“Hey,” Buffy said without enthusiasm, shutting the front door behind her before she tossed her stakes on the small table in the foyer.
Curled up on the sofa, Willow looked up from the book she was reading. “Oh, hey. How was patrol?”
“The usual,” she sighed, heading into the living room. “There were vampires. I staked ’em. Is Dawn upstairs?”
“Yeah. She hasn’t come out of her room all night. I guess she’s taking this grounding thing pretty seriously.”
“Well, she better,” Buffy grumbled. “She was parking with a vamp and almost got herself killed. She’s lucky that she’s ever allowed to leave the house again.” She let out another sigh, shaking her head. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. Giles gave her a pretty good talking-to.”
“M-maybe you should talk to her,” Tara suggested, coming out of the kitchen to settle next to Willow. They shared a smile as Tara cuddled against Willow’s side, no sign of the tension that had been brewing on Halloween. “I think she’s pretty upset about having to dust her date.”
“I guess I am the vampire-boyfriend-killing expert.” Buffy rolled her eyes a little. “Dawn!” she shouted, turning toward the stairs. When she got no answer, she headed up to her sister’s bedroom, yelling her name again with no response.
“Dawn, didn’t you hear me calling…” She trailed off as she pushed open the door, only to find the room empty and the window wide open, curtains gently wafting in the breeze. “Shit. Will!”
There was a single sheet of folded notebook paper left on the bed. Buffy snatched it up, her eyes scanning over Dawn’s loopy script. She froze as the words sunk in, their meaning registering. Numb, she crumpled the note into a ball in her fist just as Willow and Tara rushed in.
“She’s gone,” Buffy said, her voice flat and expressionless. “She ran away.”
“Are you sure?” Willow asked, eyes widening with alarm. “Maybe she just snuck out to meet her friends or something.”
Buffy thrust the balled-up note into Willow’s hands, stalking out of the room without responding. Smoothing out the creases on the page, she let Tara lean over her shoulder as they read together.
By the time you get this, I’ll probably be long gone. Don’t try to find me. You’re not Mom, and you never will be, so I think I’m better off on my own.
“Oh, Dawnie,” Tara breathed, as she and Willow exchanged worried glances. They hurried back downstairs, where Buffy was shrugging into her jacket again.
“Don’t worry, Buffy, we’ll find her,” Willow assured her. “Tara and I can do a locator spell right away.” She checked Tara’s reaction out of the corner of her eye, but apparently a missing teenager was a valid excuse to use magic.
“I don’t have time to wait.” Buffy adopted her take-charge Slayer attitude, though she was already weary, and the search hadn’t even begun. “If she’s on a bus or something, she could be halfway to L.A. by the time you do the spell. I – I’ll check the station just in case. Can you call the others and ask them to – maybe the train…?” She trailed off with a shaky intake of breath, but quickly recovered. “If the spell turns up anything…”
“We’ll find her,” Willow repeated, ushering Buffy out the door.
She took off at a sprint, the steady pounding of her feet against the pavement echoing in her ears. As she ran, she wondered if this was how her mother had felt, finding the note Buffy had left after she’d sent Angel to hell. She wondered if her mother’s heart had dropped into the pit of her stomach, thinking she’d driven her daughter away. She wondered if there’d been a mad dash to the bus station, if her mother had called up her friends in a panic, asking them to comb the town in the hope that it wasn’t too late to find her.
She arrived at the station with her breath sawing and heart pounding, franticly sweeping her gaze across the mostly deserted benches. No sign of Dawn. She dashed to the ticket window, only to find it closed for the night, and no amount of banging on the Plexiglas would bring forth an attendant who could tell her if he’d sold a ticket to a teenage girl tonight.
There was a homeless man sleeping on one of the benches, and Buffy swallowed down her revulsion at the smell long enough to shake him awake. When he sat up, mumbling and cursing, she interrogated him in a rush, “Did you see a girl get on a bus tonight? A little taller than me, thin, long brown hair? Traveling alone? Did you see her? Please, did you see anyone like that?”
The man shook his head, with more angry mumbling and a half-hearted swing of his arm, intended to shoo her away.
“Okay, okay,” she said hastily, backing up a couple steps. “Listen, uh, you probably shouldn’t sleep out here. Vampi – um, something could hurt you.” But the man didn’t seem interested in her advice, and she didn’t have time to waste tonight making sure that the homeless of Sunnydale didn’t end up as vamp food.
