Thinking I heard a noise, I ducked into cover; seconds passed, slowly, silently. I peered out from hiding and cautiously looked around. The coast seemed clear. An open doorway no more than ten feet away promised a way out, and safety.
Ten long feet without cover. Could I make it? Did I have a choice?
Setting my jaw, I broke cover and made a dash for it. Four feet to go and it looked like I was going to make it. Two feet - I was going to escape with my skin intact-
"So you're still going, are you?" Faith said from the room behind me, her voice still pinched with anger.
I froze like a deer caught in the headlights. Rumbled. I cursed internally, and forced myself to turn and face her. My feet felt like they were weighted with rocks. Big rocks.
She stood not six feet away - unless I was seriously slipping, it took a Slayer to get that close to me without my hearing them first - with her back stiff and her hands straight down against her sides. Her whole posture was prickly, and the fingers of her right hand were unconsciously shredding a branch of the already very depressed looking tinsel tree I'd ducked behind moments earlier.
My basement apartment was decked out in the gaudy Christmas garlands we'd put up the week before, and despite the mild winters in LA, the atmosphere was distinctly frosty.
"Darlin', I told you." Caught up in the confrontation I'd hoped to avoid, I spread my hands out imploringly. "It's just a security date. Just so's Kate doesn't hafta spend all night fendin' off drunk bastards and listenin' to her dad's old police buddy tell her his opinions on lesbianism about twenty times over..."
"And I told you 'crap'. Why couldn't she ask Wesley? I mean, he's so hot for her you can practically see his tongue hit the floor every time she comes by."
"Wesley?" I said. My brain had a hard time with the concept of Wesley attending the retired detective Morris' traditional Christmas bash. "I... somehow don't think it'd be quite his scene." I made an effort to set my mind back on track. Ah, yes: Faith, Kate, and avoiding being gutted by either in the next five minutes. "It's too late to be changing plans now, in any case."
Faith's irritated eyes settled pointedly on a spot on the wall behind me and to my left. "Well, if you'd rather spend Christmas Eve with Police Bitch, you'd better get off, 'cause as I recall you said 'seven' and unless that clock's lying, you're in trouble with more than just me, pal."
She turned on her heel, the tinsel branch pinging back as her fingers abruptly loosed their grip, sending a good deal of its sparse remaining fake foliage scattering all over my carpets. A few glass balls rolled across the floor; one crunched audibly underneath her foot.
I already knew I was late, courtesy of a very irate phone call five minutes ago which had assaulted my ears with the fact Kate was waiting in a 'no parking' zone being sniffed at by prowling traffic wardens and considerably less than happy about it.
Kate could wait, though. She could flash her badge as a 'get out of jail free' card. Unfortunately, no such thing existed so far as my relationship - if you could even laughingly call it that - with Faith was concerned.
I closed the distance between us in a matter of seconds, reaching for her shoulder. She swung around and her fist shot out automatically following the motion of her shoulder up and around. I raised my eyebrows and tried to look a lot calmer than I felt as it stopped a fraction of an inch shy of my chin.
"All right!" I gasped, as she followed the aborted slug through with a jab to the stomach that was half playful and half spite. "I know this was kind of a shitty thing to do, last minute and all, specially when you an' Wes went to the trouble of gettin' the movies and the snacks in, but... it's not my fault that Harlan what's-his-name ended up hospitalised. An', you know, it was always kind of a tradition, before. Any other year, it'd have been me..."
"You're not a cop anymore," Faith said. Her hands lowered from their threatening poise and affectionately picked at my sleeves instead, twisting the leather playfully between her fingers and cutting off the circulation in my arms. I think that part was unintentional. "And if you want me and Wes to stick around, it's time to start making a few new traditions."
"I know that. Believe me, I've internalised that message in triplicate - but, hey, sometimes you gotta help out a friend in need."
"And you're telling me this is worse than the fake-vampire-murderer thing?" Faith asked sarcastically. "A party?"
"Much worse," I said, rolling my eyes. "Think of a cross between frat parties and some kinda twisted initiation for a demonic cult and you're somewhere in the region. Can I have my arms back, Faith?"
"Nope." Smirking, she tightened her grip. "You really wanna go out? 'Cause personally I'd rather keep you here chained up to the bed." I swear Faith's grin was more evil than that of any murdering demon I'd ever fought.
"That sounds like a plan for a night in. We'll do it some other time, huh?" There was no reaction from her. Her face, looking up into mine, only grew more intense. I unashamedly turned to pleading. Kate was going to murder me. "Hey, look - me and Kate, it's more a guy thing, a cop thing. You know that. The two of us gettin' it on, it'd be like Riggs screwin' Murtagh, Illya screwin' Napoleon, Starsky screwin' Hutch... okay, let's not delve into that last one too much, but you get what I'm talkin' about."
"I get," she said. "I just don't believe. Hey, she's got three years on me, Doyle. She knows you way better than I do."
For a moment, she seemed hesitant and uncertain. It unnerved me: I wasn't used to seeing either of those things in Faith.
"You don't have to compete," I said. "There is no competition here. An' even if there was, you'd win it hands-down, darlin'." I sealed the truth of the statement by bending forward to cover her mouth with mine. She didn't belt me in return, which was a plus, but she didn't respond with her usual vigour either, and after a few seconds, she leaned back away from the kiss. Her hands released their vice grip on my twisted-up sleeves and crept instead around my waist.
"Tell her you can't go," she said.
"Sorry. Already told her I would." I looked into her eyes for a moment, and sighed inwardly at the mistrust there. Sometime, I thought, I'd like to go back and find out just who had hurt this gal so much that she trusted me, now, so very little, and reduce them to small soggy pieces. Assuming of course that she hadn't beat me to it when she first became the Slayer.
I owed her the truth, I thought. Even if she might not like it. even if I didn't like it, and didn't particularly want to tell it.
"You're right in a way, I guess, about Kate - I could have loved her once," I said, slowly, quietly, leaning forward to my forehead touched Faith's. "Three years ago. Another lifetime. But it's gone now. We killed it, and it's gone. Nothing can resurrect it. Nobody would try.
"That demon you get a kick outta, she loathes the very thought of. An' much as she tries to see me, and not the demon in me, there's a limit how far you can take that. There's a line she'd never willingly cross. I long ago lost any romantic hopes with regards to Kate. Instead, we got somethin' else in its place."
"The guy thing?" Faith said, somewhat sceptically.
"So you're seriously telling me that you two worked together for three years without ever jumping in the sack?"
"Honest to God." I held my fingers up; Scout's honour.
She blinked and frowned as she digested this. "That's actually... that's kinda pathetic, Doyle."
I cleared my throat uneasily. She looked disillusioned, if anything. I stared at her with suspicion.
"I mean, gotta admit, the bitch has a body, and you're... not bad. Jeeze, Doyle. Three years?"
"Are we seriously havin' this conversation?" I asked, hearing my voice come out as in indignant squeak.
Smirking maliciously, she leaned in, squeezing my waist. Her hair tickled my nose and I sneezed, aborting whatever move she was planning. She pulled back with a giggle as I shook the spikes away.
"Awww..." she made the long indecisive sound, rolling her eyes. "...damn it. Get outta here, before I change my mind." She loosed her hands from me, and jerked a thumb in the direction of the door as she took a small step back.
