"... was murdered today at his safehouse in Los Angeles. Authorities are still investigating how this could have happened, but according to a spokeswoman of the FBI everything points to a professional hit. As Mendoza was scheduled to testify against various suspected members of the New York Mafia, this is where the focus of the investigation will lie," the reporter said.
"I guess the FBI is pretty pissed someone leaked that," Buffy said in a false-sounding cheery tone.
Deciding to help her friend forget about all the bad things, Willow took up the conversation. "Yes, now the bad guys know they succeeded."
"The bad guy is dead," Oz spoke up from behind the wheel of the car.
"Huh?" Buffy asked, "I thought he was going to testify against the Mafia. Or did you hear something about the killer?"
"Child rapist," Oz said in his usual succinct way, and while it took Willow a couple of seconds to understand what he meant, once she did she was shocked.
"You mean this Mendoza guy raped children?"
Oz only nodded in reply.
"Oh yuck," Buffy joined in. "Why would he testify against the Mafia then? They wouldn't actually let him go because of that confession, would they?"
Once again, a nod was all Oz needed to imply that they would indeed do that.
Willow couldn't really handle something like this, and she wished she hadn't asked for the radio to be turned on. She'd only done so in the hope it would distract Buffy from her perpetual funk, but she hadn't expected they would hear something like this.
"How do you know about this anyway? I didn't hear them say anything about it on the news," Willow asked her new boyfriend.
"Heard it. The parents offered a reward."
"To have him killed? They offered a reward for his head?"
"Something else," Oz replied.
"Something else?" Willow wondered, before she understood what Oz was talking about and felt her cheeks burn. "That's... that's..."
"Gross," Buffy finished for her. "How could anyone offer a reward for something like that?"
"Dawn," Oz said simply.
"Where? She isn't walking is she?" Buffy asked as she looked out of the window into the night.
"No, what if it was Dawn?"
Buffy blinked, and Willow could almost hear the gears turning, the adrenaline pumping furiously, and the creak of muscles as they were flexed. "If it was Dawn, he wouldn't have gotten of that easily."
Willow didn't doubt Buffy's statement for a moment. She knew her friend well enough that while Buffy might gripe about Dawn nearly constantly, the two sisters loved each other deeply. If anything were to happen to Dawn, Buffy would be the first to kill whoever had been behind it.
Emotions were both Buffy's biggest strength and her greatest weakness. It was a good thing of course for anyone to care so deeply about their friends and family as Buffy did, but it also meant she wasn't quite as able to deal with the current situation. Not that Willow blamed Buffy.
No, far from it. If she even considered the possibility of having the duty to kill Oz, no matter how he had changed, Willow was pretty sure she wouldn't be able to do it either.
And because of that, it was her duty as Buffy's best friend to support her as well as she could. Buffy was too important for the future of Sunnydale - and the rest of the world - to let her burn out; something that was bound to happen if she was constantly reminded of the evil she'd accidentally let loose.
Stupid gypsies. Why couldn't they have told Buffy the curse could be broken? Miss Calendar might be forgiven for it, but the others of her clan? No. Willow could all too clearly remember the times during the past week that she'd held Buffy while her friend was crying her heart out. It wasn't fair!
Even with all she did to help Buffy, Willow knew her friend still kept much of her feelings hidden inside of her. That wasn't something she wanted to think about though, how the strongest person she knew would cry herself to sleep without anyone near who could comfort her. The only one who had access to Buffy at those times, and knew at least something about the situation, was Dawn.
And while Dawn had matured a lot since last Halloween, she was still simply too young to truly understand what was going on. Which meant Buffy would be crying herself to sleep every night until they found a good solution to the problem with Angelus.
Why couldn't life ever be simple? Turning her attention back to Buffy, Willow saw that while she had a distracted look on her face Buffy was still crushing her hands the same way she had done before.
Was that a tear?
Rolling ever so carefully over Buffy's cheek was a single tear. Buffy never cried when any of the guys were around, so why had she suddenly changed that? Scooting a little closer to Buffy, Willow threw a look at Oz that meant he should keep his focus on the road and ignore everything that was happening on the backseat.
"What's wrong," Willow quietly began.
"Nothing's wrong Wills, nothing."
"Buffy, you're crying. Did we say something?"
"Will, I don't want to talk about it."
No, Willow recognized these were just empty words. Buffy wanted to talk, but didn't want to look like she was bothering Willow with all her problems. Very understandable, but also annoying in a situation like this. They were almost at the busstop, and after they'd picked up Dawn there wouldn't be much time left to talk.
