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Given time, life started returning to normal, or as close as it ever gets to normal. Spike's threats were pretty much ignored. With the chip stuck in his head the only one of us he might actually hurt was Buffy and, like, in a fight between the two of them do you really think he's going to stand much chance? I didn't. At least, not then.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The new school year had started and I was easing myself back into the daily grind of classes and assorted boredom-inducing stuff. It wasn't all bad news, though. Janice, Chrissie, Craig and Drew were still there to keep me sane.
(If Buffy's friends were the Scooby Gang, did that make us the Scrappy Gang? Now there's an embarrassing thought. I hope no one else has come up with it.)
It turned out that Drew hadn't broken his leg in the fall, but he had sprained his ankle so he was hobbling around everywhere on crutches, much to the amusement of the rest of us. (What? Like you wouldn't laugh if it was someone you knew.)
'Hold on to these, could you?' he asked, handing his crutches to Craig so that he could unsling his backpack and reach his lunch bag. Drew, sensibly, brought his own lunch to school.
'Have you seen the posters?' he asked us as he lowered himself on to the red plastic chair.
'What posters?' I asked. I looked across at Janice and she gave me a blank look in return.
'Oh, come on,' Drew protested, 'they're everywhere.'
'Huh?' I said. Intellectual comment could wait until after I'd refuelled.
'The school play?' Drew prompted. 'Auditions?'
'Oh,' Janice remarked. 'That.'
She started absently pushing food around her tray with her fork.
'And this interests us because?' Chrissie asked.
'Get real,' Drew replied. 'It's The Wizard of Oz.'
'The Wizard of Oz?' Craig repeated. 'I love that movie.'
'That,' Chrissie told him, 'is because you're twisted and strange.'
'Hey!' Craig protested. 'What about '
He tilted his head back, opened his mouth and
'No!' we all exclaimed in unison.
'Okay, we all agree. It's a great film,' Janice said hurriedly. 'Just don't sing.'
'See, works every time,' Craig said to Drew. Drew rolled his eyes.
Chrissie lazily raised a hand.
'Still waiting to be struck by 'the point',' she said.
'Well, my little cherub ' Drew began.
Chrissie kicked him under the table and he squealed in pain. Manfully, of course. I think those two have a thing going.
'Well,' Drew tried again, 'the point is that it's The Wizard of Oz. And they're holding auditions. And you can be in it.'
'If you're about to suggest that I could be the Wicked Witch of the West, I wouldn't,' Chrissie said. 'Really I wouldn't.'
'I wasn't going to,' Drew lied unconvincingly. 'I don't see what you're problem is. I'd kill to get a part.'
'I say, go for it,' Chrissie told him. 'You're a shoo-in for the Scarecrow.'
'Oh, so it's okay for you to assassinate my character, but not the other way round,' Drew replied.
'Yep,' Chrissie said.
'Children,' Janice remarked.
'So are you going for it?' I asked Drew.
'With this leg?' he asked. 'You've got to be kidding. Of course, you could go in for it.'
'Me?' I said. 'Uh uh. No way.'
'I think it's a great idea,' Chrissie said.
'What? But you just said '
'True,' Chrissie agreed, 'but it could be fun watching you suffer.'
'Thanks a lot,' I muttered.
'I don't know,' Janice said, sizing you up. 'I could see you as Dorothy.'
I scowled at her.
'I thought you'd jump at the chance,' Drew said. 'After all, it's your fault I can't audition so you kind of owe me my vicarious acting experience.'
'My fault?' I exclaimed. 'I didn't make you go to that warehouse.'
'That reminds me,' Drew continued. 'What were you doing there.'
'Well, I '
'And how is your friend with the skin condition?'
'Skin condition?' Chrissie asked.
'Can we get back to the play?' I said hurriedly.
* * *
'All men are bastards.'
It was not a sentiment Anya was going to argue with.
