DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. 
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Spike and Buffy have learned that Holly sleepwalks, Joyce has discovered that Giles never showed up for his so-called convention, and Giles is knee-deep in trying to balance helping Buffy and finding out what is going on with Maria…

*************

Chapter 17: Please Put a Penny in the Old Man's Hat

The remainder of Maria’s house was just as perfectly ordered as the few rooms to which he’d been confined---dark wood polished to shine with an Old World charm that seemed oddly out of place in northern California, the occasional antique displayed in the most appropriate manner, corners squared with an obsessiveness that Giles would admire if it were under other circumstances. 

In a way, he was almost disappointed.  After finishing breakfast in his room, he’d opted to explore his temporary residence under the hope he’d find something that might better explain the entire situation.  A secret room filled with sacrifice-laden altars, for instance, or a private stash of black magic books.  All he’d actually discovered, though, was that the maid Maria employed liked to play canasta with the cook when she wasn’t on duty, and that his hostess had a penchant for Stickley.

The painkillers that he’d been given to counter the effects of the accident had made it possible for the beginning of the day to seem almost normal.  Giles had yet to return to his translation duties, but with the hour approaching ten, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to postpone it for much longer.  The scrolls the others were convinced gave the answer on how to locate Holly were proving much more difficult than he’d originally envisioned, and with time running out, Giles was eager to find the girl and put a stop to whatever threat she posed to Buffy.

Thoughts of his Slayer led to his all-too-brief conversation with Joyce the previous evening.  Maria had granted him use of her private line, and then hovered at his elbow while he spoke to Joyce at the gallery.  It had been impossible to say anything direct, so he could only hope that his references to a pet he didn’t have and the rental agreement he hoped she would find was enough to provoke her into action.  It wasn’t so much for his own welfare that he cared; all Giles was concerned with was ensuring that Buffy was safe and secure and preferably unharmed.

On the way back to the study he’d commandeered for his work, Giles hesitated when he heard now-familiar voices whispering from behind a closed door.  Silas and Paul.  A moment’s concentration led him to the conclusion that it was just the two men on the other side, unless Maria was in there and remaining silent.  However, in the brief time he’d already spent in her home, Giles had already deduced that she was not one to stay in the background in regards to this project of hers.  At every opportunity, she was in the midst of their work, asking questions, providing guidelines.  It was doubtful she was in there if he hadn’t yet heard her voice.

The whispering stopped as soon as he opened the door, and Giles was relieved to see that his assessment had been correct.  Bent over a tattered book at a desk in the center of the room, Silas and Paul both looked up with a start at the sudden intrusion, lips pressing closed at the same time.  If he didn’t know better, Giles would’ve almost thought it was guilt that was flashing in their eyes, but he quickly dismissed the notion as ridiculous.

“Hard at work?” he commented, stepping into the room.  “Or hardly working?”

Paul was up like a shot, rounding Giles with a speed that only the legs of a crane could provide, and closed the door behind him.  “A draft,” he mumbled in explanation at Giles’ raised eyebrow, and scurried back to the table with his head down.

“Is there something we can do for you, Mr. Giles?” A sheen of light sweat glistened on Silas’ forehead, but he held himself stiffly---too stiffly, Rupert imagined.  “You’re not lost, are you?”

“Hardly.  I heard you speaking.  I was curious if you’d found something.”  He ignored their furtive glances as he pushed his way in front of the two other men.  Niceties be damned.  If there was something up, Giles didn’t want to find out about it when it was too late.

“We were just discussing---don’t touch that!”

Giles was stopped in mid-reach by Paul’s angular grip wrapped around his wrist.  Slowly, he lifted his eyes from the book he’d been scanning to stare coldly into McCallister’s.  “I highly recommend you letting me go,” he said evenly.

Paul jerked back as if scalded.  “It’s an antiquity,” he offered, as if the proof of it wasn’t lying just inches away.

“And you think I don’t know how to treat such an item?”

“No, no, it’s just---.”

“You have to excuse Paul,” Silas interrupted.  “I’m afraid he’s a bit temperamental when it comes to rare books.”

