Buffy. It was unmistakeably Buffy, just as two sets of footsteps, at least one of which was the muffled sound of sneakers, would have been unmistakeably Dawn and Tara.
Spike was almost surprised that it had taken so little time to come to know people by the sounds they made. Or, at least, those three people. It wasn't like anyone else ever came round.
He was sitting on the edge of the bed, putting on a shirt by the time Buffy climbed down the ladder and announced her presence with a forcibly cheery, "Hey Spike. It's me."
Here we go again, he thought, and stifled a dejected sigh. Then he forced a smile and replied, "I guessed that much. You drew the short straw today then?"
"We already had this conversation Spike. No straws involved, remember?"
"Yeah, because I forgot how much you love spending time with me. Is this just another blood drop-off, or were you planning to do the pep talk again?"
There had been a little more acid in his tone than he had intended, and when Buffy didn't reply he wondered if he might have pushed too far this time. Then he heard her walk over, and felt the mattress shift when she sat down next to him. For a brief moment he found himself wondering what she was wearing, and then reminded himself that it really didn't matter to him anymore.
"Still no change then?"
He was surprised by the gentleness in her voice.
"Nothing? Not even a little bit of vamp healing?"
"It's been a week."
"That's not a good sign."
"You know you could give Oz a run for his money with this monosyllabicism." She paused for a moment, and then asked in a curiously self-mocking tone, "Is that even a word?"
In spite of his current mood, Spike couldn't suppress a chuckle, and felt a genuine smile cross his face for the first time in a week.
"No love. I think you just made it up."
He could almost hear the pout when Buffy replied, "Yeah, well. Who needs the English language anyway?"
"Not you bloody Yanks, that's for certain."
"Hey," Buffy laughed, and they lapsed into an almost comfortable silence.
It occurred to Spike that he used to dream about this - actually holding a normal conversation with Buffy. One that didn't dissolve into fighting, insults, or unresolved angst within the first thirty seconds. He had not envisaged the current circumstances to be the setting for such a conversation, and quickly became sombre again.
He was surprised when Buffy took his hand and gently squeezed it.
"Hey." There was that quiet, gentle tone again. "I know it's hard, but don't give up on us. Not yet."
"Hmm," Spike mumbled, noncommittally.
"For what its worth, Dawn and Tara are practically camped out in the Magic Box trying to research another cure."
"I bet that's pissing Anya off a treat."
"She's not thrilled about it."
"Do you think they're going to find anything?"
"You don't think they will?"
"Like you said: It's been a week."
Buffy became quiet for a minute, before getting up and changing the subject.
"Well, there's fresh blood in the fridge upstairs. I think Tara's coming over tomorrow. So if you're okay..."
"Is Dawn coming with her?"
"I guess. Why?" Buffy sounded confused.
"Could she not?"
"Could who not what?"
"Dawn. Not come over." Spike was beginning to lose patience with the conversation.
He had really been hoping she wouldn't ask that question, and regretted bringing the subject up at all.
"Spike? Why not?"
"Nothing. Never mind. If that's it, I'm sure you've got better places to be."
Spike stood up and deliberately turned his back to Buffy, pretending to fiddle with the stereo. There was a long quiet, one that Spike refused to be the one to break. Eventually he heard Buffy mutter, "Whatever," in a voice that had finally reached the end of its supply of forced compassion. She climbed the ladder out, and a moment later the door slammed shut much harder than was entirely necessary.
Spike affected a sigh of relief. It was over for another day.
He was growing to hate these daily visits more and more with each one, especially when it was Buffy. He was resisting the urge to tell them all to piss off only because the more rational part of his brain kept reminding him he did actually need them to keep bringing blood and, whenever they could be persuaded, alcohol and cigarettes. So, the forced cheeriness and concern continued on their side, and the forced politeness and gratitude continued on his. Spike couldn't help but wonder how much longer any of them would be able to keep it up for. And what might happen to him when they couldn't.
"This is useless." Dawn closed the book she had been reading and slumped onto the table. Tara shot her what she hoped was an encouraging smile, and went back to her pile of notes and the bad translation from Greek that she was using for one of the more obscure texts. She had to admit that Dawn probably had a good point though. It was barely afternoon and already she had been in the Magic Box for five hours. She could feel another headache starting, and knew the last week was beginning to take its toll.
Dawn and Tara had been the only members of the Scooby Gang willing to spend so much effort on Spike's behalf. The only time they had diverted from researching a cure was in the middle of the week when Tara had needed to provide Buffy with the low-down on a couple of Nostra demons that had been making waves downtown.
In the absence of Giles and Willow, Tara had found herself being turned to more and more as the chief researcher in the Scooby gang. No one was more surprised than Tara herself how easily she seemed to have slipped into the role. Nevertheless, she was starting to think it was going to take a miracle to restore Spike's eyesight, let alone his supernatural healing. Tara was beginning to despair of her own research so much as to consider calling Giles for assistance. She knew, however, that there had never been any love lost between the two Englishmen, and was uncertain whether Giles would be willing to help, even assuming that he could. So, she was keeping Giles as a last possible option when all else had failed completely.
The bell over the door jangled, announcing Buffy's entrance, and Dawn's head shot up, a hopeful look on her face.
"So, how's the English Patient today then?" Xander asked in a voice that told everyone he really didn't care.
"The same," Buffy shrugged. Dawn slumped again, looking thoroughly disappointed. The teenager had been particularly affected by Spike's condition, and seemed the most determined of any of them to help him. Tara knew Dawn had always liked the vampire, and had heard from Willow last year (who had heard it from Xander, who heard it from Buffy, apparently) that Dawn had a crush on him, so she could understand where the younger girl's concern was coming from.
Buffy came over to the table and sat down with them.
"Research still a bust?"
Tara simply nodded and went back to reading.
"Can I just ask a question here?" Xander sauntered over to the girls from the counter. "Why are we doing all this?"
"Who's the 'we' around here?" Dawn muttered, rather petulantly.
"Okay. You. Why are you doing all this?"
"Spike needs our help. At least until he can see again." Tara could see Xander was winding up for something. She suspected she wasn't going to like whatever it was.
"Okay. Why do we care? This is Spike we're talking about. The bad guy. The evil vampire. The monster that has tried to kill all of us on several occasions."
Under Xander's accusatory stare, Tara put a rather timid hand into the air.
"He's never tried to kill me."
"Fine, but I think there have been enough murder attempts on the rest of us that his high average still puts him in our top ten arch enemy listings." Xander was addressing them all but was focusing primarily on Tara. "Tara, with all due respect, you didn't know him before the chip. He was, and still is, a monster. I'm telling you, if he ever finds a way of deactivating the chip we will all be first in line for the massacre. So the way I see it, maybe this 'accident' is a good thing. If he's blind then he's a whole lot less dangerous. Personally, that thought kinda gives me a warm, fuzzy, safe feeling." He paused again, to get his breath and to let his argument sink in.
Tara commented, rather acidly, "You've been rehearsing that little speech for days, haven't you?"
Xander threw his hands up in a frustrated gesture.
"What is it with you people? Why am I the only one who hasn't been blinded to the reality here?" He hesitated as he realised what he had said, and added, "No pun intended."
"He can be kind of useful sometimes," Tara said defensively. "And he did work with us all last summer. Plus, he kind of saved me the night it all happened with the Koros demons. I don't think we should just abandon him now."
"Okay, reality check please. He only works with us because of the chip and because of his Buffy obsession, and even then he only does it when it's in his own interests. One last time - Spike is an evil vampire. And I defy any of you to refute that statement." He looked at each of the women around the table in turn, eyebrows raised, challenge issued.
There was a long silence before Dawn said, in an oddly confident voice, "No he's not."
Everyone turned to her, Xander with a startled expression.
"Well, think about it. I know he's not good, not really, but I don't think he's as bad as you say. Like last year. If he was just acting in his own interests he would have turned me over to Glory before she beat the hell out of him. He would have skipped town before the whole final battle thing went down. He wouldn't have stuck with us all through the summer when Buffy..." she hesitated and glanced guiltily at Buffy for a second, "When we needed supernatural backup. I know it's because of the chip, but the chip only stops him from hurting humans. It doesn't control him, it just limits him. He still made the choice to work with us, and I don't think that's the choice of an evil bad guy."
