BY HELGA VON NUTWIMPLE
"Well, now. About bleedin' time," Spike finally says.
Spike has a cigarette clenched between his lips; the little light at the end bobs up and down when he talks. Up, down. It's almost perfectly synchronized with the drops of water that keep hitting Tara's eyebrow, a backbeat. She's dimly aware he's making words; his lips are very smooth and pink, Chapstick commercial lips, which is a little bizarre; he's dead, isn't he?
His eyebrow has a very interesting scar on it; it follows along as that eyebrow descends. This is a facial expression. He is peering at her in concern. Peering. That's a funny word. Peering.
His mouth opens again. "Wicca?"
Raindrops keep falling on her head. She can never remember the second line, the one before "crying's not for me"... which is ridiculous, she's done nothing but cry since this afternoon, stumbling around like a zombie, which fits; she feels dead.
Is that why she's here?
Why is she here?
She knew ten minutes ago, she must have. You don't just walk into the cemetery for no good reason, especially after dark in Sunnydale... that's Scooby Rule #1.
Of course, is she a Scooby anymore? She'd married into that family after all, and oh...
Spike's taking her box. She forgot she was holding it. That's silly, isn't it? It's heavy. And soggy; Spike does one of those very quick blurry vampire things he does when he realizes, his arm shooting beneath it to keep everything from falling out the bottom.
"Any more of these?" he asks, and he does that peering thing again, only this time he's looking around her, out into the darkness. He takes the box and sets it down on the sarcophagus nearest his fridge. When did he get a fridge? He's walking funny, like someone's kicked him in the balls recently. Maybe Buffy. Probably Buffy. That sounds like a Buffy thing to do. But he's been so nice lately.
Well… for him, anyway.
He funny-walks back over, tilts his head in that way that he does. "You comin' in, then?"
He makes a noise, and she knows that one; that's his Sigh of Annoyance. She heard that one a lot, when they were patrolling together this summer...
When did he pick her up? Wow, he smells good.
Hot. Hot. Oh God, so hot, so hot... there's heavy stuff all over her, weighing her down...
"Easy, princess." The hot heavy thing is peeled away, and Tara's brain slowly comes back online. She's staring up at Spike, and they're in a cave. No, no... this is the lower level of his crypt, but... when did Spike get a bed?
"You passed out on me," Spike says, dropping into a small wooden chair by her bed and switching off the electric blanket. "Next time you decide to take a stroll in the cold November rain, might want to wear a coat."
She realizes her legs are cold, then that she's wearing nothing but her underwear and one of his black t-shirts; her next question dies as she looks around the crypt, where articles of her clothing hang everywhere to dry.
Spike notices her gaze. "Stuff in the box was as wet as what you had on. Think the stuff towards the middle's almost dry if the Goth look doesn't suit."
"No, this is... this is fine." Tara pulls the blanket back up to cover her lower half. "Thank you."
"So you can talk." Spike leans back in his chair. "You hungry? Thirsty?"
"You're not... you're not going to ask what I'm doing here, o-or...?"
"Out in a thunderstorm, clutchin' a box with all your crap in it, lookin' like your dog just died. Think I can guess. Bit surprised I'm your chosen port in a storm, though... didn't have a single schoolmate?"
"It's the Thanksgiving holiday," Tara whispers.
"Ah. Still, figure Harris and the demon-girl would have put you up..."
"They would have w-wanted me... t-tried to talk me into..."
Spike gives a brief nod of understanding and rises from the chair. "Everythin' from the purple sweater over's dry enough. Be upstairs."
Tara clutches the blankets in her fist. "It's... it's okay, then? If I stay?"
Spike pauses. "Couple days, yeah. Don't start tossin' doilies on the comfy chair."
"Right then." And he disappears up the ladder.
The lower level of Spike's crypt is shockingly nice.
Okay, so Martha Stewart would not approve; Tara recognizes Early American Dumpster Diving when she sees it, and the general 'coffin' theme is probably never going to make the cover of Architectural Digest. But bizarrely, Spike has real taste in antiques.
Um, Tara? Duh. Spike is an antique.
She giggles to herself, a little bit hysterically; of course, she's been on the edge of hysteria for two days, a thousand hummingbirds beating in her chest from the moment she realized this was it, she was really doing it, she was really leaving Willow... only to treble a moment later as reality crashed all around her.
No one to talk to, no non-Scooby friends. She'd made the leap from her family with Willow to catch her, but... no one was waiting now.
No job. No income. No place to stay. The small check she received each month from her mother's old union had already been given to Buffy for rent and certainly spent; she couldn't get it back now even if she could bear to ask.
Sorry, Willow... you know this big, grand gesture I'm making? Yes, well, turns out I can't afford it. So baby, can I move back in? I'll keep very quiet about your whole self-destruction thing.
Yeah. Not so much.
Tara stops in front of the purple sweater that hangs over a coffin, pulling Spike's shirt over her head. It smells nice; she remembers that from last night. She tries and fails to imagine Spike in a laundromat.
He must have a whole other life they never see... all the little indignities, mundanities, he suffers in his post-chip existence. Laundry, the butcher. The only place in Sunnydale that sells Weetabix is the European Market on Wilkins, nestled into a strip mall between the Verizon Wireless and a Subway. He must gas up his motorcycle; he has to buy those cigarettes...
She's never really thought about it before; it makes her mental image of him warp and bend, bulging outwards.
"There's tea, if you want it," Spike calls from above her.
How in the heck does Spike make tea?
She learns the answer a minute later, when she's dressed and climbed the ladder; an electric teakettle is steaming on top of the sarcophagus, plugged into a horribly unsafe-looking duct-taped bundle of extension cords.
"Thanks, Spike," she says quietly. He's set out a yellow mug that says "Kiss the Librarian", and an incongruous honey squeeze-bottle in the shape of a friendly bear.
It's completely full; she remembers that Spike takes sugar. Was he... expecting her, last night?
"Still curious, pet," Spike drawls from the comfy chair. "What changed your mind?"
She sighs. "Um. Willow and I... we'd... kind of talked, y'know? About her backing off the magic? And then she did that spell..."
"Figured that. Meant about me. Always were the most polite of the bunch, but frankly, thought I terrified you." He grins. "Always liked that about you."
"Well, I... I figured you wouldn't, y'know, try to convince me to go back to W-Willow... or ask me to, y'know, talk about it? And also, well... Dawn."
Spike raises an eyebrow. "Nibblet write me a rec?"
"Not exactly...?" Tara squeezes honey into her tea. "I went in the kitchen a few weeks ago, and um... Dawnie was having a nosebleed."
Spike nods knowingly. "Reckon she's that age. Used to get 'em all the time back then."
Tara blinks at the bizarre mental picture of Teenaged Victorian Spike, shocking-white hair in a curled ponytail, hankerchief pressed to his nose. "Um... well, um, so did I... but... I never had them into a glass."
It's Spike's turn to blink. "Come again?"
"She was leaning over the sink, having her nosebleed into a... a glass. For... for you." Tara raises her mug, takes a sip.
Spike looks so genuinely touched that Tara nearly snorts tea out her nose.
"So... well, so I asked her what she was doing, and she said, um, that she didn't want to waste it? She was just... just so matter-of-fact about it."
Spike tilts his head, gives her an appraising glance. "An' that made you decide to come stay with me."
"Well... I mean, not that exactly, it was just... the way Dawnie, um, sees you? Sees all of us, really. I m-mean... Buffy's a Slayer, big deal. I'm a lesbian witch, big deal. You drink blood, big deal... like the fact that you're a vampire is just one of those... little things about you, y'know, that everyone has? Spike's favorite color is black and he likes fried onions and he prefers human blood to pig. I mean, I grew up around people who thought I was going to burn in hell twice over... and I just, I just realized that I'm treating you... like they treated me. Judging you for what you are, not... not who you are."
Spike considers this. "You don't think eatin' people's a bit higher on the sin scale than preferrin' the feel of tits?"
Tara squares her jaw. "Well, it's the same principle."
"Right then," Spike shrugs. "One member of the damned Scooby Club doesn't want to stake me, not gonna argue the point."
"Anyway, I'm sorry, but... I made Dawn pour the glass out."
"S'alright," Spike grins. "Nosebleed blood's watery as hell."
"Well I... I guess you'd know," Tara says politely, sipping her tea.
"Don't have much in the way of proper food," Spike gestures at the refrigerator. "Got some of the Nibblet's snacky crap, if you're peckish. If you're plannin' to stay a few days, might want to stock up."
"Thanks. I'm not really hungry, but... um... do you have a shower, or anything?"
"Too fancy a word for it, love." He leans back in the chair. "Got vertical water. Still, you're welcome to it."
She grimaces a little. "Hot?"
He shoots her the what-do-you-think? glance and gestures downstairs. "More like gettin' shot in the head with a freeze ray."
Spike's "bathroom" turns out to be a damp alcove, with a chipped, stained clawfoot tub shoved beneath a broken-off waterpipe in the ceiling.
"Turn that wheel," Spike points to the other end of the room. "Don't recommend standin' right under it, unless you fancy a concussion. Could probably boil some water, have a bath."
Tara's hands trace the water pipes; she bites her lip in thought. "I think I can fix this."
Spike's eyebrows soar. "Magic?"
