DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Willow has decided to risk taking Tony up on his offer in order to save Gino, while Xander and Anya have walked in on Buffy and Spike getting married in order to get Mack off their backs…

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

Chapter 28: You'll Never Know

Irritable, Buffy glanced at the clock on the wall before letting her gaze slide back to the closed bedroom door, staring at it as if by doing so it would magically open and Spike would come strolling through, dressed and ready. He’d been in there for over an hour---a record for the vamp and more than enough time for Lombardi and the minister to long ago leave---and she had no idea what he could be doing that was taking him so long. Some pants, a shirt, a quick comb through his hair…five minutes tops. It wasn’t as if he could even be standing in front of the mirror to primp and get every peroxidized lock into place.

“Let’s just go already,” Anya whined from her seat on the couch. “The longer we wait, the closer I get to death.”

“I’m not just leaving Xander alone out here, not when he’s still…” Buffy bit her lip as she looked down at her friend, sitting in the chair, one arm on each of the overstuffed sides, staring blankly straight ahead. He hadn’t said a word since he’d arrived, just gone into this fugue state, brown eyes fixed in front of him no matter what direction he was turned in. She knew that for a fact; she’d watched Anya entertain herself for over ten minutes by moving his head and body around, and not once had his gaze faltered.

“Maybe you should try slapping him like they do in the movies,” the ex-demon offered. “That might make him snap out of it.”

Buffy just glanced at the other woman, the disbelief etched in her face, before marching to the bedroom. “Keep an eye on him,” she ordered as she opened the door. “In case he, you know, topples over. I’m going to see what’s keeping Spike.”

“Toppling would at least be something,” Anya grumbled, as she glared at her boyfriend. “You’d think he’d never seen you guys kiss before.”

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

He didn’t hear her come in, and it wasn’t until she pointedly cleared her throat did Spike finally look up, turning his head to see Buffy standing in the door of the wardrobe, arms folded across her chest, her annoyance obvious by the grim set of her jaw.

You’re still here,” he commented.

“Yeah,” she replied. “And you’re still in here.”

“Didn’t know you were waitin’ on me,” he said, swivelling back in the chair to face the open drawer in front of him.

“I need you to babysit Xander. He’s still playing coma boy.” Buffy stepped forward to stand behind Spike, peering over his shoulder to see what could possibly be absorbing his interest so intently. “What’re you doing?”

She watched as he extended a lean hand into the drawer, extracting a small box from among the assorted cufflinks and setting it down onto the dressing tabletop. “Found this when we first got here,” he said. “I’ve been sittin’ here debatin’ whether it would be a cock up if I dragged it out now.” Very slowly, he pushed it closer to the young woman.

She wasn’t sure what she was expecting, but it wasn’t the golden gleam of the jewelry that lay nestled in the black velvet. It had never occurred to her to wonder about rings; the initial shock of merely finding out about their “relationship” within the painting was enough to drive all other thoughts from her head. Yet, Spike had known, had probably found these that first morning when she’d been so hung over, and he’d never said. Not once.

Gingerly, Buffy pulled out the smaller of the rings and slipped it over the first knuckle of her finger, hesitating to slide it all the way down. It would fit, just like everything else in her wardrobe had fit, but putting it on seemed almost like she would be shutting a door on her old life, and throwing open another on this new one. Was she ready for that?

“Not like I’m really expectin’ you to wear it,” Spike said, the timbre of his voice uncharacteristically solemn. “Just thought…in light of…just got reminded it was there, that’s all.”

Buffy twirled the ring around the tip of her finger, watching as the lighting of the dressing room caught glints of the gold metal. “We’re going to go to the hospital first and check on Will,” she said slowly, knowing she was changing the subject but unsure as to what to exactly say about…this. “Anya said Giles is there, so I’ll be able to tell him about…” Her words trailed away, her discomfort in considering how she was going to explain this latest development to her mentor curtailing her speech.

His mouth pursed. “Right. Make sure Rupes knows it wasn’t my bleedin’ idea in the first place, ‘kay, luv? Though I still think it’s the best way to get the bastard out of our hair.” He watched as she slipped the ring into her pocket, watching it disappear behind the gabardine folds, and Spike ducked his head as he quickly rose to his feet. “You off to bugle boy’s after, then?”

Buffy nodded. “Since the talking approach didn’t work, I think it’s time we tried the fist-connecting-with-face approach.”

He grinned in spite of himself, the sudden image of his Slayer in battle dancing across his mind’s eye. He did love to watch her fight; too bad this had to happen during the day, or he would’ve been the first to get the best ringside seat. “Don’t worry ‘bout Harris,” he assured. “I’ll send him along as soon as he decides to rejoin the land of the living.”

Reaching up, the Slayer brushed her lips against his, pulling away with a small smile. “There’s supposed to be a blood delivery today,” she reminded him, a twinkle in her eyes. “Try not to eat the delivery boy.”

Spike’s grin faded as he watched her walk away, disappearing into the bedroom as she headed back out to meet a waiting Anya. His head turned, his gaze sliding to the box sitting on the dressing table, and slowly, the vampire reached out to pick it up. At least she hadn’t laughed…or thrown it back at him…not that he really expected that now, not after last night, but still…

Extracting the remaining ring from its velvet bed, he regarded the polished surface, rolling it between his index finger and thumb as his tongue tapped against the back of his front teeth. Not something he would’ve normally picked out, but then, his own tastes had always been a bit more…extreme, and definitely not suitable for someplace like this. Simple, elegant, it was really more Buffy’s style than his, and he chuckled as he suddenly realized that every bloke who ever had to pick out a wedding ring probably thought the same thing. With the smile still lingering on his face, Spike slipped the gold band onto his left ring finger and sauntered out of the wardrobe.

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

He was beginning to wish he’d brought along a book; with Willow still not returned from her run home, waiting around in the hospital was proving impossibly boring, especially since Giles barely even knew this Gino in the first place. Perhaps he should’ve let Xander and Anya come here after all; dealing with Spike, even in light of his current relationship with Buffy, had to be infinitely more interesting than this.

So inured to the hospital milieu, the Watcher didn’t even see the doctor when he passed in front of him, or hear the hesitation in the other man’s step as he paused in the hall, or observe his return to a place just beside his chair. It was only when the physician politely said, “Excuse me,” did Giles glance up and take notice.

“Yes?” he queried, a tiny line between his brows as he wondered just why he was being approached.

The doctor smiled, subtracting years from his grizzled face. “I don’t normally do this, but I just have to ask. You’re not Rupert Giles, are you?”

The Watcher’s frown deepened. “Yes, I am,” he replied. “Is there a problem?”

“Well, there’s going to be,” the other man laughed. “As soon as my wife finds out I saw you today and she wasn’t around to appreciate it.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pad. “This is going to sound horribly trite, but would you mind giving me your autograph? My wife and I absolutely love your work. We used to go see you every week when you were still singing at the Scarlet Sunrise.”

Giles’ eyes widened behind his spectacles. “My…autograph…?” he asked, unconsciously straightening in his chair as he took the notepad and pen. “Really?”

“Sure,” the doctor said. “But you must get that all the time, a big name like you. Just make it out to Stan and Alice. Where are you performing now? I’d love to surprise the wife with a night out to see her favorite crooner.”

“The…” His mind scrambled to remember the name of the club. “…Rising Sun,” he finished. “It’s just temporary, though. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be there.” Giles handed the pad back to the other man. Fan? He had…fans?

“Guess I’ll just have to keep an eye out for when you go back to the Sunrise then.” The doctor smiled. “Thanks.”

Watching him walk away, the Watcher couldn’t help the smile that curled the corner of his mouth. It had been a long time since anyone had said anything about his singing, and he’d certainly been getting enough grief from Xander about it since they’d arrived. I must remember to tell him about this, Giles thought. Then we’ll see who has the last laugh.

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

He felt awful, and from watching the worried look on the nurse’s face, Gino knew that he must look awful as well. Breathing hurt, and the world seemed to weigh heavy around him as his black gaze flitted from one object to the next, unable to rest on any one thing but reluctant to close again. He’d spent too much time out of it since getting shot; the brief respite he’d had with Willow before they’d taken him to the operating room hadn’t nearly been enough.

Thinking of the slender redhead distracted him from dwelling on the pain, so Gino let his mind wander over the events of the past few days, enjoying the memory of her lips on his, the tender touch of her hand on his face, the smile that lit up her face when she laughed. The nurse had explained that Willow had just run home to freshen up, and that she’d already been called about his wakening, but he found himself missing her just the same, hoping she’d return quickly…well, wishing that she’d never left at all.

When it started, he didn’t know what it was, dismissing it as just another unfortunate side effect of the operation. The tingling began at his outermost extremities---toes, fingers---and slithered itself inward, livening his flesh with electric pulses that rose out of nowhere before wrapping him in heat. All of a sudden, Gino found his throat parched, and swallowed more than once in an attempt to rectify it. “Please,” he croaked, trying to get the nurse’s attention. “Could I have…water?”

He saw her nod, not even looking in his direction as she poured the liquid from the carafe, but as she held the glass up to his lips, her eyes narrowed, quickly scanning his flushed face as he gulped down the refreshment, her free hand reaching up to rest on his forehead. He almost jumped at the iciness of her touch. Why was she so cold? Or was it him who was so hot?

When the lights began to dance before his face, Gino knew that something was wrong, something was…different. This wasn’t normal; this wasn’t natural. He squeezed his eyes shut, eager to block them out, but the flashes of red and orange and white refused to leave, piercing the thin lids in pinpricks of flurry, causing his head to spin at dizzying speeds. His chest began to heave as his breathing quickened, lungs failing to expand properly as he fought to gain control of his air supply, and the nurse ran to the door in alarm, ready to call out for the doctor to come and help.

It ended almost as quickly as it began, and by the time the nurse had settled her hand on the doorknob, she heard the rasping cease, an audible silence now filling the room, and glanced back to look at her patient.

His eyes were closed, lashes dark against his skin, but the rise and fall of his chest confirmed that he hadn’t lost this last battle. In fact…she took a step toward him, already forgetting what she’d been doing at the door. His breathing seemed more even than it had since he’d been brought back to his room, deeper, more controlled, almost as if he were merely…asleep.

Quickly, the nurse strode forward, checking Gino’s vitals, head shaking as she looked at her watch and counted. Strong. Steady. Not the pulse of a man who’d been shot less than twenty-four hours before. The flush was gone from his face as well, and when she laid her thin hand back over his forehead, she noted with lessening surprise that it was now cool to the touch.

The young man was unexpectedly winning, that much was obvious, but she had learned long ago not to question the how or why of these things when they happened seemingly without the aid of medical science. Probably thinking of his girl, she thought with a smile. That’s what most likely did the trick. She’d been on duty when he’d brought her in earlier that week, and she’d been the one to call Miss Rosenberg when it looked like things were taking a turn for the worse for him. They were so gentle with each other, so attentive, that she’d almost been as upset as the redhead when she’d thought the young man was going to die. Whatever magic lies between them, she mused, it certainly did the trick…

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

From his window, Tony watched as Willow emerged from the phone booth across the street, the smile on her face clear indication that she’d gotten good news. Gino must be doing better, he thought. Good.

The spell had gone smoothly, both of them concentrating on not having it fail, albeit for different reasons. The redhead had been very adamant when she showed up on his doorstep that if hers didn’t work, there was no way she was going to help him with his, and Tony had accepted that. Certainly seemed fair enough, even if he did desperately need her skills to complete his own spell. Those skills had far surpassed what he’d been expecting, her focus and attention to detail alarmingly refreshing. Melinda never cared this much, he’d thought irritably. Bitch.

When he heard her footsteps in the hall, he darted away from the window, back to the table where his own ingredients were laid out, affecting an air of nonchalance that he hoped she would believe. He glanced up when she came in the door. “Well?” he asked, already knowing the answer, but needing to keep up the pretense.

“The nurse said he just suddenly started doing better,” Willow said with a relieved smile and added shyly, “She thought it was because he was thinking of me.”

“I’m glad,” Tony replied, and in that moment, meant it. He was growing to really like the redhead; he hoped she would be able to escape some of the dangers of the painting long enough for him to enjoy having her around.

Willow crossed to the table and quickly scanned the items that lay across it. He’d said it was a protection spell he wanted to do, and based on what he’d prepared, it looked like he was telling the truth. There were some things she didn’t recognize---the jar of white powder could’ve been just about anything---but none of it looked lethal, so maybe she’d been worrying for nothing after all. Maybe this really could be a win-win situation. After all, she got Gino back. Why shouldn’t Tony be able to feel just a little bit safer while Buffy tried to figure out how to get everyone home?

The young musician kept his eyes averted from his companion as they laid out the candles on the floor, knowing that if she saw the gleam of excitement there, she’d know immediately that something was up. It was going to happen; he could finally stop worrying about what they would do if they found the safety. No more dreading going back to Sunnydale and facing Melinda’s wrath…no more fear that he’d get yanked out against his will. And all because of a gullible witch with a soft spot for a dark-haired bouncer. He had to refrain from actually shaking his head. Women…

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

The room was darkened, curtains drawn against the sunlight while the hospital staff let him sleep in the violence-induced coma that had brought him here in the first place. He’d never stirred, never moved, and the bruises that peppered his skin seemed to actually worsen with time. No one had ever seen a person beaten so thoroughly before; it was surprising to them that the man still lived at all, escaping with only the cracked ribs and massive damage to his face. His prognosis was unsure, but the longer he slept…the worse it got.

Outside of his immediate staff, he’d had no visitors, no one to stop by and check on how he was doing, no one to call and find out if he was OK. That surprised the young nurse who’d been assigned to him. Even the dark-haired man who’d brought him in had seemed uncaring as to his boss’ condition, and frankly, she’d found it slightly callous. He was lucky to be alive, and there should be someone out there who should care, even if it was just his employees. Briefly, she wondered what was so bad about him that they didn’t bother.

Humming under her breath, she held his wrist lightly, checking his pulse for the chart. His vitals seemed stronger today, which was always a good sign, but when she turned to check on his breathing, she was startled to see his grey eyes staring steadily back at her. “G-g-good morning,” she stammered, letting her mouth spread automatically into a welcome. “How are you feeling?”

There was a moment of silence as she saw him actually consider her question, mulling over the sensations that coursed through his body. “Alive,” Mack finally said, his own lips curling up to match her smile…


To be continued in Chapter 29: Pennies from Heaven