Journeys

by Mary

Part Two: Awakenings

BY starlight and candle-light and dreamlight

She comes to me.

—Herbert Trench

See notes, etc. preceding chapter one.

This chapter contains harsh language, violence, and some sexual references. It should be considered a hard R. If anyone disagrees with this rating, please contact me, pointing out specifics.

Chapter Thirteen

"When we found out about Glory – about how she brain sucked people… That whole idea just terrified me. I remember thinking – at least vampires just kill you. Getting your mind invaded seemed worse than death to me."

She was done crying.

Well, okay, Tara admitted to herself, that was bound to prove untrue. But she wasn't crying right now, and Buffy had been sitting with her for the past half hour, listening, talking, sharing and worrying. It was probably the longest conversation the two had ever had.

She'd been feeling restless almost from the moment she left the house on Revello Drive, and as the evening progressed, Tara had felt more and more – off – like she was in the midst of some increasingly disturbing dream.

Her nights at the crisis hotline were something she always looked forward to. Helping others, listening to their problems, helping them to find solutions or directing them to people who could; Tara enjoyed the work, feeling it was important and worthwhile. The hotline was connected to the UC-Sunnydale campus, and most of the callers were fellow students. Their problems ranged from the fairly non-scary-and-usually-not-life-threatening stresses over exams or papers or incompatible roommates, to the more troublesome worries about possible pregnancies, and from there into much deeper and more difficult problems; terrified rape victims, students considering suicide. Their problems, big or small, were important, and Tara found helping the callers very fulfilling. Her career goal was to work with abused children, and she knew her experiences at the hotline would help prepare her for that as well.

And no matter how dire the problems poured into her ears, she often found them to be blessedly non-demon related, which was a nice break from a lot of the issues that touched other parts of her life.

But tonight, she'd wanted to leave even before the first call had come in. Her restlessness increased as the evening progressed, and by midnight she was feeling shaky with nerves, her stomach churning. Something was wrong. Very wrong. When she started to feel like she would going to start screaming, Tara had the sense to call in a substitute. Feeling as she did, she certainly wouldn't be of much help to anyone in trouble. I'll go home, she thought. Everything will be fine, and maybe tomorrow I'll be able to laugh about how stupid I was. Like a big paranoid wuss, or something. That's how Xander would teasingly describe me if he saw me like this.

Instead, she'd arrived home to find her disturbing dream turning into what was, literally, one of her worst nightmares. Even as she was walking up the sidewalk, the front door of the Summers home opened to reveal Mr. Giles, carrying a familiar form. At first she'd thought Willow was hurt, and with a little cry, she'd run up the porch steps to reach her. As soon as she touched a hand to her head, though, she'd known…

It was like she could smell it, feel it, sense it.

Darkness. Evil. Bad, bad, bad.

It had surrounded her beautiful Willow like a shroud.

Tara's mind had cried out in pain. Oh god, Will, what have you done? What have you done?

Because she'd known. This was not something that had been done to her lover. This was something Willow had done to herself, something she had chosen.

Why? Oh god, why?

Before Buffy's Watcher had driven off with a sleeping Willow ensconced in the passenger seat of his little red car, Tara was already asking herself the perhaps inevitable questions – Was it me? Was I not enough?

No, Tara told herself. No. Don't even think of taking on the responsibilities for her actions. Willow was an adult, responsible for her own actions.

And you are a good person. You have worth.  You would be enough for anyone. Am I, though? Yes. Really? Yes. Self doubts caused the kind of internal debate she'd experienced often throughout her life.

"I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!" God, how she and Willow had giggled over Stuart Smalley's mantra. But amused or not, they'd both admitted that they'd chanted it to themselves on more than one occasion.

Tara blinked away the freshly gathering tears.

Loved ones almost always wondered if there was something they could have done differently; if there was something they might have missed, which, if caught, might have averted disaster. Sometimes, there was, but it was often not the case. And she'd done the things she should have, Tara reminded herself. She hadn't ignored Willow's increasingly disturbing behavior. She had spoken to her about it, more than once. Nor had the gang willingly looked away, hoping things would work themselves out. They'd tried. They'd done an intervention. They'd made sure Willow understood how and why her actions were hurting or upsetting them, and had made very sure she was aware of their love.

Sometimes, Tara reminded herself now, love just isn't enough.

And I love her so much. So much.

Still.

Always.

Buffy's caring support tonight had been something of a surprise to Tara. It's not like she thought the Slayer was completely self-centered or anything…

Okay, maybe she did think that. A little. Or at least she had before Buffy had died.

Even then, Tara had always tried very hard never to judge Buffy. The other girl could be rather – difficult – to get a handle on. Just when you thought you were beginning to understand her, another side of her, some unexpected facet, would be revealed. Willow had told her that Buffy had been 'easier' when she'd first moved to Sunnydale, but that time and circumstances had changed her, hardened her to some extent. Certainly, Willow had said, she'd drawn into herself more and more as the years passed.

Tara thought she could, on some level, understand that. To live the life Buffy did… The kind of stresses she lived with and under were bound to have deep and lasting effects on her. To be honest, Tara had often wondered how Buffy did it at all. Surrounded by death and violence as she was; living so much in the darkness; carrying the responsibilities she did… How did she even stay in the least sane?

"I was kind of hoping for a little time to rehearse what to say to you," Buffy had said after Mr. Giles left.

So, instead of some well thought out explanation of the evening's events, Tara had gotten a straightforward, factual account of what they knew, of what they didn't know, and of what speculations they'd made. She found herself glad Buffy hadn't had time to figure out a way to sugar-coat the story. Sometimes, it was better to get to the heart of a matter; to lay out all the horrible details, and try to absorb them. The events of September 11th had been one of those times, and Tara thought this was another. The scale was smaller; but, at least on a personal level, the emotional devastation was greater.

