It happened slowly, so slowly that for a while she was sure she'd just done something wrong, like forgotten to put the milk in the fridge, and Willow was ignoring her because the redhaired witch didn't have the heart to punish her.
But when Dawn shouted in Spike's face and got no response whatsoever, when she screamed at Mr Giles that it was his fault Buffy was dead and he didn't blink, then it was time to admit something was very wrong.
When Dawn had been younger, about eleven, Buffy had come to her whenever a shoulder to cry on was needed. Buffy trusted her like that, because even if Dawn had been the most annoying younger sibling in the history of ever, she was never a tattletale. Now, Dawn sat on the edge of her bed, hugging Mr Gordo and remembered what her sister had said.
"They never see the world like it really is. Sometimes I feel like I'm invisible, I run right past pedestrians with a stake in my hand and they don't give me a second glance. I once chopped off the head of a demon in the middle of a coffee shop and nobody even blinked. They don't want to see what I'm doing, so they don't see me at all."
"I'll always see you." Dawn had promised, picking at the hem of her Mickey Mouse t-shirt. Buffy's fingers had squeezed hers gently (she'd still gotten a bruise), and Dawn had been on the receiving end of a warm big sister smile.
"I'll always see you too, pumpkinbelly. We'll keep each other real."
Dawn wondered if that's what was going on. Buffy wasn't around to see her, so now nobody could. That was the closest thing to logic Dawn could come up with.
Except that the conversation had never happened. If it was in Dawn's head, it was in there for a reason, the monks had decided that Buffy and her little sister had made a peculiar oath one windy afternoon, sitting on the same bed Dawn now perched on the end of.
Throwing the stuffed pig aside angrily, Dawn forced herself to think of all the things she'd so recently forced herself to forget about. Buffy Glory Ben the Knights Buffy the Monks Mommy Buffy... Buffy had stopped Glory. The gateway between dimensions was safely closed. And now Dawn was useless, all the reasons the monks had created her as the form for the key were null and void.
The monks' spell had a use-by date.
Dawn pinched the back of her hand, hard. Ow. Ok, she could still feel things. She wasn't fading away. Maybe only the fake memories were disappearing. That sucked, but she could handle it. She'd just introduce herself, explain what happened. They'd all like her again, right?
Just as Dawn decided on a course of action, Willow walked past her room and looked inside, eyebrows knitting as she thought.
"Willow, hi. You're probably wondering why a strange person is in Buffy's house..." Dawn started, standing up with her brightest smile, then trailed off as she became aware of the odd way Willow's gaze seemed to slide off her. "You can't see me." Dawn finished flatly, sinking down onto the edge of the bed again with an almost nauseous feeling in her stomach.
"Xander?" Willow called from the doorway. "What should we do with this junk in the storeroom? We can't give it to Goodwill, it's just boxes of tax returns and stuff."
"Dumpster it." Xander called back from downstairs.
"Excuse me!" Dawn jumped back to her feet again. It was like playing musical chairs with a bed, only Dawn wasn't going to use the term 'muscial beds' because that meant something different entirely. She slammed the door on Willow's face, then leant against it and slid slowly to the floor as she heard Willow's muffled voice begin to complain about the draughty rooms on the second floor in the house, wind getting in all the cracks and slamming doors.
Looking around her room, Dawn grabbed a bag out of the closet and then realised with a strangled sob that it was the same bag Buffy had used the summer she'd run away. Neither Joyce nor Buffy had wanted to keep it in their rooms after that, so Dawn had ended up with it stuffed in the back of her cupboard, behind her ice skates and that pair of ballet slippers that were way too small now but Dawn still kept, because she'd always meant to start going to classes again, and had been saying so ever since they moved to Sunnydale.
It just hadn't seemed right, the thought of Mom driving her to ballet. That had always been Dad's job.
Clothes into the bag, thick warm jacket and summer shirts because that made more sense than putting a bunch of sweaters in. She had always been a good packer, all those overnight trips when Buffy had forced her to stay at Willow or Xander's house. Xander's dad had always creeped her out, so Dawn would kick up a fuss whenever Buffy said it was time for a sleepover at the Harrises. Now, the thought of Buffy's tired, pinched expression whenever Dawn made a scene came back to her in a big rolling wave of guilt.
On top of the clothes Dawn added a framed photo of her mother and Buffy, a photo Dawn herself had taken the day after Buffy's graduation. Looking at it now, Dawn could see the naked relief in Joyce's face because Buffy had managed to survive all the way through high school. Buffy's own expression was a little forlorn, it had been just after Angel left after all. But Buffy had always been sad about something, there was always something to put worry lines on her forehead. Dawn had only seen her looking calm and happy once, and that hadn't been Buffy at all, just a... a... a thing that looked like Buffy.
