"Do you really have to go so soon?"

Buffy's arms tightened unconsciously around her sister as they stood in the doorway. Dawn's bags were on the floor at her feet, the single garment bag and carry-on that she had brought with her for her weekend visit to her sister and her husband.

"You know finals start Tuesday," Dawn reminded her, her green eyes large and sad as she took in her sister's demeanor – so subdued and self-conscious…and so very different from the girl she had once been. "You know," she added hesitantly, already anticipating the answer before she asked the question – the same answer Buffy gave her every time she asked – which was every time she saw her.

"You could just come back with me. You know I'm living off campus now, and my new apartment is huge, Buffy. There's plenty of room if you just wanna…you know… get away for a little while?"

Buffy fought back the tears that rose in her eyes, determined not to let her little sister – as she still thought of her, despite the fact that Dawn towered a good six inches over her by now – see how lonely, unhappy and uncertain she was…how badly she wanted to accept her offer.

"No, Dawnie, don't be silly. I'm fine. I just…miss you…is all," Buffy said, forcing a smile.

Dawn frowned, a familiar smoldering anger rising in her eyes as she watched her sister's pathetic attempt to convince her that everything was all right.

Everything was not all right – had not been for a very long time.

If Dawn had had any idea five years ago of the terrible turn Buffy's life was about to make, she would have warned her. Not that she would have listened – Dawn had only been fourteen years old, and Buffy had seen her as nothing more than a child.

And Riley Finn had seemed to Buffy like the best thing that had ever happened to her. He was sweet, and thoughtful, and paid attention to her, treated her like she was his entire world. And most of all…he was normal.

Buffy had been in love before, with someone very decidedly not normal…and they all knew that had not turned out so well. Since then, she had increasingly sought what she thought of as a "normal" life. At first it had thrown her when she had found out that Riley was actually a secret commando guy with a government agency, but when she thought about it, the fact that that secret government agency was a group of monster hunters seemed to work out perfectly for her.

She was the Slayer. Normal only went so far for her, no matter how hard she tried.

When the Initiative had fallen apart around them, she had been so proud of Riley when he had struggled up through the rubble of the life he had built for himself, and presented himself and his at that point meager achievements to those in charge, asking for the opportunity to attempt to try it again – his way. He had some ideas that had seemed quite radical, but he had presented himself well, and the government officials had actually listened and given the farm boy from Iowa a chance.

After all, he was one of the few who had actually kept the whole Initiative massacre from being much, much worse – as they were only too aware that it could have been.

One of his more radical ideas, which took a little longer than most to actually accomplish, was to go public. Riley seemed to think that the public would be in less danger if they actually knew that they were in danger at all. With Buffy at his side and the help of a group of soldiers placed under his command, he had spent some time gathering evidence and statistics, hard-core proof of what really went on behind the cover stories of people dying from "throat hemorrhages" and explained-away disappearances.

After a year or two, building up a rather impressive resume and experience, Riley had received the opportunity to take his evidence and his ideas before the President. It had taken some convincing -- but not as much as it would have taken had the President's own mother not succumbed to death by an "unexplained throat hemorrhage" that had looked to his eyes suspiciously like a bite mark, only weeks before their meeting.

Buffy remembered clearly the day that the monsters she had secretly kept at bay for years became public knowledge. It was the biggest news story of the year, the revelation of the truth behind the strange occurrences that had been going on for so long, not only in Sunnydale, but throughout the country. For weeks, it was all that was talked about on news programs, talk shows, radio programs.

There were exposes revealing the truth behind the deaths of certain public figures who had died in very unnatural ways; public services announcements detailing the precautions to take when traveling at night to avoid vampire attacks; self-defense classes specializing in defense against supernatural attackers.

Buffy was amazed at how easily most people seemed to accept it. It was as if they had merely been in denial before, refusing to acknowledge what a part of them already knew, for fear of being ridiculed or thought to be insane. But now that it was open, common knowledge, many people began to come forward with their own stories of lost loved ones and strange occurrences they had experienced.

Riley became a very wealthy, very prominent man.

And Buffy, strangely uncomfortable with all the attention that seemed to be coming her way lately, even if most of it was indirect due to her relationship with Riley, mostly kept to herself and allowed him to soak up all the glory, although she had done quite a bit herself to help him reach the level of respect and authority he had reached. Dawn hated the fact that her sister, who had been fighting evil much longer than Riley had, was getting no credit for all their combined accomplishments, no acknowledgement for all her hard work.

But then, Riley acknowledged it.

He asked Buffy to marry him.

Dawn had known even then that Buffy didn't love Riley, and that had been her first clue that there was trouble brewing in paradise. Buffy didn't love Riley and want to marry him, as much as she thought that she was supposed to love him and want to marry him. Dawn had warned her to be sure she knew what she was doing, be sure this was what she really wanted, before she said yes…but what did she know?

She was just her little sister, after all.

So Buffy had married Riley, a mere two years ago. And already, Dawn knew that she was miserable. During that first year when Dawn had lived with them, she had seen a dramatic, almost instant change in Riley from the moment they got married.

He became quiet, withdrawn, moody. He spent a lot more time working on various projects, away from home, and Dawn knew that if not for her, her sister would have been very lonely. Buffy felt ignored and neglected, and Dawn began to notice her self-esteem suffer for it as well.

Riley would snap at her for little or no reason, and instead of getting angry and defending herself as Buffy would have ordinarily done, Dawn was shocked to see her backing down where she had done no wrong, blaming herself for the problems in her new marriage. If only she was a little more understanding, a little more patient, Riley was a very busy, important man…why couldn't Dawn understand that it wasn't his fault?

Buffy hardly sounded like the girl Dawn had grown up with anymore.

So it was that Dawn was not surprised when Buffy held her tongue, when Riley re-started the Initiative's old research with controlling and using the demons and vampires for their own benefit, as opposed to simply eliminating their threat altogether.

Dawn knew her sister well enough to know that Buffy had very strong ideas about that sort of thing. She believed that it was that sort of mindset that had resulted in the disaster of the first Initiative. Buffy felt that if a creature was evil, dangerous, it should simply be eliminated – experiments with behavior modification and control were not only inhumane and ethically uncertain, but simply dangerous.

Still, she didn't say a word as Riley began to do new research along the same lines as what the Initiative had done before, with the chips and such, building a facility where captured "hostiles" as he still called them were kept, experimented on, and rendered no longer dangerous.

Dawn knew that Buffy was worried about Riley's new pursuits, and it bothered her that her sister refrained from saying anything about it to her husband. In fact, it seemed that as time went on, the distance between Buffy and Riley grew wider and wider, and Buffy began to close in on herself more and more.

Oh, she attended society events with her important, impressive husband, playing a role Dawn had never thought to see her in and hated the thought of – the dutiful, supportive wife, standing by her husband's side, laughing at his jokes, supporting his every opinion, and never daring to think for herself for a moment.

But the only one she ever really talked to was Dawn.

As Buffy's status had gradually risen with Riley's, she had become distanced from her old friends, Willow and Xander, who had once been closer to her than anyone. And to Dawn's dismay, Riley had seemed to encourage this distance, often making snide cut-downs against them in the privacy of their home, insinuating to Buffy that she was above them now, that they were way above the league of the amateur witch and the pizza delivery boy she had hung out with before.

Dawn could tell that it angered Buffy when he talked that way about her friends…and that was why she couldn't understand why Buffy didn't say anything…why she allowed it…and why she continued to distance herself from her friends, just to please Riley. Before long, Dawn was not only Buffy's sister, but her closest friend…her only friend.

That was why Dawn had known so certainly that her leaving for college would crush Buffy.

Buffy had offered to let her stay there with them, as U. C. Sunnydale was only a short drive from their home. But the truth was, Dawn just couldn't stand to spend any more time around Riley. He had become so arrogant, so self-involved, so…cold. And Dawn just couldn't take another minute more of him than she absolutely had to.

Also, she had secretly hoped that Buffy would snap out of it once she was alone with him, and realized the kind of person Riley had become. Every time she came to visit her, Dawn asked her if she wanted to come stay with her.

And every time, Buffy refused.

"I miss you too," Dawn said softly in response to Buffy's words, and the sympathy, the sorrow in her eyes made Buffy look away.

"So what are you two doing tonight?" Dawn asked with a forced smile. She always tried to draw Buffy's attention to the things that were not right in her life – like the total absence of any actual fun. Maybe if she kept forcing Buffy's eyes onto the harsh reality that was her life, and out of her state of denial, eventually she would care enough to do something about it.

Buffy's nose wrinkled in an expression of disgust as she replied unhappily, "Riley's dragging me to one of those horrible auctions. I hate those things."

"Me, too," Dawn agreed with a sympathetic grimace of distaste.

"But I have to go. I mean, he's kind of the reason why they even have them, so I guess I ought to be supportive," Buffy sighed.

Are you ever anything but supportive? Dawn wanted to ask her, but didn't. It was so unlike her sister to go along with something with which she disagreed so whole-heartedly as these auctions that were initiated by Riley's organization.

And yet, here she was, going along with it just the same.

It had been a small step from the chips to render the demons and vampires harmless, to rendering them useful – especially now that society in general knew that they existed. Much to Buffy's horror and disgust, Riley had gradually turned his project into a very profitable business.

Legislation had been drawn up, lobbied for forcefully by Riley and his supporters, to officially declare the otherworldly creatures he dealt with as non-human, in the realm of animals, and therefore not possessing any actual rights.

And then the auctions had begun.

Government sponsored and supported, places where people could buy a chip-controlled Fyarl demon to be used for heavy work, or any number of species for which Buffy did not know the names, to be used as beasts of burden.

Or a vampire, as a household servant.

A slave.

Buffy had thought of Angel, whom she had loved so deeply, and wondered where he was…if he was all right…and the thought of Riley's auctions made her sick.

He had wasted no time in obtaining plenty of servants for the beautiful, spacious mansion in which they now lived. Buffy tried not to notice the unusual ratio of female vampires that he had purchased…or the unusual amount of time Riley seemed to spend alone in his study with some of them.

Even beyond the thought she tried to put out of her head, the fact she tried to deny of Riley's infidelity, she hated the very idea -- because as much as she tried to tell herself that Riley was right, they weren't human and it was not a moral issue, she had ceased to believe that in the moment she had fallen in love with Angel.

She hated what her life had become, a pretense of love and happiness that she had to fake her way through every day.

And she hated the auctions.

But she was in a position many girls would envy, she told herself, though she couldn't make herself believe it. She was wealthy, and married to a handsome, powerful man who was still going places, although he had already come so far. What right did she have to complain?

She sighed as she watched her sister's car backing out of the driveway, and went upstairs to change her clothes for the evening's event. They were always formal affairs, and she wanted to look her best. She would have to suffer her way through it, as she always did, trying her best to look as if she was enjoying herself.

It was her duty.

RESPONSE TO CHALLENGE #157 AU: Breaks from canon after Season Four...Five years after the Initiative disaster, the world is a very different place, where society in general knows about demons and vampires, and have found ways to dominate them. Buffy is trapped in an unhappy marriage to a man who doesn't seem to want her, trapped in a world that doesn't seem to need her anymore...can an old ally and enemy, sold into her home as a slave, teach her the meaning of freedom?

Buffy/Other, temporary