DISCLAIMER: The characters are
Joss’, of course.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Holly had a tantrum in her fear about hurting Buffy more, but got settled down. Buffy and Spike had a small talk about some of the things he’d said to Holly about his mother, ending in a new understanding between the two…
There were striking similarities to the last time she’d woken on the couch with Spike.
The hard, lean length of him against her back, arousing Buffy’s nerves to a bow-tight zenith long before her mind could fully sharpen.
His cool hand splayed possessively across her stomach. Still. Firm. Ready to act at the slightest provocation.
His nose buried in the golden tangle of two-days-spent-in-bed hair. Even if he wasn’t breathing, Buffy was convinced he did it only to soak in the scent of her. Spike seemed to be just as smell-fixated as he was orally.
But there were differences, too.
When the shadows had lengthened and Holly had made no appearance at waking from her nap, Spike had climbed onto the couch without invitation, his eyes solemn when they met Buffy’s as he rolled her over, molding her to him with the silent command of a man convinced it was his right. She would’ve asked him anyway, but the assurance with which he claimed his place beside her was both terrifying and heart-warming.
He made no overt sexual advances, either. Yes, she could feel his erection through his jeans where his hips pressed into her bottom, and yes, he’d allowed no hesitancy before slipping his hand beneath the t-shirt she wore, but that was where Spike stopped. His fingers never strayed above her navel, and the closest his mouth came to hers was when he’d nuzzled at the tender spot below her ear. There was still affection in every brush of his skin; it was just tempered by the understanding that now was not the time for more.
Achy from inactivity, Buffy stretched as best she could within the circle of his embrace in order not to wake him. The slight arching of her back drove his arousal deeper into the cleft of her ass, eliciting a sleepy growl from her bed-partner along with a tightening of his grip.
“Dirty pool,” Spike grumbled. “S’posed to be resting, not doin’ your best Delilah.”
“I’ve been in bed too long. I’m all stiff.”
“Believe that’s my line, luv.”
“What time is it?”
“Middle of the night. You still tired or are you wanting to get up?”
Buffy’s eyes drifted open. The cabin glowed from the dying embers in the fireplace, the air crisp with the promise of midnight. “I get up now,” she said, “and my body clock won’t ever forgive me.”
“Could move upstairs,” Spike murmured. For the first time, the hand he held to her stomach crept lower, probing fingers teasing and entwining with the first wiry curls they found. “You could let me tire you out good and proper.”
The prospect was appealing. She wasn’t all that ready to return to sleep, and she wasn’t sure a devoted Spike wouldn’t disappear once she was back in top form. It might be her best move to take advantage of this while she could.
Slapping playfully at his encroaching hand, Buffy said, “It’s cold down here anyway. I want it on the record that I’m only agreeing to this because your bed is way cozier than this couch.”
She felt him peel reluctantly away from her. “I’ll just give the fire a good stoke before we go up then,” he said. “Won’t be---.”
The sudden freeze of his muscles prompted a corresponding tension in her, and Buffy twisted to see what had stopped him.
“What is it?” she started to ask, but the words died in her throat when she saw.
The front door of the cabin stood open to the elements.
As did the bedroom door.
It explained the cold. Without Spike’s body as a shield, Buffy felt the frigid air of the outside dampening the warmer air in. She felt it even more acutely when he shot off the sofa, the blanket tumbling to the floor as he bolted to the bedroom.
He didn’t linger. In a flash, Spike was at the front door, fangs and ridges in full display as he stretched his every sense out into the darkness. For a long moment, his body was utterly still and Buffy’s pulse quickened as each second passed.
Fuelled by adrenaline, her feet were on the floor the instant he moved. “I’ll be right behind you,” she said as she hurried to the bedroom. “I just---.”
“No.” The single word cut through the air, but when she turned to look at him, Spike was too busy pulling on his boots to notice. “Pidge just did another walkabout. I can handle it.”
“We can fan out. We don’t know how long she’s been gone.”
