She walks through her home, hearing her footsteps echo. Every room holds memories, and yet sometimes, still, she finds herself stopping and wondering if the memories are real. She knows some of them are. She knows her mother died on that couch she wants to burn. She knows they gathered last year for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners around the table in the kitchen.

But what of the time Buffy got her into trouble for not doing her homework when, as a celestial being, she didn't even have homework? What of the time she embarrassed Buffy in front of that boy whose name she can't even remember? What of the hug they shared that time after spending all day shouting and screaming at each other?

She knows some of her memories are real but not all of them, and it's getting harder and harder to tell which ones are the fake ones implanted by the monks. Part of her wishes she was still up there in outer space, still nothing but a powerful ball of energy that would serve one day as a doorway between realms. Part of her wishes she had truly been born on this planet and was really nothing more than a human girl, meant to live and one day die. Part of her wishes she had never come here, and part of her wishes she had died with Buffy.

It would have been so much easier to just give Glory what she wanted, but if she had, Buffy wouldn't have been the only one to die. They would have all died, but that, she can't help thinking, would have been easier than living every day with this horrible pain in her chest. She never knew pain before coming into this world. She never knew pain before becoming mortal, a mere slip of a girl "born" to be the kid sister of the Chosen One. Why, she thinks, not for the first time, does she have to be some freaking doorway? Why does her sister have to be the Chosen One?

Why in all that is right by whatever God rules above should her sister's gift be Death?! Her gift should be life! She should still be here with her! Dawn crumples on the staircase, collapsing with her human arms around her too human and weak, trembling knees and cries right there for what seems like hours. Nobody comes to disturb her. Nobody comes to check on her.

She tells herself that Willow, Xander, and Tara are out fighting the good fight. She reminds herself that somebody has to fight to protect the innocents now that her sister is gone. Somebody has to save lives. But why should they save lives at all when they could not save her sister's?! Dawn's sorrowful sobs shake her small body and echo through the empty house that some days feels like her home, some days feels like a prison, and tonight feels like both.

She stops suddenly, thinking she hears her name, but when she looks up through her tears, there is nothing in her home but herself and her own sorrow. She forces herself up to her feet, holding to the wall for support as she does so. The others won't return home to find her like this. They are trying to help, she argues. They check on her every day, just not always when she needs them, and Willow and Tara have moved into her home to keep her company and watch over her and are even discussing dropping out of college. She's heard their whispered conversations. Education is no longer as important to Willow as it once was. She, like Dawn, only wants Buffy back, and college certainly doesn't have those answers - or the answers to any of the other questions they find plaguing them nightly.

Pulling herself back up to her feet, Dawn stands erect and suddenly finds herself looking at one of the framed photographs on the wall she doesn't understand. She doesn't remember taking this picture, and yet her face smiles back at her. She's younger in the photograph, too young for the picture to have really happened, because she knows at the time this body would have been that age, she was still out there in the cosmos. Dawn Summers hadn't even been thought of yet, let alone been alive to take a picture with her mother and sister.

The life she sees photographed before her isn't hers, and yet it is. She's never loved any one like she loves her mother and sister. She's never loved any one before, period. She screams her rage and knocks the photo from the wall. It's bad enough that she had to lose them, but she didn't even have them at the time shown in that picture! She screams and screams, and for a long while, she just keeps screaming -

Until she finds herself in the kitchen with a cigarette lighter Willow thinks she hid in her hand. She stares down at the tiny flame licking her palm, barely feeling the pain or heat. She stares down at it and finds herself thinking of the couch where her mother's body was found. She walks into their living room and stares at the couch for a long moment, the tiny flame still licking at her skin the whole while she stares at the couch.

Voices from the past echo around her. She hears laughter again. She feels smiles that bring more tears pouring from her eyes. She remembers movie nights spent with her mother and sister before Buffy started going out every night to patrol, movie nights that never really happened, memories that aren't really hers, memories of a family that both is and isn't. She screams and lunges at the couch.

She's setting it on fire when Spike, no longer needing an invitation because he's been invited by each of the Summers women at different times into their home, barrels into the living room. He knocks Dawn off of the couch just as the trickles of fire on it leap into one big flame and onto the floor. He rolls with her, forcing the lighter from her fingers, throwing it against the far wall, and beating her hands until the flames go out. Then he holds her as she continues to struggle and holds her hands more tenderly.

"Nibblet," he whispers as she rails against him. His lips brush her hair, but he doesn't kiss her. This isn't the time or the place, and they're both grieving for a brave, wonderful, and beautiful woman they each loved in their own way. "Dawn," he murmurs her name. "Nibblet. Dawnie." He calls to her again and again as he rails against him, her strongest shoves feeble attempts against his Vampire strength.

But finally, her efforts slow even though her tears do not. Finally, she stills in his strong arms and sobs onto his leather jacket, onto his shoulder, onto him. He lets her cry and holds her somehow simultaneously both strong and gentle. He'll never hurt her, but he also won't let it hurt herself. She cries and cries, and he just holds her.

His eyes only cut upwards when he hears sharp exclamations. Dawn still doesn't look up. She's lost to her tears and her grief. Seeing the warning look in Spike's dark eyes, Xander catches the wrists of Tara and Willow. Even Giles stills and pushes his spectacles further back up onto the bridge of his nose.

Willow takes one long look at Spike holding Dawn and then nods. She frees her wrist from Xander and moves to the couch. One murmured incantation douses the fire; the second turns what remains of the couch into ashes. Then she moves to her girlfriend and holds Tara as she weeps soundlessly.

The friends look at each other, all but Dawn and Tara who are still too busy crying. Giles clasps Xander's shoulder. The boy turns swiftly and hugs the older man, surprising him and making him choking back his own well of tears. Spike and Willow still look at each other, Willow over Tara's shoulder and Spike over Dawn's little head.

He strokes her hair and whispers soothing words to her, but they both know now. This house is no longer a home, this life no longer welcoming. Both are prisons from which they must somehow break free but neither knows how. Neither knows how, but Willow knows she must find a way. She's already started her research, but she's had doubts about it until this very moment. Now she knows.

Buffy's got to come back, and she's got to be the one to bring her home because nobody else will. Without her, they'll die in these prisons, but Willow won't allow that. She promised Buffy she'd take care of Dawn, the same promise that Spike made her, and they will. They'll do it the only way they can. She'll bring Buffy back and make Dawn - make them all - whole again.

The End