It stared back at him, hands moving at that snail speed he'd hated so much in high school, gilt numbers etched onto its face as if to mock him with the potential of progress. Three o'clock wait three-oh-one. Xander sighed. He still hadn't heard from Anya, or anyone else for that matter, and it was starting to eat at him, his spirits sinking lower and lower as time began pressing the thoughts into his brain.
Mack had better be the one, he despaired. 'Cause getting around this order to kill Spike and Buffy will be a doozy if we've got to stick around to find the real safety. Not that killing the blond vampire would've been hard; more than once, Xander had contemplated that possibility already, envisioning lots of balloons and fanfare, maybe a ticker tape parade. But Buffy was another matter entirely, and the fact that she would never let anyone but her hurt Spike was inescapable.
He glanced over at the clock again. Three-oh-three. Shit.
Somewhere, deep down---very deep down---Xander knew that the plan with Anya had been the only way to go, but he had surprised himself with how vehemently he'd opposed it, even going so far as seeking Spike's support in defending his point of view. They certainly hadn't been going out for very long, and though she had been hinting lately at finding out where exactly they were going, so far he had been able to avoid talking about it. Now, he knew that once things were kosher again back in Sunnydale, he and Anya were going to have a sit-down, serious conversation on what exactly their relationship really was. 'Cause all this Mack business was showing Xander just how important she was becoming to him.
One more peek at the clock. Three-oh-six.
Where the hell was everybody?
The flick of his cigarette butt through the open window left a scarlet trail through the night air as it arced into the gutter, and Spike leaned back into his seat, elbow propped up on the window as he watched the door of the club just half a block down the street. Gino had parked far enough away so that if anyone came out, he wouldn't be recognized, but the distance was driving the blond vampire crazy. What the hell was Buffy doin' in there? Actually, he knew the answer to that, and it still didn't make him happy. She was waitin' on her Watcher.
By the time Gino had left to come pick them up, Harris had yet to call, which meant that either demon-girl still hadn't found the mark or that Mack wasn't the safety after all. Either way, Spike was starting to feel the edge begin to wear on him, and had gone through half a pack of cigarettes just waiting for the others to emerge from the club. The cellophane crinkled between his fingers as he dug out the last white stick, sticking it between his lips as he cupped his hand around the end to light it.
"If you want, I know a place that's open all night where you could pick up some more," Gino offered from his seat behind the steering wheel.
Spike shook his head as he slowly exhaled. "I'll just nick a pack from Red when she comes out," he said.
"If I've told you once, I've told you a million times. Her name's Willow."
The vampire laughed out loud. "Right, right. I'll remember that."
There was a moment of silence between the two men, and then Gino audibly sighed. "Willow thinks I'm going to forget everything about her and you guys after you manage to get home."
"Makes sense," Spike agreed. "She's a smart one. If that's what she says, I'd be inclined to believe her."
"I know she said it's dangerous for you guys to be here, but if I said I didn't want you to go, would you think I was off my rocker?" He stared forward, unable to look over at his friend, his thick fingers drumming on the steering wheel.
"All of us? Or just Re---Willow?"
Gino's flush was evident, even in the dim light from the streetlamps. "Well, mostly Willow," he conceded. "But you, too, Spike. You've been the best friend I've had since I was a kid. I'm going to miss not having you around. And Buffy's great, too. Although I can't really see her doing the stuff Willow says she does. She's not very big, is she?"
The vampire smiled. "Don't be judgin' her based on her size," he said. "She's kicked my ass around the block more than once." Although he was keeping his tone light, Spike was thrown by his companion's statement regarding friendship. When was the last time anyone had ever said anything like that to him? The only one in recent memory who'd even tolerated his presence was Buffy, because that stupid bint Harmony sure as hell didn't count. And Buffy was an entirely different matter.
"It's probably selfish not wanting you to go," Gino was saying. "You guys got family back home, I'm sure. And Willow said she was going to college. I'd hate to think she couldn't do that anymore just because she stayed."
"It's not that. Rules are different here. At least back on the Hellmouth, we know how the game is played."
"Is it nice where you guys come from?"
Spike shrugged. "It's got its perks," he said. "Doesn't make no never mind to me where I am, as long as Buffy's there." His eyes narrowed, as he looked over at the other man. "Where's all this goin'?" he asked.
"I was just thinking if it's not safe for Willow to stay here, maybe it might be an idea if I went with you guys when you left." He met the blond's gaze. "You think that's possible?"
"Knowing this place? I'd say anything goes." He took a long drag of his cigarette. "Are you that serious about her? You'd be willin' to give up what you got here just to be with her?"
"Well, Willow said how you and Buffy used to be enemies and all, and now you two are together. Didn't you give up stuff so that could happen?"
"Not as much as you might think." Gino didn't know the whole story about the chip, but for some reason, Spike didn't think that now was the best time to go into that.
"But you would, right?" the dark-haired bouncer persisted.
"Goes without sayin'."
"I think Willow and I are good together." His voice was low, but firm. "I think she knows that, too. I just don't want to lose it."
"So, you do what you gotta do. It might not be pretty, and it might hurt like hell, but if you love her, you do what you can to make it happen. Unless, of course, it hurts Willow, in which case I'll probably have to stand in line behind Buffy to kick your ass." He said this last with a grin, letting the other man know he was only half-serious, but allowing the threat underneath to poke its head through.
Gino smiled. "You know, I gotta admit, I'd really love to see Buffy try. I just don't get how a dame as little as her could do it."
"Just say the word, pal. 'Cause I'll tell you right now, it'd be one of your shortest fights in history."
As the flashes went off up on the bandstand, Buffy tilted her head, watching the display with amusement. "You know," she said, her feet dangling from the bar stool, "I think Giles is enjoying this just a little too much."
Willow nodded. "Methinks the movie star routine is starting to go to his head," she replied. "Betcha he does that thing with his glasses again."
The girls watched as the photographer stepped away from the Watcher, framing his shot in order to accommodate him full-frame. When the Englishman placed the earpiece of his spectacles between his teeth, ducking his head in order to gaze at the camera through his lashes, the giggles bubbled forth, only to be quietened when the two friends quickly stuck the straws from their drinks into their mouths.
"Spike's going to kill us for taking so long," Buffy commented between sips.
"It's not our fault. It's Giles'. He can kill Giles."
The blonde looked at her friend in mock-horror. "Spike, kill, and Giles in the same sentence? I think it's time to cut you off." She went to take away the other's drink, and giggled again when Willow held it out of her reach.
"I just wish he'd hurry it up. I'm missing quality cuddle time with Gino."
Here it was, the opening Buffy'd been hoping for all night. Time for girl talk, she thought. Let's hope I don't blow it. "He seems like he's coping OK with everything," she said nonchalantly. "I haven't seen any major wiggins yet, at least."
"He was a little freaked," the redhead admitted. "But we talked after everyone left this afternoon. I think he's doing better now."
Willow blushed. "That's none of your business, missy. Besides, your walls aren't exactly soundproof, you know. Don't tell me you were only talking with Spike when you got back."
"We did talk. Some."
"So did we. Some."
"And the other some was it worth it?"
"Well, let's put it this way," Willow said, her lips curled into a mischievous smile. "Everything about Gino is very much in proportion., so yes. Very much worth it."
It only took a fraction of a second for Buffy to realize what her friend was saying. Her hazel eyes widened. "God, Will, if I didn't know you better, I'd say it was just about the sex."
The other girl's grin faded. "You don't know how much I wish it was." She sighed. "Why isn't it possible to go out and do a special order on who you fall in love with? Be able to say, I'd like a boyfriend value meal, extra-tall, extra-sweet, oh and by the way, hold the alternate dimension travel issue, please."
"You're asking me? The girl who has managed to fall in love with her second vampire?"
"At least you get to take your guy home with you." Willow swivelled on her stool and pulled her straw from her empty glass, using the tip to doodle imaginary pictures on the bar countertop. "Part of why I let this afternoon happen was because I figured that was it. We're going home very soon here, and I'm never going to see Gino again, so why not just have this one time? Except now that I've had it, I wonder if I haven't just made things worse for me."
Buffy turned to face the same direction as her friend. "If it makes you feel any better, Spike thinks you did the right thing."
Willow snorted. "Spike also thought it was the right thing to kidnap you for a weekend," she commented.
Buffy frowned. "What? What're you talking about?"
"Remember when you walked in on me and Spike talking in the living room? The day after the strip poker thing?" She waited for the blonde to nod. "It started out just talking about me and Gino, and you and him. Which, let me tell you, was oddly reminiscent of when he kidnapped me last year to do that love spell for him, except this time he was all happy Spike and not sad and weepy Spike. Anyway, I said something about how you two being alone and separated from the Hellmouth and Slayer stuff seemed to open up this door for this to happen, you know, the falling in love thing, but now that I was around, maybe things would be different again. Well, that just set him off. Five minutes of bloody this and bleeding that, and saying how none of us would ever let you have what you really wanted, and did you ever realize how long Spike can talk without stopping? It must be the non-breathing thing because he just kept going on and on. It was making me dizzy so I just said, well, maybe you should make sure you two get enough alone time so that things don't change. Which for some reason he thought was the jim-dandiest idea and next thing I know, he's convincing me to cover for you at the club so that he can whisk you away for the weekend."
