Buffy, Anya and Clarence now found themselves at another familiar location: the hallway outside Xander's and Anya's apartment. The door to their apartment was closed, but that of the apartment across the hall was open a crack and some loud '70s Bee Gees disco music could be heard from inside.
They saw Dawn come up from the stairwell. She knocked on the door a few times, then called out, "Xander? Xander? Are you here?"
The door across the hall opened wider and a woman stepped out: dressed similarly to Dawn, in a lacy top, impossibly short skirt, fishnet stockings and spike-heeled slides. The light blonde hair was either a cheap wig or a hopelessly bad bleach-and-perm job. With the heavy makeup, Buffy couldn't tell for sure if she was thirty- or even fortysomething, or someone close to Dawn's age who had seen some bad road.
"That's not your original neighbor, is it?" Buffy asked Anya.
"Never saw her before in my life," Anya shook her head.
The woman took the cigarette out of her mouth and blew a cloud of smoke in Dawn's general direction. "Xander ain't home, Hon!"
"But he still lives here?" Dawn asked hopefully.
"Do you know if he'll be home soon?"
"Don't know," the woman said. "But he's probably at his usual hangout. The Saint Jude Mission."
"Oh!" Dawn smiled brightly. Despite the hooker getup, she still showed her innocence and naivete. "He must be doing volunteer work! Is that near Saint Jude Middle School?"
"It used to be the Saint Jude Middle School," the woman replied, then laughed to herself as Dawn headed back to the stairwell, with Buffy, Anya and Clarence following.
The sun had just set and the neighborhood had deteriorated considerably, starting with the graffiti on the exterior of the apartment and the trash on its unmowed, muddy and tire-rutted lawn, which Anya found quite distressing. Saint Jude Church and its school were only a few blocks from the apartment, but the trip was prolonged by Dawn's continued struggle with her high heels, and her need to duck into an alley or side street as she heard motorcycles rumbling along the main drag. It was dark by the time Dawn reached the church and school grounds.
Although she'd attended the Sunnydale public schools, Dawn had known enough kids from the Revello Drive neighborhood who had attended Saint Jude Middle School to know it was one of the newest and most prestigious of the parochial schools in the area. She'd been inside it two or three times for sporting events between Saint Jude and Sunnydale Junior High. Although the exteriors of the church and school appeared to be as well kept as she remembered- an enclave of cleanliness and normalcy in the squalor of what Sunnydale had become- she was shocked as she entered the unlocked front door and saw that the interior had been stripped of nearly all vestiges of academia. The classrooms had been turned into homeless shelters, and small groups of the downtrodden were heading down the halls toward the cafeteria to join the gathering for dinner. Dawn and the unseen entourage followed along inside.
Dawn spent several minutes looking among the nuns and volunteer workers behind the counters and in the kitchen. No sign of Xander. She sighed and headed toward the exit. As she walked past one of the tables, she paid little attention to the bearded derelict she could see out of the corner of her eye as he got up. Until he walked up behind her and rested his right hand on her shoulder.
"Dawnie? Is that you?"
Anya and Buffy were as shocked as Dawn at hearing and recognizing the voice. Dawn looked at the twisted, deformed fingers on her shoulder, and followed them up to the crooked forearm in the threadbare flannel shirt. She looked into the unshaven face. As she looked into the eyes that were quickly filling with tears, her own eyes began watering.
"Xander?" she whispered, then sobbed as they quickly wrapped their arms around each other and clung tightly. "Oh, Xander! Thank God I've found you!"
They held each other silently for several seconds, the downtrodden denizens of the erstwhile school cafeteria paying little heed to them. Finally, Xander held Dawn by the waist and said, "Just let me look at you, Dawnie."
"Your neighbor across the hall told me you were probably here, but she also said you still had your old apartment. I thought you'd be helping out doing volunteer work here or something. Why are you here if you're not homeless?"
Xander stifled a bitter laugh. "This place isn't just for the homeless. They give free meals to anyone, no questions asked. After the property values went South, my landlady was happy to let me keep my apartment for three fourths of my Social Security check. Unfortunately, that doesn't leave me much left for food." He paused. "Hey, you want something to eat?"
Dawn managed a smile. "As a matter of fact..."
He guided her to one of the serving lines, where a diminutive, middle-aged nun served up a bowl of either a thick beef soup or watery beef stew. They returned to the table where Xander had been sitting by himself. Dawn ate hungrily while Xander finished his own bowl. She noticed that he was eating with his left hand with his right mostly on his lap or at his side.
"So you're on Social Security?" she asked. "What happened?"
"When I woke up in the hospital," he said with tears still in his voice, "the doctors and nurses told me you and Spike had brought me in. I had a bad concussion and my right hand and forearm had been crushed. Not much use to someone in construction. But they said I was lucky they were able to save the hand at all."
"Oh, Xander!" Dawn, Anya and Buffy chorused.
"After I'd recovered enough to handle the news, they told me you'd left a message that Anya and Willow and Tara didn't make it. And that Spike was taking you to your dad's and was going to take care of burying the girls next to Buffy. To tell you the truth, I didn't believe that last part until I got out and checked for myself. Ordering and paying for the headstones took a big chunk out of what I had saved up, but I owed it to the girls." He paused and smiled a familiar ironic smile. "The funny thing is, besides the dockyards, construction's the one thriving business here in ol' Hellmouth City. The Hellions leave and let the town rebuild, then they come back and ransack the place again. It's a host-parasite relationship."
Dawn finished her stew quickly, and as they returned their bowls and spoons, Xander said, "Come on. Let's go home."
They started out the door and back to the apartment building. "You know, Dawn, I know you had to have run away to be back here in Sunnydale, but I'm glad to see you."
"I had to come back, Xander. Just about everything I ever really loved, living and dead, is back here."
The conversation on the way back started as almost a deja-vu of Dawn's earlier exchange with Spike: how terrible it was living with her father and Lucinda; how she hoped to take her inheritance from her mother and start her own art gallery when she turned eighteen; how she didn't need any more school; how living with her grandmother or aunt were not viable choices. Only Xander was not at all disparaging of her plans the way Spike had been.
"Well," he smiled as he unlocked the apartment door and held it open for her, "this is home for you for as long as you want it to be."
Dawn sniffled as she gave him another tight hug and kissed him on the cheek. "Oh, thank you, Xander!"
They entered along with the unseen entourage. Anya was shocked at the interior of what had been her home with Xander: it obviously hadn't seen a woman's touch since she was last in it, and was like the shambles that his quarters in the basement of his parents' home had been, only worse. Dawn and Xander sat down on the couch, and she again sighed audibly as she kicked off the high heels.
"So now you have a roof over your head," Xander said, "and you can keep eating most meals at the Mission like me. Some future, huh?"
"We'll get by," Dawn smiled. "We have each other now. And in two and a half years, I'll have my inheritance..."
"So, tell me, Dawn. What were you going to do if you hadn't found me?"
Dawn paused with a slight blush. "I was going to talk Spike into letting me stay in his crypt with him."
He stifled a laugh. "This is a much better plan!" He paused. "And if you hadn't learned about the Mission, you were going to feed yourself by...?"
Dawn looked down at her getup. "How do you think?"
This time, Xander couldn't suppress the laugh in time.
"I'm not a baby anymore, Xander!" Dawn pouted.
"But I remember when you were!"
"I was ten when we moved here!"
"That's a baby to me. And you haven't grown up that much!"
Dawn's expression made a subtle change from a pout to a bitter scowl. "Losing your mother and your only sister and most of your friends all within ten months. You grow up real fast when that happens!"
"I'm sorry, Dawnie," he stroked her hands with his left. "I didn't mean... well, anyway, you don't need to even think about... what you were thinking about."
"I guess not," she smiled.
"We'll take care of each other now," he said reassuringly. "So why don't you go to the bathroom and wash up, get that junk off your face."
"Okay," Dawn managed to laugh. She took off her jacket and went to the bathroom. As Xander heard the water running, he picked up her jacket, shoes and shoulder bag and carried them into the bedroom.
Buffy and Anya followed him, and Anya was surprised. While the rest of the apartment had become like his old quarters in his parents' basement, the bedroom looked exactly like it would have the night they had resurrected Buffy- or had attempted to in this case.
"He hasn't changed a thing!" Anya gasped to Buffy, her eyes watering again. "He's kept this room as a shrine to me!"
They heard Dawn open the bathroom door. "In here, Dawnie!" Xander called out.
Dawn stepped in. She was still in the lacy blouse, micro-mini and fishnets, but the makeup was all gone. "Now, that's more like the Dawnie Summers I've always known!" Xander smiled.
"You can stay in here. I'm sleeping on my recliner."
"Thanks," Dawn said again as she sat on the bed, then as he turned for the door, she patted the spot to her right. "Don't go yet, Xander."
He sat on the spot, and she took his good left hand in her right. "You don't have to sleep on the recliner," Dawn said.
"I do anyway," he said. "I'm used to it. I haven't slept in here since I lost Anya. I haven't had a reason to."
"He's stayed faithful to my memory!" Anya sighed. "I knew it! Oh, Xander! I'm so sorry for hating you!"
"Well," Dawn smiled, "now you do."
"You wouldn't be comfy on the recliner," Xander replied. "It takes a lot of getting used to."
Dawn gave him the same Lolita smile she had given Spike earlier. "Who said anything about my sleeping on the recliner?"
Anya could see the nausea rising again in Buffy as she whispered, "Oh, God! Here we go again!"
"Don't panic, Buffy!" Anya reassured her. "This is Xander we're dealing with. And your virgin little sister, whom he has memories of seeing in Hello Kitty pajamas!"
"Yeah," Buffy reassured herself. "If Spike can restrain himself from the temptation before his chip even kicks in, we have no worries from Xander. He's more of a big brother figure to Dawn than Spike ever was."
"D-D-Dawnie, I couldn't!" Xander inched away from her. "You're Buffy's little sister!"
"See what I mean?" Anya smiled, and Buffy nodded in agreement as she breathed easier.
"Yes, and you and I both know that deep down inside, you continued to carry a torch for her," Dawn said as she slid over to close the gap. "Even after Faith and Cordelia. And even after Anya." She smiled again, "And you know that I've always liked you, right?"
"Yes, and we love each other like family, but you and I both know that that was a little girl crush that you grew out of."
"Things are different now, Xander," Dawn said. "Buffy and Anya are both gone. And my feelings never really went away, I just held them in check after you and Anya moved in together."
"Let's suppose you're right," Xander said nervously, "Buffy was Buffy and you're you."
"Well, yes and no. You know the whole thing about how I was made from Buffy and we had the same blood? It's not just the blood... My body's just like hers, only younger and taller."
"You are a lot like Buffy, Dawn," Xander said. Desperately trying to change the subject, he added, "You know, when I first saw you at the Mission, for a second I thought that Buffy had somehow come back from the grave."
"That's something I've thought a lot about trying," Dawn said. "But I'm fresh out of Ghora Demon eggs. And I don't want to mess with anything that had any connection to Doc. I've learned my lesson. But I miss her so terribly, as much as I miss Mom."
"You know, Dawnie," Xander said tentatively, "I never got a chance to explain to you what Willow and Tara and Anya and I were doing out on the night the Hellions came to town... We were trying to bring Buffy back."
"Like I tried to do with Mom."
"Yes, but Willow thought there was a better chance that Buffy would come back okay. Since she was killed by mystical forces rather than by natural causes like your mom was." He paused. "I don't know what Willow was using, but I don't think there were any demon eggs. It didn't work because the Hellions ran over the ritual urn before Willow finished." He frowned. "Or maybe it wasn't supposed to be like that Shelley Long movie, and we were supposed to..." He wrinkled his nose and shook his head. "Nahhh!"
"Nothing." He'd succeeded in steering the conversation away from sexual matters and easing the tension, but now his eyes began watering again. "I can't tell you how many nights I've spent lying awake wondering how different our world would be if we'd succeeded."
"Spike used to tell me how many times he'd imagined that he'd saved me from getting cut and spared Buffy from having to jump. And I can't tell you how many nights I've wished I hadn't let Buffy stop me from jumping off the tower instead of her."
"No, Dawnie!" Buffy said, hoping that in some way her sister would hear her. "You have to move on! I jumped so that you and the others could move on!"
Dawn wiped away her tears and managed a smile. "But she's gone and she's not coming back. Neither's Anya. Or Willow or Tara. We can't bring them back, so we can't do anything except move on."
For the first time throughout this ordeal, Buffy smiled. "That's it, Dawnie! I must be getting through to you somehow. Right, Clarence?"
Clarence smiled his enigmatic smile but said nothing.
"I feel like your mom and Buffy and Anya are all watching us right now," Xander said.
"Well, two out of three, anyway," Anya smiled.
"I do, too," Dawn smiled. "And I think they'd all want us to move on."
"That's my girl!" Buffy beamed.
"You're right," Xander nodded.
And then Buffy gulped as the Lolita look returned to Dawn's eyes. She interlaced the fingers of her right hand with those of Xander's good left hand, then ran her left hand along Xander's knee. The tension between them returned.
"This can be a new beginning for both of us," Dawn whispered breathlessly. "Come on, Xander. Anya's been gone for six months. Am I right in guessing that you haven't had any since then?"
Xander turned to face her and grabbed her by both shoulders. She stiffened as he glared furiously into her eyes, breathing heavily.
"I knew I could count on you, Xander!" Buffy sighed.
And then a leer crept to his mouth. "A new beginning. For both of us!"
Xander and Dawn took each others' faces in their hands and locked lips in a deep French kiss. Buffy felt herself starting to hyperventilate.
"Okay, Xander," she said. "That's enough. Let her down easy, but don't go too far..."
"Oh, Xander!" Dawn breathed as their lips parted.
Xander guided Dawn by the shoulders until she was flat on the bed with him kneeling between her legs. Breathing heavily, they plucked at the buttons of each others' shirts. Dawn pulled down Xander's flannel shirt as he slid his mouth down along her throat to her increasingly exposed cleavage.
"NOOOOOOOOOO!" Buffy wailed.
"You cradle-robbing pedophile!" Anya screamed. "Over my dead bod-" She stopped in mid-sentence as she remembered that it was.
"Xander! How could you?" Buffy cried out as she and Anya both reached out to pry the two bodies apart. Both pairs of hands disappeared inside the oblivious, now entwined Xander and Dawn.
"It was your wish, Buffy," Clarence said softly.
"I take it back!" Buffy sobbed as she turned to Clarence and grabbed him by his overcoat lapels. "I take it back! Help me, Clarence, please! Please! I want to live again!"
Dawn, Xander, the bed and the apartment dissolved away and they were in sunlight again.
"I want to live again," Buffy continued. "I want to live again. Please, God, let me live agai..."
She let go of Clarence as she became aware of her new surroundings: the back end of the alley next to The Magic Box.
She turned to see herself coming out the back door of the Magic box, walking up to Spike and sitting with him on a crate in the shade of the back awning of the building next door.
"Wait!" Anya said hopefully to Clarence, "If she's here and there, then she's not dead, right? Unless Spike got himself a new Buffybot."
"It's not a robot," Clarence whispered as he watched Spirit Buffy listening intently to the conversation between Spike and her physical self.
"Then I don't get it!" Anya said.
"I was happy," the Physical Buffy said slowly to Spike. "Wherever I was... I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it!"
Then she and Spike evaporated, while the doorway behind them morphed from an ordinary, closed business back entrance to a charred open frame with a charred interior visible inside. The back door to The Magic Box likewise morphed into a boarded up entrance. The remaining Spirit Buffy looked down pensively.
"What was that all about?" Anya asked as she turned toward Clarence, then noticed that he had slowly started up the alley toward the street. He walked more normally after Buffy and Anya had caught up to him.
"Buffy," he said gently as he placed his hand on her shoulder, "the Higher Power that sent me- call Him what you wish: God, the Supreme Being, the Great Spirit, the Powers That Be- won't let me give you all the details about why you felt that way. But now you know..."
"...that it wasn't true," Buffy's eyes started streaming with tears. "That everyone I cared about wasn't all right." She looked at Clarence with incredulity. "God lied to me?"
"No. He didn't lie, but you misinterpreted what had happened, and that's really why I was sent here. To clear things up. He in His infinite wisdom knew that it wasn't your time. That you weren't finished. Not just as the Slayer, but as the beloved sister and devoted friend. What He did was give you a break. And He also gave you a promise."
"What you felt and what you thought you knew, while you were in Heaven... That's His promise that when it is your time, when you do go back, you will feel that way again. And that you will know that everyone you care about is all right. And it will be true then." Clarence winked. "Think of it as a Sneak Preview."
Buffy managed a laugh through her tears.
They had reached the sidewalk and crossed the street; they were back where the two women had first seen Clarence.
"And Anya," he added, "I don't know how much time you have left, but you do have enough of it. Just get started."
"How can I if we're still dead?" Anya demanded. "The buildings are all still..."
As Clarence smiled, the dilapidated, burnt out storefronts of Sunnydale suddenly morphed into their original forms. The Magic Box returned to being unboarded with the window glass intact.
"We're back!" Buffy gasped.
"Oh, do I dare hope?" Anya was almost crying too. They both looked around the familiar block. "Everything looks the same. Am I alive again?"
"Are we alive again?" Buffy asked. They turned around just in time to see Dawn appear from around the corner. Her hair was its usual chestnut color and in a neat ponytail, and she was dressed in a familiar conservatively cut purple top, jeans and her favorite pair of comfortable flip-flops, carrying her school bag.
"It's Dawnie!" Buffy smiled tearfully.
"And she's not dressed like a two-bit hooker!" Anya added.
Dawn glared at them. "Hey! I heard that!"
"She heard us!" Buffy rejoiced as she and Anya grabbed each other by the shoulders, jumping up and down.
Dawn squinted at her sister. "Buffy, are you all right?"
"Dawn, you can see me, right?" Buffy asked excitedly.
"Yeah. Why shouldn't I? The Nerds didn't make a new invisibility ray gun and shoot you with it again, did they?"
"No." Buffy tentatively poked her sister's shoulder. "And we can touch each other..." She suddenly wrapped her arms around Dawn and squeezed her tightly. "Oh, Dawnie! I'm alive again!"
Dawn smiled and returned the hug after adjusting to the surprise. "Well, yeah. Since October, but you sure haven't acted happy about it much."
"How about me, Dawnie?" Anya asked hopefully. "Can you see me and hear me too?"
"Well, yeah," Dawn sighed as she and Buffy separated, "as much as I'd rather not to able to."
Anya reached out and embraced Dawn. "Oh, Dawnie! It's great to be alive!"
Dawn stood there wrapped in Anya's embrace, screwing her face up, then looked over to her sister. "Buffy? Who is this strange woman and why does she look and sound so much like Anya?"
Anya gave her a firm kiss on the cheek. "Oh, you kid! I'm just so happy to be alive, all is forgiven! All the shoplifting and stealing and kleptomania... you can forget everything." She paused and then added: "Hey, Clarence! How's that for a first step toward redemption?" She turned toward the now empty spot where he'd been standing. "Clarence? Clarence?"
There was a tinkling of a bell. A familiar bell, that at the door of The Magic Box, as Willow stepped out onto the sidewalk and then closed the door behind her. She stared dumbfounded across the street at Anya and the two Summers sisters, with Dawn still standing awkwardly in Anya's tight embrace. "Whoa! What's wrong with this picture?" she called out loudly as she started across the street toward them.
"Willow!" Buffy and Anya cried out in unison. Anya let go of Dawn, and she and Buffy both grabbed Willow in a hug as she reached them.
"I repeat the question!" Willow said as she squinted sideways at Anya.
"Willow! You're alive!" Buffy said with her eyes watering again.
"Hello!" Willow replied. "That was supposed to be my line for you like, six months ago!"
"And Tara's alive too?"
"Well, yeah," Willow said. "I'm on my way to meet her for dinner. I mean, we're not back to where we used to be, but... You guys knew that, right? I mean, you just stepped across the street for some coffee a minute ago."
"They're both acting weird," Dawn told her.
Buffy and Anya both let go of Willow. Buffy was still crying as she hugged her sister again. "Like I remember telling you once before, Dawnie: Weird love is better than no love at all."
"And Xander?" Anya asked excitedly. "He's okay? Like, not all crippled and jobless and soup-kitcheny?"
"He's at the new high school with his crew," Willow replied. "They broke ground for the new Science wing this morning. You knew that!"
"Oh, good!" Anya sighed. "Now I can go back to hating him!"
FEEDBACK/REVIEWS ARE INVITED!
NOTES TO REVIEWERS: I hope you enjoyed it, folks! Very dark, I know, but if you don't have the dark, how can you really appreciate the light? Some people who have read this elsewhere have told me they were "squicked" by how D/X unfolded, but I offer no apologies for that!
This is the last work I've posted here that was already completed and had been previously posted elsewhere, so the next story I'll be posting is still a work in progress and may not be updated as frequently or regularly as this was. It's a much longer work, a post-Chosen followup of my Blood of the Night Stalker storyline, titled The Family that Slays Together. Please keep an eye out for it!