“Aren’t you gonna stomp on that?”

Seconds after carelessly flicking away his cigarette, Spike froze with his head down. His brain went into overdrive as he studied the grass in Buffy’s yard.

The voice was female, young and unfamiliar. Did this child know the Slayer? Her sister?

“Hey, mister! Aren’t you gonna stomp that out? It’s gonna start a fire if you don’t!”

“Says who? You and your mate, Smokey, am I right?” Turning on his heel, Spike shoved his fists deep inside the pockets of his duster. “Aren’t you up past your beddy-bye time, Little Miss Fire Marshal? You should be tucked away, safe and sound, fast asleep, or Santa won’t come to your house tonight. Just imagine waking up to no shiny new presents on Christmas morning. Sounds downright devastating if you ask me.”

The girl said nothing. Under her colorful beanie, thick scarf, and white puffer jacket, Spike could clearly make out her scowl.

“Already on the naughty list, are we?” he snickered. “Guess there’s no harm in starting early. You’ll be a pro at bad behavior by the age of ten, I wager.”

“You shouldn’t smoke.”

“Yeah. Well, it’s too late for that public service announcement. My lungs are black, shriveled and rotten, just like my heart.” He finally crushed the burning cigarette in question under his boot before relaxing against the tree in Buffy’s yard. “There. You’ve saved the day and avoided a forest fire. It’s a bloody holiday miracle. Now you can run off. Let me be.”

“Is this your house?”

“What’s it to you? Don’t tell me you’re a security guard too? Part of the Neighborhood Watch?”

“What do you know about Santa Claus? Have you seen him?”

Spike rolled his eyes. “Look, kid, I don’t have time for this. I have things to do and--.”

“Do you even live here, mister?”

The volume of the girl’s voice rose to a pitch perfect for destroying his cover.

“Shhh,” he whispered, touching his pointer finger to his lips. “Hush, you’re right, I don’t live here, but--.”

“It’s bad to spy on people! Only peepers hide in the bushes!”

“Peeper?” He forced out a sigh. “First off, I’m not hiding in the bloody bushes. This is me standing under a tree. Secondly, I’m not peeping or spying. Technically, I’m on watch.”

“On watch?” The girl pushed down the scarf from her mouth and frowned. “What does that mean?”

“It means that I am watching,” Spike replied through clinched teeth.

“You’re snooping and that’s wrong--.”

“Oh, like I haven’t heard this song and dance before,” he grumbled under his breath as his eyes rolled to the night sky. “Little girl, the last thing I need is another person judging my morals and lack of.”

“Are you a bad man?”

The question brought a smug smile to his face. “I’ve received coal in my stocking so many times I’ve been permanently added to Santa’s naughty list.”

The girl seemed to mull over his words for a few seconds. Once her mouth opened wide, Spike knew he had made a terrible mistake.

“Please don’t,” he whispered. He crouched in front of the girl just as the scream rang from her little body. “Be quiet!” he pleaded, his eyes on Buffy’s house. “You want to know about Santa? I’ll tell you all about him! Hell, I know the guy! I’m his bloody lookout, alright?”

“You are?” The girl’s face brightened instantly. “I knew it! I knew you were working for Santa!”

“I’m glad you think so,” Spike grumbled. As the girl bounced in front of him, the lights in the Slayer’s house came on one by one. “Bloody hell, she’s gonna be royally pissed off.”

A moment later, the front door swung open and Buffy stomped across the yard. “Spike, what the hell?” she demanded. She clutched her jacket closed over her pajamas. “Why are you out here and what was that noise? Why aren’t you—oh…hello? Okay, what’s going on? Who’s she?”

“I was hoping you’d know.” He stood and the girl scrambled to hide behind him. He sighed once little fingers dug into his legs. “I was minding my own business and she just popped up. Like an annoying Christmas gnat that I can’t swat away.”

“You were minding your own business…in front of my house?” Buffy’s frown deepened once she noticed the pile of smoked cigarettes gathering at his feet. “Seriously, where did she come from? It’s Christmas Eve. She needs to go home.”

“So, she isn’t a neighbor then?”

“Fine, I’ll take care of this. Hey there,” Buffy began with a little wave. She smiled from ear to ear as she spoke to the girl. “Are you from around here, sweetie? Do you know your address? Where are your parents? Can Spike and I walk you home?”

Instead of answering, the girl’s grip on Spike’s legs tightened.

“Now what?”

“I guess we call the cops,” Buffy replied with a shrug. Without saying more, she walked toward her house. When Spike stayed behind, she groaned out loud, “Come on, it’s cold out here and I’m inviting you inside!”

“I figured that, but I can’t move. She’s got her claws in deep.”

“Then pick her up.”

“Pick her up? Me? Shouldn’t you do it? You’re the female here.”

“I’m going to ignore that comment. Besides, for some bizarre-o reason, she only likes you.”

“Maybe it’s ‘cause I speak to her like a fellow human? I don’t bug my eyes out and talk like I’ve swallowed a bag of bloody helium.”

“Hey, Spike? Will you just shut up and get in here? Now, please?”

“Why’s she so mean?”

“I wish I knew,” Spike said, answering the girl’s question. “I think it’s ‘cause she’s repressed sexually.”

“You’re a pig,” Buffy called out. “Don’t say that in front of her!”

“Ignore the mean lady, pet. Come on; let’s get inside. Aren’t you cold?”

The girl nodded and she was holding Spike’s hand as they entered Buffy’s living room.

