Lines of Communication

by Christina K
Copyright 2002

Standard Disclaimer: Clark & Dawn & all other characters belong to Joss Whedon, DC Comics, Warner Bros., Mutant Enemy, yadda yadda yawn; the story is my own, and may not be re-posted without permission. Non-Standard Disclaimer: No long distance satellites were damaged in the making of this fic.

Spoilers through "Doublemeat Palace" for BtVS, and "Rogue" and "Hug" for Smallville.

Thanks to the Perri, Dee, Tina, Celli, Lizbet & Val for commenting and betaing and snickering.


"Holy mother of cellphones."

Willow looked up from the computer, where she was trying to track down any trace of Warren, Jonathan and Andrew, without success. The Nerd Herd were keeping their heads down; Jonathan must have told them about her interrogation techniques. Either that, or they were all mortally terrified of Buffy. Proving that they might be only human, but they were still miles smarter than the average vamp.

Although if they could've seen the Slayer's slack-jawed stare right then, they would have probably started planning for their next Festival of World Domination. "What've you got there?"

"The phone bill. At least, I think it's the phone bill. It could be the serial number to the cordless, easy. Jeez. Did you do this? Look at this!" Buffy dropped the bill onto the computer keyboard, and Willow picked it up, then blinked in shock as she read the total at the bottom of the page.

"Whoa. I didn't do this. Nuh-unh."

"Well, I know *I* didn't do this!" Buffy fumed, wildly waving her arms around in denial. "Two hundred and twelve dollars! How the hell could this happen? We don't know anyone to run up this kind of bill with! I called Giles a couple of times this month, but nothing like this!"

"Maybe it's a mistake." Willow frowned. "Or -- ooo, thought! -- maybe someone hacked your account? The Legion of Dorkness, maybe?"

"It has to be. We don't *know* anyone in Kansas, and that's where all the calls are going."

"Kansas? That's weird. The Bahamas I could see, or the Cayman Islands, or one of those 1-900-SEX numbers. But... what's in Kansas?"

Buffy took back the bill and squinted at the long column of phone numbers and the names of the cities printed next to them. "Some place called Smallville, looks like." She grinned, relaxing a little, probably at the hope of an easy explanation. "And take a moment to savor the quaint, there."

"Buffy, we're living in Sunnydale, which sounds like the orange juice capitol of the world, not the Home of the Hellmouth. I don't think we have room to mock."

"Yes we do. It's _Kansas_," Buffy responded definitely. "I'm going to call and find out what the Geek Troika are up to."

Willow was suddenly reminded of a couple too many episodes of the Twilight Zone that she'd watched with Xander. "Maybe that's their plan, though. Maybe you'll get sucked into an evil parallel dimension if you call that number!"

"Through the *phone*?"

"Weirder things have happened. To us, even."

Buffy gave her a skeptical look, which you couldn't completely blame her for. "Yeah, but can you see AT&T putting up with that? Seriously? Anyone using their fiber optics for evil would infringe on their franchise."

"Well, okay, so it wouldn't be easy, but it might be *possible*---"

"Fine, Will." Buffy picked up the receiver and made a face at the phone." Cover me, I'm dialing. If you see a blue swirly doorway start to form, pull the plug."

"Right. Ready and in position to yank," she responded, leaning over to tug on the phone cord.

Anyone who'd dated a demon through the Internet learned the power of "shut it off, Dave" real quick. Hopefully, this wasn't going to be anywhere near as bad.


*~riiiiing riiiiing*~
*~riiiiing riiiiing*~


"Um, hello? Who is this?"

"This is Martha Kent. May I ask who's calling?"

"(It doesn't sound like a demon, Will. It sounds like my mom.)... Uh, this is Buffy Summers. You don't know me, but I live in Sunnydale, California, and I just got the world's largest phone bill, and the long distance charges all have your number on them. I was kind of hoping you'd know what that was about."

"Funny you should say that... I was just going over *our* phone bill, and we have more than a hundred and fifty dollars worth of long distance charges to Sunnydale, California."

"You're kidding."

"I wish I were. This is outrageous."

"*Tell* me about it. It's got to be a mistake. Or a scam, or some creep's idea of a joke. We don't even know anyone in Smallville."

"Your phone number is 962-555-1157, isn't it?"

"Yeah, that's us. Mega-bizarre. I think I know who to blame, though. So, are you with a software or video games company? Or a woman's lingerie catalog?"

"Neither. We raise organic produce."

"Hunh. Didn't see that coming. Maybe they just liked your phone number. Maybe it's one of those, those math thingies. The square root of an exotic number, or one where it's the same backwards and forwards? No, that can't be it...."

"I don't know about the square roots, but are you saying you think someone deliberately ran up these charges on our bills?"

"Uh, I kind of know these guys... they're not my biggest fans, and they're into this sort of thing, hacking and illegal stuff--- it's exactly what they'd pull. The only part I don't get is why they charged phone time off to you, too. You haven't annoyed any geeks lately, have you?"

"Not that I'm aware of."

"Okay. Uh, sorry about this. I'm going to call the phone company and try to get the charges removed--- you should probably do the same thing. Otherwise, knowing these jerks? They'll just keep doing it."

"Well, thank you for calling. I really -- Clark, you put that cookie back this instant, dinner's in half an hour! Honestly... I really appreciate your help in trying to figure this out."


"I'm sorry, I was talking to my son. Who does *not* need more sugar in his system."

"Your son's name is *Clark*?!"

"Yes, it is. Why? You sound upset---"

"I'm going to kill her. I'm going to shake her until her tiny teenage brain cells rattle, ground her until she's seventy, and then I'm going. To. KILL. Her!"

"*Excuse* me?"

"Buffy, what's wrong?"

"My sister's just trying to put my blood pressure through the stratosphere again, that's all... Mrs. Kent, do you know, I mean--- has your son mentioned anyone named Dawn to you?"

".... Oh, dear. Clark, you get back down here! Right now!"

"You are so right, 'oh dear.' I can't believe this. I can't believe she *did* this."

"Miss Summers, I am so sorry. I had no idea--- he'd mentioned Dawn to us, but the way he talked about her, I thought she was a new student at Smallville High. And I certainly didn't know he was calling her long distance."

"Mom? What's up?"

"Plenty. Want to take a look at this phone bill, and see if there's anything you need to tell me about?"

"Dawn said he was helping her with her math homework. And she was giving him girlfriend advice. I thought *he* was the new kid *here*."

"Martha? What's going on?"

"Your son has made a little mistake with his phone charges. What do you have to say for yourself, young man?"

"... Oops? And, I'm very, very sorry and it'll never happen again? Ever?"

"'Oops' my foot, and darn right it won't. Look at this, Jonathan."

"Whoa. How on earth...?"

"I guess Dawn and I kind of lost track of time. We've just had a lot to talk about, lately... and she's really cool...."

"Mrs. Kent?"

"Yes, Miss Summers, I'm still here. I'm sorry for the distraction. My son is trying to cute his way out of this."

"I'm not! Well, not much...."

"Could you ask him how he knows my sister in the first place? Because if she's making new friends through the internet chat rooms, that's a whole 'nother argument I need to have with her."

"Hang on, I'll ask him...."

"I'll tell her about Moloch again, if that'll help."

"... Fat chance. I think she's been kidnapped too many times to be scared when she should be, the little psycho...."

"Clark, Dawn's sister wants to know how you and Dawn became friends. Did you meet online? I thought you understood why we didn't want you to trust people you've never met personally---"

"Ummmm... That's kind of .... "


"Son, now is not the time to be stonewalling us. Where did you meet this Dawn?"

"See, the thing is? I've already been punished for how Dawn and I met, but... I'm not sure she ever told her sister about it."


"Clark, you're not making any sense. Just tell us the truth. You won't be getting your friend into any more trouble."

"Actually, I kind of will be. And I don't want to. But since it's already mostly out in the open... Remember what happened before Christmas? When I sort of freaked out and, uh, left town?"


"I met Dawn in Denver. Right before Lex got there."

"Okay. So why wouldn't her sister know about this?"

"Because she was running away too and then this guy who's a friend of her sister's showed up and took her home, and I don't think they ever told Buffy about it because Dawn was supposed to be on a camp out, and she didn't want to get her sister upset or get in trouble and I think... I think they kind of just ... never mentioned it. To her. Buffy, I mean."

"Oh, *dear*."

"Aw, Clark...."

"I'll pay for the phone bill, Dad, I swear...."

"Mrs. Kent? What's he saying?"

"I think you need to have a little talk with your sister, dear."

"That bad?"

"It wasn't in the internet chat rooms. And, well... my son has never been to California. In fact, the farthest west he's ever been is Denver. Right before Christmas."

"Oh God. Oh, *God*. Are you saying---"

"I *really* think you should be discussing this with your sister, Miss Summers."

"I'm not just going to kill her. I'm going to *eviscerate* her... Well not really, of course. I just can't believe she... Thank you for clearing this up, Mrs. Kent. I have to go find my sister and interrogate her now. Possibly with hot lights and a truth serum. I'm so, so sorry about your phone bill. It won't happen again. Dawn's never going to be allowed near a phone again for the rest of her natural life, however long that is."

"Well, I've got a teenager here who's looking at the same thing, at least for the next two weeks. I think the blame is pretty equally distributed in this case."

"Aww, Mom... C'mon, it was an accident... Mostly...."

"Don't even try, Clark. I'm very annoyed with your behavior right now."

"Let her cool off before you mount a defense, son. Especially since we both know you *know* better than this."

"Thank you for being so understanding, Mrs. Kent. I just... I'm really, really sorry. I have to go."

"That's okay, dear. Please explain to Dawn why she won't be hearing from my son for a while."

"Yeah. I'll do that. Tell Clark the same thing, okay?"

"I certainly will. Good-bye. And remember, she had help in this little fiasco. Try not to be too hard on her."

"Right. Like that's possible... Good-bye, Mrs. Kent."

"Good-bye, Miss Summers."

< click >
< click >

Willow was watching her anxiously as Buffy slowly replaced the phone receiver, still furious. "Well? What did they say? Where did Dawn meet her friend Clark?"

"I still don't know that, but the bad news is? It wasn't online. And Clark Kent's never been west of the Mississippi. Or, wait. Which side of the Mississippi is Kansas on? It's another one of those stupid square states, right? So that's in the middle part---" Buffy scowled, distracted, trying to remember which square one was next to Iowa, then she gave up. "Whatever, he's never been past Denver. Which is nowhere *near* California."

"Oh." Willow blinked, then blinked again, her face reflecting the shock and horror buried way down underneath Buffy's anger. "Oh! Oh, no. You mean Dawn..."

"I mean she has some 'splaining to do, and I must be even more blind and clueless than I thought, if she managed to meet a boy from Kansas somewhere else completely while my back was turned." She crumpled the phone bill up in one hand, then stopped to straighten it out with short, choppy gestures, wishing she could tear it to pieces. Too bad the phone company would just print out another one. Too bad it wasn't five minutes ago, when she'd just been annoyed at Warren and the Goof Squad, instead of half-ready to threaten her sister with a good staking. "God, Will, I am going to strangle her if she tries to lie her way out of this. Or lock her in the basement until she's ready for menopause.... How could I *miss* this? How stupid am I? I can't believe---"

"Calm down, okay? She won't tell you *anything* if you come over all Spanish Inquisition," Willow interrupted, sounding like the pre-meltdown Willow of a few months ago again. NormalWillow kept peeking out from behind StressWillow the last few weeks, which was great. Buffy only wished NormalDawn hadn't decided to leave the building in the meantime, and possibly Sunnydale, without telling her about it. Willow patted her on the arm. "Just let her tell her side of it first. You can do the cross-examining if she clams up."

Which was very good advice. And it wasn't like she was stupid. "I know, I know. Calm. Mature. Understanding Buffy. This is me, being Wise and Sensible Big Sister. Ready to listen and advise. Yup."

Willow was giving her a 'humor-the-loony' look. "Uh-hunh."


Will winced and pointed. "You kind of... crushed the receiver, there. Maybe you should wait until your fingers unclench before you talk to her."

"Damnit." Buffy stared at the phone and the broken casing, then slammed it back down into the cradle. "Damnit! You know what? Screw understanding. She's at the Magic Box helping Anya. Maybe the presence of witnesses will keep me from losing it. And if not, at least I won't be destroying any more of *our* stuff when I freak out."

Nodding carefully, Willow followed her as she stomped toward the front door, snagging her purse on the way. "Sounds like a plan. I'll drive, okay? 'Cause you should probably practice that breathing thing on the way there."

"Right." Dawn was *not* going to make her crazy. She was *not* going to make Buffy lose her temper. And she would not, no, definitely not, mess this up. Dawn was going to see reason, tell the truth, and explain everything, because she could handle this. She was the grown-up, damnit. And nothing the little twerp could say was going to change that.



It was at times like these that Martha honestly forgot Clark was adopted.

"What we don't understand is *why*, Clark. Okay, so you lost track of how much time you were spending on the phone with this girl. And you just forgot to mention it to us, however flaky that was." Jonathan grimaced and shook his head. "But why did you need to talk to a friend in California for over thirty hours this month anyway? What could you possibly have to talk about that was that important?"

"That's... really complicated." The guilty look on Clark's face was the *exact* same one that Jonathan got when he tracked grease into the house after working on his motorcycle for umpteen hours. How was that possible? And how could it provoke the same mix of love and exasperation if they weren't related, especially when Clark was over twenty years younger and at least had adolescence as an excuse?

Maybe that old myth about adoptive families starting to look like each other wasn't that far off after all.

Jonathan smiled grimly at their son and leaned forward on the kitchen table. "Explain it slowly, the old people will try to follow along."

"You're really mad at me, aren't you."

Martha sighed. "Your dad and I aren't mad at you, Clark." He raised his eyebrows disbelievingly at her in an expression she'd seen in the mirror just last week, and she felt her mouth twitch. "Well, we are about the phone bill. But mostly we're concerned. We don't want you keeping things from us---that's what led to you taking off for a week in December." Half his friends in the hospital being treated for burns and smoke inhalation, she and Jonathan worried out of their minds that he'd gone so silent and sad, reporters pestering everyone in sight, and he decided to try and deal with his confusion on his own... Clark just had to imitate Jonathan in the *worst* ways, didn't he? "We want to *help*. Please, just tell us what's going on."

"Okay. So... Umm...." Clark frowned hard, then took a deep breath and dived in, glancing from her to Jonathan and back, his expression nervous but basically as sincere as her intrinsically honest son was capable of. "I met Dawn in Denver right before Lex found me, and... I was still pretty confused. And the thing was, was that she was just as confused as me. She was having a rough time at home, and she... she got it." He shrugged uncomfortably, and dropped his eyes to the tabletop. "All of the stuff I was going through, about being a freak, and feeling like things were my fault---"

"It wasn't your fault, son. None of the disasters that happen in Smallville are because of you. You know that." Jonathan's hands clenched in frustration, and Martha put one hand over his, rubbing his knuckles.

The boy who'd set the fire had been using some kind of fuel he derived from the meteor rocks; and no matter how many times they told Clark that he wasn't responsible for the shower, or what happened after it, it was clear he'd never quite accepted it. Maybe it was easier for him to think it was his fault in some way than it was to think about the sheer random chance that had brought him to Smallville; easier to cope with all he *didn't* know. Whenever Martha thought about the meteor shower, very late at night, she ended up shuddering at the places a tiny rocket ship could have landed instead of an empty corn field. And at the people who might have found Clark instead of herself and Jonathan.

"I know. I do know that." The earnestness on their son's face wasn't faked, but she knew it wasn't all of his thoughts on the subject. "But Dawn---when she said it, it almost made sense, you know? Because she didn't have to. So... we hung out. And, I kind of felt like... I helped her too. There was a lot of junk she said she couldn't talk to her family about either. We just got to be friends real fast."

"So you stayed in contact after you came home. That's understandable." Jonathan blew out a slow breath, unclenching his hands. "But you aren't---Clark, you aren't talking to her about what bothers you instead of us, or your other friends, are you? Just because she isn't here, and that makes it easier to keep secrets from her?"

"No! Well, not really. Not at all. Except...." Clark bit his lip and looked from Jonathan to Martha and then back, and recognizing the expression she steeled herself for whatever new surprise Clark was going to reveal. Last time it had been seeing through walls....

"What? Go on. It's okay, Clark," she encouraged him.

"See, I had to talk to somebody when Dad was in jail, and about the blackmail and Phelan--- but I couldn't talk to Chloe because she wasn't speaking to me, and I couldn't tell Pete or Lana or Lex the whole truth. And even if I had told any of them, like if I told Lex maybe, they might've done something that would've gotten them in trouble with Phelan too...."

"And? What has that got to do with---"

"Dawn knows about me," Clark blurted out, then winced.

"Knows what?" Jonathan stared at their son, while Martha covered her face with her hands, shaking her head.

It had to happen eventually. But she'd never known what she was going to say when it did. It was amazing, in one way, that Clark had never told anyone in the last twelve years that he was different. Even Phelan's discovery of his special abilities didn't cover this. "Oh, Clark..."

"Wait a minute. She *knows* about you? How did that happen? Clark!" The outrage in Jonathan's voice made her drop her hands, because now was *not* the time to stay in shock.


"I knew you'd freak." Clark was kicking the chair supports, which he only did when upset; the rest of the time he *knew* he could break one if he wasn't careful. Martha reached out for his hand, giving it a squeeze, and he stopped, shooting her a grateful look.

"I think we're justified in 'freaking'! After what we just went through with that--- *cop*---" Jonathan had used much less restrained language when he'd finally been released from jail, but not in their son's hearing. Her own swearing had been confined to a blue streak while alone in the car, in tears just after the arrest. Either way, the memory of the Metropolis detective's attempted blackmail was far too fresh for Clark's little revelation to be welcome news to either of them.

"She's nothing like Phelan! And I didn't tell her, she just--- figured it out." Clark shrugged helplessly again, giving them his most appealing look, his voice speeding up as he went on. "She saw me do something, and... I tried to lie, I tried to tell her she had it wrong, but she didn't believe me. She just knew. What was I supposed to do?"

"Well, you should've told us, for starters." Jonathan shook his head in reproach, and Clark ducked his head again. "I don't think you appreciate how serious this is. What if she's told someone about you? What if---"

"I do too appreciate it!" Clark's head shot up in protest, and his jaw clenched with a stoniness to match his father's. "I get it. Especially after two weeks ago, I get it. And that's why being friends with Dawn is so... cool. She doesn't *care*." He leaned forward, looking from Jonathan to Martha pleadingly, his hands clenching and unclenching with excess emotion. "She honestly doesn't. She treats me exactly the same way Chloe and Pete do, but I don't have to lie to her. She gets what it's like to be different, and she gets what it's like for *me* to be different, and she still likes me. She's funny and awesome and she's my friend. She hasn't told anyone and she's not going to." He swallowed and leaned back, defensive and fifteen again now that he'd made his point. "And, and, uh... that's it, I guess."

Jonathan glanced at her and raised a 'what do *you* think?' eyebrow; Martha rolled her eyes, giving him a tiny shake of her head. Jonathan pursed his lips and glared half-heartedly at Clark.

Who tried to smile innocently and hopefully at them both. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about her sooner. And I'm *completely* sorry about the phone bill. I'll pay it out of my savings." Jonathan snorted in agreement, and Martha just managed to stop herself from making some comment on the patently obvious. "But please don't ask me to stop being friends with Dawn."

She glanced at Jonathan and tapped her fingers on the table, shrugging her shoulders slowly and tilting her head in consideration. Jonathan rubbed his eyes and grimaced. When he looked at her again, she bit her lower lip and raised her eyebrows, and Jonathan sighed.

When you'd been married over fifteen years, you didn't need any kind of special powers to read each others' minds. And it was obvious to both of them that this friendship meant too much to Clark to outright forbid it. It wouldn't have worked with Lex Luthor; it wasn't going to work now. Martha just hoped that his attachment to the girl wasn't something that would come back and bite them later.

Jonathan gave a long, loud sigh. ".... All right. We're not going to do that. You can stay friends with this Dawn."

"Jonathan---" A token protest would keep Clark from thinking his parents were going easy on him, and make sure he understood *why* they were trusting him.

"Think about it, honey. This girl's known about Clark for over a month, and she hasn't told her own sister about him. Obviously, Clark can trust her." Jonathan's brows came down in a stern look at their son, who shifted in his seat. "I'm not real thrilled that she's got him keeping stuff from us as well---"

"I just didn't think it was important. Not really important. I mean, she's in California. It's not like I see her every day," Clark protested.

Martha crossed her arms and joined in the glaring. "No, but you've been *talking* to her nearly every day."

A blush worked its way up Clark's face, and he dropped his eyes again. Half guilt, and half embarrassment, she diagnosed. For a boy who was smart enough to calculate their mortgage interest rate without a calculator, Clark sometimes had stunning lapses in judgment. "Um, well... yeah...."

"But that's not the point. The point is... this is important to you. But no more secrets!" She took his hand again, giving it a squeeze of reassurance. "Is there anything you're leaving out? Something else that Dawn's sister should know about, for instance?"

Clark shook his head, relaxing again. "There's one or two other things I'm not telling you, but it's all personal stuff about Dawn, and her sister already knows all that."

"You're sure?" Jonathan's eyes narrowed in consideration, and Clark nearly nodded his head off in his eagerness to answer.

"Yes! I'm sure. I just--- I can't tell you guys secrets she told me, can I?" he asked, his shoulders lifting helplessly. "That wouldn't be fair."

Martha stifled a smile. "He's got a point."

"I guess. It doesn't seem like he should be able to have a point right now, but..." Jonathan rumbled, disgruntled.

"But since we're admitting you have a point, Clark...." She paused, making sure he was looking at her before she went on, her voice serious. "You have to accept that there are going to be no more long distance phone calls for at least two weeks."

"Two weeks? Awww..." For all the whining, the look in Clark's eyes was half relief, and Martha let herself smile at him.

"Have a little mercy on our phone lines, son. You can email her or whatever else you've been doing to talk to her regularly." Jonathan rolled his shoulders in irritation, shaking his head as Clark slumped in his chair. "But the constant calls have to stop. You can talk on the weekends when the rates are down, but you're going to have to pay for the calls. *After* you pay us back for the ones you already made."


"Assuming her family ever lets her talk to *you* again. Her sister sounded absolutely furious about their phone bill," Martha observed, raising her eyebrows.

Jonathan pursed his lips in bemusement "Seriously, how did the two of you not notice how much time you were spending talking on the phone?"

"I dunno. We just didn't." Clark looked sheepish again, his voice plaintive. "She's really easy to talk to."

Jonathan rolled his eyes but didn't comment beyond an "Uh-hunh." For which she was grateful; any more questioning would only make their son withdraw into further self-consciousness. Clark was always so aware of doing the right thing, and in the grand scheme of things, one phone bill was pretty darn minor. Sometimes Jonathan didn't know when to let things go, though.

"Well, whatever the reason, I'm glad we got this cleared up. And I hope you know you can still talk to us about anything that's bothering you, sweetheart," she added, patting Clark's hand.

"I do. Really, I do," he repeated, smiling at them hopefully. "Can I talk to Dawn one last time before we're on phone probation, though? I just want to make sure she knows I didn't mean to tell on her about running away."

Martha smiled and exchanged a rueful glance with Jonathan. "I think we'll leave that up to her family, okay? I'll give them a call tomorrow to let them know about the length of your punishment. Just so there's no confusion on their end."

"Okay... am I in any more trouble?" Clark asked, getting up from the table.

"No, I think we can agree that this was mostly a mistake, and not a real screw-up... but we'll talk about the phone bill again when you get your allowance," Jonathan added significantly.

"Uh, right." Their son made a face and shrugged in resignation. "I'm gonna go over to Lex's now, if that's okay. We're supposed to be playing pool--- and I'm real sorry I worried you guys. Again," he said soberly, looking from Martha to Jonathan, green eyes solemn.

"We know. It's fine. Don't keep Lex waiting," she added as he put on his jacket.

"Oh, he can do that...." Jonathan muttered, then at her admonishing look, rolled his eyes and raised his voice. "Be back by ten, son."

"I will. 'Bye." One quick wide grin of relief, and a whooosh! as Clark zipped out the door, barely giving her time to call out a farewell before the door slammed behind him.

"Bye, honey."

Jonathan slumped back in his chair, his expression relaxing into one less stern and more worried. "So. Do you think he told us everything?"

"I'm pretty sure he did." She leaned her chin on her hands and frowned. "I think he really did just forget what he was doing. It's been a busy month. But I wish we knew more about this girl and her situation. Why she ran away, if her reasons were more or less serious than his." She shook her head and folded her hands, meeting Jonathan's eyes and seeing her own fears reflected there. "And I don't like that she knows so much about Clark."

"Me either... You don't think it's... I don't know. Something more than friendship, between them?" Jonathan asked hesitantly, his tone uncomfortable.

She shook her head, feeling that she was at least on certain ground on *that* subject. "You know how hung up he is on Lana. I don't think he'd still be trying to ask her out if he was thinking about some girl in California."

"I guess not."

"When did everything with our son get so complicated, Jonathan?" She wished she could pin down when she'd stopped worrying about Clark's physical safety more than she worried about him emotionally. Some time in the last year, maybe when they told him about the ship in the storm cellar, everything became more--- intense. Like they were walking on a knife edge that they didn't dare fall off, because the consequences to Clark could be so catastrophic. Having to give the right answers to every question for fear of what he would do if he went off half-cocked, or got some wild idea to--- well, run off to Denver. For example.

"When *weren't* things complicated with Clark?" Jonathan rubbed a hand over his face and then through his hair. "He's growing up, honey. Turning into his own person. We just have to make sure he knows he can tell us what he's going through."

"Sometimes I wonder if this is all too hard on him." She got up from the table and stretched, turning away from her husband with a sigh. "Keeping all these secrets from his friends. Maybe this is a good thing," she added, turning back to Jonathan. "Having someone his own age who he can talk to about being--- different." If his new friend didn't let him down, and if the girl appreciated what she had in him. And if whatever had sent Dawn Summers running from her home didn't reach out for Clark.

The doubt and fear in Jonathan's face wasn't completely overshadowed by his half-hearted smile. "Maybe. We can hope so."

"Time will tell, I guess." Nothing more to be done, except be ready for the worst. Although she'd long ago given up imagining what that would be with Clark. "Do you want some dessert?"

"There's dessert?"

"Oreo cookie pie. Clark was in such a hurry he forgot to ask about it."

"Yeah, definitely. That's not going to happen again soon." Jonathan smirked as he got up from the table, and she swatted him on the arm.

"Are you begrudging your son his share of the pie?"

"His share, no. His share *and* my share? Oh yeah." Jonathan grinned at her, the grin their son smiled when he was especially, obnoxiously pleased with himself, and as usual, she couldn't help but smile back. "You ever think his appetite's never going to stop growing?"

"Occasionally. Then I remember what *you* still eat." She shook her head tolerantly. "Get the plates down, I'll cut you an extra-large slice."

"You are a wonderful, understanding woman. Who makes great pies," her husband told her very seriously, his arms going around her as he reached for the plates over her head.

"Keep it up, and I'll put whipped cream on it too."

Whatever else happened, Martha was infinitely grateful that she wasn't trying to do this alone. Clark nearly had them outnumbered as it was--- if Jonathan weren't there to lean on, it would have been impossible. And she couldn't believe it would've been any easier if Clark *hadn't* been special/different/unlike every other kid. Briefly, she wondered about his friend's family, and if it was any easier for them.

But only briefly. Fighting off Jonathan's whipped cream attack kept her too busy to dwell on it for very long. Honestly, there were times she wondered who the teenager in the house actually was....



Anya didn't glance up from the cash register at the sound of the Magic Box's welcoming bell, but she did paste a huge smile on her face and wave at Buffy and Willow, her usual spiel unspooling before she even saw who stood in the doorway. "Good afternoon, customers! Welcome to the Magic--- oh, it's you two."

Willow rolled her eyes and caught the door Buffy had flung open, easing it gently shut. "Good to see you too, Anya. Niiiice attitude."

Buffy stomped over to the counter, glaring around the store since her delinquent sister was nowhere in sight. "Where is she?"

Anya ignored her question in favor of shooting Willow a quelling look. "You'd be disappointed to see your friends as well, if the rain had kept your rightful customers from shopping all day. It's almost like an evil plot, the way the weather is cutting into the profit margin. You should do something about this," she added matter-of-factly, finally glancing at Buffy before she went back to organizing the money in the till.

Buffy gaped at her, then shook her head, trying to clear it. "I what? Anya, I'm not in charge of the rain. Or making sure it doesn't. I'm the Slayer. Not the Cloud-Killer. Get over it. Now, where's Dawn?"

Anya shrugged, still looking vaguely irritable. "She's in the basement, stocking the shelves. We just got a new shipment of mandrake and mint leaves. As well as musk ox glands."

Buffy gritted her teeth and held onto her patience with all ten fingernails, since being annoyed at Anya was not the priority it usually would be. "Could you get her up here? Please? It's kind of important."

"I suppose. Since your refusal to deal with Mother Nature's snit-fit means I have no customers to wait on," the ex-vengeance demon sniffed, before shutting the cash drawer and going in search of Dawn.

Willow drifted over to the counter and perched on a nearby stool, her expression uneasy as she watched the Slayer begin to pace the length of the counter. "Calm, Buffy. Remember? Mature and wise older sister? Understanding, listening?"

"Not killing. *Not* maiming. Not even gonna be yelling," she answered, her arms crossed and a finger tapping on her arm. "Nope. Not me. But anything more is questionable."

"Well, good." Willow sighed, then muttered in what was probably supposed to be an inaudible tone, "'Cause we wouldn't want Dawn to be defensive and all...."

The sound of her sister's bouncy footsteps made Buffy tense up before she consciously relaxed the muscles in her shoulders and turned around, and the bright smile Dawn greeted her with was, for once, no help.

"Hey guys. What's going on?"

"Hey Dawnie. Uh, Buffy got the phone bill today---" Willow said hesitantly, before Buffy cut in, scowling at her now-wary sister.

"---and you are in a world of trouble, young lady."

Dawn blinked and crossed her arms, mirroring Buffy's posture, striking an aggrieved pose. "What? What'd I do? Why are you glaring at me like I stole your best slay-boots?"

"Why don't you take a look at these numbers on the bill, and *you* tell *me*," Buffy said significantly, handing the abused piece of paper over to Dawn.

The expression on her sister's face went from confusion, to growing understanding and chagrin, with a quick fade into would-be nonchalant, ruined by her quick swallow before she spoke. "Oh. Hunh.... So. What's with all the calls to Kansas? Looks wrong to me. Maybe it's a mistake," she added, handing the bill back to Buffy and studiously avoiding her eyes.

"Don't _even_ try to pull that on me, Dawn Elizabeth Summers." Buffy could feel her previously simmering temper start to boil to the surface. "I already called the number. And talked to the very nice mother of the guy you've been yakking with non-stop since just after New Year's." Dawn's face flushed with guilt, and that was all it took for Buffy's temper to snap. "What were you *thinking*? You know we can't afford a phone bill like this!"

"I'm sorry---"

"Sorry? It's two hundred and twelve dollars!"

Willow leaned forward and patted Dawn on the arm, sending the Slayer a warning look. "Buffy? About the not-yelling? You're getting close to the edge, there."

She cut off what she'd been about to say, and gulped on an indrawn breath. "...'kay. Deep breaths. Right...." Another two breaths, and when she could trust herself to speak again, her voice was level. "Dawn. It's two hundred and twelve dollars. We *can't* afford this. You know that. You're not a little kid."

"I'll pay you back, honest I will." Dawn's face was a study in real guilt, which at least addressed whether she'd been dumb or selfish: just dumb. Which didn't soothe Buffy as much as it probably should have. "I just forgot. I didn't think we were talking that much."

"How could you not know?" It was mind-boggling how Dawn could live in her own little world like she did, it really was. "I can't believe---" Buffy caught Willow's eyes, and the raised-eyebrow wincing on her friend's face forced her to take another mental step back. "Deep breathing. Deep, deep breathing...." She would *not* lose it. She *would* listen to what Dawn was saying. *Then* she'd ground her forever.

"We just had a lot to talk about. And some of it was an emergency, Clark had this really big problem a week or so ago, with his dad, and this guy, and he really needed to vent to someone," Dawn explained, her eyes fixed on Buffy's with brimming sincerity. It almost would have been enough to calm her down, if Buffy hadn't had a second reason to be absolutely ballistic about Dawn's behavior. "But it's all okay now, and I'll be careful, and we won't do this again. I'm sorry if the bill made you stressed." She frowned at her pacing sister. "Well, more stressed."

Buffy drew a deep, deep breath, and nodded thoughtfully as she came to a stop in front of her sister. "You know, that would all be reassuring and extremely grown-up of you, if I hadn't asked Mrs. Kent how you knew Clark."

She could actually *feel* a vein in her head start to throb as Dawn's eyes widened, a tiny sound escaping her as her entire body instinctively froze. "Oh...."

Buffy smiled at her with no humor at all, her tone the cheerily calm one which she usually addressed vampires in before she staked them. "At first I was all worried that maybe you'd met this boy in a chatroom, no matter *how* many times we've told you about Moloch and Malcolm and the other ax-murderers that hang out on the 'Net---"

"That is *such* a myth, most of the people on-line are really cool---" Dawn broke in desperately, trying to sound outraged.

Fake outrage lost out to *real* outrage every time, though. "---but then, she told me that Clark admitted it hadn't been on-line. So I knew that wasn't it."

"Uhhh...." The little wheels in her sister's brain weren't spinning as fast as Dawn wanted them to, that was for sure.

"And then she said that her son hasn't ever been to California. In fact, he's barely been out of Kansas. Don't you think that's interesting?" Buffy waited a second, giving Dawn an inquiring look, to which her sister responded with weakly raised eyebrows. "Considering that as far as I know, you haven't been out of California in about six years. 'As far as I know' being the important part."

"Ummm.... well, you see... it's like... umm...." Dawn looked to Willow for support, or maybe a reprieve, then to a not-unsympathetic Anya, then sent a pleading glance back to her sister.

Buffy was not inclined to help her out. "It's like what, Dawn? Tell me what it's like." She took a step forward into Dawn's personal space, her voice rising. "Tell me what's going on with you. Tell me where you were when you met this boy that you've been spending hours and hours with talking on the phone!"

Willow stood up and put a hand on her arm, pulling Buffy away from her flinching sister. "Spanish Inquisition, Buffy. And try to breathe, okay?"

"... It isn't... you don't...." An arms' length away and Dawn regained her attitude, glaring at Buffy again with a toss of her head. "I *knew* you were going to be like this, that's why---"

"Like what? Scared? Wigged? Furious? Worried out of my mind that you've done something dangerous and stupid and didn't tell me about it?" Buffy demanded, leaning forward before Will tugged her back a step again. "Right, I know, Willow. Breathing." She was going to lose her mind if Dawn didn't *tell* her something soon, she knew it. "Deep breathing." How could her sister just stand there and glare at her like that? Didn't Dawn *get* it?

Determined to be the adult, Buffy turned away and closed her eyes. "Holding my breath until I'm not mad, watch me...."

Her eyes were still clenched tightly shut ten seconds later when the door to the shop opened and the bell rang.

"Good after--- oh. What do you want?" Anya sounded annoyed, and Buffy's eyes popped open.

Oh, God. It *would* be him. Wonderful. Could this get any worse?

"Lovely to see you too, ducks." Spike wasn't sporting his sunny-day blanket, so she didn't even have the fun of watching him look stupid when he crawled out from under it. His eyes narrowed when he saw her, then he raised his eyebrows as he stalked forward. "Never mind me. Just stopping off to pick up the extra blood I left here, since we've got a rainy day to be out in...." He paused directly in front of her, a smile flirting around the edges of his mouth. Buffy fought back the urge to smack him on general principles. "Why is the Slayer standing here holding her breath and crossing her eyes like a Vigala demon?"

Willow spoke up and dragged Dawn another step out of the line of fire. "Uh, we're kind of in the middle of a crisis. Maybe you should go."

"Hey, Spike," Dawn added, giving him a little wave when Buffy glowered at her.

"Lo, 'bit. Crisis?" Spike asked, tilting his head to watch her like she was a sideshow attraction. Too mad to think of a comeback for the Vigala crack, and half-afraid of what she'd do if she spoke, Buffy settled for another death-glare.

"I'm sort of... in a lot of trouble," Dawn muttered.

"What'd she find out about?"

Okay, that was it. Buffy half-choked as she took in a deep breath of air. "What do you mean, what did she find out about? There's more than one thing to find out about?" she demanded, scowling from an amused Spike to a trying-to-disappear-into-the-floor Dawn. "And why do you know stuff about Dawn that I need to find out about, when I don't?"

It was totally unreasonable, the way he stayed so calm in the face of Slayer wrath. See what happens when you sleep with the enemy, Buffy? she thought irritably. They lose all terror of you. Damnit.

"Didn't say that. Just askin'. I don't know anything you have to know about," Spike responded. Buffy couldn't tell if he was protesting too much or not, so she turned back to the source of the commotion with another glare.

"Says you.... Fine. Dawn, I want an answer."

"Hmm?" Dawn had been watching her and Spike with an odd look on her face, and now she was trying for innocent. "I lost track of the question."

"You want to play it like that? Okay." Buffy put her hands on her hips and paced forward. "Where were you when you met your good friend Clark? When did you meet him? And why didn't you tell me?"

Dawn stuck out her chin and almost pouted at her. "I didn't tell you because you were practically having a nervous breakdown, okay? Ever since you came back, you've been like this. I knew you'd get upset, I knew you'd get mad and blame yourself---"

"Right now, I'm leaning towards blaming you. I just don't know what I'm blaming you for." She was *not* breaking down. She'd just been a little... detached, lately.

Her sister ignored the interruption, her rant gaining speed. "---and it all worked out, I didn't get hurt, you didn't even *notice*, and it wasn't anything about you, okay? I just----" For the first time, Dawn showed some guilt, and her voice kind of trailed off as she shrugged. "I had to go away, for a little while...."

"You ran away." She'd known that. She *had*. But faced with the bare statement, it was like a punch in the gut. "Oh. Ohhh. Kay. Owww... So this is a heart attack."

Dawn took a couple steps forward, her arms waving as the guilty babbling sped up again. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry I didn't mean to hurt you or scare you so I didn't want to tell you after I came back and I know it was stupid---"

"Try suicidal! Try crazy!" Didn't *mean* to scare her? What would Dawn have done if she'd *really* wanted to freak her out? "Try *dangerous*, Dawn, you have no idea what could've happened to you out there---"

Her sister flushed, her voice going for its bratty worst. "Oh, like it's SO much more dangerous than all the stuff that's happened to me right here in Sunnydale!"

She really wasn't getting it, was she? Buffy shook her head, aghast and disbelieving. "At least when you're here I can protect you! You have people who love you and want to look out for you, how could you run away from us---"

"The same way you could, three years ago!" Dawn's face went white in response to whatever Buffy's expression was; she had no idea what was showing on her face. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Willow straighten in alarm, and Spike go even more still than before.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Buffy, don't look at me like that. I didn't meant that. It wasn't---" Dawn's shoulders dropped, and her eyes were begging her to understand, but Buffy was too overwhelmed with guilt and shame to respond to it. "It wasn't about you. Or anybody here. I just---it was Christmas, and everything was wrong, and--- I was...I missed Mom."

"You....oh.... " She really *was* screwing up, wasn't she? They'd barely talked about Mom before Christmas. Putting up her mom's ornaments, and sadly avoiding looking at the smaller pile of packages under the tree, Buffy'd had no idea what to say. So she'd stayed silent; they'd hesitantly, in fits and starts, talked about how they missed her over New Year's. But it had taken her forever to work up to it, while Dawn was hurting and wanting to talk. Great. Just... great.

"I missed Mom and I hated being here, and I wanted to be somewhere else, okay? I ditched the camp out with Lisa and Janice and I got on a bus. I wanted to go to New York. Or Atlantic City. Somewhere new. Only it wasn't as much fun as I thought it would be. So I came home. And that's all." Dawn folded her arms, her eyes fixed on her shoes, and Buffy stared at her helplessly, torn by the urge to hug her hard or scream in outrage that she'd been so reckless. Did she just completely miss the *point* of the Lost Summer of '98? Had Dawn actually thought Buffy thought that was a *good* plan?

Willow's sigh distracted her long enough to start the deep breathing again and refrain from sister-a-cide. "Oh, Dawnie."

Dawn glanced up at her then ducked her head again after a quick sideways look at Spike. "I couldn't have told you either, Willow. I didn't want to make things worse for you. You were having such a rough time---"

Buffy frowned, a twinge of memory from her own running-away sparking in her admittedly overtaxed brain. "Wait a second. How did you get enough money for a ticket?"

"Ummm...." Dawn-in-the-headlights. She was getting way sick of that look.

"She stole the money out of the shop's cash register."

"Anya!" Dawn whirled and stamped her foot in anger.

"You *knew* about this? And you didn't tell me!?" Buffy demanded, feeling the floor get cut out from under her again. *More* stuff she didn't pick up on.... Had she and Dawn even been living in the same house, these last few months?

"I didn't steal it, exactly---"

"As I told you before, Dawn, borrowing includes prior permission and a fixed rate of interest," Anya lectured her sister matter-of-factly. "You didn't obtain either before you raided the register." She shrugged and turned to Buffy with a long-suffering look that made the Slayer want to choke someone, although she had no idea who. Choking Anya would only have Willow and Spike dragging her off in about a second; and it wasn't Anya's fault. No. She knew whose fault it was.

"Dawn did give me back the money. And she only has one more week before she works off the balance of the damages for mental anguish and lost revenue. She's really become most helpful here at the shop."

"That's... that's why you've been here every weekend. I should have *realized*." Dawn liked Anya well enough, but not *that* much. The Xander Crush wasn't so far in the past that Dawn would spend all of her free time with someone who often annoyed her and who was currently planning on marrying him, with all the excruciating detail Anya was putting into it. "And I can't believe you, Anya! How could you keep this to yourself?"

Anya rolled her eyes, her tone pitying. "Because I agreed with Dawn and Spike. You were in no condition to handle additional ugly shocks."

What the... "Spike!?"

"Damn. Had to say it, didn't you?" he snapped at Anya, directing a hunted look at Buffy before moving out of punching range while she spluttered.

"Why should Dawn and I be the only ones in trouble?" Anya asked reasonably. "You were just as involved. And more people to blame gives the Slayer less anger to vent on *me*."

Somewhere in there, she'd found an extra set of vocal cords. "SPIKE!?"

"Don't be mad at him, Buffy! He went and brought me back, I begged him not to tell---" Dawn's protests were *not* inspiring mercy.

"You rat *bastard*. I can't---" Spike's careful backing away wasn't helping her self-control either. All this time, he'd known, while they were--- and he hadn't even *hinted* that Dawn was having problems--- "You *creep*, you knew she'd left, and you didn't tell me, you knew something was wrong and you didn't let me know---"

"Hey! I was looking out for you! For both of you." Righteousness always looked good on him, but she never, ever made the mistake of buying into it. "The 'bit was sorry, she learned her lesson, promised not to do it again... and you were trying to get a job and help the Witch through mystical de-tox. Plus, you were still all depressed with the Watcher being gone, and...."More appealing looks from the pest of her life; and no matter what kind of justifications he served up, her fingers still itched to hit him. ".... well, it didn't seem like you had to know, all right?"

"That doesn't matter, she could have been hurt, she could have been *killed*---"

"No, she couldn't! I followed her all the way to Denver---"

"Denver?! Oh my god. *Denver*." She'd guessed that, she *had*, but to hear it out loud was something else entirely. "That's, like, *days* away from here."

Spike was still 'explaining' over her mental break. "---all the way to Denver, she wasn't out of my sight once I caught up with her, and then I drove her back right quick. She's not stupid, you know. No close calls, no scares; she knows how to look out for herself. So stop thinking of what might'a happened. She's fine. She's safe."

