Title: In the Bleak Midwinter
In the Bleak Midwinter
Xander sniffed as the harsh wind kicked up another cloud of fine, icy snow and pelted it in his face. His jacket really wasn't up to this weather. In fact, none of his clothes were; it wasn't supposed to be like this in Sunnydale, ever. But when you have a dimensional gate open on the winter solstice and a whole bunch of ice demons come tumbling through, it tends to have severe climactic consequences.
Buffy had, of course, dispatched the demons easily, but closing the portal was a different matter: it didn't take slaying, it took magic. And so the twenty-second of December, which should have been one of the busiest shopping days of the year, found the residents of Sunnydale bundled up in their homes trying desperately to keep warm.
It was so cold that they might have stayed home even if the roads had been clear. But the Sunnydale Public Works Department had proved unequal to the sudden appearance of three feet of snow (and rising). Very few of their trucks had chains for their tires, and of those, even fewer could be outfitted as snowplows. They spent all their time keeping the roads near the hospital clear, and remaining on call to assist the ambulances.
So Willow, Buffy, Giles, and Xander had met at Giles's house early that morning (the school library being locked up for the winter break) to look into the necessary spells. When it became apparent that the spells would be long and involved, they sent Xander out for doughnuts.
This, however, was an impossible quest. Almost nothing in Sunnydale was open, besides emergency services. Mrs. Cartwright, who conveniently lived above her corner store, was about in the only person in Sunnydale to open a business that day. She sat, comfortably bundled up behind her counter, listening to her radio, which when it wasn't going on about the freak atmospheric disturbance localized over Sunnydale, was blaring one version or another of 'White Christmas.' Her store was well-stocked. But she didn't carry doughnuts.
Xander called from the pay phone outside to deliver the bad news. He asked if there was anything else he could pick up.
"That's all right, Xander," said Giles, dismissively. "We've got things under control. Go home and keep warm."
"Right, thanks," said Xander, thinking as he hung up that they could have at least given him a candle to hold. He shook his head. Home was definitely not an option, for two reasons. One, because it was almost Christmas, and family holidays always brought out the worst in Xander's home life. Not that it wasn't avoid-worthy enough the rest of the year. And two, because extra family was visiting, which only served to exacerbate problem number one.
So he trudged through the snow until he found himself at the park, where he discovered the only other people crazy enough to be outside that day: the elementary school kids. They were flinging themselves down a slope with abandon, and having the time of their lives. Soon Xander was out there with them, engaging in snowball fights, building snow forts, directing traffic and settling disputes (relieving the parents of this responsibility, who gratefully retreated indoors to stay warm), and riding increasingly dilapidated pieces of cardboard down the hill, because no one in Sunnydale owned a sled. It would have been pointless.
Except, of course, for Billy Newland, whose family came from up north. He showed up with a sled with runners, and was immediately a god to a crowd of worshipping peers. He handled this newly accorded status with grace, and soon everyone was taking turns. Xander, with more weight and momentum than the small kids, got a very fast and incredibly long ride and very nearly killed himself on the thing. He couldn't remember when he'd enjoyed something more. It almost made him forget the way his throat had caught when he saw Billy's father showing the child how to use the sled, and lovingly watching over him as he sped down the hill on his first ride. And it almost made him forget how his eyes had watered—he blamed it on the icy wind—when Billy, glowing with excitement, had described to him the adventure up into the attic to find the sled and how his father had shown him how he waxed the runners.
But he was out in the snow to forget his family. And most of the time, he could.
Eventually, however, the children grew tired, and their parents came to collect them and take them home. Xander smiled as Mr. Newland shook his hand and thanked him for looking after the kids, but his throat caught again when he watched Mr. Newland and Billy walking home. Billy nearly slipped and fell over and over again on the slick snow, bouncing with enthusiasm as he related to his father a rather incoherent summary of all the exciting events of the day. When he finally did slip, his father smiled down at him, tousled his hair, and let him ride the sled as he pulled Billy the rest of the way home.
