By Melissa


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Part 7, continued

The argument started up again as it had almost every night since The Great Escape, as Willow had taken to calling it in her mind. Tonight it was Buffy's turn to lead the argument. At least tonight, Willow thought with a rueful grin that she was careful to keep hidden from the others, they'd actually managed to get a little research done before the conversation turned to her.

"Willow, please," Buffy begged, "let us remove that thing."

Willow answered as she had every night that they'd had this argument. "No."

Across the room, Xander threw up his hands in frustration.

"Why?" The hurt and anger in Buffy's voice was barely held in check. "Will, we don't understand why you are still wearing that collar." She stopped to rein in her temper once more.

Giles picked up effortlessly where Buffy left off, though his voice held more of a note of understanding. "Willow, it's been a week. There is a good possibility that he didn't survive that fight. Spike, being Spike, there is an even greater probability that he did survive and took this opportunity to flee from the duties that he was forced into here with Buffy."

Oz finally joined in the game, his hand resting with a patient gentleness on her arm. "What did he do to you, baby?"

Anger surged then from where it had been simmering, and she fought to control it. They didn't understand. Most of the time she didn't understand it, how could she possibly expect them too? It was like it had all happened to another person, another Willow whose memories she shared. She shook her head, unable to explain. "He didn't do anything."

"Baby . . . "

"No," she said sharply, cutting him off, more than a hint of growl in her voice. "No, baby." She pointed down to the black boots she was wearing. "Don't you all see? Boots. Black, vampire-kicking combat boots. Boots that mean I'm not your baby anymore."

She threw back her head and groaned softly at the confused expressions around her. Taking a calming breath, she tried again. "Guys, I love you. But I'm not the same Willow that left four weeks ago."

Beside her Oz nodded. "It's a growing up thing." His words gave her hope that maybe one of her friends was beginning to understand what this experience had done to her.


"I can understand that, Will. I'd like to get to know the new you."

Now the tears came and she hugged him fiercely to her. "I'd like that Oz."

"Now, isn't that a touching picture. A bloody Kodak moment if I ever saw one.” Cocky and sure his voice filled the whole room.

Willow raised her head to see Spike leaning against the doorjam, a sneer plastered on his face. “So, can anyone join this party?"

Before anyone else could respond, Willow answered. "This is a private party."

She felt his eyes flicker over her, resting lightly on the collar she still wore. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a small padlock key. Swinging it on the end of his finger before the assembled group, he grinned wickedly at Willow. "Private party? I think I might have the key to get in."

Willow fought to keep the smile off her face as she took in the sight of him. His stance and bearing screamed violence. The arrogant sneer twisting his lips bespoke exactly the level of contempt that he held them all in. Yet, his eyes held only an amused deviltry. Truly did the devil dance in Spike's blue eyes.

But from the stake that slid down into Buffy's palm to Xander's sudden surge to his feet, it was obvious the others didn't or couldn't see that Spike was just taunting them.

Meeting those dancing eyes she answered his invitation. Sliding down off the countertop to land lightly on her feet, Willow ignored Xander's grasping hand and stepped towards Spike.

He was thinner than Willow remembered. Once she was close, she could see the half-healed burn scars along his hands and noted the stiffness that marred his usual animal grace. He'd been hurt badly after they'd made their escape. Badly enough that he still wasn't completely healed. Which did much to explain his apparent leanness. Injured, he wouldn't have been able to hunt. She wasn't surprised at the pain in her heart, but no pity reflected on her face. She knew he would not thank her for her pity.

"Come with me." His hand was outstretched in her direction and she couldn't ignore that command so without even a glance backward, she followed him out into the night. He stopped out in the quad so that the two of them stood in a pool of light from one of the lamps that lined the brick walkway.

He stared at her for a long moment, his face closed off and expressionless, but Willow could see the struggle going on behind his eyes. "We are not friends," he finally said and through his words were harsh, when he reached up to the collar, his touch was gentle against the skin of her neck.

"No," she agreed, "we are not friends." Looking up at his controlled expression she added, "But neither are we enemies."

The fingers at her throat stilled, then began their movement again. "Neither are we enemies." It wasn't the whole truth, but for now it was one they both could accept.

The faint snap/click of the small padlock sounded loud between them and she was suddenly free. Perversely, she felt suddenly naked without the feel of the collar against her neck.

"I set you free."

The words were formal, distancing, and Willow could feel him pulling away from her. If it were only that easy, she thought, but she made no outward comment.

He gave her the collar then, and her fingers clutched tight to its length, its smooth surface growing cold as it rapidly lost the warmth of her skin. That convinced her as nothing else had, not the fight to free Buffy, not the numbing trip back to Sunnydale in Spike's car, not the confrontations and questions with her friends. Now, it was over. Brought full circle back to Spike and a twenty-inch long strip of leather. She was free but still marked, none-the-less.

So she did what not friends and not enemies did, she set him free as well.

Stepping back from him, she withdrew until they faced each other across the circle they stood in. Taking a seat on the low courtyard wall, she let him continue to back away from her until he stood at the edge of light, half in and half out of the shadows.

Thrusting his hand in the pockets of his duster he contemplated the young woman who sat so motionless across from him. There was a calmness in her expression that eased his own agitation. He needed to be going but first he had to have some answers. "You didn't tell them."

Red hair swung against her face as she shook her head, catching the light from the lamp above them. "No, I didn't."

Unexpected anger burst like a bubble in his chest making his voice harsh. "Ashamed for your friends to find out you fucked a demon? That you fucked me?"

His voice was angry, his words designed to hurt, but she'd been with him too long. She could hear the pain beneath his voice. Who would ever have thought that a vampire could get his feelings hurt. But his accusations riled her own temper. "I'm *not* ashamed, of you or of what we did. I didn't tell them because they wouldn't understand. They couldn't understand because they weren't there, they didn't live it."

The anger abruptly drained out of her and she leaned back with a tired sigh. "Spike, Buffy is so hurt right now. She feels so guilty about everything. About Oz and Xander being in the hospital, about Giles' pain, but especially about what I did to get her back. No matter what I tell her, her own guilt says that you hurt me and she is responsible."

"I did hurt you."

She smiled faintly at that. It was the truth, but she had discovered that there were truths and then there were Truths. "Not like Buffy thinks and right now, the only thing keeping her from trying to stake you, is the fact that I've not told her everything."

"So the Slayer is suffering from a little guilt. Do you know what I could do with that? How with a few well chosen words I could rip her soul in half?"

"This is isn't about Buffy and you know it."

"So, you want me to hold a secret that would cause the Slayer deep emotional pain?"

"Yes. I can't force you. I don't have anything to bribe you with. But I can ask you. Please, Spike. Don't use this to hurt her.

"You'd trust me to hold this secret?" His voice laced with heavy doubt.

Willow didn't hesitate. "Yes."

Her answer seemed to release something within him. She could almost see an unnamed tension drain out of him and with the release of that tension the facade of big, bad vampire cracked and melted away to be replaced by a weary Spike.

"Then you are indeed a fool. You can not give a demon a secret and expect him to hold it freely. That's not the way we work."

"Then give me one of your secrets to hold against it."

He looked over at her then, surprise on his face. But slowly a smile settled over the surprise. Not a happy smile, Willow realized but one tinged with a mocking kind of sadness she didn't understand.

"Always the clever one," Spike said quietly, almost as if he was talking to himself. "And I'm still underestimating you. You'd think I'd bloody well learn by now," he finished with a soft sigh. Then he seemed to rouse himself, staring back at her with his old fierce expression, the one that warned that before her stood a creature that could kill her before she could even scream. "A secret, you say . . . an exchange of equal value . . . my silence hostage against yours. Is that what you want, luv?"

Willow felt herself trembling and not knowing why, but she nodding her head.

"Well, then my smart little witch, why was I helping the Slayer?"

Willow frowned in confusion but answered with what little she and the others had been able to piece together. "We never really knew. Angel found you, beat up and abandoned in a alley in Los Angeles. He brought you here. You were raving that you didn't want to help the Slayer. You'd die first. When you healed, you said that you were being blackmailed. You've never told us by whom, or what they hold over you. Xander thinks Angel did it or had it done." She stopped then and then added hesitantly, "We always kind of figured Drusilla was somehow involved."

Spike made a noise like a short laugh though there was no humor in his voice. "Dru is always involved. Even when she isn't here, she still consumes my life. But then she was gone and I was alone." He raised haunted eyes up to Willow's, a hundred emotions flitting across his face at once. "I haven't been alone in two hundred plus years."

He stopped then and simply stared. It took a minute for what Spike was really saying to sink in, for the understanding to fill her. "Oh my god."

She was stunned. He couldn't be saying what she thought he was saying. it was impossible, insane and . . . and . . . Spike was still looking at her with eyes that showed a vulnerability that scared her. But she understood. She understood everything now and she wasn't sure if she wanted to laugh or to cry. Without Drusilla to give his life direction or meaning Spike was lost. And how desperate had he been that for the sake of familiarity he'd turned to his enemies. Oh goddess, he couldn't be trusting her with this. She didn't know what to say. She didn't know if she was meant to say anything.

Spike watched her and wondered. Did she understand what he’d just told her? Did she understand why he told her? Hell, was he ever sure himself why he’d told her his secret? But it didn’t matter now. Now it was time to go and get the away from the Hellmouth and the Slayer and red-headed witches. It was time to be on his own. He didn’t need Dru and he certainly didn’t need this mortal. He didn’t need anyone.

Lighting a cigarette, he pulled the smoke deep into his lungs before forcing it back out again. “Good-bye, witch.”

It took Willow a second to register Spike’s last words, but when she did, she sprang up from her seat towards where the vampire had stood. “Spike, wait,” she called, but the vampire was already gone, just the scent of the cigarette smoke hanging in the air.

The End

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