All About Spike - Print Version
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Quick and Bitter, Slow and Sweet
By Miss Murchison

Rating: PG-13 for this part, R overall.

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

Notes: Someone asked me for Spike/Tara. At first I couldn't see my way to writing it, then I sent her a brief fic that I never intended to post about Tara and unsouled, vamp Spike as an established couple. But my imagination kept worrying at the problem of how those two got together--and another friend who read the story wanted to know as well. Here's a Spike/Tara romance, in which they are assisted by an unlikely, sneaky, and frequently whiny Cupid. The story is complete, with an epilogue coming very soon.

Also, I was having a problem with Spike's POV, so although this is set in late Season 6 BtVS, I used a thought that struck me while watching Season 5 of AtS. It seemed to me that Spike was suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder and that for some strange reason, none of the other characters noticed. I don't know if anyone else has written MPD Spike, but here goes . . and trust me, it's not as goofy as it sounds!

This starts sometime after "Normal Again" and partway through "Entropy," but the timeline is scrambled as the story starts to go AU. Tara has been interrupted on her way to see Willow. And she is in time to interrupt someone else, who is on his way to perform a different errand.

Vampires were hybrids; Spike knew that. So he assumed it was normal, more or less, to have warring voices constantly battling in his brain. But he suspected that in his case there was something extra that didn't belong there. Something that didn't belong even in something as fundamentally wrong and contrary to nature as a vampire.

The demon's presence he understood. That monster made him what he was, let him walk and talk and fight like a simulacrum of a man when he should have rotted to dust over a century before. The demon was the easiest part of himself to understand, if not always the easiest to unlive with.

The fool was understandable too. A brief, painful effort of memory was all that was needed to tell Spike where the fool had come from. Bloody useless William had been the fool incarnate.

It was the poet that confused him. The poet should have been a part of the fool, should have shared that idiot's babblings, and most certainly should have let himself be hushed by the demon. Because it was right and proper that the demon should always have the last word. If not, what was the point in being a sodding creature of the night?

Now there's a question to ponder, asked the poet. What is the point of being evil? Or of doing good, for that matter? We've done both, so we have a basis for discussion.

No, said the demon, that's not the right question. The question to ponder is where did a silly ass like you come from in the first place?

I'm the silly ass, said the fool, and what I want is for the two of you to stop the damned philosophical debate and find a way to make all of us stop hurting.

Don't want much, do you? sneered the demon.

We're in love. It's supposed to hurt, said the even less helpful poet.

And what do you expect I could do anyway? added the demon to the fool.

Not much, said the poet. You're the cause of most of our problems, after all.

And just how did you reach that brilliant conclusion? Not even the demon liked being blamed for everything.

I know the answer to that, said the fool. You're the part of us that Buffy hates.

Bugger that, said the demon. The Slayer would never have looked at you lot if I weren't about. Likes the monster, she does, even though she won't admit it. Face it, mates, our precious little Buffy is even more fucked up than we are.

Impossible, said the poet sadly. Although her confusion and sadness pierces me to the depths of our unbeating heart. It pains me as much as or more than her rejection of us.

Just the mawkish nonsense I'd expect from a wanker like you, mocked the demon. If she wasn't so fucked up, she'd never have shagged us, so I say it's an ill wind that blew us . . .

Shut up, interrupted the poet. Saying things like that helped drive her away. If you could only have realized that and held your tongue . . .

Wasn't me, said the demon. It was the fool, with his bright idea to get money for her, but not bothering to ask if those eggs were dangerous.

Not my job to be clever, muttered the fool. One of you two should have thought it through, but all I remember hearing from you bright chaps was that it would be fun, and that we had to rescue the lady . . .

The voices rattled on, constantly and uselessly.

Spike blamed Buffy for most of his problems, but he couldn't blame her for the poet. That third voice had become more vocal these past few years, but it had always been there, whispering at inconvenient moments, making him fuck up one evil plan after another in ways the fool never could.

He strode through the cemetery, resisting the impulse to bash his brains against one of the monuments until all three voices were silenced together. He'd just wake up eventually in physical as well as psychic pain. He needed a better solution. A permanent solution.

He could only think of one place where he might find it. Only one place that was open to him, that was. There were other places, but he wasn't welcome there.

He had reached the sidewalk and was heading for downtown Sunnydale when he sensed a familiar presence. He hesitated, but she wasn't anyone he wanted to talk to just then—or ever, now that he let himself think about her for a moment. It wasn't that he disliked her particularly, although her surprisingly sharp tongue had needled him mercilessly the last time they'd met. She just wasn't someone he bothered thinking about at all. He was turning away, setting a course for his original destination of the Magic Box, when she called his name.

"Spike?" Tara heard the question in her own voice. It wasn't that she didn't recognize him—there weren't many people around who could be confused with Spike, after all. The hesitation in her tone reflected her own doubts about speaking to him.

She wasn't afraid of him, of course. But she was in a hurry, and she hadn't really thought this encounter through. She'd been on her way to Buffy's when she saw him leaving the cemetery grounds, and it had occurred to her that she could ask him for help. Halfway through calling his name, she'd remembered that the last time they'd been in the same house for an extended period, she'd made a point of giving him a hard time whenever he'd tried to embarrass Buffy.

At least he didn't look angry with her. On the other hand, he looked as if he could barely remember who she was.

Trying to meet his distracted gaze, she fumbled for words. "Something's gone wrong," she explained at last. Well, Tara, that was lame.

"There's a shocker," he said, confirming the lameness. But he reached out a hand to steady her. His touch was surprisingly gentle as he led her away from the sidewalk and the glow of the streetlamp. They walked into the cemetery and over to a low monument. She sank down on it gratefully, suddenly realizing how fast she'd been running and how out of breath she was. Spike sat down next to her, his expression unreadable in the darkness.

Tara gulped down more oxygen and tried to explain as quickly as she could without leaving out any important facts. "This friend of mine—she's kind of a witch, but she doesn't know many spells yet—she said she saw something scary out by that park just past the old high school. She didn't want to admit it, but I'm sure she made it happen, because she and this other guy, who's kind of a warlock, were asking me yesterday about portals and stuff. I think they were trying to find a way to stretch time, on account of it being midterm and there being lots of papers due and exams coming up, so—"

"So it's spells gone wrong time again?" asked Spike. "And I'm betting they pissed themselves, turned tail, and ran as soon as they knew they'd bitten off something that was likely to bite them back."

"I think so too," said Tara. "It was their first real brush with something this bad. Coherent isn't the way I'd describe them." She fumbled in her pocket and displayed a piece of paper. "Danae gave me the spell she found, and I'm sure I know how to reverse it. But I'm worried about the Scheite."


"From what Danae said, I think one was released."

"One of what, pet?"

"Oh, sorry." She was mildly surprised he didn't already know. She had the impression his demon-knowledge was encyclopedic, but now that she thought about it Scheites weren't just rare, they were from a metaphysical plane much removed from vampires and other more mundane demons. If demons could ever be said to be mundane.

Tara marshaled an explanation. "A Scheite is a pan-dimensional manifestation of the demonic energy that was released when Danae and Jess created a crack in the temporal matrix. And it really can bite. And do worse things."

"Of course it can," he said dryly. "What with that demonic energy and all. Well, what do you expect me to do, pet? This is Sunnydale. Scheite happens."

She laughed, but quickly became serious again. "Spike, it's probably still hanging out by the portal now, drawing energy from its dimension of origin, but it will be raising hell all over town by morning if something isn't done right away."

"Okay," he said in his most annoying drawl. "Any clue what that should be? A pan-dimensional being, you said? Doesn't sound like something you can stake or stab."

"Actually, it is," she said in a rush. She stopped, took another deep breath, and tried to state her conclusions calmly. She was trying not to seem insecure in her opinions, but it was hard, especially with someone like Spike who could be so sarcastic and biting. You know this, Tara, she told herself. Just take your time and explain to him. He's annoying, but not stupid. He'll get it.

"Scheites are the physical manifestation of the demon in this reality. Which means they adhere to some of our physical laws, and can be fought—at least at first."

"That's good," he said.

"What's bad is they can fight back," she said. "And I'm not good at the bam-bam-pow stuff." She mimicked throwing a few punches, but realized when he gave an amused bark of laughter that she had done so very awkwardly. Embarrassed, she dropped her hands back into her lap. "I was going to Buffy's to see if there was anyone there who could fight this thing while I close the portal. But I'm not sure there's even anyone at the house, and I'm kind of in a hurry. Besides—" She stopped.

He didn't ask besides what? Spike knew that the residents of 1630 Revello Drive were still trying to recover emotionally from the last demon attack, which had left Buffy so confused she'd tried to kill her friends and her sister. Tara knew that was something she didn't need to spell out to him.

"If you could just hold the Scheite back while I do a spell . . . " said Tara, her hopeful tone trailing off. She didn't know why she should feel so strange asking Spike for help. The Scoobies had done it all the time the summer Buffy had been gone. Of course, things had changed a lot since then. Tara knew that Spike and Buffy had become, well, intimate, and she thought that would make him anxious both to help and to spare Buffy pain. But suddenly she was her old insecure self, out of her depth and not knowing if she'd said something terribly wrong. She looked down at her hands.

He was silent for a long time before muttering, "She bloody well doesn't need more to worry about. But neither do we." He seemed to be talking to himself, and Tara didn't know how to respond. A moment later he said, in a louder voice, "I'll do it, but on one condition."

She looked up at him suspiciously, but couldn't make out his features. "What?" she demanded suspiciously. Tara might be naïve about some things, but she knew better than to promise Spike anything before finding out exactly what she was getting herself into.

"Afterwards, you make me forget Buffy."

"What?" Tara gasped in astonishment. "Why?"

"Why?" She was astonished at the anguish she heard in his voice. "Because I can't keep on like I am. It's all wrong—I'm all wrong. I know that. I need something to make this stop."

"Make what stop?" she asked, although she was sure she knew. When he didn't respond, she said reluctantly, "Loving Buffy?"

"Of course. That's my disease, isn't it? Caring about her."

"I wouldn't call it a disease, Spike. I've seen it change you. And—you did a lot of good things because of it."

His tone became even more vehement. "But, see, that's what's all wrong. Because I shouldn't. I'm a vampire. I shouldn't be like this. I shouldn't care about these things, and I bloody well shouldn't be tearing myself up inside because I'm not good enough to deserve her."

Tara's instinct was to reassure, although she wasn't sure how to manage that with a demon agonizing over his desire to do good. "Maybe that's not true. You've changed a lot, Spike. I've seen it. Maybe you can become what she needs. Because she needs something or someone." She said that in all sincerity. Tara had spent a lot of time worrying about Buffy these past few months.

"I know. She's only half-alive, and it kills me all over again to see it. But I can't fix her, Tara. I've tried. But I'll never be good enough. She's made that clear. Walked away from me. Won't use me for anything at all any more—not even a sex toy." He paused, as if waiting for a response. When she made none, he said, "You knew, didn't you? That she and I were shagging like minks?"

"She told me," admitted Tara. "Not in those words." Actually, Buffy's description had been more disturbing than his. "But she told me."

"Thought so. Thought so when you kept snarking at me during her birthday party. Knew it just now when you didn't scream at the notion." There was bitterness in his voice now along with the pain. "Already had your chance to squeal in horror when Buffy spilled her girlish confidences. Makes it a bit easier on me."

"Actually," said Tara slowly, "I told Buffy it was okay."

She felt him move next to her in the darkness and sensed his gaze on her face. She remembered that he could see much more clearly than she could, and flushed. "I told her it was okay," she reiterated bravely. "I said it was okay if she loved you."

"Well, she doesn't think it's okay," he said. "It's not all right with our Buffy. And, now I've had her, I can't let go of the thought of her. It's worse than when she was dead. She's with me, every second, even when I'm alone, and all I can think about is that I'll never really have her. Because I'm just a dead thing. No good in me anywhere, she said, and it's the truth. Hard thing to fight, the truth."

"But you've done a lot of good," said Tara again, deciding not to mention she'd pointed this out to Buffy as well. She took a deep breath. "Spike, I'd like to help you. But there's just no way I'll do a forgetting spell. Not for you. Not for anyone. Maybe I can help, but not that way."

He was silent for a long time, and she knew they were both remembering a long night without memories followed by a dawn of grief and partings.

"Something else, then," he said at last. "You'll work it out. You're the clever girl. Willow's all flash and sparkle, but you're the one who thinks things through."

Finally, he had said something that did shock her. "Oh, no. Willow is able to do the most amazing things, things I'd never even dare try."

"No, because you've too much sense," he spat out. "One of the reasons I'm asking you and not her. You've done a couple of foolish things—that spell to hide demons when you thought you were one, and backing Red when she decided to bring back the Slayer for another. But you learn from your mistakes. I don't think you'll solve my problems by accidentally turning me into a toad."

"No," promised Tara hurriedly. "I won't do that. But—Spike, I don't know just yet what I can do. I'll need to research, think about it. It may take a while." She added firmly, "but the Scheite needs to be taken care of right now. So I need to know if you'll help me. If you'll take my word for it that I'll try to help you later."

There was surprise in his voice when he said, "Never occurred to me not to trust you, pet." He stood up. "All right then, where is this bugger you want me to fight?"

It turned out to be buggers. Plural. As in four or five Scheites. They were hard to count because they were not entirely corporeal, which was something else Tara hadn't expected. And something that caused Spike to curse long and loudly.

He didn't abandon her, though. He waded into the crowd of not-quite-transparent things, trying to avoid their long claws and sharp teeth, waving the axe he'd gotten from his crypt and snarling with his fangs bared. The Scheites fought back, hissing and biting, their long blue tails waving over their heads as they darted in, ignoring Tara as they concentrated on attacking him.

Tara gasped as a Scheite's claws raked the side of Spike's head, drawing blood and even louder curses from him, but the vampire lashed back with his weapon and was soon holding the other demons at bay. He spared a glance for Tara as his axe crashed into a wavering body, causing no permanent damage that she could observe, but making the thing howl with pain and draw back.

"Well, witch, do your bloody spell!" he called. "I don't fancy being at this all night."

Tara nodded and turned towards the garish orange-red vortex that swirled over a picnic table. It wasn't a happy pan-dimensional rift—it was emitting raucous blasts that sounded like cries of pain.

Tara noticed some text books and a backpack lying near the table—apparently Danae and Jess hadn't taken all their belongings with them when they fled the scene of their crime. Ducking her head and beginning to mutter under her breath, Tara prepared to undo the damage they'd caused.

Her counterspell would create a magical patch that would close that space, like threads darning a hole in a sock. If she could weave her charm fast enough. She dropped into a light trance, her lips moving rapidly. Slowly, the mystical energy she generated began to form itself into the warp and woof of the solution she had chosen.

Halfway through her chant, a shout penetrated Tara's consciousness. She glanced at Spike and blinked in astonishment. With the words of her counterspell creating protoplasmic eddies around her, she could see the Scheites more clearly. Their shapes were similar to creatures from this plane, but—"Spike!" she called out urgently.

He couldn't hear her. There was too much noise, from the vortex beside her and from the Scheites' howling. Spike! she called again, using her mind to reach his.

He staggered back, but recovered quickly as he lashed out at two swirling shapes. Balls, he thought back. I thought only Red could do that.

Willow taught me. Spike, go for their tails.

Tails? his mind demanded incredulously.

Tails, she repeated firmly, trying to hold onto the threads of her counterspell even as she directed the information to him. Look.

She showed him what she was seeing—that the Scheites were drawing their energy from the vortex, and the tails, so useless in the corporeal world, were actually the conduits for their strength—

Spike got the message immediately. The sound of Scheites' pained screaming echoed in Tara's ears as she finished weaving the counterspell and drawing the vortex almost closed. Its mouth narrowed, first to the size of a human, then to a shape like a small dog, then to a space even a cat would have trouble squeezing through.

Not just yet, pet.

Tara gulped to hear Spike's voice in her mind. She hadn't realized the channel she'd opened to him was still clear. But a moment later, she knew why he'd asked her to pause. A Scheite flew by her, dragged back into the vortex like a thread drawn by a needle. The creature thinned and stretched out, becoming fully transparent as it was swallowed, screaming, by the swirling mass beyond the opening. Two or three more demons followed so quickly Tara could not be sure of their numbers.

Just. One. More.

She turned and saw Spike, axe raised above his head, blood running down his face and across his chest, aim for the last squirming, hissing Scheite. The creature backed away from him and slid towards the vortex, spreading its thinning claws.

One impossibly long arm raked towards Tara as the Scheite went by, and she cringed away from it.

Spike's axe rose and fell. The Scheite wailed, abandoned its attack on Tara, and fled into the hole.

"Close that bloody door!" howled Spike, and Tara, crouched on the ground at his feet, muttered the final words of the counterspell. As if pulled closed by the final stitch of a needle, the vortex blinked out of existence.

"It's gone," she whispered, staring up into Spike's yellow eyes. "They're all gone."

He stared back down at her, fangs bared, covered in blood, his axe still upraised threateningly. Then his pose wavered, and his eyes dulled from gleaming amber to fading blue sparks.

"That was bloody brilliant," he said as he dropped the axe and collapsed at her feet.

Tara helped him back to his crypt, surprised at first that he consented to lean on her strength during the trip, his arm thrown over her shoulders as he staggered along. She had never been in such prolonged physical contact with him before, but his scent—mostly cigarette smoke and old leather—was familiar, and he wasn't leaning on her enough to make his weight overwhelming. After the initial shock of touching him, she didn't mind helping him at all. But she was surprised that he was so exhausted from this battle, when she'd seen him smiling and energetic after far worse encounters.

Slowly, she became aware of the faint light streaking the eastern sky. She realized that there must have been a lot of temporal distortion coming from the portal; it was almost dawn already. No wonder Spike was so tired—while she'd been muttering a few words of a spell, caught in a timeless trance, he'd been fighting for hours.

And getting badly hurt. After they reached the crypt, she managed to peel the black leather duster off his back, and she discovered that in addition to the head wound, he'd taken a lashing across the stomach from a Scheite's claw. It wasn't exactly bleeding freely, but it did look nasty.

She found some first aid supplies in a corner. She supposed even someone as careless as Spike must have figured out he'd need them from time to time and planned accordingly.

"Bloody hell. My shirt's a goner, and a few hours ago these were my best jeans. What about my coat?" was all he asked as she dabbed at his stomach. His flesh wasn't as cold as she anticipated. No colder than anyone's would be if they were lying shirtless in this chilly old crypt. What was strange was that he didn't seem to mind the cold in the air around him. He wasn't shivering, and no goose bumps marred his fair skin.

