Quiet as a Mouse

by Miranda

Copyright © 2006


Rating: R
Disclaimer: Based on characters from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series, created by Joss Whedon.
Distribution: The Mystic Muse: http://mysticmuse.net
Author's Site: http://home.nc.rr.com/miranda2/
Feedback: Yes please.
Pairing: Spike/Tara

Summary: Events have driven Tara from Sunnydale and five years down the line they start to draw her back in, along with a reluctant Spike.

Part 1

"Mouse. Listen to me."

She hadn't heard that voice in three years, but it was written on her back brain somewhere, and she knew the gentle, drawling tones instantly.


"Shhh. There's something you've forgot. Something you need to remember."

"Mama….What?" She turned, trying to find the speaker, but there was nothing around her but darkness.

"The lock, Mouse. The day we got locked out. It's all right to remember it now."

There was a sudden warm pressure, as of arms closed around her, then it whisked away and she was alone and afraid in the dark.

"Don't go. Please don't go."


Startled, she opened her eyes and looked into Willow's anxious face. Morning sunlight poured into their room, and she could hear the sounds of the other girls on their hallway heading to the showers. "Willow," she said slowly, trying to clear the cobwebs from her mind.

Willow shifted closer and put an arm around her shoulders. "Are you ok? You were talking in your sleep. Did you have a bad dream?"

The word 'dream' brought things into focus. "Dreaming, but not bad. It was about my Mom."

"Probably because of Joyce, huh?"


Willow's smile faded and Tara felt again the tension between them.

During the course of apologizing for a) attempting to resurrect Joyce and b) her anger with the witches, Dawn had let slip that Willow had shown her which book to take. Tara had forgiven her lover the lie – it wasn't as if she were innocent in such matters, herself – but Willow was still feeling guilty.

"It's ok," Tara whispered, stroking back the red hair. "You were trying to help."

Willow burrowed against her, hiding her face in Tara's shoulder. "But I didn't," she said in a muffled voice. "I was about as far from helping as you could get."

"You did help, just not the way you meant. Dawn trying the spell made her and Buffy reach out to each other. That's important."

"I guess," Willow raised her head and smiled a little despite watery eyes. "But I sure thought Buffy was going to kick my ass."

Tara smiled back, "She's not angry anymore. Everyone's forgiven you but you."

"Well, I still think I need to be grounded for awhile. No Bronze for me, young lady. I need to sit home and think about what I did."

Only part of Tara's attention remained on her morning classes, and she remained preoccupied as she walked back to the dorm. Something she had forgotten. Something her Mama said she should remember.

Despite their renewed closeness, Tara was reluctant to tell Willow the details of her dream. She had learned early to keep silent - children, particularly girls, were to be seen and not heard – especially about what lay close to her heart. Her silence had led her mother to calling her Mouse, although only in private because nicknames were frowned on as silly.

Even though she was learning to trust Willow, Buffy, and the rest, it was still hard for her to speak. And really, what had she to say? She knew nothing of the killing of monsters. She hadn't even been able to find the words to sway Dawn from her destructive path.

Speaking of Dawn, Tara was snapped out of her thoughts by the sight of the younger Summers jigging impatiently up and down outside their dorm room door.

"Dawn?" she said, quickening her step. "Is something wrong?"

"No, everthing's fine. I just picked up my stuff so I could start my homework before going back to school, and I thought I'd stop in a minute."

"Ok." Tara opened the door and led Dawn inside. "You know, Willow's in a lab and won't be back until late this afternoon."

"I know. Actually, I wanted to talk to you."

"Oh," Tara blinked in surprise. "Uh, sure." She sat down on the bed and waited.

Dawn watched the toe of her sneaker dig into the floor then sighed and said, "Are you and Willow fighting about her giving me that book? Because it was my fault, and if I made you guys fight, that would really suck. So if you have to be mad at somebody it should be me."

"Nobody's mad at anybody," Tara said gently. "It's all over, and I'm just glad you weren't hurt."

"Promise?" Dawn asked suspiciously.


"Good," she took another deep breath and said in a rush, "Buffy told me about your Mom, so I guess you did understand what I was going through, and I'm sorry I was a bitch."

Tara shook her head. "You don't have to apologize. It's different for everybody, so I didn't know what you were going through, exactly. Besides, none of us were thinking straight."

"Guess not." Dawn's eyes were bright with unshed tears, but she managed a twisted smile. "It's funny hearing you say not to apologize. Lots of the time it seems like you're really sorry to be breathing air somebody else might want."

"I'm s…" Tara started, and they both laughed.

"Can I ask you another question?"


"Do you think you'll see your Mom again when you die?"

Tara shot to her feet, her eyes wide with horror. "Dawn, why are you asking that? Y-y-you wouldn't…. You aren't th-th-thinking of,"

"No, no! Geez, calm down. I'm not going to off myself, ok? I promise. I just meant when you die in your bed at 98 of really, really natural causes, do you think you'll see your Mom again?"

Her heart slowed a little. "Yes. I think I'll see her again."

Dawn's eyes were back on the floor. "You think your souls will find each other or something?"

"I'm not sure how it works," Tara said puzzled. "But love doesn't die, and souls are how we love, so something like that."

"But maybe I don't have a soul," Dawn whispered. "And Mom was good. If I'm not, I won't find her again."

A feeling rose up in Tara. It was so unfamiliar that it took her a moment to realize that it was anger, and not just anger, but wrath. "Who said you weren't good?" she asked in a shaking voice that brought Dawn's eyes up.

"One of those crazy knight types that were trying to kill Glory. He said God wanted me dead."

She sought desperately for the right thing to say, but it was hard to think under the onslaught of memory. Angry shouts: "Women brought sin into the world, that we all must pay for." Flashes of pain as the belt striped across her back and legs and buttocks, "I will punish your sinful flesh, girl. Purify you of the sin of Eve."

"People said the same thing about me," Tara managed at last. "For all kinds of reasons: because I'm a woman, or a witch, or gay." She swallowed, "Sometimes, I still believe them."

"That's not true" Dawn protested. "You're not evil. You're one of the best people I know!"

Tara spread her hands. "And you're a good person too, Dawny. Don't let anybody say you aren't. Nobody gets to decide what you are but you."

The girl crossed the room and hugged her awkwardly. Tara held the thin form close. "Your Mom loves you," she whispered. "You'll find her again. Besides," she pulled back a little and smiled, "We're a package deal. If they don't accept you, I won't go either."

"Thanks," Dawn pulled back and sniffled. "Can I decide I'm really rich and don't have to take stinky old PE?"

Tara grinned. "If you want. And if that works out, let me know."

Dawn headed out with a considerably lighter step, but paused in the entrance. "You know, you should talk more."

After Dawn left, Tara made sure the door was locked, then went to her cache of witchcraft supplies for chalk and incense and candle. She placed everything on the floor and prepared to settle herself for meditation, then paused. She didn't normally use a focus, but the morning's dream had referred to a specific event from her childhood.

She opened the bottom drawer of the dresser and dug under a pile of tie-dyed sweaters until her fingers encountered the battered cigar box. Tara had given Willow the rock, but there were other treasured mementos; marbles she had won from Donny (so angry to lose to a girl), a feather, dried flowers, and the tiny curled-up mouse, small as the end joint of her thumb that Mama had carved long ago.

Smiling a little sadly, Tara placed the carving on the floor in front of her as she drew the protective circle and lit the incense. Then, she held the mouse loosely in one hand and closed her eyes.

The familiar peace of meditation washed over her and she relaxed into it joyfully relishing the sense of freedom. In this state, the uncertainty and doubt that shackled her earthly body were non-existent. It was just she and the universe and the sense that she loved it and that it loved her right back.

Regretfully, she turned her mind from its dance and focused on the reason for the meditation. Her breathing slowed, deepened as her focus turned inward. Mama, she thought, her hand tightening on the carving. What should I remember? The lock…The day we got locked out….

There was a sensation of falling, tumbling end over end until Tara found herself standing on sandy, bare earth bleached almost white by the unforgiving sun. It took her a moment to realize that she was in the front yard of the farmhouse where she grew up.

How plain and sad it looks, she thought, seeing it almost with a stranger's eyes. The house was neat, clean, and in good repair, but there was no color, no flowers other than the marigolds used for cow feed, no swing to soften the uncompromising lines of the front porch. Buffy's house had some peeling paint and her yard could stand a good mowing, but there was the sense that people lived there and were usually happy.

She turned as an old station wagon pulled into the yard, and her sadness over the house turned to joy at the sight of the woman who climbed out. Her mother had never been conventionally beautiful with a stocky, sturdy farmwoman's body and brown hair skewered into an uncompromising bun, but there was kindness in her eyes, and despite the hardness of her life, her mouth seemed ready to smile.

The little girl who climbed out after the woman had no such inclination to smile, and Tara felt a sudden desire to rescue the solemn-faced child before realizing she gazed on her own younger self.

"Can you carry that bag for me?" Mama asked, and small Tara nodded gravely and held out her arms for the lightest grocery bag. "Thank you. You're a big help." She smiled encouragingly, but it faded when the child only regarded her expressionlessly for a moment before starting toward the house.

"Oh, no," she murmured, following along behind the child and sorting through her keys. "Oh, no, I've lost my house key!" She thought a moment, then sighed. "I took it off for Donny to use and forgot to put it back on. I've got to get this food in the house or it'll spoil and go to waste."

The child's eyes widened. Even then, Tara had known it was a sin to be wasteful.

Her mother looked around swiftly, making sure they were alone, then knelt down by the door. "Want to see a trick?" she smiled as she put her hands on the deadbolt and closed her eyes. Both Taras watched in fascination, the older version recognizing that magic was being done. After a moment, the child reached out and touched the lock with one finger.

And she was inside the child's head, seeing what the child saw, seeing the interior structure of the lock down to the cellular level, although of course, she had not known such a word existed. She only knew that she understood how the lock worked, that she knew how to talk to it, and when she told it to open, it did.

Her consciousness split back off and Tara saw her mother regarding her smaller self with surprise as the door swung open.

"Well," she said. "You are just full of surprises my Baby Mouse."

At that, the child Tara did smile, an engaging gap-toothed grin, that made her mother's eyes shine with sudden tears. "What a pretty smile. I wish I saw it more." She shook off the emotion. "Let's get these groceries in the house before they go bad."

As they started back for the car, her mother said, "Tara, why don't we not tell Papa about what happened today? He'd think it foolish."

The child stopped. "Tell a lie?" Her chin began to quiver, and even the older Tara felt a chill. Liars went to hell, and if you got caught in one, sometimes hell came to you.

"No, no, not lie. If he asked, we'd tell, but if he doesn't…." her voice died off as a tear fell down the child's cheek. "You're going to fret, aren't you? Well, never mind." She put a hand on the child's head and closed her eyes again. "You won't have to lie to Papa because nothing strange happened today. Nothing at all. We went to the store and came home, and nothing was different."

Before Tara could try to process what happened, the scene shifted. Now, she was watching her mother and another version of herself, about 13 this time, her own hair tied back severely, in a hot close room where Sarah Watkins was struggling to give birth.

"There's something wrong," Sarah's mother-in-law was saying, sounding almost pleased. She jerked her chin at Tara. "The child ought not be here."

"She's old enough to learn the mid-wife trade," her mother said shortly. "That means knowing sometimes things go wrong. Not that I know there's anything wrong yet." She patted Sarah reassuringly. "He could just be taking a rest in there."

But that was a lie. Tara knew it, and so did her mother. The cord was caught around the baby's neck, and there was no time to get to a hospital even if their group held with such things. Still births were God's will.

"Tara, bring the lamp and stand right here so I can see."

The girl, ungainly in her long dress and apron, obeyed silently, taking a position that blocked some of Mrs. Watkins' view.

Her mother met Tara's gaze deliberately, before her hands moved to the curve of Sarah's lower belly and she closed her eyes. Instinctively, Tara leaned even closer, angling her body to further prevent Mrs. Watkins from seeing what was happening. Cautiously, she let her arm brush Sarah, just in time to watch the cord unwrap from the baby's neck.

Her mother straightened. "I think we'll be just fine. Push!"

Another change. It looked like a laboratory, or an operating room, with a bare metal table fitted with restraints in the center, but the walls were lined with empty cells Where is this? Tara wondered, confused. She had never been here, and never seen the two men who were arguing. "What the hell do you think we can do? We've lost all our funding. Ever since Adam…"

Tara eyes opened wide with fear, and she had to fight the instinct to run, even though she knew they couldn't see her. The Initiative. But I thought they were gone.

"We just need to prove we've still got something. Prove the project's still viable. They want to start up again, if we can give them an excuse."

"We can't give them one. We don't have anything. There aren't any chips left, and all the hostiles got away. Even the notes were destroyed. There's no way to recreate the work."

he first man grinned. "You're not quite right, my friend. We don't have much, but we do have a little. I know where one chip is, and a hostile to go along with it."


"Hostile 17."

She was back in her dorm room, staring at the guttering candle and shaking with panic. Hostile 17.


Tara's mind stuttered and quivered as it tried to sort out what she had seen. The significance of the first two sightings escaped her. Did the lock have something to do with Dawn being the Key? That seemed likely, but it didn't feel right somehow.

There didn't seem to be any question about the last image. Some left-over bit of the Initiative was coming for Spike to use him to open the project again, and apparently she was supposed to do something about it.

Buffy, she latched onto the realization with relief and hastened to her feet. I should hurry and tell Buffy. She'll be training at the Magic Box by now.

The Slayer didn't like Spike, but she didn't like the Initiative either and would take action. Mr. Giles could help too. He always had good ideas. Anya would be there, and Willow when she finished her lab, and Xander when he finished work. There would be lots of people between her and Spike.

Who terrified her.

Tara sighed as she locked the dorm room door. It was true, shameful though it was to admit since he had actually helped her once. Being around Spike hushed what words she had and made her cleave to Willow's side like a shadow.

Most men made her slightly wary. It had taken a long time for her to relax even a little around Mr. Giles, although she recognized his fundamental goodness. There was darkness there, though, buried beneath the surface, and it peeked out now and then. It had taken all she had to face the Watcher's Council, and if she ever met Angel, she would probably run, screaming.

Even Riley had sent off a bad vibe. He was nice enough, but something about him made her shoulder blades prickle. He meant well, she knew, and he had loved Buffy, but he always knew what was best for her and for everyone. And if what was best wasn't what you wanted to do, he got angry.

Xander had never frightened her, however, and she smiled a little at the thought of him as she reached the sidewalk. He was a stream that ran clear, no malice or cruelty to be found. Kind without being weak. The true meaning of the word 'gentleman'.

And the opposite of the vampire.

"He can't hurt anybody now that he's got the chip," Willow had said reasonably when she had tried to explain how she felt.

"But he wants to," Tara had responded. Rage and the desire to cause hurt warred with some inner pain of Spike's own, and the whole thing stood out around him like a cloud. A true Wiccan would probably have tried to reach out and dispel that cloud, but she just wasn't that far along the Path yet. Lately the cloud seemed to consist mostly of pain, and she knew he had done some good things, but the habit of avoiding him was strong.

Still, she didn't want the Initiative to capture him either. They had been wrong themselves, imprisoning non-humans, keeping them from a free choice. They hadn't cared that Oz had never hurt anyone. Probably some of the others hadn't caused harm either, but that hadn't mattered. They had been designated non-human, evil, less important. She knew how that felt.

I'm not abandoning him, Tara reminded herself as she waited impatiently for the light to change. Telling Buffy and the others is the best thing to do. It's not like I can go in there with my broomstick blazing.

A blue van drove past her, and she found herself staring at the profiles of the men from her vision. The passenger glanced toward her, and the molecule of her brain that hadn't started to panic kept her face bland and uninterested.

After it was safely past, a whimper came out of Tara's throat as she stared miserably along the 10 blocks that separated her from the Magic Box. There was no time to get there, explain what was going on, and get to the cemetery which lay in the opposite direction. The men would be there and gone and Spike with them.

She began to run, cutting through alleys and back ways, taking the short cuts that nights of helping patrol had taught her. Tara was sure she would be too late, but the area was clear when she finally staggered into the street that contained the cemetery.

Even if you get there in time, a cold voice sneered as she hurried through the gate, what will you do? It's daylight. There's nowhere to go. You weren't quick enough to act after the vision. You failed as always.

"Shut up," she muttered, startling herself. A distance behind her, she heard an engine cut out, and the fear gave her new energy. Tara raced the last few yards to Spike's crypt and lunged against the door.

Locked. Oh, God, and she was no Slayer to kick it down. Frantically, she hammered with her fists.

"What the hell is it, now?" Spike dodged, barely missing getting decked as he yanked the door open. "Can't a bloke go a day without one of you breaking down…." He broke off as he got a better look at her terrified features. "What's the problem?"

"The In…in," exasperated with her tangled tongue, Tara shifted phrases. "Riley's group!" she gasped. "Coming…."

Spike's eyes narrowed and he caught her arm, dragging her inside and slamming the door. "The Initiative? They collapsed, I thought. Soldier Boy went off with the last bit."

"Not all of them," Tara found with relief that her mouth had started to work again. "They want to start it again. They're right behind me. You have to get out!"

"Right. Tunnel," he nodded, heading for the trapdoor. Then he stopped, scenting the air. "Too late. They're just outside." His mouth tightened and he jerked his head at her. "You get down there and be quiet. If they take me here, they shouldn't search."

At the realization of what he was offering, the unfamiliar feeling of righteous anger that she had felt when Dawn said she had been condemned settled around Tara's heart. This wouldn't happen. She would not permit it.

"No," she said, and without giving herself time to think, she grabbed Spike's hand and pulled him to stand with her flush against the crypt wall. As she heard the scrape of the crypt door, she whispered her mother's old mantra for safety. "Be quiet. Quiet like a mouse," and reached down inside herself.

Spells of unimportance swept around witch and vampire as the two Initiative members entered the crypt. Tara was only vaguely aware of Spike at her side, his hand held tightly in hers, as she extended the spells to cover them both. Her focus was on the men as they searched, their eyes always turning away when they glanced in her direction.

One of them ended up directly in front of her, less than two feet away, his cold and assessing eyes scanning their area, almost as if he realized there was something wrong.

He stared into her eyes, and it was so much like her father trying to determine which sin she'd committed that particular day, that it was all she could do not to break out crying and begging for mercy. Sweat soaked Tara's back and she was amazed he couldn't hear the pounding of her heart, but she clenched her teeth and poured her strength into the spell even as her knees and chin quivered.

No one's here. she projected. This is boring. I'm hungry. I need a bathroom.

"We'll come back tonight," one said to the other. "He won't go far. Word on the street, he's hot for the Slayer."

The other one laughed, and they left, pulling the door shut behind them.

"They've gone," Spike said in a hushed voice a few moment's later. "Not a bad bit of spell-casting, witch."

She dropped his hand and covered her face, shaking all over. His face. His face had been everywhere looming over her, compelling obedience…

"Look, sit down before you faint," Spike said, and he put a hand on her shoulder.

What happened next was a blur. Tara thought she heard someone screaming, then realized it was her own voice she heard. She snapped out of her fugue to find herself curled in a ball on the tomb with her back to the wall and her arms around her knees, staring at Spike in absolute horror.

He looked back at her, nonplussed. "It's been awhile since I've got that reaction out of somebody. You do know about the chip, right? I'm not a huge threat at the moment. The Niblet could take me."

"I'm sorry. It's not p – per – per – you," she muttered, leaning her head back against the wall tiredly and closing her eyes in shame over her foolishness.

"Didn't really think it was," his voice was quiet, and when Tara dared a look at Spike, his expression was not unkind. "Growing up wasn't quite like one of those paintings by that Rockwell chap, was it?"

"No, not quite." She shook her head, shook the memories away and turned the subject. "Those Initiative men will come back. We should go."

"Go where, Pet? It's day, remember?"

She frowned. "They probably won't come back for awhile, but you could wait in the tunnel just in case, and I'll get Buffy and Mr. Giles. Then, we can figure out what to do." Spike's expression tightened. "Yeah, I can put myself under Buffy's protection. Again." "You know she'll help you," Tara said gently. And she would. Buffy was incapable of refusing to help someone despite her feelings for them.

"Yeah, she would, but the Slayer's got a lot on her plate right now, what with Glory and Dawn. I don't think I'm quite at the top of her list. And I shouldn't be. So what does that leave, move in with Giles again, or Xander?" He smiled painfully. "Room for one more in that dorm of yours?"

"You could leave Sunnydale. Go somewhere else." She wasn't really listening to her words as she watched him carefully. Spike's aura was murky and dark, roiling with pain and frustration and anger, but it didn't scare her anymore. He had tried to hide her from the Initiative, with no thought to his own safety and no possible benefit for him. He didn't have Xander's clear soul, but he wasn't a threat.

"What's the point?" His voice threatened to break, and he turned away from her, snatching a cigarette from a pack on the table, and using the business of lighting it to get himself under control.

When he faced her again, his expression was neutral and his voice flat, hacking the words out around the cigarette. "I don't have anywhere to go, all right? I can't hunt. I can't fight. You think there's some sort of neutralized vampire underground where I can hide? Where I can find food? The closest thing I've got to friends is here, which is so bollixed up, I don't want to think about it. If the Initiative wants me, they'll get me, and I really can't do a bloody thing to stop them. They've seen to that."

It clicked in her mind, all the pieces fitting together like a jigsaw. Seeing how the lock worked and letting her understanding manipulate the pieces, watching her mother do the same thing with the unborn child.

She could neutralize the chip. She knew she could, knew it down in her blood and bones. But should she? It wasn't fair that Spike couldn't defend himself, but would he stop there? He was a vampire. While he seemed to have changed, wasn't it in his nature to kill? If she freed him those deaths would be at least partially on her conscience.

But despite her worry, there really wasn't a choice. She had told Dawn to decide for herself what she was and would be. Spike must be able to make that same choice freely.

Tara shook her head to clear it, and saw that Spike had stopped ranting and was looking at her warily.

"Are you going off again?" he asked politely. "'Cause I'm standing way over here not being scary or anything."

"No," she said vaguely. She scrambled off the tomb and crossed to his television, laying her hands lightly on top of the console, sinking her awareness into its circuitry.