She'd still been warm when they'd carried her back into town, not cold like Mom had been in the hospital when Dawn had touched her cheek.
Dawn put her diary in the bag too, not a real diary because she didn't have one of those anymore, just a book to write things in sometimes. Her silver sparkle pen that she'd gotten for her birthday from Tara, because it looked like a magic wand.
And then she was packed. Her whole life, zipped up into a little bag.
It was impossible to get a place on a bus, Dawn had been trying for hours. She'd sneak down the back and sit in the shadows, and hope nobody would have the same seat number on their ticket. But they always did, and would call the driver down in a puzzled sort of voice and say 'There must be some mistake', as if they couldn't quite work out what was wrong. Eventually Dawn would get up and climb off the bus again, and watch it drive off without her. She was feeling close to tears. She sat down against the wall of the bus station, drawing her knees up and resting her head on her arms.
"Along came a spider, and sat down beside her." A voice said from somewhere on Dawn's left. She raised her head and looked around. An old guy, obviously homeless from the smell, was watching her. Dawn pushed down on the 'smell' thought, and chided herself for being nasty. She was homeless too, after all.
"You can see me?" her voice sounded way desperate, which wasn't something she'd intended.
"Clear as mud." The man replied with a smile, tapping the side of his nose.
"What's happened to me?"
"I think you already know." The man answered, and Dawn nodded sadly. Yes. It's so easy for somebody to forget their keys. "You've fallen through the cracks of the world." The man went on. "I wouldn't feel too bad about it, though. You're young, there's always buyers for young ones at the market. And American too, so your teeth are good. Flouride in the water, y'see. They used to think that was a plot by the reds, donchaknow."
"Market?" Dawn asked warily, holding on tighter to the strap of her bag.
"The floating market. I'm what you'd call an international businessman. Keep the wealth of the world in circulation and all that. Well, not really in circulation, since I take without giving back." The man laughed then, a phlegmy sort of laugh that had very little humor to it.
"Can you tell me how to get there?" Dawn asked him. That made the man laugh even more.
"I'll do better than tell you. I'll take you with me." One filthy hand, the nails blackened and cracked, shot out and grabbed Dawn's arm in a painfully tight grip. She screamed.
"Cry out all you like. Get it out of your system." The man said with a nod, pulling her to her feet as she struggled and scratched at him. The people waiting for their bus paid no attention as the old man dragged the screaming teenager away.
Her foot kicked out, and with all her might Dawn pretended she was Buffy, and could win any fight. The man fell back and Dawn tore off as fast as she could, her breath coming in hot gasps. Her grip on the straps of her bag got slippery with sweat as she ran, and she paused to make she she was holding on tightly enough. She felt something strike against the back of her head with a dull thud and the world tipped sideways and went black.
"The trick is," Somebody was saying "to get in where they keep all the pets. Nobody bothers you then."
Her head felt like one huge bruise, for a panicked moment Dawn worried she might have concussion, until she woke up all the way and realised she had much bigger problems than a knock to the head.
"We're on a plane." Dawn said quietly, sitting up in the small dark space. The hot smell of animals was thick in the air, and almost drowned out the scent of the man who'd kidnapped her.
"Not kidnaped, girlie. Has to be someone who wants to pay ransom for it to be a kidnapping."
"You read my mind." Same quiet voice. Dawn felt like her whole being was a quiet voice, the small quiet voice that suggests self-destructive behaviour in the middle of the night.
"I'm not as good at it as some. If I was, think I'd be working the slave trade?" the man's laugh was genuinely amused this time, the well-worn laugh who never gets tired of saying the same old line. "Do you have any talent to speak of? Might make you worth a bit more."
Dawn considered remaining quiet, then imagined what could happen if somebody just like this man ended up buying her. With a shudder, she nodded. Anything that would make somebody a little bit richer interested in buying her, anything to save her from somebody who just liked the look of clean young skin.
"I opened a gate to hell." She admitted. The man's eyebrows shot up under the mask of grime that covered his face. "I didn't want it to happen." Dawn added sullenly. "And I brought somebody back from the dead once, but that didn't turn out so great."
The man inhaled through his teeth, making a whistling noise.
"Sounds like I may have found the catch of the day." He said in a satisfied voice. "You hungry?"
Dawn nodded, unzipping her bag and pulling her jacket out. It was cold in the small room, and her fingers were shaking a little as she brushed her fingertips against the glass of the photo frame. He hadn't taken any of her things, then.
"Here." He tossed her a bag of Doritos, the foil packaging covered in dirty fingerprints. The corn chips were sealed in properly, though, and safe to eat. Dawn crammed a handful into her mouth, suddenly aware that she was starving. "I'm called Phendere, by the way."
"Dawn." Dawn answered, swallowing her mouthful of food. "Sometimes I'm called the key, too."
"Dawn. Key." The man mused. "Dawnkey. Donkey! You're a donkey!" he almost fell over with laughter. Dawn put the rest of the packet of Doritos into her bag, to save for later. She didn't know how long it would be before food came her way again.
The market turned out to be much bigger than Dawn expected. She'd gone to markets before, where Willow would buy candles and Xander would try on the strange hats for sale. Little Sunday morning markets where the weirdest thing onsale was a clock with a picture of Elvis on it. This market, though, sprawled across an entire soccer oval, and Dawn didn't even want to guess what the weirdest thing onsale could be.
Phendere searched the crowd until he spotted a man who was his exact double, right down to the missing lace on his right boot.
"Fendear, this is Dawn. Put her in with the special merchandise." Phendere told his double. The second man reached out to pull her along and Dawn took a step back.
"I can walk by myself." She said in her quiet voice. She hadn't cried yet. Maybe she wouldn't ever cry again. The man tried to prise her fingers off the strap of her bag and Dawn knew that she'd never see any of her things again if she let him. Screwing up every shred of power she might possibly have inside her, Dawn raised her hand and said 'thicken', just like she'd seen Willow do, her voice still quiet but more forceful-sounding now.
Fendear stumbled back, then turned to Phendere and smiled a wide, crazy smile. Dawn gripped her bag tightly.
"All right, lass, I won't take your bag. Come over and sit here, there's a girl." He said in a soothing voice. Dawn let him lead her to a low bench, where teenage boy with crimson hair and a girl of about four years old with a lighter shade of the same color sat together. Now that she knew she could do a little bit of magic, Dawn thought about trying to escape again, but her head still hurt and she felt worn out from even that tiny little spell.
Hours passed. A woman with wild grey hair and a weird white dress had bought the boy and the little girl, or rather traded a big bag of what looked like silver beads for them. The two men seemed very happy about this, as well as the business they were doing selling ordinary slaves. Dawn felt like throwing up, puking bright orange corn chips everywhere.
Her eyelids felt heavy, jet lag on top of everything else. Dawn wondered what would happen to her if nobody bought her.
"Hey there. What's your name?" a lightly accented voice asked. Dawn opened her eyes, she couldn't even remember closing them. A man wearing what looked like a very ratty pair of jeans and a huge baggy sweater (jumper, Dawn corrected herself. They call them jumpers in England) had sat down next to her. He had a kind smile.
"Dawn." She answered him.
"You've just come from Above, haven't you?" the man asked. Dawn nodded, her eyes stinging with tears until she blinked them away. "I can tell. Don't worry, you do get used to it eventually."
"How long have you been..." Dawn trailed off, unsure how to finish the question. How long have you been in bizzaro land? How long since your life fell apart?
The man shrugged. "A few years. Not sure exactly. My name's Richard, by the way. People down here tend to give themselves new names, but I didn't fancy being known as something mad like Sir Waterspout." The man screwed his face up. Dawn smiled despite the situation. "These two," Richard inclined his head towards Phendere and Fendear, "They're creeps. Hope they didn't frighten you too much."
Dawn felt the memory of a gag in her mouth, Glory ranting and raving to her.
"I've had worse." She replied, holding her chin up to show she could cope with what was happening. Then she abandoned the pose and dropped her gaze, her hair falling around her face. "Please buy me. I'll work really hard, I promise."
Richard looked at her, then at the two slave traders, then nodded. "All right. Hold on a minute." He went over to talk to the two men. Dawn felt tears rise in her eyes again, tears of relief this time. She checked her bag, making sure she still had everything. She wrapped on of her hair elastics around the packet of chips, so they wouldn't spill through her stuff.
"Hi." A girl with short reddish hair and strange eyes was crouched down in front of her. "I've just been informed that we're buying you. Come on." She offered her hand to Dawn and pulled her to her feet, walking over to where Richard was talking to her captors.
"You're taking me to the bloody cleaners, you know that?" Richard was saying, handing over five packets of lamb cutlets and what looked like an old-fashioned child's spinning top without a moment's hesitation. The girl who had spoken to Dawn started walking away, motioning for Dawn to follow.
