Something to Keep

Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It's getting hard to be someone
but it all works out
It doesn't matter much to me

- from Strawberry Fields, by The Beatles

She remembers picking strawberries. The hard slant of sun across the fields and the juice of the berries sticky and red against her fingertips. In the next row, her mother’s head is bent to the task. She thinks she remembers her mother singing: Let me take you down, cause I'm going to strawberry fields. The memory is happy.

*

He finds her; she doesn’t know how and she never asks. She supposes it’s what he does. Finds people. Helps them.

It’s not like she’s down on her luck or anything. She’s making her way. Keeps to herself. Lives alone, but- not like with a dozen cats or anything creepy like that.

When he appears out of the shadows, she suddenly understands what her sister saw in him. He’s imposing and glowery and beautiful.

“Hello, Angel.”

“Hello, Dawn.”

She wonders where his memories of her begin.

“Small world.”

“Not especially,” he says.

“No, I suppose not.”

She starts back down the street. “Are you coming?” she tosses the words, along with her hair, back over her shoulder and doesn’t wait for a reply.

*

He doesn’t need the air, but his presence seems to suck every last breath of it from the room. He sits on the only chair she has, a wobbly Windsor knock-off she bought at a second hand shop and painted bright yellow. She is on the big pillow on the floor, knees drawn up to her chest, her head against the wall.

He has refused her offer of tea. She pretends she doesn’t notice him watching the pulse in her neck.

Would it be so bad, anyway?

Even hunched over in the chair, he’s the biggest man Dawn has ever seen. She wonders what it would be like to fuck him. Well, she’s not a little kid anymore. Hasn’t ever been a kid, not really.

He’s just sitting there, staring at her, and since she doesn’t really have anything to say she just stares back. A long moment unravels until she stands and goes into the bedroom, leaves the door open just a crack.

*

That summer they made jam. The whole house smelled of sugar and mashed berries. She was old enough that her mother let her stand on a stool and stir the mixture in a big pot. The empty jars were lined up on the counter, waiting to be filled.

Like she’d been filled - with memories that didn’t belong to her.

*

Of course he doesn’t come. Of course he doesn’t. Dawn sits on the edge of her bed, waiting, but there is only silence from the other room.

She curls up on her bed, but doesn’t fall asleep until she hears the tiny click of her front door closing.

*

Her hair is wound around his hand and he is pulling, pulling her back to him, exposing the delicate veins of her throat. He has taken off his coat, but otherwise he is dressed. She is, too. Even though he is not touching her anywhere else, she can feel his strength. She wonders how anything can be accomplished like this and then he licks her, at the place where her T-shirt gaps, just where her collarbone meets her shoulder.

Her stomach drops into her crotch, the weight of it heavy and pulsing.

“I don’t have real blood,” she whispers.

“We’ll see about that,” he says.

Dawn wakes up with a start. “Talk about a one-night-suck-fest,” she mutters to herself.

The day is a blank page in front of her and she spends the first part of it remembering those awkward grief-filled days after her mother died. All the adults hovering around her like flies on shit, no one knowing what to say. She was the baby bird, even though it felt like everyone had fallen out of the nest- even Giles.

Now her mother is gone. Dawn doesn’t know what that means exactly. You’re here and then you’re not. She should be able to relate to that. But try as she might all it makes her feel is sad.

*

“I think we can open the first bottle,” Mrs. Summers says.

Dawn remembers going down into the cellar and staring at the neat row of bottles all lined up, making the choice as if one jar was special, as if they hadn’t all been made and bottled at the same time.

It was winter then, the days short and grey.

The jam tasted like sunshine.

*

He is waiting for her when she gets home.

“What do you want?” she says. She doesn’t know much, but she knows it’s impolite to eat and run- even if it’s only in her dreams.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“Yeah, me either.” She lifts her hand to touch her neck.

“Did you come back for this?”

“What?”

“You know, to make me a vampire.”

A smile ghosts across Angel’s face. “I’m not in the business of making vampires,” he says.

“And if you were?”

“I wouldn’t make you one.”

“I get it,” Dawn says. Even though she really doesn’t.

“Look, about last night,” Angel says. He steps a little closer and Dawn turns, inserts her key in the lock.

“Dawn.” The tone of his voice makes her stop.

“Do you want to come in,” she says without turning around. She is afraid to see him waver.

“More than you know.”

She turns around with a smile, but the street is empty.

*

After her mother dies, Dawn goes down into the basement and smashes every single remaining jar of jam. The cement under her feet is a minefield of sticky jam and shards of glass.

“Dawn!”

Buffy’s voice calls from the top of the stairs and when Dawn doesn’t answer, she comes down. At the bottom of the steps Dawn hears Buffy sigh.

“Oh, Dawnie. What happened?”

“What do you think?”

“It was an accident,” Buffy says firmly.

Dawn turns to look at her sister.

“No. It wasn’t,” she says. “I did it.”

“Why?” Buffy says softly.

Dawn knows that one word holds a lot of other questions. Why did you make such a mess? Why did you smash what’s left of Mom? Why is Mom dead? Who in the hell are you? Why did it have to be her? You’re not even real. Why couldn’t it have been you?

Dawn looks at her sister, dares her to ask even one of those questions.

“It doesn’t matter,” Buffy says. “I’ll get something to clean it up.”

*

A couple of days go by before she calls Giles.

“Dawn, my goodness, how are you?”

“I’m good. Everything’s great.”

“Well, I wish you’d pick up a pen,” Giles says, but there is no real rancor in his voice.

“I wish you’d check your e-mail,” Dawn says.

“You know I hate that stupid computer,” Giles says.

“It’s a new world,” Dawn says.

“Not so new as all that,” Giles replies.

Dawn thinks she should tell him about Angel. That she’s seen him. Giles would want to know. But if she says his name, she knows she’ll have to say another and she can’t.

“I miss you,” she says instead.

“And I you.”

*

“You really have this lurking thing down pat,” she says.

It is raining, just a little, and her hair is damp against her face.

Angel steps out of the doorway. “You’re good,” he says.

“Yeah, well, it comes from being slightly paranoid. I always think someone is following me.”

The rain starts in earnest and Angel reaches out and pulls her back into the sheltered space in which he had been hiding.

“I spoke to Giles,” she says.

Angel doesn’t reply, but Dawn feels him stiffen against her arm.

“Have you seen him recently?” she asks.

Angel turns around, hemming her into the doorway with both arms, his face a dark blur above her.

“Guess not,” she says brightly.

His mouth tastes like rain. At first, she is too startled to react to the pressure of his lips against hers. He is bent down awkwardly to compensate for the difference in their height, and she reaches up to his face, feels the wet stubble on his cheeks. When she opens her mouth, his tongue darts inside. She gasps and sighs around it.

No one has ever kissed her like this before. Not the fumbling football players in the back seats of their father’s sedans, not that one guy she dated for a while when she first got here. Even her dream kisses were never as amazing as this.

One hand is on her shoulder, another at her hip and she finds herself whirled out into the rain. Then he is there with her, his eyes black.

“You taste like--” Angel stops suddenly and his eyes narrow.

The rain is sharp against her face, but she doesn’t mind. This memory belongs to her. This is one she can keep.

*

“Aren’t you even going to ask?” she says.

“Ask what?”

He is holding the towel she gave him in loose fingers.

“About what happened.”

“I already know,” he says. He takes one last swipe at his hair, following the towel with a rough hand to push the strands back into place. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I don’t believe you,” Dawn says.

“I don’t care what you believe,” he says.

“Fucking me isn’t going to bring her back,” Dawn says.

He leans close and whispers: “Who says I’m going to fuck you?” And then he smiles a little. “And since when do you talk like that?”

“I’m not a kid anymore,” she says.

“No, I suppose not,” Angel says, “but that’s how I remember you.”

This innocuous remark hits her square in the gut.

“Then what are you doing here,” Dawn says. She can’t keep the hurt out of her voice.

Angel hands her the towel and says: “I don’t know.”

*

He doesn’t come back for a long time and then one night, late, he shows up.

“If you came to say you’re sorry, save it.”

“Alright.”

“Because you’re not sorry, are you?”

He is leaning against the door. His face is pale against the black shirt and jacket he wears. How is it that she never noticed how dark his eyes were? Must have been that little-girl crush she’d had that had prevented her from looking anywhere past his chest. It was always easier to focus on the little patch of pale white skin, the glint of silver around his neck. And it wasn’t like he was actually ever around for dinner or to watch TV and eat popcorn. He wasn’t like Spike.

“No, I’m not sorry,” he says.

“I’m not either,” Dawn says.

They gave her this body and they gave her these memories, but nothing belongs to her- not really.

Certainly not him.

She holds the door open anyway and says: “Come in.”

*

She is nearly new for him. He brought Buffy to this place, too, and even though Dawn understands that she is only temporary, she claims the moment as her own.

He is nearly silent: no breath to mark the path up and down her body, his mouth on her breast, buried in the soft, yielding place between her legs, his fingers asking and answering questions of their own, holding her up, pushing her down. This is what it is to feel alive.

She wonders if he knows.

She throws her arms wide when she comes.

*

He is sitting on the side of the bed, pulling on his boots. Dawn thinks she should feel badly, but all she feels is the trickle of something wet between her legs; the rubbery slackness of well-used limbs.

She hurts him because she can.

“You know,” she says mildly, “if you really wanted to get close to her, you should have screwed Spike.”

Angel’s shoulders tense and then relax and he turns to look at her.

“He was always sniffing,” (she says the word sniffing in the dirtiest way she can) “around after her like some stupid house-broken puppy.”

“Why do you hate her so much?” Angel asks.

“Why do you love her so much?”

Dawn sits up, the sheet falling into her lap, exposing her insubstantial breasts. Her nipples remember his mouth and pucker. She leans forward to hide them and searches his face for an answer.

But Angel’s face is blank.

He turns away from her and finishes putting on his boot and then stands and starts to button his shirt.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you,” he says.

“You can’t hurt me,” she lies.

*

She would have thought that would be the end of it, but he comes back again. She lets him in and he stands there, an uncomfortable suitor. Dawn isn’t sure what he wants so she starts to take off her shirt.

He reaches out his hand. “That’s not why I’m here.”

She quirks an eyebrow. Oh.

“We’re more alike than you think,” he says. “We may have these lives we didn’t ask for, but we have them. Sometimes it’s not good enough, I know. But sometimes it’s better than we deserve.”

“Stop,” Dawn says. “I don’t need a sermon.”

Angel smiles. “I’d be the last person to give a sermon, don’t you think?”

“I just want to be left alone.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Angel says. He steps a bit closer and takes a strand of Dawn’s hair in his hand, lets it drift through his fingers. “But the thing is - you’re not alone.”

Dawn feels a panicked bubble of grief float up into her throat. She steps back from Angel, away from his gentle touch.

*

After the spilled jam is cleaned up, Dawn and Buffy sit shoulder to shoulder on the bottom of the steps. The room smells like summer, or at least like Dawn’s false memories of summer: sugar and green grass and the beach.

“What are we going to do?” she asks Buffy.

Buffy’s arm wraps around her and pulls her close.

“We’re going to go on, I guess. I mean, you have school and I have to find a job and we just- live.”

“And you won’t leave me?”

“No, Dawnie. I won’t ever leave you.”

*

Dawn walks down a million alleys before she finds him. He is in the middle of dusting a vampire, of rescuing a damsel in distress, of relieving the world of one more monster.

“Hey,” she says.

“Dawn,” he says, “it’s not safe for you to be out here.”

“What? You wouldn’t save me?”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“I know,” she says. “I’m teasing. You do remember being teased, don’t you?”

“Vaguely,” Angel replies. He turns to the frightened girl beside him. “Let’s put you in a cab.”

Afterwards, they stand awkwardly on the street.

“I’m going to stay with Giles for a while,” she says finally.

Angel’s lips thin and he nods.

“It’s better, right?”

“Yes,” he agrees.

“Because you love her even though she’s--”

Angel silences her with his eyes.

“She left me, too, Angel.”

“I know,” he says.

“I’m not sure I can ever forgive her,” she says.

“I know,” he replies.

*

That night, she dreams of Buffy, lying in a field of ripe berries, the sun blotted out by a drifting cloud.

THE END

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