DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy, Spike, and Holly are about to celebrate Christmas Eve, snowbound-style, while Joyce has overheard Doyle talking to someone about the fact that Buffy is alive and kicking…

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

Chapter 25: Up on the Housetop

Truth be told, Doyle was rather pleased with himself. The girls’ instructions had been simple and straightforward, and outside of the one glitch where he’d panicked on Joyce’s opinion on Buffy and Spike, he didn’t think his scheme to get Mrs. Summers back on the road to Sunnydale was working out too badly. In fact, knowing that she was still sitting opposite him with full awareness the sun was shrinking on the horizon was cause for celebration, in his book. Too bad he couldn’t have a drink to do so.

He watched as she closed her cell phone and set it down on the table. “Nobody matching Spike’s description has shown up at any of the nearby hospitals,” Joyce said.

Doyle nodded in what he hoped appeared like genuine sympathy. Upon his return to the table, she had probed his thoughts on following the Spike lead, and when it was apparent it was a bone she wasn’t going to stop gnawing, he’d made the suggestion to check around anywhere he might’ve gone to for medical assistance. “Just to be safe,” he’d said. He’d even tossed out the possibility of other hotels---.”

“Not that I think that your daughter would do anything she shouldn’t,” he’d assured hastily when Joyce appeared to take what he was saying the wrong way. “I’m sure she’s a perfectly well-behaved girl. Look at who she’s got for a role model.” His most charming smile had seemed to placate her, but not enough to shake loose the idea, and she’d ended up agreeing that maybe his advice was the best for Buffy.

Frankly, he didn’t care how many people she called. As long as she didn’t go back out on the road to look for the Slayer, his job was done.

“Where are you staying?” Joyce asked.

The question came out of the blue, but Doyle grinned to cover up how it had startled him. “I’ll be hitting the road again here fairly soon,” he said. “Places to go, people to see, you know. My partners will want me to be checking in with them for updates on how things are going.”

“You never actually told me what it is you do.”

He waved a hand in dismissal. “My job’s all milk and water. Nothing to be writing home about.”

“But it keeps you busy.”

Her sudden interest in him and not Buffy or Spike made Doyle nervous, and he shifted awkwardly in his seat. “You could say that,” he answered warily.

“I could also say that I think you’re a lousy liar. Would that be very far from the truth?”

There was no guile in her face, and her eyes were unblinking as she waited for him to respond. It was a patented mother look, and not one Doyle had been subjected to since---well, since the girls had guilted him into getting Joyce Summers back to Sunnydale. He only wondered what he’d done that had given him away.

“Now that’s not a very nice thing to say,” he said. “And here I thought we were getting along so well.”

“That was before I found out you were just playing me for some kind of sap,” Joyce countered. She leaned far enough across the table to give them a sense of privacy, and circled his wrist with a tight grip. “I don’t know what’s going on here, or why it’s so important for me to not be looking for Buffy and Spike, but something tells me that you have all the answers I need. I don’t think either of us need to be going anywhere until you start telling me what in hell is going on.”

Carefully, he pried away her fingers, casting a sideways glance at the bartender who seemed to be too busy watching a colorized version of “Miracle on 34th Street” on his small television behind the counter to notice them. “There’s nothing to tell,” Doyle said.

“Oh? So you’re not having clandestine bathroom meetings about Buffy and Spike? I must’ve forgotten to take my medication this morning because I could’ve sworn I heard a voice saying your job was to keep me from finding my daughter. Or was it to pry information out of me about Rupert? It wasn’t completely clear from where I was standing.”

Well, at least he knew now how she found him out.

Doyle sighed. “I don’t suppose it’ll do any good to just hear that your daughter’s doing dandy, will it?” At her silence, he shook his head. “I didn’t think so.”

“Where is she? What happened? Is Spike with her? What happened to Rupert? Who exactly are you? And why are you trying to keep me from finding Buffy?”

