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Dawning Light

Chapter Text


It hurt.

Dawn struggled with the ropes holding her hands, trying not to cry out as the knife sliced into her sides. Her blood was hot as it poured down her sides and over her toes and dripped down into the air.

The portal opened.

Things emerged.

Dawn struggled harder.

Then Buffy was there, bleeding and wild, grabbing at the Doc. The man was caught off-guard, but as Buffy flung him off the tower, his knife flashed out and dug into the Slayer's shoulder, dragging Buffy over the side with him.

Dawn screamed. She pulled at the ropes harder, so hard the fibers tore into her wrists and blood went everywhere, but it didn't matter because Buffy had bled for her and Dawn wasn't going to let a little pain stop her. She was the Slayer's sister and that meant she had to be stronger than she knew.

Evil things flew in the air, making the tower shake. As Dawn finally freed her hands from the bindings, a dragon tore itself out of the portal and winged off towards Los Angeles.

Dawn fell to her knees. The portal that her blood had made was growing, just as Glory had wanted. Far below, small figures fought. Was Buffy down there? Did she survive her fall? How abut Spike? Willow? Xander?

How many more people were going to get hurt because of the portal of her blood?

Far away in the east, the sun began to drift over the horizon.

Dawn closed her eyes, but only for a moment. She was the Slayer's sister, and that meant she had to be strong, she thought as she pulled herself to her feet. She was the only one who could close that portal.

She stepped to the edge of the platform, the grating made slippery with her blood. She was so scared that the air tasted like a knife on her tongue... but she was strong. She had to be strong.

She jumped, and let gravity take her.

Rushing light everywhere and wind and cold and light and cold and light and cold so cold cold COLD!

Dawn hit the ground. She lay still, trying to figure if she was supposed to be hurting or not. Was this dead?

She didn't feel dead. At least, she didn't think she felt dead. The ground underneath her was covered in grass, the air freezing, the darkness pressing in on her. It was so quiet.

Dawn tried to sit up, but she got tangled in her dress and collapsed back down. Giving it another go, she managed to get to her feet, surrounded by yards of loose fabric. At some point, her dress had grown far too big for her.

Her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, and she could make out several large shapes around her. She had lived in Sunnydale long enough to know what sort of place this was.

A graveyard.

Dawn tried to swallow the rapidly rising wave of panic. She wasn't dead, being in a graveyard was only a coincidence. Only... there were patches of white on the frozen ground, amongst the tombstones. Snow. Was there snow in heaven?

Was this heaven? Dawn began to tremble. She hadn't been bad enough to go to the other place, had she? She hadn't meant to open the portal. They couldn't make her go to hell for that. Right?

"Buffy?" Dawn whispered. There was something wrong with her voice, but she pushed that thought away. "Buffy, where are you?" She gathered up her skirts and started walking, trying to be alert to danger just as Buffy had taught her. "Willow? Xander?" There was no answer, no movement in the graveyard. "Spike?"

Her sides hurt, her wrists burned, and the snow hurt her feet as she walked. She knew she shouldn't have been in a graveyard at night, all kinds of vampires and demons would think she was a tasty nibble, Spike had said so himself. She had to find a way out of here. She had to find Buffy, tell her that she survived the fall and everything was going to be okay.

Tears swelled up in her eyes and fell down her cheeks, cold against her skin. She reached up with an impatient hand to rub them away. When she pulled her hand back, she almost screamed.

Her hand was too small.

Everything was too small, Dawn realized as she pulled up the hem of her dress to look at her feet. Baby hands, baby feet... what had happened to her?

This isn't happening! Dawn thought, breathing speeding up hysterically. I'm not a little kid! I'm almost sixteen! I'm Dawn Summers and I'm not dead and I'm not a little kid!

Mindless of the danger of running through an unfamiliar graveyard, Dawn bundled up the fabric of her too-large dress and ran, trying to find a way out. The only sounds in the graveyard were her ragged breathing and the crunch of the snow under her numb feet.

Eventually, waves of dizziness caught up with her, and she stumbled to a stop near a large stone angel. Her sides hurt worse than ever. Dimly, Dawn wondered if running with two big cuts in her sides was such a great idea. As she contemplated falling over, a voice ghosted across the graveyard, freezing Dawn in place.

"Simon Edwards, arise!" With the words came a terrifying rush of power, sort of like Dawn had felt from Willow when the witch was doing simple spells, but so much more powerful and hard and cold.

Wanting Buffy more than ever, Dawn peered out from behind her angel. Ten graves down, a loose knot of people stood around a headstone. Dawn's eyes were drawn to one woman at the foot of the grave. The woman held a long silver knife in her hand, which she was pointing at the grave.

As Dawn watched, the grave opened and a zombie shot out.

Dawn bit on her too-small hand to stop herself from screaming. The woman was raising a zombie! And everyone was just watching her do it! Were they evil witches? What would they do to her if they found her?

The zombie grabbed the woman's offered hand, and pulled it up to his mouth. No one moved to stop the creature. Then, after a minute, the zombie pulled back, and the woman lowered her arm. "Are you Simon Edwards?" she asked.

The zombie nodded. "I am Simon Edwards," it said in a gravelly voice.

Why did she care who the zombie was? Dawn took her hand out of her mouth and watched, frowning.

One of the men behind the lady stepped forward. "Mr. Edwards, I am a lawyer for Hillside Insurance, and we have some questions for you with regards to the division of the trust fund for your grandchildren as set out in your will."

What? Lawyers were talking to the zombie? Dawn tugged at her lower lip and frowned. Maybe they were like evil lawyers or something.

The questions from the lawyer continued for a while, long enough for Dawn to get bored of watching that and turn her attention to the rest of the people. The woman who had raised the zombie was standing at the side of the grave, arms crossed. In the faint moonlight, she looked bored too. She was beside the tallest person Dawn had ever seen, a woman with dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. Maybe she was half-giant, like Hagrid in the Harry Potter Books, Dawn mused.

The rest of the people in the circle looked like the evil lawyer, so Dawn focused back on the zombie. He was all desiccated and gross-looking. Uneasily, Dawn remembered trying to bring her mother back, and her mother's death was still so fresh in her mind that the tears came back. Would Mom have looked like that, all dead and gross?

The tears came more freely. Dawn missed Mom so much, and she missed Buffy and everyone and she was so cold and so scared but she didn't know what to do, other than to wait for Buffy to find her.

The evil lawyer by the zombie stepped back. "Ms. Blake, we're through."

The short woman moved in front of the zombie. "Mr. Edwards, do you understand what will happen now?"

The zombie nodded. "You will put me back in my grave, and my grandchildren will receive their proper inheritance."

"That's right," Ms. Blake said. She touched her silver knife to the man's lips, then threw a handful of something at him. The zombie laid down and was swallowed up by the earth, just like that.

Dawn was beginning to feel a little fuzzy around the edges. The ground wasn't as cold as it had been before, and her sides didn't hurt so much. She watched as the evil lawyers left, leaving the two women at the grave. Ms. Blake began to walk in a circle around the grave.

"This is the last one for the night, Claudia," Ms. Blake said as she walked. "Want to go grab something to eat before we head back?"

The really tall woman scanned the graveyard, and Dawn ducked back behind her gravestone. "If you want, Anita."

"What I want, Claudia, is a long shower and a cup of coffee," Ms. Blake, Anita, said. "Maybe even a night off. I..."

"What?" Claudia asked.

"Quiet."

Had they heard her? Dawn huddled behind her stone angel, turning away from the zombie grave. She blinked her tired eyes at the graveyard.

Something in the shadows moved.

Panic stole Dawn's breath away. A large grey thing stalked toward her on silent feet, tatters of clothing hanging off it. Its pale silver eyes gleamed in the moonlight as it gathered its legs under it to pounce on her.

Dawn screamed.

The creature roared, then impossibly loud gunfire sounded over Dawn's head. The creature squealed and ran off. More shots followed it, then two people ran past Dawn's gravestone.

"What the hell would a ghoul be doing out here?" the woman Anita demanded, staring after the creature. "This graveyard was re-consecrated last year."

"Don't know," Claudia said. "Are we going after it?"

Anita, holding a gun in both hands, shook her head. "Not the two of us. We'll get an exterminator team down here. There are too many things that could go wrong with just the two of us." She turned slowly, surveying the graveyard. "We should--" She broke off with a startled gasp and took a step backwards as she spotted Dawn huddled against the gravestone.

Claudia whirled around, putting herself between Anita and Dawn, and aiming her gun at Dawn.

Dawn stayed frozen. The terror was back with its knife-blade against her tongue. She knew, now, that she was going to die. Does getting shot hurt?

"Claudia, no!" Anita shouted. She skirted around the woman, one hand held out. "Just... no. Who are you?" she asked Dawn.

Dawn blinked. The woman stepped closer, but Claudia held up her hand. "Anita..."

"She's not a vampire or a lycanthrope," Anita said, never breaking eye contact with Dawn. "She's not a zombie either. She's just a little girl." Anita put her gun away and knelt beside Dawn. "Why are you out here?"

It took a lot of concentration for Dawn to follow Anita's movements. "Where am I?" she whimpered.

"You're in the Green Oaks cemetery in St. Louis," Anita said, inching closer. "What's your name?"

Dawn had always been told never to give her name to strangers, but she was too cold and too scared to care. "Dawn."

"Dawn," Anita said. It was hard to tell in this moonlight, but the woman looked very spooked. "Why are you here?"

"Anita," Claudia said in a sharp voice. "She's bleeding."

Anita frowned. "Dawn, are you hurt?" she asked, voice suddenly urgent. Her hands settled on Dawn's shoulders, on top of the too-large dress. "Shit, she's ice-cold. Claudia, call an ambulance."

Dawn tried to protest, to say she would be fine, but the cold made her tongue too heavy. Anita eased Dawn away from the tombstone, the woman's hands almost hot. A low trembling started in Dawn's chest, spreading to the rest of her body as some of the warmth chased away the numbness of the cold.

"Here, you just hold on and we'll get you all fixed up," Anita said, pulling off her jacket and wrapping it around Dawn. The jacket was warm and soft and smelled like rosemary.

"I'll get your coat bloody," Dawn said through chattering teeth. Anita didn't pause in tucking the ends of the jacket around Dawn's bare bloody feet.

"Don't you worry about that," Anita said, trying to smile reassuringly. When Dawn was just a tiny bundle in the cloth, Anita lifted the girl up. It was only then that Dawn realized how small she really was. No one had lifted her like this since she was in kindergarten. How can I be this small when I feel like me?

"Anita," Claudia said. "The ambulance will meet us at the road."

"Good," Anita said.

"That's not all." Claudia pointed back in the direction Dawn had come. In the faint illumination, Dawn could see tiny bloody footprints leading right up to Anita's feet.

"Mary, mother of God," Anita said with feeling. A strange warm feeling settled over Dawn, making her feel almost safe. "Call Zerbrowski at RPIT, will you?"

"You think this has to do with the preternatural?"

"I don't think finding a bleeding child in a graveyard after midnight is an accident," Anita said. She held Dawn a little too tight, but it made Dawn feel safe, like how Buffy used to hug her too tight with Slayer strength.

Dawn began to cry again. She wanted to be strong, like a Slayer's sister should be, but she was so tired and so scared and so cold that she couldn't be strong anymore.

"Shh, Dawn," Anita said. "You're safe now. It'll be okay."

It wasn't going to be okay, but as Anita carried her back to the road, Dawn didn't know how to explain that. Anita carried Dawn to a jeep parked by the side of the road. Once there, Claudia opened the back to let Anita put Dawn down, and switched on the light, making Dawn blink hard.

"All right, then," Anita said, putting another blanket around Dawn. "Dawn, I'm Anita."

"I know," Dawn sniffled, pulling the blanket tight to her neck.

Claudia turned around and gave Dawn a hard look. "How?"

"Claudia, now is not the time for this," Anita said, in a Buffy-no-joking tone.

Dawn was beginning to get angry. "Because you called her Anita!" she exclaimed. She rubbed at her face with her hand to get rid of her tears, but the blanket rubbed on her rope-burned wrists and she let out a tiny whimper.

Anita caught Dawn's hand with gentle fingers. "Can I see that?" she asked. Dawn hesitated, looking up at Anita. The woman had big brown eyes, like Xander, all soft and nice and friendly. With a nod, Dawn held out her hand.

Anita looked carefully at the marks on Dawn's wrists. "Are you hurt anywhere else?" she asked in a neutral voice.

Dawn nodded her head as she pulled her hand back under the blanket.

A faint wail of an ambulance broke the night silence. Anita's eyes never left Dawn's face. "Dawn, do you remember what happened to you?"

Dawn remembered watching Spike fall, watching Buffy being dragged off the tower. She bit her lower lip as she nodded again.

Anita's gentle fingers pushed the hair off Dawn's face. "Do you know how you got here?"

There was a debate in Dawn's head on how to answer that one. If she wasn't in heaven or hell, then she had to have gone through the portal to a different dimension. How she had gotten to this place, though, she didn't know. "No."

Dawn wasn't sure if Anita believed her. Hell, Dawn wasn't sure if she believed it herself.

Chapter Text

It wasn't until the ambulance pulled up beside Anita's jeep that it finally sank in that this was really happening. Everyone spoke to Dawn with soft and wary voices, like she was a stupid little kid. She tried to get angry, but was distracted with her hurting feet from the cold. Her sides ached and her wrists burned and everything was wrong.

The ambulance attendants took her pulse and temperature and looked in her eyes with a little light, asking her very carefully where it hurt. Dawn answered them as best she could, feeling the entire time that she was doing something wrong. Whenever anything had gone wrong in Sunnydale, Buffy always saved her and dealt with the aftereffects at home. With the paramedics and the police hovering around, not acting surprised at little girls appearing in graveyards, Dawn wondered if she was in trouble.

Anita's presence in the ambulance was the only thing that kept Dawn from completely losing her mind. The woman didn't say much as she watched the paramedics with sharp eyes. Finally, when the paramedics were finished, Anita wrapped Dawn back up in the coat and sat beside her on the stretcher in the back of the ambulance.

Dawn watched the bustle of activity out of the ambulance doors. The police officers moved around, some casting curious looks at her. Finally, one man with messy black hair and glasses, who reminded Dawn a bit of Giles, came over. "Hey, Blake."

"Zerbrowski."

The man's eyes drifted down to Dawn, and he smiled. "Hi there. I hear your name is Dawn."

Zerbrowski had a really nice smile, but he had jaded eyes. It was a Scooby look, something Dawn had seen far too often when she looked at Buffy and Xander and Willow. It was the look of someone who knew there were monsters under the bed.

Dawn looked up at Anita, who nodded. "Dawn, this Detective Zerbrowski. He's going to help us try to find out what happened," Anita explained.

Indecision gripped Dawn's stomach. One thing she'd learned from Buffy was that the police didn't want to know about demons and vampires, and to avoid the cops at all costs. But this wasn't a normal Scooby situation. For starters, Dawn had fallen through a portal to a strange place, not to mention the fact that she looked five. No one was going to believe her if she said she was really fifteen.

Besides, the cops were already involved.

"Hi, Detective Zerbrowski." Dawn winced at how childish her voice sounded, how her tongue was unable to make the hard 'T' sound, but Zerbrowski just kept smiling at her.

The man hitched up his jacket and sat on the edge of the ambulance floor, keeping a fair distance between him and Dawn's coat-wrapped toes. "Dawn, I know it might be hard, but I also know you're a brave girl. Can you try to answer some questions for me?"

Dawn looked down. Even if the cop was trying to use baby talk to make her comfortable, he'd hit a little too close to home. She didn't feel brave. Buffy was the brave one. "I guess."

"Good." With slow movements, he pulled a small notepad out of his pocket. "What's your last name, Dawn?"

Dawn hesitated. "Where are we?" she asked.

Zerbrowski lost his smile and glanced over at Anita. The woman opened her eyes wide at him.

"Where are we?" Dawn repeated. "And why is there snow in June?"

Anita took a deep breath. "It's not June, Dawn, it's the first week of December," she explained. "And we're in St. Louis."

Dawn squeaked. "Missouri?"

"Yes." Awkwardly, Anita put her arm around Dawn's shoulders. Even though she was confused beyond belief, Dawn cuddled up under Anita's arm without thinking. "Did you think you were somewhere else?"

"Uh huh." Dawn thought hard, frowning at Zerbrowski. Maybe she hadn't been thrown into another dimension. Maybe she'd been teleported across the country to St. Louis... But it was December! What if she'd been gone for over six months? Buffy and everyone would be freaking out. "My last name's Summers," Dawn said.

Zerbrowski scribbled furiously in his notepad. "Can you tell me where you live?"

Dawn worked one hand out of the coat and rubbed her nose. "What are you going to do if I do?"

Zerbrowski wasn't able to hide the tiny hint of surprise that flickered across his face. "We're going to try and figure out what happened to you," he said.

Dawn shook her head, her hair rubbing against Anita's side. "No, what are you going to do? Call the police? The FBI? Do a Google search on me? What?"

"Dawn," Anita said. Dawn tilted her head back to see Anita staring down with a frown on her face. "We want to find out how you ended up in the graveyard, and we need to know how you got there."

"I told you," Dawn said with exaggerated words. "I don't know how I got there, I was just there." She struggled free of the coat and stood up on the stretcher. She was only a tiny bit taller standing than Anita was sitting, and it pissed her off. "I was just there and then I was here and it was cold and there was all kinds of snow! What kind of place has snow?"

"Dawn," Anita said, trying to sound soothing and failing miserably. She held her hands out the way Buffy and Mom used to do when Dawn was freaking out. "It's going to be okay--"

"It's not okay!" Dawn screamed. Her fists clenched and it made her wrists hurt, but everything hurt. Her feet hurt to be standing up, her sides hurt to move, and something in her chest hurt with every breath and she didn't know why. "It's not okay, it's never going to be okay!"

Strong arms reached out and gathered Dawn up in a tight hug. Dawn tried to push Anita away, but the woman was too strong, just like Buffy had always been too strong to fight off.

After a moment, Dawn stopped fighting and clung to Anita, breathing heavily to avoid crying. She dug her too-tiny fingers into Anita's suit jacket and held on for dear life. So far in this strange world, Anita was the only thing that felt familiar to Dawn.

"We're going to find out what happened," Anita whispered against Dawn's hair. The woman gathered Dawn up on her lap and held her safe. "It'll be okay, I promise."

Dawn closed her eyes. She wanted to believe Anita, but she knew that nothing was going to be okay.


Dawn hated hospitals. Memories of Mom being sick crowded into her head as she sat on the big bed in the emergency room, bundled up in the scratchy blanket from the ambulance. Across the room, a doctor and several police officers were yelling at each other quietly, so Dawn couldn't hear what they were saying.

The only thing that kept Dawn from screaming herself was Anita's hand on her back, as the woman sat beside her on the bed. Several times, Anita bit her lip, and Dawn knew she wanted to say something to the arguing group, but then Anita would glance down at Dawn and give her a smile. It wasn't a happy smile, but right now, a happy smile would have been like a lie.

After she'd recovered from her little tantrum in the ambulance, Dawn hadn't wanted to let Anita go, but in the end she'd forced herself to push away from the woman. As much as Dawn wanted something familiar, Anita wasn't Buffy. Anita didn't have any reason to stay with Dawn. When the cops took her to the hospital, Dawn expected Anita to leave, get on with her life.

But Anita stayed, leaving her bodyguard Claudia out in the waiting room. In fact, when Zerbrowski had suggested that Anita take a few minutes to go grab a coffee, she'd shot the man such a glare that he subsided.

Dawn didn't know why Anita stayed, but she wasn't about to question it. Even if Anita only stayed out of some sense of duty, finders-keepers or something, it was enough that Dawn wasn't alone.

Sniffling, Dawn looked down at her hands. The paramedics had bandaged her wrists before they drove to the hospital. The white bandages seemed out of place against her tanned skin and the purple velvet of her long sleeves. Wiggling her fingers didn't feel as strange as it should have. Her hands were so tiny, little chubby fingers with miniscule fingernails. Dawn made a loose fist, then stretched out her hand again.

She vaguely remembered being this small, of being five when Buffy was eleven and in figure-skating and being excellent at everything. Back when Mom and Dad still seemed happy and everything was okay. Before Buffy was the Slayer and all the lies that made up life had been destroyed.

Only it wasn't real, Dawn reminded herself. Buffy had been perfect, and Mom and Dad had been happy, but Dawn hadn't existed. She'd been shoved into Buffy and Mom's lives like a splinter only a year before, a glowing ball of energy that acted as a Key to open doors to hell dimensions.

Dawn pushed those thoughts and the accompanying panic attack away. Instead, she focused on her hand. What would Buffy do, if she was here and little? Buffy would probably try to figure out how big she really was, what she could do, and how to keep herself safe. Dawn could do that.

Dawn reached out and took hold of Anita's slim wrist. "What are you doing?" Anita asked.

"I want to see something," Dawn said as she measured. Her little hand was only slightly larger than Anita's palm. As Dawn moved her hand away, she saw something on Anita's palm that made her frown. With her unfamiliar fingers, Dawn traced the pink scar on Anita's skin. It was shaped like a tiny cross, the kind Buffy wore on a necklace, but this was carved into Anita's skin.

Anita pulled her hand away. Glancing up, Dawn was surprised at the lurking pain in Anita's eyes. The woman tried to smile it away, but Dawn knew what she had seen. Dawn wanted to say something, about how she knew about scars and what they meant, but it was the wrong place and time, with the loud white chaos of the emergency room surrounding them. Instead, Dawn settled back against Anita's side and went back to watching the police and doctors argue.

The argument went on for so long that soon Dawn developed another problem. She started to squirm.

"What's wrong?" Anita asked immediately.

Dawn tugged on Anita's sleeve until the woman bent her head down. "I have to go to the bathroom," Dawn whispered.

"Oh." Anita looked lost for a moment. "Okay, we can do that."

Dawn wanted to say she wasn't a baby; she could go to the bathroom by herself, but the emergency room was full of tall and loud people, all hurrying about. Dawn didn't want to get lost.

No, Dawn thought, and even the realization made her feel weak and stupid. I don't want to be alone.

"Come on, then, let's get you up." Anita unwrapped the blanket, but seemed at a loss for what do to about the long dress. "Hmm."

"I can walk," Dawn said defensively. Her feet still ached from the cold, but she wasn't going to complain.

"I'm sure you can," Anita said. "But how about I carry you? This floor's not the place you want to walk on without shoes."

Dawn considered this. "Okay," she said after a minute.

Anita got to her feet. "Here we go," she said as she slid one arm behind Dawn's back and the other under her legs, then lifted Dawn effortlessly.

Dawn had a moment's flashback to running from Glory, when Buffy had picked her up like this and ran across Sunnydale. The threatening panic bubbled up, but Dawn refused to let it out. She was Buffy's sister and Buffy never panicked.

The argument across the room broke off, and one of the doctors rushed over. "What are you doing?" he demanded belligerently, glaring down at Dawn and Anita.

"We're going to the bathroom," Anita said.

"You can't do that."

"She's five, she's not making this up. She has to go to the bathroom," Anita said, starting to get angry.

"You can't take her anywhere!"

One of the other cops, a woman with blunt-cut black hair, interjected herself into the conversation. "Marshal Blake, what Dr. Bailey means is that there are other considerations."

"Such as?"

The cop took a deep breath. "Such as there is a process to these things--"

"I want Anita to take me to the bathroom," Dawn interrupted loudly.

The cop looked down at Dawn. "There--"

"Now," Dawn said. It wasn't only that Dawn wanted to get away from these people, she really did have to pee.

"There are considerations to do with living victims, Marshal Blake," the cop continued as if Dawn hadn't spoken.

Dawn felt a thrill of anger shiver up her spine. It was a feeling she had never had before. Why did she feel so furious all of a sudden?

"I deal with the living all the time, Detective Carpenter," Anita ground out.

"Bathroom?" Dawn said, almost at a whine. She squirmed again.

The doctor turned and gestured across the room. A moment later, a nurse hurried over. "We were waiting for Nurse Reed to get here," he said. "She'll go with you."

"Hi Dawn," the nurse said, shifting her armful of cloth to one side. "You can call me Nurse Mary, if you'd like."

Anita made an impatient sound in the back of her throat. "Perhaps we can get a move-on?" she said.

"Of course," the nurse said. She shifted around, so Dawn could see the little basket of vials in the woman's other hand. "We need to take a urine sample," the nurse told Dawn. "Do you know what that is?"

Dawn nodded. "Do we have to?" she had to ask.

"Yes, we do," the nurse said. "We have to see if there is anything in your body that we have to know about, like any sicknesses."

"Are you going to run a toxicology analysis?" Dawn had to ask. She'd watched too much CSI with Willow to be able to stop herself.

The smile on the nurse's face faltered for a moment. Glancing around, Dawn saw similarly stumped reactions on the other adults around her. "Where did you hear that word, Dawn?" the nurse asked.

Dawn shrugged. "TV?" she suggested. She knew she wasn't acting like a kid, but she didn't know what that was. She'd never been allowed to baby-sit, and didn't know what she was supposed to do. Should I act like I'm a little kid, like I don't know math or how to dress myself or anything? What will they do to me if I tell them I'm fifteen?

Anita hefted Dawn a little higher in her arms. "Let's go," she said shortly, cutting off Dawn's spinning thoughts

The hospital bathroom was brightly lit and smelled too strongly of disinfectant. Nurse Mary closed the door behind her, then laid her handfuls on the shelf by the sink. "If you can put Dawn down, Marshal Blake, we can get started," she said briskly.

Anita knelt, but instead of setting Dawn on the floor, she sat the girl on her knee. "Are you okay with doing this test?" Anita asked.

Dawn had to think about that. "I guess," she said slowly. It hadn't occurred to her to refuse, and that realization sent a chill down Dawn's spine. She was a teenager, for heaven's sake! Refusing to do what she was told was like her hallmark.

What if being a kid has changed the way I think? What else is going to change?

"Dawn?" Anita's voice pulled Dawn out of her burgeoning meltdown. Dawn looked up into those worried brown eyes, and tightened her grip on Anita's sleeve.

"I know it might be scary and strange, but we need your help if we're going to help you," Nurse Mary said, kneeling down beside Anita. "I'll tell you about everything we do before we do it, and you can ask any questions you have."

Dawn tried to think her way around that logic. "So I'm helping you to help myself?"

Something very much like a real smile crossed the nurse's face. "Yes, exactly."

After another moment's thought, and the growing pressure on her bladder, Dawn nodded. "Okay, we can do that." She slid off Anita's knee, and tripped on the heavy skirts of the dress. The sudden movement pulled hard on the fabric and somehow the top of the dress slipped off Dawn's shoulders and pooled around her feet.

Someone gasped. Dawn stared down at the dress on the floor and at the underwear that was barely staying up around her hips. The front of the panties and her stubby legs were covered with drying blood from the two large cuts in her abdomen. Anita grabbed Dawn's arms. "Why didn't you tell us you were bleeding?" she demanded.

Dawn tried to take a step back, and the underwear fell down her legs. Standing under the bright uncaring lights, with no clothes and no way to protect herself, so far away from everything familiar, Dawn began to cry.

"Dawn--" Anita loosened her grip on Dawn's arms, but didn't let her go.

"I-- I don't have any clothes," Dawn managed to say around the sobs. "And I don't have anywhere to go."

Anita quickly pulled off her suit jacket and draped it around Dawn's shoulders. The jacket smelled a little bit like Anita's overcoat, rosemary and perfume, and it was so warm. "We're going to take care of you," Anita said vehemently. "We'll find your home and make sure you're safe, I promise."

Dawn gulped, trying to stop crying. The determined expression on Anita's face was so much easier to look at than the barely masked pity the nurse was giving her. "But I don't have any health insurance," Dawn went on. Anita's face went blank. "For the hospital bill." Dawn didn't know much about health insurance, only that it had cost them so much money when Mom got sick, and then after-- afterwards.

"You so do not have to worry about the hospital bill," Anita said, angry again. "All you need to think about is getting better, you hear me?"

"But then who's going to look after me?" The plaintive question slipped out before Dawn could stop herself.

Anita's angry expression faded slightly. "I'll make sure you're safe," she promised.

Dawn nodded. Her crying had slowed, but it was replaced by a much more painful weight on her heart. The promise was too much like Buffy's promises, and now Buffy was gone and Dawn didn't know how to get home.

Without much more fuss, Nurse Mary got her urine sample. After that was done, the nurse changed her latex gloves and began to put Dawn's old clothes in large clear plastic bags. "Marshal Blake, would you be able to help Dawn get into those?" she asked, indicating the small bundle of cloth by the door.

"Um, sure," Anita said, getting up to retrieve the cloth. Dawn watched, wrapped once again in Anita's jacket. Anita unfolded the clothing to reveal tiny bright yellow pajama bottoms and a bright blue pajama top. Anita looked at Dawn over the top of the clothing. "At least we won't lose you in a crowd."

Dawn giggled, a little hysterically, but it did feel good to laugh about something, if only for a minute. She had to let Anita help her into the pants, as her aching feet didn't want to obey her brain. Anita was careful to tie the pajamas below the shallow cuts on Dawn's tummy.

"We'll get the doctors to look at those after we go back out, okay?" Anita said. "Why didn't you tell us that you were hurt?"

Dawn shrugged as Anita tied up the back of the mini-hospital gown shirt. "It wasn't important. There was other stuff."

"What kind of other stuff?" Anita asked, turning Dawn back around.

"The ghoul," Dawn reminded her. "And the police and the stuff. Can I have your jacket back?"

"Huh? Oh, sure." Anita settled the jacket back over Dawn's shoulders, and pulled her hair out. "Dawn..."

"Yeah?" Dawn prompted when Anita fell silent.

Anita blinked. "Nothing. We'll just be a minute and we can go back out to the emergency room."

Dawn made a face, then yawned. It had been a long day. Hell, it had been a long life. I'm only a year old, really, Dawn thought miserably. She lifted her arms up, letting Anita's jacket sleeves flop over her hands. Or maybe I'm really old, like older than Glory.

Something in Dawn's mind wouldn't let her focus too deeply on what had happened with Glory, and Dawn had to think of something else. "What's that?" Dawn asked, pointing at Anita's shoulder and the odd leather rig she had draped around her back.

Anita followed Dawn's gesture. "That's my gun," she said after a minute.

Dawn chewed on her lower lip. "Are you a policewoman too?"

"Not really," Anita explained as she tugged the jacket tighter around Dawn. "I'm a federal marshal, but mostly on preternatural cases." She hesitated. "I guess you don't know what that--"

"Like zombies and stuff?" Dawn interrupted.

Anita raised her eyebrows. "Yes, zombies. And other things."

"Like what?"

"Like vampires," Anita said slowly. "And lycanthropes, and other preternatural beings."

"Cool," Dawn breathed. Anita was really more like Buffy than Dawn had thought. Although, from the explanation, it didn't sound like Anita killed vampires.

While Dawn had been staring off into space, Anita stood up and walked over to the nurse. "Why did they send you?" Anita asked, so quietly that Dawn had to strain to overhear.

The nurse continued to label the bags with a big black marker. "I'm a pediatric nurse but I have experience working with assault victims."

Dawn turned that over in her head for a minute. She didn't understand why they would have sent someone like that down to see her. After all, anyone could see that Dawn hadn't been beaten up.

When realization finally hit her, Dawn's head shot up. They thought she'd been... what made them think that?

Mindless of the pain in her feet, Dawn ran across the bathroom floor to Anita's side. Tugging on Anita's pant leg, Dawn said, "That wasn't it!"

"What wasn't it?" Anita asked.

Dawn held her arms up, thinking vaguely about making Anita bend down, but instead Anita picked Dawn up under the arms and settled the girl on her hip. It was a hundred kinds of strange to be held like this, like a little kid, but Dawn instinctively wrapped her arms around Anita's neck. "Ben didn't do anything like that," Dawn said urgently. Yeah, he'd been Glory, sort of, and he was going to let Dawn be killed, but Ben hadn't wanted to be stuck with Glory. And he had tried to save Giles' life. And he most certainly had not done anything like that to Dawn. "Ben didn't hurt me like that."

Instead of reassuring Anita, the uneasy look in the woman's eyes deepened. "Dawn, do you know what we're talking about?"

That brought Dawn up short. She wasn't stupid, she knew bad stuff could happen to people, but would a normal five-year-old know about sexual assault and stuff? "I guess," Dawn said vaguely.

Anita settled Dawn more comfortably against her hip. "You said there was someone named Ben?" she asked, keeping her voice level.

Dawn didn't know what to say. Every ingrained instinct shouted at her to stop, not to tell these people about Glory and Ben and the end of the world, but... but they'd believed her so far. Or least hadn't been surprised about ghouls and zombies.

Instead of replying, Dawn laid her head on Anita's shoulder. Her whole body was starting to hurt with being awake for so long, but how could she go to sleep in this strange place?

Anita laid a reassuring hand on Dawn's back. "Let's go back to get those cuts in your side looked at, all right?" Dawn made a noise that was supposed to be a yes, but was broken by another yawn.

It was disturbingly easy to let Anita carry her out of the bathroom, to let someone else deal with the problems for a few minutes. Buffy had done this sort of thing for Dawn, but over the last few months, since Mom died, Dawn had wondered if she'd been imagining Buffy's reluctance and weariness at fixing Dawn's screw-ups, at this whole Glory mess.

Buffy... she loved me, Dawn told herself. Glory wasn't my fault. None of this was my fault.

But if I hadn't been made into Dawn, then Buffy might have had a totally different life. Dawn swallowed hard. Maybe Riley wouldn't have left. Maybe Mom wouldn't have... Maybe Buffy would have been happier without me.


The room in the pediatric ward was much quieter than the emergency room. Dawn sat on the bed, a blanket covering her legs, and blinked tiredly. They were never going to let her sleep.

Anita, Zerbrowski, Nurse Mary and Detective Carpenter all ranged around the edges of the room while a new doctor wrote on his clipboard at Dawn's bedside. While the doctor made notes, Dawn scowled at Carpenter, who had been making snide little comments about Anita all night. The weird thing was, no one else seemed to hear, and the detective's lips didn't move when she said those things. But Dawn heard them all, clear as day.

"You should really come back in the morning, after she's had some sleep," the doctor said.

"We need to talk to her now," Carpenter said. "The scene's growing cold as we speak."

Dawn's glower intensified. She wasn't a scene, she was a person!

"I've made my recommendation," the doctor said, snapping his clipboard closed.

Anita pushed herself off the wall and walked over to sit on the edge of the bed. "What do you say, Dawn?" she asked, drawing Dawn's attention off Carpenter. "Do you think you can answer a few more questions?"

The doctors had examined her belly and put more bandages to cover the shallow wounds, and the tape pulled when Dawn shrugged. "I guess."

The woman quirked up the side of her mouth in a half smile as she laid a warm hand on Dawn's back. "You're doing a great job of hanging in there," Anita said.

"Thanks," Dawn said shyly.

The warm prickling of happiness vanished the next second, when Dawn heard Detective Carpenter said, loud as a bell, "I can't believe that coffin-bait slut's brainwashed the kid, just like she does everyone else."

Dawn jerked away from Anita, throwing her gaze over to Carpenter. Dawn felt as if she had been hit, hearing those horrible words. Once again, no one else had seemed to hear what Carpenter had said.

"Dawn?" Anita said. "What's wrong?"

Dawn only shook her head. Ignoring the pull of the bandages, she leaned over and wrapped her arms around Anita's torso as far as she could, burying her face against Anita's stomach.

Something had to be wrong. Anita had to have heard Carpenter's comment, but she hadn't reacted at all. How can I be the only one hearing these things? Dawn wondered, holding on to Anita for all she was worth. Anita wrapped her arms around Dawn, and it felt safe. Dawn curled around the woman and tried to push away the horrible things Carpenter had said.

Anita's not a slut, Dawn told herself forcefully. She's smart and strong and she didn't leave me alone.

Reciting her new mantra in her head, while being held safe and warm, Dawn began to drift off to sleep. She started awake when Anita tapped on her shoulder. "Huh?" Dawn said, blinking hard as she sat up. A quick peek around the room showed Dawn that Carpenter and the doctor were gone. "What?"

"Are you falling asleep?" Anita asked apologetically.

Dawn nodded, rubbing at her eyes. "It's been a long..." Dawn tried to remember when she last had a good night's sleep. Before Mom died.

"Dawn?"

Dawn pushed her hair back, wondering if her head looked as large as it felt. "Nothing."

Anita shifted around on the bed. "You can tell us anything you want," she prompted. Zerbrowski pulled over a chair and sat down, while Nurse Mary stayed near the end of the bed. "Anything at all."

Dawn sniffled, and the words just slipped out of her mouth. "I miss Mom."

The room was quiet, muffled footsteps in the hallway a million miles away. Zerbrowski stared at his hands, while Anita looked at Dawn with an indecipherable expression.

It was Nurse Mary who spoke. "Can you tell us about your mother, Dawn?"

Dawn gripped the blanket tight in her hands, needing to hold onto something solid. "She had a brain tumor," Dawn said after a minute. Since Mom died, Dawn had been wanting to talk to someone about her, but Xander always panicked and Willow got teary and Buffy just shut down. Only Spike had listened, but it wasn't the same because Spike was Spike and even though he walked around, he was still dead, like Mom.

"She had a brain tumor," Dawn said again, hating how her mouth couldn't pronounce the words correctly. "She had surgery and then she came home and she had an aneurism and she died."

Anita exhaled, and it was loud in the room. "I'm... Dawn, I'm sorry. When did... I mean, how long ago was this?"

"In February," Dawn said softly. "Buffy had to take care of me."

"Who is Buffy?" Anita asked.

"My sister." Dawn made herself let go of the blanket. Looking at her tiny hands, too small to make a difference, she made a decision. She didn't know why, but she trusted Anita. She'd tell Anita about Mom and Buffy, but nothing about Glory and Ben, or Buffy being the Slayer and Dawn being the Key.

They wouldn't have believed her, anyway.

"Your sister takes care of you?" Zerbrowski asked. "Where does she do that?"

Even though she was exhausted, Dawn rolled her eyes at him. "At home," she said witheringly. "In Sunnydale, California."

"What about your father?" Anita asked.

"He was in Spain with his secretary," Dawn told her. "He left a long time ago." Talking about Dad always made Dawn uncomfortable. "But Buffy protected me."

"That's good," Anita said. "That there was someone--" She cut herself off. "Do you know where Buffy is now?"

The memory of Buffy falling off Glory's tower hit Dawn, knocking the air out of her chest. She gulped. "No." It came out as a whisper.

"Do you remember how you got to the graveyard?"

Dawn didn't answer.

"Anita," Zerbrowski said. Dawn watched as Anita and Zerbrowski made gestures at each other in a silent conversation, then Zerbrowski turned to Dawn. "How about you get some sleep, and we'll be here to talk to you in the morning."

They were going to leave her here? Fear of being left alone welled up in Dawn's chest, and she grabbed Anita's hand. "Don't--"

"Don't what?" Anita asked. She didn't pull away from Dawn. "Is something wrong?"

Dawn made herself let go of Anita; made herself sit back on the bed. She was supposed to be strong, she reminded herself. She had to be strong and level-headed, not panicking because she was scared of being left alone. Buffy wouldn't have been clinging to anyone; she'd have been smart and strong and could do this all on her own.

"Dawn?" Something in Anita's voice made Dawn think past her own fears, and she looked, really looked, at the woman. Anita stared down at Dawn with determination, as if someone had dared her to do something and Anita wasn't going to turn away. Dawn wasn't sure what, though. She was so exhausted that nothing made sense. "Would you like someone to stay here with you tonight?"

"Anita, what are you doing?" Zerbrowski demanded.

Eyes flashing, Anita whipped her head around to glare at the detective. "You weren't in the graveyard, Zerbrowski, you didn't see--" She stopped. "Maybe one of us should stay, just in case anything comes up."

"Yes, please," Dawn whispered before she could stop herself. "I mean, if you want to."

Anita smiled at her, a wry expression that seemed sad and angry all at the same time, but not directed towards Dawn. "Yeah, I want to," she said, nudging Dawn's arm.

Dawn let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding. She hadn't known until the danger had passed, how scared she was of being alone in this strange world.

Chapter Text

The bed smelled different than at home, and that was what woke Dawn. She looked around the empty hospital room, bright and cheerful in the morning sun, and wasn't sure she could move. Everything ached: her feet, her stomach, her arms, her head.

Struggling to sit up made Dawn light-headed. She took a few minutes to catch her breath before swinging her legs over the edge of the bed. Her head was a whirl of questions. She wondered why she felt so much worse than the previous night, and if she was ever going to see Buffy again, and where Anita was.

When her bare feet hit the ground, Dawn hissed. Her feet really hurt! She wanted to swear, say those words Xander used when he didn't think she was around, but she pressed her lips together and remained silent.

She might look five, but she was really fifteen, almost a grown-up, and she wasn't going to act like a child.

Dawn took a closer look around the hospital room. It was obviously designed for little kids. The wallpaper had bears and balloons and pretty colors, all to distract the room's occupants from the fact that they were in the hospital. Dawn hated the room. It wasn't real. In Mom's hospital room, you at least knew that you were in the hospital, not hiding the bad stuff, and not lying to you and pretending it was all right.

Maybe that was what separated little kids from the grown-ups. When you were an adult, you knew there was no such thing as a happy ending.

Dawn's stomach twisted, ripping her out of her moping. Somewhere between a growl and a gnawing sensation, it reminded Dawn of a very pertinent fact: She hadn't eaten anything in three days.

Or had enough to drink. Dawn made a slow, limping beeline to the bathroom attached to the room. Everything was at kid-level, so Dawn could easily reach the taps. She reached her cupped hands out to get a drink, but noticed that there were traces of blood and grime on her skin.

She made a face. That's it, I'm making a list, she thought as she looked around the room. I want a drink. Then food. Then a long bath. With bubbles. Strawberry bubbles. And maybe a rubber duckie.

Finally finding a little plastic-wrapped cup in the cabinet, Dawn drank and drank and drank until she was bursting. The water took the sharp edge off her hunger, leaving the gnawing ache in its place.

Walking out of the bathroom, another worry tickled at the back of Dawn's head. Anita had promised she would stay, but where had she gone? Dawn tried to be reasonable about the whole thing. After all, the woman had only said she'd stay the night. It was morning now. Maybe she'd gone home.

A whisper of a word, far away and close at the same time, caught Dawn's attention. Relief flooded every single nerve in Dawn's body. It was Anita's voice! She must have just left stepped outside of the room for a moment.

Dawn shuffled over to the closed door. If she concentrated very hard on the faint sounds, they seemed to get louder. Dawn pressed her ear against the door and listened.

"You've been here all night, Blake," a man was saying.

"The night was half-gone already, Zerbrowski," Anita said. She sounded exhausted. "I told Dawn I'd stay."

"We could have posted a guard on the door," Zerbrowski said. "The pediatric wards in this city are locked up tighter than Fort Knox."

"Please don't compare children's lives with money," Anita snapped.

"Jesus Christ, Anita, I was just joking." Zerbrowski paused. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

Anita sighed. Just listening to the sound made Dawn sad, and incredibly tired. "You remember reading about what happened in New Mexico?"

"Yeah, I... Oh."

"Yeah. This is just the first time I've been in a pediatric ward in a hospital since then." Anita coughed. "In this job, we keep coming up with new worst-things-ever, but I think I topped out at seeing that skinless zombie eating newborn babies."

Dawn's stomach dropped. An image popped into her head, a tiny, tiny baby lying on the floor like a broken doll, the center of its body eaten away, like the center sucked out of a piece of candy. The water churned in her gut. She tried to breathe evenly. It's just your imagination, Dawn told herself, refusing to throw up all over the floor. It can't be as bad as you imagine it, skinless zombies eating little helpless babies--

Dawn clutched the handle of the door and concentrated on counting. By the time she reached thirty-seven, the nausea had receded a bit, and she could go back to listening to Anita and Zerbrowski.

"... you found anything on Dawn's family?" Anita asked. "Any news from... what was it? Sunnydale?"

"There is no Sunnydale," Zerbrowski said. Dawn's stomach lurched. "Not in California, not anywhere. No record of Dawn Summers, no Buffy Summers, no woman named Summers dying of injuries related to brain tumors."

"But there has to be something," Anita protested. "Some record of Dawn's birth, something."

"I'm telling you, Blake, there's nothing. It's like the kid popped into being last night in the graveyard!" Then Zerbrowski said something else, but it was sort of a murmur and fuzzy and even though Dawn couldn't hear his words, she knew he was wondering why bad stuff always happened to little kids, and that he wanted to go home and watch his son do his homework instead of dealing with little girls who'd been cut up and left to wander in snowy graveyards.

"Children don't just appear," Anita said, talking over Zerbrowski's muttering. "What about some kind of... I don't know, maybe she just came to this country?"

"In spite of the fact that she seems like the All-American kid? No dice. Perry's running her details through Interpol, and with the RCMP up in Canada, but so far, nothing."

"There has to be something, some kind of... What? What's with that face? What aren't you telling me?"

"Keep it down," Zerbrowski said. His voice went soft, but Dawn could still hear as he said, "You know how RPIT has put a witch on retainer while Tammy's on maternity leave, right?"

"Yes, Larry told me. Get to the point."

"The point is..." Zerbrowski took a deep breath. "This witch, her name's Miranda. She went to the graveyard early this morning with Arnet and Merloni. They found where Dawn landed."

"Landed?" The word might not have meant anything to Anita, but hearing it was like falling all over again to Dawn. "What are you talking about? Did something throw her out of a car? What--"

"Anita, would you let me finish?" Zerbrowski demanded. "Dawn's footprints started in the middle of a clear snow patch, about thirty yards from anything else. It looks like someone dropped her from the sky." He paused. "That's not all."

"What else is there?"

Zerbrowski was quiet for a few moments. "According to Merloni, Miranda said there was a 'miasma of evil' over the whole site."

"Miasma of evil? What the hell does that mean?"

"I don't know, that was all they got out of her before the convulsions started. What the hell am I supposed to do?" Zerbrowski was so angry, but it was like Buffy angry, and it was familiar enough to not scare Dawn.

"Do you want me to go there and see what I can find?" Anita asked. Dawn felt a sour panic in her stomach at those words. Was Anita leaving? Would going to the graveyard put Anita in danger?

"I don't know. You weren't able to use your magical powers to pick up anything last night, right?"

"It's not super powers," Anita snapped. "It's metaphysical powers, and I was inside of a protective circle when Dawn appeared, because of the zombie. It might have protected me from sensing any other metaphysical mess that was happening."

"Yeah, okay. Look, there's another reason you can't leave."

"Which would be?"

"I need to question Dawn again," Zerbrowski said. "I need a female police officer around when I do it, standard rules."

"You don't need a woman cop around to question a child."

"But I do in a suspected case of sexual assault."

Dawn's mouth dropped open. She'd told Anita last night that nothing like that happened! Hadn't Anita told the cops that hadn't happened?

"I'm not trained for this, Zerbrowski," Anita said, sounding a little panicked. "Call in someone from the station who is, if you really think--"

"Dawn hasn't latched onto anyone else," Zerbrowski interrupted. "She wouldn't let you out of her sight last night, and from the fact that you are still here, you're feeling a little protective of her yourself. "

"Zerbrowski--"

"Anita, we need to know more about Dawn, what happened to her. If it's some kind of cult, if there are others like her, anything to get whatever sick sonofabitch dressed her up in a woman's dress and made two slices right over her ovaries, got it?"

Zerbrowski's anger was so thick Dawn could almost bite it. It was coppery and bent like rubber in Dawn's mind, something that would never break.

Dawn didn't understand how she knew what Zerbrowski was feeling, or why he was so angry. Her hand trembled on the door as she started to turn the handle. She had to go tell them that they were wrong, that bad stuff hadn't happened to her. Then maybe Zerbrowski would stop being so angry because of her.

"Of course, Zerbrowski," Anita said. "What's going to happen to Dawn?"

Dawn paused in opening the door.

"She's going to have to stay here," Zerbrowski replied. "Child services learned about the evil thing, somehow, and they're saying they won't put her into a home with other kids until we can guarantee their safety."

"What kind of bullshit is that?" Anita demanded. "Dawn's not evil! If she had something happen to her, it's not her fault!"

"I know that," Zerbrowski retorted. "But without a place for her, Dawn's going to have to stay here, until we sort this mess out, maybe in a few weeks."

"She can stay with me," Anita blurted out, surprising Dawn to no end.

"What?" Zerbrowski said. "You're not a foster parent, Anita, you can't--"

"If they're worried about something happening to her, metaphysical stuff, then I can protect her," Anita said, stumbling over the words. "And if there's someone after her, then there are enough people at my house to protect her that way, too."

"First off, you've never taken care of a kid, let along a traumatized one," Zerbrowski said. "It's not a cakewalk. Second, Micah and Nathaniel--"

"Don't you dare start about how they're lycanthropes!"

"You can't make this decision for Micah and Nathaniel, Anita!" Zerbrowski exclaimed. "Dawn may seem mature for her age, but she's still only five, she needs someone with her all the time. Micah's working sixty hours a week at the furry hotline, while Nathaniel does whatever the hell it is strippers do all day. You can't disrupt their lives without even asking!"

"They'd understand," Anita said defensively. "It's not forever, just until we get this sorted out. You said a few weeks."

"I said maybe a few weeks," Zerbrowski reminded her.

"Zerbrowski, we can't leave her in this place for weeks on end! She just lost her mother, just had horrible things happen to her, she need someone to look after her!"

Dawn couldn't listen to this anymore. She pushed the door open and looked around for Anita and Zerbrowski, expecting that they were right outside her door.

The hall was empty.

Dawn didn't understand at all. Where were Anita and Zerbrowski? She whirled around and finally spotted them way down at the other end of the hall.

Full-body panic swept over Dawn. How could I hear them if they were so far away? An idea trembled in the back of Dawn's mind, something too big and too scary, and she made herself push it away.

At the end of the hall, Anita spotted Dawn. The woman plastered a wan smile on her face and started toward Dawn, Zerbrowski in her wake.

Dawn stayed by the door, holding onto the handle like a lifeline. In the last few minutes, everything had been turned upside down and inside out and she didn't know what to do.

"Hey, Dawn," Anita said, kneeling beside Dawn. "You're awake." All Dawn could do was nod. Anita brushed the hair back from Dawn's face. "How are you feeling?"

"Okay," Dawn whispered automatically.

Anita smiled at her. "That's good. Would it be okay if we talked to you for a little bit?"

Dawn nodded. She pried her hand off the door handle and made herself walk back into the hospital room, knowing Anita and Zerbrowski were following her. She reached the bed and tried to climb up onto it, but it was too high and she slipped back to the floor.

"Dawn..." Anita started, coming over to help her, but Dawn pushed her hands away.

"I can do it," Dawn said crossly. She hooked her toes around the metal of the bed frame and hauled herself up onto the bed. Once up, she sat cross-legged on the bed and tried not to scowl at Anita. It wasn't Anita's fault that Dawn was so small.

Anita stood by the hospital bed, at a loss of what to do, as a nurse hurried into the room. The nurse, a stranger to Dawn, gave Zerbrowski and Anita a look before she picked up the chart at the end of the bed. "How are you this morning, Dawn?" the nurse asked.

Dawn transferred her gaze to the nurse. "I'm fine," she lied. It was easier than explaining about things Dawn herself didn't understand. "Where's Nurse Mary?"

The nurse wrote something on the chart, then set the whole thing down and gave Dawn a smile. "Nurse Mary went home while you were sleeping," she said. "I'm Nurse Cindy, and I'm going to be your nurse today. How does that sound?"

Dawn had a moment's impulse to fling herself into a tantrum. She was hungry, she hurt, she was scared and she missed Buffy so much.

Thinking of Buffy helped Dawn pull herself back. Buffy might have flung things around the room and busted some heads, but she never would have done something as childish as thrown a tantrum because one nice nurse went home after the end of her shift.

The momentary burst of energy gone, Dawn slumped down. "That's okay, " she said to Nurse Cindy. The woman's dark face lit up in a smile, and Dawn found herself smiling back.

"We have to ask Dawn some more questions," Zerbrowski said in an aside to the nurse.

"I'll be here for that," the nurse said back.

Dawn bit her lip and looked up at Anita. In the light of day, the woman looked so tired, with dark circles under her eyes and messy hair. "What's up?" Anita asked when she saw Dawn looking at her.

Dawn shrugged. "You didn't have to stay last night.":

Anita gave Dawn a half-smile as she sat on the edge of the bed. "I said I would, right?"

Dawn nodded. Anita had said a lot of things, and Dawn remembered every one of them. "Can I ask you a question?"

Anita's face didn't change, but Dawn found herself suddenly feeling as if she was in over her head, like she didn't know what to do. "Of course," Anita said.

Dawn took a deep breath. She needed to ask about what Anita said in the hallway, about taking Dawn home with her. Dawn had to know. She opened her mouth, and what came out instead was, "Can I have some breakfast?"

"Food?" Anita said. "Yeah, I guess."

"Good," Dawn said. "I'm really hungry." That had to be why her stomach felt so twisted up and unhappy, right?

Anita pushed herself up off the bed and went over to talk to the nurse and Zerbrowski. Dawn tried to listen in, but she was distracted by the mess of hair hanging over her shoulder. Frowning, she took a handful of hair and peered at it. There was dirt and stuff in her tangled hair. Dawn made a face. She hated being this messy.

Anita came back over and sat down. "We'll have you some food in a few minutes, how does that sound?"

"Good," Dawn said. She made herself let go of her hair. "What do you want to talk about?" she asked.

Zerbrowski took out his pad of paper and found a section of wall. "We need to ask you a few more things about your mother and your sister," he said carefully. When he spoke to her, his voice was softer than when he had been arguing with Anita. Everyone had been like that, except Anita, who always seemed to be too intent on what she was doing to remember to talk to Dawn like a brain-damaged child.

"What about them?" Dawn pulled her knees up to her stomach and wrapped her arms around her legs. It helped the growling ache in her stomach.

Zerbrowski turned over a piece of paper in his notepad. "Can you tell me your mother's name?"

The sharp ache at Mom's death stabbed into Dawn's stomach and made it hard for her to breathe for a few moments. After a minute, when she was no longer in danger of bursting into tears, Dawn said, "Joyce Summers."

"Okay." Zerbrowski scribbled. "And your sister, Buffy? Is that her real name, or is it a nickname?"

"Her real name." Dawn sniffled as she stared down at the bandage on her left wrist. "I always told her it's a dumb name, and she always rolled her eyes and told Mom I was bugging her."

"I see," Zerbrowski said. "Thanks, Dawn, you've been a big help." Dawn made an effort to not roll her own eyes. "Now, can we ask you a few questions about where you live?"

Dawn didn't really see the point. Sunnydale didn't exist in this world. Dawn had most likely fallen through a portal, and there was no way she was explaining that to the police. "What about it?"

Anita shifted on the bed. "What's it like?" she asked. "Does it have a different name, or is it near any big city?"

"It's small and dorky and full of graveyards," Dawn retorted. All the things she'd never been allowed to talk about, about Slayers and vampires and demons, crowded into her mind. "And it's only called Sunnydale, with its Sunnydale Library and Sunnydale Middle School and Sunnydale High and all kinds of Sunnydale things. It's further up the coast from Los Angeles and it's got an airport and stuff. Do I have to stay in the hospital?"

Anita blinked at the change in topic, and looked over at Zerbrowski. "Well..."

Zerbrowski adjusted his glasses. "We'll talk about this later, how does that sound?"

Dawn wanted to make some witty Buffy-like quip, but the apprehension in her stomach was making her queasy. She didn't want to stay in the hospital. She wanted to go home, but there was no one she could talk to about the portal and Glory and Buffy.

A knock sounded on the door, and another nurse came into the room, wheeling a little cart. She placed a covered tray on the table and left just as quickly.

Nurse Cindy brought the tray over to the bed. "What do you think about trying to eat something?" she asked.

With a nod, Dawn unfolded herself and scooted over to where the nurse placed the tray. The food looked boring, some rubbery scrambled eggs, a piece of soggy toast, and a cup with some chopped fruit. But oh, it was food.

Dawn grabbed the toast and crammed as much of it in her mouth as she could fit. Food hadn't ever tasted this good, even if the toast was unbuttered and the eggs were as bland as milk.

Her mouth was smaller now, and it took her longer to eat than she remembered, but soon she had finished all the food on the tray and was licking the fruit cup clean. Her stomach didn't hurt anymore, but it felt strange. Maybe she needed some water.

Without asking, Dawn slipped off the side of the bed. "Where are you going?" Anita asked, springing up.

"Getting a drink," Dawn called over her shoulder as she went into the bathroom. Through the open door, she could hear Anita and Zerbrowski talking to each other, but the sound of the rushing water drowned them out.

Dawn carried a full glass of water back to the bed. The three adults paused in their conversation to watch her set the cup down on the bedside table, then hoist herself up onto the mattress. She settled down against the pillows and took up the cup of water, which she slowly sipped.

"You could have asked us to get you some water," Anita told her.

Dawn took another noisy sip. "I can do it myself. I can do lots of things myself." It wasn't exactly how she wanted to tell Anita that she could take care of herself, but it was what came out.

"I'll bet you can." Anita smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. Her eyes were worried. "You sure ate pretty fast. You must have been hungry."

"I guess." Dawn stared down into the cup and the clear water. "I hadn't eaten in a while."

She darted a glance at Anita, somehow knowing before looking up that the woman's smile was long gone. "How long?"

"Anita--" Zerbrowski tried to interrupt, but Anita ignored him, instead focusing all her attention on Dawn.

"How long?"

Dawn shrugged, feeling as if she had done something wrong, but knowing that wasn't it. She wasn't a whiner, she wasn't going to mope about the small stuff when things like lives and evil were on the line. Just like Buffy never... Okay, so Buffy whined, but she whined while saving everyone, and that was a productive sort of whine. Dawn shook her head to rid herself of that train of thought. "A few days."

"A few--" Anita's eyes opened wide. "Why didn't you tell us last night that you hadn't eaten?"

Dawn glared right back. "I told you, it wasn't important--"

"Like not telling us about the cuts on your stomach?" Anita demanded. "What else isn't important?"

"Marshal Blake, that is not the best tone to use with a child!" Nurse Cindy interjected.

Dawn set her cup down, sloshing water all over her hand and soaking her bandage. She climbed to her feet and tried to stay balanced on the mattress. "If it's not important, then it's not important!" Dawn exclaimed. "Like not getting eaten by monsters is more important than some stupid cuts! Like falling off a tower is more important than not eating for a while!"

The panic in her head mixed with the churning in her stomach and the pain in her feet and sides and wrists. Dawn suddenly felt like she couldn't get enough air, like she was falling again, so hard and so fast that she couldn't breathe.

Warm hands gathered her up, and Dawn found herself clinging to Anita. "Hey, it's okay," Anita said. "You need to breathe slower, deep and slow, deep and slow..."

Following Anita's voice, Dawn's gasps for air slowed. She stayed where she was, her arms around Anita's neck, her cheek pressed against the woman's shoulder. A hand settled on Dawn's back, just like Mom used to do when Dawn was little and feeling bad, and suddenly Dawn started to cry. Not big tears or sobs, just little tiny stubborn tears that trickled down her cheeks and into the cloth of Anita's shirt. Everything here was just so unfair.

After a while, even the tears stopped. Dawn stayed where she was, feeling tired and old and worn out. She knew without seeing that Anita was staring at Zerbrowski, challenging him about something, and that Zerbrowski was resigned and anticipating a hell of a lot of work because of this, and Dawn didn't know what they meant or how she knew all this, but she knew that whatever was causing it, did not bode well.

Strange things happening to her never did.


Dawn licked her lollipop slowly, enjoying the bright yellow lemon flavor on her tongue as long as she could. Outside, the air was very cold, but inside Anita's car, the heater was on, Dawn was still wrapped in the blanket cocoon the nurse had insisted upon, and all was comfortable... if Dawn could ignore the dull ache in her stomach and wrists.

"How are you doing back there?" Anita called over her shoulder from the driver's seat.

Dawn removed the sucker from her mouth with a pop. Sure, it was a juvenile thing to do, but it was fun. "I'm okay. Why do you keep asking?"

Anita's shoulders stiffened. "I wanted to make sure you were doing fine."

"I'd tell you if I wasn't," Dawn said, crunching down on the candy. It was sweet and sour in her mouth. "How soon until we get there?"

"Soon," Anita promised. "I was thinking..."

"Thinking is good," Dawn contributed when Anita trailed off. "You can figure out where you're going, or what you're going to wear. I used to think about what I was going to put in my journal at the end of the day when I was bored."

"Journal?"

"Yeah, like a diary." Dawn chewed on the end of the lollipop stick, sucking out all the remaining sugar. "I wrote in it like all the time." And when she had learned she was the Key, that she wasn't real, she'd burned all those pages that she hadn't really written. But she hadn't burned the last journal, the one she'd started keeping after Mom got sick. That one was real. Dawn blinked at the lollipop stick. "But I wasn't able to in a while, 'cause things got bad."

The car drifted to a stop. Dawn looked out the window, expecting to see a stoplight, but instead she saw cars on either side of them. A parking lot.

Anita turned around to stare at Dawn. "How old are you?" Anita asked after a minute.

There was no safe way to answer this question. Dawn could tell Anita she was fifteen, and Anita wouldn't believe her. She could say she was five, but that would be a lie, and Dawn didn't want to lie to Anita.

"I'm fifteen." Dawn put the lollipop stick back in her mouth to avoid having to say any more.

Anita's eyes grew wide. "Fifteen?" she repeated. Dawn kept eye contact with Anita, even though it was intimidating, having the weight of the woman's stare on her. "Right."

"Why did we stop?" Dawn asked, anxious to distract Anita from this line of questioning. "Are we there?"

"No, we're not there, but I had an idea," Anita said. "You're going to be with us for a little while, right?"

"I guess." Dawn frowned slightly. "Why?"

"I was thinking, that you'll need clothes."

Whatever else Anita was going to say died on her tongue as Dawn sat bolt upright, ignoring the sharp pain as the seatbelt dug into her stomach. "Do we get to go shopping?"


Dawn's enthusiasm for shopping wilted slightly by the time Anita had carried her into the department store. The food she'd shoveled into her mouth lay heavy in her stomach, and her various aches were mixing up with the exhaustion in the back of her head. Apparently four hours of sleep wasn't nearly enough.

But Dawn was determined to persevere. She'd have to learn how to function in this new world, and watching Anita deal with things would be the best way to do it.

Besides, she couldn't wander around forever in the second-hand clothes they'd given her at the hospital.

"Do you shop here often?" Dawn asked as Anita consulted the store map.

"No." Anita frowned at the map. "And I've never tried to find the children's section."

"We can get adult clothes and shrink them in the wash," Dawn suggested.

Anita looked down at Dawn. Whatever the woman was going to say halted on her tongue when she saw the smile on Dawn's face. "You're just a little joker, aren't you?" Anita said, holding out her hand. "Come on."

Dawn slipped her hand into Anita's, wondering when it would stop feeling weird to be so small. Is there even a way to change this back? Can I go home and not be a little kid anymore? She made an effort to not let her thoughts show on her face. "What are we going to get?" Dawn asked, going back to her favorite pastime. "Some shoes that fit?"

"Certainly some shoes, it's too cold for you to have your shoes falling off all the time. Plus--" Anita cut herself off. "Yes, you're getting shoes."

