DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. 
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Buffy and Spike have shared another kiss under the mistletoe, leaving both of them more than a little anxious for more though not sure where exactly they’re going, only to be interrupted when Doyle showed up with Holly in tow…

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

Chapter 15: What Child Is This?

As soon as he saw Buffy start to bend over to scoop the child into her arms, Spike’s hand shot out to curl around her bicep.  “What do you think you’re doin’?” he asked, incredulous.

A single brow lifted.  “I’m taking her inside.  You might not mind being a vampsicle, but she’s just a little girl and it’s freezing out here.”

“Funny, but I never pegged you for bein’ Mummie Dearest, Slayer.”

The look she shot him was venomous as she yanked herself free.  “C’mon, Holly,” Buffy said to the child, deliberately affecting an ultra-sweet tone in order to counteract Spike’s antagonism.  “It’s much comfier inside.  We’ve even got marshmallows!”

He strode alongside her as she carried Holly back to the cabin.  “Did you ever consider that takin’ her in is exactly what they want you to do?” Spike asked.

“Gee, you mean all these visits from dead people weren’t about protecting her?” she said sarcastically.  “Did I miss a memo or something?”

“I’m just sayin’, I don’t seem to recall us reaching any sort of like mind about what we were goin’ to do about…”  He waggled his fingers at Holly.  “…that.”

She stopped on the bottom stair.  “Have you actually looked at her?  That is a little girl, Spike.  She’s defenseless, which is a state I’d think you’d be more than familiar with, and I am not about to let her die from pneumonia because you’ve all of a sudden decided two’s company.  So, if you’re suggesting I just leave her out here, you can just forget about coming in yourself.”

“Like you could keep me out.”

“Don’t push me, Spike.”

Before the vampire could open his mouth to respond, Holly lifted her head from where it had rested on Buffy’s shoulder and leveled a tired gaze at him.  “Yeah, don’t push her, Spike,” she parroted.

He was left gaping on the stairs as the two females disappeared into the house.  “Looks like the estrogen level just tipped in their favor,” came the casual comment from behind him.  “Tough luck.”

Whirling on his heel, Spike jabbed an angry finger at Doyle as he closed the gap between them.  “This is your bloody fault!” he shouted.  “Things were just starting to get interesting between me and the Slayer, and you had to go and bollocks it up by arriving with the anklebiter.  Why the hell aren’t you in LA, anyway?  Don’t tell me Peaches’ little holier than everyone else routine finally got old with you?  Or did that white horse of yours finally trip itself up and pitch you to the ground with the rest of us demons?”

“I can’t say I blame you for being a tad upset,” Doyle said.  He was completely unfazed by the outburst, which only served to boil Spike’s blood even further.  “If I was in your boots, I’d be wondering how I’d be getting through the next ten days.  Babysitting’s never been my cup of tea.”  He grinned, so wide that Spike was overcome with the urge to smack it off his face, and then winked.  “Good thing tea’s never been my drink of choice, then, right?”

“What’re you blithering about?”

Doyle jerked his head toward the cart, stepping back to allow clearance to it.  “Holly wasn’t my only cargo,” he simply said.

With narrowed eyes, Spike stalked the few feet it took to reach the small door on the cart’s side, pulling it from its hinges with an unnecessary force that sent splinters of wood flying in every direction.

“Easy, boy,” Doyle said when a small chip went sailing past his head.  “Those little slivers mean dust for you, remember?”

Spike ignored him, crouching down to peer inside the hole that he’d created in the covering.  The cart had been made comfortable for traveling for the child, with blankets tucked along its length and a small pillow at the head.  A small, worn doll blinked back at him with its lone eye.  He was almost ready to step back and tell the half-demon where he could shove it when a quick glint of something shiny appeared at the far edge of the blanket.  Slowly, the vamp reached inside, stopping when his fingers encountered a familiar smooth surface. 

“Now, there’s only two of ‘em,” Doyle said as Spike pulled out the tall bottle of whisky.  “So you’re going to have make them last.  And by the time they told me you were crashing our little party, I didn’t have time to get the good stuff.  You’ll just have to settle for the Jack.”

“This was your idea?”  The second bottle was out, and the blanket tossed to the ground, as Spike gave the cart a more thorough search.