"No. Well, maybe just a little. But... plumbing. We built our farmhouse ourselves... I picked up some stuff. I mean... not enough to do a full copper re-pipe or anything, but this? I think I could fix. Especially if I got a book from the library..."
He crosses his arms, tilts his head. "You'd do that."
"You'd have to help... I mean, I'm not strong enough for some of it. But it'd be nice to have a project. Something to, y'know, take my mind off it?"
Spike eyes the broken pipe speculatively. "Could do with a bit of distraction myself."
"Plus, I mean... you've been really nice. The bed, the tea, letting me stay. This could be kind of a... thank you."
Spike cocks an eyebrow playfully. "Thought you were repayin' me in sexual favors?"
"That kind of plumbing?" she grins, pointing at his crotch. "I don't work with."
"I... hate... blister... packaging," Tara grunts, pulling at the edge of the plastic. "Who came up with this? It's impossible to open..."
Spike plucks the package from her hands, vamping out and tearing a neat slit with his fangs before shaking his human face back into place. "There you go."
"Convenient," Tara grins, pulling out the showerhead from the plastic. "Kinda puts that whole undead, mass-murdering thing in perspective."
"Probably just ought to get a Swiss Army knife." Spike helps Tara up onto the plastic milk crate in the center of the tub. "You'd make an interestin' vamp, though. Not that I'm offerin'."
Tara pushes back her bandanna and squints up at the pipe. "You can tell what kind of vampire someone would be from what they're like as a human?"
"Sort of." Spike hands her the wrench. "I've always fancied you reminded me of Dru. Pre-Angelus, non-crazy Dru, mind, or at least how I imagined her. No offense meant."
Tara screws the showerhead on. "What were you like, Spike? As a human?"
"Everyone knows that story."
"I know what you told Buffy." Tara shoots him a grin. "I just don't believe it. It doesn't match up."
He snorts. "Buffy bought it."
"Yes, well... I'm not Buffy. Who's William Alden?"
Spike freezes. "Where'd you hear that name?"
"It's written in your copy of 'Through The Looking Glass'. I didn't figure you for a big Alice in Wonderland fan... I thought maybe you kept it for the inscription."
"Bleedin' vampire here. Got a lot of old crap."
"Not that old." Tara tightens the showerhead with a last turn of her wrench. "And not that valuable, either. That's a first edition from 1871. That would be, what... nine years before you got turned? It'd be worth a fortune."
"Well, maybe I'll hock it, then," Spike says, too-casually. "Could do with the dosh."
"I wouldn't," Tara replies. "I mean, it's not every day that a lawless highwayman graduates from Oxford and makes his loving mother proud."
Spike's face drops. "Bloody hell."
"C'mon, William Alden. Who were you?"
Spike affects his finest leer. "How badly you wanna know?"
"Shower should work now." Tara taps the showerhead lightly with her wrench. "If you could find an old water heater, it wouldn't be too hard to install."
"Bribin' me with bubblebaths?"
"That cavern in the back, that runs all the way to the groundskeeper's cottage?" Tara grins. "I saw where his cable comes in."
"You're suggestin' we steal cable."
"How does that rate on the sin scale next to eating people?"
"What've you done with the little white witch? You'll be cagin' my smokes next."
"Nah." Tara takes Spike's proferred hand, steps back down to the floor. "I quit five years ago."
His jaw-dropped gaze follows her tiny smirk all the way out of the bathroom.
"All right," Spike says, pouring blood into his mug. "Me first, then. You used to smoke?"
Tara opens the pizza box. "After my mom died, I went through sort of a... crazy phase. It was why I wasn't all that surprised when we thought the Buffybot was Buffy. And yes, I smoked."
"How crazy a phase we talkin' about?" Spike grins.
"I think it's my turn." She blots the pizza with a napkin. "Why do you have an electric blanket? I thought vampires didn't feel the cold."
Spike sighs in reluctance. "It's for the Nibblet."
"When she used to sneak out and come sleep here," Tara nods. "During the... bad summer."
"Bloody - you knew about that?"
"I used to follow her... to make sure she got here safely? I don't think she ever realized I was doing it."
"Brave of you," Spike mutters. "Graveyard alone at night."
"I couldn't tell the others. Willow, Xander... they wouldn't have understood."
He tilts his head, assessing. "But you did."
"Sort of. I didn't understand why you, at first. I thought maybe it was like what I did... wanting to put myself in danger? But I stayed, the first few nights, to make sure she was okay, and you guys were just watching movies and stuff. I figured you had something she needed. Just because I didn't understand it... as much as she'd lost... I couldn't be the one to take anything else away."
Spike says nothing, sips his blood.
"Spike? If it was summer, why would you need a..." Tara stops, blinks, realizes. "It brought you up to body temperature... didn't it?"
Spike freezes, caught. He sets the mug down. "Girl had nightmares all the bleedin' time. Didn't want to make 'em worse, havin' her wake up next to a cold corpse."
"So you guys slept in the same bed..."
"Not like you're thinkin'," Spike says quickly.
"Well, what I was thinking was that there's no reason for you to be sleeping on the couch right now in your own crypt."
"You're not fourteen, pet. It's a bit different."
Tara shrugs and swallows. "I like girls. You like Buffy."
"All the same." Spike twirls his mug, suddenly uncomfortable. "Er... if you're worried about it. The couch bit. That alcove off the right's plenty big... just got a bunch of m'crap in it at the moment. Saw this brass bed down at the dump last night. Got all the pieces... fit it in the DeSoto, easy."
"You mean... really move in? Like, stay here?"
"Well, thought you could help me carry it in, like. Shame to let somethin' like that go to waste..."
"Spike." she lays a restraining hand on his wrist. "I'd actually... I'd really like to stay here, if you wouldn't mind."
"Bunch more crap we could do to fix the place up," Spike says gruffly. "Hate to lose my slave."
Tara smiles her crooked grin. "Very sensible."
"I just figured it out," Buffy announces, bending down to examine a lower shelf. "Do we really care if our toilet paper's quilted?"
"Figured what out?" Willow sneaks a peek around, then levitates a pack of tissue off the top shelf and into their shopping cart. "This kind's the cheapest."
"What's been bothering me. Y'know how there's, like, this really ugly painting hanging in a room, and one day it gets taken down or something, and you come in and you're all huh, this is nicer, but I can't think of why... like you're so used to it being there you don't even really see it anymore?"
"Did that make sense inside your head?" Willow runs a finger down the package thoughtfully. "Y'know, we keep buying this stuff, and it's so expensive. Maybe I could make it so it never runs out... y'know, like everlasting toilet paper..."
"No, seriously. I just figured out what it is. I haven't seen Spike for, like... days."
"Like a little vacation," Willow beams, pushing the buggy further down the aisle.
Buffy bites her lip. "Um... yeah. But I mean, hello, it's Spike... normally he's like my little undead shadow, especially... well, uh, I mean since... uh... well, I thought for sure he'd show up when that security guard got frozen, y'know? He's been kind of paying attention to that sort of thing lately. Um. Evildoing not of his making. Y'know."
"If you're worried about him, I could do a locator spell..."
"No, no, that's okay, it's just... I mean, I'm not worried about him, he's just... I mean, he's..." Buffy pauses, eyes widening. "Spike."
"No, I mean... Spike. As in 'Hey, there's Spike', down there at the end of the..."
Buffy's eyes fly even wider, and she grabs Willow by the arm, spinning her in the other direction. "Y'know what? I forgot the ketchup. Gotta have ketchup, 'cause otherwise, epidemic naked fries. So let's go back there, okay?"
"Buffy," Willow grins, shaking her head, "The ketchup's on aisle..."
It is Willow's turn to trail off; she takes a step backwards.
"Tara?" she says in a very small voice. "What's... what's Tara doing with Spike?"
"Well... uh... it looks like they're buying a mop," Buffy says carefully.
"Go over there," Willow begs.
"Go over there! I can't go over there! You're allowed to talk to them, you've got total Friend Clearance, whereas I am in the Freshly Dumped Zone! I can't go over, that would be, like... stalking, or not so much with the space-giving, or... Buffy, it's a smorgasbord of oncoming-train-level badness! You know me, I will babble, and... Evidence A, I'm babbling now!"
"Wil, I don't know..."
"She's buying a mop, Buffy," Willow pleads. "Mop equals floor. Floor means she has one, to mop upon, which means she's gotten herself a floor, with an apartment attached! Apartment means keys, and leases, and seriousness! Apartment means that this isn't motel-level dumpage, or crash-on-friend's-couch dumpage, or sleep-in-parents'-guest-room dumpage! This is lease-signing, cleaning accessory stocking-up-on dumpage! Mops are commitment, Buffy! Mops are the death-bell, and it tolls for me!"
"Fine," Buffy sighs. "I'll go. But only because you've gone totally insane."
She squares her shoulders, steering her stylish-yet-affordable boots down the aisle to the sound of Willow's effusive, tiny thank-yous.
The two people she and Willow least wanted to run into have migrated towards the scrubby pads.
"I can't even imagine what that would be like," Tara is saying as she examines a coppery pouf. "Servants."
"Bit like minions," Spike shrugs, picking up a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser and examining it with a furrowed brow. "Killed 'em a helluva lot less, though. How the bleedin' hell does this thing work, then?"
"It says on the box. Magic," Tara teases.
"Serious, is it bleach or what?"
"Dunno. Let's try it on your head when we get home."
