* Special thanks for Jonquil for the great job she did of betaing this for me at the last possible moment!

** This part is dedicated to everyone who has given me so much feedback and support during the writing of this story, especially those of you that have patiently waitedg 2 years for me to finish it. THANK YOU!!!!
 

Take Your Time ~~ 39 ~
 

They dubbed it 'The Endless Summer'. After leaving Angelus, Ireland, and thankfully Willow's ghosts behind, the two time travelers took a much needed, albeit rather extended, holiday. For nearly a decade they traveled together, touring Austria, Germany, Greece, Turkey, Portugal, Morocco....wherever their hearts desired. The only constraints were that they needed to avoid Angelus's and Darla's known haunts and travelling routes at all costs, and that they also wanted to stay in somewhat warmer climates. This was due mainly to Willow's having grown tired of being cold all the time. As a direct result, Greece had become their second home during the winter months. For ten years, they relaxed as best they could, pushing their worries about Angelus and the curse into the back of their minds. There would be plenty of time for that later. After all, Angelus was not due to be cursed until 1898--leaving them plenty of time to just have some fun.

This time they traveled as brother and sister, always getting separate rooms and allowing each other privacy or space whenever it was needed. Strangely enough, they still spent the vast majority of their time together, and as a result their friendship only grew stronger. Yet that didn't mean it was always easy.

Occasionally temptation would raise its ugly head, especially after too many glasses of ouzo, and they found themselves tempted to cross out of 'friend' territory and back into the rougher terrain of lovers. That was when they'd separate for a few days until they could master their raging libidos or satisfy them elsewhere. Afterwards, there was little awkwardness; they had finally grown beyond that.

Eventually, the summer had to end, as all summers must. Vacation was over, and it was time for Spike and Willow to get back to work. After much discussion and planning, Willow returned to Romania and the Rom clan that had adopted her almost two decades earlier to begin laying the foundation for the task at hand.

She had a curse to alter.

 
~~ 1871 ~~

Spike viciously dug his heels into his already exhausted horse, urging even more speed from the animal as horse and rider made their way down a particularly sharp, downward slope in the mountainous road. Frustrated and fearing that time was running out, Spike could do nothing more than push the horse to top speed in hopes that his journey from Borsa to Baia Mare would soon come to end.

"I'm never going to bloody make it on time."

****

Sitting on a stool atop the rickety stage, Willow finished the last few chords of a folksong that was well known in the Romanian town of Baia Mare. The crowd offered her a healthy applause for her work, but none as enthusiastically as the young girl sitting at one of the front tables did. Willow smiled warmly at the raven-haired gypsy girl who was undoubtedly her biggest fan.

Dunicha was very sweet and innocent, reminding the redhead of herself at that age. They had become good friends over the past several months since Willow had returned to rejoin her adopted Rom clan. Perhaps the 12 year old saw Willow as a substitute for her mother who had died in childbirth, or maybe just another big sister, but for whatever reason, Dunicha had become the redhead's shadow. Whenever Willow was asked to play at one of the local inns or theaters in the towns and villages nearby the Rom's mobile camps, the girl always accompanied her. She would help in any way she could, sometimes carrying Willow's guitar or fetching her a drink when her throat became parched from singing, and always sitting quietly with a look of rapture on her face while Willow played. This night was no different.

Willow was thankful for her young companion and couldn't stop herself from sighing when she remembered a time only a few months earlier when she'd doubted that the Rom would have anything to do with her again--the night Willow returned to the Rom camp after her decade-and-a-half absence.

She had ridden into the camp early one night as her old Rom clan was gathered around the fire, exchanging stories and songs.

When they saw Willow and realized who she was, many of her old friends rushed to welcome her. Willow wasn't surprised when she began to notice confusion mixed in with their initial happiness to see her, but slowly the confusion turned to something else. It hurt Willow more than she could express to see fear in many of the Rom's eyes, but she wasn't surprised. Children that she had once played with now clutched their own children to them, their warm smiles fading to tight, worried expressions. Willow didn't try to make excuses for her unchanged appearance. While she had attempted to make herself look somewhat older with the use of make up and a more mature hairstyle, she knew there was no way she could really fool them or avoid the inevitable questions.

The crowd around her, which was already backing away, suddenly parted. Two of the elders--a man, the clan's chief, and an even older woman--stepped forward from the others.

"You will with speak with Tekla now," he told her with a curt nod at the gray-haired woman next to him.

"Yes, Frinkelo," Willow acknowledged with a slight bob of her head. She ignored the whispers from the others as she followed the woman.

Upon entering the female elder's caravan for the first time, Willow was apprehensive. She really had no idea what to expect from Tekla, having exchanged only few conversations with her in the past. While the woman had never said an unkind word to her during her initial stay with the Rom, Willow had often caught Tekla staring at her. It had sometimes made Willow feel as if she were on trial then, and now Willow felt as if she were about to receive her sentencing. She was very afraid that she was going to be asked to leave the Rom, or worse. Unfortunately, Tekla seemed in no great rush to reveal the reason for their meeting. After she closed the caravan's door behind them, she began painstakingly making them each a cup of hot tea. While the older woman busied herself with the cups and saucers, Willow took a quick look around. This caravan wasn't much different than the others she'd been in, except for some of its contents. She soon became intrigued by the different brightly colored bottles of all shapes and sizes that lined the shelves on one short wall of the wagon. They gleamed like a stain glass window under the lantern light, and Willow couldn't help moving closer. She was curious about some of the powders and odd-looking substances that the various containers held. Before she could actually ascertain any of the ingredients, Tekla finally motioned toward the round table that sat in the middle of the small wooden wagon.

