Summary: It's Dawn's seventeenth birthday, and she marks the occasion by passing on a message to Xander--and delivering an ultimatum. Eighth story in the "Slayer Central" series.

Disclaimer: All of these characters remain the property of their owners/creators. . .I'm just borrowing them for a spell. . .

Rating: PG-13, for themes.

Time Frame: August 30, 2003--Dawn's "seventeenth birthday." Occurs after the post- "Chosen" events described in "Slayer Central" and the following stories in the series. (spoilers)

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (eilandesq@hotmail.com) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.

Author's Note: I found Don Sample's reasoning (as expressed in his comments concerning his story "Harry Potter and The Key of Dagon") as to when Dawn's birthday fell persuasive, so I picked a day in late August and ran with it. Thanks, Don.

FAIR WARNING

"How about that sweater?--it would look great on her."

"Of course, Willow--because it isn't as if Dawn has enough clothing after Buffy assaulted Nordstrom's with the Wolfram & Hart Platinum Card a few weeks ago."

"You're not the most fun person in the world to shop with when we're not looking for magic stuff. . .say, how about we look for--"

"No. Emphatically not."

Willow pouted slightly. "Yep. Like I said. No fun at all. I should have brought Faith with me."

Giles snorted and made a show of rolling his eyes. "Yes, because you two have gotten along *so* well in the past." In spite of their recent reconciliation, Faith and Willow still weren't exactly palling around at the Hyperion, except in group gatherings.

Willow sighed. "OK, you've got me there--but Kennedy is still out on a Slayer-finding mission, and Buffy and Xander are busy getting the ballroom ready for the party, so when it comes to those nearest and dearest to Dawn who can come out in daylight, that kind of leaves us--so can you *try* to display some enthusiasm for the shopping here? After all, a girl only turns seventeen once."

Giles shivered, remembering Buffy's seventeenth birthday. "We should be all grateful for that, I would say."

Willow glared at him. "Hey! Not everyone had their boyfriend turn evil after sex on their seventeenth birthday. Some of us celebrated the occasion with somewhat more normal happenings."

Giles raised an eyebrow. "I see. And what exactly did you do on the day you turned seventeen, Willow?"

Willow squirmed, remembering an evening shut up in her room with a sympathetic Buffy a few days after Xander's love spell had gone awry. "That's not important, Giles." She whirled to glare at him, expecting a smug look, but she saw a sympathetic expression, and she remembered all too well that the month had been difficult for him as well. She reached out and squeezed his arm with a sad smile, then coughed self-consciously and commented, "OK, so clothes and magic are out--how about some artwork for her room?"

"That's a reasonable suggestion--do we know what she likes?" Giles sounded receptive, but cautious.

Willow frowned for a moment, then shook her head in defeat. "Can't think of a thing, damn it--though I can think of some really nifty things I could do with ma--"

"Willow!"

Willow pouted again and sighed, "We're going to be at this for a while." Giles nodded grimly as he followed her along Westwood Boulevard.

* * * * *

"Happy Birthday, Dawn!!!"

With over fifty Slayers at the Hyperion, birthdays were almost a weekly occurrence, and Saturday had been set aside for the hotel's inhabitants to celebrate them with the individuals in question. There were no other birthdays on this weekend, however, and Dawn was very popular among the Slayers--who saw her as a "normal" peer who didn't have any problems with being around Slayers, and who had any number of insights as to what to expect when living around Slayers. This being the case, it was not a surprise that the Hyperion's ballroom was fairly full, as the seventy or so inhabitants of the hotel came together to celebrate Dawn Summers' seventeenth birthday. By the time that Kennedy had come back with a newly located Slayer--this one being in her early thirties and dealing with the aftermath of having lost her job after she had broken some rather valuable merchandise at Sears due to a lack of control of her newly found strength-- the party was in full swing. Dawn saw Buffy walk over to Kennedy and the new arrival, and she smiled inwardly. * Now's as good a time as any. * She waved to two well-wishers, then walked over to where Xander had just finished dancing with Fred. He turned and saw Dawn approaching, and smiled broadly: "Hey, Dawn--having fun?"

Dawn nodded. "Yeah, I am, actually." Her expression turned solemn, and she asked, "Xander--can I talk to you alone for a few minutes?"

Xander frowned, concerned at Dawn's apparent change of mood. "Sure--I know just the place." He led her through a doorway, then through a small, dark room and another doorway, which led out to a small balcony overlooking the city. Dawn smiled in appreciation of the view, and Xander took a moment to enjoy it himself before turning to Dawn and asking quietly, "What's up?"

Dawn met his gaze, and he was struck at how adult she looked as she replied, "Xander, I was given a message for you to deliver if the person in question was unable to give it to you herself. This was the day she asked me to give it to you." She reached into her purse and pulled out an envelope. "This is for you, Xander."

Xander closed his eye and swallowed hard as he accepted the envelope. "Thank you, Dawn. I'll read it after the party." Inwardly, he was shaken at what was obviously a last message from Anya, but he didn't want to disrupt the celebrations with what was bound to be a sad moment.

"Xander--could you read it now, please? I'll explain why afterwards. If you want me to look away while you read, I will--but I know what the letter says." Dawn's voice quivered ever so slightly, but her gaze never wavered.

Xander felt a pang of sadness, and he shook his head. "You don't have to look away, Dawn. If you want to stay while I read it, I'm OK with it." Dawn nodded, and Xander carefully opened the envelope and removed the letter, placing the envelope in his shirt pocket. He opened the letter and saw it was written in Anya's neat, precise handwriting. He began to read:

*

Dear Xander,

As the cliche goes, if you're reading this--unless the world has gotten really weird--I'm dead and you're not. Which gives me one thing out of two to be happy about, I suppose. You're somewhere out of Sunnydale, probably with a whole lot of new Slayers who are really confused about what they're supposed to do with their lives. You've been there, both in helping Buffy and in getting your own life together, so I know you'll be a big help. I know you'll be fine as far as finding a way to be useful--you've always been good at that, as hard of a time as you had believing it at times. That's not why I'm writing this.

We never really talked about how it ended between us--it never really got past you being sorry and me being pissed off about it. Even talking it out and the breakup sex didn't really get us past that, Xander. What I was never able to tell you, Xander, is that I know why you left me, even though you never could admit it to me in so many words. The vengeance demon gig actually gives you some pretty good insights, even though they're pretty well biased towards "all men are scum." You thought that if we stayed together, we would become your parents, or worse. If I had my powers back for five minutes, I'd use them to bring back that bastard who hit you with those visions and eviscerate him, then I'd spend the other four and a half minutes beating the crap out of your parents. Xander, what you never got was that I knew where you came from, and it never mattered to me--I knew what you were, and I was willing to take my chances. I think that deep down, what made me the most furious with you was that you didn't trust *my* judgment. Xander, I know that I come off as rude and overly blunt at times, and I love how patient you've been with me over the years. I'm going to tell you something, though--if I'd wanted to, I could have left Sunnydale and made my own life. I did a damned good job of making the Magic Box a ridiculously profitable enterprise before Willow got all evil and blew it up, and if you take a look at the bank accounts I've got listed at the bottom of this letter, I think you'll agree that even after that I was doing pretty well (might want to make some calls--the accounts are in both of our names. Hope the cash helps). I stayed because Sunnydale was my home, as painful as it was at times, and you were the main reason it felt that way. I wanted to be with you, Xander, no matter how scared you were that you'd hurt me, and you should have respected that and not used fear of hurting me as an excuse for leaving me. I've seen you around women, and given how we met it's kind of ironic that you treat them better than any man I've ever known--your actions on our wedding day being an exception.

But that's the past. I'm gone, and we can't fix it now. You're not gone, and that's why I'm writing this before we go out and I die and leave you alone. I know you're going to mourn me, Xander, and it makes me feel good that you will, since I'd be a dead vengeance demon without you, not a soon- to-be-dead person with friends who will also feel kind of bad that I'm gone. But you're reading this on Dawn's birthday, meaning that three months have gone by, and you've had plenty of time to deal with it. I'm dead--move on. In case I'm not being blunt enough, "move on" means that I'm not going to haunt you when you start looking at other women and thinking that it would be fun to try some of the stuff with them that we did on rainy Saturday nights which I'm not going into detail about because Dawn is reading this letter. (See, I *can* be tactful!) That's right, I want you to go out with other women and have lots and lots of sex--I don't want you to be alone, and it'd be a shame to let all that talent go to waste. I mean it, Xander--if you even think about holing up on some apartment and becoming a recluse for the next fifty years, I *will* come back and haunt your ass.

Of course, you're a stubborn bastard, and a little threat of haunting might not keep you from trying to make yourself a damned martyr, so I've made arrangements. I've asked Dawn to put herself in charge of your happiness. It's an important job, and I was happy to give it to someone who loves you almost as much as I do. Ignore what I'm asking of you, and you'll answer to her, and I know her well enough to realize that she has much more formidable weapons than a taser at her disposal.

Stay safe, and remember everything I've told you. Oh, and watch out for bunnies.

All my love,

ANYA

*

Xander finished the letter and closed his eye again for a moment before mechanically folding the letter and putting it back in the envelope. He opened his eye and saw Dawn watching him in the dim light: her expression was calm, though her eyes were sad. Xander took a deep, shaky breath and whispered, "Thanks, Dawnie." He turned away, adding, "I'm going up to my room for a few minutes."

"Xander, I need to talk to you now." Dawn's voice stopped Xander in mid- step, and he turned to see the determined expression on her face. "I have a job to do."

Xander turned to face her fully, and he felt a tingle of curiosity. "I noticed that. Anya said she put you in charge of my happiness--what exactly does that mean? Candygrams, making sure my pantry is full of Cheesy Chips, what?"

"It means that if I catch you moping around here with nothing to do, I bug you. If you're here on a Friday night when everyone else is out, I bug you even more. Most of all--you're a single guy living in a hotel with over twenty straight, unattached women over the age of eighteen who pretty much all think you're a great guy. You get one year to find someone to be seriously involved with, Xander. As much as we have to do around here, you've still got plenty of time to find someone, Xander--here or somewhere else. Anya didn't want you to retreat to your room and be alone, and we agreed that if you wait longer than a year, you're going to be too damned used to being alone, and you'll never get back into actually enjoying your life."

"Really? A whole year--how generous of both of you. I mean, you could have assumed that I'd stumble around attracting random demons for at least two or three years before I found someone." Xander was irritated, and didn't bother to hide it, though he felt a pang of guilt that Dawn was getting the brunt of the frustration he was feeling towards someone who wasn't there to be on the receiving end of it. He glared at Dawn and asked bluntly, "So--suppose I don't go along with your little game plan, Dawn? I lived with Anya for years, so my irritation threshold is pretty damned high, wouldn't you say? What are you going to do if I just say 'no' to the 'get Xander some lovin' Plan?"

Xander waited for Dawn to show hurt or anger at his reaction, and felt a chill as he saw a cold smile appear on her face and saw the look in her eyes--it wasn't Buffy's Glare of Death, but it showed the formidable personality hiding behind those eyes. He swallowed hard as Dawn replied, "Then we have to go on to Plan B."

Xander felt the chill again, this time more pronounced. * No--she couldn't mean-- * He forced down the uneasy feeling and asked bluntly, "And what exactly is Plan B?"

Dawn stepped nearer to Xander, and her expression was as matter-of-fact as if she were discussing the weather with him as she replied simply:

"Me."

Xander reacted instinctively by laughing--not in mockery, but in a mildly hysterical tone that suggested that Dawn had made a very bad joke and he was covering up her social blunder. Dawn looked unmoved, and Xander regrouped and took a very deep breath before saying urgently, "Dawn, it's not funny to joke about things like that."

"Who's joking, Xander?" Dawn's expression had not changed: she studied him casually as Xander felt cold sweat start to trickle down his forehead. "Do the math--I'll be eighteen then. I'm going to be kind of busy for the next year, finishing high school and all that, but after that I'm going to be making plans for my future, and if you're still unattached, you're going to be part of those plans. Don't think I'm kidding, Xander--if my eighteenth birthday comes around and you don't have a steady honey on your arm when you congratulate me, I'm declaring it open Xander season--and I'm gonna bag my limit."

Xander was finding the balcony all too small at that moment, and thought desperately for a moment before an idea occurred to him. * Sorry, Dawnie, but I'm going to fight dirty * He smirked at her and puffed himself up as he asked, "What makes you think you're all that, anyway? I've had some pretty hot women after this bod--what makes you think that a teenage girl just getting a look at the dating world can measure up?" He felt another pang of guilt at having taken a shot at a significant part of Dawn's self- esteem, and he was preparing to retreat and console her when he noticed her approaching him. He tensed, wondering if she was going to smack him or pull the taser out, and he was stunned when she leaned in and whispered four words in a rather good imitation of Willow's voice:

"Right there with ya."

Xander paled, and Dawn stepped back and smirked as he took a moment to recover, then turned and glared in the direction of the ballroom as he snapped, "You know, one of the drawbacks of convincing your temporarily evil best friend not to destroy the world is that before you know it, THEY SELL YOU DOWN THE FRICKIN' RIVER!"

"Oh, give it a rest, Melodrama Boy." Dawn sounded amused, and Xander took a deep breath and managed to stay still as Dawn continued, "Once the Letterman's Jacket from Hell was burned and my brain started working right again, I noticed that you and Willow were acting weird around me, and I remembered how freaked Buffy had been at what I was wearing at the Bronze-- and that you had probably been there with her. Since I've actually managed to have conversations with Willow about sex without her blushing and changing the subject to *baseball*--" Dawn looked pointedly at Xander, who was visibly trying to blend with the scenery, then continued "--I went to her, and I got the whole story from her in exchange for the nine words she needed to hear." Xander frowned, and Dawn elaborated: "'I'm flattered, Willow, but I'm pretty positive I'm straight.'"

Xander smiled involuntarily and commented ruefully, "Willow was pretty positive she was straight when she was seventeen, too."

Dawn brightened, "She tried to explain that to me once--she compared it to liking coconuts a lot, then trying papayas for the first time and never wanting to go back to coconuts again, though if she were on a desert island and there was nothing there but coconuts--"

"Yes, Willow told me that, too. I always wondered--if Oz was coconuts and Tara and Kennedy are papayas, what was I: kiwi fruit?" Dawn giggled, and Xander nodded solemnly and looked at her appraisingly for a long moment before quietly adding, "OK, Dawn--it's pretty stupid to bluff when you've stacked the deck against me. You're a beautiful, brilliant young woman who could probably get just about any guy in L.A. to crawl on his hands and knees to get to you if you put your mind to it. Do you really want to be stuck with the kiwi fruit?"

Dawn blinked and looked at him, and Xander was taken aback by the sadness in her eyes as she replied, "Xander, if you think this is about me being 'stuck' with you, you're not getting it. I'm not my first choice for you-- whoever you'd be most happy with is. But if you can't find that someone, I promised Anya that you'd be happy, no matter what I had to do. I'd make sure you were happy, and I'd have the time of my life doing it, Xander. You're one of the few men on Earth who knows everything about me, and who I know loves me and accepts me in spite of it. I could do a hell of a lot worse than you, Xander--and I know you could do a hell of a lot worse than me. So don't. Find someone else you'd rather be with, and we can go back to pretending we never had the hots for each other. Deal?"

Xander felt his resistance weakening, and he pulled out his final hole card: "And how exactly do you think Buffy would react to this little plan of yours? I've kind of grown accustomed to my limbs being attached to my body, you know."

Dawn's smile vanished, and her expression was calculating as she replied, "Well, let's see. I'm not going to do anything until I'm eighteen, the guy Buffy was dating at that age was older than you'll be by then, and Buffy basically thinks you're a saint--a deeply annoying saint, but a saint nonetheless. I'll bet you a hundred bucks against the change in your pocket that if you run to her with this, she'll be planning to send out wedding invitations by the end of next year. Feel lucky, punk?"

Xander shivered at the image of both Dawn *and* Buffy working on implementing Dawn's plan, and he whispered, "No bet." He began backing up, commenting, "I think I'll go back to the party now, Dawn. It's getting a bit chilly out here."

"Xander, stop." Xander paused as Dawn spoke, and watched as she seemed to slump a bit. Gone was the focused, calculating temptress who had riveted his attention for the past minutes: Dawn was once again as Xander had known her for years now--his surrogate kid sister and longtime friend. He knew now that this was a mere guise for her, or more accurately, a fragile chrysalis that would soon vanish forever and reveal a remarkable young woman to the world. Dawn stepped forward and leaned up to kiss him softly on the cheek as she whispered, "You know I kind of love you, you big jerk."

Xander swallowed hard again and nodded, "I know, Dawnie." He stepped back and through the doorway, calling out, "I'll tell the others you wanted to look at the lights for a few more minutes," as he departed.

Dawn turned and looked out at the city for a few seconds, until Xander closed the door to the ballroom behind him. She smirked again and called out, "You can come out now Buffy--he's gone."

Dawn heard a muffled curse, and Buffy walked out onto the balcony with a glare that would have curdled milk. Dawn met her sister's angry gaze without flinching and calmly commented, "You're slipping--I saw you move while Xander was still reading Anya's letter. Did you hear all of it?"

"I heard enough." Buffy was audibly controlling her temper, and Dawn watched her take several deep breaths before she snapped, "You would have lost that bet--I'd never help force Xander into doing something he didn't want to do, and I'm going to tell him that right now. You need to realize that you can't go around running other people's lives for their own good--"

Dawn snorted loudly. "*You're* giving me that speech? That's a laugh." Buffy blinked hard, but remained silent as Dawn snapped, "I'm not asking you to help, but if you're not going to do something useful, stay the hell out of my way."

"What do you mean, 'useful'?" asked Buffy, trying to interpret Dawn's expression. "And what did you mean when you said you were your second choice for Xander?"

Dawn stared at Buffy in exasperation for several seconds before replying coldly, "Buffy, if you can't figure it out, I'm not going to spell it out. Tell Xander whatever you want to--but if he's single this time next year, just remember, you had your chance to make things right for him. Excuse me- -I've got a party to get back to."

Dawn straightened up and walked back into the hotel with offended dignity, while Buffy shook her head in dismay and confusion before turning out to look out at the city, wondering how her life had gotten so damned complicated again.

Author's Closing Note: The "coconuts/papayas" riff was adapted from a little indiscretion of mine from about a year back--posting to one of the endless "Is Willow Gay or Bi?" threads on alt.tv.bvs. Forgive me, for I have sinned. :-)

As always, comments are welcomed and desired