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Last Way Out

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There had been a fight in the lunchroom. Again.

The lunchroom scuffle hadn't quite been resolved--had devolved, in fact, and spilled out into the corridor, turning into an altercation involving more students anda few lockers. Dawn had managed to keep out of the main part of it, but she'd been forced to pull a few Buffy-style moves--nothing big or flashy, but kinda cool and, well, more than kinda cool, more like ninja-esque and fairly slick--to keep a flying elbow away from her head. In being ninja-esque and fairly slick, however, Dawn had banged her head on an open locker door and the resulting headache had lasted the rest of the day. And when she'd stopped by the office to see if Buffy had any aspirin in her desk, between classes, Principal Wood himself had informed her that Buffy had already taken off to deal with something Hellmouthy.

Something Hellmouthy? Everything was Hellmouthy nowadays. The Hellmouth was spewing out evil energy, as per usual this time of year, but Buffy and the rest of the gang said it was more energy and darker than it normally was. And things were always zoolike at the high school, and with the Hellmouth energy mixed in and the Seal of What's-it's-off being extra-open and sharing whatever it was sharing in the school basement....well, it made geometry a little hard to concentrate on. That was her excuse, anyway. Buffy had gone to high school there too, she'd understand. Well, Dawn hoped. If the world ended--not that it would, but if it did--it's not like geometry would be a big deal anyway.

The horn sounded before Dawn had really even stepped off the curb--it wasn't like she'd been all the way in the street, and even if she'd been looking the car was almost ten feet away and not about to run her over at all. The driver yelled something and shook his fist at her, or maybe something more expressive than a fist; Dawn replied with an equally eloquent gesture of her own and pretended to be completely unflustered as she crossed the street. ...where she was promptly run into by a woman toting bags of groceries like one of those Doomsday hoarders, followed by a hoarde of whining, shin-kicking, snot-nosed little kids that might have actually been demonspawn. None of them apologized or did anything more than step on her feet a billion times and set her ears ringing with their screams. Leaning against a wall of a coffee shop to collect herself and smooth her hair, Dawn tried to catch her breath.

A strain of jazz wafted around the corner, almost completely out of place in the nearly chaotic downtown. Soothing as it was, it set Dawn's skin prickling--while no great connessieur of music (as evidenced by the fact that when the town had been taken over by a Lord-of-the-Dance demon, Dawn's song had been cut tragically short--although her dance number had been pretty sweet, all ballet-y and tense and dangerous. And she'd gotten to duet with the actual demon for a bit, so it's not like she didn't get to sing at all, not like poor Willow, who hadn't uttered more than a line in any of the magical musical numbers)--she hadn't been able to enjoy jazz ever since very nearly becoming a demonic child-bride.

"Well, hell-ooo, sweetness."

And there he was, suddenly, fashionable and large as life, in a incongruisly purple zoot suit and a fabulous wide-brimmed hat. Leaning against the corner of the coffee shop like he belonged there as much as the overturned wrought-iron tables and the graffiti newly painted on the wall. Surrounded by shadow, but glowing as if lit by a spotlight. And the coffee shop was suddenly playing jazz music on their balcony speakers. Tara's research had given his name in Latin or Greek or something and it'd sounded to Dawn like "Sweet"--so that's what he was in her mind. Sweet, the Lord of the Dance Demon. Oh wow.

"Uh, h-h-hi, uh--what are you doing here?" Dawn stammered. "I swear I haven't--I didn't do anything, not this time--or the last time, for that matter, I-I mean, what are you doing here?" She hugged her books tighter to her chest and made sure that both feet were securely planted on the ground: the worst thing right now would be to break out into a fancy dance number that would encompass the entire angry street.

"Why my dear little sweetcake, you got nothin' to be scared of," Sweet purred, sashaying across the sidewalk towards her. His swaying walk only just stopped short of being a dance move, and Dawn found herself dry-mouthed and sweating. Oh please, she thought, don't start singing. I'm a goner if you do.

A man walked right into her and cursed, as though she hadn't been standing perfectly still for the last minute or so and completely visible to any non-bonehead passerby. Sweet frowned and looked after the man, then snapped his fingers as the man tried to step off the curb to cross the street. Almost immediately the man reached out and grabbed the hand of a passing meter maid, then spun the woman around and leaned her in an elegant and ballroom-worthy dip across the trunk of a car she'd been ticketing. Sweet snapped his fingers again, and the meter maid stood up very straight and slapped the offending man across the face. Confused, he stammered an apology and stumbled across the street. Sweet "harumph"ed and smiled at Dawn. "Don't you love karma?"

