Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep –LV

'Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep,

If I shall die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.'

- Prayer

When she slept, the dreams came. They were not nightmares, per se- there was no screaming or blood or any other horror capable of forcing her to wake in a cold sweat. Instead, there was laughter and light and visions of a familiar smile. In her dreams, Dawn lived; she continued to borrow clothes without asking, to forget to rinse out the tub after washing her hair, and to steal kisses from Spike when it appeared that nobody else was looking. She was iridescent and vivid, and everything that had been stolen from her by the cruel hand of death. And so, Buffy refused to sleep, because, in some strange way, these dreams of what should have been were harder to endure than any nightmare ever could be.

Perhaps worse was the fact that her dreams were on occasion so real that Buffy had awoken to exist in several blissful seconds of believing them to be reality. Once her memories had come flooding back to her, Buffy was hit anew with the full force of her grief, and after a week of as much, she was uncertain that she could go on.

So, the Slayer rebelled against her own body's desire for rest. She spent her evenings hunkered down in front of the shopping network, her features lighted by the glow from the TV screen, as her eyes focussed on the images that her mind refused to digest.

Angel had given up attempting to coax her to bed, knowing that this was simply a phase of her grief that she would need to work through in her own time. He brought blankets and bowls of popcorn until his own fatigue forced him to admit defeat. Then, Buffy was left alone with the remote control and her thoughts.

Giles had begun to broach the subject of counselling and, whilst Buffy secretly agreed with him, she worried over the idea of popping open that particular can of worms. The crushing guilt that weighed on her as a result of Dawn's death was thoroughly deserved in her eyes, and she was not yet ready to begin attempting to alleviate herself of it. Whether or not she had made her decision based on her desire to protect the world, the fact remained that Buffy had inadvertently killed her sister. For that, she would never truly forgive herself.

Angel had been forced to return to work, but the rest of the Scooby gang had decided unanimously that Buffy would be taking a short sabbatical from Slayer duties. Reinforcements had been sent from Rome, and the two potentials in question, who Faith assured Giles were the most promising girls in her care, were set to make themselves at home in Sunnydale for the foreseeable future. Whilst Buffy knew that, one day the call to duty would be too loud and persistent for her to ignore, it was not yet, and so she was content to remain inactive until such a time came.

If she were to be entirely truthful with herself, Buffy knew that she was waiting for some kind of divine sign that it was permissible for her own life to continue. She had never been one to petition gods, but lately she had found herself doing little else.

However, one thing Buffy Summers had not expected was an answer to her prayers.

It was almost a fortnight after Dawn's death when, after hours of watching foreign cookery shows and documentaries about fallen civilisations, the television set suddenly began to flicker without warning. Buffy frowned as the image of 'Cassoulet' that had dominated the screen disappeared from view, replaced instead by a million infernal black and white dots.

Puffing out an irritated sigh, Buffy had barely begun to heave herself off the couch before the fine hairs on the back of her neck were erect, and a faint but icy breeze whistled passed her ear. Buffy was aware of the presence occupying the vacant spot on the couch before she had even turned around, but nothing could have prepared her for the face that stared back at her.

"Dawnie…" Buffy choked out, stumbling backwards several paces in shock as her wide eyes drunk in the sight of her sister.

Dawn's smile was immediate, and in silent awe Buffy noted the brilliant light that shone from her every pore. It was almost blinding and Buffy found herself squinting as she surveyed the apparition of her sister. There was an ethereal quality about her and she stared back at Buffy, unmoving.

When she finally spoke, Buffy shivered involuntarily at the soft lilt of her voice.

"You were expecting the tooth fairy?" Dawn inquired, her head cocked to one side as her lips twisted into a mischievous grin. Buffy's mouth fell open, and the tears began to trip her pallid cheeks.

The Slayer was on her knees in the next instant, neither knowing nor caring if the vision before her was that of her sister or, in actuality, some cruel hoax on the part of the thing that had taken her. However, it was so good to look upon Dawn's face again that Buffy could not bring herself to care if death was to be dealt to her imminently.

"I… Dawn… I'm so sorry…" Buffy hissed, her chin dropping to her chest as she struggled to regulate her breathing, which had grown erratic and raspy.

Dawn's brow furrowed, and she shook her head slightly at her sister as she demanded, "About what?"

Buffy hesitated, uncertain as to whether her presumptions regarding the clarity of death were somewhat unfounded in Dawn's case. Certainly, she seemed to recall from her own brief jaunt to Heaven that she had acquired a kind of omniscience regarding all that occurred in the lives of her family and friends. However, her features darkened as Buffy realised that Heaven was not a destination that had been promised to her sister, as a particularly vicious clause of the contract that she had signed in blood.