They were sitting together in Mrs. Summers' old room, on the bed Tara had shared with Willow. Willingly, and then…

A kind of furious anger joined the pain flooding Tara. Damn you, Willow! How could you? How could you do that to me?  Invade me? My mind, my body, my will? I loved you, trusted you. I trusted you more than anyone I've ever known. And you betrayed me.

Used me.

 Abused me.

Her voice, though, only revealed her pain. "And a-after it h-happened to me – after Glory did that to me… We t-talked about it a lot. Willow knew how I felt. She knew." Tara squeezed the pillow she was clutching in her arms more tightly. "And she… Over and over, Buffy. How could she?"

There was no answer, and the other woman just shook her head. They'd been over this already, and Tara was simply reiterating her shock, her sorrow and the horrible disappointment she felt. She felt like she'd seen it coming, but maybe she'd never really believed Willow would fall this far; that her sweet, smart, beloved girl would tumble so deeply into the abyss.

Buffy had assured her they were going to find some way to help Willow. "She isn't the first person to take a trip to the darker side, Tara. We can help her. Somehow. I don't know how, yet, but there's gotta be a way. And we'll find it." 

Could they really help? Tara wondered.  Oh god, I hope so. And I'll help, too. No matter what happened… She needs me now, probably more than I needed her after Glory…

"It's going to be so hard for her," she said, and she could see the expression in Buffy's eyes; the surprise that she could still consider Willow's needs at this point. "I know," Tara shook her head. "I should hate her for what she's done, but…"

"Believe me, I know what it's like to continue to love someone after they've given you every reason not to."

"Yeah," Tara acknowledged. She knew the story of Angel and Angelus. "I guess you do." She paused. "I hope, I hope…"

Her voice broke, and Buffy reached out to squeeze her hand. "I know. Me, too."

Tara made an attempt to turn the conversation away from Willow. "Have you talked to Angel? You know, since you came back?"

"No," Buffy admitted. "I was having some moderate to severe memory problems when I first came back, and, ah, I didn't really remember him for awhile."

"Oh, god!" Tara breathed out, shocked. "That must have been awful for you. And r-really weird."

"Yeah," Buffy agreed. "Once I – once I remembered everyone more clearly… I guess… I just haven't called him. I mean, you know, I love Angel. I always will. But, um, I haven't seen him for a long time. A long, long time. He came to mom's funeral, but we didn't have a lot of time, and the talking was pretty much limited to – mom. Maybe… I don't know, maybe whatever is between us has changed a little or something. It feels kinda different. Not so…"

"Heart breaking?" Tara suggested when Buffy seemed unable to find the word she wanted.

Buffy snorted without humor. "Yeah, maybe. Not so – intense. I don't know," she said again. "More – warm, maybe? Less stomach-flipping stuff?"

Tara's eyes widened.

Oh my god, she thought. She's over him. Buffy is over Angel.

Did she know it? Realize it? Oh, wow, oh wow, Willow is going to be so surprised, so relieved. Happy. She'll be Snoopy dancing. She didn't think Buffy would ever get over him, would ever …

Tara's thoughts broke off as she remembered she wouldn't be sharing this startling revelation with her lover. She swallowed and drew in a breath.

Strong.

I. Am. Strong.

I could be wrong about this, Tara reminded herself. I'm not, but I could be. And Buffy might not even know it yet. Yes, she might still love Angel, might always love him. She probably did, would. After all, he'd been her first love, and her first lover, and a pretty memorable one at that. From everything Willow had told her, their relationship had been fraught with danger and heavily laced with pain. She's bound to have strong feelings for him – maybe for the rest of her life. But she's not in love with him anymore. At least, that's my guess. One I'd be willing to place a bet on, if I wasn't way too frugal with my miniscule amounts of money, even though I'm so sure I'm right that placing a few bets would probably give me tuition money for the rest of college…

"You were really young when you met Angel," Tara said, her voice soothing. "And love can change over the years. Grow into a different kind of love. It – it doesn't mean it's any less important, or that the first kind of love wasn't real."

"I didn't feel so young," Buffy said.

"I don't suppose you did. Part of that might be because your life is a little unusual."

"No! Really?"

"Just a little," Tara smiled, nodding as though it had taken great wisdom to come to that conclusion.  "Not that you can't meet that one right person for you when you're young," Tara went on, needing Buffy to know for sure that she wasn't in any way dismissing the strength or real-ness of what the other woman had felt for Angel. "'Cause I think you can. M-my mom did." She rarely spoke about her mother. She'd been gone for a long time, but Tara missed her every day of her life, and still found it very difficult to talk about her.

"She met your dad when they were teenagers?" Buffy asked.

"No, not my dad. It was another guy. His name was Rob, but I really don't know much more about him. Only that there was something about him or about having a relationship with him that made mom hesitate. Some kind of risk, I guess. She never went into detail, but she used to tell me that I shouldn't be afraid to take a chance for love. That even failure was better than regrets. He died – some kind of accident, and a few years later, she married my dad."

Buffy studied her. "Do you?" she asked a minute later. "Have regrets? About Willow?"

Tara thought about that. Did she? Right now she felt so – betrayed – that mapping out the rest of her emotions wasn't easy. "Yes and no," she said at last. "I'm not sure 'regrets' is the right word. I certainly don't regret loving her. That was right. I – I don't think love is ever wrong. Not in and of itself. But I'm so angry. And hurt. My trust has been b-broken, and I just don't know if I can ever get that back. And I'm furious with her for that. For taking that from me. It's almost worse than the – other stuff."

Tara took in Buffy's expression of surprise. "I – I can b-be f-furious you know," she stammered defensively.

If that's Buffy's attempt to look like she believes me, Tara thought, she's not very good at it.

"I can." Firmer now. She wasn't a wuss. She was a strong woman. Roar. She just wasn't as – demonstrative – as some of the other women currently in the room. Or verbal. Or scarily strong.

"I've heard that line about it being the quiet ones you have to watch out for," Buffy offered.

