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Less Than Real

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Less Than Real

When Dawn was real, she invited Faith into her life the very first time they met.

Buffy whined about the new Slayer for hours after school. Dawn rolled her eyes and promised herself that she'd be friends with the new girl, 'cause really, who needed Buffy as their role model? What kind of Slayer loved a vampire and ran away and said that destiny made it so she didn't have to wash dishes? Plus she could be really mean sometimes, and she never let Dawn borrow her short skirts.

When the thump-thump-thump on the front door came, Dawn pounded down the stairs and shrieked that she'd get it. She wanted to get a look at the new girl before stupid Buffy came and got in the way, like she always did.

Dawn flung open the door and stopped short, because the girl standing there didn't look anything like Kendra, or anything like what you'd think of as a hero. She looked dangerous. She looked cool. She had a leather jacket.

She took off her sunglasses and sort of grinned at Dawn and said, "Hey. I'm Faith."

Dawn couldn't even say hi back. She felt tingly, like there were butterflies in her stomach, except she wasn't nervous exactly. And suddenly all she could think was that she must look really dumb, compared to Faith. Twelve years old and freckled and with these little-girl braids Mom insisted on this morning. Dawn blushed and thanked God that her braces had come off last month.

Then Buffy came down the stairs and said, "Hey," in a half-unfriendly way, like, "Oh, it's you," which was rude because she'd totally been the one to invite Faith over anyway. But Faith grinned, for real, and did this thing with her eyebrows and Dawn squeaked. Without meaning to. For no reason.

"This is Dawn," Buffy said. "Don't give her any ideas."

"But my ideas are the best, B," Faith said, and did the eyebrow thing again. Dawn hated that she kept doing that at Buffy, as if Buffy would care. Buffy didn't even like Faith, really.

But Faith looked at Dawn and she had the most amazing dimples and she said, "Hey," again, but before Dawn could say anything--she really was about to say something that time--Faith followed Buffy into the living room.

Buffy ruined everything.

Dawn sulked until dinner, getting in Mom's way in the kitchen and not saying anything. She listened to Faith laughing in the other room. She thought about taking her braids out but it always took forever with the brushing and then her hair got all flyaway and frizzy, so she didn't.

They ate and Faith talked about Slaying, and just like Dawn figured, she was way cooler than Buffy about it. When Mom made her head-tilt at Buffy that meant she wanted to talk to her privately, Dawn felt her heart speed up about a million percent. She was alone in the dining room with Faith. What if they had to make conversation? What would she say?

Faith gave her a mischeivous smile and started mooching chips off Buffy's plate. She acted kind of like she wanted to get caught, like it would be funny if Buffy got mad.

Dawn felt like there was hummingbird in her throat, beating its little wings and trying to get out, which was gross because the poor hummingbird, all swallowed and yuck. But she reached out for Buffy's chips, like it was all her idea, and grabbed one.

Her fingers brushed against Faith's. All of a sudden it felt like that hummingbird expanded to fill her whole body, kind of thrummy and darting.

Buffy came back into the room and slapped her hand to make her drop the chip. Dawn didn't even notice.

Mom was asking Faith where she was staying, and Faith said, "The motel," with a shrug to show how tough she was. Dawn tried to imagine being fifteen and living by herself in a motel. It sounded immensely, hugely grown up.

"You should stay here," she blurted. Her face went hot because she'd almost said, "You should stay with me," and she mostly tried not to sound that stupid, thank you very much.

Mom gave her a weird look, maybe 'cause it was the first thing she'd said all night, but then she started saying, "I don't like that motel, it's in a bad part of town, I don't like the idea of a fifteen-year-old on her own," and Mom things like that. And Faith started off upset and maybe angry, but then she gave up a bit and was like, okay, if you have room. Then she sort of eyed Buffy sideways with a little half-smile and said "If B doesn't mind."

Dawn was watching and she saw Buffy blush.

Stupid Buffy ruined everything.

But when Dawn was real, Faith lived with them.

Dawn is pure energy, water from her shower sheeting off her body, slowly stretching as she reaches for a towel. Her muscles are loose and her skin beats like her pulse, slow-quick, excited and then lazy-calm. Her clothes are ready in her bedroom, the shiny blue top that plunges just so (remember to leave before Buffy gets back from patrol with the girls), and the black leather skirt that was a gift from Faith, that cups her ass like warm hands.

