DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Maria has recruited Silas for some secret task, Joyce is determined to go to Maria’s though the ghosts are attempting to stop her, and Spike has learned more about the truth of Holly’s background…

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

Chapter 32: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Though her bedtime had long come and gone, Holly was showing no signs of being ready to sleep. For the last half hour, she hadn’t stopped moving, running circles around the table, crawling underneath it, standing on one chair and then hopping to the next, and Spike was beginning to suspect the chocolate pudding plan had backfired on him in ways he hadn’t envisioned. He didn’t correct her, though, because frankly, it was going to take a hell of a lot more effort to stop her than to just watch and make sure she didn’t bump into anything and decide oozing lethal fluids all over the joint. Instead, Spike decided to be a bit more proactive and set to his next attempt in helping Buffy fight the toxin.

One thing Holly had said kept coming back to him. Though he knew it wouldn’t do any good at this juncture to try removing the poison from Buffy’s system---with the amount of time that had elapsed, there was no way Spike could guarantee that her blood hadn’t already commuted the contagion---he rather liked the idea of sweating some of the malignancy from her flesh. Like a fever before the advent of aspirin. There was nothing like a good old-fashioned cleansing when it came to purification of the body.

Plus, it gave him a really good excuse to lay his hands on her. He was fairly certain she wouldn’t have protested anyway, but it was hard to see such a gorgeous creature, even unconscious, and not want to touch her in some way.

Quickly, he had the bathroom full of steam, the bath raging as hot as he could get it, almost every container from the kitchen scattered about with boiled water heating the air. Holly watched him curiously as he worked, but never said a word, not even when he carried Buffy from the couch and set her on the towel he’d stretched out on the middle of the bathroom floor. She just poked her head in through the open door until Spike’s terse, “The bloody steam stays in here a sight longer if you leave it closed, pidge,” prompted her to slam it shut again.

His fingers danced over Buffy’s clothing, stripping her with relative ease. “And no reason for you to bitch at me when you wake up,” he commented to the sleeping Slayer as he tossed her top onto the growing pile. “Didn’t pop a single button.”

Her heartbeat was stronger than it had been, a slowing tympani that made him want to shout for joy. Quickly, he glanced down at her hands. Though there was still a tinge to them, they were the same color as if she’d just gone outside without her gloves for a few minutes. Almost natural.

“Knew you could do it,” Spike said gleefully. “Nothin’ can take my Slayer down. Not even a touch of bloodspawn out there.” Leaning in, he pressed a kiss to her forehead, her skin already slick with the perspiration that was being drawn from her body. “You just rest up,” he murmured. “I’ve gotta---.”

A loud crash echoed from the outer room, followed quickly by the whispering of tiny running feet and a slammed door.

Spike sighed. “Gotta go see what the moptop did this time,” he said, straightening. He cocked his head as he looked down at her, waggling a knowing finger. “Don’t think I don’t know you did all this just to get out of the babysitting gig. And don’t think I’m not goin’ to remember after you’re back up to snuff. I plan on takin’ full advantage of any and all guilt you might acquire ‘bout me playin’ Mary Poppins while you’re out for the count.”

Though he half-expected a sly rejoinder to come from her as he closed the door behind him, Spike was quickly diverted from the business of Buffy to the Christmas tree that now leaned askew against the window. A smattering of ornaments dotted the floor, and there was already a small fire blazing near the hearth where a swag that had been adorning the sill had fallen to the floor and been lit by a rogue spark.

“Holly!” Spike roared, as he jumped forward to the fireplace. Vaguely, he heard a muffled whimper from the bedroom, but it was soon drowned out by his boots stomping out the flames, his feet kicking the other loose ornaments beyond the fire’s reach. “Holly!” he repeated. “Get your ass out here, or so help me if I have to come get you, you’ll be drained before you can say ‘Merry Fuckin’ Christmas’!”

He heard the door creak open, but waited until the last of the fire on the floor was out before twisting to look back. Holly stood in the doorway, eyes wide. No longer was she wearing her clothes, however; in an effort to obviously gain bonus points against her accident, she had stripped down and put her nightgown on.

Inside out.

“What the hell happened here?” Spike demanded. He pointed at the tree. “Do you have any idea how long it took me to get that soddin’ thing to stay up? Not to mention gettin’ pricked to hell and back, and not in the fun way, either.”

“You’re yelling,” she said in a small voice.

