From Here To Eternity

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She's only five minutes late.

No, seven minutes.

That's still not bad. She probably had to worry with her hair or her shoes or something. She's gorgeous. She could be barefoot and in hair rollers and she would still be gorgeous. I've seen her that way so I should know. But she won't believe me. And it's really my fault if she's running late because she wants to look perfect. I've been very ominous about what my plans are for the night. Even when she told me that she hates surprises, I didn't cave. Her pouty mouth, even the way she pleaded my name, "Ri-leeey!". Nothing doing, baby. I've been waiting for this for months. I've practically been saving for this since I met her here a year ago and I just didn't realize what I was saving for.

I did everything I could to get you here tonight
Without telling you why
Now girl if you only would, please hold out your hand
Just close your eyes
I've been dying to ask you one burning question
Will you be mine?

I can't sit still any longer, so I get up and walk to the door, watching for her to make her way down the hallway. It was hard as hell for me to get permission to use the school supply store from the Dean, but when I explained my reasons, his wife insisted that he comply. I was here early, informing the sales clerk that I was allowed to stay when she closed. She took one look at the bouquet of flowers in my hand, the tuxedo I had in a bag over my shoulder, and Willow, who was carrying a boombox and a picnic basket, and she complied. Of course, she probably wonders what's so romantic about a supply store the first day of classes. If she only knew.

Willow's been a lifesaver. She convinced me that this is the right thing to do, although it *is* kind of sudden. You only have a one year meeting anniversary once. And this is the perfect chance. With her help, I've transformed one little corner of the room, the corner under the Psychology books. We set up a table, covered it with a frilly tablecloth, and lit candles. When Buffy gets here, she's going to love it. I even bought her a dress. It's beige, off the shoulder, tight in the waist, and long. I'll probably be too speechless by how pretty she is to pop the question, but that'll be okay. She's used to me being so smitten that I can't speak in her presence sometimes.

Like this morning. We were lying in bed, she rolled to face me, her hair fanning out over the pillow, and her eyes locked on mine. I don't know if it was her skin contrasting next to the blue sheets, or the afterglow from making love, but she was so pretty. I hung on her every word, but couldn't tell you what she was saying to save my life. I was too busy drinking her in, memorizing every tiny detail of her face. I already had the ring. I came so close to giving it to her, but instead I stuttered, tried to reply when she paused, and got an elbow in the ribs for not paying attention. Of course, we had to make up and I was happy to show her just how sorry I was for being sidetracked.

Twenty minutes late.

No sign of her. I'll give her ten more minutes and then I'm going to call her.

From here to eternity
I'm asking you to share your life with me
Now and forever I guarantee, I'll always stay by your side
I promise my love to you
I'm willing and able and ready to
Whatever you need I am here for you, and I'll always be
From here to eternity

I'm still standing in the hallway, watching the main entrance when my cell phone rings. I scramble back into the room, almost tripping over a welcome mat and quickly grab it off the counter, where I left it when I changed into my tux. I click the button and say, "Buffy?"

"Riley?" It's Willow, she sounds funny.

"Willow, is Buffy there? She's-"

"Riley, you - Buffy is-"

I hear her drop the phone and my heart slams against my chest. Oh god. I bet demons ambushed her and she can't make it. I expect Buffy to get on the phone and tell me that she'll be a while longer. Giles gets on the line instead, sounding very distant. "Riley, this is Giles. Please come to the hospital immediately."

"What's happened?" I'm already walking down the corridor, the candles and food forgotten. When the man doesn't reply, I raise my voice. "Damn it, Giles! What!?"

"She's hurt badly, Riley. You get here quickly."

He hangs up, or maybe I hang up, I don't know. I sprint across the quad, racing to my car. I can't really pick one thought out of my head. Mostly, I'm praying. Over and over again I say the same thing. "Please, God, let her be okay. Let it look worse than it is. Let me get there and find her alive and well."

But, I don't.

When I get there, Willow is sitting in the hallway, her face buried in the crook of Xander's arm, and when I rush toward the group, she leaps up and meets me. I probably register that the look on her face is bad news, and the way she hugs me is way too tight for her to tell me it was a mistake, but I shake my head in denial. "No."

Joyce stands slowly, clutching a kleenex in her hand. I want to laugh, tell her that she has her house shoes on, but I feel my jaw set firmly in place and continue to shake my head. I let my gaze move toward the others. Xander is now the one sobbing, and he has his face buried against Anya's lap -- it would look perverse any other time -- but at the moment it just looks like a scene from a nightmare. Tara is sitting next to Anya, her knees pulled up to her chin, staring off into some unknown space that I wish I could go to. And Giles, Giles is leaning against the wall, his head tilted back, and I can see tears coursing down his cheeks.

Suddenly it feels like the floor tilts, and I sway. I can feel Willow's hand on my arm, steadying me, and I let her lead me to a chair. Finally, I'm able to speak. "What happened? Where is she?"

"I.C.U," Anya tells me, rubbing small circles on Xander's back as he clings to her.

I glance at her, then watch as Willow sits next to Tara, staring ahead as if she's in a daze. I look at Anya again, clearly she's the only one who is willing to talk. "What happened?"

"We don't know, exactly. They're saying it was an animal attack. I'm sorry," Anya sounds apologetic, which is completely uncharacteristic of her. "We were waiting on you because they want to pull the plug."

I leap to my feet, shaking my head. "No!"

Giles dabs at his eyes with the cloth that he uses to clean his glasses and steps toward me. "There's nothing more that they can do. They said that she's - that her brain is -" he chokes a little and covers his mouth. "she's already dead, Riley. It's - the machines are the only thing keeping her alive."

Joyce sobs again and he goes to her. I stand there, watching him console her, watching Tara wrap her arms around Willow -- and Anya smooth Xander's hair away from his face. I have nothing. All I have is a ring in my pocket and a heart so heavy it feels like it can't beat another second. It's not fair. Buffy is ten times as strong as all of them and she's the one who's missing. "I want to see her."

Tara looks at the others, then stands up, taking my hand in hers. "I'll show you."

I have one of those classic movie moments as we walk down the hallway. It seems to get longer and longer as we move down it. I can hear heart monitors beeping in the rooms we pass, I hear doctors being paged on the PA system, and I hear my heart pounding heavily in my chest, but I can't seem to concentrate on anything other than willing my feet to keep moving. Tara finally pauses at one of the doors and looks up at me. I can see her mouth moving, but I don't hear her words.

I can see Buffy through the crack in the door. And suddenly it's real.

It's more real than facing a demon for the first time, fresh out of training for the Initiative. It's more real than having a scoreboard count down the final seconds of a basketball game, throwing the ball, and having it bounce off the rim at the exact second the buzzer sounds. It's more real than falling off your bike, cracking your head open, and waking up later in the hospital with no hair.

All of those things happened to me.

And I'd relive every single horrifying second of those times just to stop this moment right now, rewind it, and start the day over again.

Oh god. I can't do this. I can't say good-bye. I can't touch her, knowing it will be for the last time. Knowing that when I see her again, she'll be cold, lying in a silk lined coffin. Please, dear God, she's one of the good ones. Take me, take the murderer on death row, don't take the best you've ever created. Don't take the only reason I wake up every day.

Tara walks away and it jars me, making me come to my senses. I push the door open and step inside, keeping my eyes on the floor. Her dress is lying beside the bed. The beige lace has turned burgundy in spots, dark red in others. Blood. Her blood. There's also blood on the floor itself, a puddle of it. I take a few seconds to contemplate how wrong that is. Not only have the doctors given up on her, they can't be bothered to mop up the very blood that flows from her, taking away everything in a crimson tide.

Stuffing my hands in my pockets, I take a step forward, then two, and pause beside her bed. I notice her hands first. They're so small, clenched into two tiny fists, like she's fighting death. She's perfectly still, but she's raging. I know she's raging. And wherever she goes when she leaves me, I have no doubt that she'll continue to rage. I let my eyes move to her chest, watching it rise and fall. It's steady, so steady, but I'm no fool. I can hear the machine behind me, pumping oxygen into her, forcing her to breathe. Slowly, I work my way to her face and a sob catches in my throat.

Her beautiful face.

There are gashes on her cheek. They look so deep I'm surprised that her flesh is still intact at all. It looks like they started to suture it and stopped. Perhaps realizing that it was too late? Her hair, usually so shiny and soft, is caked with blood and mud, but I can see unmarred curls on one side, folding around her face like a halo. I brush my tears away and lean forward, touching her hair. "You looked beautiful for me tonight, didn't you, baby? I can hear you now, asking if your hair looks okay." I let the golden curls spring through my fingers. "It looks amazing."

I can smell her perfume, even amidst the permeating odor of alcohol and Lysol, I can smell the faint hint of vanilla and the apple scent from her shampoo. There's a tube down her throat, one up her nose, and a million wires running under the sheet. I can't bring myself to pull it back and see where the blood is coming from. I can hear the steady drip-dropping of it beside the bed and I know without looking that she's mortally wounded.

I take her hand in mine, prying open her hand until it's flat, and I trace her slender fingers, bringing it to my mouth to kiss it. "You probably think I'm mad at you. I'm not."

Reaching into my pocket, I pull out the velvet box and open it, taking the ring out and holding it up to the faint light above her head. It prisms, flashing with vibrant color over her face and mine. "You didn't ruin my plans, Buffy. I still want to ask you the same question. I wanted to ask you if you'd marry me."

I saved almost a year for this ring
I can't wait to see
How it looks on your hand
I'll give you everything that one woman needs
From a one woman man
I'll be strong
I'll be tender -- a man of my word
I will be yours.

It's a perfect fit. It slides effortlessly over her bleeding knuckle and into place. I smile, thinking that she would have loved the heart shaped stone. Kissing her hand again, I whisper, "I do, Buffy Summers. I do. It may not be the eternity I had in mind, but it's enough to last the rest of my life. There will only be you, Buffy. Just you."

The door opens behind me and I hear people shuffling into the room. Wiping my eyes again, I stand up and glance at them. There's a young doctor with them and he begins to speak, asking them if they want a priest, and Joyce politely declines and says that it will just be us. Stepping forward, the doctor reaches for the plug in the wall and pulls it out. He tells us how sorry he is and leaves, closing the door behind him.

I stare at the plug, my palms itching to plug it back in, to shake her, to scream at her to come back right now. To beg Willow and Tara to do magick. I want to curse God, curse the fates, curse Buffy herself, but I don't. I don't move a muscle, for several seconds, then I take her hand again, stroking her ring finger. "It's okay, Buffy. Let go. You're not going alone, sweetheart."

We gather around her bed, and I know I'm not the only one who is half hoping that the steady beats on the heart monitor will continue, but as the minutes tick by, the beats grow fewer and farther between and I listen to everyone say their goodbyes. One thing I can say with certainty, my girl was loved. There's so much pain in this room that I imagine every angel in the Heavens are weeping as they get ready to take her home. The breathing apparatus stops moving entirely, and I lean forward, pressing my mouth to her temple.

God, please, take care of her. Don't let her feel guilty or upset that she left us this way. And let her hear me-

"You rest, Buffy. You earned it. I love you. I will love you from here to eternity."

From here to eternity
I'm asking you to share your life with me
Now and forever
I guarantee, I'll always stay by your side
I promise my love to you
I'm willing and able and ready to
Whatever you need I am here for you, and
I'll always be
From here to eternity

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