Dawn stopped for a moment, composing her thoughts. Then she continued. "And I know that technically, yes, Spike is a vampire. But what is a vampire? It's an evil creature that hunts humans and has supernatural speed and strength and healing. Spike doesn't hunt humans now, he isn't evil, and after this there's no super healing either. So, technically yes, but practically you can hardly even say he's a vampire right now." She looked straight at Xander, confident and determined. "That's why we're doing this. That's why we care."
Xander opened his mouth, then obviously decided against whatever he was going to say, and closed it again. Tara was impressed with Dawn's argument, although she thought the girl had stretched a few points a little far. Nevertheless, in broad terms Tara actually agreed with most of what Dawn had said, and was quite pleased that Xander had been so effectively shut up on the matter. She had to admit that Xander might have been right about her judgement being clouded since she hadn't known Spike before the chip. However, she could only form an opinion based on what she had seen, and what she had seen was a vampire working on their side against other vampires and demons, a man who was extremely protective of Dawn, and who had saved her own life only a week earlier.
With a somewhat renewed feeling of determination, she looked back at the text in front of her, and saw an answer staring her in the face.
"Hey guys. I think I've found something."
Tara looked up as they all turned to her. Xander looked almost disappointed, Buffy relieved, Dawn so overwhelmingly hopeful. Tara glanced back down and read further, with a growing feeling she might have spoken a little hastily. It was going to be difficult. It might not work. It probably wouldn't work. And it was going to involve powerful magic. She considered their reactions to the idea that she was starting to have, and knew what each of them would be. Xander would be no help at all, Buffy would worry at using that kind of magic after what had happened so recently with Willow, Dawn would place so much trust and hope in the effort that she would feel so much worse if (when, a voice at the back of Tara's mind whispered) it didn't work. Tara considered all this, and then looked back at them, an embarrassed and apologetic look on her face.
"Sorry, I guess not. It wasn't what I thought. It's nothing."
Dawn's face fell again, and Tara felt more than a little guilty. Better to do it this way than get her hopes up too much though. It might be only a remote chance of curing Spike, but it was the only chance she had found so far, and difficult or not, she was going to try.
When he heard the knock at the door that evening Spike knew who it was. There was only one person who bothered to be polite enough to knock before entering the crypt.
"Hello Tara," he greeted as she came in. "Wasn't expecting you 'til tomorrow." He put the bottle back in the fridge, somewhat reluctantly, and made his way over to the armchair. At least now he knew his way around the crypt well enough to not keep falling over things. Well, not very often.
"I know, that's not why I'm here. I think I might have found a way to get your sight back. I don't know if it will do anything about the supernatural healing, but that's not really so important, right?"
Spike's eyebrows arched in surprise, and he was suddenly a whole lot more interested in the witch's arrival.
"What is it? A potion or something? When Buffy was here this morning she said you still hadn't got anything."
"I only found it today. It's a spell. But Spike, before you gets your hopes up too much, I'm not certain how well it will work, if it works at all. It's kind of a healing spell, which is pretty powerful and difficult magic at the best of times. Plus, it's designed for humans, so I don't know if it will work for a vampire."
"You don't really think it's going to work at all, do you?" Spike had picked up on her tone rather than the words themselves. He knew the witch was never the most confident of people normally, and right now she sounded even more uncertain and defensive. Her quick explanation had sounded far more like an advance apology for the spell failing.
"I don't know, but after a week of almost constant research it's the only thing I've found that even has a chance. So better a small chance than no chance at all if we do nothing. That is, unless you don't want to."
Spike shrugged, trying to look like he was cool with the situation. "Alright. What do you have to do?"
"Well, I need to set a few things up. I have to mark out a protection circle, and get some herbal mixes burning. It'll be a while before we can start." There was the sound of a thud and chinking of glass, then the steady, methodical sounds of Tara laying out whatever it was that she had brought with her.
"Just you doing this then?"
"Um, yes. There isn't much the others can do to help. It's just magic." Spike heard Tara hesitate a little too long before she answered, and wondered if she was hiding something.
"So, still no sign of Willow? I mean, effort appreciated and everything but we all know she's the best witch round here, and if this is powerful stuff to be messing with wouldn't it be better to get her doing it?"
Again Tara didn't reply immediately, and when she did it was in a voice so quiet Spike almost didn't hear her.
"N-no. Willow's still gone."
"No idea where she is?"
"Spike, can we not talk about Willow right now?"
"I just thought..."
"What?" she suddenly snapped. "That I can't do it? That Willow's the only one around here with any real power? If you want I can just go now and you can stay blind while we all wait for Willow to bother letting us know where the hell she is."
Spike was too stunned at the angry outburst to reply for a moment. Then he muttered, "No, stay. I'm sure you can do it alright."
Tara resumed organising her magic paraphernalia and neither of them spoke for a while. It occurred to Spike that he really was losing his edge as the Big Bad if even Tara thought she could talk to him like that. If he thought it was okay to let her. When had that started happening? About a week ago was the answer, but he realised with surprise that he wasn't the only one who had changed since that night. In Willow's absence Tara had risen to the challenge and started to show her real potential, a power and determination that had been overshadowed by those around her for so long. That in itself was interesting, and Spike made a mental note that it might prove profitable to get closer to her. She could be a very useful asset if he could keep her on side.
In a softer voice he said, "I'm sure she's alright. Little Red can take care of herself."
"I know." The anger had drained out of Tara's voice. "But that doesn't stop me from worrying."
Spike nodded. "I do understand. Probably more than you think."
The air in the crypt started to be filled by a curious mixture of smells from burning incense and herbs. Spike could pick out individual scents, one a sweet, gently intoxicating aroma, another like tangy, ripe fruit. Yet another was bitter and made the back of his throat feel dry even though he wasn't actually breathing it in. Each of these scents swirled, rose and fell on the heat currents in the room, intermingling to create an atmosphere very different from the usual cold and damp, slightly earthy feel of the crypt.
Eventually Tara said, "Okay, I think this is ready."
She came over to him and gently took his arm. "I'm going to have to guide you over to the circle. There's stuff laid out all round it and we can't mess it up now."
Spike nodded, a sense of apprehension rising within that tensed his shoulders and made him grip Tara's arm rather tighter than he had intended as she led him over to the designated spot and asked him to sit down on the floor.
When he was settled, Spike tried to cover his fears with a forcedly casual comment.
"Okay Witch. Let's see what you can do."
In a curious echo of his own words from earlier, Tara replied, "More than you think, Vampire."
Spike realised that he knew she was smiling, he could hear it in her voice. Again he was startled that she felt comfortable teasing him, and that he was happy to let her. It was only then he found that far from being a source of worry or consternation, it was actually oddly comforting.
Tara sat down facing him, so close that their knees were all but touching. He could hear her shuffling around a little, and then she let out a slight gasp, a hiss through clenched teeth. Spike was momentarily confused. An instant later he understood. The smell of human blood was almost overpowering, and he knew she had cut herself.
"What the bloody hell are you doing?"
"It's just part of the spell."
She tried to take his hand, but Spike snatched it back, on the verge of standing up and backing away.
"I know enough about magic to know that it's only the dark stuff that ever needs you to bleed for it. What the hell kind of magic is this Tara?"
"Spike, it's okay. It's not dark magic. It's just powerful, and with powerful magic you never get something for nothing. It's a healing spell, so you have to give a little life force to get what you want." There was an edge to her voice that sounded almost frightened.
Spike still held back. "You don't mess about with life forces unless you're bloody sure you know what you're doing. And life force manipulation is dark magic."
"Oh for Christ's sake," Tara was practically shouting. "Do you really think I'm stupid enough to get into dark magic after everything that's happened with Willow? After what happened when we brought Buffy back? This spell isn't anywhere near as powerful as that was, but its still going against the laws of nature to repair physical damage by magical means. The only reason I think this might work is because what happened to you was a magical attack, so we're rectifying an unnaturally created condition." She paused to catch a breath, and when she spoke again she sounded calmer.
"I know it's dangerous, that's why I've taken precautions. If I thought there was another way of getting your sight back believe me I would be trying it first, but there isn't. Trust me, I know what I'm doing." Tara hesitated again, and added with a lighter tone, "Now are you going to try to argue theory of magic with a witch, or are you going to take hold of my hands before I bleed all over your floor?"
Spike hesitated a moment longer. He realised now what Tara had been hiding earlier - the others weren't helping because she hadn't told them what she was intending to do. He knew enough about magic to be afraid of what Tara was trying. There were too many things that could go wrong, too many variables, not least of which was the fact that he was a vampire.