“I said, no!” His eyes gleamed in yellow as he finally lifted his head to glare at her. “You’ve only just been knockin’ on death’s door. I’m not risking losin’ you, too.”
She was still motionless when he grabbed his coat and disappeared from the cabin, slamming the door behind him. A mixture of anger and awed disbelief churned in her stomach at his proclamation; too many implications from his words ran amok inside her head. Stubbornness won out in the end, though, and Buffy whirled on her heel to return to the bedroom and her quest for clothes.
The chill whipped over the planes of his face as Spike chased Holly’s scent through the trees. The trail was clean, no evidence of other demons on the prowl, but the knowledge that it was merely the child’s sleepwalking did nothing to assuage the fury that burned through Spike’s veins.
He’d failed. He’d known he was the only one on the watch and still, he’d allowed himself to be lulled into complacency, drifting off into a satisfied slumber with Buffy in his arms where she belonged and little thought that there might be repercussions to his simple action clouding his mind. He hadn’t even noticed the lack of a second heartbeat when he’d awakened. All he’d been aware of was the ripe and ambrosial Slayer he surrounded.
And now the little one could be endangered because of it.
The trail wound through the trees, circuitous and abstract in a vague pattern that was all too déjà vu. How many times had he followed after Drusilla when she’d gone wandering? Sometimes he was lucky. He’d find her before she stumbled into more trouble than she could handle, coaxing her back to their current hideaway with promises of sweet girls and sparklies.
Sometimes, he wasn’t so lucky. Sometimes, he had to claw and bite to get her out, staying steadfast in her presence in order to keep her calm, only to rage afterward at the haunting specter of her bruised and bleeding loveliness.
This could not be one of those times.
Around Spike, the trees began to thin, and he tracked the scent through a break, only to skid immediately to a halt. The lake Buffy had told him about earlier loomed before him, desolate and crystalline under the starless sky, its surface glittering from the new frost that had freshly hardened its surface.
And there, twenty yards out towards its center, stood Holly.
Because she’d never woken to be changed, she still wore the sweater and pants from earlier, her feet still sporting the shoes he hadn’t bothered to remove before settling in to her nap. Thank the bloody hell for small miracles, he thought as he stepped tentatively onto the ice. At least she had some protection from the surrounding winter.
“Jealous of my attention to the Slayer, huh, pidge?” he called out. The slow and steady of her pulse was the only testimony Spike needed to attest to her somnambulism, and he wasn’t surprised when she continued to walk haltingly toward the lake’s center, ignorant of his words.
“You got me now,” Spike continued. The ice was holding, but the further he went out, the thinner he knew it would be. “Let’s say you and me go back. Have some hot chocolate to warm up.”
No response. Just the delicate crunch of her tread on the ice.
Roaring her name did the trick. Slowly, the little girl turned her head, and even from that distance, Spike could see the vacancy in her gaze.
“You’re skating,” she said.
“No, I’m fetching you,” he countered.
Ten yards away now. He could hear her shivering.
“I have to go. I have to hide.”
“You are hiding. Back with me and Buffy.”
The simple declaration, wrong as he knew it was, made his blood run cold. “No, she’s not,” Spike said. “She woke up, remember? She woke up, and she’s doin’ just fine. She wants you to come back with me, pidge. Now, you don’t want to let Buffy down, do you?”
Five yards. She wasn’t moving, neither farther away nor closer to him. He wasn’t sure if that was good or not.
“They all died. I didn’t want them to, but they did. Why didn’t Buffy die?”
“Because she’s a fighter, that’s why. Because there’s nothin’ she can’t beat, just like there’s nothin’ you can’t beat if you set your mind to it. Now, c’mon and be a good little girl, and let me get you back to the house before you catch the death of you from cold.”
Beneath his boots, the ice trembled with Spike’s weight, and he imagined tiny spider webs lacing its frigid belly. He shoved the images away. He had to focus on success.
All he had to do was reach out to her as he took those last few steps---.
