All About Spike
Chapter: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7

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The Red Macula
By Dana Woods

Sequel to Elysium; part of After the Opera

Disclaimer: The characters/concepts of BtVS belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, and everyone else who makes money from the show. The rest is mine. Ooh, I bet Joss is jealous.

Author's Note: This is a sequel to my fic "Elysium" and won't make much sense unless you've read that. So, why don't you? Title for this story taken from a D.H. Lawrence poem of the same name.



Prologue

I'm dreaming.

I'm sitting on bench, and my hand is being crushed. I cry out from the pain, knowing that I have to take it, because I can't give this crazy hellgoddess what she wants. Then my mind is not mine anymore, and I give her what she wants because I'm hers.

I'm back in my head again. My lover is dead, and I'm trying to pretend that I don't have the memory of killing her, even though I do and even though I can feel her magic churning within me. Spike is carrying me from Glory's tower, despite his injuries and exhaustion, and I want nothing more than to have not survived.

I'm lost within myself and so are Dawn and Giles. Everyone else is gone, and I want to know what happened to the others, but I already know what happened to Willow and that's enough. Only Spike remembers that our grief doesn't stop what goes on in the rest of the world, the rest of this town, and he does what we can't because of a promise he made.

I'm at Willow's grave, trying to find her and reach her, still not wanting the truth to be true, and Spike comes to get me as usual. That mismatched magic in me doesn't react to him and I curl on top of him and rest, just rest.

I'm at a mental hospital and there is a man trying to find out where Willow's power went, because his demon boss wants it for himself. I pull myself together by force of will alone and leave the place that has been my escape.

I'm globetrotting with Spike, gathering clues and insight and components for a ritual that will keep anyone from getting Willow's power. The truth gets harder to avoid and I've almost fallen apart by the time we return to Sunnydale.

I'm in the middle of the ritual and about to break under the stress of facing what I've done, and a mirage appears before me, tempting me down a path that I shouldn't tread. Spike is there, a voice of reason that penetrates my grief-stricken haze, and I can see clearly again.

I'm admitting, finally, that I was the one who took Willow's life, and then she's there. My darling Willow, brought back to this world in all of her corporeal glory by the one who rules the destiny of the dead. She forgives me, she loves me, and she takes her power back from me.

I'm outside of the building that Giles used to live in, standing next to Spike. He's leaving, and as much as I want him to stay, I know he has to go.

I'm dreaming, and I'm with Willow. She's holding my hand as we walk from scene to scene. We do this a lot, me and this figment Willow of my dreams.

"When Xander and I were young, I hated horror movies," she tells me. "I couldn't watch them."

We're still walking, and there is nothing around us, just empty, void space. But Willow's at my side and that's all that matters right now.

"I'd squeeze my eyes shut really tight and put my hands over my face." She leans towards me and admits, from the corner of her mouth, "If there were sounds, I'd bury my head against the couch so I couldn't hear, either."

"They're scary," I say. "Especially since we know that it's not all made up."

"Xander would pull my hands away, to try to make me watch," Willow remembers. "But I was too scared. He really wanted me to partake of them with him, so he spent an entire summer helping me get over it. First, he would let me close my eyes, but I'd have to listen. Then he'd turn the volume down, so that I could watch it without sound. Then it was both."

She slows us to a stop and I notice we're in the living room of the apartment that I share with Faith. The one that used to be Giles'. "Before school started again, I was able to watch a movie from start to finish, with minimal eye closing."

I already know this. She told me one Halloween when Xander gathered us all for a horror movie fest. But I never made the connection between that story and what she and I do in my dreams. She's been taking me through it all, over and over again, until I could remember it all with only minimal eye closing. Or, rather, I've been taking myself through it.

"Will, I'm worried," I tell her as we sit on the couch. Faith comes through the door, taking off her shoes and jacket before heading straight for the kitchen.

Willow gets this pouty look on her face that used to make me scoot closer and kiss her. It still does, and when we break apart she rolls her eyes. "It was a good kiss, but not good enough to make me forget that you've become great friends with my mortal enemy," she complains.

"Hey," I chide her. "She's changed, and you know it."

"Fine, fine," she grumbles.

The door opens again, and this time Spike walks in. He moves like a zombie, stiff and strained, and his face is blank and empty. He goes to the center of the room and stands there, as though waiting for something.

Faith comes out of the kitchen, a plate of food in her hands, and she sees Spike. Frowning, she walks to him and brings a bite of chicken parmesan to her mouth. "What are you doing here?" she asks him while she chews.

"I don't know," he answers flatly. "What are you doing here?"

"It's what I've gotta do, you know?" she answers honestly.

There are footsteps on the stairs, and I turn to see Faith's Watcher, Olson, and his boyfriend, Josh, come rushing down the steps. Spike jerks his chin in our direction. "I meant, what are you doing here with them?"

"There you are, Faith, we were so worried," Olson exclaims. "Are you all right?"

"Where've you been?" Josh adds.

Faith and Spike stare at each other. "You should answer them," Spike suggests.

Faith shrugs. "If I answer them, they'll just ask something else. It's a fucking vicious cycle."

"So why are you here with them if they ask you so many questions?" he asks again.

"Because not answering is better than not being asked," she says immediately.

Everyone is gone, suddenly, and it's just Willow and me again. She's looking at the spot where Faith was standing. "Do you think you guys will ever stop asking?" Willow wants to know.

"Maybe," I confess. "She's, uh, really good at making you want to stop."

Her eyes flicker to me. "It's been a while since you've heard from Spike," she says idly.

I nod. "Since three days after he left."

"Sometimes things just settle on their own," Willow reminds me.

I shake my head. "But most of the time they don't," I say sadly.



Chapter One

I know this isn't a good idea. In fact, I've never been more positive about anything in my life.

Sneaking a peek at Olson and Josh, I see the same knowledge in their eyes. The Watcher is staring at the table, his face tight. He's trying to figure out how to say it's a bad idea without making Faith mad. Josh simply looks panicked.

We're at my and Faith's apartment, sitting at the dining table just under the cutout that looks into the kitchen. It's exactly big enough for the four of us, but there's a leaf we can insert when there are additional guests. Which there generally aren't. None of us seem to socialize all that much outside of our little group.

As one, they guys turn to me, pleading silently for intervention. I wouldn't say that I'm the peacemaker of our little group. More like...the one who can phrase the truth in the best way, with the softest voice, and blinking the wide eyes that equate getting mad at me with kicking a puppy. At least, that's what Josh told me last week. I don't know if it's true, but I'm about to test his theory.

I sigh and clear my throat. "Um, Faith?"

She looks up from the book she's studying, head tilted cockily to the side. "Yeah, babe?"

"This is, um, a bad idea?" I say. It sounds like a question, and I bite my lip. I'd meant it to come out a little more firmly than that.

She frowns, her head tilting to the side. "Bad idea? The fuck it is. It's solid, Tara."

Faith isn't stupid. She thinks that she is, because she never got to finish high school, but I think she believes that knowledge is the same as intelligence, and it's not. Plenty of people know a lot of things, but they're not smart. Faith is. The only thing that might make someone question that is that she tends to jump without looking. But she'll only do it once. The problem with that is that she has to take a fall to learn the lesson, and sometimes falls can hurt.

"Sweetie, you're not domestic," I say, meeting her eyes. "I really don't think you should try to tackle--" I lean forward and read the title on the page she's looking at. "--Chocolate Truffle Torte." The question that I know is on all of our minds slips out without my meaning it to. "And why were you watching, um, Martha Stewart Living anyway?"

It turns out this is a good thing. Faith gets embarrassed when she's caught doing "girly" things, and despite the fact that she announced she wants to make this torte, she still squirms uncomfortably at the question. "There was nothing else on, all right?" she mutters. "And since you're getting Christmas, I figured there should be chocolate."

There's a huge chunk of vulnerability in Faith that I get soft over. She doesn't let it out often, and when she does, I'm a sucker for it. Which was why I started this whole Christmas thing. Sure, I've kind of let her believe it's for me, but only out of necessity. Sometimes the tough people just need an excuse to be all mushy and. When I found out that she doesn't have even one good Christmas memory, and decided that it was about time she got a few, I had to find a way to become the excuse.

After a day or two of thought, I casually reminded her that I spent last Christmas in a mental institution. It didn't really take much more than that to start her on this holiday campaign, though now I'm wondering if maybe I should have insisted on organizing it from the get-go.

Josh and Olson apparently agree with that thought; they're glaring at me right now. I kind of understand where they're coming from. Faith in the kitchen is something I don't want to contemplate if she's using an appliance other than the microwave. She's easily distracted and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that a fire might result.

"Chocolate," I repeat. She's looking anywhere but at the three of us. I've been living with her since I came back to Sunnydale, staying in Spike's old room, and I've gotten to know her pretty well. She's about to do an abrupt about-face.

"Look, you're right. It's stupid," she says brusquely. "I don't know what I was thinking."

I'm not so soft that I'll let her in the kitchen, but... "I think we can manage chocolate," I say quietly. "In fact, I think it'll be perfect. We couldn't have chocolate at the hospital; something about getting us worked up."

I look at Olson and Josh, just a quick, skittish, upwards glance. They are apparently not into kicking puppies because they look resigned. Faith is back to being the ringleader for my Christmas. Perfect.

Reevaluating my original plan, I divvy up the Christmas tasks. Olson and I will be doing the food and the all-important torte. I assign Josh and Faith with getting everything we'll need to have a festive--yet decorous--apartment. Neither Olson nor Josh seems overly pleased about any of this. They're both Scrooges to begin with, and I also think they find holiday cheer to be, um, tacky.

Personally, I think that's the whole point. I also think that we're all in desperate need of holiday cheer of the tacky variety. Faith and I traded war stories one night. I think hers are worse. She thinks mine are. Either way, we bonded over them and a carton of Haagen Daaz Swiss Almond Vanilla ice cream. By morning we understood each other a little better, and were left with a carton of vanilla ice cream that no longer contained even a single chocolate covered almond.

The guys haven't shared their stories, but they don't have to. If Josh or Olson have any family to speak of, they don't. We're all we have. Dawnie and Giles are removed from things nowadays and none of us know if we'll ever see Spike again.

With Christmas sorted out, we settle down to the purpose of our little get together: dinner. Which is sitting on the kitchen counter getting colder by the minute. Josh literally pushes me back into my chair when I try to stand up, and strolls into the kitchen to bring it in.

The meal is dominated by Faith and Josh, who bicker like siblings and debate the merits of the latest underground techno release they got last week; Faith thinks it's uninspired while Josh thinks it's brilliant. Olson and I are sitting across from each other, and we grin at one another and let them go at it. I guess we're kind of the adults to Faith and Josh's children.

Of course, that's kind of an ooky sentiment since Josh and Olson are, um, together. I guess it's better to say that we're the mature ones. Tonight we're left to act as the audience to the immature ones.

It's nice for us to all be together when there's nothing bad going on, and I use the opportunity to simply watch.

Josh is just about the prettiest man I've ever seen. He's a study of complimenting brown coloring. His smooth, porcelain-like skin is carefully tanned in a booth so that it perfectly accents his light brown hair, which he has cut so that it falls onto his face just so and lends him an ingénue quality. Pale brown eyes shine against the darker browns of his hair and skin, and are rimmed with lashes so thick that women have stopped him in the street and asked if he uses mascara.

He's got these full lips, fleshy cheeks and delicately arched brows, but because of the strong jaw line, his features are saved from seeming feminine. Still, they're more pretty than they are handsome, which is just the way he likes it.

It's not just what's above the neck that's pretty. Josh spends a lot of time at the gym doing all manner of new and trendy exercises that keep his long-limbed body strong but not too muscled. Bulging muscles would interrupt the line of his clothes, he once told me. I'm not really sure what that means, exactly, but the end result is a streamlined runner's physique that he assures me is just made for see-through shirts and low riding pants.

Olson, on the other hand, is attractive in an altogether different manner. His features are rather aquiline and refined in appearance, the result of his wealthy, good looking family marrying into other wealthy, good looking families for several generations. His eyes are a muddy green that seem really dark and opaque against his bronze skin, and he keeps his golden hair cut conservatively.

Unlike Josh, he isn't averse to muscles, though they're not outrageously bulging. His shoulders are broad, and his chest is wide and well defined. I've seen him without a shirt a time or two, during training sessions with Faith, and he's got abs that a lot of people spend thousands of dollars on goofy gadgets to get. He doesn't use any gadgets, though, just does something like a thousand crunches a day. My abdomen hurts just thinking about it. Faith says that he's got arms to die for, and I guess I have to admit they are nice to look at, with their sinuous curves and dips. But they really don't do anything for me.

They make a wonderful couple despite that, at thirty-two, Olson is twelve years older than Josh. It makes me smile to see how demonstrative the usually reserved Olson can be with Josh, and it's charming how Josh will sometimes just fuss and fret over Olson. They genuinely love one another and both of them have been around the block enough to know how rare a relationship like that can be.

I was actually a little creeped out when Spike first told me that Faith's Watcher was gay. Sounds strange since I'm gay and all. But the only Watcher I'd ever known was Giles, and suddenly all I could see in my head was a gay Giles. Which wouldn't have been all that creepy, except that things just kind of went where I really didn't want them to go after that. Giles and, um...lube are two things that I really never needed to think about in the same thought, what with him being a father figure and all. I still feel kind of unclean.

But the fact is, Giles and Olson are nothing alike. There's the most obvious difference of nationality. Olson is as American as they come and he doesn't believe in keeping a stiff upper lip. He's also a lot more laid-back than Giles is, as long as there isn't something pressing that needs to be handled. There's the age difference, as well. Ten years make a big difference. Around Giles, I always feel like a child, but with Olson there's no question that I'm an adult. He's more of a peer than an authority figure, but he can still easily command our respect.

Faith in this setting is nothing like what I heard about from Willow and the others, or what I briefly experience when she switched bodies with Buffy. She's relaxed and easy-going, trading jabs with Josh and laughing over silly things. There's nothing of the intense, troubled girl she once was, with the dark streak that couldn't be contained. I've seen her come even more out of her shell since I've been living with her, and I think she's just amazing and strong.

When we finish eating, Olson helps me clear the table and Faith heads out for patrol. Once the kitchen has been cleaned up, Josh and Olson begin to gather their belongings. On the way out, Josh pulls me into a hug, then steps back and winks.

"You're doing a good thing for her, Witchy McWitch," he says approvingly, and I know he's talking about my Christmas scheme.

He trips out the door, and Olson rubs his hand along my arm and admits, "He's right. She needs it."

Actually, in the grand scheme of what Faith needs, this is nothing. A mere crumb compared to a loaf of bread. Sometimes I worry that it's not humanly possible to give her what she needs, but I keep trying. The guys do their part too, but the opportunities arise more frequently for me because we share the apartment.

Olson gestures at Josh to wait a minute, and then he steps back inside and closes the door. "Tara," he says softly. "You are probably one of the most caring and nurturing people I've ever met."

He smiles and takes my hand. Olson isn't an overly touchy-feely person, but sometimes he'll go a little crazy. "I don't think any of us knew how much we needed that until you came along," he admits, and then gives me a solemn look. "But you're putting too much pressure on yourself."

When it comes to Faith, he means. He's right, and I know it. My hand tightens around his and I don't know what there is to say on the subject. We both know that not doing anything is out of the question.

"Do you have another suggestion?" I ask Olson, knowing that he doesn't. I squeeze his hand again before telling him to take Josh home.



Three days later I'm patrolling with Faith. This isn't common occurrence. Faith says she prefers patrolling alone, but I've heard that Spike used to go with her a lot. I think it's more that Faith is worried that she won't be fast enough, or good enough, to keep one of us from being hurt.

Olson will pull rank and go with her despite her objections. To observe her, he says. It's more like he's concerned about how much time she has to spend killing things by herself. That's not good for anyone. Josh is totally banned from going with her unless it's an emergency that requires everyone to take up a weapon. He might be allowed out with her more often once he actually gets the black belt in Tai Kwon Do that he's been trying to get for months now. Oh, and when he can hit a bulls eye with a stake eight out of ten times.

The only reason I've been granted permission to come along every two weeks, even though I'm four for ten with the stakes on a good day, is because I can protect myself with magic to an extent. When Willow's power was in me, I annihilated about twenty vampires with one word and sent demons crawling away from me with tears in their eyes. But I called Willow from the dead, and she took the power back with her to wherever she is. What I'm capable of is infinitely less powerful than that.

Olson at one point suggested that I develop my magic further, along the lines of what Willow had done. That's when I found out that Giles doctored some of his Watcher's reports towards the end. I had to explain to Olson what I only vaguely remembered hearing about and seeing. That Willow's power had grown so exponentially because she tapped into black magic to take Glory on after I was attacked. That I felt the darkness of it when it was passed on to me when Willow died.

I'm a natural witch. The innate magic I have can grow stronger, but there will always be limitations because white magic is governed by boundaries that black magic isn't. I won't traverse that path. Living with Willow's magic was enough to take away any temptation I might have ever had. Destruction was so easy when it was with me, so alluring. Chaos and death should never be so effortless.

So I can parlay a dozen parlor tricks into something useful, and I've gotten not-so-horrible at self-defense thanks to lessons Faith gives me when she's bored and there's nothing interesting on television. (She thinks that maybe I'll be ready to progress to offensive moves in about twenty years.) Thus, I am worthy of huffing and puffing my way through gloomy cemeteries with a hyper Slayer bounding ahead of me, excess energy just crackling off of her.

We're on our final cemetery of the evening and we're getting ready to head to the Bronze. The kitchen doesn't close for several more hours and we're going to stuff our faces with cheeseburgers and hot wings. After that, Faith will probably hit the dance floor like a one-woman party and I will put my feet up on her vacated chair and revel in not moving. She'll most likely bounce back over long enough to encourage me to go talk to the pretty Asian woman in my European History class. Her name is Liann, and she seems to spend all of her free time at the Bronze and she also seems to makes it a point to flirt with me every time she sees me.

I don't know if I'm ready for anything yet, but Faith doesn't realize that not everyone can just "get their rocks off" without any strings attached. Since I can't, I just acknowledge Liann's interest without leading her on.

But before all that, there's some trouble to take care of. Namely, the ten vampires that have just come out of nowhere and surrounded us. Literally out of nowhere. One second they weren't there, and the next second they were.

"This isn't good," Faith mutters at my side. No, it really isn't.

Further discussion of the badness is put on hold when the vamps come at us, all at once. I dodge out of the way, standing behind a tombstone and start casting my parlor tricks, my hands tracing through the air calmly as I study the situation. Immobilizing ten at once is too much, so I confuse the ones on the outer edge of the fight, and freeze two close to Faith. She dusts the two by her in three seconds flat, and takes out two more vampires who are stumbling around with glazed looks in their eyes.

Another shakes the cobwebs out of his head and comes for me. The shield I hastily erect isn't very strong, but it doesn't have to be. Faith is on him before he can punch through it, and then there's nothing but small grains of dust left in his place.

There are five left now and I'm more comfortable with those odds. I hold off on any more casting, because Faith actually likes pummeling them. Just a few minutes later there are no vamps left. Faith spins around, a wide grin on her face.

"Hella fun," she laughs.

There's something undeniably primal about Faith at times like these. It's like she's in touch with forces the rest of us aren't. Her urges are in her eyes for everyone to see, unabashedly acknowledged and heeded. She's raw and sensual and violent and soft all at once, and it makes my skin tingle. I feel sly and female, and capable of just about anything.

She runs to me, stopping on the other side of the headstone and staring at me with dark eyes. I'm laughing for some strange reason, and she's grinning with some kind of animal satisfaction. She reaches over to lift me to her side of the grave marker, and then we're running fast and hard. I'm not out of breath at all because there are times when that energy of hers is tangible. In these moments, everything is right in the world because we're women and we're strong and we've just, um, kicked ass.

Faith sees them before I do. She quickens her stride for two steps and then tugs my hand so that I'm behind her. I slam into her frozen form and she doesn't even wince. She's like a wall that I bounce off of with a pathetic "oomph" noise. I release her hand and peer over her shoulder, and I exhale every bit of air from my lungs in a show of surprise.

There are four men in front of us. One of them isn't actually here. I can tell because the light from the moon shines through him when he steps out of the shadows. He is ancient. An old so old that I can see the millennia in his forest green eyes, even in astral form. Hair as dark as shadows falls to his shoulders, parted carelessly down the center, the ends touching a black leather cord that hangs around his neck. From the leather dangles a circle of obsidian, and there is a dog carved or painted on it.

He is Khentimentiu, and some believe him to be a god. He denies this, but I have my doubts. Sure, he may say that he was simply a shapeshifter who was called into a post by the Powers that Be, who then also made him a vampire so that he could more easily rule the destiny of the dead, but... Let's just say that there are sharp secrets buried deep in the soft moss of his eyes.

The men, who are actually corporeal, are his Keepers. Spike said they registered as human to him, but I also doubt this. If they are human, I'd say that they've been given some extra abilities to better able them to protect Khentimentiu.

Mosi is the de facto leader of the three. He has dark brown hair, and the same moss green eyes that Khentimentiu has. There are several gold hoops in each of his ears that don't look the least bit feminine when paired with his bare, muscled chest.

Gahiji doesn't talk much, and I've always gotten the feeling that he is truly the muscle of the three. I don't know if there is a word for how dark he is, how black his skin and hair are. Sometimes, the light reflects blue off of him. Khentimentiu's hair is the same black as Gahiji's, but of a different texture.

Lisimba is the third, and he's kind of my favorite. Less businesslike than the others. There's something soft and nice in his eyes, and there really shouldn't be because he's like a big cat. The bronze sun-kissed color of his skin matches Khentimentiu's, and set against his tawny hair and amber eyes, I can only think of the lions that I've seen on The Learning Channel. He's always relaxed, like he's sunning on a rock, but lions can jump into action pretty fast according to TLC.

Faith knows who they are. When I performed the Cerno, the ritual to get rid of Willow's magic, Khentimentiu was there. I had to call upon him and ask that he bring her back, as flesh and blood, with her soul intact. He did that, and he let me have a few minutes with her before I got around to asking her to take her magic from me. Faith's more than capable of putting two and two together and realizing that the three men are his Keepers.

So Faith knows who they are, but she's still wary. And with good reason, because Khentimentiu once implied that vampires--being the undead--were under his dominion, and we just had ten of them appear out of thin air.

"Nefer, it's a pleasure as always," Khentimentiu intones, bowing gracefully. Nefer, he told me when we first met, means good or beautiful. He's something of a charmer and he always seems to be hiding a smirk when he makes me blush.

"Um, hi," I say hesitantly, waving. I look at the Keepers and smile. They dip their heads politely, and only Lisimba smiles back. "What's--why are you here?"

I don't try to step around Faith, because I know she won't let me. In fact, it's a small wonder that she's letting me speak right now. She can be a bit controlling when there's danger.

Khentimentiu raises a brow at Faith's protective posture in front of me. "I was hoping I could have a moment alone with you," he tells me politely.

"Yeah, I don't think so," Faith answers. I can feel her stiffen and I sigh. "You want to talk to her, you can do it here. In front of me." She tilts her head to the side, and there's a small pause before she amends that statement. "With me in front of her, in case another bunch of fanged fucks suddenly show up."

See, she's smart. If only she would believe it.

"If I wanted nefer dead--which I most assuredly do not--then there would be little you could do to stop me, Slayer," Khentimentiu says icily

"Khentimentiu," I say quickly, forestalling whatever rude comeback Faith is about to fling at him. "What do you need to talk to me about? And why, uh, alone?"

He smiles knowingly and I'm reminded of the first time I met him, and how it was Spike I was trying to keep from angering him. I smile back at him, and chuckle a little.

"I didn't mean to ruffle your protector's feathers," he says, his face growing serious once again. "I would have chosen another time, but it's not only my schedule that had to be accommodated."

I frown in confusion. "Who else is supposed to be here?"

He doesn't have to answer my question, because it's answered by a new arrival. Proserpina, or Persephone to the Greeks, ate pomegranate seeds in the Underworld and was bound to it for life. The pomegranate in question was brought from the Underworld to Florence, the Tuscany countryside, and is guarded by a really nice woman named Marianna.

One of the perks of eating the seeds is that a person can travel through the passageways of the dead. I used them a couple of times before the Cerno nullified the effects, and it was very...strange. I felt like I was getting stretched and stretched, one half of me staying where I was until the other half of me got where I was going.

So I'm not surprised when I see half of Marianna appear, the rest of her a blur that snaps back in place when she's fully out of the passageway. She looks young, but from what she told me, she's at least centuries old. Her brown hair is long, swinging at her waist as she moves to Khentimentiu's side. It's obvious she is of Italian descent, with the strongly arched, thick eyebrows set over dark eyes. Her skin is a pale olive color, and her nose a little hooked. I find it soothing to be in her presence, but something about her raised Spike's hackles when we met her in Florence, and I've learned to trust his predator's instincts.

"Hello, Tara, it's nice to see you again," she says in English and I grimace a little. I struggled to remember Italian when I was in Florence so that we could communicate, and here I find it wasn't necessary. Her English is flawless.

Faith has tensed up again. "That's Marianna," I say quietly. "She's...um, she's the one who looks after the pomegranate. She helped me and Spike."

"If you think that's going to calm me down, then you're wrong," Faith drawls. Her voice is hard and suspicious, and I think she's probably glaring at the beings in front of us. "Because with this fun filled reunion going on, I'm wondering when that German bitch is going to show up."

That makes me flinch. In Germany, I had to get the Immortal Essence from a crone in the catacombs under Berlin. In return, she forced me to relieve my worst memory--that of coming back into my head after Glory was dead and finding Willow's body.

"It's about Spike," Khentimentiu tells me, and it's my turn to tense.

Moving suddenly, I'm able to get around Faith and take a couple of steps to the others. "What about him?" I ask, and my voice is laced with concern.

"Damn it, Tara, would you stay behind me?" Faith snaps. She grabs my arm and I pull it back to me, not breaking her grip because she's the Slayer, but surprising her with the resistance. When I turn to look at her, she narrows her eyes a little then lets go. "Or stay right there," she adds, tossing her hands up in frustration. People have begun telling me that I'm stubborn, and I think they might be right.

I look back at Khentimentiu and his Keepers and Marianna. "What about Spike?" I ask again, but I don't think they hear me because Faith speaks at the exact same time, and her voice is louder.

"Do you know why Spike left?" Faith demands of Khentimentiu, who nods. "Do you know where he is?" He nods again and she looks like she's preparing to start demanding answers.

I take a deep breath. "Faith, I need to talk to them. Please?"

"No fucking way," she says, and there's little room for negotiation in her voice. "We don't even know if he's telling the truth." She tosses her hair and gets this funny cross between a frown and a glare on her face. I call it a glown, but I've never told her this.

Her eyes move from me, and I know they've settled on Khentimentiu. The look on her face isn't pleasant. In fact, it's a little threatening. "Spike's one of ours, and we look out for our own. Tell me what's going on," she hisses at the god.

I've got this theory about Khentimentiu. I think that he's into the kowtowing he used to get when he was worshipped widely as a god. I think that's why he likes me. Every time we've met I've been submissive and...well, not worshipful, but I definitely give him the respect he feels he deserves. His patience with behavior to the contrary is slim at best, and Faith has just pushed every wrong button he has.

"Spike is mine," he growls at her, and when I glance at him I see his face slide into its vampiric visage. It's like none I've seen before, all twisted and garbled so that it resembles nothing human whatsoever. "I rule his destiny, create it with my will and my caprice, and his association with you is at my discretion. You will do well to remember that."

The situation has escalated and I can sense the violence brewing. Faith doesn't back down from challenges, and Khentimentiu is looking forward to an altercation; his eyes shift from the bright gold of a vampire's into something more amber and canine-like, and his lips are curled back from his fangs in a snarl.

His Keepers, flanking him, have straightened up and are inching closer. Marianna is inching further away. I'm standing in between the two and my heart is about ready to burst out of my chest, it's pounding so hard. Even though there's nothing Faith can do to Khentimentiu in his current astral form, his Keepers will treat any move she makes as a threat, and she's going to make a move.

"Stop it!" I exclaim. "Goodness, the two of you..." I don't have words that won't get both of them angry with me, so I sigh instead and turn so that I can look at each of them. "Khentimentiu, you could have come to me when I was alone, but you didn't. Did you expect, um, something else to happen with her here?"

That snarl is directed at me now, but logic seems to be seeping into his otherworldly eyes. Faith's lips slide into a smirk and I scowl at her. I take a moment before I speak, because dealing with Faith is akin to traversing a minefield: one must tread carefully to keep all of one's limbs, and one must prevent the minefield itself from self-destructing.

"Spike's in trouble," I remind her gently. "Khentimentiu brought Marianna with him so that we--or I--can get to him quickly." My eyebrows rise. "He's helping."

Faith rolls her shoulders, and blows out a breath. "Yeah. Okay." She looks Khentimentiu straight in the eye, no shame or embarrassment. "Sorry about that." Simple, but sincere. The god seems to find this acceptable; his face ripples and then changes back to human. He dips his head in acknowledgement and acceptance, but apparently deems the situation to be unworthy of an apology from him.

His Keepers stand down, fading into the background of the scene, of the conversation, like good bodyguards. Marianna keeps her distance, and I understand her caution.

"But there's no way I'm leaving you here alone with them," Faith announces, her voice hard as steel.

There's no arguing with that voice, and I know better than to try. I gaze imploringly at Khentimentiu, and his mouth tightens the smallest fraction before he nods stiffly. "Very well."

"What's going on?" My voice is small and afraid, and I really wish I could project the cool confidence that Faith can rather then conveying every emotion I'm feeling.

"Spike needs your assistance, nefer," Khentimentiu says carefully.

"What kind of assistance?" I ask him curiously.

His eyes crease in amusement. "The kind that you are infused with."

I have no idea what that's supposed to mean. "Oh. Um, all right," I say slowly, conveying my utter confusion. The god's lips twitch briefly. "But why I only me?"

He lifts a hand and tips it from side to side. "I debated for a long while on what to do for him," he confesses. "In the end, it came down to my trusting you. I've seen you and Spike together, seen what the two of you are willing to do for one another."

I fidget a little uncomfortably. That was before we both finally came to terms with the events of the fight with Glory. "Things have kind of...changed," I mutter.

"Things always change," Khentimentiu replies. I glance at him and see a very solemn look on his face. "But no matter how much you and he have changed, how much the situation has changed, one thing is the same." I wait expectantly, and he drills into me with those old eyes of his. "Spike is yours."

I blink, a little stunned. Khentimnetiu once thought that I'd tethered Spike to me with magic, which wasn't the case, but it's true that I think of Spike as mine. However, I'm more than a little confused by Khentimentiu's casual statement of this fact, given his temper tantrum when Faith said basically the same thing.

The god's eyes are still intense, and I frown as I try to figure out what makes my claim different from Faith's

I remember a warm night in Cairo, when I met the Keepers for the very first time. Khentimentiu sent himself into Lisimba and addressed me, asked me why I walked with a vampire. I told Khentimentiu that Spike was my friend, that I trusted him. All of it was, and still is, true. But at the time I didn't see that it wasn't as simple as that.

"Spike is mine?" I repeat quietly, and Khentimentiu nods. "Um, how come you're not all..." I wave my hand vaguely, not sure how to ask why he isn't growling about his will and caprice again.

There is a soft smile pulling at Khentimentiu's lips now, and his eyes are warm and gentle. When he speaks, his voice is hushed, and I know what he's going to say before he says it. "You love him."

I look away, because when he says it like that, it sounds, um, romantic. That's not how it is between Spike and I. We barely spoke to or noticed each other before that night the people we loved died. But after, in that disjointed chaos of time that followed, nothing was the same, least of all us.

During that summer, I got to see a different side of Spike. He was exhausted by everything, and none of his "I'm a big, bad vampire" shields were up. Dawn and Giles had crawled so far into their pain that they didn't notice. But I did and I reacted to it. Instead of raising those shields again, he let them go even more. Maybe because I was insane and broken, and he didn't see any harm in it. Or maybe it was because he just didn't have the energy.

As for me, insanity had stripped so very much away from me. There was very little that wasn't on display for anyone to see, but Spike was the only one who did. The more he saw, the more I showed, until he'd seen it all.

I know what he is. But I also know that he didn't have to make that promise to Buffy, or take me to the park so that I could ride the swings, or turn down blood that I freely offered him, or come after me when I went off to gather everything for the Cerno. He chose to do all of those things, and I think that him being who and what he is makes those choices all the more noteworthy.

So, yes, I love him. It's not something familial or friendly, and it's definitely not the "in love with" type of love. It's something that I've never bothered trying to find words for, because I think it's a little more complicated than that.

"This is all very touching," Faith snorts, drawing my attention.

I have to keep myself from sighing loudly when I see her face. Faith doesn't know it, and would deny it to anyone foolish enough to tell her, but she's riddled with insecurities. Right now, she is taking refuge behind a façade of "I don't give a damn" because she's just learned that I love Spike, and she thinks that I don't love her. It's nonsense, of course.

She wanders a little bit away, pulling out a stake and absently tossing it up and down, no longer paying attention to even the Keepers.

I look away from Faith and smile at Khentimentiu. "Thank you," I say sincerely. He tilts his head to the side, his eyes questioning. "For letting me know he needs help, and bringing Marianna here."

His face clears and he shakes his head. "You are doing me a favor," he avers. "One that I won't forget."

I take this to mean he thinks he's in my debt, but in my mind I'm the one who still owes him. He very well could have insisted that Willow and I have no interaction other than what was required when I performed the Cerno. Not to mention that he made sure Spike knew what I needed to do in order to succeed.

He doesn't say anything else, and my eyes move from him to Marianna. "Um, I need to get some stuff," I say, because I don't know if the plan was for me to leave right now. "Oh, and I have to talk to the others before I go."

"I'm in no rush," Marianna assures me.

Khentimentiu approaches me and stares at me with inscrutable eyes. His mouth opens, but then his gaze flickers to Faith and he closes it again. "Good luck," he says, and then he fades from sight, and his Keepers do the same.

"Why don't you, um, call the others and have them meet us at our place?" I suggest to Faith.

"Yeah, all right," she says blandly, putting the stake away and pulling out her cell phone.

I officially introduce her to Marianna after she calls Olson and Josh--apparently interrupting them during some, um, bonding time, if I hear her end of the conversation correctly. It's going to be a real party when we get to the apartment.

"Come on, let's go," Faith says, starting down the path that leads to the entrance.

She's put her back to me while I'm with someone she doesn't trust and this time I don't bother trying to hold my sigh back. I'm only one person and I have limited resources. Worrying about Spike and soothing Faith's feelings are a little too much for me at the moment.

Marianna gives me a sympathetic look and we follow after the Slayer. Faith doesn't show any interest in lessening the distance between us, and I'm too busy thinking to strike up conversation with Marianna, so we're a silent trio.

I'm going to Spike. Josh and Olson aren't going to be happy about it, and they'll probably try to either change my mind, or get Marianna to agree to let one of them join me. Neither of those things is going to happen. In a way, Faith being in this kind of mood will help me out. She isn't going to allow herself to show any interest in the matter, and her opposition to my going will be left unvoiced.

Of course, that brings my already troubled thoughts back to her, and I raise a hand to my face and rub my forehead. Maybe I can do something to reassure her before I leave, and get her back to feeling like she did an hour ago when we were running through the cemetery. That reminds me of the vampires that appeared out of thin air. Hm. I'll be leaving the others in the middle of a possible crisis. Maybe this thing with Spike won't take long.

Sometimes I want to take up drinking.

When we get to the apartment, Olson and Josh are just pulling up in Olson's SUV.
Grumpy doesn't even begin to cover the foul look Josh tosses in our direction, but Olson narrows his gaze first on Faith, then on me, before murmuring something to his partner. Josh frowns at us and pushes his hair from his forehead.

"What's the problem?" Olson asks Faith, his voice careful as he takes in Marianna's presence.

She grunts and starts towards the door of our apartment, knowing we'll all follow her. "Two of them, actually," she comments as she unlocks the door and turns on the living room lights. There's really no need for the lights as the decorations and tree we put up last night are bright enough, but I guess it's habit. Then again, twinkling holiday lights aren't really appropriate now that I think about it.

Faith turns to Marianna. "That's Olson and Josh," she says, pointing to each in turn. "This," she tells the guys, "is Marianna. She's the chick in charge of the seeds in Italy."

Josh and Olson put it together fast, and their eyes dart to me. I shrug nervously and duck my head, making my way to the couch and sitting down. "Um, why don't you have a seat, Marianna?"

She sits gracefully on the armchair to my left, adjusting her voluminous white gown in the process, and looks as calm as can be.

"It was a real gathering at Sunnydale Arms tonight," Faith continues, collapsing next to me on the sofa and sprawling. Josh and Olson each grab a chair from the kitchen table and try to find a place to put them. The furniture has all been squished into the center of the room to accommodate the tree and they finally have to shove the coffee table against the wall.

"A gathering?" Josh echoes. "Were there swords and shouts of there can be only one?"

Josh is something of a sci-fi, um, fanboy, I guess is the only way to put it. I've gotten drawn into marathons of several shows, and Highlander--which his pithy comment is referring to--was one of them.

Olson gives him a disapproving look and Faith just rolls her eyes. "Freaking dork," she scoffs. "No, not like that. Khentimentiu came a'calling. Along with his Keepers."

The guys are looking at me again and I know it's time for me to talk. "Um..." That's about all I manage. I have no idea where to start. Faith is in no mood to take pity on me and stays silent when I look to her for help. I start tugging on the knees of the jeans I only wear when I go patrolling.

"Wow," Josh exclaims. "That's just fascinating, Tara." There's a scathing look in his eyes. Josh is something of a...bitch at times, but he's slowly getting reformed because he realizes what he just said, and looks away from me quickly. Or maybe I'm just channeling a puppy again.

Olson runs a tired hand across his face. "Tara, why did Khentimentiu come to Sunnydale?" he asks reasonably.

"Um, because of...Spike," I finally manage to spit out. "I have to go see him. That's why Marianna's here. To take me. To Spike."

I haven't had this difficult a time communicating with these people in months. But there was a lot Khentimentiu didn't tell me, that I didn't bother to ask. I really have no useful information to impart.

"What's wrong with Sexy Vamp?" Josh asks, and despite the silly moniker, there's real concern in his voice. Suddenly, I'm less nervous.

"I'm not entirely sure," I say honestly. "But I'll be finding out." I glance at Marianna, then back to the Josh, and he blinks twice before his face sags.

"By yourself?" he asks tiredly, leaning back in his chair. "Tara--"

"If I may?" Marianna speaks up, garnering all of our attention. She looks from one to the next of us. "You are a very protective group, aren't you?" she muses, shaking her head. "Khentimentiu assured me there will be no danger for Tara. I wouldn't have agreed to assist him otherwise. I owe her my life," she adds.

There's an hour of discussion, most of which Faith misses because she retreats to the kitchen to eat us out of house and home. Josh is on the fence about my going alone, and Olson doesn't have a problem with it. I sit out most of it because they seem to have forgotten about me. Marianna quickly grows bored, and starts wandering through the apartment, her head tilting as she studies certain objects, like the twinkling lights on the huge tree. I remember that she was held captive for centuries by vampires who wanted unlimited access to the pomegranate from the underworld. I guess she's missed out on a lot.

When Olson finally tells Marianna that I can go, the guardian of the pomegranate raises a brow and then looks to me. "Will you be coming, Tara?" she asks archly.

It takes a lot to keep my smile hidden. So nice to know that I'm not the only one who noticed that the others just made a decision about my life without my input.

Olson looks a little abashed. "You need to tell us to shut up once in a while," he says to me, his tone rueful. "Maybe mind our own business, even."

I could tell him that I was going to go no matter what, but that would give them warning for a time in the future when I might need the element of surprise to go against their decision. They seem to have decided that my using the passageways to sneak away and perform the Cerno without telling anyone a few months ago was an effect of my being partially insane. I think it's best for our continued harmonious interaction if I allow them to go on thinking this.

"Don't worry," I say instead. "It's nice that you're all so concerned."

And it is. They really do care about me; they worry about my physical safety and my mental stability. While they can all be overbearing about it, they do eventually see reason when all is said and done.

"The vampires," I say suddenly, remembering that there were two things we needed to tell Olson. "Some just appeared out of thin air. Faith killed them, but..."

"Research," Josh supplies, nodding. He takes the research seriously, and has catalogued and indexed over half of our books and texts. He set up a complex system of index cards that I only vaguely know how to navigate, but which he can use to find information very quickly. That mind of his works like a computer, sometimes, with the way it can see the simple in the complicated.

I get to my feet. "I need to pack a bag. Do you guys need anything before I go?"

They all say no, then Olson tells me to take weapons, and Josh is at the cabinet in the corner, pulling out all manner of things that I can't use without fear of injuring myself. I pick a crossbow out of the mix and shake my head when Josh offers me a really large axe.

Marianna comes upstairs with me so that she can explore some more, and I leave her in the bathroom examining the blow dryer. I pack enough clothes for three days, carefully folding and setting them in an overnight bag that I can sling over my shoulder. At the last minute, I toss a small portable bag of sundry witchcraft items inside, then set the crossbow on top before zipping it closed.

There aren't any skirts in the bag. For a while, I wouldn't wear them at all. There were too many conversations between me and Willow about the variety of long skirts we had, too much wriggling out of said long skirts, and too many shopping trips for new ones. I've gotten past that, but I don't wear the skirts all the time. I avoid them when I'm patrolling or when I think I'm going to have to do any kind of running.

I go back to the bathroom and find that Marianna has turned the blow dryer on and is smiling delightedly as she blows the warm air across her face. "It's for your hair," I tell her. "To dry it after you wash it."

"I know," she says, frowning down at the controls. I take the dryer from her and turn it off. "I've seen them while in the passageways. But it's different to experience it firsthand."

And again I feel silly about the choppy Italian I assaulted her with in Florence. "I'm ready," I tell her.

She smoothes back the hair that was disturbed by the blow dryer and nods. "Very well. Khentimentiu asked that I also be available to bring you back home as well," she informs me.

I don't want Marianna hanging around when I'm with Spike since he doesn't feel comfortable around her. I bite my lip and try to think of a way I can let her know when I'm ready to come home. An idea comes to me and I grin at Marianna. "Want to experience a cell phone firsthand?"

Downstairs, Josh, with that sharp mind of his, spends a few minutes with Marianna showing her how to use a cell phone. Not that it takes a sharp mind to work one, but it is definitely required to instruct someone who has very little experience with electronics at all.

I listen to cautionary warnings from Olson, and sigh when Faith, now on the couch, just waves a careless hand and tells me to stay alive. She doesn't even look up from the container of leftovers she's brought in from the kitchen. I know that she's still feeling rejected, and now she's worried and angry as well. She doesn't want me going with Marianna. Not even a little. I can tell by the tight set of her jaw.

I set my bag on my shoulder and go to the couch where she's sprawled. She lets me loom over her for a long while before she finally looks up, her face a mask of disinterested boredom. "Yeah?" she asked curtly.

Leaning down, I brush my hand across her cheek and tuck some hair behind her ear. For the longest time she flinched and held herself stiff when I randomly touched her, but of late she seems to have become comfortable with it. "I'll call you when I know what's going on," I promise her.

With the touch comes a strange flicker across her features, and in her eyes, that I have yet to decipher because it only started a few weeks ago. It's gone as quickly as it came, and she shrugs. "Yeah, you do that," she replies and turns her attention back to her food.

"Be careful," I whisper, and that brings her eyes back to me. She's surprised and confused by the warning. "Don't let them catch you off guard. Please."

Her face softens the barest fraction of an inch. "They're just vamps," she assures me. "I can handle them." I'm not reassured. Regular vampires can't just manifest like the ones did earlier. I frown down at her and she rolls her eyes. "I'll be extra alert, all right?"

"Good," I say with a nod.

I look at the others, and I don't realize that I'm still frowning until Josh comes over and puts his thumbs on the center of my forehead, trying to coax the frown line away. "Stop it, or you'll get wrinkles," he advises me. "We'll call you if we think we're going to need some mojo." He moves behind me and gives me a gentle nudge in Marianna's direction. "Go see Spike."

The boy can be really sweet when he wants to be.

Marianna reaches into a fold in her robe and holds up a pomegranate seed. She drags a finger through the outer coating, gathering some of it on the tip, and then brings her hand to my lips. So very gently, she brushes the juice along my bottom lip, and my tongue snakes out to taste. Out of the corner of my eye I can see a passageway, right in the middle of the living room. I take her hand and we step inside.

It's disconcerting, to say the least. A part of me stays in the living room, watching the others trade worried glances, and part of me is rushing through the passageway. With Marianna holding my hand and guiding us, I don't have to think of a destination; I can simply relax and pass through the lives of hundreds of people. It makes me feel small, unimportant, to see all of these people in their private moments.

Before I know it, Marianna is helping me out of the passageway and I wobble on my feet a little as I adjust to having both halves of myself together again.

I look around curiously. We're in a rather filthy hallway, just in front of a beat up wooden door. This isn't really where I expected to be. I thought we'd be going to a demon bar, where Spike would be in some sort of trouble or another. I don't know if this dirty residence is better or worse.

"He's inside," Marianna says softly, motioning towards the door. "Do you want to know anything?"

Actually, I don't. I'd rather go in without anyone else's thoughts or opinions in mind. "No, thanks," I say. "Do you have the phone?" She again reaches into her robe, this time withdrawing the cell phone for me to see before she secrets it away again. "I'll call when I'm ready."

She nods sedately and gives me an encouraging smile before sliding into the passageway. I wait until she's completely out of sight before turning to the door. Perhaps I should have asked if he was alone, or if there were...bad guy types in there. But Marianna assured us I wouldn't be in danger, so I have to assume he's in there alone. Taking a breath, I bring my hand to the doorknob and turn it.

"You really don't want to do that, mate," I hear him growl from the other side of the door.

"Yes, I do," I reply loudly so that he'll know who it is. Then I push the door open wide so that it bounces off the wall behind it.

It takes a moment before my eyes adjust to the darkness on his side of the door. What I see isn't reassuring. The room he's in is littered with garbage and is filled with an unpleasant odor reminiscent of infection. There's a small, wobbly table to my left, a doorway without a door to my right, and Spike directly in front of me. He's on a sagging twin bed and I can't make out any details in the dark.

I step inside and close the door behind me, then reach out and flip a light switch on the wall. A bare bulb hanging from a chain in the center of the room lights up, the wattage low and the illumination flickering.

When I look at him, I feel myself go still. My bag slides from my shoulder and lands on the floor with a startlingly loud sound. He looks like...shit. I don't usually swear, but Faith is something of a bad influence, and what I'm seeing is so shocking and unexpected that I'm at a loss.

I wouldn't even be able to guess at when he last, um, ate. He's emaciated. His skin is sagging in wrong places, stretched tight in other wrong places, and so very translucent. That alone would have made my stomach churn, but the rest is what has me frozen in place. His face has been clawed open, and the entire right side is just raw. A black t-shirt hangs off of him in shreds and there's a long, deep gash across his stomach. The rest of his torso is black with bruises, and there's something unnatural in the way his left leg is laying on the bed. The light flickers again, and I realize that his leg is broken and a bone is protruding from his thigh.

I remember how he looked after Glory got him, and this is worse. So much worse.

I can't move. I can't even try to move. All I can do is stare at him. My chest feels full, like something has swelled, and my limbs are heavy, laden. My eyes are wet with tears, and they're distorting my vision. Maybe if I blink just right, my sight will clear and I'll find Spike sitting there, whole and healthy.

I know that I won't happen, though. I know this is real.

But it shouldn't be. I don't know that I have it in me to think that anyone deserves this, but there are those who deserve it more than Spike does. Far more.

When I finally meet his eyes, they may me just...hurt. They're empty. Nothing is there as he sits up in that bed, staring at me. "What are you doing here?" he asks tonelessly.

His words release something, and I can move again. I step around several empty alcohol bottles and get halfway to him before I stop. Should I keep going, or have things changed so exorbitantly that I should turn around and leave? I fidget and start to say something several times, but no words come out.

"Go home, Tara," he sighs, falling onto his back and looking up at the ceiling. "Nothing you can do."

"I didn't come here to do anything," I deny softly. He raises his scarred brow. "I just thought I'd, um, stop by and see..."

He turns his head to the side. "And see what? This?" He waves at his battered body. "Didn't know you liked that sort of thing."

I want to leave because I'm honestly not prepared to deal with this. I shouldn't have come barreling in here without any details, a plan or anything. My body sags and I drag myself to the bed and sit next to his broken leg. My hands are in my lap and I stare at them for a long while.

"So, how's the soul working out?" I ask in a rush, and Spike bolts into a sitting position. Well, at least I've got his attention now.


Continued in Chapter Two

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