Everyone arranged themselves more comfortably around the living room as that revelation sank in. Xander and Tara sandwiched Willow on the couch. Spike held Dawn in the big armchair, and Xander noticed she was really too big to cuddle that way anymore. One more growth spurt and she’d be taller than Spike. Giles couldn’t seem to settle anywhere. He paced, he leaned, finally he spoke.
“Yes, well, I think we can forego patrolling for tonight. I shall put the kettle on.” He moved to suit word to action.
Spike tipped Dawn into the chair as he stood. “Tea is no way to conduct a proper wake. I’ll be right back.”
Both he and Giles disappeared into the kitchen.
Xander cast an eye at Dawn. She was shaken but seemed reasonably composed. He turned back to Willow who was shaking in her grief. Half-finished sentences sprang from her as she glanced at Xander and Tara as if searching for absolution. Xander rubbed her back and made comforting noises.
Giles returned with a tea tray, complete with comfort cookies. Spike came back with a nearly full bottle of Jack Daniels and an unopened bottle of peach schnapps.
“Hardly the best, but needs must and all that.”
Chinese was ordered, glasses were distributed, and they all drank a toast to their fallen friends. While there was relief in knowing that those they loved were at peace, there was still an undercurrent of bitterness at being left behind to pick up the pieces
Dawn sat with her legs tucked in and her back propped against the big chair where Spike sprawled. She radiated “don’t touch me” vibes. Xander wondered what he could possibly do to make this bearable for her but kept coming up empty.
Willow stared down into her cup of schnapps-spiked tea. “I was the big gun,” she said, softly. “And I let her down.”
“Willow, no,” Tara said. She held Willow just a little closer.
Willow looked up, her eyes bright with tears. “I was so happy to have you back, I didn’t pay attention to what else was happening until it was too late.”
“You’re wrong, Will,” Spike said. He threw back a shot of Jack. “You and Tara got me up there in plenty of time. If I hadn’t let that bastard Doc get past me Buffy’d be here now.”
Xander wondered if there was anything he could have done differently. Should he have headed up the tower with Spike? Would it have made a difference or would he have simply been one more body adorning the rubble? It was impossible to know and equally impossible not to second guess.
“Don’t be stupid, Spike,” Giles chimed in. He drew a hand across his lined face, looked like the guilt train was carrying a full load. “It’s hardly as if you were Dawn’s sole protector.”
Xander winced, knowing Giles’s words would be a direct hit on the vampire, whether it had been intentional or not he couldn’t tell. Spike sat forward to glower at the watcher. “Not likely she’d trust you with the job after that speech you gave.”
“Well forgive me for trying to save the world,” Giles sniped back.
Xander expected the screaming. He didn’t expect it to be Dawn who did it. “Stop it!” She launched herself from the floor and scanned the room with accusing, wounded eyes. “Say what you really mean! I should have jumped, then you’d have Buffy and I could be with Mom.”
She charged up the stairs while everyone stared at one another. Spike started after her, but Tara placed herself in front of him.
“I think she needs a little time to herself,” Tara suggested. “I’ll go talk to her when dinner gets here.”
“Can’t have her thinking she’s some sort of soddin’ consolation prize,” he protested. “I’ve gotta tell her I wouldn’t trade the world for her, literally as it happens.”
“She won’t hear you right now. She didn’t just lose her sister, her sister died in her place. She’s so confused at the moment she doesn’t even know what she’s feeling.” Tara’s voice was soothing, and it promised everything would be all right. It was a false promise but it did succeed to getting Spike to sit back down, but his eyes darted toward the stairs frequently.
“If I’d brought Buffy back everything would be better,” Willow said to no one in particular, her eyes staring at the ceiling, as if she could see into Dawn’s room from there. “It could hardly be worse than it is now.”
Willow had either forgotten Giles was there or that he didn’t know. Either way, he knew now. Dire retribution loomed in his voice. “Willow, would you care to explain to me exactly what you mean by that remark.”
Willow looked at him and said with perfect honesty, “Um, no.”
She cast about the group but found no friendly port; no one was going to take her side against Giles in this confrontation.
“It’s just, couldn’t she be enjoying eternal bliss later?” Willow winced a bit, like it sounded silly to her own ears. “We need her. I need her.”
“Do you have any concept of what you might have unleashed?” A new fire danced in Giles’s eyes as that encyclopedic brain went to work. “To say nothing of what you might have done to Buffy or yourself.”
“I did my research,” Willow protested. “I’m not some amateur.”
“Oh, but you are,” he said in a low, condescending voice. “Only a rank amateur would attempt such a foolhardy experiment. It’s obvious to me I’ve let you run amok with your magical experimentation far too long. I trusted you to have better sense than this, Willow”
He turned his gaze on Tara and continued. “And I expected you to be a steadying influence on her. Clearly, it’s time I took a firmer hand.”
Tara looked ready to protest then sat back, seeming chastened.
“Your training begins tomorrow. I expect you in the shop directly after class. Do you understand me?”
