I played a prank on Andrew once, the previous year. The day before his birthday, he was planning some really pedantic lecture regarding fire safety, apropos of the four lovely, mint-condition M9A1-7 flamethrowers donated by some shadowy para-military group out of Manitoba, facilitated by Harris, Inc.
We all knew it was coming and nobody was in the mood. We were exuberant. Buoyant. We'd had a long string of overwhelming wins that month. We were, on fire, so to speak.
Five minutes before the presentation began, complete with POWERPOINT and laser pens mind you, I borrowed a teal blue eyeliner pencil from Teresa and gathered her and three other girls.
"How is he even going to see it?" Asked Laura.
"You're going to have to sit close and do it slowly," I told her.
Sophie kept squinting and smearing the lines. "And he's going to think this is funny?"
"Yeah. I'm mean, I hope so."
Gioia was unimpressed. "I have not seen this movie. It is something from a movie, yes?"
"Yes," I said.
"And he will get it?"
"Just remember to blink slowly. You may have to do it more than once."
He started in with the historical component. There were illustrative slides. There were charts and graphs. I think there might have been some interpretive dance on the way, but I gave the signal and the blinking ensued. They even managed to stay deadpan. I didn't.
It took him maybe forty-five seconds. I'd never seen him laugh that way before, nor have I since. He turned bright pink and then downright purple. It was the kind of laughing that looks more like a seizure.One of the girls ran to get him a glass of water. He doubled over, silent, shoulders heaving. Every time he tried to look up, he lost it again, and so did we. Later, he approached me out on the terrace, shaking his head.
"Oh Dawnie. Oh chica, you know this means war - right?"
I'm afraid I wasn't repentant in the least.
"Hey, I'd apologize, but I don't think I can get through it with a straight face."
"Just wait. Dish best served cold and, um, so forth."
He hugged me then, awkwardly, because I guess he wasn't used to hugging people, and too tightly and it lasted maybe a little too long.
Part of me wished I could rewind to that moment and start over. Be a little more mature this time. Show a little more self-control. And part of me thought a do-over would end up a waste of expensive magic. I wanted to be here with him too much, as truly bad as things were.
I set the teacup and saucer down on the nightstand and sat on the edge of the bed.
"Milk in first?" He asked.
"Yeah. I forgot again. Sorry." I tried to fight my reflexive eye roll and failed.
"Heathen." He grinned up at me sleepily. It set off that familiar flutter in my stomach.
"Anglophile," I shot back at him.
"Lush." He took the cup, hiding behind it.
So he'd heard about that. Already. Great. Enjoy your privacy? Avoid living with a bunch of girls! I flushed in mortification.
"Mmmm, well, behold the bad behavior and general foolishness that is me."
He replaced the cup in its saucer and tugged at my shirt. I bent and kissed him. I felt his hands in my hair and his knuckles brushing over the back of my neck sent tingles down my spine.
"Still licensed to kill," he murmured.
It was such an odd thing for him to remember, and it reminded me too much of the other parts of that story that I didn't like to think about.
I answered him in Natasha-speak quickly, pushing past it. "Only zee leetle death dahlink."
I ran my fingertips lightly down the line of his jaw, across his swollen bottom lip and over the cuts and bruises decorating his skin. I had definite plans to haul him into the shower. Then, later, there would probably be gauze and antiseptic and antibiotic ointment involved, followed by large amounts of rest. The kind that, regrettably, didn't include any little deaths at all.
I pulled back, trying to ignore the effects of his hands on me. "You need... um... attention."
Mouth. There. Warm. Colors swirled beneath my eyelids.
"Not like that!"
He groaned. "Okay, you're right. I have a good, oh... easily eighteen hours worth of catch up here."
"Hey! I cleaned!"
"You? You cleaned at. There's a difference." He twirled a strand of my hair around his index finger.
"And we, you know, gotta do that talking thing. For real this time."
"Isn't that what we're doing now?"
"Well, probably better with clothing."
"Oh. That kind of talking." He dropped his gaze and pressed his lips together apprehensively.
"Yeah. Stuff happened while you were gone. Stuff you need to hear. I need to just download I guess. Then I need your opinion, in, well, a professional capacity."
"Oh." He said.
"So, um, on that note..." He sat up and stretched. It looked like it hurt. I tossed him his t-shirt from the foot of the bed.
"Dawn," he said, all at once serious as he slipped it over his head, "You need to hear this too. Your interp on the Tyuun prophesy was spot on. The alternate A and B sections, all really, really helpful."
"You aren't supposed to tell me about it," I reminded him.
"True, but you deserve to know. You should just be aware, what you're doing here, it's important. Valuable. It saves lives."
Lives. His life.
There was this one hair on my knee that the razor always missed. It captured my attention, sharp against my fingers. I would pull it out by the root. Anything not to have to look back at him.
My sister had absolved Andrew of everything he might have or have not been involved in before the collapse of the Hellmouth, however it is that one individual can personally forgive and absolve another individual of such things. But the way he threw himself into the work here, I didn't think he had. Not that we ever talked about it.
If I thought about it, if I let myself look at it, every day was, I suspected, a mindful act of supplication for him. Every day was like this admission of okay, I screwed up, do what you will with me, God, Buffy, whoever. I admired it, the sheer noble audacious, '...far-far-better-thing...' bullshit of it all.
But I hated it too. I hated it because I was selfish and it didn't seem like a lifetime graveyard shift of grandly, gallantly, making amends left much room for anything else. Anyone else. Especially not me. And it seemed such a high price to pay for a little Marvel-esque glamour. Identity shift was highly overrated, I could tell you firsthand.
"You're closer to permanent assignment," I said. It wasn't a question. I had known it was coming. It never felt like a threat before.
"Maybe," he said.
"Will training end soon?"
He shook his head. "I don't know."
"And you couldn't tell me even if you did."
"Right." He toyed with the hem of his shirt, head bowed.
"So one day I'm going to wake up and you're just going to be gone, aren't you?"
He didn't answer for a long time. We sat facing each other, breathing. Uncertainty radiated off of him.
"Dawn, I need to tell you something. I should have said it a long time ago, but it's strange, every time I think of it, I kind of forget about it again. It's like when you wake up from a dream, you can kind of remember it and kind of...not? The more I try and focus on the details, the more it all slips away."
Andrew ran his hands through his hair in frustration. "It's evaporated again. It was, like, right here and now it's gone. "
I did it without thinking. I reached out and caught his hand in mine. He looked up, and concern entwined with desire rolled over me. I leaned in, ready to forget everything again with him.
"Pretty girl..." He sounded more tired than aroused.
Something crackled in my head like dry leaves on a campfire. Something...yeah, Andrew was right, something was just...My heart pounded. I was right on top of it, if I could just see past. And then I could.
"What does it mean, 'pretty girl'?" I demanded, releasing his hand. "It means something to you - it's not just a term of affection."
Andrew ducked his head. "Um, I guess it's the first thing I remember about you. I used to ride my bike past your house when I was a kid. I think I saw you and Buffy helping your mom carry boxes once. Maybe it was when you first moved in?"
"Wait," I said. "So, it was like 1997? You have a memory of me from 1997?"
"Possibly. I...I've never thought about it."
"That's three years before I actually, like, existed."
He paled. "Oh, right. I knew that."
"So, why?" Blood raced in my veins. Finally, evidence of...well, I had no idea of what.
"Huh?" Andrew had that deer in the headlights look.
"Why would the monks give you such a specific memory of me that early? There's only like three other people left on the whole planet besides my dad and my sister that have any memories of me that early! What does that mean?"
He shrugged. "Maybe it doesn't mean anything. Maybe-"
"Oh my god, are you being obtuse on purpose? Think! Why would you need such a specific memory? What purpose would it serve? You and I had no contact at all until the night Willow-" I trailed off helplessly.
And there it was. Killing. Death. All that stuff from the past that was so much easier to just not think about. Except that now I had to.
I was going to have to couch it in non-accusatory language. There would be lots of I-statements. We conducted workshops on conflict and dispute resolution all the time. It was one of Mabel's best things. I should have been a pro at it.
You were supposed to make a distinction between the problem and the person. You formulated the conflict issues as shared problems that you had to solve cooperatively. You were to state clearly what you felt and wanted and invite your counterpart to help in finding solutions. You expressed your own emotions and frustrated needs in clear and concrete words. You asked for your counterpart's fears and needs in a way that conveyed that you cared about them. You avoided triggering the defensiveness of your counterpart by not blaming, accusing, criticizing and diagnosing. You took responsibility for your own contributions to the conflict.
That guy, Murphy? Total optimist. Two words: Epic. Fail.
What came out of my mouth was, "Can I trust you? I mean, really trust you? Because it seems like a person ought to know - "
"Dawn-" He choked.
"And right now I don't know." I finished.
All of the air had gone out of the room. I heard him swallow.
"So, Andrew, is there any chance that you... summoned something?" I said it so fast that I almost tripped over the words. "I mean, even as a mistake, an accident - like a wish spoken aloud?"
If I hadn't been sitting down already my knees would have buckled under me. I watched the shock and then hurt flood over him. It was even worse than I had imagined.
"You think I could?"
"If you believe that about me, then why would you think that I would tell you the truth about it?"
There was that neutral tone, that blank expression. I wanted to take it all back, unsay everything. I plunged forward, kamikaze anyway.
"I don't, not really. Believe it, I mean. It's just... I eliminated every other possibility I could think of. I ran the Keizel-Wilson test. Six times, Andrew! It came back negative! I did everything I could think of. Your involvement was just the simplest explanation, that's all. Please don't think of it as an accusation. It's not-"
I watched his hands open and close on top of the blanket over and over like he didn't know what to do with them.
He chuckled mirthlessly. "Occam's Razor? Really? You know it doesn't actually work very well, right? How often is it the case that all things are equal? Never mind the semantic content! Oh, and also? You have to be working from, like, an incontrovertible assumption. What you've got is derived from experience and because senses are imperfect there is no rational way of verifying-"
"I'm sorry," I whispered. My pulse roared in my ears.
He shook his head. "No. No, you did the right thing. I don't... I don't expect you to just conveniently forget. I know I don't get to take those things back. But, no. No, And did I mention, no? Can I say no enough times?"
I think I wanted to soothe the hurt I had caused more than I wanted to breathe.
"You have told me thrice, and what-"
"And what I tell you three times is true." He finished.
"Okay," I said. "I get that my inquiry method was shamefully sloppy. I was scared, Andrew! Make that present tense! Am scared. I told you before and you didn't, I don't know, hear me. What should I do?"
"I'm not sure."
"What if I have generalized demonic infection? It's fatal! Did you know it's fatal?"
"There's nothing wrong with you, Dawn."
"How do you know? Can you prove it?"
"No! I mean, yes, there are other tests. Just give me some time. We can figure this out. I wish you'd let me help you to begin with."
"You weren't here, what was I supposed to do? Why do you have such an early memory of me? Why the other memory lapses?"
His eyes closed. "There's nothing wrong," he repeated.
"Then prove it," I said. "Tell me whatever it is you keep forgetting. Relay this one thing that is so important, yet always slips your mind. You do that, and we're cool."
His mouth opened and closed about five times. There was a spark of determination, then frustration in those blue eyes, and finally fear underneath it. He shrugged and kissed me instead. I pulled away.
It was a bad idea. He could get hurt. If I really had some kind of demonic infection, then I could pass it to him. I wanted to scream at him, wake up! We don't get to ignore this, pretend it isn't happening because it's what we want, or it's more convenient or it feels better!
You face god-knows-what in the field and then you come home and hide in this, whatever it is, head in the sand. Hand down the mouth of the monster? Oh Andrew, don't you get it? I am the monster. That stone knife with the blue jewel is probably the only way you get out of this alive.
I shouldn't even be here, I thought. If I was infected then I was putting him in danger. He wouldn't be safe anywhere near me. I had to leave.
I wanted to believe in him. I wanted it, but I couldn't wait for him. I couldn't risk him.
"This isn't going to work," I said.
I wrenched myself from him abruptly and lurched for the door. I couldn't run fast enough, or far enough. I texted my sister that I would be staying in the city for a few days so that I could concentrate on a research project. It was mostly the truth.