Giles’ gaze returned to the text on the desk.  The pages were yellowed with age, their edges charred, and in the direct center of the right was a sketch of a young girl.  “What is this?” he asked curiously.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Silas bar the younger man from stepping forward again.  “We’re looking into the spell Holly might choose to use,” Geen explained, and then hastily added, “At Maria’s request.”

His eyes were cool when they lifted from the book.  “I was under the impression that Maria already knew the means her daughter was going to employ,” Giles said.

“Yes, well---.”

“We’re investigating other possibilities.”  It was Paul’s turn to interrupt.  “In case she decides to…change her mind.  At the last minute.  In case she fears we’re getting too close to stopping her.  At the last minute.  Just…in case.”

Each sentence was like a bullet exploding with a fresh burst of air.  It would’ve been humorous if McCallister hadn’t appeared so much as if he feared Ripper would peek through again.  As it was, Giles wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t.

“Tell me, Paul,” Giles said, casually perching himself on the edge of the desk with his back to the book.  “Do I look as stupid as you seem to think I am?  Or are you just this incredibly bad at lying?”

In the long silence that followed, only the ticking of the mantle clock could be heard in the room.  “I’m that incredibly bad, sir,” the young man finally admitted, abashed.

“Paul!”

“Shut up, Geen.”  Giles didn’t even bother to look at the shocked countenance of the other Watcher.  “You should be grateful that at least one of you has a modicum of common sense.”

“But---.”

“He really doesn’t listen, does he?”  Like a shot, Giles’ fist shot out and caught Silas in the jaw, sending the man stumbling to the floor behind the desk.  He was standing over him before Geen could recover, glowering down with barely controlled rage, hands in loose fists at his side while he waited to see if there would be any retaliation.  “Do you wish to try interrupting me again, Geen, or shall we have an instant replay?”

Wiping the blood mottling his lips, Silas shook his head as he shifted his bulk to a sitting position against the side of the desk.  “I wasn’t---,” he started to say, but when Giles’ face darkened even further, he clamped his mouth shut.

Taking a swing hadn’t been the brightest thing he’d done that day, Giles realized when he finally relaxed.  Though the drugs he’d taken had clouded his discomfort sufficiently enough for him to function, they weren’t meant to aid and abet doing his own Lennox Lewis impersonation.  His abdomen was already aching from the strain he’d caused on the muscles, but to show a weakness now would counter everything he’d accomplished so far.

Even if he wasn’t entirely certain exactly what that was yet.

“Now,” Giles said, turning back to Paul, “why don’t you tell me what it is you’re doing in here.  The truth, this time.”

“It is research,” he started in earnest.  “And Maria did ask us to look into the possibility that a different spell could be used to corrupt the Slayer line.  She seemed to be of the opinion that there was.  ‘There’s more than one way to skin a dead cat,’ I believe her exact phrase was.”

Giles’ eyes narrowed.  “Go on.”

“Well, there were a number of texts that I remembered spying in Maria’s private study during our last meeting with her---.”

“You’ve had private meetings with her?”

“You would have, too, if you hadn’t been so difficult on your arrival,” Silas said grouchily from his place on the floor.

Paul cast a furtive glance toward his elder before swallowing hard.  “It wasn’t meant to be anything untoward,” he said quickly.  “Merely informational.  We’d relay what we’d discovered that day, which, most of the time, was little to nothing, and Maria would instruct us on how she thought it best to continue.”

“What exactly have you been working on?” Giles asked.

“Much of the same as yourself.  Translating texts that supposedly detail how to track Holly.”

It was Paul’s deliberate usage of a certain word that made Rupert pause.  “You say…supposedly,” he commented.  Carefully, he took a step backwards to sit down in the overstuff leather chair near the wall.  His ribs ached from his physical exertion and if he didn’t take the pressure off soon, he was going to topple over in front of the pair, and look like a right yob in the process.

“Poor choice of words,” Silas said.  “There is no supposedly about it.”

“You saw the book---.”

“We don’t know if we’re right---.”

“How can you question that?”

“Because I have to, Paul.”

“That’s not what we do.”

“No, that’s not what we did.”

