DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike has surprised everyone by having gifts for Holly on Christmas morning, while Maria has informed Giles that he will keep himself in line or something untoward will happen to Joyce…

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

Chapter 29: You Can Do the Job When You're in Town

With the smile plastered on her face for the second hour running that morning, Joyce couldn’t shake the sound of her mother’s voice out of her head, words she hadn’t considered in decades haunting her more viciously than any of these three ghosts so determined to impede her search for Buffy.

“Keep it up, and your face will freeze like that, young lady. Do you want to look like Aunt Dottie? There’s a reason the dogs are afraid of her, you know.”

She couldn’t bring herself to stop, though. Doyle was doing everything he could to keep her distracted from the truth of the situation, and though there was undoubtedly a certain charm to his attention, it was beginning to wear thin. Just like her patience. Was there a statute of limitations on how many drinking stories one person could tell?

None of this was helping Buffy. It was all a concerted effort to bore her into submission, Joyce was convinced. To make her give up looking for her daughter and return to Sunnydale to pretend nothing was amiss, when in actuality, everything was wrong.

This was not the way to spend Christmas.

“Are you all right?” Doyle asked for what felt like the hundredth time that morning. “Still hungry, maybe?”

Joyce shook her head, glancing down at the half-eaten bacon croissant he’d managed to find for her. “Just not feeling very festive at the moment,” she said.

“You know what I hear is festive? Your house back in Sunnydale. Comes complete with all the trimmings, and yours for the simple price of a tank of gas.” When she just gazed at him in silence, he grinned. “Can’t blame a bloke for trying, now can you? And I still think it’s the best for you. You can’t do anything around here, Joyce. You do, and Buffy could end up getting hurt, and we both don’t want that.”

Abruptly, she rose to her feet, prompting Doyle to hop up and immediately block her path to the door. “I want to take a walk,” she said. “I need to clear my head and doing it in a hotel room that looks like it should feature in one of those expose-your-spouse’s-affair videos on Sally Jessy isn’t exactly the best place for me to do it.”

“But…there’s nothing open,” Doyle argued. “It’s Christmas morning.”

“And yet another good reason not to be stuck inside the Huckleberry Motel-a-rama, don’t you think?” Taking a risk, she pushed past him to reach her coat, stopping only when his hand closed over hers in the fabric.

“Give me your keys.”

“Excuse me?”

“In the words of the almighty judge, Joyce, you’re a flight risk. I let you out of my sight, I need to make sure you’re not going to sneak off and do something crazy like go looking for Buffy on your own. The girls would skin me alive if I lost you. If I was alive to skin, that is.”

She regarded him for a long moment, ignoring his feeble attempts to joke his way past her determination. Fresh air was fresh air. Maybe it was all she needed to find the solution to her situation. Inspiration often struck in the strangest ways.

“Deal,” Joyce said. She waited until he released his grip, and then slid her hand into the coat pocket to extract the key ring. “I won’t be gone too long. My thin California blood can’t handle the cold for extended periods of time.”

When he joined her in a smile, Joyce knew it was merely lip service. She would’ve frozen solid the previous day before stopping her search and they both knew it. Still, it was nice to have someone at least pretend to be on her side.

It was turning out to be the loneliest Christmas Joyce could remember having.

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

The streets of the small town echoed in silence, the vestiges of a bedraggled holiday season hanging limply from telephone lines, a torn banner declaring “Merry Christmas” wreathing the main drag. Nobody noticed the dark van park along the ditch a quarter-mile away from the blinking red stoplight because there was no one around to see. It worked out well. Fewer bodies to leave in his wake.

His long rubber coat oozed like black tar around his seven-foot form as he strode toward the hotel. He didn’t need it for the cold---his species was impervious to the inclement changes of the atmosphere surrounding them---but the garment served other purposes more valuable than weathercoating. Containing the venomous slime that slicked his body before he was ready to use it as a weapon, it also did so without seeping into the fabric. He’d ruined more than one good coat that way.

Dark glasses hid his obsidian eyes from the glaring reflection of the sun off the snow as he stopped in his paces. A woman had just exited the building at which he was aimed. Closer inspection told him it was the same woman Maria had ordered him to find. Good luck, that. Potentially, he could do this without destroying any personal property. Maria had requested as part of his service that it happen with as little attention from outsiders as possible. With a bonus involved, he would most definitely take any advantage he could get.

