It wasn’t much, as far as lairs went. No easy escape routes. No direct access to the sewers. Just the basement of a house long gone to seed. A grand old duchess in her time, he supposed, clinging to the faded glory of her prime. Not much use for vampires with any sense, but maybe the sort of place a teen might be easily lured to, if she were feeling her oats, but didn’t particularly want to wallow in the muck.
Spike sauntered farther into the basement, projecting an air of bored indifference as he pretended not to notice the gaggle of young vamps glaring at him for invading their space. He stopped at what they’d probably assume was a safe distance, taking his sweet time to light up a fag as he studied them.
Fledges, the lot of them, both as vampires and humans. None of the four likely any older than Dawn. Their lair reflected it. Not quite a sty, but the bits and bobs of unsupervised teens scattered all about, including a few corpses left somewhere out of his line of sight. Any one of which could have been…. No. She was a smart girl, his nibblet. Just because her scent led here didn’t mean she hadn’t run right back out when she’d realized the danger.
“Looking for a girl,” he said casually, throttling back the dread he’d felt since the moment he’d finally caught Dawn’s day old scent. “About yea high.”
He held his hand out at Dawn height. Huh. She’d got taller than Buffy at some point. Hadn’t the foggiest notion when that had happened. He shook the thought away. Just something crowding in, trying to distract his mind from what he was becoming sickeningly certain had happened.
Two bloody days, she’d been gone, off for a Halloween lark behind everyone’s back. The first hour had been full of irritation over the little chit acting out like the rebellious ball of hormones that she sometimes was. Second hour of searching with Buffy had included growled threats of permanent grounding, enforced by chains. After the third, they’d been well and truly worried. This was more than just a girl snuck out for a bit of Halloween mischief.
Vampires and demons tended to stay in for the night, but that wouldn’t stop a human predator. Or some little wannabe punk of a fledge flouting tradition just because they could.
He’d finally found her scent only to lose it again somewhere around the local lookout point, where all the little kiddies and young adults went for a nice view and a snog. He’d been tracking her pretty well before everything had gone all sixes and sevens, his senses all blurring together in a disorienting rush. Sound was texture, shapes were scents, and everything had tasted bloody purple. Buffy had felt something, too, claiming the world had gone all “wonky” for a moment.
Most of it had snapped back right quick, but it had been a good twenty minutes before Spike could smell anything but ashes and, weirdly, strawberries. By then, it had been too late. Dawn’s scent had ended near a set of tire tracks heading off for the highway. He’d been out searching all the dark hours since, but hadn’t been able to find any other trace of her until now.
“Dark hair,” he continued, pulling his thoughts from the past to the present, “blue eyes. A scream that could blow out your eardrums from a mile away.” He’d tried to teach her. Scream and run. But even that banshee howl wouldn’t have been able to save her if she’d been taken by surprise. He focused on the fledge who seemed to think he was the leader of the little group. “Seen her about, have you?”
“We don’t answer to the likes of you,” the boy sneered, features shifting easily from human to vampire. “We can smell your fear.”
Spike clicked his tongue and shook his head in disapproval. “Typical. Either don’t use your nose at all, or focus on the wrong scents. That’s a lesson,” he moved suddenly, tone still light and easy as he flicked his cigarette in the face of one fledge while staking another. Then he slammed their leader into the wall, “you aren’t going to survive long enough to learn. One more chance. You either die fast or slow. Your choice. Now, where. Is. She?”
The other two boys were frozen in place. Good sense, fear, or both. The one up against the wall wasn’t following their lead. Foolish, that. Spike reached out and broke two of his fingers, smiling at the resulting snarl.
“Not much for a vampire to heal, I’ll admit, but we’re just getting started, aren’t we? Not really much of one for torture, but I’ll make an exception for you.”
Not his style. Not the sort of thing he resorted to if there were other options. But something had been scratching at him since he followed Dawn’s scent into the old house. Scratch. Scratch. Something off that just wouldn’t settle.