Xander felt Willow vibrating with indignation. She’d always been the teacher’s darling, this had to be foreign territory for her. He stroked her back, trying to calm her. She and Giles exchanged glares for a few heart-stopping seconds, and then Willow folded.
“Fine,” she said with ill grace.
“Then let us speak no more of it tonight,” Giles suggested, leaning back in his seat and smiled indulgently. “I think I’d much rather know what could induce Buffy to dress up as a fairy tale princess.”
Giles might very well smile. It wasn’t as if he’d worn a costume to turn into that Halloween. He got a good few pokes in before Xander and Willow retaliated by teasing him with the band candy incident.
Tara turned the conversation when it looked like Giles might die of embarrassment. “Anya showed me how to do online trading. She made it look so easy, but I completely flubbed it, lost money in stupid ways. She told me not to worry about it and took over the account for me. A couple weeks later she gave me back the money I’d invested with a really nice profit. Less a ten percent fee.”
The last sentence restored the lighthearted mood. Xander could have kissed her. It gave him a sense of peace to share memories of Anya with his friends at last.
Dinner arrived and Tara took Dawn a plate. She returned to the others with the news that Dawn didn’t feel up to company and had been adamant that she wanted to be left alone. Xander was pretty sure the look on Spike’s face meant he’d be spending the night at the foot of the stairs.
The stories continued well into the early hours of the morning. Spike confided that he used to sneak over for a cuppa with Joyce after Buffy left for college. Willow remembered how Anya had taken care of Tara while they were on the run from Glory.
Xander’s ill fated love spell got dragged out, as did Willow’s will-be-done spell. Spike told them they should be grateful that Buffy was the forgiving sort and they readily agreed.
For one night, there was more laughter than tears in the Summers household.
The following week Xander went into the Magic Box after work. It looked pretty much the same as it had on the night they fought Glory. Jonathan looked up from a box he was unpacking when Xander entered.
“Xander! Did you need something? I’ve got all the weapons sharpened and put away, and we’ve got some protection charms against demonic energy that are really cool,” Jonathan gushed.
Xander was embarrassed to be greeted so enthusiastically. “Don’t need a thing. Just thought I’d drop by, see how things are going.”
Jonathan babbled in his enthusiasm. “Well, things are a little slow right now. We’ve had a little problem with some amulets disappearing. Nothing too expensive or dangerous but we’re putting in some security cameras all the same. Besides, we expect business to pick up in September. Mr. Giles says sales really pick up once the school year starts.”
“You’ll probably have a run on those protection charms. Or you will if the kids know what’s good for them.” Xander leaned against the counter. “So, how about you? Life treating you OK?”
Jonathan seemed surprised Xander would strike up a conversation with him. It was a barrier Xander wanted to tear down.
After catching up with him on the sci fi and comics scenes, Xander went into the store room. He stared at the boxes lining the walls. He took one with Anya’s name scrawled on it down and started to go through it.
He didn’t get through many boxes that first week. Too many items evoked strong memories. Strange things, like mugs or fingernail polish would set him into a tailspin, and he’d close the box and head home. A bottle of tea rose perfume was the worst. Anya had been wearing that perfume the day she told him she’d figured out sex was about creating life.
He remembered how panicked the discussion had made him. For a moment he’d been certain she was going to tell him she was pregnant. Then she’d laughed, allayed his fears and given an explanation of the intertwined nature of life and death which had taken his breath away. That was the day he put a down payment on the engagement ring because he couldn’t imagine growing old without her.
It was two weeks before he could go back to the shop after unearthing that bottle of perfume.
Giles began Willow’s magical instruction the day after “the wake.” At first, Willow was petulant about being treated like a beginner, but it wasn’t long before she got immersed in the academic aspects of the subject and they both started enjoying their sessions together.
New life was entering Giles’s eyes. Now that he had an eager student to train, and a protégé at that, he spent hours coming up with lessons that would challenge the young witch. It made the rest of them breathe a sigh of relief, confident that Willow wasn’t going to go off the rails again.
Then one day Xander came home to find Willow working on the Buffybot. She was probing the bot’s head with some kind of electronic thingamajig.
“Whatcha doing, Wills?” Xander asked, trying to sound nonchalant. The bot gave him the creeps.
“I think I can get her working again,” she said. She was intent on her work and didn’t see the shudder that went through him.
“You sure you want to play Dr. Frankenstein with this thing?”
Willow laid down the probe she’d been holding and looked up at him. “Xander, just how long do you think we can maintain the illusion that Buffy isn’t dead?”
“Hadn’t really thought about it.” This was, in fact, the absolute truth. He’d steadfastly avoided thinking about it.
“Well, if I can get Buffybot working well enough she can go to parent-teacher conferences, she could even patrol.” She was bouncing in her zeal.
“It’s a thing, Wills,” Xander insisted. “It’s not Buffy.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Where the joy of scientific discovery had been a moment before there was now the tears of a grieving woman. Xander felt like an utter heel. “I failed her when it counted. The best I can do now is to protect the people she loved.”
Off of Xander’s confused look she said, “Social Services will be sending someone around to evaluate the situation eventually. They need to see Buffy being a model parent. Hell, they need to see Buffy period. We can’t keep pretending they just missed her without arousing suspicion.”
