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House-Guests From Hell And How To Send Them Back There

Chapter Text

Spike tore off the footman's jacket, threw it on the floor and stamped on it.

"For the last time, Angelus, I am not your bleedin' servant."

The words had barely left his mouth when a clip around the ear from Angelus's meaty paw sent him staggering backwards. Then, in short order, he was whirled around, slammed into the wall, and pinned in place by Angelus's big body, while the latest in a long line of hideous (and usually short-lived) moustaches tickled his ear.

"Yes you are, you greedy little bastard," Angelus growled. "And if you don't like it, next time we have guests don't eat all the human servants before they even get here."

"Well, I was hungry," Spike protested. "And how was I to know you were expecting guests? It's not like you mentioned it beforehand."

Angelus's cold breath tickled the back of Spike's neck. "It's Christmas, you idiot. Of course we were expecting guests."

Spike turned his head as much as Angelus's grip would allow, to gape at him in astonishment.

"Yeah, but usually they're carol singers an' we just nab 'em off the doorstep an' eat 'em. We're vampires, damn it all, an' Christmas is...well, nothing to do with vampires, I'm bleedin' certain of it."

Angelus smacked Spike's head against the wall. "You know perfectly well that by 'Christmas' I mean the solstice - the darkest time of year - so don't pretend otherwise. And keep a civil tongue in your head when you speak to me."

"I was bein' civil," Spike said, indignantly. "Which I think is class of me considerin' you've had me workin' my fingers to the bone stockin' the larder from the minute we bleedin' got here. There can't be a peasant left alive between here and Calais."

He wriggled in Angelus's grip, but he couldn't shake it loose. "Why'd we have to come to sodding France for Christmas anyway? Couldn't we have just stayed in England?"

"No, we damn well couldn't. For one thing, your antics have made England too hot to hold us. For another -"

But whatever Angelus had been going to say, he appeared to think better of it. Instead, he let go of Spike and stepped back. "The last thing I need is any lip from you just now," he said, through gritted teeth. "Put that jacket back on and finish decanting the aperitifs. The countess has been here for two nights already. Quite long enough for you to get it into your thick skull that she doesn't like to be kept waiting."

Spike felt the back of his head, where, thick skull or not, quite a bump was rising. He opened his mouth to give Angelus another earful, but Angelus's harried expression gave him pause.

As a rule, Spike didn't mind seeing Angelus discomfited, but he preferred it to be because of something he'd done, and he was pretty sure that wasn't the case this time. In fact, he didn't think he'd ever seen Angelus look so twitchy - not even in that Yorkshire mineshaft of fond memory.

Come to think of it, Angelus had been on edge even before the countess and her retinue had rolled up outside, and he'd only grown more fidgety (and bad tempered as a consequence) when the count (no relation, apparently) had arrived the following evening.

Of course, it could just be down to the fact that the buggers were eating them out of house and home (well, draughty old chateau and former home of a family of recently - very recently -deceased minor French nobility). Or it could be because the first order the countess had given after her arrival had been that all the doors in the chateau should be locked and the keys put into her keeping, and that the shutters should be put up over the windows and nailed down, making escape almost impossible.

But Spike's instinct -which was highly developed when it came to Angelus's sourer moods because he usually took the brunt of them -told him otherwise. There was definitely something going on behind the scenes that he wasn't privy to.

His curiosity was well and truly piqued, and the bugger of it was that no one - not even Drusilla - seemed willing to answer any questions. Instead, it was, "William, fetch this,", "William, kill that,", "William, behave yourself," from sunset to sunrise, and not an explanation in sight as to why they were putting up with this bloody countess woman in the first place.

"So, Countess Bathory," Spike said, in as casual a tone as he could muster. "Know her from way back, do you? And what about Count Frilly Cuffs?" (Spike had conceived a strong dislike of the count and had forgotten his name as a matter of principal). "Looks like he knows her too, and there's not much love lost between them."

Angelus shrugged. "They have prior acquaintance, yes, and hail from the same part of the world, but Vlad has a century or more on Countess Bathory. As for there being no love lost between them, I know of only one other of our kind who thinks of the countess as a friend and ally. Unfortunately, that happens to be the Master."

"The Master?" Spike repeated blankly. Then realisation struck. "Oh, you mean the bat-faced old cove who sired Darla? What's he got to do with all this?"

Angelus's lips thinned under his ridiculous moustache, and his eyes flashed yellow. "Everything," he growled.

For a moment, he stared over Spike's shoulder at something only he could see. Then, he turned on him again, and this time, when he spoke, his brogue was much more in evidence, the way it always became when he was agitated. "Thought I told you to put the damn jacket back on. Why're you still standin' there like a feckin' idjit?"

So, Angelus's confiding mood had passed already, had it, Spike thought? And just when things were getting interesting.

Sod him, then.

Leaning back against the wall, he stuck his hands in the waistband of his tight (very tight) footman's knee breeches, and put a sneer on his face, which he knew from past experience was guaranteed to shred Angelus's last nerve.

"Not bloody likely, mate. Do your own dirty work."

Angelus's face shifted, becoming all fangs and ridges. "Do it, William, or I'll make you regret the day you were ever sired."

Spike only laughed. He'd heard that threat so many times in the years since Drusilla had dragged him kicking and screaming into the bosom of her loving vampire 'family' that it no longer held any terror for him. In fact, these days, it didn't even hold any suspense. He was pretty sure he'd already endured the worst that Angelus could throw at him (without actually offing him for good) and survived it.

"Yeah," he sneered, "you an' what army?"

Their gazes locked and for a glorious moment Spike thought he had Angelus on the ropes. It was clear Angelus was actually scared of this countess (whoever the hell she was), and Spike's refusal to follow orders was winding him up even further.

Which begged the question, why had he invited her in the first place?

If he had. Maybe the whole thing was Darla's idea. The countess being such great chums with old Batface, maybe having her come to stay was Darla's way of sucking up to him?

Spike shrugged inwardly. It didn't matter either way, and probably, it would turn out to be just another of Angelus's and Darla's pathetic attempts at social climbing. And if so, he had a moral (or should that be immoral?) duty to make sure it yet again failed miserably.

The stand-off continued. Angelus bristled, Spike sneered. Meanwhile, raised voices were coming from the dining room, too muffled by the heavy wooden doors for even vampires to make out the words. Spike heard the countess's strident tones, followed by Darla laughing, high and brittle, nothing like her normal laugh, then coughing nervously, as if trying to pretend she'd never laughed in the first place. He couldn't help grinning to himself at the thought of someone taking Darla down a peg or two, even if that someone was a bad tempered old bitch like Countess Bathory.

But, when he turned his attention back to Angelus, it was to discover that Angelus's whole demeanour had changed suddenly. He was back in human face and smiling the sort of anticipatory smile that always boded ill for someone, usually Spike himself.

In fact, as Spike knew from bitter experience, it was the same smile the bastard always had plastered across his face during a particularly bloody torture session - a flaying maybe, or something even more unpleasant.

Spike rolled his eyes. If Angelus was trying to unnerve him, he was wasting his precious time.

"Whatever nasty little scheme you're cookin' up, forget it, all right?" he said. "It won't work. I am not bloody skivvyin' for you any longer, an' that's that."

Angelus's smile became a smirk. "No scheme, William. I just thought I'd satisfy your curiosity and tell you a little more about Countess Bathory. Have you really never heard of her?"

