Note: I heard the song "Hurt" by Christina Aguilera on the radio on the way to work today, and was absolutely stunned by it. And I knew almost immediately what story I wanted to write for it. If you can find the song, find it and listen to it while you're reading this.

"Unwilling to Forgive, Unable to Forget" is intended to be set toward the end of "Unexpected Results II: In All the Empty Places."


Unwilling to Forgive, Unable to Forget

She came awake, screaming, her eyes wide and staring at nothing. Desperately she tried to catch her breath, but the darkness around her was smothering, and she clawed her way out of her bed and lunged for the door. Throwing it open, she staggered into the hallway, running as though hell itself were chasing her, her eyes huge and her face ashen, sobbing as she made her way down the hall. As she reached the end of the corridor, however, she didn't see the steps falling away in front of her, and she went tumbling headfirst down the stairs to land in a broken heap at the bottom of the staircase.

Abel Nightroad had been taking one of his late night walks through the Vatican when his sharp hearing picked up a faint cry of pain. He whirled around, one hand going to his sidearm, his eyes sweeping from side to side as he tried to locate the sound. A few moments later, he heard a choked-off sob coming from nearby to his left.

The corridor leading to the women's dormitory.

Moving at a run, he rounded the corner and saw a figure huddled at the base of the stairs, lying there like a broken doll. It took him only an instant to recognize the woman lying there.

"Johanna!"

He barely remembered closing the distance between them, dropping to his knees beside her and carefully turning her over. Apart from a few bruises, she seemed to be unharmed, but her entire body was trembling, and she couldn't seem to stop weeping.

Abel took her by the shoulders and gently but firmly shook her. "Johanna... Johanna, what happened?"

Instinctively, she tried to pull away, unable to hold back the reaction, and Abel's eyes widened at the flash of emotions that raced across her face.

"Johanna-"

"Don't!" she cried. She tore free of his grasp and backed away toward the staircase, but as her heels connected with the bottom step, she fell backward and landed on the stairs.

"I'm not going to hurt you," he whispered cautiously, slowly moving toward her.

She didn't answer, but the priest saw her face go absolutely ashen, and she turned and dashed up the stairs, running for her room, but Abel was right behind her. As he entered, he saw Johanna driving her fist into the wall, again and again and again until blood welled up around her knuckles. Each punch was accompanied by a stream of profanity that normally would have had the bashful priest blushing, but it wasn't long before her swearing changed to harsh, angry sobs.

And three words, over and over again.

"I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!"

With each punch, her sobs grew louder until she was almost screaming it.

At that, he pulled her around to face him, gazing at her over the top of his spectacles. For a single instant, her eyes met his, full of a deep anguish and rage, but then she closed her eyes tightly, refusing to look at him.

"Why won't you look at me?" he whispered, shocked.

"Let go of me," she said hoarsely, trying and failing to keep the tremor out of her voice.

"You're out of your mind to think I'm going to leave you in this condition," he shot back.

Johanna turned her face away, still keeping her eyes closed. "Please go, Abel... go while I'm still myself."

"This is yourself?!" he asked her in disbelief. "No... no, I don't believe you."

"You don't know... you can't..." She shook her head, trying to back away again, but he wouldn't let her go.

"Look at me," he urged her, backing her up against the wall. "Look at me, Johanna."

"No..."

"LOOK AT ME!"

Struck by the emotions in Abel's voice, a mixture of pleading and command, Johanna's eyes opened and met his, and the last of her defenses crumbled.

And Abel froze in place.

Never had he ever seen human eyes look like hers did in that instant - it was as though he were gazing directly upon Johanna's soul. And it was an indescribable mixture of fury, sorrow, lust, defiance, agony, terror... and a terrible self-loathing.

In fact, he had only seen that expression on one other face in his entire life...

... his own.

Every time he looked into a mirror.

Unable to speak, unable to look away, all Johanna could do was hold out her hands in a mute gesture of appeal.

"Why?" was all Abel could whisper.

Johanna knew what he meant. "Because... I'm living in hell. It's... twisting me... tainting me... destroying me."

She could have been describing him, not her. Now, at last, he understood why he and the Sister had become so close, so fast. It was as though each of them had sensed the darkness in the other.

Tears filled her eyes once more, and she slowly lowered her hands to clench them into fists at her side. But still she did not look away. For a long, long time, neither of them said a word, but just stared at one another. Then at last, Johanna swallowed hard and closed her eyes once again, but it was not enough to stop the tears.

Slowly, he reached out and cupped his hand against her cheek, turning her face back toward his.

"Why do you hate yourself?" he asked her softly.

"Because I'm alive."

"What?" Abel was shocked at her admission, and she opened her eyes again to meet his gaze.

"I'm alive, and he's dead." Before he could stop her, she slapped his hand away, and cried out in a voice full of anguish, "HE'S DEAD! WHY THE HELL IS HE DEAD?! AND WHY THE HELL AM I STILL ALIVE?!"

"Johanna-"

"WHY?!" she screamed, suddenly lashing out at Abel, even as he caught at her wrists to hold her still. "WHY?! WHY?! WHY?!"

The harder she fought, the harder he held her, and at last, she slumped to the floor, Abel still holding her wrists as her body shook with sobs.

"We... never... even said... goodbye."

The priest was shaken to the depths of his soul at the sight of her, kneeling on the ground, broken and weeping. How could he not have seen the sorrow tearing her apart?

Or was it because he hadn't wanted to see it? Was it because he needed Johanna to laugh and chase life?

He sank to his knees beside her and pulled her close, stroking Johanna's long, unkempt chestnut hair as she cried in his arms.

"So now you know."

Abel flinched at the sound of Sister Kate's voice, and turned to see the hologram standing beside them.

"Kate-"

Kate moved to stand beside Johanna, resting an insubstantial hand on the other nun's shoulder. "She's been having these nightmares for weeks, but she forbade me to tell anyone about them."

As Abel stared at Kate, an idea slowly began to form in his mind.

"Kate, I need a favor. A big one."

She gave him a long look. "How big?"

"Huge."


An hour later...

Caterina's mouth fell open, and she was on her feet without realizing she had stood.

"They went WHERE?!"


Forty-eight hours later...

Abel stared at the desolate wasteland surrounding them. The wind whistled around him, dust devils swirling past him and dark clouds billowing overhead. Silhouetted against the sky was the vast shape of the Iron Maiden, casting its long shadow over the ground.

Other than that, there was no motion, no sound, no life.

There hadn't been life here in centuries.

He'd seen so much in his long lifetime, but this went beyond anything he could have imagined. It had taken all of his investigative skills, combined with Johanna's knowledge, but here they were, in the last place he would have thought himself.

Walking beside him, Johanna huddled inside her priest's cloak, her long hair blowing around her face. With each step, her boots crunched on the gravel beneath her feet, until at last, she came to a stop before the rusty remnants of a gate.

"Here."

Her voice was unnaturally loud, and Abel glanced at her in concern. But before he could speak, she reached out and pushed the gate open. It creaked, then it crumbled beneath her touch, and she flinched. Then she drew herself up and walked forward, Abel trailing behind her.

Once inside, they split up, searching separately, until Abel looked up to see Johanna standing as though rooted to the spot, staring down at the ground.

"Johanna..." he called out, but she didn't look up, even as he came to stand beside her.

Before them was a worn stone that against all odds, still bore visible carvings.

A name.

Two dates.

And a single phrase.

"From this world to the next, through this life and beyond, until I find her again."

He looked over at Johanna, and saw tears sliding down her cheeks.

"Oh, love," she whispered, falling to her knees and touching the stone, running her fingers over the carvings. "Oh, love, I'm sorry. Forgive me..."

She hid her face in her hands and wept, and Abel rested his hand on her shoulder.

"I'm sure there's nothing to forgive between you, Johanna."

There was silence for a moment, then Abel sighed and crossed himself, then quietly began to recite the mass for the dead as Johanna cried at his side, clutching the ring she wore around her neck like a rosary.

For a long time, they stayed there, then at last Johanna rose to her feet again. Wiping away her tears, she looked up at Abel as he finished his prayers.

"Thank you," she whispered, and Abel smiled at her.

"Ready to go?" he asked her, and she nodded.

But first, with trembling hands, she laid a single rose on her husband's grave.

"Sleep well," she murmured as she touched the stone one last time. "Until the next world... and our next life."

Then they were gone.