After The Fray

*Winner of the Watching You award for Best Angst*

*Winner Dark Awards Depressed Award*

TITLE: After the Fray AUTHOR: AngelsLame

DISCLAIMER: Joss' toys. My playground.

RATING: K+

SUMMARY: Post "The Gift". You'll get it. Don't worry.

He'd tried so hard for it to be him. He'd flown past the others into the middle of the fray. He'd rushed headlong into a crowd of defenders with nothing other than trust in her friend's word. He'd raced up the tower alone and confronted a demon he'd left for dead. He was the first one to shoot and here he was now bleeding and broken, but none of it had mattered.

He sat on the ground, his head in his hands crying uncontrollably. It wasn't fair. It was supposed to have been him. He'd made his peace with that. He'd made his peace with it long ago. But there she lay instead. He felt like he was dying all over again, only this time it hurt so much more. This time there would be no sleep, no new life, nothing but pain and emptiness.

He had seen, from his vantage point by the crack in the asphalt, the portal close above him and he'd closed his eyes in a silent oath that it was over, and they'd won again. He'd lay there in what should have been a moment of joy and he felt nothing but overwhelming fear. He forced himself to rise, to stand. When there's something to fear, find Buffy. He had to find her. He wandered around the minion-strewn construction site until he saw the Scoobies beginning to gather together. He held his side and dragged his broken bones in their direction and it was then that he'd lost everything.

His knees buckled and he fell to the ground. In hope he looked up quizzically for only a moment because even now she was beautiful, beatific, victorious and indomitable. It truly looked like she was only sleeping, but she wasn't, was she? In a fog of panic he began to run through options. Was there time to turn her, time to get help, time to pray for a miracle? And then suddenly the fear that had been coursing through his veins took a horrible form and loomed before him as a reality. She was dead. Dead and gone. Lost to him, from him forever and he couldn't look any longer. He covered his eyes and lowered his head and felt despair wash over him.

At first his anguish was for her, for Buffy. She was so young, so alone and even with all she'd been, she had so much more to give and to learn. She had suffered herself so much lately, there certainly SHOULD have been a happy ending. She deserved a life.

Then, in another wave of pain, his own loss, overtook him. She was not only gone, but gone from him. And things being the way they were, chances of him seeing her in any kind of afterlife were slim to none. Never to see her again would be his hell.

Hell was what he deserved, too. He knew that he'd not done his best tonight. He'd tried, but in looking back on the battle, he could have done more. He could have taken weapons with him when climbing up to Dawn. He could have fought harder or vamped out when he confronted Doc. Damn, the man had been a demon why hadn't he vamped? He'd sworn to Buffy that he would protect Dawn to the ends of the earth, but Doc had bested him and thrown him over the side and gone on to bleed poor Niblet. He'd failed. He'd failed Dawn, he'd seen it plain as day on her face before he fell. And he'd failed Buffy. If he'd held on for only a few more moments, Glory's time would have passed and the portal never opened. It was all his bloody fault.

Slowly he pulled his broken body to her side and laid her head in his lap. He sat there totally inconsolable, stroking her hair and telling her time and again of his love and dreams which they would never realize. Each of the onlookers recognized the depth of his feeling and Willow, at least, knew that Buffy would have wanted to say good-bye to Spike, who she had finally treated as a friend.

Soon, as the sun was rising, Giles made a move to gather up Buffy's body, but Spike snarled an animalistic growl at him and the Watcher had pulled back. The older man withdrew, knowing that grief was driving the blond vampire and that the time would come for the all too familiar formalities.

All of them, all of her friends, sat around the pair in some sort of strange Shiva as Spike's murmured confessions of love became their Kaddish. On some level they all recognized that they should go somewhere, do something, but no one could say where or what, so they stayed. It dawned on them slowly that mourning their loss on the middle of the battlefield where she had fought every day of the last five years, surrounded by the vanquished bodies of her enemies, and the love of those she loved, was just and fitting.

In his grief, Spike relived the last few hours time and time again. After they'd left the Magic Box, he and Buffy had taken his car to the Summers' house. She had stared straight ahead at the road and not spoken a word, but she had reached for his hand and held it tightly the whole way there. Somehow, he realized that miracle of miracles, she needed him to be there. His strength. Not Giles, not Xander, not Willow or Angel, but him and his undead heart drank it in greedily as though it was a river of life-giving blood. In their silence they reached an understanding about fate and its irony.

He had parked the car and she'd purposefully walked in front of him to the door just like so many times before, her mind on the Apocalypse of the moment and focused on her own personal burden. There were no words until they reached the door, and then only brisk instructions. No problem. He could do what she asked, but he'd stopped short at the threshold, held out by his demon.

His memory of the night when the barrier had stopped him again, still caused pain. She'd closed the door in his face and he'd stood there, helpless and lost. This was not, however, the time to remind her of her callousness, even in jest, or the time to beg for entrance. Now there had bigger fish to fry so he'd simply stopped.

Buffy had turned to him then, and listened to his suggestion that she hand the weapons to him. In the smallest of moments she realized that Spike was acknowledging her right to raise the barrier again and another brick fell out of the wall between them. He'd practically seen it fall and when she'd said, "Come in, Spike," it sounded like heaven calling his name and he looked at the doorway like they were the pearly gates themselves. He took a tentative step inside and was instantly overcome with something, something that had delighted him, something he hadn't felt for a long time. Hope.

Even if he was a monster, just like Xander had so tactfully pointed out, for that one instant, that one precious moment, she had treated him like a man. He wanted so badly to take her in his arms and tell her that he loved her, that it would be all right. But he knew that in her mind his purpose tonight was not comfort or reassurance, it was firepower. Well, if he were to die, it would be as a happy man. So what if he had only one kiss, a few precious drops of respect and a gram or two of trust. It was more than he'd ever thought possible.

He wondered if, in her self-sacrifice, there had been any thought of him as she fell. If in between kissing Dawn goodbye and running toward the portal, she'd had just the slightest twinge of, not regret, he'd never want that for her, but just a question, a feeling of something incomplete that only he could fulfill. Had she known it was him?

Spike and the others sat there with Buffy in silence as the sky began to lighten. Finally, Willow moved to Spike's side to remind him of the time.

"I bleedin' know what time it is. Leave us be."

"But Spike, you need to get inside, you can't stay here, you'll...you'll...," Willow didn't finish. "Spike," she continued gently, "You can't do this...not this way. Buffy wouldn't want you to. She wouldn't want you to do this for her."

He was silent for several minutes. He couldn't. He just couldn't say good-bye. It wasn't in him. The pain was too much. He wanted it over. Wanted it more than when he was turned, more than when Dru left him, more than when he was in the wheelchair, more than all those times together, because this time, she wouldn't be there to greet him when he changed his mind. "Wil, I can't. It just isn't in me to want to."

"Spike?" Dawn's soft voice flowed into him as she knelt next to him. "Before she jumped, Buffy told me that the hardest thing to do in this world was to be in it, but that I had to stay here...stay for her. She knew how hard it would be for me, but she was leaving me in good hands. She trusted you to take care of me now, just like you always did." Spike looked up at Dawn.

"Lil' bit?"

"You know how much trouble I can get in to. Please, I need you to take care of me, Spike."

At the sound of her sister's words, the vampire's tears fell anew. His time with Buffy was over. She was gone and he had a responsibility to be strong for Dawn. He nodded his head and slowly stood with Buffy in his arms. He understood that her ears no longer heard him, but if his unbeating heart could break... So for one long moment he lay his cheek on that of the beautiful woman he loved and sighed in her ear, "Buffy, pet, I will take care of Dawn. Me and the rest. We'll love her like our own and we'll take care of her, so don't you worry." He hesitated then continued, "Well, I need to go now, Buffy." He looked for the last time on the face he cherished and kissed her still lips tenderly as he whispered, "I will always love you, Slayer. Always. Until the end of the world."

Giles stepped forward and took Buffy from Spike gently and lovingly, and with wonder at the sacrifice she had made. A sob broke from Spike's throat as he handed her over her body to her Watcher. Giles held her and she seemed so small. He looked up at Spike and found him looking to him for something, "What?" he asked.

"What now Rupert?" he simply didn't know. What was there to be done in a world without Buffy? What did it make sense to do, or did anything make sense?

Giles looked back at the vampire who was at least three times his age, but in so many ways, a shaken man as lost as any. "Let's go," he suggested. Like it or not, he was a part of their "family" now, a family whose business was balancing life and death on the Hellmouth. Welcome to the fold.

FIN