*** This part is dedicated to all of those very patient and trusting people that voted for this story in the recent Willow/Angel 'Forbidden Love Awards'.  Thank you!!!
 

~~ Take Your Time - 37 ~~

Considering the drastic changes in their relationship over the past few years, things started off fairly well for Willow and Spike after they left London.  They worked together during the long train trip and then the ferry ride to Ireland to come up with a feasible plan for tricking the vampires that Angelus had sent to spy on them.

Spike had easily spotted the spying demonic duo when he and Willow first stopped at her old home near Bath.  Since they wanted it to appear as if they were never coming back, they'd paused there long enough to pick up some of her personal things and tie up a few loose ends.   Luckily for them, and just as Spike had hoped, the vampires Angelus had sent, while being unquestionably loyal, weren't rocket scientists by any means.  With Willow's minor knowledge of witchcraft, her more significant knowledge of science, and Spike's long-since-used familiarity with gunpowder from his days as a soldier, they both were fairly confident in their ability to create an impressive display.  And in a few days, when the vampires watching them were entranced by all of the colored smoke and fireworks, the amateur David Copperfields hoped to make their escape unnoticed.  Then, while they were on their way to Europe, Angelus would be hearing from his minions how Spike and Rose had successfully completed the spell, disappearing before their eyes like magic.

That was the basic scheme, but first things were first.  They had a lot of work to do in Galway if their 'smoke and mirror' plan was going to succeed.

When they finally arrived back in Galway, Spike and Willow threw themselves completely into the task at hand. Neither of the time-travelling pair would mention it, but they both found it more than a little disconcerting to be back in Galway again.  They were innately aware that their reunion was fragile enough without dredging up the months of memories--both pleasant and painful--that the Irish city held for them.  Neither had been back since that fateful night in 1753, and now they hardly recognized it for all the changes it had endured over the century. So many things were new, while other centerpieces of their 18-century lives were long-since gone.  Yet surprisingly, many familiar places had managed to withstand both the ravages of time and the recent famine that had devastated much of Ireland a decade or so before.  The small inn where they'd stayed the first few nights and even the cottage that they had later shared were both still standing.  Not that they'd intentionally looked for either of these places; they didn't have time to waste reminiscing or sightseeing.  Willow and Spike had simply come across them as they meandered through the town, gathering the needed supplies for their covert escape.  They'd paused for only the briefest moment when they realized they were near one of their old haunts, then wordlessly added it to the list of things that they didn't discuss.  The list had grown quite large by that time.  Not that they discussed that either.
 
Nor did they go out much.  Not only did daylight limit the number of Spike's outdoor hours, but they had to keep up appearances as well.  For the benefit of the humans around them, they had decided en route to renew the act of husband and wife.  Then, during the darker hours when Spike was not constricted by sunlight, they also had to assume the roles of a rather irritated master vampire and his less than enthusiastic human companion to keep the vampires watching them fooled as well.

At first, Willow had bristled at the thought of having to replay her more subservient role. The last thing she wanted was a reminder of some of her submissive demeanor while in Angelus's company or that in his eyes, at least, she was now nothing more than property.  Spike had to reassure her yet again that in the great scheme of things the ritual hardly meant anything to anyone other than the Irish vampire.  Reluctantly, she eventually gave in, understanding how important it was to maintain appearances for the sake of those spying on them.  All too quickly, the subservient behavior became second nature whenever they were in public together, and Willow found herself letting Spike take the lead, keeping her eyes averted and only speaking when spoken to.

Spike even teased her about it on the second evening.  They were sitting in their shared room of a relatively new hotel, awaiting the setting of the sun so they could get out and about.  Willow managed to accomplish quite a bit during daylight hours, but for certain things, Spike's expertise was needed.

He glanced at the redhead as she sat reading on the bed and resisted the urge to sigh.  Spike had hoped that they could have quickly gotten back to normal, whatever normal for them was.  The blonde vampire didn't expect to share her bed, or her body, for that matter, but he didn't think lively conversation or the odd hand of poker was too much to ask.  Apparently, though, it was.

"You don't have to be quite so meek and rabbit-like, Red," Spike reminded her, swallowing his frustration long enough to break the silence of the past couple of hours.  "When these morons report back to Angelus, he'll probably be surprised to hear how obedient you've suddenly become.  Remember that it's the spunky side of you that attracted him in the first place.  I think he'd be a little suspicious if you suddenly became the docile little pet, Pet."

Willow rolled her eyes.  <Make up your mind!>  One day she wasn't lady-like enough and too feisty, the next she was accused of being a wimp.  She couldn't win.

"Fine," she snapped.  "I'll try and be a bit perkier from now on.  Do you want a full-blown escape attempt or just useless struggles tinged with contempt?"

"Contempt will do," Spike informed her without emotion.  "It wouldn't make any bloody sense for you to run away since it's assumed that you want to see home-sweet-home again, no matter what's waiting for you on the other side."

Willow spared a quick glance at the vampire before turning back to her book.  "I can do contempt," she said coolly as she flipped through the pages.

"I don't doubt that for a second, Pet.  Not for a second," he sighed as he peeked out between the curtains at the slowly darkening sky.  The days may have been getting shorter as winter approached, but Spike was sure that this was one of the longest he'd ever suffered through.

***

It was two days after Spike's lecture on proper vampiric 'pet' etiquette, on what they hoped would be their last full day in Galway, and Willow had been busy most of the morning.  Taking some of their clothes and other things they didn't need with her, she'd gone out quite early to purchase two horses from a small, practically unknown stable outside of town.  She'd arranged for the horses to be boarded there, along with the saddles, riding gear, and some of their other personal belongings as well.  With the understanding that they'd be picking up the horses late the following night after a 'celebration' they were attending in town, Willow then rode to the small port town of Spiddal about 12 miles away.  There she found and bought passage under assumed names on a rickety freight ship that would be leaving in two days at dawn.  So far, things seemed to be going according to plan, but still they took as many precautions as they could to ensure that the vampires wouldn't become suspicious.  She only hoped their luck would hold out a little longer.  Tomorrow they'd take care of a few last minute odds and ends, and then that night, or early morning, once their chosen back street was empty of people, they would 'disappear'.

Later that afternoon, Willow was back in their room and feeling a little restless.  Pulling back the heavy curtain, she glanced outside long enough to see that it was still pouring down with rain and windy outside, just as it had been for the past few hours.  She'd just beaten the gale home when she came back from the stables, and then had been stuck inside for the rest of the day.  To pass the time, Willow scribbled a few thoughts in her journal before sliding it back into its hiding place under the mattress.  She glanced at the vampire sleeping on the small divan and ignored the slightly guilty thoughts she had about not offering him the bed for the afternoon.  <It's not like a little cramp in the neck is going to kill him or anything,> she rationalized to herself.

They'd been cooped up together for most of the afternoon because of the weather, and it hadn't gone particularly well. They'd both tried to make a little friendly conversation, but Willow just couldn't seem to find the connection that she'd once had with Spike.  Willow didn't know if it was permanent--the disappointment and sense of loss that she felt whenever she looked at him--but she just couldn't shake it, no matter how immature and melodramatic she knew it to be.  She felt a huge distance between them that she didn't quite know how to bridge, and she wasn't even sure if she wanted to anymore.  Because just maybe, in the long run, it would be easier this way.

Tired of her own depressing thoughts and needing a change of scenery as well as some food in her stomach, Willow scribbled a hasty note to Spike, telling him where she was going.  Leaving the vampire to his dreams, Willow grabbed her book and wandered down to the restaurant that was attached to the hotel.   Even though it was early evening and the sun had yet to set, the small room was already quite full with hungry patrons.  Luckily she still managed to find an empty table for two by the window, close to the crackling fire.  The dull roar created by both the hammering rain outside and the everyday conversation of the people around her was actually soothing to the redhead.  As tired as she was of the solitude, the uncomfortable silence that always seemed to fall between her and Spike were far worse, leaving her feeling weary to the bone. So forgetting the book that she'd brought with her, Willow just people watched and eavesdropped for a while.  Everywhere around her, real life was happening...and passing her by.  At the table beside her an older couple was having a disagreement about money matters, while another was filled to overflowing with a large family group.  The father was trying to convince one of his many children, a little girl of maybe four or five, to eat her vegetables while the mother was attempting, unsuccessfully, to soothe a fussy infant.  Other people in the restaurant cast a few irritated glances at the ruckus caused by the whining child and the crying babe, but not Willow.  Not only was she not annoyed by the disturbance, she was grateful for it.  Anything that kept her thoughts focused on something other than herself and the vampires in her life was welcome.

After a quick glance at the menu and placing her order with the harried serving girl, Willow's attention began to wander.  All too soon she found herself staring sightlessly into the fire.  Just as she was about to surrender to confounding thoughts of Angelus, someone nearby cleared his throat.  Willow quickly came out of her daze to find a rather large and somewhat disheveled-looking, red-haired man standing in front of her, hat in hand.

"I'm sorry to bother you, ma'am, but I was wonderin' if I could join you for dinner."  He must have seen the question in her eyes because he immediately gestured around the bustling room and continued.  "Er, as you can see, ma'am, this is the only empty seat, and it's pourin' outside like the heavens themselves have opened up.  The next eatin' place is a good bit down the road, and seeing as you're alone and all..."

The young man caught Willow completely off guard.  Considering all the unpleasant surprises she'd had to endure lately, it was understandable that her expression held a definite tinge of annoyance.  The man must have noticed it as well because he quickly began to backpedal.

"I'm sorry.  It was wrong of me to put a lady in such an awkward position.  I'll leave you to your meal," he added very apologetically, then turned to leave.

All sorts of suspicious thoughts were flitting about in her mind. He could be a vampire, another one of Angelus's flunkies sent to spy on her, or worse.  But he didn't act like one, nor did he look like one, not too mention the small matter of it still being daylight outside.  In actuality, he looked genuinely sorry for bothering her.  Willow doubted that most vampires were capable of believable displays of guilt.  Besides, he sounded American.  He sounded like home.

"Wait," she called after him.  The gentleman hesitantly turned back around to face her.  "I was the one being rude.   It is raining quite hard and you do look very tired and hungry--"

"You're from America?" he interrupted.  In an instant, his slightly sheepish look had changed to one of enormous relief.

Willow nodded enthusiastically.  "I am, but I haven't been there for a long time...since I was very young."

He took a step closer.  "If you don't mind me askin', where in The States are you from?"

"Oh, well, um, my parents traveled a lot so I've lived in lots of places."  Although the lies came quite easily to her, she didn't like deceiving him, even if he was a complete stranger.  Plus he seemed so glad to meet a fellow American.  Maybe he was homesick too.

Hoping to veer the subject away from her geographical background, Willow gestured to the empty chair across from her.

"Have a seat, Mr...."

"Mason.  Jeremiah Mason," he informed her happily, sticking out his hand.  "But my friends call me Jed."

"Nice to meet you, Jed.  I'm Rose Smith," Willow told him as she found herself taking part in a spirited handshake.  She couldn't help smiling at his unbridled enthusiasm.  "Won't you join me for dinner, Jed?  This book really isn't very interesting, and I'd love to hear the news from back home."  Sure, it wouldn't exactly be 'news' to her, but it would still be fascinating.

"Thank you kindly, ma'am."  Jed straddled the chair and set his hat on the table.  "If you don't mind me askin', ma'am, are you traveling alone?  I see you're hitched..." he trailed off with a slight gesture at the ring on her finger.

"My husband's up in our room.  Nothing on the menu appealed to him."  Willow ended with a shrug, hoping to end that line of discussion.  Luckily it was at that moment that the waitress appeared.

As her dinner companion surveyed the modest menu and placed his order, Willow studied him.  There was no doubt about it; even with his stereotypical Irish looks--freckles, green eyes and orange-red hair--he stood out like a sore thumb.  His hair, though clean looking, was rather long and unkempt.  He had a full beard and mustache in what Willow guessed was an attempt to make the 20-something look older.

Then there were his clothes.

He hadn't bothered to take off his hip length coat when he sat down at the table, much to some of the other patrons' chagrin.  He wore the long canvas jacket over a clean, blue cotton shirt and a pair of dungarees.  Scuffed work boots could just be seen peeking out from underneath the table.  And there was no mistaking his dark brown wool hat for something a banker or a local tradesman might wear.  While it wasn't the typical 'John Wayne-style' ten-gallon hat, it was definitely more at home on the prairies than on the streets of Ireland.  The only things missing were the holster and guns.
 
When Jed was done ordering, Willow couldn't control her curiosity.  "Back home in..."

"Kansas City," he offered.

"Back home in Kansas City," Willow continued, "are you a cowboy?"

The man leaned back in his chair, causing the front legs to rise off the ground.  "A cowboy?" he repeated with amusement.

"Oh, don't you have those big cattle ranches in Kansas yet?"  Willow was trying to remember her early American history, but she wasn't exactly sure when cattle ranching and cowboys would actually become a way of life and in which territories.

"Well, first of all," he drawled, "most of your cowboys are Mexicans because most of the cattle is down south in Texas.  Now, the Shawnee Trail actually goes from Texas into Kansas City and on to St. Louis, but there ain't much of a business to be had in moving cattle along it.  I wish there were, because it sounds kinda nice to me.  Heck, I've even been considerin' moving further west and tryin' a hand at it myself, but it's a risky venture.  Besides, with all the trouble we're havin' now over all this slavery business, I don't think it's a good time to start any new ventures.  I wouldn't be surprised if we went to fightin' over it sumthin' fierce in the near future."

"Neither would I," Willow said somberly.  <At Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861, to be exact.  Less than a year.>

A waitress delivered their drinks, whiskey for Jed and wine for Willow, and he downed his in one swallow before continuing.

"For now, I'm workin' at my uncle's company, Wells Fargo, and takin' care of some of the special orders.  I must admit I've never had much of a hankerin' for the business, but at least I'm not stuck inside all day, dressed like some kind of dandy.  This way I get to travel a good bit."

"Special orders?"

He nodded.  "After Ireland, my last stop before headin' on home will be in England.  I've already been half around Europe, buyin' cigars in Germany, Spanish and French wine, chocolates, brandy, and such.  Now, I'm supposed to look into crystal and china and a few other things here in Ireland and England, and then I'll accompany the whole shipment back to America.  Shoppin' ain't much of a job for a man, but the pay's good.  Maybe someday I'll be able to afford that cattle ranch after all," he laughed.

"Well, obviously your uncle trusts you to make sure everything arrives safely...as well as your taste in dishes," Willow teased him lightly, getting a hearty guffaw in response.

"I reckon you're right there, ma'am."

"Well, ranching may not be much of a business now in your part of the country, Jed.  But it will be, especially further west.  You can bet your bottom dollar on that!"

The man brought the chair back down to rest on all four legs, then leaned across the table.

"You one of them fortunetellers or sumthin', ma'am?" he asked with a curious smile.

Willow forced herself not to giggle this time.  "Maybe I'm just an incredibly savvy young business woman?"  Before he could reply or ask her any personal questions, she pressed on.  "So, tell me what it's like in Kansas City.  I want to know everything that's going on."

"Everything?"

She nodded fervently, but added, "If you don't mind, that is."

"Now why would I mind gettin' a chance to spin a few good yarns over a nice dinner," he said lightly.  And apparently he didn't mind one little bit because soon Willow was hearing vivid descriptions of life in the American West, everything from the Indian disputes to the Saturday night socials he enjoyed taking his girlfriend Elizabeth to when he had the chance.  The man was a fount of information and Willow readily absorbed it all, mentally checking it against what she remembered from school and movies.  It was mind boggling to think that everything she'd learned in history class was taking place all over again.  Not to mention the fact that she could easily be an important part of it if she wanted to interfere.  But she didn't.  For her own sanity, she'd repeatedly told herself that everything happens for a reason.  It wasn't her job to try to change world history anymore than it was to change Angelus's or William's.

Time flew by as Willow listened to him for hours.  Although he had a rough edge to him, he was very intelligent, courteous and downright friendly.  He was so different from the men she'd been around for the past century or so, bearing little resemblance to any of the vampires, gamblers, or gypsies that she'd associated with up until now, that she found him positively charming in a fresh sort of way.  Despite his gruff appearance and western twang, he seemed more like a regular person than anyone she'd had a conversation with in decades.

Dessert had been finished long ago and Jed was just at the climax of a story about the only gunfight that he'd ever witnessed, when a shadow fell over the table.

"You've been gone a long time, Pet.  I was beginning to worry."

Willow glanced up to find a very unhappy Spike staring down at her.  She suddenly felt like a kid who'd been caught with her hand in the cookie jar, even though she felt that she'd done nothing wrong. Obviously, Spike felt differently.

"I guess we lost track of time.  Mr. Mason here was telling me all about what's changed out west in America since I left--everything from the abolitionist movement to the railroad and homesteading.   It's all so fascinating, and I just kinda lost track of time..." she said in an excited rush.

"Been there, done that, bought the bloody T-shirt and matching spurs, haven't I, Pet?" Spike reminded her in a curt tone.

Standing, Jed held out his hand to the blonde vampire.  "Good evening, Mr. Smith.  Your wife was kind enough to let me join her for dinner.  You see, it was the last seat, and with the rain and all I wasn't much lookin' forward to wandering around town tryin' to find another restaurant or one of those pubs."

Spike smirked, ignoring the offered hand to glance about the now half-empty room.

"Rose has always been too kind.  It's one of her greatest faults.  Isn't it, Rose?"

Willow sighed.  Spike seemed intent on ruining the nicest evening she'd had in a long time.  "Jed, you'll have to excuse my husband.  William seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the couch this afternoon," she said half teasingly, hoping to pull even the hint of a smile from the grumpy demon.

"It's all right, ma'am," Jed said with a roguish smile all his own.  "I don't think I'd take too kindly to findin' my gal Eliza with a strange man either.  I think it's best I be headin' up to my room now anyways, but I thank you for sharin' your table and your delightful company."

Looking at the American for the first time, Spike took a step closer to him.  The fact that the man was a good half-foot taller didn't seem to intimidate Spike in the least.

"Why don't you do that, mate?  Why don't you mosey on up to your room, give your pistol a good ole self-cleaning, and the next time you find yourself feeling lonely, lasso yourself up a big ole cow?  I'm sure that'll make you feel right at home on the range."

Willow was taken aback by Spike's combative attitude, although from the understanding smile she noted on Jed's freckled face, it appeared as if he were taking all the sarcastic remarks in stride.  For the briefest of moments, Willow thought that Spike might actually be jealous.  There was no doubt that he was having fun belittling the American, but when Spike turned back to look at her, it wasn't anger that she saw simmering there.  It looked more like regret.  But for what?  Before she could puzzle that out, Jed's voice interrupted her train of thought.
 
"I'm makin' for London tomorrow, but if you and your husband are ever in Kansas City, you should look me up at the Wells Fargo office there so I can return your hospitality."

"We aren't planning on returning to America in the near future, Mr. Mason, but if we do I promise to stop by," Willow said honestly.  "And if you're not there, I'll expect you to be a cattleman instead."

Jed's freckled face broke into a smile.  "I'll see what I can do about that, ma'am.  Now, in return for your kindness and advice, at least allow me to pay for dinner," he insisted.

Willow shook her head.  "That's not necess--"

"If the man wants to pay for your dinner, Rose, let him," Spike butted in.  "After all, it's the least he can do, considering the position he's put you in."

Willow shot Spike a questioning glance, but his face gave no hints into his odd behavior.

"That would be very kind of you," Willow conceded.  "Thank you, Jed."

"Well then, good night Mrs. Smith...Mr. Smith," the red-headed American said with a tip of his hat and a lazy smile.  Jed then left them alone as he went to pay the serving girl before heading back upstairs to his room.

"Let's go," Spike said gruffly as soon as the cowboy wannabe was out of sight.

Willow stood and made a move to head for the same stairs that Mr. Mason had just climbed, but a hand on her elbow stopped her.

"We're going for a walk, Pet."

"Now?"

"Now."

"But it's raining and--"

"It's been barely drizzling for the past hour now and since you can't exactly catch your death of cold, what's the problem?"

Clenching her jaw to keep from saying something that she doubted she'd regret later but not wanting to cause a scene, Willow let Spike lead her through the restaurant and to the front door.  It was chilly, but not uncomfortably so.  The rain had stopped, at least momentarily, but from the lack of a visible moon or stars, Willow doubted the respite would last long.

With a stern look that told her to keep her mouth shut, Spike guided her out the door with a hand at her back.   Once outside, he offered her his arm.  His expression informed her that she had little choice, so she took it.

Willow's gaze automatically dropped to the ground, not only because of role she had to portray when with Spike in public, but because she was actually feeling a little nervous.  Something was wrong, and that was never good.  Slowly they made their way through the wet streets of Galway toward a more quiet part of town.   With every step they took, she could feel Spike growing more and more tense, and her dread grew proportionately.  Finally, she couldn't endure the silence any longer.

"Spike, are you okay?" she asked softly.

"If I were you, I'd be more worried about your own hide, *Rose*."

His words, spoken in a growl, crept over her skin, drawing goosebumps in their wake.  The tightness that had been forming in her belly turned to fear, even as she felt Spike's hand squeeze hers reassuringly.  Only then did it dawn on her what had happened, and she could now sense the vampires that were following some distance behind.  They had witnessed her long dinner with the stranger and would now expect Spike to punish her on Angelus's behalf.  Whether she had meant to or not, she'd broken the unspoken rules.

"What are you going to do?" she whispered as softly as she could.

"You didn't leave me much of a choice, Red," he replied in equally soft tones.  "As soon as we're somewhere less crowded, I'll have to--"

"I--I understand," Willow interrupted.  She might understand, but that didn't mean she wanted to hear about it

Willow gnawed on her bottom lip as they continued on in silence, trying to prepare herself for whatever Spike was going to do.  Before she was ready, she found herself being jerked into a dark alleyway and pushed against the brick wall.

Spike shook his head and clucked loudly, "Now, why'd you have to go and do that, Pet?"

Willow's eyes grew wide.  She knew she had to play along to keep up the charade, but she didn't want to.  This kind of play-acting had lost its shine a long time ago.

"Wh--what'd I do?"

"Throwing yourself at the first human to give you the time of day."

Indignation momentarily overshadowed her fright, and Willow stood up a little straighter, her hands on her hips.  "I did not 'throw myself' at anyone!  Anyway, it's none of your business."

With one finger, Spike pushed her back against the wall.  Then his hands went to her shoulders to keep her there.  "It *is* my bloody business, *Rose*," he growled, leaning even closer to stare down at her menacingly.  "Not only do people need to believe we're married, I'm supposed to look after you for Angelus.  I should kill that pillock of a cowjockey for even talking to you.  We both know that's what Angelus would probably do.  I don't need to attract that kind of attention this close to leaving though, do I?  I'm not willing to take that kind of chance so close to finally having this whole bloody trip over with!"  With every sentence, Spike's voice grew louder, angrier.

"But there really was nowhere else to sit, and all we did was talk," Willow tried to explain, even though she knew it was pointless.

Spike snickered, letting his demon face come forward.   "You're as naive as Angelus said.  Men *never* just want to talk to a beautiful woman.  Understand?  And he's an American from the 'Wild West', making him even worse."

Willow didn't hear a word Spike said after he changed.  All she could hear was the sound of her own blood rushing in her ears, her own heart beating rapidly.  All she could see were inhuman fangs, ridges and predatory yellow eyes.  Teeth tore at her flesh in a way that could never be mistaken for pleasure.  Threats hammered at her like fists, while fists pummeled her until the individual blows were no longer distinguishable.  It didn't matter that the hands holding her against the wall were actually gentle, or even that they occasionally squeezed her shoulders in a reassuring manner.  She recognized none of it.  All she could feel and see were memories--memories born anew to cry out with a piercing clarity that demanded attention.  She screwed her eyes tightly shut, but it did nothing to block the terrifying images in her head.

Unaware of Willow's plight, Spike's cruel lecture continued.  "Bet you thought he could help you somehow, right, Pet?  That you two could ride off into the sunset together?  Sorry to break it to you, but it's time to face the truth.  No one can help you.  What's done is done, and in about 24 hours, we'll be back we're we belong.  I'll be in the arms of Drusilla and you'll probably be having dinner with Angelus.  Or should I say Angelus will be having you for dinner..."

Disappointed that Willow didn't even bother to open her eyes long enough to roll them at his pun, Spike carried on.  "Point is, Pet, I won't allow you to ruin it for either of us!  Now, you have to be punished, but how..." he asked in a soft, almost seductive tone.

Spike's words were slowly beginning to break through Willow's waking nightmare, but she was unable to force her lids open until she felt his cool mouth leaving a wet trail down her neck.  Her panic was just about at its boiling point when at the last moment she managed to recollect that it was all an act.  Just an act.

Spike pulled away from Willow and in his trademark move, ran a finger along her collarbone, still oblivious to her very real alarm.

"I'd love nothing more than to make a late-night snack out of your tender little throat, but Angelus wouldn't like that much.  Or, I could take you back to the room and punish you in a different but much more fun way--fun for me at least-- but I think Angelus would take exception to that as well."  He let loose an exaggerated sigh.  "Bloody sire's always ruining my fun."

Then all laughter was gone from his face in an instant.  "Listen and listen closely, you bloody little chit!" he shouted.  "If you ever do anything this daft again, I won't care what Angelus says.  I'm here and he's not.  You're in my care and I won't let you muck this up for me again!  Got it, Princess?"

All Willow could offer in reply was a slight dip of her head.  It was enough for Spike, though, and he let her go.   Willow would have slid to the ground immediately if it weren't for the rough surface of the bricks catching onto the material of her dress, much like Velcro, helping her to stay on her feet.

Eyes averted from more than just fake obedience, Willow took her first step away from the wall and promptly stumbled to her knees.  It could have been the heel of her shoe catching in the cobblestones, the worn leather sole slipping on the wet path, or perhaps her shaking legs had just given out.  Willow was just about to falsely blame it on her shoes when Spike's clipped tones found her ear.

"Stand up."

Willow shook her head.  "I don't think I can."

"Stand up now!" he demanded again, stressing each word individually.

Scrambling around so she could use the wall to help push herself up, Willow slowly climbed to her feet.  Thankful that her legs seemed to be cooperating again, she kept her head down, not wanting to look at Spike.

"Now, let's get you out of the rain," he said much more civilly.  "We wouldn't want you to slip again and hurt yourself, now would we?"

Letting the vampire take her arm, Willow was guided back to the hotel in silence.  She didn't remember the walk back or even arriving at their destination.  Before she knew it, Spike was opening the door to their suite and gentling pushing her inside.  Willow stood just inside the door, feeling a little fuzzy and out of sorts.

"Good acting, Willow," Spike said cheerfully after he closed the door behind himself.  "Maybe a bit overly dramatic, but you did look scared to death of me.  And that falling bit was a good touch.  It should all translate well when Angelus hears of it."

At the sound of his voice, Willow looked around the room, suddenly realizing where they were.  "Oh yeah...acting...because it would be silly of me to actually be scared of a vampire, hovering over me, threatening my life, yelling and everything, wouldn't it?" she said meekly in a one-breath rush.

Spike, his head tilted to the side, studied her.  "You feeling okay, Red?"

Willow nodded.  "Oh, sure. I'm fine.  Just tired, you know?  I'm going to bed...if-if that's okay with you..."

Unfortunately, Spike was too hungry and hyper to notice the complete lack of sarcasm in her last statement.

"Sure, eat your heart out, Red," he said offhandedly as he opened the door and stepped out into the hall.  "That's what I intend to do."   The door was closed for only a second, just long enough for Willow to break out in goosebumps.  Then he stuck his head back in and added, "Although not *your* heart, of course."  With one quick wag of his brow and a mischievous grin, Spike was gone, leaving Willow alone.

Willow stood there, staring at the closed door for several minutes and wondering what the hell had happened to her out in that alleyway.  It felt so real at the time, even though she now realized that Spike hadn't actually hurt her in anyway, let alone ever hit her.  It was all in her imagination.  But at the time it had felt so real that Willow was now tempted to check herself for bruises and bites marks that she knew wouldn't be there.  Eventually chalking it up to stress, an overactive imagination, and a horribly confusing life, Willow made herself get ready for bed.  Soon after sinking into what she'd hoped would be the comfort of sleep, the nightmares began again, worse than ever.

***

A little more than a day later in the dark, deserted alleyway that they'd prepared ahead of time, Willow and Spike put their plan into action.   After mumbling through an impressive but random series of archaic words, Willow and Spike and some of their personal belongings vanished, leaving the less-than-astute vampires amazed by a display of thick, multi-colored smoke and blinding flashes of light while Willow and Spike escaped into the night.  After making their way as fast as they could to the stable on the outside of town, they mounted their waiting horses.  Soon they were racing westward to the port of Spiddal and their vessel of escape.  By the time the sun rose to warm the streets of Galway, Ireland, they were already underway to Calais, France.

Now, only 38 years and the matter of a little Gypsy curse stood between them and doing the spell for real.

~~ End Chapter 37 ~~
 

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