By Barb Cummings
Sequel to A Raising in the Sun
When Anya walked to the vending machine and back, she passed doctors with clipboards and nurses in crisp white uniforms, but deep down, she still expected monks.
She hated hospitals with a passion which exceeded Buffy's by several factors of magnitude. None of the others realized this, or would have understood why, not even Spike; puppy that he was, he'd grown up in a brave new post-industrial world where carbolic acid washes and ether and the Public Health Acts were the order of the day. A century's worth of progress couldn't wipe out a millennia's worth of certainty: a hospital was where you went to die.
She frowned at the shiny rows of greasy, sugary, unhealthful snack food. Why, in an institutions supposedly devoted to improving the lot of mankind, did they encourage you to eat this stuff? Return business, probably. Anya looked for the distinctive bright red wrapper of the Chocolate Hurricane, even though it was a weird off-brand chocolate bar that could only be got by special order or in the lairs of evil clowns. They were Xander's favorite, and she always checked. Even if he couldn't eat one now, it was the thought that counted, though of course, the action of buying one would count even more than the thought.
Thwarted, she finally punched the button for a Three Musketeers, tucked it into her purse, and set off down the long sterile corridor. It was hushed in the intensive care ward, but never quiet. Voices fell to whispers the moment the speakers crossed the threshold, shoulders grew hunched and footsteps tentative. But there was always noise, always the whoosh of tubes sucking out and needles pumping in, the faint hum and click of machinery. Important noises, acting like they knew what they were doing, acting like they helped, but she knew better. All they did was mask the sound of labored breathing and the moans of the dying. Anya hated them all. She wanted to jump up screaming and run around the ward, pulling everyone's tubes out and smashing the machines.
She didn't. She sat down in the uncomfortable straight-backed chair and crossed her legs and arranged her purse in her lap.
"I'm back, Xander," she whispered. "I realize you can't hear me, but I'm going to keep talking to you anyway, because I'm really scared and talking helps. Not much, but some. I'm scared you're going to die. I don't want you to die. But I'm more scared that you'll live, and that you won't want to. That you'll think it's not worth going on because you're hurt very badly. So I just want to tell you some things. I love you. I still want to marry you. Even if it turns out that you're paralyzed and can't walk or satisfy me sexually. You have a lot of parts, Xander, and while I like the ones between your legs a lot, they're not as important as the one here." She laid a hand on his chest and bent closer and closer, until she was whispering in his ear. They didn't have any tubes in his ear. An oversight, she was sure. "And that one will work forever. So please don't die, and please don't want to."
Xander looked pale and awful, with a day's worth of dark stubble and dusky purple cumulo-nimbus bruises spreading beneath the waxy surface of his skin. None of the surviving crazies looked this bad. She could see a few of them from her chair at Xander's side. Earthquake victims. The Hellmouth's collapse had given them a wonderful excuse for bringing in half a dozen unconscious people. Anya had decided that she approved of Daniel Tanner—he sat in the background and got things done, quietly, efficiently—well, as efficiently as someone recently insane could manage. He was loyal, and Anya could appreciate that in a man. Tanner had been talking to Social Services last night, trying to work something out for the last of his charges. At least Xander had insurance. As long as he had his job, which he might not have for long, because there were only so many openings in a construction company for people who couldn't walk for an indeterminate length of time.
Maybe it would be OK for her to really hate Willow now. But it wouldn't do any good, Willow being dead and all. There was nothing more unsatisfying than pre-empted vengeance.
Buffy and Dawn stood behind the plate-glass observation window, tropical fish in a sterile aquarium—Dawn with her nose pressed to the glass, Buffy standing back a bit, with her arms folded across her stomach. She waved, pointing towards the door with raised eyebrows. Anya got up and pushed the swinging doors to the ward open. "I don't think you're supposed to come in if you aren't related, but I don't particularly care. The nurse can throw you out when she comes back."
"We were downtown for Dawn's custody hearing," Buffy whispered. Infected by the silence meme already. "So afterwards we thought we should...has he...said anything?"
"No. The doctors said a lot of things after you left last night. If he wakes up today it would be good, but he hasn't. Yet."
They followed her back to Xander's bed. Dawn made a wary detour around the bed of the nearest crazy, a blonde woman with fingernails bitten to the quick, but the woman only watched her pass by with dull, incurious eyes. Anya's magpie brain filed the incident away. A second later, "You're not the Key any longer, are you? That's probably for the best since no one really understood the whole Key thing to begin with."
Dawn gave the blonde woman a look—relieved, wistful, confused. "Yeah. They didn't make with the green glowy soliloquies last night at the ER, either. Closing the Hellmouth must have used me all up." She forced a laugh. "Not like it makes a big difference. All I had was a superpower trust fund."
"True," Anya agreed. "And you didn't even get to live off the interest." She supposed the monks who'd made Dawn had finally been proven right. They'd thought maybe the power of the Key could be used for good, and closing the Hellmouth was good. It made more sense than Xander's scenario of Key Woman in a domino mask and spandex. Or perhaps it was bad, since she'd closed it after the reversal. In which case the Knights of Byzantium were right. Yes, better all around to be done with the Key business altogether. She missed Xander's stupid scenarios. Anya took his hand, tracing the calluses with the tip of one finger. "Did the hearing go well?"
"It went fine. I'm well-adjusted and eat meals containing all four food groups." Dawn stared down at Xander, chewing her lower lip. "He's still—he's not half healed already. I keep forgetting that's normal."
Buffy stood there holding on to Xander's other hand with tears threatening to spill over her cheeks, saying nothing. The burn on her face was half-healed already. It wasn't fair. Willow should have picked on someone her own size. Anya gave them both a bright and artificial smile. "Have you cut Willow's head off yet?"