"Darlin'... thanks for understandin'. I promise you I'm not gonna screw my ex-police-partner. All other considerations aside, I'm not into suicide. It's just a party. A bad party. The old guard get drunk and talk for hours about past cases everyone else has long forgotten then fall asleep snoring in the corner. And the rest, most of whom will be current members of the LAPD who hate my guts, imaginatively drink themselves insensible, puke everywhere, pick fights, and pass out. Not necessarily in that order." I gave her another quick peck on the lips, then broke away, heading for the door.
"No way that's your definition of 'bad party'," she said with a smirk in her voice.
I sighed. Over my shoulder, I said, "It is when I'm one they're all gonna be pickin' the fights with."
I winced as the death-crunch of another glass bauble sounded from underneath my boot.
"Aside from your so-called faith," Kate said grumpily, "What makes you really think Christmas means anything any more, in this ever-more commercial world? And, speaking of which, when was the last time you went anywhere near a church anyway?"
I winced. Even after I'd managed to get her calmed down about the business of being over twenty minutes late, Kate was in particularly unforgiving mode as we drove over to Morris' place, and protestations that it was the season of goodwill and all that didn't appear to be helping my case any.
"Well, suffice to say that Harry gave me hell for yawning durin' the sermon..." I mumbled, and added defensively, "You know, it's funny but somehow it didn't feel entirely appropriate after findin' out about that whole half-demon thing? But that's beside the point. I mean, surely you can see it's about more than gettin' fallin'-down-drunk and buyin' all your pals things they don't need?"
She gave me a hard look, Kate never having particularly been the goodwill sort.
"It's nothing but an advertising circus, Doyle, an excuse to screw people out of their money. And, thanks for reminding me, you're not getting drunk tonight."
"What?" I squeaked in alarm. Surely she couldn't be serious? She was staring across the dashboard with an expression of grim, battle-ready concentration. "You gotta be kiddin' me, Kate. The drink's the only thing can take a man through this shindig alive."
"This is the plan," she said, merciless. "We go in. We put in an appearance, speak to some strategic officers, and get out. We indulge in neither drinking games, gambling, nor the traditional karaoke. We are in and out in an hour and a half, tops. I get home for an early night for tomorrow's early start. You get home to your Slayer girlfriend without being gutted. That is the plan. It will not be diverted from, modified or bent in any way, shape or form. Got that?"
I muttered under my breath, "You're just pissed 'cause you can't get pissed."
"Some of us have to go spend Christmas with our families," she snapped, overhearing me.
After a few seconds, she registered what she'd just said and swore. "Damn," she said, not meeting my eyes.
"I know Morris' Christmas bash ain't too kind on the memories," I said cautiously, thinking of the other year when she'd gotten herself inebriated to an extent that would've done my Aunt Judy proud and told me, at semi-incoherent length on the way home, about she and her pop going there together every year, back before his murder.
"I shouldn't have said that, Doyle. I'm a total, total shit."
Harry, I thought, would have been endlessly bemused by Kate.
"It's all right. Look, you're nervous, Kate, why not try and relax? It's a party, after all. It's kinda supposed to be fun."
She just turned and looked at me. At least, until my shakily pointing finger, expression of terror and strangled yelp of "Truck!" brought her attention back to the road.
"Okay," she said, when our heart rates had returned to something vaguely resembling normal, "Considering this evening is now already screwed beyond redemption, I guess this is as good a time as any to give you this."
She reached under her seat and fumbled there blindly, hampered by her heightened efforts to keep her eyes on the road. She tossed the parcel she dug out over to me.
"Well, gosh. Don't tell me it's Christmas," I said with markedly faked surprise.
She smirked and sideways-watched me from the corner of her eye as I picked loose the plain brown parcel paper.
I blinked down at the scattering of items that tearing the wrapping deposited across my lap.
"That's... really nice, Kate," I said, frowning. "Thanks."
"I thought they'd come in useful, in your line of work," she said, blithely unoffended. "Take a good look at them. They're the best dirty money can buy. I'm betting you'll appreciate them someday."
I did as suggested. Discovered I was indeed looking at just about the best false ID's I'd ever encountered, all made out with my picture.
"Thanks," I said again, with a little more sincerity and a generous dose of awe.
She flicked her eyes across to me then back to the front. "Need I ask?" she enquired amusedly.
I held up the small parcel tied with an immaculate and delicate blue bow between my thumb and forefinger for her to see. I grinned and alleviated the abrupt concern in her expression, telling her, "I renewed your year's subscription to 'Handgun'. This... is from Wesley."
I didn't try to hide my amusement as I watched the contortions her face went through trying to look mildly pissed while suppressing a treacherous little smile.
Morris' house was pretty grand. He'd been high up enough in the LAPD to corner all the decent bribe money. One of those modern art type creations that the film stars love, all crisp clean lines and white space, glass and steps and corners. All in all, a bad place to get drunk in, both from the perspective of the drinkee and of the poor schmuck doing the damage assessment the morning after. Which was of course why year after year Morris continued the splendid tradition of inviting a few hundred of LA's finest to do just that.
As we stopped outside the door, Kate struggled to fasten around her neck the silver necklace chain which Wesley had given her while I rang the doorbell.
The door was opened to us by a very drunk skinny ginger-haired guy I didn't recognise who had a small blonde attached to his face. They looked like some kind of freaky Siamese-twin kind of symbiosis that'd need surgery to affect separation. He mumbled something he couldn't reasonably have expected us to catch and waved us inside vaguely with one free hand before the slim thread of attention he had for us was hijacked by a move from the blonde that distracted him well and good.
Kate glanced back as we headed down the spacious hallway. "I haven't the faintest idea who that guy is," she replied to my querying glance, "but I'm not convinced that was legal even between consenting adults."
The ground floor of the large house had been transformed into complete chaos, and my spirits sank with the thought that this was nothing yet, the evening was just getting started. I winced.
Not only did I have to make it out of here alive, but I had to do it sober.
Had to be about the tallest order I'd ever been asked to deliver. I said as much to Kate.
She glowered at me and hissed back, "Just remember: we keep our cool, we watch each other's backs, we don't let out guard drop for a second, and we might make it."
Even as she finished I clocked the first 'Mulder and Scully' joke of the evening from some guy whispering over to our left somewhere.
Kate was looking around with distaste at the antics of several already very sozzled officers who were bobbing for apples in an ornate glass bowl filled with fruit punch that even from across the room smelled about a hundred percent proof. She shook her head. "Some of these people are supposed to be on duty tomorrow."
That was rich, considering the source, but I saved my retort. I'd seen something she hadn't.
"Uh, Kate," I said, elbowing her ribs to draw her attention. "Some of these people are supposed to be on duty *tonight*."
She followed my gaze, saw who I was indicating, and swore.
Carlson was over in the corner of the room with a bunch of his over-muscled cronies. They were laughing at something, and swigging Morris' little designer bottled beers like they were lemonade. He hadn't seen us yet, but I doubted we could avoid his attention all evening.
"Strategic retreat," Kate hissed, urging me forward through the press of bodies. "To the study."
"Is that really necessary?" I asked in trepidation. "I mean, I'd almost rather face Carlson."
"Do it!" Kate snapped, her voice tense. "We're going to have to go there anyway at some point this evening, so it might as well be now, while they're still moderately sober. We've only just got here and we're not going to get involved in any fights already!"