“Go for your eye, next. Pluck it right out. Woman I used to date would eat them like candy, sometimes.” He smiled again as the other two boys bolted up the stairs. Didn’t need them. This one would crack. He’d that feel to him. “Liked the way they popped in her mouth.” The smile fell away. “After that, I’ll take your nose, since you aren’t using it right, anyway. Then the other eye, I think, before that no doubt pathetic twig you call a knob.”
Fear finally filled the boy’s eyes. He’d have been pissing himself if he’d been able. Then something in the shadows moved, and the fear turned to wild hope.
Spike braced himself, but a horrifyingly familiar shriek cut through his defenses, leaving him vulnerable to the… thing that lunged at him. He managed to get a stake in the boy’s heart as the new fledge tackled him to the ground, slapping and clawing at his face as that scream went on and on.
No, he thought numbly. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t.
The earthy scent of vampire. Old and fresh blood. Faded tatters of scent from lilac shampoo and honey vanilla body wash. The sunlight and wildflowers that had been a shared trait with Buffy and Joyce. And that scent, like a hot cuppa on a cold morning, that was uniquely…. All this time, he’d been smelling it. Off, like it was an old scent mingled and diffused with others. But that hadn’t been it. Hadn’t—
He shoved the thing away from him, scrambling backward across the floor until he hit the wall and used it to get unsteadily to his feet. The fledge growled, glaring up at him through feral yellow eyes. Yellow eyes that stared from the depths of the vamped out version of a horribly familiar face.
Blood on that face. On her torn and filthy clothes.
No. God, no. His little bit. She—
The thing on the floor leapt up to its feet, Dawn flinging herself at him to continue the fight.
She stood in front of the door, just staring at it. If she didn’t open it, then she didn’t know if Dawn was back or not. It was like that cat in the box. Until she opened the door, her little sister was equally likely to be there or still missing. Equally likely…. Yeah, right, she was pretty sure which one it was. But that was how it was with the cat, too. If it was in there with deadly radiation, then it was….
She opened the door and stepped inside, her feet taking her into the living room without much input from her brain. Her head moved on its own, dragging her eyes to the couch, half expecting Dawn’s lifeless body to be lying there. Empty. No one there, living or dead.
No relief about the lack of a body. No disappointment about a living Dawn not being waiting there. She just felt… numb. Not exactly unusual since she’d been brought back, but there was a different quality to it. Like the dread always pressing down on that cocoon of numbness had gotten heavier and darker. And if that cocoon popped….
There was a sound from the kitchen, followed by Giles, holding a mug. Steam rose from it, along with the smell of chocolate and coffee.
“Any word?” Buffy asked, the words popping out even though she knew he would have already said something if he’d heard anything.
As much as he’d wanted to be part of the search, he’d been put in charge of manning the phone, since the police were involved in their own search for Dawn and Janice. Giles managed talking to them better than she or the Scoobies did, and having him there meant he could be called from a pay phone if any of them found Dawn.
“Not yet,” Giles said quietly, handing her the mug. “Coffee for energy, and cocoa for comfort. Rest for a bit while we wait for the others. I’ll make you some grilled cheese.”
She wanted to tell him there was no time for rest and sandwiches. Instead, she gave a jerky nod before sitting down on one of the living room chairs. She wanted to head back out there and keep looking, but that wasn’t The Plan. Had to stick to The Plan if they wanted to find Dawn.
It had all been Xander’s idea, after that first night of frantic searching. Buffy and Giles had gone to the police with Janice’s mom the next morning. And while the cops started up their own thing, Xander had started his. Divide Sunnydale up into sections and send everyone out. Maximize the ground they could cover by making sure that some areas weren’t being checked over and over while others were ignored. And as soon as you finished your section, you went back to the house, reporting on any possible clues before being assigned a new section. Spike was the only exception. Xander called him a “free agent,” and his job was basically just roaming Sunnydale, trying to catch any trace of Dawn or Janice fresher than the make out point.