Each question rose in volume, until by the last, even the bartender had torn his eyes away from his movie to glance in their direction. “Keep it down,” Doyle hissed. “Trust me. You don’t want that kind of attention.”

“It is if it’s going to give me the answers I want.”

“It’s going to get you kicked out of here, that’s what it’s going to do.”

“Then maybe the police will listen to me. They can’t just ignore me if I’ve got a witness who’ll testify about Buffy.”

“They’ll just think you’re a nutter, Joyce. I told you. I’m a ghost to these people around here. I meant that literally.”

The disclosure did what he’d hoped. It shut her up. Of course, it also attracted the last person he wanted to see right now, and Doyle ducked his eyes at the form that materialized at the table’s side.

“She overheard us,” he volunteered before the new arrival could say anything. “What else was I to do?”

“I know,” the young woman sighed. She smiled at the edgy astonishment in Joyce’s face. “Hello, Mrs. Summers.”

“You…he…” Reaching out, Joyce poked at Doyle’s shoulder, wincing when her finger bent backwards against his flesh.

“Magic,” he explained. “A necessary precaution for the job I needed to do.”

“Who are you?” she asked, turning to the young woman. Joyce’s pass at reconciling the ghost’s solidity was determined when her hand moved right through the skirt that seemed so real, and she swallowed before adding, “Maybe that should be, what are you?”

“We’re friends,” the young woman said quietly. “And there’s a lot we need to tell you. Would it be all right…maybe we could talk about all this in your hotel room?”

For a moment, he wasn’t sure what the elder Summers was going to do, but when the tentative nod finally came, he watched as his partner stepped aside to allow Joyce room to slide from her seat, giving her a wide berth when she began walking toward the door.

“Jenny’s not going to like this,” Doyle commented, rising to join his partner.

“Jenny hasn’t liked any of this since I got permission to include Spike,” came the rejoinder. Together, they began following Joyce out. “Jenny’s just going to have to live with it. Or you know…” She smiled at him when he chuckled at her small pun. “…not.”

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

“That’s not fair.” Buffy’s voice seemed too loud in the growing heat of the cabin, though she didn’t know if the added warmth was due to the roaring fire in the hearth or the effects of the whisky in her veins. Fire, she decided. Can’t get drunk on just a few shots.

Spike shrugged, an exercise in nonchalance, but the bright gleam in his eye was in direct opposition with his assumed aplomb. “It’s pidge’s call,” he said. “Her turn, her pick.”

“But it’s not a game if you automatically win.”

“It’s not about who wins, pet. It’s about who loses. You tellin’ me you can’t hold your breath longer than a three-year-old?”

She turned to Holly, who was watching the exchange with growing boredom. “Pick something else,” Buffy instructed.

“Don’t listen to her. You made your choice, you stick to your guns.”

“Spike doesn’t breathe. It’s not a fair choice.”

“Since when do I care about fair?”

“It’s bad enough you’re corrupting me. I’m not about to let you start in on an innocent little girl.”

“Oh, so is that the bug up your skirt, luv? Big Bad William has sullied the Slayer’s honor? Boo bloody hoo.”

“Get over yourself.”

“Funny, but it’s just a mite more pleasurable when you get over me.”

“I have to pee.”

Both blond heads swivelled to stare at the little girl they had forgotten about as she hopped down from her chair and walked over to the bathroom, closing the door shut behind her and leaving them in silence.

“Guess that’s that,” Buffy declared. “Game called on account of rain.” Before she could stop herself, the giggles erupted from her throat, and she dropped her head onto the table as her shoulders shook.

Grabbing the half-empty whisky bottle, Spike rose and began gathering the glasses. “That’s it. I’m cutting you off.”

“Why?” Her voice was muffled from where her face remained pressed to the wood.

“Someone’s drunk.”

“No, I’m not.” She shook her head to accompany her denial, and then she abruptly sat back up, rubbing her forehead. “Ow.”