"Missing a show are we? You know, you're starting to remind me of Dru…." His voice died away as the television came on, flipped through its cycle of channels, then turned off.

"I can see it would be handy to have you about if the remote got lost."

Tara sighed and took the plunge. "I can stop the chip. Make it so it doesn't work any more."

Spike didn't need to breathe, but air hissed through his teeth all the same. She didn't even see him move, but he was suddenly beside her, staring down, making her nervous despite her new trust of him. "You wouldn't lie to a fellow, would you?"

"I'm not lying." Tara made herself meet his eyes. "I'll be able to see how it works, Spike, understand how it works, and that will let me shut it down."

"How long have you been able to do this?" he asked, anger in his voice. He raised a hand as if to grab her arm, but when she flinched, he seemed to think better of it and stepped back.

"I had a strange dream last night," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "And I meditated this morning and had a vision that reminded me I did something like this when I was a child. I wouldn't have…wouldn't have not…."

"No, I suppose you wouldn't have. Sorry."

His voice had softened and when she chanced a look up at him again, his eyes had softened too, causing an unfamiliar and somewhat alarming flutter down in the pit of her stomach. Stop that, she ordered it. We're gay, remember? Not to mention in love with somebody.

"We'd better go ah-ahead," she stammered. "I don't kn-know when they'll be back."

He nodded and held still as she raised a trembling hand to his forehead.

Gray. Circuits. Nerve endings twisting and turning every which way with little flashes running along them that might be thoughts. Tara resolutely kept her eyes away. This wasn't mind reading, and she wouldn't violate his privacy. Besides, she wasn't terribly sure she wanted to know what he was thinking.

The chip lay in the center, easily visible to her psychic eyes, although she knew it was tiny in reality. She curled her awareness around it, sinking in, careful not to touch the surrounding tissue. She watched the millions of thousands of tiny commands flicker past, saw the wiring into the nervous system that tracked the adrenaline associated with anger. Watched and learned and understood it all.

And when she told it to shut down forever, it did.

Tara pulled her awareness back and hastily dropped her hand from Spike's forehead. "It's done," she said.

He frowned. "I don't feel any different."

"I guess you'll have to test it out. You could hit me in the nose again," she offered timidly.

"Pet, you rescued me from the Initiative and at least tried to fix the chip. I'm not particularly annoyed with you at the moment."

"Oh." She thought for a moment, then said, "You know it was, uh, pretty stupid of you to let the Initiative catch you to begin with. You're an…an idiot! No wonder Buffy doesn't care about you!"

Spike stared at her a moment then burst out laughing. "Oh…Oh, God," he howled. "Pet, I've been insulted by everyone from Angelus to Buffy and back again. You are just not that vicious."

She felt vaguely annoyed but saying, "I am so vicious!" seemed a little silly.

"Go home," he said more calmly, wiping his eyes. "I'll find out soon enough if it worked." Tara bit her lip, troubled but not knowing what to say.

"Don't say anything to the others," Spike said quietly. "I won't attack Buffy or the Scoobies. Beyond that, I can't promise, especially about the Initiative blokes, but I'm not sure what will happen. And it's not on you anymore, it's on me."

She nodded silently and turned to leave.


She stopped at the doorway of the crypt and looked over her shoulder. He smiled at her, a real smile, about as far from his usual sneer as it was possible to get.

"Whatever happens, thank you. For giving me the chance."

Two nights later.

She woke with the strong feeling that someone was waiting for her.

Gently disengaging herself from the sleeping Willow, Tara padded to the window of her dorm room and looked out.

Spike was leaning against one of the trees, smoking. She was a little surprised at the depth of her relief. True to his request, she had said nothing of what had happened and hadn't even gone back to the cemetery. She had a feeling she would have known if something happened to him, but it was nice to have the confirmation.

Tara whispered a quick phrase to deepen Willow's slumber and slid open the window.

At the sound, Spike straightened and smiled up at her. They couldn't speak without shouting, but he jerked his head toward the street and she followed the motion to see the black van parked at the curb. He held up a backpack and grinned wickedly.

She shook her head. Apparently the chip was defunct now, and he had defeated the Initiative remnants. Now, he was on his way.

She would miss Spike, she thought. Would miss him and worry and hope that he found peace. Tara held up a hand for him to wait and hurried to her dresser.

She felt a slight pang as she watched him catch the tiny object but it eased while she watched him study the sleeping mouse then raise his head to favor her with one of those actual smiles as he slipped it into the pocket of his duster. She didn't need a talisman to remember her mother's love, but perhaps he could use it to remember a friendship.

Spike started to turn away, and Tara began to close the window, but then he stopped and raised his own hand, kissing the palm and blowing it to her. And she caught it with a smile and pressed it to her heart.

Part 2

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

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

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

"We're here, Ms. Maclay," Tony said deferentially.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She felt her face turning hot. "I'm…uh…glad you liked it."

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

Tara shrugged, desperately uncomfortable. "I guess those who can't do, write books."

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

"Hardback?" Tara gasped. "For a thriller? For my third book?"

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

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

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

Based on a real person. Tara shuddered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Based on a real person…oh, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this so strong tonight?

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

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

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

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

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

I have to do this. It's right.

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


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

Shocked, she sank to the bench. "What are you doing here? How did you know?"

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

"You aren't going to try and stop me are you?" Tara asked anxiously. "I have to do this. Xander…"

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

"Don't be angry at them," Tara pleaded. "They didn't mean to hurt me. And they're your friends…." She ran down at Buffy's scowl.

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

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

"No," she said quietly. "I don't think there's anything else to be done to him."

"Anyway," Buffy said in a forcibly bright tone. "Do you know where you're going?"

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

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

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

After a moment, Buffy said carefully. "Ok, clean break. I understand clean break. I even expected clean break. But," she held up a stern finger. "The only way you get to do this is if I know you're ok. So…here."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait a minute…those aren't all people.

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

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

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

A burst of music came through the open door.

"I think I love you, So what am I so afraid of?
Afraid that I am catching,
A love there is no cure for…"

A place where bad 70's music goes to die?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

"Oops. Somebody over here doesn't look like they're having a good time."

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

"I wasn't doing anything violent," the woman pouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey. I hate to do this, but you're gonna get a stiff neck."

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

"Oh! Oh, God, I'm sorry!"

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

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

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

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

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

"Ok." She tried a smile, found it worked. "Thanks."

"Anytime, Marianas. Come back again."

"Tara," she said shyly. "It's Tara."

"That's pretty. Means 'Hill of the Kings', if you're at all interested. I'm Lorne."

That wasn't what she expected. "What does Lorne mean?"

"That 'Krevlornswath-of-the-Deathwok-Clan is a crappy name'."

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

"Why not now?" he said quietly. "I'd really like to hear you."

"It's so late," she murmured, embarrassed.

"Here's a Lorne life lesson. It's never too late to sing."

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

"Not if you don't want."

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

On a summer day

In the month of May

A burly bum came hiking

Down a shady lane

Through the sugar cane

He was looking for his liking

As he roamed along

He sang a song

Of the land of milk and honey

Where a bum can stay

For many a day

And he won't need any money

Oh the buzzin' of the bees

In the cigarette trees

Near the soda water fountain

At the lemonade springs

Where the bluebird sings

On the big rock candy mountain

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

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

"Is everything ok?" Tara asked timidly. "Didn't it work?"

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

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

"You've done good things," Lorne continued. "Trust yourself. You didn't actually kill that guy, you know."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, it's late," she agreed hastily. "I should call a cab."

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

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

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

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

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

"I told her she'd have better luck on another street," said a deep, slurred voice.

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

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

"Varishka left and took the kids," the demon grunted. "I don't know where they are."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Fiat Lux!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ok, ok. Excuse me for trying to be heroic. I might know somewhere we can go for help."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Whatever," Nefrexx rumbled. "Time to die, Host."

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Tara!" Lorne cried.

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

"No. She's mine."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul's grasp on her hair loosened, and he straightened, lifting his knee from her back, "You're right," he said. "There's other's out there."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3

The Host opened his mouth, hopefully to provide some explanation for the circus act he had led through Spike's door, but before he could speak, Tara's eyes closed again, and Spike heard her heart-rate plummet alarmingly.

"Never mind," he growled. "Tell me later."


The Host took Tara's hand, murmuring to her urgently as Spike stood and jerked his head at Phil. When his second-in-command reached him, Spike said briefly, "Meeting's adjourned. You know what to do, so clean this lot up and get to your assignments." He selected a key from the ring and tossed it over. "I'm taking the van. Use the car as needed. Check in with any problems. Questions?"

Phil looked at the Host and Tara, opened his mouth, caught Spike's expression, and altered whatever he had been going to say to, "No questions."

Spike smiled humorlessly. "Good boy. I'll be in touch."

He watched Phil walk away, calling orders as he went. Having learned his lesson with Harmony, Spike had been careful when forming this group. Rule one: no idiots. Other rules included no one who'd either be attracted to or have a grudge against other members due to sex, species, or whatever, and no one with some holy or unholy mission that would bollocks up paying cases.

He was careful in how he treated them as well, being only as nasty as he had to be to maintain order and his position as leader. A certain amount of fear led to a healthy employer/employee relationship, but too much, and you had to worry about a stake in the heart, 'accidental' exposure to the sun, or being sold out. He shared out pay fairly, didn't kill anyone simply because he was in a bad mood, and didn't tolerate mistakes.

Spike turned back to the Host and Tara, ignoring the pang he felt at the sight of the witch's pallor, contrasting harshly with her blood-soaked blouse and hair. He kept both face and voice matter-of-fact as he knelt and slid his arms under her shoulders and knees. "Where's Willow?"

The Host blinked. "A better question might be who's Willow?"

"Her girlfriend."

The demon shrugged, "No idea. She showed up at Caritas alone."

That was odd. They had been inseparable, and he would have thought it impossible for them to break up. He'd only seen her alone once. When… Spike dismissed the thought and headed for the door, Tara in his arms. "There's no time to look. We'll have to leave her at the hospital and let her sort it out. The cops will be all over this when they get a look at her, and I don't fancy greeting dawn from a cell."

"Dawn," Tara murmured. "Glory." She stirred slightly, frowning, and he held her closer.

"I know where we can go," the Host said, hurrying after Spike. "A druid who's a retired doctor. She runs a clinic for the occult types."

"Not some quack, is she?" Spike asked suspiciously. He shifted Tara enough to hand the key to the Host who unlocked the back doors of the van and scrambled inside to help steady Tara as Spike climbed in.

"No, no. Very reputable." He smiled and touched the witch's hair with a gentle green-skinned hand. "I wouldn't trust Marianas with just anybody."

"Fine," Spike said briefly. He laid her down carefully on the hard floor of the van, shrugging out of his duster to slide it under her head. She flinched at the movement, and her eyes fluttered open. She looked at him in some confusion, moving a hand weakly towards her neck.

"Easy," he said smiling. "I'm not the one bit you. You're safe."

A faint smile crossed her face before she slid back into unconsciousness. He caught her hand before it could fall and laid it gently back by her side.

Straightening, he found the demon looking at him with bright-eyed interest. "What?"

"Nothing, nothing. Look, one of us should keep her steady. Why don't I drive, since I know where we're going?"

Spike scowled at the innocent-looking Host but couldn't find anything wrong with the statement. It did make sense for the one who knew the area to drive and someone did need to keep Tara from rolling around in the back of the van. Still, he had the feeling that something else was going on.

He tossed over the keys with bad grace, and the Host scrambled into the front seat while Spike settled with his back against the wall of the van. Not seeing any other way, but still feeling manipulated, he rearranged the witch so that her head was in his lap and laid the duster over her, putting an arm around her waist to keep her in place.

He didn't dignify the Host's "Comfy?" with a reply, mostly because now that he wasn't dealing with an immediate crisis, Spike had to concentrate to keep his fangs from descending and the rest of his body from reacting to the scent of Tara's blood. He had a 50% success rate. Incarceration by the chip had given him a strong control over the demon, and he shook the fangs away with little difficulty. As for the rest, Spike had gained ample practice in ignoring that in Sunnydale as well, and simply made sure that Tara wasn't leaning against anything that could poke her in the back.

Spike had rather less success with avoiding thinking about who was lying in his lap and looked down at her pale face. Five years hadn't made much of a difference, longer hair maybe and he didn't remember those circles under the eyes, but it wasn't as if he'd looked at her that closely.

I only saw the Slayer. This one was just another Scooby. Will's adoring little shadow.

There had been hints she was something more although he had ignored them in his obsession. Through the occult gossip mill, he'd heard that Tara had been the first to realize something was wrong when Slayer Faith did her body-switching act. He was also fairly sure he hadn't fooled her when he tried to drive the Scoobies apart to make them fodder for Adam. Will had been angry with his 'trendy' comment, but Tara had merely suggested speaking with Buffy.

Then had come the day she'd stepped from Will's shadow once and for all and shown up at his door, white with terror but resolved to help. And help she had, first with the invisibility spells, and then…

None of the others, not Buffy or even Dawn, would have neutralized the chip if they could. They didn't trust him, which Spike supposed he couldn't really blame them for, although the pain of having his efforts rejected had been sharp. But Tara, whose only contact with him had been a well-timed punch in the nose, had done it because it was necessary for him to survive.

Marianas, the Host called her, that deep and deceptively quiet Trench. Not a bad name.

Tara was drifting in and out of consciousness as they rode, and when the van bounced over a pothole, her eyes opened and she looked at him with recognition. Spike expected her to be frightened or upset, but before he could reassure her, she sighed contentedly and snuggled against him, before slipping into sleep again. He swallowed hard, unprepared for the wave of protectiveness that went through him.

She's delerious. Thinks I'm Will or some such.

"Yours, huh?"

Spike jerked. "What?" he said, pulling his hand away where it had somehow come to rest against her jaw.

"That's what you said to the guy in the warehouse. That she was yours."

"Just vamp talk," he shrugged irritably. "Bit of posturing and such to get his attention."

"Oh," Lorne said politely. "I thought maybe…"

"You thought wrong. I used to know her is all. She did me a good turn once. Some mojo type you are," Spike added in derision. "Didn't even see she's not into blokes. I said she had a girlfriend, did you forget?"

"Hmmm? No, no. I didn't forget. Here we are."

As he spoke, he parked the van in front of a small building that appeared deserted except for a small light over the door. "Rose likes to keep a low profile," he explained holding the van door while Spike climbed out with Tara. "The people who need to know where she is can find her."

Spike's skin prickled as they crossed the parking lot, and he was fairly sure a ward had been triggered. His guess was proven correct when, despite the lack of windows, the door swung open as they approached, revealing a woman in her 60's, gray hair cut uncompromisingly short.

"What have you brought me, Lorne?" she asked.

"My friend here got bitten by a vampire. Not him," he added hastily as Rose's eyes flicked to Spike. "Got bashed on the head too."

"And something else I think," she said, her eyes on Tara. She stood back, gesturing them in and through a small lobby.

He was relieved when they entered a sterile-looking examining room, and he saw the standard doctoring equipment. Spike knew the efficacy of magic, but all that New Age crystal-waving and chanting gave him a headache.

He laid Tara on a padded table as Rose directed, then gritted his teeth as she traced the contours of the witch's body, hands held about an inch above her skin.

"Minor concussion," she said. "Just enough for a headache. She's lost a lot of blood though."

"No kidding," he said sarcastically. "Her aura tell you that? Or did the bite-mark and blood-stained shirt give it away?"

She looked at him coolly but spoke to Lorne. "She's also burned herself out spell-casting and needs to rest. I'm going to start her on some fluids and a little blood to begin putting back what she's lost. What's her type?"

"A positive," Spike said without thinking, the tang unmistakable on his lips.

The druid's eyes narrowed, and her hand dropped to the squirt bottle resting in her belt. He realized it must be holy water, and his fangs began to descend as he shifted into fighting stance.

"Why don't we just wait outside?" Lorne said hastily, moving between Spike and Rose.

She smiled humorlessly. "Why don't you?" She turned back to Tara, unbuckling the pack the witch wore at her waist and handing it to Lorne. The demon urged Spike back into the lobby as she began pushing the witch's sleeve up to bare her arm.

"Do the words 'flies and honey' mean anything to you?" Lorne asked in exasperation. "As in you catch more of one with the other?"

"I ever want to catch flies, I'll keep it in mind." He twitched the pack from Lorne's grasp and unzipped it.

"Hey!" Lorne protested. "Privacy issues!"

"Sod privacy issues," Spike said absently as he nudged aside a business card, wallet, and hotel key. "Ah, here we are." He held the cell phone up in front of the demon's disapproving visage. "Willow's probably tearing the city apart. I can contact her, hand Tara off to someone competent and be on my way."

He ignored Lorne's sniff and punched the speed dial. To his surprise, the call wasn't immediately answered with urgent cries for explanation and location. Instead, the receiver was picked up after three rings, with sounds indicating at least one fumble, and a very sleepy voice said something like, "Wazztfl?"

"Willow?" he said cautiously. Maybe she didn't know her lover had gone wandering. That was the only reason he could fathom that she would be asleep. Still, it didn't quite sound like the witch.

After a moment of somehow threatening silence, a cold voice said, "Who is this?"

Spike stared confusedly at the phone. What was going on?

"Slayer?" he said cautiously. "Is that you?"

"Spike." Yep, no question of identity now. No one but Buffy could give his name quite that venomous twist. "What the hell do you want?"

"I've got Tara here," he said, not thinking of how his words could be interpreted. "She's hurt and…"

He wrenched the phone away from his ear, wondering for a moment whether it was going to explode from the force of the Slayer's reaction. Fury ran her words together, but the general gist seemed to be that all previous kickings of his ass were going to be mild in comparison what would happen when she got hold of him.

"I didn't do it!" he shouted into the phone. "What, you think I'd call you if I was the one hurt her and…?"

"Gloat? Sneer? Gee, how would I ever get the idea you'd do something like that? Oh, wait. Because you have!"

"Well, I'm not this time," he said, trying to calm down. Lorne was staring at him wide-eyed, and Rose opened the door, glared at them both impartially, and closed it again. "I saved her as a matter of fact, and I'm trying to reach Willow, so if you don't mind…"

He could hear a deep voice talking to Buffy, apparently trying to quiet things on that end. Angel. And given the time of night and the Slayer's sleepiness, he'd been in bed with her. There wasn't time to think about how that made him feel or even to feel anything.

"Willow and Tara aren't together anymore," Buffy said, obviously making an effort to control herself. "Where are you?"

"What happened? Is Will all right?" he asked, surprising himself.

He seemed to surprise Buffy too. "She's ok. Look, Spike, just tell me where Tara is."

"Trouble in Paradise then? Some wicked temptress pull the lovebirds apart?"

Even as he said the words, Spike didn't know where they came from. He didn't mean them. He was, in fact, sorry that the two women had parted. They had seemed genuinely happy together, their relationship something he'd envied if he let himself think about it.


So why this anger he couldn't control? Why the urge to taunt and tease? "Oh, wait, maybe that's what this business card is about." He fished it out and squinted at it. "Sophie. New friend perhaps."

"ANYA'S DEAD!" Buffy's voice broke on the shouted words. She drew a long sobbing breath and went on more quietly. "You complete son-of-a-bitch, Anya's dead, and Willow's with Xander. Ok? That clear it all up for you?"

Pain struck him unexpectedly, the quizzical face of the former demon rising up before him. She had been funny and direct, her precise voice pointing out the home truths that the rest of them thought but didn't say.

"I didn't know," Spike said quietly. "Sorry."

There was a pause broken by sniffling. He heard her say, "No, I've got it," in response to a query from Angel. Then to him, "Yeah, it sucked. So, for the last time, where are you?"

He paused, thinking. "If Tara wanted you to know where she was, she'd have told you." Buffy started to expostulate again, but he cut her off. "She's not in immediate danger. I'll have her call."

Spike cut the connection and dropped the cell phone into the pack. Looking up, he met Lorne's gaze, which was serious for once.

"That was interesting," the demon said. "I thought she was going to crawl out of the phone and kill you."

He smiled a little painfully. "We've always had an…intense relationship."

"You bring out the worst in each other," Lorne shrugged. "That happens. Two people are fine apart, but put them together and boom! Instant apocalypse. Fun sometimes, but not the best basis for a long-term relationship." He looked Spike up and down. "Of course, that's not a problem for you anymore, is it?"

Spike slammed the pack down on a coffee table. "Have I asked for guidance? Did you hear me sing at any point tonight?"

Lorne patted the air consolingly. "Sorry for speaking out of turn, but you're giving off body-language a blind person could read. You've just had what's known as a moment of clarity. I know the look. You used to love her, but now you don't."

While Spike was still dealing with that one, Lorne retrieved the pack and withdrew the cell phone again. "Since her friend isn't in the picture any longer, I'm going to call my sweetie and have her bring something for Marianas to wear."

"Your sweetie," Spike said flatly.

"Yes, my sweetie. Why wouldn't I have a sweetie? I'm quite a catch. Own a business, good company, sharp dresser. The girls just line up. She's very competent too. We'll take Tara wherever she's staying," he said kindly. "You can tend to that really important business you were mentioning."

Yeah, like I'd leave her with you lot. You got her into it in the first place.

"I'll wait," he said aloud. He headed for the door. "But outside. I need a smoke."

"Good idea," Lorne smiled. "You've got some thinking to do."

Outside, Spike lit up and leaned back against the wall of the clinic, drawing desperately on the cigarette. As the calming smoke filled his lungs, he closed his eyes and let the tight grip he'd kept on his features relax.

"You used to love her. Now you don't."

He's right. When did that happen?

After he'd left Sunnydale, he'd deliberately blocked all of its inhabitants, including the Slayer, from his mind. It was the only way he could survive. Twice before he'd left, and twice returned, both times to the tune of his significant pain and suffering. So this final time, he'd refused to think about it at all and filled his mind with the business of survival, coldly keeping emotion at bay.

He'd no interest in ending up chipped and helpless again, scavenging and living in crypts, so he'd been careful. His profile had been so low it had almost been subterranean, and he'd waited and watched for opportunities in various hotspots such as New Orleans, New York City, Orlando (hard to believe what went on at Disneyworld). Opportunities had come slowly but surely, the chances to do favors for important, and more importantly rich, people who'd run afoul of demons. Favors for demons too. And slowly but surely, he'd built up a clientele along with employees who had skills he needed.

