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Timeline: Post-"The Gift". Semi-based on spoilers for Episode 1 of Season 6.
Notes: Mild Dawn/Spike shipperyness. You've been warned. :P
Rating: PG. Quite innocent. ;)
Disclaimer: Don't own 'em.

By Sunnydale standards, it had been a quiet summer.

Dawn Summers thought so, anyway. Although, compared to all the action there had been last year with Glory and everything, a tornado would have seemed peaceful.

It still hurt to think about Glory, because thinking about Glory inevitably led to that night. The night where her blood had opened the portal. The scars from Doc slicing through her skin had not yet healed. That night played out over and over again in her nightmares. She could still remember every thing that had happened, every little detail. "The hardest thing to do in this world is live in it." She could hear Buffy's voice in her head as clear as if she was standing next to her. "Live… for me."

If Dawn had jumped right away, her sister would still be here. Her sister belonged in this world, fighting evil. Dawn was the one who wasn't meant to be human. She'd only been human for - what was it, a year now? Buffy had been human for twenty years and in that time had fought more demons and slain more vampires than most people did in a lifetime.

"She saved the world. A lot." The inscription on her gravestone was accurate. The gravestone that was hidden away from the rest of the world, where only a select few knew to look for it. It had been Giles' decision, but the others had agreed once they'd heard his reasoning.

The demons and the vampires needed to believe that the Slayer was still alive, or else all hell would break loose. Fear of the Slayer was what kept the town from being overrun with vampires. Buffy had died once and a new Slayer had been called. Now that she was really dead, there was no new Slayer coming to take over. With Faith sitting in a jail cell somewhere in LA, she was hardly in a position to take over the job.

They had, however, needed someone to take over the task of everyday slaying. "We'll patrol every night," Xander had offered, to the dismay of a horrified Anya. Despite everyone being willing to help out, one fact remained. They weren't Slayers. They weren't going to last very long by themselves.

Dawn hadn't been the only one to raise an eyebrow at Giles' idea. She could still recall her reaction. "So you want to replace my sister with a robot?"

"Not replace, as such…" Giles had responded. They'd eventually all agreed, and Willow had fixed up the Buffy-lookalike until it was brand-new.

Its Spike-loving programmes had already been taken offline.

They had expected Spike to be disappointed, but much to everyone's surprise, he hadn't seemed to care. He had taken Buffy's death pretty hard. He blamed himself for it. Dawn, who had spent a lot time with him over the summer, had told him not to. It wasn't his fault.

"It's not your fault, either, niblet," he'd replied, making the point that it was hypocritical of her to tell him not to blame himself. She had smiled slightly. He was the one person who understood what she felt, what she thought. He had the nightmares too. She had come to see him one afternoon when he'd been sleeping. She was about to leave and return later when she heard him mutter to himself. He was tossing and turning frantically, finally yelling out a heart-wrenching "No!"

His eyes snapped open and he saw her there.

She felt embarrassed for intruding on him, but he motioned with his hand for her to come closer.

"It was that night again," he stated simply.

"I know," she said softly.

He had stared at her for a minute without speaking. "I miss her, you know?"

She nodded. "Yeah. I do too. Sometimes I just wish I could go back and jump before she did. Then she'd still be here." She could feel the tears forming in her eyes, a sensation that had become far too familiar lately.

He hadn't said anything, just awkwardly patted her shoulder. Before she would have been delighted to have him touching her. Now they were just two friends who missed someone they'd both loved dearly.

Now the summer was over. Tomorrow she was starting high school. Sunnydale High School had been recently rebuilt after its destruction. When the people of Sunnydale spoke of "Graduation 99" they were usually referring to that. It was one of the few things that they couldn't turn a blind eye to. Of course, they remembered the school being destroyed. The part about the giant snake was somewhat blurry in most of their minds.

Dawn wasn't looking forward to it. She had been a good student up until midway through last year. Then, after finding out she was the Key, school didn't seem as important anymore. She'd got into trouble more often and had skipped school. Her grades had dropped from A's to C's and she'd still been struggling not to get D's.

Willow and Tara, who had moved in to 1630 Revello Drive and were pretty much acting as parents, hadn't exactly been pleased with her report card when it came, but they didn't make a big deal out of it. There'd been a lot of stuff going on. Still, Willow had talked to her about school just yesterday.

"Try to do your best, okay, Dawnie? I know things are still pretty bad, but I also know that school - well, it's kinda important, you know? And you can do really well if you try. So just try, okay?"

She was going to. Really she was. As long as it didn't mean having to pay attention, or turn in homework, or anything along those lines.

She was fed up with being a good girl.

What was the point when her mother and her sister were dead? When Willow and Tara were just taking care of her because it was what Buffy would have wanted? When Spike was just keeping an eye on her because Buffy had asked him?

She didn't belong here.

She walked to school with Melinda. Melinda, who she'd been friends with practically ever since moving to Sunnydale. At least, according to her false memories. Really she'd only known her a year. Melinda had no idea Buffy was dead. There was a lot Melinda didn't know about her life. For someone who was meant to be her friend, Dawn kept a lot of secrets from her. Melinda had no idea what Dawn went through or what she thought, those thoughts that would have her in a mental institution if she was ever psycho-analysed. No one would believe that she was really a blob of energy that could break down the barriers between dimensions if used in the right way. No one would believe that her sister used to spend most of her time slaying vampires but had actually dated one for a while, but that it was okay because he had a soul, until of course he lost it after they slept together. No one would believe half of what went on her life.

Maybe it wasn't real at all and someday she'd wake up, just a normal teenager who only had to worry about grades and friends and boys instead of that plus demons and vampires and monsters.

As they approached the school, she fingered the pendant she wore around her neck. Spike had given it to her for her fifteenth birthday at the start of August. He'd meant to give it to Buffy, he'd explained. But he wanted her to have it.

"It's beautiful," she'd said truthfully.

"Just like . . " He hadn't finished the sentence, but she knew he was thinking about Buffy. She'd squeezed his hand and said nothing.

"What's that?" Melinda asked.

"A pendant," Dawn answered.

Melinda examined it. "Pretty. Where'd you get it?"

"A friend gave it to me."

"Friend?" Melinda raised an eyebrow. "Not a boyfriend, by any chance?"

"Friend," Dawn repeated with a smile. Although there were times when she wondered . . .

She had seen Spike yesterday, in his crypt, as per usual. The first thing she noticed was his face, covered in bruises. She hadn't seen him this bad since Glory got her hands on him.

"What happened?" she demanded.

He shrugged. "Ran into a little trouble last night, got myself beaten up."

"Vampires? The robot is meant to be taking care of that."

He shook his head slightly and then winced. "No. Just a couple of blokes with too much to drink. Decided they'd make me their target, and since I can't harm anything living . . . "

"It looks painful," she commented.

"I'll be all right."

"Are you sure? Maybe we could . . ."

"Dawn, it's fine." He seemed slightly amused.

She smiled. "I'm just worried, okay?"

He looked pleased. "Worried about me, huh?"

"It's dumb, I know . . ."

"Nah. Quite sweet."

At that moment she'd wanted to kiss him. But of course she didn't. She couldn't. He was a vampire. He was over a hundred years older than her. There were a hundred and one reasons why not.

He was Buffy's.

And only one that really bothered her.

Spike had loved Buffy. She believed he still did. And she had seen Buffy gradually warm to him. In time something more would have happened, Dawn was sure of it.

And now that she was gone, it would be wrong . . .

. . . and despite the fact that she was trying to continue along that line of thought, the guilt came rushing back. She didn't belong in this world, it was her fault that Buffy was gone. Gone, gone, gone. Forever.

"Are you okay?" Melinda asked her.

"I'm fine," Dawn lied.

"How was school?" Tara asked her that afternoon.

Dawn shrugged. She barely remembered what had happened. There had been homeroom, then classes with teachers giving them first-day pep talks. There had been people there, some who she knew. She had sat with Lisa and Melinda at lunch. It was all sort of fuzzy, like a dream.

What she remembered more clearly was the guilt and the pain and the sickening feeling in her stomach. Buffy's dead and it's all your fault, all your fault, all your fault . . .

"Hey, are you okay?" Tara asked gently.

Sympathy wasn't what she wanted. "I'm fine. Where's Willow?" Changing the subject might get Tara off her back.

"Still at the university. She should be back soon."

"Okay. When's dinner?"

"Later, I guess. Whenever you're hungry. You want something now?"

"I'm fine. I'm going up to my room."

She walked up the stairs slowly, feeling drained of energy - pretty ironic considering what she was made of. Maybe the monks had made a mistake and she wasn't really the Key. And Buffy hadn't really died, she was just on vacation somewhere and she'd be back any day now.

She played with the pendant and then stopped when she realised what she was doing. She thought of her earlier conversation with Melinda. Boyfriend. She'd never had a proper boyfriend. When she was thirteen she had gone to the movies with Ryan from her class, who held her hand in his sweaty one and wiped his nose on his sleeve. That was the extent of her dating experience.

She had had plenty of crushes, sure, but nothing ever came of them. But she'd never felt about anyone the way she felt about Spike.

Buffy's Spike.

It's your fault Buffy died. Your fault, your fault, your fault, your fault!

She threw herself on her bed and closed her eyes tightly, trying to block out the accusations.

She opened her eyes, unsure of where she was. There was light everywhere but it wasn't blinding, just pleasant. The light surrounded her - she even seemed to be walking on it, there was no ground beneath her feet.

She continued walking for a while. She couldn't see anyone else, but somehow she knew she had to keep walking in this direction. Eventually she saw her.

"Buffy?" she asked in disbelief.

Her sister smiled. "Hey."

"You're dead."

Buffy shrugged. "Sort of."

"So how can I - am I dead, too?"

Buffy laughed. "No. Don't worry. You're still alive. I just thought we needed to talk."

"If you can talk to me, then why didn't you do it three months ago when I needed to?" Dawn shouted at her without thinking.

"You didn't need to," Buffy said softly.

"Yes. Yes, I did. You were gone and I was all alone . . ." Dawn sobbed.

"You weren't alone. You had Willow, and Xander, and Giles, and Anya, and Tara, and Spike. You're more alone now than you were then."

"What?" she exclaimed, even though she realised it might be true. After Buffy's death, they had drawn closer together. She had always had someone to talk to if she needed to. In the immediate aftermath, she had been distraught but definitely loved. Now, months later, they'd drifted apart again. Still friends, just not - family.

"It's the coping in the long run that's hardest," Buffy said, voicing Dawn's thoughts. "Living with the consequences."

She hated the consequences.

"The pain is going to make you stronger, Dawn. I know you don't think so, but trust me. I know."

The pain wasn't going to make her stronger. It was destroying her.

"The guilt is what's going to destroy you."

"It's all my fault you're dead!"

"No! No, it's not. My decision, Dawn. Mine. I did what I had to do, what I was meant to do. You were never meant to jump. It was me all along. The First Slayer told me death was my gift. I had to die. There was no way around it."

Dawn nodded. She knew this. She had always known it. She had been clinging to the guilt because it was easier than the guilt that was to come.

"He's not just watching out for you because I told him to, you know," Buffy said.

"Who, Spike?" Dawn asked innocently.

"Yes, Spike," Buffy grinned. "Dawn - that's what you really feel guilty about. Getting on with your life without me. It's okay to do that, really. I want you to be happy."

"Even if it means me and Spike . . ."

Buffy mock-shuddered. "I suppose," she smiled.

Dawn hugged her. "I miss you."

"I miss you too. But you're going to be fine."

"How do you know?"

"You're my little sister. I know."

"I'm not really your sister."

"No, you're not." Dawn felt tears welling up in her eyes at that. Buffy really did see her as just a blob of energy. "You're much more than that."

The tears fell, but it wasn't because she was sad.

"I have to go, Dawn."

"No! You can't. Not now."

Buffy made a face. "Have to. It sucks, I know. But I'll check in with you again soon."



The disappointment that hit her when she woke up was unbelievable. She wanted to believe she really had been talking to Buffy, but she had to accept that it had just been a dream.

Dawn stretched out and went downstairs. She wasn't used to falling asleep in the middle of the day. The sun had set and Willow was home.

"Hey, sleepyhead," Willow grinned when she saw Dawn.

"I guess I was more tired than I thought," she replied.

"How was school?" Willow asked.

As if on automatic pilot, she shrugged. "Fine." Then - "Actually, I'll fill you and Tara in later, okay?" She'd tell them everything she remembered from her day, anyway. "Right now I want to go say hi to Spike."

"It's dark out. I should walk over with you."

Dawn nodded. Willow went to tell Tara where they were going, and together they walked to Spike's crypt.

"Get him to walk back to the house with you," Willow instructed. "I don't want you to get hurt."

"I have a stake," Dawn protested. "I can handle myself."

"Maybe. But I still worry about you." Willow grinned as she left.

She wasn't as alone as she thought, either.

Spike's face lit up when he saw her. "Hey. If it isn't little Dawn."

She rolled her eyes. "I'm not that little. Besides, as of today I am officially a high school student."

"All grown up, huh?" he grinned.

She shrugged. "I'm working on it."

Silence. Then, "I dreamt about her today."

"Buffy?" Dawn asked.

Spike nodded. "Different from the other ones. It was like she was talking to me."

Oh, no way. No way. "Me too," Dawn whispered.

He looked stunned. "Light everywhere?"

"Yeah. But you could look into it."

"You think . . ."

"I think it was really her. Wherever she is, I think somehow she came to tell us something."

He looked into her eyes. She felt like her soul was being bared to him. Then she looked into his. And she knew that he'd been doing the same thing - focussing on the guilt instead of moving on.

She didn't kiss him that night. That night, they just sat and talked about anything and everything until the sun came up and it was time for her to go to school, where she tried to listen and pay attention and for the most part succeeded, except in algebra where she doodled on her notebook and yawned behind her hand.

The following evening, after Dawn had spent thirty-five minutes promising Willow and Tara she would be home before midnight and not stay out all night again, she kissed him the second she saw him, because it seemed like the natural thing to do and because she knew they both wanted to.

Buffy was quite glad they'd gotten around to it so quickly after her intervention, because the next item on the agenda was having a word with Xander and Anya about their relationship. She knew they'd been planning to get engaged but were feeling guilty about doing so after her death.

She didn't want any of them feeling guilty about moving on. Besides, the deal was, she could only return after they'd moved on. The Powers That Be wouldn't send her back unless they had. Their conditions sucked, but she wasn't going to complain. They'd done a favour for her already.

She wanted to be back to see Dawn graduate from high school. The day Spike would turn human.

She figured if she couldn't have had her vampire boyfriend turn human, her little sister might as well get the chance.