DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Mack has woken up after Spike’s beating, Willow has made a deal with Tony in order to save Gino, and Xander hasn’t reacted well to learning of Buffy and Spike’s marriage…
It had probably been one of his shortest conversations on record with the blond vamp.
“You all right?”
“Yep. Where’s Buffy?”
And that had been it. He had been out the door like a shot, tearing down the stairs to get as much distance between him and the den of iniquity as possible. Mack’s car was still waiting for him, so with a peremptory order to the chauffeur, Xander found himself winding through the streets, on his way to the hospital.
It was easier not to think about it once he wasn’t actually sitting in the same room it had happened. Living now in the world of weirdness, there was plenty of other oogedy-boogedy stuff to torment himself with, including Willow’s near-assault, how in hell he was going to keep Anya off the roster every night, and this whole get-what-you-want-then-die scenario they were all so desperately trying to avoid. After his encounter with Tony yesterday, Xander was convinced he was hiding something, that the little weasel knew what it was they needed in order to get out of here. Buffy will get the answers, he thought. Buffy always gets the answers.
The same Buffy who just married Spike? the little voice inside his head prompted. Didn’t count, Xander argued. Just like nothing else that happens in this dimension counts. It’s not real, and I’m just going to go on thinking that until we get back to Sunnydale. Life is much more pleasant that way.
As the car pulled up in front of the hospital, Xander caught a flash of red hair disappearing inside the front door, and hopped out of the back seat to rush after her. “Willow!” he called, legs pumping as he raced to catch the door before it closed.
She turned at the sound of his voice, and he was immediately struck by how relaxed she seemed, a faint smile on her face, the shadows disappearing from around her eyes. “What’re you doing here?” she asked as he followed her inside.
“Checking up on you, although you seem to be checked up OK.”
“Gino’s going to make it,” she said. “I called before I came over. They said he’s doing much better.”
“And you?” Xander prompted, his worry etched in a frown on his face. “How’re you doing?”
Her smile faded. “Buffy told me what you did to that Marty. You and Spike.” She paused, green eyes suddenly serious. “Thank you.”
He watched as she pushed open the door to the stairwell. He knew she wasn’t just thanking him for herself; somewhere in those two words, Willow was thanking him for Gino as well, and he realized that she was in deeper than he’d originally thought. Greatest desire…? Xander wondered. Does that mean Willow will be the first target?
When they stopped at the second floor, he hung back, watching as his friend pulled open the door and turned expectantly back to look at him. “Aren’t you coming?” she asked.
“I’ll be down in a sec,” he replied. “As long as I’m here, I should probably go up and check on Mack. See how he’s doing.”
Willow nodded. “This place would be lot easier to deal with if we all didn’t have jobs to worry about,” she commented as she gave him a little smile, heading out onto the hospital floor.
And what frightened him the most was…in spite of knowing the artificiality of being in the painting world, her observation didn’t seem all that wrong…
Giles sighed, rubbing tiredly at his eyes. “And Mr. Lombardi is absolutely positive this will successfully remove Mack as a threat while we’re trying to discover the identity of the safety?”
“Well, obviously he doesn’t know that’s why we don’t want to worry about Mack, but yeah, that’s pretty much his take on things.” In filling her Watcher in on the details of the morning, Buffy had decided to focus on the reasons and her boss’ determination for the impromptu wedding, not on the actual event itself. Play it down so as not to freak out the older generation, that was the plan. So far it seemed to be working.
“I suppose in light of our current situation, having Spike at the club as well will only increase our odds,” he mused.
“Exactly!” she said, pouncing on the idea. “More bodies means more eyes means more chances of seeing this mark.”
“Unless it’s covered up,” Anya commented. “People still wear clothes at the club. Well, until the dancing’s over.”
“I’m going to be so glad when we get back to Sunnydale,” Giles murmured. “Demons seem so much simpler all of a sudden.” The relief he felt when he saw the familiar red hair bobbing down the hallway was enough to pull him to his feet, followed almost immediately by Buffy. “Where have you been?” he demanded of the young witch as she approached.
Willow hesitated, uncertainty at the unforeseen harshness in his voice temporarily shadowing her good mood. “I…took a shower,” she said. “I called the hospital before I left. They said Gino was doing better.”
The Slayer pushed her way past the older man, crossing to stand before her best friend, as if to act as a shield from his verbal barrage. “How are you doing?” she asked gently.
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” Willow said, relaxing slightly. “I’m fine. I’ll be---.” She cut herself off when she spotted the nurse coming down the hall, brushing past Buffy to rush up to her. “Is he awake yet?” she demanded. “Can I see him?”
“He’s still sleeping,” the nurse replied. “But, yes, you can see him. I’m sure he’ll be very happy to wake up and find you there.”
Buffy watched as Willow followed the nurse down the hall, away from them and toward his room. “OK, that was a little shorter than I thought it was going to be,” she said. “But at least she’s not crying anymore. Bonus points for that.”
“I don’t understand why she’s so worked up over this Gino anyway,” Giles said, settling himself back down into his chair. “It’s not as if he’s real.”
“What’re you talking about?” Anya asked. “Of course, he’s real. As real as you or me or Buffy or Xander.”
“But he’s a fixture of the painting---.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re still not getting it, are you? The painting is just a door. This dimension is just as real as the one we live in, and the people who live here breathe, and go to work, and have sex just like we do. It’s just that, by making the portal, H’roven has started messing with their heads with these false histories and stuff. But that doesn’t make them any less real.” She looked at Buffy. “Do you get it? Or am I just being totally unclear here?”
“No, I get it.” And she did, although it didn’t make it any easier to accept. In fact, knowing that Willow had fallen in love with someone who was still going to be around after she left, that wasn’t going to go poof in some bit of magical smoke once they returned to Sunnydale, made the prospect of leaving him behind all that much harder. She’s just starting to get over Oz, Buffy thought. What will leaving Gino behind do to her?
At least it wasn’t raining this time. Knowing Willow was all right and probably spending more than a little time with Gino, Buffy had fled outside into the sunshine in order to collect her thoughts, waiting it out for her friends to come down and join her. It had been decided that they would go to Tony’s en masse---the more the merrier, she thought---although it would most likely come down to a one-Slayer show. She liked that idea. She was missing what being the Slayer back home had meant for her.
But that wasn’t where her head was now. Willow’s involvement with Gino had led to her thinking of her involvement with Spike, and she sat there now, the gold band in her hand, contemplating why the vampire had dragged the rings out now, what they might mean for him. She loved him, she wasn’t denying it anymore, but this seemed so absolute, and though the wedding was admittedly just a sham to maintain the peace within the painting, it still felt real…just like everything else here felt so real.
She didn’t want him to go; he had promised her as much. But how was he going to fit into her life once when they returned to Sunnydale? She had school, and slaying, and those commando guys to figure out. Where was Spike going to fit into all that? Wherever you let him, the little voice inside her head replied. Though it won’t be easy.
That almost made her laugh. Like her lovelife had ever been easy. At least she didn’t have to worry about this boyfriend losing his soul over her; that had to count for something…
A shadow fell across her hand and instinctively, Buffy’s fingers curled around the ring, hiding it, protecting it, shielding it, although from what she wasn’t sure. Glancing up, she fully expected to see Giles standing over her, that disapproving frown on his face, wanting the explanation that she had avoided providing inside. Instead, her hazel eyes widened at the slight form of a very beat-up Mack, his shirt hanging loose from his trousers, his face a mass of fading bruises.
“I suppose hoping you’re here to see me would be foolish,” he said, his voice surprisingly light, a small smile lighting his grey eyes.
“I came to see Gino,” Buffy said. At the slight furrow in his brow, she clarified, “He got shot last night.”
His confusion eased. “The perils of his profession, I suppose.” Mack glanced down at the empty space next to her on the bench. “May I?”
The last thing she wanted right now was to have to be dealing with her boss---ex-lover?---but there was no point in escaping the inevitable, so with a slight shrug, Buffy inched herself over to give him more room…not that he really needed it.
“I suppose congratulations are in order,” he said as he leaned back in the seat. “Although why you didn’t tell me yourself, I have no idea.” He regarded her silence with a level gaze. “Decide you couldn’t wait?”
“That’s got nothing to do with me and Spike.” His casual manner regarding her relationship with the blond vamp was really starting to piss her off, even if it was just part of this whole painting nightmare. “And he told me what you did. You ask me, you got off light. If it’d been me, you wouldn’t be walking right now.”
Mack laughed, not really the reaction she was looking for. “Ever the little spitfire, aren’t you?” As he twisted his body to reach into his back pocket, he winced, a grimace coloring his fine features just long enough for Buffy to catch it.
“What’re you doing out here anyway?” she asked. “Shouldn’t you be upstairs in a bed, you know…healing?”
“I’m fine,” he asserted, pulling out the pack of cigarettes. “I’ve checked myself out. Xander’s up there settling things so that I can go home and get some real food.”
She snorted. “It’s not a hotel, Mack. You can’t just pick up and leave whenever you want.”
His grey eyes flickered to meet hers. “You can if you’re me.” There was silence as he slowly lit up, his thin fingers almost caressing the cigarette as he placed it between his lips. “I’m probably going to regret asking this,” he said as he turned his head to exhale away from her, “but…why Spike?”
It was a question she would’ve expected from Giles, and though she certainly didn’t think she owed this man any type of explanation, maybe if he understood, it might make it easier for the pair of them when they returned to work that night. If only she didn’t suck at trying to put it into words… “Because…we just fit,” she finally said. “He knows me, like nobody else does, like I don’t, and he’s not afraid to tell me what he sees. It pisses me off sometimes, but that’s only because he’s usually right.” Buffy smiled. “Being with Spike…makes me…better. Because I know I don’t have to worry about being judged. Because he gives me what I need, even if I don’t want it, or even if I don’t know it.” Her smile faded, her eyes wistful. “I’m not good at…the word thing. I just know…I love him. And he’s never to going to stop trying for me. And there aren’t many people in my life I can say that about.”
A long line of ash fell off the end of Mack’s cigarette, scattering on the ground before being picked up by the slight breeze and dusted away. “You never cease to amaze me, Buffy,” he murmured. “Spike is a very lucky man.” Standing, he dropped his cigarette to the ground, lightly tamping it out with the toe of his leather shoe. “I only regret I wasn’t the one who could give you that.”
The hospital door swung open behind them, and Buffy was relieved not to have to respond, almost smiling herself as Xander came walking up. “All sorted,” he said to Mack. “Doc’s not too happy about it, but I explained how he didn’t have any choice in the matter.” When his boss turned away, Xander glanced over at Buffy and rolled his eyes, both of them recognizing how silly that sounded.
“Well, we should probably get going if I want to make a clean sneak,” Mack commented, starting to walk toward the car waiting for them at the curb. “Good-bye, Buffy,” he said, his voice floating back to her.
Xander hesitated, looking between his friend and his painting boss, before she shrugged and nodded out to Mack. She knew he had obligations while they were here, just like she had to go into the Sun every night, and besides, he’d already had a shot at Tony and failed. This way, maybe he could keep an eye on at least one player in this fiasco. With a lopsided smile, he shoved his hands in his pockets and ambled after the other man.
She was tired of staring at it, tired of waiting for something in it to change, just fucking tired of the whole Tony mess. The painting had been back in her possession for almost a day now, the Injopa demons doing their job perfectly and finding it exactly where H’roven had said it was going to be, but Melinda had yet to enter it. She knew that by doing so, she would ultimately end up destroying it, and the stupid thing had cost her a fortune. That bastard Tony knew that, which is probably why he’d used it in the first place to get away from her. He knew she’d be hard-pressed to give it up that quickly.
Just wait until I get my hands on him, she thought. Putting me through all this misery, just because he thinks it’s actually over between us. Let me tell you, Tony darling, it will never be over, and once you’re back here in Sunnydale, I’m going to show you just how not over it really is. Except…
Except…the Slayer was still in the painting, and if Melinda went in now, she’d probably have to contend with her as well as killing the safety. Not that she was a chicken, but the female vamp certainly knew her limitations, and meeting up with the Slayer was not something she’d probably come out of alive. And none of this would be worth anything if she got staked before she could get out.
She knew that the Watcher had gone through the portal knowing how to destroy it, which meant that the Slayer probably knew by this point and was doing everything she could do to do it. It was still entirely possible that this could get resolved without any intervention on Melinda’s part. She would just wait one more day. If nothing changed in the painting before then, she would go in and take care of it herself. One more day…
Figures he’d live in the penthouse, Xander thought. Beats the hell out of your parents’ basement. Not that his apartment, just two floors down, was anything to sneeze at, but some guys’ fortune just really bit his butt. Betcha he never had to sell ice cream bars to snotty-nosed rugrats to pay for it either, he groused.
He hung back, watching as Mack turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open. “There’s some issues I’d like to discuss,” the smaller man said, not even bothering to look over his shoulder as he disappeared inside the apartment. “Why don’t you pour us some drinks?”
The interior looked like something out of the movies, and, as nice as Xander had thought Buffy’s apartment was, this one was miles ahead, displays of his boss’ wealth practically dripping off the walls. It was one of those rooms where he always felt like he should take off his shoes in fear of leaving prints on the carpet, but when he saw Mack just stride confidently into the living room before vanishing down a far hall, he decided to throw caution to the wind and walked in after.
Everything was cream…the walls, the carpet, the furniture…with the only displays of color coming from the multitude of artwork that hung on the walls. The center of one of the long walls was dominated by a large granite fireplace, with a bright landscape adorning the mantle above it, and for some reason, Xander found himself drawn to it, admiring the brilliance of the blue sky, the sharp lines of the buildings that lined the wide street.
Standing before it, a tiny line appeared between his brown eyes, and the young man tilted his head as he stared at the picture. Something about it seemed so…familiar, like he should know what it was or like he’d seen it someplace before. A book maybe? and almost laughed out loud. Yeah, right. But if not there, then where?
And then it dawned on him, and if he’d been physically able of kicking himself in the ass, he would’ve, that was just how stupid he felt. Of course, it looked familiar; he’d only seen that street every day of his life for the past eighteen years, had walked down those sidewalks with Willow, had felt that sun on his face.
It was Sunnydale…
To be continued in Chapter 30: How Do I Know It’s Real…