Part 7

From their position, crouched amidst the high, browned grass, they saw the house go dark.

“She did it,” Xander breathed. “All right, Tara.”

“Go,” Buffy snapped, taking off as if she’d been shot out of a gun. Kate followed close behind, gun drawn and ready, and Xander brought up the rear.

The Slayer caught the top of the fence in one leap, dropped lightly to the other side, and raced toward the house with no noticeable reduction in her speed. Kate’s grappling hook lodged firmly in the top bracket on the first throw, and she jammed her gun into her waistband and swarmed up the line and over almost as quickly as Buffy.

“I feel like Batman,” Xander muttered as he clambered laboriously to the top of the fence with the help of the Kate’s line. “Old, bed-ridden Batman on drugs,” he added as he fell onto the grounds. “But still Batman.”

*                              *                              *

The darkness in the cellar was absolute, and Tara had to call witchlight to aid her as she hastily groped her way to the stairs. Someone would be there any minute, she knew, for it had to be fairly obvious where the power failure had originated.

I did it. I actually did it.

She was light-headed with the knowledge that she had completed her assigned task. It had gone like clockwork, too, except for a few bad moments, and there was nothing else she had to do but sit back and watch Buffy and Kate beat everybody up and do the rescuing.

After her ankle turned for the fourth time, Tara kicked off her shoes with a grimace of annoyance and tucked them under her arm before attempting the cellar stairs. The time for disguises was pretty much over, and if anyone asked, she could say she’d broken a heel.

She slipped into the hallway just as several men with flashlights turned the corner. Shouts of “Hey!” and “Stop!” broke out but Tara ignored them, doused the witchlight, and plunged into the darkness, trailing one hand along a wall for guidance. She fled with the speed born of panic, hoping she didn’t crash into anything. Out of sight of the guards, she fumbled along the wall until she found an unlocked door and slipped inside. She flipped the catch on the knob by feel, and stood still, trying not to breathe as the several guards thudded past. The doorknob rattled, but apparently no one questioned the lock.

Secure at least for the moment, she summoned Arradia, which obligingly appeared and hovered sparkling over her hands.

“Find Willow,” she told it. “Shortest distance.”

The light flickered, then shot away from her, dissolving through the door. Part of her was reluctant to leave her sanctuary, but she would be safer with Buffy, and besides there was still a chance she could help. Someone might be hurt. With a steadying breath, she re-entered the hallway.

The light seemed to sense that going through the main room wasn’t the best idea, and led her through the back corridors of the house. From a distance, Tara thought she heard the sounds of fighting, and realized that Buffy and the others must have made it inside. At last, she turned a corner and saw where a door had been kicked open, and when the light vanished through, she sighed with relief.

Almost there. I can find the others and then everything will be all right.

Tara started forward eagerly then faltered to a stop. Another hallway joined hers, forming a  T  with the demolished door in the center, and Anya stood at the right-hand branch of the hallway. A faint light glowed around her, but otherwise she didn’t look like  ghost. She was solid and appeared as she always had in her flowered sundress, fair hair spilling over her shoulders.

She nodded to Tara, then turned and pointed down the right-hand hallway. Tara looked in the direction of her pointing arm, but couldn’t see anything but a door at the far end. She swallowed and looked back toward the opening where the light vanished. She didn’t want to go by herself. She wanted Buffy and Kate and Willow and Giles. There’d been enough of by herself for one night.

“Ahem,” Anya said.

Tara turned to face her, and the ex-demon’s spirit pointed again, this time emphatically, making shooing gestures with both arms. In case there was some chance that Tara was still missing the point, she added, “You don’t have much time,” in a slightly scolding voice.

Tara swallowed, cast a final pleading look at the path that led to friends and safety, or at least backup, then cast another ball of light to help her see and ran in the indicated direction. She paused an instant to extend her senses beyond the door but detected nothing and pushed it open. A staircase led up, twisting around a central column, and Tara realized that it must lead to the tower. She shivered, remembering the appearance of the Tower card in the tarot reading, but there wasn’t really a choice. She dropped her shoes at the foot of the staircase and hurried upwards.

She had just completed the first bend when the lights came on, someone having apparently reached a generator. Oh, well, the primary goal had been met. The rescue team was inside. Now, if they would only figure out where she was.

Two more steps, and Arthur Winters was suddenly standing above her, smiling down coldly.

“So, the Slayer found a witch to help her after all. And you did a fine job of taking out my defenses. Pity it wasn’t enough.”

He gestured slightly with one hand and a ball of black light shot towards her.

*                              *                              *

When the power went out, the cell barriers collapsed as well. Spike and Willow, who had been pressed against them so that they could glare at each other more effectively, barely managed to catch themselves before they fell. After a moment, a small, shaky ball of witchlight lit the air above Willow’s hand.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Giles said. “We must find Angel and Lorne and stop the sacrifice.”

“What about Tara?” Spike asked, earning a dark look from Willow.

“She’ll be in greater danger if Ethan succeeds in opening the door between the realms of living and dead,” Giles answered, insinuating himself between vampire and witch. “The pair of you stop being idiots and come along.”

He flung open the door to their prison, and they all immediately dropped to the floor as a lightening bolt shot through the air where their heads had been.

“It appears to be your former co-worker,” Giles gasped, shoving the door closed again.

“Don’t blame me for him,” Spike muttered. “I did a bloody background check!”

“Oh, gee, a member of an evil gang double-crossed their evil leader?” Willow said sweetly. “I can’t believe it.”

Spike snarled, his anger reminding him of just how hungry he was, but got a grip on himself. Eating the witch would probably negatively impact his chances with Tara.

“You’re supposed to be powerful,” he growled. “Get out there and fight him.”

Willow shook her head, abandoning the snippiness. “I’m too weak from the drugs to do any real fighting.”

Giles cautiously opened the door, staying low. Another bolt of lightening creased the air, but beneath the crackle of the spell, Spike’s hearing detected the sound of several running feet.