Tara tossed her head. "Yeah, and you'd b-better remember that, too."

Buffy laughed, but her voice was serious when she spoke again.

"I want you to know that just because I asked her to leave, that doesn't mean…"

"I know," Tara assured her. "I understand that she can't be here right now. It's – She needs to get help. She needs to w-want help. She needs to realize…" Tara looked at her. "I wish I could understand how things went downhill so fast and so f-far. She'd been having trouble for awhile, you know. I think so many things have happened in her life that she couldn't change, couldn't control.  And then, after – after you, um… oh." Tara broke off and tried again. "A-a-after…"

"Go on…" Buffy's tone encouraged her to get past the words.

"She seemed to develop this determination to keep us all from getting hurt. To s-stop pain. Her own pain. Her friends'. I think she wanted to start directing everyone's lives in little ways she thought would spare them. Like some protector or something. I tried to tell her that pain is a part of life, and that she needed to learn to deal with that – that she couldn't control everything so that no one felt pain. And that when they did, when she did, she couldn't just magic it all away. Pain can be used to grow, too, to help us become stronger people…"

Buffy's face twisted with a mixture of understanding and exasperation. "I don't know about you, but I could sooo go for some strengthening and growth that doesn't come from pain. 'Cause, you know – been there – majorly. More than once. Can't we, like, grow and get stronger from winning the lottery or something fun for a change? I mean, I've heard that sudden, unexpected, wealth can be a real challenge. I could so test that. Make challenge comparison graphs for research types in white lab coats. Or –oh, oh!" her eyes widened. "It doesn't have to be money. We could go a year without the threat of an apocalypse.  That would certainly throw changes into my life, and I bet I could grow from that! I would probably get stronger, too, if some power mad demon wasn't trying to kill me to death. Or maybe the Hellmouth could close and I could have to learn how to be a normal girl or something equally unlikely. I am totally ready to give anything along those lines a try."

Tara had to smile at Buffy's increasing animation and enthusiasm, acknowledging that she could go the pain free route herself for awhile.

Please.

Buffy stood. "It's really late, Tara. You should try to sleep. Do you want something – a Tylenol P.M. maybe, to help? That's what I gave Dawn." She rolled her eyes. "Not that I'm, um, trying to drug up everyone in the house."

"No. I really don't feel like putting anything in my body right now," Tara said. "I – I – It…" Tara took a deep breath. "It will take me a couple of weeks to find another place," she finally went on. Maybe longer, she thought to herself. Even if she waited 'til the end of the semester, mid-year housing changes weren't that easy to arrange. "Will that be okay?"

"What do you mean, another place?" Buffy looked stunned. "You're not going to move out, are you?"

"I – I thought you'd w-want me to."

"No! God, no! I want you to stay."

"Really?" That surprised her. She'd never really grown close to any of Willow's friends. They were kind of an insular group.

In fact, since her mother had died, Tara had never really felt like she fit in. She and Will had connected so well, so deeply, though, that even without feeling particularly close to the others, Tara had finally felt as if she belonged. Really belonged. Wherever Willow was, she, Tara, was home.

Or so she'd thought…

Tara bent her head and studied the pattern of the lace coverlet on the bed.

"Yes! And I kind of need you, Tara. To help. With Dawn, mostly," Buffy's voice was strong and sincere. "I have all that patrolling stuff, and you know I don't like to leave her alone at night, even though she's 'Not. A. Kid. For. God's. Sake.'" Buffy almost perfectly mimicked Dawn's exasperated mantra. "Plus, you know you're, like, the only one in the house who knows how to cook anything. Well, anything anyone would actually want to eat, anyway. Not that I want you to think I think of you as an Alice or anything like that. 'Cause I don't."

Tara nodded. It was always good to be needed. And she knew Buffy wasn't just saying these things to make her feel better. She did need help with Dawn. She certainly needed help with cooking. Maybe, even without Willow, the Summers house could continue to feel like home.

"If you really mean it, I'd like to stay," she said.

"I really mean it."

"I, um, know I don't really fit in with you guys – the Slayer Circle."

"I think you do," Buffy said. "The rest of us are kind of, I don't know, kind of weird, I guess. Sometimes I think you're our down-to-earth-o-meter." Buffy nodded, seeming satisfied with that description.

"It that Buffy-speak for 'mousy and boring'?"

"No!" Buffy sounded appalled. "Worlds of no! Entire galaxies of no! I just meant you kinda help us to stay sane. Well, I know you help me anyway, and that can be a pretty big job. Like, huge."

"I'm glad I serve a purpose." Especially after her earlier ponderings on how Buffy coped with her life, Tara had to agree that helping to keep the Slayer sane could be considered 'a pretty big job'. But, in her opinion, down-to-earth-o-meter still sounded a lot like mousy and boring.

"Tara, I like you. Honestly. Everyone likes you. Even Spike," Buffy told her. Then she added with television commercial animation, "And he hates everyone."

"Hey, Mikey!" Tara smiled, getting it. She didn't always get a lot of the general Scooby humor. But then, they didn't get much of hers either. A lot of the time, they weren't even aware she was attempting to be humorous. She was getting used to it. "Does he?" she asked with genuine curiosity. Spike was often as mysterious to her as a lot of Xander's pop culture references.

"Yeah. I think you're the only one he gives a damn about. You know, me, you, Dawn, Giles maybe. The rest of the world could pretty much take a flying leap as far as he's concerned. He's got a long way to go on the whole embracing mankind thing."

"Well, a year or so ago, we were all food to him, except for maybe – you – so I guess he's making progress."

"Yeah, progress," Buffy huffed. "Snaily type progress." Her eyes changed, grew thoughtful. "In that department, anyway," she added.

Tara watched her changing expression, trying to read it. She couldn't. "Glaciers move slowly, too. But they can change the face of the earth," she intoned solemnly.

