DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Silas has told Buffy that Maria needs Watcher blood in order to complete the ritual, prompting her to go out and find Spike; Spike, in the meantime, has run into Maria but feigns a disinterest in Holly other than as his next meal…

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

Chapter 54: The Wrong Shall Fail, the Right Prevail

She couldn’t believe her luck. When the Slayer had inadvertently stabbed Silas, Maria had thought her chances at completing the ritual were tenuous at best. It was the only reason she had faltered in forcing the truth from the Summers women; she needed to save Silas at all costs. But stumbling onto Paul in the forest…that was a godsend. A sign, surely. The power that should’ve been hers to begin with could still be. It was the only reason she could fathom that both a Watcher and the little girl would fall into her hands so easily, so close together in time.

She would just have to dispose of the vampire once they were all back on shore.

Turning her back to begin the trek across the ice, Maria lost sight of Holly when the vampire crouched to pick her up. His deep rumblings as he spoke to the child were nearly unintelligible, but he’d already clearly demonstrated his control over the brat with his little ice trick. She had no doubt that he was merely exercising his sway yet again.

Until she heard the soft pounding of little feet.

Running feet.

Getting quieter as sound could only get when it was moving away from one.

Whirling, Maria turned in time to see Holly skittering across the slippery surface, making a mad dash for the opposite shore. “No!” she cried out. Though her own footing was uneasy, she took chase, only to find her way barred by the blond vampire.

“You let her get away!” she hissed. “Catch her!”

“What?” he asked, all wide-eyed innocence. “You can’t catch a little three-year-old all on your own? Must be those old lady legs lettin’ you down. Should’ve eaten your Wheaties this morning, I think.”

“Bastard!” Maria spat. Oddly enough, the vampire wasn’t trying to physically stop her. He wasn’t even attacking. Why wasn’t he attacking?

She didn’t have time to consider the why. She needed to catch the brat. And if he wasn’t going to help her…

Pushing at his chest, she found him immovable, his strength too great for her to overcome. Her lips curled back into a sneer, her palm flattening as she gathered the powers within to set him alight.

“Ah, ah, ahhhh,” he scolded, waving a finger in her face as if he were addressing a small, incompetent child. “Turn me into Guy Fawkes, and you’re signing your own death certificate, bitch.” He looked pointedly down at the ice at their feet. “’Course, it’d be my pleasure---.”

She snarled in frustration and hastily changed the spell she was summoning. With a powerful force, the vampire went flying sideways, clearing her path to the child, and she picked up her pursuit yet again.

Holly seemed to sense the new presence behind her, and quickened her pace. It wasn’t enough, however. Maria may have been older, but she was still taller, and her strides were longer.

Twenty feet.

Ten.

They were almost halfway across the lake. All Maria had to do was reach out---.

She slammed with full force into the same barrier she’d encountered earlier. Electricity sizzled across Maria’s exposed skin, and she was thrown back, away from the magical wall, to land awkwardly on her side. A sudden jolt of pain shot through her injured shoulder. Before she could sit up, she saw the fresh seepage of blood begin to ooze from the wound, soaking into the frost that covered the ice to stain it in pink.

Behind her came the sound of clapping.

“Best spot of entertainment I’ve had since gettin’ stuck in this godforsaken place,” the vampire said when she turned to look at him. “Go on, do it again. I’m goin’ to wager it’s even funnier the second time around.”

“You knew,” Maria hissed. She struggled to sit up. The balm she’d placed on her wound was fading in light of this new exacerbation, but she didn’t care. She just wanted to see this vampire burn. “You were part of this all along.”

“Just figured that out, huh?” He shook his head in disappointment. “And here I thought you might actually be a challenge. What a sorry Big Bad you panned out to be.”

Fury made her forget the pain. With a snap, Maria’s palm turned out, the fireball she’d been tempted to use earlier shooting from her hand, aimed directly at the vampire. She scowled when he dove out of the way, but it only strengthened her resolve.

“You want a challenge?” she said, pushing herself to her feet. “It will be my pleasure.”

