Disclaimer: Dawn, Buffy, and the Scoobs belong to Joss, Marti, and a bunch of other sadists.  I own a Compaq.

Note I: This takes place immediately after "Older and Far Away."

Note II: Thanks yet again to Tanja and Gyrus for the beta-reads.  What would I do without you two?

Older, but Not So Far Away



Everyone's leaving the house.  They walk out, talking about how nice it is to be outside again after being locked in the house by a curse for a day and a night.  Everyone's going.

Except me.  Except Buffy.

I watch her wave goodbye as the others leave, and then she just shuts the door, staying inside with me.  As she turns to me, I can tell we're about to have an extreme Talk.

Funny thing is, I'm not even dreading it.  It's like . . . I usually hate going to the doctor, okay?  Probably because Buffy told me all sorts of horror stories about hospitals when I was little, but anyway, there have been times I was so sick I actually wanted to go to the doctor.  That's kind of what I feel like now.  I know it's not going to be fun, but Buffy and I have needed to talk for so long that I don't even care how tough it'll be.

"We need to talk," Buffy, Mistress of the Obvious, says.

"Yeah," I say.

"You tired?"


"Want to save it 'til morning?"

I shake my head.  "I don't think I'll be able to sleep if . . ."

Buffy nods.  "Yeah."  She bites her lip, looking very uncomfortable.  "Why don't we change clothes—mine are kinda ripe—and I'll make some cocoa, and then we'll . . ."  She makes some gestures with her hands.

"Yeah."  I run upstairs and change into pajamas, brush my hair, and wash my face.  When I get back downstairs, Buffy's in sweats, making cocoa.  She's still got her makeup on.

I make some popcorn, just because.  Actually, I think I'm stalling.  I'm kind of nervous.  Finally, the cocoa's made and the popcorn's done, and Buffy and I move everything to the living room.  As we sit down on the couch, I have to move my present to Buffy out of the way: a stolen leather jacket, complete with security tag.  My stomach sinks.

"Okay," says Buffy.  I sit there, deciding to let her go first.  I think she was hoping I'd go first.  After the silence stretches from "awkward" to "excruciating," Buffy finally starts talking.  "About the stealing, Dawn—officially, I don't care why it's happening.  It's got to stop.  Now.  If you get caught shoplifting, the Social Services Taliban will yank you out of here so fast I'll have to forward you your underwear.  And . . . I know you may not believe this, but if I lose you, it'll kill me, Dawnie."

I nod.  "I know."  I do know, I guess; maybe I was just hoping she knew.

"Why do you . . . I mean, when did this start?  How long has this been going on?"

"It . . . it started after Mom died," I say, and I have to take a long gulp of cocoa before I can speak again.  "Remember when I tried to do that resurrection spell?"  Buffy nods.  "I had to steal some stuff from the Magic Box, a book and a potion.  I just barely got away with it.  Giles almost caught me.  When that happened, it was like . . ."  I try to think of how to say it.  "It was the first time since Mom died that I felt . . ."

"Anything but the pain?" says Buffy.

I nod.  Great.  I'm already tearing up.  "Yeah, that's exactly it.  I started taking little things right after that.  I grabbed a pair of Anya's earrings, a bottle of Will's perfume, a couple of dollars from Xander's wallet, a pack of cigarettes from Spike—"

"Cigarettes?" Buffy interrupts, sitting straight up.

I try to head off the approaching freak-out.  "I only smoked one, just to see what it was like, and I hated it.  Don't worry.  Anyway, after a little while, the rush started wearing off, so I started with the shoplifting.  That jacket's the biggest thing I've ever taken."  I shake my head.  "I don't even know why I'm doing it, half the time.  I just do.  It seems easier than buying stuff."

"And you like getting away with it," says Buffy.  She looks kinda distant.  "Want, take, have."


She shakes her head.  "Something Faith said to me when she was getting me into the stealing thing."

That, I did not expect.  "You stole?"

"Not really," she says.  "I took some things from a hunting store once, but Faith and I got caught.  It was her idea, but I really got into it.  It was right after Wesley replaced Giles, and I felt like taking stuff kind of gave me power, y'know?"

"Yeah."  I like how she's talking to me, like I'm a grown-up and understand stuff.

"So it's not like I don't understand," she says, winding it up.  "Doesn't mean if I ever catch you at it again, I won't kick your ass.  And you have to return the stuff you've got, especially the Magic Box stuff.  Anya is not a good person to have ticked at you."