“I think the rest of the cavalry’s on the move,” he said, crawling up beside Giles.

This proved to be the case, for Phil suddenly spun around with a look of horror to face whatever was coming down the left-hand corridor, arm drawing back for a cast. Seizing his opportunity, Spike leaped towards his traitorous lieutenant. However, without even seeing his former boss, Phil decided discretion was the better part of valor and darted down the hall to the right. Unable to stop his forward momentum, Spike ended up crashing full force into the Slayer, who was knocked back into Kate, who ended up on top of Xander.

There was a time when I would have really enjoyed this. Actually, it still isn’t bad.

It was like landing on a buffet table. He was sprawled full out across Buffy, putting her neck into an extremely bitable range. For that matter, Kate was also in easy reach, and if he stretched a bit, he could get to Xander as well. Spike couldn’t prevent the demon from surfacing despite a frantic mental recitation of all the reasons why it would be a bad idea to bite any of the people under him, number one being that the Slayer was trying to pull a stake out of her belt. He finally managed to return his features to normal and raised up enough to look down at her.

Buffy recognized him and her eyebrows flew up. “Spike?! What the hell are you doing here?” Her face set in a familiar glare. “If you’re in on this, so help me …”

“He isn’t,” Willow said from the doorway, her words although somewhat reluctant, proving to Spike once and for all that she was a much better person than he was. If their situations had been reversed, he would have said something on the order of, “He’s behind it all! Stake him at once!”

“Will!” Xander cried, struggling to escape the bottom of the pile. “Are you okay?”

At that moment, Spike realized that he could still hear the pounding of Phil’s feet as he ran, which meant that he had a reachable target. He launched upwards, using the humans below him as a sort of springboard, and raced after the mage.

He whipped silently around a corner in full predator mode. Even without Phil’s witchlight, he had no trouble seeing his former second, vampiric eyes piercing the darkness without difficulty. Phil never had a chance. Two steps and a leap, and Spike brought him down like a lion on a gazelle.

“I would have preferred to spend more time on this activity,” he muttered, driving the air out of the mage’s lungs with an elbow strike as his fangs descended once more. “But they say needs must when the devil drives. And the devil is definitely driving me at the moment.”

With that, he tore into Phil’s neck. Blood spurted, filling his mouth and throat, making him shudder with relief as the hunger began to abate. He fed as swiftly as he could, knowing he needed to get back to the rest, and knowing there would be trouble if they found him like this despite the fact that Phil was an official bad guy. At last the other was drained, and Spike let him fall with a sigh of repletion.

There. That’s better.

He licked his lips to remove any tell-tale blood stains, and headed back they way he had come. As he entered his former prison, the lights suddenly came back on.

Giles looked at him sharply and Spike returned a bland gaze that gave away nothing. After a moment, the Watcher nodded once and deliberately turned away.

Somehow, I knew Ripper would understand.

“Did you see Tara?” Buffy asked, having apparently decided to accept Willow’s assurance that he wasn’t involved with the villains of this particular piece. She being the Slayer and he being … well, him … she also didn’t waste time with such niceties as greetings.

“No. Why?” he asked, nervousness touching him as he noted the absence of the quiet blonde witch. He had thought she would have joined Buffy and the others and had been anticipating a nice reunion-ish sort of moment. Perhaps a bit of a swagger or a significant look.

“Another one of those tracking lights that she and Willow use came in, but she didn’t follow it. Will, how’s it coming with that mirror? We’ve got to know where they took Angel and Lorne.”

“I’m trying,” the witch said, swaying in Xander’s supporting arm. “I’m kind of loopy.”

She stiffened her spine and glared at the mirror, sweat breaking out along her forehead. “REVEAL!” she shouted, her hand sweeping over the surface.

Fog moved sluggishly across the glass then cleared to reveal a circular stone area, girded with a low wall.

Angel and Lorne were still alive, Ethan still being in the chanting portion of the ritual. Both were conscious, although Lorne was gagged, and Angel was yanking furiously against the straps that bound him to the gurney. Ethan was moving between them gesturing with a large, nasty-looking knife.

It looked quite silly to Spike, especially with Ethan’s cloak billowing everywhere, but it seemed to be working. Clouds and flashes of ominously green lightning were roiling across the sky, blotting out the stars.

“Top of the tower,” Kate said. “That should be to the left of here.”

“Let’s go,” Buffy spun, heading for the exit, when Willow suddenly cried out.

Spike’s gut clenched as the fog swirled across again and cleared, revealing a new scene. “… pity it wasn’t enough,” Ethan’s cohort smirked just before he threw a ball of black fire at Tara, who stood trembling below him on the stairs.

White light flared up in front of her, diffusing the blow, but she staggered and fell against the inner wall of the tower, head cracking against the stone. Even as Tara cried out in pain, her hands came up, sending curls of blue light whipping around the warlock’s legs, almost yanking him off balance before he succeeded in kicking free.

“Impressive,” the mage said. “It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for. But it’s not going to be enough to get you up there and save your friends.”

“Arradia, find her!” Willow shouted, and a small ball of white light flew out the door. Spike and the rest jammed the doorway for an instant, then the bottleneck broke, and everyone pounded down the corridor, with Spike and Buffy in the lead.

*                              *                              *

God, she hurt. Even with some of the blow’s force diffused, Tara could feel a deep bruise forming between and across her breasts. She knew with cold certainty that if her shield hadn’t been in place, she’d be dead.

At least the pain in my chest can take my mind off how much my head hurts.

Winters’ power stood out around him, no longer hidden behind a veneer of civility. It beat at her, trying to force her to her knees. He was stronger than any she’d ever faced, not that she’d been in a magic duel before. Her spells had been gentle magic that was tied to the earth and used to help, not harm. She was tiring as well: the Arradia spells and taking down the mundane and occult security systems had drained her.