But he also knew that Tara wasn't stupid, and while she had obviously been upset by Willow's absence she certainly didn't appear suicidal. Therefore he was ready to believe that she thought the risk was small enough to be taken.
And after a week of total blindness, and daily diminishing hope of recovery, he was just as ready to take the risk.
Spike finally nodded and held his hands out. After a moment, and a tiny whimper, Tara clasped hold and he could feel the hot, slick blood on her palms.
"What do I have to do?"
"Nothing. Just don't break the connection until it's finished."
Then, Tara started to cast the spell.
In a time before he had come to be known by his current sobriquet, Spike had received a proper, classical nineteenth century education, and he could still recognise Latin when he heard it. Even so, when Tara started to recite in the ancient tongue he found he could only identify a few isolated words, and he wondered if it was some kind of derived language developed by spellcasters. Tara was speaking slowly and clearly, and it sounded at first as though she were reading aloud from a text. After about a minute Spike realised she was now repeating the same thing over again, but by then he had given up trying to decipher the meaning of what she was saying.
At the end of the second repetition something happened. The air, already heavy with incense, changed subtly, and there was an almost imperceptible snapping of electric charge. A hot breeze riffled Spike's shirt, and he heard the sputtering of a candle struggling to stay lit. Tara's breath caught in her throat for a second before she began again and this time her voice had gained in strength and urgency.
Static crackled again, this time seeming to focus on their joined hands, and Spike's fingers spasmed into an even tighter hold. The breeze grew stronger, circling around and between them. Without warning the flesh of his palms tore open and he bit back a cry. Blood poured and mixed freely, and began to pool and drip between their fingers. The breeze became a wind spiralling ever faster. Somewhere behind him there was the sound of glass breaking. The windows rattled in their frames. The door banged open and then shut again. They were being forced apart, the wind pushing them in opposite directions, the blood making their grip slippery. Tara squeezed harder, and her voice rose to a shout and yet was barely audible over the screaming vortex.
The smell of blood was overpowering, and Spike was unable to prevent the demon from forcing its way to the surface and he felt his face change. Energy spat and cracked. Blood boiled in his hands, up his arms, through his body. Tara choked, stuttered for a moment, caught herself and forced out the last line of the recitation. Spike heard her draw breath as if to begin for a fourth (or was it a fifth?) time. Wind screamed. Blood pulsed. Then a force of lighting impacted between them and they were hurled apart. Spike flew backwards and hit the wall, wind and energy still ringing in his ears. Then he dropped to the floor and stopped moving.
When the ringing stopped, Spike realised that the crypt was now quiet. The smell of incense lingered, but was less pungent over this side of the room. Or maybe it had just been dissipated somewhat by the wind. The air was still warm, but beginning to cool almost immediately, and the tingling feeling of static had gone. He opened his eyes. Nothing changed.
Spike picked himself up slowly. He ached all over, both his hands hurt, and it had all been for nothing. The connection must have been broken before Tara had finished.
There was still blood on his hands, but he realised that the cuts themselves had closed already. He absently licked at the blood and the sudden rush was as unexpected as it was powerful. Tara's blood. It was still there, mixed with his own, and after so many months of pigs blood the taste was incredible. Human blood had a force all of its own, but this, this, was so much more potent. Spellcaster blood, he remembered. Not nearly so good as Slayer blood, but it still had one hell of a kick. He filed that away as a mental note for the future. After all, the chip wouldn't be there forever. Then he greedily lapped the blood from his hands, sucked every last drop from his fingers and allowed a satisfied smile as he savoured the warm, sweet taste.
It was only then it occurred to him that he had not heard Tara moving at all since they had been torn apart.
"Witch? You okay?"
There was no reply.
Was she unconscious? Or dead?
"Bloody fantastic," he muttered sarcastically. He had only a vague idea of where in the crypt he was, he had no idea where she was, and god only knew how much stuff had been knocked over and thrown around by the whirlwind. The increasingly detailed mental map that he had built up over the last week would now be hopelessly inaccurate. He felt the frustration rising again as he began to anticipate the trips, the stumbles, the blind groping that lay ahead. But he had to find her.
Okay, thinking logically, if she had been thrown with the same force he had, she had probably hit the opposite wall. That meant the best way would be to follow the wall round. That also meant he wouldn't walk through the magic circle that he supposed was still inscribed in the middle of the floor, and quite frankly until he knew it had been deactivated he didn't want to go near that.
Feeling his way along the wall wasn't as difficult as he had expected, but even so it was a few minutes before he walked into Tara's motionless body lying near to the door. He crouched next to her and shook her gently a few times. Then he thought to check for a pulse, found one, and with a tiny sigh of relief he tried again to wake her.
"Tara. Come on. You have to wake up. Do you know how much Buffy is going to kick my ass if something happens to you?"
Through the quiet he suddenly made out another sound. Running footsteps, and they were coming closer. As he listened, he realised they were heading straight towards the crypt. And it wasn't Buffy or Dawn. Only a demon made footfalls that heavy. There wasn't time to wake Tara now. Spike stood up and carefully positioned himself to the side of the door, and tensed, lying in wait for whatever was about to come through it.
Tara woke to the sound of fighting. But it seemed distant, and oddly unimportant. Besides, all her attention was becoming focused on the intense pounding inside her head. It felt like a thousand miniature miners were trying to pickaxe their way out through her skull.
Why was it hurting so much? Why was there blood on her hands? She couldn't remember, and thinking hurt as well, so she curled up into a ball and held her head for a while.
There was the sudden explosion of ceramic shattering, and Tara cringed at the noise before it occurred to her that it might be important to see what had caused it. She slowly looked up and saw Spike in full vampire form picking himself up from amongst the remains of an urn that had been standing in a corner. What caught her attention most, however, was the huge red demon that was advancing towards the vampire and snarling.
For a moment Tara assumed she must have been dreaming. Then in a rush of memory she knew where she was, and why she had come here. And after another moment of fully regaining consciousness she recognised the demon, and knew why it was here.
The demon shoved Spike back into the wall before he had even managed to get up properly, and the vampire responded with a flurry of punches, and a knee to the groin. None of that appeared to have a great deal of effect on the red demon, which was quite a bit bigger and bulkier than Spike. The demon grabbed him and spun Spike around, throwing him across the floor. Spike was on his feet again in moments, and turned back to meet the demon as it came after him again.
Tara realised as she watched that Spike wasn't fighting as well as she knew he was capable of. He was still blind, and that meant the spell hadn't worked. She felt disheartened at the failure, but didn't have time to think about it right then. She sat up and tried to cast a minor confusion spell at the demon. It normally needed components, but it was possible to do it without, and desperate times called for doing whatever was necessary.
Tara was confused. Surely something should have happened, even if it wasn't the full effect. But it was as if there was no power reserve to call upon for even the most minor of magics, and she realised how utterly drained she felt. Had the spell been so powerful that it had caused her to have a burn out? She had heard of such things, but never experienced one before. Then again, she had never tried to cast anything like that alone before. It was suddenly frightening to think that she couldn't call on her magic at all right then, especially knowing what was happening only metres away from her. That didn't mean there was nothing she could do, however.
As Spike continued to fight, only about half of his attacks actually making contact, Tara looked around for a weapon. The knife she had used to cut her hands was still on the floor not far from the scattered remains of the circle. She crawled over to it and got up, somewhat unsteadily. The demon still didn't appear to have noticed she was moving, being too preoccupied with the one he was fighting. She crept round behind it, trying to ignore the headache that still wasn't even fading.
The demon picked Spike up and rammed him back into the wall again, this time holding him off the ground with one hand. Spike's punches were becoming desperate, and Tara could see he wasn't going to win this fight on his own. She quietly stepped behind the demon, and, holding the knife firmly in both hands, stabbed it into the back of the demon's neck. It roared, dropped Spike, and rounded on her, clawing at the blade. As Tara backed away, looking for anything else she could use as a weapon, Spike kicked out at the demon's legs from where he was sprawled on the floor. The demon's knee buckled, it fell, and Tara ran forward to drag the knife out and plunge it back, this time into the demon's throat. It clawed feebly at her as blood pulsed. It gurgled, its breath rattling and bubbling in its throat. Finally it slumped to the ground and stopped moving.
