This is angst, beware!
The mixture of grass and leaves under their boots crunched softly, but even that slight sound seemed loud in the still night. The effort of being careful and trying to judge each step for the least amount of noise it would cause was taking its toll on the three demon-hunters. They had had to remove their night-vision goggles twenty minutes ago because the sweat on their faces kept fogging the lenses. At a motion from the leader, all three halted. With one final glance at the tracking instrument in his hand, the leader nodded and straightened up. The other two relaxed immediately, and all three pulled off their ski-masks with obvious relief.
"Area's clear." Riley said, "We can pack it in for the night."
"Well it's about time." Forrest said, wiping his forehead on the edge of his tee-shirt. "We've missed Saturday Night Live."
"And yet I find the strength to live on." Graham remarked, rolling up his sleeves in the warm night air. He was from Massachusetts, and any temperature above 40 that was termed 'winter' tended to make him laugh.
Riley, in the meantime, was wrinkling his nose slightly. Patrol was a very tense time, and all the agents tended to sweat out an almost scary fluid-level. Walsh had actually had to put out an order for everyone to drink an extra liter a day. "Looks like we'll have to make another big laundry run tomorrow. These clothes have had it - the hostiles would smell us coming!"
"Demons, hell. What the Initiative should *really* be researching is an anti-perspirant that can make it through half-an-hour of patrol."
"I'll make sure to bring it up in the next meeting." Riley said with a straight face. He only held it for a second, though, before both he and Forrest burst out laughing. Graham, however, looked oddly distracted.
Sobering quickly, Riley asked, "Is something wrong, man?"
"Is Timmy in trouble, Lassie?" Forrest gibed.
"I think someone's coming." Graham said tersely. Immediately snapping back into commando-mode, all three boys dropped down into the foliage, waiting tensely as the sound of footsteps became apparent. But what burst through the bushes on the other side of the clearing was not some hostile bent on mass destruction, but a petite blonde freshman who seemed bent on nothing more than to get wherever she was going in a hurry.
All three relaxed. "What's your girlfriend doing out this late?" Graham muttered to Riley.
"Probably going to meet some guy so that they can have crazy naked sex." Forrest whispered with a grin. Riley just glared as he started trying to ditch his commando vest quietly. It looked like he was going to have to walk her back to her dorm. Not that he minded, of course. In fact, his night was now looking up quite a bit.
An hand on his elbow halted him, and both he and Forrest looked at Graham in surprise until they too caught the sound of a second set of footsteps. From the same direction that Buffy had come, a tall man arrived, also walking quite quickly. Seeing him, Buffy stopped and turned towards him.
"Angel, this has to stop." Even though her voice was soft, the three boys in the bushes heard her clearly. "You can't keep coming to town like this. It isn't fair to anyone."
The boys exchanged glances. This was obviously a private conversation between Buffy and the man (who, Riley noted with a certain discomfort, was quite handsome in a pale, spiked hair kind of way), but in an unspoken agreement, all three inched closer, and strained to hear the man's response. It was obvious just by looking at them that there was some sort of history between this pair. Riley had never really brought up the topic of old boyfriends with Buffy (not wanting to stir up any painful memories of Parker), but now he was wondering if maybe he should've. Cute ex-boyfriends who kept coming to town was a subject that he was most definitely interested in.
"Buffy-" the man began, one hand outstretched as though this was just another segment in a long argument that he was trying to bring to a close.
"No, let me finish." Buffy took a deep breath, as though steadying herself. "I understood last time. From what Doyle saw, you had to come. But this time was different, you just ran across a passage in a book that you couldn't translate."
"It was an old book, and it had some important passages that I needed-" Even though they had no idea what the two were talking about, all three of the guys knew an excuse when they heard it. Once again, Buffy cut off the man - Angel, christ, what a girly name - before he could finish. This time, though, her tone was aggravated.
"So use a telephone! E-mail! For God's sake, you could've just FAXED it to us!" Angel's gaze dropped to his boots, and the guys could see him shift his weight uncomfortably. Bus-ted. Buffy continued, but softer. "Angel, the book was just your excuse. If you really needed it right away, you would've found a quicker way to get a translation than to drive two hours to Sunnydale without calling beforehand." There was a long pause, during which she tried to meet his eyes, and he refused to raise them from his boots. "Angel," she asked gently, "why did you come back?"
Angel paused a long moment. Finally, he muttered, "I missed you." As if saying this had given him strength, he raised his dark-eyed gaze to look her at her directly. "I just...had to see you again."
This time, it was Buffy who dropped her gaze. When she responded, Riley heard a sharp note of pain enter her voice. "You can't keep doing this. It just makes it hurt more, for both of us."
Angel took a step closer to her, intensity radiating from every movement. He stared at Buffy as though he was trying to devour her. "It hurts when I'm away from you...."
Riley watched as Buffy began glancing around like a trap animal. She was tugging at one sleeve in a distracted, troubled motion. "What do you mean?"
"I'm not sure..." Angel said, but Riley knew with a deep certainty that Angel knew exactly what he meant. He wasn't even aware of clenching his fists until he glanced down and saw that his knuckles had gone white. Looking back up, he saw Angel reach out to touch Buffy. Riley felt a brief, vindictive feeling of satisfaction as Buffy pulled away in surprise, and Angel paused with his hand still outstretched. "What, I can't even touch you now?" Angel's voice wasn't soft now - now it was hurt, with a warming edge of anger.
"It never stops at a touch with us," Buffy said in a tortured voice. "We wouldn't stop - we never do."
"Would that be a bad thing?" Angel whispered in a tone that made Riley grit his teeth.
Buffy paused for a long moment before answering, and she spoke slowly as though she were weighing each word three different ways before uttering a single syllable. "Yes, it would. It would end like it always does, with us arguing. Or worse," the moon came out suddenly, and Riley had a clear view of the agonized expression on her face. Whatever she was remembering, it wasn't a happy thought. "It could end like it did last time." Angel had lowered his hand and was partially turned away, until, "And it wouldn't be fair to-"
Buffy cut herself off, biting her lower lip as though chastising it for allowing the words out, but Angel's eyes seemed to burn as he leaped on her statement. "Who? Wouldn't be fair to who?" Buffy looked surprised at his vehemence, and began to step back again, only to be abruptly halted when Angel grabbed her arm suddenly. "Is it another guy?"
Riley almost didn't hear Buffy's cry of, "Angel, don't!" over the roaring in his head. He started to scramble to his feet, not thinking of anything other than the fact that some guy had just grabbed Buffy. Forrest and Graham had seen firsthand Riley's protective instincts, and had the presence of mind to pull Riley back down. Even with both of them working together, they had to half-pin their friend. Fortunately, the pair arguing in the clearing were too busy to pay attention to the scuffling in the bushes.
Riley was still struggling to get up until Angel's next statement rang through the darkness, filled with anger. "I have a right to know! Is it another guy?" All three guys froze, straining to hear Buffy's response.
Peeking up, Riley saw her turn her face away from Angel's. "Yes, it is." At the statement, Angel let her go. As Buffy reached up with her left hand to gently touch the area on her right arm where he had been gripping her, he spent a moment just standing. When he spoke again, it was in a brisk, businesslike voice, and his expression was completely closed.
"What's his name?"
"Angel-" Buffy's voice was softly pleading with him to stop, but Angel's tone was implacably reasonable.
"I just want to know a little about this guy. What's his name?"
Buffy spoke carefully, her brilliant eyes looking at him warily. "Riley."
Riley knew that he shouldn't be listening to this. He should've left immediately after Angel had entered the clearing. This was an invasion of her privacy, and it was wrong to be spying on her like this. But damn it, he couldn't tear himself away.
"Riley." Angel said his name slowly, almost as though he were tasting it, weighing it, judging it. Then, he switched back to a brisk voice, as though he were just an idly curious co-worker. "Is he nice?"
"Sweet? Kind? Really cares about you?"
"Interested in what you have to say?"
Abruptly, he changed. His voice became sharp and cruel, cutting straight to the bone. "Are you sure he isn't just trying to get you into bed?"
All Riley heard was a sudden intake in breath, a gasp of pain, from Buffy before Graham and Forrest again pinned him down. This time, they didn't let him up immediately, and he could only listen. Angel spoke again, contrite and horribly guilty, realizing that he'd gone too far. "Buffy, I didn't mean-"
Buffy cut him off, and her voice was controlled and as cold as an artic breeze. Riley cringed at the sound of it, because it was the voice of someone who has experienced so much pain and heartbreak that they are able to completely cut themselves off. "I think you should go now. You don't know him, you don't know what you're talking about." Once again, Riley pushed himself slightly off the ground to look at the two figures. Forrest and Graham couldn't stop him without a loud scuffle, and so they didn't try - they just watched him carefully. In the clearing, Buffy paused a moment, then delivered a remark just as cutting as Angel's had been. "Riley isn't the kind of guy who'll leave the next morning before I wake up." The boys all saw Angel's jaw tighten and his eyes narrow dangerously. "Don't come back, Angel."
"I'll do that, if you can just tell me one thing." The anger had returned to Angel's voice, along with a dangerous edge, and the air around the two seemed to crackle with tension.
Angel stepped close to the graceful blonde, invading her personal space so that he loomed over her. Leaning down, he whispered, "Tell me you don't love me."
Buffy jumped back as though she'd been slapped, one hand covering her mouth in shock. Shaking her head as though to deny that he had said it, she started to turn away, but was stopped when Angel reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders. He was no longer in cold control, but wild, his eyes wide, daring her to deny him. "Say it!" he entreated in a torn voice, "Say it and I'll never bother you again! You can go back to Riley and never even think of me!" she was struggling to get free, and he wrenched her around to force her to look at him as he bellowed, "SAY IT!"
With a sharp movement, Buffy shoved him away, tears now streaming down her face. "I CAN'T!" she screamed. "ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER? I STILL LOVE YOU, EVEN THOUGH I HATE IT BECAUSE IT HURTS SO MUCH!" turning, she stumbled a few steps away, her hands covering her face as her small body wracked with sobs. Angel just stared at her as the anger drained out of his face, leaving just a hopeless look of self-hatred and despair.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I didn't mean to..." trailing off, Angel walked over to where she stood, and tentatively tried to touch her back, only to have her jerk away. "I'm sorry." he repeated helplessly. "I'll go." Slowly, he turned and walked back the way he had come.
Buffy didn't move until the sound of his passage through the foliage drifted off into the distance, and then slowly backed up until her back hit a tree before just sliding down to the ground to roll up in a small bundle of misery to sob softly into her hands.
Back in the bushes, Riley was quickly shucking his commando gear, while Forrest tried to talk him out of it.
"Don't do this, man," he pleaded with his friend, "You heard her. She still loves this guy. You'll just be the rebound guy and she'll drop-kick your heart into the trashcan."
"Forrest," Riley said, "She's crying. She's hurt. I'm going to go out there and be there for her. I'll be whatever she needs me to be, for as long as she wants me to be around her. It's as simple as that."
"Just tell me you aren't in love with her." Forrest responded. When Riley ignored the question and merely pulled off his padded vest, Forrest turned to his last hope, Graham, who until now had remained silent.
"Tell him he's crazy! He listens to you!"
Graham paused a long moment, looking from the determined Riley to the huddled form of Buffy. Finally, he patted his friend on the shoulder and said, "Good luck."
Riley smiled briefly as he handed the vest to Graham. "Thanks."
Walking into the clearing, now dressed simply in his civilian clothes, Riley crossed softly to where the girl who had captured his heart sat. Hearing his approach, Buffy looked up at him, hastily wiping her hands across her face in an attempt to hide her tears.
"Riley? Hi! I'm sorry, I'm just-" Buffy babbled, wiping her hands on her pants and trying to keep her tear-stained face in the shadows. It didn't work, and Riley felt a deep twinge in his heart as fresh tears worked down her face. Kneeling down, he gently wrapped his arms around her, moving slowly so that she could pull away if she wanted to. She didn't, instead wrapping her own arms around him in response and sobbing into his shoulder.
Riley closed his eyes, concentrating only on the heart-broken girl in the circle of his embrace. Rocking her gently back and forth, he murmured softly to her in a comforting tone of voice, not even knowing what he was saying.
At the clearing's edge, Forrest and Graham kept watch, making sure that no danger would threaten the pair holding each other.
Okay, now that I'm done with that, I'm going to go finish my happy fic. No more angsties!