Chapter One

Boys Don't Tell

He had no idea how this had happened...again. No matter what he did, it seemed to make no difference; somehow they always ended up back here.

"Buffy," he gasped, although he didn't need the breath. "Please calm down." He spoke softly, closing his eyes against the slowly receding pain in his back from where she had just slammed him into the wall. He knew from experience that the chances of her actually calming down at this point were fairly non-existent, but he had to try. Had to, before she let herself get completely out of control.

"Calm down? Calm down?" she seethed, her hand hard on his shoulder, pinning him to the wall. She stood in front of him, very close, in a way that was occasionally meant to be seductive, but in this case, he knew, was meant to intimidate him. Either way, unnervingly close. Her voice lower now, but still cold as ice, she continued, "You just compared me to your insane, freakish undead lover–and said she was better than me!" The very words seemed to incense her again. She drew back her fist as if to punch him in the stomach, and he flinched; he had a rib that was still healing from their last such conversation.

Buffy suddenly seemed to remember as well, lowering her fist, as something like guilt flashed across her face for just an instant -- followed just as suddenly by something that was very clearly anger and resentment at being made to feel guilty. Still, when she raised her hand again, she opted to punch him in the face instead.

At least it wasn't the ribs, he thought with relief, and then shame at the utter patheticness of such a thought. He used to wonder why he let her do it; he was nearly as strong as she was, and had held his own in many fights against her, even if he hadn't ever exactly won. In the beginning, that first time, the idea had been to let her do it; let her work out her frustrations on him; he had thought he could take it. And even when her anger had proved to be more violent than he had expected, and she had left him in the alley, not caring whether he lived or died, stepping over him like nothing more than a piece of garbage in her way, he had crawled back to his crypt with the satisfaction of feeling like he had helped her in some way. He had seen her leave the police station, so he knew that she had somehow come to see reason, and she had let out at least a little of her pent up aggression. Although the encounter had left him physically and emotionally broken, it had seemed like a small sacrifice at the time.

But that first time had proved to be only the beginning. After that night, he sensed a change in her, that he couldn't quite put his finger on. He was troubled to find that she seemed even more depressed and indifferent than ever, and much more easily angered. The second time she had beaten him, he had not yet recovered from the first time, and would not have been able to stop her if he had tried. At this point, he could barely remember a time when he had not been nursing some wound from one of her beatings. By the time his rib healed, he was certain that she would have given him some other injury that would prevent him from being able to defend himself–not that he would have, anyway. He still would not admit it to himself, but at this point fighting back was no longer an option, either physically or emotionally.

As the pain from the blow to his head faded, he realized what she had said. "No!" he insisted. "I never said that, Buffy! I never said she was better than you! She wasn't! I only said that she's the only person I've ever been with that was freakier than you!" Even as he said it out loud again, he cringed inwardly, suddenly aware, as he had not been when he first said it, of the many ways that Buffy could have taken that statement, none of them leading anywhere good.

Seething, white-hot anger in her eyes, she leaned in even closer, a cruel smile coming across her lips. And behind it, there was a certain frantic desperation in her eyes he had come to recognize.

Uh-oh.

He shrank back against the wall as far as he could, which was very little as his back was already to it. Still pinning him with one hand, Buffy trailed her other hand lightly across his stomach as she spoke softly, "So if you meant freaky as in hot, sexy freaky–then she's better than me..." Her hand stopped at the base of his ribcage, right below his mending rib. She met his eyes with a meaningful smile that was sickeningly familiar. It had taken him a little while to place that look, the first few times he had seen it on her face. Where had he seen it before?

The fourth time, he remembered. Angelus.

Buffy or Angelus, the effect of the look was much the same. He shook his head slightly, whispering, "No. Please, Buffy, no." He hated when she got like this, because of the reaction it brought out of him. Even as he fought back a wave of shame at his cowardice, pleading like the childe he had once been, he glanced with panicked eyes toward the door, knowing even as he did that he could never make it past her and outside.

"Shhh," she whispered back, releasing his shoulder to place her fingers over his lips. "I'm not finished." Pressing harder against his wounded abdomen, eliciting a moan of pain from his lips, she continued, "or if you meant freaky as in deranged, psycho freaky–then I'm almost as bad as her." Savagely she suddenly dug her fingers into his flesh, gripping the base of his ribcage with brutal strength, and he fought back a scream of agony, her fingers still over his lips a reminder that she wanted his silence, and failing to give it to her could only make things worse.

Yes, Love. Yes, Sire. I'll stand here and take it and not make a sound if you tell me to.

"Which is it, Baby?" she asked in a merciless tone, still smiling grimly – but her voice and hands were trembling, and she appeared almost on the verge of tears.

He knew which one was the truth–in the psycho-freaky department, Buffy was giving Dru a run for her money at the moment; but that had not been what he had meant. What had he meant? Certainly neither of the options she had given him. He tried to compliment her and ended up in this situation. Any ideas of the correct answer fled before the power of the agony her hand was still inflicting on him.

"Please!" he gasped when her fingers left his lips to indicate that he was now allowed to speak. "Oh, God, Buffy, please!" He fought back tears of pain as he whispered, "I didn't mean it like that, not at all! Buffy, you're the best I've ever had! Dru doesn't compare–in any way!" His voice became a sob as he finished, "Please! Please stop!"

Seemingly satisfied, Buffy finally released him, declaring triumphantly in a voice that was oddly tearful, "I'm the best you'll ever have! You ought to consider yourself lucky!"

He bit back the retort that came to his lips; he felt anything but lucky at the moment. Yet he knew that when it came right down to it, he would never leave her. No matter what she did to him, he still loved her desperately. Now, looking intently into her eyes, he could see a fear, a vulnerability there, behind the fury, that made him want to hold her. He sensed that the pain she caused him so often was no more than a reflection of her own. Taking a deep breath to steady and strengthen him, he reached tentatively to touch her. His hands gently touched her arms, and he almost flinched, half-expecting another blow. But she did not hit him again, and she did not pull away.

"I know," he breathed out his relief as he pulled her into his arms, still not with surety, but with more confidence than a moment before. "I am so lucky," he whispered into her hair. "I can't believe you'd actually want me! I'm the luckiest bloke alive, love!" He felt her relax in his embrace, leaning against him, and giving way to a torrent of tears.

"I–I'm not–you don't–oh God, I'm so messed up!" Buffy whispered against his bare chest, and he could feel the searing heat of her breath, her tears against his cool flesh. They replayed this scene frequently. She would freak out, take out her fears and frustrations on him, and then break down, wordlessly demanding that he comfort her. And, her hopelessly devoted slave as he was, he could not deny her. He would hold her and comfort her as long as she allowed him to, until he would invariably say the wrong thing, and find himself suddenly alone in his crypt, often after yet another blow.

"Shhh, love," he whispered in her ear, gently stroking her hair. "You're not messed up. You're having a perfectly normal reaction to what you've been through." The problem was, no one on earth had ever been through what she had been through, so he had no way of knowing if his words were actually true. But normal or not, her reaction was becoming more and more destructive, to those around her, but also to herself. There had to be something that could be done to help her; and he determined right then to find out what it was.

"It's ok, love," he continued softly, his deep, hypnotic voice soothing her; he could feel and hear her heartbeat slowing back to a normal pace. "I've got you. It's ok. i'm here for you." Then, without thinking, he let it slip out, "I love you."

Immediately she tore herself from his arms, shoving him backward away from her. He let out a soft groan of pain as he staggered back, holding his arm across his bruised ribcage. Buffy stood there for a moment, a stricken expression on her face. Then she fled.

He stood there for a moment watching the spot where she had been. The pain and confusion in her eyes was more painful to him than anything she had done to him. He had to find a way to help her come back from whatever agonizing place she had found herself stuck upon her return to life. But he could not do it alone, and there was only one other person who had both the knowledge to help and his trust.

Tara was bored. Like, clean your room, balance your checkbook, anything-is-better-than-nothing-to-do kind of bored. That was why she was helping Anya in the Magic Box. But at the moment, even that was not easing the boredom; she had finished reorganizing the books and was standing by the cash register, again with nothing to do. Anya approached her with a feather duster in her hand and held it out to her with a bright smile, obviously uncomfortable with the unexpected help. "Dust," she said expectantly. "Dusting is something to do. Closer to the books. Farther from the money." She nodded.

Tara rolled her eyes, but she smiled. Anya really did try so hard, and the fact that she could not be subtle if she tried, that her every thought and feeling showed itself so easily, was actually kind of refreshing, after all the secrets and deceptions Tara had been dealing with lately in the form of the one she loved. But she tried not to think about that lately; it was easier on all concerned that way.

The bell above the door jangled, and Tara looked up to see Spike entering the store. His customary swagger was gone, but then, it had been for some time. His head was down, as it usually was lately. Tara frowned and turned her attention to the shelves. The change in Spike lately was troubling to her, especially as it coincided exactly with the conversation she had had with Buffy in which she had informed her that she was normal. It seemed that the information had not had the effect Tara would have hoped, for Buffy was more depressive and withdrawn than ever.

Even more troubling was the condition he had been in the day after the conversation. Tara could not make herself believe that the brutal beating he had obviously received the same night Buffy found out she was as human as ever was a coincidence. And from that point on, he never seemed to recover. Every time she saw him, he was more battered and bruised than the last time. He always had some excuse about getting into a bar fight at Willie's, or an incident while patrolling, but Tara knew that she had never seen him in such terrible shape from things like that before. She only knew of one person who had both the physical strength and emotional instability to be hurting him so badly on such a regular basis.

"Eh, Glinda. I'm needin' to speak with you, love." When she turned to look at him, Tara gasped in shock and dismay. There was a large, fresh purple bruise covering most of the right side of his face. He saw her expression and looked down again, uncomfortable. "Right, then. Ah, maybe another time then, love." And he turned to walk away.

Suddenly determined, Tara reached out and took his arm, her determination only strengthened when he flinched. This was not the confident, aggressive Spike she knew; something had to be done, and soon. She had only been trying to find the right time and place to bring it up. Now, he had sought her out, probably for something completely different, but still he had come to her, and the Magic Box was all but deserted. The time and place seemed appropriate.

He looked quickly up at her, his brilliant blue eyes wide with surprise, and not a little fear. "What is it?" he asked softly, not quite meeting her eyes.

"No, Spike. Let's talk now," she smiled gently, but her grip on his arm remained firm. "Privately," she added, nodding toward the training room door. She was slightly surprised when he didn't try to pull away or even protest as she led him to the training room and closed the door.

"What's this, then?" he asked quietly, pulling away from her hand at last, and eyeing her warily. She could not do nearly as much damage as Buffy, but as she was fully and completely human, whatever damage she could do, he was powerless to stop. "What sort of private chat did you have in mind here, love?"

His hands were held out in front of him in a semi-defensive gesture. Tara generally came off as a lot gentler than the other Scoobies; still, the group in general had never been above strong-arming him if they thought he might have some information they wanted, or be able to help them in some way in which he was unwilling to do. Since he was incapable of defending himself against them, being dragged into a room away from everyone else for a private "conversation" was almost never a good thing.

"It's all right," Tara said softly, approaching him, taking his hands in hers and looking him in the eye. "I'm not gonna hurt you, Spike."

The sympathy in her soft gray eyes was humiliating to him. He covered it with a sneer. "Wasn't really wondering about that, Love. Just curious." It was almost true. He really couldn't picture Tara doing anything to hurt him.

"Right," she countered gently, the hint of a smile about her lips. Then it faded as she asked softly, "Who did this to you, Spike?"

He pulled away from her hands, turning his back on her abruptly. "'S not what I came here to talk about."

"It's exactly what I came here to talk about," Tara shrugged.

"Well I don't want to!" he snapped, taking a step backward toward the door.

"Spike," Tara spoke sharply, moving quickly toward him to block his exit, and was horrified when he quickly stepped back away from her, against the wall, one arm raised defensively, a flash of fear in his brilliant blue eyes. "Spike," she repeated, softer. "I'm not going to hurt you."

Spike's eyes widened as he realized the implications of his reaction, and he lowered his head, too ashamed to look at her. After a brief pause, in a small miserable voice he whispered, "I know."

"Ok, I know I'm not that scary." She closed the distance between them, laughing softly in an attempt to put him at ease. When she reached him, she gently touched his bruised cheek, trying to ignore his flinch at her touch. "Who did this to you, Spike?" she asked softly, and she was not only talking about the bruise.

He looked at the floor, fighting back tears, and didn't answer. There was something about Tara's gentle voice and hands–hours upon of hours of Buffy's abuse only occasionally brought him to this point, but mere minutes of Tara's compassion had brought him to tears. For some unexplainable reason, he found himself longing to tell her everything. But Buffy had made it very clear that their relationship was not to be revealed to the others, and although nothing had been said about it, he was sure that would go double for this particular aspect of their relationship.

So he just shook his head, staring at the floor, desperately avoiding her eyes. "I can't, Tara," he whispered. "Don't ask me to. I can't tell you, love."

"Did she threaten to hurt you if you told, Spike?" she asked gently, reaching a hand out to tenderly turn his face toward her.

He hesitated, then shook his head. "Look, it's my problem, ok? Let me handle it. I can take care of her on my own." Catching himself, he quickly amended, "It. I can take care of it. On my own."

Tara's eyes widened. There was only one "her" who would be capable of inflicting such damage on Spike, chip or no chip. She was right, then. "Buffy did this. Didn't she?"

He looked up at her sharply for a moment, then away again, replying vehemently, "No! It wasn't her! It–it..." His voice broke off, as he was too taken off guard to come up with a plausible story, and he put his head in his hands, sighing deeply.

Tara moved forward, placing her hands on his arms gently. "It's ok," she whispered. "You can tell me. I know she--"

"You don't know anything!" he snarled, suddenly jerking free of her grip so hard that she staggered backward, and a moment later he was holding his head again in pain. He swore violently as he headed toward the door.

"Please wait!" Tara called desperately. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you, I just thought I could help."

Turning stormy, troubled blue eyes to her as he opened the door, he said in a voice so soft she almost didn't hear it, "Well it looks like we were both wrong then." And with that he was gone.