"Buffy? Dawn?" Joyce called as she hung up the kitchen phone. "Could you come here a minute?" They walked past the table, still stacked high with empty pizza boxes. It had been Xander's turn to provide the Wednesday night dinner. "Okay, now I'm not mad or anything," Joyce smiled a bit dubiously, "but which one of you called my cousin Ellie and told her I was sick?"
The girls exchanged a glance. "Neither of us. Why?"
"That was her on the phone. 'I could see, Joycie, that you've recently walked in the valley.'" Her voice took on a high, affected lilt as she did a dead-on imitation of her cousin's flaky manner. "'But now I see you emerging triumphant to walk in the light.'"
"What?" Buffy and Dawn were torn between disbelief and laughter. "She really said that?"
"Yes. Are you sure you didn't tell her - either of you?"
"Oh, damn. Maybe there's more to her psychic pretensions than we gave her credit for. Anyway, she wants us to spend Christmas with her in Arizona."
"Cool!" Dawn was instantly in favor of getting out of Sunnydale for a few weeks.
"I don't know. Hellmouth - the ties that bind," Buffy said.
"Well, honey, your friends have managed before, like when you visit your dad. Let's ask if they feel up to it again."
"This is a mob scene!" Joyce exclaimed as she was bumped yet again. "The flight is going to be packed. I should get in line - get our boarding passes."
"Safe flight, Joyce," Spike said. She stepped into his embrace, her temple resting securely against the incline of his cheekbone. He lifted a gentle hand to touch her hair, at last liberated from a long line of silk scarves.
"Thanks for the ride, Spike."
"Take care of yourself," he answered and she headed for the gate counter.
"I wish you were coming with us," Dawn said.
"Love to, Sugarcube, but I've got a sacred duty." At her inquisitive look, he grinned, drawling, "Gotta keep the drunken patrons of Vanitas from making complete asses o' themselves, don't I?"
"Yeah, whatever. Send you a postcard." She pretended to turn away, and he caught one long lock of her hair and tugged.
"Oh, I know you don't think you're getting off that easy," he said. From her vantage point, Buffy could see the identical grins on their faces, which were quickly hidden when Dawn turned to face the vampire again.
"Ow! That hurt!" she lied, reclaiming her hair. "Sometimes I wish you still had that chip in your head."
"Now, now, Platelet. You don't mean that. Remember the fun we had with that pissant Mark?" His voice was completely unrepentant, and she threw her arms around him.
"Have a good time, Niblet," he answered, hugging her back. She scampered off after her mother, leaving him alone with Buffy.
Standing before him in a black and forest green wraparound dress, she was irresistible. Until the thought of the pain he was capable of causing her returned to his brain. He ignored the blood screaming inside him to work its will and took a step toward her. He saw her hesitant smile and heard her galloping heartbeat, and knew he needed to make this quick. He clasped her in a brisk, comradely embrace. She closed her eyes when he surrounded her, giving herself up to the sensation. The briefness of the contact jarred her eyes open. She fumbled for something to say. "I'll . . . call you when we get there," she finally said, and he nodded and pulled his duster more tightly around his body.
Buffy's absence was more than relaxing; it was positively soporific. For the first time since Drusilla's death, he was able to sleep soundly. He had been on high alert for too long, constantly on guard against Buffy's love and the vulnerability she didn't bother to disguise.
He noted dispassionately that the patrons of Vanitas grew sadder as Christmas approached. The women wore tighter clothing, the men spoke more loudly; their loneliness came across in their brittle, frantic gaiety, the speed with which they went home with strangers. How different from his friends. Anya, Xander, Willow, Tara - not one had a home except for the ones they'd made for themselves. //Just like me.//
"A toast!" Anya exclaimed happily. Her New Year's party was turning out so well; she was a natural at this hostessing thing. "Here is to the new year - a new year means we will all get older and more wrinkly and more forgetful . . . Why are we celebrating this anyway?" she asked.
Giles, who'd been watching Spike's closed face - that face that would never change no matter how many new years he saw - spoke up. "It's a celebration of togetherness. That we're all here, ready to take on anything that happens in the coming year."
The Summers girls were glad to be home, and Spike was eager to show them his Christmas gift. He pulled the DeSoto into the driveway and said sternly, "Now, no rushing inside to peek. That means you, Bite-Size."
Her face gleamed with the thought of another present. "Give me a hint!" she pleaded.
"All right," he answered, disarmed by her eagerness. "They're usually green, but I had them do this one in purple since that's your favorite color." Dawn turned for help to her mother and sister, but they were as bewildered by Spike's clue as she was.
As soon as they were inside the house, Dawn dumped her bags and demanded, "Present!" Joyce and Buffy's faces were equally alight with curiosity and anticipation. Spike opened the door to the basement, flipped the light switches, and led the way downstairs so that they could see the new pool table that dominated the space of the room. "Eee!" Dawn said, clapping her hands excitedly and running her fingertips over the purple felt. "Can we play now? Please?"