Xander, experiencing an array of conflicting emotions, wandered back to Mrs. Cartwright's for a quick dinner and more blaring 'White Christmas' before heading over to Giles's place to check on their progress with the spell. He knocked on the door, but there was no answer.
So Xander was back at the park, looking out across the hill he had spent the day tumbling up and down. It looked different at night. The white blanket across the hillside had been scarred by the activity of the day, and several ruts were packed down to glossy ice. The snow was lit now only by the light from occasional lamp posts, which made odd patterns of shadow and reflection over the irregular surface of the landscape.
The latest precipitation had fallen in the form of this fine, dry, icy dust that stung like tiny needles. The wind kicked it up easily, occasionally creating tiny twists of flying ice that looked like dust devils and shimmered in the light of the lamps.
Xander sniffed again and looked down at his feet to find a well-used mat of cardboard. He smiled to himself. "Nothing like sledding your cares away." Checking that his cross was firmly wedged under his belt, he picked up the cardboard and headed quickly up the hill.
Xander wasn't sure whether it was the fine new-fallen snow or simply the colder night air, but the ride was even faster and even more chaotic and random than it had been during the day. He whooped and yelled as he slid, tumbled, spun, and skidded down the hillside.
When he reached the bottom, rolling a few feet beyond the cardboard, he wished for the fiftieth time that day that his clothes were better suited for the weather. Icy snow was getting in under his collar and packing itself up his pant legs. But he shook himself off, laughing uncontrollably, and found himself driven by an irresistible urge to do it all over again.
This time, he slid into and stayed in one of the icy ruts that had been worked into the hillside during the day, so his ride was more straightforward. And blindingly fast. Even more blinding because the cardboard was kicking up all the newly fallen ice-dust into his face.
Suddenly, he noticed that he was rapidly approaching a tree. A tree that he didn't remember seeing before. A tree that he couldn't steer away from. A tree that was reaching out to grab him.
Xander's ride came to an abrupt halt as he was snagged by the collar and dragged to his feet. His feet, however, found no purchase on the slick, icy ground, so he found himself hanging, kicking wildly, by his collar, which bit painfully into his neck. The jacket began to tear, but it only made Xander's position more uncomfortable.
"What do we have here?" Xander looked up into the twisted visage of a vampire.
"Blood?" came another voice from behind. The voice had a slightly crazed edge to it that set Xander's eyes rolling with fear.
The vampire holding Xander gave a sneering grin. "You'll have to forgive Billy. He sometimes gets this way when he hasn't eaten in a while."
The common name brought back the events of the day, which now seemed to belong to a different existence.
"And here I was thinking that hunting would be no good tonight," continued the vampire. "Only an idiot would be out in this weather."
"Guilty as charged," said Xander, grinning nervously as he struggled, kicking and slipping, to reach his cross.
"Hmph," said the vampire. "Only an idiot and a loser."
"Loser!" cried Billy, laughing maniacally.
"Are you going to drain me or just insult me?" asked Xander. His hand finally reached his belt, but found that his cross was not there. Xander cursed silently.
"Listen to him! Down with the lingo!" The vampire seemed amused. "Maybe you're not such a loser after all. Then again, it's hard not to be a loser when you're just a corpse." The vampire bared his fangs and leaned in to bite Xander's neck. Xander squeezed his eyes shut.
Suddenly, the vampire was gone. Xander's jacket was torn from his back and he landed hard on the icy ground, making his eyes pop open. He saw the vampire struggling with a large figure clad in a long black coat.
"Angel!" whispered Xander breathlessly, and he desperately began looking around for his cross. He couldn't find it anywhere.
Fortunately, Angel quickly staked Xander's would-be murderer, but Billy instantly launched himself at Angel, knocking him to the ground. Angel cried out in pain, and his neck twisted at an unnatural angle. Angel continued to fend off Billy's attacks, but he was fighting weakly and had lost the stake he was carrying.
