Normal Love

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I feel the bed shift slightly, almost unnoticeably, as she slides in beside me. I roll toward her immediately, ignoring the painful protests in my leg and chest and pull her against me. It's always so amazing how she fits there, in my arms, like she's always been a part of me. I'm still half-asleep, but I take a second to breathe deep, inhaling the sweet scent of her spicy shampoo and the dusting of vanilla spray that always clings to her.

"Hey, baby," I hear myself mumble sleepily as I start to drift off again. I'm gonna try my damnedest to get back to that dream I was having where Buffy and I are running down the beach, splashing water, laughing. I think those dreams are even better than the sex dreams. I love to hear her laugh. And I love to give her a little bit of normalcy in an otherwise abnormal life.

Iím close to being back there, back to the dream, when I feel it. Her tiny shoulders shift and her breathing hitches. She's crying. My eyes pop open and I prop myself on one arm, struggling to see her in the filtering light from the street. "Buffy, are you hurt?"

In my current position, my bandaged leg is pinned under me, burning under the pressure, but I only feel it for a second. I feel her tears on my chest, painfully close to where my bandage is, and I tighten my grip on her. "What happened?"

My heart shattered in the cave when she was pleading with me. Her big green eyes had welled with tears, but she was strong. She held them back and kept her head together. She had a mission and she completed it. Buffy got me to go to that doctor when I had made up my mind that I'd die first. This girl could make me go anywhere. Currently, she's making me go crazy. I hope to God she's not hurt. I roll to flip on the lamp, but I feel her grip my arm and I hear her whisper something. "What?" I say softly.

"Don't let go of me," she says, burying her face in my chest.

I don't think I've ever been so scared and so calm at the same time. I'm terrified of what's going on in her head, but at the same time, she's here and she's with me and I can't panic. She needs me to be strong for her. Obviously. "Shhh, don't cry, baby."

"Riley, you almost died," she says it like she's realizing it for the first time.

I brush her hair back and rub my hand over her bare back. She's never really cried like this around me. You'd think that in a year I would have seen her break down a time or two, but she's always held it together. "I'm okay though. You saved me."

"You almost died because of me. Because of what you think you have to be to make me happy," she sniffles and I feel her body tense. Oh boy, she's gonna yell at me. She doesn't disappoint. Taking a deep breath, she speaks again, louder, more forceful. "I almost killed you."

What? Wait a minute. She almost killed me? "Buffy, this wasn't your fault."

"Yes it is!" She sits up and rubs her palm over her face, crying softly.

I push myself up behind her and pull her back against my chest, resting my chin on her shoulder. "You didn't do this to me."

"Graham told me that the Initiative has been on you for weeks to get this taken care of. Why didn't you?" she asks me. I don't reply. Her voice breaks again after a few minutes. "See? You did it because of me."

There's a little bit of truth in what she's saying. She was the reason I didn't rush to have it fixed, the reason why I let it go so long. If I'm not strong and fit and can't hold my own, I can't hold her. Even now, with her so weak in my arms, I can feel how powerful she is. How strong her muscles are, how firm her body is. Pulling her hair back, I kiss her neck, thinking that I can make it all better. Buffy tenses and rises from the bed, yanking her shirt on. My eyes widen when I realize she's going to leave. "What are you doing?"

"What I should have done a long time ago.Ē She shoves her legs into her baggy jogging pants and reaches for her sneakers when I bolt from the bed.

Gripping her arm, I pull her around and make her face me. The sun has risen now, and I can see her clearly in the light from the windows. I think she must have cried all night. Her eyes are so swollen and red that I don't know how she's holding them open. And her cheeks are puffy, splotchy. I've never seen her look like this. Ever. And she's this upset over me, which makes me feel as bad as she looks. "Jesus, Buffy, what-"

"I can't do this!" she shouts at me. Her eyes are filled with tears again, but this time, her face is wet with them. I donít think I can handle seeing her like this. "I can't be with you!"

Oh dear God. Did she just say that? I feel like someone has yanked the rug out from under my feet. I stumble a little and sit down on the edge of the bed. Please, God, donít let her do this to me. "What?"

She seems to take a little bit of pity on me and steps closer. I think she's going to hug me, but she stops, hand out, and then drops it to her side. "I can't be with you. I mean, what happened to you last night - that's just the beginning. You're always going to put yourself in danger for me."

"And I shouldn't?" I snap. I'm angrier than I've ever been. First she tells me that she needs me and then she tells me she canít be with me. She's throwing it all away like it's nothing. "How do you expect any man who is in your life to just sit back and watch and do nothing?"

"I'm the Slayer! Not you!"

"No, but I'm in love with the Slayer! I knew what I was doing when I fell for you and I don't regret it! I love the fool that it makes me, I love the pain that it causes me and I love you. All of you!"

"And it's going to get you killed," she says softly, staring at my floor.

I feel strong again and I stand, stalking toward her. She backs away, but I don't falter. "You look me in the eye and tell me you don't need me. Because I don't think you're a liar, Buffy, and you told me you needed me."

I watch her eyes focus on the bandage on my chest. "I had to get you to the hospital. I would have said-"

"You would have said anything!?" I shout, gripping her chin and making her look up at me. "But you didn't. You didn't lie to me and tell me you loved me. You told me you needed me."

She gasps a little, her eyes widening as she looks into mine. "You - you think I don't love you?" Comprehension dawns on her face and she looks away. "That's what Xander was talking about last night." She looks at me again. "You think I don't love you."

"You don't," I say, and I feel my own chin start to tremble. "But you need me and that's enough reason for me to stay."

"How can you think I don't love you?" She looks genuinely troubled and I have to hand it to her, she could almost make me believe it. Almost. I am a fool. I am such a damned fool for letting her do this to me. Iím standing here, ready to get down on my hands and knees and beg her to love me, and itís insane. I canít make her feel something she doesn't. And I can't stop feeling what I feel.

I let her go and pace across my room in frustration. "You've never said it."

"I've never said a lot of things, but that doesn't mean-" she trails off and I turn to look at her. Her hands are clenched in fists and she's not crying anymore. "I can't say it, Riley."

Huh? I stare at her in confusion for a few seconds. "You can't say it?"

Shaking her head, she turns her back to me. There's silence for a few minutes and she steps toward my dresser, lifting a photo of the two of us at Disneyland over the summer. I watch her trace my face in the photo, and my resolve softens a little, like she's actually touching me. "Buffy-"

"Remember that day at Disneyland? It was just you and me and it was perfect. The most perfect day of my life. I was a normal girl that entire day and that night, at the hotel, you made love to me and - and it was wonderful. Perfect." She puts the photo back on the dresser and wraps her arms around herself. "I wanted to say it. I wanted to say it on the Teacups and on Space Mountain and later on in the bed, and I couldn't."

"It's just three words," I say quietly. How hard can it be?

She spins on her heel to face me and I can see that I apparently said something very wrong. She looks furious. "Just three words? Three words that can kill me! That almost did! If I admit it, if you know the kind of power you have over me, you can rip me apart!"

"I would never-"

"Stop!" She holds up her hand, effectively silencing me. "I've heard this before. You'll never leave me. You'll never hurt me. You'll never break my heart. And the second that I let my guard down and love you as much as I want to, you will. That's how it works. I fall and I get hurt. I think my track record speaks volumes."

I'm too stunned to say a damned thing. She can't honestly believe that I would do any of things to her. I love her! She knows I love her. I'm pulled from my thoughts when she makes a move to get her sneakers again. I step in her way and reach for her, but she sidesteps. "Damn it, Buffy. You're not doing this to me. Donít punish me because of someone else! Iím not going to make the same mistakes he did!"

"Just let me go."

"Let you go?Ē I laugh cruelly, shaking my head in disbelief. ďI couldn't let go of you if I wanted to. Donít you understand that you're as much a part of me now as my own arm? You walk into a room and I feel you there before I see you, Buffy. You're a part of me, whether you like it or not. I can't let you go. I *wonít.*"

"Don't do this. Don't make it harder than it has to be." She moves around me and grabs her shoes off the floor. "We can't be together. It's going to get you killed. I mean, your heart is --"

"That's bullshit! Don't try to turn this around and make it about keeping me safe. You're worried about you! You're worried about your own heart a helluva lot more than you're worried about mine."

"That's not true."

I feel my blood pressure rising, feel my temper ready to erupt, and I don't even try to hold it back. "Why the hell did you save me last night, Buffy? Just so you could kill me yourself? Because thatís what youíre doing to me!"

"Stop it," she tells me steadily, pushing her feet into her shoes.

"No, I won't stop it. You're scared to love me because of him. Because of what he did to you. It's not fair that you're doing the same thing to me!"

She stops lacing her shoe and looks up at me. "You don't have any idea-"

"Don't I? He left you so you'd have a normal life and you're leaving me so *I* can have a normal life!Ē I feel my legs shaking and I donít think Iíve ever been more terrified. If I lose her Ė no, I canít even think it.

She falters for a second, like sheís pondering what I said and I think this is it. Sheís gonna realize how ridiculous it is. ďIím leaving because you almost got yourself killed. You did this to yourself.Ē

ďOh, thatís just great! When the truth slaps you in the face, you blame me!Ē

ďWho else should I blame?Ē she yells.

ďBlame yourself! Youíre the one whoís scared of what we have!Ē

"I am not scared of it!"

"Then what are you scared of!?" Iíve never yelled at a woman, not like this, but there it is.

"You!" she screams it, her eyes flashing angrily as she leaps to her feet. "YOU! You don't even get what you do to me! I am always so afraid of losing you that I can't even enjoy having you! I am so afraid that one day you'll wake up and realize that you could have so much better than me that you'll walk away without a second look back. I'm afraid that loving you is going to kill me! Because it gives you power, Riley, more power than any demon I have ever faced. You can hurt me in ways that no one else can! I canít do that again!"

Her shoulders slump again and she sits down in my computer chair, burying her face in her hands. I don't even give it a second thought as I move forward and kneel down in front of her, pulling her against me. She tries to pull back at first, but then she wraps her arms around my neck and buries her face against me. I let her cry and I hang on. I'm not about to go anywhere. She composes herself after a while and sits back, avoiding making eye contact with me.

I take her hand in mine and collect my thoughts before I speak. I have to say this right. "Buffy, if you believe for one second that I would hurt you then I must not be loving you the right way. I must be doing something so wrong that-"

"No, it's not you, Riley. Iím a coward."

"No, you're far from being a coward. But you have been burned a couple of times and I can understand why you would guard your heart." I kiss her hand and lay it over my chest. "But you saved mine. In more ways than one. So when you're thinking that yours is too weak to love me, just keep in mind that you've got a backup right here."

She smiles a little and I return it, moving a hand up to brush the tears off her cheek. She leans into my palm and says, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I left you at the hospital last night and for making you feel like you had to be something you're not. What you are is just perfect for me."

"You know, Buffy, I didn't lie when I told you that loving you was the scariest thing I've ever done. I have all the same fears you do."

She considers my words for a few seconds, staring past me. When she looks at me again, she looks a little calmer and takes a deep breath. "Loving you is the scariest thing I've ever done too, but I'm ready to conquer that fear." Leaning forward, she brushes her lips over mine and then smiles up at me. "I love you, Riley Finn. I've loved you for a long, long time and I fully intend to make sure you never doubt it again."

Oh god, I think my heartbeat just sped up faster than it was before the surgery. It flutters, does a little dance inside my chest, and I think it's gonna pound straight through the incision. She can't possibly know how long I've wanted to hear her say that to me or how many times I've played it in my head. Nothing I imagined comes close to the actual thing. "Say it again," I whisper, leaning my forehead against hers.

"I love you," she tells me.

I don't know what our future will bring at this point. I know that the only thing that will make me leave her is death and I know that it won't be easy, living here on the Hellmouth, with the Slayer for a girlfriend. But I love her. I love every inch of her tiny being, inside and out, and hurting her is the last thing I'd ever do. So, when I brush my lips over hers and tell her I love her too, I mean it. When I lead her back to the bed and undress her, I intend to show her, bandages be damned.

But she won't hear of me making love to her. Reminding me what the doctor says, she curls up against me, closes her eyes, and within seconds, she's asleep. I listen to her breathing, inhale her sweet scent, and I thank my lucky stars that she's still here with me, that she didn't walk out. She loves me. She really, really loves me.

And it's going to be my life's work to prove to her that love, normal love -- never, ever hurts.

The End

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