So that's what that had been all about, Buffy thought. Not anything devious or dire, just Spike wanting to have quality alone time with me and using Willow as a means to do it. For some reason, she found herself regretting that they weren't going to get the opportunity to follow through on it; certainly, those first few days when it had been just the two of them, there had been a certain magic about it, with Spike letting down his guard and just being himself minus the combative attitude, and the dancing, and the laughter
She felt her cheeks warm at the memory, followed quickly by the hastening of her heartbeat. Maybe they would have just a few more hours before having to go take care of Mack. Maybe she and Spike could have one more dance
"I know you're thinking about him," Willow accused good-naturedly.
Buffy blushed. "I'm sorry. This is supposed to be about you and Gino."
"No, it's really OK. You two are just as new as we are. Plus, you've got your own problems to deal with. You do realize that Giles and Xander want to kill Spike, don't you?"
"I'd have to be blind to miss it."
"And you're going to have to deal with Riley when we get back---."
The Slayer's eyes widened, her jaw dropping. "Oh. My. God," she said. "Do you know that until you just now mentioned him, I haven't given Riley one thought since I got here?"
"You've been a little distracted."
No, I've been a lot distracted, Buffy thought. Out loud, she replied, "He's going to think I'm some total nutcase. First I tell him I'm engaged to a guy named Spike. Then I turn around and tell him it was just a joke. Now, I'm going to have to do another one-eighty and say, you know that joke thing? It wasn't really, 'cause this time I'm actually married to the guy." She frowned. "Except I won't be when I get back. Just here. God, I'm going to be glad to get home. No more headaches trying to keep it all straight."
Willow was pensive, her green eyes on the countertop. "Do you think the painting in Mack's penthouse is the way home?" she asked.
"Could be. Seems like too much of a coincidence for it not to be." Buffy glanced at her friend out of the corner of her eye. "Why are you asking?"
"I know it's reaching for straws, but I was just wondering what would happen if Gino tried coming back with us, you know, by touching it. If it would even work for him, and if it did, would he be in the same position in Sunnydale that we are here. Life-threatening, and all." Her eyes were glistening when she looked up at Buffy. "I know you think I'm whacked about this, letting myself get into this mess so soon after Oz. I've been thinking the same thing. But I'm here now, and I just want to get out of it with as few scars to my psyche as I can manage."
"Have you talked to Gino about it?"
"A little, but not in so many words. I don't want anyone to get their hopes up, me most of all."
Reaching up, the blonde wrapped her arms around her best friend, giving her a long and overdue hug. "Whatever happens, I'll be right here for you, 'kay?"
"Yeah." Willow smiled as the two broke apart. "I think this definitely qualifies as a Dionne Warwick moment."
She lay trapped under the weight of his arm, staring up at the ceiling as his breathing settled into a light snore. It's about friggin' time, Anya thought irritably. The man has more energy than Willow on caffeine.
And it wasn't as if the energy had been put to good use. For the past three hours, she had sat here on the bed, listening to him talk on and on and on about Buffy, and Buffy's hair, and Buffy's smell, and Buffy's dancing, and everything else that was made up of Buffy, until she wanted to pull her hair out and scream, Get over it already! It was worse than it had been listening to Willow go on about Oz. And then, to top it all off, he'd just climbed into bed, curled up against her and fallen asleep. No sex. No touching. Nothing. She was just a pillow with ears to him.
She hadn't even had the chance to look for the mark yet, either. After speaking with Xander, Mack had slipped into the adjoining room to change into silk pyjamas, which she thought looked absolutely ridiculous on his small frame, and until he'd crawled onto the bed, had been so far from her that she couldn't even discreetly play with his clothing in an attempt to see what was underneath. Now, of course, was another matter. As long as she was careful, she should be able to look at him close enough to find out the truth.
She started with his arms, peeking up the voluminous sleeves to see the finely muscled limbs staring back at her with nary a mark, not even a freckle. He's almost as pale as Spike, Anya thought. Maybe he's actually a vampire and not human after all. Except she knew that wasn't true, because vampires didn't snore, did they? Didn't that require breathing? And she was getting off the matter at hand. Get it together, girl, she admonished silently. Find the mark.
It wasn't on his chest or feet, either, and Anya sat back on her heels, wondering how she was going to get a look at his back and legs without waking him up. Or, I could wake him up, strip him for sex, and use that as an excuse to see him naked, she mused. Kill two birds with one stone there.
As she watched, Mack groaned in his sleep, rolling away from her and onto his side, as if answering her unheard prayer for ease. OK, she thought. Something's finally going my way.
It only took a moment after that. Lifting the back of his pyjama shirt, she was about to lower her head to look up the fabric when the familiar sight of H'roven's signature blazed before her. It lay nestled in the curve of Mack's lower back, a scarlet shape about the size of a half-dollar, resembling more than anything a long-forgotten birthmark.
Jackpot, she thought. We're going home
To be continued in Chapter 34: Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition