DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Mack has ordered Xander to stay behind while he and Buffy go view Spike's body, while Gino has broken into Tony's apartment…

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Chapter 39: Careless

He knew it was just the fact that he was ultra-aware of the need to be quiet---that whole breaking and entering thing, though necessary, was still illegal---but Gino couldn't help but feel that every step he made in the tiny apartment was booming through the walls, announcing to the neighbors that someone other than the thin trumpet player was around, and that any second, a group of cops would come rushing in through the broken door behind him to arrest him. He was half-tempted to take off his shoes and walk around in his socks, looking for what he wanted, but knew deep down that that was ridiculous. Get a grip, he scolded himself. Remember why you're here.

An image of a sleeping Willow flashed across his mind's eye, and he set his teeth, glancing quickly around the room for where to start. Although his respect for Willow's friends was quickly growing, he was frustrated by their lack of focus, allowing Buffy and Spike to do all the work while they just waited in the wings, ready for the next order. Not that he was a leader, not by a long shot, but Gino hated having to sit on his hands when he knew there was something he could do. And they may be great at fighting demons and monsters back where they came from, but their vision was just a little too tunnelled to be truly effective here, not seeing the obvious right in front of their noses. Which was why he was in Tony's apartment, looking for the answers that would bring the musician back so that he could wake up Willow.

The desk. Start with the desk. The wood creaked as he pulled open the top drawer, and Gino froze for a split second, wondering if the sound had penetrated the thin walls. After a moment of resounding silence, he tugged it a little bit more, opening it just enough so that he could reach in and pull out its contents.

There wasn't much. A stack of bills, each carefully labelled paid with a date, none of them for anything out of the ordinary. A drycleaning receipt, probably for his tux for work. Gino certainly had enough of those to recognize it wasn't anything important, and set it aside. Some doodles…some more doodles…and as he shuffled the other papers aside, even more doodles stared back at him. The bouncer shook his head. What was with this guy and doodling?

When he reached the bottom of papers, he sighed, glancing around at the rest of the room. For whatever reason, Tony hadn't kept it in his desk which to Gino made absolutely no sense since that seemed like the most logical place to store it. Was it possible he carried it around with him? But why would he do such a thing? No, that made even less sense than not keeping it in the desk. It had to be here somewhere.

His feet carried him into the bedroom, and he stared around at the sparse furnishings before walking over to the nightstand. Sliding open the lone drawer, he was greeted with an empty space, and sat down heavily on the edge of the bed. Where could they be kept? There weren't that many places in the apartment to hide things, or to store things, or even just to keep things around, and for some reason, he'd pegged the musician as someone who'd be compulsive enough to…

He felt the hard outline under his fingers as he gripped the edge of the mattress. Frowning, Gino leant over, lifting the edge of the sheet to see the thin blue spine wedged into the bedframe, and he couldn't help the smile that spread across his wide face.

Jackpot.

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

The car ride had been silent, and Buffy mentally thanked whatever powers were watching over her for the brief reprieve from Mack's commentary. No matter what she said, he managed to turn it around into some snide remark about Spike, or her relationship with Spike, or something equally annoying, and she was beginning to get just a little ticked off at his whole attitude. Her palms itched from the desire to reach out and punch him in the nose, but she refrained, having to forcibly sit on her hands to keep them still, knowing that any offensive attack on the club owner would mean Kentucky Fried Buffy. There would be time enough later, once the spell was lifted, for her to take out her frustrations on the man. And she had every intention of enjoying every second of it.

As he led the way down the deserted hallways, Buffy trailing along behind him, Mack began to whistle under his breath, almost as if he were excited about the prospect of visiting the morgue. The young woman scowled in distaste. He was altogether too jolly for someone who was about to go and view a corpse, she thought. Not that he hadn't already been viewing it every time he saw Spike, but that was different 'cause he didn't know…Mentally, she shook herself. Stupid semantics. Stop thinking about it so much.

The only thing she was worried about now was that Spike hadn't gotten caught out by anyone who worked here. The arrangement had been for him to get rid of the staff---have them called away, whatever, as long as he didn't actually get rid of them in the sense of killing them---so that she and Mack could get in, take a look, and get out again before anyone was the wiser. She'd deal with the cremation order later if she had to; right now, she just wanted to get this done and over with so that she could get out and look for Tony.

"This place is like a morgue," Mack joked, as they rounded another corner and walked into silence, both of them noticing that they had yet to encounter another living person since they'd arrived.

"Can we just find the room, please?" she asked, unable to hide the annoyance in her voice.

His glance back at her was cool. "You don't seem particularly glad to be here," he commented.

"Because looking at Spike's dead body should be just like Christmas and my birthday all rolled up into one, right? Only without the getting presents and, you know, being happy part." She shook her head. "Even you can't think I could possibly be thrilled about being here."

"You could think of it as…" He paused in front of a narrow white door. "…closing the door on that chapter of your life."

"How do you know this is the right room?" Buffy asked as Mack reached forward for the doorknob.

"Xander said so," he replied as if it was the easier answer in the world.

She hung back as he pushed it open, grateful for the small relief that knowing Xander was still in the clear brought. At least she didn't have to worry about him getting on Mack's bad side. And he was so miserable right now with everything else that had been going on, he was in no danger from falling under the painting's spell. Having him in the club owner's good graces was definitely a bonus.

"Not that he's going anywhere," Mack said, glancing back at her over his shoulder, "but this will go much quicker if you don't dillydally in the hall."

Buffy realized as she stepped through the entrance that she'd been holding her breath, almost as if she was afraid of what they were going to find inside, as if she hadn't orchestrated this whole set-up in the first place. This isn't going to be hard, she reminded herself. Spike's body is already dead, therefore no pulse, therefore in and out, no harm no foul. Except being alone with Mack was giving her the creeps, and no amount of diversionary thinking tactics was keeping the goosebumps from crawling over her flesh, or the tiny hairs on the back of her neck from standing up on end.

The room was virtually empty, with the exception of a single gurney covered in a white sheet, the unmistakeable outline of a man's body underneath it. Though she knew what she was going to see once the sheet was pulled back, a cold, hard knot began winding its way up her intestinal tract, stiffening her from the inside out, the all-too real perspective of standing in a morgue about to view her lover's dead form suddenly blinding her to their true purpose here. She wasn't even aware when Mack eased past her, pulling the door from her lifeless fingers and gently closing it against the outside. Nor was she able to blink when his hand curled around her wrist and guided her to the gurney's side.

"I think you should have the honors," he murmured, directly behind her.

Sick, she thought. Sick, and twisted, and starting to get just a little too scary for his own good. But until she could hurt him---until she could kill him---Buffy didn't have a choice but to do what he said. After all, it wasn't as if she didn't know what to expect.

Taking a deep breath, she reached out, her hand steady, and grasped the edge of the top hem of the sheet, pulling it back just enough to expose Spike's head. His face was immobile, the harsh overhead lighting casting pallid shadows under the contours of his cheekbones, his lashes and brows too dark against his colourless skin. This was different to seeing him sleep; even then, there was some sort of play across his features as he dreamed---and she knew from experience that he dreamed---while now, there was just…nothing. I've seen enough dead people, you'd think this wouldn't wig me out so much, she thought irritably. But it did. And it took all her strength to take a step back from the gurney.

"Not quite so pretty when he's dead," Mack commented dryly, and brushed past Buffy, gazing coldly down at the other man's inert form. "Though I would've liked to see more damage, even a black eye perhaps. Pity how even in death he manages to walk away unscathed." His mouth curled into a cruel smile. "Well, except for the being dead part, of course."

"You've seen him. Can we go now?"

"Patience, Buffy. Patience." Pulling at the edge of the sheet, he further uncovered the vampire's shirtless torso, gleaming pale-white and looking more alive than the rest of him, courtesy of the tightly corded muscles that etched his abdomen, and the grimace of hate flickered across his grey eyes. With thin fingers, he plucked the dead man's wrist from the side of the table, holding it lightly within his grasp as he searched for a pulse.

"Are you happy? He's dead. Let's get out of here." Buffy couldn't keep the anger from her voice, folding her arms across her chest as she stepped backwards toward the doorway.

"Oddly enough, no." Mack's face was thoughtful as he glanced back at the young woman, one hand reaching into his jacket pocket ever so casually. "I'm not happy. I wonder why that is?"

"Because you didn't get enough cocoa in your Cocoa Puffs this morning?" she retorted. "'Cause that'll do it for me."

"I suppose it's because it still feels like he won," he murmured, and took a step closer to Buffy. "You still love him."

Her hazel eyes clouded. "You think that just because someone dies, the feelings go with them? Like they never actually existed? The body's gone, so sayonara to being in love, is that it?" She shook her head. "And you wonder why I didn't wait. If that's your definition of love, Mack, you're going to spend an awful big part of your life alone."

"Even more alone than losing you to that…third-rate goon has made me?" She saw the muscles in his face twitch as he fought to maintain his composure. "I loved you, Buffy. I would've done anything for you. All you had to do was ask. You wanted that apartment; I bought it for you. You wanted to be the best-dressed dame in the club; I made sure that happened. I did that. Not Spike. Me. Because I loved you."

"And that's exactly why you'll never be the man Spike is…was." She caught herself in her error, correcting it in hopes that he would just attribute it to the blond's too-recent demise as opposed to not being dead at all, and barrelled on. "You don't want to love me. You want to buy me. That's a massive difference. If you really loved me, you would've seen how happy I was with Spike and just said good for you and backed off."

"When exactly did I become the bad guy in all this?" Mack demanded, two spots of color appearing high upon his cheeks. "You left me. You were the one who made a fool out of me by fucking around with Spike behind my back. Then, you have the moxie to move him into the place I bought, the pair of you probably laughing about pulling a fast one on the stupid, rich ex-boyfriend, only he doesn't know he's the ex because you don't have the guts to tell me that to my face."

The blade appeared in his hand out of nowhere, and Buffy realized that he must've pulled the small pocketknife from his coat, the hand that had been tucked inside it now cradling the weapon with a lover's touch. Though it glinted in the bright lighting of the small room, she refused to give him the satisfaction of reacting to it. After all, just because she couldn't hurt him, didn't mean she couldn't dodge any of his blows. She was the Slayer; super-speed had to have some advantages in this scenario.
"Look," she started, her tone even. "I know it hurts---."

"Hurts? You think this hurts?" His grey eyes were almost black with anger. "You can't possibly have any idea how it feels---how I feel---until you've been where I am, Buffy. It doesn't hurt. It fucking burns." She watched as he turned back to stare at Spike's still form. "Just like he's going to. He'll know what it feels like then. To be consumed by the fire until the only thing you want is for it to end. Even if I can't bring myself to physically hurt you, Spike at least will get a taste of this hell you've put me in."

"Spike's dead, Mack. He can't feel anything anymore." She'd liked it better when he'd been coolly vicious, not this rabid spurned lover with enough venom in him to knock out a small Asian country. Just play it safe, she told herself. Try to keep him focussed on logic. Stay away from feelings. "Having him cremated out of some need for revenge isn't going to accomplish anything."

"Oh, but I think it will." Mack edged himself to the side of the gurney, staring down at the vampire in blatant disgust. "I like the sense of irony it has. It appeals to the aesthete in me." The knife came up, and he began tracing a winding path along the sheet with the flat of the blade. "I burn. He burns. We all burn together." The tip of the knife snagged on the fabric and skittered across Spike's arm, leaving a trail of tiny bloody dots in its wake.

Buffy's eyes widened at the sight, and she found herself holding her breath, hoping that the blond vamp wouldn't move; it was only a scratch, after all. Better to just get Mack out of here…

"So let's go sign the order," she said, stepping forward to his side, catching his elbow in her hand. "Right now. That's what you want, right? So let's do it."

"In due time…" He seemed mesmerized by the way his weapon was dancing in the light. Pulling his arm from her grasp, he slowly circled the gurney, putting it between him and Buffy so that he could look up into her face. "How long will you mourn him, I wonder? Black really doesn't suit you, you know. You look so much…lovelier in color."

"Do you have a point?" she asked quietly. "Because hanging out in morgues is not my idea of a fun afternoon. If you want to talk, or to yell at me, or whatever, can we please do it somewhere other than standing over a dead body?"

"I rather like the edge it gives me," Mack replied. "It's keeping you…alert. So, answer the question, Buffy. How long will you mourn?"

There was a long silence as the two regarded each other. I should just walk out right now, she thought. Put an end to this cat and mouse game he's insisting on playing. He'd follow me…I think. She was beginning to wonder if she could predict any of his behavior in the mood he was in right now. "Do you ever stop mourning the death of someone you love?" she finally answered. "I mean, life goes on, and you wake up every day, eat your cornflakes, go to work. You get through it. Maybe you fall in love again. Maybe you don't. But you don't forget. You don't ever forget."

"And how will you remember him?" His voice had taken a steely edge, and the hand that held the knife grew agitated. "With his arms wrapped around you? Making love to you? Hearing that damned English accent as he whispers sweet nothings in your ear?"

"There's no right way for me to answer that and you know it."

"No, I suppose not." Mack's gaze returned to Spike. "But I know you'll remember the face, that perfect face that the girls at the club are always talking about. Don't think I don't hear them, know how half of them would kill to be in your shoes, Buffy. And all because of this damned face." And there was the knife again, hovering over the vampire's cheeks, the tip impossibly close. "Maybe I don't want you to remember it this way. Just maybe I'd like for him to be…not so pretty."

The blade sliced through the air, carving an arc in the hollow beneath Spike's cheekbone faster than Buffy could blink. She saw the vampire's jaw twitch, his nostrils flare just ever so slightly, and then the crimson of the blood as it began to ooze down the side of his head…dripping into his ear…sticking to his hair…captured her attention.

Mack seemed oblivious to any response from the body before him, raising the small knife to see the viscous fluid that clung to its blade. "Still fresh enough to bleed," he murmured. She saw the gleam appear in his eyes, the sadistic lift of his mouth, and felt the first ounce of true fear since arriving here at the morgue. He was going to slice him open, right before her eyes, and poor Spike had no idea…

"Don't." Buffy swallowed, hating the fact that the next word was going to come out of her mouth. "Please."

His look of triumph was unmistakeable. "Ask again," he demanded.

Her heart was racing. "Please don't cut him," she repeated, before braving, "For me?"

"But that's what this has all been about." His face hardened. "All. For. You."

She sensed the movement before it actually came, and let her Slayer self take over, grabbing Spike's arm and yanking him from the gurney. As she pulled him to the far side of the room, his eyes shot open, and he stumbled against her, using her shoulder as leverage when he straightened. "Sorry," Buffy muttered, then caught the frozen stare of the man on the other side of the table.

"It's…not possible," Mack was murmuring, his breath suddenly coming in short, shallow bursts, his eyes glued to Spike. "You're…dead."

The vampire's laughter was more of a bark, and he sneered at the club owner as he wiped at the blood on his cheek. "Yeah, well, I've always been the one for surprises. Keeps people on their toes."

"But…" He seemed at a loss for words, the shock of what he'd presumed was a dead body suddenly walking…talking… "You didn't…no pulse…it's not possible."

Buffy sighed. "Well, looks like if we're already in this up to our neck, we might as well go whole hog." She glanced at Spike out of the corner of her eye. "Show him."

It took him only a second to realize what she meant, but the joy he felt when he did spread across his face like wildfire. "My fucking pleasure," he growled, and in the space of time it took him to swivel his head to stare over at Mack, Spike had slipped into his vampire visage, fangs elongating in a snarl, ridges jumping prominently onto his forehead. With one graceful sweep of his thumb, he swiped at the crimson still running down his face before bringing it to his mouth and licking it, the tip of his tongue a lethal point.

Mack staggered back at the sight of the demon who now stood before him. It was just like something out of the movies, only up close and personal, and why wasn't Buffy bothered by this? His grey eyes darted between the two, his muscles refusing to work, and he just stood there and gaped.

"I think this is an excellent time to, you know, run," Buffy whispered to her companion, and resuming her grasp on Spike's arm, pulled him out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her.

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

They came to a halt in the alley behind the building, panting only slightly as they stopped for a moment to assess their situation. "Guess this buggers up our deadline," Spike commented, back in his human face.

"Yeah, well, if Giles asks, I'm not the one who ruined the plan, got it?" She straightened, staring up at the early evening sky. "We'll just tell him you moved or something when Mack cut you."

"Like Rupert doesn't have enough reasons to hate me," he muttered, and glanced toward the end of the alley, and the car that was parked there. "Well, what now?"

"First, we get Xander and the painting the hell out of Dodge. No telling what Mack'll do when he comes to his senses, and the last thing we need is to be worrying about how we're going to get to the picture in time once he's dead."

"Gotta get our hands on bugle boy before that can happen."

"That's number two on the list." She matched his gaze to the car and grinned. "Feel like knocking out Mack's driver and stealing his car?"

He laughed. "Nice to know some of my influence is rubbin' off on you, after all," he chortled. "But no way am I takin' the blame for that one with your Watcher."

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

He stood before the closed building and mentally swore at himself. Should've been faster, he thought. Should've found it sooner. He'd rushed over as soon as he'd gotten what he wanted, risking more than one ticket as he ran a couple of red lights, and still he'd missed it. Closed at five o'clock. Stupid bank and stupid bank hours.

That was the one thing Gino had realized the others weren't taking into consideration. In order for Tony to run, he was going to need money, or else he wasn't going to get very far, and based on what the bouncer had read in his bank book, he didn't have enough moolah to just pick up and leave whenever the fancy took him. The musician was going to need whatever funds were in his savings account in order to get anyplace, which was why Gino was now standing in front of the First Union Bank, staring at its locked doors.

He wasn't good at the thinking bit; coming up with the money idea had been what he thought was his first and best chance at catching Tony. Now, though, he was faced with the very real possibility that the guy was gone for good, and that Willow wouldn't ever wake up, and that Buffy and Spike would eventually end up being dead because they couldn't kill Mack in order to…

Gino shook his head. Trying to sort it out gave him a headache. Better to just not think. I should probably just go on back to Spike and Buffy's, he silently resolved. They'll have a plan. They'll know what to do.

He turned around, hands stuffed in his pockets, ready to cross the street to get back in his car. The sense of failure overwhelmed him, and he gritted his teeth against the hollowness it left in his throat. Sorry, Willow, he thought, and then paused as the bus went thundering past, exhaust fumes filtering in the cool evening air. He had walked halfway over the road when he frowned, glancing up at the red rear lights of the departing vehicle. Tony didn't have a car; Gino's search of his apartment had proved that. So, if Tony was going to blow, he was going to need…

His smile was grim as he hurried to get into his car, sliding his bulk over the leather and fumbling with his keys. One more shot. Just a quick hop over to the station, find out what he wanted, and if nothing turned up, well, then he'd head back to Spike's. Of course, it would be better if he wasn't empty-handed…


To be continued in Chapter 40: Me and My Melinda