All About Spike

Chapter: 1  2  3  4  Epilogue

Quick and Bitter, Slow and Sweet
By Miss Murchison

Rating: R

Disclaimer: All characters are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc. Only the lame plots and dialogue herein are mine.

Thanks: To DorothyL and Keswindhover for the beta, and to Devil Piglet for the original idea.

Part Three

Tara sighed and picked up a textbook. She was trying to concentrate on her homework, but the memory of an unfulfilled promise kept intervening. She really should keep her word to Spike and start looking for something to help him get over Buffy. She kept intending to—just as soon as she could catch up on her schoolwork, stop being distracted by the need to fight stray demons, and keep Dawn under sufficient control to get a moment's rest.

She looked down at the book in front of her, and her brows twitched in perplexity over the words on the page. It was hard to concentrate on Romantic Poetry. Spike loved this stuff, though. Maybe if she asked him to help with her lit paper, she'd have more time to look into his problem. She'd ask him when he came over later.

Then she remembered that there was no reason for him to visit her apartment that night. Dawn had a thing at school, and Buffy would probably be taking her. And maybe Xander. And most likely Willow, which was why Tara had no intention of going herself. She didn't want to see Willow.

I really don't want to see her.

Tara was surprised by her own train of thought, but before she could think through her feelings, her eye was caught by the light blinking on her answering machine. She'd been too distracted to notice it when she'd come in. Setting her book aside, she went to check her messages.

Spike strode along the sidewalk, trying to ignore the voices in his head as he made his way back to his crypt from downtown. It was depressingly early in the evening for them to be this confused and angry.

Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten us into, said the fool.

Oh, please, moaned the poet, before adding to the demon, I keep telling you we shouldn't let him watch all those stupid comedy shows.

Yeah, said the demon, you're a good one to talk about where to tune the dial. You cry every time we see "Random Harvest."

You're no better, said the fool to the demon. If it were up to you, it would be all Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino.

And porn, said the demon. Don't forget the porn.

Let's face it, the only things we all agree on are porn and Kevin Smith films, said the fool. But that's not the point. I want to know what we're going to do about her.

All three voices were silent, contemplating the her in question.

We're no better off than we were before, said the fool at last. Worse, in fact. At least Buffy liked blokes.

Tara said she didn't think of herself as gay. Just as a woman who fell in love with another woman, said the poet. Such a beautiful thought. He sniffled a bit.

Makes me have beautiful thoughts, said the fool in a very different tone, his mind slipping back towards porn.

Yeah, but when did you ever see her look at us with a real awareness of the hotness that is Spike? said the demon resentfully. I'll tell you when. Never. Because I would know.

You're sure? asked the fool.

Bloody sure. If she even starts having those feelings around us, she moves away and starts doing her Statistics homework. She doesn't want to think about us that way.

But if she's resorting to maths not to, perhaps there's hope, said the poet doubtfully.

Yeah, said the fool eagerly. Statistics? That has to be avoidance.

Never mind Statistics, snapped the demon. What are we going to do to get through this night?

Well, we've made a start, said the fool. Gone to the shops and all.

Yeah, that killed a whole half-hour, said the demon. Now, find me something else to kill. Because we've hours and hours ahead of us, and you lot keep telling me we need to stay away from Dawn and that high school.

Because Buffy will be there? asked the fool.

And Willow, snarled the demon. And you know Tara will go. And—

Nothing will happen, said the poet as soothingly as he could manage. Tara is all honor and integrity. She knows that Willow cannot and will not control her magical powers. And Tara has too much common sense not to realize that if she goes back to Willow it won't make the woman she loves stronger—just more reckless.

Very reassuring, said the demon sarcastically.

Not really, said the poet. Because I'm afraid that she also has too much integrity and common sense to fall in love with us.

There was a long silence as all three of them contemplated this unpleasant truth.

It's not as if we would be any good for her, anyway, murmured the poet.

Wouldn't be so bad, said the demon. We make her laugh, make her smile. Could make her smile even more, given the chance.

The fool laughed. Yeah, we're just what a wise, beautiful, and powerful white witch needs for a lover. A toothless, crazy vampire.

We are not crazy! chimed the demon and the poet in unison.

Then how do you explain the Multiple Personality Disorder?

We are not symptoms of Multiple Personality Disorder, snapped the poet. We are merely a coping device Spike uses to work out his issues.

Coping device? Issues? mocked the demon. We have issues now? I knew we shouldn't let a certain someone watch Dr. Phil.

Spike snarled at all three of them to shut up. He'd almost reached his crypt, and he had reached a decision, at least for the short term. The only advice he planned to take for the rest of the evening would come from Jack Daniels.

Then his steps slowed, and he felt himself tense, had to stop himself from slipping into game face. His plans for the evening were about to change.

Because she was here, and something was wrong.

"Spike!" Tara ran through the graveyard, almost stumbling over a tombstone in her attempt to catch up with him.

He turned, stepping forward to meet her, reaching out a hand to steady her as she came up to him. "What's wrong, pet?"

"It's Dawn," she gasped, unable to force out anything more as she struggled to get her breath back.

"I know it's Dawn," he snarled, and she felt his grip tighten on her arm. "It's always Dawn. What's the brat up to now? Do I have to scare more cops away, or has she been kidnapped again, or—"

"She left a message on my machine," Tara spat out at last. "She's cutting the dance recital at school tonight."

There was a long silence. Tara noticed for the first time that Spike was holding a grocery bag under one arm. He let go of her, shifted his grip on the bag, turned to face her, and said, "Well, no wonder you've got your knickers all in a twist. Here I was thinking she was only about to be arrested or murdered by demons, as per usual for our little bit of interdimensional juvenile delinquency. But now that I know the fate of a bloody dance recital hangs in the balance, well, I'm just all of a-twitter."

