** The description of the PDA is loosely based on the Palm i705.
*** As you read this chapter, please keep in mind that I've had certain themes in Take Your Time/It's About Time since back when I started Take Your Time over 4 years ago. One of the main plot devices has always been poker, and it will continue to be one as the stories progress. As a result, I've had several poker scenes in mind and/or already written for *years*, including the one in this chapter. (You'll have to wait awhile for the others.) Any resemblance to a certain scene from BtVS Season 6 is just luck on Joss's part ;-) although I do admit to taking an obvious dig at Joss's version of this scene. Kittens? puh-lease...
Joss, I did it first, so take your hands off the cards and back away from the poker table before you get hurt.
*** Dedicated to the creators of TurboTax. It's
worth every dime.
It's About Time ~ Chapter 14 ~
About an hour before sunset, Willow carefully nudged open the front door to the old church and poked her head in, sighing with relief when no one appeared to be in the main room. No one meaning Angel, that is, because she already knew Buffy, Xander and Cordelia weren't going to be hanging around.
It was Friday evening, three days after the 'T-shirt Tuesday' incident, and the first night of the full moon trilogy. Earlier in the day, Buffy had called to share the happy news that they had received the results of their exam and that they had--just as Xander said they would--'kicked ass' on the final. The three were planning on doing some celebrating at The Bronze later, but unfortunately Willow's Oz-sitting duties would keep her from joining them. To be honest, Willow wasn't all that sorry. Spending time alone with Oz, even if only his werewolf version, was something she needed to do and had been anticipating for what seemed like forever.
Slipping quietly through the library, past all the round tables, the computers, and rows upon rows of bookshelves, Willow found herself stopping to admire what Angel had created. Standing in the middle of the impressive library, she had a good look around. It really was the perfect set up for their unusual needs, and Angel appeared to have spared no expense on their research tools and training aids. The occult reference collection was extensive, the computers top-of-the-line, and the furnishings classic yet comfortable. Willow lightly ran a slim finger along the dark polished tops of one of the tables. The action left a smudge which she hurriedly buffed out with the hem of her shirt. Any imperfection would seem out of place.
Clutching the back of one of the chairs, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to relax in the room that still seemed so alien to her. The air held the scent of lemon, from the furniture polish no doubt, ancient texts, leather, and...something else she couldn't quite put into words. Nevertheless, the scents mingled together, tempting her to relax...to surrender to the inevitable.
Stiffening, her eyes flew open and she wrapped her arms about her chest.
Why was she so ill at ease? she wondered. Why didn't the tempting warmth of this haven Angel had so graciously provided lull her? Although she did feel more comfortable in front of a computer, thanks to countless hours of eye-tearing practice, the same couldn't be said about much else. She still felt like a stranger in her own life, especially when she was in this room.
Shaking her head at her own depressing thoughts, Willow forced herself back into motion. She slipped silently down the hallway, past the bedrooms, heading for the stairs that led downstairs. She was tiptoeing by the short hallway that led to Angel's room--just in case he was in there, asleep--that it really hit her. What Angel had created in this old church took a lot more than money, although it obviously required a great deal of that as well. He'd opened his own home to the odd group of do-gooders that had named themselves The Scooby Gang, sacrificing his time and especially his privacy on a daily basis. She doubted this came easily to Angel, even if in other respects he was very different from the Angel she'd known in the previous timeline. What did he get in return? she wondered. Friendship? Redemption? Forgiveness?
Or was it hope? Was that the other scent permeating every fiber of the old building? Had she become so unfamiliar with the concept of hope since her return that she now felt ill at ease when confronted by it?
Nah. That wasn't it.
Telling herself it was time to stop her melodramatic reflecting and focus instead on Oz and the night ahead of them, Willow did her best to leave her turbulent thoughts upstairs as she descended to the basement.
The basement of Angel's converted home was divided into two main sections. The first and largest part was the training area, where all the members of the Scooby Gang spent some of their time training with either Giles or Angel on a fairly regular basis. On the far wall of this space, between the water cooler and the treadmills, a door led to the second portion of the basement, which housed storage rooms, the rarely-used industrial-sized kitchen, and most importantly, in the very back, Oz's home away from home for three nights each month. Tonight would be the first time in over a century that Willow had been with the wolf-version of Oz.
She'd spent the last three days since 'T-shirt Tuesday' diligently working on improving her computer skills--much to Giles' delight--preparing herself and the house for her parents' arrival on Saturday, and generally trying to attract as little attention as possible, with good success. At night she'd been managing to get a little sleep. Although some of her dreams continued to be erotic, they luckily remained vague, the memories elusive upon awakening, which was fine by her. Unfortunately, Willow hadn't seen Spike since her encounter with Dru, and although she was itching to make sure he understood the ramifications of her still-shorter hair, the expected arrival of her parents the following day meant she wasn't sure when she'd be able to see the blonde vampire again.
Making her way through the training area, Willow found herself mentally thanking Angel yet again. Yesterday had been her regularly scheduled training day with the vampire, and while Willow had prepared herself for the worst, Angel had pleasantly surprised her by suggesting that she should concentrate on a cardio workout instead of self-defense. Since it was such a beautiful day, he recommended that she take advantage of it by going for a long walk/run in the fresh air, aiming for at least an 11-minute mile. Without a word of argument, Willow had gratefully bolted for the door. After all, walking and running were things she had quite a lot of experience with, especially when she had a lot to think about...which lately seemed to be all the time.
Turning on the lights and closing the dividing door behind her, Willow approached the cage with only a cursory glance at the kitchen. Another dehumidifier hummed softly from its spot near the kitchen door, next to a weapons locker which held, among other things, a tranquilizer gun. She dropped her backpack on an armchair in the corner and surveyed the cage that would be Oz's home for the next three nights. It was much larger than the one they'd made do with at the library. Three sides of the cage were created naturally by the thick cinderblock walls of the church basement itself and along both the ceiling and the front of the cage were steel bars that looked twice as thick as the ones she remembered. There were no windows within the barred room, and the lock on the door appeared formidable. It would strongly resemble a large prison cell, she imagined, if it weren't for the fact that an elaborate hand-painted mural depicting a forest setting covered the trio of cinderblock walls.
Willow felt an uncontrollable shiver ripple along her spine as she stepped into the cell to take a closer look at the seemingly tranquil agrarian painting. On the mural's left wall, a rough trail meandered through a variety of trees and shrubs, leading to a clearing of sorts that monopolized the foreground of the longer middle wall. The clearing was surrounded by vegetation that grew increasingly thick in the background. The path continued on the opposite side of the clearing, disappearing in the distance on the short right-hand wall. A huge, nearly luminous full moon suspended in a field of stars hung in the right-hand corner, sending delicate rays of silvery light down through the autumn-colored trees to dance among fallen gold and crimson leaves which littered the forest floor.