“Guess it’s a good thing you’re such a lightweight, Slayer,” he commented. He held the bottle up to the light, tilting it to watch the amber liquid inside run freefall against the glass. “This might just last me to the New Year after all.”

“Why do you do that?”

The pout in her voice diverted his attention away from the alcohol and back to Buffy, a frown drawing his brows together. “Do what?”

“Call me Slayer. I don’t walk around calling you ‘vampire.’”

“’Cause I’ve already been told off once ‘bout swearing in front of the tidbit.”

“I’m serious, Spike.”

“And you think I’m not?”

She was on her feet at that, closing the distance between them until she had backed him up against the counter. To his credit, he didn’t shy away from the approach. In fact, he merely reached behind him to set the whisky down before folding his arms across his chest.

“I know you think this is all fun and games,” Buffy continued. “Believe me, you’ve made yourself perfectly clear on the matter. But one of these days, someone could lose an eye or a liver or something, and then where would the fun be?” She poked him in emphasis. The desire to tell him exactly what she thought of his purpose in seducing her the night before---because that was how she was going to view it, damn it; if he wanted to fuck her to make her nicer, then he was damn well going to get the blame for it happening in the first place---had been building ever since she’d come out of the bathroom and settled in to play the silly shots dare game he and Holly had created. She’d had to refrain from saying anything during the game, though, even when it became obvious the two of them were conspiring to cheat against Buffy. There was no other way she could’ve lost so many of the rounds.

Spike was motionless. “I’m sure you’ve got a point in there somewhere,” he drawled.

“My point…” She poked him again, but for the longest second as her fingertip pressed into his shirt, Buffy became transfixed with the memory of what lay beneath the black cotton, the way his skin had seethed against hers, stealing her heat as its own…the suggestion of its tang against her tongue when she’d been straddled behind him, tasting the sinew of his neck before she’d moved around to swallow down the head of his dripping cock. Unbidden, her breath began to quicken, and she jerked her hand away as she struggled to clear her head.

What was I saying?

Oh, right. I was mad at him.

Why was I mad at him?

Oh. Right.

“My point,” Buffy repeated, this time just pointing a wary finger at him, “is that internal organs are fragile, and just because yours don’t work anymore, doesn’t mean you have the right to go messing with mine.”

She tilted her chin, proud that she’d stated her opinion on the matter so clearly. Take that, stupid vampire, she thought. I can so be a grown-up and tell you how I feel, even if you’re being an obnoxious, conceited jerk.

The effect was spoiled, however, when her tongue seemed to stick out of its own volition and she turned to flounce away.

Spike’s hand on her arm jerked her to a halt, more out of the fact that her head was suddenly dizzy than any force he might’ve exerted. “Did I miss the part where we stopped talkin’ about the game and moved onto something else?” he asked. His eyes were dark as they searched her face, and Buffy noticed that he wasn’t letting go of her, though she had already used the expanse of his chest to steady herself against the spinniness of the room.

“Oh, you mean I wasn’t clear?” she stated in faux innocence. “I didn’t make it one hundred percent proof positive what Buffy’s intentions were? Wherever could I have learned that little trick from?”

Yanking her arm away, she stumbled back against the table, but quickly righted herself. It felt good to say some of the things that had been tumbling around inside her head all day, and if Spike didn’t get completely get it, well, then, that was his fault, wasn’t it? He’d been all over the mood map ever since they woke up, with pit stops in the suburbs of snarky and distant downtown, to name just a few. Why did Buffy have to play by different rules?

“What the hell are you goin’ on about?” Spike demanded. “If memory serves, I’m the one who’s got his head on straight in this scenario. Eighty-sixed your power trip, didn’t I?”

“Which I still don’t get, by the way.”

“Your problem. Not mine.”

“No, you’re my problem, Spike. You, and your baths, and the saving me when I really didn’t ask you to, and then conning Holly into thinking you like her---.”

