|He waited on the sidewalk in front of Buffy's house for a minor epoch before venturing up to the porch and ringing the bell. After a few moments Giles opened the door, but he made no motion to step out of the way to let Spike in.
"What do you want, Spike?" he asked coolly.
"I'm here to see Red."
"Yes, well - I'm afraid there's been a change of plans--" the ex-Watcher began, only to be interrupted by Buffy's voice calling from up the stairs.
"Is that Spike?" she asked. "Let him in; I'll be right down."
Spike shouldered past Giles in the doorway and stood waiting at the bottom of the stairs for Buffy to appear. She came down the staircase, slowing before the bottom and eyeing him guardedly. "Spike."
"Slayer," he acknowledged carefully.
"Willow's upstairs in my room," she said. "We thought it would be better if I moved into my mom's old room for a while..." Spike nodded silent understanding.
"I really must protest," Giles said, coming forward between the two of them. "The hospital psychologist will see her on Tuesday. Having Spike here-- I think this is a terrible idea."
Spike snorted. "Yeh, you're not the only one. It is a terrible idea. Except everything you've tried up until now has been worse, hasn't it?" He looked up at Buffy. "I don't think it'll be very nice. Whatever you hear, don't come in." Spike took in Giles's guarded face with a wary glance. "And don't let him in, either. Promise me, Buffy."
She swallowed hard and nodded.
Spike took the stairs past her two at a time.
He knocked softly at Buffy's bedroom door.
"Look, I told you, I don't need any more of your platitudes," Willow objected from behind the door.
Spike pushed the door open and strode into the room. "Good, because I don't have any for you."
Willow spun around from where she stood at the window, astounded. She wore white bandages wrapped neatly from wrist to elbow like the bracers of some ancient warrior, completely at odds with her faded jeans and fuzzy blue sweater. "Spike?" She came up to him, native curiosity momentarily overcoming her distress, and reached to touch his face. He closed his eyes to permit the inspection. "They told me what happened to you. I have to admit, I didn't believe it."
"Yeh, well... it took me a while, too."
Curiosity turned to suspicion again. "What are you doing here?"
"Buffy asked me to come talk to you. I suppose she thought I'd have something helpful to offer you. I don't."
He let his voice soften. "I was so sorry when Dawn told me how you lost your darling. The two of you were a right pair of turtle doves, always cooing over each other."
As though his gentle tone unlocked something deep within her, Willow burst into tears. "I should have been the one who died, not her. Tara never did anything. She didn't deserve to die. It's not fair!" she wailed, clutching at him desperately and snuffling into the folds of his jacket.
"Of course it isn't," he said, almost too quietly for her to hear. "It never is. The world isn't about fair. That's just something that children tell themselves when things go wrong. That they're not responsible." He tightened his arms around her. "It's not fair. How can it be fair when you're a murderer and you're still alive?"
"They deserved to die!" she protested, pushing away from him and out of his embrace. Her pale face was mottled pink now in sudden anger.
Now we get to the heart of it. Spike kept his voice level. "Maybe so. But no one appointed you executioner."
"They were evil!"
"And now they can't ever be anything else, can they? Whatever else you can say about them, now there are two fewer souls in the world. You tore them out of the world rather than let them live out their appointed spans - and you'll hear the screams of that rupture the rest of your life. Because no matter what you do now, you can't bring them back. No matter how much good you do, there's no way to right the imbalance you've left in your wake."
"You don't understand. I feel it all the time. I don't deserve this. They were evil!" she insisted again.
"Still had souls. Still had potential beyond what they were." He sighed. "Law of averages alone says I had to have killed evil men and women in all my years, along with the good. The rapist and the nun, the pederast and the paragon - their souls all sound the same to me now." The ghostly clamour rang louder now that he had turned his attention their way, but they had never been silent.
"How - how many?"
"What?" He refocused on her.
"How many do you hear?"
Spike closed his eyes wearily. "I've had some time to think about that. Before the day the Initiative captured me, I'd been a vampire for one hundred nineteen years, seven months and thirteen days. I didn't kill every day, but there were days I killed more than one, just for the sport of it. You're the one supposed to be the genius; you figure it out."
