Author notes: Thanks to all who read Comalies/Once Burned... and especially lupo669 and lilyme for letting me bounce ideas off you and all your suggestions.

Chapter 1

Sitting up side by side in Buffy's bed, their shoulders overlapping, the Slayers stared toward Buffy's doorway, momentarily paralyzed with the shock of what had just happened. All their sneaking and hiding, their clumsy dancing around the truth, had finally been blown in a few unguarded minutes alone… or so they had assumed.

Obviously Dawn had been listening at the door, as she and Faith talked in what they had assumed to be late-night privacy… and obviously, Buffy had been talking loudly enough that she could hear her, hear the anguished venting she had been giving Faith about Dawn and their relationship with her… a relationship that until now, Dawn had been entirely unaware of. Now, Dawn knew who… what- she really was…

She was the key… not truly a real person, a normal girl, as she had believed. She was mystical gathering of energy, her physical covering and human status formed by mysterious monks from the essences of Buffy and Faith… a key that could be used to open orbs, regardless of the consequences its use would render.

A key that could destroy the world… and a key that Glory would do anything to get.

Dawn knew no, at least in part, what they had been trying to protect her from knowing. There was really no telling how long she had been listening, how much she really knew and understood. But obviously it had been enough… obviously, it had been too much. Not twenty seconds ago they had heard her fleeing down the hallway, a door slamming shut behind her… and they could only imagine, what she must be thinking, how she must be feeling.

"Oh my god," Buffy whispered, and her voice was barely audible, more of a hoarse whisper than anything else. "Oh my god, Faith, she knows… she knows…"

"B… B, calm down," Faith said quickly, and she slid an arm around the older Slayer's shoulders to give her a brief but tight squeeze. "Come on, you can't-"

But Buffy was having none of it. Her shoulders drawing together rigidly under Faith's arms, she interrupted Faith's attempt at calming her, barely even noticed it.

"Faith- Faith, she was listening, she knows… Faith, she knows, she knows what she is!" Oh god…"

Her breathing was beginning to come faster, verging on hyperventilating, and Faith, her eyes narrowing in concern, took hold of her shoulders, giving her a little shake as she looked her directly in the eyes.

"Buffy… Buffy, chill out. I know, I know this sucks, this… really sucks, but don't freak out on me, okay? Don't… freak… out. You listenin'?" she said quietly, but firmly, giving her another little shake for emphasis.

Unable to look away from Faith's very direct stare, and sucking in a slow breath, Buffy nodded slowly, shakily, biting her lip. Still watching her closely, Faith began to squeeze her shoulders more slowly, in a kneading motion, as she continued to talk to her firmly, giving Buffy a chance to pull herself together again.

"We gotta go talk to her now, B, make sure she'll understand… make sure she's okay. And you gotta be calm to do that. Okay? You cool now?" Faith asked her, giving her shoulders another quick squeeze.

Buffy took another deep breath, then let it out slowly. She could hear her heart still beating too hard, too fast in her chest to calm entirely… but then, so was Faith's, despite her only slightly anxious expression.

"Yeah, I'm… I'm okay," she said somewhat weakly, exhaling. "How are we going to do this, Faith… what are we supposed to say to her?"

"I don't know, B," Faith admitted, shrugging somewhat helplessly. "Guess we'll have to wing that one… but we gotta go now, okay? Trust me… after hearin' something like that… it's not good to be alone."

Her voice got a little softer at that, and she looked down; Buffy could tell she was thinking of something from her own past.

Taking another slow breath, and pressing her lips together tightly for a moment, Buffy nodded.

"Okay… okay, then, let's go talk to her…"

Taking hold of Faith's hand impulsively, and feeling marginally gratified when Faith squeezed it back hard, Buffy stood up, glad that they had actually worn a decent amount of clothing to bed and so would not have to change. She and Faith quickly went to the door, opening it, and just managing to miss stepping on the shards from a shattered drinking glass on the floor in front of the bedroom door. Clearly Dawn had gone for a glass of water before stopping to listen to them; the liquid was soaking into the carpet.

They went over to the doorway of Dawn's room, and Faith knocked on it, waiting for Dawn's shout for them to go away. When none came, she called out to her, still gripping Buffy's hand.

"Dawn… Dawn, let us in. We need to talk… and you know I can break the door down if I have to."

Still they received no answer; looking at Buffy briefly, Faith turned the doorknob and was startled to find it unlocked. Pushing the door open, she took a step inside with Buffy on her tail… but Dawn was not inside it.

"What? Faith, where is she-" Buffy started.

She didn't even have time to finish the sentence before she heard it… a loud crashing noise, and for the second time, the tinkling of shattering glass. It was coming from down the hallway, from what sounded like the bathroom.

"Oh shit…" Faith whispered, her eyes darkening. Before Buffy could ask her what was wrong, what she thought had happened, she was already almost sprinting out the doorway and down the hall, unconsciously dragging Buffy with her.

Buffy's stomach cramped in dread of what might have happened, what it was she about to see. Whatever it was, it had made Faith's previously together exterior fade abruptly, made her look at Buffy briefly with stark, unconcealed fear.

Reaching the bathroom door, Faith reached for the doorknob and rattled it hurriedly. Finding it to be locked, she banged on the door, not bothering to be gentle or polite this time.

"Dawn! Dawn, open the door! Open the door right now!"

There was no answer from the other side of the door… no answer of any kind. Buffy swallowed, beginning to feel sick, almost faint with the intensity of her dread. Faith must have felt it too, because she hammered on the door, hollering at Dawn hoarsely, her voice beginning to carry an edge of panic. And still she got no reply.

"B, stand back," Faith said hoarsely, and she called out to Dawn, "Dusk, I'm gonna break the door open if you don't open it in about five seconds… so if you're not gonna open it for us, you better back up."

She waited another few moments… and when Dawn still gave them no answer of any kind, she placed a well-aimed and controlled, yet forceful kick directly into the crack of the door, jarring it open wildly so that it was half hanging off its hinges. But the thought of having to hire a repairman for the umpteenth time was the last thing on Buffy's mind when she laid eyes on the scene before her.

The bathroom mirror had been broken in the corner, cracks spreading out from it, shards scattered on the sink and floor in varying sizes. From the appearance of it and the towels scattered on the floor, it seemed that Dawn had used the metal shelf the towels had been on to break the mirror.

But again, the damage to household items was not what held the girls' concern. For Dawn was slumped on the floor by the bathtub, her head bowed forward, face pale and expressionless. Her hands were limp in her cross-legged lap… and she was bleeding heavily from both arms, from cuts extending from wrist to elbow.

For several moments neither Slayer could move; they just stared at the girl before them, the girl who was so much more to them now than they had ever thought before… the girl who was now bleeding, unresponsive. The shock that came over Buffy was so total that she felt absolutely nothing… nothing at all. She was a blank… unable to move, to speak, to think. Even to breathe…

It was Faith who snapped out of it first, her breath escaping her in a loud, sharp exhalation. Darting over to Dawn's side, she snatched two towels off the floor, wrapping them hurriedly around her bleeding wrists. Buffy noticed dully that she had stepped on several shards of glass in her bare feet and was bleeding from her soles, but Faith didn't' even flinch. She probably wasn't aware of it, didn't even feel the pain in her adrenalized concern for Dawn.

"Oh shit, shit, SHIT…" she muttered fiercely, more to herself than to Dawn or Buffy. Still holding the towels firmly against Dawn's wrists, she looked right into her face, putting her own very close to Dawn's and speaking to her urgently.

"Dusk… Dusk… Dawn. DAWN. Look at me. Come on, look at me… listen to me. Don't close your eyes… come on, Dusk, look at me…"

She glanced rapidly over her shoulder at Buffy, who was still standing frozen in the doorway, a coldness slowly seeping deep into her bones.

"B, go call 911. Hurry!"

But Buffy could not move, still could barely even understand that she had been spoken to. Everything seemed to move very slowly, with a thickness and bizarre quality that made her unable to comprehend any of it…

And then she was abruptly shaken out of it- at least the physically immobile aspect- by Faith's screams, by words that pounded into her ears like an assault.


Buffy reeled backward, reacting as though she had simultaneously been delivered a slap across the face and a blow to her stomach… and in a way, she had. But somehow she found herself going back into her bedroom, picking up the phone on her night stand and dialing 911 with all the precise, slightly unreal numbness, a calm she did not truly feel. She spoke to the woman who answered, describing the situation and giving out her address with such deliberate, measured tones that she sounded like a computer recording. And still she could not truly feel anything. It all seemed so distant, so unconnected with her, with Dawn. If she didn't think about it, maybe it 

would turn out that it was all a dream… or maybe this wasn't her at all, but some other girl. That couldn't be Dawn… Dawn would never…

But when Buffy slowly made her way back the doorway, and her eyes and ears were once more bombarded by the reality of the scene inside it, she could not convince herself that this was true. Joyce Summers had joined the group too now, driven out of her room in alarm and bewildered fear at the sound of the commotion down the hall from her bedroom. Now there was her slightly shrill attempts at calming Faith, trying to address Dawn, added to Faith's louder, increasingly frantic words to the girl hunched over before her…

But above it all, Buffy could hear Dawn's murmured words clearly. They were soft, dazed, slightly slurred as she looked up at the woman hovered over her, her eyes glazing over with shock and pain… but still Buffy heard her.

"Not real… how am I bleeding… if I'm not… real…"

And those fuzzy, barely audible words were what caused Buffy to start trembling… for it was then that she realized that it was all too real, it was really happening…


It was about the time that the ambulance arrived and began asking questions, tending to Dawn and loading her into their vehicle, that the emotions of the situation as well as its reality, began to hit Buffy. Seeing total strangers tending to Dawn, taking care of her with a purpose and a calmness that she had not managed, hurt Buffy in some place deep inside her chest, made her feel that she had failed in the most important task of her life so far… the task of taking care of the girl that the world believed to be her sister.

She had not protected Dawn… she had not protected her from finding out the truth in a way that would not be a total shock to her, a devastating blow. She had not protected her from hurting herself in her emotional upheaval afterward. And now she had to entrust total strangers to protect Dawn in Buffy's stead…

The reality had sank in by then, but still, Buffy could hardly believe that this was happening.. that she had let this happen. She could not forgive herself for talking so loudly, for being so 

caught up in her own self-absorbed worrying and focusing on it so much, made Faith focus on it so much, that neither realized that Dawn was listening outside the door. And so she had heard it… she had probably heard it all. Anything that happened to her- anything that Dawn did to herself now in reaction- was all Buffy's fault.

God… the last thing that Dawn had heard her say was that she could destroy the world… and soon after, Dawn had tried to destroy herself. The blame couldn't be any more directly pointing at Buffy then from that example.

Standing back, out of the paramedics' way in the hallway as they took a pale, barely conscious Dawn down the stairs, Buffy was very still, very quiet. She could barely even hear anything going on around her, anything but the sound of her own too-rapid heartbeat, her own slightly ragged breaths. The emotions were flickering through her rapidly now… guilt, self-disgust, anxiety, despair… but mostly fear. She feared for Dawn, and what she might feel because she did not yet understand.

A hand touched her cheek gently, but quickly, and Buffy turned her head hurriedly to see into her mother's anxious eyes. Joyce tried to give her a reassuring smile, but it went strange and forced at the corners of her mouth.

"Sweetie, I'm going to ride with her in the ambulance to the hospital. You and Faith can meet us there, but I'm afraid you'll probably have to wait in the waiting room. Whichever one of you drives, please be careful, honey…"

She gave Buffy a quick, tight hug, touching her cheek briefly again as she tried to smile.

"I love you, sweetheart."

She disappeared after the paramedics, and for a few seconds Buffy remained leaned limply against the wall, staring after her. She could still feel her mother's touch, still see Dawn's dazed, unfocused eyes, the blood-soaked towels at her small wrists, even though both were now out of her sight.

Another hand rested itself quickly yet firmly on her, this time her shoulder, and Buffy turned to see Faith, having finally emerged from the bathroom to come up beside her. Her face was 

strained, unusually pale, her dark eyes glittering with an anxious, angry adrenaline Buffy couldn't quite understand. The younger Slayer looked like she wanted to hurt someone, or something… if only herself. Ordinarily Buffy would have realized that this was Faith's way of dealing with her distress, by covering it with anger. But this evening she just stared blankly at her, not able to make this conclusion.

"Come on, B, let's go," she said roughly. "We can get there the same time, I bet. I know all too fuckin' well where the hospital in Sunnydale is."

Again, Buffy was too preoccupied to make mental connections with what Faith was saying. She simply nodded, following after her as Faith almost ran through the hall and down the stairs before finally reaching Buffy's car outside. When she jumped into the driver's side and cranked up the engine, Buffy didn't protest. She had barely slid into her own seat and shut the door before Faith was racing out of the driveway, mere seconds after the ambulance.

She drove again as though there was no such thing as road rules or a speed limit, and in fact nearly beat the ambulance to the Sunnydale Hospital that both were all too well acquainted with. Buffy did not so much as blink at Faith's driving, nor her loud, frequent profanities and ranting that she could have taken Dawn to the hospital much faster by herself, in Buffy's car, then the paramedics had in theirs. Buffy just let it roll over her as almost meaningless background noise, and gave into listening to the parade of stresses running through her mind.

As Joyce had predicted, the hospital instructed Buffy and Faith, even when told they were sisters of the patient and over eighteen (a double lie in Faith's case) to wait in the waiting room until more could be told about the situation to them. Joyce, as Dawn's mother, was allowed to go in with her and the doctors. She had taken one of the older girls' hands into each of hers and given them a quick squeeze, promising to come tell them what was going on as soon as she was able to.

And then Buffy and Faith were left to sit nearly entirely alone in the hospital waiting room in the middle of the night, clinching hands tightly and yet barely able to feel the other girl's touch.