Tara stepped onto the sidewalk and glanced behind her. No, not another soul around, but that didn't mean she couldn't be too careful. Unsure why she felt consumed with a need to be out this night, she took a deep breath and concentrated on the direction of the pull she felt. Pain! Someone was hurt, she thought, and badly. She rushed to her car, newly bought and paid for thanks to a small inheritance from a barely known great-aunt, and headed slowly towards the center of Sunnydale. She wasn't certain where the impression of pain was coming from, but she knew it was somewhere close to Main Street. Pulling to the curb by the Sunnydale Cinema, Tara took another deep breath and focused her mind once more on the unheard cry, the penetrating wound... What the hell is that?' she wondered, penetrating wound?' Still, she was closer to the source and knew it was coming from an alley near the police station. Odd, you'd think the Sunnydale PD would help someone that close to their building, but they were always ineffective at best and corrupt at worst.

She spotted the alley and quickly pulled her hunter green MG into a parking space while saying a prayer, Goddess, please let me help." Dashing across the street and into the darkened alley, Tara heard a low groan and cough. she called, Where are you?

Her only answer was another groan when she spotted a splash of white against the black pavement. Spike, and the smell of blood was strong enough to make Tara's stomach churn . It seemed he'd been tossed to the ground; he looked like the doll thrown at the whim of a wayward child. Unable to determine how serious his injuries were in the dim light, she quickly moved to the stricken vampire and gently examined his face.

Spike? Can you hear me? the worried girl asked, Who did this to you? Try and get up, Spike, I'll help you and get you to Buffy... she'll know what to do.

No, not Buffy, Spike answered moaning in pain again, the crypt, pet, blood...I can walk.

Absolutely not, Tara hissed, I'm helping you. You don't have to go to Buffy's place, but I am helping you. That's final, Spike, you'll come home with me.

She took the vampire's hand and helped him to his feet wondering why he didn't leap at the chance to see Buffy, but she was more concerned with the damage to his face and, potentially, ribs. Not sure if his bones were broken, Tara tried to be as delicate as possible. She decided to stop at Willy's for blood-at least he'd have it on hand this late. Spike attempted to protest, but she refused to hear him out and drove to the bar without much more from the ailing vamp than the occasional wince of pain. She'd know more when she saw him in the light, but she was certain blood was pouring from his ears as well as nose, which scared the hell out of Tara Maclay. Memories of her older brother's abuse threatened to overwhelm her for a moment, but she certainly didn't have time to dwell on that past. Spike helped her once, and now she'd repay his kindness. Whoever thought being punched in the face would turn out to be a kindness? In fact, there was a time when a solid fist across her jaw was an everyday occurrence that inspired only fear and contempt.

The car ride home was quiet since Spike passed out even before she stopped at the bar. Tara glanced at her friend, strange that she considered him a friend, sidelong. He was obviously exhausted and in no shape to take care of himself. Still, she knew she should feel uneasy passing out invitations to vampires-even chipped vampires. His face, normally deceptively angelic, was darkening rapidly while blood clotted around his nostrils and bruises surrounded his eyes. Thank whatever powers watch out for the undead he doesn't have to breathe,' she thought as she parked in her space at the house. The difficult task would be getting him out of the car and upstairs.

Spike, we're here...come on, wake up, she said, I need you to walk up the porch... I can't carry you, Spike, w-w-wake up now. He looked dead. She nervously giggled thinking, 'He is dead, Tara, but at least he's not something I'll have to dustbust from the car tomorrow morning.'

Tara? What we doing here? Not going home with you to that house, pet, told you that, Spike slurred in reply to her statement.

This is my place, Spike, I don't live with... I don't live there anymore, remember, Tara replied not wanting to say Willow's name.

The young woman walked around her car to Spike's side while he watched intensely. Hearing pain in her voice meant little to him for the moment. Perhaps he'd let the pale and dejected witch cry on his shoulder tomorrow, but tonight all he wanted was a fine single malt with an o-pos chaser. Tara, always the quiet one in the Scooby group, didn't seem like the type to aid him. Spike wanted to say as much, but he was grateful and didn't want to screw up a good thing. After all he and Tara suffered through with Dawn, he'd already grown to like her a little, and he appreciated her more than he'd bother to say. Of all the damn Scoobies, she'd stuck by him when Buffy died.... Look where standing up for people got her. On the outs, that's where.