Xander scurried, slipping across the ice, to retrieve the stake and plunge it into Billy's heart from behind. As Billy gave a cry and disintegrated into dust, Angel leaped up from the ground, clutching the back of his neck.
"Are you okay?" Xander asked.
Angel turned back and looked at the spot where he had fallen. Xander's cross stuck up out of the ice.
"Oh, man, I'm sorry," said Xander, snatching it up. "That wasn't very... chiropractical."
Angel just shook off the pain and appeared to already have recovered, except for a twitching tightness in the corner of his eye. "It's okay," he said. "Are you all right?"
"I've been better," Xander replied, honestly. His clothes were freezing and wet, and more ice than ever had packed itself into his collar, sleeves, and pant legs. "But it could've been much worse. Like as in frozen-corpse worse. Thanks." He knelt to collect the shreds of his jacket. "Yet another demon-and-vampire-induced write-off. It's a good thing I never wear anything worth saving." His teeth began to chatter.
Angel stared at him. A moment later, he was shedding his own coat. "Take mine."
Xander looked at Angel in amazement, but accepted the coat. "Won't you be cold?" he asked.
"I'm always cold."
"Oh, yeah, right. Sorry." Xander slipped the jacket on and wrapped it about himself. He stopped shivering instantly. "Thanks." He smiled nervously.
Angel nodded. "What are you doing out here at night?"
"Being an idiot," said Xander, looking away. "Avoiding home. Christmas isn't one of the things the Harris family does well," he explained. "Actually, I'm not sure what we do well, but Christmas is way, way down there."
Angel didn't say anything.
"But I guess I'd better go home now," continued Xander, "Christmas or not. I can't stay out here."
"I'll walk you there," said Angel, sounding glad to have something to do.
Xander looked surprised but started walking.
They walked for a long while in awkward silence, the only sounds their footsteps in the crunching snow. Xander trudged heavily and tiredly on, clasping Angel's coat about him.
When he eventually spoke it was in a weak and timid voice. "Angel?"
"I want... to apologize for... the way I, um, behaved last week. And before that. In fact, ever since I met you." He paused as he negotiated a snowdrift, struggling to find words. "It's just been hard to learn to trust... a vampire. Y'know, 'cause of the fangs and the grrr and the death and stuff." Xander frowned. "Sorry."
"It's okay," said Angel. And a few footsteps later, "Thank you."
Xander immediately brightened up. In fact, after playfully hopping over the next small snowdrift, he began whistling, softly, tunelessly. About a block later, he suddenly stopped making the noise, and said sheepishly, without turning to check Angel's reaction, "Sorry. That's probably annoying. You're all with the silence and brooding thing."
Angel found himself smiling. Xander didn't see this, but continued to walk with a much lighter step than he had when they started.
Eventually, they reached Xander's home. Xander mounted the steps to the porch while Angel remained on the sidewalk. Xander listened and looked about cautiously. "Should be safe. I don't hear anything. I guess they've all gone to bed. Or just passed out. Either way." He drew out his keys and turned to Angel. "Thanks for, uh, saving my life," he said, struggling to make the hackneyed phrase genuine.
"You're welcome." Angel looked worried as Xander turned to open the door. "Good night, Xander. I'll see you tomorrow."
Xander turned about in surprise, but Angel was already walking away. "Good night." He stared after Angel for a moment, and then turned the key in the lock and quickly stepped inside.
Once he had locked the door behind himself, he looked down and suddenly realized he was still wearing Angel's coat. He spun about to face the door, but realized that Angel was already long gone. He shrugged and quietly walked over to the stairs.
He carefully closed and locked the door to his room as he had the front door. He slid off Angel's coat and laid it out gently on his bed. Then he quickly stripped down and dried himself off with a towel, scrambling into an old set of sweats and pulling on two pairs of socks before he started shivering again.
