Title: Segue
Summary: Who's really on your side?
Spoilers: BtVS: Checkpoint, BtVS Blood Ties


Part 7c, Enemy of My Enemy (end of chapter)

They were dealing with a huge jigsaw puzzle of historical evidence and clues, demonic lore, prophecies, cosmological concepts, tidbits of knowledge and outright guesses, as they tried to figure out what was going on. Giles and the others sifted through all the new information from the Council, comparing it with their own and gradually unearthing new evidence, clues and leads on Glory. The puzzle pieces were chivied about to see what fit together, or what became a new lead, irrelevancies were tossed out, some to be grabbed back when they suddenly made sense again. Progress was painfully slow and frustrating, the big picture of the Key, Glory, what she intended and how to stop her still mostly a blur.

Buffy insisted defense against Glory be their absolute focus, taking precedence over defense against vampires. She explained she was more than capable of dealing with the few vampires and demons still active these days. Therefore Buffy was able to convince Willow and Tara to abandon their work on magic "sunshine bombs".

Tara seemed relieved to have Willow diverted from that exploration of raw magical energy. She had been concerned Willow was getting too excited by the possibilities, too interested in expanding her power rather than first understanding the purpose. Magic could, when employed wisely, thoughtfully and with care, be used for great good. There should be no thought for one's own gain—a harsh lesson Tara had learned so very recently and taken to heart. She was hesitant to use the word 'reckless' with regard to her lover, but nonetheless was glad Buffy was defining a specific, helpful purpose.

On the other hand, powerful magic would almost certainly be part of any defense against Glory. Though Glory was immensely strong, magic was too, and physics was physics: Glory's power could not be unlimited. If magic could help then they very likely needed everything Willow could give. This left Tara in a bit of a quandary.

Xander and Cordelia started on new Council leads about the Dagon Sphere and Glory. While cross-referencing an early account of an encounter between Glory and the monks, they discovered their formal name: The Brotherhood of Dagon. Clearly there was a relationship. Unfortunately the name was the only link between the monks and the sphere they could find so far.

As for the sphere itself (sitting under the cash register) both it and Glory had been physically proximate for some time now, as close as a few feet when Glory made her purchases (no "warding" going on there) to no more than a few miles if Glory stayed within the Sunnydale boundaries. Yet she seemed none the worse for wear. They found no clues on how its stated purpose of "warding off evil" applied to her.

Xander then joined Tara, looking specifically into the Key's relationship to Dawn: what had been achieved with Dawn, how and why? Not only was there Dawn's current physical human embodiment, but also her past as reflected in everyone's memories. It was a perfect and complete history, both internal to Dawn herself and external, beginning with her immediate family, on to a next level of extended family and close friends, then a secondary level of aquaintances, and finally to tertiary touch-points in perhaps thousands of lives and innumerable physical records and documentation.

Xander and Tara re-interviewed the others, checking the consistency and continuity of recollections. Everything tallied on every point. Even that people remembered the same event in different ways lent credence, as perfectly identical stories would be a sure sign of artifice. To the best of their ability to discern, everything, absolutely everything, was consistent, nothing missed.

Despite Xander's prior stated feelings on the matter they rehashed the first obvious theory based on the dying monk's claims: The Brotherhood had created Dawn as a vessel to contain and disguise the Key. To complete the disguise, Xander and Tara realized The Brotherhood must have scripted an entire biography, located everyone and everything with the slightest interaction, then reached out to adjust all according to the script: memories touched (according to claim), artifacts created such as transcripts, photographs, and even the cheesy gifts she had made for her family during kindergarten. The number of interactions was mind boggling. When asked, Willow considered the simple mathematical aspect and mentioned a number she said was larger than the number of particles in the universe.

If that theory were true then in effect The Brotherhood had ripped apart the tightly woven threads of the original tapestry of history to cram in the historical thread of Dawn, with nary a tangle or gap. Tara and Xander both found it difficult to believe the achieved perfection. Exhausted, Tara smiled tiredly. "Is she a figment of our imagination?"

"Or we're a figment of hers?" countered Xander.

"Maybe we're all figments of each other's? Everything just hangs together in the middle of nothing." She swirled her hand above her head to indicate all the nothingness. She rubbed her eyes and slumped back in her chair.

Xander was tired too, tossing down a pen he'd been chewing on. "Too many figs! How does Newton get all the cookies into one nice neat Dawn package?" Unable to maintain focus, a strange idea slithered into his mind, one that might easily provide the evident consistency and perfect disguise. It started with a simple yet impossible premise, common in the comics and science-fiction he often read: time travel.

Suppose, he wondered, the monks traveled back in time with the Key, perhaps even using the Key to enable such a trip, and imposed its energy pattern on something? Indeed, that the very imposition of the Key's energy changed an event that never occurred in the previous time-line into something that did. And just suppose that event was Dawn's human conception, that a sperm zigged instead of zagged? Could that have the effect of creating a whole new time-line, the one they were living in now with Dawn?

Aside from the time-travel it would only rely on halfway decent timing (plus a certain amount of voyeurism) by the monks. Xander got the shivering squigs at the momentary thought of what parents obviously do to become parents and Tara looked at him curiously. But he got past it and ran with the idea. Could using the Key have directly caused a child's conception? Could the Key's energy, it's very essence, become integrated in the child it caused to be created? Xander pulled on his lower lip.

Maybe, just maybe.

He had read and watched enough to think he know a fair bit about the conundrums and paradoxes associated with time-travel. But if the premise could be accepted, the beauty of the idea, he realized, was what the monks would need to do next: absolutely nothing! Everything would sort itself out as the tapestry of history was weaved anew. All events would unfold naturally, memories created perfectly and consistently because they all really happened. Everything is genuine and real because Dawn is genuine and real. The only reality that ever existed is this one with Dawn, both as human and Key.

He found it compelling.

Xander broached the idea to Tara, who liked it too. They got Giles' attention. He came over, followed by the others. Xander repeated his idea, Giles listening quietly, nodding occasionally, asking for clarification on a point or two.

"It certainly explains a lot," he agreed.

Willow objected. "But the monk said Dawn was 'made human' and given to the slayer using the energy of the Key itself. And that they created the memories. I remember. He said that."

"A good point, Willow." Giles closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, concentrating. After a few moments he spoke. "No matter how it was done, it's an audacious, stunning achievement. Braggadocio, perhaps? Or he may have been lying or deliberately mis-leading? Also don't forget he was near death, perhaps he was delirious and speaking nonsense?

"And recall what I said before about terminology. He might have been speaking metaphorically. What could be more 'made human' than born a human child?" He shook his head. "It would appear we have two viable models for Dawn: This 'creation' model of Xander's, and—for lack of a better term—an 'insertion' model, where anything and everything related to Dawn is inserted into the current time-line when Dawn was molded from The Key."

In the end they still had no ability to determine it one way or the other. But Xander and Buffy shared a knowing nod and look. Too many things felt right. Buffy wrapped her arms around herself, comforted in the certainty Dawn is and always had been her sister. OK, a sister with some extra green-ish "oomph". But Buffy, being the slayer, knew she had no argument against another human with extra mojo on top.

It was late in the day and time for each to go their separate ways. Tara and Willow needed to study for an exam. Buffy wanted to check on her mom again before patrolling. Cordelia had business paperwork to do, and Xander just wanted to go home and flop before starting early again tomorrow.

Giles talked to each and gathered all their notes together, placing them in a locking drawer, newly installed under the cash register. Tomorrow he would begin to collate and cross-index them, verify original source material, and summarize the progress so they could plan their next steps.

They picked up the threads of their investigations the next morning.

Tara and Willow discovered independent references to a story, contemporary with that in the Council's notes, of Glory's arrival. After piecing together numerous fragments and translations, the narrative they eventually developed was different than Travers and Giles' speculation regarding the flood story.

Herders were watching over their flocks one night when the sheep broke into a confused rush down the hill. Tara softly read aloud quotes: "night rendered unto day", "tearing of the sky", and "a sound that laid waste to all growing things". Giles read over their story and compared it to the Council's flood information.

He sat back while he thought, holding the council's notes. "Hmm. Perhaps these are both true. Yours describes the very moment of Glory's arrival, while this," he waved the papers in his hand, "might describe downstream effects soon after?"

Tara looked between Giles and Willow. "Whether or not magic was involved here, there had to be a lot of energy in her arrival. The energy must come from somewhere."

"When in doubt, stick to the fundamentals," reminded Giles.

"Physics, metaphysics, hmm...," recited Willow, sitting up and staring at the ceiling, She shook her head violently. "The information is incomplete." She slumped. "Or it's here somewhere," Willow said, pointing at all the piles on the tables and at the shelves of books and sheaves of scrolls around them, "and we can't connect the dots."

"Patience, patience," Giles counseled. He set down his tea and looked around. It had been a slow day, with very few customers. In fact at the moment there were none. "And let's take a break."

"Lunch at Slap-Happy's!" exclaimed Xander, referring to a new joint in town he and his construction crew decided had the best wings in southern California. Their menu was large and very likely all of them could find something to suit their tastes.

They folded their notes into binders and closed the books. Since no customer was present, and believing things would be secure enough if he merely locked the door, Giles put up the "Out to lunch" sign in the window, and double-locked the door, forgetting today was Wednesday, a half-day of school for Dawn.

–––

After school Dawn often liked to do homework at the Magic Box. As much as she loved her mom, mom could be really pesky about getting the homework done but not so good with actual follow through of helping. It was more fun around the gang too, being easy to dodge and ignore Buffy or Giles' pleas to stay focused. It was harder, on the other hand, to brush off Cordelia. But she could often enlist Cordelia, or Giles, or Tara and Willow if they were around between classes, for help.

On this particular half-day Dawn decided to hang at the Magic Box. She grumbled in disappointment when she saw the "Out to lunch" sign in the front window and then, after peering through the glass, confirming the shop was empty. She'd missed everyone. They were probably off doing something far more exciting than writing a World Studies paper on 18th Century Dutch Colonialism. She sighed, reached into her backpack and dug out a spare key.

The large table she usually worked at was piled high with stuff, boxes shut, books closed. Hefting her backpack off her shoulder Dawn set it down heavily and stared at the table. She had long been aware of of hush-hush research going on, stuff they weren't talking about in front of her. Sometimes she heard abrupt endings of whispered conversations as she entered a room, or a quick and awkward change of subject, or things hastily moved out of sight.

Dawn looked around warily and checked her watch. She gazed down at the thick folders on top of some books, biting her lower lip. If she believed the sign, they wouldn't be back for at least another thirty minutes. She furtively looked back at the door once more. Piqued curiosity and paranoia pegged at 11 got the better of common sense. She reached out and grabbed the top folders and started scanning through the first one as she slowly walked towards the back.

She recognized Giles' fussy neat print on the first sheaf of pages. By chance it happened to be the file where he kept the log and summary of the gang's research. While still holding onto the first folder, she flipped over to and opened others, seeing Xander's unreadable scrawl, Cordelia's open flowing script, Tara's writing nearly like Giles but with more flourish. She put the others aside and kept Giles' notes.

Dawn quickly read past references to "Aurora", with citations to synonyms of beginnings. There were more references to her friends' lives, especially their interactions with herself. Fond memories floated through her mind.

She frowned. Something about the singular focus of Giles' notes bugged her. She read more quickly, flipping page after page and started over again from the beginning. She repeated the same with Tara's and Cordelia's notes.

Her gut knotted up. They were investigating her!

"Brotherhood of Dagon" Dawn mumbled, reading again from Giles notes, "blah blah blah...protectors of the Key." Huh. "They possessed the ability to transform energy, bend reality." Dawn rolled her eyes and bobbed her head. Blah, blah, blah, and more blah. Geez, Giles could be more long-winded in print than speaking! "We speculate they may have had the capability to travel temporally." Temporally? Dawn frowned. Was that the same thing as temporarily? She found a dictionary and looked it up; it had to do with 'time' and realized Giles was talking about time-travel. "And of course he couldn't just say 'time-travel', could he?" she snorted. She loved Giles but he could be so wonderfully pompous. She kept going.

She re-read several passages with greater care, rapidly turning pages with trembling fingers. With horror Dawn read speculations about her origins—not about when and where she was born (Orange Coast Memorial, 1987, thank you very much! she loudly sniffed)—but as something different. "The Council suggests they were interrupted. There were no witnesses, but informed speculation places the responsibility on Glorificus." Glorificus? Glory? Dawn stared into the distance as she wondered. "They obviously accomplished the task. Yet they had to be certain the slayer would protect it with her life. They sent the Key to her in human form as her sister."

"Sister?" Dawn husked. Sister of the slayer? But, but..."Hey, that's me! But—" She scrambled back through the notes. All this stuff about "the Key", and 'made human'. They were talking about her like she was not even a person but as a thing foisted upon them. They didn't think she was real, not even her own sister!

The knot in Dawn's tummy became spiders trying to crawl their way up her throat.

The halted conversations, the way Giles was so careful about putting certain things away, Willow's more than unusual awkwardness, it all began to make sense. Recalling more carefully, it seemed to start around the time of Buffy's crazy bitch-rants a few months back, about her not being real. All shortly before the arrival of the latest big bad (and badly dressed) Glory. Buffy's behavior, and her reactions to Glory, now had a new context.

So she was a "Key"? Not really human but created by, by, a bunch of reclusive monks? Despite a compulsion to throw the papers as far as she could, she read on. "...all clues indicate the Key is energy blah blah blah vibrating at a dimensional frequency beyond blah blah blah, perceivable to humans only in the green wavelengths of the spectrum." She got to a more interesting part. "...Only those outside reality can see the Key's true nature." She shook her head in frustration. Outside reality? What's that mean?

Another section of notes, both Giles and Xander's, seemed to be a recorded argument on how, or even if, they could prove she was (or wasn't) real. Giles' general conclusion was they couldn't and that they should err on the side of caution, whatever that meant.

She felt real. But what if they were right? She ran her hands down her sides. She pinched herself. Ouch! But, but, maybe this is how green energy was supposed to feel? If she's not real did these people even care about her? Tears began to run down her face. Did Xander or Cordy or Giles or Buffy or, or did even mom care about her? Love her?

The horrible answer, she realized, might be 'no'.

She couldn't face these them, the strangers she thought she knew so well. Shaking away tears, Dawn slapped the folder down, not caring the contents scattered over the table and onto the floor, grabbed up her schoolwork and ran out.

–––

Eyes closed, Drusilla weaved with slow and fluid movements. "Doors, I see. Doors for thee, and all to see." She stopped and cocked her head, sharp features drawn together in concentration. "Only one leads where you want to be. How to get through? That is key." Drusilla resumed her languid dance about the room.

Glory was letting their captive have a walk, but the disgusting vampire wouldn't shut up, constantly reminding her she was stuck in this thick, plodding existence, with barely any control or power to do freely as she willed. This physical jail clung to her like a fur of leeches, gnawing and sucking on her sanity.

"Listen, little tick, the only reason I haven't popped you is you might be useful." Glory flicked her hand and her followers jumped to slap Drusilla back into heavy shackles. Glory circled in front of the restrained vampire and grabbed her chin roughly, causing Drusilla to whimper.

As strong as Drusilla was, this thing in front of her that looked human yet wasn't, was too powerful to resist.

"What I want is—and this is simple—is: Where." Drusilla's head was yanked left.

"Is." Now to the right.

"My." Left again.

"Wait for it..." Now straight, to look directly upon Glory.

"Key?!"

Drusilla's eyes rolled. "Key? I see no Key."

"I'll kill you a thousand times over, sweetie." Glory patted the vampire's cold cheek. "I'll make it last a long, long time. I'm sure we can rustle up some holy water." She shouted at the nearest minion, "Can't we Dweezer?!" Glory had been around long enough to know exactly what hurt vampires. She always knew everything about hurting others. It has always been the easiest, fastest, therefore best way to get what she wanted.

"Oh yes, most Brilliant."

"Holy-water jacuzzi, now! Get the dirt off this thing, it's making me sneeze. And if that doesn't work..." Glory ran her hands up and down Drusilla's body. To her, human flesh was the same no matter what form. She placed her hands on either side of Drusilla's head, clamping down. Her hands began to shimmer as she worked them through Drusilla's skull.

Drusilla's moans turned to agony.

"Don't be scared of letting someone in. Shh, shh, it's okay. I know how difficult the first time is." Glory stood closer, hot breath on the vampire's cheek, her voice soft and smooth as glass. "Relax. I just want a taste."

Her hands disappeared in rays of light beaming out from Drusilla's eyes, ears, nose and mouth.

"Ewww, blech! That's disgusting!" Glory yanked her hands away, whipping them back and forth to rid herself of the clinging excrement and offal.

Drusilla slumped against her supports, unconscious.

"Gimme some bleach." Glory called, "And get me something real to eat, now!" Unable to feed off the insane vampire Glory fell back against the wall, trusting her minions to bring something soon.

They snatched a postal worker returning home and their Glorificus was well again.

–––

"Oh Sweet Buffalo Bill, I'm gonna bust some buttons!" groaned Xander, patting his slightly distended tummy.

The entire walk back from Slap-Happy's a disturbed Giles kept shaking his head in disbelief at the amount of wings Xander could consume. "I cannot fathom it. I simply cannot. I don't think I've ever seen anything so stunningly gross s-s-since we fought the Hacka demon last year, the one—"

"Who sneezed orange and black pus all over you?" asked Buffy, grinning.

"'Goo', Buffy," indignantly corrected Giles, wagging his finger at her. "The technically correct term is 'goo'."

"There, there," Willow said soothingly as she patted Giles' back and tried to console him.

Buffy was less sympathetic. "When we say Xander can out-eat a pig, next time you'll believe us." But even she shuddered.

Cordelia, having lived with Xander for several months, had been prepared with an excuse to leave the table well before it became a scene from an Irwin Allen movie.

A pale-looking Xander suddenly belched a deep hollow note and smiled ear to ear. "Ah, I feel so much better now—Oww! Cordy?!"

"Manners! Look it up real soon or you're sleeping with the dogs tonight."

Xander bowed his apology. His verbal reply was less apologetic. "Sir, yes sir, Ma'am!"

They arrived at the shop and Giles moved up to unlock the door. Tara noticed first. "Uh, someone's moved my stuff."

"Did they sit on your chair and eat all your porridge?" asked Xander, last in line.

Tara held up a small stuffed penguin that had fallen from Dawn's backpack.

"Dawn!" Buffy rushed up and grabbed the little token from Tara. "Giles, she knows!"

An unhappy Giles nodded his agreement. "Yes. Unfortunately I think the proverbial cat is out of the bag."

"What's she going to think?"

"Just as important, what's she going to do?" asked Xander soberly.

"Let's get to your house now," advised Willow. "The sooner we tell her the truth the better."

Cordelia, Xander and Giles began to gather up and reassemble the scattered notes after the others had left. Xander was pensive as he worked.

"Giles, maybe this wasn't the best place to keep all this stuff, y'think?"

Giles stood up straighter, surprised by Xander's question. "What? Why not? Where else would be safer?"

Xander explained. "Glory knows of this shop, right? That it's our 'HQ'. If she hasn't yet, she'll eventually figure out we're close on her trail and this would be a place to attack. And maybe steal stuff." He swept his arm to indicate their research materials. "As for where, well, why not our place?"

Cordelia made a noise, expression doubtful.

"We've got room. And, well, we're the least super-powered of the gang and so we probably get the least attention." He noticed Cordelia about to react. "Well, we are! I've got nothing, and yours is unpredictable. You haven't had a vision in weeks."

"I'm having one right now: you and a garbage compacter are having a very close encounter."

Giles had been carefully listening to Xander. "No, no, Cordelia, he has a point."

Xander grinned. "I do? Yeah?!"

"Yes. Let me propose this. All of this," he pointed to the same things Xander just had, "needs to remain here. We never know which resource or book or whatnot we'll need, and we can hardly move the whole shop to your place." Giles smiled. "Nor can I afford to close up. So—"

"But—"

Giles' raised hand stopped Xander's protest.

"I propose we make copies of our logs and notes, some crucial references, and you keep the copies. We'll do a large bit now, and in a few days we should be caught up."

Both Cordelia and Xander agreed. In a short half-hour they had accumulated a fair number of notebooks of copied info. Xander and Cordelia left with them in a box to return to their apartment.

–––

Dawn stormed into her bedroom, slamming the door in her mom's face.

Any half-baked plan she had for a next move evaporated as if it never existed and she slumped against the door, breathing deeply, then flopped flat out on her bed. Everybody had been lying to her. They were still lying to her. Even mom. She glanced up at the tentative knocks on the door and her mom's voice but ignored them.

Dawn's thoughts churned, unable to focus on what she wanted now. Mostly she just felt drained and empty. If she wasn't real, then what's the point of it all? She grabbed her diary from the bedside table, the one she had been filling in since moving to Sunnydale, flipped to the beginning and read through the first entries. She vividly remembered the events, the thoughts, feelings and emotions and writing about them. But was it real? Was yesterday real?

She had to know! She wanted answers, real answers, not just her own guesses. She needed to talk to someone who wouldn't lie. She needed the most honest straightforward person she knew and demand an explanation. Cordy might keep secrets but she knew if asked straight out Cordy wouldn't hide anything.

Dawn jumped out of the bed, throwing the diary to the floor, and snuck out of the house. Dawn would find her at the apartment she shared with Xander and wait.

–––

Buffy, Willow and Tara arrived at Buffy's house. They and Joyce soon discovered Dawn was gone, probably only missing her by mere minutes. Worried about Dawn, Joyce followed the young women into the living room, pestering them with question after question, not quite hysterical—yet. When Willow gave Buffy a worried look, Buffy replied it would be "OK" for them to leave.

Buffy closed the door behind them, sagged back against the door and sighed. After a few seconds she tiredly opened her eyes, straightened up to go sit next to her mom. On one hand Giles would be better at explaining, but on the other hand she was glad it was just her and mom.

Her mom took it far better than Buffy expected. Joyce, her hands clasped tightly together, chewed on her lip and stared at the floor, trying to work through some of the implications.

"Do the others know?" she asked, glancing up.

Buffy nodded.

"How are they taking it?"

"Took it," Buffy corrected. "We've all known. For a while now." To her mom's look she continued. "We ran into this guy, and he told us." Buffy hurriedly explained, simplifying details. "He said things like 'Delivered to the slayer, for protection' and 'she's the Key made human'. Like she was a made thing." Buffy paused glumly.

Joyce was aghast. "Buffy, that's shameful! She, she's... my baby Dawn. Your sister! You're so wrapped up in your upside-down world of demons and evil you can't tell when something's as plain as the nose on your face. To think you let some stranger convince you Dawn is nothing?! How could you?! I don't care who told you that."

Buffy waved her hands. "Mom, stop. Listen to me. Listen! You're right, you're right." When Joyce stopped scolding her, Buffy tried to explain, staring at her hands in her lap. "When I first heard what he said, I was sure Dawn wasn't real. I thought maybe that...was why you were getting sick." She gave a guilty shrug. "But then I wasn't sure. When we settled down, Giles and the guys, and we all come around to the same thing. Xander actually did most of the convincing. He accepted her right away. It didn't matter to him. He knew what he knew and that was that." Buffy smiled at the memory of Xander trying to explain himself. "He's right: Dawn's real. My really actually serious pain in the ass, steal all my best clothes sister. I love her no different than before."

"Well, good!" Joyce harrumphed.

"But," warned Buffy, "even though we fully accept that, we need to know about this Key stuff. Every detail, no matter how crazy. Not because she's the Key but because she is real. There are others out there who think she's something else, something they can just take and use. We need to know everything we can so we can protect her."

–––

Dawn thanked several deities—even demon ones—that her emotional joy-ride had hit a level and even keel when she arrived at Cordy's door. Xander and Cordy's door, she reminded herself. She wasn't certain Cordy would be in this early in the afternoon but it didn't matter, she'd wait all day if necessary.

She knocked and was gratified to hear muffled voices. Soon there was the thuds of someone walking. She swiped her eyes one last time before the door opened.

Who could it be? Xander wondered. He had no idea when he cracked open the door. But—

"D-D-Dawn?!"

—was both last person he expected and the one who could not have picked a worse moment to show up at their door. He called over his shoulder. "Hey Cordy, you wouldn't believe who's here. It's Dawn! Of all people. At our door of all places. Right now. Here!" Behind his back he waved frantically at Cordelia to hide the notes. "Our very own fluffy Dawnie!" He kept waving at Cordelia.

Dawn wondered about this particular weirdness of Xander, it wasn't like his normal goofball weirdness. She suspected the reasons. She tried to peer past Xander. "Uh, Xander, are you—"

Now, seeing Cordelia disappear with the notebooks, Xander stepped back and flung open the door, arms wide, ready to hug her (and give Cordelia another second or two). "—going to let you in? Of course, Dawn! Please. Come in to our abode of humble." He spun her about (giving Cordelia yet another second) before letting her down.

Cordelia's timing was perfect. They heard the bathroom faucet and moments later she appeared, her greeting much more proper and gentle. "What brings you here?" she asked, taking Dawn by the hand and leading her into the living room.

Xander started to follow then stopped in his tracks. "Uh, is this 'girl' talk or something? Should I make like Houdini—"

Dawn turned around. "No." Xander seemed relieved and followed the girls as Dawn continued. "It's people stuff. I want to talk to both of you."

Uh oh, thought Xander. "And somehow I'm thinking this could be even worse," he mumbled.

"Shut up, Xander," scolded Cordelia. "Be a good host and get us something to nibble on and something to drink. Dawn?" she prompted

Dawn thought for a second and smiled wickedly. "Uh, a beer?" Xander's suddenly stern, disapproving glare stopped her cold. "Oh all right, tea then."

Xander's expression lit up. "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot."

"Make it so."

Dawn gawked at Cordelia's use of the catch-phrase, waggling her finger at them. "Y-you guys! Maybe you've been together too long."

Cordelia sighed and grimaced. "You don't know the half of it." She pointed to the Star Trek NG box-set by the television. "It's, umm, strangely compelling."

"You have been assimilated!" gleefully declared Xander from by the stove.

Cordelia's head dropped glumly into her hand, shaking side to side in defeat. "Just do it."

They got themselves comfortable on the sofa while Xander took a minute to prepare the tea, setting water to boil. He came back into the living room and sat across from them.

Dawn began with a directness that surprised even Cordelia. "What am I?" Her voice had started strongly, but along with the outpouring of words came the fragile, tremulous emotions and tears. "Am I even real? A-am I a-a-anything?" She began crying. "Or just green slush?"

"Dawn! Wha-uh? Why? Wha-" Xander looked helplessly at Cordelia.

"Dawn, why do you ask something like that?" Cordelia was better than Xander at hiding her own roiling emotions. She wanted to reach out and gather up the younger girl but knew a calm, firm confidence would work best to help pull Dawn out of her despair.

"I saw them. Today." Dawn hiccuped. "I read it all." She hadn't read everything, but that was splitting hairs.

Breathing deeply, Cordelia sat back and exchanged a look with Xander. They silently agreed not to put up any lie, pretense or excuse.

Xander took Dawn's hands. "Dawn, you first need to understand there's a lot we don't know. What you read, all that stuff? Half or more is guesses. No matter what we think we know, we also need to know what the enemy thinks. The thing you need to know is you are real and we're not going to let you get hurt."

Cordelia continued. "But you know the drill. We have to check everything, every crazy idea." Cordelia shifted. "This is something with Glory. She's got this hang-up about a 'Key'. Right or wrong, if she ever thought that has anything to do with you, we need to know."

"We know the real you, Dawn. That starts with Buffy and goes for the rest of us."

"But I read I'm just a green ball of light!" sniffled Dawn. "I'm the kind of thing Buffy kills."

"No, Dawn! You're family. One of us. Buffy's sister."

Dawn was still upset and not convinced. She looked back and forth between them, then out the window. She spoke softly, not looking up. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because it doesn't matter," said Xander.

"We were going to. It just... " Cordelia trailed off. Dawn gave her an angry look and Cordelia continued. "We thought it would be better if we waited until you were older. We were wrong, and I'm sorry."

"Yeah, about that. How old am I?"

"Fourteen," answered Cordelia

"No. I mean the monks. Just suppose, what if they really did just create me—"

"Which they didn't!"

"—if they did," Dawn overrode Xander's protest, "wh-when did, when did they...?"

"Three, four months ago," answered Cordelia. "We met him just before he died."

"Four months? Just after you came back, Cordy." Dawn watched Cordelia carefully.

"Yeah, well—" Cordelia noticed Dawn's alertness. "That's part of the story too. I had a vision. About you, I think. I didn't understand it all but I know it meant I should be here."

"Maybe." For whatever reason, Dawn liked having Cordelia back in Sunnydale. Her expression gradually went dark, sad as she thought about all the weirdness of the last months. She stared down. "So. I've only been alive for a few months, huh? I must be setting some kind of record for walking and talking sooner than any other four-month old."

"Honey, no!" Xander said, taking her hand. "You're fourteen. You know it. We know it. I know it!"

"But you don't really, do you?!" Dawn suddenly shouted. "You said it yourself, all that stuff," Dawn waved vaguely to a somewhere else, "it's guesswork. You don't really know anything! I really could be this Key, right? Everything else about me is made up."

Xander shook his head emphatically. "Whatever the monks might have done later, you're you. The real Dawnster. Just as real and human as me."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"Prove it."

"I know. Here," Xander tapped his temple. "I feel it. Here," He put his hand over hers and pulled it over his heart. "It's that simple."

Xander's simple, absolutely sincere statement of fact was nearly enough to convince her. But..."I read about that order and what they did. It was all written down, and, and, and—"

Cordelia took both her hands. "Dawn, you didn't read enough. We don't believe that anymore. Xander never did, and while I had my doubts I don't think I ever truly believed it either. I'll never understand the physics of this, but the way we think it works is, instead of a 'Key' being formed into you, they started with the real you, the real Dawn, and added to you."

Xander was nodding vigorous agreement. "Yeah. Sort of like a superhero power, only we just haven't figured out what it is yet." He snapped his fingers. "Hey, maybe you'll zip around in a fluorescent orange and green cape, helping people who locked their keys in the car."

Dawn giggled, then sobered up. "Or maybe I am the Keymaster? And the Destructor is coming?"

"Who you gonna call?!" sung out Xander, immediately turning serious again. "The important thing is, is that you've been around since the dawn of, uh, well... Dawn."

Dawn smiled, then frowned. "But Glory. She thinks—"

Cordelia and Xander talked of what they knew of Glory, what they were doing to fight against her. They stressed again they would protect Dawn. They explained they were trying to figure out why the Key was so important to Glory, and why they needed to hide Dawn's supposed identity. And, if Glory ever found out, how to stop her.

The conversation and the convincing continued during the drive back to Buffy's.

After Xander stopped the car in Buffy's driveway he turned to Dawn and asked. "Y'all right, kiddo?"

Dawn nodded, unbuckled herself and got out. She returned Xander's goodbye wave and ran up the walk to her door as Xander and Cordelia pulled away.

After more crying and hugs with her mom and Buffy, Dawn went to her room feeling much better. She was confident her paranoia, though not unfounded, was an overreaction. She was not being ostracized as incarnate evil among them. It was just that her family and friends cared so deeply about her they got over-protective. Although very annoyed, she understood the reasoning and loved her sister and friends more than ever for all they were sacrificing to keep her safe.

Paradoxically a new and different concern began to weigh heavily on her mind. Just as they swore to protect and defend her absolutely, committed that nothing would harm her, she felt a growing responsibility for putting them in such danger in the first place.

What, she thought, could she do in return to help protect them from Glory's misplaced mania? If Glory ever had reason to believe Dawn was her Key, what could Dawn do? In terms of actively taking the fight to Glory Dawn knew she could not join them in the forefront of the fight. Being that much closer to Glory would make matters worse, make it easier for Glory to discover and latch on to Dawn as the focus of her God-like powers.

Then it came to her. Dawn knew what she had to do to help protect her friends: She needed to draw the lightening away.

Plans forming as she jumped off her bed, Dawn dumped out her backpack and began stuffing it full of necessities. She checked her secret hiding places and counted up all her money. On the phone the clerk at the bus depot told her a bus was heading north in an hour and she had enough money to get as far as Sacramento. Perfect! One of dad's stupid sisters lived there and she could get more money and figure out the next move. Before crawling out the window she hastily wrote a note, careful to mention she was heading for "the city", which she knew everyone would assume to be LA. Dawn slipped out and began to make her way across town to the bus station.

–––

At nine in the evening, as Xander was retiring for an early start, they got the call from Giles to reconvene at the Magic Box. He wouldn't give any details over the phone despite Cordelia's demands, just that it was a matter of extreme urgency.

They arrived to see everyone assembled. Tara and Willow were together, sitting at the table, both reading a small slip of paper, Buffy standing across from them watching intently, Giles behind the counter preparing tea and coffee.

"Xander, Cordelia," he greeted, handing them a mug of coffee and a cup of tea, respectively.

Xander took his, but said, "Uh, no-go Giles, I'm going to need some shut-eye."

Giles smiled grimly while he fetched the note Tara was holding. "Not tonight, I'm afraid." He handed Dawn's note to Cordelia. Xander read over her shoulder. When he was done he took the first of many large gulps. "So Dawn's trying to be the hero. Crazy, gutsy kid." But he was as upset as the others.

"Says she's heading to LA. We should call Angel."

"A big ten-negatory, Willow! That's such an obvious mis-lead I can see it with my eyes closed." Xander turned to Buffy, holding up the note. "When did you find this?"

"Half an hour ago. I called Giles. We got here just a couple of minutes before you. Mom and I were talking to her only an hour ago."

"Hmm, OK," mulled Xander. "Say she took a few minutes to gather up some stuff. Another five to write this. Maybe a 45 minute head start?"

Buffy and Giles nodded.

"Did she take your mom's car?" Cordelia asked.

"Nope."

"And I don't think she'd try to steal one," Xander said, thinking out loud.

"If this is a fake and she's not going to LA, maybe she's not going anywhere? Just going to a friend's house?" asked Willow.

"Possible," agreed Giles, "We should check with all her friends."

"I'll get mom to cover that," said Buffy, heading to the phone behind the counter to call her mom.

"She couldn't have gotten far, but if she's headed out of town, maybe she's looking to hitch-hike or something?" wondered Tara. "There's a few ways out: train, bus, maybe walking? By boat, down at the marina? Airplane?"

"Taxi, too. Hmm...," considered Xander, pulling on his chin. "Some of those are pretty unlikely. And dangerous. Or expensive. Or both. But it still adds up to a lot of ground to cover."

Buffy, finished talking to her mom, was getting more agitated by the moment. "We have to find her. Now! Before Glory or the Knights of Anachronism mistake her for something she isn't and I have to kill every one of them." She paused to take a deep breath. "Mom's calling around, so that base is covered. Let's split up and sweep the city. Giles, you stay here if she shows up and to coordinate. And keep researching...stuff; how to find her, how to defend her, how to defeat Glory." She waved vaguely at the books. "Xander, you and Cordy take the center of town and the bus station. Willow, Tara, west side, docks and marina. I'll take the north side and the train station."

"I think we gots us a plan." Everyone got up to leave.

"Find her. Please!" Buffy implored one more time as she led them out the door and they went their separate ways. "And fast!"

–––

"Haven't we done this scene before?" Cordelia complained. "I'm sure I remember the stench of this particular alley." She shivered and hugged herself tighter in the cold air.

"Deja-odor? And Tara and Willow are handling that area."

Cordelia didn't answer as she and Xander gingerly traversed another downtown alley full of garbage bins behind some of the bars on the main street. They continued on, working generally towards the bus station as they thoroughly checked the obvious and less obvious places an upset teenager might hide. But no matter how thorough there's only so much ground that can be covered, and all too easy for someone to double back or be missed in a shadow. Sunnydale was small, but not that small.

"There's so many things I remember," Xander mused. "When we baby-sat for her. Buffy always complaining about Dawn stealing her clothes. It's too real not to be true."

"What if we're wrong?" Cordelia challenged, without much conviction. She wanted to believe in Dawn's reality too. "What if all the theories du jour are wrong? And she really is just, just... " Cordelia's tone grew soft and confused, "...made up?" She spread her arms out in wonder and dismay, "And all those things never happened?" That had been her first interpretation of her vision, but she wasn't sure anymore. She shuddered. If that were so, then what could she trust? What should she trust? Her deepest-felt memories? Her visions?

Xander looked at her. "You don't remember baby-sitting for Buffy's little brat sister?" (With lots of making out and no attention paid to the sleeping kid on the floor.)

"I do!" Cordelia replied sharply. "I also remember she had a crush on you. Still does, a bit. Silly girl." Cordelia shook her head, perplexed.

"Well, hell yeah!" Xander puffed up, grinning. "By the way, notice that you're not talking like she's an imaginary ball of energy. But the crush has been crushed. For a long time."

"Hmm?" Cordelia mumbled absently as she peered into another dark doorway.

"You get a one-way ticket to the island of Dawn's shit-list for a few reasons. Like, oh...cheating on her idol."

"Oh?" Then Cordelia got it and looked over at Xander. "Oh! I-I didn't know."

Xander shrugged. "S'all right." He breathed deep and stretched. "But it took a long time to rebuild that bridge. It's like you guys have always had some kind of connection or something."

Cordelia stopped and thought that over. Xander looked expectantly at her but she didn't respond.

"Aw-righty, let's find our wayward fourteen-year old fizzy can of emo."

–––

Not far from where Xander and Cordelia were currently checking, Dawn was near one of the most obvious spots of all, the second-favorite teen hang-out after The Bronze. From where she was, across the municipal park, Dawn could see the cheerfully lit, crowded and noisy Espresso Pump.

She was becoming uncomfortably aware just how dark it was and how creepy the park could be at night in the winter after holiday lights were taken down. Dawn was having second thoughts and wanted to stop and reassess. The Pump was better than anyplace else she could think of. Actually seeing it, with cheery lights and people, she wanted to get there as quickly as possible. She decided to cut straight through the park.

Some homeless people were curled up on the park benches she walked by. Not all were asleep, and many that were awake began to mutter as she passed. She quickened her pace, circling the dark and idle carousel, the colorful wooden horses splotchy gray, their cheerful cartoon smiles malevolent with bared teeth.

"It's here, it's here!" loudly called out someone from a bench up ahead, tracking her with wild eyes. As Dawn neared he suddenly changed from intent watchfulness to looking away, still repeating his words.

Dawn was frightened, not of the man himself, but of his reaction. "Please. Y-you see me, right? I'm real? Look at me."

He stopped speaking and cringed. Then he licked his lips and then shook his head wildly. "Can't stop it!"

"You know what I am, don't you? You know?!"

He bent over, squinching his eyes tightly closed, clapping hands over his ears. "Can't hear it, can't see it, can't hear it, can't see it." He mumbled over and over again.

"Tell me! What am I?" she implored. He wouldn't answer.

Frustrated, Dawn shook her head and ran toward the coffee house.

"The Key!"

Dawn whipped her head around and rushed back. "You know what the Key is? Where did I come from? Who made me?"

The man shouted again, staring into the night. "Destroyer!" Dawn jumped back. "It opens," he yelled. "Death flying in. We're all gone. She goes: we're gone."

Dawn, shaken, backed away. "No, no." She turned and ran, practically falling into the Espresso Pump before stopping.

Seeing the customers stare at her she straightend up and tried to calm down and hide her embarrassment. She was still convinced she had to get away, but first she needed to regather. The smells of roasted coffee, the warmth and coziness were overwhelmingly intoxicating. She slowly made her way to the counter and ordered a double skinny latte. After getting her her latte she spotted an empty table in the back corner and started over. Then Dawn bumped into someone and she began to apologize but stuttered to a stop. He looked so familiar.

"Dawn? Dawn Summers?"

"Do I know you?"

The young gentleman grinned sheepishly. "Well sort of. I'm Ben Goodely. Perhaps you know me better as Dr. Goodely? From Sunnydale General?" He put out his hand, but Dawn merely looked at him curiously, eyes narrowed. Ben's smile fell but he left his hand out. "I, ah, helped treat your mom at the hospital. I saw you and your sister a few times. Mrs. Summers always talked about you two. Even though we've never said a word, it's like I know your entire life better than mine." He chuckled nervously, hand still outstretched.

Just as he was about to pull it back the incomprehension on Dawn's face cleared. "Oh, yeah, yeah! I recognize you." She took has hand in a warm brief shake, then looked around to make sure her table was still empty. "Uh, what are you doing here?"

"Seriously?" Ben almost laughed, carelessly holding out his drink.

Dawn lofted her brow sternly. What could possibly be funny? she thought.

"I'm an intern. Still getting crazy long shifts," he explained. "As long as I'm not scheduled in surgery, The Caffeine-Nation," he raised his hand to indicate the coffee shop in general, "is a must-do destination." He chuckled at his little joke.

Dawn frowned and groaned. "You're as bad a Xander." She turned to get to her table, but her tone and posture were friendly enough. Ben followed.

"Xander?" he asked from behind.

"A friend."

Ben smiled. "Ah!"

"A 'friend' friend," Dawn said crossly.

Ben held up his hand in submission. "Hey, none of my business." He pointed to the table in the dark corner Dawn was heading for. "Looks like we were both angling for the same table. Care to join me? Or perhaps I should ask if I can join you?"

"OK, you can."

Ben closed his eyes, leaned over his drink, and sniffed in the aroma of his hot mocha. "The grog is better here than the hospital's, but here they don't have any marshmallows. Nothing a little petty theft can't handle." He winked and pulled out a packet of freeze-dried mini-mallows, stripped off the top and waggled the packet. "Want any?"

Dawn made a face and stuck out her tongue. "Don't like 'em."

"What?" Ben was genuinely shocked. "Is that even possible for a teenager to refuse sugar? Huh," Ben gazed up at the ceiling and its exposed framing, wiring and duct-work, and seemed to ponder deeply. "I'm sure my professors said people under twenty were anatomically incapable of that."

Dawn smiled. "They're too squishy. When I was five Buffy told me they were monkey brains, and I—" she shuddered.

"Traumatized for life?"

"Yeah." She nodded quickly. "But it's OK if you like bleached, melted monkey brains in your mocha." She smile brightly.

Ben frowned and looked sideways at his opened but as yet unused packet of freeze-dried, bleached, melted monkey brains. "Ah...hmm, OK, now I think I'm traumatized for life." He folded up the unused packet and stuffed it back in his jacket pocket. "And I thought I was acclimatized to guts all over the place. Sigh," he said forlornly.

"Sorry?"

Ben shrugged it off. "Perhaps it's best if I try to keep this to some level of professionalism. How's your mom?"

"She's fine."

"Sister?"

Dawn looked angry, sad, and bored, all at the same time. "I don't care about her," she grumbled. Despite all the recent make-ups and apologies and hugs, Dawn was feeling kinda pissed-off again for being cut out.

"Oh," Ben sat back and smiled in sympathy. "You guys have a fight? It's OK, I know how that goes. I've got, um, an older sister too. They can be a real pain." Dawn nodded along as Ben continued. "I can tell you there've been a lot of nights—more than you can count—were I wish she didn't exist either!"

Sitting here in the warmth, Dawn's resolve was crumbling and she was beginning a slide toward despondency. After all, what difference did it make? "Actually, it's not Buffy. It's me. I don't exist." They were all wrong: Xander, Cordelia, Buffy and everyone. Right now she wasn't feeling 'real' at all. She slumped deeper into her chair.

"I think I understand. But take it from a professional: you exist."

Dawn started to get agitated. "No, you don't understand. It's not real. None of this is real!" She looked down and motioned across her torso, indicating herself. "I'm made up!"

Ben was confused. "Dawn—?"

"I'm nothing! I'm fluff in your imagination. The monks did that so Glory couldn't find me."

Uh oh. "Monks? Glory? Ah—" Ben started to rise, looking wildly around in obvious fear. "You're the Key?"

Dawn could literally hear Ben capitalizing the word. "Waitaminute! How do you know about the Key? What do you know?" she demanded.

"Go! Before she finds you. Don't ask me how she knows, 'cause she always does. Just go. Get outta here! Or I gotta go!" He began to step past Dawn, to break for the outside and put as much distance as he could between himself and Dawn. But Dawn reached out and grabbed him by the elbow, spinning him around and causing him to stumble.

"Wait! Tell me—"

"You don't understand, you're just a kid!"

"Hey!"

He put both hands out, palms forward. "Please, you have to trust me. You stay. I'll go. Or she'll find you. She finds you, she'll hurt you."

"How do you know about Glory?"

Ben's head whipped back and forth, looking for the easiest escape through the crowd. "It's a little tough to explain, and even harder to believe, believe me. You're what she's been searching for. I'm telling you, run. You don't know, you—" He suddenly shivered and stood straight. "Oh god no, she's coming!"

Dawn was seriously wigged and started to edge away.

"I can feel it, you've gotta get out," Ben called out in an odd voice. "Oh no, she's here!" He dashed toward the little hallway leading to the rest rooms.

Dawn began to work through the crowd, but looked back one more time and stopped in her tracks. There was Glory, coming from the hallway Ben had just disappeared into, wearing Ben's hospital scrubs! Dawn gasped.

Glory, peering around, heard the loud gasp over the general hubbub and spotted Dawn. "Hey, don't I know you? Yeah I do. Sit!" she commanded. Against her will Dawn came back to sit at the table she had just vacated. "Ugh, cotton!" Glory plucked at the clothes she wore. "Could a fabric be more annoyingly pedestrian?" she asked rhetorically. "Damn good thing I make little bro always carry a spare change." She reached into a small backpack Dawn hadn't realized Ben was carrying, and pulled out a red silk dress. "Now this is what I'm talkin' about!" She smiled grandly for a moment, then frowned at Dawn. "Stay!"

Glory didn't even pay Dawn the respect of checking again before sliding around the hallway corner. She returned moments later wearing the dress. "Just makes your skin sing!"

"Wh-wh-where did Ben go?" Dawn anxiously tried to look around Glory to see if Ben would return from the bathroom.

Glory reached behind herself to fasten the last button, then sat down in front of Dawn. She put her elbow on the table and propped her head on her hand. "Oh, it's an eensy bit way more complicated than that, darling." She sighed dramatically and rolled her eyes. "Family always is, isn't it?"

"Family?"

"Y'know. The boy-toy. Little Bennie."

"But—" Dawn waved her hand vaguely in the direction Ben had gone.

"That would be the 'way more complicated' part."

Dawn bit her lip and slowly looked around. Momentarily the crowd had thinned and she saw a clear path through. If she jumped now—

"You'd never make it. I'd rip your spine out through your nose before you got half a step. And those leeettle legs?" Glory grinned in an ugly way. "They'll make an exquisite popping sound when I pull them off." Suddenly Glory was out of her chair and right next to Dawn, bending over with her hands on her knees so her face was at Dawn's level. "Would you like to hear for yourself, Uhdawn?"

Dawn barely kept herself from shaking all over. She slowly turned her head side to side in the negative.

Glory smirked as she returned to her chair. Dawn kept her eyes down. "Now. What I'm trying to noodle is: what in the world is Benjie-boy doing with the slayer's little sis?"

Dawn glanced up then down, hair falling in front of her face. "Y-you don't remember?" she asked in a confused wavering voice.

Glory casually reached across the table to flick Dawn's hair back off her shoulder. "There's nothing to remember. You were talking to him, not me. That's another of the 'eensy more complicated' bits your puny ant-brain couldn't grasp. What do you say," Glory stood up, pulling Dawn to her feet, "we find a nice place less stuffed with human slime, hey?" She pushed Dawn in front of her through the unseeing, uncaring crowd. "Someplace where you and I can have a long and uninterrupted chat."

After exiting the Espresso Pump, Glory pushed a very frightened Dawn across the street and back toward the park.

–––

Buffy met Willow and Tara at the train station. "Any sign?" she demanded.

Willow frowned and shook her head. "No Dawn, sorry."

Buffy stomped in frustration, cracking the concrete pathway. Why did Dawn have to be so stupid? Or, if she was a made thing, why did the monks have to make her such an irritating sister? Why not a big brother, or someone who was smart? "Damn! Anything could happen to her, not just Glory!"

She whirled when her cell phone trilled, Willow and Tara skipping back from Buffy's flying elbows. Buffy pulled the phone from her pocket, flipped it open and pressed it to her ear. She listened for a moment, apparently not even getting a chance to say hello, and her eyebrows crawled up her forehead. "It's Cordy!" she whispered to Tara and Willow. She listened again without asking any questions, then said "Five minutes. And thanks!" She snapped the phone closed.

"Well?" asked Willow as she and Tara raced to follow Buffy.

"They spotted Dawn leaving the Espresso Pump. With Glory."

–––

Dawn was right back in the park she had crossed before, Glory pushing her to near the carousel. Glory shoved Dawn against a tree.

"Okay, nice and quiet. Y'see, it's getting near crunch time here, so let's talk the talk. Your sister the slayer has my Key. I just know she does. Well, see, it's mine. I want it back." Glory's tone dropped menacingly. "Do you know where she squirreled it away? There's ice cream and puppies in it for you if you sing a good song."

Dawn gulped. Could it be true Glory hadn't heard what she'd told Ben? As incredible as it seemed, Glory was certainly behaving that was. Even if that were true, could it be, with the evidence literally right in front of her face, Glory was incapable or too stupid to know Dawn was the Key? That also seemed consistent with Glory's behavior. For her own life, Dawn had no choice but to play it that way. "I-I-I'm not sure," she squeaked nervously. "A key? What does it look like?"

Glory put her hand over her heart and smiled fondly. "Well... " she began nostalgically, "the last time I caught a peep it was a bright swirly shimmer. Sorta emerald-ish. Really brought out the blue in my eyes." Glory frowned in genuine remembered anger. "But those sneaky little monks pulled an abra-cadabra." Glory threw up her arms. "So now it could look like anything! You see the predicament I'm in?"

"Well, maybe—"

"Yes?"

"Well, maybe if you told me more about it, I'd know if I've seen it. I've seen lots of weird things in this town, y'know. But I've never seen any weird green things. Well, there was this really wild party were Sam Findhal ralphed-up the most greenish—".

Dawn heard Glory growling.

"OK, Sam's puke is probably not it, I'm guessing?"

Glory sighed, leaned forward and put her hands on the tree on either side of Dawn's head, making her gasp nervously. Glory gazed at her for a moment. "No! I do not think so," she snapped, teeth clicking. Dawn flinched. Glory smiled at her petty victory and stepped back.

"So this, ah, Key thing, it's been around for a long time?"

"Well, not as long as me, but, yeah. Just this side of forever."

Dawn nibbled her lip, very afraid of the possible next answer. But she needed to know. "Is it evil?"

Glory puffed a stray strand of blond hair off her forehead. "Oh totally!"

Dawn slumped. Not what she wanted to hear.

"Well, no, not really," laughed Glory, "it depends on your point of view."

"What's it for? I mean a Key goes with a lock, right?"

Glory tapped her nose. "We have a winner! Maybe not all you humans are quite so dumb."

"And the lock is for—"

"Hey, I smell a fox in my pig sty." Glory squinted and examined Dawn from a different angle. "Have you been playing patty-cake with brother Ben?"

Dawn tried to back up into and through the tree. The old oak wouldn't let her. "No, I—" she squeaked.

Glory got nose to nose with Dawn. "You know what I'm thinking? I'm thinking maybe you—" Dawn would swear she could feel her skin trying to crawl off. "—don't have any fucking idea where my Key is. You're wasting my time!"

Glory spun away, rubbing her forehead as if she had a headache, mumbling as she started to walk off. She spun back. "Hey! This doesn't have to be a complete waste of time." She returned to Dawn. "I've been meaning to send the slayer a message. And I could use a little pick-me-up. Two birds, one stone. Boom! Yummy dead birds."

She reached both hands to either side of Dawn's head. This time Dawn could feel her hair and eye-brows wanting to join skin in an immediate retreat.

"Get away from my sister."

Glory stopped short. At first it seemed to Dawn she would go into a pout but then she saw Glory smile slyly. "Hey, we were just talking 'bout you."

"Talking all done," said Buffy, gesturing at Dawn, who scampered over behind her sister, unhindered.

Surprising Glory with the lack of fair play, Buffy punched her with a right-left combination, ducking Glory's riposte. Buffy dropped and kicked up into Glory's crotch, to no effect. They grappled and both spun into a tree and bounced off separately.

In the meanwhile Dawn moved over to join Cordelia, Xander, Willow and Tara, arriving just seconds after Buffy. Giles came puffing up moments later.

They watched as Glory and Buffy traded punches. Glory slipped to Buffy's side, reached and flipped Buffy onto her back. As Glory prepared to kick Buffy, Xander broke from the group, coming up behind Glory with a tire iron. Glory halted her kick, grabbed Xander's wrist with one hand and his belt with the other and threw him ten feet into a concrete bench. Xander collapsed from the impact. Both Cordelia and Dawn run over to help.

As Giles tried to aim the crossbow, Buffy got up off the ground and into the line of fire, punching Glory in the kidneys as she was gloating over ridding herself of Xander.

Willow and Tara dropped to their knees, facing each other. They pulled out small leather bags and emptied the contents onto the ground between then. A burlap ground cloth was spread out and they quickly but carefully arranged items on it. They started chanting quietly.

When Buffy kicked high, Glory caught her foot and pushed Buffy away. Buffy used the momentum to go into a back-flip, kicking Glory in the face with her other foot as she continued around. When she landed on her back in the grass it gave Giles a clear shot. His aim was perfectly on the center of mass. The arrow-tip smashed to pieces and the rest of the arrow bounced away. Glory was irritated at the intrusion to her fun. "Oh, please—"

While Glory had been engaged by Buffy and then distracted by Giles' arrow, a recovered Xander had snuck up behind Glory again and smashed the iron down on her head. It would have put a good sized V-shaped split into a vampire's skull, but against Glory it was like hitting a brick wall. Xander shouted in pain from the vibrations shooting up his arm. The fallen iron, lying on the grass at Glory's feet, was visibly bent.

"Hey! No touching the hair!" Glory berated him. She reached down to pick up the iron and inspected it. Instead of hitting Xander with it she casually backhanded him away like he was an annoying fly. He crashed into Giles and they both fell into some rhododendrons.

Glory pointed with the iron at each of them sprawled on the ground. "How does that commercial go? Oh yeah! It's dyin' time." She considered her options as she advanced on the two men. "We'll start with the cutie-pie." She whipped the tire iron sideways at Dawn.

From her knees Buffy leaped into the missile's path, letting it stab her in the upper chest as she fell to the ground. She groaned from both the stabbing pain and the hard landing.

"Buffy!" shrieked Dawn, crawling forward on her hands and knees.

"Get back!" yelled Buffy, already pulling the piece of metal out of her. Dawn scrunched up her sweatshirt and pressed on the wound to help stop the bleeding.

"Nice catch. Is that the best you little crap-gnats got? 'Cause I'm not even breakin' a sweat." Glory began to saunter over to the prone and injured Buffy. In her confidence she ignored the two witches as she walked between them, standing a few yards apart from each other. Tara and Willow each threw a handful of glittery powder over her as she passed, covering her hair and body.

They had stayed out of the fight so she hadn't planned on killing them till after, but now that they'd ruined her dress she growled and advanced on Tara who looked the most tempting. Willow clapped her hands and shouted something in an ancient language.

Glory exploded into a cloud of dust and Willow fell to the ground, twitching all over, blood running from one nostril.

"Willow!" Tara rushed over to cradle her girlfriend.

Buffy stared blankly at the empty place that was Glory, then shook herself and pulled Dawn over to her, hugging her tightly. After a few moments she looked over at Willow, her shivers all gone and sitting up by herself, but her nose was still bleeding.

"She's gone?" she asked with rising hope. "It's all over?"

Willow, still woozy, carefully shook her head. "Teleportation spell. Feedback's a four-letter word for a female dog."

"Teleportation? Where'd she go?"

Willow frowned. "I don't know. So far, my aim amounts to 'not here'."

Tara, who had been working closely with Willow on the spell, amplified. "She could be a thousand miles away—"

"Or behind that carousel."

–––

Several miles off Sunnydale's shores, a human-shaped, human-sized object, clad in a silk dress, fell into cold Pacific waters.

With a flick of its tail a startled great white shark veered sharply toward the splash and snapped at the wiggling thing. If a great white could ever be said to be surprised by anything, this would be it. All of its front teeth down to the third row shattered on Glory's impervious skin. But sharks are not evolved to know when to give up. It swirled away and with another powerful lunge flicked back and bit again.

Feeling the immense, almost painful pressure on her leg, Glory reached down and split the water with an uppercut. "Knock it off, stupid! My goldfish bite harder than you!" Glory's uppercut broke the water, trailing a bloodied ribbon from her dress along with bits of shark. Her eyes narrowed. "And you tore my dress!"

The shark knew only to attack, not realizing nor caring it was being punched to death by the annoyed God.

–––

"Are you OK?" Giles asked, untangling himself and trying to help a stumbling Xander to his feet.

"I am uncomfortably numb," Xander mumbled.

"Ah, situation normal, all is well." Giles left to check on Buffy.

Tara smiled and proudly held Willow. "You'll get it, it's all in the follow-through."

"If the follow-through continues to be these painful seizure's, then maybe I'll take up golf."

"You call that a problem? Hah! I'll trade you for my vision-pain any day." Cordelia didn't really mean it. As painful as the visions were, she wanted to keep them.

"Let's patch up and get out of here," advised Giles, already flipping through the first aid kit, drawing out a large sterile gauze and quickly taping it over Buffy's wound.

He went to check on Willow, her head cradled in Tara's lap. "That was an incredibly dangerous spell," he quietly told Willow. Tara soberly nodded to him when he glanced up at her.

"Yep," Willow agreed, holding a hand to her forehead, "won't be trying that one again soon." She stumbled as she tried to stand. "Or ever?"

Buffy, already recovering from the wound, strongly held Dawn by her shoulder. "Are you okay? Did she hurt you?"

"Do you care?" Dawn asked. Her tone was somewhere between anger and genuine curiosity.

"Do I care!?" Buffy was flabbergasted. "You dope, you're my sister! My Dawnie! My, my—" Buffy searched for the right words. Nothing was forthcoming and she settled for pulling Dawn into a strong hug. "I love you, Dawn."

The quiet emphatic assurance speared into Dawn. Her knees weakened and she allowed herself to be held up by Buffy. "You don't think I'm some alien?"

"I—" began Buffy. She held Dawn out. "OK, at one point things got a bit confusing. But I was wrong, and—"

Dawn grinned and nodded, teasing. "You're often easily confused."

Buffy returned her smile. "—and I'm sorry. I worry about you because you're my sister. I feel it—know it—as deeply as anything I've ever felt." She reached out and clasped Dawn's hand, holding it firmly between her own, so tight they could feel the pulse of the other's. "Can't you feel that, Dawn? Two hearts together. You are my sister, I have no doubt. And I will protect you. I will. Not because I'm the slayer and you're my 'job', or because some weirdo said something stupid. No. Because you and me, Dawnie? We're sisters forever. How else could anybody drive me so bat-shit crazy?" She gathered Dawn up in another hug.

"I was so scared," whispered Dawn into Buffy's ear.

Buffy nodded against Dawn's shoulder. "Me too, kid, me too."

"Awww, I think I'm gonna cry." Xander swiped mock tears off his cheek, then stumbled when Cordelia shoved him.

"Come on. We should get out of here," said Giles, "before anyone comes around asking questions."

Xander coughed and gawked. "Giles? In this place? Seriously?" But he followed along.

Dawn stopped short, a puzzled expression wrinkling her forehead. "Wait! Ben. There's something he knows." She shook her head trying to break free an important memory. "He was, he was trying to...I mean...I think...I, I—" she kicked the ground in frustration. "Damn, I can't remember!" She looked up. "Maybe he was trying to help?"

"Don't worry about it, Dawn," comforted Buffy, patting Dawn's back. "Next time we see him, we'll thank him."

–––

Dreg's face was a bloody mess. "Our roles are reversed, it seems," Jinx observed to his fellow follower of the All Seeing, All Knowing, All Wonderful Glorificus. "Let's take care of you first."

Dreg let himself be helped to a chair in the kitchen, a place Glory never entered, and he began to explain while Jinx fetched a wet towel and other items. "Her Brilliance Beyond All...ah, All—never mind. She wants us to drive around town in the convertible with the vampire and see if the bloodsucker can pick up the trail of the Key."

When he returned Jinx applied a smelly unguent to Dreg's face, dabbing at and cleaning the wounds. "Hmm. That's not a terrible idea, as far as her ideas go." Jinx continued his ministrations, applying bandages to the worst of the broken nodules.

"In the daytime?"

Jinx paused. "Oh. I see."

"When I explained we must wait till nightfall, well..." Dreg pointed at the injuries suffered for his trouble. He sighed deeply. "Oh, why do we follow her?" He eyed his friend warily, to see the reaction to his blasphemous utterance.

"Because, brother, that is our place." Though he remembered Dreg's doubts from their earlier conversation in this very spot, Jinx could still be shocked to hear them spoken out loud. He was much less shocked than Glory would have expected of him.

"But maybe not in this world?"

Jinx's voice dropped to a whisper. "Oh brother, I have indeed pondered on this. You are treading along dangerous avenues. Please be careful what you say." He looked left and right to verify no one else was present.

Despite Jinx's caution, Dreg was emboldened. With the application of their special healing unguents and numbing agents, he was soon feeling better. He wanted Jinx to ponder more.

"What do you think about Earth? About what it's like being here?"

Jinx stood straight. "What an odd question."

"Well?"

Jinx eyes unfocused as he considered.

Dreg didn't wait for an answer. "How long have we been here? How many hundreds of years? Thousands? Do you even remember? I confess I do not." He paused. "Perhaps it's not so bad?" he suggested. "Perhaps some things are even ...nice?"

"Perhaps some things." Jinx seemed to waver. Then his eyes got hard. "Are you suggesting—" he had to swallow hard, "—betrayal?! That we not do everything required by our mistress?!"

"Not at all! We shall do our utmost to follow our Glory's every bidding, to help her return to The Origin over which she shall rule all! But," and Dreg's tone turned sly, "as we help her back, perhaps we, us unthinking worthless creatures, are not worthy of staying by her side? Or perhaps," he continued, "perhaps we simply... forgot to follow?"

"And?"

"Remained here."

Jinx sat up sharply. "Our families!"

"Our families are here!" Dreg seemed indignant, as if he thought he himself mattered too. "We can continue to grow and build here, make a new, better home than where her Pontificating Idiot wishes to go."

"But the slayer—"

"If we leave the humans alone I don't think she will care. We've seen how she interacts with other peaceful demons."

"The danger if Glory ever—" Jinx stopped that unpleasant line of thought. "I must think about this more."

"That's all I ask, brother, that we think for ourselves. Of ourselves."


to be continued