She didn’t even care how creepy the sniffing thing was. If it meant Spike found Dawn, she was buying his nose a fucking present. What did he like to smell? Other than me? Hell, if he did find Dawn, she’d just give him one of her bras, freshly worn. It didn’t matter how gross that was, not if Dawn was home, and not….
Buffy squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and took a deep breath, trying to calm her scattered thoughts. Then she gulped down some of the drink Giles had made for her. Too hot, but she welcomed the burn. The pain meant she was at least feeling something. Something other than that numbness and the horrible, lurking dread pressing in on her. Waiting for the chance to crush her into a paste before devouring her.
She closed her eyes again, just focusing on her breathing. In and out. In and out. She could breathe. She wasn’t physically being weighed down. Nothing was stopping her from breathing. No dirt piled on her. She could breathe. In and out. In and—
The door opened — along with her eyes — as Willow bounced into the house like she’d eaten her own weight in sugar and caffeine. Her expression didn’t match the energy of her body, though she tried to plaster a hopeful smile on her face.
“No word yet?”
Buffy just shook her head. Willow sank down onto a cushion on the floor like a deflated balloon, the fake smile fading.
“It… it’s going to be okay,” the redhead said. “We’ll find her. Dawnie’s smart. And she’s a tough cookie. Wherever she is, she’s going to be okay.”
Buffy wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Should she be optimistic, and say that Willow was probably right? Or realistic and point out that the chances of finding someone alive after forty-eight hours was less likely, even in places that weren’t built around a Hellmouth? She was saved from having to go either route by the door opening again and Anya shuffling in.
She looked as exhausted as Buffy felt, and she was strangely grateful for it. No bounciness. No attempt at a perky smile. Just plopping herself down on the couch with vague grumbles as she rubbed her aching calves. No apparent expectations of optimism. It was a relief.
Willow was giving the ex-vengeance demon an annoyed look, but the door opened for a third time before she could say anything. Then Tara came in, and the redhead bounced up off the cushion, before bouncing over to her girlfriend like Tigger.
Luckily, Giles came back from the kitchen before Buffy gave in to the sudden urge to get up and smack the bounce out of her friend. He had a plate piled high with grilled cheese sandwiches that had been cut into triangles. At least four of them, and all of them apparently for her.
“You’ve been expending far too many calories without taking enough in,” he said, giving her that disapprovingly worried dad look as he handed her the plate.
She mumbled a “thanks” as she took the plate, fighting back the tears that were threatening to escape. There was no reason to cry over some damn sandwiches. It didn’t matter that her actual dad hadn’t bothered to call in months. That he’d been unreachable for the past two days. Nothing mattered except finding Dawn.
She forced her thoughts to be still, focusing on mindlessly shoving down the sandwiches. She couldn’t cast bouncy magic on herself. Had to fuel up with food so she could keep searching. She was down to just one triangle when Xander finally came in, limping to the couch without looking at anyone.
“Forgot to change my damn socks,” he muttered, sitting down next to Anya and taking off his shoe and one of the unchanged socks. She could see the pretty nasty blister forming from where she was sitting. He sighed and glanced at her before looking away. “Buffy, I….”
She froze, a bite of grilled cheese tasting like ashes in her mouth as she stared at him. No. No, he could not be about to suggest that they call off the search. He’d been the one to organize it. If he called it off—
He rubbed tiredly at his face, then looked at her again, misery and defeat in his eyes. “When I called off to work yesterday and today, I had to promise to work the Saturday shift. If I don’t show up at the site tomorrow, ready to work my ass off, I’m going to lose my job.”
It’s just a job, Xander! Dawn is more important than a fucking job! We all have to keep looking. She didn’t say the words. She didn’t need to. He knew it all already. But he also knew that it wouldn’t just be a job he lost. If he got a bad reputation at the current site, he could have trouble finding any other construction work. And he had rent and bills to pay, and had to be able to afford food and the other necessities of life.