"The coat's fine," she said, and heard the exasperation in her own voice. "At least, it's no worse than it was a few hours ago."

"That's all right then," he said, sprawling across the top of the big sarcophagus that squatted near his refrigerator. "Except you need to have a serious chat with this Danae bint about setting loose pan-dimensional beings without learning first how to put them through obedience school."

"I'm planning on it," said Tara as she wiped blood off his belly. The wound underneath was healing already. "Do you want a bandage on this?"

He struggled up to a half-sitting position, leaning on his elbows. "Ta, but no," he said, glancing at the wound. "It'll be almost gone by tonight. Not bad enough to scar, that one." He met her eyes. "So, you're dating another public menace of a witch who can't say 'no' to a good spell? Or a bad one either?"

"No!" Tara was shocked. "I'm not involved with Danae. I'm not involved with anyone new. I didn't really break up with Willow, you know." The firm skin under her fingers was amazingly clear of scars, considering the beatings he'd taken just since she'd known him. But here and there along his flat belly, she could see the relics of some wound that had been bad enough to leave a permanent mark. There were more on his chest and shoulders; on his face she could see nothing except the white slash across one eyebrow.

His next words dragged her thoughts back to Willow. "Oh, so that was just pretend moving out of the house and refusing to talk to Red for months, was it?"

Now he had reopened her wounds. She responded as calmly as she could, "We're talking again. Sometimes. I was even going—"

He cocked his head on one side and regarded her intently. "Going to what?"

"Never mind," said Tara. "I'm not going to do it anyway." She looked at the rag in her hand and grimaced at the blood. "You're right. Doing spells without considering consequences is really dangerous, and—and—" She sat miserably, wringing the cloth in her hands until they were covered with his blood.

His hand came up to cover hers and still her anxious fingers. "Didn't mean to rub it in, pet," he said softly.

She looked down at him and tried to smile. "It's okay, Spike." She dropped the rag in a bowl and wiped her fingers on a marginally cleaner one. "I'm going to go home now, unless you need something else. I've still got midterms and a paper to worry about. And other things."

"I don't need anything," he said. "It's getting light out. Bedtime for good little vampires. But you be careful."

"I will," she said, almost absently.

"Don't want you getting yourself killed before you do what you promised. You won't forget?" he called as she opened the door to his crypt.

"I won't," she said. "I'll do something to make you stop feeling so bad about Buffy."

Only I have no idea what, she thought worriedly as she scurried out into the early morning mist. I'll just have to hope I can come up with something. Something that can change the way he thinks and feels without tampering with his free will. Because that would be wrong on so many levels. Except, using magic to change the way someone thinks and feels is pretty much the definition of taking their free will, isn't it?

As perplexing as that dilemma was, she was oddly grateful to him for asking for help. Because working on his problem would distract her from her own. And she needed something to keep her from running back to Willow, from abandoning all common sense, from telling the woman she loved that they didn't really need more time before they could get back together again. This conundrum would be something to keep Tara from forgetting the evidence of all those hidden magic supplies that had turned up on Buffy's birthday, to keep her from convincing herself that it was safe to trust Willow again. Because Tara knew in her heart that it wasn't safe. Not at all.

But I almost did it, tonight. I was on my way to see Willow, to throw myself into her arms, when Danae showed up. Helping a vampire fall out of love with a Slayer should be as good a distraction from Willow as the need to close a magical portal. Shouldn't it?

Well, as diversions go, at least it should be more interesting than Intro to Statistics or Inorganic Chem.

"Spike is helping you move?" Dawn stood in the doorway of Tara's new apartment, staring incredulously as she watched Spike thump a box down on the counter in the tiny kitchen area.

"Spike, be careful with that," said Tara, who was on her knees in front of a box of books on the other side of the room. "There are plates and things in there, and I don't have enough of them to afford breakage." She smiled up at Dawn. "Hi, honey. Spike came over to—to ask me about something. My friends had to leave for their evening classes, so he offered to stay and help me sort some stuff out."

Dawn looked at Spike in surprise, but he just shrugged. "Found the witch standing like Dido amid the ruins of Carthage. Felt like I should give her a hand."

"When did Dido perform in Carthage?" asked Dawn. "Isn't that, like, in the Middle East?"

"No," said Spike emphatically, ripping open his box, taking out a spatula, and staring at it as if he were trying to decide what to do with it. He turned to Tara. "Trade you this lot for a chance to sort through your undies."

Tara rolled her eyes. "Put all that down, and help me with the bookcase, okay?"

"Why do I always let you females order me around?" he grumbled. "And I meant a different Dido, Bit. That school of yours isn't just boring you to tears, you're learning bugger all."

"See, that's what I think," said Dawn, dumping her backpack on the floor and a bag of fast food on the tiny table that looked as if it was pre-pre-pre-owned. "No purpose in going at all. But I can't convince Buffy. Anyway, I'm going to help unpack too. Tara said yesterday that if I came over after school, she'd give me money to pick up dinner on my way." She held up her haul. "Look what I brought!"

"Taco Bell?" Tara looked horrified. "Dawn, do you have any idea how many calories—"

Dawn rolled her eyes and plunked the bag down on the kitchen table. She started unpacking items. "Oh, come on, Tara. It's not fair that I never get any fast food except that gross Doublemeat Palace stuff Buffy brings home. And I'm having another growth spurt. I must need calories or something. Otherwise, I wouldn't crave them, right? And look at you, doing all this running around, and carrying, and unpacking. You need something solid to keep you going."

"It's solid all right," said Tara, coming over to the table and staring at the supersized tray that held about a dozen tacos. "Solid saturated fat. I can feel my arteries stiffening already."

"I bet Spike doesn't mind having tacos for dinner," said Dawn. She had no fears about asking Spike to back her up on her food choice. This was the guy who thought the three greatest culinary inventions of the twentieth century were Cheez Whiz, Cheetos, and those bags the Red Cross used to collect blood. There was no way he'd turn down a plastic plate of salty chips covered with yellow, red, and white goop that might or might not be real cheese, tomatoes, and sour cream.

Sure enough, he was already peeling off the cover of the Nachos Bell Grande and sorting through the salsa packets looking for the extra hot sauce. "Your arteries are pumping brilliantly," he told Tara. "I can hear them chugging along just lovely. And so are the Bit's. But if you don't want to stun them with a Mexican pizza, I'll eat your share."

"No way," said Dawn. "You are not eating the whole thing. You don't even need real people food." Realizing that the nachos were already half-gone and that she hadn't had a bite yet, she slapped his hand away from the plate and snatched it back. He grinned at her, pulled Tara's desk chair over next to the scruffy kitchen chairs, and helped himself to a taco instead.

"Well, since I can't have real people, or that even that stupid dog on their adverts—"

"I like that little dog," said Tara.

He licked a streak of hot sauce off the side of his little finger. "For your sake, witch, the dog can live. But only if you let the Bit and me have our nachos."

Tara sat down next to him, admitting defeat. "Okay," she said, picking up a taco and staring at it with intense suspicion. "But you have to promise me that sometime today—"

"—I'll eat something green," interrupted Dawn around a mouthful of chips. "You always say that. But look—I already am. I paid extra for the guacamole. And there's lettuce in those tacos."

"Iceberg lettuce," said Tara. "No nutritional value."

"Yeah," said Spike. "Just the way I like my people food." He took another bite, showering lettuce and crumbled bits of ground beef over the table as the taco crunched between his teeth. "You know what else is brilliant, Dawn? That new pizza they have at the place two doors down from the magic shop."

"The deep dish, double-stuffed one with everything on it? The one where they finally use enough anchovies?" asked Dawn. "Janice and I had that last week, and then we went over to the ice cream shop for banana splits." She caught Tara's horrified eye and pointed out, "There was fruit! Bananas. And, like, peppers and pineapple and stuff on the pizza."

"You know what's even better," Spike went on, "those potato skins with the cheese all over them. And they make this garlic butter for their bread that's amazing. They use elephant garlic, I think."

"I don't know which of you two has worse eating habits." Tara looked worried. "Spike, I'm no expert on vampire nutrition, but I don't see how garlic butter can be good for you."

"It's not like I drink holy water," protested Spike. Dawn couldn't tell if he were amused or touched that Tara had bothered to fret over him. He certainly didn't look offended.

"Garlic is only a mild repellant to vampires," said Dawn. "And it loses most of its efficacy once cooked."

"That was a direct quote from Rupert, wasn't it?" said Spike.

"Yeah," admitted Dawn. "I guess the 'efficacy' part gave that away, huh?"

"Yeah. But, spot on, Bit. Cooked garlic is to vampires as habañeros are to humans. If you've got the stones to stand it, it's a wild rush to the taste buds."

"I guess I learn something new every day," said Tara, who, in spite of her protests, was already on her third taco. "I just wish some of it was the stuff I'm racking up huge student loans to learn." She looked at Dawn. "Speaking of learning, do you have any homework, honey?"

"Nothing that matters," said Dawn.

"Why doesn't it matter?" asked Tara.

"Because I don't know how to do it." She beamed at Tara. "And neither do you. It's French, and I know you took Spanish."

"Tant pis. Donne-moi le livre, Petit Morceau," said Spike around a mouthful of Mexican pizza.

"Huh?" said Dawn, trying to act surprised and annoyed. "Oh, crap."

Later, as she finished unpacking some clothes and stowing them in the room's one, inadequate closet, Tara watched Dawn and Spike settle down again at the tiny kitchen table she'd bought at the local thrift shop. She felt a pleasant sense of familiarity sweep over her. She'd seen them like this many times during that long summer when Buffy'd been gone. Dawn had had to retake two courses to be eligible to go to high school in the fall, and Spike had helped her with both History and Language Arts, giving her an accurate, if bloodcurdling, grounding in Twentieth Century history, and then picking over the grammar and logic in her term paper on Emily Dickinson. His knowledge of history had been no surprise; he'd lived it, after all. His knowledge of poetry—especially Dickinson—had stunned them all, but Spike had ignored even Xander's heckling because Dawn needed his help.

Dawn really had needed him, and not only because Willow had been too busy researching magic to help with homework, or because Xander had seemed to spend most of his time arguing with and reassuring Anya, or because Giles had retreated into himself in an agony of grief. Tara had tried to step in at first, but she had quickly realized how much Spike's presence meant to Dawn, so she'd pulled back, watching the blond and dark heads bent together over the books spread over Joyce's dining room table. Tara was good at effacing herself, and she suspected that those two had no idea she'd kept an eye on them during those long, hot months. She wondered if she was the only one who suspected how deep the bond between them ran.

So Tara knew just what Dawn was up to now. Instead of being repaired, the girl's family had been fragmented by Buffy's return. Giles was gone, Tara had moved out, Spike never visited, Anya and Xander were caught up in their own little melodrama, and most of the time Willow and Buffy looked more like the walking dead than Spike did. So now Dawn was seizing the chance to draw Spike back into her life for a few hours.

That worked for Tara. She didn't think that Spike was good, but she was certain he was good for Dawn.

Tara had no illusions that Spike was "reformed." Giles had used that word once in a puzzled, wondering tone, but Tara had rejected the description. There was nothing in Spike to reform or redeem. He was a demon, not a human, and it was absurd to talk about him as if he'd consciously rejected human values and was somehow coming to accept them again.

Spike had nothing resembling a human conscience. He didn't care about people in general, and Tara could see no reason why he should, any more than she should care about vampires as a species. But for the few people that Spike had inexplicably come to love, there was nothing he wouldn't do, from letting himself be tortured by a hell god, to risking his life in battle, to keeping his promise not to smoke indoors, to apologizing for a sarcastic comment about a sensitive teenager's new outfit. And Tara suspected that it was those small courtesies that cost him the most. He adored making grand gestures; petty annoyances drove him mad.

Except when Dawn was providing those annoyances, as she was now, with her stubborn inability to mimic his pronunciation of a phrase. He was grumbling at her, but with anyone else he would have long since stalked away.

It seemed to Tara that when Spike was with Dawn he was calmer, different, closer to whatever it was he was becoming than what he had been.

Because Tara was sure that although Spike wasn't redeemed or reformed, he was changing. He was almost as far now from an ordinary vampire as he was from a human. She wondered what he would turn into if he didn't wind up as dust after some wild battle or relapse into savagery out of frustration and despair.

"Say, 'j'ai faim,' not 'j'ai femme.'" Spike's coaching was almost patient.

"That sounds just the same to me," complained Dawn. "What's the diff?"

"Well, one means I'm hungry, the other that I've got a woman," said Spike.

"Yeah, I guess that could cause some confusion in a restaurant," snickered Dawn. "Although, being a vamp, it could work if it meant you wanted a woman. But, you know what, Spike, that kind of sounds like a line you'd use in one of those businesses that we don't practice dialogues for in French class." She was grinning now. "Hey, that would be cool! I have to write my own conversation for the final, and this sadist of a teacher wants it to actually be in French, and it has to use numbers and stuff. Want to help me do one about figuring out the prices at a whorehouse?"

Tara was about to protest. There was no telling with Spike—he just might not understand that this not-so-brilliant idea would be a direct route to detention and failure for Dawn. But his expression was suddenly serious, even wounded, and for a moment she thought he really had been offended by Dawn's comment. Then she heard the knock on the door. As she stood up to answer it, she saw him pick up his coat and slip behind the screen that she had found at a garage sale to separate the dingy sink area from the main living space.

"Hello, Buffy." Tara smiled awkwardly at the Slayer, who stood in the dark hallway outside her apartment door.

"Hi, Tara," said Buffy, stepping inside. She was moving slowly, her clothes were rumpled, and her hair and makeup obviously hadn't seen any attention for several hours. She saw Dawn sitting at the table with her books spread in front of her and smiled wearily. "Hi, Dawn."

"Hi." Dawn's tone was tight, resentful. She cast a glance at the screen and her lips tightened. She slammed her books shut and started shoving them in her backpack. "Let's go."

Buffy looked dismayed. "We don't have to leave right away. I haven't seen all of Tara's apartment yet." She stared around the room. Tara, who had barely begun to brighten its drabness with touches like the intricately patterned Chinese screen, knew Buffy was finding it hard to think of something positive to say.

"Yes, you have," said Dawn before Buffy summoned any words. "This is it. Now, let's go."

"Dawn!" Buffy gave Tara an apologetic glance. "I'm sorry. I—"

"It's okay," said Tara. "I think she's tired. She was fine, really."

"Thanks for taking care of her," said Buffy, and Dawn grimaced in annoyance at the implication she needed a babysitter.

"She took good care of me," Tara hastened to say. "Bringing over dinner, helping to unpack, and stuff." She hesitated. "How are you, Buffy?"

"Good. I had to pull a long shift and then kill a short demon." Buffy tried to smile at her own joke and stood uncertainly for another minute, obviously still searching for something to say. "This is a nice place," she commented at last.

"No it's not," said Dawn. "It's a hole. But Tara will make it nice." She stormed out the door, and Buffy, after another helpless glance in Tara's direction, followed her.

Tara was still staring at the closed door when Spike stepped out from behind the screen. He was pulling on his coat. "I'd better go. You're all moved in now," he said in a hollow tone. He glanced around again as Buffy had done, as if he were really noticing the place for the first time. "Except for not having anywhere to sleep, that is."

Tara looked around. That was literally true. The apartment consisted of one biggish room and a bathroom. It wouldn't take much furniture to fill it up. But right now, she had only a small bookcase that sat atop a tiny desk, a table, a few straight-backed chairs, and a couch.

"I know someone who's leaving school and wants to sell a decent bed," she said. "I can buy it from her really cheap, but I have to wait a week. In the meantime, I can sleep on—" she looked at the couch, which seemed both smaller and uglier here than at Goodwill— "on the floor in my sleeping bag."

"You rich Americans," drawled Spike. "No wonder you're the envy of the rest of the world."

Tara flushed. "I'm trying to make it through school without getting into too much debt," she said. "This place is fine. It's extra cheap because it's a basement apartment, and it shouldn’t cost much for utilities."

"Fine with me," he said, leaning against the wall and reaching in his pocket for a cigarette. She caught his eye and he stopped, stowing the pack away with an exasperated sigh. "Look, pet, it's been lovely helping you unpack your bits and pieces, and I admit I was glad for the chance to see the Bit again. But that's not why I came here, and you know it. I came—" and he stared at the doorway where Buffy had stood—"I came for you to fix things for me. I've been waiting over a week now."

"Spike, I want to," said Tara. She heard the doubt and fear in her own voice and tried to sound more assured. "I think I can find something. But what I've come across so far, I just don't like the possible consequences."

"Let me judge that." His voice was harsh. "What consequences?"

"Well, one thing might backlash on Buffy—" she started to say.

"No." His voice was even colder and more emphatic.

"And the other, well, that could be uncomfortable for you. There's a possibility of—" She peeked at him nervously.

He stood up straighter. "Of what?"

"Impotence," she confessed.

"Impotence?" He looked outraged. "Me? Bloody hell, no! Bad enough I can't eat anyone, if I can't shag them either—"

"I said I didn't think you'd like the consequences." Tara tried to keep any laughter out of her voice, but it was hard. The truth was that she was smiling as much from relief that he was adamantly against any harm coming to Buffy as from his reaction to the other option. "And that I was going to look for some other way."

"Well, hurry," he said, and Tara lost all desire to snigger when she saw the depths of despair in his face. He sagged back against the wall and grimaced as if in physical pain. "You don't know what this is like. You can go back to your girl any time. You walk into that house, and Red will welcome you with open legs. If I so much as knock on the door, I risk finding I've been disinvited—or worse."

"Worse?" What could be worse? Staking? Surely not. However twisted Buffy's feelings for Spike had become, she was too aware of how much she owed him to do that. Suddenly, Tara knew. "Buffy did it, didn't she? Those bruises you had at her birthday party. That was her." Tara turned away, sickened. "If that's what she was doing, she was right to stop seeing you, Spike."

"Easy for you to say, isn't it?"

"No, Spike, it isn't easy for me to say, and I know it wasn't easy for her to do. Not if she cares anything at all about you, and I know she must. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me not to run back to that house and go back to Willow? The night I met you by the cemetery, I was going there. I thought I'd just tell her we could skip all the waiting and seeing if she was really getting better, and—" Tara forced herself to meet his eyes and speak firmly. "It was a good thing Danae called and told me about the vortex. Because it wouldn't have worked if I'd done it, Spike. I know things would have gone bad. As bad as one of Willow's worst spells."

