DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Giles and the others are on their way to try and intercept Maria, while Tara has shown up at the cabin to warn Buffy and Spike…

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

Chapter 51: Ave Maria

He was glad he didn’t have a reflection. What the little one was doing to him was beyond horrific, he was sure.

“Done yet?” Spike asked. His eyes were closed, and her warm breath fanned across his forehead as she leaned in to examine her work.

“No,” Holly said.

He winced as the edge of the pencil caught on his eye again, and her mumbled “sorry” was accompanied by a rapid pulling away. “What about now?”

“Not yet.” There was a shuffle among her supplies, and then, “Be patient.”

Opening a single lid, Spike peered at the bowed head before him. “Who’re you, and what’ve you done with my moptop?” he taunted.

Holly giggled. “I’m right here, silly.”

“Can’t be. My Moptop doesn’t use words like ‘patient.’”

“Buffy’s mommy taught it to me.”

He closed his eye again. “Why does that not surprise me?”

For a long moment, the only sound was the soft hush of her breathing. Then…

“Are you scared?”

This time, he opened both his eyes, and looked straight into the haunted gaze of the child. Her cheeks were bright pink from where he’d applied the rouge, and there were fake curly lashes drawn up from the corners of her eyes, but there was nothing comical about the way she was watching him.

“I never get scared, pidge,” he said with more bombast than he actually felt.

“You were scared when Buffy was dying. Wouldn’t you be scared if it was me?”

His head tilted as he lifted a hand to cup her tiny face. “Of course, I would,” Spike replied. “’Cept nothin’s going to happen to you so there’s nothin’ for me to be scared about, understand?”

“But…Buffy left.”

“She and her mum just needed to get some fresh air. They’ll be back any minute.”

“I don’t want to hurt Buffy any more.”

“And you won’t. And little girls should stop eavesdropping when they’re sent to the other room to play.”

Holly nodded, her eyes ducking to the make-up that was strewn around them. Spike had raided Buffy’s stash, knowing this was one time she wouldn’t argue at the invasion, and it had served to distract the child for a bit, but time was stretching thin. Even Spike was starting to feel the itch as the sun disappeared into night. Where the hell was Buffy?

“Pidge, listen to me.” He lifted her chin with a single finger, and his heart twisted at the shine of unshed tears that met him. “There is no way in hell I’m about to let anything happen to you or Buffy, understand? I will fight until I’m dust before I let anyone so much as lay a finger on you, I promise you that.”

“I don’t want you to die, either.” All of a sudden, Holly launched herself at him, her arms squeezing tightly around his neck. “I’m scared, Spike,” she said, her voice muffled by his shirt.

He held her close, his strong hands rubbing at her back. “I know,” he soothed. “But you don’t have to worry. Me and Buffy are goin’ to take care of everything.”

If Buffy ever decides to come back.

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

Her feet were numb, and they had long ago stopped trying to make conversation, the encroaching sunset bleeding all sense of merriment from their paces. Buffy’s eyes were starting to blur from staring at the snow, but she was fairly certain they’d done a thorough job at masking a good portion of the activity. Nothing led directly back to the cabin, and that was all that mattered.

Their steps were heavy as they climbed the stairs to the porch. Kicking the rest of the snow from her shoes, Buffy caught her mother’s scrutiny out of the corner of her eye. “What?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Joyce said.

“No, it’s something,” Buffy countered. “You’ve been looking at me like that since I told you not to apologize.”

Joyce’s lips pressed together, as she weighted her words. “It’s just…I want you to know how proud I am of you,” she finally said. “You’re doing an amazing job here.”

Buffy’s brows quirked. “You’ve seen me in Slayer mode before, Mom.”

“It’s not just that. Well, it’s partially that, but it’s also…Holly adores you. You should hear her go on and on about you and Spike. It’s quite cute, actually.”

“She loves him. She has since she got here. It wigged me out in the beginning, but I got it, eventually.”

“She loves you, too.”

Buffy shrugged. “Except when it’s time for punishment. Then, not so much with the loving, trust me.”

