Invitation to the Dance
Disclaimer: Mary Poppins and the Phantom of the Opera are currently no longer under copyright protection. However, my depiction draws on elements of copyrighted works by Disney, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and their respective production companies. Other characters from works such as
Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,
NCIS and any other series mentioned are the property of their respective creators, production companies, and other copyright holders. No infringement is intended. No profit will be made.
Author's Note: Okay, so, I lied. This isn't the last chapter. What actually happened is that I realized that if I didn't cover certain things in a separate chapter, the last chapter would be novel length, and since I can't post the last chapter until I've written three other complete fanfic stories (Dawn in Ruritania, Buffy/NCIS/Bones, and Ari/Lucy/Baxter/Free Man of Color), I figured it would be best if I wrote this part and posted it first.
BTW, the formatting on this was a complete
bitkuh, and I couldn't get the invitation itself even close to what I wanted. So, bear in mind the limitations.
Again, thanks for reading.Invitation to the Dance
“She's right,” Giles said, slowly turning the pages of a thick musical score. “It's garbage.”
Xander very nearly threw his toolbox at Giles' head. The last thing they needed was another
fight with the ball only days away and the most difficult half of the work yet to do.
Erik drew himself up like a catapult wound for launch, but Giles interrupted him.
“It is not a matter of your musical skills, Monsieur,” Giles continued, pushing his glasses further up his nose. “I quite readily concede that your grasp of music theory, structure, history, and style are far and away the greatest of any person I have ever met and quite possibly outstrip any other living musician.”
De Boscherville unwound a bit and fluffed with pride.
“The problem,” Giles said, looking at him like a puzzled and disappointed professor, “is that you seem to believe music is something to be inflicted upon the audience, as if they are in need of punishment. This isn't an opera; it's torture.”
That ruffled Erik up all over again, and Xander sighed, setting aside his wrench before the house noticed the brewing confrontation.
“All art is a mirror of the artist,” Erik declared. “The pain and torment we have endured, the triumph of survival and victory over our enemies!”
“To drive them before you and hear the lamentation of their women,” Xander muttered under his breath.
Giles shot him a look and took a deep breath. “Monsieur, have you read any of the history I mentioned? The Holocaust? The genocide in Rwanda? The Bosnia-Herzegovina War? Pol Pot? Stalin? Forgive me, monsieur, but your pain and torment are . . . quite boring, actually.”
Erik's eyes widened in outrage.
“I would rather read a thousand angst-ridden Facebook updates by the Slayerettes than endure your self-pitying recitation of all the wrongs done to you,” Giles continued. “We are throwing a formal ball to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and the joy of the Winter Solstice. Neither are related to your trampled ego.”
Erik had gone quite purple in the face.
“You,” Giles said in a very pointed tone, “are a grown man. You have been given a second chance at life in a place filled with joy, love, and family. The young woman I trained as Slayer, whom I consider to be my daughter in all but blood, endured the same ostracism and persecution you did – without resorting to murder - and
she died twice
“So, Monsieur de Boscherville,” Giles finished, “grab your tits, quit whining, and go and write some damned Christmas music!”
The Phantom, purple, bug-eyed, and completely without a comeback, gathered up his shreds of dignity and left.
“Perhaps that will keep the narcissistic tosser busy for a few hours,” Giles muttered.
Xander began a slow clap, building up to a loud whistle and held up his cell phone, screen lit, to show his admiration.
“Remind me not to tick you off,” he said, putting his cell phone away.
“Xander, I believe you are chemically incapable of annoying me to the same degree as that sack, and considering I experienced the greater part of your adolescence, that's saying something.”
“Not . . . uh . . . trying to maybe score some brownie points with Popstar, are you?” Xander asked.
“Miss Poppins has precious little patience for fools of any stripe,” Giles answered, returning to the delicate work of pipe fittings for the organ. “So I doubt any effort of mine along those lines will be rewarded.”
“So, what is the hold up, exactly?” Xander probed. “And you can tell me to mind my own business at any time. I just figured even without the sandblasting Mary Poppins gave you, you'd be ready to quit the bachelor life.”
Giles sighed, took off his glasses, and began to clean them on his shirt tail, a sure sign he was under stress.
“It's not as simple as that, Alexander.”
A lot of stress.
“Aside from the complications of all identification and documentation concerning Jenny Calendar in this world declaring her dead, we could have a simple ceremony, but . . .”
Xander waited a long moment. The house began to creak, aware that Giles was keeping his emotions under tight control.
“When Angelus killed Jenny in this world, I found her far too late to do anything. In Jenny's world, she arrived in time to see Angelus deliver a mortal blow to me. He tore my throat out. She drove him off and held me in her arms as I died.”
“Giles, man, I . . .”
“Angelus murdered you as well. Willow bound Angelus in a vengeance spell so dark . . . the result was very close to her corruption here. Except, you weren't there to bring her back from the brink of the abyss. Jenny was forced to kill her to prevent yet another end of the world. Having lost me, you, and Willow, Buffy turned her hatred towards Jenny. And, this is not to be repeated, Alexander, but in Jenny's world, Dawn was her daughter, not Buffy's sister.”
Xander let his breath out slowly. He felt the need to find Erik and beat the crap out of him.
“You'll understand then,” Giles said with a very small and wry smile, “that Jenny is . . . reluctant to trust that anything will turn out well, especially with the revelation of theSorores in Mortui prophesy. If I were to ask her, I'm quite sure she would turn me down in sheer panic. So, I will suffer the slings and arrows of Miss Poppins for however long it takes. Even if that is the end of the – what on Earth?!”