But there was no choice. It was go on or die, and death wouldn’t come only for her. Not that she seemed to be having much effect. He’d thrown off her attempts to shackle him without any difficulty.

She threw a fireball, but he batted it aside contemptuously and descended the stairs toward her. Tara attempted to retreat, but Winters closed his hand into a fist, and she was frozen in place against the stair wall. He stood directly before her, still smiling that superior smile and reached to pull the pins from her hair, stroking the mass of it as it fell over her shoulders.

“So pretty,” he murmured. “It’s a shame to kill you. You’d make a pleasant … companion. After all, I’ve read your books, so I know there’s a fire behind that shy exterior.”

He was interrupted by a growl from below. From the corner of her eye, Tara saw that the Scoobies had arrived, including …


“Of course, you also make a good bargaining chip,” Winters said mildly. “That’s far enough, unless you want to watch her die. That goes for you too, witch,” he added to Willow. “If you even think of spell-casting …”

The force that was holding her in place tightened at her throat, and she had to struggle to breathe, lack of air preventing her from pointing out that if Ethan made the sacrifice, she was dead anyway.

She could make the choice herself, engineer her own death, freeing the others to act.

Or …

Tara focused, using her inner vision to find the lines of magic that gripped her. Careful to not disturb them or signal what she was doing, she traced the lines back into Winters’ mind.

“You kill her, you’re dead the next second,” she heard Spike snarl as if from a great distance.

She moved delicately through Winters’ mind, riding the current of magic, seeing into the heart of his power. It was like the lock, really, from all those years ago, like the cord around the neck of Sara’s unborn child, like Spike’s chip. Most things, she understood, tended to work the same. It was a matter of finding the source, and shutting it down.

I could make him a drooling idiot if I wanted to.

Part of her did want to, but she pushed that part away. She would not be Winters, would not wantonly destroy. As if the decision guided her, she found what she sought: the portion of Winters’ mind that was the source of his magic. His knowledge, his skill, his power, all lay at the nexus of the lines created by the spell.

Without letting herself pause to think or worry, Tara clamped her mind around the source. His head snapped back around to face her, eyes growing huge as he sensed the nature of the attack. Instantly, the force around her became crushing, her air supply cutting off entirely.

Through the roaring in her ears, she thought the others were yelling, thought Spike and Buffy were both trying to pry Winters away from her, but nothing really existed for either of them except his mind against hers, twisting, grappling, trying to throw her off. She was fading fast, the world turning black before her eyes, but she held on, tightening her mind’s grip.

“Shut … DOWN!” she hissed with the last of her air, and felt the link between mind and magic dissolve.

Winters screamed, hands clamping to his head, as the force around her vanished and she swayed and pitched forward, choking and gasping to bring air into her tortured throat.

*                              *                              *

Spike caught her as she fell, and she collapsed for an enjoyable instant against his chest before pulling back with a gasp of pain. He remembered the black fire striking her between the breasts and glared at Winters, wondering how soon he could have a moment alone with the human to demonstrate his displeasure with that particular action.

Holding Tara by the arms, he lowered her gently to one of the steps. Her head lolled back against the wall as she fought to breathe.

“Easy, Love. You’ll be fine.”

“Look after her,” Buffy called over her shoulder as she charged past. “I’ve got to get up there.”

It was an order he was pleased to follow, and he knelt beside Tara, as the others ran after Buffy, Willow casting him a look of mingled confusion and annoyance. It grew quiet on the stairwell as Tara’s breathing calmed except for Winters who was whimpering, “It’s gone. It’s gone,” over and over.

Her eyes flickered open, and she looked at him in confusion. “Spike?”

“Yeah,” he smiled and brushed a strand of her hair back over her shoulder.

“I’m okay,” she whispered hoarsely. “Help the others.”

“In a moment. Defeating Ethan should be a walk in the park for that lot. After all, you took out the main Big Bad before you could even be rescued, clever witch that you are.”

She blushed to her hairline. “You were coming to rescue me?”

“Put it back!” Winters suddenly howled. “Put the magic back! I’ll pay you, give you anything you want.”

He lunged up the stairs, pawing at Tara’s legs, and she drew back with a gasp. Spike’s vampiric features immediately took over, and he shoved Winters away from her with a snarl.

“Back off,” he growled. “Or I’ll take you out just for the fun of it.”

Winters started to sob, and Spike turned back to Tara, shifting back to human face without missing a beat.

“Now, where were we?” he murmured. “Oh, yes. Rescuing you. Certainly, I was. I always enjoy rescuing ladies wearing terribly hot dresses.”

She smiled shyly at his teasing tone, then, a look of incredible hurt suffused her face, and she turned her head away, her eyes filling with tears.

“What?” Spike said, stunned. “What is it?”

He reached for her hand, but she pulled it away and struggled to her feet, using the wall for balance.

“Buffy,” she whispered, looking down at the floor, her hair falling forward to hide her face. “We have to help Buffy and the others.”

As if in response to her words, a huge clap of thunder shook the tower and there was a roar like the winds of a hurricane.

“Too late,” Winters giggled. “It’s too late.”

Tara shook her head. “No. It’s not.” She stumbled up the stairs toward the top of the tower, pushing Spike ahead when he tried to steady her. “Go,” she whispered. “Help them. I’ll be behind you.”

This is what happens when you pursue relationships with heroic people. They expect you to be all heroic, too.

He sighed and raced up the stairs, hearing Tara’s slower climb behind him. As he ran, his mind turned over what had just happened.

She was happy to see me at first, I’d swear to it, but something upset her. Couldn’t be the vamp thing. She already knew I was a vampire and it didn’t bother her. Hell, she took out the chip.

Could it be because he’d left her in the hotel? If so, that just showed what happened when you tried to be sensitive. He should have just shoved her up against the wall and taken her.

It didn’t sound quite right, though, from what he knew of Tara. It wasn’t at all in touch with the universe to not allow someone to change their mind over sex. Besides, she seemed to be feeling pain, not anger. No, there was something else going on, and he intended to find out what it was. If, of course, they made it through the night.