"Hold on!" one of the men said, Dawn no longer knew which was which. "Her bag's extra."
Richard looked over at them, the girl nodded her head. Richard puffed his chest up in an obvious attempt to look intimidating. "Do you know who I am?"
One of the grimy doppelgangers nudged the other, and the two of them sighed in unision.
"All right, we'll throw the bag in free. But only because you're the Warrior. Favouritism is a terrible burden for the small businessman." The one who nudged the other said, his voice full of woe.
Dawn held her smile in until they were well away from the slave stall.
"I'm Door." The girl introduced herself, offering her hand. Dawn shook it. "And you've met Richard. Despite what you just saw, he hates it when people remind him he's the Warrior."
"My sister was the Slayer." It didn't feel odd to say, in the circumstances. "She hated being called it, at least at first." Dawn still had trouble putting things to do with Buffy in the past tense.
Door frowned, looking over at Dawn with a worried expression.
"Is your sister dead?"
Dawn nodded, not feeling as lighthearted as she had been a minute before.
"It's probably best if you don't let too many people know that you were related to her, then." Door said gently, touching Dawn's arm. "The Watchers are a bit strange about bloodlines."
"The Watchers? They're down here?"
"Where else would they be?" Richard asked, picking up a bottle of wine from a long table, sniffing it, nodding, and handing over a box of tissues in exchange. He had a big shoulderbag full of normal household items that he was using as currency, Door had a similar bag resting on her hip into which she put their purchases. Dawn offered to carry something but Door waved her request away with a flick of her hand.
"Don't be silly. You've had a horrible time over the last few days, I'm sure. We'll get you back to the house where you can have a rest and everything else can be sorted out later."
Dawn dreamt of her home back in Sunnydale, everybody putting things into boxes, packing the lives of the Summers women away to be given to other familys. She wondered what their memories told them had happened atop the tower that terrible night.
When she woke up, in a strange room filled with old, heavy furniture and toys like children used to play with in the Victorian era, Dawn found it hard to believe how quickly life could fall out from under a person. She felt utterly alone, and wondered what could possibly surprise her anymore.
Somebody had unpacked her bag while she slept, hanging her clothes up in the tall closet and putting her notebook and glittery pen on the big wooden desk. The photo of Buffy and her Mom was on the desk too, and Dawn let herself stare at it and feel sick with self-pity for a long time. If they hadn't died, would they have forgotten her too?
Dawn wondered if that would have been better or not, compared to the grief at their loss.
Then she sighed, changed into an outfit that didn't smell like she'd been abducted by a homeless person and ridden in the cargo hold of a plane, and went to face the day.
"Hope you like toast." Richard said with a slightly apologectic smile. Dawn assured him that yes, she did like toast, toast was fine.
It turned out to be a slightly burnt loaf of bread, with a large, hard type of seed Dawn had never seen before. It tasted delicious after stale junk food.
"Door's off on one of her walkabouts." Richard explained. "Don't take it personally, she just gets wanderlust sometimes."
"What do you usually do? During the day?" Dawn asked, hesitating for a moment before helping herself to more burnt break. "Could you pass the marmalade?"
Richard handed her the jar. "Treaties. There're some lards and ladies who're only interested in working together if there's something in it for them."
"Sounds like most people." Dawn pointed out. Richard raised his eyebrows in an 'I agree, unfortunately' gesture.
"If you want to have a look around, you should be safe enough. The traders said you were good at defending yourself."
"Not good enough." Dawn wondered if she'd ever stop talking in her quiet voice. Richard touched her hand gently.
"There's a television in one of the rooms, it works in good weather, or there's the library, although it's a capricious place and hardly ever has what you're looking for."
The television had SuperTed on it, grainy and scrolling, the sound fading in and out. Dawn didn't want to bother Richard again, so she decided to explore the house a little.
The library gave her a creepy feeling, Dawn didn't know if it was because it reminded her of the Sunnydale High library or if it, like the old school one, had been the scene of terrible crimes.
"Bored?" Richard asked. Dawn jumped in surprise, giving a muted yelp. He was sitting in a high-backed leather chair in the corner of the library. "I know you're probably scared of going outside, but nearly everybody saw you in the company of the Lady Door and the Warrior last night, so you're quite safe."
Dawn had been told she'd be safe a lot in her short life – most memorably by her mother, as they'd driven away from Los Angeles, towards Sunnydale. Dawn had never known that LA was dangerous to begin with, so she'd been doubtful that this new place would be better. Her doubt had been correct, of course, and since that day she'd taken every assurance of her safety with a grain of salt.