They stepped on an escalator, Dawn having to hop onto the moving step. She could barely reach the moving railing with her free hand. "Do you mind?" she asked, craning her neck to look up at Anita.

Anita glanced down, a serious expression on her face. "Do I mind what?"

"Buying me clothes. You don't have to."

Anita's expression flickered slightly as Dawn felt a sudden rush of emotions that didn't really any sense. Then the emotions were gone, and Dawn was just confused.

At the top of the escalator, Anita guided Dawn to the side of the walkway, by a rack of men's suits, and knelt down so she could look Dawn in the eyes.

"Listen to me," Anita said vehemently. "I want to do this, do you understand? Buying clothes isn't a problem."

Dawn dropped her eyes to stare at the top button of Anita's blouse.

"Do you understand?"

Dawn nodded slightly. "But..."

"But what?" Anita asked, her voice softening. "Dawn, what is it?"

"What about Micah and Nathaniel?" Dawn asked.

Anita stared at Dawn for a very long minute. "Where did you hear about them?" she finally asked.

Dawn chewed on her lip while she thought of how to answer. The truth was, Dawn had no idea how she had overheard the conversation between Anita and Zerbrowski that morning in the hospital. "I just kinda did?"

"How-- Never mind," Anita muttered. "Listen to me. You're in a tight spot right now, and you need someone to look after you. That person's going to be me, at least for a little while."

"But Nathaniel and Micah?" Dawn didn't know who they were, if one or the other of them was her boyfriend or her roommate or whatever, but she didn't want to be in a place where no one wanted her.

"Nathaniel and Micah understand how sometimes things come up," Anita said, so confident that Dawn almost didn't feel the tendril of doubt crawling around in her head. "You staying with us... it's going to be okay."

Dawn remembered the last time someone had told her it was going to be okay. Then, it had been Buffy.

But things hadn't been okay at all.

Dawn gulped past the lump in her throat. She wanted to ask Anita something about her house, but what came out was, "Is Buffy ever going to find me?"

Anita looked away, at the row of hanging clothes that muffled footsteps on the carpet in the store, then back to Dawn. She took a deep breath. "I am going to do everything I can to find your family," she said. "I promise."

Dawn sniffled. "Thank you," she whispered.

Awkwardly, Anita placed her hand on Dawn's back and drew the girl into a sideways hug. "How about we get finished here and get you home?"

"Okay," Dawn said. She let herself rest for a minute against Anita, all warm and strong and soft, then made herself stand straight. She was Dawn Summers, Buffy's sister and Joyce's daughter, and she would be able to get through this.

Chapter Text

The sunlight shining on the bright wall looked warmer than it was. Dawn blinked lazily at the light, trying to figure out where she was. She remembered the clothing store, and a warm winter coat Anita made her try on. It was too warm for being inside, and Dawn's stomach had gotten all weird and unhappy and made her want to lie down.

Now, it looked as if she was in a house. Her eyes traveled over the bookcases by the wall, a television, and finally to an armchair and the man sitting there.

Dawn hadn't known he was there, not exactly, but she wasn't surprised to see him. Why was that?

He appeared to be Buffy's age, although Dawn was having a hard time judging ages in this place. His braided hair was auburn and he was staring at Dawn with steady, lavender eyes.

As Dawn blinked to clear the sleep from her eyes, she recalled a fragment of the conversation between Anita and Zerbrowski that afternoon. "Are you Micah or Nathaniel?" Dawn asked the man.

The man leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I'm Nathaniel," he said. His voice was nice and soft, and just hearing it warmed Dawn down to her toes. "How do you feel?"

Dawn pushed hair back from her face. How did she feel? "Fine, I think." She sat up on the big white couch. "Where's Anita?"

"She's talking with Micah," Nathaniel said. "Do you want me to get her?"

"No, it's okay." Dawn folded her hands in her lap, her feet sticking off the edge of the couch. She was never going to get used to being this small. A tiny warning voice in the back of her head said that she might not have a choice, but she ignored that. "Now what?"

For the first time, uncertainty crossed Nathaniel's face. "What do you mean?"

Dawn restrained herself from rolling her eyes. "I mean, what do we do now?"

Nathaniel shifted nervously in his seat. "Do you want to do something? We can do whatever you want to do."

Nathaniel reminded Dawn of Tara, soft-spoken and nervous. That line of thought reminded Dawn of what Glory had done to Tara, and the last time she'd seen the witch, all wounded and crazy.

Dawn pulled her legs up to her chest, trying not to cry. Tara had been with Willow and Buffy and everyone, and so that probably meant that Tara was safe back in Sunnydale with everyone else.

A tiny sniffle escaped Dawn. She'd jumped off the tower so that everyone would be safe, she had to remember that. That was the way it worked; she jumped and closed the portal, and everyone would be safe.

Wait.

Her blood was the only way to open the portal. She'd closed the portal when she jumped. Now she was here and Buffy and everybody else was on the other side with no way to open the portal again to find her.

She pressed her hands over her mouth. She hadn't thought of that before, and the more she thought of it, the more it made sense, a horrible kind of sense. Glory had been very insistent that the portal would only open at a certain time in a certain place. How could Dawn get back if there the time to open dimensions with her blood was over?

The cushion on the couch shifted as Nathaniel sat down next to Dawn. "Is there anything I can do?" he asked gently.

Dawn shook her head. He couldn't do anything to fix the mess she'd made. No one could.

Anita came into the room and hurried over to the couch. "What happened?" the woman asked, kneeling in front of Dawn. "Nathaniel?"

"I asked her if she wanted to do something and she just freaked out."

Dawn buried her face in her knees and hugged her legs harder. The resulting pain in her stomach was sharp and sudden, but it was real and something that she could stop at any time. Not like the other things she'd messed up so badly. Was she ever going to see Buffy again?

Someone lifted Dawn into a gentle hug. Even with eyes closed, Dawn knew it was Anita, smelling like a hint of rosemary again, and nice shampoo and soap. Dawn wanted more than anything to hug Anita back, to know it was going to be okay. She was on the verge of uncurling and doing just that, when something stuck her.

Anita wasn't Buffy.

Dawn knew that, but it hadn't really sunk in. Last night, Anita had saved her, like Buffy always did, and Dawn had been so scared in this new place that she had latched on to the woman. But Anita wasn't Buffy, wasn't Dawn's sister. She didn't have to be doing this. Maybe she didn't want to deal with a glompy, slobbering, crying little kid.

Gathering all of her fifteen-year-old pride to her, Dawn sat up straight on Anita's lap and looked at the woman, rubbing at her face with a grubby hand. She wasn't going to say sorry, but she felt as if she should apologize for being a total spaz.

"You okay?" Anita asked.

Dawn shrugged. She didn't trust herself to speak.

"Right," Anita muttered. The woman brushed Dawn's hair back. "I see you've met Nathaniel?"

"Uh huh." Dawn climbed off Anita's lap and back onto the couch, losing an ill-fitting sock in the process. Her baby-like feet were still dirty. She sure was making a hell of a first impression on everyone.

That reminded her of the conversation she'd overheard earlier in the day. "Where's Micah?"

Confusion flitted in Dawn's mind, uncertain on the edges of her mind. Before Dawn could wonder why, Anita looked over at the far wall. Dawn twisted around to follow her gaze.

A man stood in the far doorway. He had long curly brown hair, the kind of curly hair Dawn had always wanted. Then Dawn registered something else different about the man.

Sliding off the couch and losing her other sock, Dawn walked across the room. She craned her head back to look at the man's face. "Are you Micah?" she asked as she stared.

"I am." He unfolded his arms and knelt down so he was on level with Dawn. "It's nice to meet you, Dawn."

She kept staring at Micah's eyes. They were cat's eyes, green and yellow with oval pupils. They were so cool!

Belatedly, Dawn remembered her manners. "It's nice to meet you, Micah," she said, feeling shy.

Micah smiled at her gently. "Anita tells me that you're going to be staying with us for a little while," he said.

"I guess." Dawn darted a look over her shoulder at Anita. "Is that okay?"

"Yes, it is," Micah said. He said something else, but Dawn heard Anita and Nathaniel talking behind her, whispering words that she couldn't quite understand. But when Dawn turned around, their mouths weren't moving.

The whispers lifted up in surprise, then stopped. In the resulting silence, Dawn's racing heartbeat roared in her ears.

"Dawn?" Micah said. "What is it?"

Dawn stared at Anita, knowing something was wrong and she just couldn't figure out what it was. It was a big thing, hovering on the edges of her consciousness, and she just couldn't catch it.

"Dawn?" Micah gently touched her hand, below the bandages.

Anita returned Dawn's gaze, confused. After a minute, Dawn blinked and turned back to Micah. "Nothing," she managed to say. "It's nothing."

Dawn could tell Micah didn't believe her, but he said, "You can tell us anything you want, okay? Even if it's small or silly."

Dawn nodded, even though she knew that was impossible. She couldn't tell them about Buffy being a Slayer, or that Dawn used to be a mystical energy ball, or that she was really fifteen. Well, she'd tried to tell Anita that, in the car, but of course the woman hadn't believed her.

And it's not helping that I keep acting like a big baby all the time, Dawn scolded herself. Especially in front of grown-ups like Anita and Micah. Dawn still hadn't made up her mind about where to put Nathaniel yet, if he was a grown-up like Mom or one like Buffy.

"Dawn," Micah said, catching Dawn's wandering attention. "Is there anything you'd like to do right now?"

Right. Life went on, even if she was in a different dimension. Dawn wrinkled her nose as she remembered the list she'd started making that morning in the hospital bathroom. "Can I have a bath?"

Micah hesitated for a moment, and it made Dawn feel better. He didn't know what to do any more than she did. "Anita?"

"What?" Anita asked from the couch.

Micah gave her a look.

"What?" she said again, voice climbing defensively.

Micah breathed out through his nose, not quite a sigh and not exactly a huff. "Would you be able to help Dawn out with a bath?"

"I don't need a helper," Dawn said, annoyed. She wasn't a baby, she'd been taking baths by herself for years.

"Children aren't supposed to be left alone around water until they can swim," Nathaniel said suddenly from the couch.

Anita twisted around. "What?"

The young man looked down at his hands. "I read it on the Internet, when you told us you were bringing Dawn home." His voice was barely audible.

"You have the Internet here?" Dawn asked quickly, interrupting Anita.

"We have a computer," Nathaniel said, but that wasn't what Dawn wanted to know. If they had the Internet here, this dimension might not be too different from home.

"Dawn, Anita will help you get sorted out with a bath," Micah said, standing up. "In the meantime, how about Nathaniel and I make lunch? Do you like sandwiches?"

Sandwiches? This had been a conversation about swimming. Or was it bubble baths? Dawn's head felt fuzzy again, and her stomach hurt, and she was all confused and suddenly a little scared. Things were different here, but not all the way different, and how was she to know which was which?

"Dawn?" Anita had knelt down beside Dawn and put her hand on Dawn's back, warm through Dawn's t-shirt. "Do you need to sit down?"

Dawn bit her lower lip. She told herself, as she leaned against Anita's side, that it wasn't a hug, it was just leaning, which was totally different from being all clingy. "I like sandwiches," she whispered.

Anita and Micah shared a troubled glance. Dawn wondered if they thought she was crazy. Maybe I am crazy, maybe Glory's craziness leaked off onto me while Ben had me. But if it worked like that, I'd be crazy from years living with Buffy.

"How about soup?" Micah asked.

Now that she didn't have to stand on her own, Dawn felt a little better. "Soup is nice, as long as it's not cream of mushroom," Dawn informed him.

"You don't like mushrooms?" Anita asked.

"They're made of fungus!" Dawn said, scrunching up her nose. "They haven't even got chlorophyll!"

She hadn't meant to say that, but ever since they'd done a section on botany in science class earlier that year, Dawn hadn't been able to touch a mushroom, let alone put one in her mouth.

Everyone stared at Dawn as if she had three heads. "I mean, who wants to eat a plant that doesn't eat sunshine?" Dawn said, faltering. "If you are what you eat, it's better to eat sunshine... than... not." God, I'm like a total goober! Dawn thought, blushing bright red.

Anita blinked at Dawn. "So, no mushrooms," the woman said after a minute.

"Four?" Micah asked Anita.

"Huh?" Dawn looked between Micah and Anita. "Four what?"

Anita cleared her throat and tried to smile. "The doctors said that developmentally, you were either at the top of the chart for four years old, or a bit lower for five."

"I thought I looked five," Dawn said. She glanced down at her hands. "Do I look four?"

"Not really," Anita said quickly. "They're just trying to figure out what to put on your forms at the hospital."

"Oh." Dawn frowned. She wanted to know if Anita thought she was acting like a little baby kid, but she suspected it might not be a good idea to keep bringing up her strange behavior. Maybe it would be best to change the topic. "Why are Micah's eyes like that?"

Another shared glance between Micah and Anita. "Dawn, I want to you to know, you're perfectly safe in this house and with everyone in it," Anita began.

Dawn perked up, making the connection with something else Zerbrowski had said that morning. "Is it because he's a lycanthrope?" she asked. "But wolves don't have eyes like that, they had puppy dog eyes."

"Lycan-- How did you hear that?" Anita demanded.

Since Dawn wasn't too sure about that herself, she had no qualms about not responding. It wasn't like she was lying to Anita. "Are you a werewolf?" she asked Micah eagerly.

Micah shook his head. "I'm a wereleopard," he said. There was a weight of emotion behind his words, very different from Buffy's 'woe is me, I have Slayer superpowers and can kick ass' emo whining. "Anita's right, no one in this house will harm you in any way."

Dawn waved that off. "I had a babysitter that was a werewolf, when I was a little kid," she informed them. "His name was Oz and he was a musician and he was always really mellow."

"You had a werewolf babysitter," Anita repeated.

"Uh huh." Dawn didn't see why it was so hard for Anita to get her head around this. Just a minute before, the woman had been saying Micah was safe to be around. "He showed me how to play checkers with sandwich cookies."

"How do you play checkers with sandwich cookies?" Nathaniel asked, sliding off the couch and crawling over.

"It's so cool," Dawn said. "I was always white, so I ate the top cookie off mine and then the icing showed on my cookies and when you got kinged, you stacked the cookies up on top of each other until they're almost too big to put in your mouth."

"Sounds like fun." Nathaniel smiled at Dawn as he hugged one leg up to his chest.

"And speaking of food," Micah interrupted, "We need to get cooking. Anita?"

"You can't use the upstairs bathroom," Nathaniel said before Anita could speak.

Anita frowned. "Why not?"

"There's stuff in it."

"Stuff? Why is there stuff in the bathroom?"

"Because that's where Zane put it."

Looking back and forth between Anita and Nathaniel was like watching a tennis match, and much more fun, Dawn decided.

"Why is Zane's stuff in the upstairs bathroom? He's got his own place to leave things."

Nathaniel ducked his head. "He just did."

"You can use our bathroom," Micah interrupted. He reached a hand out and hauled Nathaniel to his feet. "We'll get lunch started."

As the two men left the room, Dawn carefully shifted away from Anita. "You don't have to help me if you don't want," Dawn said, trying her hardest to not let all of her conflicting emotions show. She didn't need to be treated like a baby, but she didn't want to be alone. "I'll be okay."

Anita sighed as she stood. Holding out her hand to Dawn, she said, "I know you'll be okay. But can I help anyway?"

Hesitating only a moment, Dawn took Anita's hand. "If you want to."

Anita squeezed Dawn's hand gently. "I want to."


They went through a hallway with some framed pictures on the white walls, past an open door to a room with a huge rumpled bed and some clothes on the floor. "Is that your room?" Dawn asked, pointing.

"Yes, it is." Anita reached past Dawn to pull the door shut.

"I don't like to clean my room up, either," Dawn said. "Mom used to have to tell me that I didn't get to watch TV unless I'd done all my chores and cleaned up my room."

"What sort of chores did you do?" Anita asked.

"Not a lot," Dawn admitted. "Like, clean my room, do the dishes sometimes. They didn't let me vacuum or dust."

"Why not?"

"Things tend to break when I'm around them. But that's totally never my fault," Dawn hastened to say.

Anita opened a door and led Dawn inside the biggest bathroom Dawn had ever seen. It was bigger than her bedroom back home. Dawn let go of Anita's hand to investigate.

While Dawn looked at the bottles lined up on the counter, Anita started filling the tub. "Dawn, why don't you come over here so we can look at those bandages?"

Dawn picked up a pretty bottle and took it over to Anita. "Can we use this?"

"Do you know what this is?" Anita asked, taking the bottle from Dawn.

"Sure, it's bubble bath," Dawn said, pointing at the lettering on the label. "Made with pure organic mango extract."

Anita set the bottle down on the edge of the tub. "You read very well."

Dawn dropped her gaze to the bandage on her wrist. She didn't know what to say. Should she pretend that she didn't know how to read? She was already doing a bad job at being this small. Reading, talking about plants, and insisting that she could do everything by herself. She was just as bad as she'd been at home with Buffy.

"It's okay if you can read," Anita said, gently lifting Dawn's chin. "We already knew you were a smart little girl."

"If you say so," Dawn said.

"I just did." Anita leaned forward. "How about you and I make a deal?"

In spite of herself, Dawn was curious. "What kind of deal?"

"You can be as smart as you want, and ask any question you want. How does that sound?"

Dawn considered the offer. She had so many questions about this dimension and this world, not the least of which was about wereleopards. Who would have thought to have something like wereleopards? "Wait, what's your part of the deal?" Dawn asked.

"I have to answer the questions."

That sounded odd, but Dawn straightened up and stuck out her hand. "Okay, deal."

They shook hands, which was really sort of silly because Dawn was so small, but it made Dawn feel a little more grown-up.

"Now, let's get on with this bath," Anita said. "Do you need any help?"

Dawn hesitated, then nodded.

"With what?" Anita asked, more gently this time.

Dawn pointed to the mess that was her hair. "Can you brush hair without it hurting?"

"That I can do," Anita said, looking quite relieved. Dawn wondered what Anita had been expecting. "Come and sit over here, and we'll see what we can do."

Dawn hopped up on the tiles by the edge of the tub and watched the water flow out of the tap. The continuous sound of the water was soothing and scary all at the same time. It was all so normal! Bathtubs and lunch and hairbrushes. Shouldn't a different dimension have scary and crazy things? Hadn't Anya said things were different?

"Do you have shrimp here?" Dawn asked Anita, turning around.

Anita glanced up from teasing the tangles out a handful of Dawn's hair. "Shrimp? Not in the house, but they have them at the supermarket. Why?"

"Just testing a theory," Dawn told her. Well, at least this wasn't the shrimp-free dimension Anya had talked about. Too late, she realized that she was once again speaking like a grown-up. Or at least a teenager.

Anita just smiled again, and went back to Dawn's hair. "You have beautiful hair," Anita said after a few minutes. "When I was your age, I wanted straight hair."

"Why?" Dawn asked, picking at the bandage on her wrist. "Straight hair is boring. Curly hair is so much cooler."

Anita ran the brush the full length of Dawn's hair, this time without hitting a single snag. "Well, whatever you say, I like your hair."

Dawn closed her eyes and tried very hard not to cry. Anita didn't know, she couldn't know, she wasn't doing it on purpose--

"What's wrong?" Anita asked, setting the brush down and turning Dawn to face her. "Dawn?"

Dawn twisted her fingers together. "My.. my mom..." She had to stop for a minute so she wouldn't cry. Anita didn't rush her. "Mom used to brush my hair at night and tell me it was beautiful."

Anita took a deep breath. "Oh, Dawn."

"Buffy had to come tell me that Mom was..." Dawn stared very hard at a button on Anita's shirt. "I was in art class and Buffy pulled me out and told me Mom was dead and it was like it wasn't real, like it couldn't be real because it was just so bad." Dawn sniffled, just once. Mom would have wanted her to be strong and not so sad, which was stupid because Dawn missed her so much.

Anita put her hand on Dawn's shoulders. "Dawn, I'm so sorry."

Without thinking, Dawn leaned against Anita and buried her face against Anita's shirt. "Why does this kind of stuff have to happen?" she asked, voice muffled.

"I don't know." Anita let Dawn sit there for a minute. "And I'm not sure it ever gets any better, but eventually it gets a little easier to deal with."

Dawn sniffled and lifted her head. "How do you know?" Dawn asked curiously.

A shadow, almost hidden, lay in Anita's eyes. "I lost my mother when I was your age," she said.

Anita thought Dawn was just a little kid, which meant that Anita's mother must have died when Anita was very young. "I'm sorry," Dawn said in a whisper.

Anita's haunted expression tore at Dawn's heart. After a few seconds, the woman blinked, and the expression was gone. "You're a very special little girl, you know that?" Anita said, tears hiding on the edges of her words. She gave Dawn's shoulder a quick squeeze. "We should get you into the bath before it gets cold."

Dawn looked at the tub, which wasn't even half-full, but decided against commenting.

"Oh, and we almost forgot," Anita said. She held up the bubble bath. "Still want this?"

Dawn didn't know how she was going to live this way, having had all this bad stuff happen to her but still having to go on. But Anita had done it, so it had to be possible. Even with something as small as bubbles. "Yes, please."

At least mango bubble bath smelled the same in this dimension.


Peanut butter sandwiches and chicken noodle soup weren't the strangest lunch Dawn had ever had, but it was pretty close. She tried to slurp her soup quietly, watching Anita dismantle her sandwich. On the other side of the round kitchen table, Micah watched Anita without being obvious about it.

Nathaniel washed the dishes by hand, the porcelain barely making any sound as he rinsed a plate under the tap. The silence in the room grew as Dawn slowly ate.

The phone rang, startling Anita right up out of her seat. Micah made a move towards her, but managed to stop himself before she saw.

"I'll get it," Anita muttered, rubbing a hand across her face. She walked the few feet to the phone on the counter and picked the handset up. "Hello?" Anita said.

Dawn licked the teaspoon she'd been using for her soup and laid it in the bowl, listening hard. If she concentrated hard enough, she could almost hear the other end of the conversation. Almost, but not quite.

"What do you mean?" Anita said into the phone. "Zerbrowski, that's not--" Anita bit her lip. "No, that's not-- Oh, hold on." She pulled the phone away from her ear. "I'll be right back."

Anita stalked out of the kitchen, voice already rising on the phone before she cleared the door. Once she was gone, Nathaniel leaned against the counter, not looking at anything.

Okay... Dawn looked over at Micah. He quirked up the side of his mouth in a small smile. "Things can get pretty busy around here at times," he explained.

"Because Anita's a federal marshal?" Dawn asked innocently.

"Something like that," Micah said. "Are you done with your lunch?"

"Yes, thank you," Dawn said. She sat back in her chair and glanced down at her outfit again. It was one of the ones Anita had bought at the store that morning. Nathaniel had washed it while Dawn had been sleeping. Not a nap, Dawn thought indignantly. I haven't had a nap since I was really five.

"What do you--" A tiny electronic ringing interrupted Micah's question. He pushed himself back from the table. "Excuse me," he said, pulling out his cell phone as he moved quickly to the hallway.

That left Dawn and Nathaniel alone in the kitchen. Dawn rested her elbows on the tabletop and set her chin on her arms as she regarded Nathaniel.

Nathaniel cleared his throat nervously. "Would you like any desert?" he suggested.

"No, thank you," Dawn said. "Are you a lycanthrope too?

Nathaniel nodded. His incredibly long braid bobbed in the hair, which was so cool. Dawn had never seen a man with such long hair, or anyone with lavender eyes. "I'm a wereleopard like Micah."

"That's neat." Dawn pulled her own braid over her shoulder and played with the end. Anita had braided her hair after her bath, and had even let Dawn use one of the nice elastics. "Why aren't your eyes different?"

"How so?" Nathaniel put more dishes in the sink to wash.

Dawn pursed her lips. Nathaniel knew very well what she was talking about. "Your eyes are normal... sort of, and Micah's are like cat's eyes. If they're like that because he's a wereleopard, then why aren't yours like that too?"

Nathaniel turned off the tap and rested his hands on the counter. "I don't know what to tell you," he said.

Dawn slid off her chair and hopped across the kitchen to Nathaniel's side. "I'll understand," she told him.

Nathaniel crouched down so he was on eyelevel with her. He didn't seem to notice that his wet hands were making marks on his jeans. "I know you'd understand, but it's not my story to tell," he said. "You'll have to ask Micah if he wants to tell you."

Dawn fiddled with the end of her braid. "Is it a bad thing?" she asked in a small voice. She didn't want to ask Micah if it was going to make him unhappy.

"It's not bad, it's just a thing," Nathaniel said.

"But it's his thing," Dawn finished. "Okay." She flicked a glance up at Nathaniel. "Then can I ask you something?"

"Of course." Nathaniel didn't seem to mind crouching down to talk to Dawn, and it sure made it easier to communicate without shouting. Dawn could almost forget that she was tiny. "What do you want to know?"

"Why is your hair so long?"

Nathaniel's response was interrupted as Anita stormed back into the kitchen. "Where's Micah?" she demanded. "I have to leave."

A thrill of panic ran through Dawn's head. Anita was leaving? Who would protect Dawn?

The next moment, Dawn wanted to kick herself. She'd be fine, she'd be safe. Anita wasn't leaving forever.

"Micah's on the phone," Nathaniel was saying. "Where are you going?"

"Zerbrowski wants me to go back to the cemetery where I found Dawn, there's something--" Anita broke off when she saw Dawn beside Nathaniel. "There's something they want my advice on," Anita amended.

"Can I go?" Dawn asked. Maybe she could learn something about what brought her here. She wasn't sure what she'd do with that knowledge, but it couldn't hurt to go.

Anita, however, had other ideas. "You may certainly not come with me," she said as she pulled on her jacket. "You're going to stay here safe and far away from the screaming contagious insanity."

"Anita," Nathaniel chided. The woman looked at him, confused.

"Are people getting hurt?" Dawn demanded. She ran across the kitchen and grabbed Anita's jacket sleeve. "Are people getting hurt because of me?" It was just like back in Sunnydale, where all the injury and pain Glory caused was her fault.

"No, Dawn, that's not it," Anita said in a hurry.

"But people are getting hurt?"

"No--"

"But you said there was screaming contagious insanity and that's never fun!"

"Dawn, I was-- Look, I don't know what's going on, but they need my help." Anita gently pulled Dawn's hands off her jacket. "I have to go, and I need you to stay here with Micah and Nathaniel. You'll be safe with them."

Dawn swallowed her numerous objections, knowing it was hopeless. Anita wasn't going to let Dawn go along to the cemetery, to see if there were any clues as to what happened to her. Besides, Dawn told herself, Anita would be fine. She was the police in charge of this stuff, she'd be okay.

Even if Tara hadn't been okay when Glory sucked out her sanity.

Micah came back into the kitchen. "Micah, I have to go to work..." Anita's voice trailed off when she spotted the coat and car keys in Micah's hands. "What are you doing?"

"I have to go into town," Micah said quietly, casting a glance at Dawn. "Two people didn't show up to their shift at the Coalition Hotline and one of the new werewolves just called, he's in trouble."

Anita pressed her lips together. "But what about Dawn?"

"Nathaniel can stay with me," Dawn piped up. She had no idea what this Coalition Hotline thing was, but it sounded important for Micah. "I'll be okay."

"I don't... Nathaniel?" Anita asked.

Nathaniel ducked his head for a moment. "We'll be okay. You guys go."

"Yeah," Dawn said with a nod. "We'll be good."

Anita didn't look convinced, but Micah was already moving towards the door. "Nathaniel, if you have any problems, just call Merle," Micah told him.

"Merle? Why?" Anita demanded as she followed Micah out. Micah's answer was lost in the noise of the closing door.

Dawn waited for a heartbeat, listening to the house settle. Then she looked up at Nathaniel. "Okay, now what?"


"And this is going to be your room," Nathaniel finished, pushing open the door.

Dawn peeked around the doorframe. The second-story room, on the opposite end of the house from Anita's room, was about as big as her room in Sunnydale, but seemed larger because it was so empty. There was a bare mattress in the corner and two boxes by the window.

With a gulp, Dawn put on a brave face. "It's very nice," she said politely. Anita didn't have to make up a room for her, so Dawn should be happy with whatever she got.

"No, it's not," Nathaniel gently contradicted. He set the hamper down on the carpet before pulling open the curtains. "But we'll make it better."

Dawn hung back by the door as Nathaniel quickly put the sheets on the bed. Next, Nathaniel lifted out a large blanket and two pillows. Dawn drifted towards the bed, wanting to touch the blanket but not sure if she should.

"Anita thought you might like this comforter," Nathaniel said, holding out one corner. "What do you think?"

The blanket was so soft and such a bright blue, like the afternoon sky. "It's my favorite color," Dawn said wistfully.

Nathaniel smiled as he spread the blanket over the bed. After watching for a moment, Dawn moved to the other end of the bed to help him tug the heavy cloth into place.

"All done," Nathaniel said. He handed Dawn one of the pillows to set at the head of the bed. "How's that?"

"Much better," Dawn said after a moment of consideration. "What's in those boxes?"

"Let's go see," Nathaniel said. He pulled open the flap of the top box and peered inside. Before Dawn could see, Nathaniel had slapped the box shut and was lifting both boxes at once, carrying them towards the door.

"What's in it?" Dawn asked, hurrying along after Nathaniel.

"Nothing important," Nathaniel said quickly. "I'll be right back."

Dawn stopped at the top of the stairs, watching Nathaniel vanish around the corner. She blew a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. That was certainly strange. She wondered what was in those boxes.

Although, on second thought, maybe she didn't want to know. Probably creepy adult things.

Dawn headed back to her new room. The blue blanket was bright in the sunlight that streamed in from the windows. Dawn pressed her nose against the cold glass and looked out at the snow-covered front yard. Breathing out through her nose made the glass steam up. Dawn did it again, then pulled back and wrote her name on the foggy glass. Dawn. There wasn't enough room for her to put Summers after it.

Dawn trailed her fingers across the glass. Was there anything she could do to make it easier for Buffy to find her? She had to believe that Buffy would come for her. That was what Buffy did, she saved Dawn. She didn't have to, after they all found out about the Key. If she really hadn't wanted to be Dawn's sister, Buffy could have handed Dawn over to Glory. But she didn't, no one did. Even after Mom found out about Dawn, Joyce had still wanted to be Dawn's mom.

Dawn missed them both so much.

The soft scrunching of the carpet alerted Dawn to Nathaniel's return. "Is there anything else you need?" Nathaniel asked.

Dawn sniffled. She wasn't going to whine, she told herself. "No, thank you."

Nathaniel knelt down beside Dawn to look out the window. "Anita said you're from California?"

"Uh huh." Dawn wiped her nose on her sleeve. "We don't have snow there."

"I've never been to California," Nathaniel said. "What's it like?"

Dawn thought about the vampires and the werewolves, and the demons and the witches, all pulled together over the Hellmouth. "It's like anywhere else, I suppose."


The supermarket was annoyingly large. Dawn gripped Nathaniel's hand hard while he navigated the aisles of the store. She couldn't shake the anxiety and worry that consumed her when she stepped into the store.

The place was just like the supermarkets they had in her world. Dawn looked at the cans and boxes as they walked, but couldn't find a thing to to say.

Nathaniel stopped the cart in the breakfast aisle. "Why don't you pick your favorite cereal for tomorrow?" he suggested.

Dawn shook her head.

Nathaniel crouched down. "You can have anything you want to eat, okay?" His face was very intense. "If you ever want anything to eat and we haven't got it, you just say so and we'll get it for you."

Dawn blinked, and with it came flashes of not enough food, a hard and cold and unsafe bed, and never knowing where the next threat was going to come from.

Nathaniel was looking at her, waiting for an answer.

A spark of an idea was growing in the back of Dawn's mind. All these things she kept thinking about, she knew they weren't her memories or her imagination.

But what could they be?

Screaming started halfway down the cereal aisle. Dawn whirled around and saw a little boy, maybe about her new height, throwing a tantrum.

Nathaniel winced. "Do you want anything here?" he asked, almost drowned out by the fit.

Dawn wanted to shake her head, but Nathaniel looked so hopeful. Dawn didn't know why, but this meant a lot to him. "Did you have a favorite cereal when you were my age?" she asked.

Dawn had to push away the image in her head of a little boy, so much like Nathaniel, sitting in a dark room. It took Nathaniel a moment to answer. "I did have one that I liked, but I didn't get to eat it often."

The tantrum was getting louder. Dawn leaned closer to Nathaniel so she could be heard. "Can we get that one?"

The smile on Nathaniel's face was wistful, but happy. Dawn liked that smile. "We can."

He stood and pushed the cart along, past several displays. While Nathaniel reached out for a particular box, Dawn glanced at the screaming boy. His mother was trying to quiet him, alternating comfort and mild threats of no television. Dawn watched the scene with wide eyes. Had she ever thrown a tantrum like this with Mom? She really hoped not. It was embarrassing to watch.

"How about this one?" Nathaniel said, holding out the box of cereal. The box promised chocolate and marshmallows in the shapes of supernatural creatures. She turned the box on its side to read the ingredients.

"That's a lot of sugar," Dawn said. "Okay, this is good." She held the box up to Nathaniel.

He put it in the cart, then held out his hand. "We're almost done."

Gratefully, Dawn let Nathaniel take them away from the tantrum. She remained silent as they walked, taking in all the sights. Things were different here in tiny ways, just different enough to keep reminding her that life had changed.

After she pulled her equilibrium back together, Dawn noticed that people were looking at them. No, she realized. Not 'them', but at Nathaniel. She didn't blame them, he was really pretty. If pretty was the right word. He wasn't all rugged and handsome like Angel or Spike, but maybe that sort of handsome was a vampire thing.

Nathaniel stopped the cart and let go of Dawn's hand to get milk. A display across from the cooler caught Dawn's attention, and she drifted over.

"What are you looking at?" Nathaniel asked when he caught up with her.

Dawn pulled her hand back. "Nothing."

Nathaniel picked up the notebook with the brown leather cover that Dawn had been touching. "Would you like this?"

"I... no?"

"Dawn." Nathaniel held out the book to her. "We can get it if you want. Something you can have, all of your own. Something fun."

Carefully, Dawn took the book. It was so nice, with a flawless cover and so many thick, blank pages inside there she could write anything she wanted. "Thank you," she whispered.

"You're welcome." Nathaniel hesitated before saying, "Dawn, I know what it's like to be in a place that's not your home, I was in foster care when I was little, too."

"After Nicky died." The words slipped out of Dawn's mouth before she could think of what they meant. Although she'd been quiet, Nathaniel jerked back, eyes wide.

"Who told you that?" Nathaniel demanded.

Dawn stood frozen, the sudden rush of anger and panic and fear clenching in her stomach and stopping her breath. She didn't know why she'd said what she did. Somehow, she'd known that Nathaniel hadn't been in foster care before Nicky, the boy like Nathaniel with beautiful blue eyes, had died. But how had she known?

"I'm sorry," Dawn whispered, taking a step away from Nathaniel. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."

"Dawn--" Nathaniel stopped when Dawn flinched back from the hand he held towards her. "Dawn, I won't hurt you."

"I know." Dawn couldn't look at Nathaniel. The idea in her head was growing into something big, something very, very bad, and something that Dawn couldn't accept. Not yet.

"Dawn..." Nathaniel crouched down beside her. "What you said--"

"I said I was sorry," Dawn whispered.

Nathaniel let out a breath. "I know." He opened his mouth, then closed it, then tried again. "Are you okay?"

Dawn didn't understand why he was asking that, but she nodded anyway.

"No, you're not," Nathaniel muttered. "Come on, let's get out of here."

He didn't sound mad, not now, but he had to be. He probably thought someone told Dawn things about his brother and that Dawn was just being a snarky little brat.

Dawn held out the notebook. "Here," she said, fully expecting Nathaniel to put it back on the shelf. He gave her a look, then took the book and placed it in the cart. Dawn stared, not really sure what was going on, then Nathaniel held out his hand.

"Come on," he said, not unkindly. "Let's get out of here."

Dawn tried to figure out if Nathaniel was being serious, or if he was only doing this because he'd told Anita he'd look out for Dawn. Trying to understand that was like trying to see through a brick wall.

Finally, Dawn slipped her tiny hand into Nathaniel's palm. The store was still big and scary and she didn't want to get lost, even if Nathaniel was mad at her.

They made it to the checkout without incident. Dawn went up on tip-toe to watch the food move towards the checker on the little plastic belt. She always loved this part of shopping with Mom, watching the food go over the scanner.

Nathaniel finished unloading the cart and came over to stand beside Dawn, putting his hand on her shoulder. "How are your feet?" he asked.

Dawn craned her head up. Nathaniel didn't seem angry or annoyed with her. Dawn's stomach began to unclench. "They're fine," she said shyly, knowing the woman at the register was watching them.

"Good," Nathaniel said with a smile. Then he turned that smile onto the checker, and the woman almost melted.

Dawn watched the exchange, fascinated. Nathaniel was flirting with the woman, but it seemed automatic. He was like a puppy dog, big eyes and a nice smile and a promise of being interested. Dawn wondered why he was doing it, and if Anita knew he did things like this.

Once the groceries were paid for, Nathaniel pushed the cart, now loaded with bags, to the front entrance. He stopped and knelt beside Dawn again and began to button her jacket.

She wrinkled her nose. "I can do that myself, you know," she informed him.

"I know." Nathaniel wrapped the scarf around her neck. "But I just wanted to make sure you'd be okay on the walk to the car."

Because no one ever did it for you. Luckily, this time Dawn kept her mouth shut, but even the thought alone, coming with a memory of trailing along in the snow, cold and in pain and ashamed, was enough to scare her down to her toes.


Nathaniel noticed that Dawn was shivering by the time they reached the car. "You'll get used to the temperature in winter," he promised as he stowed the last bag in the car. "Do you want to get a hot chocolate?"

Clenching her chattering teeth, Dawn nodded.

Nathaniel closed the car door, but instead of taking Dawn's hand like in the store, he picked her up and settled her on his hip. "Is that okay?" he asked after Dawn was up.

"I guess," Dawn said, unsure what she should do. It made more sense when Anita was carrying her, like Mom used to do. But with Nathaniel... it was just strange. Not bad, but weird. "Are we going far?"

"No, just over there." Nathaniel pointed across the parking lot in the shopping center. "There are a lot of cars and you're so small."

Dawn rested her arm on Nathaniel's shoulder and watched a huge SUV drive past. "Okay," she said after a few moments. "This will be okay."

It was only after she spoke that she realized how pretentious she must sound. Here she was, some little squirt of a kid, telling the adults what was going to happen. On the one hand, she'd done the same thing with Buffy, but Buffy was different.

And right there, in the middle of the parking lot, a wave of powerful homesickness hit Dawn so hard that she wanted to curl up and cry. She knew that she should be strong and alert, trying to figure out what was going on, but how? She didn't know how to be the one in charge of the dangerous situation, that was always Buffy.

She knew she couldn't depend on Buffy to get her out of this, but she didn't know how to stand on her own.

Once they reached the coffee shop, Nathaniel set Dawn down. She smoothed her jacket flat before looking up. "Starbucks?" she blurted out. She grabbed Nathaniel's sleeve. "Hey, we have these where I come from!"

Nathaniel smiled at her as he opened the door. "They have these everywhere."

"That's not what I mean." Dawn glanced around the store. Sure enough, it was laid out exactly the same as the Starbucks back home. Dawn looked at the Starbucks mermaid on the sign, and shivered. Definitely creepy.

Then Dawn's stomach took over. If this was the same as back home, then she knew exactly what drink she would have. Cheered, she hop-skipped to the counter.

"Do you know what you want?" Nathaniel asked Dawn.

"Yup." She smiled up at the lady behind the counter. "May I have a white hot chocolate with raspberry syrup and whipped cream? Please?"

"Of course," the woman said. She glanced at Nathaniel. "Child sized?"

Dawn twisted around to look at Nathaniel. "I can drink a big one," she said.

Nathaniel hesitated before saying, "It would probably be best if you were to get a little cup."

"Oh, all right," Dawn said, rolling her eyes.

The cashier tried to hide a smile. "And what is Dad going to have?"

Nathaniel's face went blank. "Medium black coffee?" he managed to get out.

Once both Nathaniel and Dawn had their drinks, Nathaniel let Dawn pull him over to the big armchairs near the window. Still not used to being this small, Dawn had to set her cup down on the table, then undo her jacket, then climb onto the chair. She missed the days when she was big enough to do all that in one movement.

"How is your drink?" Nathaniel asked once Dawn was seated.

Dawn picked up the cup and took a sip. "Excellent. Full of sugar and fat." She took another sip. "Two of the essential food groups."

"What are the other ones?"

"One's coffee, but I'm not allowed to have caffeine after lunch," Dawn said. "I get..." She tried to think of the right way to describe it.

"Jittery?" Nathaniel supplied.

"Maudlin, the next day, because I can't sleep." Dawn corrected. "There's tears and angst and woe. How's your coffee?"

"Good, thank you for asking." Nathaniel dropped his eyes to the tabletop. "Dawn, what that cashier said..."

"About you being my dad? It's okay," Dawn said. "People used to mistake Giles for my dad all the time, which made more sense, because he's ancient, like forty. He just got all British and flustered but that was okay because it didn't really bother him." Dawn glanced at Nathaniel over the top of her cup. "Unless it wasn't okay with you?"

"No," Nathaniel said hurriedly. "They were just words, it's fine."

Reassured, Dawn went back to her drink. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"When you showed me around the house today, I didn't see your room."

Nathaniel put his cup down. "What do you mean?"

Dawn echoed his movement, then linked her hands in her lap. "I mean, I didn't see your room. You showed me my room, and Anita's room, and everywhere else."

It took Nathaniel a minute to answer. Dawn could almost see the gears working in his brain. "Anita's room is my room," Nathaniel said finally.

Dawn frowned. "Then where does Micah sleep?"

"It's also Micah's room," Nathaniel said.

Dawn's eyes went wide. Really? Three people in a bed like that? Was that allowed?

"It's not usual, but it's the way we do things," Nathaniel said, sounding more unhappy by the second.

"It's okay, it's your life," Dawn said distantly. Well, that explained why Anita had such a huge bed.

A rustling breezed through Dawn's head, followed by the faint scent of rosemary and Anita's muffled voice. "Nathaniel, where the hell are you guys?"

How had Anita found them? Dawn thought she had to work. "Anita?" Dawn said as she turned in her chair, looking for the woman.

There was no one behind her.

Perplexed, Dawn turned back to Nathaniel. If Dawn was confused, that was nothing compared with the astonishment on Nathaniel's face.

The rosemary smell faded as Dawn shivered. Something had just happened that wasn't supposed to happen. But what?


Dear Buffy:

I'm in St. Louis, apparently. Don't ask me how. I didn't plan this and don't know what I'm going to do. If you're reading this, then you found me. If not, then--

Dawn turned her pencil over and erased her rambling first sentence. That was not how she wanted to start the first page of her new journal.

Dear Buffy.

I miss you. I know it's a silly thing to say, but it's true. I hope you're okay. I hope everyone's okay, including Spike. Did he get hurt when he fell off the tower? I know he's probably fine. He's a vampire and he always used to brag that nothing could keep him down.

I'm in St. Louis now. It's December, not June, and it's cold here. They have a Starbucks, but no Count Chocula at the supermarket. And they have werewolves and vampires and ghouls, too. The cops even know about them! Anita is a federal marshal and she is supposed to take care of the vampires and she raises zombies too, it's like her job.

The cops were going to make me stay in the hospital because all the foster families think I'm evil, but Anita said I can stay with her. She has a nice house and the biggest bathroom you'll ever see and they even let me have my own room. Nathaniel (her boyfriend) let me get a raspberry hot chocolate after lunch and I didn't even get all hyper.

And I look five years old.

You have to come find me and fix this. If I have to be five for real, I'm not going to be happy. I already did this!

Okay, not really. But I remember that I did and that was enough.

Dawn chewed on the pencil for a minute, then added one last line.

I love you, and I'm sorry.

Satisfied, Dawn set down her pencil and slid off her chair. "Can I help?" she asked Nathaniel, skipping over to his side.

Nathaniel glanced down. "You don't have to."

"I know." Dawn went up on tiptoes, careful not to touch the stove. "But I want to."

Nathaniel tapped his spoon on the side of the pasta pot. "Would you like to make the salad?"

"Sure!" Dawn hurried to drag a kitchen chair over to the sink to wash her hands. Nathaniel had already set out the vegetables for dinner on the counter. "Can I have a knife?"

Nathaniel spun around. "Why?"

"To cut up the lettuce." Dawn didn't understand why Nathaniel looked so freaked. "What did you think I was going to do?"

"Nothing." Nathaniel set down his spoon and came over. "Why don't you just rip the lettuce up?"

"Why can't I have a knife?" Dawn repeated. "I won't cut myself or anything."

Nathaniel gripped the edge of the counter and took a deep breath. "Dawn, I know you think-- I know you're very mature for your age, but I think that it might be dangerous for you to use a knife."

"Dangerous?" Dawn examined her hands. True, her fingers were tiny, but she had been okay with the pen. Biting her lower lip, Dawn glanced back up at Nathaniel. "Really?"

"Yes." Nathaniel picked up the head of lettuce and deftly twisted off the bottom stem. "You can rip it up and to the same with the other vegetables."

"Okay." Subdued, Dawn started tearing apart the lettuce. It wasn't as easy as Nathaniel had made it look. Maybe it was because he was a wereleopard and had adult-sized hands. But Dawn remembered being stronger than this.

Maybe because I was taller and had more muscle and more fine motor control?

Annoyed, Dawn broke a carrot into pieces, and started chewing on the remaining thick end. I hate this. I hate not being sure of what I'm doing or what I can do. She took another angry bite of carrot.

"Dawn?"

"What?" Belatedly, Dawn realized that she sounded like a... well, an annoyed child. "Sorry."

"No, it's okay." Nathaniel put the pasta pot in the sink and ran the cold water. "Is there anything I can do?"

Dawn shook her head. "I think I'm angry, but I'm not sure."

She wasn't sure what kind of reaction she was expecting, but it certainly wasn't what she got. Nathaniel nodded in understanding. "Whenever I got put into a new foster home, I wasn't sure what I felt."

"Oh." Dawn watched the water flow out of the tap for a minute. "How did you deal?"

"I... I just did." Nathaniel leaned against the counter. "I remember thinking that if there was someone at the home that cared, it'd be all right."

"You mean someone like Anita?"

Nathaniel turned off the tap. "There's no one like Anita. But sort of. Someone who would get angry on my behalf."

"Buffy used to get mad for me," Dawn whispered.

"Nicky used to protect me." Nathaniel sounded so sad that Dawn wanted to give him a hug, but she wasn't sure what he would do. There had been that thing in the supermarket, when Dawn somehow knew Nicky's name and that he died and Nathaniel had been left all alone.

From the entrance hall came the sound of the front door opening. Nathaniel tensed for a moment, then relaxed against the counter.

"Are you guys here?" Anita called.

Dawn was afraid to answer, in case this was like in the coffee shop and Anita wasn't really there, but Nathaniel smiled. "We're in the kitchen."

Anita appeared in the doorway moment later, shedding her coat as she walked. Right behind her was a taller man who Dawn recognized immediately. "Hi, Detective Zerbrowski," Dawn said. "Hi, Anita. Did you find anything at the cemetery? How's Miranda?

Anita sighed as she made her way across the kitchen. "We didn't find anything new, and Miranda's fine," she said, touching Nathaniel's arm as she passed him on the way to the coffee maker.

"So the screaming contagious insanity was only temporary screaming contagious insanity?" Dawn pressed.

Anita ignored Zerbrowski's incredulous stare. "Yes. So, did you two have fun this afternoon?"

"Yeah, we went shopping and Nathaniel bought me a notebook and a hot chocolate," Dawn chattered. "I'm making salad."

"Looks yummy." Anita poured coffee into two mugs and carried one over to Zerbrowski. "Nathaniel bought you a notebook?"

"Uh huh." Dawn nodded at the table and the book next to Zerbrowski.

"Sounds a lot more fun than we had," Zerbrowski said. He reached for the book. "Can I look at it?"

Dawn frowned. "I... It was going to be my journal. Like a diary."

Zerbrowski pulled back his hand. "Have you already written in it?"

Dawn chewed on her lip. Zerbrowski had been really nice to her the previous day, and he'd only been trying to help her, like Anita had been trying to help her.

And she really hadn't written anything bad in the book. Nothing about the Slayer or the Key or anything.

Wiping her hands on her shirt, Dawn climbed down from her perch by the sink and walked past Anita to the table. She picked up the notebook and carried it over to Zerbrowski. "You can read it if you like. It's just silly stuff."

Zerbrowski smiled at her, kind of like the way Giles smiled when Buffy had done something nice. "I'm honored."

Dawn ducked her head. "I only had time to write one entry."

"Still, that..." Zerbrowski's voice trailed off as he opened the book to the first page. "Did Nathaniel write this?"

"No, I did." Dawn peered over the top of the book. The words were just as she left them. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong." Zerbrowski handed the book up to Anita. "You write very well for a little girl."

Dawn felt the color drain from her cheeks. She'd done it again, been too much like a teenager. She was never going to get this right, and they'd find out that she was lying and this was all her fault.

Anita knelt to hand Dawn back her journal. "Do you remember what I said to you this afternoon?" Anita asked.

Dawn shook her head.

"I said that you were a very special little girl," Anita reminded her. "You're special and smart and we're going to get through this together. Promise."

Dawn smiled weakly.

"So," Zerbrowski said, clapping his hands together. "What's for dinner?"

Anita rolled her eyes. "I thought you told Katie you were going to be home for diner."

"So?"

"We're having pasta and salad," Nathaniel told Zerbrowski.

"We were going to have cookies for desert, but Nathaniel said I'd had too much sugar today and we could make them tomorrow," Dawn added, hugging her journal to her chest.

For some reason, Zerbrowski's expression fell. "Better make them early, then."

"Why?" Nathaniel demanded. He threw his dishtowel on the counter.

Anita stood up. "Nathaniel--"

"Social services is coming over to make sure Dawn's all right," Zerbrowski interrupted.

Nathaniel clenched his jaw. "Are they going to take her away?"

What? Dawn whipped around to look at Zerbrowski. They couldn't take her away from Anita, could they? Where would she go?

"Probably not," Zerbrowski said. He put his elbows on his knees and looked directly at Dawn. "Do you like it here?"

Dawn nodded wordlessly.

"Good." Zerbrowski stared at Dawn in a way that was very intense and a little intimidating, but Dawn curled up her toes and stared back. She'd stared down vamps and demons... okay, Spike, but still, he'd been like the Scourge of Europe. Or at least the Scourge's apprentice. That had to count for something. "I'll talk to Social Services. Don't know what they'll say, but I've got a friend in the department."

"Thanks, Zerbrowski." Anita pushed her hair back from her forehead. "Tell Katie I said hi, would you?"

"Sure thing." Zerbrowski pushed himself to his feet and gave Dawn a little wave. "Have a good night, kids."

Anita went with the detective to let him out. In the ensuing silence, Dawn asked, "Is this bad?"

Nathaniel wouldn't look at her. "It's not bad, not automatically. They'll want to make sure you're safe, not in any danger." The bitterness was well-masked.

"But I'm not in any danger," Dawn protested as Anita came back into the room. "Right? No danger?"

"I said we'd keep you safe and I meant that." Anita dropped into the chair beside Dawn. "Me and Nathaniel and Micah."

Dawn hugged her book tighter. Was this what Buffy had to go through with Child Services in Sunnydale after Mom died, to keep Dawn safe?

A tiny tendril of worry snaked its way into Dawn's stomach. She'd been dropped in a scary new world, and the only thing that she had to protect herself was Anita. What would happen to Dawn if Anita wasn't allowed to take care of her any more?

Chapter Text

Screaming.

Screaming and pain and terror and under it all, ripping metal, sharp and hard and hot hot HOT!

 

The light switched on in Dawn's room, but she couldn't stop screaming, couldn't stop the fear and the anger from taking over.

Distantly, she knew someone had picked her up, was talking to her, but all Dawn could do was scream.

Time lost all meaning as the foreign emotions poured over her. Hard metal cut at her flesh and broke her bones, fire burned her skin, and everything was fear and pain.

Finally, something snapped to ease the pain slightly. Then something else snapped, then another, like balloons popping in a fire. The pain retreated, but the fear remained.

Dawn's screaming caught in her throat, and she sucked in a ragged breath before the frantic sobbing began.

Warm arms held Dawn safe, a voice murmuring gentle words of safety and of sleep. Dawn could only lie limp and cry. Something was gone, irretrievably broken, and she didn't know what it was, only that she'd never be able to put the pieces back together again.

Finally, the warm voice and the fear swallowed Dawn up into sleep.


The warm smell of coffee pulled Dawn awake. She opened her eyes wide and looked around. Instead of being in her bed in Anita's house, where she'd gone to sleep the previous night, she lay sprawled on the big white couch in the living room, her head cushioned on Anita's leg. Anita was still asleep on the couch cushions. Dawn turned her head and saw Nathaniel curled up on the floor, covered with a thin blanket.

Dawn only had a moment to wonder where Micah was when she heard a soft muffled voice drifting in from the kitchen.

It was all so normal that Dawn could almost believe the horrible thing the night before had been a dream. Except that her throat hurt from screaming, and she could still feel the hot steel breaking every bone in her body. Thinking about what had happened made her stomach clench painfully. She pushed those thoughts away.

Without waking Anita, Dawn slipped off the couch and wandered across the living room, rubbing her eyes. She passed through the kitchen door when the floor tilted slightly and pushed her into a wall.

Micah caught Dawn before she fell. "What's wrong?"

Dawn glared at the wall. "It got in my way."

"Did you hurt yourself?" Micah asked. Dawn shook her head. "Good."

Dawn shrugged, dropping her eyes to her hands. Sometime in the night, she'd lost the bandages on her wrists. The angry red welts on her skin showed stark against her pale skin and the bright yellow of her pajamas. Something about the red marks made her stomach twist even tighter.

Micah picked Dawn up and carried her over to the table. She didn't object to being carried, although it still felt strange. Strange, but safe. Had Hank ever done this with her? Dawn couldn't remember, but then her fake memories of Hank Summers had always been very hazy.

Micah sat Dawn in a kitchen chair. "How do you feel?" he asked.

Dawn tucked her knees under her chin. "I don't know."

"I need you to think about it," Micah said, gentle but insistent. His eyes were almost yellow in the kitchen lights, and Dawn could only meet his alien gaze for a few seconds.

"I, um... My wrists are fine." Dawn swallowed. "But my throat hurts." Another pause. "And I'm cold."

Micah smiled. "We can fix that." He stood up and grabbed a blanket off a nearby chair. Dawn let him wrap the cotton around her, tucking it tight under her toes. "How's that?"

Dawn burrowed into the blanket. "Better."

Micah brought Dawn a glass of water. "Try to drink some of this for your throat."

Dawn snaked an arm out of the blanket and picked up the small glass. The water was nice and cold, and it soothed her ragged throat on the way down. After finishing half the glass, Dawn set it down on the table and pulled her arm back under the blanket. "Can I have some coffee?"

Micah raised his eyebrows. "Were you allowed to drink coffee at home?" he asked, sipping from his mug.

"Uh huh." Dawn faltered under his questioning gaze. "Okay, not often. Only as a treat."

"A treat?" Micah said. "I think we could all use a treat today."

"Why today?" Dawn asked.

Micah pause before taking the milk out of the fridge. "It's going to be busy," he said. "And you've had a rough few days."

Dawn didn't disagree. While Micah heated a mug of milk, Dawn fiddled with the edge of the blanket. She liked it when things were like this, quiet and half-asleep, no evil and no danger. She wondered when Micah had gotten dressed. Anita and Nathaniel were still in their pajamas, but Micah wore khaki pants and a button-up shirt, with his hair back in a ponytail. Dawn wished her hair was tied back, instead of flying all over the place.

"Do you like chocolate?" Micah asked, bringing Dawn out of her daze.

"Of course!" Dawn said. "I like all kinds of chocolate."

"That's what Nathaniel said." Micah stirred chocolate syrup into the warm milk, then reached for the coffee pot. He poured a tiny amount of coffee into Dawn's mug, then set the pot down and brought the drink over to the table. "He told us all about your shopping trip."

Dawn scooted closer to the table to take a cautionary sip. It was really good. "Did he tell you about how the lady at the coffee shop thought he was my dad?"

"He did," Micah said with a ghost of a smile. "He said that it didn't bother you."

Dawn shrugged. After taking another sip of her drink, she licked her lips and said, "Hank left Mom like, five years ago. He hardly ever came around after we moved to Sunnydale. Once, he got Buffy tickets to the Ice Capades, and they were going to go, and then he totally didn't show up. Mom was so mad."

"It sounds like you never really knew him," Micah said as he sat down.

"Yeah." Dawn picked at a scratch on the wooden table, before she realized that she probably shouldn't wreck Anita's furniture. She pulled her hand back into her lap. "Sometimes it feels like I never even met him." She bit her lip. "Willow said I look a lot like Mom, and I like it better that way."

"Who's Willow?"

Dawn hesitated. It was fine if she talked about Willow and Tara and everyone; they were in a different dimension and they wouldn't mind. It wasn't any different from telling them about Buffy and Mom. "Willow's a friend of Buffy. They were in high school and then they were roommates in college. Willow's totally smart and she taught me to play chess and she always helped me with my geometry because she's so smart."

Micah frowned slightly. "Your geometry?" he repeated.

Dawn snapped her mouth shut. She was doing it again! Going off about teenage stuff, talking about things she shouldn't know.

"It's okay, Dawn," Micah said. He pulled his chair around the table until he was beside Dawn. "It's perfectly fine to be smart, and it's all right to be you. You can be yourself, it's safe here."

Dawn knew he was just trying to help, but it didn't make her feel any better. If she told everyone that she was fifteen, and that she was a mystical ball of energy, and she kept hearing impossible things, they'd lock her away wherever they put the crazy people in this world. "I guess."

Micah sighed. "Dawn, about what happened last night--"

He was interrupted by something rapping against the glass door on the far side of the kitchen.

Dawn let out a shriek and half-jumped, half-fell off her chair. Her mug tipped over and dumped warm milk all over the kitchen table.

"Dawn, it's okay!" Micah was on his feet, and Dawn found herself hiding behind him. She didn't know why she was so terrified, but at that moment, she needed something between her and whatever had knocked on the glass. "It's fine, you're okay."

Dawn peeked out from behind Micah. Someone was at the back door. He was tall and imposing and sort of scary-looking, but frankly, Dawn had seen worse. Heck, Spike was scarier than the man at the backdoor. Dawn didn't understand why she was so terrified. "Who is it?"

"That's Merle," Micah said. He picked Dawn up, and if she wrapped her arms around his neck a little too tight, he didn't complain. "I asked him to come over, he's a friend of mine."

Dawn held onto Micah, staring at Merle through the glass as her heart rate slowed. On second examination, Merle didn't seem quite so bad. He looked like a biker, but not a scary one.

"Would it be okay if I let him in?" Micah asked after a few moments. Dawn nodded wordlessly. She held on tight as Micah crossed the kitchen to open the door.

The tall man entered in a flurry of cold air. He stamped his feet on the mat as Micah closed the door. "Micah," he said in greeting.

"Merle." The two men shared a glance. "This is Dawn." Micah twisted his head to look down at Dawn. "Dawn, would you like to meet Merle?"

Dawn made herself uncurl and sat up as straight as she could on Micah's arm. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Merle." He had to be a mister, right? He was so distinguished and forbidding and stuff.

Merle nodded his head at Dawn. "It's not 'mister', just Merle. If I can call you Dawn."

"Okay," Dawn said, feeling inexplicably shy. "Why did Micah said Nathaniel could call you if he had any trouble with me yesterday when everyone else had to leave?"

"He said that?" Merle glanced at Micah. "Well, it might be because I have some kids of my own."

"Are they around here?" Dawn asked, perking up at the thought of talking to someone younger than twenty. "Can I meet them?"

Merle shook his head. "They're all grown up now." He seemed sad when he spoke of his children. An idea drifted past Dawn, that two were in college and one had been a waitress, but Merle hadn't spoken to them in years, since before--

A dark image flashed across Dawn's mind. Quickly, she pressed her face against Micah's neck and clung tight.

Micah put his hand on Dawn's back, humming a wordless tune in her ear. It was like a cat's purr, only octaves deeper. The sound banished the evil image to the back of Dawn's head. Whatever it was, it was in the past and couldn't hurt her.

"Is this why you called me to bring over a paper?" Merle asked softly.

"Yes." Micah hesitated. "Why do you sound surprised?"

Dawn lifted her head, sniffling and wiping her nose on her sleeve, to see Merle hand Micah a newspaper. "I thought you called me about Anita, after what happened last night."

"What happened?" Micah demanded.

Merle unfolded the paper and laid it on the kitchen island. Micah moved around so he could see the front page, and Dawn was in the perfect position to see the top story.

Train Derailment Kills 87

Dawn's jaw dropped open. Her eyes flew past the first few paragraphs, skimming over numbers and injuries, to get to the next big paragraph heading.

The derailment on the Texas Eagle line occurred at 3:12 a.m. Investigators do not yet know why over five minutes elapsed before the central rail house learned of the accident. A spokesman for the St. Louis Fire Department said that with the heat of the blaze and severity of the impact, it is unlikely that a faster response would have saved lives.

Writing covered the whole page, but Dawn couldn't read any more. She squirmed hard in Micah's grip, twisting until Micah let go. She hit the ground with a thud, bare feet scrabbling on the kitchen floor. Ignoring Micah's questioning voice, Dawn ran out of the kitchen, through the living room and to the stairs.

"Dawn?" Anita called, but Dawn didn't stop, not until she was in her room. She clambered over her bed and squeezed into the space between the bed and the wall.

This isn't happening, this isn't real, Dawn thought frantically, curling up into a ball. I didn't feel eighty-seven people die, this isn't happening!

All Dawn could think about was how scared she was-- no, how scared they had been. Scared, in pain, burning, and knowing no one was coming to save them.

Was I supposed to save them? Was this like a test about saving people and I failed and all those people are dead? Because of me?

Dawn squeezed back her tears, back into the growing ache in her chest. If this was really her fault, then she had no right to cry.

Buffy would have saved those people, just like she saved almost everyone at Graduation Day, or when she and Xander saved the day with the bazooka in the mall. Buffy always saved things, while Dawn tore things apart. Mom didn't get sick until after the monks made Dawn. Tara had been hurt because of Dawn. Spike and Buffy had both fallen off the Tower in trying to save Dawn.

It was all her fault.

"Dawn?" The bed moved away from the wall. "Dawn, are you okay?"

Dawn lifted her head to glare at Anita. "Do I look okay?" she demanded. She hugged her legs up to her chest. Her planned angry words faltered as she looked at Anita. The woman's hair was a mess, and even though she'd had some sleep, there were dark circles under her eyes and she looked exhausted. "Are you okay?" Dawn said in a much smaller voice.

Anita squeezed closer to Dawn behind the bed. "I'm not the one you need to worry about," Anita said. "Micah said you saw the newspaper?"

Dawn nodded. "Are they sure nothing could have saved those people?"

Anita gave her a funny look. "Dawn, this isn't your fault."

Dawn pressed her forehead against her knees and didn't answer.

Anita muttered something under her breath. "Dawn, what happened last night?"

The door squeaked . Dawn didn't know how, but she just knew without looking up that Micah and Nathaniel had come into the room.

The pieces of the puzzle were starting to fall into place. Dawn clutched at her pajamas, not wanting to believe.

"Dawn, Nathaniel told us about what happened yesterday," Anita continued softly. "He said that you seemed to know things... well, things that you couldn't know. As if you hear things that the rest of us can't hear."

Too scared to move, Dawn tried to breathe normally, but she couldn't get enough air.

"Anita, she's terrified," Nathaniel interrupted.

"Dawn?" Anita's hand settled on Dawn's shoulder. "Dawn, you don't have to be afraid. You're safe here, remember? I told you we'd keep you safe."

Anita lifted Dawn onto the bed, rubbing Dawn's back. Dawn took big gulping breaths, transferring her death-hold to Anita's t-shirt. If she closed her eyes and ignored all of her senses, she could almost imagine that it was Mom holding her, promising to keep her safe.

But Mom was dead, and she couldn't help Dawn anymore.

Dawn rubbed impatiently at her teary eyes. Mom wouldn't want Dawn to be a big cry baby.

"You don't have to be afraid," Anita said after a few minutes. "You can tell us anything you want."

Dawn peeked around Anita's shoulder. Micah and Nathaniel were standing in the doorway. Far from being angry at Dawn, they looked concerned.

Suddenly conscious that Micah and Nathaniel had seen her acting like a five-year-old, Dawn rubbed at her eyes and sat up. She might look like a baby, but she didn't have to act like one. "Sorry."

"Don't be sorry." Anita pushed a strand of hair back from Dawn's cheek. "There's a lot going on."

Dawn nodded. "Okay." She bit her lip, trying to think of something to say that they'd believe. "I don't... I don't know what's happening."

The room fell silent while Dawn tried to think of something, anything, to explain what was going on. Anita pulled her legs up onto the bed. "Can I tell you a story?" she said into the quiet. Dawn nodded. "When I was eight, my Aunt Katherine died."

That was certainly not what Dawn expected to hear. She frowned slightly as she moved closer to Anita.

"And after she died, at the funeral, I could see..." Anita looked down at her hands, as nervous as Dawn had ever seen her. "I saw her soul, hovering over the casket at the funeral."

"You can see souls?" Dawn asked, eyes huge. "What do they look like?"

Something eased in Anita's expression. "I don't really see it, I just know it's there. I know where it is, and my brain tries to fill in the details."

"That's neat." Dawn nudged closer, pressing up against Anita's side. Anita put her arm around Dawn's back. "How can you do that?"

Anita took a minute before answering. "It has something to do with my affinity for the dead." She shook her head. "I mean--"

"I know what it means," Dawn said quickly. "Is this how you made the zombie? In the graveyard?"

"Yes, it is." Anita glanced over at Nathaniel and Micah, then focused back on Dawn. "It started when I was thirteen. My dog Jenny died, and we buried her in the backyard. Then, one night..." Anita took a deep breath. "One night I woke up and she was in bed with me, watching me."

Dawn wrinkled her nose. "Was it all gross?"

"Gross?" Anita appeared startled by the question. She sat up a little straighter. "No, she wasn't rotting. She was like all my other zombies, with empty eyes and--"

"Anita, I don't think Dawn needs to hear these details," Micah interrupted.

"Are there details?" Dawn almost bounced on the bed. "I want to hear details."

"Maybe later," Anita offered. "The reason I told you this, Dawn, is because..." She took a deep breath and tried again. "I know what it's like to be different, to have things happen to you that don't make any sense, that no one else can explain. You can tell us anything you want, about what you think is happening to you."

Dawn cuddled up to Anita while she thought hard. It sounded like Anita had strange powers too, and she didn't seem too weird or living on the fringes of society. And she'd sworn to protect Dawn. That had to mean something.

Picking at the seam on Anita's shirt, Dawn came to a decision. "I think... I think I'm hearing things I shouldn't." When no one said anything, Dawn continued. "It didn't happen before, and I'm not sure I know what's going on."

"What do you mean, it didn't happen before?" Anita asked. "Before what?"

Dawn craned her neck back and looked up at Anita. "Before the graveyard."

"Oh."

"And I don't even know what's happening, which is so dumb," Dawn said. "I could hear that stupid cop saying back things about you when no one else could in the hospital, and I heard you and Detective Zerbrowski talking way down the hall, but I wasn't hearing it here--" She pulled at her ear. "I was hearing it here." Dawn pointed at her chest. Then she slumped back against Anita. "And I keep having feelings that aren't my feelings, and I knew what Nathaniel was thinking in the store yesterday."

"That's a lot to have happen," Anita said. She didn't sound angry, and Dawn relaxed a little. "Is that all?"

"There's more," Nathaniel said, drawing their attention. "When you contacted me through the marks yesterday, Anita, Dawn heard you."

"In the coffee shop?" Dawn frowned. "You sounded mad."

"I wasn't mad," Anita protested. "I was trying to figure out why no one was answering the phone at home."

Dawn tugged at Anita's shirt. "I didn't mean to."

"Didn't mean to what?"

"Listen in." Dawn knew she wasn't supposed to eavesdrop, but was it really her fault that Anita had been so loud? Still, Buffy used to get so mad when Dawn listened in. Better clear this up with Anita now.

"Oh, Dawn, I know." Anita stretched out her legs across the bed. It looked more comfortable than being all curled up in a ball, so Dawn echoed the movement. The corner of Anita's mouth twitched, but then she sobered. "Dawn, about last night..."

Dawn looked at her feet. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Dawn--"

"When was it?" Dawn interrupted. She stared as hard as she could at her feet, because if she looked anywhere else, she might fall apart. The feelings of the previous night bubbled up in her, all the fear and pain and anger. It couldn't be her fault. She didn't make that train crash. "When did I start screaming?"

"About quarter after three, this morning," Nathaniel said. Out of the corner of her eye, Dawn saw him kneel on the carpet beside the bed. "Why do you want to know?"

The newspaper said the train derailed at 3:12 a.m. If Dawn hadn't started screaming until after that, then it wasn't her fault. It wasn't a test to make her save everyone. She didn't kill those people.

She just felt them die.

"What happened last night?" Anita asked her after a minute. "Can you talk about it?"

Dawn didn't want to tell anyone, ever, about what she'd felt. If that was what it was like to die, Dawn would have given anything to carve out that piece of her memory. "I think I felt it happen." She looked up warily, not sure what reaction her words would receive. "How come that happened? I don't know them and they were far away, right?"

"The site of the accident is only five miles from here," Micah said.

"Oh." Dawn shuffled forward on the bed, until her legs hung off the side. Her feet were still cold.

"Did it scare you?" Nathaniel winced after the words came out of his mouth.

"Yes," Dawn said, feeling a little angry and knowing that the emotion was entirely hers. "And it's stupid and I want it to stop!"

"It might not be that easy," Anita said.

"Make it easy!" Dawn demanded. She slipped off the bed and stood in the middle of the room. She wanted to kick something, break something into little pieces. Was this how Buffy felt when she was fighting vampires, this anger? Dawn stomped over to the window. "I want to go back to the way it was before!"

She wanted to be fifteen again, at home in Sunnydale with Buffy. She wanted Mom alive, and Tara sane, and Buffy happy.

Maybe if Dawn had never been made, all that would have happened.

Anita pulled back the curtain, bathing the room in the bright morning sunlight. "I can't make things the way they used to be," she said, kneeling beside Dawn. "But I can promise you this. We'll do everything we can to help you."

Dawn ran her fingers over the windowsill before looking up at Anita. "Why didn't you feel it?"

Anita frowned. "Feel what?"

"Feel the dead people on the train. Did you?"

Shaking her head, Anita tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "I didn't feel them last night. I deal with the dead, Dawn, not the dying."

Dawn stared out at the snowy front yard. She wanted to tell Anita how scared the people on the train were, how much it hurt, how fast it happened... but the memories didn't want to come out into words.

"Who's that?" Dawn asked, spotting movement in the front yard. She pointed at the woman coming up the walk.

"I don't know," Anita said. "I've never seen her before."

Nathaniel hurried over. "It's got to be the social worker," he said, voice rising in nervousness. "Why is she here now? I didn't have time to clean the house, and downstairs--"

"Nathaniel, stop," Micah ordered as the doorbell rang.

"But we're not even dressed!"

"We'll be fine," Micah said firmly. He took hold of the younger man's arm and guided him to the door. "Go downstairs and get dressed. I'll answer the door. Anita, can you get Dawn dressed?"

"Yes, but--"

"Good." He gave Anita a look that Dawn couldn't understand, then pulled Nathaniel into the hall.

Dawn and Anita exchanged glances. "Is this bad?" Dawn asked.

"No, not bad," Anita said, although she sounded rather doubtful. "We'll make it work. Come on, what are you going to wear today?"

"I dunno." Dawn sat on the bed while Anita went to the closet. "Why was Nathaniel going to clean the house? Isn't it already clean?"

"I have no idea." Anita removed a couple of hangers from the railing. "Here, put these on."

Dawn glared at the tan denim jumper and the blue turtleneck. "Those are little kid clothes!"

Anita pulled a pair of tights out of the drawer and tossed them on the bed. "What's wrong with them? You tried them on in the store and liked them."

"Yeah, but they're so--" Dawn struggled to find the right words to express her horror. "They're so cute!"

Anita sighed. "Dawn, there's a social worker downstairs, a mess in the kitchen and I'm not even dressed. Can you please not do this?"

Dawn crossed her arms over her chest. "Do what?"

Anita opened her mouth, then snapped it shut quickly. She crossed the room and knelt in front of Dawn. "Look, I know you've been through a lot. We all have, in the last couple of days." She had a pleading look on her face. "Can we please work together on this right now? We can talk about the clothes after the social worker leaves, okay?"

Dawn looked over at the clothes. They still looked like little girl clothes. "Okay," she said in a small voice.

"Dawn, I'm not--" Anita shook her head. "Sometimes you act so mature, I forget you're so little."

Dawn concentrated on pulling on the tights. Anita wasn't going to believe that Dawn was really fifteen. "It's okay."

"No, it's not." Anita helped Dawn into the turtleneck, then into the jumper. "I've never really dealt much with children."

"You're doing a good job," Dawn said, turning around so Anita could do up her buttons. "You all are." She paused. "Even if no one will let me drink coffee."

Anita pulled Dawn's hair back into a ponytail. "Little girls don't need coffee."

"But coffee is an anti-oxidant," Dawn said with a straight face. "It's healthy."

Anita turned Dawn around. "You're too young to need antioxidants, and you are far too young to drink coffee" Anita pointed out. "Okay, you look presentable." Dawn made a face. "Stop it."

Dawn straightened her shoulders. "Are you ready?"

Anita raised an eyebrow. "Do I look ready?"

"Nope." Dawn smoothed down the denim of the skirt. "But you have an excuse."

"What's that?"

"I'm a total freak?"

Dawn said it in a light-hearted way. She wasn't expecting Anita to get so angry, so fast. "Dawn, you are not a freak," Anita said. She took hold of Dawn's hands and gave them a tiny squeeze. "You're a little girl with very special abilities. You are in no way a freak."

Dawn didn't know how to respond. She didn't want to be a freak, but everything she did, everything that happened to her, seemed to say otherwise.

Anita stood up. "Come on, let's go downstairs," she said with all the enthusiasm of someone facing the firing squad.

Dawn felt the same way, and most of those feelings were her own.


The social worker was sitting with Nathaniel and Micah in the living room when Dawn and Anita came down the stairs. Dawn wanted to act all mature, but she found she was gripping Anita's hand as tight she could.

"Hello, Dawn," the strange woman said. "I'm Miss Wendell."

Anita took another step forward, but Dawn stopped in her tracks, which put the woman between Dawn and the social worker. Dawn knew her manners, knew she should say hello, but she couldn't speak. This was the person who might take Dawn away from Anita and Micah and Nathaniel. Even though Dawn had only known them for a day, they were the only thing she knew in this unfamiliar world.

"Dawn?" Anita put her hand on Dawn's shoulder. "You okay?"

Dawn took a deep breath. With a nod, she let go of Anita's hand and walked across the living room to the couch where Nathaniel and Micah sat. Micah helped her climb onto the cushions between the two men.

Dawn didn't really want to say anything, but Joyce Summers had raised her better than that. "Hello, Miss Wendell."

"I'm going to change," Anita said after she gave Micah a look.

"We'll wait for you to come back," Miss Wendell said, ducking her head to the papers on top of the briefcase on her lap.

Anita turned on her heel and vanished down the hall.

The house grew quiet in Anita's absence. Dawn kicked her feet, encased in brand new cream-colored tights, and watched Miss Wendell. The social worker didn't look any older than Anita or Micah, and it made Dawn wonder. She wasn't scared of Anita or Micah, so why was she scared of this social worker? Anita said she'd protect Dawn, and that probably included not letting Dawn be taken away.

With that realization under her metaphorical belt, Dawn felt a little better. She pulled her ponytail over her shoulder, wishing she'd had time to brush her hair.

Miss Wendell shuffled some of the papers on her lap, flicking little glances up at Dawn. Dawn pushed down the urge to tell the woman to take a picture, it'd last longer. It was probably a bad idea to lip off to a social worker. Probably like a teacher.

Growing bored, Dawn leaned over and tugged on Micah's sleeve. She waited until he bent down. "Where is Merle?" Dawn whispered.

"He went home," Micah whispered back.

"Oh." Dawn sat back on the couch.

Finally, Anita hurried back into the room. She was in jeans and a sweater, and her socks didn't match. "Did I miss anything?" Anita asked, crossing the room to sit on the edge of the couch next to Micah.

"Not at all, Miss Blake." Miss Wendell shuffled some more papers, and totally missed Anita's glare. Micah squeezed Anita's knee in warning. "As I was telling Mr. Callahan and Mr. Graison before, we've run into a little problem with finding Dawn a place in foster care."

Dawn went very still. Please, I want to stay here! she prayed.

"What's the end result?" Micah asked calmly, slipping his hand casually off Anita's knee.

Miss Wendell pulled out one paper and place it on top of the stack. "The end result is, we have nowhere to put Dawn."

"She can stay here," Nathaniel said, speaking for the first time.

"I'm not sure this is the right environment for a young child," Miss Wendell said.

"What exactly does that mean?" Anita demanded.

Miss Wendell was gripping her briefcase so tightly that her knuckles had gone white. "I've spoken with Detective Zerbrowski," she said carefully. "He told me that neither of you... I mean the three of you, have children, or have ever been the primary caregiver to a child, let alone one who has been through traumatic circumstances."

"No one else wants her, so why can't we keep her?" Nathaniel asked.

"There are protocols and regulations that need to be met," Miss Wendell insisted. A chill broke over Dawn, worries and anxiety in the pit of her stomach, cold and sour like failure.

It's not me, it's not me! Dawn told herself. It had to be someone in the room. The feeling wasn't like anyone she knew, which left...

Why is Miss Wendell so worried?

"Why can't we be registered as emergency care?" Nathaniel asked. "Don't you have that in your forms somewhere?"

"What's emergency care?" Dawn asked, turning to Nathaniel.

"It's a kind of foster care that can fill as a stop-gap measure when there's nowhere else for an at-risk child to go," Nathaniel said softly.

"That's a good idea," Dawn declared. She turned to Miss Wendell. "We'll do that."

The social worker. cleared her throat. "Mr. Graison, from the background information I've gathered from Detective Zerbrowski, you're not suitable under state regulations to be a foster parent."

"What background?" Dawn demanded.

"It's not important," Nathaniel said, not taking his eyes off the social worker. "I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about Anita and Micah. What about their backgrounds? They're perfectly fine."

Miss Wendell cast Dawn a sideways look. "Perhaps it would be best if Dawn were to not be here for this part of the conversation," she said.

"Fine. We'll make breakfast," Nathaniel said, standing up.

"I want to stay here," Dawn said. She looked at Micah and Anita. "Please?"

"Why don't you give is a few minutes, Dawn?" Micah said.

"Because it's about me!"

"Dawn, let's go."

Pouting, Dawn let Nathaniel take her by the hand into the kitchen. Nathaniel continued over to the fridge. "Are you really going to make breakfast?" Dawn asked.

"Yes." Nathaniel pulled eggs and bacon out of the icebox. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Don't you want to hear what they're saying?"

Nathaniel turned on the oven. "It's better if I'm not involved in this."

He sounded so bitter, so angry at himself, that Dawn wanted to slap him. Or poke him. Or maybe give him a big hug.

But she could do all of that later. For now, Dawn had to figure out how to hear things she wasn't supposed to.

Luckily for Dawn, the three adults in the living room had loud voices.

"There are these forms that need to be filled out," Miss Wendell was saying. "We'll need to run a criminal history check and a credit check. And we will need references from people of standing in the community."

"That's it?" Micah asked.

"Yes." Miss Wendell hesitated before saying, "There are different rules for emergency and long-tem foster care. If we can't find Dawn a permanent placement within a week, we will need to find her a new emergency placement."

"Why can't she stay here?" Anita demanded. "If it's longer than a week? You can't just go uprooting her because of the bureaucracy!"

"Anita," Micah chided softly. "Let's go one day at a time. We all want what's best for Dawn."

Anita's silence was expressive.

Miss Wendell coughed delicately. "I'll need to talk to your references today, to begin processing Dawn in the system."

"I guess you can use Zerbrowski as one of mine," Micah said. "And also Franklin Callahan."

"A relative?" Miss Wendell sounded doubtful.

"He's my father, yes. But he's been sheriff of my hometown for almost fifteen years." Micah gave the woman the address and phone number of his father. Privately, Dawn thought that having a dad who was a sheriff was so cool. Micah probably got away with all kind of stuff... unless his dad expected him to be all 'upstanding citizen'.

"And yourself, Miss Blake?"

Dawn was pretty sure she imagined Anita's growl. "Zerbrowski said he'd be a reference for me."

"We'll need at least one more."

Concentrating hard on listening, Dawn caught a faint mumbled whisper from Anita. "Edward?" An image popped into Dawn's head, a blond man with scary blue eyes. "What a fucking disaster." Clearly, Dawn heard Anita say, "Can I get back to you on that?"

"Why don't you use Richard?" Micah suggested.

"Richard?" Miss Wendell jumped on the name. "What's his position in the community?"

"He's a junior high school science teacher out in the east part of town," Micah said. "Richard Zeeman. He's known Anita for years."

"Micah, I really think--"

"Will this Mr. Zeeman have a good idea of your suitability of a foster parent?" Miss Wendell asked.

"Yeah, I... I guess." Dawn had never heard Anita sound so flustered, but she pushed that away as she focused on what was happening. Anita and Micah were going to let her stay here!

Dawn turned away from the conversation and skipped over to Nathaniel by the stove. "I can stay!" she exclaimed.

Nathaniel smiled down at her, stress lines around his mouth vanishing. "That's great," he said with feeling. "The social worker's going to let Micah and Anita be emergency foster parents?"

"Uh huh!" Dawn went up on her toes to see what Nathaniel was cooking. "Mushrooms? Ew!"

"This is for Micah, you can pick what you want in your omelet later," Nathaniel said. "The bacon will be done in a few minutes, and then we can eat after I make the toast and set the table."

"I can set the table," Dawn offered.

"You don't have to, I'll do it."

"No way!" Dawn was so full of energy she couldn't stay still. She hurried over to the cutlery drawer. "I'm staying, so I should make every effort to be a productive contributing member of the group." She flashed Nathaniel a brilliant smile.

Nathaniel shook his head, but he was smiling too. "Where did you hear that?"

"On TV." Dawn counted out four sets of utensils. "Maybe it was on old Star Trek reruns. I used to watch those when I was home sick."

Nathaniel stirred the mushrooms in the pan. In spite of her loathsome feelings towards mushrooms, the smell, along with the cooking bacon in the oven, was making her so hungry.

At home, they usually only had time for cereal in the mornings before school. Mom would make pancakes on Sundays, when she didn't have to work at the gallery. They only had big breakfasts with eggs and stuff on special occasions. Mom would have liked that Nathaniel was making a big breakfast. Dawn hadn't had anything other than cereal and pancakes for breakfast since Mom died, because Buffy was so busy.

If Mom was here, or Buffy, I'd want them to fix what's wrong with me, Dawn thought as she straightened the forks on the table. Not that we know what's wrong with me. But I guess this means that I have to fix it on my own. Surprisingly, the thought didn't fill Dawn with fear. Maybe this was what growing up was like, having to fix things on your own.

"Who's Richard?" Dawn asked, pulling a chair over to the counter and climbing up.

"Why do you ask?" Nathaniel lifted Dawn off the counter and set her on the floor. "If you need something from the top cupboards, maybe you should ask."

Dawn stared at the cupboard, so high up. "But I could have got the plates without dropping them, really."

"The counter's very narrow," Nathaniel pointed out, opening the cupboard and pulling down the plates. "I don't want you to hurt yourself."

"But how am I going to help if I can't get the stuff?" Dawn demanded.

Nathaniel handed Dawn one plate. "How about after breakfast, we'll move the plates and glasses to a place you can reach them?"

Dawn let out a huff. "Fine," she muttered. Some big help she was turning out to be. Still a little upset, she carried the heavy plate to the table. On her return trip for another plate, she said, "So, Richard?"

"Where did you hear his name?" Nathaniel asked, cracking eggs into a bowl.

"Micah said that he could be a reference for Anita for the social worker people." Dawn squared the plate and turned back. Nathaniel was staring at her, incredulous. "What?"

"Micah said that about Richard?"

"Uh huh." Dawn picked up the third plate. "Who is he? Micah said he's a science teacher? Does he had a pocket protector? And glasses?"

Nathaniel shook his head. "He's..." Dawn waited while Nathaniel searched for the phrase. "He and Anita..."

"Did he used to be her boyfriend?" Dawn guessed.

"Something like that." Nathaniel had a weird tone in his voice, that Dawn couldn't decipher. "They were engaged for a while."

"They were?" Dawn squeaked. "What happened? Why didn't they get married?"

"Their lives were too different," Nathaniel said carefully. "Very different. It wasn't going to work."

"So now you're her boyfriend?" Dawn asked. "I like that." She picked up the fourth plate. "Hey, if he's not her boyfriend any more, is he going to want to be a personal reference for her?"

"I have no idea," Nathaniel admitted.

"He'd better," Dawn said stubbornly. "If not, I'll..."

"You'll what?"

"I'll give him a stern talking-to," Dawn declared. "And Anita can yell at him." Dawn looked at Nathaniel out of the corner of her eye. "Do you think that Anita would yell at Richard?"

Nathaniel picked up the spatula and set to work on the omelets. "I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a situation where Anita wasn't yelling at Richard."

"Nathaniel."

Nathaniel jumped like a scalded cat, startling Dawn. She whipped around to see Micah standing in the doorway, looking less than pleased.

"I know your feelings on Richard, but not in front of Dawn, please?" Micah continued.

Nathaniel nodded, ducking his head. "Sorry, Micah."

Micah sighed, walking across the kitchen to put his hand on Nathaniel's shoulder. "It's a learning experience for all of us," he said. "I have to go to work, and Miss Wendell is going to stay here with you and Anita and Dawn for a while, to check this place out."

"You have to leave?" Dawn blurted out. "But you were at work until late last night."

"I do." Micah dug a travel mug out of the cupboard and took in over to the coffee maker. "But we're short-staffed and there's a lot that needs to be done."

"Oh." Dawn bit her lip. She didn't want Micah to leave. "What do you do?"

"I'm the coordinator for a hotline, where people can call if they need help." Micah took a gulp of coffee, then refilled the mug.

Dawn vaguely remembered hearing something like that from Zerbrowski, back in the hospital. "Is it for lycanthropes?" she guessed.

Micah raised his eyebrows. "Yes, it is."

"Oh." Dawn supposed that made sense. Being a werewolf must be hard on the other days of the month too, not just the full moon. "Okay."

Micah went over to Dawn and lifted her up to sit on the counter. "Anita and Nathaniel are going to be here all day, and I'll be home by the time Nathaniel has to go to work," he said. "You'll be fine with them."

"I know." Dawn took a deep breath, noting that the healing cuts on her abdomen didn't hurt at all. "I, um... thank you."

"For what?"

"For letting me stay here. Even though I'm all weird and stuff."

Micah gave her a very serious look. "You're not weird, Dawn. You're just a little different, like we all are. Do you understand?"

Dawn wasn't sure she'd agree with the 'little' part of that interpretation, but the rest was sound. "I understand."

"Good." Micah gave Dawn a tired smile. "I have to run."

Dawn waved at Micah as he grabbed his mug and a napkin-wrapped package from Nathaniel on his way out the door. She thought about hopping off the counter and doing more to set the table, but it was kind of neat up here. Sitting on the counter, she was almost as tall as she'd been before.

"What do you want in your omelets?" Nathaniel asked Dawn, just as Anta and Miss Wendell came into the kitchen.

"Cheese, please," Dawn said, deflating a little. Having Miss Wendell around made her nervous, and she was pretty sure that it was her nerves, not anyone else.

Nathaniel nodded, not turning around. "Anita?"

"Whatever." Anita went to the coffee maker, and glared at the empty pot as if more coffee would just magically appear. "Why is all the coffee gone?"

"I can make more," Dawn offered, eager to show Miss Wendell that she wasn't totally useless.

"Nice try," Anita said as she rinsed out the pot.

Dawn frowned, but didn't press it. Maybe it was a rule for foster care, the kids weren't allowed to do anything fun. Or useful.

"Would you like some breakfast?" Nathaniel asked Miss Wendell.

The woman shook her head, holding her notepad tight. "No, thank you." Her eyes lingered just a little too long on Nathaniel.

Well, that was all kinds of weird. When Anita finished setting up the coffee maker, Dawn held out her arms.

Anita frowned at her. "You want a hug?"

Dawn shook her head.

"You once caught a fish that big?"

Dawn rolled her eyes. "You're so not funny. Micah put me up here and I can't get down."

"Ah." Anita lifted Dawn to the ground. "Better?"

"Yes, thank you." As long as Miss Wendell was staring at her, making notes like she was some kind of zoo animal, Dawn was going to carry on with her day as if the social worker wasn't there. "We should get a step-ladder."

Anita gave her a tight smile. "We'll see."

Great. Anita was tense, Nathaniel was nervous, the social worker was examining Dawn like a disease, Micah was gone, and Dawn could apparently read people's minds. This morning ranked an eleven on the suckage scale.

At least breakfast would be good.


Miss Wendell stayed all morning. She wanted to see everything in the house, Dawn's room, the laundry facilities, where Anita stored her guns. Dawn couldn't do anything fun. Writing in her journal was out, as was looking through the bookshelves in the living room. Dawn finally found the newspaper Merle brought over, and she spread that all over the kitchen floor while Miss Wendell poked around in the basement.

In the bright light of the afternoon, the story about the train derailment didn't seem quite so bad. The memory of the pain and fear had faded, and Dawn could read the entire story without freaking out. There really wasn't that much information, she discovered. Frustrated, she opened the paper to the second page. She may as well as figure out what was happening in this world.

Minutes later, Dawn was ready to give it up. This world was just as stupid as her old one. School shootings, drug busts, people killing each other for no understandable reason. Dawn had to agree with Giles's old saying, that at least demons had a pattern of destruction, wanted something with the death and woe. Humans were impossible to understand.

There was a weird story about vampires in the entertainment section, something about a vampire ballet and some guy who the paper called "Master", which reminded Dawn way too much of Dracula. There was a picture of the Master, named Jean-Claude. He reminded Dawn a little of a young Johnny Depp, with really pretty eyes. In spite of the fact that Dawn knew how dangerous vampires were, she sighed when she saw the picture. He was really handsome.

"Dawn?"

Looking up guiltily, Dawn saw Anita and Nathaniel and Miss Wendell emerge from the basement. "Um, hi?"

"What are you doing?" Anita asked.

Dawn flicked a glance at Miss Wendell. What would a five-year-old be doing in the paper? "Looking for pictures to color?" Dawn suggested.

"We can get you a coloring book at the store," Nathaniel said, skirting the two women to start gathering up the scattered newspaper. "There's not a lot in the paper for a child."

"I'm not--" Dawn cut herself off. Really, there was no point in trying to argue this. No matter how smart she acted, or how mature, they weren't going to believe she wasn't a little kid.

"Dawn," Anita said, "Miss Wendell wants to talk to you before she goes."

"Why?" Dawn sat back on her heels. "What did I do?"

"Nothing," Anita said with a half-hearted smile. "She just wants to ask you a few things."

"Oh." Unaccountable worry snaked into Dawn's stomach. "Can you come too?"

"We'll just be a few minutes," Miss Wendell said. "Anita will be here in the kitchen the whole time."

Uncertain, Dawn looked at Nathaniel. He paused in folding the papers to give her a tiny nod.

Well, if Nathaniel thought it was okay, then it probably wouldn't be too bad. Dawn climbed to her feet and followed Miss Wendell into the living room. She waited until Miss Wendell chose a seat, then she climbed onto the couch opposite. She folded her hands and waited.

Miss Wendell put her papers and notepad back into her briefcase, then looked at Dawn. "How are you feeling?" the woman asked.

"Fine," Dawn answered immediately. If that was all that Miss Wendell had to ask, this was going to be easy.

"Good." Miss Wendell shifted slightly on the chair. "Now, Dawn, I have some questions and I need you to answer them honestly."

"Okay."

"Sometimes, we may want to say things that are nice but untrue, because we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. But that's still a lie."

Dawn linked her fingers in her lap. "I know what's a lie and what's the truth," she said, keeping her voice as level as possible.

"Good." Miss Wendell shifted on the chair again. "The first question is, do you feel safe here?"

Dawn blinked. What kind of a stupid question was that? "Of course I do."

"Really?"

"Yes, really!" Dawn tried to stop herself from getting angry. "Anita said she'd protect me and Micah said the same thing and Nathaniel too. Anita found me in the cemetery and she said she'd protect me then and that was the truth." Dawn made herself stop and count to ten. "So yes."

Miss Wendell cleared her throat, glancing down at her briefcase. In a sudden rush, something slapped Dawn with a rush of emotions. Somehow, Dawn knew that Miss Wendell had been given this case because everyone expected it to end badly, and Miss Wendell was worried that they were never going to find a place for Dawn and she'd be in danger and be eaten by a vampire or a werewolf because no one cared if a little demon-chased girl had anyone to protect her, and there was no way Miss Wendell was going to be able to stop it.

Then the rush of emotions was gone.

Dawn had no idea how to react, what to do. Luck was with her, however, and Miss Wendell was gathering up her briefcase to go. "That was all I wanted to know," the woman said. "I'll be back in a day or two to see how you're settling in, how does that sound?"

Dawn nodded blankly, but couldn't find a thing to say as Nathaniel and Anita came into the living room. Dawn knew that Anita was talking to Miss Wendell, but she didn't listen to the words. She was still trying to understand what had just happened.

Maybe Miss Wendell wasn't the bad guy in this, after all. It was as if she wanted to keep Dawn safe, but she didn't know how.

Nathaniel sat on the couch next to Dawn while Anita showed the social worker to the door. "You okay?" Nathaniel asked.

Dawn shook her head. "People's thoughts are supposed to be their own, right?" she asked once she heard the outside door shut.

"I guess," Nathaniel said slowly.

"Then hearing things they think, it's like snooping?" Dawn looked down at her hands. "Then what I'm doing, it's snooping?"

"Dawn, you're not doing this on purpose."

"I know that!" Dawn exclaimed. She glanced up as Anita came back into the living room and sat on the couch next to her. "But if I hear stuff that people are thinking, it's stuff I shouldn't know."

"Did you hear something from the social worker?" Anita asked.

Dawn pulled her feet up onto the couch. "It's not a bad thing."

"Is it important?" Anita pressed.

"Maybe, I don't know." Dawn leaned against Anita, cuddling up against her side. "She wants me to be safe but she doesn't know how to make that happen."

Anita smoothed Dawn's hair back, making Dawn feel a little better. "We all want that. Promise."

Dawn closed her eyes. She felt so exhausted. Waking up seemed like it had happened so long ago.

"What do you want to do now?" Nathaniel asked. "We could watch TV, or go to the park."

"Why don't we just sit around for a few minutes?" Anita interrupted gently. "Take a few minutes to relax."

"Okay," Dawn said. She opened her eyes and watched the sunlight play on the far wall. "Anita?"

"Yes?"

"Thanks."

"For what?"

Dawn wanted to say everything, but that sounded clingy and hokey, so she settled on cuddling closer to Anita. "For stuff."

Anita put her arm around Dawn's back. "You're welcome."


Dear Buffy,

If Social Services in Sunnydale was anything like it is here, it's amazing anything gets done. So much paperwork and prying. It's like spying.

They have vampires here who call themselves Masters! A lot of them. They had a vampire ballet in St. Louis last month. It must have been really cool.

The Master of the City in St. Louis is named Jean-Claude. I saw his picture in the paper and he's totally hot. For a dead man. Anita has a lot of books on vampires and supernatural stuff in the living room, but I haven't had a chance to look through them. I'll try tomorrow. Tonight, we're going to make pizza, Nathaniel said. I don't think they have any board games, but I saw a pack of cards in a drawer when I was helping with lunch. Maybe they'll want to play cards with me or something.

I miss you guy. I miss Mom a lot too. It must have been hard to be a mom, but she was happy, right? I remember her being happy (except that summer when you ran away or when Dad was being a dick). I hope she was happy. I was glad she was my Mom.

Dawn sat back and tried to think of something else to say. She didn't want to put anything about her weird telepathy down on paper until she figured out more. Especially if the social worker might try to read her journal one day.

Nope, she was done. Dawn closed her journal and laid her pencil down next to it. She snuck a glance at the kitchen, where she could hear Anita on the phone. Nathaniel was still in the shower, so maybe now was the best time to look at those vampire books, without anyone knowing.

She had just climbed to her feet when the front doorbell rang. She froze, uncertain. Should she get the door?

"I'll call you back, Bert," Anita said, already on her way out of the kitchen. She put the phone on top of the television. "You stay here," Anita said to Dawn.

"But--"

"Stay here," Anita said again.

Dawn leaned against the couch. She just wanted to see who it was. Hopefully it wasn't Miss Wendell again.

"Richard?" Anita's shock was audible all the way from the front hall. "What are you doing here?"

Dawn's head shot up. Richard was here? Anita's former boyfriend who Nathaniel didn't really like?

"Can I come in?" a male voice asked.

"I--Yeah, sure." The door closed, then a few seconds later, Anita backed into the living room. "Richard, I'm not sure now's a good time."

"You're the one who started this by giving Social Services my name." A tall man followed Anita, pulling off his winter jacket. He finally looked up, and Dawn almost melted. He was quite possibly the most handsome man Dawn had ever seen. "Is this her?"

"This is Dawn," Anita said, sounding more annoyed with each syllable. "What do you want?"

Richard put his handful of papers and books on a chair, and tossed his jacket over the chair back. "How old is she?"

Anita had crossed her arms over her chest and was glaring at Richard. "We're not sure, but probably five."

"Do you even know how to look after a five-year-old?" Richard asked.

"I'm very self-reliant," Dawn piped up. When Richard looked at her again, she blushed.

"I'm sure you are," he said, smiling. "Anita?"

"Fine." Anita uncrossed her arms. "In the kitchen." After Richard had left the room, Anita came over to Dawn and crouched down to her level. "Can you stay here for a little bit while I talk to Richard?"

Dawn nodded. She waited until after Anita had vanished into the hall, then she scampered across the room to the chair where Richard left his stuff. It wasn't snooping if it was left in plain sight, Dawn had always said.

The book was a science textbook, and the papers appeared to be tests of some kind. Without touching, Dawn looked at the top test. The subject appeared to be geology. Not Dawn's favorite subject, but still, she'd gotten the second-highest mark in that section.

Dawn looked closer at the answer to the first question, and frowned. The paper had a red grade at the top, so Richard was probably done marking, but the answer, which had a math equation to determine the age of rocks, was wrong, but unmarked by red ink.

Was it wrong in this world, however? Rubbing at the palm of her hand, which had started to ache inexplicably, Dawn pulled the textbook out from underneath the papers and sat down, opening the book on her lap.

Nathaniel found her there about fifteen minutes later. "What are you doing?" Nathaniel asked, sitting on the floor next to Dawn.

"Trying to see if this," Dawn pointed at the test paper, "is wrong. I think the original math's wrong." She held out her journal, where she'd written the ordinal question and was working through it on her own. "See? Way wrong. Totally wrong."

"Where did you get this from?" Nathaniel asked, taking the textbook from Dawn.

"Um..." Dawn faltered under Nathaniel's scrutiny. "It was just lying there where anyone could see it."

"Dawn, this is Richard's stuff," Nathaniel said. "You shouldn't poke around his things."

Dawn's heart sank. "I didn't mean to do anything bad," she protested weakly, rubbing at the painful spot on her hand.

"I know." Nathaniel put the textbook back on the chair. "But now you know for next time. You should ask if you want to see something."

"But what if I want to see something and someone doesn't want me to read it?" Dawn asked.

Nathaniel pulled his slightly damp hair over his shoulder. "Maybe they want to keep things private, or maybe they think it's not suitable for a little girl. It's not punishment."

"I guess you're right."

Nathaniel's smile brightened up the room. "I don't have to go to work for a few hours, do you want to go start working on the pizza?"

"We can't," Dawn said. "Richard and Anita are still talking in the kitchen."

"So?" Nathaniel said, a rebellious expression on his face. "It's my house too, and you're a guest here, and we can go wherever we want." He pushed his hair out of the way and stood up. "Let's go."

Dawn tucked her journal under one arm and climbed to her feet. "Can I have some water too?"

"Of course, you--"

Nathaniel was interrupted by two approaching voices. "--think this is a dangerous idea!" Richard said as he and Anita reappeared at the other end of the room. "You have no idea what's after that little--"

"Richard, stop it!" Anita cut him off. She pulled up when she saw Dawn and Nathaniel at the other end of the room. "How are you two doing?"

"Good," Dawn said distantly, staring up at Richard the whole time. She didn't like the thought that she'd done something that would make him angry. "Can I ask you a question?"

Richard squared his shoulders. "What is it?"

Dawn gripped Nathaniel's hand tight for support. "Is it okay if I look at those papers?"

Richard frowned. "Yes, but..." His voice trailed off as Dawn let go of Nathaniel's hand and ran across the room.

She opened her journal to the equation she'd worked out. "The answer on the top page is wrong, and this is the right one," she said eagerly.

Richard stared down at the page, then lifted his brown eyes to meet Dawn's in confusion. "Who worked this out?"

Dawn started to get the feeling that she'd something wrong. "I did," she whispered.

"This is high school level work," Richard muttered. His eyes slid past Dawn to Nathaniel, and something in his face grew ugly. "At least we know you didn't help her," he said to the other man.

Dawn's burgeoning crush vanished in a rush of anger. Anita's outraged "Richard!" came at the same instant as Dawn yanked her journal away from Richard and exclaimed, "Don't you say mean things about Nathaniel!"

Nathaniel grabbed Dawn around the middle and lifted her into the air. "Let's go play outside," he said, taking her into the front hall.

"I don't want to play outside!" Dawn tried to twist out of Nathaniel's grip, but he was far too strong.

"We're going to go outside and let Anita and Richard talk this out," Nathaniel said, setting Dawn down on the step. He helped her into her winter coat, which she only fought a little.

"I want to talk it out too," Dawn said crossly. She angrily stepped into her new boots, and stormed out the front door.

Nathaniel followed her into the snow in his own winter coat. Dawn stomped down the walk and out onto the untouched snow covering the front yard. She had to lift her feet high to walk through the snow, and it was difficult enough that she burned off most of her anger once she'd made it around the whole yard.

Nathaniel caught up with her by the old oak tree in the corner of the yard. "You know, Richard and I have problems between us to begin with," Nathaniel said as Dawn kicked the tree. "What happened inside didn't have anything to do with you."

"He shouldn't be mean to people!" Dawn said, giving the tree one last kick that jarred her foot. "I was trying to help."

"I know."

Dawn tried to cross her arms, but the jacket was too bulky and she had to resort to putting her hands on her hips. Now that her anger was fading, she felt like she'd done something wrong. But she wasn't going to cry, she told herself, blinking teary eyes. Just because the handsome man had insulted Nathaniel and didn't believe Dawn had done the work she'd claimed, was no reason to be a baby.

Nathaniel crouched down in the snow next to Dawn. "Do you want to make a snowman?" he asked.

Dawn sniffed hard. "I've never made a snowman."

"Neither have I," Nathaniel admitted. "Do you want to try?"

"I don't have any gloves," Dawn said. Her hand still hurt, but rubbing or itching didn't seem to help at all, so she balled her hand up into a fist.

Nathaniel pulled a pair of bright red mittens from his pocket. "Anita got these for you," he said, helping Dawn pull the mittens on. "Now, how about that snowman?"


Dawn had just finished pressing pebbles into the snowman's head for some eyes when Richard came out of the house. He came slowly down the walk, then stepped onto the snow and crossed to where Dawn and Nathaniel had put the snowman.

Nathaniel, holding Dawn up to finish the snowman, turned to face Richard. "Are you leaving?" he said neutrally.

"Yes." Richard rubbed the back of his neck, glancing back towards the house before meeting Nathaniel's eyes. "I..." He took a deep breath. "I apologize for what I said in there. I was out of line." Then he looked at Dawn. "I didn't mean to frighten you."

Dawn wanted to say that she wasn't scared, only angry, and that Richard shouldn't bully people around about how smart they were, but she just rested her head against Nathaniel's shoulder. "It's okay."

Richard nodded, a jerky motion of his head, and started to walk away.

"Richard?" Nathaniel called. The man stopped in his tracks. "Can I ask a favor?"

Turning back slowly, Dawn could see how Richard's jaw was set, and it frightened her, just a little. He was big and Dawn was little, and Anita was all the way in the house. "What favor might that be?"

"Do you have copies of high school tests that we can get?"

Richard frowned, anger dissolving to confusion. "What for?"

"Dawn's pretty smart, and she might have fun looking at those tests," Nathaniel said.

"I suppose I can get copies of the practice tests, but..." Richard looked at Dawn. "She's so young."

"But she's really smart," Nathaniel said. "Even Anita thinks so."

A wave of intense hurt passed through Richard's eyes. Dawn, still staring at the man, didn't understand what was going on at all, and hugged Nathaniel harder.

"I'll get Anita those tests," Richard said, and left without another word.

The cold was starting to seep into Dawn's bones. "Can we go back inside?" she mumbled into Nathaniel's shoulder.

"Of course," Nathaniel said. Holding Dawn tight, he walked across the yard and back into the house.

Anita closed the door after them. "That's a really nice snowman, Dawn," she said, helping Dawn unbutton her coat. "It was good work."

Dawn ducked her head. "Nathaniel helped," she said.

Anita smiled as she set Dawn's boots against the wall. "You both did a great job."

"Is Richard going to help us with social services?" Nathaniel asked quietly.

Anita glanced up. "Yes, he is." She stood up and reached out her hand to Dawn. "Let's go make some dinner."

Dawn gave her palm one last rub, and reached out to Anita with the aching hand.

Anita caught her hand and turned it up to the light. "Dawn, what happened?" Anita asked, bending over the angry red welt on Dawn's skin. "Did something bite you?"

"No," Dawn protested. "It just started to hurt."

"When?" Anita asked.

Dawn shrugged. "After Richard got here, I guess. Why?"

Anita's eyes grew wide. "Are you sure?" she demanded.

Dawn pulled her hand away and backed up a step. "I think so," she said in a tiny voice.

"Anita?" Nathaniel said. "Dawn, is it hurting more or less now?"

"Less," Dawn whispered.

Instead of being glad, Anita grew even more upset. "Was it burning? Itching?"

Dawn shook her head.

"But it's stopped, right?" Nathaniel asked, putting his hand on Anita's back. "It's stopped, and that's all that matters."

Anita rubbed her hand, where Dawn knew she had that little cross-shaped scar, and refused to look at Dawn.

What was going on now?

Chapter Text

"Is this her?"

Dawn looked up at the short blond man standing beside Nathaniel. "Who are you?" she demanded, closing the vampire magazine she had snuck out of Anita's room.

"This is Jason," Nathaniel explained, slipping past Jason into the kitchen. "He's going to hang out with us for a while."

Dawn bit her lower lip, regarding the grinning man. "I thought we were going to make cookies," Dawn said.

"We can still make cookies," Nathaniel said. He stopped behind Dawn's chair and gently took the magazine away from her. "Jason's my friend, we always spend time together on Tuesdays."

"Oh." Dawn tore her gaze away from Jason and put on her best pouty face. "Can I have that magazine back? Please?"

"This isn't a good magazine for you to read," Nathaniel explained.

"But it's about vampires!"

"That's what I mean." Nathaniel carried the magazine over to the counter by the phone. "What about those books we got at the library this morning?"

"Those are boring," Dawn informed him. "They're all patronizing and stuff."

Nathaniel frowned. "But you wanted to get them."

"Only because the librarian wouldn't let me play with the real books." Dawn scratched the skin below her healing wrist. "But I want to know more about vampires because they have ballets and stuff in this world. I mean city," she hastily amended. Had Nathaniel caught her slip of the tongue?

Nathaniel had that look on his face, the one he got when Dawn did something that wasn't normal for a kid. "If you want to look at Anita's books, you should do it when she's here," he said carefully. "So she can answer your questions."

Jason chuckled. "And it's not like she can't just wait until tonight to ask any vampire questions," he said.

Dawn whipped her head around. "What do you mean?"

Jason shrugged. "Jean-Claude's going to be coming by to pick Anita for their date at around six," he said. "You can ask him all kinds of questions about vampires then."

Dawn's jaw dropped open. Anita had a date with someone who wasn't Nathaniel or Micah? Nathaniel didn't seem upset by that news, or even surprised. "How is that allowed?" Dawn demanded. "And why would..." Dawn finally remembered why the name sounded familiar. "Jean-Claude? Like the vampire who ran that ballet last month? Anita's dating him?"

What the hell was with vampire hunters dating vampires? God, Anita was more like Buffy than Dawn had realized.

Jason was still grinning at Dawn. "They do more than date--"

"Jason," Nathaniel interrupted, an unfamiliar hard edge in his voice. It startled Dawn, as she had only ever heard Nathaniel speak in calm tones, or else be self-deprecating or bitter. Never so... adult. "Don't."

If Dawn had been startled, Jason was down-right floored. "I was just--"

"Stop it. She's five and doesn't need to hear this."

Dawn pressed her shoulder against the back of the chair, staying as still as she could. Nathaniel and Jason stared at each other, neither speaking, but on the edges of her mind, Dawn could hear smudged voices. She couldn't understand what the words meant, as if they were in a different language.

Then Jason looked away, and the words stopped.

Nathaniel turned to the cupboard and pulled out a pair of mugs. Jason leaned against the wall, a frown on his face as he looked at Dawn. He didn't seem mad, just puzzled.

A clinking sound drew Dawn's attention back to Nathaniel. Even from across the kitchen, she could see the tense set of his shoulders, the trembling in his hands as he poured coffee.

Dawn slipped out of her chair and shuffled over to Nathaniel. She only came up to his hip, so she couldn't give him a hug, but she leaned against his leg and watched while he poured the coffee.

Nathaniel finished filling the mugs and set the coffee pot down. He lifted Dawn up to his hip, waiting until she wrapped her arms around his neck before he picked up the two mugs with his other hand. He cleared his throat as he walked to the kitchen table. "Jason, can you get the cream and sugar?" he asked, not looking at the other man.

"Sure."

Nathaniel set the mugs down, then lifted Dawn back into her chair. He took the seat next to her, pushing the other cup in front of the empty chair where Micah usually sat.

Dawn stuck out her lower lip. "No coffee for me?"

Nathaniel smiled. "Not today."

"Hey, that was the best part of being four," Jason said as he set the cream on the table. "All sugared up and high on caffeine and nowhere to go."

"Dawn isn't four," Nathaniel corrected. "We think she's five."

"You think?" Jason took a sip from his cup, then added more sugar. "Why don't you just ask her? Hey, kid, how old are you?"

Dawn raised her eyebrows. She still didn't know what to make of Jason. He was a weird one. For some reason, he reminded her of Anya. "I'm fifteen," Dawn said.

Jason raised his own eyebrows. Dawn felt stupid. Of course he wasn't going to believe her.

"For extremely large values of five," Dawn added. Jason's expression just got blanker. "You know the old math joke? Two plus two equals five, for extremely large values of two?" Dawn rolled her eyes. "Come on, that's like the oldest joke in the world."

For some reason, Jason started laughing. "Is this why Richard was so freaked out yesterday?"

"You know Richard?" Dawn went up on her knees and leaned on the table. "How come you know Richard?"

"Just from around," Jason said, waving his hand. "Which reminds me, he told me to bring this over at some point." Jason reached into his back pocket and pulled out a packet of folded papers.

"What is it?" Dawn asked.

Jason unfolded the papers and tossed them across the table. "SAT prep tests. And man, you should have seen Richard yesterday," he added in an undertone to Nathaniel. "He was just in a bizarre mood when he came by the Circus."

Dawn pressed the papers flat on the table. Some of this stuff looked easy. "Who goes to a circus in the winter?" she asked.

"I do," Jason said with a grin. "I live there."

Dawn blinked at him. She couldn't tell if he was pulling her leg. Sneaking a glance at Nathaniel didn't help give her any clues. "You ran away to join the circus? I didn't know people really did that."

"That's the thing you'll need to know, young lady, if you stick around," Jason said in a mock-instructor tone. "Except the unexpected. Live the mystery, and all that bull-- all that stuff."

Dawn ignored the almost-swear. Buffy used to say worse things. Heck, Spike had taught her how to curse like an undead sailor. "How do you know Nathaniel?" she asked.

"Work." Jason drained the last of his coffee. "How do you know Nathaniel?"

"Wait, at work?" What was it that Zerbrowski had said Nathaniel did for a living? "You're a stripper?" she demanded.

Jason gave Nathaniel an incredulous stare. "You don't want me talking about Anita and Jean-Claude, and yet you told her about your job?"

"I didn't tell her about my job," Nathaniel protested.

"He didn't," Dawn said. She didn't want Jason thinking that Nathaniel had said anything wrong. "I heard someone say it."

"Uh huh." Jason didn't look convinced.

Nathaniel pulled his braid over his shoulder, fiddling with the elastic. "Dawn is... well, she's special."

"Like short bus 'special'?" Jason asked.

Dawn snorted. "Only in the way that you're special with a capital R."

Jason laughed again. "I like you, kid. You got brains."

"Thank you," Dawn said, unable to stop herself from smiling back.

Nathaniel stood up. "Do you still want to make cookies?" he asked Dawn.

"Okay."

"Can I lick the spoon?" Jason asked.

"Only if I get to lick the bowl," Dawn said immediately.

Jason stuck out his hand. "You've got yourself a deal."


"Does Micah know you're going out with a vampire?"

Anita finished hanging up her winter jacket and closed the closet door. "What are you talking about?"

Dawn crossed her arms over her chest and glared at Anita. "Jason said you had a date with a vampire tonight."

"I do." Anita rubbed her palms on her skirt. "And yes, Micah knows about it. As does Nathaniel."

"That's not fair!" Dawn exclaimed. "What about Micah and Nathaniel?"

Anita took a deep breath. "Dawn, this is between myself, Micah and Nathaniel, and it doesn't have anything to do with--"

"But why don't you just go on a date with them?" Dawn interrupted. "You don't need to date some poofy vampire."

Anita put her hands on her hips. "Dawn, I know you're young, but there is no need to make comments like that on someone's sexual orientation."

Dawn wanted to scream. "I was talking about his shirt! There was a picture of Jean-Claude in the paper yesterday!" She frowned. "But is he gay? Are you dating a gay vampire?"

Anita flung her hands up. "I'm not going to have this conversation, Dawn. I'm going out tonight with Jean-Claude, Micah and Nathaniel will be home with you, and that's the end of the story."

Dawn scowled and turned on her heel, stomping down the hallway on the way back to the kitchen. She moved the chair loudly and thumped her milk glass on the table, just for the heck of it.

It wasn't fair that Anita was going to go out with a vampire, not when she had two nice boyfriends here. Dawn liked Micah and Nathaniel, and she decided that she wasn't going to like Jean-Claude on principle.

He was probably all creepy like Dracula, too. He might look nice, but he probably had some weird accent, and bad teeth. Plus he wore stupid shirts.

Dawn picked up her pencil and went back to the math problem she had been working on before Anita came home. Jason had left after they finished making cookies, saying something about having to work that night. Nathaniel had said he needed to vacuum again, and so Dawn was left with the option of reading the childish books from the library, or working on the SAT test.

Six questions in, she had decided that the school curriculum in this dimension was grades behind where it was in Sunnydale. The test was challenging, but Dawn could work through most of the questions. It had been moderately entertaining, at least until Anita had arrived home.

Dawn told herself she wasn't angry that Anita wasn't going to be home that night. It was Anita's life, and Dawn didn't really have any right to tell her what to do.

Besides, this wasn't permanent.

Dawn swallowed hard against the sudden lump in her throat. She knew this wasn't her home, and Anita wasn't her family. For a little while that afternoon, she'd managed to forget that she was alone in this dimension.

A drop of water fell on the paper. Dawn dropped her pencil and rubbed angrily at her eyes. She wasn't going to cry like some stupid baby about how alone she felt. Even if that alone feeling was creeping up on her more and more.

I'm not five, Dawn told herself. I'm still as smart as I was before. I'm just shorter.

But was that true? Dawn made herself sit back and think. Was she acting like a teenager, or a little kid? How much of what she had been made the transfer to what she was now?

And why five? Dawn wondered. Why am I five now, when the monks made me fifteen in Sunnydale?

They had been so busy preventing Glory from ending the world, Dawn had never really questioned the why of her creation. The monks made her out of glowing green energy, but why this form? Why hadn't they made her into something super-strong like the Slayer? Why was she a girl and not a boy?

The monks had ensured that Buffy would protect her. Had they made Dawn a teenager on purpose? Why hadn't they made her five in Sunnydale? Would Buffy have wanted to protect a little kid as much?

Dawn looked down at her hands. They were small and soft. She'd used these hands to make balls of cookie dough, had pressed fingerprints into the dough before Nathaniel put the cookie sheets into the oven. These were her hands now, little hands that couldn't even hold a knife properly.

She was even less able to defend herself now than she had been in Sunnydale.

A shiver ran down Dawn's spine. The house was too quiet, even thought the vacuum cleaner was on upstairs, and the shower was running down the hall. Dawn glanced over her shoulder at the glass door at the end of the kitchen, almost expecting to see... someone. But there was no one there.

Dawn slid off her chair. She could hear Nathaniel walking around upstairs, and Anita had to be in the bathroom. No one would know what she was doing.

Dragging the chair across the kitchen was louder than Dawn expected. She waited, just in case, but no one came into the room. Holding her breath, Dawn climbed up and reached across the counter to pull a long knife out of the knife block. It was heavier than she expected. The last time she'd held a knife like this, was after she found out she was the Key, and she'd cut herself to see if there was any blood in her body.

Dawn blinked that memory away. Carefully, Dawn climbed down, holding the knife with the point down. She wanted to run, so no one would see her, but running with butcher knives was probably as dangerous as running with scissors.

Through the hall, up the stairs, and into her bedroom. Dawn closed the door quietly, so Nathaniel, who was vacuuming down the hall, wouldn't know what she was doing. The most logical place for the knife was under the mattress, she decided. No one would see it, and she could get to it easily if anything came into the room after her.

The bed was heavy. Dawn had to put the knife on the floor and use both hands to shift the mattress. The knife fit perfectly into the space, just underneath the pillow.

Knowing there was a knife under her bed, just in case she needed to protect herself, didn't make Dawn feel any better. If anything, she felt even more scared. In Sunnydale, she had Buffy around all the time to protect her. She missed that sense of security.

Outside the door, the vacuum stopped. Dawn quickly smoothed the blankets on the bed, then ran across the room and opened the door. Nathaniel was wrapping the cord around the vacuum. "Hi," he said when he saw Dawn.

"Hi." Dawn pressed against the doorframe. Would Nathaniel suspect that she'd stolen a knife? After he had been so adamant that she not touch knives?

Nathaniel looked at her for a long moment. "Are you okay?"

Dawn dropped her eyes to the carpet. She wanted to lie, but she couldn't do it, not when Nathaniel was looking right at her. "Sort of. I had a fight with Anita."

"About what?"

"About dating vampires." It wasn't a lie, and truthfully, Dawn was still a little angry at Anita about the whole subject.

Nathaniel set the vacuum down and knelt on the carpet. He let out a sigh. "Jean-Claude is a very important person in Anita's life," he said quietly. "They've been together for a long time."

Dawn fiddled with her sleeve. "How long?" she asked in a tiny voice.

Nathaniel smiled. "For longer than I've known Anita. Almost three years."

Dawn tried to wrap her head around that idea. "Then how come, if she was dating him before she met you, then you're living with her now? And Micah too?"

"It's just the way our lives are," Nathaniel said.

"Does it have anything to do with Anita being able to raise zombies?"

"A little bit." Nathaniel pulled one leg up to his chest and rested his chin on his knee. "But the thing about Anita is that she's always honest about what she's doing. We all know what's going on, and we're all fine with it."

"Really?"

"Of course," Nathaniel said. "What do you want to do tonight?"

"I don't know." Now Dawn was feeling awful about what she'd said to Anita. "Can we wait until Micah gets home to decide?"

"Of course."

Dawn shuffled her feet. "Do you think Anita is mad at me?"

"Why would Anita be mad at you?" Nathaniel asked.

"Because?"

Nathaniel shook his head. "I don't think Anita would be mad at you for any reason. Why don't you go down and talk to her?"

Dawn would rather have faced Buffy after she wrecked her sister's leather pants. "I guess."

She turned, dragging her feet all the way down the hall and down the stairs. She didn't want to apologize to Anita, didn't want to think about the knife hidden under her mattress, didn't want to be scared of always being alone.

Pushing those thoughts away, Dawn tapped on Anita's closed bedroom door. She stared at a tiny bubble in the paint near the doorjamb, half-hoping that Anita hadn't heard her knock.

The door opened inward. "Is something wrong?" Anita asked abruptly. She was in a bathrobe and her hair was swept up into a messy ponytail on her head.

"Nothing's wrong," Dawn whispered, staring at the carpet.

Anita touched Dawn's cheek, drawing her gaze upwards. "Are you sure?"

Her voice was calm now, not angry like it had been earlier. Dawn sniffled. "I'm sorry I said mean things about that vampire guy."

Anita's expression softened. "Hey, it's okay." She smoothed Dawn's hair back. "I shouldn't have been so abrupt like that."

"It's okay." Dawn glanced past Anita into the bedroom. "Are you getting ready for your date?"

"I am." Anita straightened up. "Do you want to come in while I get ready?"

Dawn nodded, and took Anita's outstretched hand. The woman led Dawn over the neatly-made bed and let her sit on the edge of the quilt.

Dawn looked around the room while Anita went to the closet. It felt sort of like Mom's room, safe and warm.

"What are you going to wear?" Dawn asked.

"That's a good question," Anita said from the closet.

"What are you going to do?" Dawn tapped her heels against the side of the bed frame. "Are you going to go to a movie?"

"No, we're going to dinner." Anita emerged from the closet holding a dark blue dress. "I guess this will work."

Dawn hopped off the bed and reached out for the dress. The fabric was silk-smooth against her fingers. "It feels nice," she admitted.

"It does," Anita said.

A faint shiver of uncertainty flitted through Dawn's mind. She frowned and looked up at Anita, who was still staring at the dress. "You can wear something else," Dawn said.

Anita shook her head. "No, this is fine."

Dawn wandered over to Anita's dresser while Anita stepped into the dress. The jewellery box was open, and Dawn looked at the contents with wide eyes. There were so many cool, shiny things in here. "You can poke around in there if you want," Anita told her.

Carefully, so she didn't break something, Dawn lifted a necklace out of the box. The chain was thin and delicate in Dawn's hand. She held up the necklace to the lamp and watched as the light shimmered through the sapphire pendant.

A knock sounded on the bedroom door. "Anita," Nathaniel said, "Jean-Claude is here."

"I'll be out in a few minutes," Anita called as she zipped the dress up her back. She came over to the dresser and began sorting through her makeup. "Do you like that one?" she asked Dawn.

Dawn nodded, and held the necklace out. "It would go perfect with your dress."

Anita took the chain. "You're right, it would."

Dawn watched quietly as Anita put the necklace around her throat. It all seemed so normal, Dawn could hardly believe that less than half an hour ago she had stolen a knife and put it under her bed, like some warped version of the Princess and the Pea. Well, if she could say 'normal' when a vampire was waiting to take Anita out for dinner. However that worked.

"Do you love him?" Dawn asked suddenly.

Anita glanced down. "What?"

"Do you love Jean-Claude?" Dawn pressed. "Nathaniel said you've been with him for years. Do you love him?"

Anita's hand slowly closed around her purse. "Why are you asking?"

Dawn didn't really know why she was asking, but she had to know. She settled on giving Anita a shrug.

Anita put her hand on Dawn's shoulder. "Me and Jean-Claude... it's complicated. Really complicated."

"But you love, him, right? You'd have to, to stay with him for so long. Right?"

The whole house seemed to hold its breath while waiting for Anita to answer. Finally, Anita gave a short nod. "Yes, I do love Jean-Claude."

Dawn smiled, big and wide, never minding that the feeling of relief that flooded through her head didn't belong to her. She flung her arms around Anita's waist and hugged the woman tightly, then peeled away before Anita could react.

Anita cleared her throat. "Why don't you go find Nathaniel, I have a couple of things to do before I come out. Okay?"

"Okay." Dawn darted across the room and slipped out of the door, leaving Anita behind. She thought she heard Nathaniel's voice in the living room. He was probably talking to the vampire guy, Dawn thought as she slowed down, hesitating outside of the room. She suddenly felt a little scared, not of being alone, but of the fact that there was a vampire in the living room.

But Nathaniel was in there, and Anita would have said something if it was dangerous. Dawn had to believe that.

Dawn peeked around the wall. Nathaniel was sorting books by the TV. The vampire was sitting on the couch, motionless as the dead. He was even prettier in person, with his hair falling past his shoulders, his pale skin as perfect as marble, and not a poofy shirt in sight.

Then he moved, a quick twist of the head. It was too quick to be possible, like in those Japanese horror films Dawn wasn't supposed to have seen. The vampire stared at Dawn with eyes the same colour as Anita's sapphires.

Dawn stared back. She wasn't scared of him, she told herself. He was just a vampire, and she knew other vampires. He wasn't that scary. And that didn't have anything to do with the fact that he might have been the most perfect creature Dawn had ever seen in her entire life, she told herself.

"You must be Dawn," the vampire said, sitting forward. His French accent slid across the room like warm molasses.

"Yes," Dawn said, coming around the corner slowly. "Are you Jean-Claude?"

"Oui, mon petit soleil," Jean-Claude said. He smiled at her, lips neatly closed. "It is indeed good to meet you, I have heard so many things."

"Who from?" Dawn asked, stopping in her tracks. Who had been talking to this vampire about her?

"From Anita," Jean-Claude said. "She speaks most highly of you. As well, Jason told me of his visit this afternoon."

"You know Jason?" Dawn bit her lip. "Do you live at the circus too?"

"I do," Jean-Claude said. Dawn had the distinct impression that she was amusing him. "Jason is one of my companions."

Memories of Dracula danced in Dawn's head. "Do you mean minion?" Dawn demanded. "Does he call you Master? Do you make him eat bugs?"

Jean-Claude stared at her for a heartbeat, then he laughed. "No, I do not make Jason eat bugs," he said after a minute. "Although he will eat anything that appears before him, that one."

Dawn wanted to be angry at Jean-Claude for laughing at her, but hearing his laughter made all her annoyance fade away.

"Indeed, mon petit soleil, I have brought you a small token of welcome to St. Louis," Jean-Claude continued. He held out his hand to her, empty and open.

Dawn glanced at Nathaniel, who nodded silently. She carefully moved closer to Jean-Claude, still not convinced this was a good idea, and stopped out of reach.

Like a magician, a long flat box suddenly appeared in Jean-Claude's hand. He held it out to her with a flourish. "For you."

Dawn inched forward and took the present from his palm. She quickly ripped the golden wrapping paper off the case and opened the lid. Inside lay a shiny silver fountain pen.

"This is for me?" Dawn squeaked, forgetting that she was supposed to be on her guard against the vampire. "Really?"

"Of course." Jean-Claude didn't look nearly so scary now. In fact, he was a bit like Angel. Not scary at all.

"Thank you," Dawn said, suddenly shy.

"You are most welcome, mon petit soleil."

"What does that mean? What you're calling me?" Dawn asked, holding her new pen close. She couldn't wait to try it out on her journal.

"It means, 'my little sunshine'," Jean-Claude explained.

Dawn edged around the room to Nathaniel's side, and tugged in his sleeve until he leaned down. "Does sunshine hurt vampires?" she whispered in his ear.

He nodded, putting his arm around her and drawing her close. "It burns them."

Dawn looked back at Jean-Claude, still sitting causally on the sofa. "You've got weird nicknames for people," she told him.

Jean-Claude placed his hand over his heart in a dramatic gesture. "My apologies."

Footsteps sounded down the hall. "Sorry I'm late," Anita said breathless, hurrying into the room. She had fixed her hair and put on a little more makeup, and Dawn thought she looked beautiful. "I just talked to Micah, he's having problems with Violet and he's not going to be able to get home for a while."

"We'll be okay," Nathaniel said. "Dawn and I will have a good night."

"We will!" Dawn agreed.

Anita looked hard at Nathaniel. "Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Okay, fine. We'll be back before midnight." Anita turned, and seemed to finally realize that Jean-Claude was watching her. "Sorry, hi."

Jean-Claude rose from the couch in a slow, graceful movement. He crossed the floor to Anita's side, where he carefully laid his hands on her shoulders, then lowered his head to kiss her gently on each cheek. "Good evening, ma petite."

Dawn watched, fascinated, as Anita blushed. "Come on, we're going to be late."

"No time spent in your presence is wasted," Jean-Claude murmured as he placed his hand on her lower back.

She shot him a glare. "Stop it."

"As you wish, ma petite." Jean-Claude bowed and vanished into the hallway.

Anita shook her head. "Nathaniel, if you guys need anything, you call me or Micah, or even Merle."

"We'll be fine," Nathaniel said, picking Dawn up.

"We sure will!" Dawn grinned widely at the flustered expression on Anita's face. "Have fun!"

Anita shook her head again, but she didn't say anything as she crossed the floor and gave Nathaniel a kiss on the cheek. "I'll be back tonight," she told Dawn. "Promise."

Dawn nodded hard. Anita smiled at her, then leaned in to press a kiss against Dawn's hair. Anita smelled like perfume and soap, and that smell was beginning to be familiar to Dawn. "Bye, Anita."

Jean-Claude reappeared with Anita's coat. "Come, ma petite."

Dawn waited until the front door closed behind Anita and Jean-Claude before poking Nathaniel in the shoulder. "What?" he asked.

"When Jean-Claude calls Anita ma petite? What does that mean? My little what?"

Nathaniel's face went blank. "I... don't know."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Vampires are weird."


Something woke Dawn up. She sat upright in her bed, pushing the covers back. Straining to hear, she couldn't tell what had startled her awake. Was it a nightmare? She couldn't remember.

What time was it? Dawn didn't have a clock in her room, but it didn't feel too late. She and Nathaniel had been watching a movie, and she must have fallen asleep on the couch. He must have brought her up and tucked her in.

Dawn rubbed at her eyes as she slipped out of bed. The floor was cold under her feet, but she didn't remember where she left her slippers. But she didn't mind cold feet. Especially when she was thirsty.

The house was quiet as she snuck out of her bedroom. She bypassed the bathroom, as sink water was always gross. She was quiet as she tiptoed down the stairs, not wanting to bother Nathaniel. The faint sounds from the living room told Dawn that Nathaniel was still probably watching TV.

Dawn paused at the living room door and peeked inside. Nathaniel was on the couch in an awkwardly boneless position, his eyes closed. From this angle, Dawn couldn't see him breathing.

A trickle of cold wormed its way around her stomach. It was fine, Dawn told herself. Nathaniel was just sleeping. She could wake him up if she needed anything.

Dawn continued down the hall toward the kitchen. The walls around her absorbed all sound, until it was as if she wasn't there at all. She turned the corner into the kitchen, and stopped dead.

There was a vampire in the middle of the kitchen.

Dawn couldn't breathe, couldn't move. She was caught in the vampire's gaze, green eyes so bright, so alien. His blood-red hair spilled over his shoulders as he focused on Dawn.

The moment stretched into an eternity. The vampire was as still as Jean-Claude had been, but this sort of stillness was more dangerous, like a snake waiting before it struck.

Dawn wanted to scream for Nathaniel, but she couldn't open her mouth. Belatedly, she realized why Nathaniel was lying in such a strange position. The vampire must have killed him first and was waiting for someone else to eat!

Panic and fear swept over Dawn, so hard it cramped her stomach. Nathaniel was dead and Anita wasn't there and nothing would save Dawn from dying like Nathaniel had.

The vampire took a step towards Dawn, and the moment shattered. Dawn whirled around and ran as hard as she could, down the hall, up the stairs, toward her room and the only weapon she had. With every step, she expected to be grabbed from behind, to feel vampire fangs sinking into her skin, ripping her apart, killing her for her blood.

Dawn made it through her bedroom door. Some fragment of common sense remained in the tattered fears of her head, and she narrowly avoided slamming the door. She didn't want the vampire to know where she was.

The room was still too empty for her to have any cover. There were no chairs to shove in front of the door, not that a vampire would let a chair stop him.

Quickly, Dawn scrambled across the room and pushed at the mattress until she could grab the sharp butcher knife. She backed up, shivering and so close to tears it hurt her throat. Where could she hide? She'd backed herself into a room, with only one way out. Two if you counted the window.

Dawn looked at the window. It was a two-story drop to the snow, and she didn't have any shoes. She couldn't jump with the knife, either. That left the closet.

Dawn pushed her way into the closet and pushed the door closed again. She could see the room through a crack in the wood. Gripping her knife tight, Dawn crouched down, never taking her eyes off the door.

Now, in the quiet, Dawn couldn't fight the other memories pushing at her head, of Nathaniel lying in an unnatural position on the couch. He was dead, he had to be. And Dawn hadn't done anything to save him.

Grief overwhelmed Dawn. Everyone she loved died or got hurt. Mom, Tara, Buffy, and now Nathaniel. The vampire might be after Dawn next, and there was nothing she could do to protect herself.

The night stretched on forever. It grew colder and colder in the closet, and Dawn's hands numbed until she could hardly hold the knife. But she wasn't going to sleep, not until sunrise and she knew the vampire was gone.

Something creaked in the hallway, and Dawn stopped breathing.

The door to her bedroom opened quietly. A dark shape crossed the room silently, moving toward the bed. Vampire, vampire! Dawn's mind screamed at her. She gripped the knife handle so tightly that the wood bit into her hand.

The vampire laid a hand on the bed, then yanked the covers back. "Dawn?"

It wasn't a vampire. It was Anita.

"Dawn?" Anita said again, her voice growing frantic. She dropped to her knees to look under the bed. "Dawn, where are you?" Anita demanded as she rushed to the window, tested the latch.

Dawn was so relieved that it wasn't a vampire that she let go of the knife with a clatter and fell back to the ground. The next moment, the closet door was opening. "Dawn?" Anita pulled Dawn into her arms. "Why are you in the closet?"

Dawn clung to Anita, burying her face in the woman's neck. She couldn't speak.

"You're freezing," Anita muttered. "Did you have a bad dream?"

Dawn made herself pull back and shake her head. "There was a-- a vampire," she stuttered out. "In the house."

Anita's eyes went wide. "What?" She pushed the hair back from Dawn's neck. "Are you okay? What are you--"

"It ate Nathaniel." The words burned as they came out of her mouth.

Anita's hand stilled on Dawn's shoulder. "What? Nathaniel's fine."

"No he's not!" Dawn shrieked. "It killed him and it was going to kill me!"

"Dawn, you're safe, there are no vampires in the house," Anita tried to say.

"There was so! He was big and tall and he had hair like blood and he was in the kitchen!"

Something shifted in Anita's eyes. "Dawn, you have to listen to me, okay?" she said quietly. "That vampire wasn't going to hurt you, he's a friend of mine."

"No, he's not!" Dawn struggled free of Anita's grip. "He's a vampire and he's big and bad and he killed Nathaniel and you can't have vampire friends because they kill everyone!"

Anita reached out for Dawn, but Dawn kept moving back until she was at the back of the closet. The light from the room flashed silver against the butcher knife on the floor.

Anita froze, hand outstretched over the knife. "Where did this come from?" she asked, voice as cold as ice.

Dawn pressed her back against the closet wall and didn't answer.

Footsteps pounded down the hall. Nathaniel rushed into the room, breathing hard. "What's wrong?" he asked.

Nathaniel wasn't dead. The vampire hadn't eaten him, and one more person wasn't dead because of Dawn.

The world went grey around the edges, and Dawn slid down the wall. She started crying, little sobs that she couldn't stop.

"Nathaniel, please take this knife back downstairs," Anita said. She lifted Dawn into her arms and carried the unresisting girl over to the bed. "I'm going to stay up here tonight."

Dawn was so cold, so scared, and even knowing that the Nathaniel wasn't dead, that the vampire in the kitchen wasn't going to hurt her, didn't make it any better. Anita sat on the edge of the bed, smoothing Dawn's hair back, rocking her as she cried. "Dawn, I'm so sorry," Anita whispered.

"There was a vampire in the kitchen," Dawn said again. The images lurking in the back of her head didn't involve vampires, only big shoulders and broken glass and so much fear and pain. "He wanted blood."

"I'm never going to let anything hurt you," Anita promised, holding Dawn tight.

"There was a vampire in the kitchen," Dawn whispered, staring straight ahead but not seeing.

Chapter Text

"She's not eating."

Dawn stirred her spoon around in the unappetizing bowl of porridge and tried very hard not to listen to Anita and Micah talking out in the hall.

"I know she's not eating, Anita. She doesn't have to eat if she's not hungry."

"Micah--"

"She's been through a lot, and we're not going to make food into an issue with her."

Anita's grumble was pointed. "She won't talk to me."

Micah sighed. "She had a rough night. Give her some time, okay?"

"But what if she represses and gets more messed up?"

That was it. Dawn slapped her spoon on the table and stormed out into the hallway. "I'm not messed up!" Dawn exclaimed. "Don't say that!"

Anita tried to reach out for Dawn, but Dawn shoved her away. Sad guilt anxiety guilt pushed at Dawn's head, pushed her until she hit the wall.

"Enough." Micah's calm voice, low enough to sound like a kitty-cat growl, drove the feelings away into dust. "Dawn, Anita didn't mean what you thought she meant."

"She said I was messed up!" Dawn leaned against Micah's chest, letting him hug her.

"I didn't mean that!"

"Then don't say things you don't mean!"

"I said enough, you two," Micah said. "Anita, maybe you can give us a minute?"

Anita glared at Micah. If Dawn had cared, then the underlying hurt on Anita's face would have made her feel bad. If she cared about what Anita thought, which she so didn't. Without another word, Anita whirled on her heel and marched into the kitchen.

Dawn knew she should let go of Micah. He wasn't her father; he wasn't anything to her. Rather, she wasn't anything to him, him or Anita. If she was, they wouldn't have let a vampire in the house the previous night to try and eat her.

But there was something about Micah that reminded Dawn so much of Oz, and Dawn found that she couldn't let go.

"Do you want to go into the living room?" Micah asked after a minute. Dawn nodded, and tried not to be too surprised when Micah put his arm under her legs and stood up with her. She was never going to get used to this.

And I shouldn't be supposed to, Dawn told herself. They're not my family.

She sniffled.

"Shh," Micah soothed, rubbing circles on her back. Without thinking about it, Dawn threw her arms around his neck and hung on tight. "You're safe, it's okay."

"I know," Dawn said into Micah's neck.

"Do you want to tell me what's wrong?" he asked, sitting down on the couch.

Dawn sniffled again and wriggled around until she was on the couch beside Micah. "No."

"Okay."

Looking at him out of the corner of her eye, Dawn frowned. "Really?"

"Yes, really. You don't have to talk if you don't want to."

"Oh." Dawn thought about that for a minute. "But if I wanted to, you'd listen?"

"Of course."

"But why? You listen to people all day at work, and then here you listen to Anita all the time. Why do you want to listen to me?"

Micah shifted around until he was looking at Dawn. "I like to listen to people, and I like you," he said.

Dawn stared at him, trying to figure out if he was lying. She couldn't tell. "Buffy didn't really have time to listen to me," Dawn said after a minute. Her gaze dropped to the hem of her blue skirt. "She was really busy." To Dawn's horror, her voice cracked.

"It must have been hard," Micah said. "On both you and her, after your mother died."

Dawn pinched a fold of the skirt and flicked at it with her thumbnail. "I guess. There was all this other stuff going on and Buffy didn't have enough time." Time to stop Glory, to save the world, to save Dawn...

No. Dawn jumped off the couch and walked over to the window, trying to rip that thought right out of her head. It wasn't Buffy's fault that she hadn't been able to save Dawn before they got to the tower. She'd been there in the end. When it was too late.

Just like Anita had gotten home the previous night when it was too late to save Dawn from the vampire. Or it would have been, if the vampire had been hungry.

Rearing back, Dawn kicked the leg of the armchair. It didn't even move the chair an inch. Frustrated, she tried again. Nothing. It was like she wasn't even there.

Like she'd been made from nothing into the shape of a girl, a little flesh Pinocchio that hurt everyone around her.

Micah pulled her back before she could kick the chair again. "Stop it," he ordered, picking Dawn up. "You're going to hurt yourself if you keep doing that."

"So what?" Dawn wasn't crying now. A painful lump had settled in her throat, and she didn't know how to get rid of it. "Doesn't matter."

Micah deposited Dawn on the couch, then knelt on the ground so he could look her in the eye. "It does matter. It matters a whole lot, and no one's allowed to tell you differently." His eyes were bright and almost yellow, sort of like a vampy Spike. The tiny sense of familiar was enough to ground Dawn. "If you're frustrated and angry, that's okay. You can tell and scream all you want. But you shouldn't hit or kick things, you might hurt yourself."

Yelling never made it better, but Dawn was too tired to explain that to Micah. She looked down at her hands, stupid baby hands. "You don't have to talk to me like I'm a little kid," she said crossly.

Micah was quiet for a minute. "Maybe you're right," he finally said.

"I am?" Dawn asked, sneaking a peek at him.

"You are." Micah's face was so serious. "Can I ask you some questions, then, person to person?"

Dawn sat up straight and tried to look adult. "Okay."

"It's about last night."

Dawn folded her hands, not wincing as she accidentally pressed her fingers against her healing wrist. "That's fine. I'm not, like, traumatized or anything." She cast a glare in the direction of the kitchen. "Or messed up."

"Hey." Micah touched Dawn's foot, drew her attention back.

"Sorry."

"No, you're not." Micah's smile told her it was okay. "Last night. When you went downstairs, why didn't you go to Nathaniel right away?"

Dawn shrugged. "At first I thought he was sleeping and didn't want to wake him up."

"But after you saw Damian? Why didn't you go to Nathaniel then?"

Dawn's fingers curled around her wrist. "I thought he was dead," she whispered, pushing down the memory of seeing Mom lying dead in the morgue. "If he was dead, then if I went to him the vampire could eat me faster. So I left him there and I didn't check."

"Why would you check?"

"Because if he wasn't dead and I didn't try to wake him up then the vampire would have eaten him and it'd be because I was too scared to save him." The words kept spilling out of Dawn's mouth and she didn't know how to stop. She wanted to think she wasn't a coward, but what could she be but a coward, when she tried to save her own skin over helping a friend?

Micah took hold of her hands and gently but firmly pried her fingers off her wrist. There were tiny red marks on her skin where she'd been gripping her arm too hard. "So you made a decision, a very hard decision."

Dawn shook her head. "You don't get it!" she exclaimed. "It was a decision based on being scared! Decisions should be based on reasoned thought and rational logic!" It sounded like something Giles would have said at some point, but Dawn didn't want to think of Giles and what he'd think of her for letting Nathaniel sleep while she hid from the vampire in the house.

"Sometimes, you don't have a choice," Micah said. "Sometimes you have to make a decision when you're so scared that you can taste it. Sometimes it's the wrong decision, but there's nothing you can do."

A flash of memory, of pain and darkness and despair, swept past Dawn, too fast for her to catch it. "Did you have to do something like that?" she asked in a tiny voice. "Make a choice?"

There was no mistaking the pain in Micah's eyes. "Yes."

Dawn crawled to the edge of the couch and gave Micah a hug. "I'm sorry," she whispered, wishing that would make it better. Buffy had to make decisions like that, and Dawn had seen how it ate away at her soul.

"Thanks." Micah hugged Dawn back, bear-hug-tight for an instant, then lifted her back to the couch. "You did the right thing, Dawn, to protect yourself."

"But Anita said the vampire wouldn't hurt me," Dawn said with a frown.

"Damian won't. But that's not the point," Micah said. "I know you're young, but you've been through a lot of stuff, so I think you'll understand what I mean. You need to make sure you can protect yourself."

"But Nathaniel--"

"Nathaniel is a wereleopard. If there had been a stranger in the house, he'd have woken up. Same with me, or Anita. No one's getting in here who can hurt you."

Dawn breathed out shakily. "I thought you were supposed to tell me that someone will always be around to protect me."

"Yeah, I probably am." Micah smiled wryly. "And Anita's probably going to kill me for saying this stuff to you."

"She shouldn't," Dawn said, scowling. "She's the one who lets stupid vampires in the house."

"Dawn, Damian won't hurt you. None of the vampires who can come in the house will hurt you."

A tendril of worry snaked its way through Dawn's stomach, a vague terrifying fear of something she couldn't put her finger on. "I don't want to talk about this anymore," she said quickly. "Can we talk about other stuff?"

"If you want," Micah said, then hesitated. He turned his head a moment before Nathaniel appeared in the doorway.

"Are you leaving?" Dawn squeaked, taking in the gym bag in Nathaniel's hand. She hopped off the couch and ran across the room. "Where are you going? Are you coming back?"

Nathaniel knelt down. "I was going to go to the fitness center with Jason, and of course I'm coming back," he said, glancing over Dawn's shoulder to Micah. "Is that okay?"

"Of course it is," Micah said. "What do you think, Dawn?"

Why did it matter what Dawn thought? Still, she shrugged as if she didn't care. "Why do you have to go to the gym?"

"For work."

In spite of herself, Dawn was curious. Why would a stripper have to go to the gym? "How often do you have to go?"

"Usually six times a week." Nathaniel didn't resist as Dawn lifted up his arm and pushed back the sleeve of his t-shirt. "Jason doesn't like to go to the gym alone, so we go together."

"Uh huh." Dawn poked a finger into Nathaniel's arm. "Make a muscle."

Nathaniel obliged, flexing his bicep.

"Cool." Dawn let go of Nathaniel's arm. "Hey, do you have to work out with more weight because you're a lycanthrope?"

Nathaniel frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Because you're so strong. Do you have to bench-press small cars? Can you bench-press a car?"

"You're right, Dawn, lycanthropes do need to lift more weight than humans to get a good workout, but not as much as a car," Micah explained.

Nathaniel was still staring at Dawn, confused. Dawn started to worry. Was it okay she'd asked that?

"It was a good question," Micah added. He put his hand on Dawn's shoulder. "You always have good questions."

A surge of pride washed through Dawn, that she had a Nimir-raj who would answer a child's questions and be to supportive, not like all the foster homes that she'd been in--

Dawn took a step back, shaking her head hard. Those weren't her thoughts and she knew it. Concentrating, she pushed the thoughts out of her head. Why was it easier for her to read Nathaniel's thoughts and not Micah's? This whole stupid telepathy thing was just that -- stupid and dumb.

She opened her eyes to Nathaniel. "Have a good work-out," she said. "See you later."

Nathaniel tried to smile, but the expression never made it to his eyes. "Have fun with Micah and Anita."

Dawn managed to not scowl at Anita's name.

As the front door closed behind Nathaniel, Micah looked at Dawn. "What do you want to do today?"

"I don't know."

"Do you want to play in the snow?"

The memory of how cold she'd been the night before sent a shiver up Dawn's spine. "No."

"Well, it's up to you. Whatever you want to do today, we can do that."

All Dawn wanted was to find a way to go home to Buffy, but she couldn't ask Micah for books to research traveling to other dimensions. They'd lock up her in a mental hospital, like Mom and Dad had done to Buffy before Sunnydale. "Don't you have to go to work?" Dawn asked, trying to stall.

"Not today. I asked someone to cover my shift."

"Why? Because of last night?"

Micah propped his chin up on his hand. "A little. But also because I wanted to spend some time with you and Anita."

"Oh." Dawn didn't know what she was supposed to say. In all her experience, she'd never know a guy who wanted to spend time with her if there wasn't something in it for them. Dad was always working before the divorce, Giles had to be there for Buffy, Riley was only there for Buffy, Spike was only there for Buffy... Dawn was beginning to sense a theme. But then, Micah had said he wanted to spend the day with Anita too. That made more sense. Swallowing down the sense of disappointment, that no one wanted to spend time with just her, Dawn bit her lower lip. "Maybe..."

"Yes?"

Dawn tried to tell herself that if he said no, it'd be okay. "Is there a zoo in St. Louis?"

"Yes, there is." Micah smiled. "Do you want to go to the zoo?"

Shyly, Dawn nodded. "Can we? Buffy never let me go to the zoo in Sunnydale."

"Why not?"

"Evil hyenas," Dawn let slip. She clapped her hands over her mouth, feeling like she'd just messed up big-time. "I mean... hyena are like, evil-looking, and Buffy thought I'd be scared."

Micah blinked. "Are you scared of hyenas?"

"No way!" Which was true. She'd never been possessed by evil hyenas. "Or bunnies."

Micah let that one go. "How about we go tell Anita we're going to the zoo?"

"Do you think she'll want to go?"

"I think she will." Micah leaned closer. "Can I tell you something?" Dawn nodded. "Anita did her college degree in biology. She loves the zoo."

In spite of herself, Dawn couldn't quite hold onto her irritation at Anita. "Cool."


Dawn was chewing on the tuna sandwich Micah made to replace her soggy breakfast when Anita's cell phone rang. With a muttered curse, Anita handed the phone to Micah and kept driving.

"Anita's phone," Micah said into the receiver. "Hi, Miss Wendell."

Dawn swallowed quickly. Miss Wendell, the social worker? What did she want?

"Anita's driving right now," Micah continued. "Yes, she's with us. Has something... Okay." Micah turned to look in the backseat. "Sure, you can talk to her." He held the phone out to Dawn. "Miss Wendell wants to talk to you."

Dawn held her hands up. "I'm covered in mayonnaise." She waggled her fingers at him.

Micah put the phone back to his ear. "One second, please." He undid his seatbelt and leaned over the seats to wipe Dawn's hands with a napkin. "Here you go, Dawn."

No longer covered in goop, Dawn lifted the cell phone to her ear. "Hello?"

"Dawn, hello. It's Miss Wendell, the social worker. We met two days ago?"

Dawn rolled her eyes. "I remember you. How are you?"

"I'm... fine. Dawn, how are you doing?"

There was no way Dawn was telling the social worker about the vampire incident. "I'm good. We're going to the zoo. Micah's taking the day off to go with me and Anita to the zoo and we're going to look at the animals." What else would a well-adjusted five-year-old child say to a social worker? "I've got nice winter clothing too, and a jacket with a bow."

Micah gave her a look over the seats.

"That's good," Miss Wendell said. "Do you like staying with Anita and Micah?"

"Yes," Dawn said immediately. "Micah let me help make sandwiches, and me and Nathaniel made cookies yesterday." Dawn was aware that she was channeling Nathaniel's inner foster child, where everything was a worry about food and warmth, but she couldn't help herself. "Everyone's really nice."

"That's good," Miss Wendell said quietly. "I'm glad to hear you so happy."

Just in time, Dawn bit back a snappy comment. She wasn't going to talk about the vampires she'd met, or the thing with the knife, or Richard's little hissy fit, or how much she missed Buffy. "Yeah."

"May I speak with Micah again?"

"Okay." Dawn held the phone out. "Here."

While Micah spoke quietly with the social worker, Dawn went back to her sandwich. Why had Miss Wendell called? Maybe she'd gone past the house and everyone was gone. Suddenly, Dawn was very glad that Nathaniel had put the knife back in the kitchen.

"What was that about?" Anita asked when the call ended, bringing Dawn out of her thoughts.

"She wanted to tell me they haven't found a permanent placement for Dawn yet," Micah said. Dawn tried to ignore his words, the nauseating fluttering in the pit of her stomach. Micah didn't sound too upset that Dawn got to stay. "She also wanted to check in on Dawn."

"Right," Anita scoffed, gripping the steering wheel tight. "More like check up on us."

Dawn kicked the back of Anita's seat. "Stop thinking the worst of everyone," she said. "She just asked if I was okay. You ask me that all the time."

"That's different."

"You know, if you didn't want to spend time with me, you didn't have to," Dawn continued.

Luckily, they were stopped at a red light, because Anita turned around to give Dawn a confused look. "What do you mean?"

Dawn gripped her sandwich hard. "Nothing."

"Dawn--"

"It's nothing." Suddenly, Dawn wasn't hungry anymore. The food in her stomach was like a lead ball, cold and dragging her down. It was the same feeling Dawn had with Buffy, when Buffy was too busy saving the world to spend time with Dawn.

"That's so not it!" Honking behind them made Anita look back at the road. "Dawn, I want to spend time with you."

"Yeah, right."

Anita took a deep breath. "If I didn't want to spend time with you, I wouldn't be here."

"You're only here because Micah wanted you here." Dawn felt the lump in her stomach flop around like a live fish.

"That is not true." Anita's voice was fragile, making Dawn feel like the worst person in the world. "I do a lot of things Micah doesn't want me to do."

"Anita," Micah chided. "Dawn, Anita means that she is here because she wants to be, not because anyone's making her do things. She's very stubborn that way."

Dawn stared at her sandwich, like it was a crystal ball that would give her answers.

"We're almost to the zoo," Anita said. "How about we spend some time there and then see what we feel like?"

"Fine." Dawn ripped a tiny shred of crust off the sandwich and stuck it in her mouth so she wouldn't have to talk. Everything that came out of her mouth just seemed to make things worse, anyway.


In spite of the mess she kept making with Anita, the zoo was really very cool. Anita and Micah took her to see the tigers and camels and the bears, and they went for a ride on the train, Anita making little snarky comments under her breath that made Dawn giggle.

Dawn should have know it would be too good to last. After going through the bird exhibit, which was quiet and boring, Dawn dragged Micah and Anita into the direction of a large, modern building. She didn't know what was inside, but it had to be less boring than birds, right?

Now, staring at the huge cobra behind the glass, Dawn tried very hard not to freak out. It had been her idea to come in here, but all she wanted to do was start screaming. The memory of the giant Snake-Man that had been after her in the Magic Box was so close she could almost touch it, the big black eyes, the fangs almost a foot long, the huge hood of the snake...

Then Anita was lifting her up and carrying her out of the building. Dawn could only cling to Anita for dear life. She was shaking and cold and sick to her stomach, and in that moment she wanted nothing more than to forget everything she'd ever known.

"Shh," Anita said, walking back and forth with Dawn in her arms. "The snakes can't hurt you. It's cold outside and snakes are all sleeping now." Anita put her hand on Dawn's head, holding her safe. "Micah can smell any snake a mile away. You're safe."

"'S'not it," Dawn whispered.

"Can you tell us what's wrong?" Micah asked. Dawn lifted her head to see Micah standing right beside Anita.

Dawn sniffed hard. "I'm not supposed to talk about it," she said. It was like all the other stuff from her life, with vampires and Slayers and hell-goddesses.

"You can tell us anything," Anita said firmly.

More than anything, Dawn wanted to tell Anita what was going on. But how could she, when there was no way Anita would believe her?

"Sometimes things are less scary when you talk about them," Micah added.

"Maybe," Dawn whispered. She gripped Anita's jacket hard. "Last year, a snake came after me. It was really big, and had big fangs, and a big hood."

"A cobra?" Anita asked.

Dawn nodded. "It was so big, taller than you."

"What happened?" Micah questioned.

"Buffy chased it away and killed it." Dawn leaned back into Anita's shoulder. "But that doesn't make it any better."

Anita held Dawn tight. "You're safe from snakes. Nothing is going to get you."

Eyes burning, Dawn refused to cry. She wasn't a baby that cried at everything. Buffy never cried when she was scared, and Dawn was willing to bet Anita didn't, either.

"You know what?" Micah asked. Dawn looked up at him. "Sometimes, when you're scared, or lonely, it's okay to let others know. And it's okay to cry." He smiled at her. "Tears are nature's way of helping us cope."

"I thought they were nature's way of making sure our eyeballs didn't stick to the insides of our eye sockets," Dawn countered.

Anita shuddered. "Gross."

"You raise zombies, why is that gross?" Dawn asked, grateful for a change of topic. The more time she spent away from snakes, the better she felt. Maybe Micah was right about talking things through. And maybe denial was just a river in Egypt.

"Dawn," Micah said. "We're here for you, if you need us."

Dawn looked from Micah to Anita. "Really?"

"Of course," Micah said.

Anita nodded and smiled, but Dawn knew that the tiny sense of doubt and loss wasn't coming from Micah or herself. And that only left one person.

Dawn swallowed her tears down. If Anita didn't really want her, that was okay, she told herself. Anita wasn't Buffy.


"I still don't see why Micah can't come in with us," Dawn complained. She held tight to Anita's hand as they wound their way into the children's petting zoo.

"Because the animals can sense the leopard in him, and they freak out," Anita explained. "It's better for everyone if he waits outside."

"So it wasn't just that he wanted to check his voicemail?"

Anita's hand tightened around Dawn's palm. "No." Her voice had an impressive growl to it.

"Micah works too hard," Dawn said, pressing tighter to Anita. The place wasn't too full, but everyone seemed so big, so unlike Sunnydale. Even the children seemed huge.

"Yes, he does," Anita agreed. "What do you want to see first?"

"I don't know." Now that they were around so many people in a crowded space, anxiety pressed in on Dawn. "Maybe we should go."

Anita picked Dawn up and carried her over to the wall. "Can you feel all the people in here?" Anita asked quietly. "Nathaniel said you were the same way in the supermarket the other day."

Dawn concentrated on breathing evenly. "I think so."

Anita looked so concerned, Dawn wanted to lie to her and tell her it would be okay.

"I've got an idea," Anita said quietly. "How would you like to try blocking what's happening?"

"Okay."

Anita pushed a strand of hair out of Dawn's eyes. "Can you think of something that makes you feel comfortable and safe? A place?"

Dawn thought about that. No place had ever really seemed safe, not the house in Sunnydale, not her room. The only time she felt in control of her life was when she was writing in her journal. Maybe that would work. "I think so."

"Good." Anita shifted Dawn up higher in her arms. "Now, concentrate on being in that place, all alone, and being safe there. Can you do that?"

Dawn closed her eyes and imagined herself writing in her journal, putting all her fears down on paper and leaving them there. Gradually, the panic lifted, as Dawn put it all on those imaginary pages. When her panic was far enough away that she could breathe again, Dawn opened her eyes. "I think it may have worked."

"Good." There was a wealth of relief on Anita's face. "Good. Do you want to see the animals now?"

"Okay." Dawn wiggled until Anita put her down, then she caught Anita's hand and dragged her over to the baby bunny pen. They stood watching for a minute, then Dawn looked up at Anita. "Do you like bunnies?"

"I do." Anita knelt down, and put her hand on Dawn's back. "Do you want to know a cool thing about bunnies?"

"Uh huh."

"Well, bunnies partly regulate their temperature through their ears..."


Nathaniel met them at the front door to the house. The sun had set on the drive back, and even though it had been an exciting day and she was hungry for dinner, Dawn had barely been able to keep her eyes open. But when she saw Nathaniel, shoulders tense, she woke up all the way.

"Damian wants to apologize for scaring Dawn," Nathaniel said as soon as Anita closed the door behind her.

"What?" Anita demanded. "What on earth--"

"Can I meet him?" Dawn interrupted, tugging on Anita's sleeve. "Can I meet the vampire?"

"No," Anita said. Her jaw was clenched and she looked mad. "There is to be no meeting of vampires."

"But I got to meet Jean-Claude, and you said Damian's not going to hurt me, so why not?" Dawn demanded.

"Because I said so."

Dawn put her hands on her hips. "That's the worst reason ever!"

"Anita," Micah interrupted. "Dawn's right, it might help her deal with what happened last night if she were to meet Damian."

"See?" Dawn said, ignoring how Micah still apparently thought she needed 'help'. "Please?" She stuck out her lower lip into a pout. "With sugar on top?"

"For crying out loud," Anita said. She looked down the hall. "Wait here, I'm going to go talk to him first."

Dawn waited until Anita vanished around the corner, then she grabbed Nathaniel's hand. "Is he mad?"

"Is who mad?"

"The vampire!"

"No, he's not. He was worried that he'd scared you."

"He didn't scare--" Dawn cut herself off. He had scared her, and everyone knew it, so she changed topic. "Is he scary? Like a big bad? Or is he just a little bad?"

At a loss, Nathaniel looked at Micah.

"Damian's not a 'bad' guy, Dawn," Micah explained. "There are some good vampires, and some bad vampires."

That she understood. Most Sunnydale vampires were bad, but Angel was good, and Spike wasn't so bad anymore. "So Damian's good?"

"Yes."

"And he won't eat me he if gets hungry?"

"No."

"What does he eat?" Dawn asked. "Pig's blood?"

"That is disgusting," came a deep voice from down the hall.

Dawn whirled around to see the big vampire close, looming behind Anita, and she bit down an urge to run. Anita and Micah and Nathaniel were there, and they had said the vampire was safe. "Then what do you eat? Do you kill people?"

"I do not kill people."

The more she looked at the vampire, the more Dawn realized that he appeared uneasy. She also realized that she couldn't sense a single thing off him. Weird. "But if you don't eat pig's blood, and you don't kill people, how do you eat?"

"A vampire does not need to kill to feed," Damian said. He raised an eyebrow at her. "An adult human has more than enough blood to spare a pint."

"What about a kid?" Dawn asked. "How much blood do they have?" She'd had this conversation with Spike once, about how much blood different people had. It was strange to be having it with another vampire.

The vampire's expression wiped clean. "The human laws prevent vampires from feeding on anyone under the age of eighteen, willing or not."

"Christ, Damian, are you trying to freak her out?" Anita demanded. "Dawn, vampires don't feed on children. Ever."

Dawn wrinkled her nose at Anita. "Do all vampires obey human laws? No. They're vampires. They are like all vampirey and creepy and stuff."

"Regardless, vampires must obey their Master," Damian said over Anita's head. "The Masters in this land have declared that human laws are to be followed. As such, we do not harm children."

"What if you do?" Dawn asked. "Not Damian you, but generic lurky vampire you?"

"Then the human laws have decreed that the vampire in question be executed," Damian said with grim finality. "By the human Executioner."

Dawn's eyes nearly bugged out of her head. They had something like a Slayer in this world? "Who's that?" she demanded. Maybe a Slayer would know how to get Dawn home--

"Me," Anita said softly. She refused to look at Dawn. "I'm the Executioner." She tried to smile, and failed miserably.

Dawn's mouth went dry. Now, she finally understood why she felt so safe with Anita, why she'd been dropped into this world at Anita's feet.

In this world, Anita was the Slayer.

Chapter Text

Buffy stared down at Dawn, peering through a hole ripped in the ceiling, blood on her lips and pouring down her chin. Her mouth was moving, slowly, but only choking sounds came out. She was looking for Dawn, but Dawn was hiding and Buffy would never be able to find her.

Dawn woke up, a scream caught in her throat. The ceiling was dark and whole, the house quiet. The prickly fear of her dream pushed Dawn up out of bed and had her running towards the bedroom door.

How could she have been so stupid? How could she have left the graveyard without even a note as to where she'd gone? What if Buffy and Willow and everyone back in Sunnydale were trying to find her? She had to go to the cemetery, now, and find Buffy!

Dawn bumped her way down the stairs in the dark, tripping over her feet on the bottom step. She scrambled up and crashed heavily into the front door. Turning the lock on the door knob was easy, but she had to jump three times to get the dead-bolt unlocked.

A commotion behind her almost distracted her, but then the door was open and Dawn took off, down the steps, into freezing snow in bare feet.

She'd almost reached the edge of the yard when strong arms scooped her up and held her tight. "Dawn, what are you doing?" Anita demanded.

Dawn struggled, but Anita's hold was like steel. "I have to go to the graveyard!" Dawn cried, wriggling and twisting. "Let me go! I have to find Buffy!"

"Micah, help me!" More hands joined Anita's, and distantly Dawn realized they were carrying her back into the house.

The door closed firmly behind them, the locks turning loud in Dawn's head. The door was between her and Buffy, and Buffy had to be looking for her. Dawn couldn't fail Buffy, not like that.

"Let me go!" Dawn pleaded. "I have to go to the graveyard! Buffy's not going to be able to find me!"

Anita sat on the couch, holding Dawn firmly in her lap. "Dawn, you have to calm down! What's wrong?"

"Buffy's trying to find me!" Dawn twisted in Anita's arms, trying to make the woman understand. "I have to go or else she won't find me!"

"Dawn, stop it!" Anita ordered. "Did Buffy contact you?"

"Yes! I had a dream and Buffy was looking for me and I have to go!" Dawn tried to stand up in Anita's lap, but then Micah was wrapping a quilt around her and she couldn't struggle free.

Anita pushed the hair back from Dawn's face. "Dawn, it was just a dream," she said quietly. "It's not real, you can't go running out of the house because of a dream."

"It wasn't a dream," Dawn said. Frustration and failure and panic welled up in her chest, and she started to cry. "Buffy's looking for me and she doesn't know where I went."

Anita pulled Dawn into a tight hug and rocked her back and forth. Dawn couldn't stop crying. Everything came pouring out, the grief for Mom, of missing Buffy, of Tara hurt and Spike hurt and Buffy falling, all because of Dawn.

The choking sobs finally slowed, letting Dawn gasp to catch her breath. Anita rubbed circles on Dawn's back through the quilt, slowly warming her.

Dawn realized that Micah and Nathaniel were both in the room, sitting on either side of Anita. Micah's hand joined Anita's on Dawn's back, his voice a low rumbling purr.

The tears finally stopped, leaving Dawn drained. She had failed. She should have been smarter after she fell into the cemetery, should have taken steps to make sure Buffy would be able to find her. Instead, she'd hidden behind Anita and let someone else take care of her, like always. Now Buffy would never find her, and it was all Dawn's fault.

Anita whispered something over her shoulder, then the couch dipped slightly as Nathaniel stood up. Dawn watched him as he walked out of the darkened living room, unable to summon enough energy to move. What was the point in moving, if she'd failed? She'd never see Buffy again, and it was all her fault.

Nathaniel came back into the room and sat back down. Anita freed one arm from the tight hold on Dawn to take the thing Nathaniel had gone to get. "Dawn?"

"What?" Dawn asked listlessly.

Anita turned Dawn in her lap and placed something into Dawn's hands. "This is Sigmund," she said, indicating the stuffed penguin. "He's my penguin."

Dawn just looked at the toy.

"It just occurred to me that we hadn't given you any toys, and that you might like Sigmund if you were scared."

The uncertainty in Anita's voice made Dawn's teeth ache. But everyone was looking at her expectantly, so Dawn reached out and pulled the stuffed toy into her arms.

"He's a good friend," Anita said softly. She gathered Dawn up again as Dawn touched Sigmund's fuzzy belly. "Do you think you can tell me what happened?"

Dawn poked at Sigmund's glass eyes. "I had a dream," she whispered. "Buffy was looking for me and I thought that if I went back to the graveyard where I fell, I'd find her and she'd find me and I could go home."

"Do you know where Buffy is?" Micah interjected.

Dawn shook her head. Against her will, her arms tightened around Sigmund until she was holding him as tightly to her chest as Anita had been holding her, just a few minutes before.

"Then why do you think that you'd find her at the cemetery?" Anita asked.

Sigmund smelled like lavender, Dawn realized when she buried her nose in the penguin's head. "The witch freaked out at the graveyard."

"What?"

"I think she's talking about the witch who went to the cemetery with Detective Zerbrowski," Nathaniel said. "You said something about contagious insanity."

"Screaming contagious insanity," Dawn corrected. "Maybe that means that Buffy was trying to find me."

Anita pulled away from Dawn. "What the hell would Buffy be doing to try to find you, if that was the result?" she demanded.

Dawn hugged Sigmund harder. "I don't know!" she exclaimed, which wasn't a lie. Dawn had no idea how Buffy may try to find her, across dimensions. Maybe it was Willow's magic--

Sudden overwhelming terror swept over Dawn, tightening her muscles and making it impossible to breathe. What if Glory was trying to find her? What if it was Glory all along that had made everything so crazy? If Glory tried to come through to find Dawn, there would be no one to protect her, no Slayer to keep her safe!

Anita's voice in her ear pulled Dawn back from the edge of terror. "What happened to Miranda, it's not happening anymore," Anita was saying. "She went back yesterday, her and another witch I know, Tammy. There's nothing there. The area is clear. Whatever happened, it's over."

Over. No chance of Glory coming through to destroy her, but no chance that Buffy might have found a way to cross dimensions to save Dawn.

She'd thought that by jumping to save the world, she had done the right thing. But now, all she could think about was how much she missed her sister.


"How do you want your egg cooked?" Nathaniel asked, flipping a pancake on the griddle.

Dawn made a face. "Eggs are icky," she said, holding up Sigmund. "How can you talk about eggs around this poor bird?"

"You liked eggs two days ago," Nathaniel reminded her. He put the spatula down and lifted Dawn onto the counter beside the stove. "Be careful," he cautioned.

"I won't burn myself," she promised. "And that was omelets, not eggs. So different."

"Do you want an omelet?"

"I thought we were having pancakes," Dawn tried to distract Nathaniel.

He gave her a tired look. "You need proper nutrition. That means a pancake and an egg."

"What if I can't eat all that?"

"Will you try?"

Dawn stared at Nathaniel over Sigmund's head. He really wanted her to be healthy, she knew that in her head. "Does Anita eat proper? I mean, properly?" Dawn asked.

"Sometimes," Nathaniel said. He smiled. "I'm trying to get her to eat better."

"I'll have an egg if Anita has one too," Dawn said, as Anita and Micah came into the kitchen. Both were dressed, but only Anita seemed as tired as Nathaniel from being up all night, Dawn realized with a twinge in her stomach. "If she wants one."

"What's this about eggs?" Anita asked. She came over to where Dawn was seated on the counter and dropped a kiss onto Dawn's hair. Gripping Sigmund by one flipper, Dawn hugged Anita hard.

"Do you want an egg?" Dawn asked, looking up. "Nathaniel said that he could make you one, and then I could have one too."

"That sounds like an excellent idea," Anita said. "How are you feeling this morning?"

"I'm okay," Dawn admitted, letting go of Anita and pulling Sigmund back into the two-handed grip she'd been using all morning.

"How do your feet feel?"

"Okay." Dawn straightened her legs so she could see her slippers. "I like these, they're purple."

"Purple is a pretty awesome color," Anita agreed. She gave Dawn another quick hug before moving in the direction of the coffee pot.

"How about a mini omelet?" Dawn suggested. "Make it really tiny? So it can only fit around a tiny shred of cheese? So tiny even a mouse couldn't find it?"

Nathaniel shook his head, but he was smiling. "Or I can make a really big omelet for you and Anita, and then you have a small part of it."

"Okay," Dawn conceded. "But no mushrooms!"

"I remember. No mushrooms, no pepper on top, only in the eggs, and under no circumstances are there to be green onions." Nathaniel headed over to the fridge, ducking around Micah, who was digging something out of the freezer. "Is that right?"

"Uh huh." Dawn settled on the counter to watch the barely controlled chaos of the three adults moving around the kitchen, getting breakfast. She was beginning to see patterns in what they did. Anita always planted herself in front of the coffee maker, immovable and oblivious as a rock, until after she'd had at least ten ounces of coffee.

Nathaniel gravitated around Anita like a moon around a planet, an analogy that Dawn was extremely proud of. He was always watching everyone without making it obvious. Sort of like Buffy, looking for danger, only Nathaniel seemed to be expecting to have to take the blow, where Buffy would be looking to solve the solution with violence.

Micah was harder to figure out. Sometimes he focused carefully on Anita, other times he did his own thing. Like now. Dawn frowned as she watched Micah take two piece of bread out of the bag, then put the bag back in the freezer. "What are you doing?" Dawn asked, craning her neck to see.

"I'm making a sandwich," Micah said.

"Oh." Dawn snuck a glance at Nathaniel, who didn't seem upset. "Nathaniel makes really good omelets. And we have pancakes."

"I know." Micah smiled at Dawn. "But whenever I'm up all night, I like a chicken sandwich in the morning."

Dawn deflated a little. The reason he'd been up all night was Dawn, and no one actually liked being awake all night. Buffy had made that very clear on many occasions.

"Hey, it's okay," Micah said, patting Dawn's knee. "I started doing this in college, it's a tradition. In my first semester of college, I had to pull an all-night study session for my psychology exam, and I only had time to grab a chicken sandwich before the exam."

"How did you do?" Dawn asked, intrigued.

Micah laughed. "Let's just say I did a lot better on the exam the second time around," he said.

Dawn giggled, hiding her mouth behind Sigmund.

Anita came up behind Micah and put her arms around his waist. "I didn't know that about you," she said.

"Don't you have any weird food things?" Micah asked.

"Only about coffee!" Dawn interjected, giggling some more.

Anita gave Dawn a mock-stern look. "You're not one to talk about caffeinated products, little miss 'I want coffee'."

"But coffee is yummy!" Dawn protested. She paused. "Can I have some coffee?"

"No," the three adults said in near-unison.

"Please?" Dawn stuck out her lower lip in a pout. "Pretty please? With sugar on top?"

"No, no, and once again, no," Anita said.

"How about decaf? I know we have some, it's in the cupboard with the vanilla."

Anita sighed. "Who told her about decaf?"

"I found it when I was looking through the cupboards. Buffy said that drinking decaf coffee with artificial sweetener and fake creamer was like ingesting an existential crisis, and that it leaves a gross film on your tongue. Just like reading Kafka."

Anita held up her hands. "Stop," she ordered. "It's too early for you to be doing this." The phone rang. "I'll get it."

Dawn made Sigmund do a little penguin dance on her lap. That was interesting for a few seconds, then she started looking around for something else to do. Micah was slicing cold roasted chicken. Not interesting. Nathaniel was whisking a bowlful of raw eggs and frowning. Also uninteresting. Maybe watching Anita would be a little more exciting.

The woman picked up the portable phone by the table and brought it to her ear. "Hello?"

Dawn was just thinking how it would be cool if she could convince Anita to let her use the phone, when the bottom dropped out of her stomach, cold and full of loss. Across the kitchen, all the color drained from Anita's face as she listened the person on the phone.

"Anita?" Nathaniel said, dropping the whisk into the bowl of eggs. He hurried across the room, but Anita put out her hand to stop him. "Yes, I understand," the woman said to the phone. "When?"

"Micah?" Dawn whispered. In a moment, Micah was at her side, his hand on her shoulder. She wrapped her arms around Sigmund, vibrating with the unexplained emotions. Then the surge of immediate panic washed over Dawn. She bit her lip hard. She wasn't going to cry. She had no idea what was going on, but she wasn't going to cry.

"I'll see you there," Anita said. "No, I'll do it. Just-- I'll do it. In an hour." With a faintly trembling hand, Anita laid the phone in its cradle.

"Anita, what's happening?" Nathaniel demanded. "Is someone hurt?"

Anita shook her head. "No one's hurt." She cleared her throat. "That was Ms. Wendell, Dawn's social worker."

"No," Nathaniel said immediately. He took a step back.

"They found Dawn a permanent placement," Anita continued. "I'm meeting her there-- I mean, I'm taking Dawn over there in an hour."

A permanent placement. Dawn felt as if Anita had just said she was being flung back into Glory's hands. "You said you'd take care of me," Dawn whispered. Even as she said the words, she knew it wasn't true. That first night in the hospital, Anita had promised to keep Dawn safe. She hadn't said anything about keeping Dawn.

"Anita, you can't do this!" Nathaniel exclaimed.

"We knew this wasn't permanent!" Anita shot back at him. She opened her mouth to say more, but Micah interrupted.

"Everyone, stop," he ordered as he lifted Dawn off the counter. He knelt in front of Dawn. "Dawn, do you think you can go upstairs and get dressed? I need to talk to Nathaniel and Anita for a minute. Then we'll come up and help you, okay?"

Mechanically, Dawn nodded. Anita wouldn't look at her, and Nathaniel only had eyes for Anita. Dawn slowly walked out of the kitchen, dragging her feet on every step.

Anita was giving her away. In her head, Dawn knew that wasn't true, that this whole thing had been temporary, but in her heart, Dawn felt abandoned. It would have been like Buffy giving up on her.

Behind her, voices rose in argument. Suddenly angry, Dawn sat down at the top of the stairs, plunking Sigmund on her lap. They were fighting about her, and she was going to listen!

"Anita, you don't know what foster care is like!" Nathaniel was saying. "What kind of foster placement would want Dawn? After all those ones that refused her before?"

"Ms. Wendell said it was okay," Anita protested.

"She was never in foster care!" Nathaniel's voice edged on panic. "She's never been the youngest or the most vulnerable in someone else's house, Anita! Why won't you listen to me on this? I thought we were going to keep Dawn, what happened to that?"

"We can't keep her! It's not safe, not with all the crap that comes down on us!"

"So you're throwing her to the wolves because she's an inconvenience? You used to think the same thing about me, am I the next one out the door?"

"Nathaniel!" Micah's interjection didn't stop the building emotional hurricane in Dawn's head. She knew that these weren't all her feelings, but that didn't stop the onslaught. Even holding Sigmund couldn't keep the pain at bay.

"Why are you talking to me like this?" Anita demanded. "You know I love you, that I always want you here! There's just no place in our lives for a child!"

"Are you sure you're still talking about Dawn?" The sarcasm and false bravado bounced around in Dawn's head, and she shrunk in, expecting to be hit by... The dark shapes in Nathaniel's mind danced around Dawn, making her feel tiny and alone and so scared, without hope.

"What the hell do you mean by that? Nathaniel? Where are you going?"

A door slammed somewhere in the house, but the fear squeezing Dawn's heart didn't abate.

The voices in the kitchen dropped to a soft murmur, too quiet for Dawn to make out words. She didn't need to. They weren't going to keep her. Even though Anita was like the Slayer, and Dawn would have no one to protect her.

Why didn't anybody want her?

Micah came down the corridor and spotted Dawn at the top of the stairs. With a sigh, he climbed the steps and held out his hand to her. "Let's go get you dressed," he said.

Reluctantly, Dawn took Micah's hand and let him help her to her feet. The hallway to her bedroom was too normal. Everything should look horrible, not all the same as before. It wasn't right.

"So, what are you going to wear?" Micah asked, full of subdued cheer. "How about a nice dress?"

Dawn pulled her hand away from Micah. "I thought you were going to keep me," she whispered. "I thought..."

"Oh, Dawn." Micah went down on one knee in front of Dawn. "All this... It was only for a little while, until we found a place for you to stay."

Dawn stared at Sigmund, mainly to avoid looking at Micah. "I have a place to stay. Nathaniel wants me to stay."

"I'm sorry, Dawn." Micah touched Dawn's hand. "They don't let people like me take care of children."

"But they did!" Dawn argued. "For a little while, and nothing bad happened! No one ate me, no one kidnapped me! Can't you just tell them that I'm fine and I can stay?"

"I wish I could," Micah said. "You're an amazing little girl, and I know that any foster family will be lucky to have you."

Dawn had always found it hard to read Micah's mind. In spite of that, sadness trickled down her spine. "Will you miss me?"

Micah smiled, so sad. "I will."

Dawn dropped Sigmund and flung herself at Micah, hugging him as tight as her little girl arms could. "I'll miss you too."

The way Micah hugged her made Dawn feel safe. Was this what it would be like to have a dad? If so, the Dawn could almost understand why Buffy was always so mad that Hank Summers left them.

Finally, Dawn let go of Micah. He reached past her to grab a tissue from the box by the bed, and wiped the tears from her cheeks. "It's going to be all right," he promised. "Miss Wendell will be checking up on you often, and Anita and RPIT aren't going to give up looking for your family." He hesitated, then pulled out his wallet. "I want you to take this," he said, handing her what looked like a credit card.

"What is it?" Dawn asked, flipping it over.

"It's a calling card. You can call us wherever you are, if you're lonely or sad." Micah took a slip of paper out of his wallet next, and grabbed the pen on top of Dawn's journal. "This is my cell number, and you know the house number, right?"

"Yes." Dawn traced the picture on the card. This was actually happening. She was going to leave. They were going to make her leave.

No, she realized. That wasn't fair. Anita was going to make her leave.

"The instructions are on the back of the card," Micah said. "Are they too hard? I know you're smart..."

"I get it." Dawn placed the card and the paper on the bed. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

Nathaniel walked into the room, carrying a sports bag. He dropped it on the bed and went over to the closet, not looking at Micah.

"I have to go to work," Micah said. "Nathaniel will help you with your clothes, okay?"

Dawn nodded. "Bye, Micah."

Micah gave Dawn another hug. "Goodbye, Dawn." He let her go, then stood up. As Nathaniel passed him, he laid a hand on the younger man's arm. Nathaniel froze, so much like a rabbit hiding in the grass that Dawn's stomach clenched. "Nathaniel, it'll be okay."

Nathaniel nodded, not looking up.

Micah let his hand fall. "I'll see you tonight," he said. Giving Dawn one last smile, Micah walked out.

Nathaniel let out a shaky breath. "Let's get you packed, okay?" he said. He pulled most of the clothes out of the closet and dropped them on the bed. "You have to be careful to know what you have when you get there. Always know what you're got, so if someone takes it, you'll know." He started folding the clothes. "Don't look too nice, because the other kids won't like it, and some foster moms won't spend the time cleaning nice clothes. And you should always wear your best clothes when you get there the first time, because you need to make a good first impression on the foster parents and your social worker. And be polite, and don't make a fuss. No one likes a fuss."

Dawn stared, fascinated and appalled, as Nathaniel kept up the babble while ruthlessly folding clothes. He made two piles, one with most of the nice things Anita had bought her, and the smaller one of practical items like pants and shirts. "I'll be polite."

"You always are," Nathaniel said, finishing his folding. He moved to the small box that served as a dresser. "You can never have too many socks, especially if you don't know how cold it's going to be in the house. If you get cold, don't ask them to turn up the heat, that never ends well. Just layer, and keep moving. If you're cold at night, put on a sweater over your pajamas."

"Is it going to be cold?" Dawn asked faintly. A whole different sort of fear settled into her bones. So much was out of her control, but at least with Anita she wasn't cold all the time. The memory of running in the graveyard, hurt and scared and so cold, came back with a frightening intensity.

"It might be." Nathaniel dumped a handful of little socks in the sports bag. "And always eat what they give you, because there probably won't be anything else. But don't hoard food, either, because if they find it they won't be happy."

Dawn sat on the bed and pulled her legs up to her chest. Just listening to Nathaniel made her insides ache with hunger.

He spotted the calling card and the paper with Micah's number. He scooped them up off the bed and pushed them into the bag between the socks. "Don't take anything valuable with you, because it'll get stolen or taken away. Money's usually the first thing to go, but other stuff can be taken too. Hide the calling card when you can."

Dawn's eyes fell on the ornate silver pen that Jean-Claude had given her. "Oh." She reached for her journal and opened the book. She'd only had time to fill a few of the cream-colored pages. The empty pages stared back at her, mocking her with their potential. She'd wanted to write about life with Anita, about trying to find Buffy... but that wasn't going to happen now.

Dawn slid off the bed, and carried her journal and pen around the bed to where Nathaniel was packing clothes into the bag. "Nathaniel?" she said, tugging on his pant leg. He stopped packing and looked down at her. She tugged again, and he sat heavily on the edge of the bed. He wasn't crying, but his eyes looked a little red. Dawn held out the journal and pen. "Can you keep these?"

"Your journal?" Nathaniel asked. "But I gave this to you, and Jean-Claude gave you the pen."

"But you said someone will steal it." She shoved the journal and pen in his lap. "If it's here, no one's going to rip it up."

Nathaniel stared at the journal for a very long time. "Of course," he finally said. "I'll keep these safe."

"Thank you," Dawn said.

Nathaniel carefully set the journal aside, then reached into his back pocket to pull out several green bills. "I know I said no money, but there's a hidden seam in this bag where you can hide some cash," he said. He quickly rolled the money into a little tube. "Here," he instructed, showing Dawn the tiny rip in the seam inside the bag. "You slide the money in, and pull the cloth back in place, and no one will see it."

Dawn ran her fingers over the seam. She couldn't even feel the hidden money. "Did the bag come like that?" she asked, looking up at Nathaniel.

"No. I got this last Christmas."

"Before you met Anita?"

Nathaniel was suddenly very interested in rearranging the contents of the bag. "After."

Dawn frowned. "Why would you make a secret money hiding place in a bag after you met Anita?"

Nathaniel sprang up and went to the closet. "You should wear this when you go to meet the foster people," he said, pulling out the one remaining dress. "Not too expensive, but nice. And it should fit you for another few months."

"Do you think Anita is going to get rid of you?" Dawn pressed, following Nathaniel around the room. "She wouldn't do that! You're important to her!"

Nathaniel retrieved a pair of tights from the box. He didn't say anything, but the words came out of his head, clear as day. "You were supposed to be important to Anita, too."

Tears welled up in Dawn's throat, choking her. She grabbed his leg in a hug, holding on tight.

Nathaniel pried Dawn's hands free. He crouched in front of her, holding her hands. "It's going to be okay," he said, but Dawn knew it was a lie.

"Don't forget me?" she asked, feeling very small.

"Of course I won't," Nathaniel said, frowning. "Why do you think I'd forget you?"

Dawn shrugged. "I haven't known you for long."

Nathaniel gently squeezed her hands. "I will never, ever forget you," he promised, and this time it wasn't a lie.

"Are you packed?" Anita asked from the doorway. Dawn pulled her hands away from Nathaniel. Nathaniel wanted her, and Micah wanted her... that only left Anita. Dawn supposed she knew where she stood with Anita now.

Maybe it was for the best, that Anita gave her away now. Before Dawn had to live another moment in the stupid fantasy world where Anita would actually want to keep her.

"All except for her pajamas and her toothbrush," Nathaniel said. "She needs to change, then that's it."

"I'll help her with that," Anita said. "We have to get moving."

Without another word, Nathaniel stood. He grabbed the journal and pen off the bed, then left the room without ever looking at Anita.

Shoulders stiff, Anita closed the door behind him. "Why don't we get you dressed?" she said.

"I can dress myself," Dawn said, starting to get angry. She didn't see why Anita should pretend to help her. Less than an hour, and Anita would be rid of her forever.

"I can help--"

"I don't want your help!" Dawn pulled her pajama top over her head and shoved it into the sports bag. "I can dress myself!" The pajama bottoms joined the top in the bag. "I've always been able to dress myself, I don't need any help!"

"Okay, you don't need my help," Anita said. She took the pajamas out of the bag and folded them neatly. "How about I just spend some time with you?"

Dawn turned her back on Anita. She was determined to ignore the woman. Anita was just a liar anyway. She'd pretended that she liked Dawn, when in reality she couldn't wait to get rid of her.

The tights gave Dawn a little more trouble than anticipated, but she managed to dress herself without any help. Nathaniel had selected a dress that buttoned in the front, so she could fasten it all on her own.

Clothed, Dawn stomped to the bedroom door, opened it, then stomped down the hall to the bathroom. She knew Anita was following her, but Dawn told herself she didn't care.

She brushed her hair, not making a sound, not even when the brush hit a knot and hurt her scalp. Quickly, she grabbed her new toothbrush with the blue handle, and stomped back down the hall. She shoved the brush and toothbrush into the bag, then zipped it closed.

"Dawn, what about Sigmund?" Anita asked. She picked the penguin up off the floor and held it out. "Would you like to take him with you?"

Dawn stared at the toy. Anita's toy. Suddenly, she hated everything. That stupid penguin, this stupid house, Anita, Buffy, everyone. Most importantly, Dawn hated herself. She hated being so small and stupid and such a failure in everything she did.

Grabbing Sigmund from Anita's hand, Dawn threw the bird across the room. She was breathing hard, as if she'd just run a million miles, but she hadn't gone anywhere at all.

"Okay, I guess" Anita said. Dawn wanted her to be angry, but she just sounded sad. Anita wasn't allowed to be sad! This was all her fault! "We should go."

Dawn grabbed the bag and hauled it off the bed. It was too heavy for her lift, so she dragged it after her, out of the room that she'd stupidly thought would be hers, down the hall, down the stairs. Anita followed her, so close, but Dawn darted away whenever she thought Anita would try to hug her or something.

Nathaniel was waiting for them in the entrance hall. "I made you a sandwich," he said, holding out a little brown bag. "We never had a chance to eat breakfast."

Dawn looked at the bag. She didn't feel hungry anymore. She was full inside, full and heavy and everything was horrible and she'd never be hungry again. Still, she took the little bag from Nathaniel. It fit perfectly in the little side pocket in the sports bag.

"We have to go," Anita said again. She picked up the bag while Nathaniel helped Dawn into her winter jacket, then wrapped a bright red scarf around her neck.

"You take care of yourself, okay?" Nathaniel tucked the ends of the scarf into the jacket's pockets. "It's all going to be fine, you'll see."

He didn't believe that any more than Dawn did, but she didn't know how to tell him so. The lump in her throat was too big to speak around.

Not letting herself cry, Dawn gave Nathaniel one last hug goodbye. She didn't want to leave, but there was nothing she could do to stop it.

On the porch, Anita tried to take Dawn's hand, but Dawn refused to go anywhere near the woman. Anita didn't get to pretend she didn't want this, Dawn decided as she walked toward the car. If she wanted to get rid of Dawn, fine.

Dawn's undoing came with the seatbelt. Try as she might, the buckle wouldn't fit in the latch. Wordlessly, Anita took the buckle from Dawn's hands and snapped it together. Then the woman put the sports bag at Dawn's feet, then closed the jeep door.

For a few moments, Dawn was alone in the quiet cocoon of the car. She pushed back her jacket sleeve and stared at the red scar around her wrist. The wounds the rope left on her no longer hurt to the touch. Dawn almost wished they did, so she could concentrate on something other than the pain in her chest.

The driver's door opened, breaking the spell. Dawn pushed her sleeve down and turned her head to stare out the window, then wished she hadn't. Nathaniel stood on the porch in the cold, watching them.

As Anita started the engine, Nathaniel gave Dawn a little wave. Stretching as far as she could within the seatbelt's restraint, Dawn pressed her nose against the cold window and watched Nathaniel as long as she could.

He finally vanished from sight, and with him Dawn's last tiny hope that she might be able to stay with the only people in this world who had given a damn about her.


"Come on," Anita said, holding out her hand. "Let's get you inside."

Dawn stared straight ahead.

"For Christ's sake, Dawn, please?" Anita unbuckled Dawn's seatbelt. "They're waiting for us."

She may have been upset and scared, but she wasn't going to act like a baby. Dawn slid out of the car, ignoring Anita's hand.

The door in the car behind them opened, and Miss Wendell emerged. She walked over to the jeep, smiling at Dawn. "Hello, Dawn, Ms. Blake. How are you today?"

"Fine, thanks," Anita said automatically.

"How about you, Dawn?"

Dawn stared down at her shoes. She knew it was childish to avoid speaking, but she knew that if she opened her mouth, she'd burst into tears and that was the last thing she wanted Anita to see.

"We had a bit of a rough morning," Anita explained. She lifted Dawn's bag out of the jeep and slammed the door. "So, now what?"

"Now we go inside and meet the Walkers," Miss Wendell explained. "Do you want to come in with us?"

What? Dawn's head snapped up. Was Anita going to leave so soon? Without thinking, Dawn backed up a step, right into Anita, and grabbed Anita's hand tight.

Anita squeezed Dawn's hand. "Of course I want to come in," she said. "I want to help Dawn get settled."

"Good. We don't normally allow that, but Dawn's circumstances are quite unusual," Miss Wendell said as they walked toward the non-descript two-story house. "We want this to work."

Dawn wondered who else Miss Wendell was talking about. Or if she always referred to herself in the plural.

Then the front door opened and all the thoughts about Miss Wendell vanished.

"You must be Miss Wendell," the woman at the door said. Her eyes traveled right over Dawn and landed on Anita. "Why are you here?"

Anita gripped Dawn's hand just a little tighter. "I thought Dawn could use some help settling in," Anita said in clipped tones. Dawn knew that wasn't what Anita wanted to say, but she was exercising restraint for Dawn's sake.

"Given Dawn's circumstances, I thought she could use a familiar face," Miss Wendell said. "May we?"

The woman stepped aside, letting them enter the house. Dawn looked around as Anita helped her out of her coat. The place seemed... dead. No bright colors, no shoes lying scattered about to lend the area a spec of life. Dawn's red scarf was the brightest thing around.

"I'm Mrs. Walker," the woman said over Dawn's head. "Mr. Walker is in the living room."

"We'll just come in, then," Miss Wendell said bravely. "Come on, Dawn, Ms. Blake."

Anita dropped Dawn's bag by the jackets. As soon as her hands were free, Dawn grabbed Anita's palm and held on for dear life.

The living room was as drab as the hallway. An older man was straightening something on a desk. He stood up as they entered the room. Like his wife, he didn't pay Dawn any attention, but instead focused on Anita. "This is unusual," he said.

Anita put her free hand on Dawn's shoulder, as Miss Wendell said, "This is an unusual placement. I'm sorry I wasn't able to come yesterday to talk to you, but we can get all that dealt with today." As she spoke, she flipped through a folder.

Something pinged in Dawn's head. Miss Wendell had never met these people? How did she know they were really foster parents? Maybe they were serial killers or something that ate little girls!

"When we heard what the child has been subjected to, we decided to take her on as soon as we could," Mrs. Walker was saying. "We specialize in dealing with troubled children. We have three with us right now, as a matter of fact."

Anita's hand grew heavy on Dawn's shoulder. "What do you mean?" Anita demanded. "Dawn's not troubled, she's just a little girl."

The gaze Mrs. Walker threw Anita was heavy with condescension. Dawn shivered. "I've been dealing with troubled children since when you were in pigtails, Miss Blake. Age is no way to judge how disturbed a child is."

On Dawn's other side, Miss Wendell cleared her throat. "Mrs. Walker, I'm not sure how much you were told about Dawn's case..."

"We heard enough," Mr. Walker chimed in. "The child needs a stable home, with strict discipline, so she learns that lying is unacceptable."

"What?" Anita exclaimed. "What gave you the idea that Dawn lies?"

"Miss Bertram told us that the child told the police a fanciful story about where she grew up, and might possibly not have given her real name. That may be acceptable to someone who keeps company with monsters, but it is not acceptable in our household!" Mrs. Walker gripped the back of a chair, glaring at Anita.

This was so wrong! Dawn's insides cramped with fear at being left in this place. Was this how they really felt? That she was a liar and a danger? If only she could find out what they were thinking--

How stupid was she? She was telepathic, for crying out loud. Even if she'd never tried to do it intentionally, there was no time like the present. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

Concentrating hard on the two people across the room, Dawn tried to open her mind. At first, nothing. Then--

woman's a slut, anyone who'd fuck a dead would do anything, can't let her around normal people, want her filth out of my house

can't believe they left this child in her care, stupid woman would buy anything, we don't know what taint has been left on this child, it needs to be dug out of her at any

Dawn backed up, trying to block the horrible ugly thoughts out of her head. Anita wasn't evil! And neither was she! She couldn't stay here!

Turning, Dawn hugged Anita's waist as hard as she could, burying her face in the woman's shirt. Anita may not want her around, but anything would be better than this horrible place! She'd run away, that's what she'd do, take the money that Nathaniel gave her and run back to the cemetery and wait for Buffy to find her!

Anita put her hand on Dawn's head, cradling her close. Dawn concentrated on breathing in and out, not crying. She wasn't going to let these people see her cry.

"I think we should all just calm down," Miss Wendell said. "I need to speak with Dawn for a few minutes, in the hallway. Dawn?"

Even though she didn't want to, Dawn pulled away from Anita. The woman cupped Dawn's cheek, giving her a very serious look. Dawn wanted to beg Anita to take her home, back to Nathaniel and Micah and her bed and Sigmund and the nice kitchen and everything. But she couldn't do that here, not with those horrible people watching.

Miss Wendell held out her hand. The social worker's hand was slim and cool, and Dawn worried that she might break the woman if she squeezed too tight. She followed Miss Wendell into the hall, sitting as directed on the small bench by the jackets.

"Dawn," Miss Wendell started. She broke off, looked at her hands, then back at Dawn. "How are you doing?"

Dawn shrugged, miserable.

"I bet this is all very hard for you," Miss Wendell continued. "Days like this are always confusing, and it's very important that we make decisions with clear thought." She paused. "Dawn, do you like it at Anita's house?"

A tiny spark of hope flared in Dawn's chest. "Oh, yes," she whispered. "They're... nice." Nice wasn't the word Dawn wanted, but her vocabulary failed her. She wanted to tell Miss Wendell that Anita was the only one who could keep her safe, that Nathaniel made her laugh and made sure she had enough to eat, that Micah listened to her and read with her and talked to her like she was an adult.

She wanted to tell Miss Wendell that she wanted to go home, but everything got stuck in her throat and wouldn't come out.

"Do you feel safe there?" Miss Wendell asked, and it was like she was reading Dawn's mind. Dawn nodded so hard her hair fell in her eyes. "Would you like to stay there a little bit longer?"

Dawn jumped off the bench. "Really? Yes please!"

Miss Wendell smiled. "Good. I want you to sit back down and wait right here, okay? I need to talk to Anita and the Walkers."

"Okay!" Dawn slid back onto the bench and made herself sit still. "Wait!"

Miss Wendell turned back. "Yes?"

"I'm not a liar," Dawn said. "I need you to know that." She may have stretched the truth a little in certain spots, but she never lied.

"Thank you for telling me," Miss Wendell smiled again, then vanished back in the living room.

It was the hardest thing ever, for Dawn to sit still on that bench, but she tried her hardest. She also kept as quiet as possible, to try and hear what was happening in the other room.

"Why can't she stay?" Mr. Walker's voice drifted out into the hall.

"I didn't have a chance to read your file before I came over," Miss Wendell said apologetically. "At the time I accepted this placement, I wasn't aware that two of your current foster sons are over thirteen. Given Dawn's age and background, I don't think this would be the best placement for her."

"According to Miss Bertram, there aren't a lot of people lining up to take the child," Mr. Walker said.

"Her name is Dawn," Anita interjected, sounding very angry. "Why don't you try calling her that?"

"Ms. Blake, please," Miss Wendell said. "It's important that we approach this calmly, for Dawn's sake. Mr. Walker, Mrs. Walker, thank you for offering to help Dawn, but it would be best if we continued to look for a placement that fit everyone's needs."

Dawn put her thumb in her mouth, to keep herself quiet. All she had to do was stay silent until they got out of the house, and into the car, and back to Anita's house. Or at least until Miss Wendell came back. That much she could do.

"We'll see ourselves out," Miss Wendell said. Dawn barely had any warning before Anita and Miss Wendell came into the hall. Anita had a face like a thundercloud, and for the first time Dawn had a prickling of doubt. Anita didn't really want her any more... what if Anita told Miss Wendell that? What if Dawn had no place to go?

Anita grabbed Dawn's jacket from the hook and thrust it at her. "Come on, let's go."

Dawn jumped up and pulled her jacket on, worry squirming in her stomach. Where would she go if no one wanted her? Did Miss Wendell have a place to put her?

Anita quickly buttoned Dawn's jacket. She draped the scarf around Dawn's neck just as fast, then reached for her own jacket. Without a word, she grabbed Dawn's bag with one hand and almost pushed Dawn out of the house with the other.

So afraid that she worried she might be sick, Dawn followed Anita and Miss Wendell down the walk. She didn't look back at the house.

At the end of the walk, Miss Wendell put her briefcase on top of her car. "We can extend the emergency placement for a little while, but I don't know what we're going to do with regard to a permanent place for Dawn," she explained. "Mr. Walker was right, Dawn's history is making it very difficult to place her."

"We'll take her," Anita blurted out suddenly. Dawn stopped and stared, her mouth falling open. "We know her, we want her, we'll keep her."

Miss Wendell was also staring. "Ms. Blake, it's not that easy--"

"Like placing Dawn is easy?" Anita interrupted. "Look, I know there's the issue with Micah being a wereleopeard, but the legislation in this state says that a lycanthrope can be a foster parent, I checked it out. She'll be safe, she'll be healthy, I promise."

Miss Wendell blinked. Several times. "I know what the legislation says, but in practice, it's never been done, it's too dangerous!"

"It's not dangerous!" Anita dropped Dawn's bag on the ground. "No one in that house would do anything to hurt Dawn!"

Dawn was still stuck a few sentences back. Anita wanted her? Really? For keeps?

"I don't know if it will be approved," Miss Wendell protested. "The process to become a foster parent like that isn't easy."

"Nothing's easy," Anita shot back. "Whatever it takes, we'll do it."

Anita wanted her. A wave of relief rushed over Dawn, so complete and encompassing that it made her knees weak. She was going to stay with Anita. As long as Miss Wendell said yes.

After what felt like an eternity, Miss Wendell finally nodded. "We'll start the process," she said. "Now, why don't you get Dawn home?"

Anita stayed still for a moment, then shook her head. She grabbed Dawn's bag and headed to the jeep.

Impulsively, Dawn rushed over to Miss Wendell and grabbed her hand. "Thank you," she whispered.

Miss Wendell smiled at Dawn. "We're doing what's best for you," the woman said. "Now, go on. I'll be by the house in the next little while to talk with you about some things, okay?"

Dawn nodded, and ran after Anita. She was pretty sure that Anita wouldn't leave without her... but better to be safe than sorry.

Anita was putting the bag in the backseat when Dawn ran up. She held the door as Dawn climbed in. "Do you need help with the seatbelt?" Anita asked.

"Okay," Dawn said. Anita buckled the belt around Dawn's waist. "Can we go home now?"

"Yeah," Anita muttered, stepping back to close the door. Dawn's good mood deflated substantially by the time Anita got into the driver's seat.

Didn't Anita want her? Anita had been the one to suggest that she keep Dawn permanently. So why was she so upset?

Dawn swallowed the lump in her throat and turned her head to look out the window as they drove away. The silence grew in the car until Dawn wanted to start screaming. Wasn't there ever going to be a time when someone actually wanted her? When she wouldn't be a burden?

"Why did you do it?" Dawn finally asked.

"Do what?"

Dawn looked at the back of Anita's head. "Tell Miss Wendell you want me when you don't?"

Anita glanced over her shoulder at Dawn, confusion on her face. Then the car was pulling out of traffic and to the side of the road. Anita killed the engine, then opened her door and got out of the car. A moment later, the back door on the other side of the car opened and Anita slid onto the seat next to Dawn.

"What made you think I didn't want you?" Anita demanded.

All the horrible bits of the day crashed down on Dawn and came spilling out of her mouth. "You were going to give me away!" she exclaimed. "You packed me up like an old toy and were going to give me to those people!"

"Dawn, I didn't know what else to do!" Anita's voice broke, and it suddenly occurred to Dawn that Anita was very close to breaking into tears. "We were never going to do this long-term, but I didn't know what I could do to keep you with us."

Dawn stared at Anita. "You want to keep me?"

"Yes."

"Really?"

"One hundred percent, yes."

Dawn considered this for a moment. All she could feel from Anita was sincerity. She wanted to believe Anita so badly... But could she really?

She stared down at her hands. Tiny little baby hands, so unlike what she'd had before, but they were becoming familiar. Like Anita, and Micah and Nathaniel.

Coming to a decision, Dawn unbuckled her seatbelt and crawled over to Anita. Anita swept her up into a too-tight hug, a Buffy hug, and it was like being home again.

"Did you think I didn't want you?" Anita asked softly. "Is that why you were so upset this morning?"

Dawn nodded. "I didn't want to leave."

"I didn't want you to leave. I just-- I'm not sure what I'm doing," Anita confessed.

"You're doing fine," Dawn said, patting Anita's arm. "It all worked out, right? Even with a freak like me?"

Anita pulled back so she could look Dawn in the eye. "Dawn, don't say that about yourself," she said. "You're not a freak, you are a special little girl. If you can read minds... well, so what? I can raise zombies. It doesn't mean you're a bad person." She pulled Dawn back into the hug. "You're a very special little girl."

Dawn let her head rest on Anita's shoulder. So much had happened to her since she woke from the Buffy nightmare the previous night. She wasn't sure if she could take the excitement anymore.

"Oh!" Anita suddenly exclaimed. "I'm such an idiot."

"Why?" Dawn asked as Anita reached for the sports bag.

"Because I forgot that you didn't eat breakfast," Anita said, pulling out the brown paper lunch bag. "Here, you need to eat something."

With that reminder, Dawn was suddenly ravenous. She let Anita strap her back into the seat, all the time chewing on the cheese sandwich Nathaniel had made for her. They were halfway back to the house before Dawn emerged from her much delayed breakfast.

"They didn't have any pictures," she announced before taking a pull on her juice box.

"Who?" Anita asked over her shoulder.

"The Walkers. They had all those foster kids, right? So why no pictures?"

"I don't know," Anita said. "But you're right. No artwork, either."

"Mom had photos of me and Buffy all over the house," Dawn said, remembering. "She loved having pictures of us all over, even when she got sick."

"That sounds nice."

"She was the best mom ever," Dawn declared. "I know, you only really get one mom, but she was really nice." Dawn took another sip. "I miss her."

"You know what works, when you miss someone?" Anita said.

"What?"

"Talking about them, just like this. Sometimes..." Anita stared out the windshield, very intent on driving. "Even now, it helps me to remember my mother, when I talk about her."

"Was your mom the best mom ever, too?" Dawn asked, curious.

"Yeah," Anita said with a soft smile. "She was."

"Good," Dawn declared as the jeep pulled into the driveway of Anita's house. "Oh!"

"Now what?"

"We didn't tell Nathaniel!" Dawn stuffed the juice box back into the lunch bag. "We didn't tell him I get to stay! He thinks I'm gone!"

Anita winced. "Crap."

"I want to tell him!" Dawn hurriedly unbuckled her seatbelt and unlocked her door. "I'll tell him!"

Before Anita could protest, Dawn opened her door and climbed to the pavement. She raced up the driveway, up the porch steps, and opened the front door.

Without taking off her shoes, Dawn ran right into the living room. Nathaniel was sitting on the couch in the dark, staring at a pile of boxes that hadn't been there when Dawn left.

Dawn raced over to the couch and flung herself at Nathaniel. He caught her midair and sat her on the couch, looking totally confused. "What--"

"Anita said I can stay!" Dawn said excitedly. "She said I can stay, and you guys can be my permanent placement, and I don't have to stay with those icky Walkers and their stupid house and I can stay here! With you guys!"

Nathaniel looked up as Anita walked into the room, holding Dawn's bag. "Is this-- Really?"

Anita nodded awkwardly. "Yeah."

Nathaniel smiled a brilliant smile, and gathered Dawn up into a hug. He bounced off the couch, holding Dawn tight, and spun her around until she was screaming with laughter. "You get to stay!"

"Stop or I'll puke!" Dawn cried. Nathaniel obeyed. "Why were you sitting here in the dark?"

Nathaniel's grin never faltered. "I was trying to figure out where to put the Christmas tree," he said. "All those need a place to stay, don't they?"

Dawn's mouth dropped open. "Are those Christmas presents for me?" she squeaked. Nathaniel let her down and she ran over to the boxes, all wrapped up tightly. "Wow!"

As Dawn examined the pile, she kept an eye on the adults. Nathaniel approached Anita cautiously, as if she was about to bolt. "You were right," Anita said softly, voice husky. "Those people, they just--" She broke off, looked away. "I'm sorry I didn't listen to you, I just didn't know what else to do."

"It's okay," Nathaniel said, just as softly. He took the bag from Anita's hands and set it on the ground. "I'm sorry I yelled at you this morning."

Anita touched Nathaniel's chin, made him look up at her. "You were trying to protect Dawn, and I didn't get it." She smiled at him. "I get it now."

"Was it bad?" Nathaniel asked.

Anta glanced at Dawn, who pretended to be very interested in a box wrapped with blue snowman paper. "We'll talk about this later," she said. "But... thank you. For being so protective of Dawn."

Dawn rolled her eyes. The schmoop factor in the room was going through the roof. If the sweetness levels in the room went much higher, she might develop sudden onset diabetes. "Can I have a cookie?" Dawn asked, heading for the kitchen. "I'm hungry!"

"There's cookies on the table," Nathaniel called. "Do you want some lunch?"

"In a little while." Dawn spotted the cookies as soon as she entered the kitchen. Oh, perfect.

She unbuttoned her jacket and dropped it over the chair, grabbed a cookie, then headed for the cordless phone. With a mouthful of chocolate chip, Dawn hit the speed dial.

"Hello?"

"Hi Micah!" Dawn exclaimed.

"Dawn?" Micah's worry came through the phone line, loud and clear. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Dawn said. "Anita's going to let me stay! You can be my foster parents until Buffy finds me!"

"Dawn..." Micah didn't sound as excited as he should have been. "What exactly is going on?"

Dawn took another bite of cookie. "We met the people and they were weird and thought I was disturbed and Miss Wendell said I could stay with you guys a little longer, and then Anita said I could stay forever."

Micah was quiet for a moment. "Dawn, are you at home?"

"Uh huh."

"Is Anita with you?"

"One second, I'll go get her." Dawn carried the phone towards the living room. "But did you mean what you said this morning? About wanting to keep me?"

"Yes, Dawn, I meant that," Micah said quietly.

"Good," Dawn declared. "Anita, phone-- Ew!"

Anita and Nathaniel broke from their tight embrace. "I didn't hear it ring," Anita said, smoothing down her shirt.

Dawn made a face. Grownups were so gross. It was just like Buffy and Riley, all over again. "I know. Micah's questioning the veracity of my claims."

Anita took the phone from Dawn. "You have the oddest way of saying things," she said as she lifted the phone to her ear. "Hello?"

Dawn turned to Nathaniel, hands on her hips. "Nice lipstick, buddy."

Nathaniel wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, not looking at all repentant. "Where do you think we should put that Christmas tree?"

Dawn looked around the room, warm and safe and full of people that wanted her, and sighed a happy sigh.

If only Buffy would be here, it would be close to perfect.

Chapter Text

"What did Micah have to say?" Dawn asked drowsily, letting Anita pull off her shoes. "Was it bad stuff?"

"Of course not." Anita pushed gently at Dawn's shoulders until Dawn was lying back on the couch, still fully dressed. "He just wanted to talk."

"Okay." Dawn yawned and tried to keep her eyes open. "But why do I have to have a nap? I'm not tired."

"I know." Anita smoothed the hair off Dawn's forehead. "How about you just lie here for a few minutes?"

Dawn closed her eyes. "Only a few minutes," she said, sinking into sleep. She didn't want to miss anything, but she was so tired. The day had been so crazy, and it wasn't even noon. "Only... a... few..."

The next thing Dawn knew, sadness and pain was tearing her awake. She sat bolt upright on the couch, not knowing what was causing it but feeling as if she had some something horrible.

What have I done?

Dawn gasped with the weight of the pain, the self-recriminations. She wanted to curl up into a ball and make it all go away, but instead she straightened up and slid off the couch.

The house stood silent, the hum of the fridge in the kitchen covering the soft sound of Dawn's breathing. Not knowing why, Dawn took careful steps toward the kitchen, wondering what was wrong, what she could possible do to take away this horrible feeling that was going to eat her alive.

"Anita?"

Dawn stopped in her tracks just outside the kitchen door when she heard Nathaniel's voice.

"Anita, what's wrong? What happened?"

"Leave me alone." The sound of tears coated Anita's words.

Dawn risked a peek around the side of the doorway. Anita sat curled up on the floor by the cupboards, a mug of coffee spilled, forgotten, at her side. Nathaniel knelt beside Anita, hand outstretched but not touching. "What happened?" Nathaniel asked again.

Anita turned away from Nathaniel. "Nothing's wrong! Go away, go... go check on Dawn or something, please."

"Nothing's wrong with Dawn," Nathaniel said. He inched closer to Anita. "Is this about Dawn?"

A sob tore out of Anita's throat. She pressed her hand against her mouth, but it was too late. As Dawn watched, horrified, Anita broke down into tears. It was as horrible as watching Mom cry.

"Anita, it's okay," Nathaniel said, almost pleading. He tried to touch Anita's shoulder, but she shrugged him off. "Dawn's here, we're not going to have to give her away, it's okay now."

"It's not okay!" Anita shoved Nathaniel away. "It's never going to be okay, she knows we tried to give her away, that's not okay!"

"Anita--"

"I said I'd take care of her, how is giving her away at the first opportunity taking care of her?" Anita drew her legs up to her chest. The pain beat in Dawn's heart like a bird trying to get out of a cage, and it hurt like nothing she'd ever felt before, and it wasn't her pain to feel.

"That wasn't what happened," Nathaniel protested. "She knows that, she knows that you want her--"

"That's not how you take care of someone!" Anita gripped her hands together so tightly that her knuckles turned white. "Taking care of someone isn't giving up, just because it's easier!"

Images ran through Dawn's head on ghostly feet, of being alone in a house full of people who didn't really care about her, where she'd never belong. Of spending her whole life wondering if she'd ever been wanted at all.

Rubbing her eyes, Dawn walked into the kitchen. Anita noticed her immediately, sat back and tried to wipe the tears off her face. "Dawn--"

Dawn went right over to Anita and climbed into her lap, putting her arms around Anita's neck. Strangely, as soon as she touched Anita, the pain in Dawn's chest and head went away. "It's okay," she said against Anita's neck. "It's going to be okay."

"Dawn, what are you talking about?" Anita's hand was steady on Dawn's back. "Of course it's going to be okay, we'll find Buffy--"

"No!" Dawn tightened her grip on Anita's neck. "You didn't try to throw me away, that wasn't what happened! So stop being sad!"

"That's not what..." Anita's voice trailed off. "Dawn, it's not..."

"Don't you dare say you're sorry," Dawn said in a whisper. "You brought me back and you didn't send me away and you did it because you wanted to and not because anyone else made you. If you say sorry then it's going to be all wrong."

Anita rubbed circles on Dawn's back. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"You didn't give up on me," Dawn said, her hold on Anita's neck slackening as the threads of adrenaline from feeling Anita's emotions stated to wear off. "You never give up."

"Come on," Nathaniel said softly. "Dawn needs to sleep, and you could stand to have a few more hours of sleep, Anita."

"I don't need a nap," Anita protested, holding Dawn as Nathaniel helped her stand. "I'll just put Dawn down--"

"Anita, you didn't sleep much last night," Nathaniel said. Dawn rested her head against Anita's shoulder, her eyes drifting closed as the adults' voices washed over her. "Just a little sleep."

"Sleep is good," Dawn murmured. "Then there'll be cookies and ice cream and ketchup."

Anita and Nathaniel kept talking, but Dawn let sleep drag her down.


The sun shone in pretty patterns on the wall of Anita's bedroom. Dawn blinked at the wall, wondering when she'd ended up in here, and what time it was.

Glancing over, she saw that Anita was asleep on the bed, one hand flung out. Asleep, Anita looked so young. Dawn wondered what kind of pain Anita had experienced in her life to be so adult and so angry all the time.

Dawn pushed at the light blanket covering her, and slid to the ground. She'd slept in her fancy dress from that morning, and it felt uncomfortable and scratchy on her skin. Plus, her mouth felt fuzzy and she had to pee.

"Naps suck," Dawn muttered, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. She slipped out of the bedroom and stumbled into the bathroom on the main floor. After taking care of the immediate business, Dawn washed her hands in the sink, using the liquid soap that smelled like oranges.

Her hair was a mess, and her dress was rumpled beyond belief. It never made any sense to her, that running around in clothes didn't mess them up that bad, but sleeping in them usually wrecked everything.

Not that she ever wanted to wear this dress again. She'd worn it into that horrible house around those horrible people and she never wanted to see it again!

Part of her knew that she couldn't just throw away a dress someone else had bought for her, but maybe she could explain it to Nathaniel. Maybe he'd understand.

After giving her hands one final wipe on the fluffy towel, Dawn wandered out of the bathroom. Muffled voices sounded from the living room, hidden down the hall. Dawn couldn't make out the words, but she heard Nathaniel's voice, and several unfamiliar ones answering. There were strange people in the house, people that Dawn didn't know.

Then Nathaniel laughed, and the pit of tension in her stomach eased.

Dawn walked down the hall and to the kitchen. She was hungry again, but didn't want to bother Nathaniel if he had people over. Maybe she could make a sandwich on her own. There was bread on the counter, and peanut butter in the fridge, and bananas on the counter. All the makings for a perfect lunch.

The sight of the sports bag on the kitchen floor changed Dawn's plans. The urge to get out of the dress and into some normal clothes was overpowering. Maybe this was how Buffy felt after a night of Slayage, to get out of slimy, bloody clothes and to look pretty.

Even Buffy wouldn't call me fashion-deficient if I wear blue cords and a purple turtleneck. For good measure, Dawn pulled out clean underwear and black and blue stripy socks. The socks looked too tiny to be real, like little baby socks.

Buffy would have called me a midget if she saw me like this. Sadness and something a little more painful settled in Dawn's stomach. When she sees me. She'll call me a midget when she sees me.

Dawn went back to the bathroom to change. She left the dress crumpled in a heap on the floor, telling herself she'd deal with it later. Like in spring, when she could bury the thing in the backyard.

Taking a deep breath, Dawn walked toward the living room. The voices were softer now, and it was with only a handful of qualms that Dawn peeked around the wall.

Nathaniel was sitting on the floor, next to a blond man. It took Dawn a moment to realize that she wasn't seeing things, and that the other man in the room, a blond man on the couch, looked exactly the same as the one on the floor. Also on the couch was a young woman with long curly hair. She was so beautiful and reminded Dawn so much of Kendra, the Vampire Slayer, that it took her breath away.

"Dawn?" Nathaniel said, noticing her right away. He held out his hand. "Do you want to come in?"

Dawn edged around the wall and walked over to Nathaniel, never taking her eyes off the young woman. She stumbled a little, and didn't protest when Nathaniel pulled her into his lap.

"Everyone, this is Dawn. Dawn, these are my friends."

"Hi," Dawn said shyly.

The man on the floor laughed. "I think someone's got a crush on you, Viv."

"Be quiet, Gregory," the woman said, giving the man a dirty look. "Hi Dawn, I'm Vivian."

"Hi Vivian." Belatedly, Dawn remembered that she should at least try to act mature. "It's very nice to meet you."

"Same here," Vivian said, smiling. "Nathaniel has been telling us all about you."

"Like you're a better cook than Anita," Gregory added. His twin on the couch nudged his arm. "What? Anita can't cook her way out of a wet paper bag!"

"But she makes good coffee," Dawn pointed out as she cuddled back against Nathaniel's chest. He smelled nice, like laundry soap, and he was really warm, like a blanket.

"Great coffee," Gregory agreed. "She's still sleeping?"

"Uh huh." Dawn looked between Gregory and his twin. "Aren't twins supposed to want to look different when they get old?"

Gregory frowned. "Twin?"

"Gregory, stop it," the man on the couch said softly. "I'm Stephen. We have to look alike for our job."

"Job?" Dawn twisted up to look at Nathaniel. "Do they work with you and Jason?"

"Why do you ask that?" he asked.

Dawn bit her lip. The jump to comparing Gregory and Stephen to Nathaniel and Jason seemed natural in her mind, but why?

Taking a deep breath, Dawn reached out with her mind, just like she'd done earlier that day at the Walkers house, and tried to 'read' the twins.

The inside of Gregory's head was really a lot like Nathaniel, all growling and lazy like a cat. Stephen was more perky, more eager to please, more... puppyish.

They might look alike, but Gregory and Stephen were different kinds of lycanthropes. Cool, Dawn thought. "No reason," she said aloud.

Nathaniel didn't believe her, she could tell that by the look he gave her, but he didn't press it.

The front door opened in the hall. Everyone in the living room tensed, looking towards the hall warily.

"What's wrong?" Dawn demanded, jumping up.

"Nothing's wrong," Nathaniel said. He relaxed slowly. "It's Micah, he's home."

"Oh." Dawn wanted to run into the hall, to see Micah and tell him how cool it was that she could stay at Anita's house, but something held her back. When she'd spoken to him earlier on the phone, he'd seemed a little hesitant about the news she was staying.

A small cold spot opened up in her stomach. Maybe Micah didn't want her to stay after all.

"Dawn?" Nathaniel asked.

"Nothing's wrong," she whispered mechanically.

Micah chose that moment to come around the corner from the hall. He quickly scanned the room, taking in the twins and Vivian, then Nathaniel, in that order. "What are you guys doing here?" he asked, his voice mild.

Gregory let out the breath he'd been holding. "We came over to see Nathaniel," he said.

"And Dawn," Vivian added. She lowered her eyes for a moment, then flicked her eyes back up to watch Micah. It was a strange move, not really human, and it made Dawn frown. Why was she doing that? "We heard that she'd be staying here for a while and we came over."

"Where did you hear that?" Micah continued, unbuttoning the cuffs of his dress shirt.

The other adults in the room exchanged glances around Dawn. "I heard Jean-Claude telling Jason at the Circus," Stephen explained. "And then I told Vivian and Gregory was there and we came over."

Micah paused in rolling up his sleeve. "How did Jean-Claude find out? Did Anita tell him?"

Nathaniel shifted nervously. "No, he called me to ask about work." Dawn had never heard the young man sound so apologetic. "He wanted me to go back to working four nights a week, now that Dawn was gone."

Dawn stayed still, not wanting to draw attention to herself. This was the first time the grown-ups had talked in front of her without anyone freaking out and sending her from the room. Part of her didn't want to hear this, it made her insides all squirmy, but the other part wanted desperately to be let in on the secrets that everyone else seemed to know.

"What did you tell him?" Micah asked.

Dawn could feel the panic rolling off Nathaniel, the fear he'd made a mess of everything. Without thinking about it, Dawn leaned against Nathaniel and put her arm around his neck.

"I, um..." Nathaniel took a deep breath. "I told him that I wouldn't be able to because I'd have to watch Dawn while Anita was at work and stuff."

Micah's eyebrows rising were the only indication he was surprised. "Would you guys mind leaving?" he said to the others. "It's been a long day and we've got a lot of stuff to work out."

"Okay," Stephen said immediately, getting to his feet. Gregory and Vivian followed more slowly, watching Micah. "Bye, Nathaniel."

"And Dawn," Vivian said with a warm smile that made Dawn grin back. "It was nice to meet you."

"It was nice to meet you, too," Dawn whispered, hugging Nathaniel's neck.

The three trailed out of the room. Micah waited until the door closed, then he let out a sigh and rubbed his eyes. "Where's Anita?" he asked, sinking cross-legged onto the floor beside Dawn and Nathaniel.

"She's still sleeping," Nathaniel said.

In the meantime, Dawn was trying to figure out what was going on. Was Micah mad because Anita had promised she could stay?

"We'll let her sleep," Micah said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small brown envelope. "This is for Dawn."

Dawn stared at it for a very long minute before reaching out. "What is it?"

"If you're going to be staying here, going to be a part of the house, then you need your own key," Micah explained as Dawn ripped into the envelope.

Sure enough, a shiny silver key hung on a bright yellow keychain. Taking a closer look at the charm, Dawn realized it was a little sun.

The accidental symbolism wasn't lost on Dawn, but she wasn't able to say anything. Micah had made a key for her, so she could be a part of the family.

They wanted her.

"That's a nice present," Nathaniel said, pulling Dawn onto his lap. "Isn't it?"

Dawn nodded, gripping the keychain as hard as she could. She wanted to tell Micah that she appreciated the gesture, but what came out of her mouth was, "I thought you were mad."

"Mad?" Micah echoed. "Why would you think that?"

She shrugged, looking at her hands. "Because you seemed mad on the phone."

"Dawn, I wasn't mad, not at all," Micah told her firmly. "Never think that. I wasn't expecting that you'd stay, that's true, but I'm glad you are."

"Really?"

"Really." Micah smiled at her, his yellow-green cat's eyes warm in his face. "All the way."

"Oh." Dawn leaned against Nathaniel, staring at the key in her hand. "I thought you were mad," she repeated in a whisper.

Nathaniel hugged Dawn tight. "Micah's not mad," Nathaniel said, and it sounded like a promise. "If he says it's okay, then it's going to be okay."

Dawn tilted her head back to look up at Nathaniel. "Do you really believe that?"

The warm feeling of safety that radiated out from Nathaniel was answer enough. "Yeah, I do," Nathaniel said with a smile.

"What do you believe?" Anita's voice drifted into the room. The woman came around the corner, still half-asleep. She blinked hard when she saw Micah sitting there. "Why are you home?"

Micah stood up. "Mark offered to run the hotline this afternoon while I got some things done," Micah said. He paused, then looked down at Dawn. "Dawn, would you be able to go upstairs for a few minutes?"

"Why?" Dawn demanded, staying where she was. "Are you going to talk about me? I'm not going anywhere if you're going to talk about me!"

"Micah, what's this all about?" Anita asked, tiredness falling away from her.

"Dawn, I need to talk to Anita," Micah said. "Please go upstairs?"

Clutching her new key tight in her hand, Dawn reluctantly stood up. "Is this a bad thing?" she asked, reluctant to step away from Nathaniel.

"No, it's not bad at all," Micah said. "I'll come up and get you when we're done, okay?"

Dawn looked at Anita, feeling the waves of nervousness and anxiety radiating off of her. "Anita?"

Anita tried to smile. "Why don't you go put your clothes away?" she suggested. "And after that we can figure out what we're going to do for dinner?"

Dawn shrugged, Anita's worry balling up in her stomach. "Okay," she whispered. Still, it took her two tries to get her feet moving. She strained to listen behind her, but the adults in the living room were silent as Dawn retrieved the clothing bag from the kitchen, then dragged it by the handle down the hall and up the stairs, bump by bump.

What are they going to talk about? Dawn wondered as she made her way into her bedroom. It was just like being back home, when Buffy and the others would talk about the bad stuff, vampires and demons and Glory. It was the same thing again, Dawn being shut out because she was too young, too small to make a difference.

Not this time, Dawn decided, shoving the clothes bag onto her bed. I'm going to listen to them!

After placing her key carefully on the bed, Dawn tried to walk silently to the head of the stairs. She knew that Micah and Nathaniel could hear the tiniest sound, but if she kept quiet, maybe they wouldn't notice she was there.

"...is the matter with you?" Anita was saying in a loud voice as Dawn neared the top of the steps. "Could you have been any more insensitive with Dawn?"

"This isn't about Dawn," Micah said. "She's fine." He paused, paper rustling. "I talked to Miss Wendell, and she'll be coming by tomorrow to talk with Dawn and get the paperwork started. She suggested that we might want to get Dawn a check-up, see what vaccinations she's had. I called Zerbrowski--"

"What does Zerbrowski have to do with any of this?" Anita demanded.

"He has children only a little older than Dawn," Micah said with exaggerated calm. "I got the name of a good pediatrician from him. Dawn has an appointment on Thursday. I also called the dentist Zerbrowski recommended, and he can squeeze in an appointment for Dawn in the middle of next week. Miss Wendell said she wants Dawn to see a child psychiatrist that social services keeps on--"

"What are you doing?" Anita interrupted again. "Who gave you the right to start making decisions for Dawn like this?"

Dawn gasped at the sudden rush of anger that spiked through her head. "That would be you, Anita," Micah snapped. "Right about the same time you told social services that we would keep Dawn. I figure if you can turn everyone's lives upside down, I can make a doctor's appointment for a little girl."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"You didn't even stop to consider what this would mean to everyone else, did you?" Micah continued. "You didn't tell Miss Wendell that we'd keep Dawn for a while, then talk to Nathaniel or me before suggesting Dawn stay here permanently, did you? Didn't it even occur to you that having a child in the house isn't going to impact only you? Nathaniel's cutting back his hours at work so someone can be here to watch Dawn when you're working, and I don't know what the hell I'm going to do with the hotline on a permanent basis."

Dawn curled up into a ball, hugging her knees to her chest. It was almost as bad as listening to Mom and Dad fight, back in those horrible months before the divorce. She wanted to run away, to make them stop, but she couldn't move.

"If you didn't want Dawn here--" Anita started, but the slap of paper on wood cut her off.

"Of course I want Dawn here!" Micah exclaimed. "Just as much as Nathaniel does, as you do. But that doesn't take away the fact that you made this decision without consulting us, Anita!"

Another kind of anger was brewing downstairs, hotter and more desperate than the other anger, and it scared Dawn. "I did what I had to do to protect Dawn!" Anita shot back.

"No, you didn't," Micah contradicted. "You--" He stopped, took a deep breath. In a quieter voice, he said, "I know I once said I'd do anything you needed, be anything you needed, but this is a whole different thing. Dawn needs us all to be on her side, and we can't do that if you are making all the decisions without even talking to us."

The anger and deep, almost hidden fear, swirled up the steps and caught in Dawn's throat. She felt like she was going to be sick. "I did what I had to do for Dawn, I was thinking of her!" Anita said.

"She's not you," Micah said, softer. "She lost her mother and she's not like other children, but Dawn isn't you, Anita. You can't--"

"Shut up," Anita interrupted. "Just shut up!"

"Anita--"

"Don't touch me!" A few moments later, a door slammed.

Dawn stayed frozen in place. She was so scared and angry and confused and she didn't know what were her feelings and what were Anita's, or Micah's, or anything.

All she knew was that Anita and Micah had just had a huge fight, and it was all her fault.

That was how Micah found her a few minutes later. He didn't say anything at first, only sat beside her on the top stair.

"You made Anita mad," Dawn whispered, staring at her knees.

Micah sighed. "I did," he agreed.

"Why did you talk to her like that?" Dawn asked. "It wasn't nice."

Micah rested his elbows on his knees. "Can I tell you something?" he asked.

Dawn shrugged. "I guess so," she said, even if she wasn't sure she wanted to talk to Micah ever again.

"You know how adults are supposed to know what to do all the time?"

It wasn't what Dawn expected to hear, and in spite of herself, she turned her head, curious. "Don't you know what you're doing?"

"I do. We all do, I suppose." Micah ran his fingers over his nose, staring into space. "We learn what's going on, and make decisions based on that."

"What does this have to do with Anita?" Dawn asked.

Micah pulled his hand away from his face. "None of us really know what we're doing all the time. When we're faced with important decisions, we have to do the best we can, and sometimes it's not easy."

"So you yelled at Anita because I'm difficult?" Dawn said slowly, the words dragged out of her mouth reluctantly. If Micah didn't want her around, she didn't really want to know, because she had nowhere else to go and no one else to give a damn about her.

"No, Anita and I don't see eye to eye on the way she went about talking to Miss Wendell. But I need you to know something," Micah said, touching Dawn's wrist. "We might disagree on some things, but what we do agree on is wanting you here."

"Oh." Dawn felt a little flutter of happiness in her chest, but it was still mixed up with the confusion and fear from the fight, echoing off Anita somewhere in the house. She really didn't know how she was going to survive having all these feelings in her all the time. "Really?"

"Totally." Micah smiled, and it looked as if he really meant it.

"Okay." Taking a breath, Dawn stood up and held out her hand to Micah. "Then you have to come with me."

"Where are we going?" Micah asked, letting Dawn walk him down the stairs.

"To find Anita," Dawn instructed. "Because you may be okay and I may be okay but Anita's not okay and we have to make that better."

"Dawn..."

"We can make it better," Dawn said firmly. "That's what families do, they fight and then they make it better and it's okay because they're families." She concentrated on the steps for a moment. "That's what Buffy and I used to do."

Micah didn't say anything, and Dawn wasn't sure he'd heard her.

"Where is she?" Dawn asked, louder this time.

"In her room," Micah said. "With Nathaniel."

"Come on, then. You'll apologize and she'll be better and you won't be fighting any more."

That was the way it had to be. Before Dawn had come, Anita and Micah and Nathaniel had been a family. She wasn't going to let her presence break up Anita's family, especially if they were the only people in this world that cared about her.

It just wasn't going to happen.

Chapter Text

Micah knocked on the bedroom door. Dawn barely had time to wonder why he didn't just go into the room, his own room, when Nathaniel opened the door.

"I need to talk to Anita," Micah said.

"We need to talk to Anita," Dawn corrected him, stepping around Nathaniel and going into the room.

Anita stood by the window, back to everyone. Dawn headed straight over to the woman. Up close like this, Anita's emotions were tangled and unhappy. All Dawn wanted to do was to make everything better, but even she knew that there was no way she could fix this quickly. This wasn't like a scraped knee that only needed a bandage.

"Anita?" Dawn tugged on Anita's jeans' pocket. "Are you okay?"

Taking a deep breath, Anita glanced down. "Of course I'm okay," she said with fake cheer. "I have a lot to do, so why don't you go back upstairs, okay?"

Dawn shook her head. "You're not fine. Micah didn't mean to make you angry, really!"

"Dawn--"

"No, everything has to be okay!" Dawn exclaimed. "We have to make it okay! You're all a family and families have to get along, they can fight and make up but they still get along!"

Anita pried Dawn's hands off her pocket. "Dawn, it doesn't work that way."

"It has to!" Dawn grabbed Anita's hand and held on tight. "Micah did what he thought was right and you did what you thought was right, and it was right! So we can all get over it and be happy!"

"Dawn, that's enough." Micah knelt beside Dawn. "I need to talk to Anita about this alone."

"But she's not listening!" Dawn protested.

"I am listening!" Anita exclaimed. "Dawn, some things can't be fixed with a few words and an apology."

"I wasn't apologizing," Micah said, looking intently at Anita. "I'm not going to apologize for making those phone calls."

"Then what the hell are you doing in here?"

Micah gathered Dawn up in his arms and stood. "Nathaniel, can you please take Dawn into the kitchen?" Without waiting for an answer, he dumped Dawn into Nathaniel's arms and essentially pushed them out of the bedroom before closing the door with a bang.

Raised voices followed Dawn and Nathaniel down the hall to the kitchen. Once in the shiny room, Dawn squirmed around until Nathaniel set her on the ground. Once down, she straightened her shirt and gave Nathaniel the glare that all the adults deserved. "You're all being dumb!"

Nathaniel switched on the radio, covering the sounds of the faint argument in the bedroom. "They need to work things out," was all he said.

Dawn angrily pulled herself into a chair at the table and crossed her arms over her chest. "Why is Anita being so dumb?"

Nathaniel sat in the chair next to Dawn. "Anita isn't being dumb," he said quietly. "She's still trying to figure out how to deal with things."

That was such an odd thing to say, especially about someone who was an adult, that Dawn forgot to be upset for a minute. "What do you mean?"

"She's..." Nathaniel seemed to search for the words. "I don't know if you know this, but I've only known Anita for a year and a half. She met Micah for the first time last July."

Dawn got to her knees on the chair. "What about before that? What about Jean-Claude?"

Nathaniel's smile didn't reach his eyes. "Anita never lived with Jean-Claude. She never lived with anyone before Micah and me moved in here."

"But what about friends?" Dawn pressed. "She has to have friends."

"She had Ronnie."

"What do you mean, had?" Dawn demanded. "Why doesn't she have more friends?"

"Anita doesn't make friends easily."

Dawn tapped her fingers on the tabletop, thinking. "Was Anita lonely?" she finally asked.

Nathaniel stood up and went to the fridge. "She'd probably say that she wasn't."

"What would you say?"

"I don't think it's my place to say," Nathaniel said, which was answer enough for Dawn. Anita was lonely.

Dawn folded her arms on the table, watching Nathaniel move around the kitchen. "Do you think that Anita and Micah are going to stop fighting and make up?"

Nathaniel nodded as he returned to the table, a plate of cut fruit in his hand. "They'll be fine."

"Then can we go get them?" Dawn asked, ready to jump down from the table. Nathaniel caught her arm before she could move.

"Why don't we let them talk?" Nathaniel said in a hurry. "You need to eat something, you didn't have any lunch, did you?"

Dawn narrowed her eyes. If Nathaniel didn't want her going to find Anita and Micah, and if they weren't fighting any more... Dawn made a face. Adults were so gross!

"Fine, I'll eat this piece of apple," she said grudgingly. She jammed the fruit slice in her mouth and chomped down.

"Good," Nathaniel said with a smile. "How about we look at something while you eat?"

"Look at what?" Dawn asked with her mouth full of apple bits.

Nathaniel pulled a thick magazine off of the pile on the table. "This."

Dawn read the title upside down. "Furniture? Why do you need to buy furniture?"

"For your room."

Dawn swallowed her apple with a gulp, and started coughing. Nathaniel patted her on the back until she could speak. "You're going to buy stuff for my room?" she squeaked. She scrambled down from her chair and climbed up onto Nathaniel's lap to give him a hug. "Thanks!"

He gave her a tentative hug back, then settled her on his knee. "We can start with a bed, if you want," he suggested.

Dawn nodded. "You have yourself a deal!"


The doorbell rang as Dawn was putting the last cookie on the plate.

Nathaniel closed the fridge with a thump. "She's early," he said.

"Not that early," Dawn said, giving her cookie plate one final look.

"Miss Wendell said she was coming by at eleven, it's nine now," Nathaniel pointed out.

"So?" Dawn jumped down from her chair. "I'll get it!"

She raced down the hall, dimly aware that Nathaniel was right behind her. He scooped her up just before she hit the door. "You shouldn't answer the door all on your own," Nathaniel said.

"Why not?"

"Because it might be a stranger." Nathaniel looked out the peephole on the door, and relaxed. He unlocked the deadbolt and swung the door open. "Hello, Detective Zerbrowski."

Dawn grinned. "Hi!"

The detective was just as rumpled as the last time Dawn had seen him, hair a mess and a wrinkled tie. He gave Dawn and Nathaniel a tired smile. "Hey there," he said. "Is Anita around?"

"She's upstairs," Nathaniel said, standing aside to let Zerbrowski in the house. "Is there something wrong?"

"Nope." Zerbrowski shrugged out of his overcoat as Nathaniel closed the door. "I've got something to run past Anita and Callahan."

"I'll get them," Dawn offered. As soon as Nathaniel set her on the ground, she shouted up the stairs, "Anita! Micah! Someone to see you!"

Nathaniel winced, but for some reason, Zerbrowski's smile grew wider. "So, kid, you're doing good here?"

"Uh huh!" Dawn bounced in place. Maybe she'd had too many cookies as she was setting up the plate. "Do you want some coffee? We have cookies!"

"You sure do," Zerbrowski said. He glanced up as Anita and Micah came down the stairs.

"What's wrong?" Anita demanded. She put her hand on Dawn's head, and Dawn stopped jumping around.

"Nothing's wrong," Zerbrowski said. "I just wanted to drop in, see how you were all doing." He stuck his hands in his pockets. "Dawn, can I take you up on that offer of coffee?"

"I'll help," Nathaniel said quickly.

Dawn rolled her eyes. She knew when they were getting her out of the way. She also knew she could probably worm whatever it was out of Anita later on. "Do you want sugar in your coffee?"

"No, thanks, but I'll take one of those cookies," Zerbrowski said.

Heaving a mighty sigh, Dawn headed back to the kitchen, hopping every other step. Nathaniel followed her. "Did you know Zerbrowski was coming over?" Dawn asked him.

Nathaniel shook his head. "The only person I thought we'd see today was Miss Wendell, to get a start on all that paperwork," he said as he pulled three mugs out of the cupboard. "How about you get cookies for Anita and Micah too?"

"We made these for the visit," Dawn reminded him. "How is giving Miss Wendell a plate of crumbs a good idea?"

Nathaniel carefully poured coffee into the mugs. "Not everyone eats cookies by the handful," he reminded her. "I think we'll have enough."

"All right, but if we don't, then I'm pointing the finger of blame right at you," Dawn said. She lifted the cookie plate with both hands and, balancing carefully, started towards the living room.

"Do you need help?" Nathaniel asked hurriedly.

"Nope," Dawn said, concentrating. Lifting a simple plate never used to be this hard!

With creative maneuvering around the doorframe, Dawn carried the cookies into the living room in time to hear Zerbrowski say, "Then it's all settled."

"As soon as we clear it with Dawn," Anita cautioned. "She-- Oh, geeze, Dawn!"

"I've got it!" Dawn exclaimed, feeling the cookies start to slide on the plate. Gravity was so unfair!

Anita jumped up and helped Dawn put the plate on the table, only losing a few cookies in the process. "How about next time you don't load the plate so high?" she suggested. "We need to talk to you."

Dawn put the cookies back in place, then hopped up on the sofa beside Micah. "Why?"

Anita waited until Nathaniel had handed out the coffee mugs before sitting down. "Zerbrowski had an idea," she began. "The full moon is coming up in a few days, and we need to find a place for you to stay that night. That was one of the things that we were going to talk with Miss Wendell about."

"I can stay here," Dawn said. A tiny hint of worry began to worm its way through her stomach. "Why can't I stay here?"

Pressing her hands together, Anita seemed to struggle for an answer. Micah spoke up. "Because there isn't going to be anyone here that night," he said. "Nathaniel and I aren't going to be around, and Anita needs to be on call in case there's an emergency."

"But why won't you be here?" Dawn pressed.

Micah and Anita shared a look. "Dawn, do you remember that Nathaniel and Micah are wereleopards?" Anita said.

Dawn made an impatient snort. "Of course I remember!"

"That means that on the night of a full moon, they're going to be in their animal forms."

"So?" Dawn began to fidget. "I can stay here by myself, I won't make a mess. I'll stay in my room all night, I promise!"

Anita passed her hand over her face. "You're a little girl, there's no way we're leaving you all alone."

"So why can't you stay with me?" Dawn pressed.

"Because I can't!"

"Anita has to be on call in case there's an emergency," Micah said again.

Dawn frowned. She knew Anita was the Slayer in this world, but what did that have to do with the full moon? Of course, she remembered, Buffy sometimes had to deal with Oz and other werewolves on the full moon night. Maybe Anita had to do something similar.

Still a little annoyed, Dawn looked over at Zerbrowski. "What's the idea?" she asked.

Zerbrowski leaned forward. "Well, I've got a couple of kids of my own, one's about your age," he said. "How about you come over to our place on Thursday for a sleep-over?"

Dawn stared at him.

"My wife, Katie, she's looking forward to meeting you," Zerbrowski continued. "She's heard a lot about you. And I think you'll like meeting Sarah and Kyle."

Not sure what they wanted her to say, Dawn looked up at Micah. "Why can't I go with you guys?" she whispered.

Micah let out a breath. "We're not going to be able to watch you," he said slowly. "At Zerbrowski's house, you'll be safe and Mrs. Zerbrowski will be there to keep an eye on you. Plus you get to meet some kids your own age, won't that be fun?"

Not unless they were fifteen too, Dawn thought, but didn't speak.

"Dawn," Anita said, touching Dawn's hand. "It'll be fun. And you can come home the next morning and tell us all about it."

Dawn slipped off the couch and walked over to Nathaniel. "What do you think I should do?" she asked.

Nathaniel hesitated for a long moment. "You know how you like to know where we all are ?" he finally asked. Dawn nodded. "If we know you're going to be safe on the full moon night, we'll all feel a lot better."

"Oh." Dawn looked down at her tiny hands. She was getting used being this size, and that was the weirdest thing of all. Giving her head a shake, she marched across the room to Zerbrowski. "I'd like to come to your house for the full moon, please," she said.

Zerbrowski smiled, his eyes laughing at her from behind his glasses. "You're on." He stood up. "See you in a few days, then."

Dawn smiled back, suddenly feeling a whole lot better. The emotion belonged to someone else in the room, but Dawn didn't really feel like sorting out whose mind she was reading. "And please tell Mrs. Zerbrowski that I look forward to meeting her," she added. Mom had taught Dawn manners, and Dawn was going to be polite to Zerbrowski and Mrs. Zerbrowski if it killed her.

"Of course," Zerbrowski said. He gave Anita and Micah a nod. "See you guys in a few days, then."

"I'll walk you out," Micah said. He gave Dawn's shoulder a squeeze on the way past.

With Micah and Zerbrowski talking quietly in the hallway, Dawn went over to Anita and hopped up on the woman's lap. "Is that all he wanted?" Dawn asked, craning her head back to look at Anita.

"It was," Anita said. She ran a hand over Dawn's hair. "How about we do something different with your hair today?"

"Braids, please," Dawn ordered. "What's Mrs. Zerbrowski like?"

"She's very nice," Anita said as she parted Dawn's hair. "She's the children's program co-ordinator at a community center near where they live, so she'll have a lot for you to do."

"Is she loud like Zerbrowski?" Dawn looked at Nathaniel, and stuck out her tongue. He smiled, and stuck out his tongue at her.

"No, she's quiet." Anita continued to braid Dawn's hair. "I haven't seen her in a while."

"You can see her in a few days." Dawn used her fingers to pull her face into weird shapes, making Nathaniel laugh. "When is Miss Wendell going to be here this morning?"

"At eleven," Nathaniel reminded her. "What do you want to do until then?"

Dawn shrugged. "I dunno."

"How about we look though the catalogue again?" Nathaniel suggested.

"Catalogue?" Anita asked.

"We're looking at the catalogue to see what kind of furniture we're going to get for my room," Dawn explained. "Because Nathaniel said that having my socks in a box isn't good." She giggled. "Socks in a box."

"I'll go get it," Nathaniel offered, standing.

"Can you get some hair elastics?" Anita called after him. The living room fell into a comfortable silence as Anita continued to braid Dawn's hair.

Looking around the room, Dawn let out a sigh. She missed the living room in her Sunnydale home. No, she corrected herself, she missed the way the room had been before Mom died. Nothing had been the same since Mom died.

Anita probably knew what that was like, but Dawn didn't know how to ask. Thinking about her mother always made Anita sad, and Dawn didn't want Anita sad.

Nathaniel came back into the room, followed by Micah. Dawn held out her hands for the catalogue. "Can we look at lamps now?" she asked.

"How about we show Anita and Micah what we've picked out so far?" Nathaniel suggested. "They might have something to say."

"Okay." Dawn opened the catalogue on her lap to the first dog-eared page as Micah sat down on the couch beside them.

Anita took the elastics from Nathaniel's hand, and quickly tied off Dawn's hair. She pulled Dawn into a hug and looked over her shoulder at the catalogue. "All right, let's see this."

Dawn pointed at the bed on the page, the one with the pine headboard. "I like that one," she said. "But I want a blue quilt, not red."

"Blue quilt, check."

Dawn pulled one of her braids over her shoulder, as she got down to the serious business of shopping.


"Maybe this was a bad idea," Dawn said, holding Anita's hand in a death grip as they stood side by side on the Zerbrowski's front step.

"It's a little late for that," Anita said. "Sunset is in half an hour."

Dawn made a noise in her throat. "Full moon, baboon. We still have enough time for me to go home."

Anita sighed. "Are you being serious or are you joking around?"

Dawn kicked at the walkway with the toe of her boot. "I guess I'm joking," she mumbled unhappily.

"Thank God," Anita muttered, ringing the doorbell. Dawn glared up at the woman, but her snarky retort was interrupted by the opening door.

"Anita, hello," said the woman in the doorway. She smiled down at Dawn. "This must be Dawn. Please, come in."

Anita guided a reluctant Dawn into the house. The whole place smelled yummy, like pot roast and mashed potatoes, and Dawn's stomach rumbled.

Belatedly, she remembered that she had forgotten her manners. "It's nice to meet you, Mrs. Zerbrowski," she said, letting Anita pull off her jacket. "Is Detective Zerbrowski here?"

"It's nice to meet you." Mrs. Zerbrowski had a nice smile, pretty and warm. "Mr. Zerbrowski is at work tonight, actually. Why don't we get you out of those boots and I can show you around?"

Dawn nodded, uncertainty starting to build in her stomach. This was going to be the first time she was away from Anita or Micah or Nathaniel since she'd fallen into St. Louis, and for a whole night. She wasn't exactly sure she could do this.

Stop it! Dawn told herself. Buffy could do this no problem, and so can you! Just because you've only ever been on two sleep-overs across the street from home doesn't mean you can't do this.

Having let Anita help her out of her boots, Dawn slipped her hand into Anita's, and stood very close to the woman. She wasn't scared, she was just making sure... Okay, she was scared.

Mrs. Zerbrowski smiled again. "How about I show you the house?" she said. Dawn gave a tiny nod.

Anita touched Dawn's hair. "Do you want me to carry you?" she asked.

It was just the right blow to Dawn's ego. She shook her head, hard. "I'm not a baby!" she exclaimed quietly. Still holding Anita's hand tight, she followed Mrs. Zerbrowski into the house.

"This is the living room," Mrs. Zerbrowski said. "The kitchen is through there, and the bedrooms up those stairs."

"What's that noise?" Dawn asked.

"That's the television in the downstairs rec room. Kyle's playing a video game before dinner."

"Oh." Dawn was suddenly apprehensive about meeting another kid. What was he like? Was he childish? Would he be mean?

"And Sarah is upstairs. Why don't I go get her so you two can meet?" With that, Mrs. Zerbrowski vanished up the stairs.

Dawn looked up at Anita. "How about I go with you and I can stay in the car?" she suggested.

Anita sighed and sat down on the nearest couch. She pulled Dawn over to stand right in front of her. "We talked about this," she reminded Dawn, straightening her collar. "I might have to do some dangerous work tonight and I have to know that you're safe. Hiding in the back of my car is the opposite of safe."

"I won't make any noise."

Anita tweaked the end of Dawn's nose, making her sneeze. "Who knows, this may be lots of fun," she said. "You've got everything?"

Dawn nodded. "I've got Sigmund and my journal and my pen that I got back from Nathaniel and a book and my toothbrush," she said, patting the small black backpack at her side.

"Good." Anita fiddled with Dawn's sweater sleeves. "And when this is all over, we're going to get you a proper bag."

Dawn made a face. "Kids' knapsacks all have stupid things on them! Like superheroes or dolls."

"Then we'll have to find you a proper backpack," Anita said, as Mrs. Zerbrowski and a little girl came into the room. The girl was taller than Dawn, but she was a kid.

"Hi!" the girl said. Was Dawn's voice that high-pitched? "I'm Sarah."

Dawn ruthlessly shoved her insecurity down. She was fifteen, for heaven's sake. She wasn't going to be scared of a six-year-old. "I'm Dawn."

Sarah grinned. "Want to see my room?"

Dawn quickly looked at Anita. "Promise you won't leave without saying goodbye?" she demanded.

"I promise. I need to talk to Katie for a few minutes, but I'll come up and say goodbye," Anita said.

"Okay." Dawn picked up her bag and followed Sarah up the carpeted stairs. Unlike the stairs at Anita's house, which went straight up, these ones had a bend and a little landing.

"You're going to stay in the guest room," Sarah was saying. "It's like for grown-ups, but it's okay. Grandma and Grandpa stay there when they come to visit." They reached the top of the stairs. "It's in there," Sarah said, pointing at a half-closed door.

"Okay." Dawn put her bag just inside the door. The room smelled of lavender, which made Dawn's nose tickle. "Where's the bathroom?"

"Down there," Sarah said. "Me and Kyle share. Mommy and Daddy have a bathroom in their room." She waited for Dawn to nod. "Come see my room, I've got lots of toys."

"Sure," Dawn said slowly. She trailed after the girl through a door on the other side of the hall, and was almost blinded by an explosion of purple.

Sarah took a running leap and jumped onto her bed. "Do you like dolls?" the girl said happily. "I like dolls. Mommy and Daddy got me a Princess Penelope backpack for school, and I have all the Princess Penelope dolls, except for Princess Stephanie. I asked Santa for her for Christmas!"

The entire room was filled with pink and purple dolls, with shimmering dresses and sparkly hair, and it was on the tip of Dawn's tongue to ask who in their right mind was that into dolls, but looking at Sarah's excited face, Dawn suddenly felt the weight of all her fifteen years. She remembered being six, and really into horses, and how happy she'd been when Buffy had played My Little Pony with her for hours. She also remembered how crushed she'd been when Buffy had told her dolls were stupid and childish.

Dawn was old enough to know better. "Can you show me one?" she said, quietly resigning herself to a night of deep purple. "I don't know anything about Princess Penelope."

Sarah's eyes grew wide. "Nothing?" she demanded. "She's the best thing ever!" She proceeded to tell Dawn, at a fast babble, exactly how cool Princess Penelope was, and how the dolls all lived in a land called Happily Ever After Land, and how neat it all was.

Dawn had never been so glad to see Anita when, fifteen minutes and seven doll introductions later, Anita and Mrs. Zerbrowski appeared in the doorway. "Dawn, I have to go," Anita said.

"I'll be right back," Dawn said to Sarah, extricating herself from a pile of doll clothes. She raced to give Anita a hug. "Bye!"

"Bye yourself," Anita said. "I'll see you tomorrow morning, okay?"

Dawn nodded. "Be careful," she said.

"I will." Anita kissed Dawn's forehead. "You have fun."

"I'll be here, in the valley of the dolls," Dawn said. Anita choked on a laugh. "Bye."

"See you soon." Anita gave Dawn another kiss on the head before letting her go.

Dawn turned around, steeling herself before heading back into Sarah's room. She wasn't sure how much more time she could spend around dolls before she went crazy.


Luck was with Dawn. After an hour of playing with dolls, Mrs. Zerbrowski called Sarah downstairs to do homework. Dawn retrieved her bag from the guest room and trailed along after Sarah to the kitchen. There was already a boy at the table, bent over his books and ignoring everyone.

"Mommy, we weren't done playing," Sarah whined, climbing into a chair.

"You know the rules," Mrs. Zerbrowski reminded her. "Homework before dinner." She put a workbook in front of Sarah.

"You have homework?" Dawn asked, eyes wide. Wasn't grade one too early for homework? All she'd ever had to do in the first grade was learn addition and practice words for reading.

"Just reading and stuff," Sarah said. She opened the workbook and held it up. "See? Boring stuff."

"Oh."

"Don't you have homework?" Sarah asked, setting her book down.

Dawn shook her head. "I don't go to school."

Mrs. Zerbrowski saved Dawn from further interrogation. "How about you join us for a little while?" the woman asked, pulling a chair out from the table for Dawn. "Do you want to color?"

Dawn bit her lip. "No, thank you, ma'am. I have a book to read." She bent over to unzip her bag, and pulled out the book she'd taken from Anita's shelf earlier that day. It was rather heavy, and she had to heave it up onto the table. She climbed up on the chair, and only belatedly realized that everyone was staring at her. "What?"

"What's in that?" Sarah asked, looking quite stunned.

"It's a book about animals," Dawn explained. "It's Anita's."

Mrs. Zerbrowski bent over the chair to look at the book. "Dawn, this is a college-level textbook," she said.

"I know that," Dawn said.

"Does Anita know you have this?" Mrs. Zerbrowski asked.

"Yes," Dawn said. "She said it would keep me busy."

"Okay," Mrs. Zerbrowski said reluctantly. "But you let me know if you start to get bored."

Dawn nodded. She opened the book at random, flipping pages until she came to a photograph of a baby elephant. "See?" she said to Sarah. "It's neat."

Sarah didn't appear convinced, but she bent back over her own book. Dawn held in a sigh and went back to the table of contents. The whole reason she'd asked for this book was she wanted to know about leopards, like Nathaniel and Micah.

After a few minutes of reading, Dawn felt an itchy sensation on the top of her head. She looked up to see Kyle staring at her. "What?"

"Why are you pretending to read?" he demanded.

Dawn narrowed her eyes. For a third-grader, he was rather presumptuous. "I'm not pretending."

"Are too."

Dawn sat back in her chair. She refused to be sucked into verbal sparring with a little boy. "If you don't mind, I'd like to go back to my reading."

"Kyle," Mrs. Zerbrowski said, and it shut the boy up. Dawn concentrated on reading about leopard evolution, wishing the angry feeling in her stomach would go away.


The evening didn't improve. Kyle started kicking Dawn's chair during dinner, refusing to apologize when his mother told him to. Dawn ignored him, telling herself that she wasn't going to get into a fight with a child, no matter how ill-mannered that child was.

The pot roast was really good, but Dawn could only eat a few bites of meat. She missed Anita, was worried about Nathaniel and Micah, and didn't know how she was going to survive being in a strange house until morning.

Sarah chattered happily at her mother during the meal, talking about first grade and her friends and an upcoming field trip at school. Mrs. Zerbrowski tried to engage Kyle in the conversation, but other than kicking Dawn's chair a little harder, he was unresponsive.

After dinner, Kyle jumped up from his place and was about to run downstairs when Mrs. Zerbrowski stopped him. "No more television for you tonight."

"Mom!" Kyle exclaimed, horrified. "My favorite show is on!"

"You're going to help me with the dishes, and you're going to help me with dishes every night this week until you learn better manners when we have guests."

Kyle swung around, glaring at Dawn. She could hear him thinking how much he hated stupid little girls, especially ones that made him miss his television shows. Intellectually, she knew he was wrong, but her stomach cramped up with scary emotions, and she just wanted to run away as fast as she could.

"Sarah, why don't you and Dawn go watch a movie downstairs until bedtime?" Mrs. Zerbrowski suggested.

Sarah nodded and quickly scampered out of the room. Dawn was only too glad to follow the girl out of the kitchen and down into the rec room.

"You sit there, I'll get the movie!" Sarah ordered officiously. Dawn slumped against the sofa, thankful that she hadn't eaten much. Her stomach felt like someone had punched her in the gut. She wanted to go back to Anita's house, to her own bed and her own box of socks on the ground and her toothbrush in the upstairs bathroom and her own strawberry bubble-bath by the tub.

Was everyone always like Kyle? Full of hate and anger that they never let show? If that was the case, then how was Dawn going to live with being able to read minds? She'd been sheltered at Anita's house, where Anita and Micah and Nathaniel knew what she could do, knew they had to mask their emotions for her. They liked her, at least.

Dawn wanted to go home.

"Movie's on!" Sarah said, bouncing onto the couch.

"Okay," Dawn said, pushing down her homesickness. There was no way she could leave now. Anita wasn't home, and all she would succeed at doing is making Mrs. Zerbrowski and everybody mad. And Sarah was a little kid. She didn't need to see how unhappy Dawn was. That wasn't fair to Sarah. "What's the movie about?"

Sarah grinned. "It's the Princess Penelope Seaside Vacation!"

Dawn watched as the credits began to roll on the brightly colored animated film. "Great."


Kyle was waiting in the hallway when Dawn had finished brushing her teeth. "My dad said you have a monster for a foster father."

"Shut up!" Dawn snapped. "Micah's a wereleopard, not a monster."

The boy made a rude noise. "He's an animal! If he's not an animal, why are they making you stay here tonight? He changes into an animal every month and goes around eating children!"

Dawn gripped her toothbrush so hard her hand hurt. "Stop talking about Micah! You don't know anything!"

"Do too," Kyle taunted. "Billy at school said that Miss Blake used to kill lycanthropes before she moved in with them!"

"Anita wouldn't ever kill Micah!"

"Why not? She kills vampires all the time!"

Dawn was so angry she wanted to hit Kyle. Instead, she whirled around and marched into the guest bedroom, closing the door behind her. Her hands were shaking as she put her toothbrush back in her bag.

Why was Kyle so stupid? Micah would never eat her, just like Anita would never hurt Micah. And so what if Anita killed vampires? She was just like with Buffy. Buffy killed vampires, bad vampires. Anita did all that stuff to protect people, exactly like Buffy.

Dawn pulled her journal out of her bag. Underneath lay Sigmund, squished a little from the journey. Dawn set the journal on the bed and picked up Sigmund. The stuffed bird smelled like Anita's house, familiar and safe, and Dawn hugged him as hard as she could.

Micah and Nathaniel weren't animals. They'd never hurt her.

Dawn's musings were interrupted by a knock at the door. Mrs. Zerbrowski poked her head into the room. "How are you doing?" the woman asked.

"Fine," Dawn lied. "I was just going to put my pajamas on."

Mrs. Zerbrowski smiled. "I'll come back in a few minutes to say good night, okay?"

Dawn nodded. "What time is it?" she asked as Mrs. Zerbrowski withdrew.

"Quarter to nine."

As soon as the door closed, Dawn let her head fall forward. Over twelve hours until Anita would be there to pick her up. That was like forever.

Dawn was in bed when Mrs. Zerbrowski came back. "I see you're all ready," the woman said. She sat on the end of the mattress. "Did you and Sarah enjoy the movie?"

Dawn made herself nod. "Dinner was really nice too. Thanks for letting me stay here tonight."

"You're quite welcome." Mrs. Zerbrowski gave Dawn's blanket-covered foot a tiny shake. "I'll see you in the morning."

Dawn waited until Mrs. Zerbrowski had turned out the lights and closed the door, before pushing back the covers. She retrieved her journal and the tiny flashlight she'd snagged from Anita's kitchen. Dawn hadn't gone to bed at nine o'clock since she was three, and she wasn't about to start now.

Buffy,

Oz was cool, right? He never tried to eat anyone when it wasn't a full moon, right? Willow would have mentioned it if he got all gnawy on her.

A kid I met here said that Micah changes into a monster that ate little girls. But he's totally not. He's always really nice, and he never gets mad at me, and he's always patient, even when my stupid little hands won't work like they're supposed to. Same with Nathaniel. (Helping me, not having tiny hands.)

Dawn stopped writing. Something was scratching at the back of her mind, something about someone changing and hurting little girls, but she was too tired to find the connection.

Things are strange here. The magic is different than at home. I told you about the social worker who let me stay with Anita. They know all about magic and vampires here, but I haven't told anyone I can read minds. Anita knows, and Micah and Nathaniel, but no one else. I don't like it any more. Remember how you went crazy when you could hear everyone's thoughts? And Angel made you drink that icky demony blood? I'm not that crazy. But sometimes I hear things I don't want to.

It's no fun when you know what people think of you.

I don't know why I'm like this. Or why I look this young. Or where you are.

I don't think I'll ever see you again. I don't know where to look for you.

Are you even looking for me anymore?


The next morning, Dawn woke from a horrible nightmare, about being chased and falling and dying, and everything felt different and exactly the same.

Mrs. Zerbrowski was in her room, opening the curtains. "Good morning, sleepyhead," she said brightly. "It's almost seven o'clock."

Dawn blinked, more tired than she had been when she finally stopped writing in her journal. "In the morning?"

Mrs. Zerbrowski smiled. "Why don't you get changed and come down to breakfast? Anita should be here to get you in a couple of hours."

Right. Anita. Dawn rubbed her eyes as she slipped out of the big bed, knocking Sigmund to the ground in the process.

"Here you go." Mrs. Zerbrowski picked Sigmund up and put him on the bed next to Dawn's backpack. "We'll see you downstairs in a few minutes."

Dawn dug around in her backpack for her change of clothes. Nathaniel had been extra nice and had packed her stripy socks in with her clothes. Dawn pulled her clothes on, admiring the way her feet were a rainbow of color, before shoving all her belongings into the bag, including the journal and flashlight she'd hidden under the pillow.

Some half-remembered piece of advice from Mom came back to Dawn, and she tried to pull the sheets and blanket into place. Making an adult-sized bed was nearly impossible for Dawn's little hands, but she managed to make the bed a little less messy.

The whole Zerbrowski family was around the kitchen table when Dawn made it downstairs. She stopped in the doorway, gripping the strap of her backpack tightly. She wasn't a part of this. This wasn't her family.

Zerbrowski broke off talking with Kyle when he spotted Dawn in the doorway. "Dawn, come get something to eat before it's all gone," he said.

Kyle shot Dawn a look filled with such loathing that she wanted to run away. But she wasn't going to let some stupid little kid push her around. Lifting her chin high, Dawn matched into the kitchen and climbed up on the empty chair. She reached for the cereal box closest to her, only to have it snatched out of her hand by Kyle.

Just as quickly, Zerbrowski took the box away from Kyle. "Guests have first call," Zerbrowski told his son. "Here, Dawn." He poured cereal into a bowl and placed it in front of Dawn, adding some milk.

Kyle's dislike pressed down on Dawn, suffocating. "Thank you," she whispered. She managed to swallow a mouthful of the cereal, sugary and sweet, but it tasted like cotton balls. She stirred the cereal with her spoon, watching as the cereal began to break down into crumbs in the milk.

"All right, time for school," Mrs. Zerbrowski said, clapping her hands. Kyle and Sarah clattered down from the table. Kyle ran out of the room immediately, but Sarah paused.

"Thanks for staying over, Dawn!" the girl chirruped. "I had fun."

Dawn managed to smile at the child's sincerity. "Thanks for having me," she said. Mrs. Zerbrowski took Sarah by the hand and guided the girl out of the kitchen.

"Mommy, why is Dawn sad?" Sarah's voice drifted down the hall.

"Maybe she's homesick," Mrs. Zerbrowski said. "Remember how you missed us when you went over to Carrie's house? Dawn is younger than you were then."

"But she can read!" Sarah exclaimed, as if that explained everything.

Dawn looked around the quiet kitchen. Zerbrowski was still sitting in his chair, nursing a cup of coffee. "Hey," he said. "You want me to get you something else for breakfast?"

Dawn shook her head.

"How about a cup of coffee?"

Dawn set her spoon down. "Really?"

Zerbrowski cracked a grin. "Sort of. Micah told me how to make your favorite drink." The detective got to his feet and headed over to the coffee pot. "Anita said she'd be here by nine."

Dawn looked at the clock on the microwave. Another hour to go. "I can go sit in the living room to not bother you."

"You don't bother me," Zerbrowski said. He poured milk into a mug and put it in the microwave. "Do you want to help me with the dishes?"

"Sure," Dawn said reluctantly. She slipped off her chair and carried her bowl over to the counter. "Don't you have to sleep? Weren't you at work all night?"

"I'll sleep after Anita comes to pick you up." Zerbrowski took the bowl from Dawn's hands. "Katie tells me that you and Sarah had fun last night."

"Uh huh," Dawn replied automatically. "She wants a Princess Stephanie doll from Santa for Christmas. In case you didn't know."

"What would you like when Santa visits for Christmas?" Zerbrowski asked.

"To keep my intestines!" Dawn exclaimed without thinking.

Zerbrowski set down the coffee pot with a clatter. "What?"

Flustered, Dawn backed up. "Anya said that Santa Claus isn't a myth, that he's a demon that climbs down chimneys and disembowels little children."

"Who's Anya?"

"A friend of Buffy."

Zerbrowski crouched down so he was on eye-level with Dawn. "Dawn, Santa Claus isn't a demon," he said, very serious. "Nothing about Christmas is going to hurt you."

Dawn looked down at her toes. Suddenly her colorful socks looked childish and stupid. Everything about her was childish and stupid.

"Why don't you sit down and I'll do the dishes," Zerbrowski said. He helped Dawn sit on a chair, and placed a cup in front of her. "One latte, as requested."

Dawn took a tentative sip. The milk was just warm enough, and sweet. "Thank you."

Zerbrowski quietly did the dishes while Dawn sipped at her cup. "So," Zerbrowski said after a while. "Did your sister's friend talk about any other kinds of bad creatures?"

Dawn raised her eyebrows. That wasn't really the sort of thing she'd have thought a grown-up would talk about with a five-year-old. "Some things."

"Like what?" Zerbrowski dried his hands and came back over to the table.

Dawn bit her lip. What sorts of things could she talk to Zerbrowski about? Maybe only the things she'd seen in this world. Otherwise he'd think she was crazy. "Well, like vampires and werewolves and stuff," she said. "Anya worked in Giles' magic shop."

"Did you go into this shop?" Zerbrowski asked. "What kinds of things did they have there?"

Dawn shrugged. "The usual. Crystal balls and incense and salamander eyes and tarot cards and monkey brains. But Willow said that selling tarot cards was useless. If you wanted to tell the future, you'd be better off casting the bones."

Zerbrowski stirred his coffee. "Did she ever do that? Willow, I mean."

"Not that I know of." Dawn took a long drink from her cup. She was down the syrupy goodness at the bottom of the cup. "Reading the future never works, anyway."

"I bet," Zerbrowski said. "These friends of your sister's, at the magic shop, did they ever cast spells?"

Dawn lowered her cup. How dumb could she be? Zerbrowski didn't want to know about her friends, he wanted to pump her for information. She was so stupid! "I'm going to wait for Anita by the door," she said. She slipped off her chair, not looking at Zerbrowski, and headed straight for her backpack.

She knew better than this! Buffy had told Dawn so many times to not talk about anything to the police. And here Dawn was, spilling her guts to someone just because he gave her a cup of hot milk flavored with coffee. Stupid, that was what Dawn was. Stupid and useless.

Dropping her bag by the front door, Dawn stepped into her boots and pulled on her jacket, then settled down to wait.

"Dawn, why don't you come wait in the living room?" Zerbrowski said. He must have followed her from the kitchen.

"No, thank you," Dawn said stiffly. "I'll wait here."

And wait she did. She waited and waited and waited some more. She pulled Sigmund out of her backpack and held him on her lap, and together they waited for what felt like forever.

Finally, the doorbell rang. Dawn sprang to her feet, jumping impatiently while waiting for Zerbrowski to come and open the door.

"Hey, Zerbrowski," Anita said. She barely made it one step into the house before Dawn dropped Sigmund and jumped on her, hugging the woman around the waist as hard as she could. "Dawn? What's wrong?" Anita asked, picking the girl up. Dawn wrapped her arms around Anita's neck and her legs around Anita's waist and clung to the woman like a limpet. "Zerbrowski, what happened?"

"She missed you," Zerbrowski said.

"I can see that!" Anita rubbed Dawn's back with her free hand. "What happened? She was fine last night!"

"Can we go home?" Dawn asked, voice muffled in Anita's jacket. "Right now?"

"In a minute," Anita said. "Zerbrowski?"

Dawn heard the man sigh. "Katie said that Dawn and Kyle didn't get along very well."

"Dawn?" Anita stroked Dawn's hair until the girl turned her head. "Was that it?"

Mindful of how rude it would be to criticize Kyle in front of his father, Dawn shook her head. "I didn't get much sleep."

"Is anything wrong?"

Dawn shook her head, then buried her face in the crook of Anita's neck.

"I'll call you later," Zerbrowski said. "You take that kid home."

"Sure," Anita said, more confused than anything. "Thanks for watching Dawn."

"It was easy," Zerbrowski said. "Goodbye Dawn."

Dawn managed to let go of Anita long enough to wave at Zerbrowski. Then she clung tight all the way out of the house, down the driveway and into Anita's car.

"You want to tell me what that was about?" Anita asked as she strapped Dawn into the backseat.

Dawn shook her head, staring at her feet.

Anita sighed. "How about we get you home, okay?" She put Sigmund on the seat next to Dawn, then closed the car door.

They were driving down the road before Dawn spoke. "Are Nathaniel and Micah okay?"

"Of course they are," Anita said. "Just a normal full moon. As normal as they get, anyway."

"Can I come with you next time, then?" Dawn asked quickly. "Please?"

"Dawn, that can't happen."

Dawn turned her head to stare out the window at the passing traffic. Her tummy rumbled and her head felt funny, like she was falling, but she kept her mouth shut. Anita didn't need to hear her complain. She apparently didn't want to listen to Dawn at all.
The rest of the drive to Anita's house was in silence.

After pulling into the driveway, Anita helped Dawn out of the car and up the front walk. Part of Dawn wanted to pull her hand away from Anita, but everything was so confused and her head felt so weird that she let Anita guide her up the walk.

Dawn had just finished setting her boots on the mat by the front door, when she heard Micah say, "How was it?"

"We had a few problems," Anita said. She dropped Dawn's bag on the floor by the shoes. "Dawn said she didn't get much sleep."

Micah sat on the bottom step of the stairs, watching Dawn. He was dressed more casually than normal, in sweatpants and a t-shirt. He looked a little tired, but not nearly as tired as Anita. "Were you homesick?" he asked Dawn.

Dawn shrugged. "Maybe." She didn't understand what she was feeling. Was she scared of Micah? She couldn't be, he was always so nice! He would never try to eat her!

"Do you want to go have a nap?" Micah continued.

Dawn shook her head. She wasn't that tired, and she wasn't scared of Micah, she told herself. As if to prove the point, she went and sat on the step next to him. See? Not scared.

"Did you have enough to eat?" Micah asked.

"They had pot roast last night for dinner," Dawn said, avoiding the question. "And cereal for breakfast."

"Sounds good." Micah looked at Anita. "You've been up all night, why don't you go get some sleep?"

Anita hesitated. "You were up all night, too."

"I had some sleep. Dawn and I can work on figuring out where we're going to put the Christmas tree."

"You should go sleep," Dawn added, pulling her knees up to her chest. "You can take Sigmund if you like."

Anita smiled. "I'm fine." She kicked off her shoes. "I'll see you guys in a few hours, okay?"

Dawn watched Anita walk down the hall, then turned to Micah. "You can go sleep too if you want. I won't make a mess."

Micah rested his chin on his hand. "I'm fine." He let out a sigh. "Can I ask you a question?"

"I guess."

"How do you feel?"

Dawn looked at her feet. "Fine, I guess," she said as she pulled off her striped socks. Her toes were so tiny, and in a fleeting thought, Dawn wondered if a wereleopard could eat her up, toes and all.

"Really?"

Dawn leaned forward and squeezed her big toe. "Uh huh."

"I see." Micah shifted around on the step. "Because if you're not feeling good, you should tell us, so we can help you feel better."

Dawn squeezed her other toes, one by one. "What if you can't make it better?"

"We won't know until we try."

Dawn sat up. Now her tummy felt as bad as her head. "Did you ever eat a little girl?" she blurted out.

Micah's face went blank. "What-- No, Dawn, never. Why on earth made you ask that?"

Dawn hunched her shoulders. Now Micah was going to be mad at her, what if he changed into a leopard and got mad at her? "I don't know," she said quickly.

"What happened last night?" Micah asked, slipping off the step and kneeling on the ground in front of Dawn. "Who was talking about this?"

Confused tears gathered in Dawn's eyes. "Kyle said that you're a wereleopard and they eat little girls and that's why I was at their house, so you wouldn't eat me and Anita wouldn't shoot you."

"That's never going to happen!" Micah said. He touched Dawn's cheek, and she started to cry. "Dawn, you're safe around me and Nathaniel, we will never let anything happen to you, I promise."

"You're not going to change and hurt me?" Dawn sniffled.

"Never." Micah picked Dawn up and stood. "We will never let anything hurt you."

"Oh." Dawn wiped her tears on the shoulder of Micah's t-shirt. "What are we doing?"

"Getting you something to eat." Micah shifted Dawn to his hip as he entered the kitchen.

"But I didn't say I was hungry," Dawn protested. "They really did have lots of food!"

"There's a difference between there being a lot of food and you eating any of it." Micah set Dawn down on the counter. "Grilled cheese or peanut butter sandwich?"

Dawn hugged her arms to her chest. She wished her headache would go away, and take the dream memories of running and falling with it. "Grilled cheese," she whispered.

The sandwich helped calm Dawn's stomach, as did the glass of milk and the few bites of banana. Micah sat at the table, watching her eat. When she was done, he said, "Do you want to talk about it now?"

Dawn toyed with the sandwich crust. "Not really."

"Did any of what happened with you being able to hear what people are thinking sometimes?"

Reluctantly, Dawn nodded. "Kyle doesn't like me."

"Did he tell you that?"

"No." Dawn dragged the bread crust through the ketchup. "I kinda heard him thinking it."

"I see." Micah was quiet for a minute. "How would you feel about meeting a friend of Anita's?"

"Ronnie?" Dawn asked. "Nathaniel told me about Ronnie."

"No, not Ronnie. Her name is Marianne. She helped Anita."

"What does she do?" Dawn asked, interested in hearing all about Anita's friends.

"She's a witch," Micah explained. "She helped Anita be able to shield her powers. Maybe she can help you do the same thing with your powers."

Dawn dropped the crust. "But Anita helped me do that," Dawn protested. "At the zoo, all I have to concentrate and I can make everything go away."

"Maybe we can find a better way," Micah said.

Dawn was quiet, staring at her plate. "Do you think she can make it go away?"

The fleeting hope in Dawn's chest that she wouldn't have to read minds anymore was crushed by Micah's downcast expression. "I don't know if we'll be able to do that, Dawn."

"Oh."

"I have an idea," Micah said quickly. "How about we go move the living room furniture around for the Christmas tree?"

"But we haven't got a Christmas tree yet," Dawn said automatically.

"Once Nathaniel and Anita wake up, we can go buy one," Micah said. "What do you say?"

Dawn turned the suggestion over in her mind. "Can we also hang stockings on the fireplace?"

"Of course."

Dawn jumped out of her chair and rounded the table. "I'm sorry I thought you would eat me," she blurted out.

"It's okay," Micah said.

"No, it isn't!" Dawn tried to look adult. "It's not okay!"

"Dawn." Micah leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "As long as you understand that no one in this house will ever hurt you, then is is okay. We'll put that behind us and move on."

"If you say so," Dawn said.

"I do." Micah stood up. "Come on, Nathaniel should be up soon and we need to get a move-on for that tree."

Dawn took Micah's hand and together they walked into the living room. "All right," Dawn said. "Christmas, here we come."

Chapter Text

"Christmas is tomorrow, Christmas is tomorrow," Dawn sang under her breath as she climbed into bed. Anita helped Dawn pull up the covers before setting Sigmund next to Dawn. "Anita, are you excited about Christmas?"

"Not nearly as excited as you are," Anita said with a smile.

"This is a fun time of year," Dawn sat back against her pillows. "Are you okay? You seem kind of gloomy. What's the bad?"

Anita sighed. "There's nothing bad about it, Dawn. Christmas has always been a weird time of year for me."

"Because of your mom?" Dawn guessed.

The expression on Anita's face made Dawn wish she'd kept her mouth shut. Dawn pulled Sigmund over and wrapped her arms around the stuffed penguin, not looking at Anita.

"I keep forgetting you can do that," Anita murmured. She sat on the edge of the bed and put her elbows on her knees. "Dawn..." She sighed. "I lived alone for a long time. But you know what?" Dawn shook her head. Anita smiled. "I like this better. I like this a lot better, and I know I don't say it a lot, but it's true."

Hesitantly, Dawn smiled back. "Good." She took a deep breath and shook off the growing tension in her head. "Can you tell me what you got me for Christmas?"

"Dawn."

"I mean, at least some of those boxes are for me, right?" Dawn asked, eyes wide. "Maybe two? Or three?"

"You know very well that most of that huge pile downstairs is for you," Anita told her. "And I'm not going to tell you anything more. You'll have to wait until tomorrow."

Dawn let out a theatrical sigh. "Fine, be that way." She snuggled down under the blankets. "Anita?"

"Yes?" Anita tucked the covers around Dawn tightly, the same way she had done every night for the last few weeks. It made Dawn feel safe. It was starting to feel like home.

"Do you think Nathaniel will like my present?"

Anita frowned. "What are you talking about? Of course he will."

Dawn picked at a fraying thread of Sigmund's flipper. "He won't think it's stupid?"

"Of course not. Dawn, it's a great gift and coming from you, it's going to mean a lot to Nathaniel." Anita leaned over and kissed Dawn's forehead. "We're all looking forward to tomorrow. It's going to be a great day."

"It's just, Nathaniel never had good Christmases before and he's been doing so much with decorations and dinner and gifts and everything," Dawn whispered.

"I know." Anita had a very serious look on her face, and Dawn knew that whatever Anita was thinking wasn't really aimed at her, but it still made her nervous. "Dawn, can I ask you something?"

Dawn nodded, feeling Sigmund's soft fur against her cheek. In spite of all the excitement, she was beginning to feel a little sleepy.

"You remember Richard, right?" Not waiting for a response, Anita hurried on. "His mother called today."

Dawn narrowed her eyes. "Why did your ex-fiancée's mother call you the day before Christmas?" she demanded.

"Because Richard told her about you," Anita said reluctantly.

"About me?"

"Yes, you." Anita sat up straight, looking for all the world as if she was facing a firing squad instead of a tired kid armed with a stuffed sea bird. "Richard told his family that you were staying with me, and his mother wanted to invite you over to their house tomorrow afternoon before dinner."

Dawn stared.

"It's going to be a big family event, with lots of crafts and games and Christmas carols, and Charlotte said there would be a bunch of kids your age there." Anita ran her hand over the coverlet, not quite looking at Dawn. "This might be a good idea, a chance to have you meet new people, maybe make some friends with kids your age. It won't be for long, maybe an hour?"

Dawn wanted to say, because that worked so well with the Zerbrowski kids,, but she knew Anita was still disturbed about how badly things had gone with Kyle Zerbrowski.

"Why would she want me to come over?" Dawn asked in a quiet voice. "She doesn't even know me, and unless there's something you're not telling me about Richard, you're not dating him anymore."

"No, I'm not dating Richard," Anita said faintly.

Dawn looked at Sigmund. "What about our own Christmas dinner? Nathaniel's got enough food to feed a tape-wormy army."

Anita winced. "One of these days, we need to have a talk about your use of metaphor," she said. "I talked to Nathaniel and he had planned to have dinner in the evening, so we could go over to Charlotte's in the afternoon."

Dawn wasn't sure what to think. Anita seemed very intent on having Dawn meet the new children, even if it meant going to Richard's mom's house. Dawn wasn't sure... but Anita was so earnest about it, Dawn decided that she'd say yes.

"And you'd come with me?" Dawn clarified.

"What?" Now Anita looked confused. "Of course I'll come with you, I'm not going to abandon you in some stranger's house for an hour."

At least not until the next full moon, Dawn thought unhappily, but she let it go. "So Nathaniel's okay with it?"

"Yes."

"And Micah?"

The momentary hesitation in Anita's response was noticeable. "Yes, he's fine with it too."

Dawn sat up and edged closer to Anita, leaning against the woman's side. She wasn't sure she wanted to go over to this stranger's house, but Anita seemed to want her to. Besides, if Anita was there with her, how bad could it be? "It sounds like it might be okay," Dawn said slowly. "Do we need to bring Charlotte a present?"

"You let me worry about that," Anita said, gently pushing Dawn back onto the bed. "All you need to do is to get some sleep and wait for tomorrow to come."

"Come on, how often could you sleep on the night before Christmas?" Dawn grumbled.

"How can you not be exhausted? You spent the morning running around the grocery store with Nathaniel and all afternoon bouncing off the walls. I was afraid we'd have to hide the breakables."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "It's part of the delightful contradiction that is me." She held Sigmund out to Anita. "Sigmund needs a good-night kiss."

Anita obliged by giving the stuffed bird a peck on the beak. "Do you want a story to help you fall asleep?"

"A story sounds good," Dawn said, trying to blink off the gathering drowsiness. She loved Anita's stories. "Tell me one about the wolves that are going to eat the sun and the moon."

"Skoll and Hati?" Anita pulled her leg up onto the bed, tucking her knee under her chin. "You have an odd taste in bedtime stories."

Dawn couldn't hold back a wide yawn. "Some times I think I know how they feel," she whispered.

"Okay, I'll tell you the story." Anita paused for a moment. "Once upon a time, before the world began, Fenrir the wolf, had two sons, and every day those sons chase the horses that drag the sun--"

"The horses drag the chariot that pulls the sun," Dawn corrected drowsily. "You're telling it wrong."

"Sorry," Anita said with a faint smile. "Skoll chases the horses that pull the sun, while Hati chases the moon..."


When Dawn opened her eyes, it was dark. Flinging back the covers, Dawn jumped out of bed and ran over to the window. Between the curtains, Dawn saw the faint glow of the sunrise peeking over the treetops.

Christmas morning!

Dawn tore out of her room, trying to be quiet as possible as she pounded down the stairs. The house was dark except for a faint warm glow from the living room. Dawn peered around the doorway, and had to clap her hands over her mouth to keep from squealing like a little girl.

The lights on the Christmas tree were lit and shining, illuminating a huge mound of presents. The pile had grown overnight, spilling out from under the tree over the floor and along the walls. Everything looked so bright and shiny and happy, sitting quietly in the light from the tree, that Dawn couldn't do anything but stare.

Mom would have really liked this Christmas tree, Dawn decided. This was the first Christmas Dawn would have without Mom, and without Buffy. Technically, it was only Dawn's second Christmas ever, but she could remember the fake Christmases, with the memories of presents and dinner, and fights with Buffy. Dawn could even remember the Christmases when Mom and Dad were fighting, and Dawn had been hiding in her closet, and how Buffy had come into the closet too and told her stupid stories about school so Dawn didn't have to hear what their parents were saying.

Dawn's gaze drifted up to the porcelain angel on the top of the tree. She wasn't sure that she believed in Heaven, but if there was a place like that, then Mom was there. Dawn just hoped Mom wasn't worrying about her and Buffy too much.

Funnily enough, Dawn realized that she missed Buffy more than she missed Mom. Mom was dead and wasn't ever coming back, but maybe, some day, Buffy might find a way through the portal to St. Louis, and find Dawn, and--

Dawn stopped that line of thought as fast as she could. She wasn't going to start wishing for things that were impossible.

Even if she'd bought a Christmas present for a sister she may never see again. Nathaniel had understood. He bought presents for his dead brother, too.

Dawn didn't want to think about sisters and dead brothers any more. She pushed away from the living room wall and headed for the kitchen. The faint murmur of voices coming from Anita's room told Dawn that the adults were awake, but Dawn needed some time before she spoke with anyone.

The kitchen, at least, hadn't undergone a massive face-lift overnight. Dawn drifted idly over to the fridge, thinking about getting a glass of milk, but when she opened the door, she found herself staring at shelves packed with every kind of food product known to man. The milk was hidden in the back of the shelf, blocked in by a large bowl of dough.

Dawn sighed and closed the fridge. Maybe she'd get a glass of tap water. She dragged a kitchen chair over to the counter and climbed up to get a glass. As she closed the cupboard, her gaze fell on the shiny silver coffee maker.

Coffee.

Dawn smiled, feeling a bit of her Christmas spirit returning. She'd make coffee for everyone, as her first Christmas present to the adults.

Now, if she could only reach the coffee beans without toppling off the counter.


Dawn had just finished setting the sugar bowl on the living room table when a suspicious voice behind her said, "What did you do?"

Dawn whirled, trying to look innocent. Anita stood in the doorway, hair flying every which way, her black robe hastily belted. "Merry Christmas, Anita!" Dawn exclaimed. "I made you coffee!"

"You made coffee or you had coffee?" Anita came over and knelt beside Dawn. "You did all this yourself?"

"Uh huh," Dawn said, feeling slightly foolish at being so proud over something as simple as making coffee. "I thought you might like some coffee when you woke up. And the milk was hiding behind a bowl that was too big, but the cream was on the fridge door and so it's there and there was sugar too and here it is!"

Anita pushed her hair out of her face, giving Dawn a searching look. "That was a very nice thing to do," she said. "A wonderful thing to wake up to on Christmas morning."

Dawn beamed, throwing herself at Anita. "Merry Christmas," she said again, hugging Anita tight.

Anita returned the hug. "Merry Christmas, Dawn." She pulled back and tugged at her robe. "How are you doing?"

"I was thinking a lot about my Mom and about Buffy, but I'm okay now, I guess," Dawn said.

"Good," Anita said softly. "Will you be okay for a few minutes while I get dressed?"

Dawn rolled her eyes. "I have been left alone for five minutes before, you know."

Anita smiled. "I'll be right back," she promised as she stood.

"And get Nathaniel and Micah up so we can open presents!" Dawn said as Anita left the room.

Dawn plopped herself on the couch, bouncing impatiently while she waited. The adults were taking too long! At least when she was making coffee, she had something to distract her.

Enough! Dawn slid off the couch and tip-toed over to the tree. She peered around the presents, big and small, until she spotted the boxes she'd spent such a long time wrapping the previous day.

Compared with the larger boxes, her gifts looked rather insignificant. That simply wouldn't do, Dawn thought. She maneuvered the three presents out from beside a long, flat golden box, and placed them front and center of the gift pile.

"Merry Christmas, Dawn," Micah said from behind her.

Dawn jumped to her feet and ran across the room, giving Micah a big hug. "Merry Christmas!" she exclaimed, unable to stand still. "Where's Nathaniel?"

"He'll be out in a minute," Micah said, smiling down at her. "Anita says that someone made coffee?"

"I did!" Dawn pulled Micah over to the couch. "I made coffee for everyone. Except me, because it's early and I think Anita's head would explode if I did and brains everywhere would ruin Christmas."

"I think skipping coffee was a good decision," Micah said dryly. "How long have you been up?"

"For a little bit," Dawn confessed. "I made coffee and rearranged the presents and now I'm waiting!" This last word was at a higher volume, aimed at wherever Anita and Nathaniel were hiding.

"Good things come to those who wait, didn't you know that?" Micah said. He leaned forward and called down the hall, "Anita, can you bring Dawn some socks?"

After a pause, Anita replied, unseen and strangely out of breath, "Okay!"

Dawn gave Micah a look. "Are they kissing?" she demanded. "Because I'm putting you on notice, kissing is gross and I'm ignoring any of the non PG-rated implications in this house so I don't go nuts!"

Micah gave Dawn a strange look. "I'm not sure what you mean."

"Do too." Dawn kicked her bare feet in the air. "It's the reason you all have one bedroom and one bed and it's none of my business and it's going to stay that way." She paused. "Unless you make Nathaniel sleep on the floor."

"Why would I sleep on the floor?" Nathaniel asked, coming into the room. He looked so excited that Dawn perked right up.

"No reason!" Dawn bounced off the couch and ran to Nathaniel. "Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas to you," Nathaniel replied, picking Dawn up and swinging her around. Dawn squealed. This was weird but cool! Breathlessly giggling when Nathaniel stopped, Dawn couldn't stop grinning.

"Do that again!"

"Maybe later," Nathaniel promised. "Did you sleep well?"

"I don't remember," Dawn said, wriggling until Nathaniel put her down. "Where's Anita? We have presents to open!"

"Here I am." Anita hurried into the living room, fully dressed this time and armed with a pair of tiny socks. "Socks first, then presents."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "You people and your foot fetish!" Muttering under her breath, Dawn sat on the floor and pulled on her socks. "Okay, now coffee, then presents!"

"Do you want me to get you some milk?" Nathaniel asked.

Dawn waved the suggestion away. "I'll be the P.M.C.," she said. "You sit and drink."

"P.M.C.?" Anita echoed as she curled up on the couch next to Micah.

"Present Master of Ceremonies," Dawn clarified. "Nathaniel, sit down!" she ordered.

Obediently, Nathaniel sat on the floor by the couch in front of Anita. With her audience assembled, Dawn clapped her hands together.

"We've gathered here today to celebrate Christmas," she began, ignoring the bemused expression on Anita's face. "Christmas is a time of family and togetherness and babies in cowsheds and stuff, but since we're fresh out of Baby Jesus, we'll do the togetherness thing instead."

Anita opened her mouth, but Dawn didn't stop.

"And part of Christmas is to give presents to say welcome to the family, like the Magii did, so let's begin." Dawn picked up the first of her gifts and carried it over to Micah. "This is for you."

"Thank you very much, Dawn," Micah said. He unwrapped the paper to reveal a small plush kitten.

"See, it's like me," Dawn said, unable to restrain herself. She leaned against Micah's knee. "It's got hair like mine and eyes like mine and it's a cat so you can keep it around when you're working so you won't have to be bored or lonely."

Micah held up the stuffed toy. "Dawn, this is amazing, thank you." His voice was quiet, but Dawn knew he was really happy inside, and she beamed.

"You're welcome!" she chirped. "Merry Christmas!" Dawn scampered back to the presents and grabbed Anita's gift. "This is for Anita."

"You didn't have to do this," Anita said, looking at the wrapped lump in her hands. Dawn made a face.

"Yeah, well, tough. Open it!" Dawn danced about impatiently as Anita ripped open the paper.

The expression on Anita's face was worth every argument with Nathaniel about buying the cup, Dawn decided. She started giggling. "Do you like it?"

"Dawn..."

Even Nathaniel was smiling. Dawn climbed up into Anita's lap and pointed at the cup. "See? It says, 'I never drink wine,' like Dracula did in the Dracula movie! It's funny because you know vampires and you like vampires and you can take the cup to work and Bert can't get mad at you for having an inappropriate cup because you're saying that you don't drink on the job!"

Anita looked at the writing on the cup. "But I don't even like alcohol," she pointed out.

"I know, so it's got like double meaning." Dawn put her tiny hands over Anita's larger ones, and turned the cup so Anita could see inside. "There's even little vampire fangs inside!"

Anita frowned. "Why did you get this for me?" she asked, ignoring Micah's soft touch on her arm.

Dawn cuddled closer to Anita, feeling the woman's heartbeat faint against her cheek. "Because you don't smile enough. You have everything else in the whole world and money to buy your own stuff, but you can't make yourself smile." She looked up at Anita. "Don't you like it?"

The room was silent as Dawn waited for Anita to respond. The woman took a shaky breath and smiled. "I like it, I do."

"Are you going to cry?" Dawn asked.

"No, I'm not going to cry," Anita said, and Dawn was relieved that her voice was stronger. "I'll take this cup to work and drink out of it every day."

"Good," Dawn declared. She slipped off Anita's lap and hurried back to the tree. "Now it's Nathaniel's turn."

Nathaniel sat up against the couch. Dawn could feel the nervousness and excitement rolling off him, and she feverishly hoped that he liked what she'd gotten for him.

"This is for you," she said, maneuvering the box over to the couch. Nathaniel met her halfway, and Dawn gratefully let him take the present from her. "Open it."

Nathaniel set the box on the ground and carefully opened the tape on the sides of the box. Dawn bit her lip, impatient, as Nathaniel smoothed the paper back from the box and opened the lid.

"Do you like it?" Dawn asked.

"What is it?" Nathaniel asked, lifting the gift out of the box.

"It's a photo album!" Dawn plopped down on the ground beside Nathaniel and pushed open the book's cover. "It's empty, but you said that Christmas is for family so you can take pictures of everyone and put it in the book and never forget about us, and look at pictures when you're sad and they'll cheer you up."

Nathaniel looked up from the book. "Thank you, Dawn," he said, smiling. Dawn knew there were so many emotions in his head that he didn't know what to feel, but that was his business and besides, she knew that he was happy.

"You're welcome," she said, leaning over and giving him a hug.

"Those were some awesome gifts," Anita said, leaning forward. "But you know, I bet there's one or two for you under that tree, too."

Dawn looked up hopefully. "Can I open them?" she asked, feeling that old excitement return.

Anita raised an eyebrow. "Well, we can take them back, but I'm perfectly willing to open them--"

"I'll do it!" Dawn interrupted, bolting for the tree. She looked at the vast array of presents laid out before her, then turned around. "Where should I start?"

Micah stood and came over to the tree. "Actually, Dawn, can you wait to open presents for a moment?" he asked. "There's a present that Nathaniel should open first."

Dawn was all set to pout, but then she caught a glimpse in Micah's mind of what was in a certain blue-wrapped box, and she was off, pushing aside presents. "Here it is!" she shouted, pushing it across the carpet to Nathaniel. "Open it!"

Nathaniel didn't seem to know what to do. He looked to Anita, then to Micah, then Dawn. "But Dawn was going to get to open gifts now," he said softly.

"Trust me, you gotta open this one first!" Dawn gave the box one final shove.

Still unsure, Nathaniel pulled the paper from the box. "What's this?" he asked when the ripped paper revealed the shiny picture on the box.

Anita slipped off the couch and moved across the floor to sit beside Nathaniel. "It's a digital camera," she said.

Nathaniel stared at Anita, and it was as if everything else in the room went away. Dawn leaned back against Micah, trying not to feel left out, or jealous, but she wasn't exactly succeeding.

Micah knelt, pulling Dawn into the crook of his arm. She snuggled against him, wondering for the hundredth time if Hank had been like this with Buffy, and how he could have walked away. Would Micah walk away from Anita? From Nathaniel? From her?

"You remembered," Nathaniel said, pulling Dawn out of her fledging funk. "About the camera."

Anita touched the back of Nathaniel's hand. "Of course I did."

There was more going on beneath the words, and Dawn knew that if she listened,, she'd be able to pull the threads of the story loose, but her patience was wearing thin. "Are you going to open it so we can take pictures today?"

Nathaniel turned to Dawn, flashing her such a brilliant smile that Dawn instantly felt better. "I've never used one of these before, can you help me figure it out?"

"Okay!" Dawn squirmed out from under Micah's arm and 'helped' Nathaniel by ripping the rest of the paper from the box. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nathaniel mouth the words, 'thank you' to Anita.


Dawn lay back on the carpet, hand flung over her eyes melodramatically. "I can't go on!"

A moment's silence, then someone started tickling Dawn. Shrieking with laughter, she curled up into a ball as Anita continued to tickle her. "You can't go on opening presents?"

"Can't breathe!" Dawn managed to gasp out. The tickle attack ceased. "It's like present overload!"

Anita pushed Dawn's mop of hair out of her face. "You say that like it's a bad thing."

"There's only two left," Nathaniel said, coming back into the living room with a tray of biscuits. "You're almost done."

"Thank god." Dawn stumbled to her feet and carried the latest unwrapped gift over to the television stand, where she had stacked the presents as they came. The pile was so big that she could barely see the television. "You sit there and keep Thelonious company," she instructed the stuffed lamb.

"Thelonious?" Micah echoed. "You're naming the teddy bear Thelonious?"

Dawn nodded. "He's a jazz guy. There was a special on him on TV last week." Dawn held up the bear. "This bear is a Thelonious."

Anita pushed some wrapping paper to the side of the room. "What about the lamb?" she asked. "What are you going to name him?"

Dawn set the bear down and picked up the lamb. "That's a good question." She stared at the lamb as a faintly remembered conversation crossed her mind. "He's going to be Augustine."

She didn't understand the sudden shift in Anita's emotions. "Why that name?" Anita asked.

Dawn looked up, a strange sense of vertigo as she heard Giles' voice in her head. "There was this guy I knew," she said, not wanting to tell Anita about all the reading she'd done on St. Augustine. Feeling suddenly uncomfortable, Dawn dropped the lamb on the pile and dashed back over to sit beside Nathaniel on the couch. "This is a great Christmas."

"I'm glad you like it," Nathaniel said, so cheerful inside that it swept Dawn's confusion away. "Do you like everything?"

Dawn nodded happily. "Everything's so cool!"

"What do you like best so far?"

Dawn considered that. "The best gift? I don't know, there's so many!" She kicked her feet, which had lost the socks during a particularly heated struggle with red wrapping paper. "The big bunch of board games rocked so much! You gotta promise to play them all with me."

"Okay, I promise," Nathaniel said.

"And the watch was neat, too." Dawn held up her wrist for Nathaniel's inspection. "Thanks for not getting me a silly baby watch. Or a silly baby backpack."

"So you like the flowers?" Nathaniel asked.

"Yup. A flower backpack is so much better than something with dolls and unicorns on it."

Micah approached the couch and laid two still-wrapped presents on the coffee table. "We're almost done the presents."

Dawn took a deep breath and sat up, ready to reenter the fray. The first gift was the large box from Jean-Claude, and the other was a small flat velvet case.

Dawn turned to the vampire's gift. "Did Jason ever tell you what was in this?" she asked Nathaniel.

"Nothing creepy," Nathaniel promised.

Anita gave him an incredulous look. "How did this come up?" she demanded.

Nathaniel opened his mouth to respond, but Dawn beat him to it. "Jason brought over a gift for me from Jean-Claude and I asked if it was a creepy vampire gift or an okay vampire gift, and Jason said he'd ask."

"Dawn--"

"Shh!" Dawn hissed. "I can't open this if I'm distracted." She untied the ribbon and lifted the lid on the box. "Huh."

Nathaniel leaned over to look into the box. "That's a very nice doll," he said.

Dawn moved back from the table and pulled the bottom of the box down to the floor, so it was propped against the coffee table like an old coffin picture. "It's looking at me."

Sure enough, the almost life-sized porcelain doll, with beautiful light brown hair and rosy cheeks, seemed to stare directly at Dawn.

"I'm sure you're just imagining things," Anita said, as Dawn began to walk back and forth in front of the doll.

"Its eyes are following me!" Dawn exclaimed "I've seen this episode of the Twilight Zone and it doesn't end well!"

"Dawn, the doll's not looking--" Anita stopped behind Dawn. "Okay, that's just weird."

Dawn tilted her head back to stare up at Anita. "He's your boyfriend."

Anita sighed. "I'm sure he meant well."

"Unless he bought me a possessed doll! One that's going to kill me in my sleep and take over my life and pretend to be me!"

Anita picked up the doll box and moved it over to the gift pile. "Jean-Claude did not buy you a possessed doll."

"Ask him!" Dawn said, following Anita and tugging on her shirt hem. "Please?"

"This doll is not possessed. However, I'm not so sure about you."

Dawn stuck her tongue out at Anita, hearing the faint electronic shutter snap in the background as Nathaniel took another picture. "I'm not possessed, I'm excited!"

"Nathaniel, who is this for?" Micah asked, holding up the flat velvet box.

Body-snatching doll forgotten, Dawn dashed across the room, taking the last present from Micah's hand. "This is from me," she told him.

"Who is it for?"

"We got it the other day at the mall," Nathaniel said, putting his camera on the table.

"Who is it for?" Anita asked, her voice nothing more than background noise to Dawn as she slowly opened the case, just to make sure that the locket was still inside.

Strong arms lifted Dawn and set her on the couch beside Anita. Nathaniel settled on Dawn's other side. A small undercurrent ran over Dawn's head, but it was gone before she could look up. "This is a gift from Dawn to Buffy," Nathaniel said as Dawn opened the box wider to show the beautiful silver locket that caught her attention in the mall.

"A gift from Dawn to her sister," Anita repeated. Dawn traced the intricate silver design on the front of the locket with a tiny finger, a finger no bigger than those of the porcelain doll sitting across the room.

Nathaniel reached into the box and removed the necklace. "It's also for Dawn." He undid the clasp on the chain and put the necklace around Dawn's throat. "It's so you can wear it and remember all the good times with your mom and your sister."

Dawn looked at Nathaniel with wide eyes as he adjusted the locket so it sat on the center of the chain. "Really?"

"Really."

Anita cleared her throat. Still staring at Nathaniel, Dawn noticed that the man shot Anita a look, almost a glare. "That's a very nice gift for your sister," Anita said.

Anita sure didn't sound as if she meant it, but Dawn didn't care. She climbed to her feet on the couch and wrapped her arms around Nathaniel's neck, hugging him as tight as she could. "Thank you," she sniffled, burying her face into the shoulder of Nathaniel's shirt.

"You're welcome," Nathaniel replied.

After a minute, when the threatened flood of tears had abated, Dawn let go of Nathaniel and sat back on the couch, leaning against Anita.

"Can I see that locket?" Micah asked, perching on the edge of the coffee table. Dawn nodded, and Micah reached out to touch the locket. Just as quickly, he jerked his hand back.

"What?" Dawn demanded, startled by the sudden movement.

Micah let out a short breath, almost a pant. "That's made of pure silver," he said. "It surprised me, that's all."

Dawn gripped the locket hard, the sliver ridges digging into her palm. She hadn't thought about silver and lycanthropes being non-mixy things! Micah had touched the locket and had been hurt, and Nathaniel...

"Are you hurt?" Dawn demanded, climbing into Nathaniel's lap. "Did you get hurt?"

"Dawn, I'm fine," Nathaniel tried to reassure her. He showed her his fingers. The skin looked red but not inflamed. "I only just touched the necklace."

"But why did you do it if you knew it would hurt?" Dawn asked. She touched the pads of his fingers, trying to reassure herself that he was really going to be okay.

"It didn't hurt," Nathaniel said, anxiety creeping into his voice. "It was only like touching some water that was too hot. Not boiling, but too hot, and only for a second. I'm fine."

"But--"

"Dawn, Nathaniel is fine," Anita interrupted. She did not sound happy. "He's sorry he scared you and he won't do it again."

Someone sighed, and since Nathaniel was still quietly freaking out and Anita was mad, that left Micah. "Would you like to come here and show me the locket that you got for your sister?" he asked.

Dawn blinked at him. "But you can't touch it, you'll hurt yourself."

"Not if you hold it up and show me," Micah said. His voice was calm and soft, like Mom's used to be when Dawn was freaking out. "You can show it to me, can't you?"

Not knowing what else to do, Dawn slipped off Nathaniel's lap to the floor. She couldn't deal with why Nathaniel was so anxious, or why Anita was mad, but she could at least show the locket to Micah. She held it up for Micah's inspection.

"That's beautiful," Micah said after a moment. "And you got it for your sister?"

"Uh huh, because she likes things like that," Dawn whispered. "Is that okay?"

"Of course it's okay," Micah said, frown lines forming around his mouth. "Family is very important, and you are very important. To Buffy and to us."

Dawn looked down at the locket, cradled in her hands. Her tiny hands, useless hands. Hands that weren't really hers, but then what was hers? This body, or the one she'd had in Sunnydale? That wasn't really real, either.

"I'm going to go get dressed," Dawn said, mumbling at her toes.

"I thought you wanted to help me make breakfast," Nathaniel said. His voice sounded fine, but Dawn could feel the anxiety in his head, knew that his joy at Christmas had gone away, and it was all her fault.

"No, thank you." Dawn headed towards the stairs, her tiny bare feet crunching silently in the carpet. At home in LA, before Sunnydale, the floors had been hardwood, and her bare feet used to squeak when she ran, ignoring Mom's commands to stop running in the house.

"Wait, Dawn--" Anita's voice almost made her stop, but then Micah interested with a low, unintelligible entreaty, and Dawn kept walking.

The rest of the house was still dark. Dawn climbed the stairs one at a time, her little legs unable to motor her up any faster. The upstairs hallway seemed cold, even though Dawn knew logically that the central heating in the house was working perfectly.

What was wrong with her? She'd been so happy earlier, with the presents and with Anita and Micah and Nathaniel, and now everything was gone, popped like an over-full balloon. Was it the locket? Dawn paused to look at the pendant hanging against her pajama top. No, it wasn't the locket. It was everyone's reaction to the locket.

Micah had liked it, Dawn knew that. He hadn't been mad at her for getting Buffy a Christmas present. And Nathaniel... well, he had given her the money to buy it, and she knew that he understood.

But Anita didn't understand, and Dawn was starting to think that she didn't want to.

Her bedroom was more of a mess than she remembered. The bed covers were strewn over the ground, half-covering scattered library books. Letting out a sigh, Dawn picked up the books and put them to the side of the room, then pulled her covers back onto the bed.

Dawn didn't get it. Anita had lost her mother a long time ago, why did she think it was so weird that Dawn wanted to get Buffy something? For when she saw her sister again?

And just like that, a wave of homesickness washed over Dawn, so great and overpowering that she stopped breathing for a moment. She missed Buffy, she missed Mom, and Willow and Tara and Spike and Giles and Xander. It was Christmas and she didn't have them with her, and she didn't know if she'd ever see them again.

Sniffling but refusing to cry, Dawn shuffled to the bedside table. She opened her journal to the last entry, two days previous.

Dear Buffy,

It's almost Christmas! Two more days and it's present city. Nathaniel and Anita and Micah got me so many things, it's going to be so cool. Mostly I think it was Nathaniel, because he didn't have a lot of presents as a kid and he thinks it's so cool to buy things for other people.

I went shopping today with Nathaniel, just like we used to do for Mom. The mall in this place is crazy. Everyone's so big! And it's not just because I'm so small.

I don't know what else to write. I keep hoping that I'll see you soon... but you and I both know it's more complicated than that.

More complicated. Like interdimensional-killer-demon-and-ghostly-energy-ball complicated. Like her mother was dead and her sister was so far away and she was all alone, that kind of complicated.

Dawn let the book slide from her fingers to the bed with a thump. She wanted to feel excited about the day again, but she missed Mom and Buffy so much it hurt.

A soft knock on the door made Dawn turn around.

"Hey you," Anita said, stepping hesitantly into the room. "Why are you in here without the lights on?"

Dawn shrugged, looking anywhere but at Anita.

Anita switched on the lamp. "There, that's better, isn't it?"

Dawn slouched against the bed, her arms over her chest.

"Are you doing okay?" Anita asked, crossing the room to sit beside Dawn.

Rubbing her fingers over the leather cover of her journal, Dawn shrugged again. "I guess."

Quiet. Downstairs, Dawn could hear faint rattling in the kitchen, Nathaniel preparing breakfast, and there was a moment she regretted that she wasn't down there helping him make the quiche he'd promised her.

Anita drew in a shaky breath. "It's fine if you're not okay," she said. "I know you always try to be brave, and you are. But sometimes, everyone's entitled to a bad day."

Dawn stared hard at her knees, not wanting to see the expression on Anita's face. "I just..." She sniffled. "I miss Mommy," she whispered. "And she's dead and I'm never going to see her again and I didn't..." More sniffles. "I didn't even get to say goodbye."

Anita's hand was warm and reassuring on Dawn's back. "Your mom knew that you loved her, that's what moms do."

"But it's not the same."

"It's been a busy morning," Anita said. "Lots of ups and downs. How about we take some quiet time to get ourselves together?"

Dawn concentrated on breathing. "Quiet time's not going to change anything." She was pleased to note that her voice was sullen, and while it still made her sound like a baby, it was better than almost crying.

"Probably not," Anita conceded. "But you've been up for several hours and all you've had to eat was half a biscuit."

"It was a good biscuit," Dawn protested. "And I'm not that bad."

"I know." The corner of Anita's mouth turned up. "Heck, I can think of several Christmases in recent memory when I've been worse."

Dawn leaned against Anita. "Why are you mad about the necklace?"

"I'm not--"

"Yes, you are." Dawn tapped her forehead. "I'm not trying to hear you, but you were really unhappy and it's not fair. Why can't I get my sister a present?"

Anita bit her lower lip. "I'm not mad that you got your sister a present, Dawn, but I don't think it's..." Her voice trailed off as she struggled to find the words. "We're not having a lot of luck in locating your sister."

"I know that!" Dawn said, glaring. "I'm not stupid! I know you can't find her and I know you think I'm crazy or something but I told you the truth about Buffy! That doesn't mean I have to give up hope that I'll see her again! Hope's not supposed to be logical or realistic, it just is!"

"Dawn--"

Desperate to not have this conversation with Anita, Dawn cast her mind around for something to change the subject. "I have to get ready to go to Richard's mom's house," she blurted out, jumping off the bed. "I have to brush my hair."

"Dawn, we need to talk about--"

"I'm going to wear the blue dress!" Dawn spoke quickly over Anita's soft, relentless words. "Nathaniel ironed it and it's pretty!"

She was breathing hard as if she'd run a mile, even though she hadn't moved.

Anita looked at Dawn for a long moment, then let out a sigh. "Would you like some help getting dressed?" she asked.

Feeling as if she'd let something slip away from her, Dawn nodded. "Yes, please."

She may pretend that she didn't need any help, but right then, she'd take anything she could get.


With butterflies running laps in her stomach and Nathaniel's suggestion echoing in her head, Dawn let Anita guide her between many parked cars towards a big house. Every window was lit, with a flurry of activity as they approached, and without meaning to, Dawn listened.

There were a lot of people in the house.

"Be careful of what happens, okay?" Nathaniel had told her while he watched her button up her coat. "I know that you try to figure out what's going on around you--"

"Hey!" Dawn exclaimed, frustrated by one stupid button and unresponsive tiny fingers. "I'm not going to eavesdrop on other people's minds!"

Nathaniel helped with the button. "I know you don't mean to, but sometimes you can't help it." He handed Dawn her scarf. "That's one thing with everyone in this house, but--"

"But what?" Dawn narrowed her eyes. "What's going to be so different about going over to Richard's mom's house?"

Nathaniel opened his mouth, then closed it. Dawn waited, eyebrows up. "You should be careful, that's all," Nathaniel finally said. "I want you to have a good time."

The smile he gave her made her smile back shyly. He had a really nice smile.

Anita erupted into the hallway, hair and scarf ends flying. "Come on, let's go!"

Dawn looked at Nathaniel. She was the one going to a strange house. So why was Anita upset?

"Ready to go inside?" Anita asked.

Dawn gave her a look. "No, I'd rather stand out here in the freezing cold and stare all day."

Anita didn't move.

"That was sarcasm!" Dawn exclaimed. "I'm freezing to death!" She pulled Anita along with her. "They'd better have cookies."

All of Dawn's bravado vanished as Anita rang the front doorbell. She opened her mouth to suggest that it was time to head home when the door opened and someone's grandmother beamed down at her. "Hello, Anita! This must be Dawn."

"Hi Charlotte," Anita said with a smile. Dawn chose not to point out that Anita's grip on her hand had tightened as soon as the door opened. "Yes, this is Dawn Summers. Dawn, this is Mrs. Zeeman."

Dawn had to work hard to not let her gaze drop. She wasn't shy, for heaven's sake. "It's nice to meet you," Dawn said.

"Please, come in," Mrs. Zeeman said, standing aside. The front hall was full of winter boots, jackets and scarves and hats and baby carriers. "Why don't you take off your coat and boots and join us in the living room?"

A crash sounded in another room, followed by a deep masculine voice calling, "Uh, Mom?"

Charlotte sighed. "Come on in when you're ready," she said to Anita, then headed down the hall.

Anita shook her head. "I wonder what Daniel did now," she said as she knelt down to help Dawn remove her coat.

Dawn batted away Anita's hands. Undoing buttons was much easier than doing them up. "Who's Daniel?"

"Daniel is Richard's younger brother."

"Oh." Dawn slid her coat off her shoulders and handed it to Anita. "Are there more?"

"Yes, there's a whole family of Zeemans." Anita's smile didn't reach her eyes. The fact that Anita wanted to pretend that things were fine, when she was clearly not fine, sent a shiver of worry through Dawn. "And their spouses, and kids, too."

Dawn threw her scarf in the direction of the coat. Her little arms failed to make the grade, and the bright red fabric landed on the floor. Anita picked it up and placed it on the coat without a word. "Does he still not like me?" Dawn asked.

Anita frowned. "Who?"

Dawn looked down at the shiny sliver locket resting on her pretty dress. "Richard."

"What are you talking about?" Anita lifted Dawn's chin with gentle fingers. "Richard likes you."

The memory of snowmen and Richard being mean to Nathaniel and the burning sensation hard against the palm of her hand hovered just out of reach. Dawn shook her head.

Anita put her arm around Dawn's shoulders, drew her into a hug. Dawn let her head rest against Anita's shoulder. "We can go home if you want," Anita whispered against Dawn's hair. "It's totally up to you. You don't have to do anything you don't want to."

In the next room, loud merry voices rose up, laughing and joking, with the faint shrillness of children's voices overlaying the noise. It was so close, but for all Dawn felt, it could have been a million miles away, as far as Buffy and Sunnydale and home. Anita brought her here, right? The woman must have wanted to come. "We should stay," Dawn whispered.

"Dawn--"

"We should stay," Dawn repeated, voice stronger this time. She made herself pull away from Anita. She had to be strong all on here own, even if this was scary, like being alone at the Zerbrowski house. "Maybe there's cookies."

Anita stared at her. "All right," she finally said. "Let's go see what's happening."

Dawn caught Anita's hand as she stood. "But we'll be home in time for Nathaniel's Christmas dinner, right?" she asked.

"Of course we will."

Dawn didn't let go. "And we'll have real turkey and pie and stuff?"

"Yes, all the things Nathaniel talked about at breakfast."

Dawn turned Anita's hand over. The sight of the pink cross-shaped scar on Anita's palm made Dawn even more apprehensive, and she didn't know why.

She wanted these feelings to go away, to concentrate on the real things, like Christmas and pretty dresses and the smell of holiday baking in the house. Gripping Anita's fingers tight, Dawn pulled the woman down the hall towards the noise.

The din quieted slightly as Anita and Dawn appeared in the doorway. Anita put a smile on her face. "Hi, everyone."

The responses to her greeting varied from enthusiastic by the young man by the window talking to Charlotte, to muted from the woman and man on the couch, to non-existent from the pair of men near the fireplace.

The young man made his way across the room. "Long time no see, Anita," the man said with a grin. He looked so much like Richard that Dawn had to stare. "Who's the munchkin?"

"Can it, Daniel," Anita said, but she was still smiling. "This is Dawn."

"Hey Dawn, nice to meet you." Daniel gave Dawn a flashing smile. "How's your Christmas been? Get a lot of presents?"

Dawn tried desperately to answer, but her throat closed up and she stepped closer to Anita, pressing her shoulder against Anita's leg.

Daniel's smile lost of bit of its luster. "Is that good or bad?" he asked Anita.

"Christmas has been fine so far," Anita said. Her hand rested on Dawn's head, comforting. "This is a new place, that's all."

"As long as I'm not the scary one," Daniel joked. Dawn managed to shake her head at that.

"You're the scary one?" Another, slightly deeper voice interrupted the conversation. Dawn shrank back as Richard appeared beside Daniel, taller than his younger brother and oh-so-much taller than Anita. From Dawn's vantage point, he was almost a giant. Had he been this big the last time she saw him at Anita's house? Then, she'd been with Nathaniel, and Richard hadn't seemed quite so tall.

Anita's hand stilled on Dawn's head, and Dawn didn't have to be a mind reader to feel how tense Anita had become. "Merry Christmas, Richard," Anita said.

"Merry Christmas, Anita." Richard glanced down at Dawn, almost hidden behind Anita at this point. "Hi, Dawn. How was your Christmas?"

"You're scaring her," Daniel murmured.

"Daniel--" Anita began, but Richard ignored her and crouched down so he was on eye-level with Dawn.

"Did you have a nice morning?" Richard asked, his voice softer and unthreatening.

He was less... not scary, as Dawn refused to admit that she had been scared, but intimidating. That was it. Less intimidating. She nodded.

"Did you get any good presents?" Richard pointed at the locket around Dawn's neck. "Is that new?"

Dawn nodded again. Since he seemed so interested, she held out the locket with both hands for Richard to get a better glance.

"It's very nice," Richard said as he reached out towards the locket.

"Richard, don't," Anita said sharply, pulling Dawn back.

Richard jerked his hand back and shot to his feet, the stirrings of anger marring his features. "I wasn't going to--"

"It's silver," Anita bit out. Her fingers dug into Dawn's shoulder, but Dawn didn't say a word, just clenched her lips around the pain.

Richard just stared at the woman, anger giving way to an emotion Dawn couldn't identify by simply looking at the man.

Daniel cleared his throat. "Dawn, do you want to go see what the kids are doing?"

Dawn wasn't planning on going anywhere, not until she figured out why Anita and Richard were so upset, and why Anita didn't want Richard touching the locket, and why she'd felt the need to point out to Richard that the locket was made of silver--

Stupid! Dawn felt like kicking herself. It was so obvious! Why Richard couldn't touch the silver locket! Or how Jason, a werewolf, knew Richard! Richard had to be a lycanthrope!

"We should both go," Anita said, loosening her grip on Dawn's shoulder.

Dawn didn't move. Anita had to know that Richard was a lycanthrope, but did the others in the room? Was he a wereleopard like Nathaniel and Micah? Or was he a werewolf like Jason? Or maybe he was a whole different kind of lycanthrope, like a weretiger or a werebear. How could Dawn find out without saying something she shouldn't? She'd have to ask Anita.

"Dawn, come on," Anita prodded. Reluctantly, Dawn let Anita pull her along, out of the living room and deeper into the house. In what was probably the dining room, a lot of kids were gathered around the plastic-covered table.

Charlotte was supervising the children. "Has Dawn come to decorate a cookie?" she asked.

"Sure thing," Anita said. Something in the way Anita's voice wavered made Dawn give her a hard look. Did Anita even want to be there? Yes, the whole venture had been her suggestion, but the certainty that surrounded her in the car had vanished. Maybe it was Richard.

"Come on over here, then," Charlotte ordered, pulling another chair up to the table. Dawn wiggled out from under Anita's hand and walked slowly to the table, wedging her way in between a boy about her "age" and a sullen-looking teenager. "Everyone, this is Dawn."

The greeting was lost in the controlled chaos of a sugar high. At the end of the table, a baby in a highchair gummed on a drooly cookie, while the toddler in the next chair had blue icing in her hair and crumbs all over her shirt.

The teenager at Dawn's side stirred. "You want a gingerbread man or a Christmas tree?" he asked, sounding incredibly bored.

"A ginger man, please," Dawn replied. She glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough Anita had remained, leaning against the wall. The woman gave Dawn an encouraging smile.

The teen reached a long arm to the center of the table and retrieved the appropriate cookie. "Icing's in those bowls," he said before he resumed his sulk.

Dawn reached for the knife stuck in the bowl of white icing. Turning away from the yammering little boy on her other side, she set to work.

So intent on her work, Dawn ignored the tantrums, the screaming, the general noise that a room full of related children generated. No one tried to talk to her, but she didn't really care. The two girls on the other side of the table, both about ten years old, pointed and whispered, but Dawn paid them no mind. They were just little kids who'd had too much sugar. They didn't matter.

About half an hour later, Dawn had finally finished her masterpiece. Licking a stray smear of icing off her finger, she shimmied down from the chair and carried her cookie over to Anita, who hadn't moved. "Here you go."

Anita unfolded her arms. "What's this?"

"Christmas vampire cookie," Dawn explained, even though that should have been obvious. "To go with your cup."

Anita looked at the cookie. "Thank... you?"

Dawn giggled. "You're welcome." She went up on her tip-toes to peer over Anita's arm at the cookie. "Hey, have Nathaniel take a picture and send it to Jean-Claude."

Anita gave the cookie a second-take. "You made a Jean-Claude cookie?"

"Uh huh." Dawn grinned. "Vampires have Christmas, right?"

Anita shook her head. "Vampire Christmas cookies. I think you've got a new market there."

"I'll start small, gingerbread-vampires," Dawn agreed. "Then I'll expand, vampire cakes, vampire candy floss. Red, of course."

Anita smiled finally, a soft expression that warmed Dawn down to her toes. "What do you want to do now? I think Charlotte said the television in the rec room was playing Christmas movies."

Dawn shook her head. "Let's go home and watch movies there." She cast a glance over her shoulder. "I'm not..." How could she tell Anita that she felt like an outsider in this family setting? She wasn't part of this. "This was an interesting experiment, but I want to go home."

She waited for Anita to argue, to force more socialization, but the woman nodded. "Sure thing."

"But first we need to go thank Mrs. Zeeman," Dawn continued. She held up her sticky hands. "And I need some soap."

"Good idea." Anita frowned. "I'm not letting you in my car with all that goop on your hands."

"Hey!" Dawn protested as they left the loud dining room behind.

Halfway down the hall, their progress was interrupted by the sudden appearance of Richard. The man shifted from one foot to the other, looking remarkably ill at ease. "Are you leaving?"

Anita nodded. "This may not have been a good idea."

"Is everything okay?"

"Yeah. Maybe we'll try having Dawn meet new people in less of a crowded environment." Anita shifted the cookie to her left hand. "But everyone was fine."

"Good." Richard glanced at the cookie, and his spine stiffened. "Who did that?"

"I did," Dawn interrupted the adult conversation. "Why? Is it 'cause it's a vampire cookie? So what?"

"Is that really appropriate?" Richard asked Anita.

"It's a cookie, Richard," Anita snapped. "Not some kind of call for help, so leave it alone!"

There was so much going on in the air around her, words she couldn't hear and meanings just out of reach. It was so frustrating, not knowing what was going on, so close but so far away, that Dawn did something she shouldn't have. She dropped the paltry mental barriers she'd held up since she left Anita's house, and concentrated hard.

She listened to Richard's thoughts.

Frustrated anger, loathing, hate and fear and pain, all swirled over Dawn and crashed down on her. Richard's thoughts were darker than anything Dawn had ever felt, and they smothered her, covered her nose and mouth like tar, left her choking under the weight of hate, at Anita, at the family he'd never have, at not being normal.

In that instant, she knew things about Anita that should have remained secret, things that weren't for her to know at all. Things... Dawn's mind skittered to the side, refusing to acknowledge what she'd seen, things too adult and twisted for her to deal with, and she pushed away, but that pushed her deeper into the maze of Richard's mind.

The snickety-snack of teeth, hot bloody breath, gnashed at Dawn's mind. The animal caged in Richard’s head raged at the world, wanting Anita and hating her, hating what she'd taken over him, first Jean-Claude, then Nathaniel, then Micah, and so many others.

Richard knew, Dawn knew, that Anita didn't want a child, not Richard's child, not an abnormal child. Now there was Dawn, and Dawn was everything Anita never wanted, a normal helpless little child. She wasn't supposed to be the one Anita would sacrifice her life for, her lovers, her career for. Yet there she was, pushing her old life away.

The animal snarled at her, wanting to drive her away from Anita forever.

Distantly, she heard Anita call her name, but she had to get away. Richard's pain was her own, and Anita didn't want her.

Dawn ran. As fast and as hard as she could, she ran away from Anita.


She had no idea how she got there or how she knew where she was, but the third door at the end of the upstairs hall opened under her hand, and she burst into a room that she didn't know.

The room was dark, with none of the bright cheer of the downstairs hallways. Dawn had some confused idea of hiding, of safety, but Anita was right behind her and there was nowhere to go.

"Dawn, what's wrong?" Anita demanded. She tried to take Dawn in her arms, but Dawn kicked and pushed, fighting until her back hit the wall.

"Let me go!" Dawn shouted as her foot hit something unyielding. "Go away and leave me alone! You don't want me!"

"What are you talking about?" Anita grabbed Dawn's hands, tried to stop the flailing, but Dawn didn't give in. "Dawn, stop it! What happened?"

"You don't want me!" Dawn screeched, animal anger giving way to the pain in her head, and she started to shake. Anita had never wanted a child, hadn't wanted to be saddled with Dawn, had only taken her because there was nowhere else for Dawn to go. "You never wanted me!"

"Dawn, stop it!"

Dawn's fist hit something both fleshy and sharp, and the bite of hard pain in her hand helped her concentrate, pull away from Anita and slam into a wall.

Over Anita's shoulder, Dawn spotted a glimpse of a shadowy figure, big and tall, and her mind screamed danger. Deeply buried panic and terror erupted in Dawn's head, and she tried to burrow backwards, but the wall was solid and there was nowhere to hide.

"What's happening?" Richard demanded, coming into the light. "Anita? You're bleeding!"

"She's--" Anita looked over her shoulder. "Damn it, Richard, put your mental shields up!"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"She's telepathic!" The horrible word, the one Dawn had refused to say out loud, fell like a bomb in the room. "Put your damned shields up!"

The sudden mental silence was overwhelming. Dawn curled up in a ball around her injured hand, but the memories didn't go away. She may no longer be reading Richard's mind, but she still knew what he knew. The anger, the rage. That Anita hadn't ever wanted a child.

Anita hadn't wanted Dawn.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Richard asked. There was accusation in his voice. "If I'd known, I'd never have--"

"Shut up!" Anita exclaimed. She crawled over to where Dawn still huddled against the wall. "Dawn?"

Dawn shook her head hard, not able to focus on anything. "You don't want me," she whispered again. "You don't want me."

"Of course I want you, Dawn, don't say that." Anita carefully lifted Dawn into her arms.

Part of Dawn's mind screamed that Anita was lying, that she'd never choose Dawn, that she'd never want Dawn, but Dawn didn't know how much of that was her, was truth, and how much was from Richard's intrusion in her mind.

She wasn't real, Dawn remembered. She wasn't anything but a supernatural energy construct in the shape of a girl. Anita didn't want a child, let alone a creature that wasn't human, no matter how normal that creature looked.

She wasn't normal, and she hated herself for that.

Anita stood up, holding Dawn. "We're going to go home now," the woman murmured in Dawn's ear. "How does that sound?"

Dawn didn't respond.

"Anita, your lip--"

"Move, Richard, I'll be fine."

Dawn let the words pass her by. She didn't know what was going on, didn't care, because all she could think about was that Anita had lied to her. Anita had said she wanted to keep Dawn, but that was lies, had to be lies. Anita hadn't wanted a child. Just two months before, before Dawn fell into St. Louis, she'd told Richard she didn't want a child.

There was more behind that raw pain of Richard's, but it hurt too much and Dawn pushed it away.

Anita hadn't wanted Dawn any more than Buffy had wanted Dawn. Both times, Dawn had been shoved into whole families, into lives already complete without her. She was the problem, the intruder. Not just in the Zeeman house, but wherever she went.

There wasn't a place for her.

Dawn closed her eyes on the realization. No one had ever wanted her, they only protected her out of some sense of duty. Everyone who tried to help her got hurt, or worse -- Tara, Giles, Spike, Buffy... Mom.

She didn't cry. She didn't have any right to cry. She wasn't real, and only real things were allowed to cry.


She had no idea how they made it back to Anita's house. The next thing she knew, the jeep had stopped and Anita was opening the rear door and undoing Dawn's seatbelt. "Why don't we go inside?"

Dawn stared at Anita. The woman had blood on her chin, her lip split against her teeth. Something about blood twisted in her gut, but Dawn shoved that away, would not be like that. She remembered the sharp pain in her hand. She must have hit Anita.

She couldn't make herself feel sorry.

"Dawn?"

Dawn kept staring. What did Anita want?

Anita lifted Dawn out of the car and carried her into the house. With each step Anita took, Dawn felt worse. She didn't belong in that house. The house... the family, belonged to Nathaniel and Micah and Anita, not to her. She didn't fit there.

The door opened before Anita made it up the steps. Micah came outside, looking worried. "What happened?"

"Bit of a problem," Anita said shortly, maneuvering around Micah and into the house. Micah closed the door behind them.

"What happened to your face?" he asked as he followed Anita into the living room. "Nathaniel wasn't clear, he only knew that there was a problem with Dawn."

"That's what happened." Anita set Dawn on the couch.

The conversation between the adults continued, but Dawn tuned them out. They didn't want her, and so she didn't want them.

In the few hours she'd been gone, someone had cleaned the living room. The place was spotless, with the mountain of her presents having been shifted to the side of the room, all arranged artfully.

All presents for someone they didn't want.

Dawn slid off the couch, ignoring everything around her. The voices broke off as she walked over to the pile of presents.

This morning, she had been so happy. Now, when she looked at the gifts, all she could think was, What a lie. People didn't buy things like this for people they didn't want, and Dawn couldn't think of a single reason that Anita and Micah and Nathaniel had bought them for her.

She couldn't stay here. She would not stay with people who didn't want her, no matter what lies came out of their mouths... but where could she go? Visions of the Walkers' house danced in her head, overlain with the glimpses of Nathaniel's shadowy, painful memories of childhood.

She couldn't stay, but she didn't have anywhere to go.

The memories of cold, of falling into the graveyard, pushed at her. That was just like this, without Buffy, without anyone, and she didn't know anyone.

She needed her coat. If she was going to have to leave, Dawn needed her coat, and her boots, and even if Anita had bought them for her, that would have to do.

Giving the presents one last look, Dawn turned and walked toward the hall.

"What are you doing?" demanded a voice from behind her.

Dawn ignored Anita. She pushed open the heavy closet door, not making any sound when she pinched her finger in the hinge.

"Dawn?" Anita pulled Dawn's hands away from the closet and slid the door closed. "Tell me what you're doing!"

Dawn struggled to open the door again, but Anita was holding it closed and she was so much stronger than Dawn. The frustration built up, until Dawn blurted out, "I'm going away!"

"No you are not!" Anita tried to turn Dawn around, but Dawn wriggled out of Anita's grasp and darted across the hall to the stairs. "Dawn, come back here!"

"Anita, stop shouting at her." Micah's calm voice didn't lower the tension in the room the way it usually did.

"You don't want me and I'm not staying!" Dawn shouted, putting her back defensively against the wall. "No one ever wants me!"

Warm arms, not Anita's, guided Dawn away from the wall and settled her on the second step. "Dawn, I need you to sit down here and calm down," Micah instructed. He held Dawn loosely in place, not letting her half-hearted struggles loose his hold. "Calm down."

"You calm down!"

"Dawn, try to breathe." Micah's expression was so serious that Dawn didn't know what to do. "Breathe in and out, in and out."

Dawn couldn't bring herself to disobey the quiet command. She breathed slowly, the frustration and anger simmering down in her chest and in her head.

She gradually became aware that Nathaniel was in the hall too, and she didn't know when he'd arrived. Why hadn't she listened to him? Why had she tried to hear Richard's thoughts?

"Dawn?" Micah asked softly. "Can I ask you a question?"

After a minute, Dawn nodded. She didn't want to answer any questions, she wanted to go far away, but... but she had nowhere to go.

"What did you mean when you said that we didn't want you?"

Dawn squirmed, looking anywhere but at the adults. "I don't know."

"Yes, you do."

Dawn felt a lump rising in her throat. Why was Micah making her say this out loud? "Anita didn't want a baby, not ever," she whispered, feeling ten times worse at hearing the words out loud.

"What are you talking about?" Micah asked. "Of course she wants you. How did this come up?"

He turned to look at Anita, who was staring out the window beside the front door, hunched in on herself. From the other side of the room, Dawn heard Nathaniel say, "Dawn heard something in Richard's mind. Right?"

Micah let out a sound that wasn't quite a sigh. Dawn pulled her legs up to her chest. She was wrecking her dress, but she really didn't care.

"You were going to have a baby and then you weren't because you didn't want it!" Dawn said accusingly, Richard's confused thoughts still within easy reach in her head. "You didn't want a baby then and you didn't want me!"

Nathaniel sat on the bottom step. "Dawn, that's not true," he said quietly. "Anita wants you here, and so do Micah and myself."

"But--"

"I know what it's like when people pretend to want you but they really don't," Nathaniel continued. "We all want you here, that's the truth. Richard doesn't know what's happening with us, only we do. You know that."

Dawn sniffled, clutching her legs even harder. The pain, a raw ache around her heart, eased slightly. "But the baby--"

Anita turned away from the window. "I was never going to have a baby," she said, sounding so tired and angry. At Richard? At Dawn? "Whatever you saw in Richard's head, Dawn, that's not what happened, and that has nothing to do with you, nothing at all."

"But if you didn't want a baby then why did you take me in?"

The house was so quiet that Dawn could almost hear her heart pounding in her chest.

Anita took a deep breath and walked over to the steps. She knelt beside Micah, clenching her hands together so hard that her knuckles were white. "When I met you..." She stopped, and tried again. "You're a strong, brave little girl, Dawn, who has lost a lot on her life but keeps on going, and I-- you needed someone to watch out for you."

Dawn wanted to be contrary, to ask Anita if she'd have taken in any old kid who needed help, but a fragment of a long-ago conversation came to mind. Was Anita describing Dawn as the lost girl who needed help?

Or was Anita describing herself?

A horrible idea came to Dawn. Anita saw herself in the lost little girl Dawn appeared to be, and had decided to protect her, to take care of her when she had no need to do so.

Just like Buffy had wanted to protect and care for a little sister?

Goosebumps broke out over Dawn's skin. She'd changed when she'd fallen though Glory's portal. Had she changed so she'd be safe? Would Anita have wanted to take care of a teenager as much as she did a little girl?

Would Anita have kept her safe if she'd been a teenager?

"Dawn?" Anita said after a minute. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"

What else had changed about her? What if instead of merely looking five, she was five?

When Dawn didn't react, still stunned by her revelation, Anita shifted closer and pulled the girl onto her lap. "You're the best surprise I ever had," she said softly.

Dawn let Anita rock her back and forth, the tension slowly leaving her limbs. She should be fighting, angry that she'd changed to have Anita keep her safe, angry that she'd lost one family, angry that she'd had to change to something she was not in order to keep her safe.

But then, she'd changed once before, from energy to girl, from Key to Dawn, to keep her safe.

Dawn's introspection was interrupted by the faint ring of a cell phone. She looked up to see Nathaniel pulling his mobile from his pocket. "It's Cherry," he said.

Micah leaned back, the faintest hint of a frown on his lips. "You should answer it."

Nathaniel looked at Anita for a moment before flipping open the phone. "Hi, Cherry." He paused. "Hold on, I'll ask." Nathaniel took the phone away from his mouth and covered the microphone. "She wants to know if she can come over earlier than arranged for dinner, their oven isn't working and she wants to put the pie in here to bake."

Anita stopped rocking. "I forgot about dinner," she said. She probably didn't see the hurt expression that crossed Nathaniel's features, but Dawn did. He had been planning the Christmas dinner for days, had invited a lot of people over for the meal, and had been almost as excited about that as he had been for Christmas morning.

Now, he only asked, "What should I tell her?"

Anita and Micah exchanged a glance. They weren't going to cancel Christmas dinner, were they? After all the planning Nathaniel had done, all the people he had invited? Dawn remembered her last Christmas dinner, her only real Christmas dinner, with Mom and Buffy and Giles and Xander and Willow and Tara and Anya. It had been an amazing day, one that Dawn would always remember.

"Are we still going to have dinner?" Dawn asked, twisting in Anita's arms. "With everyone over?"

"Dawn--" Anita began.

Dawn shook her head. "We have to have dinner!" she pleaded. "With everyone here and all that. It's all arranged."

"Anita," Micah said. He laid his hand on her knee. "Nathaniel, please tell Cherry she can come over whenever she wants."

Nathaniel didn't move. To Dawn's surprise, instead of looking at Anita the way he always did, this time he looked at Dawn. "Would you like to have people over for dinner? You've met most of them before, remember?"

Dawn nodded. "I'm okay with that," she said quickly, and as she said the words, it felt like the truth.

Nathaniel brought the phone back to his ear and invited Cherry over early, then rang off. Dawn stayed cuddled against Anita, wishing she had some answers, wishing she knew what to do in this situation.

After a minute, Anita kissed Dawn's forehead. "What do you want to do now?" she asked.

"Help Nathaniel with dinner," Dawn replied quickly.

Anita frowned, then winced as the movement pulled at her split lip. "Are you sure you're up for that? It's been a bit nuts today."

Dawn nodded. "Did you mean it? When you said you wanted me, for real?"

Anita's frown was replaced by something that was too much like worry for Dawn's tastes. "Of course I did," she said with feeling.

"Then I want to help Nathaniel," Dawn continued. "Because people are coming and he's got a lot to do."

After a brief hesitation, Anita let Dawn slip off her lap. "If you need to take a break, you let me know, okay?" Anita said, reaching one hand after Dawn. "If you need anything at all."

"I will." Dawn paused. "I'm sorry I hurt you."

"It's okay," Anita said immediately. "It was an accident."

That wasn't entirely what Dawn meant, but there wasn't another way for her to say what she wanted to. She edged back towards Anita. "Thank you."

Now Anita appeared confused. "For what?"

Dawn wanted to say, for keeping me, but that wasn't entirely it either. "For wanting me here."

Anita's eyes grew wide. Micah put his hand on her back while she tried to speak. It took two attempts before Anita could say, voice thick with the edge of tears, "Of course we want you here." She touched Dawn's cheek gently.

Micah cleared his throat. "Nathaniel, can you take Dawn into the kitchen and get things going for dinner? I need to speak with Anita for a few minutes."

"Of course," Nathaniel murmured. He held out his hand for Dawn, and very carefully walked with her down the hall. In the doorframe, Dawn turned back to see Micah with his arm around a fragile-looking Anita. She wasn't sure how much of this was her fault; after all, she'd only been reading Richard's mind. And they'd sorted everything out, right?

Dawn decided that after she helped Nathaniel, she was going to find Anita and they'd do something together before dinner, like play a game or make fun of the doll or something. In the meantime, Micah would be with Anita and that would be okay.

It wasn't until Nathaniel was tying an apron over Dawn's fancy dress that she could ask him an important question. "Do I act like I've five?"

Nathaniel pulled a stool over to the sink so Dawn could climb up. "What do you think?"

Dawn shrugged. "Like, I've got the attention span of a honey-roasted peanut, but I'm not throwing tantrums, and I can read. Does that mean I'm acting older than five?" She washed her hands under Nathaniel's watchful eye. "Maybe I'm older than I look?"

Nathaniel turned off the tap and handed Dawn a tea towel. "I think that it doesn't matter how old you are, it's how you act." He smiled at the disappointed expression on Dawn's face. "It matters who you are, not anything else."

Dawn followed Nathaniel around the kitchen for a few minutes, silently watching him take things out of the fridge, move things around on the counter. The turkey and the ham were already in the oven, pots boiled away merrily on the stove. However, she hadn't seen any sign of dessert.

"What kind of pie is Cherry bringing?"

Nathaniel turned a knob on the stove. "Apple pie. Everyone's bringing a dessert for tonight."

"And there's going to be a million people?"

"Not a million." He drained the water from a pot into the sink. "You've met Vivian and Gregory and Stephen and Jason, and Merle. Cherry and Zane are Pard, too, and so are Gina and Noah and Violet."

Dawn wrinkled her nose. "How are we going to fit thirteen people around the table?"

"Jason and Stephen are bringing a folding table from the Circus." Nathaniel dumped the drained potatoes into a big bowl on the counter. "Do you want to help with this?"

"Okay!" Dawn danced around until Nathaniel lifted her to the counter. "Nathaniel?"

"Yes?"

"Did you mean what you said?"

"What did I say?" Nathaniel asked.

"That you know when people pretend to want you but they really don't?"

"Yes. Why?" he asked, handing her the masher.

Dawn pushed the masher into the bowl, watching the cooked potatoes squish under its prongs. "What does it feel like?" It never occurred to her that Nathaniel would lie.

Nathaniel ran the water in the sink, staring at the flow from the faucet. "It's one of the worst things in the world," he said in the general direction of the tap. "And you always know."

Dawn mashed a little harder. "Always?"

"Always."

If Nathaniel knew, then Dawn figured that she would know, too. It might not be much, but it was all she had.

She left the masher sticking handle-up in the potatoes. "We need butter and milk," she ordered. "And salt, but you have to put that in because I can never tell how much to use."

"Of course," Nathaniel said with a smile. He set a bowl in the sink under the flow of the water before reaching across the counter for the butter. "Let me know if your arms get tired."

"I will." Dawn lifted the masher up high with both hands, then slammed it down hard as she made a loud crashing sound. "Last Christmas, Mom let me make the stuffing. I got to mix it by hand and everything."

Most of Nathaniel's attention was on the pile of raw yams piled by the sink, but he still said, "That sounds like fun."

"It was." Dawn put a bit of stir action into the mashing. The last time she had mashed potatoes, or at least remembered it, was the Thanksgiving at Giles' house, when Mom was out of town and they had Spike tied up to a chair and ghost Indians attacked. The most annoying part of the day was that no one explained to her what syphilis was, or how Xander had gotten it. Buffy had given her the potatoes to mash as a way to distract from annoying questions.

Under her breath, Dawn began to sing the Monster Mash, slamming down the masher on every 'mash' and 'smash'. "Nathaniel," she interrupted herself after a while, "When you were with those people who pretended they wanted you but they really didn't, did you ever feel like you were two separate people?"

Nathaniel's knife stopped on the yam in mid-peel. "What do you mean?"

"Like the person that was you," she said, holding the masher aloft, "Was a different person than was doing what the other people wanted?" She smushed the masher into the potatoes and stirred. "Like you were two people and no one else knew it?"

Nathaniel hesitated before responding. "Sometimes it feels like there were two sides of my life," he said carefully. "But not that I was two people."

"Not like two actual people," Dawn clarified. "But that you were a person and everyone saw you but no one else understood the real you."

Some of the tension in Nathaniel's shoulders eased. "I think everyone feels like that at times." He wiped his hands on a dishtowel and took the masher from Dawn. "If you ever feel like we don't understand you, you can talk to us, okay? If not to me or Micah, then to Anita."

Dawn pouted a little at having her toy taken away, but she didn't protest. "But do you know what I mean about no one understanding you?"

Nathaniel rinsed off the masher and put it in the dishwasher before he responded. "I think so." He cleared his throat. "But if the person matters to you, then you keep on trying."

"Okay." Dawn held out her arms. "Down, please!"

Obediently, Nathaniel swung Dawn to the ground. He took hold of her hand before she bolted to the fridge. "Dawn, we meant what we said about wanting you here," he said, voice more intense than she had heard from him in a long time. "No matter what happens, no matter how much work it is, we want you."


After half an hour of continuous work, mostly flipping between tasks every five minutes, Dawn began to wonder. Nathaniel wasn't normally this much of a task master. Usually, he let her take the lead, doing what she wanted, following along with her. Now, it was as if he had something else going on, some reason to keep her occupied--

Dawn froze, elbow-deep in ripped lettuce. "Hey!"

Nathaniel looked up. "What?"

Dawn took her hands out of the salad and scowled at him. "You're trying to keep me busy!" She jumped down from her chair. "What are Anita and Micah doing?"

Nathaniel went back to watching his pot. "They're talking."

"Is it about me?" Dawn ran over and tugged on Nathaniel's pant leg. "Can I go see them? Can I go talk too?"

Nathaniel knelt down. "That might be a good idea," he said after a minute. "On one condition."

"What condition?"

Nathaniel untied Dawn's apron. "If you go in there, you have to give Anita a big hug."

Dawn stared at him. "Of course I will!"

"Good." Nathaniel pulled the apron over Dawn's head. "Go in there, then."

Dawn ran towards the living room, stopped halfway, dashed back and gave Nathaniel a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks!" she said, then bolted back toward the living room.

The room was quiet and dark, the only light coming from the Christmas tree lights. Anita sat alone on the couch. Micah was nowhere to be seen. Dawn ran all the way to the couch, where she jumped up on the cushions beside Anita.

Anita jerked back as if startled. "Dawn, what are you doing?" she asked, wiping at her cheeks.

"Wanted to come see you," Dawn said. Should she point out that she knew Anita had been crying? She knew how much Anita hated that. Instead, she cuddled close to the woman. "Where's Micah? I thought you two were talking."

"We were." Anita brushed the hair back from Dawn's face. "You smell like cloves."

"Oh. I spilled the jar on the counter and my apron, but not my dress," Dawn said hastily. "Nathaniel cleaned it up."

"Good." Anita touched the tip of Dawn's nose. "How are you doing?"

Dawn sighed. Of course, Anita would want to talk about what happened earlier in the day. "I'm fine." She burrowed her face against Anita's arm. "I think I should thank Mrs. Zeeman, for inviting me over," Dawn continued. "'Cause it was really nice even though a lot of the people in the house didn't want to see you."

Anita shook her head. "Did you 'hear' that?"

"Nope." Dawn toyed with the strap of Anita's watch. "I could totally see it. I could be blind and deaf and like a total kid, and I'd have seen it."

"It was nice of her, wasn't it?" Anita said softly. "Richard's mom... she's a great person."

Dawn let herself relax a little. Richard's pain, tied together with her fear of abandonment, faded into the background slightly as she sat in the darkened room with Anita. The woman was sad, Dawn didn't have to be telepathic to know that.

"Anita?"

The tears hadn't left Anita's voice when the woman replied, "Yes?"

Dawn turned over Anita's palm and rubbed at the pink cross scar on her skin. "Thank you, for finding me. In the graveyard." She took a deep breath. "It's like, you were made to find me, right?"

Anita gathered Dawn up into her lap. "I don't know about made to, but I wouldn't have had it worked out any other way."

Because that's the reason I'm so small and not a teenager, Dawn thought, but she didn't say it out loud. She didn't know if she'd ever be able to say it out loud.

Time passed and Dawn's eyelids grew heavy. She'd been up very early and it had been a very draining day. The darkness of the living room, the scent of pine, the regular rhythm of Anita's breathing, all seemed rather dreamlike.

"If you'd had a baby, would you have been happy?" The words didn't seem real coming out of her mouth, part of some unreal bit of the past come back to her in sleep.

Anita covered Dawn's hand with her own, slim adult fingers pale against the tan of Dawn's skin. "I think I may have been," she whispered after a very long time. "Go to sleep, I'll wake you up in time for dinner."

"Okay." Dawn closed her eyes and listened to Anita's breathing, wishing she could tell Anita the truth, wishing she was herself again... wishing she wasn't always so alone, so helpless.

The thoughts of loneliness and family and change ran thought her head until she heard the doorbell ring with Christmas guests.

Chapter Text

Dawn stared at the clock. Two o'clock in the morning, and she refused to go to sleep. If she slept, she would dream, and she didn't know if she could take another night of horrible, violent nightmares.

The nightmares had been growing in force and severity since Christmas, over a month before. On some nights she was fine. But on the other nights...

Sinking lower under the covers, Dawn clung to Sigmund and Augustine and wished she could get warm, wished she didn't feel so tired. She missed Sunnydale so bad, with its warm weather even in the winter time, and how Mom would always make sure Dawn was tucked in, and Buffy...

Dawn buried her face in Sigmund's belly. Thinking of Buffy brought back all those horrible nightmares, of sharp knives and broken glass and falling, always falling. When Dawn was lucky, she'd wake up before she got cold, but if it was like last night, she'd wander around in her dreams forever, frozen and hurting, then wake up to find she'd kicked the covers to the floor again.

All of which could be prevented if Dawn never went to sleep again.

There were other things, hiding in the shadows of her room, ideas with sharp teeth and claws whispering over the carpet, but Dawn would not, could not, think about them. It was far better to be cold than to turn into that, to be like that.

Out in the hallway, a floorboard creaked. Terror ran down Dawn's spine. Something was in the hallway. Something was coming for her.

The doorknob turned soundlessly and the door began to open.

A whimper slipped out from between Dawn's lips as she clenched Sigmund tight in her arms. It was like another one of her nightmares, but she was already wide awake and she'd never be able to escape.

The door opened all the way and someone entered the room. It was Micah. "Dawn?" he called softly. "Are you okay? I heard you moving around."

Dawn didn't move. It might be a trick. One of the creatures in the shadows, with sharp teeth and claws, might be pretending to be Micah until it got close and then it would eat her up, toes and all.

Micah switched on the bedside lamp, making Dawn blink in the sudden illumination. "Dawn, why aren't you asleep?" he asked. "It's two in the morning."

Dawn buried her face in her pillow. It wasn't a monster come to eat her up or slice her to pieces or rip her to shreds. It was just Micah. Micah would never hurt her.

Right?

The bed shifted slightly. Dawn glanced up to see that Micah had sat on the edge of the mattress. He pulled the covers up over Dawn's shoulders. "Did you have another nightmare?" Micah asked.

Dawn shook her head. She hadn't, not really, not that night. The memory of weeks of nightmares didn't really count.

"How long have you been awake?" Micah was looking at her with worried eyes.

"Why do you care?" Dawn asked, curling up into a ball under the quilt.

Micah frowned slightly. "Why would you ask something like that?"

Dawn pried one hand off Sigmund and scratched at the sheet. Part of her didn't understand why her nails didn't slice through the cotton. "Just because."

Micah was silent for a very long time. "Would you have asked Anita that question?"

The mention of Anita made Dawn's stomach twist. Part of the nightmare, not the one about cold, but the other, was about Anita.

Dawn pushed those thoughts away. "Anita's supposed to ask me questions like that."

"What about Nathaniel?"

Dawn reached out and pulled Augustine closer until his soft white head was underneath her chin. "I dunno."

Micah rested his elbows on his knees and let out a very sad-sounding breath. Dawn realized he was still in his street clothes. He must have just gotten home from work. "Dawn, you said your dad left your mom just after you were born?"

Dawn rubbed Augustine's nose with her thumb while she tried to think. Was that what she had said about Hank Summers? She couldn't remember her own lies any more. "I guess. But they do, right? Leave?"

"What do?"

"Dads."

Micah blinked. "Just because your father left--"

"Everyone's did." Dawn struggled out from under the covers and knocked Augustine to the side. "My dad went away because Buffy was bad, so did Angel and Riley and everyone! Willow's parents never stayed around because they didn't care. Xander's dad should have gone away but he didn't so he hit Xander instead." She frowned. "Tara's dad told her she was a demon and treated her really bad until she ran away to go to school and he followed her and was going to take her back by force until Buffy threatened to hurt him hardcore."

A muscle in Micah's clenched jaw twitched. "That's not the way it's supposed to happen," he said after a minute. "Dads can care about their kids as much as moms do."

Dawn shivered slightly against the cold. "Maybe." She picked at the sheet covering her lap. "But even Anita doesn't think so."

"What do you mean?"

"Anita doesn't talk to her dad because she thinks he thinks she's bad or something 'cause he got married again and had another family and he wouldn't do that if Anita was good enough."

Micah went still. "Did Anita--" He cut himself off. "Did you hear that from Anita?"

Dawn didn't answer. Truthfully, she had no idea why she knew that about Anita. Even thinking about Anita made Dawn's stomach roil until she wanted to throw up.

"That's not what happened with Anita's father," Micah went on. "He married again after Anita's mother died, but it wasn't to replace anyone. It certainly wasn't because Anita was bad."

"You're not listening!" Dawn exclaimed. She threw Sigmund hard at Micah. "Dads go away because we're bad! They don't care! Hank left 'cause Buffy and I were bad girls and Anita's dad had another family because Anita is bad!"

"You are not a bad girl!" Micah said firmly. "And neither is Anita, where is this coming from?"

He tried to touch Dawn's shoulder, but she hit out at him. She missed, and it made her to angry, so she hit out again, and again, this time making contact with Micah's arm.

All the frustration and anger and cold overwhelmed Dawn. She kept punching at Micah with all of her strength, and he didn't respond at all, just let Dawn hit him.

Instead of releasing her rage, Dawn grew angrier and angrier. She didn't know what she was doing and she couldn't stop, she was so cold and so tired and so scared of being bad that everyone would push her away.

Finally, Micah took hold of Dawn's flailing fists. She tried to keep hitting him, herself, anything, but Micah held her firm. Pulling the blanket off the end of the bed, Micah wrapped Dawn up in the soft blue cloth. He stood up with her in his arms and walked around the room as she tried to breathe normally.

Eventually, Dawn's sniffles died down, and she was left tired and cold and sick to her stomach.

"You're not a bad girl," Micah told her as he stopped by the window. He pulled back the curtain so they could look out at the clear night. "Why did you think that?"

Dawn wiped her nose on her sleeve. "Just because."

"There's usually a reason why," Micah pressed. "Did someone tell you something?"

"No," Dawn whispered.

"Did you hear something on television or read something in a book?"

Dawn shook her head. The half moon was low on the horizon, almost hidden by the trees of the park down the block. Something about the moon made Dawn feel even worse.

"You don't have to talk about it, but we want to help you, you know that? All of us, me and Nathaniel and Anita."

"Not Anita," Dawn whispered before she could hold back the words.

"Yes, Anita," Micah said. He shifted Dawn higher. "Anita loves you and she would do anything in the world to help you."

Sour bile rose in Dawn's throat as tattered scraps of nightmares chased each other around in the shadows of her mind. "She shouldn't."

"Why not?"

"I... I'm a bad person."

"Why do you think that?"

"Because." Wind whistled cold on the other side of the glass, and Dawn wished she could be out there, cold and alone, instead of telling Micah how bad she really was. "I have dreams."

"What happens in the dreams?"

The shadows outside moved on the snow, hiding the snickety-snack of teeth and claws. "I hurt people."

"Who do you hurt?"

Blood in her mouth, blood on her hands. "The bad people. Anita. And Buffy."

Dawn was shaking now, certain that Micah would make her go away, out into the dark and the cold. How could he not, after what she had dreamed?

"Why are Anita and your sister bad in your dreams?"

But Dawn couldn't answer. Micah wrapped her up tighter in the blanket and patted her back as he started walking in circles again.

"Do you want a glass of water?" Micah asked after a little while.

Dawn, who had been alternating trying to stay awake and not throwing up, shook her head. "I don't feel good," she confessed.

Micah put his hand on her forehead. "You're a little flushed," he said. "You might be coming down with something. How does your throat feel? How about your stomach?"

Dawn squirmed. "My tummy feels bad," she confessed reluctantly. "Like I'm gonna throw up."

"I can understand that," Micah told her. "How about we go get you a drink from the kitchen?"

Dawn sniffled mightily, blinking hard to stay awake. "Okay," she whispered. "That might be okay."

Micah carried Dawn out into the darkened hallway and down the stairs. The house was strange this late at night, all silence and dark and still, as if no one lived there at all. Dawn clung to Micah's shoulder as he walked through the house. Could he feel how sad the house was?

In the kitchen, Micah turned on the tiny glowing lights over the island. He placed Dawn on the counter, still wrapped up in the blanket, before going to the fridge.

Dawn watched his every move. Nothing made any sense, and she couldn't even think where to begin trying to figure it out. Her stomach hurt too much.

When Micah returned, he was carrying a small glass of ginger ale. "This should help your stomach," he told her.

Dawn shook her head. "There's too many bubbles."

Micah almost smiled. "How about this?" He shook the glass gently, so all the bubbles rose to the top and popped. He passed the glass to Dawn and waited while she took her first sip. It was nice and sweet, just like it was supposed to be.

She took another sip.

"You don't have to tell me about your dreams if you don't want to," Micah said as Dawn nursed the ginger ale. "But sometimes talking about bad dreams makes them less scary."

"This won't," Dawn muttered between swallows.

"You won't know until you try." Micah paused, waiting for Dawn to speak.

She finished off her drink and handed the glass back to Micah. He put it in the sink, and waited some more. The kitchen looked almost normal, but the house felt so very sad in the dark. Maybe Micah was right. Maybe Dawn would feel better if she talked about her dreams.

She took a deep breath. "Do you ever have dreams like you're a wolf and you're chasing bad people and then you catch them and hurt them but then it's not like they're the bad one but you are but it's too late and you can't take it back?"

Micah took in the words without visible reaction. "Are you dreaming that you're a wolf?"

Dawn nodded miserably.

"And in these dreams, you hurt Anita and Buffy?"

Feeling even worse than before, Dawn nodded again.

"Why are they bad? In your dreams?"

Dawn lowered her head. "They just are."

"Do you remember why you think they are bad?"

Answers swirled in the shadows, just within reach. "Anita didn't protect me like she was supposed to, so I ate her up while she was screaming," Dawn whispered. She hunched in on herself as the swirling upset in her stomach got faster and hurt even more.

"Did Buffy do something similar?" Micah asked.

Dawn couldn't even shake her head. "Buffy let Glory take me and she couldn't save me."

Micah pushed the hair back from Dawn's forehead. "Who's Glory?" he asked.

Dawn's mind skittered away from thoughts of Glory, away from the tower and Ben and the dress and the knives and of falling. She reached up and put her arms around Micah's neck, clinging to him as tightly to him as she could.

She heard him sigh. "You didn't do anything wrong by having nightmares," he told her. Dawn only held on tighter. Micah picked her up, blanket and all. "Sometimes we have nightmares because there are things we need to deal with, things that scare us when we're awake, that our minds need to deal with when we're asleep."

Was Dawn imagining it, or did the house give a sad, tearful sigh?

"You have to know that Anita would do anything to protect you, same with Nathaniel and myself. From anything at all."

"But what if I was bad?" Dawn asked, voice muffled by Micah's shoulder.

"You could never do anything bad enough to make us stop protecting you," Micah told her. "Nothing at all."

Dawn dug her fingers into Micah's shirt. He might say that now, but he didn't know. He didn't know that she was the reason everyone back in Sunnydale got hurt, that she was the reason Richard was so mad at Anita.

They didn't know she'd been lying to them since the day she met them all.

More importantly, what would they do to her when they found out?


Dawn glared at her toast. Stupid breakfast. Stupid morning. Stupid Nathaniel, waking her up at the crack of ten o'clock.

Everything sucked.

Across the table, Anita opened her mouth to speak, but let out her breath without saying a thing. She had been doing that for a while now, and it was starting to annoy Dawn.

Dawn picked at the toast again, wondering what Nathaniel would say if she just licked off the peanut butter and left the bread on her plate.

"Dawn?"

Great. Now Anita wanted to talk. Dawn didn't look up.

"Dawn, if... if you want to talk to me about anything, anything at all, you can," Anita said quietly. At the words, Nathaniel stopped washing dishes and rested his hands on the edge of the sink.

"Don't have anything to say," Dawn said crossly. She shoved her plate away from her so hard it knocked into the salt shaker.

"But if you want to--"

"I don't want to talk to anyone!" Dawn shrieked. "Leave me alone!" She jumped down from her chair and ran into the hallway, knocking into Micah as she went. She kept going, down the hall and into the living room.

The morning sun shone into the room with an annoying cheerfulness. Dawn jumped onto the couch and buried her face in one of the cushions. The fabric was too scratchy on her face, so she squirmed around to a sitting position. She punched the offending cushion for good measure.

Why won't they leave me alone? Dawn thought furiously. All they want to talk about what I told Micah last night! Stupid nightmares and stupid Micah and stupid Anita... Dawn ran out of things to mentally trash, and so she kicked at the couch cushions for good measure.

Part of her expected one of the adults to come see how she was. That's what they always did when she ran off like that. Micah or Nathaniel or Anita, sometimes all three of them, would come sit with her and they'd talk about stuff.

But Dawn had just told Anita she didn't want to talk to any of them.

Dawn's stomach squirmed, like worms in the mud. The sensation had nothing to do with her nightmares and that made it so much worse. She had told Anita she didn't want anything to do with them, and now none of the adults had come to see how she was doing. And all this after she'd told Micah what kinds of bad things she dreamed about doing to Anita.

Maybe they'd realized that she was a bad girl after all, and that they didn't want her living in their house.

It was getting hard to breathe, like there wasn't enough air or something.

If they didn't want Dawn in their house because she was a bad girl, where was she going to go? She didn't have anybody in this world but Anita and Micah and Nathaniel. They were the only ones who wanted anything to do with her, and she was having nightmares where she was doing bad things to them.

What was she going to do if they didn't want her anymore?

Who was going to protect her if Anita didn't?

Dawn slipped off the couch. Her foot slipped on the carpet and she stumbled. She was distantly aware that she was shaking, but it didn't matter. If Anita didn't want to protect Dawn anymore, nothing mattered.

The walk back to the kitchen took a long time. Voices drifted out of the room, but Dawn couldn't hear them over the mess in her head.

Finally, Dawn peeked around the doorframe. Anita was bent over her coffee cup, Nathaniel sitting next to her and Micah by the basement door. No one looked at Dawn. Maybe they were pretending that she was already gone.

Dawn edged into the room.

Anita was the first to notice her. "Dawn? What's wrong?"

Dawn stopped in her tracks. Her breath hitched in her throat, like a stutter, but she couldn't get in any air.

Anita was out of her chair in an instant and at Dawn's side. Dawn flung her arms around Anita's waist and hung on for dear life. "Don't make me leave," she managed to squeeze out.

Anita pried Dawn's arms loose and knelt down. "No one's going to make you leave, why are you saying that?" Anita demanded as she gathered Dawn up in a hug.

Dawn wrapped her arms tight around Anita's neck. "'Cause I had bad dreams," Dawn wailed, her voice muffled by Anita's collar. "'Cause I'm bad."

Anita ran her hand over Dawn's hair, holding her so tight. "You are not bad," Anita said with feeling. "And we will never let you leave." Her voice was thick with tears. "You're going to stay right here with us where you belong, do you understand?" She kissed the side of Dawn's head. "You belong here."

Dawn clung to Anita as she had clung to Micah the night before; as if the world would end if she let go. "But I dreamed--"

"It doesn't matter what you dreamed," Anita said. "Dreams don't mean anything. You're safe here, I promise." She hesitated. "I'll do anything to keep you safe."

Dawn buried her face in Anita's shirt, holding on with all her might. She stayed there as Anita stood up, carrying Dawn over to the table and sitting back in her chair. Dawn knew Micah and Nathaniel were still in the room, but all that mattered was that Anita wasn't going to throw her out into the snow.

Anita had promised to protect her forever.

"I'm going to stay here with you today," Anita said after a few minutes. "Would that be okay? We could play cards or watch a movie or something. We don't have to talk unless you want to."

The idea of spending a whole day with Anita sounded really good to Dawn. She nodded against Anita's shoulder.

"Good." Anita rubbed circles on Dawn's back. "Micah, can you call Jean-Claude and tell him that I'm going to have to cancel our plans for tonight?"

"Of course," Micah said.

Someone pulled a chair over beside Anita and sat down. Nathaniel, Dawn knew without looking up. "Maybe I can make something else for breakfast?" he asked Anita. "Anything at all. Or maybe I can make lunch. It's almost lunchtime."

"Maybe in a little bit," Anita replied. "Maybe give us a few minutes to gather our thoughts?"

Dawn turned her head just enough so she could see Nathaniel. "Thank you," she whispered.

Nathaniel smiled and touched Dawn's arm. "Any time," he said. "Let me know if you need anything."

Dawn nodded.

"That goes for any of us," Anita whispered in Dawn's hair. "If you need anything at all. We're here for you, whatever you need."

It was funny, but when Anita said it like that, Dawn could almost believe her.


"You're doing it wrong."

Nathaniel raised his eyes from the half-assembled puzzle. "What should I be doing?"

Dawn shuffled around the coffee table to his side. She took the puzzle piece from his fingers. "You got to build the puzzle from the edges in, not the middle out. Otherwise you end up with a headache and broken door knobs."

Across the table, Anita looked up. "Broken door knobs?" she echoed.

"Yeah, because the puzzle takes forever and you get all frustrated and then you try to leave the room but the door knob doesn't work 'cause it never really did and it breaks off in your hand and you're stuck forever with an impossible puzzle and no way out." Dawn handed Nathaniel another piece of the puzzle. "This one goes on the side, see?"

Anita glanced over at Micah, seated on the couch with a pile of bills, then back to Dawn. "Is that a hypothetical example or a lesson well-learned?" she asked.

Dawn shrugged. "Little bit of column A, little bit of column B. We eventually got out of the room, but the puzzle sure didn't." No need to mention that Buffy's Slayer strength had been what broke the door in the first place.

In spite of Nathaniel's unfamiliarity with optimal puzzle procedure, they were half-way through the Christmas puzzle assembly. Micah had declined to play, but he was still in the room with them. In spite of the horrible start to the day, things were going really good, in Dawn's opinion. After breakfast, Anita had read a book with her, then Nathaniel let Dawn pick what they would have with lunch and even allowed her to make patterns with the pepperoni on the pizza.

Anita had promised that when they were done the puzzle, they could watch a movie while they ate dinner, if Dawn would go to bed early to make up for the lack of sleep the previous night. Dawn had pouted a little, but hadn't argued too much. She was still tired, but she told herself that she'd only agreed with Anita so Anita wouldn't feel bad about missing her date with Jean-Claude.

A few more puzzle pieces had found a home when Anita's cell phone rang. The woman flipped open the phone and lifted it to her ear. "Hello? Oh, hi Larry. What's up?"

Dawn gripped the little piece of sky so hard the sharp edges bit into her hand. Anita wouldn't have to leave, would she? Not tonight, not after Anita had promised she'd spend the whole day with Dawn!

"We've talked about that, the file's in my-- No, I don't mind if you go into my office, but--" Anita rolled her eyes. "No, I'm not trying to get you off the phone. Hold on." Anita covered the phone's mouthpiece. "I'll be a few minutes, Larry has some questions about work."

"But you'll come back?" Dawn asked.

"Of course I will." Anita leaned over the table and kissed the top of Dawn's head. "See if you can keep Nathaniel and Micah out of trouble while I'm in the hall, okay?" She got to her feet and headed into the kitchen.

Dawn giggled at the thought of her being in charge of Nathaniel and Micah. "Do you often get in trouble when Anita's on the phone?" she asked, leaning against Nathaniel.

"No, I don't," Nathaniel said. He smiled down at her. "I think I need a little more help with the proper way to work on a puzzle, though."

"Okay." Dawn examined the orphaned pieces and carefully selected one for Nathaniel. "This looks like a good one."

"Thank you." After some silent contemplation, Nathaniel pressed the piece into place. "You're right, that does work well."

"Of course it does," Dawn beamed. "Keep on it, we're almost done."

Nathaniel accepted the next puzzle piece without a word. Dawn went back to blue and white patterned clouds. It was the hardest part of the puzzle, but Dawn had always loved putting the sky back together again.

"Can I ask you a question?" Nathaniel said after a few minutes.

"Yes, and you can ask another one too."

Nathaniel hesitated, then went on. "How are you feeling?"

Across the room, Micah lowered his papers.

"A little bit better," Dawn confessed. "Now I'm only moderately mortified about my behavior this morning."

Nathaniel frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Well, it's better than being horribly humiliated, isn't it?" Dawn said in what she hoped was a philosophical tone of voice. Nathaniel just looked at her. "Absolutely appalled?" She wracked her brain for any more alliterative adjectives, and finding none, closed her mouth and gave a nod.

"That's not what I meant," Nathaniel said softly.

"But it's true," Dawn insisted. "I had a total temper tantrum because I thought Anita wasn't going to protect me." Dawn looked very hard at the puzzle piece in her hand. "It's just hard to be this little and need people to protect me." Why she was saying all these things to Nathaniel, she didn't know, but there the words were, out in the open. Dawn let the puzzle piece fall to the table and she leaned harder against Nathaniel. "I'm not always going to be this helpless, am I?"

Nathaniel carefully put his arm around Dawn's thin shoulders. "Adults are supposed to protect children, Dawn, that's not something you need to worry about."

"But they didn't protect you," Dawn said before she thought.

Nathaniel swallowed hard, but his voice was steady when he responded. "They should have. You don't need to worry about being safe. Anita and Micah and me, we're going to protect you. That's what families do."

Dawn looked over Nathaniel's shoulder at Micah. His face was completely blank, but he leaned forward. "Nathaniel's right, Dawn. There's nothing you could do to make us stop protecting you."

It was an echo of his words the previous night, and Dawn felt the little knot of tension in her stomach start to loosen. That only left Anita, and Anita had already promised to keep her safe forever.

"Okay," Dawn said. Feeling almost giddy, she leaned over and smacked a big kiss against Nathaniel's cheek. "More puzzle, then, or no one gets any dinner!"

Nathaniel let her scurry around the edge of the table, smiling as she went, but the smile never reached his eyes.

By the time Anita came back into the room, Dawn had finished the sky, and was helping Nathaniel with the windmill. "What took you so long?" Dawn demanded. "We have some very important puzzling to do."

"Just work," Anita said. "Sorry."

"Was it about zombies?" Dawn asked, perking up. "Can you tell me about it?"

"No."

"Please?"

"No."

Dawn stuck out her lower lip. "Pretty please with undead sugar-plums on top?"

The expression that crossed Anita's face made Dawn giggle. "Absolutely not. In any way, shape or form. Never. No zombies."

It was hard to pout while giggling, but Dawn attempted it. "Then you can tell me about vampires instead?"

Anita threw up her hands. "Micah, help me!" she called across the room.

Micah raised his eyebrows. "I think you can handle this one on your own," he said calmly.

"Oh, tell me about zombies fighting vampires!"

Anita closed her eyes. "How about we talk about dinner instead?"

"Sure, you can tell me about zombies and vampires while we make dinner," Dawn beamed. "Come on, we're almost done the puzzle!"

Indeed, Nathaniel had continued working while Dawn argued with Anita, and they were down to the final ten pieces. Dawn let Anita help her with the remaining pieces, setting them into place with a sense of accomplishment.

"There!" Dawn exclaimed as she pressed the very last piece in place. "We totally win!"

"Very nice," Anita said. She caught Dawn as the girl jumped into her arms. "An excellent idea, if I may say so."

Dawn squeezed Anita tightly, then slipped off her lap and ran across the room to the couch. Micah had turned on a lamp after the sun had set, and the light coated the room with cheerful warmth. "Next time, will you help us to?" Dawn asked Micah.

He nodded. "Next time."

"In the meantime," Anita said, "How about you go get that book we were reading this morning? We can read some more of it while Nathaniel makes dinner."

"Okay!" Dawn ran towards the stairs and up to her room, turning on the lights as she went. The early dusk had coated the hall and rooms with shadows, but Dawn wasn't going to think about that right now. She wasn't sleeping and nightmares couldn't get to you when you were awake. At least not when you didn't live on a Hellmouth.

The burst of energy tapered off by the time Dawn made it to her room. More than a little exhausted, Dawn turned on the bedroom light and made her way across the carpet to the desk. She pushed aside her journal, which had lain untouched for weeks, to take up the storybook Nathaniel had given her for Christmas.

It might have been childish to like Anita to read to her, but Dawn didn't care. Anita was good at reading stories and it meant that Dawn could spend time with her. Besides, people didn't read stories to children they didn't like. It made Dawn feel good inside. Like it had when Mom had read her stories.

Dawn stood looking at the book in her hands, then set it carefully back on the desk and opened her journal. She flipped past blank pages until she was in the middle of the book, and only then uncapped her pen.

Dear Mom

Her hand shook, but she didn't stop.

I guess I can write to you too, even though you're dead and Buffy isn't dead. I miss you lots. More than I can say. If there's a heaven, you're there and that's good, but I still miss you and wish you weren't dead.

I'm not dead either. Anita said she'd keep me safe. She's not Buffy but she's just as strong (except not really but it doesn't count) and smart, and she never yells at me when I make a mess or bump into things. She said that even though I didn't have a chance to say goodbye to you, you know I meant it because you're my Mom and you know I love you and I'll always love you, even when I'm dead.

Dawn stared at those last two words. Her stomach twisted back into that horrible knot, and suddenly she didn't want to be doing this anymore.

If you're watching me from heaven, you'll read this and know I love you. And you can forget that I said some bad words the other day when I walked into that door. I was having a trying day.

Love you and miss you always,

Dawn.

The ringing doorbell startled Dawn badly. She quickly capped her pen and, leaving her diary open so the ink could dry, grabbed the storybook and crept across the floor to the door.

Low, indecipherable voices drifted up the stairs to Dawn, but she didn't recognize the speakers.

Then Anita said something, sounding annoyed, but still Dawn couldn't understand the words.

The voices moved deeper into the house. Wondering who on earth had interrupted their quiet at-home evening, Dawn tip-toed down the stairs and along the hall until she got to the kitchen door, and looked around the edge of the doorframe.

Glory stood in the middle of the kitchen.

The world went grey and fuzzy around the edges as Dawn forgot how to breathe, how to run away, forgot everything except how to be afraid. Glory's golden hair was the only thing Dawn could see, rippling down her back over strange clothes.

Then Glory turned, and it wasn't Glory at all, it was Ben, with his wide shoulders and long arms and big hands that had held her in place and had threatened to hurt her so much, to kill her just because.

Then Dawn saw Ben's face, and it wasn't Ben at all, it was a stranger with ice-blue eyes and hair like Glory and hands like Ben and he was smiling and his teeth were sharp, so sharp, and he was moving towards her and Dawn dropped the book and ran away as fast and as hard as she could.

She didn't know where she was going, only that she had to get away, had to hide so the stranger with Glory's hair and Ben's hands couldn't find her and eat her up with his sharp teeth. She burst through a door and was in the darkness, and the floor dropped off and she stumbled down the stairs, stumbled into the dark and the shadows, but the shadows couldn't hurt her, not now. The man who wasn't Glory and wasn't Ben, he was the one who could hurt her, just like Ben and Glory had.

The stairs ended abruptly and Dawn fell to the cold concrete floor, banging her elbows and chin. She scrambled to her feet again. She had to keep moving, she had to hide.

Someone loomed up before her in the dark, and Dawn shrieked before she realized it was just a coat rack. She ducked around it and went deeper into the basement. Behind boxes, behind shelves, until Dawn ran out of places to go. She squeezed herself between a large trunk and the cold wall, scratching her arm in the process, and curled into a tiny ball.

She had to stay quiet and hidden so no one could find her, so she'd be safe from the stranger who wasn't Glory and who wasn't Ben but would eat her up with his sharp teeth.

Quiet.

Dawn shook so hard her teeth rattled. Could he hear her shaking? Could he hear her breathing in the dark? Would he find her?

The overhead lights went on. Dawn bit into her knee to keep from screaming and screaming. He was coming to find her and there was nowhere left for her to run.

"Dawn?"

It was Anita. Dawn wanted to scream at her to run, to hide from the man with the ice-cold eyes and sharp teeth, but she couldn't breathe over the fear cramping her stomach.

"Dawn, where are you?" Anita stepped over boxes on her way to Dawn. "What's wrong?" she asked as she knelt in front of Dawn.

Anita had said she would protect Dawn from anything, and Dawn couldn't do anything less for her. Without a second thought, Dawn unfolded herself and got to her feet, tugging on Anita's arm. "We have to go!" she said in a shaky whisper. "Before he finds us, we have to go!"

"Before who finds us?" Anita tried to pull Dawn into her arms, but Dawn wriggled away.

"There's no time, we have to go now!" Dawn dug her nails into Anita's skin and tried to physically drag the woman towards the high window in the basement wall. "He's going to find us and eat us and we have to go!"

Anita twisted her arm out of Dawn's grip. "What are you talking about?" Anita demanded, fear very unlike Dawn's in her voice.

"The man! He had hair like Glory and he's big like Ben and he has big sharp teeth and he's coming after us!" Dawn turned and ran for the window. If Anita wasn't going to help her, she'd climb out the window and run away into the night all on her own. Maybe then Anita would follow and be safe.

Anita caught Dawn around the waist and lifted her into the air. Dawn turned and thrashed, but it didn't make any difference. "Are you talking about Asher?" Anita asked, carrying Dawn away from the boxes and the promised exit of the window. "Asher is a vampire but he would never do anything to hurt you, not ever! He came over here with Jean-Claude to make sure I was okay, he'd never harm you!"

Dawn kept fighting. "He's not harmless!" Dawn shrieked. "Everyone thought Ben was harmless and he was Glory and Glory was Ben and they made everyone crazy and they were going to kill me so Glory could be a god again! Let me go!"

Cold, stark astonishment and panic washed over Dawn, catching her totally off-guard. She stopped struggling as Anita stumbled, ending up on the floor, Dawn still held tight in her arms. "What did you say?" Anita demanded as she turned Dawn around to look at her. "Who tried to kill you?"

"Glory and Ben!" Dawn started shaking again. "The monks made me into a person and made me Buffy's sister so she would protect me from Glory, but we didn't know that Ben was Glory and they got me and they had to kill me so Glory could be a god again and Ben could be a boy again!" All the lies Dawn had been telling, all the half-truths washed away in the face of her terror. "And they got me and tied me up and Doc cut me up so my blood could open a portal so Glory could go home and it did! The portal opened and dragons and demons came out and I had to jump to make it stop and I did! I jumped really far and fell into the cemetery and you found me but I wasn't me, I was five and not fifteen!"

Dawn had never seen Anita look so pale. "Dawn, it's okay," Anita said, touching Dawn's face with a shaking hand. "You're safe here--"

"I'm not safe!" Dawn shouted, no longer heeding the danger of near-by dangers. "The man upstairs with the sharp teeth, he's got hair like Glory!" To Dawn, it made perfect sense, and she didn't understand why Anita kept shaking her head.

"Asher would never hurt you," Anita said forcefully. "I will never let anything hurt you, not ever again. Do you understand?"

Dawn shook her head. "You don't understand! If Glory can find her way to this dimension, she'll try again! She'll cut me again and use my blood to open a gateway to a hell-dimension!"

Anita opened her mouth, but couldn't speak.

Dawn struggled free of Anita's grip. "I'm not really a girl," Dawn said between chattering teeth. Anita had to know the full truth now, there was no going back. "I used to be a big ball of energy that could open portals to hell, but then the monks made me into Buffy's teenage sister so Glory wouldn't find me, but it didn't work and Glory found me! Mom was dead and Buffy tried but she couldn't protect me, and now I'm here but I'm supposed to be dead and now I'm five!" Anita held out her hands, but Dawn danced back just out of reach. "Do you believe me? You have to believe me!"

"Dawn." Anita took hold of Dawn's arms with a gentle but firm pressure. "You need to listen to me. No matter what has happened before, you are safe here. I will die before I let anyone hurt you again, do you understand?"

Anita's anger rushed hot over Dawn, taking away her words and her protestations. She didn't know if Anita believed her or not, and she didn't know how to prove it to her, not anymore. She'd thought that if she told the truth, about everything, that Anita would have to believe her.

Why hadn't Anita believed her? Had she said it wrong? She tried to remember all the things she'd said, but Anita's fury overwhelmed everything in Dawn's head.

"That man..." Dawn managed to say, around the flood of emotions.

"Asher?" Anita supplied.

Dawn nodded. "He's not Glory?"

"No, he's not." Anita was still deathly pale, but her anger was starting to receded from Dawn's head. "He and Jean-Claude are old friends. Asher is a vampire, like Jean-Claude."

Dawn turned her head in the direction of the stairs. "But he had golden hair, and sharp-- sharp teeth," Dawn said with a hiccup.

"Yes, he does, but he's just the same as Jean-Claude." Anita shifted closer on the ground until her arms encircled Dawn in an almost-hug. "You're not afraid of Jean-Claude."

"No," Dawn whispered. "Jean-Claude's like Spike."

"Spike?"

"Spike is-- was, our vampire. He's all creepy but he won't hurt me." Dawn pressed her fingers against the bleeding scrape on her arm, making it hurt, until Anita took hold of her wrist and pulled her hand away from the wound. "He called me 'Nibblet' and 'Platelet' but he never even pretended to bite me and he got up the tower to try and save me from Doc and Glory but Doc stabbed him really bad and he fell all the way to the ground and I don't know if he's dead. I mean, really dead."

"I'm sure he's fine," Anita said soothingly. "Vampires are very tough creatures."

Dawn nodded. "That's what he said, he was all tough and mean and scary. But he didn't scare me, not really."

"Good."

Dawn nestled closer to Anita. "Is Asher like Spike? Is he tough and mean and scary?"

Anita let out a slow breath. "Asher is tough and I'm sure he can be scary to his enemies, but he's not mean. And he won't scare you."

Dawn considered this. "And he won't try to eat me?"

"No, he won't try to eat you," Anita said quickly.

"Oh." Dawn rested her forehead against Anita's cheek for a minute. "Then I have to go meet him."

"I don't know if that's a good idea--"

"But it is!" Dawn argued before she lost her nerve. "I met Damian and he wasn't scary even though I thought he killed Nathaniel and that he'd try to kill me, and after I met him he wasn't scary and I didn't have a single nightmare about him, I promise!"

Anita patted Dawn's back. She was quiet, but not like she was thinking. She was quiet in the same way she was quiet when she was thinking thoughts to Nathaniel; quiet whispers too faint on the air for Dawn to hear.

Then Anita stood up, taking Dawn with her. "You need to let me know if you get scared or anything," Anita said as she skirted the mess on the floor. "And remember, you're perfectly safe with me and with everyone upstairs."

"I remember." Still, as Anita mounted the stairs, Dawn's limbs grew tight and the air grew thin again. Dawn dug her fingers into Anita's shirt, holding tight.

The kitchen was silent when Anita and Dawn came through the basement door. Dawn knew that Micah and Nathaniel and Jean-Claude were all there, but all she could see was the tall man with the ice-blue eyes and the sharp teeth.

Asher.

Dawn's arms went around Anita's neck as if Anita was the last solid thing in the universe, and maybe she was.

"Dawn, this is Asher," Anita said softly.

Dawn could only stare. Even knowing that Asher wasn't Glory and he wasn't Ben, thoughts of them crowded in and around Dawn's mind, twisting danger from every angle.

"Bon soir, Dawn." Asher stared back at Dawn. His golden hair hung over one side of his face, hiding one blue eye. He was tall, taller than Jean-Claude beside him, with wide shoulders and big hands like Ben's.

"Hi," Dawn breathed. She stared some more. "Are you a doctor?"

Asher's expression never changed, but something made Dawn think she'd surprised him. The tension eased a little. If he was Glory, he wouldn't be confused, and he wouldn't staring back at her. He'd have ripped her out of Anita's arms and torn her open by now.

"Non, I am not a doctor," Asher said. His voice was silky and French and all the things Spike's voice had never been. "Nor am I a lawyer or an Indian chief."

"Asher!" Anita chided, but Dawn had to smile. Just a little.

"I saw a picture of you in Jean-Claude's cave," Dawn offered. "With him and a lady. You had a beard and a hat."

"I do faintly recall seeing the picture," Asher said, sarcasm coating his words, and that was so much like Spike that Dawn felt a little better.

"Why is your hair in front of your face?" she asked.

Asher went impossibly still, then he raised his hand and swept the hair back from his face, even as Anita and Micah were suddenly both speaking at the same time. The hidden side of Asher's face looked unreal, as if the skin had melted like candle wax. "This is why," he ground out.

Dawn had seen worse on demons at the Hellmouth, and she didn't flinch. "How'd that happen?" she asked, curious. "Did it hurt?"

"Holy water," Asher said. He raised his eyebrow as Anita swung around, putting herself between vampire and Dawn. "Oui, cherie?"

"Get out," Anita snapped. "Now, the both of you, just get out!"

"Ma petite..." Jean-Claude tried to say, but Anita shook her head.

"Asher can say whatever the hell he wants, but he did that to scare Dawn! I want you both gone!"

"But that didn't scare the little one, did it?" Asher took a step forward, but Jean-Claude grabbed his arm in a motion too quick for Dawn to follow.

Nathaniel pulled Dawn out of Anita's arms as Anita moved across the kitchen to stand right in front of Asher. "Whatever problems you have with me, you take them up with me, and not Dawn!"

Asher didn't move, but suddenly he was too close to Anita. "You asked me to stay, Anita, while you spoke with the child. Remember that."

"We will leave now, ma petite," Jean-Claude said. Power rushed around the room, prickly along Dawn's skin. "Asher."

With aching slowness, Asher stepped away from Anita. "As always, Anita, it has been an enchanting evening," he said. If the whole mood wasn't so deadly serious, Dawn might have laughed.

As Asher turned to leave, Dawn piped up, "I'm sorry you got hurt with holy water."

Asher looked back at her, hard, and Dawn quickly buried her face in Nathaniel's sleeve. He wasn't really like Spike, not really, and Dawn wasn't sure she liked him at all.

Then the vampires were gone.

Anita turned on her heel and came back across the kitchen, scooping Dawn back into her arms and holding her tight as she walked down the hall to the master bathroom. Nathaniel and Micah followed her, but Anita paid them no mind. "Are you all right?" she asked Dawn.

Dawn nodded once.

Anita set Dawn on the counter and began to rummage around. "Then let's look after that scrape, okay?"

"Anita..." Micah said.

Anita didn't seem to hear him. "And then we'll get some dinner, how does that sound?"

Micah grabbed Anita's arm before Dawn could think of responding. "Anita."

"Look, I'm--" Anita began, but Micah's fingers tightened on her wrist.

"We'll talk about this later," he said warningly. "I want to make sure Dawn's okay."

The bathroom was white and shiny, no hiding spots for any kind of danger, but the temporary reprieve of meeting Asher was beginning to fade. Even though there was no place for Glory to hide, the false sense of security that had lulled Dawn to sleep for months was gone.

What if Glory came for her one day?

"I'm fine," Dawn said automatically. Once Anita was done bandaging her arm, she let the woman lift her up once more.

The adults were talking, but not to Dawn, and so it didn't matter. What did matter was that Anita hadn't believed Dawn when Dawn had told her the truth about everything. Dawn didn't know what else she could do if Glory came for her, one day.

She shifted around in Anita's arms and put her thumb in her mouth. She might have been physically in St. Louis, but all she could think about was that last night in Sunnydale, when Glory and Ben tried to kill her, and Buffy hadn't been able to protect her after all.

Chapter Text

Buffy stared down at Dawn, peering through a hole ripped in the ceiling, blood on her lips pouring down her chin. Her mouth moved slowly, but only choking sounds came out. She was looking for Dawn, and Dawn waved her hands and shouted up at Buffy, but Buffy couldn't see her amongst all the blood.

And oh, the blood. Pouring down from rivers in Buffy's skin, down her arms, down down down, pouring all around Dawn, holding her down and not letting her move.

Dawn tried to scream, to fight her way back to Buffy, but there was so much blood and it burned and Buffy choked on her own blood and Dawn awoke to darkness.

It took a few moments for Dawn to get her bearings. She was in her room at Anita's house, in her very own bed, with Sigmund clutched tight in her arms. Everything was just as it should be.

Yet, it wasn't.

Dawn wiggled about in bed, mind lost in her dream about Buffy. She hadn't had that a dream in months, and yet this one had been just the same as the last one she'd had on that day she'd almost been sent to stay at the Walkers', with Buffy staring and choking and bleeding and waking up to darkness.

As her mind fought its way out of the dream, Dawn became aware of a fact that had escaped her upon initial wakening, and the realization made her feel ill with humiliation.

The bed was wet.

Dawn pressed her face against Sigmund's stomach. She was fifteen, not two, and yet at some point in the night, she'd wet the bed. Dawn didn't know if she'd ever been more embarrassed in her entire life. Moreover, she didn't know what to do. A quick peek at the clock told Dawn that Anita and Nathaniel weren't home yet. She could call Micah to come help her, but then he'd know what she'd done and that would be more than she could bear.

Maybe, she'd just wait until everyone went to bed and then sneak down to sleep on the couch and not tell a soul.

But in the meantime, she couldn't stand to lay on wet sheets. Carefully, Dawn crawled out of bed. She supposed she should change her pajamas, but as she stood in the middle of the room, the entire weight of her dream pushed down on her. With a hitched sigh, she made her way over to the wall and slumped down against the carpet. She pulled her knees up to her chest and tried to breathe her way through the tears.

It wasn't fair. She didn't want these dreams about Buffy, especially when the dreams were so horrible. However, the reason for the dreams wasn't that much of a mystery to Dawn, not after Anita had been hurt so bad at work the previous day. Micah had to go get her at the hospital and everything, and Dawn sat at the kitchen table on Anita's lap for an hour while Anita explained over and over that she was okay, that the vampire had only hurt her a little when he'd hit her and her cheekbone was only fractured and the bruising was worse than it looked and she'd get her sense of smell back in a few days, anyway.

Seeing Anita injured was as bad as seeing Buffy bloodied. It made Dawn's tummy ache to see them hurt. That was most likely the root of her nightmare, Dawn reasoned. Anita was hurt and so Dawn dreamed of an injured Buffy. That was all.

None of that explained why Dawn had wet the bed, however.

Downstairs, the front door closed and a low murmur of voices drifted up the stairs. Anita was back from work, talking to Micah, all safe and sound. The tight pressure around Dawn's heart began to ease up.

Anita was home.

Soon footsteps came up the stairs, down the dark hallway, then Anita was pushing open Dawn's half-closed door. Before Anita could freak out about Dawn not being in bed, Dawn quickly called out, "I'm over here, Anita."

Anita made her way across the dark room. "Why aren't you in bed?" Anita asked quietly as she sat on the floor beside Dawn. "It's almost two in the morning."

Dawn sniffled. "I had a bad dream," she said. "And I got woke up."

"Why didn't you call Micah if you couldn't sleep?" Anita asked.

"Because." Dawn hugged her knees tighter. Her pajamas were wet and sticky all the way down to her toes, and a fresh wave of humiliation crashed over her. "I think I kinda wet the bed," she finished in a whisper.

"Oh." Anita touched Dawn's cheek, then her forehead. Dawn looked at Anita in the dark, not able to distinguish much more than the pale lightness of her skin contrasted with her dark shirt. With only the night light from the hall casting the faintest of glows into the room, Dawn could see the bruising on Anita's face. Anita smiled faintly. "It was just an accident, it happens of all of us. Do you feel sick?"

Dawn shook her head. Anita put her arm around Dawn's shoulder and pulled her close.

"Then how about we change the sheets and get you back to bed?"

Dawn squeezed her eyes tight against the threatened flood of tears. She sniffled again and hated being so useless. "What if that's not enough?" Another sniffle, dangerously close to becoming a sob.

Anita pressed a gentle kiss to the top of Dawn's head. "Then we'll make up the bed in the guest room and deal with it tomorrow, okay?" Dawn nodded. "I'll be right back, I'm just going to go turn on the light."

Anita stood up with less grace than normal and crossed the room. Feeling suddenly very cold and sticky, Dawn wiped her nose on the back of her hand, an unsanitary habit but the whole night was full of grossness. She sniffled again, wondering why on earth her skin smelled like copper pennies.

The light flared on, and Dawn was blinking at hands covered in blood.

Someone screamed, but all Dawn could think was to stare at the blood. The thick red liquid covered her hands, her arms, her pajamas, all the way down to her toes. The blood path stretched from her feet across the carpet over to the bed, where tiny droplets slid softly off the blankets to a still-growing puddle on the floor.

Hands pulled Dawn roughly to her feet, a voice spoke frantically to her, but all Dawn could think about was the blood.

The blood. Pouring down from lines in Buffy's skin, down her reaching arm, down, down, all around Dawn, holding her down and not letting her move.

"Buffy?" Dawn whispered soundlessly. Her eyes went up and up to the ceiling over her bed. A single drop of blood shattered the white calm of the smooth surface.

"Dawn!" Someone shook her and somewhere, footsteps pounded closer. "What happened? Dawn!"

"Buffy?" Dawn said, eyes never leaving the spot of blood on the ceiling. Buffy had come for her in a dream, only the dream was real, and she had to go! "Buffy, come back!"

Jerking away from the hands holding her in place, Dawn darted to the bed and climbed up, jumping for the ceiling. The blood-soaked sheets made a grotesque squishing sound as Dawn bounced.

"Dawn!" Anita's hysterical voice was the only warning Dawn had before she was plucked off the bed. "What happened? Are you hurt?" In the background, Micah was saying things like ambulance and hurry, but Dawn couldn't think about that right now.

Dawn tried to fight her way out of Anita's grip, but the woman was too strong. "Please, I have to go!" Dawn pleaded. "Buffy came for me and I have to go!" Anita wouldn't let her go and Dawn kept struggling. "Buffy, please come back! Please!" she cried. The ceiling remained as it was, silent and smooth and with only one tiny drop of blood to mark Buffy's presence. "Please! Buffy, come back!"


One day, Dawn decided, she would grow used to being covered in blood, surrounded by police officers and paramedics at one in the morning, with only Anita to hang on to. This, however, was not that day.

Around them, people spoke and nattered and discussed, but for once Dawn had no interest in what anyone was thinking. All she wanted to do was curl up into a ball and cry. She was halfway there, curled up into a ball in Anita's lap, but she couldn't make herself cry. All she felt on the inside was numb.

Buffy had come to get her, and Dawn hadn't been able to see the signs until it was too late. And now Buffy was gone.

One of the paramedics wrapped a black band around Dawn's arm and pumped on a little balloon, measuring her blood pressure. Dawn watched the man listlessly. What did her blood pressure matter? It wasn't her blood that covered the room, it was Buffy's. Dawn had explained all of that to Anita, then Micah, then the police officers who came into the house with the paramedics, and not a single person had listened to her with the screaming.

Dawn rubbed her cheek against Anita's chest, trying to burrow closer to the woman. Anita responded by tightening her arm around Dawn's shoulders. "They'll be done in a minute," Anita said, her voice rough around the edges. Dawn didn't respond, only tried to put her bloody thumb in her mouth, but Anita wouldn't let her.

Two people detached themselves from the mob and moved over to the guest room bed where Anita and Dawn sat. Dawn didn't have to glance up to identify Detective Zerbrowski. She'd heard his voice in the hall, talking to Micah, but she really hadn't cared. Not a dot.

The woman with Zerbrowski settled awkwardly onto the bed beside them. She had brown hair and green eyes and reminded Dawn faintly of Willow, and even that remembrance didn't dent the numb fog in Dawn's mind.

Zerbrowski pulled a chair over to the foot of the bed and sat down. "How is she?" he asked.

The paramedic answered. "Her blood pressure is good, her heart rate stable, and there is no sign of bleeding or bruising or physical shock. Still, it would be best if she went to the hospital for monitoring."

"No," Dawn muttered, curling up tighter on Anita's lap. "Don't wanna."

Anita shushed her. "We need to make sure you're all right," she said.

Dawn didn't even bother to dignify that with a response. Of course she wasn't all right! Buffy had somehow opened a portal between Sunnydale and St. Louis to get Dawn back, and it had failed!

Resolutely, Dawn jammed her thumb into her mouth before Anita could stop her.

The paramedic packed up his equipment and left to talk to the uniformed cop in the doorway. Dawn didn't like that cop in the least. He'd shouted at Micah when he and his partner burst into the house, and Dawn didn't have to be a mind reader to know the cop didn't trust Micah. Or, rather, what Micah was.

The woman on the bed shifted, drawing Dawn's attention. It took Dawn a moment to realize that the woman wasn't fat in the tummy, she was pregnant.

The woman noticed Dawn's attention on her belly and smiled tiredly. "Hello, Dawn," she said. "I'm Detective Tammy Reynolds."

The name was familiar, but it took Dawn a few moments to place it. She pulled her thumb from her mouth and grimaced at the taste of stale blood on her tongue. "Are you a witch?"

The corner of Detective Reynolds' eye twitched. "Yes, I am." She didn't look at Anita.

"Oh." Dawn sat more upright in Anita's lap. "I have a friend who's a witch and she has eyes just like yours." Curiosity overwhelmed Dawn's lethargy. "When are you going to have your baby?"

Detective Reynolds laid her hand on her big stomach. "Very soon," she said with a small smile. "She's due next week."

Dawn stared at the bulge under Detective Reynolds's hand, and without thinking, focused on the lump. Quite unlike listening to the thoughts of adults, the little being in Detective Reynolds's belly was thinking in sensations and warm secure darkness.

Dawn let Anita scoop her up into a more secure position. "Did you find anything?" Anita said over Dawn's head.

Zerbrowski sighed. "A lot of blood, some of it still warm."

Dawn tried to ignore them by focusing on the thoughts of the unborn baby, but the words wormed into her brain.

"Micah said that he had only caught a whiff of the blood scent a moment before you started screaming, Blake," Zerbrowski continued. "And he didn't hear a thing in Dawn's room."

"Would he, though?" Detective Reynolds asked.

"He would," Anita said quickly. "When I got home, he told me he'd heard Dawn roll over a few times in bed, but that's all. That's why we leave her door open, in case..." She faltered momentarily. "In case she needs anything, or has a bad dream."

"Why didn't you smell it when you first went into her room?" Zerbrowski asked. His voice was cold and flat when he spoke to Anita. "The blood smell's thick enough to choke on in the hallway."

Dawn stirred in Anita's lap. "Because a vampire hit her in the face with a stick," Dawn said flatly. "And she can't smell anything right now. Why don't you go away? I told you that Buffy came for me and now she's gone, now you can go too."

"Dawn," Anita chided. "Zerbrowski and Tammy are here to help us."

"No, they're not," Dawn muttered, but if Zerbrowski was offended, he made no indication.

"Can you tell us what happened tonight?" Zerbrowski asked.

Dawn remained silent.

Zerbrowski put his elbows on his kneed and looked Dawn square in the eye. "We need to know what happened tonight, Dawn. Every little detail, even things you don't think matter. We need to know."

"Why?" Dawn demanded. "Why do you need to know? What are you going to do?"

"They're here to help us," Anita murmured. She pulled Dawn back into a hug, and Dawn couldn't find the energy to fight it.

"Please," Zerbrowski said.

Dawn picked at Anita's sleeve. The lovely blue silk blouse that Dawn had so admired that afternoon was now smeared with dried blood. Buffy's blood, Dawn thought miserably, as a sliver of anguish pressed through the numbness blanketing her. She sniffled. "I was having a dream," she whispered against Anita's chest. "Buffy was in the ceiling and she was bleeding and she'd come to get me but she couldn't see me because of all the blood."

"Was this all part of your dream?" Zerbrowski asked.

Dawn nodded. "And then I woke up and it was dark and Buffy wasn't here and I thought I wet the bed 'cause everything was wet but I didn't know and I felt bad because of the dream so I climbed out of bed and went to the wall and sat there until Anita came upstairs and turned on the light." She took a breath. "And that's it."

"Why did you go back up on the bed after Anita turned on the lights?" Zerbrowski asked.

"Because Buffy had come to get me," Dawn said, as if it should be obvious. And really, wasn't it? "I fell through a portal into the graveyard from Sunnydale, and that one was made from my blood by-- by Glory." Dawn refused to start screaming at the mention of Glory's name. Glory was gone and couldn't hurt her any more. "And since the monks made me out of Buffy, maybe..." Dawn sat up straight on Anita's lap, almost toppling to the floor before Anita caught her. "Maybe Buffy's blood is like mine! Maybe it can open portals between different worlds!" Dawn turned to look Anita in the eye, willing the woman to understand. "Buffy really did come to find me! Maybe she'll do it again!"

Anita bit at her lip. Dawn knew she was thinking all kinds of things she didn't want to say out loud. "You said that it was a dream," Anita said carefully.

"But it can't be a dream because there was all that blood!" Dawn bounced on Anita's knee. "She'll find a way, she's Buffy!"

Zerbrowski cleared his throat. "Dawn? What you said just now, about the 'monks making you out of Buffy', what did that mean?"

Dawn shrugged. "That's what they said. When the monks made me out of Buffy into Buffy's little sister to protect me from Glory." She looked at Anita again. "I thought I overheard you tell Micah that you told Zerbrowski about that."

"She did," Zerbrowski said before Anita could respond. "But I need to clear a few things up." He hesitated, then said in a delicate voice, "Was Buffy your sister or your mother?"

Dawn didn't know what to think. It was such a stupid question! "She's my sister," Dawn said loudly. "Joyce was my mother and Buffy is my sister and she came to get me tonight! She did!"

Anita wrapped Dawn into another immobilizing embrace. "Dawn, it's okay."

"It's not okay!" Dawn tried to fight her way free, but was unable to move in Anita's arms. "Why don't you believe me? Why don't any of you believe me? It's what happened! It's true!" Another sliver of pain and grief slid into her mind, all the worry about Buffy losing so much blood, of Mom being dead, of being stuck here in St. Louis and not knowing if anyone in Sunnydale was even alive anymore. This sliver expanded until it pushed the numbness away, and Dawn began to shake.

What if Buffy had bled so much that she'd died? What if Buffy had died because of Dawn, and Dawn would never know?

Dawn sniffled, then the tears started, and as much as Dawn tried to hold back, she began to sob. Buffy might had died trying to save Dawn, and that would be all Dawn's fault.

Everything was always Dawn's fault.

The tears continued, but they didn't make anything better. A lead weight of grief settled on Dawn's heart, pressing down. It was her fault that Glory had come to Sunnydale, had hurt Tara and all those people and Buffy and Spike and everyone. And while the doctors said that Mom's brain tumor just happened, maybe it had gotten worse because of the fake Dawn memories shoved her head, and that would make it her fault too.

The more Dawn cried, the worse she felt. So many people had been hurt and had died because of her, and now maybe Buffy was hurt or worse, and that was Dawn's fault.

Finally there were no more tears, and the weight on her heart was the worst thing in the whole universe.

Dimly, Dawn registered that Anita was rocking her back and forth. At least she still had Anita and Micah and Nathaniel, but what if one day they died because of something she did?

Anita wiped Dawn's cheeks with a tissue. "Do you need to blow your nose?" she asked, and it was such a normal thing, like Buffy hadn't opened a portal and bled over Dawn's bed and vanished again. Dawn took the slightly damp tissue and blew her nose loudly, then did it again just because she could.

When she looked up, Dawn realized that Zerbrowski had gone, but Detective Reynolds was still in the room and she was donning plastic gloves. "How about we get you out of those pajamas?" Detective Reynolds suggested.

Dawn thought about refusing, but there probably wasn't much point. She slipped off Anita's lap and stood unsteadily on the carpet. "I want a bath," she said.

Detective Reynolds looked at Anita. Anita saved the woman by saying, "We'll get you into a nightgown and then we can get you to the tub, okay?"

Dawn didn't move. "Are the police going to go away?"

"In a little while," Anita promised. "They're here to make sure that you're okay."

Dawn really didn't believe the woman, but what could she say? She leaned against Anita's knee and lifted her arms. "Fine," she grumbled.

With deft movements, Anita pulled Dawn's pajama top over her head. Instead of putting it on the floor, though, Anita folded the shirt and handed it to Detective Reynolds, who put it in a clear plastic bag.

"Why are you doing that?" Dawn asked, rubbing at a spot of dried blood on her tummy.

Detective Reynolds sealed the bag. "We're going to do some tests on the shirt," she said.

"What kind of tests?"

"Tests to find out who the blood belongs to."

"Oh." Dawn frowned. "I told you, it's Buffy's blood."

"I know," Detective Reynolds said. Before Dawn could argue further, she held out another bag. "How about the bottoms?"

Dawn stepped out of her pajama bottoms, and then repeated the same process with her underwear. And it was her favorite pair, too, with the blue flowers on the side. She held up her arms again, and Anita helped her into a long nightgown, long enough to brush her toes.

Detective Reynolds finished writing on the last bag and set them aside. Dawn leaned against Anita's knee again and stared at the woman. "I'm going to go check out the magical signatures in Dawn's room now," Detective Reynolds said as she struggled to her feet. Her breath came out in a huff, and not for the first time, Dawn thought how weird human reproduction was. Seriously, who thought up having babies grow on the inside?

Anita also stood, which gave Dawn a great excuse to wrap her arms around Anita's leg and hold on for dear life. "Do you or Zerbrowski need anything else from me right now?" Anita asked.

Detective Reynolds shook her head. "Not at the moment. Why don't you get this little girl into the tub and back to sleep?"

"That's a good idea," Anita said, running her hand over Dawn's hair.

Dawn, who had been staring up at Detective Reynolds, or rather her bulging stomach, pushed aside the noise in her head long enough to say, "Thank you for coming out here, Detective Reynolds." There. She remembered how to use her manners at least.

"Call me Tammy," the woman said with a smile only for Dawn, but Dawn knew there was something hidden behind that smile. It was the smile Buffy had used when everything was going to hell, and suddenly Dawn didn't want to be awake any more. She pressed her face to Anita's pant leg. There was such a commotion in her head, that she didn't know what to do.

No, wait. The commotion wasn't in her head at all. The noise was drifting up the stairs, arguing voices. After a moment, Dawn recognized one of the voices as Nathaniel. He'd been at work all night, and she hadn't remembered when he was due home.

Dawn pushed off of Anita's leg and walked out into the hall, past the loitering paramedics, past Zerbrowski, to the head of the stairs.

Nathaniel's voice was laced with absolute panic. "I could smell the blood down the driveway!" he said, trying to push past Micah and the policeman guarding the stairs, but Micah stood between him and the cop, and wouldn't move.

"Dawn's fine," Micah said, but Nathaniel didn't seem to hear him.

"What happened?" Nathaniel demanded, finally letting Micah push him back. The burly policeman didn't move from place on the stairs.

"We're not totally sure," Micah said. As he spoke, Dawn picked up the skirt of her nightgown in one hand and started down the steps. "But Dawn is fine and Anita is fine, and you, Nathaniel, need to calm down."

The last words were in a low growl, making the cop tighten his grip on his baton. Dawn squeezed past the cop and walked right up to Nathaniel and Micah. She tugged on Nathaniel's shirt. When he looked down, his eyes wide, she held up her arms. He scooped Dawn up, uncertainty radiating off him. "What happened?" he asked, looking between Dawn and Micah and Anita on the stairs.

Dawn slumped forward, resting her head on Nathaniel's shoulder and wrapping her arms around his neck. "Buffy came to get me and I didn't realize it until too late and now she'd gone and maybe she's dead and it's all my fault."

Nathaniel put his hand on Dawn's back, holding her steady. "Wait, what?"

"It's a long story," Micah said in an undertone. "Anita, I thought you were going to get Dawn into the bath."

"I am," Anita said, coming up to them. "Dawn, come on. We'll use the tub down here."

Dawn held on. "Buffy came for me and I wasn't ready," she said again, the weight on her heart so incredibly heavy.

Nathaniel patted her back, then gently pried her arms loose and handed her to Anita. "Are you sure that this blood isn't hers?" he asked anxiously.

Zerbrowski had appeared in the hallway and he motioned for the big cop to stand back. "We're sure," he said.

"Come on," Anita said in Dawn's ear. "Why don't we get you into the bath?"

Looking over Anita's shoulder as the woman carried her down the hall, Dawn saw Zerbrowski draw Micah and Nathaniel up the stairs.

"Where are they going?" Dawn asked.

Anita closed the bathroom door. "Zerbrowski wants Micah to look at the room, in case anything's missing or moved," Anita said. Without putting Dawn down, Anita sat on the edge of the tub and turned on the water.

"I thought Tammy was going to do that."

"She is," Anita said, testing the water as it poured into the tub. "They're going to help her."

Dawn yawned loudly. "What are they looking for?"

"Anything to help us in finding out what happened," Anita told her.

Dawn rubbed her hands together, watching tiny flakes of dried blood flutter into the water. It was almost fascinating, if she didn't think about how this was Buffy's blood covering her skin.

With a sudden movement, Anita turned Dawn deftly about, worked the nightshirt off her head and set her into the tub while it was still filling. "Let's get you cleaned up, okay?"

Dawn frowned up at Anita. Something wasn't right. It was something more than just worry. Knowing she probably shouldn't, Dawn tentatively tried to read Anita's mind.

Nothing.

Anita was shielding so tightly that Dawn couldn't get even a hint of Anita's emotions. With a frown, Dawn watched Anita move around the brightly lit bathroom, a colorful whirl of nervous energy. When Anita made her next pass, to put dry towels on the ground by the tub, Dawn said, "I'm sorry."

Anita stopped abruptly. "What are you talking about?"

Dawn shrugged and looked down at her hands. The water in the tub was taking on a faintly rusty tone. "Just 'cause."

Anita knelt by the tub. "Dawn, I'm not angry with you," she said. "We're worried for your safety."

"But Buffy wouldn't have let anything hurt me!" Dawn exclaimed.

Anita took in a deep breath. "What matters is that you're not hurt. That's all."

"Buffy wasn't going to let anything hurt me," Dawn said again. "Do you believe me?"

Anita didn't answer for a very long time, not until the tub was full. Then she said in a very careful voice, "Will you promise me something?"

"What?"

Anita rested her arms on the side of the tub and let her chin rest on one blood-stained sleeve. "If... if your sister comes to you again, will you come and tell one of us? Right away?"

Dawn frowned. "But what if the portal's going to close and I don't have time?"

Anita swallowed hard. "Dawn, we need to know where you are, all the time. Please."

Dawn thought about that for a while. She couldn't give up a chance to go home with Buffy, but she didn't want to leave without saying goodbye to Anita or Micah or Nathaniel. "I'll try," she promised, and didn't understand the expression on Anita's face at all.

"Good," was all Anita said. The woman blinked a few times. "How about we wash your hair now, okay?"

Above them, footsteps sounded up and down the hall, but the bathroom with its warm steam seemed a million miles away from the blood-soaked room upstairs. "Do you think Buffy's okay?" Dawn asked in a tiny voice. "There was a lot of blood."

"I'm sure your sister will be fine," Anita said. Dawn couldn't tell if it was a lie, and she wasn't sure if she cared.

She was so very tired, and her heart ached, and she'd come so close to going home that night, and all she could think was that she had failed Buffy when Buffy had tried so very hard to come get her.

Dawn had failed Buffy, again.

Chapter Text

And then...

Nothing happened.

That wasn't strictly true; many things happened to Dawn in Anita's house over February and March. The pard came over and repainted Dawn's room with cool blues and crisp purples, Dawn went to kindergarten for a grand total of three hours, and against Dawn's better judgment she let Nathaniel sign her up for swimming lessons at the Y.

Once, Dawn overheard Anita and Micah talking about the forensics reports from Dawn's bedroom when they thought she was outside planting bulbs in the garden with Nathaniel. The blood from the ceiling hadn't been Dawn's (which she knew) but it had been a close genetic match (again, it was Buffy, so duh) but there was no other evidence in the room that anyone had been there.

After hearing that, Dawn had crept outside and not told Nathaniel what she'd heard and had been quiet for two whole days. She didn't know what to think, let alone say to anyone.

But other than that, nothing happened. Buffy didn't come for her and Dawn had no idea what to do.


Dawn surveyed the scene before her, satisfied. She'd piled the couch cushions high enough on the ground to serve as a satisfying landing pad, even as far from the ground as she was on the couch back. All she had to do was jump far enough out, and she'd be set.

This was going to be fun.

She went into a crouch on top of the couch back, knees bent and arms back and all she had to do was spring. With a count of three, two..., she prepared to fling herself into space.

Until someone cleared their throat from the doorway.

Uh-oh. Dawn froze, hardly daring to look in Micah's direction. Then she slowly straightened her legs, a little wobbly on the couch back. "Hi, Micah," she said to stall for time.

Micah leaned his shoulder against the doorframe and just looked at her. "Hello to you, Dawn." He didn't say anything else, but Dawn knew he couldn't have missed the gigantic mess on the living room floor. Heck, the mess was probably visible from outer space.

But Dawn was not a Summers for nothing. She pasted a huge grin on her face in an attempt to look innocent. Or at least cute. "This isn't what it looks like."

Micah didn't even blink. "It looks like you're bored," he said.

"Oh." Dawn scrambled down the couch skeleton to the carpet. "Then I guess it is what it looks like."

Micah sighed, pushing himself off the wall. "What have we told you about climbing up onto things?" he asked as he picked up a cushion to put back on the couch.

Dawn picked up one edge of another cushion, as they were really rather heavy for her arms, and dragged it back to where it belonged. "That even someone as cute as me is susceptible to gravity and that I might hurt myself?"

"Something like that." Micah accepted the cushion from Dawn. "And do you know why we tell you that?"

Dawn scrunched up her nose to think. "Because skulls weren't built to bounce?"

Because Dawn had been looking directly at Micah when she spoke, she caught his barely perceptible flinch. She'd only been joking, but did Micah know that?

Micah pushed the last cushion into place and sat down. After a moment's hesitation, Dawn ran over to him and jumped up beside him. "I didn't mean it," she said.

"I know." Micah slumped back. "We don't want you to get hurt."

"I know that," Dawn told him. "And you're going to tell me that you've got 'life experience' and so I should listen to you."

For some reason Dawn couldn't figure out, Micah let out a chuckle. "You wouldn't pay any attention to that, would you?"

"I might!" Dawn protested. "It's just boring today."

"What about your library books?" Micah asked.

Dawn narrowed her eyes at him. "Read them all. And everything else in the house except Anita's books I'm not allowed to look at. And you won't let me watch tv without appropriate 'adult supervision' and Nathaniel's at the gym and Anita's got the thousand-yard stare and you've been ironing all day."

"Hmm." Micah considered that. "What about your schoolwork?"

"Done it." Dawn wiggled around until she could smooth out a wrinkle in her dark blue skirt. "Sixth grade work is so retro. I'm gonna need to go up another grade."

Micah smiled then, but he quickly wiped the expression away in the face of Dawn's seriousness. "You really are smart," he said. Dawn didn't say anything, because it wasn't a question and besides, she knew that. "We'll talk to Dr. Sanders about that next week, okay?"

"Okay." Dawn went up on her knees and nudged over so she could reach Micah's tie. "Where's Anita?"

"Still getting ready." Micah pulled off his tie and handed it to Dawn. "You're all set for tonight?"

Dawn shrugged, more interested in playing with the knot in the colorful fabric. "Your family is coming over, we have half an hour of painful small-talk, then we go to the restaurant for two hours of excruciating untruths, and then we come home and thank God we moved out?" She picked up on Micah's sudden stillness. "What? That's why Jason said he left home."

Micah certainly wasn't smiling now. "Jason shouldn't have said those things with you around, Dawn," Micah said. "It's not appropriate."

"Nathaniel was there and he didn't say anything."

"Still, Jason should know better." Micah pulled the tie out of Dawn's hands and undid out the knot. "Do you want me to show you how to tie this?"

"Yes please!" Dawn crawled onto Micah's lap and let him guide her small hands onto tying the long strip of fabric into a tie. "People talk around little kids all the time, it's not a big deal."

"It is a big deal," Micah contradicted. "You are very intelligent and have a high level of language comprehension and Jason should know that you pick up on everything."

Dawn turned to face Micah. "I like you," she said, stepping outside the conversation. "You use big words and don't talk to me like I'm a little kid."

"I use big words because you understand big words." Micah tweaked her nose, which made her giggle.

"And I ask when you say things I don't get," Dawn added. She pulled the tie over her head and dropped on the couch, then slipped down to the floor. "I'm going to tell Anita to get moving, they're going to be here soon!"

Feet flying, Dawn ran down the hall to Anita's bedroom and peeked in the open door. The woman stood by the edge of the bed, staring blankly into the full-length mirror on the wall.

"Can I come in?" Dawn asked, walking into the room. Her words seemed to startle Anita out of her introspection. "You look really pretty tonight."

"So do you," Anita said, her voice a little rough. "That's a very nice dress."

Dawn gave a little twirl, her skirt fluttering out as she spun. "I got dressed all by myself," she informed Anita. "I put on my tights and my dress and all Nathaniel had to do was help me with the zipper because that's in the back and I'm not a squid."

Anita did that weird scrunchy thing with her mouth, like she always did when Dawn said something Anita didn't understand. "Did you want me to brush your hair before Micah's family gets here?" she asked instead.

Dawn examined her reflection in the mirror. New white tights, a sleek and shiny blue dress with a ribbon around the waist, and a head of messy long hair. Dawn made a face. "That's what happens when I try to fight gravity," she grumbled. "Can you fix it?"

"Of course I can." Anita knelt beside Dawn to run a brush over her hair. "Are you all ready to meet Micah's family?"

"I think so," Dawn said. She leaned against Anita, letting the brush smooth out the knots in her hair painlessly. "Tell me about them again?"

"Well, Micah's dad is the sheriff of the town where they live," Anita said. "His mom is a homemaker, and his sister Beth just graduated from college."

"Why would anyone do that?" Dawn asked, clenching her fists as Anita tried to untangle a particularly vicious knot in Dawn's hair.

"Graduate from college?"

"Stay at home all day. It's boring."

"It's different when you're an adult than when you're a kid."

Dawn blew a raspberry at Anita's reflection in the mirror. "Yeah, when you're an adult it's more boring. Because you're old enough to work and get paid for it, or like travel and stuff, and you stay at home all the time."

"Nathaniel stays home during the day," Anita said with the desperate air of losing an argument.

"Nathaniel takes care of me and he makes sure I do my homework and then he goes to work at night," Dawn countered. "He's a nanny and a teacher and personal shopper and housekeeper and a highly trained naked dancer."

"Dawn--"

"I know, I know," Dawn interrupted. "We don't talk about the more salacious portions of life in this house. Nathaniel's an entertainer and you don't date vampires and I'm not a trouble magnet."

Anita put down the brush and swept Dawn up into a squishy hug. Dawn squawked and squeaked, but didn't try to escape the embrace. She liked Anita's hugs. "You are not a trouble magnet," Anita murmured in Dawn's ear. "You are an amazing little girl and we all love you very much."

Dawn felt something shift around in her stomach, something dark and twisty, but she ignored it as she hugged Anita as hard as she could. "Will you still love me if Micah's family doesn't like me?" she asked.

Anita made an exasperated sound. "Don't be stupid, of course we will." She kissed Dawn on the cheek, then on the other cheek and on the forehead and all over until Dawn squealed. "Always and forever."

Dawn squirmed out of Anita's grip and checked her reflection. Luckily, Anita hadn't been wearing lipstick. "You're so strange!" Dawn scolded. She decided to ignore the amusement on Anita's face. "I was supposed to come in here to make sure you were ready. Are you ready?"

"I think I'm ready." Anita scooped Dawn up and dropped her on the bed, letting her jump around for a few moments on the duvet. "Clothing and makeup, check."

"Your bruises are almost gone, too," Dawn said. She jumped one last time and stuck her legs into the air, landing on her bum. "From where the bank-robbing evil vampires threw you into a door last night."

"Just in time for dinner," Anita muttered under her breath. She dug through a dresser drawer for a hair clip, and managed to subdue her mass of curls just as the doorbell rang.

Dawn stopped moving. They were here. Micah's family were at the door and there was no way Dawn was getting out of this one.

Anita shoved the drawer closed with more force than necessary. It took her a moment to turn towards Dawn. The blank expression on Anita's face wasn't exactly reassuring.

Then Anita forced a smile onto her face. She held out her hand to Dawn. "Come on, let's go see who's at the door."

Dawn stayed where she was. Her stomach churned as she thought about what lay outside of the room. Micah's family, his real family. What if they didn't like Dawn?

Then Anita was picking her up and giving her another hug, this one reassuring and calming. Anita was so strong and she wasn't concerned that Micah's family might not like Dawn. Because even if Micah's parents didn't like Dawn, Anita liked Dawn and Micah liked Dawn and they were her foster parents and that was what mattered.

Dawn rested her cheek against Anita's neck for a long moment, pushing her bad feelings down and pulling the good thoughts up, that Anita and Micah and Nathaniel loved her and she could stay here for as long as it took Buffy to find her. Anita and Micah and Nathaniel wanted Dawn to be there, and that was what mattered.

Anita kissed the top of Dawn's head, just like Mom had done when Dawn wasn't feeling good. The similarity made Dawn feel a little bit better.

"Come on," Anita said. "Let's go see what Micah's up to."

"He's probably talking to his family," Dawn said into Anita's shoulder.

"Then we should go meet them. What do you think?"

Dawn pulled back to look at Anita's face. The woman was trying to look reassuring, but Dawn could feel the tiniest bit of apprehension and panic emanating from her.

Sometimes, it really sucked to be psychic.

"It goes for you too," Dawn said. Anita frowned. "That we like you no matter what."

Anita bit her lip, and all of her emotions went away. Dawn was used to that by now, that sometimes Anita just closed off her emotions and it wasn't anything Dawn had done, it was just Anita being Anita.

"Well, thank you," Anita said finally. She touched the tip of Dawn's nose. "Now, little miss sunshine, you ready for this?"

"Stop calling me that, only Jean-Claude gets to call me that. And no."

Anita sighed. "Me either. What do you think, we climb out the window and make a run for it?"

"Micah might notice we're gone. Our shoes are in the hall."

"To the living room it is, then."

Mercifully, Anita let Dawn walk on her own, not insisting on carrying her like some baby. Dawn might look like a little girl, but she was really a teenager and it simply wasn't done that she be carried around while meeting new people.

But Dawn did make sure Anita was half a step in front of her, and she held tight to Anita's hand. Just in case Anita needed the reassurance.

Voices in the living room gave Dawn a little warning, but then they rounded the corner and there were strange people in Dawn's house. She knew Micah was there, and two strange women, but she barely gave them a glance as all of her attention fixed directly on the very large man towering over Micah.

He was bigger than Merle, almost as big as Richard, tall and wide across the chest and the belly and his shoulders were big and his hands were big and he looked at Anita and Dawn with an unfriendly expression on his face and Dawn really didn't want to be there anymore.

She maintained some level of control, however, and she didn't run away. And if she gripped Anita's hand harder and stepped back to hide behind Anita's legs, that wasn't anyone's business but her own.

Micah broke the stillness. He came over to Anita and Dawn, his face guarded and that didn't exactly make Dawn feel better. "Everyone, this is Anita and Dawn," Micah said. He laid a hand on Anita's arm, just for a moment, then he picked up Dawn and settled her on his hip. Dawn was so intent on watching the large man that she barely noticed the change in her position. She snaked a hand around Micah's shoulders and grabbed a handful of his collar. "Anita, these are my parents, Franklin and Kathleen, and my sister Beth."

Anita said all the right things and shook hands with everyone, while Dawn clung to Micah and tried to understand why she was so tense. Once Kathleen was through with Anita, the woman turned to Micah and Dawn and reached out to touch Dawn's cheek. It was only with a great effort that Dawn didn't shrink back. "What a pretty little girl," Kathleen said in that condescending voice adults used when talking to children. "Micah tells us that you're living in foster care."

She might have meant it as an opening line to a conversation, but Dawn's stomach plummeted. She hated being reminded that living in Anita and Micah's house was only temporary. Her manners held, and she managed to whisper, "Yes, Mrs. Callahan."

At Micah's side, Anita was very still in that way she was just before she exploded. "Dawn's been with us since November," she said abruptly, the words hard against the solid walls of the hallway. "Why don't we all go into the living room?"

Franklin cleared his throat. "When do we have to leave for the restaurant?" he asked as he ushered his wife into the living room after Micah. Dawn turned in Micah's grip to keep an eye on the tall man.

"We don't have to leave for half an hour, Dad," Micah said. He placed Dawn on the ground. "Dawn, would you like to help Anita bring in the snacks?"

Dawn was perfectly aware that Micah was trying to handle everyone in the room without setting off the tensions, just like he did with the pard on bad days, but Dawn didn't really care. She didn't want to be in the living room anyway. She turned and dashed into the kitchen, out of sight of Micah's weird family.

Anita followed her after a minute. The woman was tenser than Dawn had seen in a while, jerking the fridge open and pulling out the things Nathaniel had laid out so nicely. Dawn was very quiet as Anita stormed around the kitchen.

After a minute, Anita rested her hands on the counter and bent her head. In the air, Dawn heard the tiny silent whispers that indicated a telepathic conversation between Anita and someone else. Who could she be talking to right now? Probably not Nathaniel; she seldom talked to him mentally when she was freaking out, although Dawn had only seen Anita's emotional breakdowns from a distance so she couldn't really be sure.

It was before sunset, so Anita couldn't be talking to Damien yet. Richard was so totally out. That left Jean-Claude, and that made Dawn a little less uncertain, because Jean-Claude was really good at handling Anita when Anita was freaking out. Dawn supposed that's what happened when you were a centuries-old master vampire guy.

Anita let out a shaky sigh, almost close to a sob, and that was all Dawn could stand. She went over to Anita and tugged hard on Anita's skirt. The woman looked down, her eyes shiny, and Dawn held out her arms. "Pick me up," Dawn demanded. Anita obeyed, and Dawn wrapped her arms around Anita's neck in a tight hug. "It doesn't matter what they say," she said. "I'm your foster kid and Micah lives with us and that's not going to change!"

After a heartbeat, Anita kissed the top of Dawn's head. "You are one of the smartest people I've ever known, have I ever told you that?" she asked.

"But I'm just a kid," Dawn said as she sat up in Anita's arms. The woman's eyes were dry now.

"Well, part of it is being smart up here," Anita said, touching Dawn's forehead. "But a lot of it is here," and she pressed her hand over Dawn's heart. "Does that make any sense?"

Dawn scrunched up her nose, thinking. "I guess it does," she said. "But you're off-topic!"

Anita bit back a smile. "What's the topic?"

"Getting through tonight without a restraining order." Dawn wiggled until Anita put her down. "Even if they're being more deliberately antagonistic than they have been already."

"I don't think they're being deliberately antagonistic," Anita replied. "And now I'm starting to sound like you."

Dawn picked up the handful of paper napkins from the tabletop. "I speak very well for my age, thank you," she said primly.

Anita hefted the hors d'oeuvres tray effortlessly. "I know you do." She gently touched Dawn's shoulder. "So, are we in this together?"

Dawn linked her pinky finger with Anita's. "Always," Dawn said somberly. "All right, let's get this disaster back on the road."

The Callahans had arrayed themselves around the living room, looking remarkably ill-at-ease for a family. Micah had a funny expression on his face, and only belatedly did Dawn realize that he must have heard the conversation in the kitchen with his wereleopard super-hearing.

Oh well.

Dawn set the napkins on the coffee table and crawled onto the couch beside Micah. He helped himself to a few of the hors d'oeuvres from the plate and let Dawn pick the diced olives off the pizza puffs. "Anita, I was just telling my parents about the coalition helpline."

Anita smiled politely, settling herself onto the couch and sandwiching Dawn between the grown-ups. "Micah's done wonders with the concept," Anita said. "The concept of cross-shifter cooperation hasn't really gotten much play in other cities, but it's certainly lowered the rate of crimes attached to accidental shifting."

Franklin's expression was set, and Kathleen glanced between Dawn and Anita in something resembling horror. It was Beth who spoke, however. "Is this an appropriate conversation to have around the..." She made a motion at Dawn.

Dawn certainly didn't appreciating being called "the" anything. She sat forward and said, "Nathaniel said it's like having a friend you can call when you're unhappy and they can help you achieve your calm. It's important for anyone to have someone to talk to, especially when not everyone likes you."

It was more than just trying to defend Micah. Dawn had seen how Buffy had been in L.A. before they moved to Sunnydale, and even though she hadn't known what Buffy was doing with the Slaying, it was slowly killing her. Willow and Xander were more than Buffy's friends, they had kept her alive and focused. They were her lifeline, and that's what the coalition hotline was to a lot of the newer shifters and some of the smaller groups, Nathaniel said.

And Dawn believed Nathaniel because Nathaniel didn't lie to her.

Micah put his hand on Dawn's shoulder and drew her back against his side. She subsided, glowering at the room in general. "Dawn knows what I do, Beth. She also knows what Anita does."

Dawn only had a moment to wonder if Micah meant the federal marshalling or the zombie raising, when Kathleen cut into the conversation by turning to Anita. "You have a lovely house," Micah's mother said. "How do you find the time to be a homemaker while raising a child and keeping your job in law enforcement?"

Anita almost chocked on a canapé. Once she'd avoided suffocation, she managed to reply, "Oh, um... Well, Nathaniel helps-- I mean does, most everything."

"Nathaniel?" Franklin interrupted.

Anita and Micah exchanged glances. Dawn rolled her eyes. Honestly, hadn't they come up with a cover story for that one at least? They really needed to better coordinated on meet-the-parents night. Dawn would help them come up with some pointers for when Micah met Anita's dad. "Nathaniel's like my governess," Dawn said serenely.

"Governess?" Kathleen echoed faintly.

"Uh huh. He makes sure I have appropriate adult supervision and he helps me with my schoolwork and he does cooking and stuff." Dawn felt a small pressure on her arm and stopped talking, even though it only the truth.

"Nathaniel has been invaluable with Dawn," Micah said slowly. "Anita and I both work full-time. We couldn't have done it without Nathaniel."

Franklin made a noise in the back of his throat. "Times certainly are changing," he said slowly, but not in a bad way. More like he was thinking. "Back when you two were kids," he indicated Micah and Beth, "You'd never hear of a male nanny."

Beth, however, wasn't about to be distracted. "Isn't Dawn in school?"

Micah turned his full attention to his sister. "No, Beth, Dawn's not in school," he said. He sounded irritated. "We tried putting her in kindergarten last month, but she's at a more advanced level and until we figure out how we're going to play this, she's being home schooled four days a week and spending one day at the university working with the researchers in one of the early childhood development labs."

"You're sending her to a research lab?" Beth echoed.

Dawn sank back into the cushions, wishing she didn't have to listen to this conversation. It wasn't as bad as Beth made it sound. It started the previous month when Louis Fane, a wererat who was a biology professor at the university, had heard from Anita's bodyguard Claudia that Dawn was too smart for regular school. There was a new research project working on early childhood learning and they were looking for subjects, and since no one at the school board knew what to do with Dawn, Louis had suggested that Dawn might be well-served with the attention.

Dawn had already had three Fridays at the university. Nathaniel drove her there and stayed around while Dawn worked with Dr. Sanders and the other researchers. There were games and puzzles and really cool readings, and Dawn really liked it there. It was strange, having four teachers to one kid, but in a cool way. And since Nathaniel was always there, Dawn felt safe.

But Beth made it sound like Dawn was some kind of lab rat.

Once again, it was Kathleen who saved the conversation. "It sounds like Dawn is a very smart young girl," she said.

"She is," Anita said, unclenching her hands from her lap. "She keeps surprising us with what she knows. This is the best plan we have right now."

"It's working out quite well," Micah added. He shifted his position on the couch so he was facing his family, presenting a united front. "Having Dawn here has been great for us."

Kathleen glanced at Anita, Beth was unconvinced, and Franklin appeared more interested on the snacks than the conversation.

Oh yeah, this was going to be fun.


They took separate cars to the restaurant. Dawn sat in the backseat of Micah's car and sang along with the radio while Anita and Micah were very carefully not speaking.

After a few songs, the advertisements came on and Micah turned down the volume before Dawn could ask. "Thank you!" she chirruped. She let her heels drum a beat on the seat. "Can I have a dessert?"

"You'll need to have dinner first," Micah said automatically. Anita didn't reply, just stared at her cell phone. "But if you'd like a dessert, yes."

"Cool." Dawn let her feet fall still. "Me and Nathaniel had fun at the university last week."

"Good."

"Dr. Sanders said I should have a lot of 'experience-based hands-on learning opportunities'."

"What on earth does that mean?"

"It means I have a research-directed imperative to play outside more. For optimal mental stimulation."

Anita turned her head. "I wasn't aware you were play-deprived."

Dawn giggled. "I'm not!"

"And it's the middle of winter, how can you play outside more?"

"It's April!! That's totally spring! And Nathaniel thinks I should spend more time doing fun stuff. There's a kid gymnastics class at the Y on Tuesday afternoons. And I haven't broken anything really badly in weeks. Can I go?"

Micah cleared his throat. "Why don't we talk about this with Nathaniel tomorrow?" he suggested as he pulled the car into a parking stall and killed the engine.

"Okay." Dawn went back to kicking her seat. "Why doesn't Beth like me?"

There was a very intent silence from Micah's seat for a moment. "My sister isn't certain that I'll make a good foster father," he finally said.

"What?" Anita exclaimed, but Dawn was faster.

"That's stupid!" Dawn shouted, suddenly angry. "You're the best dad I ever had!" She undid her seatbelt and climbed bodily into the front seat, stepping on Micah's arm and ending up sprawled Anita's lap. "Everyone else only stayed because of Buffy! Giles and Spike and everyone! No one ever liked me until you and I don't care what Beth said 'cause she's wrong!"

Dawn flung herself at Micah as best she could in the front of the car. The startled man caught Dawn as she slipped on the gearbox. "Dawn--"

"Ask Anita!" Dawn urged. "She thinks you're a great dad too!" Dawn didn't have any actual knowledge of this, not in words, but that was the clearest thought coming from Anita. "No one ever wanted me until you guys! You didn't have to keep me but you did! That's what family's like!"

Dawn had no idea what she was saying, but the words that came out of her mouth were real and painful and right. Buffy and Mom had loved her, even though she'd been shoved into their lives without any choice. Buffy had loved and protected Dawn, but only because she'd been forced to by the monks. The love had been real, but Buffy hadn't had a choice.

No one had a choice when Glory came, when Glory tore open the universe and Dawn had to jump to save everyone. Dawn hadn't had a choice to land in this world, so far from the sister she loved.

Micah and Anita had a choice, and they loved Dawn and made her a part of their family, and Micah's stupid sister didn't know anything about anything. Family could be blood or it could be made, and Dawn was really better at made-up families anyway.

In the quiet car, Anita cupped Dawn's cheek with her hand. The gun calluses made her touch seem rough, but that was just Anita. "You are a part of our family now," Anita said softly, like she was about to cry. "I mean that."

"I know!" Dawn cuddled up against Micah. "Sometimes you get born into a family, or else you make one up as you go along, and we've made one up. It's the best way."

Micah took a deep breath. "Anita..." he started, then stopped.

Anita also seemed to brace herself. "You think this is a good time?" she asked him.

"Is there ever going to be a good time?"

"I suppose not." Anita sat back, her shoulders straight. "Dawn, Micah and I... we've been talking."

"You talk all the time," Dawn pointed out.

"That's not what I mean... I mean, we've been talking about something. To ask you."

"What?"

"What Anita's trying to say," Micah interrupted, "Was that we were wondering if... if it would be okay with you if we adopted you."

Dawn blinked. Then again. "You want to adopt me?"

Anita nodded, managing to look hopeful and terrified at the same time.

"Really?"

"Yes, really."

Dawn craned her neck around to stare at Micah. "You too?"

"Yes Dawn, me too," he said.

Dawn looked between Anita and Micah. After a minute, she put her fingers over her mouth. "What about Buffy?" Dawn asked in a tiny voice. "What about when Buffy comes back for me?"

Anita closed her mouth and Micah hesitated, and they were both shielding their thoughts so hard that Dawn couldn't hear a thing.

Even so, she knew what they were probably thinking. Dawn knew that the police tests on the blood had concluded that the blood on her bed had been so closely related to Dawn, it could only have been Buffy's blood. And Buffy was a Slayer who had survived a fall from Glory's Tower and could survive a little blood loss. But...

But it had been months, and Buffy hadn't even tried to come back for Dawn.

Even if she did try, the only thing that could open portals for real was Dawn's blood, and Dawn didn't know how to open a portal.

Deep down, Dawn knew that Buffy might never come back for her.

Dawn curled up in Micah's lap, her eyes on Anita. "Can I think about it?" she whispered.

Anita sat up with such effort that it looked painful. "Of course you can," she said brightly. "It's completely up to you."

Her cell phone started to ring, but instead of answering, she unbuckled her seatbelt, her hands shaking so hard it took her two attempts. Once free, she was out of the vehicle in an instant, phone in hand.

Dawn felt tears well up in her eyes. "Did I do something wrong?" she asked Micah.

"Of course not," Micah reassured her. He shifted Dawn to the empty seat so he could undo his seatbelt. "You did absolutely nothing wrong, do you understand?"

Dawn nodded. She rubbed at the stubborn tears in her eyes that wouldn't go away. "Can I still stay with you?"

"Of course you can," Micah said firmly. "Forever. As long as you want."

Dawn nodded again. Micah got out of the car and went around to the passenger side to pluck Dawn out of the seat. He hoisted her firmly on his arm as he locked the door.

Anita stood in the dark between streetlights, hunched over the phone. Micah stopped a dozen yards away from the woman waited for Anita to hang up the phone.

"Did I hurt her feelings?" Dawn asked Micah in a whisper.

"Don't be silly," Micah whispered back, which was just another way of saying 'yes'. But what else could Dawn have done?

Finally, Anita hung up the phone and walked across the parking lot. When she was close enough to hear, Micah said, "I was just telling Dawn that nothing's changed. That she's part of our family no matter what."

Anita sniffed, trying to look all adult and collected, but Dawn could hear thoughts and read emotions and she knew Anita was desperately trying to hold herself together.

Well, Dawn might be small, but she could do a few things. Still on Micah's arm, she leaned over and wrapped her arms around Anita. Micah stepped closer to Anita and soon the three of them were all in one big hug with Anita at the center.

After a minute, Anita let out a shaky breath and relaxed more into the embrace. "Family is the most important thing there is," Dawn said in the general vicinity of Anita's ear. "And once you're in a family, there's no getting out." She moved back so she could look at Anita. "So you're stuck with me."

Anita couldn't quite manage a smile at that one. Micah put his arm around Anita's shoulders and pulled her close.

"What did Zerbrowski want?" Dawn asked.

"He wanted to tell me that last night's bad guys were arraigned and are in jail for a while, that's all," Anita said.

Dawn solemnly patted Anita's cheek, careful to avoid the bruises. "Good. Then we can go inside and I can eat my dinner without being interrupted by the Batphone?"

"The what?"

"Never mind. Can we go inside now?" Dawn gave a theatrical shiver. "It's cold and I have a delicate constitution."

This time, Anita really did smile. "Is that what made you gnaw your way through all that junk food at the movie theatre yesterday?"

"Hey." Dawn tried to glare at Anita as Micah turned them all towards the restaurant. "You were enabling me!"

"By wishing for once I could eat my own candy?"

"It was either eat candy or actually have to watch Princess Persnickety's Puerile Adventures. I only went 'cause Sarah Zerbrowski's my friend and it was her birthday party."

"And thankfully you kept your opinions of the movie to yourself," Anita said, holding the restaurant door open for Micah.

"Better than you. I thought you were going to chew your own arm off to escape the singing unicorns. Luckily you and Detective Zerbrowski got to go chase after real undead bad guys."

Micah shushed them both as they walked through the dining room to where the Callahans were already seated. As they approached, Franklin stood up. He wasn't nearly as intimidating now as he had been at the house. "We were beginning to think you'd gotten lost," he said jovially.

"We were talking, Dad," Micah said, as Anita helped Dawn off with her coat and into a chair. "Sorry to keep you waiting."

"Nothing a cell phone wouldn't have fixed," Beth muttered into her wine glass.

"Two hours," Dawn said pointedly. Micah just sighed.

Dawn had known this was going to suck.


Dinner hadn't lasted quite two hours, but it was still past Dawn's bedtime when the car finally rolled up to the house. It wasn't her fault she kept fading in and out of consciousness.

One moment she was in the car, then she was slung over Anita's shoulder and halfway to the house. Dawn blinked a few time and tried to wake up, but it was a losing battle.

Once inside, she heard Nathaniel's voice and something about being transferred to the late shift, then there was movement midair and she wrapped her arms around Nathaniel's neck and he carried her up the stairs.

"Hi," Dawn murmured sleepily.

"Hi back," Nathaniel said. "How was it tonight?"

"Dumb," Dawn went on without opening her eyes. "Micah's dad doesn't like that he's a lycanthrope and his sister isn't nice at all. And they wanna adopt me and I'm gonna say yes but I can't right now 'cause Anita will think I'm talking in my sleep."

Nathaniel's step faltered. "They're going to adopt you?"

The surprise in Nathaniel's voice was enough to yank Dawn almost fully awake. "They didn't tell you?" she asked, opening her eyes.

"They told me," Nathaniel said quickly. "I hadn't thought... you're going to say yes?" A hesitant smile split his face. "You're going to stay."

"Yeah." Dawn was too tired to really think about what she was saying, but in the back of her mind, she felt as if she was missing something. "Sounds like a plan."

Nathaniel took her into her room and left her there, saying Anita would be up in a moment. After he left, Dawn flopped backwards onto the blankets and stared up at the ceiling. The surface was a creamy white in the glow from the bedside lamp, unbroken by blood or interdimensional portals or anything like that.

As she blinked up at the ceiling, Dawn realized what was missing. She didn't feel bad at the thought of Anita adopting her, which was weird enough on its own. All the panic and grief at losing Buffy, which had been at the forefront of her mind after the ceiling incident, had faded somewhat over the intervening months until now she couldn't really grasp those sharp emotions anymore.

"I can't keep doing this," Dawn said to the ceiling. "I can't keep waiting for you to come get me because you might never come and that's not fair."

The room was quiet.

Dawn glared at the ceiling until she just couldn't keep her eyes open anymore. Before she fell all the way asleep, Anita came in and helped Dawn change into her pajamas, murmuring nonsense words as she tucked Dawn into bed.

"Tell me a story," Dawn whispered as Anita kissed her goodnight.

"What kind of story?" Anita asked, settling down on the bed.

"One I already heard before."

"If you want." Anita tucked Sigmund the Penguin under the covers next to Dawn. "Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a little girl named Dawn who liked coffee and sugar..."

It was a very familiar story indeed. Lying there cuddled up with Anita in the quiet warm room, Dawn finally let go of some lingering tension in her head and her heart, and she slept.


In the morning, Dawn would tell Anita and Micah that she should be adopted, wishing all the while that Buffy would burst through the front door and take the decision away from her.

It was a thought that would come back to her often over the next thirteen years.

end part one