DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Gino is staying with Buffy and Spike after getting healed by Willow's spell, while Buffy has come up with a plan to confirm that Mack is the safety.

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

Chapter 32: The Lady Is a Tramp

"I hate this plan, I hate this plan, and have I said? I hate this plan." Xander paced behind the couch, his normally relaxed face dark with anger, while the rest of the gang just watched from their various seats throughout the room.

"If you've got a better one, I'd love to hear it," Buffy offered. "But I sure as hell can't think of any other way to find out for sure if Mack's the safety or not."

"But why Anya? Why can't it be somebody else?"

"Are you volunteering?" the Slayer shot back, knowing it wasn't really an option. "Look, Anya's the only one he doesn't know. Willow's not on the roster, and after everything that's gone down between him and Spike, there's no way I can get close enough to him without him suspecting something. And Anya doesn't mind."

Xander glanced at his girlfriend, who shook her head innocently. Snorting, he stopped in front of where Spike was leaning against the wall. "Do you at least see my problem with this?" he demanded. "How would you feel if it was Buffy who had to sleep with this sleazeball?"

"I'd kill him," the vampire said calmly. "But the Slayer's right. Anya's the only girl in this room who can do this without gettin' herself in trouble."

The girl in question rose from her seat and placed her hand on her boyfriend's arm. "Just let it go, Xander. If this is what it takes to get us home, then that's it. End of story." She leaned up to kiss him, only to be met with his cheek when he abruptly turned his head. "Fine," she retorted, suddenly angry. "Be a baby. See if I care. I'm only doing this to save your butt from that whole death clause anyway."

"Trust me, I am so far from being happy in this place, my butt is the last thing you have to be worrying about," he replied harshly.

"Please!" Giles' voice was sharp, cutting through the argument, silencing it with that one word. "The debate is over. None of us are pleased with the plan, Xander, but at this juncture, it's our only option."

Muttering under his breath, the young man collapsed on the couch, arms folded across his chest, brown eyes thunderous as he glared at those around him. It had been a day of hell for him, first walking in on Buffy and Spike getting married, then hours of having to listen to Mack go on about business he didn't understand anyway, and now finding out his girlfriend was going to play this roster thing to the hilt in order to see if the club owner had Melinda's mark. What had happened to having your greatest desire fulfilled? he grumbled silently. A root canal would be better than this right now.

"So we're settled then," Buffy said. "Everybody goes about business as usual until we hear from Anya. Any questions?" She glanced around the gang, eyes finally settling on Gino. He'd been quiet ever since he'd emerged from the bedroom with Willow, but his silence was different from that earlier. Now, it was more thoughtful, less broody, as if many of his doubts had been lifted. She didn't question how that had happened; she hadn't seen her best friend glow this radiantly since long before Oz had left. Definitely going to have that girl talk tonight, she thought. Most definitely. "What about you, Gino?" she asked. "Anything you want cleared up?"

The dark bouncer shook his head, a wry smile briefly lighting up his face. "Don't think even I can mess up driving Willow and Anya to the club," he joked. The small ripple of laughter that went through the room eased the tension somewhat, and Gino visibly relaxed into his seat.

A bemused Giles glanced around the lounge's occupants. "Do you know what I've just realized?" he said. "I believe this is the first time we've ever had more men involved in Slayer business than women." A wide-eyed Buffy tilted her head to look at her Watcher, her arms folded over her breasts. Under her close scrutiny, his blue eyes ducked. "It was just an observation," he commented.

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

The car rounded the corner and Spike saw the lights of the club beckoning down the street, merging with the twinkling stars above in a nightly rainbow that almost seemed too much like home. Not Sunnydale home, but home as that elusive definition of comfort. For a fleeting second, the blond vamp realized that he was actually going to miss this place, although no way in hell could he tell Buffy that. She certainly wouldn't understand.

She seemed lost in thought, and he briefly wondered what was going through that head of hers, whether she was considering Red and Gino, or the plan on getting out of here, or something else entirely. He was hoping for something else entirely, because that left the door open for the Slayer to be thinking of him, but with so much going on right now, he wasn't holding his breath. Even if he had breath to hold.

As the car slowed before the door of the club, Spike slid forth a foot and nudged her nylon-clad toes with his shoe, gently bringing her back to earth. "Showtime," he said, a half-smile twisting his lips, and watched as she pulled the ring from her purse, sliding it over her knuckle and twisting it into place. He still wore his, hadn't taken it off since that morning, and knew she didn't really understand why. That's OK, luv, he thought. Someday, you'll get it.