Watching the argument go back and forth between the other two men, both of them already having forgotten that he was still in the room, Giles grew increasingly confused as their quarrel degenerated into what boiled down to a playground “I’m right/No, I’m right” exchange.  “Enough,” he finally said roughly.  “This is getting us nowhere, and I imagine that none of us are interested in spinning our wheels even more than necessary, correct?”

His authoritative tone immediately dampened the rising tempers.  “What is it you suggest?” Paul asked.

“I suggest we start at the beginning,” Giles replied.  “As in, what exactly is our purpose here.  Are we here to help Maria prevent the destruction of the Slayer line, or are we here to squabble like junior school guttersnipes?”

“This is ridiculous.”  Silas lumbered to his feet, his handkerchief wiping the remainder of the blood from his mouth.  “If you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll retire to my room until dinner.  I’m certain that I’ll prove much more useful if I return to translating the T’sabl prophecies.  Good day.”

Paul sighed when the door closed behind his elder, walking wearily to the desk and absently picking up one of the gloves that rested next to the book.  “I suppose I should go as well,” he said as he slid it on his hand.  “Maria will be wanting an update before we eat.”

“Wait.  I’d like to discuss what just happened here.”

His hand hovered above the ancient book.  “But…we have work to do---.”

“And it seems to me that some of that work involves whatever it is you’re trying to remove from my presence.”  Carefully, Giles rose from his seat, trying to hide his annoyance about being trapped in the company of such an insufferable tosser, and returned to the desk.  “Now, stop being as thick as I know you’re not, and tell me what the hell is going on here.”

The summary, when it came, wasn’t entirely what he expected.

“I managed to slip this book into my research materials during our last meeting with Maria,” Paul confessed.  “Silas didn’t know, or he would’ve attempted to stop me.  His allegiance to Maria borders a bit on the fanatical, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“Yours did, too, if I remember correctly,” Giles observed.

“That was before I saw this.”  Using his gloved hand, Paul angled the book so that the other Watcher could see it more clearly.  “The title intrigued me, and though I didn’t presume to think I’d actually find something useful in it, I was curious about what it could contain.  This…”  He pointed to the picture of the girl.  “…especially caught my eye.  But when I brought it to Silas’ attention, he told me that it was complete falderal and that we should return the book to Maria’s study before she realized it was gone.”

The sketch was crude, a small child poised upon on altar for sacrifice, with blood dripping from her chest wound into a waiting chalice.  Surrounding her, there were three sets of triple symbols, each at the apex of the triangle that enclosed the drawing.

“What are these?” Giles asked, gesturing toward each of the trios.

“I’m not certain on those.  But this set…”  He indicated the three at the top of the triangle.  “…are glyphs for warriors.”

“Slayers?”

“That’s what I thought at first, but it can’t be.  At least one of those is masculine.”

Giles shook his head.  “So why do you think this has anything to do with Holly’s plans for the Slayer line?”

“I haven’t been able to translate all the text, but the portions that I have…it speaks of the Chosen power.  How it’s passed on from girl to girl, and how the proper forces could decimate that.”

“But this suggests a blood sacrifice.  Maria mentioned nothing about Holly requiring some sort of blood to sanctify what she’s doing.”

Paul’s face was grim.  “I know.”

At least Giles understood now about some of Geen’s concerns.  These were serious allegations to wage against their hostess, and while Rupert wasn’t exactly her head cheerleader, he had seen enough to know that Silas was.  “What makes you think Geen won’t go to Maria and tell her what you’ve found?” he asked the younger man.

“Because he’s afraid of her,” came the reply.  “She’s very powerful.  Not just in wealth, but in magics as well.  Holly’s talents came directly from her, she says, and it’s her fault that her daughter is as well-versed as she is.  Maria’s the one who orchestrated getting you here, though she needed to supplement her abilities with mine and Silas’.” 

“It would’ve been nice to be told some of this,” Giles muttered, returning his attention to the book.

“Yes, well, we did what we felt we must.”

“And now?”

“Now?”  His eyes were bleak, his gloved fingers caressing the soft-worn edges of the pages.  “We forge onward, don’t we?  We have Slayers to save.”

“Yes,” Giles agreed, those his mind was already miles away.  “The question is, though…from whom are we saving them?”

*************

Joyce frowned as she replaced the phone on the receiver.  Calling the car rental company had proven to be a waste of time in the long run; they refused to divulge any information regarding Rupert’s lease without speaking directly to him.  Even pretending to be his wife hadn’t done her any good.

Her next step was the police department.  Logically, it made sense that if something had happened to Buffy and her Watcher, there would be a report of it somewhere for her to find.  The trick would be to find someone who would get the information for her without asking too many questions.

It’s a good thing she lived in Sunnydale.  It was impossible not to have some sort of blackmail material on at least a few of the cops in this town.

She’d almost listened to the entire rendition of “Achy Breaky Heart” on their hold music before she got put through to the officer she’d requested.  “Hello, John?” she asked, forcing the smile on her face to radiate in her voice.  “It’s Joyce Summers.”

The long pause made her wonder if he was going to hang up on her after all.  It had been almost a year since the last time she’d spoken to him, and those circumstances hadn’t exactly been her finest hour.  Whoever it was who told her “MOO” was a clever acronym, needed to be shot.

“What can I do for you this morning, Ms. Summers?” he finally replied, and there was a definite coolness to his tone that made it clear that doing anything for her wasn’t very high on his agenda.

“I’ve got a bit of a problem,” she explained, “and I’m hoping you might help be able to help me cut through some red tape.”

“Well, now, that red tape’s there for a reason, I’m sure.”

He wasn’t going to make this easy for her, now was he?

“You’d know that better than I would, John,” Joyce said, laughing.  “I mean, weren’t you the one who helped Principal Snyder get the permissions to search the kids’ lockers last year?”

Uncomfortable, he cleared his throat.  “Yes, well now, those were…extenuating circumstances, don’t you think?”

It was a good thing he couldn’t see her roll her eyes.  Extenuating, my ass.  I saw you knock out Rupert yourself, you putz.

Out loud, she simply said, “I’d like to think we learned a lot from those days.  Like…who you can trust and who you can’t.”

The silence on the other end of the line translated into he’s going to hang up on me, the asshole before she heard the distinct sound of a door being shut.

“What exactly is your problem, Ms. Summers?”

Briefly, she explained about the rental, glossing over the details of why she would be suspicious of wrongdoing and instead blaming it on not getting a response from the resort.  “So,” she said, “I was hoping you could do some kind of check on the car.  Just to make sure it hasn’t been in an accident or something.  As long as Buffy isn’t hurt, I know I don’t need to worry.”

OK, so she’d worry anyway, but he certainly didn’t need to know that.

“Rupert Giles.  Wasn’t that the librarian from the high school?”

“Yes.”  The one you clocked, remember?  “I’m sure you remember what a mentor he was for Buffy.”

Another uncomfortable cough.  “Um, yeah, well, yeah.  So…all you want is to know if the car’s been reported in an accident, right?”

Hope flared in her chest.  “Yes, that’s all I want.”

“Do you have the details?”  As she read them from the rental agreement, Joyce heard him scribble them down before adding, “I can’t make you any promises, but if you hang on for a second, I’ll see if anything pops up right away.”

“Thanks, John.”

Billy Ray came back on the line, crooning about some storm in the heartland, but her spirits were so much higher that the thought of listening to the country singer’s greatest hits for the next ten minutes didn’t even faze Joyce. 

Fifteen minutes was another story.  She had to resort to putting the phone on speaker and doing some paperwork at her gallery desk while she waited for John to return.

“You still there, Joyce?”

She snatched up the phone, almost dropping the acquisitions request she’d been looking over.  “Right here,” she replied.  Only then did she realize he’d called her by her first name and not by Ms. Summers.  Did that mean…?

“…not sure if this is what you want to hear,” he was saying, “but that car turned up in an accident up north of here.  They found it the morning after that storm hit.”

An accident.  But Rupert was all right or he wouldn’t have called.  What did that mean for Buffy?

“Does it say where they took my daughter?”

“Well, that’s just it.  There wasn’t anybody in the car when they found it.”

“What?”