"Am I invisible?" she wondered tentatively.

"Nope, and I ain't disguising myself either. That's the kind of town you're livin' in right now, lovey. Things so bad here that no one's lookin' twice at poor ol' Sweet in his natural form, never mind he could send 'em all off stage left with just a wave of a hand."

He reached out a red, clawed hand and Dawn almost flinched, but all he did was remove the strap of her bookbag and hook it over his own shoulder ...Is he really going to carry my books? her mind gabbled. No one does that anymore! Not even nice human guys do that anymore! But perhaps his mannerisms were copied from a bygone era, one of more automatic courtesy and, daresay, even chivalry.

"Calm yourself, cherie," Sweet said, noting her obviously-obvious distress. "I ain't here to curse or cast nobody into any kind of tailspin." (Evidently the rude man of a moment ago didn't count as a "tailspin", Dawn thought.) No, this ain't one of those visits. I am simply stopping through on my way out of this Hellmouth. Thought I'd get a coffee for the road and see how my favorite former fiancee is doing."

"Stopping through?" At the mention of coffee, Dawn's interest was officially piqued. Neither Buffy, Willow nor Tara drank the stuff, and Xander hadn't asked her out to grab a mocha any time recently; Dawn missed the sugary, chocolaty, frothy quasi-coffee drinks she'd come to enjoy during what she thought of as her "Xander" phase.

"Yep. Y'see, sweetness, it's getting a bit too active for the likes of me 'round these parts. Thought I'd find myself some more soothing environs where I can oversee my kingdom and enjoy the music a bit more."

"Wait, so you're leaving your kingdom here and making a new one?"

Sweet gave another one of those low, smoky chuckles. With a flourish and a flick of his taloned fingers, he produced from somewhere in his zoot jacket a thick, round disc, about half the size of one of those freakishly old-fashioned records Xander liked to hang on to. The resemblance ended there, though, as there were no grooves in its glossy surface, and only a tiny central hole; the disc also shifted color, waves of brassy gold, neon pink and blue, even creamy white sprinkled with black washing across the surface. "I don't have to leave anything, cherie. Home is where the music is, and I got the music right here."

"That's your kingdom?" Dawn stopped walking and stared, not caring that she was blocking the entrance to the coffee shop.

"It's the makings of it, you bet." Deftly Sweet slipped the disc back into his coat and then bowed her into the coffee shop. Another snap of his fingers brought a barista spinning towards them, a tray in her hands and a bemused look on her face. She deposited two drinks--a giant mug of frothy, chocolate-topped mocha for Dawn, and a demure miniature mug of black espresso, complete with saucer and demitasse spoon for Sweet--then ron-de-jomm'ed back towards the counter, shaking some major jazz hands on the way. Dawn just stared.

"Y'see, sweetheart, the Music is a delicate thing. I got standards to maintain and all this heavily-evil energy ain't helping much. It's putting discords in my harmony, ya dig? I need to find me some more pleasing environs, where the evil is just right and the folks is more inclined to overlook a spate of musical immolations. I'm thinking Pittsburgh. Possibly New Delhi."

"New Delhi? They have jazz in New Delhi?"

"Honey, they got jazz anywhere. But I'm kinda digging this whole Bollywood vibe, too." Sweet grinned, and for just a moment the cafe was filled with the jangle of a sitar. Swaths of brightly-colored silks draped the counters, walls, and ceiling; hookas sat on no few of the tables. Dawn looked down and found herself wearing a gorgeous pink-and -purple Indian sari, resplendent in gold bangles and sequins; when she turned her gaze to Sqweet, she saw his zoot suit had become, for the moment, a red spangled motorcycle jacket, and he sported a bright blue turban with a feather poking up from the center.

Then someone swore and a mug shattered on the floor, and the illusion was gone: they were back in the coffee shop across from the remains of the Magic Box and the world was awash in negative Hellmouthy energy--and ending, by slow degrees.

"Y'see? Conditions gotta be right for my powers to work. I need people to be hangin' on to their negativity, not flashin' it out in the open. Nobody's keepin' secrets in this weather, 'cept how scared they are about what's going on. You and your sister and her friends are the only ones who understand where all this is coming from, and frankly, I don't do sequels."

"I would think people'd be easier to burn in this weather," Dawn took a long drink of her mocha, careful to keep her nose out of the whipped cream.

"Oh, sure they are, but that's getting into territory that don't belong to me. That's the province of other demons more suited to this environment. You know, cherie," Sweet leaned over, dragged a claw-tip through the remaining whipped cream, and smiled as he sucked it off his finger, "if this Hellmouth is uncomfortable for me, I might understand if you felt the need to escape from it too. Hey, lots of demons're gettin' out while the gettin's good. 'S gotta be rough on a tender little rose like yourself."

"We're dealing." Dawn squared her shoulders, sitting up proudly. "Buffy has a plan. It's taking a little while to put it into practice, but everything's going to turn out just fine. Or at least, we're going to win. I'm sure of that. We always win."

"And you're sure you're going to like the world after she's done 'winning'?"

"Well, yeah. She's going to beat the First and there won't be any more evil and--"

"Let me tell you a little secret, cupcake," Sweet interrupted, for a moment looking absolutely serious. "There is always going to be evil in the world. Always. As long as there's a day there will be a night, and as long as there is good there will be an opposing force as well. Now, your Slayer sister might have a handle on the present situation, but the First isn't a being that can be entirely done away with, not like anything you all might have stared down before. It's not just a force or a being or a big bad in the world, it's a part of the world, and it's a part that the world can't really do without. Can do with less of, yes, but never completely without. So your sister is going to maybe send the First outta here with a bow and a wave, but don't for a second think that It won't be back for an encore." Sweet leaned back in his chair and tossed back the contents of his tiny coffee cup. Dawn was sure she only imagined hearing a faint "dun dun dunnnn".

"You're saying we're never going to win." Dawn stated it flatly, staring at the remains of her drink.

"Not at all, lovey. But let me ask you this: wouldn't you rather be someplace where it didn't matter?"


There was a faint glissando and Sweet smiled again. "You're the only one who ever got away from me, darlin'. That invocation remains open on a technicality, which means the offer still stands. Imagine it, sweetheart: you and me and my kingdom of song and dance, ruling over a musical world where none of this"--he gestured eloquently, evoking another piano gliss--"would matter at all. Let the world go to hell in a handbasket! We'd already be there drinkin' champagne."

"Go with you?"

"Be my dancin' queen, darlin'." Sweet slipped the disc out of his jacket again and balanced it on the tip of the demitasse spoon. With a slow gesture it began to spin, and he placed a claw-tip on the surface. A low, slinky oboe note fluttered up, reaching for the ceiling.

Dawn stared at the color-shifting surface, mesmerised by the swirling notes of jazz and the pulsating beats she could see forming. A picture seemed to rise up...

Suddenly the cafe was gone. So were her school clothes. Dawn was clad in the silky blue gown Sweet had given her on his last visit, and she stood on a raised dais in the middle of a huge ballroom. Neon lights strobed far overhead and spotlights swung through the low mist that crept along the black-marble floor. Music--undefinable in style or instrument, but music all the same--wafted through the air, visible coils of notes that wound themselves around the scattered marble pillars and slinked across the surface of the dais. Dawn reached out a wondering hand and a strain of music trailed itself down her arm, chill and scaly, as though a ghostly snake wrapped itself around her wrist.

"Welcome, cupcake," Sweet purred beside her. He spun her into his arms, then gracefully into a throne that appeared out of the misty air. "All of this could be yours," he added, settling gracefully into his own throne. He waved one hand, and the music changed.

Tendrils of staccatto eighth notes reached into the mist and pulled forth a man in black-tie and tuxedo tails, frantically tap-dancing for all he was worth. The smile on his face looked forced and frantic, sweat pouring out of his slicked-back hair and into his eyes. His hands circled furiously in the air, looking for balance; his feet stamped and slid on the floor at an impossible rate, banging out a rhythm that seemed to grow faster and faster with each beat to the bar.

"Behold our work," Sweet intoned indolently. "This man is cursed to spend eternity here, in his own private hell, tap-dancing the whole time. Y'see, he set himself up as a dancing teacher in New York City, and lured young girls to their ruin after their classes. One of them was something of a witch, and put a spell on him for his troubles. I liked her. Very creative." Sweet waved, and the music roped itself around the frentic man and pulled him out of sight.

In his wake came the low strains of a waltz, dragging a long-haired old woman in an old-fashioned gown. She stepped heavily, weeping out a count of "one-two-three" and turning clumsily as though dancing with an ungainly partner. Each step clonked on the marble floor and Dawn looked down; she seemed to be wearing metal shoes. The soles looked red-hot.

"And I'm sure you're familiar with the story of Cinderella? Well, this is her wicked ol' stepmother. For denying her poor child the right to go to the ball, she been cursed by Cindy's personal wizard to dance each and every day and night away in them iron shoes. She'll finish up her waltz at sundown, then the shoes'll heat themselves up again till she gotta start herself a lively jig!" Sweet chuckled.

Dawn just stared at him. "How is this funny to you? That poor old woman! She's got to dance through eternity in red-hot iron shoes? And you just let that happen?"

Sweet waved the old woman away, and the music went with her. All of a sudden the ballroom was silent. Sweet leaned in. "These are the rules, darlin'. I don't make them, I just gotta follow them, same as these folks. This is one of the circles of Hell, you know. I got no way to get around the rules here, even if I wanted to, and frankly, I don't. The folks who end up here earned their punishment. I know it's upsetting at first, but you'll get used to it."

"Just like you, huh? Did you just have to get used to it?" Dawn was close to tears.

"Nah, honey, I was made for this. I made this music, and this music made me. So happens that it made me to watch over the poor souls of those who end up here, and I made it to carry out their curses and punishments. Nothin' I can do about that, not if I want to go on bein' who I am."

Dawn took a deep breath and blew it out. "So you're telling me you can't change your nature."

Sweet's claw pinched the edge of the disc, halting its spin and jerking Dawn out of her reverie. The coffee shop surrounded her again, clad once more in the jeans and way-cute blouse she'd worn that day.

"Can't change mine more'n you can change yours, but who says you won't like it down with me?" Sweet smiled, sliding the disc back into his jacket once more. "You don't have to see them folks if you don't want, and I'd make every day of your pretty little life a glorious, show-stopping number. And do you know what you can do with that music, little one?"

Dawn let out a big breath, not realizing she'd been holding it that long. "I can't. I'm sorry, Sweet, but I can't. I can't be down there and not try to help those people."

"Rules won't let you change their fates, kitten."

"Then those aren't rules I can live by." Dawn drained the rest of her mocha, setting the cup down in what she hoped was a firm and decisive manner. Luckily, it didn't shatter. "Buffy and the others need me here, no matter what happens."

She moved to get up, and Sweet also stood. He bowed gracefully. "Last offer, my dear. Last chance to beat the rush on the coming apocolypse; last chance to be a demon princess and rule with me in the Grand Ballroom of Hell."

"And my last answer: no." Dawn shouldered her backpack, then looked at him shyly. "But...but thank you, for coming back and offering. It's a good offer. I just can't take it."

"Then I must say so long, farewell, auf wedersehen" Sweet sang, managing to not make the line as dorky as it could have been. It was almost cool. He trailed one claw over her cheek and then--bampf! a cymbal rang, a coronet wailed, and he was gone in a puff of smoke.

Dawn stood for a moment, staring at the spot he'd been; just long enough, it seemed, for the waitress to present the check. Dawn looked at it dumbly.

He hadn't...paid...the bill....?

She sighed, and dug in her back pack for her wallet; luckily Buffy hadn't missed the $10 for "lunch money" Dawn had appropriated out of her purse. What would the almighty Slayer think of her sister's story? Probably wouldn't believe her. Or worse, she would, and would keep Dawn locked in her room under twenty-four-hour protection spells, completely ruin Dawn's chances of helping defeat the First. Of course, if she wasn't let out of her room, she'd never have to worry about geometry homework again....

The clock over the cash register told her she was already late getting home. Buffy would freak if she stayed out any later, even if she called now and said she was fine. Buffy would have freaked if she'd been home early too, but that wouldn't have been as bad. Dawn sighed, dropped the $10 on the table, and shouldered her backpack. Off to help save the world again.