She stared in wide-eyed disbelief at the mural, heart in her throat, her breath becoming shallow as the setting tugged at her memory. Willow closed her eyes and took a deep cleansing breath. Surely it was only her over-active imagination making the tranquil forest scene appear so painfully familiar. Yet, when she managed to steady her breathing and open her eyes again, the view hadn't changed.
It was, without a doubt, an artistic rendering of the exact spot in the Rumanian Woods where Angelus had knocked her from her horse, looking for revenge, only to find himself cursed with a soul instead.
Nearly overwhelmed, Willow began a shaky retreat out of the cell when she noticed something painted in the middle of the clearing, something she didn't remember. Nestled on a bed of autumn leaves, bathed in moonlight, was a single flawless rose.
In a daze, Willow inched cautiously back into the cage. When she was within reach of the back wall, she sank to her knees before the snow-white rose to reverently trace its outline with a single trembling finger. Up close, she couldn't help appreciating the details inherent in the artwork, the layers of well-chosen colors, especially in the beautiful bloom. Its long curved stem, though slender and lacking even a single thorn, appeared quite hardy, and in the middle of the milky blossom, on one frail petal, she noticed a faint silvery trail of glistening dew.
Or was it a tear?
Her heart thundering in her ears, Willow scrambled to her feet as Oz's voice broke the stillness of the room. She hastily dashed away the dampness she suddenly felt on her own cheeks before turning to face him.
"Oh, hi, Oz...I was just looking at the painting."
Oz set his guitar by the chair in the corner, then took a single step into the cell and nodded his head. "Angel did a good job. Beats staring at the gray walls all night." He frowned slightly. "At least, I think it does."
Willow wasn't surprised to hear that Angel was the artist. She'd come to the same conclusion based solely on the subject matter. She'd seen his work before, after all, but those had always been portraits and sketches. She didn't realize that the vampire painted landscapes as well. Considering how long ago it had actually been since Angel had been cursed, she couldn't help being impressed at how accurate his memory was...yet again.
Willow nodded, stepping back next to Oz to take in the whole scene again, but her eyes kept drifting back to the lonely rose.
"I asked him once what the rose was for," Oz said, as if he knew what she was thinking.
Willow's mouth went dry and her stomach clenched. She was almost afraid to know, scared to get another glimpse of Angel on such a spiritual level. "You did?" she asked in a croaked whisper.
He nodded. "Innocence...hope..."
Willow had a sudden urge to cry. Luckily, Oz kept talking.
"I'd thought about asking him to add a rabbit or two, maybe a fox, but then I was worried that I might run into the wall, trying to chase them." He gave her a good-natured grin that Willow couldn't help returning.
"What about the full moon?" she asked, gesturing to the celestial orb painted in the corner. "Does it help?"
Oz shrugged in that carefree way of his that had always had a way of making Willow forget her worries. Strangely enough, she felt better.
"It doesn't seem to hurt," he replied matter of factly, then glanced at his watch. He turned to Willow, stepping closer. "You don't have to stay, Willow. Angel will check on me a couple of times during the night and let me free in the morning. And it's not like I can go anywhere. The bars and the door are nearly indestructible, and even if I could break the block walls, the only thing on the other side is dirt. Were-wolves aren't big diggers." Oz glanced over at the bottom of the cage's walls, noticing claw marks in several spots. "Although it looks like I gave it a good shot."
"I'm not worried about you escaping, Oz. I just want to make sure you don't hurt yourself."
A strange look came to Oz's face, and then he glanced over their shoulders to one of the few tiny basement windows on the other side of the room. Even through the thick glass blocks, he could see that the sky outside was taking on an orange glow.
"Almost time." Oz stepped further into the cell, which Willow took as her cue to exit. When the door closed and locked with a cold, metallic clang, Willow flinched.
They stared at each other through the bars for a moment, Willow unable to think of a single appropriate thing to say. With a slight cough, Oz finally said, "I better get ready, Willow, so..."
Willow nodded absentmindedly. "So..." she repeated, then seeing the uncomfortable look on his face, she finally realized what Oz was hinting at. "Oh!" she exclaimed, quickly turning her back to him as she went on in an embarrassed rush, "Sorry...forgot about the whole 'nekkid thing'."
She heard the rustling of clothes as Oz asked, "Willow, is something wrong? You keep looking at me like...well, like you're waiting for something."
Willow sighed, feeling a heavy sense of defeat as she tried to figure out the right way to answer such a loaded question, but she was saved by the sickly sound of cracking bones and stretching flesh as Oz began his metamorphosis. When those grotesque sounds had finished, only to be replaced by the eerie clicking of long sharp claws on the basement floor and heavy bestial panting, Willow slowly turned around to find the werewolf staring hungrily at her through the bars.
"Sometimes I think 'waiting' is my middle name," she finally responded softly. Oz retorted with a plaintive howl of his own.
Just as the sun was setting, Angel silently slipped out of the hidden exit of the sewer tunnel, which was located in the old walk-in refrigerator in his basement kitchen. Securing the door behind him, Angel became aware of Willow's and Oz's voices coming from another part of the basement. He only had to move a few paces toward the middle of the kitchen to see them through the raised garage door over the serving counter. When Angel realized that they were talking rather awkwardly about his mural, he cringed.
Damn. He should have warned Willow about the painting, but like so many other things, it just hadn't occurred to him until it was too late. He'd always told himself that creating the mural more than a year ago had been a strange sort of therapy, but that wasn't all it had been, and he could admit that to himself now. The painting had been yet another one of his pitiful attempts to awaken the other Willow's memories of their past. And like his other futile endeavors, it had failed spectacularly. There'd been no flashbacks, no trembling limbs, only Willow and her constant cheerful support. When Willow had looked upon his work for the first time, her response had been purely positive, yet Angel had been disappointed when she'd complimented his artistic talent and bubbled over with enthusiastic praise for the picturesque landscape. Ironically, she'd even commented that the clearing looked like the perfect spot for late-night picnic.
If only she'd known. But she hadn't, because the memories weren't hers to have.
Now that the Willow he had known as Rose was back, Angel only wished that he could stop hurting her with memories. If he'd thought of it earlier, he would have painted over the mural, covering it, hiding it forever from her inquisitive green eyes that were surely shadowed by dark memories now. If only...
If only his list of "if onlys" weren't so damn long.
Still, Angel couldn't seem to make himself leave his safe vantage point, even when the distinct sounds of Oz's transformation stirred him from his guilty musings. Convincing himself he'd only stay for a little while to make sure that she was going to be okay and because he only had her safety in mind, Angel settled in to watch.
Willow was now dragging the armchair nearer to the cage, oblivious to the snarls coming from the pacing werewolf. When the chair was as close to the bars as she dared, she sat back into its overstuffed comfort and stared at the creature that was Oz by day.
