* Well, I didn't quite make my Valentine's Day deadline, did I?  I'm sure many of you aren't suprised.  But, on the good side, I have completed 3 chapters, and have several more nearly completed.  I hope to post one every other or third day until it's done.

** See full notes in Chapter 1

***  Big thanks to Lisa for betaing this for me! I couldn't have done it without her!  All remaining errors are mine!

**** Happy  St. Patrick's Day everyone!
 

It's About Time  ~ Chapter 20 ~
***

Angel scanned the darkened street.  He wouldn't put it past Spike to lurk in the shadows somewhere to glory in the latest uproar he'd caused.  When he was sure that the other vampire wasn't hiding nearby, Angel followed the others inside, who were still muttering and plotting amongst themselves.  He took his time hanging up his coat, all the while silently condemning himself for not offering it to Willow.  He hated it when Spike came across looking like quite the gentleman when in truth Spike was only concerned about one person, himself. Oh, Angel didn't doubt that the blond vampire cared for Willow, too, but only in terms of how she affected his life.  If Spike had to choose between Willow's happiness and his own, he'd choose himself every time, just like always.

Unfortunately, convincing Willow of Spike's true motives was proving next to impossible.  Angel knew if he wanted his friendship with Willow to continue to blossom as it had lately, then he had to keep his thoughts about Spike to himself as much as he could, and yet still keep Willow safe.  No easy feat, considering Spike's recent behavior was making it nearly impossible for Angel to keep quiet.  Yeah, Spike was good.  Angel had to give him that much.  And yet, Spike seemed to forget where he'd learned all his tricks in the first place--Angelus.  No, Spike wasn't fooling anyone...other than Willow, that is.

While Buffy, Xander and Cordelia had been spying on Willow, Angel had been doing a little detective work of his own.  It had only taken a few threats, bribes, and stakes in the right places to learn a few of Spike's more worrisome secrets.

Word on the street was that Drusilla had been spending increasing amounts of time out of town over the past few months.  She'd been growing unhappy with the 'changes' in her Spike and was unhappy about his attachment to another woman.  And not just any woman, a living one.

Naturally, Angel knew there had to be more to it, but most of Spike's remaining minions were still fairly faithful and no one was talking.  Something was going to happen soon, though, Angel was sure of it.  He could almost detect change on the wind.

Angel walked slowly into the heart of Slayer Central, his home.  Buffy, Xander and the others were still in deep discussion about Spike and Willow.  Giles and Jenny were desperately trying to make the young people look at the situation from Willow's point of view, but they appeared to be fighting a losing battle.

Willow was nowhere to be seen, and Angel knew instinctively where to find her.  He quickened his pace through the room.  He didn't want to get pulled into the other's discussion at the moment.  There'd be plenty of time to voice his opinion on the matter of Willow and Spike.  First he wanted to speak with Willow alone, while he still had the chance.

She was exactly where he thought she would be...in the kitchen.  The redhead was seated at the table, sipping from his 'Kiss Me, I'm Irish' mug, another of the humorous little gifts that the gang had given him over the past couple of years.  He still remembered how the old Willow would blush whenever she saw him drink from it and laugh when Xander mused that there weren't enough 'Bite Me, I'm an Irish Bloodsucker' mugs to be found in Sunnydale.

"Hey," Willow said as he stood in the doorway.  She was peering cautiously up at him over the rim of the mug.  She looked tired and stressed but not particularly angry, Angel was pleased to note.  "If you're here to explain what you said, Angel, don't.  Ditto if you're going to apologize.  Otherwise, come on in."

"No apologies or explanations.  Got it."  He stepped into the room, still trying to gauge her mood.  She looked calm enough, maybe too calm.  "I bought some more ice cream today, if you're hungry.  It's one of your favorites."She perked up even more.  "Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby?"

"Four pints."

She raised an eyebrow and seemed to be trying not to smile.  "Sounds like you were *expecting* me to have a rough night."

"No, they were on sale."

Willow shook her head with mock graveness.  "Having financial troubles, Angel?  I can't quite see you clipping coupons, so do we need to start buying generic soda and ice cream?"

"I have more than enough money to keep you in Ben & Jerry's, Willow.  Money is one thing I don't have to worry about for the next few..."

"Decades?"

"Centuries."

"Wow...You're a regular Donald Trump of the vampire set, aren't you?"

"I wouldn't go that far."

Willow motioned for him to take the seat across from her, which he did, gladly.  "How'd you get all this money anyway, Angel?"

While he was glad they weren't discussing what had happened outside, Angel still winced at her question.  "Investments."

"Such as...?"

"Computers, plastics, Home Depot.  I've been very lucky."

"No one is that lucky."

Angel shifted in his seat.  How come he'd never noticed before how uncomfortable the chairs were?

"Come on, fess up, Angel.  Did you bite E.F. Hutton's grandpa or something?"

Angel stared at the tabletop, unable to look the redhead in the eye.  "William may have given me a few tips awhile back," he mumbled.

"W-william?" she sputtered, after a long pause.  "You mean Spike?"

Surprised by the flash of pain he felt at her words, his eyes darted up to meet hers.  "No, *my* William, before he became Spike."

He hoped that would be enough to satiate the curious redhead, but her silence and the intensity of her gaze let it be known that she'd settle for nothing but the whole story.  He sighed.  "Before you two left us in London, your Spike gave my William a few financial tips.  How do you think your Spike got all his money in this timeline and century?  As his sire, William was loyal to me and passed on Spike's advice.  I didn't take all of it, didn't even remember most of his suggestions.  Either way, Spike's most likely ten times wealthier than I am, which is fine with me."

Willow didn't say anything for a few long moments. She just continued to stare at him through penetrating green eyes, making Angel squirm in his seat once again.  He really needed to invest in some more comfortable chairs for this room.

"Oh," she finally said, then shrugged.  "It makes sense, I guess, but I have to wonder if Spike knows that he's basically responsible for all this," she said, gesturing with her hands to indicate the building around them.

"I don't think he knows."

"Still, you may need to rename it after him."

"Spike's Slayer Central?" Angel chuckled.  "I think he'd go back in time and give up all of his money first, don't you?"

Willow took another long drink.  "Luckily, he can't," she said softly, setting down the mug.  "No more time travel for us.  It was a one-trip-only spell, not a life-time pass."

"Thank, God.  It's confusing enough now.  Imagine if there were more versions of all of us running about."

Willow laughed, but it sounded hollow and forced.

Silence fell between them for a while.  Across from him, Willow looked as if her thoughts were a million miles away.  Her delicate hand lay on the table near her mug, looking lost somehow.  Angel longed to reach out and intertwine his fingers through hers and reassure her that somehow he'd make everything right again, but he was afraid she'd pull away.  The timing wasn't right.

"Are you okay, Willow?  Are you upset about how I came into my money?  Should I have lied and told you I struck gold?  Found oil?  Invented Post-It notes?"She finally looked up at him and grinned.  "No, Angel, of course not!  In fact, it only seems right that something else good should come from our trip back in time.  I'm just trying to prepare myself for what's ahead," she said, glancing at the hallway where the voices of the others wafted into the room.  "I must admit I wasn't quite expecting to face the Spanish Inquisition tonight."

"No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, Willow."

Willow laughed at his Monty Python quote, which made his own grin widen.

"It's good to see you smile, Willow, and hear you laugh.  You should do both more often.

"What do you mean?" she replied, still smiling.  "I laugh at you a lot and not always behind your back, either."

"Oh?"

"I mean that I smile and laugh a lot *with* you, Angel.  Not *at* you.  Cuz why would I stare at your back?  Not that you don't have a great, er, back, but..."  Willow paused to take a breath.  She was actually blushing as she shyly dropped her eyes to study her mug again.  "I think I'll quit talking now..."

Angel was very pleased at the idea of Willow sneaking peeks at his 'back'.  "Don't worry, Willow.  I knew what you meant," he said, letting her off the hook even though he found her blush enchanting.

Almost as if in reward, Willow looked up at him again and positively beamed.  Angel felt an ache in his chest.  Her sweet smile made him feel as if there were nothing that he couldn't do.  It did more for him than a pint of blood or a week's worth of brooding, as if she could harness the power of absolution and contentment in her smile.

Angel had to look away, otherwise he'd be too tempted to lean across the table and show her with his lips just how much she meant to him.  He cleared his throat.  "Now how about that ice-cream before we go and face the others?"

Willow straightened her spine and sighed deeply, as if preparing for bad news.  "No thanks," she said.  "Don't think it would taste too good with the Beaujolais," she said, raising her mug to him before taking a long drink.

"You're drinking wine?"  Only then did Angel notice the open wine bottle sitting on the counter to his left.  Maybe she was madder at them than she was letting on.

Willow got up to refill her mug.  The bottle was about half full, and he was sure that there hadn't been any open bottles of wine lying around.  No wonder she'd smiled at him and his jokes.  She was tipsy!

Angel's heart and hopes alike fell at the thought.  And yet, when he really studied Willow, her coloring, pupils, and the pulse fluttering on the side of her pale, delicate throat, she didn't appear intoxicated at all.

Strange.

Willow shrugged.  "After the conversation outside, and the one that's yet to come, I think I deserve a little treat.  Actually, since it's so cold I was thinking of making some mulled wine.  It's an old recipe I picked up in Germany, but since you don't have any cloves or cardamom, I decided to keep it simple instead."  She held up the half-full bottle.  "Would you care for some, Angel?"

"Sure."  Not that he needed a drink, but the more he had in his cup, the less Willow could consume.  The last thing any of them needed right now was for Willow to get drunk.

"Where'd you get the wine, Willow," he asked, trying very hard to sound nonchalant and nonjudgmental.  "It looks like its from my collection, but--"

Willow laughed as she took his Chewbacca mug from the rack.  "I was with the Rom for decades, Angel, remember?  It's going to take more than a simple locked cabinet to keep me out.  If you're determined to keep something from me, you may want to consider combination locks instead, since they hadn't invented those yet."  She flashed him what he'd already labeled as her devious smile, then filled both mugs, emptying the bottle.  "It would probably take me at least a couple of days to figure out how to pick one of those."

Angel couldn't help smiling.  Every day he learned something unexpected about Willow.  Sometimes it was something cute, like the fact that she knew how to churn butter and make bread from scratch.  Other times he discovered something more mysterious in nature, like when she lifted Giles' wallet three times in fifteen minutes, each time causing the Watcher to announce that he was completely flummoxed as to her pick-pocketing methods.  Everything about Willow was fascinating and enticing.

"I'll keep that in mind, Willow."

She started to hand him the mug, then pulled it back for a second to fake a pout.  "Don't look at me like that, Angel.  This is the first drink I've had in over a week.  Besides, one intervention is enough for today, don't you think?"

Angel grinned, enjoying the mischievous glint in her emerald eyes.  He believed Willow when she'd told him before that she only had the occasional glass of wine when her parents were out of town or when she was with Spike, which wasn't very often.  "I won't call AA on you this week then, Willow."

He stood and reached out to take the mug she offered, his fingers unintentionally closing over hers, sending a white-hot surge of desire throughout his body.  Angel groaned involuntarily, but he had no intention of relinquishing his hold on the mug, not when the simple sensation of her soft, warm skin beneath his was more tantalizing than the finest wine in the world, and more intoxicating than any substance known to man or demon.

Angel dragged his gaze away from where it had been greedily drinking in the sight of their intertwined fingers and found that she was already staring up at him through eyes wide with a curious deep longing.  Their gazes met and held, the air in the room growing heavy and heated.

God, she was beautiful and becoming more beautiful with each passing day.  At this rate, in a few months he'd be unable to stand in the same room with her without drooling helplessly at her feet.  Or pulling her into his arms.  Whichever came first.

Unable to resist, and not wanting to even try, Angel caressed her petal-soft cheek with his free hand.  Willow's eyes fluttered shut, and with a sigh, she leaned in to his touch.  Her willingness heightened Angel's hunger and his eyes devoured every inch of her flushed face, stopping on her rosy, inviting lips.

He traced their tempting softness with a single finger, causing her to slowly open her eyes, as if in a daze.

"Angel..." she began in a weak tremulous whisper, but her words faded as his thumb brushed over her lips again.  She was peering deeply into his eyes.  The blood pounded in his veins when he saw no hint of fear there, no loathing.  Their desire only intensified as they seemed to simultaneously lean toward the promise of each other's touch.  Entranced, he again traced her moist lips with a trembling finger, and this time she surprised him by parting her lips.  Her tongue flicked out, ever so quickly to taste the tip of his finger before catching him between her teeth for a brief moment.

Apparently, he wasn't the only one who was hungry tonight, he thought as she released him with more than a hint of a seductive grin curving her lips.  He cupped the side of her face, and she covered his hand with her own.

At that moment, he became vaguely aware that the voices in the other room had become louder, but he didn't care.  The smoldering emerald flames of Willow's eyes told him that she didn't seem to care either.  He slowly lowered his head towards her, still half-afraid she'd pull away or scream with fright, but she didn't.  Her half-closed eyes seem mesmerized by his lips.

The mood was broken by the sound of raised voices from the other room and the click-clack of heels coming towards them down the hall.  Willow immediately looked toward the door and stepped back, leaving the Star Wars mug in his hand.

He would have much rather been holding her than Chewbacca.

Jenny appeared in the doorway, clearing her throat. Like guilty teens, Willow and Angel stepped even further away from each other.
 

"We were, uh, just getting something to drink," Willow offered in a trembling voice.

"Well, you may want to get out here.  The theories are running wild and free, and I'm afraid Rupert and I are failing miserably at keeping things in check."

Angel cleared his throat.  "We'll be right there, Jenny.  Thanks."

Willow turned back to Angel, and he noticed that she was already wearing a more reserved look.  Although her breathing was still rapid and her face still flushed, she was no longer looking at him through eyes softened with desire.  It was back to business already.

"It, um, looks like it's time for me to face the music, yet again," she said with grim determination.  "Cheers," she said, then drank the last few swallows of wine.  When she rinsed out her mug and left it in the sink, he noticed her hands were shaking.

"Just remember, Willow," Angel said when she turned back around, "they love you."  He held her trembling hands to emphasize his point. "Everything they say and do is out of love and concern for you."

Willow took a deep breath and smiled.  "I'll try to remember that.  Thank you, Angel."  She squeezed his hands before releasing them, and then turned and left the kitchen.

***
Willow stopped in the hallway to steady her nerves and survey the scene before she ventured any further into the room.  Her mind was still whirling and her body was still in turmoil from the promise of Angel's touch and the taste of his skin, but the scene before her was as sobering as an ice-cold shower.
In the main room, Buffy paced the floor behind the couch, while Giles sat in one of the leather chairs, rubbing his temples and shaking his head.  Xander and Cordelia were perched atop the round table in the middle of the room.  No one seemed to notice her presence, and for a moment, Willow was tempted to turn right back around, pull Angel into the kitchen, and insist that they continue where they'd left off.  A shiver rippled through her from head to toe.  It was a little frightening how badly she'd wanted his kiss.  Her skin was still on fire everywhere they'd touched, and all she'd been able to think of from the moment their hands had touched was than she wanted her entire body to feel that way.

It was so tempting to lose herself in Angel's embrace again that Willow felt a little bit guilty.  Seeming to sense her need, Angel lay a supportive hand on her shoulder.

"Just remember, we love you, Willow."

We?  Willow was just about to call him on his choice of words, when a comment by Xander demanded her immediate attention.

"You know," Xander was saying to the other teens, "it does make sense...sick, twisted sense, but sense nevertheless."

"How do you mean?" Buffy asked.

"Oh yes, please do go on," Giles said in a weary tone.  "I'm sure this will be fascinating."

"Willow was stuck with Spike for a very long time, forced to endure his company, right?  Well, maybe during that time she started to lose track of reality a little bit.  You know what a soft touch Willow is.  She would have started to over-sympathize with Spike.  What choice did she have?  After a time, Spike probably controlled her thoughts and actions until she had no will of her own."

"You mean Spike cleaned out her brain," Cordelia stated simply.

"Brainwashing?" Buffy translated.

"Exactly."

Giles groaned and Jenny whispered a soft, "See what I mean," to Willow before going to stand behind Giles.  Willow and Angel followed.

"Hold it right there, you three," Willow said as she confronted them in the middle of the room.  "I am *not* Patty Hearst, nor am I some psychology textbook example of the kidnappee falling under the spell of the kidnapper."

"No?" Xander retorted from his seat a top the round table.

"No."

Cordelia clutched Xander's arm, but he pulled loose and slid off the table before striding closer to Willow.  Willow didn't back up, but she didn't like the disgusted look on Xander's face at all.

"Well, you could have fooled me, Willow," he said.  "You've been acting like you'd rather spend time with that bloodsucker than with us.  The way you two are always touching...it's disgusting, and it's wrong, Willow!  So if it isn't a side effect of being forced to be with him all the time, what is it, then?"

"And don't give us any more of that friendship excuse either," Buffy added.  She moved to stand next to Xander and crossed her arms in front of her chest, making quite the united front.  "How can you be a friend with someone to whom you represent the only tier in their food pyramid?"

Willow took a deep breath.  She'd been hoping that the wine would help her relax and stay calm, but as far as she could tell, it was having no effect whatsoever.  Apparently, wine used to be a lot stronger in the good old days.  "I am *not* food to Spike," she said with as much calm as she could muster.

Buffy took a step closer and flicked a finger at the faded bite scars Willow wore.  "Oh really?  Then what are those on your neck, Willow?  Tattoos?"

Xander snorted derisively.  "Let me guess.  He never swallowed, right?"

Willow didn't flinch under the force of their scathing remarks, at least not externally, but on the inside Willow already felt bruised and bloodied from their verbal blows.  Automatically remembering what her martial arts masters had taught her, Willow schooled her breathing and counted to ten--albeit very quickly--all the while picturing her calming place.  The cascade of water shrouded in mist wasn't working as well as it used to, and for a moment, Willow found herself trembling from the strain of controlling her temper.  Perhaps it was time to find a new calming place.

"I know this has been quite a shock for all of you," she began when she had finally gained some control.  "And I don't really expect you to understand, but--"

"You're right, Willow," Buffy interrupted.  "I don't understand, because I'm the Slayer and Spike's a vampire, a soulless demon, and it's my job to rid the world of his kind."

Willow tried not to roll her eyes at Buffy's "I am the Chosen One" rhetoric, but her store of patience was being rapidly depleted.

"And it looks like Willow's job is to sleep with them," Xander quipped.

Willow flinched.  Xander's comment had cut her so deeply that she expected to see her own blood pooling at her feet. "That's unfair, Xander."

"I call 'em like I see 'em, Willow."

"Hypocrite much, Xander?" Cordelia said suddenly.  She moved to stand in between Willow and the other teens.  "While I agree the thought of Willow and Spike doing...*things*...makes me want to consider becoming a nun, need I remind you of a certain Inca mummy girl, Xander?  Or your favorite teacher that substituted as a praying mantis?  The only reason you weren't deflowered by some demon-thing, Xander Harris, is because Buffy kept killing your dates before you could get to second base!"  Cordelia then focused the same reproachful look on the Slayer.

"And Buffy?  Hello?  Have you forgotten about the Snake Frat or that in Willow's timeline, you couldn't control your hormones for a couple of years, let alone a century, causing Angel to go all evil!  So sorry, but I don't think you have room to talk either."  Cordelia softened a little.  "*None* of us do."

"We live on a Hellmouth," Jenny added.  "Good living, breathing, non-possessed dates are hard to find."

Willow wanted to hug Jenny for trying to introduce some levity into the conversation, as well as Cordelia for her show of understanding.

Buffy didn't seem as impressed.  "Point taken, Cordelia, but that doesn't change the fact that Spike is a vampire and therefor evil and just like all of Xander's previous dates, deserves to be staked!"

"Buffy," Willow began in an even tone, "I'm afraid things aren't that black or white.  There's a whole shade of gray you're choosing to ignore."

"I don't choose to ignore it, Willow.  I have to.  I don't have the time to weigh all the possibilities.  When I weigh, people die.  So soulless, bloodsucking, killer demon equals bad in my book.  Bad gets staked.  End of story."

"How convenient," Willow retorted under her breath, and then something occurred to her.  "You know," she began, moving to sit on the arm of a nearby chair, "during the years I've spent with this version of Spike, I actually never, *ever* saw him kill anyone."

"Yeah, right," Buffy laughed.

"I'm serious, Buffy.  I don't remember ever seeing him kill someone.  I never saw him hurt anyone either, for that matter.  Except, Angelus, that is."

The room went silent.  Even Angel and Giles looked surprised.

Giles stood up and removed his glasses.  "Are you being completely serious, Willow?"

"Yes."  Willow was actually a little surprised herself.  She hadn't really thought about it, but it was true.  "The only time I saw Spike raise a hand, or bare a fang, against anyone was when he had to protect us.  That's the truth.  What about you, Buffy?"  Willow continued, hoping her voice didn't betray her nervousness.  While Buffy had never mentioned seeing Spike kill anyone since she'd been back, for all she knew, Spike had killed dozens of people.  Her stomach clenched at the thought.  He was, after all, a vampire, but there was no time to dwell on that minor fact at the moment.  "Have you ever witnessed Spike kill anyone?"

"Of course I have," she replied.  "Spike loves leaving his victims lying about for us to find.  It's like a game to him."

"Not the old Spike, Buffy.  I'm talking about *this* Spike.  The one that came back with me.  *My* Spike."

"Do you have to keep referring to him like that?" Xander whined.  "*My* Spike?"
They ignored him.  Buffy looked at a loss for words.  "Well, I..."  She looked at the others for help.

"What about the rest of you?" Willow continued, her fingers mentally crossed.  "Since we came back a few months ago, have you actually seen him kill anyone?"

Slowly, reluctantly, they all shook their heads, even Angel.

Buffy's mouth hung open for a moment, then she said, "That's not the point, Willow!  Whether we've had to clean up after him or not, Spike's a vampire and *all* vampires should be killed!"

Xander cleared his throat and looked at Angel.  "Uh, the T-shirts in the wash, but as always, present company is excluded, Deadboy.  You have a soul, which makes you one of the good guys."

"No offense taken," Angel replied stoically.

Willow shook her head and rubbed at her aching temples.  Her head was beginning to swim from all the accusations, theories, and deep discussions.  "You know, just because some vampires don't have souls doesn't mean they can't be different, even nice, relatively speaking," she grumbled.

There was a chorus of groans from the teens.  "Come on, Angel.  Back us up here, bud," Xander pleaded.  "I know you can't be buying Spike's act."
All eyes turned to Angel, who was still standing quietly at the edge of the group.

"Not a red cent of it," the vampire said after a long pause, dashing Willow's already fragile hopes that the evening would somehow end on a positive note.

She tried to remain calm even as she felt a familiar anger spark to life deep within her psyche.  After all, she told herself, Angel's answer shouldn't surprise her.  It was completely unrealistic to keep hoping that one day Angel would give up his hatred and mistrust of Spike, even for her.  She'd only kept hoping because she couldn't bare the thought of her life without either vampire if they couldn't learn to accept each other in her life.

"Angel, you act as if all vampires are exactly the same," Willow said, faking a light-hearted tone.  "You know they have free will just like we do.  They aren't mindless zombies whose only thoughts are to kill and feed.  In fact, they can be very reasonable--"

"Yeah, right," Xander butted in to grumble, but Willow and Angel ignored him.

"Only when they want something from you, Willow," Angel told her in a corrosive tone that she found far from soothing.

Angel slowly advanced to stand before her, and Willow didn't like the resigned look he wore.

Willow frowned as her mood quickly took a similarly dark turn.  And to think, just a few minutes ago, they'd almost kissed!  "Spike doesn't want anything from me, Angel, at least nothing that I'm not willing to give."  She felt only a twinge of guilt when Angel flinched at her choice of words. "Spike may not be a saint, or reformed, or anything else like that, but he's special..."

"'specially annoying and dangerous, maybe," Xander chimed in.

Willow whirled to face the teen that she'd almost forgotten was in the room  "Shut up, Xander!"

"No, I won't shut up, Willow.  I think we've all been too quiet about your relationship with Spike already.  I can't believe you're telling us that it's okay with you if Spike kills four or five people a night, women and children, as long we don't see it and he's *nice* to you?  With friends like that..."

"Spike a friend?"  Angel laughed.  "Humans are food or fodder to vampires, a means to an end and little more.  Vampires don't have human friends, occasionally servants or lovers maybe but not friends."  Willow could almost hear an unspoken:  "Which are you, Willow?" at the end of Angel's little speech.

She held her ground, trying hard to choke down the bitter taste of resentment that was rising in her throat, making it hard to speak.  "You don't really believe that, Angel."

Suddenly softening, Buffy said, "Willow, he doesn't mean himself.  Angel has a soul and that's different.  Of course Willow's your friend, right, Angel?"

Neither Willow nor Angel bothered to look at the Slayer.  They were too busy exchanging glares and assessing the other's anger.

"Buffy's right," Angel said, finally breaking the silence between them, but not the tension.  "I have a soul, and that let's me be capable of more control than other vampires."

Willow found herself smirking at his arrogance.  She didn't quite know the source of her own anger and bitterness, but it felt good, damn good, to let it run its course for a change.

"And when did you become the speaker for the rest of the world's vampire population, Angel?" she snapped back in reply.  "Maybe before you had a soul *you* were incapable of using women for anything more than food or sex, but that doesn't mean every vampire couldn't handle it!  Maybe you were just too weak."

Her angry retort hardened Angel's features.  He stalked even closer and loomed over her, making Willow feel uncomfortably petite and fragile.

"No, Willow, it is *not* possible," he said in a voice cold enough to send a chill down her spine.  "Spike used you, Willow.  He *used* you.  If not *just* for sex, then for some other greater but ultimately selfish purpose as well."  His eyes narrowed, sending dangerous sparks that threatened to ignite the very air around them.  "And now little Spike has decided he doesn't want to be alone, and you've become a security blanket to him, just another leather duster he can pull out and use whenever he needs it."

She jutted out her chin, becoming more infuriated with every word he spoke.  "No, Angel!  You are so wrong.  Spike knows he can depend on me, just like I know I can depend on him.  It's nice to know that I have someone who cares about me so much!"

"You think I don't care?" he asked in a growl that would have been funny in any other situation.

"I think your hatred of Spike makes you unable to see straight."

"And your love of him does the same, and it'll be the death of you if you don't snap out of it, Willow!"

The room fell silent, everyone holding their breath for Willow's reply, but she didn't budge or speak.  There was no way she was going to dignify his juvenile comment with an answer.

Perhaps sensing he'd pushed her too far, Angel took a step back "I don't know exactly when or where, but Spike does plan to change you soon."  His tone was softer but still strained.

Here we go again.  Willow rolled her eyes and spun away.  "We've been through this before, and I'm tired of the repetition.  In fact, I've had more than enough of defending myself for one night, and I'm going home now.  We can continue this later, whenever you've *all* grown up a little."  She marched for the door, but was stopped by familiar words from more than a century and half earlier.

"No, Rose," Angel had begun in good imitation of Spike, "you just wait, because the second your life isn't necessary anymore...when you quit being useful because this bloody spell is complete...I'll shut your gob for you, permanently..."

She gripped the nearest bookshelf for support but didn't turn around.  "Don't do this, Angel," she said, and the words came out sounding like equal parts pleading and warning.

"I'm not going to stop, Willow.  This is for your own good, and I'm tired of pretending that everything is okay.  *That* was the real Spike talking, Willow," Angel continued, slowly moving to stand behind her.  "The one that traded you for Drusilla, the one that nearly abandoned you to the likes of me."

"Spike didn't mean that and you know it.  He was just putting on a show for you at the time."

"Sounded to me like he meant it.  Maybe later he just figured out that he needed a better plan.  You were more useful under his thumb than mine.  He's as selfish as they come, Willow.  Always has been.  He manipulated us both, Willow, and he still is."

Willow couldn't turn to face the vampire, but she could feel him, directly behind her.  Heat was radiating off of him in waves or perhaps it was only her own anger reflecting back on her that was making the blood coursing through her veins boil.  "Well, like he said, he learned it from the best, didn't he, Angelus?"

"Yes, he did, which is only further proof that I know what he's going to do.  He's going to turn you, Willow.  I can feel it in the pit of my soul.  Hate me if you have to, Willow.  Hate me but believe me."

"Hate us all, if you have to Willow, but listen to Angel!" Buffy pleaded.  "It's your life on the line, your soul."

In turn, every one spoke up, agreeing with Angel, including Giles and finally Jenny.  "I think Angel's right, Willow," the computer teacher said.  "Spike's using you.  You must see it."

Slowly, Willow turned to face her friends, but for some reason their blatant looks of concern only heightened her confusion and anger.  "Using me for what?" she said harshly.  "Company when he eats his deep fried onion?  While I know that's not particularly healthy, did I miss the Surgeon General's warning that eating fried foods causes soul loss?"

Giles approached her slowly, but the paternal almost pitying look on his face warned Willow that she wasn't going to like what he was about to say either.

"I know it may be hard to see, Willow.  In all honesty, I did not really see it until now, but think about it, Willow.  Spike does not appear to be doing anything to assist you in adjusting to your new life here, does he?"

"Oh, please!  If it weren't for Spike, I would be miserable.  He's the one keeping me sane.  He's the only one who understands me, who I can really talk to and be myself with."

"That's my point exactly, Willow," Giles offered.  "We're here for you, we've always been here for you, but you turn to Spike instead.  Considering what you've been through, it's quite natural.  Yet, in this case, it's not particularly helpful, Willow.  You need to find normalcy in this world now, or at least as normal as the Hellmouth will allow, but I'm afraid you can't do that with Spike in your back pocket, so to speak."

Angel looked relieved that the others were backing him up.  "Spike's trying to tear us apart."

"Us?"  Willow couldn't help laughing even though she felt like crying.  "There is no 'us', Angelus."

The fire in Angel's eyes died a little.  "I meant that he's driving you and your friends apart, Willow.  Driving a wedge between you.  If I know Spike, he's being pretty subtle about it.  He's probably hoping you'll become so miserable you'll ask him to turn you.  It would make it easier on him then, wouldn't it? "
"You're really stretching now."

"Am I?  He's going to turn you, Willow.  I know it, he knows it.  Everyone knows it but you."

"It makes sense, Willow," Giles said sympathetically.  "While I don't deny that you and Spike have a, er, special relationship, I think that only makes it that much more understandable that he'd want to protect you.  And the only way he knows how to protect you permanently is to--"

"No, you're wrong."

"Not this time, Willow," Angel said.  "I've heard things around town.  Some of his minions are talking, but more importantly, he's admitted it to me.  While he hasn't said it with words, he hasn't denied it either.  But I know him, Willow.  I can still read his face, and when he thought he was going to lose you that night in the park..."

"The night *he* *saved* me?"

"Willow, try to understand.  Spike cares about you the only way he knows how:  selfishly and obsessively, too much to let you go.  When has he ever let go of anything?  Who else would go to the lengths he did to get Drusilla back?  And you expect him to let you die when he can stop that?  When he can guarantee you'll be with him forever?  Maybe he promised you, he wouldn't, but he knows that once you've been turned, you won't care what he promised you when you were alive and still had a soul."

Willow found herself reaching for the support of the bookcase again.  Her head was swimming with thoughts and feelings that she couldn't control and dare not express.

Unfortunately, Angel, possibly sensing that he was getting through to her, wasn't letting up.  "How many times have you trusted Spike before only to have him betray you?"  Her tummy flipped as Angel tenderly caressed the side of her throat with one finger.  "And none of these look particularly *friendly*."

Embarrassed by her body's automatic reaction to the vampire's touch, Willow angrily swatted his hand away.  "Then how do you know they're not yours?" she snapped back.

Angel staggered back a pace or two, there was a collective gasp from the younger members of their audience, and then Willow realized what she had just said.  The last important secret about her past was a secret no more.

Xander's mouth fell open, eyes rounded by the shock of betrayal turned to Angel  "A-angel?" he sputtered.

Buffy had paled but the Slayer in her was quickly taking over, despite her shock.  "When did Angel bite you?" she demanded.

Willow covered her face with trembling hands.  "Angel didn't bite me; *Angelus* did."

"You never said Angelus bit you," Buffy said.  "You never even told us you met Angelus after he'd become a vampire."

Cordelia shook her head.  "I can't believe you were bitten by Angelus."

"Oh, there's more to it than that, isn't there, Angel?" Willow said, dragging her hands from her face to look the vampire in the eye.  "You want to talk about manipulation?  You want to talk about using people?  If Spike's a master manipulator, it's only because he learned it from Angel!"

"Someone tell me what happened," Buffy demanded.

"I was obsessed with Rose, with Willow, after Darla turned me." Angel began.  "I thought Rose was dead, but when I saw her all those years later..."

Buffy quickly moved to stand between Willow and Angel, like a referee at a boxing match.  "But you wouldn't have hurt Willow, right, Angel?"  Without waiting for an answer, she turned to Willow.  "He wouldn't have really hurt you."

Willow almost laughed at Buffy's naivete, but she contained herself.  Instead, she felt her anger growing exponentially and she had to bite her tongue to keep herself quiet.

Angel, on the other hand, wasn't holding back.  "Damn it, Buffy!  How many times have I told you how evil I was?  I slaughtered countless people...women and children, too.  I tortured, maimed and drove the living insane for the sheer fun of it.  Everything you know Spike to be, I was much worse."

"I-I'm sorry, Angel," Buffy sputtered, taking a step back from the angry vampire.  "It's not that we don't believe you.  It's just hard for us to think of you that way."

"Rose was my obsession," Angel continued, beginning to pace the floor without looking at Willow.  "Between Spike and I, we tried to break her, mentally.  Yet I didn't want to share her...not with Spike, not with anyone.  Spike felt the same way about Drusilla, so we had a ceremony where I traded Dru for Willow so I could own her.  Spike had bitten Willow first, so technically she was his, but I traded for her...Spike was willing."

Xander held up his hands.  "Hold on...," he said to Angel.  "You bartered for Willow like she was some cheap beads or a Midwestern State?"

"Yep," Willow chuckled coolly, trying to ignore the dark void that was growing within her.  "Angel here is the proud owner of one century old teenager."

"At least that explains all the drama between you two," Cordelia said.  "I was starting to think you were both hopeless, but now I know you've got some real issues.  Maybe you should go on The Jerry Springer Show and work it all out?"

Angel quit pacing in front of the redhead.  "Willow, I don't think of you that way now."

"Oh please," she said haughtily.  She no longer tried to control her words.  She just let them flow, not caring who they hurt.  "It's in your blood, Angel.  Soul or not, you still have a demon in you, and it hates seeing me with Spike, doesn't it?  Vampires don't share their toys well."

Angel's features hardened, as if slapped, then stepped back.  He actually chuckled, much like Angelus used to.  "We're too late," he said to the others.  "She won't believe us, no matter what we say."  He turned back to Willow, no longer smiling.  "Spike's already gotten to you, hasn't he?  He's twisted everything around so that no matter what we say, we lose.  He's told you that you can't trust us, *any* of us.  That no one can understand you like he does.  No one ever can, especially not your old friends, right?

"They'll never understand you, pet," Angel continued in his imitation of Spike.  "Not like I do.  How can they?  They're still bloody kids while you and I have seen the world together.  And Angel?  What a bloody undeserving wanker!"  Angel's face relaxed, and once again he looked and sounded like Angel.  "I can only imagine what he's telling you about me, Willow.  He's either trying to frighten you away from me or guilt you away.  Probably both.  Hell, I wouldn't put it past him to tell you that he's not so sure my soul isn't permanent after all."

Show's how much you know, mister! Willow thought, although she couldn't look Angel in the eye.  While Spike may have voiced many of those opinions, he had never implied that she should worry about Angel losing his soul.  Had he?  She started to think back to some of her recent conversations with Spike but it was too easy to recall Spike using words similar to Angel's.  Except for the thing about Angel's soul, everything sounded painfully familiar.

So Willow quit thinking about it and latched on to that discrepancy instead. Obviously Angel didn't know what he was talking about.  Who was being manipulative now? she thought with escalating fury as Angel continued to push.

"I thought you were smarter than this, Willow.  I thought you'd eventually be able to see through him all on your own, but even now he's in control.

"Control?"  Willow shook her head as she slowly glided toward the vampire.  "That's what this is all about, isn't it?  Control?  Spike tricked you, took away your favorite toy and cursed you with your soul.  You hate Spike because he's in control and you aren't!"  Willow backed away from the vampire and closer to the door.  "Spike was so strong when we were together back then, wasn't he, Angelus?  And he's still so very strong around me, so in control.  But you?  No, not the mighty Angelus.  You could never have done it!  The great Angelus could barely curb his appetite for a day let alone a century!  All that time I spent with Spike and he never really hurt me, never tried to kill me or turn me or take my virginity.  But you, Angelus?  A few hours with me and you were ready to...well, we won't go into details in front of the children, shall we?"

Angel stoically faced Willow's ever-growing tirade, which only further provoked her.  The others seemed too shocked to utter a sound, which was fine with her.

"You hate Spike and want him out of my life because you can't stand the fact that he is more of a man without his soul than you are now *with* one!" Even when Angel's eyes flashed yellow, Willow couldn't stop the bitter words from pouring out of her.  "Face it, you hate him because he's a constant reminder that it takes a soul for you to do what he can do without one!"

Other than Willow's haggard breathing and the indiscernible echo of her shouted words, the room went silent.  She wiped the tears from her cheek and started backing toward the door.

Shaking visibly, Angel spun around and stalked down the hall to his bedroom.  The slamming of Angel's bedroom door, immediately followed by the sound of shattering glass and breaking wood, seemed to snap the others out of it.  They turned their pale faces to Willow, and all their mouths opened at the same time.

"Don't say a word!" Willow commanded, holding up her hand to try to hold back their condemnations.  "I think I've said enough for one night, maybe even one lifetime, don't you?"  She practically sprinted for the door, stopped and added over her shoulder.  "Well, you know everything now, happy?"

She was running through the cool night air before anyone could answer.

****

Buffy winced when Willow slammed the front door, and then jumped at the sound of more destruction coming from Angel's room.  So did the others.

"That was intense," Xander said, pulling Cordy into a hug.  Giles slumped back down on the couch, took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose.  Buffy returned to her previous pacing.

"Giles, Jenny...how much do you know about the spell Spike used to go back in time?"

"There's not much to know, Buffy.  Even the Rom don't have much information about it," Jenny said, taking a seat next to Giles.  "Why?"

"Maybe something happened to Willow with that spell that Spike cast...something that, I don't know, binds them together, somehow.  Willow does have a point about Spike's ability to control himself, and they seem so drawn to each other.  The spell seems like the only explanation we haven't fully explored."

Giles sighed and exchanged a weary look with Jenny.  "Buffy, while I agree that Willow seems blind to the danger that she's in, I don't see any reason to believe that there's something mystical behind it."

"It's possible that Willow is telling us the truth," Jenny agreed.  "Perhaps she and Spike simply have, despite the odds, managed to develop a very close friendship."

"So are you telling me that there isn't the possibility that something else is going on here?" Buffy asked.  "Do you remember her description of the ritual?  Blood was exchanged.  She was the...*container*...for the spell and Spike just tagged along for the ride.  The spell was originally only meant for *one person*."

"And I think we all know by now that when doing spells, it is kinda important to follow the directions," Xander added, nodding in agreement with the Slayer.

"Exactly," Buffy said.  "So isn't it possible that something more is going on here?  Something that Willow and maybe even Spike doesn't understand?  I mean, I've met a lot of vampires, Giles, and I have to admit that this Spike does seem a little different somehow."

"You're starting to sound like Willow, Buffy," Cordelia said.  "Is he getting to you, too?  Are you and Willow going to wear matching pro-Spike shirts?"

"Don't be ridiculous.  Spike's still evil, through and through, but we've got to do something, and other than locking Willow in her room...."

Giles slipped his glasses back on before casting a sheepish glance Jenny's way.  "I suppose it is possible that when they used such a powerful spell that was originally intended for an individual human--"

"Then it's research time," Buffy commanded.  "Xander, Cordy and I will hit the books, Jenny, you take the computer, and Giles...maybe you should contact someone in the counsel...discretely..."

"Do you really think all of this is necessary, Buffy?"

"Yes, Giles.  I *really* do.  My best friend's life is completely entangled in a vampire's, and I'm not going to allow that to continue.

"What if Willow prefers it that way, Buffy?" Jenny asked.  "I don't think she'd appreciate this kind of interference in her life."

"Willow will thank us for this one day," Buffy replied, sounding as if she were trying to convince herself as much as the others.  "One day..."

*****

End Chapter 20 (archived March 17, 2004)  Happy St. Patrick's Day!
 

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