* Big thanks to my tireless betas Tracy and Ves for their help, patience, and encouragement.  Also a big nod to Melissa for the 'TNT' line and the pom-poms!

**DEDICATION:  For everyone who is just now finding my fic and reading Take Your Time/It's About Time for the first time, and also for everyone who has been reading my fic since I first started 'Take Your Time' nearly FOUR years ago.
 
 
 

It's About Time ~ Chapter 13
 

The fifth day since Willow's return began as a beautiful summer morning.  A soft breeze drifted in through her open balcony doors, carrying the warm scent of newly mowed grass, a hint of salty sea air, and the sickly sweet bouquet of rotting roses.

Willow took a deep breath, not to deliberately sample the fresh air but in order to steel herself for what she'd find when she finally gathered the courage to open her eyes.

She was standing before her full-length mirror, her eyelids squeezed tightly shut behind trembling hands.  While mornings universally meant the start of a brand new day, this particular morning meant much more to Willow. It was truth time, as far as her mortality was concerned.

From the very second she had awakened after a fitful night's sleep, Willow had successfully resisted the nearly overwhelming urge to run her fingers through her hair. Instead, she'd gotten out of bed and with shaking hands threw open her balcony doors to let the morning sun brighten the room.  If all went well, the rays would fall upon hair that was still relatively short and fiery red.  If not...well, Willow didn't want to think about that right now.

Another deep breath, a whispered prayer to anyone or anything who might be listening, and then Willow slowly opened her eyes, which were still blanketed behind her hands.  Then, even more carefully, she parted *only* the fingers that covered the right eye and saw...

...short, red hair.

At the sight of her brilliant-red cropped locks shining in the sun, Willow sank to her knees while still managing to keep her left eye hidden.  Cautiously, as if afraid to trust only her right eye, she finally lowered both hands to really study her image.

Except for the fact that her hair was thoroughly mussed from sleep, not to mention sticking up in a few places, it was the same hair she'd gone to bed with.  It hadn't miraculously grown back and the color hadn't changed, which could mean only one thing.

"You're human again, Willow Rosenberg," she told her smiling reflection.  "Congratulations!"

After jumping up and down with glee, not to mention a few hoots and hollers that could wake the dead, Willow's next thought was to...well, actually wake the dead.  She wanted to share the news with Spike.  Her hand stopped before it reached the phone, then fell back to her side.  Unfortunately, she hadn't thought to get his cell phone number when he'd called the night before, and she doubted that Drusilla would appreciate her showing up on their doorstep, even if it was to hear Willow say, "Good news, Spike!  Guess who's finally going to age and die?"  Looked like the glad tidings would have to wait for Spike's next impromptu visit.

Still wearing a goofy grin, Willow collapsed back on her bed, arms spread wide as she stared up at the ceiling.  Her smile faded somewhat.  She wanted to cry and scream and shout...she wanted to share her enormous sense of relief and joy with someone, anyone, but in her heart she knew that there was no one who'd understand.  In truth, even if Spike were more easily accessible, Willow wasn't quite sure how he'd take the news.

Willow flipped on to her stomach, resting her head on her hands as she stared at the phone.  She knew that it was a little strange to be relieved that her immortality was gone.  It wasn't that she was in a hurry to die, or even grow old, for that matter, but the idea of watching her friends and family age and die while she stayed the same threatened to reopen the floodgates of guilt.  She already felt bad enough about many of the changes she'd wrought, albeit unintentionally, but those feelings of remorse would only be a trickle compared to the deluge of guilt that continued immortality would create.  Who am I to live when Buffy, probably the greatest Slayer ever, is destined to die young? she'd often asked herself throughout the years.

But in Willow's shrewd mind, guilt wasn't the only downside of immortality.  From her short stint as an immortal, she'd already had a taste of the kind of loneliness it could bring.  Having spent much of the time alone, the journey had left her with a bitter, hollow feeling, a cold ache that could still creep in on long sleepless nights and even longer empty days.  Curling into a ball, hoping to stave of the icy stab of isolation, Willow hugged her pillow tight.

It was easier for vampires, she figured.  They hung around with their own kind, other ageless demons, without many attachments to mortals.  If any strange relationship did develop between vampire and human, she doubted the latter remained human for very long.  But she didn't want to be a vampire, no matter what the payoff.  Not even a vampire with a soul, like Angel, or one with phenomenal willpower and the ability to love, like Spike.

Spike had sometimes teased her about what a great vampire she'd make, but she would just laugh and wave the comment away, usually retorting something like: "I don't think you want to be stuck with me for eternity, Spike.  Just imagine how much money you'd lose to me in poker!  Besides, I like you too much to do that to you...eternity with me, dead or alive, might make you take up stake whittling as a hobby..."

Spike's usual response was a half-hearted chuckle, a comment that it would take more than an eternity for her to beat him in poker, and then a quick change of subject.  Willow knew Spike cared about her, and because of that, he'd have mixed feelings about her eventual death.  But Spike also knew her better than anyone else ever had and possibly ever would, which meant that he would know how she felt about immortality, whether it resulted from a spell or from being a vampire.  Willow had complete faith that Spike would respect her wishes.

