Two months later…

As Dawn Summers pulled her shiny red sports car into the driveway of her sister's spacious mansion, she fought back the wave of guilt that had been assailing her since well before she had left her campus to come for this visit. For weeks now, actually, she had been fighting back a sense of obligation, even as she thought up reasons to avoid calling – but it was Christmas Eve now, and there was no avoiding this little holiday trip.

She sat in the car for a few moments after turning off the engine, trying to build up the courage to go inside. And why should she need courage, to walk into her own sister's house? she wondered with a sense of indignation at her own feelings.

She knew why. Because she had been avoiding said sister for nearly three months now.

The last time she had come to visit Buffy, she had once again begged her – as she did every time she saw her – to leave her overbearing, self-centered husband and come to stay with her for a little while in her comfortable off-campus apartment. And just like every time before, Buffy had refused.

Dawn did not know what had made that time any different from all the others, but somehow – it had been different. Something had just clicked into place in her mind, and she just knew, as much as she hated to admit it to herself.

Buffy was not going to leave Riley.

Call it brainwashing, emotional abuse, or simply a lack of self-confidence – but whatever self-respect and initiative Buffy needed to pull herself out of the increasingly abusive relationship she was in had had been stolen from her – and she did not have the strength left simply to walk away.

Dawn had pretended at first that she was too busy to return her sister's calls – there had always been a plausible excuse to come up with when she needed it for why she couldn't talk to Buffy right then. But finally, she had been forced to admit the truth, if only to herself.

She just could not stand to watch Riley Finn slowly destroy her sister, when there was absolutely nothing she could do to stop him.

Buffy had stopped even attempting to reach her after the first few weeks, and that had only made Dawn more worried. In fact, she actually wondered if she would not have found some reason even to avoid Christmas with her sister, if not for the overwhelming fear mingling with the guilt she felt for leaving her sister to her own devices – fear that maybe something had happened to her once vibrant, strong older sister.

She had to be sure that Buffy was okay – and try one more time to convince her to get away from the bondage that she called a marriage.

That was why she was even here.

Her sense of purpose renewed by the little pep talk she had given herself, Dawn took a deep breath and stepped out of the car, walking on legs that seemed heavy with dread up to the front door and forcing herself to ring the bell – praying that it would not be Riley who answered the door.

Her prayers were apparently heard.

She was surprised when the door was opened by none other than her old crush, Xander Harris, long since married and out of the realm of the crush-able. Still, even now in her early twenties and involved in a semi-serious relationship, she felt a funny little feeling in her stomach at the sight of him. Not the overwhelming, butterflies-in-the-stomach, longing that she used to feel.

This was more of a pang of nostalgia – a missing of the way things used to be, before her sister grew up and moved out of the house – before her friends who had been constants in the Summers' home were torn out of Dawn's little girl world by serious relationships and other major life changes.

Before Riley stole her sister away from her for good.

"Dawnie! Hey!" There was genuine delight in the young man's eyes as he pulled her into a strong, warm hug. "My God, it's been – wow!" He drew back from the hug to look her over with a sort of wonder. "You're all grown up!"

His words reminded her just how long it had been since she had seen him, or any of the others. When Riley had insisted that Buffy cut them out of her life, he had effectively cut them out of Dawn's life as well. After all, she had only ever been Buffy's little sister, and whatever fledging friendships she had been in the process of building at that time had been cut short of necessity when she had gone away to college.

She wondered with rising curiosity – and hope – what quirk of fate had brought Buffy back together with her old friend.

"Come on," he urged her, leading her forward with a comfortable, brotherly hand around her shoulder. "Everybody's waiting in the living room."

Dawn frowned, puzzled, though still a bit dazed by the surprise of seeing him. Where was her sister, anyway? "Everybody?" she echoed, vaguely confused.

The brief reunion with Xander let her know that something had changed – but it in no way prepared her for the sight that met her eyes when he led her into the living room.

It was like a Scoobie reunion – and then some.

Willow and Tara were snuggled together on the couch, talking softly together with silly smiles on both of their faces that suggested that whatever they were saying was not fit for the rest of the room to hear. A young woman that Dawn did not recognize sat on the end of the sofa, politely ignoring them and occasionally offering advice to the ones who were adding last minute ornaments to the tree.

Movement across the room caught Dawn's attention – and her eyes widened in surprise at the sight of the last person she would have expected to see in the home of her sister and her husband.

Rupert Giles was walking into the room from the kitchen, carrying a tray with a pitcher of some steaming Christmas-y sort of drink that smelled spicy and sweet and comforting, and a stack of paper cups, flanked by a strange young man that Dawn did not recognize, who was speaking with animation and excitement and lots of hand gestures as he tried to hold the Watcher's thin-spread attention.

What was Giles -- possibly Riley's greatest opponent – doing here in this house? Dawn did not keep up with the news very well, having much more important things – classes, work, and her developing relationship with her boyfriend – to keep her busy. But she did know about the recent changes in the slavery system – and she knew that Riley's animosity toward the former Watcher was probably greater now than ever.

Come to think of it – where was Riley?

Her eyes continued their sweep of the room, enduring another shock when they fell on Anya, seated in a comfortable chair in the corner and calmly watching as the tree was decorated – one hand resting protectively over her swollen middle.

The greatest surprise of all, however, came a moment later – when she noticed exactly who was doing the tree-decorating.

Buffy had not yet noticed her entrance into the room, her back turned to Dawn and Xander as she strained to the extent of her not very impressive height to place a tiny silver ornament on one of the higher boughs of the tree. The man by her side, not very tall, but taller than Buffy, reached to take it from her hands, to place it for her.

In a gesture that was every bit her big sister, Buffy jerked her hand away, shooting a resentful glare at the blonde beside her, as she muttered, "I can do it." But it was clear right away that there was no real anger there; Buffy was just being her typical hyper-independent self.

"Planning on growing an extra foot or two in the next five seconds, were you?" the blonde smirked at her with affectionate mockery in his voice – and Dawn recognized suddenly the blonde, British vampire that she had only seen once or twice, nearly six years ago.

What was his name again…?

Buffy frowned, looking down thoughtfully in confusion before giving in and looking back at the vampire beside her. "What would I want with an extra foot? How would that help…" Her eyes suddenly widened as she realized, too late, that he had not been referring to growing an extra limb.

He struggled valiantly to suppress his laughter – for all of half a second. After that, he was doubled over, leaning back against the wall beside the tree for support, his body shaking with silent laughter as he shook his head in disbelief at her misunderstanding.

"Shut up, Spike," Buffy demanded, her face coloring with embarrassment – but she was trying not to laugh, too.

Spike – that was it. But – what was a vampire who was clearly not a slave doing in the Slavemaster General's house?

And where was that piece of garbage that had married her sister, anyway?

Hopefully nowhere close by, Dawn thought, sustaining yet another shock as the laughter slowly faded from the blonde vampire's eyes, softening to a tender look of affection, and he closed the distance between him and her sister, his hands resting casually on her waist and pulling her in for a slow, intimate kiss.

The silver ornament that had started the whole thing fell from Buffy's hand as she wrapped her arms around Spike's neck and kissed him back, shattering on the floor at their feet. As the oblivious couple finally parted, Buffy's back was to Dawn, and the younger girl watched as the vampire opened his eyes, his lips parted to say something.

And that was when he noticed her. He silently drew Buffy's attention, nodding toward her, and the Slayer turned to face her sister – who was suddenly feeling very shy, and guilty again for her absenteeism in her sister's life – and intensely curious as to just what all she had missed.

"Buffy?" she spoke her sister's name in a soft, hesitant whisper.

Buffy stared at her for a moment, before her face broke into a delighted smile. "Dawnie! You're here!" she declared with joy, running to embrace her sister in a nearly bone-crushing hug.

"Yep," Dawn gasped out in a slightly strangled voice. "here – and still among the land of the living – therefore requiring oxygen to live…"

Buffy laughed as she loosened her grip, "Sorry," she said, her eyes still dancing with laughter as she led her little sister to a loveseat across the room and sat down beside her, eager to hear all about what she had been doing – and hopefully, Dawn thought, to fill her in a bit as well.

The next few minutes passed in a blur as Dawn was introduced to all the people in the room that she did not know, and reacquainted with the ones she did. As the attention of everyone in the room besides Buffy and the vampire who was obviously her lover, at the very least, turned back to whatever they were doing, Dawn found the courage to venture into the questions that flooded her mind.

"So – um…" she began with the one that had her the most curious. "Where's Riley?"

Buffy's eyes widened in surprise, as she exchanged a disbelieving look with Spike, before they both burst into laughter again.

"Oh, my God!" Buffy gasped. "You really don't know!"

"No," Dawn frowned. "I don't. What – what's so funny?"

Buffy finally managed to contain her laughter, her expression becoming almost serious as she gently chided her sister, "I guess that's what you get for not returning my phone calls, Missy. You'd have known a long time ago if you hadn't been avoiding me."

Dawn's face flushed as she looked away for a moment before meeting her sister's gaze again. "I'm sorry…I just…Buffy, I just couldn't…I couldn't watch what he was doing to you." She startled herself with her own unexpected honesty, but then glanced thoughtfully around the room and added, "What he's obviously not doing to you anymore."

"No," Buffy agreed softly, reaching back behind her to squeeze the hand of the vampire standing behind where she sat on the loveseat. "Not anymore."

"So – did you – divorce him? And get the house?" Dawn asked, eager to know the whole story, now that her much deserved apology was out of the way.

"No – and yes," Buffy replied quickly.

"So you're still married?" Dawn frowned.

Buffy took a deep breath before answering, "No."

"Okay…much confusion here. What happened?" Dawn asked, growing a bit impatient with the cryptic-ness.

"Well – you know a couple of months ago – when all the vampire slaves' chips stopped functioning, and the governor declared a state of emergency?" Buffy began, deciding that it would be simpler just to go back to the beginning.

Dawn frowned, remembering. "Yeah. He recalled all the slaves and declared them to be no longer property but wards of the state. He said it was dangerous since the chips were turned off and they could no longer be controlled. For some reason, they never could figure out a way to turn them back on."

"Yeah – for some reason," Buffy echoed, glancing pointedly toward her best female friend, still oblivious to the conversation, focused on her own lover.

"You mean -- Willow did that?" Dawn clarified, a bit awed by the idea that the red-headed witch had the power to do something of that magnitude, short-circuiting all of the chips in existence so that they could not be made to work again.

Buffy nodded, obviously proud of her friend. "Yep. And since the chips won't work anymore, obviously something else needed to be done about the vampires. Most of them had been treated like animals, or worse, and certainly weren't -- aren't -- ready to be integrated into society yet…"

"Integrated into society?" Dawn's eyes widened in surprise at that idea. It was something that she and some of her college activist friends had considered and debated many times, and though she had always fallen on the pro-abolitionist side, realistically, she had never expected it to actually happen.

Buffy nodded again. "Before that could actually happen," she explained slowly, "they'd have to be trained – and not through torture or abuse or any of the horrible things Riley's people did, but really taught and guided how to function in normal society."

"Wow," Dawn whispered, looking away thoughtfully as she considered the concept. "So – that's what's going on right now? No one's been really clear on what the state's done with the vampires. The news has just reported that they're being held in protective custody, where they can't harm anyone or be harmed themselves."

"That's true," Buffy nodded. "Until the next election coming up, when the voters vote on the new bill that Giles got them to put up for consideration…the one that would declare all vampires who could pass certain requirements – no criminal activities, a basic knowledge of how to function in society, the ability to maintain an actual job – could be made legal citizens."

Dawn looked at the former Watcher, surrounded as usual by his small family, with new respect. She knew he had done a lot to help the abolitionist cause, but she had no idea that he had made that much progress.

Buffy's eyes followed her gaze as she went on, "With all the work he's done in the past few months – and the truth coming to light about Riley and the things he did – the atrocities that went on in his training centers – people have a new attitude toward vampires and slavery in general. Giles thinks the voters are ready to pass the bill – and I think so too."

"So – are the vampires gonna be ready?" Dawn asked in a quiet, earnest voice, searching her sister's eyes. "I mean – who's training them to – to join regular society?"

Buffy's smile took on a gleeful tone as she bounced slightly in her seat and announced, "I am!"

Dawn did a bit of a double take. "You?"

"Uh-huh!" Buffy confirmed with a nod. "Me and Spike…and well, most of the people in this house, actually. The governor thought it would be safer if it wasn't common knowledge who was in charge of the program – but we've taken Riley's old facilities and completely transformed them. You should see some of these places, Dawnie, they're huge. We've got like, whole towns in these places where the former slaves are learning how to be free and co-exist with humans."

"Buffy, that's incredible," Dawn said, sincerely proud of her sister. "You're seriously completely changing society as we know it. This is awesome!"

"Uh-huh!" Buffy agreed cheerfully, clearly thrilled by the victory she and Spike and the others had won. "We beat Riley and his little reign of terror thing he had going on."

"Um – about Riley – you never did tell me…" Dawn pressed not too subtlely.

"Oh," Buffy shrugged carelessly. "He went to prison for murder and conspiracy for the mysterious assassinations that have taken place in the past few months, including that senator a couple of months back. And – although right now, according to the laws that are on the books, he couldn't be convicted of the crimes he committed against the slave – someone sent the word out ahead of time that he was – well…"

"A bloody pervert," Spike supplied for her with a smug smile of satisfaction. "Got off on all kinds of nastiness…which is pretty much the truth, in'nit, love?" He looked to Buffy for confirmation.

She nodded slowly, a sobered look in her eyes. A moment later, it faded into a wicked smile as she added casually, "Anyway – people like that don't last too long in prison. Case in point – Riley."

Dawn's eyes were round as saucers as she took in this new – and strangely satisfying – information. "What happened to him?" she asked.

Buffy shrugged again as she replied emotionlessly, "What happens to every rapist or child molester or any other sort of pervert in prison. Only – things went a little far, from what I've heard. He didn't make it. They never did find out exactly which one of his fellow prisoners killed him."

"He's dead?" Dawn felt as if she kept just repeating what Buffy was telling her – but it seemed as if she just kept telling her one shocking development after another.

"Bloke couldn't handle a dose of his own medicine," Spike said with a quiet, hard note to his voice. Thanks in large part to Buffy, he had come a long way in healing the pain of his past – but that did not keep him from feeling a strong sense of satisfaction at the just fate that had befallen Riley Finn for his crimes.

Dawn had lots of questions, wanted to know all the details, and Buffy and her new – boyfriend? She kept trying to think of a suitable title for the vampire by her side that clearly adored her, and was adored by her – were more than happy to provide them all.

Halfway through the conversation, Dawn noticed the tiny scars on her sister's throat – and the matching ones on Spike's. Being the Slayer's sister, she knew a lot about vampire lore, and knew immediately what the marks meant. But after all she had seen and heard that night, it was hardly a shock to her. She waited until Spike got up a few minutes later to get Buffy a drink, to ask her sister about them.

Buffy tried her best to explain to her sister how her relationship with Spike had come upon her, blossoming before she even knew it had been planted in her heart – and although the words she wanted didn't seem to come, she could tell that Dawn understood.

"He came to my house as my slave, Dawnie," she finally said, her voice soft and thoughtful, and full of an awed sort of overwhelming emotion. "He belonged to me. But – I was the one that was the slave, Dawnie, you know?"

Dawn nodded, tears welling in her eyes. She knew.

"He – he showed me what it means to be free. He gave me the strength to leave Riley – because even though he should have hated me – I treated him like a possession, and he had every right to hate me – he didn't. He showed me what real love is. He showed me that it's not supposed to hurt like it hurt with Riley. And that's what gave me the strength to leave."

They were both silent for a long time, as Dawn took in her sister's heart-felt words.

Finally Dawn said softly, "It must feel so good to be free – to be your own person again, Buffy. After basically being a slave to someone else's whims for so long, to belong to no one but yourself."

Buffy shook her head, a sweet smile on her lips and her eyes welling with happy tears as she corrected her sister gently, "No, Dawnie. I still belong to him," she whispered. "And he belongs to me. The thing is…" She paused, looking up as her vampire appeared again in the doorway, approaching her with his love shining openly in his eyes.

"…it's okay to belong to someone…more than okay…it's the best feeling in the world…when they belong to you, too."

Dawn was silent, feeling the overflow of the powerful emotions passing between her sister and her mate, as Buffy finished in an awed whisper of devotion.

"He's mine – and I'm his. We belong to each other – forever."

A/N: Well, there it is – the end. sniff, tear Thanks so much for all your reviews and feedback and following this story through to its end. I hope you've all enjoyed it. There may very well be a sequel soon, as this story seems to leave more room for a sequel than any other I've written – I've got a couple other projects in the works, so we'll see  Again, thanks so much for your support and reading… hugs -- Jessi