“It was empty.  They found blood in the passenger seat, and some bleached white hair strands in the back where it looked like someone might have hit their head, but other than that, the car was stripped bare.  Sorry, Joyce.”

After getting the location where the car had been found, Joyce thanked the officer and hung up the phone, the weight settling inside her chest as she mulled over the latest information.  Rupert hadn’t sounded injured when she’d spoken to him, though obviously he’d meant for her to find out about the car accident, or he wouldn’t have bothered contacting her.

Buffy.  It all came back to Buffy.  She wasn’t with Rupert.  She wasn’t in the car.

But then…

Neither was Spike.

It was a good thing it was two days before Christmas.  Joyce wouldn’t have to take any extra time off from the gallery when she drove up to where the accident was to figure out what happened.

*************

He didn’t want to wake up.

Not when the dream was as luscious as this.

Outside Rupert’s flat.  Past midnight.

One of those nights where the air was so crisp, it made his mouth water.  Where each pinprick in the black satin above challenged him to find something more pure, more shameless in its beauty, somewhere on the earth below.

Where Spike was cock of the walk, and the creatures, human and not, bowed to his supremacy.

He knew without having to be told that he didn’t have the chip.  One of those dream facts that came unquestioned as fact.  And he was back for his revenge on those who’d made his impotence most unbearable.

Starting with Rupert.

Knocking at the door elicited a resounding, “Come in already!” from Giles inside.  Spike opened the front entrance and sauntered inside to see the Watcher standing in the galley kitchen, big floral oven mitts on his hands and a steaming Christmas pudding nestled in his grip.

“Well, don’t be a prat and just stand there,” Giles scolded.  “Get the brandy.”

Without thinking, he went straight to the liquor cabinet where the Watcher hid the good stuff, and extracted the bottle of Remy from its depths, pulling off its top as he headed back to the kitchen.  Only then did he notice the apron covering Rupert’s suit, the proud “Kiss the librarian” emblazoned across its front in Gothic lettering.  “You better not have mistletoe in here, mate,” Spike said as he poured the liquor over the pudding.

“Oh, no, Buffy has it in the bathroom,” Giles replied.  Brushing past the vampire, he carried the dessert to the waiting table, and set it triumphantly down in the middle.  “She’s been in there an awful long time, though.  Do make yourself useful and see that she’s all right, won’t you?”

He bristled at being so casually ordered around.  “If you think I’m here for whatever you do-gooders call happy holidays, think again.  The Big Bad is back, and this time---.”

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard it all before.”  He cut him off with a dismissive wave of his hand.  “Maim and torture, rivers of blood, screaming for mercy.  Really, Spike.  We go through this every year.  Now, why don’t we just skip past all your delusions of self-importance and get straight to the merry-making, shall we?”

Spike growled in frustration, taking a menacing step toward Giles, only to come to an abrupt halt when the Watcher pulled out a cook’s blow torch and set the Christmas pudding ablaze.  He started to retreat from the flame, but bumped into an unexpected warm body, whirling with fangs bared to see Willow with a huge tray of cookies.

“Happy Hanukkah!” she exclaimed with a broad smile.  “Want a cookie?  Ease my pain.”

Spike shook his head.  “Thought you were in the land of cheese, Red.”

Willow shrugged and brushed past him.  “Cheese can’t compare to Christmas on the Hellmouth.  Not even muenster, which, you know, sounds a lot like monster, now that I think of it.”  She giggled.  “Monster cheese.  I wonder if we’ll ever have an apocalypse like that around here.”

Giles looked up at that point, his eyes widening.  “Are you still here, Spike?” he said.  “I thought I told you to check on Buffy.”

Revenge would have to wait.

Or rather, revenge could start at the top.  With the Slayer.

With a gleam in his eye, Spike stalked down the hall for the bathroom, hesitating before the closed door.  An overwhelming urge to knock first actually made him lift his hand in preparation, but the vampire caught himself just in time, shaking his head at his momentary lapse.

“Slay-er!” he called out as he pushed the door open.  “I’m home!”

The entire ceiling was a sea of green, elliptical leaves spreading like fountain water to hide the sterile décor.  But the shoots went ignored, the significance of standing beneath their canopy lost as Spike gaped at the sight before him.

