Title: Those We Wish Were Here with Us
Wordcount: 9532
Rating: Adult-ish
Pairing: B/A
Disclaimer: It's Joss's city, I'm just exploring it.
Notes: My submission for the Four Horsemen challenge at the Writer's Toybox LJ community, and much is my thanks to everyone else who participated. Reading the great stories that went up so far was a major motivator for me to get this finished. Did not at all intend for it to be this long.

Dawn turned twenty today, the same age that I was when I found out that she was a construct designed to be protected by the Slayer. Whether she has any more surprises of that kind waiting for her is one of the things I try not to think about these days. I was mostly concerned with trying to find her a gift, a surprise that would show how we can still celebrate her existence and mark the passage of her growth despite the way the world has changed on us.

In the end I acquired some clothes for her - sturdy, clean cargo pants and two serviceable sweaters - and a bag of semi-melted chocolate-covered espresso beans. It felt a little silly to be hiding them from her until the time came, especially since it was all stuff I would have given to her anyway, but at least they were good finds that could merit a special occasion. I package them in cereal boxes and present them after dinner, and Angel surprises both of us by providing a gift of his own, a little rectangle wrapped carefully in old newspaper.

She opens mine with a squeal of glee and his with a hushed gasp. I lean in to see - it's a blank book, completely empty and still in possession of most of its pages, and he's even provided four ballpoint pens. Dawn thumbs through it, gazing reverently at the crisp lined paper, and then turns back to the cover, where Angel has drawn an elaborate scene with the pens. It looks like paradise. On closer inspection, it's Sunnydale.

We must have done something right, because tonight does feel like a party. Our latest shelter doesn't have the space for us to sleep in separate rooms, but that's okay, because I want to be sitting next to Dawn until her eyes close, stroking her hair like I used to when she was little. She eats three espresso beans, models all of the clothes for us, and tells us all the ideas she already has for filling the notebook. Angel's happy, too. Just before he turns off the lamp and curls up next to me, he kisses her forehead and whispers, "Happy Birthday, Dawnie."

The next day, we're on the road again. After an hour of walking, Dawn randomly says, "Hey, one more year and I'm legal to drink!" I can't stop laughing.

We don't know exactly what kicked off the fall of civilization, but a lot of bad magic was involved, and as part of some fiendish plan or an unintended side effect of a fiendish plan, the sun was blocked out by a constant tumble of unnatural clouds. A few rays get through now and then, but plant and animal life is dying off, and vampires can get around almost freely. Angel's mobility is an asset, but he doesn't exactly consider it a fair trade.

An enormous area was affected, but not an infinite one. As soon as we figured out that salvation lay east, we split up the group so that Giles and Xander could direct units of Slayers to escort civilians out of California. The last I heard of Willow, she was going head-to-head with a warlock mastermind before he could do any more damage. I elected to stay here, where too many innocents were still trapped, or worse, held captive by hungry vampires. Inevitably, Angel had already assigned himself the same duty, and we haven't parted company since we met up in that first battle. I need him. Dawn needs him.

The plan is that we'll do the best we can to clean up here, and then go east to find the others. Until then, there's no known way to communicate with them, so I just keep telling myself that they're safer than we are.

I think Angel prays for them. He has his own people out there - Charles Gunn, with one of the Slayer groups, and the impossible son who ran off to save the only family he'd ever known while Angel dismembered a horde of demons to give him the opening. Spike's on the same detail that we are, but far enough away that we never run into him. He warned us that their sometime ally Illyria had "gone feral", but there's been no sign of her since then, on either side.

By mutual agreement, we make sure to talk about them every night. Sometimes we have overlapping memories of loved ones, but more often, it's me describing an old adventure with the Scoobies, or Angel reminiscing about Cordy and Wesley and Gunn. Even Dawn occasionally shocks us by revealing something that neither of us ever knew about Spike. It's revitalizing, keeping them with us in spirit, and it's a good way to kill time when we don't have enough light to do anything but talk (or leave Dawn to her own devices while Angel and I take full advantage of the time we have together).

The sun still rises, behind its grey veil, and every day we get about ten good hours of "daylight", which we use to travel, scavenge, read, and fight. It never gets brighter than it used to on an overcast morning, but I still enjoy the novelty of being outdoors with Angel, being able to see him clearly in the middle of the day.

Dawn's been far more of an asset than I ever gave her credit for. She's the one who finds our destinations and sorts through the rumors on current happenings. She's also, for some reason, the best one at building a fire.

And today she's the one with crucial information for us. She rolls out a scroll on the table
like a general with a strategical map, and Angel and I gather close to listen to what it means. "The demon lord Xa'groth'yn fought a battle in a hotel about five miles south of here, with some incredibly irresponsible use of magic as a weapon. He was trying to bring fire out of the earth to scorch his enemies. Fortunately, the spell ignited right under the indoor pool, and it fizzled. So now there's a fissure there-"

"The pool had fish in it?" I interrupt.

"Fissure," she repeats patiently. "A crack in the ground. The armies abandoned the battlefield, with the hotel mostly upright and the water contained."

Angel looks avid. Me, not so much. "Sounds un-dangerous. What's this got to do with us?"

