Summary: At night, the dark-haired girl without a name glowed at her through eddies of green light.
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Original Story: Run and Catch by cesario (with some additional inspiration from the previously remixed fic Daylight).
Dawn had a happy childhood: two loving parents, toys in her room, a comfortable home with a swing in the backyard. Sometimes, she might even admit that her older sister wasn’t so bad, either. On other days, the two girls didn’t stop squabbling. They’d call one another names, steal each other’s Barbie dolls and end up with hair-pulling or scratching. In these moments, Dawn closed her eyes and wished for her imaginary friend.
Later on, she would find it, like, totally bizarre that an imaginary girl with an imaginary childhood could have imaginary friends as well; as a kid, she liked nothing better than to shut out a shrieking Buffy, who threatened her with the hair-brush Dawn had broken, and piece together a make-believe sister: a toy-maker who placed a heart-shaped smile on porcelain skin. Dawn couldn’t see this smile when she was awake, although she felt it in the sun burning on her tanned face, sweet and beguiling and envious. At night, however, the dark-haired girl without a name glowed at her through eddies of green light.
"Would you like to be my sister?"
Her friend’s hand was cold and dry in Dawn’s fist. With surprising strength, she pulled her towards the table.
"Let’s have a tea party together, shall we?"
Dawn obeyed and sat down between the dolls (real dolls, with floral dresses, white lace and braided wigs); she tasted something called seed cake, sipped sugar water from a china cup and pretended it was tea. Whenever she smacked her lips too loudly or talked with her mouth full, the other girl shook her head.
"Mind your manners, dear," she said, in that odd way of hers. "Little girls should be seen, not heard. Everyone else knows how to behave."
Dawn looked at the dolls, wanting to shout, ‘They aren’t real, you know!’
Then the smell of rotting meat hit her, and she noticed something odd about the dolls, too. Limbs of flesh stuffed in satin sleeves and silk stockings; flies rising from wounds under soiled lace collars; empty eye-sockets instead of painted glass.
She woke up sobbing.
From the other side of the room, Buffy scowled at her and called her a cry-baby. But when Dawn sneaked over to her sister’s bed on bare feet, Buffy let her crawl under the covers, putting an arm around her.
"No touching with your icy toes."
These were the last words Dawn heard before she drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
Dawn didn’t give up on her made-up friend, though. She wasn’t always frightening; mostly, she was just there, floating into her thoughts and out again with the wind.
As Mom and Dad started arguing a lot, Dawn would sit at the top of the stairs, trying to listen in on their arguments. Once, she overheard how Mom accused him of cheating, and it made her feel grown-up because she knew about S-E-X. Mouthing words like ‘affair’ or ‘adultery’ along with her mother was preferable to crying herself to sleep.
"Poor little thing," her friend crooned. "So afraid of being all alone. My daddy left us – he was the first."
"My dad won’t leave us," Dawn said. It sounded like the lame excuse it was. "He won’t."
"I know we should honor father and mother and not talk ill of them, but he’s breaking one of the Commandments."
Dawn’s friend pointed at the book on the tea table, a leather-bound tome with gilt edging, dark, heavy and full of gruesome pictures that Dawn didn’t much care for.
"Don’t you worry, dearest," the dream-girl said. "The sinner will go, and we shall always have each other, I swear."
As she pressed their clasped hands on the yellowed pages, their palms began to burn, white flesh black to the bone.
Dawn was lying motionless in her bed, blanket drawn up to her chin, eyes fixed on the mobile on the ceiling. ‘You’re a bit too old to crawl into Buffy’s bed just because you had a bad dream,’ she told herself, reluctant to admit that her sister’s secrets frightened her, too.
She’d been reading Buffy’s diary for a while, and she wanted to laugh at it because Buffy was way too old for that crap, for imaginary mentors and special powers. The laughter didn’t feel right, though.
"No, I won’t listen to you," she screamed over breakfast the following morning, nearly choking on her waffles. "You’re crazy, and I don’t have to listen to crazy people. Oh, come on, I saw the weird stuff you write."
A few days later, when they visited Buffy in the clinic, she looked pale and worn in her hospital gown. Dawn wondered if she ever got any waffles, or if she’d starve on her diet of pills until she promised to take up therapy. Slowly, she lifted her hand to touch Buffy’s cheek, but dropped it as she saw her sister flinch. Tender fingers were ghosting Dawn’s hair on the ride home, and the noise of the car lulled her asleep.
"These pills are so pretty in red and pink and blue," the girl said, weaving flowers into her unkempt dark hair. "Everyone thought I was going mad, but I was only telling the truth. And although my sisters loved me, they didn’t give me the colors of the rainbow."
Her blood-stained skirts were billowing around her, brilliant green reflections caught in the red-and-white fabric.
"They feared I was possessed by the devil, you see," she went on in a confidential whisper. "It’s better to be mad than to be evil. It’s even better to be dead."
She seemed to be drowning in the broken light, sinking gently downwards and taking Dawn with her into the harsh California sun.
Buffy, too, had only been telling the truth, but it took Dawn over two years to understand. That time, it was her sister who left them, left them to the dawning realization that the monsters under the bed and in their dreams were the truth as well. Dawn made sure to avoid the playground after dark: Any stranger could hide sharp teeth behind a smile, have nails like claws and be the wolf in grandmother’s dress.
You could and couldn’t kill a girl, who might or might not have ever existed, slice thin air open with a knife to see guts slither out and watch the blood drip, drip, drip. After discovering her own secret, every bit as horrible as her sister’s, Dawn’s head was spinning, like the merry-go-round they’d rented for her tenth birthday: her mom and Buffy and a girl pieced together from dreams and light, an imaginary child in a real family.
But she remembered that party, remembered sandcastles on the beach, the day her lunch money got stolen, the swing in their backyard, the sense of flying, of falling, when she swung too high and seemed to float through the clouds in the sky. She thought nothing could be worse than this moment. That was before her real family left her behind to play hide and seek under the ground.
"Everyone leaves us in the end," her dream-friend, nightmare-friend, said. "After my father, it was my mother, then my sisters; my mother and sisters in Christ, too. They were hiding from me in the earth, and I couldn’t find them. I didn’t like that game."
The hands cradling Dawn’s face were dirty and raw from digging in the soil. They left blood-smears on her jaw.
"My boy went, and grandmommy didn’t stay, either. She has got her own baby now: She’ll give birth to my grandchild, my little brother, who’s as impossible and unreal as you."
Dawn woke up with tear-stained cheeks in a house which was far too empty. Spike wasn’t around to watch stupid B-movies and gross phone sex-ads on late-night TV together, and it’d be weird to disturb Willow and Tara with her dreams. She slipped into her not-quite-sister’s bed instead, snuggling up against a life-sized plastic doll with empty eyes.
Even when she had her sister back, Buffy was limp and glassy-eyed, lifeless under Dawn’s touch and blind to her joy. So, Dawn started clamoring for attention, wrapping her fingers around jewelry and lipstick, cheap and tangible and real, refusing to eat until she’d be blown away, like a falling leaf caught by a sudden wind. The voice in her mind went on telling her that she was a naughty, naughty girl who should be minding her manners. Dawn couldn’t drown it out.
It simply vanished on the day when Buffy looked at her sister at last, saw her fighting and pulled her close. Suddenly, Dawn felt ashamed and silently promised she’d make herself useful. If she was useful, she couldn’t be unmade; if she learned how to help without special powers, a normal girl with normal high-school friends, she wouldn’t be sacrificed, unlike the girls who invaded their home, the girls who kept dying.
"But they were born to fight and die," her friend stated, matter-of-factly, in yet another dream. "I was made to be destroyed and to destroy. You were created to be loved."
She was rolling strands of Dawn’s shiny hair around her fingers, like mourning rings out of spun sunshine.
Dawn decided she was bigger than that. She had potential of her own to find strength without a spell. After moving with Buffy to Europe, she flirted with cute Italian ice-cream vendors, attended an international school in Rome, studied hard to outsmart big sis pretty easily and fell into a deep sleep every night.
When she went to Oxford, the dreams returned. No matter how busy she was with essays and library sessions, pub crawls and fancy-dress bops, she’d scream her throat raw over and over again. The girl was cradling broken babies in her arms, ripping apart one toddler after the other to make dolls out of flesh, soft skin stuck in predator’s teeth.
Dawn’s cries would wake her next-door neighbors, and she’d escape from her college room in the early morning, cycling to the nearest Tesco’s to stock up on tea and painkillers. There wasn’t any queue at the cash register in the hours before dawn and she slipped by the newsstand with its bold headlines: Another missing child! Mother-to-be butchered! Serial-killer on the prowl!
"I wanted to be simply, subtly sweet, a maid and wife and mother," the girl told her, pear-tear blossoms raining down on her like a bridal shower. She was tearing apart her dolls, limb for limb, sickly-sweet blood spouting from stumps of sackcloth.
"And then I wanted to be Christ’s bride and look after other mothers’ children. But I got a new family, and they left me. Now I need one of my own making."
Dawn was sitting in one of her tutorials on the day after, gray-faced and shaking. When her tutor asked her if she was all right, she burst into tears.
"You should see the welfare officer," he said. "It’s really no shame if you need professional help."
"No, thank you," she sniffed. "I know who to get in touch with."
That night, she dialed Giles’s new number for the first time in weeks.
"It’s Drusilla," she said without further explanation. She hoped he wasn’t Watcher enough to peer into her head, cut it open and stare into the roiling light inside.
"I just know. Please, promise me that you and one of the Slayers will take care of her."
When the phone rang several days later, it was Giles again. He sounded weary, but relieved.
"We did indeed corner Drusilla exactly where you hinted at: in the courtyard where her family home used to be. We had to keep her from vamping a pregnant woman. After what happened to poor Kendra, we were afraid it wouldn’t be pretty, but she hardly put up a fight."
"Thank you," she said softly. She was looking forward to a good night’s sleep.
In her dream, Dawn was back in the garden behind their house in L.A., a place where she’d never been, playing run and catch with a dark-haired girl in the dress of a fairy-tale princess. Her friend outran her every time before she suddenly stopped and pouted.
"Tattletale," Drusilla said. "And you didn’t even ask me my name."
"I know who you are," Dawn replied, reaching for her.
"No, you don’t," she whispered. "My name’s Anne. I was your sister."
She dissolved into golden dust, her laughter ringing in Dawn’s ears.
It was the chirping of Dawn’s cellphone that woke her.
"Mmmm?" she mumbled into the speaker.
"Buon giorno, sorellina!" Buffy’s voice was way too cheerful. "Don’t tell me you were still asleep. Not even I, during my stint in college, lazed around until three p.m."
"It’s two o’clock in England," Dawn said automatically.
"Whatever. Are you okay?"
"Never felt better," she said, toying with her cellphone, an incontrovertible piece of reality in her hand. Dawn blinked in the sunlight and saw the beginning of the rest of her life, years of her own making. That was the truth.