Giles' oath was interrupted by a fluffy invasion. Kittens. Mama Cat's entire litter appeared from corners and under piles of supplies, and swarmed him. In only a few moments, Giles was covered by half-grown cats insistent that he was the most fascinating, wonderful, best smelling, comfortable, and loving friend a kitten could have. The combined buzz of their purrs as they climbed up his chest, settled into his lap, licked and bit his chin, outweighed the hum of the heaters Xander had hooked up.
He had to suppress a grin when several dogs – a Papillon, two Labrador Retrievers, an American Pit Bull, and three very large mixed breeds – trotted in and began to array themselves around, under, and sometimes on Giles. There was nuzzling, panting, and a great deal of heavy leaning as the dogs asserted their support. The kittens began to crawl into the different voids left by man and dogs.
“How am I supposed to get anything done like this?” Giles demanded.
“You're not,” Xander answered. “I think this was one of the girl's ideas, and she told the dryad. Someone gets upset, the house sends the critters out for emotional support. Just give in and enjoy. When you're better, they'll wander off.”
“Really, I'm quite fi- stop that,” Giles insisted, as the Papillon nosed its way under his hand and demanded pets.
One of the larger mutts rested its enormous head on Giles' shoulder and groaned. An orange tabby reached Giles' other shoulder and began grooming Giles' ear.
“See?” Xander asked. “Already working.”
Bemused and bewildered, Giles surrendered and began petting whatever furry creature he could reach and after a minute even began talking to them.
“Why, yes, you're quite a lovely moggie, yes, you are. And yes, you are a fuzzy wuzzy puppy. And – how delightful! A bone? For me? Such consideration!”
Xander gave up trying to match the wiring to the schematics he'd laid out, knowing that one too many adorably cute moments would distract him from his work long enough to be electrocuted, and no kitten in the world would be able to fix that.
At the same moment Xander felt the house rebound beneath him like a plucked string and come to attention, all the dogs and half the cats went on point, staring back towards the house and the front door.
Even all the way out in the ballroom, Buffy's shout reverberated. The dogs took to their paws at a dead run, barking madly. The kittens began skittering one way or another, and Giles and Xander got to their feet.
“Thank heavens,” Giles sighed. “We could really use Willow's help on the centerpiece.”
“Yeah, like we're going to get anything done until after lunch now,” Xander answered.
He had expected to fight through a crowd of Slayerettes dancing for attention, not to mention the dogs, the kittens, and all the other inhabitants of the house. Instead, when he and Giles reached the foyer, Xander found that Mary Poppins had marshaled the girls into four ranks of twelve apiece. While the girls wiggled and squirmed in place, they kept quiet as their senior Slayer returned with her retinue. Oz stood on the other side, relaxed and alert, and all the dogs gathered around him, lying or sitting lazily, occasionally glancing up at him.
The foyer was now easily big enough to hold everyone, though it was a little crowded.
They'd come home with more people than they'd left with. With a nod from Mary Poppins, one of the girls broke ranks, ran up to Broots and jumped into his arms.
“Hey, sugar!” Broots answered, grinning.
Jenny joined them, taking Giles' hand and smiling. Studying her expression, Xander caught the flicker of pain that crossed her face and was quickly suppressed. Dawn released Buffy from an extended hug.
“Wow! We're going to have to double up some of the rooms until Xander finishes the ballroom and can get some more bedrooms going!” Dawn declared.
“Stop volunteering me!” Xander called.
“I believe introductions are in order,” Giles said.
“Right!” Buffy agreed. “Xander, you should probably head things up. It is your house.”
So, Xander stepped up to Dawn's side.
Their visitors were half known and half unknown. Miss Parker was there, and Xander did a double take when he saw her. Fifteen pounds gained and a change of wardrobe made a difference, but more than that was the relaxation and . . . cat-that-ate-the-canary satisfaction in her expression. He shot a look at Willow, who gave him a smug smile.
Broots stood with his arm over his daughter's shoulder, hugging her to his side and smiling the whole while. Jarod stood beside and just behind Buffy, and behind him were several more people, all of them bearing a stamp of familial resemblance.
“Where's Sydney?” Xander asked.
A pall fell over the group. Jarod looked down and swallowed. Buffy squeezed his hand.
“Sydney . . . died two nights ago,” Buffy said. “It was probably a natural death, but Dr. Brennan offered to lend her facilities for a full autopsy. Dr. Mallard and Dr. Saroyan both offered to perform the autopsy, and we – Jarod, Katie, and Broots, that is – decided it would be best to eliminate any possibility of foul play.”
“Xander,” Jarod spoke up quietly, “I was hoping . . . you mentioned there was a graveyard on the grounds, and we haven't decided what-”
“Absolutely,” Xander answered instantly. “Whatever you need. Just say the word.”
Jarod managed a nod, swallowing.
“Thank you,” a woman a little older than Jenny with striking auburn hair and a sweet smile said. She put a hand on Jarod's shoulder, offering comfort.
“Xander.” Jarod managed a smile that started sad but turned happy. “I'd like to introduce you to my mother, Margaret Charles.”
“It's a pleasure,” Xander offered his hand in a shake.
In turn, Jarod introduced the other members of his family. “My father, Major Simon Charles. My sister, Emily Charles. My half-brother, Ethan, and my . . . younger, twin brother.”
