DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Anya has come through the painting, Buffy has finally told Spike she loves him, and Willow has sought out Tony…
He stared at her from behind his glasses, absorbing the blood-stained uniform, the darkening shadows under her eyes. She wasn’t like the others. The men from this afternoon had been almost as frightening as Spike, and his increasing worry about the Slayer and what she might do to him was causing him endless sleepless nights. This one, though…There was a fragility about her that actually appealed to him, bringing out protective instincts he’d thought long ago slaughtered by Melinda, and Tony found himself actually stopping, listening to her, instead of running as far away as possible. He’d always been a sucker for the damsel in distress routine.
“Hello? Earth to bugle boy…” Willow frowned, her hand dropping from his sleeve. “Although…OK, technically not Earth, so…alternate demon dimension to Tony; come in, Tony.”
His slight smile seemed genuine. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
She waited as one of the other musicians passed behind her, answering his good-bye wave with a waggle of her fingers. As soon as the pair was alone again, though, the redhead turned back to the trumpet player. “Giles said you knew magic. And, seeing as how he’s usually right about these things---well, that and the fact that you’re wearing a fraden protection amulet---I was hoping I could get you to help me with a spell.”
The request was unexpected, not only because she was Buffy’s friend which meant she should be trying to pump him for information on the painting---wasn’t that what they were all trying to do?---but because Willow hardly seemed like the type to even know anything about magic. Of course, he quickly amended, hanging around the Slayer probably meant being exposed to more of the supernatural than the regular joe off the street. God knew, he’d learned a helluva lot more than he ever expected by being with Melinda.
“I suppose it’s really pointless for me to try and deny it, huh?” he said, with a wry grin.
Willow relaxed. This was going much better than she’d anticipated. Although she hadn’t really had any encounter herself yet with the young trumpet player outside of falling on him, she’d gathered a first impression based on what the others had said, and now, it didn’t seem to fit. He actually seemed really nice. “I’ve made my share of amulets in my time,” she said, trying to set him at ease.
“What kind of spell are you thinking about?” This was where he had to tread lightly. For all he knew, this was just some huge trick on Buffy’s part to try and get him to reveal what he knew about the safety, and he wasn’t going to do that, no matter what they tried doing to him. OK, so he didn’t think he’d really be that strong under torture, but then again, not one of them had actually done anything more than push him around a bit. Maybe getting physical wasn’t part of their modus operandi.
“Well…it’s a…kind of a…healing spell,” she faltered.
His gaze flickered over the dried patches on her clothes, remembering the gunshot from earlier, Sammy’s announcement that Gino had been taken to the hospital. She wanted to save the bouncer, although why, he had no idea. “That’s what hospitals are for,” Tony said simply. “You shouldn’t mess around with those kind of magics.”
He saw her harden before his eyes, the fine line of her jaw setting, green eyes beginning to blaze. “Don’t be telling me what I can and can’t do,” Willow averred. “I wouldn’t even be asking you if the only spell I know of that’ll do the trick didn’t require two people.” She had considered approaching Giles for his help, but she already knew what he would say. The Watcher just wouldn’t understand why she had to do this, would criticize her for losing focus on what they were trying to do. And without her usual resources, she couldn’t go looking for something she could do on her own. This was her only option.
“Will you tell me why?” the musician asked. “When we get home---” God, he’d almost said if, had to be more careful… “---Gino’s still going to be here. Why go to the bother of saving him?”
“Because he deserves better,” Willow replied. “And if I can do that for him, then I’m going to.”
Tony bit his lip as he contemplated her request. He could probably figure out what spell she was thinking of, and she was right, she needed his help. How skilled she actually was, he had no idea; for all he knew, she was just a novice with delusions of grandeur, although she had recognized his amulet when she saw it. And doing the spell with her was going to draw attention to himself, something he was desperately trying to avoid. There were tons of reasons why he should turn her down, but there was one that almost demanded he say yes…
“What’s in it for me?”
Her eyes widened in surprise. He wanted to be…paid?
The musician chuckled. “Guess I should probably be more clear than that,” he said. “What I meant was, if I help you with this healing spell…would you help me with a spell of my own?”
His counteroffer sent the waves of guilt washing over her, and Willow swallowed as she tried to clear the lump from her throat. She already felt bad enough about going behind Buffy’s back to get Tony’s help in the first place; now he wanted her to make it worse by helping him do something that would probably only piss her off even more? “My turn to ask,” she said. “What kind of spell?”
Her anxiety must’ve shone through because his eyes widened behind his glasses. “Oh, nothing bad,” he hastily assured. “Nothing that’s going to hurt anyone. I don’t do that kind of magic.”
“Well, then what?”
He blushed. “A protection spell. For me. Talking to Mr. Giles today made me realize that these little accidents I’ve been having are going to keep on happening until I’m pretty much dead. And I’d like to avoid that if I can. I’ve been lucky so far, but that can’t last forever.” He held his breath, taking the plunge. “I know this spell that will help me get a heads up when my life is in danger, but it’s pretty powerful stuff. I can’t do it on my own.” Fingers crossed, he thought.
She couldn’t believe him. Buffy will never forgive me, Willow thought. It’s one thing to want some help for the man I love; it’s something else entirely to help someone who could potentially be a threat. “Maybe you’re right,” she said out loud, slowly backing away. “Maybe I shouldn’t be messing around with that kind of magic. My last spell kinda went kaplooie on me so there’s no telling what this one would do.” She managed a weak smile, but felt her heart sink, the despair about Gino’s condition returning as she realized she wasn’t going to be able to help him after all. It’s not fair! her head raged. It’s just not fair…
Tony watched as the redhead slowly walked off, her head low, the slump in her shoulders unmistakeable. She’d turned him down. He wasn’t sure if he was surprised by that or not, but regardless, it put him right back where he’d started. Damn, he thought. So close and yet so far…
He had been awake for hours, listening to her breathe, the soft exhalations gossamer tendrils of warmth skimming along his bare chest. His fingers itched to stroke the golden hair that splayed down his side, but Spike consciously reined in the urge, unwilling to shatter the spell by inadvertently waking Buffy and forcing the day to start.
She had said it. She had actually said it. Although he had known it, although he had believed her body when it heralded its feelings for him every time he touched her, part of the blond vamp couldn’t believe the Slayer would, or even could, vocalize those emotions into something as concrete as, “I love you.” That was commitment. That was admittance. That was opening a door to problems and difficulties and wonderfulness that loving him would force upon her. He knew she feared what the gang thought, and though he’d been chuffed when Buffy had stood up for him at the meeting the previous day, Spike also knew how much it was eating her up inside. And that in turn, ate him.
Starting to drink after returning from the hospital had probably not been the brightest of ideas, letting loose the qualms and anxieties about their future that he’d been trying so desperately to contain. But she had known, just like she always knew, and done exactly what he needed to allay those fears, offering him her body and her soul as guides through the darkness, drawing him safely to the other side. It was just one of the reasons why he loved her. One of the many.
The pounding seemed to come from far away, and it took Spike a moment to realize it was actually originating from the front door of their apartment. Fuck, he thought. Can only be Giles or Harris callin’ at this hour. When he felt Buffy begin to stir in his arms, he quickly shut his eyes, feigning sleep, hoping she wouldn’t make him go get it.
“What’s all the noise?” she murmured, snuggling in deeper into his chest.
The vampire made some indistinguishable sounds in his throat, continuing the pretense while the knocking went on, until finally Buffy sighed, rolling herself away, leaving him with only her warm pillow as a reminder of her presence. He waited for the door to open and then close, before allowing his lips to curl as he rolled onto his side to face the window. Too early for Scoobies, he thought. Let Buffy deal with them.
He had almost drifted back to sleep when the bedroom door creaked open again,
the soft step of the Slayer returning to the bed. Instead of lying down again,
though, he felt the feather touch of her hand on his face. “Spike,”
Buffy murmured. “Get up.”
Bollocks, he thought, and let his eyes flicker open, settling on hers, noticing the thin set of her lips. “What is it?” he asked.
She shook her head. “You better come out here.”
Spike sauntered through the doorway, doing up the button on his trousers, ready to give Rupert a piece of his mind for disturbing them at such an ungodly hour. He stopped in his tracks, though, when he saw Lombardi peering into the liquor cabinet, taking out the occasional bottle, only to shake his head and return it to its home. A second man, this one tall and lean, hovered near the front door, but the blond vamp had no clue as to who the hell he was, or why he would look so uncomfortable.
Buffy cleared her throat, diverting Lombardi’s attention away from the alcohol, and Spike watched as his ex-boss turned to look at the pair of them, a huge smile on his face. Well, damn if he doesn’t look like the cat that ate the bleedin’ canary, the vampire thought. What has he been up to now?
“Well, don’t ever have to worry about you two being on the nut,” he commented, motioning extravagantly to the surroundings. “Been a long time since I seen a place look this good.”
“I know you didn’t come by to comment on the décor,” Spike growled, his eyes darting to the other man. “Unless this is your personal decorator.”
“Nope,” said Lombardi. “I got us a plan that’s going to solve both of our problems.”
“And what problems would those be?” Buffy asked, her annoyance shading her words in glassy hues.
He didn’t even seem to notice, just settled his bulk onto the couch as he spoke. “Your problem is Mack,” he said. “’Cause of Spike’s temper here, you’ve pissed off a very powerful man, so things aren’t goin’ to be too kosher for you two until he’s happy again. On the other hand, my problem is that I’m now out my two best bouncers. Gino’s out of commission indefinitely, and in the current environment, I can’t bring Spike back on board to fill in the gap.”
“I just know you’ve got a point in there somewhere,” the vampire drawled, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he gazed at the man steadily.
“You need to get Mack of your back, and I need you to come back to work. Only way for that to happen is for Mack to see how serious you two really are.” He sat forward, the excitement about his plan a gleam in his watery eyes. “See, the way I got it doped, Mack only did what he did ‘cause he thought he could get away with it. I mean, you gotta admit, you girls are forever flitting from one mug to the next. How’s he supposed to know you two got the real thing? Well, I tell you how he’s supposed to know.” Lombardi paused, milking the moment for dramatic effect, but only annoying the pair even further. “You two are getting hitched. Today. Right now. That way Mack’ll see how nutso you two are for each other, he’ll back off, and Spike can come back to work tonight. Both problems solved.” He leaned back against the cushion, arm coming up to lie across the back of the couch, a huge grin spreading his normally dour face.
Buffy’s jaw dropped. He had not just suggested what she thought he did…did he? “You’re kidding,” she said. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“What’s the problem? You two are going to do it anyway. Just move up the date a bit.”
Her mind scrambled. “But there’s paperwork that has to be---.”
“Done it. I pulled a few strings to get it rushed through.”
“But we can’t just do it here---.”
Lombardi waved over the other man, who finally stepped into the living area, his hands folded together in front of him. “This here’s Ira O’Malley. He’s an officially ordained minister so everything will be on the up and up. And I’ll witness it, so you got no bone there.” He paused, waiting for the next objection.
“A…a…a wedding,” she finally managed. “I wanted a big, white wedding. This just won’t do.” Buffy smiled, finally confident she’d found an argument he couldn’t refute.
“And you’ll get it,” Lombardi said. “I’ll even foot the bill for the whole thing. Consider this…a rehearsal. Except it’ll be the real thing for Mack.”
There was a moment of silence. She couldn’t believe this was actually happening. She couldn’t marry Spike! Yeah, she loved him, but she was just a freshman in college, and she had the whole Slaying thing, and her mom would kill her if she got married without telling her…
“You really think the wanker will back off?”
Buffy whirled to stare with wide eyes at Spike. His question sounded suspiciously like he was seriously entertaining the idea, the casual tilt of his head only seeming to confirm her notion. What the hell was he thinking?
“Positive,” confirmed Lombardi. “Mack’s not stupid. And there’s lots of dames out there who’d be more than happy to distract him. I’m sure he’ll get over Buffy in no time flat.” He glanced at the young blonde. “No offense.”
The vampire strolled forward and grasped Buffy’s upper arm. “Give us a sec,” he said to the other man as he pulled her along behind him to the kitchen.
“What exactly are you doing?” she demanded, once they were in the privacy of the next room.
“Trying to make life a little easier for us ‘til we get outta here, luv,” he said. “Why are you throwing a wobbler?”
“We can’t get married!”
“And why not? We were goin’ to do it back in Sunnydale. Or have you forgotten all about the whole Wind Beneath My Wings---?”
“That was a spell. Totally different.”
“So consider this just another spell.” He sighed, leaning back against the counter, pulling her between his legs so that he could put his arms around her waist. “Look, what’s doin’ it goin’ to actually mean? Nothin’s goin’ to change, and it’s not like we’re not already living together. And it won’t mean a thing once we get back to the Hellmouth. We do this, we can get that prat off our backs and concentrate on finding the safety.” He brushed his lips across her forehead. “’Sides, didn’t think you’d hate the idea of a wedding night…”
In spite of her resolve, Buffy felt herself weakening against his arguments. He had a point. It wasn’t really a marriage. It was just another unfortunate side effect of having to endure life in the painting. And the prospect of a wedding night did sound appealing…
She sighed, resting her cheek against his bare chest. “Giles is sooooo going to kill me,” she murmured.
“So, you’re telling me, Spike and Buffy are in love.”
“And it’s not a spell this time.”
“And Willow’s dating this Gino guy.”
“And he’s not from our world.”
Anya sighed, shaking her head. “This is as bad as that stupid soap Spike watches,” she commented.
“Just be thankful you didn’t have to be here for the whole support-Spike-or-I’ll-stake-you speech,” Xander replied, stopping before the door, his hand automatically coming up to knock on it. “Too bad Giles won the toss on who got to go to the hospital to check on Willow.”
They could hear the murmur of voices inside the apartment, but only had to wait a moment before the door was pulled open. The duo frowned as Lombardi put a finger to his lips, motioning for them to be quiet as he ushered them in.
“…I now pronounce you, man and wife. You may kiss the bride.”
Xander’s jaw dropped as he watched a half-naked Spike and a robed Buffy turn into each other’s arms and kiss, their bodies melting into the other’s, their hands roaming over the other’s back. Holy. Gee. Willikers.
“You know, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Giles is going to be very upset he missed this,” Anya murmured.
In spite of her guilt, she had to admit that the shower felt good, washing away the blood and the grime of the past eighteen hours, scrubbing at her skin as if she were attempting to shed it. This wasn’t where she wanted to be, but after the assurances from the staff at the hospital, Willow had known she could afford to dash home and clean herself up before Gino woke up.
He had survived the operation, but when they’d wheeled him back to his room for recovery, she’d caught a glimpse of his ashen skin, the slight flutter in the sheet as his chest rose raggedly, and knew that it was far from over. How she hated that she’d had to turn down Tony’s offer; if she could just do the spell, Willow knew she could get Gino back, restore him to the robust man she’d fallen in love with, give him back the life he so badly deserved. But now it was in the hands of the doctors…and fate.
As she stepped out of the tub, the redhead heard the far off ring of the telephone, followed quickly by Lola’s hushed voice. She shook her head. She’d never met anyone who spent so much time on the phone. Every time Willow came back to the apartment, the other girl was sitting on the couch, the receiver tucked in her shoulder, usually giggling away at something the person on the other end had said. I miss it when it was me and Buffy, she thought sadly.
“Willow! It’s for you!”
The young witch frowned, wrapping the towel around her as she opened the door. “Who is it?” she asked, stepping forward to take the phone from her roommate.
Lola shrugged. “Some lady.”
“Hello?” Willow asked tentatively into the receiver.
At the sound of the woman’s voice, the redhead froze, the chill overtaking her skin, blanketing her in frost. She didn’t have to ask who it was; she recognized the voice of Gino’s nurse from the hospital, had spoken to her endlessly after Buffy and Spike had left. The nurse was the one who’d said she would call if something happened while she ran home. That could only mean…
“Yes?” Willow asked, her voice barely audible.
“I think you might want to come back down to the hospital,” the nurse said, the professional soothe coating her words. “He’s awake, but he’s incredibly weak, and the doctor has downgraded his prognosis of his recovery.”
“He’s not…” They choked in her throat, and the tears sprang into her eyes. No. Not Gino.
“No. Not yet. But he asked for you. I think you should get down here as soon as possible.”
The nurse didn’t need to say the rest of it; Willow knew what she meant. Get down here and say good-bye while you can.
As she mumbled her thanks, the ice of her flesh changed to wildfire, singeing away the numbness, leaving behind a flaming shell that threatened to collapse around her. Denials echoed inside her brain…no…he can’t die…I can’t face that…I can’t lose him…ricocheting against her skull, crashing into each other, as she struggled to catch her breath. This wasn’t happening, didn’t have to happen, there had to be a way…
…and there was, but it would mean hurrying, getting there before it was too late…
…and it would mean risking the consequences if Tony had been lying to her about his spell…
…and it would mean facing an irate Buffy if she were to ever learn the truth…
…and it would be worth it…
…as long as Gino lived…
To be continued in Chapter 28: You’ll Never Know…