DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Joyce is searching for Buffy, with Jenny and her ghostly companion on the watch, while the morning after for Buffy and Spike was less than stellar, resulting in Buffy storming out to play with Holly…

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Chapter 23: Pine Cones and Holly Berries

Sleep was elusive.

His body was hungry for rest, having fulfilled its promise to stay awake and alert for signs of Holly’s potential waking. Spike had given Buffy that vow with the sole purpose of seeing her get some well-deserved sleep, and watched over her during those midnight hours, not once aware of the time that slipped by until tiny feet announced their presence on the loft ladder.

She seemed so much smaller when she slept, fragile almost, though Spike knew the truth of that beyond any lingering doubts. What had transfixed him for the majority of the night, however, had not been the glory of the body she’d shared with him. It had been her face. More specifically, Buffy’s mouth.

Soft. Still swollen from their kisses. The tightness around her cheeks gone in the comfort of her slumber.

He’d touched it once, and she’d moaned in her sleep, rolling around to curl into his chest like that was where she belonged. A small smile had seemed to play along its delicate curves, and Spike had impulsively brushed a kiss across it, tasting the innocence Buffy fought so fiercely to protect. He didn’t know if that was a gesture she would allow once the morning came and, with it, the light of reason that she clung to with desperation; he only knew that he wanted it for as long as he could take it, and damned if he was going to let projections about her foolish pride get in the way of his current pleasure.

But her mouth…so many of the worries that hardened Buffy while she was awake vanished in the luxury of sleep, and Spike had spent the hours envisioning how to recreate the peace of her dreams in her waking world. He often enjoyed her caustic tongue, pleasured in the tension he could embroil within her body, but this was something beyond that, beyond wanting to provoke the Slayer into an attack, verbal or otherwise.

Why, though, he had no sodding clue.

So, he wanted to sleep, needed to, really, if he didn’t want to exhaust himself into being less than useful in keeping the nipper at bay. With Buffy and Holly out to play in the great outdoors, it was the perfect opportunity to get a few hours of uninterrupted rest. It was just…

He rolled over to face the wall.

His bed now smelled of her.

The blankets, the sheets, all of the bloody pillows. Everywhere he turned, Spike was assaulted by the scent of eau de Slayer---her arousal, her sweat, the perfume of that golden skin where it had rubbed and rolled across surfaces he’d never imagined she would embrace. It was too much, keeping her tangible and elusory in all her blood-tingling vexation, his nerves stretching to find her though reason whispered the truth of her absence.

With a growl, Spike threw the pillow against the wall and leapt from the bed, circling around its foot as he glared at in defiance. Bugger if he was going to let her get to him when she wasn’t even around. He needed to sleep, and sleep he damn well would. The sight of the rag rug on the floor caught his eye and he pounced on it, stretching along it as a poor cousin to the comfort of the sheets. It would have to do.

But without the direct distraction of Buffy’s not-long-gone presence, Spike’s brain defied his body’s decree for rest, playing over the events of the morning with a repetition that made throwing a few pillows the least he wanted to do. Where had it gone wrong? He’d let her sleep, keeping the kid from doing her worst in waking her, and then she’d seemed almost shy when he’d wandered down for breakfast. Hell, she’d even been warming up some blood for him; surely, if she was so uptight about what had happened, she wouldn’t be going to those lengths, would she?

His mind turned over her anxiety about Christmas for Holly. That had been when things had started to feel off to Spike. He’d deliberately changed the subject on her, hoping that she’d see through his subterfuge and take his tentative hint that maybe there was more to them than just the amazing sex.

And she’d promptly tried to run. Like she was so wont to do.

Coaxing her back into his arms had been relatively simple. Their bodies knew---had always known, if he bothered to give some thought to it---how to respond properly, how to ignore the trappings of labels and get to what truly mattered. It wasn’t necessarily about the sex, Spike was learning. No, spending nearly a dozen hours just holding Buffy, feeling her molding to him in a carefree compulsion while his body did the same to hers, had begun to insinuate other, more terrifying notions about what exactly they were to each other. He wasn’t ready to address those; there was enough to sort through already.

It didn’t mean that they still didn’t exist, though.

And it didn’t mean that he couldn’t expect just a tad more civility from the Slayer when it was obvious she was feeling the same. He didn’t think that was asking for that much, in the grand scheme of things.

In frustrated anger, Spike’s fist shot out and slammed into the wooden rail of the bed. It didn’t break under the pressure---not with such solid oak beams holding the thing together---but it shot reassuring knives of pain through his curled fingers and up his arm. The sensations helped him focus as he fell onto his back and stared up at the ceiling.

They couldn’t go on like they had this morning. Not with eight more days left of their incarceration. Little Holly would be a mincemeat pie if he and Buffy didn’t work this out. Hell, he wasn’t sure they wouldn’t all be mincemeat pies if things kept going like they had been.

He didn’t particularly care for mincemeat. That was one English tradition he’d been glad to cast aside.

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

She deliberately set aside thoughts of the disastrous morning with Spike, and instead lost herself in the simple joys of plunging through the snowy forest with Holly. Being a California girl, Buffy didn’t get many opportunities to escape into wintry fantasies plucked straight out of Hollywood, but scampering among the trees after a giggling little girl who acted for the first time since she’d met the child as if she didn’t have a care in the world, Buffy couldn’t help but feel that maybe she’d discovered a forgotten pocket of tranquility.

She laughed as tiny arms appeared out of nowhere, wrapping around her leg with surprising strength.

“Gotcha!” Holly shouted.

“Don’t think so,” Buffy said, and before the child could escape, had bent and pried her away, hoisting her over her head and onto her shoulders with ease.

“Up! Up!” As Holly grabbed onto a low-hanging branch, the weight on the Slayer’s body disappeared. Booted heels kicked at the trunk as she tried to swing her legs over, and it was only when Buffy pushed to help her onto the thick limb that Holly was able to clamber up.

“Looks like you’re stuck now,” Buffy commented. She took a small step back, watchful that the child was secure, and waited for the frightened response to come.

It didn’t. “Wanna come up?” Holly asked.

Buffy shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

The branch was gnarled and sturdy as she settled into a bend further along its length, and the ground seemed surprisingly far away when she looked down. It hadn’t seemed that high from below, and her eyes narrowed as Buffy began to rethink her decision.

“It’s OK,” Holly said. “It’s not scary.”

“You don’t seem to get too scared about very much,” the Slayer commented casually.

“Yes, I do.”

“You’re not scared of Spike.”

This confused her. “Why should I be?”

“Maybe because he’s a vampire?”

“But he takes care of me.”

“Only because he has to.”

“And he’s funny. Funny isn’t scary.”

Buffy could tell she wasn’t going to get anywhere with this thread of conversation. For whatever reason, Holly was firmly entrenched in Spike’s goodwill camp and there was going to be no budging her.

“Well, I still think you’re a very brave little girl,” she said. “Doyle said you’ve been through a lot. I don’t know if I would’ve been so brave when I was your age.”

Holly fell silent at that, her mittened hands absently stroking the rough bark of the tree. Beneath the coats and scarves Buffy had probably gone a little overkill with, wind-chapped cheeks made a sharp contrast to the pallor around her eyes, though Buffy couldn’t help but wonder if that was because of the sudden dilation of Holly’s pupils. For a long moment, all they could hear was the soft whistle of the wind through the branches and the occasional soft swish when something would fall into the snow in the distance.

“Do you have a mommy?” Holly asked.

Buffy nodded. Her throat was suddenly too tight to speak, it would seem.

“Where is she?”

“Home,” Buffy replied. “Sunnydale.”

“Do you miss her?”

Another nod. What she was really missing was the gaiety of their games, but if Holly felt like she needed to talk about this, Buffy wasn’t going to be the person to tell her no.

“My mommy comes to me when I’m sleeping.”

Buffy frowned. Her first thought was Ghosts? before common sense kicked in and booted her in the butt for living too long on the Hellmouth. “You mean, when you’re dreaming,” she clarified. “You have dreams about her?”

“She makes the bad stuff go away.”

“That’s what mommies do. It’s part of their job description, I think.”

More silence.

“Do mommy jobs make them die?”

The matter-of-factness of Holly’s question took Buffy by surprise. “What? No, it’s not like that,” she said, but it sounded silly coming from her mouth. “Why would you think that?” she tried again.

“Doyle said she died because of her job.”

“He told you that?” She was beginning to reconsider her opinion of Doyle.

“No, I heard him when he thought I was sleeping.”

“Oh.” Maybe not such a bad guy after all. “Do you know what she did? Sometimes, mommies have jobs that are completely separate from them being a mommy. Like, my mommy has an art gallery where she puts up really old and sometimes kind of creepy art stuff. But most of it’s pretty. As long as it’s not trying to turn people into zombies or anything.”

“My mommy made bad stuff go away.”

It was then that Buffy decided that all prophecies must’ve been written by three-year-olds. When it came to cryptic, nobody could hold a candle to a little kid.

“Was she a nurse or a doctor or something?” Buffy asked, hoping to coax a little more definitive information from the child. Maybe if she knew more about Holly’s background, they’d be able to figure out exactly what it was this Maria was after her for.

Holly only shook her head.

This was another line of questioning that was getting them absolutely nowhere. Plus, it boasted the added disadvantage of getting Buffy thinking about home, and her mom, and the fact that she still had no idea what could’ve happened to Giles. Thinking of her Watcher inevitably dragged her thoughts back to his houseguest, and very quickly, both Buffy and Holly were lost in their glum musings.

She didn’t want to admit it, but Spike’s offhand admission about fucking her into being nicer had sliced deeply, deeper than should’ve been safe to confess. They’d gone into the physical with clear heads about the absence of any sort of real relationship between them, but somewhere during the course of the night, between whispering things against her skin that not even Angel had admitted and pulling her back to the bed to fall asleep in his arms, she’d begun to suspect, maybe even hope, that she’d been wrong. The doubts had lingered when she’d woken, but while the light of day had seemed to bring with it a clarity of their situation that had been lacking in the shadows between his sheets, Buffy wondered how truthful it had been.

Well, she had wondered. Right up until Spike shot off his mouth and shocked her back into remembering just what he was.

She almost jumped when a tentative hand came to rest on her leg. Looking up, Buffy saw Holly inching her ways forward, closer to the Slayer and further out on the shaking limb. “Wait,” she instructed the child. Shifting, she dropped back down to the ground, and then reached up to take the little girl into her arms.

Holly slithered through her embrace to land with a soft plop. “I got snow in my shoe,” she complained.

Bending down, Buffy ran her fingers along the girl’s ankle, tucking her pants tighter into her boots. “Do you want to go in?” she asked. She wasn’t sure what answer she wanted to hear. The prospect of facing Spike again wasn’t exactly a thrilling one.

“No.”

“Wanna go exploring?”

“OK.”

They headed off in a direction they hadn’t yet gone, the cabin disappearing behind them. The companionship was nice, but still left Buffy with too much quiet time to resume her disloyal thoughts, and so she decided to give one last go at digging some info out of the little girl.

“Did you and Doyle talk a lot when you were coming here?” It seemed like a nice, neutral question; no way could there be anything wig-worthy about it, Buffy reasoned.

Holly’s eyes were large and solemn as she looked up at Buffy. “Doyle’s a ghost,” she said simply.

So not the answer she was expecting to hear. “You think that means he can’t talk?” she joked, hoping being light-hearted about it would help hide her surprise. She hadn’t thought Holly knew the truth about Doyle; what else did she know? “I got the impression he does it a lot.”

“He told me about you and Spike. He told me you were going to take care of me now.”

And I’m doing such a good job of it, too.

“Doyle said you were both good at taking care of little girls and that I shouldn’t be scared if you guys were there.”

“He said that?” How did we get to talking about Spike again?

“Didn’t Spike take care of you when you were hurt?”

Every question was just dredging her deeper into a world of so-not-wanting-to-go-there, making Buffy’s head spin with images of blond vampires who mocked her mood, and cradled her to sleep, and wanted her dead just to save her life. “Yeah, he did,” she replied slowly.

“Spike doesn’t have a mommy, either. He told me so.”

“Oh?” She shouldn’t be surprised that Spike had shared such details with the little girl. After all, he’d been chockfull of surprises ever since they’d had the accident. “Why don’t you tell me what else Spike told you?”

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

She hadn’t wanted to take a break from her search, but her stomach had other thoughts, growling in protest when the hour stretched past one and she still had yet to find anything definitive that might help her pinpoint where the accident had occurred. It wouldn’t do Buffy any good if Joyce passed out from hunger, and so she reluctantly returned to the car, driving back to where she was staying.

The small town she was stuck in didn’t have a McDonald’s she could pretend to eat healthily at, the hotel barely hospitable enough for sleeping. Instead, it boasted a one-stop grocery store, a gas station with a single pump, and a country-western bar with the unfortunate moniker of “The Prickly Pine Cone.” For some reason, Christmas Eve hours already seemed to be in effect, leaving Joyce only the option of the bar if she didn’t want to go cruising down the highway for something else.

She’d just be careful about what she ordered, she decided.

The interior was nearly deserted, the only other occupants the bartender and a dark-haired young man standing at the juke box. When she entered, Joyce paused to let her eyes adjust to the dark, then flashed a tight smile to the man when he nodded at her, carefully avoiding his eyes as she walked over to the bar.

“Do you serve food here?” she asked.

“It’s food,” came the reply. He was probably her age, but looked a decade older, three days worth of stubble coarsening his face, watery blue eyes slightly bloodshot. “Don’t know how edible it is.”

“I’m going to guess you don’t handle your own marketing,” she joked, but the only response she got was a chuckle from behind her. Joyce sobered and pulled out her wallet. “What exactly do you have?”

After placing an order for wings and fries, she waited while he ran to the back to fetch the bottled water she’d requested. It took only a moment before she felt the presence at her elbow.

“Must be car trouble.”

With a frown, Joyce looked at the young man who’d slid onto the stool next to her, his eyes bright even in the murk, a friendly smile curling his lips. “Excuse me?” she asked.

“Car trouble,” he repeated, and this time she was certain she heard the accent in his voice. “That’s why you’re here, right? No other reason a lovely lady such as yourself would be in this hole the day before Christmas if you didn’t have to be.”

She smiled, in spite of herself. “Is that your excuse?” Joyce countered. “Because you don’t exactly sound local.”

“Never judge a book by its cover.”

“So you are local.”

“Now, did I say that?”

She was saved from replying when the bartender returned with her water, and was about to pass over the twenty to pay for everything when the young man held up his hand.

“Let me,” he said, reaching for his back pocket. “Consider it a Christmas gift.”

“Thank you, but no,” Joyce insisted. She passed over the money, keeping her eyes forward, and then took her water to a corner booth when she got her change, hoping that would be enough to let him know she wanted to be alone.

It wasn’t.

“So, if it’s not your car letting you down,” he said cheerfully, stopping at the edge of the opposite bench, “it must be family that’s got you in town.” Her shock must’ve registered on her face, and he slid onto the seat, extending his hand in a belated greeting. “My name’s Doyle, by the way…”

 

To be continued in Chapter 24: Have a Cup of Cheer