** See full notes in Chapter 1

***  Again, a huge thanks goes out to Lisa for  her betaing skills!  All remaining errors are mine!  (Feel free to point them out if you enjoy doing that sort of thing :-)  )

!
 

It's About Time  ~ Chapter 22 ~
***
 

The chilly night air whistled through the alley, stinging Willow's cheeks like a badly needed slap in the face. The temperature seemed to have dropped twenty degrees while she'd been inside Willy's seedy bar, and now Willow felt ice cold on the inside as well.

As she warily made her way across town via many of the dank and dark side streets of Sunnydale, Willow came to a few conclusions.  The first being that while all the brisk-yet-wary walking gave her lots of time to think and was probably good for her health, not to mention her thighs, she really, really needed to get her driver's license.  The second conclusion was that Willy had to have been mistaken about Spike, because Spike had repeatedly promised to never make her a vampire.  He'd promised!

Besides, there was no telling how many filthy rich, British, blond, leather-wearing vampires named Spike resided in Sunnydale.  Right?

Yeah, right.

Willow tried to ignore all the nagging doubts picking away in her mind.  There was bound to be a reasonable explanation.  Hey, for all she knew, maybe Spike had become some sort of role model for vampires everywhere.  Maybe he had hordes of groupies, who dressed and acted just like him, flocking to Sunnydale.  And it was only a coincidence that what the bartender had said was similar to Angel's warnings.  Right?

Or maybe Angel had put Willy up to the lies?  Yeah, that was it!  Angel somehow knew that she'd end up at Willy's, and he convinced--no, forced! --the sleazy bar owner to repeat the ludicrous story that Angel had obviously made up just to....

To...?  To what?  Win her love?  Unlikely, since all of Angel's warnings only created more tension between them, as if they didn't have enough of that already!

So that was where all of her already ridiculous ideas completely fell apart.  Spike was up to something, and Willow deserved to know the truth.

By the time Willow reached Spike's mansion, she was way beyond polite doorbell ringing.  As she checked her back pocket one last time to make sure she still had her stake, Willow told herself it was only in case one of Spike's followers mistook her for dinner delivery.  After a deep breath, Willow pounded on the impressive arched entry door with her fist.  To her surprise, it flew open easily and with enough force that it whacked a couple of vampires who'd been standing next to it.  One of them was holding a screwdriver, the other what appeared to be a broken hinge.

Not having time to wonder about the door, Willow glared at the amber-eyed vampires who she had caught off guard.  "Where's Spike?" she demanded in her don't-you-even-dare-mess-with-me tone, reinforced by her resolve face.

The vampires took a step back, looked at her, then at each other, then back at her again.  It wasn't difficult to see Spike's point about how hard it is to find quality minions.

Rolling her eyes, Willow moved further into the foyer, almost wishing one of them would make a move to stop her.  Staking a vampire would have felt pretty good at that moment.

"Listen closely," she told the confused vamps.  "If Spike is here, get him.  Now!  And if Spike isn't here, get him.  Now!"  She gave that a moment to sink in, then asked, "Got it?"

They nodded and quickly scattered into the shadows.  She didn't know whether she'd really scared them or even if they were scampering off to follow her instructions.  She didn't care.  The sun would be coming up soon.  If Spike wasn't home now, he would be shortly.

As she strolled through the mansion, Willow's thoughts flashed back to the night so long ago when Spike had kidnapped her and Xander.  He'd brought them here threatening to kill Xander if she didn't cooperate.  After that, it was all candles, chants, blood and corsets.

The mansion appeared in much better shape now.  Spike obviously had invested a tidy sum in its upkeep, if the highly polished floors and cobweb-free crystal chandeliers were anything to go by.

Frowning, Willow wandered into the library and found a crackling fire in the massive marble and stone fireplace.  The walls of the large, high-ceilinged room were lined top to bottom with dark wooden shelves, each one crammed full of books.  Plush, deep chairs filled every corner, and Willow found herself longing to sink into one and make herself comfortable reading one of the nearby books.  She could probably spend a century in this room and still never finish all the books!

The thought sent an icy chill rippling through her body, but she reminded herself how much Spike used to love to read.  Obviously, he still did.  She moved to warm herself in front of the fireplace, but even its dancing flames couldn't seem to stop her trembling.

As she waited, a couple of different vampires popped their heads around the corner then disappeared just as quickly.

"Spike!" she finally called at the top of her longs, tired of waiting.  "If you're here, I need to talk to you!"

A male vampire appeared in the opposite doorway through which she'd entered.  "Spike's not here," he said.

She turned to face the vampire, ready to reach for her stake if need be, but he made no attempt to come closer.

They studied one another.  By the looks of his thick-rimmed glasses and conservative dress, Willow figured this must be the miracle-working undead accountant.  She couldn't help noticing that he didn't exactly seem surprised to see her, either.

"You're Dalton, right?" she asked.

He nodded and took a couple of easy steps closer.  Willow pulled out her stake.  Dalton stopped moving and held up his hands.  She wasn't sure if it was a gesture of surrender or if he were trying to assure her that he meant no harm.  Either way, Willow didn't worry.  She had little doubt she could get rid of Dalton without breaking a sweat.  She didn't want to, but she would if necessary.

"Where's Spike?" she asked.

"Out, but he'll be back soon.  You may wait for him, if you wish, but may I suggest you do so in the garden?  I think it would be less disturbing to the others and safer for you, as well."  Dalton motioned for her to follow, then left the way he came.  Reluctantly she left the library's crackling fire and followed him out to a terraced garden in the back of the house.  Willow took a seat in one of the wrought-iron chairs that surrounded a cinnamon-colored stone tabletop while Dalton lit a variety of candles, torches and braziers around the patio.

"May I get you anything while you wait, Ms. Rosenberg?" he asked when he'd finished.  "Glass of red wine, perhaps?"

"No thanks," she replied with a frown.  Polite vampires made her nervous, even more nervous than ones that knew her name.

Although the secluded garden was nicely sheltered from the late-Autumn wind, as soon as Dalton was gone, Willow moved her chair closer to one of the flaming braziers.  She wasn't exactly cold, at least not on the outside, but the fire's heat was reassuring as she pondered what she had seen so far.

"Red, now this is a surprise."

Willow vaulted to her feet and turned to find Spike and Dalton standing by the French doors that lead back into the mansion.  She'd been so lost in her thoughts--she had no idea for how long--that she hadn't even heard Spike enter the garden.  And was it her over-active imagination or did his smile look strained tonight?

"Now, what fun would it be if I told you I was coming?" she replied, trying to keep her tone playful and light.

Spike nodded to Dalton.  "Bring wine then feel free to sod off."  When his minion was gone, Spike went to Willow and gave her a quick hug before holding her at arm's length. "Not that I'm not happy to see you, pet, but what if Dru were here."

"Is she?"

Spike's jaw clenched and he released her. "I told you Dru's away for the weekend with the girls."  He looked over his shoulder.  "What's keeping that pillock with our wine," he grumbled.

"And how often did you say she does that?" Willow asked, turning back to the fire and pretending to warm her hands.  She was afraid Spike would be able to see the growing doubt in her eyes, so she focused instead on the ever-changing flames.

"Only 'bout once a month, which is why I can't spend as much time with you as I'd like."  With a long pale finger under her chin, Spike gently turned Willow's face toward him.  "Still, this isn't the best place for our little tête-à-têtes, Red.  Don't want the help yammering on about us to Dru now, do we?"

At that point, Dalton scurried back in carrying a tray that held two silver goblets and a bottle of red wine.

"Why not? Are you ashamed of me?" she teased, or at least tried to.  To her own hypersensitive ears, it seemed blaringly obvious that she was trying to hide something.  Luckily, Spike seemed too absorbed in watching Dalton fill their glasses to note any irregularities in her tone or manner.

When the wine was poured, Spike handed her a goblet and winked.  "Just trying to keep you alive, Red.  That's all."

Dalton cleared his throat.  "It's only twenty-two minutes until sunrise.  Would you like me to prepare Ms. Rosenberg's room?"

Willow barely managed not to choke on her wine, but she was sure that her shock at the vampire's words must have been apparent for all to see.  Prepare her room?  She had a room here?  Why would she have a room unless...?

For a moment, she thought she was going to be sick, but she fought the bile that was rising in her throat by gulping the remainder of her wine.  Her eyes stung and her stomach burned, but she could not fall apart now, not if she was going to find out the truth.

Quickly, she schooled her features as best she could and glanced at Spike.  He had turned his back to her and was saying something to Dalton that she couldn't quite hear, but from the pinched look on Dalton's face, it was obvious that Spike was not pleased.  With what sounded like a murmured apology, Dalton bowed and hurried away.  Willow refocused on the fire.

"You'll have to excuse Dalton," Spike said with a chuckle that sounded more than a little forced.  "For an accountant, the bloke doesn't have much common sense.  Don't know what the git's going on about half the time."  Spike downed all his wine, then refilled both goblets.

Willow sat back down by the fire.  "Strange how they all seem to know me," she said offhandedly, as if it were barely worth her time to think about it.  "Your, er, minions, I mean."  She took a sip of her wine, making herself actually taste it this time.  It was another one of her favorites, and yet tonight it tasted bitter.

With a chipped black fingernail, Spike picked at a fleck of cork floating in his wine.  "Told you, pet.  I warned them all not to touch you."

"That's right," she said, almost to herself.  "I'd almost forgotten that."

Spike half-leaned, half-sat on the stone table so that he looked down at her.  "Now, you going to tell me why you're really here?  I can tell something's on your mind, love."

Willow stared down into her goblet and let her fake smile dissolve.  It wasn't difficult.  "You know why I'm here, Spike."

"Do I?"

She nodded weakly.  "I had a disagreement with the others.  No big deal."

"Big enough to bring you here at the crack of dawn," he said in his most gentle voice.  Normally, that tone in Spike's voice made Willow relax.  It was Spike's 'caring' voice, the one that she accused Angel of needing a soul to create.  And for the past decade or so, it was this tone in Spike's voice that had made Willow feel at home no matter where they were.

Tonight, though, she felt lost, hopelessly lost, and she couldn't trust Spike to help her find her way home.

"I'm okay," she lied, offering a feeble smile.

"Then why do those lovely green eyes of yours look as if they'd cried a river, Red?"

Willow quickly wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand.  They were dry now, but had she really been crying?  She couldn't remember.  "I feel so...betrayed by them.  I guess I came here because I didn't want to be alone."

Gently, he tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear, like he had a million times before, although, of course, it had been longer back then.  "You'll never be alone, Willow."

Willow made herself look up from her glass even though she was terrified of what she might see in his face.  Spike's blue, searching eyes held no malice.  In fact, they looked a bit sad and lonely.  He looked as lost as she felt.

"Never?" she asked, still clinging to a thread of hope that somehow everyone else was wrong about Spike.

"Never," he repeated with a sudden quiet ferocity that caused her breath to catch in her chest.  He looked away and took another slow sip of wine.

When Willow's heart resumed its normal rhythm, she tried to tell herself that she was reading too much into everything.  After all, she hadn't had any sleep and had consumed about two bottles of wine, so maybe things weren't as bad as they seemed.

But she had to be sure, which meant she'd have to be more direct.

Willow slipped in to poker mode, picturing herself holding a pitiful hand, maybe a pair of sixes off-suit at best.  Mentally, she slid a pile of chips into the center of the table. It was time to see his bluff with one of her own.

She shook her head and chuckled.  "I'm not so sure Drusilla would like that."

Spike quickly emptied his goblet for the second time.  "Dru'll get used to it, in time.  I take it the Scabby Gang didn't like what they heard?"

"Not at all." Willow sighed, letting her shoulders sag despondently as she stared at the ground.  "They're disgusted with me, actually.  Especially Xander and Buffy.  They told me to get out and not come back.  You get the idea."

"What about Angel?  Surely he wasn't as unreasonable as the rest, considering the git's in love with you."

"He didn't say much after you left.  Went all broody, reminding me very much of Buffy's old Angel."  She shrugged.  "Who knows.  Maybe if I'm not around, history will repeat and they'll find each other again."

His eye's narrowed.  "And what about you, pet?  You plan on beggin Jo-Jo the dog-faced boy to take you back?"

"I do need to talk to Oz, but no, it's too late for us."  Willow took a deep breath and then lowered her voice.  "Besides, to be honest, I kinda associate sex and biting now.  Since Oz is a werewolf, biting would be bad."

Spike leaned forward, and Willow noticed the empty goblet was trembling in his hands.  Nevertheless, the lascivious grin on his face made him look anything but nervous.  "Liked the biting, did ya?"

The blush rising to her cheeks was genuine, but this probably wasn't a good time to remind Spike that he wasn't the only vampire that had left his mark upon her throat or her psyche.  "You know I did, and you don't have to be so cocky about it."

Spike rose, quickly refilled his goblet, drank it dry yet again, and then set down his glass.  He set hers down as well and then studied her for a moment.

"Sounds like there's only one thing to do, then, Red."

Something had changed n Spike's eyes over the past few minutes.  They'd taken on an icy edge.  Like steel.  He no longer looked lost.  He looked calculating.

"What's that, Spike?"

"Come with me, Red!  We'll get the hell out of this damned place, start somewhere new."

Willow felt a spark of hope, but she had to keep pressing him.  "I dunno, Spike.  Besides, I'm such a mess.  You must be sick of picking up the pieces for me by now."

"Remember, I've seen you at your worst, and I've seen you at your best.  While this is far from either...."

"Oh, really?  I won't deny you've seen me at my worst, Spike, but my best?  When was I at my best?"

"When you were naked in my bed."

"No, I think my best was when I was flipping you over my shoulder and stepping over your prone body..." She matched his wicked grin.  Even at such a pivotal time in their relationship, it was all too easy to fall into their normal pattern, full of teasing banter.  "Or perhaps that was your best?"

"No, definitely when you were naked beneath me...although naked on top of me comes in a bloody-close second."

Willow managed a laugh.  "But things were different then.  There was the spell, and no Drusilla.  I can't see her wanting to share you with me, Spike, even if we are just friends."

For the briefest moment, Spike's jaw clenched.  Was it because she'd said 'friend'?

"Dru'll adjust, pet.  Besides, they make king-sized beds for a reason."

Willow rose from her chair and turned away from him, hugging herself to try to ignore the nausea rising deep within. Around them, the birds were beginning to sing, and the sky was lightening, taking on the colors of purple velvet. It was nearly dawn, and she was running out of time. She had to push him further.  She had to be sure.

"First of all, Spike, ewww!" she managed in a light-hearted tone.  "Secondly, we both know Drusilla would kill me first chance she gets."

"Doesn't have to be that way, Willow."  He'd drawn silently closer, his lips near her ear.  "Say the word, Red, and you'll never have to worry about death again."  She shivered as his cool lips grazed her ear, then shuddered as her world began to fall apart.  There was little chance of mistaking his meaning now.

With great effort, Willow turned back around.  He was so near, and it would have been all too easy to lean against him, let him fold her into his arms, taking comfort there like she had for years.

But she didn't, and she wondered if she ever would again.

"No, Spike," she said firmly, looking him straight in the eye and raising the stakes yet again.  "I do not want to be a vampire, and you know that."

He stared down at her, angry and torn.  Indecision was all over his face, and she knew instinctively that if they'd been playing poker, he would have just revealed his 'tell' to her.

Then he chuckled and grinned and stepped back a few paces, but it was all fake.  "I don't think you know what the bloody hell you want, pet."  He turned away to refill her goblet.  When he turned back, he was calm again.  "Let's have more wine."

Willow ignored the offered wine.  She couldn't stop now, even though she was already pretty sure of the outcome. "Spike, what would have happened if you were too late?"

"Too late for what?"

"Too late to save me from all those vamps in the park a couple of months ago.  What if I'd been mortally wounded and dying when you found me?"

Spike concentrated on his wine but managed a rough chuckle.  "Bloody hell.  What's got you feeling all morbid tonight?  Cheer up and have another spot of wine."

Willow took a step closer to the vampire, and he tensed.  "What would you have done if I were at death's door, Spike."

"Simple," he growled.  "I'd have nailed the bloody door shut."

"How?"

"Doesn't matter, pet.  Didn't happen, did it?  And it won't happen."

She raised the stakes higher still.  "Come on, Spike.  Play along.  What if ?"

"You've been taking care of yourself for a century, Red, and it seems to me you're finally getting the hang of it.  With the rest of the Scabby Gang hanging about, I'm sure you would have been right as rain."

"Would you have let me die?"

Spike remained silent for a time, then turned to look her straight in the eye.  He took out a cigarette and lit it, all without breaking eye contact with her.  He took a long drag.  "Shouldn't you be running along home now?" he finally asked with smirk.

"Not until I get an answer."

"Don't ask, Willow!"

"It's too late. I already did."

Spike actually backed away a few paces, running one hand through his hair in obvious frustration.  He whirled around to face the wall.  "Haven't you learned anything, Red?  Don't ask questions if you're not willing to hear the answers!"

"I already know the answer, Spike.  I just want to hear you say it."

He spun back around, flicked his cigarette away and stalked up to Willow until she was forced to take a step back.   "Bloody hell, woman!  Do you really expect me to just let you go when I can give you life?" he demanded in a near growl.

"But you promised!"

"You and I belong together, Red.  Don't you bloody-well see that yet?  You don't belong with them, you belong with me!"

"Belong?" she spat.  The word smacked of ownership.

"Oh, don't look so bloody shocked, Red.  It's fate.  Says so right here," he said, holding out his palm.  He pointed to some of the creases on his hand.  "That old gypsy bird told me that the three of us would be together forever."

Willow swallowed hard.  "Three?"

"You, me and Dru, of course."

Willow couldn't speak, she could barely breath.  Spike pointed to her hand.  "It says so right there, Willow."

Willow looked at her palm, with its three main intertwining lines, then looked at Spike's.  His palm also had a trio of crisscrossing lines, but they were different.  Tekla's words from so long ago echoed in her ears:

   "There is a joining of three lines. They come from different  directions and meet.  The lines cross back and forth, sometimes appearing  as one, other times as three separate lines.  It goes back into your past  and forward into your future. There are times when the lines separate, but  always they are close by."

Suddenly, Willow was very frightened.  She tried to pull her hand away, but Spike's hold on her tightened and he drew her to him.  Willow shrank back, but her anger was starting to overrule her fear.

"Bloody hell, Willow," he said, almost laughing as he released her.  "I'm not going to kill you--"

"Not now you mean!" she shouted, interrupting.

His eyes flashed amber.  "Bloody, bloody, bloody hell!" he bellowed in frustration.  "I have never seen a woman so stubborn and so bloody stupid that she'd give up the chance to stay looking young and beautiful forever.  I'm offering you eternal life, Willow!"

"You're not offering me anything, Spike!  An offer implies a choice, but you're not giving me a choice, are you?  You never planned on giving me one.  All this time you've been pretending.  Lying!  You never intended to leave town or to let me lead a normal life."

"I was, Red.  I was going to leave, come back in a decade or so, but..."

"But?"

"After what happened when you were idiotic enough to go patrolling with the Scabby Gang....  You're so damn fragile, Red, and you're living on a bloody hellmouth!  I can't take the chance that anything'll happen to you when I'm not here.  So yeah, I admit it.  I'll not let you die...not on my bloody watch...not ever!"

"I won't let you turn me, Spike."

"Really?  And what are you going to do about it, Willow?  You're human now.  I'm a vampire.  I'm stronger, faster.  And too right you don't have a bloody choice in this, pet.   But it doesn't matter.  Either way, when you wake up, powerful, immortal, you'll thank me."

Willow wasn't quite sure how it got there, didn't remember slipping it out of her back pocket, but somehow she gripped a stake in her hand.  She felt sick, and for a moment, Spike looked hurt.

But only for a moment.  "Could you really kill me, Red?" he asked with a lazy drawl.  "Drive a stake through my heart after all this time?"

Willow straightened her spine, squared her shoulders and jutted out her chin.  "I thought I'd killed Angelus once to save my life.  I can do the same to you.  Besides, you want to kill me, so what's the difference?"

"The difference is, I'd make you eternal.  You'd make me a ruddy pile of ashes."

"Quit kidding yourself.  You'd be murdering me and letting a demon takeover!  And what do you think I'll be like as a vampire, Spike?  You think I'll be the same old Willow but with a craving for blood instead of chocolate?  You think I'll still want to strum the guitar and play poker?  You have no way of really knowing what I'll be like when I'm vamped, do you?  Because there's no set pattern for the blending of the human personality and the demon, is there?"

Spike looked as if he were about to explode.  Every vein on his forehead and neck swelled in response to his anger and frustration.  "You don't get it, pet.  I don't care what the bloody hell you turn out like, as long as you're with me!"

Willow recoiled.  Spike's words had hit her like a flying drop-kick to the heart, hurting her more than any other blow he'd ever dealt her.  He'd done it again...somehow he managed to hurt her more than she'd ever thought possible.  He didn't care about her, not really.  Spike just didn't want to be alone.  Anyone that looked or sounded like her would do, no matter what was--or more importantly wasn't--on the inside.

Trembling from head to toe, Willow took an unsteady step back.

Spike seemed confused, and then his eyes widened, apparently just realizing what he'd said.  "Oh, don't look at me like that, Red.  You know that's not what I meant."

She took another step back.  "Yes, you did, Spike.  That's exactly what you meant.  You don't care about me.  You're just afraid to be alone.  You're afraid that things may not work out with Drusilla, so you want me around for back up."

Spike smiled, all boyish charm and innuendo, and reached out his hand, palm up.  "This is ridiculous, Red.  You don't believe that bloody load of tripe, do you?"

She took another slow step back, away from the vampire until she could feel the first rays of the morning sun warming the air behind her.  "I'm not sure what to think anymore."

Spike edged carefully closer, his eyes holding hers.  "Willow, you know that you and Dru are the only things I have--"

"I am not a thing, Spike," Willow interrupted.  Her hands were clenched at her sides.  One more sliding step back...so close now.  "And you don't have me."

Spike threw back his head and growled at the sky. When his eyes found hers again, all she could see was desperation.  "That's not what I meant, Willow," he said, softening his tone as he took another step closer.  "You're mucking up my words. What I was trying to bloody say is that you and Dru are the most important people in my life."

"No, Spike.  You're the most important person in your life."
 
And then she stepped back one last time and was enveloped by the sunshine.  Spike moved to follow but then stopped at the edge of the sunlight that separated them.  Darkness and light.  Life and death.  Black and white.

Maybe Buffy was right after all.

"Red?  Willow?  Please, come back inside so we can chat about this.  It's just a bloody misunderstanding, that's all."

Willow schooled her breathing, but she didn't try to quench her anger.  At the moment, anger was the only thing keeping her standing.  "One of us needs to leave Sunnydale, Spike.  Who's it going to be?  You or me?"

"Damn it, Red!  Quit being so bloody melodramatic and get in here so we can talk."

"No more talking, Spike.  All I want to know is which one of us is leaving town tomorrow."

Spike began to pace back and forth along the edge of the shadow on the ground, which was moving ever so slowly up the patio, and with each passing moment shrinking the amount of shade that was protecting Spike, dragging him back to the safety of the mansion.  "You don't need to do this, Red.  You can trust me."

Willow laughed sharply.  "Oh, please!  I'd sooner trust Angelus.  At least he was honest about his plans for me."

She had barely spoken his sire's name when Spike lunged for her, letting his duster protect him from the soft morning light.  Grabbing her wrist, he jerked Willow into the shade, swinging her around so that her back hit the stone wall, knocking the breath out of her.  He released her wrist to hold her by her upper arms.  "Don't you ever, ever compare me to Angelus again, pet!" he growled, his eyes glowing amber.

Willow gasped for air, the pain bringing tears to eyes that were wide with fright.  Seeing her distress, Spike composed himself.

"Bloody hell, Willow," he murmured, and suddenly she was in his arms.  "I didn't mean to hurt you.  I just don't want you to leave until we sort this all out, all right?"

Finally able to take a full breath, Willow released it slowly, willing her body to relax against his.  "Okay, Spike," she murmured against his shoulder as he stroked her hair.

"I'm sorry, pet.  So sorry."

"So am I, Spike.  So am I."

Her leg sweep caught Spike completely by surprise.  At the same time she pushed him back easily, pulling her arms up and through his to break their hold.  She was already sprinting for daylight before he'd completely hit the ground.  He grunted at the impact, then lay there, staring up at the small overhang of the roof that was protecting him from becoming ash.

"You got me, Red.  Should have seen that coming."  He pushed himself up on his elbows and spun around until he was slumped back against the mansion wall next to the French doors.  He didn't look directly at where she was standing at the far end of the garden, completely bathed in sunlight and definitely out of his reach this time.

"Are you leaving Sunnydale or not?" she asked.

Spike straightened a bit.  He made his normal big show of looking for his cigarettes, lighting one slowly and enjoying an exaggerated first draw.  Willow had to bite her lip to keep from demanding an answer at that very moment.  Finally, he looked at her, straight in the eye.

"Funny thing, pet, but I'd always meant to get this whole patio covered so I could enjoy a bit more of the day."  He drew his feet closer to his body and away from the creeping edge of daylight.  He took another long, slow drag.  "I like this place, suits me, you know?"

"If you mean cold and empty, you're right."

Spike clucked his tongue.  "No need to get snarky, pet, just because you've got a lot of packing to do."

"You're not leaving then?"

"I think not.  You see I'm a bloody homeowner now, pet.  Have responsibilities, roots.  If you're so bloody insistent that one of us has to go, then you can sod off.  I'm not budging."  Smirking now, he looked up at the small covering overhead again.  "Yep, think I'll see 'bout getting that awning done straight away.  Drusilla would love to have it for spring."  Spike directed his gaze at Willow again, and this time it was ice cold.  When he smirked, there was no boyish charm this time, no teasing.  Her friend Spike was already gone.

"So be it," she said.  Even to her own ears, her voice sounded alien.  There was no trace of emotion, not even anger or pain.  It was flat...empty.

As if by remote control, Willow turned and methodically climbed the moss-covered steps that led up and out of the far side of the garden.

She didn't look back, keeping her steps steady and deliberate until she had crossed the street into the empty lot that backed onto a small park.  When Willow was sure she was no longer in view of the mansion, she fall to her knees, vomiting repeatedly until there was nothing left but the bitter taste of bile in her mouth and the ache of exhaustion.

That's how Buffy found her, kneeling on shaking limbs behind a bush.  Without a word, Buffy helped her to her feet.

Willow's dry eyes searched out Buffy's, which were moist with tears.  There wasn't a shred of 'I told you so' in their hazel depths, only regret and maybe even a little understanding.

"Buffy...I need your help."

The Slayer nodded and slipped her arm around Willow's waist to steady her.  They didn't speak as they made their way back to Willow's house, and while a tear or two managed to slip down Buffy's cheek; Willow's eyes remained dry.

~~~~~~

End Chapter 22 (archived July 28, 2004)

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