July 11, 2002It was an unseasonably cool night in California, as the temperature dipped into the mid-forties. The petite blonde on the back porch didn't care. The windbreaker she had left the house with lay next to her on the back porch. The wind sliced and prodded her, painting goose bumps across her flesh. Still, she did not mind. Hazel eyes stared into the blackish gray sky and her ears perked at the distant rumbling of thunder. It would rain again, just like it had five of the last seven days.
It had been a week since they had been made aware of the events in LA, the murder of all but one of Angel and Cordelia's friends. One week since a traumatized Winifred Burkle had been delivered to Buffy's doorstep by a demonic warrior whose motives had yet to be discovered, though his allegiance remained with the bad guys. Angel and Cordy had left three days ago to take care of their deceased comrades' affairs. Fred had wanted to go but admitted that it was too soon, and she would say her final goodbyes to Gunn and the others as soon as the coming battle was over.
"If it ever begins," the Slayer muttered to the empty backyard. Buffy had never been good at waiting and recent circumstances--i.e. a certain blonde vampire switching sides--had made the wait even more unendurable. If only she could find something to hurt…and bad. Starting with the skank hoe that was Spike's new companion.
Anger and pain fought for supremacy within Buffy's mind as she thought of her lover--former lover--in the arms of another woman. The one person who had stayed through her bullshit, who'd thought she was more than good enough for a second go had done the same thing every other man in her life had done; he'd left.
"Mind if I join ya?" Willow's fluttery voice asked from behind her and Buffy was thankful for the distraction.
"Why not?" she replied and slid over towards the banister.
Willow took a seat and was quiet for several minutes but her nervous energy was palpable and Buffy knew she had something to say. She'd known Willow long enough to steel herself for the stuttering, rapid-fire 'no-I'm-not-trying-to-get-at-something' spiel before the Wicca finally got to the point. Even after all this time Willow could never skip the preliminaries.
"You're hurting, Buffy, I know it. And I want to help." Okay, so maybe she could. Willow turned towards her and Buffy saw the concern hidden in the redhead's emerald eyes. "Just tell me where to start."
Buffy started to deny it. She was okay, hell, this little Slayer had laid the smack down on a god while all watched. She thought of shooing Willow back into the house with the whole peachy-side 'o keen assurances she had given when they'd resurrected her. But one look at Willow's pleading yet resolute face destroyed any attempts at false optimism.
"Wow, you sure did get to the point," the Slayer remarked. Okay, so Avoidy Buffy wasn't gonna go down without a fight."
"Well," Willow said and couldn't fight the blush that crept up her neck. "That Fourth of July Wicca Weekend me and Tara went to, a big part of it was being assertive and not going so much with the tentative prying and…hey! No fair changing the subject."
Willow's comical objection brought a smile to the Slayer's lips, lips that hadn't had many reasons to smile. "Sorry, Will. Guess my old habits don't die quiet as easy as yours."
"It's okay, Buffy, really…"
"No it's not," she interrupted vehemently. "It's nowhere near okay. We're about six counties away from it being okay, Wills." Buffy sighed and bit her lip to hold back the tears that had constantly wanted to fall for the past two weeks. "It hurts, Will, it hurts so bad. It's like when Angel went Manson on us but crank up the shocked and surprised factor by about ten. Yeah, I know he doesn't have a soul and you all can say what you want about how I should've known better. The fact is, I already did know better. I knew better to doubt him after all he'd done, after all he'd put up with just for me."
Buffy glanced down at the steps underneath her. She focused on the uneven texture of the concrete, how the coolness bled through her shorts--anything to stave off the monster cry-fest she was sure was bubbling to the surface. "I'm not a kid anymore, Willow. I didn't think that he wouldn't hurt me. That stuff about someone worth your tears won't make you cry is a load of crap. The more you love someone, the easier it is for them to make you cry. Spike was going to make me cry, that I know, but I never thought he'd do it purposely. I never thought he'd cheat on me…I never thought…"
Words couldn't express the pain she felt and the Slayer acknowledged that there was only one way to transmit to her best friend just how torn up inside she was.
