AN: What is this I don't even. So I was given the prompt "Any character, any Leonard Cohen song," and instead of writing something romantic this happened. Some Dawn/Xander, but only a teensy bit.

The ponies run, the girls are young,

The odds are there to beat.

You win a while, and then it's done –

Your little winning streak.

And summoned now to deal

With your invincible defeat,

You live your life as if it's real,

A Thousand Kisses Deep.

Dawn makes a deal with Buffy. She can come back to England and become a Watcher, but she has to get a normal college degree first. It's kind of expensive, and 'normal' isn't something she's ever really considered, but The Council's paying for it, and it makes Buffy's eyes light up with vicarious dreams so she agrees.

…..

She ends up enrolled in a school in Georgia. It's as good as any other school and, according to salvaged records, the southern United States has astoundingly low levels of demonic activity. Buffy and Giles discuss the phenomena and possible reasons for it, and Dawn rolls her eyes and waits for them to make the 'higher temperatures equal lazier demons' connection.

…..

Move-in day is in the middle of August. The day before they're supposed to leave, a call comes in from somewhere in Asia and Spike (the big idiot) has gotten into a tight spot with some monks and started name-dropping, so Buffy comes to Dawn all apologetic smiles and it's "official business Dawnie, really. If anyone else could do it…" But Dawn can practically count the cartoon hearts circling her sister's head (fifteen. One for each month he's been off 'proving himself.'), so Dawn forgives her pretty quickly.

Xander comes to Georgia instead.

…..

When they get there, it's hothothot and stickystickysticky andDawn suddenly finds that fire-and-brimstone is a lot more believable than she thought. She and Xander both curse more in the first five minutes than they probably have all year combined.

Xander helps her set up her room and he takes her shopping for things she forgot and they discover that Wal-Mart at two in the morning might be scarier than any hellmouth. And then he's gone and Dawn's all alone for the first time ever (except for Melanie-My-Roommate who speaks like taffy and promises that cooler weather will show up. Eventually.).

…..

Dawn is a year older than everyone else on her floor, but it's okay because she's been living in E n g l a n d and I t a l y and she grew up in Los Angeles (well sort of), and a young man with an eye-patch helped her move in instead of her parents, and it all gives her a strange sort of clout.

….

Buffy calls after she gets back from saving Spikes ass (again) and they talk for two hours. At the end of the conversation, Buffy gives her the numbers of two slayers in the area. Later, Melanie-My-Roommate asks about the names and numbers on the bulletin board and Dawn thinks fast and says "my cousins."

In hindsight, that's the end of normal.

….

Days turn into weeks. Melanie-My-Roommate becomes Melanie becomes Mel. There's no Buffy/Willow/Anya/Cordelia anymore, it's just Dawn and she shines, shines, shines (pretty little shiny girl) and the friends she makes are hers, all hers.

But friends talk. Friends tell stories about their lives and they share things, and all of a sudden the attention is on Dawn and she opens her mouth, bends the truth until it breaks. ("His name was Justin. I really liked him, but he wanted to do some stuff I wasn't ready for so I ended it." It's a little sick how kiss and kill are only different by a letter).

Dawn is new and interesting and she can speak a little Italian and she knows British slang and she's already wearing next year's fashions. Her friends are all curious and it's questions, questions (no one expects the Spanish Inquisition), and her life is a swirl of lies that are far more acceptable than the truth. She starts to keep a diary again for the first time in five years. She has to keep her stories straight, and when she fills all the pages it's exactly the same as her old diaries. Nothing but a timeline for things that never happened. A fake life interwoven with a fake life interwoven with her real one (she's starting to lose track of which is which).

….

Three days after Halloween her world breaks for good. All year she's been getting up early enough to take a shower with the lights off (who decided to make it so bright in a communal bathroom anyway), but she sleeps through the alarm and someone else is already there. So she stands naked under fluorescent light for the first time ever, and when she looks down the scars across her legshipsstomach shimmer incandescent (pretty little shiny key. But I don't open anything!).

She stays in her room for two days and tells Mel a close relative died, because that what it feels like.

….

When she's alone she calls Buffy across an ocean even though it's the middle of the night there. The phone rings three times and it's Spike who answers. She's barely spoken to him in years but he's saying her name like he cares, like he's worried and ohgodshelovedhimonce. She bursts into tears, then laughs when he curses and mumbles, "Buffy, you ought to take this."

Two weeks after that, Xander moves to Atlanta and everyone pretends it was for a job and not because Buffy asked him.

Mel tells her she's been talking in her sleep. Dawn tries not to panic, asks what she says.

"I'm real."

Ice hits Dawns veins and the oxygen leaves the room but Mel keeps talking, oblivious. Dawn tries to breathe. Focuses on Mel's voice. It's full of lilting cadences Dawn still isn't used to, too many syllables and dropped endings and sometimes (only sometimes) the knife sharp fear from a different life and a girl less real than Dawn.

She laughs it off and forces her voice not to shake as she says, "Oh that's nothing. I've been having a reoccurring nightmare about a robot who looks just like me."

….

For Thanksgiving break Dawn goes to Atlanta and sleeps on a couch that smells like Sunnydale (or maybe it just smells like Xander), and she feels close to normal for three and a half days. But then Xander makes some joke about the sorry excuse for dinner and how it's still better than Syphilis and vengeful spirits and somehow giggling turns into hyperventilating over her canned yams (it's a yam sham) because she wasn't there, she wasn't there, ohgodohgod.

They wind up on the floor and Xander strokes her back as she shakes. He whispers that it's okay, she can break down all she wants, he isn't going anywhere. They stay there for hours, and when she's finally done crying he makes milkshakes and they talk about how weird it is, pretending no to know what goes bump in the night.

….

She goes back to school, keeps telling the fakest version of her life, and things get a little better.

….

It hits Dawn one day while she's sitting in her creative writing (autobiography) seminar. Even if she'd been born not made, even if fourteen years of her life were fact not fiction, she wouldn't be normal. Even if her scars didn't shimmer, no one would believe that her truth was real. It's a morbidly comforting thought.

Real isn't normal, normal isn't real, and this version of her life is the fairytale.

….

(In a few years, Buffy will tell her that 'happy ever after' is a lie, but finding someone to be real with is pretty damn close. So when she finally talks Xander into bed and he kisses every scar because he knows, her heart pounds and every beat is real, real, real and she's done pretending.)