“More or less.  Holly can be a handful.  If I could’ve, you can bet I would’ve had a nip or three to help me get through the past few days.”

“Don’t s’pose you thought to toss in some smokes?”

A shake of his head.  “I did have the thought, but the Powers and some very overprotective women had a cow when I brought it up.  Something about not wanting to expose Holly to secondhand smoke or some such nonsense.  Personally, I always thought that’s what porches were for, but does anyone ever listen to me?”

“Ah, well, that’s a club I’m more than familiar with.  Consider yourself in excellent company, mate.”  All enmity he’d felt toward Doyle had disappeared with the whisky peace offering.  After all, anyone who brought him the means to make handling the tyke a spot more pleasant, as well as going to bat for a cigarette allotment, couldn’t be all bad.  ‘Course, there was that whole matter where he’d been aligned with Angel last time Spike saw him, but then again, hadn’t Spike been in the same shoes at one point?

“I know it’s a bit stingy,” Doyle said.  “But---.”

“No, no, it’s bloody marvelous.  I could very well kiss you for this.”

“You have to excuse Spike.”  Buffy’s voice rang clear from the entrance to the cabin, prompting both men to turn and look at her.  “For some reason, he seems to be having control issues with his lips lately.”

The light from the fire outlined her in red and gold, making her seem larger than life as she stood there with her arms folded across her chest.  Every ounce of frustration that he’d felt at her too-easy acceptance for the child burned away at the sight of her, and the corner of his mouth lifted as he looked pointedly at the sill over her head.

“You’re the one standin’ under the mistletoe, luv,” he said.

Her head shot up at that, her back straightening, as if she’d completely forgotten the significance of the greenery in the doorway.  Slowly, her chin came back down, but where Spike expected her to bolt from her position, she surprised him by deliberately leaning against the jamb, her eyes locked with his in defiance.

“It’s cold out here,” Buffy said.  “What say we bring this inside so that I can find out what the hell is going on, OK, boys?”

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

Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy watched Spike pull the glasses out of the cupboard.  He could almost be whistling, he was in that good of a mood, and she wondered how it was that a little bit of alcohol---not even consumed yet---could do that to the vamp.  His agitation about allowing Holly into the house had not been that unexpected, considering his reluctance about committing to Jenny’s request in the first place.  Of course, that reluctance had been mirrored in herself, until she’d actually seen who it was she was supposed to be protecting.  How could he expect her to turn her back on a helpless little girl?

“None for me,” Doyle said from his seat at the table, waving off the glass of Jack Daniels Spike offered him.

His scarred brow lifted.  “You sure ‘bout that?”

“As sure as the damn magic that makes me solid says I have to be.”  He sighed.  “You drink up.  I’ll just sit here and get my jollies by watching you enjoy it.”  A finger lifted in warning.  “And you better enjoy it, after the strings I pulled to get it for you.”

“No problems there, mate.”  Spike hopped up onto the counter, where the first thing he did was take a long swig.  With his head tilted back, Buffy found herself entranced by the angular lines of his throat, the powerful muscles flexing as he swallowed the whisky.  When he exhaled in pleasure upon completion, his gaze returned to the pair sitting at the table, to catch the Slayer staring at him in fascination.

“Fancy a nip?” he asked, holding up his glass to her.  His eyes twinkled as she visibly started, the entendre bringing a hot flush of color to her cheeks, and then chuckled when she deliberately turned back to Doyle.

“Please tell me you’re going to be a little more straight with some answers than Jenny was,” she said.

“Oh, so you’re willing to admit it was her, now, are you?” he teased.

“Let’s just say I’m more willing to be open-minded on the subject,” came the rejoinder.  “I can be the Queen of Open-Mindedness if I need to be.”  Spike’s amused snort made her glare at him for a moment, but he just smirked back.

“I can tell you what I know,” Doyle was saying, “but that’s not a whole lot.  Been a bit busy getting Holly here.”  His eyes scanned the otherwise empty room.  “Speaking of, where’d you tuck the tot away?”

“In the bedroom.  She was asleep by the time I covered her up.  How long have you two been on the move?”

