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Hank was waiting for me when I got back.
'It's late,' he said.
'I guess,' I replied.
'Good night was it?' Hank asked, eyeing the orange dust clinging to my clothes.
'I've had better,' I told him.
'So this is a regular thing, is it?'
'I'm a teenage girl,' I replied. 'I like spending time with my friends.'
'Believe it or not, I liked hanging out with my friends when I was your age, too,' Hank said, 'and my parents didn't like it any more than I do now. You do know you've got school tomorrow, don't you?'
'Buffy let me stay out late,' I said.
'I doubt that very much,' Hank responded, 'and in any event, Buffy isn't here anymore.'
'No,' I said coldly, 'she isn't.'
'Look, I know I'm not Buffy,' Hank admitted, 'or your mom, but I am thinking of what's best for you.'
'Took you long enough,' I retorted.
'Okay, I guess I deserved that,' he replied, 'but I am your father and you're going to have to start respecting that.'
I yawned. I didn't even try and hide it.
'All right, maybe now's not the best time for this talk,' Hank conceded. 'But soon. No get to bed. You'll need your rest for school tomorrow.'
I didn't need to be told twice.
* * *
Before going to bed I took a shower. I really had to scrub to get that orange gunk off of me. It seemed to have got everywhere. My skin was read and raw by the time I was finished, but at least I was finally clean.
I heard their raised voices as soon as I stepped out of the bathroom. To be fair, they were trying to be quiet, but the walls in our house aren't that thick.
'When are we going back home?' Lydia was saying.
'We are home, honey,' Hank replied.
'But I don't like it here,' Lydia moaned. 'I want to go back to Spain.'
'We're here because of Dawn, remember.'
'Like I could forget.'
'Don't be like that,' Hank said. 'She's my daughter.'
'Well, can't we take her back to Spain with us?' Lydia asked.
It hadn't occurred to me that they might want to do that. I wouldn't let them, I promised myself, though I had no idea how to stop them.
'Dawn's in the middle of school,' Hank pointed out. 'I'm not gong to pull her out now. Let her finish her studies, then we'll see.'
That was a relief.
I yawned again. Crossing the landing, I entered my room and was asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.
* * *
Across town, Helena was very much awake, though she wished she wasn't.
The leather belt swept down once more and struck her flesh with a crack, leaving a red welt.
'You shouldn't have run away, Helena,' her father said. 'That was wrong. You see that, don't you?'
'Yes, Dad,' Helena agreed through trembling lips.
The belt cracked again. Tears pricked the back of Helena's eyelids, but she did not let them fall.
'That's my girl,' her father said. 'Take your punishment. And when we're done, Daddy will make it all better again.'
Helena could feel her father's warm breath against her cheek. She shivered.
* * *
I was already having a bad morning and I'd only just got out of bed. I kept pulling stuff out of the wardrobe to wear to school, but none of it seemed to fit. It all seemed several sizes too big. In the end, I had to wear the same outfit I'd worn vampire hunting last night. At least most of that orange dust seemed to have gone.
I ran downstairs, taking the steps two at a time. I dashed into the kitchen and opened the fridge, reaching for my lunch bag. It wasn't there. Instead, the fridge was full of little white boxes that seemed to contain some salad concoctions or something.
'What the hell is all this?' I demanded.
'Oh, they're mine,' Lydia explained. She was sitting at the kitchen table, filing her nails.
'And where's my lunch?' I asked patiently.
'Was that what was in that tatty-looking brown bag?' Lydia asked innocently. 'I threw that away.'
I ground my teeth together. I know it's a cliché, but there were definite evil stepmom tendencies about this woman. But I wasn't going to kill her. I was already running late so homicide would have to be put on hold for now.
'Hi, sweetheart,' Hank called as he entered the kitchen.
'Good morning, darling,' Lydia replied.
'I was, er, talking to Dawn,' Hank admitted.
News to me.
'Can I fix you any breakfast?' he asked me.
I shook my head.
'Gotta dash,' I explained.
'What about your lunch?'
I shot Lydia a look.
'If you say so,' Hank said. 'Listen, before you run, I heard about this play you're in. You're going to get us tickets, right?'
'Um ' I stalled brilliantly.
'How much money do you want for that?' Hank asked, reaching for his wallet.
'It's okay,' I told him hurriedly. 'I got it.'
Translation: they were going to that play over my dead body.
'Now, I've really got to go,' I said, matching action to word and opening the front door.
'See you tonight then,' Hank called.
'Maybe,' I muttered as I stepped outside.
* * *
Xander hated the chair. It just emphasised how weak and useless he had become. Plus, the wheels kept sticking. He gave the chair another shove and it began to roll down the ramp outside the hospital.
'How was physiotherapy?' Anya asked. She was sitting on the wall reading a magazine and enjoying the sunshine.
'Ann,' Xander said, 'what are you doing here?'
'Waiting for you,' Anya replied. 'Isn't that obvious?'
'Well, no actually,' Xander said. 'I thought Halfrek was going to be picking me up.'
'She was,' Anya agreed. 'But I asked if I could do it instead. So, how was physiotherapy?'
'Exhausting,' Xander replied. 'Like going ten rounds with Mike Tyson. And that includes the ear biting. The doc says I'm well on the way to a full recovery, but I'm damned if I can see it.'
'Give it time,' Anya consoled him, climbing off of the wall and stepping round so that she could push his wheelchair along.
'And until then I get to be babied and carried by all my friends. What's not to like?' Xander responded flatly.
'I'm sure it's only temporary,' Anya insisted as they crossed the car park.
'I know and I'm sorry,' Xander replied. 'It's just I hate being a burden to you guys.'
'You're not a burden,' Anya insisted. 'You can be incredibly stupid and hurtful at times, but you're never a burden.
'Thanks,' Xander said, 'I think.'
'You're only human,' Anya told him with a shrug.
'Unlike some people,' Xander muttered.
'Xander,' Anya began, 'I've been thinking and I realise that we haven't really talked since, well, you know and since Trix came back.'
'No, I guess we haven't.'
'And it's just that, well, I wanted to know how you felt about things.'
'What does it matter?' Xander remarked. 'It's your life.'
'Well, I really like Trix, but '
'I don't see that it's any of my business,' Xander said. 'I just hope the two of you are very happy together. I'm sure you're better off with him anyway.'
* * *
My dress was gorgeous and I like to think that I looked equally stunning in it. Drew's costume was equally spectacular and, as an added bonus, it provided plenty of opportunities for teasing. Unfortunately, whoever had made the outfits had got our measurements wrong and there had to be a bit of hasty pinning before we were ready to go on stage for the dress rehearsal.
'Well, that went well,' Drew remarked sarcastically as we exited, stage left.
'Oh you know what they say,' I replied, 'crap dress rehearsal, fantastic performance.'
'You'd better hope so,' Drew replied.
'Like you were so much better,' I retorted.
'Hey, what are you talking about,' Drew protested. 'That little dance number I do. Awesome.'
'Not the word I would have used.'
'So I kept missing my spot,' Drew admitted, scratching the back of his neck. 'The marks seemed closer together last time.'
'Yeah, everything seems so much bigger today,' I joked. 'Guess it's just nerves.'
'Guess so,' Drew agreed. 'Listen, I meeting up with the others for coffee in a bit. Wanna come?'
'Sure,' I agreed, 'but what do you say we get changed first. Coffee might make you rust.'
* * *
Helena sat cross-legged on her bed. She could smell the freshness of the sheets. Her mother put fresh sheets on her bed every day. She hated that smell.
She hated her room. She had put up her Christmas decorations. Streamers cross the ceiling and tinsel surrounded the window. She even had a small Christmas Tree on her desk. It could not disguise her room, though, the sanctuary that was not a sanctuary. She was should feel safe here. She did not.
She was holding a knife in one hand, gripping the hilt so tight that her knuckles were white. She pressed the flat of the blade against her wrist, feeling the cold of the steel against her skin. Then she slowly turned the knife so that the edge dug into her flesh. Blood began to well up from the open room, but, even as she watched, the wound closed itself. She wiped away the blood with her other hand and, once that was gone, there was no evidence of any damage.
* * *
'I just wanted to apologise,' Drew began, nursing his cappuccino between the palms of his hands. Janice and Chrissie had yet to arrive so we had some time to ourselves.
'Apologise for what?' I asked.
'You know,' he said, 'for being so hard on you about stuff.'
'Hey, I can't blame you for not wanting to be involved,' I told him.
'I don't,' he agreed, 'and I don't want Chrissie involved either. But I'm getting that you feel the same way.'
'Sometimes life just doesn't work out the way you think it should,' I remarked sagely.
'What's that, Dawn's Law Number Seventeen?' he asked.
'More like fifty-three,' I replied.
'My point is, if you really need me then you know I'm there, right,' he said. 'Just don't call unless you really need me.'
'Hey guys, where's my coffee?' Chrissie said as she strode over to our table.
'Over there behind the counter,' I said, pointing.
'What, no apology for being late?' Drew asked.
I looked at Chrissie, then back at Drew.
'Drew, this is Chrissie,' I said. 'She doesn't apologise. Ever.'
'Don't I know it,' Drew replied, 'but what can I say? I love her anyway.'
'Later, tiger,' she purred.
I growled and made claws with my hands. Drew fought to keep a straight face.
'So, where's Jan?' Chrissie asked.
My pager went off. I checked the number.
'That'll be her now,' I said. 'Excuse me.'
I went to find a phone.
Minutes later I was back.
'Let's go, guys,' I said. 'Janice's in trouble. Of the majorly weird kind.'
* * *
Janice didn't live that far from me, but that night it seemed like one hell of a long way. When we finally reached her street, I hurried ahead to knock on her door.
'Psst,' hissed a voice before I'd even reached the driveway.
I turned. A figure stepped out from behind a tree.
My jaw dropped.
It was Janice and she barely stood tall enough to reach my waist.
'Oh my god,' I said.
'How do you think I feel,' Janice retorted. 'What's happening to me, Dawn?'
'I wish I knew,' I replied. 'But we'll fix this, Jan, I promise.'
'What the hell happened to you?' Drew asked as he caught up with me.
'Talk about crash dieting,' Chrissie remarked.
'You are so not helping,' I told her.
'Look can we just change me back,' Janice said. 'This is just too freaky for words.'
'Try and stay calm,' Drew said.
'Stay calm?' Janice repeated. 'How would you like being one of the seven dwarves?'
'Well at least we know which one's Bitchy,' Chrissie commented.
'Frightened of the competition,' Janice snapped at her.
'Enough already,' I said. 'This isn't helping anyone. We need a plan.'
'I'm guessing this isn't natural, right?' Drew said.
'You think?' Janice responded.
'What I mean is, whatever's causing it is more up Dawn's alley than ours,' Drew explained.
'I was thinking the same thing,' I said. 'Let's head over to the Magic Box. Maybe they'll be something in one of the books that'll let us reverse this.'
'They'd better be,' Janice said.
'Or what? You'll bite our kneecaps?' Chrissie asked.
'You think this is all a big joke, don't you,' Janice protested.
'Like you wouldn't see the funny side in my position,' Chrissie replied.
'Will the Magic Box still be open?' Drew asked.
'Nice to see someone's still taking this seriously,' I said. 'And yes, Anya will be doing a stock check. Now let's go.'
* * *
We were a couple of blocks from the Magic Box when I heard the voice calling my name. I turned around, looking for the source.
'Who's there?' I demanded.
'Who's where?' Drew asked.
'Didn't you hear that?'
'Doesn't matter,' I said. 'Guess the stress is really getting to me.'
'Want to talk about it?' Drew inquired.
'Oh it's just well, everything really,' I admitted. 'I'm still trying to come to terms with Buffy's death. And my Dad's back complete with brand new pneumatic fiancee. And there's this thing with Helena.'
'Not your problem,' I told him. 'Of course, out of all that I've got Wesley looking over my shoulder now. And while he's doing that I'm supposed to be keeping you guys out of trouble. No offence.'
'Not that that's working out too well at the moment,' I confessed. 'And as if that weren't enough, I'm meant to be starring in a musical tomorrow night. Can you say pressure?'
'Just a bit,' Drew agreed.
There was that voice again and this time I could see the speaker. Tara was standing in the shadow of a store doorway.
'Can you see that?' I asked Drew pointing.
'The streetlight?' he asked.
'No. Her,' I said.
'Let me guess, the stress is now causing you to hallucinate.'
'Not funny,' I told him. 'Whatever, I'd better go check this out. Is it okay if I catch up with you guys in a bit?'
'Sure,' Drew replied. 'Just don't be too long, okay.'
''Kay,' I replied.
I waited for them to get out of sight before I crossed the street to speak to Tara.
'Please tell me I'm not going nuts,' I said. 'Or maybe that would be easier to deal with.'
'You're not nuts,' Tara said.
'But I am talking to a ghost,' I replied.
'Got it in one.'
'How come I can see you, but Drew can't?' I asked.
'Because you're special, Dawn,' Tara told me. 'Gifted.'
'Most of the gifted kids I know are good at Math or Science,' I responded. 'Why do I have to be the one that sees dead people?'
'I wish it didn't have to be this way, Dawn, I really do,' Tara said, 'but you have a destiny.'
'You make it sound like that's a bad thing.' I tried to make it into a joke. And failed.
'You'll find out soon enough,' Tara replied.
'What's with all the mysterious spooky stuff?' I asked. 'Can't you just tell me what's going on?'
'I wish I could,' Tara said, 'but I'm not even supposed to be here. I just came to warn you that you're in danger.'
'Like that's news,' I said.
'Please don't joke about this, Dawn,' Tara scolded me. 'One of us already knows what it's like to die and it isn't you. Trust in your friends, Dawn. They can save you, if you'll let them.'
'Cryptic much?' I said. 'Why can't you help?'
'Hello? I'm a ghost. What am I supposed to do?'
And with that Tara faded away.
'As if my life wasn't complicated enough,' I complained to nobody in particular as I hurried after the others.
* * *
I turned the corner, but they were nowhere in sight. They couldn't have got that far ahead, surely?
'Down here,' Chrissie called.
I looked down.
The three of them were hidden under a litter-bin. And they each couldn't have been more than six inches tall.
'This is getting ridiculous,' I said.
I should have kept my mouth because I guess I offended the gods of irony or something. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I began to feel dizzy. All around me the buildings were getting taller. It took me a moment to realise that they were actually staying the same size and instead I was getting smaller. Hey, I was under a lot of pressure. You can't expect a girl to be at her best under those conditions.
Pretty soon I was no taller than my friends.
'Puts the rest of your problems in perspective, huh?' Drew remarked.
'How is it that such a small man can still hold that much hot air?' I asked.
'Got any more great ideas?' Janice asked.
'Still the same one,' I replied. 'Whatever's doing this is magic and we'll need magic to reverse it.'
'And that means getting to the Magic Box,' Drew deduced. 'Reckon Anya will still be doing that stock check?'
I looked along the length of the sidewalk that now seemed to stretch to infinity and I looked at the cracks that now formed ravines we were going to have to find some way to cross.
'Maybe tomorrow night's,' I said hopefully.
'At least things can't get any worse,' Chrissie commented.
'Um, guys?' Janice said.
We turned as one.
We were facing three pairs of blue webbed-feet. They were attached to demons with pig-like faces, the same demons we had seen at the jewellery store. Only now, they were at least twice our height.
'Well, boys,' one of them growled. 'Look what we have here.'
'What say we finish what we started last night,' his friend said.
'Chrissie, anyone ever tell you you've got a big mouth,' I asked.
'Frequently,' she replied proudly.
I shook my head.
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