But it was to no avail. His room was freezing and there was a strong draft coming from the window. He walked over and opened it slightly. The wood frame was warped, preventing it from closing completely. "It would appear that the Harris household is falling apart literally, not just figuratively," he muttered to himself. He grabbed an old and unfortunately colored T-shirt from the floor and jammed it into the crack, shutting the window down on top of it as tightly as he could.
He turned back to his bed and dove under the covers. Still shivering, he pulled up one blanket after another until there were no more. Eventually, he turned to the side and carefully pulled Angel's coat atop the whole pile. After only a few moments, the shivering stopped, and he drifted quickly off to sleep.
He was roused late the next morning by the telephone. He let it ring three times, hoping it would just go away. But no one else answered it. Supposing they were still too hung over or just plain too busy arguing with each other to do so, Xander rolled over and picked up.
"Oh, hey, what's up?" Xander asked, blearily.
"You heard from Willow?"
"Not since yesterday. Yesterday morning."
"She didn't come home last night."
Xander sat up. "What? They should have finished the weather spell thing by now. I mean, when I went to Giles's place yesterday evening, they were already gone." He looked out the window to see more snow falling. "But I guess they didn't. Finish. It's still snowing."
"Did you try Buffy?"
"She didn't come home last night, either."
"Her mother worried?"
"No. Happens all the time."
"Same with Willow?"
"No panic yet."
"Giles. Have you called him yet?"
Xander started to scramble out of bed. "Search and rescue, then. I found a compass when I was looking for a clean pair of boxers yesterday," he said, tossing clothes across the room as he search through a pile of crumpled laundry, "so we're all set. I'll meet you at Willow's in, say, half an hour, start from there. They've got to be somewhere."
Xander found Oz standing on the sidewalk outside Willow's house, looking around with his brow slightly furrowed.
"No. Nice coat."
"Thanks," said Xander, a little nervously.
"Got the compass?"
Xander brandished it impressively. "Let's try Buffy's again, and then we'll go to Giles's place. Okay, that's north-northeast... or no, wait, south-by-southwest...."
Oz silently followed. The previous day had given Xander plenty of practice at walking across snow and ice carefully without looking like an idiot. Oz had more trouble, but managed to keep up, both in terms of pace and appearance.
But they had no luck at Buffy's, and there was no answer at Giles's. So they began to comb the streets, stopping by all the common haunts. But everything was closed and empty. Xander even ventured into the police station to ask if anyone had been found in the snow or taken to the hospital. People had, of course, but not Buffy, Willow, or Giles. Xander declined to file a missing persons report, saying that it hadn't yet been twenty-four hours, even though it had been longer since he had last spoken to Giles. He wasn't sure about bringing the police in on slayer business.
Xander and Oz stopped at Mrs. Cartwright's (whose radio was blaring, for a change, 'White Christmas') and grabbed a bite to eat before rather hopelessly starting out to make the rounds again.
Darkness had fallen by the time they returned to Giles's place. They knocked on the door, but there was still no answer.
"Do you think maybe they're in there, but just... unconscious?" Xander asked, cautiously.
Oz looked about as worried as Xander had ever seen him.
"I can't see anything in the window from here, let's try around back," Xander suggested, as reassuringly as he could.
Oz followed him around the building. But even from the back windows, the house appeared to be empty.
Xander turned around with a heavy sigh and looked out away from the house. The rear of Giles's home overlooked a rather undeveloped area. Fortunately, the precipitation had stopped during the day, and the night was cloudless, allowing the moon to cast its blue-tinged light across the snowy landscape.
Xander was suddenly struck by the scene before him. "The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow/Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below," he recited, as though understanding the verse for the first time.
"When, what to my wondering eyes should appear," continued Oz, flatly, "but—"
"That's not how it goes."