The young man, a teenage boy actually, smiled broadly. “I got to choose my own name. Jeffrey.”
“Jeffrey is actually a clone of me,” Jarod explained. “I was able to get him out of the Centre a little over a year ago and get him to my- our father.”
“And we thought our family was complicated,” Dawn said, grinning.
“You have no idea, young lady,” Major Charles answered.
“And this, by the way” Buffy said, swinging Jarod's hand a little bit, “is Jarod Charles. Reunited with his family.”
The expression on Jarod's face – joy, disbelief, relief, grief, and worry – would have made Michelangelo weep with longing to carve into marble.
“And the Centre?” Giles asked.
“Finished,” Miss Parker said, her voice ringing with finality. “Nice thing about working with a government agency or two, considering the Centre's true goals, the higher ups that lived through the take down found themselves transported to Guantanamo as enemy combatants.”
“Well, there are one or two who may actually be tried for treason,” Broots added, “once the question of their actual nationalities are figured out.”
Miss Parker's eyes narrowed, and a very tight smile took possession of her lips. Even with the weight she'd gained and the delicious curves it had added, for a moment, she looked just as venomous and deadly as the first time he'd seen her.
“Wow,” Xander said. “Seriously sounds like we need to schedule a Council meeting for a full debriefing. In the meantime, introductions, accommodations, food, and maybe a nap.”
Thanks to Mary Poppins, Xander had a better grasp of formal etiquette and was able to handle introductions to the entire household without too much trouble. Part of it was determining how everyone's different age, rank, experience, job, gender, and age compared with everyone else's. He glanced at Miss Poppins to see her give him the tiniest nod and smile, approving his navigation of what would have been a social minefield a hundred, even fifty years previously.
“This is Professor Rupert Giles, head of the Watcher's Council,” Xander started. He continued with Faith, Jenny, Robin, Mary Poppins, Oz, the absent Erik de Bouscherville, and then all the Slayerettes, who giggled and waved when named.
“Oh, yeah,” Xander added, when a skinny young man jumped up and down, waving his arm. “And Andrew.”
“Will there be a quiz?” Jarod's sister, Emily asked, her mouth quirking into a smile.
“I can't keep them straight on regular day. I just had extra Wheaties for breakfast today,” Xander answered.
Arizay gave him a raspberry, not even looking embarrassed when Mary Poppins snapped her fingers in front of Ari's nose.
“And now,” Xander said, “let me introduce you to the house.”
“You realize we now have . . .” Xander paused to count up people on his fingers, "Seventeen grown ups in this house, a teenage boy who's a clone of Buffy's – what, are they officially an item now? - latest squeeze, one pre-adolescent girl who's neither a Potential or a Slayer, and forty-seven Potentials and full fledged Slayerettes in this house? I wonder if this is what Chataigne was counting on when we first moved in.”
He held Willow by a loop on her belt as she hung halfway into the center hole of the ballroom floor, tugging at wires, cables, ropes, pulleys, and partially connected panels of dials, switches, and buttons.
“Well,” she grunted, pulling firmly on a color coded bundle of wires, “you sure don't hear her complaining, do you? HEY, ERIK, DID YOU SET THIS UP?!”
Xander tilted his head and tried to get his ears to pop from the violent change in air pressure caused by her shout.
“I did,” Erik answered with cold reserve from the skeleton of the pipe organ he'd been working on.
“WELL, YOUR LOGIC STRUCTUREKICKS ASS!” Willow responded, her voice echoing back from at least three floors of subterranean floors.
“That's a good thing,” Xander assured him. “It's like epic Greek heroic adventure good.”
Mollified, Erik unbent a little. “Thank you, Miss Rosenberg. It's gratifying to see my efforts aren't without some recognition.”
Willow kicked her heels in a particular way that Xander guessed meant she wanted out of the hole, so he set his feet and pulled her back out.
“You are getting a safety harness,” he told her. “I can't stand here doing this all day long.”
“And a hard hat,” Willow grinned. “This is so cool. It's like Captain Nemo meets Buck Rodgers with seating arrangements by Queen Victoria.”
“Dawn calls it steampunk.”
“Yep, that too. I mean, look at the way he cross-referenced the counterweights in the floor with the HVAC system, so ambient air temperature is preserved even if everyone crowds around the buffet. And, the lighting levels respond to conversation volume. Plus, he's got reverb repeaters embedded on the bottom side of the tiles. HEY, ERIK!”
“AH!” Xander cried, wincing. “Will, he's twenty feet away.”
“Oh, right,” she smiled, chagrined. “Hey, Erik, are you going to warm up the organ with a little Toccata and Fugue
? Because I so have to be here for that.”
“I had considered it,” Erik responded, thawing a little further. “Some of the lower octaves may be beyond that piece's reach, but I'm sure I can adapt it.”
“No brown note,” Xander warned.
Erik frowned with just the slightest narrowing of his eyes. One thing they'd learned he despised above all else was to be caught ignorant of something.
“You've got Wikipedia now,” Xander told him. “Look it up.”
“Have you considered designing and building a dirigible?” Willow asked. “Dirigibles are completely under utilized in this day and age.”
Erik froze in mid-gesture, his mind captured by the idea. A fire kindled in his eyes, and a slow smile started to bend his face.
“Great, Will.” Xander threw his hands up in the air. “You gave the evil genius a plan. Now what are we going to do?”
As the smile on Erik's face widened into a grin, he turned his eyes on Willow, and the flame burning there morphed into heat of a different sort. Both Xander and Willow spotted it.
“Oh, no!” Xander said, putting his hands up in warning. “Absolutely not! Not under my roof!”
Willow rolled her eyes, patted Xander on the leg, and got to her feet. “Monsieur de Boscherville, I am completely flattered, but you should know a few things about me.”
He eyed her with hungry interest, no longer looking quite like an accountant but more like someone as dangerous as an accountant only with sharp, pokey things instead of balances and double-entry bookkeeping.
“Yes?” and the Phantom put everything he had into his voice, enough to make the walls shiver with delicious anticipation. Xander felt the distinct impulse to rub his hands and mutter “yes, master,” and ground it into oblivion.
“He's going to be great at parties,” Willow whispered to him.
“Do not do this to me,” Xander whispered back. “Get it over with, or I break all your crayons. You do not get to taunt the evil genius.”
“Party pooper,” she answered, then squared her shoulders and smiled. “First, Monsieur, I don't sing. At all. I'd rather be tortured with bamboo splinters. Kind of a morbid phobia, so you're out of luck there.”
“I see,” Erik answered, his new found ardor cooling only slightly. “Still, where there's a will-”
“Second,” Willow continued, defiantly cheerful, “I'm officially with someone now. Just starting, but it looks to have some good potential.”
“That can be remedied,” Erik said, rather flatly. “I've dealt with amorous rivals before.”
“In this house,” Xander reminded him, “you'd better contain yourself to duels of Charades and hopscotch. Absolutely no punjab lassos, rooms where the ceiling slowly crushes anyone, or anything involving spikes. Got it?”
Erik's lip made the tiniest sneer.
“Third.” Willow grinned, having far too much fun. “I bat on the same team you do.”
That same suspicious narrowing of the eyes betrayed the Phantom's lack of understanding.
“I'm a lesbian,” Willow explained.
Erik's eyebrow twitched.
“Sapphic love?” she asked, clarifying.
His eyebrows climbed nearly up to his hairline, which was quite a trip.
“You know how you're always on about pale skin and lush thighs, earlobes and the nape of the neck, and that little sigh she makes when you touch her juuuuust right?”
The Phantom blushed pure magenta, all the way past his hairline, down his neck, and across his ears.
“Will,” Xander managed, his voice tight, “I think he's got the picture.”
“You know when a woman has that perfectly curved bottom,” Willow continued, outlining the shape she had in mind, “and she gets those dimples on either side of her spine?”
“Willow,” Xander rasped, “begging you here.”
“They're called the dimples of Venus, and let me tell you, Katie has got the most perfect set of those, I could sit on her legs all day and just-”
“CUT IT OUT!” Xander screamed, giving the Phantom the chance to retreat so quickly, it looked like he'd left a hole in the atmosphere.
“Are you done?” Xander demanded in a more normal voice, bending over a little.
“For now,” Willow replied, her smile nearly splitting her face. “Oh, my God, that was fun.”
“Was it completely necessary?” he asked, digging his fingers into his leg muscle to give him something else to focus on beyond the image Willow had conjured in his head.
“Hey, he's not going to be hitting on me any time soon, is he?” She looked over at him. “You okay?”
“Fine,” he managed. “Just fine. A little light-headed is all. I should probably sit. And think about icebergs. And dead nuns. Old, dead nuns.”
Willow chuckled. “Did you know, Katie was never really that bitchy? Oh, she had some wrath, that's for sure, what with her mom being murdered, and everyone in her life, except Jarod, lying to her, but that's different. Nope, she was never really bitchy, just really, really horny. And hungry.”
“Willow Danielle Rosenberg,” Xander said, sitting very carefully on a crate, “you are bragging.”
She thought about it a moment. “Yeah, just a little bit.” She paused for a moment. “Sydney and Broots both personally thanked me for mellowing her out.”
Don't let Dawn walk in right now, Xander prayed. Just don't let Dawn walk in-
“Oh, hi, Baxter!” Willow said.
The white bunny rabbit stood several yards in from the door and sat up on his rear haunches. His nose woffled, but he made no comment about anything that might have transpired before he spoke.
Good afternoon, Lady Willow. I'm afraid I must request Mr. Harris' presence in the Great Hall.
“What's wrong?” Xander asked.
Lucy has taken an intractable opposition to a set of instructions from Mary Poppins. Miss Calendar is on hand, but no headway has been made in negotiations. I thought perhaps your perspective might help.
“This sounds serious,” Xander said. “Willow, can you handle the-”
“Having a blast. Erik'll be back as soon as he's spent a little time in his bunk, and we can get caught up.”
What there was for Lucy to dig her heels in about was a mystery. Of all the girls, Lucy was the most cheerful, biddable, and enthusiastic to help under nearly any circumstances. Besides, she adored Mary Poppins, and the thought that Popstar – as the girls called her – couldn't bring Lucy around on something was baffling.
The house began to creak in distress as Xander strode to the Great Hall. Voices weren't raised, but they were very intense, and Ari stood right next to Lucy, holding onto her arm so she either couldn't leave or couldn't hit something. Seeing Ari's expression, Xander's apprehension doubled. Checking on Popstar doubled it again. Mary Poppins had folded her hands in front of her, but her knuckles were white, and there was the tiniest bit of uncertainty in her expression. Jenny was the calmest of the group, but not by far.
“Okay,” Xander said, arriving. “Everyone stand down. Relax, shake your arms out, and do the itsy-bitsy spider if you need to.”