Buffy gaped at him, appalled. "You just don't get it, do you? How can I trust you?" At his wounded glare, she turned back to Dawn. "*Either* of you. You met Clark in Denver, didn't you?"

"Yeah," Dawn bit her lower lip and squirmed a little. "He was running away too. His friend Lex found him right at the same time Spike found me."

"God, Dawn, I don't believe you." There was just no limit to the mess, was there? Was this how her mom had felt, when she'd finally told her about the Slayer deal? Wow, she hoped not. But it was just *so* likely... "Hanging out with some boy you don't know in a strange city--- what if he'd been dangerous? What if he'd been some kind of---"

"He wasn't, okay?" Her sister snorted and rolled her eyes, and Buffy choked back a strangled shriek of frustration. "Jeez, you act like I'm five and I wouldn't know a pervert if I met one. I've met enough evil people to tell, you know. He *saved* me from one, actually---"


"He did *what*?" So much for Spike's 'she can handle herself;' he sounded as shocked as she felt.

"... uh, guess I didn't mention that to you before, hunh?" Dawn's wince of guilt was so much more about getting caught out than about everything else she'd done that Buffy glanced at Willow, just to make sure she'd heard that right. Her best friend grimaced in sympathy, and Buffy threw her hands up in exasperation at Dawn's total lack of comprehension of the danger she'd been risking.

Spike was taking over scolding duties for the second where she did a reality check. "You damn bloody well did not. That kid stood up for you?...He's got more balls than I would've thought."

Dawn shrugged in amusement. "Well, it wasn't a real pervert. Just a creep who tried to pick me up---"

"I so don't want to hear this, do I? More material for my nightmares. Like I don't have enough," Buffy muttered under her breath.

"---but it was okay, because Clark stepped in, even though I didn't need his help, really, and the security guard hauled the guy off. And that's how we made friends," Dawn added eagerly while Buffy just *stared* at her. It was all okay? It was fine because someone saved her? Well, maybe if you were Dawn, it was. Never mind what *could* have happened. "And he's completely cool and nice and sweet, and he's totally helped me pass Math, I'd *so* be getting a D now if it weren't for him---" Maybe the look Buffy was giving her was finally registering with her, because she almost stuttered to a halt, then straightened and defiantly added, "---and he kind of talked me into coming home, too. So you shouldn't be mad at him either."

"I can be as mad at him as I want." Buffy was proud of herself that she wasn't yelling. There would be no point; she'd gone so far past furious that it was a dot receding in the distance. As faraway as Denver, maybe. "I can be mad enough to tell you that you're never allowed to talk to him again---"

"No! You can't! That's *completely* unfair!" Dawn's fists clenched and she surged forward, clearly wanting to hit Buffy.

And just like that, she was screaming, all her fear and anger coming out in an attempt to get through to Dawn. "---or at least for a year! Or two! Or a long long time! You've been lying to me, you ran away, you ran up a monster phone bill---"

"Breathing, Buffy. Come on, take a break and try it. Just for a minute."

"The witch is right. You're gonna hurt yourself in a second," Spike said, stepping between her and Dawn.

Buffy barely noticed, her attention focused on her pale and shaking sister. "---and right now I can't think of what kind of punishment will convince you to behave! If Social Services found out, they could take you away, do you *realize* that? How am I supposed to handle this? I can't even count all of the lies and the secrets you've been keeping, Dawn, I don't know what to say to you, I just --- do you even understand why I'm angry? Do you even care?" she asked, breathing hard.

"I care. I care...." Dawn's face crumpled, screwing up like it had when she was an injured three-year-old. "But you can't, you can't, I won't---"

"Oh, God. Don't. Don't cry, Dawn. Please. I can't take it...." This was her fault. She'd let her sister down, and she'd had to run away, and now she'd freaked out because Buffy was shrieking at her like a crazy person. A gasp escaped her and Buffy realized she was crying too, hot tears of frustration dripping into her mouth. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell at you. I wanted to be calm. You're just scaring me so much---" She reached out for Dawn, wanting to touch her, comfort her, hold her in place----

And Dawn slapped her hand away, her voice cracking and then rising with hurt fury. "If you tell me to never call Clark again, I'll never speak to you! You can't make me not talk to him! I'll get a calling card and my own cell phone and I just won't tell you that I'm talking to him! He's my best friend and it's not his fault and I *hate* you for acting like I did something *so wrong* like you've never done anything *even worse*---"

Oh. Oh, no, this wasn't what she'd meant at all--- "Dawn. Dawnie---"

"Niblet---" Spike was reaching out to her too, trying to catch her sweater, but she twisted and stumbled away from them both, glaring at them.

"No! Don't *touch* me! You never listen to me, you never notice me except when I do something wrong and I'm sick of it, I'm sick of all of it, and I'm sick of *you*!" she shrieked, pointing at Buffy, who stopped, frozen and heartsick. "So just leave me alone!" She rushed for the door, flinging it open and plunging through it, leaving the door to slam and jangle behind her.

A long moment of silence, then Buffy slowly collapsed into a chair by the table, looking at a sad-eyed Willow as she wiped the tears from her face. "Well. That went... spectacularly badly. So much for deep breathing."

Willow's smile was more of a wince, her shrug rueful and pained. "Give her time to calm down, Buffy. She'll get over it, really she will. She doesn't hate you. She's just... a little upset."

"No, she's just sick of the sight of me."

Spike's voice was flat when he spoke, and he was still watching the door that Dawn had just fled through "She didn't mean it. The 'bit loves you. She'll be ready to make up tomorrow."

"Yeah, right. This is Grudge Girl we're talking about." Dawn was still mad about Buffy getting to be Little Red Riding Hood the year *she'd* wanted go in the red cape. She wasn't going to get over this any time soon. Buffy licked the tears from her lips, and scowled at Spike, her voice sharpening. "And don't think I'm forgetting to be pissed off at you, mister. You *knew* she took off before Christmas. And you didn't tell me. You've got just as much to answer for."

He turned to her in surprise, his expression open, for once. "Buffy---"

And she *so* wasn't up for so-called honesty and sharing, not after *that* little confrontation. "I really think you should go, Spike. I'm not in the mood to be lied to any more."

His face hardened and he stepped away, and Buffy closed her eyes at the sight, trying to hang onto her control. Leaning on him or looking for a hug was *out* of the question, no matter what she thought she wanted. "Fine, then. Think I'll follow your sis. Make sure she's not getting on any buses for Mexico after that little scene you handled so *very* well."

The only reason the door didn't slam behind Spike was he made sure to pull it banging shut after him.

Buffy put her head down on the table, fighting the urge to cry. "Great. Someone else who hates me. I'm two for two."

"I'm not storming out of here. It's my shop. And I didn't do anything wrong."

She raised her head just far enough to glare at Anya. "You didn't *tell* me!"

"We explained that. You were having a mental breakdown---"

"I wasn't!" She *wasn't*. She'd been a little--- out of it, but she'd been dealing. Well, trying to deal, since Giles left, and--- okay, they didn't know about the--- thing, whatever it was, that she had with Spike, so maybe it looked worse than it actually was----

"---and you still are," Anya continued serenely. "Telling you would have made you worried and upset with Dawn, and we didn't want to ruin Christmas. She agreed to pay back the money she stole, and Spike kept her under house arrest for a month. There really wasn't any reason for you to know anything more."

Buffy traded an exasperated look with Willow, then pounded the table in lieu of anything else. "I should've known because I'm her *sister*. I'm responsible for her. I'm supposed to be the one that helps her when she has problems, not you guys!" What was the point of being the legal adult, if everyone took the decisions out of her hands? This was why Giles had left, so she could *do* this stuff.

Anya shrugged. "Yes, but you couldn't. Not without freaking out, anyway. As the fight you just had proves. So we did. Why is that so wrong?"

When you put it like that, she didn't have an answer. Except that if she'd been prepared, and if Dawn had confessed, she was *sure* she could've done better. Maybe. Probably. Hopefully. "...I don't know... I just... Will?"

"Yeah?" The soft sympathy in her best friend's voice made her close her eyes again, fighting for calm.

"Is this payback? Is this happening because of all the grief I gave my mom?"

"No! It isn't! Don't ever think that, Buffy." Willow's arms went around her in a hug, and Buffy choked back a sob, remembering how mad Willow had been when she'd come back. And she'd deserved that; she'd run out on everyone. But she'd never have dreamed that she would've reacted that way to Dawn doing the same thing.

Will was stroking her hair. "Dawn's just going through a bad time. It isn't because of anything you did. You heard what she said, she just--- wanted to be somewhere else."

"And wow, do I understand that." She opened her eyes and sniffed, looking up at Willow wearily. "I can't believe I screwed this up so bad. There's got to be a way to fix this. Right?"

"Yeah. Just--- maybe tomorrow," Willow suggested hesitantly. "When she's calmer. And you're calmer. And, maybe you shouldn't say stuff like never and forever next time when you talk about her punishments."

"Bad tactical error. Uberstupid. Yeah.... I wish...." Buffy fell silent and rubbed her face, shaking her head.


"I wish... Oh, God, Willow. I wish my mom were here. I really, really wish she were here."

"I know...." And Wills kept patting her as Buffy cried herself out, wondering how she could've done better and how anyone who wasn't a Slayer and an idiot would've handled Dawn.




"Wait wait wait please don't hang up please don't be Social Services wait wait---"

* thud *


** CRASH ! **



"Gotcha!... * huff * ... Summers' residence. Buffy speaking. * puff*"

"Miss Summers? This is Martha Kent... Are you all right? You sound winded."

"Oh. Hi. Yeah. I just walked in the door. From work. Had to... * hufffff * Rush for the phone. Sorry. I'm a little out of breath. Hard day. At work... So. How can I help you?"

"It can wait until you catch your breath. Take your time. This isn't urgent."

"* siiiiigh * ... That's really nice of you. Thanks....All better. Okay. Is there some new awful thing that Dawn's done now?"

"Nothing for me to be contacting you about."

"Good to know."

"The reason why I called was to let you know we've decided to ground Clark from making long-distance phone calls to your sister for a while. I don't know if you were planning on suspending her phone privileges, or for how long---"

"The last time I talked to her, the word 'forever' came up. I was thinking of cutting that back to six months or so, though. Or maybe three. Three might be good."

"Uh, that's... certainly up to you. But I thought you should be aware that Clark's punishment was going to be for two weeks, so you'd know that he wouldn't be running up our phone bill, or asking Dawn to run up yours any time in the immediate future."

"Two weeks? Really? That's all?"

"Well, Clark understands why we're less than thrilled with his recent phone abuse, and he's agreed to pay us back out of his allowance. A time-out will give him a break and a chance to save up enough to make a first payment. And it wasn't as if he'd done this before; and he seems really attached to your sister. Two weeks seemed fair to us."


"Of course, if you'd prefer that he and Dawn stick to e-mail or internet chat rooms, I can completely understand why. This really is an expensive habit, and if you don't want to encourage it---"

"No, I didn't mean --- I wasn't trying to criticize, at all. Seriously. I just... I hadn't really thought that far ahead, I guess. This is all still kinda new to me. Being the punisher, instead of the punished."

"Oh, I see."

"I mean, when my mom used to ground me, I could never figure out what she was basing the time limits on, but I know it always seemed really long. And that would be a good thing. Right? Because then Dawn would take it seriously. She wouldn't do it again, because she wouldn't want to be grounded again. That makes sense. Doesn't it?"


"Or maybe not. Maybe that'll just make her so mad that she ignores it. And ignores me. If Dawn does that, then she'll ignore everything else I say, and do something *really* reckless just to prove she can, and... no, no, that won't work. That would be--- bad. Much badness. But she can't just not be punished. I think...."

"Miss Summers, if you don't mind my asking---"

"Call me Buffy. *Please*. When you say Miss Summers I start looking for the Social Services people. And wondering if they're hiding under the dining room table. Or in the laundry room."

"Ah... Okay. Then I'm Martha."

"Not that they would. Hide here. Because that would be illegal, and I can't believe I can't stop talking...."

"* chuckle * Miss--- Buffy, it's all right. You've had a long day, you're tired, and I know that this can't be easy on you.... Which brings me back to my question, actually. Clark didn't mention where your parents are, exactly...?"

".... My mom died almost a year ago. Brain cancer. An aneurysm from complications after surgery."

"I'm very sorry."


"And your father?"

"He's in Spain."

"What does he do there?"

"His secretary."


"Ohmigod. I've been hanging out with Spike *way* too long. I didn't mean--- could you forget I just said that?"

"It's okay, Buffy."

"It really isn't. My mom would've freaked, if she'd ever heard me talk about him like that."

"I understand. Truly. So it's just you and Dawn? You two are on your own?"

"Yeah.... I mean, I have friends, and they're pretty much the same as family, they've been great.... And there's Spike. But he's not as helpful. At all. We're doing okay. I just... I was a little--- out of it--- for a while, and it's hard to figure out what to do now... It's been rough on Dawn. I mean, what fifteen-year-old wants to listen to their twenty-one-year-old sister tell them what to do?"

"None of them, I would imagine."

"See? Exactly. So.... What was the question?"

"You answered it."

"Oh. Right. My parents... Um, do you mind if I ask you a question?"

"Go ahead, I don't mind."

"How long did you penalize Clark for running away?"

"Buffy--- why do you ask?"

"See, I have to come down on her for that, too, which makes this harder. Dawn says she's already been punished, because a couple of our friends knew about the running away and they kind of put her under house arrest for a while. But I don't know if that counts if I didn't know about it."

"This might just be my opinion--- and I could definitely be wrong. But I'd say that if she's already been grounded for running away, anything else is overkill. No matter who imparted the punishment. If Dawn respected them, she's probably learned as much as she could from it."


"Although, you should probably talk about why she left. And there usually should be penalties for lying; we're just lucky Clark isn't very good at it, so it doesn't come up often. The hardest part was getting him to tell us why he left in the first place."


"Buffy? Are you still there?"

"Uh-hunh. Still here. I..."

"Honey, what's wrong?"

"What isn't? ...Never mind. You know what? You've been super-cool, listening to me, but, I should probably go---"

"Did I say something that upset you?"

"It isn't you. Really. It's me. And Dawn. And there's nothing you can do about me, or I can do about me, or anyone can do about Dawn, so, I don't want to bore you with it."

"Why don't you let me give it a try anyway?"

"I... it's just... I'm screwing this up. You're good at this mom stuff, and that's because you're a mom. I'm not a mom. I have to take care of Dawn, it's *my* job, and Social Services keeps *looking* at me funny, and you know why? Because they know I can't do it!"

"I'm sure that's not true."

"No, it is! And they're *right* to give me that look! I'm a bad parent! I don't know what Dawn's doing or who she's doing it with, and it's like me with my mom all over again, and I never thought this would happen, because I thought that was just me being--- different, and.... and.... I'm sorry. I... "

"You don't have anything to apologize to me for. I don't know a parent of a teenager who *hasn't* felt like that at some point."

"But it's *all the time*. I mean, if I was doing this right, Dawn wouldn't have run away. Would she? I mean, I ran away because I was lying to my mom and she didn't know until it was way too late to explain all this other stuff, so that wasn't her fault.... But Dawn got so upset and angry with things here she had to bail, and I still don't know all the reasons why, and then when she got back, she didn't feel like she could tell me. I was terminally clueless. I didn't even-- I missed *everything*. I *suck* at this."

"I don't think you can be doing that badly, Buffy."

"How can you tell? Seriously. How--- how do you know when you're doing *anything* right?"

"She came back, didn't she?"


"After less than a week away. She came home without anyone making her come home. Because believe me, once they're teenagers, anything they do is up to them, no matter *what* you threaten them with... and she decided she wanted to be back with you. So you must be doing something right."



"...mmph. * sniffle * ...Thanks."

"For what?"

"The vote of confidence... Sorry I'm such a spaz...."

"No problem. Really. I was equally upset right after I found out Clark had taken off."

"...* sigh * Speaking of Clark.... I heard he talked Dawn into wanting to come home. Could you thank him for that?"

"From what he told me, it was a mutual talking-into. I don't think either of them were really having a good time out there."

"Yeah, well, according to Dawn, he also got some creep to stop bothering her, so I still owe him one. Maybe you should just tell him I appreciate it?"

"Actually--- why don't you tell him yourself?"

"Wow, that would be great. Except I'm sure he doesn't want to talk to Dawn's crazy older sister---"



"Hi. Is this Buffy?"

"Uh, yeah. Clark, right? Hunh. Your mom's sneaky."

"Yeah, she is. I never get anything by her, so don't feel too bad she pulled a fast one on you."

"I'll try not to. Even though I should've seen it coming... So. I wanted to thank you for looking out for Dawn while you guys were in Denver."

"Looking out for her?"

"At the bus station? The creep who tried to pick her up?"

"Oh, that guy. That was... really minor. Dawn was handling it fine by herself. I think I just helped distract him. He was kind of out of it, and Dawn was ready to punch him if he got any closer. And then he tripped. So we didn't have to do anything to him."

"Oh. He tripped, huh?"

"Uh-hunh. He knocked himself out. On the floor. It was waxed, and real slippery---"

"Okay. If you say so... But thank you for standing up for her."

"Sure. Anybody would've done it. How's Dawn?"

"She's... a little upset with me right now. I kind of yelled a lot when I got the phone bill."

"I'm really, really sorry. We just weren't paying attention. It's mostly my fault, I started it, I called her first---"

"That's not the point. Dawn *knows* better. And maybe you guys didn't mean to be careless, but.... I'm more upset that she didn't tell me about running away in December."

"Oh. That. Yeah.... You know, she wasn't really running away, so much, as just kind of, ummm... taking a break."

"A break."

"Yeah, she was really bummed about Christmas, and, you know... missing your mom---"

"She mentioned that."

"And, there were some other things...."


"Stuff. Other... stuff."

"You're not gonna tell me."

"I *can't*. Dawn's my friend. It's private."

"Too private to tell me. But she told you. Great."

"Umm... Well, see, I told Dawn a lot of stuff first. Personal information that-- I don't just tell anybody. But Dawn got it out of me. So, she told me some things, kind of to trade off.... Actually, you already know everything she told me."

"How do you figure that?"

"It was all to do with her, mostly--- it wasn't about anyone else. She even said you knew all of it. It's just--- I don't know if she wants you to know she told me. So I can't tell you what she said. Do you know what I mean?"

"Just barely, at this point."

"Sorry. I didn't mean to confuse you."

"It's okay; I've had conversations like this with Dawn. Privacy and secrets and personal space, right?"


"So what were you guys talking about for so long, anyway? Aside from math and your girlfriend?"

"I don't have a girlfriend. And lots of different things."

"You don't? I thought she was giving you girlfriend advice. She must be falling down on the job."

"No, see, there is a girl, but she's not... We're not--- We're just friends. She has a boyfriend."

"Ohhh. I get it. And the other things you talked about? Or was it all about this girl?"

"No, of course not. Um... Books. We like the same books. TV. X-Files versus Enterprise. Dawn really likes the X-Files, even if it is kind of lame, but it used to be cool... I like Enterprise better. Pizza. Video games. We play Doom online sometimes."

"What else?"

"Ummmm... Math, yeah, she gets so bored during Algebra, so I kind of go over it with her... my friends. Her friends. What we're gonna do when we grow up. Visiting Europe. Hiking in Australia. There's this one site, on the Internet? You can take a virtual tour of Argentina there.... Who we want to win in the Olympics. Anya and the Magic Box. Our farm. The horses, Dawn likes to hear about them...stuff. Personal stuff. Stuff I don't tell other people...."

"Whoa. Okay, I get the idea. There's a lot of --- stuff."


"I was kind of worried that it was some weird boy-girl stuff---"

"What? Oh! No way! I don't--- Dawn isn't--- we're *friends*. Only friends. *Good* friends. Not boyfriend-girlfriend friends. Dawn thinks I'm a dork."

"That's not very nice of her. I should have a talk---"

"It's okay. I think she's crazy. In a good way, but...."

"I get the picture. Not boyfriends or girlfriends. Too weird."


"And the older sister breathes a sigh of relief."

"Sorry if we freaked you out that way."

"No, no. Those are my issues. My fault. *Totally*. Don't stress about it."

"Sure... Buffy? Can I talk to Dawn? And tell her I'm grounded and I'm sorry I kind of got her busted?"

"You know what Clark? You could, if she were here. We had a fight, though. So Dawn's off being mad at me somewhere."

"Maybe she's with Spike."

"Hunh? I mean, excuse me?"

"Well, I just... I met him, when he came to Denver to pick her up---"

"Ah, yes. The beginning of the great conspiracy."

"---and he seemed really worried about her, and like he didn't want her to be in trouble---"

"Of course not. Spike wouldn't want Dawn in trouble, she always takes his side."

"---and I know Dawn was glad to see him, because she was just getting ready to call you and tell you she was going home---

"Clark, are you trying to talk me out of being mad at Spike as well as Dawn?"

"...Um, if I say yes, will you be more or less mad?"

"With you? Neither. You're just trying to be a good friend. With Dawn and Spike? Darnit. Now you've made me less mad at them. I should be more mad at you to compensate, but the grudge is just kind of falling apart. I'm kind of annoyed about that."

"Gosh. Too bad."

"You're entirely too cheerful about it. I suspect you of trying to be very devious, and of actually being far too sweet to be friends with my sister. Stop gloating, she's definitely a horrible influence on you. And put your mother back on the phone, okay?"

"Okay. Can Dawn call me, when she gets back in? So I can explain?"

"Yes, all right, fine. It might be tomorrow, though. But I'll let her call you *one* time before you're both on phone probation."

"Cool. Thanks, Buffy."

"Uh-hunh. Good-bye, Clark."


".... Did you two say everything you needed to?"

"Oh, definitely. Your son seems very nice. And polite, too. I think he apologized four times for getting Dawn in trouble. But I know my sister too well to think it was anyone's fault but her own. As well as dragging in anyone standing nearby who doesn't move fast enough."

"Thank you for saying so. But Clark's fully capable of getting in over his head when he wants to... Are you feeling better?"

"Amazingly? Yes. I now know Clark, at least a little, so I don't feel so bad about not knowing my sister's new friend. Which, I guess, you figured would help...."

"Let's say that I feel better having talked to you, at least better than I did a few hours ago. Between you and Clark I feel like I know Dawn. I was just returning the favor."

"Thanks, Mrs. Kent."


"Martha. Right. Thanks, Martha. You've really been just... cool. I appreciate your listening to me. And your advice on handling the punishment thing. And everything."

"You're welcome. If anything else to do with Clark comes up? Feel free to call. And reverse the charges. I don't want there to be any more problems because of his friendship with Dawn."

"Oh. I... Thanks. Again. And vice versa. Although, maybe not the reversing charges, we kind of have this phone bill problem...."

"Say no more. It's been nice talking to you, Buffy. Take it easy on Dawn. Fifteen is horrible."

"I've been vividly reminded of that. Thanks. You too. ... Good-bye."

"Bye, dear."

- click -
- click -



Buffy hesitated outside Dawn's room, listening to the strains of Dido's "Isobel" for a second. Pink or N'Sync meant Dawn could be pissed off *or* happy; Dido meant Dawn was deep in a power-sulk. Wonderful. ~It's not going to get any easier if you stall,~ she told herself. ~Of course, I could just not do it... and wait for things to get worse. Yeah. Great plan. Not.~ Taking a deep breath, she knocked. No answer, but then, she hadn't expected one. She opened the door and walked in.

Dawn had been lying on her back staring at the ceiling. At the sight of Buffy, she flipped onto her stomach to glare through the gaps in the headboard at the far wall, her entire body rigid with the "get out!" she wasn't shouting.

"Hey." Sullen silence. Buffy knew she was risking another screaming fit, but she slowly walked forward and perched on the end of the bed anyway. "So. Are you going to hate me forever?"

More silence, and she could see Dawn's fingers clench around the edges of the headboard, like a prisoner hanging on to the bars of their jail cell. Or maybe she was reading too much into that.

"I'm sorry I lost it earlier. But you have to see this from my point of view---"

Dawn hunched her shoulders and buried her head in the pillow, her hands still clutching the headboard.

"Then again, maybe you don't." She watched Dawn for a second, trying to remember if she'd ever done this to their mother. She was pretty sure she hadn't; fights with Mom had been loud and frequent, but the silent treatment had always been Dawn's special weapon when she was feeling persecuted. Buffy just didn't have the patience. The one time she'd tried it on Dawn, her sister had tricked her into talking within two hours, which kind of ruined the whole attempt. So much for stoic resistance to pressure.

"I talked with Spike again. Who I'm still not happy with, just so you know. And Anya. They said that there weren't any other crimes they were leaving out. That they were aware of."

One of Dawn's shoulders jerked, like she was about to turn around, then thought better of it. Her body remained stiff and resentful.

Buffy sighed. "And I talked to Clark."

"You what!?" That got her. Dawn flipped over and sat up, her mouth open in shock and horror. "You didn't! No! Tell me you're making it up, you *couldn't* have talked to him---"

"Why not? You did. Over and over and over---"

"Oh God. Please, please, *tell* me you didn't terminally embarrass me with him!"


"You had *no right* to forbid me to talk to him, and then go behind my back and call Clark and cross-examine him---"

"Dawn, I had _every_ right. Because I love you, and I care about what you're doing." Dawn crossed her arms and glared at Buffy, who glared right back, feeling her temper start to rise. ~No. No. Don't do that. This isn't about you, remember? It's about Dawn. Remember that.~

"You have a funny way of showing it. *Humiliating* me with my friends--- terrific way to care, Buffy. Very nice. Do you _want_ to ruin my life?" Dawn demanded.

"No. And I'm not going to." Buffy relaxed, forcing herself to stay calm. She crossed her arms, mimicking Dawn's posture. "You can keep talking to Clark."

"I what?" Her sister blinked in shock, then reverted to the sulkiness of seconds before. But her eyes were confused and Buffy stifled a grin of satisfaction. "I mean, of course I can. Because you can't tell me what to do."

Buffy gave her a Look she'd been practicing in the mirror. "Yes, I can."

"But I don't have to do it! You can't make me! I'm not a little baby, and you're not Mom!" Dawn's expression almost crumpled there, and Buffy felt the same un-looked-for pang. The one-year anniversary was two weeks away; it still didn't seem possible, that Mom had been gone so long. Well, for her it hadn't been as long---five months dead *would* screw up your sense of time. But for everyone else, it had been a long time. She'd given up believing it would ever stop hurting, though. She'd learned that a long time ago; when people went away, you never stopped missing them. Angel, Dad. Giles. Mom. She just wished that Dawn hadn't had to learn it too.

She cleared her throat and stared across the room at Dawn's bookcase, where the carefully reconstructed remnants of her sister's journals shared space with an old dog-eared version of Winnie the Pooh. "I know I'm not Mom. And no, I can't 'make' you do stuff any more. We're both too old for that." She glanced at her sister out of the corner of her eye, and slowly unfolded her arms, toying with the rings on her fingers in order to give herself something to do. "But Dawn, when I make rules you know it's usually for a good reason. Because I don't want Social Services to take you away. But mostly because I want you to be safe."

Dawn scooted backward on the bed, her back against the headboard, and avoided her eyes. "You think I can't take care of myself. You think I'm stupid---"

"No I don't! I know you're smart, and *that's* why I freak. I remember what I did when Mom's back was turned when I was fifteen, and you're smarter than I was, sort of. In some ways." Dawn's shoulders had relaxed in surprise at the unexpected compliment, and Buffy turned toward her now, hoping she was getting through to her. Screaming fits didn't work; sweet reason might not either, but she was just desperate enough to use unusual tactics. "You know more about vampires and demons than I did then. And I hope --- God, I hope--- you've learned from my screw-ups. But Dawn, you can't handle *everything.*"

"I'm not the Slayer, I _know_ that. And I'm not you. But... I can do stuff. I can handle myself. I could help, if you let me. I want to." Her sister's face had never been more pleading, and an unexpected ache flared in Buffy's chest. When did Dawn get so old? Was that why she was fighting Dawn so hard--- trying to make her ten again, and completely in the dark about the things Buffy fought? She'd missed so much last summer.... A scowl settled over her sister's face at Buffy's continued silence, and she stuck her lip out in a pout. "You don't give me credit, not even for self-preservation! You don't even *see* me!"

And there she went, sliding back into being a bratty thirteen-year-old again. It was bizarre, how fast Dawn could change from almost-twenty to definitely-twelve in the space of a heartbeat. Which also freaked Buffy out, if she were honest. But she couldn't let that be the deciding factor in how she treated her. Although it was almost impossible not to. God, how did Mom *ever* do it?

"Maybe I haven't given you enough credit. But you have to admit--- after Halloween, and now this stunt --- you've given me a lot of reasons to worry about you." Dawn grimaced and turned away again, her hair falling in her face, admitting nothing. "I'll make you a deal?" Her sister tossed her head and raised one haughty eyebrow. Buffy's lips twitched, but she kept her voice level. "I'll try to trust you--- and not be so busy--- if you'll *tell* me stuff. I know I haven't been around enough.... But I've got a regular, sucky, eight-hour shift job now. As well as the Slaying. But I'll be here more." Spike would understand. He'd have to. Dawn came first. He was a hundred and forty-something years old, he could just deal--- even if he acted Dawn's age when he didn't get his way sometimes. "I swear."

Dawn's eyes were wary and skeptical. "And how will that help, if you're still going to wig when I tell you stuff?"

"I won't." Said with a bright, perky grin perfected over extra-shift hours at the Palace.

Too bad Dawn had so much sales resistance. "Tchah! Right."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Okay, maybe I will freak. But then, I'll get over it. And I'll listen. Like now."

"So far, *you're* doing all the talking."

"Good point." She shrugged her shoulders questioningly, and kept her voice as reasonable as she was capable of. "So... Tell me something. Maybe about Clark. Tell me why being friends with him is so important that you ran up a couple hundred dollar phone bill."

"I...." Dawn bit her lower lip, got up from the bed and started fidgeting with her jewelry box on her vanity table. "I don't know! It just is."

"He seemed nice when I talked to him on the phone." She tried to keep her tone encouraging, then grinned at her sister in the mirror, going for the cheap shot. "And he said you think he's a dork?"

"That's because he *is* a dork." Dawn sat down at vanity and started re-arranging the makeup tubes and perfume bottles, glaring at them like they'd mortally insulted her taste in nail polish. "Someone who isn't a dork would've known how to lie when his parents asked how we met. Mega-dork." She turned around to face Buffy, her face animated and most of the hostility finally gone. "I had to help pay for these candy bars that fell out of the vending machine in Denver because of him, instead of just eating them like any *normal* person. And he's always telling me to suck it up around Kirstie at school and not listen to what she says, and... he's just... he's a dork. He's a *Boy Scout*. He's Dudley Do-Right! Without the red suit!"

Which had been pretty much Buffy's impression of him, even on the phone. "Then why are you friends with him, if he's a dork and he thinks you're crazy?"

Dawn didn't even bother commenting on that last bit, just gave Buffy the most exasperated 'duh' look in her arsenal. "Because he's *cool."

"Oh." Suddenly, she got a flash of how Giles must have felt dealing with her, a couple years ago. ~I should send him a sympathy card...~

"He *listens* to me. He helps with my math, and he likes the same books---even though he's into some weird junk too, he's really advanced--- and he gets... stuff." Dawn ducked her head and began rummaging in the jewelry box a little harder than really necessary. Considering how many rings and bracelets she already had on.

"He said you know 'stuff' about him, too. Personal stuff? And that he didn't know if you'd want me to know that you'd told him some of it?"

"It's not like that. It's not like I'm keeping more secrets from you," Dawn muttered, fiddling with a pair of earrings. She met Buffy's eyes in the mirror. "You *know* everything I've told him. I..." She turned around again, her expression scared. "Promise not to be mad?"

Oh, boy. "I... promise to try not to be?"

Dawn swallowed, hard, then let her gaze drop to the carpet, her voice barely audible. "I sortoftoldhimaboutbeingtheKey."

"You *what*?" That was *not* what she'd been expecting. Stuff about Dad, maybe. Stuff about Buffy. *That*--- was so totally not what she'd seen coming, that she didn't even know what she thought about it.

Dawn's head jerked up and she tried to look disgusted instead of nervous, if the twisting fingers were any indication. "See. I *knew* you'd say that. Which is why I didn't tell you. Because it's totally okay and he gets that it's a secret and he doesn't *care*---"

"Dawn, you _know_ it's not safe for anyone to know--- what if he told someone? What if he was evil, or told anyone who was?" The wild fear from last May was trying to come back, and Buffy had to stuff it back in its mental box, tell herself that if the worst were going to happen, it would've already happened. It didn't help much, though. She kept thinking of Ben, and how she'd led him and Glory--- right to Dawn. *No one* was safe enough to know that kind of secret.

"It is! It is safe for him to know! You don't know him, how can you say it's not safe?" Dawn was up and pacing around the room now, arms crossed defensively. "I know lots of blackmail material on Clark, and he told me all of it first, and I *know* what he said is true, and---"

"It's dangerous---"

"All of *your* friends know. Everyone who really counts knows. And Clark counts with me! So he should know." She sat down on the bed next to Buffy, staring at her with please-oh-please eyes. "Don't you get it? Weren't you really relieved when you made friends with Willow and Xander, and they didn't care about you being the Slayer? Giles didn't want you to tell---"

"I *didn't* tell, it just sort of... came out." Saving their lives before the Harvest kind of deep-sixed hiding the big ole storage room that was a Slayer's life. "And I was out of the Slayer closet before Willow and Xander knew there was a broom! It's not the same thing!"

"But you stayed friends with them, when it was dangerous to them and against the rules for you. They wouldn't let you ditch them. That's what real friends do," Dawn insisted. "It *is* the same thing. Clark has stuff, and I have stuff, and it's not the same stuff, but it *is*. And he gets what it's like going to school and feeling like a freak with a secret, and he likes me, Buffy. He likes me for me, not just the weird stuff. He---he's---" She pounded her comforter with a fist for a second, then sighed, winding down, her voice quieter. "He's my Xander."

Buffy frowned, fear and anger pushed aside in a wave of pure confusion. "You already *have* a Xander."

"No, *you* already have a Xander. I have my older sister's best guy-friend who treats me like I'm his little sister too." Dawn shrugged, her voice flat. "Which is great. And I love him. But it's not the same thing, and it's like that with everyone else, too, almost. Giles. Willow. Anya. Tara and Spike aren't as bad, but... She was Willow's Tara, first. And Spike's---Spike. I'll be a platelet when I'm eighty, with him. Which is okay. But it's not the same as having someone who's just *mine*."

"Dawn...." Should she apologize? Explain? What was she supposed to say, when she hadn't seen what Dawn had? When it wasn't totally untrue? "They love you, you know that---"

"Don't. Just don't, okay? I don't care. Much." She ducked her head, her hair in her face again, and didn't move when Buffy brushed it away, pulling it behind her ear and stroking the length down to her shoulder. Dawn sighed, and met her eyes. "Maybe it'll be different when I'm older. Or maybe it'll be different if Janice ever gets out of denial about Halloween, or if Lisa or Melinda wake up and smell the latte that the Hellmouth Cafeteria serves. But right now, Clark's the only one who *really* understands my life. And he lives in stupid Kansas." She grimaced. "What would *you* do, if Xander moved to Kansas on you, and you couldn't see him every day? And if Willow went with him?"

"I'd... probably run up a heinous phone bill, talking to them," Buffy admitted, her brain twisting around the concept of Dawn having her own Xander. Or of Dawn being Clark's... Willow? Or Buffy? Weirdness.

But wasn't that fair? Dawn *should* have friends like that. It wasn't her fault that being the Key was so much stranger than being a Slayer. Or that everyone else who knew about it was a good five years and a million miles of Hellmouth freeway older.

"See? So? There you go." Dawn picked up one of her Beanie Babies and made a face at it. "Besides, if he doesn't have me to give him advice, Clark is *never* going to get Lana to notice him. He's sweet, but he's way more clueless than Xander ever was."

"Don't be so sure. Remember the praying mantis chick? And Ampata?"

"Oh, yeah. Wow, did I hate her."

Buffy grinned. "You had good instincts. Helped by raging jealousy, but still---"

"I was not that jealous! I just didn't think she was his type. That was all." Dawn sniffed, then smirked. "Which I was wrong about, I guess, if Anya's his type too."

"Xander's always been attracted to the dangerous ones." Buffy sighed, and rolled her eyes her sister, who was now dancing the stuffed dog across her lap, sensing her sister's altered mood and taking advantage of it. She'd wanted to unilaterally forbid Dawn to talk to Clark when she first got the bill; but he was too sweet and harmless. And his mom was too nice. And Dawn was way too stubborn. It would never have worked. Which didn't mean she couldn't wish it would. Simple would've been nice. But no go, so.... "I still hate this. That Clark knows about you. But... if he's known for a month and nothing's happened, I guess--- I guess it's okay."

"Thank you, Queen of Paranoia." Dawn's grin was a lot more grateful than her words, and the dog did a cheerful little spin on the comforter.

"And you can talk to him one more time before your punishment starts."

Dawn's face fell, and the dog stopped dancing. "I'm still punished?"

"Yes, you're still punished. Jeez, Dawn. You ran away, scared me, lied to me, and now we owe $212.56 to the phone company. And they didn't love us before this, remember?" she said, nudging Dawn's arm with her shoulder.

"I know, but, I explained why---"

"Calm down, okay? I talked to Clark's mom, too. Clark's grounded for two weeks from the phone. So... I guess that's fair. It'll give you time to earn more money from Anya to help pay the phone bill," Buffy added pointedly.

"I really have to pay?"

"Do you really think you shouldn't?"

"No," Dawn admitted with a pout. "I just... Can we do it in installments?"

"Sure. That's how Mom let me pay for the damage to the Jeep." Buffy took the dog from Dawn's hands, and gave it a little squeeze, staring at it instead of her sister. "The running-away punishment--- I guess Spike and Anya handled that. Mostly. It really would be overkill to do it again." She steeled herself and looked up from the stuffed animal. "The lying-to-me punishment--- that's a week here at home. No Bronze. No parties. No fun. And a lot of time with your sister."

Dawn narrowed her eyes consideringly. "Xander and Tara and Spike will still come over sometimes this week, right?"


"Then I guess I can deal. If you're going to be home too." Another I-don't-care shrug she had to have learned from Spike. "As long as I can email Clark, and talk with him in the chatrooms? Right?"

"Right, yes. Okay. Mom never *completely* cut me off from everyone else...and since you can't see him at school, I guess that's... fair. I think." Buffy squeezed the dog with an excess of worry, and Dawn pointedly extracted him before she could break it. "Sorry. I get stressed. About this. And what to do. And... I'm sorry."

Dawn blinked. "For what?"

"For not realizing how hard Christmas was on you. We could've helped each other." She stroked Dawn's hair again. "And for not guessing that you'd left. I would've gone after you, you know. No matter what. You're my sister. You're more important than anything else."

"I know." Dawn leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Buffy, and she shut her eyes tight against tears of relief. The last time Dawn had spontaneously hugged her had been when she came back; when she was still in too much shock to appreciate it. Maybe she didn't really want to hate Buffy after all. Maybe Martha was right; maybe she wasn't *completely* hopeless at this parental thing.

"I love you," she whispered, then pulled back, rubbing at her eyes. "Even when you *really* screw up and do stupid things."

The look on Dawn's face could only be described as wicked. Scarier than Faith or Spike or Xander with an idea in his brain had ever managed. Buffy had one second to dread whatever Dawn was going to say before she said it.

"I love you too. Even when *you're* screwing up. And doing stupid things. And boinking Spike."


"Heh, hehehehheee..."

She *really* had to call Giles and apologize for everything she ever did. Maybe that'd even out her karma enough to stop Dawn from *doing* stuff like this. And giggling like that afterward.

In the meantime, a pillow-fight was her only sane option, so she took it.



DATE: 02/11/02 9:12 PM PST
SUBJECT: One week

....since the grounding. Weird. It's *finally* over tonight. You'd think Buffy would've been satisfied with Anya and Spike punishing me, but she wanted to give it that 'personal touch.' I don't know how many games of Monopoly we've played this week, while she's been Stay-In Sister and I've been Grounded Girl. She might be the Slayer, but she sucks at getting the Utilities and Park Place, and she owes me $21,340 virtual bucks at this point.

>Are you still mad at me? For not lying fast enough when my parents
>asked how I knew you?

No, I'm not. I *knew* you weren't a good liar five minutes after we met. It's not like we shouldn't have had a cover story ready--- or just not have run up such huge bills in the first place! It's okay, Clark. It was my fault too. I'm just glad that your parents don't know about Buffy's thing or me being a Key, and that Buffy never *did* ask what the blackmail material I had on you was.

But I still think it's too bad that the Nerd Herd didn't get blamed for it instead of us.

Gotta go. I've been thinking that maybe (*maybe*) you were right about the junk I took from the shop--- and Spike's going to help me break back in, and put the jewelry back in inventory. We've got a very small time window between Buffy being at work and coming home to patrol, so

Hasta pasta!

Dawn of a New Age of Enlightenment


DATE: 02/11/02 11:27 PM CST
SUBJECT: RE: One week

Glad you're not mad at me, even though I wouldn't blame you too much if you were. But it wouldn't have helped if I'd lied. I had to claim 'private secrets' to keep everything you told me to myself! Mom's got super-lie-detector skills, and lying would've made it worse, so... Lex keeps threatening to give me a seminar on how to lie, cheat, and scheme--- I think he and your buddy Spike must've gone to the same colleges. Or maybe they just hang out in the same bars.

Careful not getting caught tonight--- Anya sounds scary enough, but I'm really hoping Buffy won't be able to ground you from the phone for *another* week if the putting-stuff-back plan doesn't work out. You couldn't do things the easy way, and just hand it over to them and apologize?

Wait. What am I saying.... Easy way, right. Not compatible with Dawn Summers. Forget I asked.

Congratulations on the return to freedom, though. And in another week, you can hear me angst about Lana in person again! I know how inspiring that must be for you.

On the other hand, I can probably explain better why Chloe kissed me over the phone than I ever could in writing. Or maybe *you* can explain it to *me*.

Either way, I'm not telling you about it 'til then. Too weird. And maybe you'll stay out of trouble with some incentive. < G >

Good night, Sunrise---

Clark after dark


DATE: 02/11/02 10:24 PM PST
SUBJECT: RE: Re: One week

*Why* do you torment me like that!? You drop these *hints* of really juicy stuff happening, and then you sign off, and--- grrrrr!

(She *kissed* you? Friend-kissed-you, or *KISSED* you? You *have* to tell me!)

Anyway. We put it all back, no biggie. Now my conscience is *totally* clear. Technically I should probably tell Anya about the shoplifting, and Buffy too, but you know what? I've been really really punished for all sorts of behavior this last month, I've really really learned my lesson, and right now is where moral relativity comes into play. This is as good as I am able to be, at least until the statute of limitations is up and I'm in college where Buffy can't ground me any more.

Spike and Lex in a bar. In the *same* bar. There's a mental image that... just isn't happening. Hunh. Maybe an airport bar. But wait, he has a jet, what would Lex be doing in the airport's bar? ... Now you've got me thinking about this too much. When we're legal, we have to make them take us to a bar together just so I can finally see this.

One more week until you are *going* to spill the story on the Chloe-kiss, Clark--- and it better be worth it! Especially if you're going to be a mother-hen about me getting in trouble until then....

I'm not really *glad* it all came out like this, but you know what? It's okay now. Bizarre. It's been a while since things took a turn for the better, instead of for the extremely worse. Maybe we'll even get through Buffy's birthday party next week without being attacked by trolls. Again.

Sleep tight---

Dawning Curiosity


DATE: 02/12/02 7:47 AM CST
SUBJECT: Re: RE: Re: One week

Okay. Talk about cruel. I'm late for the bus, I can't even call you to ask, and all I have to say is---


You're explaining that one as soon as I'm back from class!




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