If I forget thee
Summary: Time goes by and he is her Holy Land.
Author Notes: Thanks, as always, go to Bean for counseling and betaing, banana7pancakes for taking a look, MorigLee for being the most cheerful editor ever, and Dark Star for hosting. Also, a special, separate sentence thanks to K for her notes, her endless encouragement for an insecure writer, and the fangirl ramble. Separate story notes, including disclaimers and citations, can be found at http://fluffernutter8.livejournal.com/59590.html.
It's hot as she gets off the plane. She wants a shower. She strides forward and weaves her way through the crawling crush of tired travelers, leaving the pack of bleary, blinking families and businesspeople behind. She slows as she takes the stairs down to baggage claim, realizing that she looks odd and out of place: a single woman with only a large purse as a carry-on, walking quickly and avoiding eye contact.
Despite the adjustment to her pace, she has been too fast. The bags are just beginning to come out. As most of the others from her flight are stepping off the escalator, she spots her single suitcase. A man tries to help her pull it off the belt, but she pastes on a smile and lifts it off herself, one-handed.
Getting through this place takes forever, but luckily she has arrived before most of her flight and only has to wait behind a few people to get through passport control. She sets down her suitcase as she waits.
Now that she's standing still, the fact that she hasn't slept in hours catches up to her body, as if her movement has been to outrun her exhaustion and it has finally panted to a stop beside her. She tries to remember how she ended up here, alone and tired and being nearly held up by her suitcase.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat- sat and also wept when we remembered Zion.
“Now?” Willow's voice crackled from being in the middle of the rainforest, from bouncing off satellites and from weaving its way into the cab that is currently taking Buffy to the airport.
“My flight's not for a couple hours, but that could be considered now. Depends on how patient you are.”
Buffy stopped what she was doing (which was trying to make her carry-on somewhat organized. After all, nothing says, “this is my terrorism decoy suitcase” like panties balled up in the corner. Well, also knives and pointy wooden sticks, although those would be going into her checked luggage. But Mom had taught her to pack clothes in her carry-on because “you never know when you're going to get bumped from your flight and need a fresh pair of underwear.”) and focused fully on Willow. “I just need somewhere to get lost, Will. Somewhere where I don't speak the language, where no one knows my name or my history or anything other than that I'm an American girl with blond hair.”
Willow's next words were cautious. “Buffy...is this about...LA?”
Buffy smiled bitterly and continued packing, ignoring Willow's question. “LA” was just their latest codeword or euphemism or whatever, but whether it was to ease their guilt or to try not to set her off, she didn't know. She should just be grateful that Willow was keeping up with some of the news while she was busy with whatever she was doing in the jungle. “Listen, Will, I called because I need to know where to stay. You were there just a little while ago-”
“Yeah, but I'm not exactly an expert. All Kennedy and I did was go to the beach in Eilat. We just crossed the border from Jordan when we were doing our Seven Wonders of the World tour.”
“You've been there more recently than anyone else. Giles was telling me about when he went after college but remember that that was circa the Dark Ages.” She purposely put on a peppy high school era Buffy voice to try to put off Willow's worry.
It worked. Some of the tension at the other end eased. “Well, you could go to Tel Aviv, that's supposed to be nice. Modern...oh, and we've got a Slayer there.”
Buffy bit back an irritated breath. Willow couldn't seem to understand that she just wanted to disappear. “Anywhere else?”
“Well, Eilat was nice, very beachy. Hot, though and it'll be even hotter in the middle of the summer. Maybe somewhere up north?” Willow's keyboard clicked as she spoke. “How about Haifa?”
“Never heard of it. What's there?”
“Eh...not much. A port, museums, an oil refinery. Some beaches.”
“I guess that would be Jerusalem.”
“Isn't that, like, religion central?”
“Yeah, but there's a lot of other stuff there. Archaeological digs, museums.”
“Will, that sounds like your kind of place. Are you digging for an invite?”
“There's your type of stuff too!”
“Good to know what you think of me.” She bit her lip, made sure to keep her voice teasing as she finished packing and zipped her suitcase.
“No, no. I just meant it's not only history.”
“What do they speak there?”
“I'll take it. Can you get me a motel room and a cab from the airport?”
“Yeah, cheap and clean. I'll text you if there's a problem, so check your phone when you get there. Have a good flight, Buffy.”
Send you help from the sanctuary, and strengthen you out of Zion.
Willow is as good as her word. There's a man with a cardboard sign that reads “Summers” in unevenly lettered English waiting for her once she clears passport control. Buffy weaves between the happy reunions, turning her cell phone off as she wheels her bag.
After she introduces herself, the driver takes her bag immediately, despite her protests. He tells her his name is Asif and shows her to his cab. The ID on the back of the window separating them tells her that he speaks Hebrew and Arabic, but he knows enough English to ignore the barrier and ask her what baseball team she supports and who she's going to vote for in the coming election and if it's her first time in the country. Her answers are short and bland and he soon understands that she doesn't want to talk.
Instead, she looks out the window. It is greener outside than she expected after hearing what a desert it is out here. They curve up and up into the hills and she wishes she had a map to see how much longer it will take. The country is already surprising her. She expected a dry expanse of desert flatness, but Asif drives up a highway crowded with early morning traffic. The cars are mostly the Peugeots and Fiats she first encountered in Italy rather than the sleek cars that drove down even the small-town streets of Sunnydale. Everyone drives fast, threading around anyone going slower than they are which makes for a slightly nauseating ride. Still, Buffy's been ricocheted across cab seats in twelve different countries and had flights on every random Eastern European airline that somehow managed to keep its certification from the days of the Soviet Union, so she isn't too bothered. She drops off to sleep with her head vibrating from leaning against the window.
She wakes up as Asif jerks the cab into a parallel park. The hills and grass and goats are gone. Buffy looks heavy-lidded out the window to see a street full of people- tourists who somehow think they can pull off a fanny pack, not matter how ridiculous it looks on all the others; men in white shirts, black pants, black hats and knee-length black robes; women with dreadlocks and pants that look like Jasmine's from Aladdin; men in jeans and baggy t-shirts, carrying rugs on their heads- and sand-colored stone buildings.
They look like castles, she thinks sleepily, dragging herself from the cab. She goes around to the back to find Asif jiggling the trunk open. They trade: her suitcase for his fare, plus what she believes is a decent tip. She's glad she thought to exchange some money, even if she's not exactly sure what that exchange rate is. Quickly, she thanks the cabdriver as he gets back in the taxi. Asif drives away and Buffy is left standing on the curb.
The sign in the front informs her that she will be staying at the New Swedish Hostel. She can't imagine why Willow would choose this place.
There's no way it was for the atmosphere. If the desk clerk were one of the seven dwarves, he would be Grumpy. He frowns at her greeting, hands over the key begrudgingly and scowls when she asks where her room was.
It turns out to be on the third floor and it takes a little more strength than she is comfortable with using to unstick the door. Willow had clearly remembered the “cheap” requirement, but neglected to look for somewhere that fulfilled the “clean” part of the agreement.
“Sparse” also describes the room. There are two sets of bunk beds and a couple of doors on the wall that probably lead to the bathroom and a closet, although this isn't exactly the type of place where you would want to hang your clothes.
Still, the mattress on the bottom bunk closest to her looks good enough and she collapses onto it.
When she wakes up, it is darkening outside. It's a strange kind of darkening because the the sky seems to have no stars and everything looks light from the remaining bits of sun that glare off all the store buildings she can see out the window.
She washes her face off with water that does not seem to get any warmer than tepid. She decides to get something to eat and turns to rummage through her suitcase for a fresh shirt. Which becomes extremely awkward when a man and a woman argue their way into the room, feuding until they catch sight of a shirtless, blushing Buffy trying to slip unobtrusively into a top.
They stare at each other and then Buffy gives an awkward smile and extends her hand. “I'm Buffy. Who totally didn't realize that she had roommates.”
The girl shakes her hand, pressing her lips together, maybe because she's uncomfortable, maybe because she's trying to stop laughing. “Sorry they didn't tell you.”
Her companion grins, “I'm not,” but it's not a creepy, pervy statement and Buffy finds herself grinning as well as they shake hands.
“The pig here is Jackson,” the girl informs Buffy, now clearly trying not to laugh. She presses her palm against Jackson's side, looking so happy that Buffy nearly turns away. “And I'm Lana.” Her accent is rangy, Australian, and she pronounces the name “Lay-na.”
Buffy excuses herself to change, and when she comes out, Lana and Jackson are arguing again.
“What about the cockroaches?” Jackson is saying, motioning toward the corner. Buffy's head swivels almost Exorcist-style to where he's pointing, but thankfully it seems to be only a gesture, not an indication.
Lana rolls her eyes. “Crush it with your shoe, you baby.”
“They're as big as my shoes!” He holds his hands a foot apart in front of her face, but she slaps them down.
“You promised you wouldn't wimp out of this. It's supposed to be about roughing it and getting an authentic experience.”
“That was before I realized that I would be spending my honeymoon rubbing on lotion for the bedbug bites I got.”
Lana leans in. She is almost as tall as Jackson. “Maybe tonight I'll help you with that lotion.” She still has the light of her wedding in her eyes as she looks at him, smirking slightly, and now Buffy does turn away.
She splashes water on her face and pats dry. She looks at her grainy reflection in the mirror, her eyes the only thing showing above the towel.
She doesn't watch romantic movies anymore. The happily-ever-afters don't seem comforting or even like wishful thinking now. They're just giant lies that cost the ever-increasing price of a movie ticket.
When she walks back into the room, she makes sure makes sure to make noise. Lana and Jackson break apart as she comes into their peripheral vision and she wishes that she could face them with a smirk and a quip, but her throat is clogged with longing.
She crosses to her suitcase too quickly and rummages around, cataloging everything she bought just so she looks like she's concentrating.
Lana and Jackson are whispering behind her look what you did//I told you we should leave! until she stands up and asks them to show her someplace good to eat.
Jackson looks relieved, although she's not sure whether it's because he's glad that she's not crying or because he just really wants food. Lana just pulls a hat out of her bag and slaps it on her head. It's a ridiculously floppy canvas thing that squishes her hair down, but Lana wears it completely unselfconsciously, just turns and goes out.
Jackson catches up, drapes a long arm around her shoulder and pulls her close. He whispers to her- all Buffy catches is “Crocodile Dundee”- but it makes Lana push him away, giggling. He chases her, grabs her around the waist, swinging her until they both nearly collapse from laughing. Lana leans, kissing Jackson until Buffy reaches them. Then Lana drops down and she and Jackson link arms, doing a shuffling walk because they're depending much on each other that they are no longer standing on their own.
Jerusalem has greatly sinned, therefore she became a mockery.
Buffy watched the news on Sunday nights and Wednesday nights. It was her weekly assignment for the Italian lessons she was taking just for fun. The language wasn't sinking in, but she liked watching Benito, the hot Italian teacher, walk around the front of the room.
So it was unfortunate that Angel's apocalypse happened on Tuesday. Which meant she didn't find out until the next evening as she sat and sipped a glass of wine, admiring the color, and then snorting at how snooty Italy had made her. She let the smooth newscaster's voice wash over her as she thought about : learning to cook, the coffee place down the street, the coffee maker she wanted for her birthday, how to convince Giles to get it for her, the counsel's money situation, Dawn's tuition, whether she would ever return to school, Pizza Mondays in the cafeteria at UC Sunnydale, her favorite pizza place in Los Angeles; and maybe it was just because she was thinking about LA that the Italian accented words “Los Angeles” penetrated her consciousness and made her focus on the story that was coming onto the screen. They flashed buildings in Los Angeles and Buffy made appropriate tongue-clicking noises at the fire damage and the pictures of now-homeless people huddled in blankets, and hoped that Angel wasn't anywhere near the fires. She briefly attempted to translate the last segment by ear- some fluff piece that seemed to be about cats, or maybe fashion- and went to bed smiling because she'd done her homework and it was another day down the road without any drama more significant that getting the wrong kind of coffee at her favorite cafe.
The phone rang at one AM and, as she did every time it rang in the middle of the night, she prayed first that it wasn't about anyone she loved and second that it was not something related to saving the word.
This time she was out of luck on both counts.
She heard Giles's voice and sat up immediately. “Is it Dawn?” she demanded, although the university would have called her first if something had happened.
“No,” he said, sounding puzzled, as if she should already know why he was calling. “Have you been watching the news, Buffy?”
“Yeah.” She lay down, stretching a little and rubbing her eyes with her fingers. “Cats wearing clothing or whatever. Crazy Italians. But no world in peril, Giles. Take your Earl Grey back to bed.”
And then he hit her with it- it felt like he literally lashed the words across her face, no matter how gently he tried to deliver them- and her new, simple world fell away, leaving only her old, sharp, harrowing one in its place.
Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow.
Buffy wakes up regretting the sambar she let Lana convince her to try the night before. She lies in bed, hoping that perhaps her stomach will calm down. In their ridiculous shared top bunk, she can hear her roommates kissing lazily.
She stays only for a minute- not because she thinks they need privacy because if they did, they should learn to do what they're doing in a more private place- but because she truly likes Lana and Jackson and she doesn't want to be jealous of them.
She's brushing her teeth when she hears a giant crash from the next room. Her shocked face in the mirror, with crazy bedhead and toothpaste making her look rabid, almost makes her laugh as she runs into the other room.
The posts of the bunk bed are snapped. Lana and Jackson's bed is smashed into her still-unmade one, and she slams her eyes shut as she sees Lana's shirt lying by the collapsed bunks.
“Are you guys okay?” she asks, but they don't bother to answer because they're laughing so hard.
“Wait until they hear...” Jackson gasps.
Lana manages, “Lisa's going to die!”
Buffy uncovers her eyes and the sight of the two of them cackling so hard she's afraid the bed will break further makes her smile as well. And they're all laughing so hard they feel weak as people rush in to investigate.
Half an hour later, after being joined by a couple of college guys who keep giggling in a slightly drugged manner, after being apologized to in heavily accented English by a clerk who is the opposite of the one from the other night, after Grumpy himself joins them and yells about misuse of furniture, they find themselves ejected from the hostel. Their laughter has died down as they drag their luggage down the street, but Buffy is still left with a slightly crazed, giddy feeling, as if anything could set her off again. It still feels good to have her stomach hurt in a way that it hasn't for a long time.
“Now will you call your cousin?” Jackson whines jokingly, making his wife elbow him hard.
“Yes! Now that you got us kicked out, I'll call her, you jerk.”
“Jerk?! Is that really the word you want to use? If I recall, you were the one who tried to-”
“Jackson, if that sentence goes where I think it will, I'm leaving early and you will be deprived of my presence during lunch,” Buffy threatens.
Lana stops, frowning. “Leaving? Why are you leaving?”
“Gotta find a new place to support my rockstar lifestyle,” Buffy reminds her.
“By yourself?!” Lana looked indignant. “You don't speak the language. Do you even have money? You've got to come with us! I'm going to call my cousin, she's been desperate to get us an apartment since she found out we were coming. You can share! It won't be expensive.” And she pulled out her phone, ignoring Buffy's protests.
“Buffy,” Jackson says, pulling her out of the middle of the sidewalk. “We got you kicked out of the other place. Let us help you.”
“Look,” he leans in closer. “I got married twelve days ago and since then I have been dragged – by the light of my life, mind you – to inns so nasty that Joseph and Mary didn't even bother to stop by. I want nothing more in the entire world than to have a real bed, in a habitable place, suitable for actual humans. And Lana, beautiful, kind, generous woman that she is, will only do that if you come with us. So I am begging you, Buffy, as your friend of a little under a day, to please come to this lovely apartment that Lana's cousin is picking out.”
It isn't a choice, really, and when Lana turns to them and says, “Okay, folks, we've got to be on King George Street in thirty minutes,” Buffy picks up her bags again and follows them.
They are half a block away from Lana's cousin when Lana starts running. The girls are still locked in a jumping duo when Jackson and Buffy stroll up beside them a few minutes later.
They finally let go and the cousin is gaspingly introduced as Rachel.
Rachel is very short- short enough for Buffy to look down at the top of her head, which is saying something- and very pregnant. Still, she walks down the street with as long a stride as her skirt will allow, speaking in rapid American-accented English as she and Lana catch up.
Rachel leads them right, down a hilly street that makes Buffy watch to make sure that Rachel is balancing well. The signs here are mostly in Hebrew writing, as if the people here don't feel the need to sanitize anything for the tourists. It's not an attraction, it's a neighborhood, and Buffy watches all the people leading their lives. They reach a sandwich shop, then a bakery and cross the street there. It's a three flight walk-up, but short flights, before Rachel unlocks the door and lets them in.
The space is open, all light and marble, and Buffy is a little afraid of slipping and smacking her head on something hard and shiny. There's a kitchen and a living area with a couch and two uncomfortable-looking armchairs.
The bedrooms are next door to each other, which Buffy notes is not the best arrangement with newlyweds, but the rest of the apartment seems great, even the price, so she agrees.
She unpacks, placing the items from her single suitcase into a closet that came with the apartment. The sky is barely beginning to tint navy, but she lies on the bed for a while. She feels cranky and itchy, so she takes a shower and puts on fresh clothes, but it doesn't make her feel better.
I'm twenty-three years old, she thinks. And I run away from my problems the same way I did at seventeen.
She rolls over and curves in to sleep.
Zion's roads are in mourning, empty of festival pilgrims.
The first week, Giles called twice. When she hadn't called back by the second week, he began calling every day. By the third week, the manager of her hotel would have begged her to call the men who kept leaving messages if he weren't so afraid of Ms. Summers and her odd hours and weirdly stained clothing.
Finally Giles flew in. He waited until the middle of the day to knock on her door, because if Buffy had spent the last few weeks hunting, she'd have become nocturnal.
He banged on the door until she opened it, looking awful but not surprised to see him.
“I figured you would send Xander,” she said, walking back into the darkness. “I should be learning to stand on my own two feet, right?”
He followed her, surprised by the bitterness in her voice. “I thought you understood why I did that.”
“Of course I understood. Just like I understood when you said that I should have a break, have some fun in Rome.” She was cross legged on the bed, in a meditation position that looked anything but relaxing. He perched on the end of a nearby chair.
“You blame me for your no longer being in the loop.”
“No, I blame me for not trying. Because maybe if I had kept up instead of ignoring the loop, Angel would have had back up and he would still be alive.”
“You believe that he...fell in battle?”
“The demons here are chatty and yet none of them want to chat about him.” There were tears in her voice, and they hurt Giles as they always had. He moved to the bed and touched her arm. As soon as he did, she collapsed on to him.
“It's my fault, Giles. We were together and I killed him and we were a thousand miles apart and I killed him anyway.”
And despite his Oxford literature degree, all Giles could think to say was, “It's not your fault.”
Zion spread out her hands; she has no one to comfort her.
Buffy wakes late the next day. It is Saturday and she makes it downstairs just in time for lunch. Lana and Jackson have already finished eating, but haven't cleaned up. Plates of food are scattered across the table and Buffy scoops various dishes on to a plate.
“Where'd all the food come from?” she asks, biting into a piece of fried chicken.
“Rachel dropped it off,” Lana says, not looking up from her copy of Anna Karenina. Her feet and Jackson's share a chair as he pages through a guidebook of Israel. He will randomly share a fact or observation from the book every few minutes. “Is the Dead Sea on the list? Lowest point on land in the world,” or “We should definitely do some hiking while we're here, yeah, Lan?” Lana will acknowledge him with bare murmurs as Buffy chews, glad that he doesn't seem to expect a response.
“Look out the window,” he says suddenly. Lana ignores him this time, just turning the page of her book and scratching her calf with her toes. Jackson begins to look pleadingly at Buffy so that she feels obliged to get up and twitch the curtains.
“It's empty,” she says, although that's not strictly true. There are people all over: walking in pairs, pushing babies in strollers, playing ball, all in the street. But there are no cars, and it gives the neighborhood an old-fashioned feel.
“We're on a no-traffic street,” Jackson replies with the same knowledge-happy tone that Willow used to have. “On the Jewish sabbath, cars aren't allowed to drive down here.” He leaned over to his wife and lowered his voice slightly. “Want to know another fun guidebook fact about the Sabbath?”
“Mmmm?” Lana says, probably not listening.
“Sex is holier,” he whispers suggestively. Lana finally looks up.
“Oh really?” She takes the guide from his hands and scans the page, raising her eyebrows while she hits the strange fact. “Huh,” she says, giving the book back and returning to her own. She lasts maybe twenty seconds before she breaks, pulling a laughing Jackson to his feet and dragging him to bed.
Buffy is glad that the two of them have stumbled towards their room because at this point, she isn't sure that they would care about taking over hers.
She is glad that she got dressed. She takes a key from the counter and goes out.
Everything is closed. All the shops and restaurants from yesterday are shut down. She feels odd walking on this street full of people in suits and fancy dresses while she is in shorts and a tank top. She walks quickly to the top of the street and instantly feels more normal. Here there are cars- fewer than yesterday, but still driving- and a couple of tourist groups. The stores, even on the main road, are closed, and she can see the barrier blocking cars from coming down the street she just came from. It's odd, this world, and she can't see why Rachel would give up her life in America to come here.
Buffy considers returning to the apartment already, but it's barely been five minutes. She crosses the street and walks for miles. In the worst of cliches, in streets packed with people, she is alone. So she walks. She passes apartments, hotels, walls graffitied in Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian and gibberish, until she reaches a park. She walks through it until she reaches a dead end. She rests her forehead against a wall, even though she knows how unsanitary it is. She likes the solidity of it, the anchoredness. Loneliness, as it turns out, is still terrifying.
Silent sit on the ground the elders of fair Zion; they have strewn dust on their heads and girded themselves with sackcloth. The maidens of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground.
Dawn walked in as Buffy held a spoonful of cereal halfway to her mouth, standing at the counter.
“God, Buffy, I know we bought you chairs.”
Buffy dropped her bowl onto the counter and strode to give her sister a hug. “I thought you weren't supposed to be here until Friday!”
“Finished my last paper earlier than expected and figured why go get drunk when I can visit my big sister?”
“Buffy Summers: better than getting drunk. Best recommendation I've ever gotten.”
“And that is sad on so many different levels.” Dawn estimated that eighty to eighty-five percent of the conversation was faked or forced. Buffy's posture, her expressions said “I am happy to see my sister!” But she couldn't hide the depression that choked around her like a sickroom odor.
“So, now you're here, we should go out. I bet you've missed Italian pasta.”
Dawn decided to wait until dinner for the real- read: Angel- talk. “Sure, let me just put my bag in my room.”
“Nah, just drop it here, you can do it later.” There's just a hint of nervousness in her voice, but Dawn had just taken a semester of psych and she knew her vocal cues.
“I'll just do it now. It'll just a second.” And she detoured around her sister and shot down the hallway.
There were odd stains on her carpet. “Buffy, have you been tracking demon blood in my room again?” And then she heard a noise from the closet.
There was a demon inside. It was vaguely bullfrog-shaped and a disgusting brown color, except for its hands and feet, which swelled a pale blue beyond where ropes cut into its wrists and ankles.
“If you please, miss, help me,” it said. It had a woman's voice and a Southern accent. Dawn found that more disturbing than anything.
“Buffy?” Dawn sounded angry, but mostly she was scared. “Why is there a demon locked in my closet?”
“It knows something,” the Slayer said coldly. “About Angel. It's from LA and I just have to make it tell me where he is.”
Dawn turned slowly. Buffy was behind her, eyes sliding along with the demon's shifting. “Angel is dead. It kills me, it kills all of us that it happened. But even you agreed that he's gone, Buffy.”
“Demons talk, Dawn. They finally talked a little too loudly and it changed my mind. Now I just have to get it to talk again.”
Dawn knelt. She untied the demon's ropes and opened the window. Buffy made a sound behind her.
“Thank you,” said the demon. She leaped down from the house. Buffy hissed.
“I needed it, Dawn,” she said. She sounded insanely calm.
“You're the slayer, Buffy!” Dawn waved her arms a little before she realized how stupid it looked. She settled for pointing and some more calm gesturing. “You're the slayer. You're supposed to use your strength for the good of humanity, not to torture demons.”
Buffy looked remote. “Angel is part of the good of humanity.”
“Angel would hate you torturing anything. But he can't hate anything because he is dead. And you need to stop chasing ghosts just because you feel guilty.”
Buffy collapsed on the bed. She was crying. Dawn sat on the floor nearby. “I don't know know how to do it, Dawn. I don't know how to balance slaying and responsibility and love and guilt. I've been doing it for years and now I don't know if I can do it anymore.” She felt like one of those women in Africa they always showed in the old National Geographics at the dentist, the ones with golden rings on their necks. But it was as if she had just gone in to the real world and seen that she didn't need to hold that much weight.
“I think,” Dawn told her slowly, “that maybe what's important is just trying to get up in the morning.”
“One day at a time, right?” Buffy whispered, remembering how many times she had said exactly that to her sister after Mom died.
Dawn clutched her sister's hand. “One day at a time.”
Zion weeps bitterly and Jerusalem raises her voice.
Sunday is museum day. Lana has used her considerable, annoyingly persuasive powers to convince Buffy that she should be touring with them every day, along with sleeping in their apartment.
Lana gets them up and out by nine, and Buffy thinks her original assumption that Lana is the flighty one was wrong. Then Lana realizes that she locked her keys in the house, and Buffy re-reconsiders.
They take a cab to the Israel Museum. They spend a couple of hours faux-seriously considering modern art, looking at mummies, and strolling through the Rhythm of Life wing.
Jackson is impressed by the stitching on the wedding gowns in the marriage section as Lana laughs over the hooka placed in the middle of the model Turkish birthing tent. They use makeshift sign language to get their picture taken by one of the Japanese tourists walking through behind them.
Buffy stands by the side, looks at the commemorative plates for the chevra kadisha, the burial society.
“Chevra kadisha literally translates as 'holy fellowship. It is a loosely structured but generally closed organization of Jewish men and women who see to it that the bodies of Jews are prepared for burial according to Halacha (Jewish law) and are protected from desecration, willful or not, until burial. The task of the chevra kadisha is considered one of the purest and holiest in Judaism, as tending to the dead is a favor that the recipient cannot return.”
Buffy is quiet for the rest of the day.
May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Buffy's knees hurt from kneeling to clean the floor of Dawn's room but it felt good. She had spent the past week getting familiar with Italian cleaning products. While she had been playing inquisitor, her apartment had been a little neglected, but she was getting back on her feet again.
Hanifold blood stains were thus far defying all attempts to scrub them from Dawn's carpet, but her sister was traveling Europe with friends and wouldn't be back in Rome for another few weeks and Buffy had high hopes for this new spray.
“Maybe I can get Willow to send me some magic soap,” she mused, digging her sponge harder.
The doorbell rang.
Buffy sighed, stood and went to answer it. Hopefully it was a delivery of those Swiss chocolates Dawn had promised.
The door swung open. Angel stood behind it. She thought.
I am here without you, standing in the cold. How can I help ease your pain, City of Gold?
Buffy is up by seven. Lana has been up since six.
It's not entirely clear what she is doing. They haven't been in the apartment for long enough to make a mess, but Lana is striding back and forth across the apartment, picking things up and putting them down in a way that strikes Buffy as random.
“I should have warned you,” Jackson says from behind Buffy. “Lana can be a little obsessive compulsive. One time I woke up at three AM and found her folding my underwear into triangles and my socks into diamonds.” But he is calm and affectionate, and Buffy feels the heat of jealousy again. She doesn't know why it's always equated with green. Jealousy has always felt like red to her.
She's scarlet inside as Jackson goes and cups Lana around the waist. Buffy has to turn into the kitchen and get herself a bowl of cereal. She can't look at them.
I could have that too, she tells herself, but she's not sure if she is lying.
“What's the plan for today?” Buffy scoops up a spoonful of fake Israeli cheerios.
“Ammunition Hill,” Jackson says, looking gleeful in an uncharacteristically wild, gun-loving five year old kind of way.
Lana leans over to Buffy. “He wasn't really listening by the time I got to the 'historical site, no live ammunition' part of the description.”
“I elect you to take care of his disappointment when he finds out that he won't be shooting guns off a mountain.”
“I broke him out of crying years ago. He'll just pout and you can deal with that.”
The pouting goes on for ten minutes before Jackson realizes that they're not paying attention to him. After that, he takes the brochure that they got at the entrance and starts playing tour guide.
“Here we have the hill,” he says importantly. “And here we have the bunkers.”
They're cement and stone and metal, honeycombing the hill around them.
“The battle for Ammunition Hill took place on June 6, 1967, during the Six Day War. The hill was an important strategic point, bridging the territory between Mount Scopus and West Jerusalem, an essential piece in the retaking of Jerusalem. As the Israeli army barraged the hill with artillery, Jordanian troops took shelter from the barrage in the bunker system of the hill. Israeli ground troops moved in at 2:30 and fought until the battle's end at 7 AM. 37 Israeli soldiers were killed in the battle for Ammunition Hill. 71 Jordanian soldiers were killed.”
Buffy looks around. There's a group of older English couples wearing matching hats snaking through the open tunnels. They move to the side to make way for four kids having a water gun fight through the bunkers. Buffy wants to smile when she sees the oldest girl hit the older boy in the eyes and then double up by squirting a jet into his mouth.
She can't understand fighting for this place. It's a little lump of earth, so small that, as she watches, a toddler runs up it without getting breathless. It seems like too much blood running over some dirt that isn't even near a mall.
She asks the couple beside her why it's so damn important (more tactfully, of course). Lana shrugs.
“It's a Jerusalem thing. You'll have to ask Rachel. But nicely, because she's touchy about this kind of thing. And maybe not now because her husband is leaving for the army again today.”
“Really, really belated cold feet?” asks Buffy, thinking of Rachel's seemingly about-to-burst stomach.
“He arranged to do it now so he would be back for when the new baby comes,” Lana explains. “He signed up for this program where he spent a few years learning and now he has to serve in the army for sixteen months.”
“Damn,” Jackson whistles. He clearly hasn't been let in on all these details before. “Thanks for not going into the army for the first year and a half of our marriage.”
“Oh, I didn't tell you? And I'm leaving you to carry the first two kids,” Lana jokes. She shrieks as Jackson scoops her up, limbs flying as he runs through the front gate. Buffy follows slowly, wondering when she developed a masochistic streak that is making her hang around with the two happiest people in the country. Or maybe she likes witnessing their happiness, just to ensure that someone has it.
Jerusalem built up, a city knit together.
Buffy had never thought about what it would have been like nursing her mother in old age.
Now she wondered.
Angel had shown up two weeks ago, burned all over from fire, from sun, whipped and beaten so badly that he was barely recognizable, even to her.
She didn't know who had hurt him. She didn't know how he had managed to make it to Italy. He had yet to speak.
Right now, he spent time between bed and the bathtub, where he soaked in cold water. He was like a snake, shedding his skin, leaving him looking fragile and newborn.
His fragility was only accentuated by the fact that he was now human.
Buffy had greeted this revelation- discovered while she frantically checked him over after he collapsed on her living room floor moments after his arrival at her door- with a mixture of confusion, amazement, fear and relief.
“Now I can call a doctor,” she had whispered to him gratefully. But the words had made him shake so hard that, scared, she had called Giles instead.
She had been taking care of him since then. Round the clock bandaging, administering dosages, comforting.
Angel didn't speak, but he did cry. He would make noises in his clearly nightmare-filled sleep, but other than that he was silent and staring whenever she helped him.
It was midnight now, twenty minutes past, and she was getting ready for bed. The apartment was still a mess- she hadn't cleaned up since her aborted attempt days ago- but the days tired her out. Even when Angel slept during the day, she tended to collapse into a nap too, knowing that there was more work waiting on the other side of sleep.
By half past, she was in bed- Dawn's, as she had given hers, the more comfortable, to Angel- and trying to sleep. She found that despite her exhaustion, she needed a few minutes for her adrenaline to subside. She closed her eyes and wondered what made her keep doing this. Florist had been before nurse on her list of possible careers. Was it because of guilt or duty or some some leftover grief?
No. She loved him, and you took care of the ones you loved. Even when it hurt you.
As she thought this, she saw a shadow on the inside of her eyelids. She opened her eyes. Angel stood above her. He looked almost menacing in the moon-shadow, tall and broad still, though nearly-nude, his new skin still too sensitive for clothing.
Buffy sat up. “Angel? Do you need something?”
He was swaying slightly. He hadn't stood for so long since he'd been there. He sounded creaky: in his knees, his back, his voice as he quietly responded, “Buffy,” before he lay down on the floor beside the bed.
“Angel, you can't sleep there,” Buffy protested.
“It's okay,” Angel told her. He sounded sleepy and slightly smiling. “I don't snore.” And he went to sleep.
Buffy was awake for another hour.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, city of my dreams. I've been just wasting time before, at least that's how it seems.
Buffy wakes up at ten. The other bedroom is still closed, and so she crosses the street and picks out a dozen pastries. They're still slightly warm, and she licks sticky chocolate off of her fingers as she writes a note explaining where she has gone. She leaves the bakery box on the counter as an abandonment present, and leaves, locking the door behind her.
By now Buffy knows the way to Ben Yehuda Street, where they've gotten dinner for the past couple of nights. It's a tourist street- you can tell from the fact that it's full of English speakers while native Israelis pass right by- but Buffy is looking to be a tourist today. She wants to be anonymous, and maybe pick up a couple of souvenirs.
She didn't bring a lot of cash, so she does a lot of browsing first. There a bunch of souvenir shops at the top of the hill and she goes from one to another. In the end, they are all the same: similar souvenirs, shopkeepers calling reduced prices after her as she walks out without buying anything.
It's their voices that catch her. They are oddly full of desperation like the forcibly cheerful, hand-written signs in the windows that declare her patronage 'greatly appreciated.' When she finally decides on gifts- all from one store about halfway down the street- she asks the cashier about it.
“The Intifada,” he says simply, wrapping the necklace she bought for Dawn. Buffy shakes her head, clueless, and he tells her, never losing the folding rhythm.
“For the past few years there has been more piguim- terrorist attacks. People think it is too dangerous to come here, they stop coming and there are no visitors buying from the shops.” His English is decent, probably from being around tourists. He puts her purchases into a bag, gives her her change and thanks her for her business.
It's only noon when she is done, but she doesn't feel like returning to the apartment yet. She continues down the street, stopping at a restaurant called Moshiko's for a falafel. The men flirt with her a little, playing tricks with the falafel balls, tossing them into the pita from behind their backs or from back in the kitchen. They let her stuff it with vegetables and French fries and sauces, and then hand it over with their phone numbers written on the accompanying napkin.
She walks away laughing. The sun feels hot and real on her shoulders, good despite her long sleeves, and it all feels simple. She starts back up Ben Yehuda, spotting a shoe store on a cross street leading to Jaffa Road. She starts down it.
The blast is over so quickly that deafness has set in before she really registers it. Buffy pulls herself together more quickly than most around her, thankful for her honed panic situation instincts. She stands, off balance, ears ringing, ignoring the pain in her arm from slamming into a wall. She can see the source of the blast in front of her: a bus, burning. She stumbles toward it instead of away like most people are doing.
Even a few minutes ago, she couldn't quite understand the word 'terrorism.' Now, as her hearing slides back, and she can still barely differentiate between sirens and screams, she understands terror. It's not the fear of fighting one vampire or a group of demons, no matter how possible death is. No matter how impossible the odds, she has never been surrounded by the oppressive panic of hundreds of people.
Nothing can be worth this, Buffy thinks, ill, and she turns away.
Pray for the well being of Jerusalem. May all who love you be at peace.
Angel was a good cook. Another week's progress and he was standing for long enough to be able to make omelets and cut fruit.
“Eat it all,” he admonished, setting plates on the table. “You need your strength.”
Angel's physical condition might have improved (his skin was no longer so sensitive and a fever he had developed had run its course) but he still spoke rarely, and hadn't told her anything about what had happened to him since they had last seen each other.
Buffy speared the biggest piece of melon on the plate. Angel is right. Taking care of a sick person was tiring. When Angel had been at his worst, she had been forced to grab quick bites before going back to him.
Now they spent days cleaning and airing the apartment so her landlady wouldn't evict them, and going for late afternoon walks.
Buffy still thought that perhaps Angel should be getting more medical attention than Giles's emailed advice, but Angel had protested, although she wasn't entirely sure why. Suggesting he talk to a professional about whatever trauma he had clearly suffered gained her only a thick sigh.
Coming to herself, Buffy realized that she had finished her eggs in barely a minute.
“You're good at this,”she told Angel, voice quiet in the deep noiselessness stretching between them. “Where'd you learn?”
The look he directed toward his own half-finished omelet was one of brokenness that made her look away.
“Forget it,” she told him immediately. But she had rarely been good at manipulating her tone with Angel (probably because she had always wanted him to figure her out so she could talk to him about whatever was bothering her) and “I wish I knew more about the person I've been nursing back to health” came through clearly.
It was Buffy who left the table, breaking their stalemate. He still hadn't looked at her as she closed the door to Dawn's hijacked bedroom.
Buffy couldn't see the clock when she woke up. Angel was on the floor by the bed again, kneeling this time, his head on the mattress by her stomach.
“I'm sorry,” he murmured. “I shouldn't be...but I'm just...” He coughed out a sob, and she rolled over in bed.
“Come up here.” The bed was narrow, but they tucked themselves around each other. “Do you want to tell me what happened?”
He didn't answer the question, but he told her anyway.
When he was done, she undressed herself. He hadn't moved by the time she was finished, and so she slipped his pants off his hips.
He had been naked for more than half the time he had been with her, but this time was different. She had been worrying about the damage to his muscles instead of paying attention to the cut of them, seeing the bruising on his shoulders instead of the breadth of them. Now she saw Angel, just himself, and what they were going to do.
It changed minute to minute. One second she felt freshly seventeen, the next she was a weary twenty-three year old. Her teeth were violent against his neck as his hands tightened on her wrists. He smiled at her with his eyes, making her wonder if she had ever laughed during sex. She would like to try.
Toward the end, he began to cry, his guilt for living soaking into her skin like a reminder. They fell asleep pieced together in a bed purposely bought small to avoid such a sleeping arrangement in her younger sister's life.
Buffy woke first. She took her shirt and slipped it on. She went to the computer and booked the first flight she saw on the website. Rome to Tel Aviv. 11 AM. Just enough time to throw some things into a suitcase and call a cab.
She left Angel a note. It asked him not to follow her, not to call anyone, and to put off anyone who tried to reach her. She didn't tell him where she was going. She didn't tell him she loved him.
The voice of them that flee and escape out of the land of Babylon to declare in Zion.
Buffy shows up at Rachel's apartment at three PM. Lana's cousin answers the door with an armful of toys. She is chalky white and, as Buffy squints from the brightness of the day into the darkness of the apartment, she has perhaps been crying. She has probably already heard.
“Buffy, right?” Rachel says, sounding confused and polite.
Buffy says hoarsely, “Yes. May I come in?”
Rachel steps aside. “I'm not interrupting anything, am I?” Buffy asks belatedly, walking in anyway.
“No, it's nap time, thank God.” Rachel gestures vaguely to a door to their left before walking over to a toy chest in the corner of the small living room and spilling her arms into the box. She sits down in a chair- which makes Buffy glad, because Rachel has somehow become even bigger in the past few days and she looks like she might fall over- and Buffy sits on the sofa opposite.
Rachel seems to be waiting, which is understandable.
“I'm sorry to barge in like this,” Buffy starts, and Rachel notices her arm.
“Come with me,” she says urgently. Buffy follows her to the bathroom. She rolls up her sleeve and Rachel cleans her cuts.
“Were you on Jaffa Road?” she asks. Her voice sounds pitying but it shakes.
“And that made you come here?”
“I needed to ask you a question.”
Buffy looks back at Rachel, washed out and ancient-looking in the bathroom light. “Why do you do it? How do you live here?” She pulls her arm away, rolls her sleeve down. Rachel slides her fingers under again, pressing a last bandage to Buffy's skin. She does not speak. They return to the living room. Rachel stands at the window. She is still silent.
Finally she says, “They call it aliyah, you know. Moving to Israel, the word in Hebrew is aliyah. Moving upward. Because you're supposed to be closer to God here.”
“But there is so much hate and pain! How can you stay here when there is so much wrong?”
Rachel turns. She is tearing. Her voice is strong and gaping with pain. “Because I love. Because I believe. Because we've been waiting for thousands of years to come here, been kicked out of countries so many times that some of us don't even want to go back, and we've finally been allowed to live here and I need to take advantage. Yes, it's tough, not knowing if taking the bus is going to get you killed, not knowing if your husband is going to come home from duty alive, not knowing if he's going to be here when you give birth to your baby. It's hard. It sucks. But I keep doing it because I love this life, I love this land, my people have loved it since we left and I need to take it back.”
There is no reasoning, no logic, but Buffy understands. It is like when she had once offered her neck to Angel, knowing that Giles would have killed her, knowing only in her gut that Angel wouldn't hurt her. It was faith that drove them, faith that could kill them or save them. She wonders if she still has that faith.
It will again be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem: the voice of joy and the voice of happiness, the voice of a groom and the voice of a bride.
She thought that she would have another few minutes before seeing him, but he is asleep on a bench in the front courtyard. She sees him as soon as she gets through the gate. She wonders if he somehow knew she was coming.
If he did, he's not very good at waiting. He is deeply asleep and she takes the opportunity to examine him. He looks good. Not perfect, not yet, but more tanned and whole and normal than even a week ago. He clearly isn't afraid of the sun as he was when he first arrived- fresh from an open cell with no protection from the sun for his vampirically sensitive skin- and she is glad. Two and a half centuries without sunlight, and she wants him to be able to enjoy it.
She finds herself kneeling beside him. Before she even says anything, he startles awake.
“Hi,” she says.
“I'm sorry,” he replies. He sits up. “I came here and I was broken. I assumed you were healed.”
“When I was barely better than you were.” She settles in for having the necessary deep conversation. “I left Sunnydale and ran around the world looking at what I had done to dozens of girls who didn't deserve it. So I took a break and went into denial. And then you were dead because I didn't help you and I took a dive off the deep end of a really, really deep swimming pool. Just ask Dawn.”
They are smiling at each other as if their mouths are not taking notice from their brains.
“And then you were alive- very alive- and I thought that maybe we could be happy somehow.”
“Total freak out,” she agrees. “I was supposed to figure out how to balance myself and I just ended up rocketing from one extreme to another. So when you came, I got scared. It had never worked for us before and maybe it would be too hard to do it again.”
“You're ready now?” She's sitting on the bench beside him by now, but they don't touch. “You know who you are?”
“I'm closer to it,” she tells him. “But what I know now is not to be scared. I don't know what will happen, but I know that we have a chance and I don't want to pass that up.”
“Carpe diem,” Angel smiles.
“Seize the day,” Buffy answers. She's grown up beautifully, and she kisses him. He tastes like peanut butter and that more than anything makes it real.
“Not in front of the children!” Dawn's voice grins down from the balcony.
“Children are cute. You're just annoying.” Buffy calls back, not looking up. She's distracted by Angel's smile, the widest she's ever seen on him.
She pulls him up. He stumbles a little, which is worrying until his mouth lands on her and she decides he's faking.
“You could have just kissed me,” she murmurs. He gives her a silly smile and, God, she loves him. So she tells him so. His smile exchanges for an unwilling vulnerability and she wonders how she could not have told him yet, how she could have just left, knowing personally how much it hurt to wake up alone.
It won't be easy, she realizes again. There's no way for them to avoid hurting each other forever. But she can see in his face that he's already forgiven her, and that gives her strength.
It'll be hard, she thinks as they amble inside to see her sister, but they'll make it. She's positive about that. She'll push now to keep him, her full circle, her many-year longing.
Next year in Jerusalem.