Disclaimer: Thanks be to the Joss. The Joss is good. In the footsteps of the Joss do we gratefully warm ourselves, nor expect we thanks or remuneration. (Though feedback would be nice ...)
The vampire in the back corner booth raised his head from the beer he was nursing. What the hell? He'd deliberately picked the hotel bar because nobody would expect to find him here. Too upscale for Willy's clients, an older crowd than the Bronze. So what if it was fake Edwardian bordello, all red flocked wallpaper, wood panel, polished brass bar fittings. He'd seen worse eras than the Edwardian. This one, say. Made him feel at home, almost. And the crowd was travellers, executives minding their own business, having a drink and some dinner before they headed up to their rooms for the night. No one to bother him. Even the working girls had given up on him. A man could have his pint in peace. Must be hearing things. He turned back to his beer.
"Spike? It is you?" Soft, tentative feminine voice. Definitely not Buffy. He sighed and looked around.
"Tara?" What was she doing here? Dressed nicely, he noticed. Pretty dress, soft flowing sort of thing, lower cut than he'd seen on her before. Suited her figure. Nice legs, too. Was she stepping out on the witch? Good for her. She was looking at him timidly, expecting to be rejected. He opened his mouth to drive her away but had another look at her anxious face and hadn't the heart. What the hell. He jerked his head at the opposite bench and she sat down, breaking into a relieved smile as she did so.
"Got a date?" He leered automatically at her breasts. Couldn't hurt her to know she was looking well. Though her face was drawn; she didn't look like she was sleeping much, poor kid. Not that that would matter to most men. They wouldn't notice her face, with those tits.
She looked down at her dress and started. "Oh - no - " she began to nervously cross her arms over her breasts, the Victorian maiden surprised in her bath. He grinned into his cup. After a moment she gave it up and took a breath. "Uh - job interview."
"Man interviews you here doesn't have a day job in mind, luv. Did he offer you a tour of his room?" He wiggled his eyebrows outrageously and watched the rapid flicker of emotions across her face. Puzzlement, surprise, shock, beginning to be outraged, nope, amusement, relaxation. She nearly giggled. Good. He might get a whole sentence out of her now.
"I was hoping to work here as a waitress. Now that I'm not, I mean, I wasn't paying rent at Buffy's. But my student loan doesn't quite, um, since I didn't apply this year it's too late to get into residence, and it costs more to live off-campus, so - anyway." Still waiting for a complete sentence, but that was more than he'd heard from her in possibly the entire time he'd known her. Her shoulders slumped a little. "Anyway I didn't get it."
"No? Idiots. They would have tripled their business." He gave her dress another grin, just so she didn't feel underappreciated. She did smile a little. Didn't matter if you didn't swing that way, it was nice to know you had the choice, he guessed.
"No, they - they said I was too shy."
They had a point. "You're too smart for this kind of work anyway, luv. Would have thought office work was more your style. Something with computers mebbe."
At the word "computers" her face clouded up. Oops. "No, that's more Will's thing. I was never as good as - " her voice trailed off.
"The witch is smart, I'll give her that," he said bracingly. Anything to head off a weeping fit. "Can't hold a candle to you for common sense, though. Got to count for something."
She was still wearing that stricken look. She probably got it whenever anything reminded her of Red. No more than a thousand times a day or so. He knew the feeling. Change the subject. "Buy you a beer?"
She looked surprised. "Oh, no thanks, I - "
"You don't drink?" Figured. Wiccan types. Herb tea was about their limit.
"Not beer." She added hesitantly, "um, would sherry be okay? Harvey's Bristol Cream?"
"You're joking, right?" he said, revolted, but signalled the waiter and placed the order.
"So, uh, what are you doing here?" Tara said after her sherry arrived.
He watched, fascinated, as she sipped with obvious pleasure from the delicate little glass. 'You're typing yourself, you know that," he answered. "Doomed to a life as a librarian. Nobody else drinks that stuff."
"I wouldn't mind being a librarian," she said. "Mr. Giles seemed to like it."
"Yeah, well, he had other interests to liven up his day."
"So do I," said Tara. "Maybe not like Mr. Giles. But I wouldn't only live at the library either." She took another sip and he could see her relaxing. It must have been an unpleasant interview. Though Tara was on edge by nature. He hated to think what her family had done to her to make her forever so unsure of her welcome. "You haven't said why you're here," she reminded him.
"Having a quiet pint," he said shortly. She was a bright kid too, and backed off right away, looking a little hurt. He relented. "Like the ambience," he added. "Almost reminds me of a cheap imitation of home."
She gave that the half-smile it deserved. "I wanted to work here because no one I know comes here," she said. "I don't want to see the gang right now. Will's friends. I mean, they're nice, they were nice to me, but I need - "
She hesitated. "A place of your own?" he offered, just as she finished "my own life". She nodded.
"Yeah," he said. "Place is good for that. I've never seen any of them in here." They fell into a companionable silence, Tara sipping her sherry. Spike nodded idly at a framed yellowing newsprint photo on the wall beside them. "I saw her sailing out of harbour, the trip she got torpedoed."
Tara looked. "The Lusitania?"
"Meant to be on it. Something came up. Lucky thing. I guess." Spike had another drink from his mug. "It was loaded to the gunwales with munitions, you know," he added. "They didn't admit it until years later."
Tara nodded. "We studied it in my war propaganda class."
"Nobody would have believed it then, even if they'd admitted it flat out," Spike said. "People see what they want to see."
"And believe what they have to believe," said Tara. They looked at each other.
"So how's the witch doing?" asked Spike after a pause.
Tara looked away. "I haven't seen her lately. Dawn says she's doing better. She says she's not using magic at all."
"You believe her?"
"I'd l-like to." The stammer. She didn't believe it. "I'd really ... but last time she d-didn't even try."
Spike looked at her compassionately. "Think you'll get back together?" he asked quietly.
Tara swallowed and shook her head. "I t-try" - she took a breath and started again. "I try to imagine it sometimes. But she wiped my memory." She looked up at Spike. "She did it twice. As soon as I disagreed with her. She tried to make me into someone else. Someone who never stood up to her. She didn't care about me. She just wanted a fantasy relationship with a - a blow-up doll who never said anything she didn't want to hear."
"That's a little harsh," objected Spike, wincing inwardly. "I mean, the witch loves you, Tara. Everyone knows that."
Tara nodded. "She loves me some. But that part of her isn't in charge anymore. The part that wants c-control is running the show."
Perceptive little thing, Tara. She spoke so little that you could forget what an insightful mind lay behind those eyes, quietly observing. She'd put the problem in a nutshell. The little witch had lots of good in her, but the part that wanted control was running things. That was the short road to hell. And he should know.
Abruptly he felt even lower than he had before Tara walked in. If two perfectly normal, well, fairly normal girls could let things get so far wrong ... hell. He'd never had any chance anyway, he knew that. "You don't think she's going to get better?" he asked.
Tara hesitated, that anxious little crinkle forming between her brows. "She might," she said eventually. "But after what she d-did to me I don't know if I could ever trust her. I think about going back and I'm really afraid. I g-get this lump in my throat. My chest gets all tight. How could I ever know if what I thought I remembered from last week, from an hour ago, was what really happened? H-how could I know that she wasn't just manip-manipulating me? I think it would be a long time be-before I could trust her again. I don't know if I ever can."
That had to be the longest speech he'd ever heard her make. She was stammering more now though. Getting worked up. He cast around for something encouraging to say.
"I expect you'll do the right thing," he said. "Whatever it is. You seem like a sensible sort."
"I'm doing the right thing now," said Tara sadly. "I know that. Bu-but it's hard."
Spike nodded. "Yeah." He looked at the table. He could feel Tara's gaze on the top of his head.
"How's Buffy doing?" she asked, and he looked up. She was watching him sympathetically. "Any better? She's seemed kind of - distant."
She seemed to be choosing her words carefully. Spike opened his mouth and closed it again. The temptation to tell her everything was almost overwhelming. But Buffy was ashamed of him. Didn't want anyone to know. So he couldn't talk about it.
"Yeah," he said again. "She is a bit. Thought for awhile she was coming round." He had a swig of his beer. "Gotten worse again lately though."
"That must be hard for you," Tara said, and Spike looked at her sharply.
"Why hard for me, witch? I barely see her."
"I know how you feel about her," Tara said simply. "It would have to be hard. To see her - like that - and not be able to get through. Not be able to help."
Spike nodded wearily. "Done what I can," he said. "She just seems to get worse." He set his mug down and stared moodily into the remnants of his beer. Maybe time to order another. Not that this one had helped. "Try to give her what she wants. Don't know what that is these days."
Tara became engrossed in mopping up a bead of moisture with the corner of her napkin. "What do you want?" she asked.
"Nothing I'm going to get." He knocked back the rest of the beer and waved the mug at the waiter. "You want another?"
Tara shook her head and he saw that her glass was still half full. "I get - I'm a cheap drunk," she said, smiling timidly.
"Afraid I'll take advantage?" He grinned at her with automatic lasciviousness and she giggled.
"Afraid you'd have to carry me home," she said. "Besides, this is my third." He looked at her in surprise and she added, "you said yourself, any man who would interview me here ..."
"I think so. At least after the second sherry he kept trying to touch me, and I kept pulling away, and then he said I was too shy for this job." She took another decorous sip.
Spike looked around. "He still here?" Tara nodded towards a darkhaired man at one end of the bar. Spike snorted. "Weaselly little bastard. Seen him in here before. Always hitting on the vulnerable ones." He kept his eyes on the man. "Do you really want this job? Because I can just have a word with him." He half-rose from his seat, and Tara patted his sleeve anxiously.
He looked down and saw her shaking her head. "Thanks. But no. Really. He's right. I wouldn't enjoy working here."
He stood a moment longer and gradually subsided back into his chair. She removed her hand from his sleeve and replaced it in her lap. "You're sure," he said. "It'd be no problem. My pleasure."
"Honest. I'll just sign up with a temp office agency," Tara said. "And something else will turn up soon enough."
"Your choice then." The waiter appeared with Spike's beer and he paid for it and took a drink. Tara was toying with her napkin again.
"Spike. About Buffy," she said. "She's had a lot of bad stuff happen to her."
"I know. We should all give her our love and support and lots of space while she figures things out, it's not her fault." Spike said. "It's nothing I don't know. I'm really trying. I don't need the let's-help-Buffy speech."
"Not what I was going to say." Tara was intent on the napkin. "I was going to s-say, d-don't let her use that as an excuse. I know what's been - " she looked up and took a breath. "I know you've been ha-having s-s-sex." Her head dipped again and the last words were in such a low voice that only his vampire hearing could pick them up.
"You think we've been doing the deed?" She nodded, turning pink. "Having it off? Riding the pony? Hiding the salami? Making the beast with two backs?" He couldn't resist, she turned redder with every synonym he used.
She looked up at him again and said firmly, "Going at it like starving sailors, yes." Good for her. He grinned and raised his mug to her in a toast. "I knew when she came home so late that night. The following morning. She was looking way too relaxed and, well, there's no one else. But, um, you don't look happy. And you aren't hanging out together or, or anything."
His grin subsided and his gaze slid away from her. He shook his head. "I'm a disgusting evil thing," he said. It still stung. "I'm just convenient. I'm good enough to shag but not good enough to bring home to dinner." He took a savage swig from his beer.
"What do you want?" Tara said again. She'd stopped shredding the napkin now, and her eyes were fixed on him.
"Then don't take it."
He looked up at her in surprise. "This really isn't the 'support Buffy' speech."
"Supporting her doesn't mean letting her treat you badly." Now it was back to the napkin-shredding. "I, uh. I know something about this. I let Willow get away with a lot. I thought she'd figure out for herself that it was wrong. I hoped she would. But she was just - " Tara took a shaky breath, and Spike realised she was holding back tears. "She was just getting way too much out of using magic all the time, you know? It was too much for her. It made her feel good, and powerful, and in control, every time she felt bad, she could just magic it away. Why would she want to stop?"
"I don't think Buffy's like that," Spike said. But his gaze focussed thoughtfully past Tara. Was that how Buffy was using sex? Just to make her feel good, get her out of feeling the bad stuff? It had nothing to do with him then. That wouldn't be good.
"I didn't think Willow was. Like that. But the feel-good stuff. She couldn't turn it down. And, uh, Buffy's really angry right now."
"So?" Spike wasn't sure, now, where this was going.
"So I think, uh, if she's treating you badly, it's because it makes her feel good." She gets to dump all the bad stuff on you, reject you, insult you, all that stuff, and her bad feelings go away. For a while."
So the sex wasn't the drug; it was the hostility? "Hello, vampire," said Spike. "Violence, anger, I can handle those." He took another swig of beer, watching Tara. "She'll get over it eventually. And if I hang in there till then, we'll still have a chance."
"No. She won't get over it as long as you keep letting her do it." Tara's voice was firm. "She doesn't have to find another way to cope as long as she's got you to kick around. And, uh, if she gets into the habit of abusing you, it won't stop. She'll keep doing it and then she'll feel bad about it and then she'll do it some more because she's angry with you because she feels bad. She'll never get over it." Tara took another breath.
Spike started to grin. "Psych major. How could I forget."
Tara shook her head vehemently. "My father," she said. "It's what he did to my mother all my life. He kept calling her a demon and every other name in the book, and insulting her and cutting her down in public and refusing to be seen with her, and never giving her any money, or respect, and telling us kids, her own children, that she was evil. And stupid and incompetent and ugly and badly dressed and any other thing he felt like saying about her.
"And he used it as an excuse to do anything he wanted to her. I mean, even if she had been a demon he would have had no right to beat her down that way. And meanwhile he expected her to do all the work and take care of him and have sex with him whenever he wanted, and he never thanked her for anything or gave her a single kind word. And she just kept taking it and taking it. And she told me she kept thinking that if she just tried harder to be a good wife and do what he wanted, someday he'd get over it and see that she was a good person. But he never did. He just got worse and worse. And then she died. And even then, he never admitted he'd been wrong. I've never heard him say a single good thing about her.
"It's why I became a psych major. To understand it. And now I do. He had bad things happen in his life too. But they were no excuse. He was an abusive bastard because it made him feel good. And the time to stop him was the day he started. He was never going to stop on his own."
Spike looked at her. He was stunned into silence. He had never heard little Tara speak with such passion. At last he swallowed and said, just to be sure, "so it's not the sex that you think is bad for her."
"No, of course not." Tara took a sip of her sherry. "It's the insults and stuff. The acting as if you're not good enough for her. That's the drug. The sex is probably giving her reason to want to live. "
He held her eye with a trace of a smile on his face until she blushed again. "I admit, I have my talents," he drawled at last.
Tara reddened more but didn't look away. "I think the sex is probably bad for you, though," she said unexpectedly. "If you start thinking you're only good enough to shag. And as my father always said, why buy the cow."
"When you can get the milk free? Do they still say that?"
"In my family they do." She grinned suddenly. "He stopped saying it to me awhile back though. Probably wishes someone would milk me already."
Spike snorted and nearly spat out his mouthful of beer. Shy Tara had said that? She was full of surprises. But they'd never really talked before.
She watched him, amused. "I'm serious, though," she said when he had sobered. "You're rewarding bad behaviour. Why should she treat you well when you'll, uh - "
"Give her the ride of her life when she doesn't?" Tara seemed to have gone permanently red. She nodded. "Good point." It was a good point indeed. He contemplated his beer. "It'd be hard, though," he said slowly. "It's - she really wants me then. And it's the only time she does."
He looked up at Tara, a little embarrassed. He hadn't meant to reveal so much. But she was nodding, nothing but understanding in her face. "It's hard to let go of the only thing that's still working," she said. "I - I lie awake at night. Thinking about Willow and me. We always had that. All the problems would just melt away. And I could believe everything was going to be okay. But then we'd get dressed again and the same problems would all come back again. It didn't help."
They both fell silent, thinking. Tara had another sip of her sherry.
"So what do I do?" Spike said at last.
Tara shrugged. "Don't know. I know what you shouldn't do, though. Don't let her get away with treating you like you're beneath her. Maybe you can't have what you want from her, I don't know. But you've got a right to her respect."
"Do I?" said Spike, a dark mood suddenly descending on him. "I'm a vampire. A thing. An evil, soulless fiend." He had another drink.
"If that's what she thinks, then she can stop sleeping with you and turning to you every time she's got a problem," said Tara. "But if she's coming to you at all you've got a right to decent treatment from her. She can't just get the goodies and then refuse to deal with the guy."
Spike sat back. "True enough," he said. He thought it over. "But I may lose her if I insist - "
"That she treat you right? If you don't, what you hang onto won't be worth having," Tara said. "Do you really want to keep on the way you are now?"
"No." His response was immediate. Whatever he wanted, it wasn't this. He finished the last of his pint and set the glass down on the table, looking at Tara curiously.
"Why do you care?" he asked.
Tara looked up at him and he could see her self-consciousness descending over her like a veil. She dipped her head nervously and sipped at the last of her sherry. Personal question. Damn. "Skip it," he said instead.
She shook her head. One hand darted for the half-shredded napkin and then withdrew back into her lap. She looked back up to him. "I just don't want anyone else to feel the way I feel," she said. "Buffy's got feelings for you, that's obvious."
"I know," Spike said. "They're just not running the show."
She nodded. "But it's early days for you. My mom never stood up to my dad. I left it too late with Willow. But I think you've still got a chance to turn it around, if you just don't let her get into the habit of putting you down, of running the show, of getting everything she wants with no resistance and nothing in return." She smiled at him sadly. "I'd just like someone, sometime, to have something that worked out. So when I saw you sitting here..." she shrugged, upended the sherry glass and took the last drops.
That wasn't the only reason she'd sat down, he knew. The poor kid was obviously lonely. She'd been downright pleased to see him. She seemed to be more relaxed than she was when he first saw her, though. Maybe talking to him had helped.
"Sure you don't want another?" he asked, prepared to keep her company if she wanted it.
"Not a good idea." She looked at her watch. "I'd better get home, I have an early class tomorrow." She rose and collected her purse.
He stood with her. "Let me walk you home, then. All sorts of nasties about." He grinned. "Including me, of course."
"You don't have to," she said. "I'm sure I'll be - "
"Time I was heading out myself," he said. "Might do a quick patrol. Buffy's off tonight working. I can drop you on my way."
The California night was warm and soft. He glanced down at her as they made their way down the street. She walked sturdily along by his side, her soft dress at odds with her firm stride. She had a lot of backbone, this one, he thought. She'd faced her problem and done the right thing, even though it tore her heart out. Had to admire that.
"Willow's crazy," he said suddenly. "Letting a girl like you slip through her fingers."
She looked up at him with a surprised smile. "Thanks," she said. "She's not crazy, though. She just loves power more than she loves me."
"Hope she figures it out, then," said Spike.
Tara nodded, but her shoulders sagged a little. "I hope so too. But I don't know. It's pretty seductive, power. And she never felt she had it until now." She glanced at him again. "Buffy either. That's what all this is about, you know. Power. Being able to do anything you want and get away with it. She has to work out that nobody gets that."
Spike nodded. "Wish she weren't working it out on me."
Tara nodded. "You can stop her, though, if you try," she said. She came to a halt outside an apartment building. Spike glanced at it. He'd been inside one time or another. Small studio apartments, hot in summer, overheated in winter, rundown. Cheap, adequate housing. Good for her, he thought again, leaving her comfortable perch in the Summers house for this. The woman had stones.
"Here's my stop," she said. "Thanks for the company."
"Good to talk to you," he said. "Thanks for stopping by."
She patted his arm and went inside. He stood in the street and watched until he saw the lamp go on in a second-floor window and knew she was safely home. Was she right about Buffy? he wondered as he strolled down towards the cemetery to patrol. Was she right about him, that he could stop the abuse?
He wasn't sure he had her stones. But it had to be worth a try.