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This Is the World We Made

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When Dawn met the Dollhouse staff for the first time, she was on Council business. New Council, specifically: Willow for mystical expertise, Faith for muscle, and Dawn for... well, she wasn’t quite sure what she was for. The Summers name, maybe; in supernatural circles heredity still counted for a lot, not that this place made any claims to the otherworldly. Maybe she was there for the linguistics, her one totally non-mystical talent – except again, not apparently useful here. And it clearly wasn’t for her charm, because this Topher guy couldn’t peel his eyes off Faith.

Face it, Dawnie, you’re still Buffy’s tagalong kid sister. Now with bonus tagalong anthro degree.

“I think you mistake the methods of our operation,” the British woman was saying in the same tone the Council’s few old-school Watchers took when they could get away with it: The World is My Oyster and England the Pearl.

“Just want to make sure there’s no baddies lurking,” said Willow easily; she’d already given this speech to a dozen other W&H clients – Angel’s clients, and when was that ever going to not be weird? – with deep pockets and sketchy motives. Which was kind of all of them, but supposedly the list Willow’s team worked from was narrowed down: occultic groups with ascension ambitions, orgs with anti-human vendettas, and a few places that just gave the firm’s psychics badness vibes. Like this place.

The woman was talking again. So was Topher. “You’re sure you don’t have a twin?” he asked Faith, again. “Maybe separated at birth?”

“No.” Brief and to the point; a bad sign with Faith.

He was sort of cute, though. He reminded Dawn of Andrew a little: blond, spazztastic, probably knew every Green Lantern incarnation. Like he might be fun to talk to, if there weren’t an ever-so-much more exciting Slayer around. How could a mostly-imaginary maybe-still-a-Key compare to Faith?

Faith turned and whispered to Dawn, “Geek’s making me twitchy.” She eyed the 'zen disciples' in their synched tai chi. “So are they.”

“Yeah,” said Dawn. There was something wrong here. The place was... palatial, that was the word. Not to mention creepy. But – head-shake from Willow – magic-free. Willow started the closing remarks.

No apocalypse here. The world’s other evils: not the Council’s business.

--

Tucson had a number of good qualities. The University of Arizona, for example, through whose Department of American Indian Studies Dawn could interface with several local tribes rich in mystical tradition: Council-funded research into the New World, only five hundred years late.

Kokopelli’s Bean was another shining star, the only books-and-coffee place Dawn had ever found where the reading was grimoires and Spellcasters: Brief Biographies. Plus, the iced chais were good, one of which Dawn was sipping now as she paged through another historical record of the Pascua Yaqui.

Something flickered in the corner of her eye. She looked up to watch a woman in a suit and heels jog past. Then two men, also suited, stumbling to a stop to glance behind them. After that, a trail of them, professionals rounding the corner and slowing, all attention back to wherever they’d came from.

The thought came unbidden, involuntary: It’s not apocalypse season yet.

The street rocked with explosions cracking like rifle shots, sharp and deep, the sound as much in Dawn’s chest as her ears.

She’d risen and was already running towards the sound before she remembered that she didn’t do this anymore. She was the academic, the part-time activist; she didn’t save the world. Not personally.

She ran anyway, following the stream of people backward towards its source.

She turned the last corner and saw... not mass destruction. No overt damage, except for the stink of burning plaster and linoleum – and who’d have thought that particular false memory, the odor of exploded high school, would ever come in useful?

As she stood, breath heavy and, good grief, her stake in her hand, she saw the last stragglers turn to go: wearily, it looked to her, yet buoyant with a triumph more damning than guilt.

One of them looked like Faith, except Faith had been up the Congo for weeks, Slayer-scouting with Xander. Dawn had had a postcard from her, just before she went.

So, not Faith.

The short, scraggly blond man trudging behind her looked vaguely familiar, too. Where...?

Their pace picked up, heading in her direction. It was then Dawn noticed the sirens in the distance – fire and police both, it sounded like, and not far away. As they neared, the no-nonsense, ex-cop type with the limp spotted her standing there. At his word, they shifted direction like a school of wounded fish, but by then she remembered the guy’s name.

She jogged towards them, saw three, maybe four of them tensing for a fight. “Topher,” she called. “Topher Brink.”

They slowed. The blond guy took one tentative step out from behind the others, and she knew it was him. The geek. He peered at her blankly; not very memorable after all, was she? Or maybe it was just shellshock.

“This is a disaster area,” said the woman who looked like Faith. Dawn could see how Topher had made the mistake. “Probably should postpone the reunion.”

The smell of burning was stronger now. The damage was done, and the rules of law and order had never been her gig. Besides, she knew those expressions: disaster averted. She’d worn that face herself, a long time ago.

She took a step back, then another, watching them watch her as they sidled past, between buildings, gone. She looked down at her stake, buried at the bottom of her purse all this time. She didn’t do this anymore. It didn’t matter; this apocalypse – or whatever – was finished, heroes already exited stage right.

As the first ambulance came in sight, Dawn wondered if it was time she joined them.

--

Dawn was in Roswell when the apocalypse came again. This time, it stayed.

Early on, she dreamed of making a break for the East Coast. From there, surely she and a few other actuals could pull a reverse Thor Heyerdahl to Scandinavia, to Iceland, to Buffy. But there were actuals right there in Alien Central to organize and protect, and sometime in the second year she let the dream go.

Through the tangled and oft-pruned grapevine came word of a place west, maybe the headquarters for an army of actuals, maybe a religious commune. From the name the latter seemed likelier, but religious crazies were too faded a fear for Dawn to worry about now, and anyway the chances these wore armor were pretty much zero.

It took her and her minivan of refugees weeks, turning back time and again to reinterpret vague, rumored directions. Once Dawn realized it was Tucson they were headed for, cryptic became clearer. Finally, after a standoff with several very skittish sentries, they were welcomed in: Safe Haven.

As soon as she walked in the door and saw him curled in a wooden chair, she recognized him: scragglier than ever. She should have known. “Topher Brink,” she said, and he startled back like the name was a wasp in his face. He looked up at her, blank, all wariness.

“He likely won’t remember you,” said a woman’s voice, soft, English. It wasn’t until Dawn turned that she knew the woman; the edge was gone, though the clipped manner was the same. Miss Oyster.

Dawn shrugged. “He wouldn’t anyway. You don’t.”

The woman looked her over more carefully then. Her expression cleared. “Outside Rossum. Tucson.”

“The Dollhouse in L.A.,” Dawn corrected her. “Sponsored by Wolfram and Hart? A little sight-seeing tour.”

Again, the dawning light. “One of your group looked a great deal like one of our actives at the time.” The woman looked fondly down at Topher, brushed a wisp of hair like straw from his face. “Topher was quite suspicious. He never learned much, though; you must have had marvelous encryption.”

It seemed pointless to explain about Willow’s mystical assists. The worst horrors weren’t demons anymore.

Days, then, of eating real food and sleeping in something resembling security, of admiring the garden and feeling evermore less at home. When the Faithalike made what was apparently a periodic visit, Dawn asked to go with.

“I work alone,” she – Echo – said. Dawn wondered about Paul, the cop-type still following on the other woman’s heels. “But I can drop you off with some people who can use you.” It sounded good to Dawn.

Oyster-gal and matron of the stronghold, Adelle, seemed unsurprised, though she made no comment. However, the night before departure, she asked, “Why did your group visit the Dollhouse? I’ve always wondered.”

Dawn looked down at Topher, curled up at Adelle’s side and finally peaceful, his head in her lap. Dawn had lived here weeks now; she’d heard enough of his mumblings to realize what he’d done. “We were hunting apocalypses,” she said.

[end]