“Bloody right I am. I’m right brassed off with you. All I asked was for you to mind yourself while I sorted Buffy out, and you almost managed to burn the bleedin’ house down.”

“I’m sorry.”

“As you should be. Are you tryin to get us all killed? Not exactly flame-retardant here, you know. You could’ve had a big pile of ash watchin’ after you if that little bonfire had got itself any bigger.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Bet you are, missy.” His lips thinned. “When Buffy wakes up, you’re goin’ to be the one to tell her you wrecked some of her deck the halls glory. No way am I takin’ the blame for you on this one.”

Her eyes darted to the bathroom before returning to Spike’s face with a guileless earnestness. “Did you make her better?”

“What? No, I’m just tryin’---.” He stopped, head tilting as he raised a finger to point at her. “Distracting me from what you did isn’t goin’ to work. Who do you think invented that little trick? Now. What’re we goin’ to do about this?”

“About what?”

“This.” Spike waved at the lopsided tree.

“Fix it?”

He had to ball his hands into fists at his side in order not to explode any worse than he had. “I know we’re goin’ to fix it,” he replied through gritted teeth. “What I meant was---.”

The now too-familiar of something crashing floated from outside the cabin, alerting Spike’s senses and causing Holly to shrink back into the darkness of the bedroom.

“It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!” she cried out.

“Sshhh,” Spike said. When the cabin was silent, he pricked his ears, straining to hear what else might be on the other side of the front door.

And heard the unmistakable sound of voices.

Three, to be exact.

Bollocks.

Darting across the room, Spike had his hand clamped over Holly’s mouth before she could cry out, scooping her under his arm and heading for the ladder. “Stay up here,” he instructed as he set her down in the loft.

Her eyes glowed from the reflected firelight. “I don’t do down,” she whispered.

“Right,” he said with a half-smile. “Be right back.”

Sauna interruptus, Spike thought as he let himself back into the bathroom. As quickly as he could, he gathered Buffy into his arms and went back to the ladder. Sorry it couldn’t be longer, luv.

Holly just watched as the vampire settled Buffy onto his bed, drawing the blankets up over her and gently brushing the hair off her face. “Are you going to get the bad men outside?” she said.

“Yeah.” He was halfway down the ladder when he realized the child had yet to move from the spot he’d placed her, stock-still as if her feet had been riveted to the floor. Behind him, he could hear the voices getting louder, but the fear that was shining in Holly’s face made him hesitate.

“Need you to do something, pidge,” Spike said conspiratorially. “I need you to keep an eye on Buffy, all right? Make sure she’s all cozy-like while I tend to business outside. Can you do that for me?”

She nodded, and then bit her lip. “Will that make it all better?” she asked.

“Huh?” There were footsteps on the porch now; he had to get outside and stop whoever it was before they made it inside. Even if they were vampires, the fact that Spike had crossed the threshold without an invite meant they could, too; it was up to him to ensure these wankers didn’t get anywhere near either of his girls.

And he wasn’t even going to consider the possibility that the intruders might be human.

“Will I still be in trouble?”

He rolled his eyes. “Don’t make a noise ‘til I come back up here, and we’ll see.”

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

With one of Buffy’s short daggers tucked into his boot and a stake in his pocket, Spike slithered through one of the windows in the back of the cabin, falling to the ground he’d cleared the previous night with a barely audible crunch. Other than the vestiges that remained from his tryst with Buffy in the clearing, there were no scents of human in the air, nor was there the familiar pulse of heartbeats. Their visitors were demon. It was the best news he’d had since Buffy’d fallen unconscious.

With his usual feline grace, Spike crept around the side of the house, ears straining to catch the conversation that was happening in the front. The snippets he heard were mildly encouraging.

“You knock.”

“No, you knock.”

“You do it. I knocked last time.”

“When I knock, I get a fangful of nothing, if memory serves. I’m not getting gypped again.”

Two vampires, arguing between them. Thank god they hadn’t tried the door yet.

Spike’s senses stretched to try and suss out the location of their comrade. He was certain he’d discerned three voices, but only two of them were talking. He couldn’t afford to be surprised when he made his attack.

“The blood’s already flowing in there,” the first one whined. “Can’t you smell it?”

“Which is why---.”

“Will you two just shut up?”

There it was. The third. A woman.

Spike smiled.

He couldn’t have picked a better way to vent his frustration from the past six hours. Well, it would’ve been nice if it was Angel who was soon to be on the other end of his fist, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

“If you two don’t stop your bickering, I’m going to throw you back into the invisible wall and hold you there until you fry, do you understand?” the woman barked. Silence. “Now, we have to be smart about this. Norris, you knock. Nick, you hide over here with me.”