'I mean, how could he do that to me?' her companion continued. Her name was Trudie. She hadn't told Anya this, but she knew it anyway. Think of it as a gift. Trudie was in her late twenties and her blonde hair was tied up in a pink scrunchie. Her son Mark, strapped firmly in the pushchair, was pulling faces at the ducks.
'Do what?' Anya asked. She could feel the grief and the hurt radiating from Trudie, could taste her need for vengeance. That was what had drawn her to this park bench in the first place.
'He's been seeing someone else,' Trudie complained.
Well, that one's new, Anya thought. Not.
'Go on,' she prompted.
'It's my mother,' Trudie told her.
Okay, Anya admitted to herself, maybe this one was a little different after all.
'Some men like the more mature woman,' Anya explained.
'He told me he loved me,' Trudie moaned.
'And?' Anya asked. Were all women this na´ve?
'We've got a son,' Trudie said, indicating Mark. 'If he didn't want me, why did he let it go this far?'
'Because he's a man,' Anya explained, 'and intelligent thought is completely alien to them.' She leaned closer, conspiratorially. 'Bet you wish he was hurting just as much as you are right now.'
'Bet you wish his eyes would swell up and burst right out of his face.'
'Or maybe you'd rather he were covered from head to toe in puss, filled warts,' Anya suggested. 'No woman would look twice at him then.'
'Too right,' Trudie agreed.
'Or maybe, if he likes them old and grey, he should be aged and decrepit himself. What do you say?'
'Sounds good to me.'
'Well?' Anya prompted.
'Well?' Trudie asked.
'Well, wish already,' Anya snapped.
* * *
So eventually they convinced me to audition. I agreed for three reasons.
Reason One. So long as we were talking about the play, Drew wasn't asking about Clem and fungus monsters and all manner of Sunnydale goings on that I wanted to keep hidden.
Reason Two. I actually like acting. Or I used to, back when I was a bit younger. It's kind of fun being the centre of attention. I'd gone off it the past couple of years, though. You know that phase you go through as you get older where you're more concerned about looking cool than having a good time. That was me. So, much as I might protest about getting up on stage, I was also kinda looking forward to it.
But by far the most compelling reason was Reason Three. Kirstie was auditioning. Kirstie and my relationship was defined by a mutual antipathy. I was finding it easier to ignore her as time went on and she was increasingly leaving me alone as she discovered she couldn't rile me as much, but I did get a guilty rush of pleasure every time I imagined the look on her face when I beat her in the audition.
* * *
Halfrek sipped at her mochaccino.
'So how's the whole vengeance gig working out?' she asked.
'Okay, I suppose,' Anya admitted. Her coffee sat untouched on the silver tabletop.
The Espresso Pump was busy, but not crowded. A man was playing a guitar in the corner, to the delight of some of the patrons, but, in Anya's opinion, he was no Giles.
'You suppose?' Halfrek asked. 'What is your problem? Come on, tell Aunt Hallie?'
'Aunt Hallie?' Anya repeated sceptically.
'Just roll with it,' Halfrek replied.
'I got a call this morning,' Anya explained.
'A vengeance call?' Halfrek asked. 'That's great, honey.'
'That's what I thought,' Anya replied.
'I'm sensing issues,' Halfrek said. 'Something's up.'
'Something's definitely up,' Anya agreed. 'This woman's husband is cheating on her. With her mother.'
'Now there's something you don't see everyday.'
'She wants him to drop dead, Hallie,' Anya continued.
'No imagination, some people,' Halfrek mused. She pointed at Anya's coffee. 'Are you going to drink that?'
'Here,' Anya slid the drink across the table.
'So, what's the problem?' Halfrek asked. 'I mean, it's a simple enough wish. You could do it from here if you wanted to.'
'But that's just it, Hallie,' Anya said with her head in her hands. 'I'm not sure if I want to.'
'What? You don't think this girl deserves her vengeance?' Halfrek asked. 'Now if someone was cheating on me with my mother - which is frankly disturbing given that she's been dead for the past hundred years - but if someone was cheating on me, I'd want to see him suffer. Give him what he deserves, that's what I say.'
'But killing him?' Anya asked. 'That's a bit, well, final.'
'This doesn't sound like you, Ann,' Halfrek remarked. 'What happened to the girl who wished plague on an entire village without batting a beautiful eyelid.'
Anya said something in reply, but her words were drowned out by the crooner in the corner who had suddenly decided to let rip.
'I'm sorry?' Halfrek said.
'I said, that was then,' Anya repeated, raising her voice to compete with the warbling. 'But I've been mortal, Hallie, and it's terrifying. I'm not sure I would wish mortal death on anybody.'
'But it's not up to you, Anya,' Halfrek told her. 'If that's what she wished for then you're compelled to deliver.'
'But ' Anya began. 'But what about their kid.'
'What about him?' Halfrek asked. 'This isn't up to him. Or you. It's up to the girl. She's wished him dead and you have to grant her wish. That's what Justice Demons do.'
'Vengeance Demon,' Anya corrected. 'I'm a Vengeance Demon.'
'Semantics,' Halfrek replied. 'You're a Justice Demon same as me. And we're both bound by the same rules. Of course '
'It's nothing,' Halfrek insisted.
'Hallie,' Anya said.
'Oh, all right,' Halfrek capitulated. 'All I was going to say was that if this bothers you so much maybe you should try thinking outside the nine dots. That's all.'
* * *
Ten girls were auditioning for the part of Dorothy. That made twelve of us in the hall: the ten of us, Mr Gleeson, who was directing, and Drew, who was there to give me moral support. I needed it. Our audition piece was a song. Somehow the fact that The Wizard of Oz was a musical just hadn't registered. I was going to kill Drew when this was all over. Or maybe just maim him a little.
Kirstie stood imperiously to one side, confident that the part was already hers. She had even brought along a plush toy dog, which she was carrying about in a basket. I wasn't worried about her, though. You see, I knew one thing that Kirstie had obviously forgotten. She was tone deaf.
She was the first up, but she barely got through the first couple of lines of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' before Mr Gleeson stopped her.
'Thank you, Kirstie,' he said. 'I think we've heard quite enough.'
'So did I get it?' she asked. She was so eager it was embarrassing. She was even wearing red shoes, I noticed.
'We'll, er, let you know,' Mr Gleeson replied.
Don't call us, we'll call you.
'That was certainly something,' Drew told Kirstie as she climbed down from the stage. 'As soon as I figure out what I'll let you know.'
Kirstie strode past him, pretending she hadn't heard. Mere mortals like us were beneath Kirstie's notice, which was just the way we liked it.
Unfortunately, I seemed to have found a way to register on the Kirstie radar.
'You might as well pack up and go home now, Dawn,' she condescended. 'No way are you getting that part.'
'We'll see,' was all I said in response.
I was the eighth girl up on stage, by which stage my knees were knocking together. Isobel, the sixth girl to try, could sing. And I mean really sing. Any hope I had entertained of getting the part was swiftly evaporating.
I climbed up on to the stage.
Drew was sitting in the front row of seats. He winked at me as I took up my position.
'Take your time, Dawn,' Mr Gleeson said as he launched into the same spiel he had given to all the other girls. 'And I want you to think about what the song means to you. I want you to sing from the heart. Convince me how important this is to you. When you're ready.'
I took a deep breath.
'When all the world is a hopeless jumble and the raindrops tumble all around.'
My voice was small and tentative. Unsure. I thought of Tara's death. I thought of the disaster that had been Willow and Anya's nearly wedding.
'When all the clouds darken up the skyway there's a rainbow highway to be found.'
I thought of what Spike had done to Buffy. And I thought about Willow's fate and I thought about what it had done to all of us.
And I stared out across the hall, past Mr Gleeson, beyond Drew, out into the distance.
And I thought of a place where Buffy didn't have to be the Slayer.
'To a place behind the sun.'
Of a place where Mom didn't die.
'Just a step beyond the rain.'
Where we could be a proper family.
