Willow woke to the sounds of muffled laughter echoing down the hallway. For a few minutes, she simply stayed snuggled beneath the pile of pink bedclothes that smelled faintly of perfumed fabric softener, listening to their happy tones. She could easily pick out everyone's voices. Xander's laughter practically bounded down the hall to her, warm and easy, like a faithful puppy. Cordelia's came next. It was impossible not to hear the brunette's voice. As always, it seemed to be a few decibels louder than the other's, but it was a sound for sore ears, and Willow soon realized she'd actually missed her old grade school nemesis. And of course there was Buffy's voice. It bubbled along, squeezing its way under the door as well, melodious and light in its own way, and today incredibly chipper. Yep, the gang was all there and apparently in quite jaunty moods.
Realizing she couldn't put it off forever and drawing some nerve from her friends' evident happiness, Willow glanced at the alarm clock on the white, wicker bedside table. It was nearly 11 o'clock. She was already late. Reluctantly, the redhead climbed out of the warm bed, grabbed a few toiletries, and--after checking that the coast was clear, no one was in the hallway--sprinted for the bathroom.
Feeling a tad more perky after getting cleaned up, Willow was back in her room. She'd come across some extra clothes of hers and Buffy's in the dresser, which was good news considering the overalls she'd been wearing the night before now had a big grass stain on the seat. As her hand fell across one of her old favorites, a downy-feeling fleece set with drawstring shorts and a lightweight sweatshirt, Willow couldn't wait to get into them. She hadn't worn anything that soft in decades, and the fact that they were a deep wine color as opposed to cutesy pink was a bonus. After another moment's search she also found a pair of socks. The final item was her red sneakers, and while they didn't match the rest of her ensemble, she didn't care.
Willow took one last look at herself in the mirror, pausing to tuck a long section of auburn hair behind each ear. Satisfied that she still looked the same as she had before Spike's forced vacation, Willow finally left the sanctuary of the bedroom.
She practically tiptoed up the hall, hoping to listen to what everyone was talking about first so she could be more prepared. Unfortunately, the sound of Angel's, Giles', and Jenny's slightly raised voices, along with the familiar scent of fresh-brewed coffee coming from the kitchen behind her, made Willow take a deep breath and stroll into the main room. The lesser of two evils.
Buffy was sitting on one of the highly polished round tables in the middle of the room, swinging her legs as she spoke with Xander. He and Cordelia were seated at the table across from Buffy, and a familiar giant-sized box of donuts sat half-empty before them. Both girls were dressed in workout clothes, sweatpants, thin-strapped tanks and bright white sneakers, while Xander was dressed as...well, as Xander. Jeans and a T-shirt, partially covered by a particularly loud Hawaiian-print shirt, unbuttoned. As far as Willow could tell by their attire, everything was business as usual.
Willow remained motionless where she was, just watching her old friends. She'd waited such a very long time for a scene like this that she simply wanted to savor it, commit the image to memory. If she had a camera, she'd be snapping picture after picture. All too soon, however, she was noticed.
"Hey, Willow. Feeling better?" Buffy called out to her in a bright voice.
After deep breath, Willow took a few more steps into the room. She tried to come up with something very Willow-like to say, the one phrase that would prove she was still Willow--not that her friends had cause to doubt--but all she could seem to manage was, "Uh-huh."
"You were kinda freaky last night Wills," Xander added, his warm brown eyes quickly exploring her face. "That must have been some fever you had to make you almost stake Deadboy like that."
"Oh yes, it was high...very, very high..." Willow fibbed, squirming a bit as all eyes in the room focused on her. She needed to sit, but she wasn't sure where the right place would be in this new situation. Did the other Willow usually sit at the table or the computer or in one of the reading chairs?
"Maybe you should see a doctor just in case," Buffy said as she scrutinized the fidgety redhead. "You still look kinda pale."
Realizing she couldn't stand in the middle of the room all day, Willow walked quickly to the wing-backed chair nearest to the group and plopped herself down, opting for comfort.
"No, I'm okay, Buffy. Really. Just one of those 24-hour viruses I bet. I'm fine today. Really. I'm hunky-dory, happy as a clam, fit as a fiddle, and all that other stuff..." she trailed off, then ended with a big, bright, and--what she hoped was a still--Willowy smile.
"Well, you almost sound like yourself again, which is a good thing," the Slayer said with only a hint of skepticism to her voice. She slid off the table to grab the box of donuts away from Xander, who responded with a fake pout. "But when you're sick, it's very important that you have proper nutrition. So, even though you slept late, we saved you the last jelly."
"Oh, thanks, Buffy," Willow beamed, taking the offered donut. "That's so sweet...."
"Jelly does fulfill some sort of food group requirement, doesn't it?" Buffy went on to ask with a playful frown.
"The all important sweet and jiggly portion of the food pyramid, I do believe," Xander added, jumping up to snatch the last two chocolate-frosted donuts out of the now almost-empty box. He handed one to Cordelia with a grin and retook his seat.
"Right...and that's the part that keeps the rest of the pyramid all stuck together..." Buffy concluded with a knowledgeable nod. "Without it, the food pyramid would probably collapse into a...um..." Buffy's baby blues looked at Willow for help.
"Oh...er...um...rhombus?" Willow offered hopefully.
"Exactly," Buffy said, sliding back onto the table. "Which, of course, means the end of civilization as we know it...not enough carbs."
Willow found herself genuinely smiling at her friends' antics. This is what she'd missed--just being with them, talking about nothing and everything all at the same time. While she and Spike had their own odd-but-fun chemistry when they were together, it wasn't like this. She needed this. Fighting back tears of relief at the possibility of having normalcy in her life again, Willow finally took a bite of the sweet breakfast treat. It was delicious. Even better than the pizza she'd had the night before...although that may have had something to do with the dinner topic of conversation as well, she concluded.
Buffy watched the redhead closely, who was now intently munching away at the jelly donut.
"You sure you're okay, Willow?" she asked. "You still seem...well, sort of out of it. Like you're in another world."
At Buffy's innocent words, Willow panicked, dropping the gooey pastry. It fell on the floor, jelly side down, with a sticky thud.
"Oooh...I can't believe I did that. I'm so sorry, Buffy," Willow lamented, stooping down to pick up the ruined donut. "And after you saved it for me and everything. What kind of friend am I?"
Buffy kneeled down and wiped up the jam with a napkin, watching her friend's distraught face the whole time.
"Are you sure you're okay? Because this is hardly the betrayal of the century, Wills." They stood up, and Buffy squeezed her friend's arm reassuringly before relieving the redhead of the squished donut at which she was now mournfully staring. "Don't you think you're taking the death of a pastry pretty hard?"
No matter how silly she knew she was being, Willow was barely able to keep the tears from falling. "I just seem to mess up everything I touch. I'm a one-woman wrecking crew...that's what I am."
"Jeez, Willow. Over-dramatic much?" Cordelia interrupted, lifting her eyes heavenward.
Before anyone could respond, Angel strolled in, sipping a mug of warmed cow's blood. Upon noticing Willow, he stopped before joining the group. After accidentally frightening her the night before, Angel was going to try to be extra careful today, take things even slower.
"You're awake," he said, purposely repeating his greeting from the previous night.
Willow gulped, hard, as she took in his appearance, positive that everyone in the room must have heard her. Apparently, Angel was planning on working out as well. He, too, was wearing blank sweatpants, athletic shoes, and a tank--a tight white tank that clung softly to the hard contours of the vampire's chest, she couldn't help noticing. Tempted to look away and afraid she'd actually blush, Willow had to force herself to meet his chocolate-brown eyes instead.
"I think I'm still going to have to trust you on that one..." she said, her voice firm.
"How did you sleep?" he asked genuinely, taking a couple of very cautious steps toward the redhead.
"Fine," Willow replied stiffly, causing Buffy to glance suspiciously back and forth between the vampire and her friend.
"No nightmares about being attacked by a large anime kitten then?" Angel teased, the beginnings of a half-smile forming on his lips.
Willow returned his grin. She just couldn't seem to help it.
"Not that I remember, but you never know. I've always had peculiar dreams," she joked in return, but the smile quickly faded as details of some of her more colorful dreams about Angelus came to mind.
Angel noticed the rapidly fading sparkle in her eyes and inwardly berated himself for even mentioning nightmares. After everything she'd been through, he was amazed she could sleep at all.
"We all slept great, too, Deadboy...thanks for asking," Xander piped in but was quickly elbowed in the ribs by Cordelia and on the receiving end of Buffy's patented 'look of death'.
"What?" he mouthed soundlessly to the other girls.
A stifling silence blanketed the room, and Willow began to fidget as Angel's appraisal of her continued. When she noticed him casually take in what she was wearing, Willow felt the heat rise to her face.
"I-I think I better get dressed," she stammered, stepping behind Buffy and heading for the hall.
"Um, Willow, you *are* dressed," Buffy pointed out.
She looked down at the shorts and sweatshirt she was wearing but continued to make a beeline for the hallway that would take her back to the pink room, being careful to give Angel a wide berth.
"I suddenly feel very underdressed," she muttered, still feeling Angel's eyes on her bare skin.
Not quite aware of what he'd done this time to scare her away, Angel turned to follow. Jenny, who had witnessed the scene as she came down the hallway, tugged at Angel's arm to stop him.
"Remember," she whispered," Willow's been in Victorian England as well as with the Rom for a very long time...she probably hasn't shown that much leg to a man in decades."
Angel couldn't resist a soft snort. "But the Rom hardly dressed like nuns, Jenny." <And I think I know a thing or two about nuns...>
"Rom women may not have been shy about showing off a little cleavage, but legs were a different matter," she hissed reproachfully. It's going to take some time for her to adjust to *everything*, Angel. *You* need to give her that time...we all do."
Not paying attention to the private interaction between Angel and the computer science teacher, Buffy followed Willow back to the bedroom, shutting the door behind them.
"Okay, Wills," Buffy said firmly, taking a seat cross-legged on the bed across from her. "What's up? And I want to hear the truth this time."
Willow sat on the edge of the bed, glancing at her defiant blonde friend through lowered lashes. She wanted to tell Buffy the truth, just let the whole extraordinary story gush out in one cathartic outpouring of emotion, but Willow just couldn't make herself do it. Her mouth opened, and just like when she'd tried to talk to Oz, nothing came out. Not even a nonsensical babble. It wasn't only the guilt about her sordid relationship with Angelus that was stopping the redhead from revealing her altered past. That would almost be the easy part. She simply wasn't ready for all the questions, not from her friends. She didn't mind it from Giles...that was his job, after all. Asking questions was like breathing to the librarian--both necessary and involuntary. But Buffy and Xander? They were different. They were her friends...her anchor...her touchstone. Nevertheless, if she told them everything, first there would be the concern for her safety, then the questions, and then--saving the worst for last--the uncomfortable moments. She knew they would come--the odd looks when the teenagers thought she didn't notice, whispering behind her back as they tried to decide if she was still the Willow that they'd called their friend. Willow didn't think she could bear that, not now. What she needed was stability in her life until she had enough time to come to terms with everything, not to mention make a few changes while she was at it. One day they would all know, Willow would tell them everything--well, almost everything--but not now.
Resolute in her decision to keep the secret, at least for the time being, Willow could only shrug at her friend's concern and then continue the web of lies. "Thanks for worrying, Buffy. I'm okay...just a little out of it still."
"You sure that's it?"
"Yes, why wouldn't it be?"
"Well, you and Angel...you look *uncomfortable* around each other. Something happen?"
"Happen?" Willow gulped, feeling every inch the 17-year-old virgin.
"You know..." Buffy said knowingly, raising a perfectly groomed eyebrow. "Smoochies?"
"Smoochies?" Willow paled, jumping off the bed as if it were full of snakes. "No! No smoochies! There was no kissing last night...nope, none at all. Because what sort of friend would that make me?" she asked, now pacing between the two beds.
"Willow..." Buffy sing-songed, watching curiously as the redhead muttered to herself, "Did you drink a lot of coffee last night? You're in superbabble mode and making some sense that is not."
"I am?" Willow stopped her pacing, turning an embarrassed face to her friend. "Oh, yeah...sorry, Buffy." Willow flopped back down on the bed, wishing she could pull herself together. She wasn't sure she'd behaved this immaturely even when she was this immature. Willow took a deep breath, gathering herself, before sitting back up. "I'll be fine, Buffy. I probably just need to eat something more than half a jelly donut."
Buffy fixed her friend with a slightly disappointed look. "So nothing happened last night after you fainted?"
Sensing that The Slayer wasn't going to drop the subject, Willow slipped on her poker face. Instantaneously, her facial muscles relaxed--the tightness in her lips, the wrinkles of consternation on her forehead, even the 'deer caught in the headlights' look faded, leaving behind a much more relaxed and casual-looking Willow. Just wearing the familiar mask made Willow feel somewhat better--it was familiar to her, having gotten the cardsharp through some rather sticky moments in her long past.
"No, not really," she responded in a much calmer manner. "They just brought me back here, the three of us talked a little, I ate some pizza...I think they just didn't want me to be alone."
"Huh," Buffy commented, a little deflated. Then the blonde's face broke into a sly grin. "But if you could have seen Angel's face last night when you passed out. He was in full-on worry mode. Oh, and when Xander rushed to help you, Angel *growled* at him! I'm sure of it! And the way he picked you up and cradled you in his arms..." Buffy said dreamily, "It was so romantic." Buffy sighed, and Willow began guiltily gnawing on her bottom lip in earnest.
<This is *so* not good. How could I do this to Buffy?> Feeling the guilt threatening to mount again and dissolve her poker face, Willow made a vow to herself. She'd fix it. She didn't know how, but somehow she'd right every wrong that she'd caused.
"Oh, well. Sorry, Wills," she said, giving Willow's knee a couple of gentle pats. "Guess you had to be there...or, um, at least be awake...to appreciate it."
"I guess so," Willow smiled, bringing Buffy to her feet. "But I'm sure you were mistaken. Angel and I are...just friends...*good* friends," she stressed, the words sticking in her throat as she repeated Angel's description of their relationship from the night before.
"I guess I could have imagined the whole thing," Buffy said with a feminine shrug. "After all, I have seen 'Titanic' three times in the past two weeks...that's bound to warp me a little, isn't it?" Not waiting for Willow to respond, Buffy headed for the door. "Now come on out and join the researching fun, Willow. There's a donut out there with your name on it. Of course, since it landed on the floor it probably also has other things on it that I'd rather not think about..." Buffy wrinkled her nose. "We'll get you a new donut."
Grinning from ear-to-ear at her friend's familiar exuberance for the simple things, Willow followed Buffy back into the main room, trying to forget what she was wearing. After all, it was summer. Summer in California required shorts. If she could get accustomed to wearing a corset and multi-layers of clothing in the middle of a European summer, she could readjust to shorts.
Everyone was now gathered in the main room, including Giles and Jenny, who were pouring over Jenny's copy of The Writings. Xander had an old book opened before him as well, but Willow could have sworn it was upside down. <Good old Xander> Willow thought. Out of the corner of her eye, Willow noticed Angel, sitting on the edge of the large mahogany desk, arms crossed over his chest and watching her closely. Yet again, she couldn't bring herself to look directly at him. She told herself that in order to successfully get Buffy and Angel together, she'd have to distance herself from the dark vampire. The thought didn't give her the warm fuzzies she'd expected it to.
Seeing her, Giles set his coffee cup down and met Willow half way.
"Willow...are you all right?" he asked solemnly.
Willow smiled up at that man that had been like a second father to her. Seeing him now, in all his librarian glory, Willow realized just how much she'd missed him.
"I'm fine, Gi--"
Before she could finish, Giles had pulled her into a fierce hug. Willow returned his embrace, until she became aware of the odd looks they were receiving from Buffy, Xander and Cordelia. Sensing his faux pas, Giles quickly ended the hug.
"I'm just glad you're feeling better, Willow. You...you had us all quite worried last night," he stammered before taking off his glasses to clean the lenses.
"Okay, that's it. What's going on?" Buffy demanded, looking from Giles, to Willow, to Angel and back again.
Giles slipped his glasses back on, and Willow immediately began to nonchalantly study the tops of her shoes, while Angel just met Buffy's stare, blank-faced.
"Whatever do you mean, Buffy?" Giles asked awkwardly.
"She means the Giles' bear hug," Xander added, getting to his feet. "Something is most definitely up, because the only time you've ever hugged one of us was after we narrowly averted death."
"Th-that's not true!" Giles defended himself. "Why, just last week I remember giving you quite a hearty embrace, Xander Harris."
"That's only because some hulk of a vampire threw me across the room and into you," Xander pointed out. "By the way, did I ever thank you for coming between me and what appeared to be a very hard wall?"
"No, as a matter of fact, you didn't."
"Well then...thanks, G-man."
Giles' smile was awkward but genuine. "You're quite welcome."
"But Xander's right," Buffy chimed in, ruining the moment. "You aren't telling us something about Willow. And we aren't doing a speck of research or lifting a stake until we know what it is!"
Willow felt butterflies take flight in her stomach, although they felt more like a small heard of stampeding buffalo. Knowing that no amount of staring at her shoes was going to help, Willow abandoned her poker face. She shot Giles and Jenny pleading looks, willing them with her eyes to keep her secret a little longer.
"It's true," Jenny said, after gifting Willow with a supportive smile. The raven-haired teacher rose from her seat. "There's more to Willow's recent illness than we let on."
"No, Ms. Calendar...please...." Willow said softly, drawing serious looks of concern now from all of the teenagers in the room, but Jenny continued.
"Willow was much sicker than we told you. You see, Willow and I were trying out a new and very powerful protection spell the other night, and it backfired on her."
"My god, Willow. Are you okay?" Buffy demanded, turning to inspect her friend from top to bottom for any obvious injuries.
"I-I'm fine, Buffy. Really..." Willow said, thankful for the lie, but also a little embarrassed as all those who didn't know the truth seemed to be scanning her for signs of damage.
"Naturally, we didn't want to worry you until we knew exactly what there was to worry about," Giles added in a rush, continuing Jenny's lie. "But it appears now that Willow is going to be fine. She, um, asked us not to tell you because...well, frankly, her spells do have a tendency to go awry, and she was understandably embarrassed."
"Oh, that explains why you were so angry with Ms. Calendar this morning," Cordelia concluded aloud. "Because she and Willow could have been seriously hurt."
Buffy grinned. "Old people in love. It's so cute."
"I--I have no idea what you girls are going on about, Giles stammered. "Ms. Calendar and I are not fighting."
"Oh, and that's why you yanked your arm away when she tried to touch it a few minutes ago?" Cordy asked in disbelief.
"And why you two have been cooped up in the kitchen, discussing something you didn't want us kiddies to hear about?" Xander teased good-naturedly. "You know what they say...it could scar us little ones for life to hear the adult influences in our lives arguing like that."
"Exactly. If you two don't kiss and make up," Buffy chimed in, drawing blushes of embarrassment from both Jenny and Giles, "Xander and I may never be able to have a long-lasting and meaningful relationship...oh, um, with other people, that is," she hastened to add.
"That's right," Xander said, then he lowered his voice a bit and looked around as if he were about to pass on a mysterious bit of information. "Oh, but do you think you could do the kiss and make up part elsewhere? Frankly, old people kissing still tends to give me the wiggins."
"That's quite enough on that particular subject, thank you very much," Giles announced, glaring at them all.
"So Willow's going to be fine then? No sprouting horns, invisibility, or new odd twitches?" Cordelia asked.
"Willow should be fine," the dark-haired Gypsy replied. "But she did absorb quite a bit of energy, so she may be a little...*off* for a while."
"Off how?" Xander asked after rising from his seat to look more closely at his childhood friend.
"I-I just feel like my brain is all full of cotton or something," Willow said, off the cuff. "Things are just a little hazy, that's all."
"Well, that explains it," Xander said in a relieved tone. "Wills, on a weirdness scale of 1 to 10, last night you were Bo Derek." Willow nodded a little sheepishly. "Seriously, though, you should have told us the truth. We wouldn't have given you a hard time about botching another spell."
"*Yes* we would have," Cordelia countered, drawing glares from everyone. "What? She needs to be more careful or one of these days she's going to mess up something that can't be fixed!"
"Cordelia..." Buffy started angrily, turning on the cheerleader, but Willow stopped her.
"No, Cordelia's right. Magick is not something to toy with. Horrible things can happen...horrible, confusing things that...that can change lives forever, tear friends and lovers apart, and make people behave in ways that they regret...." Willow stopped herself as she was once again getting some odd looks. "Oh, but um, mostly just your average horrible things."
She shrugged and added a quirky smile, hoping to cover up her revealing babble. Daring for the first time to look at Angel since she'd become the hot topic of conversation, Willow found his sable eyes still watching her, as she knew they would be, his pale face devoid of any telling expression.
"Are we done then?" Cordelia asked, once again grabbing everyone's attention. "I have a cheerleading meeting in a little while. We're planning a bake sale for the first week of school because we are in desperate need of new pom-poms. The only ones we have are two years old, and you have *no* idea how hard it is to raise school spirit with limp pom-poms."
"Yes, well, besides the impending doom created by a lack of school spirit," Giles said rather glibly, "I'm hoping to gather a bit more information on that new demon which was spotted last week, but--"
"Well, now that research girl is back in full health, I guess you won't be needing me," Cordelia said happily, jumping up and grabbing her things. She gave Xander a quick kiss on the cheek and headed for the door. "Oh, do we Bronze tonight?" she stopped to ask, much to Giles' apparent annoyance.
"I don't see why not," Buffy said, glancing at Xander and Willow for confirmation. "It's Saturday night, and it's been all quiet on the supernatural front lately. Besides, I want to celebrate. I got a B+ on my history quiz yesterday! And, even as truly evil as we all know summer school to be, that's a major cause for celebration in my book."
"And we should also celebrate that fact that Willow managed, yet again, not to completely fry her brain," Xander said cheekily, but with such a genuine look of relief on his face that Willow wanted to hug him senseless. Instead, she smiled at her friend as the familiar group dynamic warmed her right down to her soul, even lulling the herds of buffalo to sleep.
"Great. Xander, pick me up at 8," Cordelia instructed before sashaying out the door, ponytail bouncing behind her.
"So, are we all excused then?" Xander asked hopefully.
"Do you think you could make a trip to the magick shop first, Xander?" Jenny asked, handing a list to the dark-haired youth. "We need a few supplies."
Xander grimaced, skimming the odd ingredients written on the paper. "But that place gives me the willies. Every time I go in there, I swear all those jars of eyes are staring at me."
"I know that Willow usually handles these things, but she still seems a bit tired to me. I figured she'd probably like to go home and rest today," Jenny explained, causing Willow to smile in appreciation. "Just have them put it on my account, as usual."
"Okay, since it's for Wills," Xander agreed with a wink. He shoved the list into his pocket, another donut into his mouth, and left.
"So, I guess that means I should get to training already," Buffy said, leaving Willow's side to jog over to Angel. "You ready old man?" she asked the vampire, the familiar phrase setting off a new twinge of guilt in the red-headed time traveler.
Angel smiled at the Slayer's challenge, but his eyes darted to Willow. He could tell Giles was eager to get Willow alone and barrage her with questions, and he felt he should be there to help.
"Maybe you could start without me, Buffy," Angel suggested. "I thought I might be able to lend a hand researching today. I remember reading something--"
"We'll be quite all right, Angel," Giles told him pointedly. "You go help Buffy train."
"If you're sure..." the vampire hedged, looking at the redhead.
"You belong with Buffy," Willow said matter of factly, voicing her inner turmoil.
Shaking his head and wearing a wry smile for Willow's continued stubbornness, Angel followed the Slayer down the hall and into the basement. He could stand to release some pent-up frustration anyway.
When they were alone, Giles motioned for Willow to take a seat at the nearest table before sitting directly across from her. Jenny planted herself at a neighboring table, once again prepared to make notes in her copy of 'The Writings'.
"Willow..." Giles began earnestly. "I must admit I'm at a loss for words right now."
"Trust me, I know how you feel, Giles," she said, trying to set the librarian at ease.
Giles opened his mouth a few times, unsuccessfully attempting to voice a myriad of things all at one time. Shaking his head, he once again took off his glasses. This time he didn't clean them, just gently tapped them on the table in a nervous gesture instead.
"I hope you don't mind, Willow," Jenny intervened, "But I told him pretty much everything you said last night...what we discussed. I thought that it would be easier on you than having to repeat the whole story over again. I also told him everything I know about 'The Writings', how they came to be, and my role as their keeper," Jenny added, casting a hopeful look Giles' way, but the Watcher barely looked at her.
"If it were anyone other you and Ms. Calendar relaying this story to me, Willow, I'm not sure I'd believe it. Time travel has always been thought to be impossible, even in supernatural terms. Mind you, there have been stories here and there, legends mostly, but no actual proof." He took a deep breath, regrouping his thoughts. "As I'm sure you realize, what you appear to have done defies the laws of physics as we know them. Even with an element of magick to it, you can't ignore the fact that it truly should be impossible."
"I do know that, Giles. I've given the topic a bit of thought myself over the decades."
"Well, of course you have, Willow. I didn't mean to imply that you haven't had this same argument with yourself many times, being the intelligent girl...er, *woman*...that you are," Giles sputtered. "But surely, Willow, you see how dangerous it could be. The damage you could have done--"
"*Did* do, Giles. The damage I *did* do. Remember, this is all new to me," she corrected him, gesturing to the room around her. "I'm sure Ms. Calendar told you about some of the small differences already."
"Yes, she did mention a few. This church, for instance. And, well, I'm very sorry to hear about you and Oz."
Willow could only offer a small smile of appreciation for his awkward sympathy.
"But as for Angel and Buffy being in love," Giles continued, "Well, I must say that I'm quite relieved to find that that has changed. Such a pairing can only result in heartache all around, Willow. A relationship between a vampire and a human is impossible at best, but make one of them the Slayer, and well...surely no good can come of it. Even though Angel does have his soul, I just can't see it working out on a long-term basis. I'd imagine that Buffy would have found such a difficult relationship quite distracting, and, to be frank, I'm surprised she managed to survive under such strenuous circumstances."
"She did though, Giles," Willow said, trying to stay calm despite a growing desire to tell the librarian off. "It wasn't always easy for her, but the Buffy in my time was also very strong. Her relationship with Angel was an important part of that...she found strength in it, and in Angel."
"I realize you haven't had a chance to, well, fully reacquaint yourself with the Buffy in this time line, but I assure you she is a remarkably strong young woman, physically and emotionally."
"I'm sure she is, Giles," Willow conceded. "And from what I can tell so far, she seems happy...like the Buffy I knew, but that doesn't mean that she wouldn't be happier with Angel."
Giles' eyes narrowed as he carefully considered her words. "Nevertheless," he said at some length, "considering the life span of even your average human when compared to that of a vampire, I can't see why anyone would put themselves through such obvious torment...let alone a slayer."
"Maybe some people can be satisfied with being happy in the present and not worry about the future?" Willow suggested a bit sadly. Giles' opinion hadn't really changed much from her own timeline. Her old Giles had also struggled with many of the same worries about his charge's relationship with Angel, but this version's familiar doom-and-gloom tone hardly helped to cheer up the redhead. It looked like she couldn't rely on the Watcher's help to reunite the two soulmates.
"Willow, I'm sorry," Giles told the crestfallen girl. "This is hardly what I had intended to talk to you about, at least not for a while. As I'm sure you can imagine, I'm a bit flummoxed by it all." His face brightened, taking on a child-like look of wonder. "To think that you lived in a different time, and that you were, for all intents and purposes, immortal for over a century! Oh, the questions I have, Willow. The questions I have...."
Angel ended up flat on his ass, having been caught in the chest by one of Buffy's flying kicks.
"Ooh, Angel!" Buffy uncharacteristically squeaked in surprise, covering her mouth with her hands. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Buffy." Angel quickly got back onto his feet, embarrassed that he'd been taken down so easily. "That was a good kick...very well timed." Angel looked down at his bare chest and thought he could make out the faint imprint of a very dainty Nike.
"It was just a lucky kick, Angel," Buffy stated, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet to keep her muscles warmed up. "You were distracted and you know it."
"Distracted? No, you're just stronger than me, Buffy...as a Slayer should be," he added. He didn't want to feed the Slayer's ego any more at the moment.
Buffy shrugged casually. "What can I say? Schwarzenegger asked me what my secret was, but I lied...told him that I owe it all to Richard Simmons and 'Sweating *with* the Oldies,'" she joked, waiting for the vampire to get his act together.
Angel held up his hands, palms forward, signaling for Buffy to start again.
"You were thinking about Willow, weren't you?" Buffy asked coyly, jabbing at Angel's face with her left, only to be blocked by a strong forearm.
"Willow?" Angel repeated, now playing the coy one. "No, I wasn't thinking about Willow," he lied, ducking a left cross to his chin this time. His mind had wandered, quite a bit, in fact, but he wasn't going to admit it to Willow's best friend...especially since Buffy truly had no idea what had been going on in her friend's life recently...and *not* so recently.
"Why not? She's cute, don't you think?" Another left, this time to his gut, again blocked.
Angel smirked. The conversation sounded oddly familiar.
"Yes, Buffy," he said, trying not to laugh as he aimed his own left at Buffy's jaw, which she sidestepped. "Willow is cute."
"And smart!" Left foot to the face, ducked.
"Goes without saying," Angel panted, dodging another kick to his face, then thrusting his right fist at her stomach, only to be blocked again.
"And I saw the way...you held her...last night," the Slayer commented between a series of turning kicks, none of which made significant contact with her sparring partner.
Angel lifted an eyebrow but made no comment, too busy concentrating on Buffy's offensive moves. And when Buffy executed another flying kick, her leg sailing towards Angel's stomach, he deftly jumped aside, latching on to her ankle as he went. Buffy became off balance and fell hard on her side.
"Oomph..." she groaned.
"Who was distracted this time, Buffy?" Angel asked, barely able to keep a boasting tone out of his voice.
The Slayer slowly got to her feet, rubbing her throbbing hip, and casting a dark look at the vampire.
"Yeah, yeah...I got the hint, Angel."
"Buffy, you were so busy talking about Willow that you weren't paying attention," Angel lectured, resuming his mentor role. "And when a slayer gets distracted...."
"...a slayer gets dead. I know the drill Angel," she sighed, rolling her eyes at the familiar speech. "You really need a new tagline, Angel. Maybe it worked for the other slayers you ruled with an iron fist, but it's getting old around here..." she kidded the vampire, tossing him a clean towel.
Angel grabbed the towel in midair.
"As you very well know," he began, wiping the moisture from his face and neck, "You are the only slayer that I've ruled, with an iron fist or otherwise, Buffy. I kept a low profile around the other slayers before coming to Sunnydale."
"So you've said before," she commented after a few gulps from her water bottle, "But I've never understood why. You've helped us so much, why didn't you help those that came before me?"
Angel didn't answer right away, instead focusing on an invisible point on the far wall of the basement. There was no way he could be completely honest with Buffy. The soulful vampire sincerely doubted that telling her he'd been too afraid to change the timeline and possibly never get the chance to find Rose was quite the answer The Slayer was looking for. As it was, Giles and the teenagers knew very little about his past. Sure, they knew the important things...that he'd been sired by Darla in Galway, had in turn sired Drusilla and William. They all knew the basics about the Gypsy curse and his life since then, but there was so much more that they didn't know. Even Jenny with assistance from 'The Writings' didn't know everything. Only he and Willow knew the whole truth.
"Angel?" Buffy prodded softly as a familiar faraway look enveloped Angel's face.
"Maybe I wasn't ready or maybe they didn't need me," Angel finally answered, his eyes still staring ahead, unseeing. "Contrary to popular belief, not all Slayers come up against The Master or live on the Hellmouth. Whistler told me you had a hard road ahead of you, and I thought I should help."
"And you did, Angel. Without you and 'The Writings', I wonder if I would have made it through the past two years."
Angel looked at Buffy, *really* looked at her for a long moment. Willow was right in everything she'd said about The Slayer, except perhaps for the punctual part. Buffy was beautiful, cover girl beautiful in fact, incredibly strong and capable, and smart. Maybe not book smart but clever nevertheless. She wouldn't have survived this long, even with all of their assistance, otherwise. Yes, Buffy was all those things that Willow said, and Angel could almost understand how this other version of him could fall in love with her....
Almost. Because even though Buffy was all of those things, she still wasn't Willow.
Sensing Buffy's growing discomfort with his silence, Angel smiled at his pupil. "You would have, Buffy. I have no doubt about that."
"You really think so?" she asked a little wistfully, reminding Angel just how young she really was.
"I *know* so. Well, as long as you kept in mind that 'When a slayer gets distracted--'"
"And on that overdone note," Buffy interrupted, again rolling her eyes playfully at the nagging vampire, "I think I'm going to hit the showers." She wrapped the towel around neck before picking up her duffel and heading for the steps. "Thanks for the workout, Angel. Oh, and we'll talk more about Willow later...when you're less distracted by my kicking your ancient ass," Buffy added with a mischievous grin, then vaulted up the stairs, taking two at a time.
After he was sure that the Slayer was gone, Angel climbed the steps slowly and then crept down the hall, hoping to hear some of the conversation unseen. He couldn't always fully make out Willow's responses, but he'd been right in his assumption about Giles. Willow seemed to be under a constant stream of questions.
"And you say your hair didn't grow that whole time?" Angel heard Giles ask.
"Nope, not an inch. Oh, except for when I cut some of it one night as an experiment, but by the next morning, it had grown back to the same length it had been for years."
There was a pause, and Angel could picture Giles taking notes, occasionally cleaning his glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose.
"And you say you healed rather quickly as well, Willow?"
"Yep. Most bi--injuries--were gone within 24 hours. Although one particularly bad one took a day or two longer. I think it was mainly due to the enormous amount of blood I lost though. Spike figured that if it wasn't for the spell, I would have died."
"Spike bit you, stealing enough blood to kill you?" Giles' voice grew angry as he read between the lines.
"No! Not Spike. It was...another vampire. I'd been attacked in the park. Spike...found me and took care of me after."
Willow's defensive reply on Spike's behalf scurried down the hallway to bite at Angel with razor-sharp fangs of regret. After all, he'd been one who had nearly killed her that night, not some unknown vampire on a binge. And Spike had saved her. From him. And not for the first or last time, either.
Running a tired hand through his slightly damp hair, Angel forced himself to listen further.
"...oh, and I never got sick either," Willow was saying proudly. "Didn't have so much as a head cold the whole time I was gone."
"Did you still have to eat?"
"Yep. I would get really grumpy and tired if I didn't eat, just like usual."
There seemed to be a pause in the conversation, and Angel was just about to make himself known, when Giles' next question riveted the vampire in place.
"Willow, did...did he hurt you?"
There was a pause, and Angel found himself unnecessarily holding his breath. He wanted to hear her answer, hoping that it would reveal if there was even a hope of Willow ever really forgiving him for what he'd done when he was soulless. He soundlessly took a few more steps down the hall until he could just see the three of them in the library.
"Um, to which *he* are you referring?" Willow asked, her bright green eyes falling to study her twiddling fingers, twisting her silver ring now and then.
From where Angel stood, he could see Giles blanch visibly. Obviously, the librarian had been so focused on the fact that Spike was the one that had initiated the kidnapping and the spell, he'd momentarily forgotten about Angelus, The Scourge of Europe. Oddly enough, Angel had naturally assumed that he was the one Giles was referring to, not Spike.
Seeing Giles' distress, Willow grabbed his hand and squeezed it tightly. "Giles, I'm fine. No permanent damage. Not physically anyway. I admit that this is all new to me, but I'm going to be okay."
"Spike and...well and...Angelus didn't, um...." Giles blushed, unable to find the right words on such a delicate subject.
"They didn't take advantage of me, if that's what you're asking. The spell that Spike used required a virgin, and luckily I had to stay that way. Not that Spike would have...I mean, he was a perfect gentleman, for a demon. And Angelus..." Willow paused, not sure how much the mild-mannered librarian *really* knew about Angel before he was cursed with his soul.
From his hiding place, Angel strained to listen even more closely.
"Well...Angelus didn't want to ruin the spell either. Frankly, from what I could tell, taking a woman against her will wasn't his style..." Willow looked anywhere but at Giles. "Killing yes, but not raping. And I doubt that he'd ever need to anyway," she mumbled under her breath. Giles and Angel didn't catch her more personal comments, but Jenny did, her dark eyes widening in wonder.
"I'm glad to hear that, Willow," the librarian said, taking off his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose a few times. "Very relieved, in fact."
Sliding his glasses back on, Giles quickly changed the subject. He began asking more questions about the quirks of time travel, as well as details on Willow's unsuccessful encounters with the Watchers Council. He seemed determined to write a memo to someone about her horrible treatment, but he just didn't quite know how to go about it.
Angel couldn't seem to force himself to make his presence known. He still had a myriad of questions and doubts, and with Willow still reluctant to talk about her true feelings with him, Angel felt this might be the only way he could get any insight into his Willow.
Before long, the conversation turned more serious again.
Giles was on his feet now, pacing in front of the bookshelves. "Perhaps now that all the prophecies in 'The Writings' have come to pass and we are no longer warned against harming Spike--"
"The prophecies actually warned you not to hurt Spike?" Willow interrupted, having already wondered how the previous version of Spike had managed not to get himself staked.
"Oh, yes. There were strict warnings about Spike, AKA William the Bloody, even before he and Drusilla arrived in Sunnydale. Dire consequences would befall us if he were to come to any harm, and so on. We were always rather curious as to why...assuming that he was to be a necessary component in defeating some future evil, despite the fact that he was...is...well, evil. But now...now it's all beginning to make sense."
"Obviously, the warnings in 'The Writings' were just to make sure that our Spike didn't get dusted before your spell with the original Spike was completed," Jenny said, filling in the blanks.
"Of course," Giles said, finally looking at Jenny, although still rather coldly. From his attitude, Willow assumed he was still upset with the teacher for withholding so much vital information from him. Giles continued, "Who knows how that may have affected you and the spell, Willow. I'm quite grateful that we managed to restrain ourselves in this matter."
Willow found herself grinning wickedly. "Your Spike gave you a bit of a hard time, did he? Because believe me when I tell you that our Spike wasn't a cup of tea either. He made Buffy's life quite difficult...until that church fell on him and confined him to a wheelchair for a while..." she continued, her smiling quickly draining away as she thought about Spike's grievous injury.
"Wheelchair?" the librarian asked, his forehead wrinkled in confusion. When Willow nodded, Giles could only shake his head. "Perhaps some time you and I should sit down and discuss Spike's behavior in your timeline so we can compare it to mine. Since you said that Spike--our Spike--was told all about the spell by, well, by *your* Spike, for all we know he was more cautious, knowing what was at stake...so to speak. I'd be fascinated to see if that's true."
"Sure, Giles," Willow said with a little bounce in her seat. "That sounds like fun."
"Well, I don't know how much *fun* it would be, but I'm sure we'd find it quite revealing."
Willow wiped the eager grin off of her face. She couldn't help it. The thought of comparing her Spike with the 'newer and now nonexistent version' was very intriguing.
"Now, as I was saying," the librarian began again in earnest, "We should consider dispatching Spike as soon as possible. And Drusilla as well, of course."
"No!" Willow exclaimed, bolting upright in her seat and casting alarmed looks at both Jenny and Giles. "You can't stake Spike! No!"
"And why not, Willow?" Giles asked, abruptly coming to a stop next to her chair. "He's obviously a danger. And after what he's done...."
Willow laughed at this, which only made Giles' frown deepen. "He's not dangerous, Giles. He's...he's Spike!"
"You have to look at this reasonably, Willow," Giles continued unabated, his hazel eyes taking on a more ominous glint with each word. "He's a known killer. Besides, what's to stop him from doing the same spell again, and with who knows what results next time? And since we must take into account that Spike lives on human blood, I can't really pretend to see the point in even discussing this."
"You're talking about him as if he were an animal, Giles," Willow protested, her fingernails digging into the lustrous tabletop. "He's a man--"
"He's a vampire...a *demon*, Willow," Giles corrected.
Willow closed her eyes and pictured her calming place. "He's. My. *Friend*, Giles," she said slowly and distinctly, her lids still closed so she could keep a level head.
Giles let out a frustrated breath, forcing Willow to open her eyes and fix the librarian with her most resolved face ever.
"And I trust him with my life...*still*," she added willfully. But Giles was being especially stubborn.
"Willow, Jenny told me that you think of him as your friend. In fact, I'd rather hoped that she'd been mistaken about that part, but obviously she wasn't. Nevertheless, the fact is, Spike is a vampire, Willow. A demon. In order to survive, he must feed on the blood of others."
"No buts, Willow!" Giles said brusquely, obviously frustrated by the whole conversation. "Did you ever stop to think what he might do to you now that the spell is complete?" he demanded of the redhead. "What if everything between Spike and Drusilla isn't how he'd hoped? It's quite feasible that he would take revenge on you for that failure, perhaps even try to repeat the spell." Giles paused to compose himself before going on. "I'm sorry, Willow. I know you *think* you care about him, but--"
Before the librarian had even noticed her move, Willow was directly in front of him, anger making her emerald eyes impossibly dark. She'd heard enough.
"Don't tell me what I do or don't think, and do not treat me like a child, Rupert," she barked, now almost nose-to-nose with the librarian.
I'm old enough to be your great, great grandmother, and I won't let you talk to me like I am still 17!" She took a step back, a little surprised at her own behavior, but the more she thought about Giles' attitude, the angrier she became. "No...you're not even talking to me like I'm 17. You're talking to me as if I'm six years old and asking permission to keep a pet rattlesnake in my bed!"
Giles appeared flabbergasted at her behavior, to say the least, and took a seat in the nearest chair. Suddenly feeling a wee bit guilty for yelling at a man for whom she had nothing but the utmost respect, Willow reached out to take his shaky hand in hers and kneeled at his feet. She smiled up at him fondly, trying to convey her appreciation for his concern.
"Giles, I know you mean well, but *please*...just listen to me for a moment." She waited for Giles to show some sign that he would try. When she noted a slight nodding of his graying head, she continued. "I know him, Giles. I *know* Spike. He won't hurt me, and he'd never do that spell again. Trust me, he's learned his lesson. And yes, he's a vampire, but he's not the vampire you know. He isn't the 'William the Bloody' that you've read about in your journals...he's not the Spike that I assume you've been fighting for the past year or so. That Spike is gone, for good. Just like the Willow that sat at this table last week with you is also gone for good."
"Willow," the librarian began ruefully, getting back to his feet and helping Willow to hers. "I-I do apologize. It's going to take me some time to adjust to the idea that you are...well, more than you appear. And if that also means that I need to keep in mind that you aren't...and Spike isn't..." he trailed off, utterly confused now.
"You *are* right, Giles..." Angel said, finally making himself known to the group, sauntering into the room with his hands in the pockets of his sweatpants. "...Buffy will be out any minute," he reminded them before continuing on his original train of thought. "Make no mistake about it, this Spike is every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than the one that that came before him, Giles."
"It's true, Willow," he said sharply. "Spike can not be trusted. And whether or not he is 'my' William, he is Angelus's childe. He's vicious, selfish, conniving, self-serving, sadistic...and on top of all that, he's also a vampire. Not exactly trustworthy friend material."
"Well, thank you for your rather strong opinion on the matter, Angel," the Watcher said, the color beginning to come back to his face. "I'm glad to see I wasn't completely off base. I was beginning to think I'd lost my touch."
"But you are!" Willow snapped at them both, causing Giles' eyes to grow wide. "Oh, you are *off base*, I mean, Giles. Not the 'losing your touch' part," she added with a sheepish smile, receiving a grateful one in return from the librarian. "Spike has been and still can be all of those things you said," Willow continued in a much calmer manner, "But he can also be the exact opposite as well."
Giles took several deep breaths as he walked around the tables a few times. He glanced from Willow's pleading face, to Angel's uncharacteristically cold one and lastly at Jenny, who was sitting quietly, letting Giles do his job, jotting down the occasional note, and glancing between Willow and Angel. After a moment, he stopped in front of the girl he'd grown to love as a daughter, who was now old enough to have been his great grandmother.
"Willow, can you assure me that Spike will never kill again? That he's rehabilitated now and will be relatively harmless, like Angel?"
At the slight cough that came from the dark vampire, Giles quickly added, "As usual, no offense meant, Angel."
"None taken, as usual," he replied, but without the usual amusement that the often uttered phrase carried with it.
"No..." Willow sighed, shaking her head wearily. "That's not what I'm saying."
"What are you saying then, Willow?"
"I'm guess I'm just asking for time. Spike was always planning on leaving Sunnydale soon after we got back...after he made sure I was okay and that Angel was...Angel and not Angelus. So, I'm asking that we let him do that. Let Spike and Drusilla leave town. He's already promised me before we left that he wouldn't hurt any of you, and he won't."
Giles shook his head. "That's quite unorthodox, Willow."
"Please, just think about it, okay? Just give me some time. I'll talk to him as soon as I can...explain things..."
"Absolutely not!" Giles uncharacteristically snapped. "You will go nowhere near that-that poor excuse for an Englishman. I...well, I forbid it!"
<Oh lord, Giles. Now you've done it...> Angel couldn't help thinking, waiting for the fireworks to begin.
Willow stood straighter, all traces of weariness gone as she stared the librarian down.
"You what?" she repeated with more than a hint of disbelief in her voice.
"You heard me, Willow," Giles insisted, now tugging uncomfortably at the suddenly tight-feeling collar of his button-down shirt. "I...well, I forbid it."
"You forbid Willow to what, Giles?" Buffy asked, suddenly appearing in the room. She'd changed out of her workout clothes and had a new towel around her neck, occasionally using it to rub at her damp hair.
Giles visibly deflated. "Oh, well, I forbid Willow to...er, to cast another spell," he lied to his Slayer.
"You can't do that, Giles!" Buffy protested.
"No, you can't!" Willow agreed, happy that Buffy was on her side, even if they were arguing two completely different things.
"Giles, you need to trust me," Willow added, almost feeling sorry for the Watcher. "I know what I'm doing. And I wouldn't do anything to put others in danger. Just give me some time, okay? Promise me? Please?"
Giles, apparently coming to the conclusion that he wasn't going to get anywhere on this subject at that moment, shook his head in resignation, holding up both hands in surrender.
"Fine...I'll put my plans on hold...for now, I promise. I won't destroy...any of your...witch things...until we can look further into what has happened to you."
As he spoke, Willow nodded her head, hoping that she understood his flimsy double meaning correctly.
"That seems fair," she said cautiously, casting a suspicious eye between the other adults in the room. "Now, I think I'm going to head home and get some more rest..." Without going to collect her things or even a goodbye for those in the room, Willow turned on her heel and headed for the door. Angel, still convinced that he was doing what was best for Willow, could only watch her leave.
"Ooh, wait up. I'll go with you, Wills," Buffy said, grabbing her bag to follow.
As soon as both girls were out of the building, an exhausted Giles turned to Angel.
"What do you *really* think, Angel? Will he hurt her?"
Angel sat down in the nearest chair and put his head in his hands, his fingers digging into his scalp as he tried to figure out what had just happened. He just didn't understand her, no matter how hard he tried. And the only explanations he could come up with for why Willow was so obsessed with Spike and defending him so vehemently, were reasons that he preferred not thinking about. Blocking out the appalling possibilities, Angel finally looked over at the Watcher, who appeared to have aged considerably over the past couple of hours.
"I don't know about physically, Giles," Angel answered honestly. "But he loves to play games. Who knows what he has planned for her next? He may not harm her, but I have no doubt he'll hurt her...again. I have no doubt about that whatsoever"
Giles set his glasses on the nearest table, sat down on the couch, resting his head against the high, leather back, and rubbed his face wearily.
"I promised Willow I'd give her time, and I will. But if he so much as touches a hair on her head, or any of us, for that matter, I won't hesitate to do what is necessary. We have the rest of the townspeople to think about as well."
Angel grunted in agreement as he stood up.
"I'll be in my room," he told them gravely, his own voice showing signs of exhaustion.
Jenny, who had sat quietly absorbing it all, waited for Giles to
be preoccupied by his research before heading for Willow's house a short
End Chapter 5
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