Loving Eternally: Chapter 13
by Lisette

Legalese: See Chapter 1 for disclaimers and ratings.

Sunnydale General Hospital

With the slow awakening from her deep sleep came a world of aches and pains and above all else, weakness. Groaning, Buffy lifted one slender hand and pressed it against her aching forehead, shielding her eyes from the bright glare of the fluorescent lights that blinded her bloodshot green eyes. "I hope that someone caught the license of that semi," she whispered absently as her eyes finally adjusted to the light, taking in the green walls, beeping machinery, and the starch white sheets that covered her slim form. "And it gets so much better," she groaned as she recognized the hospital room for what it was.

"I really hate hospitals," she continued to herself as she slowly drew the sheet aside and slid her legs to the edge of the bed. Grinding her teeth against a wave of dizziness at the sudden movement, Buffy slowly inched forward until her bare feet were resting on the cold linoleum floor. Hissing between clenched teeth, she then forced herself to stand, willing her shaky legs to hold beneath her as she attempted to make a break for the closet that no doubt held her clothing before...

"Hey! What are you doing?"

...before someone came in and found her attempting to make her ever graceful getaway. "Making a break for it," she grumbled as her legs finally gave way beneath her like a newborn colt first learning to stumble around the pasture. Closing her eyes against the sight of the floor rushing to meet her, Buffy grunted as strong arms wrapped around her slight form and effortlessly lifted her into their arms. Dizzy, she took a moment to rest her head against the person's shoulder, all the while absently praying that her flimsy hospital gown was tightly secured over her rear.

"Are you alright?" the same low baritone asked as she felt herself being gently deposited on the sturdy hospital bed, returning her to her prison.

"Been better," she quipped wearily as she felt the covers being drawn over her once more. Sighing, she slowly opened her eyes and blearily focused on the orderly that had, embarrassingly, come to her rescue. Instead, she found the face of a familiar stranger. "You," she whispered slowly, taking in the dark eyed, dark haired young man that stood attentively at her bedside, studying her with an unnerving intensity.

"Me," Riley agreed, unperturbed by the greeting. Although it wasn't exactly the response he had been hoping to receive from the sister he had never known, he'd take anything he could get at the moment.

"We won?" Buffy asked, forcing the room to stop spinning as she eyed her brother, noticing that he didn't look too worse for wear considering the last couple of nights that he had endured - not too hot either, but hey, the way that she felt, she probably didn't look like she was ready for a beauty contest either.

"Not exactly a stunning victory," Riley responded dryly, eyeing the swath of bandages that encircled his sister's neck, her long blonde hair forming a lank halo around it, still unable to get the feeling of his sister, lying so limp and still in his arms, from his thoughts.

Following his line of sight, Buffy slowly lifted a hand and traced the cotton that encircled her throat. In an instant, her aching weakness made sense - she hadn't felt like this since.. well, since she had offered herself up to Angel to save his life. And in this case, she felt considerably worse. Apparently, Spike just didn't know when enough was enough. "Spike?" she asked quickly, her eyes growing wide as that thought led to another - one considerably more important.

"He and Druscilla escaped," was his muttered response, looking as though he'd like to do many of the same things to the bleached vampire that were running through her own mind. But for Buffy, the anger was so much worse because she had trusted the vampire - and because of that trust she had endangered the lives of the children of her friends and family. Oh yeah, Spike would pay for his treachery the next time that they crossed paths - and they would cross paths again. Of that, Buffy was certain.

"And everyone else? Are the others alright?" Buffy asked, already knowing the answer by the look on his face. He wouldn't be standing by her bedside, chatting away with her if someone that he truly loved had been harmed.

"You're the only one that ended up in a hospital, if that's what you're asking," Riley responded with a grim smirk.

Nodding, Buffy fingered the cotton that encircled her neck once more. "How bad?" she asked, unconcerned with his words as her eyes trailed over him, taking in his dusty garments from the night before. She couldn't have been out too long if he hadn't even had a chance to go home and change yet. But then her eyes narrowed on a strip of white that wrapped around his elbow. "And what happened to you? I thought that you said no one else was hurt," she demanded, her tone beginning to turn the slightest bit anxious, driving her tiredness away.

Smiling grimly, Riley flexed his sore arm before locking eyes with his sister. "I said not badly enough to land them in the hospital - and this was for you," he continued, quickly gaining her attention once more as she raised an eyebrow skeptically. "The doctor thought that it was too late, that you had lost too much blood," he explained, watching as her eyes widened slightly. "You drained the blood banks and being family.. well, they made an exception and took the milk right from the cow, so to speak," he explained as he indicated the bandaged nook of his arm.

Sighing, Buffy allowed her eyes to drift shut for the briefest of seconds, drawing strength from a well that she had deep within herself. "Well bless that good ole Slayer healing," she muttered sarcastically before pushing herself into a sitting position once more. As a wave of dizziness swept over her once again, Buffy impatiently batted away Riley's concerned hand. After a moment to steady herself, she once more pushed her legs over the side of the bed, but the second that she tried to put her weight on them they quickly buckled, sending her into Riley's arms once again.

This time anger fueled her as she tried to push him away, drawing on her Slayer strength, finding none, and gritting her teeth in frustration as he easily ignored her weak protests and placed her in the hospital bed once more. "You're too weak," he muttered, explaining the obvious as he drew the white sheets over her tiny frame, finding it hard to remember the strength that this small body usually contained. "And where do you think you're going, anyway? Going to run again? Without saying goodbye?" he prompted, watching as Buffy drew back as though slapped.

"You don't know what you're talking about," Buffy hissed, hating herself for the tears that burned unbidden in her green eyes. All she knew was that the others weren't here and if she didn't leave now.. if she didn't leave now then it would just get harder and harder to do so and she knew that she couldn't stay. If anything, this little trip down Memory Lane had proved that to her. It was because she was the Slayer that her brother and his friends, the kids of her friends and family, had been taken. To use them as bait to get to her. She couldn't endanger them like that again.

"I think I do," Riley responded slowly, his face twisting into something that was a mix of compassion, pity, and understanding. "You've been out for quite a while... long enough that Alex, Will and I have finally heard the truth about Sunnydale's deep, dark secret - and its hero."

Hearing this word associated with herself, Buffy couldn't help the bitter laugh that escaped her dry lips. At one point she had considered herself a hero. The savior for the weak and helpless who fought off the wave of darkness that beat down the doors of Sunnydale. In high school she had even been awarded the title of Class Protector. At that point, she had worn the title proudly, smiling as she led her classmates into battle and death against the Mayor - a death that many should never had to face because it had been her job to save them. They had no reason to face the darkness that had become a part of her life. Oh no, she was no hero. She was just doing the job that Fate or Destiny, or whoever in the hell handed these things out, had given her. And when she looked back at the shitty job that she had done over the years, at all of the lives that she hadn't saved.. well, she had to wonder if Fate and Destiny were sitting around and having a good cry right now at the fuck up that they made all those years ago when they decided that she should be the Chosen One.

"Listen, I wanted to thank you," Riley continued, as though he hadn't heard her self-recriminating bark of laughter.

"Thank me?" Buffy asked wearily, arching one slender eyebrow at her brother. "For what? Getting you kidnapped? Used as bait? Threatened? Hurt?" she asked quickly, her eyes narrowing in self-hatred. "Please stop me when I hit the mark."

"For risking your life to save me," he replied smoothly, ignoring her bitter words. He had been told the stories of her past, of all that she had sacrificed and risked for everyone that she loved time and time again, about her conquests and her defeats.. about those that she had lost and how it had finally driven her to the fate that she had bitterly accepted. "You didn't have to offer your life for mine - that's not a part of your sacred duty - it was an offer of suicide to save someone you didn't even know."

"You're my brother," Buffy whispered dimly, refusing to accept his thanks.

"But that's just a word. You don't know me," Riley protested, shaking his head curtly. "I'm a stranger and you offered your life for mine."

"No," Buffy protested softly, her eyes locking with his. "You're the answer to a prayer."

At her solemn declaration, Riley could only stare at his sister in confusion. "To who's prayer?"

"Mine," Buffy whispered as the tear finally broke free and drifted down her pale cheek.

"I don't understand," Riley whispered, drawing closer to her bedside as he hesitantly took her small hand in his own.

Sighing, Buffy lifted her other hand and curled it into a tight fist that rested over her heart, trying to put her thoughts into words. "I knew that I had to leave, to make them all safe," she whispered, thinking back to the cold emptiness that she had lived in those few days that she had lain in a pool of her own blood, all of those years ago, back in Angel's mansion after Riley had been killed. "I knew that I had to leave so they could be safe," she repeated, "but I knew how much that it would hurt them all. I had left once before and I had promised never to do it again... but by being my mother's daughter, Giles' Slayer, and the friend to my friends, they were endangered by me. If I had stayed, they would have died and left me all alone," she whispered, her tears blurring her vision. "I could never be the nice and normal daughter that my mother had always wanted, had begged me to be. I couldn't be that for my mom... and then you came," she whispered, meeting his beautiful brown eyes. "You were able to be everything to all of them that I was never able to be."

"But you didn't have to leave," Riley protested, squeezing her hand tightly within his own.

"I did," Buffy argued quickly, no doubt in her mind that she was right. "Everything that I love dies because of me, because of who I am... because I'm the Slayer," she whispered. Sighing, Buffy angrily wiped away her tears as she tried to focus on Riley's handsome face. "Someone once told me that I would live unchanged, never aging, while all those around me would grow older and die... that I would always be alone. Because I'm the Slayer, I am and always will be alone. It has to be that way..."

"No, it doesn't."

Surprised, Buffy tore her eyes away from her brother's and glanced towards the voice. Chagrined, she saw that sometime during her heated conversation with Riley, the others had entered the room, quietly observing their private exchange. Some, like her mother and Willow, had tears in their eyes, while others, like Giles and Xander, looked only angry and stubborn. But it was the one who spoke, who denied her words out loud, that drew her attention as he broke away from the others and took Riley's place at her bedside. As the others seemed to fade away and as she became lost in his familiar brown eyes, Buffy felt the walls that she had carefully constructed around her heart with time slowly begin to crumble.

"Buffy, it doesn't have to be that way," Angel whispered, tentatively reaching forward to brush an errant strand of blonde away from her pale cheek. Even as she was, bruised, pale, weak and haggard, he thought that she was the most beautiful sight that he had ever seen.

"Angel, I-"

"Shh," he whispered, gently reaching forward to silence her with a finger against her soft lips. "We all know that you can't stay here," he whispered, leaning close to her so that his words fanned across her face in a cool breath, "but not for the reasons that you think. They will be your family and friends, even if you forsake and run from them," he continued, feeling as the others drew nearer, "but that won't save them. You tried that once before and that didn't stop Spike from targeting them. Nothing will. You're the Slayer and there's nothing that can be done about that. They're your family and friends and you can't undo that. What has happened has happened and what will happen will happen - you may be the Slayer, but you can't stop that from happening."

"Buffy, we know that you can't stay here with us," Joyce whispered, breaking away from her husband to move beside Angel, smiling tenderly down at her daughter even as harsh tears burned in her eyes. It hurt her like none would ever know to say these words, but after she and the others had talked, she knew it to be true. "But not because we don't want you to," she continued, as though reading her daughter's mind. "I want nothing more than to have both my son and my daughter by my side, my family complete," she stated as she drew Riley beside her, "but I understand that you can't."

"Buffy, you are the Slayer," Giles added, taking over as he moved to the other side of her bed, the look of love in his eyes taking away from his firm, Watcher's tone of voice. "You cannot stay in Sunnydale because Sunnydale no longer needs you. The world needs you elsewhere now and we understand this."

"But you don't have to be alone any longer," Angel replied firmly, speaking for everyone as he squeezed her hand firmly.

"Buffy, this time we want you to stay in contact with us," Willow added firmly as she impatiently brushed a wave of long red hair from her face. "We want to know where you are and what you're fighting."

"We won't try to interfere," Xander added quickly, as though sensing her next argument. "We're too old for that," he added with a small scowl, although even as he spoke it Buffy couldn't help a wry grin as he still looked the same age as the daughter that stood between him and his wife. "But we want to know where you are so that we know that you're safe."

"And you have to come back and visit in between Slaying," Riley added, showing that he too had been a part of this obviously lengthy and detailed discussion.

"And this time, you won't be alone," Angel reiterated as he drew Buffy's attention back to him once again, this time making his meaning clear as he tried to show how much he still loved her with his eyes, the way that they caressed her every feature. "For as smart as you are, you missed something pretty big when you assumed that you would be the only one who would never age and who would live forever," he continued with a rare grin. "This time I'm going with you because it's always been my fight as well as yours. You're never going to be alone again," he vowed before slowly leaning forward and sealing his vow with a soft kiss that pressed against her lips.

Sighing, Buffy felt as though it was him that was breathing life into her, instead of the other way around, as the kiss seared deeper and deeper within her, causing her vision to blur and her world to spin. In that kiss, she felt how much he loved and cherished her above all else, felt the honesty in his words and in his vow, and felt the love of all of her friends and family. For the first time in longer than she could remember, Buffy felt a part of her heart stir that hadn't been touched since Riley had died. She thought that it was hope. It was hope that there was something worthwhile in her future after all, a future that had never seemed to contain anything else but death, despair, and loneliness. It contained companionship, laughter, happiness, and above all else, it contained love.

But then, as something else began to stir within her as the kiss deepened, Buffy felt her thin hope crack and shatter under a tide of cold water as she quickly pulled away from Angel's kiss, her wide eyes locking with his. "We can't," she whispered, feeling the tears burn her eyes once again, "the curse."

At this, there was a moment of stunned silence in the small hospital room before Xander broke it with a loud cackle of laughter that soon followed with others from those in the room. "Geez Buffy, what kind of an example are you setting for our kids?" he smirked as Alex elbowed him sharply in the side. "Not everything is about sex!"

Flushing, Buffy watched as her friends and family smirked while Angel looked at her with a curious scrutiny. Turning, she glared at Xander while she tried to shrink in the hospital bed, wanting nothing more than to hide in embarrassment.

Finally, it was Willow who saved her from further torment as, between fits of giggles, she quickly stammered, "Don't worry Buffy! I found a spell that left Angel's soul intact while getting rid of the side effects of the curse years ago! Will and I completed it when he was just a little kid-"

"We did?" Will asked, looking at his mother as though she were crazy.

"You were too young to remember, honey," was Willow's quick retort as dawning realization seemed to sweep across Buffy's features.

"You mean we can.. you know," Buffy quickly stammered in between anxious glances at the amused expressions of her friends and family.

"Angelus is gone for good," was Angel's firm reply as a shadow of a smile once more lifted Buffy's lips. "But you would have known this a long time ago, and wouldn't have suffered for so long, if you only would have done what we're asking now," he continued, watching as that smile began to fade.

"What do you say, Buffy?" Giles prompted from beside her, his face solemn as he awaited his Slayer's.. his daughter's, response.

Biting her lip, Buffy looked at all of those that she had lived, fought, and died for repeatedly over the years. She still wasn't perfect, and she knew that, but somehow, together, maybe they could make this shitty twist of fate work for them after all. Maybe, just maybe she could keep her family, could keep her friends, and still fight the good fight for the White Hats, with Angel at her side, and never be alone again. Then again, maybe she was just opening herself up to get hurt even worse than when Riley died and when she bid the world that she had known all of her life goodbye. But wasn't it worth that chance? That hope?

"How could I say no?" she finally asked, looking from each face of her friends and family to the other, before finally landing on Angel's beautiful face - the face that had haunted her dreams since she was only sixteen years old. The face that would continue to haunt her nights forever.

"Well now that we have that all figured out," Alex proclaimed loudly, very quickly ruining the moment as all eyes turned to the brash raven haired girl as she quickly pushed a thick wave of hair over her shoulders, "when are you guys going to undo whatever you did do to get you looking like this?" she asked as she waved dramatically at Xander and Anya.

"Yeah, do you know how weird it is having you guys look like this?" Will asked quickly as he glared at his parents. "When we were at the vending machines earlier, I had to tell a guy from my film class to stop hitting on Mom!" he proclaimed indignantly as Willow turned a bright shade of red to match her hair.

"We'll do it tonight," she quickly promised her son as she felt Oz's reassuring arm wrap around her shoulder.

"You'll do it tonight," Giles corrected with an odd smile as he sheepishly grinned down at Buffy. "Joyce and I have decided that.. well, that we rather like being forty again."

"Um, can they do that?" Buffy dimly heard Xander question Willow as she turned her attention once more back to Angel.

"Spike will be back," she murmured, pulling him closer so that they were nose to nose.

"But this time we'll be ready," Angel assured, his features turning hard at the thought of his grand-childe. "I won't let him hurt you again," he stated firmly, remembering the vampire's taunt: "I've tasted her now, just as you 'ave," he called out, knowing his words were digging into his sire, "deeper than you have. I've marked her and I will have her again!"

"We won't let him hurt anyone again," Buffy corrected with a determined smile, breaking into Angel's thoughts. "We're a team now, remember?" she asked, taking a breath and stepping fully out onto the shaky limb of a future that they were going to attempt.

"I remember," Angel promised, his eyes locking with hers. "I love you," he murmured, his eyes probing hers.

"I love you, too" was Buffy's firm reply, the words coming easier than she ever could have imagined. "I love you," she repeated softly before pulling him close and pressing her lips to his once more, her friends' bickering disappearing into the background. Together, they could do anything.

The End