Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer was created by Joss Whedon and is copyright Twentieth Century Fox. The property is used without permission. This is a non-profit making work of fan-fiction.

This story takes place during season six.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

As I Am Now

By Duncan Johnson

Matthew hunched his shoulders and shoved his hands deep into his coat pockets. The temperature had fallen sharply since night had fallen and there was a cruel wind whipping across the bridge. Matt should have been at home studying or, more likely, hanging at the Bronze. But he wasn't. Instead, he had found himself making excuses to his parents after dinner and going out for a walk alone. He knew that it was not the smartest thing to do; everyone had heard the stories of what happened if you were caught out alone after dark. In other towns they might just have been stories made up by parents to keep their children inside with their homework. In Sunnydale the stories had the disturbing ring of truth. No one knew quite what happened to those that disappeared (or worse), but most people agreed that there was something out there in the darkness.

None of which stopped Matt from turning north and following the road out of town.

He was troubled and he needed to clear his head. It was a week until the school talent show. Entrance was voluntary, but pressure was being applied by parents and teachers alike. Not that Matt had needed to be forced. He had, unsurprisingly, decided to play a piece on the piano. His parents had been paying for him to have private tuition since he was six and he was confident that he could turn in at least a half decent performance. Or he had been. Lately he had begun to falter, to lose his sense of rhythm. Increasing numbers of wrong notes had been slipping in. The impending show played on his nerves and ate slowly and insidiously away at his ability to perform.

Worse, his parents were looking forward to the contest. They had high expectations of their boy and would accept nothing less than first prize. The school music teacher, Mrs Lynley, had already started singing his praises about the school, confident that the prize was already won. And Matt could feel the stares of the other pupils following him down the hall, resenting him, willing him to fail. And he would. His talent was leaving him, draining away as if the ground at his feet were soaking it up like a sponge.

Matt's glasses were misting up and he took them off. He glanced at the lenses, but his vision was still too blurred to make them out. He set the glasses down on the wall running along the bridge and began wiping at his eyes with the heel of his hand.

In his imagination he could see the other kids circling him, patiently waiting for him to fall so that they could pick at his remains. They wanted him to fail, wanted to revel in his embarrassment, his humiliation. And he would give them just what they wanted.

He was standing on top of the wall, the wind tugging at his hair. He looked down, but could only make out a green and brown blur.

He would fail in the contest. He would fail his parents. The other kids would taunt him and mock him and wring every ounce of pain from his predicament. And

Matt stepped out into empty space. The wind caught at his coat, lifting it, and for a moment Matt thought that he might fly far away from his troubles.

Instead, he came crashing down to earth.

He could not help crying out. The pain in his right leg was intense. He risked a quick glance back at the damage and just as quickly glanced away again. He began dragging himself away, trying to use his arms to compensate for his shattered legs. He extended his arms, lifted his chest off the ground and began to inch towards the greenery ahead.

Then the express train struck him.

* * *

We were all gathered into the main hall to listen to Mr Havers' announcement. The rest of the staff raced around us like sheepdogs while he stood on stage 'supervising' the whole procedure. We all knew what he was going to say, of course. Those who had not known before they arrived were brought up to date before they had even reached their lockers. Matt Reece's suicide was news and proper news was a rarity at our school.

Let me tell you how it works. One kid hears the story. Maybe from her parents. Maybe from a teacher. Doesn't matter, somebody always finds out. It's the law of someone or other. I think. Hey, maybe it's my law. Dawn Summers' First Law: Somebody always finds out. And when they find out they have to tell someone. I mean, they know they shouldn't, but what's the good of a secret if you don't share it, right? So the one kid tells another, but she swears her to secrecy. But now that kid's got the secret bubbling up inside and sooner or later it's going to burst out and they tell their friends. Who tell their friends and so on and before the first bell everyone in school has heard 'the news'.