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

They were standing at the edge of the lake, hidden in a copse that lined it, when they saw Spike lead Maria straight to where Holly was standing on the ice. Giles’ heart leapt to his throat, his pulse suddenly a jackhammer, but he couldn’t tear his gaze from the disaster that was about to transpire.

“You fool,” he murmured to Doyle. His tone was biting, his jaw tight. “In trusting Spike, you’ve doomed Buffy and all the---.”

“Wait,” Doyle replied. “Just watch.”

Giles had no choice, though he didn’t understand why the ghost didn’t go out and fetch the child away from Spike before it was too late. Holly didn’t run from the pair that approached, and when the vampire crouched before her, Giles was convinced Spike was going to take advantage of getting rid of the Slayer, once and for all.

Until he turned the little girl around and practically shoved her in the opposite direction to Maria.

As they surveyed the scene, Holly took flight, with Maria almost immediately pursuing. Spike blocked her path once, but she lifted a hand that sent him flying to the side. Continuing her chase, she seemed almost ready to reach the child when an invisible wall stopped, sending her back to the ice.

“There’s your barrier,” Doyle commented. He seemed almost amused by the goings-on, his hands thrust deep into his pockets as he watched Holly head straight toward them.

“He…he saved her.” Giles’ gaze was back on Spike, watching the vampire clap at Maria’s misfortune, no doubt taunting her with some inanity that would---.

The fire lit up the night.

Yes. Piss her off. At least that part of Spike’s personality hadn’t changed.

“Get Holly.”

Doyle’s order was accompanied by his hand wrapped around Giles’ bicep, forcing him to divert his attention from the fray with Spike and Maria to the approaching child. Her pace was slowing, but the moment she saw Doyle, her face lit up.

“You came back!” she exclaimed.

“Think I could stay away from my best girl?” Doyle replied with a grin. “I taught you better than that.”

She hesitated when she saw Giles, her eyes darting between the two men in slight trepidation.

“It’s all right,” Doyle assured. “He’s Buffy’s Watcher.”

“Hello.” Stiffly, he stuck out his hand. “I’m Giles.”

Her mouth made a tiny O, as recognition of the name wiped the fear from her face. She ignored his hand, however, and barreled forward, wrapping her arms around Giles’ legs, almost knocking him over from the suddenness of it.

“Are you here to save Spike and Buffy?” she asked.

He exchanged a quick look with Doyle before awkwardly patting the child’s head. “We’re here to help,” he said.

An explosion of fire from the middle of the lake made her jump, twisting to look and see what made the noise. “She’s not a very nice lady,” she said.

In spite of the gravity of the situation, Giles’ mouth twitched in amusement. “No,” he agreed, “she’s not.” He turned to Doyle. “Spike’s defenseless against Maria. We should get out there and help him.”

But it was Holly who answered.

“Spike’s OK,” she said. “He promised he would be.”

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

This was a bloody stupid idea, he decided. He was going to end up exploding into ash before he got a chance to do otherwise.

Dodging the first fireball had been simple. Spike had known she’d resort to that before she’d even turned on him; the bitch was terrifyingly predictable. Had he been this bad when he’d been out for his own purposes? Fuck, he hoped not.

Though it would certainly explain why Buffy’d always managed to get the better of him.

Avoiding her first blast, however, had just pissed the witch off even more. She was bleeding again; her face-first encounter with their electric fence had re-opened her wound as well as shorting out her temper. The coppery scent that filled the air was distracting him, so when the third fireball managed to scorch the hem of his jeans, Spike got more than a little annoyed with himself for his own inadequacy.

“Right,” he muttered. “Gotta focus.”

He rolled to the right when the next blast came, and was satisfied when he felt the frigid wash of water skimming the surface of the ice. So intent on hitting him, the bitch didn’t even realize he’d gone full circle, and crouched in the very same spot she’d thrown the first fireball.

“That all you got?” Spike taunted. Adrenaline coursed through his veins with a scalding pulse that reminded him just how long it had been since he’d had a truly good fight. It was going to be heaven to get back to Sunnydale and get to help Buffy with her patrols.