"It's been a long time, Oz," she told the werewolf. "Well, long for me anyway. Maybe not quite as long for you."
The wolf stopped its pacing just long enough to emit a low, mournful howl.
"I, um, have some things to keep us entertained. You always liked it when I read to you, so I brought a few books that I thought you might like." She pulled several out of her backpack and read the titles, displaying each one for the drooling werewolf's inspection. "'Watership Down', 'Jungle Book', 'Tarzan', and of course, 'The Call of the Wild'. "And if all else fails, I have 'How to Control Your Inner Beast'. She shrugged. "Never know...might be good for a laugh. So, where should we start?"
The creature snarled and launched itself viciously at the bars. Willow didn't even flinch. "'The Call of the Wild' it is then."
For the next two hours, Willow read to the werewolf as it paced the length of his cage and unknowingly to Angel as well, who'd made himself comfortable in his hiding place by the stainless-steel mixer.
Oz was growing restless again. Willow had read excerpts from all of the books, and nothing seemed to be working, at least not for long. In her search for a new distraction, he eyes fell on Oz's guitar. Maybe it was time for Phase II? Although she wasn't sure who'd find it more relaxing, Oz or herself.
Hoping that Oz wouldn't mind too much, Willow retrieved his guitar. She'd thought about bringing her own but had been too afraid that the others would see her with it and ask questions that she didn't want to answer. Strumming a few basic chords on the unfamiliar instrument, Willow made herself comfortable in the chair again.
"They say that music soothes the savage beast, Oz. Let's see if *they* know what they're talking about...for a change..."
Unaware of her hidden audience of one behind her, Willow began with a simple tune. Being an electric guitar, the sound wasn't comparable to her own demon-made acoustic, especially since she didn't have an amp handy to plug it into, but the acoustics in the basement helped project the sound a little. Although the song she chose was fairly simple, Willow's fingers caught a few times on the unfamiliar strings, causing her to grimace and give the wolf an apologetic look. "I'm better on my own guitar. Promise."
Biting her lip, Willow started again. This was not quite how she'd pictured her first time playing with Oz, and although she knew he wouldn't remember her performance when he was his two-legged, red-headed self in the morning, she wanted perfection. After a few minutes, her nerves began to settle, the muscles in her hands loosened, and she let herself sink into the music. When that song ended, she launched immediately into another wordless folksong.
The Oz-wolf's pacing slowed, and for long periods he would stay in one place, ears perked, listening to what Willow had to offer. While he was hardly the perfect audience, what with the occasional baying and drooling and such, she'd experienced worse in some danker alehouses during her travels. What was one werewolf when compared to a group of drunken men in a beer garden when they realized that the kegs were dry? She still had the occasional nightmare about round, red-faced men in lederhosen due to one such incident.
Emboldened by his response so far, Willow talked softly as she played. "This was supposed to be a surprise for you, Oz. While I know you don't understand, and you probably wouldn't even if you weren't in full-moon mode right now, part of the reason I learned to play was for you." The wolf whined at this point, which Willow took as a positive response. "Why? Well, it's a long story, but to sum it all up, Oz, I've been away a long time. And while I was gone, things changed...you and I changed. When I left, you and I were in love. When I came back, we hardly knew each other." Willow paused, and the werewolf snarled at her. "Hey, it's not all my fault, you know," she retorted defensively. "These things tend to happen when you mess with the fabric of time...I guess..." She sighed, wishing she'd practiced this speech, then shrugged. What difference did it make? It wasn't like Oz understood what she was saying anyway. "Maybe it's for the best," she went on to tell him. "I've changed, and I kinda have a lot of baggage now and--"
Willow was interrupted by the wolf's piercing howl. That's when she realized she'd stopped playing. She started again, this time a more difficult finger-style piece. She was curious to see how the creature would react to the different types of music, varying rhythms and tempos. After a few moments of what looked to Willow like surprise, the wolf started pacing again...this time to the rhythm of the music. She quickly switched to something she'd been working on the past couple of days at home: 'Pain' by The Dingoes. Willow didn't sing, she simply played and occasionally she talked, telling the wolf version of Oz things that she wasn't ready to say to the two-footed version.
Across town, Spike sat at the bar in Willy's dive, scowling after his first taste of beer. Not only did the cold, flavored water that Americans try to pass off as alcohol pale in comparison to the stronger European ales that he preferred, Spike was in the mood for something else.
"Got anything imported?" he asked the wiry, dark-haired man behind the bar.
Willy, the owner and bartender of the rundown demon hangout, pointed to a large oilcan of the Australian beer Fosters, which he only stocked because the imposing size of the can usually placated larger demons. Spike, however, was unimpressed. Still frowning, he downed half the amber liquid in one long draught.
"I'm surprised to see you here, Spike," Willy said from behind the far end of the bar where he was emptying overflowing ashtrays. "Thought you were too good to drink with the rest of us. What happened? You get kicked out of all of your fancy-schmancy demon clubs in LA?"
Spike narrowed his eyes at the little man. So, 'William' hadn't frequented Willy's, opting instead for the more upscale demon hangouts that LA had to offer, had he? That jelled with what he'd discovered on his own about what his other version had been up to. Besides, Spike almost couldn't blame William for going elsewhere. Willy's was a dump even by demon standards, always had been. Why would a vampire with money to burn like William come to Willy's when LA had so much more to offer?
Grimacing after another gulp of the beer, he snarled, "Maybe if you offered a bloke something decent to drink instead of this bloody weasel piss, you'd start seeing more of my money." He gave the half-full glass a shove, sending it sliding down the dirty bar to Willy. "Give me something stronger...something with a little kick to it."
Willy gestured over his shoulder with a dirty thumb. "Got a virgin tied up in the back, puts up a good fight now and then."
Spike quirked a brow. "Not quite what I meant, but it's nice to see you're varying the menu a bit." Spike eyed the row of spirits behind the bar but nothing caught his eye. "Just give me a glass of wine. Red. Don't care what kind, just make it the most expensive stuff you've got." Then Spike sat up a little straighter, struck by a thought. "Wait...your virgin...she isn't a tiny little redhead, is she?"
The sleazy bartender chuckled. "Feeling like something exotic tonight, huh Spike? Nah. Sorry, he's a blond. Some kinda art history major at the college, I think."
Spike relaxed. When he'd heard the word 'virgin' his thoughts naturally ran to Willow. No way was he going to let her end up being a demonic drink mixer.
"Still want that wine?" Willy asked, and when Spike nodded, he fished around for a stemmed glass, finally locating several dusty goblets under the bar. "You're lucky I found a couple of old bottles in the back earlier, behind the pinball machine and under a crate of Zima," he told the vampire. "We don't get much of a call for the fancy stuff around here, but I might consider stocking it since you're the second person to ask for red wine tonight." Willy shook his head in mild disgust as he not-so-subtly pointed to a corner of the room.
