Ballroom Bash - Part I
Disclaimer: Go with the previous chapters' disclamers on who, what, where, when, and how. The Nac Mac Feegle belong to Discworld and Terry Pratchett. With the exception of a very small number of original characters, everything in here belongs to someone else. I am only borrowing.
Author's Notes:First, I grovel in mortification for the length of time it's taken to update this. My writing muse returned only recently, and there was some stuff she demanded I put down before she let me return to this one. The good news is that all that writing will be part of the Shadow and Light series. The next chapter will be the last one in this story, but not the last you will see of Haven or Chataigne. Not by a long shot. Thank you for reading, and happy holidays to all.
“I feel like an idiot,” Xander muttered, tugging at his collar, “and I look like a waiter.”
“Don't be silly, Mr. Harris,” Mary Poppins replied, giving him a once over, turning him so she could brush down the back of his jacket and tug it into place, “waiters wear tuxedos. You are wearing formal evening wear – white tie and tails. If anything-”
He turned back around to glare at her with his one good eye. As always, she was completed unfazed.
“You look like a penguin,” she finished, raising a calm eyebrow at him.
“Adelaide or chinstrap?” he asked, sourly.
“Emperor, of course,” she replied. “Now, go occupy yourself in the front room, sir. My hands are full with the girls.”
“You stopped me, remember?” he called on his way to the foyer. He'd learned, though, never to argue with Mary Poppins. There was just no winning. Ever.
The great hall had been converted for the evening to a kind of rest and relaxation center for the party-goers. One half had been neatly fenced in to corral any children. There were stacks of pillows and blankets for fort building, board games, the largest television in the house hooked to a DVD player, stuffed animals, books, and an antique chest filled with costumes for play pretend. All of the Slayerettes were committed to shifts minding the kids, five of them at a time.
There was a fire in the enormous fireplace, radiating heat into the room. Along the forehead high mantle, every single member of the household – including dogs, cats, one small white rabbit, and forty-eight teenage girls – had a stocking with their name written in glitter glue. The Christmas tree was fifteen feet tall, and thanks to Willow, would be replanted outside after the holiday season.
The rest of the room had couches, a long buffet already loaded with every kind of snacking food imaginable. The bathroom just off the great hall had been split into two, enlarged, and stocked with toiletries, sewing supplies, and foot massagers. Everything was draped in garlands of fragrant boughs – pine, balsam, holly, rosemary, lavender, and sage. Winter flowers in vases stood on almost every flat surface.
He paused in the hallway that ran from the medieval part of the house through the later Victorian additions up to the foyer and entrance. Winky had really done her job. There wasn't a cobweb to be found. All the wood panels and floors glowed with reflected light. The carpets were bright and springy. He'd had the torches replaced with lanterns and restored all the gaslights. Brick and stonework were sharp. The windows had been washed, the crystal chandelier cleaned, the brass polished, and the ten foot tall grandfather clock wound.
“Pretty awesome, huh?” Willow asked, coming up to him. Her hair was braided and wrapped in a complicated fashion around her head. Her makeup was restrained, she had sparkly, dangly earrings, and her dress was a deep forest green silk that accented her red hair and chestnut eyes.
He put an arm around her shoulder and gave her a one-sided hug.
“If I agree, does that mean we're jinxed?” he asked.
“Not tonight,” she said, shaking her head. “I was just thinking about what it looked like the first time we came in.”
Xander took a deep breath. “Yeah. A lot's changed.”
Willow snorted. “I'll say. You realize, Xander, that you've done what no one else has ever managed. You made a home for all of us.”
“What, you mean you aren't going to get a place with Katie so you can have a little peace and quiet?” he prodded her.
She laughed. “Maybe. I don't know. I do know that even if we do, this will still be where we come back to.”
“I'm glad to hear it,” he told her. “Can't do without my Will.”
He leaned over and gave her a kiss on the forehead, and she put both arms around him and gave him a squeeze.
“I've got to go run through the orchestra with Erik,” she told him. “He's going to have kittens before this night is through.”
“No jinxing,” Xander instructed her, and let her go.
She gave him a wave on her way to the ballroom.
He waited a moment to make sure he was alone, and looked around all the points of the house he could see.
“You doing okay?” he asked the house.
He didn't need to say it out loud anymore. He could just consider in his head, like pushing a mental button, and get an immediate answer. He could have entire conversations with Chataigne these days, though she still didn't get his popular culture references.
The house slowly creaked in response, making a sound almost like whalesong – happy and relaxed.
“That's my girl,” he said, running his hand over the paneled wall.
Jarod and Giles were already waiting in the foyer. Both of them were also in white tie and tails, and both of them looked like it was nothing more difficult than a polo shirt, shorts, and boat shoes. He considered hating the two of them, but couldn't bring himself to do it.
“Xander,” Jarod said, looking up with a smile. “Dawn was looking for you a moment ago.”
“I'm a popular guy,” Xander commented.
“Is everything under control?” Giles asked.
“Well, let's see, Erik's apparently having kittens over his whole mechanized orchestra, Winky should have earned enough brownie points for a Victorian Cross by now, I can occasionally hear thundering herds of Slayerettes, with the exception of Willow, I haven't seen a female human over the age of nine in two days, and there's a stack of bills from catering, dry cleaning, florists, plumbers, a tree surgeon, three seamstresses, a tailor, and a farrier on my desk. When exactly did we get a horse?”
“I've learned not to ask,” Giles said. “I did notice the stable two days ago.”
“A stable?” Xander called out to the house. “Okay, but I better not hear any complaints until after the spring thaw.”
The house groaned happily in response.
Jarod and Giles' sudden wide-eyed expressions should have prepared him, but when he turned and saw Dawn, he lost the ability to speak.
Willow looked great. She could have been the cover for one of those thick, boyfriend-beating magazines Buffy was always flipping through. Probably every other woman in the household would look at least elegant and pretty that night.
But Dawn . . . Like Willow, she'd put her hair up, but this was a tidy bun at the nape of her neck, and a few tendrils had escaped. Her dress was some high waisted fluttery thing, the diaphanous layers always shifting in the air, and it was the color of the sky just before the sun broke the horizon – a lapis blue so intense it should have glowed. She wore sapphire earrings and a necklace that emphasized her collarbones and the swell of her b-
He put his eye back on her face before it lingered too long.
Even though the color of her dress was a very dark blue, it made her blue eyes shine like the sky on an April morning. She was slender and lovely and fragile, and . . .
She smiled at him, completely aware of how good she looked.
“Uh . . . wow,” he managed. “You . . . uh . . . Dawn, you look really, really good.”
“Not so bad yourself,” Dawn replied. “You've got a real secret agent vibe going on.”
“Really?” he asked, startled. He thought he looked rumpled and distracted.
“Yep,” she answered.
She took a step closer and reached up to straighten his bowtie.
“Ack, don't mess it up,” he pleaded. “It took me five tries to get it right.”
She smacked him lightly on the chest.
“Do you have a minute?” she asked. “I need to talk to you privately.”
The doorbell rang, contradicting him.
“Da- Darn,” he veered off a curse word just in time. “I'm sorry, Dawn, I've got to handle the door. How about once everyone's here?”
“Sure,” she answered. “I'll see you later.”
Instead of spinning and striding for the door like he expected, she turned, gave him an unreadable look over her shoulder and sauntered back to the great hall.
Giles and Jarod joined him.
“You know, I spent thirty-five years locked in a laboratory, and the only girl I ever saw was Katie Parker,” Jarod said. “But even I knew how to compliment a young woman better than that.”
“The Croat cavalry could compliment a young woman better than he just did,” Giles answered.
With an eye roll, Xander went to answer the door. Their first guests of the evening were a sight for sore eyes.
“Niecy!” Xander declared, throwing his arms open wide for a hug.
Trish, Matt, and Mark all trooped in, pausing to stomp on the mat and get any snow off. Jarod and Giles began taking coats and hanging them on the extra racks.
“Xander,” Trish said smiling, giving him a sisterly punch on the arm, “you look like something out of a spy novel.”
“You're the second one to tell me that,” he answered, trying not to rub his arm. “I must be on to something.”
“This was not your idea, was it?” Niecy asked.
“What?” Xander replied. “Me? Volunteering for this fashionable straitjacket? It is to laugh.”
She pointed a very well manicured nail in his face. “You look good. You should get gussied up more often. We girls need something tasty
to look at. Mmm!”
Xander paused for a moment, caught off guard.
“Nod your head and say yes,” Mark told him. “It's your best option.”
Xander looked back at Niecy, nodding his head. “Yes, absolutely. You're totally right.”
“See why I keep him around?” Niecy asked of no one in particular.
“Niecy!” Giles greeted her. “So very glad to see you. Have you terrified any trolls lately?”
He took her arm as Jarod took Trish's and began to escort her to the great hall. Matt walked past Xander, only to trip suddenly. Xander grabbed him by the upper arm, but it was a good thing Matt got his feet under him. Xander had the feeling that propping this man in place would have taken several four by fours.
“Yeah,” Matt said, scanning the floor. “I could have sworn I stepped on something, maybe three or four inches high. There's nothing there, though.”
Xander scanned the floor too. Mice were never out of the question, but once Chataigne had understood how distressed her inhabitants were at the sight of rodents, she'd exiled the creatures to the garage and further out. Of course, that would be hell of a mouse.
“I'll keep an eye out,” he told Matt.
And the doorbell rang again.
This time, a handsome couple stood there, each holding an invitation. They looked to be in their mid-forties, completely at home in expensive silk, and totally self-possessed. He had no idea who they were. Thankfully, they didn't seem to expect recognition.
“I'm Ayasha January,” the woman introduced herself. “And this is my husband LeKeith Johnson.”
Those names he knew.
“Alexander Harris,” he said, shaking both their hands. “I guess I didn't look over the RSVP list close enough. I had no idea we'd landed the co-presidents of the January Fellowship.”
“We're just as pleased to be here,” LeKeith replied. “We brought Chataigne's gifts, but we also have some gifts to share with all the guests.”
He indicated two large . . . somethings – each had a handle on top, a cylindrical body with an 30 inch diameter and a height of nearly three feet, and each was wrapped in layers of blankets to keep out the winter cold.
“Anything dangerous?” Xander asked, more curious than wary.
“No,” Ayasha replied, smiling. “They can stay under wraps for another hour or so, but then they'll need fresh air.”
“I'll ask Winky to take care of them,” he offered. “Whatever they are.”
“Is there any chance we could meet Miss Arizay Fuentes and Miss Lucy Sinclair?”
Now he was wary. “They're both attending.”
Ayasha grinned. “Oh, I can't wait, Keith! I wonder what they're like.”
“Does this have something to do with New Orleans of 1836?” Xander asked.
LeKeith put a finger to his lips. “Spoilers, Mr. Harris,” he intoned. “Spoilers.”
Jarod returned to show them to the great hall.
The next guest was Mike Rowe, and damn him – which Xander thought very quietly where Chataigne couldn't hear him – he looked as comfortable in tie and tails as he did in jeans and a baseball cap.
“I used to sing opera,” Mike told him, reading his expression correctly. “It's all about the formal wear.”
“Next you're going to tell me you know ballroom dancing.”
“My waltz is a little rusty,” Mike admitted.
“Go,” Xander ordered him. “Just, go. The girls will love to see you.”
Mike wandered off on his own, checking the grout and the lighting as he went.
Buffy joined him. She wore a crimson gown with long, tight sleeves, an open neckline, and a full skirt pulled back into a train. She'd tucked several pieces of holly into her hair.
“Have you seen Dawn?” she asked.
,” Xander answered. “Wow. I'm actually a little uncomfortable with how hot she's-”
He stopped and glanced at Buffy, who had one of those
looks on her face.
“I meant,” she said, a little more annoyed than exasperated, “have you seen her recently and do you know where she is. Stop macking on my little sister!”
The doorbell rang again, saving him.
This was a group – six people in all. One of them, the tallest and youngest looked just as uncomfortable as Xander felt.
“Gibbs!” Buffy squealed.
The second oldest man, poker faced and tough, gave her a warm hug. When they broke, Buffy made the introductions.
“Xander, this is Leroy Jethro Gibbs.” Buffy held up her hand to indicate the weathered and very solid man beside her.
“Pleased to meet you, sir. Welcome to Haven.”
“Glad to be here,” Gibbs responded.
“This is Doctor Mallard,” she continued.
“Charming home,” the doctor said, looking around. “Why, it reminds me of some of the estates back in Scotland – the ones with more than their fair share of history, I should say.”
“Ducky,” one of the younger men said, “at least let us get inside where it's warm!”
“Oh, right you are.”
“And this is Ziva!” Buffy grinned, hugging the shorter of the two women.
Ziva reminded Xander of a coral snake – small, pretty, and deadly. Xander shook her hand, glad that she seemed to think as highly of Buffy as Buffy did of her.
“That's Tony,” Buffy pointed, “Don't take him too seriously.”
“Makes up for how seriously I take myself,” Tony responded, shaking Xander's hand with a firm grip and an overload of charisma.
Oh, the girls were going to go nuts for him.
“Hi, I'm Timothy McGee,” the taller of the two young men said, offering his hand.
“Oh, Willow's partner on Elf Realm.” Xander placed him.
“And I'm Abby!” the last member of the group declared and stepped around McGee. “I'm in a really good mood, so I'm just going to hug you and get it over with.”
“Sure,” Xander replied, “fine by meEWURG.”
She was taller than him by at least two inches, and she had a squeeze on her that would do the Abominable Snowman proud. She also wore the strangest Edwardian confection of black velvet and lace with a matching veil, dog collar, and fingerless gloves.
“Oh, hey!” Willow called striding in. “You're here! Come on. Winky just put the punch out. It's really good.”
She and Buffy ushered their invitees into the great hall, just as the doorbell rang again.
“Traffic out there must be getting dire,” Xander muttered to himself and opened the door.
A family, or rather, a pack waited patiently.
“Cesar, so glad you could come!”
“Xander, it is good to see you,” the man replied. “I'd like to introduce you to my wife and sons.”
Xander shook hands and made happy pleasantries.
“And, as your invitation instructed, I brought the most calm, submissive dogs I thought would do well,” Cesar continued.
There were at least eight of them, all gazing up at Cesar, waiting for an indication of what to do.
“I've got this,” Oz said, entering the foyer with his own pack.
“Dad, is this him?” one of the boys asked.
