The house was in that weird zone of hush where nobody wanted to speak out loud and everyone wanted to whisper. Girls had died in the fight against Caleb. Xander had lost an eye. The whole thing was just so visceral and scary and irreversible that the only mature way to handle it was to accept what had happened and carry on. Buffy didn't seem to have any answers. She was adamant that they had to take out Caleb, but she didn't so much as frown at the losses. She just said something along the lines of "we'll deal with it".
Dawn knew it was stupid and immature, but she didn't want to deal with it.
She'd begun researching the time travel spell months ago, back when the First had appeared to her in the guise of her mother. On the off chance that her mother really was warning her that Buffy couldn't be trusted (which was stupid, but it was good to be prepared, right?), she'd decided to start making a plan B. In her more honest moments, she accepted that she had another motivation as well. She just felt so useless . Buffy was the slayer, Faith was the other slayer, Spike was the super-special souled vampire, Willow was a witch, Giles was a watcher, Anya had a thousand years of useful knowledge stored up, and Xander's carpentry skills had stopped being a joke when he'd rebuilt most of the house to fix the demon damage. Even the teenage girls living with them were basically potential superheroes. The only person less useful than Dawn was Andrew, and even Andrew had projects to work on. They mostly involved his documentary stuff, but whatever. He was recording history, and Dawn could respect that.
Andrew's state of relative uselessness meant that he was generally available for conversations about random subjects- like, say, time travel. Anyone else would have been really suspicious by the end of a conversation like that, but Andrew had easily accepted her hypothetical situation.
"Well, if you were going back with the intent to alter history, the main thing would be to know about cause-effect chains. You'd have to know which events caused other events. Flow charts would be good. Color-coded flow charts, including branching possibilities."
The whole thing was, in a way, her fault. Oh, she didn't necessarily blame herself for it, but the cause-effect chain was obvious. See, the reason they were in this mess now was because of the First. And according to Anya, the First was able to do this stuff because the slayer line was unstable. The line was unstable because Buffy was resurrected. Buffy was resurrected because she died jumping off the tower. And she died jumping off the tower because Dawn didn't jump.
Spike had blamed himself for the whole thing that summer, but he was just being stupid. In trying to make sense of Buffy's death, he'd convinced himself that if he'd done something differently, Doc wouldn't have gotten to Dawn, and the portal would never have opened. Dawn hadn't argued with him about it, but he was wrong. He couldn't have saved Buffy. Dawn could have, but she had chosen not to. She was sure that if Spike had been in her position, he would have jumped off the tower, soul or no soul. And then they wouldn't be in this mess.
If she could just go back to that night, back to the tower, she wouldn't have to let Buffy talk her out of it. She could rush past her sister and die for humanity. They'd mourn her, but it would be OK in the end, and Buffy's friends would probably support her and keep most of the bad parts of the past year from happening. Dawn had had the power to stop an all of that suffering, and nobody else could say that. Not Spike, not Willow, not Buffy. So it was convenient that the time travel spell would only work for Dawn.
She'd found it through a half-forgotten footnote in one of Giles's books about dimensions. It was an ancient Sumerian spell, and the reason why she'd been working on her Sumerian so much lately. (Lucky for Buffy, when they'd needed it for the emergency slayer kit. Ancient Sumerians knew a lot of spells to mess with dimensions and portals.) She had to dig through most of Giles's personal library, but eventually she'd found the source. The spell's description was in Latin (a pain, but she was totally sure of her translation), while the spell itself was a Sumerian incantation. Nobody had seriously bothered to even try using it for more than a millennium, because the material component was the blood of a demon species that had migrated entirely out of this dimension sometime before the fall of the Roman Empire. They were known for their ability to move through time and space- even into other universes entirely- by unraveling and re-spinning dimensional walls so as to slip through them without disturbing the order of the multiverse. Any substitute material component would need to have that same quality, the ability to open dimensional rifts and re-seal them under certain circumstances. Kinda like the Key.
Until now, the spell had remained a leisure project, albeit a very involved one. The spell was not particularly exact, especially with the substitution, so at first her plan was to deliberately overshoot by a few months and kill herself before Glory even got wind of her. It seemed really morbid, but she reasoned that it wasn't suicide if the purpose was to save the world. Of course, then she'd wondered whether she could get the same result by killing Ben. Then she'd gotten to thinking about all of the other things she could change, and she'd ended up making more branching flow charts than even Andrew could have anticipated. She had a timeline nailed to the wall of her room, with notes dating back from Buffy's calling in LA all the way to the present day, with a special focus on the year or two before Glory tried to rip the dimensions apart.
She didn't know a whole lot about slayer business back then. After all, Buffy hadn't stopped trying to shelter her from the evils of Sunnydale until this past summer. Dawn made up for this lack of knowledge by reading Giles's watcher diaries- she wasn't a thief anymore, but that didn't mean she wanted to lose her sneaky skills. They were extremely thorough, although of course they reflected all of his biases and were based on the knowledge he had to work with at the time of writing. There was a lot of insulting Spike, for instance, and a really impressive amount of speculation on Buffy's mental state. Dawn thought most of his speculation was flat-out wrong, but Giles wasn't one to neglect factual information, so in the end she had to be grateful to him.
She hadn't told Andrew about it, much less Buffy or any of the scoobies. If they had any idea her plan B was to go back in time and most likely kill herself, they would freak. At the same time, Dawn didn't really feel guilty for hiding it. Despite all the work she was putting into plans, she had never really thought that she would use the spell. Not before the potentials died and Xander lost his eye, anyway. She'd overheard Buffy talking about going back to the vineyard, and if that was the new plan A, Dawn figured it was past time to bust out plan B. And that was why Dawn, in keeping with the general hushed atmosphere of the house, rapped softly on the basement door before easing it open and calling down.
"Hey, Spike? You awake?"
"Can I come down?"
She snapped the basement light on and descended as quietly as she could. It wasn't like she was hiding anything, really- after all, she was just getting her own stuff. It was just that making any more noise than necessary would have been wrong.
"Couldn't sleep?" Spike's tone was conversational- not a whisper, but also not very loud. He didn't have any intention of breaking the hush, either.
"I'm OK," lied Dawn. "Just working on something. It's good to keep your mind off this stuff sometimes."
Spike nodded, understanding. He returned to sitting on his cot in what appeared to be quiet contemplation. As far as Dawn was concerned, Spike being contemplative pretty much proved that they were all doomed. It strengthened her conviction that she was doing the right thing. She unearthed a cardboard box labeled "small magic-y stuff" and began quietly rummaging around, eventually pulling out her prize. It was a dagger, about six inches long with a blade covered in ancient runes.
"Now what are you planning on doing with that?"
Dawn considered herself to be good at lying, but Spike was really hard to fake out. Besides his natural people-reading skills, he could hear a person's every heartbeat and breath. It gave him a majorly unfair advantage at things like this, and made him unnaturally good at certain card games. "Just wanted to keep it close. You know, with all the stuff going on."
He raised his scarred eyebrow. "You're in a house with two slayers and a vampire, and you think one rusty knife's gonna be the thing to keep you safe?"
"It's not rusty," she protested. "It doesn't get rusty. It's enchanted."
"Magic knife, eh? Lemme see." She handed it to him, and he unsheathed it. "Don't recognize the script. Looks old."
"Norse, I think. It's the spell inscription. 'May this knife be ever sharp', or something like that," shrugged Dawn. "I'm just going off the translation from the box, though. I don't even know any regular scandinavian languages, let alone this archaic stuff."
"Where'd you get it?"
"Anya. Last year."
"What, shoplifted from the Magic Box and never returned?" He looked at her disapprovingly. It took her a second to realize that he actually did disapprove now. Weird. Especially given that they'd become friends after he'd helped her break into the place.
"I gave all that stuff back. Anya missed my birthday, and when she found out she decided to give me the knife," huffed Dawn. Seriously, Spike, like you're allowed to take the moral high ground on literally any subject.
"I don't believe it. Not like her to give away merchandise."
"There might also have been negotiations involving secret child labor. I wanted the knife."
"Yeah? Any particular reason?"
Dawn crossed her arms defensively. "It's pretty."
Unexpectedly, Spike didn't laugh. "I'll give you that. Fine little thing. Almost dainty."
"It's a knife. Knives can't be dainty," said Dawn, rolling her eyes.
"Can so," insisted Spike. "Jus' because a thing can kill doesn't mean it can't be small an' pretty while it does it. Sharp little knife for a sharp little girl. Not so little anymore, but the point stands."
Dawn was skeptical- about the particular adjective, if not the principle behind it- but she accepted both the compliment and the knife as he handed it back. "Thanks."
"Probably best you have something with you, anyway."
"What happened to 'you're in a house with two slayers and a vampire'?"
"You are," he said seriously, "And I sincerely hope you never have to use that thing. But it's best to have a weapon on hand, and I'm not going to discourage you from carryin' it. Jus' want you to know there are a lot of people here who would die before they let anything get its claws on you."
Dawn knew all too well. She clipped the sheath to her belt and gave him a nod before going back upstairs. If he noticed any fluctuations in her heart rate or respiration, they didn't arouse his suspicions. He probably figured she had reason to be on edge, even around him. Maybe he thought it was because she was around him. Sad that their relationship had deteriorated that much over the past year, but hey, trying to rape a girl's sister will have consequences like that.
Not that she held it against him too much. Dawn still wasn't a huge believer in the importance of souls, but she understood the gesture, and it had done a lot to convince Buffy that Spike was serious about trying to be good now. Buffy trusted Spike, and Dawn trusted Buffy. Ergo, Dawn trusted Spike. Granted, she might have spent more time questioning the wisdom of that call if not for the spell, but the spell was gonna happen. Whatever had gone on between them last year, Dawn was about to erase it. She wasn't overly happy about it, given that it meant she was also going to erase just about every good thing Spike had ever done, but it wasn't enough to make her hesitate. If the price of saving the world was the life of a sharp little girl and the redemption of a former monster, then that was that. Fair enough trade.
Dawn made her way back to the spellbook on the kitchen island, took a moment to re-read the incantation, and began chanting the short phrase over and over. She pressed the knife into her arm before she could change her mind.
Every drop of spilled demon blood was good for about a month of backwards time travel. The tower was a little under two years ago, so she figured twenty-four drops should be plenty. Unfortunately, the blood didn't actually come out in distinct drops. It ran down the knife in a little red river, and then the river wasn't so little. She was reminded of the time she cut herself to see if she would even bleed red. This wasn't that bad, but she was starting to think that she should have cut her finger instead of her arm.
She heard hurried, thudding footsteps on the stairs. The basement door slammed into the wall as it flew open. There was a flurry of whispers from the living room, and then Spike burst into the kitchen. For a second they just stared at each other in silence, Dawn's chant interrupted by the look of confusion and genuine concern on Spike's face. She'd known that he would smell the blood as soon as it wafted down to the basement, but she'd been confident that she would be able to complete the spell before that happened.
He took a cautious step towards her. She thought she saw anger in his expression, which wouldn't be at all surprising. It reminded her of when he used to threaten her with ridiculously grisly death every time she did something stupid or dangerous. The violent descriptions had quickly become oddly comforting, because at least they meant he noticed whether she was OK. The surprising thing was how quickly the controlled anger now gave way to pure concern. He looked at her in a way he hadn't since last year- at least, not while she was paying attention. Like he didn't know what to do, and was worried that he'd somehow failed her. Like he cared.
Why the heck is that surprising? He cared about you even before he got a soul. Why did you expect him to stop now? In what universe does undergoing torture for the chance to become a better person signify a lack of caring?
He made her name sound like a hundred different things- Put the knife down. It'll be OK. Tell me what's wrong. You're important. I'll protect you. I'm sorry. Please don't do this, Bit. If she hadn't already finished the spell, it would have been enough to stop her. She hadn't realized just how fragile her resolve was.
"I have to do this," said Dawn, but it sounded false even to her.
Her statement fell on an empty kitchen. The house, full of whispering only a moment ago, was now so still that Dawn knew it was nearly empty. If she'd gotten the chance to think about it, she probably would have cried, because now she couldn't tell him that she was sorry. She would never get the chance to tell Spike anything ever again.
"Is someone there?"
Joyce walked into the kitchen, and they stared at each other for a full three seconds. Dawn was shocked to see her mother alive. Her mother looked shocked, too, but for very different reasons.
"What's going on here?"
Dawn glanced at her arm, still covered in blood. She pulled the knife out, wincing at the pain. "It's not what it looks like, Mom."
"Who are you? What are you doing in my house?"
Dawn froze. "Mom? Don't you know who I am?"
It was definitely her mother, but she stared at Dawn as though she were a stranger. There was no sign of recognition before she spoke again. "What are you doing here?"
"I was, uh." Dawn looked back at the knife in her hand and decided it looked unnecessarily gruesome. Not to mention scary. She sheathed it, then tried again. "I need to speak to Buffy."
"Buffy? She's not here. Is this about vampires?"
"Yeah," said Dawn. She decided the situation did tangentially involve vampires, sort of. "Could you call her? I'll clean this mess up," she added, looking at the small puddle of blood on the kitchen island. Her mother was obviously shaken, but she went to get the phone. Dawn threw some paper towels on the blood puddle before washing her cut off in the sink. Ever-sharp or not, it occurred to her that she hadn't actually cleaned the knife before slashing herself with it. It was such a spur of the moment thing that the details got lost in the wake of the larger decision. She hadn't wanted to talk herself out of her own sacrifice.
Something about the sink seemed weird, and she realized with alarm that it was taller than it was before. Or, more accurately, she was now shorter. She tried to figure out why her body had regressed, but the spell's description had never been that specific. She'd simply assumed that her body, like her mind, would remain intact. She looked down at her chest and frowned. Her clothes, unchanged, hung somewhat loosely over a very girlish figure. Yup. Barely pubescent.
"Willow? Yes, I need to speak to Buffy. Yes, it is." Joyce covered the receiver and looked at Dawn. "How urgent is this?"
"I can wait a few hours, if she's busy," said Dawn. She tried to nonchalantly stick her hands in her pockets, but very noticeably winced when it made the cut come into contact with the fabric of her clothes. It kind of ruined the effect. "Do you have any bandages?"
"Under the microwave," said Joyce, pointing. "Tell her to call me when she gets back. No. No, a girl I've never seen before is in my kitchen cutting herself with a knife, and she says she has to speak to Buffy. No, I don't. Well, at this point I really try not to think too hard about these things. Not yet. She doesn't seem the type. I don't think so. Thank you, Willow." Joyce hung up the phone and stared at Dawn, who was busy dressing the wound she'd given herself while trying really, really hard not to think about the implications of her own mother not remembering her. "So. Can I get you something, Miss...?"
"Dawn," said Dawn. "And I'm good, thanks. Though I wouldn't say no to ice cream."
"I'll see what I can do," said Joyce, opening the freezer. "Forgive me if this is a silly question, but you are a friend of Buffy's, aren't you?"
"Yeah, I guess that's what I am," said Dawn, trying to hide the quaver in her voice. Be strong. You can do this. You're a sharp little girl with a sharp little knife, even if you're a little more little than usual. You have staked vampires. You have faced down a hellgod and lived to tell the tale. You can totally handle this nobody having any idea who you are thing.
"You guess?" Joyce was frowning at her, probably trying to determine whether she was some kind of demon. Dawn tried not to take offense. After all, demons totally did look like innocent little kids sometimes, and the situation with Eve had reminded everyone that you couldn't always rely on appearances to distinguish the humans from the incorporeal entities of pure evil.
"Well, I don't know how she's going to react. But I'm totally here to help," clarified Dawn. She was again overwhelmed by the fact that her mother was alive. She tried to stamp down the feeling to keep herself from tackle-hugging the lady currently doling out double fudge ice cream.
"What exactly does Buffy need help with?"
"Oh, you know, the usual. Apocalypse stuff." Jeez, mom didn't give Spike the third degree when he came over and asked for hot chocolate. Oh gosh, Spike. Is he still evil? What year is it? If mom is here, it's definitely before the tower, and Buffy's already graduated from high school, but other than that -
"There's an apocalypse coming?" Her mother looked truly alarmed, like apocalypses weren't business as usual around here.
"Well, uh, no. Not exactly. Not right now? Not to be weird, but what's the date?"
"January 18th, 2000," said Joyce, handing her a bowl with two scoops in it.
"Oh," said Dawn, picturing the timeline in her room and placing herself. She was about eight months before the little flashy diamond labeled Dawn is created. "Oh, crap."
Meaning Dawn was now stuck in the body of a thirteen-year-old girl, despite the fact that she had never actually been a thirteen-year-old girl. Technically, she ought to be a glowing ball of green light right now, since the monks had very obviously done neither the transformation spell nor the memory alteration yet. Was she the only Key, or was the past version of her still in play? Why would she regress if there were two of them? Why wouldn't mom remember her if she was going to regress to a state she was never in before? The whole thing made her head spin. She checked the impulse to run to Willow, knowing Willow would have no idea who she was. Maybe Andrew would listen to her, if she could figure out where he lived. She suspected that Andrew would jump at the chance to talk about time travel with anyone, even if "anyone" was a thirteen-year-old girl he had never seen before. She realized with a start that Andrew hadn't killed anyone yet. If she could get to him before he joined the trio, he might not turn evil! The trio might not even form, and Warren might never kill Tara! Woah, were Willow and Tara even dating yet?
"Is that bad? Is it too late?"
Dawn blinked and brought her reeling thoughts back to her very alive and very worried mother. Who didn't remember who she was. "No, it's way earlier than it's supposed to be. Man, the stuff with the Initiative hasn't even gone down yet."
"I'm sorry, are you saying you can see the future? Are you some kind of witch? Or a demon?"
"Nah," said Dawn, stabbing a spoon into her ice cream and sounding about a thousand times more self-assured than she actually was. "I'm a time traveler."