She pushed open the door, ready to continue the denial, but was cut short by the sight of Spike and Holly hugging on the floor in front of the couch. It wasn’t the hugging that was so surprising, however. It was their appearances.

Buffy stifled a giggle. Playing hairdresser, indeed.

Holly looked like any little girl who’d been allowed to dip into her mother’s make-up. But it was Spike’s get-up that brought the smiles. His hair stood up in clumps all around his head, kind of punk if it was being done by a blind stylist with club fingers. Red lipstick filled his lips, and a good half-inch around them, while thick black eyeliner made him look like a raccoon.

The sound of the door opening made the pair break apart, and she was surprised when Holly rose and dashed to hug the Slayer’s legs. “What’s wrong?” Buffy asked, meeting Spike’s gaze. “Other than having my make-up bag explode all over your face.”

“Think she’s just glad you’re back,” he said, rising to his feet. His hand rose to his hair, and he grimaced as he felt the clusters that had been lacquered into place. “Think I am, too. Means I can go shower and wash all this junk off.”

“But it’s such a good look for you.”

“She’s right, Spike.” Smiling, Joyce nudged the front door closed as she slipped off her coat. “It’s very sexy.”

Though he grinned, Buffy turned shocked eyes back to her mother. “Mom!”

“What? Just because I may not like the idea of my daughter dating a vampire, doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate that he’s actually a very attractive man.”

“Always knew you were a smart bird, Joyce.”

“More like a perv,” Buffy protested good-naturedly. “That’s my boyfriend you’re talking about, Mom. Lusting after him is my job, not yours.”

“You want me to go back to disapproving of him? Because I can---.”

“And that would be my cue to scarper off while the goin’s good,” Spike interrupted. He gestured toward the odds and ends on the floor. “Time to clean up, pidge,” he said. “Beauty show is all done.”

Tilting her head back, Holly gazed up at Buffy. “Can I do you, too?” she asked.

Spike snorted as he headed for the bathroom. “Good luck with that, pet,” he said before disappearing.

“I’ll start getting some dinner ready,” Joyce said.

Kneeling down to look at the little girl face to face, Buffy said, “I think Spike’s right. I’ve got some other things I need to get done tonight. But, if you want, I can help you pick it up this time. I won’t disappear like a certain bleached vamp we both know.”

Holly nodded, and then paused. “He only does that for little stuff,” she said. “He promised me he’d take care of me.”

She smiled, pushing back the hair that tumbled over the child’s cheek. “I know. He’s pretty good at that.”

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

The nearer they reached their target, the more fearful Maria grew. Her eyes were glued to the road ahead of them, brazenly intent on the asphalt that was illuminated by the twin beams of light. It was coming---the path that drew her was short---but what she was going to find left her with a sickening sense of dread.

“Stop the car.”

Silas knew better than to hesitate. Immediately, he decelerated along the country highway, angling the nose of the rental to the snowy shoulder. Though he turned the engine off, he left the headlights on, wary of what he was going to be asked to do next.

“Wait here,” she instructed. Her fingers were stiff when she opened the door, her gait even more awkward as she emerged. Maria’s gaze was fixed forward, and she began the trek that would lead her to her target.

The instant she saw the rear fender, she realized her mistake. “Damn it!” she swore, and her voice echoed into the loneliness of the surrounding forest. She’d cast the spell on the vehicle, not on Joyce Summers herself, because she’d never dreamed that the car would be abandoned at this point. And yet, here it was, clearly left behind, with a complete absence of any radiant heat to suggest it had been deserted recently. There was even a “Police Aware” sticker in the rear window.

Slowly, Maria turned in a circle, her eyes surveying the surroundings in their entirety. It occurred to her that the car accident had happened near here, but civilization was still miles away. It was one of the reasons that she’d chosen this spot in the first place. But why would Mrs. Summers come back here? And where could she possibly have wandered off to?

Making her way back to the rental car, Maria cut a path across the headlights’ beams to reach the driver’s side window. She tapped on it once, and waited for Silas to roll down the window. “Get out,” she said. “We’re continuing this on foot.”

She could see the desire to argue with her in his eyes, and lifted a single eyebrow as she took a step away from the car, almost daring him into countermand her order. Instead, Silas visibly gulped and reached to turn off the lights, leaving them in near darkness as he lumbered out to join her on the road.

“Where are we going?” he asked. His voice was still hoarse from the near strangulation earlier.

Maria’s eyes narrowed as she scrutinized the forest again. “That way,” she announced, pointing off to her left. “But first, we mustn’t forget our supplies.”

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

Dinner was an odd balance of far too many jokes and stiff silences when nobody knew exactly what to say. More than once, Spike caught Holly staring at him and Buffy in wide-eyed anticipation of what more he could only guess. When that happened, he did his best to liven up the conversation again, desperate to keep spirits up and away from the sense of foreboding that was already weighing down the tiny cabin, and was relieved when Joyce seemed to pick up on his intents.

“Who wants to help me clean up?” Joyce announced when the meal was completed.

Automatically, Holly shrank down into her chair, trying to disappear from sight.

“If somebody’s too tired to help, somebody’s probably ready to go to bed early then,” Buffy said loudly.

“I dry!” Holly shouted, leaping from her seat.

Joyce turned expectant eyes to Spike. “Does that mean you’re putting away?” she asked.

He glanced at Buffy before answering. “Think Slayer and I have to sort out some of the details ‘bout what’s goin’ on tonight,” he said. “Make sure all our i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.”

“Don’t forget stakes sharpened,” Buffy offered with a smile.

“Well…” Joyce cast a glance back at where Holly waited with a towel in her hand. “…considering the circumstances, I suppose I can let you two off. This time.”

Giving her mother a grateful smile, Buffy rose from the table and jerked her head toward the bedroom door. “For some privacy,” she said in explanation.

Spike agreed with the reasoning, but every step they took away from the kitchen, he felt Holly’s eyes grow heavier and heavier on his back. The little one was terrified beyond belief, and the fact that he couldn’t do anything more than try and reassure her that she was going to be safe uprooted every feeling of impotence he’d had since getting the bloody chip. It was almost worse than how he’d felt trying to save Buffy from dying. Fuck, he hated this.

“Are you OK?” Buffy asked, as soon as the door was closed safely behind them.

“Just want this over with,” he growled.

“I thought you loved a good fight.”

“Do. But not when I stand to lose something that means the world to me.” He leveled burning eyes at her. “You of all people should know that, luv.”

“We’re not going to lose Holly. I’m not going to let that happen.”

“And you think I will?” He couldn’t contain his pacing, his boots heavy on the wooden floorboard. “What the fuck am I s’posed to do in this, Buffy? You heard the ghost. This chit is human. Unless she calls on her demon hordes, I’m goin’ to be watching this one from the bench.”

“Spike, stop.” Her hand shot out as he passed in front of her, grabbing his forearm and yanking him to a halt. “This is why I needed to talk to you. I want you to be the one who keeps an eye out for Holly. I want you to make her your number one priority.”

“She already is.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I know you want me to stay out of the fight.”

“That’s not what I said.”

“Funny, that’s what I heard.”

Exasperated, Buffy released her hold on his arm and threw her hands up. “Why do I even bother? Oh, yeah. Because I love you, you jerk. Now shut up and listen to me for a change.”

Pressing his lips together, Spike crossed his arms over his chest, his feet widespread as he faced off with her. She had a small point, but it didn’t negate the worthlessness she seemed to be perpetuating with her request.

“OK,” Buffy continued after taking a deep breath to calm down. “This is the way I see it. This is a two-person job. One to take on Maria, one to make sure Holly is safe. Tell me where the flaw in my logic is that doesn’t make you the better one to do the Holly job, and I’ll let you have a go at the witch.”

His eyes blazed. He hated it when she was so fucking right. Didn’t mean he was going to admit it out loud though.