"No, I mean, over there! It's Angel!" Angel was, indeed, walking towards them, clad this night in a heavy black leather jacket. "Maybe he knows what's going on!" Xander started running towards him, waving. "Angel!"
Oz appeared confused by Xander's behavior, but followed him out.
"Angel!" Xander said again, when they all met.
"Xander. Oz," Angel said, nodding to each of them in turn.
Oz nodded back. "Nice jacket."
"Thanks. What's going on?"
"We can't find Willow, Buffy, or Giles anywhere. They were supposed to be casting the spell to close the portal, but," Xander added, indicating the snow all around, "they appear to have hit a snag."
"That's why I came by. They should have finished by now. When did you last see them?"
"Yesterday. They were here, well, in there." Xander indicated the house. "I left to find doughnuts, but nothing was open, so I called, and they said don't worry, but I think now that I will. Worry."
"Have you looked anywhere else?"
"Everywhere. Willow's place, Buffy's place, downtown, the Bronze, even, but everything's closed."
"Did you check the library?"
"The school's locked down for winter break."
"Giles could get in. They might have needed some other books."
"Oh." Xander was stunned for a second. "Didn't think of that. Stupid."
Oz just shrugged. His teeth started to chatter. "I should check if anyone's called."
"You do that," said Angel. "We'll check the library."
If Oz was surprised by this arrangement, he didn't show it. Angel and Xander walked with him halfway across town, then turned in the direction of the school. Once there, they found it locked up and unlit.
"I guess they could still be in there," said Xander, peering through one of the ice-covered library windows. "Though why they'd need the lights off, I do not know. A little kinky, if you ask me."
"They might have had to turn them off for the spell, or something might have gone wrong."
"You're right," said Xander, sheepishly. "As usual, Xander has his mind in the gutter."
"I'll try one of the windows." Angel pulled a stake from his jacket and used it to pry a window open. The coating of ice shattered in a shower of ice shards and icicles and the window swung wide open. Angel crawled inside, and turned back after a moment, extending a hand to Xander. "Come in. Something's seriously wrong."
With Angel's help, Xander hopped through the window, and nearly slipped and fell when he landed inside. Everything in the library was covered in ice. Including three figures in the center of the room, clustered about a table.
Xander looked worried. "Are they...?"
"I don't know." Angel and Xander walked carefully up to examine them.
Angel leaned close to one of the figures, then flinched away when he saw it was Buffy.
Xander noticed. "You and Buff on hiatus again?"
"Permanently," said Angel, grimly.
"But she said—"
"She doesn't know."
"I know she's one of your friends, but..."
"But this really isn't the time for this."
"Right. Do you think... are they still alive?"
"I think so. It's hard to tell with the ice. But there's no smell of death, and I think I can just make out a heartbeat...."
"So we just have to figure out what went wrong and fix it. Easy. Right. What were they doing?"
"Probably something with this." Angel slammed his fist down in the middle of the table, shattering and brushing away the thin coating of ice covering the book that lay there. He and Xander peered at the writing.
"Hey, they're set up backwards," said Xander, after examining the page for a while. "Or am I looking at this upside down? I can't tell with this writing."
"No, you're right, they are backwards. Buffy should be on the other side of the table."
Xander raised an eyebrow at Angel. "So what do we do, just chip her off the floor and move her?"
Angel looked back levelly. "Sounds like a start."
They knelt down and attacked the ice around her feet, Xander with his metal cross, Angel with his stake. The stake quickly went dull, but they managed to uproot her from the floor and move her around to the other side of the table, where she teetered precariously.
Angel shook his head. "I don't know."
"Maybe we should light the candles they're holding. Do you have any matches?"
"No," said Angel. He slammed his fist down on the table again, freeing a box of matches that was frozen to the edge. "But here are some."
"You like doing that, don't you?" asked Xander, accepting the box. It took a number of tries to light the candles. But eventually two of them were burning. When he finally lit the third, the room suddenly glowed with a bright light. There was a harsh, bitterly cold gust of wind, and suddenly the ice vanished. Buffy's hair was blowing about. Just as suddenly, the gust ended, and three just unfrozen looked around in shock.