It was Janice who told me. I didn't ask who told her. That's one of the rules of the game. I was running late and she had been waiting for me when I arrived. Buffy had been out patrolling the night before and, well, I stayed up until I heard her come in. She'd freak if she found out, but it's something I've got to do. I lost her once and I can't sleep until I know I haven't lost her again. Anyway, guess I stayed up a bit too late because I overslept and had to dash out without breakfast to stand any chance of getting in on time.

This time last year I would have just cut class. Things change. I can't afford to be seen to be failing at school or they'll take me away from Buffy. And she's all I've got left.

Didn't mean to digress like that. I'll Tippex that bit out later.

I didn't know Matt that well. He sat at the back of class and kept himself to himself. I can relate. I guess I probably should have said Hi or something, but I didn't. Too late now.

Mr Haver's was going on about Matt's accomplishments and his contribution to the school and how much he would be missed. He seemed to be taking an age to say not very much at all. Kirstie and her clones were chatting and giggling throughout. Kirstie looked up and caught me scowling at her.

'Gravestone Girl,' she whispered.

I looked away. It was an old taunt and I was so over it. Well, more over it than I had been.

'Ignore her,' Janice whispered in my ear.

'Kirstie filter to maximum,' I promised her.

'Summers,' a voice bellowed from behind me. I turned and was met by Mrs Ackroyd's glower.

'See me afterwards,' she ordered.

Well this morning was off to a great start.

* * *

'So, are any of you guys entering the talent show?' I asked as I slid down on to the plastic chair in the lunch hall.

'You've got to be kidding, right?' Janice said, a forkful ofinterrupted on its path to her mouth. 'There is no way you would get me up on that stage. Uh uh.'

'Too right,' Drew agreed. His mum makes him sandwiches so he doesn't have to suffer school meals. Don't know why she bothers though seeing that most of his lunch always seems to end up scattered across the table, on the floor and down his shirt.

'Why would anyone want to make an idiot of themselves in front of the whole school?' Drew continued.

'Don't know,' Chrissie said. 'You're the expert.'

'Ouch!' Craig remarked, laughing. 'But Drew's got a point. You've got to be some kind of freak to want toyou're not thinking of entering are you?'

I looked down at the tray and the contents masquerading as food and wished again that I'd stopped to grab my lunch bag on the way out.

'Maybe,' I admitted.

'Cool!' Craig said.

Friends. They're so fickle.

'That's great,' Janice enthused. 'We'll all be there to support, won't we.'

Chrissie looked less than impressed.

'You seriously expect me toow!'

She glared at Drew. He turned to me flashing a very satisfied smile.

'We'll be there,' he confirmed.

'I'll b-be entering,' Scott said.

None of us really knew Scott that well. He was short, wore glasses and stammered, three things to make him a target. Drew had rescued him from a beating a few weeks back and we'd kind of adopted him for his own protection.

'That's, um, that's cool, Scott,' Craig said.

'What are you going to do?' I asked. I was looking for ideas myself.

'I'm g-going to read a m-monologue,' Scott told me.

Chrissie immediately began to laugh. Fortunately, that caused her to choke on her food, which helped hide it. Drew started patting her on the back to help out, but stopped and withered when Chrissie turned her glare on him.

'That's good, Scott,' I began, 'but have you thought of maybe trying something else?'

'Yeah,' Janice agreed. 'Reading's are okay, but you want something that'll really knock 'em dead like, umCraig?'

Craig frowned. 'Dance? It'd make an impression.'

'Lame,' Drew remarked.

'You j-just don't think I c-can do it, do you?' Scott said.

'We didn't say that,' I insisted. We didn't have to.

'I'll show you,' he said. He got up and the legs of his chair scraped across the floor. 'I'll show you all.'

I rose to go after him as he hurried away.

'Leave him be,' Craig suggested.

'Yeah,' Chrissie agreed. 'If he wants to make a fool of himself, well, it's his funeral. 'Sides, it'll be fun to watch.'

'I need to get some air,' I said before turning my back on my friends.

Janice joined me outside. It was raining - not heavily, but enough to be noticeable, so we sheltered in the doorway.

'Chrissie didn't mean any of that, you know,' Janice said. 'She was just beingChrissie.'

'I know,' I said. 'It's not her, it'sme, I guess.'

'You?'

'I was thinking earlier about Matt,' I continued, 'and about how I knew he was lonely, but that I never even said Hi or anything.'

'Don't beat yourself up,' Janice said. 'It's not like anyone else did.'

'But that's just it, Jan,' I said. 'There are, like, how many people in this school? Is it too much to expect someone to say Hi?'

* * *

'So, Xander, any ideas?'

I was sitting at the back of the Magic Box, my books piled neatly on the table in front of me.

'About what?'

Xander was sitting opposite me, but turned so that he could watch Anya. He was waiting for her to lock up so they could both go home.

'About the talent show, silly,' I persisted. 'Mrs Ackroyd says that if I don't start contributing to the school they're going to have to take a long hard look at my situation. And you know what that means.'

'Uh huh,' Xander agreed.

He wasn't listening to a word I said, but I was not about to give up that easily.

'So I have to enter the talent contest,' I said, 'but that means I need to come up with something to do. So, any ideas?'

'Yeah, don't do drama,' Buffy remarked.

The shop door swung closed behind her.

'What kept you?' I asked, bounding up.

'Oh, you know, the usual,' Buffy replied vaguely.

'Vampires?' I pressed.

'Something like that.' Buffy glanced at her watch. 'Are you ready to go? It's just I don't want to be late for my shift. Again.'

Buffy and I walked most of the way home in silence. Not an uncomfortable silence, though. We just didn't have much to talk about. School doesn't interest either of us and Buffy refuses to discuss slaying in front of me. (When is she going to realise that I know all that stuff already?) However, as she turned the key in our front door, Buffy broke the silence.

'I heard about the boy at school,' she said. 'The one who died.'

'Yeah.' I didn't know what else to say.

'You want to talk about it?'

I shook my head.

'I didn't know him,' I said. 'Nobody did. Not really.'

'Must be tough,' Buffy mused, 'being alone.'

'Good thing we've got each other,' I remarked.

Buffy returned my smile, then glanced at her watch.

'Look, I've got to run,' she said. 'Willow's upstairs so you'll be okay and there's food in the fridge and...'

'Just go already,' I said.

She gave me a hug, then turned and hurried back the way we came, leaving me standing in the doorway. Alone.

* * *

This time I had remembered my lunch bag.

'So, did any of you know Gareth?' Craig asked as I bit into my sandwich.

I scowled. Craig had just ruined my appetite. Gareth, you see, was dead. His mother had found him hanging from the light fitting in his bedroom when she had gone to see why he hadn't come down for dinner last night.

I shook my head in response to Craig's question. Gareth had been in the year above, so our paths were unlikely to have crossed.

'I saw him a couple of times in Chess Club,' Craig continued. 'Speaking of which, when are you going to join, Dawnie? We both know you're a mean player.'

'When hell freezes over,' I replied. 'So what do we know about Gareth? Isn't it weird two people committing suicide in two days?'

'I hear he was going to be in your talent contest,' Drew said. 'Doing magic tricks, or something.'

(Magic? Wasn't one of Xander's uncles a magician? Maybe he knew a few tricks he could teach me.)

'Ha, maybe Dawn's bumping off the competition,' Chrissie suggested.

No one laughed.

'Hey, if it were Kirstie I might just be tempted,' Drew quipped. 'You hear she's going to sing?'

(Singing? No way.)

'Somehow I can't see Kirstie convincing people to hang themselves,' Craig said.

'You haven't heard her sing,' Drew replied.

* * *

Crazy as it seemed, I felt that Chrissie's idea might have some merit. Two deaths in two days was quite a coincidence and I had stopped believing in coincidence at about the same time as the Tooth Fairy. It was another few years before I got Santa Claus, but don't hold that against me. Maybe someone was targeting the talent show contestants. But who?

It did not take me long to realise that trying to come up with a list of suspects was pretty pointless, but the victims on the other hand So I spent most of the afternoon trying to find out who had entered the competition.

Doug Hendrie was going to be playing his saxophone. He was captain of the football team, though, popular and didn't fit the profile. Nor did Greg Forbes or Melanie Eckhart.

Clare Gosford, however, was a more likely prospect.

I knew her, but only vaguely. Her parents had both died in a car crash in North Dakota and she had moved to Sunnydale to live with her aunt. Clare spent a lot of time in the library, helping out. She seemed to prefer books to people - not that I'm saying that's a bad thing, but it did mean she had more in common with Matt and Gareth than with Doug.

I had to talk to her, but first I had a history period to sit through. As Mrs Ericson droned on, I watched the hands on the clock crawl slowly across its face. Finally the bell sounded and I was out of the door like a shot and heading for the library.

I was distracted, however, by the sight of Scott, standing by his locked, wiping his eyes on his sleeve.

'Hey, Scott,' I said. 'You okay. Griff's not giving you trouble again, is he? If he is, you just let Drew know, okay.'

'It's not G-griff,' Scott sniffed.

'Then what?' I pressed.

'Ackroyd,' Scott replied. 'She s-says I shouldn't t-take p-part in the contest.'

'Hey, what does she know?'

'You d-don't think I should either,' Scott pointed out.

'Now, that's not true,' I corrected. 'I just think you should do something else, that's all.'

'What's the p-point?' Scott said. 'I'm n-never going to b-be able t-to do anything.'

'Scott, that's not true,' I said. 'There are lots of things you're good at'

I trailed off, unable to think of any.

'Just leave m-me alone,' Scott snapped, pushing past me.

I knew I should go after him, but I needed to speak to Clare to.

I made a decision.

'Scott, have you seen Clare?' I asked.

'I spoke to her in the l-library earlier,' he replied before rounding the corner and disappearing from sight.

Clare was not in the library when I got there and by the time I got outside, Scott had gone.

* * *

'So, do you know any spells that could convince someone to kill themselves?' I asked.

I was perched on the edge of the dressing-table, Willow was sitting on the double-bed. Its size swamped her.

'I don't do magic anymore,' Willow pointed out.

'I know,' I squirmed, 'but you must know stuff.'

'Well, there are some mind control spells that might be powerful enough,' Willow mused.

'Really, which ones?'

'I don't carry all this stuff around in my head, you know,' Willow retorted. 'There are some books in the Magic Box that should help.'

'Ugh, research.' I pulled a face. 'You know that stuff's all Greek to me.'

'Most of it is,' Willow said. 'That or Latin.'

'I don't suppose you could, you know, look it up for me?'

Willow frowned.

'Dawnie,' she said, 'I know you're worried and I'd like to help you, but that stuff's not good for me. You know that.'

'Yeah, I guess,' I admitted. 'I shouldn't have asked.'

Willow shrugged.

'No harm done. Now, have you figured out what you're doing in the talent show? It's not a dramatic recitation, is it?'

'Don't even go there.'

* * *

Another day, another assembly and another suicide. Scott had shot himself with his father's gun. I wish I could say that I was surprised.

This one was worse than the previous two. I had known Scott, even if only in passing. Plus, I could not help wondering if maybe I could have stopped this. If maybe I had gone after him instead of looking for Clare I might have been able to talk him out of it. Before the assembly was over I had promised myself that there would be no more deaths.

* * *

'Dawn, what do you think you're doing here?' Buffy demanded. 'You should be at school.'

I had snuck out of the school grounds at lunchtime and made my way to the Doublemeat Palace to get help.

'Buffy, there's something seriously wrong at school,' I said.

'Yeah, like you not being in it.'

Buffy glanced at one of her co-workers who offered to take over on the till while Buffy spoke to me. We sat down at one of the red and white tables.

'Well?' Buffy prompted.

I rapidly filled her in on what I knew.

'And?' Buffy asked when I'd finished.

'And?' I repeated. 'Buffy, something's killing these people.'

'It seems to me that they're killing themselves,' Buffy said. 'Stress does strange things to people.'

'Three suicides in three days?' I said. 'Something's not right.'

Buffy sighed and ran a hand through her hair.

'Okay, I'll look into it,' she said. 'But it'll have to wait until tonight. I can't get away from here until then.'

'But'

'No buts,' Buffy said. 'While they're at school, the kids are safe. Which is exactly why you should be getting back there. I don't want to see another letter from Principal Havers.'

Reluctantly, I left.

* * *

I had finally found Clare Gosford.

I spotted her as soon as I got back to school, but I kept my distance. Clare was arguing with Mrs Ackroyd and giving as good as she got. I crept closer to try and hear what was being said, but as soon as I got close, Clare turned and stormed off.

Mrs Ackroyd rounded on me.

'What do you think you're looking at, Miss Summers,' she roared.

'I'm late for class,' I muttered, hurrying off before the confrontation could escalate.

* * *

'It's Ackroyd.'

They all looked up when I burst in to the Magic Box.

'Rewind,' Xander said. 'What are you talking about?'

'Mrs Ackroyd,' I explained breathlessly (I had run all the way from school). 'She's causing the kids at school to commit suicide.'

Anya raised a hand.

'How exactly?' she asked. 'And why?'

'Well, I don't know,' I retorted, putting my hands on my hips defiantly. 'Magic I guess. Does it matter? We have to stop her before she kills again.'

'How do you know it's her?' Buffy asked.

'I saw her talking to Clare this afternoon,' I said. 'And she spoke to Scott yesterday.'

'She spoke to them,' Buffy said.

'Well, yeah.'

'And this makes you think she's a murderer,' Buffy said.

'She's the connection between the victims,' I insisted.

'I hate to say it, Dawn,' Xander began, 'but I think you're jumping to conclusions.'

'She's going to kill again if we don't do something,' I pressed.

'We don't even know anything demonic is going on,' Anya pointed out.

'People kill themselves, Dawn,' Xander continued. 'I don't like it anymore than you do, but that's life.'

'So you're not going to do anything,' I deduced.

'I'll look into it,' Buffy replied.

'Like I said,' I remarked.

'Dawn!' Buffy snapped. Then she sighed. 'Come on. Let's get you home.'

* * *

I got Mrs Ackroyd's address from the phone book. Buffy was out patrolling so as soon as Willow was settled in front of the TV, I slipped out of the bedroom window and set off across town.

Mrs Ackroyd's house was only a half-hour walk away. There were no lights on inside. Checking to see that no one was watching, I climbed over the garden gate and examined the back of the house. A window had been left open. It was careless, but I wasn't about to argue. A cherry tree grew in the back garden and it was close enough to the house for me to clamber up it and swing from there to the window and then inside.

The bedroom was shrouded in darkness, but I had thought to bring a flashlight. I turned it on and glanced around. I was alone.

I don't know what I had expected to find in Mrs Ackroyd's bedroom, but this seemed wrong somehow. It was so bare, almost completely devoid of character. It was like being in a hotel room. The only object of interest was the framed photo on the bedside table. I picked it up and inspected the picture. It showed a younger Mrs Ackroyd and two other adults, a man and a woman, with a little girl. There was something familiar about the girl, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

'See anything you like, Miss Summers?'

I spun round, dropping the photograph. It landed safely on the bed.

Mrs Ackroyd stood in the doorway. She was glaring at me over her half-moon spectacles.

'I'm sorry, I' I stammered, trying desperately to come up with an excuse that would explain what I was doing in her bedroom.

'Don't worry, my dear, I know exactly why you're here,' Mrs Ackroyd said, stepping into the room. 'You know my secret, don't you?'

'No, no I don't,' I insisted, backing towards the window.

'Now, now, my dear, there's no need to be coy,' Mrs Ackroyd continued. 'There's only the two of us here. Unfortunately, only one of us will be leaving.'

Mrs Ackroyd opened her mouth and it kept on opening until her jaw struck the floor. Something was crawling out of her mouth, a black creatures of teeth and tentacles. It crawled out into the room and Mrs Ackroyd's body collapsed behind it like a deflated balloon.

Hissing, the creature slithered towards me. It lashed out with one of its tentacles and I felt a sharp pain in my left arm where it drew blood.

I looked around for something to fight it with. My hand clamped around the photograph and I threw it at the demon. The photo was swallowed by the blackness.

The creature lashed out again and a thin line of blood appeared on my cheek.

I scrambled for the window. If I could just get outside and find help

A tentacle coiled around my ankle pulling me to the floor. I clawed at the carpet as it dragged me closer to the teeth that glistened in the moonlight. I kicked at the tentacle with my free foot, striking again and again and again.

Suddenly, its grip slackened and I did not hesitate. I threw myself through the bedroom window, glass shattering around me as I fell.

I hit the ground hard, my right arm twisted beneath me. I could feel the bones grinding against one another in my shoulder.

The demon emerged through the broken window and then began to climb, spider-like, down the wall. It slithered across the grass towards me, dozens of limbs writhing in anticipation. I tried to crawl away, but the pain in my arm was too much.

'Please don't let it hurt much,' I prayed.

'I won't,' Buffy said as she sliced through one of the tentacles with a sword.

Spike was with her, an axe held in both hands as he swung it at the main body of the creature. Buffy joined him and they hacked and slashed with furious abandon. I turned away as blue blood sprayed into the air and covered my ears as the creature let loose a keening wail.

After a short while, Buffy put a hand on my shoulder - the uninjured one, I'm glad to say.

'It's over,' she said.

* * *

She grounded me for a month. Can you believe it? I practically save the day and Buffy grounds me for a month because I snuck out of the house. Apparently, Buffy had been patrolling that area last night when she heard the noise of my fight. Lucky for me. She didn't explain what Spike had been doing there.

I had managed to come out of the fight relatively unscathed, but I was going to have to wear my arm in a sling for a while. It was a small price to pay. If anyone asked, I had fallen down the stairs. I wondered if anyone would believe me.

At school I managed to twist Drew's arm into helping me with the talent contest. His parents had found out about it and were pressuring him to enter so we'd agreed to act out a comedy sketch between us. Yes, I know I'd been told not to do a dramatic recitation. That was part of the reason for doing it. The other was that Drew can be genuinely funny so I figured I couldn't go far wrong as long as I didn't freeze up on stage.

Someone passed me a note during last period. It was from Clare Gosford. She wanted to see me after school about the talent show.

* * *

When the bell went, I made my way to the school library.

'Hello,' I called out as I entered.

Clare emerged from behind the stacks. She was the only other person in the room.

'Hello, Dawn,' she said.

'Clare,' I said. 'So, you wanted to see me about this talent show thing.'

'Yes,' she replied. 'I'm really, really nervous.'

'We all are, I think,' Dawn said. 'Hey, I'm practically freaking.'

'I just wish my parents could be here to see it,' Clare continued. 'They'd have been so proud. But I guess you know all about that, huh?'

'I guess,' I agreed. 'At least you've got your aunt, right?'

'Not any more,' Clare replied. 'You killed her.'

* * *

'Hey guys, miss me?' Buffy said as she entered the Magic Box.

'Buffy, you're back early,' Xander said.

'We had to swap shifts at work,' Buffy explained. 'Dawn not here yet?'

Xander shook his head.

'She's probably with her friends,' he said. 'You know what kids are like at that age.'

'She's supposed to be grounded,' Buffy replied.

'Cut her a bit of slack, Buff,' Xander suggested. 'She was only trying to help.'