It was a two-for-one deal sometimes. Phil, for instance, had been a necromancer who was fond of dead people. Really fond of dead people. A woman he'd graced with his attentions had been marked for zombiehood by a former admirer. Phil's gratitude had provided Spike with a reasonably powerful mage who was too poufy to be a real threat, but who had contacts with the magic community. As long as he kept his relationship issues to himself, Spike didn't care what Phil did on his off time.

Only once, had his control slipped. Despite his deliberate ignoring of all things pertaining to the Slayer, it would have been hard to miss the apocalypse started by Wolfram and Hart and thwarted by Angel and Angel's subsequent transformation to human. Hating himself, he'd called in a couple of markers and found that the former vampire had returned to Sunnydale and the Slayer.

Even now, he couldn't recall the entire sequence of his reactions. He'd only awakened a week later, sodden with drink and possessing an entire notebook filled with the most gods-awful poetry he'd ever been privileged to read. He'd read it, burned it, and gone on, shoving the whole subject of Buffy into a box at the back of his mind.

And somewhere along the way, he'd fallen out of love with her. It didn't even hurt to know Angel was in her bed. Now what?

Spike shrugged, saw that he'd gone through an entire cigarette without noticing, and lit another.

Now, nothing I guess. The same nothing I've been dealing with for years.

He was comfortable with that safe and painless nothing, and he didn't let anything get past it. There had been several affairs, all of which he'd been careful to keep separate from business, but nothing that engaged him on any level other than the physical. Not that there was anything wrong with the physical. The Kali priestess had almost ruptured his pleasure center, but he'd still left without a backward glance.

It was better that way. Traveling light, empty-handed really, made it impossible to be weighed down. Although he wasn't quite empty-handed was he? Spike reached into a jeans pocket and pulled out the one thing he'd brought with him from Sunnydale that wasn't essential for survival.

The tiny mouse, smaller than his thumbnail, still slept with its carved tail curled over its nose. Tara had thrown it to him from her dorm window the night he left, and he'd carried it ever since. He didn't even think about it anymore, transferring the mouse from pair of trousers to another automatically. A gift, one of the few he'd ever received that didn't involve someone trying to buy him off. A gift from the woman who'd saved him in more ways than one, and whom he'd saved now. He'd blown her a kiss in return, and she'd smiled and caught it.

Spike was smiling a little himself, turning the mouse in his fingers, when a blue car pulled up and he hastily stuck the carving back in his pocket.

The woman who exited the car was pretty enough, mid-thirties, neatly dressed in jeans and crisply-pressed blouse with her blond hair pulled back in a clip. Spike tensed, recognizing the no-nonsense walk and the eyes that constantly scanned her surroundings as she crossed the parking lot, a bundle of clothes under her arm. She might as well have had "COP" tattooed on her forehead. She strode up to him with an expression that made Rose look friendly, and the light from the door glinted off the large silver cross she wore around her neck.

He nodded towards it. "Y'know, that wouldn't stop me if I really wanted to bite you."

"I know," she responded calmly. "I have a crossbow in the car. Lorne told me you were all right or I would have just shot you."

She started to brush past him then suddenly stopped and stared at him intently, blue eyes sweeping over him. Her inspection started at his hair, paused a moment at his scar, and then continued down him until she reached his boots. She blinked, and Spike could have sworn that a look of recognition crossed her face.

He reacted automatically, propping an arm against the wall, raising an eyebrow, flexing various muscles and resting his other hand on his belt buckle. "Like what you see, Pet?"

The woman's expression settled back into a scowl. "You got a name?"


When she realized that was all he planned to say, her eyes narrowed even more, and she strode into the clinic. Spike flicked the cigarette into the parking lot and followed her.

Personally, he would as soon have bedded down with an iceburg, and a less-likely partner for Lorne would be hard to imagine, except perhaps for Rupert Giles, but when she caught sight of Lorne, her eyes softened, and the demon looked up with a smile.

"How's my Katie?" he said fondly.

Her mouth curled, and she tossed the clothes on the couch. "What stray kitten did you pick up this time?"

"Be nice." He took her arm and turned her towards Spike. "Did you meet Spike?"

That assessing expression crossed her face again, and she nodded as if checking something off a list. "Spike, huh? Yeah, we've met."

"Katie," he smirked.

"Kate," she said coldly. "That hers?" she added, nodding toward the pack.

"That's right, and am I the only one who doesn't snoop through people's property?" Lorne said crossly as Kate caught up and unzipped the pack in turn.

"No, you stick to snooping through their heads," Spike said, and Kate grinned slightly.

"He's got you there."

"That's to help," Lorne huffed.

"So is this. At least, it's not to hurt." She held up the hotel key and squinted at the design. "Your stray's got money. This key is to the Regency. That isn't cheap."

The business card seemed to tell Kate something too. "Sophie Carstairs. That explains the Regency."

"Who's Sophie Carstairs when she's at home?" Spike asked.

"Chief publishing agent for Blackhawk books. Your friend write?"

He shrugged. "I've not seen her in years."

"Hmm. You might want to ask." She tucked the things into the pack and picked up the clothes. "I'll see if Rose is ready for these."

She rapped at the door and the druid put her head around, the guarded expression fading when she saw Kate. The women vanished behind the door, and Spike looked at Lorne, who was staring after Kate with a besotted expression.

"Beauty, brains, and her own handcuff key. What more could one ask?"

Maybe not getting your hide flayed off every time she opens her mouth.

Aloud, he said "What indeed? Likes her men horned does she? That's a plus."

Lorne smiled. "You know what I said about some people bringing out the worst in each other? We bring out each other's best. She keeps me on my toes, keeps me from getting too much 'more in touch with the universe than thou' and I…I can make her laugh."

Spike opened his mouth to say something cutting, but nothing would come, the truth of the demon's words robbing him of his ability to think of a quip.

"Look, I've got to go," he said, turning away from Lorne's sympathetic gaze. "It'll be day soon. I assume between the three of you, you can get under cover safely enough."

"We'll manage," Lorne said gently. "But you've got a few minutes. Won't you wait and tell Tara goodbye? I think she's awake. Or stop by Caritas tonight."

Spike could hear the witch's soft tones added to the other two women's voices but shook his head. "Nah. Stuff to do. And singing for my supper isn't quite my thing. Say goodbye for me."

He swept out of the door and headed for the van, unclear as to his need to escape, but knowing that it was important.

As he pulled to the edge of the parking lot, his gaze involuntarily went to the van's side mirror. Tara stood in the doorway of the clinic, leaning on Rose's arm. He knew she couldn't see that he was looking at her – sometimes not having a reflection was handy – but her hand raised slightly in farewell before she stepped back and the closing door hid her from his view.

That was that; or it should have been that; for any intelligent being it would have been that. However, the following day as he rested in his lair, reviewed the specs for his own next assignment, and checked in with Phil, Spike found he couldn't let go of the previous night's encounter.

You've just had what's known as a moment of clarity. I know the look.

He supposed the realization that he was no longer in love with the Slayer qualified all right. For years, Spike had defined himself by her, hating her, loving her, missing her, always resenting her. Now, he felt adrift. If he no longer measured himself by the Slayer or her absence, what was left?

Spike shifted in his chair, trying fruitlessly to find some position where that damned wooden mouse didn't make itself known. Finally, he dug carving out of his pocket and glared at it.

I carried the thing for years without a thought. Now, I can't move without it digging into my leg.

Seeing the carving brought its giver to his mind again, collapsed on the floor of the warehouse, watching as he drove away, content in his arms in the back of the van. He hadn't gotten that reaction in years, not since Dru, and he wasn't sure that even his first love had ever relaxed so trustingly with him.

He felt again that surge of protectiveness and growled, "Bleeding stupid Angel-wannabe wanker!"

There was no need to check on Tara, Spike told himself. She'd been on her feet last night, and despite his sneering comment, he knew Lorne was able to get her back to her hotel. If he wasn't, Kate was. And if Kate couldn't manage, Tara had magical resources of her own. There was no reason for her to not be perfectly fine.

Except there was fine and fine, wasn't there? Physically, she might be ok, but the rest? Sitting in her hotel room, alone and sad wasn't all that fine. Not that there was any reason to assume she was alone. For all Spike knew, she was having an orgy up there. If not, well, since when was nursemaid in his job description?

Admit it, said a voice in his head that sounded a hell of a lot like the Host. You don't have a reason. You just want to see her.

Don't be stupid. I didn't exchange 10 words with the girl from the time she arrived in Sunnydale until the day she showed up at the crypt and not much more after that.

He could sit there and mentally argue and curse himself for a fool all day, but he knew the truth, which was that he did want to see her. The possible reasons why terrified Spike if he thought about them. Homesick? Lonely? Those were human emotions that served no purpose and should have been discarded years ago.

So, as he stood in front of the hotel Kate had identified as Tara's, Spike refused to dwell on why he was there. Instead, he considered more practical things, like the fact that this was a big hotel with a doorman and that he didn't even know Tara's last name.

He had anticipated and dealt with the appearance issues. His current business occasionally required him to wear something other than t-shirts and jeans, and his white silk shirt and dark slacks and jacket kept him from drawing too many looks as he scoped the hotel. As for the rest, this was Hollywood, where bleached hair wasn't that uncommon, the sunglasses hid his scarred eyebrow, and the cockiness and arrogance exhibited by so many of the rich and important had been his persona practically since he'd been turned. Unfortunately, he was fairly sure he wouldn't be able to bully Tara's room number out of the desk clerk even if he had her last name, at least not without drawing undue attention. Which left the old-fashioned way.

A large group of men in suits entered the hotel, and Spike sauntered along behind, giving off the aura of one without a care in the world other than getting his TV pilot picked up. The doorman didn't give him a second glance, and he strolled casually through the lobby, smirking faintly as he caught the admiring glances of three women and two men.

Fate must have been smiling too, because one of the men he was following pulled out his room key as he spoke with the others, but before he could head for the guarded elevator, his cell-phone rang. Grimacing, he pulled out his phone and headed for a semi-private area near the restrooms. Spike aimed toward them as well, and it was the work of a moment for his long fingers to twitch in and out of the man's pocket, faster than a mortal eye could track. A neat count of ten in the men's room and he was headed toward the elevator, flashing his key at the guard as he boarded the car and pressed all the buttons.

Now it got tricky, since there were cameras in the elevator. Spike looked down, pretending to fumble with something in his pocket and let his features shift. As he changed to full predator state, his senses extended. He'd tasted her blood, and blood was the key to finding her. It was something like tracking by scent, but more like tracking her force or energy. Her life. He found it among the hundreds that had ridden the elevator, some combination of scent, taste and psychic twang that spelled 'Tara' unmistakably. At each floor, he sniffed the air of the corridor, and on twenty-five, he found her.

He exited the elevator and trailed her essence down the corridor until he reached 2513, which he could tell was hers. He started to knock then froze with unaccountable nervousness.

What the bloody hell was I thinking coming here? I've got a good thing going, and I don't need any former Scoobies rattling around and interfering. I should just leave…

The door opened, making him jump, and Tara peered out at him, looking as tense as he felt. "Spike?"

Hastily, he dropped his hand back to his hip and managed a grin. "Evening, Pet. Thought I'd come by and see how you were."

There was a tiny pause, as if she were thinking over what he'd said, and then she stepped back and opened the door. "Come in."

Spike entered the hotel room and nodded appreciatively as he took in his surroundings. They were standing in the sitting room of a two-room suite, an open door showing a king-size bed. "Posh setup you've got here. Whatever you're doing, it seems to be working."

"Yeah, it's nice," Tara said, hastily crossing to a large table that contained a stack of papers and a laptop. She threw the papers into a briefcase and shut down the computer, then turned back to him with a nervous smile and perched on the edge of an armchair, waving a hand for Spike to sit on the couch.

He obliged, watching her as he did so. She was somewhat shy of him, which he'd expected, but seemed to be trying to relax. Her jeans, sweater, and bare feet didn't go with the room's decor, but somehow she looked fine while the room seemed overdone.

"So," he said, trying to ignore the fact that he hadn't been good at small talk even when he was alive, "Kate says Sophie Carstairs is some sort of publishing agent? Have you written a book or something?"

"A book?" she squeaked, going first white then red. She swallowed. "Yes, a book. I wrote a book. A history book…tying in witchcraft and feminism."

His bullshit meter went off like a fire alarm.

Sure you did, Love.

"Sounds like a real page-turner," he drawled. "Topped the best-seller list did it? Which is why you get the fancy hotel room?"

"Sophie liked it. Anyhow, I'm glad you came by," Tara said abruptly. "I wanted to thank you for helping me last night. You saved my life."

It was an obvious subject change, and he normally would have called her on it, but Spike found that he didn't want to tease her. Let her keep her secrets. If she was secretly Danielle Steel or Mike Hammer, so be it.

"Helps make us even then, doesn't it?" he said, following her lead. "You saved me from the Initiative. 'Course you turned off the chip as well, so that puts you still ahead by one."

"No, you helped me twice too," she pointed out. "You proved I wasn't a demon, remember? So, we are even." Tara frowned a little. "I don't think I ever thanked you for helping with my family. I'm sorry. And thank you."

"Don't worry over it. I'm used to my good deeds going unnoticed," he said with a slight bitterness and saw her face go troubled. "You were a bit busy at the time," Spike added more gently. Recalling how frightened and miserable she'd been facing her father made him angry. Her reaction to the ex-Initiative member had given him a clue as to what her life had been like.

Wonder if dear old Dad would like a visit from a real demon?

"Still," Tara was saying, looking at him worriedly. "I should have said something."

"I forgive you, especially since you helped me out and all. And if you forgive me stuff like working with Adam, we can call it square."

"Square is good." She smiled. "I guess that means we can quit keeping score."

The words were meant to be light, but sounded heavily in the room, and she looked down at her hands, cheeks flushing. Spike felt a little uncomfortable as well, suddenly aware that the blue of her sweater deepened the color of her eyes, and made her hair look even paler. It had obviously been washed recently, the mass of it slightly damp as it flowed loosely down her back past her waist. It was pretty hair, silky and fine, and he found himself wondering what it would feel like.

Actually, she was pretty herself in a quiet way that could pass unnoticed compared to the flamboyant beauty of the Slayer or Drusilla. She was much curvier than they were, the strong delineation of breast and hip not disguised by her loose clothing. Tara looked…natural, very much Earth's child.

"So," he said hastily, making them both jump. "You're all recovered then?"

"Oh, yes," She touched the bandage that covered part of her neck. "I'm a little tired, but much better. I rested a lot today, and drank about a ton of juice. Rose and Kate were very firm about that."

"I would imagine those two are very firm about everything. Speaking of which, did you let the Slayer know I wasn't torturing you to death?"

She nodded silently, looking away from him again.

"It's all right," he said, surprised to realize that it actually was. "I can see where she'd think it was me hurt you. There was a lot of hate between us, and even when I tried to change it, I didn't do a very good job."

The corner of Tara's mouth quirked. "The chaining her up thing was sort of a bad call."

Spike gave a startled bark of laughter. "Very bad. I don't know what I was thinking."

"You weren't. You were just hurting, and you do wrong-headed things sometimes when you're like that. Things like casting spells to make demons invisible. Still, I'm sorry stuff didn't work out for you."

He waved it away. "We'd have been at each other's throats all the time. She can have that with Angel."

Tara cocked her head. "You don't think they can make each other happy?"

"I don't know that anybody can make each other happy, Pet," Spike shrugged. He leaned back on the couch and stared at the ceiling. "Particularly not those two. I remember they thought they could just be friends once, which was a laugh. Too much passion and heat for that. No, it's fighting and shagging and hate for them. I'm well out of it."

He looked back at Tara and saw that she was regarding him with a horrified expression. "Is that what you think loving someone is like?" she asked incredulously. "Tied up with anger and pain, and…and ferocity?"

"What, you think I'm different? You think it's got something to do with me being a vampire?" Spike shook his head. "Look at the rest of them. Buffy tried normal with Captain Cardboard, and we saw how that worked out. Xander treated Anya like some sort of extra-smart pet. Oz left Willow for the wolf-girl and then later had to leave again because Willow called out the wolf in him. You and Willow seemed good together, but here you are, and she's with Xander. He's who she betrayed Oz for earlier. He's the one who calls out her passion and anger."

"Willow didn't betray me," Tara said steadily. "Not with so much as a kiss. Xander was leaving so it wouldn't grow into something more. I looked at him the night of his farewell party, and I knew…I knew that he would kill himself within three months, and that would destroy Willow. So I left, because I loved her and because Xander was my friend. Part of me will always love her. She was the one person I felt…safe with. Maybe that isn't the passionate love you were talking about, but it was enough for me."

"But you left," he pointed out. "If it was all perfect love and perfect trust and such, you could have set up some sort of group thing. Or been content to be their friend…."

He trailed off as her eyes filled with tears. Tara rose hastily from the chair and walked to the window, arms tight across her body.

"I didn't say it didn't hurt," she said unsteadily. "Maybe if we'd been better people, if I'd been a better person, we could have…but I couldn't watch… and I couldn't let him die, there'd been too much…"

Spike didn't remember moving. He was just suddenly behind her with his hands on her trembling shoulders, unbearably moved by her tears.

"Don't talk to me about you needing to be a better person," he said roughly. "Buffy's right, I am a complete son-of-a-bitch. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."

Her voice was a whisper, but he heard it plainly. "I've tried hard not to think about any of it. You're right, Xander didn't always treat Anya as an equal, but that was changing. They were so happy for a while. Anya was pregnant, did you know?"

"No," he said, gently turning her to face him. "I didn't know."

"Willow and I looked and we saw it was a girl." She smiled suddenly. "After they found out, Anya would walk up and just stare into strollers and then say 'I'm sure ours will be better looking than that' or 'I hope ours won't be as noisy'. Very loudly."

"That sounds like her." God, if she didn't stop, he was going to start crying too. He'd told Tara once that the closest things he had to friends were the Slayer and the Scoobies, and it was true. Other than Dru, they were what constituted family.

"And then one day she went to the bank, and a man came in waving a gun and telling everyone to get down on the floor. A baby started crying, and he pointed the gun at it and threatened to shoot. He probably wouldn't have, but Anya didn't understand that and tried to get the gun, and he shot her, and she was gone, and we couldn't even say goodbye.…"

Her voice broke, and he pulled her into his arms. Tara buried her head in his shoulder as the sobs shook her.

"Here now," he whispered, rocking her slightly. "It's all right. Don't cry."

He knew it was nonsense even as he said it, but he had to say something to keep his own tears back. With stunning irrelevance, he noted that her hair did indeed feel silky against his jaw as he hugged her, the faint scent of herbs teasing his nostrils.

She pulled back from him at last, scrubbing at her face with her sleeve. "Sorry. I don't know where that came from."

"Nothing to be sorry over." Spike pushed her hand down and brushed his thumb across her cheek, and she looked up into his eyes and tried to smile.

He felt the change as her breath suddenly caught in her throat, her heartbeat became hard and staccato, and her pheromones engaged, sending out the ancient signals of arousal and desire.

I'm misreading this. I have to be. She's gay, for one thing.

But he knew he wasn't. To a human, the changes were subliminal, but to vampire senses, they might as well have been flashing neon. Involuntarily, his body responded, hardening with need. The hand that still rested lightly on her waist slid further around her back and tightened and his other hand moved from her cheek to grip the back of her neck.

He was waiting for protest or anger or denial that he had sensed any such thing in her which would have let him leave, telling himself that she was a tease like the others. Instead Tara's eyes darkened and her hands slid up his arms to his shoulders, twining in the fabric of his shirt.

And then her lips were warm and sweet beneath his, parting even as he thrust his tongue between them. He pulled her closer, and she came willingly, pressing herself to him and returning his kiss with a fervor and passion that startled him.

Still waters do run deep, I guess.

Her response aroused him still further, sending fire and lightening through him. Spike shoved Tara back against the wall by the window and leaned into her, his hips pressing insistently against hers. She made a sound in the back of her throat, one hand twisting into his hair.

He had a hand on the hem of her sweater when the taste of salt reminded him of her tears a few moments earlier. His brain pointed out that her willingness was no doubt based on the fact that she was lonely and unhappy, and that it was wrong to take advantage of that.

The thought was so alien that it made him break the kiss off without really meaning to and pull back to stare down at her red cheeks and swollen lips. Everything from the neck down wanted to know what the hell his problem was, but his brain continued to insist that he shouldn't hurt Tara or coerce her into something she'd regret.

He shook his head hard, trying to dislodge the thought, but for one of the few times in his existence, his brain refused to give up control, and the thought stayed where it was.

"Spike," Tara asked cautiously. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing." He forced himself to release her and step back. "I…I have to go."

She frowned. "No, you don't." When he didn't come back to her, she said as if to clarify her statement. "I don't want you to go."

Panic and desire warred in him, panic emerging the clear victor. "Yeah…well…thanks. But I've got to leave."

And fast, before we end up on that nice big bed or just here on the floor.

He grabbed his jacket from the couch and headed for the door.

Hesitantly, she asked, "What is it? Did I do something wrong?"

Spike forced a smile as he fumbled with the knob. "No, Love. You didn't do anything wrong. I just need to go." And he tore out of the door at something close to a run.

I need a drink. I need a lot of drinks.

He hurried through the city, not sure which was bothering him more: the fact that he'd wanted to make love to Tara or the fact that he'd stopped. Wanting to make love to her was bad enough. Shy, bookish, gay Wiccans were about as far from his type as it was possible to get. He liked girls with an edge, a dark side. Girls who wore leather and wanted to go out and spend the night clubbing and drinking. From his time in Sunnydale, he remembered that Tara and Willow's idea of a great time had involved a really complicated jigsaw puzzle.

But he'd wanted her, wanted her about as badly as he'd ever wanted anyone. Not because she'd represented home or friends, or some psychobabble thing like that, but just because she'd been her. The lush strong body, the shining blue eyes, the fall of winter wheat hair, he'd wanted to lose himself in all of it.