“Oz,” Cesar said, “I'd like to introduce you to my family.”
Another round of introductions took place while Xander closed the front door behind the last dog and took coats. There was a great deal of handshaking by the humans and butt sniffing by the dogs. Then all the dogs sniffed the foyer extensively. Cesar and Oz watched them curiously.
“You have a visit by a bunch of really little guys?” Cesar asked.
“Is this a trick question?” Xander asked.
The other members of the Scooby gang reappeared, and Giles had Jenny on his arm. Faith joined them as well. There had to have been some sort of coordination, because he had yet to see two women wearing the same color or style. Jenny wore a gold dress that draped her spare figure like a chiton. Faith wore skintight flaming scarlet with a narrow skirt slit well up her thigh. Robin, resplendent in his formal wear, stood beside her, smiling. His waistcoat was the same scarlet as Faith's dress, which Xander thought had to count as cheating.
And the doorbell rang again.
“Where'd Dawn get to?” he asked, opening the door.
Concerned, the others came around, and as soon as they caught sight of this guest, also stopped. There really was nothing else to do when confronted by something that wasn't supposed to exist in the waking world.
“Alexander Lavelle Harris,” intoned Dream of the Endless.
Dream wore a very formal version of the white robes Xander had seen and the same cabochon emerald hanging from his neck. He was just as pale as Xander remembered from his dream – not quite the bluish-white of the snow on the ground, but at least as pale as parchment. His eyes were even more unnerving in person. It shouldn't have been possible to see spinning galaxies and nebulae in the aphotic depths of space in them, but Xander could.
“Hey, Xander,” the raven on Dream's shoulder said, “how they hanging?”
“Great!” Xander said, snapping out of his shock. “Excuse me, Dream, may I introduce to you my friends, associates, and family members.”
He ran through each of the people there, and then turned to them.
“Everyone, this is Dream of the Endless and his raven, Matthew.”
Willow closed her mouth and swallowed audibly. She and Dawn had done the necessary research to prove it wasn't 'just a dream', and never mind the things he'd brought back from the Dreaming.
“Sir,” she started.
“Hey, Red,” Faith interrupted, “I got this one.”
Dream entered, the cold night air trailing after him like a banner. Faith took his arm and led him into the hall.
“So,” Faith said, striking up the small talk, “I wanted to thank you for that dream with Benedict Cumberbatch the other night. Got my motor running.”
“You're welcome,” Dream answered gravely.
As soon as they were out of hearing, Xander turned to Willow.
don't remember adding him to the guest list,” he said.
Willow gave an embarrassed shrug. “The invitations were sent with a general invocation spell I put together. There was some wiggle room to make sure they got to the intended person. Either Chataigne decided she wanted to invite him, or the shape of the spell added him in.”
“He's going to want to know my decision,” Xander said, half to himself.
“You're determined to stand by what you said?” Giles asked.
Xander nodded. Everyone around him exchanged uneasy looks.
“Hey, the deal was freely offered,” Xander told them. “And none of the verified encounters Dawn found pointed to him being particularly spiteful.”
“What about the legends?” Willow asked, her mouth dry.
“Look, nobody comes off well in stories that old,” Xander answered. “Just read the Old Testament.”
The doorbell rang again, redirecting their attention. This time it was Broots and his daughter. The next ring brought Katie, in a high collared, floor length gown of Tyrian purple. Then Debbie Sue, wearing silver. Then Jarod's family. Then a group of neighborhood kids Xander recognized from Halloween with one set of beleaguered parents to mind all of them. Then Riley and his wife, Samantha, and their two year old son.
Willow returned from escorting her last group of guests.
“Who are we missing?” Xander asked.
“The Jeffersonian crew isn't here yet,” she remarked, “and Angela told me they were driving from the airport together.”
“Look, just remember what I told you about Agent Booth,” Willow warned him. “Seriously. He's a dead ringer for Angel, but don't let it shake you.”
The doorbell rang.
“That's an American chestnut,” one of the men on the porch insisted. “Castanea dentata!
“That's great, honey,” the woman with him said. “I'm happy for you, really, but we're here.”
“No, you don't understand,” the man said, gesturing back towards the front gate. “There aren't any more full grown American chestnuts in its historical range. They all died. And that one has got to be a hundred and fifty years old.”
“Hodgins,” another woman said, “I'm sure Willow or one of her friends will be able to confirm it for you, but let's go inside. It's cold.”
“Yeah, come on in,” Xander invited. “And wait 'til you see the tree we've got inside.”
That got him a funny look, but Willow interceded, naming each of the group.
“The tree hugger is Dr. Jack Hodgins,” she told him. “And with him is Angela Montenegro.”
They shook hands.
“And this is Doctor Temperance Brennan,” Willow continued.
And Xander fumbled, staring at her.
“Is everything all right?” Dr. Brennan asked. “You started to say something and stopped.”
“Temperance?” he repeated. “Your name is Temperance?”
“It's an uncommon name for women of my generation, but yes,” Dr. Brennan responded.
Willow poked him.
“Just keep smiling,” she muttered.
“Call me Cam,” the next woman said, offering her hand.
“I'm Dr. Lance Sweets, and this is my fiance, Daisy Wick,” the younger man introduced himself. His date wiggled gleefully.
“And this is Agent Seeley Booth and his son, Parker,” Willow finished.
Even with Willow's warning, it was difficult not to stare at the FBI agent. If Angel hadn't been frozen forever in his mid-twenties, he might have ended up looking something like the man in front of him. Xander forced a smile.
“I'm starting to think I ought to be known by my other questionable ancestor,” Booth said, an ironic smile bending his mouth.
“Don't worry,” Willow assured Booth. “He'll get over it. Buffy did, remember?”
When they were safely on their way, Xander turned to her.
“You warned Giles and Jenny, right?” he demanded.
“Of course I did,” she answered.
“And Dawn?” he asked.
“Pictures and everything,” Willow told him. “You were the only one who wouldn't hold still long enough.”
He gave up with a shrug.
“Is that everyone?”
The doorbell rang one last time. When Xander opened it, he stopped. Again. This time it was two men, a woman about his age, and an orangutan.
“I'm . . . not with them,” one of the men said, indicating the others with a tilt of his head.
“Jason?” Willow asked, astonished.
The man grinned. “Didn't think I'd make it?”
“I didn't think the invitation had found you,” she answered, and hugged him.
“Uh, Willow,” Xander whispered, tugging on her sleeve. “Who's Jason?”
“He's the guy I met out by the lake back in August,” she said. “I told you about him.”
“Jason Gideon,” the man said, holding out a hand.
He shook it, and Willow led him in.
Xander glanced at the other man, who looked even more uncomfortable in formal wear than him. They exchanged a look of commiseration. The woman stayed close to the second man and cast a few looks at the large orange primate. It was wearing a woolen scarf and nothing else. The orangutan walked past them, putting its knuckles on the marble tile, uncaring of the winter cold.
“Hi,” Xander said once Willow had shown her guest inside.
“Hi,” the other man replied. “I'm Elliot Stabler. This is my daughter, Maureen. Giles knows me.”
Another mental bell chimed.
“Wait, you're the detective who handled Kennedy's death.”
“Please, come in,” Xander said. “I'm sorry I didn't recognize you at first. I'll let Giles know.”
