Sequel to Who Am I?; part of The Bittersweets Series
But there she was, staring into the ice cream freezer as if it was the Delphic Oracle, the frozen steam rising around her fingers.
The misery rising off her like the rime. All surface, all soul, she was. Out at the dead hour of the night, looking for solace in sweets. Pathetic. He grabbed a couple cans of Guinness and took them to the counter.
“Two packets of Marlboro.” He pitched his voice low so she wouldn’t hear, and thought he’d made good his escape, until a quick plucking at his sleeve stopped him at the door.
He turned. “Glinda.”
Tara gave him one of her side-long looks, flashed a too-brief smile, and subsided into quiet.
Bloody hell. “Everything all right, pet?” Of course it wasn’t all right, because if it was, the witch wouldn’t be here conducting a mind meld with Ben & Jerry.
“Is everything all right with you?” she said. “Buffy send you out for . . . uh . . .”
“Some midnight beer and smokes? No, she did not.”
“No, my little petunia, I’ve joined you in the Heartbreak Hotel. A hotel which, unfortunately, has no physical address. So I wander, lonely as a cloud, until sun-up when I shall no doubt catch on fire because I just don’t bloody care enough to stay in out of the California sun.”
Shit. He really was drunk.
Tara eyed him for a moment, then started to go out and held the door open behind her. “Good thing I’m alone in a double, then.”
He followed her back to the dormitory. Watched silently as she pulled the curtains closed over the dark windows, and draped beach towels over them for good measure before she made up the empty bed. “I have an early class, but you can hang here all day if you need to.”
“No one’ll come here?” The witch.
Tara shook her head. The sadness poured off her.
“Want a Guinness?”
Another head shake.
“Care if I smoke?”
She shrugged. Took off her jeans and climbed into bed in her teeshirt and panties. Spike removed his leather and stretched out on his bed, lit a cigarette. He’d have liked to take off his shirt, which irritated the bites that weren’t closing up fast enough to suit him. But even after Tara switched off the light, that didn’t seem appropriate. Anyway, he didn’t want her to get a glimpse and wonder.
He could hear her breathe. She was pretending to be asleep, and not fooling him for a minute. He finished his smoke and lit another. “I’m sorry,” he said into the dark. “You were a pretty little pair of cooing doves.”
“She broke my faith. Broke my heart.”
“You’ll get over her, pet. In time.”
Nothing but time, and he’d never get over her. Never get past her.
“I don’t want to get over her.”
Can’t think of anything but her. Bloody broken doll. Broken things are dangerous. Sharp edges will cut you.
“Well, take her back then. S’probably suitably chastened by now.”
“I . . . I don’t think I trust her.”
Oh, that was the magical word, wasn’t it? Without it, you were nowhere, heap up the love any way you liked.
Of course, his girl didn’t love him, AND, after today, he was afraid to trust her. Not when every couple of hours some force he didn’t understand hit her reset button. So, double-whammy.
Better off before, he thought. Better off when she was just dead. Both of them. Better off.
Had to get the box out of the house. As long as it was here, she didn’t trust Dawn not to look for it and find it . Or let Spike back into the house so he could find it. God damn him, now he’d destroyed her confidence in her own sister’s loyalty. His evil spread out from him in a hundred subtle fingers, tainting everything it touched.
What he’d made her do. Her body shuddered at the memory of it, tongue curling away from the sensation of his skin in her teeth, that fake thing strapped to pelvis. Ugh.
But where to take it? Then it occurred to her. Tara. Tara was still her friend, Tara wouldn’t turn her down. I think you have the right to love whomever you like.
Yeah, Buffy thought, And I can refuse to love whomever I like, too. That unclean beast.
Tara would keep it for her in her dorm room while she waited for Giles to arrive
. . . and Giles could decide how best to dispose of it. Probably he’d want to send it to the Council for their archives, which would be fine; just so she never had to see it again, just so it would never fall into Dawn’s hands ever again.
She meant to take the box around to the university as soon as Dawn left for school, but then the phone started to ring and in quick succession she was booked for three interviews for jobs she didn’t want. She could try to talk her way into waiting tables at the IHOP out by the freeway, clerking at the Gap, or making lattes at the Espresso Pump. By time she’d shown up in person and ruined her chances for all three, it was dinner time. Dawn refused to eat what she fixed, or talk to her, or even look at her, and decamped to a friend’s house as soon as Buffy picked the plate up from in front of her.
With the box under her arm, Buffy knocked at Tara’s dorm room door. There was no answer, and just as she decided to swing by the library and see if she could find her there, Tara spoke through the door.
“It’s Buffy. I was hoping you could do me a favor.”
The door remained closed. She frowned at it, then lowered her voice and said, “I’m alone. I mean—Willow’s not with me, or anything.”
“Oh—I didn’t think . . . wait a sec’.”
When she opened the door, Tara’s cheeks were red, and she didn’t meet Buffy’s eyes.
“If this is a bad time—“ Buffy said.
“No no. Come in. Sit. Tea? Cocoa?”
“No thanks. I . . . Can I put this down here?” She set the box on Tara’s desk. “I was hoping you could keep this for me. Just for a few days. Until Giles gets here.”
“Giles is coming back?”
“Um . . . yes. In a couple days, I think. I’m going to give this to him, but until he gets here . . . .”
“Oh.” Tara glanced at the box, but made no move towards it.
“It would really be a help to me. Actually, could you do a spell on it? Make it . . . harder for anyone to find?”
“Who’s going to be looking for it? Is it dangerous?”
“Dangerous? No! I wouldn’t ask you to keep anything that was dangerous. But Dawn . . . might be looking for it, maybe. I’d prefer she not get her hands on it again.”
Tara’s expression seemed to hold a demand for some further explanation which she was apparently too polite to voice.
Blushing, Buffy said, “It’s Spike’s. Things that were Spike’s, but which really shouldn’t be allowed to fall into the wrong hands, not again anyway, so until Giles gets here, I was hoping you’d—“
“I think you n-n-n-need to give Spike’s box back to Spike.”
“Uh . . . what?”
“It’s not yours. It’s not Giles’. It belongs to Spike. It’s important to him.”
Buffy had to put the heels of her hands against her forehead and press before she could bring herself to answer.
But before she could speak, Tara said, “Yes, I’m sorry, I’ve talked to him.”
“Oh shit. You’ve talked to him.”
“I’m not taking sides. I’m sorry you two aren’t getting along. I just think . . . it’s not yours to dispose of.”
“He spoke to you.”
“Not about . . . I mean, I don’t know what you quarreled about. I don’t know anything, really. Just that he was unhappy about you, and worried about his things.”
Buffy grabbed up the box. “Okay. Coming here, big mistake. Going now.”
“Oh. Well . . . I hope no hard feelings?”
“Tara. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s nothing around here but hard feelings. You can find any soft ones anywhere, hang onto them, because they’re rarer than hen’s teeth.”
When Tara closed the door on Buffy’s back, Spike stepped out of the closet.
“I’ll be getting out of your hair now, pet.”
“I . . . I’m sorry. I couldn’t just take it from her and give it to you. You understand that, don’t you?”
“Perfectly. It’s fine really. I’ll just catch up to her, tear her head off her shoulders, and when I’m done devouring her blood-drenched heart, I’ll have my box back again, and bob’s yer uncle.”
Tara put out a hand to touch his leather-clad arm, but he was already gone.
Vampires, when they wanted to, could move so fast.
Plan B, which was really more like Plan X, so far down the continuum of her preferences did it fall, was to secret the box in the Magic Shop basement amongst all the other junk, and ask Willow to do what she could spell-wise to keep Spike out of the shop. Which would mean admitting that she’d made an atrocious mistake about Spike and having to listen to them all express their relief and ask her what the hell she’d been thinking to let him touch her in the first place. Not to mention encouraging Willow to do magic when she was supposed to be abstaining. Although if Dawn hadn’t exaggerated, she’d done some in the cemetery the other night, so wasn’t exactly on the wagon anyway.
She jogged through the warehouse district and took her usual back ways through the alleys of Sunnydale’s downtown. The rear door of the magic shop was in view at the end of the alley when Spike stepped out from behind a pile of pallets and sent her sprawling on her face with a blow.
He was on her, snarling, before she could spring up, grinding her face into the grit. Flailing, she got in a kick that freed her to roll, and came up with her boot in his face. But the next moment he’d slammed her against the wall, his hand flattening her throat against the brick so that black spots flashed and popped in her field of vision. Yellow eyes and fangs glittered in the ambient light, and there was nothing human there, no communication beyond the wounded lion’s ravening.
Struggling to get in one breath, one blow, Buffy suddenly found herself on the ground again, gasping like a caught fish, and Spike three yards away, pacing with fists clenched, vamp face gone, and—was it?—the gleam of tears in his eyes.
“I can’t do it! Can’t fucking hit you , can’t kill you! Everything about you hurts me, Slayer! It’s beyond the fucking chip, it’s you, you merciless cunt! I love you and it hurts me!”
Dragging in breaths, she stared at him, holding her aching throat. He turned his back, started to stalk off, then spun around to face her again, still keeping his distance. Stake in hand, she scrambled up and circled him in the direction of the fallen box. He turned with her movements to keep his eyes on her.
“I want to go from you. No matter what I do, you’re cruel to me. I could stand it before, when there was no question of having you, but since . . . I can’t stand it anymore. Set me free, Slayer, so I can go.”
“What do you mean? Who’s holding you? Not me! Go!”
“I promised you I’d not abandon little sis. Gave my word.” His glance broke from hers. “An English gentleman’s word . . . not given lightly.” Found her eyes again. “Release me from it. Release me, so I can leave here and try to forget about you.”
An English gentleman’s word. The black spots that had cleared a few moments ago marched back across her vision. Was he crazy? Was everybody?
Cruel to me.
She’s always been cruel to him, of course. Even when he was helping her. But he was a vampire. And it was easier that way. Anyway, it meant nothing, because they were nothing to each other.
Spike’s here because he is my lover.
Buffy. Do you think that’s wise?
Oh, his mouth against hers . . .
She blinked, trying to clear her eyes. A terrible humming was in her ears now, just as loud as when he was choking her, and her heart seemed to have swollen up to fill her chest and press itself up into her throat. What was this? What was happening to her?
She sniffed, blinked the tears back. Tears? When? “I don’t care what you do. Only . . . only Dawn needs you.”
“But she’s lost so many already . . . .”
“So does everybody, Slayer. I’ve taken a fair few thousands out myself in my time. Better her heart’s destroyed early, like yours is. Better all around. Release me.”
The humming inside her ratcheted up. Dawn weeping and wailing, following her through the house, plucking at her arm. It’s not fair! And. Up on the tower, blood dripping from her toes. Then her mother, splayed out lifeless on the sofa, and at the same time telling her not to come back if she walked out that door. And. Angel. Waiting for daybreak on the hill, while she pleaded with him, weeping, not to leave her, not to hurt her. I can't breathe, Will. I feel like I can't breathe. The alley disappeared, the voices and faces and all that hot salt water swirled around her, rising and rising, consuming and pulling her under.
“I . . . I’m not cruel.” Her voice sounded to her like a child’s, and she wasn’t sure he heard it at all; she couldn’t really see him anymore, everything was thick and she was drowning, trying with all her might to cling to that one tiny spar of not cruel.
Then she did see him, because he was up close to her, although she’d not been aware of him moving. He didn’t touch her, but it was as if he opened her with his hands and pushed each word he spoke inside, so she could not refuse to hear them.
“I am in love with you, Buffy. I don’t need a soul for that, or a beating heart. I’m ready to fight alongside you, and fight for you, and fight with you if I have to, the way a man and a woman fight. But I’m done fighting you. I can’t do it anymore. It’s not what I wanted you for. Keep my fucking box. Give it to Giles, pick me apart like I’m just some specimen. Think of me as a thing. Whatever you have to do, Buffy, to forget that there was a man who knew you and wanted you and was strong enough for you and didn’t quit you until you’d broken him. I thought you were finally finding your way to me, but I was wrong. You don’t know who you are or who I am, or else you wouldn’t treat me this way. And you won’t find the answers in that fucking box. But it’ll be all you’ll have, so keep it. I consider myself released.”
He was gone, and she was left awash in her terror and sorrow. Disoriented in an alley—why did this keep happening to her? Her not-cruelty wasn’t a spar after all, she’d been mistaken about that, it was a floe of ice, hard to cling to and getting smaller and smaller all the time in the boiling sea she’d fallen into. It bobbed and rocked and melted as she grasped it and there was no comfort there. Another lie.
Didn’t Spike always tell her the truth?
She hadn’t realized she was sitting on the ground again until she glanced up to find Anya standing over her, holding a broom.
“I thought there were a couple of cats going at it out here,” she said, indicating the broom. “So I came out to break it up.”
“But it was you. You were making such an odd noise. Such a loud, odd noise.” Anya offered her hand, and Buffy let her drag her to her feet.
“I’m sorry I reminded you of cats,” Buffy mumbled. She scrubbed at her eyes, and knew she had mascara smeared all down her face. Not that it mattered. Everything was too late. She’d remembered at last who she really was, but it was too late.
There was the box. She picked it up.
“Cats aren’t bunnies,” Anya said with a philosophical shrug. “Why don’t you come inside?”
“Anya . . . “ Buffy stumbled behind her, and realized that she’d broken the heel off her boot. “Am I . . . I’m not . . . would you describe me as cruel?”
Continued in Five