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

** Lastly, this part is dedicated to Melissa because they don't have a Willow/Angel award for 'Best  Cheerleader'.  Of course, knowing her,  she probably won't read this for a few months, but it's the thought that counts, right?

 
It's About Time ~ Chapter 9
 
 
< > Indicates thoughts and such
 
 
 
 

"You want me to train?  With Angel?  Today?"

Staring at Buffy in disbelief as they sat in Angel's library, Willow tried her best not to sound completely flabbergasted at the whole idea.  Unfortunately, as Buffy sternly nodded her head in answer to her interrogation, Willow was finding it difficult to keep her mouth from dropping open at the concept of having to 'work out' with Angel in any capacity.

Wasn't it bad enough that Buffy had woken her up at 8 am that morning to make sure that she'd survived the night after her encounter with Spike?  Considering Willow had probably only been asleep for an hour at the most, the redhead was actually surprised at how well she'd handled the news when Buffy offhandedly reminded her that they were expected at Angel's early that afternoon.  After blindly placing the phone back in its cradle, Willow's first reaction as she nestled back under the soft cotton covers had been to wonder if she'd ever have any time to herself.  Almost as soon as the thought had materialized, Willow had berated herself, albeit sleepily.  After all, she'd been alone for decades and had hated it.  Even when she hadn't been physically alone, having either The Rom or Spike for companions, she'd truly missed her old friends.  Even with all awkward moments and painful revelations, she was happy to be back in Sunnydale and surrounded by the gang.

But training with Angel?

As she continued to stare at Buffy incredulously, Willow instinctively realized that she wasn't handling this latest bit of news very well at all.  Regrettably, her mind seemed stuck on the idea that training would involve fighting and touching and tight clothing on sweaty bodies...

<oh God>

Willow glanced down at her clothes...luckily, she'd happened to put on sweatpants and a baggy T-shirt that morning.  She cast a covert look Angel's way as well and was greatly relieved to find that he, too, wore loose fitting clothing.  Although she doubted that his black sweatpants and T-shirt were the latest in trend in all the aerobics studios, they were still suitable for a little one-on-one training.

Okay, so maybe there wouldn't be tight clothing involved, but the rest of her inner argument--the fighting, touching, and possible sweating--was a valid one.  Nope.  Willow didn't care how 'friendly' the other version of herself was with Angel, training was out of the question.

Not going to happen.

Meanwhile, as Willow argued within herself, Angel continued to keep to the periphery of the girls' conversation.  Angel had barely had a chance to bid the four young people a good morning when they'd wandered in--receiving a genuine, if not a bit embarrassed smile from Willow in return--before Buffy had broken the news about training.  The vampire had actually forgotten that today was Willow's turn to train or else he would have warned Willow ahead of time, but in the excitement created by recent events, the workout schedule was the furthest thing from his mind.

As the vampire watched the two girls, he found himself wondering how this slip of a girl before him, whose horror at the possibility of having to work out with him was written all over her pretty face with giant neon lights, could be the same one who had very nearly bested him at the poker table.  To keep from outright grinning, Angel kept his focus on Buffy instead of Willow.  He figured that after their small but positive steps last night, laughing at Willow's look of undiluted shock might undo all of their hard work.

Just as the determined redhead was considering faking a fainting spell--anything to avoid physical contact with the vampire--Xander strolled in with a Coke in hand.  He stood next to Angel, who was practically chewing on the inside of his cheek at this point in his efforts not to smile.

"Let me guess," Xander quipped knowingly as he snapped open his can of liquid brunch.  "Willow's trying to get out of training *again*."

Again?  Willow frowned, although she wasn't sure why.  "Well, no, but--"

"But nothing, young lady," Buffy interrupted with a definite mother-like quality to her voice.  The Slayer was sitting on the same table that Willow was seated at, freely swinging her legs.  "Not only is today your turn, but considering Spike has taken an interest in you--"

"An unhealthy interest," Xander hastily pointed out before having another sip of his drink.

Buffy nodded in agreement.  "But also--"

"A *very* unhealthy interest," Xander interrupted once again.  This time a look of extreme distaste taking over his previously calm features.

Buffy sighed at the interruptions but plowed ahead.  "Yes, and--"

"A *disgustingly* unhealthy interest," Xander spat out, his fist tightening on the can, denting it.

"Xander!" Buffy and Willow chimed in annoyed unison, although the roots of their exasperation were quite different.

Buffy cleared her throat, throwing Xander a 'Don't interrupt me again unless you want to be used as a punching bag the next time I train' look.  "What I was going to say is that it appears as if Spike is actually going to act on his...er, disgustingly unhealthy interest," Buffy said, glancing at Xander momentarily for approval before turning back to Willow.  "It was bad enough when he would just watch you with that smug 'I know something you don't know' look on his face, Willow, but it looks like he's taken it up a notch."

Xander nodded in agreement.  "Yeah, for some reason, he seems to have a special interest in you, Willow.  After doing nothing about it for more than a year, maybe he's finally ready to make his move...his *disgustingly* *unhealthy* move."

Biting her lip, Willow dared a quick peek at Angel.  While she was thankful that he'd stayed out of the conversation up to now, she was afraid that with the latest turn in the subject, Angel would be furious or brooding.  Willow was pleasantly surprised to find the dark-haired vampire appearing quite calm.

Boosted by Angel's self-control, Willow smiled sheepishly at her friends.  "Don't you think you two are blowing things a little out of proportion?  Maybe he just wanted to talk?"

"Riiiight...and vampires are so known for their social skills," Xander scoffed, then added with a nod to the vampire, "Present company excluded, Angel."

Angel bowed his head slightly in return--his typical response to the oft-uttered phrase.

Now Angel's self-restraint was truly being challenged as the focus of the conversation shifted more toward the matter of Willow's safety.  While it was true that he had been working with the Scooby Gang with regards to self-defense, even the 'non-chosen ones,' he had always trained Willow especially hard.  Perhaps driven by guilt or instead by a simple desire to see that the innocent girl was never again at the mercy of either vampire or man--most likely a combination of both--very early on in his association with the young people he'd insisted that she learn at least the basics of self-defense.

"Willow...this is *Spike* we're talking about, not Angel," Xander patiently reminded her, and Buffy nodded in agreement.  "He doesn't want to talk, he wants to eat, and it looks like redhead is the soup du jour at the moment."

Willow rolled her eyes, holding her breath.  For split second, she was almost tempted to tell them everything.  But she didn't.  Because if their behavior now was irritating her, no matter how much she understood it, she knew that the million questions that would certainly follow would sorely test her patience level.

<Pick your battles, Willow.>

"You know, Xander, I don't think I like being compared to soup," she pouted playfully in an effort to change the subject and bringing a smile to Xander's face.  "I prefer to be compared to chocolate.  It's much more..."

"Messy?"

"I was thinking exotic."

"Okay then...Spike has a sweet tooth and you look like a giant M&M to him!"

"Hey!  I'm Godiva, thank you very much!"

"Soup, chocolate, brussel sprouts, whatever...name your food group," Buffy sighed, interrupting their fun.  She hopped to her feet and began an easy pace between the tables.  "The point is, you need to be prepared.  We can't always be there to protect you, Willow."

"I'm well aware of that, Buffy," Willow replied, her grin fading somewhat.  Willow wasn't sure whether to be annoyed or amused.  While she couldn't help feeling a little insulted from the implication that she was unable to take care of herself, it was also nice to have so many people worrying about her wellbeing again.  Besides, they had no way of knowing exactly how capable of watching out for herself she actually was now since she still wasn't ready to tell them the truth.

Still all business, Buffy came to a stop and turned back to Angel.  "I think you may want to increase Willow's training, if that's possible, Angel.  You could take it easier on her for a few days until she's back to normal, but it is even more important now that she is able to defend herself from Spike.  I don't want to find her in Spike's arms again."

Angel finally glanced over at Willow, his lips twitching nearly imperceptibly from the strain of controlling his emotions, although his eyes spoke volumes when they met Willow's.  "Neither do I, Buffy.  Neither do I."

"Yeah.  Let's just hope that Willow's desire to throw herself at vampires was just a phase," Xander commented lightly, finally taking a seat at the table next to Willow.

Willow returned Angel's gaze, her face echoing the same cocky, self-assured manner that the vampire had just used on her.  "I can assure you that it was."

Two hundred years of practiced charm that had allowed him to move in the most elite circles in Europe, and with seven little words and an insolent stare, Willow reduced him to nothing more than dirt beneath her nails. If he could have figured out a way to kiss her, beg for her forgiveness, and make her eat her words all at the same time, he surely would have done so. Instead he had to simply return her calm yet challenging gaze with one of his own...and breathe. For some reason, he really wanted--no, *needed*--to breathe.

The stare down, which had gone unnoticed by the other occupants of the room, was broken as Cordelia finally sauntered back in from the kitchen, clutching a glass of orange juice.  "Good thing for you Buffy saw you leave The Bronze last night, Willow."

"Huh?  Oh yeah, lucky me," Willow said under her breath.

Buffy moved to stand next to Willow's chair.  "Cordy's right," Buffy said in a far-off voice.  "If I hadn't come out when I had...I don't even want to think of what Spike could have done to you!"

"And back to that whole rabies shot idea I had last night..." Xander leaned closer to Willow then gingerly peeked under her long hair, as if to examine her neck.  Willow easily shoved his hands away.  "Just checking for gangrene," he explained.  "I mean, God only knows where Spike's tongue has been lately."

"Drusilla's mouth mainly," Willow muttered, a ghost of a smile forming that only Angel caught.

Desiring only to thwart another round of questioning about last night's happenings--not that Willow could think of a single question or comment that hadn't already been brought up on the matter--Willow finally jumped to her feet.  "Well, we better get to training, Angel.  Best learn to defend myself from all the evils of this time, right?"  Without actually looking at the vampire, Willow walked past him and down the hall.

"That's the spirit, Willow!"  Xander called after her.  "You'll be flipping Spike over your shoulder in no time!"

***

Willow stood in the middle of the training mat that entirely covered the floor of the main room, her back to the stairs that led up from the basement.  She did *not* want to do this.  After all, she told herself, she didn't train with martial arts masters and learn how to defend herself just so she could wrestle with Angel in a dark and musty basement of some old church.

Sighing, Willow had her first good look around the basement.  Not that musty, really, she had to admit.  The dehumidifier that was softly humming away in the open area under the stairs saw to that.  It wasn't very dark, either, thanks to the even rows of fluorescent lights lining the ceiling.  She also perused the various pieces of exercise apparatus in the large room--everything from treadmills and step machines to weights and jump ropes skirted the thick mat, leaving a wide open space in the middle.  Compared to the make-shift training space that Giles had created in the library during the original timeline, this was a first-class gymnasium.  The only thing missing was the steam room.  And any moment, she fully expected her 'personal trainer' to demand that she drop and give him twenty...if she was lucky, that's all her training would entail.

Shaking her head to clear away the odd thoughts, she took a deep breath.  "You can do this," she told herself quietly.  "He and the other Willow were friends and it sounds like they trained all the time.  Just friends...just some friendly training...maybe I won't even have to touch him...maybe I can just hit the punching bag a few times, do a couple of jumping jacks and then make a run for it..."

Willow sighed again, knowing that it wouldn't be that simple.  It never was.

"Do we really have to do this, Angel?" she asked, surprising the vampire who had just silently slipped down the steps with nary a squeaking tread to give him away.

Angel stopped at the bottom of the stairs.  "I train with everyone, Willow.  It just happens to be your turn.  After all, Sunnydale is a dangerous town..."

Willow continued to focus on anything and everything, so long as she didn't have to turn and look at the vampire behind her.  "But I managed just fine in the old Sunnydale timeline without any formal training at all.  Closest thing I had was trying to keep up with Buffy at the mall."  Willow decided that it wasn't worth mentioning the very basic self-defense moves that Giles had taught them after Buffy's disappearance.  While the Watcher had meant well, his lessons were brief and basic.  After all, they'd had other things on their mind that summer.

"So you tried to help The Slayer without any defensive or offensive training of your own?  You couldn't have been much help then."

"For your information, we were *a lot* of help...most of the time..." she added with a little less enthusiasm.  Memories came to mind of a few instances when they probably were more hindrance than help, but up until Buffy's disappearance 'The Slayerettes' had always been more about research support than actual slayage.  Nevertheless, she could also remember plenty of times that they had actually physically helped Buffy in her duties.  With those examples in mind, Willow was confident that the scales were tipped in their favor.

She shrugged.  "We did fine, Angel."

Angel took a few steps further into the room, his eyes glancing about the training area that he was quite proud of.  He wondered what she thought of it, but in her present mood, doubted that he'd get the truth out of her anyway.

"You really think training is a waste of time for you or the others?" he asked in a subdued tone.

Willow toed at the ground, feeling a bit bad for belittling his desire to help them.  "Well, I guess...maybe..."

"Or do you just have to argue about every little thing I say and do, Willow?  Fight me every step of the way?"

It was the obvious hurt and even some anger in his voice this time that finally made Willow turn to face the vampire...

...only to have a towel thrown at her, which she caught just before it hit her in the face.  Now Angel was smiling, obviously pleased with himself for getting her to turn around.  Narrowing her eyes in irritation at how easily he'd gotten under her skin, she glanced at the snow white towel in her hand.

Towels meant sweat.  Wonderful.

"Look," Willow said, tossing the towel back at him.  "We both know I'll never be Buffy--"

Angel's voice was soft yet stern, like a kindergarten teacher with a particularly skittish child.  "I don't want you to be Buffy."

Willow's head fell back in exasperation at the circular pattern their conversations always seemed to follow.  "That's not what I meant."

"Just what did you mean then?" he asked patiently.

Taking a deep breath, Willow fixed him with hard look.  "As you very well know," Willow began haughtily, taking a few steps closer to the vampire, "I was talking about fighting.  I'll never be as good as The Slayer, and why, exactly, are you being so argumentative?"

Angel was hard pressed not to grin.  "I could ask you the same thing, Willow," he smoothly replied.

"I'm not arguing...I just..."  Unable to put her chaotic emotions into words, Willow bowed her head in resignation.  She only wished her long hair wasn't being held away from her face in a ponytail, as this felt like a perfect time to hide behind the long tresses.

"Hate to back down?"

Willow reluctantly nodded, her eyes still glued to her feet.  "Old habits die hard, right?  Can't teach an old dog new tricks, etc., etc., etc...."

"Hate to reveal your hand before you have to?" he offered as delicately as possible.

That remark got Willow's attention as her green eyes rose sharply to search out his.  "Oh goody...more poker references," she snapped at him, her tumultuous emotions getting the better of her yet again.  "Like I haven't had enough of that in my lifetime."

Angel took a cautious step closer.  Once again he was afraid that he might push her too far, and yet it was something that he felt had to be said.  "Ready for one more?" he asked, careful to keep his tone friendly.  "It's kind of abstract, but I think you'll get the gist of it."

Scowling, Willow took a long stride back, not out of fear of the vampire but out of fear of his words.  Even without his soul, Angelus had always been able to cut to the heart of her thoughts.

Taking her silence as permission, Angel said what was on his mind as delicately as possible.  "You may be capable of holding your own at the poker table, Willow, of defending your stakes--the monetary kind--but what about protecting yourself from a physical attack?  You took the time to master poker.  Don't you owe yourself some measure of that as well as far as your own safety is concerned?"

Willow's eyes narrowed angrily.  She was really beginning to loath analogies, especially those centering around poker.  "First of all, that was a horrible analogy...you were *really* stretching.  Secondly, you know *nothing* about my ability to defend myself or anything else about me, Angel."

Angel shrugged off her anger.  "I know that without Spike's spell to protect you as it once did, your priorities have to change, Willow.  You are no longer immortal, Willow.  Your life could hang in the balance."

"*Only* my life?" Willow jeered.  "Actually, that's a *huge* relief, Angel.  Only having to worry about myself and my own future sounds like heaven to me."

Angel sighed, running his fingers through his hair.  This wasn't getting them anywhere.  "Yeah, I guess it would, wouldn't it?" he acquiesced.  "Obviously you aren't ready for this yet, Willow.  Working out can wait until you feel like you can handle it."

Fully aware of what the vampire was trying to do, Willow groaned, although to Angel it sounded very much like a growl.  Thinking that this might be a good time to be honest with him, she laid all her cards on the table.  "I'm not saying I can't do it, Angel."  Her tone was somewhat less hostile.  "I'm saying that I don't think it's a good idea.  You and I...you know, hitting and attacking each other...I don't think I'm ready for that kind of therapy, do you?"

"Maybe not," Angel agreed, crossing his arms over his chest.  "So instead we'll start out with a hundred sit-ups."  He paused to gift Willow with what she felt was a truly evil grin.  "I won't even hold your feet, if that will make it easier on you."

Realizing how he was taunting her, Willow would have been very happy at that particular moment to kick him in one particular spot...low and between his legs.  Maybe that would wipe the smug look off his face.  Instead, she resorted to name calling.  Childish but much safer.

"You're an arse!" she informed him quite loudly.

"A what?" he laughed.

"You heard me," Willow shot back, her hands landing on her hips.  "I said that you are an ass, Angel."

"Noo...you distinctly said 'arse'" he informed her, still chuckling.

Willow was fuming, and the fact that he was grinning at her like a Cheshire cat was not helping.  "Oh, and now you're my grammar coach in addition to being my personal trainer?"

"More of a diction coach really," he gently teased her in return, and soon Willow found her anger softening.  As much as she hated to admit it, a smiling Angel was a very difficult thing to remain angry with.

"Diction coach, personal trainer, riding instructor...I never realized how versatile you are," Willow retorted, a twinkle replacing the anger in her eyes.  "Is there anything that you don't do?"

"Windows."

Willow cracked a smile.

Encouraged by her softening demeanor, Angel pushed a little harder.   "You know, there is something that you are even better at than I am."

"Only one thing?" she snorted.  "And what would that be?"

"You're a master at changing the subject."  In the blink of an eye, he was serious again.  "Are we training today or not?"

"Not," Willow responded automatically.

Angel threw his hands up in the air in a sign of surrender.  "Okay then, Willow.  Considering how you freak out at the sight of a spider or a few innocuous comments I make, then maybe you really aren't ready for this yet," he replied with a nonchalant air that Willow found infuriating.  He turned around and headed for the staircase, towels around his neck.

<No wonder Buffy never fell in love with him,> Willow found herself thinking as she watched him strut away.  <He's so damn annoying!>

"I've had training, you know," she said calmly, refusing to call after him.  Willow moved to sit on the pummel horse, not bothering to see if he had stopped to listen to her.  "While I was travelling on my own in the...um, 1840's, I think it was, after fleeing London, long before Bath, I learned from a few masters."

Angel did turn around.  "Really?" he asked skeptically, then took a seat on the second from the bottom step.  "Tell me."

"It was by accident, at first," she began in a matter of fact tone.  "One night during a brief visit to Constantinople...er, or was it Istanbul?" she joked, earning another smile from Angel before she continued.  "I happened across quite a scuffle between a large group of vampires and three men.  The men were outnumbered at least 5 to 1 but were actually holding their own.  I could tell that they were Asian by their clothes and fighting styles, even if I couldn't see their faces.  I stayed back, pretty much hidden, afraid I'd get in their way.  Then, when they were down to their last opponent each, I noticed another group of about six or seven vampires ready to pounce on them.  The three men didn't see them, and the vampires hadn't noticed me, so I kinda yelled and threw myself at the one that was about to attack first...  Make a long story short, I staked a couple, but more importantly ruined the vamps sneak attack and the good guys won.  I was hurt though.  Not seriously, but I did take a couple of good hits to the head, dislocated my shoulder..."

Willow shrugged at the memory, as if being injured was no big deal.  "They spoke only a smattering of English, but between my various languages and theirs, we managed to communicate.  It turns out the three men were slowly making their way across Europe.  Their final destination was London, where they were going to seek out the Watcher's Council.  From what I gathered, Korea, China and Japan and most of the other Asian countries had lost their connections with the Council centuries earlier for various reasons, but there were some ancient prophecies that were to come to fruition in the relatively near future, I guess.  They wanted to reopen the alliance, learn everything they could and take it home to their own countries.  They were on this epic journey across the continents, in search of knowledge about all aspects of the occult from any place they could find it."

Sighing softly, she added almost as an aside:  "Seemed to me that it would have been a lot easier if they had just taken a boat from somewhere in Asia straight to England, but you know how people get when they are on a pilgrimage..."

Willow looked at Angel, pleased to find that he was hanging on her every word.  She gave him an apologetic smile.  "Sorry, I said I was going to keep it short, wasn't I?  Spike always said I was incapable of telling a story without babbling..."

"And I think we both know that Spike was never much for details," Angel offered in return.  "It's a fascinating story, Willow.  Go on...please..."

"Well, I guess I had impressed them with my lack of fear, especially for a European woman, and they looked after me for a day, fixing my shoulder and so on."  Willow did wince this time at the memory her shoulder being painfully reset.  "When we finally found a way to communicate, I guess I further impressed them with my knowledge of vampires and demons and such."  She laughed lightly.  "For a moment they even thought I was The Slayer...took me a while to convince them that I wasn't.  They couldn't figure out why any other girl my age would know so much and be able to take out a vampire or two without actually being a slayer.  The terms 'Slayerettes' and 'The Scooby Gang' didn't mean much to them...go figure," she chuckled before growing more serious.  "Because I supposedly saved their lives, they took it as their solemn duty to return the favor and teach me their ways.  Since I had nothing better to do with my time and had already realized that I really did need some sort of training to get me through the next few decades...well..."

Willow stopped to catch her breath.  "And to really make a long story short this time, I traveled with them for over a year, learning everything I could, and teaching them everything I knew about vampires and demons as well, but I never told them about who or what I really was.  I was very careful not to let them know anything that might affect the timeline, and they, thankfully, respected my privacy."  Willow sighed, as she looked Angel in the eye.  "That's my story...at least one chapter of it anyway."

Angel rose to his feet with deliberate slowness, shaking his head in wry disbelief.  At this point, he wasn't quite sure what to think.  He wanted to believe her completely, but something was nagging at him...making him want to doubt her story.

"So when you said you learned from the masters, you weren't simply being flippant?" he smirked.

"No, they were each masters of their own art.  I called them all Sensei, which seemed to really tickle the Korean and Chinese masters since it was basically a Japanese term or respect.  I think they liked it, though, because it kind of knocked the Japanese Master, Hashiyama, down a peg or two.  I guess it just kind of stuck.  Sensei Hashiyama, Kim, and Chen took it as their sworn duty to teach me everything they could in a short period of time...aspects of what I guess might now be Jujuitsu, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Hapkido, Tai Chi...even a little yoga that they had picked up on their journeys. You name it..."

"And you studied and traveled with these three men for one *whole* year?" he taunted her.  Nevertheless, while Angel was trying to sound blase about Willow's training, in truth he was incredibly curious to see exactly what she did know.  The various martial arts were constantly changing and merging throughout history, so the prospect that Willow might now be the sole possessor of some of the more ancient techniques was intriguing.

Detecting his skepticism but choosing to ignore it, Willow simply nodded her head.  "Yes.  We parted ways before we reached France since I was afraid of running into..."

"Me."

"Basically," Willow admitted.  She had to look away from him again, deciding now was a good time to re-evaluate the room's equipment.  Anything to avoid seeing the doubt shadowing Angel's already dark eyes.  "I hope they made it, and I hope the Watchers Council was a bit more helpful to them than the arrogant bastards were to me..." she muttered more to herself than for Angel's benefit.  Her eyes came to rest on the sparring equipment--dummies, targets, and safety gear.  She'd had little equipment to aid in her odd training and more often than not had to practice her punches and kicks against one of the Sensei, or if she was very lucky a mattress or a pillow...at least a bunch of feathers couldn't punch back.

<Imagine how much more I could have learned with this kind of equipment?>  Suddenly the thought of being able to improve upon her basic skills was very...seductive.

Willow squeezed her eyes closed, shutting out the sudden shift in her thoughts and making herself focus on her current situation.  It wouldn't be one of her Sensei continuing his work with her, it would be Angel, which brought her back to the whole sweating, touching, fighting aspect that had originally given birth to her reluctance.  She honestly wasn't sure if she could handle that right now.

"While they focused more on defense than offense, I can take care of myself, Angel," she re-iterated, hoping to convince him somehow.  "I mean, I'm no Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, and I have no idea if I could break a brick with my hand, but I did learn how to use an attacker's own energy and force against them.  It's sort of like applied physics, really."  She turned to look at him, somehow managing to meet his gaze.  While his expression was pleasant enough, she could see still see the skepticism in his eyes.  "Remember how I flipped you over my shoulder the other night?  Well, I've done that a few times now...it's kinda my signature move."

Angel actually was quite impressed, but he refused to let it show.  He still had some doubts.  While he didn't think Willow was deliberately lying to him, he wouldn't blame her for exaggerating the truth just a bit...anything to get out of having to spend any time alone with him, probably.  But he had made a personal vow to do everything within his power to keep Willow safe, and if that meant he'd have to bully her into proving her skill or into training, then that is what he'd do.  Her safety was more important than her friendship...or at least it should be, he reminded himself.

So he simply gave a quiet snort of disbelief as he got to his feet and began a deliberate pace around the mat.  "So, you think you know all there is about self-defense then?  After...what was it?  One *whole* year of training?"

"No," she replied in quiet indignation when he stopped in front of her.  "I just think I've learned enough for now.  If I'm attacked, I can defend myself.  I wouldn't win in a hand-to-hand fight like Buffy would, but I'd be able to disarm my opponent, and either buy enough time to escape or get out my stake and finish the job."

"And you think that's enough?"

"Kept me from being bitten for over 100 years...well, except for you and Spike, that is."

His immediate flash of anger at the thought of Spike biting his Willow was quickly overshadowed by the tone of Willow's voice.  There was a new tinge of bitterness coloring it that made Angel stop and rethink his tactics.  Maybe it was too soon.  In his desire to right every wrong he'd done to the girl before him, he was being an ass...no, an 'arse'.  The proof of her abilities could wait a little while longer...and maybe she'd prefer to train with Giles for a while in the beginning.

"I won't make you train with me, Willow," Angel relented, stepping away from her to grab the towels off the pommel horse where he'd left them.  "We'll just tell Buffy that we had to take it easy today because you have a headache or something."

"Um...okay...thanks..." Willow replied, more than a little relieved.  Not wanting to give him time to change his mind, Willow practically sprinted for the stairs.

That was easy.  Too easy, she soon realized.  Before her foot had hit the second step, she heard a rustling movement behind her.  When Angel's hand touched her shoulder, she reacted on instinct.  Grabbing his hand, she swiftly spun to face him then hooked a foot behind his leading knee.  Tightly holding his hand against her shoulder, she used her free hand to lock onto Angel's shoulder and then pushed.  The vampire was easily knocked off balance and fell to the mat at her feet.

Angel blinked up at her in a combination of awe and shock, then held up his other hand, which was still firmly clenching the towels.  "I was only trying to hand you a towel," he informed her from his position on the floor.

"Oh," Willow grimaced.  "Sorry, but I really thought you were testing me or something."  Embarrassed, Willow held out a hand to help the vampire up.

"Well, I wasn't," Angel replied honestly as he took the offered hand.  By the time Willow noticed the wicked gleam to his eye, it was too late.  Angel had pulled her down and flipped her over on to her back.  Now he was straddling her thighs and pinning the hand she'd offered him above her head.  "But that was," he grinned down at the surprised redhead.  Her surprise quickly changed into a look of sheer determination.

"My intention is not to scare you, Willow," he said genuinely, ready to let her go at the slightest indication that she was truly alarmed.  "If you want me to stop--"

"I'm not scared," Willow spat back.  She was too annoyed at being so easily tricked to be frightened.  Refusing to let him get the better of her so easily, Willow took a deep breath, quickly centering herself.  She wriggled a bit, moving the hand that he held to the mat above her head even higher so that he was fully extended, putting more and more of his weight on that one hand.  She used her other hand to push weakly at his hard chest, barely managing not to think about the impressive muscles she felt rippling beneath her splayed fingers.

Angel's grin broadened at what he assumed were her attempts to escape.  "Well, Willow, what are you going to do now?"

"I'm going to let you bite me."

His grin disappeared.  "Um, what?"

"Bite me, Angel," she urged between gritted teeth.

Angel hesitated, caught completely off guard by her odd request.  "Willow, I--"

"Don't you dare make me say it again," she hissed, turning her head to the side so that she wouldn't have to look at his looming face.

Without letting the demon's features emerge, Angel slowly lowered his mouth to her neck.  Even as memories of the taste and feel of Willow's skin beneath his lips made it more than a little tempting, Angel had no intention of actually biting her.  Still, he was curious to see what she was up to.  The moment she felt his cool skin brush against hers, Willow slipped her hand out from between them and reached behind to grab him by his short-cropped hair.  Simultaneously, she jerked her lower body up as quickly and harshly as she could manage, pulling the arm that he had 'pinned' to the mat, down and to her side.

With his precarious balance destroyed, the combined force toppled Angel to the side.  Moving with his rolling body, Willow was easily able to free her delicate wrist from his grip.  She ended on her knees next to him, an imaginary stake held above the prone vampire's chest.

For a moment, neither spoke.

"Poof," Willow finally whispered with a wicked grin of her own.

Thoroughly impressed, as well as a little embarrassed, Angel's eyes focused on the invisible chunk of wood in Willow's hand.  "Well done...and the way you waited for me...for the vampire to go for your neck...was--"

Suddenly Willow was the one rolling over, only to find herself flat on her back.  Again, Angel was astride her.  This time he was careful to pin both of her slim wrists to the mat next to her head, enabling him to keep a more balanced center of gravity.

"That's cheating," she complained to the vampire's smiling face.

Angel's eyes glimmered mischievously.  "I prefer to think of it as improvising."

"But we both know that if you were a vampire that was actually attacking me, I'd have staked you the first time.  A pile of ashes can't flip me like that!"  Willow frowned, realizing that she was practically whining.

He shrugged as best he could without it affecting his position.  "What if I don't go for the neck, then what?"

"You're a vampire...you always go for the neck.  And *if* I were actually scared, which I'm not, my pulse would be racing, my heart pounding, and you'd be unable to resist."

"Which Sensei taught you that?"

"Spike," she answered with a wicked grin.  "Those last few years we were together he worked with me as well.  Taught me how to fight dirty, mainly."

Eyes narrowed, Angel shook his head.  "That may work on fledglings, Willow, or on someone with no control, like Spike, but not on me...or any other master vampire."

"Oh really?  Then why are you staring at my neck and drooling?" Willow countered haughtily.

"And if you aren't scared, then why is your pulse racing and your heart pounding?" was Angel's retort.  Okay, so he might have been staring, but drooling?  Never.  Still, Angel had to resist the urge to wipe his mouth anyway...just in case.

Willow glared at him, but she knew he was right...her heart was racing.  Try as she might, she was unable to keep herself completely calm.  The gentle waterfall she often used to soothe her nerves looked more like a raging torrent after a hurricane, sweeping away everything in its path.  So she told him the truth.

"Because three days ago out in the woods you had me in the exact same position, and I--"

Instantaneously, Angel let go of her and sat up, moving away.  "Damn...I keep forgetting how recent that was for you.  No wonder you're so adverse to training with me...my touch must--"

"Confuse me," Willow interrupted gently as she sat up to wrap her arms about her bent knees.  "It doesn't repulse me or scare me, Angel, because I know that it's you.  But it just...confuses me still."

"And I just keep pushing you, don't I?" he growled at himself.  "Why couldn't I simply take what you said at face value?"

"It's okay, Angel.  Besides, it's not really surprising that you didn't believe I could take care of myself."  Willow swallowed; her mouth was dry.  "I couldn't get away from you back then, could I?"

Angel's first instinct was to comfort the redhead, but instead he took a step back, putting more distance between them.  "Willow--"

"Sure, while I was in your house those hideous and painfully tight dresses that you picked out for me, not to mention the guards posted everywhere, made things difficult, but I did try to escape, remember?"  Willow paused in her babble for a moment, unsure of who she was trying to convince more--Angel or herself.  "Spike stopped me," she continued, all too easily recalling those painful days.  "And there was a while there when I wasn't quite thinking straight anyway.  There was simply too much going on...I was so confused with everything Spike had done and said to me.  I just kept waiting, hoping a real opportunity for escape would present itself..."

Her eyes followed Angel as he climbed to his feet.

She shrugged uneasily.  "Turned out Spike had a plan of his own, not that he let me in on it until the two of you had practically destroyed me, but still...it worked and we got away.  When I was better and able to trust Spike again, he worked with me some more.  Like I said, just little tricks here and there.  But when you found me...in the woods...I couldn't think.  So the moment of truth came and all my wonderful training failed me completely," she chuckled coldly.  "Once again, Spike to the rescue."

She was trying to get Angel to talk, unnerved by his sudden lapse into silence as he stared at a far wall, apparently lost in his own thoughts.  If she wasn't mistaken, it looked like he was brooding.

Perfect.

She kept talking, hoping to snap him out of it.  "Um, I made what should have been a fatal mistake in the woods that night.  I-I panicked, lost my concentration..."

"It's understandable," Angel finally offered, turning back to face her.  The last thing he wanted was Willow blaming herself for something he'd done to her, no matter how long ago it was.  "When you'd escaped in the alley, I knew to be more cautious...that there was more to you than met the eye, again.  You'd lost the element of surprise, Willow...you had no weapons, nowhere to run..."

Hating the unusual tinge of self-loathing she was detecting in his voice--unusual for this particular version of Angel, anyway--Willow climbed to her feet.  Walking up behind him, she gently rested her hand on his arm.  "Maybe I was just waiting for you to bite me...all that hair would have given me quite a good grip for tossing you over my shoulder..." she said lightly, ignoring the memories of his fangs momentarily penetrating her throat.

"That wouldn't surprise me one little bit, Willow."

"And if you hadn't leapt off me like I were made of Holy Water just now, I think I would have managed to escape.  You were so busy trying to keep your center of gravity and balance that I could have easily worked a knee into your groin."

Angel grinned down at her, in spite of himself.  "You could have tried, my--er, Willow," Angel quickly corrected himself.  "And that's why I'm training you, all of you," he added quickly when she didn't seem to notice his near slip of the tongue.  "I don't want you to ever be put in that position again, by anyone or anything."

Willow removed her warm hand from his bare arm and took stepped back, putting the usual distance between them.  "And how about the other me?  Had you taught her a lot...was she any good?"

"She wasn't bad.  Not that she took it very seriously, and lately she'd been making up excuses not to train."

"Is that what Xander meant by his 'getting out of training again' line?"  Angel nodded.  "So you're expecting me to catch up on that slacker's lost sit ups and push ups?" she laughed.  "You can forget it, buster.  I've worn a corset...my stomach muscles are nice and firm, thank you very much."

"What if we just stick to the self-defense moves, then?" Angel cautiously suggested.  "I'd like to see what other tricks you've picked up over the years.  I wouldn't be surprised if you ended up teaching me something that might be useful to the others as well."

Willow cocked her head to the side as she considered his offer.  This just wasn't what she was expecting.  Angel wasn't what she expected and he just kept surprising and confusing her, and yet...it was kind of fun trying to outwit the often-arrogant vampire.

"Okay, well...maybe a little more couldn't, um, hurt..."

Noting her hesitation, Angel had a suggestion.  "Maybe we should come up with a safety word."

Willow blanched.  "A-a safety word?"

"Since we both seem to throw a little role-playing into our workouts, it would just be your way of telling me that you want to stop or take it a little easier."  Angel glanced awkwardly back and forth between the mat below his fidgeting feet and Willow.  "Um, safety words are generally used for--"

"I *know* what a safety word is, Angel, and I'm well aware of its standard, um, sexual use."

As the color slowly returned to her face to a degree that Willow was actually blushing, Angel was silently berating himself.  Considering the way he was talking to her, he might as well let his hair grow long again and don a pair of britches and his normal Irish Brogue.

Idiot.

"I'm scaring you now, aren't I?" he asked, his eyes dancing nervously between Willow's flushed face and his now twisting fingers.

"No, you just surprised me, that's all.  It's a good idea, although I'm sure I'll never have to use it," she informed his with a brave smile.  "You may want one though...in case you can't handle being pummeled with invisible stakes.  I'd hate to give you nightmares."

Noting how the twinkle had quickly returned to Angel's sable eyes and with a vengeance no less, Willow wanted to kick herself.  It sounded like she was flirting with him.  Hell, maybe she had been.

<Focus on the training, Willow!>

Willow sat cross-legged in the middle of mat, chewing on her bottom lip while she thought.  It should be something simple and short...a word she could easily spit out even when under great...stress.

"I fold," she suddenly blurted out.  "'Fold', or 'I fold'."

Angel nodded in agreement, unable to hide his amusement at her choice.  "I'll use the same one.  Seems rather fittin', don't ya think?"

Willow shook her head at his purposeful slip into the accent.  While it was a little unsettling, she was also pleased that he wasn't handling her like she were about to break.

"Shall we begin?" he asked, holding out his hand to help her up.  Cautiously, Willow took his hand, moving as if to stand, but instead she curled herself into a ball.  Flinging herself backward with all her might, Willow pulled him with her while using her feet against his abdomen to propel Angel over her head.  Before she'd even heard the thud as he landed lightly on the mat, she was on her feet.

Angel never stopped moving, easily flipping himself back on to his feet to face her.  "I suppose I have Spike to thank for that as well?"  Willow only smiled.  It looked like he had Spike to thank for a lot of things.

They went on like that for nearly two hours, exchanging flips and punches and kicks.  Willow did her best to 'stake' him at every turn, and when she failed, Angel offered advice on where she went wrong, until they both lay on the their backs on the mat, exhausted.

"Your teachers did well...*all* of them," Angel finally admitted after they'd both caught their breath.  He turned to his side, propping his head up on his hand.  "But I know I can teach you more, if you'll let me."

Willow turned to look at him, smiling at the hopeful look on his face.  She got to her feet, brushing herself off a bit before answering.  "Well, I suppose there may be a thing or two you could teach me."

Taking her response as a yes, Angel also stood.  "Good," he said with a soft smile that reached all the way to his eyes.  Angel grabbed the towels and handed one to Willow as they climbed the stairs together.

Once they reached the upper level, Angel turned down the hallway that led to his own quarters and Willow quickly went into the pink room, closing the door behind her and then collapsing on her bed.

She'd done the unthinkable.  She fought, touched, sweated and basically rolled around on the floor with Angel and had, for the most part, loved every minute of it.

"Oh yeah...I *so* fold..." she whispered aloud.

In his shower, Angel let the steamy water pound at his own tired muscles.  Eyes closed, Angel rested his forehead against the black and white tiles.

"I fold," he groaned as images of Willow's beautiful face, flushed from their workout came to mind.  "God how I fold..."

*****

After getting cleaned up and changed into some extra clothes she found in the dresser--jeans and a 'Sherman and Mr. Peabody' shirt--Willow was in the kitchenette pouring herself a diet soda with lots of ice, when Angel walked in.  Willow gave him a small smile as she waited for the foam to disappear so she could completely fill the glass.  She couldn't help noticing that the vampire looked freshly showered, his damp hair still glistening, feet bare.  He'd changed into black jeans and a simple, dark button-down shirt.  A far cry from the more elaborate clothes he wore in Victorian times.  Before he could catch her staring, Willow turned her attention back to her drink, topping it up and putting the lid back on the bottle.

Grabbing an individual-serving bottle of water out of the door of the fridge, Angel covertly watched Willow from the corner of his eye.  As Willow moved past him to put the bottle of Diet Coke back in the fridge, he noticed her grimace when she had to lean over.

"Sore?" he asked with true concern coloring his voice.  Considering he worked out almost every day, the vampire was embarrassed to admit that his muscles had protests of their own.

"Yeah," Willow admitted, gingerly rotating her head in an effort to work out some of the kinks.  "I guess I'm a little out of practice.  Spike's workouts usually weren't that...intense."

Angel cocked an eyebrow, a sly smile contorting his lips.  "That's good to know, although I'm always looking for another reason to kill him."

Willow would have been angry at his words if Angel's tone hadn't been so lighthearted.  She realized he was just trying to make small talk, in his own odd way.

Willow shook her head as she took a sip of her soda.  "I'll have you know," she said, after the bubbles quit tickling her nose, "he was a perfect gentleman...or gentlevampire...wait, no...that's not right, either."  She giggled quietly, not wanting those present in the other room to overhear.  "Let's just say Spike was very...unSpike-like when we trained."  Her remarks had them both grinning wildly as they headed out of the kitchenette and made their way down the hallway towards the library.

"And," Willow continued, enjoying the chance to tell Angel about a side of Spike that he wasn't familiar with, "he didn't make me call him master or Sensei or anything, so don't you get any ideas either!  You'll just have to put up with me calling you 'Angel'."

Angel chuckled, taking a swig from his water bottle.  "And some other choice names I heard you mutter under your breath a few times when I'd brought you to the mat."

Willow continued to laugh softly as they walked into the main room where everyone else--minus Jenny--were scattered about perusing various books and talking.  "You deserved every one of those, too.  Well, except for maybe 'son of a...'"  Willow's words and laughter quickly died when she noticed who had just walked in the front door.

Noting the abrupt change in her disposition, Angel followed her line of sight.

"Oz," they said in soft unison.

"Hey."

When he spoke, everyone else looked over and greeted the red-haired musician warmly.  He smiled at them all in return.

"It's nice to see you back safe and sound, Oz," Giles said, setting down his book to approach the young man.  "I trust you had a nice time with your parents?"

"They're parents," he stated matter of factly.

"So, whatcha stop by for, Oz?" Xander spoke up, happy for any excuse to put his current reading material aside.  "Did Tahoe leave you with a hankering for some demon hunting and researching?"

"Oddly enough, no," Oz replied with an enigmatic smile that made Willow's heart ache.  "Actually, I wanted to know how those repairs to the cage were coming along.  Full moon next week, so...."

Giles smiled.  "Oh, well, all the changes we discussed before your departure have been completed.  I think you'll be quite satisfied with the results.  Care to go take a look?  I added a few special modifications myself that I thought might come in handy and make you a little more comfortable, and I'd be more than happy to show them to you."

"Thanks, but if it's all the same to you, I'd rather wait and get the grand tour later.  I'd rather not spend one more minute in a cage than I have to."

Giles quickly took off his glasses, bowing his head slightly in understanding.  "Well, of course.  There's no hurry."

"Gee, Giles," Buffy said, noticing the librarian's disappointment.  "Getting a bit excited about a cage, aren't we?  There is definitely more to you than meets the eye."

Cordelia giggled, winking at Buffy.  "Guess we'll just have to ask Ms. Calendar about that when we see her later."

"You will do no such thing," Giles vehemently insisted.  "Not that she'd have anything to tell you in the first place, mind you.  But honestly, children today..." he grumbled in good-natured embarrassment, shoving his glasses back on.  "In my day, a child would never dream of discussing...*cages* with adults..."

"Hey, speaking of which," Xander exclaimed, "Who's on Oz sitting du--"

"I'll do it," Willow interrupted, giving Xander a dirty look for his phraseology.  It was the first time Willow had spoken, possibly even breathed since they'd first spotted Oz, and she was still frozen in place on the other side of the room, drink in hand.

"I don't want to be any trouble, Willow," Oz replied gratefully.  "Maybe with the modifications you'll be able to just leave me locked up with a bowl of kibble--"

"No, Oz," she interrupted, somehow finding a way to make herself move further into the room and closer to her old boyfriend.  "I-it's no trouble...really, I don't mind."

Seeing the somewhat crestfallen look on Angel's face at Willow's decision, Buffy quickly added, "And Angel can stay too...that way Willow won't be all alone."

"I won't be alone," Willow shot back darkly.  "I'll be with Oz."

"Well, of course you will, Wills...I didn't mean..." Buffy stammered apologetically.

"It's okay," Oz told The Slayer.  He, too, was caught off guard by Willow's unusually abrupt tone.  "I actually agree with you.  I doubt I'll be much fun, Willow, unless you're up for a very dangerous game of fetch.  If Angel wants to keep you company while you're on watch, I won't mind."

Instinctively Willow knew Oz was just trying to lighten the mood when he joked about his wolfiness, but this time her frown only deepened.  Her troubled green eyes sought out his, searching their sea-green depths.  While his eyes were familiar, they were also a mystery, as if she no longer knew her way around the soft liquid pools.  Giving up, Willow sighed.  "I'll be there, Oz, but I've never thought of making sure you are safe as a duty or a chore."

Sure that he'd missed something along the way, Oz could think of nothing appropriate to say, so he simply smiled at the redhead.  He was relieved when she smiled back.

"Well, I should go..."

"When's your next, um, gig, Oz?" Willow asked as she took a few careful steps closer.

"Tomorrow night.  Not sure if we're ready, but that's never stopped us before."

Willow smiled at Oz's familiar modesty.  In her opinion, Oz never had given his band, or his own talent, the credit they deserved.  "Well, I missed you...your music...while I, I mean, while *you* were gone," Willow stammered, wondering how long it would take her to quit acting like an idiot whenever Oz was around.

"Huh," Oz said softly.  "I don't think we've ever been missed before."

"Well, you were," Willow said firmly, finally taking a seat at the main researching table before her legs gave out completely.

Cordelia chose that moment to speak up.  "Well, duh!  Since you're the house band, of course we missed you!  The DJ doesn't know Savage Garden from a hole in the ground and there weren't any actually *good* bands hanging around this summer, so The Dingoes will be a welcome change."

"I don't think we've ever been preferred over a DJ before either.  Thanks for that obtuse compliment, Cordelia."  He added a wink for Willow's eyes only.  "I'm thinking I should go...quit while I'm ahead."

Willow jumped to her feet, almost knocking over her drink.  "Oh, um, if you don't have anything better to do, we have...extra chairs...and books, lots and lots of books..."

Oz raised an eyebrow, taking in the various volumes littering several tables.  "I take it something wicked?"

"This way comes," Willow said with a nod.

"Wish I could, *really*, but I promised Devon my fingers for the rest of the day.  Maybe some other demonic uprising?"

"We'll be fine, Oz," Giles informed him.  "This is hardly an emergency, but if that should change..."  The Watcher didn't need to finish his sentence.  He knew perfectly well that if they really needed his assistance, the boy would do what he could and without complaint.

"Agreed," Oz replied in understanding.  With a last look around, and one final smile for Willow and Angel, Oz left as quietly as he'd arrived.

Willow could only stare at the door after he was gone, and Angel had yet to move from his spot near the hall.  Xander and Buffy exchanged curious looks.

"You two okay?" Buffy finally asked them.

"You both look like you've seen a ghost," Xander added.  Willow came out of her reverie long enough to look at Xander sheepishly, and Angel forced himself to cross the room and sit at the table with the others.

"Sorry," Willow said, glancing between her friends' concerned faces.  "I think maybe we overdid the work out.  I'm just feeling a little...out of touch, is all.  I'll be fine."

Before anyone could question them further, Angel spoke up, his voice strained.  "So, Giles, what are we looking for?"

***

An hour later and Willow, Xander, Angel and Giles were still seated around the larger table, looking for information on the latest demon.  Buffy and Cordelia had given up on the demons in favor of studying for their impending history final that week, and were now seated up in the dais area, lounging on the couches and supposedly quizzing each other.

Willow was trying her best to keep her mind on the reference material in front of her, but it was impossible.  She kept replaying the day's events in her mind.

She knew it now.  Whatever connection she'd once had with Oz--as strong as it had been in her own time--was nonexistent now.  She had no idea how to go about rekindling what they'd had, and it didn't seem fair that they would have to start from scratch after all they'd been through.  Correction, after all *she'd* been through with Oz in the previous timeline.  Nope.  Not fair at all.

And then there was the odd workout with Angel, the strange sense of...what?...that she'd felt afterward.  She couldn't even put it into words.

Or could she?  Maybe that was the problem.  She'd had fun with Angel, more fun that she wanted to admit, and she felt guilty about it.  Guilty for not thinking about Oz more, guilty for the strange feelings that she was having trouble pushing aside for Angel, guilty about...you name it.  The familiar guilt was creeping back in again, darkening her mood.

Angel was faring no better, although his grimmer emotions stemmed more from disappointment than guilt.  Willow's reaction to Oz's presence had been a sharp slap of reality to the vampire who had thoroughly been enjoying the illusion that perhaps he and Willow had shared something during their workout.  If nothing else, they'd at least seemed to find some common ground--a way to peacefully co-exist with each other--which was a start.

Willow truly was an enigma to him.  Every time he thought he'd placed a piece of the puzzle that was Willow, the image would change, and he'd find himself no closer to understanding the whole picture.  One minute she was yelling at him, challenging him, laughing with him, or doing her very best to kick his ass all over the mat, and then one look at Oz and she was every inch the 17-year-old girl that he'd thought was gone forever.  But she wasn't 17 anymore, and Angel was starting to believe that that was just as much his fault as it was Spike's--the trip back in time, the pain, the loss of Oz and her old life...

No wonder she couldn't bring herself to look at him, Angel thought as he peeked over his book at the preoccupied redhead.

One step forward, two steps back.  Yet again.

"Willow, would you kindly hand me the rainbow?" Giles asked, shattering the silence at the table.

"Um, sure, Giles," Willow replied automatically, her hand stretching across the table.

But for what?  What's the rainbow?

Not wanting to ask Giles what he was referring to, not with Xander next to her, Willow quickly perused the assortment of books on the table.  Rainbow?  From what she could tell, none of the books had a rainbow on the cover.  Just as she was beginning to panic, Angel, who was seated next to her, quietly slid a book into her hand.

"Thanks," she mouthed to the vampire, her smile a bit uneasy.  She glanced at the brown leather book entitled, 'The Definitive Demonic Translator - Deluxe Edition,' wondering why in the world he referred to it as 'The Rainbow' when she noticed the edge.  The pages were divided into different colored sections, each one with a thumb index, and the arrangement did somewhat resemble a rainbow.

"Thank you, Willow," Giles said absentmindedly as he took the tome from her hand.  Nearly sighing in relief, Willow went back to her own book.  After a moment of pretending to read the tiny words on the faded page, Willow glanced over at Angel.  He, too, sat perfectly still, holding a thick volume in his hands, apparently reading it as well.  Willow was about to turn the page, figuring that if anything important had been on the previous one she'd have absorbed it via osmosis after having stared at it for so long, when something made her look back up at Angel.

This time she *really* observed the vampire.  His grip on the book was too stiff.  She could see his fingernails making tiny crescent-shaped dents in the hard cover.  His jaw was firmly set, as if he were afraid it might open of its own volition, and his face was impossibly tight.  This was not the same Angel that had been needling her into training earlier with his annoying grins and cocky comments.

Wondering what could have possibly caused his change in mood, and yet not wanting to ask, Willow could only return to her researching and her own despondent thoughts.  Luckily, it was Xander's turn to break the silence.

"Not that this isn't fun...because it is so much worse than not fun, G-man, but this seems kind of pointless.  We don't have enough to go on.  What did the computer search reveal, Willow?"

Willow sat up, board straight.  "Um, computer search?"

"Actually, Mr. Harris," Giles interceded.  "I was rather hoping you would assist us in that regard this time around."  He'd almost forgotten about Willow's dilemma.  When he'd wandered that morning to find that she was training in the basement with Angel, it had seemed like almost any other Sunday.  He'd have to be more careful.

"Me?" Xander whined.

"Um, I think after my brain bruising, Giles realized that someone else needs to be capable of breaking several laws, just in case...you know...it gets permanently smushed," Willow suggested on Giles' behalf.

Unconvinced, Xander continued his protest.  "But that's what Ms. Calendar is for."

Giles rolled his eyes, shut his book and placed it firmly on the table.  "Yes, well, as you can see, Ms. Calendar is not here and you are."

"Where is Jenny?" Willow finally asked.  She'd been wondering about her whereabouts for a while, but didn't want to further embarrass the librarian in front of everyone.  "Didn't you two make up?" she asked in a near whisper, her curiosity getting the better of her.

Giles raised an eyebrow at her use of the teacher's first name.  "*Ms. Calendar* is at the school for a few hours, preparing her final and grading some projects.  She'll be here later."

"But did you make up?" Willow repeated softly.

"We are talking, Willow.  These kinds of things take time to sort out, but we *are* talking."

Willow mouthed a silent 'oh', casting a quick glance Angel's way.  "Talking is good...I guess..."

Angel slammed closed the book he was reading and added it to the pile in the middle of the table.  "I think I'll go quiz the girls on their history for a while.  You seem to have this pretty well under control, Giles."

"Oh, I need quizzing, too," Xander said, jumping up to follow Angel who was joining the girls on the dais, but Giles pointed sternly to the computer.

"As you so frequently pointed out earlier today when I gave you the opportunity to study, you are already prepared to, um, 'kick ass and take names' on your history final, Wednesday.  So if you would be so kind as to have a seat at the computer, Mr. Harris?"

"Fine," the dark-haired youth grumbled.  "But I'm officially under protest.  Once I start showing how smart I actually am, I know you people are going to begin expecting stuff from me.  And I don't need that kind of pressure at my age."

"Would you please try, Xander?" Giles sighed.  "This is rather important, and I promise that no matter how well you do, it won't raise our expectations for you in the slightest."

"It better not," he retorted, giving Willow a smile when Giles wasn't looking.

Willow watched from her spot behind a pile of books as Xander grudgingly took a seat at the middle computer and set to work.  Giles got up from the research table to sit next to Xander at the computer, leaving Willow alone with the books.

"Well, I've gone through these, Giles.  What's next?" she called out to the librarian.

"Just the usual, Willow.  Start with the typical indices, then cross reference them with the various prophecies...standard stuff..." he said offhandedly, already absorbed in what Xander was doing.

"The usual indices," she repeated to herself, glancing about the huge library.  She could remember a dozen or so different books that they'd relied on in the old days, but she'd already looked through many of those, and had no idea where the rest were.

"Um, Giles?"

"Yes, Willow?" he responded without turning around.

"Um, the usual indices?  You mean the ones over..."  Willow winced as she waited for Giles to pick up on her sense of helplessness.

"Giles?" she repeated when he didn't reply.

"What?  Oh yes...those ones will be fine for now..." he said, wagging his finger in the direction of about a half-dozen different bookcases.  "Can you find anymore references like this?" he asked Xander, pointing to something on the screen, Willow already forgotten about.

Willow was fighting back tears by now.  She felt completely useless and her already razor-thin sense of belonging was beginning to unravel as she realized the title 'research girl' that she'd once worn so proudly was in serious jeopardy.  Needing to prove herself, Willow began to peruse the maze of bookshelves, trying to find anything that might be useful.  Her arms full, she sat back down at the table and forced herself to concentrate.  An hour later, she'd found nothing, and once again her eyes were blurring with tears of frustration.

"So, Willow, have you had any luck?" Giles asked from directly behind her, catching her by surprise.

Unnoticed by the librarian, Willow wiped away the tears.  "Um, no...sorry, Giles.  Haven't found anything yet."

Giles picked through the books before her.  "No wonder," he said.  Although his voice was soft, Willow easily detected a note of frustration.  "Those books are useless in this case.  Utter waste of time, really."

Before Willow could apologize, Giles had gone to one of the nearby shelves and quickly grabbed several books.  Coming back, he plopped them down in front of the redhead with a loud thud that echoed throughout the room.  "You'll find these much more illuminating, Willow."

Willow could only glare at the pile of unfamiliar books.  She couldn't make herself look at Giles, although she could feel the weight of the others' stares.

"I'm hungry.  What's for dinner, Angel?" Buffy's voice relieved Willow from having to say anything to Giles as her frustration began to swell into anger.

Sensing his chance for escape, Xander shot up from his seat.  "Well, sounds like a sandwich run...I better hurry before it gets dark."

"You will do no such thing," Giles fired back, wagging his finger at the computer.  "You will sit back down in that chair and-and continue to break into the police department's record system, er,  young man."

"Why do I feel like I'm at the KGB summer camp program?" Xander grumbled, flopping back down dejectedly into the computer chair.

"Willow, perhaps you could go get us something to eat," Giles suggested in a gentler tone.  "I'm afraid the kitchen is quite bare with all the, um, excitement over the past few days."

Willow's eyes widened as she finally looked up at the librarian.  "You want *me* to make a food run?"

Giles pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut momentarily.  "Yes, well, since everyone else is otherwise engaged--"

"Everyone else is being *useful*, you mean."

Hearing the beginnings of an argument from across the room, Angel stood up.  He shouldn't have left her alone to do the research, not when everything was so unfamiliar to her.  He'd simply been finding it too difficult to reconcile Willow's pre- and post-Oz behavior while sitting so close to her.

"No, that's not what I meant," Giles reassured the obviously upset redhead.

"Sure it wasn't," she muttered, grabbing her bag and heading for the old narthex at the front of the church.  "Let's just hope I'm capable of remembering what everyone likes on their subs," she added as she stormed out the front door.  The solid door closed firmly behind her, shutting in the voices of Angel and Giles as they called after her.

~~~~~~~~
End Chapter 9  (Archived 6/6/01)

 
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