Spike tried to cover his sudden unease with bluster. "I know she's a stuck-up foreign bint who didn't get herself vamped till she was a bit too long in the tooth to enjoy it properly. What else is there to know?"

Angelus laughed. "Your wilful ignorance is very amusing. Have I ever told you that?"

He didn't wait for Spike's reply, but went on,

"The countess was born into a noble Hungarian family four hundred years ago. She married a renowned general who fought bravely against the Ottomans, and she was, by all accounts, one of the greatest mass-murderers in history. Six hundred and fifty victims, so it's said, while she was still human."

Spike couldn't help being impressed despite himself (six hundred and fifty was pretty good going, even for a vampire), but he tried his best to hide it. "So, what're you sayin' exactly then, mate? That she could give you a run for your money any day of the week?"

"Maybe." Angelus shrugged again. "Like me, she had - still has, so I understand - a fondness for torture. It's said she can do the most exquisite things with needles, and I don't mean embroidery."

He grinned. "It's also said she believed that bathing in the blood of virgins would make her immortal so the majority of her victims were young women, most of them servants or the daughters of peasants, for whom she had a particular hatred. You'll note that she did not bring a maid with her."

This was true, Spike realised. The countess's retinue were hulking great brutes bristling with weapons, to a man of them.

Angelus's dark eyes glittered in the gloom. "But, as you so astutely noted, William, she didn't learn what would really make you immortal until somewhat late in the day. Now that she has, I fear she is eaten away with resentment for those women younger and more beautiful than herself, and will still destroy them any chance she gets."

A chill ran down Spike's spine. He had a nasty feeling where this was going.

"What are you gettin' at?" he growled.

Angelus's grin grew wider. "Only that, since we've emptied the locality to feed our guests and you've so selfishly eaten all the servants, if the countess craves...entertainment, we may have to provide her with alternative diversions of the female and youthful."

His lips twitched. "Or seeming youthful anyway. And since the Master would not allow her to lay a finger on Darla without his permission-"

Spike gaped at Angelus in shock. He couldn't mean....

Oh yes, he bloody could.

"No!" Spike grabbed Angelus by his silk waistcoat and snarled in his face. "Not Dru." He shook him hard enough to rock him on his feet. "You're her sire, you bastard. How could you even think it?"

Angelus didn't even try to shake him off.

"The way I see it, Willy boy, your selfishness hasn't left me much choice. Every last human in this house is dead or near death, thanks to you. Whatever the countess does to Drusilla, is on your head, not mine."

Spike shook him again. "You wanted the larder stocked, I stocked it. You never said anything about leftovers."

"That's because -" Angelus began, but then he checked himself. Instead, he shrugged again. "Either way, it doesn't matter. The countess is our guest. She's a great friend of the Master's and I don't want to offend her. Not to mention, she has us trapped in this place like rats in a barrel and her minions outnumber us ten to one."

"Well, whose bloody fault is that?" Spike shot back. "If you knew what she was like, what'd you even want to ask her here for?"

"I didn't -" Angelus protested, but then seemed to think better of it again. Leaning forward into Spike's grip so they were almost nose-to-nose, he said, "I don't have to explain myself to you - bloody idiot! This is all your fault, and if you won't 'skivvy', as you put it, for the countess, then someone has to, and if she gets one look at Drusilla in a maid's outfit, believe me, there'll be no stopping her."

He poked Spike hard in the chest with his forefinger.

"What's more, you're right. I am Drusilla's sire. She'll do anything for me, and you know it. If I tell her to, she'll happily let the old bitch do whatever she wants to her, and there's nothing you can do about it."

Again, they glared at each other in silence, but Spike knew he'd lost the argument. Angelus was right, damn him. Drusilla would do anything for him - her only failing, in Spike's opinion -right down to letting some vicious old relic torture her on Angelus's say-so. And he knew from bitter experience that if he tried to spirit her away, she'd turn on him at the first opportunity and run right back to Daddy.

His shoulders slumped. Letting go of Angelus, he bent down, picked up the footman's jacket and slid his arms back into the sleeves, then stood with gritted teeth, while Angelus brushed the dust off it, none too gently.

"That's better," Angelus said, at last. He glanced down at his own creased waistcoat. "I'll have to change, dammit. Get back to work, and serve those drinks in the next five minutes or there'll be hell to pay. For all of us."

"Yeah, yeah." Spike watched him go. Easy for Angelus to say, he thought. The bastard probably had no idea how hard it was to decant an aperitif that wouldn't stop struggling.

*

The dining room was dimly lit. There was no gas in this benighted neck of the woods, and the countess, convinced that kerosene lighting had been invented for the sole purpose of poisoning her, wouldn't have the lamps lit. In fact, she didn't care for any bright light, so even the fine wax candles in their sconces were placed in the furthest corners of the room.

This made the process of serving drinks quite hazardous, Spike had found, given that the countess's minions, a gaggle of whom were always lolling around in her vicinity, weren't above sticking their feet out in deliberate attempts to trip him over.

Contrary to current standards of etiquette (which Darla was usually a stickler for), the countess was seated at the head of the table rather than in a so-called place of honour next to the host. This meant that Darla and Angelus were relegated to seats on either side of her and Count Frilly Cuffs was accorded a lower place. From the look of him, this didn't please him much.

But to Spike's irritation, he was making the best of it by flirting outrageously with Drusilla, who was seated opposite him and showing every sign of enjoying his attention. Drusilla was all got up in virginal white, with pink roses in her deep décolletage and matching roses in her long dark hair, which was probably Darla's idea, so as to contrast with the crimson and black of her own ultra-fashionable svelte evening gown.

Either that, Spike thought, crossly, or Darla was offering Drusilla up to the countess on a plate, because from what he could see, the old girl couldn't take her eyes off her.

He sucked in his breath and held it as he leaned over the countess's shoulder to re-fill her glass. The countess smelt none too fresh - and not surprising. She hadn't changed her style of dress since the sixteenth century, and possibly not her clothes either. The black velvet of her strange bulky gown was worn with age, and her stiff white ruff was in need of a good boil-wash. Her jewellery was very fine, though, Spike couldn't help noticing. Her emerald and pearl necklace alone must be worth a king's ransom.

As he moved on around the table, he imagined how it might look gracing Drusilla's slender neck. He imagined fastening the clasp, his fingers brushing against her milky skin. Then, he imagined taking it off her, followed by the rest of her clothes, and what he would do to her afterwards to pay her back for making eyes at Count Frilly Cuffs.

He was jolted out of this pleasant reverie by the sound of Angelus clearing his throat loudly and another false-sounding laugh from Darla. When he looked up, every eye around the table was fixed on him. In particular, fixed on his nether regions, which were suddenly feeling even more constricted.

For a moment, Spike actually considered grabbing a napkin and holding it in front of him, but he dismissed the notion at once. That was something prudish little human William would have done (if he hadn't expired on the spot from sheer embarrassment) but he was a different person now. Why should he care what any of them thought - except for Drusilla, and if she would only tear her eyes away from Count Frilly Cuffs' for a moment, the bloody woman ought to be flattered.

Grinning at the assembled company, he indicated his importunate nethers. "Sodding breeches. Too bloody tight by half."

"Oh for..." Angelus muttered, while Darla cast sidelong glances at the countess, her expression a curious blend of fury and terror.

The countess herself looked scandalised, which struck Spike as a bit rich given her history.

"Is this...this creature the only servant you have?" The countess's English was heavily accented, but the contempt in her tone was perfect. It hardly surprised Spike at all to see Darla wither beneath it. He felt a little withered himself, though in his case it was because he was sure Drusilla was twining her ankle around Count Frilly Cuffs' under the table.

"Indeed he is, countess," Darla wavered. "Since our arrival here a week ago, there has unfortunately been no time to train any others. Once we are settled, of course - "

But the countess interrupted her, as if Darla hadn't spoken at all.

"That is a sad state of affairs," she fumed. "No servants, no...amusements. Even the food is barely tolerable. You realise, of course, that the lack of suitable hospitality is a huge insult to me and drags the good name of Aurelius into the dirt? What the Master will have to say about this when I report back to him....well..."

Her voice trailed off, but the implicit threat hung in the air like a pall of dirty smoke.

There was a short, tense silence. Spike realised he was holding his breath. Then Angelus said, in a placatory tone, "Where amusements are concerned, countess -"

But the countess turned her basilisk gaze on him, and he stuttered into silence again.

"Tell your minions not to speak to me unless they are spoken to," the countess snarled, at Darla. "That one in particular. He has far too high an opinion of himself." Then she banged her fist down on the table. "Boy, my glass is empty."

Spike stifled his laugh at Angelus's discomfiture and muttered, under his breath, "Coming, your high-and-mightiness."

Avoiding the outstretched feet of the countess's sneering minions, he hastened to her side with as much lack of haste as he thought he could get away with and poured more blood into her goblet. As he did so, there was a sudden piercing pain in his left thigh, as if someone had stuck a giant needle in him. He yelped in surprise and dropped the heavy crystal decanter. It hit the table right in front of the countess and sort of bounced over the damask tablecloth, spilling its contents everywhere, including over her.

"Bloody hell!" Spike exclaimed, before he could stop himself (not that he tried very hard). "What'd you stab me for, you evil old hag? Now look what you've made me do."

He grabbed a table napkin and began to dab at the wound on his leg, which was oozing steadily.

It bloody hurt.

He looked up into a shocked silence, broken only by an audible intake of breath from Darla, and a great deal of throat-clearing from Count Frilly Cuffs. Angelus had half-risen to his feet, but at once two of the countess's minions, who'd been lurking in the shadows behind him, stepped forward and forced him down again.

Then the countess's bony hand grabbed Spike's wrist and twisted hard. Spike howled. Bloody hell, but she was strong. Far stronger than Angelus. No wonder the bastard was scared of her. Tears of pain sprang to his eyes as he fought against her grip. It felt like she meant to tear his arm clean out of its socket.

In the end he had to bow to the inevitable, and fall to his knees in front of her. The pressure eased a little, but she didn't let go of his wrist. He looked up into her cold face, white as chalk, the skin a mere covering over bones so old it was a wonder they didn't crumble to dust of their own accord. The countess's thin lips lifted in a contemptuous sneer, her unblinking dark eyes bored into him in a way that made him come over all queasy. He wasn't at all sorry when they slid past him and fixed themselves instead on Darla.

"He has spirit at least," the countess said. "But look how clumsy he is - not fit to be waiting on company as high-ranking as myself. And the insolence of him." She let go of Spike's wrist suddenly. Then a small, hard foot in a black velvet shoe kicked him in the midriff, sending him skidding and sliding across the varnished wood floor as if he weighed nothing at all. "If he were mine, I would have his tongue ripped from his mouth. But since he is not..."

Again, her words trailed off ominously.

There was a pause, during which Spike thought of pointing out that everything had been going fine until the countess had put her horrible old mitts on him. But before he could do so, Darla laughed the same nervous laugh, and said,

"But he's not mine either, countess. Indeed he is not. Angelus's Drusilla sired him, quite against my wishes. The girl is mad of course, but -"

There was another silence. Then Darla said, "That is...I meant..."

"Oh, there is no need to explain," the countess crowed. "I understand quite well. You have no control over your own household. Not over that brute you waste your time on, or over those he sires. You are a disgrace to your lineage, girl. A disgrace. This cannot be allowed to continue."

Spike sat up gingerly, in time to see Darla's and Angelus's eyes meet across the table. A muscle ticked in Angelus's cheek, but he said nothing - and not surprising, given one of the countess's minions was standing right behind him with a crossbow aimed at his heart.

Darla was gaunt and pale, as if she hadn't fed for weeks, but Spike could almost see her gathering the shreds of her dignity around her, as she addressed the countess again.

"Of course I regret that you feel that way, countess. Let me make it up to you. Take the wretched boy if you wish. Do whatever you want to him."

Spike glared at her. Bitch, he thought.

Though he could hardly say it surprised him.

But the countess shook her head. "The boy is a filthy stain on the name of Aurelius and will die before I leave this place, but he is not what I desire."

Even from his place on the floor, Spike could see who the countess was looking at.

Drusilla broke the pregnant silence.

"Spike?" she said, in a forlorn voice.

"Keep your grubby old mitts off her!" Spike was on his feet at once, but at the same time, Count Frilly Cuffs rose smoothly from his chair. He was tall, very pale faced, and had long dark hair, which made him look quite theatrical in Spike's opinion.

No wonder Drusilla was so impressed with him, he thought crossly. She always had loved the theatre.

"The incident was unfortunate," Frilly Cuffs said, in a strong accent similar to the countess's, "and the boy clumsy and badly-trained, but, my dear Elisabeta, surely it is too small a thing on which to base such an important judgement. Also, I disagree with you about the hospitality on offer. In my opinion, our hosts keep a very fine table, and I shall tell the Master so when I see him next."

He lifted his glass towards Darla and saluted her with it. "An excellent vintage, my dear. It has a delightful earthiness to it. Your superior sort of peasant, I believe? I do hope there is more?"

If it weren't that Darla was incapable of it, Spike would have called the look she gave old Frilly Cuffs pathetically grateful.

"Why, thank you, cousin. I'm glad it meets with your approval." At once, she turned on Spike.

"Well, don't just loll about like that, you stupid boy. Cousin Vlad wants more blood. Go and fetch it. And make sure it's from the same source."

Spike felt inclined to respond by asking her who the bloody hell she thought she was to give him orders, especially after she'd practically handed him to the countess to torture and maim wrapped up in a nice satin bow.

But then Darla said, "And take Drusilla with you. The countess is quite right. One person serving at table isn't enough when we have guests of such high status. Find a maid's outfit for her quick as you can, and make sure it fits. And if you cannot find such a thing, she is to go to her room and stay there. We cannot have her serving at table if she is not properly dressed."

Her eyes bored into Spike's as she spoke, as if she were trying to tell him something, but Spike had no idea what. On the other hand, getting away from the countess - and more importantly getting Drusilla away from her, and from Count Frilly Cuffs - was an idea that appealed to him a great deal.

He expected the countess to raise some protest, but instead, she sat back in her chair.

"Why not?" she said. "They cannot escape, and I have a great desire to see this girl in clothing more...appropriate to her station." And she licked her lips, in a way that struck Spike as positively indecent.

"Come on, Dru."

Keeping an weather eye on the minions and their crossbows, Spike sidled around the table, grabbed Drusilla's hand in his and made for the door. As they neared it, the countess exclaimed, "What?", and for a moment, Spike thought she'd changed her mind. He froze with his hand on the doorknob, expecting a crossbow bolt in the back at any moment.

But, when he risked a glance over his shoulder, it was to see that the countess and Count Frilly Cuffs seemed to be having some kind of staring competition.

