DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss', of course.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Holly ran to safety, Spike pulled Maria through the ice, and the day has been saved…

By the time sunset came around on New Year's Eve, Spike was ready to kill the lot of them. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Well, maybe it would likely be more than metaphorical for those two new Watcher prats. He hadn't heard such whinging since Xander had been forced to put Spike up in his basement. Taking them out would be mercy kills for all involved.

It hadn't started out so badly. In fact, it had started out bloody good. As soon as they'd turned up back at the cabin, Joyce had gone into mother hen mode, ordering Spike to change out of his wet things before going up to bed in the loft. She'd then set out to prepare a steaming mug of blood with a hot chocolate chaser, allowing Buffy and Holly to be the ones to take the drinks up to him. The peanut gallery even managed to remain silent when the two girls stayed with Spike to curl up beneath the blankets.

The trio had fallen asleep, and Spike had dreamt of finishing off the witch in a much bloodier fashion than drowning, satisfying his hungrier urges for vengeance against the bitch for what she'd done to Holly. Sure, he'd still had the pleasure of being the one to take her down, but it would've been even better to feel her life being drained from her sorry flesh. The bitch deserved pain for what she'd done, lots of it. He just hoped that her drowning had been a long and tortured death.

Waking up with his skin aflame from having two living, breathing, and overly blanketed humans curled into his sides had chased the dreams away. He'd luxuriated in the heat for a grand total of two minutes before the sound of quarreling drifted from below to wake Buffy, prompting her to get up and investigate. Things had gone downhill from there.

While the cabin had been cozy with Buffy, Holly, and himself, the addition of four more adults made it downright cramped now. As the most injured, Silas had commandeered the main bed, but it didn't stop him from barking out requests to any and all who would listen. By the time lunch came around, even Joyce was ready to drive the knife back into the Watcher's gut.

Things went from bad to worse when Doyle showed up. Though he carried with him the good news that Maria hadn't emerged from the lake, all hell broke loose when he brought up the issue of taking Holly away once the clock struck midnight.

Starting with the child in question having a screaming, kicking fit in the middle of the living room as she protested leaving the cabin at all.

"No! No! No!" she shouted, her bare heels pounding into the floor in rhythm with her tiny fists. "Won't go! Won't go!"

Buffy lost her temper when a stray kick caught her in the shin, retreating to the safety of the kitchen while Joyce and Spike tried their hands at calming Holly down. Neither succeeded. When Holly ran for the bathroom and slammed the door shut, Spike figured the discussion was closed when they quickly discovered that nothing short of physical force was going to coax the girl from where she'd retreated.

Spike was wrong.

Now, two hours later, he felt like his head was going to explode from listening to all the options get weighed about Holly's future.

"Will you just bloody make up your minds?" he finally said. He dropped his mug into the sink with a clatter, frustration sharpening his nerves. "She's a girl, not the end of the world. Well, not any more, at least."

"We must weigh all our options," Giles said. "It's the only way to ensure we choose the correct one."

Spike rolled his eyes, but he was cut off from his quick retort by Buffy's support for her Watcher.

"This is the way the team works, Spike," she said. She wasn't accusing him, but somewhere in the green depths of her eyes, he thought he detected a hint of disappointment. "If you're going to help out, it's probably time for you to start getting used to it."

He couldn't counter that. He'd been the one to insist on equal footing once they got back to Sunnydale, but he hadn't anticipated getting sucked into the do-gooders' routine ritual of talking things to death before they actually did anything.

Of course, that didn't mean he had to put up with it now.

"Lemme know when we're takin' off," he said, sauntering to the loft ladder. "I'll just be working on my recuperating in peace and quiet."

He was almost disappointed when nobody tried to stop him, only because it would've been nice to be needed at this stage of the game. Guess all I'm good for is a little muscle, Spike groused silently as he slid between the sheets. Nobody had ever said otherwise, but it would've been nice if they'd at least made the pretense of trying to convince him to stay. That's what the white hats did, after all. They tried to make it about the feelings and not the actual problem. Looked like even after all of Buffy's words to the contrary, he didn't matter enough.

He fell asleep in a foul mood. Happy fucking New Year.

The creak of the ladder woke him up, but when Spike opened his eyes to blink blearily at his guest, he was surprised to see Giles appear over the top rung. He propped himself up on his elbows, watching carefully to see who would follow. Nobody came.

"How do you feel?" Giles asked.

Spike's brows shot up. "No, straight to the chase, 'stay the hell away from my Slayer,' Rupert? Looks like I lose that twenty to Buffy, then."

"That is not a conversation we're going to have right now," Giles said. "There are too many ears around."

"Slayers don't have super hearing."

"No, but surprisingly enough, three-year-old little girls, do." Leaning against the railing, his gaze remained steady as he repeated his question.

"Not out for the count, if that's what you're hoping," Spike replied. He sat up the rest of the way. The calm countenance of the Watcher was disarming. This was the first time they'd been reasonably alone together, and at the very least, he'd expected a lengthy diatribe about why Spike wasn't good enough to even consider having a relationship with Buffy. Concern about his welfare didn't factor into that particular scenario.

"We've reached a consensus on how best to handle Holly's future," Giles said. "We'd like very much for you to come down to discuss it, but before you do, I'd like a word with you first."

"Here it comes." He sighed. "Lay it on me. Always best to kick a vamp while he's down. Haven't been away from you so long that I don't remember that."

Not even a rise from the Watcher. For a second, Spike wondered if he was losing his touch.

"I wish to speak of your involvement in this situation," Giles continued, not missing a beat. "I began to suspect there was something amiss when Maria informed me that Buffy's body hadn't been recovered from the car accident. I couldn't fathom why you might've saved her when it seemed the perfect opportunity for you to be rid of us, once and for all. Then, when Joyce arrived and began sharing more specific details of Holly and her predicament, it became apparent that something was happening to you, that perhaps the chip was forcing you to re-evaluate your wrongdoings as something to be corrected -."

"Hey! You take that back!"

"I'll admit, seeing you with Holly yesterday, my first instinct was to assume you were going to kill her." He held up his hand to ward off the protestation all ready to spill from Spike's lips. "Very obviously, that was never your intention, and then seeing how willing you were to sacrifice yourself in order to ensure Maria's demise, well, it was certainly refreshing to see."

Spike snorted. "Not like I could've drowned by takin' her down with me," he said.

"No, but we're both well aware that there are other ways for a vampire to be neutralized, if not outright killed."

"There a point to this blather of yours, Rupert? 'Cause this is gettin' just a tad longwinded, even for you."

"My point, Spike, is that I'd like to thank you for taking the steps necessary to protect both Buffy and the child. It shows considerable growth on your part, and I'm even more convinced that perhaps this chip of yours is the impetus you need to do something better with your life."

Spike was stunned into silence. For the one thing, he'd never in a million years expected to ever hear anything resembling gratitude being offered to him from one of Buffy's crew, let alone her Watcher, but then to have the man express some sort of belief in a greater good for the chip? It was almost ridiculous in its optimism.

He would've laughed out loud if Buffy hadn't told him almost the exact same thing just the night before.

"I don't expect changes to happen overnight," Giles was saying, "but based on what I witnessed last night, I have little doubt that the changes will be forthcoming. Buffy certainly seems to support that belief as well. Strangely enough, she's your second biggest fan currently."

He didn't have to ask who his biggest fan was. Spike already knew it was Holly.

And somehow, he still couldn't find it in him to reply.

"Now that that's said and done, we need you to come back and join the group." Giles straightened and headed for the ladder, not bothering to look back and see whether Spike was complying. "The fate of Holly's future is contingent on your presence."

It was a somber Spike who followed Giles down the ladder. Chewing at her lip as she watched him step from the last rung, Buffy waited for him to meet her eyes, to look to her for reassurance about what was going on, but it never came. Instead, Spike headed straight for the kitchen and pulled out the remainder of the Jack Daniels he'd been stashing away.

"Anyone fancy a drink?" he said to nobody in particular as he poured out a glass for himself. He didn't even look like he wanted to share, especially when he left barely a swig in the bottom of the bottle. "No? More for me, then," he said, and drained what was left.

"Spike's thirsty," Holly said from where she sat next to Joyce on the couch. She'd finally emerged when Paul had knocked repeatedly at the door, insisting that he had to "use the facilities," and when she'd opened it up to find out what exactly he meant, he'd shot past her, cleanly knocking her from the bathroom, and locked the door behind him.

"Spike's something," Buffy heard him mutter.

"Glad to see you got to enjoy it," Doyle said. He leaned against the wall by the fireplace, grinning at Spike, but Buffy knew it was mostly show. He'd been hiding his tension with glib remarks ever since he'd returned from watching the lake, and she suspected the strain of the past few days was finally beginning to wear on him. I guess even ghosts need to take a break once in a while, she thought.

"Let's get down to business," Giles said.

"That's me," Holly said brightly to anyone who would listen.

"Yes." He cleared his throat. "Come midnight, the barrier around the cabin will be lifted, and any danger that still exists for Holly will be gone. We'll be free to return to Sunnydale at that point. Spike, have you recovered sufficiently to drive one of the cars?"

"With my eyes bloody shut."

"Yes, well, that might not be the safest way. I'll leave Buffy to convince you not to blinker yourself."

She caught his gaze then, a mixture of confusion and uncertainty she hadn't witnessed since the early days of their new relationship. Offering what she hoped was a comforting smile, Buffy rose to her feet and crossed to stand next to Spike.

"There's three cars," she said in explanation. "Mom's going to take Holly, Giles is going to take Paul and Silas to the hospital, and you and I get the bitchmobile. We figured since you and I have all our stuff here to pack and lug, it's best if we don't hold the others back so they can leave."

Spike frowned, his eyes darting to the couch and back. "Pidge is goin' back to the Hellmouth?" he asked, his voice hesitant.

"Now that she's not bait for Maria," Doyle offered, "we think it's time Holly got some stability. A solid home. Legal guardians."

"Or guardian, singular," Giles said. "There was some debate as to who would be best qualified -."

"Spike! Spike!" Holly called out, pointing.

" - but then there are certain...difficulties that must be addressed. Such as the legality of the process."

"Spike can be legal," Holly offered.

"Not easily, moptop," Spike said gently.

When Buffy looked at him, she was surprised to see pain hiding in the blue of his eyes. He was disappointed. It wasn't exactly an unexpected response considering his attachment to the little girl, but she hadn't thought it would be as acute as all that.

Holly's disappointment was almost as strong. "Can Buffy be legal?" she asked, turning hopeful eyes back to Giles.

"Well, yes, but there is something else for us to consider."

Buffy knew what was coming; they'd had this part of the conversation while Holly and Spike were both still absent. She just hoped Giles would be gentle with the child.

"Though Maria won't pose a threat to you any longer," he continued, "we don't know whether or not your blood will still affect Buffy adversely. If it does…"

His voice trailed off. He couldn't quite finish the thought.

Holly's eyes went liquid. "I don't want to hurt Buffy any more," she whispered.

"You're not going to," Joyce said, pulling the girl into her arms and soothingly stroking her back.

"Which effectively rules Joyce out as guardian," Giles said. "If something were to happen to you, that would place you in Buffy's care anyway, and we can't trust that just yet."

Buffy felt Spike shift behind her, caught the movement of his glass getting set to the counter before his arms wrapped around her waist and tugged her against him. She sighed in contentment. This was better.

"So what's that mean then?" he asked.

"That means…" Giles cleared his throat. "…we think I should be named your guardian."

For a second, Holly looked stricken, but when Joyce squeezed her shoulders in reassurance, she gave him a tiny nod.

Spike snorted. "That's a soddin' daft idea, Rupert," he said. "You know bugger all about raising a little girl."

"Exactly." The admission made Spike's arms stiffen around her, and Buffy curled her fingers around the back of his. "This is why we think this should be a joint effort. My flat is obviously too small for both myself and a child, and Joyce has stated that her house seems too large without Buffy there any longer. So, the solution is to combine the two. Holly and I will move in with Joyce."

"That's not all," Joyce said quickly when she saw Spike about to speak. "Rupert freely admits that he's not ready to take full responsibility for Holly, and I'm at the gallery all day. So that means we need somebody else to watch her." She smiled. "The bedrooms are all taken, but if you don't have a problem with basements after staying with Xander, you're more than welcome to decorate it as you see fit. And I promise not to make you do any laundry but your own. You don't even have to do Buffy's when she brings it home from school."

Buffy twisted in his arms in order to see the look on his face. Confusion faded to disbelief, shifted to awe.

"You want me to…move in?" he asked carefully.

"It would be a fair swap," Giles said. "Room and board for your services." His lips quirked as he fought not to smile outright. "I must admit to relishing referring to you as the William the Nanny instead of William the Bloody. And I dare say, Xander will have a field day with it -."

"Sod it. I'll take it. Beats bein' chained up in your tub, hands down."

Holly's eyes swiveled among the adults, trying to sort out the new arrangements. "So," she said, "I'm living with you," she pointed to Giles, "- and you," this went to Joyce, "- and Spike?"

"Don't forget me when I come home for holidays," Buffy chimed in.

A slow smile split the little girl's features and she hopped up from the couch to run for the door. "Can we go now?"

Laughter filled the room.

Buffy couldn't remember a stroke of midnight more greatly anticipated that that New Year's Eve. They even promised Holly she could stay up to see her fourth birthday, but the little girl fell asleep in Spike's arms before the clock struck ten. To pass the time, Joyce packed up Holly's things, and Giles conferred with Buffy and Spike, going over maps on how to return to Sunnydale, but the minutes still seemed to drag. At five before the hour, she finally managed to convince the others to allow her to slip out and check the barrier, posting the argument that she was the least injured of the entire group.

She returned with good news, and quickly, they set out to make the trip to the vehicles. Buffy and Spike left their luggage behind for the moment; with Silas too injured to walk, Giles and Paul both not exactly up to par, and Holly to be carried, they needed all the muscle they could get. They had to take the long way back to the cars; Silas' bulky form was proving difficult for Spike to keep a hold of without re-opening his wounds. Eventually, though, the trip was made, and Buffy stood next to her mother's car, watching as Spike carefully buckled Holly into the back seat and shut the door without waking her.

"It's about five hours back to Sunnydale," Joyce said. Her eyes flickered to Spike, watching him throw his head back and relish the crisp winter air. "Don't dillydally or it'll be morning before you get back, and you'll have a boyfriend floating out your window."

"Well, I'll vouch for the dillying," Buffy said, "but you'll have to talk to Spike about the dallying." She gave her mother a quick hug. "Thanks," she whispered, hoping that Spike was too preoccupied enjoying his new freedom to hear her. "For everything."

"I think next Christmas we'll have a nice, quiet holiday in," Joyce said as she slid onto her seat. "In fact, I think I'm going to make that a Summers tradition from now on."

"You'll be re-evaluating that decision when moptop wakes you up at all hours, wanting to open her prezzies," Spike said, suddenly behind Buffy.

Joyce smiled. "I survived a certain someone staking out the fireplace for five years hoping to catch Santa Claus and demand why she never got skating lessons from Brian Boitano," she said with a smile. "I think I can handle just about anything."

Buffy blushed in the moonlight and took a step away from the car. "OK, remind me when we get back to Sunnydale to keep you two apart," she said. "Sharing Baby Buffy stories is not my idea of a good time."

"Play nice with Rupert 'til we show," Spike warned with a wag of his finger. "Don't want to catch you doin' anything naughty when we walk through the door."

"Ewww," Buffy said, scrunching up her nose. "I'd finally managed to scrub those images from my brain. Please don't bring them up again."

Joyce grinned as she started the car. "It looks like I just discovered an unexpected bonus to having all these boarders," she said. "A brand new way to torture my daughter."

"Because you don't torture me enough already."

"No such thing."

Stepping back from the car, Buffy waved as Joyce pulled away from the road's shoulder, the taillights oddly bright in the dark. Together, she and Spike watched the car disappear around the far bend, and then his mouth appeared in the hollow of her neck.

"Finally," he breathed, nipping at what little skin he could find beneath her coat collar.

She pretended to push away his hands that had suddenly found their way beneath her coat. "We have to load the car."

"Rather load you."

Buffy laughed, her breath forming misty clouds that drifted up to the clear sky. "OK, that one was bad, even for you."

"Don't tell me you don't want to." Gently, he palmed her breast, his thumb stroking her nipple through her lacy bra. "Besides, I think we've earned a little reward. We saved the day, after all."

"No, Spike." As hard as it was to pull his hand away from her flesh, she did so, turning in his embrace so that she could see the sharp shadows of his face. "You saved the day. I just kind of drove it in your direction."

His lashes lowered. "It's not what I signed on for, you know." His voice was low, his body still. "When we had our little talk about how things would be once we got back to Sunnyhell, this wasn't what I had in mind. What I did…" Spike stopped, and she knew just how hard it was for him to say any of this, even in light of how far they'd come already in their relationship. And loved him even more when he started up again.

"What I did, with the little one, and with dragging that Maria bitch below the ice. I did that for her, Buffy. Not you. Not because it was the right thing to do." He finally looked up. "I did it because I made pidge a promise, and there was no way I would ever go back on that."

"I know," she murmured. Her hand came up to cradle his face. "That doesn't lessen the value of it, though. And maybe next time we have something like this come up - because it will, this is my world we're talking about here, remember - you'll jump in and help because you want to. Or maybe the time after that. I have faith in you, Spike."

His mouth twisted into a half-smile. "I've made you go barmy from all the brilliant shagging, I think."

"Well, yeah, there's that, too." Leaning forward, she pressed her lips to his, savoring the heady taste of his mouth and forgetting for that moment about the long drive they had ahead of them. "I love you so much," she murmured when she finally broke away.

"Gonna have to share me now, you know. Got another girl in my life."

"Yeah," she agreed. "But I think I can take her. Or distract her with chocolate."

His fingers laced with hers, and he began tugging her back toward the cabin. "C'mon, pet. Didn't I hear you say something to your mum about me and some dallying? Sounds like a good idea to me."

"So does packing up the car so that we can get back without you dusting on me."

He continued to lead her through the trees. "Sun comes out, I'll just duck down so it can't get me. Wear a skirt. I'll hide between your legs."

"Except you're the one driving, silly."

"So you hide between my legs."

"You're a pig, Spike."

"Love you, too, Buffy."

Unseen, the trio of ghosts watched Buffy and Spike head back to the cabin with their hands clasped, their words and laughter ringing throughout the clear night.

"I love happy endings," Jenny said.

Tara smiled. "It's not an ending. Not really."

Shaking his head, Doyle rolled his eyes. "Don't start on that whole new beginning crap again," he said. "Let's just enjoy the moment, all right?"

They were silent, their gazes thoughtful. And then…

"Should we be singing 'Auld Lang Syne?'" Tara asked.

"Nah," Doyle said. "Too cliché." He paused. "How 'bout 'Frigging in the Rigging' instead?"

"Doyle!" both women exclaimed.

"What? You heard 'em. You know they're goin' back to the cabin to -."

"You don't have to say it."

"Besides," he continued, "I think it's completely appropriate for the situation. New start for Spike, being serenaded with a song done by one of his favorite bands." At Tara's confused frown, he added, "Sex Pistols. A bit before your time, I think."

"I though it was a sea shanty."

"It is, but Steve Jones did an amazing arrangement that -."

"We're not singing," Jenny said firmly. "End of discussion."

More silence, and then the two lovers disappeared from their view.

"How long before the spell takes effect?" Tara asked.

"It should already be happening," Jenny said.

Doyle sighed. "I don't like messing with their memories like this. It doesn't seem right."

"We don't have a choice." Jenny turned to face him. "And it's not messing. We're just…blurring the lines a little. They'll remember everything that's truly important. Their feelings aren't going anywhere."

"They can't remember they saw me," Tara stressed further. "It would be too weird for them when they got home. It's better if everyone thinks that you and Jenny did it all."

"We didn't do much of anything." His smile was wistful as he looked off to the trees Buffy and Spike had passed through. "It was all them. Surprising what love can do."

The women's gazes followed his, their own faces softening as each remembered the affection and emotion they'd witnessed between the cabin's houseguests over the past two weeks. "Surprising, indeed," Jenny murmured.