Her head was tilted down as she began walking around the edge of the building. Lost in thought. That was good. Her distraction would make this simple.

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

Maybe if I spoke with Jenny again. Maybe I can convince her Buffy needs me.

But she knew it was fruitless. Jenny had been firmer than her partners combined that Joyce stay out of it, looking upon her interference in much the same way Rupert sometimes made her feel when it came to Buffy’s slaying. He didn’t mean to, but there was the unmistakable air in his treatment of Joyce that anything demonic was beyond her realm of expertise, and that she would be better off tying on an apron and playing the mom role she’d been delegated. Most of the time, she let it slide. Being Mom was hard enough.

Now, however, was not one of those times.

The fresh air was startlingly fortifying, prickling her nose before taking a direct path into her veins to send them racing in renewed vigor. She inhaled once, twice, a third time, each second her lungs expanding one more step toward clarity. Maybe she could make a deal with Doyle. Surely there could be a compromise that could be reached---.

An acrid trail of something wafting up from behind made her eyes burn, and Joyce’s pace faltered as her senses went into automatic alert. Hands buried in her pockets searched for anything that could be a weapon, and she winced at the memory of passing over her heavy keyring to Doyle. She could use it just about now, and not just to drive the hell away. Without the ring, the only thing she had was a Tic-Tac box and what felt like a quarter. Unless whatever it was trailing her had a phobia of fresh breath, she was royally screwed.

It was the crunch of snow beneath a heavy tread that made her start to angle more quickly back toward the hotel. Inside. She’d go inside. Maybe it had an invite issue like vampires. Plus, she had Doyle to help her out.

And if it turned out to be one of the greasy truckers from the bar who’d just had an unfortunate accident with a cracked engine block, Joyce was going to get back into her car and drive back to Sunnydale because clearly she was just too stupid to do Buffy any actual good.

She caught a reflection in a passing window that stopped her breath.

Damn.

Even it wasn’t a demon---which she highly doubted---anything that tall and that ugly could not be anything but bad news.

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

The girls were going to kill him for letting her go.

“Keep an eye on her,” they’d said. “Don’t let her out of your sight.” And then Jenny’s, “She’s crafty. Not all of Buffy’s skills come from being the Slayer, you know.”

And he’d let her walk right out the door. OK, so she didn’t have her car keys, but he had a sneaky feeling that wouldn’t make a difference to Joyce Summers.

He was dead. Deader. He had to fix this.

Grabbing the spare room key, Doyle was out the door and scurrying toward the front lobby before another moment of his self-berating could color his mood. Maybe he’d just watch her from the front. If she really was just taking a walk, she wouldn’t disappear very far and he wouldn’t lose what little bit of trust he’d gained with her.

He smelled it far before reaching the lobby, though. Like rotten eggs with a three-day-old dirty nappy chaser. There was no mistaking that particular stench. And it wasn’t good.

All he had to do was follow his nose, but when it came to chasing it down, Doyle didn’t have to run far. The Ijua demon was just rounding the corner of the building out of his view when Doyle flew through the exit, and he broke into a dead run to try and intercept it.

He had no doubts it was here for Joyce. Ijuas were demons for hire, specializing in slow torture, and more than a few of them had been involved in the attack on Holly’s previous guardians. Maria had a soft spot for working with them, but how she’d learned of Joyce’s presence---or that she cared enough about it to act so decisively, one way or another---was not a debate subject Doyle had time to contemplate.

“Hey!” he shouted when he got the demon back in his sights. It stopped, and turned enough for Doyle to see Joyce just a few feet ahead. At the sound of his voice, she halted as well, and though he wanted to shout at her to keep going, he couldn’t afford to divert any more attention away from the Ijua.

“Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you,” he continued nonchalantly. He slowed to a walk, grateful that the expenditure of energy was mostly done. He’d always hated that part of the good fight. “Are the fumes going to your head, too? I’d forgotten how bad you guys reek.”

It wore a coat to cover its deadly slime, a fact for which Doyle was glad, but its eyes were hidden by a pair of sunglasses left over from a Miami Vice rerun. “Run away, little man,” it rumbled. “You might have a chance to live then.”

“Unfortunately, I’ve filled my running quota for the day. Looks like you’re stuck with me.”

“Pray to your gods, then. You are about to meet your end.”

If he’d had time to react, Doyle would’ve rolled his eyes at the Ijua’s stuffiness. No sense of style, these guys, but that was an observation for another day. Right now, he had to do what he could to get out of the bastard’s path.