Lucy glared mulishly at him.
“Do it,” he ordered her.
She did, transposing index finger to opposite thumb several times, and her shoulders relaxed, proving once again that no one could stay tense while showing how the spider climbed up the water spout.
“Jenny?” he asked.
“I got a call from Lucy's mother this morning,” Jenny said. “She said she wanted Lucy home for Christmas and New Year's. I managed to talk her into letting Lucy stay for the ball, but she wants her on a flight to LAX the next day.”
“I'm not going,” Lucy ground out in a thin voice. “I'm staying here.”
“Zip it,” Xander ordered. “You'll get your chance.”
“I'm still sending out semester reports and calling families to determine travel arrangements for the girls who are going home,” Jenny continued, “so I asked Mary Poppins to let Lucy know.”
Neither Jenny nor Mary Poppins had been present when Lucy was located and brought into the Slayerettes. It had been only a month or so before Los Angeles went to Hell, literally, and her mother had been more than vocal about her relief that Lucy was safe. After that, it got . . . complicated.
“The minimum time Ms. Sinclair requires her daughter's presence is eleven days. Apparently, Lucy is expected to see the executor of the trust her father created for her. While I understand Lucy's relationship with her mother is not . . . ideal, she's been willing to send letters and pictures home on a weekly basis.”
“Because it keeps her off my case,” Lucy interjected.
“Kiddo, we can do this without you,” Xander warned her. “Mind your manners.”
Ari whispered something to her, and Lucy nodded, blinking away tears of anger.
“Lucy has absolutely refused to travel to Los Angeles for the required time. She is unwilling to negotiate, refuses to speak to her mother, and has told me she will run away rather than follow her mother's wishes.”
“Okay,” Xander answered.
She'd do it too. Xander studied her and saw a reflection of the anger towards his own parents that he'd never – well, almost never – let reach the surface. Willow knew, understood, and had always accepted those torn places in his soul. It was the foundation of their friendship.
“Lucy, go ahead,” he told her.
“My mom's a whore,” Lucy spat.
Every adult in the circle flinched.
“She is not a whore, Lucy,” Mary Poppins corrected her. “She is a courtesan. There's a difference.”
“Right,” Lucy answered coldly, “on the price tag.”
“Okay,” Xander said, holding his hands up. The dogs and kittens were beginning to gather around them, trying to find some way to apply emotional first aid. “It's Lucy's turn now. Let her speak.”
“She doesn't want me, Xander,” Lucy said, tears spilling over her lashes. “She has to take me to meet the trust executor and prove to them that I'm still alive and she's still a good mother. Otherwise, she doesn't get her monthly party check. Excuse me, child support. Like she spends any of it on me. I have to call the lawyer's office to get my allowance and tuition and everything while I'm here.”
“Okay,” he said, nodding.
“I'm not going!” Lucy declared. “I hate her! She'll haul me to one meeting, all made up to look like the World's Bestest Mom, and then she's going to go back to her parties and her scuzzy boyfriends. She'll spend the whole time telling me I'm ugly and fat and offer to pay for plastic surgery, and then she'll buy some ridiculous little girl version of the outfit she's wearing and drag me to some premier. She doesn't even make D list anymore unless she's found some new guy to hang off of. Which I hope to God she has, because at least then, she'll leave me at home.
“I can't go anywhere,” she continued, her voice cracking. “I can't do anything. There aren't even anybooks in her house, Xander. And it's not even my bedroom. It never was. Any time a friend of hers needed to crash, I have to go sleep on the couch. And her boyfriends . . . they make my skin crawl! She says it's my fault if they stare at me or sit right next to me on the couch or . . . or . . . .”
“It's okay, Lucy,” Xander said softly.
“When I was eleven, she fired the housekeeper, because I spent all my time in the kitchen with her. Dolores was the only person there who even listened to me. Now it's all take out, and she has a cleaning service come in. I hate her.”
Ari wrapped her arms around Lucy and looked up at Xander, her gaze level and expectant. Xander, for his part, was angrier than he had been in a long, long time. Angry enough to ask Jarod, Faith, Robin, and Dawn to join him in a little trip to LA to put some things right. Then, he noticed Baxter sitting on the floor beside Lucy and realized he didn't have to.
“Arizay,” he said, turning to her, “what are your plans for Christmas?”
“I'm going to Long Beach the day after the dance to see my family, my abuelita and all my tias, tios, and cousins. My brother, Paolo, should have a pass from Camp Pendleton. He promised to take me to the shooting range.”
“Your abuela have room for one more girl?” Xander asked.
“Sure,” she said, watching him. “Half the people who come over for Navidad are family, even if they aren't related by blood, and everybody's friends are welcome. Might be sleeping on the floor or splitting a bed with an old lady and a toddler, but it all works out.”
Xander studied Baxter for a moment.
“Here's the thing, Lucy,” he told her. “When your mom let you come with us, she signed some legal papers that make Giles and now Jenny your parentsin loco. But she can revoke that status anytime she likes, and if she does and we don't send you back, she can say we've kidnapped you. That means the FBI gets involved.”
Lucy's bottom lip trembled, but she kept her determined face.
“If you run away, which you could totally do, and I'd hand you the go bag and money myself,” Xander continued, “then the FBI can investigate us for custodial interference and obstruction of justice. That means a lot of really bad attention, the kind that can give Wolfram and Hart and other enemies a chance to get at us.”
Lucy began to lose her nerve and started trembling.