"You can take a knife, if it'll make you feel safer." Richard offered, seeing her expression.
So Dawn set out, a small and very sharp knife tucked into the waistband of her jeans, her hair tied back off her face. She kept above ground, in the old London sun, as much as she could, carefully memorising the way back to Door and Richard's home.
Her home now, too. It was strange to think it, that somewhere so alien could be the only touchstone in her life. Then again, normal had never been something that featured largely in her life story.
It was fun, walking through big department stores without anybody noticing. Usually the sales assistants were all 'can I help you?' to Dawn as if she was this major criminal who was going to shoplift everything.
When she decided it was time for lunch, she realised that she didn't have any money, and even if she had there was no way to get anybody's attention. In the end, she just waited until the guy serving at the ice cream store in the food court put an order on the counter, and then picked it up before the person who'd bought it could take it. Turned out to be a banana milkshake, which Dawn thought was gross, so she didn't drink much of it.
A boy of about seven years old was sitting beside the fountain that made up the centerpiece of the foodcourt, doing tricks balancing a pen on the end of his finger. Dawn sat down to watch, and couldn't help applauding when the boy made the pen flip in midair and land on his finger again. He smiled at her.
"Can I have your milkshake?"
Nodding, Dawn handed it over. The boy thanked her and slurped the drink noisily, attracting a glare from a woman sitting at a nearby table. Dawn was puzzled.
"How come you can see me, if you're part of the proper world?"
Dawn remembered suddenly, that awful time when Buffy had been in hospital and nobody had believed her about that guy, the kinder-whatever, child death. Nobody but Dawn, because she'd been able to see it, horrible teeth and cruel eyes. Children notice everything adults pretend doesn't exist. She decided to ask another, slightly less stupid question.
"Where are your parents?"
"My Dad's dead." The boy answered simply. "And my Mum's at work. What's your name?"
"Dawn. What's yours?"
"Jack. Lots of stories have a Jack in them. Jack and the beanstalk, Jack Sprat, Jack jump over the candle stick."
"Jack O'Lantern." Dawn agreed. "Are you supposed to be at school, Jack?"
"I've run away." Jack explained. "I want to be a pirate."
"You might be a bit young for that. Anyway, wouldn't your mother be upset if you weren't there when she got home from work?"
"She likes my sister Polly better anyway. She has a really loud yell." Jack complained. "And sometimes she takes my things."
"My sister had a really loud yell too." Dawn told him with a smile. "Come on, I'll take you back to your school, and when you see your Mom tonight give her an extra big hug. If Polly yells loudly, just yell louder, ok?"
Jack grinned. His front teeth were missing. Dawn offered a hand down and the two of them walked off together.
"Is your sister dead?" Jack asked. The words got easier each time Dawn heard them.
"Did you cry?"
"I cried, when Daddy died." Jack held on tighter to her hand as Dawn ducked her head to hide her expression.
Dawn walked Jack back to his school, then wreaked some havoc as she stood behind the second-grade teacher pulling silly faces that were visible only to the children.
As the afternoon began its long slide into evening, Dawn walked back through London, watching everyone around her as they rushed and hurried. She'd have to do something about her own schooling, maybe Richard could tutor her if he had the time. Dawn had always been a quick study.
Door was cooking dinner by the time Dawn got back, now suddenly aware that a few mouthfuls of banana milkshake was all she'd had since breakfast. They were having bubble and sqeak, which was lucky as it was one of the few things Dawn knew how to make.
She started peeling the potatoes, reminded of Buffy's crazy obsession one October with discovering everything she could about Angel's past. Since her was Irish, she'd decided to eat as much potato as she could, and had forced Dawn to help with the preparation. Silly, intense Buffy. One girl in all the world, and a sister like no other.
Door was telling a story about an Angelus, and about an Angel who had been sucked into a dark place as punishment for his sins, and a group of holy men who protected a key, keeping it safe from a being who styled itself as the future God of all creation.
"So what happened at the end?" Dawn asked. Door shrugged with a smile.
"We lived happily ever after, I suppose."
"That's the hardest thing in the world, to be the person who's still alive at the end of the story." Dawn noted, her voice quiet but lacking the softness of the past few days.
"Yes." Door agreed. "But it's the best thing, too."
Sitting down to dinner, a little later, and telling the story of the school teacher who didn't know why her class wouldn't stop laughing, and making Door and Richard laugh in turn, Dawn had to ask what had actually happened at the end of the adventure.
"I became the guardian of the key." Richard answered, and Dawn decided that was nearly exactly the same as living happily ever after anyway.