'Somewhere over the rainbow '
And I was away, up there amongst the bluebirds.
The next thing I knew I was back on the stage and Drew was clapping wildly.
'Encore! Encore!' he shouted.
I smiled weakly, embarrassed, and hastily clambered off of the stage.
'That was brilliant,' Drew whispered to me, as I sat down next to him. 'I didn't know you had it in you.'
'To be honest,' I admitted, 'neither did I. But I wasn't that good, surely?'
Drew just shook his head.
When the final two girls had taken their turn, Mr Gleeson took his place on the stage.
'Well, ladies,' he began.
Drew raised a hand.
'And gentleman,' Mr Gleeson added. 'It appears that we have found our Dorothy.'
It was Isobel. Had to be.
'And she is '
Mr Gleeson was interrupted. By a flock of, well, flying monkeys. Seriously. If I were making this up, don't you think I could come up with something better than that?
'Cool special effects,' Drew said.
You've no idea how tempting it was just to let the monkeys eat him.
The room erupted into the kind of panic you might expect from a bunch of teenage girls being attacked by a bunch of primates with bat wings. Or maybe not, if that doesn't happen in your life very often. But this was Sunnydale so we were kind of used to it by now. BlasÚ, you might say. Which is probably why the girls' primary objective was not running for their lives, but instead keeping the flying monsters out of their hair.
They needed have worried. The monkeys were only there for one thing.
I stumbled backwards, knocking over chairs and collapsing in a tangled heap on the floor. Graceful I was not.
The monkeys circled around me, whooping and cawing.
'Drew!' I shouted. 'Your crutch. Give it to me.'
'What?' Drew said. 'Oh, right. Here.'
I took the crutch from him in my left hand and swung it in an arc, clocking one monkey on the side of its head.
Another monkey dived at me, drool dripping from its fangs.
I turned the crutch so I had a hand on each end. Then I lashed out, catching the monkey first on its forehead and then under its chin. It spiralled groggily away.
I spun the crutch and, holding it halfway up in my right hand, I stabbed out as if I was fencing. I struck a monkey once, twice, three times in the chest and it squealed in pain.
Then I swung the crutch up in the air, hooked the monkey with the handgrip and dragged it down so that I could poke it in the eyes.
After a few more minutes of this treatment, the monkeys gave up and flew back the way they had come with their tails between their legs.
'Wow, Dawn, that was so cool,' Drew remarked.
'Drew, I said, still lying on my back on the floor, 'any chance of a hand up?'
* * *
Anya couldnt bring herself to cross the threshold.
It was the first time she had returned to the Magic Box since it had been levelled. The rebuilding was progressing on schedule, but she was not sure if this wasn't worse. Everything that she had worked at, everything she had poured her heart into had gone, replaced by this whatever it was. There were no memories attached to this place, no life. Maybe she could learn to love it, but at the moment it was just a thing and not the home from home it had once been to her.
But maybe that was no bad thing. Maybe she could do with a fresh start. Not all the memories attached to this place were good ones.
'Anya, is that you?'
Xander was walking towards her. He was wearing a sweat-drenched T-shirt that showed off his arms.
'Xander,' Anya said. 'I was just passing so I thought I'd see how you were doing. With the shop.'
'It's going great,' Xander replied, stepping outside and taking off his yellow hard-hat. 'It's slow work, but we're doing okay.'
Anya nodded thoughtfully.
'That's good,' she told him.
'I would invite you inside,' Xander continued, 'but we're still working on the roof and it's not really safe yet.'
'Uh huh,' Anya agreed absently.
'So,' Xander said, 'how've you been. I haven't seen you around lately.'
'I've been busy,' Anya explained. 'There's a lot of paperwork to do if I want to get this place up and running again.'
'Couldn't you get Giles to help you out with that?' Xander asked. 'I mean, I know he's in England and all, but '
'This is my place, Xander,' Anya replied. 'Giles respects that.'
'Right,' Xander said. 'But you're getting by okay? No complaints?'