“Fine,” she ground out after forcing down that bite of grilled cheese. “That’s fine. Just figure out the search areas for the rest of us for tonight and tomorrow, then go home and rest so you can work tomorrow. We’ll keep—”
“Buffy,” Giles interrupted, his voice horribly gentle and sympathetic. “I think we’ve searched all we can. All we could do at this point is go door-to-door, and that’s a task better left to the po—”
Another interruption. The phone this time. He left her side in an instant, rushing to the kitchen to answer it. Murmured words that she couldn’t quite make out. No way to tell if it was the police or Spike calling, or some nocturnal telemarketer.
Did vampires work as telemarketers? It was evil and soulless. Seemed like something that would appeal.
“Locater spell!” Willow suddenly blurted out, breaking into Buffy’s odd thoughts. She’d gone back to her cushion at some point, Tara snuggled up next to her. “All we have to do to find Dawn is cast a locater spell. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that earlier.” She frowned. “Why didn’t I think of it before?”
“M-maybe because she’s the key?” Tara suggested.
“That would make sense,” Anya chimed in. “The monks who created Dawn didn’t want Glory able to find her. If they had the power to turn the key into a human, then they would have been able to make it unlikely that anyone would think to look for her with a locater spell.”
There was a sound from the kitchen, and Willow jumped up excitedly as Giles came back into the room, looking worried and disturbed. Worried and disturbed was not good.
“The police?” Buffy asked, forcing the words through a throat and mouth that were suddenly too dry. “Wh-what did they say? Is Dawn…?”
Giles shook his head, but more like he was clearing his thoughts than saying no to anything. “More information is needed,” he said, his voice carefully neutral. “I have to go.”
“Giles,” Willow said, ignoring his words and tone as she bounced in front of him. “I know how to find Dawn. There’s a spell—”
“No,” he snapped. “No spells.”
“We’ll discuss it when I come back. All of you stay here for now. And no magic until I’ve returned.”
And then he strode out the door without a backward glance.
Tara slowly got to her feet, reaching out for Willow’s hand while her girlfriend was staring at the door in disbelief. Before she could take Willow’s hand in hers, the other woman took several steps towards the door, hands on her hips as she glared.
“That insufferable, pig-headed…!” she snapped out.
Then she took a deep breath and whirled to face Buffy. Her hand rose, and power filled the air, lifting one of the slayer’s hairs and plucking it from her head. Buffy let out a startled sound and stared, wide-eyed, but didn’t say anything about the needless use of magic. No one else said anything, either. Just watched as the hair floated over to Willow’s outstretched hand.
Tara felt like she was going to be sick. Using magic for the impromptu engagement party. The magic to give herself energy for the search. And that spell at The Bronze. Even just using it in one place, shunting people from their dimension and back again, was awful enough, but she had felt that energy move out past the building. Was horribly certain that it had been responsible for everything going “all pear shaped” right before Spike had lost Dawn’s trail. And now this.
It was nothing compared to that other spell, but it was one more piled on. Needless spell after needless spell, mixed in with downright dangerous magic. It had to stop. And it looked like she was the only one willing to stop it.
“Giles said to wait.” It was the wrong thing to say, and she knew it even as the words came out of her mouth. Stupid. It would have been smarter to point out that there had been something… off, about what Giles had said. About the way he’d said it. More information needed, but no actual indication of who needed that information.
Willow stiffened. “Giles isn’t here, and we’re all adults. We don’t need his permission to find Dawn.”
“Are we even sure this will work?” Xander asked, looking uneasily between the two of them. “If locater spells won’t work on Dawn….”
“This one will,” Willow said confidently. “One looking specifically for the key probably wouldn’t, but Dawnie was made from Buffy. She can’t be hidden from a spell like this.”
The hair settled into her hand, and she started chanting. Tara hugged herself and backed away, certain that something bad was going to happen.
Then the spell was finished, and the hair rose back up into the air… before suddenly burning away into ash.
“What-what does that mean?” Buffy asked harshly, her face blanched of all color. “It couldn’t find her?”
“N-no. I….” Willow sounded completely shaken, and Tara knew why, even before she said it.
No. Oh, god no.
“It means Dawn…,” Willow continued, voice cracking. “Dawnie is dead.”
Leave a Review
Table of Contents