Tara felt no inclination to back down in the face of this sarcasm. "Spike, you know the principal made her help out with the kids in this stupid recital as part of her detention for the business with the tennis balls, the porcupine, and the fetal pigs. It's like she's on parole or something, and the social workers are all watching her. We have to track her down and make her go to this thing." Her tone grew more impatient as she pointed out the train of logic that should have been as obvious to him as it was to her. "If she doesn't show up tonight, she'll get kicked out of school. If she gets kicked out of school, they'll take her away from Buffy and send her to live with her father. If they send her to live with her father—"

"—we'll never see her," he finished with a growl that showed how little he liked that conclusion. "But where's Buffy? And W—and the other Scoobies? I thought the Little Bit would have a posse escorting her to this thing."

"I don't know," said Tara. "They're probably on patrol. From what Dawn said on my machine, I don't think Buffy was planning on going." Which was a surprise to me. And which means Dawn was left with no one at all for moral support.

"Not planning—?" He glared off into the distance for a moment, and a muscle tightened in his jaw. "Right, Tara. Just let me drop my smokes and blood at my place first." He turned away and began striding between the tombstones.

"Well, hurry up," said Tara, in spite of the fact that she was already almost breathless again trying to keep up with him. "We need to find her right away."

"Won't be too hard," said Spike. He stopped suddenly and nodded in the direction of his crypt. Tara saw a light gleaming within.

"She's there?"


"You're sure?"

"I sense the presence of an evil, manipulative creature that feeds on popcorn, atrocious pop music, and bad TV. Who else could it be?" Shifting his grocery bag to one hip, he stalked over to the door and shoved it wide, flinging it against the wall with a resounding crash.

The pool of light was emanating from the crooked lamp that leaned in the middle of the crypt, near the single comfortable chair. Dawn was sprawled across the battered upholstery, one blue-jean clad leg dangling over the just-slightly-broken arm of the recliner, her eyes fixed on the flickering light from the television set. She flinched only slightly at Spike's dramatic entry.

"What are you watching?" Tara demanded, momentarily distracted.

"Just a video," said Dawn, reaching for the clicker and dragging herself into a more upright position. She added, her words tumbling over each other too quickly, "Just something that happened to be in the machine."

"You lying little bint," said Spike without anger as he dropped the groceries on top of his refrigerator. "I was not watching Chasing Amy!"

"You own that movie?" Tara asked him, even more distracted.

Dawn muttered something that almost sounded like, "Probably hoped it would help him figure out his next move," but that made no sense. Tara stopped worrying about the contents of Spike's video collection as certain scenes from the movie replayed themselves in her mind. Not things she wanted Dawn watching or hearing. And definitely not things she wanted Dawn asking her awkward questions about. "Dawn, you know you're not supposed to watch R-rated movies unless you ask first!"

Dawn slunk further down into the chair.

"Not the issue of the moment," said Spike. He pointed at Dawn. "You. That scrawny butt of yours belongs in a flipping pink leotard, on the stage, at the high school. Now."

"No!" howled Dawn. "It's not fair!"

"Yes, it is fair. It is more than fair. It's a punishment you deserve for putting me in a position to have to say what I just did!"

"No!" sulked Dawn.


"No! The only reason I'm stuck with those brats is those stupid monks decided to put it in everyone's memories that I used to go Miss Cherie's Twinkle Toes Academy when I was a little kid. But I was never a little kid, and I don't think there even is something as dumb as a Twinkle Toes Academy in LA, so it's just not fair and I'm not going."

Spike showed no sympathy. "You will wipe runny noses and tie on toe shoes for those brats or your butt will be in San Diego permanently."

"And I'm pretty sure your dad will outlaw Kevin Smith movies entirely, but we let you watch Dogma," pointed out Tara, moving into Good Cop mode. It felt odd. Usually Spike was the one who bent to Dawn's will while she stood firm.

Dawn sat up straight. "I will not go live with my father," she announced, her nose in the air. "He didn't even come to mom's funeral."

"Then go to the recital," said Tara coaxingly. "It's only an hour or so of your time, and it will get the social workers off your back."

"She's right, pet, you need to go," said Spike, also relaxing his tone. "It may be stupid and mindless, but it's bloody important."

Dawn crossed her arms in front of her chest. "It's not fair. And if it's so important, why isn't anyone coming to see me?"

"Someone is," Tara said, before Spike could respond. "I'm going to go watch you. And so is Spike."

Tara settled down on a hard plastic chair, smiling to herself with the satisfaction of one who has completed a difficult but essential mission. In fact, she was enjoying the unusual sensation of feeling proud of herself. She had somehow managed to nag both the vampire and the teenager as far as the high school and into their appointed places. It had seemed an insurmountable task for anyone, even a Slayer, and yet, she, Tara, had somehow accomplished it, against bitter resistance, and in time to meet the looming deadline of opening curtain. Dawn and the bag containing her dancing gear had been safely delivered backstage into the care of a harassed but determined-looking teacher, and Spike had been prodded into the crowded auditorium and maneuvered into a seating arrangement that placed Tara between him and the aisle that marked his escape route.

An elderly, grey-haired woman in a pink sweatshirt embroidered with the words, "World's Best Grandma" turned to Spike with the air of Someone Who Talks to Everyone. "This is so nice!" she announced in a voice neither Tara nor anyone else within four or five noisy aisles could help hearing. "It's very exciting, isn't it?"