“That’s what I thought,” she said when he remained silent. She lifted a tentative hand to his cheek, and it was all he could do not to flinch away. “This is our fight, Spike. I know that. I know that you made a promise to Holly to protect her no matter what. I just want you to know that I’m making a promise, too. I’m not going to let this bitch hurt anybody I love. That means Holly, that means my mother, and most importantly, that means you. If you’ve got a problem with that, then speak now, because for some reason, I thought you liked that part of me.”

Her eyes were pleading with him, chipping at his frustration as surely as if she’d taken a sledgehammer to it. Exhaling to relieve some of the tension in his body, Spike nodded in acquiescence. “All right,” he said. “I s’pose---.”

A small knock at the door was followed immediately by the knob turning and both Buffy and Spike turned in time to see Holly poke her head through the crack.

“I’m tired,” she said in a tiny voice. “Can Spike read me a bedtime story?”

“Sure, pidge,” he replied automatically. His eyes closed when Buffy reached up to kiss his cheek. She was right. This was his responsibility. He was just going to have to do it to the best of his ability, was all.

“Can you tell me the one about the three piggies again?” Holly asked, all of a sudden materializing at his feet.

“Got a better one,” he said. He scooped her into his arms. “This one’s all about a Slayer and the devilishly handsome vampire who loved her.”

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

Giles felt his stomach sink as they neared the spot Doyle directed him to. He’d been driving like a madman ever since he’d been told the plan, desperate to make up for the lost time. Maria had started out ahead of them, but she had Silas as a chauffeur, so perhaps some measure could be gained from that.

It was a hope he held onto until he saw the two cars parked at the side of the road. Then, he knew it was too late. Then, he knew he’d not been quick enough.

Both were empty.

“Damn it,” Doyle muttered beneath his breath. He turned his head to stare into the inky blackness of the forest, and Giles wished that he could see what was going on in the ghost’s intense eyes. He needed to know just how bad this was for them.

“What now?” Paul asked from the back seat.

“We find Maria before she finds Holly,” Doyle said, his voice tight with determination. Out of the car before Giles could even kill the engine, he was marching to the rental with long strides, his jaw tight as he reached the trunk and crouched to begin playing with the lock

“What’s he doing?” Paul slid forward to peer through the windshield.

“Taking the next step,” Giles replied.

He didn’t wait to be followed, but instead turned the key in the ignition and exited the car to join Doyle just in time to see the trunk pop open.

“Gotta bless the Powers,” Doyle said. He began rummaging around in the car’s interior, though when Giles leaned over his shoulder, he could see nothing of consequence.

Paul appeared behind them, blocking out some of the illumination from the headlights. “What’ve we found?”

“Nothin’,” Doyle commented. “Whatever she had in here, she’s taken it with her.” Straightening, his gaze returned to the forest, all humor vanished. “Looks like we’re hoofing it, men. We can only pray that we find Maria first. Now, go get your weapons.”

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

The only sounds in the room were the crackling of the flames in the fireplace, and the clink of the dishes as Buffy put them away. From behind the closed bedroom door, Buffy imagined she could hear the low rumble of Spike’s voice, and found comfort in the fact that Holly was safe in there with him, tucked away in the bed with the pillows cushioned around her. He would make sure she stayed unscathed by whatever might come, most likely even with his life.

She was reaching to put the last of the glasses into the cupboard when a knock resounded throughout the room. Buffy jerked, her shoulders tensing. When she glanced at her mother, she saw Joyce’s eyes slide to the front door, and slowly, Buffy’s followed the same path.

Silence.

The curtains were still drawn so she couldn’t see if anything was actually out there, or if it was merely a trick of her nerves. Holding her breath, Buffy waited.

Until the knock came again.

This time, there was no mistaking the fact that it was someone at the front door. Immediately, her hand curled around the knife that still sat on the drying rack, and she stepped in front of her mother, motioning for her to stay quiet.

The ghosts didn’t knock. There was nobody else it could be except an unwanted guest.

Before Buffy could get any closer, the door flew open, slamming against the wall as the broken lock splintered into tiny shards. A small, middle-aged woman stood on the threshold, her cheeks pink from the cold, her eyes black with flashing magic.

“Where is she?” she said, and lifted her palm to face Buffy.

 

To be continued in Chapter 52: Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer