This chapter is dedicated to Rinso, RAGAnne, and Taste Like Special for the reviews! Seriously, thank you guys. :)

On Tuesday, there'll be some timeline-altering violence fun, on Thursday some major levels of Spuffy-tastic fluff, and next Saturday some badassery.

But for now, I hope you enjoy this chapter which, I'm pretty certain, has the Tara moment I've most enjoyed writing to date.

Chapter 15

Shadow. Shadow seemed so ordinary.

Buffy had spent the night in Dawn's bed. Spike volunteered to take the couch so Faith could use Buffy's bed. Buffy and Dawn, meanwhile, held each other all night, not really sleeping, just kind of staring off at the ceiling or the door or the window, expecting any minute that this would turn out to be some kind of screwed up dream one of them had had. But when Spike drove the Summers women and Faith to the hospital a little before sunrise, when they met Willow and Tara there, when Joyce went in for the scan, they still didn't wake up from this nightmare. They'd been here for hours and hours.

In the waiting room, Dawn had curled up next to Buffy. Tara and Wills sat on her other side, and Spike kept pacing and flicking through the channels on the TV. The doctor came in and everyone stood. When he spoke it sounded like Buffy was standing in the middle of an ocean. She held her arm around Dawnie's shoulders, stroking her little sister's hair. They'd found a shadow in their mother's brain. Shadow meant surgery. The doctor wanted Buffy to come sign some paperwork. He returned to her mother's room to wait.

Spike approached them, his mouth tightly shut. Dawn, eyes welling up, spun around to face him. "Is there—" he started.

Dawn slapped Spike in the shoulder and ran off in the opposite direction of Joyce's room. Tara sprinted after her. Buffy started toward her, too, but Spike grabbed her hand.

"Love, I'll go help. You take care of your mum, and I'll send Bitty Buffy your way in a mo, a'right?"

Buffy stared down the hall. She didn't want to put this off, but it made a little bit of sense. Willow came to Buffy's side.

"And Buffy?" Spike said. He squeezed her hand. "She makes it through. I promise."

As Spike started off toward Dawn and Tara, Wills linked her arm with Buffy's. The both of them blinked at Faith, leaning against the wall.

"I'll be here if anyone needs me," Faith said with a shrug.

Buffy didn't push, instead taking the long walk down the hall with Willow at her side. Her stomach twisted up more with each step.

"Buffy?" Willow's voice, small and cautious, cracked.

"Yeah?"

"You know I've got your back, right?"

Buffy turned to Willow and stopped in her tracks. She felt the sting at her eyes when she saw the hints of tears in Willow's. Buffy nodded, gulping. The two of them clung to each other in a tight, suffocating hug just outside of Joyce's room.

"Thank you, Will."

"You got it, Buff. I'll give Xander and Anya and Giles a call in a few, keep 'em in the know." They broke apart. Willow rubbed Buffy's shoulder. "Don't worry about a thing. Whatever you need, we're here." She smirked. "Even crazy Faith."

They smiled,walking into Joyce's room hand-in-hand.

"Mommy, how're you doing?" Buffy whispered.

"Miss Summers." Buffy jumped, clenching Willow's hand in hers. She hadn't realized the doctor was standing in the corner staring at some x-rays. "We need to discuss—"

Willow held Buffy's hand in an iron grip. "Later."

"I—"

"Are you familiar with the concept of transmogrification?" Willow said, her voice low.

"Excuse me?"

"Doctor, I think we need the room a minute," Joyce said from the bed. "You can leave the paperwork with the angry redhead."

"Fine." He stormed across the room, only pausing long enough to hand the clipboard to Willow before he left.

Willow smiled, bright and lively. "How're you doin' Mrs. Summers?"

Buffy and Joyce laughed, Buffy detaching from Willow. She shuffled over to the bed, sitting next to her mom.

XXXXX

Spike came up on the end of the hallway. Bit might've gone through the doors and down the stairs. He stopped, took a couple of sniffs. He could smell the almost-slayer blood, and the cinnamon sugar scent of the Earth Mother. They went left, not straight ahead. Spike turned, creeping down the dark alcove. He could hear their voices before he finally saw them. Dawn was sitting on the floor against the wall, curled into a ball with her legs to her chest and her arms wrapped around her legs. Her long hair draped around her like a curtain, and Tara, who was kneeling at her side, tried to brush some of it away to make her face more visible.

"Dawnie, it's alright to be upset."

"What would you know?" Dawn snapped. Her voice was garbled, the way it got when she'd been cryin'. Spike recognized it from the summer after Buffy died.

"B-b-believe me," Tara said, gaze unusually serious and stern as she concentrated on Dawn, "I know."

"Don't take it out on the good witch," Spike said, keeping his voice down. "It ain't her fault."

"No," Dawn said, unraveling herself to stand. "No, it's yours."

Tara struggled to her feet next to her. "Sweetie."

"No, think about it," Dawn said. "He's all-knowing. He knew this was coming. He could've stopped it and he didn't."

Spike opened his mouth to say something, but he couldn't. He'd been thinkin' the exact same thing, from the second Faith had let 'em know on the phone that Joyce would be heading to hospital today.

"Spike," Tara said, her voice as severe as he'd ever heard it. "You cannot blame yourself. It is not your fault."

"Think about it, pet. How much good have I done here, really?" Spike dug the toe of his boot into the hospital tile floor. "Powers should have bloody sent back someone who could actually do somethin'."

The witch took a step toward him, her shoulders thrown back. Spike never realized how tall she was. Even Dawn gaped at her with wide eyes. "You've helped," Tara said. "The Initiative wanted to turn me into a lab rat, Spike. And you saved me more months of agonizing over the fact that I thought I was a demon, of hiding that secret from Willow. We beat Adam without putting Buffy and Willow and Xander and Giles in danger with the enjoinment ritual. Warren is in the Watcher's Council's custody. You helped Buffy figure out that Riley was working with the Initiative crazies before things got serious with him and he broke her heart. I've helped Willow practice the magics slowly, letting her power grow with the support of everyone around her rather than get out of control. So don't you dare stand there and act like a breakdown in Joyce's body is somehow your fault, or that it undoes any of the rest of it."

"Wow."

"So, uh, Niblet. Note for the future: Don't piss off either of the witches."

"Apparently."

"Sorry." Tara's shoulders slackened. "I didn't mean to... to come off as so mean. I just know what it's like, to blame your mom's, um, health issues and stuff on yourself for even the most out there reasons. I don't... I'm trying to help. Bad things happen. No matter how hard you try, you can't make everything perfect. You can't keep every bad thing from coming true."

Dawn threw her arms around Tara. The girls smiled as they hugged and then pulled apart.

"Spike, I'm sorry I hit you," Dawn mumbled. "It's been a really long couple of days."

Spike grinned. "Don' worry 'bout it. Hardly feels like a complete day unless one of you Summers women is violent with me."

"Come on, Dawnie," Tara said. "Let's go say hi to your mom, hmm? And then, after that. maybe we'll go steal some Jello from one of the carts."

"You think they have green?"

Tara's eyes sparkled. "Only one way to find out. Race ya?"

Dawn grinned. "Spike's the rotten egg!"

"What?"

The girls sprinted past Spike. By the time he turned around, they were out of sight.

Tara was right, he supposed. Only so much anyone could do, 'specially when it came to things like disease. Knew that bloody well enough from his mother. He walked down the alcove and into the main hall. When he turned, he saw the Dark Slayer clear across the way, just standing alone in the waiting room as Dawn and Tara sped past her.

Disease was disease. They could do everything possible, but it wasn't somethin' they could beat 'til it bled. However, other things had bones that could crunch. And he knew just the slayer who might be lookin' for some such action. All they'd have to do is wait another couple o' hours 'til nightfall. Spike started toward Faith, knowing before he asked that she'd be game to get out of this place for a bit and have some simple, bloody-knuckle fun.