The tears rushed from her soul like a shattering dam and she buried her face in the crook of Willow's neck. Her arms drew Buffy in and the Slayer returned the favor. She cried out everything she'd kept from the others, the things she discussed with Dawn, the reassurances she gave to Jay though she didn't believe. She cried for having to be strong in front of everyone when she felt the weakest of the group. She cried for the frustration of still wanting him despite how he'd crushed her. And finally, she cried because at that moment, tears were the only thing she knew.
Willow held Buffy as the latter released the torrent of fear and doubt that had been bombarding Tara for the past week. Though she knew Buffy was putting on a brave face, without Tara's sensitivity to the Slayer's emotions, Willow would have never understood the depth of her best friend's pain.
Several minutes after it had started, the Slayer's tears trickled out and Buffy's sobs dwindled to whimpers and, finally, nothing but sniffles.
"I think I snotted your shirt," the Slayer said, reluctantly pulling away. Willow huffed.
"Well, someone's just gonna have to get up off her tuckus later and wash it." That earned a thin smile from the blonde. "And if that doesn't work, well, you'll just have to go searching for a replacement at Old Navy."
"But you hate Old Navy. You told me."
Willow shrugged. "I have a right to change my mind if I want. Wronged party here."
The two women shared a rueful laugh but all to soon the levity evaporated and Willow was looking into a face that had experienced too much heartbreak in her short twenty-one years. And just like that, the speech Willow had been planning for the last six hours vanished into the ether. But, unlike most times, she wasn't scared that she would say the wrong thing or that Buffy would dismiss her words with a 'you don't understand'. Still, she wasn't sure how to broach what was on everyone's mind now that Spike was playing for the other team. Namely, that…
"Are you gonna kill him?" Okay, so maybe she could've been a little more sensitive. She cringed, expecting a look of resentment and disgust, but all she saw in Buffy's hazel eyes was weariness and the fraying of hope.
"Wow," the Slayer said and ran a hand through her blond locks. She gave the witch a bemused look. "So, are you Willow or some body snatcher alien."
"I'm serious, Buffy. Look, maybe I should've employed just a bit of tact with that instead of exploring my inner Anya…" she faltered at the mention of Xander's deceased fiancee but shook it off. "But I need to know."
That was when the resentment did come. "What do you want me to say, Wills? I don't fucking know! I don't know if I can, don't know if I should. You're asking me to kill a man I love…"
"You killed Angel." Buffy jumped from the steps and glared at Willow with a fury that threatened to burn through the redhead.
"You don't think I know that? You think I don't fucking remember that?!?! Jesus, Wills, what the hell?!"
"I'm sorry, Buff. I know you did and I know it probably still hurts and I couldn't imagine what you went through…"
She chuckled. "No, you can't."
"But the point is, Spike's not playing for us anymore and while he's not gonna be directly responsible for the Apocalypse in the way Angelus was, he's still gonna be an obstacle. All I meant was that…"
"If he's in my way, will I have the courage to cut him down."
Willow walked over to Buffy and held the Slayer's hands. "Something's coming Buffy. You can feel it, I can feel it. But Tara, Tara feels something else besides the upcoming fight. You're gonna have to make a choice."
"What do you mean?"
"When the time comes, you're gonna have to make a choice about Spike. Tara doesn't know what that choice will be, she just knows that when it comes, you'll know."
"And what happens if I make the wrong choice?" Willow avoided Buffy's eyes and the latter knew exactly what the silence meant. It meant that Buffy's choice could very well be the difference between them winning and losing.
Buffy sighed and disengaged from Willow. The redhead watched her best friend wander into the backyard, her shoulders slumped with another boulder placed upon her back. It wasn't fair for a young woman to have such responsibility for, not only herself and her friends, but the world as well. In high school, Willow had envied Buffy's take charge, carefree attitude but now…now there was only sympathy. She would fight right by Buffy's side but Willow Rosenberg would never know what it meant to be charged with such a burden.
Selfish as it may have been, she prayed to the Goddess that she never would.
Fred sat opposite Tara as the Wicca divvied out the cards. They'd lost themselves in a handful of card games, unwilling, for a few hours at least, to dwell on things they could not change. At least not yet.
"So, 'War' it is?" Fred asked.
Tara shrugged. "At least for now. I'd rather not have to think to much right now." She tossed down her first card, a six of clubs.
"Me neither," the slender brunette replied. She won the duel with a nine of diamonds. "But…"
"I don't know." Tara won the round--ten of hearts to a four of clubs. "It's just that…" Fred shook her head and threw down a Queen of spades. "It's nothing." She glanced up when Tara's warm hand covered her own.
"Don't say that." Tara sat her stack of cards to the side. "Winifred, something's weighing on you, I can feel it. And it's more than just the death of your friends."
The young scientist flinched but didn't turn away. She saw the empathy in the other woman's eyes and though she wasn't sure she could get it all out, Fred knew that she had to be honest, had to tell someone.
"It's been a little over a week, Tara, that I watched the man I love killed. Two of my other good friends were killed and I was almost…you know, by those demons. Yet here I am, sitting on a bed playing cards. It doesn't seem fair."
"People deal with grief in their own ways," Tara said and laid a hand on Fred's knee.
"But that's the thing. I…I don't feel like I'm dealing with it at all. It's like my emotions are on hold and I'm pushing my friends who died out of sight." Fred sighed harshly and stood, spilling the cards across the mattress. "The worst thing of it is that all I can think about is Frost and why he saved me. And that makes me push Gunn further out of my mind because…because…"
"Because you feel as if you're betraying him."
"Just because he saved me from--just because he saved me doesn't give me the right do the hero worship thing." She chuckled and removed her glasses and pinched her nose. "I already did that with Angel."
Tara's bemused smirk lightened the load threatening to crush Fred's thin shoulders. Ever since the night of her rescue, her thoughts had continually fallen to the hybrid. Her gratefulness had only intensified as Xander told them his story. She didn't know why but something whispered to her about Frost though it was not his tale that had been told. It was as if they'd had a connection that spanned centuries which, if she thought about it was nothing short of ridiculous. They'd spent maybe twenty minutes together and the majority of that time she'd been unconscious. So why was it that he came to her at night, both figuratively and literally? Oh, she knew he was there, outside her window, though she never saw him. She may not have been a fighter but she remembered being in his arms and the promise of his name tickled her spine each night that he came. Her dreams after she felt his presence were…well, they just were.
She confessed all but Frost's visits to Revello and the nature of the dreams to Tara. The Wicca glanced into her eyes and Fred had to look away. There was no accusation in Tara's stare but one look had Fred wanting to tell the truth. And that was something she did not want to do.
"Fred." The sound of her name from Tara weakened her knees and she sat back on the bed. The sincerity and concern in the witch's voice was beyond description. She allowed Tara to draw her hands into her lap and sighed as warmth cascaded through to her bones. It was a direct opposite to Frost's touch but was no more pleasant.
"Something's coming, I can feel it." Tara took a deep breath. "I don't know what it is but I do know that it's a very real possibility that all of us won't make it. Just as I told Willow, Buffy and Spike's situation will greatly weigh in on the outcome, so will Frost."
"What do you mean?"
"I know that he visits you." Fred couldn't mask her surprise and Tara smiled. "I can feel him, too. I don't think the others can because he has a cloak of stealth he pulls over him---figuratively speaking--but his aura shines so bright to me. You were right when you said he wasn't evil but he's not good, either. Xander may be right and that Frost will not change sides, but that doesn't mean he won't make a choice that walks the line of betrayal."
The pressure that swam in Fred's chest dissipated and she slid her glasses back into place. "So, feelin a bit dangerous, lil lady?" she asked in her best western accent. Tara laughed and replied with the same accent.
"Yes, I am, ma'am. Is poker tha game?"
"That it is, ma'am, that it is." They held each other's eyes for several seconds before bursting into giggles. This was good, Fred thought as they regained their composure. She'd needed someone to talk to and Tara had been the only one she'd felt comfortable letting things go with. She was still frightened and though she kept some of her deeper fears in check, she knew that Tara had an intrinsic knowledge of them. And though Tara had gave her hope that Frost would do good--Fred still didn't understand the unexpected connection with him--part of her was still terrified that Tara's intuition wouldn't be enough. If it wasn't, Fred hoped that praying to a God that her science never really allowed her to contemplate would make Himself know.
After all, she wasn't asking for much, was she?
TBC in A Rush of Blood to the Head…