“Leave the tidbit out of this.”

His voice had dropped to a menacing level, but Buffy was oblivious to his rising ire. “Is it a thrall thing?” she went on. She was on a roll. “Did you learn that little trick from Drusilla? Offer up some sweet talk, and a few games which seem fun on the outside but on the inside turn her head all squishy, and she’s falling at your feet, as if she doesn’t know you’re a killer, and dangerous, and would drain her dry if you didn’t have a piece of plastic in your head that turns you into Spaz Boy if you even think about it?”

“I’ve never pretended to be anything I’m not.”

“And yet, she still adores you. Worse, she trusts you. And you’re just going to rip her heart out because you’re going to fail her, Spike. You’re going to screw up, and Holly’s going to get hurt, and you’re not going to care that she put herself out there only to find out that it was all a ploy because all you’re interested in is making your life easier.”

And then he was there, and he was so close she had to lean back into the table to get some breathing room because his mouth was inches from hers, and his hands were rigid where they balled into fists on either side of her hips and all she wanted to do was touch him and taste him and devour him and feel him doing the same to her, and she hated that she still felt the weakness of the attraction even knowing what she did about how he felt about the whole matter.

“You might want to reconsider your logic, pet,” Spike growled. “And be glad that your livelihood isn’t contingent on you makin’ with the Van Owen. Because you know jack about what I’m interested in, and if you’re goin’ to bandy about ridiculous accusations about what makes my life easier, you might want to have a stake handy for when I decide to hell with my little chip problem and get rid of you, once and for all. Because there is nothing easy in feeling what I do about you. Nothing.”

His tongue poked out beneath his teeth with his over-enunciation of that last word, a vicious score along her flesh even if Buffy wasn’t sure that had been his intention when he uttered it. Confusion made her swallow to try and dispel the dry mouth that had cottoned her mouth, and she blinked more than once in a vain attempt to regain some clarity.

“We were talking about Holly,” she managed.

“Were we?”

“I was.”

“Don’t think so, pet.”

“You know what’s in my head now?”

“I’ve got no bloody clue what’s in your head any more. I just know what comes past those lying lips of yours.”

“I don’t lie!”

“Should I step back now before you poke my eye out, Pinocchio?”

“I don’t lie!”

“Repeating yourself don’t make it true.”

“I don’t---.” She cut herself off at his raised eyebrow, and shoved him away. “I hate you.”

Her declaration was meant to put an end to the discussion, once and for all. She didn’t want this. Holly would be walking out any minute now, and she’d see the two of them fighting, and all Buffy’s work in being the girl’s friend today would get tossed out the window because no way would the kid take Spike’s side against anything, even if the stupid vampire was dead wrong, and a jerk, and---.

She turned to stare at the bathroom door. “Is it just me or has Holly been in there for an awful long time?” she queried.

It was an observation that apparently hadn’t occurred to Spike before Buffy made it, and she padded after him when he marched to the door. For a moment, his hand lifted to knock, but when he caught the Slayer watching him with raised brows, he grimaced and wrenched the door open.

“Time’s up---,” he started to say.

Buffy plowed into Spike’s back when he stopped in the doorway, reeling slightly as she grabbed the jamb. “Did we switch to playing statues?” she asked, and then peeked around his shoulder.

“Looks like someone’s had her fill of celebrating,” Spike said softly.

Holly was on the toilet, her pants around her ankles, her body slumped as her chin rested on her chest. In spite of the uncomfortable position, the child was fast asleep, her slow and even breathing betraying her body’s slumber.

“How does she do that?” Buffy whispered. She watched as Spike stepped forward and crouched in front of Holly to peer into her face.

“A little help here would be appreciated,” he commented.

Quickly, the pair cleaned up the little girl, and though they moved and jostled her as needed to redress her, Holly never woke, not even mumbling when Spike lifted her into his arms.

“Must be nice,” Buffy murmured, pushing back the hair that had fallen over Holly’s cheek.

“What?” Spike asked.

“To be able to just give in like that,” she replied. “Her body said it was time to sleep, so she went to sleep. Seems…easy.”

He gave no reply, just looked at her for what felt like forever, before brushing past to take the child to her bed. Buffy followed after them, but when Spike disappeared into the bedroom, all the fight that had been wound throughout her body seemed to vanish.

Spike found her sitting in front of the fireplace, the poker laying forgotten in her hand, when he came back.

“Think the nipper’s got the right idea,” he said, falling onto the cushions of the couch. “A spot of sleep sounds like my idea of heaven, right about now.”

“What’re you complaining about?” Buffy replied. She didn’t bother turning to look at him, continuing her fascination with the flames that leapt in the hearth. “You slept all day.”

“If you say so.” She heard him sniff. “What’re you doin’ to that fire?”

“I’m not doing anything.”

Another sniff, and this time, the couch groaned as he shifted his weight on it. “Well, what did you do while I was puttin’ the girl down?”

“I told you, I didn’t do anything.” Buffy jerked out of his way as Spike appeared at her side, taking the poker from her grasp to poke at the charred logs. Immediately, a shower of sparks came spraying onto the floor, forcing both of them to scuttle away, but it was the accompanying cloud of smoke that caught Buffy’s attention.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

Spike was already heading to the door, grabbing his coat from where it was draped over a chair. “Something’s blocking it,” he replied. “Unless you feel like choking to death in your sleep, someone’s got to clear the rubbish away.”

She watched the door after he’d gone. It was things like this that made her want to scream, she realized. Contradiction, after contradiction, after contradiction. If Spike was a normal vampire, he would’ve just kept his mouth shut, let Buffy and Holly die from asphyxiation by morning, and been free of whatever tethers he felt they were. But no. Instead, he was outside---.

There was a dull thud overhead, and Buffy tilted her head back to stare at the ceiling.

---make that on the roof, fixing the fireplace so that the Slayer and a child he should have absolutely no interest in could live another day. Vampires didn’t do that.

And Slayers weren’t supposed to care, but that was a proviso that was rapidly slipping into oblivion, even as Buffy listed all the reasons in her head that she shouldn’t go after him.

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

He did it more to get away from her. He hadn’t been lying about something obstructing the flue, but taking care of it had been minor compared to his need to be free of the constant reminder of Buffy and her incessant metaphors where she came off as the injured party. She’d been edgy during the entire shots game that he and Holly had constructed, losing more often than was necessary, and Spike couldn’t help but question whether or not she was deliberately using the alcohol as a means of escape.

If he had more than the two bottles, he knew he would’ve been doing that very thing.

He didn’t get her. He’d swallowed his pride and apologized with the bath, even though he didn’t know what the fuck he’d done wrong that morning, and still it wasn’t good enough for Buffy. If she knew what he’d spent his day doing, would she still be mad? He didn’t know. He didn’t care.

Fuck.

Yes, he did.

That’s what pissed him off so much.

Didn’t mean he was going to give in to her whinging.

Maintaining his balance on the roof was harder with the ice that had crusted beneath the snow, and Spike had to grab onto the branches that hung overhead to keep himself steady as he made his way to the chimney. Even before he reached it, though, he could see what had blocked it up.

Like a thick finger beckoning to the devil, a tree limb had snapped from the weight of the snow, falling to the roof to become embedded in the chimney. Most of it extruded from the narrow opening, but there was enough inside to prevent the free flow of the smoke, hence the acrid scents he’d detected in the cabin. Planting his feet on either side of the stack, Spike reached through the prickly needles to grab the shaft, tugging it free and pushing it over the far edge. It disappeared from sight, landing with a muffled swish down below, and he wiped his hands on his jeans to get rid of the icy dirt.

“Wow. There really was something up here. I thought you were just kidding.”