Spike turned to Joyce, who was already shrugging out of her jacket in preparation. "Sure, Rapunzel. Oldest and youngest versus the two in between," he said, picking up a cue. The three of them moved to form the teams, all of them assuming he had paired Joyce and Dawn together and partnered himself with Buffy. "No," he said, at once exasperated and amused, "I'm the oldest, remember? It's me an' the Niblet."
Joyce especially looked startled by the reminder. In a low voice, she asked, "But are you really? Older, I mean? If your body hasn't aged past twenty-seven, has your mind?" He didn't know how to answer her; he'd had experiences she'd never dreamt of, but it was true that he had always lived a young man's life. She continued when she saw his doubt. "I know how different I am now than when I was in my twenties or thirties. And recently I've changed so much. Looking death in the face does that to you." He realized then that she'd had experiences he could know nothing about.
"I don't know, Joyce. Who's lived more? I'm older, but you're more mature," he finally answered.
"What's the matter, Spike?" she asked, his heavy silence contrasting with Dawn's happy chirping voice, exulting over the pool table with Buffy.
"I guess it's just hitting me for the first time," he said. "That my personal evolution has been stopped dead in its tracks. That I'll forever be a twenty-seven-year-old vampire, world without end."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."
"You didn't," he smiled into her worried eyes. "Now let's play. I have a sneaking suspicion you're a hell of a player, Joyce."
Buffy was at Willow and Tara's place, and Dawn was in her room, reuniting with her beloved diary, when Spike found Joyce in the den with the TV on. He settled down comfortably next to her, both of them muttering the answers as they watched "Jeopardy!" on the new gameshow network.
At the first commercial break, Joyce asked, "Spike? Could you really afford that pool table?"
"Yeah, Joyce, don't worry about it. Gary - my boss - was ordering new tables for the club, and he gets them at a good deal." She nodded. "'Sides, the Sugarcube's been after me to teach her how to shoot, and I figured better here at home than at the Bronze, where it's full of smoke and drunken idiots. Don't want the wrong crowd to get a glimpse of our girl." He finally noticed the smile creeping across her face. "What?" he asked, ready to share in the joke.
He was taken aback when she said, "I don't think your personal evolution stopped, Spike. You're a better parent than Hank ever was." He didn't know what to say. She took pity on him and turned back to the TV. "I hate Alex Trebek, don't you?"
Three days after New Year's Day, school began again for Dawn. She came home upset and went in search of Spike. She knocked at his door. "Yeah?" he finally answered, his voice sounding tight over the music pouring from his speakers.
"Can I come in?" she asked.
Her tale of woe was already spilling out as she entered his room. "So I go to art today, and there's a message on the board that Ms. Miniver is on maternity leave, and that all of her students have been reassigned to music appreciation for the semester! I mean, what am I supposed to do? I'm working on that portrait of Mom - I wanted to have it done before summer vacation. And now -" she broke off abruptly when she finally noticed his unusual silence. Spike usually was so focused, but now he seemed distracted. She peered more closely. No, he wasn't distracted; he was focused on something inward, so intensely that she doubted even some crosses and holy water would shift his attention. "Spike? What is it?" she asked, swallowing nervously at the unshed tears that appeared in his eyes. "Spike?" She had to lay her hand on his shoulder to bring him back to the real world. "What's the matter, Spike?"
He stared at her for a moment before shaking his head and saying, "I miss her, Niblet." He closed his eyes again, and "Stella by Starlight," which was on instant repeat, began once more. "My sister," he continued, his voice as plaintive as the sweet, drawn-out notes Miles Davis coaxed from gleaming metal, "Stella. My big sister. Today's her birthday." He waited out the rest of the song, and then in the pause between the end and the time it took the record player to reposition the needle at the beginning, he added, "It's like this song was written for her. She would have loved it."
She didn't know what he needed. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked tentatively.
He opened his eyes. "Please just go," he said softly.
Buffy walked into the house an hour later and saw a note from Dawn on the kitchen counter. She snapped on the radio and a woman's haunting voice sang, "Oh, your gaze is dangerous, and you fill your space so sweet . . ." An image of Spike, his wide eyes fixed on hers as he held himself above her, came rushing into her mind. She shook her head to dismiss the thought and turned off the radio - //he's been avoiding me - how can I get him to even talk to me, let alone love me?// She flipped the light switch to read Dawn's note. A last-minute change of plans meant Joyce was taking Carol's place on a gallery trip to L. A., so she'd only be back the following evening. And Dawn was at the first basketball game of the new semester, cheering Kevin on. Buffy looked up from Dawn's loopy handwriting with a smile. If Spike was in the house, she finally had him alone. And she was going to win him back.
Continue: Part 14/15