Sometimes, Dawn wondered if there was something important about the Key that those crusty old monks hadn't bothered to tell her. Something that might explain why her life had been such a rollercoaster of suck since they'd made her into a person.

Okay, so she was over-dramatizing. It was pretty obvious the real reason she mostly remembered an easy childhood was that the Order had been trying to attach her to Buffy's life without making too many ripples. Hence constant memories of fray adjaceny rather than any serious troubles of her own. So of course real life had suffered by comparison. But logic didn't make it less awful. Especially when it seemed like everyone she'd bothered to care about in the last couple of years had either left her, one way or another, or found more important things to pay attention to.

Including cute, smart boys who tripped over their own feet to correct her Sumerian. Dawn probably should have been more surprised to see Nick and his friend show up like a pair of disgruntled puppies tagging after Spike's heels, but after everything else, she figured it was pretty much par for the course.

One of her surrogate moms chanting in Latin in the middle of a circle of green sand? Check. Dawn herself sprawled awkwardly on the floor from the backlash of Willow's first attempt at the magics? Check. Cute boy in obvious spy chic staring at the big ugly draped over Spike's shoulder rather than her own heaving bosom? Check. All she needed was another lecture from Buffy when she got back- when she got back, and Dawn's thoughts carefully skipped over the horrible reason the other lecture had happened in the first place- to really make her day complete.

Or... hey, Principal Wood walking back into the house, following the others, with a thunderous expression on his face. It had been weird enough finding out that he was the son of a Slayer; that had been freaky, but kind of cool, and also hopeful for Buffy, that it might be possible for her to have babies of her own. Niece and nephew-type critters for Dawn to spoil; more anchors for Buffy to keep that terrible longing look off her face. But this- Dawn didn't know how she was going to look Wood in the face at school after everything that had happened since he'd handed over his mother's emergency kit.

He was saying something to Nick as they entered, something that made both boys flinch and look down at the sci-fi looking guns in their hands. Both of them had been wearing that mission-intent expression when they walked in, the one Xander got when he was actually fighting rather than playing bait, but whatever Principal Wood had said made them act like awkward teenagers again. Like someone her age, not compressed adults- and of course, that was what it took to finally bring Dawn's plight to Nick's attention.

"Dawn! Are you all right?" Nick asked, hurriedly shrinking his weapon somehow and stuffing it in his waistband. He dropped to his knees, then shifted one arm under her shoulders and grabbed her other hand. He had such pretty eyes; it was a pity Buffy was probably right about the likelihood of him being evil, because it felt really good to have all his hottie bookworm attention focused totally on her.

"I think so," she groaned, pressing a hand to her temple. Dawn had been way not comfortable with magic applied to her person since the Dark Willow episode the year before, and this was a pretty good example of why. She still felt kind of dizzy, not to mention bruised. "It's just..."

She never finished the sentence, though, because Willow seized exactly that moment to lose her patience. "Screw it! Mighty forces, I suck at Latin, okay?" she said, raising her voice several decibels as she switched languages.

Dawn felt more than saw Nick's attention abruptly shift away from her, and scowled; typical. To her right, Kennedy was already back on her feet and standing behind Willow, flanked by Anya; to her left, Xander had turned to deal with Spike, Jon, and the principal, his expression shifting from relief to alarm.

"Ah, as you can see, the rehearsal's well under way," he fumbled for her friends' benefit. "Macbeth, you know, for the college production-"

As an attempt at distraction, it wasn't one of Xander's finer moments- especially since Willow's voice kept rising, talking right over him. "But that's not the issue!" she yelled, lifting the fine hairs on Dawn's arms with the audible force of her conviction. "I'm the one in charge, and I'm telling you, open up, portal! NOW!"

Dawn held her breath, unconsciously clenching a hand in the fabric of Nick's shirt despite her irritation.

"Wilow, uh, in case you haven't noticed, we've got..." Xander tried to interrupt again.

It was Kennedy who broke in over him this time, giving the other guys a dismissive look as she crossed the wrecked living room to stand between Xander and Willow. "Give her time! She's getting it," she said, firmly. "Dawn's little friends can wait."

"Excuse me?" Jon chose that moment to object. "And who are you, exactly?"

"You have no idea what's going on here, so just back off, soldier boy," Kennedy turned on him, glancing dismissively at the strange gun tucked through his belt.

Dawn swallowed nervously and glanced at Nick- but he wasn't paying attention to Kennedy any more than he was watching her. He was still staring at Willow, at the edge of her angry profile and the darkness shrouding her visible eye, with an unmistakably alarmed expression. "It looks like something's getting her," he murmured worriedly, then abruptly pulled Dawn to her feet and took a couple of steps back to brace them both against the nearest wall.