Oh, crap.  "I've got to return the stuff?  Like, take it back and face angry store owners?"

"I'll go with you," says Buffy.  "Not gonna be easy, but it's what you've got to do to make things right."

My stomach's somewhere around my ankles by now.  Returning stuff is not what I wanted to do with my Sunday.

Buffy takes a deep breath.  "Now, I think we've really got to talk about why you're feeling so bad a vengeance demon got involved."

I look down at my hands.  "You're never around, Buffy.  Tara moved out, and Giles is gone, and you're never around.  It's like I'm losing everybody I love, and it hurts."  The tears are for real now.  "I mean, you work, and you patrol, and I don't know what else you're doing, but you're almost never here when I am, and even when you are, it's not you."

There.  I said it.  I don't even want to look at Buffy's face right now.

"What—what do you mean, it's not me?" she asks, very quiet.

I make some little gestures with my hands, like that'll make it easier.  "I mean, you don't seem happy, or sad, or anything except blank.  You don't talk to me.  You never even touch me anymore.  We've hugged what?  Five times since you got back, maybe?  You don't bully me out of the way when I'm between you and the fridge anymore.  You don't even play with my hair the way you always used to.  Is there something wrong with me?"  I'm really crying now.  "Do you hate me, because you want to be in Heaven and you can't because you've gotta take care of me?"

"Oh, God," whispers Buffy, and she's crying as hard as I am.  "No, Dawnie, I don't hate you.  There's nothing wrong with you.  You're the only . . . you are the only reason I stuck around at first, Dawnie, but I don't hate you.  I—I'm so sorry.  I didn't mean . . ."

She's hugging me now, a real hug.  It almost hurts, because of her Slayer strength and the fact that she's so bony now, but I hold onto her, and we both cry.

She pulls back first, makes me look her in the face.  "There is nothing at all wrong with you.  Nothing.  I-I just thought . . . I thought there was something wrong with me, and when I thought I killed that girl, I was scared I might hurt you.  I thought you deserved something better than me."

That gets me mad.  "You were still running away!  Didn't you even think of asking me what I want?"

"What you want and what's right aren't always the same thing, Dawn—"

"God, will you just stop with all the adult BS?" I yell.  "Why did you want to get caught?"

"Because I deserved it!" she yells right back.  "Because I didn't know how to handle things, and I was sick over what I'd done.  If Giles or Mom had been here, I'd have had them to ask, but I didn't, and it was too much.  I felt like I deserved to get locked up for what I—for what I thought I did."

"So it was just about you," I accuse.  Maybe I'm being selfish, but I don't give a rip right now.  "Did you even wonder what would happen to me?  I'd have gone into foster care!  Do you think I want that, no matter what you did?  Do I deserve to lose my only family?"

"I did think about it," says Buffy.  "I thought about it, and I thought that no one could possibly do worse with you than me.  I don't know how to raise a teenager; I'm not Mom."

I'm getting so sick of this.  "I don't need you to be Mom!  I just need you to be here!"

The words pop out before I even think of them, and I think they might just be the first thing I've said that actually makes sense.  Buffy just stares at me.

"Then I'm here," she says after a minute.  "Tell me what you need from me, Dawn."

I have to think about it, and I'm still not really sure what I want.  "I never know when you're going to be here," I finally say.

She nods.  "All right.  How about I mark on the calendar what my work schedule will be for the week so you at least know that part?"  I nod, blowing my nose.  It's my fifth tissue.  "And I still have to patrol, but in most cases, it only takes about an hour to dust the vamp newbies.  Unless there's a serious Big Bad in town, I won't be gone long each night, and there'll always be someone here with you.  Okay?"

"Okay."  It's simpler than I thought to say that.  "That sounds good."

"And we can plan to do things together," she says.  "Go to the mall, see movies, whatever—as long as it does not involve hamburger in any way, shape, or form.  Or chicken.  Or processed vegetable guk."

I laugh, mid-sniffle.  It's kinda messy.  "That-that sounds a lot better.  You promise?"

"For real.  Now: I need a few things from you, Dawnie."

"Me?"  Not sure I'm getting this.

"You.  You already know about stopping with the stealing, but Dawnie, your grades need to come up, too.  I know you're smart enough; just stop skipping classes and do it, okay?  It'll get Social Services off my back, and I'll be a lot less tense and easier to get along with."