"What was that?" asked Buffy, frowning.
"Xander!" said Willow. "When did you get here? Where'd you get that great coat?"
"It's not a greatcoat," said Xander, "it's a duster."
Willow suddenly spotted the vampire standing beside her. "Angel!" She looked around in confusion. "What's going on?"
"It would appear... that the spell has had... unforeseen consequences," said Giles.
"You could say that," said Angel. "The setup was a little off."
Buffy looked around and it suddenly dawned on her that she had changed position. "Oopsie!" she exclaimed, with a sheepish smile.
Willow grinned back.
Giles was less amused. "Let's try this again."
Angel and Xander stood back and watched as the three completed the spell properly. A flock of lights rose up out of the book and spun around the room, and then suddenly vanished. The room immediately filled with warm air.
"That feels better," said Willow, smiling.
Buffy sighed. "No more hoary frost-demon-sicles."
"Finally," agreed Giles, removing his glasses.
"You'd better get home quickly," advised Angel. "Your parents will be missing you."
"What time is it?"
"About nine-thirty," said Xander, casually. "December the twenty-third."
"Ohmygosh." Willow covered her mouth, and Buffy bit her lip, each suppressing a nervous giggle.
"Let's go," said Giles, replacing his glasses and extinguishing the candles. "We can clean this up after the break."
They stopped by Giles's house first and called the others from there. Willow's first call was to Oz, and consisted basically of an apology and a promise to call again later. Once calls to the families were made, they set out with Xander to walk home, Angel following, a dark shadow behind them.
"You know," said Buffy jokingly, as they trudged along, "this never would have happened if you would have just found some doughnuts."
Xander immediately slipped and fell headlong into a pile of snow. "Well," he said, jovially, bouncing up quickly and dusting himself off, "I never could do anything right, could I?"
Buffy and Willow smiled and continued walking. Angel grimaced.
They dropped off Willow first, and then headed towards Buffy's. The atmosphere became awkward, as Buffy totally ignored Angel and Angel was his usual silent, brooding self. Xander was forced to listen as enthusiastically as he could to Buffy's Christmas plans, which did little for him other than to set his teeth on edge.
When they reached Buffy's house, Buffy gave Xander a quick peck on the cheek and disappeared inside without even a glance at Angel.
"Phew," said Xander, and turned to grin at Angel. Angel's expression was dour at first, but after a while he couldn't help but return Xander's grin.
Xander started walking, but not in the direction of his house. Angel followed without question. Eventually, they found themselves at the top of the hill at the park.
Xander looked out across the landscape silently for a while. The snow was already starting to glisten in the moonlight, as the warm atmosphere began to slowly melt it.
"Well, it was fun while it lasted," he said. He kicked at the snow, and his foot dug up a piece of cardboard. He grinned and reached down to pick it up. "Better have one last go before it's all gone. Do you mind?"
Angel just shook his head.
Xander walked forward, and then suddenly paused. "Care for a run?" he asked, picking up another piece of cardboard and holding it out to Angel.
Angel almost said no, but he was caught by Xander's warm smile and smiled back. "Sure," he said, accepting the makeshift sled.
"Onyourmarkgetsetgo!" yelled Xander, making a running leap at the hill.
Angel stared in shock for a moment, then quickly launched himself after Xander. They both careened across the hillside, colliding several times before finally hitting the bottom and rolling for a few yards in the soft snow. They both lay on their backs, looking up at the moon, laughing for at least a minute. Then Xander suddenly splayed out all his limbs and dragged them back and forth across the ground. He jumped up and turned around to examine his handiwork.
"I made a snow angel!" he exclaimed. "I've seen kids on TV do that, but I've never done it myself. Cool! You try!"
Angel found himself unable to decline the enthusiastic request, so he lay back and did his own. He stood up beside Xander to look down at the pair.
"They both look pretty good," said Xander, nodding with approval and casually placing his hand on Angel's shoulder. Suddenly, he turned to look with awe at Angel's grinning face. "But the real one's even better."
Xander had turned away and started walking even before Angel could turn to look at him. "I'd better get home. It's late."
"I'll walk you," said Angel, catching up with him.
Xander kept his eyes on the ground for the entire walk. He only looked up when he reached the steps to his porch. "You seem to be walking me home a lot lately," he said, forcing a grin.
Angel just shrugged.
"Well, good night," Xander said, without moving.
Angel gently grabbed him by the shoulders and kissed his cheek. "Good night," Angel said softly and was gone.
Xander was stunned, eyes watering, for a moment. Then he looked about. Angel was nowhere to me seen. Xander sniffed.
"Vampires," he muttered to himself, with a grin. Carrying himself with more confidence than he had ever had in all his eighteen years, he marched into his house and up to his room.
All signs of the snow were almost completely erased by morning. Incongruous piles of slush lay here and there, quickly melting, and even these disappeared by midday. And Sunnydale was once again alive with commerce. Making up for the previous two days lost, Christmas Eve shopping became a nightmare beyond all others. Buffy theorized that that might have been the intent of the demons in the first place. It was certainly the worst aftereffect of their visit.
The chaos continued long into the evening, but eventually shops began to close. Xander stepped out of the antique shop he had visited on a whim, mostly to escape the crowd on the sidewalks, and found himself standing on a street that was finally not crammed with cars and pedestrians. He looked down and checked that he still had all the appropriate packages and then looked around. A figure across the street caught his eye. The figure suddenly stopped, sniffed at the air, and turned to face him. With a smile, Angel started across the street. Xander waited.
"Merry Christmas," replied Angel. "Doing some last-minute shopping?"
Xander rolled his eyes. "I was deputized to pick up everything that everyone else forgot. They wanted to avoid the rush. And no wonder."
"Awful. Hey, I should give you your coat back," Xander said, shrugging it off his shoulders, "since I don't really need it anymore."
"No, keep it. It looks good on you. Consider it a Christmas present."
"Really? Cool!" Xander shrugged the coat back on. "Thank you! Then I should—" Xander suddenly blushed and looked down.
"What is it?"
"I should give you a gift, too—I mean, I just picked it up, thinking I might give it to you, but then that seemed silly, so I just thought I'd keep it, or something, but I should give it to you now, especially since this sentence should have been over about five conjunctions ago, so here it is."
He held out a small bag. Angel took it and looked inside. Smiling slightly, he drew out a tall bronze figurine. It was an angel. The archangel Gabriel, holding his sword at the ready. The figure was finely crafted, in a style neither too ornate nor too plain.
Xander glanced up sheepishly to judge Angel's reaction. Angel was staring at the statue, turning it over in his hands.
"Do you like it?" Xander asked, nervously.
Angel looked directly at Xander, smiling. "I love it." He reached forward and hugged Xander tightly. Xander, surprised, almost fell against him, but managed to manipulate his bags to return the embrace.
When they pulled away, Xander heard the crinkle of plastic along with the bending of leather. He looked down and noticed a candy cane sticking awkwardly out of one of Angel's pockets.
He grinned at the incongruity. "Where'd you get that?"
Angel looked down at that candy cane, then up at Xander with a smile. "I gave some money to that bell-ringer," he said, pointing at a man standing a couple of blocks down. "He gave it to me. Here," he added, pulling the cane out, "you have it."
"Thank you." Xander unwrapped the long end and stuck it immediately into his mouth, smiling at the taste. "Would you, uh, like to walk me home?" he asked awkwardly, half muffled by the candy.
Angel fell into step beside him.
They said nothing on the way, merely walking briskly along in companionable silence, Xander sucking softly on his candy cane.