While Willy poured the bottle of an American brand of wine, Spike had a good look around the sparsely populated bar. It hadn't changed much since the last time he'd been in for a drink over a century ago. Less than a handful of the tables were taken, including the booth in a shadowy corner occupied by three odd-looking creatures. It was the same booth that Willy had pointed out, and the strange, shiny-skinned trio was staring at him. At least he thought they were staring at him...hard to tell since they didn't appear to have eyelids.
"What's their bloody deal?" Spike asked, spinning in his seat to face the bar again.
"No idea." Willy placed Spike's glass of wine in front of him. "They showed up about a week ago. Don't talk much, keep to themselves and kinda zip in and zip out." He lowered his voice. "I don't know what they are...never seen their kind here before. They give me the creeps, though, the way they never blink." Willy shivered.
"Give Willy the willies, do they?" Spike asked, quite amused by his own pun.
Sipping his wine, Spike tried not to grimace. The vampire was now accustomed to fine wine as well, and this was not it. Still, it was better than the beer. After another mouthful, Spike glanced over his shoulder at the creatures again. The shorter, dumpier one lifted a half-empty glass of what appeared to be red wine in salute to Spike. Shaking his head, Spike turned back to the front and concentrated on his drink. The sound of laughter mixed in with various snarls and groans came from a back room.
"Sounds like someone's having a good night," Willy said offhandedly.
"Depends on who's playing," he snorted. "It's a poker game."
At that moment, a short, fat, spiky creature resembling a hedgehog with two enormous feet scuttled in from a back room. He rubbed his quill-covered hands together as he said to Willy in a squeaky voice, "Need another round back there. Nevel's hot tonight, so he's buying." The funny-looking creature known as an Uff-Da demon looked at Spike. "He won the last hand with a bouquet. Can you believe that?" He chuckled, shaking his head as if Spike should join in his amusement.
The spiny creature laughed, sending his quills rippling around his squat body in a wave that was somewhat hypnotic. "Don't play much poker, do you, vampire?"
There came some chuckling sounds from the three demons seated behind Spike, but he didn't notice. Spike was too busy chuckling himself.
"Played a bit...now and then...here and there," the Uff-Da laughed, unable to hide his amusement. "Can't say I've heard of this bouquet hand, though."
"You play a bit, here and there, but you haven't heard of a bouquet?" the giant hedgehog asked cynically. "When was the last time you played? The Dark Ages?"
This brought a huge burst of snorting laughter from the three creatures in the booth. Spike tossed them an impatient shut-up-or-die look over his shoulder, then turned back to the spiny thing, which was grinning madly at him.
Spike had heard of a Deadman's Hand, which was made up of two black Aces and two black Eights and was said to have been the hand gambler Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot. But a bouquet? That was a new one, and since very little was 'new' to Spike, he was admittedly curious.
Spike shrugged, ignoring the hedgehog's joke. "Haven't played for a while, must admit. So enlighten me then...what's this famous bouquet?"
The Uff-Da scratch behind its ear. "Four Queens and an Ace of Hearts kicker. Some also call it the Red Lady's Special."
"'fraid I still don't get it, mate."
Rolling his sad little brown eyes, the hedgehog waddled a bit closer. "It's supposedly the last hand *she* played before disappearing without a trace." The creature paused, as if that should have cleared up all of Spike's confusion. "Violet Jones?" it added. "It was also said to have been the favorite hand of the lesser known Rose Smith. Violet, Rose, flowers, bouquet. Get it?"
Spike almost choked on his drink, and the Uff-Da demon held up its paws. "Hey, I don't name the hands, buddy, I'm just an aficionado of the game. Don't feel too bad though. Most players don't know why it's called a bouquet, but they call it that anyway. I'm just a bit of a history buff, so..."
"Rose Smith and Violet Jones?" Spike repeated when he was able to form words again.
"Two female poker players in Europe back in the 19th century. Both just sort of disappeared, quit playing at the peak of their game."
The hedgehog shrugged, then twitched its pointy nose. "You know human females. She probably went into heat, got married and squeezed out a litter." The creature snuffled in laughter, and Willy and the three demons joined in.
"So, ya want in?" the Uff-Da asked Spike after he'd finally stopped laughing at his own joke. "There's always room for one more. Especially an *expert* like you," it continued with obvious sarcasm.
Spike hoped it poked itself in the eye with a half-dozen of its sharpest quills.
"Take you three to join," it added.
Spike rolled his eyes. "Amateurs." He dismissed the confused hedgehog-like demon with a wave of his pale hand.
Spike drained his wineglass then thrust it out for a refill. "Spice the next one up a little. Add a shot."
"Sure, Spike," Willy said, quickly grabbing the glass. "Anything you say. You want pig or cow? Or I might be able to rustle up some kitten for you." He gestured toward the back room.
Spike grimaced at the thought of animal blood. He'd always sworn that once he'd gotten back to his own time, it would only be fresh human blood from then on. No longer did he have to restrain himself out of fear of mucking up the future or getting Willow hurt. His grimace turned to a cocky, evil grin. "Shove a tap in your virgin in the back. Make it a double."
"That'll cost ya, Spike. But then, money's never been a problem for you, has it?"
Spike grinned as Willy disappeared into the back room to punch-up his glass of wine. "Not lately, mate. Not lately."
While he was waiting for his refill, Spike swiveled around on his stool. The three demons were still watching him as they sipped their own drinks. The shorter one of the three again raised his glass of wine, while the taller one was sampling something tall and colorful with an umbrella in it. The third was drinking a Bartles & James Fuzzy Navel wine cooler, through a straw.
And coughing after each girlie sip.
Wimps, Spike thought and turned around as Willy came back and handed him his bloody cocktail. Spike winced after the first taste. It wasn't quite what he'd been expecting.
"Who told you he was a virgin, mate?"
Willy's ingratiating grin faded. "He said he was! 'Sides, you should see him, Spike. This kid couldn't get a girl even if she were dead."
Spike narrowed his eyes at the insult, but let it slide as he took another taste of the drink. He shook his head. "I know virgin blood, mate, and this ain't it. It's not bad, though, but it certainly isn't pure." Spike smirked at the disappointed look on the bartender's face. "Maybe this student of yours couldn't get a woman, but he could certainly get *something*."
Willy disappeared into the back again, grumbling something about not being able to trust kids these days. A few minutes later, he reappeared, shrugged and said, "I let the kid go. He hadn't told me he was a Frat boy."
"That explains it."
While Willy continued to mutter on about the problems with the new generation, Spike sipped thoughtfully at his drink, replaying his earlier dialogue with the hedgehog in his mind.
So, Red made the history books, did she?
"Willy, refresh my memory," Spike said, casually tracing the rim of his glass with an index finger. "Who actually invented poker?"
Willy shrugged as he put some nominally clean glasses away on the mirrored shelves behind the bar. "Beats me, but I think--"
"They say it started in Ireland," said one of the creatures behind Spike. Spike turned to find that the taller one of the three slick-skinned demons was talking. His voice was surprisingly human for such an alien-looking creature.
"According to the website 'Poker 101', the first known games were in Galway, Ireland," it continued.
Spike set down his drink on the bar and sat up straight. "What'd you say?"
"The site says it was brought there from America in 1753, by an Englishman named William Smith, but there are no recorded games of poker in America before that time." It somehow managed to narrow its eyes at Spike. "Highly suspicious, don't you think?"
All three demons were glaring at him now, but Spike concentrated on the one that was actually speaking. It was also holding a small computer-like device in one hand.
"It says all that? In that little box?" Spike stood and took a few steps toward the three creatures, and they visibly cringed from the approaching vampire. Then the demons exchanged looks that Spike interpreted as somehow both amused and annoyed.
The one with the handheld computer spoke again. "I'll have you know that this is the latest generation in PDA, man. Complete with transreflective monochrome LCD with backlight, a 266MHz Motorola Dragonball VZ processor, 64 megs of RAM, 32 megs non-flash upgradeable ROM for OS, a SD expansion card slot, IR port for beaming, integrated wireless modem, a universal connector, not to mention a few of my own *personal* modifications," the demon said in a defensive tone.
Spike gave the geeky demon a blank, bored look, which made it deflate a little.
It sighed. "Yeah, that's what 'the little box' says," the demon grumbled.
Despite the creature's rather insulting tone, Spike's face broke into a huge grin, and soon he found himself laughing, head thrown back, arms spread wide from the sheer amusement of it all.
"This is just too priceless," Spike said when he was able. Shaking his head, Spike returned to his seat. "Fate's a funny thing," he chuckled, then knocked back the rest of his bloody cocktail. He slammed the empty glass down on the bar. "I've got to share this with Red. This'll make her night. Hell, this'll make her century!" he said, more to himself than then the others.
The three demons exchanged a look.
Still chuckling, Spike tossed some cash on the bar. "If you want to see more of this, start stocking red wine," he advised Willy, then headed for the door. He paused halfway through the exit to look back at the bartender. "Beaujolais, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot...but none of that poncey Rose or Chianti rubbish. Just the good stuff...imported. Got it?"
Bobbing his head, Willy grabbed the money greedily. "You got it, Spike."
"And you know," Spike added, "it wouldn't hurt you to clean the place up a bit, would it? I'm all for a dark and evil kinda ambience, but that doesn't mean you can't wipe down the tables or offer a bloke a clean glass. We're demons, not college students." With that bit of sage advice, Spike left the building.
Angel had lasted only through Willow's first song before he began to feel like the intruder that he was. Unbeknownst to Willow, he had silently slipped upstairs before she began her heart-to-heart talk with the werewolf and before she found her 'guitar fingers'. After pacing guiltily around his own room for a few minutes, Angel knew he had to leave or else he'd be tempted to intrude upon their privacy again. Trusting that she could handle herself alone with the werewolf for a while, Angel decided to assist her in a different way. By going to The Bronze, he could help Willow keep yet another secret from her friends--her 'new' talent for music. Since he was sure that Buffy and the others would stop by later to check on her, he decided to head them off at The Bronze and give them some excuse for why they needn't stop by.
Set in his plan, Angel quickly escaped outside, already deep in thought. He hadn't even known that Willow played the guitar. What else didn't he know about her?
Angel hadn't made it to the sidewalk in front of his home before all of his questions were temporarily exiled by more urgent matters. Spike was leaning against a streetlight across the road, somehow managing to smoke a cigarette and smirk at him at the same time.
"Where's Red?" Spike asked between long draws on his cigarette as Angel cautiously drew nearer. "Keeping her locked up with the communion wafers and sacrificial wine?"
Here we go again, Angel found himself thinking. Angel stopped several paces away, his face a vacant mask as he prepared himself for whatever pain Spike had in store for him this time.
"She's inside...with Oz," Angel answered calmly.
Spike looked up at the nearly full moon. "'Call of the Wild' eh?"
Angel said nothing.
Frowning, Spike pushed away from the lamppost, dropped his half-smoked cigarette, and shoved his hands in the pockets of his duster. "Guess I'll leave her to break in the dog on her own then." He paused as he eyed Angel up and down critically. "Good to know you aren't too broken up about her choosing the mutt over you. I put in a good word for you, but what can I say? The girl's got taste."
He grinned. "Seeing as you're one of the white hats 'n all, I can trust you to tell her I stopped by, then?"
Spike spun away but only took a couple of steps before he came to a halt and half turned back towards Angel, who was still watching him warily. Angel prepared himself for one of Spike's cutting remarks.
"Say, you haven't seen three odd demon-types hanging about, have you? Look a bit like aliens? Not the er, Sigourney Weaver type, more the Close Encounters type?"
Angel was surprised by the question, but he kept it from showing on his pale features. "No, Spike."
Spike nodded thoughtfully. "Good," he said, then smirked. "Well, then, I'm off, but be sure to tell Red I stopped by. She worries if she doesn't hear from me real regular like. Just tell Red I'll catch up with her later at her place. Have her leave the window open for me, like usual."
As Spike turned away, Angel called after him before he could think better of it. "How's Drusilla?"
Spike spun back around, his blue eyes glittered icily at the condescending tone in Angel's voice.
"Why don't you ask me yourself?" Drusilla glided out of the shadows, catching both male vampires by surprise.
Spike spun to face her, pulling her into his arms for a quick kiss. "Back from girls night out already, pet? You and that Roxanne bird have a good time?"
Drusilla pouted her bright red lips. "We had a fight. I had to kill her."
"Er, what was the fight about, love?"
Drusilla looked into Spike's eyes, her pout darkening into a scowl. Then she glanced over at Angel and the scowl was replaced by a wicked smile as she pulled out of Spike's arms to drift slowly toward the darker vampire. "Later, my Spike. We have company and must be polite."
"I wouldn't call him company, Dru. He's more like a bad penny, just keeps turning up."
"Couldn't put it better myself," Angel shot back dryly, which only made Drusilla's smile grow.
"Now boys...no fighting over me..." Her smile turned almost coy as she glided up to Angel. "It's horrible what's happened to you." Drusilla closed her eyes and placed her hand over his heart. "It's so warm...so warm you'd think it was beating."
Angel stepped back, away from her touch. "A soul doesn't make it beat, Drusilla," he replied. "It only makes you sometimes wish that it did."
Drusilla sniffed. "Such a sad tale," she said, shaking her head in pity. Then the pity was gone, a look of disgust in its place. "You aren't the Angelus I remember. I miss him, I do." Drusilla slowly circled the dark vampire. "Did *she* do this to you?" Drusilla hissed from behind him. "Did she sow this dirty soul in you? Mayhap she wrapped it up all pretty-like with virgin-white ribbons and bows?" A suggestive grin was on her face by the time she'd come full circle to stand before Angel again.
Angel fought to control his emotions. He didn't like the look in her soulless black eyes when she spoke about Willow. "No. Willow--I mean Rose--did not have this kind of power."
"No, she does not...yet. And yet..." Drusilla squeezed her eyes shut, rubbing at her temples. "I cannot see her, though I try very hard. I cannot see what happened. All I see is Angelus in a field of flowers, surrounded by the nasty gypsy folk...the pain...it's horrible..." She shivered, clutching at her chest.
"The Rom cursed me with my soul, as I've told you before, Drusilla."
Drusilla must have detected the impatience in his voice, because her eyes snapped open to glare at him.
"I could have been Angelus's. He was my sire, in here," she said, dragging a sharp nail across her palm, drawing blood in its wake. She waved her palm under his nose, frowning when Angel made no to move to taste her. "Angelus's blood runs in my veins, but he gave me away," she said softly, then closed her eyes as she licked her palm clean, moaning softly with dark delight. When the blood was gone, her eyes opened sluggishly to fixed Angel with a dreamy look. "In my heart, William is my sire," she said, covering the area over her dead heart with a delicate-looking hand. "Spike is my sire, because you...because *Angelus*...chose her over me."
Angel wanted to walk away from the two vampires, putting an end to Drusilla's little game, but he was reluctant to anger her further, in case she decided to take out her frustrations on Willow.
"I'm sorry if I hurt you, Drusilla."
She threw her head back and laughed, the eerie sound making the hairs on the back of Angel's neck tingle.
"Hurt me? You did not hurt me, dearie. No. Angelus did not hurt me nearly enough to make him forget *her*." She leered at him, tracing a random path across his chest with a long, blood-red fingernail. "Even then she'd poisoned Angelus against me, digging, crawling, winding her way all through his beautiful dark insides until she was so deeply rooted within him that he couldn't let her go. The nasty little weed tricked Angelus into loving her instead of me."
Angel seized her wandering hand, gripping it sharply enough to gain her full attention. "Vampires can't love, Drusilla. They have passion, yes, but they are incapable of love without a soul." He dropped her hand, and Drusilla cradled it in her other as if she'd been burned.
"Whatever did she do to Angelus to make you think this way?" Drusilla asked. "Surely you do not truly believe this?"
Angel glanced meaningfully between Spike and Drusilla. "It's the truth, Drusilla. You might as well face that truth now."
Drusilla frowned as she glanced back over her shoulder at Spike, but was smiling by the time she turned to look at Angel again. She laughed, shaking an admonishing finger at him. "No need to be so contrary."
"Yes, Angelus," Spike chimed in, striding up to grasp his beloved's hand, all the while glaring Angel. "No need to be such a buzz-kill just because your unlife sucks beyond the telling of it."
Pulling Drusilla back into his arms, Spike kissed her long and deep, until the vampiress was clutching desperately at the leather lapels of his coat as if she might faint. Angel sighed, seeing the kiss for what it was, a show of strength, a marking of Spike's territory. Angel was a bit surprised that Spike felt the need to make such a showing in front of him, and the thought that perhaps Spike wasn't quite so confident of his place in Drusilla's life gave a slight boost to Angel's aching spirit. Perhaps Spike couldn't have it all after all.
Spike finally ended the kiss, holding Drusilla just far enough away that he could look into her eyes. "Don't listen to the bloody wanker, my divine Dark Goddess. You know how much I love you. What I've done for you." When the blonde vampire began nibbling on the slender column of Drusilla's throat, murmuring words that Angel was glad he couldn't hear, Angel finally gave in to his own need to roll his eyes in annoyance. He turned to make his exit and leave the lovers alone, but apparently, Spike couldn't resist one last dig before Angel escaped relatively unscathed.
"Maybe you should take another look at The Slayer," he called after him. "After all, if a vamp's pathetic enough to fall in love with the living, might as well go all the way and make it The Slayer, ay?"
Ignoring Spike's attempt to pull him back into yet another verbal battle, Angel kept walking. It was several blocks before he could no longer hear their laughter behind him.
Oz opened his eyes. As always, it took him a moment to remember why he was lying naked on the floor, surrounded by both prison bars and towering trees at the same time.
Climbing to his feet, Oz stretched his aching limbs then noticed something he wasn't quite used to seeing on the mornings that followed the full moon--Willow, sleeping in a chair, surrounded by a pile of books, soda cans and what appeared to be an empty bag of Cheetos. It wasn't that this was the first time Willow had helped him out in such a way, but she'd never done it alone...all night...
As quickly and quietly as possible, Oz got dressed. He didn't want to disturb the sleeping redhead, but as he was tying his shoes, Oz realized he'd have to wake her up if he wanted out of the cage. Although Giles had made several improvements while he'd been gone, they had yet to rig an automatic timer for the heavy steel door. A key was still required on the outside.
He went to the bars and peered at the key, which was hanging on its designated peg, far out of his reach. He had little choice. He was going to have to wake Willow.
He'd just parted his lips to softly call her name when Angel suddenly appeared.
"Morning," they said in quiet unison with the barest of smiles.
Silently, Angel retrieved the key and opened the door so Oz could escape. The musician looked down at Willow, then glanced at Angel.
"She was awake all night...just drifted off about a half-hour ago," Angel said in response to his unspoken question.
Oz opened a trunk that sat opposite the cell, pulling out a fuzzy, red plaid blanket and tossing it to Angel. Without hesitation, Angel draped it over the sleeping woman. As he tucked the throw around her shoulders and under her chin, Angel's hand accidentally brushed against her cheek. Willow smiled in her sleep, bringing a smile to Angel's face as well.
Oz cast a surreptitious look between the two. "Love...ever been?" Oz asked in soft voice, erasing Angel's smile.
Oz nodded sympathetically, then added, "It's almost funny that you don't mean that figuratively."
"Almost," Angel agreed with a smirk. He finally tore his eyes from the sleeping woman to look thoughtfully at Oz. As jealous as he was about Willow's feelings for the guitar player, Angel couldn't be angry with him. Oz was a good man and Willow could do much worse. Like, say, Spike. "What about you?"
"Don't know. Thought I was last year, but since I no longer am, I guess I wasn't." Oz paused, then added, "She was a blonde."
Angel nodded, as if that explained everything.
"Was she beautiful?" Oz asked after a moment.
"As pretty as Willow?"
Unsure of how to answer that question, Angel gave him a blank look, then refocused on Willow as she slept. "Willow reminds me of her...of Rose..."
"Have you ever thought about--"
Angel cut him off with a raised hand and a curt tone. "Don't finish that question." He paused to rein in his feelings, then added more gently, "What can I offer besides a relatively short lifetime filled with moonlight walks and battling the apocalypse?"
Oz studied Willow then looked back at the vampire. "That might be enough...for the right woman," he stressed.
Angel closed his eyes. "It shouldn't have to be. It would be...selfish of me." As many times as he'd said those same words to himself and knew them to be true, the vampire couldn't seem to make himself let go of the fantasy. Eyes open, he forced a tight smile, hoping the falseness didn't show in his eyes. "Besides, I think Willow prefers musicians." Angel wished he could take the words back the moment he said them. This should be between Oz and Willow, and Willow should be the one to tell Oz her feelings, not him.
Oz shrugged, retorting, "It's a curse, actually." Then he looked at Angel and his teasing half-smile faded. "Oh, you were being serious."
Angel could only nod. If Oz hadn't already suspected that Willow had feelings for him before, he certainly did now. Angel thought he could see a look of dawning understanding in the boy's eyes.
Oz frowned, scratching his cheek thoughtfully as he glanced between the two. Shaking his head slightly, he finally said, "If you want, I could teach you to play, Angel. We could start off with something easy..."
"I'll stick to sketching, thanks."
"And the occasional prison and/or zoo mural," Oz added, bringing a smile to Angel's face.
They stood in silence, watching her sleep.
"She looks uncomfortable," Angel mumbled after a few moments, hands in his pockets. He glanced at Oz, who appeared to be trying very hard not to smile. "Don't you think she looks uncomfortable?"
"Now that you mention it, Angel, she does look kinda cramped."
Angel nodded his dark head with somber enthusiasm. "She'd be happier up in her bed, don't you think? More comfortable? I should--*we* should probably move her, right?"
"I know I always prefer beds to chairs," Oz stated matter of factly.
Angel nodded again, completely failing to look nonchalant. "So then I should pick her up...take her upstairs...where she'd be more comfortable...right? That's the sort of thing a friend would do...make her more comfortable, isn't it?" he asked almost desperately.
Oz's smile was one of understanding. "Right. It's the gentlemanly *friend* thing to do."
Oz gathered Willow's things and put them in her backpack before grabbing his guitar. Angel slowly approached the chair where Willow lay cuddled up, sleeping soundly. With an arm at her back and one beneath her knees, Angel gently lifted Willow into his arms, as if she were the most fragile thing on earth.
As Angel cradled her slight body against his chest, he actually held his breath, afraid she'd wake up. He didn't want to imagine what her reaction might be if she were to awaken and find herself in his arms.
"You should take her, Oz," Angel said, offering her to the smaller man. "Somehow I don't think she'd be very happy about--"
At that moment, Willow shifted, snuggling closer to Angel with a sleepy smile and a soft sigh of contentment.
"You were saying?" Oz grinned. He lifted his guitar and Willow's backpack, showing that hands were full anyway.
Angel dared a slight smile of his own, his arms tightening protectively around his precious bundle. She was obviously exhausted, if the circles under her eyes meant anything. She needed to rest, and she wouldn't get that curled up on an old chair in the basement.
"Never mind," he murmured as carried her across the room. Angel was barely aware that Oz followed behind as he painstakingly climbed the stairs one at a time, not wanting to disturb Willow.
The last time he'd held her like this was when she'd fainted the week before, the night she'd first arrived back in the current time. It seemed like just yesterday that she'd returned to him, yet it felt as if decades had passed since that night when she'd called him 'Angelus' and then promptly fainted away.
Taking her into The Pink Room, Angel struggled not to relive the other occasions he'd carried her limp body. The first time had been that night in the park in London, after coming across 'Rose' by chance some 50 years after he'd been turned. Then again decades later, he'd forced her to accompany him back to his London townhouse after outwitting her at poker. Both times he had bitten her, and now his gaze drifted of its own accord to her neck, falling on the faint scars she still bore from those meetings. He wouldn't allow himself to succumb to the guilt that those scars awoke in him. Not now. Still, he wished that just once he could hold her like this when she was conscious.
Reluctantly, Angel finally lay Willow on her bed and gingerly tucked her in. He nodded absently when Oz discreetly made his good-byes, asking Angel to thank Willow for staying with him. When he'd made her as comfortable as he could, Angel lingered in the doorway for a minute, just to watch her sleeping peacefully. Because of him, she'd had so little peace in her life. As he finally left the room and closed the door behind him, Angel made a silent vow to give her no new reasons to lose sleep.
With a melancholy smile, Angel headed for his own room, although he doubted that peaceful slumber would come to him anytime soon.
A warm ray of sunlight hit Willow's closed eyes. She snuggled deeper into the covers, trying to reclaim a fleeting dream in which she was lying in a field of emerald green clover high above the crashing waves of a cerulean blue ocean, staring up at puffy white clouds...
But it was to no avail. The serene dream was gone and her desire to sleep along with it.
Groaning, Willow pried her eyes open, then immediately sat upright when she realized where she was.
"Bloody hell..." she muttered, before falling back into the pillows. Somehow she was in The Pink Room--she quickly glanced under the sheets and breathed a sigh of relief--fully clothed. The last thing she remembered was putting Oz's guitar away and settling back into the chair to read a little more from 'Watership Down' for the werewolf. But she'd barely been able to keep her eyes open and...
...apparently she'd fallen asleep. "Way to go, Willow. Falling asleep on the first date," she grumbled at herself. "That'll really win him over."
She'd just been so tired. And, frankly, bored.
Willow shook her head in disapproval at her tiny admission of boredom. "Yep, great first date," she sighed again. At the same moment, her stomach growled. Suddenly starving and in desperate need of the bathroom, Willow jumped out of bed and sprinted down the hallway.
After having a quick wash and brushing her teeth, Willow left the bathroom, intending to grab her things and go home. But as she passed the little kitchenette, she saw Angel. The vampire was dressed in black sweats and a baggy, somewhat rumpled gray T-shirt, looking as if he'd just gotten out of bed himself. He stood in front of the microwave, apparently engrossed in watching his mug of blood rotating slowly inside. Willow started to tiptoe by, then paused. She couldn't keep avoiding him.
"Morning, Angel," she said as brightly as possible from the doorway.
Angel turned and smiled in surprise. He'd fully expected her to simply sneak out with saying a word. "Morning, Willow. Hope I didn't wake you."
"No, it was the sun's fault, not yours." She shifted uncomfortably. "Did, um, Oz..."
The microwave beeped and Angel took out the steaming mug, which was shaped like the head of Chewbacca. "Oz is fine," he said, turning back to her. "I let him out first thing after sunrise."
Willow took a few tentative steps into the small room while keeping her distance from the vampire. "I can't believe I fell asleep."
"You were tired, and Oz understood. He wanted me to thank you."
Willow gave Angel a smile of thanks for his reassurance. "Well, he's welcome." She licked her lips nervously. "Um, did he, er, bring me upstairs?"
Angel took a sip of blood, watching Willow carefully over the rim to gauge her reaction. "We both thought you'd be better in bed...um, more comfortable in bed, that is."
Willow nodded at the vague answer, not even noticing the embarrassed look on the vampire's face as he cringed at his choice of words.
Angel quickly changed the subject and started glancing through his cabinets. "Hungry? We have eggs, toast, Pop-Tarts--cherry, frosted--and lots of different cereal." Angel showed her a box of Count Chocula.
Willow grinned. "Let me guess. Xander makes you get that, right?"
"He mixes it with the Frankenberry cereal and calls it the breakfast of Demon-hunting champions. Want some?"
"No thanks, but I will take one of those Pop-Tarts."
Angel opened the box and took out a silver envelope holding two of the cherry-flavored pastries. He tossed it to Willow, which she easily caught.
"I saw Spike last night," Angel said in a tight voice as he turned to put the box back in the cupboard.
Willow grimaced and prepared herself for the worst. "What happened?" she asked in a half-groan.
"Nothing. He wanted to see you, but I told him you were with Oz." Angel leaned back against the counter, crossing his arms over his chest. "Spike wanted me to tell you hello and that he'd catch up with you later." Angel grimaced. He was trying to sound and look nonchalant, but he doubted he was pulling it off very well. "He, uh, didn't want you to worry about him."
Relieved to hear that they hadn't come to blows or worse, Willow gave the vampire a grateful smile then focused on opening her breakfast. "Thanks for telling me, Angel, especially since knowing Spike, his request hardly included a 'please' or a 'thank you'." Willow broke off a piece of the Pop-Tart's edge and popped it into her mouth, not only because she was hungry, but to keep herself from asking Angel for more details about his latest conversation with Spike. What else did you talk about? What *exactly* did Spike say? Did he try to hurt you? Did you try to hurt him? Did he look happy?
The list would go on and on, but since she was the one who'd asked if they could pretend that nothing had happened between them, she doubted that line of questioning would be very apropos. It could easily get out of hand. Instead, she quietly nibbled away on her cherry-flavor-filled pastry.
Angel cleared his throat. "He also asked if we'd seen any strange-looking demons lately."
"Like the P'Ghar demon?" she asked when her mouth wasn't full.
"He said they looked alien-like and that there were three of them."
Willow jumped up to have a seat on the countertop across from Angel. "Nope, haven't seen them but I'll keep an eye out."
She munched on another crust, staring at the floor while she ate. Angel concentrated on drinking his breakfast from the Wookie-shaped mug, which was also a present from the other Willow. She'd gotten him the entire set of Star Wars character mugs off of Ebay.
The silence while they ate was uncomfortable but both were at a loss for what to say next. Finally, Willow knew she had to say something before the silence became fatal.
"You've done good here, Angel," she admitted after her last bite.
"I didn't make the Pop-Tarts, Willow," Angel said with a casual grin. "I only paid for them."
Willow smiled, knowing he was teasing her. "I'm talking about Slayer Central, Angel. I know I've been pretty negative about all the changes, but this..." she made a gesture to encompass the whole building. "...this is simply amazing what you've done. The books, the computers...everything. You should be very proud of yourself."
Angel shook his head and stared down into his nearly empty mug. "It was the least I could do, Willow," he replied.
Willow smiled as a similar conversation she'd once had with Spike came back to her. "No, the least you could have done was wallow in self-pity forever. It would have been a lot easier, too." Angel looked up at her
Angel looked up at the redhead. "Don't kid yourself Willow, and don't make me out to be a saint. I had plenty of selfish reasons for doing this as well."
Willow brushed away a few brightly-colored crumbs from her lap then slid off the counter. She put the remaining Pop-Tart in the refrigerator for next time before fixing the vampire with a stern look. "We all have those, Angel. We all have our own calculated reasons for doing what we do, but that shouldn't negate the benefits. No one's expecting you to be a saint. Including me."
Angel's lips curved upward slightly, as if to say, "Then you won't be disappointed," but before Willow could respond, the hint of wicked smile, along with the devilish gleam to his eye, was gone. He was serious once again as he set down his mug and took a hesitant step closer.
"Willow, about the mural..."
"Don't you dare apologize for that!" She hated seeing his brow furrowed with guilt.
"It was a shock, I'll admit," Willow interrupted him, taking a few steps closer to the vampire without realizing it. "But Oz seems to like it. It's actually quite beautiful, and yeah, kinda creepy, too, but that's okay. I can cope. After all, those memories are probably worse for you than they are for me."
Angel shook his head in disagreement as he inched forward. "But I should have warned you or--"
Willow held her fingers to the solemn vampire's lips, cutting him off again. "*Don't* apologize, I said," she repeated gently.
They froze for just a moment, lost in a maelstrom of emotions created by the intimate contact. Then Willow's eyes widened when she realized what she'd done. She abruptly pulled her hand away from his equally surprised lips and stepped back on shaky legs. Angel jumped back as well.
"Besides...it, uh, never happened, right?" she asked with a forced lightness to her tone. Her fingers were still tingling, and if she wasn't mistaken, so were her toes. "It's simply a generic painting of any old forest to make Oz feel more at home when he's in his wolfie form."
Angel licked his lips. "Er, right," he replied, rather dazed himself.
Desperate to look anywhere but at Angel, Willow happened to glance at the clock on the microwave and was shocked to see that it was already after two. "Yikes! Look at the time. My parents will be arriving in a couple of hours...I should, er, get some groceries and stuff..."
Willow brushed past the Irishman, then stopped in the doorway to look back at him over her shoulder. "Thanks for the good-night's sleep, Angel...well, good-morning's sleep, anyway. I really needed that."
Angel smiled. "Anytime, Willow, and please tell your parents 'welcome home' for me."
Willow nearly scowled from the mere idea of Angel and her parents knowing each other that well, but the sincere look on Angel's face chased it away. She gave him a tremulous smile instead. "Sure, Angel. See you later."
Angel watched her leave, and when he heard the sound of the front door closing behind her, he felt like circling the date on the calendar. He wasn't completely sure, but it seemed to him as if he'd actually managed to have a whole conversation with Willow without causing her any real pain. The fact that she'd touched him without turning as white as a sheet was a bonus.
It was a red-letter day indeed.
End Chapter 14 - March 20, 2002
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