* 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.

** This part is dedicated to everyone who has ever beta'd for me. Without all of your patience and hard work, I'd be lost. While your busy lives may have kept me from preying on some of you lately, you never know when I may beg for your assistance yet again. Thank you so much!
 
 

It's About Time ~ Chapter 7
< > Indicates thoughts and such, although I rarely use them anymore.
 
 
 ~~~

Nearing the church that served as both Angel's home and Slayer Central, Willow had to take a few deep breaths as her tummy's hyperactive butterflies launched into flight yet again.  She was relieved when Buffy didn't seem to notice her growing unease the nearer they came to the church.  The blonde was eagerly chatting on about her new crush, Jason, which hardly helped to improve Willow's comfort level.  Still, she preferred this conversation to anything that involved her personally, so Willow made enough comments and threw in the occasional girlie question to insure that the mainly one-sided dialogue lasted until they arrived at their destination.

Following Buffy up the steps to the front doors of the church, Willow paused only long enough to picture her calming place and take one last final deep breath where it couldn't be overheard by Angel's supernatural ears.  That done, she waltzed into the vampire's unusual home.  Using a trick that Spike had taught her for whenever she entered a new situation for the first time, Willow held her head high, as if she owned the place.  It was supposed to make her appear confident and at ease--and usually did--no matter how to the contrary she might feel.

Immediately, though, her confidence wavered.  She'd hoped that nobody would be there, or better yet, Cordy and Xander would have arrived early so that they could head straight for the Bronze.  Unfortunately for the redhead, Willow's childhood friend and the cheerleader were nowhere in sight, but Giles and Angel were.  They were standing near the main round table, which was littered with open books.  Giles was still dressed as he had been that morning, jeans and a button down shirt, but Angel had changed out of his workout clothes.  Much to Willow's chagrin, his new ensemble--perfectly pressed black trousers and a charcoal-gray v-neck--looked like something he'd probably wear out to The Bronze, as opposed to suitable lounge-wear for around the church-home.  But as much as the thought of Angel going out with them disturbed Willow, the fact that the two men appeared to be in the middle of a rather intense conversation, since they had yet to notice her arrival, was even more troublesome.

"Great," Willow mumbled as she and Buffy stopped in the middle of the large room some distance from the others and exchange harried looks.  "Wanna bet who they are talking about?"

"Can't blame them for being concerned, Willow, but maybe Giles has gotten a grip on his over-protectiveness."

"I hope you're right, Buffy," Willow replied, purposely louder than before.

At the sound of Willow's voice, Angel's eyes darted to them, a guilty look encompassing his normally stoic face as he finally noticed that he and Giles had an audience.

"Willow...you're here.  And Buffy, too," he added, instantly annoyed with himself not only for sounding like such an idiot but also for not realizing the moment they'd entered the building.

"Oh yeah..." Buffy said, rolling her eyes.  "They were definitely talking about you."  The Slayer grabbed Willow by the hand and pulled her towards the table.  "Sorry to interrupt the war council, but don't you think you two are blowing this whole spell-gone-awry mishap out of proportion?  Willow is going to be fine, and I'm sure she learned some sort of valuable lesson from this whole experience and is therefore a better person for it having happened in the first place.  Right Willow?"

"Oh yeah...you're, uh, darn tootin', I did," Willow responded rather awkwardly.

"See?" Buffy said triumphantly, glancing at the adults in the room.  "I'm right, right?"

When no one spoke up right away, Buffy frowned with mock severity then added more strongly, "Riiiight?"

"You are correct, of course, Buffy," Giles hastily agreed, just to get it over with.  What point was there in arguing when Buffy had no real clue as to what their true discussion detailed?

Buffy turned her stern look to the vampire next.  "Aaangel?" Buffy goaded, hands on her hips.

"Oh yeah...right," Angel said, nodding his head earnestly.

Buffy grinned.  "Great.  Now that that little problem is solved, I'm going to finish getting ready."  Buffy turned and headed for the hallway.  "I think I left my shoes and hair stuff here the other night," she said over her shoulder before disappearing down the hall.

When Buffy was gone, Willow turned back to the two men and took a deep breath, preparing herself for the inevitable.  While Buffy may have thought that she'd solved Willow's problem, the redhead knew better.  The slight guilt she felt for once again not telling Buffy the truth was tempered by the anticipated discussion that she was positive was about to take place.

Giles did not disappoint.

"Willow, I'd like to talk to you for a moment before you leave for the evening," he said grimly, his eyes nervously flickering between Willow, Angel, and the floor.

"Giles," she began in a tension-relieving breath, "I have to be honest with you, I think I'm about talked out for the day.  Can I take a raincheck?"

"Yes, well, I quite understand, Willow.  Jenny was here earlier, and she shared with both of us some details of your conversations today.  I must say that they were, once again, fascinating.  Nevertheless, that isn't quite what I wanted to speak to you about at the moment," Giles began as delicately as possible.

"Look, if it's about Spike--" Willow started curtly, not in the mood for another argument.

"Well, it is and it isn't.  I--"

"What about Spike?" Buffy said as she glided back into the room with a pair of shoes in her hands.  "Ooh, is it finally Spike-killing season?" she asked hopefully, plopping down in a chair and slipping off one of her platform shoes to replace it with one from the other pair in her hands.

Willow opened her mouth, an angry objection on her lips at Buffy's glib but innocent comment.  Luckily, Giles interrupted before she could say anything incriminating.

"No, from what I can make of 'The Writings', it appears as if Spike is still off limits, Buffy," Giles replied wearily as he took a seat at the table.  "I was simply reiterating to Willow how dangerous Spike is..."

"Great," Buffy groaned, getting to her oddly shod feet.  "So we have to continue to put up with Spike's annoying cryptic comments and all of his lurking about?"

"For the time being, yes," Giles reluctantly said, catching Willow's soft smile of gratitude for his little fib before he slipped off his glasses to massage the bridge of his nose.

"Angel..."

"Angel," Buffy repeated more insistently, trying to get his attention.

The vampire in question turned from Willow to the Slayer, who was now shifting back and forth between standing on one foot and then the other.

"Which shoes?" she asked in a chipper tone, having already forgotten about Spike.

"What?"

"Which shoes do you think I should wear tonight?" Buffy repeated, lifting one leg so he could see the lone effect with the outfit, and then switching to the foot wearing the other style of shoe.

"The black ones," he grunted without thinking, already turning his attention back to Giles and Willow.

"They're both black, Angel."

Angel groaned softly.  He didn't mean to be rude, but he was not in the mood for playing Buffy dress up.  "I don't know, Buffy...the heels?"

Buffy thought for a moment, staring down at her feet.  "Jason's a bit on the short side.  I'll wear the open-toed flats.  Thanks for manly point of view, Angel," and with that, Buffy spun around and headed back toward the hallway that led to the bedrooms.

Angel glanced rather sheepishly at Willow, who'd watched the whole scene with an indescribable expression on her face.  "Told you that she asks my advice but never takes it."

Willow could only shake her head in wry disbelief at the odd display.

"Willow," Giles started carefully as he put his glasses back on, still not quite sure how to phrase what he wanted to say, "We really do need to talk."

"You're right, Giles.  We *do* need to talk," Willow said thoughtfully, moving to take a seat at the table next to him as she forgot about Buffy and Angel for a while.  "You need to quit being so tough on Jenny," she began before Giles had a chance to launch into his own agenda.  "She was only doing her job.  And from what I can tell, since you are all still here, alive and kicking, and I made it back in one piece, she did her job quite well."

Giles' jaw dropped open for a moment as her abrupt shift in the topic of conversation initially caught him unawares.

"Yes, well, but the point is--"

"The point is," Willow continued, unabated, "you have a second chance with Ms. Calendar.  Believe me when I say that the Giles I knew would have done anything to be in your shoes right now."

Giles' eyes narrowed, regarding the redhead with irritation for a moment.

"Yes, Jenny told me that she was...killed in your timeline..." Giles said matter of factly, but Willow wasn't through with him yet.

"But did she also tell you how broken hearted it left you and that there were so many things that you wish you had told her before it was too late?"  Willow didn't feel the slightest bit guilty in elaborating the truth a little.  Sure, Giles had never actually spoken to her about his feelings for Jenny, either before or after she'd been murdered, but he hadn't needed to.  His pain at the loss had been apparent for all to see, and Willow was quite sure that the librarian had often wished that he'd told Jenny more about how he felt about her.  It was simply human nature.  "And let's not forget the little matter of Ripper and Eyghon, Giles," Willow added for good measure.  "After all, Jenny forgave you for that *little* omission."

Giles opened his mouth, a sharp remark on his lips, but when he looked at Willow, all he could detect was honest concern in her eyes.  She obviously truly cared about their happiness and was only trying to help in her own odd way.  Shaking his head lightly, Giles allowed a small, embarrassed smile to form on his lips instead.

"You certainly did become an extraordinary woman, Willow...without the aid of your parents, or even me, I'm afraid," Giles said, still not quite believing the turn in the conversation.

"You can thank The Rom for that," Willow replied softly, her cheeks already reddening from the force of his compliment.  "And *Spike* too, of course," she added slyly, unable to resist.

Giles' eyes widened, his features tightening momentarily before a reluctant grin tugged at the corners of his mouth yet again.

"I do believe I stepped right into that one, didn't I?"

Willow's mischievous smile grew into a full-blown grin.  "You sure did."

"If I promise to take everything you said about my...situation with Jenny into account, will you then take some advice from me?"

"Advice I can take, Giles.  It's orders I have a problem with," she reminded him, even being so bold as to look Angel in the eye, who'd been watching their interaction from a few feet away.  Angel inclined his head ever-so-slightly in silent understanding.

Giles rose to his feet, feeling the need to pace as he launched into his rather fatherly speech of over-protectiveness.

"The spell that brought you back in time with Spike is complete, Willow.  You've said so yourself.  It is precisely for that reason that you need to be very wary about any kind of interaction with Spike from now on.  We are unaware, at this point in time, exactly how the spell affected him.  From some of the odd things you've mentioned--his non-healing scar, for example--it is possible that the spell may have reacted differently with him than it did with you.  He may not even remember you.  But even if he does, his *feelings* for you, now that the spell is complete, may have changed."

"What are you saying?" Willow asked, trying unsuccessfully not to fidget in discomfort.

"He's saying that you have no way of knowing if the Spike that is now here in Sunnydale is indeed the Spike that you think you befr--I mean, that you *did* befriend," Angel corrected himself, finally moving to join Willow at the table.

"Angel, I am not in the mood to argue about Spike anymore, especially not with you," she said pointedly.  She felt like they were ganging up on her, but because she'd told Giles that she would listen to him, that's what she intended to do.  She just wished Angel would stay out of it.  He was far from unbiased on the subject of Spike.

Angel ran a finger along the smooth edge of the table, trying to appear calmer than he felt.  He knew he should keep his mouth shut, that Willow would probably listen to Giles long before she'd ever heed a piece of advice from his mouth, but he was worried about the redhead and wanted desperately to get through to her.

"I'm not trying to argue with you, Willow," he said in all sincerity.  "I'm simply warning you to be careful."

"Just be wary, Willow.  That's all we're asking," Giles added.  "And remember, even if it is *your* Spike and not the one that we've been dealing with, there is no way of knowing how he is going to behave toward you now.  I would imagine that the gloves have come off, so to speak."

Willow sighed, rolling her eyes before she could stop herself.  They just wouldn't listen.

"Look.  Spike has *no* desire to make me a vampire, if that's what you are getting at."

"How can you be so sure?" Giles questioned her carefully, knowing that she was reaching the end of her patience on this particular topic.  "Even if your Spike may not intend on changing you, it is entirely possible that the other version of Spike does.  While you had no way of knowing this, Willow, *our* Spike has alluded to doing precisely that on a few occasions recently.  He never harmed you or even approached you directly that I am aware of, but there were comments made, taunts really..."

Willow was taken by surprise to hear that Spike version 2.0, William the Bloody in her mind, had any plans for her whatsoever since he should have been unliving happily ever after with Drusilla.

"But...that Spike is gone, just like the other Willow is gone," she persisted weakly, even though the first shadow of a doubt began hedging its way into the back of her already befuddled brain.

Sensing that he'd gotten through to her, Giles patted her shoulder as she starred down at the table, a troubled look on her face.  "I really do hope you are right, Willow.  But please be careful until we know for sure, and even after that.  I am still of the mind that Spike, no matter which form, is hardly trustworthy."

Willow looked up at Giles, holding his determined gaze with her own.

"I will be careful, but you two also need to trust me and remember that I can take care of myself.  I do have some experience in that area, remember, Angel?" she boldly asked, switching her focus to the vampire who was watching her with quiet regard.

"I have *never* forgotten."

Angel's words, spoken with palatable intensity, hung between them, stealing the air from the room.  For a moment, it was only the two of them, Willow and Angel, and everything else slipped away as their eyes locked, sable brown to sea green.  Neither moved, afraid to break the spell that had them both holding their breath and unable to look away....

"I'll try, Willow," Giles spoke up, finding the silence between the two rather unsettling.

The spell was broken.  All too soon, a flushing Willow was turning to Giles, and Angel was scrutinizing the swirling pattern of the wooden tabletop, wondering if he'd imagined that one magical moment.

"However, no matter how old you are, Willow," Giles continued in his own dithering and yet endearing way, "I will still try to protect you.  You and the others are, quite frankly, like a family to me, Willow.  Actually, you *are* my family..."

Touched to the point of tears, Willow stood to envelop the man in a hug, which he quickly returned.

"I missed you, Giles...sorry I kinda yelled at you this morning" she murmured against his shoulder.

"Think nothing of it, Willow.  I was actually quite proud of you for standing up for yourself like that...no matter how *abrupt* your manner," Giles said with a soft smile as she pulled away to look up at him.

"Now," Willow sniffed, wiping away a joyful tear, "I think it's about time that I started to earn my keep.  You said something this morning about a demon you were trying to find information on?"

At the verge of tears himself and somewhat thankful for the chance to focus on something else, Giles quickly filled Willow in on what few details they had about the demon that had been spotted by Sunnydale citizens early that week.

"You're not familiar with it, Angel?" Willow asked in what she hoped was a casual tone.  She had quickly come to the realization that she was going to have to get used to working with Angel sooner or later despite their entangled history.  Even if she were successful in guiding the vampire and The Slayer into each other's arms, she'd still have to live with the memories of what had happened--and almost happened--between them.  Might as well start now.

"The description is pretty vague," he replied.  "It could be one of a hundred different demons I've encountered."

"What I think we need, Willow, is to see the original police reports that were filed by the two different individuals that spotted it," Giles suggested hopefully.

"Why, Mr. Giles...are you asking me, a minor, to break the law for you?" Willow said with pretend shock.

Giles sputtered for a moment before realizing that she was joking.  "Yes, Ms. Rosenberg, I suppose that is what I'm asking.  Do you have a problem with that?"

"Nope."  Willow stood up, her gaze travelling around the room and quickly finding the computers against a far wall.  Going to them, Willow pulled out the chair at one of the three computers and sat down, unaware of the looks being exchanged by Angel and the librarian.

Giles cleared his throat.  "Um, Willow, you usually use *this* computer," Giles hesitantly informed her, pointing to the one in the middle.  "You made some special modifications to it, apparently, just for these sorts of, er, more risky online searches."

"Oh...well...wasn't that clever of me?" Willow said softly, moving over to sit in front of the indicated computer.  After only a brief hesitation, Willow reached to turn the power on at the CPU, but Giles cleared his throat again.

"It should already be on, Willow," he said, tapping the keyboard and bringing the computer out of sleep mode.

"Oh...thank you, Giles."  Willow stared at the computer screen.  The information on the desktop was familiar, but as she gripped the mouse, it all felt alien to her.  Awkwardly, she maneuvered the mouse to open the browser and had to 'double-click' a few times until she'd performed it fast enough to start the application.  The whole time she was shifting in the seat, trying to get comfortable, fully aware that Giles was growing increasing impatient and that Angel was looking over her shoulder.

"Don't worry, Giles," she said, glancing up at his anxious face.  "I'm sure I remember this stuff.  I mean, if I still remember the theme to 'The Love Boat' and every line of Monty Python's parrot sketch, I'm sure I still remember how to hack into the Sunnydale Police Department's computer system...um, don't I?" she added, a little more unsure of herself.

"Perhaps this isn't the best way to discover just what you do remember as far as these infernal machines go," Giles calmly suggested, reaching over to commandeer the mouse and close the applications she had opened.  "One mistake trying to, well, *borrow* this information could land us all in a bit of hot water."  Giles turned to Angel who'd been watching from behind the redhead.  "Don't suppose Willow ever showed you..."

Angel shook his head.  "She always said she was going to, that she wanted to 'Teach me the ways of the dark side', computer-wise, anyway, but she never got much further than showing me how to perform some basic searches."

Willow swiveled around in the chair to face the vampire, a shocked expression marring her face.

"I-I said that?" she gasped.  "I said that I wanted to 'Teach you the ways of the dark side'?"

Angel leaned down, bringing his amused face a little nearer to hers.  He was close enough that he could detect the faint, familiar scent of vanilla, and perhaps a hint of jasmine, and yet it still felt as if she were a million miles away.

"Yes, Willow," he said lightly, hoping that he hadn't overstepped the ever-shifting boundaries that separated them.  "Except you said it in this deep, raspy voice...a very bad Darth Vader imitation, I think."

Willow was grinning before she could think better of it.  Her Darth Vader imitation was appalling, at best, and it had never failed to get a half-groan half-laugh from Xander...Spike, too, in fact.  But she had never dreamed that she'd do it in front of Angel.  Her grin faded to an embarrassed grimace.

"If it helps any, I always thought it was kind of sexy," Angel added huskily for her ears only, even though he knew he shouldn't.  Luckily, Giles had overheard, and in his best embarrassed-Englishman tone, spoke up before Willow had to decide how to handle Angel's obvious flirtation.

"Y-yes...well..." Giles stuttered, "As I was saying, Willow, since Ms. Chase and Mr. Harris should be arriving at any moment, this probably isn't the best time for you to throw yourself into a new project.  It can wait."

"But I don't mind and I want to help," Willow declared obstinately, rising from the chair with a determined gleam in her eye.  "Maybe I'll just stick to the old-fashioned way until I have a bit more time to refamiliarize myself with the PC."

"Willow, it *can* wait.  I was about to leave myself.  I've been here all day, after all, and this *is* Saturday," Giles insisted, but Willow was adamant about helping.

"That's a good idea, Giles.  You go home, or better yet, go see Ms. Calendar and have a nice long talk.  Bet you'll feel better in the morning," she insinuated.  Not stopping long enough for Giles to get a word in, Willow added, "I'll just have a look at a book or two while we wait for the others.  Night Giles...tell Jenny good night for me, too," she said with both a dismissive tone and a wicked grin before heading for the stacks.  She left in her wake a thoroughly bewildered Giles and one amused and hopeful vampire.

Needing to be useful in someway, Willow grabbed a few unfamiliar books that mentioned demons in the title and plopped down in the leather wing-backed chair to glance through them as she waited.  Once he gathered his wits about him, Giles bid goodnight to everyone before leaving for the night.

Willow leafed through the books, trying to ignore the nagging feeling that she had absolutely no idea what she was doing.  She couldn't understand it.  She remembered everything, she remembered sitting at the computer--the one in the school library and her own, that is--and the various steps she'd have to go through to break into another mainframe.  Yet, when she had sat in front of the screen, it was like she'd never done it before.  It was as if she'd seen the actions performed a million times but her body was unfamiliar with the movements.  Even holding the mouse and sitting at the computer had felt foreign to her.  Willow's scowl deepened as she realized it was going to be harder than she'd thought to step back into her old life.  The lie they'd created to keep the others from getting suspicious would only work for so long.

Willow had just made a mental note to use her home computer for a crash course in the basics so she could assume her familiar researching role as soon as possible, when Xander and Cordelia sauntered in, hand-in-hand.

"Hello everyone," Xander said exuberantly, announcing their presence.  "We have arrived and therefore we can now leave."  When it was obvious by the lack of people jumping to their feet and rushing for the door that they weren't ready to head for The Bronze, not to mention the fact that Buffy was nowhere to be seen, the pair wandered over to the seating area.  "And how are we feeling, Willow?"

"Just dandy, Xander, thanks," Willow replied with a warm smile for her old friend.  "You look lovely tonight, Cordelia," she added genuinely, taking in the cheerleader's flattering outfit.  Now that Willow could honestly say she'd gotten over her crush on Xander 'ages' ago, she figure it couldn't hurt to really try to befriend the other girl.

"Thanks, Willow," Cordelia responded with a tinge of surprise in her voice.  "And you look nice tonight, too...different, but in a good way..." she quickly added.

"Thank you," Willow replied sweetly, a little surprised herself.

"And where's the Buffster?" Xander asked, plopping down on the couch across from Willow.  "Oh, let me guess.  She's doing those mysterious womanly things that somehow manage to make beautiful women look even more gorgeous.  Am I right?"

"Speaking of which, I think I'll go and do the same," Cordelia added, then disappeared down the hallway.

Watching his girlfriend walk away, Xander then turned back to Willow.  "But I can always count on you not to desert me in favor of the 'primping until we make everyone late' ritual.  Right, Willow?"

"Because Willow doesn't need to," Angel informed the dark-haired youth as he approached the seating area.  Willow glanced up at the vampire to find him concentrating on Xander, much to her relief.  She wasn't quite sure how to take his last comment, but she was sure that one look in his soulful eyes would go a long way towards clearing up that little mystery--one that she would prefer stayed muddy, thank you very much.

Angel was glaring at Xander.  He'd barely been able to restrain himself from adding, "She's already beautiful."  Let alone, "She's the most amazing creature that I have ever known."  And yet he doubted Willow would appreciate such remarks coming from him, no matter how true they were.  Besides, he already had two years of practice at hiding his feelings about Willow from everyone, including a version of Willow herself.  He could hide them a while longer, he hoped.  But if Xander continued to say such thoughtless things, inadvertently slighting the redhead who was supposed to be his best friend, Angel just might have to throttle the boy until he opened his eyes and truly looked at Willow.

"Watcha reading there, Willow?" Xander inquired, oblivious to the drama around him.

"I'm trying to find something on that demon Giles is interested in," Willow answered absent-mindedly.  Truthfully, her mind was too busy reliving her recent failure at the computer to even notice what was on the pages in front of her.

Guessing that Willow had been shaken by her inability to fulfill what she probably saw as her researching duties, Angel tried to put her at ease.

"Don't worry, Willow," Angel said, casually taking a seat on the arm of her chair and draping his arm across its back.  "We'll figure out what it is before it has time to do any major damage, we always do.  Besides, we don't even know if it's evil or--"

"No!" Willow yelped out of the blue, and Angel's speech was halted by the force of Willow's shoulder catching him in the chin as she launched herself to her feet, knocking the vampire off the chair and onto the floor.

Xander leapt up, his eyes darting wildly about the room.

"Willow!  What's wrong?" he asked, his cries echoed by Buffy and Cordelia as they rushed back into the room, hair brushes in hand.

Willow was mortified.  One minute she was attempting to do some research, the next she was back in the mansion in London, Angelus lounging on the arm of her chair as he plotted her dark fate.  Ashamed for scaring everyone, Willow glanced between the worried faces of her friends, but was once again unable to make herself look at Angel, who was getting to his feet.

"I--I...there was a, um, a spider...a *huge* spider..." she stammered, desperate for any plausible explanation for her behavior.

Hearing the news, Xander instantly dropped back onto the couch, curling his feet beneath him so that he wasn't touching the floor.  Cordelia practically sprinted for the seat next to him, shifting around until her petite feet were resting on her boyfriend's lap, eyes wide and frantically scanning the floor around them.

"It was running back toward the hallway," Willow added guiltily.

"Was it a hellmouthy spider or simply a well-fed one?"  Buffy calmly asked as she peered under chairs and tables.

"Oh, um, it looked pretty normal to me, other than its grotesque size," Willow said, embellishing her lie.  "Um, why don't you check in here, Buffy, while I check the hallway," she added, already heading for the hall and away from Angel.

Willow made her way hurriedly to the kitchen, not even pretending to look for the imaginary spider.

Arriving in the small, spotless kitchenette, Willow leaned her forehead against the cool refrigerator, pounding softly on its 'fingerprint-proof surface' with clenched fists.

"Stupid...stupid...stupid..." she muttered angrily to herself.  And just when she thought she'd stood a chance of being able to work along side the vampire, too...

She didn't have long to berate herself for over-reacting before Angel found her.  At any other time, the sight of Willow boxing with the appliance would have brought a smile to his face but not this night.

"I'm sorry, Willow," Angel's sincere voice came from behind her, his velvety tones caressing her skin in a way that he didn't dare.  Willow spun around, her already flushed cheeks receiving another injection of fresh blood at the thought of Angel seeing her in such a flustered state.

"Oh, it's not your fault, Angel," she said with a weak smile, the only one she could manage at the moment.  "A good exterminator will help.  Or maybe Jenny knows an effective insect-repelling spell.  Although, technically, spiders aren't really insects, are they?" she babbled, preferring even childish prattle to discussing what had just happened.  Unfortunately, one quick glimpse at Angel and the sympathetic expression he wore, and even her ability to babble was stripped away.

Quickly turning from him, Willow looked in the sink for a dish to wash or crumb on the counter to wipe away, but there was nothing to do, no obvious task to distract her from the situation.

"Willow," Angel said, taking a few cautious steps further into the room.  "We both know there wasn't a spider.  It was me you were reacting to..."  Angel waited for a response from the redhead, even a weakly muttered denial, but she remained silent, her back towards him.  "Is my being near you that painful, Willow?"

It was the anguish in his voice that made Willow face the somber vampire again.

"No...it's not that, Angel.  I-I'm sorry.  I wasn't thinking, but for a moment..."  Willow covered her face with trembling hands.  She was ashamed that she'd freaked out from something so commonplace and didn't really want to talk about it.  Why couldn't she just forget about him?  About Angelus?  Hadn't her nightmares become almost nonexistent after Spike's strange therapy back in Vienna?  She'd even staked him, albeit via Spike, for goodness sake!  Why now was she being turned into a simpering idiot from such a simple gesture on his part?

Angel took a step closer but stopped himself.  More than anything he wished he could fold the shaking redhead into his arms, hold her against his chest and soothe away her troubles and fears the way he had in Galway when he'd been alive.  But he didn't, not even wanting to imagine what Willow's reaction might be if he were to actually touch her.

"I should have realized..." he began regretfully, his chin falling to his chest as his eyes closed.  "It's a habit, I guess.  I didn't think...."

Willow peaked out from between her fingers.  "Habit?" she repeated in a near squeak.  "Do you...did you sit by me...by the other Willow...like that a lot?" she asked, her hands falling away.

Angel looked up at her, urged on by the change in her tone.  "I've been known to perch."

"But you aren't supposed to perch," she insisted in a firmer voice, her no-longer-shaking hands thrusting out at her sides in emphasis.  "You're supposed to lurk...lean against a bookshelf in a shadowy corner somewhere, hands in your pockets and a grim look on your face."

Angel was taken aback.  "You want me to lurk about, hide in my own home?"

"No...yes...Oh, I don't know!" she whined, spinning around to try to hide her growing frustration from the ever-patient vampire.

"What if I promise to lurk before I perch?" he teased, trying to break the tension.

"Angel--" Willow groaned, rolling her eyes at his perseverance as she turned back to face him.

"I'm sorry, Willow," Angel said sincerely, taking a few steps closer to the distressed redhead.  "I'll be more careful from now on.  I don't want you to be afraid--"

"I'm not afraid of you," Willow informed him haughtily, her eyes flashing in annoyance at the thought.  "You just caught me off guard, that's all.  The last time you perched like that, well..."

"You don't have to say it.  As I said before, Willow, I remember everything...everything I *ever* said and did to you, Willow," he said solemnly, his eyes roaming over her flushed face, searching for any sign of understanding.

"Angel, I know you have your soul now.  I don't doubt that at all.  And I know that it was a long time ago, for you anyway, and that you regret what happened, but I can't just forget it that easily.  As much as I know that you don't want to hurt me anymore, sometimes when I look at you..."

"Go on," Angel urged, hopeful that they were finally going to have a long-overdue discussion.

"...I see...Angelus," she admitted reluctantly.  "I see the vampire that longed to torture me and enjoyed seeing me fall apart, begging for mercy at his feet.  I remember it all, Angel.  As if it were yesterday.  Everything that ever happened between us..."

"Everything?"

Willow nodded, gnawing gently on her lower lip in an attempt to fight back tears.

"Then you also remember what happened between us *before* Darla came to Galway," he said, his voice raw with emotion.

"Of course I do, Angel, but I--"

"Is it gone?" Xander's panicked voice bellowed down the hallway, interrupting Willow's answer.  "Did you find the big hairy evil that walks on many legs?"

Once again, Angel had to resist slugging the boy.  As much as he liked Xander, he had the worst timing.

"We're just getting rid of it now," Willow called back loudly, turning the water on in the sink for a moment to make it sound as if they'd washed the arachnid away.  "It's gone!"

"Well, let's get going then, before its family decides to exact some revenge," Xander responded from back in the main room.

"Willow?" Angel pressed, not wanting to simply forget about the conversation that the youth had interrupted.

Willow took a small step closer to the vampire, absentmindedly twisting the ring on her finger.  The simple gesture was not lost on Angel.

"I can't do this now, Angel.  I need time," she said softly, peering up at the Irish vampire, hoping he'd understand.

"Sure, Willow," he said with an understanding smile that he hoped masked his true disappointment.  "Take your time."

*****

Angel watched Willow as best he could while at the same time trying not to be too obvious about it.  As soon as they'd entered The Bronze he'd made an excuse not to immediately follow the others to their usual table, mentioning that he wanted to just wander around a bit, see if he could overhear anyone talking about the latest demon.  It was a lousy excuse, as far as excuses go, but no one had questioned him.  In fact, he thought he detected a soft sigh of relief from Willow at the notion of being free from his presence for a while.  He understood her relief, and yet that simple escape of breath cut him more deeply than any knife could.

In fact, Angel had offered not to go to The Bronze in the first place, thinking that after their rather intense conversation in the kitchen that it might be best if he kept his distance for the night, but the others wouldn't hear of it.  As much as he tried to beg off, Buffy answered every one of his excuses with a reason of her own for why he should come.  After five minutes of this type of banter, Willow had finally spoken up, albeit reluctantly, and told Angel that he should accompany them to The Bronze.  So with a small apologetic smile for Willow, he'd tagged along, just like it was any other Saturday night.

Now, standing in back of the crowded room by the bar, Angel realized that he was finally doing what Willow expected of him.  He was lurking and brooding.  Smirking at the irony, Angel continued to sip his cooling cup of coffee, studying her over its rim the whole time.  She was good, he realized after only a few minutes of watching her interact with the others.  For the most part Willow was able to hide her obviously conflicting emotions from the others.  From what he could tell from across the room, Willow laughed at the appropriate times, answered the questions asked of her, and even managed to initiate a dialogue once or twice herself.  Yet, it was glaringly obvious to Angel that this wasn't the same girl who had last sat at the very same table with them, and he couldn't help being a little dismayed that the others couldn't see the truth as well.

He took another gulp of the tepid brew, grimacing at the notion that Buffy and the others hardly seemed to notice that their friend was quieter than normal.  Even if they simply chalked that up to Jenny's lie about a spell casting gone wrong, they had eyes, didn't they?  While her face was the same, nothing else was.  Willow held herself differently.  Everything from how she sat on the stool to how she held her head had changed, matured.  While Angel could see she wasn't completely comfortable with her current situation, the redhead still displayed certain poise and grace that the 17-year-old version of her hadn't yet possessed.  Her voice had also mellowed over time, and even though she seemed to choose her words carefully when with her friends, when she let her guard down, Angel detected just the slightest hint of an accent...Sometimes British, sometimes European, but it was there.

And then there were her eyes....

While Willow had spent her afternoon in long talks with Jenny, Angel had tossed and turned on his bed, trying to sleep, but instead being haunted by images of the redhead.  Or, to be more exact, her eyes...beckoning, warning, widening in fear, narrowing in anger...and all for him.  How the others could miss the wisdom and age in their green depths was beyond his understanding.  If nothing else did, her eyes truly gave away what an old soul she was.

"Willow's different tonight," Buffy said, startling the preoccupied vampire as she sidled up beside him.

"You noticed?" he asked her, embarrassed once again that he'd been caught off guard.

"How could anyone *not* notice?" Buffy commented, glancing back at where Willow sat alone at the table, watching Cordelia and Xander dance.  "The clothes, the makeup...it's almost like she's trying to impress someone."

Angel's lips tightened and he let out a soft grunt.  Buffy hadn't really noticed the change in Willow, not the important ones anyway.

"Well, old man, since you seem to be done eaves-dropping on the general populace, it's time to join the rest of us." Without giving the vampire a chance to argue, Buffy took Angel's hand and pulled him along behind her, leading him, coffee cup and all, back to their table.

"Look who I found all by his lonesome," Buffy said coyly to Willow as she pushed him into a seat across from the redhead.  Then glancing over by the door, Buffy suddenly began bouncing on the balls of her feet.  "Ooh, he's here!"  Her excited grin changed to panic, and she looked at Willow and Angel with wide eyes.  "How do I look?" she asked, hastily checking the thin straps of her white top and smoothing her blonde hair.

"You look beautiful, Buffy," Willow replied honestly.  "Doesn't she, Angel?" she asked without looking at the vampire.

Without waiting for a further response from either Willow or Angel, Buffy grabbed her glass, dumping what little liquid it contained into Willow's glass.  "Oh, look at that.  We're almost out of drinks.  I guess I'll just have to go get us some more.  Wish me luck," she added with a sly smile, then disappeared into the crowd, leaving Willow and Angel by themselves.

Willow gave the vampire a nervous smile, which he gratefully returned.  It was inevitable, she supposed, that sooner or later she and Angel would end up alone at the table, but that didn't make it any less uncomfortable.  She would have been perfectly happy to sit by herself and listen to the music.  As much as she'd grown to love all types of music during her time in the past, she did miss modern songs.  Willow was relieved, in a way, that Oz's band wasn't providing the entertainment.  Even though she'd longed to see him play, considering the circumstances, she wasn't sure how well she'd handle that particular scene at the moment.  Yep, she was perfectly happy to sit and listen to the prerecorded pop music, try to figure out the guitar fingering in her head, and watch Xander and Cordelia dance.

But now she couldn't...not with Angel so close by.  So instead she found herself staring at the now half-full glass that she cradled in her hands, wishing that it contained something stronger than soda.  It seemed like the perfect time for a glass of Merlot...brandy or cognac would do in a pinch.  But instead she was drinking the Coke that she'd yearned for.

"I should leave."

Angel's words broke into Willow's thoughts, and she glanced up at the sullen vampire with only a twinge of guilt for having ignored him.

"Obviously you aren't comfortable having me here..." he continued, sliding off the stool.

"I don't think I'd be comfortable whether you were here or not, Angel," she said genuinely.  "And if you usually come with them...er, I mean us, then you should be here."

"You sure?"

She shrugged.  After all, not only did she have no right to ask him to leave, she still had to find a way to work with him.  "As sure as I am about anything at the moment."

Angel resumed his previous seat, and there was more uncomfortable silence as they both took turns glancing nervously between their drinks and each other.  A few times Angel's head tilted to the side, his lips separating ever so slightly with the beginnings of a conversation poised on his lips, but the words never came.

"Um, Buffy looks nice tonight, don't you think?" Willow finally blurted out in an innocent tone to break the silence, but she didn't fool Angel for a second.

"Buffy always looks nice, Willow," Angel said without even turning to look at The Slayer.

"True, but tonight she looks *especially* nice," Willow insisted, watching the blonde behind Angel, talking to a sandy-haired boy that Willow vaguely recognized.

"Yes, she does," Angel replied, finally glancing over his shoulder at where Buffy was standing.  "She's been trying to get the courage to ask Jason out for over a month now."  Angel turned back to Willow, a smile small on his lips.  "I hope she's finally taking my advice."

Willow wasn't sure which disturbed her more.  The fact that Angel was giving romantic advice or seeing the proof that Buffy was clearly interested in someone other than Angel.

"Your advice?" she asked.

"Life's too short not to take a few risks."

Unbidden, Angelus's words sprang into Willow's mind.  <It's life, Rose...without risk, there isn't much point ta either.>

As Angel watched, Willow visibly paled, the color draining from her face as her fingers tightened around the glass she was holding.  It took him a second to realize that he'd brought up unwanted memories yet again.

He reached across the table, intending to take the glass out of her hand before it shattered in her desperate grip, but she jerked away from his touch, leaving the intact tumbler behind, wobbling unsteadily for a moment before coming to a stop on the table.

"Willow..." he sighed plaintively, lost as how to help her.

"I'm sorry, Angel," she said desperately, hating her instinctive reactions to the vampire across from her.  "I don't know what's wrong with me tonight."

Angel leaned forward, waiting for Willow to look at him.  "Willow, we can't go on like this," he gently insisted when her flushed face finally found his.  "Every look I give you, every thing I say reminds you of our past."

"I know you don't do it on purpose."

"But I'm still hurting you, whether I mean to or not, aren't I?"

Willow let out a small, sad laugh.  "Angelus would be so proud of you..."  Angel winced, and Willow's hands flew to her mouth in shame for what she'd just uttered.  "Oh god, Angel...I didn't mean that!"

"Yes, you did," he said understandingly, if not a bit sadly.  "It's okay, Willow.  You should be angry with me--"

"I-I'm not angry with you, Angel," she said truthfully.  "I admit I'm not dealing with this as well as I should be, but I'll get better at it.  I promise."  She forced a smile, hoping he'd leave it at that, but he didn't.

"Better at what, Willow?  Ignoring me, forgetting the past, repressing your feelings?" he asked, surprising even himself with his bluntness.

Her fake smile rapidly fading, Willow eased off of the stool, overwhelmed by the need to distance herself from him again.

"Angel, I said I need time.  You've had a couple of years to adjust to the fact that you have to see me every day.  I haven't had that luxury," she reminded him as Angel rose to impede her getaway.

"Willow, I'll give you all the time you need, but you need to stop running away."

"For your information, I'm not running away.  I'm...I'm going to the ladies room."  Without giving Angel a chance to argue, Willow spun around and walked away.

She didn't really need to go to the bathroom.  Angel was right...she'd wanted to run away from him, but since he'd called her on it, she'd have to settle for a leisurely visit to the restroom.  She only hoped that by the time she returned to the table, the others would have rejoined them.

Willow took her time in the ladies room, in no hurry whatsoever to sit across from Angel again.  She wasn't angry with him, exactly.  She didn't hate him or wish that he suffered years of guilt for what he'd done to her.  Willow just wished he wasn't so...obstinate, determined, attentive, concerned, caring, handsome, sexy....  She sighed.  It would be so much easier if he'd just go back to ignoring her the way he had in the original time line.

Stalling, Willow was once again studying her reflection, trying to decide how much of her hair to have chopped off, when Harmony strolled in, stopping in front of the mirror to check her already-perfect makeup.

"Great outfit, Willow," Harmony quipped, her voice dripping with sarcasm as she eyed Willow's reflection up and down.

Willow turned to the blonde, a slightly puzzled look on her face.

"Really?" she replied, surprised.  "Personally I think it's frumpy and hardly shows off my nice figure.  But, tell you what, Harmony...if you like it, you can find it in Goodwill next week.  I plan on cleaning out my closets this weekend."

And with that, Willow finally exited the ladies room, head held high, a tiny but very satisfied smile on her lips.  Just as Willow was ready to break into an ear-to-ear grin for the shocked look on the other girl's face, her green eyes settled on a pair of familiar blue ones near the exit.  They narrowed slightly when she locked on them, and before Willow could move closer, the blue eyes and their blond-haired owner disappeared from the club.

Without thinking, Willow started to make her way for the front door, winding her way through the crowd and jostling a few elbows as she went.  When Willow was finally able to escape the building, she stood outside the front door, searching up and down the street for any sign of Spike, but he was nowhere to be seen.  Knowing that she hadn't simply imagined that glimpse of shocking-blond hair, she decided to walk around a little.

She only had to stroll about a block up from the teen hangout before finally spotting the English vampire.  Spike was leaning against a lamppost in the middle of an empty corner lot that had once been a gas station, smoking a cigarette.  He was back in the familiar garb that she'd always associated with him...the black jeans, tee, and red shirt, all encased in a long, worn leather duster with great pockets.  The vampire really did look like Spike, but at that angle, Willow couldn't detect the cross-shaped scar that only 'her' Spike should have.

Willow walked carefully toward him, stopping when she was about 15 feet away, suddenly unsure of herself under the blond vampire's blank gaze.  She wasn't afraid, she told herself, just overly cautious as all of the warnings about Spike possibly being different now came to mind.  What if he really didn't remember what had happened between them?  After all, that would go a long way towards explaining why he hadn't tracked her down earlier.

Willow's heart grew heavy as they continued to silently scrutinize each other from a distance.  She didn't think she could take another disappointment, but she waited...hoping...

Spike was the first to break the stalemate.  He dropped his smoke, grinding it out with his boot before taking a casual step toward her, head tilted to the side as he looked Willow up and down.

"Hello, my little virgin," Spike finally said, but with a definite questioning lilt.

Willow's face erupted into a smile at the familiar greeting, but she held back.  After all, William had heard Spike call her that several times.  He could just be the 'William Spike' and not the 'Spike Spike', she told herself.  Willow hated that she was having doubts, but by the blond vampire's hesitation, it looked like he wasn't completely sure who she was either.

Spike clenched his jaw, pursing his lips as he took a few lazy strides closer.

"Tell me something, Red, and be honest now...Does this coat make me look fat?" he asked straight-faced before twirling around a few times, the leather of his duster flaring dramatically as he spun.

Willow was running towards him before he even completed his model-like turns. She jumped into his arms, her enthusiasm almost knocking him over.  She wrapped her arms tightly about the vampire, letting her fingers dig into the leather of his duster.

"I thought you didn't remember me," she murmured against his shoulder, relief tainting her every word.

Spike held her tightly to him, his long fingers gently stroking her hair at the same time.  He, too, was relieved to find that this was in fact *his* Willow and not the other version.

"Now why would you think a bloody stupid thing like that?"

Willow pulled back to look up at Spike incredulously, the scar that she'd given him now very apparent under the fluorescent lamp light.

"Why?" she repeated more loudly.

Spike couldn't contain his grin any longer.  "Pet, what could possibly make you think we wouldn't both remember everything, Rose Smith, Violet Jones, Willow Rosenberg?"

Willow smacked him on the chest, which only made his grin widen.

"'Oh, don't worry, Pet,'" she drawled, mimicking the vampire before her to the best of her abilities.  "'You won't remember a bloody thing, luv.'  Sound familiar?" she ended with a huff.

Spike pursed his lips, looking very thoughtful as he grasped her hands in his, gently pulling her away from the street and into the privacy of the shadows.

"Benny Hill on estrogen therapy, perhaps?" he teased.  She scowled but it soon melted away under Spike's infectious grin.

"Well, I'm glad you think its funny, Spike," Willow began, "But because you were wrong, I wasn't ready...things are different--"

"Too bloody right, things are different, Pet," Spike cut in enthusiastically, suddenly embracing her again, spinning them around a few times before placing the surprised and dizzy redhead back on solid ground. "Drusilla...she's...couldn't have asked for better, Red," Spike said, having trouble finding the right words to express his emotions.  "She's back...she's almost sane...and she's all mine.  Crikey, she practically worships the ground I walk on!"

Willow couldn't help smiling at the babbling vampire.  She'd never seen him like this before, behaving like a giddy schoolgirl after her first kiss--although she doubted that he'd appreciate such a comparison.  For a brief moment, Willow was too caught up in Spike's happiness to worry about her own little problems.

"Everything worked then, Spike?  She's..." Willow trailed off.  She had too many questions and no words for any of them.

"Yes!  Everything bloody worked.  I don't quite know exactly how much my Dark Goddess knows yet, about what happened with the spell and all.  I've had trouble keeping her tongue out of my mouth long enough to talk about anything," he added with a wink and a truly lewd grin.

"Spare me the visuals, Spike," Willow groaned.  "One-hundred-and-something-year-old virgin here, remember?"

"What, still?" he jested.  "We've been back for 24 hours, Red.  What have you been doing all this time?  Checking your email?"

"Well...I...um..."

"Dropped by your place last night and you weren't there," Spike casually informed the flustered redhead as he took a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of his coat pocket.  "I assumed you'd gone straight to the dog's place for a quick game of fetch the bone--"

"Spike!" Willow hissed, too annoyed at his word choice to think to correct him about Oz.

"Sorry, Red," he said in tone that made it obvious that he wasn't in the least bit sorry.  "'Course I meant to say 'make mad passionate love, birds singing, music soaring, fat little cherubs weeping, fireworks...er, working...'"  Spike trailed off, his enthusiasm fading a bit at the idea of her 'first' being with some inexperienced pup--a clumsy teen with the wrong kind of biting tendency.  As she rolled her eyes at him yet again, Spike slid a cigarette between his lips and quickly lit it, taking a moment to study the virgin before him as he took the first long draw.  That wasn't his concern, he reminded himself.  Besides, knowing Willow, Spike was quite sure that she'd already planned the losing of her virginity down to the smallest detail.

"Wait...You stopped by to check on me?" Willow asked, breaking in on Spike's intimate thoughts, a smile softening her face.

"Course, I did," Spike replied, slightly insulted by her surprise.  "I had to shag Dru into unconsciousness first so I could sneak away, but then I popped by for a chat.  When you weren't home, figured you'd gone to show the dog some of those new tricks I taught you..."

"Spike..."

The vampire frowned when he couldn't easily lure her into an argument.  There was something wrong, and he could have kicked himself for not noticing it earlier.  Now he just had to get it out of her.

"So, Willow...why aren't you with Jo-Jo--"

"Oz," she corrected the vampire automatically, as she had a hundred times before.

"Whatever," he retorted, as expected in their little name game.  "Spill it, Red.  Where were you last night if you weren't out scratching a rather persistent itch?"

Willow sighed, too weary of it all to even get annoyed with Spike's phrasing.  She turned away from the vampire to stare back toward the club.  "That's kind of a funny story, Spike."

Spike groaned.  "By the look on your face, I'm assuming that, once again, it isn't funny 'ha-ha,' is it?"

"Is it ever?"

"Good point."  Spike dropped his half-smoked cigarette to put his hands lightly on her shoulders, instantly noticing how tense she was.  In silence, he expertly massaged her tight muscles until he felt some of her tension ease, then asked softly, "Care to share the joke now, love?"

"It's...complicated, Spike," she answered, leaning back against his chest, his very nearness soothing her more than anything else had been able to since her arrival in Sunnydale.  While their relationship had quit being a sexual one ages ago, after Vienna it had slowly become more tactile again.  Time--once an enemy--had smoothed the ragged edges of their friendship, molding it into something they could both comfortably hold on to.

"I take it your old friends aren't bearing the news of our trip very well," he guessed, draping his arms lightly across her chest in an easy embrace.  "Should I expect The Slayer and her pals to be banging on my door soon, crosses at the ready?"

"Buffy doesn't know...no one does.  Well, Jenny and Giles do know some of it, and Angel, of course, but I wasn't ready to tell everyone...too many questions that I'm just not ready to answer.  Oh, and you're safe from them for now because of the prophecy."

"Prophecy?"

Willow took a deep breath before she launched into another explanation.  It felt like all she'd done since arriving back in Sunnydale was talk, but Spike needed to know what was going on.

"It's complicated," she repeated, wanting to cut to the point, "but basically the Rom invented a bunch of prophecies to insure that history didn't change too much and that the other versions of us stayed safe until the spell was completed."

"That would explain a few things," Spike admitted with a shrug.  "Always worried a bit that the other Spike would go and get us killed.  What did the prophecy say?"

Willow giggled as she remembered what Jenny had told her earlier that day.  "Something about merging roads and weeping trees.  Basically, just a whole lot of flowery speech for 'Kill Spike and Willow will be pissed,' I think.  Lucky for us Jenny knew the truth."

"I always knew that old Gypsy woman had a thing for me," Spike laughed as he recalled his solicitous reading with Tekla.  "When she read my palm, the old bird held on to my hand a little too long, if you know what I mean."

Willow turned in the vampire's arms to look up at him.  "You know, you never did tell me what Tekla said when she read your palm," she hinted, eyebrow quirked in curiosity.

"Didn't I?"

"No."

"You sure?  Could have sworn I did, Pet."

"Spike...."

"You must have forgotten...getting a little senile in our old age, are we?" he teased mercilessly, just happy to see her smiling again.

Willow gave up, knowing him well enough to realize that he wasn't going to share that bit of information with her at the moment.  With a quiet laugh, she turned around to lean back against his chest, taking comfort in his familiar arms once again.  But she couldn't resist stretching out their playful banter a little bit longer.

"You are evil, Spike," she sighed, the repetitiveness of the familiar phrase setting her at ease.

"And don't you ever forget it, Red," he murmured against her hair, finishing their common verbal game.  Despite the easy conversation, Spike could tell that Willow was still troubled.  And he had little doubt now that the cause of her discomfort had something to do with his sire.

"According to my sources," Spike began cautiously, "Angel still bears the terrible burden of his soul."  Willow could only nod.  "And to ease his tortured soul, the great poofter's still turned against his own kind to fight alongside The Slayer."

"You could say that..." she responded uneasily, causing Spike to firmly turn the redhead around, holding her at arm's length until she looked up at him.

"Then why the long face?" he queried, brushing a thumb across her cheek as if to wipe away her sad expression.  "All's right with the world, Red," he added fervently, hoping some of his good spirits would rub off on the redhead.  "We actually pulled the bloody thing off, didn't we?  We got we what we wanted.  I have Dru, and there's no bloody Angelus for anyone to worry about, ever again."

"Spike," Willow began, reluctant to ruin his light-hearted mood, "Things are a little different--"

"Damn," he interrupted with a snarl, his eyes focused over her shoulder.  "Have to play catch up later, Red.  We've got company."

"Bloody hell..." Willow said under her breath.  Turning to find Buffy coming down the street toward them, Willow moved to step out of Spike's arms.  "Remember, she doesn't know, Spike."

"It's too late...Slayer's seen you with me..." he said under his breath.  Willow didn't notice the mischievous gleam in his eyes until it was too late.  Spike pulled her back against him, one arm around her waist, the other gently across her collarbone.  "Come on, kids, let's put on a show," he whispered gleefully into her ear.

"Spike..." Willow said between gritted teeth as she realized what Spike wanted to do.  "I don't know if this is a good idea..."

"Willow!" Buffy gasped, now certain that it was her red-headed friend being held by the blond vampire.  She stopped a safe distance away, not wanting to provoke the vampire into hurting Willow.  "Are you okay?"

Willow nodded nervously, unsure what to do.  She didn't want to get Spike hurt, but she didn't want to reveal the truth yet, either.  She'd have to trust that Spike knew what he was doing.

"I'd say it was nice to see you again, Slayer, but lies do not become us, do they?" Spike asked, straight-faced and in his best James Bond villain tone.  Then he grinned in spite of himself.  "Oh, who the bloody hell am I trying to fool?  Lies become me beautifully.  So lovely to see you again, Slayer."

"Can't say I feel the same way, Spike," Buffy smirked as she took a stake out of her waistband.  "Now let my friend go and then you can crawl back under some tombstone with the rest of the slime."

"You haven't changed a bit, Slayer," he commented, his grin not fading an ounce.  "Pity, that."

"Spike..." Willow hissed in warning under her breath, trying not to move her lips.  "Don't push your luck...."

"Don't be such a spoil sport," Spike murmured in her ear before nipping the lobe playfully.  Willow hardly felt it, but by the way Buffy tensed up, she was sure that the nibble had appeared rather vicious.

"No, Spike...please..." Willow wailed, quite convincingly, too, because she really didn't want to play.  She was sure if Buffy listened closely, The Slayer would be able to tell that her tone was more whiny and irritated than scared.

Buffy stalked closer, her eyes quickly scanning Willow for any obvious injuries, relieved that she looked unhurt, for now.  "Get your paws off of her, Spike.  Or I swear you'll be dust before the sun comes up, prophecy or no prophecy!" she warned the vampire.  Simultaneously, The Slayer was trying to formulate any kind of plan that could get Willow away from Spike without her getting hurt, while still abiding by the warnings not to harm the annoying vampire.

Spike grinned wickedly, his tongue flicking out to wet his lips.  "No, I quite like having my paws on the little lady, actually."  He glanced at the flustered redhead in his arms, hugging her even more tightly to him.  On a whim, Spike trailed the very tip of his tongue slowly up the side of her neck, watching the Slayer's growing anger the whole time.  "In fact, I'm starting to think she likes me having my paws on her as well.  Don't ya, Red?" he asked, his lips lightly brushing across the warm, sensitive skin below her ear.

Willow tried to manage a fake whimper of fright, but it came out as more of a giggle.  She couldn't help it.  The situation really was quite funny, when she thought about it.  Besides, he'd purposely licked her in a spot where he knew she was incredibly ticklish.

"Let her go, Spike," Buffy demanded, inching forward and disgusted at her own inability to do anything about the way the vampire was handling Willow.  "It's me you want."

"Oh yeah, right, Slayer.  *You're* the one I want," he laughed in disgust, but even though he was nearly in tears, he had the presence of mind to keep them a safe distance from the closing slayer.  "Still under the illusion that the world revolves around you?"  He shook his head, making a clucking sound with his tongue.  "Now, this might come as a bit of a shock, blondie, but I've seen the world...it didn't ask about you."

"Spike," Buffy said in an irritated tone, lifting her stake a little higher, "you're under the mistaken impression that I care what you say.  That anybody does, actually."

"You are so behind the times, Slayer...it's sad really."

Willow struggled against the vampire's hold, or at least it appeared that way to the enraged slayer.  In truth, the redhead just wanted to turn around in his arms so she could whisper in his ear.  Luckily, Spike seemed to be reading her mind since he let her shift in his arms.

"Spike..." Willow hissed into his ear as she pretended to push at his chest, as if trying to put some distance between their bodies, "I know you're having yourself a grand old time, but if Angel comes out and sees this...He really thinks you're going to kill me, Spike.  No prophecy will keeping him from staking you...I think he's just a tad miffed..."  Willow felt the vampire tighten his grip, his whole body stiffening.

"Too late, Pet..." he informed her in a low voice, before spinning Willow back around so she could see the action.  "Daddy's home."

Angel was striding purposefully up the street towards them, Cordelia and Xander at his heels.  With each brisk stride that brought the vampire closer, Willow felt the beating of her heart quicken its pace.  He was furious, that much was obvious for all to see, but Willow recognized other emotions etched just as deeply in his features.  He was seriously concerned for her safety.  What little fun Willow was having with Spike's game, faded guiltily away.

"Back up and let me handle this, Buffy," Angel said curtly, not even sparing a glance at The Slayer as he came up along side her.  "This is between me and him."

"Looks to me like *Willow* is between you and Spike," Xander quipped, earning him a scathing glare from Angel that sent him retreating sheepishly, Cordelia in tow.

Willow held her breath as Angel took a few steps closer then stopped.  Unfortunately, Buffy was being stubborn, and even a stern look from Angel wasn't enough to make her forsake her friend.  It wasn't until Willow nodded her head slightly, faking a brave smile and signaling that it was okay for Buffy to do as Angel wished, that the blonde finally, albeit reluctantly, backed away.  Willow was relieved, because now they'd be able to talk without her friends hearing what was being said, if they kept their voices down.

Angel's voice was surprisingly calm yet loud enough for all to hear.  "Spike, this is the only warning I'm ever going to give you.  Leave Willow alone, pack up Drusilla, and get the hell out of my town.  If I *ever* see your scarred face around here again, you'll regret it.  That's a promise...and I keep my promises, Spike."

"What, no kiss hello?" Spike pouted.  "The prodigal son returns and not even a Hallmark card to mark the occasion?  And after all I've done for you, too..."

Angel took a step closer, his hands clenching into fists at his sides.  "What part of 'leave Willow alone' do you not understand, Spike?" he growled, drawing a flinch from Willow as the low, menacing sound reverberated through her.

"Only the part that makes you think you can tell me what to do, Angelus," Spike retorted coolly.

The two vampires glared at each other, and Willow could actually feel their hatred, poisoning the air.  As much as she understood the basis for their ill feelings, she felt the need to break the tension.

"He's not hurting me, Angel," Willow said as softly as she could, knowing that Angel's vampiric hearing would enable him to understand what the others couldn't.  "We were talking and Buffy came out.  You know I'm not ready to tell them yet...he had to do something..." she explained quietly.

"And I suppose staking himself was asking too much?" Angel sneered, his eyes still glued to the other vampire's.

"Why so bitter, Angel?" Spike chuckled cruelly.  "That soul of yours have a bit of a foul aftertaste, does it?  Shame you didn't choke on it, mate," he added caustically.

Forcing himself to ignore Spike's taunts and concentrate on getting Willow away from the vampire, Angel made sure he had his emotions in check before he spoke again.

"Spike, I want you out of Sunnydale by the time the sun comes up tomorrow."  His voice was firm, unmoving.  He was still completely focused on the vampire, however, too afraid that if he looked at Willow, his emotions would get the better of him, yet again.

At Angel's command, Willow began to fume.  Her eyes narrowed and she straightened herself up in Spike's arms, preparing to give Angel a piece of her mind regardless of who heard, but Spike beat her to it.

"The funny thing is, mate, I don't think that's really for you to decide," he scoffed, drawing the dark vampire's attention to the hand that Willow was still clutching on to.  "Me either, for that matter.  *I'm* needed here...wanted even..."

Angel's gaze reluctantly drifted over the pair, taking in the sight before him.  While it might appear to the others that Spike was holding Willow against her will with an arm around her waist and one across her upper chest, and that her grip on the vampire's hand and arm were an attempt to pry herself loose, Angel could see the truth.  Spike's hold on her was gentle, comforting even, but the grip that Willow had on Spike's hand was almost desperate, needy.  Angel felt as if it were his own heart that she held, vise-like, as he realized that Willow had turned to Spike for the emotional support that he'd been longing to give her since she'd re-entered his life.

Angel's features tightened as he refocused on the vampire.  "You're mistaking familiarity and a need for comfort for actual caring."  The coldness in Angel's voice made Willow shiver as she absorbed the full meaning of his words.

"Spare *us* your psycho-babble, Angel.  Shouldn't you be off shagging the Slayer stupid about now?  Wait...too late for that, isn't it?" he added with a smirk.  When Angel didn't immediately jump to defend Buffy or even gift him with a growl, Spike was disappointed.  Before he could think of a new insult, Willow got his full attention by digging her fingernails into his hand.

"Um...remember those differences we never got to talk about..." she whispered, her eyes focusing nervously on the tops of her boots.

Spike furrowed his brow.  He didn't know what the redhead was going on about, but he knew it wasn't good.  Forcing himself to take a long, lingering--as well as withering--look at Angel, who was now totally focused on Willow with a familiar pained expression darkening his face, Spike then looked down at the redhead in his arms.  Willow was shifting uncomfortably under the other vampire's gaze, trying desperately to look at anything other than Angel.

<Bloody hell...>

"He hasn't hurt you, has he?  Threatened you?" Spike suddenly demanded, afraid that this Angel was bitter enough to actually seek revenge for Willow's part in his sordid past.

"No, he hasn't changed like that," she responded adamantly.  "He's just...different."

"Yeah, he looks taller," Spike smirked as a familiar sinking feeling began to set in.

"He's just trying to protect me...from you..." she added in a near whisper.

"From me?" Spike laughed, his eyes flashing dangerously.  "That's rich, considering how many times I had to save you from him!"

"But who risked her life in the first place for a selfish whim?" Angel finally spoke up angrily.

Willow groaned, in no mood to play their usual game of 'who saved whom the most.'  "Enough already..." Willow hissed impatiently, noting how The Slayer had begun to pace restlessly on the other side of the street.  "Buffy's not going to stay back there forever, you know."

"No, she won't, Willow," Angel agreed, regretting that he'd let Spike get to him so easily.  "So just let go," he implored quietly.

Realizing that she was the only one who could end the stalemate safely, Willow took a deep calming breath, then squeezed Spike's hand one last time, before loosening her grip.

"You sure, Red?" Spike asked, sensing her unspoken signal to end their little play.

Willow nodded.  "Yeah, I'm sure.  Angel won't hurt me, Spike."

Angel flinched at the irony of her words.  Here he was, trying to protect Willow from Spike, but as far as Willow was concerned, Spike was the one being the protector.

Reluctantly, Spike's hold on the redhead loosened as well.  As much as he was enjoying himself, he knew the odds weren't exactly in his favor, no matter what some prophecy said.  Besides, something was obviously going on...something had changed, like she'd said, but he wasn't going to get any answers with Angel and The Slayer hanging around.

But, before he completely let Willow go, Spike whispered in her ear, loud enough for Angel to hear, "Don't let the great poof get you down, love."  Then he added for her ears only, "We'll definitely chat more later, Red."

With a flourish so that everyone could see, Spike kissed Willow on the top of the head.  After adding a wink for his sire, Spike finally released Willow, giving her a gentle shove toward her friends, enabling him to easily disappear around the corner as they rushed to gather around her.

*****

End Chapter 7 (March 14, 2001)

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