Dawn used to have, somewhere in her dresser, a list of people she wanted to marry when she grew up. She'd started it when she was ten, and kept on crossing names off when she realized they were actually a lot grosser than she'd thought at first, and of course she constantly added new names. The last name she'd added to the list was Tara, on the hot, sweaty afternoon when Willow had been feeling sick so Tara had babysat her all by herself (and oh, how she'd hated the implications in that word). She had never given much thought to Tara before that afternoon, but as they played Life and Tara nonchalantly put two pink pegs in the front seat of her car -- me and Willow, she'd said -- Dawn had realized that Tara was the kind of person who wouldn't care who you wanted to marry, even if it was stinky Patrick Cramer, even if it was a girl.
Tara's name had been under Xander's on the list, Dawn remembered. When she closed her eyes, she could still see their names, the blue ink from Xander's name smudging a little, so it looked like "Xandmmm." She'd wanted to add Spike's name to the list -- and maybe cross off Xander -- when she realized it was gone. Her first thought was that Buffy had stolen it and read it, and since that was a year when Dawn had wanted to tear Buffy's hair out more often than not, she didn't stop thinking it for two days, after which she remembered: she'd burned the list, along with her diaries, when she found out she wasn't real.
She'd gotten a tight clench in her stomach then, and regretted burning the list, regretted everything about that night. She wanted to have a list of people she was in love with, a silly list because that was the kind of thing real girls did, kept lists of the people they loved, and she liked Spike, who was cool and handsome and let her do whatever she wanted and never tattled to Buffy. She wanted her list back.
Then Mom had died.
Somehow, all of her stories seemed to have a large gap in the middle of them where Mom died and Buffy died and Dawn felt like a little bit of her died, too. She didn't like to think about that part of the story, so she hurried through it quickly in her mind. She used to have a list of people she'd like to marry, and Tara had been the last person she'd added to that list.
And now Tara was dead too.
Curled up next to Tara on the floor of Mom's old room, Dawn begins to seriously consider the possibility that the room itself is cursed. Maybe the bed. Maybe her. Maybe people who love her will end up sprawled on the floor for their daughters to discover (but Mom was on a couch. And whatever Tara might have been to her, she wasn't a mother.) Maybe it's because she burned the list. She can see the details of Doc's spell in her mind, and is already trying to figure out which picture of Tara she wants to use in the center of the spell, although she knows she can't. It's against the rules for them to do magic in the house, because of Willow, and she's pretty sure there's a rule against bringing back the dead. (Although it's okay if they do it, okay for them to raise Buffy.)
She doesn't want to move away from Tara, doesn't want to look away, because looking away implies looking back, and if she looks back, she'll discover that Tara is dead all over again. (Tara is dead.) So she inches away from Tara slowly, backwards, till she finds the small stack of books. Not Tara's books, which is a small relief, because she'd feel like she was disrespecting the dead, but Willow's. The ones (she recalls) Willow promised she'd gotten rid of. A small stack, but still there. White magic, theory, nothing heavy enough for her to do any permanent damage, she hopes, as she opens a book to the index and trawls her finger down the page until she finds the word "death." She flips through the book automatically. She does research, now, she can hear herself announcing to Buffy, jittery, happy.
"Common theories of death. Most major religions..." she skips that part. Skips transmigration of souls, skips heaven and hell, plunges down the page to find the truth, the part where they give the actual answer. Her finger skims over the word "dimensions," then pauses. She rereads the sentence, carefully. "A certain band of monks have believed that in death, a miniscule border between dimensions is opened momentarily, enough time for the soul to pass out of its imprisoning body and into another world."
Dawn wishes Giles were still here, with all his research on the nature of the Key. On the nature of her. There's no time to call him, no time to get to the Magic Box to do research, because Tara is dead now. She still has a knife in her room. Not the big, ostentatious knife she used on Buffy's twentieth birthday: that was for show. This is for real. Her blood opens the doors between dimensions. It's true, she knows it's true, they drilled it into her head last year, and then Glory -- then Glory. She tries not to think about her too much, but she still blames her, like it's Glory's fault that she was made, not born, when in fact it would be fairer to say that without Glory, she wouldn't exist at all.
It hurts like hell when she slices her arm open, but she hardly notices the pain, because her eyes are still watching Tara, her body twisted awkwardly on the carpet. Her blood drips onto Tara's shirt, mixing with Tara's blood.
The summer after Buffy died, she asked Tara to be blood brothers with her, because in Tom Sawyer, that's what you did when you were best friends with someone. Tara hadn't said no, exactly, just sat Dawn down on the couch and talked about AIDS and safety and told her blood isn't something to play with, not a toy. But Dawn still wanted to share her blood with Tara, still didn't understand why you couldn't, if you really loved someone.
She hopes something happens soon, because the world is starting to go fuzzy, and she thinks it's probably more from blood loss than from the mystical properties of her blood. She knows her true shape: she's green, and shiny, pure energy, and she fits perfectly into the lock that holds the dimensions together. That's what they told her, and grownups never lie. There's something wrong with that logic...
