* Big thanks to Ves and Tracy, my ever-vigilant and patient betas for their help.  As always, I've tweaked this part a bit since it was last betad, so all mistakes are mine.

* Thank you to Karen, who may not even be reading this story, for the second-hand Oz 'cliff-notes' via Tracy.  Big thanks to Ves and Tracy my ever-vigilant and patient betas for their help.  As always, I've tweaked this part a bit since it was last betad, so all mistakes are mine.

** This part is dedicated to Luz and Jessica (and her big bro) for answering my cry for musical help for upcoming parts.  Thank you!
 

 

It's About Time ~ Chapter 10
 
 
< > Indicates thoughts and such
 
 

Willow charged down the street, barely resisting the urge to run.  Instead, she let the ground feel her irritation with each stomping step that took her farther away from Angel's residence, the scene of her most recent failure.

Willow was incensed.  After all, Giles was treating her like...well, like Xander!  Sending her to get the food when there was research to be done.  How much sense did that make?  None!  And if Xander thought that he could take her place, well...

Wait.  That wasn't right...

She marched on, trying to hold on to her ire a little longer, but she couldn't.  Not with the truth quickly catching up to her.

Hefting her backpack higher up on her shoulder, Willow sighed aloud.  With that soft release of a single calming breath, so, too, came the release of much of her anger.  Xander wasn't trying to take her place, and she knew it.  He was simply doing what was asked of him, and grudgingly, as well.

What Giles had asked him to do *instead* of her!  Her anger flared for a moment, but soon began to flicker unsteadily.

After all, she hadn't been able to do what Giles needed, had she?  The last keys her fingers had danced over were made of ivory and the last mouse she'd held had been removed, still wriggling, from a trap in her pantry back in Greece...

Eventually Willow's steps slowed to a more leisurely pace and she began to feel like a complete idiot for her earlier behavior.  Granted, Giles hadn't been very sympathetic to her special plight, but he had been rather preoccupied with the demon they'd been researching.  Besides, it wasn't exactly in either of his job descriptions to be her personal guru as she struggled to fit back into her old role.

She was also cognizant of that fact that he hadn't been the only one whose attention had been divided.  Rusty research skills weren't entirely to blame for her lackluster performance--Willow's mind had been elsewhere as well.  Looking back now she realized that she could have made her discomfort more obvious to Giles, letting him know that she was floating adrift in Angel's sea of books.  For that matter, she could have asked Angel for help as well.  As much as she wanted to blame her reticence in asking for the vampire's assistance on his strange and sudden silence, there was--as always--more to it than that.  *Much* more.

She didn't *want* to need Angel's help...any of their help, actually, because she *shouldn't* need it.  She was supposed to be Research Girl, Net Girl, the Sunnydale Sensei of hacking...and *that* Willow shouldn't require anyone's help where computers and books were concerned.

As she neared the town center, Willow came to the conclusion that she'd just have to try harder, maybe put in some extra time during the days ahead to learn her way around the library while everyone else was in summer school or preparing for finals.  She'd even ask for Angel's help, if that's what it would take to eventually reclaim her place in the Scooby Gang.

Yep, that was precisely what she would have to do.

Wandering through town, Willow began to be bombarded with memories uncovered by familiar places.  The family-owned ice-cream shop that she and Xander seemed to have single-handedly kept afloat over the years, the bridal boutique where she and Buffy had often stared at the wedding gowns, wondering if they'd ever get the chance to wear one, many frantic late-night trips to the magick shop, the movie theatre where she and Oz had gone on their first real date....

Oz.  Willow's steps nearly ground to a halt when she thought back to the events of earlier that day.  The brief meeting had been gut wrenching, made even worse by her inability to express her true feelings in front of Oz.  Instead she'd had to attempt to appear as if nothing was wrong.  Just another day on the hellmouth...no tattered hearts to see here, folks.  Move along please.

From the moment that she'd faced her unwitting ex-boyfriend, Willow's utter inability to be herself and react naturally to her emotional anguish had instilled in her a sense of helplessness that she loathed.  That loathing simmered into anger, the anger bubbled into outbursts, and finally boiled over until she was storming out, slamming the door behind her.

How very mature for a 135 year old.

She should have remembered that internalizing her emotions had never served her well in the past, but at that moment, she'd felt as if she'd had little other choice.  Even if she had been able to freely express herself, it wasn't like she could just blurt out, "Hey, Oz.  You know, you're supposed to fall in love with me!  Hop to it, already!"  Oz being Oz, he'd probably offer her his best cute-and-puzzled grin.

And then bail.

Willow sighed, kicking at a loose piece of cement as she walked, knowing she was right.  Oz was sweet, and caring, and kind, and intelligent, and funny, and she could go on and on with her positive mental list.  Nevertheless, the simple truth of the matter was that Oz did not do emotionally heavy situations.  It wasn't just that he didn't do them *well*, he didn't do them *at all*.  While her own personal coping techniques usually involved nonsensical babbling, his was much simpler.  He removed himself from the situation, hopefully to sort things out in his own time.

It worked for him.  Unfortunately, that meant that Willow wouldn't be pouring out her heart to Oz in the near future.  Their only chance was to start all over again.

How hard could that be?

With that thought still rattling around in her head, Willow suddenly realized that she must be close to her destination.  As she took a moment to get her bearings, she already knew that the brisk walk had done her some good, clearing her mind and allowing her to look at the big picture.

And now that she felt a bit more rational, it was the time to focus on the current task at hand.  Recalling that their favorite sub shop was just around the corner, not to mention the fact that it was the only kosher deli in town, Willow picked up her pace again.  Even though her anger had subsided, her mood was still quite dark and she'd pretty much had enough group interaction for one day.  So she might as well get this over with, play delivery boy, shrug off her odd behavior as being due to hormones or brain bruising, and go home.  Home was safe...and quiet...and the one place where she didn't feel like she needed to prove herself to anybody.

At least, that is, until her parents came home in a few days.

Pushing aside those worries for later, Willow headed for the fast-food restaurant, only to come to a screeching halt two doors earlier.

Mendelssohn's Muse.

A music store, and displayed neatly in the iron-barred window for all to see were beautiful instruments of every description.  A stately chestnut bassoon stood proudly in the corner, its smaller cousin the oboe nestled in black satin at its feet.  The bright brass of a French horn, trumpet, and coronet marched in line across the center of the window box, ending with two slender silvery flutes and the diminutive piccolo.  In the other corner, a noble violin reclined in a cobalt-blue velvet-lined case, matching bow resting at its side.  Colorful pieces of sheet music and instructional booklets filled in the gaps between the silent orchestra.  Yet Willow noticed none of these perfectly polished and artistically displayed instruments...she had eyes for only one item in the back row...a lone acoustic guitar stood tall, waiting.

It was exactly what she needed to help her muddle through the difficult days ahead.

There was no hesitation.  Answering its siren song, Willow darted for the door, ready to buy a guitar of her own, but the store was locked-up tight.  According to the sign on the door and punctuated by the lack of lights inside, the establishment appeared to be closed.

It was Sunday.  Even on a hellmouth, stores closed early on Sunday.

Not giving up hope just yet, Willow rapped on the door anyway, then cupped her hands against the glass and peered in for any sign of life...even unlife would have been okay as long as it knew how to work the cash register, but the place was deserted.

"Nope.  Nothing's ever easy," she said with soft disdain, noting that the store was closed on Mondays as well, meaning she'd have to wait until Tuesday at 9 a.m. to buy her musical supplies.

Willow sighed as she turned away from the store. True, she was disappointed, yet there was still a little spring in her step that hadn't been there before.  After all, in two days, she'd be able to play again.  And in her experience, waiting two days was a breeze...

Especially when compared to remembering what kind of subs to order everyone, she realized as she continued down the sidewalk.  Now she really wished she hadn't stormed out so dramatically...would have been nice to have a neat little list, complete with everyone's choice of condiments.

"Oh well," she chimed in unison with the doorbell that signaled her entrance into the small deli.  As far as she knew, the world had never ended just because someone was stuck with turkey on wheat instead of ham on rye.

***

Fifteen minutes later Willow was muscling open the door of the shop with her shoulder, trying to manage several take-out bags laden with a variety of Scooby Snacks, along with her backpack that kept slipping down her arm.  Thankfully, someone opened the heavy door more widely and held it for her, making her exit much more graceful.  Glancing up to thank the considerate stranger, Willow was surprised to look into a familiar face.

It was Giles, looking decidedly nervous at that particular moment.

"May I give you a hand with those?" he asked with a cautious smile.  "Or perhaps I should step out of the way so you can slam this door as well?" the librarian added, fervently hoping that his attempt at humor might ease the tension between them.

Willow's eyes widened, and for a moment Giles was worried that he'd only angered her further, until he saw the grin that quickly followed her expression of surprise.

"I guess I deserved that," Willow admitted.  She happily handed the relieved Watcher a couple of the sacks of food, then adjusted her slipping backpack.  Over his shoulder she could see the familiar sickly-green Citroen parked against the curb.