Nothing underneath.

The shoes don't need to be heels--she's tall enough already--but they have to be sexy, and they have to be comfortable enough for hours of dancing. They're black, too, and strappy-dressy, almost like a little girl playing dressup except that when Dawn sends a flirting look at her mirror, they add the perfect touch.

She blows her hair dry, brushes it til it shines, and pretends she has forever to get ready. Faith hates it when she has to wait, except when Dawn makes it worth her time. Tonight will be worth every second. Willow will look up from her research and raise an eyebrow, but Dawn doesn't ask for permission any more, and only Buffy argues. So, leave before she can.

The makeup is soft over her cheeks and mouth, because already Dawn is blushing and her lips are flushed. She paints her eyes smoky-dark, imagining the quirk in Faith's eyebrow when she walks downstairs, slow-seductive, pretending to be untouchable.

She's not, oh God, she's not, and no one can convince her of that faster than Faith.

She has cleared room rights with Chloe and Vi. Tonight, there will be no Potentials on her floor, no guests, no visitors. It's her room, after all, and it's been months since anyone's seemed to remember. The bed has fresh sheets, the best ones, pearl-grey and smooth as silk. She made Andrew do laundry today specially. The bedside table's drawer is unlocked (the last thing Dawn wants is to be fumbling later.)

Dawn dances into the room, lets the towel fall, closes her eyes, lifts her arms and lets her hips sway, so, so, as if Faith is already lying on those soft sheets, waiting.

Her breath catches and she realizes she's getting ahead of herself. The brush of clothes against her skin as she dresses feels like fingertips, like Faith.

Dawn giggles when she hears yelling and honking downstairs. There's an engine revving, a deep rumbly powerful sound, Faith's motorcycle. Rhona, who's on guard duty tonight, wolf-whistles from the door and Faith pushes the throttle again. Andrew whines something about not getting a single good night's sleep since all the sex started. And Dawn flirts her way downstairs, smiling to herself. The night is warm and soft and Faith is waiting.

When Dawn was real, she knew girls could kiss girls even before Willow met Tara. She knew because she liked to stay up and listen to Buffy and Faith come home from Slaying, late at night. Usually she fell asleep anyway, but she always woke up when the front door opened or Buffy's window slid up, even down the hall in the other room. When Buffy caught her eavesdropping she said Dawn had hearing like a Slayer, and it so wasn't fair. But mostly Dawn just wanted to know that Buffy was safe. She woke up a lot when Buffy was gone that summer and felt like there was something missing, then she'd remember Buffy had run away. Sometimes she cried, then, because she had no idea if Buffy was okay. Plus, Buffy said Faith was reckless, so it was even more important for her to be safe, too. So when they came home from Slaying Dawn was listening.

And one night, when she was thirteen and she'd yelled at Mom that day that she never ever wanted to wear braids again because braids were for babies, she heard them both sneak into Buffy's room, when usually Faith used the guest bedroom window or the door.

Then she heard Buffy hiss and Faith said, "That's a nasty one."

Buffy shushed her, but Dawn was already awake.

There were some other low murmurs, then Buffy said, "I've got some peroxide..."

Faith laughed, soft and husky. "I'll bet."

"For the cuts, Faith."

"Oh, right...Right..."

Dawn sat up in bed and hugged her legs, resting her chin on her knees. Listening to Faith always made her feel shivery, but tonight it was even more like that. Maybe it was 'cause Faith was right there on the other side of the wall, and she was trying to whisper, so it sounded all raspy and low. But there was something special now. Like Faith was almost laughing with everything she said, soft and rumbly.

"...better. You're not careful, you'll..."

"I'm alive, aren't I? And we got them all..."


"...feels good." Another pause, and Dawn hugged herself tighter. She felt shaky. She thought how mad Buffy would be if she knew she was listening. Then she pressed her ear against the wall.

At first it sounded like Buffy was maybe still getting her cut cleaned, 'cause Dawn heard cloth whispering over cloth, and then a sound like maybe Faith was hurt too.

Then Buffy, suddenly loud: "What the hell was that?"

"You don't know a kiss when you get one?" Faith's voice sounded brittle, like all the laughter had fallen out of it. "You and Deadboy really have been holding back."

"Faith, I'm not--"

"Shh! Your sister's right next door, y'know."

Shame at listening filled Dawn, hot and bitter, but she kept her ear to the wall. Faith had kissed Buffy? They were kissing? Dawn curled up into a ball on her bed, because she could hear them fine now, even though they were trying to be quiet. Buffy said something about Angel, and Faith snapped back that they'd better not be doing what she was offering because then everyone in the town would be sharpening their stakes and chanting disinvites. Buffy got all cold and mad and told Faith to get out. Faith snorted and left and the window slammed shut too loudly.

Dawn went to her window. She pulled the curtain back, just a tiny bit, and watched Faith jump to the ground and stalk off, angry and hurt. She could hear Buffy thudding something around in her room, maybe punching her bed. But Dawn watched Faith go, wondering where she'd end up. Maybe the guest bedroom was just too close, this time. Buffy could be so--so mean. Dawn hated the world. It was so stupid, so unfair.

Just because she was thirteen and couldn't even get into the Bronze yet. Just because she wasn't fake-blonde and a Slayer and whatever. She wanted Faith to come back. She wanted her to be safe, too.

When Dawn was real, she was listening the night Buffy yelled at Faith about the man she'd killed, and after Buffy left, Dawn went into Faith's room and refused to leave. She kept walking back into the room even if Faith carried her out. She knew her talents. She dedicated herself to annoying Faith into dealing with the accident.

Faith finally broke and shook her head and smiled at her. Dawn asked what happened and Faith told her and said how bad she felt. And then she told Giles.

When Dawn was real, Faith was never evil.

"You're like lightning," Faith yells above the bike's engine and the wind.

Dawn leans forward and tightens her hold around Faith's waist, which might be what Faith intended all along. They aren't wearing helmets, something else Buffy fumes about, but Faith drives like the motorcycle's part of her, and Sunnydale is nearly empty now. "What?"

"You're--" Faith shakes her head, her hair tangling in the wind, flying back into Dawn's face. Dawn smells old smoke and newer scent, spicy-dark. She buries her face in the crook of Faith's shoulder and presses her lips to skin.

"Hey, I'm driving, here!" Faith says, then, "Fuck it!" and arches up into Dawn's kiss. Dawn wonders if she feels joy like Dawn does, filling her and spilling over. She wonders if Faith's heart is pounding as fast as hers.

There's magic in Sunnydale. Not Willow's magic, dark and powerful, nor Tara's forces of connection and love. It's the Hellmouth and it's people and it's somehow just the way the world works, but while the whole town empties the Bronze stays full. People run from murder and pollution but they'll stay for demons. They're dancing the world away and maybe they believe they're dying.

Dawn knows she isn't. She's living. It's hard to be any other way when there's a Slayer at her side, growling at guys who show too much interest, wrapping an arm around Dawn's waist and resting her hand just where the oh-so-short skirt ends. Dawn leans into her. Faith's skin is warm and there is a lot of skin right now. The leather pants ride low on her hips, and the shirt shows off a gorgeous strip of stomach, tanned and toned and Dawn tickles her fingers over it, just to feel Faith's muscles jump and twitch under her touch.

The bouncer waves them in--Faith has saved his life too many times for him to ask for cover--and then they're in, and this is Faith's world where Dawn often feels like a visitor.

Not tonight.

She dances.

Faith lets the rhythm slam through her and moves with the music so easily it's like the bass line takes life from her heartbeat. Dawn dances more slowly, she swims through this alien sea, and it's not with the beat but in syncopation. She follows after wherever Faith leads and they dance so closely, so close.

"You're like lightning," Faith says again, between songs, leaning in to breathe hot breath on Dawn's neck. "You're like one of those balls...with the electricity inside...all the squiggly lines reaching out from the center to the glass. And I know..." She chuckles, and her hands tighten on Dawn's hips. "If I touch you...all that energy will come straight to me..." And she pushes her hips forward, and Dawn gasps.


The next song blares its opening chords then, and Dawn knows her moan is lost in the speakers' roar, but Faith captures her mouth and tastes the sound of her surrender.

They kiss, long and deep, and they dance, and there is no difference.

Faith kisses like she's screaming into thunder, defying danger, wild and wet and calling down the storm from the skies.

Dawn dances like lightning.

When Dawn was real, she studied Chernobyl in school. Her teacher showed pictures of people after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dawn learned that weird radiation gives people cancer.

(When Dawn was real, Mom didn't die.)

Faith's kisses are like power, surging through Dawn's body and setting her alight. She outshines the strobe lights and the lasers flashing around the dancefloor. She can't feel the anonymous touch of other bodies brushing hers, because she is in Faith's arms and there is nothing else in the world.

Dawn wants to shout I love you above the ocean surge of dancers, but she has promised herself that she will escape Sunnydale before she offers Faith something she might not accept. It seems impossible that the First can be winning, not when Dawn is surrounded by people and falling frantically into Faith's kisses. But they could, they could all die before this is over.

So Dawn cups Faith's face between her hands and learns all over again every inch of her; the eyes full of lust and arrogance and power; her lips, swollen and moist with kisses and Dawn thinks I did that, I kissed her that hard; the line of her nose, the fall of her hair, the sweat and smoke scented darkness that surrounds her.

"Hey," Faith says, "hey," because she seems to know when Dawn is turning serious.

Dawn leans her forehead against Faith's and closes her eyes, and she tries to feel every part of her where it is pressed against Faith's. They're both hot and sweaty and Dawn loves the effort of dancing, because there are so many ways she can know Faith's body here, not like at home.

"Faith," she says, opens her eyes, and Faith is staring back at her. Her pulse leaps in the hollow of her throat. They are dancing slowly now, apart from the crowd, alone here on the edge of the world.

Faith smiles slow and sweet, showing dimples, and she kisses Dawn butterfly-soft, on her lips, the tip of her nose, each eyelid. "I love you," she says, not like she's surprised, not like she's never said those words before (Dawn knows she hasn't), but like it's true, like it's real.

Dawn feels that love like a thousand watts charging through her, until she is humming with it, her body shivering to life. She knows then that the First won't find them. She and Faith will find their way out of Sunnydale.

She will live.

When Dawn was real, there was no Hell-God after her.

Buffy still died. Even when Dawn was real, she couldn't save everyone.

It seemed like an insult that it was the most gorgeous summer ever, and Buffy wasn't there. Dawn wanted to tear herself out of the world. She finished school in a daze that year, and her teachers clucked their tongues and said stuff about not applying herself, but Willow went in to the school and yelled at the principal about a girl who had lost her entire family that year applying herself, and they let her pass.

A lot of the time it felt like Willow and Xander had something else on their minds, and Dawn figured she understood, but it still hurt. So she hung with Faith, who seemed to be as lost as all of them, underneath. Faith didn't try to get away from her, anyway, and Faith wasn't always whispering Scooby secrets when Dawn was supposed to be asleep. So Dawn tagged along with her and hated feeling like a tagalong, but it was better than crying endlessly in her room, so she babbled at Faith anything and everything that came into her head. She pretended she was okay, because that's what Faith was doing.

Dawn visited Buffy's grave whenever she could get away without Willow or Tara asking where she was going. Somehow, if Willow and Tara knew she was tending Buffy's grave, then it made Buffy even more dead. Maybe Dawn was pretending Buffy was alive, for the five or fifteen minutes she could stand sitting in the small warm glade under the trailing tree limbs, raking her fingers through the dirt and feeling empty inside.

Then, one day, as Dawn whispered her way through the cemetary, she saw Faith crouching near Buffy's headstone and reaching out a hand as if she was almost afraid to touch it.

Faith leapt up and turned around, even though Dawn was sure she hadn't made a sound. Her face turned to stone when she saw Dawn, but there were still tears tracking down her cheeks.

Dawn burst into tears. It was like, if someone as strong as Faith could cry, then maybe it was all right after all, and maybe they could all stop tiptoeing around as if things were going to go back to normal, any day now, really.

And Faith, instead of yelling or maybe running, like she looked like she was going to, stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Dawn and let her cry.

They crumpled to the ground, the two of them, arms wrapped around each other, and Dawn hugged Faith as if she wanted to break her ribs, because no one else could stand to get hugged like that but Dawn needed to.

Faith whispered stuff, but not like Tara did when she came in at night after Dawn woke up screaming. Tara said things like it'll be okay sweetie, shhhush, baby, you'll be okay, but Faith's voice was harsh and her whispers were like choked shouts, and she said "It'll never be okay, I hate her for dying, how could she be so stupid and leave me and I'll never make it without her," which was exactly what Dawn hated herself for thinking sometimes and so she could only cry harder.

In the end, when their eyes were dry and puffy and Dawn's nose felt like sandpaper because she'd rubbed it too much, she finally realised she was still in Faith's arms. Faith cuddled her and rocked her a bit, and Dawn felt how warm she was, how solid, how strong.

Every thought she'd ever had about Faith, every wish, every dream, came back all at once, and Dawn figured Faith must think she was such a kid still, even though she was fifteen.

"Faith," she whispered.

"Yeah, D," Faith answered, and Dawn's courage grew because Faith at least didn't call her Dawnie, as if she was a baby.

Dawn ran out of words then, but it was so easy to touch Faith's cheek with her hand and then lean up to kiss her.

It was short and soft and tasted salty from their tears.

When Dawn was real, Faith gave her a first kiss like a gift, and it was perfect.

Dawn feels excitement like static sparks when they walk hand in hand back to the house.

Dawn expects Faith to pounce on her the moment they return from the Bronze. This is their pattern: Faith slays, then comes for Dawn and carries her off to the night's entertainment, finding the hidden places where Sunnydale is still a city, not a rotting corpse. Then, they return if they can, to whatever room holds the fewest Potentials, because Dawn insists. Faith thinks listening to her technique would probably do them some good. No matter where they come together, it's fierce and fast, because being with Faith is like riding a tiger.

Not tonight.

Faith follows Dawn into her room almost demurely. When Dawn starts to take off her clothes, Faith shakes her head and sits on the bed, motioning for Dawn to sit between her legs.

And then, in long powerful strokes, Faith brushes Dawn's hair.

The feel of the bristles makes Dawn shiver, contrasted with the whisper of Faith's fingers, pulling through her hair over and over again. The bristles are sharp and prick Dawn's scalp, pulling and pulling until there is almost pain. It's glorious, a deep slow feeling of being loved, and Dawn relaxes into Faith's arms and lets her work her magic.

Then Faith is using the brush not on hair but on skin, and Dawn raises her arms at Faith's wordless urging, and Faith takes off her shirt.

Dawn turns around and kisses Faith, gives her trust over, searches her mouth with her tongue. She's willing to find out what this new game will bring, and she lays on the bed on those perfect sheets and watches Faith come to her.

Faith sheds clothes like they are a trap, bars between her and the world. She's a wild creature, someone who shouldn't be tamed by being covered, being hidden. Dawn smiles and keeps this secret Faith to herself, takes what she gives, returns what she can. Faith slides the brush down her chest, between her breasts, over her stomach, and Dawn shivers at the feel of a thousand talons. Her skin raises gooseflesh in the brush's wake, and Faith plays the brush over her body, short and sharp like kitten claws, then slow featherstrokes.

"Faith..." Dawn knows Faith wants to be asked, to be begged, and just for that reason she holds on as long as she can, but at last she lets the name slip, and then words are pouring from her, "please oh please now, Faith, now..."

Oh, now, oh, love; Dawn's mind leaves her mouth, her words, and she is only feeling, and Faith moves to cover her with her tongue.

When Dawn was real, she and Faith made love for the first time the night Faith turned Warren in to the police. The next morning Dawn crept down to the kitchen, surprised to find Willow and Tara making pancakes as if nothing was different. She was even more surprised to feel that nothing was different, that she was no realer, no more grown-up, than the day before.

Willow had a cheeky smile on her face, but she faced the coffee maker and babbled about dark blends like she did every morning when she'd forgotten to cut down on the caffeine. Tara cupped her hands around her mug and met Dawn's eye. The only sign that she knew was her calm, self-contained smile, and the little nod that acknowledged that there was no real boundary, no marker for being an adult.

"It's about time I renewed the sound-barrier spells on our room," Tara said to Willow. "Maybe Dawn's room, too."

Dawn turned crimson.

"That's a big leap, a lot of privacy," Willow said, fighting to keep a straight face. "What do you think, Dawn?"

"You guys don't have to do this," Dawn said.

"It's not just for your sake, Dawn," Tara said.

"It's not you," Willow said. "It's Faith. I just don't want to know that much. No, wait, I'm saying this wrong. It is you. I didn't want to know that you're that talented."


"I'm serious!" Willow turned to Tara. "How long did it take me to learn that stuff?"

Tara blushed into her coffee. "P-probably Dawn had a better teacher."

"Aw, sweetie, you were a great teacher. Remember how often I came over for extra tutoring?"

"Guys!" Dawn covered her ears with her hands. "Please! Spell-renewal! Yes! Because then I'd have a place to run when you start doing this!"

"Doing what?" Willow asked. "Taking a healthy interest in your budding sex life? You are a scion of young womanhood--"

"Ew, ew, no," Dawn said. "Those are Mom words. Please do not use Mom words to me when we're talking about Faith."

"Mmm-hmm," Willow said. "Faith. Exactly. Because, are you sure you've thought this through?"

"You asked me that when we started dating and I said I had."

Willow winced and nodded. "Yes. Yes I did. I remember there was a lot of awkwardness. So, we're trying to avoid a repeat, really. But Faith has this morning-after issue..."

"You told me. God. And I heard it from Buffy often enough." Dawn sat at the table, glad that the silences after she mentioned Mom and Buffy were shorter, now. Willow and Tara were catching on that she didn't want there to be pauses, time to remember that they were gone. "I think we're okay."

"Well, yes, but..."

Faith came clattering down the stairs and walked around behind Dawn, dropping a kiss on her forehead. "Mornin', lover," she said. "What's the coffee sitch?"

Dawn smirked at Willow. Tara poured the coffee.

When Dawn was real, Faith got some, then asked for more.

Dawn arches her back, feeling like electrum, liquid and electricity-filled. Faith murmurs, "take it, take it, Dawn, you're fucking gorgeous," and slides the vibrator its last wonderful inch inside her. Dawn screams, doesn't scream, doesn't know what she does; Faith's name is on her lips and she pleads, not with Faith but with the world: never take this from me, oh, I love her, please let me have her forever.

Dawn floats somewhere beyond thought, beyond consciousness. She exists, she is eternal, with Faith's finger on her clit and the dildo so deep inside she feels she may be split apart; she feels explosive, nuclear. She comes, hard, silent writhing rictus of scream, "Faith!", like a prayer, like a hope, like a thousand worlds where this didn't happen and a million more where it did.

Dawn is never real in these moments, when she is outside herself, when she is purely Faith's.

Dawn is energy.

Sometimes, Dawn likes to imagine she's real.

But she isn't.

She's a Key to a hell dimension, a baby Watcher, a Slayer's sister.

Sometimes, Dawn thinks that if she can alter her memories then those goddamn interfering monks will just have to change the world to fit.

Tara alive. Buffy...happy. Mom--

But she's not real. Never was.

Dawn stretches, like a kitten, waking up in the morning, legs hot where they're twined with Faith's, cold where the sheets fell away.

She's a Key without a lock, a girl who's better at research than killing things, a Slayer's sis--

Warm arms wrap tighter around her as she tries to ease out of last night's languorous tangle. "Goin' somewhere?" Faith growls, the closest she'll get to intelligible speech before noon.

A Slayer's girlfriend.

"No," Dawn whispers, and smiles, secretly. "No where."

Faith's girlfriend.

When Dawn was real, she and Faith fell in love as if first-sight fairy tales were the only truth there was. But Dawn isn't real, and that's not the way it happened. There were way more knives and tears and one exceptionally stinky demon and, oh, it's worth it, but it hurt getting here. Faith opens one eye and settles her head lower, closing her teeth on the upper curve of Dawn's breast, deceptively gentle. Her tongue touches Dawn's skin, tastes, considers, slowly. Awake enough for that, if not for talking. Faith knows what she wants; she says she always has. Dawn is ancient energy, shaped and manipulated and sent to destroy the world, but she's still Dawn. And somehow, after everything, she is what Faith wants.

Maybe there's nothing realer than that.