Christmas in Sunnydale
I don't collect royalties for either of these crossed universes, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Criminal Minds. And I never will.
Anyanka had better show her ass soon,
Halfrek grumbled as she stood and tapped her toe in the closed magic store, arms crossed over her chest. After sending such an impatient message, the least her fellow Justice Demon could do was be
there. Granted, nothing forced Halfrek to wait around, but Anyanka´s message had intrigued her. And it had been four months since she had seen her friend—without a hint that Anyanka would suddenly setup a human business. Halfrek always encouraged the other denizens of Arashmahaar to keep abreast of the human world, but Anyanka´s last attempt at living among them had been… unfortunate.
Of course, that was Anyanka´s own doing.
And Sunnydale, at least, had a strong supernatural presence. The mundane humans of the town might pretend they thought demons were extras from a B movie set or whatever the current line was, but they knew better. They merely paid lip service so as not to disrupt the Balance Repression that affected the bulk of the human world. Most did anyway. Tourists, newcomers, and those not bright enough to accept the truths their parents taught them behind closed doors, tended to quickly move on to other towns.
Or run blindly to their deaths.
Halfrek sighed and started pacing through the shop, the nearby streetlamp providing more than enough light for her demonic eyes. Anyanka had arranged the shelves and merchandise in an eye-pleasing manner that invited the casual shopper to stick around. The real supplies were shuffled in among the new age fads and decorative items, with everything truly dangerous restricted to behind the counter. In deference to the time of year, a pine tree temporarily resided in the middle of the room with charms and ordinary ornaments on its branches. The shop itself had intricate wards layered around it to deter theft and violence.
In fact, if Halfrek had not known Anyanka as well as she did, she would not have been able to wait inside after hours.
The soft sound of a key in a lock came from the storeroom. She strode to the back, all set to tell Anyanka off for her tardiness. "Stay there a moment, Sean," Halfrek heard Anyanka say. Halfrek kept quiet in the shadows as she slipped into the room. Anyanka, currently a dark brunette in a blue dress, locked the shop door with one hand. In her left arm, she held a boy who looked about eight with hair as dark as hers. The boy´s arms, one of which was bound in a fresh cast, were wrapped around the Anyanka´s neck, and he wore socks but no shoes. He rested his head against Anyanka´s shoulder, his face turned away from Halfrek. Beside the door stood a ten year-old blond boy, a stuffed bag in his hands.
"This way." Anyanka gently touched the blonde’s shoulder, and nudged him through the storeroom to a staircase. "There's an apartment at the top of the stairs. There'll be no inviting anyone in—"
"After dark ´cause vampires love this town." Sean rolled his eyes as he started up the stairs. "We're not stupid."
"No inviting anyone
,” Anyanka said as she followed him up the stairs, "day or night. This is my place, and I´ll decide who I´ll let through the wards. You want to have friends over, you can hang out with them in the public areas of the shop. We can set up a play area. What you will not
do, is play with any of the merchandise unattended. You break anything, you've bought it. You will not attempt any magic on your own until you've had a few years training. Even then, any supplies you take from the shop will be paid for out of your allowances. As you're family, I will charge you only what they cost me, not retail markup—unless I catch you trying to sneak ingredients. And trust me: if you try, I´ll catch you."
Halfrek kept herself cloaked from human notice as she started up the stairs after them. She did, however, pulse her energy so that Anyanka would know of her presence. To Halfrek´s surprise, Sean hesitated for a moment and the other boy lifted his head up and looked curiously, if blankly, her way. He had dark brown eyes with vivid bruising and swelling around the side of one eye. A wave of fury flowed through Halfrek as she realized that someone had deliberately harmed him. She reached out with her power to see the cause.
The all too familiar pain and fury of long-term abuse emanated from the boy. And resolve. Even if she could take him on, that boy would never be Halfrek´s customer. He was too independent. Any vengeance he sought, he would wreak himself.
The group reached the landing at the top of the stairs. Anyanka unlocked the door. She rapidly took the boys into the apartment. She secured the door behind her, but left Halfrek an invitation through the stronger defenses. Halfrek silently teleported into the apartment.