Hurriedly, Spike wrenched the door open. As he did so, the countess shuddered all over then banged her fist on the table again in outrage.

"How dare you try to use those cheap gypsy tricks on me?" she snarled. "You filthy...Wallachian!"

Spike had no idea what a Wallachian was but he didn't stay to find out.

"Come on, Dru."

Then they were out of the room, the door safely shut behind them.

Chapter Text

Once out in the draughty corridor, Spike made straight for the front entrance hall. The way he saw things, much though it grated on him to turn tail and leg it, their best chance of surviving the night was to break out of the besieged house however they could, run as far and as fast as possible and let Angelus and Darla shift for themselves.

After all, it wasn't like they'd ever bothered asking Spike if he wanted to spend Christmas in la France profonde locked up with a mediaeval maniac.

Of course, it was freezing outside and he and Drusilla only had the clothes they stood up in. But after all, it was Christmas. If they could just reach the first village beyond the range of their earlier depredations, they were bound to find some charitable soul who would give shelter to a poor young lady in distress and her devoted footman, and once inside...well, they'd make good use of their welcome.

"Spike? Where are we going?" Drusilla tugged on his hand, but Spike held on to her like grim death and kept moving.

Only to come to a screeching halt at the sight of how many of the countess's minions were standing on guard outside the front door. There must be at least twenty of them.

"Bugger!" he growled, under his breath. Tempting though it was to try to fight their way through (the bastards were due a good thrashing, if nothing else), the more discreet an exit they made, the better their chances were of getting clean away. They would have to go through the kitchen and scullery and out the servants' entrance.

"This way." He hauled Drusilla back the way they'd come, then stopped again just short of the kitchen doorway, at the sound of raucous laughter and loud conversation in some foreign lingo going on inside the room. Another dozen of the buggers, it sounded like.

There was no escape that way either. At least, not without causing a ruckus.

"Spike?" Drusilla tugged hard on his hand suddenly. "Where are you taking me? Grandmamma said I should put on a maid's dress, and this is quite the wrong place to look for one."

"What?" Spike had been trying to remember whether there'd been any sign of a secret passage leading from the wine cellar. "Shush, Dru, they'll hear us."

But even as he spoke, he realised that in his distraction, he'd relaxed his grip on Drusilla's hand. A moment later, Drusilla had slipped free and was hurrying away from him in the direction of the grand staircase.

"It's all right," she called over her shoulder. "I know where to look. Just you wait and see."

"Dru, come back!" Spike shouted, as loudly as he dared. But he might as well have commanded a stray moonbeam, because Drusilla floated away in front of him, just out of reach, and just as impossible to hold on to.

Up the staircase they went, past the first floor with its salon and grand bedrooms, and on to the servants' garret. On the landing, Drusilla hesitated momentarily, then drifted into one of the rooms and stopped dead in the middle of it .

Like all the rooms, this one bore witness to the hasty departure of the previous occupant (a very tasty parlour maid, if Spike remembered right), with furniture upturned and possessions strewn everywhere. Drusilla's questing hand brushed over a scuffed leather dressing case, still with its hairbrush and comb, some meagre jewellery - a mourning brooch, a silver thimble - before coming to rest on the back of a fallen chair, over which was draped a white bib apron and a crumpled black maid's dress with a bloodstained collar.

"I shall need a cap, though," Drusilla exclaimed. At once, she fell to her knees and began rummaging under the bed, to emerge triumphant clutching a grubby looking scrap of muslin, which she offered to Spike as if presenting him with some kind of treasure.

"Hang it, Dru!" Spike tore the cap out of her hand and threw it into a corner. "This is stupid. We're leaving. Come with me right now." And he attempted to grab her hand again.

Drusilla's mouth turned down at the corners. Scrambling to her feet, she retreated as far as the window, (which must have been smashed during the struggle because Spike could feel a cold breeze blowing through the shutters), where she turned on him, fanged and furious, snarling like an angry cat.

"No! I won't leave Daddy."

Spike let his own fangs descend (because with Drusilla, you never knew what she might do next), and snarled back.

"Sod your precious Daddy. Do you know what he was going to do, if I didn't agree to act as his flunkey? Hand you over to the countess as an early Christmas present, that's what, and let her do her worst to you. And from what he tells me, her worst is always fatal, and bloody painful beforehand."

Drusilla only laughed. "That's silly. I can't be presents to two people, and Angelus already promised me to Uncle Vlad."

"You...what?" For a moment, Spike thought he'd misheard her. Then he remembered the way Angelus's face had changed so suddenly - his smug smile - the smile of a man with a plan.

A plan that - as usual- Spike himself was a part of (in a menial role - literally) but of course not privy to.

You bastard, he thought, you complete and utter bastard.

"Yes," Drusilla went on, happily. "I can't wait. Uncle Vlad's already taught me some of his clever tricks. It'll be such fun learning the others."

"What tricks?" Spike asked, though he didn't care about the answer. Instead, he frowned, trying to work out what Angelus was up to.

That he planned to play old Frilly Cuffs and the countess off against each other somehow seemed the most likely scenario, since it seemed they both wanted Drusilla. But whether Angelus had another trick up his sleeve and meant to cheat them both was less clear, in Spike's opinion, let alone how he meant to do it with a crossbow aimed at his heart.

And it still begged the question, why he'd dragged them all the way to sodding France in the first place.

Spike came out of his brown study to find that Drusilla was back in human face and attempting to pry herself out of her evening dress - not an easy business, since it fastened down the back from the neck to the base of the stiff cuirass bodice with slippery little pearl buttons. He wasn't at all surprised when she gave a cry of frustration and made to rip the dress open down the middle.

"Here, pet. Let me." He moved forward - gingerly, in case she decided to take her fury out on him-turned her around gently and began to peel her out of her fine clothes. "Let your Spike see to you, there's a good girl."

"Not a good girl," Drusilla muttered, sulkily. "Bad. Always bad. Angelus says so."

But she let him do what he wanted, and soon he had her stripped down to camisole, corset and stockings. It was tempting then to set the parlour maid's upturned bed to rights and make use of it, but Spike knew it would have to wait. The countess might be confident that they couldn't escape, but if they took too long, she was bound to send out a search party. And she had more than enough men to make sure the search was very thorough.

"So," he said, as he buttoned Drusilla into the maid's dress, "why'd Angelus bring us here, Dru? Tell me."

Drusilla looked back at him over her shoulder. ""Silly boy. Why, to meet the Master of course."

"The Master?" Spike gaped at her in dismay. "Bugger! He's not coming too, is he?"

"Oh no," Drusilla said, in an airy tone. "Poor Grandmamma was so disappointed. The Master wrote to her ordering her to meet him in France at the darkest time of year or it would be the worse for her, but then he was indisposed and has sent the countess in his place. I did tell Grandmamma the chariot was standing on its head, but she wouldn't listen."

Suddenly, her expression grew mournful. Then, to Spike's astonishment, she put her face in her hands and began to cry. "The Master wants to take Grandmamma away," she wailed. "He wants to destroy our happy family."

"Yeah?" Good riddance, Spike thought, though with Drusilla in such a volatile mood, he kept his thoughts to himself. "Why's that, then, love?"

"Because he's never liked Daddy, and he doesn't want to share Grandmamma with him any longer," Drusilla wept. "He wants her all to himself."

He's welcome to her, Spike thought, but it seemed best to keep that quiet too.

"So this is some kind of test is it? The countess is supposed to...what? Drag Darla away with her kicking and screaming, if she doesn't come up to snuff somehow?"