"It's my fault," Buffy stated, raising her chin in order to meet Dawn's gaze squarely, indirectly accepting responsibility. All she saw reflected in Dawn's eyes was understanding, and Buffy almost crumbled again.

"I know what you did, Buffy," Dawn replied and, although her tone was subdued, it was not accusatory as she added, "and I know why you did it, too."

"I'm so sorry, Dawnie. I should never have…" Buffy began, stumbling through a garbled apology even as she gasped for breath.

Dawn shook her head, climbing to her feet and taking several measured steps towards her sister. Slowly, Buffy allowed her eyelids to flicker closed, and Dawn reached out a hand almost tentatively. She rested her palm on the crown of Buffy's head with a sad smile, which the Slayer returned as her eyes fluttered open once more.

"I know you'd take it back if you could," Dawn said gently, her palm sliding down the side of Buffy's head and across the apple of her cheek, "but even if it was a choice, I couldn't let you. What you did, you did for all the right reasons. What SheIt, showed you, will come to pass, and if the only way to keep this world safe is by Angel staying in it, then I'm kind of honoured to bow out in his place."

"But you're so young…" Buffy whispered, her tone bitter. She nestled subconsciously closer into Dawn's palm, surprised to feel it cold but almost solid against her cheek.

"That's the thing about destiny," replied Dawn, "it doesn't really give a crap if you're old enough to vote or get drunk. It just kind of… happens. You should know that better than anyone."

Buffy shook her head, half blinded by the tears that coursed freely from her eyes. Dawn's mouth formed a sympathetic line, and the pad of her thumb brushed against Buffy's skin, leaving an ice cool tingling in its wake.

"H-how are you h-here though?" Buffy stammered, finally managing to swallow down the lump that had risen in her throat. Her heart fluttered wildly in her chest, and she forced herself to utter the concluding part of her question, "The contract said… your soul… I mean… Hell."

Dawn nodded, her expression remaining stoic as her hand returned to her side and she gracefully lowered herself onto her knees in front of her sister.

"They explained a little of what happened to me," Dawn began, pausing for a moment as sorrow crashed briefly over her features before she was able to iron it out once again, "the soul She took was supposed to be condemned to Hell. I guess She thought that losing someone you loved wasn't enough to make you suffer. Everything She said to you was true; except one thing."

Buffy arched a brow in questioning, but patiently and silently waited for Dawn to continue with her explanation.

"She always knew it would be me, from the moment She drew up the contract," said Dawn, her front teeth catching her lower lip as she poised herself to continue. "She wanted to break you, and She figured that I was the sure fire way to do it. There was nothing you could have done to stop Cerberus from taking me."

"Cerberus?" Buffy repeated, alarm flashing across her face as she recalled the enormous, dog-like demon that she had encountered in L.A. – the very one that had carried Angel through the gates of Hell.

"All those suspicious coronary related deaths the last few months? They were him," answered Dawn, her tone almost bitter now, "he devours souls and then carries them to Hell. The victim dies feeling like they've been torn to shreds, but on the outside, it appears similar to a heart attack."

"They were playing with us," murmured Buffy, shaking her head and clutching her stomach with one hand as she felt it begin to roll in response to her sickening realisations, "all those people dead… in Hell… because they wanted me afraid."

"Those deaths aren't on you, Buffy," Dawn promised quietly, her eyes dropping to her lap as Buffy bowed her head, striving desperately to collect her fragmented emotions before she collapsed into sobs.

"But… how are you not…" Buffy started, trailing off to simply inquire in a tiny voice, "your soul?"

Dawn regarded her sister for several moments in complete silence. Her eyes were affixed intently upon the Slayer's face, and it was clear to Buffy that she was making certain that she had her full attention before she continued.

"When I was the Key, the monks took my energy and crafted it into human form, using you as kind of a template," Dawn revealed, hesitating for only a second before ploughing on with resolve, "it's like some unwritten law of the Universe that a Slayer's soul can never be confined to Hell. The Devil just isn't that juiced, and a 'warrior for the light' will always be destined for… well, you know… the other place."

Dawn rolled her eyes upwards towards the ceiling in indication, and Buffy hiccupped a giggle between her quiet sobs.

"You said it yourself once, Buffy- it's our blood," Dawn murmured, her smile wide and her own eyes now shining with unshed tears, "and it saved me, again. Because as long as there was a part of you, a part of the Slayer, in me, there was no way I could ever be contained there. I guess that was something She never figured on."

Buffy nodded but, although her lips formed a smile, there was no relent in the flow of her tears. Her fingers crept forwards, searching out the fabric of Dawn's ivory dress, but she found that they now simply passed through the material as though it was not there at all.

"Is this a dream?" Buffy demanded in a small voice. Dawn shook her head in response.

"I don't have much time left here, Buffy," she replied, peering down at her own hands, which were beginning to adopt an almost translucent appearance, "I get to move on to something better… and I came here to tell you that I want you to do the same."

"But I…" Buffy began to protest, falling obediently silent as Dawn raised a finger in warning.

"We beat the Devil, Buffy… well, in one way at least," she said, her eyes sweeping Buffy's face in earnest, "don't let that count for nothing. Don't live the rest of your life feeling guilt for something that wasn't your fault."

Buffy simply stared at Dawn. The light surrounding her was beginning to fade, and it was becoming evident that whatever power that had allowed her to visit this plane was calling her back.

"I… have to go…" Dawn stated, watching with wide eyes as a shaft of light emanating from the ceiling suddenly illuminated her. Her eyes closed for a second, and a brilliant smile lit up her face, giving it a carefree appearance that had not been present for a long time.

"I love you," Buffy rasped, extending a hand to Dawn, who reciprocated the gesture. Buffy was distraught to find that their fingertips failed to meet, merely passing through each other as if Dawn was a figment of her imagination.

"I love you," replied Dawn, glancing again with what appeared to be impatience at the swirling light that encapsulated her, "and Buffy? When Spike comes to you… know that what he has to say is for the best. Know that it's what I want."

Buffy frowned, confusion and sorrow passing across her features in rapid succession, before she finally bobbed her head at her sister in acknowledgement of her promise.

"Say 'hi' to Mom for me," whispered Buffy, watching as Dawn gave her one final smile before tossing back her head and screwing her eyes shut. The light only grew in intensity until Buffy suddenly found herself unable to look into it for fear that it would burn her retinas. It felt as warm as the sun against her skin, and just as pleasant; it radiated waves of peace and utter contentment that filled up every last corner of the Slayer, and almost made her yearn for the sanctity of the beautiful light herself.

Several seconds later, the heat began to recede and, once the spots had finished dancing behind Buffy's eyelids, she allowed them to flicker open. She gazed upon the spot in which her sister had stood only seconds before, and her heart plummeted as she found it empty. With Dawn's presence, Buffy had received a miracle; and yet the miracle she had truly hoped for had evaded her, and Buffy was left in no doubt that Dawn was finally gone.

Gathering the remainder of her wits together, Buffy climbed to her feet, shuffled slowly over to the blinking TV set, jabbed at the power button, and made her way upstairs to her bed.

x-x-x

"Are you sure, love?" Spike inquired, his voice barely raised above a whisper as he addressed Dawn but continued to gaze in open adoration at the baby he cradled in his arms.

Dawn merely nodded, her hand drifting forward to caress the top of the child's head. Her eyes reflected the weight of her pain, and Spike reached out to rest his free hand on her knee. Dawn consented to a small smile, before she covered Spike's hand with her own and brushed her thumb across his scarred knuckles.

"It's for the best, Spike… we both know it," Dawn murmured, the light radiating from her seeming to dim just a little, as though it were directly correlated to her mood.

He nodded, although every last fibre of him screamed that it wasn't fair, that they had lost enough already without this. But he knew that Dawn was right, and that was perhaps the hardest part of the situation to deal with.

"This wasn't the way things were supposed to end," Spike said glumly, fresh tears shining in his eyes as he stroked the bridge of the baby's nose.

"It's not the end yet," Dawn soothed, her voice growing weaker and more faint, alerting the vampire to the fact that she would soon leave him for perhaps the final time. "For her, it's just the beginning, and that's why this is so important."

"I don't want you to go, love," he pleaded, watching Dawn intently as she bowed her head to rest a tender kiss against their daughter's cheek.

"I won't ever be far," she promised, a single tear beginning to slip down her ghostly pale cheek, "this isn't goodbye, and if I have to wait a hundred years for you, William, then that's what I'll do. But first, you keep your promise for me… and for her."

Spike glanced up at Dawn- the woman who owned every last millimetre of his once cold, dead heart – the one woman he had ever truly loved, and had been loved by in return. It was almost more than he could bear to watch her fade from his view, a mouthed 'I love you' dying on her lips as her apparition disappeared. He forced himself to nonetheless, knowing that it was the least he could do for her now.

After all, a hundred years could seem like a thousand in the absence of ones soulmate.

A. N. – I don't suck so bad at the updating this time. Go me!

The scene with Spike and Dawn is supposed to have taken place before the Buffy/Dawn scene, just to remove any confusion.

I also wanted to thank you all for the reviews on the last chapter, as I didn't get time to write a reply to each and every one. It really means a lot to me that people have followed this story for so long and that they are enjoying it. There's just one more chapter to go now, and then this journey has reached its end!