“Now, you say the word, Lucy,” Xander told her, “and we'll do it. I'll hire some flesh-eating lawyers, I'll ask Jarod and the others to kick in, I'll call in all the favors I can. We'll contest her custody of you. Hell, we'll bribe the executor if we have to. Say the word, and you will never have to look at your mother again – or at least until you're 21 and you want to tell her where to go. We can and will do that.”
“But?” Lucy whispered.
“It'll be expensive. We'll use up resources we may need to protect you or other Slayers sometime soon. So, let me make you a deal.”
He waited until she looked up at him.
“Play along for one last time,” he told her. “Be all sweetness and light to your mom. Miss Calendar will buy you first class round trip tickets for you -” he paused a second as the tears threatened to start again, “and Arizay and Baxter. Don't warn your mom. Just show up with a friend and her pet. I'm willing to bet you a month's supply of Ho-Hos that before Christmas Eve is over, she'll be delighted to let you spend the rest of the time with Ari's family.”
Silence fell on the group. Lucy grappled with all the ramifications of the deal.
“Baxter?” she asked in a tiny voice, “would you like to come to Los Angeles with me and meet my mom?”
Baxter put one paw on her shoe and looked up at her, his ears up, flickering at every small sound.
As Nemesis, the avatar and incarnation of Divine Retribution, I will accompany you to the City of Angels and meet your dam. I believe she and I will have a great deal to discuss.
Lucy thought about it for another short while.
“Can I go to Disneyland?” she asked in a marginally larger voice.
“You can go to Disneyland,” Xander told her.
“Can I see the Queen Mary and the Aquarium of the Pacific and buy some books?” Lucy asked in an almost normal voice.
“Yes, you can see the Queen Mary and the Aquarium of the Pacific and buy some books,” Xander answered.
“Don't push it.”
“Okay,” Lucy said, smiling for the first time.
She launched herself at Xander and hugged him around the chest. Hard.
“Thank you, Xander!”
“You're welcome,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “Need. Air.”
“Oh, sorry!” Lucy grinned sheepishly. “Hey, Ari, let's go start packing! Have you ever flown first class? It's so much fun!”
The two ran off, and Xander tested his ribs. Baxter gave him an approving nod before hopping after the girls.
“Nicely done,” Mary Poppins said, inclining her head.
Jenny took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
And before he could recover and return to the ballroom, Buffy dashed in and grabbed his arm.
“There you are! Come on! It's a surprise!” she declared, grinning, and pulling him towards the kitchen.
“You're not going to start describing really awkward Jarod-sex details are you?” he asked plaintively. "I'm still traumatized by Willow."
She stumbled in surprise and gave him a look of bemusement and disbelief. “Uh, no. For one thing, Jarod and I haven't had sex. Yet.”
“Seriously?” he asked, confounded. “You passed your three day waiting period weeks ago.”
Buffy gave a slight shrug. “We've talked about it, and while the chemistry's there, we decided it would be better to wait a bit, have a solid start before we let the gonads take over.”
He stopped and looked at her closely, then very carefully poked her cheek.
“Hey!” Buffy protested
“Well, you feel real. Miss Poppins,” Xander called, “Buffy hasn't been possessed by some sort of celibacy demon, has she?”
Mary Poppins glanced over, closed one eye and produced green monocle which she peered through. “It does not appear so, Mr. Harris.”
He put the inside of his wrist against her forehead.
“You don't feel feverish,” he noted.
“Oh, cut it out, will you!” she said, hitting him in the stomach, but not very hard.
“It's just . . . not like you to be all waity and patient,” Xander remarked.
She glared at him and then shrugged again. “Jarod is very . . . romantic. And, I kind of realized that for a long time, I've been the anti-romantic. You know, kind of a jump-in-with-both-feet sort of thing, so that if the romantic side didn't work out, I had the perfect excuse.”
With the exception of Angel, her first, and Spike, part of her medley of self-destruction, it fit fairly well.
“Well, good for you,” he said, nodding and putting an arm around her shoulder. “Just, when you do end up doing the deed, please remember, I don't want to know a single, solitary detail.”
“You got it,” she agreed.
“So what's this surprise?” he asked, as Buffy steered him into the kitchen.
“Well, it's kind of a combination late birthday present and early Christmas present,” she said.
“You already got me a birthday present, remember?”
“Yeah, well, this kind of jumped off the shelf, grabbed me by the collar and screamed 'buy me for Xander or I'll wreak havoc on your dimension',” Buffy answered. “Plus, it was on sale.”
“Definitely an omen. Or is it a portend. By the way, what do you see on the table?”
Buffy glanced over. “A sock monkey with wings and a little cap and jacket. Does it kill people?”
“Not so far as I can tell,” Xander said. “We've just got a pool going.”
He paused at the marker board, uncapped the blue marker and wrote 'Buffy' under the Winged Monkey column.
Buffy read the board and considered the different lists, including Lucy's small scrawl in the bottom corner.
“Anything you want to tell me, Xan?” she asked.
“It can wait,” he answered. “So, what about this present?”
“Ooh, it's in your office. Emily helped me set it up.”
She pulled open his door and swung a hand to indicate he should enter.
There had indeed been a set up. A whole new cabinet with a marble counter, and on it, a sleek stainless steel box with elegant curves, black ceramic appendages, a series of dials, a narrow, lethal looking steel tube, a tiny arrangement of spouts which would have pleased a Zen master, and a set of large, manly coffee cups. It looked Vulcan. It looked like it might correct his grammar. It made the rest of his brand new office shabby in comparison.
“Okay . . .” he said, trying to determine what exactly it was.
“Take your phone out,” Buffy told him.
More than a little skeptical, he did. There was a new app on the screen.
“Kaffee Kunst?” he asked. It was only the most frou-frou, exclusive, hard to obtain, premier coffee maker on the market. There was no way she'd found it on sale.
“It's loaded with single shot brew cups, and you can use the app to check the inventory, tell it which one to load and brew, how much sugar, cream, syrup, frothing, that sort of thing.”
“Right. Is Giles going to scream when he sees the credit card bill?” he asked with academic interest.
“Mmm, possibly,” Buffy admitted. “I'm trying to get Jarod assigned as Council Treasurer before the next bill comes in.”
“Good idea. Jarod hasn't had any heart attacks lately.”
“Um, yeah. Yeah, I do. A lot. It . . . uh . . . doesn't tell knock-knock jokes, does it?”
“No, but you do need to create a password the first time you log in,” she told him. “So the Slayerettes can't hack it for mocha.”
“Good to know,” he managed.
How was it exactly that he'd forgotten to tell Buffy and the others about the dream where he met Dream and all the interesting details that came with it? Oh, yeah, they'd been off destroying world-conquering global corporate conspiracies. They really had just stuck to the most important of updates.
Once the game of Calvinball had started in the Great Hall, and the doors could only block out so much noise, Xander gave in, set up his smart phone account with his new coffeemaker, gave it a password of “cH3sTnu4”, and set it to brew a shot of espresso mixed with caramel syrup and frothed milk once an hour. One of the Slayerettes – usually Lucy – would bring it to him, and he remained caffeinated into the small hours as the ballroom took its final shape.
The plumbing and most of the wiring was in. Mary Poppins had taken over the wallpapering, which had a habit of rolling itself out and giving itself a perfect coat of adhesive without her touching it. Xander wasn't sure if that was Mary Poppins, the house, or both of them working together.
The chandeliers were up, stocked with beeswax candles Willow had already rigged to light on cue. The other lights had been designed and installed by Erik and showed a strong bend towards the steampunk style Dawn had noted. Jarod, his sister, half-brother, and clone were happily tuning the instruments to be played by the mechanical orchestra. All four of them apparently had perfect pitch, which would have been annoying, if they hadn't all four of them been wearing the largest smiles Xander had ever seen and occasionally breaking into happy tears at finally being re-united.
Willow was working on the centerpiece, occasionally climbing down below and several times running all the way down to the glade to talk to Chataigne. Xander was beginning to get a sense of when someone entered and left the glade, and a very vague feeling that, yes, a conversation had taken place, but he didn't know what of.
Broots was working on the control panels for the mechanical orchestra, and like Willow, he occasionally announced just how incredible the entire system was, how well thought out and organized, and what a pleasure it was to work on what amounted to an artistic masterpiece. That kept Erik happy as he climbed up and down scaffolding, adjusting pipes, pitches, timbres, stops, keys, springs, and hamsters for all Xander knew. The manuals and stops were numerous enough that both Giles and Miss Parker were on hand to test keys at Erik's direction.
So, Xander was busy with the last of the wooden slats of the underfloor, above the tiles, which would give the dance floor a spring usually reserved for national ballet companies. That was where Jenny found him.
She sat down beside him and opened a leather portfolio.
“Okay,” she sighed, “got the final proofs on the formal, engraved invitations for the ball. Say the word, and they go out.”
Xander stared at her.
“The dance is in three days,” he said. “How exactly are these invitations going out? By TARDIS?”
“Everyone's already got the unofficial invitations, but this is the one people are going to frame. Chataigne is handling them. At least that's what she told me. Well, not exactly told, but-”
“I get the picture,” he answered. “Let's see.”
She handed him the portfolio, and he held it out before him. The leather was full grain, and just from the touch, he could tell it was the highest quality. Enough years working with the Council had taught him just how important the good quality, dependable stuff was. Each portfolio was slightly different, each looked as if it had done a hundred years duty in the hands of reverent Buddhist monks.
The inside was lined with tobacco colored silk, again, the highest quality and gently aged to antiquity. The invitation itself was printed on the smoothest, thickest vellum he'd ever touched. He might have seen better after standing in line to look at the Declaration of Independence on display at the Jeffersonian, but that was under glass, laser, and the eagle eye scrutiny of several Men in Black. The words were hand written in superb calligraphy, and the ink was as black as the void of outer space.
It was the kind of invitation that, even if it were issued by your deadliest enemy with the promise of ritual disembowelment on arrival, you'd still be compelled to attend. Monarchs and heads of state would have slavered over it.
You and a guest are cordially invited to
a formal ball
to celebrate the occasions of
in honor of
to be given the evening of December 22nd
at six o'clock post meridian.
Dinner will be served.
Dress is formal. White tie for men; Ballgowns for ladies.
All weapons must be peace-bound.
In an effort to revive an ancient tradition associated with Chataigne,
please bring a small, handcrafted present made of natural materials.
Dolls are especially appreciated.
Directions to Haven will follow.
The known history of Chataigne and Haven may be found on the reverse.
All citations are available in the house's library for verification.
“I like it,” Xander said. “Send it out.”
“That's your job,” Jenny told him, indicating a crate filled with similar portfolios on a hand truck. “Chataigne wants you to bring them to her. She's got something else for you.”
