DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. 
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Joyce has learned about the car accident, Giles has learned about some cryptic references to the ritual Maria’s interested in, and Spike has been left watching Holly at breakfast after shooing Buffy off to take a bath…

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

Chapter 18: 'Tis the Season to be Jolly

She fell asleep in the bathtub.  It wasn’t expected, and it certainly didn’t rate high on the smart things to do, but the moment the bath salts hit the hot water, the scent of aloe vera tangling with the steam in silky tendrils that wrapped around her skin as she sank beneath the surface, Buffy’s battle against the Sandman was officially lost.  With her arms stretched out across the top of the ceramic rim, her toes playing with the chain hooking the plug to the faucet, her eyes fluttered closed almost immediately, blocking out the too-white interior of the bathroom and calling up the last thing she knew she should be dreaming about.

“Slayer has a tub fetish.  Got it.”

He stood in the doorway---no, make that leaned in the doorway; the vamp had a body that was ordained for epicurean posing---a well-muscled shoulder against the jamb, eyes uncharacteristically black as his tee and jeans.  The steam was wreaking havoc with his hair, creating a riot of curls, but otherwise, Spike seemed his usual, unflappable self, waiting for…something.  As per the usual, Buffy had no idea what.

“Since when is wanting to be clean considered a fetish?” she snapped back.  Defensively, she scooped some of the mountainous bubbles into her arms, drawing them slowly back so that it more effectively curtained her breasts from his view, but then flushed when his eyes drifted to the length of her legs, now visible through the watery patina, rainbowed in the translucent yellows and greens of the soap.

“Since you take a piece of wood into the water with you.  And not the sort that makes this fun for the both of us, I might add.” 

His reply directed her attention to the stake floating between her breasts, its tip pressed lightly against her sternum by some invisible hand.  When she reached to grab hold of it, however, Buffy was stopped by a flash of ivory, and looked up to see Spike crouching at the tub’s side, the weapon dancing between his fingers.

“Afraid of a vamp gettin’ a gander of the goodies?” he taunted.

“Of course not.”  She held out her hand.  “Now, give it back.”

A flick of his wrist sent the stake clattering to the tiled floor behind him.  “Like you better without it.”

“I like you better with it.”

His bottom lip jutted in a mock pout.  “And here I thought we’d reached an understanding, luv,” Spike said.  “I’m wounded.”

“Not yet, you aren’t.”

She was tensed to leap over him to retrieve her stake when strong arms slithered around her sides, pulling her from the slippery bubbles to trap her against his chest.  “I said,” he rumbled, and he tightened his grip when his fingers threatened to slide free of her skin, “I like you better this way.”

Instinct was demanding she fight back, rearing its logical head and screaming, “Bad Spike!  Bad Vampire!” at the top of its lungs.

Instinct had saved her ass on more than one occasion, especially with this particular demon, so listening to it instead of doing her best wriggly worm impersonation should’ve been her first priority.  She needed to get free of his clutches and stake him before things got worse.

She didn’t, though.

Because this time…instinct was wrong.

Only the friction of the cotton kept her from slipping away, her skin an oily sheath refusing Spike the luxury of a firm grip.  As her breasts flattened against him, Buffy balled the fabric of his tee in her hands as an anchor, and slid the rest of the way out of the tub to land in his lap.

“Why do I have to be the naked one?” she murmured.  Her body felt like it was vibrating from the power of her pulse, and she’d never been so glad that Spike’s heart didn’t beat at all.  Whether he knew it or not, he was anchoring her from flying free of her skin; she just wondered if that was what Spike really wanted.

She shivered when the rough rasp of his jeans brushed against her sex, instinctively parting her legs to wrap them about his waist.  Spike’s head ducked so that he could run blunt teeth along her neck, and when he lifted his gaze back up to meet hers, golden eyes had replaced the blue.

“’Cause you’ve already seen me in all my glory,” he said in response to her query.

Exploratory fingers released their hold to roam over the landscape of his brow, dipping in the valley of his scar before trailing down to his fangs.  “Why didn’t you take the deal?” Buffy asked quietly.  The fleshy pad of her index finger caught on the incisor’s tip, a crimson bead welling to the surface, and she gasped when Spike sucked the digit into his mouth.  “You hate my friends, you hate Sunnydale.   You shouldn’t care what happens when we go back.”

