STAGE 1 - DENIAL
"I love you."
Her words stop his world. The stinging agony of his brightness, the sound and fury of the collapsing Hellmouth, all signify nothing. She is all there is, small and suddenly fragile, as if a word could break her.
He sees the awe in her eyes, the dawning realisation that the words she intended in that moment to be for him, the words she thought he wanted to hear, are, after all, as much for her – the truth, her truth as best she knows it. He feels through the binding of their entwined, flame-bright hands what she has felt, what is in her heart. The spark; the first, terrifying, breathtaking glow of the love that is body, mind, soul, being. He knows with the clear, calm certainty of that moment that what she feels isn't that love, not yet, but it could be; a word, a touch and it would burn for him. He put the spark in her heart and at last the spark could grow to the flame and the flame could consume them both.
But there is no time.
He needs to tell her that what she feels is just the start; that it could be so much more, that he hopes one day she'll feel the fire, truly know what it is to love. But that it can't be for him, not now.
Because there is no time.
He wants to tell her goodbye. He wants to say so much, to explain why he needs to do this, to make her understand. To tell her how tired he is, how weary with the weight of sins and soul. How he wants to put it right. How he doesn't know what lies beyond all this – but he's ready to find out. He wants to tell her how he loves her, more now than ever as she offers him her heart, but how he doesn't need her to be complete. His journey is no longer hers.
But there is no time.
He's at peace. Content. Ready to see how he ends. And so, before the spark becomes a fire that burns for him, he sets her free.
"No you don't."
"But thanks for saying it."
And the earth shifts and pulls her from him, and he is beyond her.
So she goes.
And, in love and fire and laughter, it ends.
The last rumbles of pain from the dying town faded to a sudden, deafening silence. In the aftermath of destruction, the world held its breath.
The air was hot against her skin, drying the last remnants of sweat from her brow and leaving her skin stingingly salt-taught. Her fire-dazzled eyes scanned the settling dust, a miasma of brown that blunted shadows and blurred distance, clouds and swirls that shifted in the disturbed air and hid the town lying shattered at the bottom of the crater beneath a sepia pall. Her scorched hand still stung from the fire of his touch, the pain niggling at the edges of her consciousness. She folded her arms, pressed the scalded, tingling flesh of her hand against her side, hugged the hurt against the twisting emotions in her gut and looked out over the void – waiting.
Behind her the small band of survivors talked, and their words seemed distant and otherwordly, remote and inconsequential. They registered at some superficial level, but didn't pierce the rapt focus of her mind on the chaos below.
Eventually, Dawn's voice cut through her thoughts, brought her back from memories of fire and love. "Buffy. What are we gonna do now?"
Do? The question seemed strangely pointless. What else was there to do but wait? Wait for Spike – for him to come back. She gazed out over the crater and she smiled because she knew – knew – that's what would happen, that this wasn't the end. Because come back he would. He'd find a way. Especially now.
"We wait," she said calmly. "We wait for Spike."
"Buffy, I think… no-one could survive that." Willow bit her lip, forced back sudden, unexpected tears. "He's gone."
"No. He's not." She shook her head but didn't turn around, just kept up her steady vigil.
"Buffy, please!" Dawn's anguished voice finally made her turn. They all stood watching her, a ragged band, battle-weary and blood-stained, exhausted in victory. "Buffy… we have injured. We… they need help…"
"We can't just drive off and leave him." Buffy's voice was determinedly reasonable. "He might need help, too."
"This is madness. You're injured." Giles stepped forward and his voice was tight. "There are people who might die if…"
Buffy interrupted him with an impatient shake of her head. "Healing already. Slayer, remember? You take the others – get help for them. I'll stay for tonight. You can come back and get us tomorrow." She looked at him, her eyes hard. "I won't give up on him. He didn't abandon me, even when every one of you did. He deserves… I deserve one night." The others exchanged worried looks, helpless in the face of her resolve. Buffy set her lips determinedly. "Doesn't seem a lot to ask."
"We'll stay with you – me and Kennedy." Willow drew a deep breath. "You're not staying on your own. We don't know if… and then there's beasties… in the desert… real life beasties with… with teeth… and stingy things…"
"You need rest." Buffy shook her head. "I'll be fine. Really." She sighed and rubbed her eyes wearily. "I know you don't get this, but I have to stay. After everything… he shouldn't be alone." She looked up at them resolutely. "I need to be here."
They tried to reason with her, but she was unmoved and unmovable; arms folded, back to the crater as if shielding it, she stared down every one of their ploys. And so, because she remained immune to their arguments and pleading and even Dawn's emotional blackmail, there seemed little else to do. They left her – uneasily and hesitantly and, she knew, with more than a little anger and resentment. But quite honestly that didn't matter right then. She watched the bus pull away, turned off the cellphone they'd insisted she take and turned back to Sunnydale.
She paced the edges of the crater through the desert-cool evening, eyes searching the chaos of broken earth, avid for the first glimpse of him. The desecrated land heaved and sighed, rumbled as it settled on itself, strove to hide the remnants of its hurt. She picked her way through the shifting rubble until another slip of land sent her crashing to her knees, bloodied and bruised next to a jagged, razor-sharp piece of torn metal that would have sliced through her as easily as a blade if she'd fallen an inch or so further. She had to accept that the risks were too great, that she wouldn't be able to help him if she was too injured herself. She hauled herself to her feet and wiped grit and grime and tears of frustration from her stinging eyes, scanning the debris for any signs of movement. A single recognisable feature stood out at the edge of the desolation, a flat, painted sheet of metal. "Welcome to Sunnydale." She limped painfully over to it, sat down on the sign and waited.
The warmth of the day gave way to the cold desert evening and she kept her vigil.
The soft blue of the sky turned to crimson and gold and then to perfect black satin arching over her head scattered with cold, bright stars. The moon rose, the stars turned, and she sat alone.