With every step Buffy and Faith took towards the portal, Dawn's certainty that this was the last time she'd see her sister grew. Dread unfolded in her stomach, spreading cold tendrils throughout her body. It took all her willpower to remain rooted in place when every fiber of her body ached to run after her sister and cling to her. Beg her not to go.
Two steps more, and Buffy and Faith disappeared, a dozen Slayers following after. Dawn's sense of foreboding continued to grow. She was on the verge of running through the portal herself when one of the witches shouted out an agitated warning to the next Slayer in line. Kennedy pulled up short, just before the portal winked out of existence.
"What just happened?" Kennedy looked over to the dais where the five witches sat. "Get it back open!"
The witch who had shouted out the warning collapsed backwards, screaming, and the room devolved into chaos.
Dawn pressed herself against the wall. "I knew something felt off about that portal," she heard Willow say as she dashed by, Giles huffing and puffing at her heels.
"Oh god…" It hadn't just been nerves. Something had been wrong.
"It opened to Los Angeles. We could hear the battle," a raven-haired witch shouted.
"Yes, but can you guarantee it was this dimension? Or that it did not affect those who passed through?" Giles shouted back.
Willow ran by her again, in the opposite direction, this time with Kennedy in tow.
"Wait!" Dawn called, and took off after them. She was panting by the time she caught up to them on the front lawn. "What's going on? Is Buffy – are the Slayers okay?"
"Yes, of course," Willow said. "I'm sure they're fine. We're just going to –" She grabbed Kennedy's hand, and before Dawn could say another word, they disappeared with a loud pop.
When she got back to the gym, Giles and the raven-haired witch were still going at it. The other witches were attending to the one who had screamed, while Slayers milled about, unsure what to do with themselves. In a far corner, Xander and Andrew were having a heated discussion of their own. Dawn made her way over to them.
Xander shook his head. "Nobody knows. It's pandemonium central, with a side of bedlam."
"But they're alright? The ones who made it though?"
Andrew's phone rang. "Hello? Yeah? Okay – very good." He climbed onto a chair. "Everybody? Can I have your attention? Hello?" When the room had quieted, he waited several beats longer, playing up the suspense, before revealing his news. "They're okay. That was Willow. She said she has eyes on our girls."
The room exploded in tumult. Dawn tugged on Andrew's sleeve. "She saw Buffy?"
He hopped down next to her and removed his glasses. "Um… she didn't give me any specific names. Just said they'd all been accounted for," he said, polishing the lenses.
All meant Buffy too. Relieved, Dawn rubbed away the tears she'd been holding back.
Her relief didn't last long before her brain, stupid, unhelpful thing that it was, pointed out that just because Buffy had made it through the portal in one piece, it didn't mean she would survive the coming battle.
It had taken several hours, and was nearing sunrise on the far side of the world, before the coven got a second portal open. Though it seemed Los Angeles had survived the night, Willow's latest call had assured them there was a huge need for reinforcements. Another dozen girls were lined up against the wall, waiting for the new portal to open so they could be those reinforcements.
Dawn waited too, along with Giles, Andrew, and Xander. Tensions had been running high all night, and the majority of the people in the room were fast approaching their breaking point, not least the remnants of the coven's witches.
Half a dozen Slayers disappeared before Dawn made her move. Acting on impulse, she went up on tippy toes to kiss Xander on the cheek. He turned to her, his one eye squinting curiously. She half-shrugged, then spun and dashed towards the portal, snatching one of the waiting Slayers' weapons before tumbling through to the other side. Xander's cry of "Dawn! Stop!" rang in her ears, unheeded.
She got tangled up with somebody for a few seconds, and then she was free, pounding her way away from the shrieks and the roars and the other Slayers. Luckily for her, the witches had opened the portal on the outskirts of the combat zone. Dawn was able to evade the few demons who lunged for her, quickly outpacing them before drawing to a wheezing stop on a quiet side street.
Breath under control once more, she looked around. What to do next? She didn't know; her only plan had been to get to Los Angeles. To Buffy. But, duh, Buffy wouldn't be here. She'd be in the thick of battle. So, right. That was where she needed to be too.
Dawn edged back down the street, keeping to the shadows and small spaces, eyes and ears alert and weapon at the ready. A band of demons ran through the nearest intersection, Slayers hot on their heels. She steeled herself to race to the next hidey-hole, but before she could, a second group of demons lumbered by. One of them, a tremendous, purple scaly thing, stopped and looked down the street in her direction, considering.
Smart, Dawn, she chastised herself, shrinking back into the doorway. Just jump through, all willy-nilly, no plan. Look where willy-nilly gets you.
The demon must have moved on; that, or it was still considering. Dawn peered around the doorpost, heaving a sigh of relief when she didn't see anything waiting to take her head off.
Okay, new plan. No way was she going to be able to find Buffy, not with the legions of Hell in her way. Getting dead wasn't high on her list of priorities, and it wouldn't find her sister besides. She stood, dithering, until what sounded like the distant cry of Xander, calling her name, made up her mind. That way. She would go that way.
And damn Xander for following her. Now she had to feel guilty for bringing him into this too, and how had she been so stupid as to think he wouldn't come after her?
Dawn crept around the corner and in the direction she thought she'd heard Xander's voice, wishing she would have planned ahead a little better. Maybe brought her cell phone along. It took forever to traverse the next block, thanks to the constant need to hide from slavering, bloodthirsty creatures that would've been more than happy to foil her not-getting-dead plan. The eastern sky was well on its way to pinkish-blue when she noticed a pair of demons slinking down the street who didn't make her heart seize up with fright.
One bent down to work at a sewer cover, while the other scanned the area.
"Spike," she hissed. He popped up like a jack-in-the-box, and looked around wildly. "Over here."
His eyes widened. "Nibb – Dawn. What are you doing here?" He peered around again, then narrowed his gaze, scrutinizing her. "And alone?"
"A good question I cannot answer, other than to plead willy-nilly-ism gone wrong."
The confused look both vampires sported made her giggle. Spike curled his lip at her before glancing up at the sky, eyeing it with trepidation.
"Much as I'd love to continue this little chat with you, me and Angel here have imminent other places to be." He frowned. "You really on your own?"
"Come on, then," he said with a put-upon sigh. "How is it I always get stuck babysitting you?"
"Hey!" Dawn said. "I don't need a babysitter!"
"We can't take her with us," said Angel at the same time. "Not down there."
Spike growled in exasperation. "Well, we can't leave her up here by herself, either. All manner of nasties still lurking about. And neither of us is going to be much use as a big pile of dust, so." He turned to Dawn. "Chop chop. Down we go."
Angel shook his head and crossed his arms. "Down we go – with all the other nasties that have already fled into the sewers. Who knows how many? We're probably going to be fighting for our lives as it is. Dawn will be safer up here."
Hands on hips, trying to look tougher than she felt after a good hour of hiding from every said nasty, Dawn said, "That's right. And who says I want to go with you anyhow? You're not part of my li – eep!"
Tired of arguing, Spike had grabbed her about the waist and jumped into the manhole. They landed with a wet splash.
"Oh – gross!"
"Shh," Spike said, moving out of the way so Angel could jump down too. He turned to shield Dawn from the worst of Angel's splash.
"Thanks," she grumbled, unhappy to find herself in the sewer but touched Spike still automatically protected her, even after the way she'd treated him the last time they'd met. "So what's the plan?"
Spike shrugged and turned to Angel. "Mon Capitaine? What's our heading?"
Angel rolled his eyes. "I guess the Hyperion's as good a place as any to lay low for the day."
"Right. Because the big, scary, evil won't think to look for us there."
"I don't think they'll come looking for us at all. We seem to have won," Angel said, his tone indicating his surprise at their victory.
Spike snorted. "We survived the night, you wanker. Doesn't mean there won't be payback. Probably a contract on our heads being written up as we speak."
"Shut up, Spike."
"No, you shut up –"
Angel clapped his hand over Spike's mouth, hissing, "Quiet, moron."
The two of them froze, heads cocked, their complete lack of movement turning them into no more than dim outlines in the gloom of the sewer. Dawn held her breath, straining to hear whatever it was that had caught their attention. After several long, painful minutes, during which she had to cross her legs to hold in the sudden, desperate need to pee, Angel removed his hand and relaxed.
Spike spat. "You taste vile."
"You're not so appetizing yourself, Willie." Angel wiped his hand on his jacket. "And you slobbered on me. What is wrong with you? You're like some kind of animal."
"Thought you liked that about me."
"Oh my god!" Dawn's eyes widened in comprehension, her overfilled bladder forgotten in the face of her realization. "That's why you didn't tell us you were alive!"
Spike turned to her, brow creased. "Huh?"
"You –" Dawn pointed to him, then to Angel. "Him." Her finger went back and forth between the two of them. "You're – oh my god."
"Oh your god, what? What are you nattering on about?"
"The two of you! Together! With the –" She blushed.
Angel recoiled. "Dawn, you've, uh, you've got the wrong idea…. We're not –"
"What idea?" Spike said, frown deepening. "We're not what?"
"Together," Angel muttered, his mouth curling around the word as if he'd bit into a lemon.
Spike looked disbelievingly at him before snapping his gaze to Dawn, expression a mix of outrage and disgust. "You think – him – and me?" His voice rose an octave on the last word.
"It's not that big a deal, Spike. I should've known. I mean, it makes sense when you think about –"
"No. Just –" He turned to Angel, who took a quick step away. "Oh, for the love of – let's get a move on, before something even more pernicious than this one here finds us," he said, jerking his thumb at her.
Dawn scrunched her nose. "You're pernicious," she shot back, feeling about twelve years old.
Spike ignored her. "Maybe we can find Buffy. She can't have gotten far."
"Wait!" Dawn grabbed his arm. "You saw Buffy? When? Is she okay?"
He turned to her then, softening. "Yeah, Bit. Saw her maybe half an hour ago, and she was fine. Tired, cut up some, none too happy with yours truly, but fine."
"Oh, thank god." She sagged against the wall, uncaring of how filthy it was, and rubbed her burning eyes. "All right, let's find her, then."
"You didn't arrange a place to meet up?"
Dawn chewed her lip, silent, and refused to meet his eyes.
"She doesn't know you're here, does she." She shook her head, and Spike sighed. "Makes sense. Couldn't quite believe she'd bring you to an apocalypse, even if she is a bit touched in the head these days."
"She's just forgotten," Dawn said, automatically defending Buffy. "It's not her fault."
"Know that, Bit."
"She's still the same?" Angel said. "No change?"
Dawn shook her head. Unable to keep from doing the dance of desperation any longer, she said in a rush, "Look, this conversation is fun and all, but can we get moving? Preferably to someplace with a bathroom?"
Angel flinched away, looking mildly disgusted as he realized what she meant. She would've told him to grow up, but she was too busy trying to mentally calm the urgent twinges of her bladder. Not that it probably mattered, with whatever else was all over her jeans, but still. Peeing her pants was at the bottom of her to-do list for the day, right below dying in a sewer.
"It's going to be too hard to track Buffy from down here," Angel said. "Let's just go to the Hyperion for now. We can figure out a better plan once we get there. Besides, if any of our side's looking for us, that's where they'll check first. We'll just have to hope the bad guys are too disorganized to come after us right away."
Spike nodded and took the lead, guiding Dawn with a hand to her elbow. "You talking to me again, then?"
"This doesn't count."
"End of the world never does. People say all manner of things they don't necessarily mean."
"Spike?" Dawn turned to him, surprised by his melancholic, wistful tone.
He gave her a tight smile, and shook his head. "Let's keep moving."
"And keep your voices down, would you?" Angel said, trudging behind them. "The whole world's gonna know we're here."
"Your wish is my command, oh fearless leader," said Spike.
Dawn snickered. "I don't know how you think you're not a couple."
Spike glared at her and stalked ahead, silent except for the nearly inaudible splash of his boots. Dawn followed, far more noisily, with Angel bringing up the rear.
"I'm just saying, Dawn. Don't do that again. You nearly gave me a heart attack!"
"I was fine, Xander…"
"By happy coincidence alone! And what if you'd gotten hurt? Or worse? What was I supposed to tell Buffy?"
"Not like Buffy even cares."
Willow let out a tiny gasp. Xander pulled back, shocked. On the far side of the Hyperion lobby, Angel and Spike tried hard to pretend they were too preoccupied with the injured Slayers to hear what was being said on this side.
"Well it's true," Dawn mumbled, face burning. She knew she was being a brat. Heck, she even agreed with Willow and Xander, but the way they'd ganged up on her in front of everybody hadn't exactly brought out her mature side.
"So let me get this straight," Xander said. "You don't think Buffy cares about you. You don't care about her. And despite all the not-caring going around, you had to come after her because…?"
Dawn blinked, faster and faster, but her tears still slipped out. She dashed at them and said, "You know why."
Xander heaved a tremendous sigh, and enfolded her in his arms. "It's confirmed. I'm officially a jerk." He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "With the long night from hell – I'm sorry, Dawnie."
"You had us worried," Willow said, patting her shoulder. "It's not just about Buffy – we're card-carrying members of the 'don't want Dawn getting hurt' club too, you know. I mean, sure Buffy's the president, but we're the co-vice presidents."
Burying her head into Xander's shoulder, Dawn said, "I'm sorry. I just had this feeling –"
"It's done now." Xander gave her a final squeeze, and released her.
Willow nodded and drifted off to help with the injured, while Xander slid down the wall with a mighty groan, and closed his eye. Dismissed, Dawn wandered over to the lobby doors and stared out at the sundrenched street through the filmy glass, watching small groups of haggard people scurry by.
A tall man in a fedora and a brown leather trench coat peeled off from the back end of one group, and headed straight for the front doors. Dawn hurried over to Angel. "Um, somebody's coming…"
The somebody pushed open the door and stood there surveying the room. Dawn's eyes saucered when she realized he wasn't exactly a man, not unless men had green skin and blood-red eyes now. She moved closer to Spike, expecting a fight to break out, but Angel rushed forward, smiling. Spike stepped around her and approached as well, more nonchalant than Angel, but grinning just as widely.
"Miss me, chickadees?" the green man said.
"Lorne. You're okay."
"That's the good news. But the bad news is why I'm here, and not halfway to the golden sands of Rio with a Mojito in my hand."
Angel immediately turned serious. "He's not dead."
"Who's not dead?" said Spike.
"More than not dead. You might want to sit down for this one."
"Who's not dead?" Spike repeated.
"Lindsey," Angel answered offhandedly, then said to Lorne, "Go on."
Spike stepped between them. "Hold on. Why would Lindsey be dead? Me, I like him alive. Seeing as he's the one who has the answers about Buffy, and answers tend to be a bit hard to get out of a dead man."
"Big picture, Spike," Angel said, and shouldered him aside. Spike shouldered his way back, glowering.
Lorne waved his hand. "All a moot point anyway, mes amis. I still recommend you sit. Both of you." When neither of them moved, he said, "No? Fine. I'll sit."
Dawn, no longer afraid carnage was about to ensue, came to stand on the other side of Spike as Lorne eased himself onto the couch with a weary sigh.
Registering her presence, Lorne offered her a tired, apologetic smile. "Forgive me if I ignore the manners my mother never taught me and don't stand to make your acquaintance. Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan, but you can call me Lorne. And you are?"
Lorne's eyes grew wide. "Of course. You know, you might want to sit…? Nobody wants to sit? Just me?"
"Lorne…" Angel said.
"Right. Get to the reason I hauled my sorry green ass back here." He interrupted himself with a half-groan, half-yawn, then said, "My apologies, compadres… Long, long night. You'll be happy to know the Sahrvin went down as planned. Then there was a bit of a distraction with this fellow who looked like a little old grandpa but fought like Mike Tyson on crack cocaine. Packed a deadly mystical wallop too. Lindsey called him Shri Shamaya, ring any bells?"
Angel and Spike both shook their heads. Lorne went on. "Grandpa was looking for some kind of vessel he said Lindsey had desecrated, but that's neither here nor there, since Lindsey terminated him. Anyhoo, there I was, ready to debut in my first and last performance as Woody Harrelson's father when in comes –" Lorne broke off. "Are you sure you don't want to sit?"
"In comes who?" Angel said.
"Temper, big guy. In comes Miss Summers' big sister herself, bent on saving her faux-Watcher from his fate."
"How'd she –"
"Buffy?" Dawn said. "You saw her? When?"
"It was early on, sugar cookie. Hours and hours ago."
Dawn decided to sit after all.
"Tell me what happened. Everything," Angel said, hovering over them. Spike hovered beside him.
"Let's just say the Slayer didn't approve of your plans for Lindsey, jefe. She was hell-bent on putting my lights out for good, but Lindsey, swell guy that he very rarely is, talked her out of it. Then they left. Together."
Spike frowned. "Weren't together when we saw 'em. Just before sunrise."
"Lindsey did say he had to go check up on somebody. My guess is our friend Eve." Lorne shrugged. "Maybe some other demon finished the job I never started. But I was getting a definite planning-to-stick-together vibe off of them when they left. And now that's done –" He put his hands on his knees and pushed himself upright with a groan. "Rio's calling, and I'm answering."
"Lorne…" Angel said.
Hands up, Lorne said, "No… I told you, Angel…"
Uncomfortable with the tension between Angel and the green demon, Dawn left to tell Xander and Willow the news about Buffy.
It was Sunnydale all over again. Everyone accounted for, except for Buffy. And Lindsey too, this time around. Spike and Angel had been the last to see her. Nobody knew where she was, or if she was even alive. Ditto Lindsey.
This time, rather than hysterical, Dawn grew angrier by the hour. If Buffy had run off with Lindsey, as Lorne had suggested, abandoning them… abandoning her… Then that was all on Buffy.
And why wouldn't she have? She'd done it before, like Xander had said.
Except this wasn't Buffy, as everybody kept pointing out, or at least not Buffy in her right mind. Buffy in her right mind would never abandon her, or so the others said. As if that was supposed to make her feel any better.
So here Dawn was, sister-less, stuck playing nursemaid to the injured with Xander, and feeling helpless while the others sought out and annihilated the remnants of the Senior Partners' army of darkness.
Despite the partial destruction of the wall that faced the alley, they'd ended up staying at the Hyperion after all – between Willow's wards, Xander's construction skills, and the league of Slayers who temporarily called the hotel home, Willow had decreed it safe enough as a home base. There was the added bonus of being able to fit everybody under one roof, although Dawn wasn't sure it was an actual bonus. She could only take so much enforced bonding time with large numbers of Slayers. The supernaturally strong teenaged girls tended to suffer from both estrogen and testosterone overload, often at the same time.
The three days they'd been holed up here had been three days too long, so far as Dawn was concerned, but in spite of Willow's tempting offer to teleport her home, she'd stayed. Just as she had at the Sunnydale crater. This time, she wasn't leaving until she knew what had happened to her sister.
And Dawn knew it was her sister. The one-and-only Buffy Anne Summers. Because, even with the amnesia, even without remembering Dawn, or her feelings for her, Buffy had tried to make Dawn happy. To be there for her. She'd tried so hard, and Dawn had seen how much it had drained her to try.
Buffy had cared. Even when she didn't care. Only her sister would do that.
So Dawn wasn't leaving until she knew for sure.
Spike wandered in sometime around one in the morning and went to search for a replacement weapon in Angel's old office, ignoring the phone when it rang. Xander had just fallen asleep, which left Dawn to rush to answer, scowling at Spike as she passed. They'd barely spoken since the sewers, Spike tentative and polite the few times they had, and she hadn't quite made up her mind how she felt about him yet.
The phone fell silent just as she reached it, then started up again after she turned to leave, making her jump. "Ow!" she snapped, rubbing the hip she'd smacked on the edge of the desk. She grabbed the receiver. "Hello?"
"Oh. Dawn," Giles said. "Er – very good. Yes, well. Is Willow there?"
Dawn rolled her eyes at his obvious attempt to keep whatever it was from her. "She's out," she said curtly.
"Out too." He was sleeping, but same difference. "Let me save you some time. They're all out, or too injured to come to the phone. Your choices are me or Spike."
"Right," Giles said. "Perhaps I'll ring back later."
"Giles, just spit it out. Oh –" she said, and sat heavily in the chair. "Is it Buffy? Do you know something?" Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Spike turn towards her.
There was a long silence on the other end, confirming her fears, and then Giles said in his most careful voice, "I believe so. I received an email this morning. It appears to have been written by Buffy."
"Oh," Dawn said. Not what she had expected. "What does it say? Is it a ransom note? Is she trapped somewhere with a conveniently working laptop and an internet connection?"
Giles cleared his throat. "It appears to be… a goodbye letter."
"Er – I don't mean – not a suicide note, if that's what you thought. She's, er…"
Spike came around the desk and took her shaking hand. Dawn stared through him, envisioning Buffy's email in her mind's eye. She knew exactly what it said. "She's running away."
There was a long sigh. "It appears so. Presuming it truly is from her." Giles paused, then said, very gently, "Would you like me to read it?"
Dawn nodded, unable to get the words out. Spike took the phone from her, and set it to speakerphone. "Go on," he said, voice devoid of emotion. "We're listening."
"Dear everybody," Giles read in carefully measured tones. "I hate to be a big chicken and tell you this way, but I guess I'm a big chicken. First of all, I'm fine. Still have all my fingers and toes, and arms and legs too. No memories, but that's nothing new. What I need to tell you is that I'm not going back to London. The Buffy you knew is gone. She died in that crater. Whoever she was, that's not who I am now, and it's too painful to keep pretending otherwise, for both you guys and me. She doesn't seem to be coming back. I think it'll be easier on all of us if you think of me – her – as dead, and move on with your lives.
"I appreciate what you did for me, and I'm grateful to know there are people out there who loved the other me so much."
Giles cleared his throat again, then said, "It is signed 'Buffy'."
Even though a part of her had expected it, Dawn still found she couldn't breathe. She gasped, hands to her throat, trying to hold on to the air her lungs refused to hold.
"I'll let the others know," Spike said, and hung up. He gathered Dawn onto his lap, stroking her hair and reminding her how to breathe – in and out, nice and slow – the way he had, night after night, during that terrible summer.
"That's it, Nibblet. Nice and slow, you've got it."
Dawn dug her nails into his chest, holding on tight, and matched her breath to his until her body remembered how to breathe on its own once more. He continued to breathe with her, rocking her. "Shhh," he said. "I'm here. Not gonna let you go, ever."
"You promise?" she said into his damp t-shirt.
"'Til the end of the world. Long as you'll have me, I'm yours. Always."
"I still hate you."
Spike chuckled, barely. "Can live with that. Come on then, let me see you," he said, tilting her chin up and holding her gaze with his own. His eyes glistened, bright blue and filled with empathy and pain to match her own. "You know it's not your fault, Bit. Not you she's rejecting. She's not herself, right?"
"But she is. She's Buffy, even if she doesn't remember that she is. I've been with her – I've seen who she really is, and she's Buffy. And if she's Buffy, she is. Rejecting me," she said, choking up.
"You listen to me, Dawn." Spike held her chin, forcing her to look at him. "Slayer – Buffy – doesn't know what to do with all these feelings she has. Doesn't know where they're coming from, doesn't have framework to make sense of them, an' it's more'n she can handle just now. That's the crux, isn't it? She doesn't remember. Doesn't remember how much she loves you." He unstuck a damp tendril of hair from her cheek, and smiled. "Doesn't remember how stubborn we are, you and me, either. Else she'd know we're not going to just let her go. Right?"
Dawn sucked in a trembly breath. "Summers women don't give up," she said, echoing the words of encouragement he'd given her when all she'd wanted to do was curl up on Buffy's grave and follow her into the next life.
"That's right. And neither does ol' Spike."
"Even when he really should," she said, repeating the response that had always brought a smile to his face, whenever she said it.
It still did. "Even when he really should," he agreed, with a half-smile.
"You're a jerk," Dawn said, retreating from the pain of Buffy's desertion to focus on Spike's.
He huffed out a laugh. "There a point to this? Not exactly telling me something I don't know."
She laced her fingers in his and rested her head against his chest. "I missed you."
Spike went perfectly still. "Yeah?" he said, voice catching.
"I was waiting for you. In Sunnydale. I waited at the back of the bus, so I could throw the door open for you. But you didn't come." She hiccoughed. "I'm tired of waiting on people. I'm not going to wait for Buffy to come back."
Dawn shook her head against his chest. "I'm not waiting, because you and me? We're going to find her."