Drusilla stopped wailing suddenly. Her hands dropped away from her face, which was suddenly all delicate ridges and sulphurous yellow eyes again. There was no trace of tears on her cheeks.

"She's testing Grandmamma, to see if she can look after us properly," Drusilla hissed. "If she thinks she can't - if we don't behave - she'll take her back to the Master, and you and I and Angelus..."

She drew her finger across her throat in an unmistakable gesture, then giggled, which was very unnerving somehow when she was wearing her true face.

Spike stared at her. He rubbed the place on his leg where the countess had stuck her great big needle in him. Something told him the dice in this game were loaded.

"Bugger," he said, succinctly.

Despite the fact that getting rid of Angelus and Darla for good was his unlife's main ambition, since Drusilla refused to leave them to their fate it looked like he was going to have to save them from themselves.

Again.

"So what about Count Frilly Cuffs, then?" he asked. "Did the Master send him too?"

Drusilla gave him a reproving look. "His name's not Frilly Cuffs. It's Dracula, see, on account of him being the son of a dragon. And the Master didn't send him. He came on his own account."

Well, that's bloody convenient, Spike thought, and son of a dragon, my arse.

Aloud he said, "At least he came by himself. No annoying minions lounging about, talking gibberish, eating all the food, drinking all the wine..."

Making escape next to bloody impossible.

This time Drusilla laughed out loud. "But he didn't come by himself at all. Hark."

Twisting out of his grip, she turned towards the window and put her hand to her ear in a pantomime of listening. Another blast of cold air blew through the gap in the shutters, and along with it came a sound.

Spike had never heard it before, but he knew what it was at once, as if some terrified cave-dwelling ancestor had been on hand to whisper the information in his ear.

"Bloody hell! Wolves!"

Drusilla was practically bouncing on her feet with excitement.

"The children of the night, they are. Uncle Vlad came with them."

"He what?" Not for the first time (though it always made him feel guilty), Spike wished that Drusilla would talk sense. "They're his pets, you mean?"

"Not pets, silly." Drusilla swayed from side to side, hugging herself in ecstasy. "They're his own precious children." She put her hand to her ear. "They're singing again. What sweet music they make."

Spike listened. It didn't sound very sweet to him. On the other hand, it did sound like there were rather a lot of them, and game was sparse in the woods this time of year.

"Very nice," he said, (because he had a plan of his own now, and besides, he'd long since learned it didn't do to argue with Drusilla). "Spose we'd better be gettin' back, then, Dru, before they come looking for us? One thing, though. These tricks old Frilly Cuffs has already taught you-they wouldn't happen to involve any animal training, would they?"

*

"Any of you lads fancy a drink?"

Spike rapped on the narrow porch window with his fist to attract the guards' attention. When one of their number - a tall fellow in a sheepskin tunic that had seen better days some centuries ago - looked his way, he raised one of the pewter cups on the tray he was carrying and mimed drinking from it.

The man frowned and made an unmistakeable hand gesture that meant Spike should take himself back where he came from this minute, or it would be the worse for him.

Spike ignored him. Instead, he banged on the window again, this time raising the decanter filled with the finest cognac the chateau's cellars had to offer. Its enticing aroma drifted up into his nostrils, and Spike thought (not for the first time) what a pity it was to waste it on a bunch of ungrateful barbarians.

He consoled himself with the thought that if his plan worked, the countess's minions wouldn't have long to enjoy it. Besides, learning what had become of it would infuriate Angelus no end, and Spike was all for infuriating Angelus whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Again, his overtures of friendship were met with hostility by the tall fellow - an ungrateful bastard, if Spike ever did see one - but the other guards had noticed him by now and an argument seemed to have started. Several of them were remonstrating with the tall minion, and Spike saw one of them gather his sheepskin tighter around him, as if to make a point about how cold he was.

Spike couldn't blame the man. He could just make out the deep hoar frost that covered the chateau's front lawn turning all the dead flower stalks into delicate silver spears.

Spike kept what he hoped was a ingratiating grin plastered on his face, and tried not to look too eager when the tall minion pushed his fellows back, wrenched the front door open and started yelling imprecations at him, still gesturing that he should go back the way he had come.

Instead, Spike jammed his foot in the door and proffered the tray again. "Drink?"

His words were met by angry shouts in whatever lingo it was that the minions spoke (Hungarian, Spike supposed) and - not for the first time since the countess had come to stay- a hard jab in the ribs from the business end of a halberd.

But at that moment, Drusilla poked her head out the door, smiled winningly, then insinuated the rest of herself outside, like a dark flower unfolding its petals. She drifted down the front steps, as insubstantial as mist, Spike trailing in her wake, until she was almost nose to chest with the tall minion and gazing up at him admiringly. Then she put her hand on the fellow's arm, where the muscles bulged through his rank-smelling shirt.

"My! You're a big one, ain't you?"

The minion looked rattled for a moment (Drusilla had that effect on people), but then he shook off her grip, snarled something in her face, which Spike was fairly certain didn't mean anything good, and raised his big fist to strike her.

"Don't you touch her, you -" Spike exclaimed, almost dropping the tray in his haste to get between them. But he needn't have stirred himself. Drusilla caught the minion's hand on the downswing and held it effortlessly. At the same time, her other hand snaked out, grabbed a fistful of his straggly beard and wrenched his head around, forcing him to look at her. Almost the minute their eyes met, the minion's jaw went slack. Soon, he was gaping at her like a beached fish.

"Now, now, dearie," Drusilla purred, "don't you go a-rowing with me. You'll make me very cross indeed, you will, and we don't want that, do we?"

The minion only stared at her with his mouth hanging open, uncomprehending. Meanwhile, his fellows drew back, regarding Drusilla with trepidation.

"Boszorkany!" one of them said, and they huddled closer together, frowning and muttering. Spike even saw one of them make to cross himself then yelp and suck his sore fingers.

Drusilla took no notice of them. Instead, she held the tall fellow's hand to her breast, exclaiming in mock dismay.

"You poor thing. You're so cold. Bad countess, making you stand outside in this weather." She gestured towards Spike's loaded tray. "You shall have a nice drink to warm you up."

"Nem ertem," the fellow slurred, seeming unable to tear his eyes away from Drusilla's.

"Drink!" Drusilla repeated, and when this was met with the same slack-jawed incomprehension, sighed, gestured at the tray again, and said,

"Ital."

That seemed to do the trick. A moment later, the man was helping himself to cognac.

"Ital, ital," Drusilla said, gesturing to the other guards, who were still hanging back, and at once the tall minion turned to his fellows.

"Ital!" he roared. "Ital. A bor jo."

For a moment, the others still hung back, but then one of them shrugged and pushed his way forward (being careful to give Drusilla a wide berth, Spike noted). That opened the floodgates. They crowded around Spike, snatching goblets off the tray, one after another, draining them, and thrusting them under his nose for more. Soon, they were yelling in his face.

"Tobb!" they shouted. "Tobb!"

"All right, all right!" Spike poured as fast as he could, while trying to catch Drusilla's eye. Whatever she was going to do, he thought, she'd better hurry up about it.

But Drusilla wasn't looking at him. She had turned her back on the feeding frenzy and was gazing at the line of dark trees that formed a semi-circle around the chateau's formal front lawn. The wind was rising and their branches thrashed to and fro with a sound like the sea in winter. And was it Spike's imagination, or was there another sound underlying it - one that filled him again with his earlier atavistic horror?