His hand jerked back at the electric shock of the magical perimeter, driving his foot unexpectedly hard into the ice so that he could retain his balance from the sudden jolt. The audible creak of the ice groaning against the onslaught made him freeze, and Spike strained to hear for more telltale weaknesses in his precarious perch on the lake.
He only heard the harsh rasp of Holly’s cold breath.
He couldn’t get to her. Just a few feet away and the bloody barrier penning them in kept him from scooping her up and running back to the cabin. For a second, the confusion of how she could’ve slipped through the invisible wall when he couldn’t made Spike frown, but the answer quickly presented itself.
The child was insusceptible to magic. Doyle had said so himself.
Bloody ridiculous way to try and cage a kid who could walk through the walls they erected.
Tamping down his growing frustration, Spike slowly crouched so that his eyes were level with Holly’s. If he couldn’t go to her, then he just had to get her to come to him. “Pidge,” he said softly, though his demon was screaming inside, “need you to listen to me.”
Her body was livid in its silent protestations of the limits Buffy was forcing upon it, muscles kindled in icy heat as they fought to perform as she expected them to. In the back of her mind, she knew Spike had been right in his demand that she stay behind, but it was too late for her to admit that now. She could only press onward, following the path he’d created, and hope that she didn’t collapse before she reached him.
Buffy’s heart lodged in her throat when she saw the two dark figures on the ice. There was no detail; the inky sky allowed little illumination, and she had to squint to confirm that it was indeed Spike and Holly. Only the stark whiteness of his hair made it possible for her to know for sure, and she froze where she was, her legs grateful for the temporary reprieve, to watch as he reached out to the child.
And then jerk back as if suddenly burned.
It took a moment for Buffy to realize what was stopping Spike. The barrier that kept them contained now separated the vampire from Holly, the magic that created it obviously no obstacle for her. How were they going to get her back? The Slayer’s feet were already moving toward the lake’s edge, ready to help in whatever way possible, when Spike’s voice floated back to her.
“…need you to listen to me,” she heard him say.
Buffy hesitated. She couldn’t see his face, and she could barely make out his words, but the fragile timbre of Spike’s voice begged compliance, compelling her to check her advance.
“Know you’re scared,” he continued. “And I know you don’t rightly understand everything that’s goin’ on. Can’t say that I do, either. But that doesn’t mean you need to do a runner every time things get a little rough. How do you expect me and Buffy to help you if you’re not around for us to help?”
“Buffy can’t help me. I hurt her. I didn’t want to.”
“She knows that, moptop. And she can help you. You just have to give her a chance. The Slayer’s got more surprises in her than she does quips, and I know you’ve heard her speak.”
“Why are you here?”
“Told you. I’m fetching. Now let me get to it before the both of us end up goin’ for a swim. Don’t particularly fancy playin’ polar bear with you, ‘specially since I’d automatically win.”
She could tell Spike was losing his temper. Frankly, Buffy was surprised he’d managed to last this long. She should probably intervene---.
“---couldn’t bear it, you know.”
Buffy watched as Holly took a tentative step closer to him. OK, so maybe he didn’t need her help.
“You’re not goin’ to remember a spot of this in the mornin’ which makes it a mite easier to tell, but you’re not so different from Buffy, you know. The pair of you drive me barmy, and half the time I want to throttle the two of you, but bugger if you haven’t made me care. If something were to happen to you, pidge, and there was something I could’ve done to prevent it…”
“Don’t cry, Spike.”
“I’m not. It’s the blasted wind.”
Except the air is still. What’s going on, Spike?
Holly inched even further forward, and Buffy felt the tension in her body unwind when Spike scooped her into his arms, the child’s tiny fingers wiping at the angles of his cheeks. His next words were lost when he buried his face in Holly’s, but the Slayer was backing up already anyway. This wasn’t something she was supposed to have witnessed, she realized. And if Spike were to come off the ice to find her, she’d have more than an angry vampire on her hands.