“You talk too much.” Each word was pinched from Maria’s lips, exhaustion and pain lading her every effort. She lifted her hand again, though this time, the arc of her arm was considerably slower than before.

“And you don’t pay attention when the rug’s about to get pulled out from beneath you.”

His eyes glittered as he saw her hesitate in confusion. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “You have nowhere to run. I will kill you.”

“Wrong on both counts.” His heel felt the soft give in the ice beneath him, and he pressed just enough to feel it give some more.

Another fireball skidded past him, and he lurched sideways to avoid the worst of the flame. This time, he heard the distinct whine of the ice cracking.

“Why would a vampire be helping the Slayer?” she asked. “Stringing the child along in order to savor the kill, I can understand. But the rest…” She took a step toward him. “You like to live dangerously, I think.”

That’s it, bitch. Just a little closer.

“You don’t know the half of it,” he said out loud.

“I think I do. I think I could almost find that admirable, if it didn’t make you look so pitiful.”

And she thought I talked too much? Still, every word out of her mouth meant another second for the ice to weaken, another second for the little one to get to safety. He risked taking a quick glance off to his right, to the shore he’d ushered Holly off toward, and nearly lost his balance when he saw who she was clinging to.

Guess Watchers run in packs. Least I don’t have to worry about the little one now.

Time to get the show on the road. Or under the ice, as the case may be.

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

Finding Spike’s tracks was easy.

Finding drops of blood near them was alarming.

Finding a terrified Watcher, bleeding and crying as he hid behind a tree, was unexpected.

Buffy hauled him out by the collar, slamming him against the trunk. “Who are you?” she demanded. She grabbed his hand, turning it palm-up to see the jagged cuts across the tender flesh. “Who did this?”

“P-Paul,” he stuttered. “There was…a vampire…and…M-M-Maria---.”

He cried out in pain when she shoved him again against the bark. “You saw her? Where is she?”

He lifted a shaking hand and pointed off between the trees. Turning her head, Buffy squinted, only to have her vision shocked by a brilliant flash of orange between the dark trunks. The acrid scent of smoke filled her nose.

Fire.

Spike.

Dropping Paul to the ground, she broke into a dead run in the direction he’d indicated, crashing through the trees to come to an abrupt halt at the lake’s edge. Spike was there, out on the ice, rolling and diving out of Maria’s path as she threw a magical firebolt at him. Buffy could see their lips moving, but their words were lost in the night.

Then, Spike looked off to his side, and she followed his gaze to the opposite shore where she saw Holly hugging Giles’ legs.

Relief flooded through her. Giles. He’s all right.

Her eyes swung back just in time to see Spike dive for Maria. It took the witch by surprise, and the pair fell to the ice. They froze there for a moment, and Buffy was just about to step forward when she saw Spike’s arm slacken around the witch’s waist, his elbow slamming down onto the ice. Even from the distance, the sound of the surface shattering could be heard, and in the space of two seconds, he and Maria fell through the fissure he created into the water below.

“Spike!” Buffy screamed. Immediately, her knees began pumping as she raced out onto the lake.

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

Buffy’s panicked shout echoed all the way across the water, diverting the trio’s introductions to the scene in the middle of the lake. Holly released her grip on Giles, taking a step closer to the edge.

“Where’s Spike?” she asked, her voice faint.

Giles and Doyle exchanged a look. “I’m sure,” Giles began, but was stopped when she turned anxious eyes back to them.

“There’s a hole,” she said. “Did Spike fall?”

“Holly---.”

His nerves snapped when she broke into an awkward run toward the water. She was only a few feet away when he stopped her, scooping her flailing form against his chest. Automatically, she started struggling to get free.

“Have to save Spike! Spike can’t die! Not Spike! He said he would tuck me in!” Over, and over, and over again, her feelings for the vampire ringing loudly in his ear.

Giles looked over to Doyle. “Go help Buffy,” he said tersely. To Holly, he added, “You must calm down. Spike will be fine. Look. He’s got Buffy and Doyle to help him.”

The steady rhythm of his voice combined with the assertion as to Spike’s well-being was enough to make her still, twisting in his arms to see Doyle running to join the Slayer. Even through all the layers that covered the child, Giles could feel the pounding of her heart. It wasn’t fear for her own safety; it was fear for Spike, and it was shocking in its intensity.

“Spike will be fine,” he repeated, and together, they watched the action unfold out on the frozen lake.

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

It was a misnomer that vampires couldn’t feel cold. They could. They just didn’t bloody care most of the time.

At that moment in time, Spike cared. He’d just gone from being slightly chilly to fucking freezing in the space of half a second, and all he wanted was to get out of the damn lake, once and for all.

His head was splitting from the pain of having thrown himself at Maria. He’d known it would happen prior to his leap, but the potential ache had seemed worth it to make sure the bitch went down. Now, Spike was questioning the wisdom of his choice. Between his disorientation from the pain and the weight of the woman he was determined wouldn’t make it back up to the surface, he was struggling not to pass out.

And the frigid temperature of the water wasn’t helping a bloody bit.

She’d screamed in his ear when the ice collapsed beneath him, but Spike held on to her waist as they submerged into the black depths. The ice made an effective ceiling, and with only moonlight illuminating the other side, it quickly became impossible to see anything more than an inch in front of his face. He vamped in an attempt to heighten his senses, and while it helped, it only meant he was now able to see the fury in Maria’s eyes as she fought against his hold.

God, he hadn’t hated anyone as much as this witch since Angelus had come back to muck up his wheelchair-ridden life in Sunnydale.

Rage stoked his determination, making it possible to look past the blinding pain inside his skull as he clamped his hand over Maria’s mouth. He could already hear her heartbeat faltering, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted her dead. Nothing would satisfy his thirst for retribution more than that.

From somewhere, she found the strength to lift her palm to his chest. It barely touched; if he hadn’t seen the flash from her skin, he would never have known it was there.

But he could see the blackening of her eyes, could see the whites as they disappeared into inky pools. And he could see the loathing in her aspect.

And even as he felt her pulse pause, the force of the magic that emanated from her hand into his cold flesh propelled him backwards, upwards, against the flow of the water and into the underbelly of the ice.

After that, everything went black.

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

Twenty feet away from the hole, Buffy felt the ice buckle beneath her feet, and stopped, swaying as she tried to regain her balance. She glanced down. Around her boots, a thin layer of water was washing over the frosty surface, lapping against her soles. It was all melting, disintegrating before her eyes. Between the fireballs and the force Spike had exerted to shatter the ice, the hard crust was softening into a dangerous landscape, capable of disappearing beneath Buffy’s step and pitching her into a very cold and murky world.

“Spike!” she called out again, searching the break in the ice for his familiar bleached hair. It would be easy to spot. The water was like pitch, mirroring the shine of the moon overhead in glistening ripples. “Spike!”

Her eyes lit on Doyle’s approaching figure, and watched as he hit the same turbulence in the surface that she had, skittering to a halt and meeting her gaze. “Do you see him?” he shouted out.

“No!” Dropping to her knees, she began inching forward, desperate to get to the edge of the broken ice to search the water more closely. Her fingers were numb where they touched the surface, melting the frost it encountered more effectively than the sheet of water with every slide forward, but Buffy was oblivious to the cold encroaching her bones. She had to get to Spike. She had to save him.

One of the handprints she left in the broken crust caught her eye, driving her to pause. It was darker than the one before it, like something was covering the ice on its lower side, and she squinted into the darkness to try and make out more detail.

Just…black.

Carefully, Buffy pressed her hand onto the ice off to the side, and then stretched to see the imprint she had made. It was lighter there, and even through the cloudy ice she could see the faint patterns made in the water as it flowed below.

Her gaze returned to the blackness. Something was below the ice.

Or someone.

She felt rather than saw Doyle’s approach as the ice shuddered beneath her knees. He had circumvented the worst of the hole, creeping slowly but surely, until now he stood just to her side. “Something’s down there,” Buffy said, not looking up.

