Spike took one last drag on his cigarette before throwing it down on the sidewalk and grinding the butt under his boot heel. He patted his pockets, checking to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be before approaching the house.
He’d done his homework; the Watcher was out, and the only one home with the Bit would be the Wicca. Spike had no idea how much longer the man would be in Sunnydale; last he’d heard, there seemed to be some serious discussions going on about what was to be done with Dawn.
A year ago, they’d all pulled together and made it work; this summer, they were busy falling apart.
Of course, with Buffy lying in a hospital bed in a coma, and the doctors offering little hope that she’d ever wake up, there was no way to pretend that all was right in the world. Without the ‘Bot, there was no way they could convince the demons of Sunnydale that the Slayer was still active.
Giles was still trying to figure out what they were going to do about the Hellmouth, and Social Services was playing catch-up with Dawn’s file and trying to locate her father. Spike had considered whisking her away—considered and discarded the idea. He didn’t think that the remaining Scoobies would let him get away with it, and he wasn’t sure that Dawn would be amenable to the idea.
He knocked on the back door, waiting for Tara to open it. “Spike,” she said, surprise in her tone. “What are you doing here?”
Tara didn’t sound as though she was asking because he didn’t belong there, but because his visits were infrequent at best. Spike didn’t know how the others were going to react to him. Last time he’d seen Buffy, she hadn’t been pleased with him in the least, and the others were aware of his one-night-stand with Anya.
Spike wanted to help in whatever way he could, but he didn’t know whether the others would accept his help; Tara was the only one who might.
“Came to see you,” he offered. “You got a minute?”
Tara offered him a sweet, sad smile. “I have several.” She stepped out of his way in a silent invitation to enter.
“Dawn here?” Spike asked, involuntarily glancing up to the second story where her room was located.
“She’s out with a friend,” Tara said. “I thought it might be good for her to get out of the house for a while.”
“Sure,” Spike said. “How is she?”
Tara’s expression was at once reproving and sympathetic. “Why don’t you come by some night and ask her yourself?”
Spike shook his head. “Doubt she’d want to see me. Not after…” He trailed off, not wanting to bring up his night with Anya. “I went by the hospital earlier today,” he admitted. “There’s been no change.”
“I know.” Tara swallowed, then pasted a deliberately hopeful smile on her face. “That doesn’t mean anything. Giles was telling us the other day that Faith was in a coma for months, and she woke up eventually.”
Spike nodded, grateful for her reassurance. “Yeah, sure.” He was desperately afraid that Buffy wouldn’t want to fight this time, though. That one of these days she would just quietly slip away, back to the peace she’d so desperately wanted. “Heard that you were having some cash-flow trouble.”
Tara shook her head. “We’re fine,” she insisted. “Mr. Giles is working on a solution. He said that he could probably get the Council to pay for Buffy’s hospital bills.”
“It’s not just the medical, though, is it, ducks?” Spike asked gently. “I know Buffy was having trouble keeping the roof over their heads and food on the table.” He took her hand in his, pressing his small offering into her palm. “This should help.” Spike closed her hand around the money gently.
Tara glanced down at her closed fist, then back up at him. “Spike, I can’t take this.”
“Sure you can,” he replied, backing away towards the door. “And there’s more where that came from. You tell the Watcher that if it’s money he’s worried about, I’ll find a way to fix it. Buffy wouldn’t take it from me, but it’s the least I can do.”
“I promised her,” he said earnestly. “It might not seem like I keep my promises, not after… Anyway, I told the Slayer that I’d protect Dawn ‘til the end of the world. Far as I know, that hasn’t come yet, even though it might feel that way to the rest of us.”
Spike didn’t give her another opportunity to respond, ducking out the back door, pausing only to pick up the ax he’d hidden in the bushes. He had failed Buffy; Spike could see that now. He’d become so obsessed with getting her to love him, he had forgotten his real purpose.
It was all about keeping her safe, keeping his promise—that was his sole intention right now. Spike wasn’t going to fail again.
Tara looked at the money thoughtfully, tucking it into a kitchen drawer. Spike had been like a ghost the last month, ever since Buffy and Willow had been shot. Willow had died immediately, but Buffy…
A month in a coma, and still no change.
Giles kept saying that Buffy could still recover, but Tara could sense the encroaching hopelessness. They all wanted to believe that the Slayer would be okay, but no one actually did. Perhaps they had bankrupted hope this last year; Buffy had been resurrected once before, and there was no chance that it would happen again.
Sometimes Tara had to wonder if it would have been better if the bullet had killed Buffy right away. She never would have said it out loud, but this half-life was hurting them all, and it was making it impossible to move forward.
No one knew what to do with Dawn. Social Services was content to let Mr. Giles take responsibility for her during the summer, although that was mostly nominal since Tara was the one who was living there full-time. Once school started, however, all bets were off.
To be honest, they were all hoping that Buffy woke up by then. If she didn’t, Dawn would most likely have to go live with her father—who was proving very difficult to track down. Dawn had informed Tara that she had an aunt who lived in the Midwest, and Tara was hoping that the social worker would place Dawn with them rather than with complete strangers, even if it meant that she had to move.
The Hellmouth had been left without a protector, and without the Buffy-Bot, there was no pretending otherwise. Although, Giles had mentioned the last time she’d seen him that there didn’t seem to be more demon activity than usual—certainly there hadn’t been the increase in deaths that he had expected.
After seeing Spike tonight, Tara had her own suspicions as to why that might be.
The phone rang, and she picked up the receiver immediately. “Hello?”
“Tara?” Dawn’s tearful voice greeted her, and Tara bit back a sigh.
“What’s wrong, Dawn?”
“Could you come get me?”
It was the fear in her voice that made her heart skip a beat. “Where are you?”
“I’m at the Fishbowl.”
Tara felt the blood drain out of her face, partly out of fear, partly out of anger. “I want you to go into the bathroom and lock yourself in a stall, do you hear me?” Tara said, her tone sharp. “I’m coming to get you.”
She hung up as soon as Dawn promised, wondering how the hell she was going to extricate the girl. The Fishbowl was in one of the worst areas of town, where people often disappeared, probably due to vampire activity. None of them went down there; not even Buffy had patrolled that area regularly.
Tara had a few tricks up her sleeves, but she wasn’t all-powerful, and she wasn’t the kind of badass with spells that Willow had been.
That thought alone was enough to send her reeling until she deliberately put a lid on her grief, knowing that her first priority had to be Dawn. There was no time for falling apart.
She tried calling Giles first, but the phone was busy, and she didn’t have time to go the shop before walking down to the Fishbowl. Xander was next on her list, but he wasn’t answering. Tara feared that he was probably out drinking with friends from work; he had been doing that a lot lately.
There was no one else, so she grabbed her keys and a protection amulet, hoping that she would be able to get Dawn to safety.
The orange point of light floating under the tree in the front yard was a relief, and Tara called out to the vampire she was sure was there. “Spike?”
“Hey, pet.” He stepped out from behind the thick trunk, giving her a rueful smile. “Old habits die hard.”
“I need your help,” she said without preamble. “Dawn’s at the Fishbowl.”
Spike’s face darkened. “What the sodding hell is she doing there?”
“I have no idea,” Tara said sharply, “but I need you to come with me.”
He scowled, and gave the ax propped up against the tree a longing look. “Probably better leave that here, I guess. Let’s go, then. Fat lot of help I’ll be, though. Most of the scum around that area are human.”
Tara winced, not having thought about the chip. “You can look scary,” she pointed out encouragingly. “Scarier than me. I think I can take care of the humans, anyway, if you’ll get the demons.”
They walked in companionable silence, Tara edging closer to the vampire as they hit the less salubrious part of town. “Keep close, pet,” Spike muttered under his breath. “And act like you’re not scared. It might help.”