Buffy's eyes went wide as soon as the words emerged, and she looked as startled as Tara felt. Where had that come from?  Tara wondered. She'd never even thought something like that before. Er, had she? The women stared at each other, their faces clearly revealing how taken aback they both were by Tara's statement.

"Okay, um, th-that was weird," Tara said, frowning a little. She shook herself. "What were we talking about?" she asked.

"Ah…" Buffy frowned too, and Tara could almost see her brain clicking away, trying to remember. "You – fitting in, staying, my constant struggle for sanity." Buffy shrugged. "Just stuff like that. You will, then, right? Stay?"

A little to her surprise, again, Tara could see that it was actually important to Buffy.

"I – I'd like that."

The Slayer's relief was plain. "Good."

Tara allowed her own small sigh of relief to escape once Buffy closed the door. Being needed wasn't the same as being loved, but then, nothing really was.

When they'd first brought Buffy back, she'd assumed that she and Willow would move out of Casa de Summers. Willow had insisted Buffy would need them, though, and Tara had supposed the two had discussed it. She had to admit, too, that Buffy had seemed so disoriented in those first couple of weeks, that it was probably a pretty good thing that they'd stayed on.

She'd never felt particularly comfortable with Buffy in the past. Their personalities were so different… Since the resurrection, though, she found it easier to spend time with the other girl, who seemed a little less – volatile.

And, of course, she loved Dawnie. Tara would hate to leave for that reason alone. She honestly felt she had something important to offer Dawn, a girl who had endured far more trauma in the last year or so than anyone – her age or any age – should ever have to endure.

God, the first few weeks after Buffy's death had been awful. Wracked with pain at the loss of her sister, the 'last' member of her family, and guilt over her belief that Buffy's death was her fault, that if it hadn't been for her mystical presence… Dawn had told her repeatedly that she knew she should have been the one to jump. That she knew that's what was supposed to have happened. The girl had been in terrible pain. On top of her grief and guilt about Buffy and her continuing mourning of her mother, Dawn had been, for a time, furiously angry at Spike's desertion, and then, when he was found, deeply fearful for his safety.

The many strong emotions tugging the girl in a variety of directions had not always manifested themselves in appropriate ways. Without conceit, Tara knew her own personality had had a somewhat calming influence on the teenager. Curtailing Dawn's tantrums and whining tendencies alone had earned her the gratitude of everyone.

Tara lay back against the pillows, pulling the blankets up around her.

She was pretty sure the pain and betrayal she was feeling had already pushed her to the limits of what she could endure emotionally, and Tara was glad she didn't have to deal with the stress of moving as well. She hated feeling unsettled.

~*~

It bloody well shouldn't have taken him more than two hours to find this place. It wasn't the kind of demon hang out he'd ever chosen to frequent, but he still should have been able to detect it easily, and by the time he was finally in, he was annoyed as hell. He tried to tell himself that the power dealer had been in the midst of relocating and so had thrown him off his game.

'Course, it could just be that his nostrils were still full of his Slayer's scent. And his own, for that matter. After all, he hadn't exactly had time to shower since he'd been participating in all kinds of delicious acts with his Slayer on the sofa, had he?

Let's see; engage in sexual decadence; experience something completely mind-blowing, what the hell had that been, and how soon could they do it again?, while kissing loved one's delectable throat; rescue, console, and debrief little sis, who'd done a bloody good job of defending herself, and keeping her wits about her, he reminded himself with pride; gather containment and relocation unit for power mad witch friend; head out to torture demon who is a potential source of information on creature that went after the aforementioned little sis and on whatever the hell was going on with the bleedin' witch…

Is this what Buffy's life was always like? Spike wondered. No wonder she'd been running on empty before – before Glory, and the tower…

Even though he'd been sitting upstairs with the sleeping Dawn during Willow's rambles and rants, he'd still heard most of what the redhead had said, and he knew she'd been unwilling to name the power dealer she'd visited. Knowing there were only a few in town, though, Spike considered the broken lamp in the waiting room a pretty good indicator that he'd found the right one. Dawn was right, it had been ugly. If he was still choosing his accessories from heaps of garbage at the dump, he definitely would have given it a miss. Flashing a hint of fang at some wussy Mzgora demon seated amid the shards of orange glass – was there really a need for that color to exist? – had given him a name.

Rack.

He'd heard of him. Some rumblings about town. The bloke had been on the Hellmouth for a couple of years, and fancied himself an important player in the power struggles that took place from time to time in the hotbed of evil that was Sunnydale.

Stupid git. Like anyone but his Slayer had any real power here…

'Course there was always the occasional demon that came along with some sodding vision or something. They inevitably learned that no power but that of the Chosen One was lasting on the Hellmouth.

Spike's mouth quirked. His lady was one fierce warrior. Just for a moment he allowed to mind to fill with visions of his Slayer in full out battle, powerful and deadly. Yeah… fierce. He forced himself to shake away the delightful images just as his brain started to go hazy with pleasure.

Later, he promised himself. He'd – indulge – for awhile.

The Mzgora demon had no problem with Spike moving ahead of him in the 'queue' to see the big man, but the vampire was forced to beat in the face of the N'a Ndibb-le demon, and outright kill the R'Ashaka-R'Babe demon (close cousin to the R'Ashaka-R'Habe demon, less slime, more stench, but often only distinguishable if you got close enough to notice the different color of the third eye), in order to make sure he'd be next to get in. The blond wiped a bit of blood from the corner of his mouth and licked it from the back of his hand. As it usually did, the violence soothed him to some extent. Good thing, too. The degree of control the brief battle had lent him might well be needed during the meeting to come.

Just as he was about to kick in the door he judged most likely to be separating him from the power dealer, it opened, revealing the deeply scarred face of the bloke he assumed to be Rack.  He might have delusions of grandeur, Spike thought, but, in his opinion, if the tosser had any real power, he should have used a bit of it to conjure himself up a new face. Not many birds went for that 'I've been carved up with loving care by an expert' look. Spike mentally shrugged. To each his own.

