Nothing dared get in the way of the grumbling vampire slogging through the sewers of Sunnydale, headed for the manhole nearest the mall. Any demon that had seen him coming would have given him wide berth. No one would have confused the cursing member of the undead community with St. Nick or expect that his mission had anything thing to do with that "happiest" of times in the year.
It was nearly a week to the day since that other stupid holiday when, once a year, Americans got together for the express purpose of overeating, watching too much of that nancy boy football and uttering comments filled with forced cheer and gratitude.
Spike had been surprised when Buffy invited him to the festivities. "So with mom in the hospital and Glory on the prowl, I thought I’d try to make something close to normal for Dawnie. I’m having everyone over for Thanksgiving this year and Dawn would love for you to come too."
"You cookin’, slayer? Traditional bird and fixins with gravy and cookies for the vamp?" Spike hoped he didn’t sound too interested.
"Well, yeah, that’s what we humans do. I’m sure Giles would enjoy another snobby Brit to help make fun of football while Xander’s watching the game, even if it would be you helping him," Buffy replied.
"So, let’s see, turkey, whipped potatoes, peas, pies, bears…," he prodded.
"Yup, turkey, mashed potatoes, peas, pies, bears ….NO! Wait, no bears!" Buffy swatted Spike on the arm. "Bears are of the bad!"
"Told you so at the time as I recall," Spike said.
In spite of the snark, Spike was pleased at the invite. Not just to be included in a Scooby moment, but in this particular one. He secretly saw American Thanksgiving as an anniversary of sorts. A day marking his choice to go to the Watcher for help instead of setting up minions to kill for him when the bloody military doctors shoved the chip in his head a year ago.
That day had been the start of his new path, his new way of living. A path that had led to his coming to know and love his Slayer. Not that the path had been smooth or had led to any returning of his feelings by the lady in question, mind you. In fact, that lady was still blissfully in the dark about Spike’s change in plan for her future, his desire to plant something other than his fangs deep within her.
"So, spacey boy, are you coming or not?" Buffy asked again. "You can bring beer if you want; it’s not like I expect you to cook or anything. I’m fixing most of it with Tara’s help. Dawn’s doing the pies and Willow’s supplying the after dinner games and guilt. I DO expect you to be my partner if she insists on Trivial Pursuit, ‘cause we can kick serious ass with the history questions, you having lived through most of it," she rattled on.
"Hah, bloody hah, Slayer. Not that old. I’ll have you know that I’m one of the youngest vamps to make Master status!" Spike pretended insult convincingly and Buffy laughed at his expression.
It had come to this, Norman Rockwell vamp in small town America! Spike was outwardly dour but secretly chuffed to be included.
"So Red’s against overeating or is it overpadded sissies trying to play watered down Rugby that she dislikes?" Spike teased.
"Naw, she’s down with the whole massive amount of food bit and I think she’s a closet football fan. I mean, tight pants on buff bodies…who isn’t?" Buffy glanced up at Spike with a teasing smile of her own. "It’ll just be the annual lecture on how we’re celebrating the destruction of an indigenous people and their culture. Kinda takes the giving out of Thanksgiving if you ask me. She wouldn’t bring it up if mom were here instead of in the hospital. Mom never lets anyone ruin the holidays." Buffy looked suddenly sad and worried.
"I love Willow to death, but I wish she’d leave some of the book knowledge and angst at home for the season. This Slayer is looking forward to some down time that hasn’t got evil all over it somehow," Buffy muttered.
Spike had shown up early on Thanksgiving morning, having promised the Bit he’d be there to watch the soddin’ parade with her. Dawn had been afraid that Spike would back out and not show up at all since the Scoobies had never been very nice to their hired muscle on social occasions. So she had been the odd human haunting Spike’s crypt for the entire week before the event, forcing him to promise over and over that he would show.
"’Cause I totally need you there," she’d begged. "I love the gang, but they all treat me like a kid. If you’re there, we can be all bratty together and drive them nuts." Dawn’s eyes gleamed at the prospect of having a partner in crime.
So he’d arrived just as the first marching band was mangling "Livin’ La Vida Loca". They sat and ate the nutritionally void breakfast of popcorn and soda Dawn had insisted was also a Summers tradition. They companionably watched as cartoon balloons and overfluffed floats passed by in far off New York City.
"What is it with these high school band directors that they have to look at the lame top 40 and ruin already bad songs by convertin’ ‘em into fodder for a marching band?" Spike looked truly mystified by the musical phenomenon.