“If I hear one word…” Spike warned as Buffy struggled to keep a straight face.

“Why don’t you two get comfy while I make some hot chocolate? Spike, you still have a thing for those little marshmallows, right?”

“Sounds good to me. How about you?”

The girl nodded again but it was hard to make out under all of her winter clothing.

“Suppose we can do without all these layers.” He took off her beanie and unwound the scarf from her neck. “Get your jacket off and sit by the tree.”

“Are you an elf?”

Hearing the girl, Buffy poked her head out from the kitchen. Spike saw her questioning look and ignored it. “I can assure you, I’m not an elf.”

“Isn’t everybody from the North Pole an elf?”

“Who said I’m from the North Pole?”

“Where’s Santa?”

“Across town, probably,” Spike answered as he settled on the couch. “He’s bringing presents to all the good little girls and boys as promised.”

“Why aren’t you with him? What’s a lookout? Why does he need one?”

“A lookout is kinda like a bodyguard, because—well, think about it. He’s hopping around on rooftops all night, isn’t he? He might fall or get stuck. What’s your next question?”

“But why aren’t you with him right now?”

“Well…” He thoughtfully scratched his eyebrow with his pinkie finger. “Guess you can say I’m here for the hot chocolate.”

“He claims it’s because of the little marshmallows,” Buffy added. She entered the room with a tray of hot chocolate and sat next to Spike on the couch. “They’ve been his excuse for years, but I think he just really likes standing in my yard all night long. I think he left his job with Santa to stalk me full-time.”

“Actually, that’s exactly right.”

“Then why don’t you tell us all about it,” Buffy suggested, snorting quietly as she sipped from her mug.

“I was about to, Slayer. You see, I used to keep watch while he was down the chimneys. It was easy work and I liked it well enough until Santa came to this very house. I got sidetracked one night because of a girl and I abandoned my post. It was the beginning of the end.”

“She’s why you’re on the naughty list?” the girl asked with a wrinkled nose.

“I know she’s mouthy, but she isn’t so bad. In fact, she’s brilliant.” From the corner of his eye, Spike noticed that Buffy had put down her mug. “She’s got the kinda looks that make your mind go numb. She’s strong and graceful and much too clever for her own good.”

“I don’t think she wants to hear this,” Buffy said.

“After seeing the Grinch here, I didn’t give a lick about Santa Claus. Watching him climb in and out of chimneys became a total bore. I’d rather be here. Watching her. Being around her. Keeping her safe.”

The girl still didn’t look impressed. “I think you should go back to help Santa Claus. What if he falls down? What if he gets stuck in the chimney?”

“He’s on his own,” Spike shrugged. “I can’t control it anymore. When I see the Slayer…it’s like all the best lines—all the best bloody poetry comes rushing to my brain. She inspires it. She embodies it. I can’t go back.”

“Santa put you on the naughty list because you love a girl?”

“Ridiculous, isn’t it? For someone so jolly, he’s surprisingly selfish. The pay was peanuts and I know for a fact, he overworks the elves. When you get home, you should ask your mummy and daddy to tell you what the word ‘sweatshop’ means.”

“Spike,” Buffy gasped, but the doorbell interrupted her. “Oh, thank God! Let’s get you bundled up again. I called a nice police officer and he’s going to take you home.”

Spike watched as Buffy zipped up the girl’s puffer jacket.

“Quick, go say goodbye to your new friend. I think he deserves a big hug, don’t you?”

“Let’s not get carried away--.” Before he could finish, the girl had her arms around his neck. “Well,” he continued, clearing his throat. He awkwardly patted the top of her beanie. “Take care, Little Miss Fire Marshall, and remember what you’ve learned tonight.”

She nodded before running out the door. Minutes later, Buffy returned to the living room. “Daughter and parents were reunited. All is good and fine, except now, that little girl thinks Santa Claus is a jerk.”

“Maybe she’ll think twice before running off next time.”

“You are so bad,” she laughed. She sat next to him again, but this time, she rested her head on his shoulder. “Spike, tonight was…seeing you with that little girl was both the weirdest and sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. I’m still kinda confused by it all. I mean, you’re a pasty vampire, why did she mistake you for an elf? Sure, you were out there, hiding in the bushes like an idiot on Christmas Eve--.”

“For the last time, I don’t hide in the bushes. When I’m feeling nostalgic for old times, I stand next to that tree, that’s it.”

“Okay, whatever you say,” Buffy laughed again. She gave him a light kiss on the lips. “You might’ve misrepresented yourself in the Santa department tonight, but the heart of the story was true. You have changed.”

“And it all started because of a girl.”

“With you, doesn’t everything start because of some girl?”

“You make a valid point, but in your case, it’s going to end with one too.”

She smiled as Spike kissed her. “We should head upstairs.”

“Are you afraid that Santa won’t deliver your gifts if he sees that you’re awake past midnight?”

“Honestly? I was hoping to avoid the guy. I’m sure he’s holding a grudge since I stole his bodyguard. If he’s as thrilled with me as your little friend was, I’m in big trouble.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll vouch for you.”

“Oh, you’d better,” Buffy said as she pulled Spike to her bedroom. “Or you won’t get your presents. Since you’re always on the naughty list, I always have to overcompensate and well—we both know you’re not really here tonight for little marshmallows.”

“Love, are you going to run with Santa business this all night?”

“Probably. Do you mind?”

“Not at all.” With a smirk, Spike closed the door behind them.

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