Note - Thanks to my beta, t_geyer, for her unending patience, perseverance and support. Thanks also to always_jbj who keeps arguing that she doesn't merit a co-writing credit, but without whom I would never have got the basic plotline worked out.
Yet again, Dawn was missing and, yet again, Buffy was the one who got to spend a fun night combing the streets of night time Sunnydale looking for her. Okay. so that wasn't strictly fair. Giles and the other Scoobies were out looking, too, well, except for Anya, who was waiting at The Magic Box in case Dawn turned up there.
"Dawn!" Buffy shouted, the relative isolation of the playground allowing her to call out without worrying about disturbing any residents. No answer, no sound of running footsteps. Try again. "Dawn!"
"Yeah, that should do it," came a sarcastic voice from the general area of her shoulder.
Oh and Spike. Spike was helping, too. She'd had to try Spike's crypt before she sent out the general call for help. Dawn was altogether too keen on hanging out with the undead these days, and, even though she'd told him that he wasn't getting paid, Spike had just seemed to assume when she headed out for The Magic Box that he was part of the search party. She couldn't inflict him on any of the others, so she ended up as the beneficiary of his unwanted wit and dubious advice. "Shut up," she suggested irritably, knowing that the vampire was pretty much guaranteed to ignore her request unless it came at stakepoint. Her little sister was missing. She'd trashed her room, her journals, nearly burned the house down in the process. It had only been about a week since she had slashed open her arms and Buffy couldn't help but worry that maybe she had done the same again... only this time in some remote spot where there would be no-one to apply dressings and make sure she hadn't nicked an artery. The last thing she needed was Spike giving her advice.
"The Niblet scampered off to get away from you," Spike pointed out, with a bluntness that she found herself unable to ignore. "She hears you bellowing, she's gonna pack it in the opposite direction."
Buffy felt a wave of helplessness wash over and her feet slowed to a stop, as did the vampire's.
"Can't say I blame her," the vamp added in a marginally softer tone, looking around as if hoping to spot some movement amongst the trees and bushes that bounded the park.
Buffy's eyes drifted to her latest cute pair of boots, not wanting to say anything but knowing that she owed the all too insightful butt-pain that much. "You were right," she admitted in a hushed tone. "This is my fault. I should have told her."
She waited, with her head downcast for Spike's 'I told you so', missing the look of surprise that crossed his features. Instead of the anticipated gloating she caught a resigned sigh.
"Look, she probably would have skipped off anyway, even if she never found out."
Buffy finally dared to lift her attention from her feet, watching first his body language and then his face as he continued.
"She's not just a blob of energy, she's also a fourteen-year-old hormone bomb." The vampire loosed another sigh. "Which one's screwing her up more right now... Spin the bloody wheel." He gave a shrug and if Buffy hadn't known him so well, she might almost have thought that he was trying to make her feel better. "You'll find her, just in the nick of time, that's what you hero types do." Spike's tone was a mixture of admiration and just a touch of annoyance, probably pissed off with himself for being on the 'wrong' side.
Buffy couldn't help but feel a fresh inkling of hope and she searched the vampire's face looking for any sign of insincerity, but there was none.
As if in answer to her unasked question he repeated more firmly. "You'll find her."
Dawn leaned over the quivering man, making sure that even strapped down to his hospital bed, she was in his line of sight. "You know what I am, don't you?" she didn't so much ask as interrogate the helpless madman. She looked from his bed to the next to the next. "You all know!" she accused, showing her pain and confusion. Why was it that the only people who could give her answers were too incoherent to do it?
As if to prove her point, the man in the nearest bed shifted his gaze to a spot on the ceiling, staring at it as if that were the only way he could hold onto what little sanity was left to him. "Can't hear it, can't hear it, can't hear it..." he repeated over and over, his own personal protection spell that perhaps allowed him to perceive her as being as insubstantial as she felt, his words drowning out her own, his eyes refusing to look her way. Why should he acknowledge her when even she didn't know if she was really there?
"Tell me!" she practically shouted in her frustration.
"Can't hear it, can't hear it, can't hear it, can't hear it..."
Dawn simply couldn't let it go. These people, with their fractured and broken minds held the answers she needed and she couldn't leave until she understood. "What am I?" she demanded.
"The key!" The agitated response came from one of the other beds.
Dawn whipped her head around to see where the voice had come from, shocked at the relative youth of the man she saw there. It was one thing to know that Glory preyed on people, sucking all coherence from their thoughts... and she hadn't really thought too much about what the guy she'd been speaking to would have been like before Glory. It was another to see someone, a guy who maybe, if it hadn't been for the tribal looking tatt across his forehead, might have actually qualified as dollsome, babbling away as if Alzheimer's had hit a half century early.
"I found it," the cutie muttered in a fervid tone. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you..."
