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A Summers Family Christmas

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"Spike? Are you home?"

The crash of the crypt door slamming against the wall caused Spike to hurry up the ladder. "Didn't anyone teach you to knock before entering someone's flat?" he demanded as he reached the crypt's main floor. "A vamp's home is his castle and all that. What are you doing here anyway? I thought Big Sis always wanted you to head straight for The Magic Box once school was out."

Dawn flopped dramatically onto a stone seat, her book bag dropping to the floor beside her. "This is different. I had to talk to somebody."

"And I seemed like the best party, eh?" With a sigh, he headed for the small refrigerator in the corner. "Want a soda, Nibblet? Or I can make some hot chocolate."

"I can't stay too long. If I don't show up, Buffy will come looking for me."

"And since she knows you run here, it isn't the best place to hide." Leaning against the refrigerator door, he crossed his arms. "I'm not telling you a better one. You go missing, your sister will stake me for sure." Might even be looking for an excuse, he couldn’t help thinking.

"I'm not looking for a place to hide. I'm looking for help. Dad's in town, you see?"

Spike frowned. He'd never met Buffy's father, barely knew a thing about him except that the man hadn't bothered to show up for his ex-wife's funeral. In Spike's book, that made a good many pages of black marks. "And something's wrong?"

Dawn sighed as only a fifteen-year-old could, then winced and reached up to adjust the sling she still wore. "He wants to take me back to LA, and thinks Buffy should come with us, too. He doesn't think she's providing a steady environment. She's gotten Anya to claim she's working at The Magic Box, but I think he's figured out about Willow and Tara and that has him upset."

"What, that they're witches?"

"No, the girlfriend thing. Buffy's really good about hiding the occult stuff and anything he notices, she explains away as artifacts Mom got for the gallery before she passed away."

Spike could see it now -- a fine display of hand-carved stakes. "So he thinks she's being a bad influence."

"He thinks everyone's being a bad influence. Funny, I don't think Sabrina wants us around."

"Who is Sabrina?"

The grimace told the story before Dawn spoke. "Stepmother. I think she's maybe a year or two older than Buffy."

"Right." Spike sat down beside Dawn. "Let me see if I have this right. Your father wants the two of you to go back to LA with him." He ticked the point off on a finger. "You don't want to go, and you don't think your stepmother wants you there either."

"And there's the whole slayer thing to worry about with Buffy."

"Which, of course, you can't tell him." He considered for a moment. "So what you need to do is prove that you have a stable environment so he won't worry."

He was tempted to tell her he had not a clue how to proceed, and maybe Xander or Willow might be better run to. Looking down at the hopeful face, though, he knew he had to find a way. Besides, he wasn't enamored of the idea of Buffy leaving town just when thing were getting interesting.

"Don't worry, Nibblet. Ol' Spike will come up with a plan."

# # #

Buffy prayed the night would end quickly, or an apocalypse would visit them, giving her an excuse to abandon this hell of a Christmas Eve gathering. Willow, Xander and Anya were already there to lend their moral support, and Anya was even getting along surprisingly well with Buffy and Dawn’s stepmother. Hank Summers still looked grim, as if he was unhappy with the presence of strangers.

Just an old-fashioned Christmas. Only now it's me and Dad fighting instead of Mom and Dad.

The doorbell rang and Buffy hurried to answer it grateful for the momentary excuse to escape. "It's nippy out," Tara said as she stepped inside.

"Which means all the nasty creepies are probably nestled snug in their beds and won't be out tonight. Pity." She helped Tara out of her coat. "Thank you for coming."

"You sounded like you needed all the help you could get."

Buffy peered back into the living room. "Better believe it."

Putting on a brave smile, she led the new guest in. "Look who arrived, everyone. Dad, this is Tara. You remember me telling you about her. Tara, this is my father, Hank Summers."

Hands were offered and polite greetings exchanged. Hank regarded Tara with suspicion as she greeted the others. Buffy hoped her father wouldn't say anything provocative, or Willow might get her back up.

The doorbell rang again and Buffy headed for it, half-relieved for the distraction, but wondering whom it was. Hopefully Spike hadn't decided it was an appropriate moment to come by and talk. Given her luck, though...

She opened the door and stopped. It looked like Spike, but didn't. The man wore a blue dress shirt beneath a sleeveless argyle vest and beige chinos. His white-blond hair was not slicked back, but formed soft waves, perfect compliment to his blue eyes and the glasses perched on his nose.

Buffy blinked. And again. And a third time.

"Aren't you going to invite me in, Elizabeth?"

His voice was softer than she was used to, the accent somehow more cultured. This had to be some kind of trick. Maybe Spike had an evil twin brother who'd just arrived in Sunnydale and was hatching some dastardly plot.

Maybe the sky had just turned orange.

It was Spike; she could still see the scar in his left eyebrow, the one he'd picked up in China.

That thought was what shook her out of it. "What are you doing here?" she hissed.

"Watching your back, slayer." The words were equally quiet, but no less intense. "Will you invite me in? It's sodding cold out here."

He'd already begun to inch his way over the threshold, so she supposed the request for an invitation was for courtesy's sake rather than any mystical reason. Realizing the living room had grown somewhat quiet, she stood aside and gestured for him to enter. Leading the way, she said, "Hey, everybody, it's…"

Buffy trailed off as she realized she wasn't quite sure what to call him. "Spike" hardly seemed appropriate and Xander and Willow sitting on the floor with their mouths ready to catch flies wasn't helping. "Um, this is my dad. Dad, this is…"

Spike stepped forward, extending his hand. "William Ashbury-Smythe. It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Summers."

For the first time that evening, Hank Summers seemed to show a bit of genuine pleasure. "Good to meet you, Mr. Ashbury-Smythe."

"Please, call me William. Forgive the hands; I'm afraid I foolishly went out without my gloves."

"We'll have you warmed up soon. My wife, Sabrina."

Another round of pleasantries, and Willow and Xander's eyes grew wider by the moment. On their parts, Anya looked puzzled and Tara grew very quiet. Only Dawn seemed not at all perturbed by this appearance, a smile lighting her face.

"I brought some wine." Spike extended the bottle toward Buffy. "My contribution to the table."

Buffy took it, glancing at the label. "Thanks, um, William. I'll put it in the kitchen."

Willow and Xander hard on her heels as she made for the kitchen double-quick. "Okay, who invited Evil Dead Junior?" Xander asked.

"Did you see what's he's wearing? And those glasses?"

"Worse than that, Will -- his name. I mean, does he expect any of us to believe William Ashbury-Smythe?"

The three stared at each other. "William the Bloody," Buffy whispered, remembering the day Giles had first told them about him. "You don't think…"

The three stuck their heads out the kitchen door to peer into the living room. "So, how long have you been seeing Buffy?" Hank was asking.

"I would say about a month or so -- seriously, that is. We'd met some time before."

The three pulled their heads back into the kitchen. "Someone get me a stake."

"Buffy, you can't just walk out there and stake your boyfriend?"

"He's not my boyfriend!"

"Your father thinks he is."

"What's weirder," Xander said, "is that your father seems to like him."

"Don't be ridiculous. My father's never liked any of my boyfriends."

They stuck their heads out once more.

"Actually, I'm writing a doctorial dissertation on the romanticism of language in Langston Hughes as compared to the late Victorian Pre-Raphaelites."

"My, that sounds fascinating," Sabrina said, perching on the arm of Hank's chair.

Spike smiled and nodded his head slightly. "Poetry is a passion of mine."

Back in the kitchen, Buffy said. "Okay. I still want the stake. Only, this time it's for me. I don't think I can live through this."

"Maybe it's part of some evil plan," Willow suggested.

"Heh, some evil plan to get in good with Buffy's father. I mean, a guy only does that when he—" Xander trailed off at Buffy's angry glare.

"What are you doing in here?" Anya demanded as she entered. "Sabrina and your father are only interested in talking to Spike right now. And why is he wearing those ridiculous clothes?"

"And glasses," Willow added.

Buffy shook her head. "I don't know. How did he even know that we'd be having a party tonight? It's not like I've talked to him since…" Don't go there, Summers. "I mean, I didn't invite him…"

Buffy stuck her head out the kitchen door once more. "Oh, Dawn," she caroled in the sweetest voice she could manage, "Would you come here, please?"

Dawn looked up, giving a good imitation of a startled deer. If Buffy had any doubts as to the instigator of this insane scenario, they were erased at that moment. Dawn looked back toward the couch. Spike paused in his discussion of the romantic poets to turn his head, eyes narrowed in a very Spike expression. He glanced down at Dawn and nodded slightly, as if giving his approval.

"Why does everyone look so serious?" Dawn asked as she entered.

"Dawn," Buffy said as evenly as possible, "why did you invite Spike?"

She shrugged. "It's Christmas. He didn't have anywhere else to be. You'd rather have him spend it all alone in that crypt?"

"But what's with the preppy undead look?" Xander asked.

Dawn squirmed, which said it all. Buffy looked at her friends. "I think it’s time we did a little sisterly bonding. Why don't you guys go back in the living room. Tara's probably feeling lonely."

Reluctantly, Xander, Willow and Anya left, and Buffy turned back to Dawn, who'd started to explore the various pans and bowls spread over the counter. "Okay, give."

"Give what?"

"Don't try that innocent look on me. You invited him; you had an idea how he was going to come, didn't you?"

For a moment, Dawn looked as if she was going to go for plausible denial, but deflated. "I did. But it was his plan," she amended quickly.

"And why would Spike feel the need for a plan before coming to visit?"

"Because he's trying to help convince Dad we have a stable environment."

"Trying to…Who told him Dad needed convincing…Dawn!"

"Well, you talked Anya into claiming you worked at the Magic Box. Spike and I thought that a nice, normal-looking boyfriend would convince him everything was going fine, that you were busy putting down roots and we shouldn't leave."

"That," Buffy said, pointing toward the living room, "is hardly a normal boyfriend. That is a vampire."

"No, it's Spike," Dawn countered.

This wasn't going anywhere. "I'm not going to argue with you about it now. But we are going to have a serious talk about this later."

Dawn wrinkled her nose. "Now you sound like Mom."

Buffy picked up the eggnog she'd planned to bring out earlier. "Someone has to act like an adult around here."

She carried the filled punch bowl out to the living room. "Buffy, be careful with that," Hank called.

"Perhaps I should help," Spike suggested, rising from his seat on the couch.

"No! I mean, I have it."

Spike joined her, wrapping his own hands around the bowl. "It'll be better if we both do it."

