So Let Us Melt
by Kyra Cullinan

"So let us melt, and make no noise" -- John Donne

There's still power in her blood. Mostly dormant but she knows how to tap into it a little. Combines it with the skeleton of a summoning rite she learned from Andrew eons ago, before either of them had slept with Xander. Taglarin runes sketched in darkening red to create a tiny bubble of a seeking spell whirring off into the darkness to find the nearest friendly face.

She'd been hoping for Willow or maybe Faith; if she remembers rightly they're both on the continent. Too much to wish for her wayward sister, off having epic personal drama with whichever souled vampire is in vogue this year. It used to baffle Dawn how Buffy always lived her life at level eleven, even when she didn't need to, until she realized it's what makes her happiest, in her own weird, melodramatic way.

It's another noon and sundown before help comes; a scuffle outside the door of the gas station back room where they're keeping her. Three focused thuds and the door swings open to frame Giles, stern and leather-coated.

"Giles!" she says, forgetting to be quiet or keep the surprise out of her voice. She hasn't seen him in a year, not since she left England to find Rosa, full-skirted and newly Called, laughing in the center of her quinciñera. Dawn's stomach lurches as the thought reels her back in and she lowers her voice. "Hurry. There are a lot more."

She rubs her wrists briskly after he unties her, ignoring the pain as her blood starts flowing again. Outside, the lone guard is knocked out but breathing, baby faced in unconsciousness. She still gets weird jolts in her spine at how young they all are.

"Come on," she whispers, but Giles hesitates.

"Your Slayer."

She shakes her head, feels her insides twist again.

"Too late."

Shadow across his face but there's no time, she can hear the rattle of a truck coming down the dirt road. The back door is unlocked and then they're running across the dark fields, her ears pricked for the shouts that come distantly when they realize she's gone.

Two months ago Kennedy sent word of cult activity in the area as she was passing through. Rosa was fresh off the eradication of a sizeable Palm Beach nest, glowing with the success of her first viable master vamp slaying, so they'd turned north. Headed to middle America, these small, dusty towns full of suspicious eyes. It's not the first time they've come across this kind of thing; five years later people are still catching on to the shockwave ripples of Willow's spell, the implications visible even outside the underworld. So many strong girls makes people start to take notice, fundamental shift in the status quo. It creates these sometimes pockets of hearsay and hatred, people who know just little enough to be dangerous, fear their protectors. Stupid stupid stupid.

The town is dark, silent, everything closed. They move quickly, from shadow to shadow.

"There's a bus out of town in the morning," she says, her voice low.

"Your car?" he asks, scanning the other side of the road.

"Gone," she tells him, remembering its smashed in windshield, the pointedly vandalized corpse of it behind the graveyard.

The sudden roar of an engine two streets away makes her freeze.

"Quick," she says, "in here."

They're in front of a convenience store, dark and shuttered, but she's always had a knack for locks. She gets the door to swing open in under a minute, whispering under her breath.

"If we can just wait 'til morning," she says as she makes sure it locks again behind them. "They won't dare as much by daylight, we can leave before they regroup." She straightens up and turns to face Giles. "And. What are you doing here?"

He looks old, more tangibly so than even when she was nine and he seemed unspeakably ancient. This is -- he seems smaller, less, in a way, and the effect is magnified when he sags, turns away.

"Investigating rumors," he says. Pauses. "A werewolf pack sighted west of here."

He doesn't offer any more and she doesn't ask but four rainy London years sharing a house with him made her skilled at reading between his lines. Understanding the things they don't talk about, like narrow-hipped, deep-eyed boys who follow their ex-girlfriends to England and end up sharing a bedroom with the senior Watcher-in-Residence. She's so used to people who go away and don’t come back but before he left Oz had said "see you," to her in that casual-serious voice that showed he meant it, and then -- nothing. Nothing still, she guesses, can read it in the extra worry lines on Giles' face.

She moves behind the counter and slides down until she's sitting on the floor, knees drawn up in front of her. Suddenly exhausted.

"When was the last time you ate?" comes Giles' voice from above her and she has to think about it.