At the end of the parade, which was actually one long shopping reminder from the famed department store to encourage excessive holiday spending, came the traditional beginning of the Christmas shopping season. The red clad (probably drunk)_ fake Santa called out his equally false, "Ho! Ho! Hos" and "Merry Christmas!", while scruffy, phony elves pelted kids with bits of hard candy.
Afterward, those same darling delinquents would be pelting mom and dad with small fists and temper tantrums, whining about the lists of desires their acquisitive selves felt they deserved from the fat bastard this year. "Ah, the holidays," Spike groused.
Back in the day, parents were ready to practically pay vamps to feed off the little annoying buggers with their "I want this" and "I have to have that" wails before a week had passed. Good times that!
It was due to that certain older yet equally acquisitive child and her pelting fists of demands that Spike was currently trudging through the sewers of Sunnydale to a mall packed with more emotion-fueled blood than a vamp should be near without a good bloodletting. It was that other tradition, not so much of the pleasant variety: Christmas shopping.
Dawn had not been shy about what she was hoping for in her stocking this year and Buffy’s budget just was not going to stretch far enough, not with the clan mother up to her ears in medical bills. Time for Spike to prove himself yet again to the Slayer of his heart. No nicking anything either. Slayer’d make the Bit return every item if she suspected theft. Nope, cold hard cash and lines of less than happy shoppers were the order of the day. Spike fought the urge to cry.
He’d gotten a decent price from the pawnbroker for a few items and was properly prepared for the payment; he just wasn’t ready for the actual picking out process.
He decided to pass his own personal favorite store, Hot Topic, and move on to his other familiar haunt, Tower Records. Carefully avoiding the Punk and Heavy Metal sections as well as the eyes of clerks who knew him, Spike sidled up to the section with the latest offerings from the boy bands his Bit loved so well. He would have to try to be sure to pick a checkout person that was seasonal help and not likely to remember him in the future or his entire mystique was about to be blown with these purchases.
Spike had tried his hardest to educate the Niblet to what constituted good music, music of the ages. She had tolerated the Ramones, but he would never forget the skeptical look she had given him when she first heard the Sex Pistols. No, instead Spike had been treated to the Bit rhapsodizing over Justin, Howie, Lance, JC, AJ, Nick and other interchangeable servers of tripe and hair gel, glorified dancers that passed themselves off as singers.
Armed with a selection of Backstreet Boys, O-Town and N’Sync wastes of plastic, Spike headed for the checkout. Then he headed back and added discs from Britney Spears and Faith Hill as well, thinking Buffy would likely enjoy them. "At least the Hill bird can actually sing," Spike consoled himself. He had already picked up the latest from Matchbox 20 and Red Hot Chili Peppers for himself. It wasn’t the same as the classic goodness of the Clash or even Green Day and Rancid, but some of their tunes held up. Spike was, after all, well rounded.
Having managed to avoid any clerk that knew him on sight, Spike quickly headed for the next stop on his list: the cosmetics counter and an assortment of paints and polishes for his girls.
He dropped by the Suncoast video store and picked out a couple of classic films for Mrs. Summers to make sure her stocking had a little something in it as well. "Poor mite will be recuperatin’ likely and nothing helps pass the time like a good flick on the telly," he thought.
He was dreading the last stop on his shopping spree-- the electronic toy store to hunt down and procure the season’s "most wanted". It was Dawn’s most wanted as well and Spike was determined to fulfill her wishes, even if he had to eat the other shoppers to get one! A headache from the carnage would pale before the hurt look on his Niblet’s face to not receive the one gift she had none too subtly hinted that her entire happiness depended upon receiving.
"Oh, Spike, isn’t that the CUTEST thing ever?" They had seen the blasted TV news bit on the year’s hottest trends and it had been love at first sight for the girl.
"Mom and Buffy say we can’t have a real pet because no one is home enough to take care of it.
Look at that Poo-Chi, Spike! It’s a lot like a real puppy even if it can’t walk like that other robot dog.
Awwww, look at the eyes, Spike, they’re just like yours! You can see all its emotions by its eyes, just like you!"
"My eyes don’t change shapes, Bit. You see my eyes go all heart shaped, you stake me, yeah? ‘Sides, it’s a bloody robot; it doesn’t HAVE emotions." Spike had known it was a useless argument and that the bloody tin pet was going to find its way under the Summers tree come hell or high water.
"Giles says vampires don’t have real emotions either, but he’s wrong!" Dawn had pouted.
As Spike feared, the entire population of Sunnydale’s parent division was looking for the same item for their little cherubs. "Like tryin’ to find a spare human at a vamp convention," Spike muttered in frustration. He spotted one of the metallic puppies that had been knocked under a table in the buying frenzy and sidled up to it, intending on nabbing it before any other shopper snapped to it. His glower managed to turn many a shopper from the area and he was able to snag the item without having to resort to anything that might set off his chip.
