* Big thanks to Ves and Tracy my ever-vigilant and patient betas for their help with this chapter.  Additional thanks to Jessica in this field as well.
** Also, I'm both honored and overwhelmed by everyone's support in the recent Willow/Angel Forbidden Love awards. Thank you very much!
 
It's About Time ~ Chapter 11
 
 
< > Indicates thoughts and such
 

An all-too-familiar anger coursed through Willow as she hurried along the dark and dangerous streets of Sunnydale, yet again.  If she could patent angered walks in the middle of the night, she would.  Sometimes she felt as if the past century had been nothing more than one emotional procession down one dim street after another, interspersed with the occasional argument with a vampire or a guitar lesson.

It was definitely time to get a driver's license.

Considering everything that Willow had on her mind, most notably her final destination and what she was going to say when she got there, it's not surprising that she didn't notice the creature trailing her from a safe distance.  Its unnaturally long, double-jointed legs had no trouble matching her angry strides, nor did its inhuman metallic-gray eyes ever let her escape its unblinking gaze.

Except once.

To look at its watch.

*****

'Slayer Central' was eerily quiet, even for a church.  Only hours before, its high beamed ceilings had reflected the sounds of cheerful voices raised in everyday banter, filling the massive space, warming it.  But now, an hour or so before sunrise, there was no sound, no life, even though the room was occupied.

Angel sat in one of the leather armchairs on the dais, feeling much like the building he occupied--empty, cold, drained of life. The two containers of blood he'd consumed earlier had not filled the void he felt deep within, and despite shrugging on his favorite velvety shirt, Angel felt no warmth. Even the soft glow offered by the many flickering candles that he had lit throughout the room did little in the way of brightening his mood or easing his soul.  He'd been trying to do some research, hoping to occupy his mind with the ongoing battle against evil, but he couldn't stay focused. The low table before him was littered with unopened books and ancient yellowed manuscripts, but he'd long given up trying to do any research. Unable to forget his earlier encounter with Spike, Angel had finally surrendered to his darker thoughts.

The heated, bitter exchange with his childe was replaying over and over again in his mind as if on a continuous loop.  Angel was unable to ignore, let alone forget, Spike's taunts even though he knew fully well that that was exactly what the blonde vampire had intended.  He'd preyed on Angel's obvious fears that Willow could never truly forgive him, trying to make the last century and a half's worth of penance and selfless acts appear almost meaningless and insignificant in comparison.  Evidently, Spike wanted Angel to wallow in guilt like his predecessor had.

Guilt was no stranger to Angel.  Maybe he wasn't reveling in it the way that the other Angel had, but that didn't mean he didn't feel abundant remorse for the things he had done without his soul.  He simply refused to allow his guilt to overwhelm him.

Because he was needed.

Whereas a vampire so consumed by regret that he hid himself from the world, was not.

Sounded so simple, but Angel was constantly being tempted.  Just being around humans was a daily battle.  The presence of a soul did not take away his ability to detect the faintest trace of blood or hear the hungry pounding of a heart, the coursing of life's essence.  A soul didn't make him crave the taste of animal blood over a human's.  Yet with time, he'd been able to cope with and control his body's more demonly demands.

Because he was needed.

Ironically, it now seemed unlikely that Willow, the actual architect of what Angel had fought tooth and nail to eventually become, would ever truly be able to accept him.

Angel was so lost in his thoughts, his deepening despair, that he didn't immediately hear the sound of a key turning in the front door lock.

One of the problems with being Slayer Central was a decided lack of privacy.  While he kept the doors locked at night, they all had keys.  They could go anywhere in his home but his room.  It had a lock as well, but he hadn't handed out that key...sometimes even souled vampires on a mission of redemption need their space and privacy.

It was only when the lock clicked open that Angel became aware of his impending visitor.  Quickly, he tried to pull himself together, putting aside his personal problems for the time being.  After all, considering it was pre-dawn, Angel figured there was only one reason one of the gang would be here--there was another crisis on the way. The Watcher was mist likely getting an early start on the researching and Angel's help would be needed.

As the door that led from the narthex into the main room swung open, Angel looked up and stiffened.

His early morning visitor wasn't the librarian.

It was Willow--an 'out-of-breath, flushed, looking as if she had run the whole way from home' Willow.  Angel bolted to his feet as the redhead swept into the room. The idea that something had scared Willow enough to make her come to him at such an odd hour pushed his self-recriminating thoughts into the background.

"Willow!  What's wrong?"

At the sound of his voice, Willow stopped in the middle of the room, her fists clenched at her sides as her bright green eyes sought him out and pinned him in place.

"How dare you!" she huffed at him, which yet again was not exactly what Angel was expecting.  She wasn't scared.  Apparently she was angry.  With him.  Again.

Perplexed, Angel could only stare as Willow strode purposely forward until she was standing near the bottom of the dais, glaring defiantly up at him.  If he had even the slightest idea what was going on, he would have found the diminutive woman's fiery challenge amusing, perhaps even a little enticing.  Instead, Angel was mostly confused and somewhat apprehensive, worried that he had somehow lost what little ground he had gained with her the previous day.

"Um, huh?" he asked in soft bewilderment.

"How...Dare...You..." she repeated even more haughtily.

The three words and the manner in which they were spoken brought all of his earlier worries rushing back. There was no mistaking the hostility in Willow--her tone, eyes, even the rigid way she was holding herself.  Angel could practically see the fragile bonds they had created the day before shatter and fall away before his eyes.