He was out of the door like a shot, around the rear of the car, holding open her door before Buffy could even blink, his hand outstretched to take hers as she slid from her seat. The genteel manners still managed to throw her every single time, no matter how many doors he held for her. When we get back to Sunnydale, she thought, I don't know what I'll do if he throws his duster over a puddle like that dead English guy. And almost laughed out loud as she realized, Spike is a dead English guy.

"No fighting," Buffy warned. "Try and avoid Mack if you can."

"'Cause blokes like him don't need to use doors," he commented dryly.

"He might come in the back."

Spike rolled his eyes. "Luv, hate to break it to you, but he's not the type to come back with his tail between his legs. Especially not when he owns the place."

She bit her lip. "Maybe he'll change his mind and won't come in at all. Or maybe Xander misunderstood him when he said he would show up tonight."

"And maybe Rupes will throw us an engagement party when we get back to Sunnyhell. Look, Buffy, he's goin' to show. As long as you're here, he's goin' to be here."

He knew from the look in her eyes that she understood that was the truth, even if she didn't like it. "At least it looks like this is our last night," she said, resigned. "No more creepy little guys macking on the Slayer once we get back home."

As Buffy turned away to walk to the rear of the club, Spike's hand reached out and pinched playfully at her ass. "Not if I have anything to say 'bout it," he teased.

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

Xander's hands drummed nervously on his knees as the car pulled up in front of the club, his eyes darting nervously over to where Mack sat, staring out the window, his face grim. He'd been surprised when he'd shown up at the penthouse; many of the bruises that the boss had been sporting were already gone, as was all of the swelling in his face. Only the occasional wince as he twisted his upper body gave any indication that he had been in any sort of a fight. He heals faster than even Buffy does, the young man thought.

He had yet to bring up Anya, and the prospect of walking into the club and seeing her fawn all over the painting boss was turning his stomach. Spike would already be at the door, and that would be bad enough to listen to; Mack had made it very clear to Xander that he wanted to discuss the Spike issue some point this evening. He wasn't sure what it was going to entail, but based on his conversations this afternoon, he knew it wasn't going to be good.

Mr. Lombardi was waiting for them when the chauffeur opened the doors. "Glad to see you're up and about," he said, the obsequious smile too wide on his face. "We've had some excitement 'round here since you've been out of it."

"Yes, I've heard," Mack said quietly.

"Gino---."

"---got clipped, yes, I know." He brushed past the club's manager and was halfway to the door, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his wool coat when Lombardi's voice came filtering to him.

"And then there's Buffy and Spike."

Mack stopped, and glanced back at him over his shoulder. "What about them?" he asked, his voice low and even.

Lombardi laughed. "Those crazy kids. They decided they couldn't wait any longer and went and got themselves hitched this morning. Said they got tired of waiting."

Xander kept a close eye on his boss, watching his lips thin, his nostrils flare, but otherwise, showing no outward sign of emotion regarding the announcement. "I suppose that means Buffy's on her…honeymoon," Mack said.

"Nah. Buffy's a pro, been on the clock since the first customer walked through the door. In fact, she was actually one of the first dames in tonight. Marriage must be agreeing with her."

The small joke fell on deaf ears, and the boss glanced at the front door of the club, grey eyes intent. "She didn't say," he murmured.

Lombardi cleared his throat, the panic in his face barely in control. "Since Gino's out of commission, I asked Spike if he'd come back to work," he said.

Mack's head shot around. "What?" he demanded, and Xander saw for the first time since arriving in the painting the power in the smaller man's visage, the refined mask he usually wore stripped away to reveal the cunning shell underneath. There was a reason he was so feared, and he was only now getting a glimpse of it.

"Look," the manager rushed. "Spike's the best, and with Gino gone, we need him here until I can find a replacement. And face it, he didn't do anything you haven't done for Buffy in the past. Remember that mug who hit her while they were dancing? The coppers still haven't finished finding his body parts." He took a deep breath. "She loves him, Mack, and hell, he's proved he's dizzy for her. I know he shouldn't have done what he did, but it's over, it's done with, and it's not going to happen again. I've got Spike's word on that. Plus, he knows this is only temporary until I get Gino back." Unless I can talk you into letting him stay on, Lombardi added silently.

The air lay thick between them as Xander watched his boss consider this latest development. He had to admit, it was a convincing argument. The question was, was it convincing enough?

Turning on his heel, Mack began walking back up to the club, all evidence that he'd heard anything out of the ordinary gone from his slight form. "Come, Xander," he said. "I'm in the mood for a little distraction. Perhaps of the female variety."

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

The club was quiet, and Spike realized he was already beginning to recognize the regulars, knowing which ones might cause trouble and which ones were completely harmless. Most of tonight's patrons were of the latter variety, which made his job relatively simple…and incredibly boring. He'd been keeping himself awake by watching Buffy on the dance floor, but every time she started in with the flirting, the rage would rise in his throat and he'd have to look away, unable to watch lest his jealousy take the better of him. Logic told him he had nothing to worry about, but that didn't stop the feelings, and it certainly didn't mean he had to stand there and watch it.

It was those times he'd watch Red instead, amused at her exuberant mood this evening, laughing away the one or two times she'd fallen over on her bottom as she teetered around in those godawful shoes. He'd even caught her chatting up one or two of the band members when she passed by them, including good ol' bugle boy himself. Only thing was, she'd just gone on her break, disappearing through the back door, and Spike was left trying to entertain himself again.

When he saw Tony lean over and whisper to the musician next to him, rising from his seat at the same time, the vampire's eyes narrowed. He still thought something was funny about the trumpet player, and whether Buffy thought it was necessary or not, Spike planned on keeping an eye on him. Just might be time for my own break, he thought, and straightened, ready to follow the other man to the back.

The door opening behind him halted his move, garnering his attention as his blond head swivelled around to see who the newest arrival was. The muscle in his cheek twitched as Mack strolled through, followed closely by Xander. Bloody hell, he grumbled. Thought Buffy said he looked a little worse for wear. If it wasn't for the faint discoloration around the man's jaw, Spike would never have known he'd had a severe beating only a few days previous. She must've been wantin' to spare my feelings, he thought. Must be losin' my touch.

There was only a moment's hesitation as Mack espied the blond bouncer and slowly approached him, closing the distance in just a few short steps. "Not that I'm forgetting what you did," the owner said, "but I know when to accept defeat graciously." He stuck out his right hand. "Congratulations on your…wedding."

Spike's head tilted as his gaze flickered from the proffered hand, to Mack's unsmiling face, and then to meet Xander's eyes. Harris' infinitesimal nod went unseen by his boss, and slowly, the vamp extended his own grip to lightly clasp the other's. "Thanks."

Both withdrew almost immediately, and Mack turned to face the crowd. "So, where's this new girl we're supposed to have?" he said, and without looking back, walked over to the bar.

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

I am not going to miss these shoes, Willow grumbled, sliding the leather strap over her heel as she held herself steady with the door jamb. Here's hoping Anya comes through and this'll be my last night of torture. She wasn't expecting anyone there when she pulled open the dressing room door, stumbling into his chest before latching onto his jacket, yanking clumsily at his sleeve as she struggled to right herself.

Tony smiled, hands sliding under her elbows, enjoying the all too-fleeting pressure of her body against his before stepping back. "The shoes'll get you every time," he joked.

Straightening, Willow smiled. "You on break?"

"Actually, I just ducked back to find out how you were doing. You don't seem so…flustered as you were this morning."

"No, things are good."

"And Gino? I take it, the spell worked out OK?"

She nodded. "He's fi---. Going to be fine." There was an awkward pause as they each regarded the other. "And you? I left kind of quick after we did your spell. Did it turn out the way you wanted?"

"Yes, most definitely," Tony said with a happy smile. "Thank you again. It's nice to be able to work with someone who understands it all."

"Yeah, well…" She was growing uncomfortable, eyes darting around the dark hall. The fewer reminders she had about helping the musician, the happier Willow would be. "I should probably get back to work," she chirped, edging past him. "Talk to you later."

As she scurried away, her ankle turning once beneath her, the redhead exhaled loudly. Thank God Buffy didn't see me, she thought. I'd never get out of having to explain that one.

"Tell me I didn't just hear that." Spike emerged from the recesses of the wall, arms folded across his tuxedoed chest, sapphire eyes glittering in the dim light as he gazed at Willow.

She jumped. "Why do you vampires always have to sneak up on people?" she demanded, her heart racing.

"It's not sneakin' if you're not movin'," he replied. "You walked up to me. From talkin' to bugle boy. About magic and spells."

The two stared at each other, the redhead jumpy, the blond cool, both knowing the truth would be out before either stepped away. Finally, Willow sighed. "I couldn't do it by myself, Spike. I needed his help."

"Well, at least that explains why Gino's bullet went bye-bye. What was that I heard about…his spell?"

"It was just a protection spell, no big. And it was the only way I could get him to help me. Don't tell Buffy, please, Spike? She won't understand."

"I don't understand, Red. And there's no way you can ask me to keep a secret from Buffy. Shame on you."

"But it doesn't matter anyway," she rushed, pulling him aside for just a bit more privacy. "We've found the safety, you and Buffy will take care of him, and we'll be home before morning. No harm, no foul, right?"

"You can't keep this kind of information from the Slayer---."

"Oh, really? What about not telling her about how you went and saw Tony? During the day? At his apartment? And telling him all about Buffy being the Slayer? That sounds like a huge, fat secret to me, Spike."

"It was unnecessary information---."

"As is this." She jumped on his words. "The spell was for him, just to protect him from dying. It doesn't affect us at all. Just like how you got your information doesn't affect us, either. So…you don't tell her about this, and I won't tell her about that, OK?"

He didn't like it, and he knew Buffy wouldn't like it. Everything about it smelled wrong to him, but there she stood, green eyes wide, just begging to be trusted with this, and Spike knew he wasn't going to be able say no to her. It was the first time Willow had played her innocent-face-card with the vampire, but he had a sneaking suspicion it wasn't going to be the last. Fuck.

"Fine," he growled. "But I see one rat leave the ship, and I'm talkin' faster than you can say slayer, got it?" The vehemence of her nod was all he needed before whirling on his heel and disappearing back up to the front. Stupid bloody women, he thought, as he marched back to his post. Why are they always fallin' for the bugle boy's routine?

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

Anya's eyes widened as she walked into the penthouse, drinking in the obvious wealth surrounding her, biting her lip as her fingers danced over a porcelain statue near the front entrance. "Nice place you've got," she said as calmly as she could, and practically ran when she saw the H'roven over the fireplace.

Mack watched in amusement as he removed his coat, draping it over the back of the couch. Although she certainly wasn't Buffy, the new girl had definitely been a pleasant diversion for most of the evening, keeping him sufficiently distracted from staring at the other woman for at least part of the night. When Xander had suggested trying her out, it had seemed like a good enough idea, but, now that they were back here at the penthouse, he was having second thoughts.

"Is that going to be it for tonight?" Xander's voice came from the doorway behind him, and Mack glanced back at his right-hand man, his grey eyes level, sensing the other's discomfort.

"Not just yet. There's one more matter I'd like to discuss." He glanced pointedly at Anya.

"Oh," she said. "Gotcha. That would be my cue to quietly walk out of the room and leave you two in privacy. So, here I am, going to the bedroom, 'cause that's what I do…" Although she was smiling brightly, her words trailed away as she looked around for the appropriate exit, both men just watching her and waiting, before she finally found the hall and strolled casually down it.

"Sit down," Mack instructed.

Xander frowned as he perched himself on the edge of the couch. He'd had a lot of these kind of talks with his boss since arriving in the painting, but none of them had been prefaced like this before. This was different…but different didn't necessarily mean good.

"I know I gave you a lot of stuff to tackle this afternoon," he was continuing. "But something's come up that I want taken care of before all that."

"Whatever it is, just say the word." And thank god I probably won't have to be around much longer to actually do it, he thought gratefully.

"You know Buffy married Spike today."

Xander locked his jaw. "Yeah, kinda heard about that."

"To tell the truth, I didn't think she'd go through with it. I thought she'd come to her senses and things could go back to the way they were before." Mack was pacing around the room, lost in his own head, his ruminations relaxing the lines around his eyes. "But that's not going to happen now. It can't, really. Which means I need you to take care of it for me."

"Take…care of it?" Xander felt the bottom drop out of his stomach and leaned forward.

"My original plan was to just get rid of Spike, but as Buffy has so clearly made her choice, I see no reason why she shouldn't join him." His lips curled into an angry smile. "After all, she was the one who promised 'til death do they part. I think that's going to be my wedding gift to the two lovebirds." His grey eyes bore into Xander's. "I don't care how you do it. Shoot them, make it look like an accident, whatever. Just make sure they both end up sleeping the big sleep…"


To be continued in Chapter 33: Mairzy Doats