Willow's eyes widened, and one hand crept up over her mouth. "Oh ..."
"You're just one life, one soul. But if you live long enough then someday - maybe - you'll have done enough to atone. Die now, and you have to face whatever it is waits for us with that stain on your soul. Don't know what it is that you believe, but I'm not looking forward to my end."
Her face closed in anger - or possibly in fear. "Just because you buy into a fear mongering, paternalistic religion, one that usurped the proper place of the Goddess--"
"What about the Rede?"
Willow's mouth snapped shut so suddenly that Spike was afraid she'd bitten her tongue. The Wiccan Rede was the witches' code of conduct, a moral code equivalent to the Ten Commandments. That and the 'Rule of Three' were the only checks on her behaviour - if she chose to abide by them.
Bide ye the Wiccan Rede ye must,
"You don't know anything about it!"
"I'll admit I have some impulse-control problems, but I've never been overly stupid," he observed mildly. "Your actions come back on you three-fold, isn't that it? Not brave enough to stick around and face the consequences of what you've done?"
"It isn't like that! I should-- I should be rewarded for taking out slime like Warren and Rack!" Willow raged.
He shook his head. "Did you think you were special? That there was some accelerated course that you could take, so as to get it all over with sooner? Be free of it all and not have anyone throw it back in your face anymore?"
Her face said all too clearly that that was exactly what she had thought. "Don't you understand?" he said. "It never ends. Never. The guilt and the grief - they're always there, just under the surface, ready to bubble up at any time. You can learn to deal with them day to day, but they'll never leave you. It's never over."
Willow lunged at him. "Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!" she screamed, beating at him with her bloodstained, bandaged arms.
Above them they could hear strident shrieks, followed by a sudden thud that sounded as though something - or someone - had been thrown to the floor. Buffy cut Giles off before he could reach the stairs.
"You're not going up there, Giles. Don't make me stop you."
"He may be doing her irreparable harm!"
Buffy closed her eyes and ran a hand over her weary face. "Giles. She's already tried killing herself. How much more harm can there be in letting Spike talk to her?"
"That's all very well to say, but clearly he's gone far beyond talking. I can't let this go on."
"And so you'll do what?" she challenged. "Use a spell to get me out of the way? Because you know there's no way you can beat me physically." She let the vague weary hurt she'd been feeling for months creep into her voice at last. "When did you stop being someone I could trust?"
"You'd rather trust him, after everything he's done?" Giles retorted, undeterred.
"Yes. Strangely enough, I trust him in this exactly because of everything he's done. There's no one else among us who can possibly understand what it feels like to have killed someone - and have to live with it." She looked up at the man who had been her teacher, her guide, and more than a father to her for many years, hoping she could make him understand. "You haven't seen him, haven't seen how much he's hurting. But he manages to live with it every single day. I think he can teach Willow the same thing."
Giles's expression hardened - but he made no further move towards the stairs. "I only pray you're right."
"So do I. But in any case, it's about time I did something for my friend. I've stood back and let her suffer long enough."
They crumpled together to the floor and huddled there while she raged at him and wailed. He bore her blows stoically until they began to weaken and she collapsed against him, sobs wracking her thin body. Spike rocked her wordlessly until they subsided into incoherent murmurs against his chest.
"I'm nothing," she moaned as he held her. "She's gone, and I miss her so much, and I can't do anything to bring her back." Wrung out with her grief, she couldn't manage more than a reedy monotone.
"I've lost everything I had that ever mattered. Tara, the magic - I could have done so much good--" Willow's face twisted suddenly, and she pushed away out of Spike's embrace to scrabble across the floor to where the plastic-lined wicker wastebasket stood beside Buffy's desk. But he came up behind her and held her, bracing her forehead with one hand as she retched into the wastebasket helplessly, until nothing more than green bile came up from her abused stomach, her hair hanging damp and limp about her face.
Once he was reasonably certain she wouldn't be sick again, Spike released her and went across the hallway into the bathroom to wet a washcloth. When he returned, he knelt to present it to her and waited while she wiped her mouth and face clean.
