It's About Time ~ Chapter 4
 

* Big thanks to Tracy and Lore for their patience and their betaing brilliance.  Thanks for making me look good.  I've changed it quite a bit since their advice, so all mistakes are mine...all mine!

** Dedicated to everyone who has continued to send me their feedback and
support. You know who you are.

< > Indicates thoughts and such.
 

~~
Willow ran into the humid night air, not caring at first where she was headed.  The irony was not lost on the redhead, even in her distressed state.  She'd been here before, maybe not in the same location, but in a similar state of mind and fleeing from the same vampire.  The difference was this time instead of running away from Angelus in fear for her life, she was running away from Angel and a life she knew little about.  And so Willow tore down the empty street until the stabbing stitch in her side caused her to slow her frantic pace and catch her breath.

She was tired, and not just from her mad dash through Sunnydale.  She was tired of running away from things...people...feelings.  She'd thought she was through with that after Spike's odd-but-effective therapy some years ago that had resulted in a chair leg being jammed deep within his chest.  She'd felt so much better after that and had been able for the first time to really enjoy her trip back in time.  Willow couldn't help smiling as she remembered her final years with Spike.  God, they'd had some fun during their more 'brotherly' travels.  Sure, it was a no-sex kind of fun, but looking back on it now, she knew she wouldn't change a thing.

As she thought about Spike and their most recent post-Angelus misadventures, Willow was able to get a good grip on her seesawing emotions.  Now she had to find Spike and make sure he really was okay, because in this matter, she couldn't simply take Jenny's word for it.  Willow needed to see with her own green eyes that he was alive, relatively speaking, and well.  And maybe if she could just talk to him for a little while, then everything would be better.  After all, that's what friends were for.

Resolved to speak with Spike as soon as possible, Willow glanced about, trying to figure out exactly where she was.  When she'd heard the name of the church earlier, it hadn't sounded familiar, but then again, Willow was hardly an authority on the Catholic churches of Sunnydale.  It took a moment but soon Willow realized where she was.

The church wasn't in a bad location, considering its new purpose.  It was convenient to the school, several of the more active cemeteries, and even The Bronze.  From what she could tell, The Church of St. Odilo was nestled smack dab in the middle of Sunnydale's version of the Bermuda Triangle.  Maybe it wasn't the ideal spot for a church, but for a bunch of high school students trying to save a small town from the forces of evil, it was the ideal headquarters.

Feeling a stab of resentment, Willow sighed before taking another deep breath and very slowly releasing it in an effort to cleanse herself of the darker emotion.  She knew she needed to be reasonable and try to look at the situation from a new perspective.  So as she continued her early morning journey to seek out Spike, she made herself picture her calming place and practice her deep breathing until, after a block or so, she was feeling more like herself.

Objectively, Willow had to admit that things really did look somewhat better for the Scooby Gang in this timeline.  Of course, she didn't know everything yet.  There could have been some horrible side effect that she didn't know about, like Twinkies and rootbeer never having been invented.  That would be bad.  Still, it was obvious that, this time around, they had more resources at their immediate disposal than ever before.  After all, they had hundreds of more books, their own computers, and a fully equipped training area for Buffy.  Plus, Angel seemed so much more....

Willow ended that train of thought quickly as a fresh stab of guilt ripped through her.  She forcibly pushed the familiar ill feeling away, deciding to see if she could go a whole hour in this new timeline guilt-free.  She continued her journey while focusing on more positive thoughts.

On the other hand, maybe something wonderful had happened, perhaps even on a global scale.  Maybe she and Spike had unknowingly advanced the cause of science, resulting in the ability for man to travel past the speed of light, or build a space station on the moon, or develop a cure for cancer.  The possibilities were endless.

The more positive thoughts nearly made Willow smile, and there was just a tad bit more spring to her step.  Although she sincerely doubted that anything miraculous had come from their little jaunt through time, she also doubted deep down that anything horrific had resulted from it either.  If they affected anything of historical value, it would have been the origins of poker at the most.  Willow made a mental note to do some quiet research into the history of gambling and see if anything seemed different.  After all, Spike had brought poker to Ireland a good century before it was even supposed to have been invented.

Now, as Willow cautiously made her way through the streets and parks of Sunnydale, she really did smile at the notion of their names being whispered reverently in gambling establishments around the world.  Perhaps even having a specific poker hand named after them!  And wouldn't she have fun explaining that one to Giles, not that she was in any hurry to share the past one-hundred-plus years with the librarian or any of her other friends.  She had too many of her own questions that still needed to be answered before she'd be ready to handle the endless amount of inane queries that Xander alone would probably generate.  For now, Willow was going to do her best to be the same old Willow they'd always known.

The closer she came to the mansion, the more careful Willow became, until she was practically crawling from bush to bush the last fifty yards or so.  Then she was there, standing behind a thick tree and some overgrown bushes in the empty lot across from the mansion.  From her position some 15 feet above the street, atop the sloping parcel of land, she could look down and spy on the front of the dark house.

<Now what?> Willow thought to herself.  She was too smart just to waltz in.  Like Jenny had told Angel earlier, Drusilla could be around.  And while the redhead had no desire whatsoever to see Drusilla, she could only imagine how Drusilla felt about her.  If the vampiress knew even a fraction of what had happened between she and Spike, let alone everything else that had happened while they were in the past, chances were that Willow was probably quite high on the dark-haired beauty's persona nongrata list.

Coming to the conclusion that it would be almost impossible to talk to Spike, Willow sighed.  She wasn't foolish enough to go breezing into the mansion like she had a written invitation.  Now that Drusilla was back in Spike's life, things would be different.  She could only hope that Spike would seek her out, and soon.

Willow shivered, drawing her arms about herself, trying to find some comfort in her own shaking limbs.  Just as her thoughts had taken an even more morose turn, she saw them.  Drusilla and Spike were walking down the street, holding hands, laughing, and whispering into each other's ears like newlyweds.  Willow moved further behind the tree as she watched.

She was conflicted.