He grew contemplative.  “It’s hard for me to tell,” he finally said.  “Two weeks maybe?  Time’s a little funny for me when I’m like this, but two weeks sounds about right.”

“Where’d you bring her from?  Where’s her parents?”

“Dead.  Maria had them killed when she was born.  She’s been living with caretakers in northern Canada since then.  Right up until Maria found her again at the beginning of the month, and killed off the caretakers before the Powers could get the kid out of there.”

There was that name again.  Maria.  The one Jenny said Holly had to be protected from.  Now she was beginning to understand why.

“So what’s so special about her?” Buffy asked.  “Holly, I mean.”

Doyle shrugged.  “I’m not all that sure,” he admitted.  “I know that Maria needs her for some sort of ritual, but how that can be when magic doesn’t work on her, I have no clue.”

“Whoa.”  Buffy held up her hand to cut him off before he could go any further.  “What’s this about magic not working on her?”

“Just what I said.  It’s why I can’t touch her.  As far as she’s concerned, I’m still a ghost ‘cause the spell that makes me solid doesn’t work for her.”

“So I guess the redemption gig with Angel proved a tad more fatal than you thought it would,” Spike commented from the sidelines.

Buffy’s eyes widened in surprise.  “You worked with Angel?”

“Still might.  Like I said, time gets a little funny on this side of the grave.”  At the confusion on both blondes’ faces, Doyle grinned.  “You might want to have another taste of that Jack, Spike.  This’ll probably make more sense then.”

“I’d settle for any sense.”

His grin widened.  “Can’t really vouch for that, but I can try, now can’t I?  See, it’s like this.  Fighting the good fight doesn’t always end when you pass on.  There’s those of us that keep on helping the Powers in whatever way we can, and since they’re everywhere, everywhen…time becomes fairly meaningless.  Until we’re running out of it, that is.”

His words brought a chill to Buffy’s bones.  “Are you saying I’m going to have to keep slaying even after I die?” she asked.  She felt, rather than saw, Spike stiffen, and somehow understood that the tension he exhibited was in direct support of her indignation.  Why he was as upset by the revelation as she was, though, she had no idea.

“Not unless you really want to,” Doyle said with a shake of his head.  “Slayers get a bye to spend their time as they wish.”

“It’s just when we’re living that we get shackled to your every whim.”  Her sarcasm was automatic, but his reply had eased a bit of the knot inside her.  Carefully, she glanced over at Spike to gauge his reaction, but his normally readable face was closed, his thick brows drawn together as he just watched her.

“Holly’s not so bad,” came from Doyle.  “Well-behaved, for being three.  Smart as a whip.  And did I mention, out of nappies?  Completely trained, she is.  That made the trip here a lot more tolerable, that’s for sure.”

“Don’t forget bein’ hunted by this Maria bird,” offered Spike.

“Well, aye, that too.”

“What is it with the New Year’s deadline?” Buffy asked.  “Is that when the second guard takes over babysitting duties or something?”

“Holly turns four.  Whatever it is that Maria wants with her won’t work then.  Something about the magic of three.  And don’t ask me about what it is exactly she’s going to do, because I don’t know.  I’m just the messenger boy.”

The room turned vacuous as the trio lapsed into silence, only the hiss and crackle of the fire lending any sound within the walls.  She didn’t like the situation, or being forced into this guardianship with Spike as her unwilling partner, but confronted with the wide eyes of a three-year-old child, how could she possibly say no?  Most likely, Jenny had known that.

It just would’ve been nice to be asked about it first.

And there was the Spike part of the equation.  Buffy knew that his earlier discontentment about the shift in their situation most likely stemmed not only from his irritation with anything remotely cute or adorable, but also from the new state of affairs between them---.

Not an affair!  Just a few kisses does not an affair make!

When he’d challenged her under the mistletoe the second time, an ebony and ivory statue against the midnight sky, she’d had only moments to make her decision.  Did she scuttle away and hide from the green, ignoring everything that had happened between them prior to Doyle’s arrival and proving him right yet again?  Or did she take the bull by the horns---or the vamp by the balls, and oh god I did not just think of grabbing Spike’s…I didn’t!---and stand her ground, admitting to what she’d felt---what they’d both felt---the first time she’d stood beneath the mistletoe?