Tara tilted her chin up, watching as Spike gave two toughs a hard look when they appeared a little too interested in them. Although she didn’t think of him as scary anymore, Tara could see where the reputation came from. Spike wore his attitude the way he wore his duster; you didn’t want to mess with him because he walked like a man who would always win the fight. He made you believe that he would rip your head off and not look back.
She paused when Spike ducked down an alley before they reached the front door of the Fishbowl, and he motioned her to follow him. “There’s a back way,” he said shortly.
Tara wove her way through the piles of trash to the back door of the club. Spike tried the door, and when he found it locked, put his shoulder to the door and pushed it open with his considerable strength. Spike held the door for her as she slipped inside, letting it close soundlessly behind him.
“No alarm?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Wouldn’t be set until after last call. They lock it to prevent people from skipping the bouncer out front. You know where Dawn’s at?”
“I told her to lock herself in the bathroom,” Tara replied. “Where—”
Spike pointed down the darkened hallway. “Second door on the right there. I’ll wait outside for you.”
Tara felt a lot safer with Spike at her back than she would have if she’d had to come to the club alone. She pushed the door of the club open, finding a dimly lit bathroom with two stalls, obscene graffiti scrawled all over the walls. “Dawn?”
“Tara!” Dawn came out of one of the stalls, a look of relief on her face. “You came.”
“Of course, I did.” Tara gave silent thanks for the cell phone that she had insisted they get her. It was supposed to be for emergency purposes only, but with Buffy out of commission, and Dawn prone to getting herself into trouble, it had seemed like a smart thing to do. “Let’s get out of here. You can explain when we get home.”
To Tara’s surprise, Spike didn’t say anything when they exited the bathroom, although Dawn’s eyes widened in surprise. “Spike? What are you—”
“Not now,” Tara said, hustling the girl along. She didn’t want to waste any time, fearing what might happen if someone decided that they made too tempting a target to pass up. If that someone was human, Tara couldn’t afford to be distracted, with Spike unable to help.
Thankfully, anyone who might have considered jumping the group was put off by Spike and his large ax, and they managed to make it back to Revello Drive without incident.
“I should get going,” Spike said. “Patrol.”
Tara had suspected that he was patrolling in Buffy’s stead. “Come by tomorrow night, Spike,” she invited.
Their eyes met, and she could see that he understood what she was trying to communicate—that she would fill him in on what Dawn had been doing, among other things.
Without Buffy, they needed Spike; no one else might want to admit it, but on occasions like this, the vampire was the only possible choice.
And Dawn hadn’t pulled stunts like this last summer, when Spike was the one watching her all the time. It might be time to request his services as a babysitter again.
He gave her a brief nod and then disappeared into the night.
Tara looked at the girl. “You want to tell me what you were doing?” she demanded. “I thought you were going to be with Janice.”
“I was with Janice!” Dawn protested. “I thought we were going to the Bronze, but then she ran into one of her friends who graduated last year, and he said we should go to the Fishbowl because the Bronze was a kiddie club.”
Tara sighed, unlocking the door and letting Dawn precede her inside. “So you decided to go?”
“I didn’t want to look like a scaredy-cat,” Dawn muttered. “But once we got there, this guy kept trying to buy me a drink, and he was really freaky looking, and Janice was dancing with her friend. I tried to get her to leave, but she was ignoring me, and…”
Tara said a silent prayer for patience, reminding herself that Dawn had been through quite a bit in the last year and a half, and that the teenager wasn’t doing anything worse than she herself had after her mother had died. “I’m sorry, Dawn,” Tara said in an even tone. “But I’m going to have to insist that you not see Janice from now on. If you guys want to hang out here, or while you’re at school, that’s fine, but you’re not going out with her.”
Dawn’s half-sullen, half-relieved, “Fine,” was a lot less explosive than Tara had expected.
“Why don’t you get ready for bed?” Tara suggested in a tone that let Dawn know it was more of an order.
Dawn started heading up the stairs, her short skirt barely coming to her mid-thigh, and her midriff-baring top a lot skimpier than Tara remembered. She had a feeling that Dawn had made some wardrobe adjustments after she’d left for the evening.
Halfway up, she stopped and turned, and Tara could see the troubled expression on the girl’s face. “What was Spike doing there tonight?”
“He came by to drop something off,” Tara explained. “He was here when you called.”
“I didn’t think he was going to come around anymore,” Dawn said uncertainly.
Tara glanced over her shoulder towards the front door involuntarily. “I don’t think he ever left,” she said. “It’s just that we didn’t see him.”
Spike moved through the halls of the hospital, careful not to be seen. It was long past visiting hours, and he didn’t want the questions that would come if someone saw him. Buffy was in a semi-private room at the end of a hallway, and he stepped inside, noting that the other bed was still empty. He wondered what he’d do if they found someone to fill it, since he wouldn’t be able to risk disturbing another patient.
The Slayer looked small against the white sheets; Spike was thankful that she wasn’t on a ventilator at least. From what Spike had been able to gather, it wasn’t so much the physical damage that prevented Buffy from waking, since that was mostly healed; it was the fact that she’d died on the operating table twice before they’d been able to stabilize her. There was no telling how much brain damage she’d sustained during that period of time.
It was possible that she might never wake up, and he hated that thought.
Spike wondered if anyone else knew about his visits to Buffy’s bedside. He didn’t think so, since he’d tried to be stealthy about it, and no one had said anything to him. There was no way he was going to risk being forbidden from returning.
“H’lo, Buffy,” he murmured, taking her chilled hand in his. Spike wished he had body heat to offer her, but there was nothing he could do to warm her skin. “Got quite a few demons tonight. There are plenty of them out there, but I’ve been pulling double duty, making sure they know not to move in.
“Saw Dawn tonight, too. Tara asked me to go with her, since Dawn had managed to get herself into a spot of trouble. Nothing serious, mind, and we pulled her out right quick, but I guess it was good I was there. Tara said she wanted me to come by tomorrow, and I suppose I’ll show. I know I promised to protect the Bit, and I’m trying, luv, I really am.”
He took a deep, unnecessary breath. “Wish I had done better by you, Buffy. Maybe you wouldn’t be here now.”
That was always how he ended his one-sided conversations; some nights he talked longer, telling her the details of what was going on with the Scoobies, at least the little he knew. Other nights, it was even briefer than that, just stopping in to see her, to tell her that he was still patrolling, and that he was sorry.
Spike headed back to his crypt after that, the taste of failure thick in his mouth. Even though Buffy had been shot in broad daylight, in her own backyard, he still felt as though he might have prevented it.
How was another matter entirely.
Slumping in his ratty old recliner, Spike gave thought once again to finding a new place; the downstairs was uninhabitable, his bed destroyed. There was nothing left of the cozy little hideaway he’d created, and Spike thought longingly of the big bed.
More longingly still of the hours he’d spent with Buffy. As full of pain as those hours had been, knowing that he didn’t really have her, not in any way that counted, Spike had still loved the fantasy. There had been moments that he could pretend that she was truly his.
Spike closed his eyes, allowing himself to drift off to sleep.
“It’s been strange, you know,” Buffy said, as though confessing her deepest secret. “I’ve actually kind of missed you.”
Spike snorted indelicately. “Pull the other one, Slayer.”
“I’m being serious,” she protested. “You’re a pain in the ass, but you grow on a person. Like fungus.”
He gave her a sour look, although inside he felt a thrill. She had missed him, at least a little bit. That had to mean something. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Spike asked. Even though they were lying on the grass beneath a summer sky, he didn’t think it odd; he was dreaming, after all. In dreams, anything was possible, including surviving a sunny day or having Buffy confess that she’d missed him.
“No, it’s supposed to make sure you keep coming around,” Buffy replied. “How am I supposed to know what’s going on without you telling me? No one else talks to me anymore.”
“Luv, you’re lying in a bloody hospital bed.”
“You still talk to me.”
“Yeah, but everyone expects me to pull crazy stunts.” Spike was surprised when she put a hand on his chest, dream or no dream. He could feel the warmth from her skin radiating through the thin jersey of his t-shirt. “What is it?”
“Don’t stop coming.” Buffy gave him a half-smile. “I don’t think I could find my way back without your voice.”
Buffy was fading before his eyes, and he couldn’t tell who was calling his name with such urgency.
His eyes blinked open, and he found Dawn standing before him. “Bit?”
“Geez, what’s wrong with you?” she asked, her tone acidic. “It took me forever to wake you up.”
“I was dreaming,” Spike replied.
Dawn gave him a skeptical look. “That must have been some dream.”
Spike shook his head, trying to clear it. “It was something, alright. What are you doing here?”
She glanced away, suddenly wary of him. “I was in the neighborhood.”
Letting out a humorless laugh, Spike gave her a disbelieving look, levering himself out of the chair and heading to his mini-fridge for the blood he had stashed there. “Tell the truth now, Dawn.”
“Why did you show up last night?” she demanded, her voice holding a mixture of emotions Spike couldn’t quite untangle. “I haven’t seen you since—”
She stopped, but Spike could finish the sentence easily. He hadn’t seen her since the night she’d confronted him after he’d slept with Anya.
Well, other than the previous night’s rescue mission with Tara.
Spike decided to give her the only answer he could offer: the truth. “Heard that you all were struggling to find enough dosh, and I thought I could help out.”
“So you didn’t come by to see me?” Dawn asked, and Spike finally heard the desperation and despair in her voice.
Spike sighed. “I would have if you hadn’t been out trying to get yourself killed.”
To Dawn’s credit, she colored a bit. “I thought we were going to the Bronze!”
“Then that’s where you should have gone,” Spike shot back. “You know better than to put yourself in that sort of danger. You ever think about what it would do to the rest of us if—”
He cut himself off, not wanting to go there with her, not wanting to explain that losing Dawn could very well be the final straw.
They had lost so much already.
“I’m sorry.” The whispered words were sincere enough to defuse some of his anger.
“Just don’t do it again, yeah?” Spike said. “So what are you doing here?”
Dawn shrugged. “I wanted to see you. What’s wrong with that?”
Spike blinked, touched, in spite of himself. How long had it been since someone had wanted to see him, merely for the pleasure of his company? It felt like forever. “Yeah, well, there’s not much to do around here.”
She shuffled her feet, obviously wanting to stay but not knowing how to say it or what to do to convince him that she ought to be there.
In a last ditch effort to get rid of her—although Spike didn’t really want her to go, he just thought that would probably be what Buffy would want—he asked, “Don’t you have a friend to hang out with?”
“Not after last night,” Dawn replied bitterly, and Spike was lost.
“I’ll get out a deck of cards.”
Tara could see the new lines on Giles’ face, the encroaching gray; the last few years had noticeably aged him, with the last few months producing the greatest change. He was so tired—but then, so were they all.
“Spike brought you money?” he was asking, his tone sharp with surprise.
She nodded. “It’s enough for the mortgage this month and groceries. It’ll give you a little more time to get things ironed out.”
Giles let out a puff of air, as though someone had just gut-punched him. “Did he tell you where it came from?”
With a raised eyebrow to remind Giles that beggars couldn’t be choosers, she asked, “Does it matter?”
The Watcher leaned back in the kitchen chair and shook his head reluctantly. “No, I suppose it doesn’t.” He gave her a sharp look. “How are you holding up?”
“It helps to stay busy,” Tara admitted, his words calling forth the grief once again. They were swimming against the current, the two of them, fighting grief and the overwhelming knowledge that this was one battle they weren’t likely to win.
He nodded, immediately understanding. “I have to say that I’ve probably been remiss in not asking Spike for his assistance,” Giles admitted.
Taking pity on the man, Tara asked, “Would you like me to talk to him?”
“Since you seem to have developed a rapport with him, that would be appreciated,” Giles replied, his expression apologetic. “I’m sorry to put one more thing on your shoulders, Tara. That wasn’t—this was only supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but…”
“Do you have anymore news from the social workers or Dawn’s father?” Tara asked.
Giles hesitated, and then he pulled off his glasses in a familiar gesture. “Dawn’s father sent me a check and a letter saying that he was going to authorize me as guardian for both Dawn and Buffy for the immediate future. He said that his business obligations wouldn’t let him return to the States just yet.”
Tara’s eyes went wide. “Did he do it?”
Giles nodded. “The social worker assigned to the case phoned yesterday. They aren’t terribly pleased with the solution, considering my position as an unmarried, older man with his official residence in England, but they were at least willing to consider it.”
Tara couldn’t help feeling vaguely relieved. If Giles was going to be Dawn’s guardian, that meant she wouldn’t be sent to strangers, which would do nothing for her stability or state of mind. Furthermore, it would mean that Tara would continue to have another adult to lean on; she was starting to understand why Buffy had been so depressed and self-destructive.
Tara wasn’t even the Slayer, and the weight of her responsibilities still weighed heavily.
“That means you’re not returning to England?”
“I’m afraid that I’ll have to occasionally, at least for short trips,” Giles said. “But I will be coming back. I’ll plead Buffy’s case to the Council myself; they will pay Buffy’s medical expenses, which should improve matters considerably.”
Tara nodded. It was the medical expenses that were of most concern right now. Every day that Buffy was in the hospital, the bill grew more crushing, but with that taken care of, they would have enough money to take care of the other daily things.
And if Giles were Dawn’s guardian, Tara wouldn’t have to feel guilty about asking him for money.
“Thank you,” she said sincerely.
Giles eyes widened. “My dear girl, you didn’t think I was going to abandon you, did you? While I realize that my last departure for England did not give you much confidence in me, I’m not going to leave again. At least, not until I know that things are settled one way or another.”
It had been a concern, but Tara merely nodded. “Thank you,” she repeated. “I’m sure Dawn will be glad to know that you’re sticking around.”
“Where is Dawn?” Giles asked.
Tara looked uncomfortable for a moment, and then she shrugged, saying, “She wanted to go see Spike. After last night—”
“What about last night?” Giles asked sharply.
Tara winced, realizing that while she’d informed Giles about Spike giving her money, she’d said nothing about Dawn’s antics. “She was in an area of town she wasn’t supposed to be in, and Spike helped me get her home,” Tara said firmly. “I’ve already grounded her from going out with friends for the next week, but I thought she would be safe enough with Spike.”
The ex-Watcher shook his head, uncomfortable with the idea, and yet unable to argue. “What is your opinion of Spike?” he asked, the last months having given him a new respect for Tara’s opinion and sensitivity to those around her. Even Spike.
“I think he’s trying very hard,” Tara said. “Just like we all are.”
Giles nodded, apparently satisfied with her response. “Very well. You know the both of them better than I do.” He rose, giving her an encouraging smile, the Giles-version of a hug. “I’ll let you know my travel plans as soon as I have them finalized.”
“Okay.” Tara watched him leave, putting her head in her hands for a brief moment as soon as he was gone. It was in the moments like this when the grief threatened to overcome her fragile defenses. She and Willow had been trying to make it work, had been so close to doing so; Willow had been the first woman she had ever loved, and now she was gone.
In a way, it was probably easier for her to deal with Willow’s death rather than the other way around, however. Tara knew that Willow likely wouldn’t have taken “no” for an answer; the other girl had a difficult time accepting death as part of the natural order of things. Tara couldn’t help but regret her part in Buffy’s resurrection spell, knowing that if she’d stood her ground, Willow wouldn’t have been able to perform the raising.