In the bathtub, with shackles running from her wrists to her ankles, a naked Buffy blinked up at him, green eyes furious, nipples surprisingly hard in the sultry air.

“Took you long enough,” she groused.  “Do you have any idea how long I’ve been waiting in here?”  She held up her chain wrists as high as they would go, exposing her scratched palms.  “And that mistletoe was a bitch to put up.  You just better appreciate it.  Though I’m beginning to think that maybe I just won’t give you your Christmas present this year.”

His cock throbbed inside his jeans at the sight of the heavy black iron against her golden skin.  Maybe torturing the Slayer could wait until after he’d had a spot of fun with her first, he reasoned.

“Well?” Buffy demanded.  “Aren’t you going to unwrap me?”

He took a few well-placed steps closer, but stopped before getting within reaching distance.  “That sounds distinctly like an order, pet,” he said with a contemplative tilt of his head.  “And to quote my favorite Slayer…me and orders?  Not so mixy.”

“But…”  A hint of hesitation darted behind her eyes.  “…I thought this was what you wanted.”

“Since when do you care about what I want?”  He could smell her now, but why the bathroom smelled like pine and peaty smoke, Spike had no idea.  All he knew was that it made him want to bury his face between those powerful thighs of hers and not come out until New Year’s.

“I don’t.”  She flushed when he cocked his eyebrow, a lovely shade of blood-affirming pink that spread down her neck and riveted his gaze to the upper swell of her breast.  “Well, I didn’t.  If that’s changed now, it’s completely your fault.”

“Is that so?”

“You’re the one who went and saved me.  I wouldn’t be in this tub now if it wasn’t for you.”

She had him there, but damned if he was going to let the bitch see him falter.

Crossing him arms across his chest, Spike deliberately stood there with his feet planted firmly apart, proudly displaying his erection within his jeans for her to ogle.  “Tell me what’s in it for me if I let you go,” he said.

“You get what you’ve always wanted,” Buffy replied.

“Yeah?  What’s that?”

“Me.”

“Want you dead, luv.  That’s the name of the game, remember?”

Her lips curved into a deadly smile, and she stretched back into the tub, resting her hands at her waist so that her top half was completely bared to his view.  “But don’t you think I’m much more interesting alive?” she taunted.  “All bare, and tender, and exposed?  All this blood, just…pump-ing away….”

Her calculated attempts to provoke a reaction in him succeeded, driving Spike closer to the side of the tub.  When he glanced down and saw where the chains had rubbed the skin raw around her ankles, however, his mood faded, his brows knitting together as he automatically dropped to his knees in order to reach her feet.

“What’ve you done?” he asked, using the key he found on the floor to unlock the shackles.  His thumb caressed the reddened patches, soothing the abrasions before continuing up the chain to unfetter those at her wrists.  Spike’s eyes sought hers.  “Is it that hard to take care of yourself, pet?”

“I’m too busy taking care of everyone else.  And it’s not that bad---.”

He caught her hand before she could hide the corresponding marks there.  “Let me be the judge of that,” he said.  Gently, he turned her palms upward, letting his cool fingers trace over the spidery lines left by the foliage she’d placed above them. 

“So…not into the bondage, huh?” Buffy joked, trying desperately---too desperately---to divert him from his scrutiny of her injuries.  “And here I thought I had you pegged.”

“Time and place,” he muttered.  Slowly, Spike bent his head, lowering his lips to her left hand and brushing them over the array of cuts.

The sound of her accelerating heartbeat filled the room, pounding with a rush in his ears as the faint scent of blood wafted from the scratches.  He felt her shudder as his tongue darted out to taste the salt of her skin, and heard her sharp intake of breath when he sucked at the fleshy pad below her thumb.

“What’re you doing?” she whispered.

He knew she wanted to pull back her hand and slug him a good one---after all, turning into a courting swain when she’d obviously been in the mood for the renegade highwayman would not score him many marks in Buffy’s good books---but he held her firm, tugging her forward so that her bare breasts pressed into his chest.

“It’s all about us bein’ equals, isn’t it?” he asked.  “That was your word.”

“But…I’m in the tub.  And I have chains.  That looks pretty equal to me.”

The swell of her bottom lip beckoned, and Spike ducked down to capture it between his teeth.  “’Cept…” he said between nibbles, “…maybe that’s…not good enough…”

Somewhere in the background, he heard glass shatter, followed by Giles’ muffled cursing.  Buffy broke away from the kiss, and looked over Spike’s shoulder.  “What was that?” she asked.

His mouth dropped to the line of her now-exposed neck.  “Don’t care,” he muttered against her skin.  She tasted sublime, and he could practically feel the blood coursing in her veins through the brief contact of his lips.  Hot, and pounding, and succulence personified---.

Another crash, this time louder, and this time there was no denying the pull it had on his limbs as Buffy faded away from beneath him…

*************

…and his eyes opened to stare up at the wooden ceiling, the distinct sound of an annoyed Buffy on the level below.  She was sweeping something up, and the musical tint of glass against glass told Spike she must’ve broken something for real.

Probably bleedin’ to death and too daft not to even realize it, he thought in annoyance.  Pushing back the blanket, he grabbed his jeans from the foot of the bed and slipped them on, arranging his ebbing erection to be as unnoticeable as possible before he climbed down the ladder.

He’d forgotten all about the kid until he’d dropped to the lower floor and spied Holly sitting at the table, Baby tight in her grip.  “G’morning, Spike,” she chirped.

A blonde head perked up from the opposite side of the table at the mention of his name.  “Thank god you’re up,” Buffy said, straightening.  In her hand was the dustpan filled with shards of one of their drinking glasses, stains of an orange fluid still clinging to its hazardous corners. 

His body told him the hour was approaching noon, and he frowned as he glanced at the bowl sitting in front of Holly.  “Little late for breakfast, isn’t it?” he quizzed, strolling to the refrigerator.

Buffy lifted her brow at the packet of blood he took out.  “If you’d been up with the rest of us, you’d know that’s exactly what we’ve been trying to do all morning.”

“So feed the little nipper.  What’s so hard about that?”

“Well, let’s see.”  She ticked them off on her fingers as she spoke.  “So far, we’ve established that Holly doesn’t eat anything red or orange, nothing that’s hard or crunchy---.”

“It makes noise,” the child offered, as if that would explain it.

Buffy sighed.  “And nothing with the letter ‘b’ in it, for some reason known only to Holly and God.”

“She’s three, luv.  How does she---?”

“Do I look like a child psychologist, Spike?”  She looked frazzled, that’s what she looked like.  “All I know is that I offered her the Weetabix---.”

“There’s Weetabix?  How’d I miss that?”

“---and she turned it down because of the ‘b’ thing.  So, we’re currently letting the Cheerios get soggy so that one of us can get something to eat.  Aren’t we, Holly?”

The little girl nodded.  “Buffy says Slayers don’t need to eat so much.  That’s why she hasn’t eaten yet.”

“Oh, she did, did she?”  Setting down the pan he’d retrieved to warm his blood, Spike turned toward Buffy and firmly took the dustpan from her grip.  One look at the hair falling across her cheek, the tiredness still clouding her eyes, and he’d made up his mind.

“Go take a shower,” he said in a low voice.  “Relax.  Not eating and not sleeping’s not exactly the best way to get back up to full strength, now is it, pet?”

Though gratitude made the corner of her mouth lift, Buffy’s gaze slid guiltily to Holly behind them.  “I can’t just leave her alone out here,” she said.

“And bein’ with me means bein’ alone?”  But his tone was teasing, a glimmer of amusement deep within the blue.  Gently, he gave her a little push toward the bathroom.  “The munchkin and I will be just fine while you freshen yourself up.  All she’s goin’ to do is eat, right?”

“Right.”  She smiled, and though it looked like she was going to say something more, Buffy remained silent as she disappeared to the adjoining room.

“So,” Spike said to Holly, folding his arms across his chest as he leaned back against the counter, “what’s this about you not eating Weetabix?  Sounds like you and me need to have a little chat about fine English traditions, moptop.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 18: ‘Tis the Season to be Jolly