* Big thanks to my beta reader Tracy, who has been with me since my very first fic, The Choice, over 4 years ago!  Wow...I need to write faster...  Also thanks to Melissa for bringing the great song to my attention.  Lastly, thanks to Medea for the massage suggestion! I'm sure the W/S shippers would like to thank you for that as well ;-)

** Dedicated to all the mommies and daddies out there.  If only children came with instructions and volume control. ;-)

*** This part is long and a lot of stuff happens.  I know, it's about time, right? ;-)

The song is " Further and Further Away" and was written by  Cheryl Wheeler and sung by Kathy Mattea, 1992 Amachrist Music/Penrod and Higgins Music, Admin by ACF music group (ASCAP).  If you use Kazaa or Napster or something similar, download it! Better yet, go out and buy it because it's a beautiful song.  Thanks, Melissa, for finding the PERFECT song!!!
 
 

It's About Time  ~ Chapter 16
*********

...about two months later...



"Any sign of him?"

"No," Willow hissed in response to Buffy's whispered question as they peered through the surrounding darkness.  "But I know he's out there, somewhere.  Watching...waiting..." Aware that at that very moment he could be watching her, waiting for the perfect opportunity to pounce, Willow shivered with anticipation.

It was Friday night.  Patrol night.  And for Willow, these routine group patrols were easily the highlight of her week.

When she'd first learned that Friday nights were supposed to be their regular group patrol nights, but they had simply gotten out of the habit during those last few hectic weeks of summer, Willow wasn't all that surprised.  In her own timeline, it was hardly unheard of for her to join Buffy during patrols.  What was a surprise, however, was that Angel not only accompanied them but used the outings as a training exercise as well.  They didn't just wander from one park to the next, cemetery to cemetery, searching for vampires while discussing the latest episode of 'X-Files' or 'Friends' and munching on a bag of cheese doodles.  In this timeline, patrols were structured and organized.  Everyone had a job to do.  Not that they always did them, of course.  They were still teenagers, after all.

Willow didn't mind the coordinated effort, because she quickly learned that if things were a little slow on the slayage front during these exercises, Angel would soon liven things up.  The souled vampire seemed to take great pleasure in using a little role-playing or a sneak attack, anything he could think of to keep them on their toes and thinking on their feet, which explained everyone's calm reaction the night she'd returned, knocking down Xander and babbling about Angelus.

Although 'Angelus' had yet to make an appearance since school had started and the patrols had resumed, Willow definitely got to see a different side of Angel on Friday nights.  He didn't simply lurk in the background; he tracked and trailed, stalked and prowled, folding himself into the darkness like a true child of the night. On patrol nights, Angel was *all* vampire, and instead making her nervous or giving her horrifying flashbacks, Willow was now undeniably and inexplicably drawn to him.

And it irked her.

How come she found it so easy to ignore her attraction for Angel when they were back at Slayer Central, researching or discussing the latest demon of the week?  For the past couple of months, he'd been a perfect gentleman, always giving her the space and privacy she needed, sticking to his agreement to pretend as if their lurid past didn't exist.  Sitting across from that solemn vampire at Slayer Central didn't make her tummy flutter, *much*, but watching him slip soundlessly through the shadows awakened a myriad of conflicting emotions deep within.

"What do you think, Willow?  Should we throw a bucket of water on them before Angel reappears?"

At the sound of Buffy's voice, Willow quit scanning the shadowed park to frown playfully at Buffy.  "What?  Oh, sorry, but I seem to have left the bucket in my other pants.  Besides, do you really think they'd even notice?"

Exchanging a conspiratorial look, Buffy and Willow again parted the overgrown rhododendrons to sneak a peek at Xander and Cordelia.  They were still standing in the middle of the small clearing, locked in a frantic embrace with the wandering of their lips being only slightly outdone by their roving hands.

"No," Buffy said in a tone that was half-sigh, half-whisper.  "I don't think they'd notice if we set a fire hose on them."

With the heat the passionate pair were creating, Willow wondered if a fire hose might not be such a bad idea.  Even the crisp air of the late-September night couldn't stop her cheeks from burning after witnessing a small portion of the teenagers' fiery exchange.  She doubted Smokey the Bear would approve.

Willow straightened and let the branch shift back, giving the couple their privacy.

Willow didn't actually mind that Xander and Cordelia's romantic escapades were threatening to set the autumn leaves on fire.  Cordelia always seemed very busy now that school had resumed.  From what Willow could tell, between cheerleading practice, student council, homecoming committee meetings and her time spent battling vamps and such, Cordelia and Xander rarely had a moment alone.  No wonder they had a thing for broom closets.  Sometimes when Willow thought about Cordelia's hectic school schedule, she almost felt guilty.

Almost, but not quite.

After more than a century, Willow was finally a Sunnydale High School Senior as well.  Better yet, a Sunnydale High School Senior with an easy course load and a shortened school day, for which she thanked Jenny every chance she could.  Sure, most of her classes were dull...sometimes excruciatingly so as it all seemed rather redundant now, but it was nicely low stress for a change, especially when compared to the others' school days.

Okay, so maybe her patience for the cuddling pair did stem somewhat from guilt or perhaps it was simply because she was more mature now, but Willow didn't begrudge Xander and Cordelia these few intimate moments, even if they were supposed to be patrolling.

Willow sighed as she turned away from their private spot, and Buffy straightened at the sound.  She watched the redhead walk away for a moment, hesitated, and then followed.

"What's wrong, Wills?"  Buffy asked in the same tone Willow imagined a mother might use when she found a crying child.  Their relationship was strange like that now.  Brief, sparkling moments of normalcy interspersed with blurry awkward times when they both seemed aware that their friendship wasn't what it had once been. They never did have that sleepover they'd discussed back in July, over two months ago now.  Willow always managed to find an excuse, and Buffy always seemed to understand.

The century-old redhead had yet to tell her friends what had really happened to her, even at the gentle urgings of Giles and Jenny.  The more time passed, the more reluctant she was to tell them the truth.  It was a vicious cycle, one that Willow didn't know how to end, and the strain was beginning to affect all of her relationships.  No matter how hard she tried, Willow never felt like she fit back into the group, whether in her old Willow role or in a newer one.  While she was sure that the others did notice the changes in her, they'd kept their comments to themselves so far. She did occasionally catch them whispering to each other or suddenly changing the topic when she entered the room, but they never confronted her about how withdrawn she must seem, something else for which she was grateful.

On the occasions that they did ask how she was, which had become less and less frequent over the past two months, Willow would slip into her poker face, all the while wishing it weren't necessary.  Finding a strange sort of comfort in its familiar indifference, Willow always found it easy to produce yet another lie to explain away her most recent strange behavior.

"Nothing, really," Willow assured Buffy, not allowing herself to hide behind her poker facade this time.  When Buffy made a 'I'm not buying it for a second face', Willow told her the truth. "I'm just...a little jealous, I guess."

"But I thought you were over Xander?  I thought Angel cured you of that?"

"He did!  I--I mean, *I* did!  I am.  My Xander-crushage is long, *long* gone."  Willow paused to compose herself.  "It's just that..."  she trailed off, her eyes lingering on the shadows that surrounded them.

"Sometimes you wish you had someone to sneak off into the bushes and shirk responsibility with?" Buffy supplied.

Willow relaxed and gave her friend a somewhat embarrassed nod, remembering that Buffy was also still currently without a boyfriend.

Buffy sighed through a tight smile.  "Me, too."  She paused to stare over Willow's shoulder.  "You know," she began, the barest hint of a wicked glint brightening her hazel eyes, "I'm sure *Angel* would love to do a little shirking with you."

When Willow turned to see what Buffy was looking at, her breath caught.  Like a lion returning to his pride, Angel prowled toward them, cutting a smooth path through the moonlit park.  God how she loved the way Angel moved.  He had that same predatory ease that she'd always appreciated in Spike.  But where Spike moved like he had all the time in the world, with his own special brand of lazy grace, Angel's movements were determined, calculated, as if he were aware of every muscle and sinewy fiber in his body.

What's more, Willow was beginning to think that she was aware of every muscle in his body as well.  It wasn't her fault, she assured herself when she began to feel guilty for her naughtier thoughts.  She was, undoubtedly, the world's oldest virgin, which should give her license to occasionally covet the male form, and at this moment, Angel's was magnificent.

As he did on most patrols, Angel was wearing a close-fitting, long-sleeved, v-necked knit shirt.  It clung to him unabashedly, revealing the well-defined musculature of his upper torso, arms and abs, as well as a tantalizing peek at his bare chest.  His casual canvas pants, while far from tight, made it impossible for Willow not to appreciate the vampire's tight butt and strong thighs whenever he stooped behind a bush, ready to pounce at the slightest sound from the other side.  The fact that all his clothes were black (as were everyone else's on patrol nights) only added to his already devastatingly masculine allure.

It was like this every time they patrolled together.  Willow couldn't keep her eyes from lingering on his body, all over his body actually, often averting her admiring gaze just in time to avoid being caught by his attentive eyes.  She hated to think of his reaction if he realized how strongly she was drawn to his vampiric side.  He'd been fighting evil in his own way for decades, and yet she loved watching the silent way he moved through the night, creeping low behind deeply shadowed shrubs, moments later sprinting at supernatural speed to either tackle a fleeing vamp or simply give Buffy a run for her money.  And when in an attempt to catch them being careless during patrol, Angel actually managed to circle around and sneak up behind them?  Well, the wild thumping in her heart wasn't simply from being startled.

He was drawing nearer, and Willow hated how her pulse tried to quicken whenever Angel was at his most vampire-like.  She fought it with her breathing techniques, but it wasn't easy.  And it wasn't fair.  It wasn't right.

If only tonight were a regular research night, because then she'd be immersing herself in good old safe demonic references instead of drowning in something much more dangerous.  No, not the patrolling.  In fact, she actually enjoyed the freedom patrols gave her, including the rare chance to put her martial arts skills to use, but the freedom came with a price: Angel. Angel on patrol was deliciously dark and satisfyingly dangerous...he was all vampire.

Willow had to shake herself free from her own treacherous thoughts and rip her eyes away from the approaching vampire.  "Do you ever give up, Buffy?" she asked in a soft voice that wasn't quite as casual as she'd hoped for.  Her heart was thumping too loudly for her to manage casual, and she shuddered to think how obvious and headstrong Buffy would be about getting them together if she knew the whole story.

Buffy grinned, reveling in her victory.  "Now what kind of Slayer would I be if I admitted defeat easily?"

"A dead one," Angel said as he finally joined them.  He scanned the girls' faces, hoping for a hint as to what they'd been talking about.  He'd thought for a moment, hoped even, that Willow had been watching his approach with hungry eyes, but now those same green eyes were cool and unaffected, and as usual, looking anywhere but at him.  Buffy, on the other hand, was grinning madly and appeared about a heartbeat away from winking at him.  Very familiar with The Slayer's sly look, Angel decided it probably wouldn't be prudent to ask what they'd been talking about just then.  He hoped they were discussing him, and that Buffy in that stubborn, unsubtle way of hers was still trying to get through Willow's defenses where he was concerned, but he wouldn't ask.  No matter how badly he wanted to know.

"Where are Xander and Cordelia?" Angel asked instead.  It seemed a much safer topic.

Willow glanced at the bushes that hid the couple from view.  "Well, they're still here, they're just...busy."

Buffy picked up from there.  "They're, um, struggling with a different kind of demon right now."

With a dark brow raised in curiosity, Angel looked at them both again, then at the bushes.  He knew exactly what the two teenagers were struggling with.  He'd been young once, after all...not that age actually lessened that particular struggle one iota.  He cast a sidelong glance at Willow, taking in for about the 100th time that night just how alluring she was in her slim-fitting black suede jeans and black crocheted sweater.  When she turned his direction, Angel quickly looked away, further convinced that the kind of struggle Cordelia and Xander were currently engaged in was nothing compared to his.

"Really?" he finally asked in a hushed, overly-serious tone.

As he stalked deliberately toward the rhododendrons, Willow had to bite her lip to keep from releasing a purely girlish sigh. She forced her eyes to study the nearby flora instead of the sexy vampire. Much more of this, and the mere sight of him would have her swooning like a Victorian virgin after her first kiss behind the potted palms.  She wondered vaguely if he might consider wearing baggy sweats for the next patrol.  Something in a very unsexy lime green.  And did he have to prowl like that?  Maybe he'd consider skipping instead.  Skipping wasn't sexy.

Oh, who was she kidding?  Angel could be wearing lime-green sweats three sizes too large and skipping through the tulips like some sort of demented Teletubby, and she'd still find herself drawn to him like the proverbial moth to the flame.  It wasn't fair.

"What did they find?" Angel continued lightly, unaware of Willow's internal struggles.  "Vampire nest?  Chaos demon?  Flock of rabid garden gnomes?"
Buffy stepped to the side and parted the bushes, giving Angel a quick peek at Xander and Cordelia, who were still thoroughly and physically engrossed in one another.  "Neither.  Only teenagers in love," she whispered, letting the branches close again.

"Guess that's what I get for letting them guard our backs.  Next time they'll be in front, on point.  Better yet, we'll separate them," Angel decided with feigned seriousness.

"Look at the bright side," Willow said, trying to occupy her wandering mind that kept pointing out how smooth Angel's skin looked in the moonlight. "We may be short a couple of demon hunters, but they make great bait."

"Yeah, I guess when two people are that oblivious to their surroundings they're just bound to be attacked by vampires."  Buffy sighed melodramatically.  "It's fate."

Willow's lips twisted into a wry smile.  "More like copious amounts of hormones and a preternatural sense of smell," Willow added aloud without thinking.

Buffy blinked at Willow, then her hazel eyes widened as the redhead's meaning sunk in.  "You mean...um, that vampires can actually tell when two people are..."

Willow hoped she wasn't blushing, acutely aware that an amused Angel was studying her, trying very hard not to grin himself.  "Well, yes--"

"Oh my god..." Buffy began.  "Willow, how did you...Angel, why didn't you tell me?"

"I did," Angel calmly interrupted the Slayer's embarrassed stammering.

"You never told me that a vampire can tell when someone is...that they can, er, smell when two people...you know...*really* like each other.  I would have remembered that!"

"Actually, I did, Buffy.  I just wasn't as direct as Willow.  I think I said something like: 'Vampires can detect love in the air.'"

Buffy paused to consider this. "Oh.  I thought you were just being poetic." Buffy was silent for another moment, and Willow had to chew on the inside of her lip to keep from giggling.  "So if we wait here long enough and let them continue to paw each other, then we should have some company?"

Angel quickly scanned the park, taking note of the breeze and its direction.  "If there are any vampires within a block or so from here, downwind, they'll come."

With a grin of anticipation, Buffy pulled out a stake, tossed it casually in the air and caught it.  She seemed to have gotten over her embarrassment.  "Since we're already ringing the dinner bell, I guess we better get comfortable."

Willow took up a position behind a smelly trashcan, Buffy knelt in the shadows of a stunted fir, while Angel used the thick trunk of an old pine tree for cover.  Then they did what Willow did best:  They waited.  But not for long.  Before Willow could become nauseated by the stench of rotting fast food, a hungry vampire crashed into the protected clearing that Xander and Cordelia had chosen for their rendezvous.  The vampire's ravenous path took him within a foot of Buffy's hiding place.  Before he was even aware that it had been a trap, the vampire was floating to the ground as a million particles of dust.

Finally noticing that their friends surrounded them, stakes in hand, Xander and Cordelia parted with a guilty start.  "Um...we didn't miss anything, did we?" Xander asked through am embarrassed cough.

"Not really," Buffy replied, slipping the stake back into her pocket with practiced ease.  "It was almost too easy...I feel kinda cheated."

As did Willow, who'd actually been hoping for a good fight.  Maybe it would have exhausted all that pent-up energy that was screaming for any sort of physical release, and it looked like fighting was as close as she was going to get for quite some time.

Her lack of progress on the Oz front was discouraging.  Even though he was repeating his senior year at Sunnydale High School for reasons Willow didn't fully understand, he seemed to be going out of his way to avoid her ever since that night she'd wolf sat.  Since then, they'd barely exchanged more than the occasional "Hey," in the school hallways.

Of course, whenever she and Spike managed to spend some time together, which was infrequently at best, he always volunteered to help relieve her of any and all sexual tension.  Yep.  She could always count on the blond vampire to insinuate himself, physically and verbally, in true Spike fashion.  While she'd probably be a little disappointed if he didn't continue to try every once in a while, she wasn't about to risk the delicate balance of what felt like her only true friendship just because she was a little...sexually needy.  She'd already survived over a century without sex.  Another few months...years...wouldn't kill her, even if it did feel that way sometimes.

Willow gnawed on her lower lip.  Tonight was definitely one of those times, she decided as her eyes hungrily sought out Angel again and again, until she was finally caught.  This time, Angel was regarding her with equal intensity.  Before she forced herself to look away, Willow allowed herself to sink in the warm pools of his brown eyes for a moment, bathing herself in the understanding and tenderness she found there.

She only pulled away from the depths of his gaze when she realized that she'd unknowingly moved closer to the vampire.  Frustrated at her own weakness, Willow glanced at the others, hoping they hadn't noticed.  Luckily, Buffy was too busy watching Cordelia and Xander try to straighten their clothes to take any notice of Willow.

Ten minutes, one awkward explanation of vampire bait, and several fierce blushes later, patrol had resumed, and they were on their last pass through the park.  Next stop: one of the nearby cemeteries.

Willow lagged behind the others, keeping watch for anything suspicious in a vain attempt to focus on something other than the lure of Angel's muscles moving beneath his clothes.  A movement out of the corner of her eye brought her to an immediate halt.  She'd just slipped the stake out of her pocket when a number of vampires seemed to appear out of nowhere.  Willow barely had enough time to yell: "Incoming!" before the vampires were on them.

The first vampire to engage Willow was an oily sort, wearing a black Members Only jacket, a thin leather tie, and hair that was way too big.  Willow staked him before he'd even been able to touch her.  Unfortunately, there was an orange-haired, freckle-face vamp immediately ready to take his place.

Soon, the others were similarly occupied, finding no shortage of vampires to square up against.  The Scooby Gang fought back-to-back, as they'd been taught, while still giving each other plenty of space to maneuver, but Willow seemed to have more than her fair share of vampires to fight and before long she found herself separated from the others.

Angel didn't know how it happened.  One moment they were handling the situation as well as could be expected given that they were out numbered and caught by surprise, and then the next, Willow was gone from view.

While fighting off a copper-skinned female vampire who'd gone overboard on the eye makeup, her fake spider-like lashes seemingly interfering with her ability to land a decent punch, he was finally able to spot Willow a short distance away, completely surrounded by vampires.  She had as many vampires to defend herself from as he and the others had combined, yet Willow appeared to be holding her own.  No matter how formidable her marital arts skills, however, her strength and stamina were still merely human.  She was going to need help.

Buffy was on his left, currently pummeling a particularly spry female vampire who appeared to have studied gymnastics in her living years.  But since he was now fighting off three and Buffy only had the one....

"Buffy," he called, trying to keep his rising panic about Willow out of his voice.  "Think you can tear yourself away from Mary Lou Retton there long enough to give Willow a hand?"

"Already on it, Angel," Buffy said, spotting the opportunity to stake the vampire when she stumbled after a series of back handsprings.  "Looks like you blew the dismount," Buffy informed the vampire dryly, plunging the stake into her unbeating heart.

Angel's relief was short-lived, however, because the moment The Slayer took a step in Willow's direction, three more vampires engaged her all at once.  "Xander, can you get to Willow?"

"I'm trying, but they--"  Before Xander could finish the statement, he was shoved violently from behind and propelled in the exact opposite direction of Willow.  A moment later, Cordy, who'd been fighting alongside Xander, landed on top of him.

"All right," Buffy shouted in a suspicious tone, "what the hell is going on?"  Her shout came to Willow over the sounds of fighting.  Buffy easily ducked under a female vampire's sweeping punch, staking her before she had the chance to throw another.  But the Slayer didn't have time to catch her breath before another vampire loomed before her.  "Where are they all coming from?"

"I was just wondering the same thing!" Willow shot back in answer to Buffy's question.  "Everyone okay?"

Although Angel found the sound of Willow's voice reassuring, he couldn't answer for himself.  He was too busy doing everything he could to get to Willow's side, but the vampires he battled seemed to have something else in mind.  Every chance they had, the vampires pushed, kicked or threw him as far from Willow as they could.  Whenever he broke away, another vampire blocked his path.  The moment he staked one, another took its place and knocked the stake out of his hand.  Strange thing was, the vampires weren't all that vicious.  They didn't act as if they wanted to kill them all in one savage night of blood sport.  They just seemed to enjoy a good fight.

"Just peachy," Xander called back.  "Cordy's broken a couple of nails, but that's about the extent of our injuries so far."

"We're managing okay, Willow," Buffy called back between spinning kicks to two different vampires.  "How are you...holding up?"

"Um, I'm getting kinda lonely over here, despite all the pleasant company of the fanged variety."  Although Willow wasn't getting thrown around as much as the others, she was taking the occasional step backwards, putting even more distance between herself and her friends.  Even when she was aware of their tactics, realizing that she'd been singled out for some reason, she couldn't manage to get back to Angel and the others.

"We're trying to get to you, Willow, but--"  At that moment, Buffy was suddenly grabbed from behind and pulled backwards, again in the opposite direction of Willow.

"Buffy?"

"--but the vampires seem to have something else in mind..." Buffy finished when she was able.

While continuing to fight, Willow strained to see how the others were faring.  The only person she could actually see was Xander, and he seemed to be holding his own even though she couldn't see a stake in his hand.  Since he didn't seem overly panicked, she assumed that meant Cordelia was also okay.  She couldn't spot Buffy, but heard her string of rejoinders, announcing that she was systematically dusting her vampires.  But there was no sign of Angel through the maze of moving bodies and flying fists.

"Angel?" she called out between ducks and parries.  When there was no immediate answer, her calm façade began to crack.  "Angel!"  Willow listened for any sound of his voice, but all she could decipher were some muffled grunts that could be coming from almost anyone.  Twisting toward the sound, Willow missed a short jab from her opponent and took it squarely on the side of her head.

Her ears were ringing from the force of the blow when Buffy's voice came back over the commotion.  "He's here, Willow."  Willow was so relieved she almost forgot about the vampires around her.  "He just keeps...taking a fist to the mouth anytime he tries...to open it..." the Slayer finished.

Finding a renewed energy at the news, Willow landed a jump-scissors kick to a cart-wheeling female vamp that knocked her on her ass.  The moment the vampire sprang back up, Willow's stake was ready and waiting.  Before the dust could settle, another vampire was upon her, delivering another harsh blow to the same side of her head.  Her ears still ringing, Willow blocked yet another blow to her head with a forearm, spinning just in time to sidekick a vampire that had been hoping to sneak up on her.

Willow's confidence began to waver.  In the beginning, she'd had no doubt that they could handle the vampires, but as their numbers never seemed to dwindle, Willow was growing weary and starting to worry.  Despite the fact that the vampires seemed the polite sort, quite happy to wait their turn instead of attacking her all at once, Willow was quite proud of how she'd managed up to this point.  It had felt good to work off a little steam, but now...her body was starting to ache, her head throbbed, and her stomach was churning, making it hard to focus.  The fight was becoming a blur.

"Hold on a second," Willow grumbled as a familiar, albeit slightly hazy, looking fanged face moved in on her.  The vampire had sandy hair and a plethora of freckles.  "Didn't I just dust you about five vamps ago or do you have an ugly twin brother that was also stupid enough to get vamped?"

The moment she said it, she knew she should have kept her mouth shut.  The vampires that had previously only been giving her a good workout suddenly turned pit bull on her.  The kicks came twice as fast, the punches packed twice the power, and they were no longer politely waiting their turn to pummel her.

While exchanging blows with a female vampire who had obviously taken makeup lessons from Tammy Fae Baker, Willow was abruptly grabbed from behind.  Long nails gouged through the sleeves of her crocheted top and into the soft flesh near her wrists, ripping up the length of her arms.

With an angry cry of pain, Willow thrust her elbow back into the vampire's midsection, doubling him over, before spinning to grab him behind the head and shove him down into her upward-thrusting knee.  Before the vampire toppled to the ground, clutching a broken jaw, it was dust.

The overdone female vampire gave Willow no time to revel in her victory or nurse her wounds, however, before redoubling her efforts.

"Why the bloody hell are you all focusing on me?" Willow muttered under her breath, as she flipped the female vampire to the ground, then quickly twisted to kick the next in the face with punishing force.  She staked the prone one, who was stupid enough to lie there in awe at the height of Willow's kick, then turned back to the one with the bleeding nose.

Willow didn't have any more time to wonder what she'd done to deserve the wrath of every vampire in the tri-county area.  For everyone she dispatched, another appeared, and to be honest, her training rarely entailed fending off more than two attackers at a time, three at the most.  They were coming so fast now that Willow's dizziness multiplied.  After delivering blow after blow, inner block after outer block, jumping roundhouse kick after axe kick, she was having trouble catching her breath.  The ground seemed wobbly, the air unstable somehow.  She faltered.

Apparently sensing her weakness, the vaguely familiar vampire closest to her made his move.  She fended off his first two punches with only mild difficulty, but was caught off guard by a lightning-quick leg sweep.  Already light-headed, Willow collapsed hard onto her back, losing what little breath she had left in a painful gasp.

The vampire pounced.  Crowing in dark triumph, he shoved her head to the side, exposing her neck.  Running on instinct only, Willow abruptly thrust upward with her hips.  At the same time, she pushed sideways at his chest with one hand while feeling for her dropped stake with the other.  Just as Angel had been that time they'd sparred together, this vampire was completely off center, and therefore fairly easy to dispel to the side.  She thrust the vampire off of her with what little strength remained, rolled, and was just going to ram the stake deep within its chest, when the vampire's already fading grin of victory morphed into a shocked grimace.  With the vampire's chest still a good half inch from the tip of her stake, he imploded into a cloud of ashes, revealing the blurry face of her rescuer.

"You all right, Red?"

Collapsing on to her back, Willow blinked up at the figure hovering above her, but she had to squeeze her eyes shut as another bout of dizziness and nausea threatened to overcome her.

A familiar cool hand stroked her cheek and neck.  "Come on, Red.  Talk to me."

"Spike?" she croaked, barely above a whisper. She let the stake slip from her fingers before clutching at his duster, anything to stop the world from spinning.

"Where are you hurt, Willow?  Did that vamp get his fangs in you?"

Willow pried her eyes open again, her vision still swimming, her stomach faring little better.  Willow could plainly see the worry on Spike's face, even through his wrinkles and fangs and her own bleary vision.  His amber eyes, heavy with concern, held hers.

"That's it, pet," he said in a soothing tone when she managed a weak smile.  "Tell Spike where the bastards hurt you."

Willow opened her mouth to reply just as another vampire came leaping into view.  Releasing his lapels, she squeaked a warning, but Spike didn't even have to turn away from her to deal with the demon.  With one hand he caught the lunging vampire by his neck, slamming him to the ground before ramming a stake through his chest.

Without losing a beat, he repeated more urgently, "Tell me where they hurt you, Red.  Did they bite you?  Can you bloody breathe or not?"

"I-I'm okay, Spike," she tried to reassure him while at the same time shaking her head to clear it.  "Just very...dizzy.  I guess those blows to my head were worse than I thought."  The energy it took to utter those few words sapped her strength.  She had to close her eyes yet again and breathe deeply.  As she centered herself, she also became vaguely aware that the others were calling her name, their voices raised in various levels of concern.  Xander's was panicked, Buffy's angry, and even Cordelia sounded unusually worried.  Angel's deep, calming tones, however, were conspicuously absent.

"Angel?"  Her eyes flew open just in time to see Spike dusting yet another vampire while barely leaving her side.  She didn't try to hide the sharp edge of panic in her voice.  "Angel?" she called more loudly, trying to lever herself up into some sort of sitting position.  She wanted to let her friends know she wasn't seriously hurt, but more importantly, she had to reassure herself that they were okay as well.  But Spike's gentle hand on her shoulder eased her back to the damp ground.

"Stay down, Red.  Still a few of the thicker-headed vamps prancing about."  His jovial demeanor faltered.  "I swear, if one more of these bloody wankers comes near you, I'll rip its head off with my bare hands!"  The way he raised his voice, Willow assumed his words were meant more as a warning to the vampires than they were a reassurance for her.

Despite Spike insistence that she stay down, Willow managed a sitting position on her second try.  From what she could tell, the number of vampires had decreased sharply, and the few that remained were now focused on the others.

She still couldn't make out Angel in the flurry of activity.  "Spike, can you see Angel?"

Spike's yellowed eyes flashed an even deeper shade of amber before narrowing on her.  His lips puckered with annoyance.  "They're *all* fine, Red.  The whole pathetic lot.  Now lie back down before you heave all over the leather."

Willow took a deep breath and slowly let it out.  "I'm fine," she lied, looking about slowly so as not to trigger another bout of vertigo.  She wanted to see Angel.

But instead of the dark vampire or any member of the Scooby Gang catching her eye, three men did instead.  They appeared to be watching the action from an old gazebo a safe distance away.  Willow was tempted to motion for them to flee for their lives, but she stayed her hand, not wanting to draw any unwanted attention to their presence just in case the vampires decided they needed easier prey.  She was also afraid that something as simple as a wave of her hand would set the world to spinning again.  Vaguely she wondered what the three men must be thinking.  Were they chalking up the scuffle to the mysterious rival gangs of Sunnydale, which according to the police and the newspaper were behind all the darker goings on in Sunnydale?  Her musings were cut short as a vampire landed at her feet--one with big hair, an out-of-fashion black jacket and a slender leather tie.  She could have sworn that she'd staked this one at least twice already.  Exactly how hard had she been hit? she wondered, just as Spike happily plunged a stake into its heart, covering Willow's black Keds with a sprinkling of dust.

When she glanced back up at the humans, wondering what they made of the vampire's sudden disintegration, they were gone.

Smarter than they looked, she figured.  Or maybe they just had somewhere more important to be.  In her clouded mind, it seemed like the shorter one of the three kept checking his watch.

"If you wanted to see me, Red, you could have called," Spike said with a teasing lilt that didn't quite mask his concern.  Taking Willow's hands to gently ease her to her feet, Spike added in a gruffer tone: "Don't have to get yourself killed just to get my attention!"

Willow's eyes were on the group of fighters in the distance, anxiously checking on their condition.  From what she could see, they appeared tired and disheveled but otherwise fine.  She lingered on Angel as he exchanged punches with two vampires.  The relief she felt at the sight of him eased some of her own aches and pains.

"You could have shared that bit of info with me about a century ago, Spike.  Would have saved us both a lot of trouble," she murmured, her eyes still locked on Angel, who was now down to only one opponent.  The simple act of speaking made her sway on her feet.  Spike steadied her before turning her to face him.

With an eye on the others, who appeared to be wrapping up their various fights and desperate to get to Willow, he said, "They're managing fine, pet, now that I'm here."  He took her gently by the wrists, eyeing the long rips in her sleeves.  "Now, let's see the damage, Red, before your pals decide to rescue you."

With her back to Angel and company, Willow offered him a weak smile and held her breath as she delicately pushed up the thin sleeves of her knit top to survey the damage.

There was nothing.  Not even a scratch to mar her soft ivory skin.  Spike seemed as surprised as she was.  His amazement brought him closer, and he ran a single finger gently up the inside of each arm, from wrist to elbow.

"As I was running over, I could've sworn they got you, Red," he said, giving her another visual once over.

Willow frowned, her brows knitting together in confusion.  She could have sworn they'd got her too.  That blow to her head must have really been something!  "I guess not." Willow held her arms up for display one more time before pulling her tattered sleeves back down and shrugging.  "Guess they had weak nails.  Maybe they didn't get enough calcium in their diets."

Buffy was the first to manage to break away from the vampires and run to Willow's aid.  As if on cue, Xander, Cordelia, and Angel were able to stake their last opponents as well and quickly followed suit, with Angel only a couple of steps behind the Slayer.  As he ran, the image of Willow falling to the ground played repeatedly in his mind.

He'd been engaged in a fierce battle of his own and had just been able to discern Willow in the distance, fighting for her life and then crumpling to the ground.  An icy chill, more bitter than any winter wind, had enveloped him when he realized there was no way he could get to her in time, even if he hadn't been fending off four vampires.  None of them could.

And then Spike had appeared, like an avenging angel coming to Willow's rescue yet again.  Although relieved that Willow was safe, Angel had found the look on Spike's face as he hovered over Willow's prone form to be far from angelic.  Even from a distance, Spike appeared more than simply concerned about Willow.  He seemed desperate, enraged, and uncertain all at the same time.

As he raced across the distance which separated them, Angel repeatedly reminded himself that Spike had in fact saved Willow.  Again.

"Get away from her, Spike!" Buffy shouted as she neared.

Hearing their approach, Willow smiled wearily at Spike, as if to say, "Here we go again."  Willow retreated a few steps from the vampire and into the path of her rapidly approaching friends.

Spike, as usual, didn't quite cooperate with Willow's plan to avoid conflict at all costs.  "You're a little late, aren't you, Slayer?" he taunted.

"I am *SO* not in the mood for you tonight, Spike," Buffy said as she came to a halt in front of Willow.  "Are you okay, Willow?  What did Spike do to you?"

"Spike saved me, actually," Willow insisted vehemently, stepping in front of the Slayer yet again when she tried to move toward Spike.  She turned a pleading look to Angel as he joined them, his battered face clouded with uneasiness.  "Didn't he, Angel?  Didn't Spike save me?" she asked in a voice that seemed to come from a long way off, as she lightly caressed his bruised and bloodied face with her eyes.  By the look of him, it seemed that he'd borne the brunt of the vampires' fury.

"Yeah, didn't I, daddy dearest?" Spike sneered, edging closer to Willow.

Angel's bloodied lips thinned with hostility.  "It would appear so."

Buffy quickly surveyed Willow, Spike, and Angel, as if searching for clues to explain the odd turn of events.  "Not that I'm ungrateful, but why, Spike?" she asked suspiciously, still holding her stake poised and at the ready.  "How do I know those weren't just your vampires, and this was all some sick scheme to make you look good, although I don't know why you'd bother."

"Those weren't my minions, Slayer.  Never laid eyes on that ugly lot before."

"Uh-huh," Buffy said without conviction.  "Again, not that we aren't grateful that Willow's okay, but *why*?"

Spike frowned just a bit, his lips pursing as he tried to come up with some sort of excuse.  The puzzled look changed to a haughty one.  He drew himself up, shoving his hands in his coat pockets and assuming a carefree pose.

"Well, I've, uh, had my eye on Red, haven't I?"

Angel could almost hear Buffy counting to ten, albeit very rapidly.  "So we've noticed," she retorted in clipped tones.

"Your disgustingly unhealthy eye, I might added," Xander interjected, bringing a groan from Buffy and Cordelia.

"Again, I have to ask *why*?" Buffy repeated.

Spike winked at Willow before flashing Buffy his swarmiest smirk.  "Well, she's mine, isn't she?"

Xander shook his head, obviously not wanting to believe what he'd just heard.  "She's yours?"

"She will be," Spike said with a nonchalant shrug.  "Some day.  And I don't appreciate a bunch of fledges feeling up my property, not to mention whatever else they had in mind for her."

"Your property?" Buffy and Willow said in wide-eyed unison.  To Angel's delight, Willow sounded even more annoyed than Buffy did at Spike's decree.  Spike must have noticed it as well, because he took a couple of swaggering steps closer to the annoyed redhead, whose hands were already on her hips, her fingers tapping an impatient rhythm.

"Property as in something that I plan on taking care of, keeping safe, treasuring even," Spike elaborated in what Angel could only describe as a husbandly tone.  As if sensing Angel's silent ridicule, Spike's voice took on more insidious overtones.  "Not that macho-demon 'do what I say or else' sort of property that *some* of your less sophisticated children-of-the-night types might try to pull."

"Oh, I, for one," Xander began, advancing on Spike, "feel so much better knowing that Spike, the *vampire*, wants to *take care* of and *treasure* Willow."

"And well you should!" Spike retorted, darting a caustic look towards the dark-haired youth.  "Who's going to take care of her if I'm not?  You?" Then dismissing Cordelia with barely a glance in her direction, he turned to Buffy.  "You've got problems enough of your own, oh Chosen One, and you..." he added, finally gracing Angel with a glare all his own.  Spike was mutinous, his eyes sparking with an ancient hatred that Angel could almost feel. "Where the bloody hell were you when Willow was fending off a dozen vamps?  The mighty Angel too afraid to muss the hair and get little dirty?  Willow was almost killed!  If I'd been one moment later--"

"What, 'fraid they'd kill her before you had the chance to do it yourself?" Xander interjected before Angel could even feel the full effect of Spike's verbal blow.

Spike spun back around so quickly that he was a blur to everyone but Angel, and what Angel saw on the other vampire's face sent a shiver down his spine, settling in his stomach like an icy weight.  Xander's accusation had struck a chord with the blond vampire, but Spike recovered quickly and the face he showed to Willow was much cooler.  He was giving Willow his 'why the hell do you put up with these morons?' kind of look, when Buffy obviously decided she'd had enough.

"Take one step closer to her, Spike," Buffy announced as she moved between the two before Willow could stop her, "and you'll never take another!"

"Temper, temper, Slayer," Spike clucked, wagging a finger at Buffy's raised stake.  "Don't forget a certain little prophecy that insists on keeping me dust-free."  He grinned.  "God I love prophecies, don't you?"

"Who said I was aiming for your heart, Spike?" Buffy sneered, purposely looking at a spot much lower on the vampire.

"Is this how you people thank me for saving Red's life?  Don't tell me gratitude's gone by the wayside since we were gone," Spike muttered, shifting uncomfortably.  "Today's youth are so rude..."

Willow peered at Spike over Buffy's shoulder, ready to restrain Buffy from behind if necessary. "Spike, while I, er, appreciate your helping me out tonight, don't you have somewhere else to be right now?"  For his own safety, if not for the safety of her secret, Willow hoped he took the hint.  The look on Angel's face was murderous, and Willow could almost see him shaking with restraint.  Spike, being Spike however, couldn't seem to leave well enough alone.

"And leave your safety to this pathetic lot?" he laughed.  "Not bloody likely, pet.

Willow shook her head wearily and rubbed at her throbbing temples.  "It is *not* your job to look out for me," Willow reminded him in a voice roughened with impatience.  But the pleading look she gave him was much softer.  Please leave, she silently begged.  Before you get hurt.

Luckily, this time Spike seemed to hear her silent plea loud and clear because he suddenly said: "Right.  Well.  I'll be off then, shall I?"  With his hands deep in his pockets, the vampire spun around to leave.  Then, in true Spike fashion, he turned back to add, "Guess I'm like one of those flash comic book heroes, eh?"  He was walking backwards now, grinning devilishly in the Autumn moonlight.  "I rush in, save the day, er night, 'n the nick of time, then disappear before the damsel in distress can thank me...*properly*..." he added with a knowing smirk.

It wasn't easy, but Willow somehow managed not to giggle.  She didn't, however, keep the smile from lighting up her face.

Xander wasn't smiling.  "Listen up, Deadly Do-Wrong," he called after the vampire.  "No damsel in distress in her right mind would want you within ten yards of her!"

Spike stopped his retreat, pausing as if trying to decide exactly what to say.  Willow held her breath, not sure if the vampire could manage to control himself this time.  Xander had given Spike the perfect set up.

"Is that so?" Spike eventually retorted, his lips still twitching.  "Some damsels," he began, bowing his head slightly at Willow, "whether distressed or not, prefer me much, *much* closer, boy."

"Spike, leave!  Now!" Angel commanded, trying to stop Spike before he said too much.

Spike quirked a brow, but the smirk stayed right where it was.  "I'd forgotten you were here, Angelus, but then...that happens to you a fair bit, doesn't it?"

"Why can't we just stake him already?" Cordelia finally groaned, gathering everyone's attention after her lengthy silence.  "I mean, is there anything more irritating than a vampire that can't take a hint?"

When they looked back, Spike was gone, but his dark laughter came drifting back from the shadows.  "That's a bloody good question, *Angelus*."

With his departure, everyone breathed a sigh of relief that sounded suspiciously like 'Finally!'  Everyone but Willow, that is.  While she was happy to get the vampire away from this particular situation, over the last two months they'd probably only seen each other a handful of times, and frankly, she missed him.

From the looks of everyone else, especially Angel, the feeling wasn't shared.  "Deadly Do Wrong?" Buffy repeated, grinning at Xander.  "That's a good one.  I'd been thinking 'Lonely Ranger' myself, but I like yours better."

They all turned to Willow.  "You okay, Willow?" Buffy asked.  "You look woozy and wobbly."
"Most of the wooziness is gone...I'll be fine."

"Not surprising after the fight you were in," Xander added, giving her a quick visual once over himself. "While I didn't actually see much of your fight, Willow, I take it you did at least as well as Cordy and I.  We kicked some serious ass tonight, didn't we, baby?"

"Serious enough that I'm going to let the 'baby' comment slide for tonight," Cordelia said with her usual regal flair.

Willow nodded.  At least as well?  Bloody hell, she grumbled silently.  I probably fought ten times as many vampires as you, but not a single person noticed how well I did.  All they noticed is that Spike saved me.  Wonderful.  So much for my 'Most Improved Combat Skills' Scooby of the Year Award.

As if sensing her darkening mood, Buffy touched Angel's arm.  "Angel, why don't you get Willow home.  I want to ask around, see if I can figure out where all of these out-of-town vamps came from, if Spike was telling the truth."

"On your own?"

"Don't worry, Angel.  If there are more, I'm not going to fight them, just find out where they are, for now."

"Cordy and I've got your back, Buff," Xander chimed in, taking the cheerleader's hand.

"If you see anything, call me, and if you run into trouble, anything like what just happened, I want you to run, understand?"  Angel's tone brooked no argument, and they reluctantly muttered their assent.

Willow started to protest then thought better of it.  The fight had not only left her sore, but feeling drained and a little nauseous.  But that didn't mean she was ready to go home yet, and it wasn't like anyone was there waiting for her.

Her parents had returned several weeks earlier, as expected, and after a tearful reunion (at least on Willow's side) life in the Rosenberg household had returned to what Willow assumed was normal.  Other than a few more references to her friends Bunny and Angel than she was comfortable with, Willow's home life seemed little different than it had been before.  And before Willow knew it, Sheila and Ira were gone again, this time to lead a two-week long conference in Buffalo.  They wouldn't be back for several days yet and knowing them would probably leave again soon thereafter.

"I am tired, Angel," she said, exaggerating her weariness and massaging her temples for added effect.  "If you wouldn't mind?"

Angel raised a surprised brow but said nothing.

After bidding the others good-bye and telling them to be careful, she and Angel had walked more than a block before he broke the silence.  "So, where are we *actually* going?"

Willow winced.  Obviously, Angel still had the ability to see through her poker face on occasion.  "Am I that obvious?" she asked, coming to a stop under a streetlight.

Turning to face the redhead, Angel stilled as he took a long appraising look at Willow.  Obvious was not a word he associated with Willow.  Passionate, intelligent, funny...and so many others, but not obvious.  Tonight, despite her slightly bedraggled appearance and the harsh artificial glow of the streetlight humming overhead, she looked exceptionally beautiful.  Of course, she always looked beautiful.  Even when sitting cross-legged before the computer, wearing sweats, and nibbling on the end of a pencil, Angel found her achingly attractive.  But the night seemed to suit her now, even more than before.  Angel couldn't quite put his finger on it, but when they were on patrol together, Willow was not the same woman who sat across from him doing research for hours on end.

"Angel?  I, er, guess I need to sharpen my poker skills a bit if you could tell I was lying that easily."

Caught staring, Angel hastened to explain. "It's not even midnight, Willow.  You're usually just getting your second wind about now."

She grinned sheepishly up at him.  "That's true.  I'm still the night owl."  She paused, as if making a decision then glanced over her shoulder before looking at him again.  Her face was serious now.  "There was something strange about that fight, those vampires, and I thought I'd go talk to Giles and Jenny about it."

Angel didn't say a word.  He pulled out his cellphone and called the librarian, asking if he and Jenny could meet them at his place.  There was a pause, and while she couldn't quite make out what Giles said, Angel's answer gave it away.  "We were ambushed, and although everyone's fine, the vampires seemed to be focusing on Willow."  He paused, listening, then nodded.  "Yes.  The others are checking the usual sources, but promised they'd be careful."  Another pause.  "See you at my place in ten."

"You noticed that too, huh?  That I was some sort of vampire magnet tonight?" Willow asked after he'd tucked the tiny phone back in his pocket.

Angel was hard pressed not to smirk at her choice of words.  "I'm sorry I didn't...that I couldn't get to you sooner, Willow."

Willow waved the words away before he could even finish.  "You *were* just a little occupied at the time, Angel," she said with an understanding smile.

That was no excuse.  On patrol, they were his responsibility.  Gritting his teeth at the thought of what could have happened, Angel said, "But I should have--"

Words of contrition were suddenly forgotten as a jolt of sensation so sweet that it nearly brought tears to Angel's eyes tore through him, body and soul.  Without warning, Willow had reached up to tenderly caress his swollen jaw.  "Look at what they did to you..." she whispered.  She lifted up on her toes, bringing her concerned face even closer.  "Does it hurt?" she asked, stroking the bruise above his eye.

It had until a moment ago, Angel thought through a warm haze.  But if getting the shit kicked out of me is what it takes for you to bring yourself to touch me, then I'll let them pummel me every night...twice on Tuesdays.

Afraid he'd scare her away, Angel kept his thoughts to himself and his tone light, as if he barely noticed that the woman of his dreams was making love to his face with her fingers.  "Our vampire friends...also seemed particularly interested in...keeping me quiet and away from you," he managed, his mouth suddenly dry.  "And the only way they could do that was by...keeping a fist in my mouth."  He had to stop and swallow again as Willow's touch drifted down his cheek to the bloodied corner of his mouth.  "Not to mention a few elbows, heads, and one really big foot."

Seemingly innocent of the effect her touch was having, Willow tenderly cradled his jaw in one hand as she dabbed lightly at his cut lip with the end of her sleeve.

It was almost too much to bear.  "W-willow, don't..."  It was a weak protest at best.  He didn't even really try to pull away.  The last thing Angel wanted was for Willow to stop touching him, the tender look in her eyes to disappear.

Willow pursed her lips as she stubbornly continued to tend his slowly healing wounds.  "Don't be such a baby, Angel," she said in a patronizing tone.  "It's only blood."

Only blood? he moaned to himself.  Talk about a vampiric oxymoron!  If it's only blood, then why am I fighting this hunger to taste every inch of your body with my lips, tongue, and yes, my teeth?  Damn good question! he thought, but forced himself to focus on her upturned face instead of his lustful thoughts.  That's when he noticed the smile playing at the corners of her mouth.  She'd been teasing him, knowing fully well what blood meant to vampires.  And now she'd abandoned the edge of her sleeve and was using her fingers to wipe away the remaining traces of blood, her warm flesh skimming dangerously close to his lips.  It would be so easy to part his lips and taste her....

Before Angel could give in to that particular temptation, Willow slowly drew her hand away to look at it.

Only blood? Angel mused again.  Then why was she staring in fascination at her stained fingertips?  Her lips were moist as she studied the crimson drops more closely, his blood, and for the headiest of moments, Angel thought she intended to lick her fingers clean.

As if reading his mind, Willow's lifted her eyes to his.  Her teasing smile was gone now, replaced by a look of wonder, as if just now realizing what she'd been doing to him.  At that moment, it occurred to Angel if she could touch him for medicinal purposes, then perhaps he could reciprocate without breaking the spell.

Entranced as Willow was at the sight of Angel's blood against her skin, it was nothing compared to how she felt when she looked into his warm, brown eyes.  Eyes like hot cocoa.  No...the brown was deeper than cocoa, thicker, more substantial like chocolate syrup.  No!  Hot fudge!  His eyes were the color of hot, melted fudge.  When tantalizing images of drizzled hot fudge and naked bodies suddenly popped into her head, Willow knew she was in trouble.  What was it with her and chocolate and vampires anyway?  Needing to look away from his eyes before she drowned in them, she studied her red-tinged fingers again.  If blood was to vampires what chocolate was to her...Hmmm...Was Angel as hungry at that moment as she was?

"You fought well, Willow," he murmured thickly, and the sudden feel of his hand against her cheek made her forget the blood and grip his sweater with both hands to steady herself.  "You only have a few faint bruises."

Only a few? she thought fleetingly as he caressed each bruise along her hairline.  Shame I'm not bruised all over!  Although his touch was tender, it was far from soothing.  Instead of relaxing her, his cool caresses were setting her aflame, awaking old aches and needs she'd been trying to ignore for years.  Between his touch and the image of him drizzled in hot fudge, Willow felt like reality was slipping away.  And that part of her, the one with the chocolate vampire fetish, was in no hurry for it to return.

She forced her mind to work, but she couldn't summon the strength or even the desire to completely break the spell.  "Well, I...er...until the end..." she stammered, her eyes drifting shut as his fingers worked their magick through her hair, "they didn't...really seem out for chocolate...I mean blood!" she added quickly.  "It's like they...just wanted a little exercise..." she said in a dreamy voice.  She swore she could smell chocolate in the air, and she gripped his shirt even more tightly.

"Where else do you ache, Willow?"

All over! she wanted to scream, not even sure he'd really spoken such tempting words.  I've been aching all over for so long!

Hoping she wasn't blushing from her wicked thoughts, Willow shook her head ever so slightly in answer.  Still, Angel's sensual comfort continued.  His cool hands drifted down her neck, dancing over her delicate throat.  She leaned further into his touch, letting her mind empty of any thought of protest.  Even when his fingers explored her throat, coming to rest gingerly on her pulse point, she wasn't afraid, she only wanted more.  It was like a dream, and for a hazy moment she was reminded of a vivid daydream she'd once had about Angelus brushing her hair.  At the time it had seemed as real as this did.

"I'm so sorry...I'm sorry that I-I couldn't get to you, Willow."  His voice was suddenly tight with remorse.  "I tried...."

It took a moment to detect the pain in his voice, but when she did, Willow's eyes flew open.  He was staring down at her throat, specifically the scars she bore, and wore a look that instantly brought Willow out of her sensual reverie.  Guilt.  It gave an edge to his voice, strained the musculature of his face and shadowed his eyes.  Recoiling from the vampire that suddenly sounded and looked too much like the old Angel, *Buffy's* Angel, she jerked her hands away from where they had rested, splayed across his chest.

"I know, Angel," she said quickly, forgetting all her wicked chocolatey thoughts.  Willow stepped away from the vampire, breaking the contact between them, and he made no move to stop her.  "You had your, um, hands full, and I really think they were just toying with us, trying to keep us busy.  Maybe they were simply studying our fighting style?"

Angel wanted to stake himself for ruining the moment, but the sight of his marks on her throat, however erotic, reminded him how close Willow had come to being bitten, or worse, by those other vampires.  She'd been hurt because of his failure, and here he was, taking advantage of her weakened state.  Angelus would be so proud.

"The one who knocked you down wasn't simply trying to keep you busy, Willow," Angel said brusquely.  "Or study you."

Willow nodded in agreement, then hastened to resume their journey back towards Slayer Central.  "What happened back there was very strange, Angel," she said after a while, trying to fill the awkward silence.

It's called physical attraction, Willow, Angel thought to himself.  And I was taking advantage of you.

"There was more to that attack than meets the eye," Willow went on, unknowingly correcting Angel's unspoken thoughts.

"We'll see if Jenny or Giles has any ideas."

Using her peripheral vision, she could see that Angel's face had become void of all expression.  "I'm sorry about, um...about Spike...his comments..." Willow blurted out in order to fill the uncomfortable silence.  She'd meant to apologize for her own wanton behavior but couldn't seem to make the words come out.

Unfortunately, her apology on Spike's behalf had the opposite effect than what she'd been aiming for.  "You don't have to apologize for Spike," Angel replied stiffly.  She was always defending the selfish bastard.  "He's my responsibility, not yours."

"Oh, I'm not so sure about that," she replied lightly, but Angel didn't share her carefree attitude.  As far as he was concerned, Spike was his responsibility.  Whether Spike was actually his William or not, the blond vampire was still a childe of Angelus in one incarnation or another.  The product of his teachings, as Spike had so gleefully reminded him.  Which meant that in some ways, Angel was responsible for Spike's actions.  Even the pain Spike had already caused Willow, not to mention the pain that Angel expected was yet to come, was in many ways his own fault.

Sensing the shift in Angel's mood since their intimate moment, Willow decided to let the silence between them remain.  Besides, no wonder he was moody!  What had she been thinking, touching him like that anyway?  And the blood comments?  Why didn't she just offer up her neck if she wanted to be that blatant about her attraction for the vampire?  Slice open a vein?  And oh God!  What if Angel had--to use his own words--detected 'love in the air' when he'd touched her?  Her cheeks flamed at the notion that Angel might actually know just how wicked her thoughts had been.  Obviously, her behavior had made Angel uncomfortable, and he blamed Spike for her warped sexual nature, which wasn't exactly fair.  It wasn't Spike's fault she was attracted to Angel.  It was Angel's...and Angelus's...but especially her own.

Willow bit her lip to keep from groaning aloud.  God, I hope there's still some of that double chocolate fudge ice cream in Angel's freezer!

They walked the remainder of the way in relative silence, both too busy berating themselves for their earlier behavior. As they finally approached the old church, Angel latched onto Willow's arm, pulling her to a gentle stop.  "We've got company."

Near the short flight of steps that led to the church's curved front doors, they could make out a shadowy figure.

"Didn't you say that Giles and Jenny were going to meet us here?" Willow whispered.

"They have keys, and I don't see Giles' car."

Angel was just about to tell Willow to stay put until he knew who the visitor was, when the flickering glow of a lighter suddenly lit up Spike's face.

"What kept you two?" he called out through an exhale of smoke.  "Stop to look for the soulful one's spine along the way?"

*****

Giles pulled into an empty parking space in front of the old church and was surprised to see Willow, Angel, and especially Spike standing outside.  The vampires appeared to be having a rather heated discussion while a resigned-looking Willow looked on.  As he and Jenny climbed out of the car, Willow met them in the middle of Angel's front lawn.  He wasn't quite sure if her tight smile of greeting stemmed more from relief or embarrassment.

"Thanks for coming so quickly," Willow said as she joined them.  "Although I'm sorry to ruin your evening."

"Oh, well, that's quite all right, Willow."  The librarian was hardly able to tear his sight away from the vampires.  One quick glance at Jenny told him that she was equally surprised by the bickering vampires.  "Given what's happened, it seemed best that we..."  He trailed off.  If he wasn't mistaken, Spike had just made a derogatory comment about Angel's lineage, which in turn made Angel stoop to similarly childish insults.  The thought that two vampires of their age would resort to such schoolyard behavior was almost comical.  At any moment he was expecting them to be sticking their tongues out at each other.

Jenny flicked an indigo-tipped finger at the combative vampires.  "How long has this been going on?"

Willow turned to eye the squabbling pair for a moment, then turned back.  "A couple of centuries, from what I can tell."  Her words came out as a sigh, making her sound even more exhausted than she looked.  "Although we're only just into the first round of tonight's bout.  Angel and I just arrived a minute or two before you did."

"Then the bruises on Angel's face--"

"Are not Spike's doing," Willow quickly supplied, looking the librarian firmly in the eye.  "The vampires we ran into tonight were pretty rough on Angel."

Giles paused and tightened his grip on his leather satchel.  Although Willow had been back a couple of months, he was still somewhat taken aback whenever she spoke up on Spike's behalf.  It was difficult for him to equate the vampire that he'd read about in his journals and battled against on more than one occasion, with this new Spike, Willow's 'friend'.  She seemed saddened by the sight of the two squabbling vampires instead of irritated or amused, which made him want to bang the vampires' heads together and make them see that their childish behavior was the last thing Willow needed right now.

Over the course of the last couple of months, he and Jenny had tried their best to help Willow become at ease with her new life.  They realized it would take time.  She'd been gone for over a century.  It was understandable that it would take more than a couple of weeks, even months, to adjust to all of the changes.  The best they could do was give her their friendship, which came easily enough, and the opportunity to truly be herself when they were away from the others.  Frequently they invited her over for tea or dinner, and while they always had a good time and enjoyed each other's company, Giles still had the impression that Willow was holding back.  Not even with them, adults relatively closer to her actually age, did Willow seem completely at ease.

And to think, he'd actually been encouraged by Willow's enthusiasm for Friday night patrols.  He'd watched Willow keep herself detached from the others, especially Angel, often only going through the motions of everyday life, but lately whenever patrol was concerned, he'd caught glimpses of the woman behind the mask.  The light at the end of the tunnel, or so it had seemed.  Unfortunately, as is so often the case, tonight at least the light at the end of the tunnel had been a speeding locomotive, and Willow had been caught on the tracks.

Giles squeezed the bridge of his nose and then studied the redhead again.  He wasn't surprised that tonight she seemed even less carefree than usual, but he was concerned about the faint yellowish bruising along the side of her face.  She also appeared pale, and her tired green eyes were glassier than he would have liked.  He exchanged a worried look with Jenny.

"Looks as if you took a beating as well, Willow," Jenny said, voicing both their concerns.

Willow didn't turn from watching the vampires.  "I'm okay," she said with a shrug.

Giles disagreed, and was about to inspect her wounds a little more closely when Spike spoke up.

"Don't let the chit fool you, Watcher."  The blond vampire was stalking toward them, and Giles found himself taking an involuntary step away from redhead.  The look in Spike's eyes wasn't simply predatory; it was outright territorial.  "Red's hurting," Spike continued, stepping between him and Willow.  "She's just too bloody stubborn to let it show."

The territorial look may have startled Giles, but he was hardly surprised by it.  Vampires were notoriously possessive, after all.  Nevertheless, the simple fact that it was the vampire norm, didn't make him feel any better when the object of the nefarious vampire's attention was Willow.  Angel's dark brooding in the background wasn't exactly comforting either.  Giles barely recognized Angel when he was like this, and he had a feeling it wasn't simply Spike's presence which had the Irish vampire silently seething.

Giles turned his watchful eye back to the blond vampire.  "Yes, well, thank you for your...opinion on the matter...er, Mr. Spike." Ignoring Willow's attempt to hide a smile at his choice of words, Giles went on.  "May I assume that your presence has something to do with what happened to Willow this evening?  Or is this merely a...social call?"

"Checking on Red, aren't I?  Since Angelus here almost got her killed, I wanted to make sure she was none the worse for wear."

Giles' attention, and that of everyone else, shifted back to Willow, and while she was touched by their concern, she hated the worried looks that darkened their faces.

"I'm okay.  Really!" Willow did a slow spin to convince them she was in one piece, hoping it wouldn't set her stomach and head spinning again.

"Willow, your sweater!" Jenny cried as she and Giles noticed the shredded sleeves of Willow's top. "Are you cut?  We better get you inside and clean--"

"No, I'm not cut.  Not even a scratch!"  Yet again, Willow pushed back her sleeves and held up her arms to show perfectly intact skin.  "See?"

Spike still seemed reluctant to believe her.  With his head tilted to the side, he moved closer to study her arms.  That's when Angel finally joined the group. He seemed almost as curious as Spike.  Bloody hell, she thought.  Didn't I just throw myself at him ten minutes ago?  If I'd been bleeding, he'd have noticed it then!

"But I could have sworn I smelled your blood earlier, pet," Spike said in an odd tone.  "I'd recognize it anywhere...very special vintage you've got running through those delicious veins of yours."

Tired of repeating herself and of their inspection, Willow pulled her torn sleeves back down.  "Nope, no cuts," she said through teeth gritted with frustration.  "Like I said before, those vamps must've had weak nails."

Spike lowered his voice, but she was sure that everyone still heard his words.  "Maybe you've got a visitor, then?"

Willow blinked at the grinning vamp.  "Visitor?"

"You know, your monthly visitor.  You women sometimes call it 'The Curse'...although I'm much more likely to call it dinner."

Angel seemed to get the other vampire's meaning first.  "You're disgusting, Spike."

Spike laughed at Angel's sanctimonious tone. "Oh, like you weren't thinking the same thing!  You may be a great bloody poof with a soul, but you're still a vamp, Angelus.  Still feel the call."  He turned back to Willow.  "You didn't have your *visitor* while the spell was in effect, since we were frozen in time and all."  He shrugged.  "Figured now that your mortal 'n all again...."

"Um, nope...no 'curse' here," Willow blurted out before Angel said anything.  "Not, er, yet, anyway."  She could feel her face turning all sorts of red at the personal nature of the discussion, but she doubted her face was quite as red as Giles' was at that moment.  Luckily, Jenny seemed to take it all in stride.  Willow vaguely wondered what it would take to shock the computer science teacher!

As Willow shot Spike a look that couldn't be mistaken for any meaning other than 'drop the subject or else,' she made a mental note to stock up on feminine supplies.  She hadn't had to deal with that particular curse in over a century, and while she hardly missed it, it was likely just a matter of time before her body fully readjusted to being 'normal' again.  Then, undoubtedly, her period would return with a vengeance, making up for its 135-year absence.  Wonderful.

Spike smirked, but his smile faded as he tactfully sniffed the air around her again.  "Still, I smell blood on you..."

Angel suddenly spoke up.  "The blood's mine," he said.

Spike appeared ready to ignore his claim, but then his nostrils flared and his eyes widened.  "Why's your bloody blood...?"  He shot them both an accusing look.  "Red?"

Willow almost smiled at the flabbergasted look of shock on Spike's face.  It wasn't easy to shock the vampire, and it seemed only fair after his little 'curse' discussion.  "Angel was bleeding, so I--"

"Played doctor?" Spike sneered, and Willow doubted that anyone listening in missed the true meaning of his insinuation.

"No, Spike," Willow groaned impatiently.  "As a matter of fact, *I* bit Angel.  Hard.  Several times.  Check his neck if you don't believe me.  I wondered what all the fuss was about, so I faked him out by pointing to the sky saying, 'What's that interesting thing over there?!'" she said dryly, and for the first time since encountering Spike that night, Angel actually smiled.  "Then when he fell for it and turned to look, I bit him."

Spike, however, was not smiling.  "That's not funny, Red," he growled.

"Then quit making such a big deal out of it!" Willow retorted.  "It's only blood.  Right, Angel?" If Angel hadn't grinned, she would have been embarrassed at taking the joke too far, but his grin had turned into a familiar lazy half-smile that was pure Angelus.  Her breath caught, and her mind filled with more naughty chocolate thoughts.

"Since I'm not going to get a straight answer out of Red, perhaps you'd care to tell me why she reeks of you?"

Reeks? Willow thought, latching on to his verbal slight in an effort to forget her imagination's lascivious wanderings.  It wasn't that much blood, hardly reek-worthy!

"As you said, I'm still a vampire...."

"A technicality only," Spike retorted.

As the bickering continued, none of the three noticed that Giles and Jenny had taken seats on the church steps.  With her chin resting on her hand, Jenny watched the trio in wide-eyed fascination.  Giles hastily grabbed a pad and pen out of his satchel and began to take notes. This was their first chance to really study the 'new' Spike and the interaction between the three.

Eager to avoid another verbal sparing match that could lead to a physical altercation, Willow turned on Spike.  "Did you come here to help me figure out what the hell just happened or to fight with Angel some more?"

His icy eyes shimmered as he paused to glance between Willow and Angel.  She could see the muscles working in his jaw, the unusual rigidity of his posture, and knew that he was struggling to remain calm.

"Figured they go together, Red," Spike finally retorted.  "If I knew you were that...*hard up* for attention--"

"Spike, not tonight, okay?"  Her anger was gone but the weariness was returning.  She felt guilty for teasing Spike when he was obviously so concerned about her.  "I'm not up for one of our discussions tonight.  Will you take a rain check?"

Spike visually softened.  "Must be in a bit of pain if you don't want to argue with me."  He moved closer and quickly scrutinized her posture.  "Sure you're okay, Red?"

"A little achy and woozy but no permanent damage."

"Where's it hurt?" he asked, frowning.

Willow rubbed at the muscles near her collarbone.  "Neck, shoulders...no big deal..."  She thought better of telling him that Angel had already soothed many of her wounds, and reopened a few emotional ones.

"Shoulders a mite sore, are they?"  Without asking, Spike firmly turned Willow away from him and began to expertly massage the aching areas she'd just mentioned.  "You're so tight, pet," he said in soothing tones, but the look he shot Angel was much more lascivious.  "Been over extending your punches again, haven't you?  Thought I'd taught you better.  Put your whole delectable little body into it, Red, not just your bloody arm or else you'll do yourself some real damage."

Despite the audience, Willow didn't pull away from Spike.  As he had often times before, his fingers instinctively found the source of her sore shoulder.  She doubted she could walk away from the relief he was offering even if she wanted to.  "I know, and I did...until the end.  I was getting so tired and dizzy I was swinging wildly at anything that moved."  She sighed.  "They just kept coming..."

"Relax for a bit, and I'll get you sorted out," he murmured near her ear.  "Do your fancy breathing, picture your funny place, and let Spike take care of the rest..."  Willow closed her eyes, letting her head come forward until her chin rested on her chest as muscle after muscle surrendered under Spike's gentle assault.

"Fascinating," Jenny whispered to Giles, who mumbled something under his breath and then wrote more quickly.

Angel growled softly at the display but held his ground.  He wasn't going to let Spike get to him this time, and as much as he hated to admit it, the other vampire really was helping Willow.  Angel could sense her relaxing already.  The trust she had in the blond vampire was astonishing and thought provoking, not to mention incredibly painful.  Angel couldn't help feeling jealous, and yet...she had let him comfort her as well.  Maybe it hadn't lasted as long as Spike's massage or ended particularly well, but Willow *had* let him touch her.  It was another good start.

After another minute of Spike's medicinal ministrations, Willow seemed to realize where she was.  Her eyes popped open and she took a step away from the blond vampire.  "Thanks Spike," she grinned back at him as she rotated her neck and shoulders.  "I feel better already."

"I still know every inch of your body, Red.  Anytime you want me to help you ease an ache, *any* ache at all, you know where to find me."

Instead of blushing, which was precisely what Jenny and Giles were doing, Willow simply shot Spike an impish grin.  It still amazed Angel how easily Willow handled Spike's cruder side.  She took it all in stride, dishing it out as easily as she took it.  "Yeah, on top of Drusilla," Willow retorted.

Spike chuckled  "Sometimes beneath.  You know what a gentleman I am."

"As, er, enlightening as this all is," Giles said, breaking into the light-hearted banter, "perhaps we should discuss that happened tonight?"

"Good call, Watcher."  Spike sauntered over to where Giles sat.  "What happened is that I saved Willow's life, again, because of the gross incompetence of The Great Poof over there."

"Spike, leave.  Now."  Damn! So much for my keeping my cool, Angel thought bitterly.  He hated how being around Spike took away his ability to speak in complete, coherent sentences.  All he seemed able to do was bark short orders and growl.

"Down boy!" Spike grinned, as if reading his mind.  "Starting to think you're a bit miffed that I got to save Willow's life *again* instead of you?  Worried that shining armor of yours is beginning to rust from lack of use?"

One of the last remaining threads of Angel's self-control snapped under Spike's continued taunting.

"Saved her life?"  With preternatural speed, Angel rushed Spike, grabbed him by the lapels of his coat and pushed him against the brick church wall. "Why was her life in danger in the first place?" Angel hissed in his face.  They were nose-to-nose, and despite the fact that he seemed to have the upper hand, Spike was smirking at him with obvious delight.

"Need to learn to control that temper of yours, Angel.  Wouldn't want you to hurt anyone, would we?  I'm sure you've got enough to feel all guilty about for the next couple of centuries without adding my death to the list."

"You flatter yourself, Spike.  There'd be no guilt, only relief."  With disgust, Angel pushed him back against the wall one more time, then backed away.  He didn't see the uncharacteristic flash of pain that shadowed Spike's face for a moment.  By the time he turned back to the blond vampire, Spike had composed himself, the requisite twisted smile back in place.  "Has it ever occurred to you that the reason Willow was the center of this attack in the first place is because of you, Spike?  Because of your interest in her?"

The smirk quickly drained away.  "For your information, I've spread the word that Red's off limits!  Every vamp in this town, even Dru, knows better than to even look at her twice!"

Angel chuckled, shaking his head at Spike as if the blond vampire were a simpleton.  "And you expect them just to obey you?  Just for their love of you?  Maybe you've forgotten the way vampires think, Spike.  You, of all people, should know that they aren't prone to loyalty anymore.  They're power-hungry, and when they spot a weakness in one of the local big wigs, they'll take advantage of it.  Willow is your weakness, and you've made sure that every vampire in this town knows that!  Every demon in Sunnydale that wants to take your place knows exactly how to get to you now, Spike."  Angel glanced over at Willow, who'd at some point taken a seat next to Jenny on the steps.  He wasn't sure how Willow would handle his theory regarding why the vampires were centering on her, but if she were worried, she didn't let it show.

"Weren't you listening, mate?  Those were not *my* minions.  I know every vamp in this town, except the ones that may have been turned tonight, and I've never seen that lot before.  That means they're not from around here, are they?  Probably just dropped by on their way to LA to have a go at the Slayer."

"You think that's any better?  That means you've brought her to the attention of every vampire in the county, possibly the state or worse, knowing how much you like to shoot your mouth off."

Willow was trying very hard to stay out of the vampire's argument, at least physically, but it wasn't easy.  She hated watching them fight, especially over her.  There was nothing romantic about it. She glanced over at Giles and Jenny, who appeared enrapt with the whole discussion.  Willow felt as if she were in the middle of a soap opera that was a cross between Dark Shadows and Dallas.  It wasn't as much fun as it sounded.

"Want to know who put Willow in danger tonight?  Try looking in the bloody mirror, peaches," Spike said in a cold, accusing tone. He sighed and rolled his eyes, when Angel actually smirked at his word choice.  "Figuratively speaking, you bloody arse, not literally."  He narrowed his blue eyes at the larger vampire and clenched his jaw, seemingly close to losing his temper as well.  "*I'm* not the one putting her in danger, Angelus.  I'm not the one traipsing a bunch of non-slayer mortals through all the vamp-infested highways and byways of Sunnyhell, am I?  Let's get our roles straight.  I saved her.  *You* put her in danger, and *I* saved her...*again*!"

Willow'd had about all she could take for one night.  With what little energy she had left, Willow pushed off the steps and stormed up to the two vampires.  "Stop it!  Both of you, stop!"  Willow tried to push them apart with a hand on each of their chests, but they didn't budge.  She gave up quickly, and Spike sneered with delight when Willow quickly removed her hand from Angel first.

"First of all, *no one* purposely put me in danger," she informed them haughtily.  "Secondly, I was about 1-milimeter away from staking that 80's reject myself, Spike, although I'm grateful not to have had to, so thank you.  Thirdly, and *most* importantly, there will be *no* killing of childe *nor* sire as long as I'm alive, understand?"

Willow missed how Angel's face hardened at her word choice.  "It's my right as his sire--"

"You aren't my bloody sire, remember?"

"Whose blood runs in your veins, boy?  Mine!"

The vampires glared at each other, and Willow almost felt like crying as wave after wave of anger and hate flowed between the two.

As if he didn't hear Angel at all, Spike gently grabbed Willow by the forearms.  "Willow, listen to me," he said in a soft yet urgent tone.  "I don't want you wandering about with that lot again, looking for trouble.  That's the Slayer's bloody job, not yours.  Next time I may not be there--"

"Next time I don't plan on needing your help!" Willow snapped, then instantly her face and tone softened as she stared into the concerned eyes of her old friend.  "Spike, please don't start being overprotective of me now.  I don't think I could take that from you after all this time."

Spike didn't give in to her soft plea.  "Things have changed, Willow.  You aren't invincible anymore."

"I won't let Willow get hurt, Spike."  While the urgent words were for the blond vampire, Angel's eyes were on Willow.  "I won't let her be hurt again, by anyone."

The vampires exchanged calculating looks, but said nothing.

Wonderful, Willow mused, touched and yet annoyed at the same time.  Why is it that the only thing they can agree on is being overprotective?  She felt like screaming at them both, very loudly reminding them that she wasn't a child and that for vast majority of her life she'd taken care of herself, but she hated to shatter the annoying but delicate truce they'd come to.

"Well, now that we all seem to agree on something," Giles said, getting to his feet, "perhaps it's time we finally discuss what happened this evening?"

When Spike and Angel both muttered various forms of agreement, Willow smiled to herself.  That made two times they'd agreed in one night.  She'd definitely have to note this red-letter day in her journal.

Luckily, she wasn't expecting much more out of the two vampires because when Giles moved to go inside, neither vamp followed him.  While they may have the mutual goal of keeping her safe, it was obvious that Angel was hardly ready to invite Spike into his home for tea and pleasantries, nor did Spike seem overly anxious to share in Angel's nonexistent hospitality.

In the end, Willow and Giles had a seat on the steps next to Jenny, Spike proceeded to pace and smoke in front of them, while Angel leaned against the wrought iron railing at the base of the stairs.  Angel had his back to her, keeping an eye on Spike's every move, no doubt, so Willow kept finding herself studying his back.  It was a nice view, and when combined with the memory of their brief intimate encounter earlier that night, Willow had to fight the urge not to run into the kitchen and grab that bowl of ice cream.  Hell, forget the bowl!  All she needed was the carton and a spoon!

It took less than a half hour for Angel, Willow, and Spike to give their versions of the night's events.  The vampires managed not to insult each other for the entire time, but Spike had to chain smoke in order to pull that off and Angel was constantly clenching his fists.

When Spike had finished giving his two bob about what he'd seen--your typical vampire free for all with Willow at the center--he was more than happy to take his leave of the Watcher, the should-be-dead teacher, and the ever-annoying vampire with a soul.  He didn't like they way they were all inspecting him either.  Everyone was scrutinizing his every move, each word, except for Red.  She was staring at Angel as if she'd never seen a bloke's backside before.

Spike dropped his last cigarette and leaned toward Willow.  "Walk with me for a bit, pet."

"I'm not so sure that's a good idea, Willow," Giles said from the doorway as Willow rose to follow the vampire.

Spike rolled his eyes.  Hadn't he just played nice for what had felt like a bloody eternity?  "Just to the footpath, Red.  Away from prying eyes and ears."  He looked back at the Watcher, who was following Jenny inside.  "Watcher, toss me your biro."  Giles only paused for a second before throwing his pen to the vampire.

"I want that back.  It's my favorite one," he advised the vampire, then slipped inside before Spike could have him on about it.

Spike walked with Willow the few yards to the footpath, feeling Angel's intent gaze on his back the entire time.  They came to a stop and Spike used a single finger under Willow's chin to bring her eyes to his.  For some reason she was trying to pretend as if she weren't staring at Angel and muttering something that sounded suspiciously like: "There better be some ice cream."

"Promise me you'll be careful, Willow," he said, trying not to let the great poof know how much it bugged him that he had Willow's attention.

She gave him one of those patient grins that really meant she wasn't taking him seriously.  "I've already promised you that several times tonight, Spike."

He clenched his jaw.  What was it going to take to get her to take her mortality seriously? "Well, I want to hear it again then, don't I?"

"I promise I'll be careful," she repeated, smiling and batting her big green eyes up at him.  Bloody hell, no wonder vamps were after her in droves!  Even with the change in look she still screamed innocence.  He wondered briefly if he could convince her to let herself go a bit, wear a flowery housedress or gray sweats.  Maybe if her hair didn't shimmer like blood in the moonlight or her eyes shine like beacons or if she didn't smell so damn good, the vampires wouldn't look twice at her.

Doubtful it would be that easy.  And while he didn't know what the hell had happened tonight, it wasn't going to happen again.  He'd find out who was behind the attacks and have them drawn and quartered.

With a growl, Spike latched on to Willow's hand and turned her palm up to the moonlight.

"What, you going to make me take a blood oath now, Spike?"  She tried to pull her hand back, but his grip was firm.  "Since when isn't my word good enough?"

"It'll do, Red.  It'll do."  Spike smirked, then with Giles' favorite pen he scribbled something on the palm of Willow's hand.  "My numbers," he clarified.  "Both the mansion and the little portable job.  Give me a ring if you're ever in trouble or just need a bodyguard."

She stared at her palm.  "You're kidding?"

"Do I look like I'm kidding?"

Willow's smile faded.  Maybe he was finally getting through to her after all.  "What if Drusilla answers?" she retorted.

Spike groaned, his eyes narrowing.  "Sell her some ruddy long distance, I don't care!  I'm serious, Willow.  If it were up to me, I'd keep you locked up somewhere safe.  Consider this a compromise of sorts.  Anytime you're out after dark and at least two of those so-called friends of yours can't keep you company," he paused before grudgingly adding: "--or the great poof over there--call me."

Willow smirked.  "But you said they were pathetic."

"They are.  Bloody pathetic.  But they'll have to do, won't they?  Now promise."

Willow sighed, yet a small smile came to her lips at the thought of calling Spike on his cellphone.  In a million years, she never would have pictured that little scenario.  At this rate, they'd be exchanging email soon.  "I promise, Spike."  Her smile turned devilish as she took Giles' pen and added with a wink.  "Cross my heart and hope to die."

And with that, Willow turned on her heels with a saucy flip of her hair and walked back towards the church.

"Not funny, Red!" Spike called after her, but she simply tossed him a grin over her shoulder.

"Night Spike."

Mumbling about stubborn redheads and eternity probably being too damn long, Spike disappeared into the shadows.

"You shouldn't tease Spike like that," Angel said as Willow approached his position by the steps.

"Wow," Willow replied with a teasing grin.  "Not only did you two actually agree a couple of times tonight, now you're protecting Spike.  Miracles never cease.  There may be hope for you two yet!"

Angel pushed away from the railing to stare down at her with a face devoid of humor.  "This has nothing to do with his protection, Willow, only yours."  He took her hand and scrutinized the numbers scrawled on her palm.  He'd make sure Willow never had to call Spike, and while he doubted there was any way he could stop it, he'd do his best to see that Willow and Spike weren't alone together.  He wasn't sure when Spike planned on turning Willow, the blond vampire was obviously waiting for something, but there was little doubt in Angel's mind that those were Spike's eventual plans.

Angel had no idea how long he'd been holding her hand, his thumb tracing the numbers on her palm when Willow said in a breathless voice: "Angel, I have a question for you, and I want you to think very carefully before you answer."

He prepared himself for the worst.  "Okay, Willow."

She looked up at him, swallowed, and asked, "Do you or do you not still have some of that yummy chocolate fudge ice cream in your freezer?"

That was not quite what he was expecting her to ask.  "And if I don't?" he replied in all seriousness.

"Then I'll be going to the nearest store."

As tempting as it was to take a walk with the redhead, Angel knew it wasn't safe.  He also knew that in his grocery delivery today there had been a carton of double chocolate fudge ice cream.

He was still absent-mindedly caressing her palm when he replied, "There's ice cream."

With speed that rivaled his own, Willow pulled her hand away to take the steps behind him two at a time.  As she pushed open the front door he added: "There's also a jar of hot fudge sauce in the cabinet behind the peanut butter."

Willow stopped and turned to stare at him with such unabashed hunger that Angel took an involuntary step backwards, then she sprinted through the door.  Angel had no idea what was going on, but there was no way he was going to get in between that woman and her ice cream.

She'd probably eat me alive, he thought with a belated smile as he followed her in to his home.

*****

"I can check the various scrolls and other references to see if there is some prophecy or warning that seems to fit this situation, Willow, but frankly, I'm not holding out much luck."

Willow licked the spoon of every last smudge of hot fudge before nodding her head in understanding.  "I don't think you're going to find anything either, Giles."  She was eating the ice cream straight out of the carton, although she had taken the time to heat up the jar of hot fudge and pour half the contents onto the ice cream first.

"Are you sure you didn't see anything else strange or out of the ordinary?"

Angel shook his head, completely entranced in the way the redhead was ravenously devouring the ice cream.  It didn't escape his notice that she'd been avoiding him since she'd started eating, and the few times their eyes did meet, she actually blushed.

Intriguing.

Giles cleared his throat and repeated the question.

"Other than the fact that more than a dozen vampires were using Willow for a sparring partner, and that they didn't really seem to want to hurt any of us until the end, no, Giles," Angel finally had the presence of mind to reply.

Willow slapped her head with the palm of her hand.  "Wait a sec!" she said, actually placing the half-eaten carton of ice cream on the table.  "There was something else that I'd almost forgotten about.  Two things, actually.  I saw three men watching from a safe distance."

"Just watching?" Jenny asked and Willow nodded in reply.

"Anything strange about them?"

"Not really," Willow said, searching her memory.  "They looked pretty normal...in their 30s and early 40s, I guess.  One was kind of short, pudgy, and balding, wearing a short leather jacket, and glasses.  One was taller, with a beard, and wearing a suit.  The third guy had long straggly blond hair and thick dark-rimmed glasses.  I think the short one checked his watch a few times, but other than that, they just sort of watched...stared.  They left about the time Spike showed up."

"Did you notice these men, Angel?" Giles asked.

Angel was trying not to stare at the smudge of fudge at the corner of her mouth.  He swallowed and gripped the back of the leather chair he was standing behind.  "No."

Obviously thinking everything through, Giles slid his glasses off to chew lightly on one stem.

"What was the other strange thing, Willow?" Jenny asked.

Willow's tongue flicked out to clean the chocolate from her mouth before answering, causing Angel's grip to tighten reflexively until his nails actually punctured the fine leather of the wingback chair.  "Oh, only that either there was a vampire triplet convention in town, or I killed some of the same vampires two or three times."

*****

It wasn't long before Willow wished she'd kept her big ice cream-eating mouth shut. When she'd so casually announced that she'd killed the same vampires more than once, Angel was surprised as the rest.  Later when Cordelia, Xander and Buffy were questioned, none of them remembered repeatedly seeing the same vampire, let alone staking them.  Even Spike claimed to have not noticed the identical vampires. Buffy, Xander and Cordelia wanted to chalk up Willow's seeing double and sometimes triple to the stress of the situation, so Willow let them.  She knew what she'd seen but she wasn't going to make things any worse for herself with her friends than it already was.

Not only were her friends back to being ridiculously overprotective, but what little headway Willow felt she'd made with Angel was now considerably outweighed by his sudden overwhelming protectiveness and an increasingly sullen mood.  She recognized guilt and self-disgust when she saw it.  And no matter what she and the others said to convince Angel that it wasn't his fault, Angel still made her safety his personal duty, watching her like a hawk.  And not a sexy vampire-like hawk, but a brooding prison warden-like hawk, and so the rest of the ice cream remained uneaten for quite some time.

Yep.  If she thought it had been bad before, it had gotten much, much worse.  They now all believed Willow to be the target of something, but they had no idea what.  Buffy and Xander insisted that Spike or possibly Drusilla was behind whatever it was, while the other's who knew the truth about her relationship with Spike, focused on something even more dire than an obsessed vampire.  They were all certain that Willow was going to be the key to some upcoming doom-n-gloom prophecy.

Willow, on the other hand, figured it was more likely something in the middle of those two possibilities.  No matter what, she refused to let her life be ruled by 'what-ifs?' anymore than it already was.

Everywhere she went, daylight or nighttime hours, someone went with her.  Buffy would walk her home from school, or Xander would accompany her to Angel's place.  Then they would all, including Angel, walk her home after dark.  Not only wasn't she allowed to participate in the one thing she really enjoyed--Friday night patrols, the one thing deemed safe for her--research--had become totally unbearable, since she was now its main focus.  Even Giles, who was normally slow to jump to conclusions *and* knew Willow's whole situation, believed that she was in danger.

Willow tried her best to handle the situation in a mature manner, but in the end, she started to withdraw even more from her friends and finding other social outlets.  While it meant lying to everyone, even Spike, it was surprisingly easy to sneak out on her own several nights a week.

Unfortunately, one late autumn night a few weeks after the patrol incident, her friends became suspicious.

*********

"All right, Spike.  Where is she?"

Spike rolled his eyes in annoyance at the sound of Buffy's voice coming from behind him but otherwise ignored her.  He was not in the mood for The Slayer tonight...any night, actually.  He'd just wanted some time to himself and to have a drink, no complications.  If he'd wanted complications, he would have stayed at home.

Buffy cautiously inched closer, a nervous Xander and Cordelia right behind her.  "Are you deaf now as well as dumb, Spike?" she taunted the vampire when he continued to disregard her.

"Take you all day to think of that one, Slayer?" he snickered, his focus still entirely on his wine and cigarette.

"Where is she, Spike?"

"She?" Spike snorted, finally shifting on his stool to look at the Scooby Gang with distaste.  Ignoring Buffy, he sized up the boy first.  Xapper.  He stared at him, scrutinizing him carefully, until the boy finally fidgeted.  Actually, Spike was impressed.  He'd have guessed that the boy'd have wet his trou by now.  Moving on in his inspection of the teens, he quickly raked over the other one, the dark-haired girl who was clutching Xapper's hand.  Pretty, but high maintenance.  He wished Xapper luck.  Finally he turned his cool eyes to Buffy, who was practically shaking with suppressed anger at this point.  Spike knew he shouldn't push his luck...just like he knew he would anyway.

He took another long drag of his cigarette, then casually exhaled the smoke directly in Buffy's face.  "First of all, Slayer, didn't Joyce ever tell you how rude it is to refer to someone as a 'she'?"

Looking a bit surprised and worried that Spike knew her mother's name, Buffy took a step closer.  "Spike--"

Spike ignored the Slayer's interruption to berate her some more.  "Willow has a name you know, you stupid bint.  Use it."

Buffy simply glared at the blonde vampire, while the others shifted nervously from foot to foot.

"Say it, Buffy.  Say her name.  Wwwillllloowwww..." he instructed The Slayer as if she were a child.

Her hazel eyes narrowed.  "If you keep uttering it like that, she may want to change her name."

Spike smirked, leaning back against the bar.  "Fine by me.  I always thought Red looked like a bit of a Rose, myself.  Willow sounds so 60's...1960s, not 1860s.  Now Rose is a good 1860's name..."

Obviously running out of patience, Buffy leaned in to slam her stake down on the bar mere millimeters from his elbow.  "The point, Spike?"

Spike was unfazed, his smirk unwavering.  "You tell me."

"Where is Willow?"

"Don't you know?"

"If I knew, would I be here subjecting myself to your company?" she asked through gritted teeth.

"You wouldn't be the first person to pick a fight with me just to stay in my company a little longer."  Spike grinned then gave The Slayer a long appraising look, which quickly turned dismissive.  "Sorry Slayer...you're not my type."
Spike turned back to the bar and his cigarette.  "So feel free to leave anytime, Slayer.  Oh, and don't forget to let the door crush you to death on your way out."

"Look, I'm not leaving until you tell me where Willow is!"

Spike was thoroughly enjoying himself.  "You mean you don't know?" he repeated, his back still to the teenagers.

"Spike, I'm about two seconds away from having a sudden memory loss as far as all prophecies are concerned."  When Spike shot her a quick glance over his shoulder, Buffy made an innocent face.  "Oops.  Spike's a pile of ashes.  My bad."

Spike laughed.  "Yeah, you and what army, Slayer?"

"That would be us," Xander spoke up, his voice cracking slightly.

Smiling, Spike swiveled back around on the stool and glanced from Cordelia to Xander and back to The Slayer.  "Oh, puh-lease.  I said which army, not which kindie class."

"Spike--"

"You know, it's funny, really," Spike chuckled, again interrupting Buffy.  "That you, her *friends,* don't know where she is.  Haven't actually seen her tonight myself, but I can tell you exactly where she is.  The same place she's been for the last few Monday and Thursday nights.  The same place she runs off to whenever she's had a gutsful of you lot and can manage to sneak away from soul-boy's ever-watchful eye."  He didn't tell them that he watched her as well, without her knowing, of course.  And if he couldn't, he'd have one of his more trustworthy minions do it for him.  For the next couple of hours, he knew Willow was relatively safe, but her friends didn't.  The anxious and bewildered looks that the teenagers exchanged made Spike's night. This just kept getting better and better, he thought, flicking a bored look at the stakes they still held in their sweaty little palms.

"You stake me, Slayer," he spat, "and how will you find out where your bestest buddy in the whole wide world is?"

Buffy's shoulders sagged a bit, but then she quickly straightened up, her eyes flashing anything but defeat.  "Spike, you have until I count to three," she began in a carefully measured tone, "and if you don't tell me where she is, I'll tell Willy that if he ever serves you again, I'll make this place the new Slayer Central, got it?"

At this point, Willy dropped a glass.  His eyes were wide, pleading with Spike from behind the bar.

Not worried by her threat in the slightest but beginning to tire of the game anyway, Spike stubbed out his cigarette and slid off the stool.  "Sure you want to know?" he asked, fixing The Slayer with his coldest gaze.  "You think you lot can handle it?"

"If she's hurt, Spike.  If you have her tied up somewhere, or worse--"

Again, so many one-liners came to mind, but he controlled himself.  "She's not hurt.  Red's fine..."

"Take us to her now, Spike," Xander growled, actually stepping in front of the Slayer to glare at him. "And stop calling her that!"

Spike was glad that the bar was practically empty or he'd be hearing about this for a decade or two from the other regulars.  Luckily, Monday nights were always slow, especially during football season.

Willy's still didn't have a big screen TV.

Raising a brow for the boy's bravery, Spike leaned in to whisper near his ear.  "I'll stop calling her that when she asks me to herself, Xapper, but I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you."  Then Spike pulled back--impressed that the boy hadn't run away screaming by now--and winked at him.  Then he addressed the others.  "It would be my pleasure to take you to her, Slayer, but don't say I didn't warn you."

With a last smirk for the oblivious kids, Spike brushed past them all, exited the bar and headed down the first dark ally he came across, the Slayer and the others at his heels.

Spike couldn't help himself.  Even though their final destination was only three blocks away and in a relatively good part of town, Spike purposely lead them on a wild goose chase for over an hour through some of the darker, danker, and definitely more dangerous areas of Sunnydale.  There were less than a block from their final destination when they actually met up with Angel, Giles, and Jenny, who'd obviously been searching for Willow as well.

Shaking his head at his luck, Spike came to a casual stop.  Angel's steps didn't slow until he was mere inches away.  He stared down at him.

"I should have known you'd be involved, Spike.  What do you know about this?"

"A damn sight more than any of you lot, that's for sure.  But then, what else's new, right, Peaches?"

"Take me to Willow now before I--"

"Already have, mate.  We're here," he informed them with an amused smirk as he jerked his thumb to the door of the coffeehouse behind him.

Buffy looked at the building then back at Spike, well and truly vexed.  "Thirsty, Spike?"

Ignoring them, Spike pushed Angel away and threw open the doors to the coffeehouse.  He strolled into the dim, smoky club, and immediately lit up a cigarette.  The others followed, stopping a few steps inside the door to look around.  The small club wasn't packed, but there was a respectable crowd.  The place had a comfortable, worn look about it.  Couches, tables, and chairs of all description were spread about in no particular pattern.  The plastered walls were an earthy red-brown, which looked leather-like and sported a variety of posters and local art talent.  The clientele was diverse, a cross between Asian businessman, urban cowgirls and everything in between.  Most were engrossed in the small stage in the far corner, watching the entertainment.

"So, where is she?" Buffy demanded of Spike, hands on her hips.  "Does she have a part-time job pushing caffeine?  That would be bad, because Willow and caffeine do not mix."

Spike snorted in disgust.  "Why the bloody hell Red was in a hurry to get back to you pathetic lot is beyond me."

"Enough cryptic," Buffy said loudly, trying to talk over the soft explosion of applause directed toward the stage, her eyes having already glanced over not only all of the patrons but the wait staff as well, seeing no sign of her friend.  "If you sent us on a wild good chase--"

"Oh. My. God..." came Xander's voice, interrupting Buffy's tirade.

"What?"

Xander elbowed her, pointing to the stage, his mouth hanging open.  When Buffy noticed the performer, her mouth fell open as well.  One by one the others had similar reactions until only Spike seemed to be taking it all in stride.

"Bunch of bloody pillocks," he mumbled, stalking off to the bar to get his cup of usual.

Willow didn't seem to be able to see the new arrivals, due in no small part to the smoke and a couple of bright stage lights, which they all figured was actually for the best considering how stunned they probably looked.

The redhead was sitting on a lone stool in the middle of the small stage.  Cradling a large acoustic guitar on her lap while one hand wrapped around the microphone stand, Willow looked more relaxed and comfortable than they'd seen her in months.  She strummed a few practice chords as the audience finished their applause for her previous song.

"Thank you," she said with an endearing smile when she could be heard.  "Um, Dave said I can do one more, so if you don't mind, I thought I'd do a song that I actually wrote myself."  Willow grinned appreciatively at the assorted shouts of encouragement from random patrons.  "Thanks!  Now, I'd ask you to sing along, but...well...you don't know the words, do you?"

"Hey, Buffy!  Angel!"  Oz's loud whisper drew their attention away from the stage.  Oz was sitting alone at a table in the back, and he gestured for them all to come over.

Xander, whose mouth was still hanging open, finally managed to speak as he took a seat next to Oz.  "What?  When?  How?" he asked, his eyes darting between Oz and the redhead on the stage.

"That pretty much echoes my thoughts," Oz replied with a shrug.  "This is my first time here. It's open-mike night, so I came to try out a new song I'm working on."  He gestured to his guitar case in the corner.  "Looks like Willow beat me to it.  I'm as surprised as you are."

Xander had managed to close his mouth, but now his head was shaking in useless denial.  "But...but...she has stage fright!  And, well, she can't sing!"

From his spot at the bar, Spike snorted, called them a score of rude names, then asked for more cinnamon on his cappuccino.

"And the guitar?" Xander continued.  "When did she learn how to play the guitar?  Oz, when did you teach--"

"Wasn't me."

Still dazed, everyone found a chair at Oz's table, except for Angel, who hung at the back...one eye on Willow, the other on Spike who'd taken a position leaning against the wall on the opposite side of the room.

"Anyway," Willow continued easily into the microphone, "I call this one 'Further and Further Away'." #

When there was silence, Willow's fingers moved over the strings, gently picking out the notes.  After the short instrumental introduction, she leaned into the mike and sang with such a melodic sweetness that her friends felt tears stinging their eyes.

  # "I can see the place where I came from
I can hear those sounds right now
I can find the path I used to run
And believe I still know how
Then I shake my head, clearing my vision
I keep those scenes at bay
"And I can see the place where I came from
Slipping further and further away.
"I can feel the way I used to feel,
When the world was small and green
And you sang a song of soft appeal
And I curled into my dream.
Then I shake my head, clearing my vision
I keep those scenes at bay
"And I can feel the way I used to feel
Slipping further and further away."

While singing the last few words before the instrumental, Willow was pleasantly surprised to spot Spike standing at the side of the club.  She gave him a saucy grin as her fingers glided over the strings.

"What's she doing?" Cordelia asked as she noticed Willow looking off toward the side of the room.

Buffy craned her neck to see where Willow was looking.  "Oh my God," she hissed.  "Willow's serenading Spike."

"Is not!"  Xander nearly shouted in denial.  He followed Willow's line of vision to see Spike smiling back at the redhead.

"Oh. My. God," he said again, then corrected himself.  "Scratch that.  There obviously is no God...Or, or maybe I'm dreaming.  Someone pinch me?  Please?"  He was panicking, and when Cordy gave him a painful twist on his arm, which changed nothing, he grew pale.

"She's quite good, actually," Giles said with an approving smile, ignoring the young peoples' fussing.

Jenny agreed.  "The Rom are excellent musicians and teachers."

Buffy eyed the two calm adults in the room skeptically.  "What do you two know about this?"

"Oh, well, I-I can assure you, that I'm as in the dark as you are," Giles sputtered.  "At least about the singing...."

"Can you guys shut up?" Cordelia huffed. "I want to hear the song!"

Still oblivious to the fact that her friends were in the audience, Willow continued singing.

"Time keeps moving faster and faster
I'm not losing track
Oh, I'm afraid that something's forgotten
So I keep looking back.
"I can hear the songs you used to sing
I can swear I won't let go.
You were strong and you knew everything
Back before I had to know.
Then I shake my head, clearing my vision
I keep those scenes at bay
"And I can hear the songs you used to sing
Slipping further and further away.
Yes, I can hear the songs you used to sing
Slipping further and further away." #

With a few final strums of her guitar, the song was over, but not until the closing strains drifted away did the room erupt in applause.

Jenny wiped away a tear while clapping her hands, catching the meaning of the song probably better than anyone else in the room.  Sensing her emotions, Giles squeezed her hand and whispered in her ear, "Willow's going to be okay, Jenny.  She's a strong woman."

"She's so alone, Rupert," Jenny whispered back.  "I could see her heart breaking up there."

"It was her choice not to tell her friends.  She set herself on this particular path, although I have a feeling she's about to take an unexpected detour," he said with a grim smile.

After thanking everyone for their appreciative applause, Willow grabbed her guitar and stood, just as a rather chubby red-faced man moved on stage.  Willow leaned back into the microphone.  "Oh, and next we have for your musical enjoyment, Herbert and his banjo!"

Guitar in hand, she jumped lightly off the stage.  "Spike," she smiled, sliding up to give him a friendly peck on the cheek.  "What are you doing here?"

"Still waiting for you to sing me a song, Red.  Hope that little ditty wasn't it.  It was a mite depressing."

"Nope, not for you, although I'm sure I can come up with something you'd like if you let me know you're here.  And the guitar sounds so beautiful, doesn't it?  I can never thank you enough for it."

"You're welcome to try anytime, Red."

"Ah, nice try, Spike, but you never answered my question.  Why are you here?  How'd you find me?  Did you miss me or did you come to yell at me for sneaking out?"

The smile slid off Spike face as he noticed the others coming their way.  "Sorry, pet...I think your cover's blown."

"What?" she asked, then turned to see everyone stampeding towards her.  "Oh boy."

Willow straightened into a proud position, shoulders back, chin held high, telling herself it was time to get it over with anyway.  She could take anything they threw, including a million questions.

Buffy and Xander stopped directly in front of her, Cordelia, Jenny and Giles behind them.  The two adults gave her reassuring smiles, but the others looked far from happy.

"Um, hi guys.  Nice place, isn't it?  They make a mean mocha latte here and the--"

Xander and Buffy exchanged looks.  "All right, who the hell are you and what have you done with Willow?" Buffy demanded while Xander stood with his arms crossed, nodding.

Willow laughed until she realized they were serious.  "Buffy, Xander, I *am* Willow."

Xander elbowed Buffy, saying in a staged whisper: "I'm thinking evil, yet oddly talented double from some strange demon dimension.  What about you, Buffy?"

"Robot.  Definitely," she replied without hesitation.  "But with very dexterous fingers and a nice voice," she added, and Willow smiled at her compliment.

"You thought I was good, Buffy?  Really?"

"You were wonderful, Willow," Jenny spoke up.

"I have to agree," Giles said.  "You play beautifully and have a very mature--"

"Hey!" Xander interrupted to turn and glare at the adults.  "Don't fraternize with the enemy version of Willow!"

Willow straightened, fixing them each with a candid look.  "I'm not an enemy or a version...I'm the original!"

Spike dropped his cigarette on the carpeted floor and ground it out with his boot before draping an arm about Willow's shoulders in a show of support.  "This *is* Willow, you ninnies."

"No way," Xander said plainly.  "Our Willow doesn't *do* stages, she runs and hides!  Our Willow doesn't *sing* in public, she runs and hides!  And most importantly, our Willow doesn't lie to her friends, keep secrets and make nice with blood suckers..."  He cleared his throat, then said in a slightly gentler tone: "No offense, Angel."

"None taken," Angel said, finally leaving the shadows to join the group.  Willow gave him a tentative smile, but his expression remained reserved as he said, "But this *is* Willow."

The Slayer's eyes narrowed.  "Willow, either explain or I'm going to start looking for a power source on you somewhere, and I don't mean the mystical kind.  We're talking Eveready here."

Oz finally spoke up.  "I was thinking AC/DC myself."

Willow smiled warmly at Oz before turning back to Buffy.  "It is such a long story, but I am Willow...*your* Willow...sort of..."

"Can I do the honors, Red?" Spike whispered near her ear, although loud enough for everyone to hear.  "Pretty, pretty please?"  When Willow gave him a highly skeptical look in reply, he continued, "I'll make it quick and to the point, which you have to admit was never one of your strong suits.  Then you can just answer the follow-up questions."

"I dunno."

"Red, no offense, but if we wait for you to explain, we'll be in for the marathon babble of a lifetime...several lifetimes in fact."

Buffy's foot was tapping a mile a minute.  "Someone better start explaining or I'll stake Spike just for something to pass the time!"

Willow scowled at Buffy, but managed not to blurt out 'over my dead body!'.  Still, the scowl seemed to catch Buffy off guard.  "Okay, Spike, but please try to behave.  Just stick to the *relevant* stuff."

Spike winked at her, then turned to others. He opened his grinning mouth, ready to tell all, but when they leaned forward in expectation, Spike couldn't help dragging it out a bit.  Instead, he fumbled around for his cigarettes and took his own sweet time lighting one up.  Just when Buffy looked ready to explode, and Willow was giving him 'the look', Spike began.

"The Willow before you is...er, how old is it again, love?" he asked the redhead.

For a moment, Willow was at a loss for words.  While Spike had been toying with his captive audience, Angel moved to her other side.  The look on his face had grown supportive and strangely hopeful, and she found his presence at her side both reassuring and nerve wracking.

She refocused on the matter at hand, replaying what Spike had asked her.  "Oh...well...it depends on if you count all the years we were gone or just the years we lived through."

"Let's go with just the ones we have the mental Polaroids of, Red."

"Well, I was 17 when we went back to 1753, then we left in 1871 so that makes 135 years, give or take a few months..."

Spike nodded, as if doing the math in his own head, then fixed the group with an eerily cheerful smile.  He was loving every second of this.  "Okay, Red here is 135 years old because I did a spell that took her back in time.  Due to no fault of my own, mind you, we ended up being stuck there longer than I imagined, but now we're both back, older and wiser.  That 'bout covers it, don't you think, Red?"

Willow sighed.  She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but that definitely wasn't it.  Still, it could have been worse.  "Spike..."

"What?" he asked with all the wide-eyed innocence of a nun.  "Don't tell me you want all the sordid little details?"

"No, but--"

"Um, I do.  I want the sordid little details!" Cordelia piped up, for some reason appearing to take the news better than her flabbergasted friends.

Spike grinned triumphantly.  "Oh, well, since Xapper's girlfriend--"

"*Xander's* girlfriend and her name is Cordelia," the long-suffering Willow groaned.

Spike made himself comfortable, as if about to impart a long epic tale on a group of eager schoolchildren.  "Well, Cordelia, we went back in time so I could save Dru and kill Angel.  The spell required virgin blood and well...Red here, wanting to save the ponce's life for some bloody reason that's completely beyond my understanding, mucked it all up.  Instead of killing off Angelus," he said, jerking a thumb at the hovering, silent vampire, "we ended up living in Galway, Ireland, in 1753 as husband and wife--"

"Husband and wife?" Buffy repeated incredulously and Spike's triumphant grin became wicked, lascivious.  Angel's face darkened considerably.

Willow shifted uncomfortably from foot-to-foot, not sure where to look when all of her friends were staring at her as if she'd grown an extra head or two.  "Um, maybe I better handle it from here, Spike."

"But I was just getting to the good bits!" At the no-nonsense look Willow gave him, the vampire shrugged and plucked another cigarette out of his pack.  "Suit yourself."

"This probably isn't the best place for such an...intimate discussion, Willow."  Giles looked about the crowded coffeehouse.  "Maybe we should continue this back at Angel's?"

"Um, yeah...I guess so."

"Wait a minute!" Buffy hissed, glaring at all of the adults in the group.  "Everyone who knows what's going on here, raise his or her hand."

Spike's hand immediately shot straight up, slowly followed by Angel's, Giles', Jenny's and even Willow's herself.

Buffy gave them all dirty looks, except for Willow, whom she looked at through wounded eyes.  "So, something major has been going on with Wills, and no one cares to share it with her friends, let alone the Slayer?"

"I'm sorry, Buffy, but it's...complicated," Willow began in a quieter tone.  They were beginning to attract attention as Buffy's voice seemed to increase a decibel with every word.  "I really think we need to take this outside."

"Yeah, I think we're interrupting the cowboy's groove," Oz added, motioning toward the stage where the painfully off-key Herbert was having trouble holding his audience's attention.

"So, Angel's it is then?" Jenny asked, taking Giles' hand and pulling him towards the door in an effort to get the whole group moving.

Willow smiled tentatively at Oz.  "Oz, can you come, please?  This kinda concerns you, too."

He nodded.  "Had a feeling it might."

As they began to file out of the coffeehouse in various kinds of silence, Spike whispered into Willow's ear.  "Need backup, Red?"

"Oh, I think I better handle this one on my own, and I doubt that Angel's in any mood to invite you in to his home tonight."

Spike hated the anxious look on her face.  Her eyes were wide, making her look even younger and more naive than usual.  He rubbed her back, which made Xander groan with disgust in the background.  "Sorry it happened this way, love.  That lot cornered me in Willy's and wouldn't let me alone until I produced you, dead or alive."

"That's okay, Spike.  Guess it had to happen sooner or later, and this was as good a way as any."

"You should have seen the looks on their faces when they saw you on that stage.  It was priceless."

"Um, how did, er, Angel look?"

Spike's smile disappeared.  "Like he always does, as if he'd like nothing better than to stake me and grind my bones for his bread."

"That's not true."  Willow turned to find Jenny behind her.  "Angel looked surprised and...sort of entranced, to tell you the truth."

Spike shrugged indifferently. "Angry, entranced, thinking of childe-ocide...it's all the same to me."

Willow sighed as she stepped out into the fresh night air to find everyone watching and waiting for her.

Spike stood his ground as they walked away.  "Look at the bright side, pet," he called after her.  "After this, we won't have to go sneaking 'round anymore, will we?"

****

The room was as quiet as a...well, as a church.  Buffy, Xander, Cordelia and Oz sat at the table, each with their own special expression of disbelief on their face as they stared at the red-headed woman in front of them.

Willow had told them everything...at least everything she thought they needed to know.  They were all now aware of what had happened in Willow's original timeline--including the Buffy and Angel, Willow and Oz pairings.  She told them how she'd messed up the spell so that they went farther back in time and met Angel before he was a vampire.  As she had before when she'd repeated her history for Giles, Willow skimmed much of the details about her relationship with Angelus.  They didn't know how close she and Angelus had become, both before and after he'd lost his life.  Nor did they know just how intimate her relationship with Spike was.  She also didn't tell them of her darker moments, the years she spent alone with only her guilt and hatred of Spike keeping her going.

She kept it light and simple, as if she were writing a paper on how she spent her summer vacation.  The rest, if need be, could come out in time.

So now she waited for them to say something.  Anything.

Finally, the sacred silence was shattered as they all started talking at once.

"I had sex with Angel?"

"You're a 100-year-old virgin?"

"You had how many servants?"

"Huh."

Willow tried not to roll her eyes although this reaction was exactly what she feared.  Before she could respond, the next set of questions hit her.

"Angel lost his soul because he, er, loved me?"

"Let me get this straight...You're a 100-year-old virgin?"

"Now, when you say servants, were they live-ins or just part-time help?"

Oz's comment was again a simple: "Huh."

Willow took a deep breath.  "Yes, Buffy, you and Angel were in love.  You had sex, he lost his soul, became a real arse and tried to destroy the world, but he didn't and then you both disappeared."

She turned to Xander.  "Yes, I'm a 135-year-old virgin.  It was necessary for the spell to work.  It wasn't fun, and yet I was hardly a nun.  Deal with it."

The cheerleader was next.  "Cordy, for the most part I managed with as little help as possible.  When I was in big cities, like London, I had gardeners, occasional housekeeping, but I dressed myself, corset and all.  I was pretending to be a widow in mourning, not a princess."

She turned to Oz and suddenly her tone gentled.  "Sorry to sorta spring that kind of information on you all at once, Oz.  I had actually told you everything before when you were, you know...all wolfie...but I didn't know how to tell you when you might actually remember."

"It makes sense, actually."

"It does?" she asked with hope in her voice.

He nodded.  "They way you've been looking at me, the way you know me..."  He looked at Angel then back to Willow.  "I was beginning to think we were twins separated at birth.  Actually, you going back in time and changing history makes more sense."

"Really?"

He nodded, but when the smile on Willow's face spread to his own, he suddenly stood up.  His smile was gone.

"Oz?" Willow asked, rising quickly to her feet.  The look on his face was no longer a happy one...he looked confused and scared.

"Gotta go," Oz said, barely looking at her.  "Sorry," he added sheepishly, then slipped out the door before Willow could think of the words to stop him.  She stood in the middle of the room, staring at the door he'd just bolted through.

"Give him time to adjust, Willow," came Giles' gentle offering as he came up from behind to squeeze her shoulder.

"That's a lot for a guy like Oz to take in," Jenny agreed.

"Yeah, I know...or at least I used to."  Willow looked at them both.  "All he needs is time..."  But it wasn't that simple anymore.

Giles took off his spectacles to give Willow a warm smile.  "I must say, Willow, I'm rather relieved this is all finally out in the open."

Willow glanced back over her shoulder where her friends were in deep discussion.  "I know, Giles," she sighed, "but if Xander asks me one more time if I'm a virgin..." Willow let the threat go unfinished.

Giles nodded wearily.  "If he asks you that one more time, I'll kill him myself, Willow."

Giles and Jenny made a discreet exit when Angel approached.  He'd stood silently in the background the entire time Willow spoke, and strangely enough, Willow found strength in his quiet presence, although she couldn't quite bring herself to look at him while she'd told her story.  But now that the truth was out, Angel's silent support had taken on a more pensive note.  He was brooding again.

"Angel?"

The dark, hurt look in his eyes made Willow re-evaluate her previous description.  He wasn't simply brooding, he was hurt and a little angry.  "You didn't tell them about us," he said in a cool, even tone.

"I--I couldn't, Angel.  I--"

"Do you still expect me to go on pretending that it didn't happen?  Because I won't, Willow."  His voice had grown lower, angrier, but his words were still for her ears only.  "I won't pretend that my bite marks aren't on your neck, Willow, or that we weren't in love."

Willow's blood was pounding in her ears, and she was quite sure she couldn't breathe.  "That was a long time ago, Angel."

"Not for me, Willow.  For me, it was only a heart beat ago."

Before Willow could say another word, Angel turned and stalked out, slamming the door behind him.

Willow sighed as she stared despondently at the door that both Angel and Oz had fled through.

Actually, it had gone better than she'd expected, but that wasn't saying much.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
End Chapter 16 (archived August 24, 2002 )
 

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