Sitting up is hard, so she leans over, tries to get comfortable on Tara's breast, though she realizes that Tara is dead and her milk is probably all drying up. Do women even have milk if they don't have children? She can't remember.
The room is starting to smell. Death, and blood, and one decaying corpse. Maybe... maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. Then she passes out.
Tara hasn't seen anything like it since Glory sucked her brain. She blinks, tries to refocus her eyes, but it's still green and shimmery. It's pretty, but dangerous. She can still remember everything that's happened; she can still see with both her eyes, so she isn't crazy, not this time. Not crazy, but still seeing green. The last thing she can remember is Willow, Willow's shirt... she wanted to say something to Willow, but she can't remember what. It must've been important -- green. Her head isn't feeling too good. Something's wrong, and she should probably contact Buffy, let her know that something's up. She walks slowly towards the green light, and it's like walking through syrup. Why can't she move more quickly?
As she makes contact with the Key (that's what it's called, she knows that now), her fingers slide through it and suddenly aren't there anymore. She doesn't know where they are, but as she moves her fingers around, she can feel other sensations -- other worlds. Wherever she is, it isn't home, but if home was supposed to feel familiar to her, it doesn't. Nothing feels familiar except the inside of the Key, warm and glowing. The Key is icy and hot at the same time, and trickles of cold water seem to stream down her back. She knows they're not real, but then, what is real? What is truth?
There won't be any answers, not today. Just energy, growing, cackling, surrounding her and not letting her go. She's not in one place or another, but in the place between places, and it's like riding out the end of an orgasm -- she's struggling to hold onto the sensation of falling to nowhere, of flying forever through free space, never touching the ground. If she can fall forever, she's never going to die.
The tendrils of the Key rotate slowly and feel almost like a caress on her back, over her shoulders, around her thighs. She feels so removed from all her body's sensations. She hasn't been meditating regularly, but that's what she feels like: like she's been meditating for too long and forgotten how to get back to the real world. There aren't any clues in the consistency of the Key, only power, raw, filling every crack and crevice, digging into the shell of her body, wrapping itself around her core.
Tara really doesn't have any other choice than to surrender to the Key, let her body be shaped and moved and twisted by its unnatural convolutions. There's really no point in fighting against it; might as well just go back, go back to Willow, apologize, because she was in the wrong, just go back, just take the easy way, not worth fighting it anymore...
It's only then that she remembers that Dawn is the Key.
And then she can't remember anything anymore.
"Where are we?"
Tara opens her eyes, then immediately closes them again. The landscape is too bizarre to be real, blue towers jutting into impossible white cliffs, perspective skewed, long right angles and headache-inducing zigzags. Even with her eyes closed, she can feel the oppression of the airless atmosphere. If she were a vampire, she wouldn't need to breathe, but she isn't dead, and she desperately wants more oxygen than she's getting.
"Tara? Tara, are you awake yet? Where are we?"
If she squints, she can just see Dawn's outline. "Dawnie?" The words take more energy than she thought she had, and she has to rest her head, but she realizes that there's nowhere to put it, that she's floating on nothing.
"Tara, I think I messed up."
She wants to answer, to say something reassuring and comfortable, but she can't open her mouth, let alone find the words that will make this disappear, that will help them find the way back to where they're supposed to be. So she just leans back, pretends that it's possible to feel comfortable in this position, and listens to Dawn talk.
"It's just... you died. And I tried... I tried to get you back. I knew I shouldn't. But I did, and now you're here, but I'm not sure where here is, and could you please wake up and tell me what to do? Please?"
Tara can't open her eyes again; she's frightened. She doesn't want to be dead. She wants to be standing in the Summers' living room, giving Dawn a hug and telling her everything will be all right.
"And Tara, I loved you." Dawn's voice is shaky.
If she could open her mouth, she'd tell Dawn she loves her too. But her mouth won't open, and her she feels like she's caving in on herself, exhaustion and breathlessness. Dawn said she's dead, and for the first time, she feels dead. Not shy, not crazy, not single, just dead.
This will be a year of death, she thinks, and feels it all around her.
"Dawnie," she whispers, "you don't belong here."
"But I'm the Key! It's what I was made to do. I open the doors between dimensions."
Tara is weak, too weak to argue, but she still struggles to bring her head up, so that Dawn can see her, even if she can't see Dawn. "Sweetie. You're real. You weren't made... for anything. Go back. Please. I can't... I can't be anything to you here." To prove her point, she falls back, and she feels herself sinking even lower in the non-atmosphere of the non-place where they're stuck.
And she feels the happy, warm tingle of the Key again, brushing over her body, and she wishes it could take her to a better place than this, but mostly she just wants it to go away so she can sleep again. It rushes over her in a tickle of autumn air, and despite her tiredness, she tries to cling to it.
But her fingers won't grip at anything.
Dawn is still clutching Tara's body when Buffy and Xander find her. She managed to shove the knife and the book under the bed before they got there, but she can't bring herself to move away from Tara. She should have learned about letting go, but she still hasn't learned not to cling.