The walls were white with avocado green appliances and brown linoleum in the kitchen and dining space to the right. The space to Halfrek´s left was clearly a family room. The floor was covered with inch-long yellow shag carpeting. A sofa sat against the wall by the hallway. A television stood against the wall by the door. The side wall had a wide, frosted window.
"You two will have to split my bed tonight," Anyanka said as she opened a door on the far left of the yellow carpeted hall. "Tomorrow we'll get beds and other stuff for what will be your room. Bunks would give you two more floor space… though that'll be up to you. You will agree on a style, even if it's one that's not either of your favorites."
She walked over to the full-sized bed and tossed all but one of the blue throw pillows on it onto a nearby chair. Then she pulled back the off-white bedspread and covers. "Just set that down and take your shoes off," Anyanka told Sean. "Did you want an icepack for your ankle, Aaron?"
The dark-haired boy shook his head as Anyanka gently laid him on the bed. "I'm good," he mumbled. Anyanka nodded and propped the boy's right foot up on a pillow. She pulled the covers up over Aaron, and then did the same for Sean after he climbed onto the other side of the bed.
"Miss Anya?" Aaron asked quietly as Anyanka went to leave the room.
"You said no one could come in here without your permission? Does that include, um, well…" Aaron bit his lip and stared down at the floor.
"I'm not letting your mother in the shop
," Anyanka patted his arm, "much less here. She won't ever hurt you again."
"She's not always like—That's not why I asked."
"Your father…" Anyanka´s tone became subdued. "He hasn't hurt you too, has he?"
Sean scoffed. "He's afraid of that Santa Claus the new girl in his class talked about. I told him it was just some outside myth, but Mom said that Santa brought punishments as well as gifts, and that if we ever did anything she could not punish adequately, she would summon him to do the job. And since Sunday's Christmas…"
"It's a myth," Anyanka said. Aaron—and Sean for all the scorn he had shown—visibly relaxed at those words. "That he's entirely mythological, but the people that gave rise to the modern mythos are long dead or exiled from this dimension. And even if that one could come back to this world, he could not make it into this town, much less this shop."
"People?" Aaron asked quietly. "You mean like Santa's helpers?"
"No." Anyanka sat on the edge of the bed, turned so that she could face both boys. "Centuries ago, there was a powerful human sorcerer who wandered through Europe on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. He might even have enchanted it to fly at some point; I don't know. I do know that he broke into homes and disemboweled the children." Both children sat quietly, listening to Anya in wide-eyed fascination—and more than a little trepidation. "In response, various individuals pursued him, eventually banding together. The group grew as he hit more villages and towns. He eluded them for a while, but as the group grew, they could spread their net further. Eventually, they caught up with him, but found he had worked deep magic that made him near-impossible to kill, and the sleigh was warded so that they could not get close to him. The magic users of their group attempted to breach the barrier, but the enchantments had years of nightly reinforcements to establish themselves in the sleigh's structure. Meanwhile, the sorcerer had conjured imps to attack the magic users. The other fighters intercepted them, but the confusion allowed the sorcerer to escape.
"It was a young squire that came up with the idea to trap him. After much debate and discussion, they came up with a way to do it. When they next caught up with the sorcerer’s trail, they broke up into smaller groups and made several feints. While the archers could not kill him anymore than the last engagement, it was the sorcerer’s nature to avoid his own pain. They forced his course to change, which brought him to an isolated valley. There, he found a small cottage with evidence of children. When he slowed to check it out, the witches and sorcerers hiding around the valley opened a dimensional rift. The sorcerer, his sleigh, the imps and the long-abandoned cottage were pulled out of this world and sealed in an unpopulated realm.
"While the sorcerer was gone, his legend wasn't. See, children dying the way this sorcerer killed… people talk about things like that, and for a long time afterwards. But as the sorcerer moved at night, not everyone knew who was responsible for the deaths, especially early on. More than one village accused and condemned the parents. Other folk ascribed the deaths to vengeful spirits or half-forgotten hearth gods and left offerings of food and drink to appease them. As the tale spread, it collided with the growing legend of a saint who would give poor children toys. The two got mixed into the tale of one being that parents used to bribe and coerce their children into behaving. Over time, the being got several names. Santa Claus is just the latest, and the one used in the US. Under the newest version of the tale, he punishes naughty kids by simply not giving gifts, but the previous tale where he would leave lumps of coal in lieu of toys still gets told."
Anyanka paused a minute and looked at the boys. "Myths often have a grain of truth, but the origin of this one is too far removed to even think about harming you. ´Santa´ is just a fun way for families to celebrate Christmas."
Aaron made a face. "By telling kids that someone's going to break into their house?"
Anyanka chuckled. "They don't quite see it that way. They see him as a benevolent spirit that does little more than bring gifts. And the tradition of offering cookies has morphed into an implicit invitation, so it's not really breaking and entering."
Aaron frowned thoughtfully. "But what if something else accepts the invitation?"
"Does that happen?" Sean asked. "Even if the whole house knows they're playing?"
Anyanka frowned for a minute. "I suppose it's possible," she answered as she reached out and stroked Sean's hair. "But most beings that could take such an invitation don't need
one, unless the home's warded. People that use wards generally don't leave offerings inside
Anyanka frowned at the still worried boy. "Do you know a family that plays the Santa game?" she asked.
Sean nodded. "Matt says everyone knows he figured it out, but it's more fun than just having family gifts below the tree."
"Well, they should be all right. Or not in any increased danger compared to the rest of the year." Sean smiled at the reassurance. "Do you have any other questions?"
Both boys shook their heads, and Anyanka bid them goodnight.
A couple minutes later, Anyanka placed a tea kettle on the stove in the kitchen. Halfrek emerged from the shadows. "They're Michanyael´s aren't they?" she asked as Anyanka removed two teacups and matching saucers from the cabinet.
Anyanka´s eyes darkened as she nodded. "He's been living here under the name Michael Hotchner. He had me by last September, introduced the wife and kids. I was so thrilled at the thought of grandchildren to spoil. And they change so fast at that age…" She set the cups and saucers on the table. "Madeline seemed nice enough. Turns out she likes to take out her frustrations with kicks and swings of a frying pan. Of course, that's
just for her husband," Anyanka spat bitterly. "The kids are young enough that weapons are unnecessary."
Anyanka slipped into one of the chairs and idly turned the centerpiece. "I don't get it, Halfrek," she said quietly. "Michanyael´s not stupid. His practice makes him a very good living on top of his inheritance; he could easily afford the best caretaker to watch the boys when he works. He clearly loves them.
"Yet he won't leave her. When I tried to tell him he should, he just threw his conception in my face."
Halfrek frowned at the wall over Anyanka´s head. She had always thought that it did that boy no good to know he existed solely because D´Hoffryn had cursed Anyanka. However, the case was notorious in Arashmahaar, and he would have learned the truth in the worst possible way if Anyanka had not told him. Despite what he had thought and the resulting estrangement, Anyanka had
done her best.
"I reminded him that D´Hoffryn never told me to stick around and raise him, and he pulled the ´that was one hundred and twenty-four years ago´ card. You would think he thought I was worse than her, but when I told him that while he was old enough to live with stupid choices, the boys weren't… I think he was relieved. Hurt at the thought that I was taking the boys, but relieved that they wouldn't be under Madeline´s care."
Halfrek frowned at that. If Michanyael showed that much sense, why not leave himself? Even if this Madeline controlled the finances, he had a law practice and the brains to get at his funds. At least enough of them to check into a hotel. And if he cared more for appearances than anything, he would want to keep the kids. “What about Madeline?” Halfrek asked suddenly. “Is she going to cause trouble?” Will Michanyael change his mind?
Halfrek did not want to think that of him, but she had seen such things before.
Anyanka shrugged. “She shrieked that she never wanted them, anyway. Still, I cashed in a favor with Wilkins, backed up by the ER doctor. No one in this town will take the boys from me, whatever the outside law or either parent might say.”
Halfrek nodded in satisfaction. “Good. Did you—” The tea kettle started whistling. “Is there anything I can do?” she asked as Anyanka grabbed the kettle and filled the tea cups. Halfrek wanted to goad the boys into a wish that would allow her free reign with Madeline more than she had wanted to grant a wish in a long time. Unfortunately, the bylaws of Arashmahaar prohibited Justice Demons from granting vengeance for themselves.
Or for kith and kin.
“Well, when I summoned you, I was hoping you could find some unrelated kid with a genuine cause for vengeance against her—"Of course, the loophole,
"—But from what I've learned these past couple hours, that's unlikely." Anyanka sighed as she placed the kettle back on the burner. "I could use someone to retrieve some more of the boys’ stuff.” She moved a small basket from the counter to the table. It held a selection of teas, both loose and in those paper bags the US seemed to favor. “I don’t want to leave the boys alone or take them back there, but they only have what clothes Sean managed to grab before I found where Michanyael stashed his car keys. I’m not even sure he got that your was plural.”
“You swiped your son’s car?” Halfrek asked as she grabbed some Earl Gray.
“Just to get to the hospital." Anyanka frowned as she spooned some mint tea into an infuser and dropped the wire ball into her cup. "Sean might have inherited more of our regeneration factor than Aaron, but I wasn’t going to leave him there another minute. And I can’t carry two
boys and have an arm free to defend them against the nightlife in this town.”
And our teleportation powers don't allow for passengers, Halfrek thought glumly. “I didn’t know you could drive. When did you learn?” Halfrek had not thought overmuch about cars, but if she were ever in a position where she could not grant a wish, but felt the need to move children…
“Tonight. The boys thought we went slowly, but those things are harder to control than you’d think. Still, we made it there with no more harm done. Well, except to Michanyael´s yard, but that was a stupid-looking bush Madeline planted, anyway. I really started to get the hang of it by the time we reached the emergency room.”
Halfrek winced as memories of a car wreck wished upon a drunken father filled her mind. Yes, definitely lessons, but not from Anyanka.
"You know," Anyanka frowned, "with school and everything else boys have these days, I should get a car of my own. That cab was way too pricey. Would you mind babysitting while I practice at speed? I´d pay you back, of course."
"Don't worry about that right now." As long as Anyanka did not come to presume long-term demands, Halfrek would not begrudge helping her settle into her this new life.
Not when it was to protect children.
By Sunday, Halfrek was exhausted and rapidly revising her definition of short-term help. Madeline Hotchner might claim no more desire to have her kids, but she clearly desired to punish their "betrayal" rather than help them transition to Anyanka´s care. While Anyanka concentrated on getting the boys treated and settled into the apartment, Madeline had raced home from the ER and rapidly discarded or destroyed most of the boys’ belongings. By the time Halfrek had dropped by, she had found little left to retrieve.
Then Anyanka´s shop assistant up and quit. So while Anyanka took the boys shopping for clothes and furnishings, Halfrek had agreed to man the shop's register. To Halfrek´s surprise, she had dealt with an insane amount of last-minute holiday shoppers. She had expected a demon and pagan heavy city like Sunnydale to have fewer celebrants, especially since Santa—who for all his association with Saint Nicholas, was entwined with the more secular aspects of the holiday—had little presence in the town.
But while Santa held little appeal in Sunnydale, gift exchanges among friends and family clearly did.
Between running the store and watching the boys after hours for Anyanka´s solo errands, Halfrek had never looked forward to Christmas more in her life. Though watching the boys wake up to unexpected gifts had brought a smile to her face.
As did the stunned/thrilled look on Anyanka´s face when the boys presented her with the "World's best grandma" mug Halfrek had procured for them.
"Thank you again," Anyanka said as she sat next to Halfrek at the shop's counter. She slid a mug of hot chocolate over to Halfrek before taking a sip of her own. Across the closed shop, the boys on the floor sat in the corner that Anyanka was clearing out to make a study/play area that she could keep an eye on from the front. “We couldn’t have done all this without you.”
“You still have a lot of work to do,” Halfrek observed. “You realize that if you have a spot for children to play, that you'll likely have customers´ kids tearing their stuff up?"
Anyanka nodded. "I'm thinking of maybe using it as a draw to keep their minders in here longer. Though I won't have anything too pricey there. The boys can have friends over after hours, and we'll have more variety in how we set up. Or use the apartment. I just want to know who's in there when."
Anyanka took a sip of her hot chocolate. "Of course, once I know the boys better, I may find they're ready to be left alone in the apartment."
Halfrek nodded. So far the boys had been well-behaved, but that was because of the newness of the situation. Only time would tell if they started testing Anyanka.
Or rather to what extent they would when they did.
"And once they start up school again, I´ll also have a better idea of what routine is best."
Halfrek nodded. "Makes sense. When do they go back?"
"January 3rd. Part of me´d like to keep the store closed until then and get to know them better. I can't imagine they want to be cooped up in here all day for a week. But I'm still trying to get established, and even with the Christmas rush over… Our budget's going to be tight for a while, even after I pay off our recent purchases."
"But you'll make it. Just show the boys as much love as you can. Help them feel as safe as possible. I won't say they won't miss the affluence they've grown up with, but they will adjust." I just hope they realize they're better off with less and not hit…
"And I can stay a few more days."
"But it would be better if you got back to your own obligations sooner rather than later." Anyanka smiled sadly. "D´Hoffryn´s not too happy that I've taken an unscheduled semi-hiatus, though he´s not about to argue with protecting Arashmahaari blood. Dragging you into it, however—"
"My issues with D´Hoffryn are my own. Don't borrow them when your interactions with him are all ready tense." The circumstances leading up to Michanyael´s birth were far from the first time Anyanka and their ruler clashed.
"If you're sure. Still, I have about half a dozen low-priority summonses backlogged. The hour between school starting and shop opening's going to be hectic for a few weeks. How about you?"
"Few children know enough about magic to summon a specific demon. I spend more time seeking those in pain than you do." And therefore felt more frustration when for whatever reason, a potential client would not make any wishes.
Or wish plenty but lack the required intent.
"Usually when I am summoned, it's an adult seeking closure or concerned about a situation they want me to check out. Though that—" A familiar twinge filled the base of Halfrek´s head. "Speaking of…" She mentally traced the thread, intending to answer it that evening after she finished helping Anyanka take down the holiday decorations. The location and summoner surprised her. "I'm just going to step outside for a bit."
"Urgent?" Anyanka asked.
"Intriguing," Halfrek replied absently as she stepped into the shop's backroom. Instead of teleporting anywhere, Halfrek stepped out into the alley behind the shop. She found the man in question standing ten feet away next to a scratched Town Car. The bowl he had used for the summoning spell sat on the hood. "You look nice." She bit back the urge to add "better than Thursday night".
And he looked more than nice. His three piece suit fit perfectly and all but screamed, "This
is who the business suit was invented for." His short hair was sharply combed, and even in the bright sunlight, looked black rather than the ever darker brown he had sported as he grew up. He smiled briefly at Halfrek´s compliment, and even that partial smile lit his dark eyes and now unbruised face.
Practically redefining Sunday best, Michanyael could clearly attract better women.
And without the bruises, it was obvious that what he had inherited of his mother's regeneration factor was not complete. Barely over a hundred, he looked a few years older—in human standards—than Halfrek did.
"So do you," he replied. "I'm… glad to see you're still helping out. They could all use some friendship right now." Michanyael had a wistful note to his voice during that last sentence.
"They could use some family, too. If you want to come in—"
Michanyael shook his head. "No, I shouldn’t. I just came by to drop off gifts and some other things. I want to give the boys time to get settled in, and I don't want them to think…"
"That you want to see them?"
"That I´d take them back.” Halfrek frowned. "To Madeline," Michanyael elaborated before Halfrek could say anything. "She's… they're better off away from her."
"You would be to."
Michanyael folded his arms over his chest. "Don't." He tried to sound stern, but Halfrek could hear weariness in his tone.
"I know you know that you were… unexpected. That doesn't mean you were unlov—"
Michanyael swore sharply—in Fyarl of all things. "You think after Sean, I don't get that? That I don't love both my sons?"
"Then why stay—"
"I can't leave her."
Halfrek had intended to ask "Why stay outside?", but since he brought it up: "Why not?"
"She's my wife." Michanyael said that as if it explained everything. Maybe for him it did.
"Marriage shouldn't always be forever."
Michanyael snorted. "At least that's not as rich coming from you as from my mother."
"She does tend to specialize in punishing men who lightly break their commitments, but this is different."
"Is that what she said about my father?"
"That's a simplistic view of what happened."
"Not according to D´Hoffryn."
"D´Hoffryn couldn't care less about how Anyanka granted that twit's wish. It was the getting recognized that caused the trouble." And the ensuing argument between said twit and Anyanka and the revelations it prompted. "Even then, I doubt he would have bothered if your father hadn't known just enough magic and demonic law to call D´Hoffryn and try to demand compensation over the ´loss´ of a future heir."
Michanyael shrugged. "Perhaps." He grabbed a large, unlidded storage box from the back seat and handed it to Halfrek. She glanced down and saw a couple wrapped boxes, a baseball glove, a couple photo albums, a picture frame with a couple of baby shots—it seemed both Sean and Aaron had inherited their father's need to age a few years before looking good—a basketball, a few other toys, and…
"The boys like cheese. Well, grilled cheese, anyway, and Madeline never uses that one… Besides, I hid Aaron's coin collection in there when she went looking to sell it." Michanyael turned back to the car and produced a cardboard portfolio. "That's the books for the boys´ savings accounts and a checking account I set up a few months ago."Around the time he reinitiated contact with Anyanka.
"Anyanka can use it for the boys´needs. She'll need to go in and sign a signature card first—I´ll call and let her know when—and I´ll put at least five hundred in there every month. Also, I've signed over the car's title to her. She'll get the keys after she completes some prepaid lessons at Piers´ Driving school and passes her test."
Michanyael set the portfolio on top of the things in the box. "What the hell's in it for you?" Halfrek demanded.
"They're my so—"
"Not that. Staying with Madeline over those sons. People generally don't stay in abusive situations they should know they can leave without some motivation—often illusory. Not only do you have the resources to leave, you seem to have planned for the boys´ change in custody shortly after she started in on them. I doubt it's religious; it sure as hell isn't your social image… You have an addiction? Is she your supplier?" Halfrek doubted that, though she had met women so good at hiding their vices they seemed less likely addicts than Michanyael. Still, the absolute gobsmacked expression that struck him filled her with a sense of relief. "No? Then how has she convinced you you can't leave? She great in bed?"
"No—Yes, but that's not—You don't know who she really is. She reacted badly to a health scare a couple years ago, and she knows I'm not aging near as fast… I know I can help her through it."
"You know? Or your ego won't let you admit otherwise?" This time, Halfrek´s words seemed to hit closer to home. But that was not the full story. "No matter what lead to her current behavior, she has to want
to change, and sometimes moving out—"
"It would kill her."
"How? Has she threatened to kill herself?"
Michanyael did not answer, but his eyes darkened.
"So, as long as you stay, you have absolute control of whether she lives or dies?"
"I love her. I don't want
her to die." From his expression, Michanyael clearly had not thought about things the way Halfrek put it, did not get off on imagining that he could make Madeline harm herself at any time he chose. But the psyche was complex. Halfrek would bet anything that Madeline´s almost certainly false threat made Michanyael less powerless over his own situation.
There was a reason Halfrek had chosen to be a Justice Demon. Punishing abusers was far easier than fixing the messed up thoughts they often sowed. And like Madeline, Michanyael needed to want help. Halfrek could try to reason with him, to show him that he needed help, but pushing him too far could make him more resistant to her efforts. And patience and finesse were not Halfrek´s strong suits—she had more of both than Anyanka, but they weren't strengths.
"I have to get going." Michanyael clearly took Halfrek´s thoughtfulness for the end of the conversation and turned walked to the street.
"Michanyael!" Halfrek called after him. "Anyanka meant what she said about you being welcome here anytime. Even if you don't change your mind about Madeline, they'd be glad to have you visit for a meal, or even a night or two." Or a hundred.
"It's a two bedroom apartment, but the sofa folds out into a bed. They love you."
Michanyael´s expression softened for a minute. "Thanks." He stepped out onto the street.
Halfrek turned back into the store. Even a few days out of Madeline´s influence could help him see how the woman had distorted his thinking. And if not, Halfrek now had a better idea of what was going on in his head. Not a complete picture, but she and Anyanka could use it to form their arguments. There was no guarantee, but it was possible they would eventually get through to him. Especially since Michanyael had at least recognized the threat to the kids.
Halfrek just hoped that boys had not learned the wrong things from his methods.