DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Anya has found the mark on Mack, confirming his identity as the safety…

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Chapter 34: Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition

They were halfway out the door when Sammy came running after them. "Mr. Giles!" he called, his breathing ragged. "Mr. Giles!"

The trio stopped, all turning to see him approach, the Watcher frowning. "Yes?" he queried.

"Telephone," Sammy rasped. "Guy says it's important."

The frivolity was sucked from the air as Buffy and Willow exchanged glances, hanging back as Giles followed the shorter man up to the bar and the spare phone. There was only one person who could be on the other end of that line, and though they had been expecting the call all night, it still managed to hit both of them hard.

For Buffy, it meant getting back to being the Slayer, and doing what she had to do to save the world, or in this case, to get out of it. If Mack was indeed the safety, that meant he had to be killed, which meant ethical dilemma for the Chosen One. Even though he wasn't part of her dimension, and even though he was basically not a very nice guy, Mack was still human, and the prospect of having to kill him was not something she was looking forward to dealing with. It had only been last year that Faith had killed the deputy mayor, and the repercussions of that one deed had blackened everything for the next six months. How could Buffy escape the same fate?

The call was something else entirely for Willow, a death knell for her time with Gino, a return to an empty existence without someone to share it with. All her efforts to keep it separated, using her head instead of her heart, had been for naught, because here she was, the ache inside resonating throughout her body, obliterating the lines of demarcation she'd fought so desperately to construct between the bliss of being with the dark-haired bouncer and the reality of leaving him behind. She knew only one thing. Oz leaving her had been difficult; deserting Gino was going to be impossible.

Giles' face was somber as he returned to the two girls and before they could say anything, he nodded. "Xander and Anya are waiting for us," he said quietly.

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

He was pacing in front of the door to the penthouse when they arrived, brown hair dishevelled, his jacket long ago discarded. Gino's eyes narrowed when he saw the gun strapped under Harris' arm, his grip automatically tightening around Willow's hand. It was only when she looked up at him, green eyes dark with confusion, did the bouncer consciously relax his grasp. Not a threat, he reminded himself. She said they're old friends and would never do anything to hurt her.

Still, shutting off the feelings was like trying to swallow a handful of pills when his throat wasn't working. He didn't like Xander and he couldn't look at the other man without feeling rage at the act he knew logically the other man never committed. Willow had told him about what he and Spike had done to Marty, but that didn't change how he felt. He didn't know if anything ever could.

"Where's Anya?" asked Buffy as they approached.

"Inside in case Mack wakes up." Xander's eyes flickered over the gang, pausing momentarily on Gino before returning back to the Slayer. "She says the mark's on his back and it looks exactly like the demon painter's signature, so we know for sure he's the one."

"Right. Then let's suit up." With a deep breath, she grabbed a hold of the door knob and twisted, ready to go in and do what had to be done.

"Wait." Giles' voice acted more of a deterrent than a physical touch, and Buffy stayed her motion, looking back over her shoulder at her Watcher. "What exactly are you planning on doing?" he queried.

"Thought that was obvious," she replied. "I have to kill Mack."

"But he's human, Buffy."

"And he's our ticket out of this place." Her hand fell from the door and her head tilted as she regarded the older man. "You really think now is the time to be arguing about this?"

"Well, you refused to discuss it in the car---."

"Because I know what I have to do," she interrupted. "I don't like it any more than you do, but I don't think I really have much of an option here."

"There are always options---."

"Lemme do it."

Buffy jerked at the sound of Spike's voice, her jaw setting. "No," she said firmly. "You're not going anywhere near him."

"Why not?" The vampire strode forward to square off with the petite blonde. "Wanker's from this dimension so the soddin' chip won't go off. And, in case you've forgotten, I don't have the same bleedin' morality issues you've got. If he needs to be killed, I can do it."

"We had rules, Spike, remember? And I believe 'no killing' was right there at the top of them." Her face was flushed in anger. Why were they arguing with her on this?

"Buffy's right." Giles stepped forward, joining the fray. "If anyone should kill Mack, it should be me. I'll shoulder the responsibility."

"What?" Her voice was incredulous. This was going from bad to much, much worse. "No offense, Giles, but this is my job. Chosen One here, and why is everyone trying to keep from doing what I have to do?"

"Being the Slayer doesn't mean killing humans."

"Rupert's got a point---."

"Stay out of it, Spike!"

The door yanked open to reveal an angry Anya on the other side. "What the hell is going on out here?" she demanded.

"Slayer and her Watcher are havin' a bit of a spat," Spike commented dryly.

"Now?" Anya stared at them, wide-eyed. "I've got a guy in here, waiting to be dead. You don't think this could maybe wait a bit? Like, after we get home?"

Buffy turned back to Giles. "You don't even have a weapon---."

"I've got my gun," Xander offered, pulling it from its holster.

Gino automatically stepped in front of Willow, blocking the path between her and the revolver, while Buffy turned amazed eyes to her friend. "Not helping things, Xander," she warned.

"Look, this should be a doddle, Slayer. Rupes will find some way to cock it up and there's absolutely no reason for you to do it if you've got me to watch your back. I'm the best choice here."

Giles' voice was deadly. "You're never the best choice, Spike," he spat.

"And you are?" Buffy countered. "When was the last time you shot a gun, Giles?"

"I'm well-trained in all manners of weaponry---."

"I'm not talking training, I'm talking field experience." Her hazel eyes flashed. "This shouldn't even be a debate here."

As they fought in front of her, Anya's head kept swivelling back and forth between the gang members, marvelling at how ridiculous they were being, turning what was really an easy solution into some huge moral dilemma. Got a gun, use it, she thought angrily. What's so hard? But their voices were rising, and though she knew there was no way he could hear anything all the way back in the bedroom, Anya was starting to worry about how long it was taking them to make up their minds. Anything could happen; hadn't they learned at least that much by being here?

"Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," she muttered, and stepping forward, twisted the gun from Xander's hand, pivoting on her heel and marching back into the apartment, shutting the door behind her.

The hall was quiet for a moment while everyone just looked at the closed door. "She's not---," Gino started, only to silence himself when the gang sprang into action and launched themselves inside.

"Crap," he heard Harris mutter, right before the other man disappeared inside the penthouse.

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

She had the pistol cocked and ready before she reached the bedroom, and slipped through the doorway, taking heed not to make any unnecessary noise as she did so. On the bed, Mack still lay in repose, his head turned away from her. Want a job done, she thought, gotta do it yourself. Although it had been a while since she'd had to kill anyone---OK, she hadn't really done it since being stripped of her vengeance gig---not having to look him in the face while she did it definitely made the job all that much easier.

Carefully, Anya raised the gun.

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

Buffy and Spike were only seconds behind her, skittering to a halt in the doorframe so that they didn't wake the sleeping owner of the club. Not that a gunshot won't do the exact same thing, the Slayer thought wryly, and was about to rush the armed woman when…

…the bolt of electricity shot through the air, striking Anya in the chest, sending her hurtling backwards against the overstuffed chair behind her.

Buffy hurried forward, scooping the unconscious girl into her arms and picking up the gun from the floor, then turned her confused gaze back at Spike. "What the hell was that?" she hissed.

His jaw was set, muscles twitching as his brain clicked over. The bolt had come directly from Mack, but still he slept, oblivious to the growing number of people in his bedroom. "I'm about to find out," he replied, his voice barely audible. As the Slayer watched, his face melted away into his vampire visage, his teeth bared in a silent snarl, hands already curled into claws as his body tightened to spring…

…and a second bolt, this one just as focussed as the first, slammed into him, forcing him to stumble back and into the chest of an approaching Xander. Both men went down in a heap outside the room, and with one last frowning glance at Mack's unconscious form, Buffy followed after them.

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

The first hit Willow as a sudden shock, electrifying her skin with icicles of flame that caused her to stiffen, the tiny hairs on her arms standing up on end, autonomous responses jerking her hand away from Gino's. His black eyes widened as the magic leapt the distance between them, numbing his fingers but not stopping him from catching her from falling, her thin form arcing against his.

The second, only moments later, was just as strong, and the whimper escaped the redhead's throat as her body spasmed, pressing into Gino's for what seemed an eternity. Although it passed within the blink of an eye, the subjection it left behind forced her to cling to the bouncer for support, and that's how she was standing when the group came back from the bedroom.

"Xander's. Now," ordered Buffy, sweeping past them, the unconscious Anya still in her arms.

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

The disquiet hung in the air like a vaporous blur, while Giles pressed the wet cloth to the burn mark on Anya's chest, its lukewarm relief doing nothing to quicken her from her sleeping state. Behind the couch, Xander paced like a caged animal, brown eyes darting from his girlfriend to Buffy, and back to the couch again.

"What the hell happened in there?" he demanded.

"That's what I'd like to know," she muttered, careful with her own ministrations to the corresponding burn on Spike's pale skin.

The vampire's sapphire gaze swept past the Slayer, boring into Willow's ashen face. Her breathing was shallow, her pupils so dilated that her normally bright eyes appeared black, and she curled herself up into a tight little ball on Gino's lap. "Welcome to the Titanic, Red," Spike growled.

Buffy's head whipped around, drinking in the sight of her friend. Something was wrong; something had shaken her, and it seemed at the moment that only the dark bouncer's embrace was holding her together. "Willow?" she asked. "What's wrong?"

"What…was it?" the redhead whispered.

"Magic. Had to have been," the Slayer replied. "As soon as Mack was attacked. First by Anya when she pointed the gun at him, and then when Spike charged him in game face."

"A protection spell, perhaps?" Giles offered. "But who...?" His eyes cleared, as he answered his own question. "Tony."

At the sound of the musician's name, Willow's eyes fluttered shut. "No…"

Spike sat up, pushing away Buffy's hands, oblivious to the burn on his chest. "No more twenty questions," he said. "Either you tell 'em or---."

"It is a protection spell." Her voice was tiny, forced from her throat with all the reluctance of a sulky child, but her face was shattered, a despondent mask of crystal threatening to fall apart before their eyes. The tears welled, unshed, and she ducked her head to avoid looking at them. "But I didn't know what it was going to do, I swear."

"Willow…what did you do?" Buffy was almost holding her breath, the realization that her best friend was somehow involved in this something she'd never even considered.

"I couldn't do the spell by myself," the redhead started.

For the first time, Gino reacted to those words around him, frowning as his black eyes danced over her face. "Wait a minute," he said. "Not…the magic you did for me?"

She nodded. "I didn't know who else to ask. And when he said he would only do it if I helped him…" Willow swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. "I said no the first time. And then the hospital called, and the nurse was all, get down here while you can say good-bye, and I didn't know what else to do. He said the protection spell was for him."

"And you believed him?" Giles couldn't keep the incredulity out of his voice. "After everything we told you?"

"I didn't have a choice!" The dam broke, and the tears flowed freely over her cheeks. "I'm sorry! You don't think I feel bad enough about this already? Even when Spike started in on me---."

Buffy's head whipped around to face her boyfriend. "You knew?" she accused.

"Yeah, and I went chargin' up to Mack 'cause I fancied a little color in my skin," Spike snarked, rolling his eyes. "I just found out tonight. And Red swore up and down it was perfectly harmless, so don't go high and mighty on me, Buffy. I'm not in the mood."

A groan from the couch captured everyone's attention, and Xander practically leapt over the back of it to crouch down at Anya's side. Her eyes fluttered open, and for a brief moment, her face relaxed into a small smile. "Hey," she murmured, but when she tried to sit up, the pain in her chest sent rolls of knives marching down her torso, and she sank back down into the cushions.

"Take it easy," Xander soothed. "You took a nasty shock."

Anya frowned. "It didn't work, did it?" she asked. When her boyfriend shook his head, she let her eyes flutter closed again. "This world sucks."

"And I'm beginning to agree with her," Buffy muttered, rising from her seat to take Xander's place in pacing the room. "So we got trouble with a capital T now. We can't kill Mack while he's got the spell on him, so we've got to figure out how to get rid of it."

"Was there a charm or amulet in the spell you did?" Giles asked Willow.

She shook her head. "It just seemed like your run-of-the-mill protection spell," she said weakly.

"How 'bout we kill bugle boy?" Spike offered with an angry smile, ignoring the Watcher's dirty look. "Wouldn't that cancel it?"

"Even if it did, it wouldn't work," Willow replied. "'Cause you'd have to kill me, too. I'm just as responsible for it as he is."

Very slowly, Xander raised his hand. "Hate to be adding fuel to the fire here," he said, once he had everyone's attention. "But we got a time limit we're working under now."

"Yeah, yeah," Buffy said, dismissing his comment with a wave of her hand. "The get-what-you-want-then-die clause."

"No," he replied. "I'm talking about the Mack-ordering-me-to-kill-you-and-Spike clause."

The vampire snorted. "Knew his white flag routine was too good to be true."

"Mack told you to kill us?" In spite of her disgust for the club owner, the Slayer had begun to believe that his feelings for her were genuine, so knowing that he would want her dead came out of nowhere for her. "Both of us?" she repeated.

Xander nodded. "He was very clear on that."

"Did he say when?"

"As soon as possible."

Her head was swimming. Too much information, too little time, too few answers. It was supposed to have been so easy. She almost laughed. Since when is it ever easy? she silently questioned.

"It's obvious we're not going to get anything accomplished tonight," Giles said, his voice calm, detached. "I suggest we all go home, get a good night's sleep, and reconvene at Buffy's in the morning to discuss tactics."

"Sleep. Sleep is good," Anya muttered from the couch.

"Yes," Buffy agreed. "I like that plan. Let's go with that."

Slowly, Willow rose to her feet, clinging to Gino as she held back, unable to meet the eyes of her friends. This was all her fault. If she hadn't helped Tony, Mack would be dead right now and they'd be on their way home. Of course, that would mean that Gino would also be dead…

When she shuddered, Gino tightened his grip around her shoulders, the guilt for putting his friends into this position spiralling his heart into isolation. Stupid gunshot, he thought angrily as they walked to the door. If it wasn't for that, Willow and the others would be safe now.

If blame could be weighed, the heaviest burden would've fallen on Buffy's head, as she deliberately distanced herself from the others, staring straight ahead of her as she walked down the hall. Couldn't keep yourself from touching it, she scolded. Just had to get yourself into this mess. And now your friends and the man you love are going to die for it. Good job, Slayer…

 

To be continued in Chapter 35: Now I Lay Me Down to Dream