He sighed heavily. There really was no rest for the wicked. Or even the slightly mischievous if given a chance.
The hardest part was getting the crate down the ladder into the stone hut. Xander promised himself he'd work on creating a set of stairs that were wider, less steep, and far more safe. There was no way the hand truck would fit through the grotto's opening, so he stepped through and hauled the crate after him, taking a crumbling of stone from either side with the last yank. For some reason, damage to the grotto didn't disturb Chataigne at all. But then, he supposed, she wasn't bound to the geology of the valley the way she was to the architecture of the house.
When he reached the tree, which still awed him with its immense girth and crown of leaves, he found Willow working on one end of her project, fitting small silver mirrors around the tree, at different places on the trunk, and scattered through the leaves. Chataigne supervised, occasionally pointing to a missed spot, or poking at one mirror until Willow adjusted it satisfactorily.
“So,” Xander said, setting the crate down, “Brain, what are we going to do tonight?”
“The same thing we do every night, Pinky,” Willow responded immediately, not looking up from the branch where she tied off the end of a strand of crystal beads. “Drink too much caffeine, use the bathroom a whole lot, and pray nothing tries to destroy the world while we watch Xena reruns.”
Chataigne leapt down from her branch, ran up to Xander, and hugged his leg with fierce love.
“Hey! You're bigger!”
In fact, she was. Her head was now at the same level as his lower thigh, a full two inches above his knee, her last landmark. He reached down to pick her up, and she reached her hands up to him, letting him hold her like a child against his chest.
Her hair was longer and fuller, though it still floated in tendrils like chestnut colored cobwebs. She had filled out. There were no more shadows under her eyes, and her elbows and knees had dimples in them. She smelled like the cool soil at the base of the tree, and her eyes, when she gazed at him, were gray, but tiny slivers of green were emerging. She hugged him around the neck, and it was like . . . it was like relaxing in a hammock under the shade of her tree, knowing that all the work had been finished, that everyone was happily pursuing their own occupations, feeling the flickers of sunlight dapple his face and long worked muscles slowly loosen with a receding ache that only made it that much better.
He stood, holding Chataigne like that for a long minute.
“Thanks,” he murmured to her. “I needed that.”
She kissed him on the cheek and scrambled down.
“So, any luck hiring Hogwarts Catering?” Xander called to Willow. “We sure could use some house elves for this.”
She was stringing the beads from branch to branch in something that looked like it shouldn't be a pattern but in fact had some manner of fractal rhythm to it. On the ground behind her were a dozen dozen paper lanterns and candles, to be hung on the boughs.
“Hadn't even thought of it,” Willow replied. “You should ask Andrew. He's actually turning out to be really good at logistics and problem solving.”
“Death first,” Xander answered flatly.
“Well, don't come crying to me when you run out of scones,” she told him. “I'll just point and laugh.”
Chataigne tugged on his hand.
“Yeah, okay,” Xander answered. “Invitations. They're in the crate, right th-”
Only, they weren't. He didn't panic. He just gazed at the little dryad, who smiled.
“That was on purpose, right? They went where they're supposed to, right?”
She nodded. Then she tugged shyly on his hand and brought him over to one of the lower branches of the tree.
He had seen the tree go through its annual cycle at a much more rapid pace than natural circumstances permitted. When he'd first entered the glade, the tree had been nearly leafless. Then, it had sprouted forth new leaves in a springtime of welcome. There had been a week or so where catkins dangled from the branches.
The little dryad lifted her hands up to the branch, and it graciously bent down to meet her. From a cluster of leaves, she pulled off one round, tan, hairy husk. It took both her hands to hold it firmly, and when she gave it to Xander, it filled the hollow of his palm and a little more. He squatted beside her.
He'd already started reading botany textbooks, so he knew what he held. The hard, inedible husk was covered in spines and had begun to split open along three seams. Inside was a small, dark brown chestnut.
“Chataigne,” he said, letting her take his index finger in her hand, “how long has it been since your tree gave chestnuts?”
She took a deep breath, and he felt her count back autumns and springs and autumns again, like a person allowing the pages of a thick book to slip past their thumb.
Since before the valley had been separated from the rest of the world, when the priest-warriors had cared for her. Willow had been combing all the historical documents she could find on the Knights Templar and their holdings but could find no mention of a church and small keep built to protect a sacred well and holy tree. Even then, any chestnuts the tree had born and dropped to the ground were squirrel fodder or occasionally gathered for roasting.
This was not that kind of chestnut.
“What do you want me to do with this?” he asked his little dryad as she gazed up at him, as beautiful as a summer day with shade and water.
She closed his finger over the chestnut and led him to another branch. There, the branch lowered itself like a knight kneeling to a lady, and she took another chestnut, which she gave him. Several times more, the tree gave her a branch, she took a chestnut, and put it in his hand, until he had to stop, dig through his pockets and tool belt and find a small sack to hold them all.
“Dawn's been reading The Once and Future King
to you, hasn't she?” he asked her. "We're going to have a Round Table by the time you're done, aren't we?"
Chataigne smiled shyly.
“This is a big deal,” he told her. “I can't give these to just anyone, you know. They've got to know how to plant it so it germinates, protect the seedling from the blight, and you know, the books don't say a word about the care and feeding of baby dryads.”
She giggled silently.
“Not that that's so tough,” Xander said, and beeped her nose with his fingertip.
She reached up, wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed his cheek, then sighed with a deep, welling happiness.
“I'll get started on that list,” he told her.