Dawn rushed down the stairs, as she saw the group coming back from their patrol. She flung open the door, and then stared at a sight she never thought she'd see again. There, standing right beside the Buffy-bot, was…
"Buffy?" Dawn asked.
Giles stepped forwards. "It's… not exactly Buffy," he said. "This is… well, she calls herself Elizabeth. She appeared in the graveyard whilst we were on patrol. None of us are quite sure how or why she arrived, but she seems to be Buffy from another world."
Elizabeth gave Dawn a friendly wave. "Hi."
Dawn looked between Giles and Elizabeth. "I… I don't…"
"She doesn't have anywhere else to go, Dawny," said Willow. "And she really does seem like Buffy. Just, Buffy without the, you know, Hellmouthy stuff."
Dawn stuffed a hand into her back pocket, and slouched in the doorway. "Oh, I get it," she said. "You're letting her stay here, until you and Tara can do some magic spell to send her back to her world. I'm cool with that."
"Actually, I sort of thought maybe I could… stay for good?" Elizabeth volunteered. "I mean, only if that's all right!"
"It does seem to be a rather ingenious plan," Giles told Dawn. "With Elizabeth, we wouldn't need to worry about your father calling, or demons discovering Buffy's demise, or any of the other myriad of problems we've been discussing."
"You're replacing Buffy?" Dawn asked.
"We're… not replacing her," Tara said to Dawn. "Elizabeth just thought maybe she could stay here, and we—"
"You can't just replace Buffy like that!" Dawn cried. She turned to Elizabeth. "Whoever you are, whatever you look like, you're not Buffy! You'll never be Buffy!"
"Dawn, calm down," said Willow. "No one's trying to replace…" She trailed off, as she realized that, what with the Buffy-bot around and everything, that argument didn't hold much weight.
Elizabeth stepped towards Dawn. "Look, I heard what happened to Buffy," she said, quietly. "And I'm really, really sorry. I know what it's like to lose people you're close to. I've lost… oh, God, I've lost so many people. And you can't ever replace them, no matter what. Even if I'm all same DNA and same memories, it's not like I'm ever going to be Buffy. I get that. It's just… this world's like a taste of freedom for me, and — I mean, looking at Sunnydale all Hellmouthy and demony and stuff — I think I could really help you guys out." She looked deep into Dawn's eyes. "Please. Just give me a chance."
Dawn hesitated. The thing was that this Elizabeth person did seem really nice, and she looked and sounded and acted so much like Buffy. It was really tempting.
"Maybe," said Dawn.
Elizabeth smiled. "Great!" she said. "I mean — not great in a going-to-move-my-stuff-in-and-hog-the-place way, just great in a glad-to-make-friends kind of way. Not that I'm thinking we're friends, yet. Unless you want to be friends. That would be great! I know it's never going to be the same kind of friendship you and Buffy had, but maybe we could still hang out."
Dawn stepped away. "Friends?" she cried. "Friends? You… you don't even know who I am!"
"They said you're an energy creature," said Elizabeth. "Which is… I mean, that's fine. Super fine. I've met lots of creatures of pure energy before. You don't even need to wear a perception filter, if you don't want. I'm not squeamish or closed minded or anything. I can handle it."
Dawn's eyes filled up with tears. Then she turned, and ran back into the house, up the stairs and into her bedroom, where she slammed the door.
Elizabeth looked after her. Then she looked back at the rest of the group. "I… I screwed it up, didn't I?"
Everyone looked at everyone else.
"We… never actually told her who Dawn was, did we?" Willow asked.
"I told her," Anya said. "Green glowing energy."
"Yes, but that's not exactly who Dawn was to Buffy," Xander explained.
Elizabeth blinked. "Um… who was Dawn to Buffy?"
"Dawn was Buffy's sister," Tara told her.
Elizabeth's breath caught in her throat. "Wait, but… you said… with the energy…"
"She used to be comprised solely of mystical energy," Giles explained. "But she's been given human form. For all intents and purposes, right now, she's a normal human child."
"And she's sort of insecure about the whole not-being-real thing," said Willow. "So when you came along, and didn't know her, she just…" Willow shrugged.
Elizabeth stared into the house, past the still-open door. "Oh, God. She must be furious at me."
"She'll get used to the idea," said Tara. "Just give her time."
Elizabeth hesitated, then shook her head. "I've got to go and apologize," she said. "I can't just leave her like that."
Elizabeth bolted inside the house, and raced up the stairs. She looked around, trying to work out where Dawn's room could be. Well, there had been a spare room that her mom had used as an art studio. Maybe it was that?
Elizabeth ran to the spare room, and, sure enough, could hear a crying girl behind it. She gathered up her courage, and knocked on the door.
"Go away!" Dawn sobbed.
"Dawn," said Elizabeth, softly, "I'm sorry. I didn't know. Can I come in?"
"No," said Dawn. "You're not Buffy. You can never be Buffy!"
Elizabeth nodded, and then slumped against the door. "I know," she said. "I never will. I'm just Elizabeth."
"Why don't you just go back where you came from!" Dawn shouted.
Elizabeth said nothing for a moment. "Because I'm running away," she admitted. She sunk down so that she was sitting on the floor, back against the door. "Have you ever done that, Dawn? Have you ever felt that fear, when you realize that you can't run fast enough, because the universe created you for one purpose and one purpose alone, and no matter where you go or what you do, you can never, ever get away from it?"
Dawn stopped crying. She sniffed. "Maybe."
"I've spent so long thinking about my destiny," said Elizabeth. "My fate. My purpose on this Earth. But you can't run away from the future, and mine keeps getting closer, day by day, hour by hour. And then, when I wound up here, in this world, it was like… I was free to choose for myself again. I wasn't some cosmic handyman's fix-it tool. I could be me. I could be a person."
The sound of footsteps clattered behind the door. "Willow and Tara haven't told you anything, have they?"
"They said you're Buffy's sister," said Elizabeth.
"Not about that," said Dawn. "About what I really am. Beneath the surface."
"You're Dawn Summers," said Elizabeth. "And you can be anything you want. You don't have to pay attention to what's beneath the surface. You can be free. Be yourself."
"You sound like all the stupid motivational speakers I've ever heard," said Dawn.
Elizabeth hugged her knees to her chest. "Except I believe it," she said. "Because I have to believe it. Because I whisper it to myself, every single day, and every night, as I fall asleep. It's the only thing that's kept me together, the only thing that's kept me from going insane. This idea that I can be myself again. That maybe it's not too late. Maybe they won't all die. Maybe it doesn't have to happen the way it did." She hunched over, and buried her face in her knees. "I can't let it happen the way it did."
The door creaked open, and Dawn stepped out. Elizabeth looked up at her, from her position on the floor.
"What happened?" asked Dawn.
"I don't want to think about it," said Elizabeth.
Dawn sat down on the floor beside Elizabeth. "I loved Buffy more than anything," she said. "She was my sister. And I lost her, because she sacrificed herself to save my life."
"Wow," said Elizabeth. She shook her head. "No wonder you're all with the no-replacement-Buffy. I can't top something like that."
Dawn looked over at Elizabeth, studying her carefully. "You really are exactly like Buffy," she said. "Except you look… kind of older."
"Yeah," said Elizabeth.
"You're not, like, evil or anything, right?" Dawn asked. "I mean, not that I think you are, but it's just—"
"I'm not evil," said Elizabeth. "I'm never going to be evil. I promise."
"Oh," said Dawn. She looked down at the rug beneath her. "I guess you can stay here."
"Yeah," said Dawn, picking at the rug. "Just… I mean, if you act too much like Buffy, I might start… you know, accidentally…"
"I know," said Elizabeth. "I won't freak out or anything. And if you need a big sister, I can do that. I mean, you'll sort of have to bear with me, because I've never had a sister before, so I don't really know how it works. But I had a goldfish, once! His name was Mr. Bubbles. And if I could take care of Mr. Bubbles, I can take care of you!"
"Buffy had a goldfish named Mr. Bubbles," said Dawn. "She forgot to feed it, and it died."
"Oh," said Elizabeth. "You… know about that." She grimaced. "I… promise to remember to feed you?"
"Will you promise not to treat me like a kid?" Dawn asked, glancing over at Elizabeth.
Elizabeth looked her up and down. "How old are you? Fifteen or something?"
"Then I'll treat you like you're fifteen," said Elizabeth. She grinned. "No making out with boys until your homework's done!"
"It's not that," said Dawn. "It's just that Buffy sometimes would, you know, treat me like I didn't understand about vampires and evil creatures and stuff."
"Oh," said Elizabeth. "Well, I wouldn't make out with any of those things even after I'd finished my homework."
Dawn gave a small giggle, and then swept Elizabeth into a hug. "Thanks," she said.
"Buf — I mean, Elizabeth!" Tara called from downstairs. "Giles is about to leave."
"I better go," Elizabeth said to Dawn. "But we'll talk more, okay?"
Dawn nodded, her arms still wrapped around Elizabeth, her eyes shut. And it was so much like Buffy, so much like her sister, that she just couldn't help herself. She wanted to pretend. She wanted to believe.
Buffy had come back.
Elizabeth gave Dawn a gentle pat on the back, before extricating herself from the hug, and going back down the stairs.