It's late.

Dawn knows this fact. Yet, still she lies awake, patiently waiting for her sister to arrive from her nightly patrol. Listening closely as she hears the familiar sounds of Buffy's return.

The turning of the front door lock.

The telltale weary footsteps entering their home.

The sound of weapons being quietly put away.

The creak of the stairs as her sister ascends them.

Dawn closes her eyes and lays quietly in her bed, pretending to be asleep. She doesn't want Buffy to know that she's been waiting for her sister's safe return from her patrol.

The bathroom light turns on, and soon Dawn hears the familiar sound of running water. Her first thought is that Buffy is just washing up, a normal part of her return home, but the sound of a sharp intake of breath, followed by a small whimper of pain causes her to sit up and take notice. They are sounds that Dawn knows all too well.

Buffy's been injured.

Not the usual bruises and scratches that heal overnight, but a major kind of injury that takes a day or more to heal. Dawn already worries a lot about Buffy's safety, but when her sister returns home with a near life threatening injury, it just increases her worry even more so than usual.

Sometimes she wishes she could tap into the mystical energy of her being and take revenge on the things that would dare to hurt her sister. Yes, if she could, she would make them pay dearly.

However, she knows from firsthand experience, that there are consequences to voicing such wishes, and so keeping that in mind, it's a wish she wisely keeps to herself.

Her thoughts return to the moment at hand, and she debates getting up to see if Buffy is okay. After a moment she decides to wait, listening for the possibility of her sister's call for her help.

When she quickly hears it, the call is not what she expects it to be, and the sound of a sharp cry moves her into action. Rising swiftly from her bed, she quickly crosses the hall, intent on finding out what has happened to her sister. As she enters the bathroom, she is greeted by a most unusual looking sight.

At the edge of the tub sits Buffy, trying desperately to reach the lower half of her right shoulder with her left hand, leaving her twisted in a very precarious position. She looks up at the sound of Dawn's arrival, smiling modestly at her sister. Dawn returns her sister's smile with a look of compassionate understanding as she sits on the edge of the tub next to her sister.

"Can I help?" Dawn asks simply and straightforwardly.

"I almost had it," Buffy says with a bit of feigned overconfidence, "But you can probably reach it easier." She says as she turns away from Dawn, showing her sister the long horizontal cuts across the lower half of her shoulder blade.

Dawn lightly gasps at the sight of the wound, noticing that whatever had attacked her obviously had some very sharp claws, as it had sliced clean through the long-sleeved blouse she was currently wearing. The sight of it disturbs her a little, bringing forth memories of her sister's many previous injuries. Images of the past flash through her mind as she winces in sympathy.

'Where does she find the strength to deal with all the pain?' It's a thought she's never quite had the courage to ask her sister about, and so knowing this, she pushes the unsettling thoughts from her mind as she begins to examine Buffy's newest wounds.

"They're not too deep," Dawn tells her sister, "But it might take a few stitches to close these cuts in the center." She gets up and walks to the medicine cabinet, collecting all the things she needs to bandage the wound, returning and setting them just within reach inside the tub. She then returns her attention to Buffy's wounds, pausing as she quickly realizes one small detail that needs to change.

"Um, Buffy?"

"Yeah, Dawnie?", Buffy says as she turns slightly to face her sister.

Dawn briefly grimaces at hearing the affectionate nickname Buffy gave her when they were just little kids. It reminds her that, in some ways, she's still a little girl in her sister's eyes. The thought is strangely comforting though, and it reminds her just how truly unique their bond has become.

"I'm gonna need to clean those cuts.", Dawn replies, her mind returning to the task at hand.

"Sure.", Buffy answers, facing away to allow Dawn to start.

"So, um," she continues, "I'm gonna need you to remove your shirt." Her previous experiences helping Buffy treat her wounds had shown her that situations like this were only awkward if she let them become that way.

"Oh." Buffy answers after a thoughtful pause, "Okay," she agrees, "but I'll need your help." She raises her arms above her head, allowing Dawn to easily remove the ruined garment from her and discards it to the floor. Buffy places her arms over her chest and faces away from Dawn again, allowing the younger girl to continue.

Dawn reaches for her supplies, taking a ball of cotton and dabbing it with alcohol, using it to clean around the outer edge of the wounds. She feels Buffy tense at the touch, and she stops for a moment.

"Does it hurt?" Dawn asks with concern.

"A little.", Buffy admits. "The alcohol stings more than anything though."

"I know. I'll try to be quick about it.", Dawn reassures her, "Just hold still."

She continues cleaning the wound, carefully wiping away the remaining dirt and dried blood. When she finishes, she applies several butterfly-closure bandages to hold the cuts closed. She then carefully starts stitching the center of the deepest cuts, her hands moving with practiced ease.

After all, this isn't the first time that she's had to help Buffy patch up the injuries acquired while patrolling, and Dawn knows it won't be the last time either. So she finishes her task and gently covers the skin with a large bandage, giving it time to heal properly.

'I'll have to remove those stitches for her after tomorrow.', She thinks to herself as she picks up the rest of the first-aid materials.

"All done?", Buffy asks curiously, still facing away from Dawn.

"Yeah, all done."

Buffy looks at the torn blouse lying on the floor, grabbing it up with her left hand. She uses it to cover her chest as she gets up to look at her shoulder in the mirror.

"Not bad work." She says with an approving glance as she turns to face her sister. Dawn simply smiles slightly at the complement. Buffy turns from the mirror and looks down at the tattered blouse she holds in front of her.

"Um, I should probably change." Buffy says as she glances at the doorway and then back at Dawn. "Think you can get me some clothes from my room?"

"Yeah, no problem. I'll be right back.", She smiles at her sister's request, standing up and placing the first-aid supplies back in the medicine cabinet before walking across the hall into Buffy's room.

The room is dark, but Dawn finds her way around by the dim glow of the light from the bathroom. She walks past the bed to the dresser, and as she goes to open the top drawer she notices one of the pictures sitting on top of the dresser.

It's a photo of herself and Buffy, residing in the frame she decorated for her sister's birthday.

Dawn remembers the day that photo was taken, even though she knows it never really happened. It is like many of the pictures in their home, a silent reminder of her dual nature and existence.

The thought doesn't bother Dawn like it used to, having long since made peace with both whom and what she is. Instead, she is appreciative of the reality she has been given, and her place in life as Buffy's sister.

Dawn breaks away from her inner musings and opens the top drawer of the dresser, removing a pair of Buffy's pajamas and some underwear. Satisfied with her choices, she returns with the clothes to the bathroom.

"Here you go," She says, handing them over to Buffy and then turning around to give her sister some privacy as she continues, "I thought you might want to change out of everything. Since you won't be able to take a shower until those cuts heal up a little more." She misses seeing Buffy's thankful smile for the thoughtful gesture, but she does hear her grateful response.

"Thank you, Dawn. I don't what I'd do without you." Buffy's smile drops slightly upon voicing her thought, and she realizes just how much the words ring true.

Dawn smiles sadly at the comment, the simple honesty of the statement filling the moment, and allowing a comfortable silence to fill the room.

"Okay, all done.", Buffy says as she fastens the last button on her shirt. "How do I look?"

Dawn turns around, facing her sister, inspecting the pajamas with a look of mock analysis.

"Hmm . . . Not your greatest look, but I guess it'll do.", She says teasingly, a mischievous smile playing across her lips.

"Hey!", Buffy says as she slaps her sister's shoulder playfully, "You're the one who picked it out for me.", She gently teases in return.

"It was the first thing I found!", Dawn grins slightly as she defends her decision. "Besides," She continues, "you know all your pajamas have some sort of cute pattern on them."

"Yeah, I guess you're right." Buffy admits after a few moments thought. She gathers up her ruined clothing and exits the bathroom, walking across the hall into her room, with Dawn following closely behind her.

After dropping the clothes in her closet, Buffy reaches her bed, pulling aside the covers and sitting down on the mattress. She looks over at Dawn, who is standing at the foot of the bed. She smiles just slightly upon seeing her sister's fidgeting stance, knowing exactly what she wants, but also knowing that Dawn is too hesitant to ask directly. This happens every time Buffy gets injured like she did tonight, and so knowing this, she decides to make it easier on the younger girl.

"Well?", Buffy says expectantly.

"Well, what?", Dawn responds curiously.

"Which side do you want?", She says as she gestures toward the bed. "I mean, you are gonna stay here tonight, right?"

Dawn answers her by smiling happily as she climbs over the foot of the bed, laying herself out in the middle of the mattress. "I think this is a good spot," She says teasingly before sliding over to allow Buffy enough room to lie down as well. "But this works too."

"How generous of you." Buffy replies sarcastically. "Don't forget, I'm the one who nearly died over here." She quickly raises her hand to cover her mouth, instantly regretting her choice of words as she watches Dawn's expression change from playful to serious.

"That's not funny.", Dawn says, sounding slightly upset by her sister's comment. Tears glisten at the corner of her eyes as she looks up at her sister, her expression full of sadness.

"I didn't mean . . ." Buffy glances away from Dawn's sad expression as she speaks, "I'm sorry," She says apologetically, "I wasn't thinking." She sits on the bed, looking over at her sister with a slight pout on her face, "Forgive me?"

Dawn can't resist giving a slight smile at the apologetic look on Buffy's face. After all, it's a look she knows well, having copied it on more than one occasion to get herself out trouble. She reaches over, pulling aside the covers on Buffy's half of the bed as she answers.

"Yeah, I forgive you.", Dawn says as she smiles softly, "Now, will you get in bed so we can go to sleep?"

Buffy smiles inwardly, relieved at her sister's restored mood as she carefully climbs into the bed, pulling the covers into place back over Dawn and herself. She lies on her uninjured side, carefully avoiding putting pressure on her bandaged wound. As she gets comfortable, she finds herself face-to-face with Dawn. Buffy finds herself comforted by the familiar sight of her sister's thoughtful expression and inquisitive blue eyes.

"Hey there.", Buffy says, gracing her with a gentle smile.

"Hey.", Dawn replies softly, returning the smile with one of her own.

"Looks like you've got something on your mind.", Buffy observes, "Wanna share?"

"Maybe.", Dawn says shyly. "It's just that I . . ."

Dawn's smile fades slightly as she trails off, her brow furrowing as she considered the thoughts and emotions running throughout her mind.

She wants so very much to just tell Buffy to quit slaying, to never risk her life again, to never leave her again. Yet she holds back, knowing deep down that those are purely selfish wants. Dawn has worked very hard to overcome such selfish impulses, but there are times like these that make her think about a possible return to old habits.

As the minutes quietly pass, Buffy finds herself studying Dawn's expression, wondering what exactly could be occupying her sister's mind. She waits patiently for a few more moments before gently reaching out and waving her hand in front of Dawn's face, causing the younger girl to break from her reverie.

"Huh?" Dawn says distractedly as her concentration shifts to the moment at hand. "Oh, sorry about that." Dawn apologizes sheepishly, "I was just thinking."

"Deep thoughts?", Buffy asks softly.

"The deepest.", Dawn replies with a gentle smile.

"Ready to share yet?"

"Yeah, I think so.", Dawn answers. "It's just . . . I've been really worried about your safety."

"Oh." Buffy replies, her tone tinged with surprise and hinting at a little bit of guilt, "I mean, of course, yeah." She stumbles over her verbal recovery, refraining from commenting further and allowing her sister to continue.

"It's not all the time," Dawn reassures her, "it just seems worse when you come home hurt, like you did tonight." She paused thoughtfully before continuing. "I mean, we've already lost Mom, and if I were to lose you as well . . ." Tears glistened in Dawn's eyes as she finished, "It would mean that I'd be left all alone, and the thought of that scares me."

Upon hearing Dawn's heartfelt confession, Buffy found herself at a total loss for words. Emotions she had thought long-buried forced their way to the surface, causing her to confront her own similar fears of loss and abandonment. She felt the tears welling up in her eyes as she found the strength to comfort and reassure her sister.

"I promise you, I'm not going anywhere." Buffy reached out, grasping Dawn's hands gently in her own as she continued. "The last thing I would ever want is to leave you all alone."

Dawn looked at her sister with teary eyes, a mixed expression of reassurance and relief gracing her gentle features. She moved forward, shifting downward as she reached out and wrapped her arms around her sister's midsection, resting her head just below Buffy's chin, starting to softly cry as she began to speak.

"You know I love you, right?" Dawn's voice was just above a whisper.

"I know.", Buffy replied, her voice strained with emotion.

"I know I don't say it often," Dawn said apologetically, "But I really do."

"I know.", Buffy repeated. "I love you too." She ran her hand softly through Dawn' brunette locks, knowing how the simple gesture would comfort her sister. Dawn relaxed a little at the gentle touch, and Buffy repeated the motion several times, feeling her sister relax a bit more each time, until the younger girl was soon fast asleep.

Buffy watched over the younger girl as she slept, noticing how peaceful Dawn looked, all curled up in her sisters embrace. She kept up her vigil until a need for sleep began to overtake her, and very soon, she too fell fast asleep.