“Me? How come I have to knock?” The first man he’d heard, though now the unmistakable whinge in his voice made him sound ten years younger.

“Because you don’t look like chopped liver from trying to headbutt your way past that electrical wall,” she replied.

Spike had to stifle his chuckle. Stupid gits. Obviously, they’d wandered through the barrier and couldn’t get out again. Just a few demons looking for a meal. Too bad they weren’t going to find it here.

Inch by inch, he neared the corner of the cabin, and peered around to see a pock-faced young man shuffling around on the porch. The distinct gleam of two sets of gold eyes glowed between the trees, and Spike visually measured the distance separating him from them. Thirty or so yards. Close enough for him to get to, but it would leave the front door unprotected, and if the prat decided to test the boundaries…

“Nobody’s answering,” the vampire on the porch called over his shoulder.

“Idiot,” Spike heard the woman mutter. He grinned. He knew the feeling of being surrounded by imbeciles.

The other male emerged from the darkness. Without the canopy of the trees to hide him from the moonlight, Spike could see the vicious burns that left his forehead and left side of his face in savage, crimson furrows. Even without them, though, he still wouldn’t have been remotely on the pretty side, a bulbous nose and tiny eyes giving him the appearance of a young WC Fields. It was going to be fun to rough him up even more.

“Let’s just break it down,” Nick said.

The woman sighed before stepping out to join him. She was old enough to be their mother, and with a sudden clarity, Spike realized that she actually was. A little vampire family stranded for the holidays. It was almost funny.

“How many times do we have to go over this?” she said. She hit Nick on the back of the head, eliciting a frustrated growl from the younger demon. “Norris, get down here. You two are just lucky it’s the middle of the night and whoever’s inside is too drunk on their asses from their Christmas celebrations to hear you out here.”

He waited until the third were together on the ground before making his move.

“And who’s that tap, tap, tappin’ at my front door?” Spike drawled. He sauntered forward, thumb hooked through his beltloop, affecting his best cock of the walk attitude. It had been months since he’d been able to strut as if he owned the place, and this far from Sunnydale, there was little chance that knowledge about his chipped status would get in his way from preening as the superior vampire he was. He was going to have his fight, and he was going to have some fun, too, getting a measure of demon respect that was his long delinquent due. Maybe there really was a Santa Claus.

The two males bristled, chests puffing in a vain attempt to show their superiority. But it was the narrow-eyed assessment of the mother that Spike truly cared about. She was obviously the boss here; if she saw him as a true threat, half his work was done.

“This isn’t your place,” Norris accused.

Spike cocked an eyebrow. “Really?” He leapt to the rail and walked the length of the porch like a tightrope before stopping to lounge against the post at the stairs. “What makes you say that?”

“Because there’s humans inside,” Nick said.

“You smell the blood, don’t you?” Spike questioned. “You think that’s just an accident?” As if to make his point, he let his tongue snake over the edge of his teeth before making a smacking sound with his lips. “Let’s just say, it was a very merry Christmas this year.”

The men exchanged a glance. “You’re lying,” Norris said.

With an exaggerated sigh, Spike hopped down from his perch and stepped to the front door. “Shouldn’t argue with your elders,” he said. Silently praying that Holly was sticking to her promise to behave in silence this time, he opened the door and crossed the threshold. Stopping just inside, he turned and leaned against the jamb, an indolent smirk highlighting the amusement in his eyes. “Too bad we didn’t make a wager on it. Could’ve used a few bob when I got back to civilization.”

The trio of vampires stiffened, closing their ranks instinctively. “I know they don’t look like much,” the female said, “but Nick and Norris here were state champion wrestlers before they were turned.”

“Someone’s read just a bit too much Hammett, I think,” Spike drawled. Behind him, he could hear the faint tread of footsteps, but didn’t dare look back to see what was going on. Instead, he stepped back outside, pulling the door closed. “You really think the Wonderless Twins here can take me?”

“Maybe not,” she replied. Her face shifted, her fangs extending. “But the three of us might just stand a shot.”

Spike met them halfway, launching forward with his coat flaring out behind to take the two men down into the snowbank. As the three bodies rolled with snarls and growls, and Spike felt the comforting crunch of bones within his grip when he grabbed the nearest wrist and twisted, a sense of peace pervaded his bones.