“I'm here, Xander,” Giles called, striding into the foyer. “Elliot, I'm delighted you could come. And this is your oldest daughter? Charmed.”
Instantly, the detective's shoulders relaxed, and he smiled warmly as he shook Giles' hand.
“You doing okay?” he asked. “I heard about the heart attack.”
“The doctor has decreed me fit for all my previous activities. Elliot, Maureen, please do come in. There's someone I very much want you to meet.”
The porch light turned off. Apparently, the house was signaling him that all the guests were there. He closed the door as he turned towards the inside of the house – and it stuck ajar.
He looked over his shoulder, but there was nothing blocking the door, even though it felt like something had been squashed between the door and the jamb. Watching carefully, he closed it again, and the doorknob clicked in response. Someone in the hall must have yelled, and the sound had echoed in the foyer.
“Everything okay?” he asked the house out loud.
There was only a sigh and a slow creak of the house settling.
Xander smoothed down his jacket, straightened his lapels, and tugged his bowtie into place.
“Let's get this party started,” he said to no one in particular.
The great hall was filled to capacity, and that was before the slayerettes had come downstairs. There was the enormous buffet to tide over the guests until the doors to the ballroom were open. There was a huge pile of presents under the Christmas tree. The children, more than Xander remembered letting into the house, were squealing and clapping as the household pets mixed with them. More than half the adult guests had some sort of alcoholic beverage mixed and poured by Andrew. Xander gave himself a metaphorical pat on the back for that idea. It was just detailed and anal enough to engage Andrew's attention and keep him out from under foot while being hard enough to screw up that he could leave Andrew mostly unsupervised.
Guests were scattered across the room. The only person who stood alone was Dream, who watched with detached interest. No one there, other than Xander, seemed willing to look directly at him. Everyone else managed to avoid Dream's gaze without ever seeming to try to.
“Ready?” Dawn asked, coming up to him.
“As I ever will be,” he replied.
They walked over to the french doors that led into the ballroom. He still couldn't believe it had all come together without a major disaster. As he took his place and Dawn stood a little to the side, the guests turned towards him, curious. Erik de Boucherville, the former Phantom of the Opera and now resident evil genius, gave him a nod, meaning that all the mechanical and magical effects awaited only his command.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he started, and his voice was amplified to fill the room but no more. “I'll bet you're all wondering why I called you here tonight.”
A polite laugh rippled across the group.
“Screw it,” he said, “there will be plenty of speeches later tonight. I'll just say, I'm really glad you're here. Guidelines you need to be aware of – no cursing, no mean behavior, and no smoking. If you need anything at all, ask one of the residents. If you're carrying a sidearm, be aware that it just isn't going to work within the boundaries of the property.”
That got him some questioning and frankly annoyed looks.
“And,” he continued, “if you're carrying a bladed weapon, please take moment to peace bind it before you enter the ballroom, or you're going to have to wait until all the other guests leave so we can search the house for it. I'm really not kidding.”
The only one to do anything noticeable from his vantage point was Ziva, who handed her drink to Tony, and asked Buffy a question. Buffy turned, got a handful of something from Jarod, and handed it over to Ziva, who began reaching under her dress in interesting places and making adjustments.
“Before we invite the girls to join us, I'd like to take a moment to recognize a person you wouldn't see otherwise. She's the reason why everything looks good, feels comfortable, and comes with instant refills. Don't thank her, but if you get a chance, let her know how awesome her work has been. Winky,” he called, “would you come up here for a moment?”
A very shy and embarrassed house elf made her cautious way up to the front. Her shoulders were pulled up, and she kept her head down, unsure what to do.
“Everyone, this is Winky,” Xander introduced her.
For a split-second, there was absolute silence as the Scooby Gang waited for a reaction, and the guests tried to figure out what someone who wasn't quite two and a half feet tall and wearing tea towels like a toga could possibly be. Katie Parker was the first one to speak.
“Winky, it's beautiful.”
And she started clapping. It took only another split-second, and everyone else joined in, a little hesitantly at first, and then with greater volume.
“That punch is delicious,” Jarod called.
“I love the little soaps in the bathroom,” Willow said.
“The alterations to my dress are fantastic,” Jenny added.
“I'm astonished by how well all the glasses are polished,” Giles remarked.
Everyone else was trading slightly disturbed glances.
“The maintenance on the woodwork is great,” Gibbs said loudly.
Which then started the others. It took about five minutes for everyone to come up with something – from the chandelier to the fireplace to the garlands to the clean tiles – and the whole time, Winky kept her eyes on her toes while she blushed bright red. Finally, Xander held up a hand, and when the crowd fell quiet, he knelt beside Winky and put a hand on her back.
“You really are that good,” he told her. “And I'm glad you're here.”
“Winky is very happy to be here, too, Master Xander,” she said in that high-pitched squeaky voice. Then she sniffed.
“So . . . get back to work.” He grinned at her.
She grinned right back at him, and took off, disappearing before she could have cleared the first rank of guests.
“And, a couple of requests,” Xander said, standing back up.
“Xaaaaaaaannnnndeeeeeerrrrrr!” a girl's voice called from upstairs. “When do we get to come down?”
“Almost there, Ari,” he called back.
“Hurry up!” another girl squawked.
The group laughed. Xander ducked his head a bit before resuming.
“So, bring your presents for Chataigne when you enter the ballroom. Once you've had a chance to take a look around, there's a partition over on that side of the room-” he indicated by pointing, “-where I'd like the adults to take a look at something and type in their responses. Seriously, it'll be a big help.”
Then he looked up at the head of the stairs and smiled. The guests followed his eye.
“Girls, would you join us?” he called.
“Finally!” several of the girls responded.
There were forty-five slayerettes in the house for the winter ball. Only three had already returned home, all of them under protest. The remaining were under strict orders from Giles and Jenny, as well as the threat of an extremely stern talking to from Mary Poppins, to be on their absolute best behavior while there were any guests in the house. So, he shouldn't have been surprised when the girls emerged in a single file line, walking with grace and dignity.
There was a communal exhalation from the crowd in the great hall, a sigh of admiration for the long string of winsome, pretty girls, all in floor length gowns. Nearly all of them wore their hair down, and their dresses were in pastels or other light colors instead of the jewel tones the women wore. They were the center of attention for the time it took all of them to make it to the foot of the stairs.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Xander called, “welcome to Haven's winter ball.”
He opened the doors and backed into the ballroom. As he did, the lights all around the room came on. Hundreds of candle wicks ignited with flickering, wavering flames, filling the room with the scent of beeswax. Paper lanterns of all sizes came to life. Lamps glowed. Water from the fountain began to run.
And as each guest entered, he got to see their expression change from mild interest to astonished joy.
It had been his idea, but Willow was the one who'd done the work to make it happen. The room had been built to allow a very short term folding of soft space into the pocket dimension where Chataigne and her tree resided. So, now, the six thousand year old chestnut filled the center of the room with its thirty foot bole. Its branches spread out through and over the glass ceiling. It towered over the structure and made every person inside feel tiny and very, very young.
The slayerettes distributed themselves through the room as the guests wandered, looking straight up, amazed into speechlessness. While they wandered, the Scooby Gang tied their gifts to dangling branches. Most of the others had made small dolls. Willow had shown the others how to make felt, and Jenny had taught them how to knit. Xander had carved his out of wood.
