Disoriented and frightened, the girl hurried down the dark, narrow street, making her way toward…home. She *thought* she was headed home. Somehow, all of a sudden, she couldn’t remember where she had been headed, couldn’t even remember leaving home.
Couldn’t remember where she was at all.
Her heart pounding in her chest, she looked frantically around her, turning in a slow circle even as she kept moving forward, looking for something, anything familiar, to give her some clue as to her location, and how she might have come to be there. As she turned, however, the dark, grimy buildings and even the street around her faded gradually out to pitch black.
Before panic had time to set in, a building came into sharp focus directly ahead of her. Enormous, dark, and oppressive, the very sight of the structure sent a shudder of dread down her spine. Something within her whispered to her to go forward, to go inside, but everything else within her balked at the thought, unaccountably terrified of what she might find inside.
A brilliant flash of white light surrounded her, and then faded just as quickly out, leaving her once again disoriented as she found herself in what she could only assume was the interior of the same building. She was standing in a long, narrow hallway, light reflecting glaringly off stoic white walls. Her eyes widened with dismay as she noted that either side of the hallway was lined with small prison-like enclosures, with strange, blurred figures visible through the glass doors, moving within each of the cells.
Another disorienting flash left her standing in the center of one tiny, box-like cell, similar to the ones she had seen before, but in far worse repair. Light shone into it from behind her, revealing walls that were bleak and unpainted, the plaster crumbling and worn. The cell was empty of any kind of furniture. No windows…no toilet…no bed.
*How could anyone possibly survive in here?*
Despair filled her with that thought, and she jumped, startled, spinning around to see that the door to the cell had slammed abruptly shut behind her, shutting out the dim light and leaving her in total, utter darkness. A consuming, sweeping panic overwhelmed her as she rushed toward the door, feeling blindly for the handle, only to find that it was indeed locked.
She was trapped.
Various powerful, disturbing sensations filled her…a deep, aching cold that sent painful tremors through her; a bone-deep feeling of long starvation; terror without any shred of hope, as well as a constant, throbbing pain that seemed to consume her entire body, agony like she had never felt before, and hoped to never feel again. Exhaustion and hopelessness filled her, and she found that she could no longer stand, her weakened knees giving out beneath her so that she collapsed onto them.
A sudden, agonizing pain shot through her side, and she gasped in shocked horror. Her trembling hand flew to the spot, and her eyes went wide as she withdrew her hand and found it stained with dark, sticky blood. A new sensation of horrified confusion came over her as she realized that it was not her hand at all, but that of a stranger. She raised her other hand level with it, staring down in disbelief at them.
They were larger than her own – a man’s hands. The hands which were not her own began to shake harder, and her breathing quickened with terror until she was afraid she might hyperventilate. Shaking her head in denial, she scrambled backward on her knees until her back was jarred against the wall at the far end of the cell.
The door opened abruptly with a loud slam that echoed in the empty chamber, and she flinched back against the wall, hearing a moan of anguished terror that seemed to reverberate both from all around her, and from her own aching throat. However, though she somehow knew she was the one making the sound, the voice was not her own. It was lower, the agonized, terrified sound of a man in desperate, pleading despair.
Pure, blinding panic consumed her, and she tried to scream, but found that no sound would issue from her constricted throat. In the confusion and madness of her surroundings, there was only one thing of which she was sure..
They were coming…and they were coming for *her*.
With a startled gasp of terror, Tara sat up in her bed, eyes wide with panic, her body chilled by a cold sweat, shaking with the combination of cold and fear. Gradually the nightmare world of her troubled sleep faded away, and she became aware with an overwhelming sense of relief that she was in her own bedroom, safe in the warmth of her own bed.
And her hand was wet.
Tara looked down at the bed beside her, where her dog, a massive mixed breed of deerhound, and…something…lay sprawled across it, looking up at her through sad, soulful eyes as he licked her hand, offering her the only comfort he knew how. Macrea* had apparently sensed her discomfort, even in her sleep, for the large grey dog had shifted closer to her, his shaggy frame nestled comfortably against her, his head pushing up into her hand when he saw that she was awake.
With a weary sigh, Tara absently rubbed his head, stroking the soft, curly hair behind his ears as she turned to look at her digital alarm clock on the nightstand.
It was 5:30am.
She had to be up in half an hour anyway…not that she could have gone back to sleep.
“What a dream,” she muttered to herself as she climbed reluctantly out of bed, walking to the door of her bedroom and out into the hallway, accompanied by the familiar padding feet of Macrea, following close at her heels. “What was *that* about?”
She went downstairs to the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea, giving Macrea his morning meal and then watering the plants on the counters while waiting for the kettle to boil. Troubled and disturbed by the vivid pictures that still ran over and over through her head, she filled the oil burner on the counter with some water and lavender oil, and lit the candle underneath. She needed something to soothe her nerves if she was going to face this day with any kind of peace.
The sweet fragrance of the lavender oil was soothing, but still she sat at the table for a long while, her mind returning again and again to the confused, horrifying images that had filled her mind in sleep, trying to somehow make sense of it all. It had been so vivid, so terrifying, one of those terribly real dreams that when one awoke, they had to wonder if it had been merely a dream, or some memory of reality.
When she finally drew herself out of her reverie long enough to check the clock again, she realized that she was going to be late to class if she did not get ready quickly. Tara rose from the chair with a troubled mind and a heavy heart as she went about her morning routine. Briefly checking to make sure it wasn’t raining, she let Macrea out in the garden, then took a quick shower and hurriedly dressed. She let the dog back in and barely remembered to lock the front door behind her as she rushed to her car.
She slid into a seat in her first class of the morning, Child Psychology, a mere minute after the professor had stepped up to his podium. She was relieved that the class was just beginning, and she hadn’t missed anything – and then proceeded to miss the rest of the entire class period, her mind still occupied with the strange dream that would not leave her mind.
Such intense, horrific suffering…what would have put such thoughts in her mind? Tara liked to think that all dreams could be read, could be used as an indicator of the dreamer’s subconscious thoughts and worries. What could be the reason for this vivid and troubling dream?
After psych, Tara managed to go through the rest of her day in a mostly normal manner. She ran into a couple of friends and had lunch with them, but left them shortly afterward for her next class, an art appreciation course. She was the kind of girl who had many casual friends, was well-liked by most people that she knew, but wasn’t really close to anyone.
There were too many…secrets. Things she was unwilling to share with those around her. If they knew…well, they probably wouldn’t mind the secrecy, the lack of closeness, if they knew what it was she was hiding.
There was *one* person with whom Tara felt she had formed a close bond since moving to Sunnydale, but only one, and she sometimes wished that she could open up to someone about her thoughts, her fears, the constant nagging questions that filled her mind. The one thing Tara missed about life at home was the sense of closeness and familiarity – of being intimately known, even if perhaps not as accepted or loved as she might have liked. It was sometimes lonely, not letting anyone into her cloistered past…but it was safer than the alternative.
After class, Tara made her way home, where she was greeted by Macrea. The big dog barked and wagged his tail in greeting as she walked through the door, setting down her books and paperwork and gratefully preparing for a quiet, peaceful evening at home. She read a little, watched television, and played with Macrea.
By the time she was ready for bed that night, she had nearly forgotten about the troubling dream she had had that morning. She lay down in bed beside her dog, pulling some of the covers from under him over her and snuggling down into their warmth, all worries far from her mind as she settled down to sleep.
The door opened abruptly with a loud slam that echoed in the empty chamber, and the single inhabitant of the tiny dark cell flinched violently back against the worn, plaster wall behind him. The rough surface scraped against the countless wounds that marred his back, sending a fresh fire of agony through his already severely taxed nerve endings.
He tried to scream…but sound eluded him.
“Hey, there,” a familiar voice – too loud, too maliciously cheerful – echoed in the room, and he cringed backward, huddling in on himself, trembling in unmasked terror. “Ready to play?”
Heavy footsteps approached, and he shuddered, but dared not make another useless attempt at escape, as they slowly but surely closed in on him. No matter how he had tried to escape, to fight, and finally to appease his savage captors…nothing worked. Nothing helped.
This was his fate.
He no longer existed to the world outside those dark walls – and no one would be coming, not for *him*.
No one but them.
Tara was running…but she knew that there was no escape.
Once again she was surrounded by stoic white, unsettlingly clean and blindingly bright. The glaring light reflected off the pristine walls, leaving her terribly disoriented, until she wasn’t even sure she was running in the right direction anymore.
All she knew was that she had to keep running, had to stay ahead of her pursuers.
Every corner she turned brought her face to face with a leering, snarling guard, menacing and angry and determined to chase her down and drag her back to the dark, bleak little cell she remembered from before. A sense of intense despair overwhelmed her, as she realized that she was not going to get away.
Her heart pounded with terror as she turned another corner…and found herself at a dead end, surrounded on three sides by the bleak walls of the lonely cell she had most wanted to avoid. A malicious laugh echoed in the darkness, and she whirled around in panic to see a looming, faceless figure in a uniform slowly advancing on her.
“Did you really think you could get away?”
She shook her head in denial, a paralyzing terror gripping her until all she could do was back away, holding her hands up pleadingly, shaking her head. She wanted to scream, to beg for mercy, but couldn’t seem to make a sound leave her dry, aching throat. In her panic she gasped for breath that would not come, the desperate need for oxygen only serving to increase her terror. Her back hit the wall, and she was sliding down it into a huddled crouch, just desperate to escape the ever-advancing figure.
An instant later agonizing pain seized her body, a white hot, electric burning that consumed her in a blinding flash of light and anguish. A silent scream tore from Tara’s lips, and all around her went dark.
Bright flashes filled her mind, briefly flaring and then disappearing back into darkness – razor sharp wires slicing into fragile skin…streams of blood running down torn, white flesh and dripping to stain the pristine tile floor…a flash of white-blond hair above a huddled male form, trembling in a corner, clutching at gaping wounds with weak, shaking hands.
She could feel the agony, the terror and despair, knew that she had felt what he was feeling, seen what he had been through. The area around her was dark, only the single corner where he tried to hide illuminated as if by a spotlight as she was slowly pulled nearer to him, drawn by some irresistible force.
“Who…who are you?” she whispered, not sure he could even hear her, was even aware she was there.
Suddenly his head shot up, wide blue eyes locking onto hers in panic, and her heart lurched within her.
An instant later, the setting shifted, and Tara was standing at the end of a dimly lit alley. Near the other end, she could hear the sound of pained whimpering, and crouched near the ground, a familiar shock of platinum hair. Eager to help the man, now that they were somehow free of the maze of white walls that had confined them, Tara hurried down the alley.
She stopped short a few feet away, her eyes widening in horror.
The whimpering was not coming from the blond man, but from a young woman, slumped in the alley with her back to the wall, bleeding from a wound on her neck. At first glance the blond appeared to be kissing her…but then, he spun around to face Tara, feral golden eyes gleaming in the light from a nearby streetlamp, blood glistening on deadly fangs. It was only a glimpse, but in that instant, Tara saw the bloodlust in his eyes, the thrill of the kill…how thoroughly he enjoyed the pain and death he was inflicting.
He was a vampire.
Tara stumbled backward in horrified confusion, before regaining her balance and spinning around, racing down the alleyway, not sure if she was being pursued or not. She ran and ran, the town racing by around her until her lungs ached and her legs felt weak, and she knew she could not go much farther. She stumbled to a stop, relieved to hear only silence behind her.
Then she saw what lay ahead of her, and drew in a long, deep breath, her eyes widening as she looked up, up, higher still, to the top of a looming metal structure. It was an impossibly tall tower, all odd angles and sharp turns and misplaced platforms.
At the top of the tower was the blond vampire, and he was in the midst of a terrible conflict. A young girl was bound at one end of the highest platform, her features too distant for Tara to make out, and from the other end countless monsters charged her. The vampire stood in their way, fighting them off as they came, tossing them from the tower, shattering bones and breaking the creatures before they could touch the helpless child.
Mystified by the contrast between this and the previous scene, Tara only knew that the vampire was a more complex creature than she had supposed at first.
Suddenly, a larger monster than all the others charged him, and Tara let out a cry of dismay as the vampire and his attacker went tumbling off the edge of the tower, falling at a devastating speed, hurtling toward the unforgiving concrete below.
Just before they would have hit the ground, a bright flash of light took Tara back to the first scene, the bleak cell where she had first been. The vampire was huddled in the corner, his shoulders shaking with silent, desolate sobs. All at once he looked up at her again, his eyes meeting hers in the darkness, and she felt more than heard the desperate plea in that earnest, anguished gaze.
For the second morning in a row, Tara awakened in a cold sweat, panting and shivering, her eyes wide with remembered terror even as they adjusted to the familiar warm light of her own bedroom. This time, Macrea was lying with his head and front paws across her lap, whining softly.
Tara stroked the soft fur on the back of his neck, but her eyes were distant, staring into space at dark, disturbing images etched indelibly in her mind. She could still feel the fear, the anguish and hopelessness of that dream. Her heart pounded and her body felt weak and shivery in the aftermath of all that she had seen and felt. The image of the blond man…or vampire, rather…that she had seen filled her mind, and she wondered if there was some reason for these strange dreams, if it was possible that he really existed.
She had known for some time that the creatures most people thought of as nothing more than pure fantasy were actually much more. She had some experience with such things even before Sunnydale, and for some reason, Sunnydale seemed to be a center of such activity. The idea that the man was really a vampire in her dream in no way meant that he did not exist in reality as well.
She had experienced a couple of frightening encounters with vampires since moving into the house owned by her uncle, loaned to her for the duration of her stay in college, a few blocks from UC Sunnydale. Both times, the monstrous creatures had taken her off guard, and Tara had been forced to revert to tactics she had intended to abandon forever, simply in order to survive…but she *had* survived.
The next day, she made a trip to one of the more reputable magic shops in Sunnydale, the Magic Box, and picked up a couple of books on vampires. Of course, most people would probably have considered them works of mythology -- but Tara knew better. Vampires were real, and Sunnydale seemed to have more than its fair share; she had to be prepared, should she run into another such threat.
She thought again of the brutality of the scene in the alley, confused by the seeming conflict in the very nature of the specific vampire that had been haunting her dreams. It had been horrifying to watch him drain that woman of life…and yet, was it normal for a vampire to defend a young human girl, as he had done in the next scene she had been shown?
What did it all mean?
Did it even mean anything at all?
She hoped against hope that it did not.
It was Saturday, and still early, so she didn’t have to get up; but she knew there was no way she was going to be able to fall back to sleep. She rose from her bed and went about her usual routine, though her mind was miles away the entire time. By the time she was dressed and had taken Macrea on his usual walk, it was still earlier than most people would be moving about at all on a Saturday morning.
With a restless sigh, Tara sat down on the sofa and began flipping impatiently through the channels on the television, unable to find anything interesting enough to take her attention from her troublesome dreams. Inane talk shows and melodramatic movie-of-the-week style stories left her mind free enough to keep worrying over the horrors she had seen and felt, wondering if they could possibly be real…and if they were, why she was seeing them.
Was someone – some higher power, or even the man in the dreams himself – trying to tell her something?
And if so…what could she do about it, anyway?
“It’s not like I *could* do anything,” she said under her breath, her eyes on the television screen though she had no idea what was on it at the moment.
*But you could…you know you could, if you really wanted to…*
No, she told herself firmly. She was not going to allow her mind to travel that route.
She needed a distraction.
Tara forced that troubling thought from her mind, rising from the couch and unwittingly dumping Macrea unceremoniously onto the floor. The dog had been sprawled across her lap while she watched television, and she hadn’t even realized it. She gave him a startled, apologetic glance as she headed toward the phone, murmuring as she did.
“Sorry, Mac…didn’t see you there…”
With a sigh, the dog laid his head on his paws, watching her dolefully as she picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number.
“Hey, it’s Tara.”
“Hey! What are you doing?”
“Nothing much, I was just wondering what *you* were up to today.”
The girl on the other line sighed as she answered, “A whole lot of boring nothing waiting around for people to get home who won’t even realize I’m here when they do.”
“Oh,” Tara mildly replied, “sounds exciting.”
Silence greeted her light sarcasm, and she laughed, relenting.
“Sorry, honey, just kidding. Actually I was wondering if you wanted to come over.”
“Yes!” There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation in the answer.
Tara couldn’t help but smile as she went on, “Okay. I’ll pick you up.” She glanced at her watch. It was 10:30am. “How does 11:00 sound?”
Tara softened at the impatient reply, well aware that the girl was often terribly lonely. She had experienced a lot of loss in the past year, and unfortunately, no one but Tara seemed to have noticed.
“I’ll get there as soon as I can. Try not to die of boredom in the meantime, Dawnie.”
A small, trembling figure huddled in darkness, pressed into the corner of the tiny, bleak cell. Pale, painfully thin arms wrapped around bony, bruised knees as he tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible – but there was nowhere to hide.
The room was utterly empty, except for him. No furniture of any kind, no blankets to shield him against the cold tile floor and walls that surrounded him. Nothing to focus on or distract him from the raging hunger that consumed his body with an aching, gnawing pain to which he had become accustomed – not that he could have seen it anyway, had a distraction been provided.
And the fact that he had become used to the pain didn’t make it hurt any less.
He was drifting in and out of consciousness, his head slumping back against the wall behind him, barely able to distinguish sleep from wakefulness anymore, except when *they* came.
Except for the pain.
The blackness of night was his constant torment. Broken and starving, blind and unable even to speak, all he could do was wait in his cell for them to return, and hurt him again – because they always did.
They always came back.
The sound of the door slamming into the wall made him jump, though he had heard it a thousand times before. It was one thing he had never gotten used to…and it was the one sound he dreaded more than any.
It meant *they* were there.
One set of slow, even footsteps echoed across the cold, tile floor…only one of them this time.
That did not make his situation any better.
“Hey, Seventeen,” a mocking male voice greeted him, echoing in the darkness. The man said nothing else until he was crouched inches away from the trembling, terrified prisoner, adding in a soft, falsely sympathetic voice, “How you holding up?”
The unexpected nearness made the vampire flinch, his head jerking painfully back against the wall behind him. His hands flew up, only an inch or two, in an instinctively defensive gesture, though he knew it was forbidden to him and immediately put them down again, shaking fingers scrabbling at the wall on either side of him, clutching at it in an attempt to control his instincts and keep himself from pulling away.
Because if he pulled away…if he fought…it was always worse.
“Easy,” the man advised in a warning tone, as a cruel fist tangled in his hair, jerking his head back. “You know better, Seventeen.”
He froze, forcing himself to become limp and pliable in the man’s grasp, despite his every instinct that told him to do otherwise. His body shook with panicked tremors, his every nerve on edge, waiting for the pain to begin, even as he struggled to do whatever it took to please his brutal captor.
He could hear the smirk in the calm, quiet voice as a harsh, possessive hand gripped his throat, pressing in, sending a fresh wave of agony through his entire body. He jerked within the man’s grasp, but did not fight, as he was dragged up to his knees, the motion sending a searing jolt of agony through his damaged legs. A harsh leather strap attached to the wall behind him was drawn across his throat and fastened before being cinched tight.
The man leaned in close, and the vampire could feel the cruel smile on his lips as he hissed into his ear, “Wouldn’t want you to move, would we? Might spoil the fun…”
*Please…please, no…please, don’t…*
But no one was listening to his silent cries for mercy…and no one was coming to help him.
“You know, this is getting boring.”
The voice echoed in the darkness of the chamber, further distorted and muffled by the roar of his own agony and the disorientation brought about by long starvation…but it was still horribly familiar to the captive, still bound against the wall on his knees from his last encounter with his tormentors. The cold contempt in the man’s voice sent a chill of terror through the vampire, who shuddered within his bonds as he heard heavy footsteps approaching.
A harsh fist struck his face without warning, slamming his head backward into the wall behind him and further muddling his thoughts. The prisoner had no idea what he had done to merit such punishment, but he kept carefully still, terrified of doing something to further displease his captors and bringing about more of the seemingly endless torment he had experienced the night before...and every night before that, for almost as long as he could remember.
“See?” the man remarked to his companions. “Hardly a reaction. It’s sort of losing its appeal, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” another familiar voice, though not quite as terrifying as the first, answered the cruel observation. “It hasn’t tried to fight back in months, and it barely even moves anymore. Where’s the fun in that?”
“Well, in its defense,” the first voice argued in a tone of merciless mockery, “it *can’t* really move much most of the time, now, can it?”
A steel-toed boot slammed into the kneeling vampire’s damaged legs, and intense, shattering agony tore through his body as they were kicked out from under him, aggravating the injuries to both his legs, as well as his wounded neck which was left to bear his full weight, as his wrists were bound tightly behind his back. A searing pain shot from his raw throat through his entire body, and he gagged uselessly, trying to draw breath that wouldn’t come in an instinctive reaction of panic.
“But yeah,” the man continued, his voice flat and hard, and though he couldn’t see him, the vampire knew he was staring coldly down at him, and shuddered under the menacing gaze, bound and helpless and painfully aware that he was at the mercy of the man towering over him. “No fun anymore.”
The words felt like an accusation.
Apparently, they sounded that way to the second man as well. His voice was soft, almost sympathetic, as the vampire heard his slow, measured footsteps approaching, and his heart lurched with terror.
“Aw, come on, now. It’s hardly its fault, is it?”
The prisoner sensed the motion, though he could not see it, as the man crouched in front of him…and then searing pain shot through his legs as they were pushed carelessly back into position under him so that he was kneeling again, by hands that were deceptively gentle despite their cruel actions, and lingered a few moments too long once they were finished.
The humans who held him captive in this place had devised countless more inventive methods of torment, so it had been months since he had felt it, but he still recognized the feel of a wooden stake pressed against his bare chest, and the vampire tensed as the sharp tip dug painfully into his flesh, already bruised and bloodied from a long night of abuse.
The man’s voice remained soft, subtle menace wrapped in false sympathy, as he mused aloud, more for his victim’s benefit than for that of his companions, “Maybe we should do it a favor…and just put it out of its misery…you think?”
*Please….please…oh, God, please do it…*
“Yeah,” the second voice replied, still sounding bored. “Might as well. We can always get another one…”
The wooden tip pressed a fraction deeper, and he mentally begged it further, waiting in desperate anticipation for the moment that would end his suffering. But before it could accomplish that longed for conclusion, the stake was suddenly removed entirely, and with it the prisoner’s only hope of escape. The intensity of his disappointment in that moment was far worse than the terror of death could have been.
“No,” his tormentor decided softly. “I’ve got a better idea.”
With a swift, sharp motion, the leather strap around his throat was removed, and he collapsed forward to the floor, his face impacting harshly with the cold concrete. He shook with terror as he felt hard, hot hands gripping his arms, pushing his face harder against the floor, and hot breath in his ear as an invasive hand trailed down the side of his bare, vulnerable body.
“What do you think, Seventeen? You up for taking a little ride?”
“This is getting really boring,” the young brunette announced from her seat at Tara’s kitchen table.
Tara turned around from the counter where she was mixing a fresh pitcher of lemonade, a single brow raised in the girl’s direction. “Well, I could always take you home again.”
“No, not *this*,” Dawn clarified, rolling her eyes. “The whole ‘let’s leave Dawnie at home alone while we go do our own thing’ thing. When Buffy was around, they were annoying in the exact opposite way. I couldn’t cross the street without somebody yanking me back inside the house, telling me it wasn’t safe. And now, it’s like…” Her voice trailed off, and she shook her head, either unable or unwilling to finish that thought.
Tara picked up the pitcher and carried it in one hand and a couple of glasses in the other, setting everything down on the table before sitting down beside Dawn and reaching out to gently take her hand.
She had met the girl several months ago at a little magic shop downtown called the Magic Box, where she frequently shopped for the herbs and crystals and reference books she sometimes used. Tara knew how to perform a few very basic spells she had learned from her mother, before she had passed away a few years back. Her mother had been a very powerful witch, and Tara had inherited much of her magical knowledge, if not her power or talent.
One afternoon, Tara had noticed Dawn sitting at a large round table in the shop, on her own and appearing very lonely and bored. She had struck up a conversation with the girl, and her heart had ached at the eagerness with which Dawn had grasped onto the simple attention. From that point on, when Tara had gone in the Magic Box, she had looked for Dawn.
Most times, she found her.
Dawn’s older sister Buffy had passed away a few months ago, and the teenager was having a difficult time dealing with the loss, as was to be expected. However, it was made even more difficult by the fact that her sister’s friends, who were supposed to be taking care of her as per her sister’s wishes, seemed to be so caught up in their own grief that they had all but forgotten the grieving child in their care.
Tara had decided then and there to be a friend to the lonely young girl. She had invited Dawn over one afternoon to watch movies, and gradually their visits had become a regular affair. Tara felt that it was the least she could do, really. After all, Dawn was dealing with far more than they were, and not only because Buffy had been her sister. Shortly before Buffy’s death, Dawn’s mother had passed away as well, suddenly, from a brain aneurism.
It was a lot of loss for a young girl in a very short time…but not all that she would face.
Dawn had opened up to Tara about the loss of her mother and sister, and eventually confided in her that shortly after Buffy’s death, one of her sister’s friends to whom she had grown very close had also been taken from her, mysteriously vanishing without a trace. Dawn said that she had searched all over town for him, without finding a clue as to where he had gone. His home and possessions were untouched, so it did not seem that he had willingly left town…and yet, he was gone.
Tara had encouraged the girl, reassuring Dawn that her friend would be found sooner or later; though secretly she had feared the worst. She had lived in Sunnydale long enough to know that many strange things happened in this town, and a mysterious disappearance such as the one Dawn described seemed suspicious to her. There was little doubt in Tara’s mind that something terrible had happened to Dawn’s friend, and she would likely never see him again – but she was not going to tell Dawn that.
The problem was, Dawn didn’t seem ready or willing to let the subject go.
Her mother and sister were dead; she knew that, and knew that they were not coming back. In the loss of her friend, however, Dawn had had no such closure. She had not seen him go, did not know what had happened, and therefore could hold onto the hope that he might return.
In Tara’s opinion, it was a cruel, devastating hope with little chance of fulfillment, but she would not be the one to snatch it from Dawn’s heart.
“Dawnie,” Tara reassured the girl gently, well aware of how neglected and alone she felt. “I’m sure they just…they’re dealing in their own ways, you know? And sometimes that makes them just…forget. It doesn’t make it right, but…but I’m sure they don’t mean to hurt you. They just…it’s hard for them, too, you know?”
Dawn did not meet her eyes, staring dully across the table as she shrugged and pointed out, “At least they’ve got each other. They’re all best friends. I’m just Buffy’s kid sister to them.”
“You’ve got me,” Tara reminded her gently.
That brought a faint smile to Dawn’s lips, but it faded as quickly as it appeared. After a moment’s silence, she asked quietly, “Do you think he’s all right?”
Tara didn’t have to ask who she meant, and she swallowed hard, uncomfortable with the idea of lying to spare the girl’s feelings, as much as with hurting her with the truth.
“I don’t know,” she evasively replied. “I mean…we have no way of knowing…”
“He knows how to take care of himself,” Dawn offered hopefully. “I mean…he’s really tough, and really brave. I think he could handle pretty much anything…it’s just…” Her voice trailed off, and she frowned, her eyes fearful as she looked up to meet Tara’s concerned gaze. “He sort of has this…handicap.”
Tara’s eyes widened in dismay, the situation in her mind becoming much, much worse. “Your friend is handicapped?”
“Sort of,” Dawn repeated, not clarifying much with her words, her gaze averted again. “I just…I just wish I could know what happened, you know? Or not even what happened, just…just whether or not he’s okay.”
Tara did her best to raise Dawn’s spirits, but for once, the girl would not be cheered. As the afternoon faded away into twilight, Tara drove Dawn home, relieved at least to know that if the girl was past dark getting home, her surrogate family would worry.
Which was…something, anyway.
After taking Dawn home, Tara drove for a while, lost in her own thoughts. For some strange reason the vampire she had dreamed about returned to her mind, and she wondered about him again, grimly debating in her mind whether or not the dream held any real meaning. After some time, she put it out of her mind, and noticed with little surprise that she had driven across town to the Magic Box, and was parked outside.
She wondered what trick of her subconscious might have brought her there, then sighed as she thought of Dawn and her heartache over her friend.
*You could solve it for her, one way or another. You could find the answer, for better or worse…you could find her friend…*
Tara debated for a moment, uncertain. She tried her best not to do too many spells these days, trying to avoid the consequences she had been taught followed without fail in the wake of magic. Of course, a simple location spell was a small matter, not too complicated, and one she had done numerous times before.
*It’d only take a few minutes…*
With a sigh, Tara made her decision, turning on the engine of her car again.
She would do what she could to give Dawnie some piece of mind…but she would not do it here. There was too great a chance that Dawn and her caretakers might be here at the moment; she had spent enough time just driving around that they could easily have beaten her to the shop, and they did seem to be there at odd hours many times. Tara did not want to risk Dawn’s finding out what she was doing – not until she knew for a fact that it would work.
And if the results she found were the ones she feared – possibly not ever.
There was another magic shop on the other side of town, the side of town Tara generally tried to avoid, but she decided to make the trip, just this once. The magic shop she had in mind was one she did not usually patronize, as it specialized in darker fare than the Magic Box, and gave her a weird, creeped out feeling every time she had been inside it.
It wouldn’t be dangerous, she reassured herself; she would go in, get what she needed, and get out.
She was ready to get out the moment she walked through the door.
With a shaky sigh Tara set about gathering the familiar ingredients from the dusty shelves of the dimly lit shop, avoiding the leering stare of the strange manbehind the counter. He looked ordinary enough, if a bit intimidating, dressed in dark clothing and tall and surly…but still, there was something in Tara that was not really completely sure he even *was* a man. She knew better than most, there were many demon species that easily passed for human.
As she picked up a packet of the last herb on her list and placed it in her shopping basket, Tara turned and headed toward the counter. Yet even as she did, she felt the urge to turn around again, and look in the small side room where the more dangerous items were typically kept.
That knowledge alone should have been enough reason not to enter that room.
Still, Tara felt inexplicably drawn to it.
*Just look inside…maybe there’s something…*
*No…get out of here…there’s something seriously wrong with this place…*
*Just a peek…looking couldn’t hurt…*
With a sigh, Tara headed for the door, thinking that she would look, satisfy her momentary irrational curiosity, and be gone mere moments later than she had planned to be. She pushed aside the curtain of hanging beads that formed a barrier between the main area of the shop and the back room, letting them fall closed around her as her eyes adjusted to the darker atmosphere of the tiny room.
As soon as they had adjusted, her eyes went wide with stunned disbelief, as they focused on a lone figure near the back wall, kneeling and chained and eerily familiar.
The man from her dreams.
Even through the dried blood and mottled bruises that covered it, there was no mistaking the face that had become so strangely familiar to Tara over the course of the past two nights. And above that battered face, though streaked with blood and filth, was a shock of white blond hair, exactly like that of the man in her dream.
*Vampire,* some instinct warned her. *If this is him, he’s not a man…he’s a vampire. Vampire equals deadly…dangerous…predator…*
Except…the creature before her now appeared to be none of those things.
His arms were drawn behind his back with a cord around his elbows that had been drawn mercilessly tight, so tight that one of his shoulders now hung at an awkward angle, clearly dislocated. As if the bonds on his arms were not enough, the thin leather cord trailed down his arm to bind his wrists as well, tight enough to bite into his pale, fragile skin.
And “fragile” was definitely the first word that came to Tara’s mind as her horrified eyes took in the pitiful creature before her.
She knew with one look that he had to be a vampire, not because of any threat he posed to her – or anyone for that matter – but rather because she knew that no human being could possibly be so emaciated, so horribly starved, and still live. He was naked, no semblance of dignity or modesty allowed him to mask the bones that protruded through paper-thin skin.
Tara gave up trying to take stock of his injuries after a few moments, realizing with dismay that they were countless. Bruises, cuts and burns, as well as other marks she did not want to attempt to identify, covered the vampire’s vulnerable form.
Though he didn’t seem strong enough – or coherent enough, for that matter – to make much noise at all, he was gagged, bits of a dirty scrap of cloth visible in his mouth, bound there by a tight leather cord that bit viciously into the sides of his mouth before wrapping just as tightly under his jaw and around the top of his head, and had to be terribly painful. A thick collar around his neck was attached to the wall by a short chain that held him in a semi-kneeling position.
Tara supposed that he had been kneeling when he had been placed here, but had long since lost the strength to maintain the position, his legs sliding out from beneath him to leave him slumped against the wall, the thick iron collar pulling at his bruised, abraded throat.
He was utterly still, and gave no reaction to her presence, no sign that he even knew she was there at all.
Tara drew in a deep, shaking breath, raising a hand to cover her mouth in an attempt to hold back the sickness that rose in her throat. Such palpable suffering, such obvious brutality, was beyond anything she had seen in the course of her remarkably sheltered life. She couldn’t stand to think of what the poor creature had been through, to bring him to this point.
But she could feel it.
Remembered sensations from her dream filled her mind, despite her efforts to push them out again – the way the sharp leather cords sliced into his tender flesh, the feeling of hunger so deep, so constant that it had become a permanent state of being for the desolate creature. She had felt those things, in her dreams, where she had been both captive and observer. Confused and shaken by the memories, as well as by the current turn of events, Tara was sure of only one thing.
She had to get him out of there.
“So…how much for the guy in the back?”
The shopkeeper blinked in surprise at the blonde, her crossed arms resting on the counter. Tara could tell by the trapped expression on his face that he had not expected her to venture into the back room, much less to actually ask about the unfortunate creature imprisoned there.
“Sorry, what?” the guy asked, though Tara knew he had heard her and was simply stalling for time, giving her a suspicious look with a single brow raised in her direction.
“The vampire. In the back room. I’m guessing he’s for sale? I mean, the way he’s all on display like that, surely he’s available for sale…right?”
Tara swallowed hard, forcing herself to meet the man’s eyes, though her heart was pounding with fear, and she could feel the beginnings of her usual nervousness clamoring for mastery over the bravery she had barely managed to summon. As horrific as the concept was to her, she knew that the shopkeeper had to consider the vampire as merchandise; otherwise he would not have been on display, in the back room away from the eyes of most of his customers, or not.
And as merchandise…he could be bought.
As abhorrent as the idea was to her, Tara would buy the vampire, if it meant getting him out of this hellish place.
“Well,” the shopkeeper hedged, his voice slow and even, his eyes studying her too closely, in a way that only served to heighten her anxiety. “I don’t think he’d be much use to you, Miss. He’s pretty far gone. Took him off a buddy of mine’s hands, as a favor…but I don’t expect anyone to really want him. He’s a few minutes from dusting, if you ask me, and…”
“I disagree,” Tara cut him off, her voice sounding much firmer than she felt. “I w-want to buy him.” She inwardly winced at the sound of the stutter in her voice, then set her jaw and stalwartly pushed onward. “How much?”
“Look…” The man shook his head, denying her request almost before he’d spoken at all, his voice sharpening in annoyance at her persistence. “…I’m really not selling the whole package, you know? He’s on the verge of death; not much to be done for him. In fact the guy who sold him to me didn’t *want* him to make it. I’m really just offering him for…” He grimaced, an almost apologetic expression, but not quite. “…well, for parts.”
Tara’s eyes widened in horror. “For *parts*?”
“A lot of pretty powerful spells work a little better with vampire parts in the mix.” The man shrugged. “He’s a pretty powerful, important vampire, at that. So, you add up the value of him, piece by piece…it’s a lot more than you can afford, sorry.”
Tara raised an eyebrow in his direction. “And h-how much is that?” she persisted, though she could hear the uncertainty in her own voice. She really didn’t have a lot of money, but she would pay whatever she had to get the vampire out of here.
“More than you’ve got,” the man snapped. “Look, just drop it. He’s not for sale to you.”
He turned away from her in dismissal, and Tara felt a hint of panic at the thought that he was not going to let her buy the vampire, and the knowledge that she would not be able to physically overcome the man and insist on taking his merchandise out of the store. As he started to walk away, without thinking about what she was doing she reached across the counter and caught his arm, stopping him before he could turn away.
“*Please*,” she pressed urgently, meeting the man’s eyes. “Whatever you want to charge, I’ll pay it. Please, I *have* to buy him!”
At the touch of her hand on his arm, a sensation like an electric charge passed through the half-demon shopkeeper, and he whirled to face her, eyes wide with alarm. As she made her plea, her eyes locked onto his, and a shiver went through him at the unmistakable power he saw flaring in her soft, grey gaze. This girl had power, he realized, an unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach.
*Best to give her what she wants…*
“All right,” he relented, pulling his arm uneasily away from her hand, holding up his hands in a placating gesture, still watching her warily. “All right…”
Unaware of what had changed the shopkeeper’s mind, Tara’s face lit up in pleased, relieved surprise. “I…I have a c-couple hundred dollars in my wallet,” she explained, reaching for it as she spoke. “That’s all I’ve got. Is that enough?”
“Yeah,” the guy hurriedly agreed, glancing anxiously toward the door, eager to get this strange girl out of his shop. “That’s fine.”
He took the money from her with a trembling hand, taking care not to make contact with her again, and before he had even put it in the drawer, Tara had turned away from the counter, striding back toward the back room and her newly purchased vampire.
She stopped a couple of feet in front of him, her heart in her throat as she stared at the damaged wreckage of the creature before her…and it occurred to her that she didn’t have the faintest idea how she was going to get him home. It was nearly sunset, but there was still enough sunlight outside to make traveling an impossibility for a vampire.
She startled slightly when the shopkeeper came up beside her, moving past her to reach for the chain that bound the vampire to the wall. Carelessly he unfastened it, allowing the pitiful creature to collapse forward onto his face on the floor, the heavy chain still attached to his collar falling hard and dragging across the torn, raw flesh of his battered shoulders and bound arms.
The vampire seemed to be unconscious, and he made not a sound, but he twitched slightly at the painful contact, and Tara felt her anger rising up within her, both at the ones who had done this to him, and the shopkeeper who was so careless of his injuries. His back was a mess of raw, bleeding sores and lash marks barely beginning to heal. As the metal chain slid off his body to the floor, an anguished shudder ran through the vampire’s body, and Tara fought back her own fury, knowing it was better to simply get out of this place as quickly as she could.
“Careful,” she snapped as the man took a large grey tarp from a cupboard to the left, and prepared to put it over the unconscious creature, though she couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief as he did…because that solved her problem of how to get him outside. “Don’t hurt him.”
The man gave her a strange look, as if wondering why she was concerned with further hurt to a creature that had already been tortured nearly to death, but he nodded and took greater care as he wrapped the tarp carefully around the still, limp form on the floor.
He cleared his throat as he explained uncomfortably, “He’s, uh…not very heavy. You should be able to manage…”
“Blood,” Tara interrupted aloud as the thought occurred to her, and her eyes went wide with realization. She looked up at the man uncertainly and asked, “Do you have any blood here? I’d like to buy some if you do.”
The shopkeeper frowned suspiciously. “Why?” he demanded. “He’s not gonna make it, sweetheart. He’s past blood doing him any good. He’s to be used for whatever the hell you’re gonna use a half-dead vampire for, and then dusted. That’s it.” He steeled himself, summoning his courage to state firmly, “That’s it, or there’s no deal.” His eyes narrowed as he demanded, “What do you want him for, anyway? You’re not planning on keeping him, are you?”
Tara’s eyes narrowed in frustration and anger, and she took a step toward the man without even realizing she was doing it, her hands balled into fists at her sides. “That’s none of your business! You already *made* the deal,” she reminded him. “And if you don’t give me blood, I’ll just…”
“Get it somewhere else” was all she was going to say.
A dozen other, less pleasant endings for that sentence filled the shopkeeper’s mind, and he hurried to interrupt her before she could finish. He had seen that flash of furious power in her eyes again as she had advanced on him, and he had no idea what this girl might be capable of doing to him.
“Okay, okay,” he relented again. “I’ll get your blood. On the house, whatever.” He hurried from the backroom to get it for her.
Tara nodded grimly, appeased by his agreement to give her the blood she knew she would need if the vampire had any chance of survival. She gently lifted the bundle on the floor into her arms, wincing as she felt the slight, unconscious tremor that ran through him at what had to be very painful movement. Aghast at how light the vampire felt in her arms, Tara blinked back tears as she carried him out into the main part of the store, where the shopkeeper waited uneasily, two gallon jugs of dark red fluid in his hands.
“My car’s out front,” Tara indicated with a nod, heading toward it, and the shopkeeper followed her with the blood.
As gently as she could, Tara laid the tarp-covered form on the backseat of her car, taking care to make sure that he was completely covered from every angle, before backing out of the backseat and facing the shopkeeper again, taking the jugs of blood from his hands.
“Just don’t come back here complaining if you don’t get your money’s worth, honey,” he grumbled, a bit resentfully. “He’s already gone. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
Without another word, but with an apprehensive glance over his shoulder, the strange man disappeared back into his shop. Tara watched him for a moment before turning her eyes back toward the still vampire in the backseat and closing the car door with a sigh.
“Not if I can help it, Mister,” she whispered as she headed for the driver’s side of the car. “Not if I can help it.”
“What are you doing?” Tara muttered under her breath, her heart pounding with mingled fear and excitement as she sped away from the magic shop, and the darker side of town she would be glad to see the last of. She glanced in the rearview mirror at the tarp concealing her purchase, her stomach twisting as it occurred to her that if not for the tarp, she would have seen only an empty seat. “Tara, what the heck are you doing?”
When she had seen the same vampire from the strange, vivid dreams she had been having, bound and helpless and suffering in that shop, it had seemed that there was no other choice but to take him out of there, no matter what she had to do to do so. Now, however, Tara found herself wondering about the wisdom of her actions.
What if he was dangerous? How was she supposed to take care of the countless injuries that covered his body? Was she ready to deal with such an intense situation as this one promised to be?
*Doesn’t matter,* she reminded herself firmly, her jaw setting with determination. *Gonna have to be. Couldn’t leave him there…have to help him…*
In the end, Tara knew that she could have brought herself to do nothing less.
By the time she reached her house, the sun had set completely, leaving only the dim glow of twilight on the horizon. Tara opened the backdoor and gently lifted the fragile creature in her arms, once again horrified by the near weightlessness of him, the sharp feeling of bones pressing into her arms as his headlolled against her shoulder. For his size, she would not have expected to be able to lift him herself; but he was shockingly emaciated, and seemed to weigh no more than a child in her arms.
She struggled to free one hand enough to unlock and open the front door, stumbling through the doorway into the house and kicking the door shut behind her. Before the door was even closed, Macrea came padding in from the next room, his tail wagging in greeting. As he drew near, however, his tail flattened, and the large dog began to growl low in his throat, his apprehensive attention focused on the unseen occupant of the tarp.
It sent a chill through her to think of the natural aversion the dog had to the unnatural creature she had just brought into their home.
“Sorry, Mac,” she sighed, her voice trembling slightly. “I haven’t got a choice.” She paused, making her voice stern as she commanded, “Go on, Mac. In the kitchen.”
The dog stopped growling, taking a couple steps toward the kitchen before turning huge, baleful eyes on her in silent supplication.
“*Go on*,” Tara insisted, though she felt terrible for banishing her beloved pet. She knew that it would be safer for all parties concerned, however, if Macrea was not around while she dealt with the injured vampire in her arms.
Once the dog reluctantly entered the kitchen, Tara awkwardly managed to pull the door shut, locking him out of the living room. She moved swiftly toward the sofa, laying the vampire down on his side and carefully pulling the tarp down as far as his waist. She had an idea that his injuries were far worse below his waist, and didn’t dare venture to examine that far – not yet.
It was all she could do to come to terms with the suffering she could already see.
His face and body were caked with dried blood, making it difficult for her to see just where the actual injuries were, but she knew that he was covered with them. He was skeletal, every bone standing out in stark clarity through his bruised and broken skin. Tara wondered with dismay how long it had been since he had eaten anything at all.
His face pressed into the sofa, and she could see the rough leather strap that bound the dirty rag in his mouth, keeping him silent in the face of his torment. The heavy collar that had bound him to the wall in the magic shop seemed to have irritated his neck badly, leaving it red and raw where she could glimpse it under the edges of the collar.
In the light of her living room, Tara could better see the awkward angle at which his arms were bound, a length of thin but strong cording binding his elbows together behind his back so close that they were touching, his arms pulled so painfully tight that his right shoulder had been dislocated. A strand of the cord ran down his right arm, and then looped tightly around his wrists, again and again, biting painfully into his bruised, damaged skin.
Shaking herself out of her horrified reverie, Tara pushed herself into action. The pitiful creature needed help, and quickly. She did not have time to focus on her own shock and dismay right now. She rose and retrieved a sharp pair of scissors from the bathroom drawer, using it to cut through the cord and free his arms.
As her fingers came into contact with his skin, she was shocked to feel how very cold he was…much colder than she had expected, even knowing that he was not technically alive, not human. She knew that vampires had no natural body heat of their own, but he felt like ice under her fingertips, and she couldn’t suppress a shudder.
She grimaced as she pulled the rope away, and saw that it had cut deep into the vampire’s flesh, though no blood flowed from the gashes it had left. The skin on his elbows had been nearly rubbed away from the constant pressure on them, but those wounds did not seem to be bleeding either. As Tara noticed that troubling development, her eyes were drawn to a ghastly wound on his right arm, a long gash where it looked as if a slice of his flesh had been taken out. The wound had not begun to heal, but there was no blood flowing from it, either.
Perhaps he had none left to flow so freely, she realized with a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Her chest tightened with nervous apprehension at what she knew she had to do next, and she swallowed hard, her throat dry and her eyes brimming with tears at the thought of causing this damaged creature any further pain. Still, she knew it had to be done.
*At least he’s unconscious…*
She gripped his arm, steeling herself before giving it a hard jerk in the right direction, fighting back a wave of nausea as the shoulder popped back into place. It had not been as difficult as she had anticipated, but the sound alone made her stomach revolt, and she braced her arm across her mouth, breathing deeply through her nose for a few moments as she struggled to control her gag reflex.
Once her reactions were under control again, wanting to get a better look at his injuries so as to even find a place to begin, as well as to make sure that his other shoulder was not in as bad condition as she had found the right one, Tara gently manipulated the still form on the sofa so that he was lying on his back, while keeping the tarp over his lower body, for modesty’s sake. She knew that eventually she would have to deal with the injuries there, as well, but it felt like an intrusion…a violation of his dignity.
The sight of his sunken stomach and protruding ribs, his hips jutting sharply from his bruised abdomen, reminded her painfully once more of how desperately thin he was, how starved and malnourished.
His chest did not stir with breath, and Tara had to remind herself that vampires didn’t breathe. She wondered briefly whether or not it was possible that he was *really* dead…but then she remembered what she had learned, that vampires turned to dust when they died. He was alive…and therefore, he could still be helped.
*He’s gotta have blood,* she reminded herself.
But blood would have to come after he woke up, and until then, she could do nothing but busy herself with the vital – and apparently never-ending – task of tending to his wounds. It seemed an impossible, overwhelming job, and once again Tara found herself wondering if she was really capable of giving the badly tortured vampire the sort of care he needed.
But then, it wasn’t as if there were hospitals and clinics for this sort of thing.
There was really no one else.
Taking a deep breath and steeling herself once more for the task at hand, Tara raised her eyes for her first good look at his face, in the light of her living room, rather than the near darkness of the spooky little magic shop.
Her heart stilled for an instant in horror and dismay as she realized that the vampire was *blind*.
The area around one eye was swollen and badly bruised, as if the bones around it had been shattered and never set properly. The eye itself was tightly pressed shut, and appeared to have been that way for some time, covered over with trails of dried blood and grime that had probably been there for weeks.
The other eye…well…there *was* no other eye.
Where his right eye should have been, there was only a mangled mess of raw flesh and dried blood, as if the eyeball itself had been burned out of its socket.
Tara’s stomach, just barely under control from the last such horrid shock, gave another lurch, and she was suddenly not sure she was going to be able to hold back the wave of nausea that hit her. Gasping for breath, Tara backed away from the ghastly sight, stumbling as she turned and rushed into the kitchen, barely remembering to pull the door shut behind her again before Macrea could slip out into the living room.
*I can’t do this; I can’t do this…*
The single thought echoed through her mind, and she fought back a rising sense of panic as she grabbed a glass from the draining pan beside the sink and filled it with cold water from the tap, forcing down a mouthful past the hard lump in her throat, in an attempt to still her queasy stomach.
Her self-doubt was answered with an echoing thought, one she knew to be fact.
*You have to. There’s no one else. You *have* to.*
She drained the rest of the water and placed the glass in the sink, breathing deeply as she glanced with apprehension toward the closed kitchen door. Macrea was pacing uneasily around the doorway, stopping every now and then to sniff the space beneath it before looking back up at her expectantly, waiting for her to do *something*.
*That would be a good idea right about now…do something, Tara!*
“Okay,” she whispered. “Okay…I can do this…just have to…focus. Okay. What do I need?”
Thinking about the supplies she would need to care for the vampire’s wounds helped to calm her somewhat, and Tara began mentally rehearsing the things she required, the things she had on hand, and the ones she would have to get later.
She reached into a high kitchen cabinet and took down the first aid kit – and nearly laughed aloud. It was ludicrous to think that the tiny emergency kit would come anywhere close to meeting the monstrous need in the next room. She was going to need a lot more bandages and antiseptics than were in the first aid kit.
She set the kit on the kitchen table and made her way down the hall to the bathroom, where extra bandages – though still not enough, she was afraid – were kept in the cabinet under the sink. She stopped by her room to gather a couple of extra blankets from the closet, before returning to the kitchen for the first aid kit.
Carefully she pushed the kitchen door open, maneuvering it shut again with her foot as she turned to face the living room again.
She nearly dropped the supplies she was carrying, barely reining in her surprise enough to hurriedly set them down on the floor, her wide, frightened eyes scanning the room frantically.
The unconscious vampire was no longer unconscious, apparently.
He was no longer on the sofa.
He no longer appeared to be in the living room at all.
Tara’s heart pounded as she stared around the empty living room, wondering how the battered, unconscious vampire had managed to disappear completely. He couldn’t possibly have gotten far, not in his condition…unless he was somehow not quite as badly injured as she had thought at first.
*Or…or what if he…?*
Tara looked more closely at the sofa, searching for signs of the dust he would have left behind if he had done as she feared, and finally succumbed to his terrible and countless injuries. However, from where she stood the sofa looked the same as always. The tarp lay empty, half on the couch, half on the floor; he had to have moved somehow.
A brief moment of panic came over her, as Tara wondered, not for the first time, if the vampire was dangerous.
Just then, she heard a soft scuffling sound, and cautiously moved farther into the room. The moment she was close enough to the couch to see beyond it, her fears faded away into heartbroken compassion.
The vampire was on the floor against the wall a mere yard away from the couch, bracing himself on his good arm. The other arm, attached to the shoulder she had just repaired, was likely still painful, judging by the way it hung awkwardly in front of him, the useless hand curled palm up and inward toward his stomach as if in an attempt to protect it from further injury.
As Tara watched, the vampire dragged himself on his good arm further back against the wall, and she noticed with horror that he was dragging his legs, which were a mangled mess of bruised, mottled flesh, bent awkwardly in several places. Bruises were layered over bruises, indicating that a single injury had not caused all the marks. His legs had clearly been broken repeatedly, and never properly set.
He was holding himself up on his trembling right arm, his shoulder braced against the wall – and he was perfectly still, not daring to move or breathe, his head bowed slightly.
*Oh, boy,* Tara thought with grim resolution, steeling herself for the difficult interaction to come. *Here we go.*
The sharp pain in his injured shoulder as it was popped back into place roused him to a semiconscious state. As he gradually became aware of his surroundings, he felt the soft surface beneath him, alarmed, because he knew that he would never be allowed such a comfort.
It had to be a trick.
They were waiting, just outside the door, waiting for just the right moment to sweep in and punish him for his mistake. With an effort, he rolled off the soft surface, his battered body hitting the floor hard. He convulsed with pain, his back arching slightly as a silent scream of anguish tore his throat.
Those strange noises, coming from nearby, but muffled, as if from another room, drove his panic higher, and he blindly dragged himself across the floor, seeking some place to hide, to make himself invisible and avoid punishment – because he would surely be punished. He was not where he was supposed to be.
Not that they needed a reason to punish him.
By now he knew that there was no escape, so when his shoulder hit the wall, he stopped, simply huddling there, and waiting…waiting for the pain to begin again, as his mind raced with desperate pleas his mouth could not pronounce.
Panicked, the vampire pressed himself against the wall as hard as he could, desperately trying to make out the source of the strange sounds he heard, distant, yet near enough to be terrifying.
Very slowly, Tara picked up her supplies again and approached the frightened creature, wanting to calm him and reassure him that he was safe, but afraid that any contact at all would startle him and increase his panic. She decided that for better or worse, she had better say something before she got too close to him, to try to let him know that he was safe here.
“Hey, there,” she began softly.
Immediately he flinched, pressing closer to the wall, but making no attempt to get away as she drew cautiously nearer. She paused at the sofa to set down the supplies in her arms, before edging closer to the spot where the vampire huddled against the wall, apparently trying to press himself physically into it to hide.
“It’s okay,” she assured him, her voice barely over a whisper. “It’s all right. You’re safe now…”
Her words did not seem to register through the vampire’s panic. He was shaking violently by now, clearly terrified. As Tara crouched down in front of him, her every movement slow and gentle, he tensed, sensing her nearness, though she knew he could not see her. She swallowed hard, her eyes averted uncomfortably, unable to bring herself to look at the mess that had been made of his damaged face. Her heart broke a little for him as she wondered what other senses might have been stolen from this poor, abused creature.
“C-can you hear me?” she asked softly, reaching out a tentative hand to rest on his upper arm in a feather-light touch.
The vampire flinched violently backward, slamming his head into the wall with a crack and cringing in pain, taking it as the penalty for resisting her…whoever she was. A shudder went through him, as his good arm bent slightly, and he slid down against the wall, trying to make himself as small and inconspicuous as possible.
“I’m sorry,” the girl said in an anxious voice full of distress. “I’m sorry…I’m not gonna hurt you, I promise. You’re safe; I’m not gonna hurt you. Please, if…if you can hear me…just…nod your head?”
His muddled mind raced as he tried to decipher what he was supposed to do. She had asked him a question. Was he supposed to tell her the truth, that yes, he could hear her? Or was he not supposed to be able to hear her? It was so hard to keep the right answers straight, when they changed the rules on him as often as possible, deliberately doing their best to trip him up, to cause him to fail and be punished.
Tentatively, he gave a slight nod, barely even a tiny jerk of his head, steeling himself for suffering, should he have made a mistake.
“W-was that a yes? You can hear me?” she pressed him.
He nodded again, a bit more certainly…then flinched when he heard her move toward him, cringing against the wall, convinced he had given the wrong response.
*Wrong answer…’m bad…gonna be punished…please, don’t…*
Tara’s heart lurched as the panicked vampire jerked back against the wall, his useless arm pulled slightly up in a pitiful gesture of pleading or defense. She mentally reminded herself not to move without warning him first, as she went perfectly still again, keeping her voice soft and even as she tried again to calm him.
“No, it’s okay…it’s okay. That’s really good; I’m *glad* you can hear me, okay? I’m not gonna hurt you…I’m not gonna hurt you, I promise…okay?”
The vampire did not acknowledge her words in any way, but he did not move as she slowly edged toward him again.
“It’s all right,” she repeated. “I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m just gonna…take the gag off. Okay? I’m just gonna take this off so you can talk…all right?”
He did not respond, not a nod or a sound. His utter silence was terribly unnerving to Tara, as was his lack of breath. She knew that vampires did not have to breathe, but the unnatural stillness of his body as he froze in terrified anticipation, the eerie quiet that filled the room when she was not speaking, left her feeling anxious and unsettled.
“It’s okay,” she murmured, almost automatically by this point, as she reached up, very slowly and gently, to touch the leather cord that bound the gag in his mouth.
He jerked slightly at the first touch of her hand, but then froze, not moving at all as she felt along the cord for the place where it was tied. He was trembling violently, and there was a slight tic in his jaw, but he did not try to pull away from her or get her to stop touching him.
He didn’t dare pull away, as her hands moved slowly over the back of his head, along the painful line where the leather cord cut into his skin. She had said she was going to remove the hated gag, the source of maddening ache in his jaw, and he barely dared to hope for just an instant that she might – but why would she? They wanted him silent; they had established that a long time ago.
Suddenly, he felt the cord go slack at the top of his skull, and she was gently unwinding it, pulling it away from his bowed head. Spike fought not to pull away as he felt a soft hand under his jaw, very lightly tilting it upward. Obediently he moved his head in the direction she guided it, willing to do whatever she wanted, anything she said, if only he could avoid further pain.
“It’s all right,” she said softly as she tilted his face first one way, then the other, and he heard the slight critical note in her voice, sensed that she was inspecting him. He felt terribly apprehensive and self-conscious, afraid of what might happen if her inspection revealed something that displeased her. “I won’t hurt you. You’re doing good, Sweetie. You’re doing so good.”
He grasped onto her words with desperation, though he had heard such promises before, his shattered heart crying out for the mercy she seemed to be offering.
*Please…don’t hurt me…I’ll do whatever you ask, please…*
Tara stared aghast at the thick wad of white cloth that filled the vampire’s mouth, preventing him from closing it completely. The cord that had been wound under his jaw had bitten into the flesh, leaving it raw and red and obviously painful. Appalled, she managed to keep her voice calm and gentle as she continued talking to him, trying her best to keep him from becoming too frightened as she carefully worked over him.
She felt a little sick when she noticed how easily he moved with her every suggestion, every slight push of her fingertips against his face, as if he had been trained to submit to such manipulations, and dared not resist in any way.
The leather cord removed, Tara turned her attention to the enormous wad of fabric in his mouth, feeling anger and disgust rise up in her as she wondered who could have treated him so terribly.
*No wonder he can’t talk…well, that’s gotta go, like…yesterday.*
“We’ve gotta take this out,” she informed him gently, touching the cloth with her fingertips. “Can you spit it out?”
He hesitated, then lowered his head a bit, apparently attempting to spit it out, but making no progress. Carefully Tara reached for the end of the cloth and gave it a gentle tug, maneuvering it out of his mouth, taking great care not to hurt him as she did so.
The vampire’s shoulders trembled as the cloth fell to the floor, and Tara was almost certain that this time it was a reaction of relief. Still, he did not dare to move, except for a very slight flexing of his jaw as he slowly closed his mouth, opening it and then closing it again in a tentative way – almost as if he had nearly forgotten how. Tara felt a rush of sympathy for him, realizing that it had to hurt terribly to move his mouth, after having it held in that painfully awkward, wide open position for so long.
Maybe it was the trembling, or the miserable hunched position of his shoulders, that made her think of it, but all at once Tara was glaringly aware of the fact that the vampire was still completely naked. She reached behind her and took one of the blankets from the sofa, unfolding it and reaching to gently lay it across his abdomen and legs.
He jerked away, and Tara noticed with alarm a tiny little spasm in his chest as he pulled back against the wall, shaking. She also noted with increasing unease…despite the fact that the gag had been removed, he still had not made a single sound.
At the unexpected sensation of being covered, the vampire panicked again, not sure what she was doing or what she intended.
“It’s all right,” the soft, reassuring voice insisted. “It’s just a blanket. It’s okay; you’re safe.”
When he felt the soft weight across his lower body, he began to calm a bit, realizing that she was telling the truth and relishing the rare feeling of warmth, but not daring to touch the blessed luxury. He wondered once more at what was happening, where he was, why she was doing these things. He had never been allowed such comforts before at the hands of his captors; and he didn’t remember going anywhere, so he had to still be…there…didn’t he?
She had to be one of them…so why was she being so kind to him?
“Can you see at all?”
“Can you see, Seventeen?”
He shook his head in frantic denial, holding up his hands in a pleading gesture, trying to keep perfectly still so they wouldn’t see, wouldn’t know…
A heavy boot flew toward his face, and he flinched before he even had time to think of controlling the instinctive reaction…and the foot never connected. His heart sank as he realized that he had given his words away as a lie with his movement, his reaction to the faint beginnings of sight he was regaining…again.
The boot drew back again, but this time connected in an excruciating kick to his shattered legs. A cruel fist gripped his throat, slamming him back against the wall and sending a searing, tearing pain through his agonized, inflamed neck, as a harsh, angry voice spat menacing words in his face.
“You little liar. We’ve warned you about lying to us, haven’t we? *Haven’t we*?”
He tried to nod, but could barely move his head within the man’s brutal grasp. Suddenly, he found himself slammed violently down against the cold tile floor on his back, and a second powerful hand fisted in his hair, savagely wrenching his head back and holding it in place. Panic seized him, because he knew what they were going to do, and he struggled weakly against the soldier who was now straddling him, pinning him down with his greater weight and strength.
*Please!* he cried out in his mind, his voice silenced by their torment. *Please, don’t…please don’t do this… don’t take my eyes again!*
“Can you see at all?”
The simple question drove a dagger of fear through his heart, and he froze completely for a long moment, an agony of indecision filling him with panic. Finally, he ventured a hesitant shake of his head. He heard her move slightly, and flinched back against the wall, shaking his head emphatically, pleadingly.
Tara did not know what it was about the simple question that seemed to have renewed the vampire’s terror, and just when she had thought she was beginning to get through to him, to make him understand that she had no intentions of hurting him. He had seemed calmer, allowing her to touch him at least long enough to get the gag off, and she had begun to feel hopeful that she might be able to deal with this, after all.
And suddenly, he was pressing himself into the wall again, trembling violently, holding one hand up a few inches in a pleading gesture despite its injury, and shaking his head almost frantically.
“Hey,” she murmured, keeping her voice quiet and even, “it’s okay…it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. I promise. Come on, it’s all right. I’m not moving, okay? I’m not gonna touch you…you’re okay…”
Her words seemed to have little effect on the panicked creature.
Tara noticed that he still wasn’t breathing, even with the gag removed, but she wasn’t sure if that was normal for vampires or not. She knew they didn’t *have* to breathe, but it was still disconcerting to have him sitting there, trembling, every muscle tense, very much alive…and yet without the steady rise and fall in his chest that instinctively spoke of life to her.
Also to her alarm, she noticed that his brief spurt of energy, apparently born of his initial terror at finding himself in unfamiliar surroundings, was fading swiftly. His good arm was slowly giving out, its shaking intensifying with the continued effort of holding up the weight of his entire body…which admittedly was not much, but seemed to be far too much for him nonetheless.
She needed to get some blood in him, fast.
“Okay…I’m gonna g-go away for a minute, okay? I’m just gonna go…g-get you some blood, and give you a minute to…to…I’ll be back in a minute, okay?”
The girl’s rambling, nervous words only served to increase his confusion and anxiety, and his surety that he had somehow done something to displease her; he frowned, biting his lower lip in uncertainty, unsure if he was supposed to respond in some way, and if so, how. He still could not speak…and he had no idea what it was that she wanted to hear. He was so unbearably exhausted, and all he wanted was to go to sleep, and never wake up again – not to attempt to translate an indecipherable situation over which he had no control.
To his relief, at least it did not seem that she intended to blind him again…yet.
Unless she was going to do that when she came back, with the…
Blood? She didn’t really say ‘blood’, did she? Surely she doesn’t mean it? Not after…after so long…
His throat constricted in an instinctive but agonizing attempt to swallow, his stomach tightening painfully at the very thought of blood, after such long forced starvation. His empty lungs spasmed as in his shock, he unconsciously tried to draw breath, when of course, he could not. They rarely allowed him to feed, and when they did, it was only to allow him to regain a fraction of his strength, in order to make him capable of responding to their sadistic games.
His heart lurched in fear, as he wondered suddenly where she was *really* going…and if she would be alone when she got back.
Tara hesitated before rising, worried about leaving him alone while she went to get the blood, wishing that she could know he would be okay while she was gone.
She was increasingly aware of the fact that in this situation, there was very little that she could know.
Her eyes widened as she noticed what looked like a muscle spasm in the vampire’s chest. She had seen it once before, when she had startled him and he had flinched away from her, but this time, she hadn’t made a move toward him or any noise that might have caused him to startle. Frowning, she wondered what might be causing the strange physical reaction, which did not seem in the least healthy. It was almost as if his lungs were contracting in his chest…except, he wasn’t breathing.
Maybe he’s *trying* to…
The need for blood was momentarily forgotten in Tara’s excitement at her possible revelation. Maybe that was why he hadn’t spoken, either, if he was physically unable to draw breath. She settled onto her knees in front of him again, hesitating, not reaching toward him or moving at all as she tried to make the situation, and herself, as non-threatening as possible for her highly skittish patient.
“I have to ask you something. Can you…are you able to breathe?”
Okay, wrong question.
Tara immediately regretted it as the vampire responded only by pressing his face against the wall again, his shoulders tense and shaking with terror as he shook his head in desperate denial, obviously afraid of how she might react to his answer. Her heart sank as she realized that she had really gained no ground at all; he had no measure of trust for her whatsoever…but then, how could she blame him?
He didn’t know her, and therefore had no way to know what to expect from her.
At a loss, Tara just looked at him for a moment…and her eyes fell on the heavy collar, still fastened around his neck. She could see traces of dried blood surrounding it, and it was clearly impossibly tight. The vampire’s reaction to her question made it obvious to her that she was at least on to something, so maybe if she could get that collar off…
Maybe that’s what’s cutting off his airway…
“Okay,” she tried again in a soft, steady voice, “I want to…to try something…”
“I’m not going to hurt you, Sweetie,” the girl insisted in that same quiet, gentle voice, though he knew better than to believe it. “I just want to help you.”
He had been deceived by such tones before, and knew by now that they were usually merely to lull him into letting down his guard, before he was attacked with even greater ferocity. Still, whatever she intended, there was nothing he could do to stop her. He simply waited, still and silent against the wall, his every muscle tensed in preparation for the inevitable pain.
“You’re trying to breathe, aren’t you? You want to?”
He flinched, certain that she would punish him if he answered honestly. The human privileges of breath, scent, speech – all were forbidden him. He didn’t *need* to breathe, they had reminded him cruelly…and such comforting luxuries had all been stripped from him in a brutal moment. It was foolish and presumptuous to admit that he wanted such things, and would be sure to anger his human captors.
“I think you do,” she mused thoughtfully, and he tensed, his heart sinking at her words. “I know you can’t…but I think you want to…”
She knows…any second now…she’ll…
He shook his head, not denying her words, because he knew better than to lie at this point – just silently pleading for mercy. He could not stop a slight flex of his jaw, aching to speak, if only to beg for pardon for his failure, though he knew it was impossible.
Please…I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please don’t…don’t…
“I just want to help you,” the girl insisted softly. “Make you better. I wanna take away whatever’s keeping you from breathing…like I took away the gag, remember? I wanna help you be able to breathe. Is that okay?”
He froze, in the agonizing throes of indecision. Her words offered a promise he had longed for, for longer than he could remember…and yet he knew it could not be. This had to be some kind of trick, some twisted test devised by his captors to trick him into betraying himself to them. He was terrified of this seemingly kind, gentle girl, who had to be leading him into some kind of trap. If he did the wrong thing, angered her, he was sure that she could turn as savage as the others.
Perhaps she wasn’t even real at all.
The brutal mind games and torments he had been subjected to had left him unable to be sure of anything.
All he knew was that if she was really willing to remove the torment that was holding back his breath…he would give anything. He would do anything she wanted, submit to any form of punishment, if only she could take it away.
“I’m gonna take this collar off, okay?” the girl explained softly. “That’s all I’m gonna do. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
He heard her words, understood them, but could not suppress a shudder when he felt her hands hovering near his throat, brushing against his bare shoulders. He flinched, shaking violently, though struggling to submit to whatever it was she intended, aware that if he resisted her, his suffering would be much, much worse. With all his heart, he desperately hoped that she intended what she said she intended.
“Hey…you’re okay,” she murmured, and he felt her hands stop touching him. “You’re okay, I’ll back off. We’ll take this really slow, okay?”
He froze suddenly as he felt the girl pull back slightly, wondering why she would retreat…and then his heart lurched within him at a strange and mystifying sensation, as he felt a soft, warm hand gently covering his own. As simple as the gentle touch was, it began to birth in him a strange emotion he had all but forgotten.
Please…let it be real…please, please mean it…
Tara took heart as the vampire’s shaking gradually lessened at the gentle touch of her hand. She slowly, soothingly stroked her thumb across the dry, rough skin on the back of his hand, as she continued speaking soft reassurances, encouraged as he finally seemed to be actually listening to her words, visibly calming.
“It’s all right…I just want to take it off so you can breathe…all right? Is that all right?”
She waited in silence for some sign of a response, while the vampire just stayed there, still and quiet and uncertain. After a few minutes that felt interminable, he finally seemed to make a decision, steadying himself on his good arm with an effort, and sliding just a few inches away from the wall…toward her.
It was the most progress she had seen from him so far, and it was all Tara could do not to express her elation and risk sending him back into a panic.
“Okay,” she whispered as she carefully lifted her hand from his, and raised both hands toward the heavy iron collar. His skin felt terribly cold beneath her fingertips, and she suppressed a shudder, aware of what he was…but also aware that he was absolutely no threat to her in this condition.
Carefully she found the clasp on the collar, and gingerly unfastened it, pulling it away and setting it aside. Her eyes went wide, locked onto the damaged flesh beneath it in stunned horror, her stomach roiling within her in sickened disgust.
The vampire’s neck was in shreds, dried blood nearly obscuring deep, livid gashes that formed an entire circle around his neck. Aghast, Tara’s mind flashed back to a vivid memory from her dream, a memory of raw pain made excruciating by her attempts to draw breath that would not come…a memory of suffocating panic so intense that it had driven her back to wakefulness.
Shaking her head clear of the horrific images, Tara forced herself to focus on the vampire again, aware that he could not afford for her to waste time on her own imagined trauma.
No wonder he can’t breathe, poor thing. How long has he been like this?
She studied the wounds carefully, frowning with concentration as she tried to gauge how deep they were, what sort of care would be required, while taking care not to actually touch any of them, not yet. Her eyes widened in horror as she noticed something that seemed impossible…a faint metallic glint coming from deep down within the gashes that circled his neck.
Oh, God…oh, God, there’s still something in there! It has to come out, *now*…but…but it’s gonna hurt him so much! I can’t stand to hurt him any more than he’s already been hurt; how much more can one person take?
Tara was unaware that she was crying, until her vision blurred and she could no longer make out the horrifying wounds. It was just too much, too much for her to fathom, for one person to have to endure so much agony and suffering…and possibly too much for her to make better.
How am I gonna do this? Oh, God, how am I gonna fix this?
Her shoulders shook with silent sobs, and Tara lowered her head into her left hand, her other falling to the floor at her side to brace herself as she struggled to regain her composure. She couldn’t afford to fall apart; this broken creature in front of her needed her to stay strong, to be in control where he could not be…
Suddenly, she felt an icy cold sensation on her hand, and she froze, startled. Cautiously, she opened her eyes and looked down at her hand; her eyes widened as she saw the vampire’s hand resting on hers, very gently, very tentatively, as if afraid to be reprimanded for the gesture at any moment, yet still willing to offer her comfort.
The vampire jumped slightly as something warm and wet dripped onto his hand, but the girl did not seem to notice. He tried to make sense of the strange sensation, confused…and then he heard a quiet sniffling sound, and it became clear.
She was crying.
Not for him; couldn’t be. It didn’t make sense. She was here to hurt him, to deceive him into doing something wrong and earning more beatings and torture. But he could hear the sound of her tears, and even now she was trying to calm him again, in spite of her own dismay.
What had caused it? She had started to cry right after viewing the ghastly wreckage that had to have been made of his neck by this point. Of course, he hadn’t seen it himself, though he knew it had to be dreadful; but that alone would not have brought her to tears…would it?
Suddenly, a new idea occurred to him.
Maybe she’s a prisoner, too. Maybe she’s stuck here in this hell, and she’s trying to help, but she’s beginning to understand…there’s nothing she can really do…and all this is gonna happen to her, too.
He felt a twinge of anxious concern at the thought of this kind, sweet girl going through the same things he had been through. It was a disturbing thought, but seemed to make more sense than any other explanation he could think of for the strange events taking place. Unfortunately, he knew that there was nothing he could do, to help her, or himself, at this point.
So, he offered her what little comfort he had. He reached out tentatively toward the warmth of her hand, sliding his own cool, trembling fingertips over hers and resting his hand there in a silent gesture of reassurance, as she had done for him moments before.
It was pitiful reassurance given the circumstances, and it was all he had to give…but it was hers.
Tara was stunned by the simple act of compassion from a creature far too broken and in need of comfort from *her*. It was just a simple touch, but it was very important. It told Tara that whoever he was, he was still there, had not lost his mind completely from the mind-numbing amount of suffering he had endured. He was still capable of emotions such as compassion and empathy, not simply the basic fight or flight type responses she had observed so far.
He was there, and listening, and reaching out to her as best he could – and she was the only one who could help to take his suffering away.
Tara noticed with dismay how very weak and cold his hand felt over hers, trembling slightly and just barely daring to touch her, as if he expected to be punished at any moment for presuming to touch her. She looked down at the pale skin, frowning in concern at the sight of the abraded knuckles, his delicate wrist, bruised and raw and red from struggling against bonds that had held him down and forced him to submit to terrors she would rather not try to imagine.
She had to focus on easing his pain.
Straightening up, sniffling back the last of her tears, she carefully turned her hand under his. He jerked as if to pull it back, but she closed her warm hand around his, holding it gently in place. He froze for a moment, before just barely relaxing a bit, allowing her to hold his hand as he waited for her next move.
“I’m all right,” she assured him in a hoarse whisper. “I’m okay. It’s just…I’m so sorry this happened to you. Listen, there’s…there’s something…in your neck, Sweetheart. Do you…do you know that?”
Hesitantly, barely moving at all, the vampire gave her a very slight nod, his head turned away, his shaking intensifying.
“It’s all right. I just…want to take it out. So you can breathe again…so you can…eat. B-but…it’s gonna hurt,” Tara warned him apologetically. “Bad. I…don’t wanna hurt you. I want to help you, to make it stop hurting. Is that okay?”
He didn’t believe her…he couldn’t.
So many promises had been made before, cruel promises that had proven to be lies.
Do as you’re told, Seventeen, and we’ll take the collar off.
Be a good little slut, vampire, and maybe we’ll feed you today.
But…he wanted it gone, so desperately. It was a constant agony, sharp metal digging into his neck, throbbing pain with every movement. It prevented him from taking in the nourishment he needed so badly, prevented him from speech, from scent. But worst of all was the mental and emotional torment it inflicted, taking from him his only source of comfort in this hellish place…the simple act of breathing.
Vampires did not need to breathe, but he had never quite kicked the habit – until they had forced him to. Breath allowed him to feel just a little bit human, helped him to manage the overwhelming physical and emotional suffering that had been heaped upon him – but he was not allowed such privileges.
When they caught him…when they found out that it was off…they would punish him, he knew. But the thought of simple breath, after so long…it was simply too much for him to resist. He could not bring himself to believe that she could actually help him, or even that she really wanted to…but if she would only remove the hated collar, he would pretend to believe it.
Desperate need drove him to submit to the girl’s gentle offer, and he gave her a nervous nod as he shifted just a fraction closer to her.
His subtle agreement to her suggestion filled Tara with a sense of mingled relief and dread, as she reached slowly behind her for the first aid kit and set it down on the floor beside her. She opened it and laid out bandages, tape, and antiseptic, before reluctantly turning her attention back to the awful wounds on his neck.
Very gently she inspected it, maneuvering his head with carefully light touches so that she could see all the way around. It was as she had feared. The glint of metal deep within the wound appeared to be a thin metal collar of sorts, fastened so tight that it had gradually embedded itself in his flesh. The thought was both horrifying and encouraging, because if it was a collar, it had to have a catch…right? A place where she could unfasten it?
After some cautious searching, she finally found a tiny metal knob protruding from the thin metal, on the very back of his neck. She braced herself, placing a gentle, reassuring hand on the vampire’s shoulder as she did her best to warn him.
“Okay…I think I found the catch. You ready?”
He hesitated before nodding, his shoulder trembling under her hand.
Holding her breath, Tara pressed the button, reflexively closing her eyes as she did so. She wished she hadn’t, because the horrible squelching sound of metal grinding against damaged flesh was all the louder in the darkness. She opened her eyes, dismayed to see that the collar was still in place, just as the vampire jerked and fell forward with his face to the ground, his body shuddering with pain. Tara’s heart ached as she saw his ribs spasming rapidly and unevenly, as though he was struggling to gasp for air.
Blinking back tears, she reached out for his hand.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m gonna get it off, I promise. It’s gonna be okay, we’re gonna get it off soon.”
Gradually he became calmer, with a visible effort bringing his trembling back under control, and Tara felt a surge of sympathetic admiration for the courage he was showing in the face of what had to be an utterly confusing and terrifying situation. She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder, and he flinched slightly, but did not pull away from her.
“Okay,” she whispered. “All right…let’s try again…okay?”
He shuddered at her words, and she knew that the idea had to be dreadful for him, but they had no choice. That metal collar had to come out, or he would not be able to breathe, or to feed…or to recover at all. After a moment, he nodded weakly, before resting his head against the floor, his shoulders shaking with weary resignation.
Tara’s eyes once more welled with tears at the sheer exhaustion evident in the gesture, and she slowly stroked her hand back and forth across his shoulder, afraid to move it too much lest she should frighten him, or encounter some tender wound and hurt him again.
“I know,” she whispered in sympathy. “I know it’s so hard…but we have to.”
Another nod acknowledged her words, a bit steadier this time, and she let out a trembling sigh as she adjusted her hand on his shoulder from a soft caress to a firm, steadying grip, pulling gently backward in an attempt to help him rise back to a semi-sitting position, half on his knees.
“Come on…you can do it…that’s it, you’re doing so good…”
Once he was more or less upright, Tara gently reached for the collar again, noting with regret that the vampire was utterly rigid, clearly terrified of further pain, though he did not resist her cautious manipulations. After a few more agonizing moments, Tara felt a strangely smooth spot on the metal band, a part of it that didn’t feel quite like the rest.
She barely had time to register the difference in the feel of the metal, before a loud metallic snap echoed in the tense silence, and the collar fell open under her hand, though it still seemed to be lodged in place. At the same moment, the vampire’s entire body spasmed in agony, and he doubled over, trembling violently, his head shaking just slightly in a desperate, pleading way. The look on his damaged face told her clearly that he was sorry for resisting her efforts, probably expected to be punished for doing so, but the pain was just too much for him to bear.
“Shhh,” she soothed him in a trembling voice, her vision blurring again with tears of mingled sorrow and relief. She knew how frightened and traumatized he was, and kept her voice calm and soothing despite her own racing heart and frayed nerves. “We’re almost there…it’s open…we’ve almost got it off…just a…just a few minutes more…Please, just one more try…”
There was no indication he had heard her words, through the agony he had to be feeling, until finally, very slowly, he straightened, giving her better access to his neck, clearly understanding the necessity of what she was doing, despite the pain. Tara hesitated, examining the collar and its position on his neck, and finally decided on a course of action that would spare him as much suffering as possible.
With one swift pull, she had freed the metal from his lacerated flesh. The motion itself had to be excruciating for him, but she figured it was better a couple of brief moments than a long, drawn out process of slow, nerve-racking motions. The vampire jerked back against the wall again, his shoulders shaking with pain and terror.
But…he was free.
The collar was gone.
Tara stared at the cruel device in her hand, her eyes going wide with horror as she examined it. It was much larger than she had originally thought, about a quarter of an inch wide, and a quarter of an inch thick…most of which thickness had been buried in the vampire’s abused neck. She frowned as she fingered the button she had originally thought would release the collar, and then finally gave it a tentative push.
She gasped in horror as six tiny prongs shot out from the inside of the collar, stained with the vampire’s blood where they had dug mercilessly into his flesh, preventing any possibility of his trying to get the collar off. Tara pressed the button again, and they retracted into the collar, as they had no doubt done when she had first pushed it while he was still wearing it.
She choked back a sob, dropping the disgusting thing to the floor with a clatter, the back of her bloodstained hand flying to her mouth in an attempt to hold back the nauseated heaving of her stomach. Her mind could not process the sort of constant agony he must have felt, with the viciously sharp points piercing his flesh constantly, shifting and tearing with every motion from his shoulders upward…nor could she fathom the sort of person that could inflict such savagery on another living being.
Overwhelmed, Tara just sat there for a long moment, her tears flowing freely as she tried to come to terms with the horror from which she had just liberated the vampire, now choking and wheezing as he struggled to draw in his first desperate, agonizing breath in longer than Tara wanted to think about. It hurt her heart to think of what it must have been like for him, alone and silent and unable to so much as draw a breath in the horror of his dark little personal hell.
With panicked, far too rapid gasps, the vampire struggled to draw air into his weakened lungs through damaged, painful airways. His throat was badly torn by the collar, and it hurt to even try, but he could do nothing else. Finally, after a great effort, he managed to draw in a thin, strangled breath…and another…and another.
He was vaguely aware of the girl’s hand closing around his again, but was almost completely focused on his breathing…in and out, again and again despite the agony of it, half afraid that if he once stopped, he would be unable to breathe again at all.
He was so focused on his weak efforts that the girl’s voice startled him, and he jumped when she spoke again, her voice trembling and tearful.
“I…I’m gonna b-bandage your neck now, o-okay? I-it’s pretty bad, and…and I need to get those w-wounds covered…all right?”
Her words barely registered with him, though he dutifully tried to make sense of them. Bandage his wounds? Why would she take the care to do such a thing for him? But then, for that matter, why had she taken the collar off at all, or covered him with a warm blanket, or been so gentle and reassuring this whole time?
His head was too muddled with too much input to make sense of it or work out her motives. All he knew was that he could *breathe* again, after far too long. Suddenly, he was overwhelmingly exhausted. He just needed to rest, to lie down in the warmth of the blanket she had laid over him, and just be left there. And yet, he was afraid to give in to that desire, afraid that he would be surely be punished for presuming such a privilege.
Or that when he awakened, he would find that this had all been a dream.
In his utter bewilderment, he clung to the one thing he could feel, the one thing he knew was genuine…the sweet, reassuring oxygen flowing in and out from his long neglected lungs.
Oblivious to his troubled thoughts and fears, lost in her own, Tara got the bandages and began to unroll them. Gently she brushed her hand against his shoulder, unsure if he was even aware she was still there in the shock of having the collar off, and not wanting to startle him by simply wrapping the bandage around his neck with no warning. She shuddered to think of the possible misunderstandings *that* could involve, and the trauma it could inflict on the battered, shaken vampire.
Even at the light touch on his shoulder, he jumped, his entire body tense and uncertain. Still, he did his best not to move as she gently stroked her thumb over his shoulder, wincing at the protruding bone she felt beneath her fingers.
“It’s all right,” she reminded him softly. “Just a bandage, okay? Not a collar…just a bandage I’m gonna put around your neck.
He was trembling as she gently wrapped the bandage around his torn throat, tying it firmly, but not too tightly. Eventually, she knew, she needed to clean his wounds more thoroughly and see to all of them – a daunting task indeed – but for now, she just needed a temporary measure to protect the deep, livid gashes from accidental contact.
He needed blood, and she was not sure how much longer his starving body would be able to wait. She rose carefully to her feet before resting her hand gently on his shoulder again and explaining quietly, “I’ll be right back, okay? Just a minute…and I’ll be right back.”
He hesitated, then nodded hesitantly, indicating that he understood.
Tara managed to hold it together until she reached the kitchen, where she leaned against the counter and let go the sobs she had been holding back. Macrea whined softly, moving forward as if to press his face into her hand, and she automatically reached to stroke the soft fur around his muzzle, not looking at him, her eyes hidden by the back of her other hand as her shoulders shook with the force of her tears.
To her surprise, Mac shied away from her before she could touch him, and her reaching hand met only empty air.
She opened her eyes, which immediately widened in horror at the sight of Mac, his lip curled back in distaste as he warily eyed her hand…covered in the blood of the vampire in the next room. She drew her hand up, taking in the horror of the close up sight of the dark red blood that stained her fingers.
She held her hand out in front of her, palm up, bringing the other up to meet it and staring down, aghast, at the grisly image they presented. Fighting back the bile that filled her throat, she rushed to the sink, turning on the hot water and holding her hands under it, scrubbing them furiously in an attempt to remove the vile, sticky mess that covered them.
Once her hands were red and tender from the heat and the scrubbing, and every trace of blood she could see was removed from them, Tara turned off the water, leaning over the sink for a few moments, gasping for breath as she struggled to rein in the emotions that were moments away from overwhelming her.
Finally, Tara straightened, sniffling, rubbing her now clean hand across her eyes as she took a deep, steadying breath. She could not afford to give way to her own emotions right now, any more than was necessary to simply allow her to go on…because she *had* to go on.
She still had much to do.
She took a cup from the draining pan on the counter and filled it with cool water, before bringing in the bags of blood she had left in the car and setting them near the microwave for reheating. She wanted to give him the blood, but not until she was sure he would be able to drink it. She cringed at the thought of the torment that would be for him, to offer him blood, make him frantic with his need for it, only to discover that he might not be able to swallow it yet.
Carrying the glass of water in her hand, she reached out a hand to Mac, who seemed much more willing to accept her affection now that her hands no longer reeked of the unnatural stranger in their home, and spent a few moments comforting her uncertain pet, before steeling herself to step back into the living room.
To her shock, the vampire flinched violently away from her, weakly scrabbling back against the wall again, in utter panic. He was still breathing, in short, panicked gasps, as he pressed himself back as far as he could against the wall in a desperate attempt at escape. Her heart sank with disappointment, as the progress they had made seemed to disappear before her eyes.
She had really thought she was getting through to him. How could it be that he didn’t recognize her?
His every thought was consumed by the air flowing in and out of his lungs, tearing against the ragged flesh of his torn throat, yet too sweet a luxury for him to relinquish it just yet, for fear of losing the ability entirely. He was so focused on simply breathing – in and out, in and out – that the sudden sound of approaching footsteps caught him off guard.
Panic immediately seized his mind.
This is it! It’s them; they’re coming! They’ve been watching, and I’ve done so many things wrong! Shouldn’t have let her take the collar off; they’re just gonna put it right back on…or…or…please, no…please, don’t…
Blindly, helplessly, he felt for the wall that had been behind him, scrabbling backward with an effort until he felt his battered back hit the smooth, cool plaster with a painful impact. There was nothing he could do but wait in cringing, terrified submission as the footsteps drew steadily closer. All he could hear was his own rapid, shallow breathing, gasping for the last few draughts of precious breath, knowing that within moments they would be stolen from him again.
It’s too late…they’ve come…no, please, no…
Then, he felt a soft, familiar touch…a warm, gentle hand on his…and his panicked thoughts came to an abrupt halt, as he remembered. It was…her. She hadn’t hurt him – not yet – and she wasn’t hurting him now, just holding his hand in hers in a steadying, comforting gesture.
Maybe…she wasn’t going to hurt him at all?
He scarcely dared to consider that possibility.
Sooner or later, the pain, the punishment, always returned.
She wouldn’t put the collar back on…would she? Please, don’t…please, I couldn’t bear it…not again…
The panic began to lift as he heard her voice, speaking to him in soft, soothing tones. “Shhh, it’s okay. It’s all right; it’s just me. You’re safe; I’m not gonna hurt you. You’re safe now.”
He allowed a wave of relief to wash over him with the words, so desperate to believe them that it was a physical ache deep in his chest. His exhaustion and weakness made the rush of emotion powerful enough to nearly drive him to unconsciousness again. Dizzy and unsteady, he fell forward slightly, braced on his one good hand, trembling violently and struggling just to stay upright and conscious.
As Tara had slowly, cautiously approached him, her heart ached for him, and the torment he must have endured to make him so terrified, so constantly on the verge of blind panic. She crouched carefully beside him, reaching out and taking his hand with less hesitation this time, hoping that it would help to bring him out of the cycle of terror he seemed to be stuck in, to possibly remind him that she did not intend to hurt him.
Though she was fairly certain he wasn’t even hearing her at that point, Tara just kept talking to him softly, trying to reassure him and calm him with the steady, gentle cadence of her voice.
Gradually, it worked.
The vampire’s frighteningly rapid breaths became slower and a little steadier, as he leaned slightly forward, bracing himself on his good arm. She waited until she thought he was back in the present with her, fully able to comprehend her words, before she tried to actually communicate with him.
“You’re safe here. This is my house, and I’m the only one here…okay?”
He hesitated, before nodding slowly, cautiously. Tara frowned, getting the impression that he was only nodding because he thought she wanted him to, not because he actually believed what she was saying.
Why should he? she reminded herself. I could tell him anything; how would he know the difference between the truth and a lie? And it’s not exactly as if his recent experience has been conducive to blind trust.
As she set the glass of water and empty basin down on the floor beside her, her eyes drifted almost eagerly from the grisly wreckage of his face, down to his body, once again exposed and vulnerable from his doomed efforts at retreat, the blanket that had covered him lying discarded on the floor.
Tara winced as she was brutally reminded of his pitifully starved condition, his every bone visible through the thin veneer of his nearly translucent skin. Every panicked breath he drew made his ribs stand out in stark relief. His arms and legs were nothing but bone covered over with pale, paper-thin skin, battered and torn and mottled with countless bruises. His legs appeared to be broken in several places, the jagged edges nearly piercing through the skin here and there on the mangled limbs.
Gently, she pulled the blanket up over his painfully jutting hips again, murmuring soothing shushing sounds when he whimpered almost silently, shuddering in terror at the contact. Carefully, she reached to take his hand again, guiding it to the blanket and pressing it gently into his hand.
“It’s all right. See? Just the blanket…not gonna hurt you,” she assured him. “It’s okay.”
Gradually he seemed to lose a bit of his frantic panic, though he was still trembling violently against the wall, his shaking fingers slowly working the soft fabric between them, as if to constantly reassure himself of what it was, and the fact that it was safe.
The mere effort of holding up his head, which seemed almost too big for his body in its frail, emaciated state, seemed to exhaust the desperately weakened creature, and he gradually lowered it as she looked on, his breathing labored and ragged. She fought back a wave of mingled fury and sickness at the thought of how long he must have been denied such basic necessities as nourishment and clothing.
No…he’s got no reason to trust me…no reason to trust anyone…
For a moment longer she just knelt beside him, lightly stroking her fingertips over the back of his hand in slow, soothing motions, her brow furrowed with concern. He looked ready to pass out at any moment; he had to be utterly exhausted…but he needed blood before she could let him sleep.
“Okay, I…I have blood for you,” she told him softly, her heart lurching within her chest at the way his head rose just a fraction, and his body went tense, every facet of his posture speaking of desperate hope. “I just…I want you to try a little water first, okay? I wanna be sure…be sure your throat’s well enough to drink it. All right?”
He hesitated, before nodding uncertainly, and once again Tara got the feeling that he was simply trying to be obedient.
Carefully Tara lifted the empty basin, balancing it on one arm under his mouth, so as to catch any spillage, as she slowly raised the half-full glass of water to his parched lips.
“Here you go,” she murmured. “Just a little…”
He took a bit into his mouth, and she lowered the glass as he tried to swallow…and immediately choked on the tiny sip of liquid. Coughing and gasping as his swollen throat rejected it, he could not stop the water from spilling back out of his mouth, splashing into the basin.
Immediately he jerked back away from her, flinching and knocking his head into the wall, clearly expecting punishment for his carelessness. His breath was weak and rapid and hoarse, and even as quickly as he was breathing, Tara knew he could not actually be getting much oxygen to his lungs. Of course, if the need for air was more emotional than physical, she considered, then perhaps that didn’t matter so much. She blinked back the tears that sprang to her eyes, whispering soothingly to him.
“It’s okay. It’s not your fault, Sweetie. It’s fine. Let’s…let’s try again.”
The second attempt fared no better than the first, leaving the vampire gagging and sputtering, before finally coughing up the water into the basin again, this time mingled with flecks of old, dried blood, so dark it was almost black, and tiny bits of fabric which Tara recognized as coming from the gag. Her stomach lurched as she wondered again how long he had been forced to keep the filthy thing in his mouth.
The next try went a little better, but the water still ended up in the basin. Tara tried a little less, and a little less, until finally, the vampire was able to let the slightest trickle of the water flow down his raw, abraded throat…and keep it there.
“Good! You’re doing so good, Sweetie…”
Tara exulted softly, the slight tremor in her voice the only expression she would allow her excitement. At this point, the traumatized creature would probably read any form of emotional excitement as a danger sign. Still, she could not help the ecstatic sense of relief and accomplishment she felt. This was progress, however minor it might be. If he could keep a bit of water down, then he would likely be able to keep some blood down as well…and she knew that would be the first step for him toward genuine physical recovery.
Emotional and mental, on the other hand…
One thing at a time, Tara…don’t get ahead of yourself…
“Okay…you wanna try a little more?” she suggested gently, not wanting to push him, wanting him to know that he had a choice.
The vampire eagerly nodded, holding his head up, his lips parted in anticipation of the cool liquid. Tara realized with sympathy that it was probably soothing to the damaged tissues of his throat, and carefully poured a bit more into his mouth, no more than a sip. She repeated the painstakingly slow process several times, not giving a thought to the time it was taking, patiently waiting until half the glass was gone.
After all, she had no idea how much his stomach would hold after such starvation, and he needed to get some blood into his system right away. She looked him over with a speculative eye, and was relieved and pleased to see that he already looked a bit better, just for getting some fluids into his body. His lips did not look as parched as they had before, and his jaw seemed to move with greater ease as he swallowed slowly.
“Okay. You did so good…I’m very happy,” she assured him in simple terms to be sure he understood, briefly, impulsively, covering his hand with hers before rising slowly to her feet again, slipping her feet out of her shoes as she did. When she returned, she did not want to startle him again with their clatter on the wooden floor.
“I’m gonna get some blood for you, from the kitchen. I’ll be right back.”
Blood! Does she mean it? Is she really giving me blood? Oh, please, please let it be true…please…
“Okay, I’m coming back in the living room now…”
He felt a brief flash of fear at the swinging sound of a door opening, but it was almost immediately eased by the increasingly familiar sound of the girl’s voice. She was talking loudly from the moment she opened the door, so he knew that the soft footsteps he heard approaching were hers, and she had not hurt him so far, so…
Stunned, he raised his head in her direction as his nostrils, now capable of drawing in fragrance as well as breath, caught the sweet, rich scent of warm, human blood. His jaw dropped in surprise, before he swallowed hard, wincing at the tearing pain the action caused even as he struggled to control his desperate desire for the nourishment he knew was so very near.
It couldn’t be real, had to be a trick of some kind. Perhaps it was drugged, and they wanted him unconscious so they could begin their experiments again. Or perhaps they simply wanted him to drink it, and get better, so they could begin their sadistic games all over again with a fresh, healthy body. He could not suppress a shudder at that thought, despite the warmth of the room, and he crouched down lower against the wall as he sensed her nearing his side.
“Hey,” she said softly, and he jumped when her voice revealed that she was nearer than he had expected. She was crouched just in front of him, her voice gentle and soothing as she insisted, “It’s okay. It’s real…and it’s for you. I’m not gonna hurt you, remember? I just want to help you.”
He froze as he felt her reaching toward him, and the smell of the blood grew stronger…stronger…
Suddenly, it no longer mattered what the consequences might be for his accepting the dubious gift. He couldn’t help but reach out for the source of the scent, his entire body longing, aching for it. His stomach clenched painfully within him, and he doubled over with a pained gasp before he could touch the blood in her hands.
Immediately he felt the comforting touch of her hand on his again, gentle arms guiding him back upright, and then the sensation of warm stone against his lips…a coffee mug.
“It’s all right,” she soothed him, tipping the cup up slightly and allowing the first trickle of blood to pour into his mouth. “Go easy, or you’ll choke…”
Her words went unheeded in his desperation, only intensified by the sudden explosion of rich, nourishing flavor in his mouth. Impatient in his state of starvation, he latched onto the cup, drawing more of the thick liquid into his mouth…and immediately choking on it. He felt the cup begin to draw away, and reached up in a frantic, instinctive gesture to hold onto it, his hand freezing a few inches from the cup as he remembered himself, and the possible consequences for such defiance.
A low, garbled whine sounded in his throat, wordlessly pleading for this longed for sustenance to not be taken away from him, and his brow furrowed in fearful anticipation, as she pulled the cup back, holding it an inch or so away from his mouth. He fully expected to be punished for his presumption. She would take the blood away now, and likely slap him to the floor for daring to contradict her in such a way.
But she didn’t.
“Shhh, easy,” she whispered. “Take it slow…it’s here, and it’s yours, all right? Don’t rush, you’ll just hurt yourself, okay? Take it easy…just like the water. All right?”
Remembering the water, and the all-important fact that she had not taken it away from him, he nodded eagerly, pleadingly, and she returned the cup to his mouth. Slowly, carefully, she fed it to him, until he eventually managed to get the whole cup down. It wasn’t much, just a few ounces, but it felt like a five course meal after going so long without.
He couldn’t believe that she had given him human blood.
He could feel it in his stomach, tingling, spreading to his other organs and the surrounding tissues, soothing his aching throat as it began the work of healing his damaged body. A great shudder of relief passed through him, with the knowledge that somehow, he had to be out of that…that place, where they had done so many terrible things to him.
He had no idea how she had gotten him away from them, or where she had taken him, or why, for that matter, but he now believed what she had told him. This must be her place, because she seemed to be in control, to make the decisions, here. They would never have allowed him the luxury of fresh, human blood.
An overwhelming sense of gratitude flooded his heart, and he longed to express it to her.
Tara dutifully ignored the fact that the blood was human, as she painstakingly fed the vampire, aware that it would likely do him much greater good than mere animal blood. It was bagged, and therefore most likely from a willing donor, so she could be reasonably sure that no one had died for it…though at the moment, she wasn’t all that certain it would have made a difference if they had.
He desperately needed it.
She saw the relief in his shuddering posture as she set the empty mug aside, and her heart flooded with compassion for the broken vampire, her eyes welling with fresh tears. Gently, she laid a hand on his arm, offering what support and comfort she could, while doing her best not to further frighten him. With her free hand, she swiped at her tears, as she slowly stroked his battered arm in a soothing manner, carefully avoiding the deep laceration that ran the length of his underarm.
She was alarmed when she felt his cool skin suddenly slide out from under her touch, assuming it had all finally been too much for him and he had passed out on the floor. She opened her eyes, blinking the teary haze away from them…and they widened in stunned disbelief, to see him bowing before her, his face pressed to the floor and his hands in front of him in a humble, supplicating pose.
Horrified, she reached down to draw him back up, when an unexpected sound stilled her movements, and for just an instant, her heart with them. It was the faintest of whispers, barely a breath, and so hoarse that she could scarcely make out the words…but she could make them out, and they sent her tears spilling down her cheeks at the whispered words of gratitude.
God, what kind of monsters could have reduced him to this?
Tara was at a loss, having no idea how to react to the vampire’s pitifully submissive behavior. Huddled at her feet with his face to the floor, his hands almost touching her bare feet, he was trembling uncontrollably, his entire body shaking with what might have been sobs – or perhaps just sheer exhaustion.
Tara winced at the sight of his battered back, covered in torn, bloodied lash marks, old, but not healing, and painfully stretched by his bowing posture. The entire area was nearly black with recent bruising, and older bruises layered underneath, indicating that the wreckage she was seeing was not the result of a single act of brutality, but of many beatings over an extended period of time.
His barely whispered words of gratitude had touched her heart, but she couldn’t stand the idea that he thought he had to bow to her, that he thought of mere sustenance as some unaccountable privilege which she could grant or deny him at her whim. And yet, she did not want to frighten him or cause him any further confusion by reprimanding him for this, his first attempt at initiating communication since he had awakened.
Slowly, she lowered herself onto the sides of her legs, reaching out a cautious hand to touch the back of his head in a very gentle, barely there caress, ghosting over the surface of his filthy, matted blond hair, noting the darker roots that had begun to grow in beneath the shock of white that had initially caught her attention. He flinched just slightly, but did not pull away from the light, soothing touch.
“It’s okay,” she whispered, not trusting her own voice to speak any louder. “You don’t have to…to do this, Sweetie…it’s all right…”
As she spoke, Tara gently took his hands, lifting them carefully from the floor, guiding him back up to a half-sitting position. He struggled to rise, though it seemed he was only doing it because he thought it was what she wanted him to do. She was alarmed at the amount of his weight he was putting on her, not because he was any great burden for her to lift, but because of the exhaustion that was evident in his slumped posture, his trembling arms and hands in hers
“I know, you’re so tired,” she observed with compassion in her voice. “I know. Do you want to sleep? You can rest; we can finish the rest in the morning. Okay? Does that sound good?”
He made a slight forward motion of his head that might have been a nod, but he was simply too exhausted even to finish the gesture. His head lolled forward as he drew in a soft, shaky breath, struggling to remain upright as she had silently asked, though he was clearly fading fast.
Tara glanced around the room, anxiously considering her options. She was reluctant to move him, as badly injured as he was, aware that she could not lift him without at best, encountering numerous wounds and aggravating them, and at worst, sending him into a fresh panic and causing him even greater pain in the process.
Finally, she carefully leaned him back against the wall again, and he offered no resistance or cooperation at this point, simply pliable and shifting in the direction she moved him. Once she was sure he would not fall as soon as she let go, Tara moved the few feet to the sofa and picked up the cushions, carrying them to where he was propped against the wall and laying them out on the floor in a makeshift pallet.
Then she put a gentle arm behind his shoulders, her other hand reaching down to reassuringly take his hand, anticipating the tensing of his body, the sharp intake of breath at the unexpected touch that stirred him from the beginnings of sleep.
“Shh, it’s okay,” she whispered. “Just want you to lie down, here, okay? Just rest; you’re safe…it’s okay…”
He was too tired to question her motives or hesitate at this point, simply allowing her to awkwardly maneuver his body onto the cushions and cover him with the soft blanket she had given him earlier. In spite of his submission, however, he was trembling violently, and Tara just crouched beside him for a few minutes, holding his hand and murmuring reassuringly to him.
Gradually, his trembling began to ease, and his tense hand in hers relaxed, letting her know that he was slipping into sleep. Standing up, she stared down at him for a long moment, taking in the pitifully slight form, made even smaller by his huddled position on the cushions, before heading into the kitchen. She returned a few minutes later with a hot water bottle, which she wrapped in a second small blanket and placed carefully under the edge of the blanket covering him.
He doesn’t have any heat of his own; it might help him rest…
Drained and exhausted herself from the emotional experience of the evening, Tara sighed as she glanced at the clock on the wall, and her eyes widened in disbelief. It was already four o’clock in the morning. She knew there was still much to do to tend to the vampire’s injuries, not to mention getting him some kind of clothing to wear – but he was fast asleep already, and she decided that it could wait until the morning.
Well…later…in the…morning… she mentally amended with a yawn.
She could use a few hours of sleep, herself.
She glanced around the living room, convincing herself that the mess could wait until she woke up as well…and her gaze fell on the discarded collar on the floor. Unsure of the reasons why, she crossed the room to pick up the cruel instrument of torture, fighting back the sick feeling in the back of her throat as she looked at it.
Her first impulse was to throw it away – burn it, even – just to get rid of the horrible thing. However, a moment later she reconsidered with a reluctant sigh. As disturbing as it was to her to think of keeping the collar, she knew that it was very likely the only piece of evidence she would have as to where the vampire had been, what had happened to him. She had no idea when he would be capable of telling her himself, or if he ever would be, for that matter.
Best to hold onto it, she decided. Maybe I can use it somehow, to find the people who did this to him.
Tara went into the kitchen, where Mac was now lying directly on top of the heating vent. As she entered the room, he raised his head and yawned, looking at her expectantly. Her heart softened with fondness for the dog, as she realized that she had ignored him most of the evening.
“Sorry, Mac,” she murmured as she made her way to the sink. “But this guy really needs somebody to help him. And I…I’ve gotta try.”
She fought against her gag reflex as she scrubbed the collar clean in the kitchen sink, washing the dried blood and filth that stained it down the drain and rinsing the collar under the faucet until the metal gleamed in the kitchen light.
Tara shuddered as her finger traced over the metal touchpad, then the tiny button beside it, and the cruel metal prongs shot out from the inside of the collar. Her trembling fingertips brushed against one, noting with fresh horror how very sharp they were, and her anger was rekindled at the thought of the deliberate brutality that might have resulted in such a vicious design
She frowned, peering more closely at the collar as she noticed engraving on the flat metal plate at its front. It looked like letters or numbers, but they were so small that she could barely make them out at first. She examined it closely, and finally determined that it was the number “17”, carved into the metal.
She wondered for a moment about the meaning of the number; perhaps it had none. Perhaps it was nothing more than a serial number. At any rate, she was too exhausted to think about it anymore right then. She opened the drawer next to the sink, affectionately known to her as her “junk drawer”, and placed the collar inside, closing it tight with a little shudder, glad to have it out of her sight.
“Come on, Mac,” she softly invited, patting her leg, and he eagerly crossed the room to her within moments. “Let’s go to bed.”
Mac walked uncertainly toward the door to the living room, sniffing under it and looking up at her again, his tail flattened slightly in apprehension. He knew that the strange something, the something that didn’t smell right, whatever it was, was still there. But Tara knew better than to let him anywhere near the damaged vampire anytime soon.
“No, Mac,” she said firmly. “Come on.” She headed toward the hallway leading to the staircase, patting her leg again, and this time the dog followed, easily passing her with a few eager, bounding steps on her way up the stairs and to her bedroom. Tara took a moment to set her alarm, wanting to check on the vampire first thing in the morning, and within minutes, they were settled down on the bed for a few hours much-needed sleep.
Morning came all too soon.
The insistent buzzing of her alarm clock drew Tara from a troubled sleep filled with vivid, disturbing dreams, though they did not hold the ultra-realistic, almost prophetic feeling of the others she had had about the vampire, now in her living room.
She sat straight up in the bed, her eyes going wide as she remembered the events of the day before.
“The vampire…in my living room…” Tara tried the words aloud, her mind struggling to come to terms with the fact that it had all actually happened.
Nope…just as weird out loud. Maybe weirder.
Mac raised his head, and Tara reached to stroke behind his ears, frowning pensively as she thought about her unexpected house guest downstairs. She didn’t know his name, or where he had been, what had happened to him. She didn’t know if she was even capable of giving him the help he needed to recover.
All she knew was that he needed whatever help he could get…and no one else seemed to be offering.
In his broken, shaking, terrified state, it was hard to think of the vampire as the dangerous creature he was by nature; and Tara’s dreams had led her to believe that she was supposed to help him. After all, she had dreamed of his existence, and found that the dream was reality. If so, then the dreams she had had about the good deeds he had done were likely true as well…right?
He was a good vampire.
She let out a slow, heavy breath as she remembered the cringing, pitiful creature from the night before, and decided that good or bad, it didn’t matter. He was helpless, and only she could help him.
Steeling herself for whatever the day might bring, Tara rose from the bed. Mac immediately followed her, leaping off the bed and pacing the room on heavy paws, eager for his breakfast. Tara tried to calm him, gripping his collar as she started down the steps; she did not want to frighten the vampire.
But Mac tried to pull away from her, his big paws thumping on the staircase, while Tara cringed with every sound. Firmly she led the dog past the living room by his collar, and the moment she took down his food dish, the interesting mystery in the living room seemed to be forgotten. Mac sat at her feet, his long tail wagging slowly as he watched her expectantly, waiting.
Tara took her time with the food, finally setting it out and opening the back door to allow Mac to run out when he was finished. She then took a bag of blood from the refrigerator and warmed it in the microwave. She had learned something the night before, from the vampire’s frantic panics every time she had walked into the room – the fewer entrances and exits she could manage, the better.
When she could put it off no longer, she steeled her nerves for another tense, harrowing encounter with the traumatized vampire, and opened the living room door.
He heard the sound of pounding footsteps, and huddled tighter into his corner, trembling in terrified anticipation of the day’s round of torment for the sadistic pleasure of his captors. He flinched as he heard them enter his cell, but there was no escape, no hope of mercy but to fall at their feet in silent, broken supplication that this time, maybe, *maybe* he would be spared.
It was not to be.
Cruel hands, hot on his icy cold arms, yanked his hands behind his back and held them there, crossing them roughly. His wrists were thin by now, small and easily restrained by a single hand…freeing his tormentor’s other hand for other pursuits. The vampire flinched as that harsh hand ran over his body in invasive, humiliating ways, and the owner of those hands leaned in close to whisper in his ear.
He hesitated only a moment, so desperate was his starvation by that point. He could not keep himself from nodding eagerly, despite the fact that he knew what they would give him for food – and what they would require of him in order to receive it.
Humiliation, degradation and abuse to which he had become accustomed, and he tried to make himself numb to it all as he was brutally violated, his mouth, his body, used for the gratification of his enemies, and then kicked mercilessly back down to his face on the floor.
“Good boy,” one of them sneered. “Now get up on your knees.”
He struggled to rise, but was too weak from hunger and the dizzying blows they had dealt him, not to mention the savage violation that had just been inflicted upon him. His head was snatched violently back by the hair, and a cold packet was held to his lips as his arms were yanked behind his back again.
At the first taste of the rancid, bitter fluid, he tried to struggle, rejecting the clotted, congealed substance that had once might have been nourishing to him…but not anymore. Cold pig’s blood, long since gone off, and he found that despite his starvation he could not bring himself to swallow it.
But his captors could.
They forced his mouth open, their stronger arms holding him down and pouring the vile mixture down his throat. He gagged at the horrid taste of the rancid fluid, trying to expel it, but it was done before he had time to resist…not that he had the strength to resist, anyway. Bitter and spoiled, he could feel the disgusting, congealed mass roiling in his stomach, and his body immediately attempted to reject it – but they had been ready for just such an occurrence.
They left him gagged, his mouth and throat packed with rough fabric and bound tightly, his wrists bound as well, lying on the floor racked with agony as his body struggled to expel the putrid blood they had fed him. Again and again his stomach clenched in agony as he gagged and retched, uselessly struggling to expel the poison, but his esophagus and airways were both thoroughly blocked by the gag, and he had no way to be rid of the rancid mess.
Eventually, his body absorbed it, bit by bit, taking what little nourishment it could from the blood…which, however spoiled, was still blood, after all. But in the agonizing hours the process took, he lay there, shivering with cold and aching with sickness, alone and helpless in his suffering.
Even while the sound of the pounding footsteps on the stairs was absorbed into his dream, it drew the vampire abruptly to wakefulness. Panic seized him, at what sounded to him like many footsteps, and he struggled to sit up, his body aching with the stiffness sleep had brought to his injuries.
Bewildered and disoriented, he tried to remember where he was. He was…warm, covered with soft blankets, resting on comfortable cushions. In dismay he struggled to pull away from the precious comforts, far too lavish and undeserved to be enjoyed by him.
If they caught him…
Panicked, he tried to pull himself up on shaking arms, tried to drag his useless legs away, but he could not see anything around him, and had no idea which way to go, or where he was supposed to be. To his despair, he found that he was also too weak, in too much pain, to move far; and besides…it was too late.
They were already there.
Tara entered the room as slowly and quietly as possible, after shutting the door to the kitchen, so as not to allow Mac to further traumatize their frightened houseguest. She held her breath as she stepped into the living room, hoping that perhaps he was still asleep, gaining much needed rest; perhaps he would remember and not be scared by her entrance.
He was half-sitting up, his back against the wall, as far as he could get from her, having left the blankets in a tangled heap on the sofa cushions. Her heart sank with the realization that for all their perceived progress the night before, he was still terrified by the slightest sound.
Of course, Mac probably didn’t help much…
“Easy,” she said softly, wincing when the vampire’s body jerked in startled fear as he flinched back against the wall, his breath harsh and ragged, rattling in his torn throat as he drew back away from the sound of her voice in panic. “It’s okay…just me…remember? It’s okay…”
He froze as she went on, and Tara was encouraged by the slight tilt of his head toward her, as if he was struggling to remember, to place her. His shaking did not cease, but did ease a bit as she gradually advanced.
“Remember? I’m not gonna hurt you, okay? It’s just me; there’s no one else here. You’re safe.”
She watched in fascinated wonder as he suddenly turned his head, just barely sniffing the air, before shifting slightly toward her. He kept his head bowed submissively, but she knew that he could smell the blood in the mug she carried, and hoped that incentive might be enough to keep him calm.
“That’s it…that’s good…it’s okay…” She kept murmuring soft, reassuring phrases as she approached, trying to keep him aware of her position in the room, of how near she was getting, and hoping to keep him from becoming any more frightened than he already was.
She froze, however, when the vampire suddenly shuffled forward slightly onto his bruised, bony knees, falling forward again with his forehead to the floor, his trembling hands palm up in front of him in a pleading gesture. He was still breathing, rapid and shallow, though each breath sounded ragged and painful as it tore through his damaged throat.
Tara fought back her disappointment as she slowly crouched in front of him, a mere foot of space separating them. She had thought she had gotten through to him the night before, had made him understand that she was not going to hurt him. She knew she had – and yet, here, in the light of morning, all was forgotten, and he was back to terrified, desperate submission.
How long was he…there? Wherever it was…and…how often was he made to beg like this, for food…for…for mercy? She swallowed hard, her throat going dry as the chilling thought crossed her mind, How often was it denied him in spite of his begging?
Tears sprang to her eyes, and she blinked them back, aware that she could not show any sign of disapproval or upset, not when he was in such a fragile state.
However, the vampire seemed to sense her displeasure despite her efforts. He bowed lower, his trembling intensified as a soft keening rose from his throat, almost silent, but a barely audible sound of such desperation and agony that it broke Tara’s heart afresh. He turned his hands on the floor, laying them flat against it, his body lowered as much as was possible in his frantic attempts to show her his surrender.
Please, please don’t hurt me…be real…don’t hurt me, please…
The desperate, pleading thoughts echoed through the vampire’s mind as he huddled on the floor, willing to do anything she asked of him, whatever she wanted, in order to earn the blood he could smell. Warm and fresh and tantalizing – human again, he noticed in stunned disbelief – it made his painful stomach clench harder with need, his ragged throat ache with the desire for the warm, soothing liquid.
He flinched when he felt her hand close gently around his, but did not pull away, allowing his hand to go pliant in hers as she took his other hand as well and carefully tried to guide him back up to a sitting position. As soon as he realized what it was that she wanted, he struggled to rise, wincing as he braced his hands on hers, wary of taking too great a liberty with the assistance she offered.
He kept his head bowed, turned away from her slightly, not sure exactly where she was, and terrified to be caught looking her in the face. He was not allowed to look a human in the face; he was a monster, a thing, beneath them, and such boldness and presumption was not permitted him.
“You don’t have to do this,” he heard her soft voice say, and it sounded hushed and thick with tears. “Not anymore. You really don’t have to bow to me, or…or beg for your food…”
On your face, you filth. You think you *deserve* to be fed? It’s a privilege, and you’d better be grateful!
Get down, vampire, or we’ll *put* you down…you think you have the right to even *look* at us?
He frowned, shaking his head slightly in utter confusion, unable to make sense of her words amidst the remembered threats of his captors, echoing in his mind. Of course he had to bow and beg for the privilege of sustenance. He was not allowed to feed at all until he had shown his captors his humility, his submission to them, his gratitude for the mercy they were showing him by feeding him. And even when he had done what he knew they expected of him, he could not be sure that they would grant him his plea.
He was at their mercy…and he was never fed if he had not shown the proper gesture of submission required of him.
As she gently supported him, helping him to rise to his knees, and then to carefully slide off them into a sitting position, he did not struggle, did not resist, simply allowed her to manipulate him into whatever position she wanted him in.
I’ll be good…I’ll do whatever you want, anything you tell me…see? I can be good…only please don’t hurt me…please don’t take the blood away…see how good I can be?
He was trembling, favoring his good arm, though he was so weak, he was not sure how much longer he could hold himself up. And suddenly, it didn’t matter anymore, because the heavy, rich scent of the blood was directly beneath his nose, and the warm stone mug was to his lips again.
As she tilted it forward, he eagerly opened his lips to accept the blessed, beautiful gift, the warm, rich flavor of healing and relief for his broken body. Frantically he drank it, pulling it quickly into his mouth, choking on it, but still managing to get it down with greater ease than he had the night before. His throat ached, still torn and bruised by the collar, but some of the swelling seemed to have gone down, so that more of the blood passed more quickly into his stomach than it had before.
He was vaguely aware that she was talking, and he dutifully tried to listen, though it was difficult to focus on anything but the blood flowing so sweetly down his throat.
His every swallow sounded so painful, rough and rasping, and Tara grimaced at the sound of it; but she kept talking quietly, keeping her voice level and soothing as she went through her plans for the day’s activities. She knew he wasn’t really getting anything out of the one-sided conversation besides the reassuring quality of her voice, but talking about it helped her to focus on what she had to accomplish. She had to get him some clothes to wear, and had to get him clean as well…which was the task she was particularly dreading.
She wasn’t sure whether or not vampires could get infections, but she knew that his many wounds would likely heal better and faster regardless, if she could get him cleaned up. However, she was also not sure how he would handle a bath. He flinched every time she cleared her throat. How would he react to being lifted into a tub of water and thoroughly bathed by the hands of a stranger?
Nothing for it, Tara told herself firmly. It’s got to be done.
As he drank the blood, she glanced down again, discomforted to see that he had left the blanket behind in his frantic attempts to hide from her, and the majority of his ghastly injuries were on display. He was so very painfully thin, each vertebra in his spine prominent and clearly visible, his stomach still concave in spite of the two brief meals he had had since being here.
She had no idea how much blood he would require to completely heal his injuries, but she only had one bag left…and she knew it would not be anywhere near enough. The thought of returning to the creepy magic shop made her shudder, but as she thought the situation through, she realized that it might be her only option. She briefly considered the idea of donating some of her own blood, but she had no medical training, and was afraid that she might do it wrong and end up doing herself serious harm – which would be beneficial to neither her nor the vampire.
She knew that vampires could drink animal blood, but she was almost positive that it would not be as helpful to him as human.
Another unpleasant job that has to be done, she decided. I’ll go back there just this once, and I’ll get plenty. And when it’s gone…well, maybe he’ll be ready to take animal blood by then.
As Tara watched him finish off the last of the blood in the mug, her reluctant eyes fell on his face – ironically, the one area of his exposed body she had most been avoiding since she had found him. Ordinarily, one’s face was the best place to look if a person wanted to get to know them, to gauge their honesty, emotions, state of mind.
On this poor, damaged creature, it was the last place Tara wanted to look.
It wouldn’t be so bad, if it wasn’t for…
She swallowed back a wave of nausea, as she steeled herself for the most gruesome of his injuries.
One did indeed seem to be completely gone, only a mangled mass of torn and charred bloody tissue where it should have been, while the other was swollen almost completely shut. Tentatively, Tara waved a cautious hand slowly in front of his face, a foot or so away so as not to frighten him.
Nothing. Not the slightest hint of a reaction.
Her sick sensation intensified as she confirmed that the vampire was completely blind.
“Can you see at all?”
She remembered asking him the question, remembered his panicked response of desperate denial, and her heart dropped to somewhere around her stomach as she realized just how urgently he had wanted to make her know that he could not see. What had they done to him…how might they have punished him in the past, for the simple offense of being able to see? Had they deliberately kept him blind, as another means of control over him?
Her heart ached to imagine what it had to be like, to be lost in such constant darkness, helpless, unable to see where a potential threat might be coming from, unable to read the expressions, the posture, of those around him, to gauge their intentions. It was no wonder that he had been so terribly panicked by the slightest sound, the gentlest touch. She made a mental note from that point on to tell him everything she was doing, when she was doing it, to ease the terror that came with simply not knowing.
And the next thing she would be doing, she decided, was getting supplies.
In addition to his countless injuries needing treatment, the vampire was utterly filthy. His body was caked with blood and grime, and though she didn’t hold it against him in the least – after all, it wasn’t as if he could help it – he smelled terrible. The noxious odor of old blood and sweat and other scents Tara did not want to try to place surrounded him, and Tara knew that for the sake of his dignity, and her senses, a bath was in order very soon.
Tara set the mug down on the floor, already anticipating his reaction of humble gratitude for the food. The vampire shuddered, though this time it seemed to be a sign of relief rather than fear, as he lowered his body slowly, nervously, attempting to assume the bowing position as he had before. Before he could finish, Tara caught his hand, holding him gently in place.
“Please,” she urged him gently. “Don’t. You don’t have to.”
He froze, shivering with fear and uncertainty, and Tara realized with dismay that he seemed to be awaiting instructions from her. Uneasily, she tried to think what to tell him, knowing that it was not the best time to try to convince him to think for himself.
“Why d-don’t you just…just lie down again for a while, okay?” she suggested softly. “I know you have to still be tired…aren’t you?”
Hesitantly he nodded, beginning to lower his body slowly toward the floor. Gently redirecting him toward the cushions he had abandoned in his panic at her entrance, Tara covered him again with the blanket, instinctively raising a hand to touch his arm in a soothing gesture.
“That’s it,” she whispered. “Good. That’s good.” She waited for a few moments, pleased when he seemed to relax somewhat under her touch, instead of being terrified by it as before. She noticed, however, by the continued tension in his body, that he did not seem ready to go to sleep, at least…not while she was there.
After a moment’s hesitation, she made a decision and continued softly, “I…I haven’t told you my name. I’m Tara. Do you understand?”
He froze, as if confused, swallowing convulsively even as the swallow was followed by a wince of pain.
“Tara’s my name,” she said slowly. “Do you understand? Tara. I’m Tara.”
After another brief pause, the vampire slowly, cautiously nodded, indicating that he understood, and Tara smiled with relief. “Good,” she murmured, just slightly stroking her fingertips across the surface of his skin, afraid of aggravating one of the numerous injuries that marred it. “Very good.”
She paused a moment, considering, before venturing cautiously, “I…still don’t know your name. What…what is your name, Sweetie?”
Immediately the vampire tensed, though he dared not pull away, with her hands still on him, probably for fear of her taking it as resistance. He shook his head just slightly, his breathing becoming quick and shallow again as his trembling increased. Tara frowned in confusion. He had spoken the night before, but now he seemed terrified by the prospect.
Whatever his reasons, she would not push him before he was ready.
“No, no, no, it’s okay,” she reassured him, backing off, removing her hand from his arm, but still holding his hand, as that had seemed to calm him before. “It’s all right. You don’t have to. It’s all right…”
He still seemed terrified, trembling and huddling under the blanket, apparently trying to make himself as small and inconspicuous as possible. With a heavy sigh, Tara decided that the best thing at the moment was to give him a bit of space.
“Okay, you just rest. I’m going to go get supplies. I’ll be back in an hour, okay?”
He didn’t respond – she hadn’t really expected him to – but she thought she felt a brief squeeze of her hand, so very quick and barely there as to leave her wondering if she had felt it at all. Carefully rising to her feet, she gently freed her hand from his and headed toward the door.
He was still tired, but the vampire was far from ready to go back to sleep. After she left the room, the house became quiet, and he just lay there for a long while, simply savoring the sensation of warmth and comfort, the sweet simple freedom to breathe, after so long deprived.
He drew in a slow, ragged breath, relishing it in spite of the pain it caused his damaged trachea. The cruel prongs on the inside of his collar had sliced into his flesh, causing terrible pain with even the slightest movement of his head or neck. They had known that, of course, and they had forced him to move them at every opportunity – keeping his head bowed, answering their pointless questions – so much so that he had almost become accustomed to the pain.
What was more terrifying to him was the thought of the damage the collar might have done to his larynx and the muscles of his throat. He had no idea how bad the injuries really were, no way of knowing if he would ever be able to breathe, to speak again, without pain. Even the slightest whimper tore his throat with a sensation of burning agony.
But at least now…he could try.
His mind was dragged unwillingly back to countless memories, moments when he had tried to scream, tried to cry out for mercy, but the cruel collar had prevented the slightest sound. He shuddered at the thought that wherever he was, whoever had brought him here, he would eventually be found…found and taken back.
The collar would surely be put back on him.
His shivering increased at the thought, and he tried to focus on breathing, tried to block out the horrific memories that filled his mind, and the terror that the reality of them would soon return. His deeper breaths began to carry various scents from the air around him, and he reassured himself with the knowledge that this place did not smell like that place…or feel like it, for that matter.
But then, he had no way to be sure that he was actually in a better place.
No way to be sure of anything.
He wished she would stop playing whatever game it was she was playing, would just tell him what she wanted with him, why he was there, so he could stop hoping, stop playing made up fantasies of freedom and comfort over and over again in his head, and just face reality – whatever reality was going to be for him.
But then, she hadn’t intentionally hurt him – not once – and she had shown him nothing but kindness so far. She had given him blood, enough that for the first time in months his stomach actually felt full, and covered him with warm blankets, tended to his injuries and simply given him the space and time to rest…and most importantly of all, she had removed the hated collar from his neck, allowed him the liberty to breathe again, to speak again…that was, if he dared to do so.
Which, of course, he didn’t.
This place – her place – smelled only of human, specifically her. Vanilla and honey, with hints of spices and various herbs. And…dog. Dog? He couldn’t fathom why there might be a dog in this place, though he could not mistake the distinctive, musky scent. The blankets that covered him were saturated with her scent, mingled with the fresh linen smell that he remembered from before his captivity, though he’d never before found it so comforting.
There was one other distinct fragrance in this place – just the slightest hint of magic.
All the other smells, the bad ones, he knew were coming from him. Blood, terror, suffering…and other scents, scents that started the shuddering again deep within him, and he struggled to blot the traumatic memories of degradation and violation from his mind. He desperately wanted to feel clean again; it had been so long that he had almost forgotten what it felt like.
Gonna contaminate this place…contaminate *her*…draggin’ around their scent…the scent of…
He shook his head in denial, trembling violently.
No…no…won’t think it…won’t go there again…
His one good hand clutching at the blanket, he wished once again that he could see. So much would make more sense if he could, he was sure. Maybe if he could see, he could be sure whether or not this was real, or all some elaborate fantasy his desperate mind had concocted.
His thoughts turned once more to the girl – Tara.
She did not seem in the least afraid of him, though she clearly knew what he was. She did not seem uneasy around him, or disgusted by the knowledge of the monster in her custody. All he had sensed from her was concern, sorrow, and a sort of shy self-consciousness that did not seem to fit with the sense he had gotten of magical power.
It didn’t make sense…and it made him more than a little uneasy.
But now she was gone again, and despite his fears and uncertainties…he wanted her back. When she was gone, there was nothing to focus on but the quiet and the dark and the fear, the knowledge that at any moment the door could open, and they would be there for him again, to take him back and reduce his life to sheer white agony once again.
When she was there, the terror seemed easier to manage. She talked to him, not in harsh, menacing tones of disgusted contempt, but in a soft, reassuring voice that was a balm to his shattered heart. She told him it was going to be all right, told him what she was going to do to him before she did it…even asked him if it was all right.
Not that it mattered if he thought it was all right.
She told him she wouldn’t hurt him.
If only he could believe her.
She said she was going for bandages and supplies, but he knew he was not worthy of such considerations. He was so terribly confused, and dared not believe what he was beginning to hope…that perhaps the agony was over.
No…it was not possible.
Too many times he had been lied to, promised safety and freedom, only to have it brutally wrenched from his grasp. He couldn’t believe her. It had to be a trick of some kind. Maybe he was still there, and this was all an elaborate deception to get him off his guard, to break him anew and make him “fun” for his captors again.
Or perhaps, he had lost his mind completely, and was locked away in this fantasy world, made up of all the wishes and hopes of his mind, while in reality he was still locked away in his tiny, dark cell, at the mercy of the soldiers.
He shivered again, huddling under the blankets and simply breathing in the comforting scent of Tara, while he drifted off to an uneasy sleep once more.
Tara stopped in the kitchen on her way to the front door, picking up the telephone with a sense of guilty regret as she remembered the plans she had made with Dawn the previous afternoon – before her life had entered its sudden and stunningly swift descent into insanity. The girl didn’t have a lot of people she could turn to at the moment, and was terribly lonely; Tara liked to spend as much time with her as possible.
But today, Dawn was going to have to wait.
She waited while the phone rang, wincing inwardly when Dawn’s unusually cheerful voice finally answered, sounding slightly breathless. Tara fought back a fresh wave of guilt at the mental image of the teenager rushing around getting ready for the shopping date they were supposed to have had an hour from then.
The momentary silence following her greeting told Tara that her very tone had given her away, even before Dawn spoke in an accusing tone of voice.
“You’re calling to cancel, aren’t you?”
“I’m really sorry, Dawnie. There’s kind of an… an emergency. We can go next Saturday instead…but…but I really can’t today…”
Dawn’s voice lost its accusing tone, and took on a small, almost fearful note as she asked, “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing…nothing bad, Honey,” Tara assured her, aware even as she spoke that her words were not entirely true. “Nothing…nothing you need to worry about. I’ll…I’ll tell you all about it later, okay? But right now, there’s something I r-really…need to take care of. All right?”
Dawn’s sigh was clearly audible, but she followed it with a pained, “Fine. Okay. Guess I’ll just spend this lovely afternoon at home. In front of the television. Alone.” She paused before adding pointedly, “Again.”
“I’m sorry, Sweetie…” Tara’s heart went out to the lonely teenager, though she knew she really had no other option at the moment. “I promise I’ll make it up to you. We’ll do something special next weekend.”
She tried to put out of her mind the disconcerting questions as to whether or not her situation would be any different by the following weekend. She had no idea how long it was going to take to bring the vampire to full recovery…whether or not that was even possible. She didn’t know how she was going to manage her classes after the weekend, or what she would do with her unexpected guest should Dawn want to come over the following week.
And those questions were just too much for her to even consider at the moment. For now, she was doing well just to make it through each hour, one at a time.
“It’s okay, Tara. I understand.” Dawn’s voice held a false cheer that made Tara cringe to hear it. “I’m getting pretty good at understanding.”
“Talk to you later, bye!”
Dawn slammed the phone down a bit harder than she meant to, fuming quietly as she stormed out of the kitchen and back to the living room. She flopped down on the sofa again in front of her abandoned, half-eaten bowl of cereal and the Saturday morning cartoons that were still playing.
She had been hurrying to get ready by the time Tara arrived at the house to pick her up, when the telephone rang. She was half-dressed, wearing her favorite pair of jeans and cute, strappy sandals on the bottom, but still in her pajama shirt on top.
Now, there didn’t seem to be any reason to complete the process.
Dawn stared at the television, but was not really taking in the show. She had been looking forward to getting out, doing some shopping, spending time with the only person she knew who seemed to really listen to her anymore…and now that was out. She was surprised, and disappointed, and just a little bit hurt – because Tara always seemed to be there for her these days.
Except today, apparently.
She had resigned herself to another day spent alone, feeling sorry for herself, when she heard the unexpected sound of footsteps on the stairs. She glanced up with interest, irritated with her own pathetic eagerness, as Willow came into sight at the bottom of the stairs, lugging a stack of four or five thick, ancient-looking books in her arms.
It was rare to see Willow alone these days, Dawn thought with a sense of resentment she couldn’t quite suppress. Unlike Dawn, Willow seemed to constantly be in the company of her closest friends, who formed a faithful support network that seemed to be helping her to cope with the loss of Buffy. Xander and Anya were over at the house all the time, and Willow’s boyfriend Oz was over even more.
Besides Tara, Oz was the only other person who seemed to notice the way Dawn was dealing – or rather not dealing – with her sister’s death. He was quiet, and rarely said more than a couple of words at any given time, but Dawn noticed the occasional glances of concern he sent her way.
It made her feel awkward and a bit self-conscious, but in a way…comforted.
It was good to know that someone noticed…even if she couldn’t quite bring herself to talk to Oz about the way she felt.
She had Tara for that.
Tara did not know the others, was not a part of her regular everyday life, and therefore Tara was the one person with whom Dawn did not have to keep up the act she performed every single day – going to school, seeing her friends, and trying to interact with the rest of the world as if she hadn’t just lost her mother and her sister in the space of less than six months.
Of course, that part was getting easier – considering the fact that she was doing less and less actual interaction with other people.
The girls she used to hang out with didn’t seem to know how to talk to her anymore. Even her best friend, Janice, acted awkward and uncomfortable around her, although she at least made some attempt to maintain their friendship. Of course, that might have been easier had Dawn returned her efforts. Buffy had never liked Janice much, had often said she thought she was a bad influence on her little sister.
Somehow, after all that had happened, for Dawn, sharing the laughter and secrets she used to share with Janice felt like…a betrayal.
The redhead spared Dawn a brief, distracted glance before turning the corner toward the kitchen. “Oh, hey, Dawnie,” she mumbled, her voice still a bit hoarse with sleep.
“Hey,” Dawn replied brightly, hoping to perhaps engage the older girl in conversation…anything to interrupt the regularly scheduled boredom that was her every day life. “What are you…?”
But Willow was not waiting around for a response.
Ignoring the sinking feeling of disappointment in her chest, Dawn got up and followed her into the kitchen, once again irritated with herself for the sheer pathetic-ness of her actions, but too bored and tired of being alone to really care.
“What are you doing?” she asked as she sat down on the stool next to Willow’s at the kitchen counter, glancing with feigned interest at the dusty books laid out in front of her caretaker. After a moment or two, the mysterious titles of some of them caught her attention in spite of her boredom.
Where Few Dare to Tread: Spells and Rituals of the Dead…
Osiris: Rites of Obeisance
A Scandal Explored: Resur—
Abruptly Willow snatched the last title out of Dawn’s hands, putting it on the stool on her other side, well out of the younger girl’s line of vision.
“Don’t…touch that,” she warned, and Dawn frowned, puzzled by the slight nervous tremor in her voice. “These books are…some serious stuff, Dawnie. You shouldn’t be reading them.”
Dawn quirked a single dubious eyebrow in Willow’s direction. “Then I guess it’s a good thing I wasn’t.”
Willow gave her an apologetic little half-smile. “I know, Dawnie. I just wanna be sure you’re…safe.”
Dawn’s expression did not change as she took in those vaguely unsettling words. “But, you, on the other hand…you shouldn’t be safe? Are these books really that dangerous? What are you studying, anyway? Are you preparing a spell?”
She could not keep the eager note out of her voice on the last question, despite her misgivings. She wished that Willow would show her some of the magic she knew, teach her to do some cool things – but Willow usually just brushed her aside, insisting that she was too young to handle the sort of power that Willow was learning to wield. When Dawn persisted – which was most of the time – Willow laid down her argument to trump all arguments.
“Buffy wouldn’t like it.”
And of course…there was no arguing with that.
Dawn missed her sister terribly.
When Buffy was alive, they had fought almost constantly it seemed, until those last terrifying weeks when it had been uncertain whether any of them were going to survive to see the next day. Then, the girls had grown closer than they’d ever been before, some deep-rooted instinct driving them to seek strength in each other they had never known they could find.
And in one fateful moment…it had all vanished, like the warm, building glow of a candle suddenly snuffed out.
Buffy had taken her place.
None of them had ever said it – not Willow with her brave resolve face, determined to keep the group together in spite of the tremendous loss they had faced; not Xander with his unflappable sense of cheer, as he tried his best to make sure they didn’t stop laughing altogether in the face of their grief; not even Anya, with her annoying tendency toward extreme honesty.
But Dawn knew they thought it – knew that they knew it was the truth.
She was pretty sure that Giles knew it, too, though he didn’t seem as much a part of the group these days. She had come to the conclusion that it was the reason he kept to himself so much, locked away in his apartment across town and only joining the others for the occasional patrol, or when absolutely necessary. She had a feeling that he would have left altogether a long time ago, had it not been for Spike’s disappearance.
Spike had helped a lot following Buffy’s death, with patrolling, and helping to protect them all from the constant dangers that surrounded them – but to Dawn, he had meant so much more. He was her very best friend, the only one she knew beyond all doubt understood what she was going through. He had loved Buffy every bit as deeply as she did, she knew…and he was the only one she could talk to about all that she had lost.
Now…he was gone.
He had vanished into thin air several months ago. His crypt was the same as it had been, his possessions untouched…but Spike himself was gone. The Scoobies had been alarmed at first, but only because they had no idea how they were going to deal with Sunnydale’s excessive monster population without the help of their very own guard vamp.
To Dawn, his disappearance had meant so much more.
It was just another person close to her, another person she loved, that she had lost.
At any rate, Giles seemed to feel that the “children” needed him more than ever once Spike was gone. For a brief time, he had seemed a bit more animated, as he had doubled his efforts to assist with patrols, breaking out books that had lain abandoned on his shelves since Buffy’s death to do research and help in the good fight, even coming by the house every now and then to check on Dawn and be sure she was all right. But gradually, the brief spark of determination to pick up the slack Spike had left behind seemed to have faded, until now, he only came around every once in a while.
Dawn knew that he was avoiding her…because he knew. Because looking at her was a constant reminder of her failure, and all it had cost them.
She should have been the one to fall from that tower.
Her life’s blood should have closed Glory’s portal, and left her sister alive. That was the reason none of them could look at her anymore without that strange, guarded awkwardness in their eyes – the reason none of them really wanted to spend any time with her anymore. It was because they looked at her, and they saw nothing more than the one who had caused Buffy’s death – and a pitiful substitute for their lost friend.
Dawn found herself wishing once more that Tara had been able to go shopping that day, as she began to feel uncomfortable in Willow’s presence once more…a feeling that seemed to be becoming more and more common these days. Tara never looked at her the way Willow and the others looked at her; Tara had never known Buffy, and therefore had nothing for which to blame her, no reason to hate her.
Tara looked at her – and all she saw was her friend.
That’s just because she doesn’t know… The familiar haunting words whispered in her mind again, and Dawn’s throat went dry as a hot feeling of guilt came over her, and she slid off the stool without another word and made her way back toward the living room. She doesn’t know what you are…what you’ve done…if she knew, she’d look at you just like they do…because no normal person…no one who’s *good*…could have done the terrible thing you’ve done.
As Dawn settled back on the sofa again, pulling the throw blanket up around her shoulders in an attempt to find a sense of comfort that would not come, she found that she was not really seeing the cartoons on the television, as before – but this time, it was because her vision was blurred with tears.
“I did it,” she whispered under her breath, closing her eyes against the salty burning, desperately trying to hide from the painful truth, even as her need for penance forced her to speak her guilt aloud in a hushed, hoarse voice inaudible to anyone but herself. “I killed her…I killed my sister.”
*I killed her…it’s my fault she’s dead…I killed Buffy…*
“You know you deserve this, right, vampire?” the harsh male voice jeered at him as a heavy boot found his already shattered ribcage once again. “A couple hundred years…a couple hundred thousand victims…you’ve been around enough to more than earn this, haven’t you, Seventeen?”
He knew that it was true, knew that the blood of thousands was on his hands; hadn’t she reminded him, every chance she got? Hadn’t she constantly drilled it into his mind with her words and her fists – the knowledge that he could never make up for the evil he had done? No matter how hard he tried, he would never be able to atone for the lives he had taken, the blood he had shed.
But it was *her* blood that cried out to him, even now – her death that weighed heaviest on his unbeating heart.
*You let her die…you failed her, and you let her die…and this is your penance…*
As the brutality continued, the mockery and accusations accompanied by blows, his weak and devastated body was dragged across the floor and he was forced down onto his face to accept their savage invasion. The vampire submitted to it, harsh sobs rising up in his throat, though they could not escape his silent lips, as his own thoughts condemned him.
*You deserve it…you deserve to be punished. She asked one thing of you…one thing…and you failed her. You let her down…and she had to jump to save her. In several lifetimes, an existence of sins, your worst was in failing her – and this…this is your hell.*
It was a cool day, so Tara decided to take Mac with her on her shopping trip for supplies, calling him in from the backyard and carefully leading him out the front door to the car. She didn’t want the dog’s restless activity in the kitchen to disturb the vampire’s rest. Also, she was beginning to feel guilty over the limited amount of time she had spent with her pet over the past day and a half. She knew he was probably beginning to feel left out and neglected from being kept in the kitchen all the time; usually he was allowed the run of the house.
But until the vampire was stronger, more secure in his surroundings, that was the way it would have to be.
Hopefully, however, a good shopping trip with her might soothe the dog’s injured feelings.
Her first stop was the local pharmacy, where she left Mac locked in the car with the windows cracked, and hurried inside. She didn’t want to leave the vampire alone any longer than was absolutely necessary. She loaded a cart with several large rolls of bandages and bottles of antiseptic, as well as other supplies such as aloe vera and various first aid creams, not really sure at all what she would need.
Tara considered going to a department store for clothes for the vampire; it made her uncomfortable to think that he was still naked and utterly vulnerable. And yet, she knew that it could be difficult to find clothes that would fit him, in his painfully emaciated state, and she was anxious about the amount of time such a venture might take. Temporarily, she could find something of her own for him to wear, until he felt safe enough to be left alone for longer periods of time.
The next and final stop was the magic shop where she had found her new charge, and she drew a deep breath, letting it out shakily, as she put the car in gear and started across town. Sensing her discomfort, Mac laid his head on her shoulder from the backseat as she drove, and she idly reached a hand back to pet him, running her fingers through the silky fur under his chin, taking comfort in his familiar combination of softness and strength.
She left Mac in the car again as she steeled herself and entered the store, ignoring the way the dog growled low in his throat as he stared out the window in the direction of the magic shop. She felt about the way he sounded, every nerve on edge, defensive, ready to fight off some unseen, unknown enemy. The last thing she wanted to do was to go in there.
But she had to.
The vampire needed human blood to heal, and he needed it so badly that this time, this one last time, Tara was willing to ignore the fact that it was human.
Her heart pounded in her chest with apprehension at the thought of facing the strange shopkeeper again, but she steeled herself for what would likely be a rather awkward encounter. As she approached the checkout counter, the surly man stepped out from the stock room. He noticed her immediately, and his expression darkened.
Tara raised an eyebrow in surprise at his barely veiled hostility. She had not exactly anticipated a warm welcome, but outright rudeness was not what she had expected from someone supposedly specializing in customer service. Of course, she was no happier to see him than he was to see her. She sighed in resignation as she stepped up to the counter.
“I told you you weren’t gonna be satisfied with that last purchase,” the shopkeeper reminded her before she could say anything else. “No refunds.”
“I’m n-not here for a refund,” Tara reassured him. “I’m here for m-more blood.”
Her request was met with stunned eyes, widening then narrowing again in suspicion. “Why?” he demanded. “Why do you need more blood?” He paused, his voice rising slightly in agitation as he asked incredulously, “Is that vampire still alive?”
“That’s none of your business,” Tara replied curtly, swallowing back her nervousness as she took out her wallet and tossed a couple of bills onto the counter. “I just want to buy the blood.”
“Look, lady,” the shopkeeper insisted, and Tara was surprised to hear a slight tremor in his voice, “you’ve gotta do whatever it is you’re gonna do and get rid of him. The vampire is not to survive, that was a condition of the sale…”
Tara felt a surge of anger at the man’s words, and her eyes narrowed as she cut him off. “I bought him. What I do with him is m-my business. Blood. Now. I’ll take all you’ve got.”
To her surprise, the shopkeeper took a backward step, not quite meeting her eyes, and relented, much more easily than she would have expected. “Okay, okay,” he sighed, running a nervous hand through his greasy hair. “Just a minute. I’ll…I’ll get it.”
A few moments later he returned with several large bags of dark red fluid, and Tara felt her stomach churn at the sight of so much blood in one place, and the knowledge that it was most likely human.
He needs it to be, she reminded herself with grim resignation.
Tara took the blood and made her way out of the shop as quickly as possible, relieved to find herself in the bright sunlight once more. She put the blood in the trunk and headed for home, where she let Mac out in the yard. The car ride had him more than a little hyper, and she knew that his noisy jumping and barking would certainly terrify the vampire, even in the brief time it took to take him through the living room into the kitchen.
She unlocked the door and opened it slowly, calling out as she did. “It’s me. I’m home.” An ironic smile crossed her lips at the oddly domestic sound of the words.
She set the bags down in the hall and headed for the living room door. Although the vampire had barely made a sound since he had been in her home, the utter silence was still very unsettling to her.
Relief flooded her mind when she saw the vampire sitting bolt upright against the wall, his head turned toward the door, but facing downward. She noticed that once again the blankets lay in a discarded heap at his feet, as he waited in tense anticipation for her to make a move. His nostrils flared as she opened the door, and he seemed to be scenting the air for a moment, before he visibly relaxed, just a fraction.
Her eyes widened in fascinated curiosity.
He can smell me? From way over here? A slight frown creased her brow at the thought. I *really* hope that’s a special vampire talent.
Her curiosity about his enhanced sense of smell was overwhelmed, however, by her relief and joy at his slight relaxation. He still appeared very nervous and uncertain, but he was not scrabbling at the walls and desperately trying to make himself invisible anymore…so that was progress, at any rate.
“Hey,” she greeted him cheerfully, though keeping her voice soft so as not to alarm him. It was hard to suppress her excitement over the change in his reaction to her, his recognition and maybe…just maybe…the beginnings of trust.
She was going to need his trust for what she needed to do next.
He was sitting up in an instant at the soft, scraping sound of a key turning in the door. He backed up against the wall, panicked at the thought that it was them, coming for him in her absence, coming to take him back.
But then, her voice…and overwhelming relief.
She had come back.
The quiet, swinging sound of the door opening preceded the wafting scent of vanilla and honey that he had come to associate with the girl who seemed so very kind, had fed him, helped him. There was a faint trace of the musky odor he had smelled before, of dog, and a shudder of relief went through him at the reassurance that it was her. With her entrance, a bit of color seemed to return to his dark, miserable existence, giving him something on which to focus, a gentle voice to drown out the memories that filled his mind.
“I got bandages and stuff.” Tara continued to speak to him as she moved around the living room, and he listened attentively, though more to the cadence of her voice than to her actual words, taking comfort in the sound. “And blood. We’ll get you taken care of, Sweetie. Okay, I’m going into the hall now to get the bags, and then I’m coming right back in here, okay?”
Her calm, consistent speech kept him aware of her position in the room, and helped him to manage his ever-present fear as she walked out into the hall, and then returned to the living room again. She kept talking, but the words weren’t registering with him as he simply did his best to focus on where she was, what she was doing.
“I’ll be right back, okay?”
Her footsteps carried her into the kitchen, and he waited in tense silence for her return, listening to the strange sound of crinkling plastic and clinking dishes. A few minutes later, Tara returned…and the unmistakable smell of blood filled his nostrils. The vampire drew in his breath sharply, stunned and confused. He frowned, a convulsive swallow tearing his sore throat as he tried to make sense of the scent.
More blood? But it’s only been a few hours…surely not…not for me…
He tensed instinctively as he felt her crouch in front of him on the floor, and then her soft hand firmly grasping his, and guiding it gently to rest around the smooth surface of the warm mug as she placed it on the ground. Slowly, he let out the breath he’d been holding, his heart sinking with painful recognition.
This was a game he knew well.
Of course…here we go. A test. I’ll be good, I won’t touch it ‘less she says I can. Maybe…maybe if I don’t…she’ll let me have it tomorrow… A harsh, bitter laugh rose in his throat, but the very thought of releasing it was painful…and that was not even considering her possible reaction if she thought he was mocking her. Knew it couldn’t last…had to be a catch…
Slowly, deliberately, he removed his hand from the mug, sitting back against the wall and simply waiting for further direction.
There was confusion in her voice as she persisted softly, “Hey, don’t you want it? I-it’s for you.”
His jaw clenched in desperate frustration, and he turned his head away, keeping it humbly bowed so that it would not appear to be a gesture of defiance.
Yes, he had played this game before.
He’d played it until he wanted to scream, his body wracked with savage convulsions caused by his extensive starvation, only intensified by the tormenting scent of the nourishment they would not allow him to have. His stomach had clenched, lurching in its desperation to get to the blood they had deliberately left within his reach.
But if he went for it, touched it…he knew the punishment would be severe, likely more than he could bear. He had swiftly learned that hunger was better than the brutal consequences of disobedience.
And eventually…hunger was all there was.
I won’t touch it, he silently vowed, his body trembling with need for the sweet, hot substance inches away from his shaking hand. I won’t…I promise…I’ll be good, please…
Tara was terribly confused.
She knew he had to want the blood; he hadn’t had anywhere near enough to satisfy the agony of starvation she knew he was experiencing…and yet he wouldn’t touch the mug in front of him. She couldn’t help but feel that she must have done something wrong, somehow given him the wrong impression…though what impression that might be was something she couldn’t begin to fathom.
Uncertainly, she pressed him, “Y-you can drink it…um, if you want. I mean…you don’t have to, but, I…I just thought you’d rather h-hold it yourself than have me d-do it for you.”
The vampire froze, his trembling ceasing for a moment, as he slowly, hesitantly turned his head back toward her, tilted in a silent question. Somehow, he was clearly as confused as she was.
Anxious, afraid of losing the progress they had already made, Tara reached for his hand and gently pressed it against the mug again. It trembled under her touch, but he did not pull away, his painfully thin fingers flexing against the stone as he visibly struggled to understand.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “It’s okay. You can drink it. It’s for you.” She shrugged slightly, a tentative smile on her lips as she joked weakly, “I’m not really crazy about the flavor, myself, so…h-have as much as you want.”
The vampire’s trembling only increased at her words, his back to the wall, shaking his head slightly, at an utter loss; but his hand was grasping the mug desperately, and his longing to pick it up, to accept the nourishment it held, was a palpable feeling between them. Carefully, Tara put her hands around the mug, over his, gently helping him to lift it to his mouth.
He hesitated, his lips trembling, and for a moment she thought he would turn his head away again. She couldn’t understand why he was on the verge of rejecting the blood, why he seemed almost afraid to drink it. She had given him another mug not two hours earlier, and he had gratefully accepted it; now, she would have thought it was poison for the dread with which he seemed to regard it.
The vampire was stunned as Tara tilted the mug carefully against his lips, sending a thin stream of blood into his mouth. Tentatively, he swallowed it down, his mind racing with confusion.
I *can* drink it now? It’s not a test? Then…that means…
He had no idea what that meant.
Where was he? It couldn’t be that place still, not with the rest, and the warmth, and the fresh, hot, human blood. Was it possible that he was actually safe…actually free? His traumatized spirit balked at that thought, and immediately rejected it. No, not free…but certainly captivity to Tara was far better than his enslavement to his previous captors. She hadn’t hurt him; she had comforted him, and fed him, and spoken kindly to him.
A cold sense of fear settled in the pit of his stomach as he wondered what might be expected of him in exchange for such generosity; but after a few moments’ consideration, he decided that whatever Tara might want with him, whatever she had brought him here for, it could not be worse than what he had already endured. Tara was going out of her way to help him; when he was confused, she did not lash out at him in anger and impatience as his previous captors had done. She was gentle and kind and explained things to him.
She was actually apologizing to him for his confusion about the blood!
A sense of awe overwhelmed him with that realization, and he felt his chest constricting, a knot forming low in his throat that would have accompanied tears, had his damaged body been capable of producing them at that point. Gratitude filled him, and he allowed her to pour a bit more of the blood down his raw, abraded throat, his hand grasping the mug more firmly under hers.
“That’s it,” she encouraged him gently. “That’s good. You wanna hold it? You wanna try?”
He nodded slightly, hesitantly, and she carefully lowered her hands, allowing him to hold the mug himself. It was heavy in his thin, wasted hand, but it felt good to do something – anything – for himself, and he took his time, savoring the flavor of the blood in his mouth, the feeling of the smooth warmth in his hand. No one was waiting to snatch it away if he didn’t finish quickly enough; no one was going to slap it from his hand and strike him to the floor for daring to cherish such a privilege.
It was a simple, basic pleasure, but one that had been denied him for far too long…and it was sheer bliss.
The warm blood in his stomach seemed to calm the vampire. His shaking subsided, and his tense shoulders relaxed just a bit; Tara felt immensely relieved. And yet, a sense of dread followed her relief…because she knew that the two of them were in for a long afternoon.
The worst of his injuries could not wait any longer.
She glanced from where they were crouched on the floor, up to the sofa beyond them, and a weary sigh of resignation left her lips. Somehow, she was going to have to get him off the floor, back onto the sofa where he would be far warmer and more comfortable. Besides, she was fairly certain that her goal of making him feel secure and safe in her home would be more easily accomplished if he was not on his knees at her feet.
But how was she going to get him there?
The vampire’s legs were still useless, crushed and bruised, and she knew he would not be able to help her in the task at all…not that he would be all that heavy. She had easily carried him into the house the day before, and he had only had a couple of mugs of blood since then. She knew that she was physically able to lift him onto the sofa.
The question was, was he emotionally able to let her?
“You…you can’t stay here…”
His heart sank at the words, though the vampire was unsurprised. He felt a deep tremor of fear and despair beginning in his stomach, and he suddenly was not sure he could hold himself up any longer, feeling weak and shaky at the very thought of being made to leave this warm, safe place.
Please…please don’t send me back…don’t make me go…please…
Of course…he had known from the start that he would not be allowed to stay.
“The floor’s gotta be really uncomfortable, and…and c-cold. I n-need to move you to the sofa, Sweetie…”
He frowned, confused by her words, unable to make sense of them through his rising panic. He couldn’t stay; she had already said so. But then…why was she concerned with moving him to the…sofa? He shook his head slightly, tensing as he felt her hand gently brush his arm.
Please…don’t…don’t take me back…
“Shhh, it’s okay,” she soothed him, and he swallowed convulsively, wincing at the pain to which he was almost accustomed at this point, waiting with bated breath for her next words. “I’m not gonna hurt you. It’s all right. You’ll j-just be…so much more comfortable on the sofa.”
His frown deepened, but a tiny seed of hope took root in his heart as he began to understand what she was telling him. Even so, his heart sank, because he knew that he could not do what she was asking. He could barely drag his damaged body a few feet across the floor, let alone lift himself onto an elevated surface.
“I’m just gonna…I’m gonna need to…to pick you up, Honey…” Tara whispered, her voice soft and sympathetic. “I’m gonna need to lift you onto the couch. Is th-that…is that okay?”
He froze, unintentionally drawing back, frightened by the thought of allowing her to move him. He was beginning to feel safe here, in this spot where he had spent the last…however long he had been here. Time had ceased to matter to him a long time ago, in his dark, oppressive world. But nothing bad had happened here…not yet, anyway. He didn’t want to move...let alone to be moved by someone else, even Tara, who thus far had been so very gentle and patient with him.
Of course, it had to be possible to eventually reach the point where that kindness and patience would run out.
When he felt her hand on his arm, he tensed, but dared not pull away.
Gotta do as she says…gotta let her do what she wants…can’t…can’t fight…
“It’s okay,” she assured him softly. “It’s not far…just a few feet, Sweetheart. Just…it’s just right here.”
As she spoke, he felt her hand trail down his arm to his, and gently tug his hand toward the area directly in front of him. He fought his natural impulse to pull away in fear, forcing himself to move forward with her, to allow her to dictate his motions, though he had no idea what she intended.
In a few moments, however, his fingertips encountered fabric, slightly rough but yielding under his touch. Tara gently guided his hand down, leading him to stroke slowly over the surface.
“See?” she said quietly, calmly, and he found that the increasingly familiar cadence to her voice was soothing to him. “It’s right here…not far. Is it okay if I…h-help you up here?” He felt her raise his hand and set it upon a surface a couple of feet above where he sat on the floor. “It’s just this high. Okay?”
Hesitantly, he nodded.
After all…it wasn’t as if he actually had an option.
She was being gentle and patient with him, and even the illusion of choice was more than he had experienced in longer than he could remember. Still, he knew that if he resisted her, if he dared to choose to reject her suggestion, things could swiftly turn violent and ugly, and he would certainly be punished for his defiance.
“Good,” Tara murmured her approval, and he felt a guarded sense of relief at the pleased sound of her voice. “Okay…we’re gonna take this slow, all right? I’m gonna do my best not to hurt you…”
He jumped slightly when he felt weight, pressure, across his shoulders and back, but did not pull away, focusing on the soothing sound of her voice as she reassured him.
“It’s just the blanket…just gonna wrap it around you to protect your back when I lay you down, okay?” she explained. “The couch is sorta…rough. I don’t want it to hurt you…okay?”
He nodded tremulously, a ragged gasp escaping his throat as he struggled to rein in his rising apprehension. He froze, his entire body tensing as he felt her arms under his back and thighs, lifting him off the floor, and the utter lack of control brought on a fresh surge of panic. His broken legs shifted slightly as she moved him, sending sharp sparks of pain through them, but he did his best to keep still, to surrender, as she carefully carried him the few short steps to the sofa.
After a few tense moments, he felt the yielding surface of the sofa beneath him, the soft blanket between the raw wounds on his back and the rough upholstery. He kept still and allowed Tara to manipulate his body as she maneuvered him into a sitting position, his back against the corner of the sofa, his useless legs resting sideways across the cushions.
“It’s all right,” Tara soothed him, leaning his side against the back of the sofa. “Just relax, Sweetie…it’s okay. See? You’re fine. We’re just gonna get you taken care of. All these injuries…we’ve gotta get you cleaned up. Now, you just rest here for a minute, and I’ll be right back. I’ve gotta go in the kitchen for a second…”
Tara kept talking as she walked away, and the vampire focused on her gentle voice as she moved into the next room, allowing the soft, rhythmic sound to ground him, to help to keep his fears at bay. Still, he felt a sense of relief when he heard her return to the living room, making her way cautiously toward him, her steps a bit slower than they had been when she left.
And then…he caught a familiar scent, heard a familiar soft sound…and renewed panic seized him.
No…oh God, please, *please* no…
Tara froze a few feet in front of the sofa, her eyes going wide with alarm as the vampire cringed back against the couch, shaking his head pleadingly, his hands fisting in the blanket behind him as he pushed himself back against it, despite the agony she knew the action had to cause his damaged back and legs. As she closed the distance between them and carefully set the basin of fresh, steaming water on the floor beside it, Tara sat down on the couch beside him, dismayed when he jerked away from her, shaking his head emphatically and trembling at her approach.
“Hey,” she murmured soothingly, “it’s okay…it’s just me. What’s the matter? I’m not gonna hurt you, honey, you know that. It’s all right…”
As she spoke, she reached out cautiously to touch his hand…and he flinched, jerking his hand away from her touch.
Tara’s heart lurched in her chest, as she realized that this was far more serious than she had thought. He had barely dared to pull away from her at all thus far, and most times she had been able to calm him by taking his hand. Bewildered, she glanced around the room, wondering at what was different, what might have happened to cause this sudden panic.
She studied him again, frowning with concern, as he twisted sideways on the sofa, lowering his body as far as possible in what appeared to be an attempt to crawl away from her…which of course was useless, considering his shattered legs. His breathing was ragged and shallow and panicked, and he shook his head rapidly in a desperate, pleading gesture as he tried to put as much distance as possible between himself and Tara.
Or perhaps…between himself and the basin of warm water at her feet.
“Is it…is it this?” she asked thoughtfully, almost as much to herself as to the vampire, as she reached down and took a warm, wet cloth from the basin, wringing it out carefully.
At the sound of the water splashing back into the basin, he flinched back against the couch again with a soft whimper, barely a breath actually…but enough to confirm her suspicions.
“Hey,” she whispered. “It’s okay. It’s just water, Sweetie. I’m not gonna hurt you, I promise. It’s just water; it doesn’t hurt…”
Still, he cringed away from her, his every trembling muscle taut with fearful tension, shaking his head and gasping for breath as shudders wracked his body. Tara hesitated, uncertain how to advance from that point, not wanting to do anything to further frighten him, yet aware that she had to somehow make him understand that the simple water in the basin was not going to hurt him.
And my life is officially weird beyond belief.
Tara sighed as she ran the wet cloth over her fingertips, then slowly, cautiously reached her hand toward his, clenched and trembling around a crumpled bit of blanket. As soon as her damp fingers touched the back of his hand, he flinched violently with a startled gasp of terror, but she firmly caught his hand, holding onto it tightly enough to keep him from pulling it away, while still gently enough to keep from hurting him.
“Shhh,” she soothed him. “See? It’s okay…doesn’t hurt. Just water…okay?”
The vampire shook under her touch, his hand barely daring to pull away from hers, as if he was torn between his terror of the water, and his desperate need to submit to her, to be obedient, for fear of punishment. Then, gradually, he became still, his entire body tense, as if poised on the edge of a flight which would have been impossible for him.
“See?” Tara encouraged him. “Just water. See? It’s not gonna hurt you. I just wanna get you cleaned up, Sweetie. Take care of all these injuries. All right? Here…look…”
As she spoke, she gently turned his hand palm upward, grimacing as he simply submitted to her actions, though his upper body tensed and he visibly steeled himself for pain, his frantic breathing ceasing in fearful anticipation. Tara gently placed the warm wet cloth in his palm, and he jerked in a momentary, instinctive reaction to the unfamiliar sensation. But then, his brow creased in confusion, and his fingers flexed slightly around the moist fabric, as if trying to understand what it was he was feeling.
“I’m just gonna use this…and some warm water…and wash the…the b-blood and dirt away. Okay?” Tara explained. “Is that all right? I’m not trying to hurt you…okay?”
He was still and silent for a long moment, considering. Then, finally, to her immense relief, he responded with the very faintest nod of assent, a thin, shallow breath rattling through his damaged throat as his shoulders sagged just slightly with relief. He was still trembling, still clearly apprehensive as to her intentions, but he was no longer cringing away from her, no longer appeared to be on the edge of hurling himself off the couch just to escape the water on her hand.
Tara was utterly bewildered, trying to think of why something as simple as plain warm water would have such a devastating effect on the terrified vampire. He had obviously been through untold torments, but she could not fathom would could have been done to him to make him so frightened of something so basic and simple.
“Okay,” Tara confirmed softly as she took the cloth from his hand with gentle caution, warming it in the basin as she tried to think where to begin.
The vampire steeled himself as Tara gently lifted his hands in hers, not sure what to expect from her at this point as she carefully helped him to sit back up again. He was still uneasy with the familiar scent of water in his nostrils, and the vivid memories of the last time he had smelled that scent racing through his mind.
But…she had promised not to…maybe…maybe…
He allowed her to guide one of his hands gently forward, but flinched when he felt it encounter a soft, warm, and unfamiliar surface.
“It’s all right.” Tara’s voice eased his fears as she explained, “I’ve just…put your hand on my leg…okay? See, I’m going to start working on your injuries, and…and it might hurt a little, but…but it has to be done, so y-you can get better…okay?”
He nodded, mentally preparing himself for the pain.
Really, he was unsurprised.
“But…if it’s too much for you,” Tara continued softly. “If you…if you ever want me to stop…just…just squeeze my leg, okay? To…to let me know…and I’ll stop. I promise. I mean…we have to do it eventually, but…but we can take a rest if you need to. Do you…do you understand?”
He really, really didn’t.
Was it possible that she was actually concerned with what he wanted…whether or not he wanted her to go on, or felt pain? She was the one in control here; if she wanted to clean him up, for whatever reason, that was up to her…wasn’t it? What say did he have in the matter?
And yet…it seemed that she was willing to give him some measure of control over what she did to him.
It scarcely seemed possible.
He swallowed hard, his throat dry and aching as he heard the soft, splashing sound of the water in the basin, and knew that she had picked up the cloth again. Although he already knew, the water had not hurt him, he struggled to fight back his instinctive panic at the sound. His mind raced with various conflicting thoughts, questions, uncertainties.
It’s okay…she said she’d stop…it’s all right…doesn’t wanna hurt me…but…but *will* she stop? Please…please don’t…
Almost before he knew he was going to, he tightened his hand on her leg, just slightly, barely daring…but Tara froze. Panic seized him, and he flinched, pulling his hand back, expecting a blow for daring to disobey her instructions, to squeeze her leg when she hadn’t even touched him yet. But all Tara did was to gently take his hand and place it back on her leg, her voice gentle and reassuring.
“It’s all right…that’s good. That’s exactly the way I mean. Good. If it starts to hurt too much…if you get tired…do just like you just did…okay?”
He could hardly believe the way she was talking to him, with kindness and sympathy, as if she wanted to make him feel safe and comfortable with what she was doing. He was not accustomed to having his feelings, his opinions, taken into consideration at all, let alone emphasized in such a way.
“Okay…this is gonna be kind of hard, Sweetie…but it has to be done…and I’ll stop the second you want me to. Okay? Are you…r-ready to start?”
Reassured by her patient manner, the vampire hesitated just a moment before he nodded uncertainly, and waited for Tara to begin.
Tara wanted nothing more than to start slowly with the gruesome task before her, perhaps with the vampire’s battered arms or legs…which was why she knew she had to start with the injuries that most horrified her. If she did not tackle the unpleasant task head-on, she was not certain she would still have the emotional strength to face it by the time she finished the other, lesser injuries.
“Okay, Sweetheart…we’re gonna start with your neck, okay?” Tara spoke in a soft, soothing voice as she gently brushed her hand against the vampire’s shoulder, giving him time to get used to her touch before she went any farther. “It…m-might hurt a little, but…but there’s no help for that, Honey. And…and once we get it done, it’s going to feel so much better.”
As she spoke, she reached to carefully untie the temporary bandage she had placed loosely around his neck when she had first taken the collar off. In his numerous struggles and other awkward movements since then, he had managed to gradually shift it, until it hung askew, not really serving its original purpose anymore at all.
Tara gently removed it and set it aside with one hand, as she slowly reached for the soft towel in the basin of water with the other. She carefully wrung it out as she kept talking to her reluctant patient, doing her best to keep him calm and aware of what she was doing. When she gently returned her hand to his back in a reassuring gesture, she could feel the tension in his hunched shoulders, knew how terrified he was, and her heart broke for him, because she knew that she could not avoid what she had to do.
“I’m just gonna wash this out,” she explained. “Make sure it’s clean, and get it bandaged, all right? Now…it’s not going to be comfortable…but I’m gonna try my best not to hurt you. You just let me know if it’s too much for you, okay? Just squeeze my leg and I’ll stop.”
She was encouraged by the nod she received in response, a bit less uncertain than the last. She studied him closely, trying to gauge his preparation for what promised to be a long and messy ordeal. He was still trembling…but that seemed to be a fairly constant state for the traumatized vampire. All things considered, he seemed relatively calm and coherent, resting on his side against the back of the sofa.
Might be as good as it’s gonna get, Tara reminded herself, her jaw locking in apprehensive determination as she gently, cautiously pressed the soft, wet cloth against the side of the ghastly wound that circled his entire neck.
The vampire jumped, drawing in a ragged breath in alarm, and Tara froze, not taking the cloth away, but not going any farther with it, either. After his initial reaction, the vampire went very still, his trembling increasing, a slight, pleading shake of his head the only indication of his desire for her to stop.
He did not make their agreed upon gesture to stop; his hand was trembling on her leg, but not applying any pressure at all. She wondered briefly if she should stop anyway, but knew that as difficult as it was, this had to be done. She wanted to be sure he was ready before she went any farther.
“It’s all right,” she soothed him. “I’m not gonna hurt you.” Recognizing what very well might have been some of his fears regarding having his neck touched, Tara’s eyes welled with tears as she assured him in a hoarse whisper, “It…it’s not that c-collar, Sweetie. That thing is gone. I’m n-not putting that back on you; I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m just t-trying to help, okay?”
After a long, tense moment, he very slowly nodded, just once, though none of the tension left his taut shoulders, and a slight tic was visible in his clenched jaw. He winced, but did not pull away, and did not squeeze her leg, as she carefully blotted the wound, bringing the cloth away stained with dirt and dried blood. She grimaced in distaste as she dampened the cloth again, watching the water turn murky as dark red flecks came loose from the cloth. When she touched his neck again, the vampire flinched slightly, and Tara paused, her thumb moving gently across the scarred flesh a few inches from the wound in a soothing gesture.
“You okay? You ready?”
Another shaky nod gave her consent to go on, and she continued cleaning the cut, talking to him all the time.
“It’s okay. You’re doing so good, Sweetie…you’re gonna be just fine…”
It was a slow and arduous process, and many times he flinched as she encountered a particularly sensitive spot, but despite the pain, he seemed to be gradually relaxing under her touch…as if he was becoming more and more certain that she meant what she said, and did not intend to harm him.
Once the wound was finally clean, she picked up the roll of bandages, frowning with concern as it occurred to her how badly her patient might react to the idea of anything being wrapped around his neck again.
“How you doing?” she asked in a gentle, sympathetic tone. “You still okay?”
He nodded, though his breathing was ragged and labored in his attempts to control the inevitable pain of having his wound treated. He seemed calm enough, despite the pain…but then, he was utterly unaware of the object she held in her hand, or what she intended to do with it.
“You’re being so brave,” Tara soothed him, allowing her admiration and affection to show in her voice as she stroked his hand. “I’m so proud of you. You’re doing just fine. And…and I need you to be just a little braver, okay, Sweetie? I need you to listen to me…all right?”
The vampire nodded dutifully, wincing at the pain the motion caused his injured throat, but waiting, his head tilted slightly, for her to go on.
“I need to put these bandages on your neck…s-so it doesn’t get hurt again…and…so it s-s-stays clean. Do you understand?”
The vampire did not move at all, made no indication that he did understand.
“It’s got to go a-around your neck,” Tara clarified hesitantly, drawing in her breath in apprehension when he tensed up again, shaking his head slightly and pulling back against the couch. “N-not too tight, not like the collar at all!” she promised him. “It’s just a bandage. It’s s-soft, and it won’t be tight, and it won’t hurt. I promise. But…but you need to have it on…please?”
His terror kept the vampire from hearing all of what Tara was saying, as the only thought that filled his mind was that he could not let her collar him again, could not allow her to take away the precious privilege of breath she had allowed him. If she was just going to put another collar on him and take his breath away again, it would have been better if she had never taken it off.
“Please,” Tara whispered, and the word caught at his attention, simply for its unfamiliarity. It had been so long since he had heard a word of such courtesy. “Please…let me help you. It’s not a collar, I promise…”
He desperately wanted to believe her, but without his sight he had no way to know if she was telling the truth or not. He felt her gentle hand on his shoulder, and flinched, but then froze, not daring to pull away from her…a part of him not wanting to. It had been so long since anyone had touched him with such tenderness, such compassion, and his love-starved heart relished the contact.
“Listen to me,” Tara instructed softly, and he dutifully tried to obey, though he was shaking with fear. “Please…just…just think…I put the other bandage on, and it didn’t hurt…did it?” She paused, and when she spoke again, her voice was hushed, solemn, and earnest. “Have I tried to hurt you yet?”
A fragile hope began in his wounded spirit, and the vampire found himself wondering, not for the first time, if it might be safe to trust this gentle person who had somehow gained possession of him. Tara had done nothing so far but to help him. She had taken the hated, constant torment of the collar off him; why would she do that, just to put it back?
Because it makes you *theirs*…she wants you to be hers…
The chilling possibility echoed through his mind…but it did not feel right.
And even if it was right…if it was a collar she was bringing toward his damaged neck right now…it was a far softer collar than the one he had previously been forced to wear. And belonging to Tara seemed a far sweeter bondage than the one he had been used to enduring.
“Will you let me help you?”
Tara’s whispered words drew his thoughts back to the present decision, and he hesitated a long moment, his mouth dry with terror, his mind racing, before finally making his choice, for better or worse…and giving her a slight, barely visible nod.
“Okay,” Tara sighed, and he could hear the trembling relief in her voice. “Okay…thank you...for…for t-trusting me. You’ll see; I’m not gonna hurt you.”
Two more words that had become foreign to him during the course of his enslavement.
He was so startled by her gentle, almost reverent voice speaking unheard of courtesies, he almost didn’t notice when the soft material he had felt before touched his damaged throat again…just barely brushing against his tender flesh, and not in the slightest restricting his airways as she carefully wrapped his neck in the light fabric.
And the tiny seed of trust he had held in his heart began to take root.
Tara slowly, painstakingly wrapped the bandages around the vampire’s neck, taking care not to wrap them too tightly…so much care, in fact, that she found herself wondering if they were secure enough. She frowned, unsure, but then shook her head, dismissing her worries. She would rather have to redress the wounds later than to unnecessarily frighten him by making them too tight.
“See?” she murmured, her hand brushing his in a comforting caress as she taped the bandage into place and sat back on her knees. “All done. Is it too tight? Does it hurt?”
He hesitated a moment, then shook his head before ducking it slightly, almost as if embarrassed. Her heart went out to him, so confused and traumatized…of course he had trouble trusting her. What reason would he have to believe that she would not hurt him? And yet, he seemed apologetic for distrusting her now.
“You’re doing so good,” she reassured him gently. “I know this is hard…and confusing…and I’m going to try to make it all make sense for you…somehow…” She sighed wearily at the prospect, which did not seem like an easy one at all. “But first…we’ve just gotta get all these injuries taken care of.”
She hesitated, once again considering the most disturbing of his injuries…his eyes.
She grimaced, but managed to keep herself from looking away as she examined the empty socket, raw and red and charred, and the other eye, crusted with dried blood and dirt, still a bit swollen…but there.
If I can just get that cleaned up, maybe…*maybe* he could see, even a little…
“Okay…this might hurt a little, Sweetie,” she warned him with an apologetic grimace as she reached cautiously toward the damaged area of his face. “Your eyes look…pretty bad. But…but they’re not gonna get any better if I don’t wash them, all right? Do you understand?”
The words Tara was speaking lost all meaning, any trace of significance, the moment he felt the cloth brush against his cheek. In his mind, the soft fabric became cruel, pinching fingers, grasping, clawing as they held him pitilessly in place, and…
No, *no*! Please, don’t!
Without even really meaning to, he jerked backward, away from the clutching, restraining hands and what they meant to do to him. Instinct caused him to raise his one good hand in an attempt to block her touch, striking out weakly and pushing her hand away from him.
Immediately, panic seized him as he realized what he’d done.
Don’t you *ever* fight me! Worthless little piece of shit! How dare you *touch* a human like that, you filthy monster! Looks like you need to learn your place again, vampire…looks like I need to teach you…
When Tara moved toward him again, he flinched violently away from her, shaking his head in a pleading gesture, before lowering his upper body, awkwardly trying to assume the apologetic, supplicating position they so often required of him – his only chance at appeasing them.
Of course, on the sofa, there was very little room to maneuver.
His frightened, clumsy motions as he attempted to bow on the narrow sofa sent him toppling off the edge on to the floor. A jolt of pain shot through his entire body as his broken legs were jarred against the floor in front of the couch, and his torn back scraped against the rough upholstery along the bottom of the sofa.
He bit back an anguished cry of pain that sent a shudder through him, fighting to hold back his reaction and focus instead on what he had to do to prevent further pain. His arms, his back, his entire body trembled with pain and fear as he struggled again to lower himself into a bowing position, desperate to show his submission, to appease the anger she had to be feeling toward him now, in the light of his defiance, going so far as to dare to strike her.
His heart sank when he felt firm hands on his arms, just below his shoulders, gently but insistently pulling him up off his face…and exposing it to whatever she intended to do to him.
“Hey…hey!” Tara kept her voice soft, though she could not quite keep the alarm out of it. “It’s all right…it’s all right…” Her eyes welled with tears for what felt like the hundredth time in the past two days, as she gently pulled him back up off his face. He flinched, but submitted to her touch, simply allowing her to manipulate his body so that he was once more half-kneeling, half-sitting on the floor, facing her. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry, Sweetie, I didn’t m-mean to…to scare you…”
He did not seem to be hearing her, shaking his head in small, frantic motions, trembling uncontrollably. Her eyes widened when she saw that his lips were moving rapidly, though he was not making a sound, and it was difficult for her to make out what he was trying to say.
The fact that he was trying to say anything at all was startling progress.
But as her eyes adjusted to the repetitive motions of his mouth, and she realized what he was saying, her heart sank again, and her tears slipped down her cheeks.
I’m sorry…I’m sorry…I’m sorry…
His trembling lips formed the words soundlessly, as he still seemed far too terrified to vocalize his pleading chant. He was still afraid that she was going to punish him for…something; she had no idea what he could possibly think he might have done to make her angry with him. If it was simply pulling away from her touch, because he was afraid of being hurt again…well, the implications of that were simply too much for her weary, troubled mind to fathom at the moment.
If they *punished* him…for begging for mercy…for trying to escape their abuse…
She swallowed back the sob that rose in her throat, blinking away her tears, as she softened her grip on his shoulders, leaning him back against the side of the couch before letting him go completely, though she wanted nothing more than to pull him into her arms and hold him, offer him some kind of comfort through human contact. She knew, however, that he would not perceive such a gesture as comfort – not yet – and she would likely cause him further pain by aggravating his injuries.
“Shhh,” she whispered soothingly. “It’s all right. You’re okay; I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m not mad, Sweetie. I’m not mad. I’m not gonna hurt you…” She kept talking to him, as his trembling gradually subsided back to what she was beginning to think of as its normal level.
And no one should have a *normal* level of trembling…
“I’m just trying to help you,” she assured him gently. “I…I wanna clean your eyes up a little, Sweetie. One of them…well, one of them’s…hurt…really badly, but…but I think the other one…I think if I can get some of the b-blood and dirt away…I think maybe…” She hesitated, momentarily debating mentally whether or not she might do more damage than good if her theory was incorrect, and finally deciding that the hope she had to offer him was worth it.
“…you could see…”
It was difficult to even comprehend what she was telling him. The idea was so foreign to him, after so long spent in utter darkness. He was still trying to come to terms with the idea that she was not going to punish him for striking her. He had expected nothing less than a return blow in retaliation, and likely much worse, for daring to touch her – but she continued to speak softly to him, to reassure him, and gradually he realized a stunning fact.
She was not going to hurt him.
At least…not yet.
Could be a game…a trick…but…but she hasn’t played those games…not yet….maybe…
And now, she was promising something he had ached for, but thought could never be his…something he had taken for granted for so long, until it was stolen from him – the simple gift of sight.
“Will you let me try? I promise, I’m not going to hurt you…please?”
It can’t be worse than it’s been…whatever she does to you…it can’t get worse…and maybe…*maybe*…
Fearfully, not at all sure he was making the right choice, he ventured an uncertain nod, and Tara gently proceeded. He flinched when the cloth touched his face, but then forced himself to go still, as she carefully swabbed the tender, red flesh where his eye had been with the warm, clean water.
And it did not hurt. At least…not in the way he had expected.
It was definitely more than uncomfortable, and there were many moments that made him draw in his breath when a certain particularly sore spot was touched, his hand clenching weakly around Tara’s leg and silently begging for a break from the necessary suffering. Still, no matter how many times he used the gesture she had shown him, she always patiently allowed him the time he needed to recover – and the terrible, burning, consuming agony he had expected never came.
She was telling the truth, he realized with a sense of awed wonder. Maybe…maybe…
She cleaned his other eye just as gently, as carefully, and as it was not as tender and painful as the first, he found himself focusing instead on the soft warmth of her hands, the gently steadying way she held his head in place, without forcing him or exerting any unnecessary control. As she worked cautiously, he relished the tenderness and compassion, so that when he finally heard the soft splash of the rag falling back into the basin, and knew she was finished, he actually felt a faint sense of disappointment as she pulled her hand away.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “All done. It’s all cleaned out. Now…can you…can you try to open your eye, Sweetie? Take your time; if it hurts, don’t force it, but…but can you try?”
He tried, his heart lurching within him, caught between desperate hope and the terror of disappointment…because if she was wrong, if he couldn’t, it would be no less than he feared…but it would devastate him.
He managed to open his swollen eye just a little bit…and a faint trace of color entered his darkened world. It was a soft shade of grey, but it was something besides the agony of dark loneliness in which he had spent the interminable months of his captivity.
It was light, piercing the darkness that shrouded his broken body and shattered spirit…and in its warmth, the seed of hope within him began to grow.
Tara gasped softly, as the vampire’s single remaining eyelid fluttered open…and she caught her first glimpse of what his face might have looked like, had it not been so brutally damaged. The surface of the eye was milky, nearly opaque, but beneath its surface, Tara caught a trace of brilliant blue.
She found herself wondering what might have caused such extensive damage, and if the eye she was looking at had been damaged in a different way than the other, or was perhaps simply growing back, while the other had not been allowed to. Despite the damage, the expression of mingled fear and confusion and elated hope was still evident in the vampire’s wide-eyed stare.
For the first time since bringing him into her home, Tara noticed the vampire’s features, no longer caked with blood and filth, and she realized, startled – he was absolutely stunning. Fine, high cheekbones stood out, made more prominent by his current state of starvation, but still undeniably beautiful, over full, flawlessly formed lips that trembled slightly with anticipation. Despite the damage, his one intact eye shone with wonder and excitement at the prospect that he might actually be able to see.
It was that trace of hope, accompanied by the slightest upward turn of his full lips, that most completely captured Tara’s attention.
“Can you…can you see?” she asked him, her voice hushed with anticipation.
The vampire just blinked slowly, his head turning slightly as he looked around at the room, but didn’t quite focus on anything. Cautiously, Tara raised a hand in front of his face, moving it back and forth slowly, watching his face for any sign of recognition. Immediately he flinched back, bowing his head instinctively as if to avoid accidental eye contact as her hand passed in front of his face, though she was careful to keep her hand a couple of feet away from him.
“It’s okay,” she assured him. “It’s just me…just m-my hand. D-did you see it? Can you see my hand?”
The vampire seemed somewhat reassured, the tension in his shoulders easing a little as he returned to his original position. He held his head higher than Tara had seen it yet, clearly encouraged, and Tara was already certain of the answer he would give her. However, a moment later his shoulders slumped in disappointment as he registered her question, and he shook his head slowly, a barely audible sigh escaping his lips.
Tara frowned, puzzled.
If he didn’t see it…then…why…?
“Did you see…anything?” Tara clarified. “Movement…light…anything at all?”
The vampire seemed to perk up again a bit at that, nodding almost eagerly, and Tara’s heart broke again with the understanding that his negative reaction had not been to the rather limited results of the cleaning, but rather to the idea of disappointing her.
“That’s good,” she assured him gently, reaching out to take his cool hand in a supportive gesture. “That’s really good. It’s a good start. And…and it’ll only get better, Sweetie. Okay? It’s gonna get better, and eventually you’ll be able to see again just fine.”
The vampire listened to Tara’s words of hope and encouragement, his damaged heart soaring with the slight victory she had just achieved for him. The generous amounts of human blood he had received over the past couple days had been working on his broken body; and whereas before he had been able to see nothing, now he could make out just the slightest hints of light and shadow through his one existing eye.
When he had struggled to open it, he had been amazed at the soft light that met his vision, instead of the thick darkness that had shrouded his world for so long. There were no solid shapes, just a vague blurring of various shades of gray. Then, Tara had waved her hand in front of his face – though he had not known at the moment that was what it was. All he saw was a sudden darkening in front of his eyes, and the thought of losing what slight vision he had just regained was terrifying to him.
Once she explained, however, it only strengthened his hope, when he realized that what he had seen was motion. She had moved…and he had seen it. He had really seen it.
He could see.
His throat constricted, and he felt a hard knot in his chest as he fought back his tears, well aware that allowing them to fall would only lead to punishment. He wasn’t allowed to cry…he didn’t have the right…
No…don’t…don’t think that…don’t go back there…
His mind raced with a thousand conflicting thoughts, as Tara gently wound more soft bandages around the raw, sightless socket, leaving his healing eye exposed so as not to obstruct what little vision he had. And for the first time since he had come here, he did not think to wonder about her motives for touching him. After all, she had done nothing but help him thus far, undoing some of the damage that had been done to him in that place.
Maybe you’re still there. Maybe this is all a trick…some elaborate experiment of *theirs*…or a trap, to break you down again. And it’s already worked; you’re already *hoping*. Any minute now, they’ll come to take you back, to take your sight again, to put the collar back…
The very thought made him sick with terror, and he fought back a fresh tremor of fear and a wave of nausea as Tara finished bandaging his face and sat back on her knees in front of him. She was talking to him, had been the entire time, in her continued effort to keep him calm and aware of her every move…but at the moment, he was not hearing her. His mind was consumed with his own private hell of tormenting, circling fears.
Don’t let me be there…please! Please, no! No!
He so desperately wanted to hold onto the hope, the comfort that Tara had given him…but the very thought terrified him. So many times he had been offered escape from his torment, only to have it cruelly snatched away at the last possible moment. It was a game he had been forced to play many times before, but he did not think he could stand to play it again…not now, after it had begun to seem so real to him.
Maybe you’re really *not* there anymore. Maybe this really is *her* place, and you really are safe like she says…but…why would she want to help you? She’s so good and kind and gentle…why would she care to offer comfort to a low, vile thing like you?
His traitorous thoughts were cut off abruptly when he felt the warm, damp cloth Tara had been using against his hip, shifting cautiously inward toward his battered groin. Tara had warned him – of course she had – but he had not been listening to her, and the unexpected touch caught him off guard. His heart lurched with panic as he realized just how thoroughly she intended to clean him, and it occurred to him that eventually, she was going to find the evidence of what had been done to him.
She’ll see what you are…how they’ve used you…dirty, filthy, defiled thing…and when she sees, she’ll cast you out in disgust…
Can’t let her see…can’t let her find out…please, please don’t look at me!
Wanting to get through the worst of the injuries first, Tara reluctantly decided to clean the vampire’s battered groin next. That was, of course…if she could convince him to let her. She kept her voice low and soft as she carefully explained to him what she was going to do. She was surprised when he showed very little reaction – no protest, not even the slightest flinch.
But when she moved to actually touch him, however…it was quite a different story.
The moment the cloth brushed against his bruised hip, the vampire jerked backward against the sofa, shaking his head in pleading denial. Although he had hardly dared to pull away from her since she had brought him here, he shifted, turning his body slightly away from her, his one good arm moving to cover himself, to prevent her from taking her efforts any farther.
It was possibly the most resistance he had dared to show her yet, and Tara could not bring herself to deny it to him, especially in so personal a matter.
She frowned with concern at his frightened demeanor, admittedly surprised after the progress they seemed to have made thus far. Her eyes widened with understanding, however, and then welled with tears, as she took in his bowed head, his slumped shoulders, and the general air of shame that surrounded him. She recognized his reaction, and suddenly knew that there was no way she could push him on this matter.
“It’s okay,” she whispered, wondering even as she spoke how she was going to manage to both keep her promise and tend to his wounds. “It’s all right…I’m not going to touch you there if you don’t want me to, Sweetheart…I promise…”
He was trembling violently, but he did not pull away as she reached out a gentle hand to rest on his leg, just above his knee.
“I’m not going to do anything to hurt you,” she assured him softly, her brow furrowed with worry as she tried to figure out what to do. “And I’m n-not going to do anything that you’re not c-comfortable with. It’s just… well, we’ve got a b-bit of a problem.” She hesitated a moment, before cautiously attempting to explain.
“Y-you’re hurt. And…and I want to h-help you. It’s just…I can’t if you…if you won’t let me touch you…”
To her dismay, at the very suggestion of her words, the vampire tensed, drawing back against the sofa and shaking his head again.
“Okay…okay,” she relented softly. “Just relax, Sweetie…I’m not gonna touch you…”
She fell silent for a few moments, her mind desperately seeking a solution to their predicament that would get him properly taken care of, while preserving what remaining shreds of dignity he had left to him.
There *is* a way…you know there is.
Tara tried to put the quiet voice of her thoughts – which sounded very much like her mother’s – out of her mind, but found that the more she thought about it, the more it seemed like the only option.
I said I wasn’t going to do that anymore. If I do, it can only lead to bad things.
Despite her doubts, the tiny voice like her mother’s was insistent.
You were going to do it for Dawn…and this is so much more important. He needs this so much more…
Even as she struggled to quell the idea forming in her mind, Tara already knew that she had made her decision. She let out a weary sigh of resignation, her shoulders slumping slightly as she looked up at the vampire again, who had gone very still, just sitting there, waiting in silent apprehension for her next move.
“Okay,” she quietly spoke at last. “I…I have an idea. But…but it’s up to y-you, okay? I w-won’t do anything you don’t want me to do. Do you understand?”
He hesitated a moment, but then gave a slow, uneven nod.
“Th-there’s this… spell… that might help. I…I know magic. Y-you know about magic…right?”
The vampire nodded again, though his apprehension seemed to increase with her words, as he drew back slightly further away from her, a convulsive, painful swallow visible in his throat.
“It’s nothing b-big, I p-promise. It’s just a…a healing spell my m-mother taught me. I-if you’ll let me…I th-think it’ll help you…”
He shook his head rapidly, frantically, his head still bowed, his arm still protecting his most vulnerable parts as he huddled away from her.
“Please,” Tara whispered earnestly, her heart sinking with the fear that she might not be able to find a way to help him, not without shattering what fragile trust she had managed to earn thus far. “We can’t j-just leave your…your injuries. They have to be taken care of. If…if I use the spell, I don’t have to…t-touch you. Do you understand? It’s a v-very simple spell. It doesn’t hurt…and you won’t even feel it, Sweetie, I promise.”
She paused, trying to gauge how the vampire was taking her words. He seemed to be listening to her, but made no move to indicate agreement or disagreement.
“It sort of puts you into a t-trance, beforehand. And then…it sh-should heal a-all of your injuries. Or at least…help them to heal…at least a little. Make them b-better…than they are now. It’ll be like you’re…asleep. That’s all. You won’t even feel it. And when it’s over…you’ll wake up. It won’t hurt, and I’ll never have to touch you…th-there.”
When the vampire still showed no signs of a decision, she pressed gently, her voice trembling with tears. “Please. Please…let me help you.”
His heart was heavy with dread at her words. Neither suggestion sounded like a good one to him.
He could not stand the thought of the pure, sweet girl who had helped him so much thus far coming into contact with the filth of what he had become…the reality of what his captors had done to him. He was certain that regardless of where he was or what was planned for him, when Tara saw how he had been degraded and defiled, she would certainly not want him in her home any longer.
Magic seldom went right, in his experience.
But Tara had not done a thing to hurt him, not yet. She seemed to know what she was doing, and he could smell the power she possessed, could sense it all around her. He knew she was capable of doing the spell. Even the things she had done that he had expected to hurt him, and only submitted to because he felt he had no choice, had ended up being for his good. And…she promised that it was a simple spell…that he wouldn’t even feel it.
She could do anything while you’re passed out…she could hurt you…violate you…call *them* back to do it all themselves…to take you back, away from her, away from the warmth and safety and fullness and comfort…
But…if you don’t let her…she may cast you out anyway…
The healing spell seemed the lesser of two evils, given his circumstances.
But…she hasn’t hurt you…she wouldn’t…would she? Please…please don’t…
“Wh-when it’s over…maybe you’ll be able to…w-walk again. Please…let me try…”
Those words were a further enticement to submit to the performance of the spell. Everything Tara had promised him thus far had come to pass. Perhaps…if he took a chance and allowed her to work her magic…
Besides…not as if you’ve got a choice, *really*. They’ll do what they want with you in the end; better to let Tara try to help now…
His decision made, but by no means certain, the vampire drew in a deep shaky breath, and finally ventured a slow, cautious nod of assent.
Tara’s heart was pounding as she made her way hurriedly up the stairs on trembling legs. She had done her best to reassure the vampire that she would be right back, but she still did not want to leave him alone for long.
And yet, she was in no hurry to accomplish the task at hand, either.
She drew in a deep, shaky breath as she entered her bedroom, and her gaze fell on the wooden trunk at the foot of her bed.
It had been months since she had opened it.
You said you weren’t going to open it again…you said you were giving it up…
But he *needs* it! It’s the only way…
Ignoring her apprehensions, Tara knelt on the floor in front of the trunk and opened it. The familiar, comforting scent of the incense and various herbs inside wafted upward, mingling with the sweet fragrance of the cedar wood that housed it, and Tara closed her eyes for a moment, breathing deeply of the aroma that always made her think of home…back when it was her home.
Back when Mom was alive…
Tara shook her head emphatically in a vain attempt to clear it of the devastatingly beautiful memories that suddenly flooded her mind unbidden – memories of softly strong arms that held her when she cried, arms belonging to the only person in the world who had ever both really known her, and loved her just as she was.
I miss you, Mom…and I could sure use your help right about now…
She blinked away her wistful tears, with an effort focusing her thoughts on the suffering vampire downstairs who was waiting for her…needing her to be strong. As she rifled carefully through the items in the trunk, selecting a few and setting them aside, she heard her own thoughts in her mother’s voice, methodically reciting the ingredients she would need for both spells she planned to perform.
Each was relatively simple, and Tara had watched her mother do them dozens of times during her childhood. She was confident that she remembered the proper ingredients and the right words to say, but she highly doubted that she possessed the same level of magical power her mother once had.
But in his condition…any help you can give him…any way that you might be able to spare his dignity…
A vivid mental image of the damaged vampire, blind and naked and utterly helpless, cringing away from her and making a pitiful attempt to cover himself with his one functioning arm, filled her mind…and Tara’s decision was final.
This will make it easier for him…this is what I have to do…
“I’m on my way back…I’m coming down the stairs…” She called out to the vampire as she began to descend toward the living room again, not wanting to startle him. “I’m almost there. Just a second…”
Her heart ached within her as she watched the vampire huddle back against the sofa at her approach, clearly still fearful that she would force him to submit to her attentions, however well-meaning they might be. He was positioned just as she had pictured in her mind, his body half turned away from her, one painfully thin arm cast weakly across his bare, damaged groin in a desperate but futile attempt to hide his vulnerability.
“It’s okay,” she soothed him as she knelt in front of the couch, cautiously extending a hand to rest on his. “I’m not gonna hurt you…not gonna touch you unless you want me to…okay?”
He flinched, but did not pull away from her touch; and after a few moments of patient waiting on Tara’s part, he gradually seemed to relax a bit, some of the tension going out of his shoulders as he seemed to understand that she was not going to hurt him, not going to try to touch him any more than she already was. Still, she noticed with some dismay that he kept his barely recovering gaze focused downward, as if afraid to risk eye contact of any kind with her.
“Good,” she encouraged him gently, putting as much approval in her voice as possible. “That’s good, Sweetie…” She hesitated a moment before venturing softly, “Now…I want to try this spell…to h-help you be calm. It’s n-not gonna hurt. I promise. It’ll just make you…kind of sleepy…okay?”
The vampire had already agreed to allow the spell, but Tara still waited in patient silence for his response. He was very still and quiet for a long moment, before he finally gave her a slight nod.
“Thank you,” she whispered, her voice softening with affection for the vulnerable, almost child-like creature before her, and the fledgling trust he was venturing to give her. “Now…I’m not going to touch you…th-there, or…or try to do anything more to get you cleaned up...I’m just g-going to touch your head…very lightly…it won’t hurt…I just n-need to…to sprinkle some of these h-herbs on your head…and s-say the words to the spell…and they’ll help you go to sleep. Okay?”
Once again, he nodded slowly, his breath hitching slightly in his throat, as he struggled visibly to calm himself. Tara picked up several small plastic packets of dried herbs from the floor, reaching inside each to gather a bit between her fingers and then mixing them together in an empty packet. She cautiously reached her other hand up to rest on his upper arm, steadying him, as she rose up on her knees, leaning forward so that the hand holding the herbs could reach above his head.
“It’s all right,” she soothed him gently, her heart touched with compassion by the tremors of his body under her hand. “Just relax, Sweetie…I’m not gonna hurt you…”
Keeping her voice hushed and gentle, she uttered the Latin words of the spell as she sprinkled the herb mixture over the top of his head.
“Quietis en pax, incolumitas, gnarus totus quovis salveo…”
I hope this works…
Suddenly, Tara’s hands at his arms were rushing to catch him, as the vampire’s weary body slumped forward, and he would have toppled forward, his damaged face planted in the rough upholstery of the sofa, had she not caught him and pushed him gently back against it. His head lolled against the back of the couch, as he collapsed, as completely relaxed as she had ever seen him…unconscious.
Tara rose cautiously to her feet, her gaze never leaving the sleeping vampire as she absently sealed the bag containing the mixture of herbs and gathered the remaining other supplies in her arms. She just stood there for a few moments, taking in his still, resting form with a sense of relief and tentative satisfaction.
For the first time since she had found him, the vampire seemed to be completely at rest.
After a moment, Tara shook herself out of her reverie and made her way slowly up the stairs, her supplies in hand. She had performed the calming spell she had just used many times before, and was confident that it would hold for a few hours. It was a simple spell, really, requiring little in the way of power or skill.
The healing spell she was planning next, however, was a bit more complex.
Tara walked into the bathroom, turning on the light and taking in her surroundings with a critical eye. She immediately began to arrange the candles she carried in her arms, setting some out along the counter, and positioning the others in a half-circle around the bathtub, careful to leave herself enough room to maneuver around them when she brought the vampire upstairs. Once the candles were lit, she turned off the light and assessed her work. There were enough candles to fill the room with a warm glow, free of the harsh effect of the regular fluorescent lighting.
Next, Tara sprinkled some of the herb mixture into the bottom of the tub, murmuring in Latin as she reached to turn on the water, carefully adjusting it to be sure that it would not be too hot for the vampire. He had no natural body heat of his own, and she was fairly certain that would make him far more sensitive to heat than she would be.
Once the preparations were in order, Tara went back downstairs to where the vampire was lying peacefully on the sofa, fast asleep. She was careful not to jar his injuries as she lifted him into her arms, uncertain whether or not he would be able to feel pain in his state of magically induced sleep.
As she passed the kitchen doorway, she heard faint scuffling and sniffing sounds – Mac’s paws against the door, his nose pressed up against the baseboard from inside the kitchen – and she felt a sense of guilt for neglecting her best friend of the last four years.
I’ll make it up to you, Mac…I promise…I just haven’t got a choice right now…
Negotiating the stairs with her light but cumbersome burden was a bit of a challenge, but with a slow, cautious effort, Tara managed to get the unconscious vampire into the bathroom, and lay him gently down in the bathtub, now nearly full with comfortably warm water. The air was filled with the fragrance of rosemary, and Tara found herself relaxing under the sensation of peace she felt, no doubt generated by the healing magic she had created.
We’ll see how healing it actually is…
Tara grimaced as she knelt beside the tub, carefully positioning the vampire so that his head and shoulders were safely above the water, her heartbeat quickening slightly with a momentary return of her nerves.
Can I do this? I’m not…not her…I don’t have her power. Will I be able to help him at all?
She tried to put her nagging self-doubt out of her mind, aware that the less focused she was on the spell, the less likely it was to succeed. She closed her eyes for a moment, breathing in the warm, sweet scent of the steam that filled the air, inhaling and exhaling in a slow, steady rhythm as she tried to focus her energy on the spell and quell her anxious thoughts. She could not remember the last time she had eaten, and she felt dizzy and weak as she focused her strength on the injured vampire in front of her.
Time for that later…right now, have to…do this…
When she felt ready to go on, Tara opened her eyes and gazed down at the still form in the tub, her expression softening with sympathy at the countless marks that covered his body. The livid burns and jagged cuts, the bruises from brutal beatings that had been inflicted upon him were just barely beginning to heal with the blood she had given him, but were nowhere near healing completely. Each individual injury was much more clearly visible now that he was stretched out in the tub, still, no longer huddled and cowering, attempting to hide himself.
She wondered again at what had happened to him, who could have done such terrible damage to someone so clearly helpless to defend himself. She found herself desperately hoping that she could help him to recover, not only physically but emotionally as well, from the horrific ordeal through which he had obviously been. As she reached a hand down to break the still surface of the water, she focused on those desires, those feelings, and began to softly chant the words of the spell.
As she spoke, she passed her hand slowly through the water, an inch or so above the vampire’s arm, not actually touching him at all, and watched with fascination as the marks that covered his pale skin gradually faded, but did not disappear entirely. Encouraged by this partial success, Tara moved on to the other arm, pleased to see that her efforts were met with the same results, with the exception of the single, deep laceration that ran the length of his forearm, which barely seemed to have healed at all.
Tara’s breath quickened slightly with the power of the sensations the spell was causing in her…the relief and satisfaction at its success, as well as the peace and tranquility from the scent of the herbs she was using.
But it was more than that.
She gradually became aware of a sense of power, an almost electric tingling that began in her fingertips and spread slowly to her hands, up her arms, throughout her entire body…and her fears were momentarily forgotten.
She could do this.
Her mother had possessed tremendous power, more power than Tara herself could ever dream of wielding…but there was no reason not to believe that some of that magical energy might have been passed on to her.
She moved her hand slowly over the vampire’s legs next, watching in amazement as they slowly seemed to straighten, the dark bruising and broken places in his skin fading away and closing up before her eyes. As with his arms, the injuries did not heal completely, but showed tremendous improvement.
Tara took a deep breath, then repeated the same process over his stomach and groin, watching as the deep purple bruising that circled his abdomen slowly faded away, before bracing her arm behind his shoulders and, with some effort due to the awkward angle, gently turning him over to reach the injuries on the back side of his body. She winced in an instinctive reaction of sorrow and disgust at the brutal damage she found there, torn, bruised flesh that was undeniable evidence that the vampire had been not only beaten and tortured, but violently raped as well by whoever had held him captive.
Blinking back tears, Tara bravely fought through the words to the spell in a trembling voice, as she slowly passed her hand through the water over the surface of the wounds, immensely relieved as the torn flesh and bruises gradually faded, as well as the countless lash marks that covered his back and the backs of his legs, though they did not seem to be healing nearly as well. They faded quite a bit, but did not seem to be responding to the magic as well as the other injuries.
A frown creased Tara’s brow, as the lash marks faded…and in the process, revealed something to her sight that she had not noticed before. Her eyes widened in surprised confusion as they were drawn to a single wound that did not seem to be healing at all – a distinctive pattern of swirls and angles that had been deeply burned into his flesh.
At the very sight of the strange symbol, Tara felt a vague sense of unease, a fine, cool sweat breaking out on her forehead, her throat going dry with an unexplained fear. Something about the symbol spoke to her instincts, leaving her with the impression of darkness and evil, though she had never seen the mark before, and had no idea what it might mean.
She only knew that she wanted it gone.
Hurriedly, she passed a trembling hand over the mark on the vampire’s back, closing her eyes and swallowing hard before continuing the Latin chant.
Before she could get more than a couple of words out, the tingling in her fingertips became a violent jolt of electric pain that sent her toppling backward onto her back on the floor, thrown away from the subject of her attempts at healing. Suddenly acutely aware of the circle of candles on the floor around her, Tara lurched forward again, clutching her hair in one hand and pulling it back over her shoulder, out of reach of the tiny flickering flames. She fought off a sense of blind panic, as she was abruptly overwhelmed by the feeling of a violent, malevolent darkness in the room with her, emanating, pulsating from the ominous mark on the vampire’s back.
Tara staggered to her feet, stumbling backward, gasping for breath, her eyes wide and focused on the mark in stunned horror. She held a hand over her chest, her heart pounding wildly with terror, a single thought reverberating over and over in her mind.
Dear Goddess…what *is* that thing? What have they done to him?
Heat…soft and surrounding…warm and…and wet?
That was bad. Water…water was bad, he remembered that much even through the heavy, soothing haze that covered him. Water meant pain and torment, punishment and crippling, burning agony.
So…why wasn’t he in pain?
Why wasn’t he afraid?
Perhaps it had something to do with the soft, gentle voice, murmuring in a quiet, rhythmic chant, clearly audible to him even through the magically induced trance that surrounded him. Her words were soothing to him, despite the fact that he could not understand them. They accompanied a healing warmth, a pleasant, electric tingling that began in his arms, then his legs, moving inward toward the very core of his body and filling him with a new sense of life and strength.
It all vanished the instant Tara touched the strange mark on his back.
A vague sense of unease began to creep back into the edges of his mind, echoes of harsh voices and violent hands filling his memory, just under the surface of the sensations the healing spell was awakening in him. The peace and warmth he felt was gradually replaced by a cold, seeping feeling of fear and shame that left him trembling, even in unconsciousness.
Suddenly, he couldn’t remember where he was, couldn’t remember the cause for his recent inklings of barely birthed hope.
Something was terribly wrong.
Tara’s hands shook as she pulled herself to her feet, staring with wide eyes down at the vampire in the tub. He had fallen back onto his back in the water when she had been thrown away from him, and despite the slight tremor of his body that had begun again, he still seemed to be asleep.
She glanced around the room, her eyes adjusting to the sudden near-darkness, the only light in the room the muted daylight filtering through the curtains from outside. Tara was both stunned and disturbed to see that the candles had all gone out, apparently at the same moment that she had been thrown away from the vampire’s side. Downstairs in the kitchen, she could hear Mac barking furiously, a low, protective sound – territorial, like she might have expected to hear from him if an intruder was in the house – and yet tinged with a high note of fear that she was unaccustomed to hearing in his bark.
She suppressed a shudder, a chill trickling up her spine at that thought.
She struggled against a vague sense of dread, unwilling even to look at the strange mark again for the moment – not that she needed to; the image of it was seared indelibly into her mind, along with the deep darkness and evil she had felt when she had touched it.
She hesitated a moment at the side of the tub, her mind racing as she tried to decide what to do.
What *is* that thing? Who did that to him? What kind of terrible, dark magic must it be to have caused such a reaction to the healing spell? Or maybe…maybe I just did it wrong. Maybe it wasn’t that mark at all, but…but my own sucky magic skills…
However reassuring the thought might have been, Tara could not quite bring herself to accept the latter as a possibility. She had felt the intense sense of dark malevolence emanating from the mark on the vampire’s back, even before she had touched it. Whatever it was, it was clearly evil and dangerous…and she had no way of knowing what might happen if she tried to continue the healing spell while it was still in place.
Somewhat relieved and satisfied that she had at least made some progress in helping the vampire’s injuries, Tara laid a soft, thick towel down on the bathroom floor, and then lifted him carefully in her arms and laid him down on it. She studied his face for a long moment, a troubled frown creasing her brow as she wondered again about the mark, unable to get the image of it out of her mind. Her frown deepened when a slight flinch jerked the vampire’s features, even in sleep, and she wondered at the troubled dreams that seemed to be infecting the peaceful rest the soothing spell should have allowed him.
What he must have been through…what must have been done to him…that even with a powerful sedative spell like that, he should still be having nightmares!
She tried to put her troubled thoughts out of her mind as she gently blotted his pale, delicate skin with a second towel, drying him as best she could. Then, she covered him with a third dry towel before heading down the stairs again to check on Mac and prepare the living room for the vampire’s return.
He shivered in the never-ending torment of cold in which they kept him, desperate for a trace of heat to relieve his suffering, yet not daring to move, or make any attempt to warm himself. Such defiance would certainly be harshly punished…not that he even *could* move anymore. The temperature of the room had long since left his limbs numb, aching, cramping with the cold.
*Please…please…make it stop…let me out…please…*
His desperate pleas were ignored, as the agonizing hours went on and on.
Finally, just when he had given up hope of ever being released from the frozen agony of his prison, they returned, dragging his stiff, anguished body from the cell and forcing him down onto his back on a gurney. Panic seized him as he was strapped down, and he tried to fight, but could barely move in the wake of their latest round of “tests”.
Once he was thoroughly restrained, they wheeled him into another room, filled with bright lights and calm, disinterested voices speaking in terms he found difficult to understand…and made more difficult by the haze of pain and confusion and desperate terror that consumed him.
“Please…don’t…” he barely managed to get the words out before a gag was roughly shoved into his mouth and strapped in place, and his head strapped down to the gurney as well.
And then came the pain that made him long for the numbness of cold to return.
Tara took the dirty tarp from the couch and covered it with a soft, clean blanket, setting out fresh bandages and other supplies from her first aid kit on the floor next to the sofa. Once the makeshift, temporary “bed” was prepared, she headed to the kitchen to check on Mac.
His frantic barking had gradually tapered off to a soft, plaintive whine of unease, and Tara felt her guilt return as she opened the kitchen door and fell to a crouch in front of her pet. She gratefully accepted his enthusiastic affection as he licked her offered hand and pressed in closer to the arm she wrapped gently around him.
“I’m sorry, Mac,” she murmured against the shaggy fur at the back of his neck, taking comfort in his familiar combination of softness and strength. “I’ll make it up to you, Sweetie…I promise. But…but right now…this guy needs a lot of help, okay? I’ve gotta help him…”
Mac seemed to understand. He let out a weary sigh, before giving her hand one last lick and lying down on the floor, his head on his paws. Tara hated to leave him, but knew that she had no choice. She reluctantly rose to her feet and closed the kitchen door again, returning to the bathroom to retrieve the unconscious vampire, who did not appear to have moved at all since she had left him.
She carried him carefully down the stairs and laid him down on the sofa, then knelt beside him. She reached for the roll of bandages on the floor…then hesitated, setting it back down as her gaze was drawn to the still, pale form on the sofa. She found herself examining him more closely than she had done thus far, mostly because she hadn’t exactly had the opportunity to do so before.
She was relieved to see that despite its interruption, the healing spell seemed to have helped the vampire’s condition quite a bit. None of his injuries had healed completely, and a few of them seemed to be completely untouched by the spell…but many of them were very much improved.
Besides the one deep laceration that ran the length of his injured right arm, the various cuts and bruises that marred his arms had mostly faded away, as had the dark bruising on his shattered legs, which had straightened considerably, though they had not healed completely.
The lash marks on his torso and back had not improved as much, though they at least seemed to be clean, and to have closed up some. She carefully turned him onto his side to inspect the most personal of his injuries, and was relieved to find that his abused backside seemed to have mostly healed as well. The deep wound in his stomach was barely healed at all, however, just barely scabbed over.
Tara carefully unwound the bandages over his head injuries, just enough to inspect their progress…and was disappointed to find that his neck looked almost completely the same, as did his badly damaged eyes.
She frowned as she rewrapped the bandages, confused by the inconsistency of what she was seeing, wondering what had made the difference, what had determined which injuries had healed and which had not. Gradually, however, a pattern of sorts became clear, and her eyes widened with realization.
The mark…it’s the injuries nearest to it…those are the ones that aren’t healing…
A shudder passed through her with the remembered sensation of the malevolent magical power she had felt when she had touched the strange markings, and she tried to put the image of it out of her mind for the moment, and focus on the nearly overwhelming task still at hand.
Later…once he’s resting…I’ll try to find out about it…try to figure out what it is…but for now…for now, I…I can’t think about it…
With a slow, trembling, but deliberate hand, Tara began to unroll the bandages, her jaw set as she gently began to wrap the vampire’s remaining injuries…which would have to take their own natural course in healing, she decided reluctantly.
She was not about to try that healing spell again…not until she knew exactly what had caused it to go so terribly wrong the first time.
Terror seized him at the first touch of her hand, unusually hot against his cool skin…but it faded swiftly when he realized that the person touching him was not hurting him, was in fact being gentle and careful and…
…it was her.
His brow furrowed in confusion, and he shook his head slightly, caught somewhere between sleep and wakefulness as the effects of the calming spell began to wear off, more swiftly than they should have, due to the ominous influence of the dark magic Tara had encountered. The vampire struggled to make sense of his thoughts and surroundings, both real, and the remnants of his nightmares.
The doctors…they’d been hurting him…cutting him…doing their sadistic tests while he helplessly fought against the restraints they had forced upon him, unmoved by his desperate attempts at escape, the plaintive, strangled moans for mercy he had tried to utter.
Except…they weren’t hurting him anymore. He tried to figure out why they had stopped, where they had gone, but couldn’t seem to make sense of any of it…not that it really mattered at the moment. There was nothing he could do to stop them if they decided to hurt him, no benefit that would come from muddling out the mystery.
And besides – it was Tara who was touching him now.
He knew, because no one else had touched him so gently, with such compassion and concern, in as long as he could remember.
As he gradually became aware of his surroundings – the soft surface beneath him, the pleasant warmth of the room, with all its increasingly familiar scents – the vampire began to relax a little, opening his one good eye to allow the faint bit of blurred light he could see into his world, to allow the dark, cold terror of the nightmare to fade away under the gentle pressure of Tara’s hands.
He noticed with a sense of awe that, as she had promised him…his pain had lessened considerably. His broken legs, the vicious cuts and burns that had scored his arms, even the worst damage that had been done to his most private parts…the countless injuries that covered his entire body…all seemed to have faded under the power of…whatever it was she had done to him.
He did not know why she would take such time with him, why she would bother with such things as ointments and bandages, but he relished the simple pleasure of her sympathetic touch – of the compassion for which he had become so desperately starved – as she patiently worked over him. She was taking her time, but working steadily, her skilled hands tending methodically to the injuries that covered his body…and all too quickly nearing the completion of their work.
He wished that she would never finish.
As the last bandage was fastened in place, Tara rose to her feet, and he fought off a sense of panic, even as she softly explained where she was going, what she was doing.
He did not hear a word of it.
All he knew was that she was getting up, seemed to be getting ready to leave the room…and the thought filled him with a cold sense of dread. It seemed, he realized, that whatever place this was he was in, they only came when Tara was not there.
Please…please don’t leave me alone…don’t let them find me again…
Tara surveyed her work as she rose to her feet, noting that the vampire was beginning to look more like a mummy, nearly his entire body covered in white bandages. She had carefully wrapped his head so that all the tender, raw places were protected, while leaving his nose, mouth, and one barely functioning eye exposed, so as not to restrict his senses in any way.
He had so few of them left at his disposal.
“I’m going to go g-get you…s-something to put on,” she explained softly as she took a step backward toward the stairs. “I’ll just be a minute. I’ll be right back.”
She took her time climbing the stairs, wanting to give her patient a bit of space to wake up and process what he could of his surroundings, and made her way into her bedroom. She frowned as she went through her rather limited wardrobe, searching for something appropriate to loan the damaged vampire.
Size wasn’t exactly an issue.
The vampire was so terribly small and thin, she knew that her shirts would easily fit him; it was just a matter of finding something soft enough so as not to irritate his injuries, and with a wide enough neck to fit over his very sensitive face and throat without touching them. Pants were more difficult, as Tara was built quite a bit larger than the emaciated vampire. It took her a few minutes to find a pair of comfortable, soft grey pajama pants with a drawstring waist that could be adjusted to fit a smaller frame.
When she returned to the living room, Spike was waiting just where she had left him, leaning back against the sofa, though his head was raised, alerting her to the fact that he was by this point fully awake. He visibly tensed when he heard her entrance, and Tara deliberately slowed her pace, approaching him cautiously as she spoke to reassure him.
“Hey. It’s just me. I’m back…and I b-brought you some clothes.”
The vampire’s brow crinkled with confusion, and his head tilted just slightly to the side, as if he was trying to make sense of what she was saying.
“I-it’s not much,” Tara apologetically informed him. “J-just an old sweater and pajama pants. But…but it’s something. A-and once you’re feeling a little better…once you’re okay by yourself for a little while…I’ll go g-get you something of your own.”
She placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, waiting patiently as he started under the touch, then relaxed a little when he realized it was just her.
“I’m going to p-put this over your head, okay? It’s just a sweater. It won’t hurt…won’t touch your neck, or your face…okay? I’ll b-be very careful.”
The vampire hesitated, but then nodded slowly, uncertainly.
Gently, taking extreme care not to hurt him, Tara worked the soft fabric over his head, carefully maneuvering his arms into the sleeves and pulling it down to cover his well-bandaged torso. The pants were a bit more difficult, but as light as he was, she was able to lift his hips off the sofa with one hand and pull the garment up over his abdomen and legs.
“There,” she murmured, sitting back on her knees to survey her work. “Isn’t that better?”
She had given him clothes.
It did not matter that they were old and unattractive…not that he could have seen them to know this for sure. It was simply a guess based on Tara’s demeanor of embarrassment and apology. He didn’t care if he was wearing the most hideous garments on the face of the planet.
He was clothed…no longer naked and exposed to the every sadistic whim of those around him.
He cautiously smoothed a trembling hand down the soft front of the well-worn sweater, swallowing hard as he felt the beginnings of tears prickling in the back of his one intact eye, and stinging the raw flesh of the socket where his other eye should have been. Suddenly feeling utterly overwhelmed and exhausted, he leaned back against the sofa, instinctively turning his head away from Tara in an attempt to hide his emotional reaction to her simple gift.
Tara rose to her feet and began moving about the room, picking up bandages and medications and putting them back into her first aid kit, straightening the living room – and all the while announcing her every move to him, so as to reassure him of her location at all times.
Why is she doing all this? he wondered again. Why should she care?
It didn’t matter, he finally decided. She did care, that much was obvious. She had given him more precious privileges in the past few hours than he had ever thought would be his again. She had freed him from the hated bondage of the collar, had restored to him the first glimmer of sight again…and regardless of what she chose to do with him now, he would be ever grateful to her for her kindness and generosity.
“…so I’m just gonna go in the kitchen for a little while…”
His ears were drawn to Tara’s words, and his heart lurched with a sudden fear as he realized what she was saying.
She meant to leave him.
Perhaps not far, or not for long…but she was talking about going away.
No, no, please don’t go away! Don’t leave me here alone, in the dark! Please…please…
Tara stopped in front of the sofa on her way toward the kitchen, making her intentions clear to the still, quiet vampire, who seemed so much more at peace now that he was clean, and dry, and clothed. She knew she needed to get something to eat, as well as to check on Macrea, who had been sorely neglected since the vampire’s arrival in her home. Besides, she was fairly certain it would be the best thing for the weary creature to have a bit of space and time to himself, if only for a little while.
He needs to rest…and every time I move…every time I touch him…he’s terrified all over again…
Still, she did not want to frighten him with her sudden absence, any more than with her sudden presence before.
“I’ll be back in just a few hours,” she assured him gently as she took his shoulders, and cautiously helped him to lie down on the sofa. “You just rest here for a little bit, okay? Try to get some sleep. There’s a few things I need to do…but I’ll be back later.”
The vampire submitted to her gently pushing hands, lying down on the sofa, though she noticed with some dismay that the tension seemed to have returned to his shoulders, and the ever-present tremor in them had intensified. Silently, she ran a gentle, soothing hand down his arm in an effort to calm him, aware that he was probably terribly confused right now, and wanting to reassure him of her kind intentions.
The vampire gradually grew still, and Tara wondered if he was still awake. His one healing eye was closed, and she had no way of knowing for sure. Finally, not wanting to disturb him if he was indeed asleep, she slowly removed her hand from his arm and stood up straight again, turning cautiously toward the kitchen with soft, quiet steps.
She had only gained a single step when she felt a cold, shaky hand reach out and grasp her arm…weakly, without a fraction of the strength it might have taken to hold her, but desperate all the same. Stunned by the unexpectedly bold gesture, Tara half-turned to face the trembling vampire, whose face was lowered almost to the cushion of the couch in apprehension and shame. Still, he held onto her arm with all his slight strength, and in the tense silence, Tara thought she heard his voice, though it was barely more than a breath.
The moment the vampire realized that he had actually gone so far as to grasp Tara’s wrist, he immediately let go, horrified by what he had just done. He gasped and drew back, his head bowed as he froze and waited for the inevitable punishment that followed the act of daring to touch one of his human captors without permission.
How could you be so *stupid*? You know you’re not allowed…she was being nice to you…wasn’t hurting you…and you had to go and ruin it! Stupid, stupid…she’s going to punish you now…Why do you always have to bollocks up any shred of hope you find?
Tara just stood there, cautious, not willing to move and further terrify the frightened creature.
Okay…gotta be so careful here…if I push him too hard…if I scare him now…he might never recover…might never have the courage to talk to me again…
She was stunned and elated that he had ventured to reach out to her, to speak to her – after all, he had only dared to utter two words in the entire time she had known him – but she was troubled by his immediate reaction of fear. Her heart pounded with anxious anticipation, her mind racing. She knew that she had to be extremely cautious in handling this situation, or risk driving the traumatized vampire further into his silent shell.
Slowly, carefully, she turned around to face him, crouching low in front of the sofa so that she was at eye level with him, though she was sure he could not see her yet…at least, not very well. She did not touch him, and kept her voice low and calm as she spoke to him.
“It’s all right. D-don’t be afraid. It’s okay. D-did you…say something?”
The vampire cringed low against the sofa, shaking his head pleadingly but emphatically, his weak, trembling hands pulling at the sofa as if to pull himself off onto the floor. Tara’s heart ached for him as she realized that he was trying to lower himself as much as possible, in a gesture of submission and supplication. The thought of his attempting to bow himself down before her was unbearable to her, and Tara reached out to catch him before he could manage it.
He froze under the soft touch of her hands on his arms, going perfectly still, desperate to make it known that he was obedient, submissive, not trying to fight or resist her in any way.
Please…please…no…I’ll be quiet, I’ll be good, I’ll do anything, just please…don’t…
Tara was certain that he had spoken – she had heard him, though so softly that she could barely make out the word he had said – but was simply too terrified to admit it. And he had touched her! He had reached out and grabbed her hand; he must want something, or he wouldn’t have risked it. She was torn between the desire to cling to the slight step forward that the single whispered word had been, and the fear of pressing him too hard, and losing what little progress they had gained.
“It’s all right. I promise, Sweetie. It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you…I’m not mad at you…I want you to talk to me…okay? If you want something…if you have something to say…I want you to tell me…”
He could scarcely begin to make sense of what she was saying. His mind could not process the idea that she might actually care what he had to say, might even desire to hear it. For months he had been in a state of enforced silence, reduced to the place of an object to be used and tortured, with no thought for what he might feel. His attempts at resistance were meaningless…his words, no more than an annoyance to be driven away with harsh blows, or worse.
And yet…Tara was still speaking gently to him. She did not seem angry, and she was urging him to repeat what he had said.
No, no, not allowed! Not supposed to talk…it’s a trick…please, don’t make me…don’t make me do this…
What if he was still in that place? What if they were watching…listening…waiting for him to slip up and break the rules, so that they would have an excuse to hurt him again…not that they really needed one.
“Please,” Tara murmured, her hand leaving his arm and slipping down to rest on the back of his trembling hand. “Please, Sweetheart…I’m not going to hurt you. Please…just tell me what you said? What you want? I want to help you. Please…please let me.”
The price for speaking was great, he knew…but the price of disobedience was far worse.
His shoulders shook with fear, and he swallowed hard, the convulsive action sending a jolt of tearing pain through his dry, sore throat. He wasn’t sure which thought scared him more – the idea of the suffering he would no doubt receive for daring to be so bold, or the thought of her leaving him here, alone, with only the darkness of his fears and memories for company.
His head bowed submissively, he ventured a response in a hoarse, hesitant whisper. “I…I…please…please d-don’t…don’t go.” He paused, lowering his head further, his voice barely audible as he added, “Don’t leave me…a-alone. Please…”
Tara was silent for a long moment, and the vampire had no idea what to expect from her, though the greater part of him expected punishment for his demands. He had no right to make them, after all – no right to expect any such privilege from her, not after all she had already done for him. She had been so overwhelmingly kind to him, so gentle and compassionate…
And now, he had ruined it all with a single careless word.
When he heard rather than saw Tara move forward slightly, he flinched, preparing himself for the blow that was sure to come – a slap in the face to remind him of the place he had forgotten.
“’m sorry,” he whispered. “S-sorry…please…”
Instead of a blow, however, he felt a gentle, reassuring squeeze of her hand on his arm, and heard her soft voice, speaking a quiet, simple answer to his desperate plea.
The answer was so simple, in fact, that it took him a moment to process what she had just said. When his mind caught up with the fact that she had actually agreed to his request…was in fact sitting down on the sofa beside him, gently maneuvering him back into a comfortable sitting position…he found himself stunned, barely daring to believe it.
She’s going to stay? Not going to leave me…or…or punish me? But…but why would she…?
“If you want me to be here with you, I’m here. Whatever you need.”
Tara explained her actions quietly, settling into the sofa beside him, careful to leave a bit of distance between them. She was not sure how much contact he would be comfortable with, and did not want to further confuse or traumatize him with her careless actions…but he seemed to desire the comfort of company, at any rate. He seemed so small and frail, the borrowed sweater loose on his emaciated form, nearly every visible part of his body covered in bandages.
“If you need something,” she informed him, keeping her voice calm and quiet, speaking slowly to be certain that he grasped what she was telling him, “I want you to tell me. I won’t hurt you. It’s okay for you to say whatever you want. I just…w-want to know. So I can help you. Okay?”
He was still a bit doubtful, in spite of all. It seemed like too much to hope for, to be allowed to speak his mind, his desires, without fear of repercussions. Still, he nodded silently, accepting her words at least on a surface level as Tara settled in beside him, her warm hand gently clasping his, her thumb stroking a soothing pattern along the back of his hand.
They sat there in silence for a few moments, each lost in their own thoughts, and Tara began to feel a bit better as the vampire’s hoarse, shallow breaths began to gradually even out, and she knew that he was beginning to calm down.
“See?” she said softly, an encouraging smile that was lost on him playing about the edges of her mouth. “It’s all right. Nothing bad happened because you talked to me. In fact, I’m happy that you did. I’m really glad you told me what you needed me to do…b-because I really want to help you get b-better…and I’m not sure I can if you…if you won’t talk to me. D-do you understand?”
The vampire’s slow nod seemed a bit more certain, less fearful, as he responded. And then, so soft that Tara almost missed it, he added a whispered verbal answer, “Y-yes…”
Tara’s heart leapt with joy at the undeniable progress, however, slight, and she had to resist the impulse to hug him, reminding herself that although he was improving, he was far from ready for that much physical contact. Considering all he had been through, he was quite likely to misinterpret her intentions.
I just wish I could make him understand…make him see that I’m not like those…whoever they were that had him. I wish I knew where he was…what they did to him, and why…or even…even just his name…
“Can I…can I ask you something?” she ventured cautiously. He said nothing, just sat there listening attentively, and Tara continued in a soft, gentle voice. “I…I’m Tara…you know that…but…but I don’t know what to…c-call you. What…what’s your name?”
The vampire visibly tensed beside her, a convulsive swallow visible in his throat. He hesitated a moment, before whispering a hoarse, shameful response, his head bowed low.
Tara frowned, confused by the strange answer to her question, wondering momentarily if he had possibly misunderstood what she was asking him. “Y-your name…is…” Her words trailed off, and her eyes widened in horror as a vivid image filled her mind of the collar she had removed from his throat, and the number engraved on the metal plate at its front.
She felt sick, a sense of helpless anger and outrage filling her as the pieces began to fall into place in her mind. They had called him by a number, not his name, had so thoroughly dehumanized him as to take even that semblance of human identity from him. And the collar…the vicious, deliberate device of torture they had forced upon him…had been specifically his, engraved with the number they had given him.
The vampire’s head remained bowed, and Tara noticed that he had completely frozen in place as she pressed him gently for an explanation. His lips parted slightly as if in preparation to answer, but then he closed them again, his shoulders trembling slightly with tension and uncertainty.
“It’s what they called you…isn’t it?” she whispered, her voice hushed with horror. “Seventeen…it’s not your name…but it’s what they called you.”
The vampire nodded miserably, his good arm crossed protectively over his torso in an instinctively defensive gesture, and Tara’s tears fell from her eyes as she thought about the horror and shame of being treated as an object rather than a person. She felt a flash of fury toward the vampire’s abusers, wondering once more what sort of people could be capable of such cruelty, could possibly have reduced this once bold, heroic creature from her dreams to a cringing shadow of his former self, believing and accepting the identity they had forced upon him as a number rather than a name.
Well, that ends now.
“What…what were you called…before? Before…they hurt you?” she persisted softly, her hand still holding his in a subtle display of support, her voice gentle and as non-threatening as possible. “Surely you had…a name…family…friends? What did your friends call you?”
It occurred to her only after she spoke to wonder if vampires did indeed have friends or family, but it was too late to take back her suggestion…and besides, her words seemed to have aroused a reaction in the vampire, after all.
The words took him back in time, his mind daring to edge toward memories long since buried in the back of his mind as far too painful to revisit. Flashes of familiar faces, voices, names, filled his thoughts, and his heart felt swollen, aching, with the weight of the various emotions they evoked.
Immediately, he pushed the thoughts away, unable to deal with them in the midst of the other, overwhelming things he had to consider at the moment. Where he was…what was going to happen to him…those were things he had to figure out now. All the rest – the things he had tried to remember, and then forced himself to forget in his captivity – could wait until he had time to consider them again.
Or possibly… forever.
The thought of the people he had known before seeing him…like this…knowing what had been done to him…it was simply more than he could bear.
Shutting his mind to the memories, he focused on Tara’s question…and his heart did a funny little flip of fear in his chest. His trembling increased and he felt sick as he debated whether or not to answer her question.
His very name was a reminder of all that he had been…all they had taken from him.
That’s a killer’s name, vampire…that’s the name of the powerful monster you *used* to be…
The words had been accompanied by a brutal kick as he lay, helpless, on the floor at the feet of his tormentors.
Tell us, Seventeen…how powerful do you feel *now*?
His very name was a reminder of all the things he’d done in his past, all the terrible crimes he’d committed. He’d claimed the name as a symbol of one of his first acts of atrocity upon his turning, and it had followed him throughout the years before the chip, striking fear into the hearts of all those in the demon world who had heard of his exploits…which was…well, mostly everyone.
And they had punished him for it.
His name was a symbol of his power…and they had stripped it from him.
“Please? Will you tell me?”
Tara’s voice was gentle, encouraging, and it did not seem likely that she would hurt him for speaking his name…not when she was asking him to, and when she had not hurt him once thus far, unless it was an unavoidable part of helping him.
But…if she knew the things you’ve done…how evil you are…she’d cast you out…she won’t want to help you anymore…and you can’t…’s not allowed…not supposed to say that name…only supposed to answer to Seventeen…if they find out…if they hear…
Tara watched in dismay as he cringed back against the couch, shaking his head pleadingly, and she felt a sense of guilty frustration with herself for pushing the issue. It was just so horrifying to her to think of calling him by the coldly assigned number his captors had used…she had to know his name.
“Hey…” she murmured soothingly, reaching out her free hand to rest on his arm, turning him slightly back toward her. She tried to ignore the way he simply moved with her, allowing her to direct him where she would, as she did her best to calm him. “L-listen to me, Sweetie…okay? Nobody’s going to hurt you. The p-people who did this to you…they’re not here. They won’t find you…c-can’t hurt you anymore. Okay? And I’m not going to h-hurt you, either. I j-just want to know what to call you…wh-who you are. N-now…if you don’t w-want to tell me…you don’t have to. I w-wouldn’t force you...”
She hesitated before adding in a soft, almost apologetic tone, “But I…r-really wish you would. Please...”
Her gentle plea was interrupted as the vampire gave a very quiet, garbled attempt at a response, his voice shaking and hoarse with unshed tears as he ducked his head in an instinctive flinch the moment the unintelligible word left his lips.
“What?” she asked quietly, leaning in closer in an attempt to catch what he had said. “It’s okay…that’s good, Sweetie, just…what did you say?”
The word was clearer the second time, though still spoken in a low, shamed whisper.
Then, after a moment, he clarified the single word, his voice only slightly stronger as he repeated,
“My n-name…is Spike.”
Tara sat there in silence for a few moments, taking in the odd name the vampire had given her. But then, she considered, she had never known any vampires before. Perhaps “Spike” was a perfectly ordinary name for a vampire. She did not want to do anything to further alarm him, or to make him feel any less comfortable than he already was, so she settled into the couch again, edging just slightly nearer to him and clasping his hand in a firm but gentle touch.
“Well, then,” she said in a mild voice with just a trace of humor. “Hello…Spike.” She paused, her voice softening as she added in a tone that gave the single word a great wealth of meaning. “Welcome.”
It was not a word he had heard often in his existence, either as a vampire, or during his brief years of human life. Spike or William, he had always been in someone’s way – a burden to be tolerated at best, or ridiculed and abused at worst.
At least…he had thought that was worst.
The last few months had proven him wrong.
But Tara…she had changed everything, in a matter of a few short hours. She had set him free from the horrible torment of the collar, fed him warm, nourishing blood in place of the vile stuff his captors had given him, and constantly assured him that he was safe, and nothing bad was going to happen to him anymore.
He desperately wanted to believe her.
So when Tara slid a cautious, gentle arm around his slight shoulders and nestled in close to his side, he tensed, but accepted the contact. He wasn’t sure what she wanted, what she planned to do with him, but he would do anything she told him, whatever she wanted, if only she would let him stay here, and keep them from hurting him again.
And besides…she actually asked him if it was all right first…a courtesy no one had shown him in a very long time.
“Is it okay if I…p-put my arm around you? I kn-know you said you w-want me to stay, but…but I won’t touch you if you don’t want me to. I…I’m just trying to help, okay? I just want you to…f-feel safe.”
Even when he gave her a very hesitant, almost imperceptible nod, Tara was uncertain as to whether or not putting her arm around him was a good idea, but all she could do was to follow her instincts, and the fact that he wanted her to stay with him had to mean something, right? It seemed that her presence gave him a feeling of security in the midst of his fears and uncertainties; and with his sight so limited at the moment, and words so weak a method of dealing with such intensity of suffering, Tara found that the universal language of physical reassurance was the best thing she had left at her disposal.
After a few moments, however, her fears began to fade as she felt Spike’s slight form relaxing against her side, and his ever-present trembling beginning to subside. She was careful not to move, not to do anything that might alarm him, only to sit there with him in comforting, quiet closeness.
She had so many questions, so many things she wished he could tell her…but she knew better than to push him now. He was only beginning to feel comfortable enough with her to speak at all; the last thing she wanted to do was press him to talk about the torment of his recent past before he was ready.
When he *is* ready…he’ll tell you. You just have to wait…
Tara just sat there with Spike, in companionable silence, holding his hand gently in hers, stroking her thumb across the back of it as she waited for him to calm down enough to be able to rest again, and allow her to go about the things she needed to do.
Like eating… She glanced wistfully toward the kitchen, suppressing a sigh she knew would be noticed by the vampire at her side, and would likely increase his anxiety, and make it that much longer before she was able to get up. Food…shower…
They had not been sitting there long at all when Tara felt his body begin to relax further next to hers, and his head lolled slightly before jerking upright, and she realized that the vampire was on the verge of drifting off to sleep again. Her heart ached with sorrowful sympathy for him, as she found herself wondering once more about the mystery of his ordeal.
How long has it been since he’s been able to *really* sleep? To know that it was *safe* to sleep? What must it be like to live in such a constant state of fear?
“If you w-wanna go to sleep,” she suggested after a few moments, her voice low in an attempt to disguise its tearful hoarseness, “that’s okay, Spike. I’ll stay right here…all right? I’ll be right here with you, so if you…wanna rest…that’s just fine…”
Spike went very still for a moment, a convulsive swallow visible in his throat, and Tara thought with a pang of sorrow that the reaction seemed almost trapped, as if he had been caught in some offense and was afraid of facing the consequences of it.
When she said nothing else, and made no move to harm him, Spike slowly relaxed again. A second swallow moistened his damaged throat, before he ventured to speak again…the same two words that he had first spoken to her.
“Th-thank you,” he whispered, the words barely audible, his head ducked almost shyly.
“You d-don’t have to thank me,” Tara assured him gently. “If you wanna sleep…you can sleep. Or if you’re h-hungry, or n-need anything…you don’t have to be afraid to…”
Suddenly Spike jerked beside her, startled, and Tara’s words trailed off as a frown of concern creased her brow. The vampire’s breathing became shallow and frightened once more as he struggled weakly to sit up straighter, his sightless eye riveted on the kitchen door.
Tara had heard nothing, though it seemed clear that some unexpected sound had frightened her understandably paranoid houseguest. She wondered with a sort of awe at just how powerful his vampire hearing might be, as she went very still and quiet and strained to hear the sound that had caught his attention. At first she heard nothing at all…but then, finally, she could make out a soft scratching sound, accompanied by a barely audible series of random thumps coming from the kitchen.
It was a sound she had grown well accustomed to over the last eight two years, a sound that was so much a part of the background to her daily life that she had ceased to notice it. It was Mac, in the kitchen, playing with one of his toys, knocking it across the floor and chasing after it…no doubt trying to work off some of the pent up energy that had been building up over the past day and a half.
Tara tried to shake off the nagging sense of guilt she felt for neglecting her beloved pet in favor of Spike, no matter how desperate was the vampire’s need.
“It’s okay,” she reassured him gently, giving his shoulders a very slight squeeze, wary lest she should hurt him. “It’s just my dog, Mac. He’s in the kitchen, thumping around…that’s all. It was him you heard this morning, too. He’s nothing to be afraid of, Spike, I promise. He won’t hurt you.”
Spike could not help but be suspicious at first, his ears focused sharply on the strange sounds coming from the kitchen. His first thought was that someone else had to be in the house…someone was coming. A creeping sense of panicked betrayal began to rise up in him…Tara had promised that they were alone in the house!
Please…no…don’t let them take me…don’t let them hurt me…
When she told him it was her dog, however, the pieces began to gradually come together in his mind…the scents he had picked up in the house earlier…the strange sounds he had heard that morning, that had resulted in no danger or harm. Distant, muffled by the wall that separated them from the sounds, he could hear a soft, playful growling sound…and he began to relax.
She was telling the truth.
A sharp bark from the other room made Spike jump, in spite of his newly reached conclusions; but Tara jumped as well, beside him, and then giggled a bit at their matching reactions…and in spite of his fears, Spike felt himself begin to relax a bit again.
“It’s all right,” she reminded him, and he could hear the gentle amusement in her voice. Then, a little louder, she called out, “Mac! Shush!”
The dog let out a little whine that was almost petulant, before resuming his barking as if Tara had not spoken. Despite the racket he was making, however, Tara was relieved to note that Spike seemed to be relaxing beside her, the tension fading from his shoulders as he slowly accepted the idea that the loud noise, however startling, was not a threat to him.
“Mac…quiet!” Tara repeated, though her tone was still little more than a suggestion, far from commanding…and Mac apparently did not take it seriously. After a few moments during which the dog’s protests only grew more insistent, Tara let out a soft, weary sigh. She didn’t have the heart to be any harsher with him, well aware that he had actually been quite patient, considering her unintentional neglect over the past two days.
“He’s not used to being confined to one room. He’s been cooped up in the kitchen for too long,” she explained. “It kinda sounds like he’s had enough. He’s probably not gonna hush until he’s with me, Spike. Um…he’s kinda big, but he’s not dangerous; he won’t hurt you. So is it…is it okay if I bring him in here with us?”
Spike hesitated, his heart lurching at the thought of what she was suggesting. The idea of anyone new being introduced into the situation, even if it was just Tara’s dog, was more than a little unsettling to him. He was just beginning to get used to things the way they were.
is good…just like this…don’t want anyone…anything…else, in here with us…
“Spike…” Tara’s gentle voice pulled him out of his apprehensive thoughts, and he dutifully tried to focus on her words and not his own fears as she went on. “…I won’t let anything bad happen, okay? He doesn’t want to hurt you…and even if he did, I won’t let him. He might…might growl a little, or seem a little…aggressive, at first…but it’s just because he’s scared, too. Okay? Do you believe me?”
Spike considered for a moment, weighing her promises against the ones she had made – and kept – already. Finally, he ventured a slow, reluctant nod, feeling more than a little awkward with the fact that she wanted his agreement at all. What did his wishes matter to her? In his recent experience, he was nothing more than a slave to his human captors. Why did she care what he wanted at all?
He could hear the smile in Tara’s voice, though his blurred, barely existent vision could not make it out. “Thank you,” she said in a voice of gentle, affectionate gratitude. “You’ll see, Spike…it’s gonna be fine. Now, he’s a little nervous, too…so he m-might…bark at you a little…that sort of thing…but he’s not going to hurt you. Okay? I’ll make sure you’re safe…all right?”
Spike nodded again, a bit surer this time.
Tara took a deep breath and glanced toward the kitchen as she carefully sat up on the edge of the couch, doing her best not to jar Spike and cause any further pain to his injuries. “I’ll be right back. I’m just gonna go get him…calm him down a little bit…and I’ll be right back.”
When Spike gave her another slightly shaky nod, she rose to her feet and headed toward the kitchen. She slid through the door, closing it carefully behind her, aware that at this point Mac was almost frantically eager to escape the confines of the kitchen. She had left the back door open for him so that he could get out into the yard if he needed to, but that had only served to leave him cold, and even more anxious to get into the warmth and comfort of the living room with her.
He placed one large paw on her leg, his long tail wagging in a friendly greeting as she crouched down beside him, stroking one hand down his back, the other cupping his face as she murmured soft, shushing sounds in an attempt to soothe him. She knew his initial meeting with Spike was likely to be a tense encounter, regardless of her efforts, but wanted the dog to be as calm as possible for it.
Mac cautiously licked her hand, drawing back momentarily and sniffing it as he caught the scent of the vampire on her skin. He looked up at her questioningly, and she stroked his face again.
“It’s all right, Mac…it’s okay…nothing to be afraid of…”
At her gentle reassurance, he turned his head back to lick her hand again, gazing up at her through deep, loyal eyes that seemed to give her his trust in spite of his apprehensions about the strange scent she bore.
After a few moments, she stood up again, holding Mac by the collar as she moved to open the door to the living room. Mac tried to pull forward, ears pricked as he strained to look around the corner, but she held him back as she stepped through the doorway. Her eyes focused on Spike, who was still seated in exactly the same position in which she had left him, his face turned toward the door, but lowered in submission as she entered the room.
“Easy,” she murmured to the impatient animal at her side, controlling their pace as she led him slowly toward the couch. “Wait…Mac, easy…”
But Mac was already growling, his ears flattened as his gaze fell on the vampire on the couch. His upper lip twitched slightly in the beginnings of a snarl…but it never fully formed.
“No.” Tara’s voice was gentle but firm as she stopped a few feet in front of the couch, holding onto Mac’s collar firmly.
Mac was quiet for only a moment before beginning to growl again, a low, warning sound deep in his throat.
Spike flinched slightly at the deep, menacing sound, a tremor passing through his shoulders as he waited for the large, frightening animal to attack, painfully aware that he was in no condition to defend himself – not that he would have dared to do so. The dog was Tara’s pet -- and therefore he had no right to try to harm it, even to defend himself.
“No,” Tara repeated simply.
The dog’s growl turned to a plaintive, frustrated whine mid-breath, and Mac glanced up at her in supplication before he sat down where he was, apparently realizing that Tara was not going to let him any nearer to the strange creature he so badly wanted to investigate.
“Shhh,” she soothed him. “It’s all right…easy…”
She waited until the dog seemed to have resigned himself to not going any nearer to Spike, before she addressed the tense but still vampire.
“It’s okay, Spike. He’s fine. He’s not gonna hurt you. Is it…is it okay if we…come just a little bit closer?”
Spike gave her a hesitant, jerky nod, his head lowered as he scented the air, taking in the strong scent of the dog; and Tara noticed with mild amusement that Mac was doing the same thing, sniffing the air cautiously as he edged nearer to the vampire, without rising onto all fours, impatiently wriggling in his repressed desire to get closer.
“Easy,” she warned him gently as she moved forward just slightly, allowing Mac to do the same. “Easy, Mac…that’s a good boy…”
Holding onto his collar with one hand, she reached out the other to gently slide under Spike’s, where it rested on the edge of the sofa. The vampire jumped slightly at her touch, but immediately relaxed when he realized it was her. She waited a moment just like that, his hand resting lightly in hers, allowing him to adjust to the contact.
“It’s all right,” she soothed softly, though she wasn’t really sure herself which of them she was speaking to. “He’s just as nervous as you are, Sweetie…”
She allowed Mac to draw just a little nearer, holding Spike’s hand gently in place as the dog’s muzzle edged closer to it. She held onto Mac’s collar, not allowing him to get too close, just in case, but allowed him near enough to cautiously sniff Spike’s hand.
The vampire did not pull away, even when he felt the dog’s hot breath on the back of his hand, though his entire body was taut with apprehension as he waited with dread for the creature to attack. He kept his hand in Tara’s, allowing the dog to catch his scent, while tentatively sniffing the air himself to gain a better understanding of Mac, as well.
As long as Tara was close, his fears could not seem to fully take hold. Despite his doubts and uncertainties, Spike found that a tiny part of him was beginning to dare to hope that she would keep her word, and protect him…that she would not allow her dog to harm him, despite her obvious affection for the animal.
Tara allowed a smile to begin on her lips, a sense of relief coming over her as it began to appear that it was going to be all right.
“Spike,” she said, allowing herself to speak in a more normal tone of voice as her thumb gently stroked the back of his hand, “meet Mac. Mac, this is Spike. He’s going to be…staying with us…for a while.”
Mac flopped down on his side on the floor, his head across Tara’s lap. She felt a warm rush of affection for her pet, and obligingly ran her fingers through the soft fur that covered his underbelly, rewarding him for his obedience and acceptance with the petting he was wordlessly requesting. She had hoped and expected that he would adjust to Spike’s presence in the house and help her to make the vampire feel more comfortable, and he had not let her down.
He never did.
“See?” she said to Spike, who was slowly, cautiously leaning back against the sofa, his side to the upholstery. “I told you he wasn’t d-dangerous. He won’t hurt you. He’s really pretty easygoing, Sweetie. His real name’s Macrea, but I usually just call him Mac. He’s a…a mutt, I guess you’d say. Part deerhound and part…well, something else. I don’t really know what. But he’s very sweet, and gentle, and won’t hurt you at all. The only time he ever even tries to be scary is when he th-thinks there’s a threat…t-to me. And…now that he knows that you’re not…”
Spike allowed himself to relax a little, breathing in the scent of the dog, taking comfort in the fact that there was no trace of fear or misery in the dog’s odor. Mac seemed to be a happy, healthy pet, well cared for…and not at all the sort of creature Spike would have expected to find in the hellish place where he had spent the last few months.
Maybe it’s true…maybe I’m not…not there anymore…maybe she’s really not one of them…really won’t hurt me…
After all, he had learned well that his senses could be easily fooled by his cruel captors – but no one could make a dog fake happiness. And the men who had kept him prisoner had not exactly seemed like the type who would have a cherished pet such as Mac around.
After a few moments, Mac lifted his head from Tara’s lap, gazing up at the sofa where Spike sat. Tara watched him to see what he would do, her stomach giving a slightly warning lurch as the large dog rose to his feet again. She caught his collar in her hand – just in case – unwilling to allow any unexpected reactions on Mac’s part to break down the trust she felt she had just built in the damaged, frightened vampire.
To her relief and amusement, however, Mac just laid his head on the edge of the sofa, letting out a soft sigh as he turned his liquid brown eyes toward Spike expectantly.
Spike just barely had time to tense as he sensed the nearness of the dog again, before he heard its sigh, followed by Tara’s easy laugh of approval and amusement.
“Aww, looks like he likes you, Spike,” she explained gently. “I think he wants you to pet him some more.”
Spike could feel the slight brush of the dog’s fur against the side of his hand, and he cautiously raised it from the sofa, slowly extending it until he felt Mac’s head under his fingertips again. Very slowly, still acutely aware of how easily the huge dog could hurt him if he wanted to, Spike kept his touch gentle and delicate, just barely stroking over the surface of Mac’s neck, up to his head and the silky fur behind his ears. As Mac kept perfectly still, Spike began to feel more comfortable, and his touch became more sure as he continued to pet the dog, whose tail began slowly wagging against the floor.
Satisfied that Mac had accepted their guest, Tara rose from the floor with a soft sigh of relief, brushing the remnants of Mac’s fur from her worn, faded jeans. She moved toward the sofa again, reaching out to brush Spike’s hand as she hesitated before sitting down.
“Is there anything you need, Spike?” she asked him softly. “Another blanket? Some b-blood? Anything?”
The vampire was awed by her gentle question, and he lowered his head a bit shyly, a thick lump in his throat obstructing any attempt he might have made to answer. He shook his head slightly, well aware of the note of exhaustion in Tara’s voice, and unwilling to put her to any more trouble.
She had already done so much for him.
“Okay,” Tara replied with a soft smile as she nudged Mac gently out of the way and sat down on the sofa beside Spike. She carefully rearranged the blanket over both of their laps before extending a cautious hand to rest over his again, her free hand patting her leg in a beckoning gesture to Mac, who obediently approached her and curled up on the carpet at her feet, his head resting on her foot. “Are you comfortable? Is this good?”
Spike nodded again, his head dipping even lower as he leaned against the sofa on his side, until his temple lay against the back of the sofa. His one good eye was closed, and Tara knew that he had to be exhausted. Neither of them had gotten much sleep over the past couple of days, and she had no way of knowing how long it had been since he had been allowed a decent night’s sleep at all.
She sat there in silence beside him, her fingertips lightly stroking over the back of his hand as she simply watched him, wondering once more about all the mysteries of his past, the things he had been through, how he had come to be in that magic shop where she had found him. Answers would have to wait, she knew; in fact, she couldn’t be sure that he would ever be able – or willing – to answer her questions.
Certainly not at the moment; he seemed on the verge of collapse.
She wanted to put her arm around him, to hold him close and comfort him, but was sure that that would be too much at this point. Spike was just barely beginning to become comfortable with the soothing touch of her hand on his; anything more intimate would be more likely to frighten him back to full wakefulness, just when he seemed to be drifting off to sleep again.
At the moment, he didn’t seem to need any additional help relaxing.
Tara watched with mingled affection and amusement as Spike’s body visibly sagged against the sofa, his head lolling forward, little by little, until finally it came to rest against her shoulder. She was glad that by the time it did he was already sound asleep. If he had been awake to notice their accidental closeness, he would likely panic, fearing punishment for his presumption.
She settled into the couch cushions a bit more comfortably, allowing her head to fall back against them with a heavy sigh. The comfortable weight of the vampire against her shoulder, the soft warmth of the blanket that covered her, and the soothing warm weight of Mac’s head and neck against her leg – all served to bring her exhaustion back to the surface.
She closed her eyes, thinking that as Spike was sleeping, it would not be such a bad thing to allow herself a bit more of the rest she had not gotten the night before. Her own needs, such as sleep, hygiene, food…all had been of necessity neglected over the past couple of days, as she had focused all her attentions on the matter at hand – helping the mysterious vampire she had seen in her dreams, who had by some miracle of fate found his way directly into her path.
By this point the thought of a long hot shower followed by a good meal was incredibly appealing…but not quite appealing enough to draw her out from under the comfort of the blanket and into the kitchen to make a meal.
God, *food*! I’m so hungry…if I could just…get up…but…so…sleepy…
By the time Tara awakened several hours later, she was beyond hungry. She was ravenous.
And her left arm was asleep.
She blinked sleepily, looking beside her at Spike, who was still fast asleep. Over the past few hours, he had fully collapsed against her, in sleep, completely forgetting the fears and inhibitions that made him keep his distance while awake. His one good eye was closed, the other patched over completely with bandages, his face slack and peaceful, his lips slightly parted in a way that Tara could not help but find adorable. She studied him for a few moments longer, before the rumbling of her stomach distracted her once more.
Okay, yeah…utter, unbelievable cuteness…but…*food*! She grimaced slightly as she shifted on the sofa, carefully extracting her dead arm from beneath Spike’s weight. As she did, she not-too-discreetly – because who was watching, anyway? – sniffed, her nose crinkling in distaste as she sighed wearily. And a shower…yeah…that would be really good…
She gently shifted her foot out from under Mac’s weight; the large dog stirred slightly, but did not fully wake. Tara carefully eased the sleeping vampire onto his side on the couch, his upper half taking up the spot she had just vacated, and covered him over with the blanket again before making her way toward the kitchen. She opened her cupboards one after another, searching for something quick to prepare.
*Gotta* be quick…don’t know how much longer I can wait…
She finally settled on boxed macaroni and cheese.
Ten minutes to prepare…perfect…
Twenty minutes later, the macaroni and cheese was gone.
As Tara rose to her feet to take the dishes to the sink, she heard the slight creaking of the kitchen door she had left half-open, and turned to see Mac padding through the doorway to join her. She smiled, holding out a hand to him as he approached her, carefully setting the dishes in the sink with her other hand, wary of making too much noise and disturbing the sleeping vampire in the next room. Mac gave her hand an affectionate lick, and she petted him for a few moments before turning her attention to straightening up the kitchen.
Once she was finished, she filled Mac’s food dish and set it down for him, next to his water bowl. Satisfied that Spike would be safe alone with Mac, now that their introductions had been made and they seemed to have accepted each other, Tara headed up the stairs to the bathroom. She smiled, humming a little to herself as she took out towels and shampoo and her favorite vanilla-cinnamon scented body wash. She could already feel the warm, pleasant pounding of the water against her skin.
She took her time in the shower, breathing in the sweet-scented steam that quickly filled the bathroom, relishing the feeling of the silky lather against her weary body. She waited until the water began to turn cool before finally turning it off and stepping out of the shower, wrapping herself in her lavender robe made of soft terry cloth. She wrapped her hair in the towel she had brought, then stepped out into the hall.
Mac immediately appeared in the doorway to her room, tail wagging, eagerly waiting for her to go into her bedroom to dress. With a soft, “No,” and a gesture of her hand back toward her room, Tara gently prevented him from following her as she quietly descended the stairs to look in on Spike.
He was still sound asleep on the couch.
Reassured that she still had plenty of time before he would awaken, she headed to her bedroom to get dressed.
Mac was waiting for her in her room, and she greeted him with a warm smile and some gentle petting as she glanced at the clock on her nightstand, and promptly reconsidered actually getting dressed. It was already 4:00 pm, and pajamas seemed the more pleasant and comfortable route to take at the moment. She picked out her favorite set of pajamas and sat down at her desk to brush her hair.
Once she was finished with her usual routine, she glanced around her room, her eyes coming to rest on her bookshelf. Her thoughts took a decidedly heavier note as she remembered the strange symbol she had seen on Spike’s back, and wondered again what it might mean. She rose and went to the bookshelf, selecting a volume that she knew had several chapters on various mystical symbols.
Maybe if I can find it…I can figure out what it’s supposed to do…what it means…
She took the book back to her desk and sat down, opening it on the desk in front of her. There were dozens of signs and symbols, with varied meanings, but none that seemed at all to resemble the one that had been seared into the vampire’s flesh. As she continued to study, a frown of frustration creased her brow, as her efforts yielded no immediate results.
A little shiver of fear and revulsion ran through her as she remembered the terror she had felt in the moment when she had touched the strange mark…the sense of some dark, malevolent presence that was terribly angry at what she was trying to do…
Gotta figure this out…gotta find out what that thing is before I can try any more healing spells to help him…
Tara spent the next few hours poring over every relevant book she owned, and a few that proved to be irrelevant, seeking the answers to the mystery of the strange symbol on Spike’s back. Every half hour or so she roused herself from her studies and made her way down to the living room to be sure that the vampire was still sleeping. She did not want him to wake up alone, but she was fairly certain he would sleep for a long time, after the exhausting day he had experienced thus far.
And besides…she really needed a break.
It felt good to be doing something that felt as familiar as studying, and studying magic in particular, after so long away from it. She became more and more focused as she read, but gradually her sense of satisfaction began to fade, and the tension rose up in her again as her efforts revealed no answers to the mystery she was trying to solve.
An abrupt crashing sound from downstairs startled her, and she jumped with a little yelp of surprise. Several thumps followed the first sound, and Tara rose to her feet, alarmed, as she moved toward the bedroom door. Spike’s piteous whimpers were all the more motivation it took for her to hurry down the stairs to his aid, her heart torn by the aching desperation in his hoarse, pleading words.
“No…n-no, please…please, don’t!”
Spike struggled desperately against the bonds that held him tightly down to the surgical table, pulling uselessly against the leather straps that bound his wrists, ankles, and head in place. Panic seized him, filling him with a sick, trembling sensation, as he watched the cold, expressionless figures around him prepare for the latest in their series of brutal experiments.
There had been a time when he would not have dreamed of giving them the satisfaction of hearing him plead for mercy.
That time had come and gone, around the second time they’d performed this particular sort of experiment.
“Please…” He barely managed to choke out the word past the tight strap they had fastened across his throat. “Don’t…don’t do this…”
Of course, he was ignored, as the white-coated scientists surrounding him continued to prepare for the procedure they were about to perform. Spike was not sure just exactly what they were about to do, but he knew that it could not be good. The telltale way in which they had secured his head to the table made that all too clear.
“Please,” he tried again, his voice nearly a sob in the eerie silence that filled the room, broken only by the occasional clink of metal against metal as surgical implements, glinting viciously in the bright whiteness of the room, were cleaned and arranged on the tray beside his bed.“Please…I’m sorry…I’ll do whatever you tell me…I swear it, just…*please*…”
“Shouldn’t we do something to shut it up?”
“No, wait…please, just…”
“Well, if it’s gonna do this through the whole procedure…that *will* get a little distracting…”
Spike’s eyes widened with dismay as he saw the sterile white cloth gag being brought toward his face. He tried to shake his head, but the straps would not allow the futile gesture as he pleaded in a frantic, shaking voice – useless words his sinking heart already knew would be ignored.
“I’ll do anything you say, just please…don’t do this again, *please*…”
But then, the gag was in his mouth, bound in tightly with yet another leather strap, and the strap already around his throat was cruelly tightened, leaving him helpless even to protest as his eyelids were caught in tiny metal clamps and held open. He struggled for breath, further panicked by the choking sensation of the gag in his mouth and the tight restriction at his throat. A strangled moan of despairing anguish remained trapped in his throat. The scientist who seemed to be in charge of this particular operation held up a vial of clear, yellow liquid between his thumb and forefinger.
“Subject 17,” he stated in a flat, droning tone of voice for the benefit of his assistant, who carried a clipboard and noted his words as he proceeded. “Test series four, variable number six is hydrochloric acid. For comparison with the corrosive effects of variable number three, commonly known as holy water…”
Panic suddenly turned to searing agony as the fluid was poured into his eyes, forced open and unable to turn away from the heartless torment forced upon them. An anguished, desperate scream was silenced by the strap across his throat as his back arched and he struggled against the bonds that held him, and the bubbling, searing liquid slowly burned his eyes from their sockets.
Enshrouded in darkness once more, all that was left to him on which to focus was the savage, mind-numbing pain, roaring in his ears and screaming across the surface of his senses.
Suddenly, the bed beneath him seemed to fall away, and Spike thrashed wildly in a panic as he felt himself falling, sinking beneath the burning liquid that now seemed to surround him. The difference was subtle, but he could feel it; it was no longer acid that seared his vulnerable flesh, immersing him in a world where there was nothing but torment, but holy water this time. His bare back abruptly jarred against a cold, smooth surface that he knew was the bottom of a large tub of some kind, and fresh terror struck him – because he remembered what came next.
*Oh God, please…please don’t…please let me out…*
He struggled to rise, frantic in his need to escape the searing, bubbling liquid that burned the flesh from his body…but cold iron chains held him down against the bottom of the tub, and he was helpless to escape, to protect himself, even to cry out for mercy as the holy water slowly ate through his battered, emaciated flesh to the bruised and broken bones beneath it.
As he struggled to scream, the liquid around him filled his mouth, his nose, his ears, a dull, muffled echo engulfing his senses as he fought uselessly to free himself. He was still utterly blind, surrounded by nothing but pitch blackness and pain. The roar gradually, faded, shifted, becoming the harsh cacophony of mingled, laughing voices, as he felt himself suddenly falling again, endlessly falling toward a dreaded place he knew by heart, but could not name. He knew exactly where it was that he was going to land, and that when he did, things would become so much worse for him than they already were.
His knees impacted with cold, unyielding concrete, and the din around him suddenly stood out with glaring clarity, as he found that he was not only able to distinguish the individual voices of his captors, but able to see them as well. He nearly collapsed with relief with the realization that somehow, impossibly, his eyes had been restored.
But his torment was by no means ended.
He was suddenly acutely aware of the cold, metal circle that hung around his neck, still loose and unrestricting, but heavy with the weight of a dread that was verging on panic. Desperate, he reached up with trembling hands and tried to pull it free. In that moment, he knew only one thing – he had to get it *off*, and he had to get it off *now*, before it was too late…before…before they…
Spike scrambled to rise from his kneeling position, acutely aware of his long-cold heart pounding in his chest in terror at the sound of the familiar, menacing voice, and vaguely aware that something about that was not…not *right*…
But he did not have time to think about that now.
The other in the room, his tormentor, pressed a button on a handheld control – and the steel ring around his neck began to slowly tighten. He forgot his attempts to rise, desperate fingers scrabbling against the unyielding metal in a frantic attempt to dislodge it before…before…
His panic rose within him as despite his efforts, the metal continued to tighten…and the world around him began to go dim.
*My eyes…no…not again…please, no…*
But the pleading words were only in his own mind. The collar around his throat was already tight enough to prevent sound from escaping. He gasped for breath that wouldn’t come, feeling his dead lungs beginning to burn with their frantic need for air that he shouldn’t have needed.
The heartbeat that shouldn’t have been at all became erratic and began to slow as he fell forward onto his face on the floor, eyes wide and desperately straining to see as the darkness swiftly fell around him, his vision failing with his breath. His shaking fingernails scratched against his own throat, vainly attempting to dislodge the collar, and in the process, gouging deeply enough to draw blood – though he could not smell it, could not smell anything anymore.
His airways were completely cut off.
And his vision had once more been stolen away from him.
*Please…please stop… please don’t…*
As the last remaining traces of his weakening heart began to ebb, and the burning in his lungs began to fade away into a dreadful, numb nothingness, Spike felt the last traces of himself – his courage, his confidence, everything he had once been before falling into the hands of his savage captors -- disappearing with them.
His mind filled with images of his past deeds, both heinous and heroic…and all fading into the same deep, black nothing that was swallowing him whole. All he had done, all he had been…none of it mattered anymore, not here…not with what they had done to him, what they had made of him.
Panic and desperation turned to despairing acceptance, as the last sputtering attempts of his all-too-human heart failed, and the darkness around him became complete. He collapsed to the ground, unable to move or speak, utterly helpless, yet still somehow able to hear the chilling echo of slow, measured footsteps on the cold concrete. That familiar creeping cold sensation overwhelmed him with dread as he sensed the approaching enemy crouching beside him, felt a cruel hand grip the back of his neck and yank him up onto his knees again.
“Now you’re ours, Seventeen,” a familiar voice whispered with malicious satisfaction. “Now you’re ours…completely…and you always will be…”
“No! Please, no!”
The hoarse, jagged sound of his own voice startled Spike from sleep, and he flinched, immediately bracing himself for the brutal punishment he knew would follow his daring to speak. Gradually he became aware of the softness beneath him that had replaced the cement floor of his cell, and his heart lurched with dismay.
No…not allowed…can’t let ‘em see me…
He jerked back away from the soft cushions, not realizing yet what they were, his damaged eye unable to see where he was or what was around him in the darkness of the room, and suddenly found himself falling, toppling backward off the couch and into the coffee table. The pain of the impact on his ragged back barely registered with him, as he frantically recoiled from the contact and the clattering noise of heavy objects falling to the floor, some of them breaking.
Spike jerked back against the sofa, layers of cloth wound around his legs and torso making him feel overwhelmingly trapped, apparently boxed in on all sides, and utterly confused and terrified.
The sound of pounding footsteps only served to increase his fear, as he struggled blindly, frantically, to escape the approaching threat.
Please…please don’t…don’t hurt me, please…
Tara rushed down the stairs, heedless of the noise, her heart racing with apprehension, dreading what she might find in the living room. Mac followed at her heels, but she did not take time to stop him, concerned only with what state she might find Spike in when she reached the bottom of the stairs. She peered through the darkness for a few brief moments before fumbling for the light switch and flooding the room with light that seemed far too abrasive.
The coffee table was turned over on its side, the few glass knickknacks Tara had not thought to move from it shattered in pieces on the floor. She cringed inwardly, cursing her own thoughtlessness in leaving such things around to increase Spike’s panic at waking alone.
And he was indeed panicked.
The trembling vampire was crouched against the wall beside the sofa, his knees pulled up in front of him, his head buried against them under the weak protection of his frail, shaking arms, still pitifully bruised despite the healing spell she had performed. Her heart ached for him as he flinched away from the light, cringing back against the wall, shaking his head frantically and whispering under his breath, his breath ragged and shallow and sobbing.
Tara realized through her alarm that Mac was there, standing right behind her, but strangely, not lunging forward in defense against the vampire’s strange behavior. The dog just stood there, watching calmly, glancing up at her every few moments inquisitively.
“Easy, Mac,” she whispered, though it seemed rather unnecessary, given the dog’s surprisingly good behavior.
Raising her voice only slightly as she made her way swiftly across the room to Spike’s side, afraid that he might have hurt himself again and wanting to check him over as quickly as possible, she did her best to reassure the shaken, terrified vampire. “It’s all right…it’s okay…you’re all right, it was just a dream…”
Her heart sank when Spike just shrank back further against the wall.
She was not getting through – not at all.
“It’s okay…it’s okay, Sweetie…you’re all right…”
Cautiously she knelt beside him, reaching out a gentle hand to touch his arm – which, unfortunately, was mere inches from his face, buried in his cradling arms. The close proximity to his damaged eyes only furthered his panic, and Spike flinched violently away from her, cracking the back of his head painfully against the wall in the process.
“No,” he cried out in a weak voice of trembling, pleading anguish that rang out in the stillness of the room. “Please, n-no…not…not again…” A convulsive swallow was clearly visible in his throat, before he continued in a hoarse, desperate whisper, “N-not my eyes…please, not my eyes…not again…”
Tara’s heart broke with those words, and her eyes welled with tears, her face crumpling in an expression of sorrow and anguished sympathy as she realized that he actually thought she intended to blind him again. He was reliving a terrible, painful memory – and she had to find a way to break him out of it.
She didn’t dare to touch him again, aware that he would likely misunderstand her intentions. He was nearly hyperventilating, pressed as far as he could against the wall, huddled and trembling with his head bowed in submission, and she sensed that now, he not only feared the dreaded re-blinding of his barely healing eyes, but punishment for his resistance as well.
“Please,” he whispered, the word barely over a breath, shaking his head despairingly. “Please, don’t…please, I’m s-sorry…please…”
“It’s all right,” she assured him softly, keeping her voice carefully calm. “Please…please listen to me…it’s okay, Spike…it’s…”
Her voice trailed off and her eyes widened with surprise when she realized that at the sound of his own name, the vampire had frozen completely. She remembered the number on the collar, his first response when she had asked for his name, and understood that most likely, his captors had never used his real name with him. A faint sense of hope crept into her heart, as she guessed that maybe, maybe she had found a way to get through to him.
“It’s all right, Spike…it’s just me…I’m right here, Spike…”
The sound of that name – so familiar, and yet so foreign to who he had become – filled Spike’s mind with an entirely different set of memories from the ones that haunted his nightmares.
He shook his head, something in him resisting the idea of bringing their memories to mind, so near to the other memories, the dark reality of what had been done to him.
If they knew…if they knew what they’ve made of you…
“It’s okay, Spike…shhh, calm down, Spike…it’s all right…”
The gentle, almost musical sound of Tara’s voice broke through his darkly infectious thoughts, and Spike desperately focused on the sweet, reassuring words she was speaking.
Tara…oh, Tara…it’s her…she’s still here…still *real*…so…so it has to be real, yeah? Not just a…just a lovely dream? She’s really here, and *I’m* really here, and not…not there…not anymore…please, not anymore…
Tara kept talking softly, aware that she was repeating herself, but also aware that it didn’t matter. It was the sound of her voice as much as her words that seemed to be grounding the traumatized vampire again. She glanced to her side as Mac approached slowly, sitting down beside her and whining softly, his nose twitching as he scented the air, no doubt picking up traces of the vampire and his terror, but making no move toward Spike.
Gradually, the panic seemed to loose its hold on Spike, and the vampire began to tremble uncontrollably once more, though this time with shock and relief, his legs falling to the side beneath him as he nearly collapsed face first on the floor. The increasingly familiar scents of both Tara and Mac helped to ground him, reminding him where he was, and soothing the ever-present fears that always seemed to consume him.
“I’m s-sorry,” he whispered, though now the words did not seem to hold so much dread of punishment, as acknowledgement of his own mistake. “I’m sorry…I’m sorry…”
“It’s okay, nothing to be sorry for,” Tara assured him softly. “It’s all right…you just had a nightmare, Spike. You woke up and didn’t remember where you were, and you knocked some stuff over. That’s what all that banging was. I’m sure it scared you, but it’s okay. Everything’s okay, and you’re safe, Spike. You’re safe here, I promise…”
She reached toward him instinctively, immediately withdrawing her hand in anguished indecision. He looked so pitiful, huddled against the wall, blind and utterly helpless, and she wanted nothing more than to wrap her arms around him and hold him. He had been through so much torment…and he was still going through it. She wanted to make him know that he was safe…but if she reached for him, she knew that it might have quite the opposite effect.
He was shaking violently now, as if in a delayed reaction to the full horror of his dreams, and his head was buried once more in his arms, which he had lowered to rest on his own trembling thighs.
Tara took a deep breath, then hesitated, before finally making her decision.
“Spike,” she whispered, her voice breaking slightly over the awkward, honest question. “Can I…can I hold you, Sweetheart? Just…j-just hold you…nothing else…can I just h-hold you?”
Spike stopped breathing for an instant, trembling but otherwise frozen, stunned by the question. A deep, terrified part of him – the greater part of him – filled with alarm at the thought. He wasn’t allowed such comfort; what would be required of him in return for such luxury? How could he dare to accept such tenderness and compassion from her, after all that had happened, all he had been made to do?
But another part of him, weak and nearly starved out of existence, but now screaming out from the depths of his shattered heart for the sweet sustenance in Tara’s offer, responded for him before he could stop it.
Spike turned slightly toward her without even realizing he was going to, nodding in answer to her question, scarcely able to believe she had actually asked it. A moment later, he felt her gentle hands on his arms, pulling him in closer to her and wrapping him in soft, comforting warmth.
He tensed, every muscle in his damaged body poised for flight, expecting the punishment he knew was sure to follow such undeserved comfort.
Except…it won’t…it won’t, because…because she’s real…please let her be real…and I’m really not there…please, let me not be there…please…Tara, please, please let me stay…
“It’s all right,” Tara whispered, closing her eyes as she leaned her back against the wall and held Spike close to her, rocking slightly as she rested her cheek gently on the top of his head. “It’s okay, Spike. You’re safe…you’re safe, Sweetie…those dreams…they weren’t real…”
She allowed her tears to flow freely down her face, choking back a sob as she felt a tremor flow through his tense, still frame in response to her words. Her throat ached with tears, her heart with a deep anguish for what he had been through, as she rocked him gently and continued to whisper soothing words in his ear.
“It wasn’t real, Spike…this is real…you’re safe in this house, with me, and you’re not going anywhere, all right? You’re okay…you’re safe…”
The trembling in his slight shoulders began to increase, and Tara held him tighter, feeling a deep shaking in the pit of her own stomach to match the tremors that shook him. Words failed her as her sobs overwhelmed her, and all she could do was hold him, doing her best to drive away the remnants of his nightmares, and will away the anguish and torment that haunted his shattered heart.
Then, his breath hitched in his throat, and his shoulders jerked slightly, as a soft sighing sound left his trembling lips. Tara froze for a moment, unsure of what had caused the difference in his reaction, and drew back just slightly, just enough to look at his downcast head…and to see the tears that flowed in silent streams down his bandaged face.
For the first time since she had found him, and in far too long…Spike was crying.
Tara was momentarily stunned to silence by the vampire’s tears. Her soothing hands went still on his shoulders, and she choked back a sob in her throat, overwhelmed with both relief for the tremendous step he had just taken, and despair for the utter brokenness that step displayed.
Tara was startled, but pleased, when she felt Spike’s trembling hands come to rest on either side of her waist, clutching desperately as he lowered his face against her shoulder, great, wrenching, silent sobs shaking his frail body. Gently, Tara wrapped one arm around his waist, her other hand resting lightly at the back of his head, holding him but cautious not to move too much, not to aggravate his injuries.
They stayed like that for a long time, Spike allowing months’ worth of pent up tears to flow, and Tara just holding him close to her. Mac lay quietly behind her, just watching them patiently. When Tara began to cry again, he whined uneasily, but then went quiet again, laying his head on his paws and letting out a sigh of resignation when he saw that her attention was fully focused not on him, but on the vampire in her arms. There was really nothing he could do at the moment to offer either of them any consolation.
Brilliant, Tara, just brilliant…leave him all by himself in a dark room and just *hope* that he doesn’t wake up until you get around to checking on him!
Tara shook her head slightly in self-disgust as she held the vampire close, rocking slightly and soothing him with soft, shushing sounds, while her mind raced with furious accusations.
One thing he asked of you, just *one thing* he could bring himself to ask you for -- not to leave him alone -- and you couldn’t do that one thing!
Her throat aching with regretful tears, she whispered against his shoulder, unsure if he heard her or not through his own sobs. “I’m sorry, Sweetie…I’m so sorry…”
After what felt like a very long time, Tara’s exhaustion began to creep up on her, and her tears began to ebb. Spike’s seemed to be subsiding as well, as he slowly sagged against her, quiet and pliant, his overwhelming weariness overtaking him at last. She felt his sheer exhaustion – not just with the situation of the moment, but with everything he had suffered, all he had been through – leaving him weak and boneless, the entirety of his slight weight slumped against her.
Tara hesitated, uncertain as to what she should do. She was reluctant to move, and shatter the comfort he seemed to have found. He was actually allowing her close, allowing her to hold him, touch him. If she moved, he might realize how far he had allowed himself to go, and his fears might return.
But they’re going to return anyway, she reminded herself. He’s far from over the things he keeps seeing in his nightmares. I can’t imagine that he ever will be, completely. How can he rest, if he keeps having those dreams every time he’s alone? How can *I* rest, for that matter? If the only time he feels safe is when we’re together… A momentary flash of panic came over her, and her heart lurched in her chest. God, how am I going to do this? How can I possibly stay with him all the time? What am I going to…?
Her troubled thoughts trailed off as suddenly, an idea occurred to her – a rather bold, risky idea, just as likely to frighten the vampire beyond all measure as to increase his comfort – but the best that she could come up with under the circumstances.
And I’ll be careful…I’ll only go through with it if I’m sure he’s okay with it…
She sat forward slowly, awkwardly, one hand resting on his shoulder and gently pushing him forward just a bit to allow her to examine his face. Her eyes widened with alarm as she noticed the damp, pink stains that now marred the formerly pristine bandages that covered the greater part of his face. She glanced downward and saw that the same pink fluid had stained her blouse as well.
My God…his eyes, his face…are so damaged, there’s blood in his tears…
She swallowed hard, fighting back a fresh wave of tears, and silently determining to ignore the disturbing, but relatively insignificant observation. She had much more important matters with which to concern herself at the moment.
And besides…I never liked this blouse that much anyway…
She raised her free hand to wipe away a few stray tears and clear her vision, before turning her attention back to the vampire’s face, and his nearly indecipherable expression. With his one eye barely functioning, it was difficult to know whether he was sleeping or awake, much less what state of mind he might be in at the moment.
Softly, not willing to disturb him if he was already asleep again, Tara whispered his name.
Through the soft, comforting mist of near-sleep that surrounded him, Spike heard the sound of his own name, still unfamiliar after going so long without hearing it – unfamiliar, and more than a little unsettling. In combination with Tara’s gentle, cautious withdrawal, it was enough to bring his fragile, shattered nerves back to full awareness.
Too close…too long…taking advantage of her kindness…too close…gotta get up…gotta back off, before…
He struggled to raise his weary body up, bracing his one working, yet still weak, trembling hand against her thigh, and only remembering its injury when the arm gave out under his weight, his hand sliding down the side of her leg and impacting painfully against the floor. Abruptly he flinched away from her, belatedly realizing how presumptuous he had been to touch her so freely. He drew in a sharp, shaky breath of alarm, cringing instinctively when he felt her warm, steadying hand on his arm.
“Shhh…it’s all right,” Tara soothed him, and he felt himself relaxing slightly with relief at the tenderness he heard in her voice. “I’m so sorry, Spike. I shouldn’t have l-left you down here by yourself, in the dark. It won’t happen again, I promise. D-don’t be afraid, Sweetie…it’s all right. I’m not gonna hurt you, Spike…you’re all right now…okay?”
He nodded hurriedly, eager to assure her, despite the fact that at the moment, he was feeling anything but all right. It had been so long since he had experienced the luxury of a good, unrestrained cry -- but now that it was over, his eye sockets stung with the salt of his tears, and his head was filled with a fuzzy, sick ache only rivaled by the ache he felt in the tightly clenched muscles of his stomach.
“Are you okay?” Spike could hear the urgency of concern mingled with guilt in Tara’s voice, and it made him slightly uncomfortable to think that she actually felt guilty for leaving him. “You’re not…h-hurt, are you?”
He shook his head, submitting as she turned his hands over in hers, examining them, then running her hands up his arms, and then lightly down his sides as if searching closely for any sign of injury. He kept his head down and his body limp and pliant, subdued, a little bit ashamed of his own weakness and need, of breaking down so completely in front of her.
“It’s all right,” she repeated. “It’s okay, Spike…”
His heart sank with her words, even as relief soothed the tension from his body. He was safe; it was okay…
…for the moment.
Never gonna *really* be okay…never again, Tara…no matter how hard you try…
Tara hesitated for a moment, waiting to be sure that Spike was not only fully awake, but reassured, before venturing forward with her idea.
“I…I was thinking,” she began, her voice barely over a whisper. “Y-you…don’t seem to feel…safe, down here…by yourself…and…and I don’t blame you.” Her expression softened as she studied his face with compassion. “N-new place…dark room…a-after everything you’ve been through…”
She paused a moment, drawing in a deep, slightly faltering breath. “…but…if you want…you could sleep…u-upstairs. In my room. I-I sleep there, and…and you wouldn’t be alone. You…m-might feel safer there…and…and I know you’d be more comfortable. Would…would that be all right?”
Spike went very still in her arms, swallowing hard, though the motion hurt his torn throat, made raw again from the sobs that had constricted it. His stomach lurched with fear, and his mind raced with questions as he tried to figure out the motivation behind her suggestion, and what it might mean for him.
He couldn’t walk, not yet, despite the incredible improvement in his legs, which barely hurt at all anymore. How could he possibly make it up an entire flight of stairs? The idea that she might deign to help him, to support his weight for the difficult task, never crossed his mind. In the dark space to which his world had been reduced, no human would lower themselves to grant him such a courtesy.
He lowered his head, feeling that familiar creeping sensation of shame come over him at his own weakness and helplessness. He remembered with a vague sense of alarm that Tara actually expected a spoken answer to her questions, unlike his previous captors who had demanded complete silence. He hesitated a moment, then opened his mouth to speak, faltering, barely able to bring himself to form words after so long without the option of speech.
Finally, he whispered in a soft, subservient whisper, “I…I c-can’t…”
His voice trailed off when he felt Tara’s gentle hand on his shoulder, fighting the urge to flinch away from her touch – though he really didn’t think she was going to hurt him, not anymore. Grow weary of him, certainly...return him to his former captors, perhaps…but it was becoming ever more clear to him that this sweet, compassionate girl did not have it in her to harm anyone.
“I know…I know, and it’s all right, Spike. I-I can help you. You’re…n-not that heavy, Sweetie…not right now…not nearly as h-heavy as you should be. I’ll help you get up the stairs…it’s okay…”
Her voice was soft, tender, and Spike felt gratitude rising up within him at the realization that she was taking great care to comfort him, to soothe his countless fears. He felt his eyes, already scratchy and sore from so much crying, stinging with fresh tears at the tender compassion, still so new and unfathomable to him at this point. He could hear the urgency in her voice, the slightly pleading note behind her words…and knew what answer she wanted to hear from him.
It was, of course, the only answer he could give her.
At Spike’s slight nod, Tara let out a trembling sigh of relief, smiling with tender affectionate gratitude.
“Okay,” she sighed, her own nod indicating her approval. “Okay.” She paused, considering, then instructed softly, “Wait here for just a minute, okay? Mac…Mac’s right here, so…so you won’t really be alone. I’m just…g-going into the kitchen to g-get you some blood, Sweetheart. It’s been hours since you’ve eaten, and you need some more…okay?”
Spike nodded again, hesitantly, and the slight tilt of his head spoke of surprise, even now, that she was offering him blood again so soon.
Tara beckoned Mac forward with a hand tapping on the floor in front of Spike, warning the vampire as she did, so that the dog’s sudden nearness would not alarm him. “Come here, Mac…that’s a good boy…here he comes, okay? He’s not gonna hurt you…just gonna stay here with you and make sure you’re safe…all right?”
Mac obediently approached Spike, looking up into the vampire’s face for a moment before gently licking his hand. Silently, he lay down in front of Spike, his soft fur brushing against the vampire’s knees. With Tara’s guidance, Spike’s hesitant hand found his back, gently stroking down the length of the silky fur. Mac settled in closer against Spike’s knees, and Spike let out a soft sigh, and Tara got the impression that he did indeed feel safer with Mac nearby.
Within a few minutes, a mug of hot blood was once more in Spike’s unsteady hand, Tara carefully helping him to support its weight as he gratefully drank it down, much more easily than before, and without spilling a drop. When the mug was empty, he waited uncertainly for her to take it from his hands and place it on the floor beside him.
Tara smiled again, stroking the back of his hand gently. “You’re welcome.” She waited a moment before her smile faded, her expression becoming serious as she asked softly, “You ready?”
Spike nodded, drawing in a shaky breath, but did not venture another word. He simply sat there, enjoying the feeling of new strength and energy flowing through him with the warm blood. He knew he couldn’t make it up the stairs on his own, even with the added strength from his recent meal; but perhaps he could at least give Tara a little help in assisting him to get there.
“Okay…” Tara carefully lifted his arm, bracing it around her shoulders. “…hold on to me, okay? Just hold on…I’ve got you…” She wrapped her other arm around his waist, steadying him as she cautiously rose to her feet, bringing the vampire up with her, with greater ease than she would have liked.
He was still incredibly, disturbingly light.
Tara paused for a moment, giving Spike the chance to catch his bearings, and them both a moment to steady themselves, before heading toward the stairs. She felt a rush of affectionate gratitude for her pet when she noticed that Mac had dutifully moved close to Spike’s other side, his tall frame near enough to support the vampire’s weight, should he happen to stumble or lose his footing.
“Good boy, Mac,” she murmured. “Good boy.”
One painstaking step after another, they slowly made their way up the stairs. Spike could barely move his legs, but did not seem to be in too much pain, so Tara was grateful for small favors. She supposed that even if his legs were completely healed, he might still have some trouble walking at this point. It seemed as if it had been a long while since they had been allowed even to attempt to hold his weight.
Once they reached her bedroom, she guided him to the left side of the bed, and gently helped him to sit down on the edge of it. “Just…sit here, just for a minute, Spike. I’m gonna fix a spot for you to sleep.”
When he nodded his understanding, she let go of him and moved around the bed to pull back the blankets on the other side. She returned to Spike’s side and put her arms around him again.
“Okay…one more time. Let’s just…get up…and I’ll help you…”
Spike was obedient, pliant, yielding completely as she guided him, his head lowered submissively…but Tara chose to ignore it for the moment. Once he had had a good night’s rest, there would be plenty of time to deal with his psychological wounds.
Not that I’ve got the first clue how…
“Okay…here we are…” She carefully helped him to sit down on the other side of the bed. “I’m just gonna h-help you get your legs up on the bed…and you can lie back and…and get comfortable…”
Spike froze in utter shock at her words, struggling immediately to sit up, even as she helped him to lie down on his back.
The *bed*? *Her* bed? No…can’t…don’t deserve…no…*why*?
“Shh, it’s all right,” Tara assured him gently, pulling the covers up over him.
Despite his misgivings, Spike couldn’t help but relish the cool, comfortable weight of the soft blankets over his weary body. It had been so long since he had been allowed the simple luxury of an actual bed. For a brief moment, he allowed himself to just savor it, feeling his body relax into the softness of the mattress, as it gave, molding itself to the shape of his body.
And then…Tara got into the bed on the other side.
He felt the mattress depress, the blankets pull back, on the other side of the bed, and an overwhelming sense of panic began to shake through him. Why would Tara allow him such comfort? Why would she share her own bed with him? What could she want with him, to bring him here, to her own room, her own bed?
She wouldn’t…please, she wouldn’t…not like them…not what they did…*please*!
Tara sensed the vampire’s alarm as she climbed carefully into the bed, and immediately cursed her own carelessness, painfully aware a few moments too late of the increased trembling of Spike’s body. He was utterly rigid, lying on his side, turned toward her but visibly pulling backward, as if expecting at any moment to be hurt or violated once again.
Mental note, dummy, she chided herself with a sense of angry self-disgust, hastily pushing the covers back in order to give herself room to move away quickly if she needed to. Just ‘cause the traumatized vampire is quiet and still and lets you lay him in your bed does *not* necessarily mean he’s comfortable with the idea! He’s a *rape* victim, stupid! What in the world were you thinking?
She reached out a cautious hand to rest reassuringly on his arm as she soothed him softly. “Hey…it’s okay, Spike…d-don’t be scared, Sweetie, I’m not gonna hurt you…I w-wouldn’t ever…I just want you to be able to rest better, okay? I j-just thought you’d r-rest better in the bed…”
Spike did not seem to have even heard her. He flinched under her touch, his eye aimed down toward the mattress, shaking his head slightly in a way that made Tara feel certain that he did not even realize he was doing it.
“P-please,” he whispered, and the desperate terror in his voice made her heart ache with sorrow and regret. “Please…don’t…p-please…why?” There was a pleading note to the final word that tore at Tara’s emotions, drawing fresh tears to her eyes.
She tried again, edging nearer, aware that at the moment her nearness was unsettling to him, but knowing that she had to reassure him of her intentions. She kept her hand on his arm, not moving, just resting it there as she quietly spoke to him, doing her best to make him understand that he was safe.
“It’s all right…I didn’t b-bring you here to…h-hurt you, Spike,” she whispered, her voice choked with tears. “I promise. I j-just want you to be able to r-rest better. I just thought you’d be more comfortable in the bed…that’s all. I promise, I w-won’t hurt you…won’t touch you at all…if you don’t want me to, Sweetie…I j-just wanted to be able to…h-help you if you…if you have another nightmare…to be able to…to get to you quicker, you know?”
Her heart sank when his only response to her words was to go perfectly still under her hand, his head no longer shaking in pleading denial, but his body still tensed in dreadful anticipation. To confirm her promise to him, Tara removed her hand from his arm, drawing cautiously back away from him across the bed.
“See? I’m not t-touching…not touching…okay?”
Spike hesitated a moment, before responding with a slow, shaky nod, his head tilted away from her a little.
“I’ll just…I’ll just g-go downstairs…and…and sleep on the couch…if you’d rather,” Tara suggested softly. “I w-want you to be comfortable, Spike…and…and I don’t want you to h-have to…s-sleep on that couch when you’re h-hurt…I’ll just go…okay?”
Confusion filled Spike’s mind as he felt the slight shifting of the mattress as Tara rose to her feet. He was beginning to trust that she would do as she had promised, and not hurt him; and yet, he could not understand why she would bring him here, into her bed, if not to use him as the soldiers had done. But if that was the case, then why was she now offering to leave him in the bed, and go downstairs to sleep?
The idea filled him with a sense of mingled relief, at the understanding that whatever her intention, it was not to harm him, and dread, at the thought of being left alone in the dark strangeness of the room. When the mattress was suddenly jolted by an unexpected weight, and he heard Tara gasp in surprise, Spike jumped, feeling disoriented and more than a little alarmed.
A moment later, however, his newly restored senses told him that it was only Mac, jumping up onto the bed and making his presence known. Immediately relief filled him, as the large dog settled down on the mattress beside him, the warm bulk of his body through the blankets a comfortable weight against Spike’s side. He found himself reaching out almost automatically in response to rest a light, cautious hand on Mac’s shoulder.
When Tara spoke again, her voice sounded pleased and disappointed at the same time.
“See…yeah. Okay. This is good. Mac can s-stay here with you…and…and you’ll be safe. And I’ll…I’ll just sleep on the couch. You’ll be fine here…and I’ll…s-see you in the morning, Sweetie…”
Spike heard the soft sound of her footsteps heading toward the bedroom door, and felt a sense of alarm and confusion rising up in him again.
Wrong…’s all wrong…she shouldn’t be going…this is *her* bed…her place, not mine…why would she give it to me, let me stay, if she doesn’t want…?
The whispered word had left his lips before he knew he was going to dare to speak at all – and he could not help the immediate wince at the sound of his own voice, the tensing of his body in preparation for the punishment that always followed any such slip of his control.
Not allowed, no, not allowed to speak, shut up, you stupid, dead, worthless thing, just shut up and…
The gentle warmth of Tara’s hand on his brought him out of the vicious circle of mingled thoughts and remembered voices, and he struggled to focus on the sound of her voice as she spoke in a soft near-whisper, her voice much nearer now.
“Hey…it’s all right…what did you say? It’s okay…”
Tara waited, breathless with tense anticipation, the vampire’s hesitation visible in the rigid posture of his body. His head was lowered slightly in that submissive, uncertain gesture that was becoming so painfully familiar to her, and his lips parted slightly, but then remained still, as he warred with the deeply ingrained compulsion to silence.
Finally, he whispered, “W-wait…sh-shouldn’t go…it’s…it’s your bed…”
Tara drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, relieved that he seemed willing to allow her to stay and comfort him…but still a bit uncertain. “It’s…okay with you if I stay? I don’t w-want you to feel…”
Spike nodded slowly, and Tara saw the brave set of his jaw, the gradual lessening of his apprehensions, and knew that Mac’s presence, in combination with her offer to go, was serving to reassure him of his safety here in her bed, as well as the purity of her intentions.
Cautiously, Tara lay down on the bed on her side, facing Spike, who had settled ever so slightly down into the mattress, leaning on one side toward her, one hand still resting on Mac’s back, drawing comfort from the dog’s solid, strong nearness. There was a good bit of distance between Tara and Spike…and it seemed to Tara that the vampire preferred it that way at the moment.
“You okay? Ready to sleep?” she asked gently.
Another nod was Spike’s only response. His head hung even lower now, and Tara saw that his exhaustion was quickly becoming a factor again. She reached across the night stand and turned off the light, then lay back on the pillows on her own side of the bed.
A heavy, decidedly awkward silence filled the room.
Tara was not used to having someone else – besides Mac, anyway – in her bed. She felt that she should be saying something, but could not for the life of her imagine what. Spike was likely very uncomfortable and awkward with the situation, but she did not know what she could do or say to fix things. The slight vibration of the mattress she felt coming from Spike’s general direction only served to confirm her fears.
Despite her best intentions, the vampire was still trembling with fear.
This was a really bad idea, she decided with a weary sigh, her heart aching for the traumatized creature, so broken, so afraid to hope that things might ever be different for him.
I should have just let him sleep on the couch downstairs…made a pallet on the floor beside him, something…*anything* but bringing him to my bed, when he’s just spent the last…however long…being raped and violated…really bright, Tara…brilliant plan…
Her self-accusatory thoughts were abruptly interrupted, when she felt cool, trembling fingertips brush against hers in a feather-light, barely there touch. Almost immediately, Spike withdrew his hand again, clearly fearing punishment for daring to touch her at all.
But the question of what she should do had been answered in that moment, without a single word.
He was terrified of contact – but he desperately needed it.
The quiet, combined with the familiar darkness surrounding him seemed to swallow Spike up, becoming a roar of panic in his mind as he lay there on the mattress, waiting for something to happen.
He had no idea what that something might be.
Tara did not seem to intend to hurt him, or even to touch him, so gradually, his fears of being once more violated began to fade away – only to be replaced by other, deeper fears.
In the silent darkness, it was terribly easy to forget where he was.
The warmth and safety he had felt in the living room was, in this moment, barely able to compete with the terrifying memories of his recent past. Without Tara’s voice and touch to reassure him, he could just as easily have been in the cold isolation of his cell, waiting for the next bout of torture at the hands of his captors, as in Tara’s bedroom.
For all he knew…she might not even be real, nothing more than a figment of his affection-starved imagination.
But…but she *is* real…she’s here…she is! She…she *has* to be…
The swirling panic of his thoughts become a wordless blur, and Spike found himself suddenly lost in confusion. Was any of it real? Was Tara really there at all? Perhaps he really was still a prisoner, still there…
Before he could stop himself, he had reached out for her, anxious to reassure himself with the knowledge that she was more than a fevered, desperate dream.
The moment his fingertips brushed her soft skin, however, his mind was consumed with a fresh panic, fearful threats and accusations in the voices of his tormentors.
You touched her! You dirty, filthy thing, you *dared* to touch her! Now you’ve done it, Seventeen…now you’re gonna pay for touching someone as good and pure as she is, stupid little…
His thoughts were brought to an abrupt halt, and he froze completely, at the sensation of her hand against his trembling skin, and the sound of her concerned whisper breaking the devastating silence that filled the room.
Tara’s thoughts returned to the living room downstairs, and how her embrace had served to relax him. He had taken comfort in her arms, and finally been able to pour out the tears he had no doubt been holding back for far too long. Now, though he was obviously fearful of doing so, he was reaching out to her once more.
She reached back, catching his hand before he could withdraw it completely, and holding it gently but firmly in hers. Immediately, Spike froze, even his trembling ceasing as he held his body rigidly still in apprehensive anticipation. In the moonlight filtering through the gap in the drawn curtains, Tara could just barely make out his slight form in the bed beside her, as far away from her as the bed’s size would allow.
Her voice was soft, a mere whisper in the darkness, but the vampire’s head jerked against the pillow, startled, turning toward her to listen.
Suddenly, Tara had no idea what she intended to say. “I…um…Spike…if you…” She drew in a sharp breath, letting it out in a shaky, hurried sigh before muttering under her breath, “Oh, screw it…”
There were no words for what she wanted to ask him…and she already knew the answer, anyway. He would not have reached out for her hand, if he was not craving the comfort she had offered him before.
Carefully but quickly, Tara slid across the mattress toward Spike. As if sensing her intentions, Mac immediately shifted toward the foot of the bed, rearranging himself so that he was leaning against Spike’s legs rather than his side. Tara gratefully gave him a gentle pat before resting one arm gently across the vampire, who tensed at the contact, but did not quite pull away from her.
“Shhh,” she soothed him. “It’s okay…not gonna hurt you, Spike…okay? I-is this…is this okay? I just want you to feel safe…”
Spike did not move, did not respond at all, for a long moment. Finally, he nodded slowly, uncertainly. He didn’t say a word, and he didn’t move…but what he didn’t say and do spoke volumes to Tara, filling her with a sense of relief, and the assurance that she had done the right thing.
He was not pulling away from her, not shaking his head in pleading denial or begging her not to hurt him in barely audible, trembling words.
“It’s all right,” she reassured him gently, sliding one arm slowly under his neck to wrap it around his shoulders, her other hand still firmly clasping his, drawing his arm across her stomach to rest at her side. “See? Just like this. This is all I w-want to do…to l-lie here with you and h-hold you, Spike…so you’ll feel s-safer. Okay? Is this o-okay?”
Spike nodded again, this time with a bit more certainty. He opened his mouth to respond, but said nothing and closed it again. Then he opened it again, drawing in a shaky breath. Finally, he whispered haltingly, “Y-yes…th-thank you…”
A soft smile crossed Tara’s lips, in spite of the gravity of the situation, as she released Spike’s hand to gently caress his arm across her stomach.
Finally, Tara… she thought with a sigh of relief. Right decision.
At first, Spike kept waiting for the catch…for Tara to tip her hand and reveal her true motivation for bringing him into her bed. No, she had not hurt him deliberately, not thus far; but in his experience, no one would show him such courtesy, allow him such a privilege, without expecting something in return.
Not Tara…surely she wouldn’t…please, she wouldn’t…
Tara didn’t exactly seem like the type…not that that meant anything.
You know, it’s your fault these things keep happening to you, Seventeen…
He suppressed a shudder at the remembered words that filled his mind, the mocking laughter that echoed in his thoughts.
…you’re just too damn pretty…
He tried to shut the lingering voices out of his thoughts…and he waited.
But the catch never came.
Tara just held him gently close to her, and Mac stayed where he was between them, his body pressed against Spike’s legs, the two of them surrounding the vampire with warmth and kindness and a sense of safety…all things he had never expected to feel again.
Not that you ever felt ‘em to begin with…even *before*…
No one had ever treated him with the tenderness and consideration Tara was lavishing on him now. As he listened to the gradual evening out of her breath, felt her gentle fingertips slow, and then cease, their soft motion across his arm, he realized with wonder that she was beginning to fall asleep…without ever venturing to touch him any more than she already had. The only sound in the silence was Mac’s soft sigh as he settled down to sleep.
She meant it…she doesn’t want to…isn’t going to…
Relaxing into the utter comfort of the warmth and compassion Tara had given him, Spike allowed himself to settle deeper into the softness of the bed, shifting his body down lower on the mattress. Hesitant, yet longing, Spike lowered his head slowly onto Tara’s shoulder, savoring the now familiar comfort of her scent, though tensing in anticipation of a rebuff…which of course, never came.
This time, he was barely even surprised.
He was surprised, however, when in her sleep, Tara sighed contentedly and rested her cheek against the top of his head.
His heart full and swollen with long forgotten emotions, overwhelmed with the peace and comfort he had been granted, Spike listened to the soft sound of her breathing, and found himself unconsciously breathing along with her, his own breath falling into rhythm with hers. Surrounded by safety and warmth, he finally allowed himself to drift off into a peaceful sleep…for the first time in as long as he could remember, untainted by the horror of his nightmares.
For the second time in as many days, Tara awakened to a tingling, icy fire running up and down her right arm, and realized that the limb was completely asleep, numbed by the weight of the sleeping vampire that had rested upon it all night. Spike was still asleep, his head resting on her shoulder…and therefore cutting off the circulation to her arm.
She turned slowly, awkwardly onto her side, trying to find a way to slip her arm free without disturbing Spike.
With a soft little moan, the vampire turned his head, then turned it back again, his one functioning eye blinking sleepily a couple of times before opening fully. Tara was stunned to see that the milky appearance of the day before had vanished, leaving only crystal clear blue in its place.
It’s impossible for him to have healed so much…not just in one night…but…but it almost looks as if he’s…he’s *looking* at…
“Spike…your eyes…” she whispered, shaking her head in wonder, reaching a cautious hand toward him, without thought for the consequences.
Too late, she remembered herself, as the vampire scrambled backward across the mattress with a flinch and a startled cry of fear, tumbling off the bed in the process. She heard a soft scuffling sound as she leapt up from the bed in alarm, moving around the side of it to see the shaken vampire, huddling into the corner of the room, his crossed arms partially raised in front of him, as if to fend off some unseen threat.
At the vampire’s reaction of alarm, Mac got off the bed too, padding across the floor toward Spike, his head tilted inquisitively – and Spike jerked backward at his approach, a strangled whimper of panic torn from his throat as he flinched away from the large animal.
Maybe…maybe he just smelled him…but maybe…*maybe*…
“Mac, stay,” she commanded in a soft but firm voice, and the dog sat where he was, a few feet away from Spike, simply waiting to see what would happen next.
“Spike?” she whispered, moving slowly toward him. “Hey…Sweetie…it’s okay…”
Spike had no idea what was going on.
All at once, he found himself surrounded by a brilliant, disorienting cacophony of light and color that had long been lost to him. Even in the dimly lit bedroom, after so long in darkness, everything seemed terribly bright, glaring. He blinked into the light, struggling to bring his vision into focus, to make out where he was, what was happening.
And then, to his left, he saw movement, something coming toward him.
Shouldn’t be looking…eyes on the floor…gonna take my eyes again, *no*!
Panicked, he lurched backward, desperate to escape, and found himself falling, his battered body hitting the floor with a painful impact. He scrambled backward across the carpet, his eyes closed tightly in an attempt to shut out the frightening brightness, as well as to appease his captors. His fear only increased when his back connected with the wall behind him, and he realized that he had nowhere else to go.
Shaking his head pleadingly, he raised his arms to shield his face as he lowered his eyes, trembling, desperate to show them that he would obey, he would submit, and keep his eyes closed and his head down as they had told him.
I’m not looking at you, I’m not…please…I’ll be good, I’ll be good, I swear it!
Breathless, her heart pounding in her chest with hopeful anticipation, Tara reached out a cautious hand toward his arm as she neared him, crouching down slowly in front of him. Spike was huddled in the corner of the room, shaking, clearly terrified, shielding his face as if from a blow.
Or maybe…possibly…from the light?
“Spike?” She spoke softly as she reached out soft, cautious fingertips to touch his arm, trying to ground him, to remind him where he was. “Spike…it’s all right…you’re safe…”
She was relieved when his arm turned under her hand, and he reached out to weakly grasp her arm, as if desperate to hold onto the one thing he found familiar in his strange situation – her. He was gasping, each breath a panicked shudder as he clung to her, struggling to find his bearings in the terrifying unknown.
“Spike…it’s okay. D-do you…r-remember where you are? You’re here in my h-house, with me…a-and Mac…and you’re safe…”
At her reassuring words, Spike hesitantly lowered his shielding arms, his head turning sharply toward her – and his good eye locking onto hers with an intensity that was startling. Tara could do nothing but stare at him, lost in the stunning crystal blue of his intense gaze.
Mesmerized, she forgot for a moment the terrible damage that had been done to him, simply lost in the most gorgeous sea of blue she had ever seen; and she found herself wondering once more – who had this strange and fascinating creature been, before his captors had done all in their power to destroy him?
In that moment, she wanted nothing more than to really know him, to learn the secrets hidden in those deep blue depths.
In the next moment, her thoughts returned to the situation at hand, and her suspicions were confirmed. He had not said a word, but she knew.
“You…you can see,” she whispered, not even really aware she was speaking. “You’re looking right at me.”
It was so much…too much to take in all at once.
Spike was overwhelmed with panic, his senses swallowed up in a sudden onslaught of what seemed to him to be brilliant color, far too bright, almost painfully so. He closed his eyes against it, terrified, as he heard the soft sound of footsteps slowly approaching him, and knew that they were coming, to punish him for the offense of sight.
And then…Tara spoke, touched him…and the rest of the jarring, frightening world vanished away as he was swallowed up in her. Relief overwhelmed him, and he found himself clinging to her arm, grateful for the familiarity of her touch. Feeling safer in her presence, Spike finally dared to open his one functioning eye again, and the world gradually came into focus as his newly returned vision adjusted. In the midst of the cacophony of light and color that surrounded him, the soft lines of her face, the warmth and tenderness in her eyes, were a blessed oasis of safety.
“You…you can see,” Tara whispered, and her voice made the words reality. “You’re looking right at me.”
Alarm suddenly filled him with the realization that he was indeed staring her right in the face, his gaze locked onto hers. In the moment when he had first looked at her, she was more lovely than any woman he had ever seen, and he found it difficult to tear his wondering gaze away.
But with Tara’s simple statement came the return of the memories.
Don’t you dare look at me, you vampire scum! Eyes on the floor or I’ll cut ‘em out, do you hear me? *Eyes on the floor*!
Startled, Spike averted his gaze and cringed away from Tara with a gasp, closing his eye again as he shook his head pleadingly, falling instinctively forward into the familiar bowing position on the floor. Waves of trembling terror washed over him, and he pressed his body down as low as he could against the ground, shaking his head pleadingly. Broken whispers, desperate pleas for mercy, fell from his trembling lips as he sensed Tara edging nearer to him, and he was suddenly terribly uncomfortable with the fact that she was crouched down, so low, so near to his level.
Too high…too high…should be on your face…lower than her…face to the floor like the filth that you are, disgusting little…
“Spike? Hey…it’s all right. No, no, you d-don’t have to do that, Sweetie, come on…”
Tara’s gentle, coaxing voice broke through the nightmare world of his thought, and Spike found himself desperate to believe her, to accept what she was telling him. As he was warring with his own deeply ingrained fears, Spike felt something warm and wet brush against the back of his hand, and then soft, warm fur against his side.
It took him a moment to remember why those sensations were familiar and calming…but they were. Gradually, bits and pieces of reality began to return to him, drowning out the darkness of his memories.
…Mac…the dog’s name is Mac…and…and Tara…Tara says…I’m safe here…safe…not gonna hurt me…she…she *wanted* me in the bed…said she wouldn’t hurt me…it’s okay…it’s okay…
Gradually, Tara managed to get Spike back up into a sitting position, off his knees, but the vampire was still trembling violently, his head downcast, and his eye squeezed tightly shut, so as to avoid meeting her eyes under any circumstances.
Can’t look at her…not allowed…please, I won’t, I won’t, just please don’t take my sight again…
“It’s all right,” she repeated, her voice hushed and soothing. “Come on, Spike…it’s okay…that’s good, Sweetie. It’s all right…you can open your eyes, Spike. You can open your eyes now…come on…”
Finally, after a long time and many reassurances, Spike just barely opened his one functioning eye – and then immediately closed it again, flinching as if expecting punishment.
“No, that’s good…that’s good, Spike…it’s okay…”
Trying to find something to draw his attention away from his fears, Tara’s eyes fell on Mac, who had edged gradually forward to join her, and was now lying down at the vampire’s side on the floor, his back pressed up against Spike’s trembling legs. Carefully, she reached out and took Spike’s hand, guiding it gently to rest on Macrea’s back.
“See? Mac’s here…right here beside you. A-and you haven’t seen anything in s-so long. D-don’t you wanna see…wh-what he looks like?” She hesitated a moment, and there was more uncertainty in her voice than she had intended when she added, “What…what I look like? Come on, Spike…open your eyes…”
As Tara gently guided his hand down Mac’s back, the dog rolled into the touch, pleased with the attention, his head turning over his shoulder to give Spike’s hand a gentle lick. The vampire gradually seemed to relax a bit, apparently remembering at last where he was, and that he was safe.
Finally, Spike opened his eye, though he kept his gaze downcast, still not daring to look directly up at her. He did look at Mac though, slowly, hesitantly running trembling fingers through the dog’s fur. Tara just kept talking to him softly, doing her best to ground him, and gradually, his trembling began to subside.
When she felt that it was no longer likely to send the vampire into a panic, Tara edged across the floor to sit down against the wall at his side, keeping her hand on his to reassure him of her kind intentions. They sat like that for a long time in silence, until Tara noticed with considerable relief that his breathing seemed to have evened out, and he was finally calmer.
“D-did you…s-sleep well?” she asked him at last, not sure that he would feel enough confidence to answer.
He nodded immediately…and then a moment later, added in a hesitant whisper, “Th-thank you.”
“It’s all right,” Tara assured him, resting her hand over his on Mac’s side, her thumb brushing along the side of his hand. “I…I’m g-glad you were able to…to get some rest.”
Spike nodded again, swallowing hard. “Y-yeah. It was…uh…it was the first time I…I didn’t have the…the dreams…” He glanced up uncertainly with those words, his eye lighting on her face for just an instant – as long as he dared, before he anxiously averted his gaze again.
Tara’s heart ached for him, and she wanted to pull him into her arms and hold him, but she dared not, not when he was still so traumatized, still adjusting to the restoration of his sight. He looked so small and fragile, his shoulders hunched, his head lowered in submission as he tried not to take up too much space, wedged pitifully into the corner of the room.
Finally, she decided not to push him too much, and responded simply, “That’s good, Sweetheart. I’m…I’m really glad.”
An awkward silence fell between them, and Tara held back a heavy sigh, desperately wishing that she knew what to say to make things better for Spike.
Spike sat there, his head bowed, silent, as his starved sight drank in the varied colors and images around him. He studied Mac closely, though he was careful to avoid eye contact, even with the dog, as he noted the long, grey fur that covered the animal, and his long-legged, slender frame which still spoke of imposing size and strength.
Suddenly feeling very miserable and uncertain, Spike looked down at the floor again, swallowing.
Tara did not seem angry with him, although he had spoken far too many words in the last few minutes – more words in the last few minutes than he had dared to speak in as long as he could remember. Still, he felt that he had said too much, and made her feel uncomfortable…and he had no idea how to fix it.
So, he simply sat there and said nothing, staring down at his and Tara’s joined hands. A sense of shame overwhelmed him, his eye widening in stunned disbelief as he took in the pale, bony waste that was left of his hand, his arm. His flesh barely looked like his own anymore; he had changed so much in the months since his sight had been taken from him.
“A-are you hungry?” Tara asked him, distracting him from his grim study of the decimation of his own body.
He swallowed hard, relieved to find that much of the pain such a gesture might have caused him the day before had eased, though his throat still felt dry from the night’s sleep, and having not fed for several hours. Still, he felt awkward and uncertain as he lowered his head again. It seemed too much to ask or expect, that Tara would give him blood again so soon.
But then…he was hungry, desperately so. The work of healing that his body had done overnight had taken a lot out of him, and the thought of more hot, fresh blood was more than a little enticing to him.
He nodded hesitantly, not daring to speak again.
“Okay,” Tara replied, and he was surprised to hear approval in her voice. After all, he was putting her out of her way again, asking her for more food. “I’ll go warm you up some blood. D-do you think you’ll…be okay here for a few minutes? I’ll be right back, Sweetie, and…and maybe…it’ll give you a chance to…to look around? Get your bearings a little?”
Spike nodded again. Though he still did not dare to look up, the idea of taking in his surroundings for the first time in months, without hindrance or interruption or punishment for raising his gaze from the floor, was more than a little tempting. He kept his eye aimed downward while Tara took the quilt from the bed, and gently wrapped it around him, placing a pillow behind his back and helping him to lean back against it.
He felt his throat constrict at the tenderness of the gesture she had offered, and once again felt reassured in her kindness. Still, he waited until she had left the room, Mac following after her with a stretch that allowed Spike to see just how very large he really was, before he finally found the courage to look up and survey the room around him.
The hard lump of fear in his throat began to gradually soften as he took in the warm, homey décor of Tara’s bedroom, so different from the last cold, harsh sights that had met his eyes, before his sight had been stolen from him completely. The soft, muted colors and inviting style of the room seemed to fit what he knew of Tara perfectly, and to confirm his gradually rising trust that she was what she appeared to be – a kind, genuine person who truly wanted to help him.
A sense of awe came over him at the sheer wonder of the colors that surrounded him, so foreign after so long in darkness, and he found himself thirstily drinking it in, desperate to commit it all to memory again, lest his sight should be taken from him once more.
That won’t happen, he told himself, hoping that it was true. Tara’s good…and kind…and wants to help me…
But *can* she? His haunting fears still lingered, tormenting him even in the apparent warmth and safety of this new and wonderful place. Even if she really wants to…can Tara actually keep them away from you?
He focused his attention on the room again, trying not to think about the past, or the things he’d been through, or the very real danger he was likely still in. All he wanted to think about was…
He didn’t realize it, but his face lit up with hopeful relief as he turned his head toward the bedroom doorway.
Tara. She was back.
He can see…he can see…he’s healing…he’s gonna be getting better soon, but he’s still so scared…there’s no way he can take care of himself…God, what am I going to do? I still have classes…I’ve already missed one day…can’t miss much more…
Tara’s circling thoughts troubled her as she prepared breakfast for herself and Spike. She left Mac in the kitchen, enjoying his own breakfast, and took a mug of warm blood for Spike and a couple of slices of toast on a plate for herself up to her bedroom.
The vampire was sitting up on the floor, anxiously taking in the room around him, when she stepped through the bedroom door. The moment she spoke, his gaze shifted to her, his one visible eye widening with an expression of relief at the sight of her.
It was a little unsettling.
Lot of responsibility, Tara…you ready for this? Her jaw set with determination before she brought a warm smile to her lips and approached the bed. Doesn’t really matter, does it?
She considered trying to get him up on the bed again, but he still seemed a bit shaken. The last thing she wanted to do was to upset him again with too much too soon. So, she just took a seat, deciding to take her time, not to rush him, and to wait until he was fed and a little more comfortable before trying anything else.
She held out the mug of blood in both hands as she sat down on the floor beside him. “Here you go.”
Hesitantly, Spike reached out both hands to take it from her, only noticing as she did that his formerly useless arm seemed to be functioning much better. The barest beginnings of a smile almost formed on the vampire’s lips as he realized the progress that had been made during the night, and a flash of hope was visible on his face for just an instant, before it faded back into the anxious uncertainty that seemed to be a constant for him.
Tara saw the slight forward jerk of his shoulders, his hesitation to drink as his gaze darted downward toward the floor in front of him, and immediately guessed that he was considering whether or not he should bow before drinking the blood. Before he could, she reached out a gentle hand to rest on his arm.
“It’s okay,” she reassured him, her voice both soft and firm. “Go ahead…drink it, Sweetie.”
Spike went very still for a moment, his gaze still downcast, not daring to look up at her. Then, very slowly, he nodded his understanding, and Tara removed her hand from his arm, backing off a bit to sit cross legged a few feet away from Spike. The last thing she wanted was to make him feel crowded, or afraid that she might change her mind and decide to take the blood back.
While Spike drank his blood, and Tara ate her light breakfast, she did her best to make small talk, trying to keep the impending awkward silence at bay. She talked about Mac, about the house, the college classes she was taking, everything she could think of to keep up conversation…but nothing that meant anything to Spike.
She had so many questions…but she wouldn’t ask them. Not so soon. Possibly not ever.
Spike probably had questions, too, she figured…but she would leave them to his own timing.
While she spoke, she noticed that the vampire kept stealing little glances in her direction, though he still seemed too afraid to actually meet her eyes. Any time she looked toward him, he would quickly avert his gaze, staring down at the floor or the wall across the room. As he finished off the blood, Tara reached to take the mug from him, setting it quietly aside on the night stand.
Unfortunately, Tara found that she had just about exhausted her arsenal of harmless topics of conversation. Uncertain what to do or say next, she unintentionally allowed the awkward silence to fall again. She drew in a deep, shaky breath, and tried to think of something, anything, to say.
To her amazement, just as she spoke, Spike opened his mouth and said something as well. Tara missed the words, but felt a rising sense of excitement at the fact that he had actually dared to speak…to interrupt her, even.
Unfortunately, that fact had just occurred to Spike as well.
He flinched, visibly withdrawing. “I…I’m sorry…”
“No, no,” Tara hurried to reassure him. “Don’t be sorry…it’s okay, it’s more than okay, Spike. Just…I…I didn’t hear you. Wh-what did you say?”
Spike hesitated, glancing up at her, a convulsive swallow in his throat. He opened his mouth, then closed it, apparently unable to raise the courage to attempt his words again.
Reaching out to hold his hand, Tara pushed gently, “Please. It’s all right, I promise. Just…what did you say?”
Spike’s shoulders squared slightly, and he drew in a deep, shaky breath as he finally opened his mouth and ventured a trembling, whispered question.
“Wh-why…why am I here?”