'Look around, Xander. What could I possibly have to complain about?' Anya responded. 'But I'm coping. I managed for a thousand years before you came along. I'll manage just fine now.'
'Of course,' Xander said hurriedly. 'I mean I know all that, but I still care, Anya.'
Anya opened her mouth to say something, then snapped it shut and turned away.
Xander tentatively put a hand on her shoulder. It felt warm and rough against her skin, strong and masculine. She looked at the hand.
'Don't,' she said.
Xander took the hand away.
'And how about you, Xander?' Anya asked. 'Are you 'getting by okay'?'
'I get by,' Xander replied. 'There's plenty of work for me to do and no, I'm not okay at all. Willow's dead, Ann. I know you guys didn't always get on, but she was like the sister I never had, you know. She was always there for me and I knew she was still going to be there when I we were both old and grey. I just knew.'
'You fantasised,' Anya told him. 'Life doesn't turn out the way it does in dreams. Ever.'
'Yeah, maybe so,' Xander agreed. 'Doesn't mean I have to like it.'
'No, I don't suppose it does,' Anya agreed.
Xander paused for a moment and stared up into the sky.
'I just get so lonely,' he admitted. 'I miss you, Anya.'
'And you want me to be there so you don't have to get old and grey alone, is that it?' Anya sneered.
'No, you don't understand,' Xander replied. 'I miss you.'
Whatever Anya had been about to say was cut off by the leathery sound of beating wings.
Screeching filled the air as a black cloud descended towards them.
'Inside,' Xander said, taking Anya by the wrist.
'But you said '
'It's got to be safer than out here,' Xander replied, dragging her inside.
They threw themselves to the ground as the flying monkeys swooped through the doorway after them.
'What are those things?' Anya asked, clambering to her knees.
'Does it matter?' Xander replied, searching for something he could use as a weapon.
'Find cover,' he instructed her. 'I'll hold them off.'
'Go!' he shouted.
There was a sledgehammer propped up in the corner. They had been using it to demolish what was left of one of the interior walls. Xander dived towards it as a monkey swept down at him. Its claws raked his back and he cried out in pain.
'Xander!' Anya called.
'Stay back,' he ordered her.
His fingers clamped around the haft of the sledgehammer.
He could hear the beating of bat-like wings, listened to it as it got louder and closer, waited and then
He swung the sledgehammer in a huge arc. It slammed into the side of the monkey's head and its skull collapsed like an aluminium can.
'Gotcha,' Xander said. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand.
'Who wants some?' he cried as another monkey floor down in his direction, talons extended, mouth open in a scream.
Xander stood his ground and at the last possible second he swung the hammer upwards and felt the satisfying crunch of breaking ribs.
The hammer came to rest by his feet. It was heavy and his arms ached. The pain in his back was intense. He was becoming light-headed and he wondered how much blood he was losing.
Then he heard the cawing of another monkey and he tried to lift the sledgehammer for a third time.
Anya was hiding underneath the counter. The blue paint was peeling off and, for one crazy moment, she wondered if she should consider a new colour scheme. Then she heard a thump as something landed on the counter-top.
Don't move, she told herself. Don't even breathe. Maybe it will just get bored and fly away.
She strained her ears, but she couldn't hear it anymore. All she could hear was the beating of her heart and the pounding of the blood in her ears.
Maybe it's gone, she thought. Maybe I should take a quick look to be sure.
The monkey swung its head down below the counter. Its eyes were red and wide and drool dripped from vicious-looking fangs.
It screeched at her.
Anya screamed right back.
Then the monkey stopped screeching.
The tip of a screwdriver protruded from its forehead.
Then, slowly, the monkey toppled over the edge of the counter and landed in an unmoving heap at her feet.
She screamed again.
A figure stepped around the counter.
'Need a hand?' he asked, offering her a hand up.
'Xander?' she asked as she took the offered hand in her own.
Then she looked up into his face, noting the excuse for a beard and the small, curved horns protruding from his brow.
'You?' she said.
'Miss me?' Trix asked.
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