All About Spike

Chapter: 1  2  3  4  Epilogue

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.

Continued in Part Two

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