Stumbling back through the trees, Buffy only glanced over her shoulder once to see the pair edging their way back to the shore, Spike’s coat wrapped around Holly to protect her from the frigid air. She’d known he was developing a soft spot for the little girl, in spite of his assertions to the contrary, but hearing him bundle Buffy into the same sentiment left her feeling insanely warm inside.
And it was under the weighted branch of a towering pine that the understanding came to her.
She was falling in love with Spike.
It made her halt in her paces, her heart pounding inside her chest. Lust was one thing, even strong like. But love? That was more than she’d ever bargained for. Did she want that? It was completely in her power to put a stop to any advancing of feelings, to keep this completely casual with the amazing sex and joking camaraderie their newfound appreciation created between them.
Only…she didn’t want to. Not really. She liked where things were going. Wasn’t Spike proving, time and time again, that there was more to him than she’d ever imagined? He didn’t have to be so nice to Holly; he didn’t know he’d had an audience. That meant it was real, and probably something he’d be ashamed to admit to Buffy, so rabid he was about maintaining his Big Bad persona.
She began to walk again, determined to beat him back to the cabin so that he wouldn’t be aware that she’d slipped out.
Smiling the entire way.
The hour was late. The Watchers had long retired, their work from the day exhausting them further than they were willing to admit, and Maria was left to go over their findings---or lack thereof---on her own.
Five days. She only had five days left to find the little brat before the magic would cease to work. Five days before a lifetime of searching for power that should’ve been hers in the first place would be wasted. Did they not understand the gravity of her situation?
Of course not. Because the fools only had part of the story.
At least she had Rupert in check now. Silas had done exactly as she’d requested, ingratiating himself back into the others’ good graces with the faux text she’d given him. They were even more confused about Maria’s motives than ever, which was good as long as it didn’t get in the way of their locating the child. It was a good thing none of them were in more direct contact with their previous employer; if they’d had access to even an iota of the Council’s information on Holly, Maria knew they would never have agreed to help her find the girl.
She paced the length of her study with a weary grace. Sleep was probably her best option at the moment, but rest escaped her, her mind too twisted with the details of what was to come to allow her that freedom. Five days could be an eternity or a pindrop, depending on what the men discovered. If they failed to---.
No. She wouldn’t dwell on that. Failure was not possible.
Maria was startled from her reverie by the ringing of her private phone. With a frown, she crossed the room to answer it, her gaze flickering to the clock on the mantle on the fireplace as she did so.
“It’s late,” she said into the receiver.
“I know, miss, but it can’t be helped.” The cracked voice of the groundskeeper broke through the static on the phone. “There’s been a slight disturbance at the front gate.”
“A disturbance? Of what sort?”
“I thought it was some wild animals at first, what with all the noise they were making. I’m surprised you couldn’t hear it all the way up to the house---.”
“Get to the point.”
The groundskeeper cleared his throat, and Maria could imagine him rubbing at his rheumy eyes in exhaustion. “I went down to see what it was and found…well, I’m not sure what it is. It’s built like a man, but…its skin, and the way it smells. Like rotten eggs. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
She stiffened at the description. The Ijua she’d sent after Joyce Summers wasn’t supposed to come to the house. That wasn’t part of the plan.
“Put him on the phone,” she demanded, her voice cold.
“Don’t think that’s possible,” the groundskeeper said. “I think whatever it is, is dead. Been worked over pretty good and it’s got what looks like scorch marks all over its skin.”
This was not what she needed to hear. What had happened to prevent the Ijua from fulfilling his task? And did that mean the elder Summers was that much closer to getting in the way of everything? What means of control could she possibly exert over Rupert now?
“…call the police?”
Maria jerked back to the present. “There’s no need,” she said firmly. “Burn the body.”
“What about the woman?”
She froze. “What…woman?”
“The one passed out next to him. I think they were traveling together when they were attacked or something. Wait a sec.” She heard him set the phone down and step from the guardtower, long seconds passing before she heard him return. “Found a wallet in her coat pocket. Her driver’s license says her name is Joyce Summers.”
To be continued in Chapter 36: All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth…