Part 2

Tara leaned back against the soft leather seats and tried to relax. She would have been happier with a taxi, but Sophie wouldn’t hear of it, and her agent’s Mercedes and driver were better than the limo she had been greeted with after the first book came out.

“It’s the least I can do for my genius girl,” Sophie had said firmly. “You won’t let me wine and dine you and show you off at the clubs. You won’t let me put you on Oprah. You won’t let me take you shopping. That’s okay. That’s fine. But the hottest thing since Anne Rice is not going to ride around L.A. in a smelly taxi cab.”

Hottest thing since Anne Rice. Goddess. She closed her eyes and wondered again when someone was going to show up, call her a fraud, and take everything away.

“We’re here, Ms. Maclay,” Tony said deferentially.


Tara remembered to stay seated until he raced around the car and opened her door. The first time she’d ridden in the car, she had gotten out by herself and almost made him cry.

The doorman held the door wide and almost genuflected as she entered the condo’s spacious lobby. She knew that by herself she wouldn’t have rated more than a sniff, but Sophie lived in one of the penthouse units, and as a friend of hers, Tara automatically inhabited the same rarified atmosphere.

When she stepped off the elevator, Sophie was lounging in her doorway wearing her concept of casual — a silk blouse and very tight jeans — that probably cost around $500.00. In an effort to look slightly more put together than her usual jeans and sweater or Indian-print skirt, Tara was wearing slacks and a blazer, but the agent always made her feel frumpy. Of course, she would have been more than happy to take Tara on a shopping spree, but Tara was fairly sure that wouldn’t work out. Sophie’s work clothes ran toward Chanel and Armani and her after-hours attire toward spandex and leather.

Despite her wardrobe, which could make Buffy look repressed, Sophie was kind in her way, and honest, and her smile for Tara was warm.

“Sweetie,” she crooned as she engulfed Tara in a perfume-scented hug. She waited until they were inside the large, stark condo with the door shut before she grinned and said, “How’s my favorite author?”

“Good,” Tara said, gamely perching on a large piece of pastel-colored metal and plastic that she knew from past visits was supposed to be a chair. “Was the book okay?”

“Oh, my God,” Sophie collapsed onto her large fur-covered sofa and fanned herself. “Okay? OKAY!? Honey, the entire staff had to knock off early and go home to their SOs or toys. You’ve started a couple of office affairs because some of them just couldn’t wait.” She leaned forward, hands on her knees, and looked pleadingly at Tara. “Tell me, PLEASE, that Jane and Shiv are going to actually fuck in the next book, because I can’t stand it. Although, if one dream sequence and some fondling have this effect, actual sex may make the book combust on the shelves.”

She felt her face turning hot. “I’m … uh … glad you liked it.”

Sophie shook her head with a grin. “How can you blush after writing that scene where Shiv spies on Jane in the shower. And when she imagines herself with him after he seduces that female vampire! Do you know how hard it is to turn me on? I can make Internet porn-site hosts blush, and almost any chapter of The Underworld makes me need a cold shower. And don’t get me started on Death Waltz!

Tara shrugged, desperately uncomfortable. “I guess those who can’t do, write books.”

The woman gave her a sharp look and turned the subject. “Anyway, I have good news beyond the fact that Death Waltz has a shot at the Top 10 list. If the next book has a guarantee of Jane and Shiv getting it on for real, they want to go hardback.”

“Hardback?” Tara gasped. “For a thriller? For my third book?”

“When you’re hot, you’re hot. And you are definitely hot, sweet pea.” In her excitement, Sophie’s Southern accent grew stronger. “I knew you would be, when I read that short story you sent for the writing contest. I said to myself, ‘this girl’s gonna go far’, and you have.” Her smile broadened. “Underworld’s up for the World Horror Award.”

Tara’s reaction was not the overwhelming pleasure that her agent had anticipated. “An award? Would I have to go somewhere to accept it? Sophie! No tours! No publicity!”

“Easy, easy,” her agent soothed with the expertise of someone who had spent years holding authors’ hands. “It’s a convention, not anything mainstream. Convention people won’t hurt you. They just stand around worshipfully or nit-pick everything to death. You won’t have to give out anything personal. Trust me, the only thing those people are going to want to know is whether Shiv is based on a real person, and if so, can they have his phone number. ”

*                              *                              *

Based on a real person. Tara shuddered.

At least I didn’t put the scar on his eyebrow.

Thomas’ (known as ‘Shiv’ to an adoring public), scar was on his jaw, accentuating one of his prominent cheekbones and making his icy blue eyes even more fascinating to a young social worker named Jane who had found herself mixed up with the occult and far too attracted to an enigmatic, dangerous man who had revealed himself a vampire.

Tara hid her head in one of the pillows. How had she gotten into this? More importantly, how did she get out? And did she even want to? Even now, despite the panic, part of her brain was trying to map out the next book. Jane and Thomas’ finally sleeping together would need some heavy motivation and a really great setting.

She hadn’t written the first story, the one that had drawn Sophie’s notice, with any aim in mind. It had only been a sort of exercise, something to think about other than the pain that had been her constant companion since leaving Sunnydale. She had submitted it to the contest on a whim, and Sophie’s ecstatic call had been a complete surprise.

Now, four years later, she was sitting in the room of the elegant hotel that Sophie insisted on putting her in, wondering what she was going to do. Wondering what she would do if Buffy or Dawn or someone picked up one of her books and realized that ‘Claudia Harris’ was writing about someone that sounded one hell of a lot like Spike. Not that there was too much likelihood of that. As Buffy had once said, why read Stephen King when you could live the dream. The only members of the gang likely to read the sort of book she wrote would have been Joyce or Anya, so …

With a sigh, Tara flipped open her laptop and plugged in the modem, the thought of Buffy reminding her that she owed a response to the Slayer’s latest email. She pulled up the message to remind herself of its contents:

Hi, how are you? How’s the working socially?

Everything’s the same here. Training, killing evil. That’s pretty much it. No apocalypses in a while, which is nice.

Dawn says ‘hey’ and to tell you college sucks. She hates being older than the other freshmen and tells them it’s because she was in Europe having affairs. She likes living at the dorm because Angel can’t loom at her dates. Kids today, huh?

She’s thinking about majoring in Criminal Justice. Angel almost fainted until she promised that she didn’t mean law school. I said the only way she was being a cop was if she wore full-body Kevlar all the time, even in the shower. She called me a dork. Did I mention kids today?

Seriously, I think it’s great that she wants to help people. She always looked up to you. So do I, and I bet the kids you help really love you.

Will and Xander are okay, I guess. You know I’m bad with the emotion stuff. I still want someone to blame. When I think about how hurt you were, I can almost get mad at them, but then I remember how miserable Xander was over losing Anya and the baby, and I see how worried they still are over you, and I can’t.

We miss you. I wish you’d come home to Sunnydale. I hate to think of you out there by yourself. Even though Will doesn’t bug me for your address anymore, she knows we write once a month, so answer this soon please, or she’ll keep on me ’til we know you’re okay :)

Tara took a steadying breath and put her hands on the keyboard.

I think Criminal Justice is a great major for Dawny. Sunnydale could use some decent police :) Body armor is your friend.

Of course, you shouldn’t be mad at Willow and Xander! I’m not. They didn’t mean to fall in love. You might as well be mad at Anya for getting killed. Please tell them not to worry. I’m okay, really, just not quite ready to come back yet. I’ll get there one day.

A few more platitudes, and Tara hit ‘send’ before shutting down the computer.

What would Buffy say if she knew I was only a few hours away instead of in Bangor where I’m supposed to live? Of course, what would she say if she knew I was living a lie? That one of the reasons I can’t be angry at Willow is because I know all about wanting somebody you shouldn’t?

She sighed in disgust with herself. Social work had burned her out, bringing up memories she’d mostly repressed, making her want to kill herself or one of the men who seemed just like her father or brother. Court, that seemed to consider everything but the needs of the children, reduced her to stammering rage. And then had come the day … no, best not think of that. Large portions of her money went to battered women and children’s shelters, but it wasn’t the same. She felt as if she’d failed, but there hadn’t been any choice. She’d had to leave before it was too late.

Idly, Tara crossed to the window and looked out. It was only 9:30, and the city pulsed with life below her. Sophie had wanted to take her out, but they had very different ideas of what constituted a good time, and Tara had said she wanted an early night. Now, she felt restless, edgy …

… aroused. All that discussion of Jane and Shiv and put ideas in her head, awakened long dormant sensations in her nerve endings.

She had slept with men. Eight years ago, after her mother’s death, she had decided that if she was going to be called ‘whore’ anyway, she might as well take advantage. Memory of her reckless behavior then made her shiver.

I’m lucky I didn’t get pregnant. Or AIDS. Or killed.

She hadn’t liked it much though, despising the boys and men even as she lay beneath them. Rough, brutish, reminding her of her lowly status. She had much preferred being with women. Willow had fulfilled every need she’d ever had, both for love and pleasure. Then …

Based on a real person … oh, yeah.

Along with the pain, the writing had been supposed to exorcise the feelings that had swirled around in her head since she had neutralized Spike’s chip five years ago. He had vacated Sunnydale immediately thereafter, and she hadn’t seen him since, except in her sub-conscious where he seemed to have settled in permanently.

She had been terrified of him when she first took up with Willow and the others, then fear had gone to sympathy when the Initiative came back. Now, she didn’t know what she felt, but desire seemed to make up a large portion of it. The writing hadn’t helped with those feelings any more than with the pain. The more she wrote about Jane and Shiv, the more she dreamed of Spike.

She found herself smiling a little at her reflection in the window.

I should count myself lucky. How many people get paid for being pathetic?

Finally she turned and caught up her fanny pack, buckling it over her long skirt. Then, she wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, and headed out into the night. She wasn’t going to sleep, and L.A. must offer something better to do than pace her hotel room.

The soft night air loosened strands of hair from her waist-length braid as she moved like a shadow through the hustling figures. Sophie would have fits if she knew what Tara was doing. The agent had lived in L.A. for 15 years but only acknowledged certain parts of the city, and even those were to be reached by car. Walking was what treadmills were for. Tara understood that L.A. was dangerous, but she still needed to feel the life around her. As for protection, she was securely wrapped in spells of ‘don’t notice me’ and ‘look somewhere else’. Spells she had developed as a survival skill during her youth, spells that had shielded her and Spike from the Initiative.

She flexed her fingers, feeling his cold, strong grip on her hand.

Why is this so strong tonight?

Normally, she didn’t think about Spike that much. Yes, she pictured him in her writing, and there had been a few … intense … dreams, but he didn’t usually haunt her waking thoughts. Maybe writing Buffy had brought back the days she lived in Sunnydale, and her mind was trying to find something else to think about. Spike was better than remembering the grief of those last few days. Grief that had been unmixed with anger.

How could I be angry at Willow and Xander? They hurt as bad as I did.

She had known the moment they fell back in love, known when Willow’s attempts at comfort after Anya’s death became something more. The misery and guilt pouring from both minds had been almost palpable. Not that either had acted on it or betrayed her in any way. Xander had spoken with manic cheer of a new job opportunity and a chance to make a fresh start. Tara had looked at him, known that he would soon be dead by his own hand, and made a decision.

*                              *                              *

It wasn’t quite dawn when she slipped quietly out of the dorm with essentials packed in a duffel bag, the bus ticket heavy in her pocket. Willow didn’t even turn over in her spell-deepened slumber as Tara bent and kissed her softly. She had an early class and wouldn’t be missed until noon or so, when Willow would find the note tucked in her history book, and by then, it would be too late. Her lover was a stronger witch in general, but Tara was the champion when it came to hiding.

Xander was supposed to leave today, but she flattered herself that his car wasn’t going to start anytime soon, and by the time he got the tires patched or replaced and found where she’d hidden the distributor cap, he would know that he wasn’t going to be the one to go.

I have to do this. It’s right.

She swallowed back tears and made her way to the bus stop. Ducking into the shelter, she almost dropped the bag when she saw the Slayer sitting on the bench and yawning hugely.


“Fancy meeting you here,” she said drily and pushed a fast food bag toward Tara. “Coffee? Juice? Greasy biscuit with egg-like substance?”

Shocked, Tara sank to the bench. “What are you doing here? How did you know?”

Buffy smiled tightly. “I watched you at the farewell party we had for Xander. You had the ‘I’m taking off’ look. I know what that look looks like.”

“You aren’t going to try and stop me, are you?” Tara asked anxiously. “I have to do this. Xander …”

“Is very, very fragile. So is Willow. So are you,” Buffy finished quietly. “I’m not going to stop you. But I didn’t want you to leave without anyone saying goodbye.”

“Don’t be angry at them,” Tara pleaded. “They didn’t mean to hurt me. And they’re your friends …” She trailed off at Buffy’s scowl.

“Update, Tara. You’re my friend, too. Maybe they didn’t mean to hurt you, but they did, and that’s not okay.” Buffy chewed her lip as she watched Tara’s distressed look, and finally sighed. “I’m not mad at them. I’m not mad at anybody. Which sucks. I need a bad guy. And the one who killed Anya has already been dealt with.”

Tara shivered. His life sentence hadn’t turned out to be too long. The guards found him dead in his cell two days later, unmarked but with his face frozen in a screaming rictus. She wondered if she was the only one to notice that Mr. Giles seemed tired the next day and that he had to order extra black candles that month, or if everyone just kept quiet about it like she did.

“No,” she said quietly. “I don’t think there’s anything else to be done to him.”

“Anyway,” Buffy said in a forcibly bright tone. “Do you know where you’re going?”

Relieved at being pulled back from the grief that still threatened to drag them all under, Tara said quickly, “I sort of knew this might happen, so I’ve been applying at other colleges, and I was accepted at one back east. I’m going to finish my degree there. They’ve already got housing set up for me.”

“That’s good. You’re already ahead of me on the leaving skills. Uh, East covers a lot, so where exactly …?”

Tara looked down. The only way she could do this was alone. She couldn’t be looking up every ten minutes hoping and fearing that Willow had come for her.

After a moment, Buffy said carefully. “Okay, clean break. I understand clean break. I even expected clean break. But,” she held up a stern finger. “The only way you get to do this is if I know you’re okay. So … here.”

Bemusedly, Tara took the shopping bag that had been concealed by Buffy’s legs. She looked inside and her jaw dropped. “Buffy, I can’t take this!”

“Yes, you can. It’s one of the extra laptops from Angel Investigations. My e-mail address is taped inside the top. I can keep Will off your back as long as we know you’re safe, but you’ve got to write, or she’ll get out the scrying mirror.”

“And the money?” Horrified, she picked up the wad of bills.

“We have money. Angel brought a bunch with him, and … Anya … helped us invest it. She was really good at that. Plus, the Council’s started paying me a salary for the Slayage. I would so love to know what Giles has on Travers, but he won’t tell me.”

Tara opened her mouth to protest, and Buffy took her hand. “I can’t help you with the emotion stuff. I can’t bring Anya back. I can do this. Let me. Please.”

She looked into the dark eyes and understood again, why, despite the occasional forays into bitchiness and drama queendom, Buffy kept her friends. “Thanks,” Tara said simply, feeling her lips start to tremble.

Just then, the bus turned the corner. Buffy leaned over and hugged her. Tara felt tremors go through the Slayer’s body, and knew she was crying, too.

“Be careful,” Buffy said fiercely. “I won’t lose anybody else. If you need me, call. Wherever you are, I’ll come as fast as I can.”

*                              *                              *

Tara shook the memory off, eyes stinging with tears. So far, there hadn’t been a need to call Buffy, but it was good to know she was there even if e-mailing made her sad and guilty. Maybe it was selfish, but without the contact, she would have felt like a kite blowing in the wind. She needed somebody out there with a hand on the string.

She looked around to see that her wanderings had taken her to a quiet street, occupied mostly by shops that were closed now. She could only see one place that was lit with people going in and out.

Wait a minute … those aren’t all people.

With a mixture of caution and curiosity, she crossed to the far side of the street from the active building, pouring more strength into her shielding spells. Directly opposite the door, Tara saw that her first impressions were correct. A mixture of demons and humans were going in and out of the building, whose pale blue neon sign proclaimed it Caritas.

Mercy? That’s interesting. I wonder what it’s supposed to mean? Or if somebody just thought the Latin sounded cool?

She watched closely for a while, seeing no real animosity between the different species of clientele. Everyone seemed friendly enough, talking and clapping each other on the back Even the ones that her reading and experiences as Scooby told her were traditional enemies were at worst ignoring each other. It seemed a place of truce, of neutrality.

A burst of music came through the open door.

“I think I love you, So what am I so afraid of? Afraid that I’m not sure of, A love there is no cure for …”

A place where bad 70s music goes to die?

But she was smiling even as she thought it. Whoever was singing had a great voice, if questionable taste, and even more importantly sounded happy, almost overjoyed. It had been a long time since she heard that level of simple pleasure in something. Longer still since she felt it. Tara dithered on the sidewalk, the desire to go in warring with the desire to go unnoticed that had been hard-wired into her psyche so long ago.

Nothing bad could happen in a place where they sang Partridge Family songs. With a deep breath, she dropped her shields and crossed the street.

*                              *                              *

No one was on the door, and she slipped inside quietly. There was minimal décor — just a bar and some small tables and chairs. Stools were dragged around for extra seating. The obvious focus was the stage and red velvet curtains and a large karaoke machine. It seemed a popular place, though. All the tables and most of the stools were full. Several waiters were hurrying around with drink orders.

The singer that had attracted her attention wasn’t on stage now. Instead something large and scaly was singing about the ‘bright, elusive butterflies of love’ in a voice that made Tara want to stick her fingers in her ears.

However, as she took a seat on a stool by the wall, she noticed that no one was heckling the singer. Despite the horrible voice and butchered notes, everyone kept straight faces and listened, talking softly if at all, and applauded politely at the end of the song. A second demon, his horns and green skin contrasting with the cream silk coat and trousers, strolled onto the stage and slung an arm around the singer’s shoulder.

“Wasn’t that great folks? This is Geronk’s first time, so let’s give him a big Caritas welcome!”

The applause increased with a couple of whoops and some whistling. Tara thought Geronk blushed although it was sort of hard to tell. The demon in the coat, she realized, was the singer she had heard from outside.

“The house band’s going to take over for a few minutes while my friend and I chat, then we’ll hear Linda tell Jack to hit the road!”

A smiling human woman waved to the audience but remained in her seat as the curtain pulled back to reveal a band comprised of humans and non-. Several people got up to dance, and the two demons exited the stage and took a seat by the bar where they began to talk intensely.

A woman was leaning against the wall nearby, and after a moment, Tara nodded toward Geronk and the demon and asked softly, “What are they doing?”

“You’re a newbie?” the woman asked with a grin. “What do you know, my very own Caritas virgin.”

Tara flushed as the woman continued, “Geronk’s getting a little guidance. That’s the deal here. You sing and the Host helps you find your destiny.” She smiled and leaned closer, her eyes soft, “If this isn’t your kind of place, we could …”


Senses honed on nights of patrol screamed a warning, and without thinking, mental shields snapped into place. Instead of the soft layers of concealment, these were bright and shiny mirrors that reflected back the attempts at bedazzlement, giving the demon no hold. The woman’s mouth tightened as she realized her loss of control.

Tara frantically tried to figure out what to do next. She had neither cross nor stake to hand, and with part of her abilities shielding her mind, the vampire would be on her before she could get a spell off. Besides, when she tried to think of one, a fog seemed to cloud her mind, making her unable to focus adequately.

“Oops. Somebody over here doesn’t look like they’re having a good time.”

The voice was bright and cheery, but before either woman could react, the Host had glided between them.

“I wasn’t doing anything violent,” the woman pouted.

“I know, sweetie, but Hunting is also a big no-no. We’ve talked about this. Now, say you’re sorry, and mind your manners, or much as I’d hate it, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

She scowled down at the floor, but to Tara’s surprise, muttered something like an apology.

“There,” he put an arm around each of them and squeezed encouragingly. “That’s better. We’re all friends again. Ellenore, why don’t you mosey on over to the bar and have a nice round on the house?”

Ellenore went sullenly and the Host turned back to Tara with a smile.

“Sorry about that. She gets a little cranky sometimes. Not that you didn’t have a handle on it.” He squinted at her suddenly. “My goodness. You do give the Marianas Trench a run for its money, don’t you?”

“I’m sorry,” Tara said cautiously, trying to decide if she were being made fun of. “I don’t know what you mean.”

He flapped a hand. “Still waters running deep. But, no, no, I’m the one who’s sorry. Here I stand, flapping my jaw, and you don’t even have a drink. What can I get you?”

“A glass of white wine?” Her knowledge of alcoholic drinks was limited, but that seemed safe enough.

The Host wrinkled his nose. “If that’s what you like, fine, but, and by the way just slap me if I’m out of line, ’cause, hey, I’ll enjoy it, you don’t seem like a white wine sort of witch. Now, don’t be shy. If you could have anything in the whole world you wanted to drink, what would it be?”

It was completely unsophisticated, but she hadn’t had much supper, and something about the Host made her think he didn’t care about sophistication anyway. “Hot chocolate?”

“With little marshmallows? Just what I was craving. Now,” he guided her off the stool and over to a newly-vacant table in the corner, “I’ll put your order in with Raoul. I’d love to share a mug, but I’ve got to listen to some more folks. You sit here and enjoy yourself, maybe think about doing a number.”

“Me?” Tara gasped. She liked to sing, and Willow had told her she had a good voice, but her mouth dried up at the thought of getting up on the stage. She started to rise. “Oh, no, I d-don’t th–”

The Host put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “No pressure,” he said quietly, and his face was suddenly serious, even a little sad. “The whole point of Caritas is that it’s safe here. You sit and relax, and I’ll light a fire under Raoul.”

She sat, and to her surprise, felt herself relaxing in the unquestioning atmosphere. Her hot chocolate swiftly arrived, strong, sweet, and almost sludgy with marshmallows, just the way she liked it. Tara drank it down hungrily, then settled back in her chair to listen to the singing.

After awhile, the Host got up to do another song. His voice wrapped around her like a blanket and Tara rested her head against one of the walls that made up her corner and let herself drift …

“Hey. I hate to do this, but you’re gonna get a stiff neck.”

She blinked awake, confused at not being in her hotel room, then saw the cheerful face of the Host and sat up hastily. The club was empty, chairs piled on the tables except for hers. Her eyes dropped to the watch at her belt and she saw that it was 1:30 a.m.

“Oh! Oh, God, I’m sorry!”

Tara sprang out of the chair, almost knocking it over, and groped wildly through her fanny pack for her wallet. “What do I owe you for the chocolate? I am so sorry! I don’t know how I did that, and …”

“Whoa, whoa, easy, Marianas!” he held up calming hands. “It’s no big. You didn’t rob the joint, you took a nap. If that were the worst thing anyone ever did in here, I wouldn’t need Raoul. As for how you did it, I got the impression you were sleepy.”

She made herself breathe. He was right. The stress of seeing Sophie and the odd tension she’d been under had kept her from sleeping. It was all right. Everything was all right.

“Anyway, I should go now and let you finish up. And, how much for the chocolate …”

He shook his head. “On the house. I did that much for Ellenore, and you didn’t try to eat any of the clientele.”

“Okay.” She tried a smile, found it worked. “Thanks.”

“Anytime, Marianas. Come back again.”

“Tara,” she said shyly. “It’s Tara.”

“That’s pretty. Means ‘Hill of the Kings’, if you’re at all interested. I’m Lorne.”

That wasn’t what she expected. “What does Lorne mean?”

“That ‘Krevlornswath-of-the-Deathwok-Clan is a crappy name’.”

Tara burst out in a startled laugh, feeling safer than she had since she’d been with the gang. “Goodnight, Lorne. I’ll try to get back here sometime.” She thought she was done, but her mouth apparently had other ideas and continued talking without consulting her brain. “Maybe I’ll sing then. I … I think I’d like to.”

“Why not now?” he said quietly. “I’d really like to hear you.”

“It’s so late,” she murmured, embarrassed.

“Here’s a Lorne life lesson. It’s never too late to sing.”

The panic tried to resurrect, but it wasn’t possible under his kind gaze. “Do I have to get on the stage?”

“Not if you don’t want.”

“Well. All right,” she thought a moment, trying to remember something that didn’t involve fire, brimstone, or being left behind during the Rapture. “This is one my Mom used to sing to me.” She closed her eyes, recalling the words, and sang softly.

On a summer day
In the month of May
A burly bum came hiking
Down a shady lane
Through the sugar cane
He was looking for his liking
As he roamed along
He sang a song
Of the land of milk and honey
Where a bum can stay
For many a day
And he won’t need any money
Oh the buzzin’ of the bees
In the cigarette trees
Near the soda water fountain
At the lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
On the big rock candy mountain

She went on through the other verses, then opened her eyes and looked at Lorne expectantly. To her surprise, his eyes were bright, and he almost looked as if he were trying not to cry.

That’s probably not the best reaction to get from a psychic.

“Is everything okay?” Tara asked timidly. “Didn’t it work?”

“Yeah, it worked. Just … Marianas is a good name for you, or maybe Dierdre.” He took a deep breath and said rapidly. “Anyway, guidance time. You’re stronger than you know, than you’ve been let to be. Most of that was done when you were a tot, but one of the people holding you back now is you. Deciding you can’t do something gives you permission not to try. You’re withdrawing from the world, Tara, using those shields too much. Some stuff, you have to face.”

She looked away. He was right. Over time, she had found it easier to walk with shields over her mind and her heart if not her body.

“You’ve done good things,” Lorne continued. “Trust yourself. You didn’t actually kill that guy, you know.”

Her head snapped back around to face him in wide-eyed horror.

It was the thing she didn’t talk about, the thing that had made her leave social work. Sitting in court and listening to suave, polished Raymond Jenner talk about his wife’s vindictively accusing him of molesting their daughter, seeing the jury believe him and not the hysterical woman, she had been filled with a white-hot anger. Something in her mind had screamed STOP LYING and before she realized what she was doing, Tara had shoved that thought at him with all her strength.

And he had. Sitting in the witness box, he had stopped mid-sentence and started to tonelessly recite chapter and verse of each incident of his molestation of his daughter, despite the pleas of his lawyer and the banging of the judge’s gavel, until he was hauled away.

Even that hadn’t scared her. Watching him, Tara had known she could order his heart to stop beating and it would obey, and she had wanted to. Which made her no better than the monsters.

Lorne shrugged. “I’m a psychic, what can I say? But you didn’t do it, and smart ol’ you got out before the temptation became too strong. Finally, you’ve spent the past few years dealing with fantasy. Reality would like a word with you.”

“I don’t understand,” Tara said, confused. “I write fiction. Should I stop? Or should I go to the convention?”

He spread his hands helplessly. “Sorry, that’s all I’ve got. And now, Marianas, let’s call it a night, shall we?”

“Yes, it’s late,” she agreed hastily. “I should call a cab.”

“There’s usually one outside. I’ll walk with you. Caritas has an anti-violence geas, but it doesn’t cover the sidewalk.”

Her earlier inability to cast spells became clear. “That’s why I couldn’t do anything more than shield against Ellenore.”

“Right. It affects everybody. You can fight the good fight outside, but indoors is safe for all.”

They stepped outside and looked vainly up and down the street, but it was empty of cabs as well as all other traffic.

“Hmph,” said Lorne. “So much for my psychic powers. Wonder where Shirley is …”

“I told her she’d have better luck on another street,” said a deep, slurred voice.

She felt Lorne stiffen beside her, and both turned to see a large, reddish demon with scales and tusks standing uncomfortably close. Two others stepped from the shelter of his bulk. One looked something like a large, ambulatory weasel, and the other was a man who smiled at her unpleasantly as he strolled to block a possible retreat into Caritas.

Despite the fear radiating from Lorne, his voice remained almost steady if slightly higher pitched. “That was nice of you, Nefrexx,” he said evenly. “How’s life treating you?”

“Varishka left and took the kids,” the demon grunted. “I don’t know where they are.”

Lorne sighed. “That’s too bad. I hear they can do a lot with counseling these days. You crazy kids can …”

“She left because you told her to. She was MINE.” Nefrexx growled. “You interfered in our personal business.”

How many times had she heard those words from human throats during her time as a social worker? This woman, this girl, these children belong to me. I can do what I want with them. It seemed some things were common across species.

Of course, there were certain differences between her former job and tonight’s situation. This time, there were no police to call for backup. The office wasn’t waiting for her to check in. Most importantly, there were three of them, and they had occult powers. Tara’s hand slid into her pocket and closed around the small vial she kept there for emergencies.

Anger momentarily overcame Lorne’s fear. “If telling Varishka that you planned to sacrifice her and marry your oldest daughter was interfering, then color me guilty, but not all that sorry.” He took a breath, seemed to remember the precariousness of their situation, and made his voice more placating. “Still, I’m sure we can work this out over a drink. Let me put my friend here in a cab, and we can talk inside.”

The human-looking man smiled. “A drink would be nice, but I think she should stay.” Abruptly his features shifted, fangs descending. “She’s so sweet and pretty and scared. You handle the singer, Nefrexx, while she and I get better acquainted.”

He moved forward, eyes on Tara. Lorne tried to get between them, and she gripped his arm, hoping the gesture made her look like somebody who was afraid rather than somebody who needed a clear shot.

Another step brought him close to Nefrexx and Weasel-guy and she threw the vial at them with all her strength, pouring her fear and anger into the spell.

“Fiat Lux!”

It went off like a flash grenade, blinding all three demons and scorching the vampire’s hands and face. The Caritas entrance was still blocked, but at least the confusion gave them time to get a head start.

Tara raced after Lorne. Behind them, she heard the shouts break out and then the sidewalk seemed to quake under the pounding of Nefrexx’s feet.

“You know how I said you should stop using shields?” Lorne called over his shoulder. “Don’t listen to me. Shields are great. Love ’em.”

“We’ve got to get further ahead,” she panted. “It takes me a few seconds to form one, and I can’t cover both of us while we’re running.”

He groaned, then said in a determined voice. “Just do you then. I’m the one they’re after anyway.”

“Oh, stop it,” she said crossly. “I won’t leave you. Besides, there are three of them and the vampire wants me.”

“Okay, okay. Excuse me for trying to be heroic. I might know somewhere we can go for help.”

Lorne swung abruptly across the street and darted into an alley. Nefrexx would have to go around, but the vampire and the weasel weren’t far behind them. Tara seized boxes and trashcans with her mind, flinging them behind her, but most of her force had gone into the light spell.

Willow, I wish you were with me. Or Buffy. You would know what to do, or at least have a good exit line.

It felt like they were running across the whole city. A city wiped out by some sort of plague. They were deep in the industrial district, and everyone had gone home. Any night watchmen didn’t seem to want to get involved. Tara couldn’t blame them. She didn’t dare look over her shoulder to see how close their pursuers were. All she could do was fix her gaze on Lorne’s back and hope he knew where he was going and that her breath held out until they got there.

They swung around the back of a warehouse, and he leaped onto a loading dock.

“This is where they were supposed to meet,” he gasped as she scrambled up behind. “If they haven’t left … how much cash are you carrying?”

“About 50 dollars,” she panted, staring behind her. It was quiet. Maybe they’d lost them. “Who are you talking about?

“I’ve got about 100,” Lorne said, rattling the lock furiously. “That might be enough to get us an escort.”

Tara pushed him aside before he could start pounding on the door and took the lock in her hands, sinking her awareness into it. This was one of the first magics she had ever done, this ‘seeing to the heart of things’. It was a sort of meditation that let her understand how things worked on almost a molecular level and then manipulate them. Ordinarily it was easy for her, the ability instinctive rather taught, but she was physically and mentally tired, which made it hard to focus on the inner workings of the lock. Also, she had to block out Lorne’s chatter. When he was nervous, the Host was worse than Willow for babbling.

“It’s a gang, offering occult protection for a price. They don’t usually work out of L.A., but were in town for a few days on business. The leader approached me, but I said I didn’t need them.”

The lock sprang apart in her hands, and she sighed in relief as the door swung open to reveal the dark interior of the warehouse. Lorne charged in eagerly, but as she started to follow, there was a stirring in the air and fingers like steel cables clamped around her upper arms.

“Miss me?” the vampire breathed in her ear. He threw her to the side, into the darkness and away from Lorne. Unable to stop, Tara crashed into a pile of what felt like crates. They rained down around her, striking her head and shoulders, until she fell heavily to the floor. A final blow to her forehead made her see stars.

The door crashed shut, rendering the darkness complete. It didn’t seem to bother her attacker, however: he yanked her up against him unerringly, laughing at her feeble struggle.

“I think I’ve found a new friend,” he called to the others. “This one’s too interesting to be just food.”

“Whatever,” Nefrexx rumbled. “Time to die, Host.”

The vampire’s words pierced the pounding in her head. He meant to Change her, and she wouldn’t be able to stop him. The demon she became would probably think it was really funny to go for Willow and the others …


Tara tried to summon her magic and found only a feeble guttering that wouldn’t increase unless she rested. The end of hope gave her a sort of calm. She would die tonight, but that was all she would do. Her strength was almost gone, and her head rang and throbbed from the blow she had taken, but she was only dealing with herself, and mind and body allied willingly to protect those she loved. With the last dregs of her energy, Tara reached down inside, seeing into her own heart of things. Literally. It was there in her chest, snug amidst veins and arteries, pounding fast with fear. She closed her mind around it and began to tighten.

Her concentration shattered as Lorne produced the most horrible noise she had ever heard, bursting the windows along the first floor of the warehouse. The vampire let her go with a howl, and she staggered a few steps away, too weak and disoriented to go any further.

Lights abruptly flooded the first floor of the warehouse, and an irritated male voice shouted “What the hell is going on? We’re trying to hold a meeting!”

Lorne cut off mid-screech and said urgently. “I want to hire you. Starting right now!”

The man grinned at him unpleasantly. “Aren’t you the one who told the boss you didn’t need hired goons?”

“Yeah, and boy, is my face red.” He pulled bills from his coat and flourished them. “Look, just get us under cover, or at least take my friend out of here, and …”

“She’s mine,” the vampire snarled, and his tackle bore Tara to the floor. A knee slammed into her back, pinning her, and he wrapped the end of her braid two turns around his hand, using it to wrench her head back painfully.

“Tara!” Lorne cried.

The lights along the railing of the second floor blinded her, making her eyes water, but she thought a second figure approached the edge of the warehouse loft. Still, it didn’t seem likely that her captor was going to wait on negotiations, and she drew a deep, painful breath and reached again for her heart.

“No. She’s mine.”

The voice brought everyone to a halt. Tara’s concentration fell apart a second time, but she thought her heart might stop anyway as the cold British tones registered on her mind.

That explains why I’ve been thinking about Spike a lot. He’s in town.

He leaped from the loft to the first floor in a swirl of black leather and pale hair, and the tiny part of her mind that wasn’t busy being hysterical tried to take notes for the next book.

He descended like the fall of an angel … no. Just because I’m about to die is no excuse for being that corny.

As Spike landed, Tara’s captor tightened his hold, pulling her head back even further, and bending until his fangs were by her neck. “One more move,” he snarled, “and she’s gone.”

“You’ll follow her,” Spike said icily. He held still, but every muscle was tense, his body a coiled spring. “There’s a whole city you can feed from, mate. Let this one go. I won’t stop you if you walk away now.”

The vampire growled, Spike’s features shifted in response, and Tara knew how a bone felt when it was caught between two dogs.

“C’mon, Paul,” Nefrexx whined suddenly, eying Spike and the other four or five cronies that were now lining the second floor of the warehouse. “It isn’t worth it. You can find another witch.”

Paul’s grasp on her hair loosened, and he straightened, lifting his knee from her back, “You’re right,” he said. “There’s others out there.”

She was beginning to think it might actually be all right when he suddenly wrenched her up on her knees by her hair. “But this is the one I want,” he laughed, and his fangs tore into her throat.

There was barely time to feel pain, just the one flash as the bite struck home, before Spike was there, ripping the other away from her and flinging him back. Lorne’s cry was drowned out by roars of anger, howls of pain, and the thudding of feet as the rest of Spike’s gang descended.

She could feel the blood arcing out of her neck even as Lorne knelt over her, desperately trying to stanch the flow with one of his coat sleeves.

“Don’t do this, Marianas,” he said frantically. “It’s your blood. Make it clot. You were going to stop your heart before, so this should be a piece of cake.”

He was right: normally stopping the bleeding would have been simple for her, but this wasn’t normally and she had nothing left. Blackness washed over Tara, and she couldn’t even summon the strength to mind. Instead of frightening, it felt warm and welcoming, like resting in her bed after a long, hard day in the fields with Mama’s hand-stitched quilt snug around her.

Another touch on her neck, cold this time and wet, moving over the bites. The feeling that awareness was draining away from her slowed as she teetered on the edge of consciousness. Someone slapped her lightly on both sides of her face, and she reluctantly opened her eyes to meet an expressionless blue gaze.

Spike sat back on his knees and regarded her. “Would someone like to tell me what’s going on around here?” he drawled.

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