Only decades of experience allowed Angel to keep his voice calm and the growing fear tucked deep inside.  "How dare I what, Willow?"

"How dare you use all of your charms and your good looks, and that...that roguish smile of yours to..."  Willow shook her head in something that looked very much like disgust, then eyed him up and down, making the vampire feel as if he were on the auction block.  Angel had to fight the odd urge to suck in his stomach and puff out his chest.

"I mean, look at you!  All tall, dark, and handsome," she continued in a bitter tone that made it perfectly clear that she wasn't paying him a compliment.  Angel could only continue to blink at her in confusion.  "I bet you even laid the accent on really thick every once in a while, didn't you?"

He held up his hands in a gesture of surrender as he cautiously descended the quartet of steps.  "Willow, calm down and tell me what I did wrong."  He almost added "this time" but thought better of it.  Instead he added, "Please."

"Oh, I'll tell you what you did, all right!"  Willow took the final stride that brought her toe-to-toe with the dark vampire.  Angel could feel the heat and anger radiating from her in waves, which made what she said next all the more confusing.  "*You* made *her* fall in love with you!"

Angel's mouth dropped open.  "Um, huh?  Her?  Love?" was all he could eventually manage to utter.

So much for the poise brought about through a long and varied life, he silently mused.  Who was she talking about?  Buffy again?  No, that didn't make sense....

Closing his mouth, the vampire tried to make some sense of what she'd said, but with Willow continuing to glare accusingly up at him, her emerald eyes burning away his ability for logical thought, he soon gave up. "Willow, I don't--"

"Don't play innocent with me, buster!" she interrupted, lifting up on the tips of her toes, even though that hardly brought her eye-to-eye with the vampire.

As Willow's scowl grew even more reproachful, Angel found it difficult not to stare at her pouting lips.  Even in the midst of being berated by the irate redhead, Angel had an irrepressible desire to feel her soft, warm lips beneath his own, letting her breath, her skin, everything that she was warm him through and through.  The need took Angel by surprise, not only because of its rotten timing but also because of the sheer intensity of it. He'd always found her most enticing when she stood up to him.  And when she'd been truly angry, eyes blazing and cheeks flushed?  She'd been damn near irresistible, especially to *Angelus*...

And now here she was, standing before him, unleashing a verbal storm the likes of which he hadn't seen in over a century, and all the souled vampire could think about was kissing her.

Possessing her.

Stiffening, Angel had to close his eyes for a moment to clear such scandalous thoughts from his mind, thoughts that he instinctively knew he'd admonish himself for later when he had time to replay the whole happening in his mind.

"Willow," he finally said in a near-sigh, "not only have I never played innocent in my overly long life, I have no idea what you're talking about."

Rolling her eyes, Willow thrust her hand into her backpack to grab something, before dropping the bag on one of the steps, out of the way.  "I'm talking about this!" she informed him in a tightly controlled voice, waving a small blue book with the word 'Diary' embossed across the front in curly gold letters.

"This is about your journal?"

Willow wanted to scream.  It was bad enough that they had to have this 'discussion' in the first place, but his oblivious behavior was not making it any easier, no matter how genuine his confusion.

"No!" she said through teeth gritted in an effort to control her temper.  "Not *my* journal but *her* diary!"

Angel ran a weary hand through his already disheveled hair.  "Willow, you need to take a deep breath and start over."

Willow's eyes narrowed in suspicion, another biting comment on the verge of tripping over her lips, but something in his eyes kept her quiet.  Angel looked not only genuinely clueless about what she was alluding to, but for a moment she thought she also detected a note of pain amidst the confusion in his eyes.

It was that odd, very un-Angelus-like combination that made Willow take both a step back and a deep breath in an endeavor to compose herself.  It wasn't going to be easy though.

Willow had been understandably curious and excited when she had first settled down to read the diary.  At the same time, she had steeled herself for yet another emotional roller-coaster ride, expecting to find some significant changes in 'her' life. Nevertheless, she was far from prepared for what she'd found or the emotions that the discoveries awakened in her.  Even the reckless walk to Angel's place hadn't diminished the anger that had enveloped her as she'd examined the diary.  In fact, that brisk walk had allowed time for other emotions to take root as well, including embarrassment and her old nemesis guilt. By the time Willow had arrived on the church's steps, she was barely able keep her tempestuous reactions in check.  Nevertheless, she did have the presence of mind to want to hear his side of the story.  That's why she'd ventured the dangerous streets of Sunnydale in the wee small hours of the morning...to give Angel a chance to explain.

And the vampire couldn't do that if he didn't know the basis for her irritation, Willow realized.  She willed herself to calm down.  After a moment, she was ready to try again in a somewhat more reasonable manner.

"It occurred to me last night to read her diary...the *other* Willow's dairy," she began.  "I figured it would give me some clues into some of what I've missed, things that went differently than I remember.  I hoped that it might make it a little easier for me when I'm with the others..."

"That seems logical," Angel conceded, but Willow gave him a sharp look, letting him know that she was hardly seeking his approval.

"And in the beginning, it was great," she continued.  "It cleared up a lot of questions for me."  Willow caressed the cover of the small book, her delicate finger lightly tracing the flowing letters on the cover.  "Reading this put me at ease about some important things--my relationships with my parents and friends, mainly.  For the most part, even after Buffy came to town and you and I met for the first time, nothing seemed significantly different..."  Willow shrugged mentally as she thought back to some of what she'd read.