On the one hand, she was happy for Spike.  In spite of everything that had happened and the mess that he'd actually created in her life, she wanted him to be happy.  It still tickled her romantic fancy that he'd gone to such lengths just to be with the love of his life again.  Watching them now as they leaned against the stone wall, kissing deeply as their hands wandered each other's bodies, she let loose a soft, girlish sigh.

On the other hand, it didn't quite seem right that he appeared so blissfully happy when her world--no matter how pitiful Spike had always said it was--was falling apart.  Willow sighed again.  This time it was filled with loneliness and longing.  And yet she couldn't make herself stop watching them.

*****

Angel's own pace toward the mansion was less desperate, initially.  In the beginning, he had no intention of stopping Willow, although his gut reaction had been to do whatever necessary to insure that Spike never laid eyes on his Willow again.

Spike.  Not his Spike.  Not the William he sired, trained...not the one with his blood pumping in his veins.  No, not the William that had been his constant companion for decades, but the *other* one.  Willow was running to the vampire that had done nothing but lie to him from the moment the bleached-blonde Englishman had insinuated himself into Angel's life.  She wasn't safe with Spike, no matter what kind of relationship she thought they had.  If Spike could have fooled him, using him as a means to an end, Spike could undoubtedly play Willow in the same way.  And now that it was over, now that the self-centered vampire no longer had a use for her, she could be in danger.

As Angel's thoughts dwelled on the vampire who'd betrayed him, his long strides quickened until he was running at full speed.  He would not allow his Willow to be hurt again by Spike.

Angel made his way as quickly as he could to the mansion, cutting through the park where he'd run into Willow earlier that night.  On the way, he discovered the vampire that had escaped him then.  Angel made quick work of dispatching the fledgling, before hurrying on his way.

Then he saw her up ahead, partially leaning against and partially hiding behind a large, twisted old tree.  She was staring down the weedy bank at the Crawford Mansion.  Angel stopped where he was, wanting to observe her for a moment in hopes that he could understand what was going on in her head as she stood looking down at the house.  Unfortunately, he couldn't be a silent witness for long.  After only a moment, Willow stiffened, becoming aware of his presence.

She'd hoped that he wouldn't follow her, but she also knew that he would.  He always had before.  But knowing it didn't help the tired redhead prepare.  Willow wasn't ready for an all-out confrontation with Angel.  She knew she was still teetering delicately between guilt, anger, resentment, and relief, and that it wouldn't take much for her to fall completely towards her darker emotions.  <After all,> she reminded herself, recalling Yoda's warning to his apprentice.  <The darker side was quicker, easier...more seductive.>

"You said you'd leave me alone," Willow reminded him in a gruff voice barely loud enough to be heard over the rustling leaves.

"And you said you were going home to sleep in your own bed," he countered, drawing a shrug from the redhead.

"I lied."

"I know.  It wasn't one of your better bluffs, Willow."

Even the poker reference couldn't make Willow look away from the couple below her.  She did, however, inwardly groan at the unwelcome memories his words induced.

"I wasn't try to win anything.  I just wanted to get away," she said truthfully, hoping the vampire could take a hint.

Angel somehow managed not to flinch at the remark.  "From me," he stated, already steeling himself for her answer.

"From both of you, actually.  Not to mention your 'oh by the way, forget everything you ever thought you knew about yourself' speeches."

Angel's eyes fluttered shut, but they couldn't keep out the coldness of her words.  He hadn't heard that tone in her voice for so long...not since his pre-curse mistreatment of her in London.  Since he'd arrived in Sunnydale two years earlier, she'd never used that tone with him...never been so cold.  <But this isn't the same Willow,> he reminded himself.

Angel ran a troubled hand down his face, eyes still closed, wishing he knew the right way to behave in a situation like this.  Unfortunately, as far as he knew, there were no self-help books for vampires with souls, fully illustrated and explaining in detail how he should act around the woman that he'd been obsessed with for more years than he could recall.  Even though his obsession had changed since the years he'd been cursed with his soul, blossoming into something quieter, purer, but no less passionate, when he was near this Willow, he found it hard to know how to behave.  Her seemingly flip-flopping emotions didn't help matters any.

He didn't blame her for being angry.  After all, it wasn't long ago that he'd been belittling Jenny for similar reasons.  And maybe he, like Jenny, didn't fully deserve such harsh treatment, but Angel did understand where Willow's bitterness was coming from.  Finding some solace in this, Angel opened his eyes, fixing the back of her head with a determined gaze.  He wished Willow would look at him, even it was only long enough for him to see if that same iciness was echoed on her face.  But she remained with her back to him, fingers digging into the bark of the gnarled tree, gazing down at the old manor.

"I'm sorry, Willow," he told her honestly.  "We weren't prepared for how different everything would be for you.  I know we didn't handle it very well, and maybe it was all too much for you to hear at one time."

"Maybe?" Willow softly snorted.

"Okay, tonight we made Cordelia look like the queen of tact," he said lightly, hoping to bridge the chasm that was rapidly widening between them.  Willow, however, didn't acknowledge his effort or budge from her voyeuristic spot.

Although reluctant to actually see the old mansion, Angel silently moved to stand beside her and peer down at the sight that was keeping her enraptured.  He was surprised to find that it was actually Spike and Drusilla that had the redhead so transfixed, and that she wasn't just staring down at the mansion in some bout of adolescent-like longing.  And as much as he wanted to see her face, try to read her thoughts about Spike and Drusilla by peering into the sea-green depths of her eyes, Angel instead jumped back a few feet.  He had no desire to see Spike or let Spike see him.

"You shouldn't be here, Willow," he hissed.  "It's too dangerous."

"I'm down wind," Willow informed him matter-of-factly.  "And if you'd keep your voice down, they won't even know I'm here."

"They aren't the only two vampires in Sunnydale," he reminded the stubborn redhead, but she wouldn't budge.

"I know.  I managed to sneak by one on my way here.  But he was young...I would hear him coming in plenty of time to make myself scarce."

For the briefest of moments, Angel felt pride at her ability to avoid the fledgling.  That was until he remembered that this wasn't the Willow that he'd been training.  Everything she'd learned was without his aid, and in spite of it.

"You don't have to worry about that vampire anymore, unless you're allergic to dust.  He was the same one from earlier tonight, so I took care of him," Angel assured her, but Willow quickly brought him back to her reality.

She finally turned and looked him straight in the eye, sharp green piercing fathomless brown.

"I wasn't worried," Willow said coolly.  "And I want to be alone, Angel."

"Why?  So you can go see Spike?" Angel bristled at the thought.  "You *can't* do that."

Willow's eyes narrowed at his dictatorial tone, remembering that in some ways, she belonged to the vampire in front of her.  She drew herself up to her full height, threw her shoulders back, and jutted out her chin.  Maybe he felt like he could boss her around just because of some little blood ritual that he and Spike had forced her to participate in decades earlier, but as far as she was now concerned, soul or no soul, she didn't belong to anyone.  Furthermore, the redhead wasn't about to let him tell her how to lead her life.  She wasn't 17 again, no matter how old she looked.  And if he *dared* to pull any of that vampiric 'you are mine and you'll do what I say' crap, she'd be very tempted to slug him and walk away laughing.  She was just in that kind of mood.

"And why not?" she challenged, daring him with everything from her eyes, to the tightness of her lips and her resolute stance to tell her what she could do.

Angel took a lazy step closer, something deep within him responding as she transformed before his eyes into the incredibly obstinate woman that he knew from his dark past.

"Because," he drawled, calmly this time, "it wouldn't be safe for you to go down there now.  Drusilla--"

"I realize that," she interrupted caustically.  <How stupid do you think I am?> she wanted to shout, but restrained herself.  She just couldn't be sure if he was trying to tell her what to do or simply worried about her.

The silence between them grew as Willow's 'leave me alone, I'm a big girl' vibes clashed bitterly with Angel's 'I'm still older than you, young lady, and I know what's best' attitude.  Eventually, Angel relented.  This wasn't the time or the place for this sort of battle, and guessing from Willow's dour look, he doubted if she'd back down anytime soon.

"Willow, I'm just trying to help.  It's the least I can do, if you'll let me."

The unmistakable sincerity in his voice soothed some of Willow's fears.  It didn't seem as if he was telling her what to do or demanding her acquiescence.  He appeared to merely be concerned for her safety and the pain that he'd caused her.  Unfortunately, while it made her feel somewhat better to know that he cared more about her well being than her obedience, it also set off a few new twinges of guilt, because she knew that he *shouldn't* care.  The old Angel wouldn't have.

"I know you mean well," she sighed, much of her anger escaping with that one breath. "But right now the last thing I want is your help, Angel."  Willow looked away from him before she could see his reaction.  "I don't expect you to understand..." she added, once again turning her attention to Spike and Dru.  "I barely understand it myself."

Neither spoke for a while.  Willow continued to watch the two vampires across the street behaving like teenagers, while Angel watched her, watching them.

"This is where you were heading when we ran into each other in the park earlier tonight, wasn't it?" Angel asked abruptly, breaking the peacefulness that had settled about them.  "You were going to see *him*."

Willow nodded, her eyes still glued to the vampiric couple.  "I just needed to make sure he was okay."

Angel crossed his arms as if trying to hold something in, then glided forward just enough to make out the tops of Spike's and Drusilla's heads.  The soulful vampire just didn't get it.  How could Willow forgive Spike for everything he'd put her through?  Why wasn't she, at this very moment, begging the Slayer to stake his selfish ass?

"He looks fine to me," Angel pointed out in an annoyed tone.  "Yet, I have to wonder why he's not out looking for you, concerned about whether or not you're okay."

The moment the words tripped across his lips, Angel wanted to take them back.  They sounded catty and childish, below a man who'd seen the turn of two centuries, but if Willow had noticed his adolescent slip, she didn't let it show.

"Spike knows I can take care of myself.  Besides, looks like he kinda has his hands full at the moment," she added with a wistful smile.

Still bewildered by her behavior, Angel could only grunt in response.  After a short time, they watched as Spike stopped kissing Drusilla long enough to scoop her into his arms and carry her to the front door of the mansion.  For a moment, the blonde vampire stopped in the doorway and turned to glance up over his shoulder in their general direction.  Without stopping to think, Willow darted back behind the cover of the broad tree trunk.  She didn't like the thought of Spike knowing that she'd been spying on him with Drusilla.  When the amorous vampires were gone from view and the door closed behind them, Willow finally turned to leave.

"Where are you going now?" Angel asked, following the redhead as she easily picked her way back through the overgrown weeds and bushes of the undeveloped lot, away from the mansion.

"Home to my own bed...and hopefully a very long shower."

"You shouldn't be alone, Willow.  Come back to my place."

Willow tried not to snort as the phrase '...said the spider to the fly' came to mind.  "I don't think that would be a good idea."

Angel caught up with her as they finally broke through to the sidewalk, a block away from Crawford Street.  "Why not?" he asked.  Angel figured he already knew the answer, but he wanted to hear her say it.

Willow rolled her eyes, not that the vampire beside her could see it.  "I already told you, Angel.  I--I don't belong there."

"But you belong at home all alone?"  Angel chuckled darkly, not because it was funny but because she'd answered precisely as he'd guessed that she would.  Her anger was gone because she'd already let guilt takes its place, something else to which he could easily relate.

When Willow wouldn't stop to talk to him, Angel spun on his heel to walk backwards a few feet in front of her, forcing her to look at him.  "So is this how you're going to punish yourself?  Cut yourself off from all your friends, spend your days alone, wondering what you could have done differently?  Doesn't sound like much of a life, if you ask me."

"Well, I didn't ask you, did I?  Besides, you don't understand..." Willow muttered grimly, pushing past the dark vampire, but he latched on to her tiny hand and tugged her back around to face him.

"Don't I?"

As Willow looked up into his pale face, now almost luminous beneath the light of the half-moon, Willow knew that Angel understood all about guilt.  His sable eyes were warm, almost pleading with her to let him in, share her fears, but she couldn't.  While their guilty consciences may be able to find momentary solace with one another, she doubted that he truly understood where her guilt was rooted.