Buffy stops in her tracks, her brain scrambling to process new and confusing information... like, did Tara just say when we get home? Emphasis on the we?
"Hey, guys," she says, terribly impressed at how normal it comes out.
"H-hey, Buffy," Tara replies awkwardly, at the same time Spike nods out a "Slayer".
"Didn't know you guys were... shopping buddies."
Spike opens his mouth, but it's Tara who answers her, looking straight into her eyes with that firm, I-mean-it-go-to-bed-now-Dawn voice: "I've moved in with Spike, temporarily. We n-needed things."
Buffy chokes. "You... moved into... that crypt."
Spike seems to be shrinking, his eyes flashing around the store as if looking for the nearest exit.
Tara ignores her tone completely. "Not for too long. I don't want to impose on Spike. He's been very kind."
"Right." Buffy's eyes narrow. "That sounds just like him."
"Doesn't it?" Tara replies airily, swivelling to face Spike. "Did you still want to go to Home Depot?"
Spike nods, and Tara turns back around, a pleasant, polite smile stretching her lips. "It was v-very nice to see you, Buffy."
"Tara," Buffy tries. "Willow... Willow feels just awful, and look, I mean, you're crashing in the graveyard, that can't be of the good, right? And Willow wants to work it out, she really does, I mean, if you could see how bad she feels, how much she wants to change..."
"Then she needs to stop levitating the toilet paper instead of reaching for it," Tara says flatly. "C'mon, Spike."
"Didn't need to do that," Spike finally says when they're back in the DeSoto.
Tara rearranges a sack that's poking her in the knee. "Do what?"
"Defend me to the Slayer. Not that I don't appreciate it, love, but it's not gonna make one bloody bit of difference."
Tara shrugs. "It annoyed me."
"People change. For better... and for worse. She's in denial about that, and she's not... seeing things."
Spike shoots her a glance. "Like Red."
"That's one example."
"You buggerin' off hasn't set her on the straight and narrow like you'd hoped, eh?"
"I didn't leave Willow to try and force her to change," Tara sighs. "It wouldn't have worked anyway. I'm... I'm not the most important thing in her life anymore."
Spike rolls his eyes.
"Look, I'm not being self-deprecating, okay? I'm being... objective. Magic's just... more important to her than I am now. She's not going to change until that gets threatened." Tara plucks at her skirt. "I didn't do it for her own good. I did it for mine."
Spike considers this, lighting a cigarette. "Scared of her, then?"
"Aren't you? I know, I know, you're the Big Bad, you're not afraid of anything, but... Xander said you were the one asking about the spell on Buffy... what Willow'd hidden from the rest of us?"
"You ever suss out what that was?"
"Not exactly. But I feel like..." Tara cranks down her window to let the smoke out. "I feel like maybe she tried to use something, tap into something, that she shouldn't have. I mean, Willow's always... she just doesn't... it's like she thinks spells are just another type of... of programming language, y'know? I want result x, therefore I will type this line of code? And it's just... it's just not that way, it's not that... it's not that tidy."
"Consequences," Spike nods.
Tara bites her lip. "Payment."
"Thanks for coming out," Willow says anxiously, her hands fluttering over her cup of coffee. "Y'know, for the beverage. I don't see you much anymore, um, at school? I came by your History class, but you weren't there..."
"I switched to the morning section." Tara sips her mocha, lets out a little yawn. "Believe it or not, it's past my bedtime."
"Um..." Willow gazes at the bright noon sky outside the Espresso Pump, raising an eyebrow. "How's that?"
"I usually go to bed after second period. Wake up around dusk."
"Oh. Oh, right... I guess you're, uh... livin' la vida vampa, huh?"
"It ended up being easier to stay up for class than wake up for it," Tara shrugs.
"How's that, um, working out for you? Dawnie says you and Spike have gotten the crypt really fixed up... she, uh... said you guys took her, um, dumpster-diving...?"
"It's really amazing what people will throw out," Tara says earnestly. "Last week? Spike and I went behind that place that does catering, next to the bookstore? We found a double burner range that only had one burner broken, and one of those little bitty convection ovens with a dented door, and all these hotel pans, and just amazing amounts of towels... I mean, they're stained, so they can't use them, but..."
"So you can cook, now." A painful smile stretches Willow's face. "Well, that's... that's great! 'Cause, uh, see, I had kind of gotten the impression that this was of the temporary, like a crashing situation, and you were, y'know, helping him as sort of a thank-you, but, uh... when I think Spike, I'm not really thinking yummy baked goods, y'know? That seems more like a you thing, like a you with the really moving in thing."
Tara plays with the edge of her napkin. "Well, yeah, I mean... temporary was the original plan. And I could still move out... it's just, well... I mean, there are lots of really practical reasons to stay? I don't have to pay rent, and it's convenient for Dawnie, and Spike lets me borrow his car. It's actually a little closer to school. And plus, y'know, no lease or commitment or anything..."
"In case you, uh, want to move somewhere else later, o-or soon..." Willow says carefully.
Tara bites her lip. "Yeah."
Willow's good humor returns with a vengeance; she leans over the table, grinning conspiratorially. "I guess putting on a coat to go pee kinda gets old, though, huh?"
"Actually? We managed to put a toilet in," Tara takes another sip. "Which was just... just horrible, you don't want to imagine. I mean, we had this book out from the library... it's a great book, it's for, like, crazy-go-live-in-Montana-with-guns people? But the diagrams are good, and we thought, hey, right next to the sewer, how hard could this be? Which, seriously, never say that, it's just asking for catastrophe."
Tara laughs to herself at a memory but doesn't share it, and Willow's throat tightens a fraction.
"So, you and Spike, you're like... all Bob Vila now, that's... neat. So, um... how are you guys getting along? I mean, he seems like he'd be hard to live with, what with his whole snarly sarcastic I'd eat-you-on-a-cracker-if-it-weren't-for-this-chip-in-my-head thing..."
"Y'know, it's weird, but... we actually get along really well. He's... once you get to know him, y'know, there's a lot... underneath the surface, kinda? He's really not all grr argh at all... I mean, you know how he is with Dawn."
"And is that? How you guys are?" Willow twirls her cup between her palms. "Spike and Dawnish, like big brother, little sistery?"
Tara tilts her head a fraction to the side, and the familiar movement stirs something red and ugly within Willow. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, I'm not asking! Just... curious. I mean, he's... well, he's Spike, right?"
"And how are you doing?" Tara asks pointedly. "With the, y'know, cold turkey?"
Willow blanches, but recovers quickly. "Good! Really good. Um, last week, Buffy got all invisified, and I was total Dana Scully. No magic, just rock-solid detective work."
Willow does her most appealing cute-grin, but Tara's staring at her cup, gears behind her eyes working. "B-Buffy turned invisible?"
"Yeppers! It would have been kind of cool if, y'know, it hadn't had the whole melting-into-goo problem attached. She was making things look like they were flying around, and - oh! She got a really cute haircut, and... Tara? Tara?"
"You, uh, kinda spaced out on me there." Willow runs her hand between Tara and the coffee cup. "Having deep thoughts?"
"Sorry, just... that... explains a lot."
Willow's eyes narrow. "Explains what?"
"Oh! Oh, um... there was a, a thing...? A thing... uh, flying around the crypt. So I, I guess that was Buffy, um, joking around." Tara forces out a laugh. "She's a kidder, um, that crazy, crazy Buffy."
"Huh? I didn't think Buffy ever went to the crypt..."
Tara's reply is barely audible. "I didn't either."
"Tara... are you okay? 'Cause we were having the coffee and I thought it was going really well, y'know, with the banter and the Bob Vila and the not-yelling and the friendliness, and all of a sudden you're really quiet and... did I say something? Because I was serious about the solid detective work, I've been super-good, you can ask Xander, he can tell you, seriously, he is all over the vouching... you could call him! I have his number..."
"It's fine, Wil. It's not you, I... I just remembered a paper I have to write." Tara pulls out her purse, sliding a bill beneath her saucer. "I think I'm gonna run home, but... it was nice talking to you, okay?"
"Tara, wait! I was... well first off, I was really gonna pay for your coffee, and second... couldn't we, I dunno, go see a movie or something? I mean, if you've got a paper, I could totally help you write it! I am the paper queen, the queen of... paper... ness! I could help you research, or... you could borrow my laptop!"
"That's sweet, Willow, really, but..."
Willow sinks back into her chair with a frown. "It's because of Dawn, isn't it."
"I - huh?"
"Spike told you, I knew he would, that stupid... baby, I swear, I didn't mean to... I only went to Rack's twice... although, I know, I know that was bad, I own my badness and I don't make excuses for it..."
Tara whirls, eyes wide. "You went to Rack's?"
"Oh," Willow eeps. "Spike... um... didn't tattle, huh?"
Tara takes a deep breath, steadies herself. "All Spike said was that you and Dawn had been in a car accident. I see Dawnie almost every day; he had to tell me that much."
Tara studies Willow carefully. "That wasn't a normal accident, was it? And you... you asked him not to tell me."
"Did you really think I wouldn't find out?" Tara's voice is rising, cracking, and she hates the sound of it, hates it but can't stop, "Were you just gonna buy me coffee and hope I bought your little story? God - you haven't changed one bit, have you?"
"No, baby, I have... just... after that, okay? That was when I started getting better! There was a little, um, period of backslidiness when you left me and I was depressed and Amy... well, I'm not hanging out with her anymore, and..."