"I don't know," she says, but she does: McDonald's two nights ago with Rosa, cold fries and jumpiness, no idea how close they were to being caught. Giles moves away into the store and comes back with an armful of food. Dawn stares blankly at the pile as he sits down on its other side, can't make sense of any of it beyond bright colors and shapes.

"Here," he says, gentler, and slices open a tube of cookie dough. "Get your blood sugar up."

She wants to either laugh or cry as he hands it to her, and then her absent hunger suddenly makes itself known and she tears into it, stickysweet on her fingers and tongue.

She used to think Giles hated her, until she was old enough to realize he resented having to pretend to be her parent. Wriggling through enough lectures they both hated to figure that one out. Another Buffy-wrought inconvenience. It was the year after Tara died that she started to really get things like that; how he understood a whole lot of the worst Buffy stuff, how she never apologized for or even noticed any of the cruelest things she did. And how part of loving Buffy meant you just had to suck it up and learn to be okay on your own. It was easier, somehow, once Dawn realized she wasn't the only person Buffy shrugged off, looked through. It was the same year Giles started talking to her like a real person, helping her through a particularly tricky bit of Sumerian syntax, doing this kind of surprised pride thing with his eyes when she asked him for another Turkish text because she’d finished the one he'd lent her the week before. It's still kind of the best thing that ever happened to her, figuring out that just because she didn't have superstrength or magical revelations she could still make a difference, the satisfaction of hardcore research mode. With Giles, the best of the best, there to learn from. And that sunny burst of relief in her gut the night she kicked Buffy out, heart going a mile a minute, and Giles leaning over and telling her it was okay, she'd done something right for once.

She wishes he'd do it again now, but she's far too old to believe him.

"Are they occultists?" Giles asks instead and she comes back to herself. "Demon summoners?"

Dawn shakes her head.

"They call themselves Caleb's Boys."

Giles inhales and looks at her sharply.

"Caleb? Is he back?"

"Not as far as I can tell. They've just gotten wind of his theories. Or some of them anyway. The parts that don't like girls or Slayers and want to put them in their place."

Giles takes off his glasses. "So they ..."

"They killed her, Giles." Dawn feels numb, empty. "Humans, kids, they're just ... small-town boys who feel threatened, don't understand what's going on. They hadn't figured out what to do with me yet, weren't sure if I was important enough to kill, but I have a feeling I was about to find out and it wasn't gonna be puppies and rainbows."

"Do you think it's demon-influenced?" He's earnest, focused. "Something feeding off the hysteria, encouraging it?"

She shrugs. "Could be." Remembers Tara's father, angry, righteous glare. "Probably not."

Neither of them says anything for a long time. Outside footsteps approach and recede.

She's trained for this day, long before she actually started studying to be a Watcher. Mom and Buffy, Tara, Cassie, Amanda, Anya, all these people she's loved or liked leaving their bodies behind with her, empty and cold. These days the Council ensures psychological preparation, too: dealing with grief, the inevitability of this loss. She was Rosa's Watcher for thirteen months and eight days; her Slayer fought well, died bravely. And now Dawn's left behind to go home, be debriefed, write her final Watcher's Diary entry and pick up the pieces of her life, and she knew every bit of this was inevitable. Has been done by other people for centuries and centuries. And unlike them she'll probably have another Slayer eventually, her career lengthened by the same proliferation of girls that got her out on the field so young. ("Hey, it's in my blood!" she used to say when Xander would tease her about being too much of a baby for all this, and she was never quite sure how she meant it.)

This is your life, she tells herself. This is how it goes. None of the words do a thing to change the way every bit of her insides feels shattered. Rosa's smile, Rosa refusing to wake up in the morning, Rosa neatly dusting two vamps at once, feet and fists a blur. She hasn’t missed her long hair in years but she wants it now, something to hide behind.

Beside her Giles shifts. They will be caught, or they won't, or they'll stay pinned down 'til she feels up to calling for help again. She wants to go home, to Giles' world of books and gray skies, her post-Sunnydale universe.

"Does it always feel like this?" she asks, looking at her hands curled around her knees. Without looking she knows his eyes are all patience and regret.

"It always does," he says, and then she's curling into him, letting him wrap an arm around her for the first time in years. Closes her dry eyes and waits for daybreak.


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