"Yeah, but at least you'd have the memory of a few more good shagging sessions—" He stopped, apparently struck by her expression and rushed to add, "Sorry, pet. Didn't mean to make you cry." He crossed the room with a few quick steps, returned with one of the Taco Bell napkins, and held it out to her, careful to keep an arm's length away from a crying female. "Keep forgetting, it's harder for you. You have a conscience and a soul and all. Must be a bitch, that."

"You had a soul once yourself, Spike," said Tara, dabbing carefully at her cheeks to avoid smearing them with salsa from the napkin.

"Long time ago. Remember it was inconvenient, though. Do remember that."

"Oh?" Tara tried to imagine what he had been like. A street tough, perhaps, struggling for a position in some gang in spite of his slight build and too-pretty appearance? "What did it keep you from doing?"

"Pretty much bugger all," he admitted. "Didn't do much in the way of enjoying myself until I was turned."

"Really?" She stared at him in astonishment.

His eyebrow quirked up wryly, and he grimaced. "Ruining my image, am I?"

She didn't press for details. From his expression, he'd just revealed his darkest secret, and she wondered if even Buffy knew. "It's just—it's hard to imagine you not finding some way to enjoy yourself. I mean—even when Buffy was dead, you used to love going on patrol and killing things, and playing cards and watching TV with Dawn, and arguing with Xander."

"Yeah." He thought about this. "You know, it was easier to find ways to be happy when she was dead."

Tara thought this was the saddest thing she'd ever heard him say. "'I'll find a way to help you, Spike. I don't know what I'll do, yet, but I'll do something."

He looked up at her and added, "Sorry I said you didn't understand." He reached out carefully and wiped a tear off her cheek with one finger, then backed away. Before she could think of anything else to say, he was gone.

Tara sat down on the ugly little couch and tried to think about how long it would be before she could afford to buy a pretty throw to cover it up. But she couldn't stop worrying about Spike instead.

He's wrong. It is harder for him than me. He doesn't have a conscience, and he's fighting instincts that I can't begin to understand. That chip keeps him from killing, but it never forced him to do good. He really won't be able to go on like this without some help.

But Buffy hadn't looked capable of helping anyone tonight.

Spike stalked through the streets of Sunnydale, running the events of his very unusual evening over in his mind as he made his way back to the cemetery. When he'd left his crypt, he'd thought he'd wind up spending the night chasing down a runaway witch. The last thing he'd anticipated was working as a furniture mover and a French tutor.

I told you two she wasn't lying, said the poet. You made me look like I was the fool, especially since I'd told her we trusted her.

Couldn't help being suspicious, muttered the demon.

Yeah, agreed the fool. Leaving a note in our crypt saying she was moving and giving an address. Sounded like she was skipping town maybe, and trying to throw us off the scent.

Tara's sort doesn't skip town, said the poet severely. She's the kind that's so conscientious she lets a soulless demon know she's moving so he won't think she's forgotten a promise.

She may not have forgotten, said the demon, but she hasn't helped us either.

She will, asserted the poet. I can feel it.

She wants to, the fool agreed. But she has no idea how to.

Sure she does, said the demon. You heard her. Castration! That's what she's come up with! We'll wind up a eunuch if we keep depending on her. I'd like to keep Spike's balls safer than we did his head, with this sodding chip.

Tara isn't a careless person, said the poet firmly. Our balls are safe in her hands. He hesitated, dismayed by his own choice of words. Er—

Now, that I wouldn't mind, snickered the fool.

Both the poet and the demon met this comment with stony silence.

Well, I wouldn't, insisted the fool.

What about Buffy? demanded the poet in outrage.

I haven't forgotten Buffy, muttered the fool. It's just—Tara's not half bad.

Great knockers, agreed the demon. But she's less than half bad. She's too bloody good. Never look at us, her kind. Even if she did give us an accidental sex-change first. So give up thinking about her.

Okay, muttered the fool, adding rebelliously, But at least she's nice to Dawn. Nicer than Buffy.

Buffy died for Dawn! howled the demon and the poet in unison.

Yeah, agreed the fool. But what the Bit needs now is someone who wants to live for her.

Dawn lurked near the entrance to the graveyard, waiting until it was almost dark. It wouldn't do at all to march into Spike's crypt in broad daylight, when she needed no escort to travel around Sunnydale. She didn't want to be tossed back out into the safe sunlight.

In a few more minutes, the sun's rays would be only a faint, rosy glow on the horizon, and lots of nasty things would start to stir. No one who bothered to take the time to worry about Dawn and what she was up to would let her wander around alone then.

Spike wouldn't. Neither would Tara.

For the umpteenth time, Dawn sulked over the fact that it had been Tara who moved out when she and Willow broke up. It just wasn't fair.

Dawn had been miserable when Tara left Willow, and for a time, she'd lain awake at night hoping the two would get back together. But her rage at Willow for putting her in danger and making her suffer the pain and inconvenience of a broken arm had settled into cold anger. With the absolute certainty of someone too young to perceive shades of gray, she'd decided that Willow wasn't good enough for Tara.

Dawn's feelings had reminded her of something, and it had taken a while before she'd identified the false memory of Joyce and Hank's divorce. She remembered resenting Joyce for moving them to a strange town and taking them far away from Hank. But, slowly, she'd come to realize her father was becoming more distant and had begun to suspect that his cheating had precipitated the divorce. She would have been indignant on Joyce's behalf, if her pseudo-mother had ever said a nasty word about Hank. But, being Joyce, she hadn't.

Now, in this new situation, Dawn's sympathies had swung to Tara. Tara never said anything bad about Willow either. But Willow had been out of control, and Tara had been right to leave. Besides, Willow was gloomy and self-absorbed, while Tara was sensible and friendly. These days, Tara's apartment felt more like the home Joyce had made than the house on Revello Drive.

And one of the things that made it feel like home was the fact that Spike was welcome there.

Joyce had liked Spike, and Dawn was pleased to realize that Tara did too. No one else did. Except for Dawn herself, of course. Buffy used to tolerate him, but now she looked at him with an unfathomable expression that was close to hatred. Dawn couldn't understand that. Spike had done everything he could to save her on the tower, and he loved Buffy like crazy. He didn't deserve hatred. Not any more.

Dawn used to think that Willow hadn't minded Spike much, but Willow wasn't liking much of anything these days. She was running Buffy a close second for the gloom and doom award. And the only other visitor they ever seemed to have, except for the occasional social worker, was Xander. Since the wedding that hadn't happened, it hurt Dawn to look at the constant pain in Xander's eyes.

When she'd found Spike helping Tara move into that apartment, Dawn had felt a surge of hope for the first time in weeks. Here were two of the people she loved, actually working kind of together and snarking at each other in a friendly way. She'd pitched in happily, and been thrilled when she'd successfully manipulated Spike into staying and helping her with her homework.

A few months back, Spike had forbidden her to visit him in his crypt any more. That had caused lots of tears at the time, but now it gave her a great idea how to lure him into a friendlier environment.

Too bad Tara's gay. This was a new thought, and Dawn considered it carefully. Spike needed to stop brooding over Buffy, and it would be cool if he liked Tara instead. Or it would be if Tara wouldn't be almost as wigged out about it as Buffy had been. Dawn couldn't decide if Tara would be wigged or pleased. So she needed to be cautious. She didn't want to cause trouble. Not really, even though it usually worked out that way.

I just want to be around people who are happy some of the time.

Spike had enjoyed teasing Tara while he helped her move in. And Tara had been smiling and having a good time too. So it was clearly a public service or something to get Spike to visit Tara again. Dawn decided she'd risk it.

The streetlight above her head clicked on. Dawn threw her shoulders back and marched across the cemetery grounds to Spike's crypt.

Rating: PG-13 for this part, R overall.

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

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

Part Two

"Bloody hell, Bit, if Buffy says you're supposed to spend the evening with Tara, that's where you're spending the evening." Spike was yelling angrily, but Dawn wasn't fooled. She was sure he'd been pleased to see her at first, before he remembered that he'd told her a few months earlier never to brighten his doorway again.

"It's not fair," she insisted. "I bet you're not doing something as boring as homework tonight."

"No, I am going to a demon bar to engage in illegal gambling in a back room while getting drunk. That's my proper place in the world. And yours is at Tara's, helping her tack more cheap fabric on the walls so's she won't have to see the peeling paint, eating whatever tofutti thing she's made for dinner, doing algebra, and watching The Osbournes."

"So you're just going to shove me out of here and go off boozing?"

"Hardly, Bit." He picked up her backpack and tossed it at her feet. "It's after dark. I am taking you to Tara's, and then I'm going boozing."

Dawn pouted. "It's not fair. You'll be having fun, and Tara will probably make me work on that stupid paper on John Donne."

He stopped in the act of pulling on his duster. "Donne?" he asked.

"Yeah, my teacher says I need extra credit to pass and she gave me this assignment. But those stupid poems make no sense." She picked up her backpack. "Tara's reading him too in her lit class, and I'm not sure she gets him, either."

"I'm sure Tara does," he said dryly, settling the coat over his shoulders and opening the door of the crypt. "She's the clever one, our Tara."

"Oh, and I'm the stupid one?" Dawn stomped out the door in front of him. "It's these poems that are stupid, Spike. Like the one about the compass! What's that about? So the compass goes round and round. First of all, I read it three times before I figured out it's the kind of compass you use in geometry and trig. But I still don't see what that's got to do with his girlfriend."

"Just everything, Bit. He's the one who wanders off, you see, and she's his calm center. And when he comes home, the leg of the compass comes erect, and—uh—" His voice trailed off suddenly. He turned away to pull the door shut behind them.

"Oh!" Dawn's eyes got wide. "I get it now. Wow." She marched along beside him in silence. "Maybe I should give this guy another chance."

When she bounded through the door of Tara's apartment, she'd announced that Spike knew everything about John Donne and could help them with their homework. Spike had tried to escape anyway, or acted like he wanted to escape, but he wound up sitting at the kitchen table with the two girls, struggling occasionally to explain something to Dawn without shocking her. Tara, Dawn noticed, wasn't embarrassed at all, and she seemed to like talking about the poems to Spike. She even compared them to Shakespeare and someone called Marvell, making Spike smile in a way that wasn't snarky or mean.

"So he plays with paradox," said Tara. "Like right here, when he says, 'To enter in these bonds, is to be free.'" And the way he insists that love is spiritual, but can only be experienced in the flesh."

"''And yet the body is his book,'" said Spike. "'To our bodies turn we then, that so weak men on love revealed may look.'"

Spike didn't look embarrassed when he talked about stuff like that to Tara. He looked—Dawn gazed at him covertly for a while to confirm her impression—he looked the way he used to look sometimes when Buffy was around. Except, kind of happier.

Dawn let them talk while she struggled with her paper analyzing one of the poems. She read it through, took out some of Spike's insights about what the couple in the poem were probably up to (no point in antagonizing her teacher—not over something this trivial) and handed it over to him for approval.

While Tara packed away leftovers, Spike settled down on the couch in front of the television he had acquired somewhere and presented to Tara a few days earlier, along with promises that there would be no unpleasant consequences to accepting the gift. The corners of Tara's mouth lifted upwards as she remembered how he had wheedled her into taking it. "You can't say I nicked it, pet, seeing as the previous owner is in no condition to own anything at all any more. And even your kind heart wouldn't mourn that wanker. Besides, it's cable ready." Then he'd slipped away almost before she'd had time to thank him.

It was hard to believe the man who had come to her doorstep with that TV was the same as the one who had just spoken with passionate insight about the poetry of a man who had been dead for hundreds of years. Or the creature who'd fought for hours to guard her back while she closed a temporal portal. Spike, you are multifaceted.

Right now, the set was off, and he was busy correcting Dawn's homework. Tara reluctantly turned her attention to the dirty dishes in her sink, leaving him to his task.

Dawn came over to help, and Tara was surprised to find the girl was still thinking about literature. "There's something I don't get. Most of the poems we read in class are about guys and girls doing it, or wanting to do it, or complaining they can't do it any more." She picked up a dish towel and started drying the plates Tara had just washed.

"Well, love is a big deal with poets," said Tara with a smile.

"But how come we don't read any poems about guys wanting to do it with guys or girls breaking up with girls?"

"I don't know," said Tara in a tight voice. "They're out there. It's probably the evil, homophobic school system. Or the evil textbook writers. But don't say that to your teachers." She looked up and saw that Dawn's expression was horrified and guilty.

"I'm sorry, Tara," she said. "I didn't mean to remind you of Willow. I mean, you seemed so happy, and now—"

"It's okay, honey," said Tara. She stared down at the dishes in the sink.

"It's just—I was thinking about, well—" There was a long silence, while Dawn stood frowning in thought and Tara wondered anxiously what she was thinking about.

"How do you know if you're gay?" asked Dawn at last. "Because, like, this guy asked me out, and I don't really like him much, because sometimes he's okay, but then the next minute he'll be like, in my face about stuff. So I said no, but I wasn't mean or anything, only he went and said to someone else maybe I was a lezzie, and, okay, I know that mostly only means he's a total asshole, but it made me start wondering about me. I don't think I am, but—how do you know?"

Well, that's not nearly as bad as some of the questions I was expecting. Tara shrugged. "I don't know."

Dawn blinked in surprise. "But you had to figure it out sometime, didn't you? I mean, in high school or somewhere."

"When I was your age, I was too busy trying to figure out what kind of demon I was and what horrible things I'd suddenly start wanting to do to worry about sexual orientation. And—to tell you the truth, Dawn, it was Willow who was always so big on the 'hey, I'm gay now!' thing. It was important to her. But I never thought about it much. I just met Willow and fell in love with her."

"So—before Willow, you had boyfriends." Dawn's eyes gleamed. She was obviously imagining lots of good stories.

Tara grimaced, remembering her life before Willow. She'd just have to disappoint Dawn on this one. "No. No boyfriends, no girlfriends. No friends, really, before college." She saw the shock in Dawn's face and tried to smile. "I didn't exactly fit in back home. I took care of my mother a lot, when she was sick, so I didn't have time—I wouldn't have had time, even if people had wanted me. But I was one of those demon McClay girls, you know. So no one wanted me."

Dawn was still now, listening intently, her eyes locked on Tara's face.

"After mom died, I went a little crazy, and I tried to—not to make friends, I don't think I really understood how to make friends. But I tried to make people like me. I crashed the wildest parties I knew about, kissed a few boys, and a few girls too, got drunk a lot, but—" She spread her hands. "They were afraid of me. And I was afraid of them. Nothing much happened in my life before Sunnydale, except some petty humiliations."

"I'm sorry," said Dawn, her expression showing how inadequate she thought her words were.

"I'm not," said Tara. "It wouldn't have been any good with any of them. I'm glad I waited until I came here. And found Willow."

"You're glad?" Dawn sounded incredulous. "In spite of--?"

"In spite of everything." She gave Dawn a hug. "Real love is never wasted, Dawn."

Dawn hugged her back, resting her head on Tara's shoulder for a moment. The girl was getting so tall, she had to stoop to do that now. Tara held her close, hoping that unburdening herself so openly would help Dawn understand it was okay to give herself time to grow up inside as well as outside. That there was no need to prove her sexuality—or her humanity—by rushing into the arms of someone she wasn't ready to love.

There was a small noise from behind them. Tara looked up at the faint rustle of paper and saw Spike sitting by the television, Dawn's homework assignment spread on the coffee table in front of him. He was watching the two girls intently.

Tara had forgotten he was there. She gulped, trying to remember exactly what she'd revealed about herself, unsure if he'd even bothered to listen to what he would probably describe as girlish confidences.

He must have sensed her embarrassment. He gave a quick, sympathetic nod, and bent his head over the papers again, as if in tacit apology for hearing too much and invading her privacy.

Spike was really the most surprising creature. He could be almost tactful sometimes, Tara thought, smiling as she rubbed Dawn's back.

Tara slipped through the door of her apartment and let her backpack slide to the floor, reaching out a hand to fumble for the still-unfamiliar location of the light switch. The walk from her evening class had seemed to take forever, her textbooks growing heavier step by step, the straps of the pack digging into her shoulders. During the trip home, this lonely room had been her goal, but now, as she leaned against the wall and stared around her, she felt a surge of panic. Desperately, she tried to reassure herself.

I can do this. I can live in this room and make it pretty. I can pass Statistics and all these other courses and get a college degree so that I can support myself and will never, ever have to slink back home and ask my father for help. I can make new friends, so that I won't be alone, even without Willow, without the Scoobies.

As she fought down her fear, her eyes fell on the box sitting on the kitchen counter, and she felt the knot in her stomach begin to unclench. She remembered Dawn standing at the door that morning, dropping off the carton on her way to school.

"I asked Buffy's permission, so don't worry," the girl had said, her eyes sparking with pride at herself for having carried out her mission to help Tara. "But there's tons of stuff in the kitchen we never use, you know that. Willow's talent begins and ends with burnt pancakes, and Buffy can't cook at all, so you should keep this stuff from going to waste."

I'm not alone. I have Dawn.

Tara stepped forward to caress the battered cardboard box, its unprepossessing surface a reminder that there was someone who cared about her and relied on her. Slowly, she peeled open the flaps and removed each item.

Soon, a fondue pot, a fancy ice cream scoop, an espresso maker, a popcorn popper, and a waffle iron were lined up on her counter. Conspicuous by their absence were gadgets like salad spinners and vegetable steamers. There was, however, a very lovely set of coffee cups that Joyce used to set out on special occasions. Tara put those aside to return to Buffy or just hold for Dawn. They were too much a part of the Summers family for her to keep.

She'd accept the rest of the gifts, though. They might not lead to healthy eating, but the presence of these snack-creators would encourage Dawn to come over and help use them.

Tara was putting the waffle iron away in the cupboard when there was a knock on the door. She answered it to find Spike standing in the hall, dressed in that battered leather coat he was so incomprehensibly fond of, holding a cardboard box even more tattered than the one Dawn had brought over that morning. He looked tired, and there was a bruise on one cheekbone, testament to a recent fight, but his swagger and smirk convinced her he'd been the victor. She was trying to decide if the sight of him pleased or exasperated her, when she remembered she still owed him a favor.

"'Lo, witch," he said.

"Hello, Spike," she said uneasily. "I'm afraid I still haven't figured out a spell for you."

"Guessed that," he said, a look of vague surprise crossing his face, almost as if he'd forgotten about his request. "Or you would have said. Not why I'm here. Came to bring you this lot." He thrust the box into her arms.

She reached out to take it automatically, but stared at the corrugated folds with suspicion. "What is it?"

"Some things I, uh, found," he said. "Thought you might like them."