Unfortunately, the other Willow hadn't gone into much detail regarding exactly how she had first met Angel.  All she knew for sure was that she'd been walking home from the Bronze one night and they had, well, just sort of bumped into each other.  Willow must have read the particular passage in which Angel had first been mentioned a hundred times...

..."I met an Angel today..." it had said.

Willow smirked to herself as she recalled the passage.  It was hard to believe she'd ever been that young and innocent.

"Go on," Angel prodded when Willow lapsed into silence.

She cleared her throat, her mouth strangely dry.  "Um, then I started to notice that the main subject of the diary...changed."

"Changed?"

Willow nodded.  "In the beginning, a lot of it was about Xander, which is the way it should have been.  I mean, I was in love with Xander since the sandbox, and I doubt I'd be the same person if I hadn't fallen in love with my best friend.  But eventually my diary should have started talking about Oz and about how we had met, his thoughts on animal crackers and-and school testing..."  Willow groaned softly in despair, her grip on the book tightening.  "It should have been about *Oz*, but it wasn't."

"You already knew that though, Willow," he gently reminded her.  "You already knew that you and Oz weren't...together."

Willow gazed up at him.  Surprisingly, he noted that her eyes were bright with frustration instead of dulled by heartache.

"You don't understand, Angel!  I'm angry that the subject of page-after-page of my thoughts and hopes did shift from Xander but not to Oz...they shifted to *you*.  Willow v2.0 was completely and hopelessly in love with *you*!"

For a moment Angel could only blink at her.  "She was?  Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure!  I, *she*, was falling in love with you, Angel.  It says so right here!" she informed him, opening the diary to a page she had book marked before thrusting it in his face in disgust.  Understandably curious, Angel leaned forward to read the passage she was referring to, but before he could decipher any of the tiny words penned in a flowing hand, Willow quickly pulled it away.

"I don't know what to say, Willow."  Angel chuckled in discomfort, scratching his cheek.  "Er, I guess it's kind of flattering, actually."  Instantly, he regretted those words.  Not only did Willow's features tighten noticeably, but also Angel felt genuinely sorry for having misled the other Willow in any way.  He'd never meant for the young girl to fall in love with him.  Unfortunately, from the look on Willow's face, he knew that she still questioned his motivations.

Frustrated, Willow threw her hands up in the air and walked away to flop down in the nearest reading chair.  He was flattered!  The vampire was more than 200 years old and yet he was flattered when a teen-aged girl developed a crush on him.

Men were all the same, dead or alive.

Willow didn't look at the vampire as he silently took a seat on the coffee table before her.

"It's not fair, Angel!" she cried after a minute or two of silence, finally finding the courage to look him in the eye.  "She didn't have a chance!  You actually paid attention to her.  A *lot* of attention, which is something that I was, um, *she* was not used to from boys.  How could I, I mean, *she*, not fall in love with you?"  Willow hoped she wasn't blushing from her continued pronoun misuse, but luckily Angel seemed not to notice as his gaze fell to his hands.

"I would think it would be fairly easy not to fall in love with me, Willow," he said in a soft, far-away voice.  "I told her everything about me.  Well, almost everything," he amended, since he'd never told the redhead about 'Rose'.  "I told her right away what I was, and over time she learned about my real past, how I'd hurt people..."

Willow shook her head, hardening her heart against the pain she heard in his voice.  "The point is, you knew a lot about me already from all of our time together in Galway.  You knew what I liked, what I disliked...some of my hopes and dreams.  You used that information.  You...you were laying groundwork!" she finally exclaimed, using Spike's words and shaking an accusatory finger when Angel looked at her.

Angel's shoulders sagged and his chin fell to his chest in resignation.  Her words sounded horribly familiar.  Spike had gotten to her.  Worse yet, she believed Spike's accusations that he'd set this all up.  Maybe she even believed that he'd purposely come between her and Oz.

Angel's ever-intensifying hatred of Spike added a bitter edge to his voice.  "Willow, I wasn't engaging in a two-year seduction, no matter what Spike might have told you last night."

"This doesn't have anything to do with Spike!" Willow nearly growled in frustration.

"I look forward to the day that's actually true," he shot back darkly, looking up at her.  "But at this point, *everything* seems to have something to do with Spike."

Willow's eyes widened.  "Wait a minute...How did you know I...Did you talk to him last night?"

His lips twisted in a sardonic smile.  "I had the pleasure of his company for a short time, yes."

"And?"

Angel remained silent; the smile was long gone.

"And what did you two talk about?" she pressed him further.

"I'm sure you already know the answer to that."

Knowing the hatred that the two shared, she wouldn't put it past either one of them to allow a simple 'conversation' to end in a cloud of dust. Alarmed, Willow flew from the chair to clutch at Angel's arm.  "Did you hurt Spike?  Is he okay?"

Her unbridled concern for Spike cut Angel deeply, easily reopening the wounds that the other vampire had inflicted on him earlier.  "I didn't touch your precious Spike, Willow," he snapped, not caring how caustic he sounded.  "I'm sure he's enjoying Drusilla's company right now."  And reveling in the fact that he managed to drive yet another wedge between us, he thought to himself as he rose to his feet.

