|          |
'I'm sorry, but Dawn isn't going to be able to go out tonight.'
Janice, in Chrissie's body, stood at the door of my house. My father blocked her entrance.
'No buts,' Hank insisted. 'We are going to have a family meal this evening and Dawn is going to be here.'
'But it's a matter of life and death!' Janice protested.
'It always is with teenagers,' Hank replied. 'I remember being in your shoes myself.'
'But it is,' Janice said.
'In that case,' Hank began, 'why don't you tell me what's so important, hm?'
Janice stared blankly back at him. Somehow she didn't think 'My friend and I cast a spell, but it went wrong and somehow we swapped bodies' was going to wash here.
'Thought as much,' Hank said. 'Look, why don't you try again tomorrow?'
Janice opened her mouth to say something, though she had no idea what to say. Fortunately, Hank saved her the embarrassment by slamming the door in her face.
'Now what?' Janice muttered. She shivered again, partly because of the cold and the rain, but also because of the whole weirdness factor going round. Saying stuff with Chrissie's voice was just wrong. That twang was so not here. And as for the nails not for the first time this evening she wished that she had had time to remove the hideous black nail polish before she had gone out looking for Dawn.
And what a lot of good that had turned out to be. So, was she just going to stand about here waiting for Drew and Chrissie to turn up or
Checking to make sure no one was watching, Janice scrambled round the side of the house. Then she picked up a handful of dirt from the flowerbed and hurled it at Dawn's bedroom window.
'Dawn,' she hissed, 'it's me.'
There was no answer so Janice stooped down and gathered up another handful of dirt. The earth was cold and clammy and muddy, but Janice comforted herself with the thought that it was not really her nails it was getting under.
She tensed ready to throw and then noticed Hank watching her from the kitchen window.
'I'll, um, just be going,' Janice mumbled before hurrying away.
Great, so Plan B was a bust too.
Where were Chrissie and Drew? What could be keeping them? Actually, she had a pretty good idea what was keeping them, but that was okay. They were in a relationship, after all, and, despite what Dawn might say, she was not jealous. Uh-uh. No way. Absolutely not. Okay, maybe just a little. But that was all. And besides, how could they? With her body? With. Her. Body.
That thought was just too unpleasant for words. Not that, you know, she hadn't thought about making out with Drew at one point, but that was all ancient history, not to mention the fact she had actually fantasised about being present when it happened.
She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that it took her a while to realise that she was not alone.
The stranger was leaning against a streetlight. He looked to be maybe a couple of years older than Janice and had a long face with a silver stud in one ear - Janice notice because it was scattering the orange light falling down from above - and red hair, cropped so close to his scalp as to be barely present at all. He was wearing baggy jeans, torn at the knee, and an extra-large black T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of some band Janice didn't recognise. And he had on a pair of wraparound shades that made his eyes stick out like a bug's.
His fingertips were pressed against his temples as if he were in pain.
'Are you okay?' Janice asked as she took a tentative step towards him.
'No,' he replied, flashing her a crooked smile, 'I'm not okay. But I will be. Do I know you?'
'I don't think so,' Janice replied.
'I do think so. Yes, I really do.'
His crooked smile had now been replaced by a hungry leer and Janice backed slowly away.
'I'm telling you,' she insisted, 'we've never met before.'
'Oh yes we have,' the man informed her. 'You make me sick, you know that?'
Janice was walking away at speed.
'Look,' she replied, gesturing vaguely at him, 'if we had met, I'd be sure to remember, right?'
'You don't recognise me?' The man shrugged. 'Maybe this will help.'
He whipped off his shades.
Where his eyes should have been there was only violet mist broken up by flashes of white lightning.
* * *
'Go on,' Anya prompted.
Xander started to speak, but the words caught in his throat. He could see Anya sizing him up, admiring his body. Only it wasn't his body. She was practically drooling over Trix. Well, maybe not drooling hell, yeah, why not? Drooling.
Had he ever got that kind of reaction from her? They were going to get married at some point, surely that implied some kind of spark? But, try as he might, Xander could not recall eliciting the same reaction from Anya as his rival's body did now.
His rival? Xander mulled that over in his head. Trix wasn't really his rival. Xander had had his chance with Anya. Heck, he'd even given her his blessing to go with Trix. So why did he see Trix as competition? Did he still have feelings for Anya? More to the point, did he still have those kind of feelings?
It was his turn to appraise her.
'I preferred your hair darker,' he blurted out.
'What?' Anya replied, running a hand self-consciously through her hair. 'That was the big thing you wanted to tell me? And what's wrong with my hair?'
'Nothing's wrong,' Xander amended hastily. 'It's just that it's more white than blonde now and I happen to prefer it the other way round. I think it suits you, you know, golden, like a crown.' He stepped closer. 'A crown for a princess.' He placed his hands on her shoulders, so soft beneath his palms, and whispered in her ear. 'Or a queen.'
'Flatterer,' Anya managed, her voice husky.
'God, I've missed you.'
Xander leaned into her, trapping her between his body and the kitchen counter. She wrapped herself around him like a warm velvet glove.
'Missed me?' she asked. 'You only left me a few hours ago.'
Xander ignored her. Instead, he cupped her face in one hand and lifted it up so that he could kiss her full on the lips.
'Have you any idea how good you taste?' he asked when they finally came up for air. 'Like cool spring water to a man dying of first, like oxygen to a drowning man, like '
'Stop.' Anya placed a hand on his chest and tried to push him away, though she applied little by the way of strength.
Xander began planting a line of soft kisses down the curve of her neck and Anya leaned into him, writhing in pleasure before catching herself and pulling away in embarrassment.
'We both want this,' Xander continued.
He reached for her again, but Anya caught his wrist in her hand and held it in place.
'No,' she insisted. 'We can't.'
'Can't?' Xander echoed. He was sure she thought he was Trix, but if so then why wasn't she letting him get past first base? 'Why not?'
There was a loud knock at the door and Anya tore herself away from Xander and ran to answer it. She flung the door wide open and looked down at her latest visitor.
'Xander!' she said in a voice filled with relief.
'Not exactly,' Trix replied.
* * *
Janice ran, grateful that she had swapped Chrissie's boots for some more comfortable trainers. They flapped around on her feet a bit (due to Chrissie's feet being abnormally tiny and definitely not because Janice's were big), but at least she could run in them. The hood of her coat had been thrown from her head in her flight and Chrissie's black hair had been plastered to her scalp by the rain. She had to keep brushing sodden strands out of her eyes. Maybe this was why Chrissie had those ridiculous goggles.
The man with the violet eyes was still following her. He had not yet broken into a run, but was somehow managing to keep pace with her.
'You're all the same,' he was saying. 'Liars and betrayers. You never really cared about Amy.'
Who's Amy?' Janice called back.
It was the wrong thing to say. The man raised his right hand and a bolt of lightning crackled from his fingertips. Janice dived to the side as the energy blast tore up the sidewalk. She collided with a trashcan, staggered, and ended up on her knees in a puddle as the hot earth fell back down on top of her.
Two can play at that game, she thought.
Narrowing her eyes, she splayed her fingers, pressed the tips of her thumps together and stretched her arms out in the direction of her pursuer.
'Quisquilius inimico iaciare!'
The man was getting closer.
'Who's Amy?' he repeated. He was laughing, but it was cold and without humour. 'You don't deserve to say her name. You're nothing, you hear me? Nothing!'
Janice blinked. There were two shadows, both female, floating behind the man.
Janice closed her eyes and started to slow her breathing, ignoring the smell of spilled garbage and the sensation of muddy water seeping through her jeans. In for four, out for four. In for four, out for four. She could feel the energy pooling at her feet and she imagined drawing it up out of the earth and into her body. She felt her third eye open up in the middle of her forehead, burning brightly with power.
Her other two eyes still closed, Janice climbed to her feet and pointed in the direction of her enemy. Then her eyes snapped open.
'Quisquilius inimico iaciare!' she declaimed.
Janice stared unbelieving at her hands. She could feel the energy inside of her. It was practically dripping from every pore in her skin. And yet and yet she couldn't guide it, couldn't persuade it to do what she wanted. Not without Chrissie.
'Why did she have to die?' the man was saying. 'Why is it she died, but you get to live? It should have been you. It will be you.'
Lightning lashed downwards from the sky and struck the man at the crown of his head, lifting him off of his feet as the energy played about him.
'Your time has come,' he said as he waved his hands in Janice's direction.
'Help!' Janice screamed.
Drew barrelled into the man, knocking him off of his feet. Electro-boy's head struck the kerb and he lay still.
'Janice?' Chrissie said tentatively as she approached. 'You're well, you're glowing.'
'No, she's not,' Drew insisted as he got to his feet. Smoke was rising from his shirt where he had been burned by the lightning.
'Oh, she is so Flashlight-girl,' Chrissie retorted.
Janice understood. She could feel it. She was vibrating with all of that stored power.
'Take my hand,' she offered.
Slowly, the girls reached out to each other and when their fingertips touch it was like a wall had suddenly been knocked down and all that had been hidden behind it was free to invade. Energy flowed out of Janice and into Chrissie and her eyes opened wide as her skin trembled.
'Wow!' she breathed.
'Isn't it,' Janice replied, grinning.
'What is going on here?' Drew demanded.
The girls ignored him, beaming at one another, marvelling at the sight of their own bodies glowing with the golden radiance of the Mother Goddess. Then, slowly, they returned the energy to the earth from whence it came. They staggered apart, suddenly feeling vulnerable, mortal.
'Is somebody going to tell me what happened?' Drew persisted.
Chrissie's breath whistled through her teeth.
'Well, Janice and me '
'Hang about,' Drew interrupted, 'did you call her Janice? But I thought '
'Um it's a long story,' Chrissie replied.
'We got body-swapped,' Janice explained.
'Obviously not that long,' Drew remarked. 'So all that stuff back at my place was what exactly?'
'Well ' Chrissie began, at a loss of where to go from there.
'Can we table this discussion for later?' Janice suggested. 'We have bigger - not to mention brighter - concerns right now.'
Electro-boy was getting back up.
* * *
Trix had always thought that all that guff about broken hearts was just plain silly. Sure, he prided himself on being a roguish love 'em and leave 'em type, but no one he ever went with expected any more from him. Relationships were fickle, transient things and to expect any more from them was idiotic.
Well, Trix had gone and broken his own rule and as his heart crumbled and the ache in his chest grew, he finally understood what a broken heart was all about.
The worst of it was how quiet it was. There should have been shouting from the rooftops, screaming and recriminations. Objects should be thrown and tears should be shed. Instead, all it had taken to collapse Trix's world was for Anya to stand next to him.
Only she didn't know it was him. She thought that she was standing beside Xander. She was not even touching him, and yet there was an intimacy there that he had never shared with her in his own body, not even in their most passionate embrace. And he knew then that no matter how the situation with Xander played out, even if Anya chose to stay with Trix for the rest of her life, she would never be his. Not completely. Not in the way that really mattered.
'You're a lucky guy,' he said to Xander, 'but do us both a favour and put some clothes on.'
Embarrassed, Xander grabbed the red shirt from where it was drying on the radiator and put it on.
'Xander?' Now Anya stepped away, uncertain, and, paradoxically, Trix was glad that the intimate moment had been broken.
'He hasn't told you, has he?' he said.
'Told me what?'
'I'm not Xander, I'm Trix,' Trix explained. 'He's Xander. Don't ask me how, but we've swapped bodies and I'm guessing someone's been trying to take advantage of that little detail.'
'You mean I and he ' Anya stormed across the room and slapped Xander in the face. Hard.
'Hey!' Trix protested. 'I'd like to get my body back in one piece!'
* * *
'Grant?' Chrissie said.
'You know this weasel?' Janice asked her.
'I knew his girlfriend,' Chrissie explained.
'Past tense?' Drew queried as they backed away, never taking their eyes off of Grant.
'She's dead,' Chrissie told him.
'Let me guess,' Janice put in, 'she's this Amy he keeps going on about?'
'Amy Irving. She used to come over when the 'rents went out.'
'You mean she was a babysitter,' Janice deduced.
'Yeah, whatever,' Chrissie snapped back. 'She was at our house on the night she died. She had just left when some idiot hit her with a car.'
'Goddess,' Janice muttered.
'It's your fault,' Grant snarled, pointing at Janice. 'If she hadn't had to baby-sit you then she'd still be alive.'
'Hey, I'm not Chrissie,' Janice insisted. 'She's Chrissie.' She bit her lower lip. 'Um, I'm not helping, am I.'
'Not much,' Chrissie confirmed.
Grant looked sceptically from one girl to the other. Then he cocked his head to one side as if listening to something.
'Miss Edith says to keep it simple,' he told them, 'so I'll just kill you all.'
Drew glared at Janice.
'Definitely not helping.'
Grant turned and a coffee-coloured fist impacted with his face.
'Helena?' Janice said as I stepped out of the shadows.
'Not quite,' I replied.
'Dawn, then.' The others looked at Janice and she shrugged. 'Process of elimination.'
I narrowed my eyes and stared at the girl who looked like Chrissie.
'Janice?' I deduced.
'Good to know my character's more than just skin deep,' Janice said.
'Actually I was just thinking Chrissie wouldn't be caught dead in pink.'
'Got that right,' Chrissie agreed. 'I hope no one who knows me sees us out tonight.'
'You mean other than me,' Grant said.
'Everybody get behind me,' I ordered.
'Just do it.'
Grant hurled his lightning and it struck me in the chest. And it hurt. I could feel my skin burning and blistering and it was agony. But, just as fast as the damage occurred, Helena's body repaired it and, mere seconds after the blast ceased, I was whole and healthy again.
I cracked my knuckles and grinned.
I lunged at Grant, but I missed him. I wasn't used to this body. Helena was taller than me, her limbs were longer, and I had to keep reminding myself to compensate. It wasn't easy.
That was when Tara appeared.
'Hit me,' she said.
So I did.
Of course, I underestimated the length of my arms and I overshot, my momentum carrying me straight through Tara and into Grant.
Tara had positioned herself in front of Grant, calculating the distances so that my miscalculation would result in me impacting with Grant with maximum force.
My mouth fell open. Tara solidified a finger, put it under my jaw and snapped my mouth closed.
Then she winked at me.
'Shock later,' she said. 'For now, just hit me again.'
I did. And I did it again and again. Under Tara's instruction, I modified my moves, incorporating the lessons Buffy had taught me while Tara helped me to compensate for my unfamiliar frame. Soon Grant was lying bloodied and bruised on the sidewalk.
I paused, gathering my breath.
'Wanna go another ten rounds?' I taunted.
Grant jumped to his feet and ran off down the street.
'There'll be other times,' he called out as he retreated.
I started after him, but Tara put a restraining hand on my arm.
'Not now,' she said. 'We have other priorities. Like getting your body back.'
'Not to mention saving Helena,' I pointed out.
'Who are you talking to?' Drew asked.
I kept forgetting no one else could see Tara.
'Doesn't matter,' I told him.
I held up a hand.
'No time,' I said. 'Now, do any of you know what's happened?'
'Um, well '
'It's my fault,' Chrissie said. 'I convinced Janice to do a spell with me and it went wrong.'
'You can say that again,' I muttered. 'Okay, I need you three to find Jonathan and Wesley. There'll know how to reverse this. I hope.'
'And what will you be doing?' Janice asked.
'I've got to go and find Helena.'
'You mean other than the fact she's me?' I asked. I began to bounce uncomfortably from foot to foot. 'I saw Helena's father. He does things to her.'
'What kind of things?' Chrissie asked.
Drew dug her in the ribs. She whirled to face him, a rebuke on her lips, but then she caught my meaning.
'Oh,' was all she could say.
'Poor kid,' Drew added.
'No wonder she's so ' Janice trailed off. 'Well, you know.'
'You don't know the half of it,' I replied. 'I think she's trying to kill herself.'
'Why wait until now?' Drew asked.
There was a glass bottle on the ground. I picked it up and crushed it in my hand. I plucked the shards of glass out of the cuts on my palm and let my friends watched as the wounds closed before their eyes.
'Because she couldn't before,' I explained.
'Well what are you hanging around here for?' Janice demanded, the first to overcome her shock. 'Get after her.'
'We'll be fine,' Drew assured me.
I nodded and ran off.
'I'll go and find Jonathan,' Janice offered.
'I guess that means we're going to find Wesley.' Chrissie linked her arm with Drew. He extricated himself from her grip.
'Go with Jan,' he said.
'I need to be alone for a bit,' he insisted before turning on his heel and walking away.
* * *
'Dawn!' Hank bellowed. 'Dinner's on the table.'
He turned to face Lydia who was already seated.
'What's up with that girl?' he asked.
'Read my lips,' Lydia replied. 'I. Don't. Care.'
'You don't even know her.'
'And I don't want to.'
'Just give her a chance,' Hank protested.
'Why?' Lydia planted her elbows on the table and cupped her chin in her hands. 'It's her fault we had to move out here in the first place. We were happy in Spain. I was happy in Spain. I had friends out there.'
'You can make new friends her,' Hank assured her, 'if you'd just make a little effort.'
'I shouldn't have to make the effort.'
'You know why we had to come out here,' Hank replied. 'She's my daughter.'
'That didn't seem to bother you before,' Lydia remarked pointedly.
'I didn't know before,' Hank shot back. 'If I had, do you really think I wouldn't have moved heaven and hell to get back here. Do you think I don't blame myself for Buffy's death? Maybe if I'd been here '
'Oh puh-lease,' Lydia mocked. 'Change the record already. Do you really expect anyone to believe you care? You walked out on them, remember. They were her kids, not yours.'
'That's not true,' Hank said. 'I may not have been the best dad in the world, but they were still my daughters. Dawn's all I've got left. Do you really expect me to throw all that away?'
'It's always Dawn with you these days, isn't it,' Lydia whined. 'Dawn this and Dawn that. What about us? What about me?'
'They'll always be an us,' Hank replied. 'I just want it to be an us that includes Dawn.'
'Then maybe you'd better tell her that.'
'Maybe I will.'
Hank turned and stalked upstairs. He knocked on my bedroom door.
'Dawn. I know you're in there.'
He knocked again, then flung the door wide open.
The room was empty and the window was open. Rain was being carried inside by the wind, but Hank did not care about that. Instead, he turned and hurried downstairs.
'I'm going out,' he said as he opened the front door.
The door slammed shut behind him.
* * *
Wesley opened the door.
Halfrek stepped into the apartment.
'I brought Thai,' she announced, waving the white carrying bag in her hand.
'It smells delicious,' Wesley replied, pushing the door closed, 'but what are you doing here?'
'Well, you know, honey, I was bored and I figured you would be too so I decided to come over and cheer you up.'
'I wasn't bored,' Wesley insisted. 'I was reading.'
'Reading.' Halfrek pursed her lips. 'And here I thought you were the rugged action-adventure type.'
'I'm supposed to be down here to work,' Wesley explained patiently. 'One of these books might hold the key to the mystery of Helena.'
'And you'd rather read about this Helena than share take-out with me?' Halfrek asked. 'No, you don't have to explain. I quire understand. I'll see myself out.'
'No, no wait,' Wesley said hurriedly. 'I didn't mean it like that.' He rubbed the back of his neck with his right hand. 'Maybe I have been spending too much time on my work.'
'Maybe? How many times have you been out of this place since you got here?'
Wesley shook his head.
'Why don't you make yourself at home,' he began, 'and I'll go and see if I haven't got a bottle of wine somewhere that we can share.'
There was another knock at the door.
'What now?' Wesley sighed.
Drew was standing in the doorway.
'Hey, kid, did you swim here?' Halfrek asked, noting his bedraggled appearance.
'Are you Wesley?' Drew asked.
'I am,' Wesley replied. 'And you're one of Dawn's friends, aren't you? I take it you interrupting my evening because something's gone horribly wrong somewhere. I get that a lot.'
Hastily, Drew explained the situation. Wesley nodded thoughtfully. He picked up a couple of books.
'I think we should go and see Mr Levinson, don't you?' he suggested. 'Between us, we ought to be able to put this right.'
'And we can always stick this in the microwave later,' Halfrek said, indicating the take-away. 'You do have a microwave, don't you? Wait a sec guy, living alone, course you do.'
Wesley shrugged into his coat and picked up his motorcycle helmet. Then he picked up the spare helmet.
'Ah,' he said. 'Halfrek, could you?'
'You don't think I was planning to go out in this weather, do you?' she tutted. 'See you there.'
She winked and then disappeared.
'Woah,' Drew said.
'Quite.' Wesley threw the spare helmet to Drew. 'Coming?'
* * *
Ramsay Bridge was the best high-dive board in Sunnydale. The bleak iron structure, beams twisted together like the threads of a giant spider-web, spanned a gap high above the railway line. It was a favourite spot with jumpers. In the unlikely event that the fall didn't kill you, trains came under this bridge so fast that you wouldn't stand a chance. A quick death, if not necessarily a painless one.
Like a fly, Helena was caught amongst the bridge's supports. Unlike a fly, she was there of her own free will.
'Helena,' I called over the sound of the storm, 'it's me. Dawn.'
'Go away,' Helena shouted back. 'Leave me alone.'
Was that what I sounded like? Was I really that whiny?
'Why don't you come back up here and we can talk about this,' I shouted.
'There's nothing to talk about!'
'Like hell there isn't,' I muttered. 'I'm coming down!'
I eased my way out on to the first beam. The rainwater made it slippery and I could only move along an inch at a time. Maybe I was invulnerable in this body, but the ground still looked an awfully long way down. Helena's black hair was plastered to my scalp and I was glad that she wore it tied back, pulled out of her face. I had to keep blinking, though, every time the rain trickled into my eyes.
My foot slipped and I cried out in panic. All of a sudden I was only holding on by my fingertips. This wasn't happening. This couldn't be happening. I wanted to pull myself back up, but I was frozen, my arms locked with terror.
I looked pleadingly at Helena.
She looked away.
'Helena,' I shouted, 'I'm stuck.'
She didn't turn, but I knew that she could hear me.
'Helena, I don't know how much longer I can hold on here. There's no one else about. You're the only one who can help me. Please!'
Helena turned to face me.
'I'm coming to get you,' she said. 'Just hang on a little longer.'
Planting her feet firmly, she began to clamber across the bridge, like a monkey in one of those wildlife documentaries. I wondered of she had done this before. Had she thrown herself off of here while in her own body? Had she bounced? If I were to let go now, would I bounce? Would I survive only to see Helena hurl herself after me? I gripped the beam all the tighter.
Then I felt cold skin against my wrist. Bracing herself against a beam, Helena gritted her teeth and began to haul me up.
'Can you find a foothold yet?' she gasped.
I scrabbled vainly, but finally I found purchased and levered myself up to join her. Slowly, hand in hand, we climbed upwards off of the bridge and then collapsed on to reassuringly solid ground.
'Thank you,' I finally managed.
Helena shrugged. 'I owed you,' she said. 'For that thing with Kirstie.'
'You don't owe me anything,' I replied. 'I was just trying to help you. Just like I'm trying to help you now.'
'You can help me by leaving me alone,' Helena snapped.
'Helena, suicide isn't the answer.'
'How would you know?' Helena snapped. 'You don't know what it's like.'
I spread my arms wide.
'I'm in your body,' I said. 'When we swapped, I turned up in your room. With your dad. You're right, I don't know what it's like for you, but I think I can guess.'
'Then you know why I have to do this,' she said. Was she crying or was that just the rain? 'I have to end this.'
'Yes,' I agreed. 'Yes you do. But not like this. You've suffered way too much already. You shouldn't have to die because of him as well. There are other ways.'
'Are there?' Helena asked. 'Say I do escape from him. Where do I go? How do I know it won't all start up again with somebody else.'
'Because we're not all like your dad.'
I reached out and touched the back of her hand. She snatched it away.
'I've seen how you get on with your own father,' she said.
'That is so different,' I insisted.
'Is it?' she said. 'The bullying. The orders. The threats. Do things his way or else. Or else what, Dawn?'
I paused. Seeing that fear etched into my own face was well, frightening, I guess. I couldn't begin to imagine half of what she had been through. I thought I hated her father before when I found out about the beatings and the abuse, but to see how he had made her terrified of the entire human race I wished I had hit him harder.
'Hank's a jerk,' I said. 'I won't deny it. But I guess he's not such a bad father, all told. Sure he likes his order and his discipline and his rules, but he just wants what's best for me. You know, I've never really thought about it before, but I guess he does love me after all, even if he does have a funny way of showing it.
'Listen, Helena, the point is that maybe my dad's right and I do need boundaries, but there's a difference between setting boundaries and abuse. There's a line. Your dad crossed it and I don't know if we're ever going to be able to make things right again, but the fact is that he is in the minority here by a long way and the rest of us are more than willing to try and help you sort this out. Starting with me. 'So, what do you say? Why don't you come home with me and we can start over?'
She looked at me, her lower lip trembling. I offered her my hand, but not so close that I invaded her personal space and startled her. Helena raised her own hand and her palm hovered in the air above mine.
Lightning flashed and thunder boomed, loud enough to cause the ground to shake.
When my vision cleared, Helena was already racing away like a startled fawn.
* * *
'This had better be good,' Jonathan said as he let Janice and Chrissie in.
'It's not like you were doing anything important,' Chrissie countered.
'What happened to this place?' Janice wanted to know. 'Did we miss an earthquake in all of the confusion?'
'If I'd known you were coming I'd have tidied up a little,' Jonathan snapped.
'Hey, Janice, do you think she looks a bit like Dawn?' Chrissie asked, picking up one of the comics strewn across the floor.
'Hey! That's a rare first issue with variant cover and you're dripping all over it!' Jonathan snatched the comic away from her.
'Well sor-ry,' Chrissie muttered. 'Get a life why don't you.'
'Okay, that's it,' Jonathan shouted. 'Get out.'
'But we came here for your help,' Janice protested.
'I don't care,' Jonathan retorted. 'Get out of my home.'
'Make me, shortstuff,' Chrissie taunted, hands on her hips.
'Have it your way.' Jonathan pointed a finger at Chrissie. 'Purgamentum init, exit purgamentum.'
With a startled look on her face, Chrissie disappeared.
'What have you done to her?' Janice demanded.
Someone started hammering on the front door.
'I teleported her outside.' Jonathan shrugged. 'Read about that trick in a comicbook. It's amazing what you can pick up if you can be bothered.'
'Look, Jonathan, we really do need your help,' Janice pleaded.
'Haven't you been listening, Chrissie? It's late, I'm tired and the pair of you just turn up here and start insulting me. I. Don't. Care.'
'I'm not Chrissie,' Janice said.
'A spell went wrong and we body-swapped,' Janice explained.
Jonathan was not quite quick enough to hide his smirk behind his hand.
'Well, that'll teach you to mess around with magic,' he said. 'I did warn you.'
'I know, and we're sorry,' Janice said, 'and if it was just us then I'd say we deserved it. But it isn't just us. It's Dawn, too. Even if you don't want to help us, at least help Dawn.'
'Oh, all right,' Jonathan conceded.
There was a crash. Chrissie stormed into the room.
'Just wait until I get my hands on that little toad.'
Janice barred her way.
'Leave him be,' she said. 'He's going to help.'
'Let me guess, some kind of Jedi code of ethics, is it?' Chrissie mocked. 'By the way, that was a really cheap lock.'
'Enough all ready,' Jonathan complained. 'I'll help you reverse the spell, but on one condition: the two of you are going to pay to repair that door.'
'Deal,' Janice agreed before Chrissie could open her mouth.
'Right. Now let's see what I've got in the way of books on this,' Jonathan murmured.
'Maybe these will help,' Wesley said. 'You should really get that door fixed, by the way.'
'Tell me about it,' Jonathan replied as he took the books from Wesley. 'Wow, I didn't know this was still in print.'
'It isn't,' Wesley told him.
'Then it's in remarkably good condition,' Jonathan remarked as he pawed lovingly over the pages. 'You really take care of your books, don't you?'
'I try.' Wesley beamed with pride.
'Where's Halfrek?' Drew asked as he struggled to remove his helmet. Chrissie offered to help, but he pushed her away. 'I'm fine!' he snapped.
'That's a point,' Wesley mused. 'She was supposed to teleport straight over.'
'Here I am, sweetie,' Halfrek said as she popped into view. 'Bumped into an old friend of mine on the way over. Boy did she have some stories. That one about the goat-herder and the pickled onions would make your hair curl. I don't think I'll ever be able to look at an onion the same way again. You see, what he did was '
'I'm really not sure we have time for that right now,' Wesley interrupted.
'Right, sorry,' Halfrek said. 'So, what do we do?'
* * *
Helena ran. She did not know what she was running to, but she knew what she was running from. Would there be something different over the horizon. She doubted it, but she knew for certain what things were like here and she was not going to stay a moment longer.
A car drew up along side her.
'Hey, hold on a minute,' Hank called.
Helena stopped, responding to the voice of authority.
Hank opened the car door and stepped out on to the sidewalk.
'Where do you think you're going, young lady?' Hank demanded.
Helena did not answer.
'Fine, have it your way,' Hank said darkly. 'Now get in the car.'
Helena did not move.
'I said, get in the car,' Hank repeated.
Reluctantly, Helena opened the rear door and slid inside. Hank closed the door firmly behind her. Then he returned to the driver's seat.
'Now, we are going to go home and you are going to apologise to Lydia,' he said. 'Then we are going to have that family meal and maybe afterwards you'd like to tell me what the hell's going on.'
* * *
'What the hell's going on?' Chrissie asked.
She was kneeling next to Janice in the centre of the room. Wesley and Jonathan were trying to draw a circle of symbols around them, but the carpet was not taking the chalk very well.
'It's really very simple,' Wesley explained. 'You and Chrissie sorry, you and Janice are going to cast a reversal spell.'
'We are?' Janice said. 'Why can't you do it.'
'Neither Wesley and I have that kind power,' Jonathan explained. 'But you do, at least together. I've only ever seen one witch with more raw power than the two of you share.'
'Now might not be a great time to bring that up,' Halfrek pointed out.
Wesley's cell-phone rang.
'Hello Anya, is that you? Xander and Trix, eh? No, no, keep them where they are. We're taking care of it You mean you and Xander? In Trix's body? Well, I really don't know what to say '
Wesley held the phone away from his ear as Anya continued to rant.
'Um, Hallie, perhaps you could '
'Give it here,' Halfrek said, snatching the phone away.
'Hi, honey,' she began. 'Why don't you tell me all about it?'
'Are we all set?' Wesley asked.
'Nearly,' Jonathan replied as he lit the candles.
'Now remember,' Wesley told the girls,' all you have to do is read from the passage that I've marked. Try and relax and the magic should flow through you.'
'Easy for you to say,' Chrissie muttered.
'We ready, Mr Pryce,' Janice told him.
'That's Wyndham-Pryce,' Wesley corrected 'but you can call me Wesley.'
'I don't know what you're complaining about, sister,' Halfrek was saying. 'You've got two handsome men fighting over you. Personally, I'd kill just to get one man to notice me.'
Wesley turned, sensing Halfrek watching him.
'I'm sorry, did I miss something?' he asked.
'Nothing, honey,' Halfrek assured him. 'Nothing at all.'
'Right then.' He cracked his knuckles. 'Let's begin.'
'Here goes nothing,' Janice said, tentatively offering her hand to Chrissie.
'You know you love this part,' Chrissie said as they entwined their fingers.
* * *
I was lost. By the time I had clambered to my feet, Helena was already out of sight, but I decided to try and follow her anyway. I had run off in the direction I thought that she had taken, but I still hadn't caught sight of her and now I had no idea where in town I was. I hadn't thought Sunnydale was that big a town, but I guess I didn't know it as well as I thought I did.
At first, I ignored the shout. Then I realised they were calling me.
I turned and saw Helena's father striding towards me.
'I'm very disappointed in you, Helena,' he said.
'Yeah, well I'm disappointed in you, too, 'Dad',' I retorted. I balled my hands into fists. He disgusted me and I was all ready to relieve some tension.
'Don't answer me back, child,' Helena's father snapped. 'You and I are going straight home and then we'll see about your punishment.'
He grabbed hold of my wrist.
I smiled and raised my other hand.
* * *
'That's it,' Wesley shouted over the chanting. 'Keep it up!'
The candles were flicking and there was an energy in the room that was causing everyone to break out in goosebumps.
Then the chanting stopped.
'What's happened?' Drew asked. 'What's wrong?'
'Nothing's wrong,' Chrissie said as she opened her eyes - her own eyes. 'I'm back.'
* * *
I brought my hand down and my palm slapped against the leather upholstery of Hank's car.
I looked down at my hand. Definitely mine. Definitely my body.
'Where am I?' I asked aloud.
'So thats your excuse, is it?' Hank asked. 'That it was all a dream?'
'No,' I said vaguely, 'I '
A moment ago I had been confronting Helena's father. That meant that was what Helena was doing now. Would she stand up to him? No, even with her strength, she was too terrified of him to lift a finger in opposition. Which meant that she was going to let him take her home. For her 'punishment'.
'Dad, I need your help,' I said.
'I don't want to hear it, Dawn,' he replied. 'I've tried to be reasonable with you, but you keep throwing it back in my face.'
'Dad, please,' I protested.
Something in my voice must have got through to him because he stopped the car and turned in his seat so that he could look at me.
'Go on,' he said, 'but make it quick.'
'It's one of my friends,' I said. 'Her dad's been abusing her. I know he beats her. I think maybe he abuses her, well, sexually as well.'
Hank's face paled and his lips narrowed.
'I was with her tonight, before you found me,' I continued. 'She was running away, but I think he's caught up with her. Dad, she's in danger.'
Hank paused. I could hear my heart pounding in my chest. He wasn't buying it. He was going to take me straight home and abandon Helena to her fate.
'Are you sure about this, Dawn?' he asked.
'Yes,' I said firmly.
'Then get up front here and start giving me directions.'
* * *
Halfrek switched off Wesley's cell-phone.
'Well, Anya says Trix and Xander are back to normal,' she announced.
'Good,' Wesley said. 'That means Helena and Dawn are almost certainly back in their own bodies as well. Where is Dawn, by the way?'
'She went to find Helena,' Janice explained. 'She thought she might be, well, in danger.'
'In danger? How?'
'She had this idea that Helena was going to try and kill herself,' Drew continued. 'Apparently, well, her dad's been, um '
'What is wrong with you people?'' Chrissie declared, hands raised in exasperation. 'Will you stop pussyfooting around the subject.'
'Will someone please just tell me what is going on,' Wesley snapped.
'Helena's been abused by her father,' Chrissie explained, quietly.
The room was silent save for the gentle hum of Jonathan's PC.
Wesley's eyes were hard and cold.
'Why in God's name did nobody think to mention this sooner?' he asked, voice quivering with barely controlled fury.
He snatched back his phone and began violently punching in numbers.
* * *
'Find a payphone and call the police,' Hank instructed me.
We were parked in front of Helena's home.
'There is no way you are going in there without me,' I retorted.
Hank sighed. 'I don't have time to argue with you.'
He got out of the car, marched up to the door and began hammering on it. A small bird-like woman opened the door fractionally and peered out.
'Mrs Joslin?' Hank asked.
'Yes,' she replied. 'What do you want?'
Someone cried out upstairs. Hank and I looked at one another.
'No time,' Hank muttered.
He gave the door a shove and it flew open, knocking Helena's mother backwards. Before she could react, both Hank and I were inside and bounding up the stairs. We burst into Helena's bedroom.
The shirt I had picked out and worn earlier was on the floor, torn nearly in two. Helena was lying on the bed, on her stomach. Her arms were above her head, held there by one of her father's massive hands as he knelt above her.
He turned to face us as we crossed the threshold and I recognised the hunger in his eyes.
'What are you doing here?' he demanded.
'That's funny,' Hank said without a trace of humour, 'I was about to ask you the same question.'
He grabbed Helena's father by his hair and dragged him off of the bed.
'Look after her,' Hank instructed me.
I ran to Helena's side and began helping her into some clothes. Her father writhed on the ground like a serpent, but then leaped to his feet like some heavily muscled cat, maybe a panther.
'Get out of my house,' he snarled.
'Make me,' Hank replied, shifting his weight on to the balls of his feet.
Mr Joslin slammed his fist into my dad's face. Hank staggered backwards, blood streaming from his nose, then he fell to his knees. Helena's father kicked him savagely and Hank cried out in pain as he rolled over on to his side. Helena's dad kicked him again and again and I was sure that I heard something snapped. I ran across the room and began pounding on Mr Joslin's back with my fists, but he just batted me away like an annoying insect and continued his vicious attack on my father.
'Help us!' I begged Helena, but she just sat on the bed, knees tucked under her chin, eyes tightly shut, and rocked gently back and forth.
'Yes, I understand that you're upset,' Wesley was saying, 'but I really need to speak to Dawn She's not there? Are you sure?'
Wesley held the phone away from his ear as another torrent of abuse came from the earpiece. He terminated the call.
'I take it she's sure,' Halfrek mused.
'Wherever Dawn is, she's not at home,' Wesley agreed.
'I found the Joslin's number is the phone book,' Janice said, bringing the fat volume over to where Wesley was sitting.
'Thank you, Janice,' he said as he punched in the new number. 'Hello, is that Mrs Joslin? Mrs Joslin, I was wondering if it might be possible to speak with your daughter, Helena? She's not in? How about your husband? He's not in either.' There was a loud crash at the other end of the line. 'Mrs Joslin, what was that? Mrs Joslin?' Wesley put the phone down. 'She hung up.'
'So what now?' Chrissie asked.
Wesley got to his feet and began pacing.
'I need to get over there, 'he said. 'Dammit! I'm never going to get there in time. Unless '
He looked at Halfrek.
'No way,' she said.
'It only works for one person,' she insisted.
'You could at least try,' Wesley persisted.
'You don't know what that could do to me.'
'Hallie, a girl is in danger,' Wesley persisted. 'I thought that sort of thing was important to you. Guess I was wrong.'
'Don't you dare,' Halfrek snapped back. 'Don't you dare try to guilt-trip me.'
'If that girl ends up dead by the morning I won't have to,' Wesley shouted back.
Halfrek turned away, hugging herself.
'Okay, I'll try,' she agreed softly.
Wesley threw his phone to Drew.
'Call the police. Let them know what's going on.'
He stood close to Halfrek and put his hands on her shoulders.
'Let's do it,' he whispered.
'Before we go, there's something I want to say,' Halfrek murmured. 'I think I think maybe I'm falling in love with you, Wes. I just thought you ought to know in case '
She turned away, her lower lip trembling. Wesley put his hand against her cheek and forced her to look at him.
'Halfrek, I'm sorry,' he said. 'I shouldn't be making you do this. We'll find another way.'
'Too late,' she replied.
Then they disappeared and all that remained was Halfrek's agonised scream.
* * *
'Leave him alone!' I screamed.
Helena's father ignored me. Or maybe he was so out of it he didn't even hear me. He was like a wild animal, tearing into Hank with a savagery that was unreal. I looked around frantically for a weapon, spotted a lamp standing on Helena's bedside cabinet, picked it up and smashed it across her father's head.
He turned to face me. His eyes were bloodshot and his lips were pulled back, baring his teeth. He clamped a hand around my throat and lifted me up of off the ground. I clawed at his hand with my fingertips but I couldn't break his grip and it was getting harder and harder to breathe.
'You enjoy picking on little girls, don't you,' Wesley said.
He was standing in the doorway, arms folded across his chest. He looked drawn and tired, but there was a determined set to his jaw.
'Put the girl down,' he said.
'Make me,' Helena's father growled back.
'I said, put the girl down!' Wesley commanded.
He dropped me and I drew air back into my lungs in great gasps.
'Better?' he asked Wesley.
'Is it discipline, is that what you tell them?' Wesley asked. 'That it's all in their best interests?'
'What would you know about it?' Helena's father mocked.
'More than you might think, Mr Joslin,' Wesley replied. 'I've made it my life's work to hunt down monsters. I'd be more than happy to add you to that list.'
'You're welcome to try,' Mr Joslin replied. 'This is my house. The people here must obey my rules.'
'Or suffer the consequences?' Wesley asked. 'I don't think so.'
'There has to be order,' Mr Joslin retorted.
'Order?' Wesley retorted. 'Is that what you call it? I call it deliberate cruelty. How can you stand there and tell me that torturing your own child is for her own good?'
'Because, because, because,' Wesley taunted. 'Just listen to yourself. That's not a reason, that's an excuse.'
Helena's father hit him.
Wesley steadied himself against the doorframe, blood trickling from his split lip.
'Not used to having someone stand up to you, are you?' he said.
Helena's father punched him in the stomach and Wesley doubled up, choking.
'You think if you keep hitting me that I'll eventually see things your way?' he wheezed. 'That might makes right? Not bloody likely.'
Helena's father grabbed Wesley's left arm and twisted it behind his back. Wesley's face contorted as he struggled to keep himself from screaming as the bone snapped.
'You want me to say uncle, is that it?' he continued. 'No bloody way. Do you hear me? No bloody way. You can't make people do what you want. You can't set yourself above them by simply being tougher than they are. No matter what you do, I'm going to keep saying no because, to put it bluntly, what you're doing is evil, plain and simple. I defy you and I don't think I'm the only one.'
'Let him go,' Helena said.
'Helena?' Mr Joslin said.
'I won't let you hurt him,' she said. She stood in the centre of the room rigid as a poker, but she did not back down.
'Helena, sit back down,' her father ordered. 'I will deal with you later.'
'No,' Helena said. Her voice was so weak that I almost didn't hear her the first time, but then she repeated it, this time with more weight, more confidence, more certainty. 'I said no.'
'What?' Helena's father roared.
'I won't let you hurt anyone else, Dad,' Helena continued, 'and I won't do what you want. Not now. Not ever again.'
Mr Joslin looked at his daughter and his face melted as all his rage fell away. He collapsed to the ground, curling up in a ball, body wracked by sobs.
I crawled over to Wesley. I could hear police sirens outside and the sound of cars pulling into the driveway.
'It's going to be okay now,' I whispered to him. 'Everything's going to be okay.'
'No,' Wesley said softly, 'I really don't believe it is.'
I followed the line of Wesley's gaze out on to the landing where Halfrek lay, twisted and unmoving.
* * *
'How is he?' Wesley asked.
We were in the hospital waiting room. He had just returned from having a cast put on his arm.
'They say he'll be fine,' I replied, shuffling up so that he could sit down next to me, 'but they want to keep him in overnight for observation, just in case there's any internal bleeding they haven't picked up on.'
I managed a humourless smile.
'Lydia is at home in bed,' I explained. 'She blames Hank and me for ruining her evening.'
'At least he has you to keep an eye on him,' Wesley pointed out.
'You know, it's funny,' I began, 'but until today I didn't know I cared. I've spent so much time hating what he represents that I never stopped to give him a chance.'
'That's hardly your fault,' Wesley sympathised.
'Maybe,' I conceded, 'but I think maybe I've misjudged him. When we were in the car tonight and I told him about Helena, I really thought he was going to ignore me. I'd have deserved it. But all he did was ask me if I was sure. After everything, even after all the things I've done, all the things I've said, he was still willing to trust me. That meant a lot, you know.'
'Maybe you should be telling this to him and not me,' Wesley suggested.
'Maybe I will,' I replied. 'How's Halfrek?'
'She's going to be fine,' he replied. 'Guess vengeance demons are a lot tougher than they look.'
'You care about her a lot, don't you?' I deduced.
'Yes,' Wesley said, 'I do.'
'Answer me one question,' I said. 'Why did you come rushing over to help Helena tonight? I mean, not that I'm saying you wouldn't want to help out, but, the way I understand it, you and Halfrek both risked your lives for someone you hardly knew.'
Wesley looked away.
'I'm sorry,' I said. 'I don't mean to pry.'
'No, it's okay,' Wesley said. 'It's complicated, but basically when I was a boy, my father used to shut me up in the cupboard under the stairs. It was his way of disciplining me, leaving me alone in the dark. With the spiders. I still remember the spiders. I could feel them crawling over my face and no matter how hard I brushed them away I could still feel them. I guess this all seems so trivial compared to what Helena's been through.'
'No,' I told him, 'it doesn't.'
'My one regret is that I never stood up to my father,' Wesley continued. 'Don't get me wrong, I think discipline is important for children and maybe they don't get as much nowadays as perhaps they should, but there's a line you shouldn't cross and my father crossed it, but no one had the balls to tell him so. I can't help wondering how my life might have turned out under different circumstances.'
'I'm sorry,' I said.
'Don't be,' Wesley replied. 'For better for worse, I am who I am and I'm content enough with where I am now.
'Anyway, I think you've more than proved your capable of handling things here without my supervision so, as per our deal, I'll be getting out of your hair and heading back to L.A.'
'Do you have to?' I asked. 'I mean, we still haven't worked out exactly what's going on with Helena.'
'I suppose, Wesley admitted.
'And besides, I think I'd like you to stick around for a bit,' I continued. 'We haven't really had a chance to talk since you arrived and it would be a shame if you had to go before we got to know each other.'
'That it would,' Wesley agreed. 'So I guess that means I'll be sticking around after all.'
I grinned back at him.
'I guess it does.'
Someone coughed behind me. I turned and saw Tara standing at my shoulder.
'Could I have a word, Dawn?' she asked. 'In private?'
'Excuse me,' I said to Wesley.
I followed Tara to a quiet corner of the hospital.
'So, what's the big secret?' I asked.
'I brought someone to meet you,' she replied.
Another spirit shimmered into view.
'Hello,' she said, extending a hand for me to shake, 'I'm Alicia Joslin. Helena's sister.'
'I didn't even know she had a sister,' I confessed as I shook the ghost's hand.
'It was a long time ago,' Alicia explained. 'A very long time ago. I just wanted to thank you. Before Helena, my daddy used to do the same to me, till I took the easy way out, that is.' She turned her hands so that I could see the scars on her wrists. 'Guess that's where baby sis got the idea. Thank you for showing her there was another way. It's nice to know there's someone looking out for her.'
'I just wanted to help,' I explained.
'You're good people, Dawn,' she said. 'Don't let anybody tell you different.'
* * *
Anya sat in the middle of the couch. Though there was room either side of her, Trix stood. Xander sat in his wheelchair on the far side of the room.
'How could you, Xander?' Anya asked.
'Because I love you,' he replied. 'I love you so hard that it makes me do crazy things. I didn't think I stood a chance with you anymore so when an opportunity was handed to me on a plate It was stupid and wrong, but I only did it because I'm so in love with you that I can't think straight.'
'You lied to me, Xander,' Anya said. 'You lied to me before, when you said you wanted to get married, but I was just starting to think that maybe we could get past that, that maybe we could start over. But now you go and lie to me again. I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to trust you, Xander.'
'Then that's a shame,' Xander replied, 'because I'm leaving Sunnydale. And I was going to ask you to come with me.'
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