Reaching past, Doyle brushed more of the frost away, revealing more of the black. Then, just a foot away, there was a break in the lack of color. A sliver of light.

Kind of like a lock of hair.

“It’s Spike!” she said, her voice rising. Her fist lifted to smash through the ice, but before she could bring it down, Doyle’s fingers curled around her wrist.

“Do that, and you both go tumbling,” he warned. “Back up. I’ll get him.”

Buffy met his solemn gaze. He was right. She had to trust him.

Creeping away, she kept her eyes locked on the black and white shadows beneath the ice, desperate for some sign of life from them. As soon as her footing felt surer, she nodded to Doyle, who turned to the frozen surface.

The ice splintered where he drove his force through it, but it didn’t break as cleanly as it had for Spike. Instead, blocks folded upward, creating a chasm wide enough for Doyle to reach into, and his head disappeared for a moment as he leaned to haul whatever was creating the shadows back into the moonlight.

Her breath caught when she saw the bleached hair dripping onto the ice.

His skin was pale blue, his eyes closed, and as Doyle hauled him away from the opening, Buffy saw the way Spike’s clothes were glued to his lean frame, wet like a second skin. It was torture to wait until Doyle was close enough for her to help, but as soon as she could, Buffy grabbed onto the unyielding flesh of her lover and pulled him flush against her body.

“You idiot,” she whispered. Her hands and eyes searched for any sign of injury, any sign of life. “You stupid, pigheaded, wonderful idiot.”

“You have to get out of the cold,” Doyle observed. “The damp will just make you sick, and frankly, I don’t want to have to be the one to explain to Spike why you’re dying from pneumonia when he comes around.”

She laughed, in spite of the chill seeping through her clothes, and her eyes darted to the now still water lapping at the edges of the broken ice. “Is she dead?” Buffy asked.

Doyle shrugged. “Hard to tell. But I’ll stick around to make sure she doesn’t go Die Hard on us. You get everyone back to the cabin. I’ll be there soon enough.”

She only nodded. In the distance, she could see Giles carrying Holly around the edge of the lake, and by the time she’d managed to drag Spike to the shore, they were close enough for her to see the worry in his eyes.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I’ve been better,” Buffy replied. A groan from the body at her feet prompted her to return her attention to Spike, bending to help him lean against a nearby tree as his eyelashes fluttered open.

“Hello, beautiful,” he murmured.

Two words had never sounded so good.

“You’re crazy, you know that?” Buffy said.

“Did we win?”

“So far, it looks like it.”

The corner of his mouth lifted, though she could tell that even that was an exertion for him. “Then crazy was worth it, don’t you think?”

Shaking her head, Buffy leaned in and brushed her lips across his in a soft kiss. “Don’t scare me like that again, OK?” she whispered, her eyes searching his.

Spike nodded. “Don’t really fancy another swim in the drink again, anyway.” His gaze slipped past her, warming even more when it alighted on Holly in Giles’ arms. “Did me proud, pidge,” he said. “Good girl.”

Wriggling free, Holly tumbled to the ground before racing over to hug Spike. “I don’t like the lake any more,” she said, her voice muffled against his neck. “I don’t want to play here again.”

“Think that makes two of us.” Gently, Spike patted her back, but his focus was on the growing confusion in Giles’ countenance. “If you drove here,” he said to the other man, “I’m hitching a ride back to the Hellmouth with Joyce once we can blow this joint.”

Even Giles couldn’t hide a twitch of a smile at the veiled reference to the accident that had set the whole chain of events into motion. “It’s good to see you, too, Spike,” he said.

“Can you walk?” Buffy asked. Gently, she pried Holly away in order to help Spike stagger to his feet. His color was still bad, and his discomfort obvious, but when he looked into her face, she could see the underlying strength that would help him pull through this.

Holly stood solemnly by as Spike leaned against Buffy, his arm around her shoulder as she snaked hers across his back. When he was steady, the little girl reached up and slipped her hand into his free one and tugged.

“Let’s go home,” she said. “You still have to tuck me in.”

 

To be concluded in Chapter 55: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas