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The irony of leaving Sunnydale for good in a school bus isn't lost on Dawn. She can't exactly graduate from high school now that it's been blown up; for the second time in its existence.

They all just stand there together in a clump and stare at the remains that was her home for the last seven years. No one seems ready to move; or to know where they should to move to. Dawn looks to Buffy, but she just stares down at the crater, her gaze unwavering. Eventually, hunger and medical attention win out, and they all pile into the bus and drive away.

Dawn only looks back once, then turns her gaze forward. Towards Buffy.

...

...

With no real direction, they wind up driving to the nearest hospital that they can find. They dump the wounded off on surprised nurses, and go to the waiting room, spent and exhausted. Some of the girls head out in search of food, Dawn just wants a bed.

Buffy doesn't go off with the wounded potentials. But there is a stab wound in her side and Dawn can't take her eyes off of it. She hovers beside Buffy, ignoring her claims of, "It'll heal Dawnie, just gimme a minute."

Dawn glares, trying her best to look authoritative. A sword went through her sister's body, and it's going to take more healing than just a few cuts and bruises would. Buffy stands there, looking petulant and like she might pass out at any moment before she huffs, and allows a nurse to apply some ointment and a bandage to her side. Dawn lets out a breath of relief and drops down into a chair. Her entire body hurts; she doesn't have the extra strength and healing that nearly everyone around her possesses, and they all look tired with it.

She is vaguely aware of people talking around her (and too her she supposes) but all she wants to do is sleep for a week.

Buffy doesn't give any orders or suggestions, just sags down into a chair beside Dawn and waits for someone else to decide. Dawn can't remember her ever just following along without any interjections of her own. She's not sure what that means; or if it even means anything beyond sheer exhaustion.

Everyone who is still injured are told to stay the night at the hospital, and the rest of them decide to book rooms at a local motel. Dawn wonders for about half a second where they acquired the cash to pay for motel rooms for over fifteen people, considering everything they owned just blew up, then she decides that she doesn't care.

She doesn't have any other clothes to change into, none of them do. Buffy just yanks off her jeans and slips into the bed they're sharing, ignoring the way Faith's eyes go wide and quickly duck away from her. She's out cold before Dawn even slides in next to her.

The smell of the bus becomes unbearable by day three. The stink of sweat and blood fill the air. It's impossible to avoid no matter how many of the child-lock windows they manage to yank open. Dawn can practically feel her t-shirt melding into her skin, and no matter how much water she guzzles down, her mouth still tastes like pennies. She has never felt this gross in her life.

Giles mentions offhandedly that there is another Hellmouth in Cleveland, Ohio, and with nothing better to do, suddenly, they have a destination. Driving practically across the whole damn country in one shitty school bus. Mustard yellow and putrid. Dawn watches as Buffy grows increasingly silent with each new mile they put behind them, and bites the inside of her cheek nearly raw.

She doesn't want to live on another Hellmouth, but she'll go wherever Buffy goes.

...

...

They're all eating lunch in some greasy highway diner, taking up half the booths in the place. The summer air is hot and stifling with no breeze to speak of. Dawn catches Buffy suddenly straighten her spine, looking determined. Dawn freezes, a french fry inches from her mouth as Buffy clears her throat.

"I'm not going to Cleveland," she says firmly, looking across the booth at Giles. His eyes snap up to her, shocked expression on his face.

Dawn shoves the fry in her mouth, feeling goosebumps begin to rise up on her arms.

"What?" Xander snaps. Buffy ignores him, holding her gaze steady with Giles.

Dawn holds the fry in her mouth, letting it dissolve instead of chewing it, afraid of even that little motion somehow upsetting things further. The couple in the booth behind them rustle their newspapers, and Dawn can hear the metallic clang of spatulas on the hot griddle in the kitchen. Everything continues on outside of their booth, but no one moves an inch inside of it. Everyone stares at Buffy.

The silence is stifling, and the french fry is beginning to stick to the roof of Dawn's mouth. She tries to push it off with her tongue as Xander and Willow start firing off questions at Buffy. One after another, until their voices mingle into one. Neither of them make much sense, talking over each other, or give Buffy a second to explain.

Instead of getting the fry unstuck, Dawn starts choking on it. Buffy pushes her out of the booth and drags her into the bathroom, smacking her lightly on the back and threatening to give her the Heimlich. Dawn spits out the mushy remains of potato into her hand and gasps, trying to catch her breath.

"You alright?" Buffy asks, looking tense and concerned, like her whole body has coiled into itself, ready to snap. Dawn nods and straightens up, resting back against the wall. "Dawnie..." Buffy starts.

"I'm coming with you." Dawn says immediately, cutting Buffy off. There is no way that she's letting Buffy try to ditch her again. If anyone comes near her with chloroform, she's still got that taser in her hoodie pocket.

The sides of Buffy's mouth tick up into a small smile, and Dawn relaxes.

"Of course you are." Buffy says. As if there was never any doubt.

Xander and Willow give Buffy a hard time, but Giles just wraps Buffy up into a hug and presses some cash into her palm. "You know where we're headed if you need us?" he asks.

"I do," Buffy says with a smile. She squeezes Giles a little tighter before stepping over to hug Willow.

"Where are you gonna go?" Xander asks, still looking a little affronted.

Buffy only shrugs. "Dawnie and I are taking a road trip." She sidesteps over to Faith, and the two of them just kind of stare at each other for what feels like ages. And Dawn is going to ask her about that sometime soon. After what is probably only a second or so, Faith gives Buffy a sly grin, and punches her on the shoulder.

"Take care B. Check out the Grand Canyon or something."

Buffy smiles, and then it's just the two of them.

...

...

With the cash from Giles, Buffy manages to flirt her way into buying them a shitty old van. She bats her eyelashes and tugs down her top a little. Dawn rolls her eyes but can't help feeling a little bit impressed. Buffy can get just about anyone on her side if she puts her mind too it. Tiny, and blonde, and smiling that big bright smile, people will walk right into fire for her. Dawn included. For her part, Dawn does her best to look sort of young and helpless. This greasy man isn't gonna look twice at her if she tries to mimic Buffy's flirting. All she'll do is end up embarrassing herself.

The minute the keys are in her hand, Buffy's spine straightens and her eyes go sort of hard. But she keeps a tight smile aimed at the guy, and gives him a friendly salute as she climbs into the front seat of the van. He looks confused and scratches at the back of his head as they turn to each other and ignore him.

The van smells; a mixture of things Dawn can't place and doesn't particularly want to try. It's old, like those buses hippies rode around in during the sixties and seventies. And the orange paint has faded to look sort of pathetic rather than its original sunny intent. But Buffy cranks the van to life and beams at Dawn. “Remember last year, I told you I wanted to show the world to you?” Dawn nods. She'd never forget that. Down in that damn pit, fighting monsters crawling out of the dirt, the first time Buffy had ever looked at Dawn in a way that made her feel worth something real. Like she was an asset, not just the kid sister who always needed protecting. A constant burden. Buffy had cried and held onto her and then the two of them had crawled out of the earth together. Oddly, it was one of the best moments in Dawn's life. Impending world doom aside. “Well, now's a good a time as any to make good on that promise,” she grins, looking happier than she has in months. “Any preference?”

As long as she is with Buffy, and nothing is trying to kill them, Dawn doesn't care. “Anywhere,” she says. “The Grand Canyon.” Faith's suggestion seems as good as any. Buffy's smile widens, and she pulls them out onto the open highway.

Dawn knows, had known, since the moment Buffy announced that she wasn't going with the rest of the scoobies to Cleveland, that they were running away. Putting as much distance between them as possible from the crater that was their home for seven years, and all the people they knew who lived within it. With each mile that passes since they left Giles and the others, Buffy seems to sit up straighter, smile a little brighter. Like a weight has been lifted off her chest, and she can finally breathe again. As they drive down the open highway, Dawn wonders if it was easier for them to leave because of all the things they don't have to ground them to anything anymore: there weren't any books to pack, any clothes to separate out, all the bits of their old life together are just ashes and sparks. Sunnydale is gone and their mother gone with it, and they’re free in the worst way.

Thinking about it too much makes her head hurt, but the van is so full of silence it's hard not to. Buffy just drives and drives and drives, hardly ever saying a word. Dawn wants to ask her what she's thinking about. What they are going to do now that another apocalypse is over and they're still alive. She can feel the questions pushing against her throat, eager to be spit out, but Buffy keeps her gaze forward, humming along softly to the radio, so Dawn swallows them down and keeps riding, silent. She twiddles her thumbs and watches the yellow paint zip past them as they drive.

When they pull into the nearest rest stop, while Buffy fills the gas tank, Dawn heads inside and buys:

2 Snickers bars

1 cup of coffee, with 1 packet of Splenda and a little milk

1 pink lemonade Snapple

1 map of the Grand Canyon

2 toothbrushes

2 pairs of sunglasses

1 deep purple journal

 

It's the first journal that she has owned since the night she ripped all her old ones to pieces; when she found out that she was the key. Buffy had tried to tape some of them back together for her, but they were far too singed and torn up to be readable. Dawn had become creeped out by them anyway. They were full of things that never really happened, written by someone that wasn't her, but who somehow knew just the way her handwriting would be. They weren't real, just like her. She didn't want the reminder.

As Buffy drives, Dawn runs her fingers across her new journal, not opening it just yet. Buffy sips her coffee, flicking her eyes across the dash. “Good color,” she says, nodding towards the journal.

Dawn smiles, and cracks it open. “Yeah.”

Day One, she writes, a rusty old hippie bus that smells vaguely of pot and fish is our new home. Mom is probably having a conniption somewhere if she can see us.

She chugs some of her lemonade and leans back, pushing her new sunglasses up to her nose. Buffy hums along with the radio beside her, and the sun warms their skin.

They drive until they reach the Grand Canyon, only stopping once more to go to the bathroom and pick up some greasy hamburgers at a rest stop. When they pull off of Interstate 40, the sun is setting and there are only a few other people around.

Dawn follows Buffy out of the van, clutching her half eaten hamburger and gaping at the vastness laid out before them. The setting sun washes over the southern rim of the canyon, a color so hard you could bash your knuckles on it. They stand there, side by side, unmoving, until a young boy yells out from across the camping area. Dawn looks over, and watches his family: mom, dad, the boy and a little girl. They're packing up their things, ready to move on. Go back home.

Buffy's fingers reach out and interlace with Dawn's, and she squeezes. They remain like that, hands clasped together, staring out into the canyon as the family pulls out of the camping grounds. And a strange, intense feeling rises from inside of Dawn, like the moment after the moment when you realize that you're dreaming; the moment when you realize that you haven't woken up yet, and that maybe, just maybe, you could decide what happens next. She squeezes Buffy's hand back.