Oh, boy.  Figures my part would be harder.  The fact that she's right doesn't make it better.  "Okay," I sigh, throwing in a pout for good measure.

She reaches out to play with my hair, just like she always used to, but all of a sudden, her hand hesitates.  She's looking at it like there's something wrong with it.  When I reach for her hand, it curls up a little.  It reminds me of something.

Then I remember how she wouldn't let me touch her hands the night she came back.  I look, and she's still got scars on her knuckles from clawing her way out of her coffin.  Even the thought makes me shudder.

"Do they still hurt?" I ask.

She looks startled, pulling her hand back and hiding it with the other.

"Buffy, don't," I say.  "We're sisters.  You can tell me if it hurts."

"It . . .doesn't, really."  Her voice is hushed, and there's that awful look in her eyes again.  They're haunted, just like they were after Angel went bad, when Mom died, when she thought I'd have to die to close the portals.  "I just look at them, and I remember.  When I got out, I saw my grave, and I thought . . . I thought I was a vampire."

I can't stand it.  I throw my arms around her, and she's suddenly crying all over my shoulder.  She's been through so much, and now she has to put up with me, too.  How much of a snot am I?

"I'm sorry," I sob.  "I know I'm a pain."

She hugs me tight.  "No, Dawnie, you're not.  That night was so horrible, but I still remember how you tried to take care of me.  When the others came in, they were so overwhelming, but you smacked them right down for me.  I never thanked you for that."  She pulls back, looking at me and smiling for real.  "You were great.  Thanks."

I grab more tissues.  We're running out, and we've almost lost the coffee table under a mountain of used ones.

It makes me wonder something.  "Buffy, is this the first time you've cried since . . ."

"No," she says.  "A few days ago, I-I kinda cried myself out with Tara.  See, I thought I'd come back wrong, so I asked her to look into the spell that brought me back, and it turned out I didn't, and I went and fell apart all over her.  She was amazingly un-freaked about the whole thing."

"Tara's great," I say.  "She reminds me of—of Mom, sometimes.  Y'know?"

"She does, doesn't she?  In a lesbian, Wiccan sort of way," Buffy says.  "I'll tell you, after that time both Willow and I stayed out all night and Tara stayed with you, I was this close to telling you to just go live with Tara, because of all of us, she's the least likely to completely mess you up."

"Tara's great," I say again, "but she's still not who I want to live with."

"I know," says Buffy.  "And I'm not giving you up.  You're my gift, you know."  I look at her, a little startled, and she smiles at me.  "Being the Slayer's taken so much away from me, like, for instance, a remotely normal life, but if I hadn't been the Slayer, the monks would've sent you to someone else.  You're the only thing being the Slayer ever gave me."  This time when she reaches for my hair, she doesn't pull back.  Her fingers comb through my hair, root to tip, and I feel loved.  "You're my gift."

We snuggle on the couch then, just being sisters.  It feels so good.

"Oh, and one more thing," says Buffy suddenly.  "Next time you've got Issues, please tell me about them before a vengeance demon gets involved, okay?"

"I know," I say.  "It's just that . . . you know how sometimes you're feeling mad at someone, and you want it to get better, but even when the other person tries to make it up to you, you're so mixed up you can't let them?"

"Been there, done that.  Big time."

"That's kinda how I felt.  That and I was afraid that if we did talk and start to get close again, something would take you away, and I'd get hurt."

Buffy's arms tighten around me.  "I'm not going anywhere, I promise.  Heaven can wait."  She laughs just a little.  "Heaven can wait."

"Good," I whisper, all sleepy.  I cuddle closer to her, not caring if I fall asleep right here . . .

And Willow comes barging through the door, all wide-eyed, and starts babbling.  "I-I went with Anya and Xander to the hospital to take care of Richard, and once we got him admitted, we were all standing around outside talking about how nice it was to breathe fresh air, and I suddenly remembered it was all because of how you'd been feeling all neglected, and it's really true, and we're all so sorry, and oh, God, are you two okay?"

Buffy's pretty much a wreck, with her runny makeup.  I probably look just about as bad.  I can imagine what Will's thinking.

"We're okay," says Buffy.  "Just having a very long overdue conversation."

Anya and Xander practically plow into Willow from behind.  "We brought chocolate!" announces Anya.  "And a teddy bear."

Buffy and I trade a look.  Looks like another all-nighter.