His tongue curled around her finger as he slid his mouth back up its length.  “Don’t hate you,” Spike murmured.

“You used to.”

“And you used to hate me.  Figure that makes us even.”

“Partners.”

“Your word.”

“Don’t you like it?”

He didn’t reply, just bent his head back down to suck at her neck.

She could feel his teeth hovering above her skin, his constraint to not bite making his body tremble against hers.  Each powerful pull hooked slick talons deep into her gut, making her clit tingle, and she moaned in spite of her promise to stay resolute.

“Aren’t you afraid?”  His voice was barely a breath.

Buffy’s eyes shot open, but he hadn’t pulled back from the hollow in her throat.  “You won’t bite me,” she said, with more confidence than she felt. 

“Oh?  And why’s that?”

It was her turn to whisper.  “I don’t know.”

His lips left her neck, his pointed tongue marking a trail back up to her jaw.  Gone was his vampire visage, and he gazed at her with eyes made dark with hidden understanding.  “Yes, you do, Slayer…”

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

“Slayer!”

The sharp cry startled her from her rest, making her sit up in the cooling water with a splash that sent droplets splattering over the tub’s rim.  Her toe caught on the silver plug chain, yanking it from its mooring, and she scowled as she reached down to try and fit it back into place before too much of her bath emptied out.

“Slayer!”  Pounding on the door accompanied Spike’s much louder second call, and this time, she could hear the muffled giggles underlying his very vocal peevishness.

“What?” she barked back, irritation sending her good mood scattering.  “Kind of wet here, Spike!”

She shrank back into the tub when the door was flung open, arms automatically going to cover her breasts, but her exasperation vanished almost the moment Spike appeared in the entrance.

He looked as he always did---black jeans, form-fitting tee, heavy boots that made his feet look obscenely big---but it was a new accessory that had turned his normal dour expression into a contortion of furious proportions.  Clinging to his back, with thin arms wrapped around his neck for security and knees squeezing tight into his sides, was Holly.  Her face was buried between his shoulder blades, her body shaking from the giggles that were erupting from her chest.  Spike was doing nothing to help keep her in position; in fact, his hands were balled into fists at his sides as he glowered at the wet Slayer in the tub.

“Get.  It.  Off,” he growled, eyes flashing.

Buffy had to bite her lip not to join Holly in her laughter.  “It is a little girl, Spike,” she said.  “And since when can’t you get a little girl off your back?”

“Since I’ve already set this bleedin’ chip off once gettin’ her off the first time she decided I was some sort of climbing frame.  Fuckin’ bint clambered back on when I was on my knees from the pain.”

A sharp inhalation cut off Holly’s giggles, and she pulled her face back to twist around and stare with saucer eyes at Spike.  “You said a bad word,” she whispered loudly.

He snorted, his head swiveling to glare at the child in spite of the still-tight squeeze she had on his neck.  “Yeah, well, I’ll be sayin’ a whole lotta bloody bad words if you don’t start minding what I say, you godda---.”

“Spike!”

“What?”

Her sharp tone had two sets of eyes staring at her---one innocent, one definitely not-so-innocent---and Buffy put on her best can’t-we-be-grown-ups face as she reached for the towel at the side of the tub.

“Go back to the other room while I get dressed,” she instructed.  “We’ll…figure it out from there.”

Her statement seemed to bring the realization home for Holly for the first time since coming into the bathroom.  “Buffy doesn’t have any clothes on,” she commented, her mouth conspiratorially close to Spike’s ear.

In spite of his ill-temper, the vampire relaxed.  “Yeah,” he said.  His gaze devoured the tawny shine of the Slayer’s shoulders before slipping to the upper swell of her breasts, and she flushed when he deliberately ran the tip of his tongue along the edges of his teeth.  “Kind of noticed that.”

“Well, you can un-notice it,” Buffy said.  “Especially from far, far away.”

“Sure you don’t want a little help, pet?”

“Oh!  Oh!  I can help!  I wanna help!”  The prospect of pitching in on something Spike was obviously interested in doing was enough for Holly to slacken her hold on his neck, sliding sure-footedly to the tiled floor and scurrying to fetch the clothes Buffy had set by the sink.  Before either adult could stop her, she’d closed the distance to the tub and thrust the clothing over the ceramic rim, standing back with a proud smile as they sank below the water’s surface.

