Note - Thanks to my beta, t_geyer, for her unending patience, perseverance and support. Thanks also to always_jbj who keeps arguing that she doesn't merit a co-writing credit, but without whom I would never have got the basic plotline worked out.
Tara wondered at the insistent tone of the knocking at her dorm door. Nope, she corrected herself as she pushed her chair back and got up, the noise continuing unabated, not insistent, frantic.
"I'm coming," she called out. She'd been in Sunnydale far too long to give a simple, "Come in," regardless of how desperate the caller might sound. The last person she expected to see when she cautiously pulled the door back several inches was Buffy, and she definitely wouldn't have anticipated the mascara-dark streaks from the tears that seemed to flow unheeded down her cheeks. Swinging the door wide, she wrapped the slayer in her arms as Buffy stepped into the room.
For just a second Buffy seemed to cling to her, but then she struggled from her grip.
"Ph-phone," the smaller girl stammered out before a long and unlovely sniff. "Gotta call Mom."
Tara moved to one side and swept a hand in the direction of the bedside table where the phone sat. There were a thousand questions she wanted to ask, most importantly what had upset Buffy so much that not only was she crying, but she had been crying as she made her way through campus. If Buffy cried, Tara would have expected it to be in private, on her own, in a darkened room in the dead of night. Buffy didn't even cry in front of the Scoobies, let alone walking through an area filled with people who'd be all too happy to spend hours speculating over her misfortune.
Buffy grabbed the receiver as if it were a lifeline and punched in the number with a speed that had her depressing the cradle and trying again, this time with a patent effort to slow her slightly tremulous fingers.
"Mommy?" she pleaded, this time evidently getting a connection, and Tara placed a box of tissues down on the floor next to where Buffy now knelt.
She doubted that Buffy even noticed, focused as she seemed to be on passing on her message in between the gulping sobs.
"The mansion. Angel's old place. H-have to help Spike."
There was a brief pause where Joyce must have had her own questions.
"N-not wounded. H-hurt, really hurt. Drusilla's dead."
Tara couldn't help her sigh of relief. She'd been so scared that Glory had somehow taken Dawnie... and then the import of Buffy's words began to sink in and she felt a sympathetic chill in her chest as she thought how awful it must have been for the vampire to watch Buffy stake his former lover.
"Okay. I'm with Tara. Hurry, Mom. He needs... I couldn't-." Buffy's voice broke off into a sob and as if those words had been as much as she had been able to manage the phone seemed to slip from her fingers.
Tara lifted it from the carpet and replaced it on top of the base unit. Half-lifting and half-guiding, she somehow got Buffy onto the bed, where the other girl instinctively curled on her side. Tara rounded the bottom of the bed and climbed on from the other side, shifting over until she could spoon against Buffy's back and wrap her in a comforting hug. Later, there might be questions, and once Buffy had cried herself out Tara would probably get up and make some herbal tea, which might help to soothe her, but for now what she needed was plain old human contact.
Tara set down the teapot onto her desk and carried the mug she had just filled over to where Buffy sat huddled under the bedspread.
"Better?" she asked as she set the china mug down next to her friend.
"Some," Buffy replied. Her ravaged make-up had been scrubbed clean, but it would take a day or so, even with slayer healing, before the redness around her eyes and the tip of her nose faded and the burst blood vessels in the once white parts of her eye healed up.
"Want to talk about it?" the Wiccan asked, sounding slightly embarrassed. "I mean I know you were probably looking for W-willow rather than me, so if you want to wait for her getting back..."
Buffy made a sound that was a self-flagellating laugh wrapped in a sigh. "I don't really know who I was looking for... other than Not-Xander and not Mom. It's a wonder I got here in one piece. I think I drove..." She gave another hiccoughing laugh. "...In Spike's car... with the windshield blacked-out."
Tara gave a gentle smile. "From what you told Joyce, I think the car will be the last thing he's worrying about right now."
Buffy squeezed tighter on the cup she cradled in both hands as if it might allow its warmth to banish the chill she felt inside. "It's not exactly top of my list either."
"I know, sweetie. I know. You must feel awful... but I'm sure she didn't give you any choice. Spike will understand in time. I know you must feel like right now he hates you..."
"No, that's-. I just wish it was that simple," Buffy sighed.
It took over an hour for Tara to coax the full story from Buffy.
"What do I do?" the slayer eventually asked.
Tara gave a gentle smile. "I think you did the best you could, honey. Joyce will look after him and if you had stayed in the state you were in I don't think you could have helped much."
"No, but Spike? He says-. Well, Drusilla said he was in love with me and he didn't even try to deny it."
Tara raised an eyebrow. "And?"
Buffy scowled. "This is Spike. He's a vampire... An unsouled vampire. It's just wrong! It's twisted." She looked up at Tara. "Isn't it?" she finished weakly.
Tara gave a gentle shake of her head. "Try not to think about what Drusilla said. You can't hold Spike responsible for that. Until this afternoon, honestly, how did you feel about Spike?"
"I don't know," Buffy replied in exasperation. "I don't know how I felt. Every time lately that I thought I had him halfway figured out, there's just been another sideswipe and I've been back to square one..."
"Okay, let's look at it from another direction... Has Spike ever pressured you? Asked you on a date? Given you jewellery?" the witch asked.
"No-o-o," Buffy answered slightly uncertainly. "Well, only when Willow did that 'Will Be Done' spell."
"And when Xander was giving you identity bracelets did you let his crush on you interfere in your friendship?" Tara asked. "Did you think he was sick?"
"What? No? But-."
"Then why assume that what Spike feels is any less genuine?" Tara's mouth turned down slightly at one side. "So he's a vampire? So what? He obviously has feelings. Deep, sincere feelings." She held up a hand as Buffy looked ready to protest. "I'm not saying that you should encourage him, don't get me wrong. I know you're a million miles from thinking of him as boyfriend material and the chances are that that's not going to change. I'm just saying that I kinda got the impression that the two of you looked like maybe you could be friends... and if that was where things were headed up to now, then sticking your head in the sand and trying to pretend that the last couple of months never happened, or that he hasn't changed and you haven't noticed is pretty poor payback for everything he's done."
"So what?" Buffy asked resignedly.
Tara gave a gentle shrug. "Take it as it comes. Just be you. If he sticks to friends then be a friend back. If he pushes the boundary, tell him you're not comfortable and give him the chance to back off. If he keeps pushing after that... then worry about it."
"That simple?" was the slayer's sceptical reply.
"Buffy, do you really think that in twenty one years I've never had feelings for a straight woman?"
"I'm just pointing out that before I met Willow there have been people who I've fallen for where for one reason or another I've known that they would never be interested. It doesn't mean that we couldn't be friends or that I threw myself at them at every opportunity."
"I can't imagine you throwing yourself at anyone... ever," Buffy admitted, "not that I think Will would have made the first move either... and that is so not me asking to know more... But Spike's a pig. I mean lewd is not... lewd enough to describe him... and when I thought he was just being a perv in general then, well, just Spike... you know? Now..."
"Now it's a big deal?" Tara asked. "Deal with it when it's an issue. I have a feeling Spike is probably going to be walking on eggshells for a while where you're concerned, waiting to see if you're going to slap him down now you know."
The dorm room door pushed open and Willow bounced into the room, stopping dead when she saw the slayer snuggled in her bed. "Buffy?"
"She's had kind of a rough afternoon," Tara covered. "I said, if she wanted to, then it'd be okay if she stayed."
"I should call Mom. See what's happening before..." Buffy stalled.
"Your mom's okay, right? She hasn't had a relapse?" Willow asked, immediately concerned.
Buffy rolled her eyes as if to make light but there was a brittle edge to her voice nevertheless and she rushed her words. "She's looking after Spike. Drusilla was the one on the train. We headed out to Crawford Street and Spike tried to talk her into leaving without him but she wasn't taking no for an answer, so she decided to eliminate any reasons he had for staying, starting with me, Mom and Dawnie. Spike dusted her."
Willow's face crumpled into a confused frown, twisting this way and that for several seconds. "Does not compute," she finally bibbled.
"Spike's in love with me."
"Oh." Willow's brows went sky-high, her eyes popping open in surprise. Then, just as soon, they formed a grimace of distaste. "Ewww! Well, you need to tell him. You need to make sure he... Ewww. Spike? Really?"
"Spike. Really..." Buffy confirmed, "and don't tell Xander."
"But Buffy, you have to close him down. You have to make sure he knows..."
"I'm not interested?" Buffy asked. "He knows... but Tara's right."
Willow stared at her lover in amazement, her expression saying as clearly as if she had spoken aloud, 'What the hell have you said to her?'
"Since Mom's been ill and Dawn found out she was The Key," Buffy continued as if Willow's very objections had made her more determined to follow the course Tara had suggested, "he's had my back. Even before Riley left, when I first found out how ill Mom was, it was him who sat with me... okay so he brought a shotgun, but... well, never mind. He keeps Mom company when no one else is around. Dawn trusts him... and I'm pretty sure underneath all the bad boy bravado he likes her... in a little sister sort of a way," she rapidly qualified, realising how that might be misinterpreted. "I'd kinda have to be a complete bitch to just tell him he's not welcome any more."
"But-," Willow protested.
"I'd also have to be prepared to ignore the fact that Dawn and Mom are safer with him around... and, even if I did have kind of a Cordelia moment when I found out, Tara pretty much talked me through it. He's staying, Willow, if he wants to..."
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