When he tied it to a branch with a silk ribbon Dawn had given him, he looked up and saw the dryad peering down at him.
“Are you coming down?” he asked her.
She shook her head, her eyes dancing with mischief.
“You're coming down sometime tonight, right?” he asked.
She gave him a coy look.
“Hey, I wore this for your benefit,” he pointed out.
“Anyone important?” a man asked.
Xander glanced to his right. The man Buffy had introduced as Gibbs was standing there, looking up at the same spot. Xander looked back, and the dryad was gone.
“Yeah,” he managed, feeling like an idiot. “She comes and goes.”
“Who's that?” Gibbs asked.
The man radiated waves of “you are a punk ass delinquent, and you will give me the answer I want.” It set his teeth on edge, but Buffy had praised the man to the skies and talked about taking a few weeks to train with him.
“The . . . dryad,” Xander responded, working hard not to be intimidated. “Kind of a tree spirit . . . thing.”
Chataigne was going to kill him.
Gibbs stared back up into the branches.
“Yeah, Buffy told me about them. I guess it helps balance out the vampires.”
“She told you about the vampires,” Xander said.
Gibbs looked over at him. Was there a nice bone in this man's body? He felt like he was in third grade and pulled up in front of the principal, threatened with a mark on his permanent record because he'd poured chocolate milk down the back of Cordelia's dress. Cordie'd had it coming, of course.
“Kind of had to,” Gibbs answered. “Two of my agents followed her and Willow one night and got to see them in action. Then they get to try to explain it to me, which they couldn't, so Buffy insisted I come with her the next night, and they're all-” he held his fingers towards his face, mimicking what he'd seen.
“I know the look,” Xander said.
them with regular bullets doesn't work.” Gibbs sounded extremely annoyed, like he'd been told to suit up for a football game and walked into a sumo match instead. “Then both Buffy and Ziva break out the stakes, and a bunch of perps go poof.”
“It'll bend your brain the first time you see it,” Xander admitted. “Or the eleventh. Or the thousandth.”
“And you've been doing this since you were fifteen?” Gibbs asked him.
“Well, it was that or AV club.” Xander shrugged.
“Thought I knew all about war,” Gibbs muttered to himself. “Love to get my hands on one of those old Watchers Buffy talked about.”
“Well, they're dead,” Xander told him.
Xander found himself without a reply, and after a few seconds of silence, decided to leave it that way. Gibbs scanned the branches, found one he liked, and took out a miniature sailboat to tie to it.
It wasn't a toy. The boat was only six inches long from stem to stern, but the detail was exquisite. It was a schooner, fully rigged, and the sails were unfurled. There was a captain at the wheel. The name on the stern, written in gilt letters was “Kelly”.
“Wow,” Xander said. “She's going to love it.”
“Thanks. Kind of a hobby,” Gibbs answered. “I like boats.”
“You could make it into a cottage industry,” Xander remarked. “Sell sets of them, give them as gifts.”
“I do the life size ones, twenty foot, usually,”
Xander stopped and turned to look directly at Gibbs.
“Wait, wooden boats? You build
wooden boats?” Xander demanded.
“I'm not using your tree, Harris,” Gibbs said. “If that's what you're worried about.”
Before Xander could answer, someone grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him around, only to grab his lapels.
“HOW?” a short man with curly hair and beard demanded of him. “HOW?”
“Because?” Xander managed.
“That tree is thousands of years old,” the man growled at him. “It may be the oldest tree, the oldest living thing on the planet! Any tree a tenth that size would be on the national register. It's halfway between Castanea dentata
and Castanea sativa
. It may be a completely unknown species of deciduous tree! Do you know how rare that is? I NEED POLLEN!”
“Jack? Jack, calm down,” a woman said, pulling him away. “Come on, the tree isn't going anywhere, and you're scaring the straights.”
“Angela, this isn't possible!” the man declared. “Do you see the tree? Do you? Because if I'm hallucinating, I'm going to be extremely upset.”
“Compared to how you are now?” she asked sweetly, working his hands free of Xander's lapel.
She mouthed the word “sorry” at Xander and pulled her fiancé – Doctor Jack Hodgins, Xander remembered – away with her.
“We will talk,” Hodgins swore, looking back and pointing his finger at Xander.
For a moment, Xander just stood there, wondering if the punch was strong enough to get drunk on, and then set that idea aside, as neither Chataigne nor Mary Poppins would approve. Even if it would get him out of dancing.
“What was that?” Willow asked, joining him.
“Guy really likes trees,” Xander answered.
“Hodgins. Can't blame him,” Willow said. “When you get into any type of science, you end up staring at all the damage humans have done to the world – thousands of species going extinct, pollution-”
,” Xander interrupted her.
“Christmas isn't bad,” Willow said, giving him a very worried look.
“No,” he told her. “It's Christmas. We're celebrating. No sad stuff. Especially no sad stuff that makes me feel guilty for eating cheeseburgers.”
“Meat is evil,” Willow automatically answered him.
“But tasty. Tasty, tasty evil.”
As he teased her, he scanned the room. The ballroom was nearly three times larger than the great hall, and almost as crowded, what with the orchestra on the stage, the buffet and dining tables, the double fireplaces, and the tree. The people there were starting to relax, and conversations were being struck up. Gibbs had wandered off and was talking to Booth. Jarod's mother and sister were helping Angela Montenegro keep Dr. Hodgins from climbing the tree to get a better look. Ms. January and her husband had found Lucy and Arizay, and from the look of it, all four were delighted with the result. Mary Poppins was-
And he felt his whole body go on red alert. The conversations and Willow's reply disappeared. Mary Poppins stood, rigid as a board, her eyes darting one way and another, but not looking up, as Dream walked slowly towards her. She was scared.
Mary Poppins was scared.
He strode over, Willow on his right hand side where he could see her.
Tony nudged Gibbs, and when his boss looked up, nodded towards the sudden focus of attention.
Gibbs checked the scene. “Who's the pale guy? He looks familiar.”
“I don't know,” Tony admitted. “Looks a little like David Bowie.”
“Stay frosty,” Gibbs ordered, “keep an eye on it.”
“No, Queens is nice enough, but I've got a big empty house, and someday I'll retire from the fo-”
Elliot noticed the hush fall and broke off. Both he and the FBI agent he'd been talking to looked over.
“That's not good,” Seeley said.
“Excuse me,” Giles said, handing his drink to Dr. Mallard.
“Oh, I say, that does not look auspicious.”
“Loose, Popstar's in trouble!” Ari said.
“Gotta go!” Lucy answered, abandoning her brand new friends.
A circle of people closed in around Mary Poppins just as Dream reached her. Dream did not appear to notice them, and while Mary Poppins was clearly aware, she didn't acknowledge them. Instead, without looking up, she dropped into a curtsy so low, her nose was only a few inches from the floor.
Dream regarded her, nothing in his expression giving a hint to his thoughts. The raven on his shoulder flapped its wings uneasily.
“Rise, Mary Poppins.”
Mary Poppins rose from her curtsy to stand once more with impeccable posture. Her hands were folded in front of her, and Xander could see them tremble.
“Mary Poppins,” Dream intoned, “you have been remiss in your duties.”
“Y-” she started and then cleared her throat. “Yes, my lord.”