"It isun-dangerous. Even the magical energy is supposed to be gone by now. But the fire's still there, in the ground underneath the pool."

Her voice is getting quicker with excitement, and now Angel exclaims, "Oh, I get it!"

"Well, I don't." This is starting to annoy me. "I appreciate that you brains are trying to make me stop missing Giles, but lay off the back story and just tell me what it means."

Dawn grins broadly, like she just won an award. "It means we can all take a hot bath."

She's right and I love it. The fallout has split the water into five rocky little pools; the biggest is just above room temperature, but they get hotter as they get smaller. Dawn immediately claims one for herself and tells Angel to avert his eyes as she strips - "I've gotten this far with my modesty intact, not gonna give it up now."

We spend hours bathing, scrubbing off weeks of travel dust, chattering with each other as we try out the temperature of each pool in turn. The hotel lobby is still fairly intact, and Angel and I ripped open a few padlocked supply cabinets when we came in, so now we even have clean towels.

Dawn's the first one out, and she wraps three of the towels around herself, luxuriating. "I'm gonna turn in. You have fun, now."

Her voice makes it clear that she knows exactly what kind of fun we want to have, and Angel and I share a quick glance. We scoped out the hotel beforehand and found places to sleep that are structurally sound and won't leave us vulnerable to outsiders, but guarding Dawn is a reflex we both have, and it's always hard to leave her alone. When we started out we made the rule that she would never leave the shelter without one of us, and she still abides by it, albeit wearily. It's not a matter of our authority; we're all equals in this team, but her life is too important and she's too responsible to risk it.

"Sleep well," says Angel, breaking our moment of mutual indecision. Dawn smiles and wishes us a good night before she picks her way around the broken floor and leaves the pool area.

Then we're alone. "Well," I begin to say, but Angel's already grabbing me, pressing his mouth into mine and scrabbling for purchase on the rocky walls of our pool. "Wait," I tell him as soon as I get my tongue back. "I want to go in the hotter one."

Even before the world fell, I never thought I'd get a chance to make love to Angel in a hot tub - it feels like I'm keeping a naughty secret, that I'm living in the lap of luxury and only putting on a front of destitute wandering. The illusion will shatter when we wake up tomorrow, I know, but right now every part of my body feels good, and the mission is easier to face when we get these intervals to recharge.

Angel doesn't seem to be thinking about the mission. He's experimenting with his no-breath abilities, which I quickly discover are an enormous benefit in this environment. My head stays safely above the water, his stays between my legs, and before long I'm digging my heels into his back and pushing him deeper under with such fervor that he'd have drowned a dozen times already if it were possible. He surfaces like Neptune, starlight from the broken ceiling shining into his wet hair, and spits out a mouthful of water. I push off the wall and into his arms, kissing him again and again as we float in our weightless embrace. Then he's taking my wrists and guiding them to the lip of the pool where I can find heavy stones jutting up from the ground, handholds I need to use when he enters me from behind, covering my back with his chest and nestling his face at my throat. He's tireless, making each moment count for all it can, never hesitating with a caress or waiting for instructions. We know each other's bodies too well now to need to talk, but I murmur endearments at him anyway. He likes that.

The heat is especially welcome, after spending so long beside his cold-by-default body. I think I'm starting to get wrinkled from being in here too long. He isn't.

After we've made the most of the water and splashed a great deal of it out of the pool, we hoist ourselves out and lie down on a flat strip of floor where the steam rises up on either side of us. Angel stretches out on his back and pulls me half on top of him, as he does when we sleep: the reason I never need a pillow. We can't fall asleep here, so exposed, but I know he won't let us, so I relax and close my eyes as he traces patterns on my back.

"You're hungry," I tell him, before I forget.

"Why do you say that?" Unsurprisingly, he sounds a little annoyed. This isn't his favorite topic.

"You get mouthy when you haven't eaten in a while. Orally fixated. All the nibbling and the sucking and the licking."

His hand on my back stops moving. "I thought you liked it."

"Of course I like it. Oaf." I squirm a little, trying to get him to keep touching me without telling him to do it. "But for me to keep the sweet kisses shipment coming, I kind of have to keep you alive and functional. I'm just reading the signs, okay? You're hungry and you need to eat."

"I told you, I'm not going to weaken you. Not out here. We can't risk that."

His anxiety is palpable, now, and I realize that it's partially my fault. We weren't talking about the same thing. "No, Angel, no," I assure him, laying a hand on his face. "I don't mean that. I just want you to go out and find some blood tomorrow. It's always so hard to talk you into taking care of yourself, I thought I'd get a jump on it."

"Oh." There's a long pause, which could end in a fresh argument as easily as it could settle the matter. Then, "Okay."

So it's settled. I can doze on him instead of bickering with him. And the kisses shipment will keep coming in.

He returns to the shelter the next day looking both vexed and satiated. Finding fresh blood without killing humans is complicated and hard on him, and I don't ask questions about how he managed it this time. He probably found a dog. There are still a lot of strays in the city, and it's usually kindest to put them out of their misery anyway.

It's three days of travel before we find any other signs of life or unlife, and six before we find a fight to make ourselves useful. Despite Dawn's nonstop research, we all but stumble into this one, and my first thought is that it's a vampire turf war. Usually that's a great opportunity to rush in and kill everyone in sight, but right now Dawn's with us and I don't see anywhere safe where she can hide out during the battle. The single-story rooftops, which would have been her best bet, are off-limits here; some of the vampires have made it up there already and turned this into a multi-level affair.

"What do you think?" I ask Angel. "I'll go in, you hang back, then we switch?"

He's peering intently at the fray, a twisted knot of furiously moving bodies. "Not yet...let's find out what's going on first."

"Are you kidding?" The sight of free-roaming vampires makes me impatient. "Look at the way they're attacking. Anddefending. They're not fighting humans."

He shakes his head. "It's not a feeding frenzy, either. Just give it a moment, Buffy, let them come to us."

They come to us. Just two at first, and it's easy to keep Dawn between us and deal with them, and then there are more and we're getting an actual workout, and just as I'm starting to really enjoy myself, I realize something and Angel voices it. "They're running away from something - I can't see-"

Then there's a voice, loud and clear over the snarls and thudding feet of the vampires: "ANGEL! ANGEL, OVER HERE!"

Angel decapitates his opponent and drops his sword so fast that my eyes can't find him again until he's twenty meters away. He's left me two, and as I dust them both in rapid succession I see that they were the last two, and the only people left standing are ourselves and the lean young man who called Angel's name. Dawn and I watch them rush toward each other and land in a rough hug, oblivious to everything, including our own curious stares once we tread through the piles of ashes to get to them.

"How did you survive that? How in hell did you survive that, freak?" the young man is saying, every word tinged with incredulous laughter. Angel's crying, not the sensitive-yet-manly tears I've seen from him before but actually sobbing, one hand attempting to cover it up and one maintaining its grip on a handful of polyester jacket.

"Gee," says Dawn, grinning broadly. "You think that might be Connor?"

"I think it just might be."

He doesn't look like I pictured him. Half the time, my imagination cast him as a carbon copy of Angel; half the time, he was a tiny, blond, male Darla. Either way, I kept turning him into a pre-teen, even though I knew he was Dawn's age. This slender warrior with piercing blue eyes is an unexpected development, but even without Angel's reaction, there's nobody else he could be. Vampires don't run from just anyone.

The next few things that Angel says to his son are private, much too low for Dawn and me to hear, but right away he turns back toward us and reaches out to me. "This is Buffy, my girlfriend," he says, and I'm ridiculously proud that he doesn't even stumble on the last word. He's weird about stuff even when he's in boyfriend mode, and I worried that dad mode might make it worse.

"Wow," says Connor as he shakes my hand, "you're a brave woman."

I really wanted to impress him with some kind of witticism, but Angel and Dawn both steal my chance for it by replying in almost perfect unison and completely different tones: "You have no idea."

"And this," says Angel, quickly moving on, "is her sister, Dawn."

"Hi. I'm Connor." He gives Angel a sideways look. "Uh, is it cool if...I mean, they know?"

Angel nods serenely. "Of course. I told them all about you."

"Awesome, and later we'll talk about ways to reassure me that don't scare me in a different way. Is it just you three?"

"Yeah," I say, suddenly fearing the worst for him. "Are you...alone? Didn't you find your family?"

"Found 'em, yeah. There was a big evacuation party taking off nearby, so we jumped in on it and I crossed the blackout border with them."

There's a silence. Connor doesn't seem to realize that we're waiting for him to continue. "And then?" prods Dawn.

He looks at her quizzically. "Then what? I saw them off and I came back to look for more survivors."

Angel groans, almost inaudibly. I stifle a laugh. I have the feeling that the phrase "like father, like son" is going to be coming up often in our near future. "Well, I'm impressed," I say to Connor. "And totally stoked to hear all the details, once we get out of the open and find a safehouse."

"Already got one," Connor smirks. "Right this way!"

He starts off with Dawn already at his side and chattering at him, and Angel and I fall into step behind them. I'm about to squeeze Angel's hand and beam at him and tell him how happy for him I am, but suddenly he stops and leans forward, hands on his knees as if he just ran a marathon. "Angel? Honey, are you okay?"

"He's alive. Buffy. He's not even hurt. It's a miracle."

And I suppose it is, but Connor's a person who shouldn't exist in the first place. Maybe miracles just come naturally to him.

Dawn builds us a blazing fire in the roofless top story of Connor's safehouse. We sit together all night, absorbing information from and about each other. Connor says he hasn't seen any of our people since he escorted the evacuation with his family, and he's eager to hear any news on the status of the war. He's been more or less on his own, periodically joining up with a new set of refugees and leaving them again once he's satisfied that they no longer need him.

I'm the one who dispenses what meager information we have about our absentee warriors and our own progress. Angel's been quiet since Connor described his recent activity. Finally there's a lull in conversation and Angel speaks up in his dangerous voice: "Tomorrow we're heading to the border. You're going back to your parents. And staying with them."

Connor shows no surprise, no doubt, and not a microsecond of hesitation. "If you try to send me home again I will runin the opposite direction and keep living here on my own. I won't travel with you and you aren't likely to ever see me again. And this is a permanent rule, Angel. As long as we're here, don't even suggest that I go keep myself safe, or I'm gone. Your choice."

Angel isn't the only one who's completely stricken by this tirade. "Don't go!" cries Dawn. "Angel, don't let him go. We found each other, now we have to stick together."

"What she said," says Connor, giving her an appreciative look. "So what's your story? Are you a Slayer too?"

"Nah. Slayers are so mainstream. I'm a Key." Just like that, she's relaxed again and ready to tell her story, even while Angel and I are still tensed up and tongue-tied, afraid that even an innocent remark about Connor will be misconstrued and he'll vanish like smoke right before our eyes.

But he seems determined to close the subject, and all his concentration is on Dawn now, making me suddenly wonder if I should worry about that look he gave her. Was he appreciating more than just her verbalized support? Did she reciprocate? This could get complicated.

"Okay, let's hear the rest of that," laughs Connor. "What kind of a key?"

He falls into sober contemplation as Dawn gives him the long answer. She starts with Sunnydale, Glory, the monks, my death. Angel and I know this part by heart, of course, along with the recent history, but I've never heard Dawn tell it to someone new on her own, and I listen attentively until she concludes with, "And like a bunch of morons, we figured that was the end of it."

I look at Angel for his reaction and find him already looking at me. Were we really morons to believe that Dawn was safely locked into her humanity after the portal was closed? I have no answer, but those years of blissful ignorance were so good for us that I have to wonder if it isn't better to be stupid when destiny rolls around.

She's telling him now about that first day in the city, and the seemingly random attacks that turned out to be anything but random. We knew that the latest cataclysm had changed the rules of magic, but it was our enemies who informed us that the Key was active again, and that there was no longer a hellgod in the equation. I can still remember Willow's green fire slowly roasting the barrel-chested demon alive, my eardrums aching from its screams and my conscience roaring at me to make her stop, but we had no other way to find the truth.

We got it. The supernatural weapons unleashed in the war have negated stability. New Slayers can't be called to replace fallen ones. Angel and Spike can't Shanshu or lose their souls. And Dawn can't suppress the magic that made her. Anyone who knows what she is can sacrifice her to open up a new dimensional door and tear apart reality. Anyone.

"And I'm guessing that would be a lot less of a problem," says Connor as Dawn reaches that part of the explanation, "if the populace was a little more satisfied with the dimension we've already got."

Dawn nods. "Exactly. A witch who knew her stuff could probably locate a good parallel universe and bring a few of her favorite people along, but everyone else on this plane would be screwed.

"So, now we've got demon cults roaming around with the express purpose of finding me, and humans with, well, pretty much the same express purpose. I would have gone with one of the evacuations, but that's where they're looking. I can't go anywhere that I'd draw their attention toward the humans."

"Yeah," I agree. "You're stuck with us."

Angel finally stirs, speaking to Connor for the first time since he was forbidden to protect him. "So that's what we do. Dawn's the most important thing in the world. We keep her hidden and safe, before anything else, and then we kill whatever evil we find along the way."

"Sounds good," says Connor. "Swear me in."

For as long as I've known Angel, we've had a natural rapport when we fight together, and it's strengthened with time. I remember sharing a similar phenomenon with Faith, temporarily, but I never saw it in Angel with anyone else - until now. He and Connor dispatch vampires, and worse things, side by side like two parts of one machine. Watching them is a joy. Angel lives now like he doesn't have a care in the world.

While Dawn and I are out foraging one day, I ask if she likes having Connor with us. It's a dumb question and she sees right through it. "Sure. Do you like having Angel with us?"

I'm at a complete loss for words. "Well, Dawnie, it's just, I know you're grown up and all, but these are times that are crazy, and Connor's kind of great but also kind of Angel's son, and if you're going to, I mean, I just want..."

She cuts me off with a giggle. "Just kidding. We didn't click like that. I mean, we talked about it, but we're both pretty sure we're going to just be good friends. It was pretty hilarious the way you squirmed just now, though."

I'm relieved, but not too relieved to glare. "Don't talk about squirming. You've put enough scary associations in my head already."

Later I relay the conversation to Angel. He's relieved, too. "So, it's safe to leave them alone together?"

We have our own room tonight. We're in a house, an actual house, stripped down to its bare bones by looters but still stable and secure. The master bedroom has a bed, and a mattress, and now it has a contented Slayer and her half-naked vampire all settled in. Dawn said she was going to pick out a bedroom, and Connor said he was going to find an adjacent one to hers, so Angel and I are on our own for the rest of the night.

"As much as I'm willing to use the word for anything, yes," I reply, setting down the steel comb I've been using on my hair and moving onto the bed with him. "And look at this. Leaving them safely alone together means we're safely alone together too."

He grins wolfishly but doesn't reach for me. "Well, nothing turns me on like comfort and security."

"What a coincidence. Nothing turns me on like wandering around filthy deserted cities and fighting vampires for days on end." I cross my ankles in a coquettish pose at the edge of the bed. I can't exactly dress to kill, these days, so I have to work for it when I want to be sexy.

Angel's an easy mark, at least. He still hasn't moved from where he lies, head propped up on his backpack and hands folded at the junction of his black jeans and bare stomach, but I can see the lust burning in his eyes. "Take your shirt off," he commands.

I don't, and his grin widens. He loves this game.

"Is this one getting too ratty?" I ask innocently, fingering the hem. "Yeah, maybe I should throw it out. Look, there's a stain on the sleeve." I half-turn away from him, and that's all the incentive he needs. One second he's flat on his back; the next, he's crouched behind me and taking the matter of the shirt into his own hands. I want it off as much as he does, but it's more fun to resist, so I throw myself down and roll away from him across the bed. When I finally let him pin me down it's because I'm giggling too hard to see him coming.

He gives me a firm, triumphant kiss, but hesitates before going for the shirt again. "What if they can hear us?"

I groan. "Can you hear them?"

"Yes," he answers immediately; clearly that was the wrong question to put to a vampire. "They're talking down the hall. I can't tell what they're saying, but they're talking pretty quietly, and sometimes you scream."

"I can't believe you." I heave myself out of the shelter of his arms and stalk toward the door, trusting that he'll know I'm only a few minutes worth of mad at him. While I'm checking our audibility, though, I might as well sentence him to some solitary confinement and hope he'll be contrite and malleable when I return. Sure, I scream sometimes. He makes as much noise himself, or more.

I tread softly down the corridor until I can hear the muffled voices of my sister and pseudo-stepson. I'm walking as quietly as possible, and for me that's pretty damn quiet, but the first distinct words I hear are Connor's, "What was that?"

Instantly I freeze. Dawn's voice comes next: "What?"

There's a pause. I consider excuses I can try when Connor opens the door and catches me here. Instead, though, he says, "Never mind. I thought I heard something. Anyway, I just wanted to say it's not as dire as you're making it sound."

"That's what you want to say?" Dawn challenges him. "I'm threatening the future of the entire world just by existing. That's dire enough, I think."

"We don't know that," Connor says. I've already forgotten why I'm there. I have to hear the rest of this. "I mean, there could be people around who could work it that way, but it's just a theory, and anyway nobody knows where you are and we're not going to let anything hurt you. The dimensional door, from what Buffy and Angel said, it needs some incredibly specific circumstances. We're fine if you stay alive, or die of natural causes, or-"

"Take my own life?" she interrupts. I clasp my hand over my mouth, stifling the vocal reaction that wants to come. My breath is coming in sharp, quick bursts, but I have to keep that as silent as possible, too.

Connor must have been as stunned as I am, for he doesn't answer. It's Dawn's voice again that I hear next, defensive and irritated. "You think I haven't thought about it? Angel was ready to kill himself just on the off chance that he might lose his soul again. I'm supposed to, what, pretend my life is so valuable that everyone else's can keep teetering on the precipice until I die of old age?"

There's nothing I want more right now than to burst through the door and tell Dawn that yes, her life is that valuable, and keep saying it until she agrees with me no matter how long it takes. I stay still and I stay silent. Unsubstantiated comfort is the last thing she'll want; I've learned that about her since we began our travels.

I don't hear Connor say anything, but Dawn continues, "No, listen to me. I'm not going to kill myself. Stop it, I don't want a hug. You have no idea how much research I've done on this. Blood isn't the only way to activate the Key. If a witch knew what she was doing and wanted me to survive the process, I probably could. But you know what the foolproof method is? Murder. You kill the Key, you get your door. And you know what suicide is? Murdering yourself."

Connor finally makes a reply that I can hear, though just barely. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize. Do Buffy and Angel know?"

"No. Buffy would freak if she knew I had even thought about it. Besides, what is there to tell? It's just a theory. It's all theories, and I can't act on any of them because if they turn out to be true, it's goodbye universe."

I finally have to tell myself that I've heard enough, or more accurately, too much, and it's
time to tiptoe away from there and return to Angel.

When you overhear what you shouldn't, the best idea is probably to keep it to yourself, but I can't. Angel knows when I'm upset, and he knows when it is or isn't about him. I whisper everything I heard, and he hugs me tightly and then lays me down on our bed and curls up beside me.

Objectively this hasn't changed anything. Dawn said she won't try to kill herself. But now I know - while we've been focused on keeping her alive, she's been focused on finding a solution so that we won't have to keep her alive. If she finds one, can I keep her safe from herself, or will there no longer be a need for that? If not, will we still be able to endure this life, these desolate lands, this mission with no end?

Connor loves our storytelling tradition. He doesn't have much to contribute about anyone that the rest of us knew, except for a few memories from his alternate life with Angel's team that he bluntly admits are too painful to rehash. He listens avidly, though, and sometimes offers an anecdote from his youth that's funny or poignant enough to capture our interest for its own sake.

Tonight it's my turn. I decide to go way back in time and tell everyone about my first date in Sunnydale. I've never told this one before, and Angel starts laughing right away. "I remember this. Owen, right?"

"No, you don't," I say with a glare. "You weren't there for most of it. Okay, so I'd been at Sunnydale High for a few months, and I was still trying to balance the dual life thing, and I had no lovelife whatsoever except for Angel popping up randomly to smoulder and insult me. And -"

"I call bullshit," Connor cuts in.

Dawn snickers. "What?" I demand.

"A few months in the school and you never got a date?" He shakes his head. "Not even plausible. Let's hear a true story."

"This istrue," I insist. "I wasn't popular there. All the boys thought I was kind of weird."

Connor doesn't budge. "Okay, I believe that even less."

"Dawn, tell him!"

She shrugs. "I wasn't in your school. All I know is that Xander was all over you from like the minute we moved there."

"Angel, tell him!"

"Are you kidding? I was fighting off your suitors with a stick."

It takes a while to get back to the Owen story. The conversation has turned into some strange improvised version of "Two Truths and a Lie". Connor keeps denying everything I say, and Angel and Dawn keep trying to top each other with tall tales about our beginnings. I surrender to their antics and wake up happy the next morning.

Connor volunteers to accompany me on a routine sweep to determine the best route for the day's travel, and I have to wonder why. "You could have gone with Angel or Dawn," I point out once we're on our way. "Or both of them, it's not like I can't do this myself."

"I'm making sure you're cheered up," he replies easily. "It's a work in progress. Especially after yesterday. Hoo boy."

"I was hoping you'd forget about that," I reply, chagrined. He's right. Yesterday may have ended well, but I spent most of it snapping at everyone. Nobody even retaliated, and it's suddenly as clear as day that they were subtly joining forces to ease me out of it rather than letting my bad mood fester.

"We're cool." He smiles, a flash of brightness in the drab morning sky. "Another day of those crackers and I'm gonna lose it too."

"I was hoping I'd forget about those." Foraging hasn't yielded much variety in our food lately, and we humans have been subsisting on stale crackers for longer than I care to think about. It was definitely a factor contributing to my crankiness yesterday. "It's just hard enough making sure you and Dawn stay alive, now I have to worry about keeping you healthy too. Also, nasty aftertaste."

He chuckles. "We could ask Angel to share his dogs and rats."


"Just some perspective. Anyway, you're the one who kisses him on those lips."

We're still bantering about it when we finish our loop and spot Angel and Dawn from a distance, sitting in front of the house and deep in conversation. When Dawn sees us, she stands up and waves, and then picks up an object from a small pile beside her and holds it up for us to see. Connor hoots and pumps his fist in the air. The objects are canned vegetables.

"Connor cheered me up," I announce to Angel after an easy victory that night, the two of us against one dim-witted demon.

"He said he would," nods Angel.

"Weird offspring you've got." I feel chatty now that I'm alone with him again, and I give my tongue free rein. "It's like he arrived with my laugh buttons already programmed into him. He's been teasing me nonstop since we met and I never even get really code red, Simon Cowell mad at him, which is more than I can say for you or Dawn."

He half-grins in my direction and straps his sword back onto his belt. "Lucky him."

"I just don't..." I shake my head, laughing ruefully at myself. "Okay, here's a post-Apocalyptic-grade confession for you: I don't understand why I love him so much. I hardly even know him."

Angel straightens up from adjusting his gear and looks at me with that gentle wisdom he keeps hidden under so many layers of ferocity. "Neither do I," he says.

I consider that. It's true. "But he's your son."

"You're not my son, and I love you too."

"That's different. You and I had a whole falling process to start us off. We met and we had sparks and then we got to know each other and dated and okay, I'm actually just describing my side of it, huh?"

He keeps his eyes on me and speaks plainly. "I've told you. I saw you when you were called, and I loved you. It wasn't sparks, I lovedyou. I wasn't thinking about sleeping with you and I didn't need to get to know you. This is how it happened, Buffy. If you don't believe anything else, believe that."

I busy my hands with collecting my gear, feeling strangely humbled. I never doubted the truth of this story, and yet... "Then that's how it happened, but it's not like it happens every day. Not everyone can see into people like you do."

"You can," he says simply, and turns around to leave the lair.

Today we made one of those rescues that make it all worth it, which would be more inspiring if it didn't have to happen by plunging us into the living nightmare of the fallen world. Vampires take humans captive whenever they find them; we've seen it plenty of times. Some use them for more than food, and some are involved in a complex barter system that keeps the victims moving from master to master and is nearly impossible to track. The smarter vamps keep their humans in livable conditions and limit the blood they take. One thing slaying has taught me is that you can't count on most vamps to be smart.

Angel moves through the modified basement, staking the wounded vampires that lie writhing on the floor while Connor and I help the humans. We cut the makeshift restraints from some of them and calm them with our voices as we lead them outside, where they don't have to listen to the last screams of their captors.

There are eight of them gathered around the two of us, but as soon as we begin to ask questions, seven pairs of eyes lock onto one ugly middle-aged man. "They were paying him off to trap us for them," one of the other prisoners explains, her voice flat with contained rage. "I've seen thirteen people die in that room, and all of them were there because of him. When you started closing in here, the vamps threw him down with us instead of letting him go."

When it comes to the question of what to do with him, there doesn't seem to be any division. Angel emerges from the cellar to find the man, now blubbering incoherently, being pushed toward him by Connor. "Check it out, Angel. Guilt-free human blood." I explain what the others told us, and Angel examines the betrayer silently and then nods and grabs him by the collar of his shirt, half-leading and half-dragging him around the corner as he screams excuses and denials. Some of the captives look sick, but none are moved to change their minds.

We spend hours making basic plans to get everyone to whatever shelter or loved ones they want to find. There's some tension and fighting, and there are also a few people acting as if we're gods. All I can really feel is relieved that Angel has fed well for once.

The girl who first spoke up about the betrayer doesn't have any family in this part of the country, and she alone elects to stay with us when the others have moved on. She's eighteen and very pretty, and Connor is overjoyed. Her name is Mirembe.

When Connor and Mirembe begin to steal moments alone together, much in the same habit as Angel and me, I watch Dawn closely until I notice a resigned sigh. It might be nothing, though. She's washing clothes again and I'm fairly certain that it was Connor's turn. I sit down beside her and ask cautiously, "Are you..."

"No, it's fine," she cuts in quickly, confirming that the reverse is the case. "They're fine. Good for them, being fine and all. They'll probably have a nice eternal romance of destiny and then make enough babies to rebuild the human race."

I dip my hands into the laundry tub to help. The detergent stings the scratches on my hands, but it smells like the good clean life we left behind. "I thought you and Connor took a pass on each other. And I thought that because you said so. Remember that, Miss Jealous Face?"

"Yeah, I remember," she says, peaceably though not without arching an eyebrow at me. "Believe me, Buffy, I'm not jealous of her. It's just..." She pouts, pushing at the wet clothes until the water splashes out. "I'm jealous of them. Maybe Iwanted to be the one to rebuild the human race."

There's nothing I can say in response. I wanted that for her, too. God knows it won't be me.

Mirembe unexpectedly found some of her old friends today. Connor stood a respectful distance away and watched her reunion, and Dawn and Angel and I stood a respectful distance from him and watched the loss and rejection playing across his face. We didn't know yet that she would be leaving us, but Connor seemed to sense it and it turns out he was right. She kissed him goodbye, thanked all of us warmly, and joined her friends in their trek to the borders.

So now he's the one who needs cheering up. I'm at a loss, but Dawn raises her water bottle and proposes a toast. "To Mirembe, may she continue to luck out with the people crossing her path."

"And to the people crossing her path," Angel follows up after we all bump our bottles together. "May they continue to luck out, too." He speaks sincerely, but I know it's all for Connor's sake. Mirembe understood and believed when we told her that Angel was a good vampire, but thanks to her ordeal at the hands of his kind, she never stopped fearing him and of course he could feel it. They would have needed so much more time to build a real friendship.

I offer my toast next. "To Connor. May the next generation of the human race owe its existence to him."

He finally snorts out a laugh, his first one of the day, and raises his water bottle one more time. "To this family. Don't go anywhere, guys, okay?"

Huge wings beat around my face, close enough that I could slay the creature if it didn't flutter away so quickly. For a moment my line of vision is clear, and I try to count the pairs of wings currently in the sky. Six? Then I'm dive-bombed by one of them again, and my world narrows to my sword and my enemy. It's the color of old milk, and smells like it, too.

"What do you think these are?" says Angel. His tone is conversational but he has to shout it; we're spread out, and he's engaged in his own battle.

"Beats me," I shout back. "They're pretty stupid, though. Demon pets?"

A stinky milk creature comes between us before he can reply. I can see Connor, far to the left where they're only swooping down occasionally, and Dawn, right by his side where he can easily guard her. All that's left for me and Angel to do is kill the swarm, but the damn things won't stay still long enough to get it done.

After what seems like ages I finally get a good cut at a pale wing, and the creature flaps away screaming and crashes to the ground. I'm running toward it to finish the job when Angel calls out my name with a note of terror that stops me in my tracks. I whirl around to look, but everyone seems fine until Angel catches my eye and points up. The creatures are all far above our heads, now, and they're circling in a formation that seems far too precise for the mindless demon pets I took them for. I don't understand.

"They're not here to attack us!" yells Angel. "It's a ritual! They're creating a summoning-"

And then his explanation is cut off by the event itself. The four of us run to each other and stare at the sky as a whirlpool forms in the center of the ring of flying beasts. The rolling clouds are blurred out by shining swirls, moving faster and deeper by the second. Angel's hand slides into mine, and I reach out to hug Dawn around her shoulders.

There's an impossibly loud sound, like cracking ice. We're momentarily blinded by a flash of white, and when we open our eyes, the vortex is host to a battle of its own. A warrior with a horned helm, somewhere between man and giant, is thrusting a jagged sword at a woman who seems ludicrously tiny in comparison. She's retaliating with bursts of magic that form glowing weapons and shields and then vanish, replaced by others, as both competitors drift toward the ground. She's dressed in black rags, her hair cropped close to her head, but Angel murmurs her name only a microsecond before my own recognition kicks in.

I'm suddenly as afraid as I've ever been in my life. If shecan't defeat this guy...

"We have to run," I say out loud, but then the winged creatures are coming down on us again, and this time they're attacking in earnest. We form a triangle around Dawn and begin the fight. There are definitely more than six.

I sneak a peek through the forest of wings to see how Willow's faring, and see to my confusion that she and the giant have parted now that they're on the ground. She turns toward me and I see her exhausted face clearly for a second before she waves her arm in our direction and every creature above us is hit by a bolt of lightning that kills them instantly. We have to dodge them as they fall, gagging on the stench of it, but when they're all on the ground I look to Willow again and find out why her opponent gave her enough time to help us.

The giant has cloned itself. The second one is smaller, but only by half a foot or so, and the original is bent over, rattling and glowing and almost certainly performing the same feat again. The new one raises a cruel blade of its own and advances on Willow.

"Run!" she gasps at us, but I'm frozen to the spot. We can't let her face this alone.

Then Angel's hand is on my face, turning it toward his own for a brief, completely out of the blue kiss. "You know what to do," he says. His eyes linger for a second on Dawn, and then he sprints away from me, sword in hand.

Connor isn't far behind, and with even less to say in farewell. "Honored." He grins, eyes twinkling like they do, and runs after his father.

And I know what to do.

"Let's go, Dawnie." We have to turn our backs on the battle, but the sounds of it are coming loud and fierce, and I pray that there won't be a death cry. It's hard enough to keep Dawn running as it is; she's so distraught.

I don't know how many horned warriors have spawned by now, but it seems there are enough for one to catch up with us and block our path, convincing me that it was all for nothing until I whirl around to find another way out and see only Willow, aiming another spell at us with grim determination. Dawn and I are enveloped in a warm sphere of light, closing in until we can feel ourselves being grabbed by it, and I remember Dawn theorizing about a talented witch and a parallel universe. This is it, I think. Dawn, Willow, and me, the only three people left in the world.The world around us blacks out.

We wake up in a dark room, and it's definitely an awakening and not just a moment of disorientation; whatever happened, we've been passed out for a while now. There are voices talking in the next room, but they're not familiar and I don't feel safe.

"Where are we?" mumbles Dawn, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands.

"I'll go find out."

I'm fumbling my way to the door when she tears away a dark sheet stapled to the wall and reveals a window. It's daytime, and now we can see that there isn't much in the room aside from us. We've seen a thousand just like it, stripped bare by desperate survivors. If this is a parallel universe, it isn't much of one.

The voices in the next room, it turns out, belong to vampires, and they're more scared than I am – rightfully. For once I don't have a stake, but I did happen to hang onto my sword. Their heads come off and I return to Dawn and give her the hard news: we're still in the city. All that Willow did, maybe all she coulddo, was teleport us away from the fighting. I feel sick. Of all things, to run away from that final battle and then find myself killing a couple of garden variety vampires.

Dawn rushes outside and I follow. We're on an abandoned street like any other, but I don't recognize it. In fact I'm fairly certain that we've never been there before. Dawn's totally certain. "I don't have my maps!" she cries. "How can we get back to them? And - and my notebook – I was writing about us -"

We've lost everything we had in our packs, it's true. We'll still get by, but it's going to be much harder from now on. "Let's find a safe place..."

She looks livid that I would suggest a return to our routine so quickly. "To sleep?" she snaps.

I shake my head. "To cry."

We keep up the tradition. There's less time to relax now that Dawn has one protector instead of three, but every night, after we eat whatever food we've found and before we fall asleep in whatever comfort we can pull together, we tell our stories about those we wish were here with us.

The memories of Connor that I share when it's my turn are of his infectious laughter, his knack for making even the worst of times seem bearable. Dawn speaks of his loyalty, his battle prowess, and his commitment to helping anyone in need. She praises Angel in all the same ways, drawing from what we've endured together for so long, or sometimes reaching back in the memory vault to my first romance and her childhood, when Angel would come with warnings and kisses for me and smiles and questions for her. "Hi Dawnie! Is Buffy home? How did you do on your math test? Is that a new barrette?"

I talk about those days too. It can't hurt any worse than not talking about it. But I have memories of Angel that I'll never release to my sister's ears, the ones that keep him alive in my heart and remind me that it's best and it's right and it's possible to go on without him. I remember his face in the dim noon light, calm and content in spite of everything because he liked being in our company. I remember him trying so hard to teach Connor everything a young man should know, ever cautious of going too far and losing his attention.

I remember the way he made love to me. He who was forged from death and sorrow – he never touched me with so much as a chord of sadness. He only showed me joy, and passion, and love, and he only brought the same emotions out of me. I used to wonder how that could be, and how much he must have repressed the pain of life to make it so; now I finally understand that for him, there was no pain to repress. The suffering just vanished when he was inside me, leaving us free to revel in each other while we had the chance.

"We don't know that they died," Dawn says often, and I agree, yes, they might have made it, Willow too, they were strong, if anyone could succeed, it was them. Then I add, "If they had failed, we'd know it," for it's obvious that Willow's nemesis and his clones would soon tear through the remains of the city if they had won.

It's cold comfort – failing and dying aren't the same thing – but it's become habitual and we keep repeating it. If we someday find evidence that stops letting us hope that they made it out alive, I hope Dawn can come to understand that what they sacrificed for her was never in vain. Connor was a born hero, and every choice he made brought him to his heroic end, honored and without regret. And Angel...

The rest of us were stranded in the Apocalypse. Angel wasn't. He was fulfilling the role he always wanted, a warrior of good against evil in a world of such stark contrast that he never had to wonder which was which. He had an innocent loved one to protect like a daughter, he had his son beside him filling him with pride, and he had me, my heart and soul and body. He had finally found his place in the world. He had his perfect happiness.

Dawn turned twenty-one today. I don't have a gift for her. "Just keep me alive," she says, squeezing my hand, and smiles.