*** As always, this part has been changed quite a bit since it was last beta'd, so all mistakes are mine!

**** Big thanks to Tracy and Ves for their patience and their betaing brilliance.

< > Indicates thoughts and such, although I rarely use them anymore.
 

It's About Time - Chapter 6

The walk home with Buffy was uneventful and yet fascinating to Willow.  She let Buffy do most of the talking, hoping that Jenny's lie about the backfiring spell would explain her quiet behavior.  In truth, even if she had felt like talking, Willow found what Buffy had to say far too interesting to interrupt, only speaking up now and then to ask the occasional carefully-worded question.  Once again, Willow found herself thankful for the poker lessons that enabled her to appear calm and collected as Buffy unknowingly gave her a glimpse into one new aspect of her life.  Summer school.

Willow learned that not only were Xander, Cordelia, and Buffy in summer school, taking an advanced college prep class--AP History--she was as well.  Just as Willow started to fear that an old nightmare of hers was about to come true--the one in which she had to take an exam for a class she had never attended--Buffy revealed that Willow had finished the independent study course early in order to help Ms. Calendar with her computer science class for the upcoming final week of summer school.  So while her friends had classes and exams during this last week of summer school, Willow was officially done.  Strange.  The only thing Willow could figure was perhaps Ms. Calendar had purposely pushed her to complete the class early, knowing that Willow's summer was destined to be an unusual one.

It still seemed odd though that they'd taken summer school classes...well, not her so much as Buffy and Xander.  History?  Buffy hated history.  And Xander, well, he was a master of 'just getting by'.  He did whatever he had to do to pass and not a speck more.  It wasn't that he wasn't smart--anyone who really listened to what he had to say could tell that.  He just wasn't too big on applying himself, and from what Willow knew of Xander's family life, no one had ever pushed him to excel or expected much out of him.  Except for her, of course, but Willow had always been too infatuated with her dark-haired best friend to risk forcefully insisting that he get his act together.  Apparently this time around, though, somebody or something *had* gotten through to him.

Just another difference Willow added to the list of changes.

As they walked, Buffy continued to gripe and moan about having to take a summer course, even though it only lasted about three weeks and took up half their day.  Willow was sorely tempted to ask her why she was taking the class in the first place, but she managed to hold her tongue.  Willow didn't want to push her luck by asking too many stupid questions all in one day.

By the time she and Buffy arrived at the Rosenberg residence, Willow was actually relieved.  She was looking forward to having some time on her own to think things through, and she was still dying for that long hot shower that she'd promised herself.  When Buffy told her that she would stop by around 7:30 so they could head back to Angel's together and from there they could *all* go to the Bronze, Willow agreed but without much enthusiasm.  As much as she wanted to spend time with her friends again, Angel's attention--attention that she felt was rightly Buffy's--made her increasingly self-conscious.  Even though she knew the vampire meant well, Willow could only hope that Angel wouldn't actually be coming with them to Sunnydale's only hotspot and they were simply using the church as a convenient meeting point.

After telling Buffy she'd see her later, Willow darted up the stairs and straight for a very long, hot shower.

***

"Never fails..." Willow muttered, shutting off the water and stepping out of the tub.  "First decent shower in over a 100 years and the doorbell rings...."

Willow grabbed her terry-cloth bathrobe off of the back of the door and quickly slipped into it.  Clutching the baby pink robe tightly about her, she skipped down the steps and looked out the peephole at her unexpected guest.  Hoping she successfully hid her frustration, Willow opened the door to an exhausted-looking Jenny Calendar.

"Ms. Calendar...hi...everything okay?" she asked, having to push a few strands of dripping-wet hair out of her face.

"I thought you might like to talk some more before you get together with your friends tonight, Willow," she said, tightening her grip on her book bag.  "But I see that I got you out of the shower.  Maybe I can come back later..."

Willow opened the door wider, gesturing for the woman to come in.  "No, it's okay, really.  I've used up all the hot water anyway."

"Please relax, Willow," Jenny said, noting how Willow had tensed up when she saw her.  "I'm not going to ask you anymore questions today.  I'm here to answer them, actually.  I figured you must have a ton of them by now, and you can't exactly get the answers you need with the kids around."

Willow's smile was one of relief as she again motioned for her to enter.  "You've got that right."

After showing Jenny into the living room, Willow excused herself to put some clothes on.  A few minutes later, dressed in baggy sweatpants and a T-shirt, and her damp hair combed out, Willow rejoined the teacher.

"I want to thank you for keeping my secret this morning, Ms. Calendar."

Jenny stood up when Willow re-entered the room.  She was glad to see that Willow appeared a little more relaxed around her, but now she was feeling a little nervous herself.

"First of all, please call me Jenny."

Willow frowned a little.  She had no intention of calling her parents by their first names now, or referring to the librarian as Rupert, even if she was older than all of them.

"You sure?"

"At least when it's just the two of us.  It just doesn't seem right for you to be calling me Ms. Calendar anymore.  I feel like our roles have been reversed, and I should be referring to you as Ms. Rosenberg."

"Willow will be fine, *Jenny*," she replied, somewhat embarrassed by the whole conversation.

"First of all, I need to apologize for this morning, Willow.  I should have come up with a better lie.  Oh, who am I kidding?" she groaned.  "I wasn't very well prepared for your returning at all.  I'm so sorry about everything, Willow.  I didn't handle it well...especially telling you about Oz."

"It's okay, Ms. Cal--Jenny," Willow insisted with a shrug, her eyes falling to her feet.  "While I was taking a shower, I began to come to my senses somewhat.  You had no idea that things would be different or that I'd remember what had happened to me.  Besides, you were just going by *my* journals.  Not your fault if that they were wrong."

"Still, it was *my* responsibility, Willow," Jenny said adamantly.  "You, the journals... I failed miserably as the keeper of 'The Writings'.  I fear the Rom elders made a mistake in choosing me for such a task."

"Oh, don't say that, Jenny.  It certainly isn't your fault that Oz and I aren't together, or Buffy or Angel, and I'm sure in the grand scheme of things, the relationships probably weren't that high on the Rom's priority list when they made up those prophecies.  From what I can tell, the whole role of 'The Writings' was to keep everyone safe until I could return...to make sure that things didn't veer to far off the expected path, in spite of anything Spike and I may have mucked up."

"Basically..."

"Well, then it looks like you did a good job to me.  Everyone is alive and well..."

"I just hate seeing you so unhappy, Willow," Jenny said genuinely.

"I'm not unhappy so much as confused and overwhelmed, Jenny," she assured her.  "I'll be okay.  Like I said, I just need time to adjust."  <And to fix a few minor relationship issues,> she added silently.  Not that she had an actual plan for getting Buffy and Angel together, but how hard could it be when they so obviously belonged together?  She smiled again at Jenny.  "Actually, I bet a cup of tea would make us both feel better, and I'm pretty sure we have some.  Do you drink tea?"

"Gallons of it," Jenny said with a smile, grabbing her things and following Willow into the kitchen.  "I'm afraid Giles has me quite addicted to it.  That man must keep 20 different varieties at his apartment.  He has a different favorite for the morning, afternoon, rain, shine, plague, prophecy..."

"I can see that hasn't changed much either," Willow laughed lightly as she rummaged about in the perfectly organized pantry, finding one tin of 'breakfast tea'.  Willow filled the kettle with hot water and set it on the burner before turning on the stove.  "I'm afraid I don't have much to offer you to eat.  The bread looks like it's older than I am.  Although if I remember right, there should be some PopTarts--"

"No thank you, Willow," Jenny replied, taking a seat at the round, tile-topped table, setting her bag next to the chair.  "I had several donuts this morning...too many, actually."

After getting the teapot out of the cupboard and filling the tiny silver tea ball with the pungent tea leaves, Willow sat down across from the teacher, noting her tired and rather dejected expression.

"Giles is still mad, huh?"

Jenny looked up and met her student's concerned eyes.   "He feels betrayed.  Says I mislead him all this time, not telling him about you, my true role as the keeper of the prophecies, not to mention the fact that I had a much more complete version of The Writings than he did."  Jenny sighed, surrendering to the fact Giles had every reason to be angry with her.  "But the worst part is that he thinks I was just using him to be close to you."

"Oh, but you weren't!" Willow said defiantly, hoping to cheer up the other woman.  "You two were involved in the other timeline too.  Of course, in that timeline you were keeping an eye on Angel, instead of me..."  Willow's triumphant grin faded a little.  "Come to think of it, Giles felt betrayed by you that time, too."

Jenny visibly wilted, her shoulders sagging.  "Seems like some histories are bound to be repeated, no matter how many chances I get."

Willow reached across the small dinette table, taking the woman's soft hand in her own and squeezing it gently.

"It will be okay.  It was a shock for Giles, that's all.  Once things settle down, I'm sure he'll come to his senses.  Especially if I quit yelling at him."

Jenny bit her lip, trying to keep from smiling.  "Oh, the look on his face, Willow.  I know I shouldn't laugh, but when you reminded him that you were old enough to be his great grandmother..."

"Great *great* grandmother," Willow corrected with a wicked gleam in her eye.  The two women shared a guilty laugh.

It felt good to really laugh again, although Willow regretted that it was at the librarian's expense.  After all, Giles had been much like a father figure during her teen-aged years, and she'd even had a tiny bit of a crush on him once upon a time.  Still, as bad as she felt about having yelled at The Watcher the way she had, maybe he'd think twice before treating her like a child again.

Both women were still smiling from the image of the flabbergasted watcher when the slight whistling from the steaming kettle filled the air.

As Willow busied herself filling the blue and white flowered teapot with the steaming water, she considered Jenny and Giles' situation.  As she tried to come up with a way to help the pair, Willow suddenly felt a little silly for thinking of offering the more experienced woman love advice.  After all, what did she know about having a loving adult relationship?  Her association with Spike, although at times quite adult in nature, was hardly the stuff that happily-ever-after romances were made of.  And as far as Angelus went... Well, she doubted her experiences with him would translate well to Jenny's situation either.  And yet, Willow wanted to help, so she decided to stick with experiences that were common to both of them, in a twisted time-travelling kind of way.

"You know, it's a lot like that mess with Ripper and Eyghon," Willow mused as she set the full teapot on the table to steep, as well as the sugar and milk.  "Ooh, did that happen this time around?" Willow questioned, a worried look on her face.  "Did you play host to a particularly nasty tattoo-loving demon?"

"'Fraid so."

"Good," she said with obvious relief.  Then Willow's eyes widened as she realized what she'd said.  "Oh, not good in the 'possessed and almost killed' kinda way, but good in the 'I can use it as a learning tool' kinda way," Willow sputtered, taking a seat.

Jenny couldn't help smiling again.  Just when Willow had impressed her with her 'new-found' maturity, out popped a standard Willow babble.

"Jenny, do you remember how you felt after that?" Willow began after she composed herself.  "You couldn't even look at Giles for a while."

"I remember," Jenny reluctantly admitted, recalling all too easily how hurt she'd been to find out about Giles' past in such a manner.  "I felt as if I didn't even know him.  I felt betrayed...just like Giles does now, I suppose."

"But you got over it and he will too," Willow reminded her as she finally poured the tea.  "It just takes time...and a *lot* of talking it out when he's ready."

Jenny held the warm cup between her hands, her thumbs tracing its smooth porcelain rim as she considered Willow's words.  It didn't take her long to realize that Willow was probably right.

"How'd you get so smart, Willow?"

Willow arched an eyebrow as she beamed at the older-looking woman.  "I had great teachers and a *lot* of time to learn the hard lessons."

Jenny took a deep breath, not sure how Willow would react to what she was about to say.

"Maybe you need to take your own advice?  I think you and Angel have a lot of talking to do."

Willow stiffened at the mere mention of Angel's name, her grip on the fragile teacup tightening until her knuckles turned white.

"I'm tired of talking about it, Jenny," she said, staring into the dark brew.  "I just want things to go back to the way they were before...except I want you alive," she added, flashing the Gypsy a small, awkward smile.  "I want you and Giles to be together and happy, I want Buffy and Angel to be together and happy..." Willow admitted with a sigh before taking a few sips of the soothing concoction.

"Didn't you forget someone?" Jenny asked, not missing the fact that Willow continued to imply that Buffy and Angel should be together.

"Who?" Willow asked, her brows pulling together.  "Cordy and Xander?  They're already happy, in a masochistic sort of way."

This time Jenny reached across to pat Willow's hand in a motherly fashion.  "What about you?  Don't you deserve to be happy?"  Before Willow could form a protest, Jenny continued.  "And who would make you happy, Willow?  Oz or Angel?"  When Willow didn't answer right away, choosing instead to pull her hand away and stare into her cup, Jenny reluctantly added, "Or Spike?"

Willow finally looked Jenny squarely in the eye and saw concern in their dark depths.  "I think I'll take 'D-None of the above'.  Things are complicated now," Willow said with a shrug.  "I'm afraid it is going to take me some time to get used to being back, let alone deal with this new version of Angel.  I have too many other things to focus on.  Again, my love life isn't high on the list of priorities."

"Willow, talk to me...tell me about you and Angel--Angelus--in the past," Jenny said, deciding that the only way she could help Willow was if she knew everything that had happened to her.  "I know that you haven't told me everything, that things happened to you that aren't in my version of your journals.  Maybe talking about it would help?"

"I don't know..." Willow said reticently, shaking her head.

"It's just between us, Willow.  I promise.  No notes in 'The Writings' or discussions with Giles.  Just a good, old-fashioned woman-to-woman talk."

Willow sighed.  She couldn't remember the last time she'd had an honest heart-to-heart with another woman.  While Willow doubted that Jenny could help much with the awkward situation that she now found herself in with Angel, considering the other woman knew very little about their shared past, the redhead figured it couldn't hurt to get some of it off her chest.  So she took a deep breath and just started talking, not even sure of how much she was willing to share.

"Angel...Angelus, when he was human, was so...charming," Willow began with soft smile of reminiscence.  "I had decided right away when we arrived in Galway that it would be best if I never actually met him.  I was so afraid I'd mess things up..." her voice trailed off, ending in a derisive laugh at just how messed up things were in spite of her best attempts to not change history.  "Unfortunately," she continued, "I accidentally ran into Angelus in the jail that very first day, and well--"

"Jail?"

"He was a bit of a mischief maker," Willow said with impish grin, and soon Jenny was wearing one of her own.  "Nothing bad, just a bit of a scoundrel...a ladies man."

"That doesn't surprise me in the slightest, Willow."  Jenny leaned forward in anticipation, fascinated by the chance to get a clearer picture of Angel's past.  "What happened when you met?"

"He flirted with me.  I-I tried to ignore him, I swear!  But he kept tracking me down.  To make a long story short, we agreed to just be friends--seeing as I was pretending to be married at the time--and that's what we did.  We were together almost every day.  He taught me how to ride properly, we went for walks, picnics, I even met his mother..."  Willow sighed, and got up from the table, busying herself by rinsing out the tea kettle and wiping down the counters.  After a moment, her nervous, guilty cleaning stopped.  She gripped the edge of the counter and closed her eyes.  "I was such an idiot, Jenny.  To think that I could spend so much time with a man like him and not...."

"You fell in love with him," Jenny gently prodded when Willow didn't finish her sentence.

Willow nodded, opening her eyes to stare out the kitchen window at the professionally landscaped backyard, but in her mind's eye she was revisiting the emerald-green hills of Ireland.  The memories were still crystal clear, the cobblestone streets of Galway, Caroline's lamb with mint sauce, the cottage that she and Spike had called home for many weeks...and every walk, every conversation, every horseback ride...Willow remembered every minute she'd spent with Angelus, no matter how hard she'd tried to forget over the years.

"And he fell in love with you?"

Reluctantly returning to the present, Willow shrugged.  "Sometimes I think he did, but I'm not sure."  Willow laughed nervously, turning to face the teacher once again as she leaned back against the sink.  "He was such a flirt, Jenny.  He could have had any girl in the village, and for all I know he *did*...But the things he said to me...The way he looked at me....  No one had ever looked at me like that before, not even Oz.  There was so much...longing in his eyes those last few times we met."

"Then why do you doubt that he loved you when you could practically see it in his eyes?"

"Because...well, I was *Rose*.  He didn't really know me.  Our whole relationship, friendship, was based on lies, even if they were necessary.  Angelus thought I was married, so that made me forbidden fruit.  Unfortunately, Angelus seemed to have had a thing for married women at the time.  He loved a challenge.  I think I was just another challenge for him, Jenny."  Willow sat back down at the table, finally looking at Jenny and finding only understanding in the Gypsy woman's eyes.  Strengthened by it, Willow continued. "Also, Spike told me that Angelus was just using me...that it was a game to Angelus."

"And you believed Spike?"

"I believe that that's what Spike believed, if that makes any sense at all."  When Jenny nodded, Willow continued.  "But *he* also told me...Angelus told me..."

Jenny sat up a little straighter.  "Angelus told you that he didn't love you?"

Willow could only nod her answer at first, her green eyes fixed on the bandage-covered silver ring she was now nervously twisting.

"As I'm sure you've guessed by now, Angelus and I ran into each other a few times after he was turned," Willow began after indulging in a deep, calming breath.  "He told me that all he'd wanted when he was human was to bed me.  And that he--the living Angelus--would have grown bored with me soon after that."

"So you believed the soulless Angelus?"

"At that point, I didn't know what or who to believe.  I guess I still don't.  Angelus told me lots of things before he was resouled.  Spike was right about him loving to play mind games, and Angelus could be very...persuasive...."

Willow's eyes fluttered shut again at the memories, ones she'd been trying very hard to keep at bay.  While she'd allowed herself to indulge in her darker recollections of the vampire Angelus, the ones that made it easier to construct barriers between herself and Angel, what Willow had been reluctant to acknowledge were the few instances that her memories were less unpleasant.  There weren't many but they were significant, considering whom she'd been dealing with.  There were two or three times when Willow could have sworn that she saw something more than a soulless killer in the dark depths of his eyes...hadn't she?

Noting Willow's wince at the use of the word 'persuasive' and remembering her softly spoken comment to the same effect early that morning, Jenny's curiosity multiplied.  She waited a few minutes, but Willow seemed lost in thought, her face quickly becoming bereft of obvious emotion.

"Do you want to tell me what happened between you and Angelus after he became a vampire, Willow?" Jenny finally asked.

Willow's head jerked up at the older woman's voice.  For a moment, she'd forgotten Jenny was even there.

"No," Willow said firmly.  She wasn't ready to share those painful memories yet, not sure if she'd ever share them with anyone, other than Spike, that is.  They were simply too personal.

Sensing that Willow's barriers were going back up, Jenny changed tactics.  "You're right not to talk to me about it.  You should be talking to Angel instead."

"Hey, I thought you weren't going to be asking me any questions?" Willow asked with fake suspiciousness as she refilled both their cups, hoping to change the subject.

"I'm sorry, Willow.  I didn't mean to pry," Jenny said honestly, and agreeing to Willow's unspoken request to change the subject.  "So, what questions do you have for me?"

Willow poured them both some more tea, a myriad of questions running about in her head, fighting to be asked first.

"Well, I have many but there is one that I'm dying to ask."

"What's that?" Jenny asked, preparing herself for the worst.

"What kind of black magick did you have to do in order to get Buffy and Xander to take summer school?"

*****
 
They talked for over two hours, Jenny's facts and stories helping Willow to begin feeling somewhat less detached from her surroundings.

Jenny gave her the Cliff Notes version about the schooling situation, and Willow soon learned that she'd guessed correctly.  Jenny had been pushing the other unknowing Willow to get as many class credits as possible, just in case some side effects of the spell made her senior year of high school difficult.  In fact, she'd taken summer school two years in a row *and* had taken an extra course here and there when her schedule permitted.  All in all, it meant that Willow's schedule for the upcoming school year would be somewhat easier, which was a relief, as she couldn't quite envision her century-old self being as fascinated by calculus as it once was.  But even more captivating was the reasoning behind her friends' increased academic interest.  Apparently, Angel felt that Xander's and Buffy's previous grades "did not represent their best work" and on a half-dare, half-bet, Angel promised to send everyone on some sort of incredibly cool vacation after they graduated if they did well.  So, all four of them had signed up for Advanced Placement History with dreams of a Caribbean Cruise serving as the ultimate incentive.

This revelation led to yet another mental note for Willow.  This Angel, Angel version 2.0, had money and apparently plenty of it.  While the first Angel hardly seemed destitute, his Sunnydale abode had been modest, according to Buffy.  Never did he appear to have the financial means to renovate an entire church and stock a good-sized occult library, let alone pay for an extravagant vacation.  It wasn't a bad thing, Angel's increase in assets, but it was a change.  Willow couldn't help wondering what had happened this time around to effect the difference.  She doubted that the inadvertent introduction of poker 100 years too soon, therefore giving Angelus an extra century to gamble and win, could explain such a dramatic contrast.  Unfortunately, Jenny had been unable to offer any real insight into the vampire's financial past, so Willow just added it to her ever-growing list of questions.

Jenny did manage to clear up some of Willow's confusion regarding 'The Writings' and her role as their keeper, however.  The copy of 'The Writings' that Willow had been shown was Jenny's personal copy, written in the Romany language, and was meant for Jenny's eyes only.  It contained not only the same 'prophecies' that Giles' abridged English-language version did, but also the sketchy accounts of Willow's life as Rose that they'd discussed the night before.  In fact, up until yesterday, Giles was not even aware that Jenny had a different rendition, let alone a more accurate and straightforward version of the true events that had led to the creation of 'The Writings'.  Jenny had always 'played dumb' when it came to the prophecies, assuming the role of interested bystander only, yet she was always covertly working to make sure that Giles interpreted them correctly.  Her seemingly innocent input helped to steer Giles and the rest of The Slayerettes in the correct direction.  Realizing now that it was these lies that really fueled Giles' anger toward the dark-haired Gypsy woman and not simply how Willow's role had been hidden from the librarian, Willow was still confident that the two would be able to work things about.

Next, Jenny and Willow compared notes on some of the more interesting events of the two timelines.  Willow soon found that while some things had happened differently, the end result was usually the same.  Willow had still computer-dated a demon, been nearly gassed to death by an invisible girl, and had been courted by a massive computer-software company at last year's career fair, only minus the gunfire this time around.  A positive change was that Kendra was still alive since the whole Acathla affair had never occurred without Angelus around to awaken it.  Once again, the Watchers Council, via 'The Writings', had stepped in before things could get nasty.  Also notable was the fact that Buffy's mom had still found out about her daughter being The Slayer, although the circumstances around that revelation had been different as well.  The new history seemed to be full of these peculiar coincidences, and the more the women compared the two pasts, the more similarities Willow found.

Willow was so relieved when Jenny didn't drop any other real bombshells that she relented and shared some more information with the woman, answering some of Jenny's less personal questions.  Willow even gave Jenny permission to take notes again and share the details with Giles and Angel, if she felt it was necessary.  Willow told Jenny what had occurred in her timeline as the result of Angel's losing his soul, since she'd halted her storytelling efforts at that point the night before.  Willow informed her of everything she remembered about that time, describing Angelus's horrible deeds, including Jenny's own death.  She spoke in detail of her attempt to restore Angel's soul, and what she'd learned from Spike about what had happened that night between Angel, Acathla, and Buffy.  Willow only paused to answer Jenny's occasional question and freshen their tea.  Her tale eventually ended when Willow felt as if there was nothing left to reveal about the months between Angel's losing his soul and Spike's casting the spell.

The two women sat in companionable silence for a while, each digesting the new particulars in their own way.  When both women agreed that they'd shared enough for one day, Jenny left, going back to Angel's, and Willow immediately headed upstairs to take another shower.

***

Willow's second shower lasted until the water turned cold.  She'd used her parents' bathroom this time, seduced by the thought of the dual massaging showerheads.  The rhythmic pounding of the water on her tense muscles had helped Willow to relax somewhat and gather her thoughts, and as she stepped out of the shower, her thoughts, while far from organized, were much less overwhelming.

Wiping some of the mist away from the mirror, Willow studied her reflection.

She *still* looked 17, which both elated the redhead--because the last thing she wanted was to look the true age of a centurion--and disappointed her as well.  Truth be told, even though Willow wasn't exactly sure what she wanted, she somehow knew that she couldn't have it.  Willow wanted to slip back into her old life, surround herself with the familiar comfort of her family and friends and the life that she'd remembered and craved during her time in the past.  On the other hand, she *also* wanted to be treated with the respect that she thought she deserved, not simply because of her age but because of what she'd gone through, all those years she'd survived on her own, everything she'd learned, and the fact that she had managed to endure and come out with her sanity intact.  Add to that the fact that she wanted to pick and choose the changes that had occurred--keep the new *living* Jenny, bring back the old 'Buffy and Angel as a couple' idea, keep the nifty new library/clubhouse/church, bring Oz back into her life, and so on....

Willow 'Rose Smith' Rosenberg not only wanted to have her cake and eat it too, she also wanted the cake to have multi-colored sprinkles, a double scoop of chocolate chocolate-chip ice-cream, and perhaps a few roses made out of sickeningly sweet yellow icing to boot.  As Willow stared at the image in the mirror, she sighed.  Somehow she didn't quite see a cake in her near future.

After drying off and indulging in some of her mother's expensive moisturizing lotions and such, Willow changed the bandages that kept the silver ring from slipping from her finger, putting them on in such a way that she could barely see the ring for all the Band-Aids.  Finally, Willow put on her robe, turned off the light and stepped out of the steamy bathroom and into her parents' bedroom, where she stopped short.  Again, it all looked very familiar.  The sun catcher of a hummingbird that she remembered giving to her mom one year for Mother's Day was hanging in a window.  On the wall next to the dresser, Willow's yearly school pictures--each just as she remembered, not a hair different--were hung in a neat row, and the enlarged photograph of her parents' wedding day on a beach, barefooted and with flowers in their hair, was above the bed.  Everywhere she looked, familiar items and the memories they induced waited silently for her inspection and approval.  Tears soon sprang to her eyes, and Willow rushed down the steps and into the kitchen.  Finding her parents' schedule on the fridge, exactly where it was supposed to be anytime they were away, Willow picked up the phone with shaky hands and pushed the buttons.  Twice she had to start over as nervousness made her fingers unusually clumsy.  In the end, it took a while, not to mention extreme over-use of the word 'emergency,' but Willow was eventually able to get both of her parents on the phone at the same time from their hotel room in New York City.

When The Rosenbergs asked Willow what the emergency was in panicked voices, she simply told them that she missed them.  Willow spoke with her parents for nearly an hour, which may have been a record, but she needed to hear their voices.  She asked them all about the conference and contentedly listened to them talk about their work...for once not really caring that it had often seemed like their jobs had taken a priority in their life over her.  But her parents had questions for her as well...was she okay, how was summer-school going, was she eating properly?  They even encouraged her to sleep over at a friend's house if she'd feel safer that way.  Then they said something that once again destroyed Willow's fragile sense of equilibrium.  Her parents, Sheila and Ira Rosenberg, actually told her that they were sure neither Buffy nor *Angel* would mind if she stayed with them until they returned.  Stunned that her parents were encouraging her to sleep over at 'a boy's house', Willow finally ended the call, telling her parents that she loved them.  In a daze, she slowly climbed the stairs to her room where she collapsed on the bed, utterly bewildered.

The moment her head touched the pillow, Willow was positive she could stay there quite happily, relatively speaking, for a year or more.  It had nothing to do with the computer-engineered perfect posture support mattress or the sheets without the threat of bedbugs.  Actually, the sheets weren't any softer than the ones she'd slept in during her travels with Spike.  They'd usually stayed in quite nice accommodations, sometimes in rooms so ritzy that Willow was afraid to touch anything, let alone disturb the perfectly made-up bed.  Sure, while she'd been with the Rom the sleeping arrangements had left a lot to be desired, but that still wasn't what made Willow want to just curl up in her bed and hibernate.

Willow was simply positive that if she moved her head even the tiniest bit so she could snuggle more deeply into the pillow, her brain would literally explode.  It had been bad enough before the phone call...all those subtle changes just begging for an explanation...but they paled in comparison to this most recent revelation.  Her parents not only knew Angel they even seemed to like him.

"Bloody hell...they even asked me to tell him 'hello'!"  Willow whispered aloud in soft confusion, somewhat surprised that her brain remained intact through the end of the sentence.

She couldn't believe it.  While her parents had allowed her to spend many nights with Buffy, even though they could barely remember her name, once puberty had hit, Willow's sleepovers with Xander had been put to a grinding halt.  So the idea that they encouraged her to spend the night at Angel's place, who was obviously no boy to even the most preoccupied of parents, made Willow dizzy with the implications.

And now, when she had so much to think about, thoughts swirling around in her head like a whirlwind, never quite settling down long enough for her to get her bearings, one glance at the clock reminded her that she needed to get ready to go to The Bronze.  Add to that the fact that they were all meeting at Angel's place beforehand so they could go together, and the prospect of never leaving the bed was looking better all the time.

But she did get out of bed, reluctantly dragging herself to the closet to find something to wear.  It wasn't easy.  After wearing long skirts and corsets for years, she'd been looking forward to wearing jeans.  But when Willow put them on, she wasn't quite so sure.  She tried on more than a dozen different combinations, dismissing each for either being too dowdy or plain ugly.  While they all felt comfortable, she wasn't comfortable *in* them.  They simply weren't 'her' anymore.

Almost looking forward to that looming shopping trip, Willow finally decided on a pair of black jeans that were neither too baggy or too tight, with a familiar lightweight burgundy v-neck sweater that fell below her hips, over a black lace-trimmed tank.  It didn't reveal much, especially when compared to a Rom blouse or some of the more daring evening gowns, and yet she felt much more attractive and mature than she did wearing the baggy overalls or the Wyle E. Coyote T-shirt.

Tempted as she was to put her hair up just to get it out of the way once she had blown it dry, Willow left it down, feeling the need to cover her neck and the scars it bore as much as possible whenever she was around Angel.  At least for now, she amended, because Willow still had every intention of cutting if off, having been dragged around by her long locks one too many times in the past.  But for now, it stayed.

Next was the makeup dilemma.  Just the thought of how much to put on made Willow freeze with indecision.  She'd worn very little makeup when she was 17, and yet she really wasn't a naive 17 year old anymore...  <How much is too much?  Would it make anyone suspicious?  Can I possibly be more pathetic, getting into a tizzy over eyeliner?  Choose your battles, Willow.  Choose your battles.>

Pushing away her irrational fears for the time being, Willow applied just a hint of color all around.  After all, she decided, just because she was trying to fit back into her old life once again, that didn't mean she couldn't make a few personal improvements here and there.

After pulling on her black ankle boots, Willow surveyed herself in the mirror.  Something was missing, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it.  After turning her head this way and that, and spinning about in front of the full-length mirror a few times, she finally decided that it needed a necklace.  Willow fingered through her old ballerina jewelry box and settled on a short, thick silver chain with black stones along its length.  When she rechecked the mirror, it looked fine, but it still wasn't quite right.  That's when she caught a glimpse in the mirror of the ring she still worse.  As she twisted the silver, bandage-coated band, she realized she missed her cross.  She'd worn it for so long that it, like the ring, had become a part of her, and she sorely wanted it back.  For a moment her mind traveled back, back to the night that for her was only a few days ago, but in reality was over a century before.  The night when Angelus had found her in Baia Mare, Romania, and had violently ripped the cross from her neck....

Willow shuddered, easily reliving the terror of that moment, seeing his face, twisted and enraged, looming above her.  But with a deep breath, the face became Angel's...short hair, half-smile, warm, caring eyes...and Willow shivered again.

Before Willow could give the cross another thought, the doorbell rang, immediately followed by sound of the door opening.

"I'm here, Willow!  You ready?" Buffy's voice echoed up the stairway.

"Be right down, Buffy," Willow responded automatically.

After one last lingering glance in her mirror and a silent prayer to anyone that would listen for the night to go smoothly, Willow quickly padded down the steps to where Buffy was waiting.

It was time to head to Angel's.

~~~~~
End Chapter 6  (March 8, 2001)

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