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Breathe

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This story is No. 1 in the series "Ashes". You may wish to read the series introduction first.

Summary: She's one hundred and fifty miles outside of Sunnydale when she finally remembers how to breathe.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Supernatural > Dawn-Centered > Pairing: Sam WinchesterjacyevansFR1514,1709142,7994 Jan 104 Jan 10Yes
Title: Breathe
Rating: FR-15
Pairing: Sam/Dawn
Summary: She's one hundred and fifty miles outside of Sunnydale when she finally remembers how to breathe.
A/N: Takes place post S5 of Buffy and S3 of SPN. I fiddled a bit with Buffy and SPN canon - Dawn is nineteen and The Roadhouse never burned down. Any other canon deviations are explained within. This is the first in what will be the "Ashes" series but can be read on its own. Thank you to riverchic for the beta.
Disclaimer: None of this is mine. I'm just playing in Kripke and Whedon's sandboxes.

--

She leaves on a Sunday.

Three weeks, five days, and seventeen hours have passed since Buffy died, and Dawn still feels the guilt of her death eating away at her stomach. The house is too still, too quiet, everyone tiptoeing around her like she might break at any moment and God, if Willow asks her if she's okay one more time...

She flies down the stairs at the sound of her sister's voice, stops at the bottom, breath caught in her throat, repetition of BuffyBuffyBuffy flying through her mind, but the movements are stilted, not fluid and graceful, the inflections are all wrong, and when her head falls forward - like she's fallen asleep on her feet, like a robot, Dawn feels her legs collapse from under her, the world titling under her feet. She shoves Xander's arms from around her, glares at Willow - betrayers - with tears in her eyes, and runs back to her room.

She packs her bags and is on the road by morning, Buffy's keys in her pocket, college fund drained of cash. She strokes her hand lightly along the steering wheel, shaking hands turning the key in the ignition, jolt running through her as the sound of Aimee Mann fills the car - My car, my music, Dawnie. She fumbles for the dial and takes a few deep breaths.

She's one hundred and fifty miles outside of Sunnydale when she finally remembers how to breathe.

--

Dawn stays at a run-down motel just outside of Oregon, miles from Sunnydale, from anywhere that feels like home.

Willow calls for the twenty-third time while she's attempting to sleep, staring at the ceiling and counting the cracks in the tiles. She drags her phone off of the nightstand, glares at the display and throws it at the wall. There's a crack and the ringing stops.

She tosses the phone off of the side of the highway at mile marker thirty-five the next morning, and keeps going.

--

There's a bar off the side of the road, and Dawn practically sobs with relief - she's been driving for miles, got lost somewhere back in East Jesus Nowhere, Nebraska, and her eyes burn.

Three weeks on the road, she's practically out of money and shit out of luck, but she can't - won't go home.

Dawn opens the door and ignores the eyes that swivel towards her as she practically collapses onto the bar stool. She understands the look. She's a stranger in a small town - God knows the trouble she's carrying. A wry smile graces her lips.

"What can I get you?" Dawn drags her head up to meet the eyes of the woman behind the bar.

"Directions to the nearest highway," Dawn says tiredly, then groans, feeling the headache pulsating at her temple. "God, and whiskey."

The woman smirks. "Whiskey, huh? Wanna show me some ID?"

Dawn pulls her ID from her wallet, hands it to the woman with a bored expression - she acquired the fake weeks before she left Sunnydale, a gift from Anya. "One of my... associates at the Magic Box makes them," she said, then dropped her voice to a murmur, "Don't tell your sister. I like my heart in my chest, thanks."

"Summers?" The woman lowers the ID, levels Dawn with a questioning stare. "You happen to be related to a Buffy Summers?"

Her sister's name sounds like a shot going off, and she gasps, fingers clinging to the edge of the bar. "How do you know my sister? Who are you?"

The woman holding her ID stares, really stares, and Dawn feels like she's being peeled apart, layer by layer - like her mother used to on a bad day when she insisted she was fine. The thought of Joyce makes another arc of pain lance through her side, and her fingers tighten on the counter.

The woman's eyes narrow and she shakes her head, sliding Dawn’s ID to her face-down. "Ellen Harvelle. Why don't I get you something to drink and you can tell me what the hell you're doing here."

--

Ellen slides her a drink across the bar - non-alcoholic, much to her dismay - then sits beside her, offering explanations that make Dawn simultaneously want to laugh and weep. Buffy was here. Buffy was at The Roadhouse. The irony that her sister ran away from her destiny and still ended up knee-deep in demons and hunters is not lost on Dawn.

She finally understands why Buffy took off when Angel died, doesn't resent her anymore - even if she technically didn't exist then. She doesn't think about that.

"Your turn," Ellen says, remains silent through Dawn's entire story, a strong presence at her side. She pats Dawn on the shoulders when the tears threaten to fall, but she takes a deep breath and shakes her head, forcing them back. Ellen sighs, mutters something about "nothing wrong with crying; you're just as stubborn as him," that Dawn doesn't understand.

Ellen sets her up in her daughter's room, offers her shelter in exchange for a helping hand around the bar. Dawn asks about Jo, and Ellen goes tight-lipped, the air around her practically crackling with tension.

"She's not here," Ellen says shortly, and Dawn lets the obviously touchy subject drop.

When Ellen shuts the door, Dawn sits on the bed and closes her eyes. It's been years since her sister was here, but she swears she can still feel Buffy, her presence pressing down on her from all sides, looking back at her from the mirror.

Dawn throws a sheet over the glass. She's afraid to see the person staring back.

--

She's sweeping up the front of the bar three weeks later when a black car pulls up, Ellen rushing out from behind the swinging doors no sooner than the door slams and a tall, handsome man swaggers out.

"Sam Winchester, are you trying to send me to an early grave?” He bats away Ellen's attempts to steady him. “Where the hell have you been?"

Sam shrugs, leaning against the hood of the car. "Around."

"Around?" If Dawn didn't know any better, she'd think Ellen was about to slap him.

"'M fine, Ellen," he slurs, and Dawn realizes he's drunk.

"My ass," Ellen’s nose wrinkles. "You look like shit," she tells him, and he rolls his eyes.

"Thanks, Ellen, you always were good for a compliment." He slips on his way in the doors and falls into one of the tables.

"Jesus," Ellen mutters, reaching around and hauling Sam up by his shoulders. "Watch him," she tells Dawn, hurrying behind the bar and disappearing into the kitchen.

"Y're not Jo," Sam says, and when she shakes her head, his eyes narrow. "Who're you?"

"I'm Dawn," she offers, shrugging when Sam's eyebrows knit together.

"She's a friend," Ellen shoves a cup of coffee in his face and gently pushes at his shoulder. "Sit down, drink this, and shut up."

"Don' wanna." He sits down anyway.

"Idiot," Ellen mutters - Dawn's shocked to use the word - affectionately.

When Ellen finally convinces Sam to sleep on the cot she sets up in Jo's room, Dawn works up the courage to ask, "What happened to him?"

Ellen slides her eyes away from Sam and whispers, "The same thing that happened to you."

--

Sam is surly and quiet and - when he does speak - always, always angry.

A part of Dawn doesn't blame him, understands the need to run away - she knows how it feels to have an older sibling give their life without stopping to think how their death might impact the world in which they live. The act has far greater consequences than simply saving Sam or saving Dawn.

Dean and Buffy would have gotten along smashingly, if they didn’t try to kill each other with sarcasm. The wry thought makes her heart pulse achingly.

Still, another part of her wants to grab Sam by the collar, shake him and scream, Snap out of it!

Ellen stops his drinking binges on a daily basis, yanking bottles out of his hand while ignoring his wrathful glowering.

"Can't you just leave me alone?" Sam asks her one night, and Ellen shakes her head.

"Nope," Ellen's lips pop over the 'p.' "Bobby would kill me and quite frankly, he's a hell of a lot scarier than you."

As she walks away, Dawn defiantly points out, "She's just trying to help," and receives a murderous glare that would probably have sent her running if she wasn't the Slayer's sister and already privy to much scarier things than Sam Winchester in a drunken rage.

"What the hell do you know?" He growls, stomping off, leaving Dawn staring at his back, fists clenched at her sides.

"Just ignore him, honey," Ellen soothes, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Let him mourn his own way."

Dawn thinks she's being slightly hypocritical, but doesn't dare make this point aloud.

Her shoestring-thing patience finally breaks a week later while Ellen's in town buying groceries, after directing Sam not to drink himself into a stupor, and Dawn not to kill Sam.

Apparently, they have something else in common – they both fail epically at following orders.

"You're not the only person who lost someone, you know," she snaps, dragging a bottle out of Sam's hand mid-way to his lips. She drops the bottle into the sink, revels in the sound of breaking glass and Sam's wide-eyed stare. Dawn rubs her hands on her jeans and tosses her apron to the counter as she leaves. She slams the door on her way out.

--

Dawn lies with her back against the windshield of Buffy's car - Buffy's, not hers, she still can't see it as hers - when footsteps make her sit up, feet braced against the bumper. She stills, forcing herself to relax, eying Sam warily as he sits beside her on the hood.

He has that look - the one that guiltily says he knows her entire life story, even though he doesn't have a right to the details.

"Guess we have more in common than I thought," he whispers quietly.

"Guess Ellen has a big mouth," Dawn mutters petulantly, crossing her arms with a huff.

Sam sighs. He doesn't say I'm sorry, agree or disagree, just offers her a beer.

She takes the bottle, pops the cap, and drinks as much as she can in one gulp without choking.

"Don't tell Ellen," he mutters, and she smiles around the rim.

They sit together in silence until sunrise.

--

She recognizes the signs.

The wanderlust builds under Sam's skin slowly, over days and weeks, the instinctive need to move, to fight making him restless, cranky. Ellen tells him to go outside and shoot something rather than shoot his mouth off at Dawn because she’s sick of the bickering. The sudden pop of gunshots makes Dawn jump, reminds her of the crack of fists against a punching bag during strings of quiet, vampire-free weekends.

Sam finally comes back inside hours later, tucking his gun back into his jeans. The sunlight from the window glints off of the amulet around his neck, a beam of light at the center of his chest. He reaches up a hand, touching the necklace lightly, reverently before tucking it back under his t-shirt.

"You're leaving," Dawn says quietly while Ellen brings one of the hunters at the tables another drink. She's shocked to find she's disappointed.

Sam glances at her out of the corner of his eye. He doesn't agree. He doesn't deny it, either.

Sam slips his duffel onto his shoulder in the middle of the night, cringing as the floorboards creak under his weight. He swivels to look at her, freezes when he meets her eyes.

The wrong words are sliding out of her mouth before she has a chance to stop them: "I'm coming with you."

--

Dear Ellen,

Thank you for everything you've done for me. You don't know how much you - I'm sorry I just up and left, but this is something I have to do. As much as I might want to, I can't stay at The Roadhouse forever.

Please, take care of Buffy's - my - the car for me. I promise, I'll check in. I'll make Sam call, too.

Dawn


--

Sam pulls into a motel just outside of Missouri. His jaw ticks, arms tensing when he asks the clerk for a room with two beds, similar to the expression on his face when she hesitantly sat in the passenger seat of his car.

Dawn doesn't comment. She doesn't ask questions, either. Pressing gets her nowhere but sitting in a quiet room for the rest of the night talking to herself.

She tosses her bag blindly on one of the beds, but Sam picks it back up and throws it onto the other. She arches her eyebrow.

"What, that one insult your mother or something?"

Sam rolls his eyes. "No, that one is closer to the wall and therefore further from the door and windows."

Dawn blinks. "It's safer," he clarifies, and her mouth drops open. He has to be doing this out of some strange attempt at chivalry, because there is no way he missed the part of the story where her sister was the Slayer, the Chosen One, ass-kicker extraordinaire. She might have wanted her baby sister to live a normal life, but no way was she letting Dawn go to college without at least knowing the basics of self-defense, even if she was still living at home. Dawn could fire a crossbow with the best of them, thank you very much.

"I can fight," she protests, and he arches an eyebrow. She throws a punch to prove her point that doesn't quite knock him on his ass - she isn't Buffy, after all, no super-strength here - but clearly leaves his head spinning.

Sam yelps, grabbing his jaw. "Jesus, Dawn."

She shrugs. "Just thought you might need a demonstration."

Sam's eyes narrow and he comes back swinging. Dawn ducks and parries, swings and kicks, but eventually over-steps and gets her legs swept out from under her. She ends up pinned to the bed with Sam holding her wrists.

"You're pretty good," he says with a half-smile, still hovering over her, and her breath catches. She swallows, trying to dislodge the knot caught in her throat and ignore the sudden, desperate urge to kiss him; when Sam loosens his hold on her arms, she hooks her legs around his waist and flips them instead, reveling in his shocked gasp.

Dawn grins down at him smugly. He laughs breathlessly and asks, "How are you with weapons?"

--

"Do you even know how to fire a gun?" Sam asks when she completely misses the target he set up at the back of the house for the fifth time. They're in Tennessee, demonic omens a blaring neon light practically shouting "Lilith Was Here!"

She glowers, lowers the rifle, and baits, "Can you do better?"

He grabs the gun from her hand, takes aim, hits the center of the target with all three shots fired. He lowers the rifle and shoots her a shit-eating grin.

"Show off," she mutters. "Where the hell did you learn that, military school?"

To her surprise, he laughs. "Yeah, something like that. Here." Sam widens her stance, lines up her aim, loosens her finger on the trigger. She jumps with the electricity of his hand against hers. "Just breathe through it," he whispers, and she shudders.

She misses again, but not through any fault of his.

--

They catch a demon off-guard at an abandoned house off the side of the highway, not Lilith but one of her lackeys, too busy mouthing off to realize he was walking straight into a Devil's Trap, and too cocky to care.

The demon's laugh makes Dawn's skin crawl, makes her itch for the flask of holy water at her hip. His words bring out a side of Sam she never saw before, something dark and sinister.

Dawn jumps back when black smoke trickles out of the demon's mouth, eyes widening at Sam's raised hand. His eyes clench, face straining at the effort, but he doesn't stop trying until the blood starts to pour from his nose.

Dawn grabs the knife at Sam's hip and plunges the blade into the demon's throat. She drops to her knees beside Sam, his chest still heaving, nose no longer bloody.

"What the hell made you think you could do that?" There’s plenty she knows about Sam Winchester, but she never pretends, even for a moment, that she’s aware of all his secrets.

Sam doesn't answer; he clenches his jaw, turns his face away. Dawn grasps his chin and forces him to look at her.

"Sam," she says sternly, and he shoves at her shoulders, standing with clenched fists. She takes a deep breath as she watches him turn his back, fights the urge to tackle him to the floor and make him talk.

"A demon," he says quietly, still facing away from her, "Ruby. She found me about a month before I showed up at Ellen's, a few weeks after..." His voice trails off, though he doesn't need to finish the sentence - After Dean died. "She tried to teach me how to pull demons with my mind. She said it was the only way I could defeat Lilith."

Dawn stands up slowly, afraid if she moves too fast, she might startle him back into stubborn silence. "What happened?"

"Apparently, I'm a really crappy student." He finally turns around, smiling at her wryly. "She told me the way to make me stronger was to drink demon blood and..." He shakes his head. "I realized this was never about saving Dean for her - hell, it may not have even been about killing Lilith. I got myself completely drunk, and somehow found myself at Ellen's doorstep."

When Dawn says nothing, just looks at Sam with an understanding gaze, he laughs, near hysteria. "Why aren't you saying anything about me being an idiot for trusting a demon?"

"You wanted to save your brother and kill the thing that killed him. Believe me, I understand the sentiment.” Dawn shrugs. “Plus, my sister was in love with a vampire once. Would be a bit hypocritical to get on your ass for trusting a demon, don't you think?"

There's nothing about this offhand comment that's different from any number of others she's made since Buffy died, but something clenches in her chest and causes her to gasp, eyes widening with shock. She turns from Sam when her lips start to tremble, bites down hard to keep the tears from spilling over, but when Sam wraps his hand around her wrist, she lets her knees sink from under her, buries her face in his shoulder and cries. Sam doesn't murmur reassuring words; he doesn't say anything at all. He simply holds her while she sobs.

She catches her breath and lifts her head, eyes flitting over his face, so close she feels his breath on her cheeks. She places a hand against his neck, leans closer, lips just brushing his.

"Dawn... I can't."

Dawn closes her eyes, fingers closing into a fist and exhales shakily. "Can't or won't?"

Sam doesn't answer and Dawn doesn't give him the chance. She pushes herself to her feet, letting her clattering heels and the slamming door do all of the talking.

--

Sam drags her on what he calls a routine salt-and-burn, claiming they need a break from demons and that she needs the practice. She bites her lip against the protest caught in her throat and lets him explain the basics of hauntings in a rote, almost monotone voice. Things are tense between them, stifling, the air thick with unsaid words and actions, and Dawn wishes he would scream at her already, maybe throw a punch or two - that or jump her bones, because Christ, this is getting ridiculous. She sighs and nods in all the right places, wonders how in all her years of patrolling cemeteries, Buffy never ran into the Winchesters digging up any graves. The thought makes her frown - now, she never will.

This particular ghost is terrorizing a young family, who Sam somehow convinces to stay at a hotel for the night while they check out the house - something about oil and a gas leak and a line of bullshit she didn't think anyone ever believed outside of television shows.

She's halfway up the stairs when a loud crack echoes from somewhere near the front of the house, and she runs, sliding against a wall still wet with paint. She doesn't think when she sees the woman pinning Sam to the ground, just points the rifle in her hands and shoots.

Dawn stumbles with the kickback, but the gun fires exactly where she aims, and the ghost dissipates in a cloud of rock salt, leaving Sam heaving for breath on the ground. He glances where the ghost was standing, looks at Dawn, who lowers the sawed-off to her side.

She grins down at him, white paint streaked across her cheek and entire right side, and he throws back his head and laughs.

--

They're in Pontiac, Illinois when Sam finally breaks.

Sam's hands clench on the steering wheel when they pass the city limits, and she glances at him, eyebrow furrowed.

"This is where we..." his voice trails off, hands tightening further. "Where we..."

Dawn places a hand on his shoulder, shakes her head, and he exhales, shooting her a grateful glance.

The town crawls with demons, enough that even Dawn swears the air feels thicker, smells faintly of sulfur, and Sam grasps her shoulder, steers her down the street towards a cluster of homes - quiet, suburban. Nothing like she would assume would house a demon.

There's a little girl visible through the front window, blonde hair and blue dress and patent leather shoes. A chill creeps over Dawn, and Sam gives her a nod as he pushes in the door.

The girl screeches when she sees them, and Dawn shouts, "Sam!" just before she gets slammed into the wall.

"Well, aren't you a pretty little thing," the demon holding her says with a chuckle, hand tight around her neck, and figures, this is the way she would die, when he drops her, hand clinging to his own neck as he gasps, falling to his knees. Dawn chokes, eyes reaching Sam - who strains under his power, but pulls the demon from his host in one fell swoop, black smoke reaching for the ceiling before fading into the floor.

Dawn heaves for breath, staring at the bodies on the floor, two which lay in a pool of their own blood. Sam wipes the blade of his knife on his jeans; his arms are shaky as they pull her to her feet.

"I need a drink," she says finally, breaking the silence. "I need a lot of drinks." Sam nods in agreement, wiping the blood from his nose on his sleeve.

She's drunk on too many shots of tequila that night and the world spins madly as she sidles up to Sam, slipping out of her jacket and straddling him on the bed at their hotel. He looks at her with wary eyes and a raised eyebrow. He smells of cigarette smoke, of whiskey, of Sam.

"I'm not a child," she tells him, squeezing her legs tighter around his thighs.

He wraps his hands around her hips and she arches her back, puts her arms around his shoulders. "I know," he murmurs, hands digging in as she crashes her mouth down to his.

--

Her whole world comes crashing down again the next morning.

She opens the door furrowing her brow at the strangers standing there. She barely gets out the words, "So where's the pizza?" before Sam comes up behind her, breath wheezing out, "Dean," on a shaky exhale.

"Hiya, Sammy," Dean says fondly, and Dawn looks between them, stomach plummeting to the floor.

Sam grasps Dean by his collar and slams him into the wall. Dawn throws herself out of the way, narrowly missing getting dragged into the fray.

"It's him," the other man - her name blindly supplies her with the name Bobby - tries to pry Sam off of Dean, talks to him like a startled, wild animal. "It's him. I've been through this already, it's really him." Sam's eyes widen, then fill with tears.

Oh, God.

All she can think is DeanDeanDean and BuffyBuffyBuffy, the words jumbling together until her head spins with the unfairness of it all. Dawn averts her eyes as the brothers embrace and tugs on her clothes, invisible.

She slips out the door, slides down the wall. Dawn pulls her knees up to her chest and tries to remember how to breathe.

The End

You have reached the end of "Breathe". This story is complete.

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