* * * * * *
"Angel," she whispered again, the sound almost being lost as the wind swept it away. But he heard her.
He would always hear her.
"Buffy?" he murmured weakly, finally opening his eyes.
She let out a sob of relief, touching his eyelids, his cheeks, her hand slipping back around to the burn on his neck. She leaned close; so close that their eyelashes grazed each other's. "Are you okay?"
"You're bleeding," he answered, struggling to get up.
Until that moment, until his words, the pain didn't register. Suddenly it slammed into her shoulder ferociously. She cringed, trying to shrug off the feeling. "Yeah. I'll be fine, though. Are you okay?" she repeated.
"I think... What *was* that thing?" There was annoyance in his voice, and Buffy smiled.
"A... It's a long story. Come on." She slowly helped him get up, and let him lean against her as they began walking through the woods, knowing that the sun would rise very soon. Her shoulder throbbed. So did her heart. "I'll take you... home?"
"The mansion," he clarified, knowing exactly what she was asking him. She sighed and her breath settled against his shirt, warming it. "It's not that far."
"Barely a block," she acknowledged.
She paused. Likewise, she knew what he was going to say to her, knew it intuitively, from somewhere deep inside of her, the way only two of the closest souls can identify with each other. Buffy reached up and touched his mouth. "Shush. We'll talk about it later."
* * * * * * * * *
She laid him in bed, and in moments he was silent and still. Buffy watched him for a moment, surprised at her surprise over his lack of breathing. It's not as though she hadn't seen him sleep before, she reminded herself. But, being without him for so long... Sometimes the small things drifted away.
Even though the small things could be twice as important as the rest.
After she had bandaged them both up, Buffy lit a fire in the fireplace and then walked back over to him where he rested. She sat down next to him on the mattress. Her voice was quiet and pain-filled, but resigned. Her hand held his. "I love you, Angel. I'm not going to ever stop. I loved you when I first met you... God, you annoyed me." The ghost of a smile slipped over her face and then vanished. "I loved you then, and I loved you when we first kissed, and when we made love. I loved you when you were gone from me, and when the demon that stole your face was torturing my friends. I dreamed about you every night, woke up every morning with a tear-soaked pillow. I loved you every time Angelus and I fought."
She stopped for a moment, her tears spilling off of her lashes. "I loved your strength and beauty. I loved you for your passion and your soul and your sorrow and the way you smiled, even though that was rare. I loved you for how much you loved me, for the way you kissed, for the way you could make *me* smile... For the way you danced, and the way you held me in your arms. And I loved you when I killed you, Angel. I never felt a love like that, before or since. I loved you when you came back to me, when we shared the dreams, when the snow saved your life. I loved you when you pretended to be Angelus, when you kissed Faith. ...I loved you when you drank from me. I loved you when you left me. I loved you while you were gone, every second, and when I saw you for five minutes in LA, I loved you even more than I thought was possible because I hadn't seen you in so long."
The tears streaked down her cheeks, falling off her chin and landing on their hands, woven together. Buffy cried silently for a minute, searching her mind for the right thing to say, to tell him.
Her voice was soft. "I loved you when I saw you last night, when you kissed me, for the way we can't seem to control ourselves when we get around each other. And... And I love you today, Angel."
"I'm always going to love you," she said haltingly. "Because now you're part of me. Maybe if we had stopped it after that first kiss, or before, or if we had never met, or never had made love or fought or touched or looked at each other... Maybe then I wouldn't love you forever, like I know I'm going to now. But all of those things happened. I see you almost every time I close my eyes. You're the biggest part of me, the part I love best about myself. ...But I have to make this choice."
His hand tightened around hers, but his eyes didn't open. Still, Buffy knew that he was awake and listening, and that he knew that if he looked at her, everything she was about to say would be lost. "Yes," he whispered, telling her with that single word to continue.
"You left so that I could make it," she nodded. "You left so that I could be happy. And as happy as I am with you, Angel... As happy as you make me just by being here when I need you, just by everything I've said to you just now, it can't be. But I *can* be with Riley. And I do..." Her chin trembled and she closed her eyes so that she wouldn't have to look at Angel's face as she said the next words. "I do love him."
Finally Angel's eyes opened, and he looked at her with eyes full of pain and acceptance, love and torture, eyes full of everything he felt for her, baring it all, holding nothing back. His mouth opened silently, and he worded out, "I love you," with no voice. She whimpered softly as he lifted himself up, pulling her close in his arms. Buffy hugged him back, as tightly as she could, not wanting to let go for anyone, not even Riley.
But she knew she had to let go for herself.
And for Angel.
Angel's hand held the back of her head, cradling it, as he felt her hot tears land on his shoulder. She sniffled against him, her hands feeling the tight, tense muscles under his back, knowing how much that single embrace was costing him. At length he pulled back, and looked her deeply in the eyes again. He leaned forward, kissing her softly on the mouth.
The kiss was full of meaning, and sweet and far too short, but it was the only way to kiss someone who....
Who you were saying goodbye to for the final time.
Buffy wouldn't see him again, and he wouldn't see her.
The kiss ended, and Buffy slowly stood up, their hands linked. She began to move away, looking anywhere but at Angel, and their hands slowly slipped from each other's grasp until only their fingertips were touching.
And then she was gone.
* * * * * * * *
"Riley." Buffy stepped into his room and closed the door softly behind her. Riley looked up at her from his place on the small couch, not surprised, and then looked away, his mouth tight, his eyes angry. Buffy switched on a lamp, lighting up the room. He had been sitting in the dark, alone.
Maybe I shouldn't have waited until night to come and talk to him, she thought briefly. It doesn't look like he's cooled down.
"Buffy," he greeted in a hard voice.
"Riley, there's a lot you don't understand," she started quietly, sinking into a chair across from him.
"Then explain it to me!" he burst out. "That's all I ever wanted you to do; I just wanted you to tell me what was going on, to share things with me. I've compromised myself so many times with the Initiative-- for you-- that it's surprising that I haven't been fired. Or something worse. I did it because you were important to me." He looked down at his hands bitterly. "I guess I'm not as important to you."
"Riley," she repeated gently. "It's not that. It's just... It hurts me when I talk about him. There are so many things that I can't even tell you, because I can't tell myself."
He finally looked her in the eyes, his expression pleading. "Then tell me what you can."
Buffy nodded with a sigh, and leaned back in the chair wearily. After a moment, she began. "Angel was made a vampire a long time ago. He's about two hundred and forty-five years old. He was like all of them, for over a hundred years, and then he fed on the wrong girl. A gypsy. As penance, the clan cursed him with a soul."
Riley looked at her in confusion, and she elaborated, telling him what Angel had told her years ago. "When a human becomes a vampire, the demon gets your body, but it doesn't get your soul. That's gone somewhere. You don't feel remorse or compassion or anything but... There's just evil inside of you. So when he got his soul back, he felt about two lifetimes of guilt hanging over his head."
"And you bought this?" Riley asked incredulously.
"I didn't have a reason not to," Buffy said honestly. "And a lot of reasons to believe."
"Well, he saved my life... so many times. And we fell in love," she said simply, surprised that the words came out so easily. "And then, on the night of my seventeenth birthday... On the night of my seventeenth birthday..." Buffy trailed off, blinking away the tears that were gathering in her eyes.
His voice a bit more gentle, noting the break in her words. "On the night of your seventeenth birthday...?" he prompted.
"We made love." She swallowed hard. "And... It was taken away from him."
"His soul," she confessed softly, feeling the pain of the experience, as though it were still happening to her. "The gypsies had put in a clause, that if he ever achieved perfect happiness, if there was ever a single moment in which he forgot and didn't feel guilty for everything he had done, he would lose his soul. And he became Angelus again."
Riley raised his head slowly, shock and regret filling his expression. "Buffy..."
She shook her head. "I fought him. For months, I fought him. But I still loved him, you see, so I wasn't strong enough to... kill him. And then he killed one of my friends, someone that had been really close to us... Especially to Giles. Her name was Jenny Calendar. He killed her, and *then* I was strong enough. There was a demon a while after that. Acathla. Angel was trying to raise him. He would suck the world into Hell. And I was told that the only way to stop the world from going up in flames was to kill Angel. I was told that killing him would send them both back to Hell. And we fought." She gave a sad, broken laugh, brushing away a few stray tears. "Big old sword fight ensued. But what I didn't know was that Willow... Willow was doing the spell to re-curse him." Her voice was a whisper. "And it worked."
Riley's eyebrows drew together. "It worked," he echoed, confused for the moment at her tears.
"But the porthole was already opened," Buffy said softly. "And I had to kill him anyway. I had to kill Angel, the vampire that I loved, to save the world. So we kissed, and I told him that I loved him, and then I stabbed him. And I left." She nodded. "Life pretty much sucked for a long time after that. I ran away, didn't tell anyone what had happened... I was alone for a long time. But I came back... And so did Angel."
"We don't really know how it happened," Buffy said, answering the bewildered tone in his voice. "But it did. For a while, we tried to stay away from each other... Sort of. I mean, he was healing and I was helping him, but other than that, I was getting on with my life. Or trying to. But it didn't work for long. And we sort of fell deeper than ever. There are a lot of things that I could tell you about what happened last year. The snow, the dreams Angel and I shared, the three or four times we broke up. That's one of the reasons that I was so vague about the things that Faith had done. She had tried to make him lose his soul again, tried to take him away from..." She shrugged. "From the good guys, I guess. From me."
"So that's why you hate Faith," Riley stated.
"I don't hate her," Buffy disagreed. "I hurt for her. And I'm angry with her. And I'll kill her if I have to. But I don't hate her."
"Because I can't. Because we're two sides of the same coin, the only two girls in the world capable of what we can do." Buffy shook her head. "But this isn't about Faith. Riley, last year, Angel told me he was leaving. After the ascension; you remember what I told you about that?"
"Well, Faith wanted the ascension to go smoothly, so she tried to take me out of the running. By hurting Angel. She hit him with a poisoned dart, and thought she had won. But there was a cure." Buffy swallowed again. "The blood of a Slayer. So I tracked her, and ended up putting her in a coma... But she got away from me before I could bring her to Angel, so...."
"So you fed him," Riley stated, already knowing the answer.
"Yes. Rather than let him die, I fed him from myself. He drank from me and, Riley, I still don't regret it. I would probably do it over again if I had to." She exhaled. "After he was healed, and after I was healed... And after the ascension... He left. For LA. He runs a detective agency now. And I said goodbye to him this morning."
"You said goodbye?"
"I love him, and I always will, for a million reasons. But I love you too. And that's not changing, even with how deeply I feel about Angel," Buffy said, looking away from her boyfriend. "It wasn't that you weren't important enough for me to tell you all these things... It was that you were so important that I didn't want to lose you once I told."
"Buffy," Riley said hoarsely. She looked up at him, her eyes shimmering. "You're not going to lose me."
A strangled sob burst out of her throat, and Buffy launched herself into his arms. They fell back on the bed together. "Thank you," she whispered fervently, shaking her head against his chest. "I love you."
"I love you too," he murmured, kissing her hair and cheek and neck. "And I couldn't leave you, even if I wanted to. But I don't. That's what love is, isn't it?"
A smile broke over her face. "I think that's obsession," she laughed.
Riley smiled. "That too." He kissed her mouth hotly, his hands holding her close. Buffy giggled against him, opening her mouth under his, as pliant as a rag doll in his arms. Maybe the bad is gone for good, she thought. Just like that.
"It is," Riley murmured against her mouth, and Buffy realized that she had been talking out loud. "Just like that. Because we love each other."
Buffy nodded, and kissed him again, warm and laughing and happy in his embrace. Something tickled the back of her mind, and her heart froze for a moment, reaching out. It quickly melted, finding nothing but love and acceptance and warmth towards her, and Buffy reached out and switched the light back off, content in her boyfriend's room and life and heart.
And Angel looked up at the room, saw the light go off, and sighed, feeling Buffy's heart search for his and find it, feeling her goodbye. He would always love her too. Yesterday, today and tomorrow.
So he let her go.
And as he walked into the night, a content feeling settled in his stomach, contentment for Buffy, and for himself. It was a hard sacrifice, but they made it for each other. He smiled.
That's what love was all about.