Willow sighed in both relief and impatience as she pulled her hand back, rubbing it as if it had been burned. "I didn't come here to talk about Spike, Angel."

"No...you came here to accuse me of trying to manipulate your life and of seducing a 16-year-old girl!  I think I'd prefer to talk about Spike," Angel added as he stalked away from her.  He was afraid that if he stayed near Willow for too much longer he was going to say or do something they'd both regret.  Unfortunately, Willow was not ready to drop the subject until she'd heard a reasonable explanation for some of the things she'd read in the diary.

"Are you denying it then?  That you tried to charm her?" she called after him, bringing Angel to a standstill with his back to the redhead.  "I'm sorry but there is no such thing as an innocent trip to a Shakespeare Festival, Angel. My god, it lasted three days!  *Three* days!  If that's not a ploy to make a woman fall in love with you, I don't know what is."

Angel didn't turn around.  "Did it ever occur to you that perhaps I took her because we both really enjoy Shakespeare?"

"Likely story," Willow snorted cockily, bravely moving to step in front of the stone-faced vampire.   "It was the ultimate seduction and you know it!  All that flowery talk, romance, suspense, unrequited love, swordplay, death and-and men in tights!  You were *trying* to get me to fall in love with you and it worked!"

At her own words, Willow's expression changed from victory to embarrassment.  "Oh, bloody hell!" she cursed under her breath.  "I mean *her* not me!"  Her hands flew to her hips.  "And from now on any time I *mean* her but say me, then you should know that I mean her and *not* me!"  Willow took a deep breath, replaying her own words in her head.  When she was sure that she'd not confused her pronouns again, she looked Angel squarely in his hooded eyes.  "Get it?"

"Got it," he replied automatically.

"Good."

Angel didn't know whether to laugh at the absurdity of the whole situation, kiss the incredibly stubborn woman before him into submission, or put his fist through the wall. At that moment, putting a large hole in the plaster looked like the most reasonable choice.  Strangely enough, that silent admission actually lightened his mood a little.

"Willow," he began, trying very hard to keep his tone even and calm, "I know you don't remember, but I had invited Buffy, Xander and the rest to join us for the Shakespeare Festival."

Completely unaware of the turn of the vampire's thoughts, Willow snickered, her eyes glinting mischievously.  "Riiight.  As if they would ever come!  Come on, Angel.  You're what, 200 and something years old?"

Angel groaned in surrender, backing away from her.  While he hadn't been 'laying groundwork' as she'd suggested, Angel had to admit that there were other reasons behind some of his outings with the other Willow.

"You're right, Willow.  I did have ulterior motives for taking her to those plays and for many of the other things I did with her as well...at least in the beginning."

Willow swallowed hard, her wry grin fading.  Now she wasn't so sure she wanted to know Angel's real motivations if the sudden clouding of Angel's eyes was any indication of what she was about to hear.

Angel leaned against a bookcase, glancing between the floor and Willow's expectant face as he spoke.  "At first, I admit, it was curiosity, more than anything.  Once I realized that she had no memory of *our* past, I just wanted to get to know her better...and through her, the Rose that I remembered.  At the same time, I think I was trying to jog her memory.  I didn't even admit it to myself at first but that was what I was doing.  We went horseback riding a few nights, and I even tried to teach her to play poker once or twice, but not very successfully, I'm afraid."  Angel gave her a sad smile, and Willow gave him an encouraging look in return.  "It wasn't until I took her to see 'Romeo and Juliet' some months ago that I had to admit to myself at least part of the reason behind it.  I realized at the intermission that I hadn't watched the actors on the stage for even a moment.  I spent the whole time watching her face, waiting for some spark of recognition, yet fearing it at the same time."

"She actually wrote about that night in her diary," Willow said, her voice trembling as her anger began to dissipate.  "That was the night she first mentioned being in love with you.  She said you were staring at her with a strange, intense expression on your face, in a way that no one had ever looked at her before."  Willow swallowed as she imagined just how he might have looked that night.  "Um, she didn't really understand where that look of yours was coming from, but...well...she decided then and there that she loved you."

Angel shook his head regretfully.  "I never meant for that to happen.  I never wanted to hurt her.  I honestly enjoyed her company, Willow.  She was intelligent, funny, caring."  Angel smiled warmly, just thinking about his old friend.  "I could talk to her about anything...history, philosophy, politics, and Shakespeare of course..."

Willow sighed as she turned away from him to walk to one of the stained-glass windows.  Staring out through the thick colored glass, Willow thought she could detect the first hints of the coming sunrise, the dawning of a new day.  As she silently watched the lightening sky, Willow came to realize that she believed Angel.  Sure, perhaps the 200-plus-year-old vampire could have handled it better so that the other Willow hadn't developed a crush on him, but she no longer felt as if he'd been manipulating her life.  Angel had simply been spending time with a friend with whom he shared similar interests.  As strange as their intense friendship seemed to Willow, she believed in her heart that it was the truth.

And boy, did it complicate things.

"Why couldn't you have intellectualized with Giles instead?" Willow muttered, more to herself than to Angel.  Misinterpreting the aside comment as doubt, thinking that she didn't believe him, Angel grew angry.

"What else did your diary tell you?"

Catching the change in his voice, Willow spun to face him.  "First of all, it is *not* *my* diary," she said defensively.  "And secondly, I don't think the details are any of your business--"

"So, how was the sex then?" the vampire interrupted icily, circling closer to where she stood by the window.

"Um, er, what?" Willow sputtered, as every drop of blood in her body seemed to migrate to her cheeks at the same time.

"I just wondered how she thought the sex was, since such an experienced and handsome rogue like me seduced the sweet and innocent Willow Rosenberg.  Did I score four little pink hearts out of four?"

"Angel--" she started, but he wasn't through yet.

"She must have gone on for several pages about it," he continued wryly, then lowered his voice. "So tell me...just between you and me...how was I?" he asked silkily.  "Was I everything a virgin could want for a first lover?  Was I gentle and considerate or was I straight off the cover of one of those historical romance novels that she kept hidden under her bed, sweeping her off of her feet and ravishing her in a hayloft somewhere?"

Incensed and oddly embarrassed, Willow wanted to slap the cool smirk off his face.  Instead she turned back toward the window, trying to collect herself.

When had she lost control of the situation?  For that matter, where had the slightly confused and sheepish Angel from only seconds before disappeared to, only to be replaced by someone she was much more familiar with....

Not liking the turn of her own thoughts, Willow instinctively eased into her poker face and an oh-so-casual tone before turning to the vampire again.  The Rose in her wasn't going to let him get away with his teasing.

"Actually, she wasn't impressed."  Willow started to thumb through the small pages of the diary, as if looking for a particular passage.  "Let's see...where was that?  She'd written something about inadequate and premature...well, you get the idea...."

Strangely enough, Angel's anger melted away beneath Willow's mocking, and he had to swallow his laughter as she continued to flip through the book.

"Let's see," she said, feigning concern for her inability to find the imaginary reference.  "I know it's in here somewhere.  Shouldn't be too hard to find since the page was so stained with tears of disappointment...."

Just as she was really beginning to enjoy herself, Willow's teasing came to an abrupt end when Angel snatched the diary out of her hands, holding it up and away from the indignant redhead.  When Willow reached for it, Angel took the opportunity to gently take her by the wrist and pull her closer.

His next comment sounded eerily familiar to Willow.  "I think we both know that if I had been trying to seduce her, I would have succeeded," he murmured hoarsely as near her ear as he dared before abruptly letting her go.

"Ha!" she laughed outright, at the same time successfully lunging for the book and stepping away from the vampire.  "You aren't *that* irresistible, Angel," she shot back guilefully, and yet Angel noticed how quickly she scampered away from him.

His lips twitched.  "Aren't I?"

Willow shook her head at his arrogance yet didn't look at him.  Instead she busied herself with tucking the diary into her backpack, retorting, "I, the century-old virgin, am living proof of that."

Angel took a step closer.  While this was hardly the direction he'd expected such a conversation to take, he couldn't resist her naive challenges...never could...never wanted to.

"But *you* aren't *her*, remember?" he teased mercilessly, loving the sparks of anger that flashed in her amazingly green eyes when she glared at him.

"*I* resisted you in Galway," she proudly reminded him.  "Also, since I had a crush on Xander and not you, I obviously never noticed your charms before this little trip back in time either.  Oh, and I was in love with Oz, too, remember?"

Like he could forget.

Angel disregarded the inner voice that was warning him to stop their game before it was too late.  They were both precariously close to taking the verbal contest more than one step beyond their constantly shifting personal boundaries, but he was rapidly growing weary of having to school his emotions around her.

Ignoring the likelihood that what Spike had said about Willow never truly being able to forgive him was true, Angel decided to raise the stakes just a bit.  "But, as you so love to remind me, I'm not *that* Angel," he told her in a tone that was both husky and mischievous.

Willow wasn't sure if it was the vampire's wicked grin, the positively evil gleam to his eyes, or the fact that he'd outmaneuvered her again that seemed to lure away her ability to think for a moment.  That talent for completely flustering her was something that Angelus had always been a master at, and tonight she had goaded Angel into behaving like Angelus.  What had she been thinking?

Willow looked away, glancing around the library, anywhere but at the vampire, as if noticing for the first time that they were alone.

"Well no, I mean yes, er--" she began to stammer, just trying to stop the direction of her thoughts.

"Make up your mind, Willow, am I Angel or not?"

"You are!" she asserted in response to his provocation.  "You're Angel in that, well, in that you have a soul and you're trying to make up for the evil you had committed while you were without it, but you're not *Angel*!  You're not the brooding vampire that kept to the shadows."  Willow knew she was repeating herself from similar conversations she'd already had with the ensouled vampire on this very same subject, but she couldn't seem to help herself.  Not only was she grasping at straws, the closer he came to her, the more Willow felt as if she were grasping for breath and control over her wildly beating heart as well.  Only now did she notice the rather romantic setting, the dim lights, flickering candles, and the fact that Angel's shirt was three-quarters unbuttoned...and why did she have to notice that now?  And could it really be a soft as it looked?

And his eyes...If she wasn't mistaken, they kept drifting to her neck.  No, she must be mistaken.  Angel would never...

But another long look at the devilishly handsome vampire proved that his eyes were indeed occasionally roving down to her throat.

It took a Herculean effort for Willow not to bring her hands to her throat in an effort to hide the faint, freckle-like scars left there by both Angelus and Spike.  After all, she told herself, vampires like necks.  Angel was a vampire; therefore, it was only natural that he'd look at her neck.  If there had been a platter of chocolate nearby, she'd probably be staring at that in much the same way.

After all, chocolate to her was like blood to...

She inwardly groaned at her own thoughts. Clenching her fists, Willow let her nails dig into the tender flesh of her palms in an effort to regain some control over her own body.  She took a deep breath as well, trying unsuccessfully to picture her calming place.

Another quick peek at the amused vampire made it obvious that he was waiting for her to say something.  Damn...what where they talking about?  Necks?  No, before necks!  Chocolate?  Bloody hell...

Another deep breath that failed to soothe and she could only pray that he had no hint at the humiliating direction her thoughts kept taking. Oh yeah...she was supposed to be critiquing his Angel impersonation.  She could do that!

"Oh!  And, um, you-you smile too much, for one thing," she shakily informed him, pointing a finger at his full, smiling lips while still managing to back away from him.  "And you stand up too straight...the other Angel always seemed to be hunched over...slouching.  I dunno...maybe the slouch comes with the brood, but I never realized how tall you were until I saw you in Galway."

There was a pause, and Willow waited to see some expression of anguish mar Angel's features.  There was no pain, only a lazy smile, and there was nothing angelic about the look on his face.

"You want him back, do ya?"  The timbre of his voice deepened, bringing a familiar, if not unwelcome, tightening in her belly.  "This depressing bore with bad posture who barely knew ya existed?"  Finding herself trapped between a long bookcase that ran half the length of the room and the slowly approaching vampire, Willow held her breath and shut her eyes.  She could almost feel Angelus's long hair brushing against her cheek as he spoke even though the vampire had stopped several feet away.  "You want me ta think of ya as just the Slayer's sidekick, let ya fade into her shadow?"

No...yes...damn him!

Deeply ashamed of herself for letting him get to her so easily and for her body's reaction to something so simple as the native lilt of his voice, Willow let her emotions answer for her.

"Yes!" she practically spat at him, her eyes flying open.  "As a matter of fact, I do want the old Angel back!  Er, well, except for maybe the posture thing," she hastily amended.  "And I don't need your help keeping out of Buffy's shadow."

"Really?" Angel chuckled.  "Seems ta me yer tryin' very hard ta play a part that ya should have outgrown."

Willow fixed him with a cold stare, burying deep inside all the emotions that he'd wrenched out of her, letting only anger and guilt rule her actions.  "I just want things to be like they used to be...*everything* like it used to be," she stressed.  When Angel didn't even flinch, she dug a little deeper.  "Especially you."  Willow was both pleased and disgusted with herself when the mischievous glimmer in Angel's eyes began to fade, replaced by regret and something else she couldn't quite name.

He'd pushed her too far; he knew that, and yet Angel refused to believe that she meant what she said.  The vampire closed the final distance between them, forcing Willow to back up until she was flat against the bookcase.  He was trembling both with his turbulent emotions and the effort to control them as he gripped the shelves on either side of her body and leaned in closer.  His lips hovered dangerously close to her cheek.  "Be careful what you ask for, Willow.  Are you very sure that's what you want?" he asked, his voice rough with emotion.

From somewhere deep inside, Willow found the strength to appear confident in her answer when she was anything but. Willow met his searching gaze, her eyes cool and unwavering as they pierced his. Telling herself that it was the right thing to do, no matter how wrong it felt, she replied adamantly, "Yes, Angel.  I've never been more sure of anything in my life."

He didn't move at first.  Instead, Angel held her gaze, studying her eyes, the curve of her face, the lines of her mouth for any sign of weakness, desperate for some hint that she really was bluffing, but her poker face--calm and completely devoid of sentiment--was firmly in place.

Without another word, Angel pushed himself away from her, turned around, and walked back up the dais steps then proceeded to sit and flip through some parchments he'd tried to read earlier that night.

Willow wasn't sure what to do.  Although she'd basically just told him that she wanted him out of her life, she didn't want it to end this way.  After all, Willow reminded herself, she and the original Angel, while not exactly friends, had at least been civil to one another when they were in the same room.  They had to be able to work together, at least for Buffy's sake.

An uncomfortable quiet settled over the room as Angel buried himself in the papers and Willow came to terms with what had just happened.  At the precise moment that Willow didn't think she could take anymore, Angel broke the stalemate.

"You should go, get ready for class," he said in a matter of fact tone, without looking up.  Hesitantly, Willow took a few small steps toward the dais, grabbing a thick book off the shelf as she went.

"I, er, don't have class.  They have finals this week and Ms. Calendar made sure that I--I mean, Willow V2.0--took them early."  Willow swallowed and tucked a few stray strands of hair behind her ear.  "Guess that means I'm footloose and fancy free."

"Go get some sleep then," Angel grunted, but he didn't look at her, Willow noted.

"Um, actually I thought I'd look through the, er, 'Rinehart Index of Pagan Mythos' before I left."

Angel stood up, grabbing the parchments.  "Why?" he asked, continuing to study the aged sheets before him.

"I obviously have a lot of catching up to do, and since all the books are here..."  Willow nervously licked her dry lips.  "I still want to help," she replied with quiet earnestness.  "I *need* to help."

"Then quit wasting your time by looking in 'The Rinehart'."  Angel's tone wasn't angry or mocking, but the hollowness of it made Willow shiver.  "Sometimes I think we only keep it around to laugh at because it's full of mistakes and fallacies," he continued.

Her face fell and her failures of the previous day were brought to mind.  "Oh...I-I didn't know that...*yet*, she added, determined not to wallow in self-pity like she had last time.  "So, I'll go back to the good ole, er, the um..." she quickly scanning the books behind her, looking for anything familiar.  "Ah!" she exclaimed, pulling a tall, mustardy book off the shelf.  "'Nolen's Guide to--'"

"Try the 'Cheyvez Compendium'," Angel interrupted as he finished gathering the papers and turned away.  "Lock the door on your way out."

Without anther word, Angel left the main library room and disappeared down the hall.  Soon, the soft 'thud' of his closing bedroom door reverberated mournfully throughout the room.

The sound broke Willow out of her surprised stupor, and she softly called after him, "But...Shayfez?  Jayfess?  What?"  Willow finally let loose a long and pain-filled sigh as she stared sadly at the hallway that the vampire had disappeared down.  "Um, is that with a 'J' or a 'S-H'?" she asked in a dejected whisper, not expecting him to answer.  She simply needed to give voice to her confusion.

Telling herself over and over again that she'd done the right thing, yet not allowing herself to examine her reasoning, Willow started her search for the book Angel had mentioned.

It took Willow more than an hour to find the scarlet, gilded volume, and when she sat down to read it, she couldn't seem to muster her previous eagerness.  Somewhere between finding and reshelving both "Shadows, Shades, Ghosts and Ghouls" and "Jane's Defense Weekly" the redhead had come to the conclusion that she'd over-reacted.

Again.

Actually, her own irrational behavior didn't surprise her all that much. After everything she'd been through, she was starting to figure that she was allowed to behave a little...eccentrically...for a while.  But it was *why* she'd reacted so strongly in this particular instance that puzzled her the most.  She'd already gotten over what had taken her to Angel's in the first place, no longer believing that he'd been manipulating her life or had some mysterious ulterior motive.  So why had she so steadfastly demanded that he behave differently around her?

Willow sighed, slamming the book shut before resting her forehead on the cover.  Because once again she'd had Angelus flashbacks, but this time, the thoughts hadn't terrified her as much as they had tantalized her.

A few huskily whispered words in an Irish brogue, teasing, tempting, and her traitorous body was...

...well, responding as if she were a 135-year-old virgin whose only sexual experiences had been at the hands, not to mention the mouths, of vampires.

*That's* why she'd overreacted.

Groaning, Willow sat back up.  She glanced over at the hallway that Angel had disappeared down and wondered what he was doing.  According to the clock on the wall above the computers, it was almost 8 AM.  He was probably sleeping.

"And, if he's smart, ruing the day Angelus ever met me," she whispered aloud.

That was the problem.  He didn't seem at all that sorry he'd met her.  Far from it, in fact.  And from her reaction to him today, she'd made it pretty darn obvious that she wasn't altogether sorry that she'd met him either.

And what must Angel be thinking of her?  By now he may have realized how his Angelus-like behavior had actually affected her, and it would disgust him.  For Angel to have spent all those years trying to compensate for his immoral past, only to have her pulse quicken at the slightest hint of the darkness that he obviously tried so hard to control....

It was so very, very wrong of her.

Unknowingly, as she struggled with how to fix the latest mess she'd created,  Willow began to toy with the cross that was hidden beneath her T-shirt, her eyes focused on the silver band on her finger.  When she realized what she was doing, she laughed softly, derisively at herself.

"No wonder we both keep slipping into old habits.  I still remind him more of Rose than of Willow...not that I necessarily want to remind him of the old Willow either," she whispered morosely.  Fighting the tears that she felt stinging her eyes, she added, "Oh Angel, we can't go on like this..."

Willow sat in silence a while longer, sifting through her thoughts and feelings.  In the end, she made a choice.  She understood now that, for whatever reason, the vampire that now lay sleeping in the other room wasn't the old Angel, and she couldn't expect him to be miserable just to ease her own guilty conscience.  On the other hand, she couldn't allow what had happened today, or *almost* happened, to occur again, which meant that, other than leaving town altogether, she had only one option.

Grabbing her bag, Willow headed for home.  The decision made, she was going to get herself cleaned up first and then do the only thing she could do.  The only thing that made sense at the moment.

Willow was going to go to the mall.
 

*****

A strange dream prodded Spike to full wakefulness, and within seconds of opening his eyes, the oddly disturbing images were already fading.  Nevertheless, even though the details were too foggy to recall clearly, he somehow he knew that the dream had been important.

Spike was clenching his eyes shut, trying to recollect the dream when a cool body stirred beside him.  He started, blue eyes flying open in alarm, then smiled as the sleeping Drusilla draped a pale arm across his bare chest.  It had been so long since he'd truly shared a bed with a woman that it was taking some getting used to, but it was an adjustment that he was more than happy to make.

Taking Drusilla's hand from where it lay on his chest, Spike lifted her long, slender fingers to his lips, pressing a lingering kiss on her silky, cool skin.

He'd missed the taste of her during their long separation, and now just the scent of her skin was reawakening his desire.  With a lazy glance at the room's heavily draped windows, he could tell it was late morning, which meant that they hadn't been asleep for long.  It didn't matter that he'd spent the last several hours reacquainting himself with every delicious curve of his Dark Goddess's body. Spike was more than ready to lose himself in her for the rest of the daylight hours as well.  In fact, other than the occasional break to check on Willow and taunt Angel, that was all that he had done since his arrival back in the 20th century and he could happily carry on in the same manner for years.

