Previous chapters here.
Got to be something in the Summers genes -- some predetermined time they're allowed to be sweet and soft and fit right there against your chest, before the buzzer goes, and they haul off and hit you. Cooking time varies by altitude above sea level or something, I guess - only took Joyce about ten seconds to decide whomping me over the head with an axe would be a good idea, and not much with the cuddlies beforehand. Granted, I was trying to eat her daughter at the time, so I can see where she'd want to skip the preliminaries and get right down to the Spikebashing.
I get a good round minute with Dawn, standing there at the foot of the Summers porch, my arms around her while I try to remember if she was always this tall, or maybe all the vampires in the world shrank a couple of inches during that long night before we all woke up breathing. Can't be just me, no way does Angel get to go even more hulky and loomy over me when I see him again.
Not fair, I think crazily, senseless with the nearness of Dawn, of this house, of her, still asleep in a room upstairs. Dawn's close enough that even a human nose can breathe in and smell perfumey shampoo and plain clean girl smell, and maybe it's not a minute, maybe I lose count, lose track of time and place, hear only my own heartbeat in my ears. Maybe we stand there for months, years, before she pulls back and hits me on the shoulder, hard.
No girlie punch, this, though I can feel that she's pulled it. No Slayer, but she's been learning from her sister, sparring or hunting, whatever's left to hunt now that the vamps are gone. Not enough force to knock me back, but enough pratfall surprise to make me take the step, because I never remember that the cuff comes after the kiss with the Summers girls, until I'm reeling from the blow. I blink, then nod, and rub the bruises from sharp little knuckles, through thin cotton, wishing I'd slipped my jacket on. Wondering if I should go back and get it, for Round Two, when Buffy knocks me through the wall.
"Guess I had that coming."
"You *guess* ?" Hands on hips, careless of the bathrobe falling open, faded UC Sunnydale t-shirt and shorts beneath it. "A year! You've been missing for a year! We thought you were dead."
I grin, can't help it. Can't help it, looking at her. Can't help the words that slip out, mouth as always faster than the brain. "And you were suddenly worried about this? Been gone longer than that, Little Bit. And dead since before your great grandmum was born."
"You know what I mean. Really dead. Dead dead." She purses her lips, then steps forward and clocks me on the other arm. "A year ago. We tried to find you when everything went crazy, and nothing." Again. Harder. "Nobody heard anything. Buffy sent you a letter; you never answered, and we thought... People died."
Yeah. People did. She punches me again, and it really does hurt, and I really do want to stand there and take it. Because I really do have it coming, but also because there's something nastily familiar about it.
"Jerk." And again.
Almost right, swinging fist and swinging blonde hair and anger and pain, bliss then blow, and it's not her. It's not Dawn. It's not even me anymore, just a ghost in my head, which is why I stop her. Grab her wrist. Light, fingers just a circle around the thin bones, barely touching.
"Yeah. Could we stop hitting the jerk now, please? He's not exactly Superjerk anymore. He bruises easily, and he whines about it for weeks. It's very annoying. I didn't get the letter til yesterday. You bleached your hair." It made sense in my head.
She pulls her hand free, frowning, then reaches forward to touch my arm. "I -- Sorry." Then the hand to her hair, touching the ends, twisting it around her finger. "I didn't bleach it. There was this thing at school, with the water - I got lucky; one guy's hair turned green. Turned out there was a disgruntled boggan dumping glamour spells into the cafeteria water supply."
"Disgruntled..." My arm hurts from the tenderizing, and my mouth hurts from the grinning, and my stomach hurt from New York to California and it hasn't shown any signs of easing up, and I think I'm going to laugh, or possibly fall over.
"His daughter pledged Chi Omega and didn't get in. He decided they were prejudiced against fairies. Despite the fact that nobody knew she wasn't human, or duh, she wouldn't have even gotten into the school. Buffy says I should have met her first roommate's dad; he opened up a portal to hell in the floor to take her back home."
It hits me that 'school' is university, and the t-shirt she's wearing is her own, not stolen from Buffy's laundry hamper, and it's been five years. And I start to think I might laugh and fall over, just for the entertainment value. Dawn watches me, whatever contortions my face is going through that, if I were to walk inside and find a mirror, I could see for myself, and puts her hand on my arm again.
"You want breakfast? We have...um, stuff. I'm pretty sure. Toaster stuff. And microwave stuff. And stuff you put milk on."
Food? Food would be...food. Warm Coke and pretzels that were stale when I bought them don't exactly fit that description, and I realize the growling in my stomach might have as much to do with it being empty as with me being a random pile of tension and nerves strung together with skin. I nod. We don't move.
"You called me Little Bit."
She isn't. She has to be taller. But she is. Always will be. "Yeah?"
"I missed you. Jerk." She punches me again, so light I can barely feel it, then tugs me up the steps and into the light of the kitchen.
It's warm and bright, and like everything else, it's like stepping back and sideways. Stove with the overhead oven. Cartoon refrigerator magnets. The counter I can remember pushing Buffy up against, kissing her while she pretended not to kiss me back. Pots on the wall, ruffles over the window, textbooks and papers spread all over the island thing in the middle of the room. But. New photo next to the stove - Buffy, Dawn and Willow, Dawn in graduation robes. No blinds on the windows; matching curtains pulled back at either side. And the cabinets... I point, without asking.
"Oh. I...got a little... There may have been beer. And, obviously, glitterpaint."
They're white, where they used to be cedar, and look like an advert for the sort of multicoloured sugar-and-styrofoam cereals I suspect are still hiding inside them. Green and purple and blue circles, dusted with glitter and obscured here and there with those little plastic daisies you're supposed to put on the floor of your bathtub if you're clumsy, geriatric, or tasteless.
"I'll bet Buffy was thrilled."
"The paint job, she didn't mind. The beer..."
"Dawn? It's hell o'clock in the morning." The voice is blurry with sleep, the call as much a yawn as a sentence. It's also hers, calling down from the top of the staircase. It's terrifying, makes my stomach twist like maybe food's not so great an idea after all, but at the same time... It's a gift, to finally replace 'I hate you,' in my head, as the last words I heard her say. "Who are you talking to?"
Dawn looks at the stairs, then, bless her, looks back at me with a question on her face. She knows.
Too bad I don't know the answer. Too bad my head nods anyway. Stupid bloody head; who gave it permission to speak out of turn?
Dawn walks to the kitchen doorway. "Buffy... Maybe you better come down here."
"Huh? What's wrong?" The stairs creak, and I close my eyes.