"Leave me alone, Angelus," she tried to demand, but it came out more as a plea.

Sensing that maybe he'd gotten through to her, the vampire loosened his grip on her petite hand, allowing her to easily free herself.  But before she could completely escape, Angel stepped back in front of her with predatorial ease, momentarily blocking her retreat.

"I prefer *Angel* now," he reminded her firmly, before stepping out of her way with a quick, playful bow.  "And if you insist on going home, then I'm going to make sure you get there in one piece," he added as she marched past him.  "You're distracted.  Distraction tends to get you dead in Sunnydale."

"Nice to know *some* things don't change," Willow muttered as she stalked off in the general direction of her home, Angel at her heels.

As she walked, Willow tried to ignore the fact that the dark vampire was just behind her, but it was impossible.  Even though he made no sound as he followed, she was, as always, super-aware of his presence.  Doubting he'd leave her be no matter what she said, Willow gave up trying to get rid of him for now and focused instead on quickening her already harried pace towards home.

Unfortunately for Willow, walking meant thinking...the kind of thinking that lead to questions, and soon her desire to be alone was overshadowed by her need for answers.  As she entered a tiny park, the redhead's steps slowed.  Angel moved up, understanding her silent permission for him to walk beside her.

"Oz and I aren't together...we're not a couple or even dating, are we?" she finally asked without looking at him, her unwavering steps not revealing how unsettling the question actually was to her.

"No, Willow," he answered, eyes cemented to the path in front of them so that he wouldn't see the hurt he was causing her.  "You aren't."

"Do we even know each other?" she asked in a quivering voice.  "Are we friends?  I mean, we have to be, don't we?  He saved me from the Order of Taraka...he took a bullet and everything.  That's not something you just ignore, even on the hellmouth, you know?"

Angel lightly grasped Willow's elbow to gently bring them both to a halt.  He slowly turned the redhead to face him, relieved that for once she didn't fight him.  It wasn't until she finally tilted her face up to look at him, her eyes glistening brightly with unshed tears in the soft moonlight, that he spoke.

"You and Oz *are* friends, Willow.  You even take a turn watching him in the basement during full moons.  Anytime we've needed his help we could count on him.  But no...you two aren't...romantically involved," Angel informed her as delicately as he knew how.  Willow listened, or at least she allowed her ears to do their job, but the rest of her was resisting.  "The Writings gave us a heads up on the Order of Taraka," Angel continued, "And we were able to put a stop to it before any shootings occurred."

When he was done, she slid back out of his reach, needing to absorb the new information.  Willow toed at the damp grass, morosely tracing abstract patterns in the dew with her slightly soggy Converse high-tops.  She was beginning to rue the day that she'd begun keeping a journal in the first place.

"No shooting is a good thing, but..." Willow mumbled half-heartedly, "But there was more to our relationship than the fact that he saved my life.  I know there was."

"I'm sure there was, Willow," Angel said sincerely.

Willow didn't wipe away the tears as they swelled.  Instead they trailed down the curve of her lower lashes where Angel watched them cling, momentarily defying the laws of gravity, before finally succumbing to its pull.  The salty drops fell at her feet, adding their wetness to the already glistening grass, only to be swept away as her shoe continued its aimless pursuit of modern art.

"I should have known that I couldn't have it all," Willow finally spoke in a dull tone.  "We saved your soul, countless lives, Spike has Drusilla, Ms. Calendar's alive...everyone seems happy, even you, but...."  Willow stopped herself.  It wasn't that she begrudged any of them their happiness, but it just wasn't enough.  She'd put her own life on hold for more than one lifetime with expectations that one day everything would be just as it had before.  Buffy and Angel were supposed to be together now, as were she and Oz.  But especially, Buffy and Angel....

"So I guess this is my punishment...losing Oz," she sniffed.

"Punishment for what, Willow?"

Willow looked him straight in the eye.  "For messing with things that should have been left alone.  For trying to play God."  <And for allowing myself to come between you and Buffy,> she finally admitted to herself.

At any other time, Angel would have found Willow's over-developed sense of guilt--one that she shared with the previous Willow--endearing, but not now.  He knew this wasn't simply a display of your average, everyday teenage guilt.  This was the kind of guilt that could drag her down with it if she didn't try to resist its weighty pull.

"Aren't you being a little hard on yourself, Willow?  After all, you weren't given much of a choice."

A small, albeit wry, smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.  "Now you sound like him."

"Who?"

"Spike," she informed Angel, adding a quick glance over her shoulder in the general direction of the mansion.  "He used to tell me the same thing...that it wasn't my fault and not to take the weight of the world on my shoulders, etc., etc., etc."  Willow refocused on Angel but was oblivious to how his features had stiffened at the mere mention of Spike's name.  "It was easier to agree with him in the end," she went on to explain.  "It made coping with everything that had happened easier, but now...."  Willow trailed off, wrapping her arms about herself, trying unsuccessfully to ward off her growing guilt.  "I'm so sorry, Angel."

Sensing the even darker turn in her mood, the dark vampire tried a different tactic.  "I thought you weren't going to apologize," he teased, his eyebrows lifting roguishly.

"I'm not apologizing for your soul, Angel," Willow stated in no uncertain terms.  "I just regret that I cost you Buffy."

Angel shook his head lightly as the cause of her current guilt became more obvious.  "I'm not in love with Buffy.  I never have been."

"Yes, you have," she continued, defiant.  "You just don't remember it."

"That wasn't me, remember?  Look, Willow, I like Buffy--"

"You *love* Buffy," she persisted.

"I like Buffy.  She's a nice girl."

"She's beautiful."

"Yes--"

"And she's strong!"

"Yes, Willow."

"And she's smart!"

"She's very...resourceful, but--"

"And she's...er...punctual."

The vampire's only response was a raised eyebrow.

Willow chewed on her lip for a moment as she thought.  "Ooh!  She's blonde!" the redhead eventually exclaimed, prying a groan of disbelief from Angel's lips.

"What?"  Angel found it humorous for about 10 seconds to listen as Willow tried to convince him why he should fall for the Slayer, but his good humor was fading fast.  Buffy was a lot of great things, including undoubtedly being the best Slayer that he'd ever come across.  Yet, it was because of what the blonde girl *wasn't* and never could be that Angel was unable to picture himself ever falling in love with Buffy.

She wasn't Willow.

"You like blondes!" Willow urged, interrupting his thoughts as she grasped at straws.  "Um, Darla was a blonde, remember?"

All traces of the Irish vampire's smile vanished at the mention of his sire.  "I remember."

"And you killed her to save Buffy so you must love her," Willow said with a hint of triumph to her voice.

Angel turned away from the redhead as the memories of Darla's death swarmed back.  "It didn't happen that way, Willow."

"Darla isn't dead?"

"She's dead."

"But if you didn't kill her to save Buffy, how did it happen?"

Not liking the turn in the conversation, Angel spun on her, catching the redhead slightly off guard.

"Why are you changing the subject?"

"I didn't," Willow retorted indignantly.  "The subject was you and Buffy and why you belong together, which was then going to lead to where I thought you should go on your first date, her favorite flowers, and the lost art of serenading...."

"Look, Willow," he began impatiently, ignoring her 'resolve face'.  "I'm not dating Buffy and I don't want to!"

"Yes you do, you're just a little behind--"

"Willow..." Angel interrupted with a disgruntled sigh, but he was at a loss for how to continue.  As nice as it was to see a little of the 'old' Willow back with a certain spark in her eyes, he sorely wished they were talking about anything else.  At least he thought he did, until Willow changed to an even more painful subject.

"How did Darla die?"  Willow suddenly asked without thinking.

Shoving his hands into his pants' pockets, Angel took a step back.  In the blink of an eye, he was reliving the moment again, the very second of his sire's death.  Darla hadn't given him a choice...she was going to kill Willow, and so he'd staked her.  He didn't regret his decision, only that he'd had to decide in the first place.

"I killed her myself," Angel finally answered, unable to keep all traces of anguish from his voice.  "My own sire..."

"If you didn't have to stake her to save Buffy, then why, Angel?" Willow asked softly, sensing his regret.  "I think I know you, or at least parts of you, well enough to know that you wouldn't have killed your sire without a good reason."

"Spike didn't seem to need one."  Angel's lips twisted into a bitter smile as his guilt and resentment threatened to get the better of him.

"We aren't talking about Spike," Willow reminded the dark vampire curtly.

"No, we aren't, are we?" he said with a familiarly dark chuckle that set Willow on edge.  "Which is rather strange since he's the reason this all happened in the first place.  In fact, I think if there is one subject that we should be analyzing to death right now, it *is* Spike," Angel insisted even more loudly, "And why you felt such a desperate need to see him in the middle of the night."

Willow found herself stepping away, his flashes of anger making her increasingly uneasy.

"There's nothing to discuss," she rebuked with a slight tremor to her voice.  "My relationship with Spike is none of your--"

"Don't even think of telling me that it's none of my business, Willow," Angel growled, moving in on the retreating girl.  "When I think of everything you've gone through, all because of his deceit...."

"Angel, I--"

"If this is anyone's business, Willow, it's mine," he snapped, too caught up in his own bitterness to notice Willow's increasing alarm as she backed away from him.  "It's *my* life that Spike decided to toy with..." Angel continued angrily, mirroring her steps.  "He told me nothing but lies...forced you to lie to me as well...."

With each word that Angel spat out, Willow continued her shaky retreat.  Even though she didn't doubt that he had his soul, there seemed to be more Angelus than Angel in him at the moment, and she just wasn't ready to revisit that side of him yet.

"...when I think of how much danger you were in...."

As Willow's need to distance herself from Angel escalated, she turned to run but tripped over an exposed tree root and stumbled ungracefully, but relatively unscathed, to the ground.  Angel stopped his rant.  Only now, as Willow lay sprawled on the damp ground, her breath coming in shallow gasps, did he realize what he'd done.

Immediately his anger at Spike was forgotten and he held out a strong, pale hand to help her up.

"I-I'm sorry, Willow," Angel stammered, upset with himself for letting his baser emotions take control at such a delicate time.  "I didn't mean to frighten you.  I'd never hurt you again, Willow."

Willow looked warily from Angel's outstretched hand to his pained face.  The eyes that were narrowed in blazing anger only seconds before were now wide, softened with regret and caressing her heated face apologetically.

Noting her hesitation, Angel tried to make light of the uncomfortable moment.

"You know, if I were still Angelus, I wouldn't even bother to help you up."

Smirking, Willow ignored Angel's outstretched hand, easily getting to her feet on her own.

"Angelus *would* help me up," she countered grimly, brushing herself off.  "But only after he made me plead for his help or admit that the only reason I had fallen down in the first place was so that I could hold his hand."

Angel lowered his eyes and studied the ground with some interest.  He was both impressed and disgusted at Willow's disclosure.  Impressed because she was right, he probably would have helped her up but only after a concession or two; and disgusted with himself because...well, because she was right.

"You think you understood how Angelus--how I--thought?" Angel asked, only slightly lifting his head to peer sidewise at her in a way that reminded Willow of a 10-year-old boy having been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

"Understood?  No," Willow replied with an emphatic shaking of her head.  "I only began to know what to expect from him.  I never said I understood him...you...."  After a pointed look at the vampire, Willow started walking toward home again.  Angel soon caught up.

"I keep forgetting that for you it was only a few hours ago that I was chasing you through the woods in Romania with less than noble intentions in mind.  I guess I should be thankful that you haven't staked me on the spot or run away, screaming."

Willow managed a small smile, momentarily easing some of Angel's remorse at how he'd unintentionally terrified her only moments before.

"Well, as far as the staking goes...been there, done that," she said lightly, remembering how she'd staked Spike, thinking he were Angelus.  At the same moment, Angel was recalling how he'd goaded Rose into attempting to stake him while on their carriage ride to London.  "But running away screaming isn't quite my style," she went on to tell him, neither realizing the turn the other's thoughts had taken.  "I tend to either run away quietly or just sit on the floor and cry.  It's my style, and I think I'm quite good at it.  After all, practice makes perfect."

Angel felt her glib words like icy knives slicing through his soul, again the difference between the Willow of the previous two years and this one becoming painfully obvious.  He couldn't recall the other one ever speaking of her own feelings in such a detached manner.  It worried him.  He feared that he'd done some irreparable damage to the redhead, the kind that left no visible scars but rarely healed.

Becoming overwhelmed by his thoughts and desperate to begin mending the impossible situation, Angel stopped.  After a couple more steps, Willow became aware that he was no longer at her side and came to a halt as well.  She turned back to find the vampire regarding her with deep concern.  She could see worry and regret etched on every line of his face, more so than ever before, and for one moment, all she wanted to do was take his pain away.

She took a step toward him and he toward her at the same time.

"I'm not that Angelus anymore, Willow," Angel said in a low, pleading whisper, bringing a lump to Willow's throat.

Seeing no fear in her eyes, only confusion, Angel tentatively reached out to gently brush the back of his hand across the swell of her cheek, longing to feel her silky skin beneath his fingers once again, but Willow somehow found the strength to shy away from his touch.

"Maybe not," she said delicately, not wanting to add to the pain she could already see clouding his eyes.  "But you're not Angel either."  <And it's all my fault...> she added silently, forcing herself to turn and walk away from him, yet again.

In silence, they continued side-by-side along the quiet Sunnydale streets towards Willow's home.  The same thoughts kept eating away at the vampire--what had Willow meant?  How was he different, other than the fact that he wasn't in love with The Slayer?  At the same time, Willow's musings took a more proactive turn--how was she going to get Angel and Buffy together...make things right again?  They were both so caught up in their own deliberations, neither noticed the large vehicle pass on the other side of the road, make a U-turn, and then pull up right along side them.

"Hey," the driver called out to the oblivious pair.

Willow's head jerked up at the familiar voice.  Oz was leaning over the passenger seat of his van and looking out the open window at them.  Her mouth opened but she couldn't seem to speak.

"You two okay?" Oz asked.  "Unless a lot has changed in Sunnydale while I was gone, I expect the sun to come up in about 30 minutes.  I'm thinkin' in the East," he added, straight-faced.

"Hey Oz," Angel responded with a grim twitch of lips that could almost be mistaken for a smile.  "Back from your summer vacation a couple of days early?"

"There's a gig Monday and the guys needed the van, so...."  Oz looked at Willow.  "Hey, Willow."

Willow was aware that she probably looked ridiculous as she gawked at him like some teen-aged groupie, unable to speak.  She finally managed to salvage a small amount of her dignity with a weak nod.

"O--Oz...it's good to see you again," she stammered, fully aware of Angel's eyes upon her, taking in every quiver of her lips as she spoke with her former love.

He smiled in return, and it was the same sweet smile that she'd seen many times before.  She tried to smile back, but it was as if her mouth had forgotten how.  By the time Willow thought she could at least manage to lift the corner of one lip, the boy had turned his attention back to Angel.

"Need a lift?"

Angel glanced at the already-lightening horizon.  They didn't have much farther to go to Willow's home, but considering how distracted they both were, it was probably the safest option.  Besides, Willow looked as if she were about to fall apart at any moment.

"Yeah, a ride would be good.  Thanks."

Angel guided the nearly-catatonic Willow to the passenger side and opened the door for her.  When Willow's ability to move of her own accord seemed to escape her, Angel hesitated for only a moment before nudging her toward the seat next to Oz.  When the skittish girl was finally settled, Angel softly closed her door.  He then opened the back door and climbed in.

"You okay, Willow?" Oz asked after they'd driven a block or so without a word being spoken.  He took his eyes off the road long enough to send the redhead a reassuring smile.  "Hope this doesn't come across as too grandmotherly, but you look as if you've lost your best friend.  Was someone hurt?"

Taking a deep breath, she latched on to her years of 'acting' to get her through the painful moment.  "I'm just tired, Oz.  That's all.  It's been a rough night," she said honestly, again trying her best to flash Oz a friendly smile.

"Must be something pretty hairy.  You both look rattled."

"Just the usual demons," Willow managed in an almost normal voice, drawing a nod of understanding from the driver.  She then added under her breath, "both personal and the other kind."

The three rode on in silence and Willow struggled for something to say.  Unfortunately, anything she could possibly say to him sounded too intimate now.  And after years of learning how to play the guitar so she'd have something else in common with the young musician, Willow's musical knowledge completely escaped her.  Wanting to say something, anything, the redhead voiced the first thing that came to mind that seemed even remotely 'friend-like'.

"You're hair is red.  I always liked it best when it was red."

Oz smiled at her again, and Willow's heart skipped a beat.  This was the smile she'd dreamt about and looked forward to for so long.  Oz's smiles had always seemed to Willow to start in his eyes before working their way down to his quirky lips.  The smile was warm and bright and yet, like everything else Oz did, understated.  This soft grin was more reminiscent of those personal smiles that he'd once seemed to reserve just for her.  Unfortunately, instead of making her feel like the most special girl in the world the way it used to, now his grin only reminded her of how alone she truly was.

"Decided to go low maintenance for the summer," Oz replied in a casual tone, unaware of her anguish.  "This way I didn't have to deal with my parents, my roots, and finding somewhere in Tahoe to chain myself up for three nights all at the same time."

"That was, er, good thinking, Oz," she responded softly, her confidence quickly fading.

Oz glanced at her again, but she'd turned away from him to stare out her window, hoping to avoid any more unhappy reminders of her once-simple life.  Aware that he was missing something, Oz glimpsed questioningly at Angel in the rear view mirror, momentarily forgetting that vampires had no reflection.  After checking the road, he shot a quick glance over his shoulder at Angel.  Not surprisingly, the vampire was completely focused on the redhead, looking much more somber than usual.

Oz refocused on the road, taking the final turn.  It wasn't until the van came to a stop that Willow actually noticed where Oz had taken them.

"This is Angel's place," said Willow in mild surprise.

Oz shrugged.  "I figured for you to be walking around Sunnydale at 5 in the morning your parents must be out of town again.  You usually stay at Buffy's or Angel's place then, right?"

"Yeah, of course," Willow huffed, irritated at everyone's eagerness to take care of her.  "I'm far too weak and helpless to stay on my own for a few nights, right?"

"I didn't mean that--"

"I know, Oz," Willow moaned, regretting her outburst already.  "I'm sorry...Like I said, I'm just tired."  With a last long look at her old boyfriend, Willow opened the door, not waiting for Angel to do it for her, and climbed out.  Angel got out through the side door, closing it behind him.

"Thanks, Oz," Angel said through the open window of the passenger door.

"She okay?"

Angel glanced back at the redhead who was now standing in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at the church.

"I honestly don't know.  It's...."

"One of those weird Hellmouth things that you'll explain to me when I need to know, right?"

"Right," the vampire said, relieved.  "Night," he added, then stepped back onto the curb.  Angel watched the van drive out of sight before he followed Willow up the path.  She hadn't moved from her spot and now seemed to be studying the old steeple of the church.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Angel asked, but Willow wasn't in the mood to discuss architecture.  She was finally gathering the courage to ask what had been on her mind since Jenny and Angel had turned her life upside down.

She fixed the vampire with what she hoped was a determined look, void of the self-pity that her moments with Oz had renewed.

"What kind of relationship did you have with the other me, Angel?"

"Relationship?" he repeated with a mischievous grin, as if he'd never heard the word before.  He'd been wondering when she would get around to asking that particular question.

"Angel...please..." Willow implored, her voice quivering with emotion as she followed him up the steps.

"We're just good friends," he replied genuinely, regretting his momentary teasing of the overwrought woman as he opened the door to let her enter.

Willow stopped just inside the door and turned to face the vampire.

"We're *just* good friends?" Willow repeated bitterly.  "Is that what you said?"

"Yes, Willow.  So you can relax."  Angel was pleasantly surprised to detect a note of disappointment in her voice.  Perhaps she'd actually been hoping for more?  But then a jaded laugh escaped her, echoing brightly in the former church vestibule.

"'We're just friends', he says.  'Relax' he says," Willow muttered to herself as she meandered into the main room.

Angel shut the inner doors behind them.

"Willow, what's wrong?"

She spun on him, weariness making tact a nonexistent trait.  "You and I were *never* friends, Angel.  I wasn't lying when I told Angelus that you barely knew I existed.  In fact, I think I can count on my fingers the amount of times you and I actually spoke.  And it was *always* about Buffy or--or the demon of the week."

Angel shook his head, knowing now that it hadn't been disappointment that he'd heard in Willow's voice moments before, but another dose of bitterness instead.

"You must be exaggerating--"

"No, I'm not!  We weren't friends...we weren't *close*...there were no pizza parties or sleepovers at your place, you and Xander were hardly friends...all he did was call you 'Deadboy' and resent you for being with Buffy.  And as for Cordelia or Giles...."  Willow left the sentence unfinished and plopped down in the nearest chair to rest her head in her hands.  "Angel, everything is wrong here, and you don't even realize it...."

Gradually, the vampire knelt on the floor at her feet, but he didn't dare try to physically comfort her, no matter how badly he wanted to.

"Willow, maybe everything is *different*, but that doesn't mean it's wrong," he said in a gentle but firm voice.

Willow look up at him, her hands falling to her lap, fingers beginning to nervously twisting about each other.

"Maybe," she agreed unconvincingly.  "But I have so many questions...so much I don't know yet.  And, well, I don't know if I want to know, you know?" she asked sheepishly.

"I know," Angel smiled.  For a moment, he was looking at the 17-year-old Willow again.

Willow cocked her head at him, shaking it in wry disbelief.  "I'm glad one of us knows."

"You need to rest," Angel told the weary girl as he stood up.  "Everyone will be here around 10:30 this morning, like usual, so you might want to try to get some sleep."

"Everyone?" Willow repeated, also climbing to her feet.

"Buffy, Xander, Cordelia, Giles, Jenny...the usual.  We train, we research...Xander usually brings the donuts...."

"At least that didn't change."

"And if it helps any, he still calls me Deadboy," he added with a wink, his dark eyes sparkling even in the dimmed library lights.

Before Willow's over-taxed brain could decipher the way he was looking at her, Angel walked to a nearby table and picked up a piece of paper.

"Jenny's gone for the evening.  She'll be back in the morning with Giles," he said aloud after reading the note.  "Which means you can have your pick of rooms to sleep in."

Willow's eyebrows knitted together, her eyes darting nervously to the hallway that led to the bedrooms.

"Angel, I don't want to tell them yet.  I'm not ready.  I can't...."

"I understand," Angel said reassuringly.  "And I'll make sure Jenny knows that's how you feel in the morning.  You can tell Buffy and Xander in your own time.  But Giles...he already has questions."

"I know, and I'll answer them as best I can right now.  I remember at times how much he hated not knowing...exactly what was going on," Willow said, stifling a yawn and glancing again toward the bedrooms.

"Just stay," Angel insisted, noting she was still hesitant.  "You've done it before, Willow.  Even have a favorite room...you helped decorate it."

Willow perked up a little.  "Really?"  She was curious as to how she'd decorate a bedroom when it was in an old church currently owned by a vampire.  She doubted even Martha Stewart would quite know how to handle that decorating dilemma.

She followed Angel down the hall where he opened the second door on the left and reached around to flip on the light switch.

"This is your room, Willow," he said, stepping back.

Willow peeked into the room, first noting the two double beds, dresser, desk...the usual bedroom fare.

"My room?"

"Well, this is the one that you always stay in.  Buffy too, and sometimes Cordelia.  I was thinking of getting bunk beds...or finding a bigger church," he added dryly.

"I don't think that'll be necessary," Willow said softly, taking another look around at the décor.

The walls were painted a pale pink, and the beds dressed with matching pillows and comforters in pink and white checks.  The wooden floors supported a pair of braided rugs, also in shades of pink, with a bit of baby blue and yellow thrown in.  Various pastel throw pillows were scattered about as well.  Even the heavy curtains sported delicate little rosebuds.

"It's so...*pink*," Willow finally commented aloud.

Angel nodded, hiding a smile.  "That's why you like it.  You love pink...at least you used to."

Sensing amusement in his voice, Willow glanced up at him only to find it mirrored in his eyes.  If it weren't for the short hair and paler complexion, Willow would have sworn that he was the living Angelus that she'd met in Galway.  That scoundrel of a man had always been smiling and laughing about the oddest little things, too.

"I-I don't think I can sleep in that," she informed him, thrown off guard by her own mental comparison.  "Um, do you have anything less 'Hello Kitty-ish'?  I mean, it's nice, but I think it will give me nightmares."

Now stifling a chuckle, Angel moved on to the next door down the hall.  When he opened it, all Willow could see was a large, comfortable looking-bed draped in rich, jewel-toned satin.

She glanced at Angel, a blush rising to her cheeks.

"Um...do Giles and, er, Ms. Calendar sleep in this room?"

"They have," Angel replied, guiltily enjoying her embarrassment.

"I'll pass then, thanks...I shouldn't...I mean, I wouldn't...that's their room.  They deserve to have some privacy, something just theirs when they are here.  They're both consenting adults, after all."

Without another word, Angel showed Willow the next room down the hall.  It was decorated in neutral colors, and the beds sported plaid comforters in varying hues of taupe, but Willow figured by the Pamela Anderson posters on the walls, that Xander tended to sleep in this particular room.  Willow sighed.  She wasn't ready to sleep in a room where Pamela Anderson's eyes seemed to watch her every move.

"Don't you have anything in red?" she mumbled without thinking.  But at the sound of Angel's rumbling laughter, Willow's cheeks blushed a bright crimson as it occurred to her exactly what she'd said.

Angel knew he shouldn't laugh, that it would only remind her of their sordid past, but he couldn't seem to help himself. After all, Angelus had said those exact same words to her, once upon a time, but in reference to a dress instead.

Embarrassed and growing more indignant by the second, Willow turned a disgruntled face to the vampire.

"Why are you laughing?" she demanded haughtily.  "Shouldn't you be moping about, slouching in the shadows and brooding?"

"You're allowed to laugh, Willow, even in a church," Angel told her, but did try to wipe the smirk off of his face as best he could.

Willow shook her head in exasperation.  He just didn't get it.

"It's not that," she sighed.  "It's just that Angel...the other Angel...well, he...."

Willow groaned, tuning away from the vampire to stare unseeingly at the Baywatch beauty instead.  How was she supposed to tell him to quit being so damn happy?

"He what, Willow?" Angel gently prodded, all traces of laughter gone now as he took a curious step towards her.

She sighed again, more heavily this time, and turned back to face the vampire only to find him closer now...too close.  She had to step away, finding his nearness made it hard for her to concentrate.

"Y--you aren't the Angel I knew, that's all," she managed with only a slight tremor to her voice.

Angel felt like echoing her sigh but he controlled himself.  He also felt like demanding a detailed description of this 'other Angel', but decided it would have to wait until she was rested.

"No, I guess I'm not," the vampire with a soul conceded.  "Although, you said you barely knew me, er, him, so maybe I was more...like me...than you realize," he suggested rather awkwardly.

Willow shook her head adamantly as she leaned wearily back against the hall wall, closing her eyes in hopes that it would help get her thoughts in order.

"You don't understand.  I can barely remember ever seeing him smile, let alone laugh.  I mean, I'm sure Buffy got to see that side of him, but I never did.  I guess you did though, laugh, with her...or he did, anyway..."  Willow groaned yet again.  She was tired of tripping over pronouns.

Angel frowned.  That didn't sound like him at all.  Granted, he was far from happy-go-lucky, but he thought he did a good job of just...well, just being *himself* when he was around the others.  The behavior she was describing didn't make any sense, and he could only surmise that her discomfort with all of the changes in her life was causing her to exaggerate.

"Look, Willow, you can barely keep your eyes open, let alone think straight.  Get some sleep."

Willow relented.  She doubted she'd be able to muster the energy to walk home at that moment anyway, let alone argue with Angel about her decision.

"Okay," she said, prying open her heavy lids and slowly pushing herself away from the wall.  "I'll sleep in the 'pink' room, but only for tonight," she stressed.  "Tomorrow I'm sleeping at my own house, in my own room."

"One fight at a time, Willow," Angel grinned, leading her back to the pink room.  "If you want to take a shower, you have some overnight things you keep in there," he informed her, gesturing down the hall towards the bathrooms.

"Overnight things?" Willow squeaked, as her thoughts took a more questionable path.  <I showered here...naked...in Angel's house...which was once a church.  Oh yeah...I am so going to hell....>

Seeing the shocked look on her face, Angel hastily added.  "All of you do.  Even Giles.  But not at the same time, of course."

"Oh," she said, relieved.  "That's okay then, I guess..."

Unable to resist trying one last time to make her smile, Angel pointed to the dresser on the far wall, saying, "You'll find your pajamas in the top drawer."  Before Willow could react, he added, "They're *pink*."

Willow groaned and threw herself down on the nearest bed.  She screwed her eyes shut, covering them with her hands.  Maybe it was all just a dream.  A long, confusing, and very pink dream.  Opening her fingers just enough to peek through with one eye, she shut them again tightly when all she could see was the rosy wall beside her bed.

With a melancholy smile, Angel offered a soft "Good night, Willow," before closing the door behind him and leaving her alone.

At the same time the door closed, Willow suddenly bolted upright in bed, the heat rising to her face instantaneously.

"Oh God...he's seen me in my pajamas!"
~~~~~~
End Chapter 4

 

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