Author's Note - Thank you to everyone who hung in there during the year it took me to write this. All your wonderful feedback was a huge help in getting this finally done. So without further ado, the final chapter.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Faith sat back on a bench and just breathed deep. There were so many flowers she couldn't pick through their scents. She felt a little weird being alone, especially since most of the places she had been in the last few days were populated with groups of people; couples, families, making her feel like an outsider. She didn't know why she had to strike out on her own.

Angel had wanted to comfort her. They all had. Maybe that was why she freaked out. Faith didn't know how to handle the outpouring of sympathy. She wasn't used to so much emotion. Besides, Angel had enough to worry about. She didn't want to add to it. When she got out of the hospital the day after the dragon attack, Connor had been nearly comatose. Angel needed to concentrate on helping his son so she decided to take herself away, to heal in private.

So she found her way back to Boston. She didn't expect it to feel like a homecoming and, for the most part, it hadn't. She had never really had a home here, not until Mrs. Braedenham at any rate. Her elderly Watcher had become like a mother to her very quickly and it was her face Faith caught glimpses of as she made her way through Boston, visiting every historical site she could find. Mrs. Braedenham had always wanted Faith to appreciate her Bostonian heritage so now she was, as much as she could with how occupied her mind was with other things.

Faith had never anticipated losing the baby would hurt so much emotionally. She hadn't wanted it. She never planned on keeping it but she couldn't help wondering if she had lost a chance to do real good in the world, pay back some of what she had taken. Or maybe the cycle of abuse would have just continued itself.

Deep down, Faith knew she didn't have a mother's heart but she did have a Slayer's. She hadn't been in Boston long but she was feeling better, slowly, a little each day. She understood healing would take time, that years from now she'd think back on it and hurt. Still, she felt ready to indulge her Slayer's heart again.

Faith stretched on the bench, square in the middle of the last place on her must-see list in Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She had skipped out on a field trip to the place once before she had quit school all together but now she appreciated it. The opulent courtyard garden surrounded her as she looked at the stark white of the building with its odd rectangular windows, conjoined three circles atop each. Faith had to admit it was more of a Giles or Angel kind of place, a place Mrs. Braedenham would have loved, but now she saw the beauty of it. She might even come back tomorrow and look around some more.

She wished Angel could see the museum. Maybe he had at some point. She would have to tell him, when she went home to L.A., about all the art. She had even found she had favorites; her, the girl who couldn't have given a shit about art if you had asked her before today. She couldn't decide what she liked better, the sarcophagus covered with satyrs and maenads, whatever the heck they were, the John Singer Sargent's painting of Yoho Falls, or the medieval stained glass, in spite of the religious aspect. Faith pulled out her phone and called Angel. "Hey, me again...I'm doing fine. I'll be home in two days. Thanks for lending me the money to do this...no, it's not a gift. I'll pay you back," she huffed, knowing she wouldn't. Angel would pout and fuss until she accepted his gift which she was, in truth, very grateful for. "How is Connor doing? He got Dawn what? You'd better watch that boy, Angel, or he'll turn into a dog." Faith laughed. "He'll be like his old man...hey, you're not so bad...yes, I would know, now wouldn't I? I'm sorry I'm gonna miss graduation. Tell Dawn good luck for me...yeah, Angel, I really am doing okay. I'm starting to feel right again. I miss you...yeah, I know how you feel. I'll see you soon."

Faith hung up and pocketed the phone, smiling. She did feel pretty all right. Since it was still early, she headed back into the museum to look at more of the collections. She hoped Mrs. Braedenham would be proud.

*
*
*

"I think I'm going to puke," Dawn said, her face dead white and her hands shaking. "I can't walk across the stage in front of everyone. What if I trip and my gown ends up over my head?"

"You'll be fine," Willow said, giving her cheek a peck. "I wish your Mom and Tara were here to see it."

"I know." Dawn's face screwed up as she tried not to cry. "At least Dad sent me a gift to make up for not being able to get away from work and fly in from Greece."

"A gift?" Anya's eyebrows lifted. "He bought you a TV, stereo and a computer for your dorm room. You won't have space for it all."

"I can't believe our little girl is all grown up," Xander said, propelling himself off the row of lockers he had been leaning on. His dark eyes were wet. He threw his arms around Dawn, hugging her, knocking her red mortarboard askew.

"I'm going to miss everyone so much," Dawn mumbled into his shoulder. "I can't do this."

"Yes, you can," Giles said from where he was standing, with a comforting arm around Buffy who was whiter, if possible, than her sister. "And your graduation will be a damn sight better than the last one we all attended."

Dawn smiled frailly. "Thanks, Giles." She untangled herself from Xander and flung herself into Giles arms. She kissed him. "I don't know what I would have done without you here. You've been my father so much more than Dad ever was."

Giles patted her back then made a big production of cleaning his glasses, trying to hide the fact his eyes were red and he was barely able to dam the tears. "Thank you, dear."

Dawn turned to Buffy and burst into tears. Buffy did likewise as they collapsed against each other. "I promised myself I wouldn't do this," Buffy sniffled. "I said I wouldn't cry."

"So did I," Dawn wailed. "You're going to be so glad to get rid of me."

"You bet." Buffy smiled weakly. "And if you don't behave in college, I'll fly out and kick your butt." She wiped carefully at her eyes, hoping not to smudge her make up.

"Oh good, you're still here. I was afraid we'd miss it," a British voice sounded up the hall. "It's pissed with rain out there."

Dawn waved seeing Wesley and Connor approaching. Wesley was shaking out his umbrella and Connor looked acutely uncomfortable in the gray suit Buffy had no doubt Wesley and Angel had picked out and dressed him in. At least he looked far more sane than the last time she saw him. The Council psychiatrist was obviously doing him some good. "I'm so glad you could make it. Where's Faith, Gunn and Fred?"

"Gunn and Fred send their regrets. Fred was feeling rather unwell and they decided a few hours in the car was a bad idea for a sick, pregnant woman," Wesley replied. "And Faith is still needing some time to herself after.you know."

"They sent your gift with us," Connor added, eyeing up Dawn's cap and gown.

Dawn pushed the mortarboard straight. "I know, I look stupid."

He nodded, yanking the electric blue piece of cloth meticulously knotted around his neck. "Yeah but no stupider than this tie."

"You have to wear one with a suit," Wes said, with the resignation of someone who had said it a hundred times and would have to say it a hundred times more.

"All part of the ceremony," Giles assured them both.

"Speaking of which, I should show you to your seats and go get in line," Dawn said, heading for the gym. "Dumb rain. This was supposed to be outside."

"Better this way, no sun in your eyes, no bugs in your hair," Anya said, pragmatically.

"I guess." Dawn led them to their row. "Here you go."

"Dawn, look. An added bonus of having graduation in doors." Buffy pointed to the back of the gym in the last rows near the bleachers, safely away from the windows just in case the sun made a reappearance. Angel and Spike sat side by side.

"Ooo, good." Dawn raced back to hug them both then disappeared out the doors to join her class. Buffy had to add air conditioning to the bonus of being inside for the ceremony. She started crying again the moment the high school band started Elgar's Pomp and Circumstances. By the time Dawn pulled abreast of them in her solemn march to the stage with her class, only Giles, Wes and Connor had dry eyes but Giles was losing the battle. Dawn's eyes flicked towards her family just briefly, her pasted-on smile wavering. Buffy didn't blame her. If Dawn looked directly at them, she'd be a puddle.

Throughout the ceremony, Xander and Connor kept fidgeting with their ties until Anya told them to be thankful they didn't have to wear panty hose. Connor was visibly torn between curiosity about something he had never seen before and boredom since even Buffy had to admit, the speeches were dragging on forever. Connor, ensconced between Giles and Wes asked quiet questions about things he didn't understand while Anya seemed to be willing the ceremony to go faster with promises of small sacrifices. Only Willow seemed unfazed by the drone of the valedictorian. She probably was wishing she had had time to make her speech at their own graduation. Buffy glanced back at Angel and Spike several times during the proceedings. She interpreted the body language as Angel laughing at Spike who was rubbing his eyes. He had to be the weepiest vampire this side of an Anne Rice novel.

At least they made it to Dawn's name without the appearance of giant snake demons, gaping holes in the Hellmouth or a hint of apocalypse. Buffy couldn't swallow past the lump in her throat as Dawn strode over to Principal Wood and took her diploma. She waved it over her head proudly as she proceeded off.

When the caps sailed in the air and the band started wheezing their way through the processional, Connor and Anya asked in chorus, "Is it over?"

"Other than taking forever to say goodbye to all her friends, yes," Xander said.

"Then to the best dinner ever," Willow said, proudly. "We got it all from a caterer and all we have to do is pop it in the oven."

"And there'll be cake," Buffy added as she got up and started for the door, trying to spot Dawn in the seething mass of red and yellow.

"Cake's good," Connor said, an eager look in his cerulean eyes.

"I know he doesn't look it, Buffy but he's an eating machine," Wes said grinning.

"Everyone says I don't eat enough," Connor moaned, giving an expert teen- aged eye roll.

"Only those who don't know you well," Wes countered.

"There she is," Xander said, pulling Buffy and Anya along in his wake. The rest of the group followed more sedately.

Dawn sprung out of her gaggle of friends, crushing herself to Buffy. "I did it!" Buffy hugged her tight. "Was there any doubt?"

"Hellmouth, always doubt." Dawn grinned and Buffy flicked her tassel.

"Take your time, mix with your friends and just tell us when you're ready to go home," Giles said.

Dawn bobbed her head, looking out the window. "Sun's coming out from behind the clouds. Guess Angel and Spike are already on their way home via the.long way."

"They'll be there," Buffy said.

It took Dawn over an hour before she could tear herself away from her friends. Everyone but Buffy and Giles had gone on ahead to get the graduation feast started. Both Dawn and Buffy had managed not to break down into tears during the chicken Kiev and the asparagus-artichoke salad.

They all retired to the living room where the gifts had been set. Willow bustled about handing out glasses while Xander and Giles fought open some bottles of asti spumanti, 'because the occasion warranted it.' Buffy stood in front of the fireplace, trying to think of an appropriate speech.

"I wanted to have something witty to say," she said, her eyes going instantly wet. "I even looked stuff up on the net but nothing seemed right. I guess all I really need to say is, Dawn, we all love you. We're very proud of you and we know you'll do well no matter what. And whenever you want to come home, for whatever reason, we'll be here for you." Burry raised the glass Willow had stuffed into her hand. "Cheers."

"Cheers," her friends chorused back.

As the glass clinked, Dawn got up and gave everyone a hug then sat back down in front of her gifts. "I'm going to do the easiest ones first, Gunn and Fred's and Faith's since they aren't here and I won't start crying the moment I look at the gift."

"Sounds like a plan," Spike said.

Dawn unwrapped a mini-tape recorder. "Ooo, this will come in handy. I'll have to tell Fred and Gunn thanks."

"Just make sure it's not going to class while you're still in bed," Willow said, grinning.

Dawn laughed and picked up a large package. She took out a slinky dress that had a note pinned to it reading, "For those Frat parties." Dawn laughed harder. "That Faith."

"That stays here," Buffy said, giving Dawn her best 'mom' expression.

"Not on your life." Dawn selected a small box next. "Connor, you didn't have to get me anything."

"Dad said it's what you're supposed to do," Connor said, looking up at Angel. "When I was here last time, you tried hard to be nice to me. I wanted to say thank you."

"He picked it out himself," Angel said, proudly.

"Cordelia and Fred gave me ideas," Connor said, rubbing the back of his neck shyly. He had lost the tie and suit jacket somewhere.

Dawn ripped the paper off and opened the jewelry box. She lifted out a silver necklace with a flat, oval medallion carved with lines. "It's beautiful."

"It's Irish writing, Ogham," Connor said, pointing to the lines on it. "That's your name."

"I love it." Dawn popped up and gave Connor a quick kiss. "Thank you."

Connor grinned wide.

"I think he sees why you give a girl gifts," Spike said, wryly.

"He's a bright boy," Angel replied with a goofy grin.

Dawn picked up the largest of the gifts and unwrapped a hand made quilt. "Oh, Wes, it's so pretty."

"I'm glad you liked it. It's something nice to cuddle up under and it'll dress up the dorm room," he said with a sheepish look. "I got the idea from Fred and Cordy, too."

"Well, I love it," Dawn said, reaching for an envelope. She took out a piece of paper from the card within, giving it a curious look.

"You've been talking about seeing Seattle and the Space Needle for forever," Willow said, bouncing in her seat.

"So Will, Ahn and I went in and got you a plane ticket and hotel reservations. You leave next weekend," Xander added, grinning from ear to ear.

"It was very expensive," Anya put in.

"Oh my god!" Dawn squealed, jumping up to hug and kiss them all.

"I knew she'd love that," Buffy said.

"I'll be right back," Spike said, heading for the door. "Don't wait on me, Li'l Bit."

"Okay. It's a perfect vacation," Dawn assured them all, taking up the last gift. Inside was a painting and a jewelry box that held an amber necklace and earrings. "Oh.oh!" Dawn breathed.

"That was mom's favorite picture and her favorite jewelry." Buffy stopped, her voice tight. Tears percolated in her eyes. "I know she'd want you to have them."

Dawn couldn't speak. She just held her sister so tight they could barely breathe. "Thank you," she said when she found her voice again.

"There's one more gift for you," Angel said.

Dawn looked at the table, seeing nothing.

"It was another joint effort," Giles said. "And if you would have told me a Watcher could go shopping with two vampires, I would have called you a liar."

"I can't wait to see it," Dawn said.

"Spike went to get it." Angel headed for the front door. "Come on."

Dawn went out and saw Spike leaning on a vintage Volkswagen Beetle under the light of a street lamp. She covered her mouth, doing a little dance. She raced to the red vehicle and ran her hand over the black dots that covered it.

"Oh my god, you bought her a car," Buffy said, her eyes far too big for her face.

"She needed something to get to school in," Giles said.

"It looks like a lady bug." Willow laughed.

"I love it!" Dawn cried, tossing her arms around Giles then Spike and Angel in turn.

"Good. We were worried about the paint job. But well." Giles trailed off, fussing with his glasses. "We thought.um." Angel shifted his weight from foot to foot, looking just as embarrassed.

"We thought the bloody thing was cute but you can't ever repeat that," Spike growled good-naturedly.

"It's so adorable" Dawn said, getting behind the wheel.

Angel floated over to Buffy while everyone cooed over the car. "Big day."

She snorted, wiping at her eyes. "I can't believe she's leaving me. She's really going to be gone in just a few weeks." Buffy tried to smile. "There's going to be no putting up with her now that she has a car." "I know the feeling. Connor's been making noises about learning to drive. Not in my GTX, he's not." Angel shoved his hands in his pockets. "Gunn and Wes have taken to hiding their keys."

Buffy giggled then sobered slightly. "How's Connor doing?"

"Better, a lot better. So far no repercussions from Wolfram and Hart not for us, not for Lindsey. He and his brother went back to Oklahoma. He's reconnecting with his family so that's good. I think he's finally turned a corner." Angel sounded satisfied about that. "Faith's in Boston. She wanted to get her head together but she'll be coming back to L.A. this week to help out."

"Not feeling five by five?" Buffy asked, with a sad, soft smile.

Angel shook his head. "Losing the baby, even if she really didn't want to be pregnant, affected her more than she was expecting. She wanted some alone time and while I was little afraid of what she might do on her own, given her mental state, it seems to be helping. The time I've been spending with Connor seems to be working out for us. He's not entirely comfortable with me but it's getting better."

"I'm glad, Angel." Buffy reached out and tugged on his sleeve. He took his hand out of his pocket and let her take it. "I'd like to get to know him better, myself."

Angel smiled. "I'd like that. Someday I'll bring him here for a while but not just yet. I'm leaving, Buffy."

Buffy swallowed hard. She had been so used to him just being a few hours away if she needed him. What would she do if he were gone? Her legs shook in spite of herself. "For how long? Where?" Her voice was stretched thin as she tried to put on a brave face.

"Not sure how long, a month, maybe a little longer. I wanted to go now before Fred's pregnancy slows her down too much. I don't want her alone with just Gunn and Wes later on. What if something looking for me finds her?" A distressed look flashed across his broad face. "Hopefully Faith will stay around to help keep her safe."

"So you are coming back," Buffy said, not caring how relieved she sounded. Her fingers convulsed on his hand.

He stroked her cheek with his free hand. "I'll be back. Connor and I are going to Ireland. It's time. Wes is flying with Connor to England since Connor's never been in a plane before and he's spooked about the idea of flying. I'm going in a coffin.as a dead relative. Not the best way to travel but it'll get me there fast."

"Ewwww." Buffy wrinkled her nose.

"I know. Connor and I will stay in Ireland for a month or so and Wes has convinced the Council to fly me back under the guise of medical experimentation." Angel shrugged.

Buffy squeezed his hand then let go. "Do you trust them?"

"I don't like the idea of trusting them, especially not with the chaos the Watchers' Council is in. The Council's been around a long time Buffy and it wasn't always like it was under Travers. They used to be more trustworthy and maybe with Giles there helping to rebuild it will be again. I have no real choice. I can't be gone forever, not as long as a boat would take. And so far, the Council has helped with Connor and I appreciate that. They might even help me find tutors for him. He's never been in school a day in his life so I have to do something with him or he'll be working in a convenience store until he dies or goes mad, whichever comes first."

"I know the feeling." Buffy shuddered. "Enjoy yourself over there, Angel."

"I will." He kissed the top of her head. "I wish you could come with me. Hell, I wouldn't even complain if you went to England with Spike. You need to have some joy in life, too, Buffy."

"Thanks. And I do, when I see things like this." Buffy pointed to her sister and friends clustered around the car. "It makes what I do worth it."

Angel nodded. "I understand completely."

Buffy took his hand again, pulling him toward the car. Angel went with her without complaint, happy to get to share in the little joys with her.

Challenge Requirements (as best as I remember them. The site they came from is temporarily down and I lost my copy in a hard drive crash) - Buffy has to kick butt - Buffy/Angel crossover - reference to rugged Wes - Wes bare chested -Spike getting drunk and crying - Wes being curious about why Spike could hit Buffy and being told to leave it alone. - Buffy getting rid of Dawn