Disclaimer: Still not mine.

Author's Note: Not a whole lot of Spuffy interaction in this chapter, but these talks needed to happen, and if I put the extra Spuffy in, the chapter would have been twice as long...which I'm sure no one would have minded, but it would also have taken twice as long. Anyway, I hope you're still enjoying.

Essence

Chapter Four

Buffy found Xander in the courtyard, sitting on a bench in a patch of sunlight, his feet up on the bench so he could rest his elbows on his knees. His face was tilted up to catch the rays, his eye closed against the light. Before she could announce her presence, he spoke up. "I wanna ask you something, Buffy. And while I won't say that I don't care what the answer really is...I'd rather have the truth than a lie. Even if I hate the truth."

Buffy crossed her arms around herself defensively as she took a seat on another bench. "Okay. Ask."

"You were in love with Spike before he had a soul."

As far as questions go, that wasn't one, Buffy thought, but then he turned his head to her and opened his eye to study her, so she figured that was what he wanted answered.

"That year..." she started, and then stopped. It was so hard to talk about, even to Spike. It was hard to think about. But she wouldn't deny Xander his answers. Not after he'd lost so much. "That year was so hard and brutal. So was our relationship. I was so dead inside and so convinced that he was a monster, I didn't think it was possible for me to love him. Honestly, the idea never even occurred to me, except when he would shove it right under my nose."

Xander, ever intuitive, caught the direction she was heading. "But looking back?"

She nodded. "Yeah. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, I can say that yes, I did love him then. Before the soul. Maybe even before I died. It came on so gradually, it's hard to pinpoint."

Xander shook his head, but didn't say anything, once again choosing to turn his face up to the sun.

After a few minutes, she asked, "Are you mad at me?"

He shook his head again. "No, I'm mad at me. And, at the same time, I feel like this huge weight's just been lifted."

"You never stopped loving her." Just as he hadn't asked a question, neither did she. Of course, she'd already known that. He'd told her as much when Anya went on her frat boy killing spree. But it finally hit her full-force. It had been quite a while since Spike willfully and consciously killed a human. The same could not be said of Anya.

"You fell in love with him before he had a soul. And I kept loving her after she lost hers. I don't know which one is worse, or if they're even all that different. Did you..." He paused. He knew very well how much his next question could hurt, but he needed to ask it anyway. "Did you stop loving Angel when he lost his soul?"

"Angel? No, I never stopped loving Angel. But I never loved Angelus either. But then again, I'm sure you'll agree that Angelus on his best behavior was way worse than soulless Spike ever was."

He nodded. "Yeah. Not that he ever had any good behavior, but I guess Angelus is a pretty hard guy to love."

"Yeah...maybe that's why he's such a jackass all the time."

"I'll try to be nicer to Spike," Xander said, seemingly out of nowhere.

"Why?" Buffy asked, too shocked to be appreciative.

He chuckled. She thought it might have been the most painful sound she'd ever heard. It sounded like laughter was the only possible way he could keep from screaming. Still, he said, "Well, if you'd prefer I didn't, it'd probably be easier for me...less awkward for him..."

She shook her head. "No, sorry...you just surprised me. Just...where is this coming from?"

"I've been thinking about all of our evil friends. Angel's only good because he's cursed that way. Soon as he gets a happy, he's right back to being our worst nightmare. Anya ran back to the dark side as soon as they'd have her. Even Willow, I had to drag back to her humanity, kicking and screaming, and it nearly killed me. Spike is the only one who actively sought his own redemption. This past year, I kept thinking that he only did it to get back into your pants, but then I realized...it doesn't matter why he did it. He deserves at least a little of my respect for the idea even occurring to him."

"You forgot about Faith. She sought redemption eventually," Buffy said quietly.

"Not the same," he said with a dismissive motion of his hand. "Not that I'm not glad she did, but her basic nature is human, not demon. She has a soul, and she's a Slayer. Going back to what was supposed to be natural for her isn't the same as Spike going against everything that must have felt natural to him."

She bit her lip, wondering if she should pass on the information she'd been given the night before. After a moment, she decided it would be better to tell him now than to have him find out later. "I hear Cordy went evil too."

Xander smiled that smile again. The one that made her intestines turn into razor blades so they could tear her to shreds from the inside. If she lived to be a thousand years old, she would never understand why the Powers decided to curse her friend with the unluckiest love life she'd ever seen...and she was sure that meant something, coming from the girl who'd killed her vampire boyfriend and then slept with and fell in love with another vampire he sired. It was like she'd fallen in love with a grandfather and a grandson, and thinking of it that way just made it seem...squicky.

"Went?" he asked simply.

"From what I can gather, she was possessed. She's..." She closed her eyes, and Xander was surprised to see a tear trickle down her cheek. "She's in a coma now."

"Hey," he said softly. "I never knew you were so attached to her."

Buffy wiped the tear away, then said, "I wasn't. Until Fred told me what we've missed since high school." She quickly related all the information she'd gathered back to him, and he seemed just as shocked as she'd been. "I don't think I can tell Spike this, but...I just feel so awed by her. Cordelia. Turns out...she's more of a hero than I could ever dream of being. And I'm having trouble matching up the champion of the people to, you know, Queen C."

She moved to sit next to Xander on the bench, and he made room for her, pulling his legs closer to himself so she could settle. "How do you figure? About her being more of a hero? I mean, sure, hero, definitely, but how is she more?"

"She chose it," Buffy said, so quietly he almost didn't hear her. "Being the Slayer is my destiny, and I've accepted it. It took me a long time, but I've accepted that it's my place in this world to kill demons and to die young. But Cordy...she had a chance, a real chance, to get away from all this and to have all of her dreams come true, and she chose this, even though she knew it meant an abbreviated life span and watching the people you love get hurt and killed every day. Even knowing everything I do now...I don't know if I'd choose this. If I could go back to when I was fifteen and make a choice...I mean, I love you guys. I love Spike. But if I had a real life, I'd love people in that life too. And I'd even get to live it, on occasion. So her choosing this...I can't understand it. And I don't think I could bear it if she died."

Xander looked down, considering everything she'd said. "We all chose it, Buffy. Willow could have gotten out after high school, gone anywhere. I could have left too. Anya..." He looked away and swallowed hard. "She hightailed it out during the Ascension, and she could have stayed gone. Even you chose it. You never had to come back from L.A. after you killed Angel. But you did because it was the right thing to do. It's why we all fought. Cordy too. I won't argue that she sacrificed more...between her stardom and her humanity, no one can say somebody gave up more than her unless they died for the cause, and maybe not even then, since death doesn't usually happen by choice. Anyway, my point is, don't kid yourself, Buff. This is the life we all chose." He took a deep breath and met her eyes. "Now how do we wake her up?"

It didn't take long for Spike to find the amulet, even in the dark room. That could, of course, have had something to do with how it was still glowing. As soon as he'd opened the pocket of Buffy's bag, soft red light had poured out. He hesitantly touched the jewel, but nothing exciting happened. Finding it safe, at least for the moment, he pulled it out of the bag and held it out to Willow, the amulet dangling from the chain, which is the only part he felt inclined to touch for more than a second..

"Woah," she said, the light reflecting in her eyes. "Pretty."

"Yes, it's a very pretty little murderous trinket. You'd do well to be careful with it, Red. I wouldn't recommend trying it on."

"Funny," Willow chuckled, accepting it as he jiggled it a little to get her to take it off his hands. "You live for over a century as one of the most badass vampires around, and then you almost get taken out by a necklace." She cupped her hands around it. "It's still warm."

"Yeah, well, you're one of the most powerful witches in the western hemisphere, and you were stopped by the whelp, blathering on about yellow crayons." He shot a half smile at her to make sure she knew he wasn't offended, and didn't mean to offend her either. "Achilles heels are funny that way."

She smiled back at him. "Yeah right. We both know your Achilles heel is a certain blond Slayer. Just..." She made sure her eyes locked with his before saying her piece. "Just don't hurt her, okay?"

"No shovel threat?" he asked, surprised. He'd heard about the talk she'd given to the soldier boy, and he'd expected at least that much from her.

She shook her head. "Nope. You've got way more credit than Riley did back then."

His surprise quickly turned to confusion. "And why's that, pet?"

"Because you stayed. And you never lied about who you are. Can't say any of that about Riley. Also, you did just save the world and stuff."

"I'm sure that will eventually stop giving me a pass. Because while I appreciate this, the shock and awe from the bitty Slayers will get irritating, sooner or later. Not to mention how pissy Captain Forehead is gonna be when he realizes I stole his bloody thunder."

"And got the girl to boot," Willow added cheerfully. Spike could tell that Angel hadn't spent the last few years on her Christmas list.

"He's got no right for that to affect him at all. He's in love with the cheerleader."

"Cordy?" Willow screeched at a volume that nearly made his vampire ears bleed.

"Suffering cats, Red! You're liable to wake her from her coma with that racket!"

"Coma?" she asked. The exasperated look he gave her made her add, "Nevermind. I'll get Fred to fill me in."

"Sweet bird. Think she swings in your direction, pet?"

Willow chuckled. "I thought she might at first. But nah. I think she's got a thing for Wes."

He shrugged. "Pity."

"I'm with Kennedy now anyway."

Another shrug, and another, "Pity."

She rolled her eyes and changed the subject. "Think Buffy is up for some shopping today? We've got a pretty dismal selection of clothes right now, and if the amount she brought is anything like the amount I did, half of them are bloodstained."

"She said she wanted to go today. I'm sure she'd be tickled to have you along to let her know if her butt looks big in the purple stretch pants, or whatever it is you ladies do in those dressing rooms," Spike said, leading the way out of their room. He shut the door behind Willow as soon as she was out.

"Please," she said, rolling her eyes again. "Buffy would never wear purple stretch pants."