Title: Just a Girl                                                       Author: Circe

Rating: PG                                                                  Spoilers: Set right after Storyteller

Summary: Dawn's worried about what's to come.

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She's on the phone to Janice, but the whole time she's talking she can't shake the image of Chloe hanging dead from the ceiling.

Dawn didn't make the phone call; she hardly sees her friends any more. Kit, Janice—it's like they're part of another world, one where Dawn lives in a home, not a bunker, and practices applying eyeshadow instead of swordfighting.

Yet Janice keeps calling, and it's obvious she wants to know why Dawn hasn't been in school much lately, why Emily Zimmerman's mom told her mom that Principal Wood was seen coming out of Dawn's house, and why Dawn's suddenly hanging out with skinny old Amanda and thirty other girls rather than with Janice, her supposed best friend.

The exhaustion of lying yet again allows the image of poor, dead Chloe to haunt her.

By the time Dawn hangs up she feels herself shaking. This suicide has laid her low in ways that even the freaky-looking Ubervamp could not. She feels like it's the silent houseguest, lurking amongst the teenagers and the Scoobies and her superhero sister. Suicide and Lack of Hope are watching every move they make, eager, like the demon she banished from their house, to get its claws into them.

Dawn tried to commit suicide when RJ left her.

If I did this then his whole life he'd know there was someone that loved him so much they'd give up their life.

She knows this because it's what Buffy did. Killed herself to save the world and left Dawn with her love.

Then Dawn's love almost wasn't enough when she tried to give it in return.

"You told me I had to be strong ... and I've tried. But it's been so hard without you. I'm sorry. I promise I'll do better, I will! If you're with me ... Stay with me ... please. I need you to live. Live! For—" The tower shakes again and Dawn screams as girders break loose and fall to the ground far below. "Buffy!"

She's still not sure if it is.

Dawn stares at Willow in horrified comprehension. "This—you planned this. Letting the barrier fail, bringing us here, you and Buffy."

Yeah, she thinks, stroking the embroidered comforter on her bed and finding no comfort. They're all through with their death wishes. Right.

There's a knock on the door. Silly, since privacy here is practically non-existent, but at least Xander makes an effort. He's just about the only one; she's pretty certain Anya doesn't even know the meaning of the word.

"Coming!" Dawn grabs her jacket and the stake Buffy gave her on their first joint patrol. "I'll be right down!"

********

"Stupid (kick), ugly (kick), boring (kick), lameass (kick), little town (ki—) Oww!"

Dawn hops up and down in the middle of the sidewalk, clutching her foot in one hand and cursing a blue streak. The offending rock rolls sadly into the gutter.

Typical, she thinks. Just typical. "I'll bet slayers don't stub their toes."

Xander's walking beside her. Since their talk the night her potential came to nothing they've been walking together a lot. She likes it. He listens to her.

Of course, him listening to her means her listening to him talk about Anya. And that gets old fast. Like, really fast. But it gets her out of the house, and these days, that's all to the good. If Xander weren't with her, she wouldn't be out here now—God forbid General Buffy treat her grownup sister like an adult. Dawn's not allowed to leave the house by herself. Apparently being made out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn't street cred enough for big bad Sunnydale.

Dawn feels her shoulders tense up. She doesn't want to think about the whole "being made out of Buffy" thing right now.

"You know," Xander says, looking at her speculatively, "you sounded an awful lot like Buffy just then."

"Slayers don't hurt themselves on little rocks."

"No, but they hate their small town on the Hellmouth just like their teenaged sisters."

"Sunnydale's okay, I guess," says Dawn. Stupid Xander. She's trying not to think about being made of Buffy.

"I know things have been rough lately—"

"Understatement."

"But I would have thought that with all these girls your age in the house you'd be having a great time. Except for the eyeless killers and the ever-present threat of death, of course. Though that's nothing new."

"You really don't understand teenaged girls at all, do you?" Doesn't he know that save the all-important best friend, girls don't like other girls as a general rule?

Xander gives her a lopsided grin. "Guess that explains why the only person who would date me in high school was Cordelia."

Dawn shares his laugh, but she hates it when they talk like she knows people from their past. Sure she remembers Cordy; Cordelia's the one who gave her the first lipstick she ever owned, who couldn't believe Buffy and Mom wouldn't let her wear any. But the memory isn't real, like all of her life before the last two years. She's never actually met Cordelia, or the infamous Angel, or skanky Faith, or Ted the robotic almost-stepdad. Her reality is a Hellgod, a sick mother, and a dead sister. A vampire who loved her like she was his own, at least until the Summers he really wanted came along.

"How can you be mad at someone who died to save you?" Dawn asks the man walking by her side. She's asked herself the question many times since Buffy came back. In the summer, the feelings faded, but now, again, she feels that old anger bubbling to the surface. She really wants to know.

"Whoa!" Xander holds up his hands, warding off the seriousness in her tone. "Dawnie! Where did that one come from?"

He doesn't want to talk about it, she can hear it in his voice. Suddenly she's not sure she wants to hear his answer, anyway. He'll only lie, pretend he never feels furious at Buffy himself. But he does. Dawn isn't blind or deaf or dumb. Yet sometimes she wonders if he is—rather, if he's even capable of knowing how he feels.

She notices that he's walking a little more slowly than usual and that he's got one hand pressed against his stomach. It's the perfect way to change the subject.

"Are you okay, Xander?"

"Huh? Oh, I'm fine. I just, uh, reopened my wound staking a vampire last night."

"It's still not healed? That really was the date from hell."

"What can I say? Love hurts, baby."

Dawn snorts. She'll just bet it does. She knows exactly what set off his injury again. Staking is one way to put it; she saw Anya and Xander going at it earlier that day.

She's in the kitchen making herself a sandwich when she hears it: the rhythmic thwump-thwump of a bedframe hitting a wall. Last year she heard that noise plenty of times in the deep midnight quiet of the house, but she didn't know what it was, then. She'd wake up groggy and listen to the thwumping and the cooing—pigeons in the attic?—and then roll over again into sleep. Now she knows that it was Buffy and Spike in the bedroom next door. She's not a stupid naïve little girl any more, Spike and Buffy and the 'R' word have made sure of that. She knows the sound of sex when she hears it.

Carefully, she lays down the butter knife and creeps to the closed basement door. There's a cold knot tightening in her stomach. Dawn's seen the way Buffy has been watching Spike when she thinks no one is looking. Surely she couldn't be—they couldn't be—

So she pushes open the door as quietly as possible and checks it out. A world of eww, but better than the alternative. Dawn wonders what she would have done if Buffy and Spike really had been doing it. She wonders what she will do.

"So you're not getting along with any of the Potentials, then?" He seems determined not to let this go.

Their walk has taken them to the end of Revello, down Park, and into downtown Sunnydale. There are a fair number of people about for a February evening; Xander and Dawn are just two more anonymous pedestrians. Dawn finds this a constant source of amusement: take her away from the Summers' residence and no one knows she's different. Well, okay, maybe the crazy people who see her glowing green light, but no one else. Here, walking down the street, she can be anyone she wants to be.

"Oh, sure, they're fine. I mean, I like Amanda and Molly and Rona. Kennedy's okay, I guess. But it's pretty pathetic when Andrew's the best conversationalist out of the bunch. Half of them don't even speak English." Dawn looks at Xander, expression glum. "Buffy said she'd show me the world. At the time I didn't realize she meant it'd be sleeping on our living room floor."

"The girls are adjusting. Big life change and all."

"Uh huh." Is she supposed to be impressed by that? she wonders. Hello! Great and mystical ball of energy thrust into a mortal body by ancient monk-guys with ugly brown robes over here! She's the Key—or has everyone forgotten that but her? Andrew of all people brought it up earlier that day, and it made her realize how long it had been since anybody had mentioned it.

"You think there's gonna be school tomorrow?" Buffy told them about the carnage that used to be the high school when she and Spike and Andrew came back from closing the Seal of Whatsitsface.

"I'd count on it." Xander scowls comically. "If there's one thing I've learned from years of averted apocalypses, nothing short of blowing it up will stop that morning bell from ringing."

His attention is diverted by the marquee of Sunnydale's movie theatre. "Hey! Daredevil's playing! Evil can get its ass kicked by someone other than us! And I won't have to clean up the mess. Come on, popcorn and giant buckets of cola await—I promise, you won't believe it's not butter."

"Sure." Dawn follows Xander into the lineup. He's rambling on about how Andrew is going to be so jealous. She's just glad to postpone returning to the house.

Buffy's in commando mode: all yell-y and worried and we're all going to die.

Willow's all guilty and weepy and scared. She's also scary. Everyone else has forgiven her because her magic is so important, but Dawn isn't quite ready to be cool with the broken arm and the death threats and the glowy black eyes. That whole "I cast you out" thing Dawn did to that demon attacking her mother? She'd learned it just in case.

She's glad Giles has left again to get more Potentials. Not that she wants another person to hog the bathroom, but she's never felt completely comfortable around him. I don't think Buffy's Watcher likes me too much. He tries to act all fatherly to her, but she can see that he's still stuck there at the construction site with Dawn alive and Buffy dead. He'll never get past that.

She slants a glance towards Xander. He was the one she could trust, but now apparently there's more to the rape story than he told her, and because she can't get the real scoop from anyone she just doesn't know what to think.

Dawn doesn't even go near Spike. This whole getting-a-soul thing disturbs her more than she'll admit. His coat is back and he doesn't seem as much with the crazy, but—

He has a soul. Does she?

You wanna know what I'm scared of, Spike? Me. I'm like a lightning rod for pain and hurt and everyone around me suffers and dies. I must be something so horrible, to cause so much pain and evil.

This question, this fear, is the basis of all Dawn's nightmares. She's seen the First Evil in action. She knows it's just a matter of time before it comes for the biggest prize of all: her. 'Cause she's thinking, big glowing ball of energy with the power to bend time and space? Evil's gonna be interested.

She's had a lot of time to think about this. Sooner or later, the First Evil is going to come after her.

"Destroyer of the Universe. Guess cutting school doesn't seem so bad now, huh?"

"It's not you. You know that."

"But it's in me, isn't it? It's inside me. What are we gonna do?"

"I won't let anything happen to you. I promise."

That was then. Buffy died to keep that promise. What if she's not prepared to make that decision this time around? Maybe Buffy will let her die this time. Maybe that's what Mom was talking about.

Things are coming, Dawn. Listen, things are on their way. I love you, and I love Buffy, but she won't be there for you. When it's bad, Buffy won't choose you. She'll be against you.

Is that right? Should she die? She knows that Spike wants to leave the house so the First can't use him; maybe she should leave, too. Go away, far away, where it can't find her. Unless she was supposed to die—

The eyeball thingy said all this has something to do with messing up the Slayer line. Maybe it wasn't bringing Buffy back; maybe she wasn't supposed to die in the first place. Maybe stealing the Slayer's blood to make a little girl screwed everything up.

Xander's speech … it means a lot to her that he cares enough to open up to her the way he did. But he's so wrong. She never wanted to be a Potential. She has to die. I mean, if I was ever the slayer, it would mean she died.

More important, she has been chosen already. She was made specifically to be the Key.

It's frustrating, this identity crisis. She's been all leadershippy: helping people on the first day of school, slaying with Buffy, saving Amanda's butt. She's been computer research girl, translation girl, fighting girl. Yet with the Potentials to worry about, she's back to being just a girl. The Scoobies, from Xander to Buffy, are content to see only that part of her.

Nobody knows who I am. Not the real me. It's like, nobody cares enough to find out.

Is she just a girl?

For all their sakes, Dawn hopes so. She really, really does.