By the end of November, I began making plans to attend a linguistics conference in Prague. I was filling out the Howard Foundation form for the travel funds grant when I noticed the logo in the upper right hand corner. Inside the vertical rectangle box was a slightly abstracted line drawing of the Venus de Milo against a yellow background dotted with three five-pointed stars.
Something about it...something...there was something here I should see. Something I was supposed to know about this. There was the creeping, itching sensation at the back of my neck.
The Lady of the Yellow Sky, She watches all of you.
I shivered, signed the form, and reached out to drop the pen back into the mug on the desk where its brothers lived. Again, I felt that creeping itch. I picked up the mug, turning it in my hands. There was a picture on it of a cartoon man with long white hair, a bristling white mustache, and a tall black hat with a red bow on the front. He looked fierce.
Where had the mug come from? Was it Connor's? He wasn't into anime or anything like that. I'd tried to ask him once, if the lawyers' spell had been any better at managing hanging threads and narrative detail tracking than the monks'.
Well, what I'd said specifically was, "I ended up with a lot of sci-fi and fantasy trivia, what'd you get?"
He'd shrugged, bored with the topic, as though we were kids talking about Christmas gifts after Valentine's Day. "Baseball stats mainly."
Replicant. I looked like a Replicant. I squeezed a dollop of makeup remover on a cotton ball and began wiping away the night's glamour that was smeared under my eyes.
Buffy and I had spent the past sixteen hours playing host-slash-tour guides to Samantha Finn and a couple of appropriately mysterious VIPs, Hilda and Colin No-last-name. We took them to Fori Imperiali, The Pantheon, and Trevi Fountain. We'd dined at La Pergola, braving the crowds. We'd even managed to hit Gregory's after dinner for the final set led by some Marsalis cousin before calling it a night and dropping them off at their hotel.
Most of it was just window dressing, a pretty stage for shoptalk. I was only half-listening when the car passed the Basilica. It was different at night, alive. I sat in the far back seat of the limo with my sister, legs tucked under me, leaning against the door. My skin began to sting in tiny pinpoints, like when you cook bacon in a skillet that's too hot and it pops at your arms.
They'd run any number of tests on me. I wasn't under any kind of magical influence. Not recently.
I scratched at my arms.
Andrew. It was such a common name. Andrew was the name they told me I was screaming when the police found me. I had searched for some link with that name for a long time, finding nothing.
So where was he? What if this person wasn't yet another nutty cultist trying to use the Key? What if someone had gotten hurt or killed trying to help me?
You're the only truth I have.
What if I had lost someone important?
"You okay?" Connor appeared behind me, wearing the same black sweatpants and t-shirt all of the senior staff slept in. We ordered them in bulk from LL Bean.
I met the reflection of his gaze in the mirror, trying not to acknowledge what he saw.
"You're right," I wanted to tell him. "I look sickly pale. Yes, you can see too much of my cheek and collar bones and, yes, I've had too many dinners consisting mainly of wine for too many nights in a row. No, I don't sleep much. No, I don't sleep with you at all anymore. Wanna make somethin' of it? Wanna fight about it again? Because I don't think I have the strength tonight."
What I said was, "Yeah."
His hands went to my shoulders and he turned me around to face him. "I don't believe you."
"Then believe what you want."
"Don't," I said.
I shrugged out of his grasp and took refuge in my room. He followed, sitting on the edge of the bed next to me.
"Listen," I said. "You've been so patient, and it isn't fair. I know it isn't fair, but-"
"It's okay. I get it." He crossed his arms over his stomach. Kind of like I'd punched him.
"It just feels...wrong somehow. Not you. You haven't done anything wrong, I swear. I mean, I can't explain it but-"
"Ever since the night of the ritual, Dawn-"
"If that's what it was! I don't even know for certain. I just...I'm different now. Something happened to me there, maybe...I'm beginning to think something happened to everything."
His eyes went wide, his jaw twitching slightly. "You mean literally everything, don't you - the whole world altered? Reality shift? "
"I can't prove it or anything, I just...feel it. Like something's missing, or someone. If an entire person can be inserted into the world," I gestured toward him, "or a life and history radically restructured, couldn't a person be removed? Disappeared?"
"Seems likely," he sighed.
"Then why would I feel it? Shouldn't it be seamless? Shouldn't everything be business as usual?"
His hand went to my back, palm tracing over my shoulder blades, down my spine.
"When the mind gets over-written, you start to get...static. You can almost see where the original lines were drawn. They're ghosts; erased, but the impression is left in the paper, you know? At least that's-"
"That's what happened to you?" I finished.
"With me and Vail's work, it was just the one time," he said. "You, how many times in Sunnydale -"
"A lot more than once," I said.
"Mmmm. Figured. Man, I hate magic."
"Neither of us would be here without it."
"Point taken. Still."
I let him pull me into his arms, resting my head on his chest.
"What do you think it does to a person's mind, over time? Being repeatedly over-written? Do you end up with the brain equivalent of disc fragmentation?" I asked.
He chuckled. "Then you would have to get defragmented at some point - right? Reorganize the files into single directories, or you know, the smallest number of contiguous regions, compact the whole thing-"
"Uh...is this supposed to be turning me on?" Oddly, it kind of was. Not that I planned on sharing that information.
"I don't know," he murmured, "is it working?"
His breath was warm in my ear, his fingers kneading the tightness in my shoulders.
"Did it ever work at Stanford?" I asked, trying for levity.
"Mmmm, maybe. Kinda. Before it all went keblouey."
God, it was tempting, not really for the sex itself, but for the solace, the familiarity of it, the simplicity of feeling normal again, or at least pretending for a while. He shifted, and then he was kissing my jaw and down my throat and god, god, it was so good and so warm and I just...
Couldn't do it.
And I had no idea why.
I pushed back from him, palms flat on his chest. His hand fell away immediately, and he watched me, waiting. I could almost taste him.
"I thought we could…just for tonight-" He began.
"I can't." I said.
"I just want...I know how much it sucks to feel like, I don't know, a puppet of the Powers. Sometimes you have to forget about it for a little while." He said softly.
I shook my head. "Check it out - super poseable action figure Dawn, now with extra angst-ing feature! Act now and get-"
He pressed his lips hard against mine before I could finish.
"Stop it! Just stop!" I scrambled backward. "Don't you get it? You can't just fuck me all better, Connor! Haven't you figured that out yet?"
He was up, backing away slowly, cheeks flushed. "Dawn! Dawn, I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"
"I know," I said. "Just go. Please."
His whole body sagged, weary. Resigned. "Okay."
So what if Buffy originally had another sister before the monks started meddling? Or a brother? What if that's who I was down at the Basilica with? They said I kept calling for someone named Andrew. So what if he...no. Down that path lay far too many uncomfortable possibilities.
I had started a project the year before, with Giles, attempting to improve the detail and accuracy in the Council record of Buffy's life between 1995 and 2004, as well as providing additional context. We had discussed then how differently I remembered certain things, how my recollections of pre-2000 events felt kind of flexible somehow, compared to the diamond-hard quality of those after.
He'd tried to reassure me that this was just as likely a consequence of childhood as monk inadequacy. He told me that he was shocked sometimes, when he looked at early pictures of himself or, or caught an old scent or taste, stirring up long-forgotten moments. Otherwise the retrieval took conscious effort.
"Everyone has triggers," he'd said, "Things that take them back."
I'd teasingly cut him off before he began to start going on about dipping madeleines in tea. Again. "And by everyone, you mean old people."
Triggers. Internal or external cues symbolizing or resembling an aspect of a traumatic event, if the incident at the Mouth counted. I was beginning to suspect it definitely counted. So far, my triggers included the Mouth itself, mugs, logos, and, oh yeah, sex with my gorgeous, family-approved, superhero-esque boyfriend. Not going to be doing that anymore. Nope.
Because it felt like the betrayal of an idea of something that never happened. Oh boy.
Girlfriends, I needed girlfriends. Not significant other girlfriends, but the kind who you turn to after you've broken up with your absurdly perfect shiny-armored Galahad.
I needed the kind of girlfriends who take you out to get your nails done while devouring tubs of Haagen Dazs and trading tidbits of Bollywood gossip because Hollywood not being there anymore is one of those tragic taboo topics that's so completely inappropriate in breakup recovery mode. Besides, Akshay Kumar and Priyanka Chopra were way more interesting than Jessica Simpson and what's-his-face.
Things might have gone differently if I'd had a couple of plucky gal pals to confess to and confer with. The house was filled to bursting with girls, but like my sister, they were focused on the end of the world. Occupational hazard and all. I'd sort of connected with Mabel's daughter Diane for a while, but she'd been shipped out to Pretoria. It would have been just too creepy and Scottie Ferguson anyway. It wasn't like I could stop seeing Tara when I looked at her.
There was Faith, our glorious one-woman-show of a bad example. She'd have been up for a few bar nights for sure, but her cure for ye olde broken heart would include the pursuit of other anatomy, mostly male. If I could have followed her lead, I wouldn't have needed to dump said knight in the first place.
I called Willow at three in the morning at one point. She was pretty amicable about it, considering. I tried to talk to her about the deep stuff, the real stuff, about recovering self. I guess I expected to hear some magnificently magical answer, but she just babbled about how she'd lost her keys once and spent most of the next day re-tracing her steps until she found them in the pocket of a jacket discarded for its over-warmth.
"The secret is to work back through to the beginning, and then run it forward again, sweetie," she said.
"Great. Thanks." I said. Then I apologized for the lateness of the hour and hung up.
Too hot in here, in the van...the van...it's bigger on the inside. Lying on the blanket, ugly animal print...zebra, giraffe, and...cow? One of these things is not like the others...oughta burn it, it's dirty. Sticky. Sticky all over, should clean up. Need to clean up, but he said wait. He's coming back with the components, making wicked cool jet packs. For us. Wait. Watch the sway of the plastic bead curtain breaking up the light into blue-
"Mmph?" The mattress dipped and I rolled over to face him. The bottle rolled with me as I moved.
"Xander, meet my girlfriend, Tuica. She's from Romania, at least that's what I think it says on the label.
"I'm assuming we have Faith to thank for this?"
I tried to nod and it made the bed bob like a boat. "Poly...I mean possibly...uh, probably. You want some?" I held the bottle out to him. "She's cool with sharing, poly bottle and all."
He grimaced. "No thanks. And you've possibly, probably had enough too."
"Nope, not nearly enough." I made a wild grab for the bottle, but he took it from me, handling it like a grenade or something found at the bottom of a septic tank.
"So...you two are all Wuthering Heights again?" He asked carefully.
"It's not Andrew's fault-"
Xander's brows went together. "Connor. You and Connor. Um...who's Andrew?"
A jolt went through me, a surge of power and a bright green flash and then nothing, a letter from the front lines, sent home during battle, black-lined. Censored.
"I don't know. I should know. I should, but I don't."
It was slipping away, slipping away from us. The dragon in my head would swallow it all up.
"Something's missing," I said. "Or...someone's missing. I just can't...can't quite...I've tried. And I can't. It's on a high shelf, can you reach it?"
Xander brushed a stray strand of hair out of my face. Even this close, you couldn't tell which eye was original and which wasn't as he blinked, trying to make sense of me.
"Did you ever have an imaginary friend," I asked. "When you were little? Someone you believed in completely, who you could even almost see? That's how it is. Can you understand?"
I wanted so much for him to understand.
He sighed. "I understand that a Dawnster old enough for adjoining rooms with anybody known as The Destroyer is probably a little too grown up for imaginary friends."
She'll be back to normal as soon as he gets home, she always is.
But nobody was coming home and there was no back to normal. This was it.
There was just Xander, who might have once cajoled me with salami and peanut butter sandwiches and curled up on the couch with me for back-to-back episodes of Shark Week while we waited for my sister to come home from patrol. Xander who had gracefully, graciously, stepped aside, relinquishing role of Chief Dawn Protector without comment after the Santorini thing with Connor. Hadn't made a fuss at all. Oh, I suspect there was some amount of off-screen hurt-her-and-die-super-powered-or-not posturing because most guys seemed to just kind of be that way, but the transition had been smooth enough.
Except that it hadn't. It didn't happen that way. He didn't-
"Guess you need to sleep it off." Xander patted my shoulder, tired smile edging around the corners of his mouth.
"Mmm, possibly. Probably."
He rose to his feet. "I really just came in to give you this. Figured it was safer in here than in the kitchen pantry." He fished into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a jar, which he set on the nightstand. "Anya said to remind you that you now owe her exactly $27.55. You ladies and your over-priced organics, you know it's all made in the same factory - right? Jiff and Skippy and all those other companies just subcontract for the right to put their names-"
Tuica and I were having a nasty spat. She kept trying to crawl back up my throat.
"Anna. You mean Anna Johnston, don't you?"
"Did she hire new staff without clearing it through HR again?" He gave a pained moan. "I swear she does this just to make my life harder! I was just in the Newark office this morning and she didn't say a damned thing about it. She just gave me the jar and told me to inform you she's officially withholding further peanut butter shipments until the cash hits her PayPal. Man, I hate it when she does this! Anya just doesn't get - no, scratch that. No, she totally does!"
Xander was digging for his cell phone. "Um...get some rest, okay? I gotta deal with this." He turned and exited, clomping loudly down the stairs. I could hear him leaving grumpy voicemail...for a woman who'd been gone almost four years.
She was incredible. She died saving my life.
But she didn't.
Anya sat beside me at the back of the bus as we drove away, watching for my sister. She'd squeezed my hand when we heard the thump as Buffy landed on the roof.
Anya Jenkins ran the Newark office and shared my fondness for Newman organics.
Anna Johnston ran the Newark office and Anya Jenkins was cut down by a Bringer knife in the North Hall.
But I'd been with Xander that day in the Atrium, so I couldn't have been with Anya...but we wouldn't have left her alone either. I saw her die, but I couldn't have seen it.
Both things couldn't be true.
Premises check: either I was mistaken in identifying the contradiction or one of the contradicting concepts was improperly formed. Either Anya was dead or Anya was alive, there was no third door. It was like the beginning of a sick and twisted joke, Schrödinger's Ex-Vengeance Demon walks into Sunnydale High School...
I sat up and slowly picked up the jar and unscrewed the lid, inhaling peanutty goodness.
The two ideas made each other impossible, unless of course, you were me. In that case, Ben was Glory and Glory was Ben. Believing in impossible ideas before breakfast? I'd had lots of practice. It was one of my best things.
Hungry for the first time in days, I scooped into the peanut butter with my fingers and brought them to my mouth.