Suddenly, Drusilla laughed - just once, like a cracked bell pealing. Then she held out her arms and called, "Come to me, my pretties!"

At once, part of the darkness under the trees detached itself from the main mass and flowed onto the lawn, resolving into discrete four-legged shapes, their shaggy coats the grey of smoke, or the smudgy black of charcoal, their eyes like burning coals. They were big - much bigger than Spike had been expecting, and there were indeed rather a lot of them.

He watched, heart in mouth, as they closed the distance between themselves and Drusilla with effortless speed, flowing around her legs and butting their huge heads against her slim body. If they wanted to, he thought, they could tear her apart in an instant.

But Drusilla seemed completely unafraid. "Hello, my lovelies," she crooned, and fell to patting and stroking them like lapdogs.

"Here." Spike thrust the decanter into the arms of the tall minion. "Take it."

Then, as the minions began to fight among themselves over it, Spike backed away from them in the direction of the front door, until he was standing just inside it, with the halberd he'd filched from the tall fellow when he wasn't looking held tight in his hands.

And just in time, because Drusilla was bending down (not very far) to whisper into the ear of the biggest wolf and a moment later its jaws had opened to reveal gleaming white fangs that any vampire would be proud of. Then the whole pack of them descended on the quarrelling guards and began to tear them limb from limb.

The ensuing slaughter was very satisfying - and even more satisfying was beheading the tall fellow with his own halberd when the bastard dragged himself clear and made a break for the door.

"That'll teach you lot to go trippin' people up when they're going about their business," Spike sneered, as the man crumbled into dust.

The whole thing was over very quickly (too quickly, in Spike's opinion, he'd been fascinated to see how much of a vampire could be devoured before it gave up the ghost, for one thing). Soon, the wolves were snapping and snarling at each other and leaving huge paw-prints in the dusty (and probably very unsatisfying) remains of their victims.

For a moment, Spike considered hitting Drusilla over the head, slinging her across his shoulders and making a run for it, but he knew her likely reaction when she awoke, so, when she called the wolves back to her and they poured through the door in a great furry tide, he held it open for them.

Angelus wouldn't always be around to spoil everything, he thought. His day would come, he knew it.

"Come on, Dru," he said, as he took her hand in his. "Let's show the nice doggies the way to the kitchen. Then we'd best be getting back before we're missed."

*

"You took your time."

Darla's voice wavered slightly as Spike entered the room again. Not surprising, he thought, given that Angelus was now the one on his knees at the countess's feet, and Darla herself was being menaced from all sides by armed minions.

Some of them hovered near Count Frilly Cuffs, but they seemed reluctant to get too near him.

It was obvious how the countess had been amusing herself in Spike's absence. Angelus was in quite a state, his fine clothes ripped almost to shreds and his body skewered in all sorts of unpleasant places - including far too close to his heart for comfort- by what looked like giant wooden knitting needles. His hair hung down, obscuring his face, but it was clear he was in some distress.

Serve you right, you bastard, Spike thought, bitterly. Have a taste of your own medecine.

The countess was standing over Angelus, one of the needles in her hand, surveying her work with satisfaction. At Spike's entrance, she plunged the needle into Angelus's thigh, eliciting a howl of pain, then sat down in her chair again.

"I told you they couldn't escape, foolish girl," she said, to Darla. "There is no escape. Not for any of you."

So that's what Darla's significant looks at him had been all about, Spike thought. She'd been trying to tell him to take Drusilla and run. A bit late in the day to come over all philanthropic, since she'd already used the prospect of torturing him to death as a way of placating the countess. But he supposed he must at least give her credit for seizing on a chance to try and save Drusilla.

"Yeah, sorry about the wait," he said. "An' sorry about the racket too. Had a spot of bother in the kitchen. Part of the main course went to earth in the scullery and Dru an' me had to winkle him out."

The countess only stared at him as if she hadn't the least idea what he was talking about. The old girl must have been so absorbed in her favourite pastime (at Angelus's expense) that any untoward noises outside the room had completely passed her by.

And a good thing too, Spike thought. Wolves weren't the most discreet of killers.

Bowing to the countess with fake obsequiousness, he stepped aside so she could see Drusilla behind him, carrying a silver salver, laden with wine goblets.

Drusilla looked very biteable in her maid's outfit, Spike thought. Not to mention vulnerable, and too beautiful by half. He hoped the countess agreed.

Drusilla's entrance certainly stirred some emotions in the room. Darla sighed, as if to say "Well, it can't be helped," Angelus cast a frantic sidelong glance at Frilly Cuffs, Frilly Cuffs positively salivated. As for the countess, her expression was...

After a moment, Spike decided he didn't want to parse it out. Being a vampire meant being evil, and he was fine with that. But there was evil, and then there was evil, and what he saw in the countess's eyes was definitely the latter.

Count Frilly Cuffs rose to his feet. He fetched Drusilla a deep bow, then turned an admonishing gaze on Darla.

"Why, Darla my dear, charming as the young lady undoubtedly looks in this...attire, there was no need to make up for the temporary deficiencies in staffing by making your own ward wait at table. I, for one, am willing to make a glowing report to your sire about how well you run your household."

Willing, eh? Spike thought. But what do you want in return, you overdressed old charlatan?

Darla gave Frilly Cuffs a stiff smile. "Pray, cousin, please don't mention it."

Frilly Cuffs opened his mouth to respond, but before he could say anything, the countess banged her fist on the table once more.

"And what is it to do with you?" she demanded, practically snarling at Frilly Cuffs. "You were not sent here to inspect this household by the Master. That task has fallen to me. And I say that the wretched ingrate - because that is what you are, girl -has failed miserably to uphold the honourable name of Aurelius."

She pointed one long, white finger at Darla. "Now she will watch while I tear her ill-chosen mate and this insolent boy in pieces. And, since she appears to place some value on the life of the mad strumpet, she will assist me while I amuse myself with her. Then I will return her to her sire and throw her at his feet, where she will grovel for eternity."

The countess's lip lifted in a sneer. "If the Master takes my advice, as he should, he will turn her over to me too. A sojourn at my School for Young Ladies will soon improve her, I'm sure."

There was a dreadful silence. Then, Frilly Cuffs said, "If that is what the Master has ordered, Elisabeta, then I suppose that is what you must do."

At this, Angelus threw Frilly Cuffs another look, this one more furious than frantic. But Frilly Cuffs took no notice of him.

Then the countess said, stiffly, "No one ordered me. Indeed, since my dear Ferenc, of noble name - though not as noble as mine -left me alone in this world, I take orders from no man."

"Really?" Frilly Cuffs said, all astonishment. "So, if it is not the Master's orders you are obeying, Elisabeta, but merely that you are following your own...predilections, why make such ludicrous attempts to tilt the balance in your favour, such as that very amusing trick with the needle you played on the boy, here, earlier? Time was, you needed no excuse to slaughter as and when you chose."

He leaned back in his chair, an expression of insufferable smug superiority on his face. "I think you're going soft."

"How dare you?" The countess was on her feet, her voluminous black skirts seeming to expand like a thunderhead. Spike wondered if it was just his imagination that made her seem taller suddenly. "It is not I that have changed, Vlad Dracul. It is you. Once, you were a man of honour - a warrior, like my Ferenc. Now, you are little more than a...a cheap Gypsy mountebank."

