"Do you know what an Orlon Window is, Angel? It's a fascinating little spell. It allows warlocks such as myself to see the past as it once was. You have to be careful with it, though. If it were to break around someone whose mind had been altered, then all his old memories would come rushing back."
--AtS 5.18 "Origin"
The other thing was such a minor alteration, no one even noticed it at first. Wesley should have. He'd been keeping meticulous notes, things like deja vu and minor inconsistencies. He meant to stop when the window was broken, was sure he would, but it comforted him remarkably to scribble and underline. He wasn't writing some of these notes as much as retracing them in darker, more permanent ink. He had this notebook before, the very same lines, and its absence now scared him.
How it went before was: the Tro-clon prophecy, the shanshu, the father killing the son, and there were notes and notes, starting in the center of the page, creeping up the margins, spiraling into curves and circles. There were charts; there were rows and categories. When everything failed, there were meaningless things, lists of names he knew by heart. Random memories of old texts and dissertations, of Angelus and moral certainty. There were dates in shorthand, and every one of them was a massacre.
What it meant now was different. But he had to start here, and one day he could recreate something almost like his old library -- the kind full of real and tangible books, not just some single magic entity that hasn't called up anything since A Little Princess. He would retrace every word, and then the books themselves, the shelf, the physical objects and the room as a whole. Draw them again in darker, more permanent ink, and this would bring clarity.
But the other thing was new. Angel was the one who said it first, out loud. One simple day, out of the blue, as if it had really just occurred to him. In the tone you could say, I thought I left that toaster on. "Buffy doesn't have a sister."
Wes started another book.
He knew, or at least remembered, Dawn when she was twelve. Long straight hair with blue barrettes, he remembers her standing in the doorway saying, "Buffy went off looking for monsters. Or wait, that girl maybe."
"Faith? Did she say she was looking for Faith?"
Dawn shrugged helplessly. "She broke our lamp at Christmas."
"She went off alone?" Wesley blurted, and he forgot in an instant how he'd resigned himself not to sputter comedically. "This- this is absurd. I'm her Watcher and I won't stand for it." Dawn grinned at the floor. Without meaning to, Wesley had perfected a look that brought this out in the Summers girls. It was a look of pursed lips and withering eyes dripping with pathetic, impotent anger, a look like a fretting housewife. A look very much like a perturbed British man. Looking back, he thought it might be an in-joke between all of them. Or maybe not, maybe it was his imagination. Maybe they were only as accommodating to him as he deserved. He said, "I tell you this, I'm not leaving until she comes back. So she'd better hope to be killed horribly by a soulless fiend."
Dawn's eyes sparkled. "We... uh..."
"We could go look for her. M- mom's at an art thing! I'm sure we could be back by-"
"Please?" she pouted as a last resort, already reluctantly giving in.
He straightened his posture. "You are young, vulnerable, and undefended. The duty falls to me to guard your safety until such time as Buffy returns home, lest you fall prey to some outside evil." Dawn sighed dramatically but didn't protest further, as it was clearly the equivalent of arguing with a teacher.
"You have to do something for me, though, okay?"
Unsure what a girl of her age would want, he ventured a guess. "If you're wondering about some sort of candy reimbursement for your good behavior, you won't be disappointed. If this goes smoothly, I just might have a whole bag of Pineapple Rock in my pocket." He waited for some sort of enthusiasm. "Good?"
She stared at him like an alien, which now, in memory, felt ironic. "Yeah, I don't even want to know. My favor is, you want to not call me 'young Dawn' every time you say my name to people?"
"Do I say that?"
"Every. Time. You say. My name," she repeated for emphasis.
"Well now, the adjective is appropriate," he offered defensively, but didn't protest further, as it was clearly the equivalent of arguing with a small Dar'naayn demon, known for their limited, repetitive vocabulary and also their purple skin and inability to turn their head more than two degrees.
"I sat through a very long plane ride for this. Rome to Los Angeles. I had to watch a Jimmy Fallon movie. All just to say this -- if they could not stalk my sister, that would be fun."
She showed up just shortly after the Burkles' visit, with a bit less heart-tightening panic than they brought with them. Less panic until she started speaking, anyway. "I'm sorry," Wes said again. "I'm very sorry."
"Thank you. It's not your thing to be sorry about," she said, which didn't stop her from continuing to rant. "Buffy's happy, you know that, Wesley? And hey, sometimes she's not even. Sometimes she's sad or pissed off. It's a whole actually-having-a-life thing, and if they want to come by and talk to her, that's fine. But I don't need to hear from, like, Tucker's brother how they're asking questions and following her around. There actually is a police department in Italy, I mean. Just FYI. I had to watch a Jimmy Fallon movie. That's how much I don't like this." She exhaled and looked expectantly at him. He was afraid asking are you done? would result in more.
"To my knowledge, Spike is elsewhere being drunk and Angel is either out on Wolfram & Hart business or..." he caught himself before even mentioning Nina, although he wasn't sure why. Some kind of duty had fallen to him again, even if Dawn was not quite young, vulnerable, or undefended.
"Should I wait? Look, I'm sorry for the barging. Are you okay passing it on? You can say flames came out of my eyes and stuff." She was wearing a high-end peasant blouse and had baby smoker's breath, which means too much peppermint gum in an attempt to mask the ash smell. She wasn't Buffy's sister. Buffy was supposed to be his Slayer once. He had files on her, diaries, notebooks. Buffy was an only child.
"You've gotten older," he said stupidly.
She smirked. "You too. Stubble's new." His hand over-consciously touched his face as she said it. "Wow, haven't seen you in forever and I'm just here to yell at you. Okay, guess how old I am -- no math. Seventeen. Seventeen going on four-and-a-half, depending how you count." She ran her hands over the company name on the lobby wall, tracing in her mind. "So, is it true you guys work for this place now? The whole not-a-law-firm place with all the evil and the paperwork?"
He raised his head, returning her tone down to the pseudo-American accent. "Is it true you guys work for the Watchers' Council now?"
"Wow, I'm gonna ignore the touché I heard in there somewhere and just say yeah."
"I didn't mean anything," he muttered absently. There was no reason to be defensive. He glanced around like he had some business to attend to, but she didn't catch her cue.
"We're doing good," she went on. "Multiple senses of good. Oh! Contacts, that's the other thing." Before he could fully determine if she was still speaking English, she explained, "You have contacts, that's new. You had glasses before, right?" It wasn't hitting her yet, what he was sifting through his head in silence. She remembered he had glasses, when she was twelve, when Buffy was an only child. She hasn't seen him ever.
Wes knew he'd been a terrible liar, from the very start. He was too full of anxiety for it, saw accusation in every pair of eyes before he could even speak. He wanted to be smooth, a perfect double agent, but instead lies made him awkward. If he'd been around for the test Giles failed -- if he'd seen the eighteenth birthday of his charge, whoever she was -- well, he had secret doubts about it. He probably wouldn't be able to drug a girl properly. The Council was a bastion of Truth, Nobility, and the like, and this sort of thing shamed Wesley for all the wrong reasons. It hurt too much and felt too pointless to see hypocrisy in any of it. It only pained him that he wasn't a good enough liar.
His position in Sunnydale, they all talked over his head. The night he watched Dawn, it turned out Buffy wasn't alone -- the whole gang was with her, minus Wesley. In the real, retraced, permanent ink set of memories, did they even bother to call him that night? He thought he remembered they called the house, trying to tell Dawn they wouldn't be home until daylight, and he answered. "Young Dawn and I have been conjugating Sumerian verbs," he said, before catching the slip and shooting her an apology with his eyes. Dawn. No modifier. A very simple instruction.
"Sounds like a great old time. Hey, you know there's nothing I'd love more in this world than to finish this conversation, but patrolling calls." At least he knew where he stood with them, which was more than he got from his father. Even years later, he never figured out whether being assigned Buffy and Faith was a testament to his talent or a punishment.
"It's okay," Dawn had called to him from the foyer, a tinge of spoiled bitterness in her voice. "They never tell me anything either."
"Yes, of course," Wesley snitted. "I understand. It's been made absolutely clear to me that she can take care of herself, and that her friends will be there for moral encouragement, and that Rupert Giles will refuse to get on an airplane and allow me to do a single part of my job!"
This didn't happen. They did not take a break from intellectual stimulation to play Uno and Jenga. The pieces were never really there at all. The little block tower wasn't there to fall apart.
Buffy didn't have a sister. Angel had a son.
He remembered it now -- god, and so many things -- he remembered the rush of it, more like a quick burst of dry summer air than anything else. Not quite intense enough to make him dizzy, and he almost resented this later. Resented how truth and reality felt so insignificant, so natural, as they came pouring through him. The notebooks and the smell of wet grass and arterial blood (Lorne's? his?) and Illyria told him that time doesn't exist until it breaks apart, because in some ways nothing does. He would later tell her the importance of separating truth from illusion, and he would be lecturing directly out of his ass.
He thinks, someday Connor and Dawn will share battle scars and drink whiskey sour. Connor and Dawn could survive them all, young and undefended and precious and indestructible.
She was still in LA and hesitating to get on a return plane. Granted, only a half hour had gone by, and they were waiting for the American pizza (she was dying for this, just one slice before she went back) which she apparently ordered on demonic petty cash, so it would be irrational for Wesley to keep checking his watch. "Giles has issues with this place," she said. "But you do what you gotta, I think."
Somewhere in the back of his mind, at the word Giles, Wes saw a phone slamming against the wall and Fred hollowed out and discarded, and he had to remind himself she'd already been beyond saving, and that revenge is a fleeting happiness. "There are other, complex forces at work," Wesley's voice replied, although he wasn't entirely sure where it came from. They didn't choose to be here. Angel had a son.
"Like what?" said Dawn. "Okay, listen, you're quiet. That's the other thing that's different, and it's kind of freaking the hell out of me. Just be honest -- bad coming?"
"I'm not sure," Wes answered. "It's so hard to tell..." he stopped himself there, and she seemed to believe that was all. That he wasn't about to add something like how it could get any worse. He watched her fiddle with her gum, not taking her eyes off him. He knew she wanted a cigarette, and he wanted nothing but to preserve Dawn's innocence. In a jar, if he could, like the Muo-Ping. (He remembered this now, when he had Angel's soul floating right in his hands. When he could see it, after it was too late for that to matter. He remembered what it felt like to see a fatal gash on Lilah's throat and instinctively feel guilty -- to think, this is vengeance.)
"Bad already happened?" said Dawn, uncertainly. Wesley didn't even know where Illyria was now. She could be out crushing people's skulls to make that squishy noise they do. Since her little shape-shifting travesty, he'd been leaving her alone for longer periods of time, or she'd been leaving him -- that's more accurate, seeing as she could freeze time and take his life in a thousand different ways, only right now his pain interests her. He often felt a sinking feeling that he's a slave to something. This goddess, this building, how long has he been here? By the time he thought to answer Dawn's question, she wasn't waiting anymore. She was retracing the company name again, looking anywhere else.
"Say something," he blinked. Not sure why he'd spoken to himself out loud.
He clung to the short-term, the words that just left the edge of his half-open mouth. "Say something... in Italian." He felt clever for the switch, even if she didn't know quite what to make of it.
"Um... there's ciao," she suggested. He nodded. Encouraging, friendly, overall healthy. "Quanto costa? That's 'How much does this cost?'" She giggled awkwardly, a bit forced. He nodded again. "Ho un imponente ragazzo americano. That means, 'I have a large American boyfriend.' It's super-handy at clubs."
"It sounds wonderful," he broke in. "It sounds like you're... doing well."
In her eyes there was something becoming very sad, but more than that she pressed to keep him talking. "Well, you -- you've probably been all around, right? Rome and everywhere?"
"Yes," he was finding the answers easier now. "I've been there. Many places, really." The words rogue demon hunter flashed through his mind dimly, like something he should remember to write down.
Dawn became animated, the first-time traveler. "I never thought about how all those European countries are just sorta next to each other." She mimicked a person running. "It's like, 'Hey, I'm gonna go to Arizona!' except suddenly you're in, like, France." He remembered now, he was going to take Connor north.
Dawn wasn't a language person. She tripped over the sentence construction. "Mi manche... quando... tu felice?" He didn't ask her to translate it. She put the next phrase together quicker, trying to bury the last one, draw over it in darker ink. "Tu siete mio amico, Wesley."
He nodded. "You're almost eighteen, you said?"
She looked him over, a standard pervert-check she'd been practicing. "Yeah?"
He was already in this and couldn't back away from it now. "What do you remember about Buffy's eighteenth birthday?"
"Not a Slayer," she said quickly. "We don't do that anymore." That wasn't what he asked. He was asking about the memory. Dawn played with her gum again and didn't chew any. "It was the only time I ever saw Buffy scared in front of me. Over something real, you know?" She looked surprised to be saying this, to be even thinking about this again. "Didn't help I was all tragic and weepy. I didn't talk for like an hour. Trauma, I guess."
Wesley felt shame for all the wrong reasons. He had notebooks and files and diaries once, and in every version he could remember, it always said unfortunate incident and a close member of her family. He said, "I always wondered. That version of events, the... altered one. Were you the one who was kidnapped?"
She shook her head, waving it off. "Oh, Mom went out the front door. I didn't let him inside. I hid in a closet. Kinda useless." She smiled slightly. "So this, to clarify, is the happy set of memories."
"I'm sorry," Wesley said.
"Mom came home later, I hugged her enough to fuse together anyway. Survives a near-death thing, and she was making me ice cream milkshakes. Who would do that?" Dawn caught his eyes again in time to see him in despair. She backpedaled quickly, "It all turned out fine, I went on to kill many vampires and emerge happily ever after. I fought with swords and everything. Please stop looking at me like I have kitten AIDS."
"And don't say you're sorry again, please? Once again, it has zero to do with you."
"It could have," he said quietly. "If I'd been there-"
She threw her head back in exasperation. "Wesley, big fat elephant in the room, okay? I wasn't even there! Not really."
"I still would've put your family through that." He was considering it now, nodding slightly with less emotion than before. Classifying it within his brain. "I respected those people. I could have been those people. I... I would've done it."
When he looked up, Dawn was tilting her head in a way that made him flinch, briefly. "I don't think so. I don't think you're like that."
"I want to believe..." he began, but it faded into silence.
"You're better than you think you are."
"You wouldn't know that."
But she was sitting in the lobby waiting for pizza, and she looked young and endlessly old, pure and ancient. "But I have this theory," she said. "I think any memory I have, I have it for a reason. It's based on something, right? The monks pulled it out of somewhere. I remember you being nice to me. Means you're nice."
Don't tell Buffy, she kept saying. Don't. There was no blood or anything, but she panicked. She was supposed to go to sleep after the Jenga. He found her in the bathroom, childishly shaken. She was trying on her sister's makeup. She'd poked herself in the eye with mascara.
"You'll- I'm sure, very sure that you'll be fine." Although to be truthful, he was just as prone to panic as she was back then. He was considering an emergency room.
"This wet stuff -- it's not eye-juice or something, right? This is just from the mascara, and that my eyes got teary."
He picked up that she didn't say I cried -- she was too proud for this -- so he confirmed, "That was an involuntary reaction. Does it still hurt?"
"No, it's fine now." She breathed easier.
"Let me see, I'll handle this." He sounded proudly confident, considering his initial reaction to seeing the line of black trailing down her face had been blind fear of the 162 known varieties of eye-related demon viruses, at least half of which are contagious. "Well, I should tell Buffy."
"She doesn't tell you lots of stuff!" Dawn blurted. He applied all his inner strength to not getting into this right now.
"I was about to say, I should tell her and let it be a lesson to you, but I won't. As long as you're all right."
He suddenly realized she was inspecting him like a new toy or a particularly exciting weapon. "I have a great idea. I should try it on you."
She held up the makeup case, considering whether it needed to be run under water first. "I want to put it on you, to practice. So I don't poke myself next time."
He gave her a deadpan frown. "I see. And did your sister's former Watcher get up in girl's clothing for you?"
"Well -- no," she admitted, "but this isn't clothes, it's just mascara and eyeliner. Maybe some lip gloss. You'd look like a rock star from the '70s. My mom was totally into them."
He looked at the clock, several times over. He imagined all the scenarios that could bring the Slayer and her friends back earlier than he anticipated. Early enough to catch him rubbing tissues over his face, playing it off like he'd become flushed in some manly exercise. Teaching young Dawn karate, perhaps.
"Other women love this too," she continued. This didn't happen. But he remembered this moment made real, Dawn asserting it. That she wanted to take their faces and trace them in darker, more permanent lines.
At the time, his face grew curious and pathetically hopeful. "Such as, for example... Cordelia?"
And then she started giggling too hard to hold the makeup straight, and the project was abandoned.
He didn't want this rewritten.
"What was it like, without me?" She was waiting in his office now, trying with serious effort not to step on any paper, which meant sitting close to him in the person-shaped bit of free space by the wall. Because he wasn't currently thinking about mascara, he didn't have an answer for her question.
He said, "Not very different, to be honest." He hadn't planned to leave it at that, but the way her expression fell made him even more determined to keep going, soldier on, find something to add. But what was there? He'd spent so little time in Sunnydale, he felt. It was the place of his most uneventful memories, excepting the time he was fired by his subordinate.
In a voice smaller than she'd intended, she asked, "Was Buffy happier?"
"Yeah, I just- I don't know why I said that," she rushed. "It's only, not everybody walks around with a whole fake life in their head. You think about weird stuff."
"Angel had a son," Wesley said suddenly.
She stared. She knew this. Did she?
"I've written it all down," he said, gesturing vaguely. "The last year or so. I can't have two stories. One of them is an illness, I don't know which. It needs to be expelled and exorcised. Everything needs to be there, in front of me, mostly in columns. And there's always more..."
Dawn looked from him to the wall, the shelves and more stacks on the floor, and back again. She said, "That's kinda fucked."
A burst of life came from him, almost a chuckle. "Yes, I'd agree to that."
"I'm not saying I totally follow this, but your snits were a lot more fun than this OCD thing."
There was a long silence, interrupted by a human-looking intern who let them know the pizza was coming, and neither of them made a move toward it. She finally said, "I burned all mine. Diaries and crap, a couple of pictures. Burned 'em and ran away. I was fourteen. A couple of months that were actually real."
"You destroyed everything you believed you'd written." He was taking this in, and with more than a little disgust and awe.
"Everything I believed," she half-repeated. What did that mean? She wasn't a person for sentence construction. It meant, you do what you gotta. But also, her one long arm was reaching around him, and the other one holding his hand. It was the kind of sudden, anonymous comfort that a child gives, or a nun, but Dawn Summers was neither and Wes thought it was something extraordinarily new.
So he was letting it happen, this pathetic sort of hug. This living anomaly of a girl saying, "You know you're gonna be okay, Wes." He shifted into the embrace, weakly patted her on the back with an apologetic smile. It was only then that he realized this was the first gentle human contact he'd had since Fred, and he wasn't sure when he'd be able to let go.
He took back her to the airport himself, in one of their billion company cars that wouldn't be around much longer, one way or another.
She was still talking when they hit customs. "I never saw double version of anything. What I actually was. All I have is this, you know? The new stuff." She shrugged. "I'm not complaining, I mean. It seems like the old stuff was mostly me glowing and floating around since the beginning of the universe, or something. Possibly green. I got the gist of it."
Wesley managed a smile, his tension starting to ease. "It sounds fairly boring. Couldn't compare to a family, schoolmates..."
"Plus I saw Titanic, like, eight times. What would life be without a pre-pubescent Leo-fest?"
The next smile came unbidden. "And here I remember you telling me Ricky Martin was the king of hot."
She closed her eyes in a mortified, exaggerated wince. "Oh my god. First of all, that was not Ricky Martin, that was Enrique Iglesias. Never confuse the two. And fine, maybe I was a fickle crush whore. The point is, I don't think you even get crushes when you're an energy ball."
"Some of those 'Backstreet Boys' too, if I remember correctly. You knew all the words?"
"See, you'd think the part where it-wasn't-real would make me want to kill you less right now? But honestly, it's not helping."
He wasn't sorry.
When he couldn't go further, she said, "Take care of yourself. Not the cliché, but for real. I want you to."
He said, "Say goodbye in Italian." Say everything again, only more.
She twirled dramatically, retracing a circle. She cooed, "Ti amo, kiss kiss," which was close enough.