"I have to go."
"Tara, no, I can explain..."
"Willow, I have to go."
"Tara!" Willow cries, leaping to her feet. "Look! I did... I did what you wanted, okay? And yeah, maybe it took a little extra nudge to get me there, but it's done now! I'm off the magic! So you don't have to... you don't have to do this anymore, okay?"
Tara clutches the strap of her bag with white-knucked fists. "Do... what, exactly?"
"Tara, do you have any idea how I've worried... you're living with an evil, soulless vampire in a hole in the ground! It worked, all right? I get it. You'd rather live in the worst place on earth than with me on the magics! Lesson learned! I grovel, I beg, I plead, okay? I've kept my end of the deal!"
"There was no deal," Tara says icily. "You violated my mind, and I left you."
"Tara... baby... if you're not ready to come back, at least... at least don't do this to me. Get an apartment, move back into the dorms... maybe you could sublet Giles' place! Anything but living with Spike, my God, I mean..."
"I like Spike."
"Tara, you can't like Spike. He's the absolute opposite of... how can you yell at me for... he's evil, hello? Evil! He doesn't have a soul, he doesn't know right from wrong, Tara... he can't! I did a bad thing, okay, and I get that, but he... he is a bad thing!"
Tara closes her eyes, exhales. "I am not having this conversation with you."
"Why are we having this conversation at all? This all seems firmly in the realm of the 'duh'! Tara, he... I mean, beyond the whole 'eats people' thing, which hello, can't believe I need to go beyond... the guy is a grade-a jerkface!"
"I prefer the term 'brutally honest'," Tara replies. "And after living with you? I take all the honesty I can get."
Willow pales. "Tara..."
"Gotta go, Wil," Tara hefts her bag higher on her shoulder. "The soulless jerkface and I are helping Dawnie with her homework."
Dawn sits cross-legged on the end of Tara's bed, playing with the fringe on one of the throw pillows. "Will you help me redecorate my room sometime?"
"Sure, Dawnie." Tara pulls a book out of the bookshelf. "What did you have in mind?"
"I dunno. I like this." Dawn gestures around the alcove that has become Tara's own. "With the pictures everywhere and the christmas lights and stuff. My room's so... little kiddy. And I mean... you and Spike found most of this stuff at the dump, right? So it's, like... cost-effective."
"Honey, I'm not sure if Buffy would be as tolerant of dumpster-finds in the house as..."
Dawn looks down, pokes her pinky through a crocheted hole in the coverlet. "She wouldn't care."
Tara frowns slightly at Dawn's face. "Well, I... I mean, the furniture we got from the dump, but most of the decorating stuff was mine, from my dorm room? And not all of it would fit in here... would you like to look through my other boxes, see if there's something you like?"
"I wish I lived here," Dawn says suddenly.
"I wish I lived with you and Spike."
"Dawnie," Tara sighs, sitting down on the bed next to her. "I know that Buffy can't replace your mom, but she's trying really hard..."
"I know." Dawn lays her head down on Tara's thigh. "And that's... it's like... how can I say anything to her? She's slinging Doublemeat, she died for me... and I'm just this big fat burden."
"I'm the reason she's tired and stressed-out and freaked all the time. If it weren't for me, she wouldn't have to... maybe she wouldn't look so brain-sucked. And when I'm here, I... I don't feel like I'm... I feel like you guys are glad I'm here."
Tara runs her fingers through Dawn's hair. "We love it when you visit, Dawn. And Buffy loves having you, too. She's going through some stuff right now, and maybe she doesn't show you as much as she'd like to... but sweetie, you know she wants you. She would have let your Dad have custody otherwise."
"I'm glad you're here," Dawn sighs. "It's nice... having you and Spike in the same place? And I'm glad for him, too. He needed somebody."
"Dawn, Spike and I aren't... together, not in that way..."
"Duh, I know. But having you around makes him happy. Which is good, because something else is making him really sad, and he won't tell me what it is." Dawn looks up from Tara's knee, hair falling all around her face. "Do you know what it is?"
Tara pauses, chews her lip. "I have a guess. But I should talk to Spike."
"You've seen them, right? The bruises, the scratches?"
"He goes on patrol..."
"In a bigass leather duster, yeah. You ever tried that thing on? It weighs like a gazillion pounds. No way he's getting scratched through that. And all of a sudden he's Mr. Long Sleeves. It's weird."
They sit in silence for a moment, Dawn regarding the strings of lights that cross the cave ceiling. "Tara?"
"Have you always known you were gay?"
Tara chuckles. "That's a heck of a subject change, Dawnie."
"Well, it's just, there's this boy. And I was going to ask you for some advice, but then I was thinking, huh, maybe not so much with the boy advice."
Tara begins to braid a small strand of Dawn's hair. "I think crushes are similar no matter what parts are attached. But no... I didn't always know I was gay."
"Did you have, like, boyfriends and stuff?"
"I had one," Tara smiles. "Well, one real official one, anyway. His name was Josh."
"So what, did he kiss you and you were all 'eww'?"
"No... definitely not 'eww'. It was nice. But, y'know... well, this boy you wanted to talk to me about. What's his name?"
"Trevor," Dawn says dreamily.
"Trevor," Tara grins. "I'm assuming that when you see Trevor, your heart speeds up, and..."
"The whole sparkly package? Really lots of yeah."
"So I got the whole sparkly package... for girls, too. But when I really fell in love, it was with Willow."
"So you're, like... potentially bi."
"Um... I guess? I mean... if I met a man who made me feel the way Willow did, I don't think I'd scream 'eww, penis!' and run away..."
Dawn giggles... then freezes. "The way Willow did? Past-tense?"
Tara sighs. "Dawnie, it's complicated..."
"Right. So... your, y'know... equal-opportunity sparkly package... any sparklies around your roommate?"
"Dawn. I forbid you to play matchmaker. Spike and I are friends."
"Aha! You so didn't deny the sparklies."
"Well, this is me denying the sparklies," Tara insists. "Sweetie, I don't know what's going on with me and Willow... and Spike, if you haven't noticed, has a small crush on your sister."
"Small crush," Dawn snorts. "He's such a doofus."
"I'm a doofus, eh?" Spike grins as Tara shuts the door behind Dawn, lifting his mug of blood to his lips. "That's a new one."
Tara shakes her head, smiling. "You were awake."
"Eavesdroppin'. One of my many evil activities." Spike raises his cup in salute. "Didn't want to interrupt until I was sure you were done talkin' about me."
Tara crosses to the sarcophagus, plugs in the kettle. "How much did you hear?"
"Woke up right about 'equal-opportunity sparklies', just in time to have my poor ego dashed against the rocks. If I'd known you swung both ways, pet, I'd have spent more time poutin' over your ability to resist my charms."
"Well, I wouldn't think you'd care," Tara says lightly. "Since you're fucking Buffy."
Spike's jaw drops. "Bloody hell. Did you just say 'fucking'?"
"Yep." Tara reaches for the teabags. "I also added the word 'Buffy', which you're choosing to ignore."
Spike sighs. "How'd you know?"
"I had coffee with Willow earlier. She mentioned the whole invisibility thing. Explains a lot about your mysteriously wriggling ear... and sudden urge to do push-ups in bed?"
Spike winces. "Didn't expect your class to get canceled, didn't want to embarrass..."
"Don't start lying to me now, Spike. You were covering for Buffy."
"Well... yeah. She..."
"Doesn't want anyone to know that she's sleeping with a soulless, evil, thing?"
The words strike Spike in the heart; he blinks at Tara, dumbstruck.
"Her words, not mine, Spike," Tara adds gently. "No one knows about the two of you, do they?"
"Not on fire, head still attached," Spike mutters. "All signs point to a clue-free Scooby Club."
"Dawn's worried about you."
"Nibblet'd stake me herself if she knew I'd touched her big sis."
"You're very wrong about that. And I'm worried about you, too."
Spike looked everywhere but at her. "I'm a big vamp now, pet. Can take care of myself."
"I'm not worried about you defending yourself. I'm worried about your heart."
"Shriveled up piece of beef jerky," Spike shrugs uncomfortably. "Besides, didn't you get the memo? Can't love without a soul. Have that on good authority."
"Uh-huh," Tara glares, dunking her teabag. "Well, I see I was wrong to worry about you. This new relationship's doing wonders for your self-esteem."
Spike leans his head back against the comfy chair, sighs. "I love her."
"And that makes it okay? Well, pack my stuff, I guess I'm going back to Willow."
"Not the bloody same and you know it."
"Why not? What, you deserve it and I don't? You don't think I should go back and let Willow yank me around like a puppet, erasing my memory whenever it's convenient?"
"Hate that word," Spike groans.
"Yeah," Tara nods. "You should."
"Tara," Spike shakes her shoulder gently. "Tara, love, wake up..."
Her scream fades out, her eyes blinking in sleepy confusion. "Spike?"
"Had a nightmare. You all right now?"
She scootches over. "Could you stay? For a minute?"
He slides between the sheets, sticks his arm beneath her pillow, lets her entwine his free hand with hers. "Want to chat it out? Never heard you scream like that."
"Sorry." Tara tests out snuggling her head on his shoulder and finds it good. "This thing was after you and Willow. It was horrible."
"Me n' Red, eh?" Spike says gently. "You won't punch me for bein' flattered at my status upgrade?"