They moved not a moment too soon. Dawn gasped as Willow suddenly thrust both hands backward, shouting wordlessly in frustration. A faint blue glow lashed out from each of her hands to envelop two of the observers, making them shake like rag dolls- Kennedy, which kind of made sense to Dawn, but also Jon, which really didn't. How had Nick known that was about to happen?

No point in asking; he swore abruptly, then dropped Dawn's arm to hurry to his friend's side. Jon and Kennedy both collapsed to their knees as the glow finally left them- just as the portal reappeared with a rush of hot air, fierce and rectangular and glowing just like the one that had swallowed Buffy.

"Doorway to Hell," Nick whispered, the glaring light reflecting from his glasses. She couldn't even guess what he was thinking, and she was extra mad at him for making her worry about that when she should have been more concerned about her sister.

"You can say that again. Wait, how did you know to say that?" Xander said nervously, darting across the line of green sand to pull Willow out of the way. "Nevermind. Spike!"

"Got it," Spike said, shrugging the demon off his shoulder and giving it a shove. Big, dark and ugly slumped against the glowing rectangle in the air, then disappeared in a blinding flash of white light.

Briefly, the image of Sirius Black and the Death Veil fluttered through Dawn's thoughts, and she hoped her sister wasn't having an identical experience on the other side. Then she held her breath, bracing herself against the wall as the magics faded, leaving behind an annoying afterblotch.

"Buffy?" several voices asked at once.

"Present," a cheerful voice chirped in reply.

Dawn gulped. Her sister was there, all right, just where the portal had been. But it wasn't the Buffy who'd left them. Oh, she was still wearing her jean jacket over a white turtleneck sweater and black kerchief skirt, her idea of responsible daywear. She wasn't bruised, bloody, slimed, or even mildly disheveled. But in one hand, she held a long wooden staff with several charms tied around the knobby end- and her eyes were as black as Willow's had been just a moment before.

"Darn," Buffy continued brightly, wearing a slightly crooked smile. "I was hoping to spend a little more quality time with those guys."

"Need a spot of violence, there, luv?" Spike asked, pre-empting the rest of them as he stepped toward her.

She cocked her head at the vampire, then smirked, still all merrily evil-eyed. "Nah. Peachy with a side of keen," she said. "At least- if there's such a thing as demonic peaches. I was right, though; the fine print on this one's a real doozy."

"I dunno; it's worked out fairly well for some of us," Spike replied. "Nevermind that, though. Bring back anything useful?"

Buffy frowned dubiously at the staff in her hand, then tossed it casually toward Willow, whose eyes widened as her fingers closed around the finely carved length of wood. "Sort of," she said. "They showed me a lot of things; I'm pretty sure I know what I have to do now."

"You mean, what we have to do now," Principal Wood corrected her.

Buffy shook her head at him. "No," she said. "I mean yes, there'll be stuff for everyone to do- but it's my fault The First got free. Okay, a little bit Xander's- but mostly mine. I'm the resurrected Slayer; I gave it an opening the first time I came back, and it's my responsibility to close it."

"Not the way you did last time, though, right?" Dawn interrupted, alarmed. The Death Veil imagery was still with her, and her sister's new look really wasn't helping.

Buffy blinked at her then, expression sobering, and the black finally faded out of her eyes, leaving behind the familiar hazel-green. "No, Dawnie," she said. "The door's already open; it's been open awhile, hence ubervamp army, and Summers blood can't close this one. I have something else in mind."

"Good," she replied, firmly. Buffy didn't seem crazy- not like last year with that demony poison, or right after she'd got out of the mental hospital that one time in L.A. She didn't seem all detached, either, like she had when the Scoobies had dragged her out of Heaven, or right after she'd found Chloe's body. That didn't necessarily mean anything; there was the black eye issue, and what ubervamp army, again? But overall Dawn thought it was a good sign.

Buffy gave her a crooked grin in response. Then she finally seemed to notice Nick and Jon and arched both her eyebrows. "Before I go into the details, though- what are they doing here again?"

Nick shared an uneasy glance with Jon, who was still a little pale and shaky from whatever the redhead had done to him. It had to have been a power transfer of some kind, though he couldn't even guess at the method; he just knew that he'd felt an instinctive urge to get away from her right before it had happened, and with Jon's Ancient heritage his friend probably had a pretty big well of potential energy. Whatever 'magic' Willow might be able to channel would still have to obey the laws of physics like everything else- and Nick knew how much electricity the Stargate drew from the Colorado grid.

No power, no portal. Frankly, he was surprised she hadn't life-sucked all of them.

Understanding what had happened didn't make him any happier about it, though, or give him any pertinent clues about how to answer Dawn's sister. They were supposed to have taken a lot more time to get to know each other, gradually establishing trust, before they even thought about pulling back the curtains. But then again, when had that ever worked for him before? In any incarnation?

"Something came to us," he replied, deliberately meeting her eyes.

He felt a lot less apprehensive now that the tar-eyed look had faded, though he knew damn well from experience with the Goa'uld that whether or not the symptoms were visible had nothing to do with who was running the show inside. She still sounded the same, though, and her friends seemed wary rather than surprised, so whatever had affected her and her friend Willow couldn't be anything new. None of the other common signs of a host were in evidence, either.

As a matter of fact... he hadn't seen any of the usual trappings of a Goa'uld cult since he and Jon had moved to town, despite the suggestiveness of their preliminary research. He was really starting to wonder about the motivations of the consulting scholar who'd given Daniel much of the information about the Order of Aurelius; he and Jon were going to have to look him up the next time they had a free moment. There was no way Wyndham-Price could have known so much without knowing about the fangs and forehead ridges, too, and that part had been all too conveniently left out of the story. Had Wyndham-Price just assumed they already knew, or was something more sinister going on?

That could wait for later, though. For now, they'd just have to be wary and trust in Jack's oversight. Being electronically tagged like a pair of wayward Chihuahua did have the occasional upside.

"It looked like a dead friend of ours- several dead friends of ours, actually." He let his voice waver a little as he remembered the apparition of Janet. "And it told us to keep our noses out of your business."

"Yeah, and we're not so good at following those kinds of orders," Jon put in dryly, putting less of his weight on Nick's arm as he regained his balance. "So we followed Spike, here, instead."

"No wonder you get along with Dawn," Buffy said, dryly. Then she shared a glance with Spike over their heads. "The First?" she asked, incomprehensibly.

"They didn't say. Just barged right into my fight without so much as a by-your-leave," Spike shrugged. "Thought your lot might have a few questions, so I let them follow while I got on with it."

Buffy raised an eyebrow, then fixed her attention on Jon again, pursing her lips. "With guns? Those things have hurt more people in this house than they've helped."

Jon looked down at the zat that had fallen out of his belt during his brief convulsions, then stooped to pick it up, moving slowly under Buffy's hawk-like gaze. "Your people might be tougher than the average bear, but the rest of us generally need some kind of force multiplier," he said, frowning at her. "Besides, it's more like an overpowered taser than a gun."

"Uh-huh." Clearly skeptical, she looked him up and down again, then eyed the other zat at Nick's waist.

"Now, now, don't be modest," Spike commented, raising an eyebrow at them. "I've been hit with tasers before. One zap from that thing and I dropped in my tracks. Didn't stop the other demon, though; they shot him again, rang his curtain right down."

Nick winced at Buffy's alarmed expression. He knew what it sounded like- but there was no point in denying the obvious, it would just make her more suspicious. The odds of having to fight their way out seemed to be increasing, but hadn't yet reached a critical point. "The effect is a lot like a taser," he explained, "in that it sends an electrical charge through the target. Unfortunately, delivering two shots within seconds of each other can increase the neural disturbance to fatal levels."

Buffy didn't seem very mollified by the explanation. "Rayguns," she concluded, forbiddingly.

"And exactly what was it that your friend just did to Jon?" Nick parried, glancing at the 'witch' where she stood supported by the dark-haired guy and the unfamiliar girl who'd argued with him.

"Not to mention working with this guy," Jon pointed to Spike.

Buffy blinked, then narrowed her eyes. "You're not even a little bit scared of us, are you?"

"What difference does it make?" Jon objected, angrily. "There's something rotten in Sunnydale, something you're all involved in up to the eyeballs. I'd been kind of hoping we wouldn't have to go through you to stop it, but you know what they say about assumptions."

For a moment, Nick thought he'd escalated the conversation too far. Then Dawn spoke up. "You really mean that," she said, her eyes on Nick rather than Jon.

"Yes," he said, quietly. "We do." The fact that he was willing to be her sister's enemy didn't mean he wanted to be, but that seemed to be the direction things were headed.

"Have you seen the statistics on this town?" Jon added, scornfully.

"We've lived the statistics in this town," Buffy replied just as scornfully, but something in her manner had relaxed, like ruffled feathers on a predatory bird gradually smoothing down. She eyed them thoughtfully, then her friends, before turning to her sister. "Dawn? Kitchen. This conversation usually goes better with comfy chairs, but we've kind of destroyed the living room, so."

Nick blinked, a little dizzy from the abrupt mood swing. Maybe he would be better off treating them as an offworld warrior cult; Jon certainly seemed to be navigating their reactions better than he was.

"Anya? Would you mind letting the Potentials know there'll be no patrol tonight?" Buffy continued, presumably referring to the gangs of girls they'd seen traipsing through the cemeteries a few nights a week. Nick had figured out when the influx had started from Sunnydale's utility records, but not the why; though he could guess now it had something to do with vampires.

"Sure, make me the messenger," the wavy blond-haired woman said sourly, then turned and headed out of the room. "Not like I have anything else to contribute these days, apparently."

Buffy rolled her eyes, then gestured at Dawn again. "Go on, we'll be right behind you. And boys? Leave the ray guns in here." She pointed imperiously at an end table that had survived the evening's chaos somehow. "You can have them back when you leave."

Jon exchanged a glance with Nick, then shook his head. "Sorry, I don't think so."

Buffy's irises darkened at that- not quite the solid black of before, but enough to make Nick's nerves prickle with alarm. Fortunately, Principal Wood stepped in, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"Look, it's been a long day," he said. "You don't trust them, for obvious reasons- but they have no reason to trust us either, and I doubt that demanding they give up their weapons at this point is going to get us anywhere."

"Fine," Buffy gritted out. "Then you go with them, and if either of them points one of those things anywhere near my sister I'm going to make them wish they had never been born."

Wood frowned, and gave Spike a very dark look, but nodded. "I trust you'll fill me in later," he said, then gestured expectantly toward Nick and Jon.

Nick sighed. It was pretty obvious Buffy wanted to say something to the other 'adults' without the strangers or her sister present, but there wasn't much they could do to counteract that that wouldn't further shatter their cover.

"It's, um. This way," Dawn said, heading out into the hall. She led them to a fairly ordinary looking kitchen, where they all eyed each other as they took up positions against various counters and cabinets; Principal Wood brought up the rear, bracing himself near the doorway to prevent any eavesdropping.

"So," he said, disapprovingly. "You did have an ulterior motive for transferring to Sunnydale in the middle of the school year."

Nick shot an apologetic look at Dawn, then nodded. "Like Jon said, we'd seen the statistics on this town. And our uncles..."

Wood scoffed at that. "Please, give me some credit. Dr. Jackson never had any siblings, and none of General O'Neill's have children your age. I did some research after your meetings with Buffy. I may not have hired her for her counseling skills, but I do trust her judgment when it comes to matters supernatural. Who are you, really?"

"You speak Sumerian, you have Star Trek guns, and you don't have parents," Dawn added slowly, biting her lip as she eyed Nick back. "But you didn't have any clue who my sister was when you were helping me with my translation. Are you... aliens, or something?"

Principal Wood gave her a sharp look, and she shrugged at him. "What? It's not like they'd be the first. There was this Queller thing a couple years ago that came down in a meteor; it ate crazy people."

"Sorry to burst your bubble, but we don't eat any people, crazy or otherwise," Jon said, dryly.

"It's classified," Nick hedged. They hadn't really planned for background investigations deep enough to go beyond Sam's carefully created electronic paper trail- but they couldn't exactly spill the truth, either. Or could they? Dawn's people believed in magic, for apparently good reasons, and a few vague and not at all Stargate or Asgard related hints might give them enough to construct a roughly analogous explanation on their own.

Jon shot him a dark look. "And it's not just a question of national security. I know you guys understand that, if you've been fighting freaking vampires in palm tree suburbia for years and I've never even heard of you."

Wood frowned at that. "And why would you have? You're only sixteen."

Jon rolled his eyes. "So's Dawn. What point are you trying to make, exactly?"

Wood opened his mouth, then shut it again, looking frustrated.

Dawn made an aggravated noise. "Look, this isn't helping. Are you good guys, or aren't you?" she demanded.

"I think that depends on whether your sister's the chained girl from the myth, and how you define 'demons'," Nick said, slowly. "Considering who exactly she seems to be working with, in there."

"And if I said she was? And that by 'demons', we mean 'things that hurt people'?" Dawn replied, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Then I'd ask you if you'd ever heard of a little town called Steveston," he said, choosing his words carefully. "Or a cult leader named Seth Fargough up north of Seattle a few years back."

"Steveston, no. But Fargough..." Wood trailed off. "I heard rumors. There was a lot of speculation in the community that he might have supernatural abilities."

"Let's just say that there are similarities between the records in those cases and what we thought might be happening here," Nick nodded. Finally; an opening. "And we're teenagers. Would you have helped our 'uncles' if they'd shown up instead?"

"So that's the real reason you helped me," Dawn scowled. "Inside access."

"That's... part of the reason," Nick admitted, wincing at her hurt expression.

"Oh, please," Jon groaned. "Nick, Dawn likes you; Dawn, Nick likes you back. Do you mind shelving the teenage drama for the rest of the night? I don't care what Ms. Summers said, if either of you makes puppy-dog eyes one more time I'm going to zat the both of you."

"And on that note," Buffy said wryly, finally joining them. She held a broadsword in one hand, unsheathed but point aimed down toward the floor, and the others followed behind her, each holding a weapon of their own.

"I think it's time for a little show and tell, don't you?"