Pizza consumed, I climbed onto Spike’s lap, and he grunted good-naturedly, his hand encircling my belly possessively. He’d polished off another couple of containers of blood, and his coloring was much better.
“Now that we’re all full, can we talk about what happened to you guys?” I ran my hand over Spike’s forearm. Still solid and whole.
Spike kissed my temple. “All right, love.”
Setting her empty plate aside, Dawn lounged next to us on the sofa and tucked her legs up under her. She’d even eaten the crust – something she never did. My poor sister had been half-starved, too. I stared at the healing cut on her face and her messy haircut and wondered how both happened. “Sounds good to me.” She tilted her head back as she took a large swig of Dr. Pepper. “I’m caffeinated and ready.” She held up the can. “I missed this. So much.”
“Here, here.” Willow licked tomato sauce off her pinkie as she laid on her stomach on the re-made bed, her feet swinging lazily in the air.
Sitting next to her, Oz was finishing one of the last pieces of the pepperoni, his thigh fast against her side.
“Where should we start?” Willow asked, finishing her task.
No one said anything for several seconds.
Then, Dawn spoke, “So, Illyria took me. Good place to start?”
My heart thumped in my chest. “I haven’t been that scared in a long time, Dawnie. When I ran after you, I felt this pain here,” I touched my abdomen, “and I had to stop, and then, you were gone. That vamp-witch was watching and grabbed me.”
“I got your text from the Nibblet’s phone,” Spike said, trembling almost imperceptibly, and I laced my fingers with his. Dawn laid her head on his shoulder.
“What was Illyria like?” I asked, studying my sister’s face.
She lifted her head. “At first, I was scared out of my mind. She took me to this car. I think she’d stolen it. It was dark, so I couldn’t make out the model, but it had leather seats. She drove fast and wouldn’t say a word to me. I did what you said I should do, Spike.”
“What’s that, lil Bit?”
“I talked with her about my life, about you and Buffy and how much I love you both, and about my hopes and dreams.”
“Good call,” Oz said, shifting around so that Willow could cuddle up against him.
“But she didn’t give me anything in return. She didn’t say anything. Didn’t look at me. Just kept on driving. She sat funny in the car. All stiff and straight-backed, but she drove like she was an Indy 500 driver down I-10. I swear, she almost hit a bunch of other cars.” Dawn sat up, one leg dangling off the sofa. “Wanna know the really weird thing?”
“What’s that?” Spike asked, nodding at Oz and then at the mostly empty pizza box. Oz took the cue and passed Spike a slice of the now cold pie.
“Even though we were going ninety miles an hour down the highway, she pulled off at every exit where there was a Waffle House. I still don’t understand it.” My sister shrugged.
I perked up and pointed at my sister. “Ooo! I heard she has a fixation with Waffle House.”
Dawn made a face. “Fixation is an understatement. She’d make herself look like the person she was before – ”
“Fred,” Spike clarified, his sure, affectionate, sad tone telling me everything about how he felt about the scientist.
Dawn didn’t miss a beat and kept going. “She’d make me sit with her in a booth, and I had to order a pecan waffle and bacon. Coffee. Same as her. Just that. She wouldn’t talk to me at all. Just stared out the window until the food arrived. Then, she made me take a selfie with her. She made me smile, and when I didn’t, she’d command me to in the god voice. We didn’t even eat the food.”
“That’s majorly weird,” Willow commented, the worried line appearing between her green eyes. She addressed me, “How’d you know – “
“Angel told me when I was at the hospital.” I peeled a piece of pepperoni off Spike’s slice of pizza. I wasn’t supposed to have cold cuts, but if the meat was heated before, I figured I was safe. In my mouth, it was like a little bit of heaven.
Spike jerked the pizza away toward Dawn who also snagged some pepperoni.
“Hey!” he protested. “Nicking the best part is not allowed.”
I could tell he secretly loved it and kissed him on the cheek. “Pregnant woman’s prerogative.”
Spike sobered and said with only a hint of edge. “How was he at the hospital. Did the grand poof try to steal you away again?”
Honesty was the best policy. “He did in his own subtle way.”
“I knew it. He just can’t keep his mitts off – “ Spike closed his eyes, his jaw clenching and hollowing out his cheekbones. A few seconds later, he drew a deep breath. “Sorry. You’re not my property. It’s just – him.”
Rubbing Spike’s arm, I added, “I told him to get out until he had news about you, Dawn, and Willow.”