"Yes, Mr. Ego, you had a starring role in my anxiety dream. Feel free to strut."
"So this baddie... I kicked its ass and looked bloody good doin' it, right?"
"No," Tara whispers. "There was... this... this darkness. Like, existential uberdarkness? It didn't have form, it just... lived inside everybody? Lying to them, twisting their thoughts, manipulating them... moving them around like... like little chess pieces, getting them into position for its big checkmate."
Spike wraps his arm around her. "Like that black oil business on X-Files?"
"Uh, sorta. Only, it wasn't an infection, it was just... already in everybody, like it was just evil, I mean, like evil itself? Only... you don't really think of evil itself as a sentient being, and this was, it was... weird."
"And it was after me n' Red?"
"It knew you two were the ones who could ultimately defeat it. And it couldn't attack you directly, but... it could lie to you. Give you bad ideas. Whisper in your mind. You... and other people that affected you. Trying to... well... lead you to the dark side, I guess? And if it couldn't do that... it wanted you dead. Both of you. And all these little things that happened, things that didn't make any sense... they were all this evil setting up its endgame."
"That's a helluva nightmare, love," Spike sighs, brushing a strand of hair from Tara's cheek. "Got a plot n' motive. Mine are always where I'm back in boarding school and haven't got pants on."
Tara laughs, snuggling closer to him, bringing her leg up to slide it over his. "You're comfy. So this is what the breeders are all excited about."
"No, you being taller. It's nice to be the snugglee instead of the snuggler. I was always afraid I'd squish Willow."
"Basically unsquishable, love. Vampire perk. We'll find you a great tall Amazon woman, the Xena of Sunnydale. Maybe with one of those nice pointy helmets." Spike gazes down at her. "You feelin' better?"
"Want me to stay 'till you're asleep, then?"
Tara nods into his chest.
The crypt door crashes open, Tara startling in the comfy chair. "Buffy?"
"T-Tara," Buffy stutters. "I, uh, hey. I didn't... I wasn't... what's up?"
"Martin Luther King Day, school's closed." Tara holds up her novel. "I'm being extremely lazy and enjoying every minute of it."
"Well, it's... it's good to see you," Buffy's smile is large and awkward. "Hey, you moved the couch up here! It's nice."
"Spike's downstairs asleep," Tara replies.
"Oh. Well. I mean, I didn't... I didn't come to see Spike, I uh... I came to see you! Long time no see, y'know, I thought we could catch up, do girl stuff, uh..."
"Buffy," Tara says gently. "I know, okay? Go on downstairs."
Buffy's eyes narrow. "He told you?"
Tara's hands tighten on her book. "No, of course not. He keeps your secrets. I just put two and two together."
Buffy is silent, searching Tara's face anxiously.
"I'm not going to tell anyone, Buffy." Tara opens her book again.
"Well, I... so you're... you're okay with this? Me and him, even though he's..."
"Do you want me to disapprove? Tell you that you're a bad person, you shouldn't be with him?"
"I just... expected, I... if anyone knew..."
"Fine, Buffy. I disapprove. You're a bad person. You shouldn't be with him." Tara meets Buffy's eyes, holds them. "Because he deserves a hell of a lot better than the way you're treating him."
Buffy blinks in shock. "Huh?"
"Do you even like him?"
Buffy pales. "Sometimes."
"Do you love him?"
"No! I mean, I can't, he doesn't..." Buffy breaks off. "Tara, I... okay, I had no idea you'd be here right now, but I did want to ask you something. A favor. I was wondering if maybe you could check out that spell that Willow did, the one that brought me back? I think... I think maybe I... came back wrong."
"I don't set off Spike's chip anymore. It's not recognizing me as human."
Tara watches her, slowly, then nods. "I'll do it."
Spike pulls his eyes away from Passions, gazing down at the girl who lies across the couch with her head pillowed on his thigh. "Heart rate's speedin' up, pet. Dusty old book suddenly grow a plot?"
Tara looks up from her grimoire. "Hoping not. Thinking so."
"Slayer about to grow horns and a tail?"
"No. Or at least, nothing I've found suggests that. It's the spell itself. You were right, Spike... Willow didn't tell any of us the truth about what was involved."
"Nastier bit of business than she let on, am I right?"
"Much. And that's just the original resurrection spell." Tara holds up a sheet of notepaper that had been stuck between the pages. "This is the exact book Willow used from the Magic Box... and this is her handwriting."
"Not sufficient to resurrect a Slayer," Spike reads, brow furrowed. "What the hell is 'p/w'?"
"Password. And it's 'Jenny'. Three guesses as to whose..."
"Bloody hell. She went into Rupert's computer?"
"Which means she wanted access to something only a Watcher would have." Tara sighs, rolling upright and gazing unhappily at Spike. "I think she had to re-Call Buffy."
"But that Faith bird's the one the line runs through now, right?" Spike rubbed his temple. "Thought Buffy only kept her powers through a fluke, lame duck sort of thing."
"If she re-Called Buffy... she's split the Slayer line," Tara nodded. "Who knows what the consequences could be. And Spike... there's more."
"It gets worse? Fabulous."
"Remember that nightmare I had? With the, um, existential uberdarkness? There was something I didn't mention. You know how I went out with Willow that day?"
Spike nods, and Tara continues. "I did a spell before I went to sleep. Very basic, starter magic. It's a little spell to give you enlightening dreams... to answer questions? I wanted to know what I ought to do about Willow."
"And instead you dreamt of the big black nasty."
"I thought the spell didn't work, or backfired, or something... but now... I'm thinking maybe it did work."
"Meanin' the big black nasty's real?"
"I think... I think it might be. That resurrection spell rebuilds a person piece by piece. Every piece."
Tara holds out the book, and Spike pulls it onto his lap, reading out loud. "'Part the Fourth: Restoration of the Shadow'. Well now. That doesn't sound cuddly."
"Read the ingredients."
"Herb I've never heard of, herb I've never heard of... bloody hell. How'd she get Buffy's blood?"
Tara bites her lip. "Last summer... I caught Willow going through the trash in the upstairs bathroom. She said she'd thrown something away by accident, but... I think it was Dawnie's, y'know. Time of the month."
The muscle in Spike's jaw begins to twitch; he scans the rest of the page with a deepening scowl. "So basically, what you're tellin' me here is... Red sacrificed the blood of the soddin' Key to the big black nasty."
"I think she might have piqued its interest," Tara whispers. "Spike..."
"Hang on," Spike whispers, holding up his hand. "Buffy's outside."
Tara turns around on the couch, gazes towards the crypt door. "You sure?"
"Yeah." Spike's brow furrows. "She's just... standin' there, though."
"Gonna go see what she wants," Spike sets the grimoire back down on the couch. "Back in a bit."
Tara catches Spike's wrist. "Spike? Look. Um. If that part of my dream was right, other parts could be. Be careful, okay?"
He grabs his duster from the back of the couch, flashes her an apologetic smile. "Never am, love."
"Tara?" Dawn's voice on the phone is thick, choked. "How are you calling? Did you guys get a phone?"
"I walked to the Quik Mart. Dawnie... are you crying? What's going on? Are Spike and Buffy there? I thought Spike would be back a long time ago..."
"Buffy went to the police station," Dawn whispers. "She's not coming back."
Tara's hands dig into the receiver. "Oh God. Oh God. Dawnie... it's going to be okay. Buffy didn't do what she thinks she did. She's not going anywhere."
Dawn sniffs. "How do you know?"
"I just do, sweetie, it's a... magic thing. Try to get some sleep, okay? Buffy's just... very confused. And I have to go find Spike."
"Is he okay?"
Tara bites her lip. "No. But he will be. I'll take care of everything. Get some sleep."
"Smells bleedin' wretched in here," Spike groans, his eyelids fluttering open. "Hope that goes on me, not in me."
"You're in luck," Tara smiles, patting more of the foul-smelling purplish goo onto his skin. "All that's going in you is a whole bunch of blood... just as soon as I'm done with this."
"How'd you know?"
Tara makes careful circles with the ointment. "This happened in my dream."
He sighs, and it makes a horrible whistling sound. "Bugger."
"Pretty much sums it up, yeah." She gently moves his arm aside. "Spike... I don't think you should see Buffy anymore. At least not until we have a better idea of what's going on."
"Girl just had a bad night... m'fault anyway... told her to put it on me..."
"That's not the point. Spike, you almost died tonight. Remember what I said, about what the evil wanted? Dark or dead?"
"If some bleedin' uberevil's after Buffy, m'not leavin' her to fight it alone..."
"I'm not saying you should. I'm saying we should do some research, learn what it is we need to do... and in the meantime, maybe not give Buffy any more opportunities to kill you?"
"She's in pain."
"Uh-huh. You, on the other hand, look great."
Spike lets out a groan. "What're you suggestin'?"
"That I do another seeing spell. A better, stronger one. There's a potion I can brew. Vision-inducing."
Spike's blood-spattered lips twist into a smirk. "Should I put on some Jefferson Airplane?"
"Considering that the main ingredients are wormwood and anise? Maybe just read some Verlaine aloud."
"How you doin' in there, pet?" Spike calls from the bathtub.
Tara pulls the saucepan off the burner, pouring the contents through a strainer. "Almost done."
"You cut off your ear n' mail it to Red, we're havin' words!"
"You're talking better. How's your face?" Tara sets the glass into the ice bath, watching as the mixture hisses and steams.
"Could make a mint off whatever the hell you put in this tub. Eye's almost open."
"Stay in there until it is, okay? And arrange your bubbles. I'm coming in."
She pulls out the glass, carrying it into the bathroom; Spike has obligingly positioned her rubber ducky where it blocks the view.
He leers, wiggling his eyebrows at her as she perches on the edge of the tub. "If I'd known you wanted the peep show, love, I'd have done a little dance with scarves."
"I'd just feel better with supervision." Tara holds the glass up to the candlelight, watching the flames set the green mixture aglow. "I've never done this before… I don't know how weird I'm going to get."
"I'll keep an eye an' a half on you," Spike promises.
Tara sniffs the glass, makes a face. "Ugh. It's worse than Nyquil."
"Hold your nose," Spike suggests, then reaches for a book he's laid next to the tub. "Brought your Verlaine. Need distraction?"
"Sounds like a plan." Tara looks at the glass with a sigh. "Bottoms up..."
She pinches her nose shut, raising the glass and letting the thick, pungent liquid slide down her throat in shuddering gulps; Spike opens the book to a random page.
"A saint within her halo," Spike begins, his voice low, echoing off the stone that surrounds them.
Tara sets the glass down unsteadily, her lips burning, the world in front of her eyes growing filmy-white, like she was behind a veil; she feels Spike take her bicep in his hand to keep her from toppling over.
"A lady in her tower... all that human speech contains, of grace and of love..."
His voice seems to resonate through her as if she were empty, bouncing off joints and bends, filling her with sound; the grey stone is revealing all its hidden colors, flecks of purple and silver and green, dancing in her vision, swirling together to form images...
"The golden note by which one hears / The horn in the depths of the wood..."
She turns her gaze to Spike, candlelight trapped in a thousand tiny bubbles, his one arm still holding her upright, lines of sinew standing out at the effort, as his other holds the book... and she gasps.
He snaps the book shut, sets it aside. "What is it, pet?"
"Spike, you... you need to drink this too. You need to know... you need to see..."
"Love to join you in Wonderland, Alice. 'Fraid the 'Drink Me' bottle's been drained." Spike wriggles the empty glass in front of her eyes; it makes beautiful, glittering trails.
"No, there's a little more."
"Hate to contradict you, pet, but..."
The words from Spike's open mouth die as Tara leans over and kisses him, her tongue sliding over his, the flavors of anise and juniper and bitter wormwood following... and it's been forever since he's been kissed like this, gentle and sweet and caressing, kissed to give pleasure rather than take it with force, kissed with slow, savoring appreciation that stirs something deeper, more starved than his lust.
Tara's hands reach out for him and then she's falling, candles hissing as water splashes over them, the silk of her skirt spreading out in ripples across the water, and his hands are sliding up the back of her sweater, the warm, wet velvet of her skin beneath his palms and her fingers twining through his hair and the weight of her pressing against him, the exquisite rhythm of her lips as they move together, slowly melting.
She pulls back from him with a gasp, wet locks of hair falling all around her face. "Spike..."
He reaches out, moves her hair back from her brow. "You mean to do that, love?"
"I meant to kiss you, give you the potion... can you see it? Did you get enough?"
He chuckles, but it's slow, drugged; his eyes are blue halos around a sea of black. "Bit distracted. Coulda just licked the glass, y'know. Not that I'm complainin'..."
He reaches out, draws her down; she rubs her cheek, catlike, against his collarbone, settling against him as he wraps his arms around her. The water steams and splashes around them.
"Don't let me drown," Tara mumbles. "Can't stay awake..."
His arms tighten around her in silent promise, and the world goes black.
"Drink this, love." There's a porcelain chink of mug meeting side table, and fingers stroking her cheek; she smells chocolate. "C'mon, Alice. You've been down the rabbit hole long enough."
She opens her eyes, the lights above her bed doing a slow tango. Her hair's still wet; he's spread a towel over her pillow, and she's wearing a bathrobe.
She scootches up against the headboard, shaking her head to clear it. "How long was I out?"
"About five hours. You had a hell of a lot more than I did. You find out what you wanted to know?"
"Did... did you find out anything?"
The muscle in his jaw tightens. "Think I learned what you wanted me to, yeah."
She bites her lip. "I'm really sorry, Spike."
He lifts her up higher, settles the pillow behind her head. "You're still out of it. An' don't apologize. Better to know, right?"
"Are you... um... okay?"
He lays down next to her, props his head in his hand. "You're the one went on a vision quest for the big black nasty. Ought to be askin' you that question."
"I think we can change things. I really do. Especially if... especially if what you learned... matters to you?"
"Oh, it matters. Suppose I can see why the monk wankers did it, but... not exactly happy about it."
Tara reaches for the hot chocolate, wraps her hands around the warmth of the mug. "I can't go back to Willow either. I'm what it uses. To make her dark."
"You?" Spike scoffs. "Hardly seem a candidate for bringin' in the evil."
"It's not what I do," Tara smiles weakly. "It's how I die."
Spike's whole body seems to grimace. "That'd do it. You didn't see her when you took crazy, pet. She was..."
"Black-eyed and scary and hell-bent on revenge even if it killed her?"
"That's about the size n' shape."
"Spike... even if we change everything. I might die anyway. If I do..."
"Not gonna happen."
Tara bites her lip.
"You were pretty out of it, then," Spike says lightly. "On the green whatzit. Don't suppose you properly knew what you were doin'."
Tara stares up at the lights. "I was dizzy. But I knew what I was doing."
Spike swallows hard. "Right."
"Slayer," Spike drawls. "How nice of you to drop by. Out on bail, then?"
Buffy's face drops; she pulls off a pair of black gloves. "I didn't kill Katrina."
He hops up on the sarcophagus, lights a cigarette. "Well. Seems congrats are in order, then."
"I haven't seen you." Buffy takes a step forward. "For over a week. You didn't come to my party..."
Buffy trails off, noticing the books and papers that crowd every horizontal surface. "What happened in here? It looks like a Giles-bomb went off."
"Wicca n' I are doin' a bit of independent study."
"You haven't patrolled. You haven't come by the Magic Box, haven't come to the Doublemeat, haven't been by my house..."
"Been busy," Spike shrugs. "Seen the Nibblet plenty."
"I need to ask you something."
Buffy blinks at his apathetic tone, takes another step towards him. "Riley's in town."
"O Captain My Captain," Spike smirks. "Suppose that explains your fancy new outfit. Kevlar, is it? Slimmin'."
"Um... yeah. Well. There's this Suvolte demon that's come to town to breed. I'm trying to find the eggs before they hatch."
"Doin' the Initiative's dirty work now, Slayer? Guess it beats the meat process."
"Dirty work? What do you mean, dirty work?"
"Suvolte demon eggs contain a neurotoxin," Spike sighs, vaulting off the sarcophagus and heading toward a pile of books on the couch. "Causes instant heart failure... looks just like a heart attack on an autopsy. Untraceable. Soldier types soddin' love it. Bloody Suvoltes are nearly extinct now, what with all their eggs gettin' harvested."
Buffy laughs. "Okay, Spike, you got some seriously bad info. Suvoltes are, like, town-destroying death machines. I fought one, okay?"
"Sure, yeah, they'll fight. If their nest is threatened." Spike holds out a book. "See for yourself, Slayer. As demons go, they're on the snuggly side."
Buffy takes it, sits down on the arm of the comfy chair, and reads, her frown growing.
Spike ashes on the floor, grins. "Lemme guess. You already killed it."
Buffy's lips compress into a fine line.
"Know Rupert's been gone a while, pet, but there was a reason for the pre-violence research, y'know. Wasn't just an excuse for Harris to eat donuts."
Buffy shuts the book with an angry snap. "What's wrong with you?"
"Pulse's gotten awful slow," Spike rolls his eyes to the ceiling. "Feelin' this bizarre urge to drink blood... think I ought to see a doctor?"
"Look, Slayer... wouldn't tell you where the Suvolte nest was even if I knew. Might as well bugger off back to Soldier Boy. How is Captain Cornfed, anyway?"
"Ohhhh. Well, doesn't that explain a lot about the sudden social call."
Buffy's face grows serious. "Tell me you love me."
Spike scratches his eyebrow nonchalantly. "Can't love without a soul. Forget who told me that one."
Buffy recoils. "Why are you being like this?"
"Nothin' good or clean in me," Spike shrugs. "Probably why."
"Oh, that's what this is? I hurt you, and then you..."
"Can't hurt me, Slayer. Can't feel anything real, remember? Not even a person. Just a thing."
"Fine, Spike. Whatever. If you want to play this little game..." Buffy shakes her head. "I didn't just come here to talk to you. Where's Tara?"
"Takin' a nap, save you the trouble. You came back fine, just as human as you ever were. Gonna have to find somethin' else to blame. Figured you'd probably pick me." Spike knocks on his crotch; it makes a hollow, plastic sound. "S'why I'm wearin' a cup."
Buffy's face flames. "You're a pig."
"Yeah." He leans forward conspiratorially, smirking. "Good thing you're not Jewish, huh?"
The answering punch knocks him to the crypt floor; he wipes blood from his nose as the crypt door slams behind Buffy.
"Was that really necessary?" Giles sighs, moving out of the shadows.
"Nah." Spike picks himself up, shrugs his shirt back into place. "Slayer's real big on followin' polite requests."
"Sorry, Giles." Tara's head emerges from the hole in the floor. "But we really need Buffy out of the way when Angel and Wesley get here."
"I daresay you wouldn't be Angel's favorite person at the moment, if he knew." Giles glares at Spike. "I know you're not mine."
"Giles, we told you, when the monks meddled with reality..." Tara's jaw squares. "That's not Spike's fault."
"Bizarre as the existence of that sentence in reality might be, you're right." Giles drops onto the sofa with a sigh, pulling a book onto his lap. "I do have your assurance, Spike, that it's over?"
"Had enough mysterious buggers screwin' with my head," Spike growls. "Least this little modification was removeable."
He shoves his hands into the pockets of his duster, frowning. "Can't say it bloody hurt less."
"The First Evil," Angel sighs, leaning back against the couch. "Well, there's a name I never wanted to hear again."
"It certainly fits Tara's description, and the wording in the spell that Willow employed." Wesley accepts the cup of tea that Tara hands him.
Angel takes a sip of his mug full of blood, making a face. "Jeez, Spike... what the hell is this?"
Spike rolls his eyes. "Why, you're ever so welcome. Can I get you anythin' else? Caviar? Foie gras? Poofter."
"We have burba weed," Tara offers. "Spike says it makes the blood taste better... um... spicy?"
"Seriously, Spike, this is crap. What butcher are you using?"
"Same one as always. Don't know what rarified swill you're drinkin' in Hollywood, mate, but down here, we..."
Tara nudges Spike with her elbow. "Spike, he drove all the way here to help us..."
Spike sighs long-sufferingly. "Look, if you don't fancy the pig, I've got a carton of cow..."
"Animal blood," Angel whispers, his eyes widening as he stares at his mug. "This is animal blood…"
"Well, yeah. Part of my whole lightish-grey hat package, thought you bleedin' knew that I..."
The mug of blood explodes against the crypt wall; Angel is a blur of frantic, pacing speed.
"Hey!" Spike yelps in outrage. "You didn't have to break the soddin' crockery..."
"Human blood," Angel growls, his hands clenching into fists. "That's why this tastes… I got used to… someone's been feeding me human blood."
Giles follows his pacing with a furrowed brow. "Angel, I don't understand..."
"They've been feeding me my own fucking son's fucking blood!" Angel bellows, whirling on Wesley. "Wes? Who's been in the hotel? I want to know everyone who's been in the hotel!"
Spike blinks. "You've got a kid?"
Spike crosses his arms beneath his head, looks up at Tara. "We could have held out for our own beds, y'know."
"They're guests." She shoots him a little smile, dangles her hand off the couch to touch his fingers. "Besides, who'd you want to snuggle with? Giles, Wesley, or Angel?"
"Suppose this whole let-the-guests-have-the-beds thing's one of those niceties I'll get back with the soul, eh?" Spike pulls up his blanket, tries to get comfortable on the floor. "Not like any of them'll be sleepin' anyhow."
Tara looks across the crypt. "I guess not."
"You think all this rot's related? Fake prophecies, Angel's kid? Thousand-year-war of good versus evil? Percy n' Rupert nearly pissed themselves when you mentioned the Slayer line bein' split."
"I can only think of one thing scarier."
Spike raises an eyebrow, and Tara chuckles. "You didn't see the bridesmaid's dress Anya dropped off."
He laughs quietly, and then his face fades into seriousness. "You think we're actually gonna be able to change anything?"
"Well... we have an idea of what the evil wants to happen, right? So... I guess we do the opposite."
Spike grimaces, shifting away from a rock digging into his spine. "Sounds like a fair plan."
"Spike, you are so uncomfortable. Come up here. I'll squish."
"Yes, because that's what I need to deal with tomorrow. You sleep-deprived, grumpy, and stuck in a crypt with Angel while he detoxes off the yummy, yummy baby blood."
"Point there," Spike concedes, tossing his blanket onto the couch.
"Question for you guys," Angel announces.
Spike and Tara's eyes open blearily; Angel is kneeling on his haunches, staring at them with a decidedly Angelus-like smirk.
"Is this how you plan to not get Willow so pissed off that she ends the world?"
Spike rubs his eyes with his wrist. "What are you goin' on about, Peaches?"
"You. The girl. The cozy little snuggles. I'm thinking this isn't going to play well with the Scooby Club, if I remember them correctly."
"The floor was hard, you twit," Spike grumbles as Tara pushes herself off of him.
Wesley and Giles stumble over, donning their glasses in perfect synchronization. "What's going on?"
Spike points a finger in Angel's direction. "Brood boy's in withdrawal an' takin' it out on us."
Angel snorts. "Captain Peroxide here is..."
"Hold on," Wesley interrupts. "Tara, Spike. Are you two comfortable enough together that you could feign a romantic relationship?"
Tara pushes her hair back and stares up at him sleepily. "Um… why?"
"It might ensure your safety, for one. From everything you've said, Willow is in a precarious position and must be handled with great delicacy. If the First plans to use Willow's affection for you against her, adding nails to the coffin of your romance might not be a bad idea."
Angel whips around with a glare. "Wes, are you high? Did you not hear anything we talked about last night?"
"In Tara's vision, Willow regained her and then lost her forever within hours," Wesley replies firmly. "It would certainly be a far greater system shock than their current situation. They've spoken once in a matter of months. Tara moving on after a separation of that length would be a whimper, not a bang."
Spike shakes his head. "Don't think Red's much into whimperin'. Don't fancy bein' flash-fried."
"I dunno," Angel grins. "I'd enjoy it."
"Gonna go find a toddler an' feed it to you m'self," Spike mutters darkly.
"Perhaps the initial shock should be introduced in a setting Willow is loathe to disrupt," Wesley interrupts. "Like, perhaps... the wedding of a close friend?"
"You're kidding, right?" Angel says incredulously.
"It might have the added bonus of providing Giles with an opening to suggest Willow return with him to England. He could phrase it as an opportunity… something to take her mind off Tara's new relationship."
Giles' eyes flash between Angel and Spike; he chooses his next words carefully. "Buffy might, perhaps, object?"
Spike smirks. "Know a way I could parachute in on fire screamin' 'God Save The Queen' an' she wouldn't bloody notice."
"And how's that?"
Spike points up at Angel. "Take him with me."
"Don't look," Tara begs.
"Gonna have a bloody time of it pretendin' to be your boyfriend, then."
"Okay, fine, look, but don't mock."
She steps out from the bathroom, doing an embarrassed twirl. "How bad is it? How do I look?"
Spike leans against the crypt wall, eyes soft. "Like a gorgeous girl in a terrible dress."
Tara grins crookedly. "For that, you are allowed to make one mermaid joke."
"Gimme a minute to think up a good one," Spike chuckles, holding out his arm. "Don't want to waste my one shot."
Angel looks up in shock as they enter the main cavern. "That's what Buffy's gonna be wearing?"
"Does this mean you might finally pick a shirt and be done with it?" Wesley asks pointedly.
Dawn grabs Spike by the sleeve as he enters, hissing in his ear. "Buffy's, like, nuclear winter mad at you. Did you say something to her that was way worse than usual?"
"Be all right, Nibblet." Spike looks up, smiles warmly. "Slayer."
"Spike." Icicles drip from every letter.
"Now, now, Slayer," Spike teases. "No need for that. Specially when I've brought you prezzies."
"There is nothing in the universe that you could possibly give me that I could..." Buffy's entire face erupts in light. "GILES!"
"Buffy," Giles gasps, struggling for breath beneath the weight of her hug. "I... still... require... oxygen..."
Buffy peeks out at Spike from beneath Giles arm. "Okay, I hate you one percent less."
Spike grins. "Said prezzies, plural, didn't I?"
"Hello, Buffy," Angel says awkwardly.
"Angel?" Buffy whispers, eyes widening until they threatened to escape her head. She whirls on Spike. "No way. No way you would..."
Spike shrugs, taking the opportunity to move away from the group as Wesley steps forward and Buffy has wiggins the third.
"Wesley! You look, wow. Um. Different. Good! Different."
"It's nice to see you again," Wesley smiles.
"Again we go unnoticed, pet," Spike whispers into Tara's ear, entwining his fingers with hers and pulling her close. "How brazen we goin' for here?"
"Um, maybe not so much... you may have put the whammy on Buffy, but..."
Spike follows Tara's pointing finger... to Xander Harris' infuriated face.
Spike slams into the wall of the storage room, Xander stalking afterwards.
"What the hell were you thinking, Dead Boy?"
"Excuse me," an old man interrupts. "I really need to talk to..."
"Piss off, gramps," Spike spits. "Havin' a discussion with the groom."
"This isn't a discussion," Xander slams Spike's shoulder back with his palm. "This is me kicking your ass."
"I must speak with you," the old man insists, walking towards them. "It's urgent."
Xander glares. "Kinda in the middle of something, Uncle... help me out here."
"You don't recognize me?" The old man grabs Spike by the shoulder. "I'm sorry, but I must speak with your friend alone."
"Gerroff," Spike growls, launching the man a few feet backwards.
"Look, Uncle Whatever, I've got some bones to break, so..."
"Xander, I'm you," the old man begs. "I know it sounds crazy, but you have to believe me."
"You're not Harris, you freak," Spike groans. "Bugger off."
"Wait a minute." Xander holds up a hand. "What do you mean... you're me?"
"I've come from the future. To warn you. You can't get married today. It's a huge mistake."
"Bloody hell, Harris, you're not that stupid," Spike points towards the old man. "I just hit the bastard, didn't I? He's a bleedin' demon."
The old man pales. "In the future, I, uh… I turn into a demon! It's part of the reason you can't get married!"
Spike rolls his eyes. "Yeah, right. Turn into a demon an' get amnesia? You just called me Harris' friend."
"Say bye-bye, Crazy Old Guy," Xander waves. "Me and my really ever so not friend are kinda busy."
"Alexander, there you are," Mrs. Harris sighs, pushing the door open. "Do you realize the usher sat us in the third row?"
"Mom, I'm sure it was a mistake..." Xander sighs, dropping his head in resignation and pointing his finger in Spike's face. "This isn't over, Evil Dead."
"Are you okay?" Tara asks, her hands rising anxiously to Spike's face.
"Harris' the least of our worries," Spike sighs. "Any sign of Red?"
"I think she's back with Anya. Where I really ought to be..."
Spike raises her hand, kisses it. "Good luck."
"Hey... at least if I puke on the dress from nerves, it might be an improvement, right?"
"Angel... what are you doing here? And more wiggins-inducingly... with Spike?"
"Spike and Tara called me, asked me and Wes to come down. They've been doing research. Remember that First Evil thing that tried to convince me to kill myself?"
"With the dead trees, and the..." Buffy lets out a little smile. "Snow. Yeah. I remember."
"Well... it looks like when Willow brought you back, she may have mailed it an engraved invitation to come visit."
Buffy touches his arm. "You're not planning any sunny strolls, are you?"
"I think it's gotten a bit more ambitious."
Buffy frowns. "Spike and Tara were planning on telling me this... when?"
"When they knew what they were dealing with. Spike says you've got a lot on your plate, Buffy. Taking care of Dawn, a full-time job plus slaying, tons of new responsibilities... plus the whole resurrection thing. They didn't want to give you something new to worry about until they knew specifically what you should be worried about."
"That's... bewilderingly considerate of Spike." Buffy bites her lip. "He... um... share any... other information?"
"In fact, he did. Buffy... Tara's going to re-soul him."
"Apparently, he's got some role to play in fighting the First, and he needs his soul to do it."
"Whoa. When is this going down?"
Angel meets her eyes. "As soon as Tara figures out how to take the loophole out of the spell. And Buffy? She's close."
"If she can do it for Spike..."
"I'm going to have her do it for me," Angel nods.
Buffy looks away. "That's... wow. That's very... wow."
"Buffy," Angel says, lifting her chin with his fingers, "This fight... it's gonna be big. Really big. I was thinking... I was thinking maybe we could join teams."
"Well, that would be..." Buffy gets lost in his eyes for a moment. "... useful."
"We've got a lot to catch up on," Angel grins. "So, uh... Dawn. Does she... babysit?"
" I, Anya, promise to ... love you, to cherish you... to honor you, uh, but not to obey you, of course, because that's anachronistic and misogynistic and who do you think you are, like a sea captain or something?" Anya tells the mirror, then looks anxiously over her shoulder. "C'mon people, I need feedback!"
"Maybe not so much with the sea captain part," Tara suggests, tugging the back of Anya's dress closed and shooting an anxious look at Willow.
"Yeah, sea captains. Better avoided," Willow snaps. "Especially if everyone who knows you is under the impression that you don't like guys."
"Well, I don't like guys," Anya agrees brightly. "I just like Xander. So sea captains is out. Good work, team!"
"Maybe you could talk about all the promises you made each other," Willow adds, glaring. "Like to love each other forever, and always be together, and never let anything stupid keep you apart."
Tara frowns. "And to respect each other, and always tell each other the truth, and not try to force the other person to be what you want them to be."
"I dunno," Anya smooths her dress in the mirror. "That sounds kinda negative. Think happy thoughts!"
"You could talk about how happy you were... are," Willow corrects quickly. "How perfect everything was, and could be again."
"Or maybe you could talk about how happy you are now," Tara suggests. "With someone who actually cares about what you want in a relationship, and isn't always trying to change you."
"Yeah, that sounds good," Anya muses, "But I'm not sure I want to bring up Olaf in my vows, y'know? Let's go back to the cherishing."
"Oh, there could be cherishing," Willow crosses her arms. "Lots of cherishing."
"Maybe... maybe talk about how he makes you laugh," Tara fastens more buttons, smiling. "How he's got this totally unique way of looking at the world, and it makes you think. How he's lived a completely different life from you, how you can learn so much from him."
"Huh," Anya pokes a falling curler with her pinky. "I like that. He does make me laugh."
"Or maybe how it's so much fun to do little things with him," Tara continues. "Things that shouldn't be fun. Maybe even things that ought to be horrible, or boring, or scary... but he's there, and somehow, you can't imagine anything else you'd rather be doing..."
Anya looks over her shoulder, pleased. "You're writing these down, right?"
The dressing room door slams behind Willow as she exits.
The last strains of the song end, and Buffy looks up at Angel, a teasing smile on her face. "So... how come you always show up unannounced at these dancy, formal wear events?"
"Part of my charm," he grins.
"I think I'm gonna sit this one out, go check on Willow." Buffy squeezes Angel's arm. "She's been over in the corner looking mopey for a few. Don't let anyone near your dance card."
Angel looks innocent. "Not even Spike?"
"No... okay, that I would pay cash money to see. Not that I have any. I'll be back."
"Hey, Buffy," Willow sighs, taking another swig from her plastic champagne glass. "I must have been sending out the extra-strength misery vibes to tear you away from Angel."
"Are you okay?"
"Really kinda not. Buffy... Xander said... I think Tara and Spike are dating."
Buffy blinks. "No way."
"He has such a unique way of looking at the world," Willow parrots in a sing-song voice. "He makes boring things fun."
"We're talking about some totally different person named Spike, right?"
"Buffy... would you be okay if I took off for a while?"
"How 'a while' are we talking about?"
"Giles wants me to come back to England with him. He's met this coven, and apparently they do all this cool earth-magic. He says they could teach me to do the mojo without going all, y'know, black-eyed and evil."
Buffy bites her lip. "Angel says we've got a pretty fearsome fight ahead. It would be pretty great to have my big gun back."
"With a safety, this time," Willow smiles wanly. "He says it wouldn't be too long. He wants us both back in Sunnydale when the big whatever goes down. He says we might bring this Potential with us to help out. I mean, she's no you, but he says she's pretty badass. Kelly or Cassidy or something. I could... I could use the distraction."
"Whatever you need, Wil," Buffy smiles.
"Thanks. Go on, go dance with your big broody vampire man."
Buffy grins and squeezes Willow's hand, heading back to the dance floor, and Willow rises, walking towards a rain-drenched window.
Willow whirls. "Tara. Hey."
"I w-wanted to... apologize? For the whole... I shouldn't have gotten into it like that with you."
Willow wrings her hands. "I was being pushy. You... I mean... you're a free person, and stuff."
"Mr. Giles said you might be going to England for a while? That sounds like a really great opportunity for you." Tara bounces, smiles sweetly. "I'm a little bit jealous."
"And um... I wanted to ask you something. For your help. On a project." Tara swallows. "I'm working to modify the soul-curse... to take the perfect happiness clause out? And no one knows more about that spell than you..."
Willow stares out the window, her voice flat. "You're going to re-soul Spike."
"Well, yeah. Kinda have to. It's a fight-this-particular-baddie requirement. But the happiness clause... that's for Angel. It wouldn't matter if Spike lost his."
Willow bites her lip.
"Anyway... I was thinking you might wanna help? I know how upset you've been. About the whole... taking her out of heaven thing. I was thinking it might be fun... to put her back a little?"
A tiny smile creeps over Willow's face. "That might help with the massive guilt. I pretty much gave up on even trying to bake that many cookies."
"Well... think about it?" Tara smiles.
"Y'know, as fake girlfriends go, you're bloody neglectful," Spike teases, handing Tara a glass of champagne. "Nearly had to go cry on Rupert's shoulder from loneliness."
"Sorry. There was vow-writing, with sea captains, and then the whole ceremony thing, and the talking to Willow..."
"Which went how?"
"Pretty good. I mean, all things considered." Tara sips her drink. "You don't look bruised. Xander forget about you?"
"He realized Angel was here. Now he's all conflicted as to who to hate the most."
"He'll get over it."
"Harris n' I have a hate for all time. We both enjoy it too soddin' much to ever give it up."
Tara leans upwards, kissing Spike on the lips; after a moment's shock, he returns her embrace.
"Bloody hell, love," Spike marvels when they break apart, both breathing heavily. "Hell of an actress."
"Oh, yeah, sorry." Tara leans her head on his bicep. "Forgot we were faking."
Spike's eyebrows soar. "You, er. You weren't, ah..."
Tara squeezes his arm and laughs; Spike pulls her around to face him.
"Tara, we're... goin' into a hell of a fight, here... if you're stuffin' a soul in me, I could go bugshaggin' crazy, eatin' rats n' whatnot. Got existential uberdarkness to fight, those eyeless nasties..."
"Yeah." Tara moves closer to him, snuggling her forehead into the crook of his neck. "And we also have to lay that tile."