Spike’s guffaw was enough to short the rest of the Slayer’s temper.

“Out!” she shouted, pointing to the door.  “Buffy bathes by herself!”

Holly’s beaming face crumpled at the unexpected explosion, her eyes dissolving into enormous teary pools.  Silently, she backed away from the tub, and when she hit Spike’s leg, she whirled to bury her sobs in the black denim.

The vampire rolled his eyes.  “Good job, luv,” he remarked.  With a shake of his head, he bent and scooped the child into his arms, grimacing when she wiped a snuffly nose on his t-shirt before clinging tightly to his neck.  Buffy watched in growing horror as he began rubbing Holly’s back.

“C’mon, moptop,” he crooned, the softness in his tone almost as warm as the steam that filled the room.  “Let’s get away from the big, bad Slayer.  You don’t want to be around her anyway.  I hear tell that bein’ a bitch is catching and we don’t want that, do we?”

Holly pulled away long enough to gaze at him in wet solemnity.  “That’s a bad word, too.”

“Yeah.”  The look he shot Buffy made her shrink further into the water.  “That, it is.”

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

By the time she emerged with a towel wrapped snugly around her, Buffy felt like the Wicked Witch of the West.  She’s just a kid, she scolded herself as she stepped from humid air of the bath into the cooler air of the living room.  She was just trying to help.  Now she thinks Spike is the good guy, and how warped is that?

Her gaze fell on the child sitting at the dining table, hands cradling a steaming mug in front of her as she solemnly watched Spike pour a blood bag into a waiting pan.

“Does it taste good?” Holly was asking.

“Like bloody heaven,” Spike replied.

The little girl giggled.  “You made a funny.”

“He made something, all right,” Buffy said wryly, approaching the duo.  Inwardly, she cringed when the good humor disappeared from Holly’s face and the child ducked her eyes to stare into her cup, but continued to force the smile when she bent over to see what she was drinking.

“Hot chocolate?” Buffy said in amazement.  There were even tiny marshmallows floating in it, reminiscent of her mother’s recipe.

“Spike made it,” Holly said in a tiny voice.

“Meet with your approval, Slayer?”

She ignored the mocking disdain in his tone, and instead sat down next to the girl.  “Look,” she said, as gently as she could manage, “about what happened in the bathroom.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to be so…loud.”

Spike’s snort made Buffy stiffen, but the smallest of nods from Holly encouraged her to continue.

“Now, I appreciate that you wanted to help.  I really do.  But, I had the door closed for a reason.  See, when grown-ups have doors closed, that means we want some alone time, and it’s not polite to just walk in on someone.  So that’s why I was a little crabby, OK?  Because I just wanted to finish my bath on my own.”

Another nod was followed by a sideways glance at the vampire, still busy at the stove.  “But Spike’s the one who opened the door.”

“I know, but Spike made a mistake.  And Spike knows that.  Doesn’t Spike?”

Both females turned in expectation towards the black-clad back.  After a long moment where the only sound in the room was the spoon brushing against the side of the pan, Buffy repeated, this time a little more firmly, “Doesn’t Spike?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, though the force with which he poured the blood into his waiting mug belied his acceptance.  “Spike knows that, and a helluva lot more.”

There were volumes unspoken by his words, and though the urge to demand what exactly he was talking about swelled inside Buffy, she let it go, sighing in resignation as she rose to her feet.  “I’m going to go get dressed now, and when I come back out, we’ll play a game or something, OK?”

“OK.”

Convincing, it was not, but considering the mood she’d created with her little outburst, Buffy realized that this was as good as it was going to get for now.  And I thought hanging around with Spike for two weeks was going to be bad.  How am I not going to break this kid before New Year’s comes around?

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

Holly watched Buffy as she disappeared into the bedroom, carefully closing the door behind her.  Doyle had warned her about behaving herself while she was at the cabin, and she was sad that she’d already made things bad in the small house by getting the Slayer mad at her.  Spike wasn’t happy any more, too, though he hadn’t been happy when they’d been playing piggyback either.  He’d seemed to cheer up a bit in the bathroom, but now he was back to grumping around the kitchen, slamming the pan into the sink while muttering under his breath.