All too soon, they were back at Xander's house. "Well, thank you," Xander said, suddenly nervous again. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, Xander."
Xander smiled at Angel briefly, then quickly mounted the steps and entered the house. Angel retreated across the street. He took the figurine out of its bag again, and turned it over in his hands. When he looked back up at the house, he saw the front door suddenly swing open and Xander storm out. Xander slammed the door behind himself and then sat, almost falling down, on the steps of the porch, burying his head in his hands.
Though Angel was across the street, his vampiric senses had no trouble hearing that Xander was crying.
Angel walked quickly back across the street, but Xander didn't notice until Angel was almost over him. Xander looked up in alarm.
"Angel," he said, choking back tears, "where did you come from?"
"I didn't get that far."
Xander stood and tried to compose himself. Angel noticed the red, hand-shaped mark on Xander's right cheek.
"Are you going to be okay?"
"I'll be fine. It's stupid," he added, with a tremble and an ominous crack in his voice, "but it hurt worse that the candy cane broke than that she..." Xander shook his head.
Angel said nothing, but just drew Xander close and hugged him tightly.
Xander, sniffing, tried to pull away, shaking his head again. "It'll be all right. I'll find somewhere to go."
"You don't have to."
"I can't stay here," said Xander, burying his face in Angel's shoulder, then remembering that his tears might not be great for the leather, and moving his head away slightly.
"I said you didn't have to find somewhere to go," said Angel, pulling away but still holding Xander tightly. "C'mon, let's find another candy cane before everything closes."
Xander sniffed and smiled. He took Angel's hand and followed him back downtown.
Thirty minutes later, they were at the door to Angel's apartment, and Xander's arms were laden with a whole box of candy canes as well as an assortment of chocolate bars and other treats.
As they stepped through the door, Xander let out a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness that's finally over with," he said. "If I have to listen to one more second of easy-listening Christmas muzak, I'll be going postal on someone."
"I'll get the gun. Do they do that all month long? You can put those down there."
Xander put the bags down on the table. "It starts at Thanksgiving, if you can believe it. Sometimes earlier. Be thankful you weren't listening to the radio during those two days with the snow. They would not stop playing 'White Christmas.'"
Angel smirked and walked over to hang his coat and help Xander hang his. Xander returned to the table, dug out the box of candy canes, tore one of them out, unwrapped it, and stuck it in his mouth. "Ah, that's the stuff."
Angel walked over and placed his Christmas present carefully on the mantelpiece, then stood back to admire the effect. Xander walked up and stood beside him.
"Still like it?"
Angel said nothing, but put one arm around him. A moment later, he said, quietly, "That's the first Christmas present I've received in over two centuries."
Xander's eyes widened. "And I thought my Christmases sucked." He shook his head. "I'm glad I wasn't stressing about that when I was picking it out. It was hard enough anyway."
"It's perfect." Angel guided Xander over to the couch and they sat down. Xander looked around the sparsely furnished room, lit only by a dim lamp and a single tall candle in the window.
"Thank you for inviting me over for Christmas."
Angel looked around. "Sorry the party isn't really happening."
"A peaceful and quiet Christmas is just about my speed right now. 'Silent Night' and all."
The sound of carolers intoning a similar anthem drifted up through the window. Xander smiled and took Angel's hand.
"See? Perfect." Xander sighed contentedly and leaned cautiously against Angel's shoulder. When Angel didn't move away, Xander turned his concentration on savoring his candy cane.
By the time he had finished all the peppermint, Xander was drowsing, and he snuggled against Angel's shoulder. Angel responded by grasping Xander's hand with a comforting squeeze.
Xander was snoring softly by the time the church bell tolled for midnight mass. Angel turned his head to look down at the sleeping boy. Xander's hand was still locked tight in his own. Angel, smiling, gently brushed the hair off Xander's forehead, and gave it a light kiss.
"Merry Christmas, Xander."