"Is that why you chose to submit to a spell?" he asked, when she looked back up at him. "Because you thought that was a way to be punished enough? So you could get it over with?" He shook his head. "Guilt hurts. It won't ever stop hurting. You'll always have to live with the pain of what you did. But the question is, what wondrous moments can you wrest from your life in addition to the pain?"
"I'm nothing," Willow whispered again, though with somewhat less conviction as Spike helped her rise to sit on the bed.
"You're not nothing. Do we deserve to be punished for what we've done? Yes. But what purpose, what greater good would our deaths serve?"
"It would stop the pain," Willow said softly.
"It would," he agreed. "But only if you think death is an end, and not a doorway to another place." He looked up, as though he could spy heaven through the ceiling plaster. "I find I'm much less of an agnostic than I was - Mother would have been pleased." He returned his eyes to hers. "Despite everything, it can still be a glorious thing to be human, and alive. 'What is man, that thou art mindful of him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.'"
She smiled. "If you're looking for quotes to inspire me about the wonders of staying alive, you really have to find something more secular. Try this: 'What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god!'"
"Touché, Red," Spike smiled. "I suppose I have to yield to your superior skills on that point, at least."
He settled into the chair beside the bed as Willow leaned back into the headboard. "Hey, I tried to destroy six billion people," she said with black humour.
"Yeh, but actual murder beats attempted every time, and by my count you're only at two. I'm still way ahead."
Her fingers twisted into the white quilt beneath her. "I killed... I murdered Rack and Warren." She didn't try to talk her way around it anymore; it was a flat statement of fact.
"Can't tell you the names of most of my dead. I'm still here, doing my best to put it to rights."
"But how can I go on? Tara's gone." She couldn't get away from this one essential point.
No more sympathy, now. "Yeah? So's my whole family, for one reason or another. Killed my mother m'self," he admitted.
Willow was shocked out of her focus on her own pain. "You killed your own mother?" she asked, taken aback.
"Turned her into a vampire so she wouldn't die of consumption - tuberculosis, you'd say today." He dropped his eyes as though shamed. "Didn't work out well. Ended up killing her again, after." His closed expression said he wouldn't welcome questions on the matter.
"Spike," Willow asked carefully, "Are you trying to say your dead are more important than my dead?"
He frowned. "Don't let's get into a pissing contest over this, Red."
"That would hardly be fair, given the advantage you've got, now would it?"
Spike stared at her for long moments, then blinked. "Was that a joke?"
Willow's mouth quirked in a small, hesitant smile. "Why? Was it so bad you couldn't tell?"
Their laughter together skirted the edge of hysteria, for a while.
"Tara's really gone," she said flatly, but without renewed tears.
"Not so long as you live, and remember her," Spike observed. "She deserves that, at least. No one else knew all the little things about her that made her so special." And who will remember me, when I'm gone?
"So is that it?" Willow asked with a pessimistic smile. "Live for her memory, and I'm cured?"
Spike laughed harshly. "Hardly. I made you acknowledge some hard truths - but you could turn around and put them out of your mind tomorrow, easily. I don't have any miracle cure. You just... go on. And if you're lucky, you only get the urge to do yourself in every other day." He paused for a deep breath. "But if you need someone to talk to, Buffy knows where to find me." He closed his eyes and leaned back into the chair, hands spread limply on his thighs. Voices washed over him; faces of people long dead hung before his closed eyes.
Minutes of silence passed, until Willow asked, "She doesn't have any idea, does she?"
Spike drew himself out of his introspection with some effort. "What's that?"
"Buffy. She doesn't know what she's asked you to relive, coming to talk to me."
"No," he agreed. "But I'll spare her the knowledge, if I can. I'm not looking for sympathy points."
"But it's not f--" Willow stopped herself, and flushed. "She's a killer too, you know."
"Sort of goes with the Slayer job description, Red," he said gently.
"No, that's not what I meant. When the Knights of Byzantium were after Dawn, Buffy killed more than a few of them - and they were all humans. How come she doesn't have to pay for it?"
"I don't think she remembers much from those last few days before she..." --it still pained him to say it-- "died. A small mercy."
"How can she just forget something like that? Back when we were seniors, she was there when Faith killed the deputy mayor. I held her hand through that when she nearly fell apart."
"Faith. That's the crazy Slayer, safely locked up somewhere, right?"
Willow nodded, letting herself be distracted momentarily from her original point. "But not before she stole Buffy's body, threatened to kill her mom - and slept with Riley," she said.
Something cold settled in the pit of Spike's stomach. "Is that so?" he asked, his words clipped and careful. "That would explain a number of things. I thought she seemed a little off that night."
"You saw her then? She would have taken you out just for the fun of it, if she felt like it," she said breathlessly. "You're lucky you survived."
I'm not sure I did.
"So it's all right that you and I are paying for what we've done, and she's not?" Willow persisted on her original tack when he didn't reply.
"I think... Buffy needs the world to be simple," he replied, after careful thought. "The good guys wear white hats and the bad guys wear black and all deserve to die. She couldn't survive doing what she has to do, otherwise. You and I, on the other hand, we're not such innocents."
She eyed him speculatively. "I don't think you're giving her enough credit."
He grimaced. "It would hardly be the first time I've fucked up, trying to predict her."
"Spike... can I ask you a personal question?" Willow asked gravely.
"I think I probably owe you at least that," he replied with equal gravity.
"When did you know you were in love with Buffy? Did I... did my spell--" she winced in expectation, but the geas didn't strike her for just the word. "Did I make you fall in love with her?"
"Kind of thought that was the point of it, Red," he smiled. "I was in love with her, while the spell lasted. But no, much as you'd like to, you can't take the blame for that one. Once it was over, it just gave me 'shag her to death' as another option on my 'ways to kill the Slayer' list. It took me... oh, at least another year before I came completely unhinged." He smiled softly at this reminiscence. "Thought at first I was going crazy." It doesn't matter how it happened anymore, if by loving her I can do her some good.
"How did you make it through the summer after she died?"
His forehead creased with remembered pain. "I promised her... that I'd protect Dawn. It gave me some purpose, something to focus on, beside how much pain I was in, every one of those hundred forty seven days."
"Tara's dead." Her voice was flat, but steady. "She's dead, and unlike Buffy, won't ever be coming back. But I guess she wouldn't want me to be dead, too. So what do I do now?"
She looked so lost, but he had no answers for her. "There's no secret to it. In time, it becomes bearable." Though I couldn't tell you how many years it's going to take me. "You just go on. You find something worth going on for." A possibility occurred to him. "It's not much, but Buffy and Dawn could use a hand investigating some blood bank thefts. I understand from Buffy that Xander's not going to be involved much for a while."
Willow made a face, whether at having to resume the mantle of 'research girl' or at Xander's renewed attempts at romance he couldn't tell. "I guess that's something, for now," Willow said. "I'll talk to Buffy and let you know how that goes."
He recognized a dismissal when he heard one, and stood to go.
"Spike, wait." She got up from the bed and came over to him. Taking his face in her hands, she stood on tiptoe to kiss his forehead in benediction. "Thanks."
"Willow wants to see you," he said to Buffy as he came down. Buffy looked over at Giles and then back at Spike with an uncertain glance, then headed up the stairs.
Giles wasted no time in advancing on him. "What did you do to her?"
Spike immediately went on the offensive. "What did I do? What the hell did you do to her that has her spewing her guts up at the slightest thought of using magic?"
Giles was taken aback by Spike's vehemence, and found himself suddenly on the defensive. "I hardly think you're in a position to criticize our methods, Spike."
"Well it's about time someone did."
"You wouldn't understand."
Against his better judgement, Giles found himself trying to explain the choices he and the witches of the coven had made. "Willow's become by far the most powerful witch I've ever encountered. The dark magic she absorbed last year has become an indissoluble part of her, and she has no way of controlling it. The coven placed a geas on her to prevent her using it, until such time as she may be able to bring it under control."
"So you just went ahead and partitioned her brain? Where's the fucking free will in that, Rupert?"
"Willow agreed it would be for the best."
"Willow agreed," he said incredulously. "She's a child. She trusted you. They all trusted you. You were more a father than most of them ever had, and--"
"That's enough!" Giles roared, cutting him off in mid sentence. "I will not stand here discussing this with you. You are not part of this." His eyes narrowed, and he counterattacked. "Why are you really here, Spike?"
It was Spike's turn to try to justify his actions. "You know why. Buffy asked me to come and talk to Willow. I did that. I don't know if it will do her any good, but it was what Buffy wanted."
"And with this you hoped to win yourself back into her good graces? What exactly are your intentions regarding Buffy?"
"Intentions, Rupert? Who the hell died and made you her father?"
"According to you, I already am." Giles stepped forward, removing his glasses. All traces of the pedantic librarian were long gone from his face; this was Ripper now, intent on getting what he wanted. "I was her Watcher and advisor for five years, Spike - or William, if that's how you're styling yourself these days. I hope that she would also consider me her friend for many of those years as well. I won't see her hurt."
"You don't want her hurt? Oh that's rich, that is, coming from you. You're the man who walked out on her last year when she needed you. Just another one in a whole string of men, in fact - including her father. I stayed with her."
"Yes, you stayed, Spike. But to what end? To turn her away from her friends so that she would have no one to depend on but you? To persist in following her around even when she had told you there would be nothing further between you? To... to rape her?"
A knife to the gut, Rupert? Always knew that would be your style. "I never--"
"No. You didn't," Giles conceded. "But only because she stopped you."
Spike dropped his eyes. Whatever else I may ever do for her, I'm the man who once did that. No matter that she forgave me at the last. I'll always know. "Yes. And when I realized what I'd done I made bloody sure I'd never be able to do anything remotely like that again, didn't I?"
"That remains to be seen, doesn't it? Despite all the changes in you. So I will ask you again, Spike. What do you want here?"
Giles took a step back at the look that suddenly blazed up in his eyes. Incongruously, Spike suddenly seemed much more dangerous as a man than he had as a vampire.
"What do I want? Oh Rupert, shall I tell you what I really want, then?" Emotions that he'd fought hard to deny came boiling forth in an irresistible torrent of words, pouring out before he even had a moment to consider what he was saying.
"What I want is to fight for her and beside her and to always be there to guard her back. I want to stand by her side and provide for her every need. I want to give her all the love and comfort and protection that a proper man should." Clenched fists thrust hard at his sides, punctuating each statement.
"I want to lie down every night by her side, and wake every morning in her arms. I want to draw out the days of her life as a goldsmith would draw hot gold wire; stretching it out further than anyone thinks possible. And on the day that I finally fail to protect her and she has to die, I want to be there to lay down my life at her side, because this world will be empty for me without her in it." Tears streaked unchecked now down the stark planes of his face.
"Is that good enough for you, Rupert?" he demanded, his voice breaking. "Will that do?"
Giles only stood and stared, his glasses dangling forgotten from his fingertips as Spike pushed past his unresisting form. Neither one of them noticed the slight figure that had stopped on the landing at hearing the voices below, a trembling hand at her mouth muffling her soft cry.
Spike finally gathered the ragged shreds of his composure again, angrily scrubbing the traces of tears from his face with the heels of his hands. He turned back, drew himself to his full height and looked up to challenge the ex-Watcher. Despite his larger stature, Giles took an involuntary step back.
"Not one word of this to Buffy, you understand," Spike hissed, "Or soul or no, I'll take your bloody head off. I'm not daft enough any more to believe that what I want and what she deserves are even in the same library, much less on the same page." With that final warning, he threw the front door wide and escaped.
"You poor bastard," Giles breathed at last, watching him stride away down the street.
Corey waved him over as he arrived at Desperados later that evening. Curious, Spike followed him into the break room.
"That girl you were talking to the other day came by here looking for you," he said.
Buffy? His heart hammered suddenly in his chest. "Which one, Corey? Specifics would be good."
"The brunette," Corey replied, cupping his hands in front of his chest in unconscious reference to two of Allie's more prominent features.
Allie. Definitely not Buffy, he realized, as he reached for the hook with his work shirt. "What did she want?"
"She said sorry she missed you, she was going to take off for a while, and don't try to find her," Corey related, ticking the points off on his fingers.
"She didn't say. But... she looked pretty rough."
He suddenly had Spike's full attention. "What do you mean?"
"Like someone had worked her over pretty good. You know - black eye, split lip--" Corey found himself talking to empty air.
It was only as Spike hit the street in front of the bar that he realized he hadn't the slightest idea where to begin looking for her.
Intuition more than insight eventually brought him around to the Motel California. Donnie Tranh sat lazily in his easy chair in his usual spot behind the cracked counter in the office, letting the blue glow of the portable TV wash over him. Spike wouldn't have been at all surprised to find him under a layer of dust.
"Donnie--" Spike began.
"You late!" the old man cackled, on seeing him. "She been here for hours. Mebbe got new boyfriend, eh?" He admonished Spike with a waggle of one crooked finger from where he sat. "You suppose' take better care of her, yes?"
"Just give me a key, Donnie," Spike growled in exasperation.
"She got," he replied. "Only one for room." More manic laughter followed Spike out of the office and to the door of their usual room.
The thin wood of the door shivered under his hammering fist. "Allie? I know you're in there. Donnie told me you were here."
"Go away, Spike." Her voice was muffled by the sound of the television playing at high volume. "I don't want to see you."
"Don't make me take this door off at the hinges - now open up!"
The sound from the television cut off abruptly, and the next thing he heard was the turning of the deadbolt. The door swung open a crack, and he pushed through.
Allie settled herself cross-legged on the end of the rumpled bed, pointedly ignoring him, and picked up the TV remote again. Barefoot and without makeup, she looked no more than sixteen - a teenager whose biggest concern should have been who would ask her to the prom.
The ice bucket sat in a puddle of meltwater on the dresser. She had placed a dozen or more ice cubes in a towel and was holding the resulting bundle gingerly against her cheek with her free hand. The flesh there was blackened and distended to the point that she couldn't open her right eye. Her lower lip was similarly swollen.
Spike knelt before the end of the bed and took the remote from her unresisting fingers. With his other hand, he lifted her chin gently until she had no choice but to look at him.
"Nice, huh? Should do wonders for business." Her puffy lip slurred her words into a lisp. "Think I lost a fucking tooth, too."
"Who did this to you?"
"I thought it was just business - you know, a little rough trade," she went on, as though she hadn't heard him. "Until he started going on about how all the girls down here work for him and how he wanted to see if I was... good enough. Think I broke his nose before he was done, though," she added proudly.
"He... raped you?" he asked softly.
Her laugh was as hard and brittle as her eyes. "Oh, Spike. Don't you know you can't rape a whore? You can only forget to pay them when you're done."
He cupped her bruised face gently in his hands. "Tell me how to find this guy and I'll see that he's taken care of."
She shook her head free from his grasp impatiently. "I don't need you to be my avenging angel, Spike." He flinched; she didn't see it. "I already know what I'm going to do to that bastard."
Allie got up and paced angrily about the room. As she moved, he could see more bruises revealed by her shifting clothing. "I'm sick of this game. I'm sick of taking shit from mouth-breathing lowlifes who think that just because they've got more muscles than I do that they can tell me what to do. I don't work for anyone but myself. And I take care of myself," she added, looking back at him. "Don't get involved."
"I am involved. What kind of a friend would I be if I didn't worry about you?"
"I never asked you to be my friend," she snapped.
"Whether you asked for it or not, it's happened. I can't just turn off caring about what happens to you."
"Yeah? Sucks to be you, then."
He took both her hands in his, then reached to brush a stray strand of hair away from her face. "Would it be so terrible to admit someone could care about you for you?"
For a moment he thought he saw tears welling in her dark eyes as she looked away - but it must have been a trick of the light, because when she turned back to him her eyes were hard. "Don't do this to me, Spike. Don't make me soft. I already made a mistake, leaving a message for you and then sticking around here long enough for you to find me."
"You can't just run away from this. Please, let me help, or--"
"Or you'll do what? You'll make me stay?" She snorted. "Maybe I should make you my pimp. Do you think that would improve things?"
Spike closed his eyes and released her hands, accepting defeat. "Will you come back?" he asked, his voice barely audible over the omnipresent hum of freeway traffic nearby.
She looked back at him and her face held no expression. "I really don't know, Spike. Make sure Donnie gets the key back before you go, okay?"
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