DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy and Holly have spent a bonding day outside, while Joyce has encountered Doyle when she took a break for lunch…

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

Chapter 24: Have a Cup of Cheer

He was actually quite charming, if a little obvious in his flattery, and Joyce found herself relaxing in Doyle’s presence long before her food came out. After his initial assessment of her purpose, Doyle had promptly dropped the subject, switching instead to expound on the shortcomings of the juke box, and she’d sat and commiserated good-naturedly on the negative effects of country music on holiday spirit. Mentioning Christmas reminded her of how he’d evaded her earlier observation about his presence in the bar, but Joyce waited until after her food had arrived before broaching the topic again.

“So, why are you in the middle of nowhere on the day before Christmas?” she asked, as she nibbled on one of the celery sticks that accompanied her wings. “Don’t you have family you’d rather be spending time with?”

He shrugged. “Family’s a relative term,” Doyle said affably. His fingers kept playing with the long-necked bottle of beer that he’d ordered but had yet to touch. “And what I do means I move around a lot. Not that I wouldn’t want to be with them, mind you. It’s just…sometimes time’s not exactly the most agreeable of mistresses.”

Joyce’s smile was self-deprecating as she shook her head. “I think I owe you an apology,” she said, unable to quite meet his eyes.

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“I’m afraid I jumped to a…wrong conclusion about you. I’m sorry.”

His laughter rang throughout the bar, engaging her even in her discomfort. “Lemme guess,” he said. “You thought I was a philandering ne’er-do-well, with nothing better to do with his Noel than to have a cup of his favorite cheer down at the local watering hole, am I right?” His smile only broadened at her bright flush, and he reached forward to pat her hand in conciliation. “There’s a time you wouldn’t have been wrong, Joyce. But don’t you be selling those instincts of yours short. They could come in handy some day, mark my words.”

She ate a fry as she weighed her next words. “Is that why you’re not drinking your beer?” she said carefully.

As she expected, his grin faltered, his bright eyes falling to the mouth of his bottle with a wistfulness it was impossible to ignore. “Would love to, that’s for sure,” Doyle said. “Just…can’t.” With a forced laugh, he shook off the mantle of the falling mood and pushed the drink away. “So, your turn,” he said. “What’s your dreadful secret? Have you skipped out on family festivities to hide away in here?”

“I don’t have family here. I’m staying at the hotel across the street.”

“Voluntarily? You’re a brave woman, Joyce Summers.”

The last thing she’d wanted when he sat down was spill out her troubles to a stranger, but Doyle’s open face and easy admission regarding his own history made her believe that he might be someone who’d understand. “I’m trying to find my daughter,” she said. “She’s missing.”

“That sounds like you should be sitting at the sheriff’s office, not here with me.”

“I tried that. They weren’t exactly…cooperative.” Haltingly, Joyce told the story of the accident, leaving out the more pertinent details on what exactly her teenaged daughter was doing with a man old enough to be her father, and ending with her aborted attempts to find the exact site. “I know she’s out there,” she finished with more vehemence than she wanted. “And I’m not going to just sit back and do nothing while the local police pretend she’s not.”

Doyle nodded in understanding, though his gaze was thoughtful. “And it was just her and this teacher of hers in the car?” he asked. When Joyce visibly hesitated, he coaxed, “Come on. Who am I going to tell? I’m just a ghost in this town as far as the rest of ‘em are concerned.”

“There was someone else,” she conceded. “A...an acquaintance, but…”

“Have you asked about him? Maybe he showed up at the hospital or something.”

Joyce laughed. “No, Spike’s not exactly the type to go to the hospital. Even if he broke his back.”

“Spike, huh? Sounds like the name of the family dog, not someone with a fetish for pain.”

“No, though I wouldn’t be shocked to find out he had a studded collar to go with his leather jacket.”

“So, this Spike. He the type to just up and walk away from your daughter? Or, would he stick around to make sure she’s safe and sound?”

So lost in the considerations his questions provoked, Joyce didn’t notice the narrowing of Doyle’s eyes as he waited for her answers. “I don’t know,” she said. “Generally speaking, I know he’s not the type to give up on someone he loves, but he and Buffy…well, things between them can get a little…prickly.”

“Prickly…bad? Or prickly…they’d rather be---?”

She held up her hand to cut him off before he could finish the thought. “Don’t go there,” Joyce warned. “This is my daughter we’re talking about. I’m still in denial that she lost her virginity in the first place.”

“But you don’t think he’d do something as rash as…hurt her, do you?”

For the first time, she saw the solemnity in the young man’s aspect, and stiffened as she pulled away. “No,” Joyce said slowly. “That’s not possible.” She’d said too much. There was something too attentive in his queries, an interest that spoke more of common courtesy. What had she volunteered that could’ve provoked his response?

“But you don’t trust him.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“So you do trust him.”

“No. It’s just…it’s complicated.”

“Kids always are.” He’d retreated into his thoughts with her dismissive statements, and she watched him have some sort of internal debate with himself. He had the sort of face that made it impossible for him to hide his feelings, she realized, but recognizing that discussion of Spike and Buffy made him pensive did nothing to alleviate her growing concern.

“Listen,” Doyle said, sliding from his seat, “I’m just going to run to the little boy’s room for a second.” Fishing around in his pockets, he dug out some change and dropped it to the table. “Find something on the jukebox that’s not so depressing, would you? I think the two of us need some solid Christmas spirit to cheer us up.”

When he disappeared through the doors that led to the restrooms, Joyce took only a moment to make her decision to leave. She was wasting too much time here; every second she wasn’t searching was a second Buffy could need her.

“Can I get these to go, please?” she asked the bartender as she stood up. Grabbing her coat, she glanced at the restrooms. It would be rude to just disappear on Doyle. If he came out while she waited for her food to be wrapped, she’d just say her goodbyes and be done with him. At least by asking about Spike, he’d sparked a new avenue of searching for her.

She hovered by the back exit as the bartender cleared her plate away. There, she heard the unmistakable sound of muffled voices from the restrooms, and frowned, taking a step closer. A female. And…Doyle?

Who was he talking to back there?

Joyce waited until the bartender had his back to her, and then slipped through the doors. On this side, the voices were clearer, and it was impossible not to hear what they were saying.

“…still here?”

“I said, I was working on it. She’s still eating her lunch. You think you can just rush these things?” Doyle sounded exasperated with the woman who had to be in the bathroom with him. Joyce’s nose wrinkled. At least she knew now they most likely weren’t having sex in there.

“But she’s going, right? You know she can’t find them, Doyle. She would probably end up getting hurt, and how cooperative do you think Buffy would be then?”

Joyce froze.

Buffy.

They were talking about Buffy.

He knew where Buffy was.

Or the woman he was with did.

“I’ll make sure she goes, all right? It’s just…” The restroom fell silent, quiet for so long that Joyce was almost ready to push the door open and pray they hadn’t stopped their conversation because one of them was using the facilities. “She makes it sound that Buffy and Spike won’t work together if it’s just the two of them. How can we be sure---?”

“We can be sure.” There was something calming about the woman’s voice, a certainty that made Joyce hesitate to interrupt. “You saw them, Doyle. Are you going to tell me that you honestly believe that Spike would do anything to hurt Buffy? Or Holly? I’ve been telling you guys all along. There’s a lot more to him than you realize. You just didn’t get the benefit of knowing that side of Spike.”

“And you did.”

“You have to trust me. Buffy is perfectly safe with Spike. They’re both stubborn as hell, and it might look like they want to kill each other, but as long as they don’t stop talking, we’ll be OK.”
She heard Doyle chuckle. “I didn’t get the impression talking was what Spike had in mind. Did you see the mistletoe?”

“Yeah, I had to talk Jenny out of going to the Powers to ask for another storm to knock it down. She doesn’t like Spike being there at all.”

“I think if Joyce knew they were shacked up together, she might have a word or two to say about that particular matter, too.”

“Which is why Mrs. Summers has to go back to Sunnydale. Doyle, you have to stop worrying about Spike and Buffy. I’ve got them under control. Your job? Go take care of Mrs. Summers. If you can’t get her to leave, at least stall her for as long as you can. Maybe you can find out what Giles said to her.”

Joyce darted back into the main room and to her booth when she heard the doorknob start to turn on the bathroom. She’d been right; something was going on, and not only did it involve Giles, but it had Buffy stuck somewhere with Spike and someone named Holly. At least she knew Buffy was all right, but she didn’t like being so deliberately manipulated. Did Doyle and his girlfriend really think she would just give up on her daughter so easily?

Though she smiled when Doyle slid onto the seat opposite her, an apology about taking so long spilling effortlessly from his lips, Joyce’s face was closed when she nodded back.

Obviously, they didn’t have kids. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have made such a foolish assumption about Joyce backing off. She would fight to the death to ensure Buffy was safe from harm.

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

It was a subdued Buffy who nudged the front door of the cabin open with her hip, her eyes burning from the sudden change in heat, her cheeks tingling as feeling began to slowly melt back into them. She blinked twice as she adjusted to the switch in brightness, and then frowned when she saw the empty living room.

“Don’t tell me. You killed her for real this time, didn’t you, Slayer?”

She jerked at the sound of Spike’s voice, head swiveling to see him leaning against the loft railing. His muscled arms gleamed beneath his black tee, and she could’ve sworn there were fresh scratches marring his biceps. Instinctively, her grip tightened around the child she held. “She’s sleeping,” Buffy whispered, tearing her gaze away as she headed for the bedroom. “I’m just going to put her down.”

He was stepping out of the bathroom, slipping something she couldn’t quite see into his pocket, when she re-emerged, and Buffy stopped in her tracks when remnants of her conversation with Holly began echoing inside her head. The talk hadn’t gone exactly as she had expected, leaving the Slayer glad that the child had fallen asleep on the long trek back to the cabin.

“He said he thought you were going to die.”

“Huh? He said what?”

“Spike said he thought you were---.”

“I heard that part. What were you two talking about that you were talking about me dying?”

“I told him I was scared sometimes.”

“Scared of me dying?”

“No. That’s what Spike’s scared of.”

That had shocked Buffy into silence.

“Buffy?”

“Yeah?”

“Why does Spike hate ducks? Is it because they quack?”

“What? Spike doesn’t…Why would you think that?”

“He said so. He said him caring about you hurt his head and that he hated the pair of ducks.”

It took Buffy a moment to realize what she was saying, but it did nothing to loosen the fist that must’ve magically burst through her chest to start squeezing her heart. “I think it’s just a vampire thing,” she’d explained, dropping her hand to absently pat Holly’s head. “Or maybe just the fact that Spike’s always been a little bit weird.”

“You look cold,” Spike observed with a casual sweep over her body. He didn’t let it linger as he sauntered to the kitchen. “Should probably do something ‘bout that before you…” He cut himself off with a shake of his head, disappearing momentarily behind the refrigerator door before coming out again with a blood bag and turning his back to her.

“I’m just going to…clean up,” Buffy said slowly, peeling her coat from her shoulders. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected on her return. He’d fed Holly before she went out, and Buffy’d not even bothered to look at him before fleeing herself, though he hadn’t tried very hard to get her attention. She supposed she probably expected him to be asleep, and she’d just try and deal with him when the need arose. She certainly hadn’t expected this distant…politeness.

She froze in the bathroom’s entrance, her hand halfway to the light switch.

There was no need for further illumination. Scattered throughout the room were more than a dozen candles, of varying shapes and sizes, all lit, all casting their dancing incandescence across the shadowed walls and floor. The sultry air made her head spin, and it took Buffy a long second to realize she was smelling some of the bath crystals she’d been secreting away to take back to Sunnydale with her.

Hesitantly, she took a step toward the full tub, hearing the bubbles that skimmed the water’s surface fizzing faintly as they settled into oblivion. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a pile of her clothes carefully folded on the top of the toilet, a fresh towel draped within easy reach of the bath’s edge, and a tray with a mug of hot chocolate on the floor.

“Been topping it up to keep it warm.”

Buffy whirled to see Spike outlined in the doorway, his face hidden by the darkness. “Why?” she blurted.

He stiffened at the abruptness of her tone, and for a second, she thought he was going to leave. “Thought you’d like it, is all,” Spike finally said, his voice taut. “Didn’t mean---.”

“It’s great. Thank you.”

Her gratitude took him by surprise. His head ducked, hiding his face even further, and Buffy had to fight the urge to close the distance between them and force him to meet her gaze again.

“Take as long as you want,” he said quietly. “I’ll keep an ear out for the little one so that you can relax.”

As he turned away, all the doubts she’d had about their fight that morning went scuttling to the back of her mind, leaving Buffy only with the need to not let him go just yet. “Are you OK?” she asked. When he glanced up at her in confusion, she gestured toward his marked arms, only then noticing that he had additional abrasions on his knuckles. “You didn’t lose a fight with the Christmas tree, did you?”

He smiled at her small joke, but shook his head. “’S’nothin’,” Spike replied. “They’ll be gone before you get out of the tub, I’ll venture. And you? You’re not too much the worse for wear from your little recreation…are you?”

When he looked her over this time, the examination was more protracted, his eyes caressing each hidden curve of her body as surely as if he’d used his hands. Each slide made Buffy shiver, and she wrapped her arms across her front in an attempt to ward away the trembling she knew was coming.

“It was fun,” she admitted. “We even found a lake that’s all frozen over and pretended to go ice skating on it.”

“Explains why the both of you are so knackered then.”

“I’m not so…” She blushed at his raised eyebrow. “OK, so I’m a little tired. Kind of hard to understand how someone so little can have so much energy. But…what about you? Were you able to get any sleep like you wanted? That was the whole purpose of getting us out of the house…right?”

For some reason, her words made him retreat. “I’ll do,” he said cryptically, and stepped back into the door’s frame. “Take your bath, Buffy. Don’t fancy havin’ to mind the both of you if you get yourself sick again.”

And with the soft click of the latch, Spike was gone.

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

She luxuriated in the scented water until the first of the candles began to flicker. Unlike her last bath, Buffy didn’t sleep through this one. She couldn’t. Her mind was too awhirl with details of the night she’d shared with Spike, and their ensuing fight, and her day with Holly, and her unexpected disappointment that he hadn’t joined her. That had been her first instinct when she’d seen the room. Rather than the apology she now believed it to be, Buffy had thought it was another of Spike’s attempts to seduce her into thinking with her libido and not her head.

It couldn’t be, though. Otherwise, he would never have left.

But…even with the unspoken concession, his words from the morning still smarted. She wanted to believe that they’d been prompted merely by the heat of the moment---because, oh god, they were so good at forgetting their situation and getting lost in back-and-forth snipes---but until they talked about it, there would always be that niggle in the back of Buffy’s brain that Spike’s statement had been truth.

The prospect of talking about it, however, terrified her. Spike was right. She liked her little bubble of denial. She liked being able to put things into their proper slots of good and evil, and she was beginning to more than suspect that Spike belonged in neither.

Holly had her own opinions on the subject. For the little girl, Spike was someone to be trusted, intuitively it would seem. Was it just ignorant naivete, or was it the wisdom of uncorrupted youth?

She was thoughtful as she toweled off, enjoying the textured rub of the terry against her skin. When she saw the black lace bra and panties set Spike had selected for her, Buffy couldn’t help but smile and shake her head at his predictability. It didn’t matter that he’d chosen an innocuous pair of jeans and turtleneck sweater to wear over them; the fact that he still picked the same underwear he’d teased her about on that first day spoke volumes.

The sound of Holly’s chatter greeted her when she opened the door, and she glanced over to see the child sitting with Spike at the dining room table. The pair sat opposite each other, with what looked to be every glass in the cabin in two semi-straight rows between them. In Spike’s hand, he held one of the Jack Daniels bottles Doyle had brought, topping off a cup in front of him as he listened to Holly finish whatever it was she’d been describing.

The creak of a floorboard beneath her foot alerted him to her presence, and Buffy froze when Spike looked up to see her. “You look…better,” he drawled, his gaze devouring her in no uncertain terms. He waved with the bottle. “Come and join the festivities. Moptop and me were just gettin’ down to playing some Christmas Eve games.”

Her incredulity rose as she approached the table. “You’re doing shots?” Buffy said in amazement as she gaped at the glasses. The scent of the whisky made her nose tickle. “Spike, she’s three.”

“Which is why she’s got hot chocolate.” Rolling his eyes, he turned away from the Slayer and leaned across the table toward Holly. “Told you she’d have a stick up her ass ‘bout it,” he mock-whispered.

Holly giggled before turning bright eyes to Buffy. “Do you want to play?” she asked.

Spike didn’t allow her to answer. “’Course she doesn’t,” he said. He set the Jack aside as he leaned back in his chair, one hand toying with the cup he’d just filled, the other hooking through one of his belt loops, inevitably drawing Buffy’s gaze down to his sprawling legs. “That would mean admitting she leapt before she looked, which goes against her precious Slayer code.”

It was a dare, and Buffy knew it. Lifting her chin to meet the taunt in his eyes, she deliberately reached for the whisky bottle. “So, have you completely raided the cupboards?” she asked. “Or are there enough glasses to let me in on the fun?”

 

To be continued in Chapter 25: Up on the Housetop