For a moment neither Tara nor Spike said anything. Spike looked confused, and eventually asked, "Witch? What did you just do?"
"I killed it," Tara said, somewhat breathlessly, and sounding both surprised and pleased with herself. "Wow. I actually killed it."
Then she was rocked by a wave of dizziness and her legs gave way. Spike was at her side almost as soon as she hit the floor, and Tara felt almost embarrassed at the near fainting. She wasn't some damsel in distress; she was stronger than that. But the damn headache was still pounding and she felt light-headed as the adrenaline rush passed.
"You alright, Witch?"
It was bizarre to see concern on a face that was still contorted into the visage of a demon, and Tara felt the absurd urge to giggle. Almost as if he knew what she was thinking Spike's face reverted to normal.
"I'm okay. Just a really, really bad headache. I think the spell took a little more out of me than I expected." She sat up slowly, trying not to move her head too much. She took a close look at Spike's face to convince herself of what she already knew, and sighed. "It didn't work, did it? I'm sorry."
Tara really was sorry. Whatever Xander thought about the vampire, she didn't like seeing him like this. She realised now that in spite of all her warnings that it might not work, she had allowed herself to believe that it would, and the feeling of disappointment was far greater than she had ever expected.
"Nope. It didn't work," he said flatly. He stood and offered her a hand up. Tara took it and wavered to her feet, finally getting the vague feeling of nausea under control.
"So what is this thing anyway?" he asked, prodding the demon with his foot.
"Faraghi demon, I think," Tara said eying it dubiously. "It must have been attracted by the magical discharge from the spell. They feed on sources of magical energy."
"Feed? It was after you?"
Tara shrugged. "Maybe me. Or maybe just the area in general. I think they can absorb magical energy straight out of the air. From his point of view, this place must have been glowing like a drive-thru neon sign."
"That's just great," Spike muttered. "So now my home is Faraghi snack central. I've never even heard of them before. Do you think there'll be any more?"
"Not sure. They're supposed to be rare. But, hey, there was one on the doorstep within..." she checked her watch, "...Ten minutes of the spell starting. There could be more. I mean, this is the Hellmouth." Tara suddenly thought through what she had said and started to get worried.
"What are we going to do if any more come?" she asked. "Maybe we should get out of here."
"Well that wouldn't be much use if they're after you rather than the place. They'd follow wherever you went."
"We could go to Buffy's house."
"We could. If we wanted to be very slow moving targets for every demon between here and Revello Drive." He paused for a moment, looking thoughtful, and Tara heard him growl quietly. "I think we'd be better to stay here. I've got weapons, we can defend this place if any more come."
"I don't know, maybe..."
"Think it through, Witch. I'm still blind. You're not exactly steady on your feet right now. If we get attacked between here and Buffy's house we're not in any state to fight. And what if we get there and she's not in? If we stay here we can barricade the door, we can have weapons to hand, and I know the layout. Here at least I stand a chance of being able to fight." As an afterthought he added, "Before you even suggest it, I am not letting you go by yourself. Not if you're already hurt. Faraghi demons aren't the only things out there at night."
Tara wondered for a brief moment why Spike was being so insistent. He sounded worried, concerned, protective even. It didn't feel quite right, especially after he had normally been so keen to get rid of her whenever she had been here over the last week. But her brain still hurt, and if she didn't think about it too hard he did seem to be making some sense. And blind or not, she still felt slightly safer here with him than out there on her own.
"Maybe you're right. What do you want to do?"
Together they pushed the armchair against the door, and weighted it in place with the Faraghi demon's body. Tara retrieved her knife, but traded it in for a small battle-axe from Spike's weapon collection. He armed himself with a dagger, and they sat down to wait.
Almost two hours later Tara broke their introspective silences by commenting, "I don't think any more Faraghi demons are coming."
Spike gave a somewhat subdued shrug. "I think you're right."
He got up and went over to the fridge.
"So, maybe I should go. It's late."
"All the more reason you shouldn't go." He was now searching for something on a shelf beside the fridge. "I meant what I said before, I don't want you to go home on your own late at night if you're not alright. And if you still can't do magic it kind of leaves you defenceless."
"So, what? I stay here all night?" Tara found herself wondering about his motivations again, and was becoming suspicious.
"Is that really such a repulsive idea?" He sounded almost hurt.
"Not exactly. I just can't help wondering why you're so concerned all of a sudden."
Spike sighed and turned to face her.
"Okay, I'll be straight with you. It might not have worked in the end, but you've put in a damn sight more effort to help me than any of the rest of the Scooby Gang this last week. I can't help but feel I owe you, and that means not letting you go out and get hurt when the only reason you were here in the first place was because of me." He shook his head with a sardonic look, as if embarrassed at his own admission. "If I'm being totally straight, I could do with the company for a while. And if I understand you half as well as I think I do, you aren't exactly looking forward to going and spending another night alone without Willow."
Tara didn't know what to say. His honesty (and she actually believed he was being honest right then) surprised her. The truth was he had hit a raw nerve with the comment about Willow. But still...
"Look," he persisted. "This isn't a come-on or anything. I mean, no offence, but you really aren't my type." He grinned, and Tara suddenly found herself smiling back.
"Maybe a while longer," she allowed, softening to the idea the more she thought about it. "And just so you know, you're not my type either."
Spike laughed and turned back to the fridge, and when he returned he was carrying a bottle of Scotch and two shot glasses.
"Probably not a good idea. I still have a headache from the spell."
"Couple of shots ought to take the edge off the pain for the night. I won't make any promises about how you'll feel in the morning though." He poured himself a drink, and offered Tara the bottle and the other glass.
Tara hesitated a moment longer. This really wasn't one of the best ideas she had ever had. But on the other hand, dulling the pain was starting to sound like a good idea with every passing second. And she suspected a drink might take the edge off more than just the headache.
"To hell with it," she muttered, and poured herself a shot. "What are we drinking to?"
Spike downed his and grimaced slightly.
"Nothing. We're just drinking."
Tara thought about that for a moment. "Sounds fair."
With one final glance at the door to ensure it was still barricaded, and the axe was still to hand if necessary, Tara took one shuddering breath and threw caution to the wind.
"Dawn." The shout came from upstairs, but before she had chance to reply she heard the sound of Buffy thumping down the stairs.
"I'm in the kitchen."
Buffy came in and stood watching as Dawn made herself a sandwich.
"Is that another of your peanut butter creations?" Buffy's nose wrinkled in a vaguely dubious look.
"Hey, I like it," Dawn said defensively.
Buffy continued to watch quietly for a while, and Dawn eventually looked up. She was immediately worried. Buffy had that look on her face like she was going to say something that she knew her sister wouldn't like.
Buffy wandered in and sat down opposite Dawn.
"There's no way of saying this that you won't get angry or upset at, so I'll just say it. I don't want you to go over to Spike's crypt any more."
Dawn stopped eating in mid chew, and stared at Buffy.
"Why not?" she finally asked.
"Because it's not somewhere that you should be hanging around. Because he isn't someone that you should be hanging around with."
"So you decide this now, when he actually needs us to be there?"
"Spike isn't as helpless as he might like us to think he is. He doesn't need us to keep going round every day, and we can't keep this arrangement up for much longer. He isn't going to start dealing if he knows he can always rely on us for stuff."
Dawn slammed her sandwich down in disgust, and glared at her sister.
"God Buffy. He's blind. You don't just get over that in a week. If he was human there'd be hospitals, and helpers, and organisations that teach people how to deal with it. But he's not. So all he's got is us. And it's not even like we're doing a whole lot anyway. Now you want to take that away as well?"
"Dawn, it's not that simple," Buffy was starting to sound impatient.
"Yes it is." Dawn knew she was being petulant, but she wasn't going to give in on this. She actually liked Spike; she enjoyed spending time with him. Unlike most of the Scooby Gang, he didn't treat her like a kid.
"Dawn, we are not going to argue about this. I don't want you to go over with Tara today."
"Oh. So it's just me that you don't want seeing him. Great. Another idea from the Buffy master plan to make my life a pain." Dawn turned away from Buffy to look out of the window. The early evening sun was still bright, but starting to cast long shadows across the garden.
"It wasn't my idea," Buffy said in a quiet, controlled voice.
"Yeah, whatever." Dawn wasn't in the mood to listen any more.
"It was Spike's idea. When I saw him yesterday he asked me to tell you not to go over any more. So don't blame me for this Dawn."
"What?" Dawn turned back to Buffy with a look of confusion. "Spike likes me. He wouldn't have said that."
"Fine," Buffy said, obviously coming to the end of her patience with the conversation. "Believe what you want. But I'm telling you the truth. I doubt his reasons are the same as mine, but for once I agree with him about something." She got up to leave, picking up her jacket and bag.
"I've called the guys for a meeting at the Magic Box. If you want to come..."
Buffy shrugged and walked to the door. She stopped, but didn't turn round.
"Dawn. If you care about Spike as much as you say, you should respect his decision. Stay away from him."
Dawn stared at her sandwich, no longer in the mood to eat it. She heard the door close, and once again a feeling of being abandoned crashed down around her. Oh, they all said they cared about her, they all said they were looking out for her best interests. But none of them ever wanted to have her around them.
Somehow she had always trusted Spike to be different. He talked to her like a grown up, he didn't care that she was fifteen. He could make her feel safe and protected without being coddled. Okay, she knew that at least part of the time Spike had only been spending time with her so he could get closer to Buffy. That sometimes he only tolerated her being around. But sometimes, like those long nights when Buffy had been gone (dead, her mind insisted), they had talked together for hours, and it was during those talks that Dawn let herself believe he really was capable of caring about her. That he saw her as more than just the little sister of the Slayer.
So why the sudden change now?
Much as she didn't want to think that Buffy was lying, she couldn't believe that Spike wouldn't want her around until she heard it from him herself. She glanced out of the window again. If she ran, there was still time to be back before dark.
Buffy's parting words were still ringing clearly in her head.
"Respect his decision. Stay away from him."
Dawn hesitated a moment longer. Then grabbed her coat and left.
Tara knew she was going to be late for the Scooby meeting, but was still feeling on less than top form so wasn't inclined to hurry too much. The headache from the spell had finally passed, only to be replaced by another kind of headache for most of the morning, which was only fading now towards the end of the day.
She guessed the others would know something was wrong as soon as they saw her, and wondered how best to explain exactly how she had come to wake up that morning in Spike's bed with a monster hangover.
She knew that they hadn't done anything more than talk and drink. That they had moved down into the underground bedroom at past one in the morning because it was more comfortable, and because they were certain by that point that the Faraghi demon must have been a one off. That some time around four in the morning she had succumbed to exhaustion and fallen asleep where she was sitting, and that just happened to have been on the bed. And that some time between then and when she had woken up five hours later, Spike had covered her with a blanket and gone to sleep in a chair across the room. She knew nothing untoward had happened.
But the more Tara thought about trying to explain all of this to the gang, the more she thought it might make all their lives simpler if she just didn't mention it at all.
On reflection, Tara was still a little unsure what to make of the night, or of the man she had spent it with. At first she had been wary of him. She suspected that however "straight" he claimed he was being, there was always the possibility that he was actually being his usual calculating and manipulative self. As the night progressed, and the bottle became steadily emptier however, they had both become more relaxed, and the conversation had taken a more honest, more personal, and bizarrely, more friendly tone.
Tara had found herself telling Spike about how she had become interested in magic, how she had realised that she had the potential to be a real spellcaster, how she had done everything she could to get away from her family in order to pursue this new found talent. In turn, Spike had related a selection of stories from his pre-chip days, and Tara had learnt far more than she ever wanted to know about how he and Drusilla had travelled Europe and eaten their way through most of it. Somehow talking about Drusilla had led round to talking about Willow, and they had spent a good third of the bottle drowning their respective romantic sorrows. As time passed they had taken to using their new-found nicknames more and more, until, by the end of the night, "Witch" and "Vampire" slipped off the tongue far more easily than Tara or Spike.
It had occurred to Tara that if even half of the stories he told her were true, she could see why Xander held the attitude he did about the vampire. However, at the same time she found she was having difficulty taking the tales of murder and violence, chaos and destruction, and reconciling that demon with the funny, charismatic, surprisingly insightful and open man that she was talking with.
When Tara finally entered the Magic Box the bell sounded just a little too loud, and she wondered how she could not have noticed how annoying it was before. Buffy, Xander and Anya were already there, and Tara realised how small the group seemed without Giles and Willow.
"Okay, I guess we're all here now," Buffy said as Tara sat down. "I didn't want to start without you because this kind of concerns you most."
Tara was suddenly worried. Had they found out about where she was last night? Had they all got the wrong idea? Had they found out about the spell and they were pissed at her?
"W-what is it?"
"I've been thinking about the situation with Spike. I think maybe it's time we stopped trying to research a cure."
"Finally," Xander muttered. "I've only been saying that for the last week."
"No Xander, we had to try," Buffy said, somewhat defensively. "But it's been a week now, and still nothing. There's only so much we can do. And without Giles and Willow we're kind of running low on research people. There's other stuff that we should be putting effort into now Tara."
"I think I might have been close to something," Tara offered. She immediately felt Xander's glare and refused to look at him.
"That's great," Buffy said. "And I'm not saying give up entirely. But last night when I was on patrol a whole bunch of demons and vamps were acting really weird. I saw three demons in three separate places looking like they were totally high on something. Then a group of vampires that looked pretty skittish were trying to get out of town in a hurry. I cornered one for information but he just looked scared and I got zip. Thing is, if there's something new out there making demons go crazy I want to know about it."
"It sounds like it could be magic," Anya commented. "Demons and other supernatural creatures are far more attuned to magical disturbances than humans are. If someone was casting something big it might have made a shock wave big enough to get them spooked."
"Okay, now I definitely want to know what it is." Buffy turned to Tara. "Is there any way of locating a new powerful source of magic? If this is Ethan Rayne again I am going to kick his ass all the way back to England. Then Giles can have a go as well."
Tara felt her face becoming redder and hoped desperately that the others wouldn't notice. She knew exactly what the "powerful source of magic" had been, and glanced down guiltily at the band-aids on her hands. She really didn't want to tell them about last night. Because telling them about the spell would lead to telling them about what happened after, and that would lead to accusations, and blame, and rants about dark magic, and lectures about getting drunk with dangerous vampires, and after all that it hadn't worked anyway so there was no good side to the entire debacle. Unwilling as she was to lie to her friends, Tara felt the entire night fell under the category of things that shouldn't be mentioned if they all wanted an easier life.
"I don't know. I'll see if I can f-find anything." Tara couldn't bring herself to look at Buffy, and felt sure that they would all see through the lie at once.
"Tara?" Buffy's voice was suddenly full of concern. "Are you okay?"
"Um, yeah." She glanced up for a moment and barely made eye contact before looking away again. "I'm just not feeling very w-well."
"You do look kind of pale," Xander commented, also sounding worried. "It's all that research. I told you, it's not worth it for that creep."
"If you're ill don't worry about the research tonight Tara. It might just have been a one off, I won't know until I patrol tonight. But we can do the research for a bit. Xander's right, you should take a break from the books."
The concern they were showing was making Tara feel even guiltier. Especially considering that the current headache was entirely self-inflicted. But on the other hand, if Buffy saw that the demons were back to normal behaviour tonight she might drop the subject and no one need ever know what she had been doing with Spike. Lying low for the night seemed like a good idea.
"Maybe you're right. I'll check on Spike and go home, get an early night or something." She saw Buffy was about to protest and added, "It's on my way home to see Spike. You have patrol and stuff that's more important."
"Where's Dawnie?" Xander asked. "She's been pretty hot with the research lately. Maybe she could help us with this."
"She didn't want to come," Buffy said in a somewhat long-suffering voice. "She's sulking because I told her not to see Spike anymore. And don't even ask, it's a long story."
"Looks like you and me then, Honey," Xander stood up and looked expectantly at Anya. As they started bickering over where to start research Tara got up to go.
"Tara? Are you sure you're okay?" Buffy asked when she was almost at the door.
"Um, yeah. I guess. Kinda headachy, but yeah." Tara just wanted to get out.
"Well, be careful. It'll be dark soon."
Tara produced a stake from her bag. "Don't worry. I'm prepared."
"Oh Donovan. Why won't you tell me what was in that letter from Millie?"
"Yeah," Spike muttered at the television. "Don't keep us in suspense."
Spike was watching, or rather listening to, the latest episode of Passions. He had not appreciated quite how little sense such programmes made when it was not possible to see what was happening. The plotline about the letter had been dragging on for three episodes now and he still had no idea why Donovan was being so cagey about it.
He was so engrossed in the plot that he was genuinely surprised when the door opened, and jumped to his feet prepared to defend himself if necessary.
"It's okay. It's just me."
At the sound of Dawn's voice the combat reflex relaxed, but Spike felt himself immediately start to throw up his mental and emotional defences. After the previous night he was relatively happy to spend more time with Tara, but right then he was unprepared for either of the Summers girls.
"Buffy letting you come round on your own now? Wouldn't have thought she'd like that." He moved over to the television to turn it off, but after a few moments of feeling for the switch it still remained elusive. Spike's temper started to rise, and he hoped to God that he could find it before Dawn offered to do it for him. He couldn't take that without exploding.
"Not exactly. I mean, no." Dawn hesitated before taking a deep breath and continuing. "I talked to Buffy. She said you didn't want to see me any more."
To Spike's immense relief he finally found the switch and killed the television. It was only then that he properly considered what Dawn had said. So, Buffy had passed his message on after all. Somehow he wasn't surprised that Dawn had ignored it entirely. It was just like her.
He tried to sound disapproving. "So, obviously the first thing you do is exactly the opposite of what Buffy tells you."
"Is it true?"
Spike mentally counted the steps back to the armchair, and sat down again. He didn't reply.
"I see." Dawn sounded pissed off, and kind of offended.
Spike uttered a humourless laugh. "And I don't. Isn't that kind of the point?"
"Just go, Dawn."
"Not until you tell me why." Dawn was being unusually persistent. Spike realised he probably should have expected this reaction from her, but that didn't make it any easier to talk to her. So, he opted for a stubbornness of his own, hoping that he would piss her off enough to make her go away. Ironically he still cared about her enough that he didn't want to simply throw her out.
"You're a smart kid. I'm sure you'll work it out."
"Why don't you just tell me?"
"Why won't you take no for an answer?"
Dawn didn't reply for a long time. When she did it was with a surprising change of subject.
"Buffy thinks you don't need our help so much. That you need to start dealing on your own."
Spike felt a cold dread start to settle when he heard those words. It was already happening. It wasn't unexpected, but he was alarmed at how quickly the compassion had dried up. He wanted to protest. He ought to tell Dawn that he did still need them. He knew that would be the sensible thing to do at this point.
Instead he said, "Suits me just fine. I never asked for your help in the first place."
"You didn't have to ask. We wanted to help."
"But not now eh? What's the matter? Novelty worn off already?"
Spike realised he sounded a little more bitter than he had intended. The truth was he was now trying desperately to conceal his growing fear.
"I don't understand why you're acting like this Spike. Why do you keep trying to push us away?"
She may have been genuinely trying to understand his motivations, but unfortunately she sounded far more like she was whining, and Spike's already strained temper snapped.
"Because I'm getting pissed off with your bloody pity. I don't need it. And I don't need you lot trying to baby-sit me."
"We're just trying to..."
"Help? Yeah, right. Of course you are. What I don't understand is why you're bothering. Unless maybe big sis gets a kick out of seeing me like this, all down and helpless. Big Bad not so bad now eh? That it?"
As soon as he had finished Spike knew he had said too much. But now he had started he found he couldn't keep his temper in check.
"That's not true and you know it." Dawn was keeping her cool better than he was, but only just. "After all the times you've protected me I just wanted to repay the debt."
Spike gave an exaggerated sigh.
"And just when I thought my life couldn't get any lower. Now I'm being 'protected' by a little girl. Isn't that just bloody fantastic?"
"Spike, that isn't what I meant."
"No of course not. You aren't protecting me. That's Buffy and Tara's job apparently." His voice was laden with anger and self-contempt, all the thoughts and emotions he had promised he would keep to himself suddenly spilling out. "Ironic, the Slayer protecting a vampire. And a soulless one at that. Doesn't that just take the biscuit? And the cake, and the whole bloody bakery come to think of it."
"Oh right," Dawn said, in a voice that told Spike she had just had a revelation of understanding. "Is that what's bothering you? You're embarrassed that you have to rely on us?"
Spike stood up and started pacing.
"No Dawn. What 'bothers' me is that I made a promise that I would protect you, and now I can't even take care of myself."
"Fine. So admit to yourself that you do need us. Stop pushing us away. If you're never going to get your sight back then Buffy's right, you need to start dealing, but we can help you with that."
"Yeah, well. Thanks but no thanks. I've already played the crippled vampire scene. Wasn't fun the first time and I can't say I care much for the replay."
"So what are you saying? You're just going to give up, is that it? You admit you can't look after yourself, but you're too embarrassed to let us help because you think it might put a dent in your carefully crafted macho image? Why don't you just grow up and stop hiding from the world?"
Spike stopped pacing abruptly and stared at where he knew Dawn was standing.
Had she really just said what he thought she had said? He ought to be furious. Instead he was simply too shocked that she even dared to say those things to him. But he knew it wasn't just that which kept him from tearing a strip off her. She had hit just a little too close to the bone for his liking. Too close to the thoughts that he had been trying to keep at bay for the past week.
The only reply that he finally forced out was an incredulous, "Hiding?"
"Yeah. As in not going out, not even trying to do anything that isn't hiding in here and feeling sorry for yourself."
Spike didn't respond at first. Then he started to laugh. For a moment he didn't even know what he was laughing at. Certainly not what she had said to him. Slowly it started to dawn on him that what was funny was the whole damn situation. The absurdity that was his existence. Dawn's complete inability to understand him. The fact that the one person who seemed to be able to bring out all his pent up fears and frustrations was the one person he least wanted to see them.
"What's funny?" Dawn asked sounding genuinely confused as he finally got himself under control.
"You really have absolutely no concept of what my life is like, do you?" The unexpected release had drained a little of his anger, but the contempt and bitterness remained.
"What do you mean?"
"Think about it Dawn. I've turned against my own kind. I'm a vampire fighting alongside the bloody Slayer. You think that's made me popular in the demon world? Do you know how many demons there are in this town that are just waiting for the opportunity to take me down? The only thing that keeps most of them away is my reputation. That 'carefully crafted macho image' as you so mockingly put it. It's more than an image. It's a reputation. All those demons that want a piece of me don't mess because they know they won't win." He advanced on Dawn, anger simmering, and heard her footsteps backing away.
"What do you think is going to happen if I walk out there tonight? All it takes is one vampire, just one to realise that I'm blind. When word gets out they'll be queuing round the block to have a go. Sod your blood delivery tomorrow. You may as well bring a dustpan and brush to clear up what's left."
He stopped advancing on Dawn and began to wish he had a drink handy. God, he wanted to get drunk after this.
"You think I'm hiding? Maybe I am. But if I don't, I'm dead."
Dawn was silent for a long time. Then she said in a quiet voice, "I guess I never thought about it like that." In a suddenly optimistic tone she added, "But Buffy could make sure that doesn't happen."
Spike gave an exasperated sigh and started to pace again.
"Now we're right back at being protected by little girls. God this is depressing. I can't be human. I can't be demon. I got the worst of both worlds right now. If we're being realistic I can't survive for long like this." He could feel the fear and frustrations bubbling to the surface again, this time accompanied by self-pity and self-contempt. He hated himself. He hated his life.
"Look at me Dawn. I'm nothing. I can't just 'deal' with this. I'm hiding behind a reputation that I can't keep up any more. I'm letting you and Tara talk to me like you're not scared, like you've forgotten who I am, like I'm that wanker Harris or something. Buffy only tolerated me being around because I could be useful backup in a fight. Now she's calling it quits after a week because she's worked out just how bloody useless I am like this. A blind vampire's neither use nor ornament to anyone. I'm starting to wonder if it's even worth trying. If I shouldn't walk out into that graveyard and pick a fight that I can't win any more. I mean, I ask you Dawn, if I dusted right here, right now, name one person in this whole bloody town who would actually care. One person who would miss me."
The question hung in the air and the crypt seemed oddly quiet when Spike had stopped ranting. When finally given voice his thoughts sounded far starker than he had expected. The possibility of final death was a subject that he had considered with increasing regularity over the last few days. He had considered it once before after the chip had been put in, but over time he found he could live with the chip. This, this he wasn't so sure that he would be able to live with so easily.
What had been said in the heat of the moment was starting to look like a not so unrealistic option. After all, if they were abandoning him already it was only a matter of time. Maybe by sunrise tomorrow he could have worked himself into the mood to actually do it. Maybe...
Spike had been so consumed by his own thoughts that it took a moment or two to even realise that Dawn had spoken. It took even longer to convince himself that he had heard her correctly. He slowed to a halt and his brow furrowed into a look of confusion.
Could it be true? Or was she just saying what she thought he wanted to hear?
He would have given anything right then to be able to see her face, to judge for himself the sincerity behind the words.
"I'd miss you," she said in a stronger voice this time, and Spike didn't need to see her any more. He knew she meant it.
He didn't say anything, not because he wanted to drive her away this time, but because he was utterly at a loss to know what to say. That in itself was a rare enough occurrence for the vampire. But something was stirring inside. A feeling that was normally so alien for him that he barely recognised it. The same feeling that had woken so briefly when he had first seen Buffy back, alive after the longest hundred and forty seven days of his entire existence.
He knew that practically speaking nothing had changed in the last sixty seconds. But at the same time everything had changed. Two or three simple words, and suddenly a terminal sun tan didn't look like such a great option after all.
Tara knocked, waited her customary few seconds, and entered. Before she even said anything she stopped just inside the door at the unexpected tableau in front of her.
Spike was standing in the middle of the room, his head cocked slightly to one side, a curiously unreadable expression on his face. After a moment, a brief acknowledgment of her arrival, he turned away looking almost embarrassed.
Tara was even more surprised to see Dawn there, regarding Spike with a defiant look.
Tara glanced between them both for a few moments, unsure what to say. She got the bad feeling that she had just interrupted something important.
"Alright, Witch," Spike eventually greeted in a voice that was trying too hard to be nonchalant.
"Hey, Vampire," she shot back before she even thought about it. Then she noticed the odd look that Dawn was giving them both, and decided to pre-empt any awkward questions.
"Dawn, what are you doing here? Buffy said you weren't supposed to be over here any more."
Dawn immediately looked defensive.
"Buffy was wrong. We had stuff to talk about. Anyway, what are you doing here?"
Tara likewise became defensive even though she had a perfectly legitimate reason.
"I need to talk to Spike. And it's my turn to check in today."
She noticed Spike shake his head in amusement at the exchange.
"In two years no bugger ever comes here. Last two days it's been like Piccadilly bleeding Circus," he muttered.
Tara looked round the crypt. There were still traces of the circle burnt into the floor, but she suspected it probably wouldn't be noticed by anyone who wasn't already looking for it. She had tidied most of the post-spell wreckage before she left that morning and the place was now unusually neat. She just wished they had disposed of the Faraghi demon's body before the sun came up. At least then she might have had some help dragging it into the bushes. Why couldn't demons dust like vampires? It would make post-slayage cleanups so much easier.
"There was something you wanted?" Spike finally asked, breaking the awkward silence.
Tara opened her mouth to respond, but stopped when she remembered Dawn. She had come over to check in on Spike, but also to warn him to expect Buffy on information gathering patrol, and to ask him not to mention about the spell. She was apprehensive about asking him for any kind of favour. She suspected the vampire knew exactly how to manipulate anyone who owed him. But on the other hand Tara knew she wasn't necessarily the only one over a barrel right then.
"I want to talk, but it can wait." She turned back to Dawn. "Buffy's on patrol already and she's going to go nuts if she finds out you're here."
"She won't find out if nobody tells her."
"Fine, but we have to leave now in case she swings by this way tonight. I'll walk you home."
"I don't need..."
"Yes you do," Spike interrupted. "Go with Tara before it gets too dark."
Dawn looked sulky, but complied without further comment. They were in the doorway when Spike called out, "Dawn?"
He hesitated, as if considering for a moment. Then said in an oddly hopeful voice, "See you tomorrow?"
It was as if someone had flicked a switch in Dawn's head. Her mood was gone in an instant, replace by a sudden grin.
"Sure," she said eagerly. Then added tentatively, "I mean, if you don't mind?"
Spike offered his own lopsided smile. "I don't mind."
Tara got the distinct impression that she had yet again missed something important. There was a subtext that had nothing to do with a simple invitation, but with a glance at the rapidly darkening sky she decided it could wait.
They headed out into the graveyard, Tara negotiating their route as far away from the bushes containing the Faraghi demon as possible.
"You know Buffy wants to stop trying to help him?" Tara said when they had moved away from the crypt.
"Yeah, she told me. You guys can stop if you want. I'm not going to."
"I kind of agree. But there has to come a point when we admit that there simply isn't a cure."
"You sound like Buffy now. I thought you were on my side." Dawn was starting to sulk again.
"Hey, I'm the one who usually sees everybody's side, remember? It's getting kind of difficult because technically speaking there's no right and wrong in this one. Just a judgement call on when enough is enough."
Tara heard a twig snap behind and looked round, and froze. The vampire looked down at his feet with a faintly annoyed expression.
"Why does that always happen to me?" he asked the world in general.
Tara and Dawn glanced at each other, the same thought obviously in both their minds. Then they ran... right into another two vampires who had moved in front while they were distracted.
"Looks like fast food tonight boys," one quipped.
"Not very fast," the other replied.
A number of thoughts were flying through Tara's mind. First, she remembered that she was still suffering from magical burn out, so any form of confusion spell or telekinesis was out of the question. Second, she realised she had only one stake in her bag, and Dawn was obviously unarmed, and there were three vampires, which made the math look kind of bad from her point of view. Third, she was a little pissed off at herself for getting caught like this, because quite frankly she and Dawn were two people who really ought to have known better.
She needed a plan. Better yet, she needed a Slayer. Either would do. Both would be good. Anything that didn't involve standing here surrounded by three hungry vampires, frozen in place by a mixture of fear and indecision. Dawn screamed as one of the vampires grabbed her, and Tara realised she had just run out of time for planning.
She pulled the stake out of her bag and acted.
Spike recognised the scream. God knew he had heard it often enough. He quickly moved to the door, almost falling over the step in his haste. He listened at the door and heard the sounds of combat outside, some way off.
His first instinct was to pull the door open and charge to the rescue, all cavalry-like. Then he reminded himself quite how monumentally stupid that idea was right then. What he'd said to Dawn was true, both about how mostly useless he currently was in a fight, and about what would be the likely outcome of the demon world finding out about his condition.
But, dammit, that was Dawn and Tara. In spite of himself, somehow Dawn had managed to worm her way into his consciousness and make herself a place there, comfortable and protected. Even ignoring her tendency to be a whining brat on occasion Spike actually quite liked her. Until recently he couldn't have cared less about Tara. She was just the latest romantic attachment of a rather more interesting, and far cuter, witch. But after last night it seemed to be such a waste of a potentially powerful ally. And a rather fun drinking partner.
No, he thought to himself. This is ridiculous. Pointless to even think it.
Spike had an exceptionally well-developed sense of self-preservation. You didn't get to be a hundred and twenty two year old vampire without one. And he knew what he was considering was tantamount to suicide.
But he was also aware that Dawn and Tara appeared to be his primary, hell his only sponsors among the Scooby Gang. If they were dead then sooner or later so was he.
His own words, said to Buffy what seemed like a lifetime past, came back to him.
"There's death, there's glory, there's sod all else, right?"
At the time he had been trying to rile her. But as was so often the case for him, there was many a true word spoken in jest.
Animal instinct was urging him to fight, and the vampire had always acted far more on instinct than on reason. The voice of self-preservation screamed at the insanity. But Spike was no longer listening to it.
"Sod this. Death or glory it is."
He pulled the door open and headed in the direction of a second scream. Trusting to his memory of the graveyard around his crypt, he moved slowly enough that walking into a gravestone didn't necessarily result in a fall. He remained as silent as possible, listening to locate the fight, identify how many were involved, whether they were demon or vampire. He moved along the edge of another crypt, feeling along the wall with one hand, hearing the sounds become louder, closer. His fingers found the corner of the building, and he hesitated to step away into the open.
Something was moving a few feet directly in front of him. He could hear it shuffling its feet, smell the leather it was wearing, and knew from its size and movements that it was neither Tara or Dawn. From the right he heard Dawn scream Tara's name. A scuffle suddenly broke out some way off to the left, and a voice called out, "Hey Jez, save me some of the little one." Spike knew then that they were vampires. He recognised all too well the slight lisp that a pair of vampiric fangs caused. That sealed it.