Tara, pretty thing if a little tired lookin', offered her arm and shoulder casually and without a hint of fear. Spike would take the help. He hurt a lot, and he wasn't going to play prideful moron-Buffy wouldn't see anyway. It wouldn't matter, and he doubted Tara would go running off to the Slayer with tales of his misfortune unless she was certain he didn't mind. He had to give this girl credit, damn, she knew when to keep her mouth shut. He could feel her grip tighten around his waist as they approached the stairs, and Spike smiled thinking he probably could've gotten up there on his own with a lot of effort. Still, her kindness was nice, and she smelled right good too. Like fresh raspberries...the ones his mum used in her special tarts. Spike flinched a bit thinking of his mother. At least he didn't have far too walk, and Tara's little flat was right off the front porch of the old house on the first floor.

Let's get you settled in here, he heard her say as she struggled with her keys, it's two bedroom, but I only have one bed... There's a sofa bed in the front room that I'll sleep on tonight. You take my room.

Now, love, won't be takin' your bed from you, he objected.

You will because I can't afford an urn for your ashes, and I don't have anything large enough to cover the picture window, Tara joked with him to Spike's surprise.

All right, sweets, whatever the lady wants... Got any whiskey? he asked sheepishly.

Maybe...um, I like Irish coffee now and then, and I'll share as long as you let me clean you up with minimal fuss, Spike. No bleeding on my floors.

Spike started to laugh, but the pain quickly stopped him, and Tara dragged him to her sofa. The house, a bit like the one he grew up in, was an old Victorian number renovated into an apartment building. While it was in good shape, the furniture pleasant, and the interior tasteful, the place was in an area reputed for vampire attacks and muggings, and that meant cheap rent. The owner obviously wanted tenants and went out of his or her way to ensure their comfort, but Spike felt a twinge of worry over the girl before him. She was a decent bird, and she didn't deserve ending up on a menu or as ritual sacrifice. He listened to her chat about her day, discuss plans for painting, and hopes to turn the second bedroom into a spare room for company when she had the money, but apparently, her wages at the coffee shop weren't up to snuff. She mentioned dropping out of school, and that was when Spike saw the drawings.

Pen, ink, charcoal, pencil... Spike had no idea Tara was artistically inclined. This girl had a talent to rival Angel's, and an imagination to her work that gave it flair. She didn't just draw a scene, no, Tara put herself in the work. Little pieces of brightness that glimmered on the page like starlight. You'd make a hell of a vampire-seein' the world that way,' Spike wanted to say aloud, but it seemed like a bad idea. What a shame it'd be if she left off studying art. He felt odd noticing Tara's personal life and didn't want to risk embarrassing her with compliments and lectures to stay in school. She returned with her first aid kit, and Spike opted to stay silent. It was rare, but even Spike gave way to second thoughts now and then.

I don't need that, pet, quick healer and no infection possible, Spike told her.

Tara eyed him and said, A minimum of fuss, and I'm cleaning your wounds. Hold still-wouldn't want you to trip and fall on a tongue depressor.

Spike did laugh that time, Threatening little thing, ain't ya now? I'm afraid you'll have to find something bigger than a manufactured twig, Tara, but he liked her joking and small talk because it meant she wasn't prying.

Tara wasn't certain how to approach this situation; she had to find out who hurt Spike. If it was humans, why hadn't he run? His face, covered in purple and black splotches, was a lot worse than she'd originally suspected. One of Spike's eyes was swollen shut, horrifying to Tara's sensibilities, and his nose was certainly broken. Just as she'd feared, both of his ears had taken quite the beating as well, but the right was far worse than the left, and she leaned in to inspect the damage. The cartilage was nearly crushed to pulp. Tara shuddered, 'Who did this to you,' was all she wanted to ask. Softly, yet rapidly, she cleaned his face and motioned for the vampire to remove his shirt.

