Buffy was crying.
After days of her blank face like a mask, her hands and feet always moving through endless chores, it was a relief. It was the thing that made Dawn rip the picture in half, that made her wipe out whatever creature of the night she had raised in the hopes of getting someone — or some thing — to take care of her. She didn’t need a half-measure, a half-Mommy.
She had Buffy. She had Buffy. She had Buffy.
And Buffy was scared. Still hoping for someone to rescue them. But Dawn could handle that. She could handle anything, as long as she knew that Buffy cared.
She just didn’t expect what would come next. She was still crying, clutching her sister on the hard floor, when everything changed again.
A shape moved in the darkness of the front yard, catching Dawn’s eye. Her first, panicked thought was that ripping the photograph hadn’t worked. She gasped and jerked back from Buffy, fearing what she would see and yet unable to look away. Buffy’s head turned, too.
Both of them stared out into the night as a shadow broke away from the rest of the blackness and made its way toward the porch. The door was still wide open, but neither of them moved to close it, to block the way of whatever was coming for them, swiftly and silently through the night.
The shadow was very close before the light haloed him and Dawn realized it was — “Angel!”
“Are you OK?” he said softly, kneeling down next to them in the doorway. “I saw something. It looked like—” He couldn’t seem to finish the sentence. “I was worried. Are you hurt?”
“No,” Buffy said, wiping her cheeks and pulling away from Dawn to stand. “We’re fine,” she added weakly.
Dawn swallowed hard, a wave of frustration flowing through her as Buffy shifted her attention to Angel, ending their moment of closeness.
“I thought you were driving back,” Buffy murmured as Angel got to his feet. Dawn had to strain to hear her.
“I couldn’t make myself go,” Angel said back, just as softly.
Dawn was still on the floor, looking up between them. She saw the corners of Buffy’s mouth turn up ever so slightly before she pressed her lips together like she might start crying again. It was too much.
“When did you get here?” Dawn asked, jerking to her feet. It came out like an accusation. She knew her eyes were red-rimmed and her face was puffy but she didn’t try to hide it.
Angel gave her a deer-in-the-headlights look.
“He came yesterday,” Buffy said. “After the...when the sun went down.”
Dawn jutted her chin. “So that’s where you’ve been all this time. With him.”
Buffy and Angel exchanged a look. Buffy shook her head subtly, but Angel was already turning back toward Dawn.
“I’m sorry,” he said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I should have come to see you sooner.”
Dawn turned her face away. “So you’re staying then?” She was asking Angel, but she turned to look at Buffy. She knew Angel would be looking to her sister, too.
“Maybe?” Buffy said after a moment, looking up into Angel’s eyes. That bubble formed around them like it always did, making Dawn feel like an intruder in her own house. “For a day or two?”
Angel nodded once, then turned back to Dawn, popping the bubble. She felt a little grateful, despite herself. “When was the last time you ate?” he asked. “Are you hungry?”
“All we have is gross casserole stuff that people brought over,” Dawn answered brusquely.
“I could make you something,” Angel offered.
Dawn’s nose scrunched. “Like blood pudding?”
“No,” Angel said, the hint of a smile around his eyes. “Like...eggs? Do you like eggs?”
“Oh, breakfast for dinner?” Dawn couldn’t help perking up. “I like pancakes.”
“Pancakes I can do.” Angel headed for the kitchen.
Buffy looped her arm through Dawn’s and they followed.
A day or two turned into a week. Then just a few more days. And a few more.
Giles didn’t like it. Dawn could hear tense whispers as he talked to Buffy. And once, on the front porch, to Angel.
Dawn wasn’t sure that she liked it, either. But Buffy was so different around Angel. Still sad, of course. If anything, she cried more. But her eyes were softer, her shoulders less hunched.
Dawn decided she could live with it.
She was sitting at the dining room table, trying to finish her homework. But every stroke of her pen seemed wrong. Her art class had moved on from drawing negative space — and so had Dawn, though she never finished that first, aborted attempt. This week’s assignment was to create an image with a focal point and movement. But the details were eluding her.
Frustrated, Dawn scribbled across her work, ripped out the paper and crumpled it into a ball. She tossed it across the room and sighed.
“Need some help?” The voice came out of nowhere and Dawn inhaled sharply. They really needed to get Angel a collar with a little bell on it or something.
“No,” she said sullenly when she’d recovered from the startle. “It’s art homework. It’s not like I can ask you questions, like for history or something.”
“Try me,” Angel said, sitting down at the table.
Dawn rolled her eyes. It must be Buffy’s turn to patrol tonight, which meant Angel was on “annoy Dawn” duty. Buffy offered to help with her homework pretty much never. Her sister’s favorite form of torture was nagging about chores. All things considered, Dawn preferred Angel’s version. He had actually even been helpful once or twice.
