Her Little Secret by Kirayoshi

Disclaimers; Props to Joss, Marti, Mutant Enemy and UPN! They own these characters, I�m just visiting their planet. Oh, and if you catch sight of a big purple winged dude, he�s owned by Disney.
Rating; PG
Author�s note; This is the second chapter of my alternate sixth season series, Defenders of the Night. Not much Gargoyle action in this one, but in the next episode Buffy and the Scoobs will meet Goliath and Xanatos, pinky-swear. Oh, and this one has Spike in it.
Archives; you got my past chapters, go for it.
Feedback; it�s like tin roof sundae ice cream for the soul.
JDMeans@aol.com
Summary; Dawn�s been keeping something from her sister. Buffy finds out. She doesn�t take it well. And Tara is dreaming�

 

Her Little Secret
By Kirayoshi

(Voiceover by Michelle Tractenberg) Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer;

BUFFY: Are you okay? Did she hurt you?

DAWN: Why do you care?

BUFFY: Because I love you. You're my sister.

DAWN: No I'm not.

BUFFY: Yes you are. Look, it's blood. It's Summers blood. It's just like mine. It doesn't matter where you came from, or, or how you got here. You are my sister. There's no way you could annoy me so much if you weren't.

--Blood Ties

<<>>

"My life?" Dawn harrumphed. "No one lives in Sunnydale, Giles. They just die here. Mom died here. Buffy died here. I don't want to die here."

--Return

<<>>

"Hey, Dawnie," Buffy's voice called for her just as Dawn was about to open the window. Dawn shucked her denim jacket, glanced at her mirror, straightened out her hair, pulled up her chair and cracked open her homework.

--Along Came a Spider

<<>>

"You're so much like her, Willow," Tara whispered. "And I wish with all my heart I could be more like you. But I'm not. I'm not a hero, I think we proved that with Glory. I just want to live. I want us to be alive, together. And I can't spend the rest of my life living in her shadow." She shook her head, wishing the tears could stop flowing. "She gave up her life to save Dawn, to save us, to save the world. How the hell can I compete with that?"

--Return

<<>>

"I never looked at the Arthurian myths that way before," Tara enthused.

"Thank you," Miss Lafayette answered. "But that's not a surprise; most variations of the legend of Arthur were told through a male, Christian perspective."

"Yeah, I guess," Tara demurred. "But the thing that surprised me was that Morgan wasn't treated like the villain in this version."

"Of course not," Lafayette nodded. "After all, it was her story more than Arthur's. By her lights, she was doing what she felt was necessary for survival of her people and her faith." She glanced at her watch, adding, "But perhaps we should table this discussion until the next time. I look forward to seeing you here next week, child."

--Along Came a Spider

<<>>

Chapter one;
Summers Blood

"If my fist clenches, crack it open
Before I use it and lose my cool.
If I smile, tell me some bad news
Before I laugh and act like a fool.
And if I swallow anything evil,
Stick your fingers down my throat.
If I shiver, please give me a blanket,
Keep me warm, let me wear your coat."

--The Who
"Behind Blue Eyes"

Missing people. Lost spouses, sons and daughters. This was a sad fact of life in Sunnydale, California. All too often, such cases ended with the discovery of a mutilated body, and the grieving of the survivors. Sometimes, bodies escaped the notice of the law. Of course this wasn't much of a surprise, as many things tended to escape the notice of the Sunnydale police department. It has been said that the police department as a whole was 'deeply stupid'.

Of course, ultimately, a dead body will be discovered, if for no other reason than the fact of decomposition. That is, if the body remains dead. In Sunnydale there is no such certainty.

It was in one of the back-alleys of Sunnydale where she located such a body. A newly undead figure, who hadn't been educated in the proper methods of feeding. Having gone without his first feeding since being turned, the new vampire suffered from insanity, governed by his bloodlust.

"Uh, hey," she asked the thing in as innocent a voice as she could muster, getting the fiend's attention. "Could you help me? I seem to have gotten myself turned around. You know which way I go to get to the Bronze?" The shambling thing that had been a homeless person snarled, his face contorting to that of a vampire. "Ssslayer!" he slurred through decayed, uneven teeth.

She shrugged her shoulders sweetly. "I'll take that as a 'no'." She then crouched low for a brief second, and leapt forward, kicking her feet ahead of her. Her right foot impacted with the vampire's jaw, knocking him to the ground with a loud thud. She managed to land safely on her feet, but was slow to turn around, thinking her enemy defeated. Over-confidence, her mentor had warned her before. You can't have that and live long as the Slayer. Before she could regroup, her opponent landed a hard left to her back.

She tried to scramble to her feet, only to be knocked back down repeatedly by the fiend's blows. She struggled to block his attacks, but the vampire managed to hit her hard upside the head. She tasted blood in her mouth, and felt a sickening knot of fear in the pit of her stomach. "Now, Slayer," the vampire glared, "you die!"

"N-no way, scuzzo.." the girl shouted through her pain. "I'm not letting some newbie like you clock me!"

The vampire's laughter echoed hollowly through the graveyard. "Look at yourself, child! You're on the ropes! What can you do to stop me?"

"I'd watch out for her," a bright voice called out from behind the vamp. "She's a hair-puller, that one!"

The vamp spun on his heel, turning to face the speaker. Her charcoal gray eyes flashed an angry fire, her brow was furrowed in grim determination, and her posture spoke of a seasoned fighter, ready for the kill.

"Slayer?" the monster growled.

"An annoying peroxide blond calls me 'Slayer'," she announced, almost casually. "My friends call me Buffy. You're neither." Without further warning, she leapt forward, her foot connecting with the vamp's jaw in a flying scissor-kick. The dark haired younger girl shivered as she witnessed the tableau before her. She wasn't sure which fate would be preferable; becoming a late-night snack for a newbie vampire, or whatever the Slayer had in mind for her.

The newly sired vamp lasted less than ten seconds against the seasoned Slayer. Two swift kicks and a forward thrust with a stake and the outclassed monster was dispatched easily. The Slayer then turned to the vamp's intended victim, angry lightning flashing in her eyes.

"Dawn," she spoke in an unsettling monotone, "what the hell are you doing out here, alone, at night?"

The Slayer's sister gulped hard, knowing that whatever story she cooked up to explain her presence in the danger-zone wouldn't be acceptable to Buffy. "I--I was out.." she stammered, grasping for some quick, convenient lie to tell Buffy, but one look in her darkening eyes told her that whatever story she had prepared wouldn't work. Defeated, she lowered her eyes and whispered, "I was slaying."

Buffy's brow pinched just above her nose into a hard scowl. "Slaying?"

"Yeah," Dawn admitted. "I mean, I'm your sister, I've got your blood in me, shouldn't I have some sort of Slaying power by now?"

"So you decided to test that theory tonight?" Buffy accused her sister, before another thought entered her mind. "Or have you been doing this before?" Dawn looked away, and Buffy snarled loudly at her; "How long have you been sneaking out on me?"

"Since a month or so after you died!" Dawn blurted out in fear. "I asked Spike to teach me some fighting moves, and---"

"That's all I need to know," Buffy snarled at her sister, taking her wrist in her hand and dragging her alongside her. "You have the right to remain silent, Dawn," she informed her as she headed for home. "And right now it'll go down easier for you if I don't hear your voice for the rest of the night." They walked in silence the rest of the way.

Willow had finished composing a romantic e-mail to Tara, and had just closed her online connection, when she heard the door slam. She left her computer and poked her head out of her bedroom window, witnessing Buffy barking orders at her sister downstairs; "Dawn Marie Summers, I want you in your bedroom, and in bed in ten seconds. Tomorrow, we will discuss the terms of your grounding. There will be no negotiation on this point." She pointed her arm to the stairs, the way her mother had done for her so many times before. "March!"

Dawn slowly ascended the stairs to the bedroom, her head held low, then stopped at the top step. She turned to her sister, and said simply, "You told me to be strong."

"GO!" Buffy shouted. Dawn disappeared into her room, slamming the door behind her.

Buffy then looked upstairs, catching Willow's eye. The hard glare that Willow received from Buffy convinced her not to pursue the matter any further.

"I gotta go see a vamp about a staking," Buffy informed Willow as she headed out the front door. "Don't wait up."

Willow slowly returned to her computer, wisely deciding not to interfere with this squabble between her best friend and her sister. She would respect Buffy's wishes in this matter, but if the opportunity to play the favorite aunt to Dawn arose, she wouldn't turn it down either.

She just hoped that it wasn't as serious as she feared it might be.

<<>>

The bodies of a hundred knights littered the mist-shrouded landscape. Nothing but ruined towers and crumbled stones stood among the remains of the dread war, the final battle for a kingdom, now only a site of devastation and waste. Neither side won this day, nor did the kingdom that was the prize of battle survive.

A lone figure stood beside two of the fallen, two mortal enemies who slew each other, the last of the many who died this terrible day. Amid the ruin of battle, the woman shed bitter tears. The tears of a mother who lost a son. The tears of a sister whose brother lay dead at her feet. The tears of a woman who witnessed the total destruction of man's last best hope for unity and peace.

The young golden-haired girl watched as the raven-haired woman knelt at the body of the slain king. The girl didn't know how she was aware of his royal lineage, but his kingliness was certain. She witnessed as the older woman chanted in a lilting voice. She recognized the chant as a lost Celtic dialect. She knew the chant as a plea to the Goddess to accept the soul of the fallen king.

The kingdom had fallen. And the girl could do nothing but weep for its loss.

Suddenly, she saw herself aboard a small boat. A simple skiff, alone on a mist-shrouded lake. But not adrift, she knew that for certain. Glancing around, she saw the king's body at her feet. She turned to the rear of the skiff, and saw the priestess, her hands at the rudder, her face a mask of grim determination.

Suddenly, the priestess left her place at the rudder. She passed the observer by as though she were nothing but an afterthought, and stood beside the fallen king. She looked forward, into the gray nothingness, and rose her arms high above her head. She stood serenely for a second, then lowered her arms slowly.

For a bleak moment, it seemed as though the world itself was holding its breath in anticipation. Then a bright gap appeared in the mists. The fog parted, curtain-like, and shafts of pure sunlight and pristine blue sky flooded out of the gap. As the fog parted further, an island could be seen. Its shape was still not clearly defined, but its beauty could not be masked. Even the most faded colors of its shores were so vivid and beautiful it made the eyes ache to see them.

The priestess stooped down and cradled the king in her arms. "See, brother," she announced joyfully. "I've brought you home. To Avalon."

<<>>

She awoke suddenly, her hair matted to her face, slick with sweat. Tara struggled to recite the proper meditations to help still her breathing and slower her heartbeat, as half-remembered shards of her dream made themselves known to her.

She stood at the fall of a kingdom, that much she was certain of. She witnessed a priestess praying to the Goddess for the safety of the king's soul.

She needed to know why she dreamed of this ancient king's fall. Why was the dream so real to her? Why did she feel sorrow at the fall of men dead for longer than a millennium?

And why did the Priestess look so much like Miss Lafayette?

<<>>

"SPIKE! YOU SON OF A BITCH!"

The vampire stirred hesitantly from his sleep at the irate voice that shouted at him. He opened his eyes for only a second, only to have them shut again, by a fist flying hard at his face. He reeled back in his coffin, more fully awake and increasingly angry.

"Here now," he stammered to his unseen assailant, "what's the brouhaha?"

"Just lie still and let me beat the tar out of you for a while," the enraged voice demanded, as another fist impacted hard with his jaw. "It'll go down faster that way!"

Spike groaned briefly, then opened his eyes, seeing Buffy standing over his coffin, a stake in her hand, her face bearing the attitude of an avenging angel. Spike knew that expression all too well; she had a mad on and was looking to take it out on him. He sat up slowly, trying to maintain his regular level of snarkiness. Which was difficult to do, considering that he his only apparel at the time was a pair of white boxers. "Hey, Slayer, you miss me?"

"I won't miss tonight," she glared. Her eyes were hard stones, and they bored down into Spike like drills. "I caught Dawn trying to slay a vampire tonight."

"Niblet, out slaying?" Spike chuckled. "Good for her. Kids today, they grow up so fast--" A hard right to the temple silenced him. "Here now, let me get up before tenderizing me, willya?"

"SHUT UP!" Buffy howled. In that moment, Spike realized that he was in trouble. When Buffy was this enraged, there was no force on this Earth that could stop her. He remembered how determined she was before her final bout with Angelus, or her last stands against Adam and Glory. And now she was channeling that anger at him.

"Hey now," Spike protested as he grabbed a ratty maroon bathrobe and dove behind his coffin. He hastily donned the garment before standing again, and kept a respectable distance from the Slayer. He attempted to maintain an air of cold calm, of being unaffected by Buffy's attack, but in his black heart he sensed that whatever leeway he had enjoyed with Buffy, he had just lost. "Next time you wanna play rugby with my head, at least have the courtesy to let me get dressed!"

"You've been teaching Dawn how to fight while I was dead," she snarled. "How to slay. How to kill. What was the plan, Spike? Couldn't have me so you'd remake my sister into my image?"

"'Ere now," Spike scrambled out of his coffin, and stood his ground before the Slayer, hoping to defend himself verbally. He knew that the chip in his head wouldn't let him fight her back, and normally she respected that limitation. Not tonight. Tonight, she was intent on the kill, and Spike knew it. "Look, Buffy, I wouldn't put the make on Dawnie. I may be many things, but I'm not a cradle-robber. At least I'd have the decency to wait till she's legal--" That comment won Spike a hard right hook to the eye, which sent him sprawled to the floor. "Ease up, sister, that was a joke!"

"You bastard!" Buffy shrieked, "if I thought you had even looked funny at my sister, you'd be dustbuster chow in a second! I don't want you near her, and I sure as hell don't want her out slaying!"

"Look, Slayer," Spike decided to match Buffy's anger with some of his own. He stepped forward, his lip curled in a bemused sneer. "Before you died, you made me promise to look out for the li'l Bit. And I swore to you that I would. First vow I ever made that meant something." He stepped forward, watching Buffy's eyes and facial expressions for any sign of her intentions. "I don't know if you've noticed, blondie, but it's not safe here in Sunnydale. And I can't be expected to be there twenty-four-seven, y'know. Overly sensitive to sunlight, remember. So when she asked me to show her some moves one night, I agreed. Just some basic self-defense stuff, can't really do much more with this soddin' chip, now can I?"

Buffy leaned slightly, favoring her left leg as she stood, her arms crossed over her chest, a hard scowl on her face. "I don't want her out there at night," she spoke in a dark, low tone of voice. "I don't want her risking her life. She's my sister. The only real family I have left. And I will do anything and everything in my power to protect her."

Spike didn't see her hand strike, but suddenly Buffy's right hand seized Spike by the neck and lifted him a foot off the ground. Spike squirmed in her grasp, but her grip was unrelenting, vise-like. "You've lost your Sunnydale privileges, Spike. Tomorrow's Thursday. I'll give you 'til sunrise on Saturday morning, but I want you out of town. I see you here after Saturday night, ever, under any circumstances�" She let go of Spike's neck, causing the vampire to land on his back, hard on the cold concrete floor of his crypt. "You're the vampire. I'm the vampire slayer. You figure it out." She turned from Spike, and started to walk away.

"You can't kill me, Slayer," Spike whispered. "With the damn chip in my head, I couldn't fight back."

Buffy cocked her head toward Spike, and the century-old vampire's cold heart chilled even more at the cruel upturn of her lips. "Good," she breathed. "That'll make my job easier." She headed out of the crypt without looking back.

As she got behind the wheel of the Jeep, she could feel a familiar ethereal presence in the passenger seat. "'Bout time someone told ol' Brillo-head where to get off," Joyce's ghost commented.

"Mom," Buffy said irritably, "not tonight."

"Oh, Buffy?" Joyce asked. "Then when? You think you can protect Dawn just by getting rid of one vampire? It's not that easy. Trust me, been there, done that, got the t-shirt."

"What am I supposed to do, Mom?" Buffy lamented.

Joyce gave Buffy a knowing smile. "Just let her grow up, honey. That's all any of us can do."

Buffy's shoulders sagged, as though under a terrible, if unseen, weight. "First let her have the opportunity to get older. Then I'll worry about her growing up."

"Do what you have to, honey." The ghost shrugged her shoulders and faded.

Buffy shook her head, and not for the first time wondered if she would ever be old enough, or wise enough, to be the parent.

She was beginning to doubt.

<<>>

Chapter Two;
The Hardest Thing

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here 2day 2 get through this thing called life
Electric word life, it means 4ever and that's a mighty long time
But I'm here 2 tell U there's somethin' else
The afterworld
A world of never ending happiness
U can always see the sun, day or night
So when U call up that shrink in Beverly Hills
U know the one - Dr. Everything'll Be Alright
Instead of asking him how much of your time is left
Ask him how much of your mind, baby
Cuz in this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld
In this life U're on your own
And if de-elevator tries 2 bring U down, go crazy
Punch a higher floor!

--Prince
"Let's Go Crazy"

Glory had been defeated. Doc had been defeated. All that was left was the platform. And two sisters.

And the portal. The portal that had been opened by the blood of one sister.

Buffy looked long and hard at her sister. Dawn stood before her, her thin frame highlighted by arcane lightning, and the unearthly light of the portal below them. The haphazard tower that Glory had ordered constructed for the ritual that would open the portal threatened to teeter under their feet.

Buffy tried to run past her sister, but a strong hand grabbed her, stopping her. "I have to," Buffy protested. "Look at what's happening. Dawnie, you have to let me go. Blood starts it, and until the blood stops flowing, it'll never stop. You know you have to let me. It has to have the blood."

Buffy knew that her blood was the only thing that could stop the portal, that could save the world from being swallowed up by this maw into Hell.

But Dawn realized the truth. There was another way.

And within a terrible moment of clarity, Buffy realized it as well.

" ... no," was all she could whisper.

"Buffy, I have to."

"No!" Buffy pleaded with her eyes, silently begging her sister not to carry out her plan.

Dawn just held Buffy one last time. "Listen to me. Please, there's not a lot of time, listen. I love you. I will always love you. But this is the work that I have to do. Tell Giles ... tell Giles I figured it out. And, and I'm okay. And give my love to my friends. You have to take care of them now. You have to take care of each other." She stopped, her voice almost faltering. She swallowed hard, and finished her say. "Buffy, the hardest thing in this world ... is to live in it.

"Be brave. Live. For me."

With those last words, Dawn turned around. She ran to the edge of the platform, and leapt forward. Buffy rushed out to the platform's edge, and saw her sister's body, plummeting into the abyss. "DAWN!" she cried out. "NOOOOO--"

<<>>

"NOOOO!"

"Buffy," a gentle voice awoke her from her restless sleep. A soft pressure at her shoulder caused her to stir slowly from her nightmare. She turned slowly, her eyes adjusting to the hallway light streaming through her door, to be greeted by a vision of red hair. "Hey, Slayer. You okay?"

"W-willow?" Buffy stammered, half-asleep. "Wha-what time is it?"

"About two thirty in the morning. I couldn't sleep either." Her best friend nodded her head and gently smoothed a stray lock of hair from Buffy's face. "Let me guess, another nightmare?"

Buffy shook her head, sighing with relief. "You'd think after six years of slaying I'd get used to them."

"Uh," Willow hesitated as she saw the grim expression on Buffy's face. "This wasn't a 'Slayer dream', was it?"

Buffy squinted briefly then looked at Willow, her eyes finally coming into focus. "No, Willow," she breathed. "Not one of my 'vision' type dreams." She shook her head again, in exasperation. "What am I gonna do, Willow?"

"About what?" Willow asked. "Does this have to do with what happened to Dawn?"

Buffy sat motionless for a second, controlling her breathing. "Yeah, something like that. I caught her while I was patrolling."

"Our Dawnie, sneaking out at night?" Willow raised her eyebrow. "Let me guess, secret boyfriend?"

Buffy shook her head. "I wish."

"Girlfriend?"

"Stake."

Willow blinked in surprise. "Uh, as in vampires?"

Buffy breathed heavily, her mental exhaustion evident in her every movement. "She was out slaying."

Willow pursed her lips and breathed out in a low whistle. "Wow. No wonder you're uptight."

"Yeah, no wonder," Buffy fumed silently. "I know what's out there at night. You'd think after Glory and all that, she'd get a clue. I can't let her go out there alone."

"Buffy," Willow spoke cautiously. "I gotta ask you. You think she was called?"

Buffy turned sharply at Willow, before thinking. "No, she couldn't have been. Giles told me that the line of Slayer succession went to Kendra after my first death." She paused slightly, then asked Willow, "Should I be worried that I can say things like 'my first death' so casually?"

"Not in Sunnydale," Willow flashed Buffy that elfin grin that the Slayer loved so much.

"Well, anyway," Buffy continued, "when I died, Kendra was called. I die again, it won't call another Slayer. The next Slayer will be called when Faith dies. So there's no way Dawn can be the Slayer." She turned away from her friend. "And there's no way in Hell I'm gonna let her go out to patrol."

Buffy half-expected Willow to express her whole-hearted agreement with her. When she glanced back at her friend, she was surprised to see a sardonic smirk mar her face. "Oh, Buffy? And what about the rest of us? What about Xander, Anya and me? Dawn's the same age as I was when I signed on."

"This is different," Buffy started to protest.

"Why," Willow raised her voice slightly. "Because she's your sister?"

Buffy almost answered 'Yes', but one look at Willow convinced her not to take that course. "Because she didn't even tell me," she stammered. "And because she went out alone. We have rules, Willow. No, as in nada, solo patrols among non-Slayers. No patrols without clearing it with me or Giles." She looked at Willow again, at the skepticism that wrinkled her brow. "And she's my sister, okay, I'll own up to that."

Willow's expression softened, her brow smoothed out and her mouth widened into a gentle smile. "I know, Buffy. It's a tough little balancing act you got here; Slayer and guardian."

"Yeah," Buffy rested her head in her hands. "You think I'm being too hard on her?"

Willow regarded her friend with a gentle eye. "No worse than your mom did to you."

Buffy gave a resigned sigh of exasperation. "I'm gonna have to talk to her, Will."

"Good," Willow answered as she prepared to leave. "You know what you're gonna say?"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Hopefully I'll think of something when I see her."

<<>>

"Bloody, soddin' HELL!" The blonde vampire kicked over a tombstone as he ranted. "Where does she get off, telling me where to go? I'm the bloody Slayer of Slayers! The friggin' Scourge of Europe! Once I get this damn chip out of my head, I'll show her!"

"You'll show her what?" A low, growling voice roared quietly from behind the ranting vampire.

Spike spun on his heel, and looked in surprise at the speaker. The muscular purple skinned stranger stood nearly seven feet tall, on legs like a canine's hindquarters. Huge bat-like wings folded around him, draping over his shoulders like a cape. His eyes glowed bright yellow from behind horned brows, and a powerfully muscled tail waved back and forth behind him.

Spike stood his ground, nonchalantly glaring at the beast before him. "I don't believe we met."

"I am called Goliath," the beast growled in smoldering anger. "I am a Gargoyle, and an ally of the Slayer. That is all you need to know."

"Lovely," Spike rolled his eyes and threw his hands in the air. "What a soddin' lovely picture! Well, mate, all you need to know about me is--" Spike turned suddenly toward the Gargoyle and threw a hard punch at the beast's midsection. He smiled briefly when he realized that the chip wasn't affecting him. His opponent wasn't human, so he could at least hit him.

Whether his punch had any effect, however, was another matter entirely.

Goliath snarled at the hapless vamp, and asked, "Are you quite done?" He then launched himself at Spike, pinning his shoulders down with his hands, kneeling hard on his gut. "I overheard the Slayer ordering you out of this city," Goliath roared at the vamp. "My advice for you is not to wait until Saturday. If I catch sight or scent of you again, your unnaturally extended life will end!"

"Sod off, Stone-boy!" Spike spat at the gargoyle. Goliath smacked him hard across the face, and lifted his bulk from Spike's chest.

"You have victimized the people of this city for the last time, monster," Goliath roared at the vamp. "Get out!" He turned away from Spike, leapt up onto a nearby crypt, unfurled his wings, and caught the breeze around him, gliding away without another thought to the pathetic figure rolling in pain behind him.

But Spike remembered his attacker. He would remember him for a very long time.

And he would remember being humiliated by Buffy Summers.

He vowed that the Slayer would see him again.

And that his would be the last face she ever saw.

<<>>

Dawn stumbled, half-asleep, into the kitchen, where she saw Buffy pulling a carton of eggs out of the refrigerator. "Oh, hi, Dawnie," Buffy greeted her. "Just hang tough for a second, I'll make you breakfast."

"Sure," Dawn muttered as she ambled her way over to the kitchen table. She watched anxiously as Buffy beat some eggs, and poured them into a frying pan. "You like them scrambled, right?"

"Buffy, all you can do is scrambled," Dawn gently reminded her sister. Buffy glared hard at her, then gave a humored smirk.

"Considering that you're cruising for a grounding," Buffy commented, "you're living pretty dangerously."

"Hey," Dawn countered, "none so free as those with nothing to lose."

Buffy nodded at Dawn's observation. She pulled up a chair at the table, opposite from Dawn. "Sis," Buffy said seriously. "I need to know something." Dawn started to squirm as Buffy prepared her question, knowing what her sister was about to ask. "Why didn't you tell me that you wanted to be a Slayer?"

Dawn suddenly found the pattern on the place mat in front of her incredibly interesting. She sat nearly motionless for ten whole seconds. Finally, Buffy reached out and nudged her sister's shoulder. "Dawnie? You there? Earth to Dawn, come in please."

"Huh?" Dawn shook her head suddenly, then looked at Buffy. "Oh, sorry I zoned out there. I was just trying to remember something. I was thinking about when I first found out that you were, well, the Slayer." She glanced around the table, locating a pitcher of orange juice that Buffy had prepared for them. She poured a glass for herself, and drank down a deep swallow for courage. "It was about two years after we first moved to Sunnydale. Mom was mad at you for staying out late again, and I was generally avoiding her. I was upstairs when you showed up with Spike in tow, and I was sitting on the stairway, out of sight, listening in.

"You told Mom that you were the Slayer. She didn't take it too well, and I heard the whole thing. Up to Mom throwing you out of the house."

"Yeah, don't remind me," Buffy lowered her head into her hand, as she started to rub her left temple with her thumb. "Not exactly my finest hour." She sniffed for a second, then jumped out of her seat, rushing to the stove. "Whew," she puffed. "Crisis averted." She pulled two plates out of the cupboard and dished up two servings of eggs. Passing a plate to Dawn, she said, "Okay, Mom kicked me out, then what?"

"Oh," Dawn continued. "Well, I guess that's why I didn't tell you I was out patrolling. I was afraid that you wouldn't understand."

"Hey, if anyone understands what being a Slayer's like," Buffy insisted, "it's me."

Dawn smiled ruefully at her sister's statement. "Mom wasn't exactly easy to live with for the next couple of months," Dawn recalled, "especially after you ran away. I tried to steer clear of her, until one night, about a month after you left, when she cornered me in my bedroom. She tried to convince me that you would be coming home soon, and she wasn't going to throw you out again. We hugged and cried a lot then, that's pretty much all I remember.

"Anyway, just after that, I ran into Willow, and I asked her what a Slayer is. She explained it all to me, how you were chosen to fight vampires and all that, how you had special gifts and such. I guess I always wondered whether I had any special powers or anything like that." She rolled her eyes. "If I only knew!"

"So you thought you could be a Slayer," Buffy asked, "because your sister's a Slayer?"

"Why not?" Dawn challenged her. "I mean, we're sisters, right? Summers blood, like you said. Heck, the monks made me out of your essence when they played 'Hide the Key', right? I'm practically your clone. So I should have gotten some Slayer genes, right?"

Buffy looked hard and long at this short adult who was passing herself off as her little sister. For the hundredth time she cursed the fact that Glory had robbed Dawn of any kind of childhood. "I don't know, Dawnie," Buffy confessed. "Maybe you got a little Slayer-ness in you. But my being the Slayer isn't all genetic. It isn't like I was born with these freaky genes, or that I got bitten by a radioactive Slayer as a teen, and turned into the Amazing Slayer-Girl. Giles and I have talked about this before, a lot really, and we decided that there's not really a lot of genetic difference between me as the Slayer and an average woman. There's more of a supernatural thing going down here, more mystical than genetic. Sorry, Dawnie, I wish I could explain it better."

"Don't worry, Buff," Dawn assured her sister. "I got the gist of it. So anyway, all this time I thought that you were like my troublemaking big sister, the part of the family I didn't like to talk about, then suddenly I find out that you're like this real-life superhero. I was amazed. I was in awe. I wanted to be more like you, able to do things like that, slaying vampires and all."

She took another swig of juice, trying to compose her thoughts. "When you�when you died, I felt scared. You told me to be strong, you told me to live, but I didn't know how. I thought that if I could fight, I could sorta fill in as the Slayer. But Giles wasn't ready for me to ask for fighting lessons."

"And Spike offered, right?" Buffy put the pieces together. She could never quite understand the relationship between the neutered vamp and her sister. At first, she thought he was using Dawn to get closer to her, but before her final battle with Glory he vowed to look after her, even when Buffy knew that she wasn't coming back alive. Was it possible that he genuinely cared for Dawn?

She shook her head, abandoning the notion. She made her decision regarding Spike. She could no longer trust him. She didn't want him around any more. Dawn was her responsibility, not Spike's.

"Dawn," Buffy spoke calmly. "Regarding your grounding." Dawn swallowed hard and braced for the worst. "I'm calling it a first offense, time served. You're off the hook, this time."

Dawn exhaled audibly and gave a huge relieved smile. "Thanks, Buffy."

"Don't thank me yet," Buffy answered. "Not until I'm finished talking." The smile faded quickly, as Dawn wondered what cruel punishment her sister was planning.

"Dawn," Buffy continued, "I saw you out there, against that vamp. You were good. Not great, but you have potential. How'd you like me to finish what Spike started with you?"

Dawn stared quietly at her sister a full ten seconds before responding. "You mean, you want to teach me some moves?"

"Why not?" Buffy offered. "I do it for a living at the community center. Look, how about we start next Saturday? I show you some basic moves, nothing too flashy, just some straight defensive stuff. If that works, then we can get to some more serious stuff."

"Wow," Dawn breathed. "Maybe I can join the Scooby Gang."

"Hey, one step at a time, sis," Buffy interrupted. "First you gotta prove you can handle yourself in a fracas. And there are rules. First, no solo patrols. I don't let Willow go on patrol without Xander or Anya or me guarding her back, and she's the team's big gun. Got it?"

"Got it," Dawn nodded enthusiastically.

"Good," Buffy answered. "So, next Saturday after the cartoons, we'll have a light breakfast, then we'll train for a couple of hours. And don't expect me to go light on you. We're talking vamps here, I can't afford to go soft. It won't be boot camp, but it will be intense. You think you can handle it?"

Dawn gave Buffy a level stare, and nodded once. "Bring it on."

"Deal," Buffy smiled at her sister. "Eat your eggs, before they get cold. You want toast with that?"

"Sure," Dawn said. As Buffy prepared some toast, and pulled a jar of strawberry jam and some margarine out of the refrigerator, Dawn looked at her thoughtfully. "So," Dawn mused. "Maybe living isn't the hardest thing in the world after all."

Buffy poked her head over the top of the refrigerator door. "Oh it's hard, Dawnie, it's hard," she answered. "But it's worth the effort."

The two sisters finished their breakfasts in peace. And for a brief moment, Buffy had no fears about vampires, demons, hell-gods or any other threats to worry about. She knew that her life would get complicated before long, that was the nature of being the Slayer. But she was not alone. She would never be alone. She had a family, she had friends, and she had a future. For the rest of the morning, she simply allowed herself to enjoy her life.

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