“Sorry, Spike,” Holly said quietly.

“Sorry ‘bout what, moptop?” he asked distractedly.

“I got you in trouble, too.”

His brows were dark and tight when he looked at her.  It was his thinking face.  She was starting to recognize that one.  He used it a lot. 

“Not your fault,” he replied.  “Slayer’s just…wound a little tight.”

“Because you’re a vampire?”

“Yeah.  Reckon that’s part of it.”  Sipping at his drink, Spike contemplated her with a steadiness that would have unnerved another child.  For Holly, though, being watched was so ingrained that it was just par for the course.

“What do you know about vampires, pidge?” he finally asked.  “Why is it you’re not scared of me?”

“You drink blood.”

“And?”

“And sometimes you kill people.”

“No sometimes ‘bout that.  It’s how most of us demons get off.”

“Do you like it?”

“Do I like what?”

“Killing people.”

“Did.  These days, my killing’s a bit limited to the more demonic of the population.”

“But you won’t kill me.”

“Can’t.  You’re human.  Got the headache to prove it.”

“Would you kill me if I wasn’t?”

He went silent at that.  Holly was quickly learning that Spike wasn’t quiet very often.  It had to be important when he was.

“Drink up,” he finally said, gesturing toward her still-full cup.  “Got that recipe special from the Slayer’s mum.  It’s got my personal guarantee to perk you right up.”

She was disappointed he wasn’t going to answer her question, but didn’t press the issue.  She’d spent all her life around adults who didn’t always want to tell her what was going on; she’d long ago understood that it wasn’t always a good idea to push them on what they were thinking. 

Sometimes…they got violent.

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

The glass on the mantle shattered, but rather than the hundreds of splinter-sized shards scattering to the floor, they danced and shimmered in the dim illumination, casting an opulence of rainbows on the shadow-coated walls, before coalescing back into a smooth cylinder.  It was completely devoid of cracks, its shape flawless.  It was impossible to tell that it had just been broken.

And it just wasn’t good enough.

Disgusted, Maria blew out the candles at her side, leaving her in pitch black as she took the few sure steps to the light switch on the wall.  Ever since the attack in Canada, her powers had been weakened, the demons the PTB had set upon her wreaking their damage before she could escape.  Then, snatching Rupert Giles had proven a second setback, when the freak snowstorm came from nowhere and forced her to take him at a greater distance than she could comfortably afford.  It was a good thing she had Silas and Paul to tap into.  Without them, she would have no hope in ever getting her hands on Holly.

Now she had the third Watcher, though.  And his unchecked resources made the other two look like mere babes in the woods.

Deluding him had been remarkably simple, though his reluctance to participate had been unfortunate.  The worst of that seemed to be past, though, as her staff informed her that he’d been hard at work for most of the night.  Even Silas and Paul were of the opinion that Rupert had finally come around to their way of thinking.

The only aspect that gave her pause was his concern over his Slayer.  There should have been no one with him, and the fact that he’d so casually included her in his weekend raised more questions than made Maria comfortable.  Was he intending to use the time as a training exercise?  Most of the evidence seemed to point to that conclusion, especially since he was so eager to assure the Slayer’s mother of her safety.  That meant the mother knew of her daughter’s whereabouts, and Maria highly doubted a grown woman would condone her teenaged progeny to travel hundreds of miles with a man old enough to be her father.

So what exactly had happened to Buffy Summers?

It was not a question she could afford to spend too much time dwelling on.  New Year’s was quickly approaching, and with it, her deadline to usurp the power she’d longed for, for the last forty years.  It was possible that there might be other children with the same capabilities of satisfying the ritual’s sacrifice, but by the time she found them, Maria was certain it would prove too late for her to truly benefit.  She was already in her early fifties; of what value was immortality if she had to live it out as an old woman?

Gathering together the last vestiges of her tools, she quickly returned them to their hiding place in the stone surround of the fireplace.  She had nine days left to get her powers back to a strong enough capacity to handle the sacrifice; it would likely take constant iteration in order to reach the proper balance.  In the meantime, she had every plan to celebrate the holiday in a manner befitting the gracious hostess she was mimicking. 

After all, Christmas was the most wonderful time of the year.

 

To be continued in Chapter 19: I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus