Dawn had seen battle. Hell, Dawn had seen war. Violence and bloodshed; desperation and carnage. It had dented her; hardened her - turned her into a warrior fit to meet the slayer and yet there was one thing that never failed to turn her blood cold.
Dawn shielded her eyes from the bright sunshine, looking up to the newly-erected buildings already swarming with all too enthusiastic adolescence. It had been bad enough before her time away – the politics and uncertainty of the place had always put her on edge. Attempting to fit in had been a battle unto itself. Now though...now she had to deal with the knowledge that she had lived through something far bigger than school-yard gossip. Even worse than the struggle to fit in, she now had to contend with the very real certainty that she no longer cared if she did or not.
School just seemed ridiculously contrite when she had two lifetimes swimming around inside her head – one of them a learned royal warrior.
She had protested at first when Buffy had brought the subject of school up but her continued fear of full disclosure had prevented her from making a very valid argument. It had been three weeks since her return and yet she still couldn't bring herself to tell her sister how much she'd really belonged in the world Willow had 'rescued' her from. Giles had finally backed off after her initial slip-up when none of his prodding at her yielded anything. Strangely enough the person who knew the most about her time away was Spike.
That first night sharing a beer in his crypt had turned into something of a ritual. When Dawn needed to get away from the forced normality of the Summers house she usually headed to the cemetery. Sometimes they would patrol together – other times were spent drinking and playing cards in his crypt. Dawn knew Buffy would have a conniption if she knew what her little sister was up to but she found herself more than willing to risk it just for the company.
Spike was the only one who treated her normally. Or rather, he treated her differently. Giles, Buffy, Xander – hell, even Anya were all clinging so desperately to the girl Dawn used to be, treating her like the child they always had in the hopes she might revert back. Spike saw the changes and he didn't fight them. He spoke to her like an adult and treated her like an equal. It was nice and particularly on their nights of drinking Dawn found it all too easy to talk freely.
Spike knew most of what had happened in Middle earth. She'd spoken of the battles and of the Ring. She hadn't been able to bring herself to talk about Legolas much, though from the knowing looks Spike sent her way when she clammed up he'd probably guessed why. She hadn't said anything about the Daughter – or her old life. She didn't know if she ever would. It was a touchy subject at best and that wasn't taking into account the world-ending power still trapped within her. From the way Giles had been talking the scoobies were of the mind that the Key was gone – that her one use was done and over. Dawn had thought long and hard on it and had decided to let them keep that assumption. The Key was dangerous after all – the less people that knew what she was really capable of the better.
Dawn sighed, shunting her backpack more securely over her shoulder as she headed for the doors. It so wasn't fair. She bet no other Universe-shattering super power had to go to highschool.
She made it to her locker without incident and thankfully without running into any of her former friends. She couldn't imagine what she would say to Janet when she saw her. 'Hi, how was your summer? Me? I battled an awesome evil in an attempt to right a wrong I did thousands of years ago in my former incarnation. You know, the usual.' Dawn rolled her eyes at herself.
It took a couple of goes to remember her locker combination but the horrid contraption finally popped open. Dawn was just shoving the first of her text books inside when it happened. A sharp stab of awareness hit her behind the eyes and she gasped, the remainder of her school books tumbling from suddenly nerveless fingers to crash in a heap to the floor.
"Find it – find the way!"
Dawn's mind was reeling and so when the hand grasped her shoulder she reacted without thinking, swinging the owner around and bodily slamming him into the lockers before her.
"Ow! What the hell?!" the boy cried and it took Dawn a moment of frozen confusion to place his face.
"Owen," she said distractedly. Owen Matthews to be precise. Before the summer she'd had a huge crush on him. Seven months ago she would have been mortified to have him looking at her the way he was right now – a mixture of outrage and embarrassment.
"Jesus Summers, what's your problem?" Owen said, rubbing his wrist where she'd grabbed him.
Right now however she had bigger things on her mind. Like getting back to the god damn junk yard.
"Sorry," she said, crouching hurriedly and sweeping her dropped books back into her bag. "Thought you were someone else."
With that she slammed her locker closed and hurried back the way she'd come, leaving Owen and most of the hall of students staring after her.
"She skipped school today," Buffy sighed twirling her stake in her hand.
"That doesn't sound like Dawnie," Xander frowned beside her.
The night was dark and cloudless – only a sliver of a moon casting illumination on the gravestones around them. It was the latest of the handful of times Buffy had been back out patrolling since Dawn's return and Xander had insisted on accompanying her yet again. Despite it being quite obvious that he was baby-sitting her she found she appreciated the company – though if the gang kept up the kid-glove thing too much longer with her she was going to hurt someone. In many ways she knew she deserved this. She'd dropped the ball, going to pieces like she had following Dawn's...departure. And she knew everyone was still just worried about her. But there was only so much concern one slayer could take.
Buffy sighed, kicking at a loose stone between two graves.
"That's just it – none of it sounds like Dawnie," she said hopelessly. "She's changed so much. I'm not even sure I know who she is anymore."
"Don't be silly Buff," Xander said. "She's your sister. She's just been through a lot – stuff like that doesn't just go away."
Buffy nodded. She'd heard it all before of course. Giles had filled her in on what he knew of the world Dawn had been trapped in. A medieval nightmare from the sounds of it. Her little sister had crash landed right in the middle of a war – and it had taken it's toll.
"I just..." she began quietly. "I just want her back."
Xander was true to Xander-form then as he stopped and pulled her into a hug. Buffy burrowed in to his chest despite herself. Sure she was the stalwart slayer but it was nice to lean on someone every once in a while.
"Just give her time," Xander reassured and Buffy nodded – just like she always did these days when someone said those words to her. Give her time. That was all well and good but how much?
Her moment of helplessness was interrupted then by a deep-throated growl and Buffy was almost happy for the distraction as she pulled out of Xander's embrace and palmed her stake.
"Yay, bad guys," Xander said, his customary feigned enthusiasm at the fore and Buffy threw him a grin the moment before the owner of the growl stepped out from behind the closest mausoleum. Buffy's eyes widened. The growl she'd heard could have come from a vampire and yet the creature taking stock before them very clearly wasn't one. Blackish, blueish skin stretched over bulging muscles as the creature shifted before them – seeming to be weighing them up as opponents.
"Do you know what that is?" Xander asked beside her and Buffy shook her head.
"No idea," she said, dropping into a crouch as the thing growled again – drawing a sharply angled sword from a scabbard at it's back.
"Aim for the neck," she advised just before the creature charged.
In the end Xander didn't have much of a chance to aim for anything. The fight between Buffy and the monster was short but brutal. The creature was seemingly made of bricks and determination but Buffy was faster. She'd wrested the blade from the creature quite early and had managed to lop an arm and a leg off before finally delivering a clean blow to the neck. The thing had continued to be thoroughly terrifying till the end, not backing down even minus limbs until it's head had come off.
"Well," Buffy said a bit breathlessly. "That was uber-creepy.
"Yup," he agreed, watching as Buffy swung the creature's weapon through the air. "New toy?"
"Dunno," Buffy shrugged. "It's a bit clunky for my tastes."
"Giles'll love it," he said. "It's not every day he gets a new monster to research."
Buffy smiled, running a quick gaze over what was left of her opponent.
"Remind me to mention the weird white painted hand thing," she said hefting the sword over her shoulder and heading towards the cemetery exit, Xander at her heels.
From behind the mausoleum Willow cringed as they went, the remains of a spell before her.
Dawn hadn't slept well. The flash of something yesterday had set her on edge. The familiarity was undeniable – Dawn had felt it before in her dreams. The Ring was here. Hiding well from her it seemed but still here. She'd searched high and low at the construction site – searched until she was sure of what she suspected already anyway. The Ring had ensnared a new master – someone it was already bending to it's will. Not that Dawn had any clue as to what that could be. The ring craved power – that was certain. So where would it go in this dimension? Demons, slayers, witches – anything was possible and because of that everyone was suspect.
Dawn didn't think it was any of her group – she'd been around them all too much and no amount of shielding on the ring's part was likely to hold up to proximity for long. That left a random then – someone who'd stumbled across the ring at the construction site in the last three weeks. Unfortunately that left a lot of people to track.
Dawn had been up all night doing research – builder's timetables and roster checks. It had all seemed an endless dead end. This morning was looking no better. Or it hadn't been before she entered the kitchen only to stop dead at the sight of the Orc blade on the bench.
"Morning," her sister said cheerfully before following Dawn's stricken gaze to the sword on the bench. "Ooo, sorry about that. Not the best breakfast companion."
Dawn swallowed as Buffy picked up the blade and dropped it in the umbrella stand next to the door.
"Where did you get it?" she asked, trying for nonchalant and just succeeding enough to fool her terminally distracted sister.
"Big growly monster last night," Buffy said, mouth half full of jam toast. "I'm taking it to Giles today – see if he can identify the bad."
Dawn nodded, still unable to tear her gaze away from the sword. Orcs in Sunnydale. That could only mean more portal magic which was too much of a coincidence with the Ring on the loose...
Dawn's eyes widened. Crap! Why had she not worked it out.
"It's trying to get home," she said, smacking herself in the forehead.
"Sorry?" Buffy frowned at her and Dawn shook her head.
"Nothing," she said hurriedly, pushing out her chair. "Sorry, thinking out loud. I have to go to school."
Buffy frowned at her.
"It's only 7:30."
"Early tute," Dawn hazarded quickly, grabbing her bag as she headed for the door. "I'll see you this afternoon!"
Spike was not a morning person. Mostly because morning was his bed time.
"Alright, alright!", he shouted, pulling a T-shirt over his head as he headed for his abused door. Whoever was making a punching bag out of it was either fearless or very very stupid to be bashing at a vampire's door at eight in the morning.
"This'd better be good," he growled, yanking the door open to emit a furiously pacing Dawn. Spike rolled his eyes.
"Come in, make yourself at home," he said sarcastically.
"The Ring's here," Dawn cut him off and Spike frowned – finally taking in the bit's dishevelled appearance, like she'd run all the way to the cemetery.
"The big fat evil ring you've been telling me about?" he asked, hardly needing the girl's nod of confirmation. What else could have put little sis so on edge after all.
"It's here and it's trying to use someone to get it back to Middle Earth," Dawn rushed. "There have been portals. Buffy fought an Orc last night."
"Buffy fought a what?"
"An Orc!" Dawn repeated hurriedly. "A very not-supposed-to-be-in-this-dimension Orc."
"Okay Nibblet, calm down," Spike directed. "Start from the beginning."
Taking a deep breath, Dawn did. When she was finished Spike looked thoughtful.
"Dimensional magic's are tricky – you sure it's not the witches?" he asked.
Dawn shook her head.
"I don't think so, I haven't felt it on them."
Spike pinned her with a look at that.
"Yeah, you're going to have to explain that little detail when all this is sorted by the way," he said and Dawn swallowed heavily, dropping her gaze.
Spike sighed and thankfully let the subject drop – though Dawn had no doubt it wouldn't be the last she'd hear of it.
"What we need is a way to track the magic," Spike said, suddenly all business. "I have a mage contact just outside town should have something useful."
Dawn's eyes lit up.
"Can you bring it by tonight?" she asked and Spike nodded.
"I'll come knocking at your window around nine – make sure big-sis doesn't catch me, I rather like my nads attached thanks."
Dawn had to laugh at that even as she hugged him in thanks.
"Spike you're the best," she grinned. "I'll see you tonight."
As she left, closing the door behind her Spike had to wonder what it was about the girl that made him want to be so pathetically helpful. In the past he'd chalked it up to her being the slayer's little sis and him wanting to keep his unlife which meant looking out for the twerp. Now though... Now she seemed to inspire a loyalty all her own. It was more than a bit disconcerting.
Willow ripped through the pages before her. She was close, so close. The portals were strong and her aim was true – all she needed now was to control the flow of matter. Things were coming through but nothing could go. She needed to reverse the stream somehow but everything she'd read so far was giving her conflicting instructions. It was in the blood she was sure – her palms still stung from her experimenting. She was so close – she had to be missing something...
Willow growled, slamming the book shut and throwing it on the ever growing discarded pile. The magic-shop's library was proving as useless as her own. Even worse, she'd had to leave the ring hidden at home for fear she'd run into Dawn at the store. It was almost a physical ache being away from it. Willow found herself stretching the cuts on her palm just to relieve the dull pain with a satisfying sting.
Willow reached for another book.