She decided after watching the play of emotions over his face when she leaned against the jamb---surprise, amusement, and then finally hunger---that she really, really, really liked getting that kind of reaction from him.  It was something she would have to try to repeat very soon.

“I should probably go get Holly’s things from the cart,” Doyle said, breaking the silence.  He rose from his chair.  “I’m surprised she fell asleep without Baby.  She’s never without that doll.”

“Are you going to be spending the night?” Buffy asked, following him to the door.

He shook his head.  “One of the side effects of the spell.  I’m solid, but my body doesn’t have the same needs a living one does.  No sleeping, no eating…”  He looked longingly at the glass of whisky that was still cradled in Spike’s hand.  “…no drinking.  And besides, my job here is done.  Any minute now, the Powers should see fit to zap me back into ghosthood.  But I appreciate the offer.”

She hugged her arms tight against the cold as Doyle opened the door and stepped onto the porch.  “So that’s it?  You just drop her off and go?”

He seemed to consider that for a moment.  “That sounds about right.”

“What about words of advice?”

From behind her, Spike piped up.  “I’d think a bottle of tranqs to knock her out ‘til after the holidays wouldn’t exactly be amiss here.”

“Look,” Doyle said, as he began pulling Holly’s few belongings from the wagon, “it’s really not that bad.  Think of her as just a little you.  If she gets hungry, feed her.  If she mucks herself up, give her a bath.  And when she’s tired, you put her to bed.  See?  Easy.”

“That’s because you’re the one who gets to leave this place,” Buffy muttered, but smiled anyway when she added loud enough for him to hear.  “If you say so.”

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

He waited until it was just the two of them again before approaching her.

“Buffy,” Spike said, and it wasn’t until he saw the slight widening of her eyes that he realized he’d called her by her first name.

“Please don’t tell me you want to talk about what happened,” the Slayer said wearily.  She was busy sorting through the small bag Doyle had left, refolding the tiny clothes absently before setting them on the kitchen table.  “I really don’t have the energy to deal with you right now.”

The anger rose unbidden.  OK, so he had wanted to talk about the kisses, but bugger her if he was going to admit to it now.  She was standing there, acting like she was the only one put out by this situation, when…

“Ever think I might have a spot to say about playin’ Ward to your June?” he shot.  “Maybe I want to chat about the kid.  Ever consider that?”

Buffy stopped, gazing at him for a long moment.  “OK,” she finally said, “that was unbelievably dumb, even coming from you.”

“What?  I can’t have an opinion here?”

“You’ve already made your opinion perfectly clear, Spike.  If you were any more clear, you’d be the Invisible Man.”

“Except I already am,” Spike barked.  “I might as well not be around for as much as what I say is mattering.  Just remember, you’re the one who keeps tossing out words like partners, and together, and it’s not because of the mistletoe---.”

“Ha!”  His words brought her to life, her finger jumping up to point in accusation.  “I knew this was about the kissing!”

“You’re bloody well right it is!” 

“Can you stop thinking with your lips for two seconds and remember we’ve got a job to do here?” she replied.  “There’s this little matter of how either one of us is going to be able to take care of a three-year-old without accidentally setting her on fire---.”

“You’re the one with the pyro tendencies, pet.  I just wanted to leave her out in the cold.”

“And why is that?  It’s not like you managed to do that with me.”

The reminder of how he’d saved her from the accident stopped both of them in their tracks, leaving Buffy’s chest heaving as the adrenaline from their argument surged through her veins, and Spike’s eyes glittering as he glared down at her.  The knowledge that he’d risked so much, stepped outside of his comfort zone of hating the Slayer to save her life, still rankled with a discordant bite as neither knew exactly how to adapt the information to their constantly shifting circumstances, and both hesitated as each considered how to proceed.

A small sneeze from behind them could’ve been a bullet for the reaction it got from the pair, and Buffy whirled to face the sound just as Spike snapped back from the tilt his head had started to make toward the Slayer.  In the bedroom doorway, Holly stood watching them, her nose running slightly before she sniffled loudly.

“I miss Baby,” she whined.

It took Buffy a second to realize to what she was referring.  “Oh,” she finally blurted, and picked up the doll from where it sat on the table.  “You mean this?”