After wrapping his ribs, Tara inspected his arms and noticed Spike's hands for the first time. What beautiful hands,' she thought, long and tapered fingers...' They reminded her of the one man in her family who'd ever been kind to her, her grandfather; he too kept his nails neatly trimmed and filed though he never wore black nail polish. For that matter, even Spike gave up that habit. She couldn't recall actually seeing the nail polish, but Willow mentioned it a time or two. Tara believed Spike's hands would be perfect for a painting she wanted to work on if he wouldn't mind posing. His hands? They're not hurt...he must have tried to block whatever attacked him.' Tara wondered. It simply made no sense to her that his hands would remain completely uninjured. She had to admit her knowledge of fighting was limited. Intuition nagged at her to get the full story fast, but would he be willing to answer the questions?

"Your ear is in bad shape," she sighed and prayed for courage, "and I think at least one rib is cracked. Um...what did this to you? Maybe I should at least call Buffy and warn her. Spike, please tell me who did this."

"Your standard nasty, kitten, don't worry about it," Spike said, but his words sounded false, I took care of it meself.

Lies stinging the air like ice would pelt against her family's farmhouse in winter, she thought recalling that tinny sound, and the bad ass vamp looked scared. Nothing about his posture, his voice, nothing was right. 'What could scare him? I thought vampires were only afraid of... No!' Tara's mind shouted stopping the thought mid-stream. Her eyes grew wide with horror, and she suddenly ran and vomited in the sink, crying, shaking, and sobbing while Spike watched her more than a little warily.

She turned towards the now standing demon and asked him what she already knew, Buffy did this, Spike, didn't she?

He stumbled back and nodded, and Tara felt rage seep into her bones. She knew half the story already, but she didn't know Buffy was capable of abusing Spike. His injuries reminded her of a time she wanted to forget once more. While she didn't know if the Slayer was smacking Spike around on a regular basis, she couldn't imagine a beating this severe was anything but a culmination to a long and drawn out process. Donnie certainly didn't start out breaking Tara's arm all those years ago. She shuddered at the memory before shoving it away. Yes, Tara knew some vampires enjoy pain now and then; humans were supposed to know better than to beat the hell out of others. Obviously, it didn't stop all of them. Oh, she didn't really care what two consenting adults did in their bedroom, but she was pretty certain this wasn't exactly consensual and had nothing to do with foreplay.

I'm sorry, I should've known...," she blamed herself, "I'm really sorry, Spike. Tara said grimly, Buffy came to me and said she wasn't right. Goddess, w-w-what if it's true? What have we done? The potential horror of the situation hit Tara with the force of an f-5 tornado, and she wanted to vomit again. No, she couldn't let this take over, and she knew she'd be forced to get more answers from the shivering and very bloodied man before her. Let me get us something, she said grimly.

Spike let out a choking sob as he stumbled back to the couch, and Tara quietly walked toward him with a bottle and two shot glasses. Even she felt like having a real drink, screw the coffee. One weeping vampire, half a bottle of whiskey, and a whole lot of anger meant she was a girl without much sleep tonight, but maybe she'd get him to rest. Despite his begging, Tara knew she'd have to talk to Miss Buffy Summers at some point, but what could she possibly say to the Slayer? Who would take this seriously? Xander? Not likely since he hated Spike and would only want to stake him for daring to touch Buffy. Willow was off limits these days. Yeah, her former lover was using a lot of magic, but that wasn't really what bugged Tara, it was the type of magic Willow used. Tara's mother always insisted that natural magic was best, 'Keeps you sane and on the good side of the force, Luke Skywalker,' she thought, cringing at her inner geek. Yet, she just sat back and watched Willow cultivate powers and create spells that were coming from a non-happy place. All because her lover was desperate for one thing-Buffy. And now it seemed that spell too might have backfired; more research was necessary.

Spike asked tentatively, what'd she say to you?

There was no need to ask who was. Tara replied, the stammer coming back to her briefly. B-buffy said you two were...involved, we'll say, and told me you can hit her, sweetie, the term of endearment was meant to comfort but sounded forced to Tara's ears. She believed she came back wrong and w-wanted me to help her. I did a spell to see her aura more clearly, Spike. She seemed okay, but now I don't know. Maybe the changes went a little deeper than the surface...

Well, yeah, see...it looked like the changes were minute. You could hit Buffy, but she's not a demon. She's just, I don't know, different. Oh God, Spike, I never should've let Willow do that spell, Tara cried, We tore her from heaven... what if the spell went wrong?

'S'not your fault, kitten. Bollocks, I never should'a told her she was wrong, love, I'm bad. I'm evil, soulless, nothing and worthless and every other bleedin' thing the Slayer told me, Spike sighed.

Worthless? What do you mean worthless," she demanded, "Evil I might go along with, Spike, you tell us you're evil all the time, but you're more than that too, and you help without ever being asked these days. Buffy told you you're nothing? Tara's gray-blue eyes narrowed in disgust, How often does she say this garbage?

As soon as the shaggin's done, pet, Tara blushed at his words, Sorry, but it's true. We don't make love, have sex, or even scratch an itch, Tara, it's fucking-no relationship to it as much as I might want it. Damn...first time I've said it aloud, but it's true. Pure and simple, and it ain't pretty. Shouldn't dump this on you, Red'll have my balls if she finds out," she noticed his face filled with pain and regret. He sounded incredibly depressed.

Willow? No, your secret is safe with me, but I think you need to get some rest, Tara led Spike to her room and quickly changed the sheets for him, we'll talk more tomorrow, Spike, maybe we should even speak to Mr. Giles.

Spike looked at the girl before him, his face appeared stunned and a little terrified of that prospect, Rupes'll cut off my parts and toss em in the sun! We are NOT discussing this with him or anyone, Glinda, you can't help. Thank you for taking care of me an' all, but not one word, pet, not one...please? Listen to me! Beggin', whinin', and cryin' all over you... Why are you so easy to talk to, Tara?

Fine, for now, she agreed reluctantly, but you don't see Buffy again, Spike, not until I get some answers. And I promise not to tell anyone your were here begging and whining. She tried to smile at Spike, Hey, just don't decide to kill me because you needed a good listener, her attempt at joking hardly seemed appropriate, but Tara didn't know how else to handle the situation without offending Spike. What bothered her most was that he seemed to blame himself. She doubted he even considered the possibility that Buffy was way off the beam.

The vampire nodded, smiled sadly at her as he started to undress. Tara blushed again and quickly left the room, but what next? Perhaps she should just be grateful he agreed not to see Buffy without more information, but it would happen sooner or later. Tara would have to talk with someone, and if that meant hiring another witch, someone more powerful than herself, Willow would find out and get suspicious. Maybe Spike could help her with this problem since he'd surely want to know if something was really wrong with the love of his unlife.

Contemplating, planning, and worrying is often the best sleeping pill, and Tara really had no choice but to succumb to exhaustion and sleep. She didn't have time to bother with making the sofa bed, turning out lights, or even getting her pajamas. As the night slid towards morning, she vaguely felt pain in her neck but was unable to shake the sleep from her body. Even in dreams Tara told herself, You'll have a kink when the alarm screams at you, but sleep wouldn't leave her overtired limbs; not even when she dreamed of herself lifted, carried, and settled into a more comfortable position. In the morning, she was a little surprised to find herself in her own bed, fully clothed, next to a sleeping Spike. She smiled a tiny grin and said quietly, Big Bad, uh-huh, feeling sorry for the poor human sleeping on the couch. Thanks, and we'll find a way to help you. Spike merely snuggled into her, and Tara giggled uncontrollably, thinking at least her father would be happy to hear a guy was sharing her bed. Maybe it was strange that she felt comfortable with a person once known best as William the Bloody, but she'd seen him change the summer Buffy was gone. More importantly, she believed in that change. That summer she had grown bolder, able to stand for herself, and maybe that's why she found the courage to help Spike. No, it was more than that, she reflected, 'He's a good person...he's buried that good person, but he's in there, and I like the guy.'