Unsure where to search next, not even certain Dawn hadn’t already left town, Buffy headed toward the cemetery and Spike’s crypt. If she hadn’t gone too far, perhaps Spike would be able to track her down.
“Spike!” she called, bursting into the crypt. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Dawn standing in the middle of the room, sulking, where presumably Spike had been lecturing her, until they’d been interrupted by Buffy’s abrupt entrance. “Oh, my God, Dawn! You’re here!”
“Found her hidin’ out downstairs,” Spike said, his voice tight with anger. “Said she was planning a runner.”
“What were you thinking?” Buffy demanded, shaking her sister by the shoulders. “I was worried sick! Everyone is out looking for you!”
“Whatever,” Dawn snapped, jerking out of her grasp. “Like you’d have even noticed I was gone if I didn’t leave a note.”
Buffy recoiled as though she’d been struck, and Spike just shook his head, grabbing Dawn roughly by the arm. With the other hand, he picked up a duffle bag that Buffy hadn’t even noticed was lying at their feet.
“That’s enough,” he said as they headed for the door. “You’re going home.”
“Ow! You’re hurting me!”
“No, I’m not,” he replied matter-of-factly, the lack of warning from the chip all the proof he needed.
Buffy quickly stepped in front of them, blocking their path. “I can take it from here, Spike.”
He studied her for a moment, and then simply said, “No,” gracefully stepping around her with Dawn still in tow.
She stood there gaping after them, taken aback by his sudden show of defiance, before hurrying to catch up to the pair as they crossed the cemetery. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? She’s my sister –”
“Just shut up, okay?” Dawn cut in, whipping around to glare at Buffy. “At least Spike tries to take care of me.”
Looking over Dawn’s shoulder, Spike apologetically met Buffy’s shocked gaze. “Listen, Bit, know you’re angry, but that’s no way to speak to your sister. Just wait ’til we get home, then we’ll talk this out, all right?”
She glowered at him, making it clear that she saw his reaction as a betrayal, but didn’t try to argue. The rest of the walk home was made in stony silence, with Dawn stewing and Spike bracing himself for the ugly argument sure to follow.
Now that she knew Dawn was safe, Buffy found her worry giving way to irritation, and she began to feel resentment creeping in, thinking about the note Dawn had left. What was she thinking, pulling crap like that? She had to have known how badly it would send Buffy into a panic. God, she’d been thinking that her little sister was on a bus bound for who-knew-where, when all along she’d gone no further than Spike’s crypt. Like she didn’t have enough to worry about without Dawn skipping town. And by the way, when did Spike become the one Dawn listened to?
Buffy led the way as the trio filed up the porch steps and into the house, with Spike behind Dawn like a prison guard marching a convict to their cell.
“You’re back!” Willow exclaimed, rushing into the foyer at the sound of the door.
Tara came next, still brushing the powder from the locator spell off her hands. “Dawnie, I’m so glad you’re safe.”
The witches each pulled Dawn into a tight hug, which was only reluctantly returned as Dawn continued to be obstinate. Once released, she made a move for the stairs, intending to storm off to sulk in her room, but Spike stopped her with a firm hand.
“Not so fast. Gonna have a chat, you and me and your sister.”
Willow and Tara exchanged a glance. “W-we should go call the others,” Tara suggested. “Let them know that Dawn’s okay.” They made a quick retreat up the stairs, while Spike ushered Dawn into the living room. Buffy caught him by the elbow before he could follow, pulling him into a whispered conference in the foyer.
“I don’t need you,” she hissed. “I think I know how to handle my own sister.”
Spike shook his head. “I don’t think you do, love,” he said, with a note of sincere contrition in his voice. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this problem. You been lookin’ after her at all since you came back? You talk to her after that nonsense on Halloween?”
“Sorry, I’ve been a little preoccupied lately, what with the getting ripped out of heaven and all. But Giles talked to her about the vamp thing; it was fine.”
He cast a sidelong glance toward the living room, where Dawn was fuming on the sofa. “Doesn’t seem fine to me.”
“I. Can. Handle. This.”
“All right,” he conceded, holding up his hands in defeat. He gestured for her to take the lead. “Go ahead.”
Turning on her heel, she stalked into the living room and faced her sister. “What the hell is your problem?” she demanded. “Giles told you that you were grounded, and then you go sneaking off to Spike’s?”
Dawn rolled her eyes. “God, do you even pay attention? I was running away, not that you ever notice anything I do.”
“What, you think this is easy for me, trying to keep us afloat without losing the house or, God forbid, having you taken away? I’m doing the best I can!”
“Well, it was better when you were dead!”
For a moment, no one said a word, all three of them shocked into silence.
Buffy wondered if maybe Spike had been right, if she should have let him handle this. She knew she’d been lax with Dawn since her resurrection, had let Giles bear the brunt of the parenting, but she was still adjusting to even being alive, and she didn’t need the added responsibility of being a mother. Still… she didn’t think it’d been that bad.
“You don’t mean that,” Spike growled, his voice quivering with intensity.
Chastised, Dawn ducked her head.
“Now, you listen to me, Bit,” Spike said, in a stern, disciplinary tone Buffy had never heard him use before. “Runnin’ away from home isn’t a game. You don’t scare your sister like that, and you sure as hell don’t try to use me to get away with it. You ever pull a stunt like this again, I’ll tear your arms off and beat you with them, you hear?”
Dawn nodded sullenly.
“Good,” Spike said. “So, you wanna talk about what prompted this little cry for attention?”
“No,” she said, in a voice that meant yes.
He gave her a knowing look. “It have anything to do with that boy you were dating? The one from Halloween?”
“It was one date,” she insisted. “I barely knew him.”
“I don’t want to talk about this with you!” she burst out. “Okay? It’s – you wouldn’t understand.” Her eyes flicked toward Buffy with resentment, as though she were somehow to blame. Dawn folded her arms across her chest. “Can I go now?”
Spike nodded. “Take your stuff,” he reminded her. She bent down and grabbed the duffle bag as she stalked out of the living room, her loud footsteps punctuated by the slamming of her bedroom door.
“Ugh, I’m gonna kill her,” Buffy muttered, shaking her head.
“Come on, pet,” Spike said, with a perceptiveness that made her uncomfortable. “You never did anything like this when you were her age?”
“That was different.”
“Because I’d just killed my boyfriend, okay?” she snapped. “So, extenuating circumstances.”
Spike just raised an eyebrow.
“What?” Buffy asked irritably.
He sighed. “Staking that boy is bothering her more than she lets on, pet. She’s just upset you didn’t notice, so she’s lashing out.”
“What am I supposed to do about it? She won’t talk to me.”
“Have you tried?”
Buffy gave him a dubious look. “You were here. You just saw what –”
“Talking to her, Buffy, not scolding her.” Spike took a seat on the sofa and beckoned for her to join him.
“I try,” she insisted, her voice breaking. “It’s just… it’s so hard, and sometimes I feel like I’m barely holding on.” She leaned her elbows on her knees and dropped her head into her hands, running her fingers through her hair in frustration.
Spike reached out one hand to rub soothing circles on her back, conscious of how far they’d both come since the last time they’d been in this position. “Maybe it’s time to tell her.”
Buffy sat up abruptly, giving him an incredulous stare. “Are you insane? I can’t tell her – ever. She doesn’t need that burden –”
“And neither do you.”
“I can’t,” she repeated softly.
Spike brushed a strand of hair out of her face. “Just talk to her.”
Buffy rapped lightly on the door, fully expecting the mumbled “go away” that she received. She pushed it open anyway, finding Dawn sprawled on her stomach in bed, face buried in her pillow.
“Can I come in?”
Again ignoring the response, Buffy closed the door behind her and perched on the edge of the bed.
“I said no,” Dawn grumbled, throwing Buffy a fierce glare over her shoulder.
“Well, I’m not a vampire, so that was really more of a courtesy.” She put her hand on her sister’s arm. “Will you please look at me?”
With a teenage eye roll, she flopped over onto her back, crossing her arms in defiance. “What do you want?”
“I want to talk about tonight. You ran away to Spike’s?” Buffy asked doubtfully. “Did you really think he wouldn’t bring you back?”
Dawn just shot her another glare. “Are you critiquing my runaway attempt? And besides, he wasn’t supposed to find me. I only went to… uh, and anyway, he came in, so I hid, but you know, vampire, so he knew I was there.”
“You only went to what?” Buffy pressed, her eyes narrowed.
“Um, I was looking for his car keys.”
“You were gonna steal Spike’s car? You don’t even know how to drive! Haven’t you ever heard of a bus?”
Dawn threw up her hands. “Again with the criticism.”
“Well, as the only successful runaway in this family, I feel like you need pointers.”
“And I do too know how to drive!” When Buffy raised her eyebrows skeptically, she said, “Spike taught me. While you were… gone.”
For some reason, this revelation caught her by surprise, though it probably shouldn’t have after everything else tonight. “He – he did?”
“Yeah,” Dawn replied, ducking her head as though she was suddenly shy about sharing. “He wasn’t very good at it, though. He cursed a lot, and I don’t think he’s parallel parked, like, ever.” She shrugged, smiling slightly despite herself. “But it was pretty cool, you know? At least he didn’t treat me like a kid.”
“Is – is that what you think I do? Treat you like a kid?”
Dawn hesitated for what seemed like a long time before responding. “When you ran away, Mom cried for days, you know.”
“I – I don’t understand. Is that what you wanted? For me to –”
“But when you came back, no one treated you like you were stupid, or like your feelings didn’t matter. Everyone understood why you did it, why it was such a big deal.”
“And you think I should’ve understood how you felt about that guy from Halloween,” Buffy realized.
“His name is Justin,” Dawn snapped. Then, softer: “Was.” She sighed. “It’s stupid, but he was my first kiss. And I know it probably doesn’t seem like anything compared to the Great Epic Love of All Time, but… he was the first guy who made me feel special, you know?”
“I know,” Buffy replied, tactfully ignoring the note of sarcasm that crept into her sister’s voice while describing her relationship with Angel. “That’s not stupid at all.”
“And I’ve seen you dust a million vamps, but it was like… one minute he was there, and the next, he was just… gone.”
“You had to do it,” Buffy said sympathetically, remembering what it felt like to plunge a sword through Angel’s chest, repeating the things she’d told herself that long, lonely summer. She reached out to stroke Dawn’s hair. “You didn’t have a choice. He would’ve killed you.”
“He wanted to turn me,” she corrected, lowering her gaze. “And for a second, I kinda wanted him to.”
“Oh, Dawnie, don’t say that.” She was horrified and dismayed to hear such a thing come from her little sister, but at the same time, she understood the all-too-familiar feeling. Buffy pulled her into a tight hug, rocking them back and forth. “I know it hurts, and I know sometimes it seems easier to…” She couldn’t bring herself to say it. “But it gets better, I promise.”
“You know why I came back, at the end of that summer?”
Dawn shook her head.
“Because after all the pain and the heartbreak and not even being sure if I could live with myself, I remembered that there were people here who cared about me. Don’t ever forget that, okay? I know things haven’t been great around here, but don’t you ever forget that I love you. I will always love you, no matter what.”
Dawn nodded, swallowing her tears, hearing those words from her sister for the first time since the tower. “I love you, too.”
Once Dawn was more or less settled in for the night, and Buffy had poked her head into the master bedroom to let Willow and Tara know the teenage meltdown had been averted, she found herself slipping out of the house and taking a familiar route to the cemetery. But instead of her usual patrol pattern, she paused in front of a particular headstone.
She hadn’t been back to her mother’s grave since her resurrection, hadn’t been able to face that loss on top of everything else. But tonight she stood peering down at the simple grave marker, and was filled with a new sense of respect for everything their mother had done for them. She understood now how hard it was to be a parent, and she was fairly certain she was screwing it up.
Not that her mother had been perfect or anything, but God, even Spike was doing a better job with Dawn than she was. Just like he’d promised to.
She thought back to her own promise, the one she’d made to her mother just before the surgery. It had seemed so simple then, so natural, that she hadn’t even hesitated before vowing to take care of her sister, to love Dawn as much as Joyce had loved her.
“So… how am I doing with that one?” she asked, a note of sad skepticism in her voice as she knelt next to the grave.
When she’d jumped off that tower, she didn’t question for a moment whether she was doing the right thing, and now she had to rely on a vampire to tell her how to handle Dawn. Back then, she’d never been surer of her love for her sister. Now, she wasn’t sure of anything.
“Mommy,” she whispered, reaching out to brush the tips of her fingers across the engraved stone. “I don’t know if I can do this.”