“There’s not much to say. Nothing is coming out right.”
“What have you done so far?”
Dawn pointed at the ball of paper on the floor.
“What did you do to warm up?”
She shrugged. “I don’t really do that.”
“They don’t teach you warmups at school?”
“There’s not really a lot of time.”
“Well, no wonder you can’t get things to come out right.”
“So you do that? You warm up?” She had seen Angel sketch here and there, little doodles of Buffy that made Dawn’s breath catch.
“Yeah,” Angel said. “I don’t really have to in the same way a human would. My muscles work differently. But if it’s something I care about, it’s important to get my mind in the right place.”
Dawn offered him some of her supplies, and he demonstrated, filling a page with lines and circles and cubes. She joined in, letting her mind wander as her hand worked. It didn’t take long for her thoughts to swirl around a familiar subject, something she’d been worrying in her brain for days, like a loose tooth.
“I always thought that Mom didn’t like you,” she said. She kept her eyes on her paper, not wanting to meet Angel’s eyes. “She always got this pinched look on her face when you came up.”
She could hear Angel fidget a little in his chair. “She just wanted what was best for your sister,” he said evenly.
“But she did like you,” Dawn blurted, feeling like she needed to get it out. “When...when Riley dumped Buffy, I said he was a jerk. Because he left, just like…” She finished the spiral she was drawing, not able to quite say just like you did. “But Mom said no. She didn’t know what Riley’s deal was, but she said you didn’t leave because you were a jerk. You left because...because you loved Buffy.”
“Oh,” Angel said softly.
“I said I didn’t get it. Mom said Buffy would probably tell me the whole story someday.”
They drew in silence for awhile — or at least Dawn did. She didn’t see Angel’s pencil moving much.
“Is that why you left?” she asked quietly when her paper was full.
“Yeah, Dawn,” he said. “That’s why I left.”
“Then why…?” She shook her head.
“What?” he prompted.
“Then why are you back?”
“For the same reason.”
As the time stretched, Dawn stopped worrying about Angel staying and started to worry about him leaving. Not that she really wanted him around — one quasi-parental figure was enough, thank you very much, and she kind of missed hanging out with Spike, something she hadn’t yet attempted with Angel hovering — but she didn’t know what it would do to Buffy when he left for good.
Dawn could tell Buffy was getting used to him. He remembered to take out the trash. He cooked — like really, really well, especially for a vampire. He gave Buffy the peace of mind to leave the house without worrying so much about Glory.
And Dawn thought that maybe it was too much. That maybe Angel was like the bandage that stopped the bleeding but got stuck to the wound, so when you finally ripped it off, the scab came too.
She caught them kissing one night.
Dawn knew, without anyone actually telling her, that they weren’t supposed to. That was the deal. Angel could stick around as long as there was no hanky-panky. It was like Buffy’s senior year all over again.
Dawn went down to the kitchen that night when she heard their voices, knowing Angel must’ve come in from his turn at patrol. She knew they traded off so she never had to be alone after dark. But that still didn’t mean she could sleep. Not when her nights were still mostly filled with the crying that she saved up during the day, when she was surrounded by the prying eyes of Kirsty and her minions. They’d all been nice for a day or two when she got back to school, but now she felt like an even bigger freak. Other than a few friends, people mostly avoided her — as if Dead Mom was a disease you could catch.
Dawn wiped at her face as she padded down the stairs. She took a few steps through the dining room and stopped short when she saw Angel was shirtless. He had white gauze taped to his ribs and it was clear that Buffy had been patching him up. The two of them were grinning at each other like idiots, like there was something adorable about getting slashed in the ribs on patrol, and Dawn rolled her eyes.
But then she watched as their smiles faded, and Buffy leaned into Angel like she was pulled by gravity, and they were kissing. Really kissing. Heat burned Dawn’s cheeks and she looked away quickly, letting out a little "oh" of surprise.
"Dawn!" Buffy said, and her voice sounded just like the time Dawn had caught Buffy raiding her Halloween candy stash when she was 7.
Dawn raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms over her chest, waiting. This had better be good.
“Angel was just…” — Buffy’s serious expression melted — “helping me with my history,” she finished. Her eyes were suddenly watery, but she laughed loudly when the words were out of her mouth, the first real laugh Dawn had heard from her since…
Angel chuckled too, and somehow his shirt was already back on without Dawn noticing any movement. “First year community college, right?” he asked. That just made Buffy laugh harder.
Dawn shook her head at them and their private joke and headed back upstairs. She pulled the covers up to her chin and waited. Sometime soon, the other shoe was going to drop. It always did. But listening to them laugh wasn’t the worst way to fall asleep.
It couldn’t last forever. But it was better for now.
And maybe that was the whole point.