DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: The only thing new that Xander and Giles learned about Tony is that he does magic, while Gino has saved Willow from a physical assault, only to get shot himself…

*************

Chater 25: This Is Worth Fighting For

He didn’t need vampiric senses to hear the gunshot from the back of the club. In his arms, Buffy stiffened, both of them freezing on the dance floor, eyes meeting with instant understanding, and with only that moment’s hesitation, they both broke into a run for the rear exit.

In spite of the hindrance of her skirt, the Slayer was the first to reach the open door of the dressing room, hazel gaze widening as she drank in the scene before her. Gino lay prone on top of Xander’s partner, a dark pool of blood already beginning to form on the floor beneath him, while a sobbing Willow was crawling on her hands and knees toward them, scarlet-stained hands pulling desperately at the bouncer’s jacket as she tried to roll him over. The whimpering that was coming from the redhead’s throat bounced between the walls, creating pockets of pain that seemed to hang in the air, taking on a life of its own as it struggled to escape the tiny room.

Buffy must’ve made a sound because her friend’s green eyes swivelled to look at her, and through her tears, begged, “Help me.”
The blonde needed no further encouragement. Darting forward, she scooped Gino into her arms, lifting him as gently as she could, and rolled him over onto his back, allowing the man underneath him to scramble free. Willow was on the bouncer in a flash, fingers clawing at his shirt, heedless of the blood that was staining her uniform.

“God…please don’t…” she sobbed, almost holding her breath as she found the spot on his neck for which she’d been searching. There was a moment of silence, and then… “He’s still breathing…ohmigod…Buffy, we’ve got to get him out of here…”

The Slayer looked across at her best friend, at the worry etched across her face like glass, shiny tracks down her cheeks. “We will,” she reassured. “He’ll be OK. I promise.” She knew she really had no place to be saying such a thing, but the grief that tore Willow’s eyes was almost more than she could bear.

“What is it? What happened?”

Glancing back over her shoulder, Buffy saw Xander rush up and join Spike in the doorway, effectively blocking any exit the other guy might make. “Gino’s been shot,” she hurried. “We have to get him to a hospital. Now.” Ignoring the wide-eyed stare of Willow’s attacker, she scooped the bouncer up into her arms and headed for the doorway, the redhead right on her heels.

Once the two women were gone, the blond vamp crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Marty who cowered on the other side of the room. “Right then,” he said, his voice a dangerous rumble, “care to tell us what exactly happened here?”

“Did you see that?” Marty asked of Xander, ignoring Spike completely. “She just carried him out of here like he was nothing!”

“Yeah, I saw it, and you haven’t answered the man’s question.” His jaw was locked, his voice just as dangerous as the vampire’s. “What the hell happened in here?”

“I just came back for a little fun. That mug interrupted me with the redhead, then jumped me out of nowhere. You’ve seen how big he is; I had to defend myself.” He seemed to be gaining confidence, straightening as he spoke, stepping forward just a bit closer to the pair in the doorway.

“Whaddaya mean, he interrupted you? What were you and Willow doing?”

Marty grinned. “I decided to see if she was as good as you said she was, and you know what? She did with me exactly what you said she did with you.”

Xander’s eyes widened. “Oh, please, enlighten me.”

“C’mon, you know what I’m talking about. The whole saying no thing when she really means yes? I almost believed her for a second there. ‘Course, that only made it more fun.”

It took a moment for what his partner had said to sink in, but when it did, his jaw dropped. “You think I...Fun? Where do you get off saying such crap?”

“You told me yourself---.”

He never got to finish the sentence. Bolting from his position in the door, Xander rushed forward, his fist lashing out, connecting with an audible thump on the other man’s jaw. He winced from the sudden pain in his knuckles, but struck out again, this time landing somewhere in Marty’s abdomen, thankful for the years of fighting demons at the Slayer’s side. Sure, he’d taken his share of knocks, but at least he knew how to get in a good punch, and this guy was only human.

Spike saw the slight movement of the would-be attacker’s hand and knew that it would escape Xander’s notice, leaping forward to twist the gun from the lackey’s grip before he could use the weapon. Tossing it casually behind him, the blond vamp smiled, just before his leg shot out, barrelling into the mortal’s chest, sending him halfway across the room to crash into the far wall.

“Hey!” Xander said, turning a frowning gaze to Spike. “What’re you doing?”

The vamp’s brows knitted, azure eyes staring intensely at the other man. “Well, let’s see. He attacked Red and he shot Gino. What do you soddin’ think I’m doin’?”

There was a moment as they regarded each other, brown eyes to blue. “If you hold him first,” Xander finally said, “you can have a go at him when I’m done.”

Spike’s lips twisted in pleasure, and he nodded. “Deal.”

*************

The hallway was cold, the bench even colder, and Buffy shivered, squeezing her arms tighter against her in an attempt to preserve what little body heat she had. She had run out without her jacket, concentrating only on getting the bouncer to safety, the realization that she was without her own coat escaping her until they were well on their way in the ambulance.

God, she hated hospitals, but there was no way she could stay out of this one, not with her best friend needing her so badly right now. Willow hadn’t let go of Gino’s hand the entire trip over, murmuring words of assurance in his ear while gently brushing the hair away from his forehead. He was still unconscious, but the paramedics had managed to stem the flow of blood, steadying his ragged breathing enough so that the immediate danger wasn’t quite as critical as the Slayer had originally believed. She still didn’t like his color, though; she’d seen enough people die to know when to worry.

As much as she hated to admit it, Giles’ warnings about the purpose of the painting seemed to be tolling true, wreaking destruction in its vengeful wake. Willow had been happier than she’d seen her in ages, and now…

But, as much as she liked Gino, it wasn’t about him that Buffy was really worrying. How long had it been since she herself had been this blissful? There had already been at least two attempts on her and Spike’s lives, and she suspected that the wonkiness of his chip could also be attributed to the picture’s objectives. Yes, they’d been lucky so far, but how long would that last? And now with Giles and Xander here as well…well, there were only so many people the Slayer could protect at once. At least in Sunnydale, the dangers were predictable…vampires, demons, the occasional rogue human. Here, they came out of nowhere.

She heard his footsteps first, but by the time Buffy could look up, he was already standing before her, his long trench soaking from the rain, platinum hair curling at the crown. His head was tilted as he looked down at her, the sapphire gaze softened, and she was in his arms before she could blink, crushed to his chest, oblivious to the moisture under her cheek.

“Shhh,” Spike crooned, more of a vibrato in his body than actual words, and he stroked her golden tresses, smoothing them away from her cheeks as the tears she’d been so desperately trying to hold back began to flow. They just stood there for a moment, locked in solace, clinging to their own happiness like a life preserver, each praying they would be luckier than the unfortunate redhead and her bouncer boyfriend.

“How’s Gino?” the vampire finally asked, the words a gentle cadence almost lost against her velvety skin.

“Alive, if that counts for anything,” Buffy replied. “The bullet went into his stomach, so at least his heart and lungs are OK, but there’s no exit wound, so it’s still somewhere in there. They’re going to operate to get it out as soon as he’s a little more stable.”

“And Red?”

“The nurse is letting her stay with him until they take him down to the operating room. That’s where she is now.” She broke from his arms, suddenly feeling very much alone, and sat back down on the bench, sighing heavily as she leaned forward and rested her head on her hands. “She’s absolutely broken, Spike. I’ve never seen her like this before. Even when Oz left, she at least knew he was alive somewhere out there, even if he didn’t think he could be around her right then. Now…”

The blond vamp laid his coat over the back of the bench before settling down next to her, long hand massaging the tight muscles of her shoulder. “He’s a strong bloke, Buffy. He’ll pull through this.”

“I don’t know,” the Slayer murmured, shaking her head. “You didn’t see him.” She frowned, raising her hazel gaze to look at him. “What happened back at the Sun?”

“Xander and I took care of the wanker who attacked Red,” Spike said simply. “He’s not goin’ to be botherin’ anyone for a long time.”

“Did he say why he did it?”

The vampire shrugged. “We didn’t give him much chance to talk.” As much as he knew Buffy needed to know, Spike had seen the guilt that punctuated each of Harris’ hits, blaming himself and the faux history the painting had created for him for what had happened to Willow. Only Xander could be the one to try and explain it, when and if the right time came.

“I wish I could’ve been there,” the Slayer said bitterly. “Give him the ol’ one-two, and then a little three, four, and five..”

“Red needed you here.” He smiled. “Besides, I think we did just dandy on our own. Bastard won’t be walkin’ any time soon, I can tell you that.” The memory of Marty’s broken legs twisted underneath him as he and Xander had poured him into the alley filled the vampire with a heady sense of justice, intoxicating him as much now as it had then. He only wished he could’ve finished the job, but no, Xander had been adamant about leaving him alive. “This is between you and me,” he’d said. “I won’t tell Giles, but you’ve gotta swear you won’t touch him anymore.” It had been a simple promise to make; after all, he’d already made the same one to Buffy.

“We have to find the safety, Spike. We have to get out of this place before it does any more…damage.” She leaned against his shoulder. “I can deal with the death thing---I mean, hello, Slayer here, deal with death every single day. It’s the…making life miserable part that I hate. What if…?” Her voice trailed off, catching in her throat, the words going unspoken.

The same thoughts had been plaguing him, ever since Buffy had told him what the gang had learned about the bloody picture. Sure, if it had been happening to anyone else, Spike didn’t doubt he’d be getting a kick watching what wreckage it made of their lives, but this was his happiness it was messin’ with here, and nothin’ got away with that, not now, not ever, not if he had anything to say about it. He’d only just found Buffy; he wasn’t about to lose her now to some bleedin’ vengeance painting.

“We’ll do it,” he promised, lips brushing against her hair and added silently, even if I have to bloody well kill everyone in this world to make it happen.

*************

She stared down at him, green eyes burning from the tears that seemed constant now, her nose blocked as she sniffled away the latest onslaught of salt. For the first time since meeting him, Gino seemed small to her, insignificant against the stark white of the sheets, short lashes too dark on his pale skin, the ashen pallor in his cheeks relaying the severity of his condition to even the most ignorant onlooker. His breathing was more even now, but Willow didn’t kid herself that that meant he was any better; it just meant that, maybe, he was resting a little more peacefully.

She didn’t know when she had fallen in love with the big guy, but the young witch was beginning to wish that she had stayed unaware just a little bit longer, anything to stop feeling this way…this hole that started in the pit of her stomach and ate its path upward…the overwhelming sense of impotence as she could only watch the lifeforce seep from his body…It wasn’t fair, first Oz, now Gino; was she destined for every man in her life to leave her?

It was just a faint flutter, but it grabbed her attention right away, offering her the first smidgeon of hope since seeing the bouncer collapse. She leaned over, brushing the hair back away from his eyes for the millionth time, forcing a smile to her lips as she said, “Hey, you. Wake up for me, ‘kay? Please?”

There it was again, and this time Willow saw his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed, slowly, deliberately, as if it was the first time he’d ever done it. Try again. “Gino, I’m right here. Let me know you can hear me, sweetie.”

The breath stopped in her throat as his lashes separated, black eyes staring up, then sliding sideways to look at her worried face. The corner of his mouth lifted ever so slightly, his tongue darting out to lick his lips before speaking. “You OK?” he croaked.

Her chest exploded in laughter, the incongruity of his question liberating the tension that had wound her up over the past hour, and the redhead buried her face in his shoulder, being careful not to jar the dark-haired bouncer more than necessary. It took a moment for the giggles to fade, and he felt the shake of her head against the dull throb of his muscles. He didn’t understand what so funny; he had seen Mack’s trouble boy pawing her with his own eyes, had heard her scream. Why shouldn’t he wonder if she was OK?

“Are you in any pain?” she was asking, lifting her head to scan his face.

And it was then that he remembered the gunshot, the sound of Willow’s cry as the bullet tore into his gut, more of a surprise than real hurt, and the blackness that followed. His gaze flickered to the sterile ceiling. “I’m…in the hospital,” he murmured.

“Yeah. They’ve got to get the bullet out.” She couldn’t---wouldn’t---tell him how serious it actually was, not until she had nothing else to fight with. And she wasn’t there. Not just yet.

“But…you’re not…he didn’t…” Gino’s mouth was too dry, the burning in his abdomen singeing his throat, stripping him of all his fluids, and he swallowed again in an attempt to clear it.

“I’m fine,” Willow assured him. “Spike and…” Her voice trailed off. Better not to mention Xander just yet, knowing how the bouncer felt about him. “…Buffy showed up.”

In spite of his discomfort, Gino smiled. “Hope Spike did a number on him.”

No way could she answer that, knowing what she did about the vampire’s chip. Better to change the subject. “Do I get to have a raincheck for what we had planned for my break?” Willow asked with a small smile, trying desperately to keep her tone light.

He started to chuckle, only to wince as the strain on his diaphragm sent knives of pain slicing through his torso. The redhead’s smile vanished, only to be replaced by a frown, hands going to his shoulders as if to hold him down, almost as if the act of laughter would somehow worsen his condition. “Guess I better not make with the funnies ‘til you feel better.”

“No…funnies are good. It’s the laughing part that’s bad.”

Her smile returned, but it was only on the outside; the knowledge that he was about to undergo major surgery that would hopefully save his life just refused to go away, even for a minute. She felt so helpless; there had been nothing she could about Oz, and now…with Gino…it was all in the doctor’s hands.

…Or was it? The first flicker of an idea began to burn behind her green eyes, and Willow grabbed onto it, clutching it to her chest as if to protect it from extinguishing, fanning the flame with her hope. Tenderly, she leaned over, brushing a gentle kiss over Gino’s mouth, the surprise of delight shining in his black eyes. Yes, she had to try. She couldn’t lose this man as well, not after she’d only just found him…

*************

She’d almost been asleep, her lids drifting closed, the ether of slumber threatening to overtake her, when the shadow passed in front of the window, followed almost immediately by a second…and then a third.

Straightening in the chair, Anya’s senses went into alert, head leaning forward to try and catch a glimpse of whoever it was had stopped at Giles’ front door, her heartrate tripling when she saw the familiar form of an Injopa demon raise its claws to rake at the door’s hinges. Brown eyes widening, she snatched up the painting from the desk, being careful to touch it only by the frame, and made a dash for the bathroom, locking it behind her before climbing into the bathtub and pulling the curtain.

Not good, she intoned silently. Not good, not good. Injopa demons were notorious thieves, rented out to the highest bidder, and the only thing Giles had of any real value in the entire apartment now rested against the faucet here in the tub, the plug in the drain stopping it from sliding across the white porcelain. Anya glared at the painting, focusing her frustration at the suited form of her boyfriend. This is all your fault, she thought. If you’d just listened to me in the first place, I wouldn’t be here right now about to get my throat ripped out by a demon with an attitude.

The sound of a door being ripped from its frame echoed from outside the bathroom, followed quickly by the guttural grunts of the would-be thieves as they began ransacking the lounge. For a split second, she almost wished she’d left the damn picture out there for them to find, but deep in her heart, Anya knew she couldn’t have done it. Not with Xander stuck inside it…the jerk.

The sounds began to come nearer, their voices sending shivers through her skin, and she realized…she was trapped. Why couldn’t you live someplace that had a back door, Giles? she accused. It would only be a matter of time before they found her, and what they would do then was no mystery to the ex-vengeance demon. Injopas were notorious for torturing humans who stumbled across their paths. She would be killed, right after they eviscerated her, right after one of them probably raped her. Oh joy.

There really was only one route of escape, and Anya closed her eyes, shaking her head, her anger beginning to redirect itself. You better appreciate this, Xander, she thought, and reached out to place her palm directly onto the canvas…


To be continued in Chapter 26: Shall We Dance