Her face changed, becoming the ugliest vampire face that Spike had ever seen (worse even than Darla's). "But what could you expect?" she sneered. "You Wallachians are savages - little better than Turks." She pointed an accusing finger at Frilly Cuffs. "In fact, some of you are Turks."

Frilly Cuffs' brow lowered. His lip lifted, revealing a set of gleaming white fangs, though strange to say, his face still looked human.

"That was my brother," he snarled.

Then, before Spike's astonished eyes, he leapt the entire length of the table (Spike could almost swear he flew) and hurled himself at the countess. The countess responded with a roar of fury and met him mid-leap. Battle was joined. Spike had just time to throw himself and Drusilla clear before the table went crashing onto its side and furniture began flying everywhere.

Darla's chair was one of the first things to go, Darla and the minions guarding her right along with it. But Darla regained her feet first.

"I'll teach you to draw a crossbow on me in my own house," she growled, as she twisted one minion's head from its shoulders, then used that same crossbow to turn its fellow into a pile of dust.

Angelus also took advantage of the chaos to free himself from his captors. Lashing out with his foot, he tipped one minion into his compatriot and sent them both rolling to the floor. Then, battered and bloody, and with more needles in him than a porcupine, Angelus, too, was on his feet. A moment later he'd equipped himself with one of the fallen chairs and his powerful arms were swinging. The countess's men went down like skittles.

Spike was about to plunge into the fray himself, but at that moment Drusilla flung the dining room door open, stuck two fingers into her mouth and whistled loudly.

There was an answering chorus of lupine howls, a scrabbling of clawed feet in the corridor, and suddenly the room was full of large, furry bodies.

The wolves made short work of the countess's remaining men, and Spike couldn't say he didn't enjoy the fear on Angelus's and Darla's faces and the way they cowered down together behind the fallen table when the beasts poured into the room.

As for the countess herself, Spike had to admit the old girl had some spirit. She more than held her own against Frilly Cuffs. In fact, for several worrying moments, it looked like she might emerge victorious.

But Spike was prepared for that. Darting under the belly of a huge grey wolf, he fetched up against the upturned table, leaned over, and wrenched out the wooden needle that had come so very close (but not close enough, in Spike's opinion) to dusting Angelus for good. Angelus's yelp of pain was music to his ears.

"Catch!" he called, to Frilly Cuffs. The needle went twirling end over end through the air, to be snatched from it by one outstretched, frilly-cuffed hand and plunged straight into the countess's heart.

But at the very same moment, the countess thrust another of her needles into Frilly Cuffs' own chest. It went right through him like a hot knife through butter. He staggered backwards, clutched at the needle, trying to draw it out, then exploded in a cloud of dust. The countess gave a yell of triumph before crumbling away to nothing in her turn, the haughty expression still on her face.

Even in death, clearly, she still thought she was better than all of them.

There was a breathless silence, broken only by the sound of two wooden needles hitting the ground at the exact same moment. Then the biggest wolf put its head back and howled, as if mourning its master's passing. But when Drusilla hushed it and stroked it under the chin, it subsided again at once and began to butt its wet nose into her palm.

Spike coughed, and waved his hand in front of him to clear the dust, some of which was drifting through the air and some gradually settling into a discrete pile. He regarded it with satisfaction. "Good riddance to the pair of them."

But there were no mutters of agreement. For some reason, Angelus and Darla were staring fixedly at the dust on the floor, while Drusilla continued to murmur nonsense into her new pet's ears.

Bloody ingrates, Spike thought. I do everything for them, including save their sorry arses, and do they ever appreciate it?

"The wolves were my idea, by the way," he said, loudly. "Don't all thank me at once."

But even as he spoke there was a disturbance in the air above the settling dust. Then there was what Spike could only describe as an explosion in reverse, and Frilly Cuffs himself stood there, large as life (or unlife), looking as cool and calm as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened - not to mention still unbearably smug.

"What the bloody buggering fuck...?" Spike's jaw dropped in amazement, while behind him Drusilla looked up from stroking her new toy and clapped her hands in glee.

"I love it when he does that."

When he does that? So she'd seen him do this before, had she? Not for the first time that night, Spike wondered why no one ever bothered to tell him anything.

Frilly Cuffs gave the remains of the Countess a disdainful look. "I never could stand that woman. The number of times she's eaten my peasants, then claimed they were hers all along."

He turned to Darla and fetched her a deep bow.

"My apologies, dear cousin, for interrupting a truly delightful repast in this way. However, I have fulfilled the terms of our bargain and it's time for me to take my leave." He beckoned to Drusilla. "Come, my dear. I believe you're mine now."

"I think not." Angelus said, at the same time as Spike said, "Wait just a bloody minute!"

To his irritation, Drusilla was simpering at Frilly Cuffs. She actually took a step in his direction but Spike planted himself firmly in front of her.

"No sodding way, Dru! You're staying right here where you belong."

"With me," he added, when Drusilla pouted at him.

Frilly Cuffs, meanwhile, was frowning at Angelus. "I beg your pardon?"

Angelus was white as a sheet, and not surprising, given that the countess had made quite a pincushion of him. Sluggish trails of blood ran down his arms as he propped himself upright on the fallen table. "It's true," he said, "that I offered Drusilla to you in return for your help, cousin, but I fear I must disagree with you that the terms of our bargain have been met."

Frilly Cuffs' face darkened even further. "How so?" Meanwhile, an eerie sound filled the air. It took Spike a moment to work out what it was. Then he realised it was the wolves growling.

All except for the big bastard Drusilla was making such a fuss of, which looked about ready to roll over and show her its belly.

"Yes," Darla put in, in a frosty voice. "How so?" It was clear she hadn't the least idea what Angelus was talking about.

If Angelus was at all daunted by her evident displeasure, he didn't show it.

"Why," he said, to Frilly Cuffs, "you did not kill my enemy, as I requested."

Frilly Cuffs looked outraged. "I certainly did." He gestured towards the drifting dust-cloud that had been the countess. "There she lies."

But Angelus shook his head. "I'm afraid not. The countess was your enemy, not mine. My enemy declined to make an appearance. Instead, he sent the countess to do his dirty work. And even if that were not so, you, sir, hardly stirred yourself until my boy Spike, here, had made it easy for you."

"Not your sodding boy," Spike muttered, under his breath, but he was enjoying Frilly Cuffs' discomfiture too much to be that put out by Angelus's assertion. His enjoyment only increased when the penny finally dropped for Darla, and even more so when, heedless of the snarling wolves, she stormed out from behind the upturned table to confront Angelus.

"You scoundrel!" she exclaimed. "It's the Master you're talking about, isn't it? You meant for cousin Vlad to murder him."

The next moment one dainty fist had connected with Angelus's jaw. His head snapped back, rebounding just in time to receive an open-handed slap across both cheeks. But he grabbed Darla's arm before she could land a third blow.

"Of course I meant him to," he said. "But I only did it for your sake, darlin', believe me."

"I'll give you darling, you...you upstart!"

Darla kneed him in the midriff, tore her arm from his grip, then punched him hard in the face again. This time, he went sprawling at her feet.

Moving that fast while wearing an S-bend corset couldn't be easy, Spike thought admiringly. He considered whistling to show his appreciation, but decided against it. Darla had quite a high enough opinion of herself already.

Angelus looked pretty appreciative too. His hands were raised to protect himself, but he was grinning like a loon.