“You have not been seen in the Dreaming for at least one hundred years.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Why?” His demand was colder than the stars in his eyes.
“I was no longer content to speak to children only in their dreams, my lord,” she responded. “During your unfortunate absence, I found I could appear and exert my will in the waking world. I wished to make a real difference. Sire, there are so many
Mary Poppins fell silent and barely breathed. She still hadn't looked up.
“Dreams are not meant for the waking world,” Dream said. “And I do not countenance one of my creations abandoning its duties in my realm. Such dreams are ripe for unmaking.”
Xander's eye went wide. Mary Poppins exhaled, and her shoulders dropped a fraction of an inch. She shut her eyes for a moment and then inhaled, rallying. Before she could say anything, someone stepped in front of her.
“That's not entirely accurate, sir,” Dawn said, standing between Dream and Mary Poppins.
Xander's heart skipped a beat.
“What?” Dream's voice was, if anything, colder.
“That dreams are not meant for the waking world,” Dawn repeated, standing as firm as Chataigne's tree. “I mean, never mind all the demons who can't be native to this world and who may very well come from the Dreaming, or the spells that summon dreams into reality. What about the Corinthian?”
Dream's expression changed fractionally, but before Xander could charge in front of her, Giles stepped forward.
“Miss Summers has a point, sir,” Giles said, in his driest, most academic tone. “There are multiple documented encounters with woken dreams. We have met more than a few.”
“Lucky Thirteen ring a bell?” Buffy asked.
“Considering how many humans the Corinthian killed while it walked this world,” Dream told them, “that is a poor example.”
“But that is not why you unmade him,” Giles said, holding the stems of his glasses between the fingers of one hand, his other hand in his pocket. “There are numerous accounts from clairvoyants and prophets from the time of Mary Poppins' emergence in this world that attest to the disappearance of the Lord of Dreams. The king was not on his throne.”
Dream turned his gaze on Giles, and it was unmistakably angry.
“Did you, sir,” Giles asked in his mildest “give them enough rope” voice, “give notice to your subjects that they should all return to their realm of origin once you sat on your throne once more?”
“Yes, Rupert Giles. I did,” Dream answered.
“All your subjects?” Giles asked, looking up from under his brows.
Dream did not answer for a long moment. “There were other considerations.”
“I'm sure there were,” Giles agreed. “Yet, you created Mary Poppins with the need to minister to children, and placed her in a world where she could have only fleeting moments to do so. You left no instructions during your absence, nor did you appoint a regent. When you returned, you gave her no notice that you required her presence, and you hunted down and destroyed several renegade dreams – including the Corinthian – yet you did not pursue Mary Poppins. In fact, it would appear that until tonight, you were unconcerned with her whereabouts or her state.”
“Huh,” Faith said. “Sounds to me like Popstar isn't the one who was all remiss.”
And Xander stepped in before Dream could do anything really bad to the second senior Slayer.
“Dream, sir,” Xander said, stepping in front of Dawn and Giles. It was getting crowded. “Mary Poppins is a friend and colleague. She's also loved by all these girls - Slayers. I'd hate to see anything upset them on such a pleasant occasion.”
He was taking a chance, making even the slightest suggestion that Dream would impugn the hospitality he'd accepted. Matthew squawked extremely loudly and flapped his wings again. Dream gazed at him, head turned a bit and eyes narrowed.
Dream said, “I will not pursue the matter further this evening.”
“Thank you,” Xander said, deeply relieved.
“We have business yet to attend to, you and I,” Dream informed him.
“We do,” Xander agreed. “And I hope you'll be willing to conduct that business later tonight.”
And Dream was suddenly elsewhere, leaving an empty place on the floor. There was a long moment of silence, and Xander turned on Dawn.
“Are you out of your mind
?” he hissed at her. “That was Dream. The
Dream. He decides you're out of line, and you spend the rest of your sleeping hours being eaten by bugs with Principal Snyder's face!”
“Which he doesn't do if you're polite to him,” Dawn answered, surprisingly unfrightened. “So long as you use your manners with him, you can get away with murder.”
He wanted to scream “Don't DO that!” at her, but she'd already turned to Mary Poppins, who was being attended by Giles on one side and Jenny on the other.
“I'm fine,” Mary Poppins insisted, but she was pale and clammy and beset by waves of trembling.
“Sit,” a man commanded.
It was Erik de Boucherville who brought a chair and a snifter of brandy with him. He put the chair down behind her, and when Giles gave her support while she sat, held the snifter out to her.
“Mary Poppins,” Xander asked, “are you all right?”
“I . . . yes,” she managed. “I am intact, which I had not expected, and I feel . . . quite upheld, Mr. Harris. I had no right to expect you or anyone else to come to my defense.”
“Are you kidding?” Lucy asked, aghast. “You're our
Popstar! Nobody messes with our Popstar.”
Mary Poppins, though, wasn't listening. She was busy downing the contents of the snifter in one long drink. When she was done, she started coughing, covered her mouth with the back of her hand, and finally wiped her watering eyes. She held the snifter up, and de Boucherville took it back.
“Should that . . . person disturb you again,” he said, “please inform me. I will see to the matter.”
Which didn't bode well for their Phantom of the Basement, Xander thought.
“Thank you . . . Monsieur de Boucherville,” Mary Poppins said, staring at him, unable to comprehend why he would come to her aid or defense.
“Mamzelle Poppins,” Erik de Boucherville said, “you are a shrike and a Philistine, but you are our
shrike and Philistine, and I will not countenance another challenging the sanctity of our tribe, no matter his puissance.”
“Geez, enough already,” Faith said, “just go sleep with each other. Get it out of your systems.”
Both Mary Poppins and Erik de Boucherville looked outraged at the very idea.
“Erik,” Xander interrupted. “Why don't you get the orchestra going. Faith, tell Winky to put all the dinner courses on the buffet.”
“She's been hitting the eggnog,” Dawn whispered to him, indicating Faith.
“The eggnog's supposed to be virgin,” Xander replied. “I told Andre- never mind. See if Willow can sober her up on the sly, and as-KAH!”
“Askah?” Dawn repeated, raising her eyebrows.
“Something – a lot of somethings – just ran over my foot,” he said, scanning the floor.
There was nothing out of the ordinary on the floor around him, which still left a hell of a lot of possibilities. There was, however, a scuff mark across the wide, patent leather toe of his shoe.
“By the way,” Dawn told him, “we're out of shrimp embrochette.”
“Those are my favorites!” Xander protested. “I ordered five gross
, and I haven't even gotten to try them!”
“I saved a plate of them for you,” she told him.
Some of his stress evaporated.
“Thanks for looking out for me, Dawnie,” he said, smiling.
“Do you have time to-”
Buffy interrupted them.
“Oh my gosh, Xander, I just realized, the lady on your disappearing-reappearing tarot card? It's Doctor Brennan!”
“Yeah,” he responded, “I kind of figured that when I met her. And Gibbs makes wooden boats.”
“And McGee plays Elf Realm,” Dawn added.
“So, we need the sane man in the asylum, the relevance of the Internet, winged monkey eggs, Guardian, the final vote on Genghis Khan's severed head, and a botany tutor, and we complete the set,” Xander said.
“Doctor Hodgins – he's the one who was shrieking about pollen – is a botany kind of guy,” Buffy suggested.