He stiffened at the sound of her voice. “Yeah, well, it’s all safe as houses for Kris Kringle now, so you can just skedaddle back to your warm delusions and leave the Big Bad to finish the clean-up, all right?”

She deliberately stepped in front of him when he tried to retrace his steps back down, hands on either hip as she glared up at him. Moonlight filtered through the canopy above to turn Buffy’s hair to silver, and Spike felt the familiar pull in his stomach at the smoky aspect in her eyes. So bloody beautiful. His fingers were twitching to touch her, and he almost growled aloud at his body’s betrayal to his mood.

“Get back inside,” he snarled instead. “You’re goin’ to fall on your ass and break your bloody neck out here.”

“What makes me think you’d be the one to cushion my fall?” she accused.

“You don’t watch it, I’ll be the one who pushes you over,” he warned.

“You couldn’t do it.”

“Could. Just can’t because of the hardware, remember?”

“Was it worth it?” Buffy demanded. “Are you happy with yourself now?”

“For clearing the chimney? Yeah, I’m just rollin’ in the aisles, can’t you tell?”

“Stop it!” The force of her voice made her stumble on the slippery slope, and Spike’s hand shot out automatically to catch her before she toppled over the side. She ended up pressed to his chest, only the faintest of alcoholic fumes still clinging to her breath as she tilted her head back to look at him.

“There,” she stated, though her voice was barely a whisper. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

The familiarity of her pulse against him made his muscles relax of their own accord, and Spike sighed against the injustice of it all. “You’re drunk, Buffy,” he said quietly. “You’re not makin’ any sense.”

“Then that makes two of us.” Her eyes scanned his, but what she was looking for, he had no idea. “I don’t get you, Spike,” she said. “I thought…I mean, last night, it made sense, and it even made a sort of sense this morning, but then you didn’t make sense, or maybe too much, and then Holly, god, trying to get sense out of her is impossible because she’s all about the you being scared which makes no kind of sense, and I don’t know if it’s because she’s three or really smart or really dumb or maybe all of the above, you know?” She stopped to breathe, and hung her head. “I really must be drunk because I have no idea what I just said.”

Reaching out, Spike canted her head back up with a single finger beneath her chin. “Why did you come up here, pet?”

Her breath was a wispy cloud as she fought to find the words. “Because you make me hurt,” she finally admitted.

His hand fell away, and his shoulders straightened. He should’ve known she’d only meant to drive the knife in a little deeper, but for a second there, Spike had actually believed she might say something real for a change.

“It all hurts,” she was saying. “My head, and my heart, and I’m tired of trying to figure out why I care that it hurts. I keep telling myself that you’re evil, but then there’s the bath and you being all thoughtful and---.”

“Wait. Go back.” Hope returned, and in that moment, Spike didn’t hate it. “What was that bit ‘bout your heart?”

“Oh, no, you don’t.” A warning finger waved in front of his face. “You know darn well what you did.”

“If I did, would I be asking?”

“Yes, because you’re evil and you just want to make me stew in it.”

“Humor me, Buffy. Let’s pretend I have no bloody clue what you’re talkin’ about.” He stuffed his traitorous hands deep into his duster’s pockets, determined not to yield to the urge to just say to hell with his pride and grab her right there and then. “What, exactly, does your heart have to do with anything?”

She was going to run, he could tell, and this time, Spike was going to let her. He was tired of playing chase when it was barefacedly obvious that she wanted to be anywhere but around him. He had better things---.

“Because last night meant something to me,” Buffy said quickly. Her heartbeat was pounding in his ears, against his skin, enlivening him when he’d thought he was past feeling. “And…I hate that it didn’t to you. Are you satisfied now? You got what you wanted.”

“And what was that?” His voice was hoarse. She couldn’t be saying what he thought she was saying.

She also couldn’t meet his eyes. “I care, all right?” Her arms hugged her body, as if to shield herself from his response. “You got me to care about you, you jerk.”

 

To be continued in Chapter 26: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas