She knows why Rack calls her that. He has, after all, taken tours in her head. He knows about Jesse and he knows that Jesse thought she looked just like the character in those silly cartoons.
Every time Rack calls her Strawberry… it's like he's walking on Jesse's grave, on his memory… on her memories. How can she keep going back to him? How can magic be more important to her than Tara, than the best friend she still misses, even if she never tells anyone how she feels?
So it's just after eight o'clock and here she is in the toy store, looking in vain for something, anything Strawberry Shortcake-related, hoping it will ground her somehow so she won't go where she shouldn't. Suddenly, there's a hand on her shoulder and she leaps – leaps – into the air a few inches, frightened because she was lost in thought and not at all prepared for contact.
"Spike, you scared me!" she chides, though it doesn't chasten him – quite the opposite in fact – and he's preening.
"For a girl on the pink team, you sure know how to flatter a bloke." Then she guesses he notices the expression on her face. "What's wrong, witch?"
Does he have to call her that? Of course he has every right to call her that, considering what she did to him, but the word… it's sharp and painful with its reminder of just how deceptive and unwise and… wrong she's been lately. "I was just looking for something," and in the confusion of her guilt she actually blurts out the truth. "I was trying to find a Strawberry Shortcake toy. They don't seem to have them, though."
"Strawberry Shortcake? Bit old school, isn't it?" He looks her up and down. "You do look a bit like her, though. Bet you got that a lot when you were a little girl."
Oh no. He had to say that. Now there are tears welling up in her eyes and, not worrying about being rude, she rushes out of the store and into the emptying mall. Of course, he follows, and soon enough, he's grabbed her arm.
"What the hell is wrong?"
Her eyes are streaming now and again, she tells the truth. "Jesse… he was my best friend. He used to call me…" Then she breaks down and can't say any more.
She doesn't even realize they've moved 'til she's being guided to sit down on a bench and notices that Spike has led her over to the fountain. They're alone here, which is probably a good thing since she's still crying.
"I'm guessing by the tears that your pal's dead, eh?"
"Darla," she replies, nodding in case the word is unintelligible.
It wasn't, though. "Bitch," Spike spits back. "Never did like her. Heavy fists and an empty head. All about her precious Angelus, that one." There's so much bitterness and history behind those words and they draw Willow out of herself. "The blondes always do go for that poof," he mutters and she's pretty sure she wasn't supposed to hear it. It makes her ache, realizing that he's still in love with Buffy.
The kindest thing to do would be to ignore what he said, but she can't, so she at least tries to offer some comfort. "Blondes don't have the best taste."
"Your girl's a blonde." That's true, but Willow doesn't amend her statement, especially since Tara left her, and Spike is… not meeting her eyes, no he's searching them. "But you're not defending yourself. Something's amiss, isn't it?" His eyes narrow. "You cheating?"
It's the obvious assumption, even if it's… but it's not really wrong, is it? Why she keeps on being honest with someone she has no reason to trust – mostly because he has no reason to trust her – she might never know, but her lips part and out it spills. "Not the way you think, but… I guess, yeah. In a way. A non-sex kind of way."
The tears are back as she realizes just how true that is. Tara, Jesse… she's wronging everyone who matters most to her and she hates herself. She wishes her mirror was as empty as Spike's because she can't bear the thought of facing her reflection. "You probably think I'm a horrible person. And you're right, you know, because I am."
Much to her surprise, and maybe his, Spike puts his arm around her. "Nah. I just think you've lost your way, that's all." Again soft words she's not meant to hear. "You're not the only one."
This time she holds her tongue and lets him think he wasn't heard. There is a secret in those words she's not sure she wants to know.
"So, the Strawberry Shortcake search. I'm guessing it's more important than idle nostalgia." How did Spike become so wise? It can't be just the years he's been around because Angel's even older and he never figured out anything. He gave Buffy a poetry book. Jeez. How clueless can you get?
What should she say, though? How can she explain it without explaining about Strawberry and Rack and this sneaky, terrible thing she's doing? This time it's her eyes which are searching Spike's and she sees… "I've been going to this magic dealer," she admits, "and he calls me… he calls me Strawberry. Because he knows about Jesse. I just thought… I don't know."
Now she's in Spike's arms and she's all but bawling as he holds her close. "Now, now, pet. 'S not so bad. Stupid, yeah, but not bad. Not so bad we can't make it right."
A moment later and he's hoisting her to her feet and practically dragging her to the door. "Where are we going?"
"I'm guessing your pal gave you a trinket or something once. Know you saved it. You're that kind of girl. We just need to go get it, that's all."
"But we can't. It's at my parents' house."
He's all confusion now. "And? Why is that a problem?"
"They changed the locks. Something about me needing to leave the nest and all," she admits, almost embarrassed because it hurts that her parents were so very eager to break as many ties to her as they could.
"Is that all?" Spike guffaws. "Bloody hell. As if locks are a problem for me. Not a lock made I can't pick."
"I won't be able to invite you in, though."
"Sure you can. Changing locks doesn't make it any less your house. Anyway, if you can't, I'll wait for ya outside."
"Okay." She smiles at him, feeling almost unimaginably grateful as they hurry back to her childhood home.
There's no conversation as they walk, seems as if they're both lost in thought, and the trip is even shorter than she remembers. "Here we are," she says and she's suddenly realizing that Spike seemed to know the way.
"Place hasn't changed. Not even a new coat of paint," Spike says, confirming what she suspected. "Followed you once," he admits, not volunteering when or why. She doesn't ask because knowing might crack the glass of this fragile bubble they're in tonight.
"Do you need a hairpin or anything?"
"Nah. I always have my tools with me." Really? "Don't look at me like that," he admonishes, "because my being prepared is working in your favour tonight."
He has a point, so she shuts up and watches as he works with the deftness of movie cat burglars and her former front door is open in a few seconds. "Almost too easy," Spike sniffs. "These cheap, modern locks. No pride in workmanship." He makes a dramatic gesture toward the doorway and says, "After you."
No need to mention that there's no other choice so she walks in and, tentatively, says, "Come in."
Well what do you know? Guess for vampiric purposes, this is still her house, because Spike is inside a second later. She doesn't want to linger downstairs, well aware that pictures of her will have already been removed from the living room, and so she leads the way up to what used to be her bedroom. Have her things been boxed up?
As she opens the door and turns on the light, she discovers the answer is yes, but at least they are still there, which she was more than a little afraid would not be the case. Her old furniture is gone, though, probably to Goodwill, because it makes such a good tax deduction and her parents also enjoy pretending they give a damn about those they refer to as 'the less fortunate.'
"Wanna help me go through some of this?" she asks, noticing the boxes are labeled with words like 'apparel' and 'ephemera.' She's guessing the Strawberry Shortcake doll is in ephemera unless her mother actually went into the trinket box in which Willow hid it, in which case the doll is in a landfill somewhere. Her mother has a profound philosophical dislike of dolls. She hopes against hope that her mother's indifference held and that she had no interest in exploring the years of her daughter's life in which she figured so marginally.
Willow's about to hand Spike one of the ephemera boxes, when she sees him opening a box marked apparel that he's dug out from under another box. Why? "It won't be in there," she says, trying to be helpful, but he's clearly looking for something… something he seems to have found.
Oh god. It's the fuzzy sweater she was wearing the night he kidnapped her. "You remembered."
He looks at her with the oddest expression. "Couldn't forget."
With a start, she realizes that he intends to keep it, so she tries to keep some semblance of volition in the mix by saying, "You can have it as a souvenir if you want."
"Thanks." He sort of half smirks and comes to look over her shoulder as she sorts through the first of the ephemera boxes. It's not in there, but there are pictures of her with Buffy at the beach and she hands them to Spike, thinking he'll want to gaze at the girl he loves bathed in sunshine. To her surprise, he tosses them aside, almost angry.
"What's wrong? I thought…"
"I'm fed up. Tired of loving some chit who only needs me for a hard shag. Don't know what it would take to make her see me, really see me, but I can't say I want to find out. Not anymore. You're looking for something, something to anchor you, to make you see clearly. So am I. That night… the night I took you and that useless whelp… I was pathetic. Throwing away every scrap of dignity to try to make that faithless bitch love me. Didn't learn, though, did I? 'Cause here I am, trailing after one of Angelus's castoffs all over again. Think maybe if I go back – see where I've been – maybe I'll go a different route, y'know?"
How is it that until this moment she hasn't seen how hard and lonely and horrible it has to be for Spike? "I'm so sorry," she says, and she's never meant anything more in her life, "I'm sorry for everything. I'm sorry about what I did to your memory and how I brought Buffy back all wrong and…" Something he said suddenly becomes clear – and not clear at the same time. "Wait a minute… you said you and Buffy were… Oh my god. You guys are…?"
"Yeah. We shag. Quite a lot, in fact, not that it means anything. She just needs me so she can feel, that's what she says. My feelings don't really factor into it."
She was wrong a moment ago; she hadn't seen at all. Now she does and it's terrible. She can't begin to imagine how degrading and demeaning and agonizing this is for Spike. Having the woman he loves so much use him like a… like a dildo.
And it's Willow's fault, isn't it? Her and her stupid, horrible magic. She's the most awful person in the world and there are no words for how much she hates herself right now. The floor suddenly feels very close, but Spike catches her before she collapses all the way. "Don't cry," he says gently, and that's when she realizes that she's sobbing again. "Not your fault."
"How can you say that? I'm the one that brought her back like this!"
"You brought her back, but you didn't make her like this." He means it and there are other words hiding behind his eyes, but he doesn't say them and she has no idea what they are. Not pressing him, she lets him guide her over to a box and sit her down on it. "I'll go through your mementos and find the doll, all right? And before you say no, consider it a favour. I like a spot of snooping."
She giggles through her sniffles and says, "Okay," watching as he gleefully tears open a box and begins to sort through her keepsakes.
"You did look like that cartoon chit at that," he says, staring at a picture of seven year old Willow with her two best friends. "I'd recognize the whelp's ugly mug anywhere. I'm guessing the second boy is that Jesse fellow."
She nods. "Yeah. We were the Three Musketeers." Pausing, she decides to share something with him. "You know, he had a thing for Cordelia. It's weird – the way she ended up with Xander after he died."
"Cordelia? Not that dim bulb who works for Soul Boy in Los Angeles." She nods somewhat sheepishly and he shakes his head. "Not speaking ill of the dead, but he had awful taste."
Another giggle, even if it is at Jesse's expense. How can Spike make her laugh on a night like this? How can he even stand to go on… un-living? She turns serious and, fixing him with the most determined look she can, she says, ""Buffy's is worse. I mean it, Spike. Out of every guy… you should be the one she loves. You're better than all of them put together."
He doesn't believe her, that's easy enough to tell, and his, "Thanks for that, Red," isn't the least bit convincing, but she doesn't know how to make him see. So she lets him get back to pawing through the detritus of her life. He chuckles here and there and makes the odd snide comment, but then, suddenly, he shouts, "Aha!" Turning to her, he holds out… a small Strawberry Shortcake doll.
"You found it!" She's so grateful and she bounces up and bounds over to him in a trice, taking the doll and holding it close. Closing her eyes, she can see Jesse the day he gave it to her. "Thank you," she says as she opens her eyes again. Seeing Spike like this, everything they've shared tonight, it's as if the doll is a gift from him as well and it means twice as much as ever. She tries to say more, but… her eyes are the only tool she can use to express what she's feeling – gratitude and friendship and emotions she doesn't even understand are pouring from them. If only she could find the words…
Maybe she doesn't need them after all. He pulls her close and whispers, "No one's ever looked at me like that before. No one. "
Is she going to be able to stop crying ever after that? She's not sure.
A moment later, she tilts her face up to look at him again and the world tilts madly on its axis.
Because Spike kisses her.
It's a soft kiss, the barest brush of lips, and she has no idea what it means. He doesn't seem to either. "I better get you home," he says and she nods, not trusting her voice at all. "Promise me something." She nods again. "Stay away from that dealer. You don't need him, not a bit. All the magic you need… it's you, love. Believe that."
Finding her tongue at last, she affirms, "I promise," and for all that she's said those words before, they're true now and she wishes she knew how to tell him that he's the one with the magic, the real and good and true magic, but she can't. Instead, she lets him take her by the hand and lead her out of the house and walk her home – silently home.
She has no idea what tomorrow will bring, but it will be impossibly different.
Should she be afraid of that? Probably. But she isn't.
Strawberry Shortcake is clutched tight in the hand not held by Spike and something amazing, something she can't name but that's big and important, is now stitched into each tiny fold of that doll's dress.
Willow is going to be okay. So is Spike. Somehow she'll make sure of that.