There were good days and there were bad days.
On the good days, Dawn and Claudia would talk and laugh and take their antipsychotics uncomplainingly. Dawn would feel as though she was edging ever closer to the moment when she could conclusively say that she no longer believed that she had been made by monks, and that she was a normal girl with normal memories.
On these days, Claudia would feel as though her visions of her brother were just brought on by her guilt at his death, and not him trying to contact her. And Claudia would feel as though she could actually tell Dawn exactly what had happened to her brother, tell her exactly why she was here. On those days, they would slowly work their way through the complicated, knotty formula.
But on the bad days, Dawn couldn't leave her room for fear that she would cease to exist, or that the world would, or both. She would be afraid that everyone's memories of her were fake, and that no one really knew her, and she didn't really know anyone. And because she was afraid that the Abomination, whatever that was, would get her if she moved. As time went by, these became more and more common.
On these days, Claudia thought that Joshua was around every corner. She could hear his voice as clear as day, accusing her of leaving him trapped somewhere between dimensions. The guilt would build up and up, until she would curl up on the floor and bawl her eyes out, and she would try to avoid anyone for fear that they would discover her secret guilt and would abandon her because of it. Just like her brother had, and her parents, and the Professor.
It was on the evening of a good day when an orderly declared "Summers! You've got a visitor!"
Claudia made to leave, Dawn grabbed her sleeve "Please stay. I don't know how this is going to work out." Dawn pleaded. None of her family had been to visit her since she had checked herself in, not even Buffy. She didn't know how she would cope with seeing them now.
Buffy walked into the room. She looked sad, and she didn't even seem to notice that Claudia was there. "How are you doing, Dawnie?" Buffy asked tentatively.
Dawn chewed her hair as she thought about how to answer that. Doing that always made her feel a little better. "You came on a good day." she said. Dawn didn't expand on that, because she was certain
that Buffy didn't want to know the details.
Claudia thought it might be an opportune moment to point out her presence. "Hi, I'm Claudia. You must be Buffy."
"Um, yes. Yes I am." Buffy replied. She looked uncertain as to how to deal with Claudia. Dawn wasn't really surprised. Even though Buffy was the Slayer (although sometimes, on her worst days, Dawn doubted even that, despite the evidence she had seen) visiting the psych ward was so far out her comfort zone that Dawn was proud that Buffy had even managed to come. "Um, would you mind if I talked to Dawn for a bit?"
Claudia looked at Dawn inquiringly. Dawn chewed her hair for a while before nodding. She was having a good day, so it was unlikely that she would exhibit any of the more alarming symptoms of schizophrenia.
After Claudia left, Buffy came and sat next to Dawn on her bed. "You know, Mom wanted to come and see you too, but I thought it would probably be best if I spoke to you first." Buffy said.
Dawn didn't reply. She wasn't surprised that Hank hadn't wanted to visit her.
"So, anyway, I wanted to tell you that we're moving. Mom's been offered a job, she's going to run an art gallery. In Sunnydale. It's only a few hours away." Buffy assured.
"But Mom doesn't work." Dawn commented absently. "Dad does."
Buffy winced. She had hoped not to get to that part so soon. Or possibly not get to it at all. "Um, yeah. About that. See, the thing is..." Buffy hedged, before deciding just to go all out and say it "They're getting divorced. Apparently Dad's been having a fling with his secretary, and Mom's just had enough of it. So, yeah."
Dawn suddenly found it very hard to breathe. She tried to force some air into her lungs, but she just felt like she was choking on it. She felt as though all the air was being squeezed out of her lungs by the pain in her chest. She didn't say anything, though. The only outward sign she gave was that she stopped chewing her hair.
"Dawn?" Buffy asked, concerned. When Dawn didn't respond, Buffy repeated herself, her voice climbing an octave in worry.
An orderly poked his head around the door. He had clearly been there the entire time. He said "Miss Summers, I think it's about time you left now."
Buffy got up reluctantly and looked back at her sister, worry evident in her eyes. She looked as though she was going to say something, thought better of it, and left. She didn't look back, because she didn't want Dawn to see the tears trickling down her face.
It was about thirty seconds later when Claudia appeared in the doorway. "So, that was your sister. How was the visit?"
When Dawn didn't say anything, Claudia looked closer at the older woman. "God, you're shaking!" Claudia exclaimed, striding across the room to sit next to Dawn. "What happened?"
Dimly, Dawn was aware of Claudia speaking. But it felt so far away. Even further away than her shaking body and aching chest and difficulty breathing and the choking sensation in her throat. She thought that it was finally happening, that what she had most feared was coming true: she was ceasing to exist.
At the back of her head, a treacherous voice suggested that it might not be such a bad thing if that were true.
For a second, Dawn was aware that she was being tilted sideways. It was extremely disorientating, and made her feel sick. Then she realised that Claudia had pulled her sideways and leant her head on her shoulder and was gently stroking Dawn's hair and making comforting noises.
Claudia didn't really know what she was doing. She knew she had to comfort Dawn, but she didn't really know how. So she was doing what she remembered Joshua doing when she had been very young and plagued by nightmares of the car accident that had killed her parents. She didn't know if it would work. She hoped so.
Dawn never knew how long her panic attack lasted. It could've been an eternity. Claudia would later tell her that it had lasted only around five minutes, but Dawn didn't think that could possibly be true. Five minutes couldn't possibly last for so long a time.
Eventually, Dawn stopped trembling, the pain in her chest lessened, she could breathe again, and she no longer found herself separated from the sensations of her body.
"You just had a panic attack." Claudia pointed out, and then kicked herself for doing so. How could she be so insensitive?
Dawn didn't mind. She realised that she would never again sneer at the fainting damsels in distress in movies. If a panic attack felt like that, she was hardly surprised that they swooned all over the place.
"Do you want to tell me what happened?" Claudia asked gently. "It's fine if you don't, too, but, um, yeah, you could, if you wanted to. Tell me, that is." Claudia stammered to a halt.
It was several long seconds before Dawn spoke. Claudia wasn't sure that she would. "It's my fault." Dawn said hoarsely. "My parents are getting divorced and it's my fault."
"No, it isn't-"
"Yes, it is! Dad blames me for being here, thinks it’s just some stupid childish whimsy. Got into a big argument with Mom about it. Then BAM-" Claudia jumped violently as Dawn crashed her fist against the bed "-a few weeks later and they're getting divorced. How is that not my fault?"
Claudia opened her mouth to make some asinine comment about how Dawn hadn't actually forced her parents to divorce, then shut it again. She knew full well that that would be exactly the wrong thing to say.
Claudia tried to remember the kind of thing that Dawn had said to get when they had first met. Perhaps if she said something like that, she could help Dawn. Dawn had certainly helped her.
Ah. She had it.
"You know, this formula we are working on, it's based on my brother's work. It's based on his notes, his calculations." Claudia said, then took a deep steadying breath before continuing. "A few years ago, he tried to put them into action, to test them. He tried to teleport himself. It didn't work. He died." Claudia's voice cracked on the last word. "He was declared dead. And for years, I blamed myself. I thought that if only I had stopped him, made him stop, then he'd still be ali- still be here today. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I couldn't have stopped him. He was my older brother, and I was just a little girl. There was nothing I could've done. I realised that it wasn't my fault."
Claudia didn't mention the possibility that Joshua was trapped between dimensions, or that now, instead of being guilty that she hadn't stopped him from getting himself stuck there she was guilty that she left him there for years. She wasn't quite ready to tell Dawn that yet.
Then she realised that that wasn't quite true. She was perfectly ready to tell Dawn. But, right at this moment, Dawn wasn't ready to hear her.
Dawn thought about saying that it wasn't the same, that she could've been a better daughter, that if she wasn't crazy everything would be just fine. But then she realised that it wasn't her fault she was crazy. She couldn't have stopped things from happening the way they had.
It wasn't her fault.