"Found?" She carried the box over to the kitchen table and opened it. He trailed through the door behind her, long since past the need for an invitation to this place. "As in, they fell off a truck?"

"Not exactly," he said, leaning against the wall and watching her. "The wanker who owned them doesn't need them any more."

"Another one?" she said, glancing over her shoulder at the television set. "Sunnydale seems suddenly full of people who are disappearing and leaving their belongings behind."

He shrugged. "Sunnydale's full of a lot of nasty things," he said. "And a bloke like me needs to keep busy. Get too bored, otherwise."

Cautiously, she peeled open the four folded pieces of cardboard that formed the top of the box. They felt old and musty under her fingers, as if Spike had found a container that had been lying abandoned in some dank corner. But when she saw what lay within, she heard herself gasp, "Oooh!"

"I thought so," said Spike, as she reached down and picked up the slender blade that glowed against a sapphire background. She held the long, elegant length of tarnished silver carefully, turning it over in her hands as a few phrases of incantation dropped from her lips.

His voice was smug as he added, "Didn't look like much, but I could feel the magic in it."

She looked up at him and nodded. "It's been misused, though. But I can cleanse it. I've already made a start." Carefully, she carried the dagger over to her desk and laid it next to her laptop. "It's not something that should be in evil hands, Spike. But I can be trusted with it."

"Knew you'd know what to do," he agreed. "Didn't want to touch it myself. Used the cloth to pick it up."

"Good idea." She went back to the box and reached into it. "So this is just wrapping—" She stopped again, as the folds of fabric spilled out over the cardboard and the table, flowing down to the floor.

He shifted uneasily, his expression almost shame-faced, although his eyes glowed with something else. "Not exactly. Thought you'd like that as well." His voice dropped to a definitely embarrassed mutter. "Hoped the color would match your eyes."

"It's beautiful," said Tara, her fingers tracing the pattern woven into the lush sapphire material. "So heavy and rich." Her eyes strayed to the hated sofa. This would cover its ugliness and change that corner of the room from something to be ignored to a space that drew the eye and welcomed her.

"You like it, then?" he said, sounding assured again.

"Yes, thank you." Her eyes strayed downward, and she noticed one more object in the box. "What's this?"

"Uh. Not sure about that one."

Tara was sure enough, but she bit her lip to stop from either laughing or blurting out her opinion of his third and final gift. "What an—uh, interesting picture," she said as steadily as she could. She stared down at what she assumed was supposed to be a woman warrior, judging by the number of sharp weapons the figure was carrying. But she had to wonder who would head into battle with so little clothing—and the lack of a bra would certainly be a problem for a woman so considerably endowed. Set in a heavy, dark frame, the picture glowed with garish colors and gleaming, sweaty flesh.

"Yeah, well—wasn't sure you'd like it. Know you like girls though, and she's—uh--," and a hint of panic entered his tone. "I think it might be worth something. Frazetta, you know."

"I'm not familiar with his work," she said marveling that her voice didn't quaver. "Well." She paused, searching for words. "The frame is pretty."

"Yeah." He leapt on this. "The frame. I thought you could use that." He glanced around almost desperately for some way to change the subject, and his glance fell on the box and the new kitchen equipment on the counter. "Been on a scavenging expedition of your own, have you?"

She put the picture back in the box and turned to follow his gaze. "Dawn brought me those." She reached out a hand to touch the popcorn maker and smiled. "She didn't exactly let practicality be her guide."

"Yeah." He came to stand beside her and picked up the fondue pot. "Haven't seen one of these since the seventies--" He stopped as something inside the round red belly of the vessel rattled. "What's that? The ghost of cheese dip past?"

Their heads bent over the pot as he tugged off the lid and reached inside. Instead of the fossilized remains of a forgotten bit of hors d'oeuvre, he pulled out a small plastic bag of some dried leafy substance. He sniffed it cautiously. "Not even the ghost of Thai stick past. Some herb, but not the kind that's fun to smoke."

Tara stepped away from him. "Lethe's Bramble," she said in an angry, tight voice.

His head snapped up at her tone. "Lethe's Bramble?"

She turned away, hugging her arms around her, trying to hide quick tears, only to have her quavering voice betray her when she said, "It's what Willow uses for forgetting spells."

"Oh." His eyes seemed suddenly darker, as if reflecting her own dismay, and he spoke, his words tumbling out a bit too fast. "Doesn't have to be a secret stash, though, does it? Who knows how long it's been sitting here? This thing probably hasn't been used for decades. You know how humans are, hanging on to old kitchen gadgets long after some infomercial's lured them on to Ronco's latest and greatest slicer and dicer. Willow probably put this in here months ago and then forgot her forgetting weed—ironic, that."

Tara shook her head, denying herself the refuge of his clumsy reassurance. "No, we made fondue just the week before I moved out. I remember, because it was one of the last evenings we all spent together. Trying to cheer up Buffy, and—" She swallowed hard and reached out to take the pot from him. "That didn’t work either."

"No," he said softly. "It doesn't, does it? Nothing helps. To make Buffy happy, to make Willow better."

Her tears flowed freely then, her shoulders shaking. He stood quietly, letting her cry for a few minutes until finally he said awkwardly, "Hard to know what to say to you. You're not like most women." He caught her quick glance and added with what he meant to be reassurance, "Not because you're a dyke, pet. I mean—" He stopped for a moment, seeming to go through some internal struggle before he went on in a different, softer tone, his accent more polished than usual.

"To another woman, I'd say, 'forget her, she doesn't deserve you.' But that won't work for you, will it? Because of the way you are. You don't think of yourself, of what you deserve. Even your sorrow is all focused outward. You're standing here, worrying about and loving a woman who betrayed you into forgetting yourself." There was another pause as he battled with himself before he uttered, "You're noble, that's what you are."

She gulped back a sob, so astonished by his words she was drawn a bit out of her despair. "Thank you, Spike. I don't deserve that, but thank you."

He went on awkwardly. "You're all right, pet. You'll be all right."

She shook her head, finding herself confessing things she'd been unable to say to anyone else. "I don't know, Spike. Days like today, I'm not sure I can do it. I'm not sure I can manage on my own. I'm not noble. I'm too much of a coward." She ducked her head, ashamed of her words and made even more miserable by her conviction they were true.

They were silent a long time. She stood holding the chipped red fondue pot in front of her, staring down at it as if it were a crystal ball. He moved at last, reaching out to touch the slightly-crooked index finger of her right hand where it was wrapped around the container, and saying, "This never healed completely straight, did it? After that skanky hell god broke it."

"N-no," Tara said in surprise.

"After you sat there and let that bitch Glory break it, because you wouldn't tell her Dawn was the Key," he went on. His finger just barely stroked hers, his eyes following the movement before he glanced up to meet her gaze, his expression intent. "Not something a coward would do, that."

"I—I just couldn't think of anything else. I kept trying to think of a spell, but I was too terrified. I wasn't brave, Spike."

"They say everyone has their vices, Tara, but they definitely left out conceit when they met you. Don't even have it in you to think well of yourself for what you did then, do you?"

His eyes were an incredibly bright blue. It was hard, staring into them, to find the strength to contradict him. He seemed so sure and certain. It was even harder, at this moment, to remember he was someone whose opinions couldn't be trusted.

But she did know that he could be trusted in some things. She remembered how he'd proven that.

"Glory did worse to you," said Tara. "You let her do worse."

"No," he said. He spread his hands in a dismissive gesture. "And, me, I'd boast about it if I had. Because conceit is something I've got by the cartload. But it's been pointed out by people with less than perfect opinions of me that vampires aren't much good for lots of things. And brain-suck happens to be one of them. Whatever Glory did to me, I always knew she couldn't do that. She could kill me, but she couldn't steal who I was. But you let it happen to you. Gave all of yourself. For the Little Bit's sake." He took the fondue pot away from her and set it on the counter, turning back to take her fingers in his. Slowly, bowing from the waist in a way that seemed eerily natural and not the least bit awkward, he kissed the back of her hand. His lips were cool but not cold, and very soft as they grazed her skin.

Her mind went blank with something that was more than surprise. She wasn't sure what she was feeling, but it wasn't fear or embarrassment. It didn't occur to her to be self-conscious until he straightened up, looking shocked, horrified as if he'd just done something truly outrageous. Which, considering what he was, she supposed he had. He couldn't blush, of course, but she thought that he was even paler than usual, his eyes refusing to meet hers. He backed away hastily.

"Uh," he stuttered, bumping into a chair as he made his way towards the door. "Better be going, then. Got to see a bloke about—about—"

"A dog?" she asked.

"Something like that," he said, his hand finding the doorknob at last. He turned it, and slipped through the opening with a "Bloody hell!" as he tripped over something in the hall. The door slammed behind him.

Tara stared after him for a moment, unsure of her feelings until she heard herself burst into laughter. She was, she realized with surprise, really happy, although she couldn't have put the reason into words. It might have been Spike's insistence that she wasn't as much of a coward as she thought, or it might have been simple amusement at his embarrassment. But even as she snickered, the fingers of her left hand stroked the spot Spike's lips had touched, wondering if she'd dreamed that unlikely caress. It seemed impossible that the man who had just bumbled backwards outside her door was capable of that courtly gesture.

But, then, she lived in an impossible world. And it was suddenly easier to continue living in it. It was as if the future had at least momentarily become something to look forward to, instead of a dreaded unknown.

She dropped the Lethe's Bramble into the garbage can and shoved the fondue pot into the back of the cupboard, setting the popcorn popper in front of it. She decided on a corner of the tiny counter as the espresso maker's permanent home, although she wouldn't have enough spare cash for coffee until her next paycheck. She set the empty cardboard boxes by the door to drop into the apartment's dumpster the next morning. Then she picked up her backpack from the floor where she had abandoned it earlier and carried it over to her desk.

As she pulled out her textbooks, her gaze fell on the dagger Spike had brought her. The books slipped from her hands, and she cautiously let one palm hover over the dark grey blade, fingertips approaching the hilt but not touching it. She was unsure exactly what hand had held it last, but the emanations made it clear the thing had been evil. Spike had said his only motivation in killing had been to avoid boredom, but Tara knew that whether he cared or not, he'd done Sunnydale a favor if he'd rid it of the thing that had desecrated that weapon.

The power that was inherent in the blade itself was neither good nor evil, though. She would need to pick up a few ingredients before she could weave a spell that would cleanse the dagger, but she was confident that in a day or so she would convert what had been an evil tool into an instrument she could safely use.

Turning her back on the dagger, she went to the table and started to gather up the length of blue cloth. But she noticed the other object still lying in the tattered old box, and the fabric slipped from her fingers.

The picture was completely ludicrous, but the frame was pretty. She flipped it over, pulled out the backing, and removed the print. Then she turned to her desk, opening a drawer and taking out some photos, flipping through them quickly. Her first instinct was to choose one of her favorite candids of Willow, but when she looked down at that quirky, smiling face, the leaden feeling in her stomach returned.

Much as I love her, staring at this picture will only bring me pain. Reluctantly, she slipped the photo back into the drawer.

Several other snapshots, too reminiscent of happier times with Willow, Buffy, and her other friends, followed. At last, Tara found herself staring at the most recent picture in the pile, and she was surprised to realize the corners of her mouth were tilting upwards.

A few days earlier, Dawn had offered to take Tara out for coffee, showing up with a digital camera that she had displayed proudly and used ineptly, deleting picture after picture as she struggled to understand its mysteries. Tara had been suspicious, but Dawn had told her she hadn't stolen the device, just "liberated" it from the lair of three stupid nerds who'd been harassing Buffy. One of them had finally been arrested for killing his ex-girlfriend, and Buffy and the others had perused the "evidence." This tale had been less than reassuring, but Tara felt powerless to protest the continued possession of the camera when Dawn explained that Willow had a scored a huge haul of sophisticated electronics and Xander had packed up several boxes of comic books and Star Wars paraphernalia and taken them back to his apartment.

Spike, who had somehow wound up at the espresso bar at the same time Dawn was insisting she could afford to buy Tara dessert, had been predictably unappreciative of any moral dilemmas presented by the acquisition of the camera, but he had been distinctly annoyed at having his picture snapped a half-dozen times. Dawn had ignored his complaints, finally handing her new toy to a passer-by and insisting he take a picture of the three of them. The next day, she'd coaxed a friend into printing out the result on glossy paper and had presented the picture to Tara.

Three pairs of blue eyes peered out from the photo. Spike was slouched in his chair, one arm stretched out along the table, his features cast in sharp relief as he mock-glared at Dawn. Dawn smirked back at him, twitching a strand of her hair self-consciously as she preened for the camera. Tara, caught between them, looked as if she didn't know whether to be amused or worried by her companions.

Tara didn't think the three figures in the photo looked the least as if they belonged together. And it wasn't as if the composition had any intrinsic artistic merit. But without thinking too much of the reason for her actions, she slipped the picture into her pretty new frame and went to hunt for a nail and a hammer to hang it over her desk.

Spike stumbled out into the hall, tripping over the box he'd left standing outside Tara's door, and almost slamming into the opposite wall before he managed to regain his balance. Grimacing at his own clumsiness, he snatched up his second box of loot and hurried out onto the dark streets of Sunnydale. But once he was on the sidewalk, his steps slowed again, and he turned to gaze at the warm yellow light emanating from the basement apartment.

Uh, we'd better get busy fencing this lot so's we can get to the bar in time for a few hands of poker, said the fool after a few minutes.

Take your time, said the demon, his voice dripping with sarcasm. Thought I'd be bored, watching you two chat up the witch. But now I'm all busy trying to decide which one of you wankers made us look like more of an ass back there.

Spike turned and began to walk briskly again.

I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about, said the poet haughtily. We certainly were not 'chatting anyone up,' as you put it.

The fool brayed with laughter. I wasn't! But what do you call kissing her hand?

A simple, polite gesture, acknowledging the lady's bravery. The poet was at his stiffest. I certainly had no ulterior motive.

I'm not sure you'd know what to do with one if you did, snarled the demon. Kissing hands and mooning about outside a girl's house is all you're good for.

I hope so, said the fool. Because we don't want him to actually start writing poems again. And I don't remember you complaining about hanging around Buffy's place.

No, agreed the demon, as they reached Sunnydale's miniscule downtown. But we got something out of that, usually. Until she walked out on us for good.

Yeah, said the fool, distracted for a moment by the memory of Buffy's body in Spike's arms. Eventually, though, another thought occurred to him. But why are we lurking around Tara's now?

The demon provided a response while the poet was still mulling over the question. We need to keep an eye on the Bit. She doesn't know how to take proper care of herself, that one, and we promised to guard her.

The Bit wasn't there just now, pointed out the fool inexorably.

No, agreed the poet. And do you know what else shouldn't have been there? That horrible picture you stuck in the box while I was folding up that cloth and the demon was trying to make sure we handled that knife properly!

Thought she might like it, said the fool in a chastened tone. I mean, seeing she's gay and the girl was starkers and all.

Pretty stark bad taste, snapped the poet. I'm trying to match fabric to her eyes and you're giving her bimbos on velvet!

It wasn't the one on velvet! Knew she wouldn't like that one, said the fool, adding after a moment, I kept that one for us.

You did what? cried the poet. If you think you're putting that thing up in our crypt. . .

If you don't like it, you can just prance off with those pre-Raphaelite prints you're so fond of and find some place else to hang them, snapped the fool.

I've never let him put those bloody mawkish things up either, pointed out the demon. As for you, I don't care if it is a picture of a naked bird, I draw the line at velvet. Only a wanker like you . . .

The argument ceased as the three realized Spike had thumped their box down on a counter and reached a tentative agreement with a spiny purple demon over the worth of the various artifacts inside. "Seventy-five bucks," the fence was saying. "And I'll throw in two cartons of cigarettes."

Spike opened his mouth to agree, then stopped, staring around at the piles of contraband and stolen goods heaped over the floor of the warehouse. "What's that?" he said, pointing at a box filled with squishy-looking gold foil bags.

The fence might have grimaced, but it was hard for even someone as familiar with demonkind as Spike to tell for sure. "That fancy gourmet coffee they sell in those dumps where they charge a week's salary for a thimble of sludge. Some loser dumped it here as part of a bigger haul."

"Throw in the lot and you've got a deal," said Spike.

The fence reached out a slender appendage, scooped up the box easily, and dropped it on the counter. "There's enough caffeine there to keep you awake nights for the next century or so. Didn't know fancy java was one of your vices."

"Got more vices than I'm about to share with you," said Spike, carefully counting out the bills the fence handed him. "And a friend with a new espresso maker."

"The vices don't surprise me," said the fence as Spike headed for the door. "But the friend does."

"Me too," muttered Spike as he headed out into the night.

"Dawn, be careful!" Tara shouted, watching in horror as the huge, lizard-like demon lashed out at the girl.

Dawn jumped up into a crevice a few feet above the cave's floor, turned around, and kicked a shower of pebbles and stones at the monster. It hissed, and raised itself up on its front eight legs. Before it could strike, Spike stumbled forward, brushing away a trickle of blood where his face had been cut by the thing's whipping tail.

The demon turned back to Spike, and the vampire backed up as he fought, clearly trying to achieve the dual goals of killing the lizard and drawing it away from Dawn. In a few seconds, his back was up against the wall of the cave as his sword lopped off one clawed leg. The demon responded by using the dozens that remained to dart forward and slash at him.

Tara realized she was cursing beneath her breath, and forced herself to stop, trying to modulate her breathing so she could enter trance and do a spell. Her mind was racing through the possibilities. The huge lizard was magical, but just barely. Anything too sophisticated might slide off its scaly hide. It was time for strength, not finesse.

She reached into her backpack and slid the now-gleaming silver dagger out of the sheath she'd crafted for it. As she tried to order her thoughts, she saw the lizard swipe at Spike's leg and almost rip through the fabric of his jeans before he leapt to one side. She didn't dare take the time to utter words aloud. She didn't make a conscious decision to transmit her reassurance directly, and she was almost surprised to hear her own mental shout. Hold on, Spike. I'm going to try something.

Now would be good, witch. His sword blade flashed and she saw his amber eyes gleam as he moved sideways again, retreating further.

"Bitter, bitter, bite," Tara muttered as she aimed the dagger at the lizard. A dense cloud emerged from its tip, misting up under the demon's belly. The lizard's attack slowed.

Coughing and cursing, Spike pressed his advantage, hacking off first another leg, then the lizard's head.

"Yay, Tara!" Dawn jumped down from her perch, picked up the sword she'd dropped earlier, and cut off the twitching tail. "I don't know what you did, but thanks for the rescue."

