In Peace

by

L Mouse

Buffy stood on the brink of the abyss, and smelled death.

People had died. Not, perhaps, nearly as many as might have -- most of Sunnydale gotten a clue and fled. But people had died here, and the odor was thick and oily and fetid in the summer air. Demons, too, rotted: she could smell a myriad of scents of corruption. A hot wind blew across the chasm, the pit that had once been the Hellmouth, and she could smell sulfur as well.

It was night. It was dark and moonless and overcast. Despite that, rescue workers toiled in the remains of the Hellmouth. Dogs and people, Red Cross and firefighters and military and just plain volunteers who'd rushed in from surrounding towns. People whose loved ones had been left behind, too. They hoped to find survivors -- Buffy marveled as much as their ability to deny the obvious as she did at their courage.

There would be no living people found in that crater.

She knew that. They'd destroyed the Hellmouth, but at what a cost! ... in the end, she knew the scale of lives saved versus lives lost would tip in her favor. But it hurt. All the people who'd been left behind -- cowering in their houses, too stubborn, or old, or crippled, or stupid to leave. They were dead.

Heroes, too.

Anya was dead.

Spike was dead.

News choppers and police choppers and military choppers hovered overhead. Spotlights flickered across the rocks and the crushed remnants of the town. The helicopter noise was a steady rumble and the only real sound besides the howl of the foul wind over the lip of the crater.

Spike was dead.

That hurt, with a soul deep pain. Spike had said he could feel his soul, and it hurt. She knew what he meant. She hurt too.

Time to go. She stepped back from the abyss. Back to Los Angeles -- they'd gone there, for lack of anywhere else to go. The Scoobies were there. The Potentials ... the new slayers, now ... were there.

She wasn't alone. But yet ...

She looked again at the abyss. She wasn't the only slayer anymore. The other girls, well, every one of them had her gifts and her abilities. She was not alone, now, to hold the torch against the darkness. She had an army of women behind her now. Or better yet, beside her.

Buffy spared a thought, as she walked to Angel's car, about what it would be like to not lead. To not have the responsibility of the world, and all her friends' lives, hanging about her. The idea was almost incomprehensible. But they'd changed the world and now she was just one of many. She didn't have to lead. She'd never wanted that responsibility, she'd fought it and resented it for years. She could hand over the reins now, to some other girl -- someone better suited to the job, perhaps. Someone who wanted the job.

Angel's car started smoothly, with a well tuned purr. She backed away from the crater, and made her way through the mobs of people who'd come to help -- come to help after the fact, when the Hellmouth was gone and all they could do was bury the dead they would find and retrieve. Absently, she snapped on the radio, then quickly turned it off again. Some radio personality was speculating on the cause of the "sinkhole" that had swallowed the entire town of Sunnydale. Theories were running rampant, ranging from excessive groundwater pumping to a secret government installation that had collapsed under the town to terrorism. Terrorism was winning, at the moment.

She wondered what they would make of the other bodies they would find. The vamps would disintegrate, of course, with the first touch of sun -- but what of the demons?

It was a long drive back to LA. She drove in silence the whole way.

* * * * *

"I don't know, Angel," she said, the following morning over breakfast, "I really don't."

She was responding to a mute question from him -- he'd asked, eloquently and wordlessly, with just a look in her direction, if she was "okay." He hadn't had to say anything, he'd just had to look at her and she understood the question. Damn, but she'd missed him.

He straddled a chair, and stared at her scrambled eggs for a moment before finally speaking, "Did he really have a soul?"

Spike. Angel didn't look up at her. He rather reminded her, at that moment, of a little boy asking if he was in trouble -- and hoping he wasn't. He hadn't exactly been cool and collected when he'd found out about Spike.

She didn't want to talk about it, but she didn't feel like getting in a fight with Angel, either. What she really wanted to do with Angel was probably a bad idea of the first order. They'd just dealt with one Big Bad -- they last thing they needed was Angelus around again! Life just wasn't fair. She sighed, "Yeah."

"So what I want to know is, did he go to heaven or hell?" that was Andrew, who entered the room with a plate of pizza slices balanced in one hand, and a soda in the other.

"Andrew! Have you no tact whatsoever?" Xander, behind him, cuffed Andrew absently up the side of his head.

"Ow," Andrew whined, and nearly dropped his pizza slices.

Buffy sighed again. The question had been bad enough -- the thought that Spike might not have gone to that peaceful place she herself knew and so craved some days hadn't occurred to her until Andrew had asked it. But, too, Xander's words seemed to belong more to Anya than to Xander -- the reminder was painful. It had sounded like something Anya would have said.

"I'm going to bed," Buffy announced. She stood up and scraped the eggs that Angel had made into the trash.

"But it's seven AM!" Andrew protested.

"Yeah, and she's been up all night," Xander gave Andrew a disgusted look. "She was out, umm -- what were you doing all night?"

Buffy shrugged, "Stuff."

"Slayer stuff?" Xander asked, curiously. "Don't you think you've earned a bit of a break?"

She shrugged again, "No, just ... stuff. I'm going to bed."

"Night, Buff," she felt their eyes watching her departure as she retreated.

* * * * *

She missed her bed.

Her own bed, in her own bedroom, with her own stuff. It was a silly thing to miss, considering all that she'd lost, but she did miss it. Terribly.

Buffy pushed the bedroom door open. Someone had found something of Cordelia's for her to wear -- they weren't terribly far apart in size. The designer jeans and sequined top that someone had draped over a chair were unmistakably Cordie's style. Underthings, too, and a bra -- those were new, and she guessed Fred had gone shopping for all of them. There was also a knee-length old-fashioned man's nightshirt in a rather startling shade of purple; she didn't know who that had belonged to. Definite not Angel, skinny Fred would have been lost in it, it didn't look like Gunn's style, and Wesley would never have been caught dead in that color ... one of those mysteries of life, she supposed.

There was a mirror in the bedroom, and a few other things that Angel's gang had provided -- toiletries, a hairbrush, a purse that was Fred's style, and a twenty dollar bill. All reminders all her belongings were somewhere in the bottom of that pit. Petty, minor stuff, really ... but she missed her own things so!

There was a picture of her mother and herself and Dawn, in happier times, on the dresser.

She blinked at it, and wondered how that had gotten there. Had Cordelia or Angel owned a picture? Possible, she supposed, and if so she wasn't surprised that someone had thought to put it there. She hadn't even thought of all the family photos they'd lost, until she saw the picture.

She picked it up. The frame and picture was identical to one that had been on the family mantle. Perhaps her mother or Dawn had given a duplicate to Cordelia; the frame was from the Sunnydale Walmart, so the similarity was just coincidence. Damned spooky, though.

She wasn't complaining -- she set the picture down on the dresser, pulled the garish purple nightshirt over her head, and crawled under the covers of the bed. She didn't really expect to sleep because she wasn't tired, she just didn't want to deal with people. But sleep claimed her all the same, and within minutes.

* * * * *

Spike woke her.

A hand on her shoulder, a light shake, "Buffy. Buffy, wake up."

She blinked away several hour's sleep, and sat up. It was late afternoon -- sun streamed through the windows now, and for a moment she was disoriented. Why wasn't she in her own bed. What ... Spike?

Spike!

"Hey," he said.

"Uh," she blinked at him, no longer sleepy in the least, "I thought you were dead."

He scratched the back of his neck, and eyed her with something akin to amusement on his face. "Err, well, yeah. For a couple centuries, I think."

"You know what I mean!" she rolled out of bed, exclaimed, "Spike!" and lunged at him with what she intended to be an excited tackling hug. She'd been so sure he was dead. And he wasn't!

A sensation like diving into ice-water flashed over her, briefly, before she landed with an ungraceful thump on the carpet. Oh, crap. Not Spike at all. She rolled over, flipped to her feet, and snapped, "You! Get the hell out of my bedroom! Your turn as Big Bad is done!"

"Huh?" Spike had turned around to face her. "Buffy, have you gone totally bonkers?"

Then he added, with a grin, "But I was a good Big Bad, now wasn't I?"

"First!" she snarled, a curse in and of itself.

He laughed, then, head thrown back. "I've been called many things -- but that, that, that's a fir ... a new one."

He sat down on her bed, lounged really, and grinned at her. "Nope, sorry to disappoint. It's just me. I'm just, uh, a bit, umm, deader than I was the last time you saw me."

"Get out!" she pointed at the door.

"Love ..."

"Out!" she said, impatiently. "Out! Out! Out! Out!"

It was an outraged mantra. How DARE the First return like this, in the guise of Spike!

"I'm not the First," Spike said, sounding rather as irritated as she was. "I'm a bloody ghost, you ninny."

"Out! ... oh," she blinked at him. She registered that, and internally debated for a moment whether or not to believe it. Finally, she decided to humor him for a moment, and said, "Not that I'm unhappy to see you -- but what the hell are you doing in my bedroom, then?"

"Ghosts don't need to be invited," he shrugged. "Immune to sunlight, too."

At that, he waved a hand lazily through a sunbeam that streamed through her room's window. The sun shone right through it -- his hand did not cast a shadow. She thought for a moment, and decided she distinctly remembered shadows being associated with the First.

"Ooookay," she folded her arms and stared at him. Then she sighed, and said, "Say for just a moment that I believe you. Why the hell aren't you in ..."

"Heaven?" he snorted the word like it was an epithet. "Do you really think they have a place for me? C'mon, Buffy, you were the one who just called me a Big Bad."

"Actually, I called the First a Big Bad," she pointed out.

"Well, I was," he pouted.

"Was in Heaven?" she said, confused.

"No, was a Big Bad."

"Were not," she denied. Then she thought about that and amended, "Well, maybe a little."

"A Little Big Bad. He was a Little Big Bad. Hah. Perfect epitaph -- just what I want on my tombstone," he glared at her.

"Okay," she agreed, a little giddy because she was rapidly growing more convinced that this was not the First -- primarily because this conversation was totally out of character for the First and totally in character for Spike. "We'll put that on your tombstone. Rest in Peace: he was a Little Big Bad."

He reached to throw a pillow at her -- and his hand slid right through it. He toppled over, then swore, "Bloody 'ell. I'm going to get the hang of this ghost thing yet."

"Can you affect the real world?" she asked, curious despite herself.

"If I remember too. Damned lot of work, though," he replied. "And it's work to make myself seen, too. "

"So, uh, why did you decide to stick around?" she asked.

He shrugged, "Dunno. When it happened -- I figured I'd go to hell, you know? But that didn't happen. Though watching you and that blasted other vampire-with-soul fawn all over each other the last few days has been pretty close ..."

"You were SPYING on us?" she snapped. "Again?!"

He ignored that, and continued, "... and no pretty glowing light appeared to take me to heaven. So here I am."

"Back up, buddy. You were spying on me and Angel?" she demanded.

He shrugged, "Well, I wasn't exactly keen to materialize around him. I figured he might do something like chant some blessing on the place and get me sent to the other side. And I'm not in any particular hurry to find out if the 'other side' is heaven or hell for me."

A thought occurred to her, "And when I was dressing?"

"I left the room," he assured her.

Despite the fact that she believed him, she had an insane desire to hit him anyway. Except that she no longer had the stomach for Spike-abuse, and even if she did, that option was no longer, well, an option. She couldn't vent frustrations by beating the tar out of him and then fucking his brains out. It wasn't possible. He was dead. He was a ghost.

He stood up, and padded across the carpet to her, soundless. He stopped a foot away, standing in an unbroken beam of sunlight, and she could feel waves of chill rolling off of him. His blue eyes regarded her for a moment, then he said, softly, "I wish I could kiss you."

"I love you," she said, softly. She meant it. She wanted to hit him. She wanted to be held by him even more. Oh, but she wanted to be held by him. She'd discovered only a few days before what it was like to simply be held him, his hard-muscled body curled around hers. She imagined she could smell his scent -- aftershave and hair gel, cigarettes and night air -- but there was nothing. Nothing but the cold, and the still air of her bedroom.

"No you don't," he denied. "But thanks anyway."

"But ..."

He was gone. So was the icy cold. Warm sunlight from her window touched one of her shoulders, warming the ugly purple nightshirt. From somewhere below, Andrew and one of the Potentials shouted angrily at each other until Faith snarled, "Shut the fuck up, both of you!"

"She started it," Andrew's voice whined distantly.

"I don't give a flying fuck who started it. If I hear one more word out of either of you, I'll beat the crap out of both of you. Buffy's sleeping."

Buffy sat down on her bed, pulled her pillow to her chest, and stared dry-eyed at the ceiling. Sleep. Sleep sounded like a good thing. But sleep didn't come.

"Eeeek! Watch it with the Ginsu, you might have taken my head off!" an unfamiliar voice yelped. Whoever it was male, and didn't sound particularly, well, macho.

"That's the general idea," that was Faith, and she sounded like her adrenaline was pumping. There was a, "Thwack!" that Buffy felt more than heard -- from experience, she identified the sound of an edged weapon being struck hard into wood.

"Angel! AANGEL!" the man shouted. "Help!"

Buffy wondered if Faith needed help. She really should get up and see. But Faith was a Slayer, couldn't Faith handle her own problems? On the other hand, this was Faith she was thinking about ... but somehow, she couldn't even summon the curiosity to go see what the fuss was about.

"Faith! Stop!" that was Fred. "Don't hurt him!"

Faith said a dirty word that wasn't in English -- Buffy identified it as being in one of the Demon languages, and wondered vaguely when and where Faith had learned it.

"He's one of the good guys," Fred's voice sounded a bit strained. "Put the axe down. Thank you! Lorn, are you okay?"

"Juuuuust peachy-keen. Who's the psycho chick?" Lorn -- the owner of the voice -- sounded annoyed now. "Somebody sure needs to clean her mouth out with soap."

"I'm Faith," Faith said. "Who the hell are you?"

It sounded as if the situation was under control. Buffy didn't catch Lorn's answer, but whatever it was, it made Faith bark a sudden, hard laugh. The voices faded -- presumably they were moving farther away from the room. Distantly, Buffy wondered what had gotten Faith so riled up.

* * * * *

She did sleep some more -- she woke at dusk to a knock on her bedroom door. If she ignored it, would they go away?

Apparently not -- the knocking continued. The man's voice -- Lorn, he'd said his name was -- asked, "Hey, you in there? They sent me up to tell you about dinner."

"Uh. Not hungry," she yanked her covers over her head.

The last thing she wanted to face was the whole damned gang around a dinner table. Too many people. She just wanted to sleep for awhile longer. The Hellmouth was closed, she was out of a job as Slayer in Sunnydale (and now that she thought of it, out of a paying job as well), and couldn't they just leave her alone to catch up on seven years worth of lost sleep?

"Can I open the door?" the man asked.

He sounded sympathetic. She didn't want sympathetic. She wanted to go beat something up. Maybe she'd go hunting vamps tonight, just on general principles. Dusting a few vamps sounded like a good idea.

The man added, "You have to promise you won't try to remove my head from my shoulders, of course. I can grow another, but it hurts."

Huh?

"Angel said you're a bit less likely to swing a sword first, ask questions later, than Faith. Hope that's true because I'm not a fighter, really. Can I open the door?"

Ngggg ... okay, her curiosity was piqued. She pushed the covers down and said, "Yeah, I'm awake."

The door opened a crack, and a green, horned head poked through. "Hey."

Oh, a demon. No wonder Faith had freaked out. Not only that, but she was reasonably sure that this creature belonged to one of the nastier varieties of demon as far as disposition went. But she vaguely remembered a letter from Cordelia mentioning a demon who was their friend. "Uh, hey."

She didn't have a weapon. Not that it mattered -- she was a weapon. She sat up.

The man said, "We're going out to dinner -- Andrew blew up the microwave and we're out of groceries anyway. But I know this great little restaurant and night club. Lasagna to die for. Coming?"

"No," she said, shortly. She didn't have to explain herself to a demon.

"Oh, honey," the demon said, pushing the door open a bit farther, "Do you want someone to talk to?"

"No," she repeated, a bit more forcefully. Despite that, thought, she felt her lower lip quiver. The truth was, she did want to talk to someone -- but not this stranger who, by rights, she ought to be fighting. She was a slayer. She fought demons, right?

She wanted to talk to Spike ... or Angel ... mentally, she weighed the two in her head. Tall, dark, handsome and broody vs. blond, gorgeous and snarky? Angel was certainly the more empathetic the two, but Spike ... sometimes she appreciated those sniping, cutting, comments he made. He kept things in perspective.

Spike was dead. Angel was untouchable.

Damn, what a dilemma.

Her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn't actually eaten anything since half a scrambled egg this morning. What the hell, "Yeah, I'll go."

"Good. By the way, my name's Lorn," he said. "By the way, glad you had the sense not to hit me with sharp things."

She gave him a weak smile, "That's me, the sensible one."

She realized, as the demon backed out and pulled the door shut after him, that she was probably wearing his garish night shirt. Lorn had been wearing an orange leisure suit with a purple tie.

* * * * *

It wasn't that people didn't notice Lorn, Buffy decided an hour later, as they claimed tables at Mama Rosa's, but that very few of the mundanes actually believed a demon would be right in their midst. Lorn seemed perfectly at ease among humans (and vampire) -- he was grinning and laughing, and flirting with anything that moved. Even Faith flirted back at him, despite her earlier attempt to -- according to the others -- take Lorn's head off with Buffy's axe.

Mama Rosa's didn't have tables large enough for all of them -- it was as much a night club as an eatery, Buffy realized, though it certainly served very good Italian food. The air was redolent with the odors of sage, rosemary, thyme, and tomatoes. There was lively music, however -- pop music, not the violins she'd half feared. A dance floor was clogged with people already, and several of the new Slayers headed straight for it.

They claimed a table for four -- she and Angel, and somehow, Lorn and Faith, all at one table. The table was far enough from the music that they could hear each other talk, if they raised their voices a bit. She, Angel, and Faith at one table should have been a recipe for a disaster. Angel shot a worried glance between her and Faith. That was right, she hadn't told him about Faith's role in closing the Hellmouth, or that she and Faith were on better terms now. Perhaps someone else had, but he'd still worry.

There was a live band, and Lorn spared them a long look before commenting to Angel, "Drummer's a vamp."

"You pick that up from his drumming?" Angel asked, baffling Buffy.

Lorn shook his head, "No, I know him from my club. Not a bad sort, for a vampire."

"There are no good vampires," Faith growled, "Present company excepted."

Buffy shivered, suddenly, as a cold draft curled around her. Despite the crowds of people, the nightclub was chilly inside.

"Angel has a soul," Lorn agreed. "Orren -- the drummer -- I think he's just too much of a coward to make much trouble. And he's a good drummer."

The drummer pounded on his set as they watched, flipping long hair, doing a complete spin, dancing in place, and generally putting on a show. He had that superhuman athleticism of a vamp but there was something alive about him, too -- a living love for his music, Buffy thought. Her duty should have been to seek him out and slay him. But the boy clearly loved his art, and perhaps there was good in him with that. She made a mental note to check the young vampire out later. If he wasn't doing any harm, what right had she to slay him?

One thing she'd learned was that there was an exception to every rule. She was looking at two of them: Lorn, a demon, and Angel, a vampire, right now. By rights, both should have been her enemies. Angel obviously wasn't; Lorn she was quickly coming to like. It was hard not to like the man.

Buffy said softly, "I've known one vampire without a soul who was a hero."

Spike.

"Thought you said he had a soul too," Angel frowned at her.

"He did. After. I mean, he got one for me. But he was a hero first. Hero lots of times -- he would have given his life for me or for Dawn before he got a soul. Angel -- Spike changed. You weren't there. He ... he did a lot of good. He did a lot of good that he didn't have to do. And it wasn't the chip in his head, either," she shook her head in denial at that idea. "He earned my trust. He earned it the hard way."

"Chip ...?" Angel asked.

"Long story. Short version of it is, military got hold of him and," she poked her index finger at the side of her head, "Snip snip and bzzz bzzz and he couldn't hurt humans anymore."

Angel said something that might have been a rude comment about the military, but she couldn't quite hear it over the music.

"Hey, want to dance?" Faith asked Lorn.

"Oh, sweet ... I don't think ..."

Faith bounced up, didn't give Lorn a chance to say no, and grabbed his wrist and bodily pulled him upright. He was a good bit larger than she was, but she was a Slayer. Lorn had no chance at resisting. "C'mon. I get the feeling you know how to move, man."

Buffy grinned, watching her tow Lorn towards the floor. Lorn quit resisting after a couple of steps, seemed to shrug, and followed her.

Xander claimed a vacated chair and asked, "Do you think she realizes he's ..." he flipped a hand limply at the end of his wrist.

Buffy snorted, "She's dancing with him, not dating him."

Faith danced as wildly as she fought -- and as she'd speculated, Lorn was her match on the floor. They quickly attracted a crowd, which, Buffy thought, was exactly what Faith had been intending. Faith dearly loved attention. And since Lorn appeared to be equally comfortable under the spotlight, she'd chosen well. They were playing off of each other quite spectacularly.

Xander rose, after a minute, and headed off to the bar, presumably for another drink. Buffy lifted an eyebrow at Angel, and was slightly disappointed when he imperceptibly shook his head. He didn't want to dance. Mr. Dark-and-Broody had his image to look out for, after all. Spike would have danced with her. Hell, Spike would have been out there on the floor without her.

Maybe they'd do a slow number ... she could see Angel slow-dancing.

"Later," he said, softly. He was probably thinking the same thing she was.

Slow-dancing with Angel. Yeah, that was worth waiting until later. Their eyes met, and she felt a thrill run through her. Oh, she loved him. She always had and always would. Yes. She'd slow dance with him later.

Angel's water glass tipped over suddenly, dumping ice-water into his groin. He nearly fell over backwards, then scrambled with undignified haste to his feet. "What the hell ..."

He stared at the glass. Nobody had touched it, it had simply tipped over on its own.

Buffy propped both elbows on the table, rested her chin in her hands, and said loudly, "Angel, do you know if I could buy an exorcism for $20?"

He said, "Buffy?"

"Because that's all the money I've got in the world, and it's very tempting at the moment. Somebody has very bad manners."

"Buffy?" Angel repeated, baffled.

She reached a hand out and righted the glass. It was so cold the water still on it had frozen, and she was amazed that the glass hadn't shattered. "Tell you later. Not here."

He nodded, and grabbed a dry napkin off the table to swipe at the water on his pants. At least, Buffy thought sourly, it was only water. Spike could have tipped over Angel's glass of red wine, or it could have been something nasty like ectoplasm that had landed in Angel's lap. (Though as vain as Spike was, she somehow couldn't see him ever oozing ectoplasm.)

The confines of the night club were suddenly stifling -- where the air had been cold before, it was now overheated. "Angel, I need some air. Come with me?"

Outside, in the parking lot, small groups of people headed towards the door. The night was young still, and the revelry was just getting started. LA had been through hell in the last few weeks; they were not the only ones needing to cut loose tonight.

"Buffy, what's going on?" Angel asked, bluntly, as soon as they'd found a quiet spot under a streetlight and away from eavesdropping ears.

"Oh, god," she ran a hand through her hair, and stared up at the sky. There should have been stars up there, but she could only make out a few dots of light here and there -- the city lights and the smog had washed the night sky out to pewter. "Spike."

"What about Spike?" Angel asked. He rested his hands on her shoulders, then when she didn't try to resist, pulled him against his chest. His arms wrapped around her.

For a moment, she just wanted to stand there, being held by him. Then, with a sudden jolt, she remembered that Spike could very well be watching and she pulled free. "Spike," she repeated.

"You did love him," Angel said. He sounded miserable.

"Yes! No! I don't know. I'm confused," she sighed and paced back and forth. "Yes, Angel, I loved him. Not at first, when we first ..." she blushed, there, and said quickly, "but at the end, I realized ... damnit, I realized just who and what he'd become. He gave his life to seal the Hellmouth, Angel. And all along, he'd been there for me. He was my biggest champion and I never even truly realized it."

"That doesn't mean you loved him," Angel said, standing stiffly. He looked wounded, dark eyes brimming with pain of his own.

"No, I loved him, Angel. I didn't ... I didn't really realize it until the very end. And I told him, just before he ... just before the Hellmouth collapsed. And he didn't believe me."

"Oh," Angel said.

She leaned against him, then, and Angel held her. She smelled his cologne. He stroked her hair, "I'm sorry, Buffy."

He was jealous. Damnit, but he was. She knew Angel well enough to know that he was hurting because he thought she'd chosen Spike over him. Angel was probably boiling with jealousy. But Angel loved her, and because he loved her, he hurt for her too.

She saw a cigarette flare in the darkness beyond them, and stiffened. Chill air swirled around them, thirty degrees colder than the balmy LA night. Yeah, they were being watched. She sighed, straightened up, and took a step back from Angel. She glanced up at him -- his face was confused, his dark eyes brimming with indefinable emotions.

"Spike," Buffy said impatiently, "Come here."

"I thought you said ..." Angel said, then stopped short, as Spike stepped into the light. His nostrils flared, and his head cocked and he looked sharply between Spike and Buffy and back.

Buffy almost laughed. Yeah, Spike was in front of them, but there was no odor and no sound from him. Angel, with his vampire senses, hadn't taken long at all to figure out something funny was up.

"Sire," Spike said, a formal greeting.

"Angel, seems Spike hasn't moved on yet," Buffy said.

Spike ground out his cigarette against the light pole and flicked it airborne. It disappeared before it hit the ground. "She loves you."

"She just said she loves you," Angel said, his voice half growl. His fists were balled, and he looked like he wanted to take a swing at Spike's ghost. Buffy wondered what was stopping him: her presence, or the likely undignified outcome of that action? Throwing a punch at a ghost was a sure way to end up looking stupid.

Spike shrugged, and gave Buffy a sideways look. "So she did. I think she might have even meant it."

"Spike ..." Buffy said. She heard the pain in his voice.

"I'm sorry, Buffy. I didn't believe you then. Maybe if I had ..." he swallowed, adam's apple bobbing in his throat. "But we won, Buffy. Bloody hell, maybe it was worth it."

"You could have gotten out," she said, softly.

"Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe if I'd left, the damage wouldn't have been done. Maybe the Hellmouth would still be standing. I just don't know. I'll always have to wonder, I suppose. But ... you told me the words I'd always wanted to hear, and I didn't believe you and for that I'll be eternally sorry."

"You hurt her," Angel growled.

"I think I'll survive," Buffy said, with a deep breath. "The question is, what are we going to do now?"

She realized, with a cold and sick feeling, that the question was more, what am I going to do now? She was going to have to chose, she knew now. She would have to chose between Spike and Angel. She could pick Spike, snarky and sniping and her champion. Or she could have Angel, empathetic and supportive and equally her hero. But she couldn't have both of them.

Both men were brave and bold. Both men were willing to give their lives for her, and for what was right -- Spike had died for what was right. She'd sent Angel to hell and he'd come back still loving her.

Damn.

Spike said, softly, "She loves you, Angel. As much as she ever loved me -- maybe more."

No. The truth was, she loved them both equally, and the thought of having to chose was tearing her apart.

"I never realized that," Spike said, with a tone of -- epiphany? -- in his voice. "I never realized ... but it's possible to love two people. Bloody hell, but that's got to hurt, Buffy. Because then you've got to chose. And whatever, whoever, you chose, you hurt someone you love."

He looked at her, eyes brimming with unshed tears. He reached out, and fingers as cold as ice brushed her cheek with a touch that belonged to no living or undead creature. He was touching her from beyond the grave, and she felt the hair rise on the back of her neck in atavistic response. His thumb brushed at tears that rolled down her cheek.

Then he stepped back, "You'll be okay, Buffy. He," Spike jerked his chin at Angel, "loves you too. And he'd better take care of you, or I'll bloody well haunt him until the day somebody manages to dust his sorry carcass. Ice water wouldn't be the half of it."

Spike took another step back, and added, "I'm sorry, Buffy. I'm sorry it didn't turn out different. I'm sorry I am not standing there instead of him. But -- I'm not sorry you're with him now."

"Spike ..." Buffy said. She took as step after him, as he retreated into the darkness.

"They're calling me," he said, looking up at the sky. And there were stars in that city sky now, more stars than Buffy had ever seen before in her life. Wasn't there a legend from some culture or another that said that stars were souls? "They're calling me home. Mum ... me mum's there ... "

Angel caught her, and pulled her back when she moved to follow him. His arms tightened around her, and he held her close, as Spike turned around to face something that neither of them could see or sense. Then he looked back, and the look on his face ... yeah, she knew that feeling. She'd been there. She'd known that otherly love.

He was going home.

He said, softly, "Take care of her for me, Angel."

And then he was gone.

And the tears came then, into Angel's chest, as Angel held her and rocked her back and forth under the streetlight. Spike was gone ... everything was gone.

She hadn't had to chose after all. Spike had chosen instead -- chosen to let her go.

But no, not everything was gone. She looked up at Angel, at the tears brimming in his own eyes. Then she kissed him gently.

She had Angel. She had the others -- Dawn and the Scoobies, the new Slayers and Angel and his crew, and doubtless other friends and allies she'd make in the future. She had a future. Until a few days ago, she'd thought her life would be short and futile in a fight with a first. Now, however, she had a future.

And she intended to make the best of it.

A shooting star arced gloriously over their heads, rising towards the zenith, as they walked back inside.