"I think you'll like Ferlinghetti," the man behind the register said.
He had an accent like Giles', educated English. Dawn glanced up at him for a second while she dug inside her backpack for her wallet. She hadn't expected that. He was about Giles' age. He had a mischievous smile on a long face. She liked it, though she couldn't have said why.
The Englishman rang up her purchases on an old-fashioned register, the kind with long-throw keys that printed up a receipt on a thin strip of paper in blue ink. The kind the Magic Box had had. Dawn had learned to count up change, behind that kind of cash register. He tucked the receipt into the title page of the Ferlinghetti, and slid book and change across to her. He stepped back to the Pavoni to brew her drink. He limped visibly even in the three steps he took. Dawn looked, and saw a cane hung on the edge of the counter, a spar of dark wood with an odd silver handle.
The milk steamer roared, then was choked silent. The man emptied the little silver pitcher into a wide porcelain cup, then poured in milk. He brought cup and saucer to Dawn and smiled for a moment. He re-perched himself on his high stool and returned to his own book. Heavy, leather-bound, the sort of thing Dawn associated with Giles and research parties. Nostalgia was sweet in her throat for a moment. She swallowed, and turned her back on it.
Dawn carried her coffee over to one of the two tables at the window, in the cafe area. A gray tabby cat dozed on the windowsill, in the sun. A half-high wall topped with planters separated it from the poetry bookshop. A couple of customers browsed the shelves. A man folded his newspaper, tucked it into his messenger bag, and left. His foam-stained latte glass remained on his table.
Another customer moved to the back of the shop and through a curtained doorway Dawn had not noticed until that moment. The curtains were dark red velvet. Over the door was a bas-relief of a two-faced head, done in some white stone. Dawn had been well-taught, by some definitions. She recognized Janus, wondered briefly if the cafe owner had chosen it for meaning or decoration, then turned her attention to the book of poetry. She wound her feet around the legs of her chair unconsciously as she read. She read the poetry slowly, stopping to think about it and re-read. A rebirth of wonder. A cat on the counter of a candy shop. Like the cat asleep in the window sill. No candy for sale, though. Just biscotti in glass jars.
It was nice to get out of the Hyperion, away from the gang. The Slayerettes. Angel, who never seemed to look at her straight on, and his weird employees. From Xander, who was dealing with grief by fixing everything he could get his hands on in the hotel. From Giles and Buffy, who were at least so obsessed with each other that they didn't bother Dawn any more. Thank heavens for small blessings: Buffy had released her manic over-control. There were moments when Dawn was happy to observe Angel's distress, but even that palled after a while.
Plus, she was bored. There was only so much self-study Latin and Sumerian she could take in a single day. It was nice to find a place to hang out. A long walk from the hotel, not so close that any of them would trip across it by accident.
A faint chime sounded in the back. The man slid down from his stool, cast a glance at Dawn, and took down his cane. He limped out from behind the counter, cane thumping and creaking on the warped hardwood floor, and vanished through the curtains underneath the two-faced man. Some time later the customer emerged, with a book, leather-bound, large, ragged gilt edges. The sort of book Dawn had grown up reading. A minute later, the shopkeeper followed. Dawn didn't look up, but listened to the uneven creaks on the floor. A sideline in magic books, then. Poetry and coffee in the front, grimoires in the back. Open mike night on Wednesday, closed on Sabbat Day. Dawn grinned to herself.
The only downside was that she was no longer certain her refuge would be safe from visits from the Hyperion crew. Wesley at least had to know about this place.
Dawn put the book into her backpack and ran a hand over her hair. She looked up over the door as she went to leave, and saw another bas-relief of Janus. Bearded man, androgynous youth. God of gateways. Tacked up next to the door was a hand-lettered card. Help wanted. Dawn stopped, and yielded to impulse. She turned and walked over to the counter.
"I see you're looking for help," she said, directly, meeting the man's eyes. "I'm available, and I know about books. I'd like to fill out an application."
"Ah. Yes. I'm not sure you're, er, entirely qualified."
"Unqualified to do what? To run a cash register? Make espresso? Handle selling whatever's in the back room to your non-human customers?"
He raised an eyebrow.
"I have experience with non-humans and retail," she said, still defiant.
The eyebrow stayed up. "You can see the back room," he said, as if thinking aloud.
"Yeah. Am I not supposed to? Is there a glamour on it?"
The shop owner gazed at her and stroked his jaw. "There is, but quite a simple one. All it takes to see past it is, shall we say, awareness of a world beyond the mundane. Which you clearly have."
He looked at her again, meeting her eyes, and Dawn felt herself spinning dizzy for a long second. Then the man blinked, and she wondered if she'd imagined it. But his face had changed. He reached below the counter and came out with a xeroxed form, with the logo of the shop on top. Angel City Books and Cafe. Peter Martin, proprietor.
"Fill this in, for me, would you?
Dawn filled out the form quickly, printing neatly with block capitals. She'd learned some time ago some tricks for making her writing appear older than it was. No loopy script and rounded dots. Her name. Address of the Hyperion, and the phone number of the front desk, where that moronic vampire chick might or might not answer, and might or might not remember Dawn's name. She slid the form back to the man. His face did not change as he glanced down the form, up at her, then back down again.
"Have you worked before?" he said.
Dawn shrugged. "I've got experience. At a, a shop in that line of business. Not official on the books experience," she added, looking up. She didn't want to mislead him. "A friend owned the shop. And I've never used one of those." She gestured toward the espresso machine, the long expanse of gleaming red enamel and stainless steel.
"You'll learn in five minutes. Sorting out my inventory system will take you longer."
"I doubt it," said Dawn, before she could catch herself.
The shop owner didn't seem to mind. His face transformed in an easy smile. "I would pay minimum wage, but given that you can help with the, ah, more esoteric side of things, shall we say seven dollars an hour?"
Dawn nodded, on uncertain ground suddenly. Was that good or bad? Should she negotiate? "Do you need references?" she said.
Giles would probably do it just to make Buffy happy, and not mention the shoplifting. That was a different person who'd done that, anyway. Not the person Dawn was turning herself into now.
"I have my own means of determining reliability." The laugh once again chased itself across his face and vanished.
He stuck out his hand, and Dawn shook it.
"Well, then. Welcome to Angel City Books. You're my first employee, Miss Summers."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr Martin."
"Oh, pardon. The form is out of date. That's the previous proprietor. My name is Rayne. Ethan Rayne. Come by at nine-thirty tomorrow. We open at ten."
Dawn hadn't been certain she'd show up in the morning. Even if Mr Rayne didn't know who she was, she knew who he was. She'd worn one of his costumes, a burglar getup with a mask, and had a deep and intimate knowledge of safecracking and lockpicking as a result. She'd heard all about the demon thing, too.
Then she'd watched Giles pour Buffy's coffee and smile at her in that way that said there was no one else in their universe. And Wesley was doing the same thing with this Texas chick. Angel was all over Cordelia, still weak from her magical coma-thing, or whatever the hell it was. Xander hadn't paid attention to her in days, except to ruffle her hair and ask her to pass him the wrench for whatever it was he was fixing now. Nobody was going to notice her. Nobody did notice her. To hell with them all.
Dawn didn't even bother to mention that she'd gotten a job. She just got herself dressed-- black shirt for the poetry crowd, colorful vest over the top, hair tied back for the espresso machine part, sensible shoes on her feet-- and walked. Rush-hour traffic roared along Santa Monica Boulevard. Nine in the morning, and she had her sunglasses on. The summer heat shimmered up from the asphalt. She ducked over onto the side street of shops where Angel City was. A broad green shade had been pulled down behind the plate-glass window, nearly down to the low sill. The sign in the door said "closed". Dawn laid her hand on the doorknob.
It was locked.
A chime sounded within. Mr Rayne appeared at the door and let her in. It was cool inside the shop. The cat sat in the patch of sunlight from the half-shaded window. It groomed its face.
Mr Rayne drew Dawn back to the doorway with a gentle hand on her elbow.
"Allow me to introduce you to my janitor. He guards this door. Quartus? This is Dawn Summers. She is welcome here."
He gestured at the white stone bas-relief. It shimmered and seemed to move and Dawn swore it spoke. Rayne glanced sidelong at her. "The janitor is--"
"I know," said Dawn, and shrugged. "Janus. Gateways."
"And transitions," Mr Rayne said. "My little guardian knows you now. You will be able to enter at any time."
"Cool," said Dawn, and it was cool. Mr Rayne had impressed her already. The Magic Box didn't have anything so cool. She gave him her perkiest smile. "So. Show me what my job is."
Rayne did. He was right that it took her only a few minutes to get comfortable with the espresso machine and its nozzles and levers. After the morning rush was over, she knew how to steam milk and judge the temperature with a hand on the bottom of the pitcher, how to interpret the Italian words the customers used to order: Americano, doppio, ristretto, macchiato. Rayne was a past master of coffee-brewing. He seemed to enjoy the banter with regulars.
The bookselling business was more suited to Dawn's talents, as she saw them. She knew poetry. Or was starting to know poetry. It was almost a disappointment when she realized that the poetry bookshop was a front for the magical bookshop in the back. The shop's considerable profit was in that business, and in a sideline of artifact sale. Next in profitability came the coffee, and last the small-press poetry chapbooks.
Before the first week was out, she'd learned that her true talent lay in a very different sort of books. It lay in shaking out Rayne's tangled accounting and setting it straight. His accounting system wasn't so much confusing as insane. It took Dawn several days to understand it and, in the end, replace it. She didn't tell him she'd gone to the local public library in the evening, after closing time, and swotted up on how small retail accounting systems should go. She also read about software, but decided not to mention that. She'd seen no signs in the shop of technology newer than 1975. Even the Pavoni was an older one, though in beautiful condition.
On Saturday, near closing time, Rayne wrote up Dawn's first paycheck, doing the tax necessities she'd explained to him. She watched him write out the check and sign his name with a flourish. Fountain pen. The guy was more like Giles than he wanted to be, probably. Or maybe that was the other way around. Only with Mr Rayne, there'd be a story about how he got the fountain pen, involving a narrow escape from a disreputable sorcerer and probably the police as well. And he'd tell the story so engagingly, leaning forward to touch Dawn's arm to emphasize a point about the sorcerer's black-stained hands, and the steadiness of Rayne's own elegant hands as he lit a casual cigarette after the chase.
Rayne cleared his throat, and Dawn realized he was holding out the check for her. She took it and looked: her first paycheck ever. She couldn't stop herself from smiling as she folded it and tucked it away in her wallet.
"A marvelous first week, Miss Summers. I can already tell that I cannot do without you. I'll see you on Tuesday."
Dawn grinned, and had to restrain her urge to skip out the door. Grownups did not skip. Sophisticated world-weary constructed entities did not skip.
She stopped at an ATM to deposit the first check in her account. She stared at the balance, glowing green on the screen. It was not what it had to be, to pay for a year of college. That was another thing she was mad at Buffy about. She'd passed the test and gotten her diploma a year early. The letter had arrived, but Buffy hadn't asked what it was. Hadn't given Dawn a reason to boast. Hadn't offered to help her plan for college. Dawn had to do it all on her own. But she could.
She was Dawn Summers, and that meant she was self-reliant and plucky and brave.
Mr Rayne paid her every Saturday, and after the first two times, didn't need any help from Dawn to get the taxes right. He'd entirely given over the bookkeeping to her, but refused to allow her to tend to customers in the back room. There were etiquettes, he explained to her, complex rules of interaction, that were at times touchy. Sometimes the demons remembered that they were on a human's territory, and sometimes not. He would teach her, he promised, but in the meantime, he would not allow her in the back room while customers were present. The guardian over the doorway to the back, Tertius, enforced this restriction.
There were times when Dawn thought she would never want to be back there. It smelled strange, not like the warm comfortable coffee and cinnamon of the front. Damp and smoky at once, somehow. Mr Rayne had books that were seriously dark. Books bound in human skin, inked in blood and the ash of martyred saints, he said, and Dawn thought it was no wild claim. Giles had refused to sell books like that, though he'd owned some. He'd kept them locked in the safe, and he'd taken them away with him when he abandoned them all.
Those books were profitable. Rayne sometimes made special trips to acquire them, from estate sales and antiquarian conventions. In one case, he bid on the contents of the storage facility left in default by someone who wouldn't be showing up to claim it. Rayne seemed quite sure of his information on that one. The crate had contained some books he'd fussed over, a bag of blood-stained clothing, and an axe with gore crusted on the blade. Dawn shivered and dutifully entered each book into the ledger. Rayne cleaned the axe and burned the clothing in a brazier in the alley behind the shop.
They got along. It was strange, but they did. He was social, far more social than she expected. She had formed the impression from years of watching Giles that Englishmen were introverted and stammering, a trifle overwhelmed by too much social pressure, and prone to outbursts of surprisingly skilled violence. Ethan Rayne was not like this. Educated, yes, polite, reserved when on guard, but suave and gregarious with the customers. He knew something about each of his regulars in the morning coffee rush, and the people who came in to browse the unprofitable poetry in the front. Dawn watched him, and imitated, and learned that there ways to manipulate people that did not use power. Bestow a smile upon them and remember that they liked a scrape of fresh nutmeg across the top of their cup, and you went far toward relaxing someone who was uncertain that he truly needed the Oak and Thorn Herbology, or the complete set of Witchfinder Annals, Cambridge University reprint edition. The odd cup on the house turned browsers into buyers.
About the poetry there was more dispute. Mr Rayne cheerfully mocked her interest in Sylvia Plath as entirely predictable, and pushed her in the direction of Jacobean poets, men, who wrote elaborate puzzles with words, with Latin mixed in. Dawn surprised him with her facility with Latin, and she found the Sumerian tutor she'd been wanting. Giles, she told herself, wouldn't have consented to do it even if she'd asked. He was busy. Had more important things to do than Dawn. Chiefly, Buffy.
She broke the news of her job to Buffy on Tuesday the second week, when Buffy happened to be awake early enough to see Dawn heading out. Or, more likely, she'd been up all night vampire-hunting and stayed up to meet Giles on the flip side for breakfast. Buffy stared at Dawn's neat clothes and tied-back hair, and said, "That doesn't look very summer vacation-y. What's up?"
"I have a job. Had it for a while now. In a poetry bookshop. I make seven bucks an hour."
That last dig went home; Buffy had never made that much at the burger place. To Dawn's surprise, Buffy controlled the anger. "Why?"
"To earn money for college."
"But, Dawn--" said Buffy.
"Sorry, gonna be late. See you at dinner."
Dawn took off, and didn't hear whatever else Buffy had to say. That evening Giles gave her a mild catechism about the job, while Buffy hovered. When he heard the name Angel City and Peter Martin, he relaxed.
"Oh! Yes, yes. Quite famous. Associated with the Black Mountain school, at one time. You should meet some interesting people there. Well done, Dawn."
And that was the end of it. Dawn was almost angry to realize that they would allow her to pursue her summer plans in peace, that they trusted her. Which surely they could not. Surely it was that they didn't care. Or they would have found out that Giles' old enemy Ethan Rayne was really her employer. She was aware, at some level, that she was being unfair to them. But it didn't matter. she'd been simmering on this for nearly three years. Nearly as long as she'd been in existence.
And their opinion didn't matter. She was being responsible. Adult. She was taking charge of her own life, and it felt good. It felt good to get to know the regulars, and make easy jokes with them. It felt good to read poetry during the slack hours of the early afternoon, with Loki the cat dozing on the shelf next to her. To teach her employer a few new tricks, while learning from him. And getting to know him.
He was amiable for a guy who made Giles go non-linear the way he did if you even said his name. She guessed he was fifty-ish, but it was hard to tell. He looked older than Giles, more worn. Fine lines radiated out from his eyes and down from the corners of his mouth, and his hair was shot with gray at the temples. His left leg troubled him, and he often retreated to his stool to take his weight off it. He was restless otherwise, in constant motion, drumming a pencil on the desk, fidgeting. He was happiest when there were customers for him to flirt with and seduce into buying, or when he was actively using magic. He seemed to have a mail-order business in small magical objects, charged devices, usually small animal fetishes of wood and stone.
Dawn asked him what they did, once, several weeks into their arrangement. Rayne laughed.
"The usual, my dear. Like any man who wishes to make money, I cater to the obsessions of humanity. Love and sex, chiefly. And the thwarting of our rivals. Most of these are harmless."
"They don't work?" she said, uncertainly.
"Oh, they work, just not in a grand sort of way. They turn heads, trip feet, and in three months have lost their virtue. Mostly."
Mostly. Rayne was strangely careful with the truth. Dawn watched him rub oil into a tiny wooden carving of a sleeping cat. His long mobile face was still for once, intent on the task. He favored dark clothing, and was in wine red and black today. His sleeves were rolled to the elbow. He wore silver rings on his thumbs.
He looked up and met her eyes. Dawn looked away quickly.
"You've been staring at me all day. Why?"
Dawn blushed hot. "I dunno. Wondering."
"Well, you. Everything. I know almost nothing about you."
"What on earth might be interesting to you about a man more than thirty years your senior, I cannot guess. No, wait. I can. I am a fascinating fellow."
Then he laughed and turned what ought to have been a display of ego into a joke against himself.
Dawn said, "Well, yeah."
"Ask!" he said, sweeping out his arms.
"What happened to your leg?"
"The American government happened to it," Mr Rayne said, and then was silent. His arms curled in, around his chest, as if he were cold. Or defending himself against something.
Dawn thought about what had happened to him after he'd turned Giles into a demon. Riley had arrested him. Though what authority the Initiative had to arrest anybody-- Mr Rayne stared at her, and Dawn realized she'd said it out loud. His face darkened.
"How do you know about the Initiative? What are you doing here? Are you--"
"No! No. It's not like that. I lived in Sunnydale. I, I. Okay. I have a confession to make, and you gotta promise to hear it out."
Rayne resettled his arms into a more natural crossed posture, deliberately, elaborately. Regaining his composure. He still looked angry. The sight of anger on that face was frightening. Dawn swallowed, and rested a hand on the edge of the counter to brace herself.
"Pray, continue. I am all ears."
"I'm the Slayer's sister. Buffy's sister. Giles? Her Watcher? I grew up with him around like some kind of uncle. I know you guys have some kind of history."
Rayne stared at her. "You're joking."
"No. Total scout's honor here. I'm Buffy's sister. We're staying nearby, in the Hyperion, after our house collapsed. I was bored one day, and saw your sign, and, I, you know. That's it, I swear. I had no plans. And I... I kinda like working here. With you."
Rayne laughed, and shook his head. "Rupert's Slayer has a sister? And she's working for me. How on earth did he hide that from me?"
"Um. He didn't. We've met before. You sold me a costume. When you sold Buffy hers."
Rayne sobered. "I don't recall seeing you before. I'd remember your face. Your hair. The fact that you were with the Slayer. Certainly I would recall the power inside you. I remember the girl with the Slayer aura, the red-haired girl, and the clumsy boy. No one else."
"It was-- Yeah. Okay. The monks made me, and gave everybody fake memories. I guess they missed you?"
And that was how Dawn came to tell Mr Rayne all about how she came into existence, about glowing green balls of light, and insane Hellgods. He listened and took her entirely seriously. Somehow she forgot she'd wanted to ask him questions, and instead answered his. He asked questions she didn't have the answers to: What was her earliest memory, fake or otherwise? When did they think she'd come into being? How was Buffy able to close the gate that had been opened with her blood? Was she really Buffy's sister? How had she come into being as a human being with a soul? How had the monks achieved such a monstrous spell, the alteration of the memories of thousands of people?
They talked until long after closing, until long past dinnertime. Dawn's stomach rumbled, and she lurched back to a sense of herself and the world. She looked at the clock, and almost panicked. Buffy would kill her. She lunged for the phone, and got Buffy in her room. Buffy hadn't noticed the time, either.
"Yeah, we got busy doing inventory. I get overtime, though!" The lie came easily. "Not coming home just yet. Mr Martin is buying me dinner. Yeah, yeah. I won't be too much later. See ya!"
Dawn pushed a finger down over the hook. Mr Rayne took the handset from her with a graceful turn of his wrist, and dialed something quickly. "Yes, hello, Mike. It's Rayne. My usual, please, double order. Cash. Deliver to the shop. Thanks."
He hung up and turned to her, eyebrow up. "Mr Martin?"
"Yeah. Well. I don't think they'd be so relaxed if I said I was working for a Mr Rayne. I think Giles would be here beating you up about five minutes later."
Rayne laughed that relaxed laugh he had. "Good judgment on your part, I suspect. Dear Rupert has a penchant. Several, to be honest."
"For men, for violence, for, you tell me, his Slayer. That last, oh, it's marvelous. Truly rich." Rayne laughed quietly.
"Men? You mean, oh. You and him?"
"Indeed. Though it was a bit of a sideline for dear Ripper, it's rather my main occupation. Disappointed?" He looked sly, and as if he were ready to laugh at something. Probably her.
But Dawn shook her head calmly. Something inside her relaxed. Mr Rayne was safe. But he was also about a hundred times as exotic as he'd been the moment before. If something deep inside her were disappointed, she hid it away. It had been a crush. A perfectly understandable crush on a sophisticated older guy.
Conversation ceased. Rayne was watching her and rubbing his jaw. She'd learned that meant he was thinking. So was she. He'd asked a lot of questions. Painful ones, if she was honest with herself. She hadn't really coped with being a glowing green ball of energy instead of a real person. She'd just kinda shoved it aside and gotten on with living. Which, when she thought about it, had been pretty much the only option she had. Being fifteen didn't give you a lot of power and choice. It was better to be seventeen: she had a driver's license, she had a job and a bank account. But the problem hadn't gone away, and eventually she'd have to solve it.
The door guardian chimed. Rayne gripped his cane and limped across the shop to the door. He let the food delivery guy in-- a young Asian guy, cute, college age, in a button-down shirt and jeans, wearing a red Angels cap. He handed over a plastic bag and the bill. Rayne tipped him something that made him nod and grin.
Rayne turned the sign around to the closed position and spoke a word to Quartus. He crossed the creaking wooden floor, one hand on the bag, the other tight on the handle of his cane. Thump. Thump. Dawn watched him move.
"The DiPuccio Family restaurant. Suspiciously operated by a family named Nguyen, but their tomato sauce is rather better than it was under the previous management. I do love Los Angeles at times. It almost reminds me of London. If London were left under a hot lamp for a hundred years."
He set the bag on the counter and pulled out containers. A pair of paper plates. Forks. Loki appeared from nowhere and leapt onto the counter. He kneaded his paws on the wood and purred.
"Mr Rayne? What did happen to your leg?"
Rayne pulled the top off a styrofoam bowl of something red, and inhaled deeply. He had a self-satisfied look on his face something like Loki's. "I shattered my knee in a fall while escaping from the soldier-boys. Then I botched the healing. Never try tricky magic whilst in agony, Miss Summers."
"Can't you get it fixed? Surgery."
"Yee-es. I could. Shall we say, I developed an aversion to medical experiences during my short term as guest of the American government. Serious enough that it does interfere with my life, rather. My dentist had to knock me out to do a simple tooth polish."
"Oh." Then, "I'm sorry."
He handed her a carton of angel-hair pasta. "It was not your fault."
"It was Giles's fault."
"I've always chalked that one to his Slayer's account, truthfully. He was rather occupied at the time, what with the mucus and the horns. And I think he had no idea."
Dawn thought about that. "Buffy kinda did. But she was in serious denial for a while. I'm still sorry, Mr Rayne."
"I appreciate your sentiment. And call me Ethan. Please."
Ethan smiled at Dawn, and she felt a thrill in the pit of her stomach. She had a name for that, too. But it was safe. She dug her fork into the pasta, and spun it. It was hotter than sin and dripping with garlic, and it was delicious.
The summer deepened and heated into August. Dawn's Sumerian was becoming almost decent, and she'd finished reading the Beats entirely. Ethan had begun working with her on simple castings, in an attempt to teach her how to make his charms and wards. For the first time in her life, Dawn tasted utter failure. No attempt worked. No power moved at her bidding.
"It's there," Ethan told her. "I sense it in you. It's bound somehow, perhaps? Or latent. I'm not sure which."
They gave up the attempts after a few days, because Dawn complained it had begun to hurt, almost. To make her bones itch, if that made any sense. Ethan shook his head, as if it didn't, but put the spell primers away in the back room. He returned and settled to the bookkeeping. Dawn had been marginally more successful at teaching this skill to him than he had been teaching her magic. He swore quietly to himself as Dawn rang up a copy of the collected Robert Frost for a tourist.
The customer left, and the shop was quiet. It was the post-lunch lull, and they might or might not see anybody before three o'clock. Dawn settled to read a translation of some Norse poetry. She wasn't liking it very much. The Beats had been more her style.
The guardian of the main door glowed red, and made a sound Dawn had not heard from Quartus before. A woman was standing outside the shop door, with her hand over the doorknob. It was apparently not turning to admit her.
"My my," Ethan murmured. "Quartus, she may pass, but this once only."
The woman walked into the shop. Dawn wasn't much of a judge of designers, but she recognized expensive when she saw it. Stockings, heels, gray suit with conservative side-slash, the buttery calfskin of the case she carried. High-powered professional. She oozed corporate gloss of the faked Hollywood kind: someone's idea of what a lawyer should look like. Dawn had met real lawyers, from her father's firm, and they tended to be rumpled. Nebbishy sharks. This woman had had any lurking nebbish groomed right out.
She certainly had a presence. One that set Dawn's nerves jumping. Her feet made no noise on the wooden floor. Neither clack nor creak. Dawn looked again.
The woman was non-corporeal.
"Mr Rayne? My name is Lilah Morgan. I represent the firm of Wolfram and Hart. We have not done business in the past, but we find ourselves interested now in retaining the services of a contractor with your, ah, reputation. Is there somewhere we could talk?"
"I have no customers at the moment. You may speak freely."
Ethan made a little gesture with his hand, and Dawn understood it to be an instruction to vanish. Dawn slipped out of the way and busied herself unpacking a shipment from their distributor, keeping her head down. Packing slip, verify contents. Then over to the drawers at the back, to put some shelves between herself and the visitor while she recorded the shipment.
Ethan and the corporate woman were having a quiet but intense conversation. She couldn't make anything out, but Ethan seemed on edge. His usual languid humor was not in evidence, and his shoulders were tense. Dawn wondered if the woman could read him as well as she could.
Eventually the bell over the door rang. Dawn returned from the back of the shop and raised her eyebrows at him. Ethan ignored her. He held a manila folder in his hands. He limped back to his office and came back without it. He installed himself on his high stool behind the counter, and seemed to be thinking. Dawn went to hand him the packing slip, but he waved his hand. She went to the cabinet to file it.
"I've seen that woman before," Dawn said, as she flipped through file folder tabs. "At the Hyperion. Talking to Angel. And to Wesley, before Fred started going all--" Dawn made a clawing gesture.
"She made me an offer I cannot refuse," Ethan said, eventually.
He said no more, as a customer came in at the moment. He smoothly rose to his feet, cane in hand, to tend to it. The customer was Vahrall, with a glamour cast around its head so it looked more or less human, and in search of a compendium of demon religions. Ethan made a sale, a rather hefty one, and returned to the front of the shop. Dawn pulled a ristretto, marked it with a dab of milk, put it on a saucer with a twist of lemon peel and a single cube of sugar. She carried it over to him.
"So? Tell me about this offer."
He didn't answer right away, but slowly stirred the sugar into the coffee. He tasted it, then spoke. "A great deal of money. Or she suggests I might find myself in difficulties with my, ah, somewhat unorthodox visa."
"What's the problem? Do they want you to do something you dislike? Like, put all the square pegs into square holes and label things correctly?"
Ethan smiled at her at last. "Nothing so uncongenial. I've been asked to convince your sister to leave the Hyperion. Along with her lover."
Dawn shrugged. "That all? I don't care if they're here or not. I hate them."
"Even your sister?"
"Especially my sister. Why?"
"She didn't say. But I think I can guess. Do you know who she is?"
"Beyond somebody who makes Angel get all tense and broody? And makes Giles fume? No."
"Ripper fumes? That clinches it. She represents the firm of Wolfram and Hart. Ever heard of them?"
"Yeah. Evil lawyers. Angel used to bitch about them, until he stopped mentioning them. They made him some offer recently. Which sent Giles into a rage. Or as close as he gets these days. More like, tut-tutting and wiping his glasses."
Ethan chuckled, and gently slapped the counter. "There's my connection. Tell me, my little dove, what you think of this theory: Your souled vampire host has, apparently, something the evil lawyers want. Your sister and Ripper have talked him out of giving it to them. The firm wishes the overly-moral Rupert out of the way, so that they can work on the vampire. Who is, by all accounts, not the sharpest tool in the shed."
Dawn considered this. It wasn't fair to call Angel stupid. He varied, depending on the topic. He was more volatile than a human, and always prone to brooding. Buffy and Spike had always been able to push his buttons reliably. Which argued the lawyer's case: getting Buffy out of the way would make Angel more malleable. But for what?
"Would help if we knew what she wanted."
"I'm not entirely sure I care. The money is... persuasive. It would enable us to do, ah, many things. If Angel is foolish enough to allow himself to do what the firm wants, well--" Ethan spread out his hands. "It's hardly our concern."
"If you assist me, half is yours."
Dawn saw college. Not just college at a California public university, but college wherever she wanted it. And all she need do was get her sister and her Watcher out of the Hyperion. Not hurt them. Not do evil. Just get them out of her hair. If Angel was going to be an idiot, let him be an idiot.
"What's our plan?" Dawn said.
Ethan smiled, slowly, his eyes never leaving hers. "I'll need to think, love. But I think it will be fun."
The next day was Sunday. Dawn spent the morning swimming in the Hyperion pool with Willow, while her sister caught up on sleep after a night's patrol with Angel and Giles. Dawn had been hoping that maybe Angel was brooding about the sight of Buffy hanging all over Giles, but he seemed not to mind. He seemed to have moved on. She was frustrated to see it, because it meant her first plan, getting them all thrown out by a jealous Angel, was a non-starter.
In the afternoon, she got dressed more casually than she would for the store, but still nice enough to look good. Not so nice that she looked like she was trying. Sometimes Dawn thought that judging clothing required more brainpower than differential calculus. No makeup. Never makeup, like Buffy's heavy-handed raccoon eyes thing. Ethan had mocked the tendency of the American woman to cake it on once while Dawn had been listening, and she'd been determined ever since to look like she wasn't wearing anything, ever.
"Shopping," she said to Buffy, on her way out. "Spending some of the loot."
Buffy grinned. That motivation, she understood. Dawn waved back, smile fixed in place. And then the beeline to Ethan's apartment.
Ethan lived over the shop. He owned the whole building, he explained to her. He smiled in a way that didn't reach the eyes when he explained that he'd earned the building and business in payment of a sorcerer's debt. A deep one. The expression on his face was the one Dawn knew meant that lives had been involved, had likely been taken. That was rare with him. He preferred overturning to demolishing, change to destruction. He liked replacing a winner with whatever had been losing before. Killing was inelegant and inefficient, and therefore Ethan avoided it. When expedient.
He was also a private man. Dawn had never been upstairs.
The entry was on the street, to the side of the building. Stairs rose directly from the doorway to the second floor. The walls were painted white, and a carpet ran up the middle of the worn steps. They creaked even worse than the shop floorboards did. Dawn tiptoed up, trying to step lightly.
Ethan answered her knock, and introduced her to Secundus, who guarded the door to his apartment upstairs. Dawn looked around for the two-faced image of Primus, but did not see it. Perhaps Primus guarded the more private section of the flat, down the hallway. Or perhaps it guarded something else entirely.
His taste was modern but comfortable, and once again Dawn was reminded of Giles, except not. Spare lines, rich dark colors, reds and browns. Rothko prints on the walls. His leather couch was insanely comfortable, so much so that Dawn wondered if one could charm furniture. Probably. She sank into the cushions and took the drink Ethan handed her. Something red, bitter and fruity at once, with lemon and soda water and ice. It had alcohol in it. Dawn gave him a look.
"Campari," said Ethan. "Perfect for a day like this. And harmless. Go ahead."
Dawn shrugged. It was indeed hot in the apartment, even with the silent fans spinning in the windows. And her walk over had left her sweaty. August had baked into the very bones of the city, and the walls were warm to the touch.
Ethan began. "I've done a little research since last we spoke. I now believe any plan we form must include thwarting the lawyer's scheme, whatever it may be. As well as achieving your freedom from the Watcher and your, er, sister. Buffy. Thus we serve both sides at once. Heaven and hell."
"Why do you care if the lawyers don't get their way?"
"There is an angel in me whom I'm constantly shocking," Ethan said. Dawn recognized it; the book she'd bought the day she met him. "Besides, apocalypses have rather a way of interfering with my pleasures. Civilization aflame means no grapes are pressed, no music is played. I disapprove."
He lifted the glass in his hand and drank. It was Campari and not wine, but Dawn took the point.
"It is their little penchant. Well, no. It's their raison d'être. They seem to be the arm of some of the princes of hell. They've been operating rather a long time. Nearly as long as Rupert's bunch of white hats. We thwart them, cleverly, and indirectly, because that is how we prefer to operate."
The word "we" gave Dawn a little thrill.
"They impress me, rather. The requirements document is most clear about what constitutes an acceptable fulfillment of contract. Killing the pair is out, for some reason. Pity."
Dawn glared at him, and he grinned at her.
"Not that we would consider such crude measures. But we have many options. The file they gave me on Angel's current operation was quite complete. For instance, they know more about your existence than you do."
Ethan set his glass on the coffee table. Dawn stared at it blankly for a moment, watching the condensation drip down its sides. She felt Ethan's gaze on her. Apparently she was about to get some answers to the questions. She wasn't sure, now, that she wanted them.
"Such as?" she asked, cautiously.
"Such as exactly when you were created. What use the key's energy is put to. What your parentage is."
"Parentage? And ... energy?"
He took the lemon slice from the rim of his drink and squeezed it into the glass. "Your energy. It's occupied. The reason we've been unable to teach you any casting, despite the obvious simmering potential. My dear girl, you're fettered. Chained. Bound."
"I don't... like that. At all."
"Can't blame you. I didn't like it when it was done to me. However briefly."
Dawn's hands were shaking. She hated to admit it, but they were. "What else was in the file?"
"A number of things, about Angel's employees. The Gunn fellow has quite an arrest record. But most of that is irrelevant."
"More about me?"
He spread his hands. Of course there was more about her.
"I need to read it. Where is it?"
"Dawn. You're better off not knowing. I shouldn't have mentioned it."
Dawn shoved herself out of the couch and leaned over him dangerously. He didn't look afraid. Frustration surged. For a moment she wondered if she had the power to force him. Then she recalled the lesson of the shop. She chose her words carefully.
"Ethan. I value your judgment, but I think I have a right to know. May I please have the file?"
"Fetch it yourself if you are able. It's in my desk drawer." Ethan pointed to the desk set against the far wall of his living room.
Dawn strode over and tugged at the side drawer. Locked, of course. Locked. She knew what to do with locks. She laid a hand on the little brass plate, and explored. It hurt. It hurt in ways Dawn had never imagined hurting before. Somewhere deep inside, not her head, not her gut, somewhere in her body that she hadn't known existed. Something creaked and pinged... and gave, just a little.
The lock on the drawer clicked.
Dawn stopped straining against whatever it was. She reached out a shaking hand, and slid the drawer open. She took her reward, the manila envelope with all the secrets in it. She didn't open it, but carried it back to the couch where Ethan was sitting, knees crossed. She stood over him. It didn't feel like victory.
"Excellent," he said. "The essence of the Key is accessible to you, when you make an effort. As they speculated."
She realized he'd planned it. Had maneuvered her into it. Dawn reached for anger, and found she did not have it. Ethan was handing her what she'd been wanting. Her hands were damp on the folder. She couldn't open it, not yet. She stared at her white knuckles. It was coping time. She had to find a better way to react than slicing her own arms up to prove she could bleed. She knew that already.
"This power... is it always going to be inside me? Inaccessible?"
"I suspect I know how to unleash it, if you truly wish it. It might be dangerous." He shrugged. The danger was to her, then, not to him.
"So is that all I am? A key for all locks? A ball of energy?"
Ethan answered with a soft, gentle voice. "That is a part of your being, but not the whole. I suspect you'll always have an affinity for locks and gates and doorways, but you are something else. You're a human woman. A human woman with an ancient power at her heart."
"Who am I supposed to be?"
Ethan shrugged, a fluid languid motion. "Who knows? Whoever you wish to be. That's the only answer any of us have to that question, Dawn."
"Is Dawn even my name?"
"If you wish it. We can name ourselves."
"We? Meaning sorcerers?"
"No. 'We' meaning everyone. Humans and demons alike. Name yourself, my dear, if you wish."
Dawn set the manila folder down, and picked up her drink. One long swallow. Two. She rubbed her wet hand across her face, and stared at the stripes of color in the print on Ethan's wall. Abstract blobs. Yellow and red. Meaning nothing.
She had no idea what she'd name herself. Dawn was as good as anything.
Dawn read the file folder that night, curled up in her bed in the Hyperion. Ethan had allowed her to take away only the segment on herself, but she hadn't been much interested in the sections on the others anyway. Who cared about Buffy's permanent file from Hemery High?
Even the secrets of her own life interested Dawn less than she might have expected, once upon a time. The knowledge that Buffy was her mother, not her sister, was almost anti-climax. She'd deduced it weeks ago, when Ethan had asked his penetrating questions about why Buffy had been able to close the portal. The identity of her father, the firm had not yet discovered. It listed several potential candidates, the four eligible males who had been near Buffy during what they judged to be the crucial window. They hadn't yet decided it was worth the expense to obtain genetic samples from each of the candidates. Dawn looked at the list, and found herself vaguely hoping that it wasn't Riley Finn. That would be too boring.
But she wasn't worried. Her real parentage was the energy of the Key, woven throughout her body, used to accelerate the development of a normally-conceived human child. To warp it, in the language of the report, but Dawn didn't like that word. That was what truly made her what she was.
She was human. Not an entity, a human. With an artifact inextricably woven into her soul.
More interesting was the report's speculation about ways the energy might be unbound. It wondered aloud if Dawn might gain access to some of the Key's elemental nature, as she grew. Ethan had tested that theory with his needling. Wolfram and Hart was very much interested in the possibility of terminating her life and trapping the released energy. It was, perhaps, natural speculation, but reading it described so clinically in the report made Dawn shake. They might have killed her, just to see what happened. She would never have known why, or what happened.
Dawn lay awake deep into the night, stoking her hatred for Wolfram and Hart.
She had now committed herself to the game. The fencing match. She threw herself into plotting against Wolfram and Hart with an enthusiasm that amused and alarmed Ethan.
Dawn reasoned this way: Lilah Morgan, or whoever told her what to do, must have known going in that Dawn was in Ethan's employ. So they must have known Dawn would eventually see this information. So they must have wanted a specific reaction. Dawn was determined not to give it to them, if only she could figure out what it was they wanted. Perhaps staying calm was enough.
She also reasoned that the firm had chosen Ethan because a twisty approach served their goals. Ethan was unlikely to do anything straightforward, and they might have guessed from his previous affinities that he would approve their covert goals, that of destruction and chaos and death. That was, in Dawn's judgment, their first mistake.
In reaction, Dawn's plan was simple and straightforward. She would tell Angel what she wanted. Angel would do it. He would ask Giles and Buffy to leave, and he would not give Wolfram and Hart whatever they had asked for. He would be on his guard.
She and Ethan bickered about this suggestion for several days. He, quite reasonably, pointed out that it gave them one shot at success. If the attempt failed, the parties involved would be on their guard. She, in turn, shot down his various suggestions for petty harassment campaigns as unlikely to even be noticed by the pair, who were in the sickeningly besotted phase. The minor compulsion spells were out; Willow had detected the ones Wolfram and Hart had tried to put on the Angel Investigations team, and swatted them away like gnats.
They were at an impasse, and the lawyer's deadline was approaching. Finally Ethan agreed to let her try, and she would let him execute some more major harassment if she failed.
Dawn geared herself up make her pitch. Sophisticated. Adult. Cool. Calm. In control. A little bit like Lilah Morgan had been, if she could manage it. Though she sure didn't have the wardrobe.
Dawn found Angel in what had once been the back offices of the Hyperion Hotels. His office was cramped and messy, littered with file folders and weapons. When Dawn knocked, he was sorting through a pile of wooden stakes. He was in black, as usual. Black trousers, black coat, heedless of the weather. But then, he was undead. The heat only troubled him if it damaged the flesh he animated.
Angel held up two stakes, comparing their length. He tossed the shorter one into the pile.
"Hey, Dawnie. What's up?
"Isn't that kinda creepy? A vampire holding a stake. Like, a vampire with a string of garlic or something."
"Garlic isn't all that effective."
"Well, we are hyper-aware of scent and taste. So it might work to drive us off. Just not, um, mystically." Angel flashed her a charming smile. "What can I do for you?"
"You can answer a question for me. What did Lilah Morgan offer you?"
Angel put down the stake. "I beg your pardon?"
"You heard me. What?"
"How do you know?" Angel shook his head, then said, "There's no secret about it. She offered me the Los Angeles branch."
"Of Wolfram and Hart?"
"Yes. All their facilities."
"Interesting. 'Cause they just gave me a lot of money to lure Giles and Buffy out of here, so they can convince you to accept."
"Huh. I'm not sure they need to do that. It's an interesting offer, all by itself. Quite generous."
Dawn put her hands on her hips. "And you're tempted by the evil law firm because?"
Angel blinked. A deliberate gesture, from a vampire. "My son. They'll give my son... what he needs."
"I thought Willow and Wesley were researching ways to help Connor."
"They're not going fast enough. He's not, he's not-- It's not enough." His distress was genuine, Dawn thought.
"And so boom! You're going to do what the evil apocalypse-seeking law firm wants."
"Now you sound like Buffy. They offered to give him a home. A family. To remove his memories of his life as it has been, and make it what it ought to have been."
Dawn shook her head. "Trust me on this. Fake memories are never worth it. You always find out they're fake. And when Connor does, he'll be pissed. And they're hella expensive. Lots of energy to cast and maintain. Who's going to pay for them, Angel?"
Angel shook his head slowly. "Giles asked that as well. I assume they--"
"You assume. I get it now. I totally get why they want Buffy gone."
"Lilah Morgan thinks you're an idiot, and will be easier to manipulate if Buffy's out of the way."
Angel said nothing, but leaned on his fists on the desk. He seemed to be thinking, though Dawn was never sure with him. The demon had always been smarter than the man, and Angel distrusted his demon. That's what Buffy said, anyway. He was always second-guessing himself. Quite a bind to be in. Dawn had no pity. She had a goal to meet. She pushed on.
"Or maybe it's just that you have no conscience, and seeing the guy you tortured reminds you that you have to behave? Or maybe it's that you're an emotionally stunted demon who's more susceptible when his friends aren't around. I don't know. I don't care. I'm just telling you."
Angel blinked again, very slowly. Yellow flashed in his eyes. "You've talked to them yourself. You know because they told you."
"Yes," said Dawn, and the casual tone did not require an effort. It wasn't acting. And it didn't matter. "And I stand to profit greatly if Giles and Buffy move out of here soon. But the second they do, Wolfram and Hart will be working on you again. And I need you to resist."
"You need me to resist." Angel laughed. "What's the plan, Dawnie?"
The world spun around Angel's face. Dawn's hands shook, just a little, and she saw green light on the inside of her eyelids. She held it down.
"Cut the condescending crap. I'm older than Buffy was when you slept with her. When you smashed her heart to little pieces because you were too stupid to investigate your own curse. Just like you're too stupid now."
Behind Angel, the cork popped out of a bottle of whisky. Dawn heard a lock click open somewhere in the room. Angel didn't seem to notice. He was staring at her, intensely. His eyes were entirely yellow. His nostrils flared, but he shook his head.
"Dawn," he began.
She interrupted. "I'll tell you the plan. The plan is to keep you from doing anything to help them. The plan is to keep you from causing apocalypse."
Angel flashed a grin at her, intended to disarm her, but his eyes were still yellow. "I don't think they want anything that bad."
"If Giles doesn't like it, it's bad. He's stodgy, but he's reliable about apocalypses and who's evil and who's not. He's kinda... trustworthy."
Angel wasn't smiling any more. She'd been right; he still felt guilty. She could use that. "Are you all right, Dawn? You look..."
"I'm just wondering what it would take to convince you."
"I don't know, Dawn. I could do a lot of good with that power."
Dawn's head was still strange. There was green behind her eyelids. Green drops of poison, falling. No. Yes. It hurt. Fetters around her wrists and ankles. She was too large for her skin. She could sense exactly what bound Angel's soul to his body, the parameters of the curse. She could reach out and manipulate them, maybe. Unlock him. Free him.
She knew what a bad idea that would be. She backed to the door.
"Think about it, corpse-boy," she said, to cover her exit.
She ran off to her room, where she flung herself across her bed. She shook, and tried to get herself back under control. This wasn't good.
With sunset came the winds from the mountains. Angelenos called them the Santa Ana winds, and told stories of Satan's breath. It felt like the breath of hell to Dawn, hot and dry and dusty, with the flavor of ash from distant forest fires. The day had been hot, but this wind was hotter. The old hotel was stifling. Dusty and mildewed and claustrophobic and unbearable. Dawn's skin itched. She scratched and wondered if constructed entities could molt.
She could not stay inside any longer. She took a cool shower, dressed, and slipped out of the building without being noticed. The sidewalks were empty, the streets streaming with cars. She hoped Ethan's place would be cooler than the Hyperion had been. He had fans, at least, and cold things to drink. It was a night for murder and mayhem, for overturning. Or maybe just a night for ice cream. For turning on the air conditioning and standing in front of the blower and not moving. Dawn couldn't make up her mind which. It would be nice to be a plain teenager again.
The shopfront was dark, the shades pulled, of course. Dawn laid her hand on the door to the second floor. It was locked, conventionally. She reached out, and felt every door on the streetfront click open. Something had to be done. She needed control. She mounted the steps nervously. Was Ethan even home? What did he do when she wasn't around?
Light shone under the door at the top of the stairs, and she could hear music playing, solo piano, something austere. She raised her hand to knock, then deliberately lowered it.
Secundus resisted her for a moment, then yielded to her persuasion.
She stepped confidently into the apartment. Ethan was on his sofa, a book in one hand, and a crystalline object in the other. He had been coiled tense, but he relaxed when he saw it was her. He set the object aside, and smiled crookedly.
"You could have knocked."
"I wanted to make a point."
He set his book aside. Dawn could see in his shoulders that he was tense again, but fighting to set it aside. "Oh? What point would that be?"
"That I'm the Key."
Ethan raised his eyebrows. "You needed more proof? Why are you here, my dear?"
"Were you serious when you said you knew how to unchain me? Or was that just boasting?"
"No boast. I believe I can persuade Janus to unleash you. At a price, of course, but he should be amenable to the request."
"And if I asked you to bind it all tighter than before?"
Ethan stood up, suddenly, and limped into his kitchen. He took a bottle of water from his refrigerator and handed it to her. He leaned back against the counter. Dawn splashed water on her face, then drank half of it down. She still felt restless and itchy.
"That would be more difficult. But possible. A reinforcement of the monk's original spells, perhaps."
"Which would you advise?"
Ethan laughed. "Power, of course. Take the power. You grow too large for your bonds. You might submit to new ones, but you'll burst those eventually as well. You know what you are, now. There's no going back."
"What's the price? What do we have to give Janus?"
He shrugged. "I can only guess, and hazard the offering, and hope it suffices. But in this case, a transition of some kind, endured in his honor and in his presence."
"First experiences, especially profound ones. Initiations. Irreversible sacrifices. Virginity is one possibility, if yours is, ah, intact." He raised his eyebrow.
Dawn flushed bright red. She'd barely been kissed, never mind gone all the way. She suspected Ethan knew that already. It would have been in her file. Her voice was brittle and false when she answered. "Okay, let's give Janus that. Keys don't have much need for their virginities."
Ethan slapped the counter, not hard, but just loud enough to get Dawn's attention. "I will say this again. You are not some artifact, nor yet a ball of pointless energy. You are a human woman."
"Not a woman. Not yet."
Ethan did not laugh. If he'd laughed, she might have run from the apartment and never come back. Instead he very deliberately stepped forward to her. He laid his hands on her shoulders, leaned forward, and kissed her forehead. He reached behind her, moving slowly, and removed the brooch from her hair.
"If that is all, my love, it is easily dealt with. It would be my honor to guide you through this passage."
Dawn tried to speak, but could not for the life of her answer. He shook out her hair, and ran his hands through it. It felt good. Buffy used to do this. When had somebody touched her last? Ages and ages ago.
He rested his hands on her shoulders, and caressed. "One might almost say, my duty. How fortunate I am, that duty and pleasure make their bed together tonight."
"I thought you, you, you liked--"
Ethan's voice was in her ear, husky and rough, like heavy silk under her hand. "I might have an inclination, a preference, but Janus requires that his servants have two faces. Male and female. Dawn, love, I serve the god of doorways. You open doors. How can I not be drawn to you?"
It wasn't who she was. It was what she was. Dawn was pretty, she knew that, but if she'd been an ordinary girl he wouldn't have looked twice. Too young, too naive, too inexperienced. But his hands were everywhere, gentle, skilled. Her breath came short. He held her hand as he guided her to his bedroom.
Dawn stood in the dark room, waiting. A match flared, and he lit candles. Many candles. The room was hot, and the flames made it hotter, but Dawn shivered anyway. Fear. She was really going to do this. Whatever else happened, even if it was a big fizzle, she'd be a different person when she left this room..
Ethan lit a cone of incense and set it on a concave stone on a low table next to the bed. There were charcoal stains in the bottom of the dish, and the room was already sweet with the scent of aloeswood. The stone sat before a little statue of a man with two faces. It was an altar to Janus, then.
"Are you set on this?"
"Are you aware that it might be just what Wolfram and Hart wished to accomplish?"
That gave her a moment of pause, but she pushed past it. "I don't care. It's what I want. For myself."
"Are you aware that I might be wrong? That it might mean the end of your existence as a self-aware being?"
Her stomach flipped. Dawn looked at Ethan unsteadily. His eyes gleamed in the candlelight. Dawn wondered if he'd mind that outcome. Maybe at first. Later, his grief would fade as he learned to enjoy possession of her power. Or enjoy the reward from his god for his service: Janus held a key in his right hand. Maybe Janus wanted to hold her. Maybe.
"I'll risk it."
"Very well, my dear. Your life is yours."
And he reached out to her. Dawn flinched. He seemed to know she was terrified. He went slowly, ever so slowly, in the red-flickering heat of his bedroom. She was awkward. So was he: he could not bend his knee as he wished. More than once he swore, under his breath, when he forgot his limitations and attempted to move as freely as he was once used to.
He knelt over her, as well as he was able. She'd never been naked in front of anyone else before. His eyes were on her, and a smile crinkled their edges. He liked what he saw. The candlelight flickered on his slim chest. The hair dusting his nipples was gray, and so was the hair on his belly. She was in bed with somebody older than her father. He knew what he was doing; oh, did he know. She thought back to those kisses in the back seat of the car, with a teenager who didn't seem to be entirely sure where anything was. She was as excited as she'd ever been in her life. Despite the fear in her throat.
Ethan held his palms together and muttered something. He winced. He pulled his hands apart with difficulty. Blood dripped from his palms onto the sheets, onto Dawn's legs. He smeared blood over his palms and hers. His forehead, hers. His chest, hers. He invoked Janus in Latin that Dawn was too distracted to follow. His faithful and unfaithful son. Ethan lifted the glass of whisky high, and poured it into the shallow dish next to the statue. It caught fire and burned blue.
Dawn felt the presence of the god. Ethan addressed something to him, again in Latin, with respect in his voice that Dawn had never heard before. And then he awkwardly rolled himself onto her.
Despite all his care, it hurt. Dawn froze, and would have drawn breath to cry out, but all the air seemed to have left the room. Windows shattered outside. Something in the distance exploded. The lights went out and the building sighed to silence around them.
Ethan cried out against her neck, and Dawn felt him shudder. She was too distracted by pain, by upheaval, by whatever was being overturned inside her. It was almost done. The last step was hers to take.
She made her hands into fists, and pulled. Bands snapped. Dawn saw, for a moment, the structure of the memory spell, a delicate and complex lattice around a heart of green energy, binding it. It shattered. The energy was hers. She was free. No. Not free. Still partially bound. If she'd been freed entirely, she would have ceased to exist. Ethan had been right. The energy had entirely contaminated her soul.
The memory spell was gone. Across the city, dozens of people would reach for memory that once was, and find something else in its place. Reality. They would find reality in its place. At some point in the evening, Dawn knew that Buffy would turn her attention to her sister and know, truly deeply know for the first time, that her sister had not grown up with her. That'd she'd only existed for three years. And Buffy would ask questions.
The memory spell was dead. But Dawn remembered everything exactly as she had before. She wasn't a three-year-old. She wasn't an impossibly wise ancient being, either. She was seventeen, just like she'd been a few hours ago. Exactly as she'd been. No, not exactly.
The spell was dead, and its energy was Dawn's. It twitched and throbbed in her hands. It wasn't a firehose. It was delicate, for fine work. Like opening doors, picking locks, untangling knots. Or fixing damaged bone and cartilage in a man's knee. Dawn did it, and then fell back, limp on the bed, wet with sweat and Ethan's blood. Her hands and feet buzzed, but the current had faded. She'd have to work to learn to use this power, to twist it to her will. And she would.
Ethan kissed her mouth, then her brow, heedless of the mess. He sat up and made a sound of deep pleasure. He ran his hands over his knee and bent his leg experimentally. He got out of bed and walked with only a hint of the limp, over to the window. He pulled the drape aside. The sky was dark red, and the wind coming through the window hotter than the air inside the room.
"The power's gone out," he said. "All over. And the hills are burning."
Dawn stretched out a hand. If she looked hard, with the eyes inside, she could see the green light shine through her skin.