Seeing that she had spotted his car, he smiled a little sheepishly, pushing his glasses up a bit.  "I would have gotten here sooner, but I had a bit of trouble getting her to start.  May be time to invest in a new form of transportation soon, I'm afraid."  He decided against telling her that he also had to talk Angel out of coming along, which was no easy task even after he'd reminded the vampire that the Citroen's windows weren't tinted.

They walked side-by-side to his car, and then Willow gave one of the tires a soft kick, as if she'd never seen one before.

"I've heard that these fancy new combustion engines can be very unreliable.  Maybe you'd like to try a horse and carriage some time?" she said lightly.  "It would go great with tweed."

"I'll keep that in mind, Willow."  Chuckling, Giles put the bags in the back seat, then like a true gentleman, he held the door open for her  "I'm only sorry that your first car ride in over a century can't be in something a bit more...elegant."

Smiling excitedly, Willow waved away his apology as she got in.  She was actually quite looking forward to the short car trip.  "Honestly, after some of the transportation I've had to endure over the years, this is the ultimate luxury."  Her answer seemed to please the librarian, a half-smile of appreciation tugged at the corners of his mouth as he closed her door and proceeded around to the driver's side.

Willow waited until Giles was in his own seat and buckled up before she spoke again.  "Thank you, by the way."

"You're quite welcome for the ride, Willow."

"While I do appreciate the lift, that wasn't what I was thanking you for."

"Oh?" he asked, trying to sound nonchalant but failing miserably as he started the car and pulled carefully out into the light Sunday evening traffic.

Willow grinned at his inability to lie, offhandedly wondering if she could talk the librarian into a game or two of poker in the near future.  "Thank you for phoning in the order and telling the guys behind the counter to just ask me if I wanted 'The Usual'.

Giles flinched sheepishly.  "That obvious, was it?"

"You might have gotten away with it if they hadn't already had one of the sandwiches made before I'd even arrived.  Oh, and the 'shall we add it to the tab, Willow?' was a nice touch."

"Well, in my defense, in your, er, rush to leave, you didn't collect any money."

"It was very thoughtful of you, Giles."

"Unlike my behavior earlier today," he said, finally broaching the subject.  "I am truly sorry, Willow, if I made you feel in anyway..."

"Inadequate," she supplied.

Giles took his eyes off the road long enough to glance at the woman beside him, happily noting that her young face showed little trace of her previous anger.  "Unappreciated was the term I was searching for, but either way, I do apologize."

"I overreacted, Giles.  I seem to be doing that a lot lately."  Willow stared out her window, watching the familiar streets of her childhood rush by.  "The Rom are a very passionate and expressive people.  Perhaps it rubbed off on me a bit," she suggested.  <Spike isn't exactly 'Mr. Stoic' either>

"Still, I should have been more sensitive to your, well, your special circumstances.  I can't imagine how difficult this must be for you, and after all, you have only been back a few days."

"Not even three full days yet."  Willow continued to stare out her window, leaning forward to rest her head against the glass.  "I knew it wouldn't be easy, and yet I never thought I'd feel this out of place, Giles."  Willow let out a slow, longing breath, and a small portion of the window fogged up in response.  With one finger, she traced a tiny heart in the patch of misted glass, then watched as it slowly faded away.  "For so long while I was away, all I wanted to do was sit in the Sunnydale High library with everyone and research the latest demonic bad guy or surf the net.  That library always felt more like home to me than my *actual* house, but now...there's a new library with so many new and unfamiliar books and...and I don't know where anything is...."

"And I was hardly helpful in that regard, was I?"

"No, you weren't very helpful, but I realize now that you had other things on your mind."

"This is true."  His voice was strained.

Willow finally turned to study the Watcher.  For the first time she noticed how genuinely troubled he appeared.

"This new demon that you are having us research...do you think it's something terrible?  Should we be worried?"

Giles sighed, something she didn't remember him doing very much.  Perhaps it was because he was driving and therefore couldn't safely remove his glasses to clean them, which she remembered as being his usual reaction when answering difficult questions.

"Frankly, Willow, I have no clue, earthly or otherwise."

"What do you mean?"

"To be honest, Willow, before, I wouldn't have worried about this demon.  As far as we know, it hasn't attacked anyone or done anything else to raise our suspicions, so I would have simply let it be.  Unfortunately, as I said, that was before...."

"Before?"

"Yes, before, Willow.  Before you came back and I found out that all of these so-called prophecies that we so cleverly used to our advantage, allowing us to keep control of the situation here in Sunnydale, were because of you."

"Why is that a bad thing?"

"Knowing what I do now, I fear our earlier successes simply gave us a false sense of security," he admitted in a defeated voice.  "We cheated, albeit unknowingly, but still...it was as if someone told us all the details of the exam before we sat down with pencil in hand.  Now that we no longer have your experiences or prophecies to help us succeed, we're on our own...like the proverbial babes in the woods, so to speak.  And as difficult as we thought it has been up until now, I'm afraid that we don't know the half of it."

"Is that what has you so worried?" Willow asked, incredulous.  "You think the only reason you made it this far is because of the prophecies I left for you?"

Giles' grip on the steering wheel tightened.  "Isn't it?"

Willow shifted in her seat so she directly faced the librarian behind the wheel.  "Giles, as Spike so loves to say, 'for a smart man, you aren't very bright, are you?'"

"Pardon me?"  Surprised by the source of her saying as well as her bluntness, Giles could only blink at her momentarily before turning his attention back to the road.

Willow shook her head, trying not to smile at Giles' apparent mid-Watcher crisis.  "Who do you think got Buffy and me and everyone else through those first few years on the hellmouth in my time?  It wasn't luck, Giles.  It was you.  The man that I'm looking at right now was--*is*--the same man who helped us survive all of those difficult events.  You're as responsible for those prophecies as I am, Giles, if not more!"

"I admit that I hadn't quite looked at it that way, Willow," he conceded, but he still sounded unconvinced.  His expression remained grim.

"Besides," Willow continued, "I've seen some of those so-called prophecies the Rom gleaned from my diaries.  They were awfully cryptic...I don't know how you managed to make head or tail of them.  Bloody hell...I *lived* those events and yet I still couldn't understand some those prophecies.  Not to mention the fact that you faced things in this timeline that we didn't!"

In spite of her colorful language, that perked him up a little.  "We--we did?"

Willow nodded emphatically as she thought back to some of the stories Jenny had shared with her when they exchanged histories the day before.  "Ms. Calendar said something about an enormous blob?"  Giles nodded, vaguely.  "And how you ingeniously saved the day using a turnip, barbecue tongs and some ordinary household bleach?" Willow almost laughed as she recalled the odd story that sounded more like an urban legend than the stuff of future Slayer legend.

"Yes, well, that was rather ingenious, if I do say so myself."

"And there was some amulet that a particularly nasty flying demon horde was after?" she continued enthusiastically.

Giles' face lit up.  "Yes, that was a rather difficult yet fascinating encounter.  It took a lot of research, but we managed to find a spell that temporarily grounded them, allowing Buffy to easily dispatch the smelly brutes."

"And the Ritalin curse?"

"Radillion," Giles corrected her amiably.  "It was horrible...for three days the town was in utter chaos...it was as if everyone were stuck on fast forward.  No one walked, everyone ran, no one talked, everyone yelled.  It was quite wearisome...all the bad manners, not to mention how Main Street suddenly became the Autobahn.  Thankfully, we managed to find the source of the curse and neutralize it before everyone died from a heart attack or exhaustion."

"See," Willow said with a soft smile as she reached over to squeeze the Watcher's arm supportively.  "You didn't really need all those rambling prophecies, but if I did help in some small way, I'm glad.  So relax, Giles.  Trust your instincts as you did before.  You're a superb Watcher in charge of probably the greatest Slayer ever.  Throw in the fact that you have the rest of the Scooby Gang in your corner, and I know you'll save the world just in the nick of time, *every* time."

Giles went all quiet then, but by the relaxed, almost proud look on the normally modest librarian's face, Willow knew she'd gotten through.

Soon Giles was pulling into the weedy parking lot in the back of the church.  He shut off the engine and turned to Willow, who was now staring out at the church with her own tight expression.  The trip back seemed far too fast.

"Um, Angel said your training went quite well today."

Still fixated on the stone building with its ornate stained-glass windows, Willow shrugged.  "It wasn't all bad.  Once I got over the, um, awkwardness, it was actually almost fun."

"He also mentioned that you managed to take him to the mat on more than once occasion.  Perhaps you found it rather...cathartic?"

Willow gave Giles her full attention, wondering what he was leading up to.  "Maybe a little, but it was still strange.  Now that I know more about Angel and why he's so...different, I'm not sure how to act around him anymore...if I ever did," she added softly.

Giles nodded sympathetically.  "We were only able to speak briefly today, but he did mention what he now thinks is responsible for your perceived changes in him."  Giles paused.  "That must have been quite a shock to you."

"I never wanted or expected my words to make such a difference, Giles.  I just...hated seeing him like that.  I wanted to give him hope, make sure that he knew he had to keep on going...for *Buffy*."

"Even after everything he had done to you..." Giles shook his head in amazement.  Then seeing the startled look on Willow's face, he hurriedly added, "I know very little of what happened between you and Angelus, Willow, other than what you've told me.  I can only imagine that you two have had some rather--"

"Yes, we have, Giles," Willow interrupted gently.  She was hoping to save them both from an embarrassing conversation.  "And while someday I may be ready to go into all the, ah, sordid details, today is not that day."

"Of course, Willow.  But have you given more thought to telling the others about your experience?  Perhaps you would find things much easier if you didn't have to continually...well, lie to your friends."

Willow leaned back against the worn seat, eyes closed.  "I know I should, and I *will*...*when* I'm ready."  She slowly shook her head, a wistful sigh slipping from her lips.  "While I hate lying to them, right now I have quite enough to cope with without being treated differently by Buffy and Xander.  I need that small inkling of normalcy right now, even if everything seems far from normal."

Hearing the pain in her voice, Giles thought it was time to return the favor she had just done for him.

"You do realize, Willow, that everything you said to me earlier, also applies to your particular situation," Giles said with sincerity.  "While I know you are questioning your usefulness, your place in the, er, old gang, just as I was, you should know that you were always more than just the research girl or computer expert."  Giles shifted in the small seat to directly face Willow and found the redhead gazing at him with glistening eyes.  Obviously, this was something that she'd needed to hear quite badly.  "What you brought, what you *bring*," he corrected, "to our group has always been more than skill and intelligence, Willow.  You...you have this uncanny ability--a special gift, really--to draw out the best in everyone around you.  And even with everything that has happened to you, the seemingly endless difficulties that you've had to endure, you *still* do precisely just that."  At this point, Giles had to remove his glasses and pinch the bridge of his nose to get his own emotions under control.  After a moment, he slipped the spectacles back on and looked back up at Willow--who was now teary-eyed but smiling--to finish his heart-felt speech.  "And I know that I, for one, am very thankful for having *you* in my life."

Without thinking, Willow leaned forward, planting a soft, lingering kiss on the Watcher's cheek.  "And you, Giles," she said quietly against his unshaven cheek, "*still* manage to always say the right thing."

"Yes, well, thank you, Willow," he replied, after she returned to her own side of the car, his smile not hiding the fact that he was blushing.  "And I will respect your wishes to keep this matter a secret from the others for the time being.  But, I am sure that you'll find their response to the 'new' you, the same as mine."  On that note, Giles climbed out of the small car, then went around and opened Willow's door.

After wiping away a few happy tears, Willow held out her hand for him to help her to feet, as if she were a Victorian lady climbing out of a carriage.  Giles smiled in quiet awe as she rose gracefully out of the car.  He doubted that she was even aware of her old-fashioned behavior.  After living for so long in an era when manners actually mattered, they were most likely second nature to her now.

"But please promise me next time I forget myself and your special situation, you'll give me a gentle reminder of some kind," he suggested when she was on her feet again.

"I'd wink at you but I'm afraid that might make Jenny jealous," Willow giggled as she grabbed a couple of the bags out of the back seat.  Then she stopped, gazing up at Giles with fiery emerald eyes that could never be mistaken for innocent.  For a moment, Giles held his breath, completely unprepared for such a physical reminder that she hadn't been 17 for a very long time.  "Unless you want to make her jealous, Rupert," she insinuated silkily.

Giles sputtered.  "I, well...that is, I was referring to, um..."

"Sorry, Giles."  Her tone was once again all sweet and innocent, although he noticed that she didn't have the courtesy to blush or stammer for the momentary lapse in her behavior.  Instead, she was very matter of fact.  "I've spent a lot of my time with men, um, your age over the years, for one reason or another, and you could almost say that flirting was in my job description."

Giles blanched as all sorts of possibilities came to mind of how, exactly, she'd spent that time.  For a moment it looked as if he might have to kill Spike after all.  But before he jumped to any conclusions, he had to know.

"Dare I ask what you were doing that required you to, er, well..."

Grinning madly, Willow looped her hand through the Watcher's arm, tugging him toward the front of the church.  "Have you ever played poker, Giles?"

*****

Angel, who was in the middle of recounting "the situation" with Jenny, heard their laughter long before the front door of his home creaked open.  Still laughing, Willow and Giles walked in, the redhead's arm linked through the librarian's.  Although it was strange to see them together like that, Angel was relieved that she seemed to be in a much better state of mind than when she'd left.  For that matter, Giles was looking rather jolly himself.  Angel forced down the twinges of jealousy he felt at their familiarity...he told himself he shouldn't be surprised if the two did grow closer after everything that had happened to her.  After all, they'd have more in common now, even if there was still a considerable age gap between them.  This time, though, Willow was the elder.

Refocusing on the pair as they came closer, Angel heard Giles ask in a hushed voice, his awe apparent, "You bet it all on a pair of sixes?"

Eyes dancing, Willow nodded, then said even more softly as they neared the others, "Best part is, the fool folded with a full house!"

"You know, if that picture weren't so disturbing, I'd almost say that they made a cute couple."  Xander's voice captured the odd duo's attention.  Buffy and Cordelia, who were both wrinkling their noses in disgust at the boy's remark, were sitting around the largest table with Xander.  Jenny and Angel rose from their seats on the nearby couch to join them.

Not the slightest bit embarrassed, Willow smirked at the dark-haired youth as she released Giles' arm and they set the carryout bags in the middle of the table, which was now devoid of books.

Willow tried to greet them as if nothing odd had happened that day.  "Um, hi guys!" she said, perhaps a bit too brightly.  "And you can relax, Xander," she added amiably, dropping her backpack on another table before waving to Jenny in greeting.  "Giles is a little too young for me.  Besides," she whined with an overly dramatic sigh, "he only has eyes for Jenny."
 
Giles was trying not to laugh, Jenny was smiling, and Angel was positive that he must not have heard the redhead right.  Until, that is, Buffy turned to him, winked and whispered, "See...told you Willow likes *older* guys..."

If Angel were capable of blushing, he was sure that he'd be beet red at that moment.  He shook his head in wonder.  Two hundred years old, and with one innocent remark, Willow had him feeling like an inexperienced schoolboy.  Again.

Not fully aware of the mini-scene she'd created, Willow began unloading the bags.  "Dinner is served," she said, piling the chips and giant cookies in the middle of the table.

"Finally!" Xander groaned.  "I'm starved."  He craned his neck to look into the other sacks.  Before he could find his sandwich, Cordelia kicked him harshly under the table while gesturing toward Willow with her head.  Taking the very obvious hint that he was the one elected to broach the delicate subject of Willow's odd behavior, Xander forgot about the food for a moment and cleared his throat.

"So, Wills, you okay?  You kinda had us worried there with your 90210-like exit."

Ashamed, Willow grimaced as she looked around the table at all of her friends' worried faces.  She even went so far as to glance at Angel, but he appeared more confused than anything else.

"Sorry if I worried you, everyone, but I'm fine...now.  Um, I'm told that moodiness is an unfortunate side effect from that bad spell casting.  Right, Ms. Calendar?"

Jenny didn't miss a beat.  "Yes, Willow.  Shouldn't last too long, though.  I'm sure you'll feel like yourself again, real soon," Jenny assured her, her voice as warm as her smile.

Willow smiled her thanks, easily catching the other woman's double meaning.

"We'll go get some drinks, shall we, Jenny?" Giles said.  Nodding, Jenny joined him and they disappeared down the hall, their heads close as they discussed something quietly between them.

With the three young people seemingly buying the flimsy excuse, Willow began to sift through the bags, handing each one what she hoped was the appropriate sandwich.  Angel said nothing as the redhead doled out the food.  He simply watched, trying to figure out what could have happened to change her mood so dramatically.  Lost in thought, the vampire was caught off guard when her green eyes rose to meet his.

"Sorry, Angel, but blood on rye still isn't on their menu."

The same twinkle in her eye that he'd witnessed during training was back, and it beckoned him.  Joining the others seated at the table, he casually leaned in and, much to Willow's surprise, grabbed one of the over-sized chocolate chip cookies.

"I prefer it on pumpernickel, actually," he told her, a half-smile brightening his handsome face.  "I've always thought that rye gives the blood a nasty aftertaste."

Willow cocked an eyebrow at his joke, while the others made fake gagging sounds.

"Do us all a favor, Deadboy...if you're going to dunk that cookie in a glass of blood, do it somewhere else."

Angel chuckled, but Buffy spoke up in his defense. "Xander, this is Angel's house, and if he wants to dunk, let the vamp dunk!"

Willow grinned.  The Slayer was sticking up for Angel...that was a good sign.

"Have a seat, Willow," Buffy said in her perkiest tone, patting the seat beside her, which just happened to be next to the vampire as well.  "You must be starved after your *very* long workout with Angel, The Slave Driver."

Buffy's knowing grin was pure teen-aged girl, and it make Willow fidget as all eyes turned to her.

"Um, I was kinda thinking of going home..."

"Well, I'll walk with you, then," Buffy offered, getting to her feet.  Then her eyes settled on the food again.  "But can we eat first, Wills?  I am kinda hungry *and* that way I can burn off the calories from that evil-sized cookie that you just know I'm going to eat."

"In fact, why don't we all head home after we've eaten?" Giles suggested, as he and Jenny joined them, bearing several cans of soda each.  "I think we've done enough research for the day regarding this particular demon.  And, to be honest, I'm not really sure that it poses much of a threat.  Either way, it can wait until tomorrow."

"What made you change your mind, Giles?" Buffy asked.

"Oh, just a gut instinct I have, I suppose," he replied, looking over the top of his spectacles at Willow and trying very hard not to smile.

"Great!" Cordelia chimed in as she got up to help distribute the sodas.

"Especially since everyone but Willow has a final to take this week," Xander said, popping open his cold root beer.

"So it's decided then," the Slayer said, settling back into her seat.  "First we eat, then we can all go home."

Another excuse was poised on Willow's lips, but as she looked around the table at the old friends that she'd missed so much, suddenly she wasn't in a hurry to go home after all.  After her talk with Giles, her mood had lifted considerably.  And while happiness still seemed more like an elusive dream, at that moment she'd settle for awkward familiarity.

"Okay," the redhead agreed.  "I just have to wash up first."

The moment Willow disappeared down the hallway, everyone quickly exchanged the sandwiches she'd mistakenly given them for the *right* ones, once again chalking up the error to being a side-effect of the spell.  By the time Willow reappeared, they were all happily munching away, and Willow was none the wiser to her errors.

*****

Willow had just flopped down on her couch and grabbed the remote, all set to watch her first television in more than a century, when the doorbell rang.

Groaning, Willow was tempted to ignore the bell in hopes that whoever it was would go away, but its incessant ringing made it impossible to disregard, even over the lure of an X-Files rerun.

Glancing over at the living room window to confirm what she already knew--the sun had set--Willow could only hope that it wasn't whom she thought it was.  Her body still ached somewhat from Angel's training, and she really wasn't in the mood for anymore 'talks' right now.

After having had a pleasant dinner full of lively conversation with her friends, Buffy had walked her home.  They'd chatted about everything and nothing at all--the usual teen-aged topics that she remembered fondly.  All in all, it had been a good ending to a difficult day, and the last thing she wanted now was some heavy, deep discussions, no matter how well intentioned.

Resolute in her decision to tell the vampire 'not tonight, Angel, I have a whole body ache', she went to the door and threw it open.  In an instant, her face lit up and her posture straightened, her exhaustion forgotten.

"Spike!"

The blonde vampire couldn't help grinning at her enthusiastic welcome.  "Surprised, Red?"

"Relieved, actually. I was afraid it was...well, you know..."

Spike arched a scarred brow at the redhead.  "Don't tell me they've managed to talk you out, Red."

"Well actually..."

In response to her sheepish smile, Spike frowned, glancing down at the ground below his feet, lifting one, then the other, and even hopping up and down a bit.

"What are you doing?" she asked the vampire as he fidgeted on her doorstep, staring at the porch floor.

Spike's face was a picture of concern, his forehead wrinkled with worry.  "With you not wanting to talk and all, I'm expecting hell to freeze over at any moment...figured we'd be able to feel it from all the way up here."

"Spike..." she growled playfully, earning her one of Spike 'gotcha, Red' smirks.

"Seriously though, Red, if you're not in the mood...to talk, that is..." he added with a wink.

Not taking the sexually-laden bait, Willow replied in all seriousness:  "When I'm with you, I'm not 'talking', Spike.  I'm being me.  There's a difference."  Then Willow stepped back from the door, looking at the vampire expectantly.

Cocking his head to the side, Spike simply blinked at her, his lips pursing slightly.  "Uh, forget the rules already, did we?"

"No...just curious about something."  Willow took another step back and opened the door wider, waiting for Spike to try to enter her home.

Understanding and now quite curious himself, the vampire bit his bottom lip as he lazily stuck a single pointed finger toward the door, arching a brow when it indeed hit the invisible barrier.

Willow released a breath of relief.  At least she could add something else to her very short 'Did Not Change' list.  "Come on in, Spike."

"'Fraid you and I have some sort of sordid past?" the vampire asked as he swept around her and into the foyer, leather duster billowing in his wake.

After shutting the door, Willow gave him her most knowing look.

"Er, the other version of you and me, that is," Spike amended, before grinning.  After all, how much more sordid could their past actually get?

Willow was about to lead him into the kitchen, which is where in the past they'd usually carried on their more important discussions, when she turned back around.  "Oh, er, do you want to take off your coat, or now that you have it back are you sleeping in it, too?"

Spike shook his head, shoving his hands back in its comfortably familiar outer pockets.  "Duster stays...have to keep up my *un*husbandly image, after all."

"Spike, you never have, and never will, look like a husband," Willow said over her shoulder as he followed her down the hall.

Spike was practically beaming as he stepped into the kitchen.  "That could quite possibly be the nicest thing you've ever said to me, Red."  Willow smiled, shaking her head.  "So, why the entrance exam, love?  Something I need to know?" he asked as he glanced around the spotless room.  To the vampire it felt more like a hospital than a kitchen.  With its all-white tiles, countertops, cabinets and floors, it was far from homey.  Spike found himself missing the more provincial kitchens of old where he and Willow had always enjoyed playing cards, talking, and drinking wine for hours, surrounded by real wood furnishings and earthy tones.

"Believe it or not, apparently Spike v2.0 had some designs on Willow v2.0," Willow informed the vampire as he jumped up to sit on the counter next to the kitchen sink.  "From what little I can tell without asking too many questions, he'd been watching me--I mean, *her*--and making the occasional ambiguous comment."

Spike shrugged, still studying the antiseptic surroundings with obvious distaste.  "Not surprising, really."

"And why not?"

Spike glanced to Willow, momentarily thinking how out of place she looked in her own house, before pushing those thoughts aside to focus on the discussion.  "He had to figure that when I was back, I'd be coming for you, Red."

Willow moved to stand before him, her arms hugging herself in response to the odd statement.  "Er, coming for me?"

Spike leaned toward her, his hands on his knees, as if revealing a secret.  "You don't think I let William really know what was going on between the two of us, do you?"

Willow frowned.  "Nothing's going on between the two of us, Spike."

"Exactly," Spike announced, sitting up straight.  "Information like that's likely to ruin a bloke's reputation.  Not to mention confuse the hell out of William, putting a dent in his demonic-yet-manly ego."

Willow lifted her eyes heavenward, more at herself than at Spike's revelation.  She should have known.  "So...better to let yourself--or at least the other version of yourself--believe that I'm doomed to be your--"

"Twentieth-century chew toy?" Spike offered with a dangerous smile.

Willow grinned, her own smile far from innocent.  "Exactly."

Flooded with a nearly overwhelming sense of normalcy, Willow stepped between the sitting vampire's legs and hugged him.  "Hope I'm not denting your demonic manliness too much," she murmured against his chest, "and I know I already said this, but I am *so* glad you are you, Spike."

Spike pulled her closer, resting his cheek on the top of her head and letting a familiar feeling of calm wash over him.  He'd given up fighting his rather undemonly feelings for Willow long ago.  Whatever they had--a relationship that defied description--was simply a part of him now and always would be.

"Things that bad, love?" he asked after a brief silence.

Sighing, Willow finally pulled back, but her hands remained on his jean-clad knees.  "I don't know if 'bad' is the correct term.  Just different."

"Well, I guess we need to talk then, Red.  And it just so happens that I brought you a couple of prezzies, one of which happens to go great with talking."

Willow took another few steps back, looking him over for any sign of these gifts he'd mentioned.  "Presents?" she asked with an expectant grin.  "What kind of presents?"

Spike eased himself down from the counter and pulled out a bottle of wine from one of the deeper pockets inside his duster.  "It's our favorite flavor...red," he grinned lasciviously, wagging his brows.  "Figured you could use a drink about now, but with your innocent appearance and all, thought we'd want to avoid the Sunny-D happy hour scene..."

Willow was elated, not just because she'd love a glass of wine at that particular moment, but also because it was just so 'normal' for them to sit and talk while sipping expensive red wine.  "You sure you aren't trying to get me drunk again?" she asked over her shoulder as she fished around in one of the drawers. "What would Drusilla say?"

He answered the redhead's teasing with some of his own.  "Ooh, do I detect a hint of jealousy, Red?"  He took a seat at the white-tiled kitchen table while Willow fetched a couple of wineglasses.  If she liked this present, he couldn't wait to see her face when he gave her the other one later.

Willow was laughing as she set the glasses down next to the bottle of wine, then handed Spike a corkscrew.

"I'm sure you do detect some jealousy, Spike," she replied evenly.  "'Course, you should probably chalk that up to having a world-class ego and an over-active imagination," she added with a wink, taking a seat across from him.

"Nice try, Red," Spike retorted in an easy tone as he set about opening the bottle, "but we all know you are completely devastated because you can't have me."  He punctuated his conceited statement with the wet 'pop' of the cork.  *But*...before this dissolves into another one of our marathon discussions about absolutely sod all, let's get down to business, shall we?"  Spike handed her a full glass of wine then made himself comfortable by leaning the chair back on two legs and propping his ragged boots on the pristine table.  "We'll talk about your non-requited crush on me some other time."

Willow rolled her eyes at his familiar wit but decided that Spike was right about at least one thing.  They did have something important to talk about.  They could exchange witty commentary some other night.

She took a deep breath and then a draught of the fine wine, letting the Merlot's smooth, rich intensity warm her throughout.  Between the two, she felt ready to reveal all to Spike.

"Angel isn't in love with Buffy, nor she with him.  They aren't even dating, neither are Oz and I.  Apparently Angel and I are good friends...he's even had dinner over at my house, and I don't care what Angel says, pizza is still dinner and still cause for panic when it occurs with my parents...and Angel's so...*not* Angel.  He isn't very broody.  Sure, he gets kinda grumpy, but he's always making jokes and smiling and standing up straight...and he talks...I mean, *really* talks...can hardly shut him up sometimes...and supposedly it's all my fault because of what I said to him in the other night (well, not really the other night but you know what I mean) about how he can make amends and that he's needed...and there's a lot more to tell you but I think I need more wine first..."

After that marathon babble, Willow inelegantly gulped down the rest of the wine in her glass and then reached for the bottle to pour herself another before she even looked at Spike.

His hand was frozen in mid-air, glass poised at his lips.  "Bugger," he mumbled into the glass, then followed Willow's lead and downed the red liquid in one gulp before slamming the glass back on the tabletop.  Miraculously the delicate stem didn't break.  "I should have brought more bloody wine."

*****

An hour or so later, Willow was pretty sure that she'd managed to get Spike all caught up on the state of the new Scooby Gang.  Spike had remained silent for most of Willow's briefing, only asking a few clarifying questions here and there.

Spike was not amused, to say the least. While he'd anticipated his sire to be a little different, especially as far as his behavior towards Willow was concerned, he'd still expected Angel to fall 'poncy-gelled head over bow-legged heels' in love with The Slayer.  After all, they were supposed to be soulmates...linked for all time.  Just like he and Drusilla.

But this he hadn't expected.

"So...my sire has been waiting around for you, has he?  Laying the groundwork, so to speak," Spike asked through a sneer.

Willow frowned, shaking her head.  "No, I wouldn't put it that way.  He said he's simply been trying to live up to the trust I put in him."

Spike snorted, his eyes burning deadly holes in his glass that rested empty on the table.  "Right, just trying to be worthy of your pure and innocent love."

Willow felt the heat rising to her cheeks, but blamed it on the wine, hoping Spike would too.  "Uh-uh!  No, Spike...there's no love here," she said vehemently.  "No *plan* either."

Spike growled, the sound rumbling up from deep within him.  "Still so naive, Willow?  Have you not listened to a bloody thing I've taught you over the years?  He's been waiting for you...all this time.  Probably from the moment the wanker saw you in this timeline, he had an agenda."  Spike was on his feet now, pacing haphazardly between the fridge and the kitchen door as he reasoned through what Willow had told him.  Suddenly he stopped, turning to face a confused Willow.  "Crikey, Red!  I wouldn't be surprised if the bastard did everything possible to make sure you and the wolf didn't stand a chance!"

Willow jumped up and met the vampire in the middle of the room, shaking her head in denial the whole time.  After all, Spike was a little biased when it came to Angel.

"Spike, you're being paranoid," she gently scoffed at the agitated vampire.  She had to think for a moment, knowing that Spike couldn't be right, but wanting some proof that even he'd have to accept.  Then she remembered.   "There was no way Angel could have known about Oz and I," she informed him with relief.  "I never told Angelus, human or vampire.  Oh, unless you told him...or William?"

"Not likely, Pet," Spike said, his fears somewhat allayed by her revelation.  "As far as either of them were concerned, in the future you were going to be theirs, and I was quite happy to let the ignorant pillocks go on believing that."

"See?  It's just a coincidence, Spike," she affirmed.  "Besides, one of the reasons Oz and I never fell in love probably has a lot to do with the fact that he never had to save me from the Order of Taraka this time around."

Spike's face fell again, his chin dropping to his chest as he mumbled something Willow couldn't quite make out.

"What did you say?"

Shoulders drooping, Spike fessed up.  "Er, well, I may have told William to take it easy on you lot 'til I got back."  His sheepish tone turned more defensive when Willow's face tightened.  "Well, I couldn't have him accidentally getting you killed, or me for that matter, before the spell was complete, now could I?  For all I know, he never asked for the Order's help...or maybe he told them to piss off earlier than I did."

Willow tried to sound nonchalant because she didn't want Spike to blame himself.  "So you see, these relationships, or lack thereof, are just a result of our little adventure and your trying to protect us...not some underhanded scheme of Angel's."

Spike snorted, not only out of disbelief but because he simply didn't know what to say.  He felt for the redhead.  She'd waited a long time to be reunited with Jo-Jo the dog-faced boy, just as he had waited for Dru.  Only he'd gotten what he wanted and Willow hadn't.

Spike flinched inwardly.  There was that same odd sense of guilt again...the one that only Willow seemed to awaken in him.

"Well, no matter how or why it happened, it bloody-well bites, love," he told her in all sincerity.

Still not wanting to dampen Spike's happiness, Willow tried to shrug it off.  "It's okay, Spike.  Really.  Just because I'm not with Oz now, doesn't mean I can't be.  We just have to start over...same with Buffy and Angel.  It'll be okay."

But she was unable to hide her pain from Spike, and with a single finger under her chin, the vampire brought her face up until she looked him in the eye.  "Say that again...next time with feeling, Red," he said softly.

Willow smiled, grateful for his concern.  "If Oz and I are meant to be together, we will be, and I won't let a little thing like a century-long trip back in time get in the way."

Spike stepped back, away from her.  "Well, if there's anything I can do to help, love...like, say, kill Angel for you, just let me know."

"What is it with you two?" Willow groaned, thinking back to her last conversation with Angel about Spike.  "Every other word out of both of your mouths is about offing each other."

Spike's sarcastic demeanor softened, his eyes falling to the floor and then darting back at Willow again with boyish charm.  "He talks about me then?  This new-and-improved-in-the-worst-possible-way-version of Angel?"

Willow barely managed not to smile.  As hard as he tried to hide it, she knew Spike still felt something besides hate for his sire...especially this particular version of him.

"Nothing that you'd want engraved on a tombstone for all posterity, Spike.  But I think I'm winning him over, proving to him that you aren't all that bad."

Spike closed the small distance between them in one predatory step.  He leaned in closer, purposely letting his demonic façade take over, complete with yellow eyes, ridges, and sharpened teeth.  "But I *am* 'all that bad', Red," he said in a husky growl.

Familiar as she was with Spike's bravado, she still shivered in response to his behavior, which only made Spike lean in closer until his fangs hovered dangerously close to the pulse point in her throat.

"But not to me..." she whispered, forcing herself to stand still.  "After all, I'm neither a stomach-filler or a bed-warmer."

In the blink of an eye, Spike's more handsome human face was in place, and he'd stepped out of her personal space.

"Nobody's perfect, Pet," he said with a lewd grin, thoroughly pleased with himself for still being able to get to the redhead, both as a man and a demon.  "So, what else were the other you and the great poof up to before we got here?" he asked as he inspected the wine bottle, hoping for a few more drops but coming up empty.

Relieved by the change of topic, Willow had to think for a second before she replied.  "Um, I'm not sure.  I just know we were friends...talked a lot..."

"Really, that's all?"  He was a little surprised by this.  After all, from what Willow had said, it seemed to Spike like there was a lot more Angelus in this Angel, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing in theory, but he doubted that Angelus would have settled for being 'just good friends'.  "Shame you don't share any of this other you's memories, ay?  Be interesting to know how things *really* were between you two.  Not to mention how he and old William got along post-souling," he added, more to himself.

Willow leaned back against the counter as Spike took a seat atop the kitchen table.  "Sorry.  No memory sharing here.  I take it you don't have any of William's memories either?"

"Not a bloody one.  Wish I did though.  Make things easier with Dru..."

"Does she know about what you did for her?  Or about Angelus?  Does she know about any of it?"

"From what I can tell, she knows quite a bit about what I did for her, and about all the Spike switching that went on when the spell ended.  She's aware that I went back in time and changed the world just for her.  I think that appeals to her romantic-girlie nature since that's all that seems to matter to Dru right now."  Willow noticed a far-off look on the vampire's pale face...he looked truly content.  "Like I said, she practically worships the ground I walk on, Red.  And for a bonus, she doesn't seem to know that I had a hand in giving Angelus his soul.  Don't think William ever found out either, which is probably a good thing.  So it looks like this new talking version of Angel kept his mouth shut as far as that goes, thank the bloody lord."

"You know, I don't think he really understood why he was cursed until now, Spike," Willow theorized out loud.  "Maybe Angel had always thought that you had him cursed only to save me.  I don't think he had any idea about how deeply your hate for him ran until I explained why we really went back in time."

Spike's jaw tightened.  "But he knows now?"  Willow nodded.  "Good," was all Spike could think to say.

"But he still doesn't know *why* you hate him so much, Spike.  He knows you cast the spell in order to save Drusilla and to kill him, but he doesn't really understand why."

Spike chuckled, his eyes glimmering with amber.  He liked the idea of Angel possibly losing sleep, wondering why his childe would betray him in such a way.

Willow sighed.  There was still so much that she didn't know, too.  Despite all of their long talks, she and Angel had avoided many of the more difficult topics--like their relationship in Galway when he was human and the feelings that they'd shared.  Also, they had barely scratched the surface of what had happened between Rose and the vampire Angelus, but that was dangerous territory and she wasn't really in a hurry to broach that particular topic.  Willow also wanted to know exactly how he'd found her in Romania, what had happened to his family, where he'd been the last 100 years, where all his money came from...so many questions that she couldn't bring herself to ask outright.

Willow's mental discourse ended when she happened to notice the strange, almost caustic look on the blond vampire's face.  He was staring at her, none-too-pleased with whatever it was that he saw.

"Spike, what is it?" she asked softly, and soon Willow had to force herself not to look away as his vampiric countenance surged forward once again, only this time he wasn't simply teasing her.  Something had undermined his usual control.  "Um, Spike?" she repeated as he stalked nearer, a low snarl coming from the back of his throat.

Stopping directly in front of her, Spike snaked out a hand, his finger tracing her collarbone.  Willow was tempted to slap his hand away, especially when it dipped lower, beneath the collar of her shirt, but she contained herself.

Languidly, Spike's finger traveled lower, until it looped about the silver links.  Spike hoped he was wrong about what he'd find at the end of the chain.  Just moments before, he'd been about to comment on Willow's "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" shirt, when he noticed her absentmindedly toying with something beneath it.  Since he'd witnessed her fiddling with the cross many times in the past, he knew almost instantly what it was.

Still hoping he was wrong and instead of simply pulling the chain and its burden out from its hiding place, Spike took a step back, taking the silver links with him until Willow's cross was fully revealed.

Spike's human face came to the forefront but his jaw was tightly clenched, his eyes cold.  "So, I see you found your little bauble," he sneered, finally looking Willow in the eye.  "Let me guess...the local burger joint is giving out crosses in its kiddy meals these days?"

Willow's eyes narrowed, but not from anger, simply out of confusion.  "Box of crackerjacks, actually."

Spike let the chain go, the cross dropping back against her chest.  "The bleedin' poofter had it all this time, didn't he?  A century ago he rips the bloody thing from your neck so he could make a little more room for his fangs, and now, with halo hovering above his enormous, mousse-encrusted head, he presents it back to you, with girlie flourish, no doubt, *and* you actually accept it!"  His voice was like ice and it sent a chill racing down her spine.

Willow had completely forgotten she was wearing the necklace, and without being aware of her actions, Willow began playing with the cross again.  It had become another one of her many nervous habits.  Although Spike hadn't really scared her, his rather strong reaction to the cross was surprising.  It'd never really bothered him before...heck, he'd insisted that she wear it whenever she ventured out at night.  She didn't understand.

"Well, it is mine, after all," she offered, lamely.

"No harm, no foul...is that how it is, Pet?"  Spike stepped away and sat back on the table, trying to regain is composure.  Shaking his head wryly, he patted his pockets until he found his fags.  Taking one out, he stuck it his mouth while he silently fished for his lighter.

With a sigh, Willow went to him, plucking the cigarette from his lips before he could light it.  "Sorry, Spike...no smoking in my parents' house.  We have to obey the rules now," she teased, trying to lighten the mood so she could get to the bottom of what was really bothering him.

Spike cursed, but shoved the packet back into his pocket.

"Thank you. Now, why don't you tell me what's really wrong?"

Spike ran his fingers through his cropped blond hair, as if trying to comb his thoughts into order.  Bloody hell, he wasn't completely sure why the thought of Angel waiting for Willow made his borrowed-blood boil, but it did.  The whole thing smacked of a setup to him.  It was something *Angelus* would do...

"Don't you see, Pet?  He was planning this all along.  Everything.  The cross just proves it!"

"Spike, we've already discussed this," she reminded him crossly.

"God, it just sickens me, is all!" he spat angrily.  "I can picture the damned pillock, lying awake all day, your image in his head, one hand caressing your cross, the other pumping his--"

"Spike!" Willow admonished, red faced, before he could finish.  "That's just...wrong, so very, very wrong...not to mention the fact that he can't really caress the, um, cross without burning his hand to a crisp."

Seeing that he could still make the redhead blush, Spike relaxed enough to shrug.  "So, he's a masochist, too.  Doesn't change the fact that he's been manipulating your life, Willow.  Just like Angelus tried to do..."

Willow thought that perhaps this wasn't the best time to remind a certain blond vampire that he'd done more than his fair share of manipulating, and not only her life but others' as well.  "Angelus?" she repeated instead.  "Spike, he's *not* Angelus.  True, he's not exactly Angel either, but he has a soul...I can see it; I can feel it even."

"Soul does not equal angel, if you catch my drift, sweets.  Everyone enjoys a little revenge, now and then."

Willow lowered her head in resignation.  Trying to talk to Spike about Angel or Angelus hadn't gotten any easier just because they were back in Sunnydale.

It was time for a change of topics.

"Maybe now is a good time for that other present you promised me?"  Willow suggested, looking up at the scowling vampire and flashing him her most innocent smile.

Spike's frown dissipated.  "It's just outside your kitchen door, love."

Willow raised an eyebrow.  "Why the secrecy?"

He shrugged.  "Wanted it to be a surprise...timing's everything, you know."

Willow laughed as she headed for the kitchen door.  "So they tell me, but good timing doesn't seem to be one of my natural character traits."

A little nervous as to what her reaction would be, Spike watched through hopeful eyes as she flipped on the outside light, unlocked and slowly opened the door and peeked through.  Not seeing anything right away, she shot Spike a questioning glance.  He bit his bottom lip and gestured for her to keep looking.

Then she saw it, leaning against the wall by the side of the door.

A guitar case.

For a moment, Willow didn't move.  She simply stood there, staring at the black leather case.

"Spike...it's...I can't believe..."  Words failed her as she finally bent down and picked up the guitar.

He noted with some pleasure that Willow's hands were trembling when she gingerly brought the still-closed case inside.  The rapturous look on her face snuffed out the last glowing embers of Spike's Angel-anger.

"If you like the bloody case that much, can't wait to see your face when you open it," he said as she reverently set it down on the table.

With one last awed look at the expectant vampire, Willow undid the latches and lifted the lid.  Resting nestled in the blood-red satin lining was easily the most beautiful acoustic guitar that she had ever set eyes on.  She discerned instantly that it was new for the frets showed no sign of wear, nor was there a single fingerprint let alone dull spot in the lacquer that protected the gorgeous golden-hued wood of its face.  Carefully, as if it were a newborn baby, Willow eased it from its cradle, a soft hiss of breath as she ran her fingers lovingly over its rich patina, letting Spike know that she approved. The obviously-handmade instrument was fashioned of mahogany with a spruce top, and had in intricate rosewood inlay surrounding the sound hole.  On its neck, mother of pearl finger dots sparkled in sharp contrast to the ebony fret board.

Although she was far from an expert, she found it to be simply stunning, making her father's look like a toy.

"Spike, it's...beautiful..."  Her eyes were still glued to her new guitar.  Then suspecting why Spike had given her such an extraordinary gift, she looked up at him, her eyes shining.

"You didn't have to do this, you know.  I forgave you for that long ago."

"Yes I did, Red.  I know it can't replace the one I destroyed, that was handmade especially for you, but I thought you might miss playing...didn't know if you already had one--"

"Spike..."

"'Course, I know most musicians like to pick out their own, so if you don't like this one...if it's too big or not the right sound, we'll get you another one...together."

"Spike, it's perfect."

The vampire grinned, pleased and relieved that she liked his present.  "But you haven't even played it yet.  I strummed it a bit myself...Had to sample the goods just a bit, you know, and it sounded so bloody rich I almost wanted to keep it."  He ran an appreciate finger down its mahogany neck.  "Try it out, Red.  Let's see if it fits."

Willow took a moment to familiarize herself with the instrument first.  Not surprisingly, guitars had changed a bit since she'd last held one back in Romania, but nothing major, she was happy to realize.  Mainly changes in shape and construction, from what she could tell.  All in all, it felt right in her hands.  Even the nylon strings didn't dissuade her, though she was used to the feel of catgut beneath her fingertips.  Finally ready, she shot Spike a nervous smile, then took a deep breath and strummed one simple chord...

...heavenly...

Willow wasn't disappointed.  Spike was right...it had a rich, melodic sound, not too bold or bright for the kind of music she preferred to play.  After a few more chords, she tried some finger-style playing, and while the nylon strings would take some getting used to, she was delighted.

It truly was perfect, and it fit against her body like it were made for her.

"I-I was going to go buy one as soon as I could but nothing nearly as gorgeous as this one," she sniffed over a few chords, trying not to cry at Spike's incredibly thoughtful gesture.  Then a thought occurred to her and she glanced sheepishly at the vampire.  "Spike, you didn't...you know..." She made a comical biting face, "...someone to get this, did you?"

Spike laughed.  He knew she'd ask him that sooner or later.  "And go to all that trouble just to have you refuse it?  Of course not, Red. I know you better than that by now.  Bought and paid for with actual money."

"It looks expensive, how did you--"

"I know a demon who knows a guy...buys and sells antiques in LA.  I wanted something from the same era as your others, but he didn't have anything suitable.  Still, he knew a guy who knew a demon who makes them, and well...here ya go."

"Made by a demon, eh?" Willow smirked at the idea.  "Seems rather fitting, doesn't it?  But Spike...you shouldn't spend so much on me..."

"Oh piffle," he replied lightly.  "Besides, William made quite a few worthwhile investments over the years.  Guess he must have heeded some bloody good financial advice somewhere along the way..."

Willow's jaw dropped, and Spike winked at her.  "A football match here, some horse races there...who knows, he may have even gotten a few hot stock tips...plastics, computers, some little thing called 'the information super highway'...."

Willow could only blink at him, still somewhat shocked.  Never once had he mentioned this before.  "You told William what to gamble on?"

Spike shrugged nonchalantly, but couldn't keep from breaking into a boastful grin.  "Just a few key things I could remember.  Nothing too suspicious, didn't want to attract any unwanted attention, after all."

"So now you have a little money saved away?" she questioned him further.

"You could say that, love.  Actually, Willow, you are in the presence of rather wealthy man...er, or demon.  That mansion we're staying in?  I own it," he informed her as casually as could be.  Willow's jaw dropped yet again.  "Yep," he continued, quite enjoying Willow's reaction, "no more slumming for Dru and me  First class all the way now...electricity, cable TV, furniture...Never again will we have to hole up in some abandoned factory or hide in the sewers."

Willow finally pulled herself together, knowing she should have suspected something like this from Spike.

"I-I'm happy for you, Spike.  I'm happy that you're happy...." she told him rather awkwardly.

"But do you like it, Red?"  The guitar, I mean."

Willow sighed.  She couldn't begrudge Spike anything, it seemed--money, happiness, Dru....

"Do I like it?" she repeated with a shining smile that even on its own could have answered Spike's question.  "Do vampires like blood?  Do *I* like chocolate?"  Willow leaned over and kissed the vampire on the cheek before hugging him as best she could with the guitar still in hand. "You never cease to surprise me, Spike.  Thank you."

But Spike being Spike, couldn't let the sweet moment be...he had to put his special 'spin' on it.

"And what kind of thanks is that, I ask you," he said with mock severity as she pulled out of his arms.

"Why? What did you have in mind?" she asked, playing along.

"Oh, I'd settle for your first born, or a few sips of your blood, or perhaps your virginity...You know, the usual way one thanks a demon."

Willow laughed, seeing the devilish glint to his eyes.  Same old Spike.  "How about my *undying* gratitude, as usual, Spike?" she quipped, turning to put the guitar away.

Occupied with the case, Willow didn't notice how Spike's face suddenly fell at her words.  He immediately hopped down from the table and took out his pack of cigarettes again.  "Better get back to Drusilla," he said coolly, sliding a slightly crumpled cigarette out of the pack.

"Can't convince you to stay?" she asked while snapping closed the latches.  "I'll let you beat me at poker..."

"Some other time, Red," Spike suggested, his voice tightly controlled.  "Dru and I have some plans."

Unaware of Spike's change in mood, Willow sighed in an overly-dramatic fashion as she turned back to face him, the guitar safely put away for the time being.  "Well, since you did change the course of history for Drusilla, I guess it's only fair that you actually spend some time with her."

Willow led him toward the front door to show him out.

"There's that jealousy again, Willow," Spike said, forcing himself to sound more lighthearted as they stepped out onto the front porch.  "You had really better learn to live without me...somehow...I know it'll be hard, but try to cope, love."  Spike flinched at his own words, and suddenly he was in a hurry to get away from the redhead.  Willow made that easy by playfully pushing him down the porch steps.

"Not if you keep talking like that, it won't," she laughed.

Standing at the bottom of her steps, Spike finally lit his cigarette.  He took a long drag, then slowly exhaled, the smoke passing between lips curved in a melancholy smile.  "See you soon, Red."

"Night, Spike," she responded with a wave, then leaned against the porch pillar and watched him walk away.  "Oh, and stay away from Buffy and Angel...it would be a shame to get a stake puncture in that great coat of yours!" she called after him.

Spike turned but continued walking, backwards, as he shouted in reply, "You know me, Red!"  Then with a final wave, the vampire turned back around.  Willow watched him for a moment longer.  When the glowing end of his cigarette began to fade in the distance, she finally went back into the house.

*****

<Undying gratitude, as usual>

As Spike stalked away from Willow's home, he found her words, her voice, echoing painfully in his head, over and over again.

<Undying gratitude, as usual>

There was nothing *usual* about it, Spike had suddenly realized.  After all, they were 'home' now, which meant the spell was over.

The spell, with *all* of its side effects, was over.

For the days, years, decades even, of Willow's living without appearing to age a single day had ended with their arrival in the 20th century.  Willow was mortal again.  She'd could be hurt or grow ill...she could age and die.

She *would* age and die.

And he wouldn't.

While it was obvious--something that should have been red flagged in his mind the whole time they were gone--he'd gotten very good at burying those thoughts down deep within him.  This had been especially true during the last ten years that they'd spent together, when they'd grown closer than he ever thought two people could be who didn't share their bodies.  He hadn't allowed himself to see the end coming.

Taking a long, mournful drag on the now-stubby cigarette as he continued down Willow's street, Spike idly wondered if Willow thought about it much.  Did she fear her renewed mortality or was she actually looking forward to outwardly maturing, eventually being treated like the woman that she was, instead of like the child that she appeared to be?

She'd often told him that one of the perks of their experience back in time was that she hadn't always been treated like a child, for in those centuries, a woman of 17 was just that...a woman.

With a sour grunt, Spike dropped the dying butt, viciously grinding it beneath his Doc Martens.  "Looks like you'll be getting what you wanted soon enough, Red," he said with regret, watching the final ember blink out of existence on the sidewalk.  Too soon he'd have to watch the same thing happen to Willow.  The end, even if she was lucky enough to live to a ripe old age, would rush towards them with dizzying speed until she was gone forever.

Spike didn't want to think about Willow being gone, let alone forever.

It wasn't fair.  After all, now that he had Drusilla back, these should be the happiest days of his unlife.

"Why are you still here?"  The familiar deep voice brought Spike out of his morbid thoughts but did little to improve his frame of mind.

"And why am I not bleedin' surprised to find you on Willow's street in the middle of the night, you great manipulative poof?" he snarled at his sire without bothering to turn to face him.  He was *not* in the mood for an Angel-lecture right now.

Angel had been making the rounds, and, as always, Willow's street was patrolled several times throughout.  Angel had been surprised to spot them talking on her front porch, Willow smiling as she waved goodbye, and Spike's joking response to her warning to be careful.

Even from a safe distance away, he could see how comfortable they were with one another, and it made Angel ache.  It all seemed horribly familiar, like some cruel joke as history began to repeat.  Sometimes it seemed like only yesterday that he'd watched Rose and the then mysterious 'husband' through the windows in Galway, similar pangs of jealousy making his fists clench and every muscle in his body tighten.

Not only did their truly easy relationship surprise Angel, but he'd also been caught off guard by Spike's being there at all.  Angel had counted on his 'childe's' usual penchant for sleeping in, which should have made his visitation much later.  Angel had planned on staking out her house, just in case Spike had decided to call on her.  But he was too late, and yet Willow seemed fine.  Happy even.

Spike, on the other hand, didn't look particularly happy.  And while Angel vaguely wondered what could have happened at Willow's house to upset Spike, the darker vampire couldn't seem to make himself care.  He wanted Spike gone.

Standing in the middle of Willow's street, about a block away from her house, he repeated the question.  "Why are you still here?"

Ignoring the dark vampire once again and still refusing to give him the satisfaction of looking at him, Spike stared back over his shoulder toward Willow's house.  "Why don't you sod off and leave her alone?  Haven't you already bored Red enough for several lifetimes?"

Angel smirked at Spike's stubbornness, breaking the stalemate by taking a single long stride toward the blond vampire, who then finally turned to look at him.  "After being stuck with you for so long, *Willow* probably enjoys having an intelligent conversation once in a while."

"If by intelligent you mean exhausting, confusing, and downright painful to her, you may be right," Spike snapped back.  While his retort had succeeded in dissolving Angel's annoying smirk, Spike was still irritated with himself for letting his 'sire' get to him so easily.

"You got what you wanted, Spike," Angel said, taking a few lazy steps closer, his eyes narrowing in on Spike's.  "You have your precious Drusilla, so do everyone a favor, yourself included, and get the hell out of town and out of Willow's life for good."

"Has all that nancy-boy hair gel mucked up your hearing?" he chuckled, unconsciously standing straighter as the other vampire neared.  "Like I said last night, *I'm* wanted here.  Willow needs me, wants me around."  His grin was equal parts boastful and sadistic by now.  "She likes *me* and my company.  How many times has Red said that to you since she's been back, ay Angel?  How many times has she hugged *you*, going on and on about how glad she is to see you?"

Angel took the final steps that brought him directly in front of Spike.  To Spike's dismay, a wry smile formed on the darker vampire's face, but Spike's cockiness didn't waver one little bit.

Angel leaned even closer, his brown eyes diving deeply into Spike's icy blue pools.  "Got a little secret for you, Spike.  You may want to pay attention."

Spike met Angel's searing look head on, the slight narrowing of his eyes the only indication that Angel had truly piqued his curiosity.

"Willow doesn't love you, Spike."

There was a single moment of utter silence between them, and then Spike threw his head back and howled with laughter, which was not quite the reaction Angel had expected.  When he was able to control his laughter, Spike pretended to wipe tears from his eyes, sniffing a few times for added dramatic effect.

"Is that it, mate?  Is that your big secret?" Spike was still grinning from ear-to-ear as he took out his cigarettes.  "I have to tell you, Angel," he said matter of factly, cigarette dangling from his lips as he spoke.  "I'm a bit disappointed.  Thought you'd be more on the ball this time around."  Spike paused to light his cigarette and take a long drag.  He then blew the smoke directly in Angel's face, but the Irish vampire didn't twitch a muscle.  "Maybe not," Spike finally continued.  Now it was his turn to lean in, as if about to reveal something juicy.  "But the good bit is...and I want *you* to listen closely this time, Angel..."  Spike paused, long enough to see Angel's jaw tighten in anticipation, "She doesn't love *you* either."

Eager for a reaction, Spike studied Angel for any sign of weakness.

And there it was....  In the impossibly dark depths of Angel's eyes, Spike saw the flash of pain his words had inflicted.  Just like Willow had said, Angel's eyes truly were the windows to his soul, and through them, Spike watched with dark glee as his words sliced through Angel's soul like a thousand tiny knives, drawing more than blood in their wake.

Spike wanted to crow in victory.  Not only had he hurt the other vampire, but he'd found his true weakness.  No longer was he afraid that Angel had some darker plan in mind for his Willow.  It was so much simpler than that.  Somewhere along the line, the *vampire* had actually fallen in love with her.  He wasn't simply obsessed with Rose or making up for the horrid deeds of his past, he was truly in love with the redhead.

<Bloody hell...this is going to be fun...>

Spike couldn't wait to dig those knives in a little deeper.  "You know, my plan all along was simply to kill you, Angelus," Spike joyfully informed him.  "Bloody hell...that was the whole point of our little trip down memory lane--"

"But you couldn't do it," Angel reminded him, the pain in his eyes only growing easier for Spike to read.

"No, I didn't, did I?" Spike continued, thoroughly enjoying himself.  "And why not?  Because of Willow..."

"*Drusilla*, you mean," Angel scoffed in return.  He knew the other vampire was just trying to get under his skin now, and yet he couldn't bring himself to walk away and end the torture.

Spike shrugged.  "Both, actually.  But I must say that I'm glad I didn't kill you, Angelus."

Angel didn't buy it for a second.  "Oh, really?"

A slow smile of gloating enveloped Spike's face.  "I truly am, because...if I had killed you, Angelus, I never would have had the pleasure of watching you suffer...."

Angel tilted his head as he stared down at Spike.  "Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, Spike, but I'm far from suffering."

"Really?" he laughed, loving the challenge.  "Let's test your little theory again, shall we?"  Spike pursed his lips for a moment, wanting to savor what was about to come.  "Willow...doesn't...love...you..." he repeated slowly and distinctly, punctuating each word with as much spite as he could muster.  But there was more.  "And she *never* will, *Angelus*."

Angel's only outward reaction was to close his eyes as Spike spoke, but inwardly he was a whirlwind of conflicting emotions...pain, jealousy, anger, hate, regret, longing.  Again, history seemed to be repeating, time folding in on itself, but Angel refused to show such weakness to the vampire that had betrayed him.  And Spike wasn't through yet.

"Does she still flinch when you look at her, Angelus?  Does she still avoid your eyes, and tense up whenever you come in the room, as if she's fighting her instincts to run as far away from you as possible?"  Spike leaned in to whisper his dark words of torment directly into his sire's ear.  "Does she shudder when you touch her...when you say her name?  Can you still see the fresh horror and pain in her eyes from when you tried to kill her, or worse, in the woods not three days ago?"

Angel had to swallow the temptation to throw Spike down and drive a stake through this undead heart, ending his existence and Angel's torment.  At the same time, he was fighting a nearly overwhelming desire to sink to his knees in despair.  Because Spike was right...everything he had just said was right.

Between long draws of his cigarette, Spike's torture continued.  "She doesn't love you, Angelus."  He dug even deeper, wishing that Angel would open his eyes so that he could revel in the anguish and misery he was obviously causing.  "And she *never* will.  I mean, how could she ever really forgive you, Angelus?  Oh, she'll try...she'll say the words."  He chuckled, shaking his head.  "Bloody hell...knowing her, she's already assured you that there's no hard feelings, that she understands that you're 'different now'..." Spike spat the words out.  "She may even *want* to forgive you, in time, but in her dreams, her nightmares...in her *heart*, she will *always* think of you as the vampire that you were, Angelus...."

This time, Angel couldn't control his reactions, his face contorting into the mask of pain that Spike had been longing to see.  Angel staggered back, away from the sound of Spike's voice, and still Spike wouldn't let up.

He clucked his tongue a few times, saying, "*And* you've waited how long for her, only to find that she's madly in love with the wolf?"  Spike let out a purposeful sigh.  "'Course, she told me all about what happened.  Poured her heart out about how she and the boy aren't involved in this timeline."  Spike shook his head sadly.  "So, how ever did you manage that, Angelus?  How did you come between Willow and her one true love?"  While Spike didn't actually believe that the wolf was Willow's one true love, he spread it on thick, wanting to really take advantage of the pain he'd already caused his sire.

Angel's eyes flew open, fixing immediately on Spike's.  "I did nothing," he answered in a hoarse whisper.

Spike smirked, taking another puff.  "Sure, mate.  Whatever you say," he said in a dismissive tone.  Thinking he'd given the vampire enough to brood over for one night, Spike turned as if to leave.  And yet he couldn't resist one more dig.

"Pretty pathetic if you ask me..."

"Which I didn't."

"Waiting around a hundred years for a woman that doesn't even want you...never did, really..."

"Almost as pathetic as going back in time to try and win her back," Angel retorted, a little anger breaking through his despair.

Spike didn't even flinch.  "Ah, but which of us will be holding someone when we go to bed, and which of us will only be holding himself?  But then, you're probably used to that by now...Unlike me, that is," he ended with a lascivious grin, his tongue flicking out to wet his lips.

"You disgust me, Spike."

<Like father, like son> he responded, but only in his head.  He'd save that fun-filled discussion for their next encounter.

"Let me give you one more piece of advice, Angel."

"You know what you can do with your advice, Spike."

"Trust me...you'll want to hear this one."

Angel didn't respond, but he didn't' walk away, either.  He wouldn't give Spike the satisfaction.

"Go back to the Slayer, Angel," Spike advised in all seriousness.  "Willow is way out of your league.  Always has been.  Always will be."

With a final smirk, Spike dropped his cigarette, and walked away, not bothering to grind out the smoldering stub and leaving Angel alone with his thoughts and his pain.

*****

Sitting cross-legged on her bed, Willow decided it was about time that she and her new guitar became better acquainted.  After an hour of losing herself in the instrument, Willow reluctantly stopped playing.  Although she was feeling more like herself again, not only were her fingers not used to the nylon strings quite yet, she also thought that it was about time she revived another of her hobbies from 'the old days'.  And considering all the new information she had swimming around in her brain, it seemed like the perfect night to start a new journal.

After putting her guitar away, Willow went to her desk and dug out a pen and an old notebook.  It wasn't quite as elegant as the old leather-covered journals she used to pour her heart out into, but she certainly didn't mind using a brand new Bic.

"Hold on..." she mumbled to herself, the tip of the pen already in her mouth.  "I used to keep a diary around here somewhere...might as well use that."  Willow had to think for a minute before remembering that she used to keep the baby-blue book under her mattress.

Which is exactly where she found it.

Getting comfortable on her bed, propped up by several pillows, Willow opened her 'childhood' diary, ready to add a new chapter to her life, when she finally realized what she held in her hand.

Her diary.

Not *her* diary, but the other Willow's diary.

"Bloody hell..." Willow said aloud.  "I might not have her memories, but I hold in my hand the next best thing..."

Glancing at the date on the first page, Willow was relieved to find that it began during the summer before Buffy's arrival.

Perfect.  Hopefully, she wouldn't have to go digging through her closet for wherever she'd hid the earlier ones.

Her plans to record her own thoughts completely forgotten, Willow began to read about a girl named Willow....
*****

End Chapter 10  (archived 6/28/01)  Not sure when the next chapter will be ready...sorry.
 

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