Tara knows that Aisle Three of the supermarket isn't the most efficient place for an internal argument... especially since her basket is full of melting Lean Cuisines, or what her new neighbor Jennifer calls "Singleton Slop"... but, as she firmly tells herself, that's Hallmark's fault.
Aisle Three, adjacent to the Floral department and normally the land of charcoal briquettes, paper plates, and a scattering of oh-crap-I-forgot generic birthday cards, has been turned into a vomitous bloody red hallway, lightly accented with silver and pink. Candy of every make and description, flowers so thickly stacked that the air is rank and sick with their sweetness, fluffy animals with glinting button eyes and puffy hearts skewered to their paws. The greeting cards have multiplied, spreading up and out and around like lacy pink mildew.
"Saw an abattoir looked like this once," a whiskey-dark voice breathes in her ear. "Smelled better, though."
"Hi, Spike." A mischevious grin quirks her lips. "That cramp any better?"
It takes him a minute, but he covers by gesturing to the Valentine's display in disgust. "You believe all this rot? Hate this bloody holiday."
"It is pretty gross. Normally, I don't go for all this pre-packaged stuff, but..."
He tilts his head, gives her that searching look. "But...?"
"It's stupid. I mean, it's..."
He's still waiting, and she sighs. "I was thinking about getting something for Willow, y'know? But... it can't be the stuff I used to get her, something... well, personal? I mean, n-normally I'd try to find something she really wanted, something that meant something, but..."
"But that would encourage her too much," Spike guesses.
"Right." Tara fiddles with her basket. "It's just... I want something that's... casual? Like I'm thinking of you, but not too much, so don't, y'know, go either way... and all the cards are mooshy, and I was thinking about getting her one of those little-kid valentines, like the kind that comes in packs, with Care Bears on them? And first I thought that was cute and then I thought maybe it would hurt her feelings, like I got her just the same valentine I got everyone else and... oh God, I'm boring you to death, aren't I?"
"Already dead," Spike reminds her, then shrugs. "Havin' a bit of the same issue myself."
"For Buffy," Tara says knowingly... then catches the sharp upward jerk of Spike's eyebrows. "It's okay, I mean, I know. She told me... about a week before the party? That's why I was teasing you about the cramp and all."
"She told you," Spike repeats, dumbfounded.
"I'm the only one, though," Tara says, then kindly adds: "Right now, I mean. Y'know. First."
"Told one of the bleedin' Scoobies," Spike mutters, staring at a rack of Hershey's Kisses as if they could help him comprehend the import of this bizarre new information.
"Well, I mean, I dunno if I'm really a Scooby, I've always been sort of a..."
"What'd you say to her?" Spike demands suddenly. "When she told you?"
"Well, uh..." Tara's caught by his eyes, which are suddenly so human, so hopeful. "I told her that you'd done a lot of good, and um, that you loved her? And that it wasn't, y'know, bad. Being with you."
He smiles ruefully. "She listen?"
"I don't know." Watching those eyes, she can't bear even this small lie, and corrects. "I don't think so."
He nods; she thinks he already knew that answer.
"I c-could help you," she offers. "Pick out something for Buffy? If you'd help me find something for Willow."
It pains her, how sharply kindness shocks him.
Spike talks her out of the yellow roses; he says they mean jealousy. He's not impressed with the floral department's selection; it quickly becomes a game, Tara pointing to bouquets as Spike dryly tells her their unseen message.
"They sent flowers to start fights?" Tara laughs. "That's weird."
He shrugs. "We were weird. Lots of 'em were bloody insulting. Can't remember which one it was, but there's a pretty one means 'Beauty is your only virtue' or somethin' to that effect."
"What about that one?" she points.
He squints. "Er... you've got nice skin, but you're a bleedin' liar. Still want to marry you, though."
"'You've got nice skin?' You made that up."
"If I'd made it up, would have been 'you've got a nice ass'." He points to a small bunch of daisies. "Those are what you want."
Tara touches them lightly. "What do these mean?"
"They mean - 'I'll think on it'," Spike smiles.
And Tara freezes. "That's... that's perfect."
He shrugs, but she can tell he's pleased.
An hour later, Spike's picked up a small box of candy for Dawn, but they have yet to find anything that wouldn't scare Buffy to death.
Spike deflects all questions about Buffy, but his reactions to each proposed gift speak volumes. Considering that he's sleeping with her, he's as unsure of himself as a boy with a celebrity crush; nothing is large enough to express his love, nothing small enough to match hers.
Spike gives up, sighing in frustration, and Tara feels a stab of disappointment at the thought of him going; she's had more fun than she's had in months, and the Valentine's night ahead seems to stretch on forever.
"These have totally melted," she says awkwardly, touching the side of a boxed dinner. "I'm going to have to eat them all tonight."
"Suppose the cuisine's not so lean when you eat 'em eight at a time," he grins.
"You could... um. You could help me? I know you eat food... and there's nothing on TV tonight, so I'm gonna be so bored. If you... y'know, weren't busy, and you wanted to come over?"
Her studio apartment is cramped, but tonight, it's almost cozy; she's lit candles in her kitchenette, turned off the glaring flourescent overhead, and laid a clean tablecloth over the card table. Spike's brought wine - the cheap stuff, in a box - and they toast each other with Dixie cups before ceremoniously ripping the cellophane from their black plastic trays.
The microwave dings, a bright yellow square in the near-darkness, announcing the arrival of each new course; through the paper-thin walls, her neighbors provide the audio, screaming at each other.
"Could be worse, I guess," Tara smiles, lifting a forkful of Macaroni Beef. "Could be like them."
Spike touches the corner of his still-swollen eye and says nothing... but Tara's smiles dies with sudden knowledge.
Dessert is a half-package of stale Oreos, split between them as they sprawl across her mattress, watching a static-filled rerun of "Friends" on her tiny television. In a moment of utter bravery, she lays her head on Spike's thigh; she is rewarded when, after a moment's hesitation, he begins to pet her hair in long, smooth strokes, like she was a cat.
She feels a flutter of attraction, pooling warm and slow in the pit of her stomach; a flash of temptation, whispers in her head of how wonderful it would be to curl up against someone, to fall asleep against the solid weight of them, to drown slowly in a tangle of kisses.
But he is too raw, so desperate, so hungry... and she feels the weight of the line she could cross, how easy it would be to use him, how deep that wound would be.
Instead, she yawns.
He takes the hint immediately, excusing himself with the mannered politeness that had revealed itself slowly all evening, like a treasure that had been frozen in now-thawing ice.
In the morning, she finds a flower on her welcome mat.
In the coroner's homicide report, the contents of Tara MacLay's jeans pockets will be duly noted for the record. They will include twenty-seven cents in change, an apartment key on a small pewter ring, a small quartz rock, and a flower, so dried and dead as to be almost unrecognizable.
The coroner is young for her job; most are in Sunnydale, where those who care for the newly dead have a disturbing tendency towards fatal neck traumas. Like most who originally majored in English Literature, this isn't the job she ever saw herself doing; after two years, it still gets to her.
We will not judge her for crying in her small, cramped office over the soft-faced girl on her cold metal table, or the way she lays the flower across her desk blotter with reverence. The flower is small and common, unremarkable, plain even before time curled its leaves and withered its petals; she wonders if the soft-faced girl knew what it meant.
Just in case she did, she closes the girl's unresisting fingers around it.