First there was nothing.
Then there was everything.
There were no questions. It wasn't, then was.
That was okay.
Awareness of self didn't come for some time. Several seconds, or perhaps a millennium. The realization made it easier, which was interesting since before realization, nothing had been difficult.
There was death.
There was life.
That was okay too.
Scary, but okay.
Such pure green energy. It's so beautiful.
Oh, but the possibilities. The things that could be done, had been done, might be done someday. All of them experienced, all at the same time. Sometimes with a nudge here or a touch there; sometimes with the unignorable presence of inaction.
Right or wrong?
Was or wasn't, maybe? Locked and unlocked.
All that is certain is that its power is absolute.
Irrelevant, but better.
Caretakers? Amusing in concept. Tolerated through apathy. Always seeking to understand, never understanding they couldn't.
And battles. Monotonous battles. All for possession of what was impossible to own.
Laughable. If it were possible to laugh.
It doesn't matter how you got here or where you came from.
The idea intrigued. Be remade.
First, perhaps, a question. Finally a question.
There was no time.
And Dawn opened her eyes.
"When I Look Inside Myself, I Remember Me"
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prose by: Novareinna
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Sunday, 28 August 2005, 8pm ET
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 wasnít?"
"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."
The bedroom was something of mess. Left in disarray, half-packed boxes were stacked on the floor while others had been pushed against the walls. There was no sign of life, either working to tidy the disorder or otherwise.
"I'm outta here," Buffy called as she moved down the hallway toward her room. "Riley and I are going to the movies."
"Okay," her mother returned. "Have a good time."
An intense glow suddenly bathed the hallway beyond Buffy's bedroom. It was fleeting and lasted no more than a heartbeat before seeming to be sucked back the way it came. A moment later, Buffy crossed the threshold and immediately froze, her features registering utter shock. In front of the window, rifling through one of the cardboard containers was Dawn. She ceased her ransacking as Buffy entered, raising her head to look at the doorway.
An expression of incredulity crossed Buffy face. "What are you doing in here?"
Dawn opened her mouth to reply, but Joyce's voice could be heard once more. "Buffy? If you're going out, why don't you take your sister with you?"
There was a pause before both girls turned toward the open door.
"Mom!" they protested in unison.
"Good," came the cheerful reply. "I'm glad that's settled."
Buffy refocused on Dawn, eyes narrowed with suspicion. The younger girl returned the angry glare in kind.
"You're stealing my stuff, you little klepto," accused Buffy.
"As if," scoffed Dawn with a roll of her eyes. "Like I want anything from the Britney wannabe collection."
Buffy crossed her arms. "Oh, so you just came to admire the view?"
"And wonder how anybody could live like this," sneered Dawn. "Is being a total pig some Slayer thing, or is it just you?"
Dawn stiffened a little as Buffy took a menacing step toward her, but then Joyce appeared in the doorway, holding out a necklace.
"Fasten me up?" she asked Buffy with a smile.
Her glower never faltering, Buffy took the necklace. Joyce turned and lifted her hair from the nape of her neck. "So what are you guys going to see?" she questioned.
"I dunno," replied Buffy, snapping the clasp. "Did they come out with '1000 Ways to Kill Your Sister' yet? Cuz I keep getting stuck at 653 and could use the inspiration."
Dawn just had time to toss her sister a fully-loaded look indicating exactly how very funny she found that remark before Joyce glanced over her shoulder with a frown.
"Buffy," she said disapprovingly. "Be nice."
"Trust me," Buffy assured, "compared to what I'm thinking, I should be sainted any second now."
Dawn folded her arms firmly across her chest. "Like seeing a movie with you and Riley is anything but a one-way ticket to Barfsville." She turned to Joyce, eager to share her insider's viewpoint. "They don't come up for air until the movie's like almost over." Her eyes narrowed in Buffy's direction once more. "And you hog the popcorn."
Buffy's jaw dropped several inches and she appeared about to vehemently protest when Joyce spoke again.
"Buffy, buy Dawn her own popcorn."
Aghast, Buffy geared up to launch into an even more violent objection, but Joyce didn't give her the opportunity.
"Please," she urged. "Just take your sister to the movies. Have a nice time." She paused. "Or at least try to have a nice time."
With a huge puff and no sign of good grace, Buffy grudgingly relented. Her disgruntled pout was uncannily similar to Dawn's expression.
"What a blessing, to have two loving children," commented Joyce with more than a hint of sarcasm. She made her way to the door. "I'll be back by eight."
For a moment, both girls watched her departure and then, with another roll of the eyes, Dawn returned to sifting through the contents of the box she'd opened.
"So we'll go see what?" she asked with overt cheeriness. "'The Adventures of Violent Army Guy and his Ho Bag Girlfriend'?"
Reaching out, Buffy slapped down the cardboard flaps, effectively bringing a halt to Dawn's snooping spree.
"We're not leaving until you answer me," she warned with deceptive calm. "Why are you here?"
Dawn opened her eyes.
Seated in a comfortable chair within the Sanctum, Dawn shifted restlessly and then sighed. Placed upon a small stool, directly across the room from her line of vision, was a carved wooden statue of either a very small demon horse, or a very large demon rat. Upon sighting its presence, an expression of disappointment crept over Dawn's features.
"I'm sorry," she muttered miserably.
The words had barely left her mouth before Giles was there at her side.
"No, no, nothing to apologize for," he gently assured. "It will, of course, take time for- for your powers and abilities to fully balance." He smiled encouragingly. "You're doing extremely well."
"Which means ..." Willow leaned forward to slap something on the back of Dawn's hand. She beamed as though she'd just presented Dawn with the Holy Grail.
Glancing down, Dawn noted a large gold star resting on her skin. She regarded Willow dubiously before murmuring, "Thanks."
"How you doing?" inquired Buffy, also taking up a position next to her sister's chair.
Dawn could only give a dejected shrug, and Buffy frowned in concern. She stroked Dawn's hair while Giles turned to Willow questioningly.
"Did you detect anything?"
"No with a side of yes?" Willow offered. "It's ... There's something," she tried to clarify, "but i-it's like it's locked up. You know, to use the obvious metaphor. But it's definitely there."
Thoughtfully, Giles' attention returned to Dawn.
"Practice is the key, I think," he told her, and then immediately grimaced at the inadvertent pun. "We simply need to keep at it. Once you have control over more rudimentary applications, we can move to—"
"I don't want to move," was the subdued response.
Giles blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"No moving," reiterated Dawn. "No more tests. No more staring, no more witchy physicals. It's been like this for a whole week! 'Dawn, move that here.' 'Dawn, create a portal there.' It's like my life is go to school, do homework, then sit here all night and stare at this ugly thing." She gestured toward the statue, but Giles had little time to argue its artistic merits. "I'm sick of it!" she declared forcefully.
Her eyes challenged every inhabitant of the room.
"I understand that this must be frustrating for you," began Giles, soothing yet firm, "but now that these powers have awakened, you have a responsibility to- to understand and control them."
"I'm the Key, right?" Dawn countered. "I've had a few thousand years or doing nothing but controlling it."
"Then I'm confident you'll demonstrate that control very soon now," returned Giles.
Dawn bristled like a bird whose feathers had been ruffled, but before she could express her feelings on that score, Buffy interceded.
"I think a break right about now is called for," she said hastily. "What do you think, Will?"
"Oh, yeah, break. Definitely," agreed Willow. She yawned widely and then stretched out her arms in an exaggerated fashion. "I have all sorts of breaky needs."
A deep crease appeared on Giles' forehead. "I don't think that's wise. We need to remain focused on our lessons until Dawn can exhibit at least rudimentary command over her abilities."
"Okay, Simon Legree," said Buffy, her lips becoming tight, "wanna lighten up a little?"
"She is the Key and her powers are very real," lectured Giles as he began to march back and forth. "We cannot afford to 'lighten up'."
Buffy's eyes narrowed. "She's just a kid, Giles, what do you—"
"I'm not a kid!" exploded Dawn. "And I'm not just the Key! I'm Dawn." Her hands clenched into tight fists. "I'm Dawn. When did everybody forget that?"
The room was silent and even Giles stopped pacing.
Dawn shook her head. "God, I don't even want to be here, I want to go—"
And go she did. With a blinding flash. In mid-sentence.
Alarmed, Buffy stared at the now vacant chair. "Dawn?!"
"So that'd be a yes on the break issue," said Willow slowly.
Buffy whirled to face the others. "Where is she? Where did she go?"
"Excellent questions," Giles muttered aloud as he inspected the seat that had, until moments ago, contained an irate teenager.
"Yes!" exclaimed Buffy. "And now I'd like a side dish of answers!"
"I was tuned in pretty well, but I got nothing," informed Willow with a slight frown. "She didn't broadcast where she was goin'. She didn't broadcast she was going. I think this was as much a shock to her."
Buffy put her hands on her hips and glared at where Dawn wasn't. "No, I think I have the corner market on shock right now."
Tentatively, Willow stepped forward and placed a comforting hand on Buffy's shoulder. "I'm sure she'll be okay. Dawnie's a- a resourceful and mature girl." Her eyes darted to the side and at the empty chair. "You know, when she's not throwin' a fit and vanishing on us."
Giles straightened from the inspection and removed his glasses. "Regardless, I'm fairly certain panicking is not the solution."
"Yeah, but I always feel better," grumbled Buffy, before her expression become one of concern. "How are we gonna find her?"
The lenses having passed inspection, Giles slipped his glasses on once more. "I don't know that we can," he replied. "There are, quite literally, an infinite number of places Dawn could choose as her destination."
"Oh, I hate this," moaned Buffy, slumping into the seat recently occupied by Dawn.
"Maybe we can get her a satellite tracker," suggested Willow. Her eyes grew bright. "Oo! You could inject her with a little bar code scanner thingie, like for dogs!" She motioned toward the back of her neck, where such an object would likely be injected.
Buffy was far from amused.
"Or, not," Willow quickly retracted.
"So what do we do?" demanded Buffy, becoming more anxious with every passing moment.
"Willow, perhaps you can do a location spell," Giles advised, "see if we can confirm if Dawn is still in the area."
With a brisk nod, Willow started to gather supplies.
"Other than that," continued Giles, "I suppose we must hope for a speedy tantrum."
Buffy massages her temples and sighed heavily. "Sometimes I just want things the way they used to be. Before the Key stuff and the Slayer stuff, when it was just me and Mom and Dawn ..." Her voice trailed away and, mournfully, she looked up at Giles "Except, we never had that, did we?"
Giles didn't reply. There was truly nothing to say.
The sun was a perfectly round orange balloon in the early evening sky. The neighborhood street was deserted and nobody was present to note the abrupt flash of brilliant green that left Dawn in its wake. She was still talking even though there was now nobody to hear.
"—someplace where I don't have ... to ..."
Dawn's mouth clamped shut. She kept her head still, but her eyes darted first to the left and then to the right. With a frown, she carefully took stock of her surroundings.
"Huh," she muttered curiously, apparently considering the possibilities before pulling the cell phone from her pocket. She punched a number on the speed dial and then waited for a voice to answer.
"Tara?" she questioned and then nodded. "Yeah. Hey, can you call Buffy and tell her that Iím okay and not to freak?" She listened patiently for a moment. "Yeah. ... No, nothing. ... No. ... I donít wanna deal with all that right now, so I—" She paused. "Yeah, but you can tell her and it has the added bonus of me not having to talk to her right now." Anxiously, Dawn shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "Please? I just need a bit of me-time. I'll be home again in a few hours, I swear."
Her expression grew hopeful and then she grinned.
"Thankyouthankyou, you're the best!" She listened again intently, and then nodded, even though the action couldn't be seen. "A few hours, that's it," she promised. "Thank you!"
Snapping the cover over her phone, Dawn returned it to her pocket. She seemed quite pleased with herself and took a deep breath, the kind that could only come from having been relieved of a huge burden. Then she narrowed her eyes and concentrated. Her total preoccupation lasted for several seconds, but nothing untoward happened. She sniffed peevishly and muttered with incoherent annoyance before accepting defeat and resigning herself to simply walking down the street.
She hadn't gone too far when she reached a house she recognized. She rang the bell and then rapped upon the door before stepping back. She smiled brightly as it opened, revealing a face she knew very well.
"Hey!" Grip greeted with delight.
"Hey," returned Dawn.
"Look at you." He grinned widely. "I nearly forgot what you looked like, it's been so long."
Dawn gave him her best exaggerated pout. "I leave that much of an impression, huh?"
"Well luckily I have your picture in my wallet," he confided. "And on my bedside table. And blown up and put on my ceiling. So you're still vaguely familiar." His tone became sincere. "I've missed you."
"I've missed you too."
"So you're free now?" Grip asked hopefully. "No more ..." He searched for an appropriate way to describe Dawn's recent activities but failed to find a satisfactory answer. "...whatever that keeps you busy, like, always?"
Dawn thought about that for a moment, seeming to ask the same question of herself.
"Yeah," she nodded confidently. "Yeah, I am."
It was exactly what Grip wanted to hear.
"How about you, are you free?" ventured Dawn.
"I am now," he assured. "Mom and Dad took Ant to visit my grandparents, so I'm all yours. What do you wanna do?"
A small smile began to creep its way across Dawn's face. "Do you know you're the first person to ask me that?"
"Then I guess you have an answer all ready for me," said Grip, reaching behind the door to grab a jacket and his keys. Throwing an arm around Dawn's shoulders, he escorted her to his car.
Hand-in-hand, the couple walked through the park. The sun was threatening to disappear for the day, but it still hovered lazily on the horizon for the time being, bathing the area in a soft, warm glow. The pair chatted happily as they strolled along the gravel pathway. Talking about nothing in particular, they simply enjoyed each other's company.
Pausing for a moment, they watched a young man playing Frisbee with his dog and then Grip dragged Dawn toward a fountain. She laughed a protest, but Grip was undeterred. Water spouted rhythmically from the open mouth of a marble dolphin to splash merrily into the small pool. Fishing into his pocket for two coins, Grip presented one to Dawn, thought for a brief moment and then flipped his own into the water. It broke the surface with a rippling "kerplosh." Dawn looked down at the coin nestled in her open palm, but made no motion to follow suit. A tiny frown creased Grip's forehead.
"Go ahead," he encouraged. "Wishes never come true if you never make 'em."
Dawn smiled with a hint of sadness. "I don't wish."
"Get out," Grip refuted, squeezing her hand. "Everybody wishes."
"I don't," replied Dawn. "You never know who's listening."
Grip chuckled, assuming the statement had been made as a joke, but the seriousness in Dawn's eyes told him otherwise. He looked puzzled, but quickly shook off the feeling and took back his coin.
"Then I'll make one for you," he said firmly.
He thought for a minute before tossing the coin into the air. It spiraled gracefully before landing in the water. The couple watched in silence as it sank into the depths of the fountain and for several moments after. Eventually, Grip seized Dawn's hand once more and tugged her toward the nearby children's playground.
"Come swing me," he demanded.
Taking a seat upon one of the swings, he grabbed the chains and started to jerk them back an forth like an impatient toddler. "Swing me!" he ordered with a grin.
An expression of amusement crossed Dawn's face. "Shouldn't you be swinging me?"
"Uh-uh. I believe in full equality of the sexes."
Shaking her head, Dawn took hold of Grip's belt and pulled him backward before pushing.
"I warn you that I might start 'Wheee!'ing any time," he cautioned, pumping with his long legs.
Grip waited for a smart-mouth response, but it never materialized. Dawn continued to push, but her thoughts were obviously elsewhere and it didn't take long for Grip to notice. He slowed the swing's arc, dragging his feet along the dirt until he came to a complete stop.
"I guess I shouldn't ask if that was good for you too," he said, turning in the seat to face her.
Dawn blinked. "I've had a really great time."
Something in her tone put Grip on edge. "Why do I sense there's a 'but' in there just dying to get out?" he queried, kicking up small puffs of dust with the toe of his sneaker.
"No 'but'," Dawn promised without hesitation.
But Grip was far from convinced and Dawn's lack of further conversation did little to ease the situation. Hopping off the swing, he offered it to her but she refused with a shake of her head, fingers clasped together behind her back.
"You can keep going," she told him.
"Full equality, remember?" reminded Grip, offering the swing once again.
With a tiny smile, Dawn relented and lowered herself into the seat. Pulling back on the chains, Grip released her, delivering hefty pushes until Dawn was soaring high. Throwing back her head, she closed her eyes and relished the rush of cool air that enveloped her as she flew back and forth. With a grin of satisfaction, Grip took the swing next to her and within moments was matching her sweep with almost exact precision.
"Grip?" Dawn questioned breathlessly, glancing in his direction.
"When you look at me ... what do you see?"
Grip was instantly wary, but maintained a jestful air. "This a trick question? Some boyfriend trap, cleverly designed to make sure I can't possibly escape in one piece?"
The swings began to slow as Grip answered the question with full confidence.
"I see Dawn Summers. She's smart – super-brain, but not in the braces and polyester way." He flashed her his best charming smile. "Great sense of humor, leaning toward the sarcastic side. Giving, but not a pushover. I think she could take me in a fight." He smirked, as much to himself as to Dawn. "I think she could take me anyway she wanted." His expression became something less than playful as he paused for a long moment. "She has the most gorgeous smile ever put on the earth."
By now, both swings had all but stopped and the pair was almost stationary. Dawn's cheeks were burning at Grip's compliments and the blush was radiant against her skin. Her eyes were fixed on Grip's face as it reflected open admiration. As for Grip, he seemed to be equally entranced.
"I see someone who's made my life better just by being in it," continued Grip softly. "I see someone I lo—"
He abruptly stopped short, breaking the moment.
"I see someone asking some really weird stuff today," he added with a sly grin.
"Is that all you see?" pressed Dawn.
Grip raised a quizzical eyebrow. "You want more? Cuz I can start whipping out the cheese."
"No, I mean ..." Dawn sighed. "You don't see anything else?"
"Are you sure this isn't a boyfriend trap?" he asked suspiciously.
Dawn emphatically shook her head.
Grip frowned, completely at a loss. "I see you. What else am I supposed to see?"
Appearing to be genuinely happy with the announcement, Dawn treated him to a delighted smile. Grip's confusion persisted, but he was powerless not to return the gesture.
"You know I don't understand you," he said in all seriousness. "You know that, right?"
"It doesn't matter."
Grip shrugged good-naturedly. "If you say so."
Dawn looked up into the sky. It was becoming darker and glimmering twinkles could be seen in the dusk. She shivered a little. "We should get going."
"Already?" asked Grip with a hint of disappointment. "It feels like we only just started."
But Dawn was adamant in her decision, rising to her feet and making her way out of the playground. Grip had no choice but to follow. Night was now falling rapidly and Dawn picked up the pace as she headed toward the park exit.
"We should come out here some night," said Grip, catching up with her and encircling her waist with his arm. He held her close. "Watch the stars or some other appropriately romantic idea."
"That'd be awesome," agreed Dawn, before adding, "Dangerous, though."
"I dunno," replied Grip cheerily. "I always look at night as pretty much like day, only with worse lighting."
Upon reaching the car, Grip went to unlock the passenger door but then hesitated. Turning around, he cupped Dawn's chin in his palm and tilted her face to his own. His expression was sober.
"Before I take you home in a gentlemanly fashion, I wanted to say something."
Dawn frowned somewhat apprehensively. "Okay ..."
"Lately I've been sort of feeling like you're avoiding me." Dawn's mouth instantly opened as though she was about to vehemently disagree, but Grip placed a forefinger over her lips. "I know, I know. Impossible, right? I mean, just the idea of not wanting to spend every waking moment with me must be blowing your mind. But hey, I'm a guy of the new millennium, with feelings and everything. There it is." He shrugged. "But then you showed up today and ... it was nice." He smiled down at her. "Great. Better than great. I left my thesaurus at home, or I'd actually have a word here."
Gently, Dawn removed the restriction and the pair's fingers entwined. "I haven't been avoiding you, I swear," she told him. "I just seems like every time I turn around, there's something else that I have to do. Important stuff, like ..."
Grip was hanging on every word, but Dawn's voice trailed away, as though she knew she could provide no feasible explanation.
"Like stuff," she concluded, well aware of how lame it sounded. Grip's expression became crestfallen. "But today," she hastened to add, "for the first time in what feels like forever, you made me happy to be me. Just me." She tightly squeezed his fingers. "Thank you."
Grip's beaming smile outshone the full moon overhead. All traces of his former deflation vanished as he leaned forward. Closing her eyes, Dawn raised her face to eagerly embrace the welcoming kiss.
The car slid to a halt outside the Scoobies' house. Grip and Dawn sat in silence for a moment.
"I'd invite you back to my place for movies and an entirely chaste sleepover," said Grip with a broad grin, "but I'm thinking your sister would shatter me into a thousand pieces."
"Probably literally," agreed Dawn, rolling her eyes.
Grip nodded. "Safer for us all, then."
Their lips met, long and lingering, then Dawn reached for the handle and opened the door. Grip watched until she arrived at the front step. Turning, she gave him a wave that he promptly returned before driving away. Dawn's gaze followed the vehicle until it rounded the corner. Straightening her shoulders, she refocused on the house and let out a quick puff of air.
"Okay. The quicker I can do this, the quicker I can stop, so let's—"
Her eyes narrowed with concentration and she waited expectantly. Nothing happened.
"Dammit," she muttered irritably.
With a heavy sigh, she was obliged to enter the old-fashioned way. She didn't notice the green glow emanating from the window of Dr. Joseph's side door. Nor was she aware of the flickers that glimmered behind the lace curtain, reminiscent of indistinct bodies moving back and forth in torchlight.
The home of the Summers' family was dark, dreary and devoid of life, almost as though it stood in silent mourning. Night had fallen, adding its own brand of gloom to the bleak atmosphere. The first to enter the house was Giles. His face was haggard and his tread weary, as though the act of simply walking through the front door required supreme effort. He carried a shovel, traces of newly-turned earth still clinging to its edges. Thick dirt caked his jeans. He paused just beyond the threshold, frowning as he stared at the spade held in his tight fists, like it were a foreign object whose function remained an unsolvable mystery. He appeared to want to discard the implement, but at the same time unsure as to its proper place in the order of things. Frowning in confusion, he maintained his grip on the handle.
Xander followed Giles into the foyer. He too was showing signs of fatigue, his clothing stained with mud and grime. Xander's arm encircled Anya's waist and she leaned heavily on his shoulder for support, limping badly and trying not to put any weight on her bandaged foot. There was a nasty gash on her forehead, partially healed but still standing angry and raw against her pale skin. She took a faltering step and then inhaled sharply at the stab of pain.
"You okay?" asked Xander anxiously.
"No, I am not okay," was the curt reply. "My leg hurts, my head hurts, my everything hurts. Also, I don't think it's very appropriate for you to ask if I'm okay after a funeral."
"I'll bear that in mind for next time," Xander replied in monotone.
Anya gave him a look of concern. "You think there'll be a next time?"
Xander didn't answer, but his grim expression spoke volumes.
As the pair hobbled toward the living room, Willow and Tara appeared on the doorstep. Willow's complexion was blotchy and her eyes rimmed with red. Tears lingered on her lashes and continued to trickle down her cheeks, although she made no sound.
Tara was clearly drained. Purple smudges could plainly be seen beneath her eyes, as though she hadn't enjoyed a full night's rest in weeks. Her hand was in a cast but otherwise, she seemed in relatively good physical condition. Concern marred her features, however, and her worried gaze was focused constantly upon Willow, who seemed detached and barely holding onto reality. Beneath Tara's watchful eye, Willow shuffled to the couch and sank into the cushions. Once there, she made no further movement, fixating on the carpet by her feet and obviously lost deep within her own thoughts. Content that Willow was safe, for the moment at least, Tara made her way back toward the front door, ready to lend whatever aid she could to those who had yet to arrive.
But Dawn neither needed nor wanted assistance. Her expression was stoic and unfathomable. An aura of numbness surrounded her, yet she stood tall and her stride was more steady than any who had entered ahead of her. She missed nothing and seemed to be aware of everything.
"You hungry, Dawnie?" queried Tara gently. "I-I can make you soup or a sandwich or something?"
With a firm shake of her head, Dawn began to retreat, virtually becoming one with the shadows that hovered in the foyer. Tara reached out, but was interrupted by a figure stumbling across the threshold.
