Chapter 1 - Going Alone
Buffy was being strangled - tight wire wrapped round her neck, tangling her arms as he fought to free herself! She couldn't get her balance and the more she fought, the more she swayed and choked and -
"Buffy!" The shriek from her sister hurt the inside of her ears. "You're going to fall off that ladder. Don't break the Christmas lights. I love them. Mom bought them."
Buffy defeated the lights with a vicious tug and stared out at the living-room as it swam back into vision through the tangles of golden hair that had fallen in front of her eyes. "Oh sure, Dawnie. I'll be very careful. Why don't you put the lights on the tree? Be good practice for when you grow up and have a home of your own and I can come for Christmas and criticise everything!"
"I'm sorting out the music. We can't have all these old tunes playing at the party. And why haven't you put the fairy on top of the tree? You know I love her. Mom and me - "
"Bought her," Buffy finished the sentence for her, sighing. Of course Dawn hadn't been with their mother when she bought the fairy, but she remembered that she had and that was what counted. She reached down towards the box on the table top, the ladder tilted dangerously and just as she was about to crash into the tree, a slim, cool hand grabbed her ankle and pushed her upright.
"Spike! What are you doing here?" Buffy hissed.
The vampire was gravely inspecting the ragged skirt of the fairy doll he was holding. "I reckon she's about as old as me, pet," he said wryly. "Her wings are broken - look!"
Buffy snatched the doll away and with a disdainful sniff, clambered back up the ladder and forced the top branch of the tree firmly up the pink and white skirt.
"Ouch!" Spike muttered, then grinned up at her, his face mischievous. "Oh, I see. Is that a sort of signal, pet? Like it rough like that, do you? You should have said - oh, I was forgetting - you did!"
Buffy glared and ran down the steps. "Will you be quiet! Dawn's only next door. If you're not careful, I'll make you sort the box of angel ornaments over there."
The vampire winced and threw his hands up in surrender. "No, no. Not the angel decorations! Have pity, brave Slayer, have pity."
Buffy tried to smile, but found it hard. The last few days had been difficult, with Dawn determined to have the biggest and best Christmas ever, as a memory celebration for their mother.
Buffy wondered how Joyce had ever coped with everything. There was so much to remember to do. Food, cards, presents, more food, drink, tree, decorations, more food. The drain on the little money she made was enormous. Even working all sorts of shifts at the Double Meat, the cash just vanished out of the door - usually with Dawn - as fast as Buffy brought it in.
"I wondered if you wanted to patrol tonight," Spike was saying, lifting one eyebrow suggestively, making little chills run up her body. She knew exactly what he really meant. His idea of patrolling recently meant both of them being horizontal on the floor of his crypt. And, if she was honest, sometimes vertical against any wall they could find.
"Spike, we've got just over a week to Christmas and I haven't made the cake yet."
His blue eyes lit up. "Are we having a proper cake, then? With icing?"
Buffy stared at him. Oh god, she thought. He expects to be asked here for Christmas. With Xander and Anya and Willow. He'll be sitting there, making suggestive remarks. He might even - no he definitely would find a way of touching her and how could she hide from her friends how that made her feel?
She hunted desperately through her brain for the right words to tell him - and there weren't any. Even as she fought to break their gaze, she saw a bitter sort of understanding begin to cross his face.
The insistent ringing of the phone saved her. She picked up the receiver, blessing Mr and Mrs Bell's son for having existed. "Hi, Giles?"
There was a series of crackles and her Watcher's voice came and went on the waves of the transatlantic satellites. "What - Giles, I can't understand what you're saying. Slow down."
Dawn appeared in the doorway and stood, listening apprehensively, pouting, her eyes wide and worried. Phone calls from Giles usually meant trouble and they were so close to Christmas now. It just wouldn't be fair if Buffy was going to be all Slayer-girl over the next week.
"Well?" she said when Buffy finally said goodbye and hung up. "What's up? Don't tell me there's all sorts of nasties coming to Sunnydale for Christmas."
Buffy was frowning. "What? Oh, no, I don't think so, Dawnie. Nothing big, anyway. Don't worry. Look, go and finish sorting out the music. Xander and Anya will be here soon."
"Problems, Slayer?" Spike asked, lounging against the wall.
"I'm not sure. Giles was doing his 'must investigate', 'sources tell me', 'evil afoot' routine."
"What sort of evil?"
"He didn't know. That's what's so irritating about Giles when he's over in England. He gets told things by the Council people but they never seem to have the whole story. Just bits of it. Like they did with Glory. Oh yes she's a god, but oh no, we've not the slightest idea how to fight her."
Spike frowned. "You don't mean we're facing another hell god?"
Buffy picked up a shiny golden bauble from the box on the table and fastened it to the tree. "No. Nothing that bad. Apparently some children have gone missing from all over the States recently and the last one was from here in Sunnydale. Giles thinks there's a connection."
"Children go missing every day, pet. Sad but true. It could just be a criminal, kidnapping thing, not mystical at all."
"Don't call me pet," Buffy replied automatically. "Look, Spike, believe me, I don't want to have to deal with any sort of problem so close to Christmas. But I know Giles. He'll ring every hour, on the hour until I give him a report. So the tree decorating will have to wait."
"Where are we going?"
Buffy looked up at him, surprised. "I'm going to the local Children's Home. That's where the boy was living when he vanished. But I'm going alone, Spike. I don't need you along."
Spike had purloined a little china angel from another box and was tossing it from hand to hand. "Not busy tonight, Slayer. Done my Christmas shopping. Could be useful."
Buffy hesitated. Every bone in her body cried out to her to let him come with her, and every brain cell she possessed told her that that was a bad bad plan. The less she saw of Spike at the moment, the better it would be for her.
"No need, Spike. Thanks, but I'll be fine."
"OK, I'll just sit and wait with Li'll Bit until the Boy and demon girl get here. Pour myself a couple of whiskies, relax, have a nice chat. Trouble with alcohol, it tends to make me forget what i'm supposed to forget, if you see what I mean, pet. I wouldn't want Xander and Anya to get a nasty shock if I started telling them - "
"Okay! Okay! You can string along. Jeez, Spike. Anyone would think you were scared to let me out of your sight for two minutes."
She turned to grab her denim jacket off the sofa and didn't see Spike's hands jerk convulsively and the head break off the china angel.
The Sunnydale Children's Home was a very old building. There had always been an Orphanage in Sunnydale - with the number of people who died with the town being built on the Hellmouth, sadly kids without parents were not uncommon. Most got fostered or adopted, but there were always a few living in the big Victorian mansion.
Buffy stood by the big iron gates that guarded the driveway up to the rambling house.
Her enquiries about a missing child at the reception office had been met with a blank "no comment". The woman behind the desk had been perfectly polite, but determined not to give her any information at all.
She was only too aware of the vampire standing just behind her. Even though she knew he wasn't breathing, it felt as if cool air was touching the back of her neck.
"What next, pet?" he asked. "Would you like me to go back and scare some information out of her?"
"Oh yes, that's going to help. We'd have every police car for miles descending on us."
"Miserable looking place," Spike commented. "Not a single sign of Christmas in there. Did you notice?"
"Yes - " she began and then stopped as he held up a hand, his brilliant blue gaze swerving round to some bushes behind her. "Yes, very plain and cold and - "
Moving with the speed and grace that always left her breathless, Spike dived into the shrubbery and came out holding a wriggling and kicking -
"Spike! Put him down. He can't be more than six or seven! You'll terrify him."
Spike dropped the boy and sucked one of his fingers. "Me terrify him? Little devil bit me!" he snapped.
Buffy shuddered as his tongue crept out and licked the trickle of blood. Bad bad memories of what he could do with that tongue raced through her brain and when she caught his gaze, she knew he was sharing the same thoughts.
The boy rolled over, got to his feet and stared up defiantly at them. He was small and thin, with a thatch of bright blond hair that needed cutting sticking out from under a shabby baseball cap. His clothes were clean but so well worn that they were thread bare in places.
"You shouldn't be listening to other people's conversations," Buffy said severely. "What's your name, kid?"
"Eric. What's yours?"
"I'm Buffy. This is - "
"Cool coat!" Eric said, fingering the black duster.
'"Hey, hands off!" Spike snapped, brushing the sticky fingers aside.
" - Spike," Buffy finished. "Listen, Eric, I'm sorry if we frightened you. Do you live here?"
"No one frightens me," he boasted. "And I'm only here till I get adopted."
"What happened to your parents, Eric?"
He pushed his hands into his jeans pockets and shrugged. "My Mom died when I was little. My Dad died a few months back. He got caught in a fire somehow and got all burnt up in the street. I reckon it was a gang. I've seen gangs on TV."
Buffy caught her breath and glanced at Spike, knowing exactly what he was thinking. Oh god, Eric's father was one of Sweet's victims. Xander's stupid behaviour had taken this child's only parent away from him.
Eric was continuing, oblivious of the distress he'd caused. "Won't be long now, I reckon, till I'm adopted. You see you have to be cute to get taken by parents. I can play cute. People like cute. And I'm the youngest here now that Terry has gone."
Buffy knelt down in front of him. "Was Terry adopted, then?"
"No. Santa Claus took him. Have you any gum?"
"No. Hey, Eric, what do you mean about Santa Claus?"
The little boy sighed as if all adults were stupid. "Santa came into our room a few nights ago and asked who was the youngest and when Terry said it was him, he told him to get dressed and then they went out together. I expect he needed help. Now I'm the youngest. Bet I get a family before Christmas." He shot a penetrating look at the two figures in front of him. "Would you two like a little boy? I don't often bite."
Spike growled and Buffy stood up and kicked him. "We're not - we're not parents - I mean, we're not looking for a family," she got out at last and dug Spike in the ribs with her elbow when he whispered,
"But we have a lot of fun trying for a baby," in her ear.
"OK," Eric said sadly. "Well, I'd better get back. They'll be looking for me."
"Wait up - do the police know about the man taking Terry, about Santa?" Buffy asked.
"They came and talked to us, but they didn't believe me," Eric said with a shrug. "They said I was making it all up. That Terry had run away. That there isn't any Father Christmas. Huh - like I'd believe that!"
He pushed his way back through the bushes and Buffy watched as he climbed like a monkey up onto the wall. "Let me know if you change young minds about adopting me," he called. For a second the brash street kid vanished and a sad little boy stared down at them. "I'd be good, promise."
Then he was gone.
to be continued