Spike squirmed in his seat. Out of the corner of his eye, he was sure he could see the reindeer smirking.
"I'm waiting," Buffy said.
Spike ducked his head. "All right, all right. S'like this. Can hardly go around disembowelling kids, can I? Been there, done that, got the soul. And someone's gotta do the sodding job, yeah? Might as well be me as anyone. Can't have the rugrats wakin' up to empty stockings, can we?"
The reindeer were definitely gloating now. "Mind your own business, you lot," Spike growled at them, "or I might just tell the keepers at the Mythical Animals Petting Zoo that they're overfeeding you. Bunch of hairy lardarses. What?" he almost snarled at Buffy.
Buffy was looking at him with a big, goofy smile on her face.
"That's..." she began, but Spike gave her a warning look.
"It is not cute. Don't say it's cute, all right?"
Buffy snuggled up to him again. "Okay. It is cute, though."
"Isn't," Spike grumbled.
"Is so," Buffy sing-songed, turning up her face for another kiss.
Spike obliged. The sleigh wobbled again, and with a muttered imprecation about lesser beings and their many failings, Illyria snatched the reins off Spike and shook them imperiously.
"Onward, speedy but exasperating beasts!" she cried.
The reindeer seemed to shiver all over at the sound of her voice, and, as he surfaced from the kiss, Spike noticed their running had acquired an eager-to-please quality.
Buffy nibbled his ear lobe. "Seems she has her uses after all. Also, there's one more teensy thing I don't quite get."
"Yeah? What's that?" Spike asked. Then he yelped as her hand slid inside his jeans. "Watch it, Slayer. That tickles."
Buffy smirked. "It'll do a lot more than tickle before I'm done with you, believe me. But later for that. What I want to know is, why, if Santa was such an asshole, anyone ever thought he was this jolly old guy who went around giving kids presents in the first place."
Spike considered the matter, which was difficult with a lapful of Buffy and the promise of 'later'. " Well, it's a myth, innit?" he said, at last. "Whatever bollocks they're based on, myths end up taking on a life of their own. What's more a myth never really dies, does it?"
Buffy smiled. "I guess not." She leaned her head on his shoulder. "Except for the myth of you as the Big Bad. That one is so dead, mister."
Spike grinned at her. "I can live with that."
They flew on under the stars.