** See full notes in Chapter 1

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

!
 

It's About Time  ~ Chapter 21 ~
***

 

"Angel?"

Angel snapped out of his trance at the sound of Buffy's voice and a persistent knocking at his bedroom door.

He wanted to tell her to go away, that he needed time to think, but he doubted she'd listen to him anyway.  Tonight he doubted that even a locked door would keep the Slayer away.

"Come in," he finally said, but he didn't look up as she entered his room.

Buffy paused just inside the door to take in the havoc he'd wreaked upon his private quarters.  The bedroom was a far cry from its usual spotless condition.  "Can't say I think much of your redecorating, Angel.  You're no Martha Stewart."

Angel remained motionless, sitting on the edge of the bed, head bowed, arms resting on his thighs, and his fingers forming a triangle in front of him.  The Scooby Gang had long ago labeled this his 'thoughtful' pose.

"Not that I think Martha Stewart is an angel," Buffy went on when he made no comment.  "I bet that woman has a few demons in her closet."

She looked around the room again.  "Actually, I was expecting it to look at lot worse in here.  From outside, it sounded as if you'd totally demolished the place.  So what if you broke a couple of chairs and ugly old vases.  I bet you feel better now, right?"

Angel finally looked up and surveyed the mess around him.  Shards of glass and pottery littered the floor, all that was left of several antiques, including his favorite--a rare red-glazed porcelain vase dating to the earliest days of the Ming dynasty. There was only known to be one other like it in the entire world.

Other than shattered vases and other object's de art, sprinkled here and there were splintered hunks of wood that had once been his antique desk chair.

Did he feel better?  "Not really."

"We just wanted to make sure you're okay, and see if you want to help us research the spell that Spike used to play time bandit with.  We're wondering if maybe that has something to do with this Nutra-Sweet closeness of Willow and Spike's.

"You won't find anything."

Buffy carefully picked her way across the room, avoiding all the broken pottery. She grabbed the leather club chair from the corner, the only intact chair in the room, and pulled it close to the bed, so that she and Angel were facing one another.

"I think we will," she countered.  "It would explain a lot, maybe even why Willow said such horrible things to you."

"Willow said those horrible things because they were true.  Willow's right."

"About what?"

He looked the Slayer right in the eye.  "I *am* jealous of Spike, of his control.  I, Angelus, couldn't have...*wouldn't* have been able to...."

"That's why it has to be the spell, Angel!"

Angel disregarded her comment, going on to add, "But at the same time, Spike disgusts me."

"Of course he does, Angel.  He disgusts all of us!"

"You don't get it, Buffy.  In a way, I'm Spike's sire, and it's his ability to behave humanely that disgusts me.  It means he's weak, Buffy.  My childe is weak."

Buffy appeared at a loss for words.
 
"Which means that I'm jealous that he is stronger than I am and yet weaker than I was."

Buffy shook her head and sighed.  "This sounds like one of those puzzle-wrapped-in-an-enigma, things.  I think I'm getting a headache."

"It's complicated."

Buffy grinned at the vampire.  "You know, it used to drive me crazy whenever Willow explained things away with 'It's complicated,' but I think I'm finally starting to understand just how mixed up you two must be.  I mean, if it's true that you and she were in love once, while you were still human, then I can't imagine what she was feeling when all of the sudden you're a vampire and all you want to do is bathe in her blood."

Angel actually managed a half-smile.  "You've been watching too many bad horror movies, Buffy.  We don't bathe in it, we just drink it...And sometimes to sign important documents.  Oh, and it makes a great substitute if you run out of red watercolors, but it's not so good for bathing."

Buffy made her 'ewww' face then, ignoring him, went on.  "Meanwhile, she with Spike for like, forever, and still comes home with only a few bite marks to show for it.  And even now, they're like...best friends or something.  I have to admit, even I'm feeling a little jealous of their friendship, so you must be...."

Angel nodded.

Buffy sighed.  "Yep, it's complicated all right."  After a moment, the Slayer brightened a little.  "Well, if it cheers you up any, I think we were starting to get through to her tonight.  I thought I saw some doubt creep into her pretty hazel eyes."

"Green," Angel corrected.  "Willow's eyes are green."

"Just making sure you were paying attention," she replied with a grin.

"Where is Willow?"

"She stormed out right after you did.  She was pretty upset."

Angel put his head in his hands and growled.  "I should have known she'd do that.  I'm such an idiot!"

"You're a man," Buffy said with a shrug.  "You can't help it."

Angel vaulted to his feet and began to pace, his boots crushing a path through the shards of broken glass and porcelain on the floor.  "No, don't you see?  We did exactly what Spike was hoping we'd do.  We may have forced Willow's hand tonight.  She may feel she has to choose between Spike and us now."

"Angel, Willow would never ask Spike to turn her.  No matter how mad she is at us, at the world, she wouldn't want that."

Angel paused in his pacing to pick up a large piece of reddish gold pottery that had once been part of his favorite vase.  He looked from it to Buffy.  "I know, but we may have forced Spike's hand as well.  He may not want to wait for her any longer."

Buffy jumped up, now seriously concerned.  "We better get moving."

Angel lay the shard on his desk, which thankfully remained intact, then followed Buffy out of his room and into the main library.  The others were seated around the tables and computers, heavily in to their research.

"Xander," Angel said, "call Willow at home, see if she's there."

Xander closed the book he was reading and tossed it onto a pile of other books before he scowled at Angel. "Why? Are you hungry?  Thinking of using Willow for a little late night snack"

Angel remained calm. Xander had every right to be angry with him.  They all did. "Later, Xander.  Later, you can all yell at me you want about what I've done to Willow in the past.  I'll even spar you blindfolded and with both arms tied behind my back if you wish, but right now, we need to know where Willow is.

Xander stared at him for another long moment, then said, "Fair enough."  He took out his cellphone and hit speed dial #2.  There was no answer.  "What's on your mind, Deadboy?  Are you afraid she'll do something stupid?"

Buffy grabbed her coat and the others' coasts as well.  "Angel thinks we fell into a trap and may have driven her in to Spike's arms."  Buffy made a face.  "We shouldn't have let her go."

"What were we supposed to do?" Cordelia asked.  "Lock her in Oz's cage?"

"I don't know, Cordelia, but we have to do something and we have to do it now.  Research can wait."  She handed Giles and Jenny their coats.  "Giles, why don't you and Ms. Calendar see if Willow went home and is just not answering the phone.  Xander, Cordelia, why don't you check out the Bronze and that little coffee house she likes."  Everyone agreed.

"Cell phones charged?" Angel asked.

"We'll keep in touch," Xander said when everyone nodded.  "What are you two going to do?"

Angel and the Slayer exchanged grim looks.  "Buffy and I are going to pay Spike a visit."

"Are you going to finally dust him?"

Angel gritted his teeth.  He couldn't answer.

Buffy pulled two stakes out of her back pocket and twirled them on the palm of her hand like a Wild West gunslinger.  "We'll do what we have to do to keep Willow safe."
 

***

 
 
 

It only took one well-placed kick for Angel to open the front door of Spike's mansion.  He and the Slayer entered the foyer side by side just as three vampires rushed in to find out what the commotion was about.

"Where's Spike?" Angel demanded.

The two vampires slid to a stop on the marble floor and looked at each other as if they couldn't quite believe that the Slayer and the vampire with a soul were standing before them.

"He's not here," the one on the right declared.  The other could only nod in agreement.

"We hope you won't be offended if we don't take your word for it," Buffy said, advancing on them, stake in hand.

Angel didn't need to pull out a stake to appear menacing.  The look on his face was warning enough.  "We'll just have a little look around for ourselves."

The two went through the mansion, room-by-room, looking for Spike and subconsciously for Willow as well.  All they found were a lot of over-decorated rooms.  A few vampires took exception to the interruption, so Buffy and Angel with stakes through their chests.

Convinced that neither Spike nor Willow was in the mansion, they decided to leave and search somewhere else.  Buffy had just walked out through the broken front door when Angel turned back one more time to look at the small group of vampires that had assembled in the foyer.

Angel recognized the bespectacled vampire in the center of the group.  It was Dalton, Spike's right-hand man.

"Spike hasn't been home since sunset, but that's not unusual for him," Dalton said.  "We're expecting him back in a few hours, just before sunrise.  You're welcome to wait for him."

Angel chuckled.  He was so polite.  "No thanks.  Just tell him I popped by, and that I'll be back."

Dalton bobbed his head.  "Yes, Sir."

Angel once again started to leave, then halfway through the door he turned around.  "Has a young lady been here tonight?  A woman with red hair, green eyes?"

"No," said a bald male vampire with squinty eyes and a lurid timbre to his voice. "We have not yet had the pleasure of Ms. Rosenberg's company."

With a spine-tingling growl and preternatural speed, Angel vaulted across the room.  He didn't grab the vampire who had spoken but instead the one next to him.  He shoved the surprised vampire against the wall repeatedly and so violently that the room echoed with the sound of his skull cracking against the cold stone.  He then lifted him by the front of the neck until the vampire's feet dangled well above the floor.  "Don't ever say her name again, understand?"

The vampire was nearly unconscious, and unable to reply with more than a gurgle.

"Glad we understand each other."  Angel jammed a stake into the vampire that he was making an example of, and as he turned to dust in his hand, Angel looked pointedly at the other vampires one-by-one, stopping on the one who had spoken.  "Do we have an understanding?"

They all bowed their heads, including Dalton. "Y-yes, Angelus," they said in unison and then ran from the room.

Angel turned to find Buffy standing in the doorway, taking it all in.  He paused, wondering how the Slayer would react to his handling of the vampire.

"Feel better?" she asked, lifting a brow.

Angel rolled his shoulders a bit to loosen up, then followed the Slayer out the door.  "A little," he finally admitted as they went out into the night.  "A little."
 

*******
 
 

Willow didn't think when she left Slayer Central.  She walked.  Quickly.

Actually, her gait could be better described as a march or a stomp.  Either way, her fiery steps and where they would take her kept Willow's mind momentarily preoccupied and away from her fight with Angel.  Besides, if she let herself think about what had just happened, she knew she'd cry.  Or scream.  Most likely both.  Walking and/or stomping seemed like a much better use of her anger.

Willow's energy level hadn't depleted an iota by the time she stormed in to Willy's tavern, chin held high like she'd been there a million times before and was fully expecting to hear a welcoming shout of 'Willow!' from the odd crowd at her arrival.

In truth, while she knew Willy's was no 'Cheers,' she had no idea what to expect, having never actually been to the demon hangout before.  She quickly realized that didn't matter much.  The place was dead.  The only person in sight was a greasy-looking guy behind the bar, who she assumed was Willy, the owner.

Willow took a seat on the stool nearest the door, just in case she had to make a quick exit.  She wasn't exactly nervous to be there, although she knew she probably should be considering its reputation.  She was too angry to be scared.  Too angry, confused, sad, apprehensive and more than a little nauseous, but nope...not nervous.  It wasn't like she had much choice, anyway.  After the 'inquisition,' she had no desire to go home.  She didn't want to be 'findable' at all, which meant that her favorite coffee bar was out of the question, as was The Bronze.  Willow needed some time alone to sort out what had happened earlier that night, and if she could have a decent drink at the same time (since Angel's wine seemed to have been non-alcoholic, explaining her complete lack of a buzz) then that was a bonus.  Maybe a quiet drink would help clear away the fog.  But first, she'd had to actually find a place that would serve her, and with its sordid rep, Willy's had quickly come to mind.  Actually, it was the *only* place that came to mind.

Willow didn't wait for the man behind the bar to ask what she wanted or to demand an I.D.  "I'm 135 years old so give me a beer or a shot of whiskey or whatever it is you have here for humans to drink," she commanded in a clear, calm tone.  "Something without any blood or eye of newt in it, okay?"

Willy looked up from his newspaper but didn't even blink at her request.  "Witch?  Faery?  Genie?  Incubus?  Succubus...?"

"Spell mishap."

He nodded as if it were an every day thing.  "You got I.D.?"

"If I had I.D., do you think I'd come here?"

A sleazy grin oozed past his thin lips.  "Now look here, sweetheart.  Just cause my clientele tends to be a bit 'colorful' doesn't mean I can break the law all willy-nilly like."  He chuckled at his own words.  "*Willy*-nilly, get it?"  Willow just stared at him.  "No one has a sense of humor these days," he grumbled, then began poking around under the bar for something.  "Found it," he said, then came around to the front of the bar.  He was holding a large Polaroid-type camera.  Stepping up on the foot rail, he reached behind the glass rack above Willow's head and pulled down on a small plastic ring to reveal a white projection screen.  He latched it to a hook under the lip of the bar, then spun Willow around on the stool so her back was to the screen.  Before Willow could figure out what was going on, the bartender was standing a few feet in front of her, looking through the camera and telling her to, "Say Cheese, sweetie."

Although she wasn't exactly sure what the little man was up to, Willow smiled automatically.  There was a soft click and then a blinding flash.  While she waited for her sight to return to normal, Willow felt for the reassurance of the cross beneath the neckline of her shirt and the stake in her back pocket.  She needed neither.  Willy had already disappeared into the backroom.  Still seeing spots before her eyes, Willow took advantage of the privacy to look around the place.

All in all, Willy's demonic little dive wasn't as bad as she'd expected.  There were no pools of blood on the floor or little plastic nut bowls full of various body parts for casual snacking.  Sure, it was a little dark and dingy, desperately in need of higher watt bulbs, a fresh coat of paint, and some air freshener.  Yet it had a homey, working-class pub-like appeal that made Willow feel strangely at home.  It was the perfect place to dissect her disaster of an evening and generally feel sorry for herself.

"What name do you use?" Willy called from the back, ending Willow's survey of the bar.

"Uh, Willow...Willow Rosenberg," she replied without thinking.

"Good name," he said, still out of sight.  "Almost sounds real."

There was a faint electric whirring sound and less than a minute later, Willy appeared and handed her a small card.  Her jaw dropped.  It was a state I.D. with her name on it, and while it wasn't her best picture, the identification card looked completely authentic.

"That'll be a c-note for the I.D., sweetie," he said.  "Now that you're all legal, what'd you say you want to drink?"

Willow dipped into her front pocket and pulled out five neatly folded twenties.  She'd taken them with her tonight, hoping that Spike would let her pay for a change.  He hadn't of course, which was a lucky thing now.

She slapped the hundred dollars down on the bar in front of Willy, but kept her hand covering the cash. "Throw in a bottle of wine and you've got a deal."

He grimaced as if she'd kicked him in the groin.  "You sure you ain't a faery?  They're cheapskates, too."  Willy went into the back room again then quickly reappeared with a bottle of wine.  He showed it to Willow.  "This do?"

She recognized the label.  It was a common and inexpensive variety of California Merlot, but it was still one of her favorites.  "It'll do," she said, letting him have the money.

Willy opened the bottle, set it and a glass on the bar in front of her, and then went back to reading a racing form.  Willow poured herself a glass of wine and downed it in one unfeminine gulp, hoping it would help clear her mind a little.  She'd expected the mugs of wine she'd consumed earlier would have kept her calm, but they hadn't helped at all.  She sighed.  In a way, it was a shame that she hadn't gotten drunk, then she could have blamed the wine for all of the horrible accusations she'd thrown at Angel.

Willow groaned, letting her head fall to the bar with a painful thud.  How could she have said such terrible things?  Spike more of a man *without* his soul than Angel was *with* one...?  Where the hell had that come from?  She closed her eyes, letting the coolness of the countertop sink into her aching forehead, not caring what Willy must be thinking of her.

Over and over again she tried to make sense of her emotions and why she'd blown up at Angel the way she had.  Sure, Angel hadn't been the most understanding vampire-with-a-soul tonight, but had she really expected a different reaction?  Okay, naybe he'd stepped over the line a little by quoting some of the things Spike had once said to her, but if Angel had stepped over the line, then she'd pole-vaulted over it!

Wearily, Willow lifted her head from the slightly sticky bar top to have another sip of wine.

There was no doubt she'd been very irate and that some of the gang's harsher remarks had helped stoke her anger.  Still, she felt bad.  She really did.

And yet....

And yet, she'd meant all those bitter words she'd said to Angel, and it had felt good...Damn good, in fact, to get it off her chest!

Well, maybe she didn't mean everything she'd said.  She didn't really think Spike was a better man than Angel.  But more in control of demonic side?  Heck yeah, she'd meant that!

Toying with the stem of her glass, Willow let her mind recall previous conversations with Spike.  If Angelus had really loved her when he was human, then why couldn't he control himself around her when he was a vampire?  In other words, why couldn't Angel be more like Spike?

Yep, there's the rub, the source of most of her problems with Angel.

Of course, it didn't help any that her body seemed to have a mind of its own.  Even though she was angry with Angel, just thinking back to their near-kiss earlier that night made heat suffuse her cheeks and a wonderful squishy feeling invade her tummy.

Traitors! she thought accusingly to her face and stomach and the raging hormones that seemed to rule her body.  How could she be so bitter about Angelus and how he'd treated her and yet still long to feel Angel's mouth on her skin?

There was only one answer, she decided as she stared unseeingly at her glass, sipping her wine.  She was severely screwed up.

"Wanna talk about it?"

Willow look at Willy over the rim of her glass.  He was leaning casually against the bar, staring at her as he dried a beer mug.

Willow straightened her spine under his scrutiny yet felt little embarrassment.  She was *way* passed embarrassment.  "You don't exactly look like the kind of bartender that wants to hear people's problems."

He shrugged.  "Don't get many 'people' in here, if you know what I mean.  It might be nice to hear someone complaining about the normal things like parking tickets and politics instead of whining about failed blood sacrifices and the Slayer all the time.  Besides, what else I got to do?" he said, looking around the empty room.

"Is this place always so...dead?" she asked

"Nah, it's usually wall-to-wall scales and tails, but there's a Tom Jones concert over in Springfield, so..."  He shrugged again.

"Tom Jones?  I didn't know he was a big demonic draw."

"You kidding?  The only one bigger is Barry Manilow."

Willow chuckled despite her mood.

"So, you wanna talk about it or what?"

"Sorry, but I don't have anything to talk about, really.  Just a rough night."

"Ah, a lover's spat?"

"Not really," she said, but she could feel her pulse quicken at the mere idea of it.  "I mean, he wasn't my lover.  Not even my boyfriend really, but I guess there was, er, spatting involved."

"You turn his mamma into a toad or something?"

"Something like that," she said with a polite small, hoping he'd change the subject.

The sound of raised voices and laughter drifted in from a back room.  They weren't alone after all.  "What's going on back there?" she asked.

"Poker.  Almost every night there's a game of some sort back there, but it's a small group tonight on account of the concert."

Willow couldn't help grinning.  "Really?  Can anyone join?"

"Anyone meaning you?" he laughed.  "They'll play with anyone who's got enough kittens to buy in."

Kittens?  Willow's eyes widened, but before she could express her outrage, Willy continued.  "Although since Spike started sitting in on a game every now and then, they seem to be playing more for money lately."

Willow swallowed past the lump in her throat.  Spike had never mentioned coming here before.  She blinked at him in her most confused manner.  "Er, Spike?"

"Local head vamp, but he's not here tonight.  Been here a lot lately though.  Now, you think you have love problems?  Compared to that vamp, you've got nothing to worry about, sweetheart."

Still playing as if she'd didn't know Spike, she glanced dully between the bartender and her glass.  "A vampire with love problems?" she grumbled.  "Doubtful."

"Trust me," he said, looking around to make sure they were still the only two in the room.  He leaned across the bar, lowering his voice.  "Like I said, he comes here all the time lately.  Guess the little woman's becoming a real pain in the ass.  Now, if I were him, I wouldn't be complaining.  So what if the old ball-n-chain goes out of town all the time?  I can't tell you how many guys wish their women would get a place in another town and spend most of their time there.  Sounds like the perfect relationship to me."

"You're a true romantic."

He ignored her.  "Strange though.  You'd think a good lookin' vamp like that--"

"He's good looking?"

Willy shrugged.  It was obviously his favorite gesture.  "Can't see many vamps, male or female, kicking him out of bed. Anyways, you'd think he'd be sowing his oats, or whatever the hell vamps have, all over this dirty berg, but no... Not him."

A tightness was forming in Willow's stomach, and part of her didn't want to know anymore, and yet something else drove her to pry for more info.  "No?"

"Don't see how he'd have the time.  He's always in here, grumbling and growling about how ungrateful women are...."

"This vampire, er..."

"Spike," he supplied.

"Spike...he talks to you about his private life?"

"A little.  I've been married three times, so we've both sorta been there, done that, you know?  Only difference is, I have to pay alimony."

At that moment, the phone at the other end of the bar rang and Willy went to answer it, leaving Willow with a ton of unanswered questions and a funny feeling that wouldn't go away.

Willow downed her second glass of wine in one long gulp, trying to chase away the dawning similarities of Willy's and Angel's comments.

But if Spike and Drusilla were having real problems, surely Spike would have told her...?

Frowning, Willow refilled her glass.  She was just about to take a sip when her head suddenly started to spin, making her have to grip the edge of the bar for support.

It was about time the stuff hit her, she thought.  She'd been starting to wonder if Willy had watered down the wine somehow or if alcohol really was weaker now than it used to be.

She closed her eyes, willing the room to stop spinning.  Odd thing was, while she felt very dizzy, she didn't exactly feel drunk.

Willow pried her eyes open when she heard Willy come in from the back room with a tray of dirty glasses.  And as quickly as that, her dizziness passed.  She felt normal again.

"Oh, you three again, huh?" Willy said, looking behind her.  "Want the usual or you trying to cut back?" he asked with a smirk.

Willow turned to look over her shoulder.  Strange.  Three guys were sitting in a booth behind her, but she hadn't heard them come in.

"Very funny," one of the men replied.  He was short and balding and wearing a leather jacket.  "Just bring the drinks."

Willow returned to her own drink, had a sip, then tried to peek at the trio again.  Something about the three men seemed very familiar.  In unison, they looked at her and smiled, then went back to talking quietly amongst themselves.

Where had she seen them before?  She wracked her brain, knowing the answer was right on the edge of her memory, but it kept evading her.

And then, just as it was on the tip of her tongue, another tremendous wave of dizziness washed over her, making her turn back to the bar and rest her head on her arms until it passed.

"You okay, kid?"

Willow lifted her head very carefully.  The dizziness appeared to have passed again, but she wasn't taking any chances.  "I'm fine," she told Willy as he set a Zima, glass of wine, and a bottle of Bartles & James Fuzzy Navel Wine Cooler on the bar.

"Hey, three stooges!" the bartender called.  "Your drinks.  If you can call them that," he added under his breath.  He whispered to Willow, saying, "I'd chase them out, but they're good tippers."

Willow watched carefully as the man with long straggly blond hair came up to the end of the bar.  He wore a faded black Ramones T-shirt and dark-rimmed glasses.  The stranger gave her a weak smile then carefully picked up the three drinks with two hands and took them back to the table.

Sipping her wine, Willow watched as he placed the drinks in front of the appropriate person. The short, older one, who kept looking at his watch, had the wine, while the middle-aged man in the suit took the Zima.

Bloody hell, they looked so familiar!

In unison, the three turned to her again, grinned, and lifted their glasses in toast.

She flashed them a small smile then turned back toward the bar.

She was still wondering why she had the feeling that she knew them when another attack of dizziness and nausea lashed through her body.  She would have fallen off her stool if the man in the suit hadn't taken her by the arm at the last minute.

"You okay, er, Miss?" he asked, helping her to turn back around and lean on the bar.

"Um, yeah...thanks," she said weakly.

He nodded, but he glanced at her half-empty bottle of wine with a look that meant that he didn't believe her.  He set his Palm Pilot on the bar and slid onto the nearest barstool, but he didn't look at her.  He kept his face pointed forward.

Willow blushed.  The man obviously thought she was drunk off her face!  "I'm not drunk, really.  I just seem to be getting these strange dizzy spells lately."

"A half a bottle of wine would do a lot more than make me dizzy," he said, still not looking at her.

She thought it would her as well.  "I know I look kinda small...and young...but I can handle my liquor," she explained, and he nodded, but she didn't think he believed her.  Once again she was struck with a sense of familiarity.  "Um, have we met..."  Another violent bout of dizziness, the worst one yet, stopped her from completing the question.

"Do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?" he asked as if he hadn't heard her speak or noticed her condition.  "It's, uh, for a paper we're doing."

"For our philosophy course," the chubby one said, coming up to take the empty stool next to the bearded man.

"More of a dissertation, really." the blond guy added as he too came to the bar with drink in hand.  He took the seat next to the blond.

Willow closed her eyes, hoping it would ease the dizziness, which it did. "Sure," she said, keeping her eyes shut for the moment.  "Why not."  Maybe it would help take her mind off of her problems.

"If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?"

Willow chuckled but kept her eyes closed.  "A willow tree, of course," she said.

Willow opened her eyes just a little when she heard some murmuring beside her.  The three men were leaning together, apparently entering her answers into a Palm Pilot.  Absent mindedly, she startled fiddling with her cross.

The same voice asked, "If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?"

Willow rolled her eyes, even though they were closed.  "Of course.  Sound waves do not require an ear in order to exist."

"What came first, the chicken or the egg?"

She frowned this time and opened her eyes.  What kind of thesis were they working on, anyway?  "Neither," she replied.

They grinned, seeming to like that answer.  "Most people say both," the blond said.

Willow downed the last of the wine in her glass then refilled it, emptying the bottle.  She kept her eyes forward.  It seemed like she only felt dizzy when she turned her head.  Maybe she had an inner ear infection or something that was messing up her equilibrium.

The men continued to consult each other, play with their Palm Pilot, and ask her odd questions.  She drank and played along with their little game.  It was kinda fun, although she couldn't see any possible benefit to be gained from such questioning.

"Last one," the short man eventually said.  "If there were a way, today, for you to stop the Titanic from sinking back in 1912, would you?"

Willow spun to face them.  Suddenly the word game didn't seem quite so fun.  "What kind of joke are you playing?" she demanded.  "Did Xander put you up to this?"

"No," they said in unison.  "No one put us up to anything.  Just answer the question.

No.  She hated the question, having asked herself the same question and ones like it, hundreds of times before.  If we could go back and change past events, should we, even if it seems to be for the better?

She stared dejectedly in to her glass.  "I don't like the question and I don't feel like playing anymore," she said softly.

"Please," the man with the beard said. "This last question is vital to our work.  Just be honest with yourself and with us."

Willow emptied her wine again, reached for the bottle for another refill before she realized it was empty.  She'd already emptied the entire bottle!

She sighed, then finally said, "No."  A shudder rippled beneath her skin, giving her goose bumps.  "No, I wouldn't," she repeated, and realized she meant it with all her heart.  "Playing with time is too dangerous.  There's no way of knowing the consequences of something like that."

No, time wasn't something to be played around with.  Every change could have catastrophic events in the future.  She'd been lucky that she and Spike hadn't seemed to do more than change a few relationships and fill some wallets, at least as far as she knew.  And yet, she'd always wondered what else had changed...what other lives had they affected without even knowing it?  The very thought made her dizzy again.

"Exactly what's your thesis?" she asked when her head stopped spinning.  But when she turned to the face the three men, they were no longer there.  They must have quietly slipped out while she was lost in her own thoughts.  It was just her and Willy again.

"Need another bottle or would you prefer an actual cask of wine this time," Willy asked, finally looking up from his racing form.

Willow pushed her empty glass away.  "Think I've had enough.  Besides, I don't want to drink you dry."

"Got tons of the stuff.  Spike ordered it.  He said that soon he wouldn't be the only one here drinking the stuff.  Apparently he's got some other hot little number on the side who likes it too."

"Another vampire?"

"Nah, some human chick he's been hanging around with off and on for a while," Willy said off-handedly as he started to wipe down the bar.  "He's going to turn her soon.  Said he's just waiting for the right time."

Willow's hands started to shake, and suddenly the thought of another bottle of wine became very appealing.  "Doesn't sound like this vampire of yours has much to complain about if he already has some other woman ready to spend eternity with him."

Standing across the bar from Willow, he crooked a finger, beckoning her to come closer.  Holding her breath, she leaned in closer and Willy said in a hoarse whisper, "I got the feeling that the new chickadee in his life ain't too keen to be on a strict blood-only diet for the next few hundred years, if you get my drift."

Willow took a deep breath, hoping it would stop the rising bile in her throat.  "You mean, she doesn't want to be a vampire and live forever?" she somehow managed to ask.

Willy barked out a laugh.  "Nah!  Go figure, eh?  Hey, maybe you should talk to her," the bartender suggested.  "Seeing as you've been around a while, maybe you could tell her that not-dying ain't so bad.  My buddy Spike's loaded and I'm sure he'd be very appreciative of your assistance."

His buddy Spike?  Somehow Willow couldn't imagine Spike referring to Willy as his buddy.  Not the Spike she knew anyway.

Maybe she didn't know him as well as she thought she did?

No! Willow screamed silently.  She wasn't going to let Angel's jealous words and the gossiping of a slimy bartender making her doubt her relationship with Spike.

She cleared her throat.  "Not quite the same though, is it?  See, I didn't have to kill people to stay alive or sacrifice my soul."

"Yeah, you're right.  Better not talk to her...you'd make it sound pretty dull.  Not that I care whether this broad gets vamped or not, but Spike's my best customer.  Hate to lose him when I just ordered a new jukebox and a Ms. Pac-Man machine.  Should be here next week, if you're interested."

Willow forced a smile.  "Sounds great...looking forward to it..."  She stood up.  "Thanks for your help with the, er, I.D."

"No problem, kid," he said as she headed for the exit.  "Anyone who can put a bottle of wine away like you do is welcome in my place anytime."

****
End Chapter 21 (archived March 22, 2004)

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