Rack's eyes swept around the room, barely pausing on the dead R'Ashaka-R'Babe, whose lavender blood was pooling around him on the floor. "You," he decided, nodding toward the N'a Ndibb-le demon. The dark haired bint threw a look of triumph at Spike, and took a step forward.

"Nooo," Spike drawled out, unmoving. "Me."

Rack looked at him with disdain. "You have nothing to offer me, vampire. Your kind always retains that taint of human blood. Makes you relatively worthless."

"Is that right?" Spike asked calmly.  He studied his nails. "Maybe I heard wrong, but I got wind there were certain humans that interested you a good bit."

Rack's eyes narrowed briefly before shooting to the vampire's white blond hair. As the N'a Ndibb-le demon moved to enter the inner sanctum, Rack's arm shot out, barring her.

"No," he changed his mind, and inclined his head toward Spike. "Him."

The N'a Ndibb-le demon snarled, but Spike barely took the time to smirk at her before shouldering past Rack and moving into the room beyond. Hair's like a soddin' name badge sometimes, he thought.

"You're Spike," Rack said, closing the door, and sealing the two of them into the privacy of the large room.

"Knew that," Spike mouthed automatically as his eyes drifted about, taking in the lush, colorful fabrics, the highly piled mounds of pillows, and the distinctly Middle Eastern flavor of the carved wooden tables. Dealer seemed to have something of a Sultan fetish.

"I wondered how long it would take for you to show up."

"Been expecting me, then?"

"Strawberry girl's a friend of the Slayer. Thought she might send her pet demon to check me out."

Noting the satisfaction in the other's voice, Spike briefly considered feigning ignorance of Willow's earlier visit, but decided against it. "Not here to talk about the witch," he said coolly. Had he been counting on his appearance?  And why? "She doesn't interest me as much as she apparently interests you."

Rack's brows rose.

"You're the first dealer I've ever come across that wanted to dip into human power, but if that's your cup of tea…" Spike's voice trailed off. His tone indicated he found Rack's interest in Willow unfathomable, and a waste of time on the dealer's part.  "I'm tracking a Vpastus'zyn demon myself," he went on. "Thing went after a friend of mine, and I don't take kindly to that. It was seen here earlier."

Rack looked confused.  This clearly wasn't what he'd expected, and Spike wondered again what the demon had been expecting.

"Only know one Vpastus'zyn demon," Rack told him. "He hasn't been here for awhile, though.  If he stopped in tonight, I didn't see him, and wasn't expecting him."

"They've been known to hire themselves out. Fancy themselves assassins."

Rack snorted. "Can't imagine anyone wasting their money, or anything else, hiring someone to kill a vampire."

Spike's eyes glinted. Vampire? He'd merely specified a 'friend'. Did Rack not know Dawn had been here earlier with Willow? Or was he merely trying to lead him to believe that? Would a power dealer have such an arrogant, and deeply stupid, lack of security?

Depended on how arrogant and deeply stupid the particular dealer was, Spike supposed.

 "And I'm not into hired assassins," Rack went on dismissively. "I prefer a more – hands on – approach to solving any problems that might come up. Any – threats – to my plans, so to speak."

Doubts remained, of course, but Spike was leaning in the direction of believing him. Something was telling him this guy really didn't know about Dawn's earlier presence, and he was now willing to bet that the Vpastus'zyn demon had taken a shine to Dawn by chance, or that someone else had pointed it in his girl's direction. 

He made a show of looking the fellow over thoroughly.

"I'll just be toddling off then," he said, moving toward the door. As he'd expected, Rack wasn't yet ready for the meeting to be over.

 "You underestimate the witch," he said, and waited for Spike to turn back to him.  "She stirred up some powerful forces a few months back. Drew some attention." Rack settled into one of his pillow piles. He lay back, gazing up at the high ceiling. "She's gonna be a force to be reckoned with herself. She's not there yet, but I can taste it in her. Just a little nurturing..." He shivered with pleasurable anticipation. "I was asked to help her along, help her discover all her secret depths."

Fuck! The bloody witch had attracted attention. There were some types that it just didn't pay to have notice you, and Spike knew without speculating further that that was gonna be the soddin' case with Red.

Sonofabloodybitch!

His fury with Willow grew with this news, because he was bloody sure this development increased the level of danger to his girls.

Attention.

Son. Of. A. Bloody. Bitch.

He knew there was no way he could persuade his Slayer to cut Willow adrift in the sea of her own problems, and accept what protection that distance might provide. Even though she might be feeling a bit detached from her right now, Red was loved by Buffy and the rest of the group, and there was no way that lot would abandon her to the untender mercies of any of Rack's cohorts. They were far too tight. Spike didn't always agree with that sense of loyalty, but, on some level, he understood it. The Scoobies, no matter how he disparaged them, publicly or privately, were closer than many groups of friends would ever be. They had faced death and danger together, over and over, and experiences like that changed friendships, deepened ties.

Even though he hated the soulful git, he couldn't deny that some of his own ties to Angelus, or, for that matter, to Dru or even to that whore Darla, had been forged in similar vein, that the four of them…

Spike let the thought slide. Thinking about the years the four of them had shared never left him with anything but unresolved anger and rage, and more pain than he ever cared to admit. Right now, he needed to avoid distractions and stay focused on the situation at hand.

Rack was eyeing him, waiting for his reaction. When Spike stayed silent, he went on, a look of pure lust on his face. "Gonna be a real treat delving into all her dark places, watching her discover them, explore them. Holding her hand – and all her other parts – the whole trip. Been a long time since I was asked to help fuck blackness into someone's soul."

"Is that right?" Spike thought he knew why. Wanker had said too much already, and looked as though he was about to start blithering on like a Bond villain. Had Willow been shagging this worthless excuse for a demon? That couldn't be good. Or was Rack only yammering about what he hoped was to come? Spike let that go. He was far more interested in learning just whose attention the redhead had attracted. "Who was it asked you to grab on to all her luscious bits, anyway?"

