Forgiven

Forgiven

I wake up, just as I fell asleep; stomach knotted, pressed high, choking me. Already the heat is oppressive. I left the shutters open, hoping for air, but there is no air. I can’t breathe and the day hasn’t even started.

*

Andrew arrives with cappuccino and mail.

And when I say he arrives, I mean he uses his key and walks through the apartment, straight into my bedroom. He knows I won’t be up and he doesn’t care that my breath smells and I haven’t showered. He flops down on the bed, leans over to kiss me on both cheeks and then hands me the hot drink.

“Bella,” he says cheerfully.

“Bella to you too,” I grumble.

That makes him giggle. “Doesn’t mean good morning, silly,” he says sipping his drink. The froth gives him a little-kid mustache. Rome agrees with him. International intrigue agrees with him. I think he’s just damn happy about being alive.

I guess we should all be happy.

*

Dawn comes in later, after I’m dressed, and asks what came in the post.

“I haven’t even looked at it,” I tell her. It’s only partly a lie. I look at the postmarks; I watch for American stamps and familiar handwriting.

“Can I look?” she says. “I’m expecting something.”

I shrug.

She picks up the envelopes on the desk.

“All these?”

I look at her blankly.

“All these came today?”

She starts to sort through the mail and I watch her as she divides the envelopes into neat piles.

“Buffy,” she says. “These aren’t opened.”

“I know,” I say. I pick absently at a scab on my arm. It itches. “I don’t need to open them.”

“But they’re from…”

“Dawn.”

Dawn purses her lips and stares down at her work. There is nothing there for her. It’s all for me and I don’t want any of it.

*

I don’t leave the room and I don’t eat the fruit Dawn brings me. I drink the water, though. It’s the only thing that doesn’t make me want to hurl.

I sit at the window and look down at the street. There’s a market down there. It starts early in the morning and lasts until midday, which is when the Romans gather their unsold fruit and vegetables and head for their cool, dim apartments.

The woman directly below my window is having a heated discussion with a young man, her son perhaps. I can’t make out what she is saying. My Italian isn’t very good. She is gesturing with her hands, tapping a polished purple eggplant for emphasis.

I lean on my folded arms. This is how I pass my morning, watching people go about their daily lives. I can’t remember the last time I did anything normal.

*

The Immortal and I parted company shortly after Andrew told me that Spike and Angel were in Rome. For days afterwards I saw them lurking around every corner; perched on the lip of the Trevi Fountain, bounding down the Spanish Steps, black coats billowing behind them; I even saw them in the market below my flat. The creepiest part was that every time I saw them, the sun was at its pinnacle, the sky ceaselessly blue.

*

Giles calls. He wants to talk about the new Slayers. He wants to know how I am. How am I?

It is easy to fool him, I think.

Less easy to fool myself.

*

Andrew comes to play cards. We sit cross-legged on the bed and drink cheap wine and play Crazy 8s for money.

We play modified rules. Queens you pick up five and one queen on top of another means you pick up ten. I love saving an eight as my last card. I don’t like to lose.

Sometimes the wine makes Andrew giddy. Or, perhaps I should say, giddier. Sometimes it makes him maudlin and then we’re two messed up people, thousands of miles away from home, mourning what we have lost and have yet to lose.

*

I patrol in Rome but not because I have to. There are Roman Slayers and sometimes we pass each other in the crumbling cemeteries. We nod politely, but don’t stop to talk.

I hunt because it’s the only thing that feels familiar. It doesn’t matter that I don’t speak the language; I know where the heart of an Italian vampire is. The feeling of my stake pressing through muscle and bone is a relief.

*

Andrew and Dawn are on opposite ends of the couch playing Battleships. Andrew taught Dawn how to draw the grid and enter the various ships back in Sunnydale and they play all the time here.

Dawn looks up when I come in. Her eyes are older now and I regret that.

“Everything okay?” she asks.

I nod and head to the kitchen. There’s a bowl of avocados on the counter and I consider, briefly, making a salad.

Andrew appears behind me.

“Kill anything?” He asks casually, opening the fridge and reaching for a Brio.

“Andrew,” I say, reaching into the fridge after him and grabbing a bottle of water. “Don’t you have somewhere else to be?”

He pulls the tab on his soda and smiles indulgently.

“You need me and if you don’t, Dawn does,” he says.

I make a funny noise with my mouth, half-exasperation, half-annoyance. But I can’t argue with him, not really. I orbit Dawnie’s world, but I am not really a part of it. I am blinded by my fear of losing her.

*

Late at night the phone rings.

“Buffy?”

I don’t say anything, but I am immediately overcome by a feeling of profound loss.

“Are you there?”

I will have to peel my tongue from the roof of my mouth if I want to form words. My post-slayage snack of water churns uneasily in my gut.

“I’m here,” I say.

Now he is silent. Truly silent, without even breath to mark his tenuous connection to me.

*

I am awake when the merchants arrive, before dawn, to set up the market. I stretch out the knots in my back and walk over to the window. The sky is beautiful, indigo mottled with plum.

I lean out the window and try to smell the morning awakening. There’s no breeze, nothing to carry the smells up to me.

On my way to the bathroom I walk past Dawn’s neat piles of letters. I wonder how she’s organized them, but I don’t stop to look.

*

Sometimes Dawn and Andrew drag me out to the disco. I wouldn’t go except that if I don’t occasionally give in, they call Giles. Then he calls, fussing over me like I was sixteen again.

Tonight I watch my little sister apply dark purple eye shadow to her fragile looking eyelids and for a second I get a gruesome image of Xander, with the Preacher’s thumb buried in his eye.

Dawn looks all grown up in her sparkly top and silver pants. I don’t think she’s wearing a bra, but I don’t suppose I have to worry about Andrew having dirty thoughts about her.

I have chosen a thin, almost transparent, long sleeved black sweater and wide-legged black pants. I have on pointy-toed black boots. They’re all the rage in Italy and I bought them in a vague attempt at cheering myself up.

“Do you want me to do your hair?” Dawn asks.

I look at myself in the mirror. My hair is longer than it’s ever been. “A braid, maybe,” I say.

Dawn smiles and reaches for the brush.

This much she can do for me; this much I can let her do.

*

The disco is close and we walk down the street arm in arm: three Americans living in Rome.

A handsome bouncer opens the door for us. His eyes slide over me; it feels like oily bath water.

Inside the room is crowded and loud. Dawn motions across the dance floor to a table in a corner and we grab hold of each other’s hands and thread our way through the people. They are dancing as if they are one person, their bodies sinuous and graceful.

The Immortal and I used to come here sometimes. On the dance floor I could almost forget what I had left behind. He was a good dancer. He was good at everything, but in the end, good wasn’t good enough.

“I love this song,” Dawn shouts. She is barely settled on the tall stool before she grabs my hand and starts to pull me towards the dance floor.

“No, Dawn, take Andrew.”

Andrew is wearing a slippery looking shirt and khakis. “Come on then,” he says.

“You will dance, Buffy,” Dawn says to me as she follows Andrew.

I watch them and it doesn’t even seem strange that my little sister, all grown up, is dancing with someone who had once wanted to cause me bodily harm. Everyone deserves the chance to try again, to get it right, to be forgiven.

*

I order drinks from the waitress and when Andrew and Dawn return from dancing, I tell them I just have to go to the bathroom. But instead, I slip out the fire exit and stand in the humid air and try to remember that being alive is not a punishment.

I am not actually surprised when he appears at the end of the alley, but it would be a lie to say that I am without misgivings. I am not ready to consider my feelings for him. It seems too soon after all that has transpired

But he is leaving me no choice.

He walks towards me as if he has all the time in the world, which he does. Technically. Already I can feel my skin prickle at the thought of him coming closer. It doesn’t escape my notice that we are identically dressed, both of us all in black.

When he’s close enough that he could reach out and touch me, he stops.

My nerves are rioting under my skin. I haven’t felt this way since—I can’t remember the last time I felt this way. In battle maybe, standing on the edge of hell.

He tips his head up and examines the sky. I lean back against the stone wall and wait. I can not break the silence. I have no words.

He steps forward, coming to stand in front of me so close I have to tilt my chin to meet his gaze.

When he looks at me his eyes are remarkably clear. I’ve seen his eyes convey many things, some of them unpleasant, but tonight when he looks at me I only see my own reflection.

“What are you doing here?” I whisper. I already know the answer, of course.

“You didn’t answer my letters.”

“I didn’t read them.”

His lips twist upwards.

“On purpose?” He asks.

“It was a choice, yes,” I confirm.

“I’m choosing now, then,” he says, putting his hands on my shoulders, thumbs scraping along the sharp ridges of my collarbone. I feel his strength and his tenderness and it almost makes me cry out. I take a deep breath.

If I close my eyes I can clearly see myself in an alley in Sunnydale, one foot on his chest demanding to know why he is following me. And if I open my eyes, the face in front of me is exactly the same. He hasn’t changed, but I have.

For a long, endless moment I hang suspended between what is and what I want. And then he drops his hands, trailing his fingers down my arms before stepping back, lifting my hands to his mouth where he kisses each palm, one after the other.

Then, before I can utter a word, he has disappeared down the alley and out into the busy street.

*

Sleep won’t come. The room is stifling so I take off my tank top and lie on top of the bed in only my underwear. The air is heavy with moisture, more cumbersome than a blanket.

I roll over and switch on the little light beside my bed. Outside the window I can see the tops of houses. A cat meows plaintively on a ledge somewhere.

I prop myself up on my elbows and survey the room. It’s a plain room with cracked plaster walls, a high ceiling and very little furniture. The bed is hard, but not uncomfortable. In addition to the little table by the bed, there’s a dresser and the small writing desk where Dawn had sorted my mail.

All in all, the room is empty of personality, nothing like the room I’d had on Revello Drive or the dorm room I’d shared with Willow. Partly, I suppose, it’s because I came here with nothing but the clothes on my back. Mostly it’s because material things no longer mean anything to me.

Everything that I had once considered precious is gone.

Regrets taste bitter in my mouth. I am too young, I think, to bear their weight and yet they’re pressing down on me. Maybe that’s why I can’t sleep. When I close my eyes all I see is MomSpikeAnyaKendraJonathonWarrenJennyTaraDevon in a loop in my head.

*

Giles arrives for an official visit. He looks hot climbing out of the taxi, his tie pulled loose, his jacket hanging limply from his hand.

Dawn rushes forward to help with his suitcase, but I hang back. When he reaches the top of the stairs he leans in to kiss me and he smells like whiskey. There are new lines around his mouth. I can’t bear to think of Giles growing old.

Upstairs, we settle in the sitting room. Andrew has made lemonade from real lemons he got from the market. It’s bitter.

Giles pulls some folders out of his battered leather case.

“Well, then,” he says. “We’ve found several more Slayers and training has begun in earnest.”

“Shouldn’t Buffy be training them?” Dawn asks, spooning extra sugar into her glass.

“Do you want to?” Giles asks me hopefully.

“Do I have to come to England?”

He smiles.

“I like it here,” I say.

“It’s too bloody hot,” Giles says, pulling ineffectually at his tie.

“I’d like Dawnie to go back with you, though. She needs to go back to school.” We have never discussed this and Dawn almost chokes on her drink when she hears my suggestion.

“Well, yes, of course,” Giles says.

“I am not going to England, Buffy,” she says.

I smile indulgently, but she knows I mean business. Andrew knows, as well. I can see in his face that he’s wondering whether he, too, will be banished.

Giles pushes the folders over to me and I pick them up. I’m not sure what he expects me to do with them, what he wants me to see. I flip open the first folder and there is a girl smiling up at me. She could be any girl. Someone’s daughter, someone’s sister. She could be me.

*

“I waited,” he says from the window.

“I know.”

He pulls himself into the room, leaning against the window frame, casually, like he does this all the time.

“You’ll be lonely without her.”

“I’m lonely anyway,” I admit. “She needs to get on with her—life.”

He pushes himself away from the ledge and moves closer. He’s not wearing a coat tonight and I can see the long slope of muscles in his shoulders and arms. He kneels by the bed and folds his arms there, close to my feet. He rests his head on his arms.

I’d barely have to move to be able to touch him, to slide my fingers through the silk of his hair. Instead, I twist my fingers together and drive them between my tented knees.

For a long time we are quiet. I know that he takes comfort in my breath, just as I take comfort in his silence.

“Do you miss him?” I ask.

He twists his head to look up at me. His eyes narrow, as if I’ve shone a bright light into them.

“He kept me—human,” he says.

“I’m so sorry,” I say although the words are meaningless. They won’t bring Wes back. Won’t bring any of them back.

He nods. “So am I.”

He reaches out with a finger to stroke my foot. I am terrified at the thought of his touch, not this touch, but the chain reaction it could cause: finger against the arch of my foot, up my calf, down my thigh, lingering at the edge of my shorts. My breath catches in my throat.

“Buffy?”

I focus my eyes on his; allow him to pull me back.

“Do you want to patrol?” He asks.

I smile. This is something I know how to do.

*

We walk along Appia Antica, next to the Saint Callixtus Catacombs. I've directed us here because I know that none of the other Slayers patrol the Catacombs. They are wigged out at the thought of walking over four levels of dead popes and martyrs. There are never any vampires around, either.

It is past midnight and Rome seems asleep. Few cars pass us as we step off the road and onto sacred ground. These Catacombs, I have come to learn, are the oldest and most important in all of Rome. Thousands of important people are buried beneath me. It sounds morbid, but I find it somehow comforting.

Here, walking on people who have been dead for hundreds of years, Angel doesn’t seem so old.

*

He delivers me to my door just before dawn. Already the earliest truckloads of produce have arrived at the market and after he walks away, I go out into the street to have first pick of pears and pearl onions.

Inside, I make coffee and start a letter to Dawn. I don’t tell her that he’s here because she would worry. I am not sure, actually, what it means anyway. I don’t want to spend my entire letter psychoanalyzing my own complicated feelings for him.

So, instead, I tell her that I am well. That Andrew is driving me crazy, that I had a post card from Willow and that, just last week, Faith called me.

*

“I have to tell you something,” he says.

This time I am perched on the window ledge, trying to catch a breeze, and he is on my bed, his back ramrod straight against a wall.

I turn to look at him, resting my cheek on my knees.

“All right.”

“There was a girl—in LA.”

I wait, both for my reaction and further confession.

He waits, too.

But neither of us will be able to wait forever.

*

The letters, when I finally open them, are confessions and regrets. In one there is a note from Spike. This seems funny to me; one lover includes a note to another lover by way of a letter from the third in the triangle. If I had a ruler, I could draw the three straight lines which connect us.

I sit on the floor because the tiles feel cool under my legs. When I am done reading I pile the letters into my waste basket and light a match. I hesitate, just for a moment, but then I toss the match in.

The letters curl and blacken and turn to ash.

*

He isn’t gentle and I don’t need him to be.

I think he knows as soon as he reaches out for me, rests his hands on my hips and pulls me forward, that I am not fragile anymore.

I bite into his fleshy lower lip and draw blood and feel the shudder roll through his body. He tastes like the world. I wrap my arms around his neck and hold him still, drink him down like I’m the vampire. But I’m just a girl; just a girl in love with a vampire.

*

I measure myself against his body. Pale strong hands against palm-sized breasts; arms that could, if tested, wrap around my waist more than once; a cock that could split me in half.

I don’t know when he takes my clothes off, or when he removes his. I only know that I’ve been waiting for something and here it is.

Absolution.

He doesn’t ask if I am sure; he is and that’s enough.

He reaches between us and coaxes the moisture from me with fingers that know the terrain of my body too well for our experience together. My breath hitches and he hauls me up, brushes the hair from my face and waits.

“Angel,” I say, just as he lowers me down.

He rocks his hips just enough that I am reminded that I am not alone in the world. I am alive and whole and for one brief, exquisite moment Angel is, too.

The End

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