Continued from part 1.
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.
Characters or pairings you want with Ethan: Dawn
A brief prompt OR three things you want: A post-chosen setting, a fire, I'd like the fic to be at least slightly dark
Two things you don't want: Anything goes
Does your request require comics canon? No.
Maximum rating you'd prefer: R