"Well, see, darlin','" he said, "this is why I did it. You're a fine figure of a woman when your temper's up." He scrambled to his knees. "That's why I wanted rid of the Master. He makes you weak, like a mewling child, when you're nothing of the sort." He held up his hands to her like a suppliant. "Ye're a goddess, woman, that's what ye are. My goddess. Not his."

Darla stared at him, breathing hard. "If you wanted rid of the Master so much, you should have been man enough to kill him yourself, not bribe someone else to do it."

Angelus only laughed. "It's jealous I am," he said, "not suicidal."

His voice took on a cajoling tone. "Can ye not find it in your heart to forgive me, darlin'? I was thinkin' only of you, I swear."

"What nonsense," Darla snapped.

But Spike could see she was charmed despite herself, and he wasn't surprised at all when Angelus staggered to his feet, swept her into his bloodstained arms and kissed her, and she allowed it.

"Isn't it romantic?" Drusilla said, right in Spike's ear. He jumped, and jumped again when her pet wolf sniffed at his fingers then began to lick them.

"Gerroff!" Spike snatched his hand away.

Frilly Cuffs had watched the entire exchange between Angelus and Darla in bemusement, but at the sound of Drusilla's voice he seemed to recollect himself. He snapped his fingers, and as one, the wolf pack left off its pacing to and fro and loped to his side. Even the one Drusilla had adopted gave her a last wistful look and padded off to join its fellows. Gathered around Frilly Cuffs, they turned, mouths open, slavering and snarling, as terrifying a sight as one could imagine.

"I demand what I was promised," Frilly Cuffs said, in an imperious tone. "A Dracul will not be cheated."

Angelus and Darla broke off their kiss. They looked from Frilly Cuffs to the wolves, and back again. Then Darla laughed - her proper laugh this time, like a little girl's but tinkling with cold menace.

"Dear cousin Vlad, we are not cheating you. Indeed not. We are doing you a favour."

Frilly Cuffs stared at her in bewilderment. Then he drew himself up to his full height and looked down his nose at her, in a way that reminded Spike somewhat of the late, unlamented countess. "A favour? What do you mean by that, girl?"

Darla smiled sweetly, while Angelus, seemingly oblivious to the conversation, kissed his way down her neck and licked the smooth skin on the point of her shoulder.

"Only that we have decided to take pity on you and not to inform my sire how you killed his best friend and confidante, Countess Bathory, in cold blood, nor how you'd agreed to kill him had he graced us with his presence, as expected. He makes a bad enemy, Cousin Vlad, as I'm sure you're very well aware."

There was a short silence, then Frilly Cuffs seemed to deflate, while all around him, the wolves lay down, put their noses on their paws and looked miserable. "That is..." Frilly Cuffs gritted his teeth. "That is most...kind of you, my dear."

"Yes," Darla said. "Isn't it?" Her gaze turned briefly to Spike and Drusilla. "As for Drusilla, much though I have often wished to be rid of the girl, she has proved herself useful enough that I feel it best she stay here." Her lips thinned, as if the words were hard to say. "With her family."

"William too," she added, sour-faced like the words were bathed in holy water. "He's proved quite useful on this occasion."

Ta, everso, Spike thought, crossly. Still, it was probably the closest thing he'd ever had to a compliment from her.

Frilly Cuffs attempted to smile, but it ended up more of a grimace.

"A sadness," he said. "The young lady has such talent, and I could teach her so much more."

"Yes, well," Darla said in the disapproving tone of a strict materfamilias who didn't hold with new-fangled ideas such as female education, "I think you've taught her quite enough already. Now, I'm sure you can find your own way out, cousin. As always, it was a pleasure."

With that, she twined her fingers in Angelus's and they meandered out of the room, indulging in some quite sickening (in Spike's opinion) kissing and groping as they went, and with Darla promising to do all kinds of dreadful things to Angelus for bleeding all over her best gown, including drawing out each and every needle that the countess had stuck in him as slowly and painfully as possible.

Just before the door closed behind them, Angelus looked back over his shoulder.

"Oh, William, lad," he called, "when Cousin Vlad replied to my letter agreeing to meet us here, he requested cash for a charitable donation. See he gets it before he leaves, would you?"

The door clicked shut, leaving Spike open-mouthed and furious.

Charitable donation, my arse, he thought.

"It's the peasants, you see," Frilly Cuffs said, as if he'd eavesdropped on Spike's thoughts (and maybe he had. There was no knowing what other tricks he had up his sleeve),"This time of year - Christmas, you understand -" he made a face as he said the word -"I, as their patron, am expected to distribute largesse among them, but I find myself a little short of funds. Perhaps, dear young sir, you would oblige me?"

Spike glared at him. "Give me one good reason why I should."

"Because I will owe you a favour, of course," Frilly Cuffs said, in a bland tone. "Such as, perhaps, assisting you in your passage were you ever to visit my part of the world, and turning a blind eye to your depredations."

Spike couldn't imagine ever wanting to visit Wallachia (wherever that was), or willingly letting Drusilla anywhere near Frilly Cuffs again, but he shrugged inwardly. Maybe it was worth it to get rid of him?

Sulkily, he fished his worn leather wallet out of his jacket pocket, and counted out notes and change. It came to eleven pounds exactly.

Frilly Cuffs inspected the money, sniffed at it, then shrugged. "It will do," he said. "After all, they're only peasants."

His cloak billowed out behind him. "Farewell," he declaimed, theatrically.

Then there was another of those strange reverse explosions, and where Frilly Cuffs had been there stood a huge white wolf, almost half as big again as its fellows.

"Bloody hell!" Spike pushed Drusilla behind him, grabbed the nearest overturned chair, and held it in front of them like a shield. "Get back, you brute!"

But the white wolf only tossed its head and howled. Its powerful muscles rippled under its fur and it loped from the room, followed by the rest of the pack.

Then they were gone, save for the sound of wolf-y howls fading into the distance.

Drusilla clapped her hands delightedly. "I love it when he does that."

"Yeah, yeah." Spike surveyed the wreckage of the room feeling sour and out of temper. He hadn't expected gratitude, of course (that'd be the day), but he was bloody exhausted was what he was, after the nights spent running errands for Angelus, and all the plotting and planning this evening.

Not to mention all the stuff no one bothered to tell him, which, if he'd known about beforehand, would have made saving Angelus's and Darla's bacon that little bit easier.

Next time, Spike decided, he'd just let them fry.

Drusilla had been swaying to and fro, dancing Spike supposed glumly, to the fading 'music' of night's furry children. He was out of temper with her too. All that flirting with the enemy - because after today, Frilly Cuffs was definitely an enemy- did a fellow's head in something terrible.

"You didn't have to be so nice to him," Spike said, but he knew she wasn't listening, lost in some wolf-inspired daydream, and after a moment, he sighed and looked away.

That was when he noticed it - a green glitter amongst the rubble.

Spike stared. Then he fell to his knees and began to rummage through the chaos. And there it was, half-hidden under some pieces of broken crockery - the countess's emerald and pearl necklace. It must have fallen off during her fight with Frilly Cuffs.

Spike let the cool stones slip through his fingers - faceted and smooth, the green of poison and the nacre of moonlight. He remembered his pleasant little fantasy about Drusilla in this necklace, and then Drusilla out of it.

His hand closed around it in a tight fist. He'd get his money back from Frilly Cuffs with interest one day, he thought. In the meantime, the necklace would do nicely.

Back on his feet, he came up behind Drusilla and pulled her roughly (just how he knew she liked it) backwards into his arms.

"Drusilla, would you like to play a game?"