With that sobering thought, Willow climbed back out of bed to have another look at herself in the mirror. She smiled at her short-haired reflection.  In her opinion, she definitely looked more than 17 years old.  Maybe she could even pass for 21 on a good day...or better yet, on a *bad night*, she thought with a mischievous grin.  She wouldn't mind being able to purchase the occasional glass of wine or pint of ale, and hated the idea of having to wait until she physically looked old enough.

"And now it's finally safe to have sex!" a little voice inside her head said out of nowhere.  Willow's eyes rounded at her own thoughts.  Where the heck did that come from? she wondered.  Most likely, it had more than a little to do with her dreams that night.  She couldn't recall many details, but she remembered enough to bring a blush to her cheeks and make her skin tingle deliciously.

"Well, at least they made a nice change from nightmares," she told herself as she happily skipped down the hall toward the bathroom.

After showering and getting dressed, Willow spent the rest of the morning brushing up on her computer skills.  Unfortunately, while she'd been trying very hard to give the computer her complete attention, fully applying herself to rediscovering her previous skills and love for the microprocessor, Willow found that her attention kept drifting.  Her gaze wandered as well, often landing longingly on her guitar, which was propped up in the corner, silently begging for her attention. In the end, the only way she could fight her desire to cradle the instrument in her arms and lose herself in music was by forcing herself to shut the guitar in its case and shove it in the closet.  Out of sight, out of mind, right?  Another erroneous platitude for which the author should be drawn and quartered, Willow thought to herself as she practiced some very basic hacking over and over again.  It was annoying at best, depressing at worst, to have to relearn skills that once came to her so easily and that she could still feel tugging at the fringes of her memory, when music came so easily to her now. But this was important, she reminded herself.  The others needed her computer proficiency, not her musical abilities.

In the end, Willow's efforts paid off.  After several hours, she felt more comfortable with the computer as many of her previous skills began to come back to her.  Willow felt more ready than ever to assume some of her old duties.

Fully prepared to act as if nothing had ever happened between her and Angelus, and as if Spike had never told her that he suspected Angel of being in love with her--in other words, fully prepared to be anything but herself--Willow headed to Slayer Central to meet up with the others, as expected.

"Yep, all I have to do is make it through this day without behaving like there's something special between Angel and me, then everything can finally start getting back to normal around here..." Willow muttered to herself in encouragement just before she opened the door to Slayer Central.

Xander looked up as Willow walked in.  She couldn't help grinning when she saw him leaning against one of the bookcases, leafing through what appeared to be a Witchblade comic.

"Afternoon, Xander."

"Hey, Wills!" Xander grinned up at her.  "May I take this opportunity to tell you that I'm still lovin' your new look?"

"You may, you just did, and thank you, kind sir," Willow laughed, bobbing a little curtsy.  Next she expected him to question her about the tattoos and piercings that she'd fibbed about the night before, but instead his smile faded as he took a closer look at her.

"Willow...where's your T-shirt?"

Willow glanced down at her plain black v-neck tee, tucked neatly into a pair of faded Levi's.  "Um, T-shirt?" she asked, glancing back up at Xander in confusion.

Xander flashed her the black tee he was wearing partially hidden under a Hawaiian shirt.  The T-shirt read in bold, crimson letters: 'Present Company Excluded'.  "You must have reminded us all a thousand times to wear this shirt today, and yet you waltz in here wearing a shirt completely devoid of clever sayings!"

Willow wanted to scratch her head and say:  "Huh?" but she restrained herself, keeping her outward appearance calm and somewhat apologetic.  "Oh, sorry," she said in a genuine tone, yet she grimaced on the inside, wondering when she was going to be able to quit apologizing for all of the things she'd 'forgotten'. Sure, she could have lied, claiming it was eaten by the dryer, that she'd spilt bleach on it, or that it had been stolen by the infamous laundry gnomes to join all the missing socks of the world, but she figured she'd told her friends enough lies lately.  So many she was afraid she's start slipping up.  Besides, sometimes playing stupid was simply easier. "It, uh, completely slipped my mind, Xander."

"Come on, Willow, how could you forget?  You'd even written it on my day planner!"

"*You* have a day planner?"  Cordy asked, hardly able to stifle a laugh as she wandered in from the back room.  The cheerleader was wearing a shirt similar to Xander's, although it was of a more feminine style, and much, much tighter.  As she walked by, Willow noticed that the back of the shirt also had the words: 'No Offense, Angel'.  Willow grinned as it all started to make sense.  It was a cute idea.

Shrugging, Xander took the can of soda Cordelia offered him.  "I do now.  Willow gave it to me, just so she could remind me about 'T-shirt Tuesday'."  He emphasized the last few words, giving Willow a frustrated look.

"Well, if she's not wearing hers, I'm not wearing mine!" Cordelia exclaimed, obviously not sharing her boyfriend's disappointment.  She glanced down at her own shirt with distaste.  "Message T-shirts are so out.  I feel like I should be at one of those Star Track conventions or something."

"It's Star *Trek*, sweetie."

"That's what I said!  Besides, this was all Willow's idea just because she wanted to make Angel feel more comfortable."

Xander gave Willow one of his 'please forgive Cordelia, she knows not what she says' looks.  "Yeah, that and it seems like every time we begin talking about demons and vampires one of us always ends up saying either 'No offense' or  'Present Company Excluded' to Angel.  The way I figure it, these babies should save each of us about 1000 words a year."  He looked at his girlfriend, who was raising a neatly groomed brow at him.  "Yeah, I did the math."

Cordelia rolled her eyes as she took a seat at the nearest table and began taking books out of her backpack.  "They way I look at it, *he's* the vampire, we're the humans," she said as she fished around in the bag for her pen.  "You don't see Angel wearing a shirt that says, 'Soul intact: No garlic or crosses required', do you?"
 
"Are you really afraid Angel's going to turn on us one day and feast on our tasty innards?" Xander asked his girlfriend skeptically.

"No, but I don't see why I have to commit fashion-ocide just because Willow's got a crush on Angel."  She turned her attention to the surprised redhead, who'd been trying very hard to stay out of the Angel-oriented conversation.  "Gap?"

Willow could only blink at her.

"Your shirt," Cordelia added, a familiar hint of exasperation making her voice sound sharp, even in the large room.  "Where'd you get it?"

"Oh, *The* Gap...yeah, I think that's where I bought it.  It's all kind of a blur now."

"Faded jeans and a black tee aren't exactly the height of fashion, Willow, but it's summer, so..."

Willow groaned.  Was Cordy going to rate every outfit she wore for the next few weeks?  If she did, Cordy was bound to be disappointed, so Willow thought to prepare the cheerleader...soften the blow a little.  "Cordelia, I'll leave you to continue being the fashionable one.  I was simply going for comfort..."  As in no corsets, no whalebone, no tight bodices, no pointy-toed shoes, no scratchy lace or umpteen layers of undergarments...she could go on and on and on...

Frowning, Cordelia opened her mouth to reply, but at that moment Buffy walked in.  "Howdy all!" she said brightly as she dropped her duffel bag on the floor with the others' backpacks.  She slid onto the table across from Cordelia. "So, am I late?  Is Angel up and about already?  Did my tardiness ruin the surprise of T-shirt Tuesday?"

Cordelia jerked a thumb at Willow.  "Willow forgot," she said in unison with Xander.

The Slayer's eyes widened in clear surprise as she finally took in Willow's attire.  "Willow!  Buffy scolded gently.  "How could you forget T-shirt Tuesday?"

This was going to be a long day, Willow found herself thinking.  Maybe I should slip out now on the pretense of getting my shirt and then come up with some excuse not to come back? she silently schemed, then immediately felt guilty for the thought and shoved it aside.  Still, the looks they were giving her weren't exactly making her feel at home...she wondered if anything could.

Pushing those thoughts aside as well, she smiled sheepishly at her friends.  "Sorry, guys.  It just sorta slipped my mind with everything else that's going on.  What if I promise to wear it twice next week?  Will you forgive me then?" she teased lightly, while at the same time wondering where her 'Angel T-shirt' actually was.  She definitely hadn't seen it during her big closet clean out the day before.  Maybe it was in The Pink Room?

"We'll forgive you this time, Willow," Buffy said with fake seriousness, yet Willow thought she detected more than a note of genuine gravity in her voice.  And the look in Buffy's eye made it apparent that the Slayer was concerned about something.  As Buffy continued in a lower voice, Willow began to understand the reason for her the somber tone. "With the mood Angel's been in lately, maybe we should try to wear the shirts every day...see if that'll cheer him up a little."

Xander sidled up to Willow, his voice a conspiratorial whisper as he glanced toward the hallway that led to the bedrooms, obviously checking for Angel.  He put a friendly arm around her shoulders.  "Yeah, Wills.  What's up with The Soul Man lately?"

Willow felt nauseous.  She really didn't enjoy lying to them or hiding her past and her relationships with Angelus and Spike, but something strong and compelling rooted deep within wouldn't allow Willow to tell them the truth.  Not yet.

Nevertheless, as Willow looked at the worried faces of her friends, her guilt almost got the better of her...at least until Buffy opened her mouth again.

"Did you two have a fight or something?" Buffy asked in a teasing tone that Willow found strangely grating.

"Yeah," Xander chimed in, giving her shoulders another amiable squeeze.  "You two are usually joined at the hip, but lately you're hips have been swaying solo."

Not liking the turn in the conversation, Willow forced an innocent smile.  "Stop exaggerating, Xander.  We're just friends.  Now, aren't you three supposed to be studying for a final?" she asked, hoping to change the subject.

Cordelia looked up from her notes.  "Oh, please," she groaned as if Willow hadn't even spoken.  "You two are so cute together lately, what with all the angst and tension and all, that it's nauseating to watch.  We've just been waiting for at least one of you to wake up and see the smoochie potential."

Willow thought, and not for the first time, what an inane word 'smoochie' actually was.  "Uh, uh.  No, er, smoochies.  No kissing either," she added for her own amusement.

Hoping to escape her friends' embarrassing onslaught, Willow tried to duck under Xander's arm, but Buffy chose that moment to slide off the table and come to her side, effectively sandwiching Willow between her two well-meaning friends.

Willow knew what was coming; she could see the sympathy in Buffy's eyes...in all of their eyes, actually.  "What's wrong?" Buffy asked gently.  "Something was obviously up between you two last night.  Did you and Angel have an argument?"

"Angel and I aren't fighting," Willow repeated.  "We're just friends, nothing more.  Everything's fine," she lied in an even tone, but her friends looked skeptical.  "I think we both just have other things on our minds the moment."

"It's Oz, isn't it?"  Buffy asked sweetly, exchanging knowing looks with the others.

Willow stared at the blonde for a moment, a blank expression on her face as she tried to choose the best way to play this turn of events.  A little truth would probably go a long way right now, she decided.

"I find Oz...interesting," Willow softly admitted, smiling.

Buffy actually laughed.  "More interesting than Angel?  I mean, Oz is a great guy, but he's no Angel..."

Willow chuckled, shaking her head.  "No kidding?"

Buffy lowered her voice again.  "Willow, I know that you think that you aren't..." The Slayer hesitated, wincing at her own words, "...*good* enough for Angel..."

Willow was no longer laughing.  "What?"

"...and you wonder what he might see in you..."

"What?" she demanded again with wide-eyed incredulity.

"...but to give up on Angel for Oz?"  Now Buffy looked incredulous.  "That's--"

Willow held up her hands.  "Whoa!" she interrupted, slipping away to take a few steps back.  She looked each of them in the eye as she spoke.  "Hold it right there...Oz and Angel aren't even comparable!"

"Exactly," Buffy said. "You shouldn't lower your sights--"

Willow had to stop herself from stamping her foot in a very childish manner.  "I'm not *lowering* anything!" she retorted, wishing she could control her tone as easily as she did her foot.  After a deep breath, she took it down a notch, afraid that Angel might overhear when the last thing she wanted to do was cause him anymore pain. "Oz is wonderful, warm, sweet, funny, intelligent..."

Buffy crossed her arms over her chest, wearing her own version of Willow's resolve face. It was quite formidable.  "So is Angel," she insisted.

"Except for the warm part," Xander corrected with a teasing grin, making Cordelia groan.

"Well, he's warm in here..."Buffy countered, tapping the area over her heart.  "...which is where it counts."

"Well, technically, he isn't really warm there either."

With playful irritation, Cordelia cuffed her boyfriend on the arm for his rejoinder.  "If you keep interrupting, Willow will never admit she's in love with Angel!' the cheerleader huffed before turning a curious eye to Willow.  "I noticed you didn't say that Oz is a total hottie..."

Willow counted to ten...or at least she tried to count to ten.  She only made it to three before Cordy, obviously taking her silence as an admission of guilt, added more than her two cents.  Again.

The cheerleader stood up and walked over to join the others.  "All Buffy is saying, Willow, is that just because Angel is a little out of your league, doesn't mean you should give up."

"Angel is *not* out of my league!" Willow snapped back.

"That's my girl!" Xander said enthusiastically, slapping her proudly on the back.

Willow couldn't seem to stop herself.  "Angel should be so lucky!" she fumed.  "I'm smart, sexy, funny, and I play a mean game of--"

Luckily for Willow, Cordelia wasn't through yet.  "And if you let me show you a few makeup tricks so that your lips don't look so thin *and* you have me go shopping with you next time, I guarantee that Angel will be following you around like a lost puppy."

*Start* following her around like a lost puppy?  You're about a century too late for that Cordelia, Willow smirked wickedly to herself.

Buffy dismissed the cheerleader's words with a wave of her hand.  "Willow doesn't need any help in that department, Cordelia.  You've seen the way he looks at her lately."

Cordelia frowned, giving The Slayer a peeved glance.  "I know that, Buffy," she hissed under her breath, "but I've been dying to show her the miracles of lip liner..."

As the other two girls discussed her love life, Willow took the opportunity to compose herself.  At this point she was unsure who she was more irritated with, her friends or herself?  How could she let herself get sucked into the trap of explaining why Angel should want her?  Willow then had to remind herself that when she really had been 17, she probably did consider a man like Angel to be out of her league.  After all, Angel was the archetypal attractive man--tall, dark, and handsome.  Not that Oz wasn't attractive.  He was simply less...well, overtly sexual.  Oz was good looking in a comfortable way, like the boy next door.  While Angel, on the other hand, was handsome in a manly, dangerous, knee-wobbly kind of way.

Willow's resolve weakened momentarily as she inadvertently remembered her one and only toe-curling kiss with Angelus.  While the kiss they shared may have stemmed from a twisted game of blackmail, it had quickly grown beyond that, taking on a torrid life of its own.  Her stomach flip-flopped at the mere memory of that time-shattering embrace, and the tightening deep in her tummy reminded Willow just how long it had been since she had a shared a real kiss with a man, let alone anything more intimate. Although she wasn't sure 'sharing' was quite the right term for what she and Angelus had done to one another.  They had battled with their mouths, fighting with lips, tongue and teeth for control of each other's tender flesh. It was a battle she couldn't win, but she hadn't lost either.  Until now, Willow had considered it a draw, but it was slowly becoming clear that the war was far from over.  Time had forced not a truce but a temporary cease-fire, and if her dreams of last night were anything to go by, her body was itching to reload its weapons and cross back into enemy territory.

Oh God! she thought as a scene from her dreams of the night before flashed clearly before her eyes.  It was Angel she'd dreamt about!  Or had it been Angelus?  She wasn't quite sure and neither choice put her at ease with whatever it was her subconscious was trying to tell her.  Damn it!  She should be having erotic dreams about Oz, not some mysterious amalgamation of Angel and Angelus!  Even Spike would have made more sense than Angel.  At least she'd been intimate with Spike before, which the blond demon took great joy in reminding her of every chance he got.

But no.  She hadn't dreamt about Oz, or even Spike. The dreams had all starred a certain dark-haired vampire instead.  Consequently, her mutinous mind was doing something she'd been struggling against since that fateful embrace with Angelus.  Her memories were compelling her not only to compare the kisses she'd shared with Oz and Angelus, but the actual way they'd made her feel as well.

No, uh-uh, *not* gonna go there, she told herself.  Willow shook her head slightly, trying to clear her mind of the confusing memories.  When she finally focused on her friends again, she noticed that they were watching her and smiling.  About the blush on my cheeks, no doubt.  And oh God...What were they talking about?  Oh yeah...reasons why Angel would want her. With an internal groan, Willow wondered when life had gotten so complicated?

Oh, round about 1753.

She smiled at her friends in a manner that she could only hope didn't show how flustered she actually felt, had the fleeting thought that she needed to brush up on her poker face, then said, "Uh, thanks, Cordelia, I think, and Buffy...you're right.  Angel is all those things, but he's just not my type."  Willow grinned broadly at Buffy.  It was time to shift the topic of conversation just a bit.  "Now that I think about it, Angel's really *your* type, isn't he, Buffy?   Strong, good-looking, looks dead-sexy in leather, devoted to fighting evil..."

Buffy grimaced, then peered over her shoulder to make sure Angel wasn't coming.  "Me and Angel?" she asked skeptically. She laughed. "I don't think so.  He's *so* not my type.  Sure, he's cute, but I think it would be like dating my brother...my bossy, anal-retentive brother who's only had eyes for you, Willow, since the day he set foot in this town."  She pulled out a stake from the back pocket of her shorts, flipping it in her hands a few times.  "Date Angel?" she repeated with disdain.  Buffy then exuberantly threw the stake across the room towards one of the many bookshelves, where it lodged itself perfectly between two tightly shelved tomes. With her hands on her hips, she gave Willow a shrewd look. "I'm The Slayer.  He's a vampire.  If I want that kind of drama, I'll watch TNT."

Willow wouldn't give up that easily.  "But he--"

"Thinks of me only as a friend and as The Slayer, Willow," Buffy stubbornly interrupted as she marched over to stand directly in front of the redhead, shielding her from the other's prying eyes.  "You and I *so* need to talk, Willow. It feels like it's been forever since we've just sat down and had a little girl talk, you know?"

The soft words were said with such sincerity that it nearly brought tears to Willow's eyes.  "I know, Buffy.  It *has* been forever.  I guess we've both just been so busy with all the training and slaying and studying and, er, everything else...."

"What we need is a sleepover at my house!" Buffy promptly decided.  "Complete with cheesy pizza, cheesy popcorn, and cheesy movies.  I'll clear it with my mom and see which night next week you can stay over."

"That would be nice, Buffy," Willow replied with a smile, and she was surprised when a look of relief crossed Buffy's face, as if the Slayer had been afraid that Willow might decline her offer.  Before Willow could decide what to make of that look, Angel finally made his appearance.

All conversation stopped as they turned to face Angel, putting their shirts in plain view.  Unsure of what to do, and feeling out of place yet again, Willow quickly walked over to one of the computers and had a seat.  She turned first toward the screen, then spun back to face the others, and then finally stopped halfway between the two.  She didn't want to be rude and turn her back on Angel, and yet she didn't want to seem overly eager for attention either.  Her uncertainty made her feel even more pathetically displaced.

"Afternoon...sorry I'm late.  Long night," Angel said flatly as he strolled in without even bothering to look at anyone.

'Long night' was putting it mildly, and he'd gotten very little sleep that morning as well.  He'd tossed and turned in bed, reliving every word that Spike had so zealously spat at him the night before.  The result being that Angel was actually glad that Spike had told him the whole truth.  As painful as it was to know how deeply he'd hurt Willow, in the end it made things easier, he realized.  Angel felt that he now understood Willow even better, especially why her reactions to him were so hot and cold, her moods increasingly mercurial.  Angel was more determined than ever to do right by Willow.  If she wanted him to pretend as if nothing had ever happened between them, then that was what he was going to do.

Even if it killed him, again.

Angel sipped his heated morning blood from a black ceramic Darth Vader-shaped mug.  It was his favorite cup, and not only because Willow had given it to him, but because it masked the red color of the beverage, making it almost look like he was joining Giles in a spot of tea or indulging in some hot coffee.  While they all knew otherwise, it did help him feel more at ease when eating in front of the others.  Thanks to Willow's thoughtfulness.

Just a little more ironic icing on the paradoxical cake of his life.

Angel wasn't sure how long it took him to realize that no one was talking.  Not only that, but they were all staring at him.  Except for Willow, that is, who appeared to be trying very hard to find somewhere to look.

"What's up?" he finally asked, taking in their expectant faces.  "Something wrong?"

Buffy shook her head and stepped closer to the vampire, sticking her chest out a little more than usual, which drew a snicker from Xander.  The Slayer's grin was strangely dopey, and for a moment Angel feared that maybe he'd hit her a little too hard during their last sparring match.

"Nothing's wrong, Angel," Buffy chirped, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet.  Suddenly Xander was beside her.  He'd shed his flashy Hawaiian-print shirt and was stretching and yawning in a grossly exaggerated fashion.

Angel set his mug on the nearest table, then worriedly looked Buffy and Xander in the eyes.  "You two okay?"

When they simply grinned and bobbed up and down even more enthusiastically, Angel glanced at Willow and Cordelia.

"Possession?"

Willow chuckled and shook her head, not wanting to ruin their fun.  Cordelia'd had enough of it though.  She rolled her eyes as she sashayed past Angel on the way to their usual studying seats on the dais, saying, "Check out the shirts, already, before they hurt themselves."

Confused, Angel finally took in what they were wearing.  And when Buffy and Xander spun around in unison to show him the back of their black T-shirts as well, Angel actually laughed.

"Very funny and very thoughtful, guys.  Thank you.  But you didn't have to do that, you know.  I'm well aware that I tend to fall outside the demonology bell curve."

"We know, Soul Boy," Xander said, chucking him on the arm in a display of manly friendship.  "We just wanted to remind you that we know it, too."

Buffy gestured towards Willow with a neatly-manicured hand.  "It was all Willow's idea, even though she isn't wearing hers.  Hers, uh, shrunk in the dryer until it was too tight," Buffy hurriedly explained.  "You know how Willow feels about tight clothes..."

Angel thought he knew a little more than they did just how much Willow disliked tight clothing...not to mention how good she could look in it.

Damn, he'd been in the same room with her for only a few short minutes, and he was already having thoughts he shouldn't.  Ashamed of his weakness, he quickly said, "Willow's idea?  Really?"

"Sure," Buffy replied enthusiastically.  "She thought of it a couple of weeks ago and set the whole thing up herself...made the T-shirts, picked the day we were to wear them and everything."

"A couple of weeks ago?"

Buffy nodded.

"Of course."  He glanced over at where Willow was seated at the computer, trying very hard to concentrate on the computer screen.  Luckily, Angel hadn't dared to hope that *this* Willow had actually come up with the idea for the shirts.  The possibility that he had misunderstood Willow the night before flitted only briefly into his mind, but he shooed it away quickly.  He was weak, but he wasn't stupid.

When Willow finally glanced up at him, Angel could tell by her embarrassed, pleading look that he'd correctly assessed the situation the first time.  She *did* want to act as if nothing had ever happened between them.  With her sea-green eyes, she was silently begging for him to understand just one more time.

And damn it all if he didn't understand.  As much as he hated the distance between them, the awkwardness...the hopelessness of it all, he understood better than ever where Willow was coming from.  Thanks to Spike.

With a slight bowing of his head, Angel conveyed his comprehension of the situation, and consequently, she seemed to relax somewhat.

"Thanks, Willow," he said for the benefit of the others.  "That was very thoughtful of you."

Willow offered him a tremulous smile, which Angel wouldn't allow himself to read anything into besides gratitude for his understanding.

"Hello, Angel," she said.  "I-I'm glad you like them."

"You ready, Buffy?" Angel asked, turning back to the blonde before he lost himself in Willow's eyes.  "I thought we'd train first, then everyone can study together."  He looked at the others as well.  "Thanks again for the shirts.  Just promise me you won't wear them when you go on patrol.  We wouldn't want all the vampires to realize how sensitive I am, would we?"

"You got it, Soul Boy," Xander shot back earnestly, then added with a boyish grin: "The fact that you whole-heartedly embrace your girly sensitive side is safe with us."

Shaking his head wryly, Angel picked up his mug of blood then headed for the hall.  "Which reminds me, Xander," Angel called back as he continued to walk away, "After your final tomorrow, it's your turn to train.  I was thinking we'd concentrate on sparring.  Then you'll see just how girly and sensitive I can be."  He paused just for a moment, then added with a devilish grin that they couldn't see, "You may want to think about bringing a mouth guard...and a protective cup."

Xander groaned, frowning at Willow.  "How come I--and apparently my manly parts--have to bear the wrath of Angel's demonic ego?  I'm just a growing boy!"

Cordelia arched an amused brow at her boyfriend.  "Could it be because you're the only one stupid enough to tease Angel the night before it's your turn to work out with him?"

"Cheer up, Xander.  He's only joking...I think," Buffy teased her friend.  "And just think, after tomorrow's test, we'll have two whole weeks left of summer to enjoy without any commitments, other than saving the world, that is."  Buffy gave them all a playful scowl.  "At least they don't have a test for that...yet..."

"I think the simple fact that the world is still here means that you've passed that particular final with flying colors, Buffy," Giles said as he walked through the front doors.

"Yeah!  Here, here!  Xander cheered enthusiastically.  "Hey, does that mean we get some sort of extra credit since we've aided in the whole world-saving gig?"

"Once again, Xander, I believe breathing might be the extra credit you're looking for."

Xander nodded.  "Gotcha, G-Man."

After stifling an obvious groan for Xander's continued use of that particular nickname, Giles bid everyone a cheerful good morning.

"Something wrong, Willow?" he asked, seeing her sitting at the computer station, a disappointed look on her face.

Willow sighed, shaking her head sadly as the watcher came closer.  "Et tu, Brute?"

Giles followed her line of sight down to his own T-shirt, which was identical to Xander's.  Sheepishly he took note of Willow's plain shirt, sighing as his most recent oversight became apparent.  "Oh dear..."

*****

He should have sat with his back to her.  He should have, but he didn't.

When did I become such a masochist? Angel wondered as he struggled not to squirm in his seat like an anxious toddler.  He and Buffy had finished training, and then he'd showered and changed.  Now he was helping them all study one last time for their final.  Unfortunately, it was taking all of his willpower to keep his dark eyes from wandering to where Willow sat, working diligently on the computer. Luckily, her back was to him, so she couldn't see each time he failed to resist her pull, which was often.

Angel gazed at her again to find Giles standing behind Willow, his hand resting lightly on her shoulder as he leaned down to point to something on the computer screen.  Angel would have been lying to himself if he didn't admit to a surge of jealousy at the scene.   Nevertheless, he wasn't completely ashamed of that feeling either because it sprang not from demon possessiveness but simply from the fact that he could no longer touch her, even in such a harmless way.

Of course, Angel was a vampire, so the possessive feelings would always be there, but not in the overwhelming manner that Willow seemed to fear.  He didn't own her...didn't want too, either, at least not in the way that Angelus had wanted to own her.  Angel was simply jealous that Giles, like Xander and even Spike, didn't make Willow cringe with every innocent touch. They could be closer to her physically and emotionally without causing harm, while Angel, on the other hand, only had to look at Willow and her eyes could darken with pain.

He glanced at the others seated around him, but they seemed not to notice his distraction as they continued to quiz one another intently.  Besides, it's not like I never looked at the other Willow, Angel reflected, trying to cheer himself up.  She was my friend, my best friend, and it isn't easy to pretend that nothing's happened without it being obvious that there's something wrong.  It would seem too suspicious if I never looked at Willow, right?

God, he missed her....

"...which eventually resulted in The Peninsular War."

Xander's voice broke into Angel's thoughts, bringing the vampire mentally back to the business of quizzing the three young people.

"Oh, er, right, and who were the generals involved?" Angel questioned automatically.

"Were you there, Angel?" Buffy asked innocently instead of answering the much-too-simple question.

"Yeah, did you stop by the war for a cheap feed?" Xander added in his own crude way, causing Angel to wince.

"Xander!" Buffy admonished, but the dark-haired youth simply gestured over his shoulder to where the words 'No offense, Angel' were printed on the back of his shirt.

"Hey, I just thought he might like to give us a first-hand account, that's all," Xander offered as justification.

"Then you should ask Sp--"  Willow, who had turned in her chair to face them momentarily, froze, as if just realizing what she was about to say.  "Oh, um, I think my search is done..." she said lamely, then spun back in her seat to face the computer screen once again, but not before Angel could see the warmth tinting her cheeks.  Luckily, he seemed to be the only one to notice.

"Then you should ask William," Angel said in answer to their questioning looks.  "Spike."

"Spike was there?" Buffy asked incredulously.

Angel nodded grimly.  "How do you think he got the name William the Bloody?"

"Silly me, but I thought it went hand-in-hand with how he got the name 'Spike'," Buffy said, disgusted.

Angel shook his head.  "While he was still alive, William was a soldier and a mercenary in the Peninsular War, and from his account, a fairly lethal one."

Xander shrugged half-heartedly, looking around the table at the others. "Makes sense, I guess."

"Is that where you found him?" Cordelia asked, leaning forward eagerly.  "In Spain?"

"Er, no," Angel replied awkwardly, getting to his feet as the others stared at him with open curiosity.  He glanced quickly at Willow, who luckily seemed to be focused on her computer again.  He lowered his voice, reluctant to spark any unwanted memories in Willow.  "I, uh, found him in London."

"In a dirty little pub by the docks, drunk off his arse..." Willow added without turning around, catching everyone by surprise, especially Angel.

It had never before occurred to Angel that perhaps Rose had been present that night.  Would Spike really have taken her to see his own turning?  He was definitely egotistical enough.  God, what else had she seen that he wasn't aware of? Angel wondered as Willow peered innocently back at them over her shoulder.

It was only from his previous experience sitting across from Rose at a poker table that Angel was able to detect the faint flash of alarm in Willow's eyes, making it clear that she hadn't meant to say that aloud.  She turned away.

Angel thought she covered up well, though, when she added with a bored-looking shrug: "That's what Angel once told me anyway."

Nice save.  Unfortunately, it only increased the pressure on him.  How very Rose-like of her, he silently smirked. "Willow's right," Angel began uncomfortably. "I, er, found him in a pub, and he was very drunk...running from the law for desertion...and I..."

"And the, uh, rest is, as they say, history," Giles interrupted, giving the unwitting young people a quelling look which Angel was quite grateful for.  "But I doubt any of it will be on your final, so may I suggest that you get back to the particulars of the war?"  He wagged a finger at their pile of books.

As the three students reluctantly turned their attention back to studying, Angel almost wiped his forehead in relief.  Catching the watcher's eye as he discussed something with Willow that she'd found on the Net, Angel nodded his head in a silent display of gratitude, which Giles returned just as discretely.

*****

Later, Angel excused himself to refill his mug while the others carried on with their various researching and studying activities.  As he wearily watched the blood-filled head of Darth Vader turn slowly in the microwave, Angel reflected on the afternoon so far.

Being in the same room with Willow hadn't been as hard as he thought it would be.  Yes, it had been painful, excruciatingly so at times, but still...it had gone better than he'd expected.  Willow wasn't ignoring him and she wasn't running from him either.  When Giles had called him over to question him about something Willow had found, Willow actually seemed quite normal.  She didn't make an excuse to leave or try to maximize the physical distance between them.  She'd listened to what he'd had to say and had even asked a few clarifying questions.

It was a very civilized form of torture.

But he'd survived, which was something that he hadn't been all that sure about earlier in the day.  Angel now knew that he could do this.  He could give her the space she needed, the time she needed...no matter how long it might take, even if the end result might not be a romantic one.  He wasn't foolish enough to underrate the value of a good friend.

Even for her friendship, he'd wait forever if he had to.  After all, a woman like Willow was worth waiting for.

*****

Willow slumped in her chair when she noticed out of the corner of her tired green eyes that Angel had left the room.  Just keeping her back to him was physically draining.  She wasn't sure how many times she'd actually stopped herself in mid-swivel from turning to look at the vampire behind her.

Rubbing at weary eyes that were no longer accustomed to staring at computer screens for an extended period, Willow took a few calming breaths and felt some of the tension drain away.  It hadn't gone as badly as she'd feared.  Angel didn't seem to be angry with her, nor was he ignoring her either.  He was simply keeping a friendly distance.  She didn't fool herself into thinking it was easy for the vampire.  The few times their eyes had met, she could easily detect the strain on his face.  But somehow, he was managing to pretend, at least outwardly, that their nefarious past didn't exist.

She wasn't having quite as much luck.  Any time he'd come within 5 feet of her, that single image from her lusty dreams came to mind, and she found herself nearly overwhelmed by her warring emotions.

Telling herself that she had to try harder to put their history behind her--after all, it was her idea--Willow permanently locked away the memories of their kiss, as well as those of her dreams, before they could set her tummy, not to mention lower portions of her body, on fire yet again.

The only question was, could Oz stoke the same kind of fire within her that Angelus had?  Did she even want him to try?

Maybe Friday night, when she wolf-sat Oz, she could begin to answer those questions.

*****

The rest of the afternoon passed quickly as Willow somehow managed to throw herself completely into the task of researching.  Between the books and the computer, finding her way around both, Willow was able to immerse herself completely in her work, keeping her mind off Angel and the rest of her troubles.

In the end, she and Giles were not only victorious but immensely relieved to discover that the furry, blue-horned demon that had been spotted around town recently and had been the source of so much worry for Giles, truly was harmless.  While quite ferocious in appearance, the thought-to-be extinct P'Ghar demon was, in fact, a peaceful nomadic creature that dined almost exclusively on clover and other weedy grasses...

...usually in a light vinaigrette dressing and accompanied by a glass of fine Chablis.

Willow was exhausted by the end of the day.  While the others decided that they needed to let their minds rest over some mindless music at the Bronze that night, Willow begged off, using both exhaustion and the need to prepare for her soon-to-be-returning parents as her authentic excuse.  Disappointed but understanding, her friends walked her home, not seeming to notice how quiet she was, how awkward her good-byes with Angel were, nor how little she joined in the their witty banter during the short journey to her house. Willow hoped that the end of summer school might help her begin to feel more at ease with her friends again.

Telling them to have a good time that night and good luck on the final, Willow waved goodbye to her friends and then slipped inside and up to her room.  Her hands were itching for the feel of her guitar, while her head was clamoring for the feel of a soft pillow and the promise of a dream-filled sleep.  Either way, it was going to be an early night for Willow.

*****
End Chapter 13 (archived March 7, 2002)
 
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