Taking his pent-up frustration on a trio determined to steal his little corner of the world was the best medicine he could’ve prescribed himself. The only thing that could’ve made it better would’ve been to have Buffy at his side.

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

She blinked. It didn’t take Willow’s superior deductive reasoning to figure out she was back in Spike’s bed. She just wasn’t sure how she got there. The last thing Buffy remembered was trying to hold Holly still, waiting for Spike to bring over the first aid kit so that she could stop the bleeding on the girl’s leg. Her hands had started feeling extremely cold, and the next thing she knew, the room was spinning around her.

Did I black out?

It was the only explanation, but she had no idea why. She did know that her hands currently felt like they weighed about thirty pounds each, and they were still chilly while the rest of her seemed to have been dipped into boiling water. Why was she so wet?

She stirred beneath the blanket, and then froze.

Naked, too. Or nearly so.

That could only be because of Spike.

“Spike?” she called out. Struggling to prop herself on her elbows, the sudden rush of feet filled the loft space, and she fell back onto the mattress just as Holly’s head appeared at her side.

“Buffy!” the child squeaked excitedly, and then instantly shrank, glancing back at the ladder fearfully as her lips pressed together.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. Focusing her will on the simple act of lifting her arm, she frowned when Holly visibly pulled away from her touch. “Where’s Spike?”

“Outside.” She was whispering now, cupping her hand around her mouth to direct the sound.

“Can you go get him? I want to know what’s going on.”

Holly shook her head. “I don’t---.”

“---do down,” Buffy finished. She closed her eyes and sighed, suddenly exhausted. “Right. I forgot.”

With the room vanished from her sight, her other senses seemed to sharpen, and Buffy could hear the faint din of shouts and bangs filtering through the thick walls. It sounded like a fight. What had happened while she was in unconscious?

“Are you better?”

Holly’s whisper was louder with her eyes shut, and Buffy nodded, though the effort it took made her head feel like it was going to fall off her neck. “What happened?” When she was greeted with silence, she opened her lids to see the girl staring at her in fear. “Why are you upset?”

“I hurt you.” The tiny confession could hardly be heard, but the pain behind it screamed. “I’m sorry.”

“You…” And then she remembered the blood trickling through her fingers, how the funny feelings in her body hadn’t started until after she’d come into contact with it. At least she knew why someone would be after the little girl now. In the way of weapons, that one was a doozy.

“It’s OK,” Buffy said. “See?” She gathered the remainder of her strength and rolled onto her side to face Holly, beads of sweat popping out onto her brow. “I’m doing better already.”

Wide eyes swept over the bed before returning to Buffy’s face. “You’re not mad?”

“No, of course not.” For the first time, she noticed the seams on the child’s nightgown on the outside of her garment, the tag poking out at her nape. “Spike dressed you, didn’t he?”

The front door opened and shut, the heavy stomp of Spike’s tread preceding a charged shout of excitement from his lungs. “Holly!” he bellowed, and then his step was on the ladder, his bleached head appearing over the floor’s edge just a split second before he leapt to the upper level.

His duster was coated in ash, a dark smear highlighting the angularity of his right cheekbone. Blood dripped from a gash on his forehead, and the knuckles on his left hand were red from abrasions, but in spite of his less than ideal presentation, Spike’s eyes glittered with a satisfied bliss, the energy still coiled in his limbs driving him to bounce on the balls of his feet.

He froze when he saw Buffy staring at him, but it lasted only a second before he was at her side, his hands cupping her face as he took possession of her lips in a hungry kiss, driving her to respond though she knew the strength she was expending should’ve been reserved for something more vital like healing.

“Knew you could bloody well beat it,” he said when he pulled away. He shot Holly a look of smug satisfaction. “Maybe now you’ll start believing me, won’t you, moptop? Ol’ Spike knows his Slayer better than anyone. Don’t you ever believe any different.”

The custodial command of his tone sent a surge of heat through Buffy’s veins, but she kept a calm exterior as her gaze swept over his disheveled appearance. “What have you been doing?” Buffy asked. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

“Feel fuckin’ fantastic.” Ignoring Holly’s widened eyes at his cursing, he leapt back to his feet, shrugging out of his coat to let it fall to the floor before heading for the dresser. “Had a few vamps stumble through our little electric fence, but took care of them right quick. Best fight I’ve had since those walrus guys took a swipe at us.”

“How many is a few?”