Spike sighed deeply in contentment. The annual nightmare he had avoided for over a century was over. All he’d have to do was get the bloody things wrapped and delivered in time for the festivities. He would have loved to buy a nice necklace or bracelet for the Slayer but knew instinctively that she would reject the gift, probably accompanied with a verbal stake for his efforts. No, the CDs would have to suffice.
Captain Cardboard would likely shower her with goodies and Buffy’d shower Riley with ……"No! Don’t even think about it, mate! Slayer’s bound to realize she can do better in time. Even if it never is me like she said, least it won’t be him. White Bread’s not her happily ever after and the silly bint knows it."
As Spike made his way through the mall to the sewer access and tunnels home, he spotted the Slayer in question near the area where every child in Sunnydale was waiting in line to sit on the lap of the hapless drunk done up in red velvet and fake fur. Like the proverbial moth being unerringly drawn to the flame, Spike changed direction and headed for Buffy.
"Slayer, looking to sit on someone’s lap? Got one here, no line or anything," he leered. "Got some secret kiddy I’m not aware of tellin’ the bloke in red their list of gotta-haves?"
Buffy rolled her eyes in exasperation at the vamp. "As if! And as for your offer, can I just say ‘ewwww’? What are you doing here, Spike? This whole scene just does not say ‘Spike belongs in this picture’ to me. Aren’t you supposed to be off somewhere regretting the fact you can’t be eating the little kiddies anymore?" She looked at the bags he was carrying and completed the thought, "Isn’t that the kind of Christmas shopping a vamp does?"
"Vamps do all kinds of things besides just hunt and eat, least the ones worth knowin’ do." Spike wished Buffy could see beyond his fangs just for once. Anything that didn’t fit neatly in the box marked ‘Typical Vamp Behavior’ by her soddin’ Watcher was ignored or dismissed.
"And that would be implying there are vamps worth knowing, Spike." Buffy made a move to distance herself from the pest only to have him follow like a leashed animal.
"Won’t know what you’re missing ‘til you get to know me, pet." Spike advised. Her shake of her head and another eye roll gave him all the answer she was going to give to that. "So, what’s so interestin’ about the fat fake with the equally fake white beard? You getting all nostalgic about your childhood?"
Buffy looked at Spike with narrowed eyes as if she was trying to decide if he could possibly be of any use whatsoever. Okay, the vamp was always saying how he liked helping her, now was a chance for him to prove it. "I got a tip that the mall Santa might be something more sinister than just a wino renting himself out as a kiddie chair for the season. I can’t really get close enough to tell, but my Slayer radar is picking up something. Well, something more than just an irritating blond vampire in the mall anyway. You notice anything weird about Santa?"
"Other than a full grown man done up in red velvet and surrounded by short people pretending to be elves? Not really. Then again, I didn’t really pay that much attention. Like you said, I’m not shoppin’ for kiddy meals and I know what real elves look like, so I didn’t look too closely." For the first time, Spike glanced over at the tableaux in interest.
One of the elves must have felt the burn of their eyes, because he turned and caught sight of Buffy and Spike. The elf broke into a delighted yet shy grin and waved at Buffy. "Hi Buffy! Remember me?"
Buffy moved closer to the fenced area where the elf was handing out candy canes to the children when they finished their talk with Santa. She tried to look past the green tunic, red tights and curly toed shoes to the boy in it. Suddenly, recognition dawned. "Jonathan! I didn’t recognize you with all the ….you know, curly shoes and bells and pointy cap and all. Looks like you’ve got a way to make some Christmas cash this year. Congratulations."
"Yeah, thanks. I wanted to be the guy who takes the pictures of the kids on Santa’s lap, maybe get into a nice job in a photo lab later, you know. They took one look at me and handed me an elf hat." Jonathan looked sheepishly at his fellow graduate of Sunnydale High. "They think short guys can’t do stuff, I guess, except be short. I mean it doesn’t take height to click a camera for geez sakes."
"Maybe you elves should unionize or some such," Spike offered with a smirk.
"No, the elves over in Santa Rita tried that and they fired every one of them, even the ones that weren’t going to join! They imported elves overnight from Santa Rosa to replace them all! We can’t chance that." Jonathan looked at Spike curiously. "You aren’t with mall management, are you?"
"Not bloody likely." Spike laughed and moved closer to the fence to check out the suspicious Santa better.
"No, Spike can’t manage anything, not even his big mouth." Buffy tossed at his turned back.
