A/N: Many thanks to B. and Sophie and Sian (especially Sian after this section!) for advice, cheer-leading, beta reading, and putting up with me in general.
My work was getting sloppy. I was letting people down. No one had said anything yet, my nearest and dearest all being caught up in war prep and politics, but it was apparent enough. I couldn't teach my problems to swim at the bottom of a bottle, so reluctantly I sought professional guidance.
Mabel didn't just slap a PTSD diagnosis on my chart and go with it. She didn't even seem that concerned with what might or might not have happened at the basilica. She told me that therapy wasn't like a spell, at least her practice wasn't. She couldn't just wave a wand around and chant Expecto Patronum or whatever and make everything okay. It would require teamwork, her effort and mine. This would be about exploration and examination.
She wasn't kidding about the work part. It took talking. Lots of talking, and debating ideas and homework...well, journaling. I hated that part. I tried to tell her that it made me queasy, the thought of returning to a habit that was part of the persona designed by the monks and didn't feel like mine anymore.
She said that we should talk about it, but that, just for now, she hoped I would try it out. She said the writing part wasn't as important as the recording part; that I could cut out pictures from magazines and glue them in to represent my thoughts and feelings, or draw in the journal with crayons or use cuneiform if it felt more natural. Documentation was supposed to help with the now near-constant sense of reality shifting.
There was lots of looking at stuff I wasn't that comfortable looking at. I trusted her completely though. Partly because she was Diane's mother, but also there was this kind of instinctive rightness about Mabel, with her short frizzy hair that wasn't quite blonde and not quite gray, the abundance of peachy blush applied to her high sharp cheekbones, the odd-to-my-ear lilt of her South African accent. She was just...good. But it didn't make the process any more enjoyable, and frequently it was downright uncomfortable.
"...And sex? Dawn?"
She'd caught me glazing again.
"No! I mean...no, not now."
"It wasn't an accusation," she said.
"It feels like it should be. Connor's been great about it. He's...really a good person, you know? I just can't. It's...it's become one of those points of cognitive dissonance, a thing that seems both true and false."
Mabel nodded. "Sometimes when we feel threatened or vulnerable, the last thing we want is-"
"Um...can we move onto something else?"
She paused and sipped her coffee. "Of course. Is there maybe something from your journal that you'd like to share?"
I opened the green Moleskine resting on my knees and thumbed through the pages. Some days it seemed like each page was booby-trapped, even the blank ones. Especially the blank ones.
A black and white line drawing downloaded from the Council archive caught my attention. The caption underneath it read, Glarghk Guhl Kashmas’nik Demon.
"I found this." My hand shook slightly as I passed the notebook over to her. Booby-trapped. If I looked up I would see a giant Acme safe plunging downwards at me.
Mabel looked over the illustration, the expression in her hazel eyes neutral. "And what does this picture mean to you?"
"Well, my sister was attacked by one once, years ago. Its toxin caused this elaborate hallucination. She came to believe that she was mentally ill and living in an institution and that me and Xander and Will weren't real. She thought the only way that she could be healed was to kill us all and symbolically end the delusion. She captured us one by and tied us up in the basement."
The really cool thing about Mabel? You just couldn't shock her.
Mabel leaned forward. "What a frightening experience that must have been. Does it feel significant to you now?"
"Yes, but that's not the important part."
"No." I let out a breath. "The important part is that it seems like...I mean, I don't see how it's possible, but I sort of...I think I summoned it."
"Like your experience with..." Mabel paused and turned back several pages in her notebook, "the demon, Halfrek? Your wish to-"
"No. I remember that clearly, and it was mostly a mistake. This is different, it's sort of fuzzy, like a dream, but it was...I think it was deliberate, done with malicious intent. But Mabel, I would never have done anything like that! Not even at my angriest, most miserable."
"And have you spoken with your sister about this?"
"Yeah, a little bit, as soon as I started thinking about it. She said she knows I didn't do it."
"Do you know who did?"
"No, we never found out. Not for certain."
"But you have your suspicions."
"Yeah." I found myself wishing that Mabel had the stereotypical black leather shrink's couch in her office. I wanted to pull myself into a ball. I was feeling exposed.
"So," she said. "You mentioned a dream. Shall we talk about the dreams a little?"
I shuddered. I didn't want to talk about the dreams. They were too much like looking through someone's photo album and finding pictures of yourself that you knew weren't really taken. They turned my world on its head, shadows that never were.
"You're still experiencing the dreams, right?"
"Some of them are just fragments," I said. "Places I've never seen, people I've never met...except him. Those are the worst, and I mean, it's so weird, it's not a real memory or anything like that. I never met him in person, except for that one time because of Will."
"Um...actually, I'm beginning to see two different faces in the dreams. One is sweet and wistful. He's always kind of nurturing and adoring, but I don't recognize him. The other is...well, I wish I didn't. Recognize him that is. I mean, I know that having dreams about people doesn't literally mean that you want them, but why does it have to be him? I wake up feeling just...dirty."
"Ah, yes." Mable's tone went low and gentle. "The man responsible for Tara's death? You're still seeing him in the dreams?"
"Not just seeing him! Being with him, touching him."
"You mean sexually?"
I nodded, mute with revulsion.
"And do you remember how you feel during these episodes?"
"I love him so much," I told her. "I would do anything for him. It's disgusting! How could I? How could I feel that way?"
She quietly moved the box of tissues from the end table to the arm of my chair. I needed them.
"Have you considered that these two faces might be the same man, Dawn?"
"What?" I wiped my nose.
"Symbolically. Perhaps they could represent two halves of a problem. What we might be dealing with here is your distrust of and disappointment with the men in your life: your father-"
"Hank Summer's is not my father."
"And Spike, to whom you've mentioned you more easily attach that label, and the men of the old Council, and of course the monks who created this existence for you in the first place. What do you think about that, Dawn?"
"I'm not sure. If that which is masculine is read as necessarily violent and destructive, maybe the dreams could be seen as a possible subconscious attempt to re-balance that dynamic, to choose diffusion of that rage energy, to choose healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and acceptance?" I spoke hopefully, wanting the answers to come quickly, easily.
"Perhaps," Mabel said.
"And having sex with someone can be literally taking a part of them into you - right?" I plunged on. "Of course it certainly doesn't like, have to be, but it can be. So I could be internalizing my need for acceptance...in a way"
"You've done significant research on this, haven't you?" She asked.
"Well, yeah," I said. "I have to deal with it, and I needed to know how."
Mabel smiled, the lines around her mouth and eyes crinkling with genuine warmth. "You must be patient with this. It's part of your strength, that courage you have, that determination. But time is a part of the process too. All of the education in the world cannot fill that requirement. I'm convinced that the prevalence of magical solutions to so many of the challenges you have faced in the past skews perspective. The healthy mind needs time, Dawn."
Time, just time. Why did it feel like time was running out?
It was so easy to imagine Rebecca Bloom in her garden party voice: "I just want to say one word to you, Dawnie darling. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics."
Snickering at my own random inane humor, I opened my eyes under the water and watched the bubbles glide upward. Of course, being Rebecca, it would be more like:
"My truth, Dawnie darling. Plastics recycling." And then she would adjust the strap of her perfectly pre-wrinkled earth toned hemp sundress and totally misquote The Bhagavad Gita or something. What did Giles see in that woman?
Actually, I was more than a little worried about my future. People kept messing with my past, I was almost sure of it.
I let myself float up until my mouth and nose poked out. This was where I felt the safest, my sister's bathroom in her giant gray marble spa tub. It was technically big enough to hold at least three, more if people were feeling extra cuddly. Not that I had an idea whether or not Buffy entertained multiple guests at once in here, nor did I ever want to find out.
Reaching over to the control panel, I adjusted the jets and raised the water temperature. My liver might well be on its way to pickled, but my skin I wanted well simmered. I pushed my back against the jet above the step at the far end of the tub and let it pulsate. Delicious.
Or delirious maybe. Maybe they were sneaking lithium into the water supply now. It hadn't been so uncommon, once upon a time. Sanatorium patients had bathed in lithium-laced water. Lithium was supposed to calm the mind, imparting a soothing euphoria. My mind, however, had a mind of its own, and I was bathing in an abundance of coincidence.
My conference registration packet had arrived in the mail. I had agreed, some weeks prior, in a flurry of impractical giddy geekitude, to sit in on one of the panels: "Neo-Dualism and Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument". At this point, I wasn't sure that I had anything to contribute to such a discussion.
It was the third day field trip schedule that caught my attention. Each of the day trip stops listed was accompanied by a couple of paragraphs of text about the history and relevance of the site. Most of them were historical in nature.
The final stop of the day almost stopped my heart.
It was a ruin, an ancient monastery, apparently once inhabited by the Order of Dagon, a mysterious splinter group, led by a man called Nheg'raal. As local legend went, Nheg'raal had been excommunicated by the Orthodox diocese for the practice of black magic and the entire group had disappeared.
Well, yeah. They disappeared because Glory killed them. I could have told the historians that much. Except that I couldn't because I had no non-classified explanation for how I might have come by that knowledge. Secret identities sucked sometimes.
Nheg'raal. I should have known that name. It was supposed to mean something and it didn't.
"The secret is to work back through to the beginning, and then run it forward again, sweetie," Willow had said. Maybe she was right. Maybe I had to go back to the very beginning, my beginning.
My answers might be in the Czech Republic, maybe. As soon as the thought formed though, it was slammed against the back inside of my skull.
Not so fast, not that easy.
There was a flash of a scene, another thing that never happened, that was completely impossible, and sickening numbness began spreading through my body. It was the difference between dream and memory smeared chiaroscuro, light and shadow, a truth that was nearly unbearable.
I could almost touch it, that face, smiling and acquiescent, my adoring other self, and those blue eyes, filled with unconditional devotion, pure and innocent and...not. It was all deception. The coiling snake of fear in my chest began to unwind.
Here's the thing: I killed my best friend.
The memory was jumbled, murky and impossible. There was the Seal, and the knife, and...it happened. But it hadn't.
I slid and scraped my knee on the steps of the tub as I scrambled out of it, grabbing my robe from the hook on the back of the door as I went. I ran to my sister's room, slipping on the tiles and crashing into the corner of her dresser. The sharp pain brought focus. She wasn't in her bed, damn and damn. I raced down the stairs and through the house and almost moaned in relief to find her scrunched at the far end of the living room couch in a Buffy-ball.
Her laptop was open beside her, but she had dozed off. I had to wake her. I had to know.
"Dawn! What's wrong?" She came awake, immediately on alert.
"Buffy, who killed Jonathan Levinson?"
"What? Nobody! Unless something's...who did you hear this from, Dawnie?"
"I didn't. I just...I think...what happened to him? I can't remember and it's...it's-"
She rubbed her eyes with her palms and then reached out to me, arms open. I crumpled onto the couch and leaned against her and she held me until I could breathe again.
"You're having another episode, aren't you? Where you-"
"Yeah," I said. "Buffy, tell me what happened to him, please."
"Well," she said, stroking my hair, "We saw Jonathan at that fundraiser in Atlanta back in July, do you remember that? And we met his fiancé, Denise?"
"No," I said.
"You saw her first and you remarked how cute she was, how tiny and roundish, how they'd be like Mister and Missus Santa Claus, the non-demon versions anyway, when they got old, except for her being Vietnamese-"
"But she's not, she's actually from Houston-" I began.
Denise was boisterous and effulgent (as Spike would say) and wore bright fuchsia nail polish and quite possibly half her weight in jangling gold jewelry. She was one of those people who could actually pull off bear hugging instead of shaking hands when introduced. I'd liked her immediately.
"It's coming back now, Dawn?"
"Sort of...why were we there?"
"You know this!" My sister smiled encouragingly. "He works for that data recovery company, Seshat Systems, and he got henpecked into chairing their planned giving program-"
"And was already volunteering with the Southern California Survivors League, who's mission-" I added.
"Dove-tailed so neatly with Council interests." She finished.
Of course that was what happened. Jonathan Levinson was fine. My brain was just doing its thing again.
"Cocoa," said Buffy. "We need cocoa, and then I have to finish going over these reports.
"Mmm, make mine tea?" I said. "The PG Tips with-"
"The milk in first," she finished, rolling her eyes. "Sure, Miss Marple."
I chuckled and followed her into the kitchen, watching her set the kettle on the stove. The house was quiet, even for close to three in the morning.
"Sorry for the radical subject switch, but did you ever get to the agenda for the Paris meeting on Friday?" She asked as she rooted in the cabinet for mugs.
"Yeah. Sent it out to everyone last night. Didn't hit your inbox yet?"
"Haven't checked. Thanks though." The kettle whistled and she picked it up. "I...I wish we could do more for you, Dawn. I wish you didn't have to go through this. You know I'd do anything-"
Guilt clung to her, bending her shoulders, turning down the corners of her eyes. It hurt to see her like that, worried and suffering because of me.
"Mabel's helping." I told her. "I'll be okay, I promise. It's happening less now, I think." The last part was an outright lie and my sister probably knew it. I took the mug she passed to me and wandered back up to my bedroom with it, unable to drink the liquid inside.
I hated milk in my tea and had no idea why I felt compelled to ask for it that way. It was somehow comforting though, to hold it. Looking at it swirling in the mug, it was a warm hand on my shoulder, a cardinal direction of its own.
When I strained, I could replay images from that trip in my head. There had been the silent auction heaped with toys from ThinkGeek and goodies from Meltdown Comics, which had moved its headquarters out of L.A. right before everything went kablooey. It was a very successful auction. No more So-Cal meant the remaining collectibles market had gone through the roof in recent years.
If I worked at it, I could name the facts of that trip to the decimal place. I could see the dresses that Buffy and I had worn when I shut my eyes; slinky, single shoulder toga numbers. The dresses matched, which was something we never did, but they had been gifts from some nutty designer friend of Rebecca Bloom's. Buffy's dress was indigo blue. Mine was turquoise green.
The heavy hors d' oeuvres buffet had included grilled shrimp and scallops on long bamboo skewers. Our rental had been a red Mini Cooper that stank of old pot smoke. Buffy and I stayed at the Four Seasons that night and the fire alarm had gone off right as we were getting ready and neither of us had finished our makeup and we talked about feeling naked all night. It became our running joke: naked receiving line, naked cocktails, naked salsa dancing at the end, and naked poking Jonathan with my elbow and ribbing him about hopping up onstage and taking a turn on the sax.
I wasn't trying to be mean. It was just friendly snarking, but he got that foggy Glory-is-Ben-is-Glory look and I grokked that somehow I'd never noticed before that his old paragon spell never quite faded for me in the same way as everyone else, including him. After that we'd stood there awkwardly until Denise descended and rescued us and I'd never been more grateful for reminiscence interrupted.
The next day before our flight back, Buffy and I met up with Jonathan and Denise for brunch. They showed us the bungalow they were renovating, with its wide wrap-around porches and hanging ferns and they introduced us to their pair of black and tan miniature dachshunds, Jerry and Terry. They had been charming hosts, and we left with a warm glowing Old Home Week fix, even though our actual old home was long gone.
Jonathan Levinson was alive and well in Atlanta. He was an ally, an old friend in our sea of new ones. He worked for some tech company. He was involved in So-Cal survivor charity work. He occasionally fostered Council-related projects. He was getting married to this completely adorable woman named Denise. Each detail fit neatly into the next.
Except for the part where I was pretty sure I had killed him.
As much as I wanted, needed that Atlanta reality to be true, I also remembered now, with harsh and brutal clarity, standing at the Seal of Danzalthar and driving a knife into Jonathan's gut. I remembered how empty inside I'd felt at the time. I'd wanted to believe that it would make everything okay again. I'd pretended for so long that it could happen.
He was your friend and he trusted you...This is what you did to him. Took away everything that he was...
Could I be both the person who murdered Jonathan Levinson back in Sunnydale and the person who had brunch with him and Denise in Atlanta less than a year ago? A person wasn't supposed to be able to have two identities. Reality was supposed to have a definite nature.
Thinking about things wasn't enough anymore. The philosophers, the old men with their white beards and their infinite wisdom had failed me. I found my backpack under the bed and began throwing things into it; my laptop, my favorite mug that I couldn't remember acquiring, a couple of changes of underwear.
I was due in Prague for the conference in a little over a week, and I was anxious to visit the monastery ruins, but a much stronger force pulled me westward. I had to go back to Atlanta. I had to sit down with Jonathan Levinson, and talk about the definite nature of reality. I had to work back through to the beginning before I could run it forward.
Jonathan would have done it. He would have helped you.
I had the strangest sense that Jonathan was the only one who could help me.