“What’s that?” His head was ducked, his hands busy pawing through his clothes. When Buffy repeated her question, Spike just shrugged. “Oh, five, maybe six. Lost count after the first two.” With a clean tee and jeans dangling from his hand, he was back for another kiss, leaving her breathless when he finally broke away.

“No goin’ back to sleep,” he ordered as he headed for the ladder. “I’m just goin’ to wash up and when I’m done, I’ll put the little one to bed proper. Then, you and me…” His eyes raked over her bare shoulders, the corner of his mouth lifting. “…are goin’ to have a little chat.”

And with a wicked grin, he disappeared down the ladder.

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

Though the hour was late, Giles was still awake, scribbling at his notes with a ravenous attention that hadn’t been present in his work since researching the truth behind the Mayor’s ascension the previous year. His pen scratched along the paper, and when he’d filled as much of it as he could, the Watcher turned it over to begin writing on the other side, playing with the words he’d concretely translated while rearranging those that were less firm.

He had to be quick. Silas had poked his head in earlier and asked to speak with him and Paul in private before retiring, on a matter that was “of the utmost importance.” There’d been an excited gleam in the florid face, and Giles had agreed, more out of curiosity about what could’ve caused such a reaction in the other man than eagerness to share any of his findings. There had been little camaraderie between the trio since the argument about Maria’s book, so the fact that Silas was so keen to collaborate again was most definitely odd.

When the knock came, Giles shoved the notes from Paul’s discoveries into his desk drawer before calling out for the arrivals to come in. Silas entered first, with Paul directly on his heels, and they closed the door behind them as if privacy was their primary concern. Under his arm, Silas had a stack of books, and he set them down on the corner of the desk when he approached.

“Have you found the daughter?” Giles asked. There was no need for niceties. He had no interest in being this man’s friend; any Watcher who could arbitrarily kill his Slayer wasn’t worthy of his respect.

“Better.” Silas pulled a thin volume from the middle of the stack, and slid it across the surface. “I’ve found proof of what Maria is actually planning.”

With a frown, Giles glanced at the book’s spine and noticed the green ribbon marking a center page. Opening the text, he only began skimming the contents when his eyes narrowed, his chin lifting to stare at the other man.

“Where did you get this?” he demanded.

“The same place young Paul found the other book,” came the reply. Casting a surreptitious eye toward the corners of the room, he leaned in to explain in hushed tones how Maria had sent for him earlier, how, during the course of their meeting, she had had to take a call, during which time he’d seen the book and slipped it into the stack he’d walked into Giles’ room with. “She never noticed,” Silas finished gleefully. “And when I had the opportunity to look it over, I went directly to Paul to tell him what I’d found.”

The Watcher in question was nodding vehemently. “I told Silas to wait until we knew she was retired before speaking with you,” he said. “This corroborates the other translations.”

It did indeed. In fact, it outlined the ritual quite clearly, explaining how it needed to be conducted before the eve of the fourth, whatever that meant, that the Seers were responsible for protecting the child from the intervention of the Warriors, and that if started, the only way to stop the transfer was to kill the spellcaster.

“This would suggest she has been mostly upfront with us,” Giles mused.

“I believe the only reason she hasn’t told us about the specifics of the ritual,” Silas said eagerly, “is that she fears we would then kill her daughter. She’s merely interested in protecting Holly’s life. She doesn’t want to see her die.”

“Which she knows we would do if it meant preserving the Slayer line,” Paul added.

“Yes.”

It made sense. In a twisted, manipulative way, it made perfect sense.

That didn’t mean Giles liked it, though.

“Thank you,” he said, meeting Silas’ gaze with more warmth toward the man than he’d felt since first meeting him. “This was valuable information for us to get. I appreciate the lengths you’ve gone to.”

“It was my pleasure.” His broad smile slightly faded. “I understand we’ve had a bit of a…tenuous working relationship, Rupert, but I hope you can see now that I truly believe we’re on the same side. We must be united in our search for Holly. It’s the only way for us to save your Slayer.”

“Agreed.” Standing, Giles offered his hand in truce. “I owe you my apologies, Geen.”

Silas seemed to still be glowing from the affirmation when he and Paul left the room, but Giles’ mood didn’t lift with their departure.

He wanted to believe that anyone who would arbitrarily threaten an innocent woman like Joyce Summers only had their own best interests at heart, and that those interests were likely detrimental to the masses. He didn’t want to be wrong about this.

The books told him he was.

 

To be continued in Chapter 33: I Ain’t Been Nuttin’ But Bad