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I knocked on the bathroom door.
'Janice,' I called, what's taking you so long?'
'A girl has to look her best,' Janice called back over the noise of the shower.
'You're stalling,' I told her.
'Are too. Why don't you just say you don't want to go?'
'Would it make a difference?'
'No,' I replied.
'Then I prefer stalling,' Janice retorted.
'You girls okay up there?' Janice's mom called from downstairs. I crossed the landing and leaned over the top of the staircase so I could see her.
'We're fine, thanks, Mrs Penshaw,' I said. 'Janice is just taking her time.'
'No change there then,' Mrs Penshaw remarked. 'Would you like something to drink while you wait. She's liable to be a while.'
* * *
It was another half-hour before Janice and I hit the streets.
'Is it far?' Janice asked.
'We could go the long way if you prefer.'
'Now you're mocking me,' Janice said.
'Jan, I'm hurt,' I said. 'I'm just getting negative vibes here.'
'Hey, I never asked to get hooked up in this whole supernatural crap, okay,' Janice snapped.
I held up my hands in mock surrender.
'Calm down, girl.'
'Sorry,' Janice apologised, 'it's just I mean, what am I now? A witch?'
'Does that bother you?' I asked cautiously.
'Hell yeah,' Janice replied. 'Black on black is so Chrissie's shtick, you know, not mine.'
She flipped a grin in my direction and I couldn't help smiling back.
'Being a witch is okay,' I told her. 'I just wish Tara and Willow were here so you could talk to them about it.'
'I keep forgetting you know real witches,' Janice said. 'When someone says 'witch' to me I can't help thinking about warts, pointy hats and broomsticks.'
'Some stereotypes are so lame,' I replied. 'Look, you don't have to do any magic if you don't want to. I just want you to talk to this guy just so you don't start casting any spells by accident.'
'You mean losing my temper and turning Kirstie into a rat or something,' Janice suggested.
'I think there's some awkward witch's code that says you can't use your magic to harm others,' I said, frowning.
'Just because I cast magic that doesn't make me a witch,' Janice pointed out.
We walked in silence for a while as we fantasised as to what shape might suit Kirstie best.
'How are things with your dad?' Janice asked suddenly.
'Well that's an odd subject change,' I replied.
'And that's someone who doesn't want to answer the question,' Janice responded.
I thought for a moment.
'It's tense,' I admitted. 'It's bad enough having him back, but he has to bring his fiancee along for the ride.'
'And he's not allowed to fall in love again?' Janice asked.
'Well, I guess,' I conceded, 'but he doesn't have to rub my nose in it. And he could have chosen someone much better.'
'You're jealous,' Janice deduced.
'Of Hank's girlfriend? Give me a break.'
'She's getting the attention you think you deserve.'
'I gave up expecting any attention from my dad when he walked out on us six years ago,' I said.
'You want my advice?' Janice asked.
'Well, you're getting it anyway. You can carry on hating your dad if it makes you feel better, but you're stuck with him, at least for now, so you might as well make the best of it.'
We continued to walk in silence while I brooded on this. By now, we were nearing our destination.
'Looks like Drew and Chrissie got here before us,' I said, pointing.
'Great,' Janice muttered.
'What's up with you and Chrissie?' I asked. 'I thought you guys were friends.'
'We are,' Janice insisted, 'I think. It's just, well, things have been a bit difficult since she and Drew started going out.'
'Yeah, you two used to be tight, didn't you?'
'I guess,' Janice conceded. 'Not in a romantic way, but Drew and I have known each other since kindergarten. Chrissie's kind of broken up that relationship.'
'And you resent her for it,' I said.
'No,' Janice insisted. 'That would be petty. I don't resent them.'
I raised an eyebrow.
'Am I really that bad?' Janice asked.
'Mm-hmm,' I replied. 'It's not all one-sided though. I'm guessing Chrissie sees you as some kind of threat, whether she realises it or not, hence the queen bitch attitude.'
'Maybe,' Janice said sceptically. 'Do you think it'd help if I talked to her?'
'Doubt it,' I said. 'No remember to smile, our public awaits.'
'Been waiting long?' Janice asked Drew and Chrissie as we approached. They both replied simultaneously.
'Hours,' Chrissie said.
'No, not long,' Drew replied.
'All ready to master the black arts?' Chrissie asked before lunging at Janice while making woo-woo noises.
'Keep away from me,' Janice snapped, flinching.
'This is going to be just swell,' Drew whispered to me.
'Don't complain,' I scolded him. 'It gets them out of our hair for a while.'
I left my three friends for a moment while I went to knock on a door. Jonathan Levinson answered it.
'Hello, Jonathan,' I said.
'Dawn,' Jonathan replied. 'Won't you come in?'
'I'd rather not.'
'I was surprised when you, er, called me,' Jonathan said. 'I thought you were never going to speak to me again.'
'Believe me, if I'd had a choice I wouldn't have,' I explained.
'Yes, well, glad we got that cleared up,' Jonathan said. 'I take it these are the two girls you want me to train.'
'Janice and Chrissie,' I replied. 'Chrissie's the one with the major attitude hey, I guess they've both got attitude problems right about now. Have fun.'
I turned to leave.
'Dawn,' Jonathan said, 'I'm glad you felt you could come to me with this. I mean, after all that's happened '
'Let's get one thing straight, Jonathan,' I snapped, 'I do not like you. I hate you. The only reason I am here is that my friends need a magic-user to help them control their powers and you're the only one I know. You got that?'
'I got that,' Jonathan said softly.
I walked away, then sent Janice and Chrissie inside.
'Do you think we're doing the right thing?' Drew asked after the door had closed behind them.
'Do I have to spell it out to you what could happen if they don't get a handle on their powers?' I asked.
'That bad, huh?'
'And this Jonathan guy,' Drew asked, 'do you trust him. I know what he did to you sister.'
'You mean he helped kill her,' I said. 'Sure, I hate his guts. But, if I'm honest, I think his heart's in the right place. He said he'd take good care of them and I believe him. Besides, what choice do we have?'
* * *
'Can I give you a ride to school?' Hank asked.
Standing at the kitchen door the next morning with my bag half-on, half-off my shoulder, I was all ready to tell him where he could stick his offer. Then I remembered what Janice had said about making the best of things.
'Why not?' I said.
'You don't like Lydia, do you?' Hank said when he had started the car.
I didn't bother to reply.
'I can understand you hating me,' Hank said as we pulled out of the drive. 'I abandoned you and Buffy and your mother. I wasn't there for Joyce's funeral, I wasn't there to help you put your lives back together afterwards, I can understand why I'm the big bad here. But Lydia hasn't done anything to you.'
'She doesn't have to,' I muttered.
'What's that supposed to mean?' Hank asked.
'I mean she's not Mom,' I replied. 'How could you?'
'How could I what?' Hank asked. 'Fall in love? It's not like I went looking for it.'
'And did you go looking for all those others?' I demanded.
'What others?' Hank replied. 'I don't know who's been filling your head with this trash, but Lydia has been the only woman since well, since your mother. The. Only. One.'
Did I believe him? After all the other lies, all the betrayal? Yeah, for some strange reason, I think I did. And you know something? It hurt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. Why should it hurt so much to learn that my that Hank wasn't the monster I thought he was. Well, not entirely, at any rate.
'You could still do better,' I said petulantly. It sounded childish even to me. I might as well have stuck out my lower lip when I said it.
Hank laughed and for a moment the tension in the car lifted. Then he became serious again.
'Hate me if you want,' he said, 'but promise me you'll give Lydia a chance.'
Was it too hard to agree to that? Maybe not, but all the same I was counting the seconds until we pulled up in front of the school.
A figure ran out in front of the car.
'What the -'
Hank yanked on the steering wheel and the car lurched to one side. It was too little, too late and there was a sickening impact as the body rolled up onto the hood.
The car screeched to a halt and both Hank and I were outside in moments. I inhaled sharply as I recognised the body lying in the road. It was Helena.
'I'll call for help,' Hank said, reaching for his mobile phone.
'Hold that thought,' I said.
Helena was moving.
'Don't try to get up,' I told her. I don't know if she didn't hear me or if she just decided to ignore me.
'We should get you to a hospital,' Hank said.
'No hospitals,' Helena insisted. 'I'm fine.'
'Fine? But '
'Let me take a look,' I said softly. She had taken the impact on her right side so I slowly raised her shirt to examine the damage. As I had been beginning to suspect, there wasn't any, not even the tiniest scratch.
'That's not possible,' Hank said.
'Hank,' I said to him, 'school's just round the corner from here. How about I walk Helena there. I can keep an eye on her.'
'I still say we should get a doctor to look her over,' Hank protested.
'Let's not,' I said. 'Please Dad.'
I knew what effect the word would have. It was great as emotional blackmail. I didn't owe him anything so I didn't see any shame in doing whatever it took to get the job done. So why did I feel such a heel playing on his feelings like this?
'Okay, we'll play it your way, Dawn,' he said, 'but I want you to tell me what happens as soon as you get home.'
He was in the car and driving away before I'd even had a chance to respond. I stared after him.
When I turned back, Helena had clambered to his feet.
'Let me help you,' I said, encouraging her to lean on me.
'I don't need any help,' Helena said, pushing me away.
'Yes, I know that,' I said, offering my arm again, 'but unless you want everyone else to know that you're invulnerable, you might want to act a bit injured.
Pointedly, I tilted my head in the direction of a cluster of pedestrians. Helena took the hint and allowed me to take some of her weight, though not much.
'So, what's your damage?' I asked.
'Oh, come on. You think I didn't see you run out in front of our car? Were you trying to get yourself killed?'
'I don't I don't know what you're talking about,' Helena protested.
'That's it, isn't it?' My mouth fell open as realisation suddenly dawned. 'You're trying to kill yourself. But why?'
'I don't '
'Has it got something to do with these powers of yours?' I pressed. 'I saw the way you killed that vampire and that was great and all, but I can understand how having strange powers could freak you out. I can understand better than you know.'
'That's not it,' Helena said.
'Then what is it? I want to help, Helena, but you've got to let me in.'
'Just leave me alone!'
Helena pushed me away. She probably only intended to break my hold on her, but she misjudged her own strength and sent me flying several feet through the air. Fortunately, a flowerbed broke my fall. By the time I had picked myself up and dusted myself down, Helena had disappeared inside the school. I hurried after her.
* * *
I found her on her knees, picking up books from the floor of the corridor. Kirstie and her attendant Sweater Mafia were standing around her, laughing.
'Ah, poor Helena,' Kirstie mocked. 'Still I suppose it wasn't her fault.'
Well, she'd got that right, at least. I had a pretty good idea whose fault it was, though.
'You can't possibly expect anyone to walk properly with those feet,' Kirstie continued.
There wasn't anything wrong with Helena's feet, but that was not the point. All it takes is for an idea to be planted and suddenly everyone is looking at those feet and commenting on their size and their shape, seeing defects that aren't there. And the whole time, Kirstie is standing in the centre of it all, a look of false pity smothered across her face, the gleam of triumph in her eyes.
'You poor thing,' Kirstie persisted, twisting the knife, 'did you're mother do it with a frog? Yes, that's the problem, isn't it, Frog-girl?'
First the Sweater Mafia took up the chant.
Then the other bystanders joined in.
And the whole time, Helena sat on the floor, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. I couldn't understand why she didn't stand up for herself. It wasn't like she had anything to fear from Kirstie.
'How's it feel, Frog-girl,' Kirstie asked, 'knowing Daddy's a reptile?'
'Better than being the milkman,' I told Kirstie, 'and frogs are amphibians, not reptiles. Everybody knows that.'
Oh boy. When was I going to learn not to stand up to Kirstie? Unlike Helena, I didn't have superhuman strength or toughness to rely upon.
'Well if it isn't Gravestone Girl,' Kirstie said, hands on her hips. 'Don't get to close to her, boys and girls. People she knows have a tendency to drop dead.'
'Let's put that theory to the test, shall we?' I said before launching myself at Kirstie.
What can I say? I was a hair-puller.
Despite her prom-queen looks, Kirstie wasn't afraid of getting her hands dirty either. Additionally, she had the Sweater Mafia on her side. So, as the rest of the pupils chanted 'Fight, fight, fight!', I was buried beneath a pile of limbs and the next thing I knew I was outside the principal's office looking like I was the one who'd been hit by the car.
And Helena hadn't lifted a finger to help me.
* * *
'Hey, Greg, fancy a beer,' Xander offered. 'There's some cold one's in the fridge if you don't mind getting them for yourself.'
'Cheers,' Greg said. He was a short, slim man in jeans and a tie-dyed shirt. He didn't look like much, but he was one of the hardest workers on Xander's crew.
'How's life?' Greg asked, sitting down on the couch and opening his can.
'Honestly?' Xander asked. 'Life on wheels sucks. The only upside is that I don't think I've ever had this many visitors. At least you didn't bring grapes.'
'I'll remember for next time,' Greg promised. 'Still, at least you won't be in the chair forever. What's the latest?'
'Doctor reckons I might be back on my feet within six months,' Xander replied. 'It was twelve at first, but the doc says I'm a fighter.'
'Well she's got that right,' Greg laughed. 'Guess that means you'll be back running the show before we know it. I'll warn the boys to enjoy the time off while it lasts, because the taskmaster will be back soon.'
'It's not going to matter, Greg,' Xander replied. 'I'm not coming back.'
'Nope,' Xander confirmed. 'I'm leaving Sunnydale.'
* * *
'Today, we're going to try and float a pencil,' Jonathan said.
He was circling the edge of the bare room. All of the furniture that had been here had been redistributed elsewhere in the apartment to give them more space. Chrissie and Janice sat inside a circle of salt. Four candles were part of the circle at the four compass points, a yellow candle was north, a blue candle east, a red candle south and a green candle west.
'You want us to float a pencil,' Chrissie repeated, 'because that's going to be really useful. Not.'
'Everyone has to start somewhere,' Jonathan replied, 'and you're less likely to do any damage with that.'
'Fine,' Chrissie muttered, 'so what do we do, close our eyes and thing light thoughts.'
'You hold hands,' Jonathan said.
'What!' both girls protested in unison.
'We went through this yesterday,' Jonathan sighed. 'Neither of you has any real talent on your own, but you're like two halves of a whole. You know, like Kirk and Spock or Artoo and C3PO.'
'We get the picture,' Janice said.
'Think of it like a chemical reaction,' Jonathan continued. 'Take sodium and water. On their own, pretty boring, but mix them together and boom!'
'Less with the boom, please,' Janice said.
'Spoilsport,' Chrissie retorted.
'Are we going to do this or not?' Jonathan asked. 'I could be watching Babylon 5 re-runs, but instead, I'm doing Dawn a favour because I feel guilty about what happened to her sister. Of course, if you're not interested, there's the door over there.'
'Dawn thinks this is important,' Janice said to Chrissie.
'So does Drew,' Chrissie agreed. 'Hey, Jono! We keep being told how important it is for us to learn to control this, but do you want to spell it out what'll happen if we don't?'
Jonathan folded his arms. Then he unfolded them and stuffed them in his pockets.
'Well, basically magic is the altering of reality to suit your will,' he said. 'I mean, that's a very simplistic take on it, but that's the, er, the fundamental idea. So, imagine for a moment you can't control your power and you just keep altering reality around you. You could start making your dreams real. Or your nightmares. I remember Doctor Doom did that once and he brought all his enemies back to life by accident and and I'm guessing you don't read comics much.'
'Not much,' Janice admitted with a pained smile. 'But we get the picture.'
'Let's do this, then,' Chrissie said, extending both her arms in front of her. Janice did the same and clasped both of Chrissie's hands in hers.
'Now slow your breathing like I taught you,' Jonathan said. 'That's it In Out In Out. Imagine a light pouring from the top of your head and flowing all around you. Now, focus on the pencil, but dont think of it as a pencil. Think of it as a feather, light and fluffy, and there's a breeze picking up and it's caught the feather and it's lifting it '
Slowly, but surely, the pencil was being lifted off of the ground.
'Wow!' Chrissie cried. 'We're doing it. I can't believe we're really doing it.'
Her concentration broken, the spell collapsed and the pencil plummeted to the ground.
'Let's do that again,' Chrissie suggested.
Jonathan shook his head.
'That was very good, but I think that's enough for one night.'
'You're hear to learn how to use magic safely,' Jonathan insisted, 'and that means taking it slowly. We'll do some more tomorrow.'
Crestfallen, Chrissie turned to Janice.
'That means you can let go of me now,' Chrissie said, 'unless you're enjoying yourself, that is?'
Janice snatched her hands back.
* * *
'Can I get you something?' Xander asked. 'You may have to wait a while, though. I'm still having trouble getting this chair about the apartment.'
'I'm fine, thank you,' Anya replied. She was sitting on the edge of the couch, he back straight as a rod.
'So what can I do for you?'
'I wanted to talk to you,' Anya said. 'Trix seems to think our relationship is in a holding pattern.'
'You want to talk to your ex about your new beau?' Xander said. 'So not interested.'
'Xander, this is important to me,' Anya insisted.
'Yeah, well, I'm sorry and all, but don't let the door hit you on your way out.'
'Xander!' Anya snapped. 'I think the problem with our relationship is you.'
Anya got up and began to pace.
'Didnt there use to be a rug here?' she asked.
'I couldn't get the wheelchair over it,' Xander explained. 'Don't avoid the question. How am I the cause of your problems?'
'I guess I just need to move on, Xander,' Anya said, 'but every time I try to I keep seeing us and our relationship. You're haunting me.'
'So this is all my fault, is it?' Xander asked. 'I didn't ask to be with you in the first place. You came on to me, remember? All I did was end it before things went too far.'
'Xander, it's just...we I need to know, do you still love me?'
'I've never stopped loving you, Anya,' he said at last. 'The only reason I left you at the altar was because I loved you so much I couldn't put you through the hell to come. And it's because I love you so much I'm telling you to forget about the past, forget about us, and work on holding on to your demon boyfriend.'
'Just because I hate his guts doesn't mean I can't see how much he loves you,' Xander explained. 'You want to make sure you make him yours before he slips through your fingers.'
* * *
I was grounded. If Hank had his way I'd be grounded for the rest of my life. He had heard about the fight and he was less than impressed. My refusal to explain only made things worse. So, instead of going to see the new band playing at the Bronze, I was stuck in my room.
Which was exactly where I wanted to be.
'You can come out now,' I said. 'I know you're watching me, Tara, so why not show yourself.'
She shimmered into existence, like steam fogging a mirror. Then she sat down next to me on the bed, smoothing out her long skirt as she did so.
'Hello, Dawnie,' she said.
'Hey,' I replied.
'I'm glad you called,' she said. 'We've got a lot to talk about. You need to know more about your destiny and '
'Not tonight, please,' I interrupted. 'I just want to, you know, talk.'
'Talk?' Tara repeated.
'Yeah,' I said. 'I mean, I thought you were gone for good, but now I can see you and I thought maybe we could just, you know '
'No, I don't,' Tara replied. 'It's not as if I can 'hang' anymore, Dawn. I'm dead. Just because you can see me doesn't change that.'
'And does being dead make you all serious and portentous all the time,' I shot back, 'because if so then I'm going to live forever. All I want to do is talk.'
I looked away.
'First Mom died. Then you and Giles left and Willow went all crazy and Xander and Anya split up and I was caught in the middle and I didn't know which way to turn. But then you came back and I don't think I'd ever seen Willow so happy and I was so over the moon and I thought maybe, just maybe, things were going to be okay again.
'Do you think I jinxed it? As soon as you guys got back together, you died. First you, then Willow. And to cap it all, not six months later my own sister sacrifices her life to save me. Again. Only this time she isn't coming back and I'm on my own except for a father I don't even know or like.'
I could feel hot tears upon my face, but I didn't care.
'I just I just feel like falling apart, you know. I guess I did over Christmas. When we were shrunk. If it hadn't been for Drew I reckon I'd have just curled up and died back then. I want I need I don't even know what I need, but it'd sure help if I had someone to talk to about stuff. You know, like old times.'
I turned back to face Tara and I could swear there were tears in her eyes too.
'Dawnie, I'm so sorry,' she said. 'You want to just talk then we'll just talk. For as long as you need to, okay.'
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak just yet.
Tara held out her hand.
'Wanna thumb wrestle?' she asked.
* * *
'Hey, Jan, wait up,' Chrissie called.
'Go home, Chrissie,' Janice called back.
'Come on, Jan,' Chrissie said. 'Don't tell me you're not like still buzzing from what we did back there.'
'Playing with dark forces is your bag, not mine,' Janice insisted. 'I'm there to learn to control this thing and then I'm through.'
'Don't be like that,' Chrissie said. 'You can't tell me that this stiff isn't major league cool.'
'This stuff creeps me out,' Janice replied.
'Well, yeah, but that's the fun part,' Chrissie persisted. 'Please, Jan, I can't do this without you.'
'And that's a bad thing?'
'Think for a moment, Jan,' Chrissie said. 'Dawn's facing down the forces of evil practically every night. We both want to help her, right? What better way for us to do it than through magic? If we've got it, let's use it.'
Janice stopped and turned to face Chrissie.
'What do you want?' she asked.
Chrissie produced a book from her backpack.
'I swiped this from the Magic Box,' she explained. 'Figured, since Jono insists on a softly, softly approach, we might benefit from some homework.'
'That is so not a good idea,' Janice told her.
'It'll be fun,' Chrissie said.
'It could get us both killed. Haven't you been listening to a word anyone's been saying?'
'We just have to be careful, that's all,' Chrissie insisted. 'Come on, Jan, just one spell. Please.'
'Okay,' Janice said finally. 'But just the one.'
They crept silently up to Janice's room. Her mother was downstairs watching TV. Janice didn't have any proper witchy paraphernalia at home, but Jonathan had shone them that the exact nature of the object didn't matter, as long as it meant something to the witch. Bearing that in mind, Janice began to construct a temporary set-up. Chrissie, meanwhile, flicked through the book for an interesting spell.
'Ready,' she whispered.
'I think so,' Janice said.
'What the hell is that?' Chrissie asked, pointing to a battered soft toy in the centre of the circle. The toy was in the shape of a small brown dog. Most of the stuffing had fallen out and what was left had gathered in the toy's arms and legs giving him bizarre proportions.
'That's Roger,' Janice explained defensively. 'Jonathan said that we should use things that were important to us and he's important to me, okay?'
'Okay,' Chrissie said.
She sat down cross-legged on one side of the circle. Janice sat down opposite her. Cradling the spell-book in her lap, Chrissie began to chant the same seven-word phrase over and over. Once she had had a chance to memorise the words, Janice joined in. After about five minutes of this, Chrissie snapped the book shut.
'Is that it?' Janice asked.
'Now you have to touch me,' Chrissie said. 'Don't look at me like that. You know that's how our power works. And you know you want to.'
'Like hell,' Janice muttered, but she reached out and touched Chrissie's arm anyway.
Then the world spun. Janice felt giddy. Hr stomach lurched and she felt she as if she was going to be sick.
'Is that supposed to happen?' she asked.
She looked up and glanced over at Chrissie. The face looking back at her was her own.
* * *
Across town, Xander was having a bad dream. It was the same dream he always had, the one where Willow slips through his fingers like smoke on the wind. He tossed and turned uneasily upon his bed until, finally, he rolled out of it and landed in a heap on the floor.
The impact shocked him to wakefulness. He was grateful for that, at least. He was less grateful for the fact that he now had to work out a way to climb back into bed.
He lifted himself up on his hands, wishing there were some way he could support his weight with his legs
and then he was outside in the street. And he was walking!
* * *
'Dawn, something's wrong,' Tara said. 'I can feel it. I '
Tara wasn't there any more. Nor was my room. I was somewhere else entirely. I shivered. The window was open and the curtains, though closed, billowed wildly in the breeze. Plus, I was only wearing underwear. At least, I assumed it was me, but the body I was looking at didn't look like mine at all. The skin was the wrong colour for the start. It was like milk chocolate, like Helena.
Then the door to the room burst open. I turned to face the intruder, while at the same time wrapping my arms around myself in an attempt to preserve my modesty. A large dark-skinned man stood in the doorway. It was Helena's father and he was holding a belt in his right hand. He eyed me hungrily and slapped the belt against the palm of his free hand.
The room echoed with the sharp crack of leather against flesh.
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