He notices, of course, that there's one missing. Notices and doesn't have the mind, at first, to ask. Later, he doesn't have the heart to burden Buffy with another painful memory--she already has enough, and too many were caused by him. So he decides to drop it, because there is no one he can ask who wouldn't take the question like a shot to the solar plexus.
But she makes frequent treks down to the basement because she takes care of the laundry, and the question always begs to be asked. And one day, as she tosses him a sad smile on her way to the dryer to switch the wash load, he backs himself into a dark shadow and asks. "What happened to your bird?"
Her face goes gray, a soft, sickly shade that bleeds her into the background of the cement walls and floor.
And of course he's not asking where she is, because on the Hellmouth, an unspeakable absence such as this means only one thing. He wants to know how, and it's obvious she would rather answer the other question, because it's simpler.
"Shot," she manages to spit out, the wet clothes from the recent wash load lying forgotten on the metal lid, and a box of April Fresh dryer sheets dangling from her hand.
"Shot," he repeats, his tone hollow. The rest of the details, they aren't important. Well, they are, especially to the gray-faced woman who is now lost in memories, but it's not for him to drag them from her. "Sorry 'bout that, pet."
She nods, just once, and turns back to finish loading the dryer. He watches her jerky motions, listens to her uneven breathing, and feels like a shit
To even offer an apology would be cruel, and he's not the same vampire that was cruel for cruelty's sake. No, he's something else, someone whose possible import he's impossibly tired of contemplating. Once again wallowing, he lets her finish what she's doing, and doesn't say a word. Even stays silent as she starts towards the stairs. But then she stops, still facing away from him, one hand on the railing.
"She died in my arms," she says quietly. "One of the...nerds. The one that built the robots. It was him."
The guilt is unfounded, but he feels it anyway. Gets a horrible tightening in his stomach when he remembers doing business with the blighter.
"It should have been me," she goes on to say, and he's up off the cot before she can blink. Then he stands there, knowing he has no right to do anything else, and probably shouldn't even have stood up.
"Thinking like that, doesn't do any good," he says gravely. He knows just how much bad it can do, actually.
"No, really," she insists. Her voice is muffled because her back is still to him, but he can hear the flatness of it, the echoing of a mind suddenly empty of anything except the pain. "I was in a hurry. Didn't stitch enough."
He frowns, not understanding what she's talking about. "You tried to treat the wound?"
She shakes her head impatiently. "No, the button on my jeans. It got caught on the dryer door the week before. I didn't do a good job sewing it back on, and it popped."
He wonders if his insanity was contagious. "I don't understand..."
She turns on her heel, and he sees that the gray has deepened. She's a shadow, a wraith, about to vanish before his eyes. "It popped, and I bent down to pick it up," she explains carefully. "If I hadn't, the bullet would have hit me." And then, just in case he doesn't get the import, she adds, "Instead of Willow."
With that she vanishes, drifting up the stairs silently, while he's left watching her with wide eyes.
Tara wonders sometimes about the difference a few more stitches would have made. Spike knows this as sure as he knows his own name--all of them. Because, for a summer, he spent a good deal of his time wondering about the difference a few more seconds would have made.
He watches her watch the sunrise. Stands in the kitchen on the far side of the island counter and well away from the sun, head tilted to the side and eyes narrowed. The rising sun dances across her, bringing all manner of gold and buttercup to her skin, lighting it up like something hallowed.
A nagging voice tells him that he should be watching a different blond, but that blond doesn't watch sunrises anymore. She maybe catches brief glimpses of them on her way home from a late patrol, but it's nothing she stops to watch. Nothing she soaks up.
But for Tara, sunrise is the last bastion of normalcy. Life on Revello has become about the dark, about what runs through it all nice and juicy from being marinated in the Hellmouth. The others have gotten too distracted by everything else to remember the simple pleasure of just being in the sun for no reason whatsoever.
With the last exhalation of sun, she turns and joins him in the kitchen. This time of the morning, they're the only ones awake. Her because she sets her watch alarm each night before she turns in, and him because he listens for her footsteps.
The Potentials are strewn throughout the house, and not all of their dreams are peaceful. He can hear one in the living room, almost hyperventilating in her sleep. Two nights ago, one of them woke the entire house with her screaming, and for all that the soul has imbued him with compassion, he wanted to strangle the girl, because the tension and strain didn't need to be added to.
He hands Tara a cup of decaffeinated tea; she always wants the tea, but sometimes she likes to head back to bed after it and doesn't want to get wound up. They sit at the kitchen table and she takes several careful sips while he gulps down his blood.
"I miss riding," she muses quietly, her brow furrowed.
"What made you think of it?" he asks curiously, leaning back in his seat and arching a brow.
She shrugs. "I'm not sure. It kind of...popped into my head before I fell asleep last night. I used to ride every weekend."
"Wouldn't ever want to go back to horses as transportation," Spike says thoughtfully. "But there's something to be said for riding."
Tara sets her cup aside and leans her elbows on the table. "Did you like it?"
"Didn't feel one way or another about it at the time," he drawls. "Was just how things were. But I'd do it again."
They pass an hour like this and it's generally how the mornings go. Sunrise, warm beverages, and conversation that has nothing to do with the First or the fight they're in the midst of.
She talks about Willow sparingly, but it's more than she mentions her lost lover the rest of the time. It's a painful topic for everyone, so the little things usually get left unsaid, things that should be bittersweet and moving towards sweet by now. She wants to get past the pain, and him reacting to the obvious sadness in her voice when she does talk of Willow would be counter-productive. So he nods at the tidbits, and lets the conversation go where it will from there.
Certain days, he reciprocates. Talks about moments with Buffy that no one else was privy to, and he knows she can see his pain and regret, but she returns the favor, with small smiles instead of nods. He's not sure why he does it, except that maybe getting to some kind of stable footing when it comes to Buffy requires that someone else know. Like that makes it more real. Or less real. He's not too clear on that, yet.
What he is clear on is that he and Tara could never again speak of Buffy or Willow, and he'd still come upstairs each morning to watch her watch the sunrise, to watch the light give her that buttercup glow.
Because there are instances when he thinks that she may be stronger than any of them. In a salt-of-the-earth kind of way, at least. As hard as Willow's death was, she never let the loss taint everything in her. That, he has learned, is a trait few others have.
The house starts waking while they're talking about pears, and how they got on that he's not quite sure. Spike gets to his feet and heads for the basement door, as has become habit since these morning visits began.
But she set a precedent of parting shots, and he takes up the cause. "Don't think everyone's going to make it, luv," he says lowly. "Poetic justice says I won't." He's glad that she doesn't try to argue this. "Just want you to know--these mornings? Best part of my day."
The moonlight, Spike has discovered, turns Tara's hair silver. A mercury-like silver that is viscous and glimmering. He's learned it over the course of months, in the aftermath of nightmares.
The moon is high and the night is a bit chilly when she comes out onto the back porch. She has a sweater on, he notices, as she sits next to him on the steps. He remembers, as he always does on nights like this, another night in another life when he sat on these very steps with Buffy and offered her his oh-so-lacking comfort.
Maybe that's why he makes the effort with Tara. Or maybe she is the one thing in his small, meaningless existence that doesn't have anything to do with Buffy. He thinks that might be the case, that Tara has come to exist as only herself for him, rather than an extension of Buffy. Because no one knows about any of this, and it nets him nothing with anyone but Tara.
She doesn't speak, just rests her wrists on her knees and stares out into the backyard where the remnants of many a Potential training session lay about. Spike reaches next to him and produces a flask. He hands it to her and she brings it to her lips, scrunching her nose up and swallowing deeply just once.
"Getting better at that," he comments when she barely shudders in disgust. "Make a lush out of you yet, luv."
Her lips twitch just the slightest as he takes the flask from her. "I think to be a lush, you have to actually have more than one sip."
He chuckles and brings his cigarette to his mouth, his eyes cutting in her direction. "Another visit?" he asks quietly.
"Yeah," she admits. "And how do you always know?"
"Your hands can't sit still when you have 'em."
She stares down at her fidgeting hands for a moment and then sighs. A moment later, her head dips to the side and leans against his shoulder. The thing with Tara is that nothing gets said that doesn't need to. She told him once about the First coming to her in the guise of Willow. Just once. She doesn't see any need to talk of the details again, so she doesn't. Now, a simple confirmation of a visit says everything that needs to be said.
Unlike their mornings together in the kitchen, the random nights they spend on the back porch are mostly silent. It's a rare commodity, nowadays. The house is always filled with conversations and tears and screams.
Companionable silence is even harder to come by. Silence with Buffy is fraught with everything he won't say because he knows what it'll do to her, and with everything she doesn't have to say that he desperately wants to hear. But with Tara, it's filled with nothing.
For Tara, he might very well be a security blanket. It's there in the way she starts off by simply leaning on him, and then curls herself closer and closer until she's huddled under his arm and her face is hidden against his chest. Why it's him, he's not quite sure. Maybe it's because he's exempt from the Willow memories in a way that the others aren't. Maybe it's because their morning talks have formed a friendship that she doesn't have with the others, for all that she calls them friends and vice versa.
Or maybe it's something else entirely. He doesn't know and he doesn't plan on asking, either.
He just slips his arm across her shoulders and stares down; watches the mercury slither and shift with every breath Tara takes.
Eventually her head slides down a notch, then jerks back up, and Spike gives her a small squeeze before letting her go. Sometimes she falls asleep on him, and when that happens he stays on the porch with her. Once they were on the porch until it was time to watch the sunrise. But more often than not activity in the house forces him to gently shake her awake. He'd like to be able to just carry her to her bed, to not disturb the sleep they're all finding so hard to get lately, but it would stir up questions and arguments.
Tara climbs to her feet, smiling gratefully and struggling to keep her eyes open, then heads back inside.
Spike takes a small bottle of nail polish and moves to a certain spot in the basement. He stretches until his hand is just under a ventilation duct, then shakes the bottle so that the little ball bearings inside jingle against one another. He does his best to keep the jingling from sounding as frantic as he's feeling, but he doesn't pull it off. Shuffling over to the cot, he tosses the bottle down and buries his face in his hands.
Drusilla he could manage. The First isn't nearly talented enough to pull her off so that he believes it fully. Willow is laughable. Especially when the First tries to convince him that Tara thinks all sorts of horrible things about him, in an effort to taint the only thing in his life that isn't difficult. But he and Willow were never close. At the worst of times, enemies; at the best of times, grudging allies. And ascribing Tara hidden hatred of someone she acts as though she likes? Not in the least believable.
But Buffy is a different story. It learned Buffy was the key to him, learned that it didn't have to bother making him believe it was Buffy, because the words got to him anyway. He flinched at every taunt, winced at every endearment, and he believed everything it said. So it has abandoned all other guises, and everytime it comes to him he flinches, winces and believes.
The door leading into the kitchen creaks as it opens, and again when it closes softly. He sees Tara's pale hand grasp the banister as she comes down. There's a mug held securely in the palm of her other hand, with a small black bag dangling from a finger. She gives him a quiet smile as she crosses the basement, her slippers scuffing the concrete floor.
It's always amazing to him that she hears him shaking the bottle. Even though the vent leads to the master bedroom she sleeps in, he's always worried she'll be sleeping too deeply, or just breathing, and won't hear. But she always does. Some kind of loudspeaker acoustics, he supposes.
She holds out the mug and Spike takes it, then sinks down onto the cot, scooting until his back is pressed against the wall.
She sets the bag down and riffles through the blankets until she finds the bottle. Then she settles next to his thighs, kicking off her slippers and sitting cross-legged. He keeps one hand wrapped around the warm mug of hot chocolate, and holds out his other hand. She takes it in her own and does that thing only females can do--opens the little jar with the same hand that's holding it. The jar gets wedged in the crease between her thigh and calf, and she lifts the brush out and drags it against the sides of the bottle's mouth to relieve it of excess polish.
It's a strange little ritual that began after his visits from the First started getting really bad. There were less Potentials in the house at the time, and he made his way to Tara's room, knocking quietly. She followed him with her eyes as he paced, fidgeted and twitched, then took hold of his hand as he passed her.
"You need a manicure," she said as she squinted down at his nails. He stared at her incredulously and she shrugged. "Okay, just polish. I think I have some black."
And he was forced to stay still or else get black enamel smeared across the back of his hands, and he distracted himself from thinking about anything by watching the rhythmic process of Tara painting his nails. Dip the brush, wipe off the excess, swipe it across his nail, shift her hold to the next finger, and repeat.
The black looks blue on its first coat, but when Tara swipes the brush across the pinkie nail of his left hand twenty minutes later after two coats, it's a shiny onyx color.
While she caps the bottle, he drinks the dregs of his cocoa and leans forward to put the mug on the floor. By the time he sits up again, Tara already has the remover out, and he's careful not to breathe when she opens it. He doesn't think anything burns his sensitive nose the way nail polish remover does.
He holds out his hand once again and she begins the quick process of removing the coats of enamel she just applied, because he told her that first night that the black nails don't really fit anymore. She has never once hinted at being annoyed that she goes to all the trouble of painting his nails, only to take it off with a cotton ball before it's even dry.
The polish isn't the point after all. The point is that after twenty minutes of being still and watching the process, he's calm.
Remover and a sundry cotton ball back in the black bag once again, Tara rises and slides her slippers on again, leaving without a word.
He should still be in the basement, savoring what are the last moments he will have alone with Buffy. In fact, he initially ignored the footsteps padding across the kitchen, but in the end he realized that this was also the final sunrise he would get to watch Tara watch. And in their own way, the Tara moments are just as precious to him. So he untangled himself from Buffy and made his way upstairs, knowing that he'd already missed most of it.
That turns out to be an understatement. Because when he steps into his shelter of shadows by the island and looks out the window of the back door, his vision is filled with red.
Red hair, to be more precise.
"Tara, come inside," he calls out, almost growling.
The First turns, and he sees more red. Red stained shirt below the red hair. It's almost a neat circle, but before his eyes it spreads until it covers the expanse of the shirt Willow was wearing when she died, soaking through white cotton with red blood.
Tara's back is to the First, and her spine is ramrod straight. "No," she tells him. "I'm watching the sunrise."
Spike eyes the First warily, wondering if maybe Tara hasn't seen it. "Do you realize--"
"Yes," she interrupts him, her voice steady.
"Well, all right," he says, nonplussed.
He hears the First whispering to her, telling her that she's not nearly as powerful as Willow was, that her magic is weak. But she keeps her eyes on the sunrise and Spike begins to feel some of the confidence Buffy must have felt when she said that she finally thought they might win.
Because if the First is trying so hard to convince Tara that she's weak, then it means she's not.
When Tara is done with her morning ritual, she turns on her heel and walks to the door. The First is at her side, and it glares fiercely at the blond witch before it disappears. By this time, most of the house is starting to stir--pre-battle jitters. There is no time for leisurely drinks and talking.
"You're gonna pull it off," he tells her, sounding even more confident than he feels.
"It certainly thinks so," she says in response, chewing her lip. Shaking her head slightly, her eyes flicker to the doorway, where the sounds of people are seeping in. With an apologetic smile that he returns, she walks through the kitchen. But she comes to an abrupt stop in the doorway and turns around. Her head tilts to the side and her eyes flicker to the amulet that's around his neck. "We're both going to do it."
And maybe they are, because the First spent a good chunk of the previous night--after Buffy fell asleep--telling him that he wasn't the Champion as Buffy thought he was.
Later, after Buffy lets go of his hand and runs up the stairs--as he feels himself burning from the inside out--as he's laughing in the fading face of what they've spent a year fighting--his last thought is that Tara was right.
He has no idea what she was wearing the last time he saw her. None whatsoever. But he thinks he will always remember what she was wearing when he saw her again.
A dark blue shirt so dense and deep that it was just this side of black. It set off the pale blue eyes that stared at him with wonderment, made them stand out in stark relief, made them seem brighter and more intense.
He considers it a stroke of luck, or fate, that when Angel called Giles--just so that someone from the gang would know what was going on--he got Tara instead. Giles would simply have listened to what Angel had to say, and then promptly forgotten it. And Buffy was...someone he couldn't see. What he told her in his final moments in Sunnydale is true: she didn't love him. He doesn't blame her for that. Not in the least. But he thinks his days are very numbered, and he wants them to be his like his las corporeal days weren't.
Tara, though, is tolerable. Hell, she is more than that. She is interested and concerned and in the midst of Wolfram and Hart, she is his. She has only a passing, second-hand acquaintanceship with Angel, and no connections to any of the others. She doesn't have any reason to be here other than to see him.
That it irritates and confounds Angel is a bonus.
He spends every moment that he's on the living-side of the chasm with her. Shows her every inch of the building, tells her every secret he's found out about every employee. But he steers clear of discussing anything important, and she notices. He expects her to broach the subject--all of the subjects, actually, and she does so in a manner he never would have expected.
"I have something for you," she tells him one afternoon. They're sitting on the sofa in Angel's office because Spike likes to annoy him as much as possible with his presence, and Angel sees too much of the victim in Tara's wide eyes and soft voice to cause a scene in front of her.
He sees Angel look up curiously from the folder he's not really perusing; his eyes haven't moved in ten minutes and it's quite apparent he's been listening to Spike and Tara talk about the movie they watched last night.
"Yeah?" Spike says with an interest he doesn't bother trying to hide.
She's at the end of the sofa, and she reaches over the arm. There's the rustling of a plastic bag, and then she's scooting forward on the cushion and shifting around so that she can hide something behind her back.
"Close your eyes," she says sternly.
Spike rolls them instead. "Could just shimmy on through you, luv," he reminds her, and she scowls at his denial, but holds out her offering anyway.
It's a picture. Medium-sized and carefully framed. It looks to be a photo of a meteor impact, and he frowns. But then he notices the sign, lying flat, and he goes very, very still.
"Bloody hell," he whispers, and he knows he's gaping like a fool, but he can't bring himself to care as he looks at what remains of Sunnydale. "Is that--did I do that?"
"You did that," she confirms softly.
He concentrates as he reaches out a hand, and manages to touch the glass over the photo. The whole town is gone. The town that he spent so little time in compared to how long he's been on the planet, but which has defined him like nothing else has. He thinks of the pleasure, the pain, and realizes that there isn't really much in between. It was a place of extremes, most of them nefarious, and it has been decimated.
"Damn, I'm good," he says with a smirk.
"Anya didn't make it," she tells him suddenly.
Spike takes that in, thinks that the good bet was on Andrew not surviving that particular team up, and looks away. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the glint of light reflecting off the glass in the frame, and his gaze is drawn back. That anyone made it out at all is incredible.
"Rona was touch and go for a while," she goes on, "but Vi bullied her through it."
He smiles all too briefly at that, remembering what a wildcat the redhead had become. "Go on, then," he sighs. "Let's have it all."
She gives him all the details he couldn't bring himself to ask Angel for, including the fact that she spent four days in a coma after slipping the Slayer Mickey to all the Potentials. He realizes that she probably straddled a chasm of her own during that time, and thinks that they've managed to come full circle to that first exchange they had in the basement. Once again have found a seemingly insignificant commonality between them.
Given that commonality, and how well he did actually get to know her before, he's not all that surprised when Wesley walks into Angel's office an hour later and tells Tara that he's procured her a ride to the airport as she requested. He's not even surprised when they walk into the reception area and her small suitcase is sitting in front of Harmony's desk.
"I'll be back," she tells him, and though it's said sedately, he knows it's as vehement a promise as was ever given him.
Spike gathers himself, his concentration focusing, and leans down to press a kiss to her forehead, just above her blue eyes. "I'll be here," he replies.
At the apex of it all, when Spike isn't sure which side of the chasm he'll wind up on, she does indeed return. Stays by his side--metaphorically if not physically--while there are bodies scrambling around to help tip the scales one way or the other.
When she can literally be at his side, she talks quietly to him, her voice something he latches on to in order to find a purchase of some kind that is more tangible than force of will or destiny or scheming. When she can't be at his side, or when he has no side to be at because of being wrested to the hellish edge of the chasm, he finds himself remembering sunrises, nail polish and mercury-streaked hair. Because unlike so many things in his long life, those moments are so astoundingly simple that it takes no effort whatsoever to hold on to them.
After it's all been sorted, after he is as corporeal as he ever was, she is nowhere to be found. He doesn't know where she has gone off to and he is as calm as if he's just spent a century watching her paint his nails. Because it's just a matter of finding her.
The calm stays when Angel hands him the folded letter. The paper is pink, and he doesn't even need to see the unicorn at the top to know that it originates from Harmony's desk. He stares at the letter and soaks it up as a whole, only a few certain words standing out, "Buffy" being the most prominent, and "want you to be happy" running a close second. But what's noticeably missing is the word "gay".
The calm is implacable when the company helicopter speeds him across the city to get to LAX before her flight leaves, and it holds up in the face of Angel's confused frowns and pushy questioning during the jaunt.
But it disappears when he sees her preparing to board the plane, and he runs through the gate almost frantically, grabs her arm and pulls her around. She's been crying, and her face is as pink as the paper she said her goodbyes on.
The calm is back, because it's as simple as every other thing has ever been with Tara. Maybe even simpler. It comes down to just two things that cover the multitude of issues that are "Buffy" and "want you to be happy".
"I don't want to leave," he tells her quietly. "And I want you to stay."
She loves to talk in bed.
Not during sex. No, then she prefers to be talked to, and his lips curl as he scrolls through some rather terrific memories of that.
"--you even listening?"
He tilts his head down and looks into her pseudo-stern eyes. "Course I am," he assures her, then he grins and draws a little pattern on her bare shoulder with his index finger. "You were waxing poetic about me. Think I'd tune that out?"
Her lips purse in an effort to appear serious. "Where did I lose you?" she asks knowingly.
"Somewhere around why you think that depressing mope in accounting just needs a hug," he admits, still busying himself with drawing on her arm. As always, he barely finishes the 'w' in "Angel is a wanker" before gooseflesh causes her to shiver like someone's just stepped on her grave.
She arches a brow. "No wonder you lost interest. I prefer your suggestion," she says plainly and props herself up on her elbow. "Let's see," she muses. "Last week I extolled the virtues of your pecs."
"Quite liked that one," he pipes in.
She laughs quietly as he folds his arms under his head and sprawls out for her inspection. "You like how that one ended," she corrects him.
He smirks arrogantly. "I like how all of them end."
"That's because they all end the same way," she drawls.
"You complaining about that?"
"Nope," she says immediately. She moves to the side a little and reaches out to draw the sheet off of him. He feels a sense of awe when he sees love, lust, affection, indulgence, friendship and a million other humbling emotions in her eyes as she rakes them over him. Her hand comes up to brush across his chest, then down his stomach, and it's his turn to shiver.
"You're so pale," she marvels, her voice thick as her hand glides across his hip bone and then down his thigh.
To move now would be sacrilege, blasphemy. He feels worthy and revered when she does this.
"You...shine. Like ivory. Or something else." She peers up at him, her fingers teasing the underside of his knee, and her voice is thready, almost a sigh. "You're alabaster."
There's always a sarcastic, insinuating remark at the ready, and this time it centers on suggesting that he's more milk-white, and doesn't she want to lap him all up? But even if he is seriously considering delivering the comment, which he absolutely isn't, there isn't a chance. Because she's decided his skin is alabaster, and now it's time to extol that virtue.
Her hair tickles his chest in the best of ways as she lowers her head to drag her tongue from his abdomen up to his neck. "So solid," she murmurs, her lips wandering to his shoulders. "So strong."
There isn't so much as an inch of his skin that she doesn't christen with lips and tongues and hands, and when she finally straddles his lap and sinks down, she gives him that look again and her whispered, "alabaster" is affirmation.
Disclaimers: Characters and concepts of Buffy and Angel belong to a slew of people who are not me.
A/N: Written for the "Colors" challenge at the spiketara community
at Live Journal.