Holly nodded, and held out her hands for the toy as Buffy walked across to give it to her.  “Are you fighting?” she asked the Slayer once she had Baby tucked safely in her arms.

Shooting a glance backwards, she saw the vampire cross his arms and perch himself against the edge of the table, waiting to hear her response just as avidly as Holly was.  Fine, she thought in grim determination.  Be that way.

“Just a little,” Buffy admitted to the child.  She’d always hated it when her parents lied to her about something she knew to be true; no way was she going to make that mistake.  “But we’re done with it now.”

“Doyle says Spike gets cranky.”

“Hey!”

Buffy stifled her laugh, feeling it want to escape through her nose in a snort.  “Doyle’s very smart,” she managed to say with a straight face.

“Doyle says if I’m good and nice to Spike, he won’t get cranky with me.”

“Well, that’s a good theory---.”

“Maybe if you were nicer to Spike, he wouldn’t be cranky with you.”

It was Spike’s turn to laugh, the raucous mirth filling the room, and the heat that rose in Buffy’s cheeks had nothing to do with the fire in the hearth.  “Time to go back to sleep,” she announced to the child, taking her by the shoulder and turning her around to face the dark bedroom.  “You’ve had a long day.”

“OK,” Holly mumbled in agreement.  “G’night, Spike.”

He was waiting for Buffy when she returned from tucking Holly back in, only he’d risen from his seat to meet her at the doorway.  Without saying a word, Spike grabbed her by the wrist and led her to the bathroom, firmly closing the door between them and the sleeping child.

“Not that this is exactly the most romantic room in the place,” he said as he blocked her way of egress, “but it should keep the noise down for the tot out there.  Unless, of course, you decide to throw me through the door, in which case you can be the one to bloody explain to the chit what’s goin’ on between us.”

“What is it you want, Spike?” she asked.

All joking disappeared from his blue eyes, and the lines around his mouth smoothed, making his face seem surprisingly vulnerable as he answered her question.  “Just wanna know where I stand with you, pet,” he said quietly.  “I sodding hate this feeling of standing on quicksand all the time.  Give a bloke a break and tell it to me straight for once.”

“We’re partners,” she replied, equally quiet.  When his lips thinned at the familiar word, she added, “Fifty-fifty.”

He was deathly still.  “That means…equals,” Spike said.  “Is that what you meant?”

She’d hoped to avoid using that word, but it looked like he wasn’t going to give her a choice.  “Yeah.”

Taking a step closer, Spike lifted his hand and ran a bent knuckle along the underside of her jaw.  “Business partners?  Or…something else?”

The possibility of something else made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up on end at his touch.  She’d already made the choice, hadn’t she?  That’s what the mistletoe---both times---had been about.  It was time to stop waffling and stick with a decision.

“There’s no reason it can’t be a little something else,” she said.  When his head started to bend to kiss her, though, she brought her hand up and stuck it in front of his pursed lips, halting the motion.  “On two conditions.”

“And those would be?”

“It doesn’t get in the way of what we need to do to protect Holly from Maria.”

“So we’ll just drug the kiddie up for the duration so that we can have our fun,” he joked, letting his hands fall to her hips as he tugged her closer.

She ignored the stab at humor, though trying to ignore the erection that was starting to press into her stomach was a little more difficult.  “And,” she went on, “none of this goes back to Sunnydale.”

That made him stop, some of the hardness returning to his features.  “Makin’ me your dirty little secret doesn’t sound like equals to me, Slayer.”

When he said it like that, it didn’t sound like equals to her, either, but Buffy wasn’t prepared to budge on that particular condition, no matter how delectable his lips looked pouting like that.  “You’re saying you see yourself as a Scooby?” she said instead.  “I would’ve thought you’d hate that.”

A flicker of barely restrained disgust flashed behind his eyes.  “Still don’t like it,” Spike argued.

“Too bad.”

“So your definition of equals means you still get to call all the shots?”  His hands fell from her body, the space between them returning as he turned back to the doorway.  “I want you, Slayer, can’t really deny that.  And I’d be lyin’ if I didn’t say I hadn’t considered what it would be like to have those dimpled knees of yours wrapped around me so tight I popped.  But you know what?  You and your lot may’ve stripped me of the lion's share of my dignity over the past few months, but I think I’ll just hold on to this last little shred, if you don’t mind.”  He opened the door, and for a moment, she imagined she saw what looked like hurt behind the sapphire of his gaze.  “You change your mind ‘bout treating me like your latest vamptoy, you know where you can find me.”

He was out the door, his boots on the ladder to the loft, before she could stop him.  What just happened here? she wondered.

Except she knew.  She’d tried to play the game according to her rules, just like she’d done with so much else in her life, and Spike had called her on her selfishness, refusing to accept her stipulations with a few chosen words designed to make her feel as small as possible.  Only he would have the nerve to do that, she realized.  Not even Angel had ever had the balls to say two words against some of the decisions she’d made for them.

Well, until he walked completely out of her life, that is.

The worst of it was…

…she knew Spike was right.

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

Joyce stifled her yawn as she walked up the path to Giles’ apartment.  His call at the gallery hadn’t taken her too much by surprise; Buffy’s failure to check back in with her had started Joyce to worrying days earlier.  Not that it wasn’t like her daughter to get wrapped up in something and forget about good old Mom, but not even Buffy usually forgot about Christmas. 

Still, he’d seemed…off during their brief conversation, half of what he said not making very much sense.

“Since we’re going to be away longer than I’d anticipated,” he’d said, “could I trouble you for a small favor?”

“Of course.”

“I’m afraid I’ve left Spike all on his own.  Would you mind terribly just popping around and making sure he’s not dead?”

“Spike?  But I thought---.”

“It’s a nuisance, I know,” Giles had interrupted.  “And normally, my being gone for a few days wouldn’t make a difference.  After all, he’s just a goldfish.  But still, I’d appreciate it if you could just check in on him, make sure he’s got plenty of food.  I left an extra supply on the right corner of my desk.”

She’d stopped questioning him at that point, too confused as to when Rupert might’ve gotten a fish, and even more bewildered that he would name it Spike of all things.  But she’d agreed to check in after work, noting when he mentioned it where he kept the spare key.

She yawned again as she pushed open the door into the inky apartment.  It would’ve been nicer if she hadn’t been caught at the gallery with a shipment that was missing a rare Peruvian urn, but she’d promised Rupert she’d feed his fish before going home that night, and darn it all, she was going to stick to that promise. 

Blinking against the light when she flicked the switch, Joyce hesitated on the threshold while her eyes quickly scanned the room.   He hadn’t said where he was keeping the fish, and there was no aquarium in sight in the immediate vicinity.  OK, she thought.  Then I’ll start with what he did tell me.

When she stood in front of the desk, she wondered for a long moment if she’d heard him wrong.  Other than the small lamp, Rupert’s desk was almost completely clear, the only thing on it a rental car agreement in the corner he’d said the food was.  Frowning, she picked it up and opened it, scanning over the details of the car he’d hired to drive to the conference.  Along the margin, the Watcher had scribbled the name of the resort they were supposed to stay at and a phone number.

I must’ve been more tired than I realized, Joyce thought as she closed the packet again.  I had to have heard him wrong. 

There was only one way to remedy the situation, and in spite of the late hour, Joyce picked up the phone.  She had no doubt Rupert held the same sort of hours Buffy did, and besides, this time, she might actually catch her daughter in the room.  The last thing she expected, however, was…

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but Mr. Giles never showed up for his room reservation.”

Further inquiry revealed that, though there was a convention currently at the resort, it was a group of dentists on retreat, and Joyce sincerely doubted they were the ones interested in hearing the Watcher’s speech.

When she hung up the phone, she knew one thing for certain.

Something was dreadfully wrong.  And Rupert was in some kind of trouble he needed her help with.  It had to be the reason he’d made up the ridiculous story about having a fish named after his houseguest; he would know that she’d see straight through it once she showed up at the apartment.

The thought of the Watcher in trouble was disturbing enough.  It was the prospect that Buffy had left with him, and that he’d deliberately opted to call to tell Joyce that her daughter was all right, that had her the most concerned.

They definitely needed her help.

 

To be continued in Chapter 16:  Follow Me in Merry Measure