It was noisy, inside the bus they'd stolen, and only getting louder the farther away they got from Sunnydale. (Well, from the crater that Sunnydale used to be – she'd have to get used to thinking of it that way.) While the front was reserved for the wounded and stayed relatively quiet, comforting talk punctuated by the occasional soft cry of pain, the back of the bus was filled with excited chatter from girls who could no longer contain their energy now that the crisis was truly past.

They'd won. Not just survived, which was itself something they hadn't expected to do, but won, permanently closed the Mouth of Hell itself and defeated its minions that had dared to walk the world of mortal men. Defeated the First Evil itself, if not forever then for now, and that was good enough. Even a temporary victory had seemed impossible only a day before – but they'd done it.

So the back of the bus was rapidly devolving into a semi-hysterical party as the girls worked through their terror and jitters and turned them into relief, excitement, laughter and crying and hugging and joy.

Buffy sat in the front.

She didn't begrudge the girls their happiness, but she couldn't bring herself to share it. They'd done the impossible? Well, okay. But as the Slayer she'd done the impossible on a nightly basis for years, not only surviving vampire attacks but destroying the monsters that had thought to prey on her. It was hard to get excited about that anymore. Defeating evil? Commonplace. Getting run through with a sword was new, but nearly dying wasn't.

Why should she celebrate? She'd just done her job, same as always.

And in the past, there had rarely been a cost to be paid for her victories. They'd taken for granted, all of them, that Buffy would fight the bad guys and come out on top, with nothing more to show than a few bumps and bruises. At the very least, if anyone besides her was going to get hurt, it would be only one or two people, and they'd mostly recover. Mostly – there were horrible exceptions, Angelus murdering the love of Giles' life being one of the worst.

The trouble was, it was always the people closest to her that suffered along with her, if she couldn't contain the damage, couldn't keep it from just affecting her. "Only one or two people" in the past had meant the Scoobies and Giles, or Faith. Or Spike. Or Tara.

Not this time. This time Buffy had gotten dozens of people involved in the fight. This time, there was suffering in spades.

Worse, this time, Buffy hadn't been the one to pay the heaviest cost – which would have been only fair, if she had, and no more than Buffy was used to. She took the risks, she should pay for them, right?

This time it was everyone around her who had paid. Paid, and paid, and paid until a round dozen girls lay bleeding at the bottom of the crater behind them, hearts falling silent that would never beat again, eyes that would never see the sun, voices that would never again ring out in laughter. Or whining – Buffy had heard a lot of fearful whining in those last days. Had been too caught up in duty to have much sympathy. But these girls would never be around to annoy her, or make her smile, or ask her to demonstrate another move, another style of fighting, ever again.

She hadn't taught them enough. Or they hadn't learned it quickly enough. Either way, they were dead, and they were never coming back. They'd paid Buffy's price for her.

Anya had paid. This had never been her war to fight – she'd only stayed out of love for Xander – and the cost of their victory should never have been paid with her life. Andrew was alive, because Anya had kept a Bringer's blade away from his back. But now Anya was gone in his place.

And Spike…

Oh, Spike had paid. Where Anya had stayed for Xander, Spike had stayed for her. And only her – he said it himself, he'd never been anyone's champion, didn't think of himself as one. Certainly he had no reason to care about Giles or Wood, much less the rest of the world, and yet he'd saved them. Billions of people around the world were still alive and oblivious to how close they'd come to annihilation, because of Spike. He'd sacrificed himself, walking eyes-open into the mouth of hell itself, knowing there was no way he'd ever walk back out again.

And he'd done it for her.

Those girls, Anya, Spike… all of them paid the price, and she got to run away (run, run, run away, fight again another day), and leave the corpses behind her.

There was a trail of bodies, Buffy thought, everywhere she'd ever walked. Here, LA – it didn't matter. People would tell her that she'd saved lives because of her work, but they didn't call her a Savior. They called her the Slayer, because that was what she did. That was all she was for.

Once, years ago, in the name of duty, she'd killed the man she thought she loved. She'd even said it to him, "I love you," right before she plunged the sword through his chest and he vanished into a vortex, dropped away back then into the hell that they'd just defeated today.

She'd done it again today. "I love you," she'd said, and for the first time since Angel she'd meant it when she said it, meant it wholeheartedly. She'd come this close to healing her heart from the wounds Angelus had inflicted. And then she'd run away like the coward she knew she really was, deep down underneath the Slayer strength and Slayer speed and stupid, worthless Slayer healing.

What good was the healing when it only worked on her? Couldn't bring her mother back. Couldn't fix Xander's eye.

Couldn't bring Spike back.

Her throat ached with the need to cry for him, a need she wouldn't indulge yet. Not here, not in front of the girls or anyone else. Spike wouldn't have wanted the melodrama. So she swallowed hard around the ache, and kept her face turned to the window as her eyes burned and her throat grew tight and her head felt like someone was driving nails into her temples.

She didn't deserve to cry for him. Didn't deserve to feel better after leaving him there to die. She may not have plunged a sword through him the way she did Angel, but still, she'd as good as killed him herself when she handed him that amulet and asked him to wear it for her. No; she didn't get to comfort herself afterward with stupid platitudes and group hugs.

Spike was gone, and it was her fault.

A single tear crept down her cheek. She reached up to brush it away, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Wood shift on the seat directly behind her. They'd gotten his wound stabilized, at least, but he was in no shape to drive. He was looking right at her, damn him.

"It was really him," he rasped. "That shut it down?"

Buffy swallowed, took a deep breath. Her throat was almost too tight to get words out. "Yes," she managed to say. "It really was."

Wood – she'd never again grant him the familiarity of calling him by his first name – hesitated before saying quietly, "It was a good death. A good way to go."

Maybe that was some kind of apology he was offering. An olive branch, something. If it was…

"Better than the one you planned for him," she said. Looked him dead in the eye before turning to stare out the window again.

If it was, she did not accept it. Couldn't.

Spike was gone, and it was her fault.

The desert flashed by outside as they headed north, fleeing to Los Angeles and temporary shelter with Angel and his people, but it didn't really register.

All she saw, all she could see in her mind's eye, was Spike. The wonder on his face, mingled with pain as the amulet sank hooks into his soul and used it to blast a hole through tons of rock, clear up to the sky. The golden light bathing his features, turning him into some kind of otherworldly, fae creature instead of the vampire she'd known and loved.

Loved. She could admit that, now, when it was too late. She'd told him the truth in the cavern, but in the end it hadn't mattered. Hadn't saved him, hadn't convinced him to drop the amulet and flee with her. No, he'd become something greater, exalted in his last moments, and she was so proud of him she could hardly breathe – but it meant that he'd moved beyond the point where he would ever need her, or her fickle, selfish love, ever again.

She blinked, and behind closed eyelids Buffy saw their hands clasped, flame flickering between their fingers that, by some miracle, only felt pleasantly warm to her even as it scorched his skin. The beams lancing out from the amulet, seeming to come directly from his heart as they pierced the darkness of the cavern, destroying every enemy they touched.

Destroying him.

And now he was gone.

The shock of it should still have been too new, too raw for her to really believe, but she forced herself to think it; played with the phrase, turning the words over and over again in her head: Spike was gone.

Spike was gone.

Buffy would never see him again. Never get to hear his sardonic humor, catch him smirking at her out of the corner of her eye, feel him trailing her from what he thought was a safe distance while she patrolled. Never hear the snick of his lighter as he put a cigarette to his lips. He would never show up unannounced to irritate her anymore. He would never sit next to her on the back steps, silent but able to comfort her with just his presence.

Never kiss her. Never touch her. Never make her body sing when the rest of the world left her numb at best, and hateful at worst.

He would never look into her eyes again, with tenderness or anger or pain.

He would never try to convince her he loved her, ever again.

And it was her fault.

Her choice to accept the amulet Angel offered, her decision to include Spike in the final battle – in all their battles against the First, against Caleb, as her most trusted aide – her idea to name Spike her Champion.

Her choices before that, to push him away, to make him think he was unworthy of her, to think he had to redeem himself in her eyes and that throwing his life into the inferno was the only way to do it.

Champion, she thought sadly. The word itself made her chest hurt, made it hard to breathe. Champion, another word for hero. And he was, oh, he was, he'd almost single-handedly saved the world from being overrun by the hordes of Hell, and died a hero's death – but he'd still died. Paid the price it was her job to pay. Paid for their victory, paid for her life, paid for the lives of an entire world that she wasn't sure she even cared about saving anymore.

It was different, when the cost of victory was her own life. She could pay that, had paid it, willingly. But now…

Now, Spike was gone, and that price – Spike in exchange for the world – was too high for her. She wasn't sure she could do it anymore. Go on protecting a world that had no idea what it had lost today.

Spike was gone. It was her fault.

And he had died, not believing her when she said that she loved him.

The days passed. The wounded were given time to recover; plans were made to rebuild the ruined Council of Watchers; ideas were bandied about concerning how to gather and train all these new Slayers. Willow's spell had reshaped the world, and all around Buffy, the others were scrambling to adapt.

Amidst all the activity, Buffy was still.

Oh, Buffy was still the original Slayer, even if she was no longer the only Chosen One. She couldn't afford to have some kind of girly breakdown, the way a couple of the former Potentials had done once the pressure was off and they could give in to their pain.

But she didn't participate in the planning. Didn't offer ideas. Didn't volunteer to gather up the newly-called girls around the world.

Didn't really talk at all, anymore. There was nothing she particularly cared to say to anyone. There was nothing she could say that she thought they would understand or sympathize with, and even if they did, she didn't especially want anyone's pity. Everyone there had lost someone, after all.

It wasn't their fault, and she didn't really want to go into it with them, that the one she'd lost was someone she hadn't valued while she had him.

How much had Spike done for her, over the years? And how much had she taken for granted, or deliberately scorned, belittling him and all he'd ever given her? Gifts she'd never asked for, so she counted them worthless and threw them back in his face, time and time again.

Not this time. Not ever again. In the days before that final battle, she felt that she'd finally come to see him – Spike, and William who was hidden under the façade – for who he really was. If he'd survived, she thought she would have finally learned not to take him for granted, to act as though she were somehow entitled to everything he'd ever done for her. As if she'd had the right to inflict everything she'd ever done to him. As if she somehow deserved all his devotion and loyalty, and love.

She deserved nothing. Looking back, she wasn't sure she ever had.

So Buffy kept to herself. Didn't choose to burden anyone with her pain when they had their own to work through. She went to bed when the others did, but she didn't sleep. She put food on her plate with the rest of them, but could never manage more than a few bites before grief leached the flavors out of everything. She hadn't known sadness could do that. She kept herself moving – got out of bed, got dressed, kept herself showered and combed and all the rest – so no one could really say for sure that she was falling apart.

But they were just motions, and without Spike in her life anymore, they were meaningless. Words were just gibberish, not worth gathering the energy to listen to, or to say. The words "I love you" hadn't meant anything when she'd finally gotten over herself and said them, hadn't given him a reason not to die; now, she found it difficult to see what purpose words really served at all.

Actions were as senseless as searching for the corners in a round room, and just as wasteful of her efforts. None of her actions had saved those girls, or Spike. All her actions had ever done was to push people away, or to get them killed. So, for the most part she didn't bother anymore.

Buffy sat in her hotel room and looked at the wall, or sat with the others and looked at her hands, or sat near a window and looked out over a world that didn't have Spike in it.

Windows were best. For the most part, people left her alone when she looked out windows.

Even better, when she looked out windows, if people left her alone long enough, sometimes she could feel Spike sitting next to her, as if they were still out on the back steps, and he was offering her comfort just by his presence. It was nice. An illusion – she knew that – but a nice one all the same.

Time passed, and then one day not long after the battle she found herself sitting beside Giles at the window, in the balcony that overlooked the hotel lobby, clearing his throat. Trying to get her attention.

"I'm leaving, Buffy," he said. "Going to Edinburgh, as we discussed – er, well, as the rest of us discussed."

She just looked at him. His words didn't seem to require a response.

"I wanted – I'm not sure when we'll see each other again," he said, "and before I left I wanted to tell you – I'm sorry."

She blinked, slowly. Waited.

"I was wrong," he said gently. "About Spike. About your trusting him. His sacrifice – without him…"

"Yes," said Buffy.

"I don't know if you'll ever be able to – if you'll ever feel comfortable, confiding in me again," said Giles. "And I understand if you'd prefer not to. I failed you. Failed myself, as well. Deliberately blinded myself to what was in front of me all along, and broke your trust in the process. I know I can't – can't wave my hand and make all of that just disappear." He looked down for a moment, blinking rapidly. Looked back up and said, "But I can offer you my apology, at the very least."

Buffy studied his face, licked her lips. "Okay," she said.

"Okay," he repeated in a whisper. Looked down again, smoothed his hands across his lap. "Yes. Well." He was blinking quickly again as he stood, held out his hand. "Well. Goodbye, Buffy. I hope we see one another again soon."

She studied his hand, the lines in his palm, the ring he wore on one finger. He seemed to be waiting for her to do something, so after a moment she held her own hand out, took his and let him squeeze it.

A handshake. After all their years together, after everything that had happened between them, they were reduced to shaking hands in farewell. But she couldn't muster up the energy to give him anything else. It was just another gesture that meant nothing to her anymore, just more wasted motion, but it seemed to make Giles feel better, so maybe that made it okay.

"Bye," she said softly.

"Goodbye," he replied. There were tears standing in his eyes, looking as if they were on the verge of falling, but he turned away before she could see it happen.

Giles was leaving her again, walking out of her life, probably forever this time. Although he'd said he wanted to see her some time – soon, he'd said – Buffy really didn't know what those words meant anymore.

And then she blinked, and when her eyes opened again he was downstairs at the lobby door, suitcases in hand. She looked out the window, watched as he loaded his bags into the trunk of a taxi, watched as he climbed inside.

Watched the cab till it disappeared around a corner and was gone.

As always, I pine for your reviews and do cute little happydances in front of my computer whenever I get one.