"Don't get out a lot, do you, lady?" drawled Spike.

Tara grasped him by the arm, hauled him back to his feet and plunked herself in his chair before pulling him back down beside her. She turned to smile at his erstwhile companion. "Sorry. He needs to be by the aisle. In case—in case his beeper goes off and he has to leave."

"Yeah," said Spike, reaching for his pocket and leaning forward. "Funny thing about you saying that just now. Because I'm feeling these vibes that—"

"But," said Tara loudly, whipping her head around to meet his eyes as fiercely as she could, "we're both hoping that doesn't happen and he sits here quietly and enjoys the whole show. Because if the children can go to the trouble of putting this thing on, the least we can do is watch them."

Spike subsided and glowered at her.

The lights went down just as the woman beside Tara launched into a recitation of the names of her grandchildren and an explanation of where the ballerina they were about to see had sprouted on the family tree. She didn't moderate her voice, even as the tired-looking teacher standing at the scarred podium begged for silence and good behavior from the audience. The plea for quiet was further punctuated by Spike's curses as the child seated behind him kicked the back of his chair and screamed that he wanted to go home because Yu-Gi-Oh was on and his sister was a creepy little show-off anyway. Tara clamped her left hand down over Spike's arm to discourage any further attempts at flight, but very carefully refused to look at him.

She felt his muscles flinch under her fingers as a young man clad in an elderly pale blue suit began to thump on an ancient, out-of-tune piano. The first dancers paraded onto the stage, and Tara flinched too.

"Bugger this," muttered Spike.

"Dawn needs you to be here," hissed Tara.

"Bugger," he repeated. But instead of leaving, he glanced over his shoulder. Tara caught a flash of yellow from his eyes, heard a small yelp from the aisle behind them, and then relaxed, as Spike slumped back down in his chair and the child seated behind him subsided into whimpering near-silence.

Thirty minutes later, they had been subjected to several vignettes starring small troupes ranging in age from three to twelve and in skill levels from non-existent to barely mediocre. The tinny music was giving Tara a headache, and the costumes, which appeared to have been purchased during a tag sale at the Liberace estate, were causing eye strain. Some babies in the audience were crying, but instead of being irritated by the wailing, Tara almost wished she could join them. The only consolation was that the lighting was poor and their late arrival had forced them into seats some distance from the stage.

Tara could see the tap-dancers' lips moving as they muttered, "shuffle, ball, change" to themselves and stumbled along at varying tempos that seemed to take no cues from the music emanating from the tinny piano. Still, they were an improvement on the "jazz dancer" who kept tripping over her flowing robes and striking unimpressive poses.

Spike shifted in his chair, and Tara tightened her grip on his arm again. Her muscles were beginning to cramp from holding him so awkwardly, and she slid her fingers down his leather sleeve to grasp his hand instead. She felt him stiffen, but instead of pulling away, he grew still, and after a moment his fingers returned the pressure of hers ever so slightly.

The final group was announced, and Dawn appeared at last. She was in charge of a class of some of the youngest dancers, a milling crowd of kindergarteners dressed with stunning impropriety in sequin-studded chorus girl outfits. Dawn, obviously mortified to be wearing a similar costume, had been assigned the chore of standing in front of the bewildered group and performing the routine that the children had supposedly learned by heart for this recital. Since the girls had clearly done no such thing, they watched Dawn and attempted to mimic her, which put them several beats behind the music. Most of them didn't know their left from their right, and one made no attempt to dance at all but stared at the audience in dismay for a full minute before bursting into tears.

All this would have struck Tara as funny and adorable if it hadn't been for the remaining member of the troupe, a blonde girl marginally more skilled than the others. In contrast to the rest of the children, her makeup and hair looked professionally done (apparently by someone accustomed to coiffing hookers and beauty queens), and there was no hesitation in her demeanor. She marched to the front of the stage, standing next to Dawn instead of behind her, and performed her two-minute routine inaccurately, but with an air that proclaimed her conviction that she was worthy of prima ballerina status. Tara wanted to smack her smirking face, and Dawn kept casting indignant glances in the girl's direction. After one particularly pretentious pirouette, Tara heard Spike growl ominously from deep in his throat.

Dawn dutifully performed the simple routine, followed by her inept imitators, and finally, the torture ended. Apparently, the enthusiasm of doting relatives was not dependent upon the quality of the performance, because the audience stood and clapped wildly as the lights came up. The tiny show-off ballerina stepped even closer to the front of the stage and began performing curtseys that she seemed to have practiced more carefully than the dance routine. A young woman rushed to the stage and rescued the bawling child, and the rest of the dancers stood as if stunned for a moment before making awkward bows and shuffling off.

Dawn stood quietly, her eyes scanning the audience. She caught sight of Tara, who was sitting in place with her hand still gripping Spike's. The teenager's lips quirked upward for the first time since she had appeared on stage. She gave a slight, bobbing bow and slipped away.

Eventually, the wholly inappropriate applause died down. Tara released Spike at last, and they made their way to the foyer, followed by the elderly woman, who was raving about her granddaughter's performance in one of the first routines. Tara wasn't sure which of the incompetent dancers had been pointed out to her by a wavering finger, but she smiled and nodded agreement while keeping a close eye on Spike. She gave him good marks for not fully vamping out yet, but she feared his tolerance couldn't last much longer. Now the ordeal was over, she was anxious to get him away from this particularly hellish bit of the hellmouth.

She looked over her shoulder to see Dawn coming towards them. It occurred to Tara that the girl could win an award for speedy changes of appearance when necessary; in her eagerness to escape, she had already wiped off the excess makeup and donned a t-shirt and jeans instead of her gaudy costume.

"Think of something nice to say about the performance," hissed Tara, leaning towards Spike.

"Well, it was short," he suggested after a moment's thought.

"That's the best you can do?"

"Mercifully short," he amended.

"Never mind. Don't say anything." Tara stepped forward to hug Dawn. "You did great, honey," she said.

"Yeah, you didn't kill any of them or puke on the stage," said Spike, ignoring Tara's injunction to silence.

Tara glared at him, but Dawn smiled. "I know. I'm pretty proud of myself."

Spike was standing close enough to Tara that she felt the movement when someone pulled on the skirts of his duster. She looked down to see the blonde ballerina who had disgusted her during Dawn's performance. The child was staring up at Spike intently.

"What?" he demanded impatiently.

"Your hair is stupid," said the little girl in an authoritative tone.

Spike bent down, descending literally and figuratively to her level. "Well," he said, his voice deceptively gentle, "you have stupid hair too. In fact, you have big hair, which is the worst kind of stupid hair. And, your mum is an ignorant cow who should be horsewhipped for tarting you up like a two-dollar whore. And, you can't dance for toffee. You dance worse than that stupid purple dinosaur."

Tara drew in her breath, waiting for a wail of anger or dismay, but the child merely stuck out her tongue and ran off as Spike stood up again.

"How sweet," announced the elderly woman who had been sitting next to Tara. She had apparently heard Spike's tone, but not his words. "It's always so nice to see a young man who's good with children. Is that your little girl?"

"Who?" asked Tara in dismay. "That kid?"

"Yes, I was wondering which was your child. Such a lovely couple you make. And I thought that little girl looked a bit like you."

Utterly speechless, Tara glanced at Spike and saw him about to open his mouth. She grabbed him by the arm again and dragged him outside as quickly as she could.

"Oh, lighten up, Tara," said Dawn before Tara could begin to scold. "The only thing that bothers me is that he didn't bite her. Everyone hates that kid."

"You haven't been the most lovable creature around yourself," said Spike. "Bit, if you ever do anything to make me have to go through an ordeal like that again, I will personally see to it you're dismembered and fed to hungry baby Korash demons. While you're still alive."

Dawn was unimpressed. "If you hated it so much, you should have torn the place up, the way Mom said you did once when Buffy had some stupid thing going on at the old High School."

"I remember that night." Spike's tone was nostalgic. "Busted me over the head with an axe, your mum did."

"Mom was the best," Dawn agreed. "But I guess she would have been glad we behaved ourselves tonight. In fact, I bet she would have said we deserved a reward. " Her tone turned coaxing. "Something better than the Kool-Aid and cookies they're serving in the school cafeteria."

"How much are you planning on drinking?" asked Tara an hour later, as Spike slipped back onto the love seat next to her, a glass in his left hand.

He slipped his right arm along the back of the couch, scanning the crowd on the dance floor of the Bronze. He watched intently for a minute, apparently decided that the pimply youth engaging in embarrassing contortions a few feet away from Dawn was no danger to her virtue or her safety, and relaxed back against the cushions. "As much as it takes to make me forget that bloody horror show of Swan Lake on the Hellmouth."

"Well, everyone has to start as a beginner," said Tara, mellowed by the distance of time and a couple of beers. "They're just learning."

"Yeah. Just think how ghastly they'll be with a few years more training."

She couldn't help smiling. As noisy and chaotic as the Bronze was, it was an enormous improvement over the school auditorium. And she was comfortable sitting next to him, watching the kids around them dance, and seeing Dawn smiling and happy.

But not too happy. Fortunately. Dawn didn't seem to be crushing on any of the boys she was dancing with, which was good. Extricating her from the last few boyfriends, especially the one who turned out to be a demon, had aged Tara prematurely. She glanced at Spike, thinking that even he had been a bit frazzled by that experience. But Tara was extremely glad he'd been there the past few months, to help her cope with Dawn's tears and tantrums, to rush to wild parties that had gotten out of hand, to go into vamp face and scare off that cop who'd been about to haul Dawn in for driving without a license and breaking curfew, to . . .

Tara had lost track of the number of times she and Spike had gone to Dawn's rescue recently. They both recognized that the girl was acting up deliberately, of course, begging for their attention. Probably because she'd given up on getting Buffy to notice her. She was behaving worse, crazier, than Tara had after her own mother's death.

But between them, Spike and Tara had somehow gotten Dawn through mid-term exams and bad dates. Tara had even shown up for parent-teacher conferences when Dawn called one night, panic-stricken, to say that Buffy was off killing something and the principal was expecting someone to be there. Tara had rushed into the school building, knowing she was late for the first appointment on the schedule, only to find the Language Arts teacher chatting amicably about Victorian poetry with Dawn's "stepbrother." Tara had introduced herself as a cousin and made Buffy's apologies. She and Spike had somehow managed to carry off the rest of the evening, although Tara was sure even a vampire's toes would have to be sore from the number of times she had stepped on his foot to shut him up. Tara had let him rage all he wanted afterwards, while she trudged along beside him miserably. She knew he was in agony not just because Dawn was being neglected, but because he hated seeing Buffy so disconnected from the friends and family that had once defined her unusual strengths as a Slayer.

He was relaxed now, though, smiling at Dawn's pleasure and sipping his drink from time to time. Tara watched his profile, enjoying the way his eyebrow quirked when he was amused, and smiling at his exaggerated grimace of pain when the set ended and the sound system dared to blare something by Britney.

Dawn slid onto the low table across from them, almost bouncing up and down in her enthusiasm. "This is so cool! A lot of the kids I met in detention are here, and we're having a great time. Thanks, guys!"

Tara and Spike exchanged a horrified look, but by the time they faced the table again, Dawn was gone, heading towards the bathrooms with a girl in Goth gear.

"I'm too young to feel this old," grumbled Tara.

She knew before she turned to look at him that he had tensed, and she was unsurprised to see his hard-faced, steely-eyed expression, so at odds with his relaxed pose of a moment before.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Vampire," he said. His eyes were tracking a sultry brunette who was slinking along the edge of the crowd.

He was gone, slipping through the crowd towards his prey before Tara could respond. She looked at his empty glass and reached down to the floor for the old backpack she carried, pawing through its tumbled contents. She was sure she had brought something with her that would help in a fight with a vampire. In spite of his Big Bad aura, Spike had several drinks under his belt, and Tara had no way of knowing how old or how dangerous this particular vamp was. She had no intention of letting him fight alone.

She found a vial with some ingredients she could easily infuse with magic to make a nice bolt of vampire-disintegrating fire, and stood up just in time to see Spike slink out the back door, trailing the female vamp and someone else who was obviously her intended prey. Tara was about to follow when Dawn ran up and grabbed her hand.

"It's not fair!" cried the teenager. "Tara, tell her she can't!"

"Tell who she can't what?" asked Tara impatiently, tearing her gaze reluctantly from that closing door. "Oh," she added in understanding a moment later. "Hi, Buffy." She looked over the Slayer's shoulder. "And Willow."

"Okay," said Buffy in an impatient tone. "So, you did tell the truth, Dawn." She folded her arms across her chest. "You're here with Tara. But I still didn't give you permission to come." Her glance at Tara was cold. "You shouldn't have brought her here. The only place she was supposed to be dancing tonight was at the high school."

"I know," said Tara quietly. "The recital thing. She went. So did I. We—I brought her here afterwards to celebrate because she did a good job. I was keeping an eye on her." She glanced at the door again, and started to edge away. "Buffy, can we talk about this later? Because Sp—"

"We need to talk about this now," said Buffy. "I can't be tracking a vampire and then get distracted because I find my sister is out partying all over town, instead of being where I expect her to be."

"Oh," said Dawn in a cold voice. "So, you didn't come here looking for me?"

"Why would I be looking for you?" said Buffy. "I thought you were at school. Although why I'm still going with the concept that you'll be where you're supposed to—"

"The recital was only, like, a half-hour long." Dawn erupted in rage. "It was over a long time ago. How did you think I'd get home?"

"I thought you'd get a ride," said Buffy, backing down a bit in the face of this logic. "Dawn, you know I had a double shift tonight, and I couldn't take you—"

"No, our house isn't filled with the safest drivers," said Dawn nastily, with a glance at Willow.

Tara saw Willow flinch, but she couldn't focus on the argument. She was distracted by the thought of Spike, three sheets to the wind on Jack Daniels, out fighting a very voluptuous and possibly dangerous vampire, while she listened to the Summers girls snark at each other. "I have to—" she started to say, and stopped. The back door opened and a black-clad figure slipped inside. She met Spike's eyes, saw him smile, and felt her lips relax into an involuntary grin when he brushed his hands together, as if removing dust from his palms.

"Tara!" Dawn pulled on her arm.

"Sorry," said Tara. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Spike's smile fade as he took in her companions. She moved to shield him from Buffy and Willow's gaze. His presence could only make this scene worse.

"Dawn," said Buffy impatiently, "I know it's hard on you that I have to work a lot—"

"Do you?" interrupted Dawn. "Then why do you do it? Because I don't think it's even about the money any more, Buffy. You could get a better job, sell the house, move us to a small apartment where you wouldn't have big mortgage payments and repair bills, but then maybe you wouldn't have quite so many things that aren't Dawn to worry about."

"You have no idea," said Buffy, "just how much it costs—"

"Yeah, I know. A lot. Especially when magic-addicted friends stay for free and get to hang out with you every night, while I 'm supposed to sit at home and do my homework."

Tara's gaze flew to Willow, and she saw the other witch look away and step back, her expression hurt and angry.

"That's it," said Buffy to Dawn. "I'm taking you home now. And you're staying there. You're grounded for the rest of the week. I don't want you going anywhere else after school."

"But—but Tara and—Tara was going to help me with my history project," stammered Dawn.

"Please, Buffy," said Tara, acutely aware that she had no real standing in Dawn's life. "I was helping her with the project. And I'll make sure she gets home early after a good meal each night. No more visits to clubs, I swear."

"Okay," said Buffy, visibly relaxing at the thought of not having to plan an evening meal on top of her other chores. "But Dawn isn't researching the history of the Bronze, so I'm taking her home now." She looked around resentfully. "I've lost track of that vamp anyway."

Dawn gave Tara a pathetic backwards glance as she was dragged away, still protesting that it wasn't fair.

Willow lingered for a minute, and Tara noticed for the first time how pale and quiet the other witch seemed.

"Are you okay, Tara?" asked Willow in a near whisper.

"I'm fine," said Tara, and sought for words to express her worry about Dawn, about all the residents of the Revello Drive house. She couldn't find any. "Are you?" she asked weakly.

Willow nodded weakly, as if she couldn't force out the polite response. "I'd better catch up with Buffy," she muttered, and faded away.

"Bloody hell," said a voice behind Tara a moment later.

"Yeah," she agreed. She looked over her shoulder at Spike. "Buffy was tracking that vamp you got."

"And instead she's caught the Little Bit and is going to make the rest of her evening a misery," he said.

"I saved the rest of the week, though," said Tara. "She can come to my place after school."

"So, my name didn't come up, then?"

She glanced at him, but instead of looking bitter, he seemed almost amused. "No," she agreed, "I didn't mention that you were the one helping her understand the Boxer Rebellion."

"That's a good thing, pet," he said somberly. "A very good thing."

Spike offered to walk Tara home, and she accepted, even though she was probably as capable as he of fighting off any random demons that might attack on the way. The two of them slouched along, side by side, gloomily staring at the ground as they contemplated Dawn's situation.

This is like some scene from a Lifetime movie, thought Tara. The tale of the non-custodial relatives glumping along after the Bad Mother has asserted her legal rights to the Baby. Except the Baby is a holy terror of a teenager with possible inter-dimensional travel abilities. And the Bad Mother is her very seriously depressed but heroic older sister, who's saved the world a lot.

And who are we to assume we can do better for Dawn than Buffy can? An impoverished witch and a drunken vampire. She looked at Spike. He didn't seem very drunk now, but he did look depressed. She sought for words to cheer him up.

"It was good of you to go to the recital," she told him. "Dawn liked it that you were there."

His lips twitched. "Didn't know I had a choice, pet. Had the impression someone was going to turn me into a toad if I turned tail and ran."

Suddenly, she felt herself smiling too. "Sorry if I nagged and stuff," she said.

"No you're not. Not sorry, I mean. You loved ruling the roost. You let the Little Bit and me ride roughshod over you too much. We don't mind it when you lay down the law, you know." He stopped, and she realized they were standing in front of the shabby apartment house where she lived. "I'll wait until you get inside, get the lights on," he said, shuffling back a few steps and thrusting his hands in his pockets.

"And then do what, Spike?" she asked. "Go back to your crypt and worry about Dawn?" She saw a flash of blue in the light from the streetlamps as he glanced at her in surprise. "Why don't you come inside and we can worry about her together? Over popcorn and bad TV." She grimaced. "You know what they say about misery and company."

He hesitated for a few seconds before saying, "Thanks, pet," and following her through the door.

A few minutes later, she was scrounging through the fridge while he channel-surfed. "I'm out of blood," she called across the one-room apartment. "Plenty of coffee, though."

He looked up from the small sofa on the opposite end of the room. "Coffee and popcorn will do," he said.

"Are you sure?" she asked, frowning. "You were bringing blood back from the store earlier."

"Just doing my weekly shopping for staples. Smokes, Jack Daniels, Cheetos, Weetabix, peanut butter, and blood. Got any peanut butter?"

"You can ask a college student that question?" she said, finding a box of crackers. "Once the Pell Grant funds run out the first semester, we all discover it's possible to live indefinitely on PB&J and ramen noodles." A few minutes later, she brought the food over to the small coffee table that, like the bedside table and the four-foot silver candlestick, had appeared outside her door one morning with no note or explanation.

The cloisonné umbrella stand had been the last straw. She didn't even know anyone else who owned an umbrella stand, and the thing certainly had no place in an efficiency apartment. So she'd pointed out to Spike that she was running out of space for furniture. Since then, she'd been deluged with small statues and various knickknacks that she hadn't wanted to hurt his feelings by refusing. She was going to have to say something soon, though. Her place was starting to look like one of those cluttered Victorian sitting rooms she'd seen in old photographs.

As she settled down beside him, she shoved aside a fertility goddess and a blood-red crystal vase to make space for the tray of coffee and snacks.

He had decided on a channel, but when she dropped down beside him on the couch and looked at the screen, Tara felt her stomach lurch. "No, Spike, not Alien!"

"Sigourney," he pointed out. "A very sexy lady."

"And a very disgusting monster popping out of people's stomachs. Not while I'm eating."

He sighed dramatically, but flipped through a few more stations, before muttering, "Brilliant," and settling back on the couch.

Tara stopped with a cracker halfway to her mouth. "An Affair to Remember? Spike, this is the sappiest movie ever made."

He looked offended. "Cary Grant!" he said, getting a wealth of indignation into the retort.

She rolled her eyes, but didn't ask him to change the channel again, concentrating instead on her food.

As she licked a stray glob of jelly off the side of one finger, she noticed him watching her intently. She raised one eyebrow, silently questioning.

"Just wondering," he said, accurately interpreting her expression. "Why you're spending the night watching a three-hanky weeper with me, when you could have gone back home with Buffy and Dawn. Buffy doesn't mind you being part of the Little Bit's life."

"I know," said Tara. "But Willow would be there too." She leaned forward, fumbling for more crackers and the jar of peanut butter, letting her hair fall forward in front of her face, hiding her expression from him.

"Sorry, pet," he said. "Forgot. Forgot how hard it is for you." She couldn't see his face, but she thought his tone was harsh. "I know you want to see her—"

"No," she interrupted him. She stopped pretending to herself that she was still hungry and faced him. "I don't."

He had stopped breathing. She'd noticed a long time ago that his chest rose and fell regularly, and she'd come to the conclusion that he chattered so much that he'd gotten into the habit of drawing in air so he'd always be prepared to speak. But at this moment he was completely immobile; his gaze was unblinkingly bright and piercing.

Tara's eyes locked on his. "I was thinking about it tonight, when I thought Willow and Buffy were going to the recital, and I realized that I didn't want to run into Willow. I really, really didn't. All that hoping, praying, that she would get better so we could be together—now I just want her to get better." She looked away now, fumbling for words, "I love her, I want her to be strong and happy. But—I don't want to be with her again."

She stopped, then, shuddering with shock as she realized what she did want.

Tara and Spike were sitting side by side, thighs touching even though that proximity wasn't strictly necessary, since for once Dawn wasn't also present on her other side. She'd moved closer to him instinctively, seeking comfort from his touch without wondering why, without thinking through the effect it might be having on him.

He knows. He knows what I'm feeling, what I want from him right now. He can't help knowing, because of what he is.

It's not just fear that vampires can scent.

She should have felt embarrassment that he could read her emotions so clearly, but there was none. Because she was suddenly certain he wanted her as much as she wanted him.

He was staring intently at the television screen now, refusing to glance in her direction even though he had to be aware she was looking at him. She reminded herself that they were both lonely and a bit tipsy, and that anything that happened between them could affect their relationship with Dawn. Oddly enough, she didn't think of Buffy or Willow at all. Perhaps she was too caught up in examining the graceful line of Spike's cheekbones. Or maybe her attention was wholly caught by the way a muscle twitched in his cheek, and how the corner of his mouth drooped slightly. A few weeks ago, she wouldn't have read those signs. Now his need for her seemed perfectly obvious in spite of his current effort to appear indifferent. She had come to understand him a little bit, perhaps. And, at last, she admitted to herself that with understanding had come desire.

"Spike." She wondered what she would say next, but the sound of her own voice echoed in her ears and she realized her tone had said everything for her.

Slowly and deliberately, he switched off the television and set down the remote before turning to her. She watched every fluid motion of those strong, clever hands with fascination, knowing that in a moment they would reach out for her. As his arms came around her, she looked up into his face and saw the same tentative wonder in his eyes that she felt herself.

Spike was very, very good at this, she realized. He knew just how to hold her, just how to use his lips and tongue to make her mouth open against his, just where to run his fingers along her exposed flesh to make her move closer to him, how to make her whole body react to a simple touch like a piece of kindling licked by a scorching flame.

Encouraged by her enthusiastic reaction to his first efforts, he pulled her onto his lap, settling her astride him, one hand at the nape of her neck to guide her lips and the other against the small of her back, pulling her closer until her hips ground against his.

And against something that wasn't his hips. Tara gave a little gasp at the sensation, at the very prominent evidence of his arousal. Had she thought about it, she might have pulled away, but she wasn't thinking this encounter through at all, and instead she rubbed herself against him experimentally, enjoying the sensation.

He growled approval, and his tongue probed her mouth more deeply. The hand that had been against her back began to wander, not the least bit aimlessly, finding nerve-endings whose existence Tara had forgotten during her long stint of celibacy. She realized that her fingers were entangled in the short, curly locks of his hair, and she disengaged them to send them on their own expedition, seeking more interesting topographical features.

"That's my girl," he muttered in encouragement, as his lips released her mouth in order to seek the softness of her neck. "That's my love."

At these, the first words uttered since this bizarre embrace had begun, Tara pulled back, her hands on his shoulders, gulping back something between a horrified sob and an ecstatic moan.

He froze, quiet and still as no human could be, only his eyes seeming alive as he tried to read her expression.

"Spike," she said hoarsely, "if this is about you pretending I'm someone else, please let me go. Because if you're thinking about Buffy while we—"

His hand came up to stroke her cheek, but his expression remained still, his eyes profound but unreadable. "Difference between you and me, pet. I'd want this no matter what—no matter who or what you were thinking about while you were in my arms. It would hurt, but I'd still want it. I want it that much."

Tara pulled away from him completely then, standing up and taking a step backwards, almost upsetting the coffee table before she stumbled to one side, uncertain how to take this, wanting to ask exactly what he meant, but unable to form a thought rational enough to put into words.

She didn't have to. He opened his mind to her.

She gasped, first because she had no idea he knew how to initiate this form of communication. Then she found herself struggling for breath as she realized this contact was far more intimate than any mind-touch she had experienced before.

Willow had learned how to send her thoughts to someone else's mind, and Tara had used that skill to talk to Spike in emergencies. But he wasn't just sending her his thoughts now. In fact, she couldn't distinguish a single, coherent word in the onrush of emotions that struck her like a blow. At first, she thought she heard a murmur of competing voices muttering indistinguishably. But they fell silent almost immediately, leaving her with only the stark evidence of his senses.

She was inside his head, seeing herself, experiencing all the passion that lurked behind that blue gaze. She could taste herself in his mouth, feel the sensory memory of the touch of her soft skin against his finger tips, hear the sound of her own ragged breathing and the agitated, rapid thud of her own heart, smell the rich and erotic scent of her arousal, so strong it almost masked the salty aroma of her blood pounding just under her skin, and—

She jerked her mind away from his and stepped backwards again, hovering on the verge of flight. Her first impulse was to run to the bathroom, flick on the light switch and stare into the mirror. She wanted to reassure herself that only a plain, nervous creature with dirty-blonde hair and a shy expression stood there. For the first seconds after she looked into Spike's mind, the only thing that held her in place was the fear that she would see the beautiful, glorious creature who had stood before her as she looked out of his eyes, a woman vibrantly alive with passion and wholly desirable.

That midnight gaze was focused on her again. It was tentative and questioning now. He was afraid he had terrified her, lost everything he'd sought to gain by opening himself to her completely.

Yeah, Spike, you've scared me all right. Scared me the way you never could by going into vamp face, or with the crazy way you throw yourself into a fight without thinking twice, or with your stories about your evil past. Because you've suddenly made this about what I am, not who you are.

The woman Spike saw was no one Tara recognized. She was strong, wild, and fearless. She was—

She was what I always wanted to be, but was sure I never could become. And that's what he thinks I already am.

Again, her body trembled with the need to run from him, to run from this alien vision of herself. Because she wasn't that woman, she could never be—

Yes, you can. Tara gulped in shock. This time that voice, speaking with such certainty, came from her mind, not his. He had pulled back entirely into himself. He was waiting, wondering, afraid.

He is afraid of losing me. Me, Tara. No, not me. That other Tara, that goddess he sees in his mind. He wants her so much.

Now I understand why Buffy ran from him. I've come to realize the past few months that it couldn't be just because she believed he would do evil again. Everyone, human and demon, is capable of good and evil. No, it was something much more frightening than that.

It was because this is what he does to the women he loves. He makes them into princesses, divine beings, something far greater than they are. That is enough to terrify even a Slayer.

Tara saw her choice clearly now. She could run, hide, retreat back into the girl she saw in the mirror. But, then, I will always wonder—

Or, she could risk becoming the creature in Spike's mind. Because she had no doubt that if she risked now, she would have to risk again and again, playing at being Spike's Tara until that girl became indistinguishable from the real one, until perhaps even she would see that incredible woman in her mirror.

Tara took a third step back. She saw Spike's face begin to close off in disappointment. He stirred, very slightly, as if in anticipation of his rejection, of receiving orders to leave her, to return to the darkness.

How long have we been standing here, without words? I have no idea how to break this silence. I can find no words. Not even words of acceptance.

But he hadn't needed words to show her his feelings, and she felt her face relax into a warm, secure smile as her stronger self took charge, assuring her it was all very simple.

Tara reached her hands down to her waist and pulled off her shirt, tossing it aside quickly. Her bra followed a moment later. Then she was sliding her jeans down over her hips, stepping out of them and standing before him naked. She'd been inside his head, felt his overwhelming desire to see her like this, and the expression on his face told her that so far, at least, she had not disillusioned him.

She was in his embrace before she realized he had begun to move. If their kisses had been passionate before, now they were overwhelming in their urgency. She began to tug at his shirt. Then she felt his arms shift around her, and he was holding her easily in his arms.

"I've been swept off my feet!" she said, realizing with astonishment that she was laughing. Her head was spinning, but not from the speed with which he had swung her into the air. She was giddy with the courage of her decision; she felt as if she had released some wild avatar of herself into the real world.

"With a name like Tara, it had to happen sooner or later, love," he said, carrying her to the bed and laying her down there before quickly stripping off his own clothes.

She discovered then how goddesses were treated. She learned that a touch of hands or lips could be insistent and worshipful at the same time, and that a true believer was willing to dedicate much time and effort to his orisons. And Spike was clever as well as devoted, translating his idol's every move and utterance into instructions on how to increase her pleasure.

And, between kisses, amazing words rolled off his lips, words that were as arousing as the kisses. "'You are mine, mine woman with the sweet lips, and in your life my infinite dreams live . . . Huntress of the depths of my eyes . . . your eyes of mourning . . .in your eyes of mourning the land of my dreams begins . . .'"

Tara came at last, not in sweet release, but in a crescendo of passion, crying aloud as Spike's hands, lips and tongue continued to worship her.

She called his name. That seemed to surprise him; he looked up at her, then brought his lips to hers quickly, his skin gliding smoothly against hers as he moved above her, his eyes darker even than when he had opened himself to her.

Turnabout is fair play.

"Now it's your turn to come inside," she whispered, opening her legs wider, reaching up to touch the smooth muscles of his arms, enjoying the novelty of that hard flesh under her fingertips.

Suddenly, he was tentative again. "Are you sure?" he asked hoarsely. "You said once that you'd never—I want this night to be perfect for you."

She smiled, and watched his eyes lighten at the sight. "Then don't argue with me," she said, trying for a stern tone, but collapsing into quiet laughter. She couldn't help it, she was so happy. "Come on, Spike, I'm inviting you in."

He breathed more thrilling words against her lips. "'She is wild and innocent, pledged to love through all disaster.'" He accepted her invitation without further argument, sliding into her smoothly but not deeply, supporting himself on his hands, at first carefully reading her expression, but then closing into himself in concentration.

He's holding back. Tara felt a surge of irrational anger at this. How dare he let her feel just how fierce and dangerous he could be and then pull away from her now, when she wanted him to release that part of him? Didn't he understand this night was as much about him as it was about her? She bent her knees, pressing the soles of her feet into the mattress and thrusting her hips upwards, flinging herself into this new experience, heedless of the knowledge that giving him pleasure could cause her pain.

Except—she had forgotten something. The memory came rushing back as she felt his body begin to tense against hers and saw the reserve on his face contort into astonished and overwhelming happiness. He was too overwhelmed with delight to realize what was happening, and she reached up, gripping her right hand fiercely against his temple, her mind and talent racing to complete a sudden, urgent task.

Then he was collapsed against her, panting in total release.

Tara's gaze took in his contentment, and she smiled blissfully. If she could make him look like this, perhaps that vision of herself had not been so far wrong.

Spike raised himself on his elbows, staring at her wonderingly. "My love," he muttered. Puzzlement crept into his gaze. "Something just happened."

"Oh, so, you noticed, did you?" she said.

His eyebrow acknowledged her teasing. "I think the neighbors noticed that," he said. He shifted his weight to one hand and the other reached up to touch hers, which was still pressed against his temple.

"Oh," she said. "Yes, there was that, too." She dropped her arm, and it fell almost languorously to the mattress, outstretched along the white expanse of the sheet. Slowly, her fingers opened and revealed the small, bright object in her palm.

"What is it?" he asked hoarsely.

"Your chip."

Continued in Part Four

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