His grin widening at the thought of waking the sleeping beauty, Spike turned her hand over, his lips grazing the inside of her wrist before increasing the pressure, lightly skimming the spot where a pulse would normally be with his teeth.  Drusilla emitted a sleepy sigh but didn't waken.

Just as Spike was about to sink his fangs into the nest of veins at the base of her wrist, which had always been her favorite way to be awakened, his gaze happened across her palm...

...and an image from his dream came back with such clarity that the intensity of it caused him to abruptly release her hand.

He was in the Rom camp with the old gypsy woman.  She was holding his hand between her own withered fingers, her grip unnaturally strong for a woman of her fragile appearance.  She was staring at him, the inky blackness of her eyes threatening to swallow him.  He couldn't look away from their dark, fathomless depths even when she began to strip him bare with those all-seeing eyes.  Clothing, skin, his corporeal body--all were peeled away until she seemed to be studying that which couldn't be seen.  His thoughts?  Intentions?  Hopes and dreams?  Even his soul, if he didn't know better.

Then, as quickly as she'd pulled him apart, the Rom woman put him back together, as if she'd found whatever it was that she'd been so diligently searching for.  Finally, her eyes focused on his palm, especially the starburst-like pattern in its center.  A look of satisfaction and understanding had settled onto her weathered features as she released his trembling hands...

All thoughts of wakening Drusilla forgotten, Spike shifted to a sitting position to fully concentrate on his palm.  He barely noticed when Drusilla rolled away from him, snuggling into her pillow.

Spike's pale skin shone even in the muted morning light, but it was the many paths that crisscrossed his palm that held his eye.  Lines of exceptional depth and clarity, they made little sense to the vampire who was not at all well versed in the varieties of divination.  But to the old gypsy woman who had held his palm only a few nights earlier--days to him, decades in reality--they appeared to have provided passage into his past and future as much as if his whole existence had already been entirely mapped out.

Spike cradled one hand in the other, annoyed by the way his nicotine-stained fingers began to tremble.  Staring at the jagged lines, he thought he could see all of his past mistakes coming back to haunt him as every break, intersection or split in the creases tried to represent a critical choice he had made.  The moment he allowed killing to become more than just part of the soldiering.  Desertion.  Deciding against all logic to follow a dark stranger home from a pub one night.  A seemingly endless list for a dizzying collection of lines on a pale hand.

He squeezed his hand shut, not wanting to believe in the old woman's abilities even though he knew perfectly well that some people did have psychic gifts.  Palmistry had never been one of Drusilla's talents, but he could vaguely recall her staring wide eyed at his palm once a very long time ago, then falling into one of her nonsensical discourses about singing stars and some very confused mice.  The clock kept striking the wrong hour, she'd insisted.  It was running backwards, scaring all the poor little mice and no one knew when teatime was.  After that she'd picked up Ms. Edith, cradled the doll in her arms, and went off to give the mice a tea party of their own.

Spike's jaw clenched as the memory came back to him.  It couldn't really mean anything, could it?  He'd discounted her babbling then, and yet...

The blonde vampire fought the temptation for a moment more, then unfurled his fist to reluctantly study his hand once again.  He was starting to wonder if the star pattern that exploded in the center of his palm, sending several lines meandering in all directions, often intersecting, really did mean something important.  In the back of his mind, it seemed to the vampire that the star pattern could have occurred on his palm's timeline at about the time that he kidnapped Willow.

If only he could remember what the Rom elder had actually said to him a few nights ago!

Truth be told, he hadn't paid all that much attention to the old Gypsy lady when she'd grabbed his palm back at the Rom camp.  He'd been preoccupied, worried that he'd be too late to save Willow from Angelus's wrath.  In the end, all he knew was that whatever Tekla had seen--or *thought* she'd seen--in the lines on his hand had not only convinced her to help him but that he'd only "Saviya's" safety in mind as well.

But what had she actually said?  Focusing on the pattern in the center of his palm, the words began to come back to him.

There was something about three lines...Yes, the number three was mentioned repeatedly.  Even with the language difficulties between them, he was sure of that.  Crossing paths, of course.  Long journeys, decisions, choices, darkness, light...the same warnings he'd expect to hear from a phony fortuneteller in a carnival sideshow...

...shared paths, destinies...

"Typical vague, cryptic prattlings," he said aloud, causing his love to shift again in her sleep.  Spike absent-mindedly drew his fingers through her long ebony hair as he concentrated on the dream and the only thing he was sure of--three.

...three...

Three! Bolting upright in bed, Spike wanted to shout and hit himself in the head to emphasize the moment of his epiphany, but he didn't want to wake his Dark
Goddess.  Not yet.  While he would no doubt share his conclusion with Drusilla in the relatively near future, he had yet to work out the details.

Three.  Himself, Drusilla, and Willow.  Together for eternity.
 

The decision was made.  He would turn Willow.  Not now but soon, while she was still young and healthy...10 years at the most.

Spike was sporting an enormous grin as he relaxed into the comfort of the grand mahogany sleigh bed with its black silk sheets, easing Drusilla back in to his arms.  The decision made, Spike felt as if a heavy burden had been lifted from his shoulders.  Willow wasn't going to leave him after all.

Unlife was already perfect.  And it was only going to get better.

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

End Chapter 11  (archived 9/23/01)  Not sure when the next chapter will be ready...sorry.
 
 
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