"Hey, it's me remember? Your best friend. You can tell me what's wrong."
"The thing about Dawn, it just reminded me of something."
Reminded her of something? The mention of someone raping Dawn reminded her of something? For a moment Willow couldn't understand it: it was simply too weird. Until she made the connection. "No, he didn't," she whispered furiously. Oz only knew Buffy had boyfriend troubles, not that the boyfriend in question was a vampire who'd lost his soul. In fact, he didn't even know vampires were real.
Buffy nodded to reinforce her statement before whispering her reply. "He did, and if not him it would be Spike, Drusilla, or one of a hundred other vampires. He wants to hurt me through my little sister, and I can't let that happen."
So that was it. There was someone Buffy cared about more than she did about Angel. Willow had come to wonder if there would ever be a moment where Buffy would be forced to make a choice between ending the chance of her loved one returning and losing someone else she cared about. There was a point where Buffy would make that decision, and it was the moment Angelus would threaten Dawn's life.
The only question remaining was when Buffy would think that enough was enough. She wasn't ready for it now - not unless a direct threat to Dawn's life came about that is - because the wound was still too raw. If Willow were to guess she'd have to say that it would be a month, or perhaps even two, before Buffy would be capable of killing Angelus.
Mentally that is. Physically Willow had no doubt her friend was more than capable of doing what needed to be done. But right now Buffy was far from ready mentally. Willow had a feeling she was the only one to whom Buffy had confessed some of her nightly battles with Angelus, and how she was unable to finish those fights the way she wanted to. Which meant that it was her responsibility to make sure that Buffy was able to handle everything else.
"The bus isn't here yet," Buffy said while Willow was still staring at her in disbelief. The words shocked her out of her stupor and made Willow pay attention to their surroundings again. They'd arrived at the bus stop, but respecting their wishes Oz hadn't disturbed them for it. It constantly amazed her how nice he was, so kind, and sweet, and loving. Her boyfriend.
Boyfriend. Once upon a time she hadn't thought anyone but Xander would ever get to wear that title, but as he was dating - if you could call it that - Cordelia these days that was no longer possible. Besides, once she'd gotten to know Xander she'd realized her feelings for her childhood friend were a crush. And now she had a real boyfriend; the thought of which was still capable of making her feel giddy.
Now all she had to do was to tell her parents she was dating a musician. Willow suspected her parents already knew she was in love, they'd dropped a couple of hints in that direction, but she doubted they would be very understanding about her choice. On the other hand, it could have been worse: at least Oz wasn't a girl.
Although he did paint his nails. The thought popped up without warning, and Willow had to do her best to suppress a smile. In her current funk, Buffy wouldn't appreciate hearing how other people were having a happy relationship. Not that she believed Buffy would begrudge them happiness, oh no her friend would never do that, but rubbing their joy into Buffy's face wasn't the kind of thing a good friend would do.
And she was a good friend. She liked being a good friend, just like she liked being useful even if it was only with the researching. Soon she would learn how to do magic too, and then she would be even more useful. She could come along with Buffy on patrol and destroy hordes of vampires with a single wave of her hand. That would keep Buffy safe as well, so that she could live a better and more normal life.
Oh no, she wasn't rambling again was she? At least she'd kept it inside her head this time as she couldn't really talk about her plan before she was capable of such powerful magic. Knowing Buffy, her friend would try to stop her from putting herself at such risk even if it meant Buffy would be running a bigger risk herself. No, for now she would just have to follow Jenny's lessons and do the rest of her studying when she was alone.
Maybe she could even surprise Jenny that she'd learned some things Jenny hadn't believed her to be ready for yet. They hadn't been all that hard at all, and she'd always loved it when someone told her she couldn't do something. It was a challenge that simply couldn't be ignored: she had to learn whatever it was.
To Willow learning had always come easy, and magic was only another thing to learn. While it was a bit more mystical than math or history, it was still something that could be learned. Of course, being able to do magic was a lot more special than being able to understand how an equation worked, or know who the thirteenth President was.
Right, turning back to Buffy Willow tried to banish her thoughts and focus back on her friend. Angelus' threat had scared Buffy far more than she had imagined to be possible. Not that she was really surprised by that, considering how much the sisters loved each other. It also explained why Buffy hadn't grumbled at all when Joyce had asked them to pick Dawn up at the station.
At any other time Buffy might have insisted Dawn should just walk home, it was fifteen minutes at most and she didn't have much with her in the way of clothes. Which was strange, because Buffy always used to complain how Dawn needed an entire suitcase even when spending the night at a friend's house.
No! Focus! She needed words to comfort her friend, not think about how said friend's little sister had learned that changing five times a day wasn't particularly useful. Now, what could she say?
"He'll never be able to do that, you know that right?"
"What?" Buffy asked with a frown. "Oh, him. I won't let him do it, that's true."
Him. So, Buffy still wasn't able to say Angelus' name when she didn't need to. But Buffy's reaction also showed that she'd waited too long with her reply. Which was stupid of course, but she couldn't have come up with anything sooner. That didn't mean she couldn't offer more comfort now that she'd gotten over her shock. "Not only that, but Dawn is a smart girl and would never let anything like that happen to her."
"He's bigger, faster, and stronger," Buffy pointed out.
"Are you sure? He is pretty smart himself."
No, he liked to think he was smart. Willow decided not to say that though as she wasn't sure how Buffy would see a comment like that. She wouldn't mean it as derogatory to either Buffy or Angel, but comments like that had a habit of always coming out wrong. "Don't underestimate Dawn. Have you seen how focused she is when she's helping us with research? She's so intense it's pretty scary. Especially when it concerns magic: it's almost as if she really hates it."
"She does," Buffy interrupted. "I read between the lines in her diary, and confronted her about it. She blames magic for everything that could go wrong: from the divorce to why she can't go out alone at night anymore."
Ignoring the mention of Buffy reading her sister's diary - she knew the reverse happened as well - Willow asked for an explanation. "Really? Why? Because of the whole Halloween thing?"
"Pretty much, and she's seen the reaction it has on us. And there's one more thing I'm still not entirely sure about..."
"It doesn't matter, it's really stupid."
"I won't laugh, you know that. What is it?"
"I think that maybe Dawn bought her suit at Ethan's after all."
"What do you mean? We both saw her, and you even found her freaked out at your mom's gallery."
"How much do we really know of what happened during that night? With Dawn I mean. I don't think I actually saw her for more than a couple of minutes during the spell, and if anything had been off I probably wouldn't have noticed it."
"B-but the others? Wouldn't they have figured something out?"
"What others? Xander? He was affected as much as I was. And neither Cordelia nor An-, nor he, knew Dawn."
Willow was still far from convinced, and told Buffy so. "That doesn't prove anything. That only means the possibility was there, not that she was affected."
"There is more to it. Dawn has changed since Halloween. She tries to hide it, make the changes look less like what they are, but sometimes I barely recognize her." Buffy sighed, before looking past the still silent Oz and into the night. "Dawn was never all that focused on anything, but nowadays she wants to learn everything. She's even learning how to fight!"
"Self-defence," Willow pointed out.
"Right," Buffy snorted, "you do remember she was grounded for hurting that kid, don't you?"
"He was taking something from her." Even as Willow said it, she knew how flimsy that excuse was.
"Before Halloween she would have complained to a teacher."
"Yeah, but that still doesn't prove anything. We all changed when we found out. You stopped being all cheerleader like, Xander became more protective, Cordelia-. Okay, there are some exceptions, but I still don't think it means anything."
"I don't know," Buffy said while shaking her head. "It's not like I have any proof she got her costume there, and why wouldn't she tell us if that's the case? We were all affected, and Xander still even feels the aftereffects."
Even if she'd wanted to, Willow couldn't stop the smile that spilled on her face as she thought about Xander's constant complaining about waking up early in the morning and the other effects. It wasn't that she wanted her friend to be unhappy, but it was just so funny. "So, did Dawn suddenly start cleaning her room too?"
"Hah, trust me if that had been the case I would've taken my ice-skates and gone to the Hellmouth to try the new ice-rink there."
"Oh, she's just like you then?"
"Hey! You're supposed to be my friend!" Buffy said with a laugh, while lightly swatting Willow. It wasn't sincere laughter though, and Willow could clearly see the pain hidden behind the facade.
Nonetheless, she tried to play along. "I am! But I've heard your mom complain about your room far too often to believe you keep it clean."
"Hah, she doesn't complain about my room nearly as much as she does ab-"
"Bus," Oz interrupted their teasing.
Turning to look at the road, Willow could see Oz was right: the bus was approaching the busstop. By the time she noticed that however, Buffy was already out of the car, and Oz wasn't far behind: leaving her to bring up the rear. Of course, there were no vampires around or Buffy would have reacted to them already, but that didn't mean she wanted to be away from Buffy's protection.
The bus stopped, and shortly after people started filing out. All five of them, with Dawn naturally bringing up the rear.
Bringing up the rear and lugging a large pack she definitely hadn't left with.
"What the hell is that?" Buffy demanded, as she too noticed what Dawn was taking along. "I thought you only left with a small backpack?"
"Presents," Dawn said with a smile as if it should be obvious. "I bought some presents, but I'm not done yet so I have to go back next week."
"I'm not sure mom will like that," Buffy answered.
"I don't need to stay, it's just that some of the things I wanted had to be ordered."
Had to be ordered? What kind of presents did Dawn buy that they had to be ordered? That was so strange that for a moment Willow almost started to believe Buffy's suspicions, but noticing the innocent look in Dawn's eyes she rejected the thought as soon as it sprang into existence. Dawn had dressed like a hardened assassin: there was no way someone like that could look this innocent.
"What kind of things?" Buffy asked.
"Valentine kind of things," Dawn answered with a look that was obviously meant to silence Buffy.
"Cordelia," Buffy only said to indicate the uselessness of Dawn's crush.
"That's not important."
"She probably disagrees." Willow knew that Buffy was right, but Dawn didn't seem to agree. Dawn was still in denial where it came to Xander. At least the denial part where she denied that anyone could possibly have a better claim on him than her.
"Okay, let's explain how this works," Dawn said with a sigh. "Xander loves Cordelia, I get that. On the other hand, I also understand that won't last forever and before they break up I want to have buttered him up a bit. Now, talking about my future husband, where is he?"
Future husband. Willow could only too clearly remember how she'd thought similar things when she'd been Dawn's age. The number of times she'd written Willow Harris was too much to count. Okay, not really to count because that was just a literary way to say there were a lot of them, but still: she'd written it down very often. Of course, that had all stopped when Oz became her boyfriend.
Dawn didn't have her own Oz, and was therefore still determined to make a fool out of herself. Personally, Willow didn't see any downside to that as Dawn would learn from those moments as she had. It would be painful for her, to be ignored as only a best friend when what she wanted was so much more, but Dawn would come out stronger. Willow had no doubts about that.
"He couldn't come," Buffy answered Dawn's question, and in doing so she brought Willow's mind back on track.
"He said there was something he needed to do."
"Oh." No matter how much she said she could wait, it was obvious Dawn was disappointed by this news. If she didn't have personal knowledge about how easily Xander could overlook somebody's crush Willow might have been surprised he hadn't noticed how far Dawn's feelings actually went.
Sure, he knew Dawn had a crush on him, Buffy's statement after Halloween had been pretty clear, but Willow was sure that if Xander knew how deep it really went he would have acted differently. Dawn didn't remain silent for long however, as she finally seemed to have noticed Oz. "So, who's the silent one?"
"Oz," Oz told her.
"Cool name. Are you Willow's boyfriend?"
"Cool attitude as well. When did you two hook up?"
"About two weeks ago," Willow said in an attempt to stop the interrogation of her boyfriend. He was hers after all.
"Oh, so that's why you were constantly giggling with Buffy," Dawn understood.
Yes, although she wouldn't admit that with Oz nearby. Besides, the giggling stopped after Buffy's birthday as it would simply be unfair to gush to Buffy about Oz when Angel had just lost his soul. Well, that and how the whole Angelus situation managed to make everyone depressed.
"So, does he know?"
"About what?" Oz asked, while Willow wondered the same thing. Judging by Buffy's sudden blanched face, she knew what Dawn was talking about.
"Dawn!" Buffy tried to stop her sister, but it would never work without physically restraining her, something Buffy wouldn't do in public.
"That vampires and demons are real," Dawn said simply in reply to Oz's question.
No! How could that little bitch do that? She might scare him away! Oz simply blinked however, and turned to look at both Buffy and Willow. "That explains some things."
"Damn, you really are cool," Dawn said half in awe. "I didn't know anyone could react to finding out like that."
Oz only shrugged, although Willow could see the hurt that was evident in his eyes. With Buffy's behavior, and her own guilty look, it was obvious she couldn't deny the truth about the situation, but she wished she could say something to repair the trust between them. "Oz..." Willow started, before petering out when her boyfriend turned to the car.
"Let's go, Sunnydale is dangerous at night." Ouch, even such a simple statement hurt terribly. Oz had said that when they went to catch a movie after they'd just hooked up as well, but this time there was quite a bit of subtext in it. Why did Dawn have to tell him about the demons?
"Sure," Dawn replied as if she hadn't done anything wrong. "Oh Buffy?"
"Yeah Dawn?" was Buffy's weary reply.
"Have you told mom yet?"
Post-fic comments: That's it for this story. The sequel will appear when it's ready. As usual I won't post it until it's finished.