Spike’s expression was one of self-satisfaction. “Good on you, pet.”
“How many Waffle Houses were there?” Oz asked.
Dawn glanced up at the ceiling, mentally tabulating. “At least ten. I stopped counting after a while and went with it. I thought about taking the opportunity to sneak off to the bathroom and find a way to borrow a phone or to run, but she scared me. She’s hella fast. Once we got past Beaumont, she started talking.”
“The fast thing must have been part of her body deteriorating again,” Spike said thoughtfully.
“What’d she tell you, Dawnie?” Willow asked.
“She told me that she needed my help. When I told her that my key-ness was dead and had been dead for like over a decade, she gave me one of those crazy blue stares. She said that I didn’t know my own power and that living energy could not be snuffed out by a thin cover of magic. Then, she said something even crazier.” Dawn paused for dramatic effect continuing, “She said that she could show me how to tap into it.”
“I’m going to go out on a limb and say that she showed you.” Oz’s smile was small and tight-lipped.
“She didn’t really give me a choice.”
Willow frowned and addressed Oz, “Didn’t you get my message about Dawn?”
Oz shook his head. “Mental messages weren’t exactly clear across dimensions. I got bits and pieces.”
I added, “And boy did those mixed-up messages give us the worries.”
Willow sighed. “Oh. That makes sense. Damn, I didn’t account for that.”
“Hey, it let me know you were alive. That’s the main thing in my book,” Oz reassured her.
“Want to see?” Dawn asked. I could tell she really wanted to show me and Oz, but she glanced at Spike and Willow.
Spike nodded. “You don’t need permission from us. Show them, lil Bit.”
Planting both feet on the carpet, Dawn sat up straight, her short, jagged bob making her slender neck look more vulnerable. She closed her eyes, her brow furrowing in concentration as she held up both hands with fingers spread and facing each other like she was holding a small ball. There was the sound of a pop and the scent of smoke that came with blowing out a candle. Then, the tiniest of sparks came alive in a glowing blue-purple color. The glimmer whizzed back and forth between my sister’s fingertips and palm as if trying to escape.
“Whoa,” I breathed. “Dawnie. You’ve got power.”
Dawn slowly opened her blue eyes as if afraid that the little world between her hands would disappear if she moved too quickly or looked at it directly. When nothing happened and the spark grew larger and more brilliant, she smiled. “I had no idea either. I’m still not sure I want it, but I think I am it. When I access it, it makes me feel like my body is humming. I feel more like. . . me.”
“I feel it, too,” I said softly, worry jetting through my heart.
Oz rubbed a finger over his lower lip. “I’m assuming the magic you’re channeling opens portals to other worlds.”
Dawn nodded. “It does.”
“I-it’s not going to attract baddies that we don’t want to attract?” I took in Willow and Spike’s calm demeanor. “Let me guess. You helped her with it.”
Willow nodded. “Yeah. It’s taken a bit of time – months actually, but your sister has it under control now. And no, it’s not unduly going to attract baddies like a moth to a flame.”
“Or a Hellmouth,” Spike interjected.
“It’s like any other magic,” Dawn said with a serene smile on her face. She was almost glowing.
“Does that mean you didn’t have it under control?” God, we should have known. Somehow, we should have known that my little sis had untapped magic. She was, after all, created from an ancient living power source that the monks had been protecting for centuries. Odds were, she’d been around for a lot longer than that. . . maybe even before Illyria’s time.
“I didn’t. But Illyria helped me unlock and siphon the power, so it wouldn’t tear me apart with the dimensional doorway between here and the other dimension.”
“How nice of her.” My sarcasm was strong. Baby kicked, and I smiled. Even he agreed with me. “How’d she even figure out about your. . . key-ness?”
Spike spoke up then, “According to her, she and Angel were researching ways to help her in that godforsaken library in Morocco, and she read something there about an ancient key. She didn’t tell Peaches about it because well, he’s Peaches. She started doing clandestine research as a side gig. Angel never even knew.” He sighed then added, “I think she did a lot of the digging when he was off traipsing through dimensions.”
“So, when she came to see us in Denver?” I asked.
“She picked up on something but didn’t know what it was.”
“You see. I was right to get out the sword!” Dawn said, giving me a pointed look. She closed her eyes again and delicately moved her fingers so that the lights winked out. Almost immediately, I couldn’t sense anything different about my sister. She grinned at me.
Oz addressed Willow, “So how did you and Spike find Illyria and Dawn?”
“I sensed the portal open. I was attached to Dawnie with her ward, and I think the combination of the two tripped something inside me.” She gave him a close-lipped smile and shrugged modestly.
Spike picked up where she left off. “I pulled us off the highway at the nearest rest stop when she got the signal, and she teleported us again.”
“Again?” This seemed impossible even given what I knew about Willow’s abilities.
She met my gaze evenly. “It was Dawnie.”
“Oh,” I whispered. A moment later, I thought of something else and asked Spike, “So, our Civic is parked at some random rest stop on I-10?”
This time Spike looked amused. “Nope. The witch here teleported the whole kit and caboodle.”
This startled me. “What? Where’s the car then?”
Willow sighed as if she was disappointed in herself. “My aim was a little off, so I’m pretty sure we left it in the parking lot at the Dairy Queen, but it is in Kilgore.”
“Still very impressive, Red. ‘Bout knocked her down for the count, too.”
Oz hugged her close. “You’re not doing that again anytime soon.”
“Don’t think you realize how powerful your woman is, mate. She did much more than that across worlds.” I could tell that the respect Spike had for my best friend had grown over the past six months.
Willow countered him with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I have better control over the magic inside of me, but it’s like anything. I’ve honed it, but I want more than that. I want to be more than that.”
Oz inclined his head at Spike. “I get what you’re saying.” Then, he spoke to Willow, tweaking her words just slightly, “You’ve always been more than the magic you wield.”
Her smile was lopsided, but her eyes shone with happiness that he saw her, that he got her. “Thanks.”
I poked Spike, and his blue eyes found mine. With one glance, he knew that I was thinking that was how he saw me – as much more than a Slayer. It was just as I saw him as much more than a vampire. He loved all the parts of me. . . the powerful-kickass-super-powered-Slayer parts and the vulnerable-tender-woman parts.
Dawn let out a happy sigh, her hands clasped and her face dreamy. “There’s a whole lotta love in this room.”
“Are you telling us to dial it down?” I teased. “Or get a room?”
“Not at all. I just want to find what you guys have someday.”
“You will,” I insisted, shifting out of Spike’s lap to sit next to my sister. I hugged her shoulders.
“Just not anytime soon. I’m having fun playing the field.” Spike gave my sister a funny look, and she added, “I’m enjoying my twenties. Thank you very much. Though George is pretty hot.” She hesitated and then, “As is Shane.”
Both of Spike’s eyebrows shot up. “No.”
“Why not?” Oh, my sister’s obstinate side was creeping out.
“We already discussed this, lil Bit.”
“And you never answered my question.”
“Because you only ever asked at right inconvenient times. And I did answer your question. The answer was and still is no.”
“But I asked why the no.” She glared. “And when was it inconvenient?”
“Let’s see. When we were fighting that gang of Phut demons.” Somehow, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what demons Spike was referencing. “When we were chasing after Illyria when she got in that snit. When I was trying to get fifteen minutes of shut-eye after 48 hours of none. Should I go on?”
“That doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to not answer a very important question,” my sister countered. “You could’ve waited until the end of the fight or after we calmed Illyria down or after you got some sleep and come back to it.”
“It was my prerogative to not answer. You ever think I was purposefully forgetting you asked, hoping you’d drop it? He’s my relative, and I said no. The first no should have been enough. No need for a bloody long explanation. And this whole thing here was longer than any explanation I should’ve had to give!”
Dawn huffed, crossing her arms. “I only asked twice.”
“Five times. Five sodding times.”
Willow and Oz were glancing back and forth between Spike and Dawn, seemingly enjoying the two of them trying to out-stubborn the other one. Apparently, during six months of traipsing across dimensions, my sister had mentioned her crush on Spike’s lookalike cousin. A giggle almost escaped my lips, but I tamped it down. That would do no good.
I decided to nip the situation in the bud – for now. “So, you two followed Illyria and Dawn how?”
Taking my hand, Spike caught my hint, but I knew that he was only letting the other go for now. “We sussed out the exact spot they crossed over, and Willow was able to put a magical wedge in the leftover weak spot to pry open the portal.”
“We caught up with Illyria and Dawn in this crossroads dimension,” Willow explained.
“What does that mean? A ‘crossroads dimension’?” Oz asked.
“It’s a dimension that’s a weigh station of sorts between other dimensions, so there’s a lot of traffic going through.” Spike’s explanation didn’t tell me much.
Dawn caught my confused expression. “Traffic that involves a lot of different creatures. Did you know that it’s a place where creatures from our dimension travel to get away from humans? Like take the Loch Ness monster. She spends a lot of time there.”
Oz stared off into space. “Huh. That explains the pictures and the subsequent complete lack of evidence of her existence.”
“Right! She’s really nice, too.” Dawn was very exuberant about this.
Now I crossed my arms, which was more than a bit awkward given my belly was coming up under my breasts. “You met her? And just how do you know she’s nice?”
Spike rolled his eyes, which was big of him considering he’d distracted the whole conversation with his insistence about Dawn not dating his cousin. “The better question is how we handled Blue.”
I remembered Spike’s text. “You said Angel wanted you to go after Illyria. That she was tired of him. So, was Angel right?”
Willow nodded. “He was. Spike was nothing short of amazing. I was too weak after all the spells to do a whole lot at first, and he really stepped up for me and Dawn.”
“S’no big deal. I was doing what had to be done,” Spike said modestly.
“They caught up with me and Illyria in the crossroads dimension. Before they got there, I honestly thought that I was doomed to be wandering around forever with her.” Dawn’s face paled at the memory.
“Thanks to Red, we saved a lot of time,” Spike noted.
“So, what’d you say to Illyria?” Oz asked, stroking Willow’s upper arm.
Spike was quiet a moment and then said, “The god’s a bit like a big cat. You have to come at her with caution and a bit sideways because you don’t know how she might react. She might swipe at you with her claws out of anger or a desire to test you. Either way’s dangerous. But when it comes down to it, she wants connection. Even as a centuries-old being.” He picked up my hand, and I squeezed as he ran his thumb over mine. “There was a moment when I got her. It was when we were in L.A. She was feeling lost in her limited body with powers that had been drained, and I related to her feeling of helplessness.”
“How so?” I asked. I always wanted to know and understand more about that year he’d been with Angel at Wolfram and Hart.
He gazed at me knowingly. “You know how I was a ghostie for a time?”
“Didn’t know if I’d ever be able to touch anything, connect with anything the same way again. Couldn’t drink, couldn’t fight, couldn’t shag. And you know me.” There was sadness in his tone.
I hugged his arm. “You’re the touchy-feely type.”
He shook his head just slightly as if remembering the rest of the people in the room. “I figured she must be terrified with her body rebelling again. I mean, according to Peaches, she was trying to fit in with the world as it is now, and then, everything went sideways.”
I could relate to that. Spike and I were just getting used to our settled down, normal-ish life with a baby on the way, and then, the prophecy and Illyria showed up to mess with things. Such was the life of a Slayer and vampire. Then again, such was the life of most people. Life happened to throw things out of whack. The other shoe dropped. Ours just had a little more of a dangerous element. Something about it still worried me, but I filed that away for later.
“Spike convinced her to let us help her,” Willow said. “At first, she just let us tag along. I think she was pretty wary of us.”
“But, once we’d crossed a couple of dimensions – ” Dawn stopped when she saw the alarm on my face. “I got better at it. The first time was. . . painful. But it got easier, and Willow helped. She taught me about honing and mindfulness.”
“And Red here got stronger again as we went along,” Spike interposed.
Oz looked pensive. “How’d you know where to go?”
“Illyria knew where to go to find the dimension where Fred was,” Dawn explained. “She just didn’t have the power to get there. I’m guessing from the research she and Angel did.”
“And as we went, Spike had us talk about what we were thinking out loud in front of Illyria,” my sister continued. “I think it earned us trust points. And we figured out this plan for how to help Illyria stabilize while also not causing Fred harm.”
“How?” I thought it seemed impossible, but I’d learned that with my friends and family, anything was possible.
Willow’s face lit up as she sat up away from Oz. “You know the magic the monks used to make Dawn?”
“Uh huh.” The monks made Dawn out of me. I never felt a thing. She just appeared in our timeline, and I thanked my lucky stars every day for my little sister.
“Well, I figured out a way to do the same type of magic.”
“Ohhh,” I breathed.
Oz seemed to be thinking. “You could stabilize Illyria by joining her with a piece of Fred without hurting Fred.”
“Exactly,” Willow confirmed. “That’s what we did. When we finally got to Fred.”
“It was right brilliant,” Spike noted. “And thanks to the Nibblet, we were able to get to Fred without disturbing her place of peace. And most importantly, without having to become human. I’m thinking the poof exaggerated the need for that.”
“Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me,” I said, rolling my eyes.