"I heard that, Slayer," Spike said in an affronted voice. "Doin’ your job here, show a bit of gratitude, yeah? Go on back to talkin’ with the boy."
"Um, Buffy, is it safe for the evil undead to be that close to all those kids?" Jonathan was looking at Spike with fear tinged with a wee bit of envy of Spike’s commanding presence.
"Oh, yeah. Spike can’t so much as lick an infant without a migraine. Your tax dollars at work. So, what’s Santa like? Is it the usual drunk picking up whiskey money or a real kid lover this time?" Buffy figured Jonathan had spent enough hours in the past week to have some sort of opinion about this year’s mall Santa.
"He’s kind of weird. Doesn’t associate with the elves much. Thinks he’s so much better than us, I guess. The kids all seem to like him though. No crying babies at all. They get in his lap and get all quiet except for telling him what they want for Christmas and where they live." Jonathan looked at the floor and continued in a shamed voice, "My dad would roll over in his grave to see his nice Jewish son playing sidekick to a Christmas icon. I’ve gotta get a better job than this! Taking pictures would be one thing, but this just isn’t right."
"Hey, you! We don’t pay you to be talking to your girlfriend. Back to work, elf." The "head elf" was scowling at Jonathan as he ordered him back to work.
"Wow! He actually thinks you’re my girlfriend! Maybe this job isn’t so bad after all," Jonathan preened. "Bye, Buffy. Nice to see you." He appeared to grow at least 5 inches taller as he headed back to his position, a small strut in his walk.
"Well, Slayer, looks like your sources aren’t wrong," Spike said in a solemn voice.
"I could be wrong, but Santa there looks like he might be a Mimblix demon, very rare this side of the equator. Look human enough but their insides are different; diet’s different too. Like the wee ones best of all. Not usually canny enough to think of this sort of plot to get their larder full, gotta hand it to him. They’ve got one hell of a thrall, even able to put Drac under and he’s a master at it. My guess is he’s doin’ a bit of his own shoppin’, food variety. Thrallin’ the mites then payin’ a visit later. With that thrall they won’t even cry out. Home one day, milk carton photo the next and no one the wiser."
"Are you sure?" Buffy was understandably horrified by the description of this previously unheard of demon. "I don’t want to seriously scar these kids by lopping the head off Santa Claus unless I have a really good reason to do it. I only heard of a couple of missing kids so far. How many would one of these eat anyway?"
"Depends on the size of the kiddy. Like I said, they like ‘em small so it takes two or three of the toddler size. If they go older, maybe one every other day or so would do it. If only a couple have gone missin’, you may only have this one to deal with instead of an extended family or colony." Spike looked deep in thought for a moment. "My guess is Santa there has a mate to feed. They bulk up in breeding season and he looks like he’s plannin’ to lay in a nice supply. Why do you think so many kiddies go missing in Central America? There’s at least a couple of colonies of these buggers in Honduras alone!"
"How do you know so much about this Blistex demon?" Buffy looked at Spike suspiciously.
"Me and Dru ran into a tribe of ‘em on our way south after that whole Acathla fiasco. Dru pissed ‘em off by takin’ their catch for a tea party. Little hellions got away while Dru was arguin’ with the head male over rights of ownership. They were off into the rainforest quick as rabbits as soon as the yellin’ started. Dru loved givin’ parties and such to little ones. Loved the kiddies, she did. Poor daft thing meant well too, just halfway into one of her little parties she’d forget how much she loved the little dears and the demon would remember what else they were good for."
Spike got a faraway look for a moment, "Good thing vamps can’t be havin’ babies. Dru had all those motherin’ instincts and desires but was so Glocky she’d have just eaten her young sooner or later."
Buffy looked at Spike as if he was as mad as Dru. "The entire visual of Dru as mother of anything is just too yucky to even think of, thank you very much." She shivered at the idea.
"Okay. If this Santa IS a Memorex demon, how do I kill it? I really don’t want to waste time hunting down Giles and doing the whole research thing before I take it out." Buffy was fingering something in her pocket and Spike had an inkling it was one of her standard stakes on the ready.
Spike gave her a half grin. His Slayer was never less than prepared even when Christmas shopping instead of patrolling. She must have been paying attention to his lesson a few weeks before when he told her the first rule was to always have a weapon because the vamps always had theirs. Good on her!
"I’m not sure if there’s a special way, ducks. I find most demons stop existin’ without their heads though. These survive more because they pass for human than any special powers or from being harder to kill. I’d just lop Santa’s noggin off and call it a day," Spike suggested.
