Tara's hair slipped through Dawn's hand almost exactly the same way Buffy's sheer, powder pink semi-borrowed silk blouse had earlier that afternoon-- tugged away without force, without friction.
"Oh, Dawnie," Tara was already saying, already moving back towards her, already settling her warm arms around Dawn's shoulders. She smelled like gingerbread, and a little like a hippie. All that patchouli oil. "Dawnie, honey, it's-- that's not for us. I mean, I'm all grown up, and you're just upset, it's all my fault, the-- the fighting with Willow, and--"
"I'm not a little girl," and even Dawn could hear herself pout. She was probably doing that thing Buffy called the Indignant Bratface, and so she switched tactics, tried the Bambi eyes, and hurried, "But you're so pretty! And so what if you're older. Have you read those V.C. Andrews novels? I mean--"
Tara's moment of startlement passed, and her eyes went dark and soft.
"I'll always love you, sweetie. I promise."
She cuddled Dawn close and stroked Dawn's long, took-hours-to-carefully-flat-iron hair. Dawn let her eyes slip shut and allowed herself to be comforted.
Tara's hugs never felt strained or careful, as if they should be doled out like vitamins, and when she petted Dawn's hair there was never that awful feeling-- that small, nagging idea that Buffy's affection was automatic, repetitive, robotic and therefore false.
Her eyes felt dry and scratchy, like they'd been rolling around on the carpet, and maybe crying would make her feel better, earn her a tighter hug and some more kind words from Tara, but maybe she should just concentrate on the tiny moment when her own mouth had plumped up against the slippery-pink-ice hot softness of Tara's lipglossed mouth.
"No, you're not the youngest. And stop fidgeting."
"But it's pulling my hair."
He resettled the combs and smoothed her hair before cupping her face with an air of tenderness and condescension.
"You're the loveliest, though."
"Really?" Dawn bounced a little and took care to stand up straighter. "You mean it? You don't think I have a potato nose?"
A soft laugh she could feel on the skin between her eyes.
"I'm hardly in a position to point fingers," he said, and took her hand, gently biting her first three fingertips. She'd had her first French manicure that morning. And they'd waxed her legs. Double ow! She'd take a few nicks any day.
"So who was the youngest one?"
"I believe it was... Derna. She was nine when we were wed."
"Okay, hello, disgusting? She was a little kid and you--?"
His lip curled in distaste.
"Of course not. First of all, she hated me. She missed her family and she only wanted to climb trees and play with her pet monkey. She was 16 and had two lovers before I took her to my bed. In fact--"
"Monkey? Can I have a monkey?"
He closed his eye and shook his head, but it didn't look like no.
"If you really want one. You may not like them as much as you think."
Dawn imagined having a monkey hanging out on her shoulder, swinging from the kitchen lamp and munching on RitzBitz.
Well, there was bound to be monkey poo, but that was the only drawback she could see.
A thought occurred to her:
A long, warm had clapped over her mouth.
"What did I tell you?" He sounded patient, yet a little menacing. It gave her a happy shiver.
"Isn't it bad luck for you to see me before it's our turn?"
She could hear the rhinestoned, pompadoured Reverend saying, "You can go ahead and kiss the bride, bay-beh."
He peered out behind the gold lamé curtain.
"I don't see that it will make much difference. Your sister's in the chapel." He sounded happy about it, but Dawn wasn't sure why. Buffy was probably going to kick his ass. It was kind of her thing.
"I bet she's pissed," Dawn predicted, smiling a little. Being a teenaged runaway hadn't been at all like Where The Day Takes You: there'd been hardly any dumpster diving and an almost disappointing lack in the trade of sexual favors for crack.
"I should think so. I am mere moments away from attempting to marry her charmingly underaged sister in the gigantic brothel that is Las Vegas, after all."
"Next couple," said a blurry, Elvissy baritone.
"Oooh, that's us!"
He smiled and took her hand, and drew the gold curtain aside.
Buffy swept his legs and he blinked at her lazily from the floor as she placed her hands on her hips and faced her sister.
"Dawn, you are so grounded."
"What are you doing here?"
He nudged her aside with his hip and she made some room for him on the bed. It smelled like sweat socks, and it was kind of lumpy, but it was still the best place in the house to watch Dexter's Lab.
"What have I told you about coming down here? Did you pick the lock again?"
Dawn ignored him and paused to wriggle closer to the TV, balanced on her elbows and stretched out with her feet bapping rhythmically against Xander's pillow.
"Hello, I'm talking to you, bratty sister of mine."
"You still live at home. I don't know why you get so huffy about it," she said dismissively.
"Because I pay rent, and because I work, and because I have a lock on the door because I am a man, and a man needs his privacy."
"If by privacy you mean Mom's Lubriderm and a copy of Maxim."
"Hey! I-- did not need to hear that you know that."
Dawn rolled her eyes and pulled at a strand of her strawberry gum until it dipped dangerously close to Xander's bedspread. Then she munched the whole string back into her mouth with tiny, rapid bites. She was almost done when Mom started screeching.
She and Xander froze, and she studied her brother from the corner of her eye. His face was stiff and blank, and he was staring at the TV with an air of excruciating concentration.
There was the lower, rougher answer of their dad, and then something banged against the kitchen linoleum.
"The toaster," Dawn whispered. So much for hot PopTarts.
Xander sighed and hung his head.
"They've been pretty quiet for the last hour or so," Dawn offered.
Xander mussed the hair on top of her head.
"You know, if I get a good job, I'm gonna move out soon."
Dawn edged away from him and tried staring hard at the TV herself.
"Yeah. I figured. I mean, you'd be dumb not to."
"Listen. I mean it, Dawn."
She didn't want to hear him apologize, so she tried to change the subject.
"Did you ever think about how cool it must be to have Buffy's mom? I mean, she's allowed out after midnight, and Mrs. Summers always bakes those really good cookies for me whenever I get kidnapped by anything demony--"
"When I have a place, you could come stay with me. I mean. I don't think they'd care. And even if they did, maybe I could petition for you at court or something. What do you think?"
"I think you're high on pepperoni fumes. And oh, did you bring home any pizza?"
"Dawn. I'm serious."
Dawn dropped her face between her arms and rubbed her nose against the scratchy sheetless bedspread.
"I don't know."
"It's just, you know an option. Or I can stay on a while, until you're out of school--"
"Xander, don't be a chump. I haven't even started high school yet! That's, like, years!"
"And if I can have my own bathroom, it's a deal."
Xander rubbed his eyes and stretched out on the bed beside her, shoulder to shoulder.
"You probably need two bathrooms to yourself."
"Whatever, Mr. I-Used-All-The-Hot-Water-Thinking-About-Miss-Praying-Mantis." She brightened. "Maybe I could get a paper route. Or babysit! You know, to help with rent?"
"We'll see. Oh, hey, Powerpuff Girls! Score!"
She'd never noticed before how little he was. Tiny, even.
She could see the top of his head, the pale roots of his blue-black dye job, and she wasn't even trying.
She thought maybe it had something to do with how he was almost always standing next to Willow, and how they always looked just right together.
When he woke up, she blushed, because he'd caught her staring, and well, he was pretty naked and all.
The chains rattled a little when he shook his head, and his kid-sized wrists looked red and raw from the cuffs.
"Hey. I have donuts. And pants!"
"Good to know."
She scrambled off the card table she'd been sitting on and held up the long iron key.
"Sorry about the whole chaining-you-in-the-basement thing, but whatcha gonna do?" She hoped she sounded cheerful, and that he wouldn't be embarrassed about the whole full-frontal thing.
"It was kinda last minute. I understand."
She unlocked him and he rubbed his hands down along his arms. His black nail polish had chipped on the second and third fingers of his left hand.
She'd never seen a guy's whole naked guyness in person before, and it was surprisingly uncreepy.
Maybe it was just that Oz was a supremely uncreepy guy. Or maybe it was just a relief to see him all pink and (relatively) hairless after he'd gone for her throat like Cujo the night before.
"I didn't-- hurt anyone, did I?"
"Not a scratch," Dawn promised, pointing at her neck.
"So. Where's Will?"
"Everybody had to go hunt down that Lizard King guy. They needed her mojo, to summon the Globe of Majer or something? and you got stuck with me."
He nodded and reached for a donut, holding it in his mouth before sliding his frayed olive drab pants and his plain blue boxers on at the same time.
He buttoned up and then took a bite of his donut.
"Bavarian cream. Good choice."
"Willow said they're your favorites."
He seemed to feel her staring at him, and he chewed meditatively and swallowed. It was chilly in the basement, and his nipples were kinda pointy.
When he looked at her-- well, when he wasn't a ravening hairy monkeyman werebeast-- he always looked so calm that he made her feel calm.
She knew he was waiting for her to ask him a question.
"What's it like being a werewolf? I mean, I've given a fair amount of thought to what it must be like to be a vampire, what with the pointy teeth and the demon face and the thirst for blood? but I've never really thought about being a werewolf. Is it-- is it cool?"
He held the half-eaten donut between his teeth again as he pulled his hooded sweatshirt on and zipped it up. Dawn hadn't been able to find his T-shirt. She hoped it hadn't been anything from his vintage Bowie collection.
"Well. It's definitely different." She waited for him to say something else, but he finished his donut instead.
He closed his eyes and cocked his head a minute. When he opened them again, he was smiling a little.
"It's kind of like being an anti-vampire. Vampires are all about the whole walking dead thing, right? They're cold and hairless and the ones that cause the most trouble are always all master plans and delusions of world domination.
"The wolf just wants to be alive. He has no agenda. He just wants to run and smell the cool smells and eat a lot."
"And have little werewolf puppies?"
He fingered one nickel earring.
"So, it's not evil and stuff?"
"It's not evil, it's just really… vast. Ungovernable."
"So it is cool," Dawn decreed.
He smiled at the floor.
"Yeah. It kinda is."
"How long have I been dead?"
"I-- I'm not sure."
"I thought it would hurt more."
"I must say, I did as well."
"Buffy's crying." Her throat started to ache, like it always did when she tried not to cry.
"I imagine she will. For quite some time. She loved you very much, Dawn."
"She probably loved you more, you know. I mean, technically, she knew you longer." She didn't want to look at Giles right now; she'd seen a lot of creepy stuff, but nothing was worse than Giles with a big bubble of brains spattered in his hair near the crater where the bullet had come out. The hole in his temple was a cake-walk in comparison.
She wondered if she was all gory, too, but she was careful not to look down. Her ceremonial robe thingy was suspiciously damp, though. But she'd been bleeding a while before Buffy had gotten to her. Before Giles had held her hand.
And nothing hurt.
He shifted beside her, and she wondered if he was doing that tiny proud English smile thing he did when he was going to say something mushy. She'd only seen it a few times, and she wished she could bring herself to look at him to see it again.
"We've known each other the same amount of time, as far as the human mind is concerned. The monks did a fine job with you. You are, after all, rather easy to love."
She wished he'd hold her hand again.
"I'm so sorry," Giles said, his voice so small and sad Dawn had to swallow twice before she could answer him.
"It's okay. Really."
And anyway, she wasn't sure he wasn't saying it to Buffy.
Buffy was moaning like one of those banshee things she'd rubbed out last New Year's Eve, kind of yowly, and crying so hard that Willow was shaking with it. She was curled up in Willow's lap, her hair covering her face.
Willow was crying, too, but Dawn couldn't hear her. Tara had a hand on Willow's shoulder, and Xander was sitting on the ground beside them, his face all bloody, his hands empty and limp, looking blank and kinda pasty. She wondered if that's what all those medics on Rescue 911 had meant by "shock."
She could see her own bare feet, but the rest of her... body had been covered by Spike's long black coat.
He was crouched beside her, and swiping angrily at his eyes.
Huh. She hadn't known vampires could cry.
Where was Anya?
And then Dawn saw her, folding Giles' arms across his chest and touching his terrible, bloody forehead. She straightened his glasses and wrapped the heavy gun and the long, silvery knife in her jacket.
"I wish you hadn't shot yourself. Buffy's gonna need you."
"She would have killed me. And it would have destroyed her. I did... what I had to do."
She was glad when he didn't apologize again.
And even gladder when he took her hand.