CHOSEN - COUNTERPOINT

Summary: The final chapter, of everything...
Rating: I'll leave it as PG-13. The key word for this is Angst. You have been warned...
Disclaimer: Final dialogue belongs to Joss, and I'm very grateful because it gives me something to work with. Inner ramblings are mine; anything familiar is not.
Setting: The morning after the night before, and the final battle, and the aftermath. And there will not be a sequel. No.
Author's Notes: Before I start: for Kristen - sorry for the confusion: the conversation they're referring to is in the fic that comes before this one, another Counterpoint for "Touched" - you should probably go read that one, too. Not that I'm plugging... ;)

Anyway, here we go. The final moments. This makes me sniffle, purely because writing it entailed having to really think about Buffy, Spike, and what they both had to sacrifice, and... just, ow. Ow, ow, ow. So if you end up in tears, don't blame me, blame Joss. He's the one who made us watch Spike burn from the inside out. :P But yeah. It's been a while since I've been given something really angsty to get my teeth into, and now I remember why I love writing it so much. :D I didn't gain the title of Angst Queen for nothing, you know...

Chosen - Counterpoint

PART THREE

"Can I say it now? I'm going to anyway. You wouldn't let me tell you. We're standing on the edge of the world, and you thought I'd never admit it… but I do. I really do, Spike. I love you…"

In her dreams, she told him. They were in a place full of light, far from the basement, further still from the Hellmouth, but where, exactly, she didn't know. He listened; he smiled; he knew it was the truth. He was silent, and, possibly, he faded away, along with everything else. The rest she doesn't remember; it's all a rapidly fading blur as reality sets in. Sunlight seeps through the small window, high on the wall, but it isn't a danger here. The dawn chorus starts its morning song, oblivious to the day's impending doom. The rest of the house is still silent, Potentials, Scoobies, and comrades in battle all catching a few more hours of sleep before it's time for action.

Most of their conversation the previous night is a fog, now, but she remembers doing a lot of the talking. And a lot of the kissing, she thinks, and… Yup. Full circle… She resists the urge to start giggling - it wouldn't be particularly appropriate - and settles on a slight grin instead as everything else comes back. It drops again, with the memories. For some reason, the first thing she remembers is the sharing of scars, from the first of hers to the last of his; more than half were inflicted by each other the year before, and the majority of his were gained along with the soul, or after it, because of it. That one gash over his heart still haunts her, along with the symbolic marks of the First that only serve to remind her how she was almost too late; he was more concerned about the almost-healed scratch on her upper arm, because he didn't remember being the cause of it, despite the guilt eating away at him…

He's asleep; at least, she thinks he is. It's so hard to tell. She doesn't risk trying to speak, not this time. There's still only one thing she wants to say, but she's promised to wait. Wrapped in his arms, the same as always - and when did only three times (if she's only including those that really meant something) count as 'always'? - she wonders what it'll really be like, when she tells him. She practices it in her head: where to put the vocal inflection; how to make it sound like she means it ten times more than the words can justify, just the way he does; whether or not to use his given name. Her mind wanders to locations: this house, when everybody else is out; a cemetery in the middle of the night, whispered through a cloud of vamp dust; the Bronze, over drinks, watching her friends dance because he refuses to join in; right after the battle, standing victorious over the Hellmouth as it's devoured in its own flames. She'll bare her soul like she's bared her flesh so many times before, and saving the world a lot won't even compare…

"Penny for your thoughts, love…"

Well, that answers that question. She doesn't move just yet, in case it disturbs the harmony. "Nothing important," she fibs. "Just… last minute battle-plans. Stuff like that."

"It can't be morning already…" The groan is implied.

This time she shifts her head, so she can face him. The scars remain, just within view. "It's still early yet," she says, reassuringly. "Plenty of time before we have to get up." Above their heads, muffled, a crash. She rolls her eyes.

"Or not," he says, looking towards the ceiling.

"Ah, what the Hell. Let 'em rip the house apart, if they want. I'm pretty sure I can claim it all back on the insurance anyway."

"They cover damage-by-teenager, now?"

"You'd be surprised…" She feels a lot better about their impending war this morning - more positive, more determined to win, even though the odds are exactly the same. Her conscience is finally - almost - clear, and her mind is free to focus on the fight. She has something other than the rest of the world to fight for: herself. Him. Them.

But she knows she'll have to focus much more than this, when the time comes, and the seriousness of the situation hasn't escaped her. For now, though…

She makes herself more comfortable, snuggling closer, and revels in the relative silence for a while. Then, she asks, "Are you okay?"

He smiles; it seems a suddenly very pointless question. "What do you think?"

"Okay, dumb question… Gimme a break; I just woke up…" That's a lie, but it's a good enough excuse. She rephrases her question. "It's just… you're quiet. For you, I mean."

"Just a bit… shell-shocked." He continues, explaining as best he can. "I mean… last night was… Well, it was. It happened. I didn't really believe it at the time, and I don't quite believe it now… but you're here. An' I'm just… basking."

It's a bad choice of verb, 'basking', considering what happened at the vineyard, especially now she knows he saw her… but she's not going to go there. It's no time to start complicating things, confusing herself, hurting him in the process. "Oh…"

"And just so you know…" he adds, after a pause, "I'm still terrified…"

She understands now. The first time he told her, she wasn't really sure what he meant; now, in the light of everything, it's all so obvious. He's terrified of it all: of how he feels, and why; of standing on the brink of something that might be, unsure if it's true; of the closeness he's never had; more than anything else, of losing her.

"That makes two of us," she tells him. He kisses her, sending a tingle down her spine; combined with the early-morning chill of the room, her flesh breaks out in goose-bumps, so he pulls the blanket higher. She feels cocooned and safe, and entirely unwilling to relinquish herself to the world.

Another crash sounds from upstairs, and footsteps, raised voices. Giles' muffled voice as he tries to restore some order. Anya yelling at Andrew, the only recognisable word being 'geek!' - then again, she could be referring to Xander. The household is well and truly up, just like any ordinary day, the apocalypse cloaked by the usual banter and arguments; even through the layers of floor, Dawn is heard to scream about someone stealing her hairdryer.

They both groan. "There goes the peace and quiet," he says. "You'd better get up, love. Start de-briefing and such."

"Do I have to?"

"Don't make me steal the blanket."

"Evil vampire. I always knew you were faking the whole 'being good' thing."

She sits up, with the blanket, and extends a foot to search for clothing. With most of it in easy reach, they both dress quickly enough, but with it, the atmosphere gets heavier. They sit on the edge of the rumpled cot, his arm resting lightly behind her, almost touching, and she wishes he'd kiss the back of her neck, drag her back to insanity. Instead, they both stare at the door at the top of the steps.

She stands with a defeated sigh, reaching, finally, for her jacket, and starts to leave. Then, she stops, and turns. "You're not coming?"

He gets to his feet, awkward. "Think it's best if I didn't. I'll mosey up later when nobody's paying attention…"

She's not letting him get away with that. Walking back over to him, she takes his hands in hers. "I'm not ashamed of what happened last night, Spike, and I'm not afraid of what they think." That being said, she heads off a second time, pulling him behind her.

He resists. "They'll ask questions."

She stops again. "So let 'em ask. There's more important things for them to worry about than my business." Echoing a gesture from two nights ago, she raises a hand to touch his face; with her brain rapidly descending into battle-mode, the words she needs are slow to form. "I don't regret this, and if they can't handle it… that's their problem."

He doesn't reply, because there aren't enough words. Instead, he strokes her hair, rearranges it carefully around her face until it's exactly how he likes it, and studies her. She lets him memorise her, silent, until he leans in for another kiss; it feels final in its tenderness, but she's not sure whose fault that is. He still believes it's over before it's even begun, and she fears he may be right. They break apart and she sighs, defeated. "Let's go…"

She extends a hand, with a nod, he takes it and follows her up the stairs. As each step brings them closer to reality, however, their hands drift apart, and as the door opens into the teen-filled, noisy kitchen, the spell breaks. They're Slayer and Champion, once more, the general and her second-in-command, and nobody suspects a thing, so wrapped up in their own personal worries. The only one who notices is Dawn, munching on cereal, who gives her sister an eyebrow-raised questioning look. One nod later, and it's confirmed. Her sister smiles, happy for her, happier for him.

He's already long gone, and hasn't seen his forgiveness in Dawn's eyes. Now it's back to the war.

~*~

How can it be that only a few short hours ago, he was down in her basement with her, contented and loved, waiting for the dream to end? How can it be that they never, ever anticipated it would be this difficult? And how can it be that now, even when concentration is of the element, he can't take his eyes off her?

He fights off Turok-Han left, right and centre, but all the while, he watches her - watches all of them. Only days ago these fighters were frightened, clumsy girls; now, they're Slayers. Not a patch on his Slayer, nor on Faith; those two work together like a machine, despite their past; they're synchronised, fighting in a perfectly choreographed dance. It's fascinating to watch.

And then, Faith's out of sight, buried under a pile of über-vamps, and his girl's on her own, spinning, kicking, staking and beheading and slicing with the scythe, as the dust flies. A flash of dark hair as Faith resurfaces, strewing Turok-Han in her wake; Kennedy letting out a war-cry and a flying kick; even the once-terrified Vi wielding a sword like she was born with it. Above, in the body of the school, he imagines his Nibblet wreaking havoc on the Bringers, Anya and Andrew bickering while they battle, Giles hacking the head off a Bringer and then pausing to clean his glasses. A little bit of the power Willow released has infected him, too, the energies of the Slayers overwhelming his senses, and part of him wishes he could have been there to see it happen. If he could have anticipated this, years ago, he'd probably claim he was on the wrong side… but God, he wouldn't miss this for the world.

The noise is deafening, too loud to think. No room for planning ahead, only time for instinct. There's growling, shouting of orders from both senior Slayers, the cracking and thumping of well-aimed blows, the swish of metal sliding through dead flesh and bone, and everywhere there's bodies and blood and dust in the air. Two übies leap on his back and when he's fought them off, she's nowhere to be found.

For a moment, he searches through the sea of fighting, but she's gone. His worst fear possibly realised, he throws himself further into the fight, finishing it, for her…

And then, pain. Not like the chip, not like Glory, not like falling from the tower, not like allowing himself to be beaten down behind the police station, not like the burns from the cross, not like the trials, not like the soul… Wait. No. Just like the soul; burning, searing, bubbling inside him and eating from the inside out, and he remembers now why he tried to cut it out. Not now! Oh, God, not now!

Through the pain, he carries on fighting, determined to see it through. Then, he sees her; she's injured and bloodied, an ominous-looking wound in her side that makes her remind him of an effigy of Christ, but she's alive, and she's pissed off. Rona throws her the scythe; all around, the Slayers are falling, but the strongest remain. Six of the Turok-Han fall into the abyss in one fell swoop, and crumble to dust. They're going to win.

He basks.

"Oh, bollocks…"

The Seal opens with a rumble, and the next thing he knows there's powerful, pure energy, channelled through the amulet and bursting through the roof of the cave, and then there's sunlight, going in the opposite direction, and this cannot be good…

"Buffy!"

The enemy retreat when their comrades are destroyed, and the cavern starts to fall apart as the light, filtered through the trinket, does its thing, incinerating the Turok-Han in seconds. So this is his purpose, then. All worthy, and full of light…

She runs to him, calling his name, dodging falling boulders as Faith gets everybody out. The very bowels of Hell are gurgling, and it's all the girls can do to run, but eventually, they're gone, and she's the only one left. She shouldn't be here; he should scream at her to leave. Just a few more seconds with her. There's plenty of time…

She doesn't know what to say, amazed by what she can see; from his perspective, there's only the stream of sunlight blasting into the cave, and her: grubby, dusty, bleeding, and more beautiful than ever before. He remembers why he's here, what's inside him causing this, and he'd go through it all again a hundred times over if he had to, if she asked.

"I can feel it, Buffy…"

"What?" Her voice trembles, and she doesn't try to hide it. She'll be with him right 'til the end.

"My soul… It's really there…" He gazes at her, as if she's the cause of it. In a way, she is. Standing here, pinned to a wall, burning up, beside her, he finally believes it exists. He should be afraid of what's to come, but instead he feels liberated, ridiculously pleased by this new revelation. The sunlight starts to take its toll; no protective blanket to shield him from the rays, not this time. "Kinda stings."

Pretty soon there'll be no cave left for her to stand on, and yet she doesn't run. She can see the danger probably better than he can and still refuses to move; he has to get her out. "Go on, then!" he commands.

She shakes her head, determined, frantic. "You've done enough," she tells him. "You can still-"

"No." Oh, God, it burns… I can't let her watch this. "You beat 'em back. It's for me to do the cleanup."

Faith's head appears at the entrance to the cave, a redeemed darkness in the place of light. "Buffy, come on!" She ducks debris, vanishes, leaving them alone once more, presumably thinking her fellow Slayer will follow. He knows it's now or never; if he doesn't get her out, she'll die here with him, and he's never been a fan of Romeo and Juliet-type endings.

"Gotta move, lamb," he says, the endearment falling from his lips without a second thought. He's always wanted to use it, been too afraid to let it slip. "I think it's fair to say school's out for bloody summer!"

The school falls in; desks and whiteboards and tiles sail past them, into the pit where the Turok-Han meet their demise. As the principal's furniture joins the debris, he heaves a sigh of relief that Willow got out safely, that Dawn and Anya and even the Whelp weren't down here to see this. Have they all survived? He'll never know; it's far too late to back out now, and he doesn't think he has the strength to lift the amulet any more.

"Spike, please…" she begs, just short of dragging him out herself.

"I mean it. I gotta do this." He holds his hands up, forcing her back, the gesture emulating a farewell more than he'd like, and he fears he won't even get to say goodbye. He has regrets: not knowing if Dawn ever forgave him - and if not, this would be a fitting end in her eyes - and never telling her how much she meant to him, not telling Buffy that he understood about her and Angel, that he didn't really care about what happened at the vineyard; he never paid respects to her mother; he didn't explain about the demon eggs; he couldn't repent for the bathroom, because there weren't enough apologies.

And even now, he knows he won't get to tell her he loves her again, he won't get to hold her again, or see her in sunlight, and even though he managed the goodbye kiss before they left the basement, he'd burn a hundred times over for just one more.

Her hand links with his, and he's not sure if it's real; why is she still here? He looks to her; she's real, she's here, she's communicating everything she's never said through simple touch. Their hands burst into flame, but she doesn't let go. She breathes heavily, forcing herself not to cry, and then… she smiles. Her eyes light up with realisation and determination.

'She'll tell you. Someday she'll tell you…'

"I love you."

She broke her promise; she didn't wait. But it's been said, now, and there's no taking it back. There's no time to enjoy it, no time to say all the things he wants, and even though he's known it all along, he can only stare at her numbly. It sounds better than goodbye. And he still has to get her out of here.

"No, you don't," he says, hating that it has to be this way. "But thanks for sayin' it…" If he can make her believe that, if he can convince her that he doesn't believe her, then it'll all be worth it. Her expression crumples, involuntarily; she believes him, at least for the moment; she'll think about it later and understand, of that he's certain. Hurting her is more painful than the sunlight ever could be, but there's no other way.

Another almighty rumble shakes their hands apart, and his continues to burn, alone. "It's your world up there," he says, and it is. She wasn't meant for the dark. "Now go!"

One look, and she's gone, just as the exit caves in and traps him there. It's done. "I wanna see how it ends."

Cackling maniacally, he sees; he feels; he burns.

~*~

…right after the battle, standing victorious over the Hellmouth as it's devoured in its own flames…

Well. She was close. Not quite as victorious as she'd imagined it to be, not the romantic, heart-rending scene she wished for. But she told him, and that's what counts.

For the briefest of moments, down in the cave with him, she almost believed what he said. She almost thought he didn't trust her words, that after all this time, after last night, he couldn't accept what she was telling him. Now, in the aftermath, as the remains of her army decamp from the bus, stand at the edge of the smoking pit that was Sunnydale, she understands that he was only trying to keep her alive.

You idiot, Spike. You complete, utter, heroic, wonderful idiot…

Dawn embraces her, flooded with relief that she got out. The realness of her sister only makes the loss more poignant, because she should be embracing him, too, and they should all be together, one big, happy, homeless family. And that's another thing. For the moment, they have nowhere to go.

All around her, her friends check for damage. Xander questions Andrew, asks if he saw - because someone else needs to see things now - and even if Andrew saw nothing, he reassures him anyway. Anya died a hero, too. At least they both have people who'll mourn them, bury them in spirit if not in body - and yes, she'll bury him, even if she's the only one who does. Somewhere in a forgotten graveyard in London lies William's neglected headstone, and somewhere, wherever they end up, will lie another, tended and loved and kept pretty with flowers. Except she doesn't know what his favourite flowers were, so she'll put her mom's instead, because he'd appreciate that. Just for irony's sake, she can even picture the epitaph: 'Spike. He saved the world. Alone.'

As Xander places a reassuring, sorrowful hand on Andrew's shoulder, she realises that they might have been friends, in an alternative life. Xander and Andrew and Willow, two big geeks and a brainiac, if she hadn't come along; there'd have been no Troika, no Scoobies… and they'd probably be dead now, too, and so would she. Maybe things do happen for a reason.

The crater smokes from a fire deep in its belly, and the dust settles on a demolished city. I can see my house from here, she half-jokes to herself. It still hasn't quite hit her: they have nothing left, unless there's anything redeemable down in the rubble, and it's too dangerous to head down there yet. They'll all be living in a school bus indefinitely.

Giles joins her side, staring into the crater, doubtless thinking the same thing, or forming some kind of preliminary plan. "I don't understand," he says. "What did this?"

"Spike." There's no bitterness in her tone, no 'I-told-you-so', only sorrow. And pride. He did this. Her Champion. Somewhere, buried deep under the rubble, he's down there. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust… She wants Dawn to have heard her, wants her to know. She wants to turn around and scream to all of them, "You hear that? Spike did this! He saved us all!" to see their reactions, but it's too much to deal with. So instead, she stares into the smoke.

The Welcome-to-Sunnydale sign teeters on its post, and falls backwards into the crater. Simultaneously, she wants to laugh hysterically and cry her eyes out. That was his trademark, mangling the sign on his arrival in town; now he's left for good, it's cruelly ironic, and also oddly fitting. She becomes aware of a stinging sensation, now her adrenaline rush is wearing off, and examines her knuckles: the skin is blistered, and red, from the fire that consumed them both only a few short minutes ago. It'll heal in a day or so, but the scars will remain, along with the others. 'My skin should crack and peel', indeed. He gave the fire back, and then he let it consume him.

Her friends chatter in the forced, relieved way people do after Hellish experiences, but she's only half-listening. She studies them, her strange, acquired family: Xander, tragic hero with his eye-patch, mourning his lost love; Willow, leaning weakly on Kennedy (a poor substitute for Tara, but nobody's going to say so if she's happy) but more powerful than ever before; Giles, looking so old all of a sudden; Dawn, so mature, all grown up; Faith, fighting the good fight and glad of it, at last; Andrew… being Andrew, only better, changed.

And Anya and Spike, deep, deep down in the High School, sliced, diced, and desiccated. It's all over, now.

Drifting back to the conversation, she catches the final round of questions.

"What do you think we should do, Buffy?" It's Willow, still looking up to her best friend for all the answers she doesn't know.

Faith chips in. "Yeah, you're not the one and only Chosen any more. Just gotta live like a person. How's that feel?" She looks to her fellow Slayer, and silently directs the same question back at her: it applies to them both.

"Buffy?" asks Dawn. "What are we going to do?"

And still, she can't answer. Looking back to the crater, waves of nostalgia creep over her: the olden days in the High School, huddled around Giles' beautiful old books in the library; sending Angel to Hell; getting him back; the Prom; graduation; meeting Riley; being temporarily engaged to Spike; losing her mother; dying; being reborn; hating her friends, herself, her lover; finally, needing him, loving him, losing him… And beyond the plume of acrid smoke, there's only sky and desert and a long, long road to somewhere else, a future filled with brand new Slayers, and for her, complete, utter normality, at last…

She smiles.

We're gonna be cookie dough…

F-I-N

A/N: And there we have it. I didn't like the end of the novelisation (well, I didn't like most of it, to be honest…) with the 'cookie dough' line as the closing words, because on its own like that, to me, it implied a decidedly B/A-esque future. As did "End of Days" and the close of her conversation with Angel; I know Joss was trying to keep everyone happy, but… I didn't like it. Mind you, I'm as anti-B/A as they come, so sue me… Anyway. I wanted 'cookie dough' in this, and I think I managed to twist it nicely.

I'm still fighting off the sequel idea, but will doubtless fail horribly. Maybe when I finally get the internet back I'll be so consumed in the Crossover that I'll forget about it, but it's incredibly unlikely…

Aaaanyway, that's it. There'll probably be no "End of Days" counterpoint because there's so little of it to work with, but if you would be so kind as to offer your comments and lovely reviews, that'd be nice. Thank you, and goodnight. :)