'Hey Buffy,' Willow called from the back of the shop. 'Is this the demon you guys slew last night?'

Buffy crossed the room to peer at the illustration Willow was pointing at. The encyclopaedias were not magical texts so Willow had no problem with them. Anya had moved all the genuinely magical books upstairs, just in case.

'Yep, that's the one,' Buffy confirmed. 'Ugly little sucker, isn't he?'

'Buffy, we have a serious problem,' Willow continued. 'These things are called Nestrechans.'

'Bless you,' Xander said.

'They're parasites and they feed on despair,' Willow continued.

'This we know,' Buffy said. 'What's your point?'

'Well, any good parasite knows better than to kill its host because then it cuts off its food supply,' Willow explained. 'But according to this, immature Nestrechans can't control their feeding and end up killing their victims. As the Nestrechans mature they are able to control their impulses and the victims remain alive.'

'I'm not following,' Xander said. 'Are you saying that elderly battleaxe Mrs Ackroyd was really a sprightly teenager? She was old when they built the pyramids.'

'That's my point,' Willow said. 'Well, not the bit about the pyramids, but the thing is that Mrs Ackroyd was not an immature Nestrechan. If she had been feeding on those kids then they wouldn't be dead.'

'So what you're saying is' Buffy began.

'There's another demon out there,' Willow concluded.

* * *

'Mrs Ackroyd was your aunt?' I concluded. 'That's why I recognised the girl in the photo. That was your, wasn't it?'

'It was taken before my parents died,' Clare confirmed. 'It's not a terribly good likeness. I've spent years with my aunt. In fact, I hardly think about my parents any more. But you, Dawn, I reckon that pain's all too recent. Isn't that right, Gravestone Girl?'

I felt as if Clare had punched me in the stomach.

'How long is it since your mother died, Dawn?' Clare asked. 'A year? Less?'

She was walking back through the stacks and, with feet like lead, I was following her.

'And what about your father?' Clare continued. 'Why isn't he here, looking after you? Could it be because he doesn't love you?'

Clare had cleared a space at the back of the library. A chair stood on the floor and above the chair, hanging from the ceiling, was a noose.

'But you've always got your sister, haven't you?' Clare said. 'That's why she spends so much time at home rather than being out all the time 'working'. Is there anyone that really cares about you, Dawn, or are they too wrapped up in their own problems?'

I climbed on to the chair.

'Does anyone even notice you, Dawn?' Clare asked. 'Will they notice when you're gone?'

I slipped the noose over my head.

'Goodbye, Dawn,' Clare said. 'You've beendelicious.'

She kicked the chair out from under me.

The noose tightened and I could no longer breathe. I clawed at the rope with my fingers, but it would not give. My feet pedalled ineffectually in mid-air. Darkness was forming at the edges of my vision.

'Hang on, Dawn, we're coming,' someone shouted.

Was that Buffy?

I tried to say something in response, but could only croak wordlessly.

'No, you mustn't interfere,' Clare insisted. 'I won't let you.'

Her jaw began to distend to release the demon within.

Xander raised his axe and lopped off her head.

'I'd like to see you try,' he remarked.

I stopped scratching at the rope. I no longer had the strength. My arms hung limply at my sides.

'Xander, duck,' Buffy ordered.

She levelled her crossbow and fired.

The bolt whizzed threw the air and severed the rope holding me up. I fell to the floor, taking in great lungfulls of air now that the noose around my neck had loosened.

Buffy was at my side, helping me to sit up.

'Are you okay?' she asked.

I took a look at Clare's decapitated corpse and thought of Scott.

'I am now,' I said. 'Thanks to you.'

'Come on,' Xander said, as I gingerly got to my feet. 'Let's get you out of here.'

'Buffy,' I said as we slowly weaved our way through the books and out of the library, 'can you teach me to shoot like that?'

'We've had this discussion,' Buffy said, 'and you are not slaying.'

'I wasn't thinking of slaying,' I replied. 'I was thinking of the talent show.'