Spike felt his forehead become ridged, and flicked his tongue over the newly protruded fangs.
Game face on. Here we go.
He stepped forwards, slowly, carefully, silently. Closing the distance until...
He launched a sudden kick and felt it connect with the vampire's back. The creature staggered forwards with a surprised yelp, and the sound was all that Spike needed to follow his movement and press the offensive with another kick that doubled the vampire over. He reached out until he found the vampire's head, grabbed a handful of hair, and rammed his knee into the creature's face twice. He couldn't help the satisfied smirk of a job well done when he heard the splintering of bone and felt the vampire's nose crumple on second contact. He felt for the vampire's arm with his free hand and once found, he spun the vampire round and bent its arm behind his back while still holding it by the hair. All this had taken bare moments but already the angry shouts of two other male voices were cutting across the graveyard and almost drowned the sharp crack as Spike pushed the vampire's arm an inch too far and snapped it at the wrist. He heard another moving towards him and dropped the limp and moaning form to the floor.
Normally Spike would have made some quip, but he knew he couldn't afford to do that. He needed to be able to hear everything going on around him to even have a chance in open combat. Okay, the first one was down, but he'd had surprise there. He didn't expect the others to be so easy.
There was a thump and a squeal from the right, Dawn, he thought, and the vampire named Jez called out, "Okay, who the hell do you think you are? We found these two first, if you're looking for a snack get your own."
The scuffle to the left ended abruptly with the thud of a body hitting the ground and Tara uttered a strained moan.
"Spike. Help," Dawn wailed.
Okay, screw the playing along with the vampires plan, Spike thought, irritated that the kid couldn't keep her mouth shut again.
"Spike? That's Spike?" the third vampire asked in a slightly disbelieving tone. "I thought he'd be bigger."
"Big enough for your friend," Spike commented, jabbing his boot into the downed vampire's side to emphasise the point.
He realised that neither of the vampires were moving towards him any more. That was bad. Assuming they hadn't already worked it out, he wanted to keep his blindness from them as long as possible. That meant waiting for them to come to him. There was no way he could cover the ground between them without it becoming obvious that he couldn't see.
"I heard you'd gone soft," Jez taunted.
Spike snarled. "Fancy your chances do you?"
Dawn shouted the warning a moment too late as Spike realised the vampire at his feet was moving. He tried to step back out of the way but the attack was too unexpected. The vampire grabbed his leg as he stepped away and Spike was thrown off balance and fell back against the corner of the crypt. In that split second he saw a blur of movement as Jez charged towards him and...
He saw it?
Spike stopped dead where he stood, stunned and confused. He could still see nothing but darkness, but for a moment he could have sworn...
A punch to the face brought him out of his reverie and the force knocked his head back against the wall. There was a blur of movement in front of his face a second later, and this time Spike snapped his head to one side fast enough to hear the satisfying crunch of a fist hitting the wall beside his ear. He retaliated immediately but Jez managed to block most of his attacks. He caught another blur of motion on the periphery and realised the first vampire was getting up. He kicked Jez away and turned to meet the expected attack. None came, but a second later there was the unmistakable sound of a vampire dusting.
"Not very fast, eh?" Tara said in a pissed off, yet triumphant, voice.
Jez came at him again and Spike grappled with the vampire, eventually managing to ram and hold him against the crypt wall. Jez struggled, but Spike was stronger and held firm.
"Stake might be useful right about now, Witch."
"Got it covered, Vampire." Tara's voice came from not far behind his shoulder and Spike knew she was ready. He swung Jez round away from the wall, keeping an arm's length hold of the vampire's throat with one hand and one of his wrists with the other. Jez struck out at Spike with his free hand but was unable to connect solidly from that distance. Spike saw a faint, blurred outline of a figure move round behind Jez, and then he was holding nothing but air as the vampire exploded into dust.
"Where's the other one?" Spike asked as Tara moved next to him and took a gentle hold on his arm. She was still assuming he was blind. Actually Spike was blinking rapidly, squinting to try to make sense of the slowly solidifying images around him.
There was a flash of motion somewhere in front and he heard Dawn scream again.
"He's got Dawn," Tara yelled. "He's getting away."
Tara started running, and Spike took off immediately, overtaking her and sprinting after the escaping blur ahead of him. His vision wasn't nearly good enough to actually manage this feat yet, and he tripped and nearly fell several times, momentum and natural agility alone keeping him on his feet. He couldn't tell how far ahead the vampire was, and so couldn't judge when to make the tackle. Depth perception wasn't even a faint possibility, and if anything, this sudden ability to see movement was even more disorienting than no vision at all. Spike almost marvelled at the irony as he suddenly had an idea, and closed his eyes. The retreating footsteps, Dawn's panicked breathing and the occasional squeal, all these sounds placed them a few seconds ahead and to left, and Spike knew he was gaining on them.
"Spike. Help me."
Finally, Spike thought. She decides to scream when I actually want her to.
That scream was enough to identify their position as accurately as he was ever going to manage, and Spike leapt at them in a full tackle.
Three bodies hit the floor in a tangled heap, and Spike screamed at the sudden shooting pain in his head. Unfortunately for him, the chip had no way of identifying that he had just tackled Dawn to the floor and landed half on top of her for her own good.
For a moment the pain was too intense for Spike to do anything other than grip his forehead with both hands and wait for it to pass. In the meantime the remaining vampire was getting to his feet, and as the electric charge in his brain finally abated Spike received a kick in the face that knocked him down. He bounced back immediately, determined to finish this.
Spike stumbled to his feet and jumped at the vampire again as it tried to run, this time without Dawn thankfully. They both landed in another ungainly heap in front of a gravestone. Spike could just about make out the outline of the stone, and got to his knees and grabbed the vampire by the collar. Before the vampire could act he smashed its head back into the gravestone, and then again, and again, and again. He felt blood spray onto his hands after a few moments, but this was the first really decent action he'd seen for too long, and Spike couldn't have fought against the adrenaline rush and the instinct of the beast even if he had wanted to. He firmly held the opinion that the therapeutic value of repeatedly caving someone's skull in was vastly underrated. Unfortunately, he realised with some regret, that with Dawn and Tara involved this fight came under the category of business, not pleasure.
"Tara. Stake." He held his hand out with the arrogance of a surgeon awaiting a scalpel. He was aware that she and Dawn were not far behind him, he had heard them talking. A moment later she pressed the weapon into his hand and Spike turned back to the barely conscious vampire and rammed the stake into its chest.
"Oh, for Christ's sake," he muttered at the rather embarrassing anticlimax. Maybe his vision was still a little too fuzzy after all.
"Try a bit higher," Tara advised over his shoulder.
With a long-suffering sigh, Spike pulled the stake out and tried again. This time he was rewarded with a cloud of dust in his face, and he sat down against the gravestone, the rush of combat finally fading. He could taste blood in his mouth, and knew his face and hands were bleeding and bruised, along with a few re-broken ribs. He could tell at once that the cuts were not healing as fast as they should have been, and he wondered briefly how his sight could be returning without supernatural healing.
He looked up to see Tara and Dawn standing in front of him. Even as he watched the outlines of the dark shapes were becoming clearer, and his mind filled in the details of their faces. Suddenly remembering his own, he forced the demon back, turning away until he appeared as human as they were. Although he hated to admit it, even to himself, he didn't like Dawn seeing him with the face of the creature he really was.
"Wow. You saved us." Dawn sounded impressed. "After what you said I never thought you'd come."
Spike casually shrugged off the compliment. "What can I say? I heard you were in trouble and came over all heroic."
"Lucky for us," Tara commented, and Spike wondered at the slightly knowing tone in her voice if she had guessed his sight was returning.
"Are you okay?" Dawn asked. "You look kinda beat up."
"There's a reason for that, Little Bit."
He rested his head back against the gravestone and took in the sight of the moon, a blurred not quite circle in the darkness, for the first time in a week. He suddenly found himself wondering what that moon looked like reflected in the lake back in England that he had visited so many years ago. It was an idle thought that certainly bore no relevance to the situation, but Spike could suddenly see the light at the end of the tunnel, almost literally, and felt he could finally allow himself to relax.
"Spike? Are you okay?" Dawn sounded worried now, and Spike realised he had been so carried away by his daydream that he hadn't replied to her earlier question.
He pondered for a moment longer, and a slight smile touched the edges of his mouth. "Like I said. See you tomorrow."
Continued in EPILOGUE