Buffy had apparently utilized her favorite method for going where she wasn’t particularly wanted, so Spike poked his head through the kicked-out door that opened onto the top of the tower to assess the situation.

It was a mixed bag. The positive side consisted of the fact that Angel and Lorne were free and that Giles was methodically pounding Ethan’s head against the floor. The negative side was personified by a very large, very pissed-off demon that was currently fighting the Slayer, Angel, and the Scoobies, and seemed to be winning. There was also the matter of the gaping hole that had opened in the sky directly above the tower with … things … moving inside. “Ramos, I presume,” he muttered, trying to figure out what the hell he should do.

“You summoned me!” the demon roared. “I will have my sacrifices if I must take them myself!”

“Isn’t that sort of missing the point of sacrifices?” Buffy gasped, slamming one of the gurneys into the demon with no noticeable effect. “Giles! Stop killing Ethan and tell me how to get rid of this thing!”

“Right,” Giles said without pausing in his systematic beating of the other man. “Strike it with the instrument used in its summoning. That will send it back.”

“And that would be what? ANGEL!” she shrieked, as Ramos wrapped a hand around the former vampire’s neck and jerked him off the ground.

“The knife,” Tara said from behind Spike’s shoulder. “The knife Ethan was going to use for the sacrifice.”

It was lying on the floor, near Giles and Ethan. Spike eyed it, then eyed the large, angry demon. He could just leave and drag Tara after him, but that would undoubtedly lead to complications. Even as he thought it, she began to push past him, going for the knife herself, weak as she was. She’d undoubtedly trot right up to the demon with it.

Heroic people give me a headache.

He rolled his eyes and jerked her back by the arm. “I’ll do it,” he growled and darted forward to snatch up the knife. However, there was nothing saying he had to do it up close and personal, and the demon made a nice big target, so he drew back, aimed carefully — all he needed was to send the knife over the side of the tower or into Angel — and threw with all his strength.

Ramos howled, dropping Angel as the knife buried to the hilt in its side. It staggered to the edge of the tower and hung there a moment. “I … will … have … my … sacrifice,” it gasped, and pointed at Giles and Ethan. Crackling energy shot from its hand and wrapped around the prone body of Ethan Rayne as Giles recoiled. The mage shot across the tower floor and into the demon’s arms, toppling with it over the side of the tower. Everyone ran or limped to the side and looked over but the two bodies only fell about 20 feet before vanishing entirely with a thunderous clap of sound that also closed the hole in the sky.

“I guess that’s that.” Xander said at last into a quiet that seemed eerie by contrast to the earlier sounds of battle.

“Or not,” he added, as the tower began to sway.

They ran for the door, Buffy and Angel sweeping the others ahead of them. Xander half-carried Willow, who was still weak from the extra drugs she had been given. Tara was moving slowly, obviously feeling the pain of her injuries, and staggering as they swarmed down the spiral staircase, which was shaking and peeling away from the wall.

“Looks like I get to rescue you after all, Sweetness,” Spike said softly, catching her up in his arms without breaking stride. “Feel free to swoon or some such.”

They passed a pile of rubble and his night-vision showed him a well-manicured hand with a Rolex on the wrist poking out from the bottom of the pile. Somehow, he felt no particular urge to attempt to retrieve Winters. He probably wouldn’t get an opportunity to torture him, and what would be the point otherwise?

He leaped forward and down as the steps buckled, and Tara’s arm tightened around his neck. However, as soon as they were outside the house, surrounded by scattering party guests, she began to wriggle in his hold.

“Put me down,” she hissed, embarrassed.

“Relax,” he murmured back. “Enjoy the moment. Take notes for the next book.”

The words were out before he could stop them, and Spike wondered if he could persuade Willow to turn time back 30 seconds so he could bloody well keep his mouth shut. Tara stiffened then began to fight him in earnest.

It wasn’t particularly effective fighting, given his vampire strength and her generally weakened condition, but Spike set her down hastily anyway before she could call Buffy or Willow to her aid. He was fairly sure that the other witch wouldn’t need much of an excuse to unleash some sort of occult nastiness in his direction, and the Slayer was cheerfully willing to kick his ass at any given opportunity.

“I didn’t mean …” he started, but she was already moving away from him as fast as she could, threading through the crowd until she reached Giles’ side, never looking back. It was far too reminiscent of his treatment at the hands of the Slayer, and Spike’s eyes narrowed.

Sod it. I don’t need this again. I didn’t have the best timing, but it’s not like she didn’t write the damn books.

Still, he did need a ride in order to get under cover before daylight, so he followed the others to their hidden van. He was careful not to look at Tara, however, and climbed into the back of the van without protest while she slid into the front passenger’s seat and Giles took the wheel.

Well, isn’t this pleasant.

Everyone else in the back of the van was snuggled up to their restored honeys. Xander was crooning over Willow’s dizziness. Buffy and Angel were holding hands, staring into each other’s eyes, and apparently engaging in some form of telepathy. Lorne was babbling continuously to the accompaniment Kate’s fond smile. It was making him nauseated. And envious. He was painfully aware of Tara sitting up front, and when he heard Giles speak, he tuned his hearing that direction.

“Are you sure you don’t require medical attention? I know you were struck at least once.”

“I’ll be fine,” she said quietly. “I just need to rest.”

Yeah, rest. All alone in your chaste little bower.

He could feel the anger rising the same way it had when he fruitlessly pursued the Slayer in Sunnydale, and he nursed it all the way into L.A. When Giles pulled up in front of the Ritz, Spike was first out of the van.

“If you need somewhere to stay, some of us are going to the Agency’s hotel,” Angel called. “There’s plenty of room.”

He twisted his lips in a sneer. “Thanks, but I’ve had all the fun with you lot I can stand. See you in another five years or so. Ta.”

With that, he strode off jauntily into the darkness. Head up, hands in pockets, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, Big Bad to his fingertips, absolutely immune to the charms of blonde-haired witches.

He walked for blocks, oblivious to his surroundings, trying very hard not to think about anything. Cover wasn’t a real issue: there were tons of abandoned buildings where he could doss down. The important thing was putting distance between himself and the others, especially …

“She found the mouse you threw in the gutter.”

There had been no hint of another presence, the voice spoke practically in his ear, and Spike leaped almost three feet in the air. When he came down, fists clenched and searching for a target, Anya was leaning against a lamp-post.

“What?” he managed to say, grateful for the fact that he couldn’t have heart attacks.

The spirit sighed. “Tara. Found. The. Mouse. You. Threw. In. The. Gutter.” she enunciated carefully. “She thinks you did it the night you kissed her, and that’s why she’s upset. Plus, bringing up the books the way you did.” She frowned at him. “What were you thinking anyhow?”

“Apparently, I wasn’t. We were a little busy. So she found the mouse? Hell.” He plowed a hand through his hair.

Anya looked decidedly unsympathetic. “That mouse meant a lot to her, you know. Her mother carved it. She slept with it when she was little.”

“I was mad,” he shrugged. “She took off without giving me a chance to explain. I wanted to cut ties.”

“Well, you can. Or you can go back and talk to her. It’s up to you.”

“Let’s see. I can go off with or without a door slammed in my face. Which shall it be?”

“Tara won’t slam the door in your face. She loves you. At least, she loves the idea of you. It’s up to you to get it the rest of the way.”

He stared at her, disconcerted by her bluntness. “Aren’t you oracle types supposed to be obscure? Or talk in rhymes?”

Anya snorted. “I have better things to do with my afterlife than wait for you to figure this stuff out. Besides, I wasn’t all that mystic when I was alive. I don’t want to start now.”

“I can see that. Why are you appearing to me, anyway? Why not to Xander?”

She smiled fondly. “Seeing me would just make him feel sad and guilty, and he needs to get on with his life. As for appearing to you, it’s obvious you can’t manage this stuff on your own. Look at the way you screwed up with Buffy.”

Spike opened his mouth to yell, but Anya’s open, cheerful expression stopped him. She wasn’t being malicious: she was stating a fact.

“Besides,” she went on. “I always liked Tara. She was the only one who really listened to what I said and didn’t treat me like I was stupid. She accepted me the way I was. I want her to be happy.” She stepped closer and poked him with a solid finger. “So watch it. If I have to get back in the vengeance business, you’ll be sorry. Hi, Angel,” she added offhandedly, looking past Spike’s shoulder.

Startled, he turned. His grandsire was a few feet behind him, watching the situation with his usual unshakable calm. “Hey, Anya. How are things?”

“Just fine, thank you. And you?”

“Better than I was.”

“I can see that. Good.” She patted Spike kindly on the shoulder. “Now, we just have to straighten this one out.”

Angel laughed. “Good luck. I worked on that for a century and didn’t get very far.”

“Hey!” he snapped irritably. “I’m standing right here, you know.” He tried to add Anya to his scowl but she had vanished.

“So,” Angel said agreeably.

“So,” Spike repeated with a sour expression. “Going to straighten me out, are you, my dear old granddad? And how did you follow me without my noticing? You’re not a vampire anymore.”

“You don’t lose 200 years of lurking experience just because you turn human,” the other shrugged. “As for why I’m here, I thought I’d offer you a job.”

Whatever Spike had expected, that hadn’t been it. “A job? With Poufters, Inc? Work with Cordelia and Wesley? Oh, joy. That sounds like even more fun than Ethan’s offer”

“Actually, I want to watch you work with Fred,” Angel grinned. “You could just come in on a consulting basis if you want. You’ve got some insight into the occult underground. We could use you.”

“Which offers me what? I actually like to get paid for what I do. Besides, could we take a moment to recall that I’m evil? And that I like it that way?”

“That accounts for the kind of cases you’ve been taking and why you tried to help me and Lorne, didn’t kill Giles, did kill Ramos, and made sure Tara got out safely. Yeah, you’re a black hat. Working with us pays less, but you won’t get sold out.” His grin turned sly. “Speaking of Tara, did I mention I want to bring her on board too? We could use a witch. Plus, a friend of mine that runs a homeless kids shelter is looking for a counselor.”

“What is this sudden interest in my love life?” Spike demanded crossly. “Why try to set me up with her if you like her so much? I’m normally considered a bad influence on sweet young things.”

Angel’s face took on the fond expression most people wore when they spoke of Tara. “I do like her. She … she reminds me of the way Drusilla was before I changed her, that same innocence and strength.” His eyes looked inward for a moment, then he shook off the memories. “Like it or not, it’s obvious that you’ve changed, and that you care for her. She came to Sunnydale after she left L.A., and from what I gather, she’s interested in you too. Besides, she should be safer with you than with anybody else.” For a moment, his expression was sheer Angelus. “After all, if you’re anything less than worshipful 150% of the time, Buffy will stake whatever parts of you that Willow leaves intact, and then I’ll find something unpleasant to do with the dust.”

“And Anya will be in charge of torturing my afterlife. Got it. Why am I even listening to this?”

“Because deep down, it’s what you want. From the time you were human until now, you’ve wanted to belong. Now, you’ve got a shot.” Angel sighed. “Don’t ask me how it happened, Spike, but you’re family. You’re the black sheep that no one talks about, who shows up at reunions and eats all the food, but you’re still family.”

There was no earthly reason that should make him happy, but it did. Habit kept his face smooth, but Angel smiled anyway and pulled something from his pocket and tossed it to Spike.

“Think it over. By the way, that’s a key to the suite at the Ritz. For some reason, everyone except Tara ended up staying at our hotel.” He raised an eyebrow and added, “Remember what I said about being nice. See you around,” before strolling off into the shadows.

*                              *                              *

The hot shower helped, but Tara was still sore and aching as she wrapped herself in a bathrobe and sank onto the couch in the suite. The bruise where Winters had struck her was impressive, covering the center of her chest and about half-way across both breasts. She was too drained at the moment to try any self-healing and had settled for ordering hot water from room service to which she had added enough chamomile, valerian, and lavender from her herb stash for three people.

Of course, Willow would have been happy to help as soon as the drugs were out of her system, or she could have gone to Rose, but Tara wanted to be alone rather desperately.

I’m glad the others went to Angel’s hotel, although I’m still not really sure how that happened.

She had ordered food from room service as well, and forced down some toast, since she hadn’t eaten that day, but her stomach was still mostly in knots from the events of the evening. Particularly …

“Take notes for the next book.”

Oh, God, she couldn’t bear that he knew. Not that he didn’t have every right to know, or to be angry about that knowledge. She shouldn’t have hidden it. She shouldn’t have written the books in the first place. But how humiliating to have her silly little crush dragged out and inspected by a pair of amused blue eyes. All Tara could think about when she heard those words was getting away from him as fast as possible before she started to cry or went into a stammering fit or something equally awful.

Still, on the stairs, Spike had been … not angry … He’d actually seemed happy to see her, given his smile and comments about rescuing. His mention of the dress had made her blush, and could do it now if she thought about it. She had forgotten about the mouse for a few moments, then the anger and disgust she had sensed when she retrieved it from the gutter had flooded back over her, and she fallen back on old habit and retreated.

She closed her eyes and leaned back on the couch, and the memory of a tarot card fluttered through her mind. The King of Cups. Influences and attitudes that maybe we don’t see. Spike.

She frowned at the realization, remembering her dreams about the card while they were setting up the rescue. She’d been able to calm it, soothe it somehow. Ridiculous. Just extra proof of how pathetic she was. Well, it was all over now. He was gone, and she probably wouldn’t see him again. She would have to call Sophie and tell her that the next book would be the last. She was only contracted for three and, then the kangaroo would stop hopping pink and …

Tara’s breathing went deep and regular and she slumped back against the couch cushions, falling into sleep as exhaustion and the pain-killing herbs took over.

*                              *                              *

She ran through the darkened house, frantically opening doors as she tried to track Willow’s screams. She found herself on the steps that led to the tower, but instead of Winters, her father stood above her, holding his belt in one hand and her first book in the other. “Harlot!” he shouted. “Whore!”

“Please don’t, Sir,” she whimpered. “Please. I’m sorry.”

Tara tried to back away as he stormed down the steps, but she couldn’t move because Winters was behind her, gripping her arms to keep her still. One of the men from the Initiative who had come for Spike five years ago lounged against the wall of the tower and grinned at her.

“No magic for you this time,” he said. “Nothing but pain and punishment.”

“All she deserves,” Winters breathed in her ear. “For being a bad girl.”

“Evil,” her father said. “She has a demon in her that must be beaten out.”

Light caught on the buckle as the belt snapped through the air. She struggled furiously to shield her face, but strong hands were on her arms, shaking her …

*                              *                              *

“Shh. Shh. Tara, you’re safe. Shh, Love. It’s all right.”

Initially, she didn’t even think, simply reacted, burying her head against Spike’s shoulder, clutching at him as he rocked her. As her heart started to slow, memory crashed back over her, coupled with the knowledge that she was only wearing a bathrobe, and she sat back hastily. He gave her a look, but let her go and handed her a box of tissues that sat on the desk.

“Are you okay now?” he asked neutrally.

“Yeah, uh, thanks,” she said, sniffing furiously, and using one of the tissues to wipe her flaming cheeks while she tried to think of what to say.

‘How did you get in here?’ didn’t sound terribly polite since he’d pulled her out of the nightmare, but it was the main thing in her mind, followed by ‘Could you wait outside while I get dressed?’.

“I thought we should talk,” Spike said, and laid one of the hotel keys on the coffee table before her, followed by the wooden mouse. “I’ve been here a few minutes,” he added as her head whipped around to stare towards her bedroom where she’d left the mouse on her dressing table.

She sprang to her feet, almost tripping over her hem, and backed away. “Oh, no. No.” she babbled. “You don’t owe me any … I mean I totally understand … That night … Well, it was … And you rescued me from the vampire, and that was nice … so I …”

“Impressive,” he interrupted driyly. “I’ve never seen anyone tie 14 knots in a sash in under 30 seconds.”

Confused, she looked down at her hands and saw that she had, indeed, knotted the sash of her robe from the waist all the way out to the ends. It would probably have to be cut off.

“You walk into an enemy fortress by yourself and defeat a wizard while being choked to death, all without turning a hair, and you can’t manage to talk to me?” he teased gently.

“That was different,” she murmured, still looking down.

“Well, yeah. But in theory, talking to me should be less nerve-wracking than the other situation.”

She made herself raise her head and meet his gaze. “Not really. It didn’t matter what Winters thought about me.”

Spike’s face softened. “I didn’t throw the mouse away the night I kissed you. I came back the next night, and you’d gone. I was angry. I wanted to forget about you, how you made me feel.”

“How I made you feel?” This sounded much better in books. The heroine’s voice never cracked, and she never seemed to wish she had a few more feet of sash to tie knots in.

He had remained kneeling by the couch while they spoke, but now he stood and walked to her. For some reason, she didn’t have the urge to run.

“Accepted,” he said softly, ghosting one finger down her cheek. “Believed in. Even back in Sunnydale, you made me feel that way when you helped me with the Initiative. You saw more than just a chipped vampire.” A bittersweet smile that she didn’t understand crossed his face. “You saw me.” The smile turned into a grin and he leaned down to whisper in her ear. “And apparently you found me rather inspirational.”

She jerked, and his arms closed around her.

“Nope. No panicking allowed. Not due to me, anyhow. After all, if you’re the slightest bit unhappy, the line to finish me off forms behind Willow, Buffy, and Angel.”

Cautiously, she put her arms around his waist and relaxed slightly. “Can’t I panic just a little? It’s hard to go cold turkey.”

Tara winced as Spike’s arms tightened, his chest pressing against her bruise. Instantly, he turned her so that she leaned back against him, his hands resting at her waist.

They were facing the mirror, so she couldn’t see his reflection, but part of the bruise showed above the neckline of her robe, and she heard the anger in his voice as he said, “You should get that seen to. And Winters is lucky he’s dead.”

“I will tomorrow.” She wanted to close her eyes, but forced them to remain open and looked where she thought his face must be in the mirror. “I’m sorry about the books. I just sort of … started … without meaning to, and the whole thing got away from me.”

“It’s rather flattering, really,” he said, and she felt his chin rest against the top of her head. “Most like to write about the dark broody types. Least you didn’t make Shiv a pouf, and you gave him a good dress sense.” He moved around to face her, smug grin in place. “Still. I’d say you owe me, don’t you?”

“You mean like royalties or something?”

“No, Pet. I had something else in mind. Three things actually.” Spike’s eyes darkened and a shiver went down her spine despite herself.

“Wh… what?”

“To begin with, Angel’s going to offer you a job with his firm as his witch-on-call. I think you should take it, don’t you?”

“A job?” Tara said, confused. She paused, thinking it over. It might be fun to work with them. She liked Cordelia and Kate, and from what she heard about the others, they would be interesting, too. If it was on-call, there would still be time to write. “That should be all right.”

“Very good,” he said approvingly. “I’ll probably be working there too for a bit. Next thing. You have to learn to like Passions, or at least watch it with me.”

She wrinkled her nose. “That weird soap opera with all the stuff that’s supposed to be occult?”

“The very one. I’ll bring you up to date. Agreed?”

“I guess so. On a trial basis, anyway. What else?”

“I get to do this as often as I like. At least, in private.”

With that, he leaned down and kissed her lips firmly, his hands resting on her waist. After a startled second, she kissed him back, her hands moving uneasily to his arms. The kiss went on for some time, but he didn’t touch her in any other way, to Tara’s mixture of relief and disappointment.

At last, he raised his mouth from hers. “What do you think?”

“Seems fair,” she said breathlessly.

He shook her hand gravely. “Done then. And now, you should probably get some sleep.”

At her worried pause, he added, “Alone. For a time at least.”

And so the bargain was sealed. Over the next couple of months, they became accustomed to their new routines, both working occasionally for Angel Investigations. Tara divided the rest of her time between counseling at the kids’ shelter and starting on The Light Bringer, in which Jane decided she was tired of Shiv’s attitude.

“Getting a bit saucy, I see. Isn’t ‘Try your seductive evil on someone who cares,’ a bit harsh?” Spike comented, reading over a draft of one of the chapters.

“That’s Sophie’s favorite line so far.”

“No one understands that cultivating a proper seductive evil takes work. It would be nice if one’s efforts were appreciated.”

“Thanks,” Tara grinned. “Now I know what to use for Shiv’s response.”

Cordelia was reconciled to Spike’s presence in the firm by the fact that he’d built up his own clientele that paid on time and in full, and that he didn’t spend a lot of time on site. He’d gotten his own place in the basement of an abandoned office complex in a run-down industrial area that became mysteriously free of crack dealers. He also decorated it.

“Why do you have plastic bats hanging from the ceiling?”


Friday nights, everyone generally went to Lorne’s, although both Spike and Tara drew the line at actually singing. Spike wanted to draw the line at Cordelia singing, but Tara kicked him under the table and he quieted.

Saturday afternoons and evenings were reserved for the weekly Passions marathon. Spike taped the shows during the week and brought them to Tara’s, and they settled in with a bowl of popcorn or some pizza. She thought the show was hilariously funny and Spike’s grave explanations behind the various events even more so.

Prior to these sessions, Tara wouldn’t have used ‘extremely enthusiastic cuddler’ as a descriptive phrase for Spike, but it was accurate. He almost always kept some sort of grip on her as they watched the tape, at the very least holding her hand and playing with her fingers. More frequently, she curled up in the circle of his arm with her head on his shoulder. The kisses also continued, but they consisted of good-night sorts of kisses. Enjoyable, but clearly not leading to anything.

Tara understood that Spike was taking his time and ensuring she was used to him, and she appreciated it, but she was beginning to want things to move along.

After all, I’m not the immortal around here.

However, the thought of being the one to do the moving left her with the old desire to hide. She was more comfortable with Spike than she’d been with anyone since Willow, but conditioning died hard.

“I didn’t think you were coming over tonight,” Tara said in surprise as she opened the door. “Don’t you need to crash?”

“I am crashing,” Spike announced, dropping across the couch and holding the tape out. “Bad television is how I crash.” He opened one eye. “You weren’t working on the book or anything?”

“No,” she smiled and took the tape from him. “I was going to watch a different version of bad TV.”

“I’m beginning to think you have a crush on the Croc Hunter or his wife.”

“Both of them are pretty cute. And they like animals.”

“Hey, I like animals. Especially with tomato sauce.”

He started to push himself up as she turned from adjusting the VCR, but she waved him back. “You were the one tracking sewer demons all week. I’ll take the chair.”

“You will not. If I wanted to lie on a couch by myself, I would have stayed at home.”

“All right. How’s this?”

Surprised at her own daring, Tara nudged him until he sat up slightly, then sat at one end of the couch, placed a sofa pillow on her lap, and tugged him back.

“Oh, that’s lovely,” he said with a sound between a groan and a purr as she drew her fingers through his hair. “Bloody sewer demons. And it was one of Cordelia’s visions, so we won’t even get paid.”

“But you fought the good fight.”

“You sound like Wesley,” he grumbled, brushing a kiss across her inner wrist to take any sting from his words.

A tingle ran through her, and she put an arm across his shoulders as he turned to his side to face the television.

Tara won her mental bet with herself when he was asleep within 10 minutes, relaxing back against her like some big cat. She smiled and switched off the lamp, letting the flicker of the television serve as the only illumination. She continued to watch the first episode of Passions, however. Although she wouldn’t admit it to him, she’d become rather fond of the show.

“What happened?” Spike said fuzzily, as she used the remote to stop the tape and switch the television off after the hour was over, plunging the room into darkness except for the spill of moonlight through the blinds.

“The town was taken over by giant blue pigs.”

“Nah. They’d save something good like that for sweeps.”

He turned to his back to look up at her, his face dim in the diffuse light, and his lips curled in a smile. “Well. This is nice. Makes up for the bad week.”

The tingle came back, magnified several times. In fact, it was more like a jolt of a several thousand watts.

“Yeah,” she said, oddly breathless. “It is. Nice.”

They both went still, staring at each other, and then of their own accord, Tara’s knees bent and lifted, pulling him closer as she leaned forward. She hadn’t initiated one of their kisses before, but from the way Spike’s arms wrapped around her shoulders, everything was going fairly well. Certainly, she was enjoying it, especially when his tongue traced over her lips.

She opened her mouth to him, her own arms curling around his waist and under his head, holding him tightly. He finally sat all the way up and leaned into her, pressing her back against the cushions.

Spike moved lower, nibbling her jaw line before kissing down her neck until he reached the top button of her shirt, where he paused. Tara swallowed violently, but reached to undo the button then put her hand to the back of his head and pressed gently.

He sighed, cool breath caressing the exposed flesh, making her shiver, and then his lips touched her and the movement became a shudder. He stayed there, nuzzling, barely brushing the upper curve of her breasts, moving back to drop kisses on her throat or mouth, until she was writhing on the couch. Then, he stood, drawing her up as well and bent to catch her under the knees and lift her up against him.

Spike moved across the living room, then stopped. “Before this gets farcical,” he drawled. “Which is your bedroom?”

“Left,” Tara giggled, and because his question had dissolved the tension and made her a little bolder, she raised up in his arms and nibbled his earlobe as he got the bedroom door open and carried her to the bed.

He put her down and lay on his side next to her, leaning in for another long kiss while he undid the rest of her buttons. She slid her hands under his t-shirt and traced the muscles of his back, then moved to the front and ran her palms over his flat abdomen and hard chest. Spike sat up, peeled the shirt over his head and tossed it away, then pushed her shirt back and down her arms. Tara shyly dealt with the catch of her bra, and he drew that off as well.

He settled down over her, mouth moving from one breast to the other, teasing her nipples into solid peaks, while his hips moved rhythmically against hers. Tara could feel the pressure building even though both of them were still wearing pants, and rocked back against him. Feeling her response, he deliberately changed the motion, pressing against her with slow, hard strokes, the head of his erection directly against her center.

A quick spasm ran through her and she arched, gasping. As she trembled from the minor release, Spike slid to the side, unfastened her jeans, and pulled them off along with her panties.

I should do … something.

While he still knelt beside her, Tara sat up and began kissing him, brushing her mouth over his neck and shoulders. Spike made that growling purr again and lay back, pulling her on top of him, hands twining in her hair. Encouraged, she explored him with lips and hands, finding that the techniques used on a woman’s nipples also worked quite well on a man’s.

She went lower, running her tongue over his abdomen and naval until she reached his waistband. She leaned up, watching his face as she unbuckled his belt and undid button and zipper. Spike raised his hips and she pulled his jeans off in turn then ran her eyes over what she had revealed.

It was years since she’d been with a man, and she was a little nervous now, since those hadn’t been good times, but she reassured herself that this would be different and reached for him with trembling hands. He must have seen the tension in her face for he took her in his arms and moved her to her back again, kissing her softly.

“I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you,” he whispered.

“I know,” she answered truthfully, and he continued to kiss and touch her, moving slowly over her body until she relaxed. One hand slid between her legs, and his fingers stroked her, circled her clitoris, and dipped inside, keeping a tantalizing motion until her hips started to move again. He shifted on top of her then, weight on his arms and watched her face as he slowly pushed inside her. Tara couldn’t help tensing, but he paused just past her opening and stayed there until she relaxed enough to accommodate him, then moved a little more and a little more until he was sheathed inside.

“Are you okay?” he said softly.

She nodded, horribly embarrassed. “I’m sorry. This can’t be …”

“Hey,” he took her chin in one hand and made her look at him. “I’m where I want to be and who I want to be with, all right?” Spike paused, eyes on her face, took a deep breath, and said, “I love you, Tara.”

“Oh,” she said, completely nonplussed. “You do?”

He rested his forehead against hers and for a moment she thought he was laughing at her, but when he raised himention a shine of tears in his eyes. “Yes, I do, Pet. Very much.”

“Oh,” she said again and suddenly pressed her face into the crook of his neck and shoulder, overcome with emotion.

He wrapped her tightly in his arms and held her. “So much,” he whispered. “I love you so much.”

She pulled back and blindly found his mouth. “I love you too, Spike,” she said into the kiss.

He moved in her slowly, and she closed her eyes and let the sense of his love wash over her as she matched his movements. Pleasure began to build again, starting in her pelvis and washing over her. A deep tremor caught her off-guard and she clenched her inner muscles involuntarily. The feel of them clamping around him set off a sort of feedback loop, and the contractions flowed through her in a rush of power. Spike thrust hard, and a wash of coolness inside of her told of his release.

Then he let out a startled yelp and she realized that they were floating about six inches off the mattress.

“It’s okay,” she laughed, hugging him. “It’s something that happens when I’m really happy. We’ll come down in a minute.”

“That’s the sort of thing you really should warn a chap about,” he gasped, before he looked down at her with a laugh. “They’re right, when they say it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.”

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