* Yet again, this isn't all I had planned for this chapter, but I figured it was better to get it posted than to wait while I hammer out a few details in the next section.  Now, some good news - this story WILL be done for/by Valentine's Day, 2004.  I'm undecided as to whether I'll post it chapter by chapter as I have been so far or if I'll wait until I finished the majority of it first.  (Less mistakes that way.)  I'll keep you informed as I decided.

** See full notes in Chapter 1

***  Big thanks to Lisa and Jenn for being wonderful substitute/emergency  betas for me.  Thank you so much!

**** Happy Holidays everyone!  I wish everyone a safe, peaceful and joyful Holiday Season.
 

It's About Time  ~ Chapter 19
*********



"That went well, don't ya think, Red?"

Willow gave Spike her not-amused look.  Even though she realized the disastrous events of the evening weren't really his fault, she wasn't in the mood to make jokes about it quite yet.  They'd been standing outside The Bronze for several minutes, waiting to see if Willow's friends were going to follow her to Slayer Central where they could discuss her relationship with Spike more privately. So far none of them had come out.

Spike frowned and kicked at the pavement with an already scuffed boot.  "Sorry, pet.  While that was probably a bit painful for you, have to admit that I found a certain sadistic charm to the evening."

Willow managed a slight smile this time.  At least Spike was honest.  "Glad I could entertain you...again," she grumbled good-naturedly.

What the hell had happened to her plans for a drama-free night, anyway? Instead it had turned into something resembling a badly written episode of Dawson's Creek.

Willow sighed as she looked back at the Bronze.  A few people were filing through the front doors, but there was still no sign of Buffy or the others.  They'd come though.  She was sure of that.  More likely than not, they were probably dreaming up some sort of battle plan.  Or reviving Xander.  Or both.

Remembering the betrayed looks of her friends, Willow shivered. The wind was beginning to pick up, and it felt as if the temperature had plummeted ten degrees in the short time she and Spike had been waiting outside.

"Let's get moving, pet.  They'll be along soon enough."

Willow gave The Bronze one last glance before starting the relatively short walk toward Slayer Central.  Spike fell in at her side.

"What happened, Spike?" she asked after they turned the first corner.  "How'd Xander figure *us* out?"

The blond vampire shrugged as he lit a cigarette, cupping his hands to shield it from the stiff breeze.  "Not sure, pet.  Xapper just stormed over, gave me the typical 'you're not good enough for *my* Willow' speech--you know, the same old rubbish Angel gives me every bloody chance he gets--then suddenly the git's demanding to know what type of relationship we have."

Willow came to an abrupt halt as Spike was slipping the lighter back in his pocket.  "*My* Willow?" she repeated.  "*My* Willow?  He actually said that?"

"Well, the boy said both 'my' and 'our' a lot.  Sorry, can't give you an exact count.  Stopped paying attention after a while.  May 'ave even dozed off a bit.  That Xapper's not the most entertaining bloke."

"Not, Xapper--er, *Xander*--I meant Angel! You must have misheard him, Spike.  Angel doesn't think of me as 'his' anymore."

Spike actually sighed as he twirled around to face her.  "Oh, right...because your perfect Angel's not a vamp anymore, right?  Sorry, pet, but it's in his blood, even blood as weak and watered down by a soul as his.  Can't really help it, I suppose.  To the poof's credit, though, he always corrects himself after he growls 'She's mine!' or the like.  Wanker gets all stammery and contrite."

Another icy chill seeped slowly along Willow's spine.  "He really said that, Spike?  Angel really said I was *his*?"

"Heaps of times, Red," he said through an exhale of silvery smoke.  His eyes narrowed.  "Don't tell me that lot has you disbelieving me already?"

"No, no.  Of course I believe you, Spike," Willow quickly replied, hoping he couldn't hear the doubt and confusion that she was feeling. After all, so far, Angel had never tried to play upon the ceremony that had made her belong to Angelus in the vampiric world.  Willow frowned.  No, that didn't sound like Angel at all.  Angelus, sure.  But Angel?

"Don't fret, pet.  Maybe the great poof didn't mean anything by it.  Just talking out of his arse, as usual.  As for the boy," Spike continued, "I didn't give him a straight answer.  None of his bloody business, right?  But he pulled a stake on me anyway.  You saw the rest."

Willow wrapped her arms tightly about herself, trying to ward off the increasing chill.  "This was *so* not how I wanted tonight to go."

Spike dropped his cigarette to the ground then slipped out of his duster.  "It's okay, Red," he said, easing his coat onto her shoulders and pulling it snug.  "We had fun while it lasted, but I suppose you're right.  Should've gone elsewhere."

Willow started walking again, although there was still no sign of the others behind them.  "It's not your fault, Spike.  I guess I can't expect these two different halves of my life to fit together so easily.  It's a chalk and cheese sorta thing."

"Don't be so hard on yourself, pet.  You thought they finally caught on to the little fact that you're an intelligent adult, capable of making your own choices and have been for quite a while now.  But obviously that hasn't sunken in to their gray matter yet."

"Guess not."

"Look, Willow, they're bloody juveniles, remember?  Just a bunch of spoiled kids, really.  There's more than a century's difference in your ages now.  It's understandable that you lot don't have the closeness you once did.  The kind of trust we have.  The friendship.  There's bound to be some distance.  I'd be more worried if there wasn't.  It'd mean you hadn't matured much over the last century."

Willow frowned, her eyes fixed on the pavement passing beneath her feet.

"Bloody hell, I sound like a wally.  Just forget I ever said any of that rot, Red.  They'll take my 'big bad vamp' card away.  Kick me out of the union."

Willow barely heard his joking comments.  She was still thinking about everything else he'd said about Angel and the Scoobies.

"Come on, Red," Spike said, gently nudging her with his elbow.  "Cheer up.  I'm probably wrong about the Scabby Gang.  I suppose if you're willing to pay the price, soon things 'll be right as rain between you lot again."

"What do you mean?  What price?"

Spike shrugged.  "Nothing, Red.  Never mind."

Willow latched on to his arm and pulled him to a stop beside her.  "Please, Spike.  No more games tonight."

Spike glanced down at where her hand gripped his sleeve.  He pulled away from her touch.  "I'm not the one playing games, Red.  Look, I don't think you're ready to hear it yet."

Her patience ran out.  "What the bloody hell is that supposed to mean?" she snapped.  "Just say what's on your mind, Spike.  I don't think I can take anymore of this tonight, not from you."

"Fine, pet," he shot back.  "It's obvious, to me anyway, that you can't be yourself with Buffy and that lot.  They won't accept you, not completely anyway.  Tonight's little fiasco's proof of that."

Willow stepped back from the force of his words.  "No."  Willow shook her head adamantly.  Spike had it all wrong.  He just didn't understand that these sorts of things didn't happen overnight.  Besides, he didn't quite see straight when it came to the gang.  "It's...it's just going to take time, that's all," she told the vampire.  "You can't rush these kinds of things."

"Have things improved since your big bloody heart-to-heart a fortnight ago?"

"Sure."

Spike smirked.  "If tonight was improvement, I'd hate to see what the wankers put you through on a bad night."  Now Willow felt like crying.  It must have showed in her eyes, because Spike's face softened.  He chucked her gently under the chin. "Look, Willow, we both know I'm probably the last person who should be giving you advice about the Scabby Gang.  I'm a wee bit biased."

She attempted a smile at his candor.  "Really?  Hadn't noticed."

"Cheeky cow.  All I'm asking is wouldn't you rather be sitting in a smoky pub, trying to make an inside straight or bluffing on a bloody useless hand right now?"

Willow tried to laugh off his question but found she couldn't.  In fact, it was a little scary just how appealing his alternative sounded.  "You always ask trick questions," she grumbled as she walked away.

"Not trick questions, pet.  Just...insightful ones."

"Ooh, bonus points for good word usage, Spike," Willow said, forcing a degree of lightness to her voice.

"You've been rubbin' off on me, Red," he said as he caught up to her.  "Good influence 'n all that rubbish."

"Guess I should have seen this coming," she admitted after they walked in silence for a while longer.  "It's my own fault for not telling the truth the moment I woke up on Angel's couch."

"What happened to the difference between being secretive and having a little privacy?" Spike retorted.  "But, I guess if you lot always share everything with each other, know every disgusting detail of each other's love life, then I suppose it's only fair that they know yours.  Not that yours is disgusting, mind you."

"Um, yeah...exactly."  Willow quickened her pace, as if she could out distance the sinking feeling that was rapidly growing within.  She wasn't about to tell Spike that in all honesty, she hardly knew any of the juicy details of her friends' love lives in *either* time line.  Not only did she have no idea how far Xander and Cordelia's relationship had taken them physically, now or then, but the original Buffy had never been all that eager to tell the intimate details of her relationship with the original Angel either.  Sure, they'd slept together, but that's about all Willow knew.

So much for sharing.

"So...," Spike was saying coolly, "Guess I can almost see why they think they deserve to know all the ins and outs of your love life, so to speak.  Doesn't bother me if you tell them.  I've got nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of."

That got her attention, and yet again Willow stopped walking to look Spike straight in the face.  "Spike, you know I'm not ashamed of what happened between us in London."

Spike looked away, giving her a clear view of tightened jaw muscles.  Tightened jaw muscles meant only one thing: Spike was not happy.

Willow tilted her head, leaning into Spike's line of sight, making him look her in the eye again. "Spike, I've never been ashamed of sharing myself with you in any way.  Never have been and never will be."

Spike didn't reply at first.  He studied her face like they were seated across from each other at a poker table.  He didn't know whether to believe her or not, Willow realized.  Spike doubted her!

"Spike, this is me talking," she pleaded, taking his hand and squeezing it.  "I'm not ashamed, understand?"

His jaw relaxed and he even gave her a little smile, but she could still see some doubt in his eyes.  "Understood, pet.  Now let's get you home."

He offered his arm, which Willow took.  They walked the rest of the way in silence, with Willow snuggling more deeply into the warming comfort of Spike's leather duster.  When they arrived at Slayer Central, she took a seat on the front steps to wait for the others.  Spike wouldn't be welcome in Angel's home, but Willow wanted him around for at least a little while.  Not only for emotional backup, but just to help prove to the others how close they really were, and prove to Spike that she wasn't ashamed of him.

As they waited, Willow spent the time calming herself and preparing for the inevitable questions, but Spike's earlier words were niggling in the back of her mind, making it hard to relax.  Spike made himself comfortable next to Willow on the second step from the bottom and lit another cigarette.

About ten minutes later, Buffy, Cordelia and Xander appeared as they rounded the last corner.  Not so coincidentally, Giles' car screeched to a stop at the front curb.  He and Jenny jumped out just in time to join the teenagers as they marched up the sidewalk.

"Bloody hell," Willow mumbled under her breath at their approach.  "It looks like an intervention."

Spike snickered.  "I was thinking more like the Spanish Inquisition myself."

Willow stood but Spike maintained his easy pose on the step.  "I see you called in reinforcements," she said with a small, welcoming smile for Jenny and Giles.

"Good evening, Willow," Giles said, looking more awkward than she could ever remember.  He glanced at Spike, as if to say hello to him as well, then frowned, apparently thinking better of it.  "Yes, well, Buffy called and, er, *requested* that Jenny and I meet all of you here to discuss certain...matters."

"Requested?"

"More like demanded, actually."

Buffy at least had the decency to look a little sheepish.  "I thought everyone should be here, Willow.  This concerns all of us."

Spike chuckled and leaned toward Willow.  "Didn't know your sharing included the musty watcher, too," he said for her ears only.  "Whatever floats your boat, Red."

Willow pretended not to have heard him.  "Does this really concern everyone, Buffy?"  Hopefully that didn't mean Angel was on his way as well, Willow thought to herself. She had enough on her plate at the moment without Angel and Spike going at each other again.

"Don't worry, Willow," Jenny said.  "Giles and I are here in more of a mediating capacity.  We're not here to judge."

"Not me," Xander chimed in.  "I'm here to judge."

Buffy smiled, as if to say, "Me too!"

"Why are you wearing Spike's coat, Willow?" Cordelia asked unexpectedly.    "It's way too big for you, so does this mean you two are going steady or something?"

Willow had forgotten she was even wearing his duster. "I was cold.  He's a gentleman."

Xander laughed.

"Look, Willow," Buffy continued.  "We were talking on the way here, and we're thinking this could be one of those 'thrall' things."  Xander and Cordelia nodded in agreement.  "You were probably under Spike's spell when you, er, slept together.  You know, like you see in all the Dracula movies."

Giles cleared this throat, raising a finger in protest.  "May I just remind you that Jenny and I had absolutely nothing to do with this particular theory."

Willow nodded understandingly at the librarian before turning her attention back to Buffy.  "There was no thrall involved," she said in a firm tone.  "It was sex.  Lust.  I trusted Spike, and I wanted him.  Yes, *I* wanted him, he wanted me and eventually we both quit fighting it.  It was inevitable."

"Inevitable?" Xander barked.  "Okay, I can see how over a century you may have had to sleep with *somebody* but not Spike!"  His fists were balled at his sides, his knuckles white.  Willow couldn't remember the last time she'd seen Xander so angry. "Jack the Ripper would have been a better choice!"

"Jack the Ripper wasn't even born yet, Xander, but I'm so glad you'd rather see me mutilated than happy."

"Besides, ol' Jack fancied prostitutes," Spike added casually.  "Don't think Red would've been quite his cup of tea."

Xander took a few steps closer to Willow and gestured hopelessly at the blond vampire. "Are you telling me *that* made you happy, Willow?  *Spike* made you happy?"

Willow glanced down at Spike.  He was looking up at her, not with a smirk or a gloating grin but with an expectant smile.  For all Spike's teasing, Willow sometimes wondered if he thought back to their time spent together in London with the same fondness that she did. Long days spent in bed, long nights spent talking about anything and everything until she practically fell asleep in mid-sentence.  Maybe it hadn't been love, but before that stage of their relationship had come to its inevitable unhappy conclusion, it had been some of the best weeks of her long life.

As if reading her thoughts, Spike winked at her.

"For a short time," she said to the others, "I think we made each other very happy."

This announcement brought about a lot of uncomfortable shifting and strange looks from the others, as well as a long silence.

"Well, at least you didn't let him bite you," Buffy finally grumbled, obviously searching for any hint of a bright side to Willow's revelation.

Here we go again, Willow thought to herself.  Just when I got them calmed down, too.  "When you have sex with a vampire, Buffy, even pseudo-sex, biting is usually involved," she informed them all without hesitation. Maybe that would prove to Spike that she wasn't ashamed of him.

"If the sex is any good, that is," Spike added.  "Which believe me, it was."

Willow didn't have to look at the vampire to know that this time he *was* smirking.  Buffy, on the other hand, had little trace of humor on her face as she stormed up to where Willow stood at the base of the steps.

"You mean, Spike's bitten you?  You *let* him bite you?"  Her eyes were already roaming over the exposed areas of Willow's neck.  To make it even easier for The Slayer, Willow reluctantly slid out of Spike's duster.

"It was a long time ago, so the bites have healed, of course," she said, tilting her head to the side. "But if you look close you can still see..."

She stopped speaking as Buffy's eyes widened with horror.  "I can't believe I didn't notice them before.  What's wrong with you, Willow?"  Buffy demanded brusquely.  "This is *Spike* we're talking about here.  A vampire.  A killer!"

Willow's eyes flashed at Buffy's patronizing tone.  "Oh, *that* Spike!" she growled in frustration.  "And all this time I thought we were talking about Spike the professional bowler.  Thanks for clearing that up, Buff."

Spike chuckled when Buffy actually took a step back from Willow's retort, as if the redhead had slapped her.  "Told you they wouldn't understand, Red," he said softly.

"Why didn't you tell us before?" Cordelia asked as Xander strode up to Willow to took a good long look at her throat as well.

"I guess I had this silly idea that you might not understand."

"Does Angel know you've slept together?" Xander demanded, backing away from Willow as if she were contagious. "Because I can't believe he didn't kill Spike the moment he found out."

"Angel knows," Willow quickly answered before Spike could retort.  "I think he even understands."

"Is that true, Angel?" Buffy asked, looking over Willow's shoulder. "Do you really understand this mess?"

Willow spun around.  Angel was on the landing at the top of the stairs.  Bloody hell, Willow thought to herself.  How long had he been there?

"Yes, I understand completely," Angel said, looking at Willow.  His dark eyes were filled with regret, instead of anger.  Willow's hopes rose a fraction. Maybe he really did understand.

Finally getting to his feet, Spike seemed unconvinced.  "You do?" he asked as Angel slowly descended the steps towards them.

Angel stopped at the tread above Spike's, turning his attention to the vampire.  "It's understandable that after all that time alone, living among strangers in an unfamiliar time and place, that Willow would be in need of many things and that you, Spike, were more than happy to take advantage of the situation."

The sinking feeling returned.  Angel was still blaming Spike for everything.    "It wasn't like that," Willow told them all.  "He didn't take advantage of me.  I knew what I was doing."

"Willow," Angel began calmly, "it wouldn't be the first time Spike manipulated a situation and all the people in it.  He can easily have you think you're making your own decisions when actually he's the one pulling all the strings.  Isn't that right, Spike?"

"Think what you bloody-well like, mate," Spike said, dismissing Angel with a wave of his hand.  "Whatever gets you through those long and lonely nights."

"Speaking of lonely nights, Spike-my-boy, where's your precious Drusilla?" Angel pressed on.  "Oh, that's right.  It's girls' night out, yet again.  She does that a lot, doesn't she, Spike?  From what I can tell, she's out of town more than she's here."

To Willow's surprise, Spike actually flinched at Angel's taunt.  "You talk a load of rubbish, mate. Don't know what the hell you're going on about."

"Maybe Drusilla isn't quite the way you remembered her to be.  Or maybe you're not what Dru remembers?"  Angel smirked, sending a shiver through Willow.  There was a lot of Angelus in him tonight.  "As I remember, she's always been a bit fickle.  Just like you, Spike.  Her sire."

Shaking his head, Spike took one step closer to Angel until they were almost nose-to-nose.  "We learned from the best.  Didn't we, Angelus?"

Angel's grin didn't fade a bit.  Spike turned to Willow, taking his duster from her hands.  "I'd let you keep it, Red, but I'm afraid the Scabbies here may try to burn it in effigy.  But it's bloody cold, and you need to get inside.  Since I'm not likely to get an invitation from this rude lot, I'd best be off."

"Running away, Spike?" Buffy asked as the vampire slid into his coat.  "Leaving Willow to handle the rough times on her own yet again?"

"This has nothing to do with me, Slayer," Spike said calmly as he brushed past her toward the street.  "Your problem is with Red, not me, and she can more than take care of herself."

"This has *everything* to do with you, Spike," Buffy taunted.  "If it hadn't been for you kidnapping Willow, we wouldn't even be having this discussion!"

It wasn't easy, but somehow Willow kept silent.  This was Spike's fight not hers.

The blond vampire whirled around, his eyes glowing an amber warning that they'd almost pushed him too far.  Shaking his head and clenching his teeth, Spike looked away, obviously trying to gain control of his emotions.  Then he looked back at them through eyes that were again blue.

"You're right, Slayer," he barked, marching back toward them.  "We wouldn't.  Because the lady would be dead," he said, gesturing to Jenny. "Angel would be in hell, and you'd be missing in action, either dead or off licking your wounds somewhere, feeling sorry for yourself.  Meanwhile, Xapper and Red here would be left to pick up your slack.  Who knows what would have happened to them...they couldn't have lasted long, at any rate."  He lit another cigarette as he took in the stunned and guilty faces of the teens around him.  "So you're right, Slayer, if I hadn't kidnapped Willow, we wouldn't be having this discussion."  He exhaled slowly, the smoke slipping between lips twisted in a half-smile.

"Almost makes me wish I hadn't.  *Almost*," he repeated, winking at Willow one last time.  "Now, get inside before you freeze to death, Red."  He looked over at Angel, eyeing the long black wool coat the dark vampire was wearing.  "And you call yourself a bloody gentleman?  Doesn't take a soul to see Red's shivering with the cold."  With a final smirk, Spike sauntered away, disappearing into the shadows.

"Damn, he has some good exits," Xander said after a while, breaking the silence.

"If you think that's good," Willow said, "you should have seen some of mine over the years." Willow turned on her heels and headed for the steps.  She hoped to edge past Angel without looking at him, but he stepped in her path.  Reluctantly, Willow met his gaze.

"Willow, I'm sorry. I only--"

"I'm not angry with you, Angel," she said, cutting him off.  "I'm not angry with anyone.  Just...disappointed."  Before Angel could say any more, Willow quickly sidestepped him, taking the steps two at a time.  As the others followed, whispering among themselves, she knew the worse was yet to come.

*****
End Chapter 19 (archived December, 22, 2003)  Happy Holidays!!
 

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