Xander trailed after Buffy, wondering just how long it would take before he could talk some sense into her. He hoped not too long.
(If he kept on nagging her about this she'd get it eventually, right?)
The idea Spike was back - not just back in Sunnydale, but back in their lives, back in Buffy's life - was making him angrier than he'd been since he found Buffy in that bathroom. He couldn't understand how Buffy could even bear to be around Spike, never mind work with him, fight alongside him.
"So when are you kicking the bleached menace to the curb? Or are you sleeping with him again?" he asked as he caught up with her. "'Cause right now I don't know what to make of it."
Buffy rolled her eyes. "That would be the fourteenth of none of your damn business, Xander."
"See, I think it is my business. He's a killer and a wannabe rapist, and you should have more sense than to trust him around Dawn and Anya and... you know he's always hated me, right? How do I know he won't just turn around and kill me?"
"Because I will first if you don't shut the hell up about this?"
The sweet smile was supposed to soften the blow, he figured. It didn't much work. "Haha, so funny. Seriously, Buff, even with the chip in his brain, don't you see how dangerous he is?"
Buffy shrugged. "He's a different person. He has a soul now."
Xander wished all his sins could be forgiven for having a soul. Geez, was it some kind of cosmic get out of jail free card, or what? Would Anya have forgiven him this easy if he'd been able to pull a 'but I have a soul now, honey' routine? It wasn't fair.
"And he didn't have it forced on him," Buffy continued, "he went looking for it, fought for it. Do you even realise how incredible that is? When Angel lost his soul, he killed Miss Calendar to try and make it harder for us to curse him again. For Spike to seek that out..."
Xander considered pointing out he'd never trusted Angel, with or without his soul, but he also remembered lying to Buffy when Willow was trying to do her mojo; he really didn't want to get into that right now. Best to stick to the current facts. A vampire was a vampire was a vampire, and Buffy of all people should know that.
"I don't care. He's not that different. Just because he has a soul, that makes everything okay? I don't understand how you could ever forgive him for that, let him back in your life. There are some things that are just plain unforgivable in my book," he finished, with a decisive nod.
"Okay, that's it, I'm done." Buffy stopped short, and turned to him, hands on hips, looking... pissed.
"Time to bring out the big guns, you big hypocrite." He had no idea what she was talking about, and judging by her exasperated glare, she was fully aware of his confusion. "You have such a short memory, Xand."
He frowned at her.
"You don't get to condemn Spike for something you tried to do to me once."
He bristled. "I never-"
"See, I seem to remember another time when I was held down, another guy who assaulted me and tried to rape me. 'Come on, Slayer. I like it when you're scared'."
Xander could feel himself physically recoiling as he suddenly realised what she was referring to, horror creeping down his spine. Oh, God. No.
"Ring any bells?" She didn't really need to ask. From her expression, she knew he remembered, knew she'd scored a bullseye. She shook her head. "What if I'd been injured then? What if Slayer strength hadn't been enough to knock you unconscious?"
"I didn't... I didn't mean..."
"'The more I scare you, the better you smell.' Sound familiar?"
God, he couldn't believe she remembered his exact words. He'd tried so hard to forget. He'd assumed (wanted to believe) all was forgiven.
But it was different. Wasn't it? "That was not the same thing," he protested. "I was possessed by- by demon hyena spirits, or whatever they were!" His voice was high with resentment. And clinging guilt. "I ate a pig."
Buffy tilted her head sideways, looked at him speculatively. "And that's really so different from having a demon take over your body and your personality and making you drink blood, huh?"
Xander opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He was sure there was a good, bulletproof defence here, but he couldn't seem to bring it to mind.
"And no one took away your soul. You were still in there. Your conscience was buried, it wasn't taken away." Her eyes glittered at him, dangerous and dark. "Then you lied to me and said you couldn't remember any of it. You lied to me, Xander, and Giles let you. And you dare to stand there and-"
She shook her head again. She looked disgusted with him. And maybe she should, but he couldn't bear to let her compare him to Spike.
"I was sixteen!"
"Really? Oh, that makes it all okay, then." She smiled a falsely cheery smile that made Xander's stomach drop to his toes. "Because the fact I was only sixteen too means it wasn't traumatising at all to be groped and held down and pushed up against a vending machine and told how great my fear made you feel." Her words rattled out like machine gun fire, each one hitting home. "I never had bad dreams about being assaulted by one of my best friends."
He swallowed hard. "I wouldn't really have... I mean, I know I tried to- but I wouldn't, I would never have-"
Buffy's gaze turned unexpectedly wise and surprisingly soft as she studied his face. "Are you sure?" she asked, more quietly now.
Xander opened and closed his mouth a few more times, and failed to speak. He was... he was almost sure, he really thought he wouldn't have, that he could, would have stopped himself if she hadn't been able to stop him - but he wasn't completely certain. The realisation made him want to vomit. He had wanted her so much back then.
He remembered the awful things he'd said and done to Willow, things he would never, ever have thought he could say to anyone, let alone to her, to his oldest friend, and he... wasn't certain. Wasn't sure how much of that had come from some ugly place deep down inside him.
The way Buffy was looking at him reminded him uncomfortably of the time she'd temporarily been able to read minds. A look that saw way too much.
"It's not the same," he managed, pleadingly.
"Damn right it's not." Buffy's voice was much kinder than her words as she continued, which almost made it worse. "What Spike did... it was bad, it was wrong, it was awful and scary and I'm still not over it - but he wasn't getting off on my fear. He was out of control, but he was horrified right after." She shuddered. "I didn't have to knock him out and stick him in a cage to keep myself safe."
Xander swallowed hard. He really wished he had lost his memories from that possession. It would make it a lot easier to talk about this when he didn't remember the scent of Buffy's terror and how alluring he'd found it.
"And I was - I am angry at him. But I also know how deep his remorse went. He went half way around the world to try and atone, he got his soul back." She shrugged. "You and me, we both know souls aren't a mystical cure-all. People with souls do terrible things all the time. It doesn't make Spike a better person than before because he has a soul now. It makes him a better person that he wanted to get it. He went against every instinct a vampire has. He chose to change. Even though he knew it was going to be difficult and painful, that it might kill him. That's..." She reached out and touched Xander's arm for a moment before she added, her voice now even lower and gentler, "I can't ignore that. I won't."
Xander had never thought about it that way, and he didn't know how to respond. Could a vampire really change? He didn't trust it.
"That... that doesn't excuse what he did to you." It was about the only thing he was sure of right now. "And you said it yourself, he's been talking crazy. How do you know he won't snap?" He shook his head. "He still tried to rape you. Suppose he loses it around Dawn, or-"
"You can't know that."
"He's changed, Xand. He changed before the soul - a vampire shouldn't be able to feel the remorse he felt. He changed, something in him... changed. I'm giving him a chance to live up to it." She was using her 'Don't question me' voice, but he couldn't leave it alone.
"How do you even know how he felt? And how can he claim he loved you when he did... that?"
He knew he was on shaky ground. Possession or not, and no matter how much he was trying to convince himself it hadn't actually been him, on any level (he wished he was more sure about that), it wasn't lost on him that he was claiming the same thing. That he loved her, despite what he'd done to her. But he was human. That... didn't that make a difference?
Buffy shook her head. "I know it, okay? I know. And don't bring Dawn into this, either. Don't... you shouldn't have told her, Xand. It wasn't your place, and you don't know the whole story."
He set his jaw. "I know enough."
"You weren't there."
"You. Weren't. There."
"But I was the one who found you!"
Buffy took a deep breath, her eyes closing for a moment, jaw clenching. Xander stopped talking. He knew that expression, and it promised badness if he didn't keep his mouth shut.
"Xander- you weren't there, okay? That night or any of the other nights before it. And - God, it happened to me, it was my trauma, it was my story to tell." Her hands made fists, and he half expected her to sock him in the jaw. "It sure as hell wasn't your place to tell Dawn without even talking to me about it first. You didn't do that for me, or for Dawn, you did that for you, because you hate Spike and you wanted her to hate him, too."
"I-" Okay, no, he couldn't deny that. "I wanted her to be safe." That was also true.
"And you think I don't? She's my sister, she's... more - they made her from my blood. She's part of me in a way you can't even imagine. I would've traded the world for her, I died for her, Xand. However much you think you care for her, I care for her more; how dare you assume-" Her words broke off suddenly, and she let out a choked sob.
One of these days, I really need to learn when to keep my mouth shut. He should know better than to question Buffy's bond with Dawn; that was an asshole move. He wanted to hug her, but given what she'd said about... He couldn't call it that, couldn't put himself in the same bracket as Spike, but he wasn't nearly sure enough of himself to touch her without permission.
Buffy took a few deep breaths, turning away from him and wiping at her eyes. Xander wondered if she realised that her tears were about the worst punishment she could inflict on him right now.
Eventually she straightened her spine and looked him in the eyes, and he knew that regardless of his personal feelings... he would have to learn to live with whatever she had to say. That look was both a challenge and a promise, and he wasn't ready to face either of them.
When she spoke again, her voice was calm and quiet but ice cold. Like this was her last warning and he'd better heed it. It chilled him to the bone.
"Spike was a jerk, and what he did was not okay. It was bad, it was wrong, and I'm still dealing. But you of all people do not get to stand in judgement of what he did or how I feel about it or whether he gets forgiven. Don't you dare. Don't you dare."
She stood there a moment longer, and Xander truly thought she would hit him this time. He braced himself, hoped she'd remember how much more fragile he was than a vampire. Then she turned away and stalked off, and Xander was left alone with his thoughts.
(He kind of wished she'd punched him.)
~ fin ~