It was strange looking at his eyes through glasses. For one thing, the rims obscured the scar and gave his face a slightly softer look. He looked patiently down at her, not pulling on the bowl or pushing her in any one direction, merely waiting. A glance toward Hank showed her father was watching them and she knew her actions at this point would help make or break this charade.

With a smile, she gently steered them toward the coffee table, and the two of them deposited the punchbowl. "William, would you help me get the cups and…things?"

He obediently followed her out to the kitchen, not saying a word. Buffy waited until she'd closed the door to the dining room before speaking. "What the hell are you doing?"

Spike leaned back against the counter, crossing his arms before him. "Merry Christmas to you, too, Slayer."

"Cut the crap, Spike. Dawn's told me about her little plan. What I want to know is what you thought to accomplish by going along. I told you we were done."

Blue eyes narrowed behind the glasses. "Who says this is about you? Dawn asked for my help. I'm giving it."

"And you're expecting nothing in return?"

A corner of his mouth twitched up. "Why? You offering?"

Instinctively, she pulled back her fist, fully intending to land one on his nose. Spike held up his hands. "Now, now. Don't want your father to wonder what all the noise is about, luv. Might lead to awkward questions. Besides, you shouldn't hit a man with glasses."

He was right. Annoyingly, infuriatingly right. She lowered her fist and stepped closer. "You think this is all some sick joke. This is the type you think I'm attracted to?"

She was so close, she could smell his scent; whiffs of tobacco, soap and a musky, almost musty scent she'd always associated with him. He was looking down at her, something in his eyes she didn't understand. "No. I suppose I shouldn't think someone like you would be attracted to the sensitive, bookish sort of chap. However, I was thinking of what might appeal to your father. Someone who looked steady and non-threatening."

"Never think I believe you to be non-threatening, Spike. I know exactly what you are, and what you can do."

Suddenly, his arms slid around her waist, and he pulled her closer, his head dipping slightly to allow his lips to brush against hers. More out of surprise than anything else, she began to push against him – until her slayer senses let her know the kitchen door had swung open.

"Oh, so sorry to interrupt," Sabrina said, a giggly note in her voice. "We were just wondering where the glasses were."

Spike let Buffy go, managing a look of innocent embarrassment. "I think they were…here you go."

He handed the tray to Sabrina and she gave him a knowing wink as she departed. "You enjoyed that," Buffy accused as the door swung close.

He smirked. "Made a convincing show — the young lovers sneaking away for some private time. Your new step mama will burble to your father how 'cute' we are, which is precisely what you want."

His attitude was precisely what she expected; cocky, daring her to challenge his assertion. Somehow, though, it didn't go with the clothes. "Don't touch me," she warned.

"I fully intend to hold your hand at some point during the evening. They'll be expecting it. Besides, I wouldn't miss Harris and Red's reaction for anything."

A hundred retorts flew through her mind, but she found herself unable to form any on her lips. Instead, she satisfied herself with stomping back toward the living room.

"There you are," Xander said as they emerged, his voice a bit too bright. "We thought we had lost you."

"Just checking on dinner," Buffy said, aware of Spike right behind her. "It should be soon."

"Then you can sit for a while and visit." Hank's suggestion was not an invitation. Reluctantly, Buffy took a place on the sofa, hoping Spike wouldn't join her. Looking back, she found him in conversation with Tara. He glanced down, noticed her cup was empty and took it, heading for the punch bowl.

She watched as he refilled glass and returned it with a small bow, a gesture that coaxed a smile onto Tara's face. If she didn't know the truth, Buffy could have easily been lulled into thinking he was exactly what he appeared to be; a grad student more interested in books than fighting.

Romanticism of language in Langston Hughes? Spike? Nah.

"I think I understand why you're somewhat reluctant to leave Sunnydale," Hank said quietly. "Seems like a nice young man."

"He certainly is…unique," Buffy said, choosing her words carefully.

"Seems fond of you."

She didn't like the position this was putting her in. It was one thing to try to convince her father she had steady employment, but speaking nicely about Spike was another matter all together. What could she say? He's a hundred-plus year-old vampire. The first time, we brought a house down around us.

The silence dragged on as Buffy tried to think of words. Then, Sabrina leaned in and whispered, "I think it's cute the way he watches you as if you were the only person in the room."

Surprised, Buffy turned to look back at Spike once more. Dawn had joined him and Tara, and was chattering away happily about something. Tara's attention was focused on Dawn, but Spike was indeed watching her. This time, there was no mistaking what she saw there, and Buffy shifted uncomfortably as she recalled the last time he'd look at her like that. A smile touched the corners of his mouth and for just a moment her heart softened. Then she remembered herself and turned away. "William is…William," she told Sabrina. "He's very devoted."

"Lucky girl."

Hank raised an eyebrow. "Aren't I devoted?"

Sabrina smiled and pressed a finger to Hank's nose. "I need to go check on the turkey," Buffy announced, deciding she couldn't handle this. "Dinner will be real soon."

For the next half hour, Buffy buried herself in the kitchen, seeing to the final details. Willow and Anya wandered in at various times, but Tara proved the most helpful. "Maybe I could make you some tea," she suggested at one point as Buffy furiously arranged the mashed potatoes. "It might calm you down."

"What I need is everyone gone. That, or a drink."

Tara rustled in a drawer and extracted a corkscrew. "Did you know Spike was going to show up?"

Buffy sighed. "No. That was Dawn's idea. The clothes were apparently his."

"I think they suit him."

Buffy stopped trying to force the potatoes into perfect peaks. "You're joking, right? I mean, this is Spike, the Big Bad."

"He seems comfortable in them." Tara extracted the cork. "And he has read Langston Hughes. We were talking about it."

"I can't picture Spike reading poetry of any kind." Buffy accepted the glass Tara had poured a small amount into, and took a sip.

"There's more to him than just the surface, Buffy. I know I haven't been acquainted with many vampires, but Spike seems complicated, much more so than he would appear to be."

"Complicated. That is Spike to a word." She looked at the glass and frowned. "This isn't the Gallo."

"No, it's what Spike brought. The vineyard's called Byron, I think. Yes, that's what it says on the label."

Buffy looked at the glass with new respect. "He has taste in wine. I'm impressed."

Tara smiled. "I said, 'complicated.'"

Dinner on the table, Buffy finally felt she could relax. Her father sat in the patriarch's place and performed the honors, cutting the turkey. She'd thought of seating Spike down at the far end, next to Hank, but he'd managed to maneuver a place at her right hand. Willow sat opposite him, with Tara next to Spike and Dawn next to Willow. Anya was between Dawn and Sabrina, providing a suitable buffer, while Xander took the spot next to Tara. The seating was a little scrambled from her original plan, but she hadn't counted on an extra guest.

There were moments it felt like a normal Christmas dinner, but it was strange to see her father sitting where her mother would have been, and her stepmother talking away to Anya. Stepmother. She wasn't quite sure how to deal with that one yet.

Then there was Giles' absence. For the last three years, he'd been a fixture at the Christmas table, part of the warm and cozy family. Presents were waiting under the tree that he had sent, but it didn't compensate for the empty space.

A cool hand covered hers. "You look pensive, pet."

She looked down, realizing for the first time that evening he had removed the black nail polish he usually wore. A concession to the clean and wholesome image, she supposed. His hand casually rested atop hers, just as it had done a hundred times. Strange to realize that until just recently, she'd come to accept his casual touch.

Raising her eyes to meet his, she felt on familiar ground. This was the Spike she was comfortable with, the one who let her ramble on when things got too hard. Now it was easy to say, "Just thinking of Mom and Giles."

"To absent friends." His smile was warm, his voice low. "I miss Joyce, too."

It was the first time he'd directly spoken of her mother since her death. Buffy didn't understand the sorta friendship the two of them had shared, how her mother had seemed to simply adopt Spike in a way she never had with Angel. Of course, the circumstances with Angel were different, their relationship tainted by their first meeting. But Joyce had genuinely liked Spike, to the point of worrying that Buffy might have led him on when she'd learned of Spike's feelings.

What would she have made of William Ashbury-Smythe? Buffy could almost see her mother sitting in her familiar place, taking one look at the glasses and the clothing and breaking into hysterical laughter. Mom probably would have termed it "adorable."

Buffy wrinkled her nose and retrieved her hand, earning a lifted eyebrow from Spike. "Everybody ready for dessert?" she asked, hoping she could find something to do away from the table.

The looks down the table, forks paused in mid-air, told her the turkey and sides were still the prime point of interest. The pause also had the unfortunate effect of focusing her father's attention back on her. "Delicious meal, Buffy. My daughter's an excellent cook, William."

Spike grinned at this not-so-subtle recommendation. "I'm quite aware of Elizabeth's many talents, sir."

Anya put her fork down with a clatter. "I have to ask. Why do you keep calling her Elizabeth instead of Buffy?"

There was a hiss as the other Scoobies all sucked in their breath at once. All it would take would be one wrong word from Anya and this entire charade would shatter. That she could utter that one wrong word was all too likely. "Elizabeth's my given name," Buffy said quickly, hoping to stave off questions. "I've just been called Buffy all my life."

Anya frowned, clearly not satisfied. As she opened her mouth, though, Spike added his own two cents. "I call her Elizabeth because it's a lovely name and happens to be the name of one of my favorite poets."

"Elizabeth Barrett Browning?" Tara asked. "Her work is beautiful."

Buffy saw the smile on his face, and felt a strange twinge of jealousy. She didn't recall Tara and Spike speaking more than two words to each other over the last year or so, and here they'd spent much of the evening in conversation together.

"So you're calling her Elizabeth because she reminds you of this other woman." Leave it to Anya to not let a topic go. "Is this woman a vam…"

"Anya," Xander said warningly.

"Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote the 'Sonnets From the Portuguese.'" Spike's voice was calm but precise, as if offering an explanation to child. "She was the author of what are considered some of the most beautiful love poems ever written."

"I remember her from school," Sabrina said. "'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.' I can't remember the rest, but I loved reading it."

Spike reached up to adjust his glasses, which had begun to slide down his nose. "Actually, my favorite is:

"If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love's sake only."

The words rolled easily off his tongue as if they were long familiar to him, his voice wrapping about each syllable like a caress.

"Do not say
I love her for her smile--her look--her way
Of speaking gently,--for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day'—"

All were silent now, their attention focused on him. Willow's eyes had widened, awe and surprised mixed there, while Dawn was grinning as if this was just what she wanted. Tara was listening thoughtfully, while Anya had stretched her hand across the table to find Xander's. Hank and Sabrina were holding hands as well, all smiles at the scene.

"For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee,--and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry,--
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!

He turned his face toward her, and their eyes met. She saw passion, desire, and much, much more dancing there, hers for the taking, as he reached the final couplet.

"But love me for love's sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love's eternity."

The last words lingered in the air as a sighed escaped from those listening. He was going to kiss her, she was certain of it; he would lean forward and she didn't know if she would be able to resist the promise his eyes and the words implied, no matter how much her mind might scream against it.

His eyes never leaving hers, he lifted her hand from the table and pressed his lips against her flesh. Her breath was coming faster, part of her warning that she needed to flee, while another part just wanted to melt right then and there. A third part petulantly demanded to know why he could be so poetic now and couldn't he have been that way the morning they’d woken up together?

They were all watching her; she could sense that without taking her eyes from Spike's. He still held her hand, still acted as if they were the only two in the universe. She wasn't sure how to extract herself, or even if she wanted to.

"Pie!"

The word came out as an explosion as Willow surged to her feet. Mood broken, Buffy snatched her hand back, while Spike looked like he was considering violence, chip or no chip. "That was great, but now it's time for pie. Dawn, you help Anya with Hank and Sabrina's plates. Oh, and get Xander's, too. Buffy, why don't you get Tara's and…well, grab his plate."

Buffy rose to her feet, not sure why Willow had done that, but glad she had. Tara handed over her plate, which Buffy stacked atop hers, before reaching for Spike's. He looked up at her as she leaned forward and she noticed the little smirk on his face, the one that indicated he'd scored a point. The warm feeling enveloping her dissipated. He was still Spike.

"Where did you learn to recite like that?" she heard Xander ask as she headed into the kitchen. "And can you teach me how?"

"It's all part of some evil plan," Willow said as they stacked the dishes on the counter. "That's got to be it."

"Nah, he's just hot for her." Anya munched on a stray olive. "It's obvious from the way he looks at her."

"Eeeww. Buffy went through that creepy, stalky thing with him last year."

Anya shook her head. "This is different. Trust me. I've seen a lot of relationships in my time."

Buffy busied herself with slicing the pie, wishing she could shut the words out. "But he's a vampire," Willow protested.

"Vampires have the hots for humans all the time. Where do you think the inspiration for all those books and movies come from?"

"A desire to make money?"

"Scoff if you want, but I've seen some pretty intense human/vampire romances."

Enough was enough. "Okay, that's it. We're not going to talk about my love life anymore."

Both Anya and Willow stared at Buffy. "That did not come out right. We are not going to talk about Spike's fantasies about my love life or anything to do with anything that might concern Spike and me. Dawn asked him to show up and play perfect boyfriend to impress my father. As soon as Dad leaves, he's going back to the crypt where he belongs."

She turned back to cutting the pie, concentrating on making each golden pumpkin wedge perfectly even, but she could feel the looks her friends were exchanging behind her back. Not good. So not good.

# # #

They made it through desert and back into the living room for presents, though Buffy was convinced Xander, Willow and Anya were watching her every move. Dawn wasn't paying any attention, spending her time bantering with Spike, who seemed perfectly content with her company – when he wasn't making nice with her father.

Xander fell into his customary role as Santa, dispersing the packages beneath the tree. "Lookie, here's another one for Dawn…from William."

He raised an eyebrow at Buffy as he passed over the small flat square. She ignored it. Of course Spike had brought presents; he wouldn't look like a perfect boyfriend if he didn't. There would likely be one for her, as well. She'd open it, make nice, then give it back to him later. Sure enough, the next one was hers, a book-shaped package.

Pulling away the wrapping paper revealed a copy of Nineteenth-Century Romantic Poets. With a frown, Buffy flipped open the cover…and discovered "Property of Buffy Summers" written on the inside front cover in her own handwriting. How and why had he managed to grab one of her books from UC Sunnydale?

"N'Sync! Thank you!" There was nothing feigned in Dawn's squeal of delight or the way she threw her one good arm around Spike.

Spike grinned broadly as he returned the hug. "I seem to recall someone saying they had a certain appreciation for the group — though I can't understand why."

Dawn wrinkled her nose at him and he wrinkled back before she turned to settle on the floor in front of the couch, leaning comfortably against his leg. Spike put out a hand and gently stroked her hair, provoking a bit of a panic reaction in Buffy that she struggled to keep down. He spent plenty of time with her while you were gone. He seems to really like her. Not surprising that she might like him back. Buffy hadn't missed the large sprawling "Spike" on Dawn's cast, one of the first signatures to appear there.

There were gifts from Giles, presents to remind them they were in his thoughts. Hank presented several boxes to his daughters, as well as an envelope to Buffy. This she opened last, a profound sense of relief filling her at the sight of the check. I can finish paying off the plumbers. "Thanks, Dad."

"I thought you could use it. There are still some things we need to discuss, though, such as medical insurance for Dawn. We'll do that tomorrow."

She tried to keep smiling, tried not to think about how profoundly uncomfortable that conversation was going to be. Swallowing, she nodded, really feeling the need of a good slay at the moment.

"I think that's all the presents," Xander said cheerfully, settling down to open his stack.

"No, I still see two under the tree." Anya craned her neck. "Are they for me?"

Reluctantly, Xander reached out to pick up the gifts. "They're for William. From Dawn and Buffy."

She so did not get Spike a Christmas present. Dawn. Of course. Dawn probably was the one who procured Buffy's book for Spike so he could present it as his own. Now, though, her friends were looking at her as if they desperately needed to have her head examined as Spike carefully removed the wrapping paper. "'The Ramones' Greatest Hits Live' Thank you, Dawn. I didn't have that on CD."

"I know." Dawn looked smug. "Open Buffy's present."

With a glance in her direction, he slid his finger under the fold of the wrapping paper to break the tape that held it in place. What could Dawn have gotten him? Probably something that would make her and the rest of the Scoobies twitch, payback for some sisterly insult, most likely.

The box was slim and, once opened, revealed a red and black speckled scarf. "It's very nice," he said, examining it with a hint of a suspicious look as he lifted it up.

"She said she worries about your neck getting cold when you go out at night." Dawn's grin was pure evil. Xander choked on his eggnog.

"How…thoughtful." He leaned across the couch to brush his lips against her cheek. "You don't know how I appreciate this."

There was amusement in voice, and she wished he didn't find this situation so funny. "I wanted to get you something useful," she managed, glad that her father's presence prevented Spike from attempting more aggressive signs of affection. She really didn't want to have to have the furniture in the living room repaired again, and the cost of a Spike-sized hole through the window was more than her budget could bear.

A flash, and she realized Sabrina had brought out a camera. "That was just perfect, you two. Now get closer together. I want another shot."

Buffy did as bid, scooting ever so slightly toward Spike. He seemed no more enthusiastic than she did, especially when Sabrina added, "Put your arm around her waist."

Even as she managed a smile, Buffy could see Willow whispering something to Xander, then heading upstairs. "We should get everyone together," Sabrina said once she'd taken several shots of the pair. "Gather around the couch."

"Willow wants to get some shots, too," Xander said as he settled on the arm of the couch. "I think she wants a record of this for posterity."

"No!" The objection came from Spike, not Buffy. "I don't take very good pictures," he offered lamely.

It suddenly occurred to Buffy that while Spike might enjoy making her uncomfortable with his game of "let's pretend," he might not want photographic evidence of the event. After all, "William" wouldn't be in keeping with his "Big Bad" image. "I think you take nice pictures," she purred, the blackmail possibilities multiplying in her mind.

"Really?" There was a note of hope in his voice as he turned his head toward her. She'd seen that light in his eyes before, all the times he'd desperately sought her attention. She almost felt guilty. Almost.

"Got it," Willow crowed triumphantly as she re-entered the living room, digital camera in hand. Spike's gaze shifted toward her, then back to Buffy. The light dimmed. "I see."

"Everyone squeeze together," Sabrina commanded as Willow took up position next to her. "Big smiles."

Flashes went off, and they were commanded to hold still so they could be captured once more. "Hank, why don't I get one of you with the girls by the tree?"

Spike was off the couch quickly, stalking purposefully toward Willow. Buffy caught his arm. "Come on, William. Why don't you get in the picture, too?"

"I just want one of you and Dawn with Hank first," Sabrina said. "We'll get William next."

As Willow had managed to duck behind Xander and Anya, Buffy let go, knowing Spike would have some difficulty getting to the camera without rousing suspicion.

The picture taking continued for some time, various groups being formed and reformed. Several shots captured the Summers family for immortality, Spike reluctantly being dragged into several. Dawn even managed to get one with him, the one moment when his reluctance lifted.

"Buffy, why don't you and William stand in front of the tree? I have just a few shots left, and I'd like to get the two of you together."

Suddenly, Buffy found she'd lost her taste for this game. While shots of Spike with the family were one thing, her and him was not something she wanted preserved. It began to sink in that her father would go back to LA, and Sabrina would probably have prints done of these pictures. Spike would become part of the family history. In a few months, she'd have to invent an excuse for why they'd broken up, claim he'd returned to England. It wasn't going to be fun.

Reluctantly, she stepped in front of the tree. Spike slid in behind her, slipping his arms around her as she leaned back and let her head drop back against his shoulder.

Sabrina snapped the picture, then frowned. "Come on. Smile, you two. You look like something depressing just happened."

Yeah. I'm trying to fool my father by presenting a vampire as a boyfriend, and Spike's humiliating himself to do it for me. We're a pretty sad pair.

"One little smile?"

Spike leaned down, his mouth close to his ear. "I've got your back, Slayer," he whispered, so softly that only she could hear. She looked up in response, eyes wide. He was smiling down at her, the same calm smile she'd seen so often since she'd been pulled back here.

At that moment, both Willow and Sabrina's cameras flashed, capturing the moment in time.

"Oooh! Nice one, Will." Xander chuckled as he looked down at the display on the back of her camera. "We should send that one to Giles."

Buffy broke the pose to stride toward her friends. "Very funny. Let me see."

For a moment, Willow hesitated, almost as if she was weighing her camera's possible continued existence. Then she laid it carefully into Buffy's outstretched hand. The photo was good Buffy had to admit, nicely framed with the tree behind the two of them. Spike was looking down and she was looking up, a tentative smile on her face.

She felt him behind her, looking over her shoulder. Her finger moved toward the button that would delete the image from the camera's memory, only to stop, hesitating. Abruptly, her throat tightened and she shoved the camera into someone's hands – she wasn't certain whose – and she headed for the kitchen, head down.

A judicious application of hot water and dishwashing detergent to dirty plates would serve as a distraction, or so she hoped, plunging her hands into the steaming liquid without bothering to pull on the gloves that lay on the counter. Her eyes burned and she blinked furiously, trying to hold back tears. Why did she even bother trying to pretend holidays were normal? Nothing in her life was normal.

The kitchen door swung open behind her with a whisper and Buffy tensed. She didn't want questions, concerns or little pats and assurances that everything would be fine. Things weren't "fine"; they hadn't been fine for months and she didn't know if they ever would be again.

"Buffy? Spike sent me in to see if you were okay?"

Dawn sounded tentative and Buffy tried to bring the howling voices inside her head under control. "I'm surprised he didn't come himself," she said, reaching for a dishtowel and turning to face her sister as she dried her hands. "Wouldn't that have been more in keeping with this plan the two of you concocted?"

Dawn winced. "I didn't know it would get out of hand. I expected Xander to freak, but he seems to be enjoying embarrassing Spike."

"Xander doesn't like Spike. He never has. None of them do." She tossed the dishtowel onto the counter and stared at her sister. "Why this? Why go to Spike at all, much less come up with such an insane plan? Dad's managed to make himself missing from our lives for some time. If he's come back because he's decided that now he has to be a parent, do you really think my having a boyfriend is going to stop him?"

Her words were striking home; Dawn's crumbling face was evidence of that. She knew she should stop, but the words were flowing and Buffy felt the need to let them out. "And Spike, of all people. Do you think I enjoy sitting there, pretending things are wonderful between us? Do you think he enjoys it?"

"Yes." Dawn's voice was small. "He likes you – a lot better than Riley or Angel ever did."

It was on her tongue to tell Dawn that it wasn't about Spike's feelings, but she stopped. Spike's feelings did matter, and that was part of what was making her so uncomfortable. "I'm surprised Willow and Xander aren't in here," she said, changing the subject to safer ground. "They're usually the first to see if I'm okay."

"Before he sent me in, Spike told them to leave you alone. Said you needed your space."

For which she was grateful. She wanted him gone, out of her life, but lately he was the only one who seemed to understand what she needed. "Well, at least he's perceptive sometimes. We'd better get back in, or Dad might come looking for us."

She started for the door, but stopped as her hand touched the smooth wood. "Dawn, things…things aren't very good between Spike and I right now. That's one of the reason's I'm not happy about this."

"I didn't know."

Looking back, Buffy found Dawn watching her with her head tilted to one side, her good arm gripping the other above the cast. There was a stubborn set to her chin, an air of "you might have told me." It also told Buffy that Spike had given her younger sister no hint of the problems between them. "Is that why he hasn't been coming by? I mean, just after you came back, he was by here every night."

"Yeah, that's one of the reasons. I think he knows I don't want him around."

"Well, I do. Spike's cool, and he's smart, and he doesn't talk to me like I'm stupid or a little kid. I don't understand why he can't come by or I can't visit him just because you decided you're fighting. You trusted him when Glory was around. Why not now?"

"Because…Dawn, I'm not going to go into this. It's something Spike and I have to work out. I don't want you talking about it with anyone else, either," she warned.

With that, she pushed through the door and back into the dining room, knowing she would have to deal with that situation sooner or later. She hoped it could be later. Right now, she just needed to get through the next forty-eight hours until Dad headed back to Los Angeles.

Mayhem hadn't broken out in her absence; in fact, she was glad to see Willow and Tara actually speaking to one another. Maybe there was hope on that front after all. Xander and Anya were speaking with Sabrina. Actually, Anya was talking to Sabrina, while Xander listened with a fairly pained expression his face. Buffy heard the word "weddings" and decided to move as far away as possible.

Only Spike and her father were missing, but Buffy heard voices in the small study off the living room her mother had used as an office. Standing just outside the doorway, she realized the two men were deep in conversation, with her father doing most of the talking. Spike had perched himself on the edge of the desk, his expression thoughtful. She'd seen that expression before, could almost hear the wheels turning as he listened. He was analyzing everything Hank said, weighing possible scenarios. She shifted and his eyes slid past her father to meet hers, the corners of his mouth turning up.

Hank must have noticed the gesture, because he turned toward the door. "There you are. William and I were just having a little conversation."

"So I noticed." Despite the hint of a smile, Spike's expression was serious and she wondered just what they'd been talking about. All she'd heard was that her father wasn't happy about Dawn's accident or Willow and wanted to make sure Dawn had proper coverage in case anything else happened.

"I was trying to convince him to come along to dinner tomorrow. The Hilton does offer up a fairly good meal."

Spike shook his head. "I thank you for the offer, but sounds like you and Elizabeth have a great deal to discuss and I would simply be intruding on family."

"Sure I can't convince you? Well, then hopefully I'll see you on my next trip up." He offered his hand. "Nice meeting you, William. Buffy, I'd better gather up Sabrina and head back to the hotel. Tomorrow at one, right?"

Buffy agreed, glad to be getting her father out the door. It would end at least one set of weirdness when they were gone. Even so, the goodbyes didn't go quickly enough for her taste, especially with Sabrina insisting she couldn't go without giving "Buffy's William" a goodbye hug. At last, though, they were gone and the Scooby Gang could safely flop on the couch. "Man, that was one strange evening."