Xander glanced up at the glass ceiling, hoping for divine intervention and not finding any. “Please let him calm down before I have to talk to him again.”
“Excuse me,” Ayasha January said, coming up to their group.
“Yes, how can I help you?”
“Well, the girls-” and Ayasha indicated Ari and Lucy, “have asked that LeKeith and I deliver our gifts before the dancing starts, which I understand is any minute now.”
“Uh . . . yeah,” Xander said, nodding. “I need to notify Erik-”
“I can get that,” Buffy said, putting her cup of punch down on a nearby table.
“And, why don't we head up to the dais. Dawn?”
“I'll catch you later,” she sighed.
She looked a little discouraged, so he leaned over her shoulder.
“Hey, you really do look fantastic,” he murmured to her. “You're going to break some hearts tonight.”
That didn't seem to cheer her up.
“And I've got a present for you,” he added. “Not your Christmas present, but a bonus.”
She smiled, but her heart wasn't in it.
“You're killing me here, Dawnie. Fine. I'll dance with you.”
That got her. She gave him a bit of a shove.
“First dance, sucker.”
He gave Dr. January his arm and led the way to the dais. On the way, he spotted Buffy talking to Erik, who flashed him a sour glance and a grudging nod. January's husband joined them with the two presents, now covered with black silk cloths. There was something in each of them making enough noise to be heard over the clamor, little twittering noises that made Xander frown with concern.
“Dinna fash yuirself, mon. Yon wee beasties were fed no' an hour ago. An' they'll no eat yuir head, as there's naught but stuffings and bogies in there.”
He could have sworn the voice was right next to him, on his blind side, but when he turned his head, Dr. January only looked up at him curiously.
“Didn't see any insulting Scotsmen just a second ago, did you?” he asked.
“Noooo,” she answered, looking around carefully.
“Never mind, then.”
On the dais, several spotlights picked him, Dr. January, Mr. Johnson, and the two gifts out. He'd have worried about the fact that he hadn't purchased any spotlights, but figured Erik had whomped something together.
“Hi, everyone,” Xander said, his voice amplified without him working at it. “Sorry to bother you again so early. Keep eating. The music will start soon, and there'll be dancing for everyone. Uh, I should warn the men, that they're going to be in high demand, as the ratio's pretty skewed. Don't worry, though. The dance floor is spelled to keep you from looking like a moron.”
There were several laughs scattered across the floor, and Xander decided against explaining that he hadn't been joking. Willow had spent two days coming up with that spell and had written it permanently into the floorboards of the ballroom, so that any future dances would be charmed as well.
“Anyways, I'd like to introduce Dr. Ayasha January and Mr. LeKeith Johnson, the co-presidents of the January Fellowship. They have a quick presentation to make.”
Dr. January, taller than Xander, with golden skin, turquoise eyes, and Raphaelite curls, took the center stage.
“Thank you, Mr. Harris. It's an honor and a pleasure to be here.” She smiled at him and continued. “More than one hundred fifty years ago, the January Fellowship was founded by a circle of friends to consider solutions to long term problems faced by the peoples of the world. Sometimes, the Fellowship has chosen an active role, such as creating the Secret Service in the face of credible threats to President Lincoln's life. Other times, they choose a more silent role.
“Tonight, I have the great pleasure to make public through you, the fruition of one of those plans. Many years ago, my ancestor Benjamin January, secured several purchases of land that were then deeded to the Fellowship and held in trust. One of the purposes of these land reserves was to protect species he felt were under threat of extinction. Benjamin January had a prescient outlook, and thanks to his foresight, I take pleasure in introducing to you two of the species we were able to protect until the Fellowship determined we had a stable breeding population that could be re-introduced to the natural environment.”
Her husband pulled the covers off and revealed two very large birdcages, one with ten cooing pigeons and the other with at least twenty twittering parakeets.
“Okay. Kind of a big production for some birds,” Xander muttered to himself.
It was Doctor Hodgins who had the big reaction. He pushed his way to the dais, wide-eyed and heaving. Doctor Mallard was right behind him, followed by Giles, Jason, Doctor Saroyan, Doctor Brennan, Jarod, and Doctor Sweets.
Hodgins kneeled in front of the first cage, grabbing the bars and putting his face up to them. He muttered things to himself with words like “cladistics”, “breeding population”, and “communal nurseries”.
“How many breeding pairs do you have?” he demanded as the others gathered around.
Doctor January smiled broadly. “Over four thousand, Doctor Hodgins.”
“And the others?”
“Not as many, but we felt five hundred breeding pairs was enough.”
Hodgins' laugh turned into a whooping cackle of joy. He stood, grabbed Doctor January by the shoulders and kissed her soundly.
“Could I get this in English?” Gibbs called.
“I'll second that,” Elliot said.
“Those two groups of birds,” Doctor Brennan said in response, “are the first specimens of the American Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet seen in a hundred years.”
“They're shy?” Gibbs asked.
“They were extinct, Gibbs,” Hodgins yelled. “Extinct
. Wiped off the face of the planet. Except, they're not. They're right here!
“Merry Christmas, everyone,” LeKeith said.
“So, the birds are a big deal,” Xander said. “Anything else up your sleeve?”
Ayasha smiled slyly at him. “Spoilers, Mr. Harris. Spoilers.”
“And now that half the male population has absolutely no interest in dancing,” Xander addressed his comments to the crowd, “let's start the music.”
The spotlight switched to Monsieur de Boucherville, who strode across the dais and stepped up onto the podium. From his inside jacket pocket, he took out a conductor's baton, and tapped it on the top edge of the music stand. From the floor in front of him rose an assortment of clockwork musicians. The Phantom's whimsy had been given full reign, and the results were enough to pull everyone's attention away from the two miraculous species of birds.
Each musician, taken as a whole, was nothing like a person. At first. Internal workings showed gears, springs, fans, even bellows. Then, he raised his arms, and the clockwork musicians brought their instruments up to position. In that moment, a collection of polished bronze, oiled leather, gleaming enamel, and bright satin became a twenty member orchestra, and every wig, buckle, button, and bell was in order.
Xander scanned the crowd and smiled to himself at the expressions around him. Even Dr. January was speechless. Then something flicked his ear.
He turned and found Dawn waiting.
“First dance?” she reminded him.
“Oh!” He remembered. “Uh. Yeah.”
She closed her eyes, briefly, and then rallied and held up her fingers for him to take. He took them with the wrong hand, switched, and then led her to the dance floor as she muttered directions under her breath. The orchestra began the sweet strains of Tchaikovsky's “Waltz of the Flowers”.
“Stop,” Dawn murmured through her fixed smile. “Turn and face me.”
“You going to keep this up the whole time?” he asked, putting his hand on her waist.
“Other hand,” she replied. “Other hand
He put his other hand on her waist, and she lifted the first one to hold hers at shoulder level.
“The charm doesn't kick in until you start moving,” she said, continuing to smile sweetly. “So, I'll keep doing it until then.”
He took the first step, remembering some vague words about a box and a diagram with too many footprints. And then, it didn't matter. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he did it without effort and only as much thought as he wanted to spare to it. It was like puttering in the workshop, only Dawn was moving counter to him, in time and light as a feather. All he had to do was think of hinting a change of direction, and she read it through his hands and followed.