As we passed it, I looked longingly at the small bar set across one corner of the dining room. A guy in a tux stood behind it looking vaguely shell-shocked, his face frozen into an expression halfway between his job's customary polite indifference and sheer terror.
I pretty much knew then what Wesley's reaction to coming here with Kate in my stead would've been.
"No, Doyle," Kate said firmly, following my gaze, sending me stumbling forward on my momentarily hesitant feet.
"But - just one - ?"
"I said no."
Even so early in the evening, the study was already liberally decorated with empty and half-empty bottles and glasses which covered each and every available flat surface. It was occupied, as was the all-too-predictable custom on these occasions, by over a dozen gray and graying men in various stages on their route to total inebriation, and also by one very tipsy forty-something blonde.
The blonde was Mrs Morris, who aside from wearing a quantity of perfume that threatened to have me in spiky sneezes every time I came within a few metres of her, had a tendency to gush.
"Oh, Katie, darling!" she exclaimed as she made a bee-line fort eh two of us, and I tried to hide behind Kate. "How are you, my dear? It's been such a long time. Oh, and you've brought dear Francis with you, too!" Before I could move out of reach, I was seized by two unsettlingly strong hands on either side of my head and firmly kissed on both cheeks. She drew back her lips from my face with a loud smacking sound. Her breath smelled overpoweringly of gin. I only just managed to steady the orangeade Kate had thrust into my hand as we passed the bar and prevent it from ending up all over the thousand-dollar milk-white carpets.
If I ever find out who told that woman my first name, I'm gonna make it a decision they regret.
"Katie?" The steely-eyed old police Captain Morris looked up from his conversation at his wife's mention of her name. "Well, so it is. Come over here, Katie, and let me look at you."
"Hey, Uncle Andy," she returned. Her fingers surreptitiously fastened to a vice-hard grip around my wrist as she approached him, dragging me in tow. "You look well."
He waved a hand dismissively. "What else would I look, when I've nothing to do with the day but eat, sleep and shit? I miss the force. You look tired, Katie. So does this one." He eyed me up and down with the usual critical disdain. "What's the name again? Boyle? Dooley?"
"Doyle," I said through grit teeth. I'd long had my doubts that the old man's inability to remember my name was entirely sincere.
"Doyle. That's right. Tell me, Katie, when are you gonna stop fooling around with this deadbeat and find yourself a fellow, huh?" He guffawed loudly. I eyed the empties lined up next to his armchair. If he'd drank all of them himself, it was a wonder he was still capable of speech. He leaned forward and punched me in the arm in comradely fashion.
"That's very funny, Uncle Andy," Kate said, looking at me, her eyes glittering. "Have you seen my Christmas present?" She touched the silver chain around her throat.
I tried not to wince and massaged the circulation back into my aching arm.
"Damn, boy," Morris said to me, "If you're going to give her jewellery, you're on the wrong track. Isn't it about time you two tied the knot? How long you been together - three years? Nearly four?"
"Uh, yeah." Kate looked nervous, and unfortunately I was in no position to admire how completely she'd dropped herself in it, given that she'd taken me down with her.
"Told your father I'd always look out for you if anything happened to him, Katie-"
"Yes, Uncle Andy, I know."
At that moment, an angel in the form of Mrs Morris dived in to the rescue, making me regret every mean thought I'd ever had about her. "Now, dear, that's not really our concern, now, is it? I'm sure Katie and Francis can manage quite well without our interference... Dear me, did you drink all that yourself? But, darling, you know you mustn't! Your medication..."
Kate and I edged away in an attempt to make good our escape, past a pair of ancient retired cops who were deep in argument about a minor case who-knew how many decades back.
"It was Jimmy Denson, I tell you. He had motive and means-"
"Jimmy Denson? Jimmy Denson couldn't find his arse with an atlas! That little weasel couldn't have murdered a carpet beetle and gotten away with it..."
"Are you saying I'm making things up? Is that what you're saying?"
The first man rolled up the sleeves of his cardigan with intent, and we hurried for the door as the first punch was thrown and the first fight of the evening broke out.
The hallway outside was packed with bodies holding glasses, more arrivals having swelled the numbers of the party guests to the house's capacity. There'd probably be more still before the night was out.
Someone leaned out of the crush to whisper close in my ear, with pantomime mock-spookiness, "Trust no-one, Mr Mulder." I 'accidentally' spilled my orangeade all over his shoes.
"Come on, Dana," I said to Kate, pushing through the press and wistfully thinking of protective riot gear.
In the corner of the living room, a bunch of guys were clustered around a table stacked high with all varieties of hard liquor, each with a small shot glass in hand. Every drink poured and swallowed in concert was accompanied by a backing track of their small but interested audience chanting "Down it! Down it! Down it!"
Six glasses slammed down on the table as one while the onlookers cheered, and were refilled again by a none-too-steady hand.
I shook my head, shaking away flashbacks to student days. Kate glowered at them in disgust.
"No, Doyle," she said angrily.
"I wasn't - I never even entertained the-"
She sighed and shook her head.
"Aw, shit," I said, and nudged her shoulder, pointing out the two guys coming towards us out of the door which led eventually to the bathroom. One I didn't know, the other was being supported by his fellow and looked to be in a very sorry state. He gestured towards Kate and myself and his pal steered them both straight for us. As they approached, I was almost knocked over by the stench of vomit.
"Hey, Banks," Jeff Ryan slurred, draping his shoulder over the other poor bastard, who flinched from his breath. "You never meet these two? These two were - were - they were goddamn celebrities, they were. Doyle and Lockley. 'Cept we didn't used to call 'am that. You know what we usedta call 'em, Banks? Mulder and Scully... get it? From the 'X-Files'..."
Seven, I counted.
"Sure." Banks, who seemed moderately sober, gave us an appraising once-over. I did know him, or at least I vaguely remembered seeing him once or twice. He was from another division, and we'd never worked directly with him, which explained to some degree why he was still on speaking terms with us. "I..."
At that moment, Ryan's face turned a very strange colour and the noise that erupted from his throat also qualified as not good. The two of them turned and headed back to the bathroom, Banks throwing a hurried apology back over his shoulder.
Kate sighed. "I suppose I ought to eat tonight. I'm going to try to find the buffet. Try to stay out of trouble." She turned. Then she turned back. "And, Doyle, you're not drinking tonight."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I muttered at her back.
No sooner had she vanished into the crowds then I saw Carlson headed towards me, an ugly gleam in his eye. I cursed, pretended not to have seen him, and ducked out of sight behind the nearest door. It led into the lobby.
The couple who'd been there earlier had long gone, presumably to find somewhere a little more private. Others had taken their beverages out there to escape the crowds, but nobody I recognised. I pondered my next move. I wasn't about to hide out there all evening - I mean, it wasn't as if I couldn't take that Neanderthal Carlson any day...
...No, but could I take Kate? That was the question.
I was broken out of my thoughts by a hard rapping on the front door, followed by something that in some crazy universe might have been called... 'singing'?
I frowned at it for a moment, until Mrs Morris burst through into the lobby, followed by a waft of her perfume that made me frantically pinch at my nose to abort an imminent sneeze. She grasped the handle, swaying somewhat drunkenly, and threw open the door. Only my desperate grab for her shoulders kept her from falling straight over backwards.
"Hark! the Herald angels sing...!"
"Carol singers!" she cooed, oblivious. "How darling!"
I blinked at the scene before me in disbelief. Carol singers?
In a sane world, carol singing was *not* generally an activity which attracted the bloodsucking undead. They were a shabby bunch even by vampire standards, and one at the back had a smudge of blood across his jaw. I hardly needed my nose to tell me they weren't human. Unfortunately, my fellow party guests weren't in any condition to notice that the new arrivals were... a little odd.
But that was all secondary to my numbly disbelieving brain in that moment. Because at the centre of the group, clutching a very plastic Christmas lantern in one hand and a sprig of tatty holly in the other, was Spike.
"Peace on Earth and mercy mild...!"
I was pretty sure my heart stopped beating for at least a second or two. It felt more like hours.
For his part, it looked like Spike's blood-pump skipped a few beats as well - which would be quite a neat trick for a vampire. Vaguely aware that something wasn't quite right, Spike's motley band of carollers began to falter, much to the amusement of the semi-drunken cops crowded into the doorway with me.
Spike blinked. Slowly, his shock-slacked face returned to the expression of murderous animosity that he usually wore around me, and he began to growl out the last few bars of the song. His gang, rallying behind Spike's semi-snarled lyrics, came through at the last for the final line with an enthusiastic, if talentless, crescendo.
I just stood there, my jaw chewing at the air while somewhere deep inside my head, part of me rolled on the floor helpless with laughter.
It couldn't be. Not Spike. Not Spike, the vampire, the slayer of Slayers, worthy contender for the title of Biggest Bad in the World, out for a night of Christmas carolling.
Oh how I wished Faith and Wesley could see this.
Loud and erratic clapping broke the spell. "Wonderful, wonderful!" Mrs Morris gushed with the enthusiasm of the seriously inebriated. "Such lovely singing!"
Like I could let that kind of remark pass by. "Singin'? That's what it was supposed to be? Jeez, what did you do for a warm-up - gargle with razor blades?"
The drunken guests around me tittered as Spike shot me a look that vowed swift and excessive vengeance. Egged on by the laughter, and buoyed by the security of an invitation between me and Spike's promised assault, I continued, " Loved the harmonics though, guys. I didn't know you were descended from bullfrogs."
"Rather bullfrogs than your genes, mate," Spike growled meaningfully.
My fist was halfway up towards his face a second later, but at the startled murmurs from those behind me, I turned the instinctive aggressive gesture into an obscene one instead. There were chuckles from the audience.
Spike smirked in response and turned his attention to Mrs Morris. "So glad you enjoyed our little ditty, luv." He leaned closer - as close as he could without crossing the threshold - and sighed regretfully. "I'm afraid your Irish mate does have a point, though. We are sounding a little ragged, aren't we lads?"
Dead silence was his answer. I tried to swallow a snigger.
Spike's voice lashed out like a whip. "Aren't we, lads?"
"Sure, Spike. Ragged, right."
"Hurts to swallow, it does."
"Yeah. Terrible sore throats, all round," Spike said forlornly, eliciting a sympathetic sigh from Mrs Morris . An idea appeared to strike him. "Say, pet, do you think you could spare us a touch of your festive nog? Since we're so sore and hoarse."
Spike wasn't an especially gifted actor, but even without several glasses of brandy inside her, Mrs Morris wasn't exactly Siskel and Ebert. "Of course," she cooed eagerly. "I'd love to help you out."
That sobered me up. Spike wasn't following in the footsteps of his loony ex-girlfriend after all, and if Mrs Morris's thoughts were heading in the direction I suspected, then we were all in for some serious trouble. Spike's dark glance in my direction reminded me just how much trouble that was.
Mrs Morris beamed. "Why don't you all come - "
"No need for that, Barb," I blurted. "It'll be easier if we just fetch them somethin' to drink. They've probably got lots more houses to see, no time to hang around with us, huh?"
Spike glared at me as the drunken woman hesitated. "I don't know…" she dithered woozily.
"But we'd love to come in, ducks," Spike said. His voice was practically a snarl, despite the ingratiating smile plastered across his face. "I'm really going to savour this drink."
Her brow creased as she tried to think through the alcohol and I wasn't prepared to give her the chance to reach a conclusion. "Come on, Barb," I said with desperate cheerfulness. "Let's fetch these boys some of the good stuff, eh?"
Grabbing her around the waist, I practically dragged her away from the doorway, her head lolling back against my shoulder. "But we can't leave the nice man in the doorway," she protested woozily. "He should come inside."
Feeling like I had been doused with ice water, I let my arm fall away from her waist and turned just in time to see Spike step over the threshold, smiling smugly. Grinning just as cockily as their leader, his fellow carollers stepped forward - and stopped dead. They whimpered in disappointment.
Spike's smile faded as he turned to regard his comrades. "Uh, Barb?" he asked wearily. "Would you mind asking my friends in, too?"
A gentle snore was his only answer. Spike's startled gaze met my own, and then we both looked down.
Mrs Morris lay on the soft rug, her mouth half-open and her eyes firmly shut. She twitched and rolled over in her sleep.
I slammed the door to Ed Morris's upstairs office shut and groped blindly in the dark for his phone. I felt only air, then a filing cabinet, then another filing cabinet, then what was either an extremely small demon or an extremely angry cat, which yowled and scraped its claws along my questing fingers. Swearing, I managed to find a light switch and hit it with my bleeding thumb.
I squinted as bright light launched a determined attempt to blind me, and scrambled towards the phone on his desk. Moments after punching in a number I knew so well it was practically engraved on the inside of my skull, I was listening to the device ring. And ring. And ring.
Please. Just be there. Don't have gone out. Just be sitting patiently by the phone, just in case your boyfriend calls to tell you he's at a party with an enraged vampire and needs you to bail him out. It's not like this is actually a rare occurrence.
I was actually quite surprised when the ringing abruptly became Faith's irritable voice. "What the hell do you want?"
Faith, listen, it's an emergency. Spike is here at the party, an' he's got a gang of bloodthirsty minions outside, just waitin' for an invite. I need back up an' fast, or this party will turn out to be very literally 'dead'.
I got as far as, "Faith, listen - "
"Oh, hey, Doyle," she said airily, her voice slightly slurred. So much for my booze supply. "Having fun at your lame-ass party?"
"Well, actually, not really - "
"But I'm sure you're having a great time," she went on. "After all, you were so eager to get there." And in case it wasn't clear, the amount of sarcasm she was using was so extreme it practically came out the other side of sarcasm, and nearly sounded sincere. That's probably some kind of Zen.
I tried not to be offended. It was the booze talking. Faith wouldn't normally be so - okay, it was mostly the booze talking. "Faith, there's somethin' kinda impor - "
"Listen, I'd love to stay and yak all night long, but Wes and I have a big evening planned. So you and policebitch have fun now."
I fell back on my standard response in this kind of situation. I spluttered. "Faith - I - an' then Spike - everyone's bloody drunk - " Faith's loud and pointed yawn interrupted me.
In the background I heard the voice of Reason, also known as Wesley Wyndham-Price. "Who is it?"
"Just Doyle," Faith said, giggling. "He's whining because someone spiked his drink or something. He sounds seriously wasted."
Wesley's voice came on the line, calm and reassuring. "Just calm down, Doyle. I'm sure you're not enjoying yourself at this party, despite what Faith says, but drinking heavily is not the way to deal with this situation. Just relax and try to put it out of your mind, and I'm sure the hours will just fly by. And for goodness sake, try and sober up before you head home - you're breathing like a rhinoceros."
And then I was breathing like a rhinoceros into at disconnected line. And this wasn't because I was drunk. This was because I was inches away from having an apoplectic fit. I slammed the receiver back into the cradle with a curse and turned to go.
And then I nearly swallowed my tongue.
Spike waited politely until I had finished strangling myself and then closed the door and leaned against it. "Something the matter, Doyley?" he asked idly. "You look a little…upset."
"Don't pat yourself on the back," I growled. "Nothin' to do with you. Employee trouble."
He grinned. "Oh, so you tried to call in Crutches and your Slayer tramp for back -up and they wouldn't come, huh? Why not? Too scared?"
"Scared? Of you?" I retorted. "Nothin' you could do could make Faith scared of you." I couldn't stop myself. "Unless you sang at her, of course."
Spike crossed the distance between us in three steps so fast they didn't seem like individual movements at all, just a single blurred motion. "How about you, Doyley? You scared of me?"
Instinctively, I groped for a weapon. I got a cat instead, which snarled and tore at my hand again. Flinching, I swept my torn appendage up to block a blow - which never came.
Instead, Spike took a step back, his face twitching, and cracked up. Absolutely. Completely. Hysterically.
Needless to say, I was a bit upset. At least I was until I realised that, instead of attacking me, Spike was now barely paying attention to me at all, preferring instead to stare at the cat and laugh long and loud.
So I snatched up the phone and brought it around in as lethal a blow as is possible with a large bit of plastic telecommunications equipment. It was batted out of my hand in a heartbeat, and then Spike's hand was about my throat and his serious and angry face was inches from my own.
"That wasn't too bright, Doyley," Spike ground out. "You've abruptly caused my mood to take a turn for the worst."
My demon rose to the surface as he tightened his grip. "What …you gonna do, Spike?" I gasped out. "Throw down…right here? The guy hostin' this party is…a cop. Almost all the guests…on the LAPD. Bet they'd…love to put some bullets…in you."
Abruptly my neck was free as Spike rolled his eyes in frustration. "It's the bloody bar all over again, isn't it?"
"Pretty much," I rasped, rubbing my bruised throat as the demon slipped away. "You can't touch me, an' I can't touch you. Not if we want to get out of here without some serious bullet holes."
Spike snarled. "I can take bullets."
"Not in the numbers we're talkin'," I returned. "Not with me tryin' to jam a stake through your heart at the same time."
My irritable feline adversary hissed and leapt for the door, but a well-aimed kick from Spike sent it howling into the shadows. This brief session of cruelty to animals seemed to ease his frustration slightly.
Hell, as far as I was concerned, the cat had it coming.
"This was going to be such a simple little massacre," Spike complained, spreading his arms wide as if in supplication to some god of mass slaughter. "Do the carolling bit, get an invite, then have ourselves a nice big holiday feast. Was that so much to bloody ask?"
"Good plan," I observed. "Where'd you get it? 'Cunning For Dummies'?"
Spike glowered. "Loved the move with the cat, Doyley. You think that up yourself, or learn it from a book? 'Boy Scouts Guide to Vampire-Slaying', perhaps?"
"Hey," I said defensively. "Could have happened to anyone."
Spike smirked. "Says you."
I opened my mouth to respond, but he cut me off with a peremptory gesture. "Listen, Doyley. The way I see it, both of us are having a bit of a run of bad luck, right? You stay out of my way, I'll stay out of yours, and we can both enjoy this nice party without any police intervention."
"An' what?" I snapped. "I just let you kill off all the guests whenever you feel peckish?"
Spike looked affronted. "Just one or two. What do you think I am, some kind of glutton?"
I shook my head in angry denial. "No, dammit! These people are my, uh -" Annoying former colleagues who hate my guts just didn't have the right ring to it.
Spike spat something else, but it was lost in the sound of the door crashing back. Carlson and a couple of his buddies staggered in, blinking blearily. "Hey, shorty," Carlson slurred. "Where's Morris's booze cabinet? He said it was up here."
I pointed wordlessly, and they emptied the cabinet and lurched back out of the room, bottles piled high.
"Don't mention it," I muttered sourly.
Spike gave me a dubious glance. "Your what? Friends? Sure. "
Maybe if I just let him have Carlson…
I did my best to keep an eye on Spike, but he knew I was watching him and persisted in joining all the largest groups of party-goers, making it harder and harder for me to track him through the mass.
Much to my disappointment, he showed no predatory interest in Carlson whatsoever.
Exhausted, and with a pounding headache, I slumped down in a chair with a lukewarm beer purloined from an unconscious detective and took a sip. My first drink of the evening, and it tasted like oven cleaner.
A twinge of guilt stirred me, and I glanced around nervously for Kate. I spotted her lounging against the bar and Hope raised a tiny little flag in my heart. With an ally on my side, Spike would be easy to locate.
I noticed the glass in her hand in time to register outrage at such rampant hypocrisy a fraction of an instant before I saw who she was talking to.
I crossed the room so fast it barely felt like my feet touched the floor.
"…so there it was…Man United versus Arsenal…scores tied and ten seconds left. And the ref calls a penalty. So the crowd just goes insane, I mean completely bleedin' loony, and I see this Arsenal supporter coming at me with a broken beer bottle in his hand - "
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" I nearly screeched.
"What the hell do you think you're doing, Doyle? Why don't you just - "
"Calm down, Doyley. No need to lift the bloody roof off, is there? Now, what's the - "
There was a long pause.
"You know him?"
"You know him?"
"Listen, Kate," I said hurriedly, "we need to have a little talk…" I dragged her away from Spike, who was wearing an annoyingly amused grin.
We made it about five metres before Kate recovered from her shock and threatened to hack my arm off at the bone. She jerked her hand out of my grip and waved in front of my face. "What the hell is your problem, Doyle? I know I asked you here as a security date, but that doesn't mean you go and muscle in when I finally run into an attractive, witty guy, with - " She glanced over my shoulder. " - a great ass and lacking the deep-seated male need to make lesbian jokes about female policewomen."
"Wha - What?" I spluttered. "You - him? But he's hardly your type an' what's more, he's, you know, not exactly a regular guy, if you understand my meanin'?" I glanced around at the numerous interested and inebriated ears surrounding us.
"How the hell do you know what my 'type' is?" Kate snapped. " And besides that, who gave - what do you mean, not 'exactly regular'?"
I leaned closer. So did our audience. "He's…you know…" I hooked my hands in classic 'evil monster claws' and did what I considered to be a passable imitation of a vampire's growl.
Kate looked confused. "He's a lawnmower?"
I groaned. "No, not a bloody lawnmower!" To hell with the idiotic onlookers, I decided. They already thought we were crazy, anyway. "He's a v - "
"You're drunk," Kate said accusingly.
"What? No, I never - "
"Jesus, Doyle, I don't ask you for much, do I?" she said wearily. "All you had to do was resist those Irish alcoholic tendencies for a couple of hours - "
"I swear, I only had a sip!" I protested.
"Uh-huh," Kate said darkly. "A sip that came in a dozen bottles, I bet." She swept back to join Spike, leaving me stoop-shouldered with undeserved shame in the centre of a circle of giggling onlookers.
"Care to dance, pet?" he asked, winking at me in a decidedly unfriendly fashion.
"I'd love to."
And so I sat there, helpless, as Kate and a vampire sauntered into the more sober regions of the party (Where there were those present who were still capable of operating a CD player) and began to dance.
Why do women never bloody listen to me?
Kate looked to be having a hell of a time, and Spike was, to my surprise, not that bad a dancer. Despite his appearance of being plugged directly in the Punk Rock and Headbanging School of Dance, he seemed quite capable of following subtler rhythms.
And every time the pair passed closely, he hooked his fingers into little claws and bared his teeth at me.
Jerk. I had had enough. Forget the rest of the party-goers, forget guns and threats. Spike was going down, and I was going to save Kate, whether she wanted to be saved or not.
I started looking around the room for something to use as a weapon. Pretty much everyone around me was packing heat, but Spike'd probably laugh that off. I needed a more vampire-unfriendly weapon. A chair or table to break into stakes…a baseball bat or iron poker…and then I saw it.
The perfect weapon. A weapon that would stop Spike dead in his tracks without giving the drunken cops the slightest chance to intervene. A weapon that would put an end to Spike being a threat for as long as it took.
"Down it! Down it! Down it!"
I waited until Kate wandered off to refill her glass before putting stage one of the plan into action.
Spike was leaning casually against the wall, a beer in his hand, as I approached. He waved the glass in a mocking toast. "Doyley! Must say, that bird of yours can't half move, eh?" He winked. "Nice legs too. Slayer know you've got 'friends' like her?"
"Spike," I said grimly.
Spike stiffened slightly at my warning tone. "What, Doyley?" he sneered. "You can't lay a finger on me, remember?"
"I don't intend to," I replied. "But there's another way for us to handle this situation."
"I'm listening," Spike said. His sharp eyes studied me intently as I licked my lips and prepared to sell my scheme.
"It's kinda like a bet."
Spike blinked. "A bet?"
I shrugged. "Okay. More of a contest. You and me. A bottle of the strongest liquor we can find. First one to hit the floor, loses."
Spike chuckled. "Battle with booze, huh? Interesting concept, but what do I have to gain from it? I've already got everything I need - nice drink, a pretty bite for later on…" He grinned meaningfully, and I fought the urge to throttle the smug bastard then and there.
I kept an equally easy smile on my face. "Use that bleached brain of yours, Spike. If I lose, I'll be unconscious. At your mercy. You can just carry me outside an' do whatever the hell you want to me. And the opposite is true, of course. "
Spike laughed. "The demon hasn't been spawned that can match me drink-for-drink. I've drunk just about every alcoholic beverage in the world, and a few that come from other demon dimensions besides. No half-demon wimp has a chance against me."
I smiled cockily up at him. "Forget the half-demon bit, pal. I'm half-Irish, too, remember?"
Spike's returning smile was no less cocky. "Fine then, mick. You're on."
It was the work of a few moments to clear a table of its drunken residents and to drag up seats. "All right, vampire," I told him as we sat down. "I'm challenger, so you can choose what we're drinkin'. Bourbon? Whiskey?"
Spike's scorn was palpable. "Hell, no, Doyley. You want to play with me, we go straight for the heavyweights. Tequila. Lots of it. Neat." His cool tone was remarkably similar to that of a gambler saying 'Aces high. Jacks wild,' and as I fetched the appropriate bottles and shot glasses, I couldn't help but feel a touch of concern.
I had no idea if Spike's vampiric constitution would help him against alcohol, and he'd probably been doing this kinda thing since before I was born. But then again, I was definitely no stranger to the hard stuff. You drink regularly and heavily enough, and you can down motor oil without flinching. Kate had often expressed concern that my drinking could do me serious damage, but now it was the only thing standing between me and a whole new definition of pain.
Besides which, I'm Irish. These sort of games are in my blood.
Around us, those policemen still sober enough to stand crowded in eagerly, alternately excited and intrigued by this sudden drama. Judging from some of the mutterings, bets were being placed.
I was vaguely offended to hear that people betting on me were doing so against very bad odds.
Our audience whooped as I poured the first shots. The bartender had kindly provided some salt and lemons to get us started.
"Gimme the count," Spike said eagerly. "Let's do this."
I cleared my throat and did my best to settle my belly. "Three. Two. One…and down the hatch!"
The salt stung my lips, and then a moment later, the alcohol was burning down my throat. I winced at the foul taste and scooped up my lemon, sucking on it to clean my mouth out. Spike didn't even bother with the salt or lemon, and his confident smile remained throughout the whole exercise.
Damn. I poured two more shots as the watchers exchanged nudges and chuckled appreciatively.
"Bottoms up," Spike said cheerfully as he raised the small glass and clinked it against mine.
I tossed the bitter fluid to the back of my throat and swallowed, not bothering with the salt this time. I'd show that bastard how to booze, sure as hell. My hand clenched involuntarily under the table, but apart from that, I kept it together pretty damn well.
Spike's smile seemed a little forced, but he handled the drink without much trouble.
Two more shots followed without speaking on either side. By now my tongue was going pleasantly numb and tingly, and I was breathing a bit heavier. Spike was looking pretty flushed, and he leaned forward on the table, glaring at me. The crowd had stilled somewhat, as if realising that this was no ordinary game.
Spike spoke harshly into the silence. "Pour another, mick. You're going down."
"Down the hat - hatch!"
"Bloody hell! 'S one hell of a bottle of tequila, mate!"
I giggled. "Strongest the bartender had. You could clean spoons with it."
"Bloody good stuff. Go get us another bottle, huh?"
Our audience had dispersed somewhat, but there were still a few watching. One of those still capable of basic mathematics squinted blearily as he counted the bottles on our table, his lips moving soundlessly.
"You guys sh-still going...?" he gasped. "That's... that's... You guys aren't human."
Of course, Spike and I descended into helpless sniggering at that.
"Down the…ah, fuckit." I gulped down the burning liquid. I couldn't really feel it go down. In fact, I couldn't really feel much at all. I had to check that my feet were touching the ground. Actually, they weren't. This was because I was falling over.
I found myself lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling as it swam above me. Something slammed down next to my head. I squinted at it. A…shoe? A woman's shoe.
"Oh, hi, Kate," I said, grinning idiotically up at her. The muscles in Kate's face moved in peculiar ways, and I could swear she was going purple.
"Doyle." The snarled word cut through the air and plunged straight into my brain. Something was wrong, I could tell. I just wasn't really sure what…
Spike sniggered as I staggered to my feet and carefully repositioned my chair - all three of them. "What'sh up, Katie?" I asked cheerfully, slumping down onto the comfortingly motionless wood. "Why're you lookin' so down?"
Kate glowered. "Don't you even remember?"
I frowned with concentration, while Kate ground several layers of enamel off her teeth. "Remember what?"
"Cheer up, Blondie," Spike said comfortingly. "Have a drink."
Kate turned her enraged attention to the bottle he was proffering. "You too?"
"Me three," I added, giggling. Spike joined in, as Kate stared at us in slowly fading rage. The rage, however, was being replaced by disgust.
"Men," she growled. "Stupid, immature, moronic men!"
"You called?" Spike managed to get out, before we both broke down again.
By the time the laughing fit had ended and I was capable of looking relatively straight again, Kate was gone. The sounds of loud swearing and a door slamming announced her departure from the house.
"Women," Spike said. "Odd bunch."
"Yeah. So emotional."
"True," he allowed. "Pour me another?"
I poured the tequila over the shot glasses, spilling much of it on the table.
"Bloody messy, mate," Spike complained. "You're wasting all the damn - hic - booze."
"Ah, sorry," I said apologetically. "Gimme the count, yeah?"
Spike frowned. "Okay. Three. Two. Uh… Two."
"Slight technical hatch - I mean, hitch."
"Down the…uh, down the…Spike, why can't I taste the booze?"
He guffawed. "You're drinking outta an empty glass, ninny!"
I shook my head, then held it very still until the room stopped moving. "Ninny? I ain't no...ninny. I'm just really drunk."
He sniggered. "Really, really, really drunk."
"Well, so're you," I protested.
"Am not! I'm absholutely sober. Stone-cold. Sober. Yeah. Sober-cold stone."
"You're totally bloody wasted!" I laughed gleefully.
Spike grinned stupidly. "Only… a bit. A small bit," he told me, his thumb and forefinger waving around, a small, if continually fluctuating, distance apart. "Like sho."
"Yeah," I said firmly. "A little bit really drunk. That's what we are."
"Shs - Spike?" I asked, frowning as I tried my utmost to concentrate
"Do you remember why we're supposed to be drunk?"
We both sat in silence. There was some reason…some vitally important detail I had forgotten…but I couldn't make it out. Ah, hell. If it was so important, I'd have remembered it, right?
Spike carefully raised a finger, and nearly put his own eye out. "I reckon…I reckon…it's cause we've been drinkin' sho much tequila."
I nodded in agreement. "That's probably it."
Spike's eyes abruptly filled with wicked, demonic hunger. I heard a small eager growl escape his throat.
"Hey…isn't that a half-full bottle of bourbon over there?"
I raised my hands dramatically as Spike watched me, absolutely enthralled. "An' so I kicked her across the room an' into a holding cell, and then, and then…and this is this good bit…"
"Tell me the good bit," Spike begged.
"I slammed the door in her face and said, 'Oh yeah. Almost forgot. Spike sends his regards.'"
Spike collapsed laughing. "Oh bloody hell, thatsh priceless! I wish I coulda seen the stuck-up little bint's face!"
I grinned proudly. "Yeah. It was great, wasn't it?"
He nodded in profound admiration. "Yeah. You are so cool."
"Damn schtreet - I mean, straight."
Spike seemed slightly concerned. "But I'm cool too, right? I told you about that Chinese Slayer I killed, right? That was cool."
I nodded, vaguely aware that some sober part of me was probably very angry about now. "You did. Twice. And yeah, man. You're cool. You've got the whole…leather and hair thing. That's really cool."
Spike ran his hands through the platinum strands. "You don't think it makes me look…you know, a bit schilly? Uh, silly."
"No way!" I disagreed vehemently. "It's a seriously cool look. Hey…you think maybe I could bleach my head?"
Spike gave me a wobbly look of appraisal. "I'm not sure you'd make a good blond."
Two more shots of bourbon, and some further discussion of hairstyling later, Spike snored facedown on the table.
"What about if I dyed it…ya know, flame-red or schomething? Whaddya think, Spike? Spike?"
It took a while to sink in that Spike was well beyond the point of normal conversation.
I thought briefly about staking him, but I couldn't really remember where the heart was actually located. Besides which, he'd probably get annoyed after the first couple of attempts. So instead I hooked my arms under his shoulders and dragged him away from the table in a lopsided version of a fireman's carry. Spike and I lurched alone through the house of slumbering policemen until we came to the door. It took a good five minutes to remember exactly how a latch worked, and a further two to decide which of the eight or so floating in front of me was the real one, but eventually I staggered out into the cold night air, awkwardly suspending Spike with my arms. I looked blearily around for somewhere to dump him.
I don't know why I bothered to find a spot safe in the shadows, away from the threat of dawn. I didn't think that Christmas goodwill stuff was meant to apply to vamps.
Most mornings, to be woken up by a very excited, very naked Faith would not have been considered a bad by any means. This particular Christmas morning - half past six, to be precise, and I couldn't even remember what time it had been when I staggered in last night - I spluttered and groaned incoherent curses, rolled over to bury my face in the covers, and fell off the edge of the bed.
"Wake up, Doyle!" Faith said. Her loud voice echoed around the inside of my head. "It's Christmas... what are you gonna do all day, just lie there?"
"Yeah." The floorboards tasted dusty. I sneezed, yanked the hanging corner of the blanket down to draw over and under my head, and snuggled down into them.
After several seconds ominous silence, Faith's voice said, "Screw you, then." I heard the pad of her bare feet on the floor. She kicked my ankles as she passed me, and then the door slammed and the sound of her footsteps faded out.
An hour or so later, I woke up on the floor with the inside of my mouth like sandpaper and a vague awareness of being prodded on the shoulder by something as persistent as it was merciless.
I blinked open my eyes. Wesley was squinting down at me, a bemused expression behind his spectacles. He apologetically removed his finger from my collarbone. "Doyle?"
He said it as though he wasn't entirely convinced of my current ability to recognise my own name.
"Whassup?" I groaned.
There was a clink as he placed something down beside my head. The distinctly hair-curling aroma of strong coffee assaulted my nostrils and I reached blindly for the mug.
"I thought this might come in handy," Wesley said. "As a point of interest, Faith has been walking around slamming doors for much of the past hour. Did we have too good a time last night, perchance?"
There was a certain hard note underneath the gentle sarcasm.
"You have no idea," I mumbled, taking a gulp of near-pure caffeine. "I don't suppose... you'd believe... that it was all in a good cause?"
A few seconds passed. I felt the coffee start to kick in, and the gears in my brain creaked reluctantly into a vaguely numb kind of action. I hitched my weight up on one elbow. "Faith... tell her to open the big box, the one with the cartoon reindeer on the wrapping. That should cool her temper some." A small "eep!" sounded from the living room. "Never mind. I think she got there ahead of us." I groaned and flopped back to the floor.
Wesley watched me suspiciously for a moment. "Are you awake now?" he said, awaiting qualification.
"Yeah... right. Give me a few minutes, Wes? Please?" I must've looked as bad as I felt. His lips compressed in slightly reluctant sympathy and he patted me on the shoulder and left.
I'd tell them all about Spike later, when I regained the faculties to put more than two coherent sentences together. Faith would probably appreciate my situation rather more then, considering our boy William the Bloody was far from her favourite fiend of the night.
Although, as drinking partners went, the guy had actually been a bloody good laugh.
I staggered over to the kitchen presently and greeted the day by pouring a generous helping of Hair of the Dog that Bit into Wesley's half-drank coffee. That improved my perspective on the world somewhat, and I went to find Faith - not a difficult task, although still a daunting one.
Faith had indeed already found her gifts and was sitting in front of the television screen with the Playstation and stack of games scattered around her. On the screen, a motor racing game was in full swing and if I'd ever actually needed a demonstration to convince me Faith was never, ever getting behind the wheel of my car, this cinched it.
Wesley, sitting on one of the armchairs, looked up at me, his expression pained. "Was this really a good idea?" he said plaintively. "You realise you've eternally condemned the Chosen One's sacred duty to protect the world from the Forces of Darkness to play second fiddle to 'Tomb Raider'?"
"Aw, quit moanin'," I said half-heartedly. "Least you'll get to eyeball Lara Croft."
I took Faith's absorption in her presents for the next three hours to mean that I was forgiven for that morning. Wesley pottered around in the kitchen and fluttered his hands at anybody who came too close until they left again. I sat with various cups of strong coffee, determinedly not getting drunk but vaguely at a loss for what else to do in the absence of cases, visions and paperwork.
About 11am I rang Kate's cellphone to apologise for and explain the previous night. She was driving along the freeway, not much further to go to her aunt's place.
"Since it's Christmas and I'm about an hour away from a home-cooked traditional roast, you're forgiven," she said, when I'd explained. "But next time, damn it, just use the pointy stick."
After a slightly overcooked dinner that Wesley presented to us, which was all the same considerably better than my efforts would have been, I explained about Spike and his carol-singing gatecrashing. After several minutes of protestations, I managed to convince them I wasn't making things up.
"Why didn't you stake him?" Faith asked.
"It didn't seem right. I mean, he helped me against Darla, I guess, and... it's Christmas..."
They both stared at me like I was a candidate for the loony bin.
"Doyle - the guy sprained my wrist and nearly killed me," Faith pointed out. "And he only helped you against Darla 'cause he thought she'd kill you."
"Which she almost did," Wesley put in. He hesitated and slowly half-nodded in understanding. "But it would seem rather... anticlimactic, I suppose, to put a stake through the heart of the helpless and inebriated arch villain William the Bloody... a creature who has maimed and tortured and slain of humanity for over a hundred years with not even two Slayers coming close to putting an end to him..." His voice dried up and his expression intensified into a sharp frown. "Doyle, are you insane? For Heaven's sake, why didn't you kill him?"
I subsided glumly, and mumbled some half-hearted defence. I wasn't even sure.
As the afternoon wore on, the store of booze gradually depleted - for once, myself not being the major culprit, I was pretty sure my blood was still about seventy-percent-proof from last night - and the Disney film we'd somehow ended up watching despite the fact we'd all seen it already drew to an end, we christened Wesley's presents with their first match.
"While I appreciate the darts and board," Wesley said, somewhat unsteadily, his words slurring and his lanky form swaying slightly, "I must confess my suspicions of an ult - ulte - other motive there." He was referring to the pub run, which hadn't happened in a while, one because we'd had a couple of successful cases lately but mainly because the dartboard was more holes than board, and stuck together in several places by sellotape, so the agency's Shark Extraordinaire wasn't getting in enough practice to be reliable.
"You like darts," I said. "I'm not complainin' that you got me an axe, which will come in handy to help your Slayer with her slayin'."
Wesley was silent for a moment as he fixed his eyes on the board in concentration . "Wasn't a complaint," he said.
"Well, no. And it's a very nice axe, by the by. Thanks."
"Va - very nice dartboard." He faltered and frowned at the board. "Why can I see two bullseyes? Have you been... been fiddling with the board, Doyle?"
I smirked. I hadn't actually failed to notice just how much of the fine wine we'd bought in had disappeared in the course of the afternoon.
Wesley cleared his throat, steadied himself determinedly, and threw a bullseye. Damn it, I couldn't beat him even when he was pissed.
As Faith headed for the kitchen in search of yet another beer, he leaned in close to me. "I, uh, I wondered," he began in a low voice, "I realise there was a lot going on, last night... a gr - a great deal going on... but did you happen to note whether Ms Lockley... whether she liked the gift I sent?"
"She wore it," I told him, suppressing a smile.
"She did?" I'd never seen Wesley look so inanely happy. I wondered if he had the faintest idea what he was getting into, and decided probably not. He'd never seen Kate as I'd seen her, times like the day she shot three crooks dead in a bust-gone-badly-wrong, got hammered that night and was back at work the next day with no further mention of the incident.
Faith evidently caught the tail end of the conversation as the returned. "I hope you're gonna wear your present," she said to Wesley, a steely look in her eye.
He gulped and looked down at the Union Jack patterned tie where it lay on the arm of a chair as though it was some kind of small, vicious mammal that might go for his throat. The sight seemed to sober him up somewhat. "Of course," he said faintly. "Thank you... very much, Faith."
As we settled down to watch Faith shoot Mutant Zombies late into the night, I finally managed to pin down that creeping feeling that had been nagging at the edges of my mind all day.
Family. My brain formed the word with a certain wonderment.
I thought of Kate, who'd be somewhere on the road again now, driving home from the comforts of a family Christmas. She'd done that journey every year since her mum died, her father driving with country music playing on the radio cassette because when it came down to it he didn't really believe in Christmas any more than she did. Or at least not in the traditional view, and not the modern commercialism that Kate despised. The fact that she made that journey every year spoke of a different kind of belief, though. One strong enough to forge its own tradition.
Family. I remembered the handful of Christmas days spent with Harry, my folks over in Ireland so we'd visit hers. Trying to forge our own traditions. I wondered how her folks were doing now. I hadn't kept in touch with them since her death. Technically, they were still my family too, if I could ever bring myself to face them again.
My last three Christmases had been celebrated alone with a bottle. Now, I was here with Faith and Wesley, and I realised I hadn't thought I'd ever have a family Christmas again. I wondered if Faith had ever had one; what Wesley's must have been like, at home with the tyrant that was his dad; wondered if the three of us would live long enough for days spent like this to become a tradition.
Faith snapped me out of my thoughts, clicking off the television screen I'd been staring at almost hypnotically. I realised Wesley was snoring in his chair and had been for some time. I'd almost been asleep too.
She looked at me with one eyebrow raised, a smile full of distinctly naughty intent creeping across her face. "Hey, Doyle, don't poop out on me now. I haven't given you your Christmas present yet."
"Christmas present?" After Wesley's, I'd kind of been expecting a shamrock tie. I blinked at her with dawning comprehension.
Her smirk intensified. "Time to wake up and go to bed."
The sound of the phone ringing slowly dragged me out of the bed and away from Faith's warm body. She rolled over into the snug hollow I'd left, snoring with a vigorous enthusiasm that seemed to belong to someone twice her size.
Blearily, I staggered up the stairs, my legs twinging with every step. It was one of the office lines and its insistent ringing seemed to intensify as I lurched into the office. I lunged for the wretched thing and trod on one of Wesley's darts.
I collapsed with a howl, as with a click, the ringing ended and the answering machine's pre-recorded message chattered merrily away. "Doyle Investigations, we help the hopeless. No one's here right now, so leave a message, an' we'll get back to you as soon as possible."
I sounded a lot more cheery and together on the tape than I felt right then, as I clawed my way up the desk and scrabbled for the phone on top of it. My hand grasped the receiver and froze.
"Doyley." Spike's voice was thick and laboured. "You're a bastard. You're a little runty, Irish, whiskey-swilling bastard. When I get a hold of you, I'm going to gut you, and your little friends, and try to make you feel one small fraction of the pain I'm experiencing now."
I smiled into the darkness. Obviously, Spike's vampire toughness had been no defence against the alcohol. Add to that a night spent sleeping in an alley, and then a scramble for shelter when the sun began to threaten him...it was no wonder he was unhappy.
Violently so, it appeared, judging from the decidedly blood-curdling turn his monologue had turned to.
"...and then, and then, I'll rip your...oh, god, my head..."
My shoulders began to shake.
Almost as if he could see my reaction, Spike snarled ferally. "And I hope you all burn in hell. Every one."
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