"Ahhh," Rack grinned. "Can't say. He likes to stay in the background. But my guess is that you'll meet him. Eventually. Him. Them. They'll be coming, you know. They come at you through your family. It's sort of their modus operandi. Get to your family. All that power…" Rack trailed off, the thought of great power seeming to send him into an almost orgasmic state. "I believe," he drawled, "They have a proposition for you."

"Yeah? I don't have much in the way of family for them to come at me through," Spike said dryly.

Rack waved his hand. "Won't need one." He sounded certain. "Forget them. I have some power myself. If you're interested, we don't have to wait for anyone else to show up. We can strike a deal now."

"Not particularly big on deals. They tend to go sour."

"You'll be interested in this one. I know what you want, vampire. And I can give it to you."

Spike quirked a brow. "An' what would that be?"

Rack laughed at his derogatory tone. "You think I don't know, but I do. Little bits of plastic and silicon…"

Spike went still, his eyes narrowing.

"I can get that bothersome military implant taken care of for you. Set you free."

Spike kept his expression neutral, but he could feel a kind of euphoric anticipation flooding his body, racing like wildfire through his veins. God, how often had he dreamt of this chance, hungered for it? Free. Free to hunt again. To feed… Oh, god, to feed… warm human blood, fresh, flowing down his throat, burning through his body, warming him, making him…

Would it have some flavor, he wondered, if he drank directly from a living, dying body?

His fist clenched. He wanted it. He bloody well wanted it. Craved it.

It had been months since blood had given him any satisfaction. His Slayer's blood had ruined him. Nothing else offered anything worth tasting. An' he'd tried. He'd ordered up a wide assortment of human blood types at the demon bars, trying out the rarer types, those supposed delicacies. Nothing. He'd even dropped in at a Red Cross blood drive at City Hall one night a few weeks before Buffy's return. A smorgasbord of fresh blood, just removed from living bodies, still warm, lots of variety. Surely… He'd nicked half a dozen bags and taken them back to his crypt to savor in private, sure they'd offer him something.

Nothing. No flavor, no power, no –

Nothing.

The Red Cross jaunt had left him furious, and, as he'd grown accustomed to doing in his Buffyless world, he'd taken his fury out on a random group of rough-necked demons, killing them brutally, before unleashing his remaining fury on himself; fists into bricks. Spike glanced at his hands now, flexing them experimentally. They always healed, of course, but they seemed rougher now, harder and more calloused. There were even some lingering scars. Over time, they, too, would fade.

He swallowed.

If the chip stayed in… Would the memory of his Slayer's blood someday fade, too, restoring flavor to some other blood? Any other blood?

If the chip came out… Would the fear he could instill during a kill flavor the blood, make it more palatable?

What if it didn't? What if even that, even then…?

Nothing. No flavor, no power…

Sometimes he had to force himself to feed at all.

 "How?" he asked Rack bluntly.

"Told you, I have power," Rack gave him a sneering smile.

Wanker is enjoying this, Spike thought. Wants to jerk me around, and I gave him the power to do just that by voicing one simple question – 'How?'

Spike turned away from Rack, attempting to regain some ground, and showing him his contempt and lack of respect by willingly turning his back to him. Again. He began to wander about the room, eyes alert for anything interesting while his mind whirled.

Whirled right back to reality.

S'not like he could hunt again, even if the chip was out, he reminded himself. Not if he wanted any chance of stayin' in his Slayer's life. A bit different or not since her stint in heaven, it was sure as bleedin' hell she'd never put up with him being back on the sauce.

And the bit? Spike tried to shrug away a vivid picture of the expression he knew would be on Dawn's face if he killed again, and she found out. He could see it – the look in her eyes; knew exactly how she would stare at him… The shock and horror.

The disappointment.

The betrayal.

And the fear.

Sonofabloodybitch! I'm a vampire. It's what I am. And I would never hurt her, hurt them. Either one of them.

Spike tried harder to push away his thoughts of Dawn. It was easier to concentrate on Buffy. Dawn was vulnerable, and his, and he'd sworn to protect her. Didn't ever want to have to protect her from himself. He wouldn't have to, he assured himself. Chip or no, he was bloody well in control of his own damned actions. He'd never harm his girl.

Thinking about Buffy's reaction was different. He loved her in a different way. And she was strong. Powerful. The Slayer. He might harbor feelings of protectiveness toward her, but they weren't the same as those he felt toward Dawn.

His brain kept telling him that he'd be a fool to think Buffy could ever really go for him, that whatever this was that seemed to be happening between them was bound to blow up in his face the next time he turned around. Didn't seem to matter, though. His heart bloody well had a mind of its own. Always had.

He didn't know how things would play out between him and Buffy, but right now, possibilities were flowing between them in torrents. Something was happening between them, to them... something he didn't understand. And whatever that was that had happened on the sofa earlier? Couldn't wait to see if that was gonna be a regular feature.

Spike felt a brief recurrence of the incredible sensation run through him, and his body clenched. He'd never experienced anything remotely like that, didn't have a sodding clue what it was all about. But it didn't matter. He knew he wanted to feel it again, more than… more than anything. More than the hunt, more than killing, more than… Wanted to be back inside her that way, to be a part of her, to feel her moving though his body, through him, all through him…

Bloody hell! Just thinking about it damn well made him want to head back over to Revello Drive right quick.

Even as the emotional desire flared into physical, he reminded himself that he should bloody well be furious with her at the moment, oh she of the notoriously oft-sampled throat. Dracula, drinking from her. Angelus. The Master. Her throat had been a bleedin' fount of pleasure. To everyone but him. The lingering rage stirred things in him. Dark things. His demon was screaming, urging him to sink his fangs into her throat, leave his mark on her, with her, in her. Possession. The demon, like his heart, had a mind of its own, and its instincts were strong and deep, insistent. Hard to ignore, or fight off.

Takehertakehertakehertakeher.

Take her throat, her blood, take her body, too. Make her yours.

Yours.

He clenched his fist. Shouldn't be lusting after the bint's tight little body right now, he told himself. Even the demon should damned well know that. Unfortunately for the bits of rage he'd managed to hang onto after loosing most of it against Buffy's mouth on the porch after he'd stormed out of the house, that thought reminded him that he'd yet to experience just how tight that luscious little body was.

Fuck. His body surged… She'd taunted him once with words about her Slayer muscles…

The tantalizing possibility of blood with flavor, or the tantalizing possibility of Buffy.

Even without the vision of Dawn's eyes haunting him, it was no bleeding contest at all.

He glanced back at Rack, at the bloke's marked, avid face. Could he read minds? During a century with Dru, Spike had developed a pretty keen ability to detect if someone was trying to wriggle into his thoughts, and he didn't sense anything from this lowlife, but he'd be a fool to take any chances. He forced his mind away from his Slayer's body and the recently experienced occurrences involving it, and back to the subject at hand.

He was here, and Rack seemed to be settling in for a nice long natter. Might as well get as much information as he could.

"An' you wanna use that power to play doctor with my noggin', huh? Imagine you'll be wanting something in exchange for that."

Rack settled into his pillows more deeply. "You could be a powerful ally. People talk about you." His hands made little motions. "Whispers of fear, grumbles of outrage. A bit unpredictable, they say, but I don't think that's always a bad thing." He turned his head, running his small eyes up and down Spike's well-muscled body. "And you have interesting friends. Makes you even more – intriguing."

"And you're interested in my interesting friends, is that it?"

"Oh, yeah, blondie. Very interested."

"Why's that, exactly?"

"For fuck's sake, vampire, she's the Slayer! Why do you think we'd be interested?"

"I like things spelled out."

"Helps if I use words of one syllable, too, doesn't it?" Rack sneered.

"If they're the only ones you know," Spike tilted his head agreeably.

Rack snorted in acknowledgement of the one-upmanship. "Power." He linked his hands behind his head and reclined with a smile of anticipation. "She has it. We want it."

Sonofabloodybitch. Power. Dealer. "You have some method to steal her power?"

"Oh, we don't want to steal it. We want it aaaall in her." He sounded blissful. "Much more satisfying that way. She keeps the power, and we, ah – persuade her – to use it – for us."

Well, that was fairly original. Brilliant really. Wasn't gonna work, but it was ingenious, just the same. 

"Might be troublesome," he said carefully.

"Ah, but forcing a warrior of light to work for the dark side – very satisfying emotionally. Lots of demons get off on it you know. And to force a Slayer into darkness… Worth a lot of trouble. We'll own her. We can hire her out, use her strength, use her to increase our own power, our fortunes."

"And where do I fit in?"

"While the details are being worked out, you can observe. Give us information."

"You want me to spy on the Slayer?"

"Among other things."

Rack's voice changed, became more respectful, and more – persuasive.

"I've talked to a few demons that shared some of your experiences with the Initiative. They told me that you blamed the Slayer for that chip going in. Spent half the time in your cell ranting about her. There's some talk that you've gone over to her side, but I don't buy it. You're a demon. We don't talk strolls on the side of goodness and light." He chuckled. "Especially vampires. The light tends to be so – destructive – to them. So I think I've got you figured. You're a little smarter than most of your ill-begotten kind. You're keeping your enemy close. Lulling her into a sense of security by fighting at her side, making promises to her. What does it matter to you? You can't kill humans. Killing your own kind might not help you to win friends and influence people, but killing is killing, right?

"And I've looked into your history. I know you've made some attempts to hook up with someone else who can destroy her." Rack paused, before declaring with great self importance. "I'm your man."

"You? Or your mysterious partner?"

"Told you. Forget them. You're dealing with me." Rack rolled to his feet, obviously annoyed. "We want her alive, to savor her fall, so I can't let you kill her. But don't try to tell me you won't take great pleasure in her destruction. I won't believe you."

This wanker might keep saying he was acting for himself, but almost every word out of his mouth belied that. We. Our. Definitely a team effort.

"That's what's in this for me? Pleasure? Not real tangible, that. And I'm guessing there's more. What happens after I help you lead the bint into corruption? Something tells me you'll expect me to hang about, playing minion to your boss. You should know – I'm not good at kowtowing. Doesn't suit me."

"Your chip will be out," Rack reminded him. "You'd be free to do whatever you want, wherever. We could use your muscle, though, and we'd like you to stay. Share the power. And there's going to be a lot of power to share. Just think – here on the Hellmouth, Slayer fighting to protect us rather than keep us from being ourselves. Gonna be an amazing experience. We wouldn't force you to stay, but if you do, there'd be – perks."

Spike's brow rose again.

"In exchange for us denying you the pleasure of making this Slayer your third, we're prepared to offer – compensation. And I think you'll like it. You might find it a much more lasting pleasure than killing her, in fact. After all, the joy of the kill can be so fleeting." Rack poured himself a drink. He didn't bother to offer one to Spike. "You've tasted slayer blood," he said slowly. "Ambrosia, I've heard. And a source of power for your kind. I can offer you that – a steady diet of it. Hers. Let you feed on her whenever you want. So long as you don't weaken her too much." His eyes narrowed, and ran down Spike's body again. "Whatever else you want from her, too."

Rack swallowed his drink and poured himself another. "And her friends…" he offered, almost as an afterthought. "We'll keep a couple of them alive, and you can tear the rest apart if you'd like. Tangible enough for you?" His voice had taken on a sneer again. "If you're interested in anything you can't touch – know this. Your reputation will be enhanced. People will fear you." He paused. "It's a good way to live."

"And if I agree to this, you'll perform some brain surgery. You licensed for that?" Spike asked with interest. "Wouldn't wanna let just anyone muck about with my little gray cells."