Dawn was mildly freaked. Once upon a never, back in LA, she had gone to church with a friend's family after a sleepover. Part way through the service about half the congregation had started to sway on their feet and babble gibberish. It had scared her rigid and something about this guy was giving her the same sort of vibe. That didn't stop her feet from guiding her toward his bed. "You know what the key is?" she asked again, new hope warming her chest, but as this patient also averted his eyes from her, his apparent prayer of thanks looping endlessly over and over Dawn's patience snapped. "Where did I come from? Who made me? Wha-what am I?" she almost sobbed.
"Thank you, thank you..." replied the young man, the words like the rhythm of a train in an old movie.
"Please!" Her sister, no, not her sister, Buffy might be a slayer. She could probably have made the guy talk, but she was just a nothing, not even really a girl. All she could do was beg.
Whether her words had finally penetrated or whether he acted in response to some stimuli provided by what was left of his brain Dawn didn't know but suddenly the guy jerked his head up and began yelling.
"Destroyer!" He seemed to accuse her and the teen jumped backward like a nervous cat. "Cracked ... bones ... the sun bleeding into the sky! The key is the link..."
Dawn backed away from the bed, shaking her head, willing it not to be true, even speaking the words, "no, no," as if she could somehow erase what she had seen from her memory. She had wanted answers, but not these ones.
"The link must be severed. Such is the will of God. Such is the will of God. Such is the will of God. Such is the will of God. Such is the will of God. Such is the will of God. Such is the will of God."
The words echoed repeatedly through Dawn's head, accompanied now by the, 'Can't hear it's of the first man she had spoken to and a rising babble from all the other occupants of the overfilled ward. She took several hesitant steps backward before bolting for the ward door. She pulled it open, with a force born of her desperation to escape, only to almost collide with Ben, the cool intern, who had practically drooled over Buffy - didn't everyone? - when he'd helped treat her mother.
Damn! Now she was going to have to make up some sort of explanation... or what the hell? Why not tell him the truth? What was the worst he could do? Strap her to one of those beds? Would that even work? It wasn't like she was real...
Dawn had forgotten the mug of hot chocolate that Ben had made for her, leaving it to cool unnoticed on the staff break room's table between them. How could someone who was intelligent enough to make it through med school be so obtuse? "No, you don't understand. It's not real. None of this..." She brought both hands up to her shoulders and then traced the outline of her torso. "They made it."
"Dawn-" Ben tried to interrupt but it was obvious he still didn't understand.
"I'm nothing! I'm just a thing the Monks made so Glory couldn't find me," Dawn told him, knowing that it was futile, but needing to try just the same. "I'm not real."
Comprehension seemed to happen in an instant, leaving him looking both shocked and fearful. His chair legs made a scraping noise against the floor as he rose to his feet, backing away from Dawn as if with one wrong word she might literally explode. "You're the key?" He managed to make it half a question and half a statement of fact.
Dawn was left to wonder whether the safe haven that she had thought that she had found was any sort of refuge at all. "How do you know about the key?"
Ben no longer seemed to be listening to her. "Go!" he yelled. "Before she finds you. Don't ask me how she knows, 'cause she always knows." It was almost as if he were one of the patients on the mental ward where he worked. He was so vehement and unwavering, so wrapped up in his own freak-out. "Just go."
"Wait!," Dawn pleaded. "Calm down, just tell me-."
"You don't understand," he ground out, some internal struggle seeming to paint its anguish on his handsome features. "You're a kid."
Fear began to gather like a clammy knot in the pit of Dawn's stomach and she pushed her chair back, getting to her feet.
"You stay, she'll find you," the intern babbled, trying to impress upon the young girl the need for flight. "She finds you, she'll hurt you."
"What's wrong with you?" Unconsciously, Dawn found herself trying to live up to what her mother had taught her about helping others, even though the memories weren't real and part of her wanted nothing more than to take Ben's warning at face value. Shock, teamed with guilt at the idea of leaving him when there was so obviously something wrong with him, kept her feet fixed in position
"You're what she's been searching for," the doctor almost screamed. "I am telling you, run. You don't know, you-." His warning came to an abrupt stop, his pained look swapped in an instant for one of horror, his eyes darting nervously around the room. "Oh God. Oh God no, she's coming."
Dawn's heart was racing in her chest, but she felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an eighteen-wheeler. Please God just let it roll on over and leave her still frozen here when it had passed rather than squishing her between the rubber and the asphalt...
"I can feel it," Ben yelled in a way that made her hope that she would never find out what 'it' was. "You've gotta get out. No-o... Oh no, she's here!"
Desperate hands clutched at Dawn's upper arms, holding her in a painful grip.
Her last chance had gone and the knot in her stomach unravelled into a high-pitched scream.
"She's here!" Ben shouted, but what began as a masculine howl of anguish ended in a woman's triumphal cry.
Dawn gasped and stared in shock at the face of the hell-goddess, who wanted to hunt down her Key, who wanted her .
Glory narrowed her eyes, looking both suspicious and confused. "Hey," she asked. "Don't I know you?"
They had woven their way back and forward through the town's east side until they reached the series of graveyards that ringed the town's centre. Spike's head lifted and his nostrils flared slightly. He changed course by a few degrees and for a fraction of a second, until the vampire shook his head, Buffy's hopes soared.
"Not her. The little Wiccas," he added with a nod in the direction that he'd turned to face. "And the so-called menfolk." He jabbed at an angle with his cigarette, wafting a plume of carcinogens in front of her face. Okay, so slaying was a high-risk business, but she was pretty certain that no one had mentioned passive smoking when the council signed her up.
Buffy gave a sigh and began to trudge in the direction Spike was travelling.
Even before she spoke, Willow's rueful smile told Buffy that the witches had had no more success than they'd had.
"We looked, but no Dawn," the redhead told her in an apologetic tone.
Spike's attention seemed to waver for a second and, following his gaze, Buffy saw Giles and Xander appear from around the side of a tomb and angle toward them.
"What about the carousel?" the slayer asked, her eyes still following the men as they approached.
"Checked there too," Tara replied.
Buffy raised her voice and called out to Giles. "Nothing?"
Xander gave a shrug. "Sorry, Buff."
If resignation and panic could have a love-child then it was growing inside Buffy now. Looking round at the dispirited faces, concern showing on all of them, even Spike's, Buffy said what they were all thinking. "Anything could have happened to her. Not just Glory. We better check the hospital."
Glory looked around the lab as if reminding herself of where she was, straightening up and seeming to throw off her previous disorientation. "This doesn't have to be a complete waste of my precious time," she announced sounding far too smug for Dawn's taste as she closed the distance between them. "I've been meaning to send the Slayer a message. And I could use a little pick-me-up. Two birds, one stone, and..." She clapped her hands together in front of Dawn's nose, fast and hard. "Boom... You have yummy dead birds."
The door burst open and Buffy pushed her way into the room, followed by the others. "Get away from my sister," she warned, only Joyce's influence saving her from borrowing the exact words of Ellen Ripley as well as her attitude.
"Hey," Glory greeted her as if they were buddies on the cheerleading squad. "We were just talking about you."
Dawn had managed to edge a few feet around the perimeter of the room and now she made a run for it, ducking behind the slayer.
"Conversation's over, hell-bitch." Okay, so good manners only went so far. Buffy followed up her proclamation with a string of kicks and punches, dodging all Glory's counter-attacks.
Unexpectedly, instead of playing it safe and then trying to claim credit at the end of the fight for doing next to nothing, Spike moved to position himself behind Glory. He pinned the goddess's arms against her sides.
Glory squirmed in his grasp but couldn't seem to get the leverage she needed to break free, allowing the slayer to put all her power and strength behind her next punch, which landed squarely on Glory's jaw.
"I thought you said this skank was tough?" The stupid vampire had to ask, and, as if his derision were all the catalyst she needed, Glory broke free of his hold, grabbing his arm, flipping him and throwing him into one of the walls. She picked him up, head-butted him, and then threw away his limp body like so much garbage. The vampire slid across the exam table, crushing a bunch of medical equipment before he fell off the other side and landed against the wall.
Buffy's breath caught in her throat as she watched, not because she was worried about Spike, but because he had been the only other person in the room who had a hope of going toe-to-toe with the hell-god and surviving.
"He wakes up," Glory spat her words at the slayer, "tell your boyfriend to watch his mouth."
After that Buffy was too absorbed in making sure that the hell-bitch knew that Spike was no-way, no-how, no-never her boyfriend to notice the blood that oozed from Spike's ear.
The battle was almost over. Spike had missed most of it. Giles' crossbow had barely been a distraction. As for the tyre-iron that Xander had started off wielding, it was now sticking through Buffy's chest. Xander, Giles and Dawn were sharing a heap with what was left of the room's light boxes after Glory had thrown Xander into them and he'd landed on the other two.
Glory walked toward Buffy with a high-heeled predatory strut, making her way between Tara and Willow.
Like guests at a wedding the two witches each hurled handfuls of bright glitter over the scarlet bride.
Glory turned on them, so enraged that her business with Buffy was temporarily forgotten. "Look what you did to my dress, you little-."
Her tirade was cut off as Willow gave a single loud clap and cried out, "Discede!"
Almost like a staked vampire, Glory exploded into a cloud of dust, but instead of falling to the floor, the dust shimmered and disappeared.
Buffy looked up from her half-slumped position. "What did you do to her?" she asked her friend.
Panting, and trying to dab away the blood that dripped from her nose, Willow gasped out, "Teleportation spell. Still working out the kinks."
"Where'd you send her?" Buffy asked, hoping that the answer might be millions of light years or several dimensions away.
The witch managed something between a grimace and a grin. "Don't know. That's one of the kinks."
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