DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Willow has made a deal with Tony in order to save Gino, while Xander has found a painting of Sunnydale in Mack’s apartment…

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

Chapter 30: How Do I Know It's Real

The colors were just as vibrant as the one back in Giles’ apartment…scarlets that seemed to bleed off the canvas…blues that promised the heat of sunshine even in the dark of night…and there, in the corner, the signature of the artist who made it. H’roven. It was the way home, Xander was sure of it, which could only mean one thing.

Mack had to be the safety.

Taking a step closer to the painting, the young man bit his lip, the question on whether it worked on the same principle as the picture back in Sunnydale hanging foremost in his mind. If it did and he touched it, he should go back home, right? But then what about what H’roven had said about killing the safety? Was that all just smoke and mirrors to throw them off the scent?

There was really only one way to find out, except that meant more touchy-feely and after the events of the past few days, there was absolutely no way he was going to do that. Not without some sort of assurance he wouldn’t end up in yet another demon dimension.

First things first. Buffy needed to know.

With one last glance up the hall to confirm he wouldn’t be unfortunately interrupted, Xander marched over to the phone and picked it up.

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

She probably should’ve told him she was sitting there---called out or something---but watching him make the mad dash from the car to the front door, hunched over, blanket already steaming from the brilliant sunshine, had to have been the funniest thing Buffy had seen in ages. As Spike went flying past, she rose and followed him inside, the giggles escaping like butterflies into the breeze.

Watching him drop the blanket and begin stamping out the flames that licked at its hems, she smiled as she said, “If I had known you looked that ridiculous running through the streets of Sunnydale, I’d’ve made sure it was a spectator sport.”

Spike glared at her out of the corner of his eye. “As soon as you get a sunlight issue, Slayer, you can bet I’ll be the first one laughin’.” He straightened, kicking the wool cover out of sight behind a potted bush before sauntering toward her, wary of the light at her back.

“What’re you doing here?” Buffy murmured into his mouth, as his head lowered to hers.

“Do you have any idea how bleedin’ boring it is in the apartment?” he replied, his lips hovering millimetres from hers. “No telly, no one to talk to once Harris bolted, and the only thing on the radio was some daft quiz show.” His tongue darted out, pointedly licking the delicate curve of her bottom lip. “So, as soon as the blood showed up---and no, I didn’t eat the delivery boy, thank you very much---I called for the car and came over. Thought I might enjoy me a show while you beat up a certain bugle boy.”

The vamp kissed her lazily, sucking at her mouth with a lazy delight that reminded her of hot summer days.

When it broke apart, she lingered in the circle of his arms, resting her cheek on his chest. “I’ve got some bad news,” she said. “Mack’s awake and checked himself out of the hospital.”

“Bugger.”

She leaned back so that she could grin up into his face. “There is good news, though. He looks like absolute hell.”

Spike couldn’t help the answering smile, his blue eyes dancing. “You just made my day, luv.” He pulled away, being careful to remain out of the sunlight that shone through the glass door. “So, ready to go get some answers?”

“Actually, no. Giles and I decided it would be better if we all went as a team, kind of show him the force he’s got to reckon with.”

His head tilted. “Luv, you’re the only force he needs to be worryin’ about.”

For some reason, that made her blush. “Still, it’s already been decided. We’re just waiting for Willow to finish up with Gino.”

“How’s he doin’?”

“Better. At least, as far as we know. None of us have seen him except for Will.”

“Then I think we better go check on him, see how the big guy’s doin’.”

When Spike extended his left hand in invitation, Buffy’s immediate response was to slide her own into it, but as she did so, she felt her throat constrict as her gaze lit on the gold band adorning his finger. He was wearing the ring. She froze, staring up into his face.

The blond vamp’s own eyes flickered down at his hand. “If you haven’t had a chance to tell Rupes yet,” he said, “I’ll take it off.”

“No, he knows,” she replied faintly.

“Oh. Well, then.” He seemed to brighten and took a step, only to be jerked to a halt when she didn’t move. Spike looked back at her. “What?”

“I’m not wearing mine.”

It wasn’t a disavowal, more of a statement of fact, and the vampire shrugged. “S’ok,” he said. “Never expected you to.”

“Then…” She frowned. “I don’t understand…why…I mean, we’re not at the club…and Mack’s not here…what does wearing it prove?”

Using her grip as leverage, Spike pulled her into him, bending to brush his lips over hers. “Just that I’m not goin’ anywhere, pet,” he murmured before pulling her gently toward the stairwell. “Now, c’mon. Stop thinkin’ so much and let’s get to work.”

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

Buffy frowned as they approached Anya in the hallway. “Where’s Giles?” she asked.

The other girl nodded back in the direction of the nurse’s desk. “On the phone with Xander,” she explained. “Willow’s still in with that bouncer guy.”

“Let him know we’re going in to see Gino, ‘kay?” she asked as she began pulling Spike toward the right room. “We’ll just be a sec.”

“Sure,” Anya muttered. “Because visiting hours are so much more important than actually doing something to get out of this place.”

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

When the knock came at the door, Willow paused mid-pace, her heart skipping a beat. She’d known it was inevitable that one of the hospital staff would eventually poke his or her head in; she’d just been hoping to actually have some answers before that happened.

How am I going to explain this? she thought wildly. Gino doesn’t even understand, and if they start pumping him with questions, he’s just going to get even more confused. Oh, sweet goddess, how am I going to get out of this? She’d briefly considered running, but knew that wasn’t the answer. It never was. Well, maybe once or twice, but definitely not this time. She just couldn’t leave him like that, defenseless and bewildered. Nope, better to just face the music, even if she was going to hate the song.

Taking a deep breath, Willow walked over to the door, her hand shaking as it reached out to pull it open. Just a crack, she thought. Don’t let them see Gino isn’t in his bed.

“Hey, Will,” Buffy smiled. “Can we---?”

“Buffy!” The redhead threw open the door and grabbed her best friend’s arm, yanking her through the doorway. “Ohmigod, I’m so glad it’s you!” Her green eyes flickered to the other new arrival. “Spike?” she questioned, and then brightened. “Oh, Spike! Spike is good! Definitely can use Spike.” Reaching out with her free hand, she dragged him in, kicking the door shut behind them as she shoved them into the middle of the room.

“What’s wrong?” Buffy asked, and then noticed the empty bed. “Where’s Gino?”

“OK, before you get mad or anything, I just want to say, I didn’t mean it. Well, I meant it, but not in the way it happened. Just smaller, not quite so huge-ish.” She pushed her hair out of her eyes. “But I can’t figure out how to fix this one, and the nurse will be by any minute, and she’s really not going to understand, in fact, she’ll probably run screaming from the room with the way this place works, and did I say I’m sorry yet? Except I’m not, well, except for how this is going to mess us up, and…” She gulped, swallowing air as she fought to catch her breath.

Buffy stepped forward and placed both hands on either of her friend’s shoulders. “Willow…breathe…” She waited a moment, watching the color return to the other girl’s face, before adding, “I’m going to ask again. Where’s Gino?”

Willow pointed. “In the bathroom.”

The blond vamp caught the Slayer’s nod, and ambled to the closed door, giving it a sharp rap with a single knuckle. “Gino?” he called out. “It’s Spike.” There was the sound of movement inside the adjoining room, followed almost immediately by the door opening and the burly bouncer filling the entrance. He was dressed in his tuxedo shirt and trousers, the bullethole and blood stains still decorating the shirtfront, but in spite of his rather daunting appearance, he stood erect, with a healthy glow to his face, and seemed remarkably free from pain.

Buffy’s eyes widened. “Wow,” she said. “You’re recovering really well.”

Spike’s head turned to look at Willow, head low, gazing at her through hooded eyes. “Red…?” he queried, his voice almost a growl. “What did you do?”

“He was going to die!” she protested. “You saw him! I didn’t have a choice.”

“What did you do?” Buffy repeated.

The young witch ducked her face, fixing her eyes on the floor. “A healing spell,” she whispered.

“That’s not so…” the Slayer started, then stopped, realizing if that was all, her friend wouldn’t be so flummoxed. “Lemme guess. Side effects?”

“Ummmmm, no, not really.” Willow looked over at Gino, sighing. “You might as well show them. They’re going to find out sooner or later.”

Slowly, the bouncer’s fingers fell to the buttons, undoing them from the bottom one by one, allowing his shirt to fall open and reveal the expanse of his torso. He was broadly built, a light covering of dark, curly hair matting his muscled chest, while a thin line of the same ran down the center of his abdomen, disappearing under the waistband of his pants.

For a brief moment, Buffy found herself appreciating Gino’s physique, in a gazing-at-a-poster, that’s-kind-of-hot kind of way, when it slowly dawned on her, and her jaw dropped. “Willow…where’s his wound?”

“Exactly!” The redhead raced forward and ran her hand over Gino’s stomach, totally unaware of the boldness of her actions. “No side effects. Super effects. My spell worked way better than I thought it would. And I think the first time they come in to check on him, they’re going to notice the lack of a gaping hole, don’t you? I mean, this is definite lackage here. There is no way we can hide this, well, short of shooting him again, and I’m not even entertaining that notion.”

Buffy sighed. “We’re just going to have to get him out of here then.” She looked back at Gino. “How do you feel?”

For the first time, he smiled. “Like I could even put the screws on Spike here,” he replied.

The vampire laughed. “Yeah, he’s fine.”

“How much does he know?” the Slayer asked.

“Not very much.”

“But you’re going to tell me, right?” Gino interrupted, looking down at Willow. “You promised you’d be square with me.”

“And I will,” she assured. “But we gotta get you out of here first.”

There was silence as the group watched Buffy, her brow furrowed, her lip caught between her teeth. “We’re going to need a wheelchair,” she finally said. “Spike?”

“Got it.”

“And I’ll go talk with Giles and Anya.” She looked at Willow and Gino. “You two just wait here. Don’t let anyone in. We’ll be right back.”

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

The Watcher was waiting for her as they emerged from the room, and frowned as Spike went loping down the hallway. “There’s been a development,” he said as Buffy pulled the door shut. “A very good development, in fact.”

“Unless you know who the safety is, I don’t have time for this right now, Giles---.”

“We do. We think. It’s Mack.”

That stopped her from brushing past, and she gazed up at him, her hazel eyes wide. “Mack? How do you know that?”

“Xander’s at his apartment right now. Apparently, Mack has a painting of Sunnydale, signed by the very same demon we summoned. It must be the portal to return home.”

“Guess this means I don’t get to beat up Tony, huh?”

Giles shook his head. “I really see no point in furthering our attempts to interrogate him. We’ll confirm Mack’s the safety and take it from there.”

“Spike is soooooo not going to let me hear the end of this.” At her Watcher’s slight frown, she added, “He’s the one who wanted to kill Mack in the first place, remember?”

“Yes, well…” He glanced over her shoulder at the closed door. “Is something wrong in there?” he asked.

“Yes and no, but I don’t have time to explain it right now. I need you to distract the hospital staff while we sneak Gino out of here.”

“Sneak him…? Buffy, you really shouldn’t be moving someone who’s been so recently injured. It could only make things worse.”

“Trust me. That’s not going to be a problem. Can you do it?”

“I suppose so---.”

“Good. As soon as Spike gets back with the wheelchair, you go do your thing. When the coast is clear, have Anya knock twice on the door. That’ll be our signal. We’ll get him out, and then you can meet us back at our apartment, ‘kay?” She didn’t even wait for a response, just slipped back inside the room and closed the door silently behind her.

“I’ve got to learn to stop asking so many questions,” Giles murmured.

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

Anya pressed herself into the wall, eyes darting back and forth between the nurse’s station and the other end of the hall. Finally, something to do. So, OK, it didn’t really have anything to do with getting back to Sunnydale, except it kept the locals from suspecting funny business, but at least it was something. And Xander had found out who the safety was, or at least had a really good idea who it was, so that was progress on that front as well. Maybe she just might survive this hellhole after all.

She watched as Giles leaned against the counter, and was glad he had his back to her, because listening to him was certainly bad enough. His voice filtered back to her, and she could hear his flirtatious teasing as he spoke with the two nurses who were there, laughing as he reached for the pen and paper one of them was handing him. This was the best he could do? she thought. Turning those women into fawning sycophants, playing the act of rockstar, only without the rock. Except, as much as it turned her stomach, she had to admit it was working. They were totally concentrated on Giles, which meant…

A quick glance to confirm the remaining hallway was clear, and Anya’s hand reached behind her and rapped twice at the door, stepping aside to allow them to come through as it opened.

Gino sat in the chair, two blankets covering his form so that his clothes were barely visible, his head slumped down as if he was asleep. Behind him, Spike pushed him along, while the two women flanked either side. Anya stifled the giggle that rose to her throat as she watched them head quickly for the stairwell. The whole thing looked too much like one of those Laverne and Shirley reruns Xander was always making her watch. Wonder which one gets to be Squiggy? she mused.

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

Hunched over, his hands pulled distractedly at his dark hair, his lids closed as he listened to her speak. “I know it seems kinda weird, but that’s the truth, Gino. And I don’t know how else to explain it.” Willow bit her lip, the anxiety about how he was going to react a crystal shimmer in her eyes.

He looked up, his black gaze locking with hers. “How come I have all these memories then?” he asked softly. “I remember when you first started working. And I remember Spike training me on how the set-up at the club was. And I remember how Buffy was before she and Spike got engaged. If what you’re telling me is truth, how come I’ve got these?”

“It’s the portal,” she said. “That’s part of the magic of the demon who made it. He’s turned your head into scrambled eggs ‘cause we came through.”

“And your…magic…is why I’m jake now?”

Willow blushed. “Yes. But sometimes my spells go a little…wonky. Which is why your injury is completely gone instead of just healing quickly.”

Gino’s gaze flickered over the other occupants in the room…Buffy, curled up on Spike’s lap…the crooner, the one they said was their Watcher…the new dancer, except she wasn’t, she was another friend. “And none of what I know is true,” he said. “Harris didn’t…and Buffy’s not…and you and me aren’t…” It was all so much; processing it was hurting his head, but he’d demanded to know the truth. And here it was.

“No.” Her voice was firm. “You and I are.” She reached forward and slipped her hand into his. “That’s why we’re trusting you with this.”

“I know it’s a lot to deal with right now,” Buffy said. “But we’re your friends, Gino. We wouldn’t lie to you. Well, not anymore anyway.”

The dark-haired bouncer returned his gaze to Willow. “I can’t go back to work tonight,” he said. “How’s it going to look? And won’t the docs be looking for me?”

“You can stay here,” the Slayer offered. “We’ve got the extra room.”

“Sure,” agreed Spike. “Be nice to have the balance of power tipped in favor of the testosterone for a change.”

Willow leaned forward. “So, you believe me? You’re OK with this?”

Gino’s lips twisted into a wry smile. “I got a choice in the matter? Besides, my gut is telling me to trust you, so who am I to question the only smart part of my anatomy?”

Giles straightened from where he was leaning against the sideboard. “Not to sound callous or anything, but now that this is sorted, we really should start investigating this Mack business,” he said.

Buffy and Spike exchanged looks before she turned to face her Watcher. “No offense, Giles, but it’s kind of been a busy day. Couldn’t we do this tonight? You know, at the club or something? I’m sure Willow could use the sleep…” She raised her eyebrows suggestively to the redhead, nodding her head almost imperceptibly.

“Oh, yeah,” the young witch exclaimed, feigning a very large yawn. “I’m exhausted. I wouldn’t be any good to anybody right now.”

Until this point, Anya had remained silent, allowing the others to relay the truth to the bouncer, but now, she jumped to her feet. “Are you all crazy?” she demanded. “What is it about this place and giving you all deathwishes? We’ve got to get out of here. Or have you forgotten about the imminent death clause?”

“Actually,” Buffy said, clambering off Spike’s lap to stand before her, “I’ve got a plan for that. If you’re interested.”

“Finally!” Anya shouted. “Someone’s taking action! Just tell me what to do. I’m all ears.”

Willow watched as the other women crossed to the other side of the room, Giles on their heels. She knew what Buffy was doing, and she loved her for it. What a great friend, she thought. I just wish I could tell her the whole truth about the spell and what I did with Tony.

“So…”

The sound of Gino’s voice brought her back from her thoughts, and the redhead faced him with a small smile. “So…”

“You going to head back to your place for a nap before work tonight?”

“No. I thought I’d have a nap…here.” Carefully, she stood and eased herself onto his lap, forcing him ever so gently to lean back in his seat to accommodate her slight form against him. “If you don’t mind.”

Spike hid his smile as he rose from his seat, giving the pair the privacy they didn’t seem to care if they had. Go for it, Red, he thought. Grab it while you can…


To be continued in Chapter 31: All This and Heaven, Too