Spike came striding into the room at this point. The sight of the Buffybot stopped him dead in his tracks. “What is that thing doing out here,” he growled. His eyes flashed yellow for a moment.
Willow turned on him as if he was a tomcat she needed to swat for peeing in the house. “We need her. It’s only a matter of time before someone decides Buffy is some kind of absentee guardian. They aren’t taking Dawn away from us. It’s the only thing I can do for Buffy, and I’m damn well going to do it.”
Spike stared at her, then stared at the bot’s disembodied head with a pained expression. Finally, he said, “Fine, but you wipe Warren’s programming out of it.”
“Well, not all of it,” Willow turned back to her work. Enjoyment started seeping back into her voice. “There was some pretty decent combat programming in here.”
“Wills, I don’t think it’s the combat skills he’s talking about,” Xander suggested.
“Oh,” Willow said quietly as the light dawned. “I’m planning on upgrading her programming pretty significantly. Personality-wise if nothing else. I’ve kept some stuff from the Ted robot that I think may help. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to completely erase the sexbot stuff.”
“Just do it. It would hardly be acting like Buffy if it fawned all over me, now would it?”
Xander didn’t like the despair that was radiating from Spike and decided a strategic withdrawal was in order. “Well, I don’t think either of us can be much help to you here. C’mon Spike, let’s put that vampire strength to good use downstairs.”
Spike grumbled but followed him back to the basement.
The renovation had been going pretty well. The bathroom was framed and the plumbing and wiring had been completed. The project had become more expensive when they found out new pipes were needed for the rest of the house as well. Xander counted himself lucky it had been found before the basement flooded and soldiered on.
Spike had continued to slip Xander money every week, sometimes a couple hundred, often more. It provided enough of a supplement that Xander decided to do the full splurge on the bathroom. There was a huge Jacuzzi tub and shower stall in addition to the more standard toilet and sink. He was shamelessly using Spike for grunt labor. It helped that Spike could hold up a heavy piece of wood or drywall without breathing hard, or breathing at all if it came to that, while Xander secured it in place. It had really helped when they’d positioned the tub.
“You think putting the bot back together is a good idea?” Spike asked out of nowhere. They were finishing dropping the ceiling and he was holding a full sheet of drywall over his head while standing on one ladder while Xander stood on the other ladder, securing it in place with the screwgun.
Shocked that Spike wanted his opinion on the matter, Xander blurted out, “Honestly, I think we’re going to have to do something along that line soon. We can only get away with the shell game we’ve been playing for so long.”
Spike contemplated this. “Don’t suppose we could keep people from asking questions for the next three years at that.”
Xander nodded and continued working. There really wasn’t anything to say about it. Willow was right. There wasn’t any arguing with her logic. Then again, there usually wasn’t.
“One of us is going to have to break it to the Lil Bit, and I’d just as soon it wasn’t me. She’ll likely put a brave face on it, but it’s going to be hell having that thing impersonating Buffy.”
There was no arguing with that logic either. It went without saying that having the Buffybot active was going to be hard on more than just Dawn.
As it turned out, Dawn walked in on Willow’s repair job, which meant Willow got to explain the logic behind reactivating the Buffybot. Dawn was not pleased. Nothing was going to make her pleased with the arrangement, and so, eventually, she was told it was going to happen whether she liked it or not. Her retaliation was to refuse to remain in the same room as the bot, which meant she spent a great deal of time in her room. Fortunately, this self enforced exile didn’t survive more than a week.
Life settled into a routine over the next few weeks. Spike patrolled with one or two of the others for a few hours every night. Things were pretty quiet and, even if it was the calm before the storm, they were grateful for the break.
Willow worked on the Buffybot. Reattaching the head and getting the bot operational only took a week or two, but it still had the same plastic personality as before. While this was annoying, it was nothing compared to what happened whenever it caught sight of Spike. Apparently, that “straddle Spike” programming was pretty deeply embedded because its eyes would light up, the smile would get huge, and it would start fawning on him as if he were Elvis. Spike would snarl at Willow and retreat to the basement.
Even though Spike’s reaction to the bot was the strongest, interacting with it was hardly a piece of cake for any of them. The bot would try to be tender with Dawn, and it was obviously a strain on the girl to endure this plastic Barbie doll claiming to be her sister. Giles tried to maintain a professional detachment as he put the bot through its paces, but there was strain around his eyes. It gave Xander the creeps, and Tara just looked sad and sympathetic. Willow seemed able to slip into mad scientist mode and react to its too cutesy dialogue like she was gathering data points. Probably she was. To her, the bot was a puzzle, a scientific challenge, and the fact that it wore Buffy’s face didn’t seem to bother her.
Eventually, she and Giles declared the bot ready to help with patrol. Spike refused to patrol with it so the rest of them took turns.
When Xander’s turn came, he learned that Willow had tried to upgrade the bot’s database. Having random facts like, “you’re a construction foreman,” or “you’re Willow’s best friend” or worst of all “Your girlfriend died last May” spewed at him was distracting to say the least. The robocidal thoughts it engendered made it hard to concentrate.
“Could we not talk about Anya, please?” he asked the oblivious bot.
“But friends are supposed to talk about upsetting subjects, Willow said so,” she perked.
“Yeah, well I’ll be having a talk about that with Willow when we get back,” he replied through clenched teeth.
Later, when two vampires attacked them, he told himself he hung back only to observe the bot’s responses to a real combat experience. He didn’t believe himself, but he figured it would be a good cover if he needed to bring it home in pieces.
It didn’t have Buffy’s grace and the quips sounded as canned as they, in fact, were, but it managed to dust both vamps with minimal damage to itself. Xander contained his disappointment, but it wasn’t easy.
Willow was desperate to get the bot presentable by the time school started. There was a parent/teacher meeting that all incoming freshman were required to attend, and Willow was determined Dawn would go accompanied by her legal guardian. She kept the bot active practically all the time she was home trying to fine tune it for this challenging task. Consequently, Dawn was spending more time at Janice’s house, and no one could find it in their heart to object. Spike and Xander spent all their free time going full bore on their project downstairs, just to stay out of the thing’s way, which meant that the basement was very nearly finished.
When Xander had first put him to work floating and taping while he finished the cabinets, he’d figured Spike would purposely do a bad job to get out of the tedious work. Instead, he got work he knew to be actually superior to his own. Xander could labor all day on one cabinet door, but he tended to slather on the mud and just sand it down after. Spike acted like he was creating a finished product.
“You do realize we’re just going to paint over that right?”
Spike gave him the “obviously you’re mentally deficient” eyebrow and didn’t answer him. Xander just shrugged and continued on the cabinet door he was staining. He wondered if the comfortable companionship they had going could survive wallpapering.
At last, the fateful day of the parent/teacher conference arrived, and Xander came home early on the off chance they would have to grab Dawn and run after the bot was discovered.
When he entered the bot was all smiles, as usual. Dawn was on the verge of tears.
Xander dropped to one knee in front of the girl. “Dawn, what happened? Did, did anyone notice?”
“No!” she shouted. “They loved her! I bet they name a building after her.”
That was all he got out of her before she broke away and charged upstairs. The bot looked after her in confusion. Xander found himself moved to pat the bot’s knee. “You did good. This means we’ll get to keep Dawn.”
“I’m Dawn’s legal guardian,” she said brightly. “No one will take Dawn away from me.”
Xander nodded and headed for the kitchen. He wanted to tell Spike the immediate danger was over.
He found Spike fidgeting at the kitchen table. “You heard?”
“Yeah. Tryin’ to decide if I can go after her, or if she needs her bloody “space” this time as well.”
Xander wished he had an answer for the frustrated vampire. The ways of teenage girls hadn’t gotten any less mysterious than they’d been when he used to date them.
“Can’t hurt to try. Worst she can do is scream and throw us out of her room.”
A grin tugged at Xander’s mouth. As grown up as Dawn thought she was, it was good to know she could still be childish. Solemn Dawn had been a little scary.
Spike arched an eyebrow at him. “You think it’s a good idea to double team her?”
“Hey, we team up, I think we can take her.”
They sneaked past the bot and up to Dawn’s room. Spike rapped on it. “Dawn, you going to talk to us?”
The door opened and Spike and Xander exchanged a brief look before they stepped inside to find Dawn sitting on her bed, head down.
Spike crouched in front of her. “Niblet, you all right?”
“They liked it,” she whispered. “They couldn’t stand Buffy but they liked …”
The rest of the words were muffled as both men hugged her at once. It was bad enough for the person you loved to be gone, infinitely worse to have people prefer a soulless, plastic replacement.
Jonathan didn’t help them patrol, but he was taken into their confidence. He was very good at glamours, and he had helped them come up with a few strategies to cover the fact that Buffy was dead. He was no slouch at research either.
Their confidence paid off, shortly after the school year started, when Jonathan informed them of a threat from an unexpected quarter.
Jonathan looked pretty uncomfortable holding the floor and kept shifting from foot to foot as he spoke.
“I’m part of a D&D group on Monday nights. The roster changes, but the main guys are me, Andrew Wells and Warren Mears. Last Monday, Warren asked Andrew and me if we wanted to help him take over Sunnydale. We both said yeah. I kinda thought he was joking, but then, yesterday, we met in the basement of his parent’s house, and he had all this stuff. Plans to summon a demon to rob a bank, stuff like that.”
“Warren Mears?” Willow repeated. “That name sounds awfully familiar.”
“Course it does, Will,” Spike said from his perch on the counter. “It’s Robotboy.”
“Someone of his abilities could represent a considerable threat,” Giles agreed.
“But who’s this Andrew guy?” asked Xander.
Jonathan looked like he’d anticipated this question. “Tucker’s brother.” Everyone nodded their comprehension and Jonathan rolled his eyes. “He’s really good at demon summoning and he’s got this whole hero worship thing going with Warren.”
“It’s good you came to us,” Tara encouraged him. “Warren might really hurt someone.”
Jonathan stared at his feet. “Yeah, well, I tried the magic to make my life better thing a couple years ago, and it didn’t work out so well.”
“I remember,” Tara’s voice dropped a few degrees.
Jonathan winced a little. “I figured I really didn’t want to be a supervillain.”
“A wise decision,” Giles said. “This situation bears monitoring. How do you feel about being a spy?”
The next month flew by quickly. Jonathan told them Warren planned to rob a bank using a demon Andrew was going to summon. Giles wanted to call in the police, but Jonathan pleaded for time to pull Andrew out before that happened. He insisted Andrew wasn’t really evil, just a little mixed up.
So Willow gave him some inert powder to replace a key spell ingredient so Andrew’s summoning would fizzle. There was a faint hope that a couple of setbacks would dishearten the would-be supervillain enough that he’d pack it in, and go back to making robot girlfriends or something.
The household drifted apart a bit as Willow, Tara and Dawn started a new semester. Work on the Buffybot wasn’t as intensive, but it didn’t stop altogether. Avoidance of the disturbing presence drove a wedge into the group.
But togetherness was found for the Magic Box’s Halloween Sale. By the time the door was closed behind the last customer, Xander was convinced demons didn’t take the day off, they used it to go shopping en masse. There was no way that mob was all human. He lay on the floor, thinking it was remarkably comfortable, and determined he wasn’t moving for a week.
“See you tomorrow,” Dawn said as she headed for the door.
Xander dragged his memory for where Dawn could be going. Then he remembered that she was spending the night with Janice. She made good her getaway just before Giles handed out brooms to the rest of them while he went to review the security tapes while he reconciled the receipts.
They were just finishing the clean up when Giles came out of the back with a furious expression. “Jonathan, I believe we have identified our thief.”
Then he turned to Tara. “Do you have Janice’s number?”
Tara started digging in her purse. “Are you sure, Mr. Giles? I don’t think I’ve ever seen Janice in here.”
“It’s not Janice. It’s Dawn,” he said flatly. He took the offered phone number and began dialing.
“That little minx. Have to give her a right good talking to. You don’t steal from family, fine if she wants to nick something from the mall, but—“
“Stop right there, Spike,” Xander insisted, suddenly feeling even more tired. “I think we’ll handle the moral development side of things.”
“Just stands to reason,” Spike muttered.
Giles’s indignant voice broke through their argument. “She what?”
All attention was now riveted on his phone conversation. “Well, you might have checked as well….Yes, we’ll let you know if we hear from either of them.” He hung up the phone and addressed the waiting group. “It seems Janice informed her mother she was spending the night with Dawn.”
“Ya gotta respect them sticking to the classics,” Xander said. Inside he was ready to kick himself for falling for such a tired, old trick. Sure, it had worked for years on his and Willow’s parents, but they were striving to be better than those poor examples. They split up searching for likely places to find their wayward charge. Giles attempted to reassure them that, tonight of all nights, Dawn was safer than usual on the Hellmouth.
“Because nothing ever happens on Halloween?” Xander said sarcastically. “Unless you count possession by costume, or fear demons, or—“
“Point made,” Giles responded wearily.
They planned to search separately for an hour then rendezvous at the park next to the woods where teens went to make out. They weren’t sure what they would do if they found her there.
Xander had pulled hospital duty. It went without saying he hoped someone else found her. He checked with the nurse if anyone matching Dawn’s description had been brought in. While she checked for him, he toured the waiting rooms. Negative on all fronts, so it was with some relief that he headed for Make Out Point, telling himself one of the others had surely found her by now.
What he didn’t expect to find was a full-fledged vampire battle. Giles had arrived before him, and he was being pressed by two vampires over a car. Xander staked one of them, which gave Giles room to dispatch his other assailant. He scanned the area, searching for Dawn and thought he spotted her being dragged into the woods by a vampire. He was sprinting after her before he had time for another thought.
He lost sight of them in the woods and had to slow down. He couldn’t bear the thought he might run right past her in the dark. It seemed like he stumbled around in the dark for hours, although his watch later informed him it was more like five minutes, before he heard Dawn’s voice. He went crashing through the underbrush, abandoning stealth for speed. As he neared her he caught glimpses of a vampire on top of Dawn, going into game face and leaning down for the bite. Another vampire tackled him from the side. Xander managed to twist around, using the vamp’s own momentum to impale him on the stake. Xander crashed into the clearing to find Dawn clutching a pencil and crying like her heart was broken.
“Dawn. Are you hurt?”
Xander helped her up and she shook her head, biting her lip to keep from crying more.
“Come on,” he urged. Giles could have died in the time he’d spent haring after Dawn.
Dawn managed to keep up with him, and Xander breathed a huge sigh of relief when he returned to where he’d left Giles to see Spike dispatching a vampire while Giles leaned against a parked car.
“Giles! I’m sorry, I saw this guy with Dawn and I just--“
Giles gave him a smile that warmed him to his toes. “Perfectly understandable, Xander.” The smile went vacationing in some artic region. “I see you’ve retrieved our runaway.”
Dawn pulled the letterman jacket she wore more tightly around herself.
“Xander, call Willow and Tara, we can discuss this back at the house.”
Xander was very glad for the cell phones right now. He didn’t want to wait around for more rebel demons to show up. “How many vamps were there?” he asked Spike as he dialed.
“Rupert only left me a couple. Doubt anyone’s making an army out of this sorry lot.”
Xander nodded. He trusted Spike’s assessment of the threat. Willow answered her cell and his attention was diverted. “We have Dawn retrieval. Meet you back at the house?”
“Seems to be, just a little shaken up.” He grinned as if she could see him. “Probably dreading the lecture she’s about to get.”
“Want me to call Tara?”
“Yeah. Things are weird over here. I think we’re in for a long night.” He cut the connection before she could ask him anything else.
Giles led the way back to the house, back stiff with anger and to hide the slight limp as he walked. Spike moved up to Dawn, obviously eager to determine if she were all right. She shrank away from him and hurried up closer to Giles.
Spike was stopped, staring after Dawn as if he’d been slapped. Xander hooked Spike’s arm as he passed him.
“She had to stake a vamp tonight. I’m pretty sure it’s her first time. She’s bound to be jumpy,” Xander reassured. It was little enough but Spike moved forward again.
“Sure. That must be it.” Spike sounded fairly unconvinced. Xander wasn’t so sure himself but he wanted to have the conversation with all of them safe at home, not out on the street, so he said nothing.
There was a scramble when they reached the house. Giles got an ice pack for his bruised jaw. Xander offered to give him the full post-battle first aid check over, but was refused. Giles didn’t want to delay resolving the situation with Dawn.
Willow and Tara got home and wanted to know what happened. Spike filled them in as best he could while Dawn sat silently on a dining room chair, with the letterman jacket folded neatly in her lap.
When they all assembled back in the living room, Dawn looked like a defendant on trial in her straight-backed chair with the rest of them arranged on the couch and chair around her.
“Quite honestly I do not know where to begin.” Giles paced like a prosecutor in front of Dawn, who didn’t look up. “You steal from the Magic Box, you lie to us about your whereabouts. Have you anything to say for yourself?”
“I stole from all of you.” She spoke softly, as if her mind were elsewhere.
Tara leaned forward at this. “My ring?”
Dawn nodded and continued in that same disinterested voice. “Money from Xander, a necklace from Willow, some stuff from the stores downtown. It’s all in the jewelry box in my room. I’ve been stealing from you all for months now, and I’m so invisible that none of you noticed.”
“Can’t tell me I’ve been ignoring you, Niblet.” Spike insisted and moved to touch her shoulder. “What did you take from me?”
Dawn flinched away and Spike drew back. “I’ve got a couple of those ugly silver rings you used to wear. You can have them back.”
Spike moved back to sit on the arm of the couch and remained silent. Xander wondered at the vagaries of teenage girl affections. If this was a permanent shift he wasn’t sure Spike could survive it.
Giles recaptured the floor, disapproval pouring off of him in waves as he pinned her with a withering glare. “You do realize that if you were caught shoplifting there is every chance Social Services would take you out of our custody.”
Willow, predictably enough, was trying to ratchet the emotional explosion down. “Dawn, we all love you, and we’re not mad.”
“The hell we’re not!” Giles shouted.
“Dawn, Giles was nearly killed tonight because we spread out looking for you.” Xander knew it was a guilt trip but, given the lack of remorse Dawn was showing, felt it was warranted.
“Which just proves my point,” she responded.
“I would dearly love to hear this,” Giles said as if he’d eaten something extremely sour.
Dawn stared back at Giles, a look of cold resignation on her face. “I’m nothing but a burden. Something you look after because of Buffy. I have no place, no purpose. Everyone would be happier if I just evaporated.”
“How can you say that, Dawnie? How could you even think it?” Willow was in enough distress at the suggestion that Tara’s attention was turned to comforting her rather than the scolding teen.
Giles looked very much like he was considering whether to use a rod or a paddle on the unrepentant girl. Xander was pretty sure that either would only cement her resentment. He was afraid Giles would be too hard on her, and the witches would go too easy. Spike looked broken. He guessed it was up to him to try for a middle ground.
“Well, you’re acting like a burden tonight.” He tried for a forbidding tone but wasn’t sure he pulled it off. “You’ll get to see a lot more of us for the next two weeks. You’re grounded. You come straight home from school, no sleepovers, no hanging with friends.”
“Whatever,” was the uninspiring response to this pronouncement.
“Go bring down the box with everyone’s things,” Tara said.
Dawn headed up to her room still clutching the jacket. A quick look told Xander that everyone was going to back up his punishment.
“I think a month would be more appropriate,” Giles said with a trace of petulance.
“At that age, two weeks is an eternity,” Tara reminded Giles.
Dawn returned bearing the jewelry box Xander had made for her. She opened it and set it on the coffee table. It was full of jewelry, amulets, and drugstore cosmetics. “That’s everything. I’ll just go to my room.”
Giles, Willow and Tara went through the box pulling out various pilfered items. Xander suspected he would not find his missing money in there. He was just glad he wasn’t going crazy. He’d been worried when money kept evaporating from his wallet. He noticed Spike slipping away and nudged Willow.
“I think Spike could use a friendly ear. Dawn really did a number on him tonight.” Willow nodded her understanding, and Xander headed up to Dawn’s room. This wasn’t over by a long shot.
He was sufficiently put out with the girl that he didn’t bother knocking. He stepped into Dawn’s room and shut the door behind him. He leaned against the doorjamb, emphasizing the fact that she had no choice but to talk to him. She barely looked up from her seat on the bed. Her bedside lamp was the room’s only illumination.
“So, care to tell me what happened out there tonight?”
“Tough.” He didn’t move an inch. “Let me make some guesses here. Just to get things rolling. You and Janice pull the old double blind on us and her mom, then go off to meet a couple guys from school. How am I doing so far?”
She shrugged. He eyed the jacket lying next to her on the bed. Put together with the scene he’d stumbled on in the woods it painted a very ugly picture.
“So this guy’s nice to you, lends you his jacket. Problem is he turns out to be a vampire.” He really hoped that was enough to get her talking, because he was going to stop sounding like Perry Mason in a minute.
She started crying. He’d been hoping for a burst of information but he would take what he could get. He eased down next to her, careful not to sit on the jacket, and put an arm around her. She burrowed into his shoulder, and now words mixed with the sobs. “He said I was special. I k-k-kissed him. I never kissed a boy before.”
This was bad, Xander decided. First kiss wants to eat you, he had more than a passing familiarity with that experience. It was never fun. “Take it from the expert, dating on the Hellmouth is a hazardous activity. But eventually, you meet someone who likes you for something other than your blood type, and it gets better.”
“No.” She looked up and tears tracked down her cheeks. “I liked him, and he liked me. Justin didn’t want to eat me, he wanted to turn me.”
“Oh.” While Xander was trying to process this new information she lowered the boom again.
“Just for a moment, I thought about letting him.”
Suddenly, Dawn’s responses to Spike tonight made sense. “But you staked him instead.”
The reburrowing into his shoulder and fresh spate of tears was answer enough. Xander wished he could somehow make the world a comprehensible place for her. “Heck of a lot easier when Spike was the only vampire that liked you, wasn’t it?”
She nodded into his shoulder.
This wasn’t comfortable territory. It dug up too much of the past that Xander would just as soon leave buried. Being thrown into close living quarters with Spike had made exhuming it inevitable, however. Looked like it was time to face the music.
“When you first find out the truth about the Hellmouth it seems so simple.” He stroked her hair, uncertain which of them the action was supposed to calm. “Human good, demon bad. Before long it starts getting more confusing. This vampire has a soul, your best friend starts dating a werewolf, you find yourself dating an ex-vengeance demon.”
The snort of laughter was a suitable reward, he decided. “The world isn’t black and white, Dawn. There are hard choices to make, and they aren’t clear, and sometimes you can’t take it back.”
She stopped crying and he stopped stroking her hair. Time to cut this off, or he was going to start his own crying jag. He pulled back enough to look her in the eye.
“If you give the word, Spike is gone tonight.” Xander felt the bottom drop out of his stomach at the offer he was making. He ignored the feeling. This was too important. “We’ll move him back to his crypt. Disinvite him.”
If he’d just burst out in Fyral, Dawn couldn’t have given him a stranger look. “Spike is important. He’s the best fighter you have.”
Xander wasn’t about to argue Spike’s importance to keeping a lid on the Hellmouth, that wasn’t what was at issue here. “Dawn, this is your home. You need to feel safe here, that’s more important.”
He watched her expression close down. “Great. In addition to needing to be rescued I cost us fighters. I’m a real asset.”
Kid gloves weren’t getting the job done, and so, with a hint of exasperation, he asked, “What is it you want, Dawn?”
The fierceness that shone in her face reminded him intensely of Buffy. “I want to be a member of the team rather than hostage fodder. I want to trust Spike like I did yesterday. While I’m shooting for the moon, I want my mom and sister back.”
Xander pulled away from her fiery glare. He paced in front of her to give himself a moment to process. He grabbed her desk chair and straddled it, resting his arms on the chair back. He picked his next words very carefully, he couldn’t afford to be accused of patronizing her at this point.
“I guess we’re selfish. We wanted to give you a semi-normal childhood. If we were going to do that we should have gone with Spike’s suggestion, and taken you far away from here.” He leaned forward and laid a hand on her shoulder. “What would you like to do?”
“I don’t know, but I figure being a glowing ball of green energy should be good for something other than ending the world.”
That was a nice idea. He wasn’t sure if it was true or not but finding out was Giles and Willow’s job.
“We’ll see what we can find out. Maybe you’re right. I’ll talk to Giles and Willow about it.” Having delegated how Dawn could help he got back to what he felt was his most pressing issue. “What about Spike? Do I hand him his walking papers?”
“No. He’s got the chip, after all.”
Xander nodded and turned to go. He paused at the door and asked, “Would you like to talk to him? See what he has to say about it?” He tried to make it clear the decision was entirely up to her.
He watched pain and fear and hope war for dominance on her face. “Tomorrow?”
“I’ll talk to him about it.”
Before he could quite make it out of the room Dawn called him back. “Xander?”
“So, I’m not grounded anymore right?” Her mischievous smile reassured Xander more than anything she could have said aloud.
He smiled back. “Keep it up. We’ll hold you prisoner for a month.”
Xander found Willow in the kitchen brewing some tea.
“So what’s the word on the resident vamp?” He tried to sound lighthearted, but he knew he’d never be able to sleep until he was sure Spike wouldn’t do something stupid.
“He’s pretty upset. He doesn’t understand why Dawn is acting the way she is, and I couldn’t really help him on that one.”
Xander leaned against the counter, facing away from her, and heaved a sigh. The night wasn’t getting any shorter.
“The world just got more complicated for Dawn tonight. She’ll feel better after she has a chance to come to grips with her world inverting.” He debated saying more.
Willow had not been his best friend since kindergarten without the ability to figure out when he had something on his mind. “So, when exactly did your world invert?”
If he couldn’t tell Willow he couldn’t tell anyone. “You remember when Giles told us that the vampire wasn’t Jesse? That it was the thing that killed Jesse?”
“Yeah.” Willow shuddered. “I was glad I didn’t have to see him vamped.”
“I did. Twice.” Now he remembered why he never talked about this. The pain felt all fresh and shiny new again. “He was still in there, Willow. He got a layer of mean and the power went to his head, but he was still making a play for Cordelia. He stopped and argued with me when he should have been lunging for my neck. I’d never fought vampires before, there was no way I should have been able to stake him like that.”
“What do you mean?” Willow’s eyes narrowed. He suspected she wanted to hear this about as much as he wanted to tell it.
“I mean that Giles lied to us. Or he fed us the Watcher party line. No soul or chip for Jesse, just the pointy end of a stake from his best friend, and I was supposed to pat myself on the back for a job well done and forget all about it.” He gritted his teeth and swallowed hard before he could continue.
“It was what, a month or two after that, we found out Angel was a vampire. Oh, but he’s got a soul, so he’s different. Only, when he misplaces it in his other pair of pants, Buffy can’t seem to remember where the stake goes. She let him go for months. She hardly knew the guy, why did he get a break when Jesse got swept up from the Bronze floor?” He realized he was coming dangerously close to screaming and stopped.
Willow had her arms around him. She tried to make soothing noises, even if they sounded more like sobbing.
“I’m sorry.” He hugged her hard, his face buried in her hair. The solid feel of her soothed his soul in a way words couldn’t. He pulled away and sank into a kitchen chair. He couldn’t afford to break down right now. There was too much still to be done tonight. “I didn’t realize I was still so mad at her about that.”
“You never told her?” Willow’s eyes looked huge from the unshed tears standing in them.
“Does acting like a bastard about Angel count?” He was trying for humorous, but he was pretty sure he slipped into pathetic instead.
“I doubt she put the two events together.” The tiniest of smiles graced her features, and he felt like he just might make it through this hellish night.
He resisted the urge to lay his head down on the table. Their bizarre little family had been dealt a critical blow tonight. If he was going to help Dawn and Spike reconcile -- and how weird was it that he was even inclined to try -- he would have to confront some of his own feelings.
“I clung to what Giles told us. It would mean I hadn’t actually staked Jesse, just some monster wearing his face. But then there was Angel, and Spike. Hell we haven’t even staked Harmony. Could anyone actually tell any difference between Harmony in high school and vamp Harmony?”
Willow made a disgusted face. She’d hated Harmony since grade school, so it wasn’t the best example. Undaunted, he forged ahead to the actual point.
“I’ve hated Spike. I’ve hated him like my sanity depended on it, and you know why?”
“Because you kind of like him?” No one ever accused Willow of being slow on the uptake.
“Exactly! I can’t like a vampire! It throws the design of the universe into confusion! And yet, I have to get the vampire and the teenager talking to each other. You know how I’m going to do that?” If he yelled about it enough maybe he could convince himself it wasn’t necessary.
“You’re going downstairs to talk to Spike?” The tone of her voice let him know there was no backing out now.
“Yep. I, Xander Harris, vampire hater extraordinaire, am going down there to try to convince a vampire that the girl he adores doesn’t hate him. I’ll explain to him she’s just gotten a shock tonight and she’s confused. Then, I’m going to ask him to help me explain the whole thing to her.” He wondered how these simple little tasks seemed to fall to him so frequently. “I figure the best thing you could do for me right now is knock me unconscious.”
She shook her head, and her smile had grown until it finally reached her eyes. “Sorry Xand. I will go with you if you want though,” she offered.
“Nah. I think this is a man-to-vampire discussion. Besides, there might be unmanly displays that it would be better you didn’t see.”
“I understand.” She smirked behind her hand. “Both your images are safe with me.”
“Right. Don’t wait up.”
Then he disappeared into the basement.
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