"You'll be happy with the results," Rack assured him.

"Funny thing," Spike said. "Worked before with a bloke who made promises. Did what he asked me to do. But when it came time for him to follow through on getting the chip out, he reneged. Why should I trust you?"

"The chip can come out right away," Rack offered negligently. "A gesture of good will. But then you'd have to play it our way. Keep the Slayer and her pals from knowing you're no longer imprisoned by that plastic."

"For how long?"

Rack looked away. "Don't know exactly. It looks like it might be sometime in the Spring. The timing is – under negotiation."

"It's an intriguing plan," Spike told him. "I can see where it would prove popular with some types. Satisfying. I'm afraid you might run into a bit of a snag, though."

Rack's interested look told him that this was exactly what they wanted from him; his insight into the Slayer, his help in making it all a reality.

"Have you actually met this Slayer?" Spike asked. "She's not really the corruptible type. And she's gonna kick your collective arses, too."

"Ah…" Rack looked pleased. "We're not worried about that. We'll have a nice little ace in the hole."

Spike could feel himself going cold.

"What's that?"

"The friends. Slayers aren't supposed to have them, and there's a very good reason for that. We know they're her weak point. Wanting to gather in those friends is one of the reasons we're interested in the witch. Strawberry has her own potential, but her closeness to the Slayer and her friends makes her particularly valuable. And you. You can both help. Round up those who matter together, and bring them to us.

"And," he smiled. "If the friends don't seem to have the magic touch, the sister will. Shiny hair, big blue eyes? I have it on good authority the Slayer will die to protect her. We're willing to bet she'll do – other things – as well. Anything to stop the sound of little sister's screams in the next room."

He'd been able to retain his cool while this wanker talked about Buffy. Lots of demons liked to talk big about the Slayer. How they were gonna destroy her. He didn't recall any others conspiring to blackmail the Slayer into providing protection to the dark side, so to speak, but just the same, Spike was used to the tough guy bragging, which he'd heard dozens of times over the years. Hell, he'd instigated it often enough back in the day. He didn't much care for hearing it now, but he was used to it. And, these days, when he was subjected to it, it usually gave him the opportunity to twist some mouthy demon's head off, which always made for a real good time.

It had been a mistake, though, for the longhaired demon to bring the defenseless Dawn, who had already been attacked tonight, into the conversation. And it was the last one the bleedin' pillock would ever make.

"When I screamed, he laughed." Dawn's words echoed in his mind. She hadn't been talking about this piece of scum, but whoever it was that had laughed at his girl's terror, this sonofabitch was an associate of his. And this sonofabitch wanted to make her scream again.

Fury walked in the door, and his always tenuous control flew out the window. His voice was low, and ice cold. "No one threatens my girls."

"Your girls…" Rack repeated, laughing. "You are an odd one, are–"

The demon's words suddenly stilled, and he looked down.

Spike's fist was tightly clenched around Rack's black heart, which he had just pulled out of his chest. He raised the bloody organ up, holding it directly in front of Rack's face as he closed his fist around it, and squeezed.

By the time the meat of the heart oozed through Spike's fingers, though, Rack was already dead.

"Yeah," Spike said, his mouth twisting with vicious satisfaction. "I'm an odd one."

~*~

She'd felt him inside her, had felt herself moving all through him. They'd been a part of each other. And, later, she'd been able to hear him clearly in her mind, even though he hadn't spoken.

She'd felt him inside her, had felt herself moving all through him. They'd been a part of each other. And, later, she'd been able to hear him clearly in her mind, even though he hadn't spoken.

She'd felt him inside her, had felt herself moving all through him. They'd been a part of each other. And, later, she'd been able to hear him clearly in her mind, even though he hadn't spoken.

Damn, damn, damn. Buffy got out of bed and flounced into the bathroom, aggravated by the unending repetition of her thoughts. Minutes later she was in the shower. She was never going to get any sleep tonight – today – anyway. She turned her face up to the spray, letting the hot water cascade over her.

She'd felt him inside her, had felt herself moving all through him. They'd been a part of each other. And, later, she'd been able to hear him clearly in her mind, even though he hadn't spoken.

What was happening to them?

~*~

Author's Note

Just a quick note this time to let everyone know I'm not in hibernation, I'm not mad at anyone, or refusing to get in contact with those who've been trying to contact me. I am just continuing to experience disgusting computer problems. The result is that my writing time has been severely curtailed, and my online time has practically become non-existent. I've been writing by hand, then trying to borrow people's computers, etc. to transfer new parts into the story. I'm living in fear that I'll lose changes as I switch from one computer to another. It's extremely frustrating.

I think my computer problems will be taken care of in the next couple of weeks with a new machine. I hesitate to be too optimistic, though, because getting a new computer a few months ago only seemed to make matters worse. Grrr…

Deb and Sue – I wish I could have met you in Chicago. It sounds like you had a great time. One of our neighbors was killed in an accident that previous Friday, and I had a funeral to go to. Next time, please!

Rbabe – I've corrected the mistake I made in an earlier chapter involving a certain demon name. You'll find it. I realized my error, but not until the chapter was up all over. I wish I'd known you were going to be at Nationals! Wasn't it amazing? And The Daughter and I had this big room. We totally could have gotten together! LOL. Live Journal? Others have mentioned it. With my current computer problems I'm going to have to say 'no', but I will keep your offer in mind if my circumstances change. Thank you!

Kirs – You note about Riley's 'abilities' cracked me up. And I have no intension whatsoever of changing one single thing in the text. That mistake was just plain meant to be.

If you've asked to be put on my update list, and did NOT receive a notification for this chapter, that means your request is among those lost in one of my computer disasters! (Along with pretty much all the feedback sent directly to me for chapters ten and eleven! – insert visual of Mary pouting here.) Please send your request again!

As always, thank you so much to everyone who has sent notes. I appreciate every one so much.

Mary

August 3, 2003