"Sit, child, and tell me when you are from," the gray-haired woman said, motioning toward the stool across from her.

"Oh, I'm not really from anywhere, Tekla. It seems as if I've been traveling my whole life--" she told her in all sincerity as she took a seat at the scarf-covered table. The woman took a sip of her tea before slowly shaking her head.

"No, child. *When* are you from, not where."

Willow's eyes rounded as she finally realized the blunt nature of the question. Under the intense scrutiny of the old Gypsy, she had to concentrate not to fidget like the adolescent that she appeared to be. For a moment Willow had an internal debate as to whether or not to tell the whole truth. It was a short-lived argument.

"I was born in Sunnydale, California, in the United States of America, in the year 1981. A man who wanted to change certain events brought me back in time, pretty much against my will. He wanted to bring back his dead lover and exact vengeance upon the man that he blamed for her death. Things didn't go quite as he'd hoped, and it all got quite complicated, really. Basically I'm here now, of my own free will, and our hope--William's and mine--is to stop something bad from happening. I guess you can say that we want to right a wrong before it gets the chance to actually be a wrong. Oh, and I should probably mention that the man who brought me back through time isn't actually a man. Well, he was, but he isn't anymore, really. He's a vampire, but don't hold that against him. He's my friend, and I owe him my life many times over..." she informed the woman without stopping even once for air.

Once Willow caught her breath after her marathon-length babble, she held it, waiting for the elder's reaction. Long minutes passed by as the gray-haired woman scrutinized her, unblinkingly. Feeling as if she was being tested, Willow tried her best not to look away, but it was difficult. There were so many things that could go wrong. Tekla might think that she was outright lying, and therefore being disrespectful. Or worse yet, she could easily think Willow insane and her stories just the ravings of a twisted mind. Trying to prove her mettle and convince the woman to believe her through sheer force of will, the redhead matched the woman's gaze with her own.

"And how are we involved in this justice that you seek?" Tekla finally asked, breaking the stalemate.

Willow was surprised that Tekla didn't ask her more about her Spike, but the redhead wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. She was just going to answer her question.

"Elder, it is not justice that I seek." Willow tried to think of some way to explain herself without being disrespectful. The Rom's idea of justice was much different than the gadje ways Willow was more familiar with, and they often took exception to people disagreeing with their ways. "When people do things, make certain decisions or choices, they usually have no idea what the actual future consequences may be some day. But in this case, I do know the consequences, horrible, deadly consequences, and I hope to stop them from happening."

"Then tell me which actions of my people do you seek to change?"

Willow closed her eyes and pictured her calming place. If it were possible, she wanted to avoid babbling like a child this time. After all, this was rather important.

"Many years from now, the Rom, I do not yet know exactly who or from which tribe, will exact vengeance for the death of one of their own. A young Rom girl will be killed by a vampire--but not William--in the town of Borsa. In retaliation, the elders will curse this vampire with his soul so he can remember the face of every life he has ever taken and live with the guilt of what he has done."

"And you seek to stop this?" Tekla asked without emotion.

Willow shook her head emphatically. "I seek to stop the girl's death, but I do not wish to stop the curse. In fact, I am here to make sure that it happens."

The woman was silent, and Willow was unsure about whether to go on. Part of her wanted to add, "Oh, and while you are at it, you need to change this ancient curse of yours just a bit. Hope you don't mind," but she kept her mouth shut for once. No, Willow decided; this was not yet the time for that discussion.

The silence stretched on as the Rom elder alternated between moments of closing her eyes and studying the redhead.

"When I was young," Tekla said suddenly, startling Willow who had thought for a moment that the other woman had fallen asleep, "I heard of this curse you speak of. I did not believe it though, for a curse of this kind would be very difficult and would take someone very powerful. I do not know this curse nor of anyone in our clan who has such knowledge."

Pushing a feeling of disappointment aside, Willow decided against mentioning the fact that she'd cast the spell once before herself. It would only confuse matters. She did, however, feel the need to further convince the woman.

"I assure you, Tekla. The curse exists, somewhere. As I said, I'm not sure of the details. I only know when and where it will happen. The vam--"

The woman held up a hand to stop Willow. "Tell me no more. This is not a matter for women to discuss. All laws and punishments are decided by the male elders and chiefs."

"But I know that it was a woman elder who originally did the curse," Willow insisted.

The woman nodded her head. "That is likely. But the men decide the punishment, as is our way. She would have been instructed to do the spell. She may have been the means of punishment, but she did not decide it."

"I understand, Tekla," Willow said truthfully. She paused to take a few sips of her tea before finding the voice to raise another concern. "So what is to become of me? Do you wish me to leave the Rom now that you know what I am?"

The elder shook her grayed head. "I was asked by Frinkelo to read you carefully, make sure you're not possessed by evil spirits or that you are not something other than human. I have always known that you are not evil, Saviya. If you were, I would not have encouraged Frinkelo to let you stay all those years ago."

Willow was speechless. All this time she'd thought that Tekla didn't really like her, when in all actuality she had been the one to initiate her being brought into the clan. Before Willow could express her gratitude, Tekla reached across the table.

"Now give me your hand, Saviya." Willow offered her hand, and the woman turned it over in her own, palm up. Tekla had done the same thing once years before, right after Willow had first been invited into their camp. That time, Tekla had only stared at her palm, shaking her head. She'd never even offered to tell Willow what she had seen.

This time as Tekla studied her palm, she traced the lines with a long, wrinkled finger, much like she had before. And again she shook her head.

"So many paths, Saviya, some taken, some not. There is much pain and disappointment in both your future and your past, but it is all muddled. I can not see much beyond that. There are so many paths that I cannot even begin to foretell your future. The one thing I can see, that stands out above all others, is a union."

The woman's revelation caught Willow completely off guard. She was expecting to hear something about a tall, dark stranger, or perhaps a short, red-headed guitar player, but not about some mysterious joining.

"Union? Do you mean a marriage?" she asked.

"I do not think so. But there is a joining of three lines. They come from different directions and meet here in your past," she said, tapping on a trio of creases that met near the middle of Willow's palm. "They are deep, Saviya, and wrap about your hand like none I have ever seen. The lines cross back and forth, sometimes appearing as one, other times as three separate tracks as they snake around your entire hand. It goes back into your past and forward into your future. There are times when the lines separate, but always they are close by. I've never seen anything quite like it before. It is a puzzle to me," she finally admitted with a sigh.

When the woman released her hand, Willow stared at it in disbelief. She hadn't thought about it in over a century, but when she was in grade school over a century before, she had once purchased a book on palm reading from one of Sunnydale's many New Age shops. She'd practically skipped all the way home with the book grasped firmly in both hands. The young Willow had been eager to unlock the mysteries of the future that were encoded in her hand, only to be sorely disappointed when she couldn't make sense of all the odd lines, even with the book's help. Those same three lines that Tekla now saw had not been mentioned in the guide that she'd purchased. Discouraged, Willow had given up and tossed the book away. Besides, at that point, all she had really wanted to know was if she was going to have a long life as Xander's wife. From what little she could discern, the omens hadn't been promising.

Thinking back on it now, Willow couldn't help smiling. If she'd only known then what the future, and the past for that matter, had had in store for her.

"Thank you for convincing the other elders to let me stay, Tekla," Willow said with a warm smile for the older woman. "I love my time with the Rom, and when my journey is over, I hope I never forget my days with your people, and the nights around the campfire. When I was here before, for the first time in my life, I felt like I had belonged to a real family. I hated not being able to tell everyone the truth and having to keep my real past a secret all this time. I never intended to be disrespectful."

The woman reached across the table to pat Willow on the cheek fondly.

"I know, Saviya. While I see much pain in your life, I see nothing dark within you. You have never wished to deceive us but have only been doing what you feel is right. It cannot be easy to see into the future as clearly as you do. I think I know something of this, yes?"

"You believe me then? You really don't think I'm crazy?" Willow asked with no small measure of relief.

Leaning back in her rocking chair, the woman laughed. In her sparkling charcoal-colored eyes, Willow saw not only the wisdom gained from a long and fruitful life but also for just a brief moment the mischievous child she must have once been. Willow found herself wondering what the woman could see in her green eyes.

"To any who can see beyond this plane," the woman began when she could contain her laughter, "it is very obvious that you speak the truth, child. You flicker in and out of focus, moving as if separate from all that surrounds you. You are not of this time, Saviya. Yet I did not understand why, until now. I only knew that you were not of Rom blood, but yet you were Rom on the inside, where it counts most, I think. That is why we've allowed you to stay with us, brought you into our family, taught you our ways. I think perhaps Frinkelo did not believe me when I told him this all those years ago, but he liked you. In fact, he was sure that you had Rom blood in you, in spite of your gadje appearance. It wasn't until he saw you tonight, looking as young as you had the day you'd left us so long ago, that he believed an old lady and her superstitions."

Willow didn't know what to say. She was so relieved to finally have everything out in the open and to be able to share her quest with someone other than Spike. Maybe they weren't any closer to cursing Angelus with his soul on a permanent basis, but once again she had to remember there was no hurry. They had decades before he had to be ensouled, and she was now more sure than ever that everything would all work out as it was meant to be.

"Thank you again, Tekla," was all Willow could say as she struggled to control her emotions. "I guess now all we have to do is wait."

After a moment of quiet reflection and an exchange of knowing smiles, Tekla sat up straight and cleared her throat.

"At the Rom gathering this autumn in Baia Mare, I will speak with the other drabardi, those women who have the gift of foretelling. One is bound to know of this curse. Then we will need to bring the matter before the kris for discussion."

Willow cringed at the thought of speaking before the kris, the Rom court where serious matters were discussed and disputes settled. But if that was what it would take, Willow would somehow manage.

"We will wait for autumn then," Willow conceded.

After finishing the pot of tea and discussing less important matters, Willow and Tekla finally climbed down from the caravan. The clan sat surrounding the fire, apparently waiting for Tekla's verdict on their old friend Saviya. All eyes were watching Willow expectantly as she stood next to the clan's eldest and most respected drabardi.

"Join your family around the fire, Saviya. This is where you belong, for now, and we welcome you back." She turned to those gathered. "Saviya is what she claims to be and more. Ask her no questions about it, but rest assured that she is our friend. Saviya is Rom."

At the elder's words, a collective sigh of relief spread throughout the Rom. Many leapt to their feet and rushed to the redhead's side. As Willow was surrounded once again by her friends and Rom family, feeling their hugs and hearing their welcoming words, she couldn't stop the tears of joy and relief from spilling down her face.

Even now, while she basked in the applause of her audience, Willow almost began to cry when she thought about that night. Berating herself for being overly emotional, Willow wiped her eyes and took a final bow. As soon as the applause died down, Dunicha skipped up to Willow and began to help gather her things.

"Pa is in town. Sold a colt to the tailor down the street. Do you want a ride back with us now?" she cheerfully asked in slightly halting English.

Willow beamed at the girl, telling her without words that her English was improving. "I don't think so," Willow replied in the language of the Rom. It was a game they played, each using the other's language. Willow's Romani was much rougher than Dunicha's English was, but there was good reason for that. Willow not only had to learn Romani--the language of the Rom people--but also the actual Romanian language as well. Amongst themselves, the Rom spoke only their own language, but when dealing with the gadje--outsiders, or basically anyone who was not Rom--they spoke the native tongue of the host country.

"I want to do a little shopping first," Willow continued, "then I'll ride back to camp. But if you can take my guitar for me, that will make it a little easier in case I buy everything I see!"

Giggling, the girl took Willow's most-prized possession with pride, cradling the instrument as if it were worth a king's ransom. Together they walked out of the theater and into the crisp autumn night air. The moon was high over head, and there were only a few wispy clouds floating about to occasionally dampen the moonlight. It was a perfect night to start off the Harvest Festival.

Spying Dunicha's father waiting by his cart, Willow waved at her old friend. Petra returned the greeting with a smile and then urged his daughter to hurry along, saying that it had already been a long day.

"I will see you back at the camp, then. Be well, Saviya," Dunicha offered over her shoulder as she carefully skipped back to her father's waiting horse and buggy.

Willow watched as Dunicha climbed up to sit next to her father, still carefully holding the guitar. She waved again as they rode away before heading into the marketplace. Willow didn't intend to buy much. Because it was the beginning of a week-long festival, she could enjoy the rarity of shopping at night. At the same time she hoped to keep her mind off the impending kris. Already the different Rom clans had gathered, which meant that it was only a matter of days before she'd have to explain everything about herself and the curse before the council of tribal elders. So to keep from dwelling on what might happen, she decided to shop.

Willow strolled from booth to booth, fingering the beautiful fabrics and sampling the delicious foods that were for sale. When she came to the hot, spiced-wine cart, the flavorful aroma seduced her into buying a mugful. Letting the cup heat her chilled hands and the steam warm her face, she continued her lazy pace from seller to seller, sipping as she went.

Eventually she stopped to browse through some books. After a few minutes, the lady who was manning the ramshackle booth handed her a parcel.

"What's this?" Willow asked in Romanian.

"A gentleman asked me to give it to you. It appears as if you have an admirer. A very handsome one at that," the lady said with a wink.

Setting her mug on the table, Willow looked around but didn't see a man paying her notice. "Who?"

"He's gone. Just picked this out for you a while ago, paid for it, and told me to give it to you when you stopped. He knew you would stop...said you liked books."

As she opened the brown-paper package, she smiled. She hadn't seen Spike in a few weeks, and Willow felt she was overdue for a visit from her old friend. This sounded just like one of the blonde vampire's little games.

The smile waned when she noted the title on the leather-bound book. 'Romeo and Juliet' by William Shakespeare. A chill went through her. It didn't seem like something Spike would buy for her to read, unless it was just to make fun of. Besides, Spike struck her as more the Edgar Allen Poe type.

"Um, can you tell me what my admirer looked like?" Willow asked in a trembling voice.

"Oh, quite handsome, he was. Tall, dark hair and eyes. Nice dresser too, and he had quite a bit of money on him, so I'd say he was well to do. Sounds like a good catch, Miss."

Willow didn't hear anything she said after the physical description. She didn't need to know anymore, and her head was already filled with the sound of her own denial.

She absentmindedly thanked the lady and grabbed her mug of wine before searching the marketplace for any sign of the vampire she feared. There was no sign of him. She told herself it could be anybody. After all, the baker's son loved to flirt with her and he was tall and had rather dark hair...and there was the preacher's son...

But she didn't even believe any of her own hopeful thoughts. There was only one person it could be.

"Oh, miss?"

Halting her mental checklist, Willow turned back to the bookseller.

"I almost forgot. I think he wrote something in the book for you."

With shaking hands, Willow fumbled with the cover. When she finally managed to open it, she found an inscription on the inside cover. The beautiful, flowing penmanship did little to soften its message.

 

Rose

You once told me I was a good actor but obviously not as good as you. You lied to me and will be punished accordingly. Wonderful love story this, don't you think? She dies for him in the end. As you will for me.

Angelus.

 

"Oh God," she gasped, the empty mug slipping from her hand to shatter on the cobblestones as she reached for the reassurance of the cross she wore. Holding it tightly, she took a step back, ignoring the stares from the people around her, and then began turning in slow circles, searching for the dark vampire in the crowds. She couldn't find him. Willow took a breath, trying to quell her panic long enough to think straight. Hoping that he was planning on toying with her for a few days, Willow quickly decided that her only hope was to get back to the camp and find some elders who could do the curse right away.

Still clutching the book as she pushed her way through the crowd, Willow headed for the post on the north side of the square where she'd tied her horse.

She didn't make it.

As Willow rushed by an alley on the way to fetch her horse, she was grabbed from behind, causing the book to fall to the ground unnoticed. In an instant, the necklace was savagely ripped from her neck to meet the same fate as the book, and a large, cool hand cover her mouth. Before she could turn to see the face of her assailant, Willow was pulled into the dark recess and firmly slammed against the wall. At the contact with the hard stone, all the air was forced from Willow's lungs in a painful cry. She struggled, not only against her captor but to catch her breath as well. Unfortunately, the body holding her against the wall and the hand pressing down on her mouth made both difficult. In spite of the stars dancing before her eyes, Willow focused on the imposing figure before her.

It was Angelus, and he was glaring down at her, his eyes afire with barely controlled rage.

"I didn't believe it when Drusilla told me," he said in a voice cold enough to freeze wine. "I'd thought she was a bit touched, but she saw ya plain as day in her mind. I had ta come see fer myself, though, and here ya are, alive and well." He shook his head, his eyes yellowing. "Ya lied ta me, Rose."

Willow didn't bother trying to deny anything. She knew that it would not only be a waste of breath that she sorely needed, but also her brain had already shifted way beyond denial. Already she was scrambling to figure out how she was going to work her way around this detour in Angelus's history. Not only was it not supposed to happen in this way, but nothing was supposed to happen at all for close to three more decades.

Thinking that he didn't have her full attention, Angelus smashed her against the wall again. As what little breath she had managed to find left her body again in one painful rush, Willow went limp against his hold, her struggles ceasing.

"Don't ya have anything ta say, my little flower? Another story ta tell me?" he growled.

Her head sagging to her chest, Willow managed a weak nod. Angelus's grip loosened just a bit, and when he leaned in closer, either to gloat or listen to her whispered pleas for mercy, Willow came back to life.

There was no corset to restrict her movement this time. While Rom garb might not be the best exercise apparel, the long, free-flowing skirt and peasant-style blouse certainly allowed more freedom of movement than anything else women of the time were wearing. Nearly simultaneously, Willow's knee met viciously with Angelus's groin, the top of her head collided with his face and her teeth sank into his hand with all the strength she could muster.

Angelus fell back, roaring with pain and surprise as the blood began to flow from his face and the fleshy part of his palm. Willow didn't take the time to enjoy his astonished, pained expression. All she'd been trying to do was create an opportunity for escape. She had no illusions that she could actually win a fight with the vampire, no matter how much Spike and her Sensei had taught her. She had simply caught the dark vampire off guard because she'd never put up much of a fight before. She knew Angelus would never make the same mistake twice.

Without so much as a glance at the downed vamp, Willow ran out of the alley as fast her legs would carry her. In no time, the redhead was on her horse and racing for the Rom camp several miles out of town.

***

Willow rode as if she had the Devil himself snapping at her heels, which was near enough to the truth. She told herself that if she could just make it back to the camp, she'd be safe. Because of the gathering of the clans, Willow was reasonably confident that the sheer number of Rom would keep Angelus at bay. Surely he wouldn't publicly attack her. She only hoped that someone from one of the other clans would be able to perform the curse before Angelus did manage to hurt someone. Desperate to shave even a minute from her journey, Willow guided her horse off of the main road to cut a straight path through the woods.

As horse and rider wove briskly between the trees, she couldn't help cursing their bad luck. The one time that Spike was not nearby, Angelus had somehow managed to track her down. Normally, Spike stayed in a town near where she was camped. Although he avoided the Rom and her camp like the plague, they still managed to see each other at least once a week. Spike had even met Dunicha on occasion, who had told Saviya in all confidence that she thought her friend William was very handsome.

Unfortunately, the two travelers had agreed a few weeks ago, when Willow'd learned the Rom were heading for Borsa one last time before the winter snows, that Spike should not follow. After all, it was hard enough for the vampire to be in Romania amidst so many Rom, but more importantly, Borsa was where Angelus had made the mistake of having one delicious Rom girl for dinner. She might have been a present from Darla, but the price was the returning of Angelus's soul. Spike wanted nothing to do with Borsa for now if he could avoid it. So, after agreeing to meet back Baia Mare in one month's time, Spike had gratefully taken Willow's suggestion and retreated to the bustling city of Budapest.

If Angelus had only waited another week or so, Spike would have been there to help--or at least attempt to help--the redheaded now realized. And as she sped along, Willow could kick herself for insisting that they part for a while. Not that she could have known what would happen, but somehow their timing was always just a tiny fraction off.

The sound of pounding hooves behind her forced Willow's attention firmly back into the present and she shoved her heels sharply into the horse's sides, praying for more speed. Tree branches scratched her face and tugged at her clothing. The wind rushed by, whipping her hair and the horse's mane into her eyes as she crouched lower to avoid the nearly invisible limbs. As they darted between the ancient trees, her ears echoed with her own beating heart and the sound of her horse's labored breaths. Neither drowned out the sound of the rider behind her as it drew ever nearer. Refusing to look back, Willow desperately urged her horse to go even faster, even shouting encouragement into its ears. Unfortunately the brave workhorse had been bred for endurance and surefootedness, not speed.

The race continued through the moonlit forest. With every passing moment, her pursuer was reducing the margin between them until Willow was sure that if she turned around, she'd be able to look right into Angelus's eyes.

Suddenly, Willow thought she saw something flickering ahead of her. At first she was afraid that it was simply fireflies dancing among the trees, but with a rush of relief, she soon realized it was the Rom campfires, blazing in the distance.

Before Willow could calculate how far she was from the camp, she was half-dragged, half-knocked from her horse. Willow was smart enough to curl her body slightly as she fell, and she hit the leaf-covered ground with a soft thud before rolling for several feet.

She looked up from where she'd stopped on the forest floor to see both their horses galloping away, riderless. Across the small clearing, Angelus was getting to his feet and casually brushing the leaves from his clothes. As she caught her breath, Willow realized how lucky she was to have not been seriously hurt in the fall. Unfortunately, neither had Angelus.

"Ya didn't think I'd let ya get away from me that easily, now did ya, Rose?" he sneered. "Remember I'm the one who taught ya how ta ride in the first place."

"Like I could forget," Willow muttered as she stood up, eyeing the vampire warily. In the fall, she'd temporarily lost her sense of direction. She glanced around as best she could, but she could no longer see the camp fires that she'd hoped would bring her salvation. There was no sign of her horse, either.

Angelus snickered, sensing her confusion. He approached her cautiously, waiting for her next escape attempt.

"Rose, why did ya lie to me?"

Willow circled away from him as best she could. The moon was still bright, so at least she was able to keep from bumping into every tree. But she couldn't see the stars well enough to form any sense of direction.

"I had to be here," she said honestly, stalling for time. Willow had no idea if Angelus knew about Spike's deception as well. Perhaps he thought that she'd recast the spell and had come back on her own. Since she didn't' know exactly what Angelus thought, she chose her words carefully. "That's all, Angelus. There was still something left for me to do...here...something I had to take care of. If you'd known that, you wouldn't have let me go. And this is important."

Angelus laughed, following the redhead as she tried to avoid him. He was waiting for her to panic or make a mistake as she threaded her way through the thick forest. It was all part of the chase.

"Yer right, my little night flower. I wouldn't have let ya go, but I'm going ta make ya wish that you'd told me the truth then, Rose. The punishment ya will receive now is goin' ta be far worse."

Angelus darted forward a few steps, continuing to toy with her. Willow jumped easily out of his reach. Obviously, he wasn't trying very hard, and Willow was beginning to feel like the prey in a deadly game of cat and mouse.

"Angelus, I'm begging you...just let me go this one last time," she pleaded unconvincingly. Willow continued to back away from the vampire, leaving as many trees as possible between them. "You-you can punish me later...in the 20th century," she offered as lightly as she could manage. "I mean, we have things in the future that you've never imagined. Some would make great implements of torture, I'm sure." Willow's stomach turned at her own words, but she was growing desperate. She needed more time to find her way out of the woods.

"Like what ..." Angelus prodded, pretending to lurch for her once again but coming up empty when she skipped away between two smaller pine trees. The fact that she was playing along with his game only increased his enjoyment.

"Electric chain saws, nail guns, Richard Simmons videos," Willow told him offhandedly, only half-paying attention to what she was saying as she continued to stall for time. "I'll do whatever you say then, I promise. "I'll come to you willingly. I'll even beg, if that's what you want..."

Angelus stopped following her, choosing instead to concentrate on her face as they spoke. "That all sounds very interestin', Rose. But I'm afraid it's too late fer bargainin'. I've waited long enough, and don't worry. You'll still beg."

"No! You don't understand!" Willow exclaimed, sensing that Angelus was tiring of their game of cat and mouse. She was getting desperate and grasping for straws. "If...if you kill me, somehow, or rape me...everything that has happened will be undone. It will be like you and I never met. Please don't do this, Angelus," she pleaded, barely noticing the tears that were making their way down her face.

Angelus did notice the silvery trails on her cheeks as they danced in the mottled moonlight. They called to him, telling him that it was time for the game to end.

Angelus's lips twisted into a cruel half-smile. "Now, I'm sorry, Rose. But it's too late fer that. I'm takin' what is mine, Rose. I'm takin you."

Angelus pounced with such preternatural swiftness that he was merely a blur to Willow. One second he was standing a few yards away from her, the next he was forcing her to the ground beneath him.

"No...!" Willow screamed over and over again, struggling with every thing she had to get out from beneath the vampire. She kicked, she bit, she tried to use his weight for leverage, but nothing was working. Willow felt the panic begin to rise within her.

Angelus laughed at her useless struggles. He was prepared for her to fight back this time and easily defeated her every attempt to escape. As she fought, Willow screamed until her throat was raw from the effort. All too soon he had her completely pinned to the damp earth. Willow was at his mercy.

His patience wearing thin, Angelus's demonic face slid easily into place. It was finally time.

"Relax, Rose. This won't hurt a bit. I promise," he snickered sadistically.

When Angelus lowered his mouth to her throat, Willow tensed up, screwing her eyes tightly shut. She couldn't bear to see his face while he hurt her.

Just as she felt his fangs tear through her skin, Willow's ears filled with the sound of painful moans. It was a moment or two before Willow realized they weren't hers. They were Angelus's.

Her eyes shot open to find the vampire's face contorted into a grimace.

"What...what are ya doin' to me, witch?" he demanded, letting her go as he moved away and doubled over in pain.

"It's not--" Willow was cut off by the vampire's primal howl of anguish, making her earlier screams sound utterly dainty in comparison.

Sitting up, Willow met his eyes just in time to see the supernatural flash of power pass through them before he squeezed them shut against the pain. His howling stopped, replaced by an eerier sound...a whimper.

Ignoring the voices inside her head that urged her to run away, Willow scrambled to her knees.

"Angelus...what happened?" she said in an awed whisper. She didn't mean for him to answer. She knew what had happened, she just didn't know how. Somehow, someone had cursed Angelus, forcibly giving him back his soul.

Before Angelus could make any response at all, there was the sound of people approaching hurriedly through the woods.

***

Spike burst out from the tangled undergrowth and quickly surveyed the scene before him. Willow was kneeling on the ground, blood trickling down her neck, her clothes torn and tears falling freely down her face. Angelus was practically in a fetal position at her feet. With a rush of relief, he realized it had worked after all.

No longer caring if his sire saw him, Spike rushed to Willow's side. Angelus might not have had enough time to kill the redhead, but there were other ways for a woman to be hurt.

"Willow...you okay, Pet?" he asked as he knelt beside her.

Willow nodded dumbly, still in mild shock at the astonishing turn of events. She barely noticed the two others that had followed Spike through the trees.

"How did you get here? How did you know? And...Angelus...is he...?"

Spike pulled the shaking girl into his arms and simply held her for a while.

"How Spike?" Willow murmured impatiently against his shoulder. She didn't want to be comforted. She wanted answers.

With a nervous chuckle, Spike held her far enough away that he could see her face.

"It's a *very* long story, love, and as usual I play the dashing hero. But for now, all you really need to know is that our little friend Dunicha was able to convince the elders that I was your ally and could be trusted, even without my soul. Together we persuaded the elders to do the spell, at the last possible minute, it appears. Angelus is now soul-having again."

Willow shook her head in disbelief.

"It's a good thing that little girl follows you everywhere, love. If she hadn't known who I was, I think I'd be wearing a soul of my own right now."

Shaking her head at the thought of Spike with a soul, Willow turned her attention to the others. The two elders stepped forward and confirmed what Spike had told her. From the look on Spike's face, Willow guessed that there was a lot more to the tale, but she would have to wait to hear all about it later.

"Someone knew of the curse then, Tekla?" she asked.

"Yes, Saviya," the old woman said gently. "We found someone who knew of the curse. Lay your fears to rest, child."

Willow pulled completely away from Spike to turn back to Angelus. She reached a hand out to soothe his violent shaking, but he inched away.

"How did you know...how did *he* know? Was it Drusilla?" she asked Spike, but her eyes were glued to the vampire who was still huddled before her.

"I'm not sure, but I think so. Dru probably had one of her bloody visions that we were still here. I heard through the undead grapevine just the other night that Angelus was in the country when I knew he shouldn't be. I put 2 and 2 together, made a mad dash for Borsa only to find you were already gone, then practically killed my bloody horse trying to get back here on time. Then I had a grand old time convincing the Rom that I'm not actually the devil, had a cup of tea, my palm read by this nice old lady, and eventually ended up here, sitting in the woods with you, my sire, and a couple of Gypsies," Spike said in a rush that he realized was very characteristic of Willow's standard babble. Since it earned him one of the redhead's real smiles, he didn't mind so much.

"The monster doesn't understand yet," a voice came from behind them, referring to Angelus. "He doesn't remember, but he will...soon."

Willow nodded her understanding to Frinkelo, the clan chief, before turning back to the vampire on the ground to whom he'd been referring.

"Angelus...look at me...please," she pleaded, and slowly his head rose.

Willow went pale at the sight of him. She had never seen Angelus, or Angel for that matter, look so utterly desolate and lost. Terror and confusion was etched across his face, and Willow felt a twinge of guilt for doing this to him.

"Angelus...I'm sorry...well, no, no I'm not sorry at all! I know it hurts now, but one day you'll understand."

Frinkelo stepped in front of her. "You must leave him. From what you have said, he is a murderer, a creature of evil who does not deserve your pity. If he is to do penance, as you both have promised, then he must go through this alone. He must face his own atrocities without any comfort from you."

Spike didn't understand everything the Rom said, but he caught the general drift and grunted in agreement. The blonde vampire was unable to tear his gaze away from his sire's stricken face. He actually felt a little sorry for Angelus. He hated seeing the self-loathing in his dark eyes; it was like Angel, only worse.

Disgusted with the whole situation, Spike stood and turned away from his sire.

"It's time, love. This is over...we can go now," he reminded the redhead, gently pulling her to her feet.

"Go?" Willow responded distractedly.

Spike sighed. "We can go *home* now, Red."

Willow's head jerked around to look up at Spike as his words sank in. Her eyes grew wide at the possibility.

"Home? Really, we can go home now? But it's so early."

Spike shrugged. "Well, thanks to Drusilla's visions, we hurried this along about thirty years, didn't we?"

The elders nodded. "Yes," Frinkelo added, "your work is done. If everything you've told us is true, we have created a servant of the light out of a creature of the dark."

"But...is...is it permanent this time?" Willow questioned.

The elders exchanged a look that left Willow with an uncomfortable feeling.

Spike cleared his throat. "Actually, that's kind of a funny story, Pet."

Willow cocked her head to the side. "Funny 'ha ha' or funny 'I'm going to be Angelus's 20th-century chew toy'?"

"This 'happiness clause' that the gadje spoke of," Tekla interrupted, "it is not part of the curse."

"What?"

"The curse which gave this monster back his soul, his conscience, there is no trick to it. It simply restores the soul, nothing more."

Willow shook her head. She didn't understand.

"Maybe William didn't explain it well," Willow said in a quiet voice to the elders. She didn't want Angelus to hear. "But when this happened before, there was a stipulation...a...a condition that Angelus never knows a moment of true happiness. And if he does, then his soul is released or taken away again. And that's exactly what happened. It was horrible, Tekla. I was there when he became his really evil self again."

The two elders exchanged whispers that even Spike couldn't hear, and he didn't like it. Although they had explained this all to him before, as best they could with the language problems, Spike didn't trust Gypsies, no matter what Willow said. It didn't help that if they had the desire to, they could restore his soul as well, even though they said they wouldn't. Spike couldn't stop the shiver that traveled along his spine at the thought.

"We are familiar with this other curse that you speak of," Tekla said when she ended her private discussion with the Rom man. "It is a very powerful vengeance curse, used only in extreme situations."

Willow and Spike shared confused looks. "I don't understand. It's a different curse?"

Frinkelo nodded. "Yes, Saviya. It is used to prolong any punishment. By using it, we make sure that the one being punished never lives another happy day. If they do, then that which they want most is taken away. Sometimes they lose their looks, or all their friends, or their money. In the case of this monster, he would again lose his soul."

"But don't you see how bloody messed up that is, mate?" Spike said without thinking. "This add-on curse of yours, all it does is undo everything that the curse did. What you'll get, is one incredibly brassed-off vampire, looking to take out revenge for the years of guilt you force fed him. People will die because of it."

Willow translated for the Rom as best she could, trying to soft his tone so he didn't sound so threatening or disrespectful.

"Who will die?" Tekla asked.

Willow swallowed and took a deep breath. "Two Rom that I know of will die. They were meant to watch Angel, make sure that he never...got happy, but they couldn't stop it..."

"And Rose--Saviya--will be one of the first to die this time. You can count on that," Spike interrupted. He squeezed Willow's hand to reassure her. "You can't allow that to happen. I *won't* allow it to happen, understand?"

"Many others will die as well," Willow added after she roughly interrupted Spike's words for the Rom, again softening them a bit. "But with his soul, Angelus helps people. He *saves* lives, possibly even the world once or twice. Please, can't you see how wrong the second curse would be?"

Tekla looked to Frinkelo. The man's glance flickered between Willow and the resouled vampire that was slowly crawling away from them.

"Be at rest, Saviya. As we said, it is a vengeance curse. As I know of no Rom killed by this monster, I have no need for vengeance. It might serve justice for him to be cursed in such a manner, but justice is not my concern. Unless you wish me to exact further punishment upon this creature for his treatment of you, Saviya."

"No," Willow quickly replied. "I require no more vengeance on this man," she said with a sigh of relief, trying to restrain herself from jumping for joy. It didn't all make sense yet, but as far as her overworked brain could figure out, Angel would never lose his soul.

"Then you must go now," Frinkelo told them. "From what all the drabardi have said, every minute you stay here now puts everything you have done in jeopardy. As we speak, my people are preparing the caravan. Tomorrow we are going to move the gathering further south for the winter. We have much to discuss now, and will need more than a few days to make sense of all this, I think."

Willow nodded, showing a remote understanding of what was being said, but at the moment her attention was once again entirely focused upon Angelus. She couldn't stand to see anyone in so much pain. She could almost feel confusion and self-hatred radiating from him at what he had done...what he had become, and chances were, he hadn't even remembered everything yet.

"Please...can I just say one more thing to him?" she asked the elders. When they reluctantly nodded their agreement, Willow went to him. Kneeling in front of the newly-souled vampire, Willow cupped his tear-stained face in her hands and brought his head up so that she could look him the eye. Tears sprang from her own at the anguish she saw there.

"Angelus...remember this...you are very much needed. We need you...Buffy needs you. And for every wrong you have done, you can do an act of amends. It won't take the pain of the evil you have committed away, but you may find some balance. Remember this."

Angelus could only shake his head as more and more memories of what he'd become hammered at him. All the death, all the pain he'd caused so many innocent people flashed before him continuously until it was all a blur. Disgusted with himself, he pulled back from Willow's touch before stumbling away into the dark forest.

Without thinking, Willow moved to follow Angelus. Spike stopped her with a firm hand on her shoulder.

"Let him be. Remember, he's done this before and survived without you. He will this time too. Now, let's get out of here. I want to go home, Pet."

Willow nodded weakly in agreement as she stared off in the direction that Angelus had gone. Suddenly she was very, very tired. She turned and smiled softly to all the people around her.

"I'll just get my things from the camp and there we can probably find whatever supplies you need for the spell, Spike. And then we can go home," she said, still hardly believing it was all over.

"Sounds like a plan, Pet" Spike said as they fell in line behind the elders as they started for the camp. "Although," he added, "have you noticed that planning doesn't seem to be one of our strong suits?"

Willow laughed. "You noticed that too, huh? Maybe we should stick to reconnaissance missions from now on."

"Now *that* sounds like a good plan, Pet," he chuckled, pulling a cigarette out of his inner coat pocket and lighting it. After all, he'd earned it, and while he couldn't be sure, Spike was rather confident that it was the best cigarette he'd ever had.

"Um, Pet?" Spike asked when the finally arrived at the edge of the camp.

"Spike..." Willow growled teasingly. "What did I say about calling me 'Pet'?"

Spike laughed. "Sorry, *Pet*...I mean Rose Smith...or is it Violet Jones...or is it Saviya?" he teased, and Willow couldn't stop the smile from spreading on her face.

"*Willow* is fine, Spike. And I rather like 'Red' as well. Makes me sound so...exotic," she added with a goofy grin.

"Well then, *Red*, you wouldn't happen to remember the words to the spell would you?" he joked mercilessly. "I seem to have forgotten them after all this time..."

****

End Chapter 39

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