"And we've had some strange ones," Willow added to Xander's sentiment. "Think it went okay, Buffy?"

Buffy shrugged, idly beginning to pick up stray wrapping paper and ribbon. "I don't know. It wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. Tomorrow's going to be a pain, though. We have to talk about finances and adult things like that." Looking about, she realized Spike wasn't present. "I'll be right back, guys."

He was out on the back porch, leaning on the rail and looking up at the sky. Every once in a while, a puff of breath would escape, almost like smoke rings. "I thought vampires didn't breath," she offered as an opening.

"We don't. However, I found out early that being able to pull air in order to smoke annoyed certain poofy grandsires, so I worked at being good at it." He grinned. "Real good."

There was another piece of ground she didn't want to tread on. "I noticed you and Dad were talking again."

"Gathering intelligence. He wanted to find out more about me, but I managed to make certain he was the one who spilled. Don't think you have to worry about packing up to move south, pet. He's making motions for some reason, but he doesn't actually seem that enthusiastic. I think one reason he latched on to me is that your 'boyfriend' gave him a reason for you to stay here."

His tone was crisp and businesslike, as if they were discussion the latest demon threat. "He'll make some argument about the Nibblet, but since he's apparently already looked into insurance that covers her up here in Sunnydale, I wouldn't worry too much about that. Take his advice about Joyce's gallery; you don't know a thing about art and he's apparently got a manger in mind, someone his lawyers suggested."

It was a lot of information; too much information. "He told you all this?"

Spike shrugged. "He wanted to know how serious I was, make certain his little girl was taken care of. The rest was easy, almost like he's eager to get you off his hands."

Which was consistent with Hank Summer's behavior over the past few years. Buffy had to wonder when she'd become burden. "So did you tell him?"

He frowned. "Tell him what?"

"How serious you were?"

The words slipped out, but she wanted to know, wondered just how far he'd gone, what lies she might have to cover tomorrow.

Pushing himself up from the rail, Spike moved closer to her, so close that she felt herself start to twitch a bit uncomfortably, wanting to be away. Ice blue eyes looked down, devouring her. "I told him I was very serious," he said softly, "but that you needed time." One corner of his mouth twitched up. "He told me to be persistent."

Her father had given Spike his blessing? She shivered and turned away, intent on walking back into the house.

"Buffy."

She stopped at the sound of his voice. "I don't like him," she heard Spike say. "Joyce deserved better. You deserve better."

Surprised, she turned back, half-expecting him to have drawn closer, fishing for a kiss. He was standing where she'd left him, all trace of a smile gone. She wanted to say something, but the words didn't come and she scurried inside.

Anya and Xander were make preparations to leave, wrapping themselves in coats and mufflers. "Great evening, Buffy. You need moral support tomorrow, give us a call."

"Xander says that since we're thinking of using the Hilton for the reception, it would be natural for us to drop in when you're eating with your father." Anya grinned. "I still have some friends who do vengeance spells. Maybe just one to make Sabrina's breasts sag."

Xander stopped, staring at his fiancée in disbelief. "Anya, I thought you liked Sabrina."

"I do, but I don't think she likes Buffy, so I figured just a small vengeance would be appropriate. Surgery would fix it."

Buffy sighed. "Guys, I don't think Christmas is the right time to talk about vengeance spells."

"Score one for the Buffster. Tara, can we give you a ride?"

Tara, shrugging into her own coat, shook her head. "It's not that far. I'll just walk back."

"Nonsense. Won't hear of it,” Spike said the doorway, having wandered back in. “I'll walk you back myself, protect you from the nasties."

To everyone's surprise, Tara actually agreed, favoring Spike with a smile as he collected his gifts. He draped the red and black scarf jauntily about his neck, causing Xander to shiver a final time as he and Anya headed out the door.

"We'll talk?" Willow said, her voice hopeful.

Tara managed to give will a bit of the smile she'd just given Spike. "Well, we are in some of the same classes next semester, so, yeah, we can talk."

It was enough for Willow, and Buffy was glad to see the redhead look happier than she had in some weeks. She was glad Tara had agreed to come.

Dawn gave Spike one final hug. "Thanks for the album."

Spike hugged back. "Glad to, Nibblet. And don't think I don't know who picked out this scarf."

"Easy. You always like red and black."

"I know what I look good in. Ready, Tara?"

A chorus of goodnights and he was out the door. Buffy hesitated for a moment, then her feet moved, carrying her across the threshold. "Spike!"

Tara was already down the steps, but he paused where he stood on the porch. Breath coming a little quicker from the sudden movement, she tried to find the right words. "I wanted to thank you for the present."

He shrugged. "Dawn grabbed one of your books for me. Didn't figure you'd actually want me to give you something."

"No, not that. I mean, being here. What you did tonight. Putting up with everything. Thank you."

There were times she could easily read the emotions across his face, but this wasn't one of them. He was an odd amalgamation of Spike and William at the moment, glasses tucked away and the swaggering attitude back in place. She couldn't peg him, couldn't guess which way he was going to jump.

To her surprise, he reached up and lightly tapped her nose with his forefinger. "Merry Christmas, Slayer."

With that he was down the porch steps. "Come on, Tara. Contrary to popular belief, vampires do get cold. At least, this one does."

Standing on her porch as the pair walked into the night, Buffy didn't feel cold. She felt warm. Confused, but warm.