She'd been fine with the whole idea. It hadn't been some kind of rape situation. He was the one who had stopped because he hadn't wanted to hurt her, because he had thought it was wrong. William the Bloody, who used to employ railroad spikes in interesting fashion, who had killed two Slayers, and made a good try on the third, who had had his very own reign of terror, was considering the moral ramifications of his actions.

I've been body-snatched. I've got Angel in here, or William's come back, or some bloody poufter's taken over from Big Bad. Oh, hell, what Big Bad? I was more Big Bad when I had the chip. At least I still wanted to be Big Bad.

Alcohol. He needed alcohol. Now.

Spike emerged from his blind fog and found, to no great surprise and some bitter amusement, he was standing directly outside Caritas.

Why fight? He shoved open the door and stomped inside.

The crowd was reasonably light, it being Sunday, and they were all listening quietly to Lorne.

"Lips as sweet as candy,
Your taste is on my mind.
Girl, you've got me thirsty for
Another cup of wine."

Lovely. Just exactly what I needed to hear.

He was swinging around to leave – cadging a bottle off a wino was better to this – when a waving arm caught his attention and he saw Kate sitting at one of the tables. He considered leaving, but that would let her win in some obscure way, so gritting his teeth, Spike went to her table and sat.

"You look…overwhelmed," Kate commented in an amused voice. "Things not working out like you thought they would?"

"I thought he was the psychic," Spike sneered.

A waiter appeared, setting a bottle of dark English beer before him.

"I'm used to reading people," she said mildly. "Goes with what used to be my territory."

"You're not a cop anymore?" he said surprised. It seemed to inform everything she did.

"Nope. It was a hard change." Kate shrugged. "But it didn't kill me. Not quite anyway."

"So, now what do you do?"

"Private agency. Normally, they'd be here, but one of our associates is opening in a new play and the guys went to cheer her on. We all agreed that I wasn't intellectual enough to appreciate the depth of her acting, so I came here."

Lorne exited the stage to applause and swept through the tables beaming at all and sundry. He reached Kate and Spike, took a look at the vampire and said, "Hoo, boy."

"What?" Spike said crossly with a swig of his beer.

"I'd say 'hoo, boy' pretty much sums it up. Besides, you were very firm about not wanting guidance."

Lorne began to chat to Kate, and Spike watched them broodingly. They were happy together, the affection plain between them even if they didn't fall all over each other. They didn't have to prove it, they just were.

His thoughts were interrupted when Lorne got up to speak to someone else, leaving him alone with Kate. The ex-cop looked at him appraisingly.

"You see the witch tonight?"

"Why do you ask?" he asked, looking at her with suspicion. Maybe that was why the Host took up with her, to have two psychics working the bar.

Kate shrugged. "Something's got you worked up, and you were pretty worried about her last night."

"She's fine, and why should she get me worked up?"

"You tell me."

"All right, that's it." Spike stood angrily, but Kate put a hand on his wrist.

"Look, you came here for a reason and you know it. Like it or not, you're looking for help. I know exactly how hard it is to let someone see inside, but you can trust Lorne. And I've got something that may help you, but you've got to sing first."

"Why?" he gritted.

"Because," Lorne said from behind him, making him jump and turn. "Unless you sing, I can only get surface impressions. I need to know what's really going in there." He tapped Spike lightly on the chest. "And you're not getting the information until I do. I told you once I wouldn't trust Marianas to just anybody."

He froze, staring at the demon, wanting to ask why Lorne would think this had anything to do with Tara, but there was no point. Those red eyes saw too much.

"Fine," he said with bad grace. "Sing what?"

"Whatever you want. You can go after this set."

In the end, he went with a classic, "Scarborough Fair," instead of one of the rock songs he listened to. He'd known a variation of the ballad in his human days, and the old words came easily to his mind now.

"Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme
Remember me to one who lives there.
She once was a true love of mine."

It fit in a way, for his former true loves were far away and gone from him, and Spike was beginning to understand that he was content to have it so.

The club was quiet a moment when he finished, but as he stepped down, the applause started, and he thought he saw one or two customers wipe away tears.

He reached the table where Lorne and Kate sat and the demon nodded to her. "It's ok. Give it to him."

She leaned down, fished a book out of her bag, and handed it to Spike. It was plain black, the title embossed in white.

"The Underworld," he read and looked at them questioningly. "What's this then? New religion that'll solve all my problems?"

"Not a religion, no," Lorne smiled. "Whether it'll solve your problems is up to you. Go read it."

"That's it?" Spike demanded. "I got up there and made a bloody fool of myself and that's what I get?"

"Why is showing what you are making a fool of yourself? But ok, here's one other thing. You did a really good thing tonight, but your decision was based on the wrong information."

Spike sighed, "And that means what?"

"It means read the book." Lorne said with finality.

"And look at the publisher," Kate added.

They turned away from him, talking between themselves and with other patrons and Spike knew himself dismissed.

He stomped out of Caritas, barely restraining the urge to slam the book into the trashcan.

"You think it'll work?" Kate asked, watching him go.

"I hope so," Lorne said worriedly. "He's got the information he needs, but they're both going to need a lot of coaxing. She's been hurt and he's going to have to change his entire worldview. He's got the ability, but he's got to want it."

Spike settled in his lair and opened the book resignedly. If this was what he had, this was what he had. He checked the author on the spine of the book, but Claudia Harris meant nothing to him. With a sigh, he began to read.

Jane looked up from the stack of her papers and checked the clock with a sigh. Another late night. Time had a habit of getting away from her at work, and she was always afraid that anything she left undone until morning would lead to the injury or death of another child.

Still, she thought, it doesn't really matter. It's not like anyone's waiting for me at hime.

Ten pages later.

She stepped in front of the little girl in a gesture that was futile enough to be amusing. At least, the…things…that surrounded her seemed to find it pretty funny, baring their teeth in cold laughter.

Still, it was too late now, had been too late since she saw the child running towards her screaming for help. Jane gripped her pathetic mace can and wished it was something a little more menacing, although anything less than a hand grenade would probably be useless.

They were closing in, the circle of death tightening, when the strike of a lighter sounded, oddly loud in the tense silence. The small flame gleamed in the darkness for an instant, and then a figure stepped into the dim circle of light.

"What do we have here?" he drawled, drawing deep on the cigarette, light catching on platinum hair.

Wait a minute. Spike sat up, and began to read faster, skimming sections until Jane met her rescuer.

His mouth twisted in a grin that would have frightened her if she hadn't seen him save her life. The scar pulled at his cheek, making the cold blue of his eyes seem more dangerous.

"You want something, Pet? Get off on being rescued do you?"

"Oh, my God."

He went on in a mixture of fascination and horror, until he hit the scene where Thomas, known familiarly as Shiv seduced the female vampire, allowing Jane to escape.

She knew she should leave, knew he was distracting her captor so she could leave, but her feet were having a hard time moving. Fascinated, she watched as Shiv's hands stroked lazily over Sylvia face and neck. Her own nipples tightened as his hand brushed the side of the vampire's breast on its way to her waist.

His lips were on Sylvia's throat, his hands moving to the clasp of her dress when Jane at last made herself hurry away. And even her danger, even the sight of his fangs couldn't keep her from wishing that she was in the vampire's place. That it was her body that he caressed, her skin that he kissed…

Spike closed the book, and wiped sweat off his brow. As Kate had instructed, he noted the publisher, and saw with no great surprise that it was Blackhawk Press, the company where Tara's agent, Sophie Carstairs, worked.

Given the circumstances under which he'd received the book, he already knew who Claudia Harris must be, but his brain didn't want to process it. It seemed impossible that the shy witch of his acquaintance had written this. True, there was no actual sex, at least not as far as he'd read, but tension fairly crackled off the pages and promised one hell of a payoff.

And it was going to involve him. There was no vanity-induced mistake. The name, the description, the accent, everything, were his. All she'd done was move the scar. Well, that and make Shiv not entirely evil.

The publication date was 2003, which meant she had written the book three or four years ago, immediately after he left Sunnydale. Suddenly, her response to his kiss made a lot more sense, and he realized that he didn't have to worry about taking advantage of a momentary weakness. Apparently, she'd thought about this for quite some time, even found it inspiring.

He was rather inspired himself, remembering the feel of her against him, the taste of her kiss. Knowing she had fairly…graphic…fantasies about him sent him to even greater, almost painful, heights.

"After all," Spike said with a smile, "Who am I to quarrel with the woman's muse?"

Whistling to himself, he caught up his jacket. He had every right to be angry, used like this without his permission or even knowledge, and then lied to.

The history of feminism and witchcraft, my ass.

Every right to go and tell her what he thought about it all and be fairly stern about it too. And then he rather thought he'd let her apologize.

Spike opened the door and leaped back from the sunlight that streamed in. "Gaaah!" Day had broken while he read. Damn, he'd have to wait for nightfall.

A prickle of unease touched him, and he picked up the phone.


"Room 2513. Tara xmdlyntld,"

Apparently muffling her last name plus knowing the room number was sufficient, but with growing dread, he listened to the phone ring.

"I'm sorry, sir, there's no answer."

"Did she check out?"

"I'm sorry. I can't give out that information."

And so it was all day. He didn't know the city well enough to thread its sewers and tunnels, and when he tried Caritas, he only got Lorne's chirping voice on the answering machine. Spike paced and cursed, and finished the book, which didn't help calm his inspiration levels any.

The second it was remotely dark enough he made his way to the hotel, this time not bothering with stealing keys. He wore old clothes, slipped in behind some delivery men, and took the stairs to her floor, vampire speed allowing him to avoid the cameras.

But it was no good. He knew even as he stood outside the door.

Tara was gone.

Part 4

Some vestige of pride kept Tara on her feet and silent until Spike was out of the suite with the door closed behind him. Even when her senses told her he was out of earshot, habit made her clamp a hand over her mouth, keeping the sound inside as she slid down the wall to rest on her heels.

Stop this. Come on, concentrate. Center, damn it!

But the peace of meditation eluded her, and the only mantra that came to her mind was 'stupid', 'stupid', 'STUPID!' with 'idiot' tossed in occasionally for variety's sake.

She could still feel his hands, his mouth, the hard planes of his body - strange after the soft curves of a woman's embrace - could still feel the loss when he pulled away. As Tara remembered the eagerness of her response to Spike's kiss, humiliation washed hotly over her, and she thunked her head against the hotel wall.

I can't believe I did that. Or that I said I didn't want him to go. Did a lot of good, too, didn't it?

Nausea hit her suddenly, and she staggered up, making it to the bathroom just in time. After she finished emptying herself of all the orange juice Kate and Rose insisted she drink, Tara splashed cold water on her face, catching sight of her reflection in the mirror. Her skin was blotchy, cheeks and eyes red from crying, baby-fine hair standing out from her head.

"How could he have passed all this up?" she said bitterly to the Tara in the mirror, smoothing the oversized sweater over her heavy breasts. "Compared to Buffy or Drusilla, you're just love's young dream."

At least the crying had stopped. That was something. She wearily dragged back into the living room and collapsed on the couch. The sight of her computer made her mouth twist.

Will Jane and Shiv fuck in the next book? Gee, Sophie, apparently not.

Something underneath all the misery and shame tried to make itself known. Something that felt like anger.

It wasn't as if she had done the seducing tonight. Crying on his shoulder wasn't exactly a declaration of desire. Yes, she'd gotten aroused, but she hadn't done anything about it, and she wouldn't have. It had taken everything she had to form coherent sentences after he showed up at the door. Spike had initiated the change from friendship to passion, she the one to reciprocate. Ok, she probably wasn't the world's greatest kisser, but leaving her like that, with no explanation or apology wasn't…right.

Tara sat up, frowning. It wasn't right. And it wasn't fair. If Spike had suddenly changed his mind, well, people had the right to do that. She wouldn't have pushed him for anything. But he still could have spoken to her, still treated her decently.

"I didn't do anything wrong," she said aloud, trying the words on for size and finding them a surprisingly good fit. "Not anything."

Tara pointed her chin at the computer. Maybe Jane and Shiv wouldn't get together in the next book after all. And maybe Jane had been a little bit of a doormat in the past couple of books, a little too enthralled. Like Buffy had been with Dracula. But the Slayer had gotten past that hadn't she? Yes, she had, and Dracula had ended with a stake in his chest. The thought of her agent's probable reaction to Jane staking Shiv made her smile despite her anger.

Ok, so maybe I won't go that far.

But still, it might be time for Jane to come into her own a little more.

It was time for other things too. The past couple of days had given her a sudden yearning for home. Not the farm – that hadn't been home since the death of her mother – but Sunnydale. She wanted to see Buffy and the rest, make her peace with Willow and Xander, wanted the embrace of those who had become her family.

Determined, she went to the phone and looked up the number for her airline. There was no need to stay in this place of bad memories one second longer. She was out of here. She was going home.

Those had been fine, high-sounding thoughts in a hotel room in LA, but now, standing a block from The Magic Box, Tara felt assailed by doubt. What if they were angry with her for staying away so long? What if they didn't like her anymore? Yes, Buffy wrote regularly, but that was probably out of some kind of Slayer sense of duty. She shook the thoughts away, knowing on some level they weren't true. Even if they were, she had to see, had to know once and for all.

She moved cautiously down the block to the front door of the shop, feeling a stab of sorrow at the knowledge that Anya wouldn't be behind the counter keeping an eye on stock and profit.

The bell jangled sharply as she entered, and it felt as if every eye in the store turned toward her as she hovered in the doorway. Not that there were many customers at this time of day.

Tara didn't recognize the tall, dark-haired girl standing behind the register until she let out a screech, vaulted the counter, and hurled herself at the witch.

"Tara! Tara, Tara, Tara!"

"Dawn?!" She returned the embrace with slightly stunned enthusiasm. "I didn't even know you. Your hair…."

"I know." Dawn stepped back from Tara and grinned. "Isn't it cool?"

"Yes, very cool. And…short."

Short it was. Dawn's waist length mass had been chopped to about two inches all around her head with one stripe at the front dyed bright red. She'd also grown several inches so that she towered over Tara.

But her smile was the same mixture of innocence and mischief as she released Tara and danced back a step.

"It's my college look."

Tara laughed, "And it's a great one." She flicked the gold ring that went through Dawn's eyebrow. "What about this?"

The grin broadened. "That too. I got the whole thing done the first week of classes and went home for dinner. I thought Buffy was going to implode."

"In itself, a valid reason to have it done."

"Dawn, there are customers wait…," Giles stopped in the middle of his progress through the store, and his face softened in surprise and pleasure. "Tara."

"Hi, Mr. Giles." He hadn't changed much, the dark hair more peppered with gray, but that was it. Behind the glasses, his eyes were still keen, still watchful. Still kind.

To Tara's surprise, he crossed to her and gave her a swift hug as Dawn dashed back behind the counter.

"I think we can make it Giles at this point, don't you?" he said slightly hoarsely.

"Sure." She pulled back and smiled at him cautiously, amazed to see something that looked like moisture in his eyes.

"Yes. Well. You're looking well." He pulled his glasses off and began to clean them furiously.

Dawn groaned and looked ceilingward. "Careful, Giles. You're showing emotion. The Council will be after you."

Before he could respond, the bell jangled again, and Tara turned to see Buffy, Xander, and Willow enter the store.

"Hi, guys…oh, my God," Buffy ran down, staring at her.

"Tara," Willow breathed.

Seeing her again felt like being punched in the stomach. Dawn and Giles had changed noticeably, but Willow looked as if the previous five years hadn't occurred. She stood white-faced and trembling on the threshold as if afraid to come any closer. But why…

She thinks I'm angry with her.

Unable to bear the thought, Tara wordlessly held out her hands. Willow flew across the store and crashed into her arms, almost choking her with the strength of her hold.

"I was so worried!" she wailed into Tara's neck. "I missed you so much! I wanted…wanted to tell you…."

"You didn't have to tell me." Tara set Willow back on her feet and looked into her face, smoothing back the strands of red hair. "I already knew. It's all right. Everything's all right."

Willow gave her a watery smile, and something passed between them along the old bond of love and witchcraft they had shared. Did still share. They had been each other's salvation once, and part of them always would be. But there was room for other loves as well, and other lives.

She looked past Willow to where Xander still stood quietly, just inside the store. He, at least, looked very different. Older, more serious, the happy-go-lucky air that had been his constant companion was gone. There was fear in his eyes, as he looked at her, fear and shame in equal measure. Fear that she would take Willow back. Shame over what had happened.

Tara gently freed herself from Willow's hold and went to him, wordlessly going up on her toes to put her arms around his shoulders. He bowed his head against her hair and she heard a breath like a sob tear out of his chest.

"I'm so sorry," he choked. "What you did…there aren't words…I never meant for it to happen."

"Of course you didn't," she whispered back. "I meant what I said. Everything's all right." She met his eyes directly. "And I'm not staying."

Tara watched relief and embarrassment chase across Xander's face as he realized that she hadn't come back for Willow, but not for anything would she have disturbed their hard-won peace.

"You're not staying?" Willow said, aghast. "You just got here!"

"I can stay awhile. Tonight," she amplified. "I just…I just wanted to see everyone again."

"And see us you shall," Buffy decreed, stepping up for her own quick hug. "Demons will just have to go unmolested tonight, unless they want to attack the Bronze. You can crash at my place afterwards," she finished, smoothly avoiding a potential pitfall.

Fortunately, no demons attacked the Bronze. They all sat around one of the tables, and it was like old times, except Tara sat between Buffy and Dawn instead of beside Willow, Anya wasn't there to provide her acerbic, yet accurate comments, and Angel had joined them.

So, ok, maybe it isn't like old times. But it isn't bad.

And it wasn't. The feelings had changed a little, but they were still there, and the warmth of her friends' caring surrounded her, the old sense of safety coming back. She would not be deliberately hurt here, by omission or commission, and if she felt pain from the changed circumstances, well, that was life. They had all come through it, forged in the fires of the Hellmouth, and out the other side.

The greatest change, even despite Dawn's new look, was in Buffy, who had lost the tension that Tara associated with her. The sorrow that had always ridden at the back of her eyes even in her happiest moments was gone now, and she was relaxed. Her weight was up slightly, the almost gaunt thinness replaced by healthy strength, and her color was high.

That was down to the one who sat next to her, Tara knew. She'd never met Angel before and was having a hard time reconciling the stories she'd heard with the man she saw now. Gloomy and brooding didn't fit anymore. Actually, if she had to pick a word that did, it might be…goofy. He seemed addicted to bad puns and horrible drinks with little umbrellas. And his eyes, when he looked at Buffy, were adoring.

There was one awkward moment when Buffy and Angel got up to dance. Xander automatically started to rise with Willow, when Willow looked at Tara and turned pale. Tara knew what she was remembering: the night of her birthday when they danced and their love and joy took them straight into the air. She wanted to tell them to go ahead, but the words wouldn't come. Finally, Dawn stood and grabbed Tara's hand, and they all moved to the floor in a group, dancing together without pairing off.

For an instant, as they moved to the music and forgot themselves, Tara felt the energy swirl around them again, and understood. The group might split apart, might go separate ways, might even die, but the bonds were still there, forged deep. It was a good feeling and almost made up for the loneliness of not having her own partner.

She ended back at Buffy's house, Dawn safely ensconced in the dorm and Willow and Xander returning to their place – not the apartment he had shared with Anya, but a small townhouse.

"Dawn's old room is in ok shape," Buffy said as Angel took Tara's suitcase upstairs. "She stays here sometimes."

"That's fine."

"Only, I thought you might want to stay up and talk a little more," the Slayer said neutrally with a glance toward the scarf Tara wore around her neck.

"Talk," Tara said faintly, feeling the tension seep back into her frame.

"Yeah, talk. You know, where you open your mouth and stuff comes out?" Buffy smiled to take any sting from her words. "But only if you want to," she added more gently. "I'm kind of the last one to urge communication on somebody."

It would be so easy to shield, so easy to slip back into keeping secrets, so easy to stay alone. Tara swallowed. "No. I'd…I'd like to talk."

"Great. Hey," she added to Angel, "I think we're gonna have a little gabfest. Girly stuff. Why don't you go on to bed?"

He looked slightly hurt. "I can talk about girly stuff. I even know about the chocolate ice cream part."

Buffy smiled and went to him, snuggling into his chest. "Yes. You are deeply in touch with your feminine side. But I think me and Tara need some one-on-one time. Ok?"

"Ok," he grumbled teasingly. "I'll just go await your pleasure."

"Ooh. Promises."

He called goodnight to Tara and vanished and Buffy headed kitchenward, returning with a container of ice cream and two spoons.

"You're happy," Tara said as Buffy settled on the couch. "That's great."

"Thanks. It's nice. And a little scary, even now. I keep thinking this is a dream, and I'll wake up and somebody will take it away."

"Maybe it makes you appreciate it more."

"Oh, yes. Every day without the world ending is a present." She leaned back and eyed Tara. "So…"

"Dawn's looking good," Tara said hastily. "Hair, eyebrow, and everything. She said you freaked."

"I freaked big-time, in best older-sister fashion." Buffy grinned. "I was shocked and appalled, but slowly, I grew to understand that it was her hair and her life, and I had to accept it. And so on."

Tara giggled. "You faked it? How sneaky can you be?"

"Hey, I'd much rather she rebel this way than with drugs or something. If it required an Afterschool Special moment over hair, that's good with me."

"You did good with her," Tara said softly. "Your Mom would be proud."

Buffy's smile wavered. "I hope so. Sometimes I think she's sitting up there in heaven or wherever, snickering and saying 'isn't payback a bitch', but I hope she'd think we did ok. And now," she fixed Tara with a stern eye. "Let's talk about you, starting with that." She touched Tara's scarf.

Tara sighed and undid the knot, and Buffy's mouth tightened.

"That's a deep bite," she said. "Somebody went for a kill."

"Not Spike," Tara said hastily. "Like I told you on the phone, he didn't bite me. He saved me."

"Ok. It's hard for me to picture Spike as saver and not biter, but ok."

Silence fell and Tara slowly turned the spoon over and over in her fingers. "I need to tell you some stuff," she said at last. "Can you let me go through the whole thing before you answer?"

Buffy set the ice cream container down and folded her hands in her lap. "Go for it. My lips are sealed."

Tara fixed her gaze on the coffee table and began, "Five years ago, I had a dream about my Mom…."

