The ancient monastery had survived the elemental onslaught of centuries. Its stout stone walls were cloaked in creeping ivy that had snaked into every accessible fissure. The hallways were dark, illuminated only by spluttering torches affixed to cast iron sconces. Two monks walked purposefully along a dank corridor deep beneath the cloister, hands tucked into the sleeves of their robes. The soles of their sandals barely made a whisper on the packed clay floor.
"There are reports. Rumors," said the younger of the pair. The guttural tone of his native Czech bore all due respect, but his delivery was nevertheless agitated.
"Yes," replied the elder.
The young Brother waited anxiously for expansion upon the simple statement, but none was forthcoming. His expression clearly displayed that silence was not what he wanted to hear.
"We need to ... to do ..." he urged.
The older monk turned to his companion expectantly.
"...something," was the ineffectual conclusion.
"Thank you," came the response, laced with a hint of sarcasm. "I'll keep that under advisement."
The young monk frowned, plainly unappreciative of the retort. "We can't sit here and wait! Glorif—"
"Do not speak its name," the other told him harshly.
Immediately chagrined, the young monk was apologetic. "The Beast," he hastily amended. Encouraged by no further rebuke, he continued. "The Beast will find us. Already it draws near."
The eyes of the elder became clouded with apprehension. He nodded in confirmation. "I know."
The younger Brother was instantly hopeful. "Then you also know what must be done?"
There were no ensuing words of comfort. No offer of reassurances.
"Are we all that stand in its way?" asked the young monk worriedly. "Are there no others we can call upon?"
The older man seemed to inwardly contemplate the questions as the pair traveled even further into the depths of the monastery, but still he voiced no solace.
Before long, they arrived before a set of immense double doors. Grasping the handle, the elder began to push against the heavy barrier, but could gain little ground into the room beyond. The younger quickly lent his shoulder to the effort, but still, it was a difficult task. Finally, after much exertion, the hinges began to creak and the door inched open.
From within the chamber, there emitted a glow – bright, but not blinding. The two entered with bowed heads and an air of reverence, moving to stand in front of the magnificent shimmer. For a while, neither spoke.
"We are not warriors," the older monk admitted quietly. "The Beast will destroy us."
It was far from an encouraging or pleasant revelation, nor one entirely unexpected. Unhappily, the younger man nodded his acceptance of the fact.
"We are not," stated the elder with increasing confidence, "but there are others."
"Warriors," the other clarified. "To protect when we cannot."
"Will they help?"
The older monk raised his eyes. "We must make sure they have no other choice."
They regarded each other soberly for a moment, basking in the brilliant glow.
"How?" queried the young Brother.
Dawn opened her eyes.
"What is Dunkirk?" a voice ventured, courtesy of the television speakers.
"That's the incorrect question," replied the game show announcer with just the right amount of regret.
Blinking drowsily from her position on the couch, Dawn yawned and stretched, throwing her arms wide and hitting Buffy in the process.
"Ow!" Buffy exclaimed, glaring as she rubbed the back of her head.
"Sorry," mumbled Dawn through her yawn.
With a muted growl, Buffy returned to dividing her attention between watching the television and watching Willow do homework. Buffy would scan a passage until her eyes glazed over, then seek refuge within the TV for a while before repeating the process.
Dawn couldn't be bothered with either. She yawned again.
Tara entered from the kitchen, drink in one hand and a dishtowel in the other. "Early night, Dawnie?" she inquired with a smile.
Dawn shook her head, mouth still agape. "Not tired."
"Such nefarious lies," Xander chastised from his chair. "You should be ashamed."
"Yeah," Tara promptly agreed. "Sort of like maybe claiming you can't do the dishes because you're allergic to water?"
Chuckling nervously, Xander glanced over his shoulder with a sheepish grin. "I panicked?"
Draping the towel over Xander's head, Tara smirked and then sank into the remaining vacant armchair.
With a heavy sigh, Xander tugged down the dishtowel. "Hey Dawn, maybe you wanna flex a little of that Key-y power and sort of ..." he waggled his fingers by way of illustration, "'port away the grossness?"
"Or, hey, kooky new idea," suggested Willow, "you can wash 'em."
"Besides, my powers can only be used for good," Dawn informed lazily.
"This is good," said Xander with conviction. "This is very good. We're talkin' Pope-level good here. Newborn kitten-good. Kelly Osbourne gets a tongue-ectomy good."
He grinned brightly in Dawn's direction, but received only a fixed stare in response. He stared back curiously, but Dawn's expression never faltered. After a moment, Xander raised his eyebrows in a 'what?' gesture, but again there was no visible acknowledgment.
"Okay, you're startin' to creep me out," he accused.
Dawn's eyes narrowed. "I'm trying to teleport you into the kitchen." She tilted her head to one side and tried staring even harder. "You won't move."
"It's probably the thirteen rolls he had with dinner," remarked Buffy.
Immediately, Xander whirled to face her. "Hey!"
"Stupid powers," muttered Dawn, crossing her arms and throwing herself into the couch cushions at her back.
"A poem written to celebrate a wedding," answered the game show host with authority.
"What is an epithalamium," answered Willow, her gaze never leaving the textbook.
"What is an epithalamium?" echoed the contestant on the screen.
"Correct!" came the announcement. The audience applauded.
"Well put me in the 'it's good to not randomly zap our friends to places unknown' column," declared Buffy emphatically.
"It's not places unknown," Dawn countered. "It's the kitchen."
"This animal," read the host, "can have up to 100,000 taste buds."
"What is a catfish," Willow replied absently.
"What is a catfish?" the contestant duly repeated.
"I'm also sort of undecided on the whole 'zapping' part," said Xander.
Dawn puffed despairingly. "Not that it matters. The darned thing is set on random."
"You just need practice, that's all," commiserated Tara.
"This artist was disfigured for life at the hands of a jealous rival."
This time, Willow glanced at the television screen. "Who is da Vinci?" she asked with a tinge of doubt.
"Michelangelo," Tara corrected.
"Who is Michelangelo?"
Willow threw Tara a congratulating grin and then turned to a huffy Dawn. "Don't be grouchy," she urged. "This is, like, a huge thing, you know? Could you ride your bike without training wheels first time out? No!"
Dawn wrinkled her nose indignantly. "Yes I could."
Buffy nodded her confirmation as Tara affixed Xander with a patient yet expectant expression. He sighed heavily but got to his feet and reluctantly shuffled toward the waiting dishes. The dishtowel dangled from his limp hand and trailed along behind him.
Meanwhile, in the wake of her abrupt yet total defeat, Willow was attempting to recover lost ground. "Well, but ... okay. So exception that proves the rule. For most stuff though, you gotta practice to get good. I mean, look at me. Pencil Gal for months before the mojo started kickin' into high."
"Not that you need to get your powers all high-kicked," Buffy swiftly interjected. "I'm perfectly happy with low, subdued toe-nudging instead."
"We'll just keep working on it," assured Tara. "You have another meeting with Mr. Giles tomorrow morning, right?"
Dawn somehow managed to slump further into the cushions. "He's my school away from school. Which, for still being in school, is sort of too much school, don't you think?" She surveyed the room hopefully.
"No," Buffy replied without hesitation.
With an offended sniff, Dawn pouted.
The sudden rap upon the front door went ignored by the inhabitants of the living room
"Just give yourself a chance," urged Tara.
"Sure," Dawn all but snorted. "It's only like I'm really five thousand years old, so I should know how to do all this stuff by now."
"Patience, grasshopper," advised Willow.
There was another knock at the door and Xander appeared on the threshold of the kitchen.
"Oh no, don't strain yourselves," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "You all stay there, I'll get the door." He crossed the floor, mumbling darkly. "Great, now I'm a male housekeeper in a bad '80s sitcom."
Turning the handle, Xander opened the front door to reveal a kindly-looking old fellow hovering on the top step. Shorter than Xander by at least a foot and a little on the thin side, the elderly gentleman appeared nonetheless spry and healthy, despite his advancing years. Xander's scowl disappeared instantly.
The face at the door crinkled into a beaming smile. "Hello Alexander."
"What are you doing over here so late?" Xander asked, his gaze automatically sweeping the darkness beyond for any sign of threat.
"Oh, I had just finished baking some cookies," responded Dr. Joseph, "and I thought you and your friends might like some."
The large square tin, lid sporting a snowy Christmas scene, was thrust into Xander's hands. Xander seemed only too delighted to accept the unexpected but nevertheless most welcome harvest.
"My eyes are always bigger than my belly," the old man chuckled. "Mrs. Joseph used to make cookies just like these all the time. She left me her recipe," he hastened to assure, "so you don't have to worry about 'em tasting bad either."
Xander inhaled appreciatively. "Thanks, they smell delicious." He stepped to one side, extending an unspoken invitation to enter. "Did you want some coffee?"
"Oh no, no thank you." Dr. Joseph shook his head. "I have to get back. 'SVU' will be on in a minute." His eyes twinkled. "That Detective Benson is a firecracker, don't you think?"
"That she is," returned Xander wholeheartedly.
Standing on tiptoe, Buffy peered over Xander's shoulder and Dr. Joseph smiled in greeting.
"Buffy! How are you doing?"
"Pretty good, pretty good," she nodded. "You?"
"Oh, I can't complain," he replied with a shrug and a lopsided grin. "Well, I could but it's impolite." In the background, he noted Willow and Tara ascending the stairs and waved to them. "Goodnight, girls," he called cheerfully.
Each returned the wave and an echoing "Goodnight" before disappearing from view.
Dr. Joseph's attention refocused on Xander. "Now you're sure you don't mind helping me with my window? It's not too late to back out."
"Not gonna happen," Xander assured. "I'll be there tomorrow, bright an' early. Fixing it is the least I can do."
The old man sparkled with gratitude. "I certainly won't reject your kindness, son, but it's hardly like the electrical storm was your fault."
Xander and Buffy exchanged a meaningful glance.
"No," admitted Buffy slowly, "but we're just full of that old community spirit."
Dr. Joseph nodded. "I'll make a fresh pitcher of lemonade, then."
"Hey, Dr. Joseph," Dawn greeted as she appeared in the doorway.
"Hello, Dawn," he said fondly. "How's everything?"
She shrugged. "Okay."
"Ahh, the commitment of youth."
Dawn shrugged again, but favored him with a grin.
"Don't you let Alexander keep all those cookies to himself now, okay?" instructed Dr. Joseph.
Buffy's eyes grew wide. "Oo, cookies?"
Xander waved the tin in front of her nose and she wasted no time in grabbing it and vanishing inside the house.
"Or your sister," advised the old man with a conspirative wink.
Dawn giggled. "Not a problem."
Dr. Joseph returned his attention to Xander. "I'll see you tomorrow then?"
"Tomorrow it is."
Xander waved as Dr. Joseph headed back toward his home. Through the living room curtains, Buffy watched him leave, making sure that he arrived without mishap. She munched contentedly on still-warm cookies while maintaining her vigil.
"Nice guy," commented Dawn, moving to stand beside Buffy and eying the open tin.
"And one of our few neighbors who doesn't look at me like you're all members of my harem." Xander frowned and scratched his head. "Why aren't you all members of my harem, again?"
Buffy momentarily interrupted her surveillance to give him a patented Slayer Kill look.
"Oh yeah," Xander said with nod, "that's why." For a moment it looked as though he might linger, but the kitchen beckoned, and he instead returned to the waiting dishes.
With twitching fingers, Dawn reached for a cookie, but Buffy lightly smacked away her hand. "Not before bed," she cautioned. "The sugar'll keep you up all night." But a quick look at Dawn's exhausted face forced Buffy to revise her statement. "Or not. Hey, you all right?"
Dawn massaged her forehead. "Yeah. Just wiped. All the magickal poking and prodding and testing, plus school, plus homework, plus friends, boy- and otherwise."
"Oh, and the SATs coming up soon too!" reminded Buffy.
Dawn audibly groaned.
"That didn't really help, huh?" said Buffy sympathetically. She tossed the half-eaten cookie into the tin and pulled Dawn close for a hug. "Get some rest. It'll all look less overwhelming tomorrow. That's what Giles always used to say."
"And was it?"
"Not so much," Buffy was forced to confess.
With another loud groan, Dawn disengaged from the hug and straggled her way to the stairs.
"Night!" called Buffy.
Dawn's mumbled response was incoherent.
As she approached Trillium High, Dawn spotted her quartet of closest friends sitting on the front steps leading to the main entrance. With a frazzled expression, Meghan was flipping through the pages of a thick textbook, while Jackie punched buttons on her cell phone. Brenda, a pile of college pamphlets in her lap, was avidly scouring one as an interested Ginny peered over her shoulder. The smudges beneath Dawn's eyes were still evident and she sipped from a can of Coke as she walked along.
"Hey guys," she called as soon as she was within earshot.
"Summers," acknowledged Jackie as the others joined in the greeting.
Dawn squeezed between Jackie and Brenda.
"Isn't it a little early?" asked Brenda, eying the soda in Dawn's hand.
Dawn glanced at Brenda, then at her Coke, and then back to Brenda again. "No."
Brenda shrugged. "Okay then."
Hopefully, Meghan leaned around Jackie. Her eyes were wide with desperation. "Dawn! You're not taking German, are you?"
Dawn shook her head.
"Scheiße," muttered Meghan, refocusing on her studies, only to be abruptly interrupted no more than a second later by Jackie thrusting the open phone into her face. There was the sharp click of a shutter. Meghan swiped irritatedly at Jackie's hand, but she was too slow.
Examining her phone display, Jackie grinned. "Oh, very nice."
"Don't make me kill you," scowled Meghan. Briefly, she considered the proposition. "On second thought, it'll probably make me feel better, so go ahead."
With a smile, Jackie depressed a few buttons and then cracked an even larger grin. "It's my new wallpaper," she announced. "I call it, 'Portrait of Someone Who Should've Studied Last Night'."
"I hate you," Meghan told her, but Jackie didn't seem concerned.
"It's good to see you," confided Ginny, treating Dawn to an affable little nudge. "It's like you haven't been around lately."
"Honestly?" confirmed Dawn, eyelids half closed. "I'm not sure I'm here now." She blinked several times and then guzzled some more Coke.
Brenda glanced in her direction. "So what's going on?"
"Is it you and Grip?" asked Ginny curiously. She turned to the others. "I bet it's her and Grip."
"Very no," said Dawn emphatically. "Just ... some family stuff." Expressions of concern immediately surfaced on four faces and Dawn hastened to give assurance. "Nothing bad. You know how it is though, they can't get enough of me."
Meghan quickly indicated her understanding of such a situation. "Making you be everywhere at once, huh?"
"That's surprisingly accurate," affirmed Dawn with a nod.
"My parents get like that sometimes," mused Brenda. "They forget that friends are important too. I read an article just the other week about the need for social development in—"
"No one cares," Jackie interrupted.
"I care," comforted Ginny. "Brenda's right, friends are important."
Looking down, Dawn saw Ginny tightly hugging her arm. "I'm glad you're back."
"Here here," declared Jackie. "It's only a tiny victory though, not the war. I say we strike another blow for teenage freedom – Vortex. Saturday. 7pm. Be there or be kidnapped into being there."
For a moment, the girls regarded each other soberly and then, with a unanimous grin, they all cheered.
Firmly shepherding the group together, Jackie held her camera phone at arm's length. She made sure everyone was in the shot, including herself, and snapped another picture.
In Slayer Central's main training area, two distinct groups of Juniors were going through their exercises. Leaning next to each other against one wall, keeping a sharp eye on the activities, were Buffy and Faith.
"She's not takin' it well, then," said Faith, glancing sideways at Buffy.
"Marissa! Keep your arms up!" instructed Buffy firmly. She watched closely for a moment and then, seemingly satisfied, returned to the conversation. "She was at first. For a couple of days it was non-stop Christmas light jokes, sprinkled liberally with a suspicious amount of my stuff disappearing."
"Always the way, huh?" snickered Faith. "When I first got powers, it was nothin' but Slayin' and screwin' for like a week. But that's just me," she amended at Buffy's wide-eyed look.
"I'm suddenly realizing that I can never realistically ground her again." Buffy made a distressed sound, somewhere between a sigh and a groan. "Not good."
"Hey! Hey!" yelled Faith threateningly to the room at large. "Don't make me come over there!" Her attention refocused on Buffy. "I don't see the harsh. So Kid Sis can glow like a firefly. Think how much you'll save on gas."
"I'm also thinking of demons and hellgods and a so-called life with this huge power she never asked for and can't get rid of," said Buffy. "Been there, done that, got the shirt. She shouldn't have to." She stared sightlessly at the room full of Juniors. "I wanted better for Dawn."
Faith crossed her arms. "An' what about Dawn, what's she want?"
"I'm not sure she knows," Buffy admitted.
Such indecision didn't seem to be an issue for Faith. "Well I think it kicks," she said with conviction. "Pretty damned useful."
"She's my sister. I don't want her to be useful," Buffy nearly snapped. "Screwdrivers are useful. I want her to be ... Dawn."
"I miss some part where she wasn’t?"
"She's the Key," explained Buffy with a sigh. "She's really the Key now. I mean she has been for a while, but then I saw it and..." She exhaled slowly. "...and I guess I'm just scared she can't be anything else."
"She's your sister," Faith reminded. "Nothin' can change that."
"The fact that she's my sister at all sort of shoots a lot of holes in my certainty."
Faith didn't seem to know how to respond to that statement, so she opted to say nothing. The pair regarded each other soberly for a moment before their eyes traveled back to watching their respective groups of sparring Juniors.
The study hall was empty, save for Dawn who was already in her seat, eyes glued on the textbook in front of her. In straggling formation, the other students began to arrive. Ginny and Brenda came in together. Brenda quickly took her customary place next to Dawn, who absently returned the pair's cheerful greetings. Grip wasn't far behind. Spying Dawn, he grinned broadly and waved to attract her attention, but she didn't seem to notice. He sank into his chair with a small frown of concern. The teacher was among the last to enter. She addressed the room but Dawn appeared unaware of her presence, concentration focused solely on the book before her.
Dawn stared at the volume unflinchingly, but it was not the text that had captured her interest. Propped against the open pages and hidden from the view of others was a combination lock, typical of the thousands that secured the contents of school lockers nationwide. She regarded the lock with a fixed gaze, but nothing remarkable happened. Dawn continued her contemplations and then, reaching out her hand, brushed the dial with her forefinger. For a moment, there was no visible reaction but then, it began to glow and, within the blink of an eye, started to spin. It whirled rapidly clockwise, again and again, revolution after revolution, before coming to a brief stop. Almost immediately, it spun in the opposite direction and then came to an abrupt and fleeting halt. After a few more clockwise arcs, the dial ceased its dizzying rotations altogether and it was as though it had never moved at all. Dawn glanced furtively from side to side, but nobody seemed to have observed the phenomenon.
Picking up the lock, she tugged at the steel shackle. The sharp snap that followed its opening seemed almost deafening to Dawn's ears.
She gazed at the open lock in her palm – a perfectly normal and innocuous object. Then, with a swift movement, she snapped the shackle back into place.
"Are you sure you don't want any help?" asked Dr. Joseph, eager to be of assistance.
Xander shook his head. "Nope, I'm good. Not to mention almost done."
The elderly man took a step backward to admire Xander's handiwork. It was as though the side door window had never been shattered at all and he was obviously pleased with the result.
"It looks better than new," he commended. "You have quite a talent there."
"Not to mention a freakish amount of practice," grinned Xander.
Applying the finishing touches to the newly replaced pane, Xander gave it a quick buff with a soft cloth and then also took a step back. "There you go. You wanna avoid opening it for about an hour or so."
Dr. Joseph nodded. "That shouldn't be a problem. I hardly ever use this door anyway."
Removing a key from his waistcoat pocket, he turned the lock and then deposited the key underneath a nearby flowerpot. He grimaced a little as he straightened, but then favored Xander with a smile of gratitude.
"Are you sure you can't stay for a snack? I make a mean Baked Alaska."
Xander shook his head as he began to repack his toolbox. "And as much as I've always wondered just what the heck that is, I can't," he told the old man somewhat regretfully. "I have another job in town."
"That doesn't surprise me in the least," said Dr. Joseph. "You're lucky, you know. Getting to do something you love for a living. That's a rare gift."
"'Lucky's my middle name," Xander replied, snapping his toolbox closed. "And hey, this is the really important stuff, right? You need fifty wooden cows by next week or the world will end? You can trust me. I'm Wooden Cow Guy."
Dr. Joseph smiled. "Everybody has their place, son."
Together, they walked the length of the flagstone path that ran between Dr. Joseph's home and the Scoobies' House. Neither was aware of the green glow that now shimmered beyond the lace curtain of the locked door. And neither noticed the muted chant that came from within, carried like a faint whisper upon some distant breeze.
"...we hunted the Wren for every man."