Then he noticed other couples were doing the same, and the dance floor was rapidly filling with couples, the women's gowns swaying and spinning until the candle flames around them flickered in time. He glanced up at the branches and saw the dryad peeking down at him. She was smiling, and it was such a smile, his heart jumped a little. She was happy. Oh, more than happy. This was, he realized, one of the best days in her millennia spanning lifetime. Other champions had given her safety, protection, and some company. He'd given her a winter's ball and filled her with music and people and girls wearing pretty dresses and evil geniuses with clockwork orchestras.
He looked back down at Dawn, who was waiting for him to remember her, though they were still turning and stepping in time with the music.
“I have to admit it, Dawnie,” he said. “It really wasn't such a bad idea after all.”
“You should listen to me more often,” she replied, giving him a superior smile. “So when do I get my present?”
“Patience, Grasshopper,” he told her.
“You know, I can hit you and not lose my place,” she said, cocking an eyebrow at him.
“And muss your dress?” he asked.
“Yeah, right.” She sneered. “Like I can't ju-”
Her eyes went as wide as saucers, and she nearly convulsed, bringing her shoulders up to her ears and twitching hard. Then there was a sound – not a loud one, but one Xander readily recognized – and Dawn said “meep!” in a tiny voice.
She abruptly turned and stepped against him, so her back was against his chest.
“For the love of God, Xander,” she said in a choked whisper. “Do not move.”
“Uh . . . should I ask why?”
She made a choked sound and tried to shift something, which only made him aware of the fact that there was a large spot of her back which should have been covered by her dress and wasn't.
“Costume malfunction,” she squeaked. “Xander, can you please
re-zip me? I have to keep my dress from falling off.”
“I . . . uh . . .” he looked down, saw how much skin was involved and how far down it went, and his eye bolted all the way to the ceiling, and his hands got as far away from Dawn as they could.
“Seriously, Xander?” Dawn pled, her voice a flame of embarrassment.
“Wuh . . . I . . . ogg . . .” were the unfortunate sounds that came out of his mouth. The worst of it was that he could feel the blood drain from his face, and dear God in heaven, not that, not here, just kill him now!
“Just kill me now,” Dawn groaned.
“Don't panic,” a warm female voice said. “I heard your distress and came as soon as I could.”
The woman who'd come up to them was Jarod's mother, Margaret. It was like seeing the US Cavalry crest a hill with banners flying and trumpet playing.
“Xander, would you open your jacket and hold it out to you sides, please,” she told him.
He reached in to unbutton his jacket and felt warm, bare skin against the back of his fingers. He tried not to make any extra movements or any sounds at all. Then Dawn started shivering. He swallowed and tried to think about dead kittens.
“Good grief, Xander,” Margaret said, “what is that?”
He looked over at the spot she indicated. “What? Where?”
“I don't know, but I think it might be mold,” she answered.
He couldn't move any closer, but he examined every square inch on the seam where the wall met the ceiling. Meanwhile, now in the periphery of his attention, Margaret reached past him and down low, brought the sides of Dawn's gown together, found the zipper, and in one long pull, restored her dignity.
“Any idea what happened?” Margaret asked Dawn, as she helped resettle the drape of her gown.
“Something landed right between my shoulder blades,” Dawn said. “I thought maybe one of the kids had thrown something, but then my zipper went. Oh, thank you. Xander was no help at all.”
She kicked him in the ankle.
“Hey!” He turned back to her.
“Well, it wasn't really fair to put him in that situation and expect higher level problem solving from him,” Margaret told her. “Xander, thank you for going with my distraction so well.”
“There's . . . no mold?” he asked.
“No, and you can close your jacket now,” she responded.
Dawn gave him a completely disgusted look.
“A lot of help you were,” she snapped, and then she stalked off.
“What exactly did I do wrong there?”
“You were a man,” Margaret said with great sympathy. “Why don't you go get a drink? You look like you need one.”
Xander gave up and went over to the refreshment table.
“And what libation may I present you with this evening, good sir!” Andrew asked.
“First,” Xander said, “mix up a new batch of eggnog without the rum, and don't give Faith any more of the stuff you spiked.”
Andrew lost his smile. “But, I di-”
“Second, give me a Coke with some grenadine, and third, don't even think of quoting Casablanca
Andrew opened his mouth.
“Or Moulin Rouge
,” he added.
Andrew deflated and made the Coke with grenadine.
“Hey, what's Giles's good whisky doing up there?” Xander demanded. “That stuff is thirty years old. It's his private stash. You're not using it for the party, are you?”
“No!” Andrew protested. “It's a surprise, honest. I wanted to do something nice for Giles.”
Someone, somewhere around them cried, “Crivens! Tha' a mon cuild do sich a thing! We mun tell Rob.”
Still skeptical, Xander picked up his drink and wandered over to the corner where they'd set up their little survey. Behind a screen, one person at a time could see the item he'd brought back from the Dreaming and type in what they saw. Then they could look at the mystery paper he'd also had, which was set up with a light that went off every five seconds and then came back on, so they had a chance to see all the variations.
Agent Booth came out, saw Xander, and strode directly over.
“Let's you and me have a talk,” Booth said, eyes narrowed.
“Can I keep my drink?”
“Why the hell do you have a severed human head in a box in there?” Booth asked.
“Did it ask you any knock-knock jokes?” Xander replied.
Booth leaned in, getting in Xander's face.
“Federal Agent,” Booth said, pointing to himself, and then he pointed back at the partition. “Severed human head.”
“Look, Agent Booth,” Xander started, “it's not a severed human head. Or at least, that's not the only thing it is. I woke up from a dream, and it was next to me. To me, it looks like a head of cabbage. Some people see that. Some people see a lemon. Some people see a sock monkey doll with wings. We've had it for several weeks, it's never been refrigerated, and it's not decomposing in any way. So, you tell me, are you absolutely sure it's a severed human head?”
Booth wasn't mollified, but he did lean back a little.
“This is going to be like that time with the gangbangers, isn't it?” he asked.
“I don't know,” Xander said, turning his head to give his good eye the full view. “What was that time with the gangbangers?”
Booth gave a sigh of frustration and put both hands on his hips.
“Buffy and Willow swear this bunch of ugly troublemakers are vampires, if you can believe that,” Booth told him.
“Really,” Xander said, matching Booth's tone of disbelief.
“Yeah, except, when I pull my badge on them, they take one look at me and run off screaming. No one would tell me what the hell that was about.”
Booth looked really irritated.
Xander nodded. “Yeah, I think this is going to be pretty much like that. If you're worried, though, just have your colleagues take a look.”
Someone grabbed his shoulder and pulled him around. It was Buffy.
“Come on,” she said, “I want a dance.”
“You know, you have a boyfriend for that now,” he told her. “Besides, I think Agent Booth needs to threaten me some more.”
Buffy gave Agent Booth a look.
“Would it be too much to ask,” Agent Booth asked, “that you not include severed human heads in your Christmas decorations?”
“What, Ghengis?” she replied. “Not my fault. All I see is a sock monkey with wings. Besides, it's right up there with the Ghost of Christmas Future. Tradition. You're a fan of tradition, right?”
And so, Xander was dragged out onto the dance floor again and only had time enough to put his drink somewhere he could find it again, and he hadn't even had a chance to take a sip.End, Part I