She told all of it, from fixing the chip through Spike leaving her hotel room two nights ago, never looking up until the end. It wasn't as hard as she had thought it might be, especially since she didn't allow herself to think about what she was saying. Buffy kept silent as promised although Tara heard her breath hiss in a couple of times.

When she finally finished and looked up, Buffy was staring at her in a mixture of disbelief and something that looked like horror.

"Oh, God, Tara." She stood up abruptly and began to pace the living room. "I'm trying to be really supportive here, but…ick."

"I know," Tara sighed.

"It's not like I can point fingers…I still loved Angel even after he went bad, and there was the whole thing with Dracula…but still…ICK! This is not healthy!"

"I know, Buffy. This isn't something I'm in control of. And it's not like I chased him down or stalked him. I never even tried to find him. I didn't know he was in LA until he rescued me from the demon. Spike just…got in my head somehow, and I wrote the books to try and get him out, but he doesn't seem to want to leave."

"Maybe a steam shovel?" The words were light, but Buffy sat down next to her and took her hand.

"Trust me, I'd be willing to try it." She smiled back at the Slayer. "Besides, it doesn't really matter, does it? He's made it pretty plain he's not interested, which isn't all that surprising, I guess. I mean…" She made a gesture that encompassed her entire self and Buffy straightened and glared at her for real.

"If you even hint that you think you're not good enough for Spike, I'll…I'll do something really bad to you! Tara," she said more gently. "All the things your Dad said about you are wrong. You are smart, and you are kind, and you are pretty. You help people. You write best-sellers, even if they are about really nasty subjects. You're a powerful witch. Anybody would be lucky to be with you."

She was stricken dumb by the words and leaned over to hug Buffy soundlessly.

"After all," Buffy said seriously. "If I were gay? I'd be totally into you."

Tara snorted with laughter and fell back against the pillows. "That's sweet, but you're way too butch for me."

Buffy started to giggle. "Really? Because Spike never struck me as all that girly."

Both of them howled at that one, and after a few minutes Tara wiped her eyes and gasped, "It's the accent."

"I'm sure Giles would love to hear that."

A few minutes later, Angel called down plaintively. "If I can't be there, you could at least not have that much fun."

"Sorry," Buffy called. "But I think it's more hysteria than fun." She looked back at Tara and sobered. "I wondered what happened to Spike. He was there one day, gone the next. And I would have helped with the Initiative, but I don't think I could have gone along with taking the chip down. If I'd known you had, I would have been watching my back. He could have hurt us, Tara, and we wouldn't have seen it coming."

"I know," Tara looked down. "I'm sorry. I really should have told you, at least about the chip not working anymore. I don't think I would have done it, but he offered to hide me so fast, without thinking about what it meant for him." She thought a moment. "Actually, I might have anyway. What the Initiative did was wrong, as wrong as anything the vampires do. They took away choice, took away the ability to grow and decide."

"I didn't like the Initiative either," Buffy agreed. "You have to wonder about something that could attract Maggie Walsh. It was very simple for them. Demons/humans, good/bad. It used to be that way for me too, but I've seen too much since then. They would have put Dawn in a cage and studied her like a lab rat."

"Probably. About Spike? I think he had changed. There was nothing in it for him helping me against my family, but he did it anyway. I think he really did like Dawn and your Mom." She paused and added quietly. "And he did love you."

"Yeah," Buffy rolled her eyes. "Nothing says 'I love you' like chains and a cattle prod. I don't know why people waste their time on Hallmark."

"Even he said that was a bad call," Tara pointed out.

"No kidding. Ok, I'll grant you he maybe changed. That still doesn't mean I don't think you could do better, like with just about anybody else!"

Tara stood up and stretched, preparatory to going to bed. "How about Parker?"

"Eww. No! Parker bad!"

"Cordelia? I hear she's pretty hot."

"So, maybe Spike isn't that horrible a choice."

All in all, Tara returned to her small house in Marin County in a much more peaceful frame of mind than she'd known in a long time. It was all right, it really was. She'd seen everyone, confessed all – to Buffy at least – without huge tears or recriminations. She had no real plans to move back to Sunnydale, as that would be too awkward, but visits would be possible. Major holidays at least. Watching the progress of Dawn's hair could be an ongoing project.

As for Spike, nothing had really changed there, had it? They hadn't been together before other than in her feverish mind, and they weren't now. The only difference was that now, she had an actual kiss to incorporate into her occasional dreams. For her waking hours, she firmly pushed him from her mind, except as she needed for writing, and turned her attention to proofing the galleys for Dark Waltz.

A couple of weeks passed quietly, the season moving deeper into October. When Tara took her nose out of the pages long enough to notice, she appreciated the turning of the leaves and gave a few thoughts to the All Hallows ritual, the time when the borders between the living and dead thinned. It could be a time of discard, a time of leaving behind old things, old sorrows. Old loves? She'd have to see what felt right.

It was still cold that early morning when Tara went outside to perform the sun salutes she used to limber up for the day. She shivered in her thin cotton pants and tank, but set aside the discomfort, knowing the yoga would warm her up soon enough. Digging her toes into the dirt, she swung her arms up in the opening posture…

And staggered. Danger, panic, the sting of a hypodermic needle. Tara clapped a hand over her arm before she realized that whatever it was, it wasn't actually happening to her.

Swirling darkness.

"Willow!" she cried and spun, racing for the cottage.

Tara didn't know Willow and Xander's number, but she caught up her cell and punched in Buffy's speed dial.

The phone barely started ringing before it was snatched up. "What?"

She could hear the fear and grief in the Slayer's voice, and thought that she must already know what had happened.

"Buffy, what is it? What's happened to Willow?"

"Tara? What do you mean what's happened to Willow? Angel's gone and some demon friend of his…and Xander? What? Oh, God."

"She's gone." Buffy's voice was quiet on the phone. "Tara? Do you know what's happening?"

Tara swallowed hard. "Not yet. I'm coming, Buffy. I'll be there soon."

He stood outside the hotel room door for some time, even though he was perfectly aware that Tara was gone, her scent already dissipating as other occupants took her place. He could still find her, Spike knew. He had the name of her agent as well as various occult contacts. Lorne might help. Hell, the Internet made it difficult for anyone to disappear. No, he wouldn't have any problem showing up at her door within a few days.

Sod that. If the bint wants to pull a vanishing act, let her. I'm not following her about.

He'd been that route. Lurking about, mooning over the Slayer, trying to show himself friendly. What had that got him but a punched nose and a face full of front door? No, he wasn't going to do that again, not for the witch or anyone else.

With a decisive nod, he spun on his heel and left the hotel, anger growing as the events of the previous night and day played over and over in his head.

Couldn't even wait about for a few hours or leave a forwarding address? And after he'd rescued her from certain death, too, ungrateful bitch. As for walking out on her last night, anyone else who did that would have been seen as sensitive and someone who didn't take advantage. But not him, oh, no. This was just another good deed that was not going unpunished.

No, he was definitely the injured party here, what with Tara taking his identity for some poufy character in a book without so much as a 'please' or a royalty check. Downright embarrassing that was.

He would remember from now on: no more good deeds or sentimentality. He was Big Bad, or at least Big Neutral, and would act accordingly. And as a start…

Spike yanked the wooden mouse from his pocket, dropped it to the pavement, raised his foot, and without letting himself stop to think about what he was doing, crushed it under the heel of his boot.

There, that's better. One more encumbrance shed. Now, I can get back to business.

He looked down in satisfaction and saw that he hadn't destroyed the mouse. He hadn't even dented it. Angrily, Spike stomped on it a few more times, but it just lay there, looking smug.

"Right, then," he snapped and gave it a kick, sending it spinning into the gutter. And firmly ignoring the sliver of grief in his heart, he walked away into the night.

At least there was plenty of business to see to. Spike and his group had obtained a quiet but solid reputation of doing the job they were hired for, and over the next couple of weeks, he traveled the West Coast on such assignments as overseeing the rescue of an infant from a sacrifice (bit of a new wrinkle on custody disputes, that was), accompanying a businessman during a payoff to demons that were known to take a bit more in trade, and making it clear to a voodoo-practicing lawyer that sending zombies around to terrify witnesses for the opposite side was carrying things a bit far.

He was about ready to take a break, when Phil came to him with a new project.

"This one's pretty easy," the ferrety little wizard said with his customary nervousness. "A mage in LA needs to collect some artifacts and wants us along to watch his back."

Spike snorted, "You mean he wants to steal a certain magic rock and is afraid the bloke who already owns said magic rock might object?"

"Something like that," Phil twitched. There was a sheen of perspiration on his brow, and he had the excessively eager look he normally got in mortuaries.

"Fine, then. Go see about it. You can spot magic traps well enough."

"He wants us both. Thinks he might need muscle as well."

"Oh, bloody hell!" Mojo-types drove him round the bend, always getting worked up over The Scroll of Infinite Wisdom – which never said anything remotely useful – or The Ring of Total Power – which always seemed to require an incantation that didn't exist any longer. Some items were real, the Gem of Amarra for one, but mostly it was smoke and mirrors.

Also, he didn't want to go back to LA for reasons he didn't care to think too much about.

"He's willing to double the fee if we both come," Phil said.

That was interesting. Wizards were usually tight with the coin as well, needing all those supplies and such. This bloke must really want his magic rock.

Spike grinned. "If he's that interested, add 10% because I'm going to be bored, and tell him we'll be along. Who is this, anyway?"

"Some guy named Ethan Rayne."

So, this is the chap who turned Giles into a Fyarl demon.

He hadn't met the wizard during that particular encounter, but he recalled the name. Rayne didn't look like much, a slim whippet of a man wearing a poufy looking shirt and slacks, but Spike didn't discount him. As he recalled, Giles had a lot more going on than was suggested by all that tweed. For that reason, he didn't bring up their mutual acquaintance, choosing to listen to part of his brain that he usually ignored, the part that suggested caution.

The man with Rayne was heavier and even more expensively dressed in a suit that looked as if it cost several thousand. The two outfits made Spike's jeans and duster look even more aggressive than usual.

Just the way he liked it. He put an extra swagger in his walk and sat before being invited, sliding a cigarette into the corner of his mouth.

"I hear you need backup while you pick up some mojo supplies," he said amiably enough with only a slight sneer.

Rayne looked at him with displeasure. "Quite. We anticipate both physical and magical resistance, which is why we've hired beings of both your…talents."

Spike shrugged. "Trying to humiliate me, are you? Put me in my place?" He smiled. "Sorry, mate. It's not working. I'm not the one who has to hire help for something I want to do. You need me, not the other way round."

He watched both men tense at the insult, then trade glances and slowly relax.

"Very well," Rayne said stiffly. "I won't belittle your business and you won't belittle mine."

"Seems fair." Now that the pecking order was settled (Spike knew Rayne thought he'd won, but the wizard was wrong), he settled to business. "When's the pickup and where?"

Rayne gave a tight little smile. "When is now, Mr…ah…Spike, and where is unimportant since we'll be taking my car."

As patiently as he could, Spike said, "That won't do. If I'm to help you, I need to check the place over, let Phil look for traps, see what kind of weapons I'll need, that sort of thing. I'm not going in blind."

"We already know what and who is there," Rayne said coolly. "Your lad and I can deal with any surprises of an occult nature. As for weapons, surely, my dear sir, you can deal with anything that might come up. Your reputation precedes you, or are you not William the Bloody, killer of two Slayers?"

The part of his brain that had whispered caution before was screaming now, but in the face of the other man's challenge, Spike ignored it. "Right then. But since you're changing the terms, the fee's going up."

The other man slung a large duffel bag onto the table and opened it, to reveal stacks and stacks of money. "The fee's been doubled."

"Count it, by all means," Rayne added.

"Phil," Spike called without dropping his eyes from the wizards'. "Everything on the up and up?"

His second held his hands over the bag for a moment. "It's clean. And all here."

Spike stood. "After you, lads."

He rode slouched in the back seat, keeping a wary, if sullen eye on the surroundings. He didn't want to be here. LA was kicking off all kinds of memories for him. He didn't want to be doing this particular assignment either, no matter how well it paid. Contact with anything that had to do with Sunnydale was not something he was interested in.

Oh, well, not much to be done now. He was paid and would see it through, and then he would go somewhere with good beer and scantily-clad females.

"Here we are," Rayne said as they pulled onto a street that mostly contained the backs of various establishments.

Doing what they were paid for, Spike and Phil exited the car first, Spike moving carefully, senses extended, Phil with his eyes shut, turning in a slow circle. There was no one on the street, and due to the lateness of the hour, the establishments themselves seemed dark, even the help gone home for the night.

He nodded to signal the all-clear, and Rayne got out of the car, looking to Phil.

"There's no magic but the geas," Phil said.

"What geas?" Spike said, subduing a shudder at the memory of the chip, which had acted in a similar fashion.

"He showed it to me on an earlier run," Phil explained. "It's nothing, just a protection spell. I can take it down."

"Fine. But we'll need to do it just before we go in. I imagine your mojo guy's going to know when his spell goes down."

"Excellent," Rayne purred. "I knew you were the correct man for the job."

He started to clap Spike on the shoulder, caught the vampire's look and dropped his hand to his side instead.

Rayne, Spike, Phil, and the car's driver, a thick-necked man who was apparently part troll and communicated mostly in grunts, moved quietly across the street. As Phil began to scribble something on the side of the building and Rayne raised his hands in best mumbo-jumbo prescribed fashion, Spike continued to scan the street, trying unsuccessfully to get the hair on the back of his neck to lie down.

In, out, snatch and run. He'd done it thousands of times. There was no need to be this spooked. It was just the Sunnydale connection, plus being back in LA. He wrenched his hand out of his pocket when he realized that he'd been feeling around for the carved mouse, wanting to run his fingers over it like a worry stone.

"Got it," Phil called.

"Showtime," He splintered the door with a kick from his boot and they went pouring in, he and Phil taking point.

It was a storeroom, Spike saw as they charged through, and apparently for a bar from the cases of alcohol, mixer, and blood lining the walls.

Wait a minute…blood? He threw his senses forward and caught two familiar scents. Spike tried to come to a halt, but he was caught by pressure from behind and half-ran, half-stumbled into the main room of Caritas.

Lorne was already on his feet, wide-eyed with fear and shock. Angel was up too and headed for them with grim silence a broken bottle in his hand. He caught sight of Spike and grimaced, throwing the bottle aside and catching up a wooden stool. He smashed the stool down across a table, keeping hold of the jagged stake that resulted.

"Spike," he growled, his voice picking up hints of the lilt that it carried under stress. "Why am I not surprised to be seeing you?"

"I've got to quit calling myself psychic," Lorne said quietly. "I didn't think you'd do this."

"I'm not….wait just a bloody minute!" Spike snapped as the troll moved toward Angel, grinning. "What's all this?" he demanded of Rayne "What are you doing? I thought this was a supply run!"

"It is," Rayne smiled. He nodded at Lorne and Angel. "They're my supplies, the sacrifices that will open a gate to the world of souls that I might take their power. Stop him!" he shouted as Lorne opened his mouth for one of those screeches.

Phil muttered a phrase, and Lorne's hands flew to his throat, mouth working soundlessly, eyes growing huge with horror.

Taking his voice. Somehow, Spike understood that this was the worse thing that could be done to Caritas' Host.

"Back off!" he shouted at Phil just as the troll lunged at Angel.

Spike spun back to see his grandsire swing his club viciously, sending the troll staggering back for an instant. Angel might be human, but he was still one hell of a fighter. The troll, however, recovered quickly and closed with the former vampire.

Phil started waving his hands in Angel's direction, but Spike struck his arms down.

"NO!" he said furiously. "We are done with this. Assignment over. Reverse whatever you did to green-skin there and we're leaving."

Spike couldn't believe what he was saying even as the words came out of his mouth. Since when did he give a damn about Angel? He'd tortured Angel, and enjoyed it. Or Lorne? He'd seen the green-skinned freak once, which was no reason to give up a paying assignment for him.

An image crossed his mind, his own hand catching a small carved mouse, the girl who'd thrown it smiling down at him, giving him a choice, a chance to make something of his existence.

Oh, bloody hell.

"Sorry, mate," he said to Rayne, trying for calm. "I'll return the fee. Should have been more specific about what you wanted. Meanwhile…" Spike moved to help Angel who was holding his own against the troll, but that was all.

As he did so, Lorne reached for the phone on the bar, only to have it blow apart almost in his grasp.

"Phil!" Spike snarled. "I said we were out of this."

And then he was stumbling, falling, his feet feeling as if they'd been tangled in a net. The more he struggled, the more he became entwined until even his mouth was covered, and he lay bound in some sort of invisible cocoon.

Rayne stepped up and smiled at him, and Spike watched in sick horror as Phil shot some sort of black beam of light at Angel that sent him staggering to the ground. He then turned his attention to Lorne, sending him down as well.

"Too bad, old chap," Rayne smiled. "But necessary. I knew that taking her lover would have the Slayer down on me like an avalanche, and she's remarkably hard to kill, so I took the liberty of cutting off any way for her to find me until it's too late. I know that normally you're the last person she would go to, but I'm afraid that the poor dear won't have any choice. Don't worry, I'm not going to kill you, and you'll have lots of friends where you're going."

Phil knelt beside him as the troll carried Angel's limp body from the club. "Sorry, boss. Ethan said you'd fight once you knew what was happening, and I couldn't let you walk away. All those dead people…just waiting." He smiled dreamily.

One day later:

"Good afternoon," Wesley said pleasantly. "I'm Wesley Wyndham-Price. I'm sorry our manager has just stepped out, but if you'll come through to my office I'll be glad to …"

The silenced gun went off with a soft pop, without even time for Wesley to react beyond a look of mild surprise as he slid to the ground.

Cordelia did enough reacting for both when she returned with the coffee and bagels she'd suddenly craved.

On that same day::

Willow was rooting through the tiny supply closet at the back of the classroom, making sure she had enough empty disks for next period when she heard the door open.

"Can I help…" was all she got out before the sense of danger hit out of nowhere. She was whirling, fingers beginning to weave, when a large body crashed into her, an arm went across her throat, a needle stabbed into her arm, and it all went black.

On that same day:

Giles finished straightening the store and headed for the exit, casting a sad, fond eye at the counter. Anya had been gone for four years and had almost driven him to distraction while she was here, but he missed her.

He flipped off the light and closed the front door. He was fitting the key in the lock when he heard a car pull up to the curb. He turned with the caution that was a survival trait for inhabitants of Sunnydale, but the man looked human and had his head down, apparently trying to find something.

He turned back to the store, realizing something was wrong when he felt the sting like a mosquito bite at the back of his neck and the world began to sway and grow dark.

Buffy, he thought as he collapsed. Buffy, be careful.

Part 5

Tara looked around the airport terminal, somewhat surprised that Buffy or Xander didn't grab her immediately. Buffy had said she'd be met. Surely they couldn't be running late given what was happening. She'd been moving at top speed since that morning, throwing the corrected (well, corrected enough) galleys into the mail on her way to the Marin County airport to catch the first available plane. She looked blankly down at her duffel bag, trying to remember its contents.

I hope I actually have clothes with me. I can't exactly borrow Buffy's.

What if something else had happened? What if there had been another attack? What if they were all….


The quiet voice cut through her rising panic, and she turned, jaw dropping when she recognized the speaker.

"Kate, what are you doing here? Where's Buffy?"

"Shh." The blond woman took her arm and marched them through the terminal. "I was driving up from LA, and she asked me to meet you. I just hope the line was secure."

"What do you mean?" Tara whispered, almost running to keep pace with Kate's long strides. "What else has happened? Why were you driving…?" The light dawned. "Lorne was the demon friend Angel was seeing when he was taken? And they took Lorne too? Oh, Kate, I'm so sorry!"

Kate nodded tightly. Tension radiated from her, and Tara could see the dark shadows under her eyes, but her cop's facade was firmly in place, and her voice was coolly professional. "Lorne and Angel disappeared two days ago. Yesterday, Willow was taken which you know about. What you don't know is that on that same day, Wesley was shot, and Giles disappeared. It all happened at once. Somebody planned this. Do you have other bags?" she asked abruptly.

Tara shook her head, mind whirling from the news of the fresh disasters. "No, everything's in here. What's going on? Why is this happening?"

"We don't know. But whoever's behind it knows the group, which is why I'm picking you up. Buffy and Xander are doing research. Gunn and Cordelia are watching each other and Wesley, and Dawn's home for the duration."

Kate's eyes constantly swept the area as they crossed the parking deck. When they reached her car, she checked the back seat, trunk and underneath before unlocking the door.

"Wait," Tara said, and when Kate paused, she stretched her hands over the car and extended her senses. "Clear," she announced, detecting no magical traps.

"You think this something to do with magic?" Kate asked as they climbed into the car.

Tara nodded. "It almost has to. Look who they took. Willow's the strongest witch I've ever known. Giles used to study magic, and Wesley was a Watcher too wasn't he?"

Kate nodded. "He did most of the research for the agency."

"Whoever it was knew Buffy would come after Angel and Lorne, so they took Willow and Giles and Wesley, because then she wouldn't be able to find them by magic." She touched Kate's tense arm and said gently, "It probably means they want Angel and Lorne alive for awhile at least."

"I know," Kate said briefly. Then, she frowned. "But Wesley was shot, not taken. He still can't do any research, but why was he different? Why not either take him or shoot the others?"

"I don't know," Tara said, suppressing a shudder at the thought of bullets slamming into Willow's body.

"Anyway," Kate shrugged, "they don't know that we've still got a witch on our side." She managed a brief smile. "You're our ace in the hole."

Tara swallowed. Ace in the hole? More like the joker in the deck! She'd never been a major participant in Scooby world-saving. She was more like Willow's sidekick, a good two steps down in the chain of Slayer activities. And now, for Buffy and Kate to be depending on her, for Willow's life to rest on her abilities…!

She felt Kate's eyes touch her. "Lorne said you were strong, as strong as you'd let yourself be. He would think you could do this. I think so too."

You can't do anything. You're a useless, foolish girl.

Tara shook away the sound of her father's voice. There wasn't time for that right now. Her family…her real family…needed her. She must do her best for them and hope it was good enough.

Kate dropped Tara several blocks from The Magic Box and told her to window-shop for 15 minutes then come to the back entrance, utilizing the alleys that crossed the back of the street of shops.

"Shielding wouldn't be bad either," she pointed out.

Tara waited obediently, dawdling along the streets and slowly wrapping herself in spells of uninterest and concealment before taking to the alleys. The back entrance was unlocked, but the Slayer waited tensely in the back room, a hand on her stake until she recognized who entered.

"I'm so glad you're here," she said with a quick hug. "Thanks for coming."

"Of course I came," Tara said, returning Buffy's embrace.

The Slayer's newfound ease and relaxation were nowhere to be seen this visit, and when they reached the main body of the shop, Tara saw that Xander looked even worse, haggard and hollow-eyed. If...the unthinkable...happened, Buffy would focus on her duty and carry on, no matter how painfully, but after Anya's death, Xander wouldn't be able to endure Willow's loss.

"Willow isn't dead," she told him.

"She isn't?" Hope mixed with doubt in his eyes. "Are you sure?"

"I felt it when she was taken. I would know if she died."

He looked at her a moment, opened his mouth to say something, then nodded and a tiny amount of stiffness left his shoulders.

"Have you found anything new?" Kate asked.

"Not really. We've been looking all night, but…" Buffy gestured at the stacks of books that covered table, chairs, and floor. Dawn looked up from one of the volumes and waved feebly.

"But we don't know where to start," the younger Summers finished. "We thought it must have something to do with Angel being a one-time vampire, so we've been looking at everything to do with vampires, but none of that really fits anymore."

"And how would Lorne tie in?" Kate finished. "Anyhow, what about Halloween? That's three days from now. Could that have something to do with it?"

Buffy shrugged. "Most occult types ignore Halloween. They think it's trendy."

"Not witches," Tara said diffidently. Her face grew hot as everyone looked at her, but she continued, "Kate and I were talking, and I think Angel and Lorne might have been taken for some kind of magical purpose. Anyway, if it is a witch or warlock, Halloween might be significant. It's still real for us, the night when the barrier between the worlds of living and dead grow thin."

"How much thinner can the barrier get?" Dawn asked. "We've got demons, vampires, anything else you want around all the time."

"But they're not really dead. Well, vampires are dead, but they don't have souls. The actual soul is somewhere else. I'm talking about the barrier between the souls of the living and the dead."

"Angel was a vampire," Buffy said thoughtfully. "Then he got his soul back and then he became human. So, he's got all kinds of ties to the world of the dead."

"And Lorne is psychic," Kate added, "With links to the Powers."

"Ok, we refocus," Buffy decided. "You guys look for stuff about the dead and Halloween, and you," she looked at Tara. "Can you…." She waved her hands in what were supposedly spell-casting gestures.

Tara nodded and knelt to unzip her duffle bag. "You work on what. I'll see what I can find out about who."

She was relieved to find that she had, after all, packed jeans and shirts and underwear along with what looked like all of her socks. However, the clothes were stuck every which way into the bag, their primary purpose being to serve as padding for the other items.

The Magic Box had the basics: herbs, crystals, books, etc. but there were other things Tara had thought she might need, and with those tools, it was best to use the ones that keyed to her energy.

She had found the blue glass bowl lying beside the road in a ditch, amazingly unbroken, and the prettiest thing her 6-year-old self had ever seen. She'd hidden it away instinctively. The plates they used were thick and white, and the blue bowl would have been seen as frivolous.

The Tarot deck had been rescued from the pile of her mother's things that had been burned at her death. Even now, the memory of what had been lost, the Book of Shadows, the cord that told her measure, made Tara's eyes burn, but at least this had been saved.

"How did you get that on the plane?" Kate demanded as Tara withdrew the last item.

She smiled, laying the athame gently on the table, only the black handle showing beyond the sheath. "Illusion spell. Security thought it was an eyelash curler." Kate looked vastly disapproving, and Tara shrugged. "I couldn't risk it being lost or stolen."

This she had made herself under her mother's direction, using an old chisel for the iron. It had taken a long time to make since they could only work on it the nights when her father and brother went to the men's prayer meeting, but it had been done eventually, and her mother had made the carved handle.

"What are you going to do?" Xander asked.

She held up the deck in its wrapping of white silk. "If magicians are involved, they may be shielded or watching for spells even though they took Willow and Giles. I'm going to use this to try and get information sort of sideways about what's going on. Then, I can focus in."

While the others returned to their reading, Tara found a clear place on the floor at the back and seated herself cross-legged, spreading the white scarf out on the floor. After a moment, Dawn crawled over to join her.

"Is it ok if I watch?"

"Sure," Tara said. "But there's not a lot to see."

She closed her eyes and began to shuffle the deck, letting her mind roam over the situation at hand.

Willow, Angel, Lorne…What's happening? What is the best course to take? Still me, guide me, show me the way….

She opened her eyes and nodded to Dawn who was watching her anxiously.

"Nothing's happening to me," Tara reassured the younger girl. "I'm forming the question in my mind. Now, let's see what the cards have to say. The first one covers the situation. It sort of describes what's going on."

She lay the card on the scarf. "The Ace of Wands reversed. Confusion. Frustration."

"Got that right," Dawn muttered, and Tara had to smile.

"The next card crosses us. What are the obstacles we face?" She paused, looking at the card she had laid over the first. "The Magician. Normally, that would mean that any obstacles we face could be overcome with hard work. But I don't know, it may be literal."

As she spoke the last word, the cards flew from her hands. For a moment, she thought she'd fumbled them and would have to start again. Then, she rocked back on her heels with a gasp, and Dawn yelped as the cards began to whirl through the air, spiraling, swirling, drawing intricate patterns.

"What's happening?" Buffy demanded sharply as she skidded to a halt, drawn to the back by her sister's cry.

"I don't know," Tara said breathlessly. "But, it's ok. They don't want to hurt us."

Despite her initial surprise, she was sure there was no danger, feeling only warmth as she watched the dancing cards. She held out her hands, and the squares of pasteboard fluttered around them in what felt like a caress before spinning away and dropping to the floor. Most of them scattered on impact, but 8 cards joined the first two Tara had laid out, completing the Celtic Cross spread that she had begun.

"I'm betting that doesn't usually happen," Xander said.

Tara shook her head. "I've never seen it before."

"We don't have time to worry about the deeper meaning behind it all," Kate said tersely. "The important thing is do you think that was friendly."

"Yes. I'm sure of it."

"Then what do they say?" Buffy asked.

Trembling, Tara leaned over the spread. No interpretations now. It was the literal stuff they were after.

"A magician's behind this," she said, tapping the card of obstacles. "I'm sure of it."

Buffy nodded. "Ok, what next?"

"This card, the High Priestess, is what will happen in the near future. You're already doing this, using magic to find them. It's an indication we're on the right track."

"Good to know, but I need new stuff."

"I know," Tara whispered, feeling useless. "I'm trying."

Buffy took a deep breath and calmed. "It's ok, sorry. I'm just nervy." She touched Tara's shoulder. "What else?"

"This is what's beneath the situation. What's causing it. The Chariot, reversed. It means envy, greed. Someone greedy for something that they haven't earned. From a literal sense, it may mean someone not local, someone who's traveled."

"This," she went on. "Is what's past or passing away from us. Temperance, reversed. That's good. We're on the road to a solution."

Everyone relaxed a little. It felt good to have some sort of verification.

Tara nodded to the card on located to the right of the original pair. "This shows new influences. What the plans are."

There was a pause. "Death," Tara said as calmly as she could. "Normally, this isn't really a bad card. It just means change."

"But you think it might be real," Buffy said flatly.

"I think so. The cards started flying when I said something about literal meanings." She watched everyone's faces set and felt the despair in her own heart. "We don't know who's going to die," she offered desperately. "Of if anyone is. Whoever took Angel or Lorne may be planning to kill them. We can stop it. It's not set in stone"

"Whoever's going to die," Xander said dangerously. "It isn't going to be Willow."

"What about the rest?" Kate asked impatiently.

"Ok. This card is me. Or us. Our situation as we see it. The Moon. Basically, it's a card of magic. It's all around us. This one is what surrounds us. Influences and attitudes that maybe we don't see." She frowned. "I'm not sure about this. The King of Cups should be a person, but I don't know who."

"What kind of person?" Xander asked.

"Emotional, sensitive. Artistic maybe. Negative qualities would be devious or liking to manipulate."

"Sounds like our wizard," Buffy commented.

Tara shook her head. "Maybe. It doesn't feel right though. We already know about the wizard. This would be someone new."

She tapped the next card. "Our hopes and fears. The Star. New life and renewed energy. And finally," she nodded to the last card. "The ultimate outcome. The Tower. Old things broken down, making way for new."

"What does it mean?" Dawn whispered. "Is it good?"

Tara shrugged. "It's change. It can be either. I'm sorry," she added to Buffy. "I know that wasn't a lot of help."

"No," Buffy frowned. "No, it did help. We know it's a wizard and that we need to focus on magic."

"It might be someone left over from Wolfram and Hart," Kate offered. "They used mages. Except why take Giles and Willow and shoot Wesley? Why was Wesley different? That's important. I know it is."

"Wes was mostly into research. He wasn't really a mage," Buffy suggested.

"Then, why do anything with him at all? No, they wanted the mages out of the way, but they wanted Willow and Giles with them."

"Maybe it's because Willow and Giles are close to Buffy," Tara said. "They would be better hostages than Wesley. Not that you would let anything happen to Wesley," she added hastily.

"Then why not take me?" Dawn said. "After all, that used to be my main job description. Dawn Summers, hostage at large."

Buffy smiled a little, her hand dropping to her sister's hair. "Along with general pain." She frowned, her eyes growing distant. "It's almost like they just wanted Wesley out of the way, but it was personal with Giles and Willow." Her gaze sharpened and she looked at Xander. "A wizard, motivated by greed and envy, who has a history with Giles and Willow, maybe especially Giles. Sound like somebody you know?"

Xander blinked. "That guy…the guy who did the Halloween costumes and turned Giles into a demon? Ethan Rayne?"

"That's it. That's who. I know it."

"Who's Ethan Rayne?" Kate asked.

"Leftover from Giles' misspent youth." Buffy started pacing back and forth, eyes snapping. "He was always jealous of Giles and always trying to get power, just for the hell of it. He didn't care who he hurt. And he loved to gloat over stuff. He'd want an audience."

"Ok," Kate agreed. "He sounds like a good pick. But an audience for what? What's he doing?"

"And where's he doing it?" Dawn added.

"I can use a sort of dousing spell to try for where," Tara said.

Buffy shook her head. "Won't that let him know something's up?"

"I'll be looking for Willow, not the wizard. And it isn't a normal dousing spell, just something we cooked up when we were together. It's very…personal. I don't know that anyone else could sense it."

She wasn't embarrassed, as she had thought she might be, about bringing up her and Willow's history, and Xander didn't even blink at the reference. The situation was too serious for something so petty, the sense of time passing almost palpable. Angel and Lorne had been gone for two days; Willow and Giles for one. Anything could be happening.

"Do you have a US map?" Tara asked.

Some rummaging produced a map from the glove compartment of Kate's car, and it was spread on the table.

"What if they're not in the country?" Dawn said worriedly. "Or even in this dimension?"

"We are seriously overdue for a break. Let's hope for the best, ok?" Buffy answered.

Tara spread her hands over the map and closed her eyes. "Aradia... Hear my words…"

It had been a long time since she had called the dancing light, but it came swiftly, with a sense of warm friendliness. She opened her eyes slowly to watch it hovering over the map. The light circled and wavered, then settled over California, moving slowly down the outline of the state until it stopped directly over Los Angeles.

"I can narrow it down more with a city map," Tara said. "But I guess we know where we're going."

"I was going to keep everyone asleep until it was all over, but what fun would that be?"

The voice was familiar, but sounded like it came from far away and wasn't terribly important when compared to the throbbing in his temples.

What the bloody hell?

Even asking the mental question increased the agony in his head, and Spike decided the issue could just sod off until he got over what felt like the sire of all hangovers.

"Poor Ripper," the voice spoke again, almost fondly. "Bit of a headache?"

Ripper. Slowly, painfully, Spike's eyes opened, his brain struggling to make connections. He was lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling, and for an instant's gut-wrenching panic, he thought the Initiative had him once more.

They aren't putting another chip in me. I'll finish myself off first.

But, no. The smug, British tones and the name Ripper didn't go with Soldier Boy's group. Then, what…?

"Ethan Rayne," another voice from his past said, sounding as if it was speaking through gritted teeth. "What do you think you're doing?"

And it all came back: Phil getting him hired by the wizard, Spike's discovery of the nature of the magical supplies in question, the fight in Caritas, and finally being captured with the aid of his second-in-command.

That's it. I work alone from here out.

Spike did his best to push himself up on one elbow without moving his head in the process. The room spun, blurred, and then resolved into a large, circular chamber, the walls of which contained recessed cells, reminding him again of the Initiative. Evil mastermind types used the same set of blueprints for their lairs it would seem.

However, the inhabitants of those cells were strikingly different from the ones Spike recalled seeing in the Initiative. Instead of various demons and the like, these cells contained Angel, Lorne (ok, that wasn't different), Giles, and Willow.

Spike blinked at the last two. The only surprise at seeing Angel and Lorne was that they hadn't been killed already, but he hadn't expected Watcher and witch. Still, there they were, Giles with his glasses off and pinching at the bridge of his nose and Willow swaying from her seat on the floor, seeming dizzier than the others.

"What's wrong with her?" Angel demanded angrily, nodding toward the red-headed witch.

"Nothing permanent," Ethan smiled. "She's on a bit of something extra to keep her from accessing her magic. Rupert, here, away from his books and potions, isn't a threat, but dear Willow's natural power is very strong."

Giles came to his feet, hiding any discomfort, and his smile at Ethan was unpleasant to say the least. "After I get out of this cell, we'll see how much of a threat I am," he snarled.

"Tsk. Temper, Rupert. I haven't offered you any actual harm. And I shan't…well, not most of you." His eyes flicked toward Angel and Lorne. "Some of you, unfortunately, won't be leaving, but the rest of you are only here to keep the Slayer from descending on me like an avalanche. With the two of you here and Mr. Wyndham-Price incapacitated, she won't have any resources to locate me."

"What did you do to Wesley?"

Ethan shook his head at Angel. "You certainly are a demanding little sacrifice, aren't you? Truly, I don't know how the poor Slayer put up with you. I'm sure her multitude of other lovers weren't nearly as chatty."

For one interesting moment, Spike thought Angel was going to manage the shift to game face despite being human, but the former vampire brought himself under control with the ability of long practice.

"Did you kill Wes?" he asked coldly.

"I have no idea," Ethan shrugged. "As long as he is unable to hinder me, I'm really not interested."

"Hinder you at what?" Giles asked in the bored superior tones it had taken Spike years to perfect. "You have a new scheme for fake fortune-telling that requires sacrifices? Conning the elderly by telling them you can contact their departed loved ones becoming too difficult?"

Ethan stiffened, "Does the word Ramos mean anything to you, Rupert? If not, perhaps the young lady can clear matters up for you. Or could, if she weren't feeling a bit under the weather."

All eyes turned to Willow, whose gaze blearily focused on Spike. "Why is he here?" she asked in a slurred voice. "Is he in on it?"

"Oh, yes," he sneered as everyone looked in his direction. "I'm masterminding the whole thing. Sitting in this sodding cell is just one more step in my nefarious scheme."

"He got set up." Lorne spoke for the first time, casting a wary eye at Ethan, probably afraid of losing his voice again. "He tried to help us."

Spike stood and staggered to the doorway of the cell, leaning against the barrier. At that moment, a door behind Ethan opened and Phil and the other man who had hired Spike entered the room. Phil recoiled when he saw Spike standing and didn't look terribly reassured by his former boss' imprisonment.

You should be nervous, mate. I get out of here, and I'll have your eyes for tea.

"I'd like to know that myself," he drawled. "This lot's nothing to me. Wouldn't have even known about the whole deal if my boy here," he grinned, showing slightly elongated teeth, "hadn't pitched it to me as a supply run."

"There was always the chance the Slayer might come to you if she didn't have anyone else," Ethan shrugged. "And that you would have helped her. Your feelings for her are well-known."

"News-flash, mojo-guy. I'm past all of that," Spike snapped. "I've not seen the Slayer in years and no interest in it. If you'd kept track, you'd have seen I'm back in the Big Bad business. Just getting paid, for it is all."

"Oh, I've kept up with your career," Ethan said coolly. "And fascinating it's been too. Bit of roughing up, some extortion, but no murder for hire, except in certain instances where your victim was particularly nasty, and absolutely nothing involving women. You even turned down a simple delivery last year."

He remembered that job, remembered the 16-year-old girl the satyr had wanted him to fetch. Shiny brown hair. Big blue eyes. He'd turned it down firmly, and last he'd heard an anonymous tip had Mum and Dad whisking her out of the country.

"That's right," Phil said from his position behind Ethan and the other man. "You've turned down paying jobs, boss. Talk is you're soft."

"Is that right?" Spike said softly and Phil blanched.

"Ramos," Giles mused, obviously flipping through his mental database. "The Bridge-builder?" He stared from Angel to Lorne then back to Ethan with growing horror in his face. "You're going to use Angel and…this other chap to bridge the gap between the realms of living and dead! Are you insane? Do you have any idea what that could unleash?"

The other man looked at Ethan with displeasure. "Was it necessary to tell them our plans?"

"There's no point to gloating when no one knows what you're up to," Ethan smirked. "Besides, there's nothing they can do. Only three days until Halloween, and no one knows where they are. Even if the Slayer attempts something, I've got wards in place."

As Ethan and his partner argued, Spike glanced around at the other prisoners. Giles was watching Ethan with an expression of frustrated rage that did not bode well for the other if the Watcher got out of the cell. Lorne was staring at his hands. Angel's face was expressionless, eyes moving around the room slowly, obviously checking for means of escape.

And Willow was staring at him, through half-closed, foggy eyes. It was on the tip of Spike's tongue to say "What?" when he saw that her hands were balled into fists and that she was staring, not at him, but at the entrance to his cell. Even as he realized it, he felt the barrier begin to dissipate. Hastily, he adjusted his weight, making it look as if he still leaned on the barrier.

Come on, witch. Just a little more, and I can break through.

He could make it to Ethan in one jump, Spike decided and shift to his vampire state as he did so. Phil could go on the backswing. He thought he might just knock his second out for the time being and have a discussion regarding his softness later.

"Watch it!" Phil shouted. "She's working magic!"

Spike launched against the weakening barrier, but Ethan's partner glared past the mage's shoulder and waved his hand slightly. Willow collapsed the rest of the way to the floor, and the barrier instantly firmed back up, bruising the vampire's shoulder as he threw himself into it.

"I thought she was controlled," the man said dryly.

"She should have been," Ethan said through pale lips. "There should have been enough herbs in her to prevent her from being sure of her own name."

"Apparently, you were misinformed," the man said. He advanced to the door of her cell and looked at the unconscious witch. "She's a liability. Kill her."

"No need for that," Ethan's tones cut across everyone's outraged shouts. "We'll just keep her completely unconscious from now on. She can keep the others on their best ehavior. After all," he smiled, "If anyone tries anything annoying such as an escape, she is the one who will be punished."

Not bad, Spike had to admit. An efficient, non-messy way of keeping everyone in line, something he might have thought up in the old days.

"What about him?" the man jerked his head at Spike. "He's a vampire. He won't care about the woman."

"There are other ways to control him," Ethan said. "Lack of food, for instance. Vampires are creatures of appetite. It could be an interesting behavioral study. Even if he has reformed to a degree, he doesn't have the chip. What will he do when he gets hungry?"

Spike kept his face impassive, but his mind began calculations. For reasons he didn't care to think too much about, he'd stayed on the pig's blood diet with a few notable exceptions since he left Sunnydale. He was used to the flavor and regulated blood-drinking to the status of nourishment, saving taste sensations for things like spicy wings and good beer. However, he needed the weaker pig blood more frequently than human. He had last fed three days ago which meant he would be hungry tomorrow and in three more days….

He could feel the weight of his grandsire's gaze. Angel was human now, but would know what he was thinking, and would also be wondering how far he could be trusted.

Spike really wished he knew that himself.

"Take her," Ethan said to Phil, and the mage keyed a button and stepped into Willow's cell. He picked her up easily enough and exited through the main door.

"Be calm gentlemen," Ethan said urbanely. "She won't be harmed, as long as you cooperate. But I don't think leaving you all together is such a wonderful idea. Undoubtedly, you'd spend all your time doing nasty things like plotting escape."

This time, he was the one to wave his hands, and his face was the last thing Spike saw as the world turned black.

"Tara? Are you ok?"

She startled awake, looking into Dawn's anxious face. "I'm fine. Why?"

"You were talking in your sleep."

Tara straightened up from her corner of the car, trying to remember her disjointed dreams, the only clear image one of her chasing after Willow, who was being dragged away by a giant frog. She thought Anya had been there somewhere, watching with her usual air of alert interest. The ex-demon had looked at her and said…something…just before waking.

"What did I say?"

"Just one word. Ramos. What does that mean?"

The word was unfamiliar, and she shook her head. "I don't know."

"We're coming into LA," Xander said from his position behind the wheel.

After determining that Willow at least was in LA, they'd moved as swiftly as possible, but it had taken time to select the weapons and magic supplies they thought they might need, especially since they didn't know exactly what they were facing. As a result, the trunk of Xander's car was filled with most of the Magic Box's herbs, crystals, and the entire contents of Buffy's weapons chest, except the stakes she carried in her sleeves and a large knife at her belt.

Kate's weapons were also on her person, the Sig snugly holstered beneath her blazer and a second, smaller gun fastened to one ankle.

Amid much hemming and hawing and dark looks from the Slayer, Dawn was allowed a stake and a stun gun with the instructions that she was not to use them unless completely necessary. Buffy had been torn about bringing her at all, but had ultimately decided Dawn would be safer under her eye than on unprotected on campus.

After the sorting of weapons mundane and occult, they waited until almost midnight to leave, and then took a long roundabout route to ensure they weren't followed, Kate looking for physical tails and Tara for magical ones. Knowing that this had been planned and that the group had apparently been being watched for some time made everyone nervous.

With one thing and another, it was early morning when they arrived in LA, and all were tired. Tara directed Xander to the Ritz, where they were staying instead of the hotel utilized by Angel Investigations, which Kate felt might be under surveillance.

"I can go in and out and get anything we need," she explained, "But if they see the whole group, they'll know we're onto them."

Even through his worry over Willow, Xander had been surprised when Tara pulled out her credit card and cell phone and arranged a top-floor suite.

"Social work must pay a lot more than I thought," he said, looking impressed.

"Um," Tara said intelligently, mind going to an absolute blank. This didn't seem to be quiet the time to 'out' herself as a romance/horror novelist.

"Tara's doing it because no one would recognize her name," Buffy covered smoothly while Kate raised an eyebrow, "We'll settle up later. Split the cost."

Of course, the need for undercover work didn't explain the troop of bellhops who descended on their car, and the smiling concierge who greeted them, even at the early hour of their arrival, with a beaming smile and outstretched hands.

"Ms. Maclay! Always a pleasure. Your suite's all ready. Would you like breakfast for everyone sent up?"

She knew she was blushing but couldn't help it. "Yes, John, thanks. Fresh fruit and continental for everyone, I think, with juice and coffee. Just add it to the bill."

"Of course."

He bowed them to the elevator and once inside, Dawn and Xander stared at Tara who determinedly faced the door.

"Ok. I know social work doesn't get you that," Xander said. "What's going on?"

Tara sighed, but knew it had to come out sometime. Buffy's reflection in the door looked sympathetic. "I'm a writer," she said. "I've made kind of a lot of money at it."

"You didn't let anybody know!" Dawn said in an upset voice. "We would all have totally read your books!

Which is why I didn't let anybody know.

"What do you write?" Xander asked curiously. "Feminist or witchcraft stuff?"

It was tempting, but the time for lies and hiding was past. She swallowed. "Have you ever heard of Claudia Harris?"

Dawn's eyes went huge. "You're Claudia Harris?! Everybody on campus is reading her! I mean you. I haven't because if I want horror, I can just look out the window, but I don't believe this!" She flushed suddenly. "My roommate read some of it out loud. Wow."

Xander shrugged. "Wow what?"

"Pretty steamy," Dawn explained, looking at Tara speculatively.

Tara saw Xander's eyebrows go up and stared at her feet.

Could be worse. They could make the Spike connection.

Fortunately other speculation was cut short by arriving on their floor. Once inside the room with breakfast safely delivered, Kate pulled out her own phone and called the hospital.

"How's Wesley?" she asked tensely. "Awake? Good. I've got everybody's here. Apparently, they're being held in this vicinity."

Tara looked up suddenly. "Ask if any of them have ever heard the word 'Ramos'."

Kate relayed the message, and listened intently, a scowl settling across her features.

"Ok. Thanks."

She closed her phone and faced the others. "Ramos opens pathways between one realm and another. To summon him, you sacrifice people who stood for either side of whatever you were trying to open. If you could get someone who embodied both sides, so much the better."

"Angel stands for both living and dead," Buffy said softly. "And so would Lorne with his psychic powers." She looked at Tara, "How did you know the word?"

"I was dreaming," Tara said softly. "Mostly stuff that could come from being worried about Willow and the others, but Anya was there. I think she told me."

Xander abruptly turned away, busying himself with pouring more juice. "So, what's our next move?" he asked hoarsely.

"We'll try to narrow the location down more," Buffy said. "We need an LA city map."

"I'm going to the office," Kate said. "Cordelia told me which book talks about Ramos. We've got maps there too. I can be back here in an hour or so."

"Should you go alone?" Tara asked.

Kate shrugged. "If they wanted me, they would have taken me already. If they're watching the building, seeing any of you would alert them that something's going on. I'll be fine."

"What'll we do?" Dawn wanted to know.

"Get some rest," Buffy interposed. "None of us have had much sleep, and we're going to need to be fresh."

It was good advice, and all of them tried to take it, scattering to the three different bedrooms that surrounded the main sitting area. Tara didn't know how the others were doing, but she lay awake, alternating tossing and turning with staring at the ceiling. Worry over Willow and the others twined with memories of the last time she had been at the Ritz. Closing her eyes, she felt Spike's lips against hers, his cool, strong hands and hard body pressing into her.

When they found the others, everyone would be reunited with their lover, and she would be alone again. It would be nice if there was someone wanting to reunite with her. Nice if he were here, now, although then she probably wouldn't be sleeping either, as they moved quietly together, not wanting to wake anyone.

Hands sliding down, opening buttons, stroking, teasing. A soft chuckle in her ear…

…"Shh, Love. You don't want the others to hear…"

…before his mouth covered hers, swallowing her cries as she reached for him….

Tara snapped out of the semi-doze, hastily opened her eyes, and concentrated on banishing the flush of heat that ran through her.

This is not appropriate. You have a job to do. Get your mind off your hormones.

But she definitely wasn't going back to sleep. Tara sat up and scribbled a note, stating her intention to walk around the block and the time of her departure. Then, she picked up her shoes and stole quietly out of the suite. Kate should be back soon; she would take a quick walk and burn off a little of this excess energy, then come back to the room. Her cell-phone was turned on, so there shouldn't be a problem.

According to plan, she circled the sidewalk around the hotel, trying to form some sort of helpful plan regarding rescuing the others and coming up with absolutely nothing. Giles had always been the one for making plans, Buffy and the others the ones for carrying them out. She, herself, perhaps the one for carrying the supplies.

Not this time. Tara firmed her jaw. She could do this. She would do it. The others would not be harmed because of her lacking in some way.

She was striding back towards the front entrance of the hotel, head up and eyes determined, when something twitched across her consciousness. Startled, she came to a halt and turned. The usual LA traffic flowed along the street, and pedestrians clogged the sidewalk but no one seemed to be watching her. Still, there was something…

Slowly, she approached the edge of the sidewalk, following the tiny thread of energy. As if in a trance, she knelt, brushed away debris, and picked up the tiny object that had been concealed in the gutter.

Tara's eyes stung with unshed tears as she looked at the tiny wooden mouse that lay in her hand. The anger radiating off the carving was palpable, and it took no special outlay of psychic energy to provide a vision of what had happened, for her inner eyes to see Spike's boot heel come crashing down on the mouse and the annoyed kick into the gutter when he couldn't destroy it.

Was I that bad? Did I disgust him that much?

It would seem so. She closed the mouse tightly in her hand, trying to get her thoughts in some sort of order.

You knew this was a stupid fantasy. All that happened was that it finally got proven to you. And anyway, it's not important now.

As if to underline that last point, her cell-phone buzzed, and she automatically flipped it open.

"Tara?" Buffy said. "Kate's back if you want to come up."

"I'll be right there."

She thought her voice sounded normal, but before she could disconnect, Buffy asked sharply. "Are you ok? Did something happen?"

"No." Tara hastily stuck the mouse into her pocket, resisting her first impulse to throw it back into the gutter. Her mother had given it to her after all, and it would serve to remind her of the need to keepe her mind focused, to not give mental house room to silly thoughts. She took a deep breath, composed her features, and headed into the hotel.

Part 6

Waking up the second time didn't feel any better. Spike vaguely wandered if the headache was a deliberate side effect of Phil's spell. It would be just one more item to cover in the long, pointed discussion he intended to have with his former lieutenant when he got out of this.

I must have a leftover railroad spike or two lying about somewhere.

This return to consciousness was even more annoying than the previous because Spike had been having a very pleasant dream, involving he and Tara curled up together with no interfering worries about taking advantage of her. Not that much had happened beyond some rather enthusiastic snuggling, but he'd still enjoyed it quite a bit, an odd feeling of contentment surrounding him as they lay in each other's arms, her head resting on his shoulder and her fingers stroking his spine.

Contentment wasn't a sensation he normally associated with or had ever imagined wanting to associate with intimacy. Spike believed what he had told Tara and Buffy: real love was about fury not gentleness, passion not peace. But it had been…good…to feel that way, to see the welcome in her eyes, to not have to wonder if he would be left or told he was beneath someone.

Still, it was just a dream. The witch was gone, and he was a prisoner who needed to figure out a way to escape, and…

…and someone else was in the room with him.

That realization brought Spike the rest of the way awake, muscles tensing with preparation to fight. He cautiously slitted his eyes open and beheld Rupert Giles sitting propped against the opposite wall, looking approximately as bad as Spike felt. "Oh," Spike said, painfully sitting upright. "It's you."

"More or less," the Watcher said dryly.

In an effort to distract himself from the fact that his head felt like it was going to shatter, Spike studied his surroundings. Two pallets, one of which he'd been lying on, were the only furnishings in the room. Walls and floor were of a uniform gray stone that fit together seamlessly, except for one opening that he could see led into a small bathroom. He couldn't see any windows, anything that looked like a door leading out, or anything that could be used for a weapon. Even his shoes, duster, and belt had been taken. Glancing over at Giles, he saw that the other was also free of any accessories that might be useful.

Hauling himself to his feet, he poked his head into the bathroom, but all of the fixtures were fastened in place so tightly that even his vampiric strength couldn't work anything free. Still, at least neither he nor Giles would be stinking up the place.

"Can't say much for the enforced relaxation techniques, but the quarters are fairly posh as far as prisons go," Spike remarked, sliding back into a sitting position against the wall.

Giles smiled slightly. "Ethan fancies himself a gentleman villain. Chains and beaten, reeking prisoners don't go with his chosen image. He's probably quite sincere in saying that he won't hurt Willow if we don't attempt to escape."

"How come I rate a roomy?"

"I believe it's his little joke, since he doesn't intend to feed you." He held up a stake. "And since I found this when I woke up. I assume we're in one of those 'only one of us walks out of this room' situations."

"Ah," Now that he thought about it, Spike could feel hunger starting to gnaw. Not too bad yet, but it was growing and in two more days, it would be getting fairly intense. "Surprised you didn't go ahead and use it, Ripper. I'm not chipped, you know. There's nothing holding me back anymore."

"I gathered the chip had become ineffective," Giles said.

"But you thought I'd refrain from biting you out of the goodness of my heart?" Spike barked a laugh. "You lot will never learn, will you? I'm evil. A bad guy. One of the black hats. Always was. Always will be."

"And yet, here you are on this side of the cell, and according to Lorne, you tried to help he and Angel. Unless, as you say, it's part of some sort of master plan."

Spike shrugged uncomfortably. "I didn't know what was going on when I signed up. When I saw Angel and the other chap, I decided it was more trouble than it was worth, like most things to do with Sunnydale. I've tried lead a quiet existence ever since I got the damn bug-zapper out of my head, which was why I turned down certain jobs. I've gone smart, not soft. Start mucking about with innocent young girls and murder for hire, and you attract the attention of Slayers, souled vampires, and other annoying hero types. So you see, there's nothing keeping you safe."

"I do see your point," Giles agreed. "However, you're overlooking one thing."

"Which would be what? That we have a better shot of getting out of here if we work together? Spare me. I've learned my lesson. I work alone."

"I assure you I would never make the mistake of granting you altruistic motives. However, what you're overlooking is that Ethan wants you to kill me, and as I recall from your time in Sunnydale, you're far too much of a pain in the arse to willingly give someone what they want."

The comment startled an unwilling grin out of Spike. "That one might actually save you for a while, Rupert. Till I get too hungry anyhow."

Giles grinned back, "I thought as much. Besides, I can stake you later as well as now, and I won't be easily taken."

"I'm sure you won't be. Besides, it's all rather moot, isn't it? Despite what mojo-guy says, I'm sure the Slayer's tearing the world apart hunting you and her honey."

"True. But her time and resources are limited. We're on our own, I'm afraid."

"Just the way I like it."

"How's it going up there?"

At least it wasn't "Are we there yet?' Not that Tara blamed Buffy for her growing impatience. While she could distract herself by driving, the Slayer and the others were hidden in the rear of the rented mini-van, unable to see anything that was going on. Kate was bent over the book that contained data on Ramos, but the rest were left to chew their nails.

"Nothing yet," she called back, glancing at the tiny light that hovered over the passenger seat.

Using an LA city map, they had narrowed Willow's (and hopefully the others') location to one of the many LA suburbs, but now, legwork was required. They couldn't let the Arradia light go out in front of them – that would be noticed even in LA – so Tara had worked for several hours to shape it into an arrow and coax it into functioning as a sort of compass.

She was pleased that it had worked so well, pleased to have something to do to take her mind off her worry over her friends and…everything else. Tara banished the thought. After everyone was safe, she would have the luxury of going home to cry. Not now.

So far, the arrow had led them up through winding hills, the sound of the sea echoing through the windows of the van. Homes were rich here, not visible from the road even in tree-poor LA. Private drives barred by high iron gates were the order of the day.

The gate they approached didn't look any different from the others, but as they drove past, the arrow suddenly spun and pointed through the window straight at it, brightening like a star as it did so.

"Got it!" Tara cried. The impulse to ram the gates with the van was overwhelming. Her friends were near by, close enough to reach out and touch. She wanted to run to the rescue, wanted them safe and clear and away from whatever danger lay concealed beyond the fence.

But they'd gone over and over the plan back at the hotel, over the need for caution and forethought, over the danger that reckless behavior could cause, so with difficulty, she kept the van moving steadily forward. The others remembered it too. A furious rustle came from the back, as if everyone started to lunge toward the front of the van, then remembered what they had agreed on and sat back down reluctantly.

"What's the address?" Buffy called.

"1621 Ocean Valley."

Kate relayed the address into her cell phone then flipped it closed. "Cordelia will dig up what she can off her laptop and get back to us."

"Good," Buffy nodded. "Tara, why don't you find somewhere to pull over? We could stand a little scouting."

A nearby scenic overlook provided a reasonable location to park the van, and Tara swiveled her seat so that she could face the others.

"Won't they be watching the Net?" she wondered. "What if they realize somebody's looking up records about them? Or if they're tracing your cell phones?"

Kate and Buffy looked at her in surprise, then looked at each other and grinned.

"I forgot," Buffy said. "She hasn't met Fred." She looked back at Tara. "Remember how Will is with computers and robots and stuff? Fred makes her look like Giles."

"Or me," Xander said without embarrassment. "Or Cordelia. At least, earlier Cordelia."

"Fred's Angel Investigations tech-head," Kate finished. "She's worked on all of our equipment. Trust me. No one's tracing anything."

"Why didn't she get taken or hurt?" Tara asked. "Where is she?"

"She was in London when everything went down," Buffy explained. "The Royal College of Physicists wanted to give her some kind of award or get some DNA and clone her or something."

"When everything happened, I called," Kate continued. "She wanted to come back, but we were worried about travel, especially since magic's involved, so we put her with the Council of Watchers. No one's getting her out of there."

"Besides, thinking about her and Travers gives me a warm fuzzy," Buffy said. "Now, lets see what we've got."

She slid the van door open and everyone piled out. They were dressed as tourists and more casually than usual, and it was hoped that the baseball caps, sunglasses and loose-fitting clothing would provide enough disguise to hide them from people who didn't consider them a threat anyway.

They all walked to the edge of the overlook and stared at the ocean while Tara slid the strap of the binoculars around her neck. She held them to her closed eyes and concentrated, channeling the Arradia spell through the lenses. When she opened her eyes again, the golden arrow hovered in the center of her field of vision. She swept the coastline with the binoculars, then turned, as if seeking a better focus.

The overlook was the highest point around, and by turning back the way they had come, Tara could see the houses of the wealthy perched along the cliffs behind them. Careful not to remain in one place too long, she searched until one of the houses jumped into focus, outlined in gold. It was huge, a combination mansion and castle, perched directly on the edge of a cliff with a large round tower dominating the main structure.

"I can see it," she said, passing the binoculars to Buffy. The Slayer did as she had, first looking out to sea, then turning casually to pan across the houses.

"Geez," she muttered. "Why doesn't evil ever operate out of a split-level? Or someplace with aluminum siding?"

Xander and Dawn took turns looking through the binoculars, while Kate talked quietly on her cell phone, Cordelia having apparently come back with the needed information.

"Ok," the ex-policewoman said briskly at last. "I've got the info. Let's talk in the van."

They returned inside, doors open to let them see anyone who was coming, and picnic supplies spread out for cover. "The house is owned by one Arthur Winters, a former silent partner of Wolfram and Hart, no real surprise there."

"Must have gotten overlooked during that apocalypse," Dawn remarked. "It's those little details that come back to get you."

"He was on an extended trip to Romania when that all happened. He's been there since and only come back into the country a year or so ago. He's apparently high, and I mean very high in the occult circles over there. He's also obscenely rich which you can tell from just looking at the house."

Buffy frowned. "Then maybe it's just him doing all this. What would somebody like that need Ethan for?"

"He's a backstage player, likes to work through flunkies. It would be in character to have a second mage doing the actual dirty work. Especially, since according to Wes' book, the Ramos ritual is incredibly dangerous. He's called the Bridge Builder and can build links between dimensions. The one doing the sacrifice has to literally balance the two dimensions against each other, and then siphon off the power. There are huge forces involved, especially since Wes thinks we're right and the idea is to balance the realms of living and dead."

"This is all great," Xander said impatiently. "If Biography does a show on the guy, I'll be sure to catch it. Meanwhile, can we please get Will out of there? And everybody else?"

Kate shook her head. "It's not that simple. Cordelia found that Winters has the house completely wired for security, using cutting-edge technology. Maybe if we had Fred here and about two weeks, we could do something, but not otherwise."

"It's also got magical security," Tara spoke up. "Wards cover the house. Even if we got rid of the physical alarms, as soon as they're crossed, any mages will know."

"Then we go through the front door." Xander's face was bathed in sweat. "Right, Buffy? We've done it before. You and me like old times? We're not scared. We don't need all this…stuff."

"Xander," Buffy said gently. "I want them out too. But Angel and Lorne are the ones for the sacrifice. If we just go in, they'll use Willow and Giles to stop us. I can't guarantee somebody won't get killed."

"Wes pointed out that you couldn't guarantee that anyway," Kate said, avoiding the Slayer's eyes. "And that it was important to stop the sacrifice at any cost."

The temperature dropped 50 degrees in the van.

"Wesley Wyndham-Price can bite my ass," Buffy said in tones that were no less deadly for being mild. "I'm not losing anybody. Not the sacrifices, not the hostages, not anybody. Is everyone clear on that?"

Everyone was.

"So what do we do?" Dawn said with a worried look at her elder sister.

"I saved the best news for last," Kate said with a cold smile. "For this spell to work, there needs to be a pool of life energy, like you'd get from a lot of people." She nodded her head toward the open doors of the back of the van. "Guess who's having a Halloween party?"

Xander relaxed. "Crashing? Got it covered. All over it. Crashing's the only way I ever went to parties in high school."

"This won't be like breaking into a frat house," Buffy said. "Security will be tight. They'll have things like guest lists and guards. We'd do better going in as caterers or something, but those probably have to be vetted too…"

"We'll need disguises," Kate said. "They think they're safe, but you know they'll still be watching for us."

Don't say anything. They're on top of it. They'll figure out a way. Nobody else has even thought about it because they know better. They know you can't do it. Being disguised as wait staff is a good idea, and…

But this idea was better. It stood the best chance of working with the least amount of danger to others, if of course, she could pull it off, which was a big if. The very idea was making her stomach knot and clench and sweat break out along her spine. Could she do it? Could she not and then live with herself if someone was hurt or killed?

"You won't need to crash," Tara said reluctantly. "Or wear disguises."

Everyone stopped and looked at her. She saw the idea hit Kate and Buffy at approximately the same time. One face turned speculative, one worried.

"That is a good idea," Kate mused.

"Are you sure?" Buffy said. "I know that strange people and you don't mix all that well."

"I c…c…" she dug her nails viciously into her palm and looked directly at Buffy. "I can do this. I have to."

"Do what?" Xander said impatiently. "Get an invitation to the party? How? You're not…. Oh." He paused, the light dawning. "That's right. You're not. But Claudia Harris is."

"Everyone's dying to get a look at her," Tara said tiredly. "Especially with the new book coming out. It would be the party coup of the season. If I let it be known I want the invitation, it would look weird to not invite me."

"That just gets you in," Dawn said. "Are you going to rescue them by yourself? Or can you get invitations for all of us?"

She leaned her head against the side of the van, wishing she looked strong and competent, wishing she didn't feel like she was going to throw up any second. It would make what she was saying look more convincing.

"Once I'm in the house, I should be able to use magic to cut the power. It's not a spell, not something they can track: it's just something I can do. That lets you guys get in for the rescuing. If we do it fast, maybe they won't have time to go after Willow or Giles."

"That still puts you in there by yourself," Buffy fretted. "Tara, you're one of the anybody I don't want to lose."

"I know." She smiled weakly. "I don't want to lose me either, and if anybody has another idea, great, but right now, this is the only thing I can think of."

Kate nodded briefly, but Tara saw a light of approval in her eyes.

"How are you going to let them know you want an invitation?" Dawn asked.

Tara managed a slight laugh. "This is LA. Contacts are everything." Without letting herself think about it anymore, she tugged out her phone, and pushed a number. "Sophie Carstairs, please. It's Tara Maclay."

When her agent's effusive tones trilled over the line, she took a deep breath and plunged. "Sophie? I want to go to a party."

Hunger twisted in Spike's gut as it rose, worse than when he'd had the chip. Knowing he was physically incapable of biting anyone was one thing: simply resisting the temptation to bite for no good reason, at least no good reason to his demon self, something else entirely.

The smell of the blood flowing through the human's veins called to him in a siren's song of thirst and desire. He knew how the skin would pull taut as he bit through, how the first hot flow would jet across his tongue and hit the back of his throat, how the strength would pour into him as he fed.

There was little release. He didn't even dare sleep, all his control needed to hold the demon at bay.

Giles wasn't looking much better, although at least he was eating. He wasn't sleeping, however, and Spike rather thought it had been a while since he'd seen the Watcher blink. He was seated as far from the vampire as possible, the stake loose in his hand, eyes unwavering and muscles quivering every time Spike shifted.

So why don't you go ahead and eat him already? This business of spiting Ethan is cutting off my own nose and probably something that Stuff Shirt here made up besides.

He didn't know why he didn't feed. True the Watcher had a stake, but Spike was reasonably sure he could overpower him, especially once he let the hunger have its head. Plus, the chance that the mages would let them go was non-existent. One way or the other, he was dust, all his heroism an empty, hollow gesture.

Like that was something new.

Escape wasn't an option. They couldn't find anything that looked remotely like a door, and whenever food was left for Giles, Phil's spell knocked both of them unconscious despite their best efforts. He would wake, head splitting to see the fruit and bread – never anything that he could use although Giles offered – and no target other than his cell mate.

Despite the accompanying pain, he welcomed the blackness, which was deep enough that the demon couldn't surface. For a brief time, the hunger left him and allowed his body to find rest.

And Tara was always there in his dreams, her calm acceptance of him drawing the sliver of bitterness from his heart that had been lodged there since Sunnydale and perhaps before.

In the depths of his mind, behind his pride and anger and cynicism, Spike knew that was why he didn't feed from Giles, why the cases he took didn't harm the innocent. She had freely given him the ability to choose, asking nothing in return for the one act of genuine and ungrudging kindness he could recall being shown. He was loath to make choices that would hurt her and make her regret her belief in him. Not that she would know, but perhaps it didn't matter.

"It must be getting close to time," Giles said softly.

"It is," Spike agreed, staring at the ceiling. Despite the lack of windows or any opening, he could sense the arrival and departure of the night. "Today's Halloween."

"Ah." There was a pause, then Giles said carefully. "Spike, I wanted to tell you that you've impressed me over the past few days. Feeding would have been the easy way, and you didn't take it."

"Thank you, Rupert," he said with equal gravity. "You've given me something to hope for. Namely that after I'm killed by your old school chum, I won't have to listen to any more drivel." The Watcher's laughter was the last thing he heard as the blackness swept over him again.

"Look up."

Tara obeyed, having learned that this was the simplest method to use with Cordelia, and felt the light touch of the eyelash pencil draw across her lower lashes.

"Look at me. Blink. Good, that isn't going anywhere."

The woman stood back, hands on hips and surveyed Tara. "Ok. That's as good as it's going to get."

"Way to show enthusiasm," Buffy said dryly from her seat across the room where she was doing a final check on her weapons satchel.

The brunette relented. "You look great. Very classic elegance. Although I still think we should have gone with the other dress."

The other dress had consisted mostly of Lycra and been cut almost to the navel. It was the only battle she had won during the shopping spree. "No, we really shouldn't have."

"Maybe not. You're nervous enough without yanking at your neckline all night. For God's sake, smile! You're going to a party."

Tara attempted a smile, and Cordelia's eyebrows raised. "Forget the smile. Let's set a realistic goal. Try looking like you're not about to scream."

"Don't listen to her." Buffy crossed the room and took Tara's shoulders, turning her to face the mirror. "You're gorgeous. We can probably just walk straight in behind you while everyone's passed out in admiration."

"You think the dress is ok?"

"I think the dress is fine," Buffy said firmly.

"If you're joining a convent," Cordelia added.

Tara tried to look at herself objectively. The dress was simple – black velvet, with a boatneck that rose to her collarbones and dipped just below her shoulder blades. Long sleeves ended in points at her wrists. The body clung closer than most of her clothes, emphasizing the curve of her breasts, waist, and hips before ending just above the knee. From there, black stockings covered her legs until ending in uncomfortably stiletto-heeled pumps.

Cordelia had fastened her hair into a complicated French twist that drew attention to the diamond studs in her ears and to cheekbones that had received additional sculpting from makeup. A matching diamond pendant hung just below her neckline. All in all, Tara had to admit that her reflection didn't look like somebody with palms that managed to be both sweaty and icy, and who had been throwing up since noon.

Get over yourself. This is for Willow and Lorne and Giles and Angel and all your friends.

She had barely been able to sleep since her idea had been hatched and accepted. When she did drop off, dreams troubled her, tarot cards tumbling about her head. The King of Cups had been particularly troublesome, flapping and flying around agitatedly, until in the last dream, she finally managed to catch it.

"Stop that," she remembered telling the picture on the card. "Calm down. I'll be there soon. And don't eat Giles."

She had awakened with her mother's tarot deck cradled in her arms as if she were trying to soothe it.

We have to resolve this one way or another, or I'm going to need Sophie to check me in to some clinic or other.

"The limo will be here any minute," Cordelia said more gently.

Tara met Buffy's gaze in the mirror.

"We can still do something else," the Slayer said quietly. "Just say the word, and we'll go in as caterers. That'll work too."

She was tempted. It would be so much easier, so much better than being entirely alone in a room full of strangers, without even her shields to protect her. She would be with Buffy and the others, not everyone depending on her. She wouldn't have to be so desperately afraid of screwing up.

Any of the others would do it, from Buffy to Dawn, without even thinking. Was she truly so much less? Yes, probably, but did that matter? She was what they had.

"I'll be fine," she said as calmly as she could. "As long as I don't break my ankle in these shoes."

Buffy nodded. "Ok. You know the plan. We're going to be close behind you. He's starting the party late, probably so nobody will leave much before midnight. It'll be about 9:30 when you get there. You've got one hour to cut the security. We're going in at 10:30 either way."

"One Arradia light will lead you to Willow," Tara continued. "I'll cast another one and meet you there."

"And kick ass," Buffy finished grimly.

"I'm going to take Dawn to the hospital," Cordelia said. "We'll be in Wes' room. Good luck."

She nodded to Buffy, then unexpectedly gave Tara a quick hug. "I think you're really brave," she whispered. "Doing this as scared as you are. If it gets too much for you to handle, pretend you're somebody else. Pretend you're me."

The entered the main sitting room of the suite and Xander gave a low whistle. "Check you out."

"Thanks," she said uncomfortably.

"You look…sinisterly beautiful," Dawn said admiringly.

That almost made her laugh. "Sinister? Me?"

"Yeah. Like you really know all that stuff you write about."

Cordelia stared. "You mean you really are Claudia Harris? I thought you were just pretending to be her because they'd know everybody else. Damn. She writes some hot books." Her eyes grew huge. "OH MY GOD! Shiv! That means Shiv must be…!"

"Time to go," Buffy said briskly, shoving her sister at Cordelia. "Dawny, you be good and stay with Wes and Cordie."

"Be good? What am I, 10?"

"No, you're 19. It's even more important to be good. Bad has bigger consequences."

Cordelia, gaping like a fish, drew a protesting Dawn out of the hotel suite, just as the phone rang. Tara picked it up with an icy hand.

"Ms. Maclay? Your car is here."

"Thank you, John," she gulped. She hung the phone up and faced the others. She wished she could think of something witty or brave to say, but the only thing that came to mind was "I don't want to do this" or "I feel like I'm going to be sick". Both of which were true but not helpful.

"See you there," was all Tara could manage but it seemed to be enough. Both Xander and Buffy hugged her and Kate smiled and touched her arm.

"We're right behind you," Kate said.

"All you have to do is smile and look pretty until you can sneak away," Buffy said. "Claudia Harris is supposed to be mysterious, so small talk is not required."

"If I can't think what to do, I'll channel Cordelia," Tara said.

Xander frowned. "How will being a bitch help?"

"I'm sure you're wondering why I've called you all here."

Another reason to look forward to the final death. I won't have to listen to him anymore.

Spike made the now-familiar painful journey to full consciousness and sat up. He was back in the room where he'd first awakened after capture, the cells were once again full of his fellow prisoners, and Ethan was in the middle of the floor, being terribly pleased with himself.

There was one notable difference, however, and looking at the would-be evil mastermind, Spike couldn't prevent himself from bursting out laughing.

"Congratulations. You've set some sort of record. I didn't think it was possible to look more of a Nance than Dracula."

"I'm glad you finally woke up," Angel commented dryly. "I've been waiting to hear your reaction. My thought was at least I'll die amused."

Ethan stalked to the entrance of Spike's cell with a swirl of his cloak, the red-satin lining the only flash of color in the unrelieved black of his outfit.

"You billow very nicely," Giles drawled, interrupting the man before he could blast Spike into oblivion. "Really, Ethan, you look ridiculous. You're giving all the other evil magicians a bad name."

"Don't feel bad," Lorne consoled. "I like it. It's very…retro. Screams David Copperfield."

"You're so bloody clever," Ethan hissed. "Let's all remember who's on the outside of the cells shall we?" He glared at Spike. "You think you beat me by not killing Rupert? It just shows how pathetic you've become. If you'd given in to your demon nature, I would have offered you a position in my new regime."

"Ooh, you mean I've missed the chance to watch you prance about on a daily basis?" Spike sneered. "How will I console myself?"

Ethan's smile became crueler. "Did you think it would matter to them that you didn't kill him?" he asked, nodding to the occupants of the other cells. "That they would care? That they would think you were anything other than a monster? That they would approve of you at last?"

Spike kept his face neutral, trying not to show that the last shot had told. All the times he'd tried to help and been laughed at or slapped down slid through his mind despite himself.

"I think it was cool," said a slurred voice.

All eyes turned to Willow, who was still seated on the floor, weak and dizzy from the extra drugs she had been given. She smiled at him slightly.

"You did good, Spike. You were tough. And you were scarier in Xander's shirt than this jerk is in his bad-guy wear."

Despite the pain in his head and the ever-increasing gnawing in his gut, her words warmed him, as did Angel's quiet nod, Lorne's thumbs-up and Giles' slight bow. They understood. He was accepted. Come what might, he was part of the group at last.

"This is all very touching," Ethan said with a sneer that fell somewhat flat. "Be sure to remember it when I absorb the power of the realm of the dead. For the hour grows near. Even now, I can feel the pool of life energy forming."

He waved a hand at a large mirror that now hung on the wall not taken up by cells. Apparently, it had a purpose other than giving Ethan the ability to admire himself, for at his gesture, fog swirled across the glass, and when it cleared, revealed a large party in progress, well-dressed people swirling in and out of an elegant ballroom.

"Look at them," he gloated. "Intent on enjoying themselves, networking, finding some companion to while away the lonely hours. They have no idea they're only here to aid my quest or that I could kill them at a word."

"What a pity," he added, moving little to the side and running an admiring finger over a figure who had just entered the room. "That I have to start the ritual soon when there's such charming company down below."

It was fortunate that the scrying mirror didn't reflect the occupants of the room, for Spike's dropped jaw and widened eyes were repeated on the faces of his fellow prisoners as they recognized the guest who had caught Ethan's eye.

The cavalry had arrived, and a damned pretty cavalry it was too. Black velvet hugged a figure like an hourglass, the dark color making her upswept hair even paler as it caught the light from the chandelier. Strong, curving calves, heretofore concealed by long skirts or wide-legged pants, terminated in delicate ankles that were thrown into prominence by high-heeled pumps. Expert makeup highlighted her cheekbones and deepened the color of her eyes until the blue could be told even through the mirror.

It was also a terrified cavalry, her smile locked in place, tension evident in her back and shoulders as she hesitantly moved through the room. Even as they watched, Tara stumbled a little, putting out a hand to catch herself on one of the occasional tables and blushing painfully as several people looked in her direction.

Spike found himself in a morass of conflicting desires, including kissing her senseless, fighting duels in her honor, and making her some hot tea. Everything coalesced into one overwhelming urge to kill as a contingent of the male party guests began sidling casually in Tara's direction, only to be thwarted by Ethan's cohort. He descended on her with a predatory smile, bowing low over one of her hands, which he then tucked into the crook of his arm. Tara was practically rigid, reluctance writ large in every line of her, but she let him lead her away out of the range of the mirror.

Everything in Spike's head screamed MINE, and he had to fight to keep the demon from surfacing.

Ethan started to turn back towards them, and he managed to wipe his expression clear or at least clear enough to fool the mage who wasn't paying any attention anyway.

"To work, I suppose," he smiled. "I hope you've all had the opportunity to say your farewells." He gestured at the two cells on the far end that contained Angel and Lorne. They slumped to the floor as Phil entered, wheeling two gurneys.

Spike risked a look toward the mirror, and was relieved to see that it was dark now. Phil had seen and might remember Tara even though he reserved most of his attention for corpses.

They all watched in silence as Angel and Lorne's unconscious bodies were strapped to the gurneys and rolled out of the room. Willow raised a hand and rested it against the barrier, tears in her eyes.

"Whatever they're going to do, it better be fast," Spike said when they were alone.

"She's absolutely terrified," Willow whispered. "Poor baby. And the way he had his hands on her? Ugh."

Spike appreciated the sentiment, shared it in fact, but Willow's words filled him with annoyance. It was no longer her place to worry about who had their hands on Tara.

"She seems to be holding together well enough," Giles said.

The red-head smiled proudly. "Tara's very brave." The smile grew fond. "She's my girl."

All right. That's just about enough of that.

"Was," Spike said clearly. "She was your girl."

Giles and Willow stared at him for an instant, then Giles groaned, "Oh, God, not this again!" as Willow shoved herself up and stalked to the edge of her cell to glare at him.

"You don't want to go there," she growled, eyes snapping with fury and beginning to darken. "You don't want to think about even heading in that direction!"

"Why not? She's not with you any longer. You've apparently decided to walk the main side of the street again, all snuggled up with Woodshop Boy. It's not your business if she does the same."

"It's my business if some vampire tries that 'I'm a sexy creature of the night' seduction thing on a friend of mine. Tara's very sheltered and innocent and…"

Spike grinned. "Oh, is she? Maybe you don't know her as well as you thought. Read any good books lately?"

"What does that mean?"

"It means both of you shut up and focus!" Giles roared. "Your romantic entanglements aren't going to matter if Ethan sacrifices Angel and Lorne and opens the portal."

Two sets of eyes flicked to the Watcher and back to scowl at each other, but any further conversation was stopped when the room plunged into darkness.

The party wasn't as bad as Tara had thought it would be.

It was worse.

She had planned to fade into the walls, her usual behavior at gatherings, but instead she found herself being led from one group of people to another like one of her father's cows at the livestock fair.

Arthur Winters' proximity was making her feel even sicker than she normally would have been in this situation. His dark power stood out around him in a black roiling aura only slightly more terrifying than his toothy, insincere smile and his assessing eyes that swept over her, making her want a very long, very hot shower.

"This is Claudia Harris," he crooned at yet another group. "The talented author of The Underworld, whose new book, Dark Waltz, will be out soon."

She saw it again, the look in the eyes that showed its owner expected her to strip and perform some sort of sex act in the middle of the room. Maybe she should start toning down the sensuality in her books, or take up writing children's poetry or something a little less titillating.

"It's, um, nice of you to introduce me around, Mr. Winters," she managed. "But I've taken up enough of your time. I'll just mingle."

She tried to pull her hand free from his arm, but his grip tightened, and his eyes grew even more possessive. "Nonsense, my dear. You're practically the guest of honor, the one everyone wants to meet. And as I've said, do call me Arthur."

His hand covered hers, closing tightly around her fingers, and she almost screamed in sheer panic, having no idea how to handle this. Making a scene would cause even more attention to be paid to her.

Unexpectedly, Cordelia's cynical, humorous face rose up in front of her mental eyes.

Just pretend you're me.

Ok. What would Cordelia do?

It came to her abruptly, making her relax where she stood and even produce a smile for Winters. "Of course, Arthur," she said demurely.

He looked slightly surprised, but his grip loosened at her acquiescence and she let him take her around to two more groups before stumbling over her shoes again and dumping her untouched champagne all over his snowy shirt front.

"Clumsy me!" she said brightly with an empty-headed laugh. "I'm so sorry. Let me get something for you."

"No, no, it's all right," he said testily, wiping at his shirt as several waiters and other servants and guests surrounded them.

Tara backed away and glided out of the room, screened by all the offered napkins and handkerchiefs. Out in the hallway, she put an icy hand to her forehead and shuddered.

God, how did those people do it? Even if they weren't in the presence of evil, how could they smile and flirt pretend to enjoy themselves? The tension and unhappiness in that room could be felt, despite the bright smiles and flashing eyes.

"You all right, Miss?"

Panicked, she looked up at the man who stood leaning against the wall. He was well dressed, but obviously not one of the guests. She could see a small ear-phone running from his ear to his pocket. Probably a guard posted to make sure no one went wondering where they weren't supposed to. Her mouth went dry as she tried to form words, sure her purpose was written across her forehead.

Cordelia, Cordelia, Cordelia

"I'm fine," she smiled. "Could you tell me where the powder room is, please?."

"Down the hall," he said, gesturing.

She nodded brief thanks and tottered down to the well-appointed, and thankfully empty lounge. Tara wanted to collapse against the wall, or possibly hide under the couch but her watch told her it was 10:00, which meant time was running out.

Grounding herself, she laid a palm against one of the inside walls. Deepening her awareness, she could feel the power flowing, both electricity and the occult power of the wards. She could try to shut it off from here, but closer to the source would be better. Unfortunately, the guards weren't likely to let her go wandering through the house, so that meant shielding despite the presence of mages.

She drew them around her as unobtrusively as she could and they fitted to her like old friends. The shields were barely magic at all, mostly an aspect of her personality, the ability to blend in, to hide that she had learned so early. When Tara was sure they were in place, she left the powder room, forcing herself to move normally, not scuttle or creep which would draw the attention she feared.

There's nothing to see, nothing to worry about. No one's here who shouldn't be.

The guard's eyes passed over her disinterestedly as she walked away from him, trailing her fingers along the wall, feeling the power thrum through the circuits. Her movements led her toward the back of the house, passing cooks and staff who became increasingly less human as she left the areas where guests might go. She moved forward smoothly, drifting through the rooms, feeling their gazes slide around her and away.

At last, she felt the power increase and knew she approached the source. The next door she opened revealed itself as the cellar and she stepped through hastily closing it behind her. Tara felt her way down the stairs, not daring to turn on a light or even to call the Tinkerbell light to guide her. Any extra magic would be noticed.

She found and opened the circuit box and laid her hands against the switches. It wasn't enough to trip the breakers. That would be fixed too fast and too easily. She was going to have to blow the whole thing.

There was one piece of luck, at least. Apparently, whoever had set the wards had followed the paths of the electrical currents, which meant that the occult power source was also located in the circuit box, a glowing green stone that pulsed rhythmically.

She reached with her understanding, threading her awareness into the flow of energy, seeing how it worked, following the flows of the wards. As soon as she had the pattern in her mind, she called on her own power, swirling it up through her belly and heart and throat before spilling it into the circuit board. There was an audible crack and flash of green and white energy, and the room went dark.

Part 7

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

"She did it," Xander breathed. "All right, Tara."

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

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

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

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

I did it. I actually did it.

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

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

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

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

"Find Willow," she told it. "Shortest distance."

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

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

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

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

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

"Ahem," Anya said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Don't blame me for him," Spike muttered. "I did a bloody background check!"

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

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

"You're supposed to be powerful," he growled. "Get out there and fight him."

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

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

"I think the rest of the cavalry's on the move," he said, crawling up beside Giles.

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

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

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

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

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

"Will!" Xander cried, struggling to escape the bottom of the pile. "Are you ok?"

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

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

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

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

There. That's better.

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

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

Somehow, I knew Ripper would understand.

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

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

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

"I'm trying," the witch said, swaying in Xander's supporting arm. "I'm kind of loopy."

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

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

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

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

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

"Let's go," Buffy spun, heading for the exit, when Willow suddenly cried out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Easy, Love. You'll be fine."

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

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

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

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

"I'm ok," she whispered hoarsely. "Help the others."

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

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

"Put it back!" Winters suddenly howled. "Put the magic back! I'll pay you, give you anything you want."

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

"Back off," he growled. "Or I'll take you out just for the fun of it."

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

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

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

"What?" Spike said, stunned. "What is it?"

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

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

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

"Too late," Winters giggled. "It's too late."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The knife," Tara said from behind Spike's shoulder. "The knife Ethan was going to use for the sacrifice."

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

Heroic people give me a headache.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Put me down," she hissed, embarrassed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, isn't this pleasant.

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

"Are you sure you don't require medical attention? I know you were struck at least once."

"I'll be fine," she said quietly. "I just need to rest."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"She found the mouse you threw in the gutter."

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

"What?" he managed to say, grateful for the fact that he couldn't have heart attacks.

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

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

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

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

"Well, you can. Or you can go back and talk to her. It's up to you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Just fine, thank you. And you?"

"Better than I was."

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

Angel laughed. "Good luck. I worked on that for a century and didn't get very far."

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

"So," Angel said agreeably.

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

"You don't lose 400 years of lurking experience just because you turn human," the other shrugged. "As for why I'm here, I thought I'd offer you a job."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Take notes for the next book."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Please don't, Sir," she whimpered. "Please. I'm sorry."

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

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

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

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

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

"Shh. Shh. Tara, you're safe. Shh, Love. It's all right."

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

"Are you ok now?" he asked neutrally.

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

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

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

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

"Impressive," he interrupted dryly. "I've never seen anyone tie 14 knots in a sash in under 30 seconds."

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

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

"That was different," she murmured, still looking down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She jerked, and his arms closed around her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You mean like royalties or something?"

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


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

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

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

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

"The very one. I'll bring you up to date. Agreed?"

"I guess so. On a trial basis anyway. What else?"

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

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

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

"Seems fair," she said breathlessly.

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

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

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

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

"That's Sophie's favorite line so far."

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

"Thanks," Tara grinned. "Now I know what to use for Shiv's response."

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

"Why do you have plastic bats hanging from the ceiling?"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'm beginning to think you have a crush on the Croc Hunter or his wife."

"Both of them are pretty cute. And they like animals."

"Hey, I like animals. Especially with tomato sauce."

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

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

"All right. How's this?"

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

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

"But you fought the good fight."

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

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

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

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

"The town was taken over by giant blue pigs."

"Nah. They'd save something good like that for sweeps."

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

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

"Yeah," she said, oddly breathless. "It is. Nice."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I should do…something.

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

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

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

"I wouldn't do anything to hurt you," he whispered.

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

"Are you ok?" he said softly.

She nodded, horribly embarrassed. "I'm sorry. This can't be…"

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

"Oh," she said completely nonplussed. "You do?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's ok," she laughed, hugging him. "It's something that happens when I'm really happy. We'll come down in a minute."

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

The End

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