Tara had known better, but she’d allowed herself to be convinced that Buffy needed rescuing because everyone had been hurting so—including herself.
Perhaps if she’d said no, if she hadn’t participated, this would never have happened. Or maybe something worse would have happened. Tara didn’t believe in accidents, even on a cosmic level, and she had to believe that there was a purpose to all of this.
It was believe or go insane.
She busied herself with various household chores; Tara had a job in the library at school for the summer, but it was her day off. She focused on the summer class that would be starting soon, thinking that with Spike coming around again, she could probably ask him to keep an eye on Dawn. She might have asked Xander, but he had made himself scarce.
He, like the rest of them, was wrestling with a grief so profound there didn’t seem to be an end in sight, and the summer months were a time when the construction business really took off. It was probably no wonder that Xander had buried himself in work, and Tara couldn’t say that she blamed him. It was at least a little healthier than drinking himself into a stupor.
On the other hand, it left Dawn feeling as though one more person had abandoned her, and it left Tara with one less source of support. Perhaps when the loss wasn’t so new, or so raw, Xander would make himself available again.
As it neared six o’clock, Tara decided to go looking for Dawn. As late as the sun went down in the summer, it could easily be nine or ten before the girl made it home if she waited until Spike could accompany her.
Assuming that Dawn was still with Spike.
Tara knocked on the door of his crypt before entering, not wanting to go in without giving him some warning. It seemed impolite to do otherwise, particularly after Spike had just given her money to help out.
She found him alone, sitting in his recliner. “Hey, Spike. Have you seen Dawn?”
He glanced up. “Yeah, she left about a half an hour ago saying that she was going to go visit Buffy. I offered to go with her, but she said it was something she had to do by herself.”
Tara gave a sigh of relief. “Good. She said she was going to visit you, but after last night, I wasn’t sure…” She gave him a rueful look. “I thought about forbidding her from leaving the house, but both Dawn and I know that I don’t really have any way of enforcing that sort of thing.”
“If you told her not to go out, I imagine she’d listen,” Spike said. “She respects you.”
Tara couldn’t help but shake her head. “Then what was last night?”
“Last night was the Bit trying not to lose the few friends she’s got,” Spike replied. “She’s lost too much already to know when she can get away with saying no to that lot.”
It made sense to Tara, and was something she hadn’t even thought about; the fact that Spike had grasped that subtlety was a little surprising, although she supposed it shouldn’t be. He had always been observant. “Do you think she’ll try something like that again?”
Spike shrugged. “Depends on the circumstances, I imagine.” He gave her a sharp look. “Didn’t ask you last night, but how are you doing?” Coming from Giles, the question had been expected, and the wave of grief easily stifled. Coming from Spike, it caught her by surprise.
Tara could feel the tears welling in her eyes before she could control her reaction, and she turned away, trying to compose herself. To her surprise, she felt Spike put a tentative hand on her shoulder, patting awkwardly.
The uncomfortable sympathy undid her, and Tara could no longer fight back the sobs. Needing the comfort, and with Spike the only one available, she rested her forehead on the soft, well-worn fabric of his t-shirt.
She could feel him stiffen under the contact before his arms came around her shoulders, holding her carefully. When she the tears finally ceased, Tara pulled back, swiping at her wet face impatiently. “I’m sorry,” she hiccupped. “I didn’t mean to cry on your shoulder.”
“Wasn’t so bad,” he replied, almost shyly. “Long as it helped.”
Oddly enough, it had. Tara’s load felt a little lighter now, and she began to understand why Buffy went to the vampire after she came back from the grave. Spike had a comforting presence at times. “It did. Thank you, Spike.”
She could have sworn he nearly blushed, staring down at the tops of his boots and scratching the back of his head in embarrassment. “Yeah, well, anytime.”
Tara remembered the other reason she’d come to see him, besides looking for Dawn. “Giles wanted me to ask you if you’d mind patrolling for Buffy,” she said. “He would have asked you himself, but—”
“He hates my guts?” Spike guessed with a self-deprecating smile. “You’re the only one that doesn’t.”
Tara shook her head. “He doesn’t hate you, Spike. He just—doesn’t like you very much,” she finished, shooting him an apologetic look.
Their eyes met, and they both smiled tentatively at the same time. “I’ve been patrolling, but I’ll do anything I can to help,” Spike said. “Just name it.”
Tara nodded. “Thank you, Spike. You know, if you want to come by the house, you’re always welcome.”
“’preciate that, pet,” Spike said. “Maybe I’ll be by later tonight. Let you know how patrol went.”
“You do that,” Tara said, and her burden lightened just a little bit more.
Spike sat next to Buffy’s bed, keeping his voice low as he spoke, not wanting to attract attention to his presence. “Things are better now, luv. Dawn’s getting ready to go back to school, and your dad sent a check for school stuff. Tara tells me that she needs new clothes since she’s shot up another couple of inches.
“Your Watcher is still in town, too, and that’s been a load off Dawn’s mind. She was worried they were gonna ship her off to strangers, but she wasn’t saying anything about it. Once she found out she’d be able to stick around, she did a lot better.”
Spike absently stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. “I’m keeping a lid on the demon population for you. Rupert even unbent enough to say thank you the other day. Nice to get some appreciation, but I guess you’d probably know about that.”
He heard footsteps coming down the hall, and Spike released her hand. “Gotta go, Buffy. I’ll be back tomorrow, though.”
Spike melted back into the shadows in the corner of the room, remaining still and quiet. He watched as a nurse stuck her head through the door, looking around for the source of a voice. After a few moments, the nurse left, and Spike waited until the coast was clear before leaving the room.
He slipped through the halls of the hospital, and then headed back to his crypt. It was too late to see Tara tonight, as it was only a few hours until the sun rose.
Spike entered his crypt and grabbed a mug of blood, heating it up in the microwave, watching the mug as it spun around on the turntable. When the buzzer went off, he gulped his meal down convulsively.
Dawn had somehow found out about the damage to the lower level of his crypt, and she had informed Tara, who had then shown up with cleaning supplies one day. Spike had been too apathetic to even begin the process of clearing things out, or trying to determine whether it was even livable after Buffy had ended things.
Tara hadn’t taken “no” for an answer, however, and so Spike had living quarters again. He’d even managed to find a bed, although it wasn’t nearly as nice as the last one. While the lower level wasn’t as cozy, it wasn’t a charred hole, and he was grateful for that much.
On nights like this, it was a pleasure to have a soft place to lay his head—particularly when he could look forward to dreaming.
After the first one, Spike hadn’t expected them to continue, but they had, and he couldn’t say whether they were more pleasure or pain. A few of the dreams had been erotic, but a lot more often it was just him and Buffy talking.
It was still pretty damn good, though.
Spike wasn’t disappointed when he went to sleep this time either. When his eyes opened to see Buffy sitting on the edge of his bed, Spike knew it was another dream. “This place looks good,” she said. “A lot better than the last time I saw it.”
The continuity of his dreams amazed Spike sometimes. The last few dreams he’d had since Tara had helped him clean up, he had been on Buffy’s back porch. It wasn’t something he cared to look at too closely, however.
“Tara helped,” Spike admitted. “It’s not as nice as it was, but it’ll do.”
“Yeah,” Buffy said, looking around. “Sorry about that.”
“My own bloody fault for not looking into those eggs a little more closely,” he replied with a wry smile, knowing that Buffy never would have apologized unless it was in a dream. “Not that I mind, luv, but what are you doing here?”
“I honestly have no idea,” Buffy confessed, sounding almost cheerful. “Sometimes it’s just as easy to be here as anywhere.” She smiled at him, her eyes alight with mischief. “You know, I’m almost feeling ready to wake up now. It won’t be long, and then you won’t be able to get rid of me.”
