* Big thanks to Ves for all of her help on this part...and Tracy for the post-posting beta as well ;-) As always, this part has been MASSIVELY changed since it was last beta'd, so all mistakes are mine! If you find some, feel free to politely point them out so I can fix them on my site.

** Lastly, this part is dedicated to anyone who doesn't send me hate mail about the pairing. Please make that be you!

*** The Pairing.  Yes, I am finally going to say it.  But, because I've had a few people complain that they prefer it to be a surprise, if you want to know the pairing of this story, and a few minor details about the two stories two follow this one, click here.
 
 
 

< Indicates thoughts and such
 
 

It's About Time ~ Chapter 8

 

Angel was frozen with indecision.  As Willow's friends rushed to her side, Angel knew he should do the opposite and get as far away from her as he could until he gained some measure of control over his wildly careening emotions.  Yet, even though he knew that's what he should do, Angel couldn't seem to make himself leave her.  Because his gut instinct from the moment that Spike had released Willow was to pull her into his arms and never let her go--never give Spike a chance to come between them again.

That wasn't all.  Because almost as powerful as his need to embrace Willow was his desire to yell at her until he was blue in the face--which for a vampire is a very long time--chiding the redhead for behaving like an irresponsible child with his irresponsible childe.  Yes, shaking some sense into Willow and at the very least knocking some sense into Spike for their selfish display was also a very enticing option.

However, that was hardly the end of his difficult choices, because mixed in with those opposing instincts was a nearly overwhelming sense of relief that Spike *hadn't* hurt Willow.  This in turn led him to believe that maybe she'd been right.  The vampire that he'd just confronted *was* the scarred Spike that had betrayed him in the past.  And as much as he hated that vampire, he kept coming back to the same conclusion.  The peroxide-blonde demon hadn't harmed Willow, even though he'd obviously had every opportunity.  While Angel was relieved beyond measure, he couldn't help being confused and suspicious as well, which did little to abate his anger.

Still unable to make his legs move either to Willow or away from her, Angel finally became aware of the others repeatedly glancing over at him.  He knew they were wondering why he was just standing there with a blank expression, especially considering what had happened to Willow--or at least what they thought had just happened to her.  But what Buffy and the others thought of his actions was the least of his worries.  It was the moment when Willow's eyes, filled with frustration, met his that he found the ability to do what he must.

With a curt, "Look after her, Buffy," which was met with affirmations and more confused looks, Angel stormed off in the opposite direction that Spike had taken.

****

Willow felt like crying as her friends crowded around to make sure she was okay.  The looming tears did not stem from fright or relief, as the others who noticed them suspected, but from disappointment.  She hadn't had a chance to tell Spike anything that she needed to--not only about Oz and Angel, but about all the other odd 'little' changes as well.  Now Willow wished how that she hadn't wasted so much time just talking about silly things with Spike, but yet she'd needed that, too.

Relieved that Angel hadn't rushed to 'comfort' her as well, she cast a quick glance at the silent vampire, who was remaining distant from the group.  For a moment she'd dared to hope that he finally believed her about Spike...at least until her eyes found his.  Easily reading Angel's grim countenance as being far from accepting, Willow sighed and had to look away.

Well, at least *she'd* learned something, she told herself. Spike was deliriously happy, having apparently gotten what he wanted--a Drusilla without strong ties to Angelus and who only had eyes for him.  Finding some strength in Spike's happiness, Willow willed her hot tears of frustration not to fall, and cast another careful glance toward the now-retreating Angel.

She had little time to worry about Angel, though, because she was already undergoing a barrage of questions, many of which she never even had the chance to answer before the next one hit her.

"My God, Willow, are you okay?"

"I'm fine."

"Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm really ok--"

"He didn't hurt you?"

"No, he didn't.  I'm--"

"No bites?"

Realizing at this point that words weren't enough, Willow let them inspect her neck. Although she doubted that the gang would recognize any of the very faint marks on her neck from her previous vampire encounters as being bite wounds since they looked like faint freckles, she was glad that Angel had already stalked off by this point.  Thinking that the lack of blood and wounds would ease their fears somewhat, she was wrong if she thought that would quiet them.

"Do you know how lucky you are to be breathing right now, Willow?"

"You are *so* lucky!"

"You gotta wonder why he didn't kill her?  Not that I think it's a good idea."

"Maybe she's not his type."

"What, A-positive?"

"Yeah...I think he prefers his women a little more...Gothic.  Oh, and dumber too."

"I can't believe the way he was holding you, Wills."

"Not to mention the licking!"

"He licked her?"

"Ewwwwww...."

"Anyone else thinking rabies shot?"

"Great, now I'm going to have nightmares."

"Did you see Angel's face?"

"Talk about your nightmares...never saw him so angry."

"That was not your average father-son argument...hope Angel sends him to bed without his supper.  Although technically, he did that already, didn't he?"

"Xander!"

"Sorry."

"Did he really lick her?  Cuz, yuck!"

"You sure you're okay?"

"I think she's in shock...she hasn't said anything in a long time..."

*****

Angel headed for the nearest cemetery, hoping that something would dare to pick a fight with him.  While physical violence wasn't his preferred way of handling frustration, he had little choice at the moment.  Unfortunately, the spell that had brought the only woman he'd ever loved back into his life had also taken away his truest friend and confidante, for they were the same woman, separated only by differing histories.

Even as Angel staked a middle-aged, once-banker type as it hungrily lurched its way between the headstones, the Irish vampire instinctively knew that if the old Willow were still there, she would have been able to make him feel better.  She always did.  From nearly the day that they had met, Willow had gone out of her way to make him feel comfortable, like one of the gang.  She'd somehow even managed to ignore the odd looks he must have given her, all the strange and cryptic questions as he tried to figure out the exact connection between the nearly identical Willow and his Rose.  And when things had settled down and he'd come to terms with the idea that Willow was completely oblivious to their sordid connection, he realized that somewhere along the way they had become friends.

Just as Angel had begun to believe that he might have been mistaken, *they* came to town.  It was the arrival of Spike, *his* Spike, and Drusilla that finally confirmed most of Angel's suspicions.  He was then fairly sure that Willow *was* Rose, but she'd yet to travel back through time.  So, he'd simply have to wait.

And wait he did, using those months to help Buffy and the others in their fight against whatever the Hellmouth threw at them and for getting to know Willow as well as he could.  As he waited, he couldn't help noticing how his closest friend was maturing and blossoming until she seemed to be the same girl that he'd fallen in love with all of those years earlier in Galway.

But he wasn't that Irishman anymore.  Too much had happened to the both of them since those relatively simple times filled with horseback rides and long talks.  They'd changed and matured, albeit not in the usual ways.  However, as much as Angel cared about and missed his old friend Willow--the one that was now gone--he hadn't loved her.  At least not in the passionate sense of the word.  But Rose--the Rose that had survived Galway, the soulless Angelus, Spike and a trip back in time only to return to his life a century later as Willow--well, his feelings for that woman were a different matter entirely.

Unfortunately, now that his Rose--Willow--was finally back in his life, she could barely stand the sight of him.  Although her attitude wasn't totally unexpected and certainly not unwarranted, it still cut Angel to the bone.  He wished that he could think of the right thing to say to this woman from his past whom he had wronged--the one key phrase that might grant him a smile, her friendship, and perhaps true forgiveness.  But he couldn't come up with one, because he realized there were no magick words to use in a case like this.  Even if there were, Willow deserved better.  She had every right to hate him, to wish him out of her life forever and to cringe at his very presence.  He even admitted to himself that perhaps Willow had 'earned' the right to ask Buffy to stake him and put them both out of their misery.  Not that he thought for a moment that she'd do that.  It wasn't Willow's way...not this Willow or the one that had come and gone.

The only hope they had to salvage even the shallowest of friendships, let alone anything else, was to talk it all out, which appeared to be the last thing that Willow wanted to do.  For just that reason, Angel was sometimes tempted to 'accidentally' lock them in a room together for a day or two.  He wouldn't touch her, not that he didn't want to, but first he had to get her to talk, tell him what she was really thinking.  They both needed to get everything out in the open, even if they didn't like what the other might have to say.  Nevertheless, as tempting as it was to force the issue in such an extreme way, Angel knew he couldn't do that no matter how depleted his reserve of patience was becoming.

As Angel left that cemetery and headed for the next, he found himself groaning at the thought of the uncomfortable silences that would inevitably develop between them the next time they met.  Again they would fall into the now familiar pattern of tiptoeing around their past, their feelings...everything.  Having a conversation with Willow was becoming more like negotiating a minefield than the long, easy dialogues of old.

And without his usual confidante to talk to, Angel felt...lost.

*****

Spike was whistling as he made his way back to the mansion.  He hadn't had that much fun in a long time.  Nothing like pissing off your sire and the Slayer all in one go to make a bloke happy.  And somehow he knew it was only going to get better.  Every indignity that he'd ever had to endure at Angelus's hands was going to be repaid in spades.

Unfortunately, as anxious as Spike was to begin dishing out the payback to his pseudo-sire, he knew it would have to wait until he had the chance to talk to Willow again.  She said there were changes, and while they didn't appear to be major ones from what he could tell so far, Spike decided to lay low until she had the chance to elaborate.

Not that he minded waiting.  Not one little bit.  While revenge was certainly high on his priority list, it wasn't foremost in his mind at that particular moment.  Drusilla was.  At the mere thought of his Dark Goddess, Spike's whistling gave way to a salacious grin and his pace toward the mansion increased.

Besides, Spike knew there was no way he'd be able to get within 20 meters of Willow again that night, which meant that the details of the changes would have to wait anyway.  Add to that how Willow had assured him that she was okay, and Spike was more than happy to wait.

Red was fine.  Angelus was no more.  Drusilla was his.

Spike was finally home.

*****

Willow never thought they'd leave.

After a long walk home, which included a conversation with a surprisingly understanding Giles via Buffy's cell phone, Willow then had to endure a new round of questioning from her friends.  After assuring them that she'd be fine on her own, that no one had to spend the night and that she wasn't in shock, suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome or doomed to a night of terror-filled dreams, the other members of the Scooby Gang did one final sweep of the house, double checking all the windows and locks, before embracing her one last time and heading for their own homes.

She was finally alone.

After changing into a pair of soft, lightweight sweatpants and an over-sized baseball jersey, once again opting for comfort over style, Willow sat on the steps that led to the second floor of her house, head in her hands, wishing that she could start the whole night over again.  She'd messed up.  Big time.  Several times.  Between the fake spider incident, her nearly losing it in The Bronze over an innocuous comment of Angel's, and then her little charade with Spike, Willow had made what was already a nearly impossible situation a thousand times worse.

Still, all she wanted to do was talk to Spike.  Together they'd figure out what to do; she was sure of it.  Then they'd have a plan and she'd feel better.

But she didn't have Spike to talk to, to plan with, even just to sit in comfortable silence with.  Nor did she have Tekla or even Dunicha to talk to.  No gypsy campfire to warm her wandering soul, no promise of 'I'm doing the right thing and when I get back to my own time, everything will be just the way it's supposed to be' to ease her troubled conscience.

Willow felt...lost.

If only she had her guitar...that would help.  Unfortunately, Willow had never had a guitar in Sunnydale and her parents had gotten rid of their piano.  Even if they did still have one, striking the cold ivory keys had never soothed her in quite the same way as the feeling of guitar strings warming beneath her strumming fingers.  She'd have to buy her own guitar the first chance she had now that she could no longer count on borrowing one of Oz's.

Willow sighed, morosely picking at a loose thread on the stair carpet, when she remembered something.  A vague memory from a family get together when she was quite little of her uncle--her father's brother--playing a guitar and leading the first and last sing-a-long in the Rosenberg household.  She remembered Uncle Izzy asking her father if he still played.  Next thing she knew, her father had come down from the attic, gripping a dusty memento of his childhood to then join in a barely recognizable version of 'Bridge over Troubled Waters'.

With renewed vigor, Willow vaulted up the steps to the second floor, and then to the attic above.

*****

Cemetery after cemetery, the fledglings didn't stand a chance.  Angel had a lot of pent-up frustration, anger, confusion--the works--to get out of his system.  Later, when he could find no more newly made vampires trying to rise to the surface or wandering aimlessly in search of their first meal, he began to seek out the lesser minions.  Perhaps he couldn't rid the world of Spike--yet--but that didn't mean he couldn't reduce the peroxide-blonde vampire's extended family.

*****

Nor did the brittle guitar strings stand a chance as Willow's flying fingers endeavored to strum and pluck away the frustration of the past 48 hours.  One by one, the ancient strings broke until she was left with only the memory of a few hollow chords echoing through the empty house.

*****

Drusilla didn't stand a chance either when she'd returned from her own hunt.  After all, Spike had more than a century of frustration to work through.  Luckily, Dru was strong and more than willing to help him release some of his...tension.

*****

While just holding the cheap guitar had soothed her frazzled nerves considerably, Willow was now reduced to plucking dejectedly, but gently, at the only string that hadn't snapped on her father's boyhood guitar.  She didn't particularly want to return to the dingy attic and rummage through a bunch of musty old boxes in the dim hopes of finding some replacement strings.  Instead, Willow had just decided that she would go shopping tomorrow to buy a guitar of her own when the doorbell rang.

Startled, Willow looked up from where she was sitting cross-legged on her bed, with the guitar on her lap, to check the time.  The large red numbers on her digital clock told her it was 3:07 AM, which meant it wasn't Buffy or Xander.

Willow knew exactly who it was as she left the guitar in her room and headed down the stairs to the front door.  She flipped on the porch light and glanced out the peephole, confirming her suspicions.  Willow took a deep breath before opening the door.

"I've been expecting you," she told the vampire calmly.

"You have?"

"I couldn't sleep after what happened, and you left before we could...talk."

"I had to."

Willow shook her head sadly, one hand still on the open door, the other holding the doorjamb for support.  "I know, Angel."

Angel took a few steps back, wondering why he'd even rung the doorbell in the first place.  Hadn't he already decided he wasn't going to force her to talk if she wasn't ready?  Noting Willow's rigid posture, the way she clung to the door, and the cool detachment in her voice, Angel knew that Willow still didn't want to discuss their past.  While he wasn't particularly surprised by her attitude, it certainly didn't make it any easier.

He flashed her an awkward grin, nervously glancing between his fidgeting fingers and the stoic redhead at the door.  "Er, I was in the neighborhood, so I thought I'd walk by to make sure you were okay.  And, well, when I saw your lights on..."  Angel stopped before he could make an even bigger idiot out of himself.  He sounded ridiculous, and he knew it.  'I was in the neighborhood'?  Angel wanted to smack himself on the forehead.  That line was nearly as bad as 'Do you come here often?' and 'What's your sign?'  Luckily, Willow was too surprised by his calm demeanor to notice his embarrassment.

"I couldn't sleep," Willow said with the hint of a shrug, relaxing somewhat when it didn't appear as if he had arrived on her doorstep just to scold her.  "Besides, I'm a bit of a night owl now anyway.  Even more than I was before."

"Travelling with a vampire will do that."

"Yep."

Angel dropped his gaze to the ground, her coolness completely killing his already failing ability to make small talk.  After a few more moments of that uncomfortable silence that he'd been expecting, Angel gave up.

"Goodnight, Willow," he said, turning to descend the stairs.  "I just wanted to make sure that you made it home safely."

Frustrated with herself, Willow groaned softly as she watched the vampire turn away.  She was well aware that her behavior the whole day had left much to be desired.  While she wasn't happy about Angel's ultimatums to Spike or even the way he was pushing her to discuss things she'd rather forget about, Willow knew deep down that she needed to move on.  And moving on meant somehow finding a way to make peace with the Irish vampire.

"Spike isn't here," Willow blurted out more loudly than she'd intended.  She winced at her own choice of words.  She had only wanted to stop Angel's retreat, and unfortunately that was the first thing that had popped into her head.  "Um, in case you thought that he was going to stop by for a late-night snack or something," she added lightly and in a tone that she hoped sounded less hostile.

Angel stopped at the bottom of the steps and turned slightly to look back at her over his shoulder, his expression well controlled.  "I know," he replied, before heading back down the walkway.

<Stubborn vampire!> "Well, I guess if you weren't expecting to find Spike, then Giles must have told you to check up on me, right?" she called after him.

Angel didn't answer as he continued to walk away.  As a matter of fact, Giles hadn't asked him to stop by, because The Watcher didn't have to.  The both knew fully well that Angel would be keeping a close eye on Willow, as he always had.  This 'new' relationship between Willow and Spike only made it that much more important.

"What did you tell him?" she called after the vampire.  "Please, Angel.  What did you tell Giles?"

Willow's entreaty ended Angel's departure.  He came to a standstill, bowing his head.  "I told him the truth," he replied in an even tone.  "I told him what I saw."

"And what did you see?"

Angel finally turned back to face her, and even at a distance Willow could see his pale features tightening under the strain of controlling his emotions.

"You *know* what I saw," he stated bluntly.

Willow shook her head slowly.  "No...*I* know what happened.  But what actually happened and what everyone else saw are different things.  Tell me what *you* saw, Angel."

"What I saw was a woman turning to one vampire for protection from another..." he answered without hesitation in a tone very nearly a growl.

"Oh," Willow said almost apologetically, her eyes widening for a moment before looking away from the vampire.  "*That's* what you saw."

"Unfortunately."

Willow took a deep breath, tapping into the well-hidden place inside of her that wasn't completely tainted by guilt over what had happened between Angel and Buffy so she could fully explain herself.  She closed her eyes, just for a moment, before fixing him with a firm gaze.

"You're wrong, you know," she informed the vampire that had stopped in the middle of the street.

Noting the new defiant edge to her voice, Angel cocked his head to the side.  Soul or not, Angel never could resist a challenge.

"You weren't afraid?" he countered skeptically, slowly drifting back toward the house.

"I was afraid, Angel, but not for myself.  I was afraid for Spike..." she said smoothly.

Angel began to laugh, the odd sound catching Willow off guard. It wasn't a joyful laugh, far from it, but it wasn't the cold, calculating chuckle that she associated with the vampire Angelus either.  She frowned, wondering if he was laughing at her.

"I don't think it's funny, Angel," she informed him indignantly.  "You looked as if you would have staked Spike if I hadn't been there!"

The vampire took a few lazy steps closer.  "Here I am..." Angel started as his self-deprecating laugh faded, "trying to protect you from Spike.  Meanwhile, Spike's trying to protect you from me, and yet the best part...the part that makes me finally realize just how twisted this has become, is that *you*, Willow Rosenberg, are trying to protect Spike from me."

"And you find this funny?"

"Don't you?" he queried, the amusement long gone from his voice.  "It's hysterical.  Shakespeare couldn't write it any better, Willow."

Ignoring the memories that the Shakespeare comment brought to mind, Willow straightened herself up to her full height and took one step out the door, though one hand remained firmly clutching the doorframe.

"Well, if you think that's funny, Angel, better hold onto your hat...because this is going to kill you...um, again," she added, as the vampire stopped at the bottom of the porch steps and stared up at her expectantly.  Willow took a deep breath to prepare herself but found it hard to remain composed under his curious gaze.  "I know it probably doesn't seem like it now, but I was also trying to protect *you* from *Spike*," Willow told the dark vampire.  Seeing the beginnings of skeptical smirk marring his pale features, Willow quickly reminded him in her haughtiest voice, "And I have been since that night more than a century ago when Spike decided that I was the only virgin for the job."

The smirk was gone before it could fully form, only to be replaced by a pained expression, complete with furrowed brows and drooping shoulders.

Willow sighed, again, her eyes drifting shut as her head fell back in frustration.  She hadn't meant to make him feel guilty, just force him to see past his hatred of Spike and realize that she wasn't his enemy.

Hearing her slow release of breath, Angel focused on Willow instead of his misplaced guilt. He allowed himself to study the defiant redhead, just for a moment.  Even from a distance Angel was struck by how beautiful she was despite the baggy clothes and the sickly-yellow glow given off by the anti-insect bulb next to the front door.  It didn't matter that he must have seen the other Willow dressed in a similar manner hundreds of times, tonight he was positive that she'd never looked more stunning.  Even when he'd dressed her up in expensive gowns of his own choosing, it couldn't compare to the beauty before him now.

Oblivious to Angel's thoughts, Willow was still searching for the right words.  "Angel, I--"

"Thank you, Willow."

Willow's head jerked forward, her eyes flying open to find Angel regarding her calmly, almost reverently.  <So much for channeling the Master of Brood!>

Oddly disturbed by his rapid change of mood, Willow wanted to blurt something hurtful like: "Don't thank me.  I did it for Buffy and the *real* Angel, not for you!"  Luckily, she controlled her baser desire to lash out, and instead said, "Um, you're welcome, I guess...but I wasn't looking for your gratitude, Angel.  I just..." she trailed off, shaking her head at her inability to put her feelings in to words where Angel was concerned.

Angel watched as she took a deep breath, her soft green eyes fluttering closed for a moment in a gesture that he remembered well.  Countless time when he was soulless, Angelus had witnessed her doing the very same thing--at the card table, in his carriage, and even in his arms.  Angel wished now that he could share whatever vision it was that she saw behind her closed lids.  He wondered what she could possibly picture that would ease her mind and soul enough to calm her breathing and heart rate the way it did.  The ensouled vampire dared not hope that it was his image that she clung to when troubled, soothing her, even though that was precisely what her image, forever ingrained in his memory, had done for him all these decades.  Perhaps he'd never know.

Willow opened her eyes again to find Angel waiting patiently.

"I simply wanted you to know that I'm not ganging up with Spike against you.  You're not alone in this, Angel..."  Willow gave up trying to express her emotions clearly.  Considering that she wasn't even sure what she felt anymore, Willow was pleased when a grateful smile spread across Angel's face.  Apparently she had said something right.

For a change.

Before Willow realized what was happening, a smile of her own crept on to her face.  Taking advantage of the lighter mood, and not wanting the conversation to end now that he'd finally gotten the redhead talking, Angel changed the topic.

"I used to stop by at this time of night before," he informed her casually.  "I'd walk by, making my rounds, and many times your bedroom light would be on."  Willow's grip softened as Angel spoke, and she leaned against the doorjamb, letting his warm voice envelop her.  "When your...when the other Willow's parents were out of town, sometimes I'd even knock on the French doors to your room, and you'd let me in.  We'd talk--"

"But I'm not allowed to have boys in my room," Willow interrupted, her tone more teasing than chastising.

This drew a devilish grin from Angel, which in turn sent Willow's stomach flip-flopping as he replied silkily, "I'm not a boy..."

<No, you certainly aren't,> she thought to herself.

"...and I promise that I behaved myself," he added a little more carefully.

While the words uttered were similar to ones the previous Angel had once spoken, the intent, the tone, the look on this Angel's face couldn't have been more different.  Willow forced down her body's traitorous reactions, berating herself for letting memories of the living Angelus get the better of her.

Unnerved by the sudden shift in her demeanor and afraid that he'd scared her yet again, Angel shifted the subject just a bit.

"I suppose you're going to tell me that I, that the previous Angel, had never been in your room before."

Willow waited just a beat before answering, guiltily enjoying the expectant look on the vampire's face.

"Once."

"I-I was?"

Willow nodded as she finally took a few steps out on to the porch to join Angel, leaving the emotional safety of her home behind.

"You stopped by once because you needed help...with *Buffy*" she added with emphasis, causing Angel's hopeful expression to lessen.  "An old friend of hers was in town, and you were...jealous, suspicious...You know, the usual boyfriendy things.  You wanted me to look into his background on my computer."

"How very...*modern stalker* of me," he smirked, making Willow smile softly in return.

"Actually, you were right though, Angel.  The boy had an agenda and was using Buffy.  And with my help, oh, and Xander's too, you were able to find that out.  Probably saved her life."

"Are you talking about that Ford kid?"

"Um, yeah..."

Angel nodded thoughtfully as he climbed the first step back up toward the porch landing.  "He showed up this time, too.  I take it the ending was the same?" he asked grimly, remembering how hard it had been on Buffy when she'd had to stake the boy.

"Dust?" Willow asked in a quiet voice, and Angel simply nodded in reply.

As the silence began to settle between them again, Angel said the first thing that came to mind, his only thought to keep her talking.

"So, the only time I was ever in your home was to talk to you about Buffy?"

"Yep...oh, except for later when you broke-in to kill my fish," she added nonchalantly.  "You strung them all together and left them in an envelope on my bed."

Angel shoved his hands in his pockets, wondering why he felt a twinge of guilt over something that he'd never actually done.  "So that was true, then."

"'Fraid so..."

They remained in silence for a while as Angel considered the new information.  He hadn't been sure which parts of what Spike and Rose had told him back in England were true.  He couldn't blame Willow for lying to him back then, but it did confuse issues somewhat.  Now, not only did he have to search for the truth regarding this previous version of himself, he also had to let Willow know more about the new life that she was assuming.

Yes, time travel certainly confused things.

"Your parents have actually had me over for dinner a couple of times," Angel told her in a rush, almost hoping Willow wouldn't understand him.  But she did.  Willow's jaw dropped and she blinked at him a few times.

"My parents?  You?  Dinner?" she stammered incredulously.

"Sorry...I mean the other Willow's parents."

"But...my parents don't have my friends over for dinner," Willow huffed, beginning a slow pace along the length of the porch as she continued her rant.  "Not even Oz!  I mean, they can barely remember Buffy's name, and I swear they still think of Xander as he was when he was ten!  But *you* they invite over to dinner...more than once!  And you're...well, you're a vampire and you don't even need to eat...bloody hell..."

Figuring now was not the time to call Willow on her word choice ala Spike, Angel focused on the matter at hand.  "I think Ira Rosenberg just wanted to know why his only Jewish daughter was spending so much time in a church with an older man."  Angel grinned wickedly.  "I think they were afraid it was some kind of bizarre Catholic cult, and I guess dinner was the easiest way to find out my intentions."

Willow finally planted herself on the top step of the porch, with one final softly spoken complaint.  "No one's been over for a real meal at my house since dinner stopped being PB&J and a glass of milk, Angel."

Angel climbed one step closer.  "If it helps, Willow, Sheila didn't cook.  She ordered pizza and we spent the evening discussing--"

"I don't think I want to know what we talked about, Angel," Willow interrupted.  While she was looking forward to seeing her parents again when they returned in less than a week, she was understandably nervous about the meeting as well, and Angel's revelations weren't helping.  "I haven't even met them yet," she reminded him somberly, "so maybe we should just take it one step at a time."

Angel glanced down to note that he was now standing on the second tread of the staircase.  Obviously, he already was taking it one step at a time.  The vampire chuckled softly at the irony before refocusing on the dejected-looking redhead.

"Sure, Willow, but from what you said that first night you came back, I don't think you'll find that they've changed much.  They still pretty much leave you to your own devices, oblivious not only to the dangers of the Hellmouth but to the everyday ones as well.  They trust you to raise yourself properly."  Angel tried to keep his tone light.  He didn't understand Willow's parents or their absentee parenting methods, but this was hardly the time to discuss their shortcomings.

"That sounds like them."  Willow sighed in relief.  She wrapped her arms around her bent legs, drawing them close to her body.  If Angel was right and her parents hadn't changed much, then maybe it wouldn't be too difficult for her to assimilate back into her old family life.  After all, how hard could it be to live as 17-year-old under her parents' roof again after living as an independent adult for more than a century?

Piece of cake.

Not.

Willow hugged her legs even closer, resting her head upon her knees.  In spite of everything that had happened and the trials yet to come, she couldn't help noticing what a truly beautiful night it was.  A gentle breeze surrounded her with the soft scent of roses and there were only a few wispy clouds to block the light of the moon and the twinkling stars.  In the background, the cricket song set the mood.  It was perfect, and yet it just didn't seem right.  In her opinion it was supposed to be a dark night, with thick ominous clouds blackening out the moon, the rumble of thunder in the distance signaling an impending storm and symbolizing the dark times ahead.  After all, that's how it always happened in the movies.  Of course the movies also had a soundtrack...all she had were bugs rubbing their legs together.

Willow sighed, whisper soft, casting a sideways glance at the vampire in front of her.  She was surprised that he had yet to say anything about what had happened earlier with Spike.  She was positive that he wanted to, and she couldn't fault him for that.  So Willow took a deep breath and cut to the chase.

"I didn't do it on purpose, Angel," Willow said abruptly.  She unfolded herself to stand on the top step and look down at the vampire.  "Spike and I really were just trying to talk and then Buffy came out.  I didn't want Buffy to know yet, and well...you know Spike..."

Angel looked away from the redhead to stare unseeingly into the distance.  "More than I care to, actually."

"...I guess he couldn't resist."

"You didn't seem to be resisting either," Angel continued to mutter, with more coldness then he intended.  So much for his poker face.

Willow stopped, not sure she heard him correctly.  "Resist what?"

Angel didn't answer, bringing another guilty sigh from Willow.

"Look, I'm sorry," Willow began earnestly, then waited until he looked her in the eye before continuing.  "It was stupid and childish but neither of us knew what else to do.  I just needed to talk to him.  I didn't want to worry anybody."

"You promised Giles that you were going to be careful."

"And I was!  I stayed far away from him until I knew for sure it was my Spike."

Angel gave a soft grunt.  "I don't think that's what Giles meant."

"But you saw him, Angel.  He wasn't going to hurt me!  He was just having some fun."

"Everything is fun to him, Willow!" he retorted.  "It's all a game, and I don't trust him.  You shouldn't either."

"Well, I do trust him, Angel," Willow groaned, now very sorry she'd brought up the subject of Spike.  Apparently it was the one subject that he *didn't* want to talk about.  "This is getting repetitive, so let's just call it a night," she insisted as she turned for the door.

Angel turn to leave as well, but the moment his foot hit the sidewalk, he realized he'd messed up.  Again.  Willow really had been trying to talk to him about what had happened, and he'd let his jealous nature and hatred of Spike ruin the mood.

One step forward, two steps back.  Again.

With an inward groan, Angel ran a hand through his hair to the back of his neck.  Wasn't this sort of thing supposed to get easier over time?  Fat chance.

"Willow, I'm sorry--"

"What happened to no apologies?" she shot back from the doorway, without turning around.

"I figured new screw-ups didn't count," he answered with a light-hearted shrug.  "Besides, you apologized first.  Or at least you were trying to before I went all caveman on you."

Willow spun around to face the vampire.  "You don't get it, Angel.  Cavemen I can deal with.  I'm used to that, because Spike could certainly have his caveman moments...comes with the fangs, right?  But what I am not used to is people ignoring my opinions and not listening to what I have to say.  Maybe you could get away with that when I was 17, but not anymore.  And while I don't claim to know everything or have all the answers, there is one thing that I am an expert on, and that is my friendship with Spike!"

"Willow--"

"Until you get that through your head, I don't see the point in us discussing this anymore.  Because in order to discuss something, you need to listen, too!"

Willow had just spun on her heels, her hair whipping behind her with a very satisfying snap, when she heard his reply:

"You're wrong."

Willow turned to find him smiling up at her.  He couldn't help himself when she got like that.  It was pure Rose.

Willow's frown deepened...he was smiling at her.  She'd yelled at him, really let him have it, and yet he simply stood there, smiling at her.

<Vampires!>

"What did you say?" she demanded.

"I said that you're wrong, Willow," he replied in all seriousness, at the same time trying very hard to wipe the smile from his face.

"How dare you--"

"You're wrong because I *didn't* get away with that when you were 17, either," Angel cut in before she had a chance to get herself worked up again, no matter how much he enjoyed seeing that side of her.

"Oh," she said quietly, her face softening.  "Well, that's good...I guess..."

"I respected your opinion when you were 17...both times you were 17, if I remember correctly.  Hence the long talks until the wee small hours of the morning...some of which you may even remember..."

Willow's eyes widened for a moment as she recalled some of her lengthy conversations with the living Angelus.  They'd talked about everything and anything back then.  Well, almost anything since she had to avoid talking about her past and his future.  Yet whether on their long walks, horseback rides, or over dinner in the local pub, somehow they'd managed to never run out of conversation.  Perhaps more importantly, he'd always seemed truly interested in what she'd had to say.  Now, if what Angel had told her about his friendship with Willow v2.0 was true, it appeared as if that mutual respect had carried on more than a century into the future as well.

Willow pouted, toeing at the wooden slats that formed the floor of the porch.  "That's not fair, Angel.  How am I supposed to know what you and the previous me actually talked about?  Besides, you're changing the subject."

"I told you before that we were very good friends, Willow.  We talked all the time.  If you don't believe me, ask Giles or Xander."  His casual tone turned more playfully insolent.  "And for the record, I did not change the subject."

"Yes you did!  The subject was Spike, remember?"

"Really?"  Angel cocked his head to the side, a thoughtful look on his face.  "I thought the subject was the fact that, in your opinion, I don't listen, give you the credit you deserve, or value your judgement.  And, not to dismiss your opinion on this subject, but you're wrong.  I respect your opinion very much...always have."

"Oh..." she said quietly, before her eyes narrowed again as she realized how easily he had changed the subject away from Spike, yet again.  Luckily, she was a quick study.  "Well, since you value my opinion so much, I guess that means you won't question my relationship with Spike anymore."

Angel slowly climbed the steps.  By the time he joined her on the porch, his grin had faded and his features were tight.

"If you expect me simply to forget what Spike did to me, how he betrayed me time and time again, I won't, Willow."  He paused, his eyes closing for a brief second before he looked at her again.  "Not even for you."

Seeing the anguish on his face and hearing it in his voice, Willow had to look away.  She chose to study the porch rail with its somewhat flaking white paint as she spoke, moving closer to it to pick at the large white flakes that crumbled beneath her fingers.

"I can't begin to understand how you must feel about what happened between you and Spike.  That's for you two to work out...you're both hurt and angry.  As much as I think I understand sire-childe relationships, I know I can't really even begin to fathom them.  But your relationship with Spike is separate from my relationship with him.  He's...*different* with me." Willow sighed and finally looked back up at Angel.  "Does that make any sense at all?" she asked hopefully.

Angel's hands went in his pockets as his line of vision dropped to the floor for a moment.  He gathered himself, then he refocused on Willow.

"I do understand what you're trying to say, and from what I saw tonight, you *may* be right," was all he could say.

Although it wasn't the exact answer she was looking for, considering how complex the situation was, Willow decided it was a good start.

"Good," she said with a kind smile.  "On that hopeful note, maybe I should head in.  You know, kinda quit while we're ahead."  Willow turned for the door, but Angel's anxious voice made her pause in her retreat.

"I have something for you, Willow."  Angel never was very good at quitting while he was ahead.

His words sent chills down her spine.  While they weren't the same ones Angelus had used all those years ago, the effect was nearly the same.  "I don't want--need--anything..." she replied, stopping herself before she could echo her exact words from a century ago.  She slowly turned back to face the dark-haired vampire, only to find him with his hand outstretched, a small black bag in his palm.

"Oh boy," was all she could manage to mutter as she glanced up from his hand.  Angel was regarding her with a wary yet oddly hopefully expression.

"It's your--"

"My cross..."

"I--"

"Kept it for me all this time..." she again finished Angel's sentence in a far-off voice.

He nodded.  "As a reminder, and with the hopes that someday I could give it back to you."  When Willow still hesitated, Angel added, "Please take it, Willow.  It is yours, after all.  If you want to get rid of it, that's up to you."

Willow stared at the black velvet bag with its gold cord and tassel, her heart beating loudly enough in her own ears that it drowned out the crickets song.  She reached out with a shaky hand to lift the small, soft pouch from Angel's palm.

"Okay, I'll take it...I-I missed it, actually.  I don't quite know how I'll explain it to my parents if they ever see me wearing it, but still...it's...thank you," she finally stammered.

"You're very welcome."

Willow tugged at the drawstrings to open the bag and then slowly emptied its contents into the palm of her hand.  It was her cross, its ornate silver buffed to a perfect shine and without even a hint of tarnish.  It gleamed in the gentle moonlight, bringing a soft smile to Willow's face.

She looked up again at Angel, her eyes glistening, to repeat in a near-whisper, "Thank you, Angel."  She then slid the cross with its thick chain over her head.  For a moment, she simply relished the feeling of its weight against her chest before slipping it under the neckline of her T-shirt to lay directly against her skin and out of plain view.  That's when another tiny glimmer of silver caught her eye.

"Oh, um, since we're playing lost and found, I think that it's only fair that you have this."  Willow easily slipped the silver band from her finger despite the Band-Aids that she'd wrapped around the majority of the ring.  She held it out to him, saying, "Sorry about all the bandages.  It was a little big, and I didn't want to lose it...not before I could give it back to you."

Angel's eyes grew wider as he stared at the band of metal and flesh-colored bandages resting in Willow's petite had, but he didn't reach for it.

"It...the ring...it *is* mine, then?  I'd wondered, but I wasn't sure..."

Willow nodded, still offering it to him.  "The spell needed an anchor...something personal to the individual and the time we were travelling to.  Spike said this ring was all he could find of yours. Apparently, Drusilla had taken it from you at some point, but I don't really know when."

"But..." Angel didn't finish verbalizing that thought.  Instead he lifted his hand, waving its long fingers so she could see the silver band he was wearing.  "I'm already wearing it."

Willow frowned.  She'd noticed it before, but had assumed--hoped even--that it was a replacement.  "Are you sure it's the same ring?"

"One way to be sure.  What does the inscription say?"

"Inscription?" Willow repeated, her brows knitting together slightly at the thought.

"If it's my ring, the one that my grandmum gave me, there will be an inscription on the inside.  Doesn't it have one?" he asked, his voice betraying a tinge of disappointment when the confused look on Willow's face led him to believe that it wasn't his ring that she'd been wearing all this time.

Willow glanced between the rings.  "I-I never had the chance to check," she admitted sheepishly.  "Spike just forced it onto my finger..."

<William never was much for romance...> Angel found himself thinking as Willow relayed the incident.

"...and before I knew it, it was kinda melted there."

"I remember," he said gravely, reliving the one time they had spoken about the ring during a surprise picnic that he had planned for her.  It was the same memorable day that she'd met his mother for the first time, which was later followed by an equally unforgettable horseback ride back to town through dense fog.

"Guess there's only one way to be sure."  Aware that Angel was watching her every move, every expression, Willow painstakingly began to remove the layers of Band-Aids from the ring until she revealed all the silver below.  After a deep breath and still not truly understanding why she was so nervous about such a little thing, Willow scrutinized the inside.

Her heart leapt as she saw the tiny words carved along its interior for the first time.  "It's not Latin...Gaelic?"

Angel nodded, sliding off his own ring to translate the words inside even though he knew them from memory.  "With all my heart and all my soul, I am with you."  Angel paused to gaze at the beautiful woman before him, and he could almost feel his heart beating as he spoke the final word of the translation:

"Always."

Sinking into the warm depths of his dark eyes as he uttered the last word, Willow couldn't breathe.  She was drowning in memories...emotions...and she clutched the tiny circlet of silver tightly in her hand as if it were a life preserver.

Time passed--a second...a minute...an eternity...and suddenly, Willow was breathing again.  Speaking even.

"That's...beautiful," she sighed.  The sound of her voice brought them both fully back to reality.  Willow could feel the heat rushing to her face, and she quickly looked away from Angel, suddenly feeling shy.  "I-I can't believe those words were written there the whole time and I never knew."

Angel too was feeling rather emotionally overwhelmed at that moment, and he found himself studying the floorboards again.  "Well, my grandmum was quite the romantic.  She, ah, spent weeks finding just the right quote to use, apparently."  Angel dared to peek at Willow through lowered lashes.  "I wish you could have met her, Willow.  She would have loved you."

"Me or Rose?" Willow asked, still looking anywhere but at Angel.

"Both," came Angel's frank reply.

Willow held her tongue, but she couldn't stop the small smile that tugged at her lips.  She truly had enjoyed meeting Angelus's family, and he had always talked very fondly of his feisty grandmother.

The smile quickly faded.  "But why are there two?" Willow finally asked, her eyes narrowing sharply as she stared at the ring.  "I mean, there aren't two Willow's, there aren't two Spike's, why two rings?"

"I don't know," Angel replied honestly, wishing he had the answers for her.  "Another mystery of the spell."

Willow glanced from the ring up into Angel's caring eyes, but she had to almost immediately look away again before her body could again react to the swirling emotions she still saw in those dark pools.

"Well, I don't know about you, Angel, but I'm tired of mystery.  For once I wish things would just make sense again."

"They will, Willow.  I guess we both have patience issues," he said with a sad smile, and Willow nodded in agreement.

She took a deep breath, then thrust the ring out to the vampire again.  "You should keep this," Willow said, trying to ignore how naked she already felt with out it.

Angel stepped back, thrusting his hands back into his pockets once again.  "I already have one, Willow.  You keep that one."

"I couldn't..."

"It's yours now, Willow, and I wouldn't dream of taking it from you."  Seeing her hesitation and the way she was avoiding looking at him, Angel easily guessed what Willow was thinking.  God it hurt.  "No strings, Willow.  It doesn't have to mean anything," he suggested, his voice strained.

Willow held the delicate hoop tightly in her fist, some small portion of her wanting to hurl it into the dark night and as far away as possible.  Yet, before she was even aware that she was doing it, Willow was sliding it back on to her finger, back home.  The redhead felt a sudden flood of relief knowing that she'd never have to part with the ring, for it truly had become a part of her.

Finally looking back up at Angel, she found him watching her, his face nearly emotionless this time.  Consigning their most recent 'moment' to the furthest recesses of her mind, Willow sighed in resignation.

"I suppose you want to talk some more, don't you?"

"You know we need to," he answered, his dark eyes following Willow's tight face as she glanced longingly back toward her front door.  "But it's late and you've had a long and difficult day...and if you aren't ready..."

<Damn him for being so reasonable!>  Willow thought irritably.

"Fine.  If you want to talk, then talk," she said grimly, the growing stiffness of her body letting Angel know exactly how little she wanted to discuss their past.  "Explain this to me, Angel.  If you want to talk, then you have to find the means to make me understand why things turned out this way and why I shouldn't be fighting against these changes with everything I am!"

"Okay..." Angel responded, relieved that she was willing to talk about some of the real issues between them, albeit reluctantly.  Nevertheless, it was a start.  He took a seat on the top step of the Rosenberg porch, his arms automatically resting on his knees, fingers joining to form a triangle as he contemplated the best way to begin.  After a brief pause, he looked up at the waiting redhead.  "It might take a while."

Willow smirked.  "Well, while I no longer have all the time in the world, I think I can spare you an hour or so."

"Then tell me how I was before, Willow...in your timeline.  Tell me the truth, even about Angelus."

"Now?" she queried, surprised by the direction he chose for the conversation.

"Might as well get it over with," he said with a loose shrug.  "Then maybe together we can figure out why things are different."

"Okay...mainly, Angel, you were hopelessly in love with Buffy--"

"Willow..." Angel growled playfully at her matter-of-fact manner.  "You sound like a broken record...I mean a severely scratched CD.  Have to change with the times, right?"

Rolling her eyes, Willow gifted him with a small grin before she got back to business.  Chewing on her bottom lip, she thought for a moment and then took a seat next to Angel on the porch, but not too close.  After collecting her thoughts, she finally began.

"Well, we called you 'cryptic guy' for a long time, Angel.  All you ever did was show up and deliver some mysterious omen then disappear without a trace.  It was quite awhile before you told Buffy what you were, and how you'd been punished by the Rom with your soul.  By then, she already had feelings for you, and you for her."

Angel nodded his head, not so much in understanding as to show that he was listening.

"Giles used to say how poetic it all was--a vampire in love with a slayer," Willow continued.

"Buffy and I were happy though?"

"Yes...very," Willow said with an emphatic bobbing of her head.

Angel didn't buy it; it didn't make sense.  "Really?" he pushed.  "Buffy and I were happy--a 200-year-old vampire and a 16-year-old slayer were happy, even though I had some clause that precluded happiness?" he asked, his voice holding more cynicism than he'd intended, but he thought the point was a good one.

Willow's brows drew together in consternation as she allowed herself to slip into a moment of what she knew was completely illogical thinking.  After all, Angel wasn't supposed to argue with her.  He was supposed to leap suddenly to his feet, saying "You're right, Willow.  Buffy and I do belong together.  How could I not see it before?  Thank you for showing me the light!" then skip off to the Summerss home with a song on his lips.  But instead he was questioning her judgement, again, and much to her annoyance.  "Well, you didn't exactly know about the clause until it was too late.  You didn't know you weren't supposed to be happy," she explained logically, her tone tinged with vexation.

"But this cryptic, brooding, lurking Angel that you are describing *before* he lost his soul was happy?"

Willow shifted on the step to face him, not surprised to see a sly smile softening his pale features.  That proved more than anything else had so far that there was more than a little bit of Angelus, both the man and the demon, in the vampire before her.  They both loved a good verbal argument.

Her eyes narrowed until Angel could almost feel them burrowing into him.  He hoped he hadn't pushed her too far, but he wasn't going to hold back on this matter.  It was too important to continue to tiptoe around.

"You're twisting my words," she informed him, green eyes flashing dangerously.

"No, I'm not."

"You know that's not what I meant about Angel and Buffy..."

"No, maybe it wasn't what you meant," he replied calmly, which only irritated Willow more, "But it seems to me you won't see the truth.  From what you've told me, I don't see how I could have been happy...Buffy either."

"Well, you were!  You lost your soul, didn't you?"

"After having sex with Buffy?" he grinned, unable to help himself.

"Yes, so see...you must have loved Buffy!"  Angel opened his mouth to retort, but Willow could see the next argument coming.  "And don't even think of telling me that you would have had sex with Buffy without loving her.  You...well...*he*...wasn't like that then," she said in her 'so there' tone, letting her resolve face fall into place.  She was too emotional for the poker face to be effective, so she could only hope that her more stubborn look would work.

"I'm not saying that the other Angel didn't love Buffy, Willow.  I'm arguing that I don't see how we could have been happy.  Love does not equal happiness."

"Are you saying that sex does?"

"You aren't listening."

"Me?  You're the one who won't listen to what I'm telling you...again!"

"I have listened, Willow."  Angel could see her growing anger, and as much as he loved to see this side of her, he doubted if this was the best time to get her all riled up.  Using a softer tone of voice, he continued, "While I don't claim to really understand, I would imagine that he saw Buffy as the ultimate form of redemption.  She epitomized everything that he wasn't without his soul, and through his love for The Slayer, he was seeking a salvation of sorts."  Angel paused, still struggling to find the right words.  He wasn't trying to disparage the other Angel's love for Buffy.  He was simply trying to find a possible explanation for such a peculiar relationship.

Willow frowned as words from long ago drifted back to her.  "...just some twisted type of penance that his guilt-ridden soul came up with to make sure he was a miserable sod for the rest of eternity."

Angel cocked his head, slightly puzzled by her word choice, yet pleased that she seemed to understand his general point.  "That's a bit simplistic and harsh, but I guess you could put it that way."

"I didn't put it that way.  Spike did.  A long, long time ago when we were talking about...things..."

Angel's pleasure instantly dissolved.  "What *things* were you two talking about?"

Willow thought back to the conversation she'd had with Spike after that first time she'd escaped from Angelus in London.  She remembered the look on Spike's face when she'd thoughtlessly asked him why Angelus couldn't be more like he was.  The dialogue took a few twists and turns, as her discussions with Spike usually did, and eventually Spike announced that Angelus was incapable of love...always was.  When Willow'd retorted that Angel had loved Buffy, Spike had laughed outright, insisting that Angel didn't know what love was either.

Knowing that Angel was watching her carefully, waiting for an answer, Willow did her best to assume her poker face.  "We were just talking about life in Sunnydale...reminiscing mainly," she lied, adding a simple shrug for good measure.

Angel had been studying her as she spoke, meticulously choosing her words.  He noticed the instant Willow's resolve face was replaced with the façade of a woman who'd bluffed her way through more than a few tight spots.

Once again she was his Rose.

"Spike may very well be right," he admitted as casually as he could, considering his emotions were on the rise again.

Willow's green eyes narrowed as she wondered whether he meant that or if he was just trying to get a rise out of her.  "But you did love her...and she loved you...and..." Willow sighed.  It all seemed a moot point now anyway, as any relationship between Buffy and Angel in this timeline would be completely different now.  "I guess you were as happy as a vampire and a slayer could be.  You had troubles.  She had difficulty trusting you for a while after she first discovered your real identity.  But most of all Buffy had trouble adjusting to being The Slayer in the first place," she admitted, remembering back to some of Buffy's more difficult times.  "It was hard for her, not being able to have a normal teen-aged girl's life, but you...you made that easier for her, I think.  You understood the bizarreness that was the life of a slayer, she didn't have to explain things to you, or lie to cover up her odd hours and supernatural strength.  She could just be herself with you."  Willow paused, before finishing with, "And she really needed that in her life."

Angel considered this for a while.  Except for the fact that he'd been honest about who and what he was from the beginning, what Willow had said didn't seem all that much different.  In his experience, Buffy had been a reluctant slayer, vacillating back and forth between hating and denying her destiny to treating it glibly, as if doing battle nightly with the forces of darkness was nothing compared to getting her homework in on time.  Some days it seemed too much for her, while other days she made being the Chosen One look easy.  Angel helped when he could, as did the others, and with their aid, and sometimes in spite of it, Buffy managed to do much more than simply cope.

"I'm glad that he was able to do that for her," Angel said in all honesty.  "And yet, somehow, our Buffy managed just fine with only my friendship and not my heart."  Before Willow could question him further on that matter, Angel continued.  "Now tell me about when I lost my soul..."  He hesitated, still not sure which parts of the stories that Rose and Spike had woven for his benefit were true. "...and killed your fish."

"It was horrible.  You were *so* cruel to Buffy."  Willow carefully detailed all she remembered about those dark times and what Angelus had put Buffy through, including the torture of Giles and the death of Jenny.  Angel listened to it all without interrupting, but his face was pinched and Willow could see his hands clench into tight fists.  Wanting to get it all out in the open, Willow even told him about how they found out that the previous Angel had lost his soul, repeating the story of when the modern version of Angelus had found her in the school, threatening to kill her before they were interrupted.

"So that was all true as well," Angel said in a tight voice, casting a quick glimpse over at the redhead before concentrating on his fingers again.  "What you told me that night in London, about how I'd--he'd--held you by the throat, was true?"

"Yes...I just skirted around a few of the facts so you wouldn't find out that, hopefully one day, you'd get your soul shoved back down your throat."

Angel chuckled, still amazed at how well she'd managed the difficult situations he'd placed her in when he was soulless.  "You handled that all quite well.  I never suspected, until I was choking on my soul, of course," he commented with only a hint of bitterness to his voice as he echoed Spike's words from earlier that night.

Willow let them both digest everything for a moment before going on to tell a little more of what she knew about the final battle between Angelus and Buffy, including how it was Spike's decision to help Buffy that eventually led to Drusilla's suicide and Spike's casting the fateful spell.  She looked at Angel, wondering how the details of yet another betrayal by Spike would affect him.

Angel stared at the ground a few feet in front of him.  Spike had helped Buffy try to save the world.  It was hard to believe, considering what a penchant Spike had for killing slayers.  Nevertheless, because of Spike, the world hadn't been sucked into hell.  Angel didn't really know how to feel about that.  Obviously he was relieved, but he was also puzzled by the other Angelus's behavior.  As evil as he himself had been while soulless, Angel couldn't imagine wanting to have all the world's living inhabitants sucked into hell.  As fun as it sounded to a lot of demonic types, any idiot could see that it was incredibly lacking in foresight...especially for vampires.  No living beings meant no food.  Not a difficult concept.

There was only one explanation, as far as Angel could figure.  Angelus had been nuts--driven crazy from the unwelcome addition of his soul, no doubt.  Angel looked deep within himself, searching for any signs that he, too, was capable of such madness if he were to somehow lose his soul.  But before he could figure out exactly what it was he was looking for, Willow's solemn voice broke into his thoughts.

"We never knew exactly what happened," she said solemnly, "but I was always sure that the spell to return your soul to you had worked.  But if that's true, then it's possible that Buffy had to send you to hell to close Acathla, even after you had your soul again.  We never saw either you or Buffy again, although it was only a couple of months later that Spike decided to change history.  So who knows what may have really happened..."

They sat in silence for a while, Willow giving Angel some time to consider what may have happened to him in her timeline and the implications of being sent to hell with an intact soul.  She was surprised when his next question changed the focus of the conversation.

"What about before I came to Sunnydale?" he asked, fixing her with a curious look.

Willow frowned, not sure what he was getting at.  "Um, first of all, don't forget that you weren't supposed to get your soul back until 1898, but when you found me...well...that kinda sped things up a couple of decades."  Angel nodded his understanding, so Willow went on.  "I'm not sure, but from the amount of guilt you were obviously carrying around and what little you told Buffy that she passed on to me, we thought that you'd been a recluse.  You always seemed very uncomfortable around us, especially in the beginning, so I don't think it was until you met Buffy that you really decided to rejoin the human race, so to speak.  I'm pretty sure that the phrase 'rats as meals' was mentioned once or twice."  What she didn't add was that not only had Buffy mentioned that little tidbit of information, but so had Spike.

Angel stared at his hands, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as everything started to fall into place.

"I think I understand now," he told her, barely able to contain his excitement.  Although he doubted she was going to like what he had to say, at least it was an explanation for some of the changes.

Willow looked at him, green eyes wide with anticipation.  "You do?"

He turned to her, wishing he could take her hand in his because it seemed like the appropriate thing to do, but he doubted that she'd agree.

"Do you remember what you said to me in the clearing after I was cursed?" he began.

"Sure.  It was just yesterday to me," she replied, wondering what that had to do with anything.

"What did you say, Willow?"

"Um...something like: remember that we need you, Buffy needs you.  You will find some balance..." she rattled off the top of her head.

"Angelus...remember this," the ensouled vampire said somberly, looking up at the starlit sky as he repeated her words.  "You are very much needed.  We need you...Buffy needs you.  And for every wrong you have done, you can do an act of amends.  It won't take the pain of the evil you have committed away, but you may find some balance.  Remember this."

Willow was speechless.  After almost a century and a half, he remembered what she'd said word-for-word.  She couldn't decide if that was a good thing or not.

The vampire smiled softly at her unspoken surprise.  Again, Angel found it difficult to resist reaching out to her at such an important revelation.  He wanted to hold her hand, look her deeply in the eyes, and somehow make her understand the importance of those words.

"Those first few years," he began, settling for only holding her confused green gaze with his own, "every night when I woke up in an alley somewhere or in some damp hole in the ground or the sewer, I repeated those words to myself.  'Angelus...we need you.  For every wrong you have done, you can do an act of amends...you may find some balance.'"  He paused, giving Willow a chance to process what he'd said before going on.  "And every time I woke up screaming from a nightmare that was in fact just memories of my own horrible deeds, I heard your words."  He stopped again, this time to gather his own thoughts.  "Time and time again, when I remembered what I'd done to you, what I'd promised to put you through, I saw you and heard your words, Willow."

As his words began to sink in, Willow was unable to look away.  She just stared at him, not caring if her mouth was open or if she looked foolish.  She simply couldn't believe what he seemed to be telling her.

"Sometimes those words were the only thing that kept me from walking into the sun.  Not that I was all that eager to be a useful member of society again, but after a few years..."

The vampire rose gracefully to his feet to stand at the bottom of the steps, facing her.

"I won't bore you with some clichéd story about how the Scourge of Europe changes his evils ways to become the protector of all that is pure and good in this world," he chuckled nervously.  "But, basically, that's what happened."

Willow's eyes widened even further as the slight shock gave way to a flood of different emotions.  She rose shakily to her feet, having to grip the handrail to steady herself.

"You mean that all these years, you've been...I mean, instead of hiding from the world...you've been...you've been helping people?"

He looked up at her, watching the tears spill from her glistening eyes again.  "Yes, Willow.  Because of what you said to me, I've been trying to atone for my crimes for nearly a century and a half.  I knew then, and still know now, that I can never really hope to make up for everything I've done, but I had to try."  He paused.  "Sometimes my deeds were big, sometimes small.  I've done everything from rescuing a cat stuck in a tree, to saving a baby from a burning building.  And just in case you wondered, saving the baby was a helluva lot easier than the damned cat.  Should have left the ungrateful beast up there for a few days..." he joked, but seeing no sign of a smile from Willow, he became serious again.  "I fought evil when I could, killing a few vamps and demons here and there, but mostly just helping when no one else could.  Helping the hopeless, I guess you could say."

Willow was too overwhelmed with emotion to do anything but let the tears slip quietly down her cheeks.  Angel gingerly climbed the stairs to join her on the porch landing, never taking his eyes from hers.  Then, even more slowly, he reached out to gently wipe away one of her tears, his hopes rising when she didn't cringe from his touch.

"It sounds to me like your Angel, the old one, had just begun to atone for his misdeeds when he came to help Buffy," he told her softly.  "But me, well, I've already had more than a century's worth of experience at it."

"Oh God..." was all Willow could utter as it became glaringly obvious that it truly was all her fault that Angel was different, that everything was different.

He looked her in the eyes, wanting her to understand him.  "All because of you, Willow."

"No...no...not because of me, Angel," Willow cried adamantly, shaking her head.  The redhead was even resisting the childish urge to stick her fingers in her ears as she took a step back.  "You did it all on your own.  I didn't have anything to do with it!"

"Didn't you?" he retorted darkly.  "It all makes sense now, Willow...this Angel you're describing that I can barely relate to.  You said it yourself, Willow.  Rats for meals...living in a gutter.  I did that for a couple of years myself, too much of a coward to end my own miserable existence and hating myself for being too...*good* to go ahead and continue killing in spite of the soul.  After all, most of the greatest killers this world has ever known had souls...many of them even killing in the name of the church...but I couldn't...I wouldn't."

"No...Angel, please...please don't tell me that everything is different just because of a few little words I said without thinking.  I mean, I say things all the time without thinking.  Peoples' lives, the fate of the world even, shouldn't change just because I can't keep my mouth shut!"

"They were far from just a few little words, Willow.  At least to me," he said in quiet tone, hating the look of horror on her face.

Willow closed her eyes and turned away from the vampire, her arms tightly wrapped about herself in support.  She couldn't think straight.

"You act as if this is a bad thing, Willow," Angel said a little more gruffly, tiring of her guilt-ridden melodramatics.  "As if it would have been better if I'd lived on rats, doing nothing to help anyone for over a century!"

Willow turned back to face him, wiping the remainder of her tears away.  "No, of course not, Angel," she sniffed.  "What you did was great...amazing even, but I, well, I just..."

"You just wish that I had still managed to fall hopelessly in love with Buffy, right?  And that you and Oz were together?"

Detecting the disgust in his tone, Willow pulled herself together.  "Is it so wrong of me to want all my friends to be happy...for things to be like they were before?"

"Of course not," he replied with an understanding shake of his head.  "But it would be wrong for you to dwell on the past when there is nothing you can do to change it.  And it would be an even worse sin for you not to open your eyes and see some of the good things around you, the changes for the better!"

Willow's eyes narrowed stubbornly before the truth of his words sank in, softening her face.  "I know you're right, Angel, but..."  Willow sighed despondently.  "Oh, Angel...Why couldn't you just hate me for giving you your soul?  It would have been so much easier..."

This time Angel was shocked.  "Hate you?"

"I gave you a soul, Angel!  Although I wasn't the one who performed the spell, this time around, I would have if I had to, Angel.  I made sure the Rom knew the spell, I'm the one that told them about what would happen if you weren't given your soul.  Basically, I was the one who forced you to experience the guilt and pain of everything you'd done."

"I know, Willow," Angel replied softly, having to force himself not to close the physical distance between them.  The idea that she felt guilt for his soul made him want to hold her even more.  But he couldn't, so he took a step back, once again running his hand through his hair in a gesture of frustration.  "And at first, part of me wanted to hate you.  I wanted to *want* to make you suffer for what you put me through those first few years.  I even wanted to blame you for my becoming a vampire in the first place, but I couldn't.  It wasn't you, and I knew that.  It was me, always me...always my fault.  I was arrogant and weak and..."

Angel stopped himself there.  He had always been a weak and selfish human.  Yet those last few weeks, the time that he'd been with Rose, he had begun to change.  For the first time he'd learned to care about somebody more than himself.  He *had* begun to think about the future, and the kind of person that he'd wanted to be for Rose.

But his personal growth had all been wasted.  All because of that one fateful night when it had been too hard to let Rose go, when he'd had to put up with the taunts of her 'husband' and had responded by getting drunk.  Then Darla had found him, and...

He'd been a weak fool and perhaps even deserved his dark fate.

Sensing his distress, Willow quietly moved to Angel, surprising them both by reaching for his hand.  She took his hand in hers, and gave it a comforting squeeze.

"It's okay, Angel."

A sad smile twisted Angel's lips and he pulled his cool hand out of her warm grasp.  At the moment he didn't feel worthy of her comfort no matter how many decades he'd been trying to repay her faith in him.  "Instead of hating you, I hated the Rom, I hated Spike, but mostly I despise myself because I knew the truth."

"Truth?"

"All of them...the Rom, Spike, even you... They saved you, Willow.  They saved Rose from me...from an eternity of..." he trailed off, running a hand through his short-cropped hair in frustration.  "They not only saved my soul, Willow.  They saved *yours*.  Make no mistake about it, I had every intention of...making you mine in every vampiric sense of the word...one way or another.  I wanted you with me for an eternity, whether to suffer or as my--"

"I know..." Willow interrupted gently, wanting to make his confessions easier on the vampire, but Angel only flashed her another guilty look.

"And that's the most amazing part, Willow!" he exclaimed, his own eyes now shining with unshed tears.  "Don't you see?  You *did* know what I'd planned for you, and yet you still said those words to me.  You *still* gave me a reason not to end my days upon this earth."

"I--I don't know what to say, Angel.  When I said those things to you...I just wanted to take your pain away.  I'd never seen anybody, not even the previous Angel, look so...lost.  I wasn't trying to, er, guide your path.  I guess I just wanted to give you hope."

"And you did, Willow."  Angel's voice quivered with emotion.  "You gave me much more than I deserved, and I've spent decades trying to live up to your faith in me."

The sheer emotion in the vampire's deep voice took away Willow's ability to speak.  Her gaze drifted away from his tender expression to the sky above.  It was easier to focus on the distant points of light than on the vampire beside her or her own shifting emotions.

"It's late, Willow," Angel said softly after a minute or two of silence.  "I think we've done enough talking for one night, don't you?"

Still staring up at the early morning sky, Willow smiled despite her chaotic feelings.  "So, I finally managed to talk you out, did I?"

Angel laughed.  "Well, if you want to talk more, we'd have to move inside because the sun will be up soon.  And now that you mentioned it, I can think of a few interesting topics we have yet to cover," he teased the redhead lightly.

Knowing she deserved that, Willow finally looked at him again through weary eyes.  "Angel, I need--

"Time...I know," he interrupted gently, drawing a grateful nod from the redhead.

"I know it sounds ridiculous, but yes...I need time to digest all of this.  While I'm glad we talked, I feel like my head really is full of cotton now.  I'm afraid you broke my brain," she added with a fake pout, her hands rising to massage her aching temples.

"I think it would take a hell of a lot more than a few time paradoxes to do that, Willow," he chuckled amiably before descending her porch steps.

Willow moved gingerly to the door, and then turned back to look at the departing vampire over her shoulder.  "Goodnight, Angel.  And thanks...for telling me everything, whether I wanted to hear it or not."

"Thank *you*, Willow...for everything," he replied sincerely.

Willow smiled one more time at the handsome vampire before stepping inside to close and lock the door behind her.  It took some strength not to glance back out to see if Angel was still there, but somehow she managed not to look.  Slowly, Willow ascended the steps to her room, once again in a daze.  Even though she'd been looking forward to sleeping in her bed for decades, Willow doubted that she'd get much sleep, no matter what the time.  She was too busy trying to come to terms with everything that Angel had told her...yet again.
~~~~~~~~~~

End Chapter 8 - archived 4/30/01
 

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