"Well, I can’t do it in front of half the children of Sunnydale! That’d ruin Christmas forever for them, even after they learn there’s no Santa." Buffy’s eyes were large and filled with horror at the thought.
"There is, you know," Spike said.
"Is what?" Buffy asked.
"A real Santa." Spike gave Buffy a nod as she looked at him in incredulity. "I’m not makin’ up stories here, pet, just fillin’ in a bit to make up for your sad lack of education in all things demony. Ask Anya if you don’t believe me."
"A real Santa Claus?! Right. And I suppose there’s an Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy too. Just how gullible do you think I am, Spike?"
"I wouldn’t bring up the Easter Bunny to Anya. There’s a reason she’s afraid of rabbits. The girl is many things but not a coward." Buffy continued to look at him as if waiting for the punch line to a joke. Buffy was a bit unnerved as Spike stood in silence for a moment as if in memory then shuddered before continuing. "I’m serious. There is a real Santa Claus. No, he doesn’t live at the North Pole, more like the Falklands, different direction altogether and more hospitable climate. Doesn’t have elves workin for him either; they’re dwarfs. Elves are tall and slim. Dwarfs are the stubby ones."
Buffy continued to look at Spike as if he’d run mad. "Santa lives in the Falklands with a bunch of dwarfs. I suppose Snow White is his housekeeper there."
"Well, technically, I guess you could say that. That old story was about his wife and how the dwarfs got roped into the whole thing. Her name’s really Talvi, that’s Finnish for Winter. She was from a little village outside Helsinki when they met. He took her on and all her Dwarf buddies with her," Spike explained.
"So, if there IS a Santa Claus, how come all kids don’t get stuff for Christmas?" Buffy asked, hoping to trip the vampire up in a lie.
"He retired early in this century. He’d cut back a lot anyway, but when the little tykes started wantin’ somethin’ more than handmade toys and oranges and nuts, he got disgusted with the greedy lot of ‘em. Then those advertising blokes at Coca-Cola started messin’ with his legend and looks. So he closed up the shop and moved to the Falklands." Spike looked like he was serious even if Buffy wasn’t buying it.
Buffy stared at the vampire for quite a while, as if trying to decide whether he was pulling her leg or was simply insane. Finally she shook her head, deciding it didn’t really matter in the long run. Besides, she was having lunch with Anya the next day and would see what kind of answer she got from the notoriously honest ex-demon about the reality of seasonal myths and legends, avoiding the Easter Bunny, of course.
"Okay, gotta say this tall tale is at least less grisly than the ones you tell my little sister. But for now we’ve got to figure out a way to make sure this Santa is a Mimic demon and take him out. Any suggestions on how to prove it?" Buffy was loath to kill a mall Santa based on Spike saying he ‘looked like’ a child-eating demon. Many a mall Santa looked like that but were perfectly human.
"Suppose you could just hold off and see how many little Johnnys and Suzies go missing over the next few weeks. Ow! Watch where you’re hitting me, Slayer!" Buffy landed the blow too close to his dangly bits for comfort when she had swung at him as he stood up.
Buffy’s face reddened as she saw where she had hit him. She had aimed for his chest while he had been sitting. "I am not waiting for this demon guy to have a full pantry just to be sure. But then again, I can’t just kill him if you’re wrong. After all this IS your information we’re talking about!"
Spike looked at Buffy in amazement. They had their differences, but he had always played straight with her, especially when it came to helping her in her battles against the demon population of Sunnydale. "Hey, I wouldn’t lie about something like this. I said I’m pretty sure. I didn’t try to sound like I was positive, even though I’d bet my next order of blood that I’m right. You don’t need to be hittin’ me in my personals and then insultin’ me. Just tryin’ to help here." He started to walk off in a huff.
"Wait! Spike, wait. I’m sorry. You’re right. It wasn’t fair of me, or nice. I really didn’t mean to hit you there, you know. And I know you were only telling me what you really think Santa is. Don’t leave. I can use your help with this." Buffy didn’t want to grovel, but she did feel uncomfortably guilty for her last comment. Spike had been quite a help lately and he didn’t deserve the insult.
Spike stopped in his tracks then turned to sit back down next to the Slayer. He sighed and suggested, "If the witch were here she could do a quick spell to make sure. Red on your speed dial?"
"No, Willow and Tara are off on a Wiccan retreat of some kind. You know, back to nature, ‘everything is all part of one whole’, that sort of thing. No cell phones or anything like that. They’ll be back on Friday, but that will be too late if you’re right." Buffy looked thoughtful and then brightened as she remembered something Willow had once mentioned. "I might know someone who could fill in though."