Tara backed away and let Spike and the teenager finish the dismemberment on their own.

Spike dropped his sword arm and turned to Dawn, his features morphing into human form. "That's enough. I think these bits are too small to wander off on their own and eat anyone else. Now back off and let me collect the parts I can sell." He picked up an aged carryall that had been tossed on the floor by the cave wall and opened the lizard's mouth.

Tara felt her stomach heave and she looked away, catching the teenager's eye. "Dawn," she said, her relief melting into exasperation and retroactive terror, "If you ever, ever leave me a message again saying you can't come over because you're helping Spike kill demons by the hellmouth, I promise you I'll see to it that you're living with your father in San Diego by the next sunrise."

Dawn's expression of triumph changed to almost comical dismay. "Why? I was just trying to help."

"Help who?"

"Well, humanity. The world." The words were uttered in an unconvincing grumble. "By getting rid of the forces of evil and all that stuff. And it's not like I went out looking for trouble. Some of the kids at school came down here on a dare and saw that thing. I heard about it during gym class."

Tara resisted an impulse to tear at her hair. "So, why didn't you tell Buffy?"

That comment sparked a look of indignation, followed by lots of eye-rolling. "That's not fair, Tara. I don't even know where Buffy is. Holding Xander's hand while he cries into his beer maybe, or escorting Willow to a meeting of Amnesia Inducer's Anonymous. There was no one home, so I found a description in one of Willow's books, and it turns out you can sell these lizard's tongues for lots of money. People in China think it helps with their sex life. That's why I went to Spike."

Tara tried to wrap her thoughts around this new concept. "You're helping Spike find aphrodisiacs to sell on the Asian black market?"

"Well, only this once. And don't go all tree-hugger on me, Tara.
I mean, I know these things are endangered. But they should be extinct. They're pretty dangerous."

"Yeah," said Spike, dropping the carryall on the ground at their feet. It landed with a thud that said it was now filled with something heavy and disgusting. "Seemed like a no-brainer."

"That's lucky," snapped Tara, turning her attention to him. "Because you certainly weren't using any brain power when you decided on this expedition."

"Now, look—" Spike started to say, but she interrupted him.

"No, Spike, you listen! I can't believe you brought Dawn down here. I'd ask what you were thinking, but you've already admitted that you weren't!"

"It's not as if it was the first time she's been here. Besides, I told her to stay back and watch!"

He stepped closer to her, his eyes sparking amber, but she stood her ground. "And you expected her to listen? Just how stupid can you be, Spike?"

He pointed at the carryall. "Look, you showed up in time, the monster's dead, and I stand to make a few quid out of the deal. No harm done."

"Yes, Spike, there is harm done when you take Dawn into situations like this. This isn't like sneaking around to let her gorge on spicy chicken wings before you come over for tofu night at my place. And don't look so surprised that I know about that. The garlic stink even overwhelmed the cloud of Marlboro smoke and Bazooka sugar that you two drag along with you everywhere. But just because I let you get away with taking her to R-rated movies or teaching her to drive that motorcycle of yours around the cemetery, doesn't mean you can take her dragon-slaying!"

Surprisingly, Tara's words seemed to be having an impact. Spike looked down and shuffled his feet. "Thought I'd take the thing by myself. Didn't expect her to jump in and start hacking at it."

Tara was still glaring at him when she heard Dawn say in a small voice, "It bit you, Spike. You screamed."

The vampire's expression became indignant again. "I did not scream. I may have uttered a warlike yell, but I did not scream."

"Well, you yelled, then," said Dawn. "But it did bite you. What else could I do?"

"Nothing else, at that point," agreed Tara. "And, Spike, just how would it have been so much better if you had been taken to pieces by that thing because you were too stupid to ask for help?"

He opened his mouth to retort, and then shut it again, as if her last words had presented an idea so novel that he had no idea how to respond. "All right, witch," he muttered at last. "Won't do it again. Not without asking you first."

Tara nodded, feeling no hesitation at accepting his word. In spite of his many faults—and she was suddenly in no mood to dwell on them—he kept his promises.

"Is the fight over?" asked Dawn in a timid voice.

Tara turned to her in surprise, about to say that the fight had been over for some time. But the sight of the teen's frightened and distressed face stopped her, and she exchanged glances with Spike.

He, too, understood immediately that it was the argument between Spike and Tara that was distressing Dawn, not the dismembered corpse at her feet. "Yeah, pet," he said quickly. "Fight's over."

Dawn went over and took him by the arm. The gesture seemed to make him uneasy, and he pulled away after a moment, flexing the fingers of his hand. "What was that spell anyway?" he asked. "My hand is numb."

"It's just cold," Tara said. "I figured, being a lizard and all, if there was an intense temperature drop, it would slow down."

"Cold, eh?" Spike looked at his fingers. "So this should wear off?"

"As soon as you get someplace warmer," said Tara. "It might take longer for you than Dawn and me because of your bad circulation." She was attacked with renewed worry for him, which was ridiculous. He wasn't dust, so he would be okay.

But maybe he's hurting right now. He has to be, from that cut, even if the cold doesn't bother him. I don't want him to hurt. If I can't stop him from hurting because of Buffy, at least he shouldn't always be getting bruised and beaten. And he shouldn't be so surprised that others worry about him being hurt.

"His total lack of circulation, you mean," said Dawn, who seemed to take a more casual attitude towards Spike's injuries. "Hey, you know where's warmer? That pizza place with the garlic butter and the potato skins. And Buffy gave me money for dinner." She glanced at Tara. "Come on. I'm sure they have something green there too. You can make me eat that as an appetizer." She set off down the tunnel that led back up to the surface.

Tara trailed behind Dawn and Spike. "But--but I have a nice, healthy dinner already stewing in my crock pot."

"Oh?" asked Spike, with a suspicious glance over his shoulder. "I happen to know it's two days before your payday and I don't recall you saying you'd won the lottery. What's in this lovely stew of yours?"

"Well—" Tara hesitated. "A few potatoes and carrots and onions. Because—"

"They're cheap," said Spike understandingly.

"And some nice dried herbs," added Tara brightly, but then forced herself to admit, "And pretty much everything else that was sitting in the back of the fridge."

Spike and Dawn exchanged looks. "Pizza," said Dawn definitely.

Spike nodded towards Tara. "What about the witch?"

"I think it's a major act of kindness to drag her away from whatever's in that crock pot," said Dawn with a shudder. "Hey! That and killing this lizard makes two good deeds in one day, which means I can be as bad as I like tomorrow."

Tara sputtered with indignation at this fallacious logic, letting Spike and Dawn tease her all the way to the restaurant as a way to make up for her previous, uncharacteristic anger at them.

But as she bit into a slice of really excellent pizza and listened to Dawn's efforts to convince Spike to buy her an mp3 player with his profits from the lizard's tongue, Tara realized she was proud of her wrathful outburst. She had asserted herself for once. Well, she did remember other times when she'd asserted herself. But tonight, it had been different.

Spike had yelled back at first, but he had listened. Really listened. He hadn't tried to change the subject or say he didn't understand what she meant. He'd listened, and at the end, he'd agreed with her. The thought made her almost dizzy.

She smiled up at the vampire as he came to the table, sliding over the mug of beer he'd bought her without being asked and handing Dawn a glass of Coke.

Spike could be, and usually was, the most amazing idiot. But in addition to admitting she could be right, he could also say and do astonishingly nice things. Tara remembered his visit to her apartment and had to admit it felt good to be praised for being strong sometimes. So unlike Willow, who had always seemed threatened whenever it was clear Tara had more experience or—

Tara pushed that idea away. Aside from the fact that it seemed disloyal, thinking about Willow did her no good.

She began paying attention to the conversation around her.

"And if I buy you this thing, Bit, will you use it for good or evil?" Spike was saying.

"What do you mean?" asked Dawn, falling into his rhetorical trap in spite of her obvious suspicions.

"I may be a demon, but I have my limits. Even a dump like Sunnydale shouldn't be polluted with the sounds of Evanescence and White Stripes."

Tara bent her head over her pizza, hiding her smirk from Dawn as she waited for the teenager's inevitable protest.

Dawn was having a pretty good Friday evening. At least, it was pretty good up until the moment she turned the corner onto Revello Drive.

She'd been invited to this really wild party by a girl she hardly knew. So she'd left a note for Buffy saying she'd be at Tara's and then snuck into Spike's crypt. She'd left him a note saying where the party was and mentioning there'd be boys and maybe a keg and wasn't that cool?

Then she'd shown up at the party wearing her best jeans and a shirt that she probably should have given to charity because it was getting too small. It was fun for a while, and just when it started to get a little scary, Tara had come in without knocking and hauled her out onto the street, where Spike was stalking up and down and growling so loud Dawn was surprised he hadn't switched to game face.

"If you ever do this again—" he snarled at her.

Dawn took a step back. He was angrier than she'd expected. It was always so hard to know what would upset him and how much. He didn't mind letting her see dismembered demons, but apparently kegger parties were something else altogether. "I thought you'd be glad I was having a good time."

"Is there some new monster in Sunnydale that sucked out what little brains you have? What made you think this was a brilliant idea?" His blue eyes sparked with gold flecks. "And then leaving me that daft note, and me not able to get in there without an invitation."

"Oh," said Dawn in a small voice that she hoped didn't sound smug. "So that's why you went to get Tara."

"Yes, that's bloody well why I went to get Tara! Or would you rather I tracked down your sister and let her find you in there?"

"Oh, no!" Dawn had no problem looking horrified at this idea. "Buffy doesn't deal with this kind of stuff well." She just looks at me with dead eyes and moves on. She hardly ever bothers to yell at me at all.

"And what makes you think I'm dealing well?" asked Tara in a level tone. "Dawn, I'm so disappointed in you."

Dawn turned around, and her heart sank at the sadness in her friend's eyes. "I'm sorry," she stammered sincerely. "Please, please don't be angry." She threw herself into Tara's arms and was relieved when she received a hug back.

However, Tara's voice was still stern a moment later when she said, "We're taking you home now."

"But—" Dawn raised her head and looked back and forth from Tara to Spike. "I don't want to go back to that big, stupid, empty house and just sit until Buffy finally gets back from killing something or making burgers or whatever it is she's doing or until Willow comes in to moan about how she can't do magic any more. It's not fair. I wouldn't even have wanted to go to that party if I'd just had someone I could really talk to." She crossed her hands in front of her chest and sulked.

Tara and Spike exchanged looks.

So they went back to Tara's apartment instead. Tara and Dawn made popcorn while Spike sprawled on the couch with the remote, switching back and forth between Titus Andronicus and South Park.

Then Spike went out for a smoke and Dawn used up some of the apartment's vast supply of coffee by making experimental mochas with the espresso machine while Tara sat on the couch and paged through her Statistics text with one hand, using the clicker to switch back and forth between Xena and C-SPAN with the other.

Then all three of them squeezed onto the couch together, and after much argument, most of it from Spike, watched two episodes of Daria.

Sometime after Dawn started wondering why Sick, Sad World didn't film in Sunnydale, Tara noticed how late it was. Spike volunteered to walk Dawn home, and Tara said she couldn't go with them because she had to get up early to go to her part-time job at the campus bookstore.

But even without Tara's company, the walk home was fun. Dawn chattered about how it was too bad Tara had to work so hard, but at least she was around books, and she liked books, so that couldn't be so awful.

"Depends on the books," Spike retorted.

"I wonder what kind of job she'll get when she's finished with college." This thought led to an even more intriguing, Dawn-centered speculation. "I wonder what kind of job I'll get when I'm grown up. It's kind of scary to think about, you know, because there are so many different things to choose from."

"Keep going the way you have been, Bit, and you'll have to choose something you can do from inside a prison cell. That should narrow the options down." She could see the blue flash of his eyes over the glow of the cigarette dangling from his lips.

"That isn't fair, Spike! I am not going to wind up in jail. I haven't stolen anything for months and months."

"No? Well, they'll just have to nab you for truancy then, or underage drinking, or—"

Just then a bunch of guys came around the corner, moving together like a pack of predators. Dawn stiffened, and started to fumble in her backpack for one of the weapons Spike had been teaching her how to use.

But Spike just stared at the other men, all of them taller and bulkier than he was, and gave a single, deep-throated growl.

The gang parted to let them go by.

Dawn waited until they were out of earshot to ask, "What would you have done if that didn't scare them?"

"Gone into game face," he said. "That usually works."

She thought his expression looked desolate. "Having that chip kind of sucks," she said inadequately. "You must really miss being able to fight humans."

"I don't like not being able to defend my girl proper," he said in a voice that sounded almost as vicious as the snarl he'd used to scare off the gang. "And I'm not fond of being humiliated by someone I should be able to toss across the room. But I don't miss fighting humans."


"No. Just eating them. Barring Slayers and a few others, humans are no challenge. I'd rather rumble with a demon who gives me a run for my money."

That made sense to Dawn. She didn't find most humans good for very much either.

On the next block, a vampire jumped out from behind a tree, and Spike let Dawn try out some of the self-defense moves he'd taught her. She managed to hold her own for almost a minute before he stepped in and snapped the creature's neck. He tossed her a stake and held the vampire out in front of him so she could dust it herself before it had time to recover. Then he said she'd done a good job. That was so cool it made her completely forget he'd called her a future jailbird.

With his approval of the way she'd kicked the vamp in the balls ringing pleasantly in her ears, Dawn turned the corner onto Revello Drive.

And felt her stomach lurch.

It wasn't that there was anything scary or unpleasant on the street. In fact, everything looked way too normal and quiet for Sunnydale. It was just that she didn't want to go home. She started dragging her feet.

Spike realized she was falling behind and turned to look at her. "What's wrong, pet?"

"Nothing," Dawn was going to leave her reply at that, but his incredulously raised eyebrow spurred her into speech. "Spike, how come Tara can live in her own apartment and make pretty good meals with vegetables and stuff when she only works part-time?"

He shrugged, his head tilted to one side. "I think she gets some kind of money the government gives to students," he said. "But that place of hers doesn't cost much. Less than the dorm, she said. That's why she moved."

"Yeah," said Dawn. "I think the grant money she gets goes mostly for tuition. But—" She stared at the house her mother had bought, trying to think it through. "If Buffy sold the house, wouldn't it mean she'd have to work less? I mean, there are lots of taxes and repair bills and electric bills she wouldn't have to pay."

"Maybe," said Spike. "But in case you haven't noticed, Bit, I'm not a real estate agent or a financial planner."

"It's just, when Buffy talks about taking care of me, it's all about money stuff. Getting me clothes and making the mortgage payments so I have a roof over my head. She never wants to talk with me about other stuff." Dawn kicked at a neighbor's fence. "She doesn't talk much to anyone except Willow and Xander. Not like Tara. Tara tries to make friends with people and go places sometimes. Buffy never has any fun any more."

Clearly, Spike wasn't much more comfortable talking about this kind of stuff than Buffy was. "Bit, I'm not a family counselor either. And I'm not one to give anyone advice, But this I do know. Your sister's doing the best she can for you."

He always looked so sad when he mentioned Buffy. Dawn forgot about her own problems for a moment. "I don’t know why you're being nice about her. She never did the best she could for you, Spike."

"I'm not so sure about that, Bit." She stared up at him in surprise and saw he was looking up at her house. "When did that happen?" he asked, gesturing. "Something forget where the door is?"

She looked over her shoulder at the boarded-up front window. "More or less. A really stupid demon smashed in a few days ago. Xander has the glass to fix it on order."

"Oh," he said blankly, and it occurred to Dawn that once he would have known about an event like that immediately. Once he would probably have been around to help throw the demon back out the window.

After an awkward moment, Spike said, "Better get inside. It's late."

She gave him a quick hug, feeling him stiffen before he responded awkwardly. She hardly ever touched him any more, but she was trying to change that. He'd seemed so distant for a long time, until they'd started hanging out with Tara. He still seemed awfully lonely, and she wanted to let him know she cared about him. And hugging him made her feel stronger. She took a deep breath, let go of him, and ran into the house before her courage failed her.

Buffy was coming out of the kitchen when Dawn came in the front door. She looked tired and kind of depressed, so Dawn supposed everything was normal.

"Hi," she said as she headed for the stairs.

"Tara isn't coming in?" Buffy asked with a glance at the door.

"Uh—no." Dawn stuttered the syllables.

Buffy stiffened. "Tara did walk you home, didn't she?"

Better not lie. Dawn made her voice as casual as possible and started making her way up the stairs as she said, "She couldn't, so Spike did."

Buffy's voice was as sharp as a stake. "Spike? How did that happen? Why was he around you two?"

"He brought something over to Tara's." That would be me. "You know, she needs stuff, and he's good at finding stuff, and I don't think she feels comfortable going to the magic shop any more." Dawn opened the door to her room and tossed her backpack on her bed.

"Dangerous stuff?" asked Buffy from the doorway.

I hope not. Not really, even though I know I've been being pretty bad. She turned to face her sister. "Come on, Buffy, we're talking about Tara. Do you think she'd be into dangerous stuff?" There, I managed to not tell the real truth without actually lying!

Buffy relaxed visibly. "No, of course not. If we can't trust Tara— But, Dawn, I don't want you around Spike. Walking you home once in a while is okay, but you shouldn't hang out with him."

Dawn stiffened. "Why not?"

"Why not? He's evil, Dawn."

Dawn realized suddenly that Buffy was actually paying attention to this conversation and that her voice held real emotion. She threw herself into the argument. "No, Buffy, he used to be evil. Now, he's whatever it is that he is. Maybe not all the way good, but not evil either."

Buffy shook her head. "Dawn, do you have any idea of the things he's done?"

"Those things don't matter to me!"

"Well, they should!" There was real pain of some kind in Buffy's eyes.

"You are just never fair to him, Buffy." Dawn's initial pleasure at seeing her sister react, even negatively, about something was fading fast.

"Fair? You want me to be—" Buffy took a step back, hesitating for a moment before taking refuge in an old argument. "Do you think he's changed? People don't change. Not that much. Not from evil to good." Then she added the clincher, the one Dawn had known was coming. "Not without a soul."

"I don't care!" shrieked Dawn, turning up the volume of her voice to its most ear-splitting. "It's not fair!"

Apparently even Buffy realized that there was no arguing with that statement, especially when it was uttered at those decibels. She left the room, her only answer the vicious slam with which she closed the door.

Dawn listened to Buffy stomp down the stairs. She was shaking with reaction, and she wished that she'd been able to stay calm and try to make Buffy listen to her. But her sister's words had made her so crazy she hadn't been able to keep from screaming.

Why didn't Buffy understand? Why did she insist Spike was still the same monster who'd come to Sunnydale? Why couldn't she see that some things did change?

Maybe Buffy was right that people didn't change much, but Spike wasn't human. And things that weren't human could change. Dawn was sure of that.

She'd changed. She'd gone from shiny ball of energy to whatever she was now. What used to be a Key was a Dawn-shaped thing, and maybe she had a soul and maybe she didn't. But she was all right. At least, she hoped she was. And she was sure Spike was all right too.

Why didn't Buffy understand?

Once Dawn was safely through the front door, Spike took a few steps down the street, moving out of the glow of the street lamp in front of Buffy's house. At first he moved purposefully, but then his steps slowed, and he turned back, staring at the lighted windows, straining to hear the voices within. He could make out the tones, but not the words.

The Slayer and the Bit are going at it, said the demon.

Nothing new about that, said the fool.

I hope Dawn isn't being made miserable on account of us, said the poet. And I hope Buffy— He stopped, bewildered.

Sometimes it was hard for even the poet to know what to hope for Buffy.

Spike sensed movement in the front of the house. He stepped further back into the shadows as the front door opened. "Spike?" Buffy stepped out onto the porch and leaned over the rail, peering under the tree in the front yard. After a moment, she went over and laid a hand on the trunk, her head down, as if she were searching for something by the roots.

Checking for the butts from our fags, said the demon.

Finding nothing, the Slayer slowly climbed the porch steps and went back into the house, looking over her shoulder. Less than a minute later, Spike heard the back door open.

Thinks we're lurking out there, said the fool. It always used to be there, if it wasn't under the tree.

All three of them realized with some surprise that they hadn't lurked anywhere near Revello Drive for weeks.

She's waiting for us, said the poet.

Yeah, but why? asked the demon.

They mulled over the possibilities. Most likely Buffy was going to yell at Spike for hanging around Dawn. Or maybe she wanted to tell him again to get out of her life? Or maybe, just maybe—

Doesn't matter, said the poet with certainty. We're not going back there.

Because even if she did invite him back into her life for a time, it wouldn't be with love. Soon, she would reject him again. And she would loathe herself for her renewed weakness even more than she loathed him for making her weak. None of them, not even the poet, who was the worst masochist of the trio, wanted to experience that again. And none of them, especially the poet, wanted that for Buffy.

She deserved better. But he wasn't the man to give her what she deserved. He wasn't even the man to figure out what the devil that was.

Spike lit a cigarette and stood where he was, in the darkness, too far to be seen from the house, but close enough to sense her. He wasn't going to step into the back yard, but it seemed like there was something else he should do before he slipped away.

The poet rummaged through his store of borrowed thoughts and phrases and found some words.

She won't listen, said the demon.

I know, said the poet sadly. She hasn't heard me in a long time.

Do it anyway, said the fool with surprising wisdom. Sometimes the words just need to be said.

So, alone, deep in the shadows, Spike spoke to a woman who was too far away to hear him.

The end was quick and bitter.
Slow and sweet was the time between us,
Slow and sweet were the nights
When my hands did not touch one another in despair
But with the love of your body
Which came between them.

And when I entered into you
It seemed then that great happiness
Could be measured with the precision
Of sharp pain.

Spike dropped his cigarette in the dirt and ground out the bright spark. "'Quick and bitter.'" He looked back at the house for a long moment. "'Had we remained together, we could have become a silence.'"

He turned and walked away down Revello Drive.

The poem Spike quotes from at the end of this section is Quick and Bitter by Yehuda Amichai, translated by Assia Gutmann. You can read the whole text here.

Rating: R

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

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

Part Three

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

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

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

I really don't want to see her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You're sure? asked the fool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because Buffy will be there? asked the fool.

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

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

Very reassuring, said the demon sarcastically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then how do you explain the Multiple Personality Disorder?

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

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

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

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

Because she was here, and something was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"She's there?"


"You're sure?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn slunk further down into the chair.

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

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

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

"No!" sulked Dawn.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spike subsided and glowered at her.

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

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

"Bugger this," muttered Spike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That's the best you can do?"

"Mercifully short," he amended.

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

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

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

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

"What?" he demanded impatiently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What is it?" she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Tara!" Dawn pulled on her arm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's not just fear that vampires can scent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turnabout is fair play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What is it?" he asked hoarsely.

"Your chip."

Rating: R, for romance. Menstrual play, so don't read or skim if that squicks you.

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

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

Part Four

The demon, the poet, and the fool struggled within him. The demon raged briefly, but was hushed by the babblings of the fool, who was trying to make sense of this incredible new development on a night already full of marvels.

The poet was even less coherent than the fool, of course. He was lost in wonder at the vision before him, and it was the poet's admiration and awe that held all three of them frozen in place.

Tara was stretched out on the sheets beneath him, relaxed and open, one arm still thrown out to the side, her eyes on that bright, shining object in her palm.

It was a submissive posture, but she didn't look submissive. She looked like a goddess who had just dropped to earth, someone too powerful to feel fear, even as she lay naked and defenseless before a soulless demon.

He knelt beside her, and the demon, the poet, and the fool all fought again for words. Oddly enough, they agreed on the most important aspect of what had just happened. "I hurt you," gasped Spike.

Tara sat up, pulling away from him and sitting up, curling her legs under her. Casually, she reached over and dropped the chip onto a small tray on the bedside table, where it clinked down to rest, harmless and useless, among some bits and pieces of cheap jewelry. She turned back to him, smiling. "It doesn't matter, Spike. It didn't hurt much." The smile turned mischievous, and she blushed. "Not enough to put me off the idea of future experimentation."

"But, why--?" He gestured towards the abandoned chip.

She looked surprised. "I couldn't let it ruin that moment for you," she said simply. "You were so happy."

The fool escaped and blurted out the next words, "You cared enough about that to turn me back into what I was?"

"I don't understand, Spike," she said. She was confused now, the serene confidence of a few moments ago draining away and leaving her hesitant and uncertain. "This doesn't change anything important about you. It was just a dead thing in your head. It wasn't even magical."

"It kept me from killing," said the fool, his voice hoarse and rough.

Her only response was a bewildered, incredulous shake of her head.

The demon escaped then. "You think I'm housebroken?" he demanded. "That the Big Bad is tamed?"

He vamped out. The poet and the fool protested, but they were so paralyzed by their cold fear of losing her that they were powerless to stop the bit of him that would surely drive her away.

Spike shuddered as Tara stared up at him. He had never done this with Buffy, never been this panicked, no matter how much the Slayer had goaded him, no matter how violently she had cursed him, no matter how hard she had beaten him. But, confronted with Tara's gentleness, his resolve had fallen, and he had exposed his true face.

Then the steel that he knew existed behind his witch's shy exterior showed. She didn't flinch, and her voice was even. "No, Spike, I know you're dangerous. You have power, and power always has the potential for danger." She looked away now, but her expression was embarrassed, not disgusted or frightened. "Didn't you guess that's one reason we're here together? You must have noticed by now that's what attracts me." The self-deprecating smile he knew so well appeared and she peeked at him through the veil of her hair. "Silly, isn't it? A frightened little sheep like me, I can't help but fall in love with strength and power. It's what I saw in Willow—that amazing potential she had."

"And you left her when she abused it," he said hoarsely.

She nodded, withdrawing into herself for a moment, leaning back against the headboard. He saw she was reliving that pain, and the poet ached with sympathy even as the demon howled with jealous rage. Then he saw her follow his meaning, her expression changing to dismay and concern. "You don't think that I'll—that because your chip is gone—?"

She leaned forward then, reaching up to run her fingers along the ridges on his brow, to trace the scar over his eye, to meet his amber stare with her own wondering gaze. The fear and rejection he awaited did not appear; instead she rose to her knees and brought her lips to his. She pulled away after that first tentative touch, and he could read only conjecture and anticipation in her expression. Her lips came to his again, her mouth open, her tongue probing him, licking deep inside as her fingers continued to play over his face. He could sense her arousal, and felt the demon within him react with an ardor echoed by the poet and the fool.

After a long interval, she sat back on her heels and regarded him with one of her serious, quiet expressions. "You're right. I left Willow because she abused her power." For the first time, anger sparked in her eyes. "She had everything, Spike. Brains, talent, people who loved her, good teachers. And yet—" She shook her head and looked at him. Her smile softened, and so did his heart. "But, you. You had nothing. Nothing and no one. And, yet, look what you've done. For Buffy, for Dawn, for all of us." Her capable fingers grasped his hands warmly, as if she were remembering the tasks they'd performed in the service of his ladies.

The poet wanted to accept that admiration. To seize her, hold her, and let her believe that he could be the man who lived in her imagination. To take her heart and hold it for as long as the illusion would last.

He couldn't do it. She deserved more, and he would give her no less than what she deserved. It was the fool who insisted on that. And for once the fool had enough wisdom not to let the others overrule him.

"Tara, you didn't know me before—what I was—the evil I've done. If it hadn't been for the chip, and now that it's gone—"

She laughed at him. He was frozen with shock at the assurance behind her amusement, at the way she leaned forward again and kissed his monstrous countenance with easy affection, at the intimate way her fingers stroked through his hair before she pulled away to say, "Spike, that chip never kept you from doing evil."

For once, he was left speechless. But his usually shy and quiet Tara filled the void with her words. They tumbled over one another, as if she'd thought them often, and they were eager to escape her lips and meet his ear at last. "The chip was a catalyst; maybe it showed you another way to be when you started fighting demons instead of killing people. But it never stopped you from doing evil. When I first met you, you could cause the Scoobies more pain and chaos just by the things you said than most demons could with swords and battle axes. Adam had to go to you to try to tear them apart, because even he couldn't manage that. You had them hating each other in a few hours. You nearly destroyed their friendship."

"Didn't succeed in the end though, did I?" muttered the fool, although he was unsure of the significance of that fact.

But Tara had thought it through. "Because they used to be stronger than you," she said softly. "And because you switched sides."

"Not out of the goodness of my heart, love. Because it was the only way to save my skin." Both the poet and the demon raged at the fool for blurting that out.

"No," she agreed. "The goodness of your heart came later." Her hand was against his bare chest. "You shouldn't be able to do the good things you've done, Spike. The things you feel, they shouldn't be possible. No chip, no magical force should have been able to make a soulless creature into what you are today." Her eyes were puzzled but her tone was confident. "I still don't understand how you've done it. But it's real. It's what I love."

Not even the wonder of that final phrase could release him from his misery. "Tara, maybe I have—maybe I want to—but you know I'm still a monster. I'll always be a monster. Sooner or later—" Even the demon could barely stand to hurt her with these words.

She smiled sadly. "I do know, Spike. You invited me in, remember? I saw out of your eyes, felt what you felt, smelled—"

She shivered, and he pulled away from her. He realized that she did understand, after all.

Tara's voice was quiet and even. "I felt your need, Spike. You can live on pigs' blood from the butcher for weeks, or months, or even years, but sooner or later, it's going to have to be human, isn't it? You crave it. Fresh, human blood, from a warm body. And sooner or later, you won't be able to deny that hunger."

He nodded unwillingly, looking away for a moment before daring to meet her unwavering, gentle gaze again. Amazingly, she was still smiling. "But that's okay, Spike. Don't you see that it's okay? We can make it okay together. We can each be what the other needs. Because, you know, I am human. You proved that, remember? You made me see what I am. What we both are."

"You—?" Before he could ask what she meant, Tara's eyes closed and she began to murmur under her breath. He realized she was moving into a light trance, and again he was lost in amazement that she could be so unafraid of him, so assured of her own safety as she knelt naked and defenseless in front of an unchained demon who had just acknowledged his bloodlust.

He was the defenseless one, he knew then. By removing the chip, she had put him more securely in her power than he had ever been. The demon was now free of all restraints except those created by his need for her good will, but those had become stronger than any material shackles or bonds.

He was confused too, realizing she had knowledge beyond his understanding. Her eyes seemed so candid, but they held secrets. They always would. He would never reach their depths, no matter how often he lost himself in her gaze, simply because she was so wise and he was only love's fool. No matter how much she revealed to him, how much she explained carefully, stooping to the level of his poor understanding, there would always be another layer of mystery, yet another Tara to be discovered.

And when she opened those eyes to look at him now, he saw a Tara he had imagined but never thought to encounter in this glorious flesh. A serene and powerful goddess, she leaned forward to kiss his demon confidently, her tongue flicking over his sharp incisors, her fingers tracing the length of his arm. She was warm and so very beautiful, and he was overwhelmed with the sight and scent of her—

He jerked away suddenly, snarling in surprise and gut-wrenching desire as an unmistakable aroma assaulted his senses.

She lay back on the sheets, laughing up at him. He crouched over her like some monstrous incubus, his fangs bared, an involuntary growl of hunger crawling out of his throat. But she was welcoming, relaxed and open as if she faced the gentlest of lovers and anticipated only the lightest of touches. "You said once I was a clever girl, Spike. This is just a little trick I learned to avoid inconvenience and embarrassment. Not even magic, really, just a bit of biofeedback combined with some advanced yoga. It was almost time for it to happen naturally, anyway."

"I can't—" The poet protested while the demon cried at the back of his mind that he must. The fool was too confused and awestruck to even try to make sense of it all.

"Why not?" Those beautiful lips were twisted into the crooked smile he loved. He felt as if it had twisted and wrung his heart. "Why not, Spike? You need it, and it's not as if I have any other use for it." The smile grew. She was a siren now, incredibly seductive. "And it's not as if there's nothing in this arrangement for me."

He stopped breathing, but it was no use. The intoxicating scent of her was inside him, gnawing at him, demanding that he let the demon feed. His body shuddered with the effort it took not to touch her.

She saw his struggle and was serious at last, but the loving expression in her eyes didn't waver. "I trust you, Spike," was all she said. "Completely."

That was the final bond, the last chain she wrapped around his heart and his will. Demon, poet, and fool joined to worship her.

Spike bent his head to hers, and his bestial lips were gentler than Tara's human ones in the embrace that followed. As tenderly as possible for the rough creature he was, he caressed her with his mouth and hands, careful not to mark her flesh, marveling how she lay quietly beneath him even as his fangs approached her throat, her breasts, and the softness of her belly. The thud of her heart grew louder in his ears, but it throbbed with desire instead of fear, until it seemed to hammer its way directly into his skull, as if it were beating for them both, keeping them both alive.

And so it will. He kissed the soft flesh on the inside of her thigh, his hands gentle against her, his fingers seeking her clit, spreading those lovely pink lips, and then he was inhaling the warm, moist scent of her arousal—and of something stronger and even more enticing. Instinctively, he slipped back into human face. As was right and proper. Because even though he was a monster, this was the way he had approached every woman he cared for; this was the face he had presented in the most intimate and loving moments of his unlife.

This was an act of love. For both of them. There was giving and taking on both sides, and that aspect was so novel and heart-wrenching that it overwhelmed every other thought and emotion. This was something new, something Buffy had denied him even as she had indulged in every other practice he had suggested in bed. But from this she had fled, refusing to come to him on the days and nights when it would have been possible.

He knew why Buffy had refused. What he couldn't understand was how Tara had offered so freely and joyously.

He couldn't understand. But he could accept with equal joy. And, as he did so, he felt a strange release that felt almost like freedom.

At the first rush of her blood, her essence, he almost fainted away. It was too much even for his jaded tastes. This was something richer and more powerful than anything he had ever experienced. He had ripped blood from the veins of a Slayer, stolen her life force, and even that did not equal the power of this gift. Lapping at the thick, vital flow of Tara's menses, he realized that for the first time he was savoring the nectar of creation and not destruction.

He moved quickly into a divine drunkenness, in which his world was centered on that ruby elixir and yet he remained fully aware of Tara, not just as the goddess who had granted him this boon, but as the woman whose body quaked beneath his hands and lips. Her moans of pleasure echoed in his ears, and he felt the blessed touch of her hands against his hair as her fingers stroked him gently.

It was absurd, but he thought her voice reflected wonder and disbelief as she gasped in delight. He chuckled involuntarily at the foolishness of that thought. Because how was it possible that a magical being like her could imagine herself fortunate to have a poor, foolish servant like him?


She was awake. Fascinated as he was with everything that concerned her, and lying as he was with his head resting on one lush, smooth thigh, he could hardly miss the signs. He heard the change in her breathing, sensed the slight change in temperature as her heartbeat sped up, and felt her deliciously warm body shift slightly beneath him as consciousness returned.

There'd been little enough sleeping this night, but he was glad she was waking again now. Because his senses also told him that dawn was coming, and he didn't want to creep away without a word. He needed to look into her eyes again, to reassure himself that she didn't regret their night's work.

Although he'd expected to be tormented by doubts at this moment, a wave of certainty passed over him. He was sure that she had awakened as strangely loving and pleased with him as she had been the night before.

The demon, the poet, and the fool were of one accord about that. They seemed at peace, not just with this beautiful woman he loved, but with each other. This unanimity was unusual and astonishing. He didn't dare hope it would last out the day, or even the hour, but he rejoiced that it had happened at all.

He was happy.

The room was still dark, but he could see her clearly. She was lying beneath him, relaxed against the white sheets, more beautiful even than his imagination had painted her. His fingers skimmed the curve of her soft belly, the swell of her full breasts, the lovely line of her expressive lips.

And then he found himself kissing those soft lips, still slightly swollen from his attentions to them the night before. He could feel the corners of her mouth curving up against his. She's happy, chorused the voices in his mind.

"Good morning," she murmured. Her hand traced the length of his arm, touched his cheek, and flitted down to rest against his chest, as if she were reassuring herself that he was really there.

"Last night—" he started to say, and stopped. Neither the demon, the fool, nor the poet could find the words to describe last night.

She ducked her head shyly for a moment, but then peeked back at him with more bravery. Her fingers crept lower, to spread themselves across his belly. "Not hungry any more?"

"Always hungry for you," he said hoarsely.

"I wasn't sure. You didn't—" She blushed all over, the blood that was the essence of her vitality rising even closer to the surface of her skin.

The demon blurted out a sincere but tactless response. "Didn't seem polite, like," he said. "Tucking into breakfast first thing without paying my respects."

"Glad to hear it. My mother brought me up to appreciate good table manners," she said, laughter echoing in her voice.

She actually thought that was funny, gasped the poet, who had been a bit shocked by the comment himself.

Of course she did, said the fool. Not easily offended, our Tara. And she's not the sort to pretend at dawn that she hates what she begged for at midnight.

No, agreed the poet after a moment's reflection. She's too wise, too practical, to hide from her own truth.

But all Spike said was, "I have to leave soon. Sun's coming up."

The dismay with which she greeted this was as reassuring as her laughter had been earlier. "Do you really have to go?" Her eyes flicked around the room, but he could tell from her unfocused gaze she could make out only vague shapes in the dimness. "Can't you stay here? I mean, it's a basement apartment, the blinds are closed, and the sun never reaches as far as this bed anyway." Shyly, she teased him with some of the poetry they'd discussed on one of those long evenings they'd spent with Dawn. "'Why should we rise, because 'tis light? Did we lie down, because 'twas night?'" Then she stretched a little, moving her body against his, in a self-conscious attempt to be seductive. As if she needed to try. He'd been seduced, utterly and completely, weeks before.

He was too entranced by her eagerness to welcome him into her life to respond immediately, and she grew serious, taking his face in her hands and adding softly, "Don't leave to run back to your gloomy crypt, Spike. Stay here instead, in my darkness, with me."

His hand stroked her hair as he answered, his voice cracking on the words, "I'll stay. You know I'll do anything you ask, love. But there's no darkness in you, Tara." His lips brushed hers again. "If you could only see how bright you are to my eyes. You're glowing."


Dawn had bounced into Tara's apartment in a good mood, which got even better when she discovered that dinner was going to consist of Chinese takeout that Spike rushed out to get the minute the sun went down. He didn't complain about being used as an errand boy, and he let Dawn have the last pot-sticker without an argument. But when he dumped hot mustard and about a quart of soy sauce on his own plate instead of sullying the entire carton-full of Mongolian Beef with his choice of condiments, Dawn started thinking things were too good to be true.

As the meal went on, she noticed that the smile hovering around Tara's mouth and the self-satisfied gleam in Spike's eyes refused to go away, even when Dawn used some forbidden words, mentioned her Algebra grades, and dropped the news that she'd been invited to the Spring fling dance by a Senior. Tara condemned the vocabulary and set up a study schedule for math, and Spike threatened to eviscerate the boy in question, so it wasn't as if they'd been replaced by pod people or anything. But the smile and the gleam persisted.

Dawn's curiosity grew as the evening went on without Spike making any rude remarks for really long stretches of time—like five or ten minutes at once. And, after dinner, instead of reading her fortune out to the others and laughing over it, Tara just dropped the slip of paper on the table while she chewed thoughtfully on bits of cookie. A minute or so later, Spike picked up the fortune, read it silently, and smiled to himself. By the time he stood up to carry the dirty dishes to the sink without anyone having to get out a cattle prod first, Dawn was wild to know what had happened between him and Tara.

Dawn was pretty sure she knew when he stepped behind Tara and obviously felt her up, one hand rubbing her butt. (Well, it was obvious to someone who was pretending to go through the backpack she'd dropped on the floor, but was in fact peering through the legs of the table with her neck craned to see anything that happened in the kitchen.) Tara pushed Spike away immediately, but not in a How dare you, you nasty monster! kind of way. No, it was definitely a Not in front of the child! shove. And Dawn was pretty sure the glance that went with the rebuke said, Later! instead of No!

Still pretending to look for a schoolbook, Dawn snuck the scrap of paper with Tara's fortune on it off the table and read it. Your evenings will be filled with romance.

Dawn sat to attention when Spike came back to the table and put out his hand for her schoolwork. Tara fussed around in the kitchen area for a few more minutes and then went over to sit on the couch and pull out some of her own books. Tara wasn't watching them, exactly. She was peeking at them every once in a while, though, and chewing on a pencil thoughtfully, the corners of her mouth still twisted upwards.

Meanwhile, Spike was taking his time reading through Dawn's paper. Much too much time. She peered at him and realized he was sneaking long looks at Tara, losing his place, and starting over. Dawn folded her arms and tapped her foot on the floor. Spike ignored her, but, very eventually, he reached the last page.

"Well?" said Dawn at last.

"You have a bit more work here, Bit," Spike said dryly.

"Oh?" Dawn crinkled her nose. "I thought I did a pretty good job. What did I get wrong?"

"For one thing, the Boxers didn't have anything to do with men's undies," he commented, his gaze sliding sideways to catch Tara's reaction.

Dawn snatched at the papers. "I did not say that!" she objected.

He laughed, but fielded her hands away easily, smirking happily at Tara's snort of laughter. "Maybe not, but this is almost as bad—"


Tara curled up on the couch, watching Dawn's face crease with concentration and annoyance as Spike marked up the draft of her paper. After his first teasing jibe, Spike took the task nearly seriously, attacking both grammar and content with ruthless efficiency.

He could be very efficient, she knew, dropping her head so that the fall of her hair would hide her reminiscent grin from the two sitting at the table.

She shouldn't have gotten takeout after promising Buffy she'd feed Dawn a good meal. She could barely afford it, for one thing. But she'd kept putting off the day's scheduled activities, deciding to skip one class after another and postponing cooking, until she'd suddenly realized that she had only a few minutes before Dawn arrived. Since Spike was still there, it was easy to ask him to run out for the food. Well, except for the part where he was out of her sight for a full twenty minutes. That had been hard.

It was hard now to sit across the room from him, watching his blond head bend over Dawn's assignment, noting each twitch of his shoulder and every movement of his strong hands, knowing she couldn't go over to touch him. Even after spending an entire night and day in bed with him, Tara could hardly wait until it was time to walk Dawn home so that she could get him alone again afterwards. Those long hours had barely been enough time for her to begin to realize what he was like as a lover, and to enjoy the novelty of being with him. She didn't know if it was the same being with him as it would be with a human man, and she didn't care. It was Spike she wanted.

Even so, she knew that it was going to take her some time just to figure out who Spike was. She'd already discovered he could be wild, romantic, and just plain silly in turns, as if she'd gotten herself three lovers instead of one. She almost purred to herself in satisfaction at the thought. Not a bad deal, if that was the case.

There was so much she wanted to do with and to him that her fingers itched with the desire to trace themselves over his white flesh, to experiment again with the reactions she could draw from him with hands and lips. A snatch of the poetry he'd quoted the night before came to mind. My America, my new-found land. He was like a new world for her to discover, and she wanted to embark on the next voyage.

Because he was a very delightful and responsive new world. All night and all day, he'd been loving, gentler than usual in word, and more forceful, but still considerate, in deed. She wrapped her arms around her torso, remembering the way he'd made her feel, as if she mattered more than anything else in the universe. The only thing that had distracted him from her was the realization that Dawn was on her way over—then he'd been quick to help her prepare for the evening. And, except for that moment in the kitchen, he'd been pretty careful not to give things away in front of the teenager.

Suddenly, Tara's pleasant train of thought ground to a halt. She stared at the two sitting at her kitchen table, working on Dawn's homework, just as they had on many nights over the past few months. As if nothing had changed. Because, of course, neither Tara nor Spike had dropped any hints about what had changed to Dawn.

Why "of course?" Why don't I want Dawn to know? Tara thought. Dawn loves him. She loves both of us, I think. Why can't I let her know we love each other?

The answer was obvious. Because he was a soulless demon, and good girls didn't admit to sleeping with bad boys.

That's what Buffy had thought. She had kept her affair with Spike a secret. And Tara had done the same thing, without thinking about it.

And Spike had assumed that's the way it would be. He hadn't complained, or even asked. He just assumed that he would have to pretend in front of Dawn. And when Tara had called her friend Rachel and said she wasn't feeling up to getting out of bed today and would she be able to borrow Rachel's class notes, he'd lain at her side and listened quietly, not doing anything that would make her giggle or moan to betray her. He certainly didn't ask Tara when or if he'd be allowed to meet Rachel.

He expected to be kept a secret.

Tara's stomach clenched as she remembered how Willow had once kept her a secret. How Willow hadn't introduced Tara to the Scoobies for the longest time, how she'd come to visit Tara only when her friends had stood her up. And how much that had hurt. Of course, Willow had explained after a while that she had done it because she wanted to keep Tara all to herself. That had helped a little.

To be completely honest with herself at last, Tara had to admit that it had still hurt. That the memory of it hurt even now. But, at the time, she hadn't thought she deserved anything better. So she'd never complained.

Tara dropped her book on the coffee table and walked across the room to the refrigerator. Spike and Dawn stopped arguing about a semicolon, and Tara felt their eyes on her as she opened the freezer door. "I'm ready for dessert," she said. "Does anyone else want something?"

"Well—" drawled Spike, and she looked over her shoulder to see him turned towards her. With Dawn safely behind him, he smirked at her, one eyebrow raised suggestively.

She frowned mock-sternly. "I meant, from the fridge," she said, and had the satisfaction of seeing his jaw drop in surprise at her flirtatious tone. His head snapped around, checking to see if Dawn had noticed. Tara noted with satisfaction that the girl most certainly had. She was looking much too prim and proper to have mistaken Tara's meaning.

Tara pulled out a container of ice cream. "Chunky Monkey," she said. "I was saving it for a special occasion, and I've decided tonight qualifies. Who wants some?"

"I do," said Dawn. "Chocolate, walnuts, and bananas, yum. Weird, but yum."

Spike wanted some too, so Tara took down three bowls and filled them while Dawn asked Spike questions about some Empress or other.

He responded absently, and Tara was conscious of his gaze as she picked up two of the bowls and carried them to the table. She dropped one in front of Dawn, giving the girl a quick, one-armed hug as she did so. Dawn smiled, surprised but pleased at the attention.

Tara gave Spike the other bowl, meeting his puzzled blue eyes with a reassuring smile before bending down and dropping an awkward, lopsided kiss that she aimed at the top of his head. She caught him on his scarred eyebrow instead, but that was all right. She rested her hand on his shoulder for a moment before brushing his hair with gentle fingers and turning back to the kitchen counter.

Her gestures had been casual, but they carried the clear and deliberate implication of intimacy. She was sure that even a self-absorbed teen would be able to read their meaning. Her back to the others, Tara waited for reaction, but heard only silence. Utter, complete, and very unusual silence. She turned around.

Dawn had frozen in the action of licking her spoon, her eyes wide. Tara realized that the girl's expression was less astonished than triumphant, as if she'd had a suspicion confirmed.

Spike was almost completely still, his mouth slightly open, his eyes flicking back and forth between Tara and Dawn. They came to rest at last on Dawn, and Tara saw his shoulders tense anxiously.

"So," said Dawn slowly, "Special occasion, huh?" She swallowed a mouthful of ice cream and grinned.

Tara picked up her own bowl and went back to the couch, reaching for her textbook.

Spike had turned in his chair now to stare at her, something like awe in his face. There was a long silence.

Dawn interrupted at last. "Spike, if you're not going to eat that ice cream, can I have it?"

"No, brat, you may not," said Spike levelly. "And don't think I've forgotten that semicolon."

Dawn rolled her eyes, "I think—"

"Not a matter for opinion. Start a war over commas if you like, but you don't have a bloody debate about a semicolon. Either you need one or you don't."

Dawn opened her mouth, shut it again, and finally replied grudgingly, "Okay, that's fair."

Tara blinked in surprise at this response. It really was a day for new experiences. She turned to Chapter 12 of her Statistics text. For once, she was smiling as she picked up her notebook and tackled the problems on the page.


Later that night, Spike and Tara watched Dawn walk up the path to 1630 Revello Drive. They stood on the sidewalk, just outside the pool of light cast by the streetlamp, waiting until the Little Bit was safe inside. Neither of them had any place in that house any more.

And we're holding hands! burbled the fool. She held our hand all the way over here.

How sweet, said the demon sarcastically. And if she had any books with her, she'd probably have let you carry them too.

The poet rushed to the fool's defense. You know why he's excited. It's symbolic. Like the kiss with the ice cream. She's really, truly invited us in. Into every part of her, into every part of her life. And she's not ashamed of us.

Ordinarily, the demon would have fired back with some cutting, pessimistic retort. But even the demon was feeling calmer and happier than ever before, and he held his peace, rejoicing with the others at the sensation of Tara's hand in his, breathing in the intoxicating scent of her, and savoring the anticipation of what he knew the rest of the night would bring.

The front door opened as Dawn approached it, and Buffy stepped outside. The demon's quick ear picked up the sharp tones with which the Slayer questioned her sister about the night's events. Dawn gestured over her shoulder as she assured Buffy she'd had an escort home, and the Bit disappeared inside the house.

The Slayer lingered on the porch, staring blankly down the street, her gaze wandering. She was obviously unable to make out Spike and Tara's figures in the murky shadows, but she had to know they were out there somewhere. After a moment, she crossed her arms, hugging herself, as if she feared some strange menace that paraded only before her blank stare. She turned to follow her sister into the house.

Buffy's still ashamed, said the fool. Foolishly ashamed.

And sad, said the poet. Heartrendingly sad.

And angry inside, said the demon. Fearsomely angry.

Spike became aware that Tara was watching him. "I didn't do what I promised, did I?" she said sorrowfully. "I never made you feel better about Buffy."

"No, love," the poet said, still staring at the house. "But I release you from that promise. It was my bloody stupid idea, and only your sweet caution saved us. Because you couldn't have done it, and you shouldn't even try, any more than I should try to make you feel better about Willow." He turned to face her, and the sadness ebbed. "But you did heal me. In a way I never expected."

Most girls would be screaming out of jealousy right now, said the fool nervously.

Not our Tara, said the poet with confidence. She understands.

She more than just sodding understands, said the astonished demon. Don't know how you did it, mate, but you just made her want us even more.

Tara's eyes were sparkling with tears, but she broke into a smile. "I think I healed myself too," she said in an awestruck tone. "I guess you were right about something, Spike. I am a clever girl, after all." She slipped her arm around his waist, pulling him close. They set off down the street in the traditional lovers' pose, his arm around her shoulder, heads bent toward each other. Anyone seeing them would know she was his clever girl.

"Come on, Spike. Let's go home."

The End
(Except for the epilogue.)

Rating: R, for romance.

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

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


He was reading to her.

Tara ran her hand through his hair, along his shoulders, down the curve of his spine. His head was resting on her breasts as she sprawled on her bed, her shoulders supported on a pile of pillows. The book was under his hand, propped on her stomach and her naked, upraised thighs. The pages were caught in the warm light from the lamp on the bedside table as his voice murmured the lush, beautiful words.

"When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state . . ."

She smiled, listening to Spike's voice recite the poetry that he'd copied into a leather-bound journal in his astonishingly beautiful handwriting. This was a gift she'd never anticipated from anyone, especially not from someone like him.

"Yet in these thoughts of myself most despising, haply I think on thee . . "

Of course, there really wasn't anyone else like Spike. She'd never slept with another man, and she'd certainly never been with a vampire before, but she was sure of that. It had been months since they first made love, and in many ways he was still a mystery to her. She never knew exactly what to expect from him. One day, he would woo her with silly jokes and absurd humor, her laughter melting into joyous ecstasy as he indulged them both in lascivious play. Later that night he might become so wild that she would find herself shivering with the realization of just how dangerous he could be. She had been astonished to find that instead of cowering from him, an untamed corner of her soul responded on those occasions with an almost feral delight.

But tonight, she had a considerate and romantic lover. He'd made love to her twice already, and now he was lying in her arms, his body pressed close against hers, holding the promise of more lovemaking even as those gorgeous words flowed continually from his lips.

Yes, there was promise of more. The fingers of his left hand strayed from the binding of his book occasionally and skimmed the softness of her breasts and belly, gently, almost worshipfully. But she could feel him where he pressed against her thigh, and she knew that each time he touched her like that, he became more aroused. Soon, he would be hard and passionate, his hands would become more insistent, and he would turn his attention to bringing her to climax once again.

She wondered idly how they'd do it this time. If she expressed a preference, he'd honor it, of course. He'd do anything to please her. He'd proven that many times, most recently less than an hour ago.

"For thy sweet love rememb'red such wealth brings . . ."

This time, she decided, she'd insist that they do whatever he wanted.

She traced the line of his cheekbones with one finger as his voice murmured on. Moved to his forehead, and—

She stopped. His eyes were closed. She looked down at the book, realized he hadn't turned a page in some minutes, and saw that the words on the heavy linen paper didn't match the ones flowing from his lips.

"That then I scorn to change my state with kings."

He'd memorized every poem he'd written down for her. He'd probably transcribed them from memory.

Her arms tightened around his shoulders.

Before she could tell him she'd discovered this new secret of his, he stiffened and the recitation stopped. He closed the book and sat up, staring at the door to her tiny apartment.

"What—?" she began to ask as there was a knock on the door.

"Buffy and the Scoobies," he said grimly, and turned to face her. "Willow's there. And Dawn's with them."

"Oh." She was silent for a moment, then reached down to the floor to pick up the dress she'd worn earlier in the evening.

"You don't have to—"

"I need to," she said. She met his gaze carefully. "Not because it's Willow. Because they may need something important."

He slid out of bed as she stood up. She called, "Just a moment," as she slipped the dress over her head, feeling the soft silk swirl around her body before she turned to the door.

"Are you sure this is Tara's new place?" asked Xander.

Dawn nodded grimly. "I'm sure. I still visit her, you know." She looked away from Willow as she said it.

"I've been here," said Buffy, adding a bit less defensively, "Months ago."

"Maybe we should try someone else," said Willow. A few minutes ago, she'd been thinking that it would be worth almost anything to see Tara again, under any circumstances. But now a cold conviction that this was a very, very bad idea was taking hold of her gut.

"Who?" said Dawn. "Amy? One of your evil magic suppliers? That should help a lot."

Before anyone could reprimand her, the apartment door opened halfway. Tara stood in the gap, flicking on the light switch by the door, her body positioned protectively as if she were hiding something in the room beyond her.

"Tara?" said Buffy in surprise.

"Tara?" echoed Xander. "Um, wow."

Tara glanced down at the low-cut green silk dress she wore, as if noting for the first time how its folds molded to her body and just how much of her it revealed instead of covering. She didn't seem particularly embarrassed by that fact, just puzzled, as if she'd grown accustomed to admiring stares and found the visitors' astonishment disconcerting. She raised a hand to her tumbled hair as she asked, "Is something wrong?"

Tara seemed to be avoiding Willow's eyes. Willow, on the other hand, was staring with painful intensity, taking in Tara's rumpled appearance, taking in the fact that the first garment that had come to her hand after midnight was a very expensive and sexy dress, taking in the state of her lips, which seemed slightly swollen and fuller than Willow remembered them.

"Yes," Buffy was saying. "Something's wrong. We're sorry to bother you, but we need a witch, and—"

Willow caught the Slayer's glance and winced. No need for Buffy to add, and the one we have is worse than useless these days. Willow saw Tara's reaction, the tightening of those tender lips, the narrowing of her eyes.

"You need me to do a spell for you." It wasn't a question.

"Uh, yeah." Xander looked over his shoulder, down the narrow hallway of the small apartment house. "Can we come in? Not a story we want to shout out to the neighbors."

Before opening the door, Tara looked back into the room, over her shoulder. She seemed to meet someone's eyes and see a message there. She stood very still for a moment, then nodded before stepping back and opening the door to let them in.

Willow had heard the rumors, of course. And Dawn had hinted that they were true, as ridiculous as they'd seemed. But it was still a shock, something that seemed beyond the possibilities even of her magical world, to see Spike standing by the bed, doing up the front of his black shirt before reaching for the buttons on his cuffs. The shirt looked new, as did his jeans, as if he'd expended special effort on his appearance. His gaze was steady but guarded; he appeared ready for anything from a violent verbal outburst to an attempted staking.

It was even more shocking to see Tara move over to the bed with a decided swish of those silken skirts, to see her stand beside him, clearly stating her new loyalties before she turned to face the Scoobies again. Willow noted irrelevantly that Tara wore jewelry she didn't recognize, a set of intricately wrought silver earrings.

"Are—are you okay, Tara?" asked Willow. It was a stupid thing to say, but she hadn't seen her ex-lover for months and she felt as if something were called for. It was impossible to shout, What are you doing? Why are you with this creature? How could you reject me for misusing magic and then have sex with a monster? Because the having sex was no longer in doubt. The rumpled bedclothes, most of the sheets kicked aside, confirmed what she'd known must have been happening as soon as Tara had opened the door. The bottle of champagne and half-empty glasses resting on the side table next to a leather-bound book were a bizarre romantic touch that seemed designed to make the insult hurt as much as possible.

"I'm fine," said Tara, almost impatiently. "How are you?" She made the "you" include all the Scoobies, her gaze resting interrogatively on Buffy and then lingering worriedly on Dawn.

It was Dawn who replied. "We're okay. Mostly." The teenager looked at her sister.

Buffy was watching Spike with that blank, dead stare that Willow had come to hate so much. After a moment, the Slayer shifted and shrugged. Willow thought that Spike's pose relaxed a fraction. He seems glad she's not upset. What does that mean? Is he happy she doesn't care?

Spike was looking at Tara now, and all the concern that had been missing when he looked at Buffy was there in his eyes. Yes, thought Willow. He's glad Buffy seems not to care.

Whatever Willow had expected, it wasn't this. After her first rage of jealousy at hearing the news, she'd solaced herself with the conviction that even if it were true, Tara and Spike could only be drowning their misery at losing the real loves of their lives, clinging to each other while pining for Willow and Buffy.

But they didn't look like two desperate people who were marking time together while dreaming of others. They looked like—

They look like they belong together. She and Tara had looked like that once, and Willow'd hugged tightly to the hope that they would again some day. The last few times they'd met, she'd assured herself that there was still longing in Tara's eyes. But Willow now realized just how hard she'd had to work to convince herself after the last time they'd run into each other in the Bronze. And she finally admitted that she'd avoided later meetings out of fear of shattering her fantasies of a reunion.

All hope was gone now. Tara didn't share Willow's grief and despair at their breakup any more. I'm the only one still in love with that past. She's moved on to something new.

"What do you need?"

Willow cringed at this strange, all-business Tara. Well, what do you expect? You've dragged her out of the bed she was sharing with her boyfriend, and she knows you're expecting a favor. How many people would be thrilled to see you under the circumstances?

Buffy opened her palm to reveal an ugly lump of twisted silver. "It's a talisman," said the Slayer. "Willow and Dawn did some research. We can use this to find the lair of a creature that's killed a dozen people in the past three nights."

"Except it doesn't work," said Xander.

"It's not whole," said Tara, staring at it with distaste. "And I don't think I'd like it any more if it was."

"The rest of it is on another plane," said Willow. "I have the coordinates-" She stopped, as Tara cautiously stroked the thing in Buffy's hand.

"I know where it is," said Tara evenly, pulling her hand back. An expression of revulsion passed over her face. "I can sense the place."

"Can you go there and get it?" asked Xander.

"No!" said Spike forcefully.

"You've done it before," said Buffy to Tara, ignoring him. "You did it when Faith stole my body."

"That was something different," said Tara, "and—"

"It's bloody obvious this thing you want her to get doesn't live on Sunnybrook Farm," said Spike harshly. "You come here, in the middle of this of all nights, after not even stopping by to ask after her health for months, and want—" Tara touched his arm lightly, and he stopped.

"Just a minute," said Tara to the Scoobies.

She tugged at Spike's sleeve, and he followed her behind the Chinese screen that hid the kitchen from the rest of the small apartment. She pulled him just out of sight, but Willow could sense her leaning towards him, whispering words in his ear.

His responses were low mutters, obviously angry, but controlled. The debate went on for some time. Willow and her friends shifted on their feet, and she was suddenly very conscious that they hadn't been invited to sit on the small couch or the single desk chair that adorned the opposite corner of the room.

After a few minutes, Tara came back out, Spike a step behind her. "I'll do it, but I'll need an anchor."

Willow started forward uneasily, and Tara rushed to add, "Spike will do that."

"No!" Willow burst out in horror. "You can't—not a demon. The anchor—"

"—has to be someone I trust," said Tara flatly. "Spike can do it."

"If he's convinced you of that—" Willow's voice stuttered to a stop. She couldn't imagine what it meant if Spike had actually talked Tara into this.

"No, I convinced him," said Tara. She reached out her hand for the talisman, and reluctantly, Buffy handed it over. Willow noted almost automatically that the Slayer's eyes were dark, perhaps angry, perhaps sad. Because of what she had lost when she'd rejected Spike? She claimed she had never really wanted him. Willow shrugged helplessly. Maybe it was just Buffy's perpetual fury at having a job that put her life and the lives of her friends in danger.

It had been a very long time since Willow had been able to decipher Buffy's thoughts. She gave up the futile task.

Tara sat down at her desk, pushing her laptop aside and carefully piling a few books away from the talisman. She looked up at the Scoobies and saw Willow, Buffy, and Xander watching her curiously, with Dawn standing a little off to the side. Poor Dawn. She can't break into that charmed circle, any more than Anya or Spike or I could. Except these days, it seems cursed rather than charmed.

The Scoobies might never have fully accepted Tara, but Spike was right that they had no trouble using her. On the other hand, they were fighting in a good cause, and she should help them. Tara stared down at the ugly little talisman resentfully, then took a deep breath and reached one hand up over her shoulder. Spike grasped it, and Tara's heartbeat began to slow and calm. Carefully, she touched his mind.

We are together.

Yeah, love. You and me against the overworld.

Tara smiled grimly as she laid her other hand on the talisman. It was indeed broken, fractured. The other piece—

She was far away and in her tiny apartment. Eons passed and the moment froze in time.

The other half of the talisman dwelt in a strange and evil place. Demons abounded. These were monsters that were spirit instead of flesh, and the more frightening for that. These things ate souls as well as bodies.

A soulless force rushed to her rescue, chasing away a foul-smelling thing that had been reaching for her hair. Her savior wrapped itself about her, supporting her like a strong arm around her waist on a blustery day.

Spike. You're here too.

Part of me. Just enough. Get what we need quick, love. I've got your back. You find, I'll fight.

She let him chase away the monsters while her magic sought out what was needed. It was cleverly hidden, but she was clever too. She'd never stopped learning. Not in Willow's way, by wild experiments, but by her own slow, careful, scholarly means. She remembered a passage in an arcane book, about a particularly crafty demon ruse. She saw the riddle then, convoluted and ugly as it was. Her mind moved quickly now, working like deft fingers sorting fastidiously through warped and perversely shaped puzzle pieces, searching for the right one—

She had it. Now all she had to do was bring it back. Easier said than done.

I can't get back by myself.

You don't have to, pet.

I know. I'm reaching for you, Spike. Hold me tight.

This wasn't the first time she'd tapped into his strength. Each time she did, she was amazed at her daring, because she could feel the viciousness of the monster that raged within him. But she had grown secure in her conviction that together she and Spike had caged that animal, and now she drew on it to build a psychic bond, thick as rope, strong and taut, that stretched between her and her lover. Surges of power like living vines were thrust out by his half-demon spirit and twisted around her astral body, around and inside her insubstantial form, penetrating her, holding her in so tight a grip that Tara knew if she were lost, he would be too.

Bloody hell, she's reaching deeper inside me than she's ever done before. How can my pretty love be so gentle and so daring all at once?

Tara was clasping hard to the part of Spike that had once raged uncontrolled. He was still uncertain why he'd leashed that creature, and sometimes only her confident gaze assured him that his will could continue to master it. Now, with everything that mattered most to him at stake, Spike held both Tara and the monster within him firm in his grasp. Held on, somehow, for eons of time that passed in less than a second. His features twitched and almost changed, but he stayed in human face, even as Tara's body froze beneath his fingers and the talisman fell from her fingers, glowing gold and silver in the banal light of her desk lamp.

Tara slumped down, her hand dropping away from the object on the desk. Willow stepped forward, but Spike had already caught Tara in his arms, picking her up and cradling her like a child. He nodded at the object on the desk.

"Take the bloody thing and go. It's what you came for."

"Tara?" Dawn reached a hand out towards the witch's face.

"She'll do," said Spike roughly. "I'll take care of her." He spoke directly to Dawn.

Tara's eyes fluttered open and her arms reached up to hold Spike's shoulders. "It's all right, love," she murmured against his neck. "I'm still here. You kept me here."

Willow felt her throat tighten. "Let us—let us help," she said. "A—glass of water maybe. I can do that, at least."

Spike glared at her. He took a step backwards, still holding Tara protectively against his chest. "No. I'll manage. Said I'd take care of her, and I will."

But Willow had already taken the few steps needed to cross the room and was looking behind the screen, eyes seeking the kitchen sink, perhaps a glass—

She froze and stepped back, her hand rising to her throat in horror. She turned and met Spike's eyes, finding herself pleading with him. With him, of all people. Tell me it's not true.

But his iron, condemnatory gaze said it was.

Willow turned and ran from the apartment.

Buffy and Xander stared after her in astonishment, then looked reflexively to Spike for an explanation.

Spike was already settling Tara on the bed, and he gave them only a cursory glance. "Go take care of Red. You lot have done enough here tonight."

Out on the street, Buffy and the others found Willow bent over the curb, vomiting the remains of her dinner into the gutter. "What?" Xander looked over his shoulder at the apartment house. "What did you see in there?" Then he looked at Dawn, suddenly fearful of having her know whatever it was that had affected Willow this way.

"What did he do?" asked Buffy. Her voice was cold and detached. "What's Spike done to her?"

"What's he—?" Willow raised her head and began to laugh almost hysterically.

"Go ahead and tell them," said Dawn. Her voice was cold. "I can guess."

Buffy's voice became more urgent. "Willow, you have to tell us. What frightened you like that?"

Willow wiped her hand on the back of her mouth and at last gasped out the response. "Presents," she said, and laughed harshly again at their stunned expression. Willow sat back on her heels. "Books, some incense, chocolates, a few other little things, most still in the bags and boxes. They must have piled them on the counter when they came back from wherever they'd been celebrating."

"Presents?" Xander said, his initial confusion giving way to an ache in the pit of his stomach.

"Presents. Lots of them. From lots of people, judging by the different wrappings. That's what was going on in there, with the dress, and the champagne, and—"

"Yesterday," said Buffy, with a faraway look, as if she'd been conjuring some more arcane fact than the date on a calendar. "Last night was her birthday."

"Yeah," said Dawn. After a long moment she added, "I got her a book she wanted. I brought it over yesterday afternoon with some cupcakes, but Spike ate the last of those while Tara and me were out at the movies. He stayed home because he said it would turn his stomach to listen to us drool over Orlando Bloom and Liv Tyler. I couldn't go to the party tonight because I'm too young to get into the club. So I wound up tagging along with you."

Buffy looked away from her sister. For the first time that evening something like real regret passed over her face.

"I didn't remember," said Willow. "She used to be my everything, and I didn't even remember it was her birthday. All I did was beat on her door and ask her to—" She turned and retched into the gutter again.

In Spike's arms, Tara gulped the remains of the champagne, leaning back against his shoulder, pressing against him for reassurance that she was back on this plane and safe in her own bed again. The drink coursed through her system, energizing her briefly with a hit of alcohol, although most of the bubbles had long since fizzed away. "It's all right, love," he was murmuring in her ear. "I've got you, you're here with me." She clung to him, feeling the brushed cotton of his shirt under her fingers until she became impatient with that barrier between them.

She sat up, pulling her dress over her head and casting it aside, quickly but not ruthlessly. That dress had been the first of the day's presents—she'd discovered it in a clumsily wrapped box on the kitchen table when she'd woken up alone that morning. Wear this tonight, love, the tag had said. And, no, I didn't steal it!

He'd given her the earrings she wore too. Those had been his public gift, presented at her party and opened with those of her friends. His other public gift had been the way he'd laughed and joked about movies and music with her companions from school. The people she'd spent the past few months slowly and carefully connecting with as she built herself a life without Willow. Most had been amused by his acerbic wit, but a few had seemed wary. Still, Tara gloried in the surprising treat of enjoying his company and that of her human friends at the same time.

Later, she'd danced with him, feeling no shame at holding and kissing him in front of everyone. Then they'd gone back to her apartment, where he'd presented her with the champagne, made love to her twice, and then shown her the journal he'd prepared with his favorite love poems.

She'd danced with Willow in a different club two years to the day earlier, but she hadn't thought about that other birthday until the knock had come on the door.

That knock could have shattered everything she had now. But she wasn't going to let it.

"Love, I'm sorry," he was saying. Anger was creeping into his voice. "And on your birthday—"

"No," she shook her head. "It's way after midnight. My birthday was yesterday. My birthday was perfect. And now," she leaned against him, "you're going to make things perfect again." Her fingers were undoing the buttons of his shirt and she was straddling his hips, rubbing herself against him. She stifled his protest with a passionate kiss. "Don't tell me you can't," she murmured against his lips, "because I can feel how hard you are."

Her hands were at the zipper of his jeans now, opening them enough for her to get her fingers inside and touch him. He was responding, thrusting his hips up against hers, one hand moving as if of its own accord to touch her clit, rubbing her expertly even as he murmured a protest.

"Let me do you proper then. Gently, make you—"

"No, Spike, no. Now. Fast and hard. I need to feel alive. I need to make sure I'm real. That I'm really here." She already felt alive, now that his hand was on her, his body moving with hers. She ripped at his jeans, pulling them down over his hips until his cock was free, and then she reached to move him inside her, a moment later taking his hand in hers and pushing it against her so that he would keep massaging her clit even as he penetrated her.

"God, Tara, love!"

"Don't come yet," she ordered, knowing he'd obey, that he'd do what she needed, because he always did. When he loved, he wanted most to give his lady what she desired, and he focused all his considerable power and ability on that task. Tara wondered why Buffy had never understood, had never realized the strength that came with that. Perhaps Buffy had been frightened of the responsibility of being loved so much. Well, it had frightened Tara too, but then she had looked deep into those azure eyes and realized that she wanted to give him back all the happiness in the world. And, somehow, that knowledge had freed them both.

Tonight should have forced her back into patterns of fear and regret, but now, staring into the midnight of his eyes and knowing that his love and concern and desire were all for her, she felt only a greater freedom. The last vestige of guilt for no longer needing Willow as she once did, for no longer making her ex-lover the center of her universe, had fallen away. It wasn't just that Willow and Buffy and Xander had so obviously stopped thinking of Tara as a person with a life outside of their dysfunctional little group. It was realizing that she could still love the part of Willow that she carried in her heart and yet feel nothing but relief that the two of them weren't physically together.

She discovered with astonishment that she was murmuring all this in Spike's ear as she moved above him, telling him of her feelings for Willow even as she thrust down hard against him, her hands gripping his shoulders until her fingertips had gone white.

"Spike, I'm sorry," she sobbed now. "I love you, you know I love you."

"Yeah, Tara," he said, holding her still for a moment, reaching up a hand to push her hair from her face and brush away some tears she hadn't realized she'd shed. "I know. You're here with me now, all of you."

"You understand?" she whispered incredulously.

"Yeah," he said, eyes on hers, and she remembered how he'd glanced at Buffy only to gauge the Slayer's mood, not showing any anger or longing of his own.

"You still love her too," she said. No need to specify which "her."

"I'll always love her," he told Tara. "But I'm in love with you. I belong with you. I didn't with her. Never could. I'd die for her tomorrow, if she asked me. Owe it to her. Promised her. But I want to live with you. I want to be in you." He bucked his hips against hers, grinding against her.

She gasped with the force of him moving inside her, his hand reaching again to touch her just there, and then she forgot Willow, forgot Buffy, for the moment at least. She knew that someday soon their past loves would call again, and they would answer, putting everything at risk to help the Slayer in whatever crazy battle she had been forced to fight. But, tonight, only Spike could be allowed to matter.

What could she give him that would prove that?

His own words, of course. His own borrowed words, thrown back at him.

"I am with you, Spike, here in this moment and always." She bent her head until their lips were only inches apart. "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state . . ." She whispered the verse gently, and he gasped beneath her, almost coming, only the knowledge that she wasn't ready yet restraining him.

"I used to think I was worthless, that I'd always be alone, an outcast . . .Yet in these thoughts of myself most despising, haply I think on thee . . . "

"You listened," he gasped. "You heard."

Had he thought she wasn't listening, then, earlier, when he'd rested against her and pretended to read from that book? Did he think she hadn't listened on those other occasions when he'd murmured such words into her ear? Did no one else ever hear him when he whispered the poetry he loved so much? Tara tried to imagine Drusilla or Buffy listening, really listening when he'd tried to gift them with those beautiful words. They'd have let the glorious phrases slide over them, of course, Drusilla because of her madness and Buffy because of her other obsessions. Tara had drunk them in, and they were as much a part of her now as they were of him.

"For thy sweet love rememb'red such wealth brings . . ." Her head bent to his cheek, kissing him, feeling the wetness of his tears against her lips. Their salty warmth was harsh against her tongue, and made her clench her thighs convulsively, forcing him further inside her, pulling him even closer. He spasmed and moaned, and she felt her body move to climax with him.

"That then I scorn to change my state with kings."

And so it was. Here in this shabby room, on this serviceable bed, their bodies locked in an embrace that left them no room to envy any other creature.