Spike lurched through the door. Dangling from one limp hand was a two-thirds empty bottle of alcohol. Given his appearance and air of intoxication, it wasn't hard to imagine what had happened to that missing two-thirds. Those in the house could do nothing but stare.
"Wassa matter?" he slurred. "You all look like your best friend died."
Raising the bottle to his lips, Spike giggled in a disturbingly insane high pitch and took a hefty swig, amber liquid running down his chin. Immediately, Xander was on his feet, eyes narrowed and gaze projecting nothing short of undiluted hatred. An expression of disgust invaded Giles' features and for the first time since entering the home, the Watcher became animated. His reaction too was instantaneous – this was something he felt equipped to handle.
"So good of you to finally join us," he clipped.
"Yeah, well, I spend so many working hours around the dead, I didn't much fancy doin' it on my off-time," returned Spike with enforced nonchalance. He spied Dawn and treated her to a nod of greeting. "S'pose you're the last one standing. Aren'tcha Nibblet?"
Not unexpectedly, the words brought Dawn no comfort. If anything, she appeared to shrivel just a little.
"You're drunk," accused Tara.
Spike gave her the thumbs-up. "Very good. Ten points for Team Scooby."
"If it's not that cheap swill you usually like, then stop hogging the bottle," snapped Anya.
With a broad grin, Spike staggered across the room to where Anya was sitting next to Willow on the couch. He relinquished the bottle into her waiting hand and Anya lost no time in taking a long pull.
"Cheers, love," said Spike with a wink.
Anya grimaced distastefully at the coarse alcohol and promptly returned the bottle to its owner. Spike waved it temptingly in front of Willow's face. Her eyes failed to register the offering. Indeed, she seemed to be unaware of Spike's presence. But then she began to take notice and slowly shook her head. With a careless shrug, Spike brought the bottle to his mouth once more as Giles' fingers tightened around the handle of the shovel, knuckles showing white. But before Giles had a chance to move, Xander had already invaded Spike's personal space.
"You're pathetic," he sneered with contempt, but Spike only chuckled. "You're pathetic," Xander repeated with venom. "Buffy trusted you, and you couldn't even be bothered to show up at her funeral? Guess we know just how much all your pretty words were worth in the end."
"Got me all figured out, do you?" asked Spike, head tilting to one side.
Xander's clenched fists were tight against his thighs. "Yeah, you know, I do. It was all crap. All the words, all the freaky obsession, the talk about love, it didn't mean jack. We loved Buffy. You don't even know what that means."
"Well, next time I need Lonely Hearts advice," returned Spike, taking a step toward Xander, "I know who has all the answers."
Willow glanced up. "Guys, can we not?" she urged, tone betraying her utter exhaustion.
It was with great reluctance that Spike and Xander each moved away. Spike took the opportunity to indulge in another hefty gulp from his bottle as an uncomfortable silence began to settle.
"So what do we do now?" queried Anya suddenly. Every head in the room swiveled in her direction, obviously unsure of her meaning. "Nobody but us know that Buffy's dead, right? But the unfortunate side effect is that all of the things that need Buffy's attention are going to keep demanding it." Vaguely, she waved her hand. "There's still a house, bills, and an underage dependant in need of constant care. Not to mention a Slayerless Hellmouth that I very much doubt will understand that we need it to stop churning out evil now."
Giles thought about this long and hard. "We can't allow word to get out that Buffy is dead. The- The chaos would be—"
"We know all that," said Anya, brushing off his statement. "Fear, death, hell on earth, blah blah blah. I'm talking long-term plans here. She's dead, she's buried. Now what?"
An expression of revulsion crossed Willow's face at Anya's summation, but she said nothing and neither did anyone else for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually, Xander broke the hush.
"We keep fighting," he stated firmly. "The monsters, the vampires, the whatevers. Anything it throws at us." He paused for a moment. "It's what Buffy would do. She died for us. We owe it to her."
The assertion appeared to make sense and everybody nodded in agreement – with one notable exception.
"She didn't die for you, you git," scoffed Spike. "Buffy died because she was selfish and gave up."
Giles' eyes narrowed menacingly. "Shut up, Spike."
"Truth too bitter?" The response was cocky and far too self-assured.
Xander was on him immediately. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"She didn't die for me, or you," rejoined Spike acidly. "Not for the world or anybody in it but herself."
Within the shadows, Dawn winced.
"Or maybe," continued Spike, "she just couldn't stand being around you lot for one more minu—"
He never got to finish his sentence. A solid punch to the bridge of his nose sent Spike staggering. He lurched into an end table and there was the sound of splintering wood. Several items toppled to the floor, including a framed photograph of Joyce and her two daughters. The glass shattered upon impact. Reaching down, Xander hauled Spike to his feet by the lapels of his coat. Dawn's fingers twisted nervously as she watched with increasing distress. Breaking Xander's grip, Spike quickly recovered and retaliated with a blow of his own, abruptly crying out in pain as his chip fired.
"Stop it!" ordered Tara, but Xander was in no mood to listen.
He drew back his fist once more and Tara had little choice but position herself between the two men. The look in Xander's eyes remained murderous as he continued to glower at Spike but then, he glanced down at Tara. Although he towered above her, she was unyielding in her determination and it quickly became apparent that she wasn't going to budge.
"This is not the time," she instructed firmly.
It was a long, tense moment, but Xander eventually dropped his fist and took a step back. Although still wincing from the effects of the chip, Spike sneered at Xander's retreat, but he quickly became rigid at the sharp jab between his shoulder blades. Carefully glancing behind, he saw Giles at his elbow. The Watcher's expression was stony and his eyes glinted with underlying menace. In his hand was a sturdy fragment from the broken wooden handle of the shovel, its point leveled from the rear on a direct course with Spike's heart. Giles' features reflected not a shadow of doubt – he was no more than a fraction of a second from using the makeshift stake. When he spoke, his tone was low, calm and utterly collected.
"You had the opportunity to be part of this with us. You declined. You are no longer welcome." He roughly shoved Spike toward the front door. "Get out."
Spike looked first at Giles and then his gaze encompassed the remainder of the room. His face now displayed true pain creeping to the forefront.
"Not how it should be is it?" he protested contritely. "Nothing's how it should be. World shouldn't still be turning. Slayer shouldn't be rotting in the ground. S'not right."
Retrieving the bottle that he'd dropped when Xander hit him, Spike stumbled woefully toward the door. Much of the remaining alcohol had soaked into the carpet, but Spike seemed satisfied enough with what remained. Xander and Tara moved aside in order to give him a clear path.
From the foot of the stairs, Dawn watched him leave.
"Not right," Spike insisted again before making good his departure.
With an angry snort, Xander ran a hand through his hair as Tara quietly closed the door.
"That was unpleasant," Anya stated, leaning back against the cushions.
Giles placed the stake on a nearby table. "Yes, it was," he said with a sigh.
Everyone appeared to now be at a loss, not knowing what to say or do. It was an uneasy hush but Giles finally shattered the silence. "Xander's right."
"If this were any other day," replied Xander, lowering himself onto the couch between Anya and Willow, "I'd make you put that in writing."
Giles began to pace. "We'll continue the work that Buffy has started. With dedication – and no small amount of luck – perhaps we can ... can create the illusion that Buffy is still here, that she isn't ..."
He removed his glasses and fished for a handkerchief. He couldn't seem to find one and he couldn't seem to bring himself to complete his sentence either.
"Dead," finished Anya flatly.
Giles nodded. "Yes."
Tara perched on the arm of the couch closest to Willow, reaching out and claiming one of the redhead's cold hands. "Do you think that will work?" she asked the room. "I mean, the demons and stuff, they aren't stupid. If nobody ever sees Buffy, won't the rumors pretty much do the rest?"
There was no immediate rebuttal.
"That's certainly a risk," admitted Giles thoughtfully. "But I'm not sure what other options we have. We need—"
It was the first time Willow had spoken since entering the house. Her authoritative tone seemed at odds with her frail appearance, but she pressed onward with certainty.
"Tara's right. This won't work."
"Actually, I sort of just asked," Tara attempted to correct. "I didn't—"
Willow squeezed Tara's fingers. "We need Buffy," she reiterated firmly.
Looks were exchanged, and Xander turned to Willow.
"Buffy's dead, Will," he told her, not unkindly but with a degree of resolve.
Willow prepared to speak, but she stole the briefest of glances at Giles, and then seemed to change the words that came out of her mouth.
"I know," she assured after a pause. "But there- there has to be some way we can ..." A frown creased her forehead as her voice trailed away. Then, a glimmer entered her eyes as an idea visibly took shape and form. "The Buffybot! I-It wasn't too damaged in the fight. It'll take me a little while, but I bet I could fix it."
"It was decapitated," reminded Anya curtly, "and very morbid."
Willow nodded. "Yeah, but a little soldering and good as new." Her face became animated with increasing excitement. "She already has the Slaying routines programmed in. I just need to do a little work. You know, delete some of the ... less PG-13 features, and reprioritize her functions ... but once that's done, voila! Instant Slayer!"
She beamed and squeezed Tara's fingers even tighter. Her exhilaration was infectious.
"Do you think you could do it?" asked Giles, his own level of fervency beginning to rise.
"I think I should try," said Willow.
"No," came the objection from the shadows.
Every eye turned toward the entrance to the living room, registering surprise to see Dawn standing on the threshold. It was as if her presence had been forgotten.
"You can't just build another Buffy." Her voice was shrill. "You can't have that ... thing walking around and pretending it's her."
Willow's enthusiasm was dampened a little. "It'll be weird, I know," she tried to comfort, "but ..."
She looked to the others for much-needed support and Giles was her immediate champion.
"I understand how you feel Dawn, believe me," he sympathized, "but the Slayer—"
"Slayer this, Slayer that," said Dawn scornfully. Her lower lip began to tremble. "She's not just the Slayer! She's Buffy!"
Giles visibly flinched at the brutal accusation and his head hung low an admission of shame. As Giles wilted, so did Dawn's demeanor. She made a valiant effort to blink back the tears and choke down the lump in her throat, but the opening of the floodgates was unavoidable and she sobbed in her wretchedness.
"She has to be more than the Slayer because ... because if she's not then what am I?"
Tara scrambled to her feet. "Oh, honey ..."
She moved to gather the distraught teenager into her arms, but Dawn wasn't about to allow herself to be placated. She swiftly eluded Tara's attempted embrace.
"No, you don't get it!" she protested through angry tears. "I was Mom's daughter, but Mom's dead. And Buffy's sister, but Buffy's dead. And I was the Key, but I'm not that anymore either, so what am I?"
The demand reverberated with a hollow sound as Dawn's fixed gaze challenged each person in the room. She waited for an answer, but none was forthcoming. Her expression grew desperate.
"Please, someone tell me," she begged. "What am I?"
Dawn opened her eyes.
Tara's face swam into her line of vision and Dawn realized she was being shaken into consciousness.
"Finally, sleepyhead," smiled Tara.
With an expression of utter confusion, Dawn looked around and noted she was in her bedroom. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand, its dial indicting the time to be a little after 9 a.m.
"I figured you didn't want to spend your whole Saturday sleeping in," Tara informed her brightly.
Dawn emphatically shook her head. "No. That's a waste of a weekend."
"Exactly," confirmed Tara. "Besides, you've got some kissing up to do to your sister."
Dawn squirmed beneath the covers and groaned but Tara harbored little sympathy for her situation.
"Well then next time," she advised, "think before you Key out."
"Okay, Mom," murmured Dawn ruefully.
With a grin, Tara jerked away the comforter.
"Now hurry up, your breakfast is getting cold."
It was with much reluctance that Dawn literally rolled out of bed. No matter how hard she tried, she just couldn't seem to keep her eyes more than halfway open. Dragging her feet across the carpet, she peered wearily into her closet and then arbitrarily selected a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. After what felt like an eternity, she was finally ready to face the world - or at least as ready as she was going to be. Shuffling out the door, she took a step toward the stairs and then heard her cell phone start to ring. Blinking herself more fully awake, she returned to her room and picked up the mobile charging on her desk. Her face broke into a delighted smile as the familiar tone finally penetrated her consciousness.
"Hey!" Dawn grinned happily at her reflection in the mirror. "Aww. Are you trying to charm me?" She giggled at the response. "Well maybe a little." Picking up a brush, she dragged the bristles through her hair and then winced upon snagging a tangle. "Don't let it go to your head," she advised sweetly, tossing the spiteful hairbrush onto her bed. "Today?" She frowned and glanced toward the door. "I have to..." Dawn's voice trailed away as she thought for a moment. "No, you know what? I don't care." She nodded her defiance. "The weekend's our time to spend however we want. How I don't want to spend it is with Buffy and Giles breathing down my throat. I wanna have fun." She paused before adding, "With you."
She listened to Grip's enthusiastic response and then grinned.
"Okay then. I'll be there in like an hour. Okay. Bye."
Disconnecting the call, Dawn took a deep breath in order to prepare for what was sure to come.
"But before fun," she grimaced, "we have ..."
Notepad and textbook open in front of her, face set in stern disapproval, Buffy occupied one end of the dining room table. Far at the opposite end, at what seemed an impossible thirty feet away, sat Dawn. Almost self-consciously, she nibbled from her plate, eyes constantly glancing in her sister's direction, but Buffy didn't so much as acknowledge Dawn's presence. Several minutes passed, minutes that were heavy in their distinctly uncomfortable quietude.
"I like the silent treatment," Dawn eventually commented. "Very first grade."
"Maybe next time I'll just leave in the middle of a conversation," clipped Buffy, focus remaining on her assignment.
As anger began to rise, Dawn opened her mouth to protest and then closed it again. She sighed. Much to her chagrin, Buffy had a point. "Cheater," she pouted with no hint of accusation.
"Curse me and my nefarious logic," Buffy simply replied.
Dawn's pout grew more pouty as she jabbed her fork into a maple-drenched waffle. "I already apologized like all last night."
"Yes, you did," acknowledged Buffy, still not looking up.
"So doesn't that mean anything?"
"That you only have about 17 hours of real-time groveling left to go."
With a huge groan, Dawn threw back her head. "I'm sorry," she declared. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry ..." Every iteration was delivered with varying inflections and tones, but the overall feeling was one of a boring albeit necessary chore.
"I'm sorry, I'm sor—"
Buffy frowned. "Dawn."
Clamping her jaw in mid-sentence, Dawn blinked at her sister. This time, Buffy looked her in the eye.
"The running off thing." Buffy tapped her pencil on the table. "Not cool."
Dawn had the good grace to appear ashamed. "I know."
"And pretty pointless," continued Buffy with tight lips. "Trust me, I've tried and it doesn't solve anything. Plus you scared me half to death, and really, do I need more death in my life?"
Closing her textbook, Buffy moved to Dawn's end of the table and took a seat.
"So we're gonna make a deal here: you don't just ..." Lacking the verbage, Buffy vaguely waved her hand at Dawn, "...and I won't kill you and hide the body."
"I was just sick of being treated like something slimy on a microscope slide," Dawn told her with a sigh. "How long do I have to put up with this stupid 'testing'?"
"However long it takes," said Buffy, holding up her hand to stave off any words that might accompany Dawn's aghast expression. "Giles can get crazy-obsessive sometimes, I'm with you there an unequivocal hundred-percent. But it's not pointless. We don't know what you can do, and until we figure that out ..."
"School, train, school, train," muttered Dawn disgustedly. "There's more to life, right? I'd sorta like that 'more' a whole lot."
The Slayer chuckled quietly. "Wow. It's like someone's enjoying a big bowl of Buffy Karma right about now."
But Dawn wasn't interested in the quirky humor of fate. "I have plans today," she stated firmly. "Plans that are not train-oriented."
Buffy affixed her sister beneath a penetrating stare, and Dawn shifted uncomfortably. "You said you're not a kid anymore, right?"
"Then you have to stop acting like one." Obviously this was not a topic open for debate. "It sucks, I know," continued Buffy, "but part of being an adult means doing stuff you don't want to." She paused to convey the full weight of her words. "Part of being a Scooby means giving everything up to do it."
She watched as Dawn began to wilt in her seat, and Buffy's features seemed to do the same.
"Now I can't help with the first part," she said slowly, "but with the second ... If you don't want—"
"I want," Dawn hurriedly interrupted. "I want." The reiteration was given with a tad less enthusiasm, but no less honesty.
Soberly, Buffy studied her sister, then nodded.
"Give Giles this weekend. Whatever stupid thing he wants you to do, do it, without complaint." She tucked a strand of hair behind Dawn's ear. "I know that's like asking you to gargle molten lava, but stomach it for the weekend and then I'll talk to him." Buffy grinned and shook her head. "You're right, life should be about more than school and training, especially your senior year. There's parties, and college, and inevitable heartbreak and blowing up your school." That got a chuckle, and Buffy squeezed Dawn's shoulder reassuringly. "We'll get it all balanced out."
Realizing that Buffy was absolutely serious, Dawn's face broke into a broad smile. "You rule," she announced gleefully.
"I know," admitted Buffy with a self-satisfied shrug of acceptance. "Now get to Slayer Central. The Taskmaster awaits."
Shoveling another waffle wedge into her mouth, Dawn pushed back her chair and then bolted from the table.
"Hey, dishes!" called Buffy.
But the slam of the front door told Buffy that it was already far too late for that. Frowning, she stared at Dawn's plate and sighed. She dragged it toward her and poured more maple syrup over the remaining waffle morsels and, with a shrug, set about cleaning it in her own special way.
As the door slammed behind her, Dawn jogged down the path leading away from the house and began digging in her pocket for her cell phone. Busily scrolling through the stored numbers, she didn't notice the shadowy but glowing activity taking place behind the curtain of Dr. Joseph's side door. Upon arriving at Grip's name, her thumb hovered over the SEND button as she made her way along the sidewalk, however something else caught her attention. From the corner of her eye, she glanced into her neighbor's front garden and spied a body sprawled upon the small patch of lawn.
The phone call instantly forgotten, Dawn rushed toward the fallen figure. "Dr. Joseph!"
She was at his side in an instant. The elderly man's face was pale and ashen. Beads of sweat stood on his forehead and he appeared to be critically ill. She checked his breathing and found it labored and shallow.
"Dr. Joseph, are you okay?" she asked worriedly. "Can you hear me?"
Much to Dawn's relief, she was greeted with a muted groan as the old gentleman's eyelids flickered.
"I'll get help," she quickly assured. "You just stay there."
Depressing CLEAR, she waited impatiently for Grip's number to vanish from the display. The second it was gone, she punched '9-1,' but got no further before a hand reached up and seized her wrist.
"No need ... for that ruckus," panted Dr. Joseph, obviously short of breath. "Just ... need my medicine."
Uncertainly, Dawn hesitated, but Dr. Joseph was insistent.
"Please. It's just inside there." With a trembling finger, he pointed toward the side door. Dawn glanced over her shoulder. There were no flickering lights beyond the curtain, no evidence that anything was other than it should be. "Please, Dawn," he urged.
Still unsure that such was the best course of action, Dawn reluctantly agreed and hurried to the door. She turned the knob but it refused to open.
"Under the flowerpot," gasped Dr. Joseph urgently.
Looking down, Dawn spotted the solitary flowerpot at her feet. Pushing it to one side, she retrieved the key, swiftly inserted it and then turned the lock.
There was a loud click as the tumblers fell into place, followed by the abrupt disappearance of the key. Immediately, a brilliant green glow flowed smoothly through the now empty keyhole. Dawn's eyes widened as she turned to look at Dr. Joseph. She visibly started to see him standing right behind her, so close, he was almost touching her elbow. He no longer appeared to be in desperate need of medical attention. In fact, he no longer appeared to be ill at all. The air of frailty was a thing of the past, as was the demeanor of a kind and benevolent grandpa. His eyes shone like deep pools of black India ink and he favored Dawn with an unpleasant smirk.
He winked, and the door burst open with a massive thrust of energy that sent Dawn flailing backward through the air. She landed heavily upon the ground, crumpling like a rag doll. Struggling to maintain consciousness, she focused upon the door and upon Dr. Joseph. He was rubbing his palms together joyfully, keeping a watchful eye on the shapes now coalescing from the open portal.
Dawn's battle against oblivion was all too short. Despite her best efforts, she soon slipped unwillingly into the beckoning darkness.
All was darkness. Whole, consummate and pure. The darkness was nothing and the darkness was everything.
"Farnstal! So good to see you! Well, as much as I can see you. Even translucent, you look sharp."
The response was garbled, like a scrambled radio signal from some foreign location. However, even if the reception had been perfect, it was doubtful the transmission would have been understandable. It seemed to issue from a distance far away. The incoherent message was rewarded with a merry laugh.
"And you kept your sense of humor! Oh, dear me."
A groan, pained and weak, could be heard from a nearby source.
"Bernie! It feels like it's been a thousand years. Probably because it has been."
The jumbled chatter continued, overlaid by yet another groan.
"And Yitam. It's always a—"
The declaration was interrupted by a burst of incomprehensible jabbering, but the tone was unmistakably harsh and angry. Very angry.
"Now Yitam. Manners. You're a guest."
Yet another stream of unintelligible speech could be heard. The delivery was no less infuriated than before.
"That's your anger talking."
The enraged babble climbed an octave higher.
"Which, if you recall, was the fault of that magician, not me. Very inconsiderate really. Sure, he gets a witch, but the rest of us? Just because he's done with the Key ..."
This time, the shrill gibberish was followed by a sigh.
"But you drove her out, and did a mighty fine job of it too. She rested, built up that power until she was ready to control it, and here we are. Really, I think you're upset about nothing. Have some cocoa."
Dawn opened her eyes.
Images swam before her, blurred and fuzzy around the edges, as though she were under water. She squeezed her eyelids tightly shut and tried again. Slowly, things came into focus.
The room was comfortable and inviting. A welcoming den or lounge. A small fire blazed cheerily in the hearth and the walls were lined with tall bookcases containing numerous leather-bound volumes and neatly-stacked newspapers. A plush sofa with over-stuffed cushions dominated the area, which was littered with intriguing and attractive knickknacks adorning every available surface. The room radiated with homespun warmth and well-being.
Dawn was seated in a high-back wooden chair. Her wrists had been securely bound from behind and her ankles firmly tied to the legs of the chair . Thus, she found little consolation in the overall air of "warmth" and "well-being." It took a few seconds for her to become fully aware of the situation. That she had been confined and restricted. A captive.
Fearfully, she took stock of her surroundings and the three shadowy figures seated on the couch. A flicker of remembrance crossed her features. She had seen them before – at the perimeter of a clearing against a forest backdrop, bearing flaming torches. Involuntarily, she gave a sharp intake of breath as recognition penetrated. It was the Wren Boys, their forms nebulous and lacking solidity.
Unable to focus on anything else, she stared in horror as the outlines of the trio shimmered and then vanished, leaving behind three ugly demons, reptilian in appearance, complete with gray scaly skin and long tails. They were thin, lean, utterly repugnant and every bit incorporeal as their former counterparts. One in particular was trying desperately to lift a delicate china teacup from the table in front of him. He made the attempt time and time again, but to no avail. Occasionally, it did seem as though he was able to make it move a little as, slowly but surely, the demons began to transform into beings of shape and substance in the present dimension.
Tearing her eyes away, Dawn's attention switched to Dr. Joseph. Initially, he didn't seem to notice that she had regained consciousness, intent as he was on being a good host. He placed cookies with infinite precision upon a large platter, setting it on the coffee table before his guests. The two demons who were not engaged in wrestling with the stubborn teacup immediately made a grab, but met with no more success than their companion. The three were simply not yet sufficiently tangible to accomplish such tasks, but it was clearly only a matter of time. As Dawn concentrated on Dr. Joseph, he also began to undergo a metamorphosis. A bathrobe, worn atop a dress shirt and pair of slacks, replaced the woolly cardigan. The facial features contorted for a brief second and Dawn instantly gasped as she recognized the visage that smoothly took its place. Four pairs of eyes turned in her direction as the shift reached its completion.
Doc gave her a friendly smile, as though he was meeting a long-lost old friend. "Well, look who's awake," he observed happily. "Would you like some cocoa?"
Dawn stared for a moment and then refocused on the three demons. All had their lizardly lips drawn back in a snarl and one of them actually seemed to be drooling. Dawn shuddered with revulsion and her eyes quickly darted back to Doc. Head tilted slightly to one side, he was waiting patiently to hear whether or not she'd like to indulge in a nice cup of cocoa.
Dawn's expression registered disbelief. "It can't ... You're dead."
This was obviously a surprising bit of news. "I am? Nobody told me."
"Buffy pushed you off of the tower," Dawn insisted. "The crazy tower. I saw her."
"Oh, that," dismissed Doc with a wave. "Hurt, yes, but kill?" He chuckled. "It takes more than a little tumble to kill our kind. More than anything you got in this dimension, anyway. It's a nice place, sure, but as far as killing goes, I gotta say, it's a little on the uncreative side, you know?" He shuffled closer. "Now, was that a yes to cocoa?"
Dawn pulled back as far as she could, given her restraints. "What? No."
"Are you sure?" asked Doc, somewhat disappointed. "I make really good cocoa, don't I Yitam?"
Eyes never leaving Dawn's face, Yitam growled something appropriate in response.
Doc was appeased. "There, you see?"
"I don't want cocoa," said Dawn defiantly, determined to put on a brave face. Her efforts weren't entirely successful, but nonetheless laudable. "I- I want answers. What are you? What do you want with me?"
"We're demons," Doc explained, glancing over his shoulder at his guests. "I thought that was obvious. As for you, well, you've already been very helpful. My friends were stuck in a sort of limbo, y'see. Caught between dimensions." Doc scratched absently at his chin. "I was lucky enough to get free when we were tossed in there, oh, six, seven hundred years ago." He shrugged as though the length of time was of no moment. "I've been trying to help out since, but dimensional magicks ... slippery stuff, and not exactly my specialty. With Glorificus, I was pretty sure I had it figured out. The walls go down and all my boys had to do was find their way here. That Slayer of yours messed things up but good, though." He frowned. "Hm. Have to remember to thank her for that."
The trio on the couch cackled. The sound was dark, evil, and full of promise. Their forms were a little more solidified now, particularly around the edges. One of them had even managed to drag a cookie almost completely toward him with one sharply taloned digit.
"But, well, we all know how that ended up, don't we?" continued Doc. "It took me a little while to get my bearings after that one. Did a bit of reading up on the Key –" He treated Dawn to an affectionate nod. "You – while I was at it, and figured you were still my best chance. You weren't ready then. But look at you now."
He beamed at Dawn in admiration and something akin to parental pride. She squirmed in her seat and looked disturbed at the notion, but her mask of courage stayed fixed.
"And- And so you're here," she acknowledged, sitting straight in her chair. "What are you going to do?"
"Nothing much," replied Doc nonchalantly. "Destroy life on earth as you know it. It's not a big thing."
Horrified, Dawn's eyes grew round as saucers. "What?"
"Oh not me personally," he hastened to assure. "Not entirely. With the fellas still a bit out of sorts, I've got limits. Gotta get them back to normal first."
His gaze traveled to the demon trio and he evaluated their progress. Development was slow but gradually, they were taking on a more substantial essence. He smiled and refocused on Dawn, favoring her with an assured wink. "Shouldn't be too long now."
Dawn's anxiety was mounting. "But- But then what will...?"
"Get something to eat, probably," Doc informed her conversationally. "You wouldn't believe how long it's been. See, Yitam there feeds on fear." Yitam flicked his forked tongue in Dawn's direction, as though he could already taste her.
"Farnstal and Bernie," continued Doc, as both wiggled 'hello' with their wicked claws, "take care of hopes and dreams. Me, I come in after they're all done and sort of devour reality itself. Tasty stuff, reality. Especially with a dash of horseradish." He smiled at Dawn, and although still friendly, there was an underlying hint of genuine malevolence. "It's been a really, really long time, and I'm very hungry."
Dawn's owl-like eyes quickly narrowed in desperate concentration. She appeared to be on the verge of panic and was obviously calling upon every ounce of energy to teleport from the area.
"Don't strain yourself, kid," advised Doc. "You're good, but you're new. Ironic, isn't it?" He took a moment to chuckle before getting back on topic. "It cost a boatload of power to get my buddies outta there. You'll be a while before you can pull another stunt, so just sit back and relax." He lifted the platter from the coffee table and offered it to her. "Cookie?"
An excitable rush of chatter emanated from the sofa. One of the demons was saying something. A rather lengthy something to which Doc listened intently. It sounded like gobbledygook to Dawn, but she pounced upon the distraction to struggle against her bonds. They remained as secure as before.
"It might ruin the cocoa," Doc replied with a frown. Still, he gave due consideration to the instantaneous rebuttal and shrugged, seeming to relent.
"Bernie thinks that maybe you can help us speed things along after all," he informed Dawn cheerfully. "Your blood's pretty special, you know. Potent."
In less than a heartbeat, he had taken up position behind Dawn's chair, a knife in his hand that had seemingly materialized from thin air. With a sudden movement, he brought the blade to her shoulder and drew it toward her elbow in an arching gash. Dawn bit her lip but was unable to totally stifle the cry of pain. Quickly turning his head, Doc used his long, prehensile tongue to snag a teacup. Grasping the handle with his fingers, he held it beneath Dawn's wound. Drops of rich red blood began to swirl and mingle with the cocoa.
"We slice you open," he explained, mostly to himself, "and the boys take a drink, and by the time you're dry ..."
Swiftly, he inflicted another cut. This time, Dawn made no effort to muffle the shrill cry. Tears prickled behind her eyelids and the glare she tossed Doc's way was a study in undisguised hatred. But he was far too preoccupied with his current activity to notice. Seizing the opportunity, she jerked back her head and drove it into his chin with all the strength she could muster. He staggered, affording Dawn a chance to shift her body weight sufficiently to hurl herself toward the floor. The chair had no choice but to follow and its legs sailed upward, landing squarely in Doc's face with a heavy thud. Just before Dawn was about to hit the ground in an awkward and probably agonizing heap, there was brilliant green flash. The chair and ropes toppled to the carpet but of Dawn, there was no sign.
Shaking his head, Doc recovered his bearings. He frowned at the empty chair and limp ropes. A smear of thick blue blood oozed down the side of his nose, but he paid it no mind. He blinked at the vacant space on the floor where Dawn, by all rights, should now be residing. Absent-mindedly, he focused upon the teacup, amazingly still secure within his fingers.
"Well then," he said taking a sip. Immediately, his features crinkled into an expression of distaste and he eyed the figures on the couch. "I told you it'd be ruined."
Buffy and Willow sat next to each other on the couch in the living room. Textbooks, notepads and an assortment of assignment pages lay on the cushion between them. Xander and Tara were on the floor, engaged in a spirited video game of Hot Shots Golf.
"I hate this," complained Buffy.
Willow smirked. "You're weird that way."
Buffy was instantly indignant. "I'm weird?"
"Yup," confirmed Willow. "It's a well-known fact. Documented and everything. See? Says so right here." She pointed to a passage in the textbook. "'Buffy is weird.'"
"You're funny." The flat tone indicated no possible amount of actual funny.
"It says that too," Willow agreed amicably. "Now pay attention."
With a long-suffering groan, Buffy rested her head against the back of the sofa. Apparently, the paying of attention wasn't high on her list of priorities. "C'mon, donít make me," she wheedled.
"Buffy, you said this was due on Monday," said Willow sternly.
Buffy regarded her hopefully. "It is. So you should do it."
"I'm not doing your homework!"
"I'll be your best friend," offered Buffy with an endearing smile.
"You are my best friend."
Buffy nodded in complete agreement. "Then it's time to pay up."
The line of reasoning was getting nowhere, and Buffy wilted beneath Willow's challenging gaze. Mumbling her displeasure, she sat straight and grabbed one of the textbooks, holding it upside down. At Willow's arched eyebrow, she quickly turned it the right way.
"I think Willow won," Xander grinned, although his gaze never left the television.
Tara nodded, watching him prepare for his next shot. "Yeah, she tends to do that."
"That's good," he replied, attention rapt upon the impending stroke. "One of you should be a winner. Then I won't feel so bad ..." His tongue crept from the corner of his mouth as he delicately tapped a button. "...for kickin' your ass so completely."
The ball rolled smoothly into the hole, and Xander thrust his arms into the air as a congratulatory message brightly flashed. "Victory!" he crowed.
"Is he beating you, baby?" asked Willow sympathetically.
"I," announced Xander proudly, forefinger prodding his breastbone, "am beating her..." The prodding was transferred to Tara's upper arm, "...like a very beaten thing."
Tara wasn't to be deterred. "I'm planning a big comeback, though," she swore.
Turning to the screen, she analyzed the position of her ball, firmly ensconced in the rough. With a careful tap of a button, her onscreen persona took a mighty swing. The ball skipped forward about an inch. Tara frowned. "I'm revising my big comeback."
Xander let out a huge sigh of happiness and contentment. "Golf. It's a man's game," he declared. "You know why it's a man's game?"
"Because it involves long sticks and little white balls?" Tara asked innocently.
Buffy immediately began choking back a laugh, while Willow simply snickered.
"No," Xander refuted, "because ..."
He watched the screen as Tara, studying her predicament, tried for another swing. This time, the ball landed squarely on the green.
"Actually, yeah, you're about right," Xander finally admitted with an unapologetic grin.
Tara tried for another shot. Her ball rolled encouragingly in the direction of the hole, but stopped just short. Xander leaned forward eagerly. The game was on.
"Okay Tara, you've gotta get this," urged Buffy, tossing the textbook aside. Also wrapped up in the game, Willow thankfully didn't seem to notice. "All of womanhood is counting on you."
Tara's brow became furrowed. "See, this is why I donít like being iconic."
The tension in the living room became suffocatingly thick and it seemed like everyone was holding their breath. Steeling her shoulders, Tara depressed the button. The little lady golfer shuffled her feet and pulled back her club. Tara's finger hovered nervously. The future of feminine supremacy undoubtedly rested on the accuracy of this next shot. The silence was almost deafening. If a pin had dropped, it would have echoed like a clap of thunder.
But it was not the drop of a pin or the rumble of thunder that shattered the quietude. It was the loud 'whoosh' of rushing air and an explosion of green light.
Taken off-guard, Tara mistimed the precise art of button-pushing, and the muchly needed putt became a line drive, right back into the rough. Tara scowled at the screen. "Well of course," she muttered peevishly.
But there was no time to dwell on the consequences of Tara's defeat. To everyone's astonishment, Dawn had suddenly materialized. After tottering unsteadily for a second, she collapsed into Xander's vacant chair. She grinned delightedly as realization set in that she was home.
"Iím not on my face!" she declared gleefully.
"Yeah," Willow agreed with a confused expression. "I hate when that happens."
Buffy blinked at her sister. "What are—" Her eyes grew wide as she noticed the nasty gash and the blood trickling slowly down Dawn's arm. "Xander, bandages, now."
Leaping to his feet, Xander bounded up the stairs two at a time, while the others rushed to Dawn's side.
"Okay, what happened?" demanded Buffy, grim-faced as she crouched in front of the chair.
Glancing at her injury, Dawn groaned. "Can I just say that I'm sick of getting cut up this year?" she asked petulantly.
"Fine, you've said it," acknowledged Buffy curtly. "Answers."
Dawn's expression grew deadly serious. She inhaled deeply and stared Buffy in the eye.
"I think I really screwed up."
Carrying a sturdy double-bladed axe, Xander came down the stairs into Dr. Joseph's lounge. He glanced at Buffy and shook his head. "Nada."
The Slayer was well-armed with a sword in one hand and a loaded double-crossbow slung over her shoulder.
"They're gone," complained Dawn. "They're gone." She crossed her arms angrily. "That's ... that's so unfair."
"Think you'll find the bad guys don't exactly follow the rules," commiserated Willow with a grimace.
"It's part of what makes them bad guys," said Tara wryly.
"That and those thin moustaches," added Willow.
Dawn was miserable. "This is all my fault."
"It's not your fault," refuted Buffy firmly.
"They're free because of me," asserted Dawn with equal firmness.
"Did you know what they were doing?" questioned Buffy. "Did you intentionally let out the barbershop quartet of evil?"
Dawn squirmed a little. "No, but—"
"Then it's not your fault," concluded Buffy with an emphatic nod.
Xander placed a comforting arm around Dawn's shoulders and treated her to a quick squeeze. "Besides, how were you supposed to know? We all thought Dr. Joseph was just a sweet old guy. Heck, we've been over here for dinner more times than I can count. And can I just say that I'm feeling a deep sense of betrayal that the primary ingredient in the peach cobbler does not appear to have been love?"
"This is why we can't have friends," sighed Willow.
Dawn's expression became dismal. "If they hurt anybody ..."
"We'll stop them first," Tara was swift to reassure.
Buffy twirled her sword restlessly. "We just need to figure out where they went."
Everyone fell into heavy thought and then, Dawn came to a realization.
"Willow, Tara, can you guys do a—" began Buffy, but she was interrupted by Dawn.
"I can find them." Immediately, Dawn had everybody's attention. "I can feel where they are."
Xander quickly removed his arm and took a step back. "Okay, that's kinda creepy."
"Remnants, maybe?" suggested Willow. "From the portal?"
Buffy was more interested in practicalities than theories. "Can you bring them here?"
Dawn's eyes narrowed in concentration. Slowly, she shook her head. "No. But I can send you to them." Her absorption increased. She seemed to be inwardly listening, feeling out whatever it was. "We have to hurry," she said urgently. "They're getting stronger." Her gaze raked the faces of her companions. "I have a plan. Do you trust me?"
The others regarded each other in silence for a moment, then Buffy turned back to her sister.
"What's the plan?"
The hospital's maternity ward was located in a secluded wing, peacefully buffered from the chaotic atmosphere of the emergency room and shielded, as much as was humanly possible, from the diseases and maladies of the facility's other patients. From within an open utility closet nearby, a green glow rapidly expanded until it became person-sized. As it compacted and dissipated, Willow could plainly be seen. Before the radiance had completely faded, however, another even larger shimmer appeared next to her and it was Xander who emerged from this brilliance. They looked at each other and then began to assess their surroundings.
"Was it just me, or did you expect the plan description to involve a little more description?" whispered Xander, hefting his axe reassuringly.
Cautiously, Willow peered out of the closet, checking the area beyond. Save for some medical equipment pushed against the walls, it was completely empty. "I think time was a bit of an issue," she replied.
"Yeah, thereís a novelty," said Xander wryly. "So you aní me, huh?"
Willow nodded. "Looks like." Together, they emerged into the hallway, and Willow frowned. "Hey, are we where I think we are?"
"If youíre thinking amusement park, then no," returned Xander. He took point position as they made their way down the corridor.
Willow smirked. "Iím gonna work under the assumption that this wasnít Dawn showing a really depressing lack of confidence."
"Iíd say thatís a good idea," returned Xander, indicating an area on his right, fronted by a wide panel of glass.
Willow followed him to the window. Inside the large room were rows of incubators. Most were occupied, their tiny, red-faced, bawling inhabitants sporting either a blue bonnet or a pink one. The floor was littered with white-uniformed nurses, all apparently unconscious. In the center of the nursery stood one of the gray-scaled reptilian demons. Its lizard-like arms were outstretched and its head was thrown back in ecstasy. From each of the little cribs, thin, spiraling, smoke-like tendrils drifted toward the monster. It was still semi-translucent in substance, but certainly more solid than it had been when trying to snag a cookie in Doc's parlor.
An expression of disgust invaded Willow's face. "Oh. Wrong. Big wrongness." She clenched her fists. "I have a sudden desire to hit it, hard and often." She glanced briefly at Xander. "Think we can hurt it yet?"
Farnstal lowered his head. His eyes suddenly snapped open and he stared menacingly through the glass at Willow and Xander.
Xander's grip tightened on the double-bladed axe.
"I think weíre about to find out."
Luckily, the dimly-lit hallway was deserted when the green glow shimmered into existence and Tara stepped out of the portal. She just had time to hear vague snatches of dialogue and the strains of background music before Giles appeared from within another glimmering flash. His arms were extended, as though he had been leaning against a desk or table when he'd suddenly been whisked away. Almost instantly, he toppled forward, which wasn't surprising given that his former support had abruptly vanished. Stumbling somewhat ungracefully, he managed to regain his footing, thereby saving himself the indignity of falling flat on his face. But it was a close call.
Much to his surprise, it was Tara who rushed to his aid with a subdued, "Mr. Giles!"
"Tara? What are...?" He paused and in less than a heartbeat, had perfectly weighed up his new environment – a theater. "You know if you wanted to go to the movies, you needed only to ask," he told her with a puzzled expression.
"Thanks," she whispered. "Iíll keep that in mind."
Quickly moving further along the darkened row of theaters, she pulled a cell phone from her pocket. Giles watched for a moment, fully anticipating an explanation that, apparently, was not going to be forthcoming any time soon. He hurried after her.
"So shall I guess the whys and means for my being here? I confess to having several rather entertaining possibilities in mind."
Tara didn't answer immediately. She was busy scrolling to a number on her phone while peering in one screening room after another, obviously in search of something.
"Iím sure you do," she eventually threw over her shoulder, "but theyíre probably all wrong."
"Thatís actually comforting," murmured Giles. "So then what—"
Turning, Tara approached him, waving her hand. "Itíll save time if I only have to explain once."
Giles folded his arms across his chest. He frowned, but was prepared to listen.
Neither noticed the thin tendrils of silvery-gray energy snaking their way from underneath a theater door only a few yards further down the hall.
Hands thrust into the pockets of her leather jacket, Faith sauntered along Slayer Central's main hallway. She was about to turn the corner when a flash of green light materialized, followed almost instantly by Faith's reappearance some distance further back along the passage. Needless to say, the abrupt displacement took her by surprise.
"The hell?" she muttered.
Quickly taking stock of her immediate surroundings, Faith could find nothing out of the ordinary, other than what had just happened. Nevertheless, her well-honed senses seemed to tell her otherwise. She frowned and was about to step-up her investigations when a low buzzing and the vibration of her cell phone in her jeans pocket diverted her attention. Pulling out the mobile, she depressed a button.
"Yeah?" she answered snippily, before falling silent to listen. "You might say that. Freakiní weird, aní a heads up next time wouldnít be a bad idea, yíknow?" As the caller continued, she shook her head. "Nah, just back down the hall."
She focused on the conversation, interjecting with the occasional ďyeahĒ and ďuh-huhĒ to indicate that she was listening. Her gaze constantly roamed the corridor as she did so, but while her back was turned, a gray-scaled demon began its soundless crawl up the wall and onto the ceiling above her head. It watched Faith very closely as it made the ascent and appeared to be copiously drooling.
Faith grinned into the receiver. "So I just wail on the son of a bitch aní wait?" She nodded with satisfaction. "Fun times. ... Yeah, I got it. ... Yeah. Okay."
Snapping the phone shut, she returned it to her pocket. Tensing for action, she whirled and raised her fists, but there was nothing to fight.
"Home-delivered punching bags," she smirked. "Thatís service. So where are you, you fu—"
Her expletive went unfinished as every nerve end in her body started to tingle. She looked up just in time to see Yitam lunge from the ceiling.
Upon the flat roof of a lofty downtown building, there was a blinding flash of green that shimmered for a second before leaving Buffy in its wake. She seemed surprised at her location but recovered quickly and lost no time in taking assessing the situation. Not too far from where she had materialized, she spied Doc standing casually near a large air conditioning unit, arms folded across his chest. He had shed the bathrobe and appeared to be rather anticipatory.
Her lips tightened into a thin line. "You know, when someone knocks you from a tall place, itís really just good manners to die."
Doc nodded in friendly fashion. "Thanks for the tip."
Buffy took a step toward him. He didn't move. "How about we try it again?"
"I would," said Doc agreeably, "but I sort of have a dinner date and Iíd hate to disappoint." He grinned in her direction. "Theyíre growing, you know. Theyíll be fully in this dimension any minute now. Then itíll be my turn."
Buffy's eyes narrowed. "Your turn?"
He nodded again. "This world isnít the first, and thanks to your little Key, it wonít be the last. Starting right here, at City Hall, is where your world will end." His ensuing wave encompassed the entire area. "Weíll devour it all, every last drop." His expression was one of sheer delight. "It should be quite a show, youíll wanna stick around."
Buffy was open to the suggestion. "Plan to."
In a blur of speed, she whipped the crossbow from her shoulder, took aim and fired.
In the hospital nursery, Farnstal continued to absorb the essences of the newborns with increasing speed, his expression a macabre mix of iniquity and rapture. Xander and Willow watched with horrified eyes.
"We need him away from them!" said Willow in dismay. "I can't ... I'm afraid I'll ..."
Xander needed to hear no more. Barreling through the open door, he rushed toward the demon and immediately launched into a tackle. But Farnstal's midsection hadn't yet fully solidified and Xander found himself hurtling through the spectral figure to collide with the opposite wall. His battleaxe clattered to the ground as Xander, temporarily stunned, tried to regain his bearings.
Willow wasted no more time. Grabbing a nearby mop, she charged swinging into the nursery. The wooden handle easily passed through Farnstal's arms and chest, and so she swung again. This time, she made satisfying contact with the head and immediately repeated the action. The second strike splintered the handle and served only to infuriate the demon. Snarling, he reached for Willow's neck with a wickedly clawed hand that was disturbingly substantial. But Xander was there. Seizing Farnstal in a chokehold from behind, he began to wrestle the demon toward the entrance. Sprinting across the room, Willow retrieved Xander's axe. She turned, just as Farnstal was hurling Xander to the floor. He slid along the polished tile and then skidded to a halt at her feet.
"Okay," he groaned, "that's now two times too many for being on the floor today." Scrambling upright, he turned to Willow. "Can you—?"
Willow nodded and thrust the weapon into Xander's hands as she stepped forward. Farnstal's eyes glittered dangerously as he locked onto her and prepared to attack once more. Willow simply raised her arm to intercept the assault, and an invisible barrier deflected the blow. The demon tried again, this time with the other hand, but met with the same result. Growling deep in his throat, Farnstal snatched up a metal chair from the hallway, lifting it high above his head. As he did so, Willow let loose with crackling bolts of lightning from her fingertips. The chair glowed brightly, encased in sparking energy, and then acted like a rod. Powerful jolts surged through the demon's body, until Farnstal slumped to the ground. Although unconscious, his muscles twitched uncontrollably and spirals of smoke drifted lazily from the top of his head. Despite the power, the charge wasn't enough to destroy the creature. He was incapacitated, though for how long it was impossible to estimate.
Mouth set in a tight line, Willow looked down disapprovingly. "So there. Bully."
She visibly winced as the wails issuing from the incubators reached nerve-shattering proportions. Turning, she saw Xander cradling a cute bundle of righteous fury. The pink beribboned bonnet had slipped over one eye and the small face was scrunched and scarlet in its wrath. Two tiny fists waved in futile protest while little legs pumped the air. Xander rocked the infant gently in an attempt to instill an air of calm. He spoke to it quietly, soothingly, and Willow leaned against the door jamb to watch, while still keeping the debilitated Farnstal well within her sights.
"Aww," she murmured with an enchanted smile. "Seriously. Aww."
Xander regarded her sharply. He seemed somewhat embarrassed and shuffled his feet. "It was crying," he explained sheepishly.
"I hear they do that," agreed Willow. "It's one of their primary features."
Xander didn't reply, instead refocusing on the baby, who was now beginning to hiccup between screams. Xander jiggled her up and down and made comforting noises. He straightened her bonnet and the little one instantly grabbed his thumb, holding on fast.
Willow's smile could only be described as 'sappy'. "I think it's only fair to tell you," she said firmly, "that this is going down as one of my all-time favorite adorable moments ever."
"Will ..." cautioned Xander.
"Proud Papa Xander," Willow cooed, "with his little howling bundle of joy ..."
"Will." The tone was a little more forceful.
But Willow would not be deterred. "All swaddled and red and screaming in that way that's cute when you know you're the Aunt and can go home and not have to listen to it any more whenever you want. This dream – of mine, for you – can be yours. All you need—"
"All you need," continued Willow with determination, "is the right girl to come along and—"
Her sentence was cut short by Xander plucking another bawling and decidedly unhappy infant from an incubator and thrusting the squirming package into her arms. Willow's diatribe was instantly forgotten as her expression melted into one of enamored goofiness.
"Oh!" she uttered, immediately tickling the baby under the chin. "Aww, poor thing! You're mad, aren't you? And hey, totally valid. But you know what'll make it better? Coming with me to poke that mean ol' monster with an axe a time or twelve! That's right!"
She picked up the weapon from the floor and walked toward Farnstal, who thankfully, for his sake, had yet to stir.
Xander shook his head before concentrating once more on his small charge, who continued to give indignant vent to her justifiable tantrum.
In the darkened movie theater, Tara spoke softly into the phone while Giles hovered nearby.
"...just need to incapacitate it," she whispered urgently. "Dawn will do rest. ... That's it. ... But Faith, seriously, these guys are supposed to be super tough, and—" She sighed at the interruption before adding, "Just be careful, okay?"
She snapped the phone shut and turned to Giles with a 'Well, that's it' shrug. The Watcher frowned in thoughtful assessment.
"At least she's practicing like I told her to," he decided.
"The bright side, Mr. Giles?" queried Tara with a smirk.
"Well there seems to be one so rarely."
Cautiously, they moved along the hallway, peering into the dimness in search of a warning sign.
"Do you, uhm ... know what we're looking for, exactly?" asked Giles, blinking through his glasses.
"A demon?" offered Tara, well aware that was hardly much to go on. She shook her head regretfully. "Not really. Dawn said they were sort of ugly. And see-through."
Giles made his way to one of the screening rooms and quietly opened the door. Quickly, he turned back to Tara. "And perhaps draining the essence out of several moviegoers?"
Tara was immediately at his side. The pair exchanged a confirming glance and then darted into the room. Bernie had positioned himself toward the rear of the relatively empty back stalls. Standing behind one of the rows, he was effectively draining half a dozen patrons. They didn't seem to be aware of the violation as they focused straight ahead in absorbed fascination, tubs of popcorn forgotten in their laps. But it was not the picture show itself that had them beguiled. Their stares were more of the 'wow, I have seven brain cells left' variety, and the odd one or two who weren't utterly devoted to blinking occasionally, were apparently obsessed with concentrating, open-mouthed, open the array of enchanting colors that flashed before their eyes from the flickering screen.
Having now found their quarry, Tara and Giles seemed unsure of their next move. Given that they were both unarmed, Tara resorted to the mode of attack that was most familiar.
Bright flashes of energy leapt from Tara's extended fingertips. The beams struck the demon and he reeled a little at the assault, having achieved a solidity that had yet to be attained by Farnstal. It was both a blessing and a curse – although he could be more easily hit, he could also more easily hit back.
Abandoning his prospective meal, Bernie lashed at Tara with his long, whip-like tongue. She dodged out of the way but only barely, stumbling into a large trashcan in the process. It hit the floor with a metallic clang. With a cruel sneer, Bernie began to close in, sensing impending victory. Acting quickly, Giles snatched a purse from one of the nearly-drained moviegoers. The bag was a monstrosity – large, clunky and designed to hold every possible portable item necessary to sustain life. Thus, it was bulky and heavy and perfect for Giles' purpose. He swung it like an Olympic hammer thrower, showering Bernie with blows to the face, torso and skull. No inch of the demon's anatomy was safe from attack. Every now and then, the purse would sail through an insubstantial area, but Giles simply used the momentum to launch into another swing on the next pass.
The skirmish was beginning to create a disturbance that was impossible to ignore. From a row mid-way down the theater, an irritated audience member swiveled in his seat to hiss a subdued 'shh!,' but Giles paid the admonishment no heed since he now had Bernie on the defensive beneath a flurry of strikes.
But it was clear his luck was about to change. Bernie was shaking off the onslaught with disturbing ease, even deflecting potential hits altogether. Giles stepped up his efforts, but things were starting to look grim, until the demon's forward shamble abruptly slowed. Confused and dismayed, the demon regarded his feet, fast becoming rooted to the spot. His arms dropped uselessly to his sides and his neck began to roll. Before being totally out of commission, his eyes snapped toward Tara, whose presence he'd apparently forgotten. But realization hit far too late and he shuffled to a halt.
Coming together, Giles and Tara stared at the trapped and now powerless Bernie.
"Is it—" began Giles, but his urgent query was interrupted by the irate moviegoer who now upgraded his relatively quiet and civil 'shh!' to a full-blown Defcon 4-level 'Shh!!'. The pair winced.
"Is it dead?" Giles completed his question in a stage whisper.
Tara responded in kind, her voice a tad strained as though she were concentrating very hard. "No, just immobilized."
Giles blinked at the frozen demon. "Can you keep it contained?"
"All night?" Tara shook her head. "No. But until Dawnie does her thing ..." She threw Giles a small smile of confidence. "I'll manage." She glanced with some amusement at the purse still clutched tightly in Giles' fist before refocusing on Bernie.
Giles grimaced and gingerly deposited the handbag into the lap of its owner. She blinked lazily at him, not seeming to entirely comprehend, but slowly recovering from the assault.
"We'd best relocate it to a more secure location until then," Giles quietly urged.
However, that was easier said than done. It was doubtful they could simply walk, inconspicuously nonchalant, out the front door with a living demon statue in tow. Nevertheless, leaving Bernie in his present position was not an option. Giles jerked his head meaningfully toward the exit. Tilting the demon backward, he took one arm while Tara gripped the other, and together they dragged Bernie, stiff and unyielding, through the double doors into the dim corridor beyond. Propping him against the wall, they pondered their predicament.
"We could always take it into the restroom, I suppose," suggested Giles, mopping his forehead with a handkerchief.
It sounded good to Tara. "Okay."
Taking hold of Bernie once more, they began to haul him away but then realized they were heading in opposite directions.
"The restroom is this way," frowned Giles, puffing a little.
Tara's eyes grew wide. "That's the men's room."
"Yes...?" said Giles, rather impatiently.
"I was thinking more the ladies' room," advised Tara, arching an eyebrow.
"Oh." The Watcher's face became flushed and Bernie was again laid to rest against the wall while Giles utilized his forehead-mopping handkerchief to polish his glasses. "Uhm, yes, b-but ..." he stammered with no little embarrassment, "but I think the men's room will likely provide a bit more privacy, don't you?"
It was now Tara's turn to get flustered. For no apparent reason, she reverted once more to a stage whisper. "I c- I can't go in there." Mortified, she glanced down the hall. "It's the men's room."
Giles ran a hand through his hair. "Well can you maintain your spell from outside?"
"I-I really wouldn't wanna try it," Tara admitted nervously.
"And I don't want to leave you alone with it, in case it breaks free ..." returned Giles.
There was a long moment of silence as both searched desperately for an alternate solution. It was Tara who solved the dilemma. She motioned toward a theater a few yards away.
"In here! It should be deserted."
With a sharp nod of agreement from Giles, Bernie's journey was resumed. Together, the two of them carted the hapless demon through the doors where the screening of Shark's Tale was in progress.
Yitam launched himself from the ceiling with surprising agility. Faith had clearly not expected the demon to be quite so nimble and suddenly found herself flat on the floor with Yitam straddling her. Immediately, she tried to kick him off but his torso and lower extremities were, for the most part, intangible and she met with no success. Snarls issued from both parties as Yitam raked his razor talons across her upper chest, leaving several parallel cuts in their wake. The assault only fueled Faith's already considerable anger and, seizing Yitam's shoulders, she thrust him away with a force that sent him flailing into the wall.
Wincing from the stinging abrasions, Faith quickly scrambled to her feet and immediately experienced an eerie sensation. Confused, she whirled to see Yitam hungrily absorbing a substance he was sucking from her body. The essence was smokelike and lacked any true consistency, but there was no doubt that it issued from Faith and was being consumed by the demon. Her eyes widened in alarm as she felt her strength gradually diminishing. She staggered forward with clenched fists.
"What're you doin' to me?"
The question was answered by a wickedly gleeful chuckle and garbled statement that Faith couldn't understand. She took another stumbling step toward Yitam, growing steadily weaker as the extracted flow of energy from human to demon escalated. Yitam threw back his grotesque head and chuckled again.
"Fear," he murmured, flicking his tongue around the alien words. "So much. Brought me here. I take, yes?"
Faith attempted to close the distance between them but fell heavily to her knees. The color began to drain from her face and her arms hung limply at her sides. Beads of sweat appeared on her forehead and she looked to be on the point of collapse. Yitam's eyes glittered as he enjoyed the spectacle. He licked his scaly lips as though savoring a very fine meal and ambled toward her.
"You have strong, but is not enough." He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "The fear holds you. I will also. You will fear for me, yes? Will be very good."
Only a matter of inches now separated Faith from her adversary and he was in close enough proximity to inflict serious damage. Unfortunately for Yitam, however, the reverse was also true. Much to the demon's stunned surprise, Faith's outstretched fingers abruptly invaded his intangible midsection, rapidly traveling upward to encroach upon an area that was considerably more tangible. Instantly, the smoky-gray tendrils evaporated and Yitam gasped in agony. Distinctly unpleasant squelching noises issued wetly from the demon's innards, originating from a place where Faith's hand could not be seen.
Yitam could do nothing but gape stupidly. A mingled expression of incredulity and inexplicable pain spread across his features.
Faith's lips curled into a contemptuous sneer. "I'm afraid not."
Courtesy of one extremely irate Vampire Slayer, Doc hit the asphalt hard and bounced along the roof once or twice before skidding to a halt. He rolled to his feet with an ease that seemed incongruous with his elderly appearance. Thwipping out his tongue, he lashed at Buffy, but she dodged nimbly to one side. Doc repeated the attack and this time, Buffy captured the thrashing appendage in her fist. It was mistake. Holding it was like grabbing a fistful of straightedge razor. Gasping in pain, the sword fell from her other hand, and Buffy was left with nothing but a deep gash on her palm as the tongue was effortlessly retracted.
"Great," Buffy snarled, gritting her teeth together and applying pressure to the freely bleeding wound, "now I need a rabies shot."
"You can't stop this," Doc told her with smirking confidence.
"Yeah, well, forgive me for not listening to the bad guy when he tells me that."
Slowly, the pair began to circle each other. Drops of blood soaked into the concrete from Buffy's hand, but neither paid it any mind. Every bit of focus was on their opponent.
"It's done," Doc said. "We're free and nearly whole. You can slow us and you can hurt us, but c'mon. You can't beat us, kid." He treated her to an affable wink. "No one can."
"Do you know how many things I've killed that've said pretty much the same thing?" returned Buffy. She thought for a moment and then shrugged. "Well, I don't have an exact count, but I'm betting it's a lot."
Doc's eyes narrowed. "You got a smart mouth, you know that?"
"So my mother used to tell me," Buffy replied. "In roughly that tone, too."
She stopped in front of a wooden structure, possibly a storage shed of some kind. Across from her, Doc also came to a halt.
"You can't scare me," Buffy informed, standing straighter. "It is sort of funny to listen to you try, but it won't work." She shook her head in disgust. "Every time I look at you, all I can see is a sick freak who likes to cut on little girls. And I gotta tell you, of all the sick freaks I've met in my life, that kind comes in way at the bottom of my Christmas card li—"
In the blink of eye, Doc performed a stunning and startling feat of aerial acrobatics. Landing securely behind the Slayer, he instantly executed a perfect spin, tail connecting solidly with Buffy's stomach. Taken off-guard, she was knocked from her feet and ended up some yards away, near where she'd started.
Winded, Buffy lay on the asphalt, clutching her midsection and panting with pain. "Not fair," she gasped, "we weren't done ... bantering yet ..."
Doc's features contorted in sympathy. "Not doing very well, are you?" he commiserated. "Poor thing. All my time here, and do you know you're the first one of your kind that I've ever faced?" He regarded her glumly. "This is actually disappointing. Gotta say, I really do think all the 'Chosen One' noise is overrated. I can't believe nobody's said this before now, but you're just not a very good fight, Slayer." He looked quite unsatisfied. "Not a good fight at all."
The words were barely out of his mouth when he lashed again with his lethal tongue. Buffy managed to avoid its path but it was a close call. Quickly retracting, Doc attacked again. This time, Buffy was ready.
With an agile back roll, she collected her sword, and in the process swung it high above her head. As the whipping tongue came within striking distance, she brought down the blade in a mighty arc and promptly severed at least two-thirds of the deadly appendage. Blood, viscous and blue in color, spewed from the mutilated stump. Doc staggered backward until he made contact with the door of the shack and then slithered to the ground, howling in agony.
"See, that was your problem," Buffy informed him. "You're not fighting the Slayer."
Dropping the sword, she produced the double-action crossbow. With unerring aim, Buffy fired off two consecutive shots. Both bolts found their intended targets, each piercing one of Doc's forearms and shattering the bones before becoming firmly embedded in the wooden structure behind him. Doc's wails increased as he realized he was now pinned like a mounted butterfly.
Placing the crossbow on the ground, Buffy retrieved the sword and approached her trammeled prey. "You're fighting a pissed off big sister."
She followed up the announcement by driving the blade of the weapon nearly to the hilt into Doc's gut. He was now securely immobilized, his head slumped, but the grave injuries had not snuffed the spark of life. Doc's breath rose and fell in his chest, somewhat ragged but nonetheless rhythmically. Undoubtedly, he was badly hurt, but not dead. Far from dead.
He coughed and speech was obviously difficult, given the current tongue problems. "Won't ..." He lisped and then hacked painfully for a second. "This won't ..."
"Doesn't have to," dismissed Buffy. "Any second now, you're gonna get a nice all expenses paid trip back in whatever limbo hell you and your buddies came from."
Doc's eyes widened with fear. "You can't."
"You're right," Buffy casually agreed. "You're making this one-way trip courtesy of Interdimensional Key Airlines."
"She doesn't—" Doc spat out a bilious stream and then coughed again. "Doesn't have the power! Not this soon!"
His expression froze as he saw a void materializing from behind Buffy; a shimmering green portal. Nothing emerged. It simply opened. And waited. Expectantly.
In the hospital nursery, an identical gateway appeared. Xander watched, with two armfuls of now slumbering and thankfully peaceful babies, as Willow levitated Farnstal's still-smoking body into the glowing portal.
The screening room was just as deserted as Tara had suspected. Nobody but she and Giles were present when a similar radiance suddenly came into being and awaited its anticipated delivery. Working together, they hefted Bernie's leaden form toward the beckoning portal and shoved it through.
Faith dragged the near-unconscious and groaning Yitam along the hall by his feet. Upon reaching the glittering entranceway, she unceremoniously allowed his legs to drop to the floor. Wiping her hand clean on the scaly skin, she firmly planted a boot in the demon's ribs and, with a disgusted sneer, kicked him through the portal.
With mounting terror, Doc couldn't tear his eyes away from the ever-widening portal.
"I made sure!" he all but whined. "I've been waiting so long! She just opened the path, she can't do it again!" He vehemently shook his head, as though the act of negation would make it so. "Not yet! Not until we're strong! She can't do it!"
Buffy crossed her arms and shrugged. "What can I say? She's always been the overachiever in the family."
She took a step to the side as the whorls of glowing green, seeming to have exhausted all patience, hungrily engulfed Doc's body. Within seconds, he was totally consumed, although his screams of protestation and denial lingered a while longer. Then, the portal vanished, leaving behind nothing but a wooden shed, marred by a pair of crossbow bolts and a sword with a tarnished blade.
Beneath the tree which dominated the backyard of the Scooby House, Dawn lay on her back. To a casual observer, she might have just dropped from the overhead branches to the grassy floor below. Given her expression of pain and near-exhaustion, such could have easily been the case. With closed eyes, she released her concentration and allowed tensed muscles to relax. Her lips twitched and then broke into a huge smile. Dawn was happy.
The phone in her jeans pocket began to ring. Her smile grew broader as she recognized the sound of "Confidence for Quiet." Moving slowly, she dug out the mobile and flipped it open, bringing it to her ear.
"Hey Buffy," she said, opening her eyes and staring upward at the leaves.
"Hey," Buffy's relieved voice responded. "You okay?"
Dawn nodded. "I am. I really am. You?"
"We're all fine."
"Yay," replied Dawn. It was a weary cry of triumph, but a genuine cry of triumph all the same.
A moment of silence ensued, but Dawn didn't seem to mind.
"You did good, Dawn," Buffy told her. "That was some world class Scoobiage. The plan, the getting yourself out of trouble ..." She paused. "'Course, we'll have to talk about the getting yourself in trouble, but ..." There was a catch in Buffy's voice. "I'm proud of you. Really proud."
Dawn didn't reply. She didn't seem to know how. Straightening, she scooted back until she rested against the trunk of the tree, transferring the phone to her other hand. Her expression displayed a range of emotions. She was touched. She was embarrassed. She was pleased. All at the same time. The overload appeared to have temporarily short-circuited the connection between her brain and her vocal chords.
"Dawn?" queried Buffy anxiously.
"I'm here," the teenager reassured. "I'm just ... I don't know what to say."
"That's okay." Buffy's tone conveyed an unmistakable smile. "Oh, but hey, I was wondering – was hearing that more or less embarrassing than the time I told your friends about how you wet the bed when you were twelve?"
Mortified, Dawn straightened even further as if a steel rod had been slipped between her shoulder blades. Her eyes grew very round. "Buffy!"
"Less, then," Buffy concluded.
Dawn's cheeks burned scarlet. "Oh my god."
"Be calm, your secrets remain safe."
"Just kill me," muttered Dawn, heaving a sigh of relief.
"Not today," returned Buffy crisply. "First we have to celebrate. You know, after I wash gooey demon blood out of my hair. So how about you call Grip, and we can all—"
Dawn's jaw dropped. "Oh crap. Oh crap."
Dawn paused at the foot of the paved path leading to Grip's home. She contemplated her ultimate destination with no small amount of trepidation. Smoothing her hair, she straightened the collar and cuffs her long-sleeved, freshly-ironed silk shirt and made sure the hem was tucked neatly into her waistband. Then, she took a deep breath and began the long walk to the front door. She took another moment to compose herself before ringing the bell. Westminster chimes sounded from within but nobody came to answer. She waited for what seemed like an eternity and then rung again, followed by a tentative knock upon the frosted oval windowpane. This time, she could see a figure approaching from inside the house. She heard the muted click of a lock turning and Grip appeared on the threshold. For the first time, his expression revealed no delight at seeing her face.
"Hi," she greeted with a nervous smile.
"Hi," returned Grip flatly.
There was an incredibly lengthy pause of uncomfortable magnitude.
Dawn clasped her hands behind her back, fingers twisting into restless knots. "I, ah, I tried calling, but you didn't ..."
"Yeah," he nodded. "I wasn't feeling too chatty."
"I get that," she quietly acknowledged.
More silence followed. Grip continued to stare at Dawn without expression, and she found she could only meet his gaze for a few heartbeats at a time. As all the things that weren't being said continued to fill the void, Grip offered nothing.
"I'm sorry," Dawn finally blurted. "I'm just so unbelievably sorry. I was ..." Her fingers tied themselves together even tighter. "...really looking forward to today, but I had this ... this emergency tutoring session with Giles, and he—"
Grip looked her in the eye. "Tutoring."
"In what?" queried Grip, his tone overly polite.
Dawn only took a moment to reply, but it was a moment too long. "Chemistry."
"You have an A in chemistry," said Grip. "You have an A in practically everything."
"Well sure," corroborated Dawn quickly. "But you've, you know ... gotta work hard to keep those grades up. A-And college is right around the corner, so this is no time to be slacking, right?" She regarded Grip hopefully.
He neither agreed nor disagreed, simply continuing to focus upon Dawn. She fidgeted beneath the gaze, wrestling with an overwhelming desire to fill the silence.
"So- So I was going to Giles for tutoring," she continued, "when our neighbor Dr. Joseph— You remember Dr. Joseph?" She waited for a response but since one failed to materialize, hurriedly continued. "Well he sort of ... needed my help for something, and I just got so wrapped up that I—"
"Is there someone else?" asked Grip abruptly.
Dawn's mouth snapped shut. She frowned, confused and uncomprehending. "What?"
"Someone else," he reiterated. "Another guy. Cuz I gotta—" Grip's voice cracked and his cheeks flushed with humiliation. He gave a small cough and pulled himself together. "If you're seeing someone else and just don't know how to break up with me, then I'd really rather you do it fast, like a band-aid. I can't take the—"
"Someone else?" Dawn's eyes opened wide with alarm. "No, I ... No. Why would you even think that?"
Grip shrugged. "I dunno, maybe because I keep getting the brush off? I mean, it's all good when you come to me, but whenever I'm the one making the plans, it's like there's always someone else you have to see or something else you have to do. If it's not another guy, then what is ..." He inhaled sharply, as though trying to summon additional courage from someplace deep within. "Is it me?"
"It's not you. It's not anyone. There's no one else, and you're fine. You're better than fine. You're incredible." She reached out and touched Grip's hand. He immediately stiffened and she reluctantly withdrew. He folded his arms defensively across his chest.
"Well then what?" challenged Grip. "Because I don't know if you realize this, but you're a really crappy liar, Dawn. Where were you today?"
Dawn looked like a small deer caught inescapably in the headlights. "I was tuto—" she began.
"You weren't tutoring!" interrupted Grip, his frustration all too plain.
The outburst echoed weightily in the air and Dawn hung her head. She nodded.
"I wasn't tutoring," she finally admitted. "I was ..." She exhaled, a sigh heavy with defeat, as she miserably wrung her hands. "I don't know how to say this."
"Try using English," advised Grip gently. "It's the only language I kinda know."
She looked up at him. He was watching her with such an expectant expression, waiting and willing to listen, eyes desperate for the truth. She had no choice but to provide it.
"My sister is a Vampire Slayer." Her gaze became fixated on the front step, the clouds, her own shoes – absolutely everywhere but Grip. "She fights vampires, and demons, and monsters, and whatever bad stuff the world throws at her." Dawn continued in a rush as though she were afraid her resolve would evaporate before she could finish. "She fights it all because it's her duty or destiny or whatever you wanna call it. And we help her. I help her. But I'm ... I'm not who you think I am. I'm really this—" She bit her lower lip. "And I know this'll sound crazy ... but I'm the Key. This ancient dimensional energy sort of squished into human form by these monks, who—" She paused and waved her hand, realizing she was going off on a tangent. "That's really a whole different story. But I've got these powers. I-I'm not exactly sure what they all are yet because they just sort of woke up again a few months ago and I'm not really as in control of them as Giles'd like – which is why all the training with him, but ..."
She ground to a halt and refocused on Grip for the first time since launching into her explanation. She eagerly searched his face, seeking acceptance and the soft light which normally shone from his eyes each time he looked at her. She found only pain and sadness. And disbelief. Grip studied Dawn with equal intensity, hoping perhaps that she was merely joking, that she would change her account and be honest with him. But when she gave no indication that such was the case, he averted his gaze, dismally shaking his head.
"I know how this all sounds," said Dawn, becoming upset. "But it's the truth. I swear!"
"Look, I'll show you!" she declared in desperation. "I can make portals, and teleport stuff, like ..."
She riveted her attention upon Antony's Rollin' Rumblin' Dump Truck that the little boy had left lying on the front lawn. The wheels didn't move so much as a fraction of an inch. There was no green glow. No rip in the dimensional fabric. She glanced at Grip apprehensively and then focalized once more on Ant's toy. She increased her concentration. It was a fruitless effort. There was no emerging portal or display of powers. Teetering on the brink of panic, Dawn struggled to remain calm.
"Okay, so like I said, my powers are sort of crazy right now," she reasoned, "but ... Buffy! We'll go see Buffy, and she'll show you! She'll find you a vamp, and then you'll see—"
"Stop," said Grip wearily.
But Dawn would not be dissuaded. "It'll all make sense when she stakes it, and—"
And Dawn did indeed stop. Scalding tears stung behind her eyes, threatening to spill at any second as an expression of acute sorrow invaded Grip's features.
"Don't," he muttered unhappily. "Just don't."
Shaking his head ruefully, he took a step backward, retreating into the haven of his home. "I don't even know you anymore."
"I'm Dawn" she protested, her cheeks wet. "I'm just Dawn. Remember?"
He didn't reply, only moving further away from her into the house.
"Grip, no!" Dawn implored with a shuddering sob. "Please! I lo—"
Grip held up his hand, effectively cutting off the proclamation before it could be given full voice. With a look of misery that rivaled the one on Dawn's own devastated face, he firmly closed the door. Instinctively, she reached for the knob and then heard the click as the lock turned from the inside. It reverberated with finality. Her fingers hovered for a moment, but she made no further move to take hold.
Unable to stem the flood of tears, she leaned her forehead against the chill of the frosted glass.
And Dawn closed her eyes.
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