Buffy made a choking noise and bright red spots appeared on her cheeks. Anya regarded her with suspicion. "That is the correct procedure for suspected vampirism, isn't it? Cut the head off? Burn the body? Before they have a chance to rise as a soulless bloodsucking fiend and kill even more people than—" Her sentence ran into a sob and derailed. Buffy stood there clutching Xander's hand, looking small and miserable. Dawn fiddled with her hair, looking tall and gawky.
"I can't just—" Buffy started. She dropped Xander's hand and began worrying the collar of her blouse between thumb and forefinger in the gesture that always meant she was hiding something. "We don't know for sure she'll—it might not work. I haven't even told her parents yet. It's Willow."
"No, Buffy, it's not," Anya snapped. She wrapped her fingers around Xander's and closed her eyes, feeling the hot prickly sensation of having run dry of tears. "That's the whole point, isn't it?"
Something was clinging to her hand. Anya looked down with a broken gasp of joy. Xander's eyes were open, clouded with pain and morphine. "Hey," he croaked.
"Hey," she replied, wrapping his limp hand in her shaking ones. She looked up at Buffy. "You can go away now."
Xander made a raspy noise of protest, but Buffy shook her head. "No, she's right, you need to rest, I'll come back later with Wi-with—when you're more awake. She grabbed Dawn's arm and pulled her sister towards the door as an irate nurse bore down upon the both of them full of stern admonishments about visiting hours and restrictions. Holding Xander's hand with all her might, Anya barely noticed when the door banged shut behind them.
Spike hooked his fingers into the coarse black cloth of the last Bringer's robe, heaved it up by the scruff of its neck and swung it head-first into the nearest wall. Bone met stone with a sickening crunch, and the mutilated face disappeared in a drenching cloud of scarlet mist that should have obscured the memory of another pale, desperate face from his mind, but only succeeded in etching it deeper. He let go, and the body squelched to the cavern floor. Behind him, Buffy dispatched her foe, and the two of them crouched in tense formation in the middle of the cave, listening for any sign of more Harbingers. The only sound was their own breathing and the metronome drip of distant water.
Buffy picked up her dropped flashlight, squared her shoulders and twirled it around the cavern's circumference. "One altar destroyed, check; assorted minions squished, check the second."
Spike relaxed a trifle. Relax one notch more and he'd be flat on his back. If someone had told him a week ago there'd come a point when he'd get sick of killing things, he would have laughed in their faces, but tonight came damned close. The remaining Harbingers milled through the tunnels with the aimless despair of ants who'd lost their queen; this wasn't a fight, it was just mopping up. He licked a smear of Harbinger blood off his knuckles and spat it out with a grimace. Still tasted like shit. He pointed at one of the dark openings in the cavern wall. "We been down that one yet?"
Buffy's eyes followed his outstretched hand, as if the effort of moving her entire head was too much, then turned with a resigned and unfeminine grunt. "No. Damn." The two of them trudged off down the tunnel, passing the abandoned cavern where the crazies had set up shop. The tunnel made several serpentine bends, shook itself straight, and decamped in a smaller cave furnished with a cot, a desk, and a bootlegged electrical cable. A laptop sat in the middle of the desk, and when Buffy nudged the mouse, the screen leaped to life, casting a crepuscular glow across the surrounding piles of books and color-coded folders full of neat, cross-indexed notes. Spike walked over to the cot and turned the pillow over. Willow's scent lingered in the blankets, a day or two stale but still identifiable.
He was mad as hell at Willow, but he missed her already.
Buffy sat down at the desk and laid a hand on its surface, fanning the scattered papers out in front of her. "I still can't believe she's..." She wiped her nose on the back of her sleeve, a small-child gesture of loss.
Spike's knees went out and he found himself sitting on the cot. He ached all over, in every bone and ligament, but the sorest muscle he possessed right now was the unmoving one in his chest. "God, I'm sorry, Buffy..."
"It's not your fault!" she snapped, then pressed her fingers to her closed eyes with a small wounded noise. "She chose. She..." Buffy took a deep breath and opened her eyes. "I should have cut her head off right away. It'd be better than this waiting."
"No, you shouldn't." Spike leaned back against the cavern wall with a bitter snort. "Sire's right, that is."
Once upon a time in the alternate universe that was last summer, he'd sat up with Dawn on the roof of the Rosenbergs' house at one in the morning, and they'd talked about happy endings. There weren't any in real life, he'd said, because there weren't any endings. Things just kept happening. When you looked around the next corner, everything's fucked up again. Dawn had countered that at least that meant there was always a next corner to look around. He closed his eyes. Letting his guard down, but he didn't care. He was tired of looking round corners. Last night they'd saved the world, but things kept on happening.
"Will she rise tonight? If she... got enough?" Buffy kept shuffling through the papers on Willow's desk.
Spike rocked his head against the stone, slow and tired and helpless. "Could happen, but probably not till tomorrow night. 'S different for everyone." He'd never bothered to keep track of the averages. Since the debacle with his mother he'd never sired anyone he gave a piss about; what did he care when they rose, or if they rose at all? They were just minions, and like as not he or Dru would have killed them in a fit of temper before a month was out. They hadn't mattered. Willow... mattered.
Buffy leaned over the desk and rubbed her sleeve across her forehead, leaving a pale streak in the grime. "I wanted to save her," she whispered. She flipped open another folder and paged listlessly through its contents. "Just once, I wanted..." Her voice trailed off, and that funny little line appeared between her brows. "Spike...how well do you remember the spell Willow used to get your soul back the first time?"
Spike's eyes flicked open and he sat forwards again with a frown. "I remember the gist of it. Not word for word. Why?"
Her voice was taut and dangerous as a garrote. "Look at this."
Spike got up and circled the desk, looking over her shoulder and squinting to bring the small type into focus. The folder in her hands was labeled in Willow's tidy, draftsmanlike script: Ritual of Restoration, Revised, Version 3.4. The spell itself was only two-and-a-half typed pages, and half of that was the list of necessary components; the rest of the folder was filled with notes explaining why Willow was changing this line of the chant or substituting this herb for that, and detailing different patterns for laying out the components at different phases of the moon. He would have given a good deal for the use of Angelus's dead-on visual memory for five minutes, but even without...Spike let out a low whistle and tapped a line with a forefinger. "This bit here's different, and this. I think the patterns she's got the rubbishy bits laid out in are different, too, but I can't be certain there." He straightened with an admiring shake of his head. "She told me once she thought she could get around the happiness curse if she had the time."
Buffy stared at the folder, lips pursed, and it began to dawn on him what she was suggesting. Bloody brilliant, she was, and no mistake. Orbs of Thessulah were a dime a dozen; Anya probably had a crate of them tucked away in the Magic Box basement. They'd just do the spell, bring Will back to herself—well, perhaps not exactly herself, but...buggering hell. Spike drew a frustrated breath and let it go. "You sure about this, love?"
"No." She dropped the folder and buried her face in her hands. "I used to be sure about everything. I used to know exactly what was right and what was wrong. And why it was right and wrong. Now I'm not sure about anything, and it's like I'm doing a jigsaw puzzle without the picture, and I have to really look at every single piece, trying to figure out if it's water or sky."
A half-smile lifted the corner of his mouth. "Welcome to my world."
What comfort he could offer might be cold, but better that than nothing. Spike draped an arm around her shoulders and Buffy leaned into his side, letting her fingers slide down his arm to curl around his wrist, a warm and living bracelet. "Tara... if Tara won't... well, then, we can't. But—" She picked the folder up again with shaking hands. "I can't not try. If she were just dead... but she's not. She's worse than dead. And here's a chance at getting Willow back. Really Willow, not just—"
"Really Willow stuffed into the same dead body as a demon," Spike interrupted. "I'm not saying no here, love; I'll take Red back any way I can get her, but I'm—" A vampire warning the Slayer about the possible dangers of black magic; Christ, what had the world come to? "The white hats wouldn't approve."
Buffy looked up at him with the other half of his smile, rueful and forlorn. "Didn't you get the memo? Not exactly a white hat any longer. More a tasteful ecru."
He gave her a squeeze. "Goes well with the off-grey, d'you think?"
She rose out of deep water. It took a long time. Days. Maybe years. At first she floated upwards gently, almost imperceptibly, towards the surface, but towards the end she was fighting, struggling, kicking her way to freedom, agent of her own rebirth. Light and sound and scent burst upon her in an overwhelming, brilliant wave. Willow's eyes flew open, and she sat bolt upright in the bed, chest heaving in airless, exultant gasps. There were moments when everything was perfect. Like when you were a little kid, and you woke up in the morning and it was a Saturday in the middle of summer vacation, and the sun was shining and birds were singing and there were cartoons on, and you knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that you could do anything, anything at all. It was like that, waking up a vampire.
There were more voices, farther off, chanting something—Latin? She sucked at Latin, which had been embarrassing, once. She could scarcely hear them for all the other noises crowding on her ears—the discordant thump of multiple hearts, the creak and groan of pipes, the distant whoop of neighborhood kids in the street outside. Willow looked around her with wonder. Same old dresser, covered with an eclectic mix of makeup and magical trinkets, same old chair with Tara's blue sweater draped across it, same closet neatly divided between her clothes and Tara's. Each item was invested with new and iconic significance. The curtains were drawn, but the room was aglow nonetheless; to her new-made eyes, the darkest corners were laid bare down to the last dust bunny. No wonder Spike was so big on candles. Electric light was painfully bright to vampire eyes—her eyes, now.
Someone had bathed her and washed and combed her hair, stripped off her burnt and filthy clothes and replaced them with a clean nightgown, all fluffy pink flannel. Willow's lip curled in revulsion. That would have to go. She was so over the cuteness thing. But later. The air was thick with the smell of burning sage and...something else. Something delicious. It rose out of the sheets beneath her, the perfumes of Araby aged to rich mellow perfection, and wafted sharp and fresh and tangy across the room. Tara's scent. Blinding, all-consuming hunger blazed up in her, and Willow spun around on her hands and knees in the tangle of cream-colored linen, fixating on the origin of that divine odor.
Buffy was standing between the bed and the doorway, watching Willow with hooded eyes and the stone-faced expression which had grown so familiar last year. Her arms crossed over a stake. Behind her, in the threshold of the room, Tara was seated cross-legged on the floor, bent over a red velvet pillow holding a small glowing object. Giles and Spike flanked her, holding a sheaf of papers and a bundle of smoldering herbs respectively. A familiar arraignment of bones, stones and candles surrounded the pillow, but none of that mattered; the only thing in Willow's universe was the smell of fresh, living blood.
"...let the orb be the vessel..."
Tara, so beautiful in her determination and power, so vital, such a banquet of warm, tender flesh, all moist and salty-sweet with perspiration. Willow licked her lips, entranced by the mouth-watering throb of the pulse-point in her lover's neck. A twisting, pulling sensation shot through her brow and jaw, hurting in that good way it does when you rip off a scab. For a second her skin stretched too tight across her shifting bones, and then her new features settled into place. Willow ran her tongue across her fangs, and hissed as the unaccustomed pinpoints cut the flesh. The taste of her own blood only intensified the ache in her gut.
She flowed off the bed, moving like liquid silver across the floor. This was beyond cool. There was delightful anguish in Tara's blue-grey eyes, and her voice trembled with the effort of getting the words of her spell out. "Don't be thcared, honey," Willow cooed. "It'th jutht me." Ugh. She was going to have to do something about that.
Buffy moved to block her, stake at effortless ready—if she was quicksilver, the Slayer was liquid steel, Terminator II-style. Behind Buffy, Spike lowered his head, his eyes glowing lantern-yellow beneath his gnarled brow. He bared his fangs and growled, a take-no-prisoners sound she knew instinctively for a warning rather than a challenge, and Willow had to laugh. Like she'd roll over and play adoring fledgling for a pathetic screw-up of a sire like him. He was such a dog in the manger. No intention of eating them himself, but was he going to offer his starving offspring a bite? Jerk. Maybe she could she grab Giles and snap his neck before one of them jumped her. It would be fun to try.
What an idiot she'd been to think of this as an ending. This was her true beginning. She felt free and light. Stronger than she'd ever been in her life. Utterly reborn.
For about three seconds.
"...anima instaubitur! Nunc!"
Tara's eyes rolled up in her head and she slumped forward, knocking over a candle or two before Giles caught her. The object on the pillow disappeared in a flare of white light, and a dozen spears of blinding pain impaled Willow from the inside out. She might have screamed, but there was no air in her lungs, and all she could do was pitch over in a shaking, spasming ball until the agony cooled from raging bonfire to glowing embers. It was back. All the guilt and horror, weighing her down with chains that could anchor a battleship, and all the worse for having lifted for a few moments.
She couldn't even tell whose voice it was asking the question, her ears rang so. Willow looked up, shivering. Tara was staring at her with mingled hope and terror. Giles's face was a pallid mask of itself, and he was fingering his own stake. Buffy and Spike were twin sentinels, one thin-lipped and stone-faced, the other radiating a feral, territorial watchfulness. "You brought me back," she whispered. She'd cut her lip on her fangs, and her own blood spotted the pillow; on top of everything else she was still starving, every cell crying out for blood. Tears welled up in her golden eyes, big fat hopeless buckets of them. "You—" In a nonexistent heartbeat she gathered herself and sprang at Spike. "You brought me back! You BATHTARD! I HATE you! All of you! You rotten, creepy, awful—"
She slammed into him head-on, clawing at his face, screaming and wailing and running out of air half-way through her litany of PG-13 abuse, so that she puffed ineffectual soundless curses into his chest. Her newfound strength proved less than overwhelmingly effective against someone with a century's head start in same; Spike caught her wrists, yanked her arms up behind her back with one swift brutal motion, and ignored her wriggles and kicks with the aplomb of a lion enduring a cub chewing on his ears. He glanced over at the others. "She's wild, starved. Best you leave her to me for a bit, let me get some blood in her, and you come back in five or ten when she's more... herself."
"Are we certain the spell was successful?" Giles asked, with a cool note of inquiry which allowed a ray of hope into Willow's still heart—he'd use that stake in a New York minute if he thought—
Spike gave Willow a little shake. "She's got her soul all right. She stinks of it."
Tara flinched and bit down hard on the knuckle of her thumb. "I should stay—"
Buffy took Tara's shoulder with a look of compassion and steered her towards the door. "It's a vamp thing. Let Spike calm her down. Come on. It won't be long." She shot an impenetrable look at Spike, who returned it in spades. Giles followed them out the door, looking somewhere in the neighborhood of Spike's age. As soon as they were gone, Willow twisted free and head-butted Spike in the stomach. Spike backhanded her full-strength across the face. Her head snapped back on her neck and violet stars exploded before her eyes. Willow staggered backwards, sprawling across the mattress, and before she could make another move Spike pounced, pinning her wrists over her head and holding her in place with his weight.
"Listen up, Red," he snarled, nose to flattened nose. "I'm your sire. Didn't ask for it, didn't want it, but here it is. If you've got any poncy sentimental notions about what that means, forget 'em. All it means is I'm older than you and I'm stronger than you and I'm always going to be older and stronger than you, and if you take one step out of line, cause Buffy and the rest one more sleepless night, I'll feed you your fingers, one joint at a time. You wanted to be a vampire? Fine, you're a vampire. You don't get out of this so easily."
Willow said nothing, hating him, hating herself. She'd been here before, staring up into Spike's ferocious demon countenance, and this time—this time—
This time it didn't really hurt, except in a tingly excity sort of way. That was, the hitting part hurt, but it didn't really matter so much. Think about that—Spike had hit her. Hard. As hard as he'd hit another...Willow's face crumpled in grief, and she took an awkward, sobbing breath. The hatred cracked and shattered, its thin, bitter black shell falling away into a thousand tiny needle-sharp fragments and leaving her damp and draggled, a new thing, naked and exposed. "I'm a vampire. I'm really a vampire. Oh, God..."
Spike eased back a little, his hand sliding from wrists to shoulders, and after a bit, as Willow continued to sob, he wasn't holding her down any longer, just holding her. His hands had always been chilly—not freakishly icy, just the kind of chilly anyone's hands might be on a cold day, or when they'd lost circulation for a bit. Mouse-hand, Tara used to call it, when she'd been sitting at the computer too long in a non-ergonomic fashion. He didn't feel cold now, just... there. Their bodies were exactly the same temperature. Room temperature. She wasn't crying blood or something oogy like that, was she? Because ew, and also yuck, and thirdly, think of the dry-cleaning bills. No, no—vampires wept salt water like everyone else; she'd seen Spike do it often enough.
When at last her sobs wore themselves out in a series of exhausted hiccups, Spike eased her over onto one of the pillows, rolled off the bed and walked over to a small cooler tucked away beside the dresser. She heard the hollow thup of the lid coming off, and the clink and rattle of ice cubes as he fished something out. A second later the mattress shifted as he sat down beside her. "Here," he said, holding out a Styrofoam cup with the Kohlermann's logo on the side and a straw. "Drink up. You'll feel better."
The pig's blood was cold, and something deep inside her was still screaming for hot fresh living! but it was still the most wonderful thing she'd ever tasted. Like...like a Beef Wellington-flavored hot fudge Sunday, or, or, chocolate-covered deep-fried bacon cheesecake—there weren't even words for the yumminess. Willow sucked down the whole cup with ravenous dispatch, licked her fangs and grabbed the second container Spike had ready for her with embarrassing eagerness. He was right; as the raging hunger in her belly calmed, she couldn't help but feel a little better. Her bitten lip was already healing. It occurred to her that being dead was the first decent rest she'd had in weeks. And maybe the last.
Spike sat on the edge of the bed with one leg tucked under him, watching her drink, like he was grading her performance or something—was she doing this right? Did she have a blood mustache? Did she look like a big vampire dork? "Why?" she asked at last, setting the cup down and letting her eyes follow it. "Why did Buffy let you...?"
Spike's cheeks hollowed, and he made a small grumbly noise. "This was Buffy's idea, pet."
Instant karma. She'd dragged Buffy back from the dead; Buffy had just returned the favor. "There's thome petard-hoithting involved, huh?"
"Won't say there wasn't."
Willow turned the cup over, her thumbnail making little cornrows of crescent-moon indentations in the Styrofoam. They still looked the same, her hands, but across the room in the mirror over the dresser, there was no one there, just an eerily rumpled sheet. Makeup. How was she going to put on makeup? Because redhead, with serious foundation issues, and vampification wouldn't get rid of freckles. She'd wanted to erase herself; all she'd succeeded in doing was blinding herself. Spike jerked his head at the doorway. "By the pricking of my thumbs, something Wicca this way comes. You might want to put the fangs away."
"What?" Willow picked up the sound of shuffly feet and worried murmurs in the hall, and ran her fingers over her face, trying to push the brow ridges back in with panicky little hand-flutters. "How? What if I can't change back? What am I going to tell Mom and Dad? And thchool? I have day clathes!" She grabbed his wrists and turned on him with a wail of anguish. "And I thound like I thould be thinging 'Gary, Indiana'!"
"Should have thought of that before you tried to make me your one-way ticket to oblivion," Spike said, not entirely unsympathetically. There was a darkling humor in his eyes. "Just relax and think thoughts unrelated to slaughter and mayhem." He extricated himself from her panicky grip, and got up to open the door.
It took a couple of tries, but she managed to wrestle herself back into human shape before Tara came in. Willow crumpled up the Styrofoam cup with its residue of sticky red and shoved it under the covers, overcome by the irrational terror that Tara would transform before her eyes into a giant lamb chop or something, like one of those cartoons where Elmer Fudd was starving on a desert island. But no—Tara looked like Tara. Drained, bewildered Tara, wheaten hair pulled back in an unflattering braid, dark half-circles smudged beneath her eyes by an artistic thumb. Arms crossed, hands tucked beneath her armpits, awkward and vulnerable as a Degas painting. Not quite sure how things had come to this. Tara at the end of a very long rope.
She wasn't going to get to bury her head in Tara's shoulder, and be told that everything was all right.
Spike gave Tara an awkward shoulder-pat and slipped out; Willow caught a glimpse of him taking Buffy's hand, and the two of them standing in the hall, forehead to forehead, whispering together. She wasn't yet accustomed enough to her new keenness of hearing to sift their words from the background noise. And besides... Tara.
"You let them bring me back," Willow said at last. "You helped."
Tara turned her head, her bones all too evident beneath her translucent skin. "I did," she whispered. "It's easy to say how wrong it is when it's someone else. When it's you...I...I d-don't think this was right. " Her eyes scrunched shut and she wrapped her arms around herself. "But it wasn't f-fair, what you did! To Spike. To all of us—to me! How could you do that to me? How could you m-make me k-kill you, Willow? When you know I love you so much, when—"
"All I wanted was to make things right! To fix everything. To—" Willow clutched the blankets, heard the startling noise of shredding cloth, and dropped them in sick dismay. "You can't love me. Not like this."
Tara's head came up, her mouth set in a line at odds with its essential softness. "Don't tell me what I can't do."
"I'm..." Willow stopped. Sorry didn't cut it, not any longer. But she was sorry; she was composed entirely of sorry molecules. She was Sorry Woman and her sidekick Apology Lass. What could she possibly say that would show she meant it this time? She drew an unsteady breath—so much harder, when you had to think about doing it every single time. "I'm giving up the magic. So you know. All of it."
Tara's eyes dropped, veiled behind sandy lashes. "That's...Willow, y-you're a vampire. You're dead. You're never going to change again. Which means your magic's never coming back any more than it is right now. Like—like Drusilla, she's never saned up."
No magic. Not rejected in an act noble self-abnegation, just...gone. Nothing but the dry, empty ache inside, forever. Willow bent her head to her flannel-covered knees. "I guess that's poetic justice. And not just a couple of limericks, either. A whole epic. Childe Willow to the Dark Tower came."
"I wouldn't have wished that on you." Tara's breath was soft and ragged in the room's silence, her heartbeat strong and swift. How strange to hear the sounds of life so clearly now that she was dead. "You know that. But you didn't give me the live Willow choice. You gave me two flavors of dead Willow. I—"
"I'm not blaming you. I think I've kinda given up my blaming rights for eternity."
"It's not the magic, Willow." Tara's fingers twined in frustration. "It was never the magic. It was how you used it. You could go out right now and try to conquer the world as—as a computer hacker."
I wanted to make things right. But it wasn't things that were wrong. It was her. It was herself she had to fix. She should get up. She wasn't an invalid—or if she was, it was only a moral one. Willow swung her legs off the bed, thin white ankles protruding from the pink flannel, and started for the door, only to stop...well...dead after a single step. One of the curtains had been knocked askew, and a pale line of winter sun threw a paper-thin wall of light across the room.
Spike had walked right through it on his way out. Like someone passing their finger through a candle flame, Willow guessed; do it fast enough and you were safe. But Spike was older and tougher than she was, and her knees were shaking. She looked beseechingly at Tara, but Tara only leaned against ths doorframe, sad-eyed and motionless, and Willow realized that Tara was not going to come to her. They were five feet and all the world apart. Distance she'd put between them, and Tara was not going to close it. And if Tara wouldn't do it...
How much worse than any loss of magic would be remaining the person she was now? "You're wrong," Willow said, "About me not being able to change. I know a vampire who did." She closed her eyes, and stepped through the fire. When she opened them, Tara was staring at her through the veil of smoke rising from her own skin.
"...I mean, it just got me thinking. Vampires go all the way back to the Neolithic, right, so why crosses? Why not stars of David? Why not ankhs? If you turn the cross sideways, does—"
"Christ, Will, give it a rest! No wonder Angelus beat me black and blue at every opportunity!" Spike bounded up the porch steps ahead of Willow, jingling slightly—his Christmas present from Buffy was a black leather motorcycle jacket, which he was apparently determined to break in by the simple expedient of never taking it off. Tara had seen the discarded tag for a second before Spike had rescued it from the piles of wrapping paper the next morning:—=To Spike: This one's for bringing a Slayer back to life. Love, Buffy.
Tara followed the two vampires up onto the porch, her hands tucked into her sweater pockets and her head down. After the crisis which had ensued when Xander announced that he still wanted Willow to be his best man... woman...vampire...had been weathered, the wedding had gone off with only a few minor hitches. Xander's father had been drunk and disorderly, as usual, and one of his cousins had been caught with one of the bridesmaids in the janitor's closet at the reception. An ex-victim of Anya's vengeance days showed up and tried to disrupt the ceremony. Nothing out of line for a Sunnydale wedding, when you thought about it. After Buffy and Spike dispatched the former Stewart Burns, things had gone off...well. Ceremony. Bouquet-throwing. Photos. Reception, cake, dancing. Wary detente between Xander's family and Anya's demon associates. Anya holding Xander's hands and laughing, spinning his wheelchair around to the strains of Garth Brooks. Xander's cousin Carol flirting with anything that breathed and a few things that didn't. Buffy and Spike superglued to one another in the blue light, swaying together in their own schmoopy little world. Our lives are better left to chance, I could have missed the pain, but I'd have had to miss the dance...
She'd danced like that with Willow once, the two of them caught up in one another to the exclusion of all the rest of the universe. Dancing on air. There'd been no dancing for the two of them tonight; Willow'd gotten sick after trying to eat a slice of wedding cake and spent the next hour heaving up her guts in the ladies' restroom.
Buffy and Dawn crowded up onto the porch behind her, giggling madly. "...come on, you thought the horns were cute, didn't you?"
"So not!" Dawn protested, laughing. "You're the freaky demon-lover in the family."
"Dawnie's got a boyfriend!" Buffy chanted. She'd had maybe one more glass of champagne than was good for her. "Agh, get the door open, we have to escape the evil clutches of these dresses!" She waved at the offending garment, a bright green sheath which exploded into a profusion of ruffles in the most inconvenient places, and made spooky woo-woo theramin noises. "It's the invasion of the asparagus people!"
"You birds got off easy," Spike grumbled as he unlocked the front door. Spike had his own key now. "I was stuck being Roller Boy's chair caddy all night. I fucking hate those things."
"I hope there's wheelchair access gambling in Vegas," Willow said. "I gave him a quarter to bet for me."
Tara hung her sweater on an unoccupied hook as they trooped through the foyer. Dawn hitched up her skirts, yelled "Dibs on the bathroom!" and made a dash upstairs, followed closely by Buffy. Knowing from experience that letting the Summers sisters fight it out for hot water access was the better part of valor, everyone else dispersed into the living room. Spike divested himself of tie and suit jacket in record time, flopped down on the couch, grabbed the TV remote, and started flipping channels. Willow sat down in the armchair. After a moment she gave Tara a hopeful smile, and made a scootchy little sideways motion that said share?
Tara smiled back, nervous, but made no motion to sit down. "I—I need to get the dress off," she said. Willow's face fell, but she picked her smile up and pasted it back in place over her disappointment. Tara hurried upstairs and lingered over changing into a shapeless pullover and skirt as long as she could manage—which still wasn't a patch on Buffy, who was still in the bathroom when Tara finally forced herself downstairs again.
Everyone was still there; Dawn and Spike were wrestling for the remote and Willow had pulled her laptop out and was checking the end of one of her eBay auctions. It was all back to normal, wasn't it? Except that Xander may never walk again and Willow's dead. Tara swallowed, pried her fingers off the bannister, and started across the room. She could do this. She could. She was the calm one who always had it together, right? Willow was really trying. She needed help, and...OK. She could sit down. In the chair. With Willow. Touching Willow.
Willow's nervous, goofy little smile was still the same. She set the computer aside and shifted around so Tara could have half the chair, Willow's right leg draped over Tara's left. Willow's nose brushed her ear for a second. Was Willow smelling her? Was that a normal human shifting-position grunt or a creepy vampire noise? Willow settled back and Tara forced her tense muscles to relax. There. This wasn't so bad. She could put an arm around Willow's shoulder. Pull Willow's head against hers. Just like they used to do. Except Willow's chest doesn't rise and fall against her any longer, and Willow's heart doesn't beat in tandem with her own.
It would be okay, Tara told herself. She just had to ease into this.
"I've been working on what to tell my parents," Willow said. Her sharp inhalation to get the air to talk with made Tara's heart race. "I'm thinking porphyria." She nodded. Decisive Willow. "It's got pedigree, you know? Madness of King George, and plus? Versatile. All-purpose explanation for vampire OR werewolf."
"That might work," Tara said cautiously. Except that Willow's hand, tentatively resting on her arm, was still as chilly as the night outside had been.
Spike snorted. "Easier to tell 'em the truth."
Willow's eyes went saucery and she made a panicked little meeping noise. "Are you kidding? This is my mom. If I tell her I'm a vampire she'll just start talking about Sheridan LeFanu and the id and open the curtains on me or something."
Tara's fingers tightened on the arm of the chair, raising little clouds of upholstery dust from the worn brown fabric. Except Willow had almost gone up in flames stepping through a stray sunbeam.
Buffy tripped downstairs, wiping the last of the cold cream from her face; stripped of makeup, the only trace of last week's battle was a thin silver scar across her left cheekbone. She'd exchanged the chartreuse nightmare of a bridesmaid's dress for sweats, floppy pink T-shirt and toe socks. She swung round the newel post and back into the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, "You want anything, Spike?"
Spike looked up from his doomed search for meaning amidst the wasteland of after-midnight cable TV. "Yeh, long as you're up. Ooh, Changing Rooms."
Just an offhand thing, the way Buffy made the offer, the way Spike accepted it. Like it was normal. Willow perked up slightly. There hadn't been any blood at the wedding; at some point, Anya had given up on trying to satisfy the diverse dietary needs of her guests and gone with the chicken Kiev. "Maybe I could keep something down now," Willow said, with just the tiniest hint of wistful in her voice. "I think it was the buttercream that got me."
Tara remonstrated with herself. She should get up. She should offer to get her poor queasy lover (whom she hadn't touched in a week) some blood, because Willow was probably hungry (and could go wild and tear someone's throat out). She sat there, frozen.
Buffy emerged from the kitchen a minute or two later, set her coffee down on the nearest coaster and handed Spike his mug like it was Columbia's finest instead of stinking slaughterhouse run-off. She curled up beside him on the couch to thumb through the UC Sunnydale course catalog. Spike took a swallow of pig's blood and Buffy stretched up to kiss him. Her lips met his without the slightest flinch and came away tinged with red. Spike grinned and bent to lick the blood from her mouth. Tara's belly clenched. Buffy grinned back, and pulled his shirt up to blow raspberries on his stomach. Spike growled and rolled her over, and they were wrestling like kids, Buffy shrieking "No fair, no fair!" until they thumped off the couch and onto the floor and Tara couldn't take it any longer. She leaped to her feet and pressed her hands to her mouth to keep the screams inside and fled sobbing out into the night.
Buffy caught up with Tara half a block down Revello Drive; she was slumped against a winter-bare mulberry tree, her face buried in her arms, shoulders shaking. Sobs fell like mulberry leaves, thin and dry and tissue-paper fragile. "I can't do it. I c-can't. I still l-love her, I love her so m-much, but—she's dead." Uncomprehending grief underscored each word, a mourning for something she hadn't lost. "Willow's dead. I can feel it, every second. She doesn't breathe. She's cold all the time. I k-keep thinking—if I reach out and t-touch her, she'll be stiff. I keep waiting to smell the decay." She looked up at Buffy with swimming, reddened eyes and blinked tears away. "I'm afraid to get in the same bed with her because I keep th-thinking—I'm lying here next to a corpse. How do you d-do it, Buffy?"
Buffy jammed her hands deeper into the pockets of her yummy new shearling jacket—"For extra protection on those cold nights," Spike had said as she ripped the gold and silver wrapping paper off, with a tongue-curl that would have turned 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' into base innuendo. She scattered a drift of crackling brown leaves with the toes of one boot. "Just lucky enough to be born a kinky demon-infested necrophiliac, I guess."
Tara slid down the tree with a little moan. "I d-didn't mean it like that!"
"I know." Buffy sat down beside her with a sigh. The ground was damp and cold beneath its sparse covering of winter-killed grass. "I guess it helps that I never knew Spike or Angel when they were alive, but..." She'd thought Angel was alive when she'd first met him, though. Tara's reaction was one that she had the feeling she could never really understand; the difference between dead and undead was a palpable thing to her. Spike could be still as unbreathing stone and she could still feelhim humming along her nerve endings. Tara didn't have that, but she had other sensitivities, which were just as revolted at the presence of the undead as a Slayer's senses were excited. "It's... not the body. It's what's inside." She ventured a conspiratorial smile. "Besides, even the body part's not bad once you get used to it. The growling? Wicked sexy. And come July, believe me, lack of body temperature becomes a major selling point."
Tara shuddered. "I'll never get used to it," she said—not complaining, just a flat statement of fact. "I won't give up on her. As a friend, as—I just don't know if I can... be with her."
"I don't know if..." If she can be without you,Buffy thought, but didn't finish saying. The tension between Willow and Tara had taken a different shape than she'd imagined it would, and she wasn't sure if she could see the details well enough to poke at it without losing a finger.
By the time she coaxed Tara back to the house and delivered the damp and sniffly witch to the threshhold of her and Willow's room, the living room was deserted, and she could hear faint snores from Dawn's room. Buffy waited outside the door until she heard the soft interplay of voices inside, then went down the hall to the bathroom to grab a couple of Advil. The pleasant buzz she'd brought home from the reception champagne had transmuted itself into a slight headache. She shook the tablets into one hand and washed them down, staring thoughtfully at Mirror-Buffy. It was getting harder and harder to remember that Tara's reaction was the normal one.
Spike was waiting for her in her bedroom, lounging on top of the covers in nothing but his spectacles and a copy of Naked Lunch. Buffy wrinkled her nose; his idea of what constituted a good bedtime read was a far greater obstacle to potential happiness than the not-breathing thing. "You left the seat up."
He tipped his glasses down the aquiline length of his nose and surveyed her over the rims. "I use the loo twice a week, tops. Deal with it."
"I see the honeymoon is over." Buffy unfastened the clips from her hair and shook it down over her shoulders, turning on him with a stern look and an admonishing wave of her brush. "You will be punished suitably for the transgression, of course."
Spike closed his book with a slow, salacious grin, set his glasses on the nightstand, and stretched, all muscle and impudence. "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but whips and chains excite me. Tara all right?"
"Yeah. Well, no, but the hyperventilating's stopped." Buffy gave her hair one last stroke, stripped off her t-shirt, and crawled into bed beside him. She spent a minute playing with the settings on the electric blanket—one of the dual control ones, another Christmas present. They'd discovered by trial and error that keeping Spike's side on low kept him warm enough to alleviate the vampire heat sink effect. "I don't know what to do about it, and as far as vampire/human relationship counseling goes, it's either us with our record-breaking three-and-a-half weeks together, or the nearest vamp brothel."
Spike burrowed down under the blankets with a rumble of content and made himself at home with her body, wrapped around her like an affectionate boa constrictor. "Will's not in the best place herself," he murmured into her hair. His hand fitted itself to the curve of her hip, thumb inscribing little circles along the sacral arch. "Terrified she's going to bite the chit by accident." Genuine puzzlement crept into his voice. "She's got her soul. All she's got to do is listen to it."
"You may have forgotten this part, but sometimes? They don't talk all that loud." Buffy traced the knotted white scar tissue spiderwebbing his chest, watching the little quivers and twitches of his muscles beneath the tender new skin. "I hate to see a little thing like death come between a couple."
He chuckled and for awhile they lay in comfortable silence, curled up warm and drowsy together in the nest of blankets while Spike played with her tits—it was hard to get worked up about those few extra pounds when he was enjoying them so much. She should tell Tara about the electric blanket trick; it was the little things, sometimes, that made all the difference. Spike morphed into game face, rubbing one cheek and then the other against her breasts, the wild, deep vibration in his chest intensifying as her fingers massaged the convolutions of bone across his brow.
Buffy shifted position to capture Spike's face in her hands, watching the fangs recede and the sunrise gold of his eyes shade into midday blue. How could Tara not go for this? She felt a lingering doubt that she'd done the right thing. Willow deserved the chance to make amends...but would the stake have been kinder, in the end? No. Not this time. She had other gifts to give than death. Listen. Watch. It can be good, I promise. Not better, not worse, just different. I can tell you how to make her purr...
"You happy, love?" Spike murmured, thumbing a nipple.
"Mmmm?" She lipped the line of his jaw. "I am a very happy Buffy. What brings that on?"
He pulled her a little closer, fingers stroking up and down her upper arm with that light, sure touch that made her tingle in all the right places. And all the wrong ones. Equal-opportunity tingles. "Ah, well...Harris's wedding and all, got me thinking..."
He wasn't going to say something stupid about him being a vampire and her not, and it never working, was he? Oh, God, he was going to say exactly that because they always said that. And then ran off to L.A. when the apocalypse was over. Either Spike was running behind schedule or Anya's wedding must count as a minor apocalypse. Spike was looking at her, all earnest and Victorian, face at complete odds with the things his hands were doing. "You gave up a lot to be here with me, Buffy-love. Heaven, and...and so forth. The rest you'd earned. Felt you had to stay here to keep saving this sorry old world, because you're the Slayer. It bothers me, sometimes. Wish I felt worse about having you here, but I don't."
Relief washed over her in Point Break-sized waves, and Buffy almost laughed—but didn't, because Spike sounded so serious. "So you feel guilty about not feeling guilty?"
Spike propped his head up on one hand, mildly disgruntled, a stray curl skewing over one eye. "Well... yeh, when you put it that way, it sounds a bit daft."
She kissed the tip of his nose. "Well, stop it. I'm not saving the world because I'm the Slayer. I'm saving the world because... because I'm Buffy."
He rolled her over, eyes dancing. "Ah, I see. Big difference."
She'd told Dawn once the hardest thing in life was to live in it, and she hadn't changed her mind about that, but she'd forgotten the important part. The harder something was, the better it felt when you finally started to get it right. "Actually? Yeah, it is."
They lived together for eight wonderful years, until—
Soft, sex-drenched growl. Heavy-lidded cornflower eyes. "What d'you think you're doing, Slayer?"
Limited ethics, and infinite heart.
Neither one of them was who they'd been, and it remained to be seen what they were becoming. She had no idea how it would end. Only the conviction that, doom or joy, they'd be facing it together. Buffy lifted her mouth to his, tasting...mint-flavored toothpaste. And underneath, always, the hint of blood and smoke, of something wild and dangerous and hers.
"Getting it right," she whispered.