"I wouldn't do that if I were you." The voice came from behind and Dawn froze, outstretched fingers inches from the catch on the jewelry display case in a poorly-lit, incense-smelly occult shop on the "wrong side" of the city. Steeling herself against the squirming knot of panic in her gut she turned, smoothly tossing long, inky-black hair over her shoulder. Bored look sketched across her face, she raised an eyebrow at the intruder.
"What's it to you?"
The woman crossed thin arms over her chest, shaking straw-blonde bangs from her eyes and cocking one hip out in unconscious mimicry of Dawn's stance. "This is my shop, that's what." The woman scowled, stepping closer, uncrossing her arms to point a finger towards Dawn. "I have a feeling you weren't going to pay for that."
Dawn sighed, rolling her eyes. "Fine."
The woman relaxed, leaning against a low table that divided the store into sections of dusty books and shelves of odds and ends that glinted dully in the murky yellow light. She cocked her head, looking strangely like the puppy Buffy had talked Mom into getting the summer when she was…six? And then the stupid thing had run away and she'd cried for three weeks straight, sleeping under the dust ruffle of Buffy's bed every night for at least one of those, and Mom had sworn never again…
…But she wasn't thinking about Mom or Buffy or…anything related to Sunnyhell. Nope. Not a chance.
She was brought back from her musings when the woman huffed and stood, stalking across the space between them to squeeze past Dawn and pluck the necklace from the case. Too close for comfort, she stood, chain draped over her finger as she held it out to Dawn.
"Here. Next time, pick something closer to the exit—takes less time to get away. Also, next time, don't steal from my store."
"O—kay." Dawn blinked, gently removing the chain from the outstretched hand.
"You can pay me back by dusting those shelves." The woman spun and ducked behind the counter, gesturing with her free hand.
Dawn jerked as a feather duster smacked her in the chest, fumbling to keep her hold on the necklace and grab the duster as well.
Comprehension was slow to sink in.
"Well, get on with it," the woman continued, accompanied by the dings and chirps from the cash register. "I'm going to count the money now."
Scowling, Dawn fastened the necklace around her neck, glancing down to admire the marbled purple stone set in the pendant. Dropping her bag to the ground, she approached the first shelf and began to swirl the duster.
"Oh," the woman leaned around the corner, a bright smile on her face and a fistful of bills in her hand, "I'm Anya, by the way."
Dawn stared as Anya began re-counting the notes, grin stretching broader with each one. She turned back to the shelf, swiping the dust from a ceramic unicorn and poking at a bronze sculpture of a…Greek goddess?...before casting her eyes back towards the wo—Anya.
Biting her lip, Dawn watched as Anya pushed a strand of golden hair behind her ear, her brown eyes focused on their task.
Anya looked up, the smile slipping a little. She nodded.
Dawn nodded as well, then turned back to attack a display of ritual chalices.
"These go on the far shelf, next to the books on Solstice rituals and above the Harry Potter section."
Dawn grunted as a load of books was shifted into her arms. "Harry Potter? Isn't that fiction?"
Anya shrugged. "It's my best seller, other than crystal balls."
Dawn pursed her lips; wasn't her store, after all.
Of course, that didn't explain what she'd been doing there every afternoon for a month.
It was strange; Anya was bossy and blunt and sometimes downright rude, but for some reason, she just couldn't keep herself away.
She ignored the voice that pointed out that Anya reminded Dawn of someone else who was short and bossy and blonde.
Grumbling about child labor laws, she began to slot the books into place.
"Hungry?" Anya's voice at her shoulder made her jump, and Williams' Treatise on Blood Rites of the Seventeenth Century crashed to the ground.
"Damn." She bent to retrieve the tome, scowling at Anya who was barely holding in a laugh. "Seriously, would it kill you to make some noise?"
"Wouldn't be nearly as much fun." Anya smirked. "So…are you hungry?"
Her stomach grumbled; the school lunch was long gone. "I could eat."
Anya nodded, grabbing her purse from the counter and gesturing to the register. "Watch the store."
Dawn took the post as Anya slipped out the front door, slouching across the counter-top as she stared at the entrance, willing a customer inside.
She gave up quickly, organizing a stack of yellow receipts by time of sale and straightening the display of rare ingredients kept behind the counter because they were the most valuable. Satisfied with the tidier space, she propped her elbow on the cabinet, chin resting against her palm. Nodding in time, she popped the cash drawer open and pushed it shut in a syncopated rhythm.
She straightened when the cell phone rang in her pocket, fishing it out and flipping it open just as the bell rang, signaling the front door opening. "Yeah?" she answered.
As footsteps approached, she scowled at the phone and closed it, looking up to see Anya depositing a paper take-out sack in front of her.
"Yeah," she began, grabbing her messenger bag from the shelf and slipping the strap across her chest. "Sorry, but that was my dad." She shrugged. "I've got to go."
"Alright," Anya answered, offering a sympathetic smile. "But take this with you," she added, shoving a sack into Dawn's arms as she rounded the counter.
Dawn nodded, shoving the gift into her bag as she climbed the stairs to the exit.
Two hours later, exhausted and shaking with emotion, she delved into the sack to find fried rice and General Tso's chicken.
She didn't wonder how Anya knew just what to buy. Not at all.
A single honey-gold strand of Anya's hair was curled around the curve of her jaw. Dawn didn't know why it was so fascinating, but she had the strangest urge to reach out and smooth it away. She wondered if it was as soft as it looked.
Blinking, she returned her thoughts to the entryway table where she and Anya were organizing a display of crystals so they would sparkle in the sunlight and capture the most attention.
They worked in quiet silence; the gentle clink of the gems and the warm autumn weather combined to make a pleasant pocket of intimacy, a hidden world half-beneath the L.A. streets.
"My sister died." The words slipped from her mouth, unbidden, disrupting the stillness.
The barest pause as Anya moved to place a cloudy blue stone in the formation was the only indication that Dawn's disclosure was heard.
Focusing on the smooth movements of the other woman, Dawn fingered a blood-red prism, spinning it round and round, tracing the cut edges, digits sliding across the smooth planes.
"In Sunnydale," she continued, eyes slipping closed in what-the-hell-am-I-doing exasperation.
Anya gasped, the gem in her grip falling to the table with a loud thud, and Dawn's notice was drawn to Anya's far-away gaze. And then Anya's brown eyes were focused on her own, softening at whatever expression was stretched across Dawn's face.
She felt like a stranger, odd and uncomfortable in her skin.
"A lot of people die there."
The moment broke, and Anya turned back to pull the remaining stones from the shipping box and pile them haphazardly on the table. As she rounded the counter, she spoke over her shoulder: "I'm glad you're not there anymore."
Dawn stifled the gut reaction to protest—pushing aside the comforting images of her mother's kitchen and Buffy's dirty sneakers in the hallway and the painful thoughts of watching her dad making out with the woman he dumped Mom for, fighting for scraps of attention that she wasn't even sure she wanted—and considered the warm comfort of the magic shop, Anya's brusque comments and the welcoming ring of the bells as another customer came in to browse.
She smiled; the expression felt unfamiliar, but good.
"I'll pay you seven dollars an hour, flat rate, no benefits."
"Huh?" Dawn looked up from re-alphabetizing the spell books to see Anya standing next to her, smiling expectantly.
"Your new job. Working here."
"I already work here."
"Yes, but now I'm going to pay you, because I can be a good boss."
"Not gonna object."
"Of course not. You're my employee. I expect you to be clever like that." Anya nodded to herself, before continuing. "Now, I want you here every afternoon after school, and every other Saturday—"
"Anya," she interrupted, "I'm here every Saturday."
"That's fine, but don't expect overtime, missy."
Dawn smirked. "Of course not."
"See? I knew you were smart. Now back to business. I'm going to require a week's notice if you want to take a day off, unless there's an emergency, in which case, you'll call me."
"As long as we're clear on that."
"Crystal." Excitement bubbled up from her chest and she couldn't hold back: she squeaked, grin stretching across her face as she hopped in place a few times. Then she launched herself at her new employer, crushing Anya with a hug.
"Oh! Well…," Anya pulled herself from the embrace, awkwardly patting Dawn on the shoulder, "you're welcome, then." Clearing her throat, she straightened. "So…get to work."
"You got it, boss."
"It stings," she groused, squinting in pain as Anya's slender fingers massaged her scalp.
The grip in her hair tightened. "Hold still, you big baby."
"It's always so uncomfortable—I can't decide if it hurts or tingles or itches."
"If I didn't know better, I'd think you hadn't done this before. Also, hello? Not a natural blonde, here. I'm well aware of the sensation, myself."
"Really? I never would've known."
Dawn ducked as a plastic-covered sticky black hand swatted at her, hunching over and waving her hands defensively. "Watch it! That stuff will stain!"
"Fine. You know, for someone who asked for a free root job, you're awfully picky," Anya replied, jerking off the gloves and dropping them in the trash can beneath the sink. "I'm done, anyway." She grabbed the egg timer from the cabinet, setting it and replacing it before tidying up the area—disposing of the dye tube and the disposable brush. "Fifteen minutes. Rinse, then come back out. We got a shipment from The Mystic Corner that needs to be tagged and put out on the shelves."
"Okay," she replied, dabbing at a drip of black dye that streaked down her forehead as Anya left the bathroom and went into the store.
When the timer buzzed, she rinsed her hair, dressed, and joined Anya in the back room. Rubbing a towel over her damp locks, she approached, peering into one of the shipment containers at carefully-wrapped bottles of roots and livers and eyes, powders and potions and crèmes.
She reached for a container of yarrow root and gave it a shake as she remarked, "I still can't believe you have a shower in here."
Anya shrugged, making a notation on her clipboard before commenting: "I work with spell ingredients, some of them very dangerous. Accidents happen."
Dawn raised her eyebrows in thought, tossing the towel in the direction of the bathroom and finger-combing through her dark hair. "Makes sense, I guess." She straightened, facing Anya head-on. "How's it look?"
Pausing in her count, Anya leaned over to peer at the top of Dawn's head. "Looks good. No more roots."
They worked silently for a few moments, cataloguing and organizing the new merchandise.
"You know, you'd look good in your natural color."
"Maybe," she answered, pausing to remember Mom brushing her long brown hair, Buffy pulling on her braids and how she'd always wished, as long as she could remember, that she could be blonde and fit in with everyone else in the family.
Now she didn't fit in at all.
"Just needed a change, I guess."
Anya snorted. "I hear ya, there. Hey, hand me the cypress oil?"
"Sure." She handed over the vial, and silence filled the room as they worked.
"I was there, you know," Anya broke the quiet, her voice soft and hesitant, "…in Sunnydale."
Dawn jerked at the words, eyes drawn to Anya's face. "When?"
"A few years back. I…left, because…because…"
"Because you didn't want to die?"
Sadness touched Anya's face as she turned her head to face Dawn. "Yeah. That's it."
Brushing Anya's shoulder with her own, Dawn smiled gently.
"I know the feeling."
Anya smiled as well.
"I guess you do."
Inventory day was a Sunday full of tedious counting and calculating and watching the furrow in Anya's brow deepen as she discovered more and more missing merchandise.
"I didn't do it, I swear," she joked as Anya discovered yet another stolen item.
Anya lifted her head, frowning. "Of course not. Why would you want a Tibetan fertility god statuette? They're fake." She shook her head and turned back to her numbers.
She couldn't breathe.
And then, it all fell together: the way she felt better in Anya's shop than anywhere else; the way the three mile journey to the store seemed like nothing, even when she didn't have money for a cab; the way Anya would sometimes say nothing at all, and Dawn understood every unspoken word; the way the sunlight hit the tendrils of hair at Anya's temples; the way Anya laughed when Dawn was startled, squeaking and flailing and dropping things; the way Anya smiled; the way she smelled…
…the way that the thought of Dawn stealing from the store hadn't even crossed Anya's mind.
A wave of calm passed through her body and she knew, right at that moment, that she was going to kiss Anya.
She leaned in, black-tipped fingers finding Anya's arm—wrapped in a super-soft candy-apple cashmere sweater—sliding down until her hand slipped into Anya's, dislodging the pen from her grasp. Anya glanced up just as Dawn felt her lashes begin to flutter.
"I don't know if this is a good idea."
"What?" Dawn jerked back, but kept her fingers linked with Anya's. "Why?"
Anya's expression was unreadable. "You're not exactly legal."
"That's—" she began, only to be cut off when Anya continued.
"Not to mention there are things you should know."
"Like I was a vengeance demon for over a thousand years. Human, now, of course, and a productive member of society."
Dawn's eyes widened.
"You just…should know."
"I'm an ancient key that unlocks the doors between dimensions. Monks made me."
"Monks…" Anya's head tilted in that familiar way, reminiscent of the first time they'd met, and Dawn surged forward, knocking her nose into Anya's before their lips collided, soft and plush and just a little dry, then Anya opened to her and it was wet and slick and she couldn't feel her toes, but she didn't care because she felt special and wanted and loved, and it was something she'd wondered if she'd ever feel again after Sunnydale.
She broke away when she ran out of breath, panting against Anya's cheek.
Anya sighed, head slumping forward to rest on Dawn's shoulder, curls soft against her cheek.
Dawn pulled back, catching Anya's gaze with her own. "Okay?"
Small, warm fingers squeezed her hand and she grinned.
Maybe L.A. wasn't so bad, after all.
"You know I'm going to have to fire you now."
"What? I've read it's bad for productivity!"