And that's when Buffy lets out a howl. There is no other way to describe it. Buffy tilts her head back and something comes up from inside of her, so powerful and sad that Dawn almost falls over. But Buffy's grip on her hand never wavers, holds Dawn firmly in place. Just like always. Only this time, it feels like Buffy isn't just holding Dawn in place, she's using Dawn to keep herself up too.

Buffy looks like she might be embarrassed, but Dawn doesn't give her a chance to be. She wraps her arms around Buffy's tiny frame and holds her till she's quiet. There isn't another soul around them, and the desert chews its secrets right down to the bone. Buffy can howl out at the world all she wants. She's earned it.

After a few minutes, they climb onto the hood of the van to finish their hamburgers and wait for the sun to set all the way. They lay there a little while longer, until Dawn starts to shiver from the cool night air and Buffy climbs back into the van, Dawn following behind. Camping out doesn't seem particularly inviting, they haven't got a blanket, and there is the fish smell to consider. Instead, they drive back down towards the lodge to book a room for the night.

It costs a fortune. They're going to run out of Giles' money before the week is up at this rate.

“Where are we gonna go tomorrow?” Dawn whispers as they slip under the covers. Finding a change of clothes is the first thing on her list. Pajamas is the second.

She watches Buffy shrug the question off, place it somewhere in a pile of things that no longer matter. Then she kills the light and closes her eyes, slipping almost effortlessly into slumber.

Dawn sits up and watches Buffy sleep in the bed across from her and thinks that eventually, they will run out of interstate and reasons to keep running from the hugeness of absence behind them. And when it happens, it will be—for the first time ever—Dawn saving Buffy. It’ll be her turn to jump into the light. Like she tried to do the first time.

In the dark, Dawn pulls out her journal. Squinting down at the page in front of her, she traces her fingers over the lines before closing the journal and slipping it under her pillow.

“Is it a tree?”

“No.”

“A car?”

“No.”

“The pavement?”

“No.”

“Is it in my line of sight?”

“Dawnie, you're using up your questions.

“This is a terrible game.”

Buffy pouts and turns the volume on the radio up.

“Fine, animal, vegetable or mineral?”

Buffy grins. “Animal.”

Buffy won't let Dawn drive. Partly, because Dawn has never actually been taught to drive. There were always more pressing issues: demons, vampires, apocalypses, and—as Buffy enjoys pointing out—the fact that technically, Dawn is only three years old. At that, Dawn can't help but pout and throw a crumpled up hamburger wrapper at Buffy's head. It's petty, and it sort of further proves Buffy's point, but it makes Dawn feel better anyway.

As they press on down the never ending pavement before them, Dawn realizes that this is the first time she has ever left California. In her entire life. She shivers even though it's sweltering, the beginnings of summer weather coming in full force upon them.

“Teach me then,” she asks. Buffy frowns. “You got any other plans?” Dawn pushes.

Buffy flicks on her turn signal. “Nope,” she says with a smile, and pulls them off the highway.

They find a mostly empty parking lot in a small town and switch seats. Buffy is clearly trying to be patient, but when Dawn nearly crashes them into a tree she screams and grabs hold of the steering wheel. Declaring the lesson to be on pause for lunch, the two of them find a small sandwich place. It's the healthiest food they've had to eat in the last week, and Dawn devours it.

She wonders what Willow is doing right now. If the others have made it to Cleveland yet. Maybe they've found a place to live, all of them packed up together, fighting for food and free bathrooms. Dawn sits across from Buffy at a picnic table, the sun beating down on them, a small breeze blowing her sticky—unwashed—hair around her neck. Both of them eat silently. Dawn hasn't been alone with someone in... years it feels like. Buffy's friends were always around, and the house has been full of potentials the last few months, and before that... Mom was always there. It was hardly ever just her and Buffy together by themselves. Not for long anyway. The lack of noise is unnerving.

Buffy pushes her empty plate away from her and sighs. Dawn thinks she might be coming to the same realization. She wonders how long it'll be before Buffy gets sick of the road and the quiet and wants more people around.

Buffy looks up at her and catches Dawn's eye, “Want to try again?”

Dawn nods.

Day thirteen: mastered driving on the open road, not so great in towns.

Buffy checks them into a motel on the edge of town (some town, any town, it doesn't seem to matter anymore). It's rundown and cheep and it still costs too much. The cash Giles gave them has depleted much faster than either of them realized. Dawn finally has more than one pair of underwear, but they're going to have to figure out something for money soon. They can't just keep driving. Not if they want to keep a full tank of gas and be able to eat food.

Dawn finds a vending machine and she and Buffy munch on slightly stale pretzels and Kit Kat bars for dinner while they watch staticky tv.

A couple fights loudly in the room next to them, and Buffy sighs as she crawls forward to turn the volume up on the old tv. Dawn crunches a pretzel in-between her teeth as Fran Fine cackles at Mr Sheffield on the small screen. When Buffy settles back beside Dawn, she leans into her side and steels the Kit Kat Dawn was just about to take a bite of. Dawn squawks at her without any real feeling behind it, and picks up another one.

The couple stops fighting and starts making some different loud noises. Buffy shifts uncomfortably bedside her, reaching for a remote that doesn't exist.

“Guess they're making up.” Dawn says.

Buffy humphs, then crawls back over to turn the volume up as loud as it will go. Dawn just chuckles at the red flush breaking out on her sister's cheeks.

“What are we gonna do about money?” Dawn whispers when she thinks Buffy has fallen asleep. “Where are we gonna live? What are we gonna do now?”

Buffy's steady breathing is the only answer Dawn receives. She rolls over and closes her eyes, doesn't open them again till morning.

A guy across the diner keeps shooting glances over at Buffy, and he finally catches her eye and raises his glass to her. Dawn rolls her eyes and twirls her spaghetti. All her life, Dawn’s watched boys (human, and non-human alike) fall instantly for the person they think Buffy is. They’re always wrong.

Buffy doesn't notice. She just gives him a light smile and continues telling Dawn a story about this time she and Angel had to take out a whole nest of vamps by themselves one night. Dawn isn't really paying attention. She never liked Angel much. Buffy was constantly moody when he was around, and all he ever did was make her feel bad about herself—at least that's how Dawn saw it. Spike too come to think of it; even Riley near the end. Dawn had been counting on him to be a good guy. Romance shouldn't be that hard. It shouldn't be all consuming, and life and death and pain. Dawn doesn't ever want to fall in love that way. She doesn't want her happiness dependent on someone else. Though, as Buffy laughs brightly and leans back into the booth, oblivious to the guy still trying to get her attention, completely focused on Dawn, Dawn knows she already does love someone like that.

Buffy kicks her lightly in the shins. “Dawnie? Anybody home?”

“Sorry.” Dawn shovels spaghetti into her mouth. She twirled too much on the fork, half of it spills back onto her plate. Buffy barks out a laugh while Dawn scrambles to try and not look like a five year old. “Asshole.” Dawn mutters once she has managed to swallow.

“Hey now,” the waitress, a woman in her late forties named Helen, with hair that looks too much like Joyce's for Dawn's comfort, comes up and smiles at her. “That's no way to talk to your sister,” she mock chastises. Buffy sticks her tongue out—quick—but Helen catches her and laughs. “You girls need anything else? Desert? We got some fantastic peach pie in the back.”

“No, thank you.” Buffy says. They are budgeting what little money they have left severely.

“All right, I'll be back with your check in a bit.” Helen smiles fondly at them with practiced ease, just another part of her job, but it warms Dawn's chest anyway.

Dawn polishes off the rest of her spaghetti, pushing the plate over to Buffy for the last bite. “Got a quarter?” she asks.

Buffy digs into her jeans pocket and rolls one over to her. “Tell Giles I said hi.”

Dawn nods and walks outside to the payphone. Buffy hasn't talked to anyone since they left. She tells Dawn to pass on a hello, then disappears; into the bathroom, for a run, to get food, anything but listen to Dawn's half of the conversation. At first, Dawn thought she just needed some space. Didn't want to listen to Xander's questions of why she wasn't with them, or what was she was going to do next. But the second time Dawn called to check in, Faith had grabbed the phone away from Willow.

“The Grand Canyon worth seeing?” she asked without preamble.

“Hello Faith, how are you?” Dawn said, rolling her eyes at Buffy. Buffy's whole body went stock still, and Dawn watched, eyebrows raised as Buffy stood up, mumbled something about food, and nearly bolted from the room. “We already ate!” Dawn called after her.

“What?” Faith asked.

“Nothing, Buffy's being weird. The Grand Canyon does indeed live up to its hype.”

“B is always weird.” Faith swore and the phone became staticky for a moment. “Well... good to know. About the Canyon. I'll move it up on my list.”

Dawn hadn't known what to say to her after that. She and Faith had never really had much of a relationship. Back when she first came around, before she got all murdery, Faith tended to avoid Dawn. Never letting herself be alone with the ten year old for more than half a second. Dawn had been a little enamored with her—she had seemed much cooler than Buffy—but being threatened and kidnapped, then having your sister almost murdered by someone tends to put one off. Dawn never understood Buffy's continued interest in Faith's wellbeing after that. Not till she came back to Sunnydale a few months ago. Not till Dawn watched Buffy's entire demeanor change whenever Faith was in the room. Buffy and Faith locked in on each other, constantly aware of the others presence with a hyper focus that Dawn had never ever really seen before. Occasionally, it reminded Dawn of how with Buffy was sometimes with Angel. Which is when things finally clicked, and Buffy's avoidance started making a hell of a lot more sense.

“Well...” Dawn twirled the motel phone cord around her finger.

“Yeah, tell B I say hi.” Faith said quickly. “Have some fun. Dust some vamps. Don't die. You know the drill. Stay weird Little B.” And Faith hung up.

“Bye...” Dawn said to the dial tone.

Dawn hasn't talked to Faith since that night, but before she hangs up, she nearly always hears Faith yell out 'hi Little B' in the background. So Dawn knows she's usually listening during her conversations. They're never important: 'hellos' and 'how are yous'. Listening to websites and books that Willow recommends for Dawn to check out. Xander complaining about living with so many women. Giles asking how they are, if they need anything. And one or more of the potentials grabbing the phone, talking over each other. Dawn mostly just holds the phone to her ear and makes appropriate listening noises. She doesn't actually care about what is said, just that she can hear the familiar voices.

She goes through the motions, the phone up against her ear, listening to Willow as she watches Buffy pay for their dinner through the window. The man who had been eyeing her all night walks over and tries to chat her up. Dawn watches as Buffy curtly, but politely, humors him till Helen marches over and cuts in. She's good. Practiced. She interjects herself into the conversation so fluidly and places herself between Buffy and the man without him even really noticing. Dawn watches Buffy smile at her. It's unnecessary. Buffy can take care of herself; but Dawn knows how much Buffy appreciates women who look out for each other.

“Dawnie?” Willow asks, pulling Dawn's focus back to the call. “You there?”

“Yeah, sorry.” Dawn yawns and she can hear Willow laugh on the other end of the line.

“It's seven-thirty.

“Shut up!” Dawn says, with a hint of a whine. “I've been driving for hours. Buffy got to nap.”

Willow's voice changes. “How is she? Are... do you guys know where you're going yet?”

Buffy walks out of the diner, a little skip in her step, and she waves for Dawn to wrap it up. They are in limbo. No obligations, or places that they need to be, just endlessly going nowhere together. Dawn can see how much Buffy needs it. There is a reason she has been holding in all her questions of what comes next. Dawn kicks at the metal of the payphone stand. “Still figuring it out,” she says quietly. Casual, like Buffy's been. She doesn't pull it off as well. “We gotta go, have a good night Willow.”

Dawn hangs up and runs across the parking lot, falling into step with Buffy. “I can drive, you go ahead and crash in the back.” Buffy offers. They bought a few blankets and pillows, and aired the back of the van out to rid themselves of the fish smell. It's been a solid investment so far. “You didn't ask Giles for anymore money did you?” she adds, voice strained.

“No.” Dawn says, for what feels like the millionth time.

Buffy sighs. “I just... we can't keep taking his money. He's done enough.”

“I know.” Dawn climbs into the back of the van and yanks off her jeans. She pulls on some cotton shorts and gets as comfortable as possible. Which isn't much despite their many pillows. Buffy makes a face at her, like she is going to say something else, but instead, she cranks the old van to life and turns the radio down low as she pulls out onto the interstate.

Outside, the night is deep and huge, and the headlights from the cars on the highway barely cut into it. Eventually, the steady pulse of the van, Buffy's breathing, and the hum of the voices on the radio lull Dawn to sleep.

“Did you love Spike?”

Buffy's eyes go wide and she nearly swerves into the other lane. “What?”

“Spike.” Dawn repeats. “Did you love him?”

“I—” Buffy stops, bites her bottom lip and her eyebrows crease together. She is silent for another ten miles. “Yes,” she finally says with conviction. “I did. But, I don't know if I was in love with him. Or, I don't think I would have stayed that way if I was.”

Dawn ponders this. “Why? Because he was a vampire?”

“No. Well... I don't know. Maybe. Partly.” Buffy's hands grip the wheel tighter, and she squints from the sunlight. Dawn yanks down the visor for her.

“Would you have stayed in love with Angel? If he hadn't left?”

“I don't know.” Buffy whispers. “I think a part of me will always love Angel, because he was the first person I loved. But... we weren't... I mean, I was only sixteen. I think the way I loved him was childish.” Dawn frowns in confusion and Buffy sighs. “I mean, I was so young. Everything was overwhelming, and intense, and dramatic. It was exhausting. I don't know if I could have really sustained that. And, I mean, we're so different now.” Buffy shrugs. “Maybe if he had stayed things would be different, but, I think he needed to leave. And, I think I needed him to leave. Even if I didn't know it then.”

It's the most Buffy has ever seriously offered up about her love life to Dawn. And she is going to take advantage of it while it lasts. “What about Riley?”

Buffy laughs, a little bitterly. “What is this? List off all Buffy's failures in boyfriends?”

“No,” Dawn shrugs. “Just... curious.”

Buffy shoots a glance over at Dawn, quickly, then sighs. “Yes, I loved Riley. Clearly, it wasn't meant to be.”

Dawn decides she might as well go for it. “And Faith?” she asks, as quietly and casually as she can.

Buffy sucks in a breath and tenses up. “What about her?” she bites.

“Are you in love with Faith?” Dawn asks, gently.

“Why would you ask me that?”

“Because—”

“Don't be ridiculous.” Buffy snaps, cutting Dawn off. She goes still, in a way that, any other time, would be Dawn reaching out to hug Buffy. Instead, she twitches and picks at a hole forming in her jeans. The thrum of the radio filling the silence of the van as they drive on.

Buffy starts to become restless. Dawn doesn't blame her. The monotony of driving down endless bits of highway with no real direction, listening as radio stations turn fuzzy, eating cheep greasy diner food gets old after a while. It seems worse for Buffy, who is used to constant training and going out on patrol every night. Finally, after they check into a motel for the night (with nearly the last of their dollars) Buffy tells Dawn she is going for a run. She's practically jumping in her skin, unable to sit still a moment longer. She's been doing push ups for the last half hour while Dawn showered.

“Okay.” Dawn says, and then Buffy is gone.

It's ridiculous, but the minute the door closes, Dawn feels her chest tighten. Trying to ignore it, she brushes her hair and watches a slightly fuzzy news program, her stomach growling. She'd kill for a fresh banana right now. Hell, she might even go for some broccoli.

The news finishes, and Dawn sits through an old episode of Law and Order: SUV, her knee bouncing the whole time. During a commercial, she finds a green sharpie in one of the nightstand drawers and begins coloring her toenails with it. While Benson and Stabler interrogate a pedophile, Dawn colors her fingernails green and shakes out her hair, urging it to dry faster. Buffy still isn't back.

Her stomach growls painfully and Dawn grabs a handful of change and counts out two dollars. She slips out of their room, and walks down towards the vending machine. A young boy jumps out of a room in front of her, his mother, or someone, yells after him in Korean. Dawn smiles sheepishly at her and sidesteps the boy.

She can afford a bag of pretzels, or two candy bars. While she contemplates which one will fill her up more, the boy stamps up behind her in a huff.

“You can go first,” Dawn says, stepping out of the way. “I'm still deciding.”

He doesn't say thank you, merely shoves in his coins and collects his candy bar—a Payday—before running back to his mother. From the look on her face, she doesn't approve of his choice.

Dawn pushes her coins into the slot and pulls out what will probably be a stale bag of pretzels. When she slips back into the room, Buffy still isn't there and the tightness in Dawn's chest worsens. Buffy has been gone for over two hours—the longest they've spent apart from each other since leaving Sunnydale. Dawn understands how ridiculous it is for a seventeen year old girl to have separation anxiety from her older sister, but she knows that it's the reason she feels so on edge.

She polishes off the pretzels and brushes her teeth before climbing under the covers. She can't focus on the television, but when she turns it off, the room is far too quiet. By the time all the channels have switched to paid programing commercials, Dawn is exhausted and feels sick.

Finally, Buffy slips through the door, smelling of sweat and dirt and grinning madly. “Hey Dawnie,” she says, “I'm gonna jump in the shower.”

Dawn clicks the television off and burrows deep under the covers. She wants to yell at Buffy, and she wants to hug her. Instead, she pretends to be asleep until she actually is.

Day twenty-eight: we have forty-seven dollars and twenty-nine cents left. No more motels for us. Which means no more showers. Washing yourself in gas station bathrooms with paper towels and soap is a terrible experience. We're gonna run out of gas soon, but Buffy doesn't seem to care.

Buffy pulls the van over by an abandoned barn in the middle of nowhere. “I'll just be a little while,” she starts to say, but Dawn cuts her off.

“I'm coming with you.” Buffy makes a face at her, but Dawn climbs out of the car. “I'm sick of sitting in this fucking van Buffy. If you're going for a run, so am I.”

Buffy looks at her dubiously for a moment, then shrugs. “Okay then, come on.”

Dawn regrets her decision almost immediately. She can't keep up with Buffy, especially after all the shitty food they have been eating, and meals they have been skipping to conserve money for gas. Not to mention her completely sedentary lifestyle for the last month. Ten minutes in she's gasping for breath and Buffy slows down. Dawn is both grateful and annoyed.

“What are we doing?” Dawn chokes out a few minutes later.

“What?” Buffy slows to a walk and frowns at Dawn.

Dawn wants to scream. “Buffy we've got forty dollars! I haven't eaten a vegetable in over a month! We have no home! What are we doing?” she yells.

Buffy's shoulders sag and Dawn wants to yank all her words back and shove them down her throat where they should have stayed. It's her turn to take care of Buffy. She was supposed to shut up and do that. Give Buffy what she needs and not worry about herself. But... they've been at this for a month, at some point, something has to give. Maybe this is her taking care of Buffy.

“I don't know,” Buffy admits quietly. They've made it to the edge of the town. The lights from the stores on Main st. shine down at them from half a mile or so away. Buffy is cast in a dull sort of glow that makes her look sick. Dawn doubts that she looks much better.

Buffy looks up and meets Dawn's eye. “I don't know what I'm doing Dawnie,” she says, tearfully. “I'm sorry. I just...” she shakes, sucking some tears back. “I'm not the slayer anymore. I don't know what I'm supposed to do.”

“You are though.” Dawn says. “You've got your powers. You're still the slayer.”

“I'm not.” Buffy looks up at Dawn and for the first time in a long time, Dawn thinks she looks younger than her. Dawn is taller, and suddenly, she feels older. “I'm a slayer. I'm not the slayer. There are hundreds now. I don't need to do it by myself anymore.”

Dawn bites her lip. “You weren't the slayer before though. You and Faith both were.” Buffy's eyes widen at that, and her back goes ramrod straight. Mentally, Dawn curses, but she presses on. “It's true. I mean, yes, things are way different now. But... don't you think maybe that's a good thing? That it isn't all up to you? That other people can help now? It's... you can do whatever you want.”

“That's just it though,” Buffy whispers, “if I'm not saving the world, I don't know what I'm good for. I don't know what I want.”

Dawn is about to answer, with what she doesn't know, when a terrified shriek pierces the air and causes both girls to jump. On instinct, Buffy nods to Dawn and they both sprint towards the sound. Buffy reaches the girl before Dawn and shoves the vampire off of her. The girl keeps screaming, stunned and terrified, slinking down against the building. She is far too close. Buffy is fighting him off, a little rusty. Dawn sees him get in a hit that will definitely leave Buffy with a nasty bruise later. Dawn looks around wildly for something Buffy can use as a stake. There is a wooden bench by the road.

“Buffy!” Dawn yells, “bench to your left!” Buffy kicks the legs out from underneath the vampire and Dawn chucks a big rock at him, giving Buffy enough time to break off a part of the bench and stake him with it. Dawn runs over to the girl, still huddled on the ground, and kneels down beside her. “Are you okay?” she asks gently.

“What—what was that? I just... he...” she chokes off, sobbing as Buffy comes up behind them.

Dawn rubs her shoulder lightly. “It's okay. He can't hurt you anymore.”

“Gone for good.” Buffy adds.

The girl looks up at Buffy in awe. “You saved me,” she gasps. “How... you're so strong.”

Dawn grins up at Buffy too. “That's what she does. She saves people.” Buffy looks at her and everything in her body seems to soften. Dawn keeps her gaze trained on Buffy as she helps the girl up to her feet. “She's kind of a superhero.”

The girl jumps forward and hugs Buffy, shocking her. “Thank you so much.”

Dawn watches Buffy awkwardly put her arms around the girl, then relax. “No big.” Buffy says. “We can walk you home if you want.”

The girl nods. She walks between Buffy and Dawn, chattering nervously the whole way, thanking them over and over. When they deposit her at her front door, she hugs them both again fiercely.

They walk down the sidewalk, steps in perfect time together, shoulders brushing. “It is big you know.” Dawn says once they reach the end of Main st.

“Huh?” Buffy asks.

“Saving her.” Dawn explains. “You told her 'no big' but... just cause it's not apocalypse big doesn't mean it's not important.”

“I know that Dawn. I wasn't—”

“No I just mean...” Dawn stops walking. “You're still the slayer if you don't want to be at a Hellmouth. The rest of them can deal with the big time stuff and you don't have to feel guilty about that. We can do anything. We can just save people like this. We can... you're still you Buffy.” Dawn doesn't think she is making any sense, but something in Buffy's face changes—like maybe she is.

Buffy swallows, then nods and slips her hand into Dawn's and squeezes. She keeps her hand there, holding tight, and they walk the rest of the way back to the van in companionable silence.

Day thirty-four: the midwest is comprised solely of corn and demons.

Dawn pickpockets the wallet of a smartly dressed man who nearly causes their waitress to burst into tears on Friday. Buffy is up by the counter, talking to the girl, trying to make her feel better and not hiding her glare at the man one bit. He doesn't notice, or doesn't care, just sits there punching away at his laptop, waiting for his new plate of food. Dawn's seen people do it in movies, figures it can't be all that hard. While Buffy's distracted and the man's distracted, Dawn just... walks by and palms it. It's so easy she can't believe it. She counts out the bills in the dingy little bathroom—hundreds. Dawn beams and shoves them in her jeans pocket, the wallet palmed in her hand as she walks back past the man's table. She just slips the wallet right back where it was, no muss, no fuss. He never even looks up from his laptop.

Buffy waves her over, ready to get out of there, still restless. Dawn tucks a hundred dollar bill underneath her plate—a tip to make up for the jerk—and gives their waitress a bright smile and a 'thank you' as she passes by.

As Dawn climbs into the passenger seat, she watches through the window as the waitress finds her tip, gasping in awe. Dawn shoves her sunglasses up on her face and lets the wind hit her hair.

She waits until they're a good hundred miles away before telling Buffy they've got some cash. As she predicted, Buffy isn't thrilled with her. But they need the money, and it's already done. She listens to Buffy lecture her for the next hundred miles. And then again later, when they pull into an old lot and go for a patrol run. Buffy dusts a vamp and yells at Dawn through the whole fight, not loosing her concentration once. She's not rusty anymore.

“We need the money. And he sure as hell didn't.”

“That is not the point!”

Dawn groans as they walk back towards the van, keeps groaning all through changing her clothes and getting comfortable. Buffy doesn't let up once.

Dawn promises Buffy no more stealing with her fingers crossed behind her back.

Rather than spend another night sleeping in the van, while Buffy is out for a run, Dawn uses some of the extra cash and gets them a room at a local bed and breakfast. There doesn't seem to be a single motel in the small town, and she wants to sleep in something resembling an actual house for once.

There are only three rooms in the entire place, and two of them are occupied. So, Dawn just takes the room offered to her by a kindly old lady named Millie. She is giving them a discount and making them a hot breakfast in the morning which they don't have to pay anything extra for. Dawn isn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

When she drags her bag and Buffy's up the stairs and opens the door to their room, she screams and falls over.

The entire room is covered, wall to wall, with creepy old dolls.

Millie walks over to the bottom of the stairs and looks up at Dawn in concern. “Are you alright sweetie?”

“I'm—” embarrassed, Dawn scrambles to upright herself. “I'm fine,” she assures Mille, steeling a glance back into the room and suppressing a shudder. “I just... I'm tired. And,” Dawn waves her hand towards the closest shelf of dolls, “they surprised me.”

“Oh,” Millie smiles at her. “You be sure to get some sleep before dinner. I'll tell you all about the dolls tonight. I've got a record of each one!”

Dawn looks at the sheer number of dolls in the room and tries not to cringe. “Awesome.”

Millie walks away and leaves her too it, and Dawn reminds herself that she is technically, millions of years old. She has personally staked vampires. She survived getting kidnapped by Angelus when she was just a kid. She made it through more than one freaking apocalypse—she can walk into this creepy doll room.

She does so with a high pitched squeal emitting slowly from her. There are more dolls on the bed. Dawn whacks them off with Buffy's bag and situates herself in the very middle of the bed, desperately trying not to look any of the dolls in the eye.

“I'm gonna die in this room,” she mutters to herself.

She's still in the same position when Buffy steps into the room about an hour later. She screams and high kicks a shelf of dolls before wildly looking around the room. “What the hell!?” she yells once her gaze settles on Dawn.

“Millie is gonna tell me about each one of them at dinner in ten minutes.” Dawn says without looking at anything but the bedspread in front of her. “I think they're going to come to life and murder us probably. That's why this town is so small. The dolls eat the people.”

Buffy looks like she is actually considering the possibilities of killer dolls wiping out a town. Which, from all of the things that happened over the years in Sunnydale, really isn't all that out there of an idea. Dawn watches her shake her head, bouncing on the balls of her feet. She is still in a sports bra and shorts, her brow slick with sweat. “Well, they can eat me after I've showered.” She steps into their bathroom then lets out a screech that could probably be heard three states away. Dawn leaps off of the bed and grabs her bag, brandishing it wildly as she runs into the bathroom.

“What!?” she screams, ready to hit whatever weird demon is hiding in the toilet.

Buffy stands, braless with her shorts down around her ankles, staring into the shower. She merely points.

There are five dolls in the shower. Two each at the front of the tub, and two in the back; and one, glaring down at unsuspecting people trying to clean themselves from above the shower-head. It's a trap.

“Oh my god,” Dawn whispers. “There's one on the top of the toilet too.”

Buffy yells and backs into Dawn. “I can't shower with them all glaring at me!”

“Just move them out.”

You move them out!”

Dawn scoffs. “You're the vampire slayer. And a twenty-two year old grown ass woman. I'm just a teenager. You do it.”

Buffy won't take her eyes off of the doll over the shower-head. “You're almost eighteen.”

I don't need to take a shower.”

“I'm gonna put one on your pillow in the middle of the night.” Buffy promises through clenched teeth.

“Don't. You. Dare.”

Buffy grabs the shower-head doll and throws it at Dawn.

Dinner consists of roasted brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and garbanzo beans all mixed up in with spaghetti. It's nothing Dawn would have ever eaten on her own, and it's nothing Joyce ever made for them, but somehow, once Dawn's got a whole bite in her mouth, she's about ready to cry. She chokes, sputtering and grabbing for her glass of water. Millie, and the two middle aged couples also staying at the bed and breakfast look over at Dawn with concern. Dawn chokes again, Buffy thumping her back hard once, her food spilling back out all over her plate. Once Dawn can breathe again, her face flushes red with embarrassment. “I'm sorry,” she whispers, throat still scratchy. “I... it went down the wrong pipe,” she says with a shrug.

“That's alright dear,” Millie tells her with a soft smile. “Would you like another glass of water?”

“No I... I can get it myself.” Dawn grabs her plate and rises, not wanting to be any more trouble than she already feels. “Thank you.”

Buffy glares at Dawn as she escapes into the kitchen, leaving Buffy alone with Millie and the binder full of information on the dolls. She scrapes the food she spit out into the garbage disposal and pours herself another glass of water. She downs it in its entirety, then chokes again. Dawn fills the glass up to the brim again, turning the disposal off and leaning back against the sink. She sips the water slowly, until she hears Buffy's voice become increasingly high pitched as she says, “oh wow!” and “gosh that's interesting” on repeat. Presumably, the information about the dolls is as disturbing as the end results waiting for them up in their bedroom. Dawn chugs the last of her water and shovels in a few quick bites of her pasta before sending the rest of it down into the disposal. It makes her throat feel too small, like she might choke again if she tries to eat anymore of it.

Dawn waltzes back into the living room supporting a yawn that started out as fake but turns real halfway through. Buffy jumps up and grabs a hold of her forearm. “Thank you so much for dinner Millie. And it was lovely to meet you all, but we've been driving all day, and we've still got quite a trip ahead of us tomorrow. We'd better go get some sleep.”

“Goodnight girls,” Millie says, smiling. “My room is down here if you need anything.”

“Thank you.” Dawn says through another yawn. Buffy drags her up the stairs. “Owww.” Dawn hisses, yanking her arm back as they slip into their room.

Buffy glares at her. “You left me alone! Did you know that each doll has a name? And random facts?” She stalks over to the shelf above the bed and yanks down the biggest one: a rag doll that looks like it's from a horror movie from the seventies. “This one's called Ginerva. She was built in 1959 and the fabric is from Tibet.” Buffy shoves it in Dawn's face.

“Don't!” she yells, stepping back.

Buffy whacks her with it on the shoulder before dropping it to the floor and going to find her pjs. “I can't believe we're sleeping here. Xander would cry.”

It's the first time she has mentioned anyone apart from Giles without Dawn prompting her first. Dawn watches as Buffy's shoulders tense up as she realizes. Dawn picks up another doll and throws it lightly at Buffy's back. “Which would be hilarious,” she says, trying not to make a big deal out of it. Buffy turns and gives her a tight smile.

“Yep. Hilarity. Let's sleep.”

“I don't think I can,” Dawn says, glancing warily around the room.

“If they come to life and try to kill you, I'll protect you.” Buffy promises. Dawn can't help but smile at her. Even though it's obviously a joke, she knows Buffy means it.

“Okay.”

They crawl into the bed together, pressing themselves as close to the middle and away from the dolls as possible. “On second thought, we're definitely gonna die in here.” Buffy whispers just as Dawn is almost asleep.

Dawn groans and hits her with a rag doll.

“There's never any with my name on it.” Buffy complains while Dawn looks through the keychain souvenirs by the register.

“Not a lot have mine either.” Dawn says with a shrug. Buffy gives her a look of exasperation. “I'm only saying. Dawn isn't a popular gift shop souvenir name either.”

Buffy grabs their bag and walks out of the store with a snort; Dawn starts looking for Buffy's name at every place they stop at.

They start staying in places for longer then just a night or two. A week here or there, sometimes longer. Buffy finds odd jobs: washing dishes, babysitting, a few thankful people shoving cash into her hands after she dusts the vampire about to have them for dinner. And Dawn becomes increasingly skilled at pickpocketing, much to Buffy's dismay. She only takes from people who look like they won't miss it, and while Buffy's lectures never altogether stop, they become shorter.

Dawn stops checking in with Giles and co. as frequently. Not on purpose, she just... doesn't as much. When she remembers, they're always busy. Dawn can hear the noise of a full house in the background of whoever she manages to get on the phone. They seem to have a pretty good setup. More potentials arrive all the time, full slayer powers and no idea what to make of them. Apparently, Giles convinced what was left of the Watchers Council to use their funds to set up a sort of mix between a halfway house and a school. Giles and Xander are running the one in Cleveland, and Willow and Faith went to Rome to get a second one set up at the beginning of September. Dawn doesn't hear about it till she thinks to call Willow in October. A girl she doesn't know answers the phone, yelling at another until Dawn hears Xander's voice in the background demanding to be given the phone. He's clearly too busy to really talk, but he sounds happy to hear from her.

Dawn hangs up in bewilderment as Buffy comes bursting into the motel room, subs from the deli down the street in her hands.

“Willow and Faith are in Rome.” Dawn tells her. Buffy's hand passing over the sub freezes at the mention of Faith. Like always. Dawn ignores it. “Rome,” she stresses. “Can either of them even speak Italian?”

“Wouldn't be surprised if Will was teaching herself.” Buffy sits down at the edge of her bed, ripping open her sub wrapper and taking a disgustingly large bite. Mouth full, she says, “Faith, doubt it.”

Dawn picks some of the lettuce out of her sub. “We could go to Rome. Or anywhere. China, maybe. Or France. Could see the Louvre.”

“Don't think we'd manage to get the van across the ocean.” Buffy says. There's mayonnaise on the side of her cheek. Dawn doesn't inform her of it just yet.

“Plane was more my thought.”

Buffy hums, taking another bite of her sub. “Sure, we could. But I don't speak any French besides, voulez vous coucher avec moi. I somehow don't think that would help us in the long run.”

“Be funny though.”

Buffy tilts her head and looks at Dawn oddly, her serious face. “We could stay here maybe, enroll you in school.” The tone of her voice tells Dawn this is something she's been thinking about for a while.

“You want me to go to high school in Kansas? I don't even know what town we're in.”

“I mean... it's supposed to be your senior year. School. Graduation. Diploma. It's important.” Buffy's voice drops and she looks down at her food. “Mom would have wanted it.”

Dawn's jaw tightens. Playing the mom card isn't fair, neither of them do it often. “Mom's not here.” Dawn says, barely contained anger in her voice.

“No,” Buffy whispers. “But I am.”

Dawn doesn't really know what to say to that.

During what would have been her senior year of high school, Dawn:

  • steals a culmination of nine-hundred and seventy-three dollars and forty-two cents. One hundred of which she gives to a waitress in New Mexico named Maria;

  • writes everyday in her purple journal, even if it's only one sentence;

  • buys a plush green alien from Roswell, New Mexico and scares Buffy with it in the middle of the night;

  • reads about half of On the Road between Seattle and the Yellowstone National Park before deciding she doesn't like it and giving up;

  • gets called not real by a man entering a hospital, and doesn't say a word for the next fifty miles, no matter how much Buffy tries to coax her;

  • sees a Las Vegas show and seriously considers becoming a showgirl for about an hour;

  • runs with Buffy every night until she is in the best shape of her life, but still can't manage to keep up with Buffy;

  • celebrates Christmas with Buffy in a bed and breakfast in Montana;

  • dusts two vamps all on her own in Kansas while Buffy is babysitting a little boy named Jake;

  • reads all of Pride and Prejudice by flashlight after waking up from a nightmare in Wyoming;

  • dances with a boy named Scott in a nightclub in Missouri, but doesn't let him kiss her;

  • learns how to change a flat tire, laughing till her stomach hurts when Buffy squeals and gets grease all over her face;

  • becomes increasingly codependent to Buffy, to the point where she has a panic attack on three separate occasions;

  • gets food poisoning from a buffet bar in South Dakota and spends two days holed up in a motel room puking her guts out and crying while Buffy puts cool cloths on her forehead and makes her drink ginger ale over and over;

  • watches her sister rebuff every man (and woman) who show even the slightest bit of attention to her;

  • drives through nearly every state in the country, apart from Ohio.

After they've been driving around the country for almost a year, and have hit every state besides the one they've been staunchly avoiding, the elephant in the room becomes harder to ignore.

“It's... big.” Buffy says, her entire body ramrod straight as she stares up at the house. She tilts her head to the side, a neutral look on her face that Dawn can't quite decipher. “This is the right address?” she asks as she crosses her arms in front of her chest.

Dawn glances at the address that she scribbled down in her journal. “Yep. This is what Xander said.”

“Huh.” Buffy tilts her head to the other side. Curious, Dawn mimics her. She doesn't see anything particularly interesting.

“Ah, the Summers girls.” Xander's voice breaks through the silence from behind them. “One tall, one tiny, both lookin' at a house nearly upside-down. Interesting choice.” Dawn and Buffy both turn around, matching smiles on their faces at the sight of Xander. Dawn sucks in a breath. He's changed. It's not just the eye patch, he's got muscle now. He's leaner. There is something more... well, adult-like about him. Dawn can't decide if it's a good thing or not. It's a startling change. Maybe it's just that they haven't seen each other in over a year. Dawn wonders how different she looks to him. She's very grateful that she got to shower and wash her hair this morning.

Buffy steps into his hug, holding him too tightly till he groans to be let go before she crushes his ribs. Dawn takes her place; she can feel the new muscles in his back and she pulls away shyly. Suddenly remembering how much of a crush she used to have on him. It's not there anymore, but she's barely spent longer than ten minutes with anyone apart from Buffy in the last few months. Xander being so familiar, and yet incredibly foreign at the same time is making Dawn's head hurt.

“You guys must be tired and hungry,” Xander says, as if reading Dawn's mind. That, or just picking up on the way she immediately shifts closer to Buffy and further from him. “Come on in. Giles is training the girls in the backyard, but they'll be breaking for lunch soon.”

“You all live in this big house?” Buffy asks.

Xander nods and lists off, “Me, Giles, Colleen, Rona, and Shannon.” They step into the front hall and Buffy whistles. It's huge and there are stray weapons everywhere. Hopefully, they don't ever have nosy neighbors or any traveling salesmen coming to the door. “Kennedy and Violet went with Willow and Faith to Rome. Plus now there's also Jing, Kiara, and Bianca. Kiara only got here two days ago. She just came into her powers, only seventeen, from New Orleans. She's a little overwhelmed still.”

“Wow,” Buffy's face looks a little pinched, but Dawn thinks Xander doesn't notice it. “Looks like you guys are doing pretty well for yourself.”

Xander lights up. “Yeah, not so bad. I can even do more than ten push ups in a row now.” He flexes and Buffy laughs and hugs him again.

“Buffy! Dawn!” Giles walks into the room with a huge grin on his face. Dawn runs right to him along with Buffy. He holds them both tightly in his arms for a moment before stepping back and looking at them. Dawn knows they don't look all that healthy. Not like Giles and Xander look. They've been skipping showers and meals and beds on the regular, and it shows. Giles frowns, but only for a second. “Come on, the both of you, we're just about to have lunch.” He leads everyone into the kitchen. It's easily the largest kitchen Dawn has ever seen that isn't in a restaurant. She recognizes Colleen and Rona, they both look more sure of themselves than they did back in Sunnydale. Shannon brushes past Dawn and bumps into her, yelling an apology over her shoulder without looking back to see who she ran into. From the way the girls all dart around each other, grabbing food and bowls in almost choreographed motions, it's a regular occurrence in this house. “Girls, you remember Buffy and Dawn?” Giles asks. Rona, Colleen and Shannon all look up and smile. Colleen jumps over and hugs them both before going back to her food. Dawn and Buffy sit down and pick at their food while everyone talks over each other with their mouths full.

The noise and the people all together is overwhelming and Dawn can tell that Buffy is ready to duck out after about fifteen minutes. Xander takes them upstairs and shows them their room, and Buffy lays down on the bed and closes her eyes with a sigh.

“They seem good here.” Dawn says softly from beside her.

“Yeah,” Buffy whispers. “They do.” She rolls over to her side, away from Dawn and goes to sleep.

Dawn wakes up to slamming doors, girls voices fighting over the bathroom, and Buffy's hair in her mouth.

When she makes her way down to the kitchen, most of the chaos is over, but it looks like every bit of food in the house has been spilled out onto the countertops. She shuffles over to the coffeepot and pours herself a generous mug, stirring in a little sugar before sipping it. She hadn't been a coffee drinker until Sunnydale blew up. The remnants of pancake batter are beginning to congeal, and when Buffy walks into the room, she steps on an egg shell.

“Ugh,” she groans, lifting her bare foot and flicking the offending shell off. “These girls need to learn to clean up after themselves.” Dawn hums in agreement, watching from the kitchen window as they do what looks like yoga out in the yard. “It is way too early to be awake.” Buffy complains. She tip-toes around the few stray Cheerios, and takes Dawn's mug out of her hands, sipping it generously before passing it back. Dawn makes a face at her, which Buffy ignores. She grabs a banana and begins to peel it. “It's weird, being here.” She says, a question in her voice.

“Yeah, kinda.” Dawn agrees. “There's... well, lots more people than you and me in a dingy motel room.”

Buffy's eyebrows go up and down in agreement. Her gaze remains directed out the window, something like longing in her eyes. Dawn can see the way every inch of Buffy's skin is held taunt, trying to hold herself still; she wants to be out there with the other girls. The other slayers. Dawn steps away from her and sits down at the table, pushing away a half empty bowl of cereal with a grimace.

They sit there in silence together for a moment until Shannon runs inside. “Oh, morning!” she says cheerfully. “Forgot my water bottle,” she shrugs and grabs it, filling it up from the tap before chugging it all and filling it again. She turns to grin at Buffy. “So, you gonna come join us?”

“Um... maybe.”

Shannon twists the cap on her water bottle tightly, shrugs again and skips back out of the room. “We'll be out there till lunch if you want!” she yells over her shoulder.

Dawn can't help but note that the invitation wasn't extended to her. Then again, it never was before either. Buffy picks at the browning banana peel in her hands. Dawn sighs and rises from her seat, rinsing her empty mug in the sink and setting it to the side to dry. “I'm gonna go take a shower,” she says, and heads upstairs.

When she walks back into her temporary room, toweling her hair dry, Buffy is sitting on the bed. She looks up at Dawn and something in her shoulders relaxes. “Hey,” she says softly.

Dawn bends over and digs around in her bag for some clean clothes. She is going to take advantage of the washer and dryer while they are here—however long that ends up being. “Not working out with your fellow slayers?” Dawn asks, a little more bite to her voice than she intended.

Buffy merely shrugs and flips through the magazine in front of her. “Nah.”

Dawn yanks on some underwear and starts dragging a comb through her hair. She is a little surprised Buffy hadn't gone outside. She can tell from the way Buffy's whole body seems to vibrate that she's itching to do more than just sit around. Dawn watches through the mirror as Buffy flips all the way through the magazine, then starts over. When Dawn is about to pull on a pair of jeans, Buffy abandons the magazine and sits up on her knees. “Want to go for a run?” she asks.

Dawn blinks. “I just showered.” She has no idea why Buffy would ask her now that there are six girls downstairs who could actually manage to keep up with her.

“Yeah, well...” Buffy trails off. There is something in her face that makes her look very, very young all of the sudden. And Dawn isn't sure what to do about it. She hasn't been sure what to do about anything in a long time. She wishes her mother were here.

“I mean, I guess I could just... shower again. If I need to.”

Buffy lights up so fast Dawn almost gets whiplash. “Great! Let's go.”

Dawn sets down her jeans and pulls on a t-shirt and shorts, tugging her wet hair back into a braid at the nape of her neck while Buffy changes. The two of them slip out of the house and stretch on the front porch for a minute to warm up.

“Ready?” Buffy asks.

“Yep.” Dawn nods, and runs, getting as much of a head start on Buffy as she can.

Somehow, a week goes by. Then two, then three. Dawn never feels settled in the house, and she can tell Buffy doesn't either. But neither one of them say anything about leaving. Buffy goes for a run every morning. Dawn joins her more often than not, but usually, she ducks out and leaves Buffy to finish on her own. Giles shows Dawn his library in the back of the house, and she spends nearly every afternoon in there, sucking down all the information she can get her hands on.

Halfway through the second week, Buffy leaves a brochure for the local high school on their shared bed. Dawn rips it to pieces. But the way Buffy's face falls makes something leaden settle in Dawn's stomach. And the next day, she goes to the local library, and gets everything she needs to study for her GED.

Buffy skips and kisses her on the check when she sees Dawn studying. Then she walks outside and takes over drilling the potentials from Giles until the newest one throws up.

After they've been in Ohio for almost a month, Faith shows up. She brings a girl called Fred with her; apparently she worked with Angel in Los Angeles. Things went bad—which is no surprise to anyone—but LA being a hell dimension is new. Faith tells Giles that Cordelia and Wesley are dead. The room goes still, and Dawn watches Xander reach over and take one of Buffy's hands in his and squeeze tight. They hold onto each other like that for a minute or so, and Giles fiddles with his glasses. Dawn didn't know either Wesley or Cordelia all that well, but Cordelia showed Dawn how to french braid her hair once. And Wesley very awkwardly, but kindly patted Dawn's head and gave her a piece of candy when they were introduced. Dawn swipes away a stray tear and watches Buffy refuse to make eye contact with Faith.

Buffy jumps up and announces that she is going for a run, and before she can really do anything about it, Faith decides to tag along. Dawn, and the rest of the room, watch as Buffy tries awkwardly to backpedal for a moment, then just nods stiffly and walks out the front door, Faith on her heels.

The potentials disperse with Giles and Xander, and Dawn is left sitting in the living room with Fred. She drums her fingers against her thighs awkwardly. “So... a hell dimension huh?” she asks, for lack of something better to say.

Fred nods.

Dawn bites down on the inside of her cheek and wishes that she were better at making conversation.

“I'm sorry,” she blurts a moment later, “about Cordelia and Wesley. They were... well, I was mostly a kid when they were around, so I didn't know them that well. But they seemed nice.”

Fred nods again, her eyes a little watery. “They were—very nice. Cordelia was...” Fred looks down at her hands, then shrugs. “They deserved better.” She finally settles on.

The whole room feels too small. This whole stupid huge house feels too small. No matter where she is, there are people, bumping into Dawn and talking over her, and she can never seem to keep track of Buffy. And yet, it's starting to feel a little normal. Dawn hasn't decided if that's a good thing or not yet.

“Are you from LA?”

“No. Texas. I'm thinkin' I'll go back and see my momma and daddy. Faith wanted to stop here first. She wanted to see Buffy. Then we were gonna get a plane ticket for me... I think.”

“Oh.” Dawn says, “I've never been to Texas. Well, we drove through, but only really quickly. We never stopped anywhere.” Fred gives her a shaky, placating smile and Dawn wants something to do with her hands. “Do you... I'm reading all these old Watcher books in Giles' study. I can show you some if you want.”

Fred perks up at that. “Oh, I'd like that,” she says with a shy smile. And the two of them slip off into the musty dark room. Reading with Fred quickly falls into comfortable silence. The two of them pass books back and forth, taking notes on anything and everything. It's the first time Dawn has felt kind of normal with anyone apart from Buffy in months. They are quiet together, and that is better than being sad by themselves.

Of course, Buffy comes bursting back into the house hours later, and blows everything all to hell.

“Dawnie, pack your bags,” she orders. “We're leaving.”

“What! And going where?”

“Doesn't matter. Not here.”

“But... Buffy, we...”

“This wasn't permanent. We were just stopping by for a visit.”

“For a month?”

Buffy shrugs. “Sure. You studied, you can take the GED test tomorrow morning. I checked. Then we can go.”

“I... go where?” Dawn asks again. “We don't—Buffy, we have no money, no jobs. Are we just going to drive around aimlessly for another year? Spend another Christmas in some shitty motel with no tree?”

“I don't know Dawnie!” Buffy yells. “We...” she looks panicky, like she is scrambling for something to make sense. Dawn doesn't know what to do, but she's sick of being uprooted because Buffy can't deal. Maybe that's selfish. Dawn can't help it. “Fred needs a ride to Texas. To her parents. We've got a car.”

“Is this because Faith is here?” Dawn asks. She tries to sound nonchalant, but she just sounds sort of accusatory. Every muscle in Buffy's body freezes, and she looks about a second away from killing Dawn with her bare hands.

“Pack your stuff,” she says much too calmly. “We leave as soon as you're done taking the test tomorrow.” And then she slips out of the room, leaving Dawn alone.

Dawn aces her GED test.

She shoves the paper into Buffy's chest wordlessly as she walks out of the school, then climbs into the back of the van like she's a petulant fourteen year old all over again.

Fred whispers her an awkward, but sincere congratulationsfrom the passenger seat. Dawn looks up and smiles at her as Buffy cranks the old van to life. She catches her sister's eye in the rear view mirror. She wants to scream at her. But the truth is, she is too old to be throwing fits and blaming Buffy for everything. She outgrew it a while ago, just must have forgotten momentarily. She'd rather be with Buffy in some shitty van, than be anywhere else in the world without her. From the way Fred is talking excitedly, all her words jumbling together, Dallas, Texas sounds beautiful. Dawn gives Buffy a stiff nod, once, real quick, in the mirror. The way her sister's shoulders sag in relief, and the bright smile that etches onto her face tell Dawn all she needs to know. Buffy is still running scared. And she needs Dawn as much as Dawn needs her.

“Why exactly do they call them 'greasy spoons'?” Dawn asks, her mouth half full of chicken parmesan. She shuffles the carrots (too overcooked, too squishy) towards the top of her plate. The blue plate special was the cheapest thing on the menu, and Buffy caught her sliding her hand into the pocket of a businessman. Taking a twenty for her troubles. Yelled at her, turned around in the passenger seat for fifteen minutes while Fred drove the van. Dawn mostly tuned her out. Fred looked somewhere between impressed, amused, and reproachful. The cheap meal was her punishment. Buffy ordered for them both before Dawn could so much as ask for a glass of water.

“It's a colloquial term that originated in the United States. People been usin' it since at least the 1920s.” Fred says, inspecting her french fry before shrugging and dipping it into her chocolate shake. “Sometime around 1925 to be more specific,” she adds. “People aren't sure exactly where it popped up. Just means cheap, greasy, fried diner food.”

“Our kind of food,” Buffy says cheerfully. She doesn't seem to know exactly what to make out of Fred, but Dawn likes her.

“But where do they get the spoon part?” Dawn asks. She picks up her own spoon and stares at the back of it. “Cause you eat with them? That seems too obvious.” She's not going to finish her carrots, and the chicken parmesan doesn't seem worth the last two bites. Instead, Dawn huffs on the inside of her spoon and sticks it on her nose. “Buffy, look!”

Fred laughs and Buffy just rolls her eyes, but Dawn can see the ghost of a smile at the corner of her sister's lips.

Their waiter saunters over to them. A lanky handsome boy named Ricky, with skin so dark it's almost black, and a smile so bright it lights up the whole room, infectious. Even to the grumpy, fat, old, white man in worn out overalls sitting in the corner booth. When he catches sight of Dawn balancing the spoon on her face, he chuckles at her. Embarrassed, she drops it and slinks down further into the booth. “Here's your check ladies. Any pie or coffee for y'all today?”

“Oh! Pie!” Fred says excitedly. Dawn doesn't know how someone so scrawny can eat so much food. Her stomach must be a bottomless pit. Buffy waves it off, but Dawn is suddenly much hungrier than she was when faced with her carrots a moment ago. She decides on apple, Fred picks blueberry, and Buffy asks for a coffee refill.

Buffy stares pointedly at Dawn's uneaten carrots as Ricky takes her plate away. “What?” Dawn asks. “I'm eighteen. I have my GED now. An official adult. I don't have to eat my carrots if I don't want to.”

Buffy scoffs so loudly that two patrons across the diner turn over to look at them.

Halfway through her pie, two old white men enter the diner. One of them turns and stares at Dawn for a moment. She shifts a little uncomfortably in her seat, poking at the crust of her pie. He walks over to her and stares, then turns to Buffy, then Fred before settling back on Dawn. “You're not real,” he says with a hushed gasp. He turns over to his friend.“She isn't real,” he repeats with more conviction, pointing a bony finger out at Dawn. Fred looks confused and Buffy sits up straighter. “You're just a thing.” He seems more sane than most of the people who have said this to her in the past. It's only happened once or twice since Glory was defeated, but it still makes Dawn's skin crawl every time. Her stomach flipping, remembering slicing open her own arm in shock. Just to make sure there was really blood in there like it should be. Would be, if she were a real human being. The looks on her mother and Buffy's faces as they stared down at her arm. Dawn shivers.

She shoves away from the booth, past the man and into the bathrooms. A minute later, she hears footsteps come up behind her. Expecting Buffy, she swipes at her tears roughly. “I'm fine,” she spits out.

“Are you sure?” Fred asks her gently. “I don't mean to be a bother, but if some old man called me not real I don't think I'd exactly be alright.”

“It's not the first time,” Dawn says. Fred's eyebrows knit together in confusion and Dawn sighs. “I'm not,” she explains. “Real. Not technically. Or... I'm, not a human in the way you or Buffy are. I think I am actually a human now. But, I wasn't born or anything. I was made.”

“I'm sorry.” Fred shakes her head, wringing her fingers together. “You're gonna have to back up a little. I can follow a lot, but I'm gonna need a bit more information than that.”

Dawn leans back against the sink and wraps her arms protectively around her chest. “I'm a key. I'm like, thousands of years old. Maybe more. I was used to open different dimensions between worlds.” Fred looks at Dawn in awe. It's different than how everyone else usually looks at her. Before, it was always in fear. Maybe a little curiosity or disbelief, but always fear underneath it all. It took ages for Buffy and everyone else to look at Dawn like she was normal again. But, Fred looks at her like she is some sort of science experiment; somehow, not in a way that makes Dawn feel like a freak. More like she is a revelation. Something special instead of something scary.

“I—”

“I know. It's crazy.” Dawn shrugs. “The short version: these monks turned me into a fourteen year old girl and changed everybody's memories so they all thought I'd been Buffy's sister the whole time. This god named Glory was trying to use me to get home. She hurt a lot of people. Buffy died saving me.”

“How? I mean, how was this god going to use you to get home?”

“Spill all my blood on this creepy tower she forced her minions to make till I died.” Dawn thinks maybe she shouldn't be able to offer up this information so casually. Something about it should be harder. The words should feel too big and terrible to come out of her mouth. But they don't hurt her anymore. Or, the pain has managed to dull itself somehow. It's become just another weird thing in the universe. Buffy's the slayer, Dawn's a key; the sky is blue and the grass is green.

“Oh...” Fred says softly, “wow.”

Dawn shrugs, pushing herself off from the sink. “Yeah. That's not even really the weirdest or worst thing that's ever happened to me. But, it's up there.”

Fred shakes her head in disbelief. “And here I thought me bein' a cow in a hell dimension for five years was bad.”

Huh?

“Oh,” Fred grins at her. It seems to be her default shy face, and Dawn is becoming rather charmed by it. “When I was studying at UCLA my physics professor sent me to a hell dimension called Pylea. They treated humans as slaves.” She shrugs, as if this information isn't incredibly traumatizing. “Called us cows. I had to wear a shock collar all ready to blow my head into smithereens any minute.” Fred looks off to the side of the mirror, like she is far away for a moment before shaking her head and smiling. “But... Angel saved me.”

Dawn can't imagine how Fred could survive five years like that. She thinks suddenly that this girl might be as strong as Buffy. Different strong, but strong nonetheless.

“So we're both a little bit wacko.” She says, trying to make a joke of it. It doesn't come off very well, but Fred smiles at her indulgently anyhow.

“A little,” she agrees. Then her face twists, excited, the same way Dawn knows that she can get when she is trying to solve some supernatural problem. Buffy has made fun of her for it enough to recognize it in someone else.“So, how'd they manage to alter everybody's memories like that?”

Dawn shrugs. “Magic I guess. Buffy's blood. They're dead, we didn't get to question them much.”

Fred scrunches up her face. “I wonder if Mr Giles has any information on it. It'd be fascinating to read about.”

“Alright you nerds,” Buffy says, appearing in the bathroom door, “bill is paid. Want to keep driving tonight or get a room? We're almost to Dallas.”

“Oh! Drive please.” Fred says. “I'd love to sleep in my own bed tonight.”

“Dawnie?” Buffy asks. Dawn knows the question she is actually asking is: 'are you okay?' Dawn nods to her, and Buffy's shoulders relax. “Right then,” she says cheerfully, “onward and upward and whatnot.”

As they pull down a long dirt road, Fred starts bouncing anxiously in her seat. She hasn't seen her parents in almost two years, only talked to them on the phone. Dawn watches her, she looks like she is ready to bust out of the van and break into a run.

She's out of the van before Buffy can even pull it to a full stop in the driveway, yelling out, “Momma!” happily and bounding ahead of them. Dawn climbs out of the van with Buffy. Their boots crunch over the gravel and make hard, clapping noises against the groaning, protesting wood of the wide front steps, and Dawn holds her breath as they fall into place next to one another. A woman with dark brown hair and a kindly smile that matches Fred's busts out of the screen door. She's got Fred wrapped up tight in a bear hug before Dawn can even blink. Fred's hugging her back just as tight, and Dawn's throat feels like cotton, the ache for her own mother overwhelming. Buffy must feel it too, because her hand slips into Dawn's and squeezes before Fred and her mother separate.

“Momma, this is Buffy and Dawn. My new friends. Y'all, this is my mom, Trish. And—” one of the tallest men Dawn has ever seen stumbles out of the front door, wrapping Fred up before she can finish saying, “my daddy, Roger,” with a laugh.

Trish steps forward and wraps her arms around Dawn and Buffy without warning. “Come inside!” she says excitedly. “I made too many cookies.”

Half an hour later, Dawn is so stuffed she might explode all over the Burkles bright, homey, yellow kitchen. Fred definitely got her bubbly, excited, kindness from her parents. Trish and Roger fire questions at Buffy and Dawn, telling them proudly about the time Trish flattened a demon with a bus when they came to visit Fred in Los Angeles. Dawn knows that they don't have any real plan, haven't for well over a year now, but whatever it may have been, it wasn't to stay with the Burkles. Buffy's protests go unheard and the next thing they know, they're in pjs, full of a home cooked meal, teeth brushed and tucked into the guest bedroom. Fred apologizes for her parents as she slips into her old bedroom, but she doesn't look particularly sorry to have them stay.

Buffy keeps trying to get the two of them back in the van and on the road, but, they don't actually have anywhere to go, and she's clearly avoiding Faith, so Cleveland is out. And Trish and Roger won't hear of them leaving. It's always, 'oh, go on and stay for dinner', or 'it's too late to get on the road now, sleep another night', or 'it's such a beautiful morning y'all don't want to be driving in that sunshine, come out and sit on the porch', until they've almost been at the Burkles a full week.

Truthfully, Dawn doesn't want to leave. At least not till they've got an actual place to go. She is so sick of driving around aimlessly in that goddamn old van she could scream. And she says as such to Fred while they are sitting on the porch, drinking iced tea so sweet that Dawn's teeth hurt.

“She's running away,” Dawn tell Fred. “She's scared of being happy. It's been her job to save the world since she was sixteen. Now it doesn't have to be, and she can't handle it.” Dawn sighs, looking out at the Burkles front lawn. “And she's too scared about her feelings for Faith, so she's just gonna keep dragging us all over the country forever.”

“Faith did talk a lot about Buffy on our way to Cleveland.” Fred says thoughtfully.

“They've been into each other since they were seventeen, but neither one of them will admit it. It's ridiculous. I never thought Buffy was a coward before.” The screen door slams behind her and Dawn jumps. Buffy looks like someone just punched her in the gut and Dawn's stomach drops. “I—” Dawn sputters, “—Buffy, I didn't mean—”

“I'm going to get some groceries for Trish,” she says, not looking at either of them as she stalks out the door and over to the van.

“Shit,” Dawn mutters as Buffy peals away.

“She won't stay mad.” Fred says.

“You've only known her a little while. Buffy can hold a grudge.”

“Not against you.” Fred smiles at Dawn. “Anyone can see that.”

Dawn remains unconvinced.

“Girls are going missing in Louisiana.” Buffy says as she walks into the kitchen. Dawn looks up from the pie crust she is unsuccessfully helping Trish make with a frown. Buffy drops the newspaper on the table in explanation and starts unloading groceries.

Fred grabs the paper and starts reading aloud. “Nine young women between the ages of fourteen and twenty-seven have gone missing in the last four months. Local police have been working tirelessly in their search to find and bring them home, but so far there have been very little leads.” Fred drops the paper down. “That's awful.”

“It's probably vamps,” Buffy says, her head stuck in the refrigerator. “They've all gone missing at night. We're close enough. I'm gonna head down there tonight,” she straightens up, looking hard at Dawn. “You don't have to come.”

“Yes I do.” Dawn insists. She fights the urge to cringe under Buffy's gaze, she stares back defiantly, unwavering. She might not love driving all across the country with no real plans, but she'd rather be with Buffy than not. And there is no way she is just going to stay in Texas making pies while Buffy goes off to fight vampires with no backup.

“Me too.” Fred says, surprising them both. She looks a little sheepish under Buffy's surprised gaze, but holds her ground. “It's my job too,” she says with a shrug. “I helped Angel. And I'm pretty good with a crossbow.”

Dawn looks over at Buffy, curious what she'll say. As much as Dawn loves it being the two of them against the world in some ways, Dawn likes Fred. She's liked having her around.

Buffy is silent for another moment, studying Fred. Then she smiles and nods. “Well, congratulations, you're a scoobie then.”

Fred frowns in confusion and Dawn leans over and whispers. “Angel Investigations, less formal, no pay.”

“Oh! Well... that's alright. We never got paid much with Angel either. Let's go kill some vampires.”

Trish clucks her tongue in disapproval, but she doesn't say a thing, and even looks a little proud. “Y'all are gonna need sandwiches,” she says as she abandons the pie and grabs slices of bread.

If Dawn thought late-summer Texas was hot, Louisiana is ten times worse. It's a sticky, stifling heat that makes people crazy and mean. She and Buffy have been snapping at each other for the last half hour. Too tired and hungry and hot. Fred has given up playing referee and now just sits on one of the beds, fanning herself with an ancient Sumerian text to no avail.

They've been cooped up in this motel room studying missing persons files, every book on the supernatural they've got on hand, and online, and guzzling down ice water for the last three days. They've talked to nearly every law official and family member they could find, and they haven't got much to show for it. All they know for sure is this has happened before. Many times. Ten girls go missing around August every couple hundred years or so. So far, not one of them have ever come back.

Buffy has taken to pacing room like a caged lion. Dawn is about ten seconds away from throwing a pillow at her head.

Fred takes her glasses off. “I still think we should go check the bayou where a couple of the girls were last seen,” she says, shoving a heavy book off her lap.

Buffy paces the length of the room twice more, then stops dead in the middle and looks over at Fred. “Okay.” She stalks over to their bags and starts pulling out stakes and weapons. Tossing a crossbow over to Fred and a stake to Dawn. “Let's go.”

The sun is beginning to set as they walk down the trail some of the girls were last seen at. There isn't even a hint of a breeze, unnatural this close to a body of water, and the air feels wrong. Dawn glances at Buffy and she can see from the look on her face that she feels it too. There is something older than sin and wrong here. Fred shivers next to her and the three of them instinctively move closer together; Buffy slightly ahead and Dawn and Fred flanking close.

“Both of you stay close.” Buffy orders firmly. “This is definitely the right place.”

They walk through the wet dirt, sticking close to the edge of the bayou and following a trail that seems like it hasn't been used in years. The air becomes thicker with each minute, and Dawn feels like she can't breathe. Like her skin is too tight and her clothes are suffocating her. Time seems to blur together, and suddenly, it's pitch black. It's hard to see the trail, and the dirt is wet and the moss is slick, covering everything as they press on. Mosquitoes are unrelenting and Dawn knows she is going to be covered in bites if she doesn't die out here in this swap tonight. Buffy stops walking and both Dawn and Fred knock into her.

“I hear something,” she says, holding her arm up for them to be quiet. Dawn strains, but all she hears are frogs and crickets.

“It might be an alligator,” she whispers, far more terrified than if it were a vampire. At least she knows what to do if it's a vampire.

“It's not.” Buffy says, sure. “I heard a scream. There were always ten girls. All the research you two found. It was always ten right?”

“Yeah.” Fred agrees.

“Only nine girls have gone missing. They need the tenth.” The three of them are silent, listening to the sounds of the bayou. All Dawn can hear is wildlife, drowning out everything, but then Buffy's face changes, and Fred gasps. “There.” Buffy points. “I heard it again.”

“Me too.” Fred says, holding her crossbow up in front of her, ready.

Dawn grips the stake in her hand, so tightly her fingers hurt as she follows Buffy toward the noise. They come up to what looks like a cave, because, of course they do. It's always some creepy cave or broken down house. Buffy fires of instructions and Dawn knows well enough to just do whatever Buffy says. She orders Dawn and Fred to wait outside of the cave until she calls them in after her. Dawn wants to protest. The idea of Buffy going in alone makes her skin crawl. And the air here is thicker than it's ever been. All the wrongness is absolutely coming from this cave, they can all feel it. But she merely nods and readjusts her hold on the stake. Buffy can handle herself. And the minute she hears anything suspicious, Dawn is going in, whether Buffy likes it or not.

Dawn and Fred stand on opposite sides of the cave, Dawn looking in at the cave, Fred keeping her eye back out towards the bayou. All they hear are goddamn frogs. The minutes tick by and Dawn acquires about twenty more bug bites, bouncing anxiously on the balls of her feet.

“I hate this part.” Fred whispers.

“Me too.” The next thing Dawn knows, something's twined itself around her neck, cutting off her air supply. Dawn gasps, clawing at it, but coming up with nothing but thick, black, smoky air. “Fred,” she manages to mumble. Fred is quick. An arrow whizzes right by Dawn's ear and something in the air laughs. The pressure on Dawn's neck doesn't let up one bit.

“It's not corporeal!” Fred yells.

Dawn feels holy water flung at her face, and the pressure around her neck subsides for a moment. She yells, “Do it again!”

Fred throws another vial at the space behind Dawn and she pulls herself away at the same moment, crashing into Fred and clinging to her as she gasps for breath. The air surrounding them thickens even more, a dark shape forming in front of them, and a deep voice laughing can be heard from every angle. Dawn has no clue what this thing is, but it sure as shit isn't a vampire. Her stake and Fred's crossbow are useless. Dawn grabs hold of Fred's hand, and the two of them start chanting in latin at the shadowy figure ahead of them. The laughter becomes louder, and Dawn and Fred raise their voices. A second figure steps out from seemingly nowhere and this one is definitely a man. Human, maybe not. But there enough for them to be able to punch.

A scream pierces the night from behind them, and the next thing Dawn knows, a girl with skin nearly as black as the night comes crashing out of the cave. She and Fred both reach out to her with their free hands, Dawn continuing the spell and Fred quickly trying to calm the girl.

“Bravo.” He says, condescendingly, thick cajun drawl to his voice. “But I'm afraid that one little protection spell isn't going to do you any good. Little girls shouldn't mess with magic they know nothin' about.”

“We know more than you'd think.” Dawn snaps back. She had to improvise an exorcism all on her own once. She has been listening to Willow talk about magic since she knew what it was. She's done more research in the last two years than most of the veteran scoobies combined. Sans, maybe Giles. And Fred seems like the single smartest person Dawn has ever met. She's dealt with Angelus. Suddenly, Dawn smiles, they are going to send this fucker to hell.

The man stalks forward, taller than Dawn expected, and imposing. The girl clinging to Dawn and Fred whimpers behind them. Dawn doesn’t cower, just stares up at him with uninterested eyes and squeezes Fred's hand tight in her own.

Before they can begin a stronger spell, another girl comes running out of the cave. She looks older than the first girl, who can't be more than fifteen. Her long blonde hair shines out like a beacon in the manufactured darkness surrounding them. Dawn doesn't have a chance to grab her, and she screams as the girl crashes into the man and he snaps her neck in one swift movement. She drops to the ground with a thud that reverberates in Dawn's ears.

The three of them tighten their little circle even further. “Why are you doin' this?” Fred yells out. Smart, keep him taking. The more he's talking, the less dead they are. And hopefully, the next person who comes running out of that cave will be Dawn's very deadly big sister.

The man smirks, grotesque and frightening; it stretches across hisotherwise beautiful face like a deep and jagged scar. Dawn's stomach clenches painfully with dread. “She was beautiful,” he says. As if it were a reason.

Dawn feels the dread in her stomach turn into white-hot anger. So fast it's like someone flipped a switch off inside her.

“Keep saying the spell,” she tells Fred and grabs hold of her stake again. Fred points her crossbow at the man, chanting in perfect time with Dawn as they both advance on him. The girl crawls down and hides behind a mossy tree at the cave entrance, crying quietly.

They hold their own, but barely. Fred gets an arrow into the guys shoulder, and Dawn manages to keep the shadowy figure at bay with holy water and the spell. But there is no way they can hold the both of them off for long. The man starts laughing maniacally at the arrow in his arm, yanking it out with ease and discarding it. Dawn lowers her voice, still chanting the spell under her breath and nods to Fred. Fred's voice grows louder and louder, strong and unwavering and she fires off three arrows at the man in quick succession, getting his attention on her. Dawn slips over to the side and braces herself, then, when his attention is on Fred, sucks in a breath and leaps at him, stake held up.

It would have worked perfectly, if not for the shadowy figure getting himself wrapped around Dawn's neck again. Thankfully, Buffy choses this moment to come barreling out of the cave with two more girls.

“Where have you been?” Dawn chokes out angrily.

“Killing six vampires and three demon thingies. How are you girls doing?” She looks far too cheerful and Dawn wants to punch her. She throws a vial of holy water at the figure gripping her neck instead. “You two take the shadow, I've got him.”

Dawn nods and Fred grabs her hand, the two of them chanting as Buffy whirls around kicking the man. With their attentions focused solely on one thing, they manage to vanquish the smoke-man within a few minutes; and when Dawn turns around, the man is dead in a heap on the ground, Buffy standing over him solemnly.

“Where are the other girls?” Fred asks. Buffy looks down to the ground. “Oh... well that's...” Fred trails off, and walks over to the three girls they did manage to save, huddled over by the cave entrance still. “Hello,” she says kindly, sticking her arm out. “My name's Fred, it's nice to meet y'all.”

They form a huddle and somehow manage to find their way out of the bayou together. Disheveled and shaken, three girls out of nine isn't enough Dawn thinks, but it is something.

They fall into their beds in the motel and sleep straight through until one in the afternoon. When Dawn wakes up, Fred is in the shower and Buffy is doing push ups on the floor. Her phone rings, and she glances at the caller id before frowning.

“Answer it.” Dawn tells her. Buffy glares and does another push up, ignoring her. “It's Faith isn't it?” Another push up. “Buffy, you like her, she likes you, what the hell is your problem?”

Buffy pauses in mid-air, then presses herself back down to the floor before sitting on her knees. “Stop it Dawn.”

“No,” Dawn says forcefully. “You're being an idiot. We've been driving around with nowhere to go, and I've been happy to do it if it makes you happy, but it doesn't. You're miserable.”

“I am not!” Dawn makes a face at her and Buffy scoffs. “I'm not.

“Buffy, if this is some twisted form of punishment, or if you're not letting yourself be happy because you think you need to take care of me or something, I'm gonna punch you in the face.”

“Excuse me?”

“I'm eighteen. You don't have to take care of me anymore.”

“Yes I do.”

“No, you don't.”

Buffy hesitates, looking down at her hands. “Dawn... the monks made you out of me. You're...” she shakes her head and refuses to look up at Dawn. “Besides, I promised Mom.”

“Fine,” Dawn says, her throat tight. “But that doesn't mean you can't have a girlfriend. Or just... do anything. At the very least, stop avoiding everyone you care about.”

The phone rings again. This time Buffy sighs and answers it, flipping it open and putting it to her ear as she steps out of the motel room. Dawn can hear the loud, “bout damn time B, only been calling you for like a friggin' hour.”

Dawn yanks on some jeans and slips out after Buffy, heading the other direction towards the corner store. She grabs a banana and starts eating it as she walks up and down the aisles. When she gets to the counter, out of habit, she looks through all the keychains and gasps. “This too,” she says, grabbing one. She walks back towards the motel, swinging the plastic bag back and forth and balancing three iced coffees.

“Faith is on her way to Maine.” Buffy says, taking a coffee from Dawn. “There's some big bad up there. Wacky mojo, or juju or something. Willow's picked it up.” Buffy shrugs and sips her coffee as Fred steps out of the bathroom, toweling her hair. She brightens as Dawn hands her a coffee. “She was wondering if we'd go up and help. Her exact words were, 'love to have some backup who actually knows what they're doing. Plus some watcher juniors never hurt anyone.' It sounds like she just doesn't want to be up in a small fishing village by herself. She said they're full of weirdos.” Buffy's got a ghost of a smile peaking out of the corners of her lips, but she doesn't say anything else about their conversation. Just shrugs and looks back and forth between Fred and Dawn. “So, Watcher Juniors, want to go to Maine?”

"Sure!” Fred says. “I've never been.”

Buffy turns to her. “Dawnie?”

Dawn slips her hand into the grocery bag and palms the magnolia keychain. Apparently, magnolias are the state flower of Louisiana. Dawn slips it into Buffy's hand and passes by her. “Onwards and upwards and whatnot,” she says, going to pack her bag.

Half an hour later, Dawn is sitting in the passenger seat of their rusty hippie van. Feet up on the dash, slurping the last of her iced coffee loudly as she looks through a map. Fred is humming to herself in the backseat, reading an old book of Giles' to get a start on research for whatever is making problems up in Maine. Buffy throws the last bag into the back and slips into the drivers seat. When Dawn looks up, she is fastening a magnolia keychain with the name Buffy displayed on it to the rear view mirror. She catches Dawn's eye, smiles, and cranks the old van to life.