It lumbered forward with a grace not obvious from its size. Though he didn’t see a weapon in its hands, Doyle wasn’t willing to take the risk, and darted sideways and around, putting himself between Joyce and the hulking form. Swiftly, he reached into his pocket and extracted the keyring she’d relinquished earlier and tossed it backward without a glance, hearing it clatter to the concrete.

“Suggest you find your inner Kerouac,” Doyle shouted to Joyce, ducking a wild swing from the Ijua. “This could get a little ugly. And that doesn’t even count having to see this guy without his clothes on.”

It was a spur of the moment decision. She might run, but she’d be alive. If she was alive, she was locatable. A dead Joyce was simply not acceptable.

The demon had given up talking in its determination to exterminate Doyle as a competitor. When it became obvious his punches were doing little when they did manage to land, the Ijua slithered out of his coat, revealing the dark green slime of its skin.

“Hate to break it to you,” Doyle said, “but---.”

He grunted when a heavy backhand connected with his jaw, sending him sprawling to the ground. A viscous trail smeared across his skin, and he wiped at it with barely disguised repulsion as he rose back to his feet.

“That wasn’t very nice,” he complained.

For the first time, the Ijua paused. “You…stand,” it said, confusion faltering his words.

“And I sit, and I walk, and I’ve even been known to dosey-doe, given enough alcohol. Or a pretty girl. I’ve always been a sucker for a pretty face.”

“But…but…”

“I should be writhing around on the ground, screaming because you’ve melted away half my face?” Doyle plunged his hand into the snowbank, wiping the excess slime from his skin. “That would be true if I was alive, mate. But I’m not. But I’m guessing you didn’t know that.”

The respite in the fight allowed Doyle the opportunity to glance past the demon and see the empty parking lot stretched out behind him. Good. Joyce had managed to escape. He’d done at least one thing right.

News that he wasn’t going to be claiming two victims impelled the Ijua to turn away from his failed massacre, nose lifted to sniff out his favored target. Doyle frowned when the demon began marching out toward the street and away from the hotel, and darted forward to see what might have garnered his attention.

“She’s long gone,” he said in a futile attempt to distract him. “You might as well pack it up and tell Maria you blundered on this one. I hear she’s very forgiving of people that screw up her orders.”

Nothing. Not even a glance back.

He hadn’t felt this ignored since Cordy had first started working with Angel.

“Maybe we can make a deal,” he tried again. “I’m sure whatever Maria’s paying you---.”

Doyle was cut off by the sudden roar of an engine, and he jumped back just in time to see a Jeep slam into the Ijua he’d been following, sending it flying through the air to land with a sickening crunch on the concrete several dozen yards away. Behind the wheel, a very determined-looking Joyce stared ahead with white-knuckled determination, and it was a long moment before she relaxed enough to turn the key in the ignition.

“Is it dead?” she asked when she climbed out of the car.

She stopped in front of her dented grille, and both of them looked in the direction of the supine demon, motionless and silent except for the audible sizzle of its slime against the ice.

“Can’t be,” Doyle said. “Only way to kill Ijuas is to set them on fire.”

“It was going to kill me.” She seemed slightly dazed by the statement, as if the plausibility of being important enough to be assassinated had never occurred to her. “Is this about Buffy?”

“That would be one of the safest bets I’d ever make.”

“But why? I don’t even know where she is. Shouldn’t they be trying to kill you? I mean, if they could, of course.”

Doyle shrugged. “Who knows how Maria thinks?” he replied. “Maybe she got bored this morning. The important thing is, you’re safe. Now, c’mon. We should get out of here while he’s still out cold.”

But Joyce wasn’t moving. “This could be about Rupert,” she mused out loud. “You told me she kidnapped him. Maybe he’s in trouble.”

“He’s been in trouble since Maria decided she needed him for whatever part she cast him in this little drama of hers.”

“We have to help him.”

He was growing impatient, especially since he could see the Ijua starting to stir in the distance. “We can’t do that if you’re dead. Can we go, please?”

This time, she complied with his request, and climbed back into the Jeep with Doyle sliding in beside her. “There’s got to be a way we can help, though,” Joyce said. She turned the key, shifting into reverse. “I mean, if she sent him, won’t he know where she is? Maybe we can---.”

His hand shot out and grabbed the wheel, stopping her from pulling away from the hotel. “Wait.” His thoughtful gaze returned to the demon on the ground. “Maybe there is a way for us to turn this around for us.”

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

When she felt the tug at the hem of her shirt, Buffy looked away from the dish she was rinsing to see Holly holding up her plate in expectation. “There’s still food there,” the Slayer said. “I thought I said you had to eat the whole thing.”

“But…I ate a whole inch.”

Behind both of them, Spike snorted. “That’s nothin’, pidge,” he said. “Slayer here ate a good five or six before even gettin’ outta bed this mornin’---.”

“Spike!”

“What? Am I wrong?”

She ignored his faux innocent query, and turned her attention back to Holly. “Are you still hungry?” she asked.

A small shake of the head.

“Well, it is Christmas---.”

The plate was shoved into her hands before she could finish the sentence, and Buffy watched as the child went running back to the toys she’d abandoned when lunch had been announced. She’d been gleefully playing ever since getting them, chattering happily to Baby as she tucked her away into the new cradle, pretending the bowling pins Spike kept calling skittles---Wasn’t that a candy? Couldn’t the English ever call anything by its right name?---were various items of food as she played house. It had been cute, but more importantly, it had kept Holly out of Buffy’s hair while she did her best to get her brain around this new development.

They hadn’t spoken, but there’d been no need to, the casual touches where Spike let his fingers trail over her arm when she passed by, and the glances he shot her through his lashes when he thought she wasn’t looking, conveying more than if they’d used their mouths. It was probably just as well. With the exception of a handful of times, every opportunity she and Spike had to talk things out usually ended with some misunderstanding and a fight, and Buffy didn’t want that for today.

Today was Christmas. The season of giving.

For being stuck in the middle of nowhere, hiding a kid from demonic forces Buffy couldn’t begin to imagine---mostly because nobody would tell her a damn thing about them---and having a Watcher MIA, it was turning out to be a pretty darn good holiday.

She felt him approach her from behind, his hands skimming down her sides before settling on her hips.

“Wanna be my Christmas pudding, pet?” he murmured into her ear. He nibbled at the tender skin. “Could set you on fire and then eat you, good and proper.”

“Later,” she hissed, casting a sideways glance at Holly.

“Spoilsport.”

“We had a deal, remember?”

Buffy heard him sigh, and the distance between them lengthened, but Spike didn’t release her from his hold. “This goes away when we lose the ankle-biter, right?” he asked. “We get back to the Hellmouth and all bets are off. That’s what you said.”

“That’s what I said,” she repeated. In spite of her resolve not to, Buffy stiffened. “You’re not asking because you don’t believe me, are you?”

“’Course not.” His mouth was back, this time suckling gently at her neck as his left hand snaked around to drift below the waistband of her jeans. “Just makin’ sure you haven’t forgotten your end of the bargain.”

A crash from the living room startled Buffy into dropping the dish she was rinsing, but it was the sudden wail that broke her away from Spike’s embrace.

Holly sat amid the disarray of her toys, tears streaming down her face. Her new crib had toppled over when she’d tried placing everything inside, landing on her leg before spilling its contents to the floor. She continued to cry even when Buffy knelt at her side, pushing the cradle away to expose the torn leg of the girl’s pants.

“It’s just a scrape,” she said with what she hoped was reassurance. “Hardly anything to be upset over.”

The denouncement only set Holly to crying louder, her eyes squeezed shut as Buffy pushed the trousers leg up to expose the injury.

“Where’s the volume control on the mite?” Spike complained.

“Real sensitive,” Buffy said, rolling her eyes. “Can you get me the first aid kit before this gets any worse, please?”

The bark had done its damage even through the fabric of Holly’s pants. The rough scrape that ran the length of her calf had blood already dripping down the pale skin, trickling onto Buffy’s hand as she held the limb firm against the child’s thrashing dismay.

“Any day now, Spike,” she prompted.

The crying wasn’t abating, and the blood was starting to seep between the Slayer’s fingers. When did she grow a pair of lungs? Buffy thought as she wrestled not to lose her grip. For some reason, Holly’s struggles seem to be getting stronger, and it was taking all Buffy’s power not to let go. Vaguely, she heard Spike rummaging around behind her, but the sounds seemed hollow and far away.

“Spike…?” she called out, though it was far weaker than she’d intended.

And then…

…the room went black.

 

To be continued in Chapter 30: Blue Christmas