* Big thank you to Medea for the beta, the honesty, and the Angel discussions!  You've helped me to see a side of Angel I'd totally overlooked.  Hope you feel better soon!  Also, Tracy, I hope you're doing better soon too!  Need me to send Spike or Angel to give you a massage?  Let me guess...you'd prefer Oz, right?  And thanks to Melissa for dusting off her pom-poms now and then! Lastly, a HUGE thanks to Jan J. for pointing out a few old but important errors in TYT and IAT that I missed here and there! :-) Thank you!

** Dedicated to everyone that has stuck with me for nearly FIVE years!  Maybe I better hurry up or Joss may finish before I will.
 
 
 

It's About Time  ~ Chapter 17
*********

While Angel stormed out of Slayer Central, the teenagers were still trying to come to grips with Willow's revelations.

"I guess we should just be glad her brain wasn't permanently smushed after all," Xander said in a low voice to Buffy and Cordelia, who were seated next to him at one of the round tables.  "I was starting to think she'd lost some serious brain cells from that spell this summer."

"Oh, you mean the spell that never happened?" Cordelia reminded them. She didn't bother trying to keep her voice low. "The one that was just some big ole cover-up for Willow's living flashback?"

"I'm with you, Xander," Buffy admitted.  "I was starting to think Willow didn't like us anymore.  She didn't hang around as much as she used to, and even when she did, sometimes she was just so..."

"Unwillowy?"

Buffy nodded.  "Withdrawn, detached...just different somehow," she whispered.  "And now we know why."

"Yeah, it's actually kind of a relief to know that she's not insane, just really, really old."

Cordelia gestured across the large room.  "I'm not so sure about that," she said.  Willow was standing with her back to them, seemingly staring at the front door of Slayer Central.  "I've seen saner."

Xander glanced at over at Giles and Jenny, who were quietly talking at a nearby table.  He looked over at Willow again and cleared his throat.  "Um, Willow, where'd Angel go?"

Willow was still staring at the closed door.  "I'm not sure," she replied without turning around.  "I think he just needed some air."

"And since when do vampires need to get air?" Cordelia asked.

"Maybe after everything Willow said he wanted to have a little talk with Spike," Buffy suggested hopefully.

Xander leaned back in his chair and grinned.  "If you mean talk as in Angel's fists meeting Spike's jaw, I hope you're right.  It's about time we were able to knock that permanent smirk off his pasty old face."

"Or maybe he wanted to talk to Oz," Buffy countered.  "Oz did look pretty wigged by the news."

Willow was still staring at the door.

"I, uh, still can't believe you and Oz were a couple," Xander said even more loudly.  "That's almost as strange as Buffy and Angel, er, *dating*."

Willow finally seemed to snap out of it.  "What?" she said, turning to look at them over her shoulder. "Oh yeah, strange, huh?" she added, but then her attention turned back to the door.  She took a hesitant step towards it, her hand outstretched for the handle, and then she seemed to change her mind because she stepped backwards.  She repeated this several times, muttering to herself all the while.  Xander couldn't be sure, but he thought she was saying something about being China and anger building sturdy walls.  It didn't make any sense to him.  He looked over at Buffy, who appeared as confused as he was.

"Oh yeah...big improvement," Cordelia noted dryly.  She turned to Giles and Jenny.  "Excuse me, but exactly how long has Willow thought she was a piece of angry tableware?"

Willow was still staring at the door, torn between going after Angel and simply letting him be angry with her, when Jenny's soft voice, full of concern, brought her out of her reverie of indecision.

"Willow, are you okay?"

She jumped at Jenny's question, startled to realize that the room had had grown quiet.  There was no more excited chatter coming from Buffy, Cordelia and Xander as they discussed what had happened to her.  Without even turning around, she could feel the weight of their stares.  She took a deep breath and got some semblance of command over her emotions before she whirled to face them.  "I'm fine," she said brightly and was happy to see some of the worry fade from her friends' faces at her words. "Guess I'm just a little wound up after everything that happened tonight.  You know...all full of energy!"

The three young people nodded and smiled, but Willow could see wariness in their faces. Willow didn't blame them for having doubts, and she knew it would take a while to win back their complete trust.  When you lie to people for three months, it tends to make them a little more cautious for a while.

As they went back to talking softly amongst themselves, it occurred to Willow that she should be feeling even guiltier than she already did for making them worry, for her dishonesty.  The increasingly infrequent twinges of remorse that she'd felt from all the lies and half-truths didn't seem like enough now. But for a change, Willow couldn't quite summon the heavy burden of guilt to come perch on her shoulder. During her long life, truth was rarely one of her survival techniques. She'd lived one lie after another, never able to tell anyone the whole truth about who she was and where she'd come from.  Only with Spike had she been able to relax and try to be herself, but sometimes even she wondered where the lies stopped and she started.

"So, is that really all that's bothering you?" Jenny asked, lowering her voice as she drew closer.  "Nervous energy?"

Giles stood behind Jenny, his forehead creased with concern.  "Did Angel say something to upset you?"

Willow sighed as she looped her thumbs into the pockets of her suede jeans in a vain effort to appear casual.  She kept her tone light as well.  "I think the question you may want to ask is, did I *not* say something that upset Angel?"

"Pardon?"

Realizing that she probably wasn't going to be able to 'poker face' her way out of this one, Willow glanced over at her friends.  Since they appeared to be entangled in another lively discussion, she quickly led Giles and Jenny to the far end of the room so they could talk with a little more privacy.

"Angel's angry about my abridged version of what happened," she told them.

Giles removed his glasses as he gave a tight smile that Willow tried not to think of as condescending.  "Ah, I see."

"I can't say that I'm surprised, Willow," Jenny said.  "How long did you really think you could go on pretending that it had all never happened?"

So much for a sympathetic ear.

Willow feigned an appropriate lighthearted smile. "Well, since vampires are immortal, I was kinda aiming for forever."

"Not very realistic, Willow," Giles said.

"Not very fair either," Jenny agreed.

"Hey, I know you two aren't supposed to pick sides, that as teacher-types you appreciate and treasure each of us equally and all that, but, come one, whose side are you on, anyway?"

Giles laughed softly at Willow's slight pout.  "Believe it or not, we are on your side, Willow.  We only want what's best for you, for everyone concerned."

With an exaggerated display of dejection, Willow flopped down on the nearby couch.  "Guess this means at 135 years old, I'm no longer the teacher's pet.  Just more proof that time travel bites."

Smiling, Giles joined Willow on the couch and Jenny took a seat next to him.

"Now, back to you and Angel," Jenny began. "Maybe you should try to look at the situation from his point of view.  Angel's been waiting a lot longer than you have for the truth to come out.  He's been keeping these secrets from the others for years now, not just months.  He's bound to be a little...impatient."

"You mean pushy," Willow grumbled.

"Not only that, Willow," Giles said, ignoring her aside, "but it has become quite apparent to us that meeting you in Galway was quite likely the single most important thing that ever happened to Angel.  A defining moment in his life, or unlife, you might say.  We can only imagine how difficult it was for him to keep that a secret."

"Yet he did, Willow," Jenny added.  "For your sake, he's kept the truth from the others."

Willow barely registered Jenny's comment.  Her mind was still stuck on the 'single most defining moment in his life' concept.

Giles stood up, which recaptured Willow's attention.  "And then, tonight, when you were finally backed into a corner and forced to tell your friends about your incredible experience, you made it sound as if Angel's part in your past was entirely insignificant.  As if meeting Angelus were just another part of the job."

"You sounded almost clinical, Willow," Jenny added.  "You gave the impression that any impact you may have had on Angel's life was a mistake, and what's worse, one that you regret."

"But it *was* a mistake," Willow reminded them, jumping up to pace distractedly in front of the couch.  "I didn't mean to..." Willow trailed off.  She came to a stop and looked around at the evidence of Angel's remarkable achievements.  "I never meant for all of this to happen," she said as she lifted her arms to indicate Slayer Central.

Giles sighed.  "We understand that, Willow.  We understand that you tried *very* hard not to change the timeline.  It was an admirable effort, but it didn't quite work out that way.  Whether you intended to or not, you had a profound impact on Angel's life.  All of our lives, when you truly think about it."  Giles paused, as if choosing his words very carefully.  "Perhaps you should try not to seem so ashamed of what we've become, especially Angel."

"Ashamed?  I'm not ashamed...not of Angel...not of any of you, Giles!"   Willow groaned as she sank down onto the couch, leaned her head against its back and covered her face with her hands.  "I didn't mean to make it sound that way."

"I know that, Willow.  So does Jenny."

She sat up to look at Giles, her eyes beseeching.  "Does Angel really think that I'm ashamed of him?"

"It's conceivable that he considers your rather reluctant and sketchy details about your shared past as rejection or even disgust."

"Well that's...just...dumb..." Willow countered weakly.

Of course that's the way he would take it, she realized.  Bloody hell...subconsciously, had she wanted him to think that?  Shame, like anger, could also build great walls. But there was also the little matter of her privacy.  Did she really need to reveal her entire life to everyone?

"Has it occurred to anyone that maybe I simply don't wish to discuss some of the more private aspects of my life?  Does my life have to be more of an open book than it already is?  Hello?!  You've only been using my diary as reference material for the last two years.  That's embarrassing enough.  Exactly how much more does everyone need to know?"

"Willow, we're not saying you need to publish every detail of your adventures for the world to devour. We're not even suggesting that Buffy and the others need all the details.  But there's a difference between being secretive and being private.  You can have a personal life without being a recluse and shutting out those who care about you most."

Willow considered this for a moment.  They had a point, she reluctantly decided.  Sooner or later, she was going to have to start letting people get close to her again.  Not so easy when you've spent a hundred years putting on a front of one kind or another.

"Maybe you need to quit thinking about everything so much, Willow," Giles suggested.  "After a century of having to watch your every step, analyze your every decision, why not consider simply going with the flow for a while?"

Willow raised a skeptical brow at the librarian.  "That's your big advice, Giles?  Go with the flow?"

Giles pushed his glasses back on his nose.  "Basically, yes."

Jenny joined the librarian and took his hand.  "Maybe you should try listening to your heart for a while, Willow, instead of your head."

Listen to her heart?  Oh yeah, sure, because it had served her so well in the past, hadn't it?  In Galway, her heart had her taking long walks with Angelus, picnics amongst old castle ruins and horseback rides in the fog.  Okay, so maybe her brain was responsible for kissing Angelus in order to win her freedom, but it was definitely her heart that had quickly taken over until she nearly surrendered to the dark promise of his lips and hands.  And while she wasn't positive, the same heart probably had something to do with all the sleep she'd been losing lately, not to mention waking up drenched in sweat amongst tangled sheets almost every night.

Sure, I'll listen to my heart as soon as I you get a nice padded room ready, complete with straight jacket and sedatives, she thought.  Just please don't make it pink.

"Hey, I do listen to my heart sometimes," Willow countered, then added in a softer tone, "But since it just seems to get me into more trouble, I now usually only pay attention to it when my brain tells me it's safe."

"So it's your century-old brain, your highly honed sense of logic and commonsense, advising you that it's better to let Angel be angry?"

Willow grimaced.  When they put it that way, it sounded so...childish.  No one ever accused China of being childish, did they?

As she considered this, Willow came to realize she was playing with the necklace she wore under her shirt.  It was her cross, and strung on the same silver chain was the ring.  Angel's ring.  She'd been wearing them both every day, but always keeping them hidden.  Sometimes she even resorted to just burying them in a deep pocket, just as long as she had them with her.

Willow's frown deepened as she wondered how often she'd toyed with the necklace or the ring without even realizing it.

"Willow?"

She sat on her hands to keep them still but she nodded in answer to their question.

"Why?"

"Ah, my brain has this whole China theory going on."  When Giles and Jenny appeared not to follow her abstract line of thinking, she said, "You know, emotional wall building in the 'good fences make good neighbors' line of thinking."

Giles pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.  "Well, at least that explains Cordelia's 'tableware' concern."

Jenny remained silent.  Willow hated that knowing look in the other woman's eye.  Which one of them was older, anyway?

"I don't want to hurt Angel, but trust me, it's better this way," Willow assured them.

"Better or easier?"

Willow physically recoiled at Jenny's comment, as if she'd been slapped.  "You think this is easy?" she snapped, rising slowly to her feet to look each of them in the eye.  "Let's trade places then.  One of you can be the 135-year-old virgin who's back in high school and living with your parents.  The other one can be so used to lying, pretending to be something that you're not, that sometimes you think you've forgotten how to tell the truth.  Jenny, you take the nightmares and Giles, you can have the crushing feeling that no matter what you do, you'll never, *ever* fit in anywhere again.  But don't worry...there's plenty of guilt for both of you, some of which is actually guilt for not feeling guiltier about lying to everyone for the past three months.  Still sound easy?"

"I didn't say it was easy being you, Willow.  I'm only suggesting that perhaps you're finding it simpler to keep Angel at arm's length than to deal with everything that has happened to you two."

Willow glared at them a little longer, almost wishing she could maintain her anger.  That's when she realized there was more than a ring of truth in their assertions.

She sighed. "Sorry, Jenny...Giles.  I shouldn't have said that.  I know you're only trying to help.  It's been a long night but I promise I'll consider what you said about Angel."

"That's all we ask, Willow," Giles said warmly.

Jenny squeezed Willow's hands.  "May I leave you with one more thought, Willow?"

Willow tried to smile but she was actually a little afraid to hear what else they had to say.  They'd already given her a lot to think about.  "Okay, but it better be a small thought...maybe something warm and fuzzy this time?"

"Despite the way Angel's opened his life and his home to all of us, he's still a very private man.  What I mean to say is, I don't think he's is waiting for you to admit to everyone else whatever it was that happened between the two of you, Willow. Perhaps he's just waiting for you to admit it to yourself."

Willow sank back into the couch.  She wanted to disagree, but couldn't.  She wanted to deny Jenny's latest suggestion, shoot it down with a reasoned list of counterpoints, but nothing came to mind.  The only clear thought could form in the whirlwind of her mind was a resounding: "Duh!" but she kept the proof of her stupidity to herself.

"And on that note," Jenny continued briskly, "I think we ought to be getting home.  I'll just grab our things, Giles."

Unable to find the courage to look either of them in the eye at that moment, Willow stared at her feet.

Giles sat beside her.  "You'll be okay," he said.

With effort, Willow was able to squeak out a weak: "Eventually."

Giles smiled, and pulled her into an uncharacteristic hug.  "That wasn't a question, Willow," he said close to her ear.

It wasn't until Giles and Jenny had left that Willow realized she was alone in the large main room of Slayer Central, Angel's home.  At some point during her heart-to-heart with Jenny and Giles, the others had disappeared.  She heard their muffled voices coming from down the hall, most likely the kitchen.  Willow decided to take the opportunity to try to get herself together.  She was headed for the bathroom, but when she passed the small kitchenette, Xander spotted her.

"Everything okay, Willow?  Can we help?"

Damn...so close.

Willow stepped back into the open doorway, a smile automatically on her face.  "Nothing's wrong. All fine here."

"Whoa."  Xander took a step back, a look on his face that was almost one of fear.  Buffy and Cordelia looked shocked as well. "You know, if it weren't for the tears in your eyes, I'd totally believe you, Willow.  You can lie to me now, straight to my face, and I'd completely fall for it."

Willow quickly rubbed away tears that she hadn't even known were there. Giles' embrace and declaration of faith had really gotten to her.  "Sorry, Xander.  It's a hard habit to break."

Buffy was holding an unpopped bag of microwave popcorn and Cordelia was clutching a can of Diet Coke.  Xander's face fell.  "You really aren't *our* Willow, are you?"

Willow was dumbstruck as she looked into the plaintive eyes of her old friends.  Yes.  No.  I don't know!  All these answers came to her at once, and all of them felt right and yet somehow wrong.  Instead of answering, she ran to the bathroom and shut the door behind her.  The cold water felt good as she splashed it on her face, but it didn't wash away the memory of her friends' faces, that 'Who is this person?' look in their eyes, and it didn't drown out everything that Giles and Jenny had said either.

She looked at her reflection through red-brimmed eyes, which gazed back at her with wearily.  "Who is this person?" she whispered to her reflection.  Before her reflection could come up with an answer, there was a knock on the bathroom door.

"Wills, you decent?"  It was Xander.

Willow couldn't help smiling.  "Talk about your loaded questions."

The door hedged open slowly, then a sheepish Xander stuck his head in, quickly followed by Buffy and Cordelia.

"Willow, I'm sorry about that 'not our Willow' comment.  I was way out of line."

"Yeah, I'm sorry too, Willow," Buffy said, and Cordelia added her regrets as well as they all squeezed into the communal bathroom.  Willow could see the regret in their eyes, but she still didn't blame them for being uncertain about who she was.

"It's okay.  You weren't out of line, Xander.  You were smack dab in the middle of the line, actually."  Willow paused to give them all a shy smile, which she hoped they would know was genuine, then she eased herself back to sit on the bathroom counter.  She looked them each in their worried eyes.  "I was your Willow, once, and I'd like to be your Willow again, but as the Willow that I am now.  Does that make any sense?" Willow could hear the pleading edge to her own voice and had to inwardly admit just how badly she suddenly wanted their acceptance, needed their understanding.  Part of the reason she'd tried to sound so casual when she'd told them about her past was fear.  She knew now that she was terrified of losing them completely.

"I can't be 17 again," she continued, "And I don't want to be.  But I'm still 100% Willowy goodness, just a little more seasoned...sort of extra crispy instead of original recipe..."

Their faces were softening as they listened, worry lines fading, eyes glistening.  Willow wouldn't allow herself to stop now.  "I probably should have told you the truth earlier, but I couldn't. When I got back, everything was just so different. I didn't know what to do.  I needed time to adjust and then when I finally started to feel comfortable, I didn't want to mess that up.  I'll understand if you're angry with me for all the lies, but I need you to know that I never meant to hurt any of you."

Xander spoke up first, edging a bit closer in the crowded bathroom.  "We're not mad, Willow.  We're confused and yeah, a little hurt that you've been keeping things from us for so long, but mainly I think we're relieved."

"We thought we were slowly losing you, Willow," Buffy said, "and we didn't know what to do.  But now that we know what the deal is, we can do something about it."

"It won't be easy," Willow said to them all.  "At times it'll probably feel downright strange because there are so many memories we don't share, things that I never got to do with all of you.  Like being here at Slayer Central, the T-shirts you made for Angel, the pizza sleepovers, and so many other little things that I've lost track of them all, and that's only the differences that I know about!  I don't want to even think about the number of great conversations and memorable moments that I've I missed.  And then there are the memories I have of you guys, things that have never happened in this timeline."

"Tell us one, Willow," Cordelia said eagerly.  "Something we wouldn't know about."

Willow grinned.  "I'd love to, but do you think we could leave the bathroom first?  As thrilled as I am to be around modern plumbing again, I don't think this is quite the appropriate place for our first heart-to-heart." As they all laughed in agreement, Willow slid off the counter.  "Hey, did you ever finish making that popcorn, Buffy?  I'm starving."

Buffy looped her arm through Willow's and led her out the door.  "Nope," she said with a warm smile.  "We were waiting for you."

*****

After shoveling a few unladylike handfuls of popcorn into her mouth, Willow sat back on the kitchen counter and regarded her friends with a smile.

"Come on, Wills.  We're waiting for our story."

Willow pulled her knees up to her chin, smiling as a bunch of different stories came to mind.  She tried to pick one that really reflected what she was like at 17 and one particular anecdote seemed to stand out.

"Buffy, there was this time our junior year that you and Angel were kinda having a hard time, so you decided to go to a party at Kent University, and--"

"Oh god," Buffy blushed.  "The reptile frat?  Please don't remind me.  Not one of my shining Slayer moments."

Willow sat up and slipped off the counter.  She hadn't heard their version of this event before.  "You mean, this happened to you too?  You still went to the party even without the argument between you and Angel?"

"Yeah, Cordy dragged me along and I was in kind of a rebellious mood.  I felt like between Giles' and Angel's training, I didn't have any time to just be a teenager."

"Yeah, that's kind of how you felt then too, about Giles anyway."

"So what happened?  I take it we still won, bringing down the heads of several corporations at the same time?"

Xander cleared his throat.  "And please tell me that I didn't...um...tag along, uninvited."

"Okay, Xander, I won't tell you that you dressed up like a girl in order to keep an eye on Buffy."

Xander groaned.  "Damn!  It seems like no matter what timeline I'm in, I'm still the butt-monkey!"

"What happened, Willow?" Cordelia asked, ignoring her boyfriend's whining.

"Well, when Angel and Giles found out that Buffy went to the party, they weren't happy, but for different reasons.  And I stuck up for Buffy, to both of them, which believe me, wasn't a big trait of mine back them.  I distinctly remember telling Giles that he was killing you with pressure.  That you were sixteen going on forty.  And Angel, well, it was when he was going through his, 'I'm an old vampire, we come from two different worlds' phase.  I said to him, 'You're gonna live forever! You don't have time for a cup of coffee?'"  Willow smiled at the memory.  She'd been so proud of herself for speaking her mind to the two men.  She'd always been too in awe of Giles to disagree with him before.  And Angel?  She still wasn't sure where she'd found the courage to speak to him so boldly that night.

Buffy grimaced.  "That is too weird, Willow.  The whole me and Angel thing just seems wrong.  Oh yeah...you and I are *so* going to have a long talk about this, Willow."

"What about me and Cordy?  You sure we were together?" Xander asked, getting a punch in the arm from his girlfriend as a result.

Willow laughed.  "Yep, which I guess means that you two must really be destined for each other."

Xander sat on Cordelia's lap.  "Hear that, Cordy?  I'm your destiny."

Cordelia pretended to grimace, but Willow could tell that she actually loved every moment of it.  "Then I must have done something really, really horrible in a past life."

They shared a laugh, then Willow said, "But more importantly, lots of things are the same, too."  She turned to Xander.  "For example, in the 'same' column, Xander, you were still my best friend ever since you gave me your yellow crayon in kindergarten when I broke mine, remember?"

"Of course."

"And Buffy, I bet we've watched a million John Cuzack movies together, haven't we?"  Buffy nodded.  "And how many times have we played 'anywhere but here'?"

"Zillions of times, Willow," she replied with tears in her eyes.

Willow couldn't seem to stop smiling now.  It was a genuine smile which she felt all the way down to her toes, so she didn't want to stop.  It felt too good.

"And Cordy, I have to admit I don't have many warm and fuzzy memories about you because...well..."

"I was an uber-bitch?"

Willow laughed.  "Well, yeah, that and the fact that I was incredibly jealous and hurt when you and Xander started spending time together in the janitor's closet."

Xander did a double take.  "Hold on...you were jealous?"

"Well, yeah. Duh! I'd only had this huge crush on you since that fateful day in kindergarten."

"You had a crush on me?"

All the girls simultaneously rolled their eyes.  "Boys," Cordelia huffed.  "They are so clueless."

"Yep, no matter what timeline," Buffy agreed.

The gang shared a few more laughs and memorable incidents before Willow grew serious again.

"I'm guessing you probably have a lot more questions for me about what happened.  Before you start though, just know that I'm going to do my best to tell the truth.  I've been living one lie or another for so long now, more than a century, that it's almost habitual now.  And the only person I'm used to being completely honest with is...well, not here.  But there are some things that are personal, you know?  I won't lie to you but I may have to plead the fifth occasionally, okay?"

Grinning from ear to ear, Xander stood up.  "Willow, if we ever had any doubts that you're Willow, they're gone now after that classic Willow-babble.  Welcome back," he said, opening his arms.  Willow melted into his hug and when Buffy and Cordelia joined in, all of their tears mingled together.

After a long while, Willow finally broke away so they could all wipe the dampness from their cheeks.  "I'm ready for those questions," she sniffed.  "Who wants to go first?"

And in true Scooby Gang fashion, they all started talking at once.

*****

"Kicked out of your own bloody home, ay?"

At the unwanted sound of Spike's voice, Angel didn't bother to look up from where he sat perched on a fat tombstone, weeding, in case simply seeing Spike's face magnified his desire to give it another disfiguring scar or two. Instead, the viciousness with which he yanked the offending greens out of the ground increased tenfold.

Angel was in the tiny, nearly forgotten cemetery behind his home. Corralled within the white picket fence were less than a dozen tombstones, their names and dates made unreadable by the ravages of time. While its inhabitants may have been long forgotten, the small plot of land still looked meticulously well-kept.  This was where Angel sometimes came to clear his mind, and while he was lost in thought, he'd weed.  With Willow's return, Angel had been doing a lot of thinking, which meant that his graveyard rivaled Sunnydale's newer cemeteries in the maintenance department.

Buffy often teased him that it would make a great cover for an upcoming issue of 'Better Crypts and Memorial Gardens'.

Tonight his weeding was born of the need to rein in his anger and frustration.  After storming out of Slayer Central over an hour ago, his first thought had been to take out his frustrations on the local vampire population.  Luckily, Angel innately realized that he wasn't in the right state of mind for such a confrontation.  He was too preoccupied with the evening's events to keep his mind on the fight.

And how many times had he warned everyone else about the danger of distraction?  He may be upset, but he didn't have another death wish....

As he concentrated on ridding the small graveyard of dandelions and clover, it wasn't long before he had come to realize that his anger was actually a secondary reaction to a more pervasive emotion.

He felt rejected.

Yep...Willow had hurt his feelings all right.  It wasn't a very manly emotion, let alone demonly or vampiric, but it was the truth.

Not that he'd expected Willow to stand center stage and share every intimate detail of the different incarnations of their relationship, but he hadn't expected her to calmly sit there and act as if they'd barely exchanged two words, let alone anything else, as Rose and Angelus.

And the lies?  God he was sick of the lies!  He ached, body and soul, from continually having to pretend that his life wasn't completely entangled with Willow's.

Even if, in Willow's opinion, he hadn't played an important role in her life, he still longed to share with everyone just how significant Willow, in the guise of Rose, had been in his past.  He wanted to tell the world, or at least their small corner of it known as Slayer Central, how influential Willow had been in making him 'Angel'.

She hadn't simply given him a soul.  She'd given him a purpose.

Unfortunately, Willow still seemed to want to keep that tiny truth under wraps.

And it hurt, which made him angry...so he'd resorted to plucking clover, none of which were four-leafed, of course.

"Hope you're gardening skills are better than your people skills," Spike said in a smooth, sly tone.  "Still have that black thumb for *all* living things, Angelus?"

Damn...it didn't look like ignoring Spike was going to work.  Why should it when it never had before?

"Just happen to be strolling by again, Spike?" Angel asked as he tried to concentrate on his task.  "In the neighborhood?  Aren't I always the lucky one?  Let me guess.  You're simply checking in on Red, right?"  Angel yanked out a dandelion with particularly lengthy roots, sending soil everywhere.

Oddly enough, seeing Spike blink as the dirt flew into his eyes, Angel actually felt a little better.  He was tired of all the games, and that included Spike's.  Angel's anger and frustration had a new target, and he wasn't going to let Spike get to him this time.

Angel slowly stood and brushed off his hands, and then gave Spike a bored look. "What would she ever do without you, Spike?  And wouldn't it be nice to find out?"

Spike smirked as he flicked a small dirt clod from his duster towards the other vampire.  "So, when they heard the truth about what you'd done to her, they booted you out of their club.  To think, Angel blackballed out of his own home.  It's bloody priceless."

Shaking his head, Angel stifled a long yawn, keeping his gaze on the other vampire the whole time.  "Is that all you've got, Spike?  Because it's getting old.  Yes, I did horrible things.  Yes, Willow may never forgive me.  Yes, I have a soul now thanks in part to you.  Yes, yes, yes.  Yadda, Yadda, Yadda."  Angel took a step closer, his face a mask of boredom and indifference.  "Your story's getting stale, Spike."  Angel made a show off sniffing the air and then wrinkling his nose.  "And so are you."

Spike's jaw twitched.  "Red doesn't think so."

Angel found it highly gratifying that it had actually taken Spike a moment to come up with some sort of retort, and it wasn't much of one at that.

"Oh, there's an original line, Spikey," Angel said with a cool half-smile.  "Why don't we chat about something different for a change.  Let's see...what could we discuss?  Oh, how about, I don't know, what you'll do the day you finally realize that the only way for Willow to be happy is for you to get the hell out of her life?"

Only the slight pursing of Spike's lips told Angel that his words had hit their mark.

"That day'll never come, Angelus.  Although I think the day for you to leave Red alone has come and gone...several times...but if you hurry, I bet you can catch it."

"Yadda, yadda, yadda.  Difference is, Spike-my-boy, if Willow asked me to leave, I would."

Spike let out a soft snorting laugh before he pursed his lips and looked away.  "Riiiight.  Sure you would, you bloody great poof.  Because you've always been so selfless when it comes to Willow, haven't you?"

Angel stalked closer, until he was fully enveloped in the aroma of leather and smoke and particularly the familiar underlying scent of his William.  With some effort, he was able to ignore the painful memories the latter scent induced.  "I would," he repeated thickly.  "Would you?"

Spike paused, his eyes wide but not meeting Angel's.  He'd definitely struck a chord this time.

"Not going to happen," Spike insisted weakly as he sidestepped Angel, and for a moment, Angel thought he was actually getting through.  He hoped so, for Willow's sake. Before Spike turned away, Angel saw more emotions cross his face than he'd ever seen before.

"She'll never want me to bloody leave," Spike went on to say, "but if I do go, she'll beg to tag along."

"Do you really think Willow would give up her family and friends to play second chair to Drusilla for the rest of her life?"

Spike spun around and all traces of those softer emotions were gone.  Maybe he'd pushed too far.

"Family and friends?" Spike laughed, advancing on Angel this time.  "You mean the pathetic parents that are never around?  The ones that don't even notice they're daughter suddenly *matured* over night?  And friends?  What bloody friends?  In case you haven't noticed, she's miserable here with her so-called friends.  Or maybe she's just miserable because of you."

"And you think Willow would be happier with you?"

"She *is* happier with me, wanker."

"Now?"

"Always."

"Dead or alive?"

Spike's mouth opened, but Angel would never know what he was about to say because the blond vampire caught himself in time, slamming his mouth shut so hard that Angel wouldn't be surprised if he'd chipped a fang or two.  So much for hoping he'd just come clean and admit his plans for Willow.

Angel shrugged, feigning nonchalance although the subject made him feel anything but relaxed.  "I knew you were too selfish to do what's right."

"Oh, and you're so selfless, right?  You'd never do anything to hurt Willow...never demand more than she's able to give."

Angel tried not to flinch.  While his William may have always been good at pushing buttons, Spike truly seemed to have perfected the skill to the level of an actual art form.

The small fact that Spike actually had a point didn't hurt either.

But no matter how right Spike was, no matter how many buttons he pushed, Angel wasn't going to let him go that easily.  It was time that Spike also started to face some hard truths.

"I know what you're up to, Spike.  She may believe that you don't have plans to sire her, but I don't.  Promises mean nothing to you.  Lying to you is like breathing to the living. It comes naturally, without thought."

"Still quite the poet, aren't you, Angelus. Read any 'Romeo and Juliet' to Willow lately?  Maybe some Poe just to wrench a few panic attacks out of the girl?"

Angel clucked his tongue at the vampire.  "Now, now, Spike.  You're starting to repeat yourself again.  And you didn't answer the question...or did you?"

Spike laughed then started to feel his pockets for his cigarettes, which didn't surprise Angel in the slightest.  It was just another one of the blond vampire's habits.  Whenever Spike wasn't sure what else to do or say, he started looking for his fags.  Angel smirked as Spike's hands moved deftly from pocket to pocket.  Never taking his eyes from Spike's, Angel easily plucked the pack from its hiding place.  They were always in the same pocket, and yet Spike made a big show of searching for them every time.

Angel held the pack tightly in front of Spike's face.  "One day she'll see through your act, Spike.  One day Willow is going to realize just what you really are."

Spike licked his lips.  "With a little help from you, no doubt."

"I'll do what I have to do to keep her safe."  Angel released his hold on the pack, but Spike's preternatural reflexes enabled him to catch the cigarettes before gravity could have much of an effect.  Still holding Angel's cold gaze, Spike slipped one between his lips, but before Spike could find his lighter, Angel was holding out a match, flicking the tip with a fingernail to ignite it.  Spike looked from the dancing flame back to Angel, then smirked as he took the lighter out of the front pocket of his jeans.

"She won't believe you, Angel," Spike said as he languidly lit is own cigarette.  "She'll never believe you over me.  All you'll do is push her away.  So feel free to tell her your little theory, mate.  Your latest paranoid pack of bloody lies.  It couldn't make her mistrust you much more than she already does.  Just keeping pushing, Angelus, and I'll be there, as always, to catch her when she falls."

Angel didn't flinch as the flame burned down to his finger and extinguished itself on his skin.  Unseen, though, his heart fell at Spike's words.  He was right...again.  Willow wouldn't believe him, and all his accusations, no matter how correct, would only push her farther away.  For him, it was a no-win situation.

"I'll leave you to your gardening then, Angelus," Spike finally said through an exhaled cloud of smoke.  "I'll just stop by Red's later, when there won't be so many distractions."

Angel let the match float to the ground as he watched the other vampire stroll away.  The glowing ember of Spike cigarette faded in the distance, and with it, so did the rest of Angel's anger for what Willow had said, and not said, earlier that night.

Not that playing by Willow's newest rules wasn't going to be easy.  It was going to hurt like hell to be nothing more than some goal she'd met when she'd restored his soul permanently. But as much as Willow's denials and omissions hurt, he had very little right to expect anything of Willow. He'd forfeited all rights concerning her when he'd lost his soul, further renouncing them every time he'd hurt her after that.  And that last night right before his soul had been returned to him?  His ultimate, albeit unfulfilled, plans for Willow destroyed any title he had for anything other than her hatred, fear and loathing.

Angel shuddered at the memory of that night in the woods.  He could still clearly see her horror-stricken face, smell her fear in the air, hear her screams.  He could still taste her blood, feel the way the soft skin of her neck....

Angel choked down a sudden burning bout of nausea.  If his memories were so vivid after more than a century, then Willow's memories of that night, mere infants in comparison...

No.  He had no right to be angry....

Just as Angel was reconsidering going out into the night to look for a good fight, the was the faint sound of footsteps behind him.

"Angel, you better get in here."

Angel spun around.  Xander had come around the side of the church and was regarding him with a grim look.

With a mounting sense of doom, Angel followed Xander, taking the front steps three at a time and practically beating Xander through the door.  Buffy and Cordelia were sitting atop one of the round tables, their arms crossed over their chests and unamused looks on their faces.  Willow was standing at the bookshelf behind them, pretending to be engrossed in a large, spiral-bound book.  She stiffened as he drew near, and yet she didn't look up. Not a good sign.

"What's up?" he asked.

"We just thought you might want to defend yourself against some of Willow's accusations," Buffy said in a grim voice.

Ah.  That explained all the grave faces.  Because of his earlier goading, it looked like Willow had finally decided to tell them the truth.  If he didn't already regret his hasty words of anger earlier, he certainly did now.  He had pushed, just as Spike said he would, but instead of falling, this was Willow's response.

It would serve him right if Willow told them every vile thing he'd ever done to her.  And there was nothing to do now but face the music.

Angel swallowed. "Everything she said about me is absolutely true."

"Everything?"  Buffy asked, exchanging wide-eyed looks with Cordelia.  "Sorry, but I don't believe it."

"Me neither," Cordelia said.

Willow spun around to stare at Buffy with a look of shock. "Are you calling me a liar?"

Buffy shrugged, surveying Angel from top to bottom with the cool hazel eyes of a slayer. "You've got to admit that it's a little hard to accept, Willow.  This is *our* Angel we're talking about, after all."

Angel couldn't believe they were doubting Willow's story.  How could they think she was lying about what a monster he'd been?  How many times had he told them what Angelus had been capable of?  "You should believe her, Buffy.  I'm everything she said I was."

"Yeah, right!" Cordelia said in that dismissive tone that she'd mastered years ago.

Buffy slid off the table and took a few steps closer, still looking at Angel with skepticism in her eyes.  "Do you really expect us to believe that all the girls in Ireland were in love with you?"

"Hey, I only said *half* the girls in *Galway* were in love with Angelus, remember?" Willow said indignantly, then her voice softened.  "The other half pretended not to be but still swooned whenever he walked by."

Buffy was smiling now, they all were.  Even Willow.  But Angel wasn't.  He was confused.

"I dunno," Buffy said, glancing over her shoulder at Willow.  "That's still pretty hard to believe."

"It's not hard to believe the other things she said though," Xander said, coming up from behind Angel to stand next to the others.

It took Angel a long moment to realize they were teasing him.  It took even longer for the deeper implications to sink in.  Willow had been telling them more about their past.  Exactly what, he wasn't sure, but if the looks they were giving him meant anything, she'd told them something embarrassing.  It was a start.

"Dare I ask what else Willow told you?"

"She said you were kind of full of yourself," Cordelia said in a tone that left little doubt just how much she was enjoying getting one up on the vampire.

"Cordelia, I did not say that!" Willow exclaimed in a convincingly shocked tone.  "What I said was that he was cocky, smug, arrogant and thought he was God's gift to women."  Then she smiled at him, and the twinkle in her eyes made it hard for Angel to think straight and defend himself against their relentless teasing.

"Which just goes to prove my theory that their original personalities don't change much just because a demon moves in," Xander said, elbowing Buffy.

Angel bit back a playful growl at the boy's verbal slight.  He'd let them have their fun at his expense for now, but he couldn't wait for Xander's next training session.  He'd make sure the boy was too tired to talk for days.  That thought alone made him smile.

Willow tossed her book on the table then joined the others.  They presented quite the united front.  "I thought it was about time they knew the truth, don't you?"

Xander draped an arm across her shoulders.  "Yeah, apparently Willow was tired of covering for you, Dead Boy."

Covering for me, huh?  "What else did you tell them?" he asked Willow, not actually sure what he wanted the answer to be.

"Not too much, I was waiting for you," she said with a suspiciously sweet smile.

Xander's grin widened.  "She told us how you met for the first time."

Buffy shook her head and clucked her tongue.  "Angel the jailbird...who'd have thought it."

He was never going to live this down, which was not a good thing when you were immortal.

"Oh, and Wills also said you were some sort of farmer," Xander informed him happily.  He let go of Willow to lean back against the table.

Willow laughed.  "I didn't say he was a farmer, Xander, I said he was a *rake*."  She lowered her voice a bit.  "You know...a rogue."

Angel had to hold back a laugh when Xander, Cordelia and Buffy still looked confused.

She tried again.  "He was a bit of a scoundrel."

Ah, a Star Wars anecdote, Angel noted.  That ought to do it, at least for Xander.

Xander didn't disappoint as the Han Solo reference hit home.  "Oh, I get it!" he exclaimed.  "Angel was not nice men."

Notably relieved that Xander was finally catching on, Willow nodded, then looked to the others to see if they understood.

"Oh, you mean Angel was a horn dog," Cordelia finally added in a matter of fact tone that would have made Angel blush if it wasn't all so comical.  This wasn't quite how he'd figured the truth would come out.

Willow at least had the decency to look a little embarrassed on his behalf as she peaked at him through lowered lashes. "Let's just say that Angelus enjoyed the company of women."

"I bet that made him real popular with the guys at the local bar," Xander said

Buffy appeared to be trying not to laugh.  "Sure, as long as he was buying the drinks and not flirting with their wives, they probably loved him, too."

Ouch.  "You three do realize I'm standing right here, don't you?"

Xander laughed as he turned to Willow.  "Yeah, he already told us that he was a lush and probably would have drunk himself to death if it hadn't been for that girl he fell in love with."

Willow stiffened slightly, which Angel took as a sign that she'd had enough truth for one night.  It was starting to get a little too personal.

Angel cleared his throat again.  "It's, uh, getting late.  Don't you people have homes?  Families that might like to remember what you look like?  Pet rocks that need to be fed?"

To Angel's chagrin, the teenagers only grinned more, and then began making themselves comfortable.

"Hey, Willow, did you ever get to meet this mysterious girl that made Angel change his ways?" Xander asked, taking a seat at the table, next to Cordy. "My guess is she was a farmer's daughter.  No, wait, a *minister's* daughter.  That would have explained his new leaf turnage.  Or...or maybe she was...the daughter..."  Xander turned an exasperated face to Cordelia, who'd been poking him in the ribs and trying to get his attention.  "What?"

"You *so* need to buy a clue, Xander."  Cordelia lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, and Angel could tell she was looking at him through the corner of her eyes.  Today, at least, she appeared to be the brains of the couple.   "Angel told us the name of his mystery woman a few times, do you remember it?"

Angel had to try to stop this conversation one more time, before Xander put two and two together.  "Hey, guys, it's late.  I could drive you all home...or call a cab," Angel offered weakly as he took a few steps toward the door, hoping they'd get the hint.  "Hell, let's celebrate...limo's on me!"

"Sure I do," Xander chirped, still cheerfully ignoring him.  "Wasn't it Lily?  Daisy?  Tulip?"

Cordelia and Buffy swapped annoyed looks.  "It was *Rose*," Buffy reminded him.

"That's right, Rose!"  Xander turned back to Willow, not seeming to notice the blush slowly tinting her cheeks.  Angel was pleased to note that Willow didn't turn away.  She looked Xander right in the eye, her eyebrow raised as she waited for realization to find the boy.  It was taking a while.   Angel was tempted to help realization along with a smack to the back of Xander's head.

"So, Willow, did you ever meet this mysterious Rose?" Xander actually asked.

Willow shook her slightly, somehow managing to find humor in the awkward situation. "I guess you could say I met her."

Buffy's eyes were huge as she and Cordelia murmured, "Wow!" and "No wonder," under their breath.

"So, what was this hot medieval babe like, Willow?" Xander continued, rubbing his hands together in adolescent glee as he glanced between a pink-cheeked Willow and a slowly simmering Angel. "Angel would never give us any details, so all our nosey adolescent desires are pinned on you right now, Willow."

Angel'd had enough.  "Medieval?" he growled.  "That's it!  No graduation cruise for you!  Just how old do you think I am?  Did you learn nothing about world history in summer school?"

Willow appeared to be trying not to laugh as she rescued Xander from Angel's ire.  She took his hands in her own and looked him straight in the eye.  "Xander, when I was back in time, I went by the name Rose.  Remember?"

"Oh."  Then Xander's eyes tripled in size and it was his turn to blush.  "Ohhhh...!  *You* were Rose!"

"Angel fell in love with you, Willow," Buffy sighed, a dreamy smile on her face.  "And you fell in love with him."

Angel froze, prepared for Willow's denial, expecting it, but it never came. Instead she flashed him a nervous grin then said, "Living Angelus fell in love with Rose, and, yes, 17-year-old Willow, a.k.a. Rose, also fell in love with him."

Cordelia sighed, shaking her head.  "God, that is so much more romantic than making out in the janitorial closet."

Xander finally found his tongue.  "So it was you, Willow.  You're the one that made Angel what he is today."

While Willow took a deep breath, Angel found himself holding his.  Again, he was prepared for her denial, expecting it, but still hoping for the truth.

"No... " Willow began, and Angel felt a familiar stab slice of pain cut deep through to his soul, but then she continued, "Angel made *himself* what he is today.  I simply pointed Angelus in the right direction.  You should all be very proud of what Angel has accomplished over the past century, what he's become." Willow looked at him, her smile soul-healing, and said, "I know I am.  Very proud."

There...I said it...and it felt good, it felt right, Willow realized and then she was grinning.  She only hoped she didn't look as goofy as Angel did at that moment.  He was smiling madly as well.  Actually, everyone in the room had big cheesy grins on their faces.

"Gee, Angel, you act like you've never heard a compliment before," Cordelia teased.

"Never one that counted."

Willow and Angel were still smiling at each other when Buffy suddenly jumped up.  "Um, you know, I think Angel's right.  It's time Mom and I spent some quality time together."  Buffy tugged on the Xander's sleeve and then made a pointed look at the door.

"Oh, yeah, right," Xander said.  "I think it's about time I spent some quality time with Buffy's mom, too."  He grabbed Cordelia by the hand and started dragging her toward the door.

"Wait, hold on," Cordelia whined, trying to wriggle out of Xander's grasp.  "I have more questions...I *need* details!"

As the teens scrambled for the door, Willow and Angel overheard Xander say, "Hey, what I want to know is, if they were in love and, to quote Willow: 'Angelus enjoyed the company of women,' just how much of Willow's, er, *company* did he enjoy?"

"Obviously the fully-clothed kind, Xander.  Virgin, remember?" Buffy answered impatiently, still trying to guide them out of the door.

"Oh yeah," Xander replied.  "Whoa...I'd hate to be her first...well...you know!  After 100 years of waiting your expectations are probably pretty high.  That's a lot of pressure on a guy to perform."

Willow winced and looked away while she reminded herself exactly why she'd saved Xander's life, because at times like this, it was easy to wonder if she'd done the right thing.

Angel cleared his throat.  "Um, guys," he called after them, "Why don't you walk Willow home.  Even though there haven't been any more unusual vampire attacks, it wouldn't hurt to keep an eye out.  Just in case."

Buffy stuck her head back in the door.  She looked disappointed.  "But don't you and Willow want to talk?"

"I think Willow's talked enough for one night, don't you?"

Willow was pleasantly surprised.  For a change, Angel didn't want to get into a long heavy conversation about their past.  Maybe she should have told the truth a lot sooner, she thought wryly.  Still, there were a few things she needed to say to the vampire.

"Thanks, Angel."  Willow glanced at the others. "But can you give us just a second?  I'll be right out, okay?"

"Sure," Buffy said with a wink, then slipped outside.

Angel leaned back against the nearest table, his arms crossed over his chest.  He was still wearing that contagious grin.  It made Willow reluctant to say anything that might take that smile away.  Even though she'd berated him many times for smiling too much compared to the old Angel, she still had the feeling that he used to do a lot more of it before her return.

"I just wanted to apologize for earlier, Angel," she said carefully.  "I was being selfish and cowardly and inconsiderate."

"Willow, I would never associate *any* of those words with you.  I, on the other hand, may have been a little..."

"I think *pushy* is the word you're looking for."

Angel chuckled.  "I was actually thinking *impatient*, but I'll trust your judgment in this case.  Pushy and cowardly, eh?"

"Yep, our very own special version of oil and water," Willow said with a self-conscious laugh.  "Well, I guess I better go face the music, get it over with.  I know they'll have a million more questions by the time they get me home."

Willow grabbed her guitar from one of the computer chairs and headed for the door but then stopped.  "Angel," she began, not quite finding the courage to turn to face him, "what should I tell them about us now?  They're bound to ask."

There was a pause before Angel answered.  "You should tell them the truth, Willow.  That it was a very long time ago when we were in love and that we obviously aren't the same people now that we were then."

"I'll tell them that.  That's good, Angel.  The truth is good."

Angel took a few tentative steps closer and Willow turned to face him.

"Maybe you should also say that we still have some issues to work through, but that we're friends now."  Angel paused, then added hopefully, "Do you think you can say that?"

"Yeah," Willow smiled.  "I can say that, too.  Telling the truth feels good for a change."

"Thank you, Willow, for telling the truth.  It meant a lot to me."

Willow tightened the grip on the handle of her guitar case.  "Well, they wanted to know what you were *really* like when you were alive, and I didn't want to disappoint them."

Angel laughed.  "Xander's never going to let me live it all down, Willow.  Did you have to tell him that half the lasses in Galway were in love with me?"

"Sorry, but since honesty is my new policy, I had to tell the truth, didn't I?"  Still grinning, Willow decided it was time to get while the getting was good.  She was afraid if she stayed much longer, one of them would say something to ruin the good mood.  "Well, I should go.  All this talking and truth telling is hard work and I think I'm a little out of shape in that department.  I'm exhausted."

"Be careful, Willow."

"I'm always careful, Angel.  Besides, I have three people walking me home and nothing strange has happened for over a month now.  Not a single set of out-of-town triplet vampires has attacked me, no new demons we can't handle.  I'll be fine."

"I'm more worried about Spike, actually."

Willow could tell by the way Angel flinched that he hadn't actually meant to speak those words aloud.  No matter what she said, he was never going to fully trust Spike, and that was something she was going to have to learn to live with sooner or later.  The two vampires would probably never see eye-to-eye but that didn't mean she had to take sides.

Willow shook her head with mock severity.  "You know, because you're my friend and you're saying that out of worry for me, I'll let it slide.  Still, it's my cue to leave.  I want to rush home and note this in my journal.  I think this is probably the 100th time you've told me how dangerous Spike is."

"Only 100?" Angel said, following the redhead to the door.  "I'm negligent in my duties then."

"There's that pushy thing again, Angel.  You really should work on that."

"I'll see what I can do, Willow," he said with a grin as he opened the front door.  Buffy, Cordelia and Xander were waiting on the steps and looked up at them expectantly.  "I'm a little surprised none of you had your ears pressed up against the door."

"We tried," Cordelia said bluntly, "but that damn door of yours was too thick to hear anything."

As Willow descended the steps, the others joined her.  She paused at the bottom and turned to Angel.

"Night, Angel, and thank you," she said, truly meaning it.  For the first time in a long time, Willow could actually see the silver lining, the light at the end of the tunnel, and she wanted to share that new-found optimism with the vampire.  She needed Angel to know that she truly felt that they could make it through this and become genuine friends with time.

Angel smiled in return, which was all the 'thank you and you're welcome' she needed.

"Goodnight and be careful," Angel told them all as they headed down the sidewalk.  "And take it easy on Willow with the questions. She's had a long day already."

"Don't worry, Deadboy," Xander replied with a wink.  "We'll be gentle."

*****

"So, you and Angel are just friends now?" Buffy asked.

They'd kept their questions simple and the conversation light, as instructed, but Willow wasn't surprised when they asked more about her relationship with Angel.  Luckily, they didn't interrogate her regarding what had happened after he was turned.  They focused instead on those few short weeks that she and Angelus were together in Galway and the state of their relationship now.

"Yeah, just friends," she admitted.  "It's hard though, with all the history, but like I told you before, we aren't the same people we were back in Galway."

"No, I guess you couldn't really just pick up where you left off, could you?  Not even if you wanted to?"

Willow shook her head.

"That explains so much though, doesn't it?" Xander asked, looking to Cordelia and Buffy.  "Angel's been different lately too.  At least now we know why."

Suddenly the Slayer stopped walking.  Her whole body tensed.

"What's wrong?" Cordelia asked.

"Vampire.  I can feel one nearby."  Buffy produced a stake out of her back pocket as her hazel eyes searched the surrounding darkness.

"It's Spike," Willow said nonchalantly as she continued down the sidewalk.  "He's been following us.  Probably wants to talk to me but doesn't want to interrupt."  Willow stopped and turned to stare at a tall hedge that divided her house from the neighbor's.  "Isn't that right, Spike?"

"Way to blow my rep, pet."  Spike sauntered out the shadows towards a grinning Willow.  He didn't spare a glance for the others.  "You're making me sound all protective and gallant.  Not very demonly."

"Really?  I was trying to paint you in more of a considerate stalker kinda mode.  You know...evil yet dependable."

He put a friendly arm about her shoulder.  "So, how'd it go, Red?  They forgive you for associating with the big bad?"

Xander cleared his throat.  "In case you didn't notice, 'they' are standing right here, stakes in hand, angry looks on their faces, and a song in their hearts."

Spike gave the Scooby Gang a quick once over, shrugged, then turned his attention back to Willow.

Buffy walked up to Spike and stood directly in front of him.  "And it's not exactly like she had a choice, Spike.  You did kidnap her after all."

Willow couldn't help herself. "You know, you were his second choice, Xander."

"Me?"

"He needed a virgin, and apparently they aren't as abundant in Sunnydale as one might think."

Xander blushed.  "I don't know what you're talking about, Willow." He looked at Spike.  "I don't know what gave you the impression that I'm a--"

"Um, hello?" Cordelia interrupted.  "Why are we even having a conversation with Spike?"

Willow frowned slightly, but she understood how strange it must be for them to see her and Spike this way for the first time.  It was simply too soon for the teens to understand her relationship with the vampire when they still didn't know the entire story. "Because, as I told you earlier, he's my friend."

Buffy pocketed her stake, but her piercing slayer gaze never left Spike.  "You have *us* now, Willow.  You don't need him anymore."

Spike shook his head.  "And so it begins..." he mumbled.

Willow caught his mutterings.  "And so *what* begins?"

"Later, pet," Spike said after a short pause to return the teenagers' glares.  He turned to Willow.  "Why don't I leave you with your so-called friends, and we'll catch up later, when the Scabby Gang here isn't feeling quite so pubescent and possessive."

"Ooh...big words, Spike," Buffy drawled.  "Spending a century with Willow must have raised your IQ level a whole half-point."

Willow had to stop herself from telling her friends to lay off the vampire.  After all, he could take care of himself, right?  He would probably find it embarrassing if she came to the big bad's rescue.  She held her tongue and said nothing, but when she met Spike's gaze, there was a strange look on his face, but before she could make heads or tails of the situation, Spike was retreating from the group. He winked at her, which drew groans from the others but made her smile because he seemed like his old self again, and then he sank into the surrounding darkness.

"Thanks, Spike," Willow called after him.  "And good night."

A few minutes later, Willow said her good-byes to the gang, waved, and went inside her house.  Exhausted, she set her guitar by the door and then headed into the kitchen.

She wasn't surprised to find Spike leaning on the open door of her refrigerator, peering inside.  He'd surprised her once like this before after she'd accidently left the French doors of her second-floor bedroom unlocked.

"No wine, Red?"

"Nope, no wine *white*, either."

"Funny, pet."  Spike kicked the door closed, then jumped up to sit on the counter next to the sink.

"I hope you made sure my parents weren't home before you let yourself in."

Spike smirked.  "When are they ever home, Red?"

Willow slumped into the nearest kitchen chair.  "Good point," she said, unsuccessfully trying to hide a yawn.  She lay her head down on her folded arms on the table and closed her eyes.  "I don't mean to be a party pooper, Spike, but it's late and I'm exhausted."

"Ah, I see."

Willow's eyes popped open at the strange tone to his voice.  She sat up.  "You see what?"

Spike shook his head as he took out a cigarette and his lighter, all without looking at Willow.

Wearily, Willow rose from the chair to pluck the cigarette out of his mouth and blow out his lighter.  He knew better than to smoke in her parents' house.  "You see what?" she repeated as she shoved the unlit cigarette back into his pack.

"Didn't think they'd get to you this fast, Red."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Spike studied her for a moment and Willow found it hard to hold his intense gaze.  Then his jaw clenched and he looked away.  "Forget I said anything, love."

"How about you actually say something first, then I'll forget you said it?"

Spike grabbed his cigarettes and lighter and stood up. "It's to be expected, Red," he said in a softer tone.  "I understand."

Willow sighed as she followed Spike out the back door and down to the patio.  She hated it when he went all cryptic on her.

She tugged on the sleeve of his duster, making him turn to face her.  "Understand what, Spike?  Care to share with the rest of the class?"

Spike shook his head as he once again took out a cigarette and lit it, all without meeting her eyes.  He stared up at the waning moon instead.  "They'll make you choose."

"Choose?"

Spike spun around, throwing his hands up in the air in irritation.   "Why are you so bloody thick tonight, Red?  I can see the damned handwriting on the wall. *They'll* make you choose between me and them," Spike growled as he started pacing in front of her on the patio.

"Oh."  Willow's earlier sense of happiness was quickly dissipating, a feeling of foreboding taking shape.

"Pressure's already starting, isn't it?  I bet they're not even trying to be subtle about it."

Willow closed her eyes, and leaned back against the house. "It'll be okay, Spike.  Don't worry."

"How can it be okay now that they know who you really are?  You did tell them everything, didn't you?"  Willow sensed him moving closer, felt the energy radiating off of him, so she wasn't surprised when she opened her eyes and Spike was standing in front of her with only inches separating them.

"Spike..."

"You did tell them the whole truth and nothing but the bloody truth, didn't you?"

Willow bit her lip.  "Luckily, they didn't ask much about our relationship."

"Luckily?" Spike snapped back, taking Willow by surprise.  Had she hurt his feelings?

"It's an awful lot to spring on people all at one time, don't you think?  If they ask, I'll tell them the truth, Spike.  *All* of it.  For now, they know we're friends, good friends.  They know we have a history.  They know I trust you.  The rest'll come out in time."

Spike's eyes held hers but they seemed changed as she spoke.  They grew icy, void of warmth, and Willow shivered.

"They'll say it's for the best, Willow.  They'll come up with all sorts of bloody excuses for why you shouldn't be around me anymore."

"I make my own decisions, Spike," Willow insisted adamantly.  "I'm 135 years old!  A little too old for people to start picking my friends, don't you think?"

Spike's jaw clenched, his wintry eyes narrowed, drawing another shiver out of Willow.  Then as quickly as the coldness had overtaken him, it was gone and Willow was looking into the familiar blue eyes of her friend once again.

Shaking his head, he gave her the once over.  "Bloody hell, you look like shit, Willow," he finally announced.

"Always the charmer, Spike," she teased but was touched by his concern. When he took off his duster to slip it around her shoulders, Willow grinned up at him.  "Thanks."

Spike shrugged.  "Need to take better care of yourself or you'll catch your death from pneumonia."

Willow dismissed his worries with a wave of her hand.  "You know I can't really catch pneumonia from being cold, Spike.  That's another one of those old wives tales."

"I've never trusted old wives, so I'm not taking any bloody chances." He took a long lingering look at her face, and by the looks of the frown he wore, Willow surmised he didn't like what he saw.  He dropped the cigarette then ground it out with the worn tip of his boot, before kicking it into the rose bushes.  Then he looked at Willow again and drew the back of a long finger lightly down her cheek.  He clenched his jaw and pushed his hands back into his jean pockets.  "You've been crying.  Those bloody pillocks made you cry."

"It was an emotional night, Spike.  There were tears on all sides."

He grunted.  "Been getting any sleep?

"Enough," she said with a shrug, pulling his coat tighter around herself as she took a seat on the top step by the back door.  Spike sat next to her, and without thinking twice, she rested her head on his shoulder.

"Still having those bloody nightmares of yours?" he asked.

Willow wasn't sure she'd exactly call them nightmares, more like very intense and often erotic dreams, but they were keeping her up at night, so she nodded.  "But they're really not too bad, Spike.  They don't even remotely resemble those ones I had when we were in Vienna, so don't worry about me.  I can cope," she said, then yawned.

Spike actually sighed.  "Get some sleep, Willow.  We can chat later."

"I'm fine, Spike, and we barely ever get to see each other.  Sleep can wait."
Spike seemed pleased with her answer if the tender smile on his face meant anything.  That sat in comfortable silence awhile longer.

Spike broke the solitude.  "Even Dru's made noises about it too, Red, saying I can't have both.  I set her bloody straight, of course, but your mates'll be singing the same tune soon, and 'ole Spike'll get kicked to the curb."

Willow sat up straight and looked at him. She put on her infamous 'resolve face'.  "Nobody makes me do anything I don't want to do."  At his quirked brow, she smiled and quickly added, "Well, not anymore, anyway."

"Still...easier said than done, Red."

Silence fell between them again, and Willow hugged herself, suddenly feeling the chill of the late-Autumn air. She put her head back on his shoulder, hoping to recapture some of the warmth they'd had earlier.

"No one understands, Spike, but we can't really expect them to.  What's important is that you trust me, and I trust you."

"Do you still trust me, Willow?"  His voice was soft, low and even a little wistful.

"Only with my life, Spike," she said, meaning it with her whole heart.  "Only with my life."

They sat that way for several more minutes, not talking, just looking at the stars.  When Willow couldn't stifle another yawn, Spike finally stood up.

"Winter'll be here before we know it," he said in a tight voice, helping her to her feet.  "And this time we can't just slip off to Greece to avoid it."

"Maybe you should pick up a bottle of ouzo for old-times' sake."

"Along with a little poker Friday then?"

Willow winced.  Spike would have to choose the one night of the week she was definitely committed to the gang.  "Friday's patrol night, Spike."  His face hardened a little before Willow could continue.  "So either we can make it Saturday night or really late on Friday, say 1-ish?  Parents will still be out of town so you can come here."

"I wouldn't want to be a bother, pet."

"Oh yeah?  Since when?"  With a saucy wink, Willow handed him back his coat.  "See you Saturday then, Spike, and you bring the ouzo!  G'night."  With a last smile for the unusually doleful vampire, Willow went into her house and locked the door.

She didn't see the victorious smile that enveloped Spike's face as he strode away.

*****

Hidden in the shadows of a neighbor's wrap-around-porch, three men were taking close note of everything Willow and Spike said and did.

The shorter one spoke in voice that only his companions could hear.  "See, I told you.  Spike really is concerned about--"

"I knew it!" the man with the long blond hair interrupted.  "He's up to something."

"He was just smiling.  Even vampires have a right to smile."

"No way, man.  That was a 'she fell for it' smile if I ever saw one."  They followed Spike's progress around to the street in front of her house and he pointed at the vampire fading in the distance.  "And look at the way he's walking.  He's strutting now that she can't see him."  He turned to the quiet, bearded one on the other side of him.  "Come on, back me up here.  Spike's not to be trusted."

"We've thought that about him before and he always came through," the bearded man replied.

"Exactly!" the short one said.  "He always comes through in the clutch."

"No way.  This is different!"

"What about in London when Willow was at her lowest, working in those sleazy pubs?  Or again, when Angelus had her?"

The blond gave a modest grunt of agreement.

"He'll come through again."  The man with the beard nodded his head thoughtfully.  "He'll do the right thing."  Then he grumbled under his breath:  "Come on, Spike...do the right thing..."

"And if he doesn't?"

"We'll do what we have to do," the shorter one said.  "What we *should* have done a very long time ago."

"And Willow?"

He looked up at the brightly lit window of Willow's room.  "Let's just hope it doesn't come to that.  I've grown pretty fond of the kid over the decades.  I'd had such high hopes for her that I'd hate to see it end this way."

The others nodded in agreement.

"It's all up to Spike now."

Somberly, the three checked their time-keeping devices and then vanished as silently as they'd appeared.

*****

End Chapter 17 (archived March 8, 2003)

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