Spike gave her a puzzled smile. “It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted to get rid of you, Slayer.”
“You might change your mind when you hear what I have to say,” Buffy warned him, although her light tone didn’t make it a potent threat.
“And what’s that?” Spike asked.
She grinned. “You’ll have to wait and see.”
Spike felt her lips caress his in a light, almost chaste touch. “Buffy—” he moaned. When his eyes opened, she was gone.
Dawn stared at her dinner skeptically. “Are you sure this is edible?”
Tara bit back a sigh. Really, Dawn seemed to regard anything green as the enemy, even after a summer spent in her care. Tara tried to make sure that Dawn ate healthy, but it was an uphill battle all the way. She had to wonder how Joyce had done it. “Dawn, just try it,” Tara said, her standard answer. “If you don’t like it, you can make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
Dawn took a tentative bite, and then her eyes lit up. “Oh! It’s good!”
“I told you it was,” Tara said, knowing that her vegetarian lasagna was guaranteed to win over even the most hardened carnivore.
Except Spike, perhaps, but he didn’t need people food to survive, even though he indulged in it on a regular basis.
“Where’s Giles?” Dawn asked through a mouthful of food.
They had both gotten used to having the Watcher around on a regular basis through the summer. Tara knew how hard he was trying to be present for Dawn’s sake, even though he had very little experience or knowledge in parenting. He had always been more comfortable with Buffy in his traditional role as Watcher. Acting as a father didn’t come naturally to him.
But Giles was trying; they all were.
“He had to work late tonight,” Tara replied. “Anya had a vengeance thing.”
Dawn made a face. “Isn’t that going to get weird soon?”
Tara thought it was already a little weird; it was only a matter of time before Anya granted a wish for someone in such a way as to make it impossible to turn a blind eye. The fact that Buffy was in no position to do anything about it only postponed the inevitable. Tara mentioned none of this to Dawn, however, saying only, “It’s a little weird.”
“Is Spike coming over tonight?” Dawn asked.
Tara frowned. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen him in a couple of days. Why?”
“I thought we could ask him to watch movies with us,” Dawn said innocently. “He’s probably lonely.”
She gave the girl a sharp look, wondering what was going through Dawn’s devious brain. “You can ask him if you want. I don’t mind if Spike stays for a while.”
“Good,” Dawn said, sounding very satisfied with herself.
Tara wanted to ask, but she didn’t think she dared. “Do you want any more lasagna?”
The fact that Spike showed up that same night raised Tara’s suspicions, even though he handed her a wad of bills again. “Where are you getting this money, Spike?” she asked with amused exasperation.
Spike looked embarrassed, and then he shrugged. “Bit of this, bit of that.” When she gave him the look guaranteed to make Dawn squirm, she discovered that the expression worked on Spike, too. “Poker, pool, and a few deliveries for Anya,” he finally grumbled.
Tara smiled. “And what are you using to buy blood and smokes?” she asked, knowing very well what he normally spent his spare cash on.
“I’m still buying blood,” Spike said. “Smokes are easy to come by.”
Tara sighed. “Don’t let Dawn see you stealing cigarettes.”
“I did no such thing,” Spike shot back. “I made a deal.”
That last was muttered in such a low voice that Tara had a hard time hearing him. “What kind of a deal?”
“I keep the vamps from bothering them, I get a carton every two weeks,” Spike explained, looking sheepish. “It’s no big deal.”
Tara found the whole thing highly amusing, since Spike was obviously embarrassed about getting money through anything resembling legitimate means. “Okay,” she said, not wanting to embarrass him further. “Dawn wanted to know if you wanted to watch movies with us tonight.”
Spike frowned. “Why?”
“Does there need to be a reason?” Tara asked.
He opened his mouth to reply, and then stopped, looking conflicted. “I should patrol.”
“You can always do that after the movie.” Tara watched him, unable to get a read on his expression.
Spike appeared to be taken aback by her insistence. “What movie are you watching?”
Tara made a quick decision to switch the order of the movies. “We were going to watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom first.”
Noticeably perking up at that news, Spike shrugged. “Yeah, alright. I guess I could stick around for a bit.”
Spike was just as abashed about Dawn’s obvious pleasure that he was staying, but he settled onto the couch at her invitation, and even unbent enough to take off his coat. Tara had seen the movie often enough so that she was able to keep one eye on Harrison Ford—who wasn’t really her cup of tea anyway—and one eye on Spike.
When Dawn buried her face in Spike’s chest during the scene with all the bugs, he actually put an arm around her, the expression on his face almost tender.
No, there was no “almost” about it, Tara realized. Spike’s feelings for Dawn had nothing to do with Buffy and everything to do with the girl herself, neatly disposing of the theory that the vampire’s actions towards the girl were motivated by a desire to get into Buffy’s pants.
Tara was beginning to get a very different picture of Spike than she’d had in the past. She’d never really believed that he was bad or evil, as she had told Buffy when the Slayer had confessed her affair. Now, however, Tara was starting to think that they had underestimated him.
Could a vampire change—for love? Perhaps more importantly still, could a vampire truly love someone?
Tara knew what the others believed, but she was ready to make her own decision on the matter.
After the first movie had ended, Spike moved to leave, but Dawn tugged on his arm. “You don’t have to go yet, do you?”
“I should patrol,” Spike replied, but his tone was almost wistful, as though he would stay if pressed.
“We’re watching The Princess Bride next,” Dawn said. “You like that one.”
Tara’s eyebrows went up as Spike sputtered something about not liking any such thing. Then, relenting, he gave Dawn a dirty look. “That was supposed to be our secret.”
Dawn shrugged, her grin mischievous. “Tara won’t tell.”
The front door opened, and Giles called out, “Hello? I’m sorry I’m so late.”
Tara could see the shutters come down, and Spike shook his head. “I have to be going.”
“Stay,” Dawn urged. “You have hours to patrol.”
“Spike.” The chill in Giles’ voice as he entered to room to see Spike there easily overcame whatever welcome the vampire had been extended earlier. “Tara tells me you’ve been patrolling.”
“I was just on my way out, Rupert,” Spike said, his smile tight.
Giles nodded. “Very well then.”
Tara knew that Dawn wasn’t going to be very happy with the older man, although she at least waited until Spike was gone to voice her protest. “Giles! Spike was hanging out with me. What’s your problem?”
“Dawn, Spike is hardly a fit companion for a teenage girl,” Giles said severely. “I realize that you believe that he’s your friend, but he’s a vampire, and he has an ulterior motive for everything that he does.”
“Giles,” Tara warned him, giving a quick shake of her head. She wasn’t sure that Spike did have ulterior motives this time around, and besides, Dawn had apparently decided that she needed Spike around, and he was no worse for her than Janice was.
Actually, Spike was probably a better companion; he could at least get her out of trouble, even if he was the one getting her into it.
“Tara, Spike is not a fit companion for her. Surely you can see that. Patrolling is one thing, but inviting him to stay just encourages him.”
Tara didn’t want to argue with Giles about this, not in front of Dawn anyway, but she wasn’t going to ignore the imploring looks that the younger girl was sending in her direction. “We let him look after Dawn last summer,” she pointed out, deliberately not using the term “baby-sit,” which was sure to rile Dawn up. “Spike is just as suited to the job now.”
Giles frowned, obviously seeing the sense in that argument, but still wanting to debate the point. “Perhaps, but—”
“No.” Dawn spoke up. “Buffy said I couldn’t see him anymore because he was evil, but she was wrong. Spike is my friend. You just don’t believe that a vampire can feel anything, but that’s not true. He likes me.”
Tara gave Giles a look that she hoped was easily interpreted as “don’t argue with the angry teen.” She knew that they needed to pick their battles, and right now Spike wasn’t doing Dawn any harm. If they let it go, Dawn was less likely to deliberately defy them.
“You’re a very easy person to like,” Tara said, trying to placate the girl. “I’m sure that Spike really does care about you.”
Dawn looked smug. “Then I can see him?”
“You can see him, provided that he’s not busy, and that you ask permission first,” Tara said, mentally making a note to talk to Spike about this. If he was over at the house, then Dawn wouldn’t feel the need to go looking for him in the cemetery, which was a much better idea.
She shrugged. “Okay,” she agreed, as though she’d never thought any differently. Dawn shot Giles one last betrayed look in parting and announced, “I’m going to bed. It’s way more fun to watch movies with Spike.”
Giles sighed as soon they heard Dawn’s door slam. “What was that all about?”
Tara shrugged. “Honestly? I have no idea, although I’m not surprised that Dawn’s defending him. They were thick as thieves last summer.”
Giles gave her a wry look. “And you don’t think that he’s a bad influence on her?”
“No worse than most of the kids at her school, probably,” Tara pointed out reasonably. “Not only that, but at least Spike can protect her. If we push her on this, she’ll go ahead and see him anyway, probably at the worst possible time. I’ll talk to Spike about it, and we’ll work something out. If he’s around the house more often, Dawn won’t feel the need to seek him out in the cemetery.”
Giles nodded reluctantly. “I trust you know best.” He gave her a hopeful look. “Is, uh, there anything for dinner? I didn’t get a chance to eat.”
As Tara led the way into the kitchen, she couldn’t help but think that Dawn was up to something, and she wondered what it meant that she had no idea what it was.
Another day, another conversation. Spike thought of the time spent at Buffy’s bedside as penance of a sort, just as his daily examination of what had gone wrong had been his penance last summer. By examining his short-comings in minute detail, Spike had punished himself for his failure.
Sometimes he wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to think of the future, rather than the past. If Spike had known Buffy was coming back, maybe he could have directed his energies towards finding new ways to keep her safe.
He hadn’t known that the Slayer would return, however, and there was no way he could have foreseen the disaster that their relationship had become—particularly after their rather auspicious beginning.
Spike came every night to talk, because she had no choice but to listen, and because he thought she would like to know all that was going on.
“Dawn’s first day of school was today,” he told her still form, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Went over there earlier tonight, and it sounded like it wasn’t a very good day. She was putting a brave face on it, but Tara and I know what to look for now. I guess your Watcher had to go across the pond for Council business, so I stayed for dinner, since there wasn’t anyone there to care.
“Tara said they’re doing better as far as money goes. The Council is paying your hospital bills, which is as it should be, and your dad is finally sending regular checks for Dawn. Between Tara and I, we’ve got the house covered, so you needn’t worry about that.”
Spike stroked her hand as he always did, relishing the contact. Buffy would have never allowed it had she been conscious, so he took the opportunity where he could. “That Tara, luv… I don’t think I’ve ever admired anybody more than her, except for you. She rides herd on all of us without anybody hardly knowing what she’s doing. Dawn doesn’t even fight her much.”
He stood, leaning down to press a kiss to her forehead. “I’ll be back tomorrow, luv. You heal. Wish I’d been able to stop that wanker, Buffy.”
Spike straightened, then made his way out of the hospital, doing a quick sweep of the cemeteries before heading back to his own crypt for the night. He looked forward to dreaming these days, knowing that he’d see Buffy there.
Not that he’d ever have her anywhere other than in his dreams, not in any way that mattered, but it was a pleasant interval in his otherwise dreary existence.
There were moments when Spike thought about the days that stretched ahead of him—days spent looking after Dawn and patrolling and waiting for Buffy to wake up—and he wondered why he hadn’t met the sun yet. Mostly it had to do with the fact that he wasn’t a quitter; Spike wasn’t going to give up, not when there was still a smidgeon of hope left in him.
Besides, he still had his dreams; that was something.
Spike had discovered that he enjoyed Tara’s company, and since the Watcher seemed to have curbed his disapproval of his presence, Spike was a little more willing to stay, even when it wasn’t just Tara and Dawn there. He’d been both pleased and disappointed when he’d arrived to check on Dawn only to find out that she’d been invited to have dinner with a friend. It appeared as though she was beginning to settle in, which was a relief to the both of them. Giles was out, and so it was just him and Tara.
“Do you want tea?” she asked after inviting him to stay.
Spike shrugged. “Wouldn’t say no to a cuppa. How are you, pet?”
It was habit to ask these days, although she hadn’t broken down on his shoulder after that first time. Still, they were bound in their pain and grief, an unlikely friendship springing up from their hurt. He supposed that they made quite the odd couple, but it was good to have a friend again.
Other than Clem and Dawn, she was the only one he had.
“Good,” Tara said. “It still hurts, you know, but every day is better than the last, even if only by a little bit. What about you?”
Spike wondered if he should tell her about the dreams he’d been having, but then decided against it, uncertain of her reaction. “Fine. As long as there isn’t any change, I suppose there’s hope, yeah?”
Tara gave him a sharp look. “What are you hoping for, Spike?”
He felt a quick stab of pain at the question, as there was really nothing that he could hope for; there was no way Buffy could forgive him for his indiscretion with Anya, no way that she’d consent to be with him after everything that had happened. She’d made that very clear indeed.
While Spike didn’t think that he’d done anything wrong, that didn’t seem to matter to Buffy.
“I don’t know,” he said honestly, his voice hoarse. “I guess I’m just hoping that if—when Buffy wakes up, she’ll see a man and not a monster.”
Spike could see the tears spring up in Tara’s eyes, and he frowned. “Hey, now, none of that. I’m fine, pet. Lived with Drusilla for over a century, didn’t I? If there was ever a woman who knew about mental torture, that would be the one. Buffy’s got nothing on her.”
Tara shook her head. “You aren’t a monster, Spike.”
He shrugged. “Sure, I am. I’m the Big Bad, and don’t you forget it.”
Tara laughed, swiping at her eyes. “I guess I’ll have to take your word on that one.”
“What’s the word on the others?” Spike asked. “Not that I care,” he quickly added at her puzzled expression. “Just thought I’d make conversation.”
Tara didn’t question his sudden interest. Honestly, Spike was mostly interested for Buffy’s sake, so he could pass the news along in his next late-night monologue. Buffy probably didn’t hear anything he said, but on the off chance she did, he knew that the Slayer would appreciate a full update.
“Xander took an out of town job,” Tara said. “I saw him the other day, just before he left. I think he’s trying to decide whether or not he’s going to transfer out of Sunnydale. I don’t think he’s happy here anymore.”
Spike couldn’t help the quick stab of sympathy; while he didn’t like the git, Harris had lost quite a bit, just as they all had. “Maybe it’s for the best,” he suggested.
“I think it might be,” Tara acknowledged. “Losing Willow hurt me, but I think it took the heart right out of Xander, and with no one able to tell him if or when Buffy will recover, it’s easier if he can start over somewhere else.”
“What about Anya?” Spike asked. “Haven’t seen her since…” He trailed off, knowing that Tara would be able to pinpoint the last time he’d seen her without him having to clarify.
Tara shook her head. “She’s still in and out of the shop. Thankfully, whatever wishes she’s granting aren’t hitting real high on the radar. I don’t know what we’re going to do if she does something that…”
“That’s a bit too evil to overlook?” Spike asked. “Yeah, I guess that would be tough. Particularly if—if Buffy isn’t up and around by then.”
“Could you do it, Spike?” Tara asked.
He tilted his head. “Do what?”
“You know—kill her? If she did something really bad?”
“Dunno,” he admitted. “Vampires in the cemetery are one thing, but going after someone I know is a different matter altogether. She’s just doing what she’s supposed to do.”
“Yeah.” Tara’s face was troubled, and Spike watched as she rested her forehead in her hand.
“You okay?” Spike asked. “You look tired, pet.”
She shook her head. “It’s the usual—not enough time in the day, or the night. I don’t know how Buffy did it, and I don’t even have to patrol.”
Hardly knowing what he was doing, or why he was doing it, Spike reached across the counter to brush a piece of hair out of her eyes. “Why don’t you go on up to bed?”
“I’ll wait up for the Nibblet,” Spike said, cutting off her protests. “Go take a bath or whatever it is you birds do to relax.”
“Thank you, Spike,” she said, gripping his hand where it lay on the counter in a gesture of gratitude. Her touch was more comforting than Spike would have liked to admit.
“Hey, Spike,” Dawn said as she came into the living room. “What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you,” he replied. “Tara was tired, so I told her to go on up.”
“Oh.” She came to sit next to him on the couch before he could rise. “I think some of her classes are really hard this year.”
He gave a noncommittal grunt, not having remembered that Tara was now taking classes as well. “How’s school for you?”
“Good,” Dawn replied. “Katherine’s really nice. That’s whose house I had dinner at tonight.”
“Glad you’re making friends,” Spike said.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think I can have friends.”
“Why not?” Spike asked. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Dawn laughed, but the sound was so bitter that it frightened him. “Oh, right. You should see how they look at me. I’m the girl with the freaky older sister who got shot, and the mom who died. The other kids seem to think it’s contagious, and they don’t want anything to do with me.”
“That can’t be true!” Spike protested. “Katherine asked you over, right? So there have to be some decent sorts there.”
Dawn didn’t reply to that suggestion. “Can I ask you a question?”
The girl’s questions were often dangerous, as Spike well remembered, but they had worked out a system the previous summer. He usually let her ask, although he reserved the right to tell her to mind her own bloody business. “Yeah, why not?”
“Do you love me?”
Perhaps it shouldn’t have startled him so badly, but it did. Spike had no idea how to respond to her, what to say. “Dawn…”
“It’s okay if you don’t,” Dawn quickly said. “I mean, I figure you have to like me a little, and I know you don’t love me like you love Buffy, but you love each person differently, right? I love Tara, kind of like I love Buffy, but different. And I—and I love you, but different than anybody else.”
Spike didn’t know what to say. He’d never really thought about it that way before. All his life, he’d been in love—with Cecily, with Drusilla, and then with Buffy. The only other woman he’d ever loved was his mother, and that relationship had been tainted at the end. Love meant romantic passion in his mind, but he was beginning to wonder how much of that was leftover from William.
If he really thought about it, however, Spike loved Dawn, just as he loved Tara. They were people he would choose to protect in a heartbeat, even if it meant risking his own skin. If that was the definition of love, then he could answer in the affirmative.
“Yeah.” Spike looked her right in the eyes. “I do.”
“Oh.” He could see the light kindling in her eyes. “Do you love Tara?”
“It’s a bit different, but yeah,” Spike replied. “Guess I do.”
“And do you still love Buffy?”
Spike frowned. “What’s with all the questions, Bit?”
Dawn gave him a serious look. “Do you?”
“’Course I do. But what does that have to do with anything?”
“Everyone keeps saying that Buffy’s going to get better,” Dawn explained. “But the last time she was gone and then came back, you disappeared. I figured if you were sort of a part of the family before she came back, Buffy getting better wouldn’t change anything.”
Spike suddenly understood Dawn’s motivations behind making sure he was included in movie night, in trying to include him in dinner plans, and in making sure he felt welcome. He hadn’t done well by Dawn this last year, allowing his obsession with Buffy to eclipse his affection for her sister.
She wanted to keep him with her, and Spike found himself touched by that.
“When Buffy gets better, nothing is going to change, Bit,” he promised her.
Dawn gave him a suspicious look. “You mean that?”
“You have my word on it.” He meant it. If Dawn needed him, he would be there, even if Buffy didn’t care to have him around.
“Okay.” The relief in her voice was palpable, and Spike found that he wasn’t surprised when she gave him a quick hug. He barely had time to return the embrace before she ran upstairs, leaving him alone.
Spike went out to the back porch, wanting the chance to have a smoke before going out on patrol. Maybe the years weren’t quite as empty as he’d thought.
He took long drags off of his cigarette, watching as the smoke drifted upwards. “It’s a beautiful night, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is.” Spike turned to see Tara framed in the doorway, a robe wrapped tightly around her. “Thought you were going to bed.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she confessed. “Some nights are like that.”
“The bed’s too big?” Spike guessed, his understanding instinctive.
“Something like that.” She perched next to him, their shoulders just brushing in a friendly sort of way. “You talked to Dawn tonight?”
“She’s worried about me leaving her,” Spike said, wanting to tell someone. “When Buffy is back to normal.”
Tara nodded. “That makes sense.”
Spike wondered if she might represent an ally. “I didn’t fight it—when Buffy said not to come around. Didn’t want to jeopardize what we had, whatever that might be. I promised Dawn I’d be here, though.”
“You want my help?”
“Maybe, if you’ll give it.” He gave her a sidelong glance. “If you don’t think I should see her…”
Tara sighed. “Dawn needs people who won’t leave, Spike. I’m not sure that much else really matters right now. If your intent is to stick around, I’ll back you up, but if you’re going to stay only to leave again, it would be better not to get her hopes up.”
“That’s not what I do,” Spike stated solemnly. “I promised Buffy I’d take care of her, you know.”
“I remember,” Tara replied.
He glanced over, giving her a half-smile that made his face soft in the dim light filtering through the back door. “Didn’t realize that it meant more than just making sure Glory didn’t hurt her.”
They sat in companionable silence after that, listening to the sounds of the night. After a few hours, Tara said, “I think I’ll be able to sleep now.”
“Good night, pet,” Spike said.
She pressed her lips to his cheek. “Good night, Spike.”
When the hospital called, Tara made the nurse repeat herself twice before she actually believed what was being said.
Buffy was awake, alert, and was asking after her friends and family. It was what they had all hoped for, but until that moment, Tara hadn’t realized how faint a hope it actually was.
“I’ll be there immediately,” she promised, considering for a moment whether or not to stop by the school on her way to the hospital, but deciding that it wasn’t worth pulling Dawn out of class. The girl was having enough trouble fitting in as it was; there was no sense disrupting her day when Tara could just as easily call her in after classes were over.
She walked hurriedly, surprising herself with the wish that Spike could be there. Xander and Giles were both out of town, and Tara wasn’t sure whether Buffy would want to see Anya, not after what had happened between her and Spike. The vampire would have wanted to be there, though, and she trusted him.
No, more than that, Tara realized. Over the last few months, she’d come to love him. Not the kind of love she’d had for Willow, of course; he was the wrong gender for that. It was love of a different sort than the passionate kind, a love that went deep, springing up in a steady, constant flow.
Tara could honestly say that she’d never really loved anyone the way she’d loved Spike, but perhaps that was because he was the first friend she’d made that wasn’t Willow’s friend first. He was hers, and that made all the difference in the world.
Buffy’s hospital room was easy to find; she’d been here weekly ever since the Slayer had been shot, usually with Dawn. Tara knew that the younger girl had come nearly every day at first, and then it had simply grown too difficult to see her always-active sister lying so still and silent. As far as Tara knew, Giles also came whenever he could, and Xander had visited a few times as well.
From something that Spike had let slip the week before, however, Tara suspected that he came more often than any of them.
Buffy’s eyes found hers as soon as she entered the room. “Tara!” she said, her voice hoarse with disuse, but the relief in her tone obvious. “I had them call the house, but I didn’t know who would be there, or if—”
“They had Giles’ number, too,” Tara said reassuringly. “And the number for Dawn’s school. Someone would have come immediately, Buffy.” She wrapped Buffy in a hug, feeling both the strength inherent in the Slayer as well as the thin frame, her weight having dropped after months of inactivity.
It shouldn’t have been possible; in Tara’s opinion, Buffy had been thin enough before she had been shot.
“Where’s Spike?” Buffy asked. “Is he around?”
Tara blinked, a little surprised at the question, given how Buffy’s last meeting with the vampire had gone. “He’s probably sleeping right now,” she said gently. “It’s the middle of the morning.”
“Oh.” Buffy frowned. “But he’s still in town?”
Tara nodded. “Sure. He’s been a huge help recently.”
“I didn’t imagine it.”
Since it sounded more like Buffy was talking to herself than to her, Tara let it go, not replying to her musings. “Did you want to see him?” she asked tentatively.
“Not right now,” Buffy replied. “Let’s wait until tonight. If the doctor decides I can go home today, I’ll let you contact him.”
Tara frowned, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
Buffy shook her head, her expression inscrutable. “Nothing.” She gave Tara an imploring look. “Could you please talk to the doctors? Or have Giles do it? I really want to go home.”
The doctors weren’t easily swayed, and since Giles was gone, that left Tara to do the convincing. She didn’t think of herself as a terribly persuasive person, but she managed to plead Buffy’s case effectively. It probably didn’t hurt that she promised the doctors that there would be someone with Buffy at all times, or that the Slayer herself was already up and moving around, albeit a bit stiffly.
She’d caught at least one of the doctors muttering something about miracles under his breath, but hadn’t paid much attention. They lived on the Hellmouth, after all; the hospital staff ought to be used to strange happenings by this point.
Tara had had the foresight to bring some of Buffy’s clothes, so all that she had to do to get them back to Revello Drive was to call a taxi. The Slayer seemed to be taking the news that she’d been out of commission remarkably well, but that might have had something to do with the fact that the transition wasn’t nearly as jarring as it had been last year.
Apparently, being in Heaven and being comatose were two entirely separate things.
“No one will tell me anything about Willow,” Buffy said when they’d reached the house. “Did something happen?”
Tara swallowed hard. This was the part of Buffy waking up that they’d all been dreading. “There was a stray shot,” she explained gently.
Buffy nodded, tears welling up in her eyes, but not yet spilling over. “I knew,” she said softly. “Somehow, I knew. Did she—”
“She was gone so quickly,” Tara said, tears beginning to roll down her own cheeks. “She passed in my arms.”
Buffy pressed a hand to her mouth, as though to keep the sobs inside. “I promised I wouldn’t let anything happen to her,” she said. “I never wanted anything to happen to her. Xander?”
“He took a job down south,” Tara said. “It was too hard.”
Buffy nodded, clearly understanding what the other woman meant by that. “You’ll call him?”
“Of course,” Tara said. “I should have already done it. I should call Giles, and—”
She didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence; Buffy pulled her in for a tight hug, gripping her with tightly restrained strength. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save her, Tara.”
And in Buffy’s arms, Tara gave herself over to grief. They both did.
It was the first time in months that Spike didn’t dream of Buffy. Instead, he woke to Dawn shouting his name from the upper level of his crypt. “Spike! Spike!”
He rolled out of bed, yanking his pants on and grabbing a shirt, not bothering to pull it on before heading up the ladder. “What?” he asked, a definite snarl in his tone. Not dreaming about Buffy was a lot worse than waking up without her next to him. He’d kind of wondered, but now wished he hadn’t found out.
Spike stared at her. “What? Are you sure?”
“She’s home!” Dawn said, bouncing a little on her toes. “When I got home from school, she was already there. Tara said I could come tell you real quick, because Buffy wants to see you before anyone else gets here. Tara said she could hold off a couple of hours before calling Xander.”
Spike couldn’t quite process that piece of information. Buffy was awake and she wanted to see him? It had to be someone’s sick idea of a joke. “Don’t yank my chain, Dawn,” he warned her.
“There’s no yanking!” she protested, looking hurt that he would even think she’d joke about something that serious. “Buffy’s awake, she’s at the house, and she wants to see you.” Dawn spoke slowly, her words exaggerated, as though she were explaining some complicated concept to a rather slow child. “Are you coming?”
“You go,” Spike said, gesturing at his undressed state. “I’ll follow in the sewers.”
“Okay, but hurry,” Dawn ordered. “Tara can’t hold off on calling Xander for much longer, and you know how he can be.”
Spike did know, which was why he moved with deliberate speed, pulling on his shirt, boots, belt, and duster as though putting on armor. It was armor, in a way, protecting himself against the way things were sure to change.
He well remembered what had happened the last time Buffy had been gone and then returned; it hadn’t been pleasant from his point of view.
Someone had left the door unlocked for him, and Spike rushed inside, his ratty old blanket pulled up over his head to protect him from the sun.
Tara was standing there, waiting for him, and she took the blanket from his hands. “She’s upstairs in her room,” she said.
“How is she?” Spike asked.
“Good.” Tara smiled, and he could see that the expression reached her eyes. “It’s almost like a piece of her that was missing is back.” She pressed her hand to his cheek. “Go, Spike. It’s going to be okay.”
Climbing the stairs one at a time, Spike stopped outside Buffy’s door before knocking tentatively. “Come in,” her voice called, no weaker than it had been before, and he stepped inside.
The curtains were drawn against the late afternoon light, and Spike stared at Buffy. She sat cross-legged on her bed, dressed casually in yoga pants and a t-shirt, her face a little more gaunt than it had been. He wasn’t sure what he was waiting for, but he stood in the doorway silently.
“Come in, Spike,” Buffy repeated. “Close the door behind you?”
He did as she asked, and was tempted to pinch himself when she patted the spot on the bed next to her.
She offered him a smile. “Cat got your tongue?”
“Dawn said you wanted to see me.”
Buffy nodded. “You came and visited me every night.”
It was a statement, not a question, and he wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
“I heard you.” She swallowed audibly. “I think I dreamed about you, too.”
Spike blinked. “Oh,” he said faintly, certain that he was dreaming now.
“Tara and Dawn have been telling me about what you’ve done,” Buffy explained. “It sounds like you’ve been busy.”
“No more than usual,” Spike replied, unsure of where this conversation was going. Unable to take the uncertainty anymore, he said, “I don’t know what to do now.”
Buffy frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Last time you—I don’t know what to do now,” he repeated. “I promised Dawn I’d stick around, and Tara’s my friend, but—I never got the chance to apologize for… I didn’t know what to say. I never wanted to hurt you, but—”
She cut him off with a kiss, and Spike sat frozen for an instant before responding, her warm lips on his cold ones. It was a taste of heaven. “Your voice guided me back,” Buffy said once she’d pulled back. “I don’t know what that means, but I think we can probably take our time finding out.”
“Yeah, sure, luv,” Spike said, suddenly ready to promise her anything if it meant he got another chance. He hated himself for it, and at the same time couldn’t do anything else.
He had always been Love’s Bitch.
“Stay for dinner tonight,” Buffy suggested. “Tara said she’s making something special to celebrate.”
“If you want,” Spike replied, grateful that she seemed to want his presence.
She nodded. “I think I do.” Buffy sighed. “I want to be sure that it was really you I heard.”
Spike took her hand as he had so many times, encouraged when she didn’t pull back. “What do you want me to say?”
“Just tell me what you usually would.”
Spike spoke, hoping that Buffy would read the truth in his words—that love was a many splendored thing, and that what he felt for her was real. Maybe, just maybe, she would one day believe it.