Council Athletics Field – Next Afternoon
“And that’s some bad luck for the Aussies as Slayer number seven,” the microphone fed back shrilly as Faith turned and asked, “what the heck’s her name again? Huh? This thing on? Oh, Victoria. James. Victoria James falls to K’mnta demon #3, S’shntaa…hehe, tough luck Australia.”
“We’ve got ’em now, huh, Shannon?” Jennifer asked from where she sat on the bench.
“Get ready, Tye,” Shannon said to Tyeesha, as Bailey struggled to “finish” her demon with her quarterstaff.
“Okay, okay…the Taiwanese team just won it!” Faith’s voice came over the loudspeaker.
Shannon and the team all turned their heads to the leftmost part of the field, where a small, dark-haired slayer stood over the “body” of her K’mnta demon, her quarterstaff and one foot planted squarely on its back. The tiny girl put one hand behind her back, elbow bent, and held her head high.
“So now it’s a contest for second place,” Faith’s disappointed voice boomed.
Rowena turned to Jim Pollan. “Are you sure it was a good idea to give her the announcer job?”
Pollan smirked. “Best idea I’ve had in weeks! ESPN’s reporting record ratings just having Faith announce the competitions! You should see the blogs on the net.”
Willow quirked her mouth in an awkward smile. “Think I’ll pass…” she said.
Down on the field, Bailey continued to fight her K’mnta demon with all her might. “Damn it! C’mon, Bay…” Shannon called out. “Finish him off fast! We’re losing points!”
Bailey worked faster – too fast. The demon took advantage of her sloppy form, finding an opening and catching her just behind her right knee with one tentacle. Suddenly, she was on the ground, with tentacles wrapped tightly around her throat, her leg and her spear-tipped quarterstaff. With all her might, she pulled the staff loose, but the crowd already groaned in disappointment to see that the K’mnta’s capped spike was poised at her eye.
“Oh, man. Did you see that?” Faith’s voice boomed unintentionally over the field. “That should be a do-over! Cleveland should have a – what? Oh yeah…tough break, Cleveland!” Faith said into the microphone. “That’ll do it for the Americans as K’mnta number two takes down slayer number seven, Bailey Masters. Our judges will have the second place results in just a moment…”
The K’mnta released Bailey, and then reached out one tentacle in an offer to help her up. Bailey graciously accepted and put her hand atop the slimy appendage. The K’mnta changed color and what was generally considered its face changed shape somewhat. Bailey understood it to be a polite smile. She nodded to it. “Thanks,” she told it.
The K’mnta changed position, giving her a bow.
“Let’s have a hand for our demons, the K’mnta. And here’s the judges’ results. In first place – again – Taiwan with ninety-five points. Australia in second place with eighty points for technique and speed. Cleveland in third place with seventy points for strength and agility.”
“Great…” Shannon said as Bailey approached.
“I’m sorry, Shannon. Sorry guys…” Bailey said.
“Huh? Oh…no, it’s…forget it,” Shannon said. “It’s not like we fight K’mnta demons every day! What good is it judging us against friendly demons?”
“Isn’t it more about being prepared for the unexpected?”
The girls all turned their heads to the right at the sound of the voice.
“Think of it…a mad sorcerer, or just a slightly mischievous one, puts a spell on a normally docile, but potentially deadly, demon. It is suddenly on a path of wanton destruction. You’re called upon to rid the world of this terrible menace. I doubt you’d curtsey and ask it to tea…”
“Ethan, this is the bench for competing teams,” Shannon said.
“And their watchers,” he smiled dryly at her. “Sorry I’m late…”
Shannon sighed. “Hit the showers, you guys. Hey…Bailey…” Bailey turned, dejected. “Good job out there. You were really holding him.”
“I think it was a she…”
“Oh…anyway, you woulda had him – her – if I’d just kept my mouth shut and let you do what you had to.”
Bailey smiled at Shannon. “You were right. I was taking a long time…Hey, it’s early in the fight, right?”
Shannon grinned back at her. “Yup! We’ll take ’em all the way on the rest!”
They high-fived each other and Bailey went to the showers with her teammates.
“Ethan…look,” Shannon turned to him. “I know you’re trying to help. You’re taking your new job, like, seriously.”
“Like, yes…” Ethan smirked, lighting a cigarette.
“But I got a team to manage here. We’re in a serious competition. Our rep’s on the line…and I don’t mean just the Cleveland Branch. I mean the whole reputation of the American branches!”
“Hmmm…is that what’s at stake when you’re on patrol? Reputation?”
“Yes! I mean, of course it is. Who wants a bad rep?”
“Who indeed?” Ethan said.
“Shannon…” Dawn walked over, put a hand on Shannon’s shoulder and smiled at her.
“Guess we didn’t do so well.”
“You’ll do better tomorrow,” Dawn said.
“Is that what you tell the slayers who fail in the field? The ones that survive their failure, that is…that they’ll do better tomorrow?” Ethan, no longer smirking, stared narrowly at Dawn.
“This is a competition, Ethan. It’s not a patrol, or a fight, or an apocalypse. This is to judge skills and strengths.”
“Do you think the Taiwanese and Aussies see it that way?”
“Just what are you driving at?” Dawn asked angrily.
“There was a big point spread,” Shannon said sourly.
“No one’s interested in the points,” Ethan said. “Is that what you think about when you’re staking vampires in the field? Has anyone ever said to you, ‘that was an adequate job, Shannon. We rate that dusting an eighty-five?’ Don’t be so wrapped up in points and winning that you lose sight of the real test.”
“Are you finished?” Dawn asked.
“I’m guessing yes.”
Dawn said nothing more, but began to walk toward the locker room. Shannon followed her, looking back at Ethan as she and Dawn departed.
Ethan heard a small sound behind him. He let out a puff of smoke and smiled wanly. “How am I doing, professor?” he asked.
Rupert Giles huffed a laugh and came out of the shadows. “A bit pompous and overbearing – perfect!” he said, looking over Ethan’s shoulder at Dawn and Shannon walking into the shadows beneath the stands. He reached up and pulled the cigarette from Ethan’s lips. “No smoking on school grounds.”
“Oh, come on! I already stopped drinking during daylight hours…now I have to give up my smokes as well? This is a bloody morose gig.”
“It’s time you looked at the big picture. Aside from your favorite pastimes being against state regulations, these are impressionable girls, Ethan.”
“Someone should tell them that.”
Giles looked at him. “They’re hard to reach, they’re slayers,” Giles said. “Took me ages with Buffy, and even now, I’m not so sure she didn’t finally get through to me instead. But it’s worth every ounce of frustration and worry and –” Giles cut himself off. Ethan was staring at him, annoyed.
“I’m not in it for frustration and worry,” the mage said. “I’m in it to get the Coven position.”
“I see…” Giles said, absently taking a drag from the cigarette. “Is that all you think about whenever you help us?”
Ethan looked sharply at Giles.
“Git…” Ethan smirked, taking the cigarette back from him.
“The other watchers are sitting with their teams during the competition.”
“The other watchers are welcome. Besides, I had nothing to do with this team’s arrival at this juncture. They did this on their own, with the part-time help of Dawn and Jeff. In case you hadn’t noticed, neither of them sits with the squad, either.”
“Perhaps it’s because they expect it of you. I think Shannon might actually like it. It can be very lonely, you know…trying to do the right thing…keeping everyone happy.”
“Please tell me you realize how obvious you’re being.”
Giles bit down on a smile. “There you go again,” he deadpanned, “instinctively seeing through my words. I say, mate, you’re rather a natural at this!”
Giles turned and walked back under the bleachers. Ethan frowned and stared straight ahead, thinking. A moment later, he took the cigarette from his lips and tossed it down, crushing it beneath his foot.
Watchers Council – Library – Around Midnight
Just off patrol, Kennedy dragged into the library and flicked on the lights. “Just what we need,” she grumbled to herself, “a freakin’ new kind of demon.”
She dropped a yellow legal pad on one of the long tables and walked over to the stacks. “Got a Council full of VIPs and foreign guests and a schedule packed so tight I have to make time to pee. Yep, this is juuuust what I need.”
Kennedy went to one shelf and pulled out a few volumes. She trudged back to her table and dumped the books beside her legal pad. She plopped into her chair, sighing heavily.
After a moment of unenthused frowning at the task before her, she unclipped her pen from her legal pad, pulled a book from the pile and began to skim its contents.
Watchers Council – Library – Later that Night
A layer of open books now covered the long table. Kennedy’s legal pad, unfortunately, had precious little information written on it. With a bulky volume in front of her, she shook her head and then blinked her eyes several times, as if forcing herself to stay awake and focused. She sat back in her chair and rubbed her eyes.
When she opened her eyes and looked up, she saw a familiar figure standing at the back of the room. It was Heli, just staring at her with an enigmatic smile.
“Damn!” Kennedy exclaimed in alarm, shoving her chair back.
As she tried to rush in Heli’s direction, Kennedy got tangled up in the legs of her pushed-over chair. When she finally scrambled to her feet, she saw Heli turn and enter the stacks.
Kennedy dashed over, but saw no sign of the blonde slayer. She rapidly searched among the bookshelves, but still found nothing. When Kennedy came out of the stacks, she was panting for air, a confused look on her face.
“What the –?” she said, running her hands nervously through her hair. She stopped, gripped her hair with both fists and closed her eyes. “Hell.” Her voice was small and unsteady.
She swallowed hard and uncurled her fingers, opening her eyes again. As she brought her hands back down, she paused and held them out in front of her. They were noticeably shaking. She instantly made tight fists and dropped them to her sides.
She turned back to where she had been sitting, letting her gaze rest on the piles of books. After a moment of staring, she let out a long exhale and pulled her cell phone from her pocket. She flipped it open and made a call.
Watchers Council – Willow and Rowena’s Apartment – Same Time
At the sound of the phone ringing, both Willow and Rowena let out an annoyed groan. In the semi-darkness, Willow blindly reached out from under the blanket and pulled the device from its cradle, thankfully ending the incessant ringing. Slowly, she brought the receiver to her ear.
“Hello?” she croaked groggily.
“Will? You up?” she heard Kennedy say.
“Does it sound like I’m up?”
“Sorry,” Kennedy backpedaled. “I-I-I shouldn’t have called this late. I’ll just –”
“No, no,” Willow said, waving her hand. “Go ahead and tell me. If you don’t, I’ll start wondering what you wanted, and then I’ll never get any sleep.”
“Well, it’s just that…tonight I saw…” A distinct pause. “I saw a demon….one I’ve never seen before. I’m hittin’ the library, but I could use your help.”
Willow sighed. “Ohhh-kaaay, I’ll be right there.”
Willow hung up the phone and let out another unhappy groan.
Rowena snuggled up next to Willow. “Who was that and why are they disrupting our much-needed sleep?” she complained.
“It was Kennedy. She needs my help with some demon research.”
When Willow went to lean up in the bed, Rowena snagged her and pulled her back down until they were nose to nose. “You tell Kennedy I don’t like to share. ‘Specially not during bed time.”
“Oooo, jealous, huh?” Willow said with a grin.
“That’s right,” Rowena confirmed with a determined pout. “And if she knows what’s good for her, she won’t upset me. Hell hath no fury like a pissed-off pregnant woman.”
Willow chuckled. “I’ll be sure to pass that on,” she said, before giving her grumpy wife a sound kiss.
Watchers Council – Library – Minutes Later
With her book bag propped against the leg of her chair, Willow now sat beside Kennedy, her attention focused on the book in her hands.
“So, no luck with the Compendium?” she inquired, flipping pages rapidly as she scanned.
“Huh.” Willow set aside that book and picked up another.
Kennedy looked over at Willow for a moment, and then quickly turned back toward her own book. After a few seconds, she repeated the process. Willow didn’t notice, however. Kennedy repositioned herself in her chair and looked at her book again. Finally, she spoke up.
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
“Sure,” Willow answered, still leafing through her book.
Kennedy paused and took a breath. “After you killed Warren, did anything weird happen?”
Willow froze for a long second and then lowered her book to her lap. She slowly turned to Kennedy. “Where the heck did that come from?”
Kennedy faltered. “Uhhh…my brain?”
Willow turned in her chair and placed a concerned hand on the slayer’s arm. “Ken, what’s going on?”
Kennedy sighed and dropped her eyes for a bit. Then she turned to face Willow. “I’ve been seeing things,” she told her. “Since…” She paused and then went on. “Since Tokyo.”
“What have you been seeing?”
“It’s not a what, exactly. It’s more like a who,” Kennedy replied. “I’ve been seeing Heli.”
“Heli?” Willow answered. “Y-Y-You mean, like a ghost or something?”
Kennedy leaned back and crossed her arms. “Well, it better be a ghost, ’cause I sure don’t like the alternate theory.” When Willow gave her a confused look, Kennedy twirled her index finger at her temple.
Willow smiled compassionately. “Well, we have two things we can do,” she said, leaning over to rummage for something in her book bag. “First, we can do a spell to see if you’re being haunted.”
“Good, that sounds good,” Kennedy replied, nodding eagerly and leaning forward in her chair.
“And second, you can go see Dr. Millenti.” Willow handed over a business card.
Kennedy’s shoulders slumped, and she reluctantly took the card. “Great.”
“He’s really good,” Willow promised.
“I know,” Kennedy said. “He cleared me after Tokyo, remember?”
“Yeah, but you quit going the second he cleared you,” Willow pointed out. “Look, he’s helped me a lot, and Goddess knows, I’ve got enough emotional issues for four or five people, at least.”
Kennedy gave a small smile at that. She tucked the card in her pocket. “I’ll think about it,” she said. “In the meantime, let’s see if we can track down this demon.”
Though she clearly wanted to discuss the matter further, Willow followed Kennedy’s example and turned back to her research.
Watchers Council – Conference Room – Next Morning
“Is this all we’ve got?” Buffy asked.
“So far,” Robin replied. “I know it’s not much to go on, but it didn’t leave much of a trace. In fact, if Ken hadn’t seen it, we wouldn’t have known it was there.”
“But it didn’t attack.”
“It didn’t have anything to attack, except us,” Kennedy said. “At first, I thought it didn’t see us, but then it turned its head and looked straight at us. It opened its…mouth. It was pretty high on the ick scale. I thought it was getting ready to spit poison or something. Then it turned its head away, like it heard something, and ran out of the alley and towards the sidewalk and the pedestrian traffic. Moved so fast we couldn’t catch it. By the time we rounded the corner and got onto the sidewalk, it was gone. It vanished – there one second, gone the next. I’ve been lookin’ in the books all night – can’t find it. It doesn’t match anything I’ve seen.”
“Well, they’re not all bad,” Robin said. “Maybe this one is new in this dimension, or maybe it’s just…”
“What?” Buffy shot back. “Sightseeing? We don’t need any new demons in this world – friendly or otherwise,” she said irritably. “And we don’t need them snooping around dark alleys at night. And we really don’t need them disappearing into thin air when they see a slayer.”
“So they should just stand there and wait for a beating, is that it?” Robin snapped back. “Look, nothing happened. Until something does or until Ken can identify just what it was, we can’t assume the thing is out for trouble. For all we know, it’s someone’s brother-in-law.”
“I’m putting a separate detail on it,” Kennedy told Buffy. “We’ll take it down.”
Robin shot her a look.
“If we have to,” she amended. “Otherwise, we’ll just bring it here,” she said as she opened the door.
“In one piece…” Robin called after her.
“You got it.”
“Great. A new demon,” Buffy groused. “This is all we need with these stupid Games going on.”
“You don’t like the Slayer Games, do you?” Robin asked. “Why?”
“Being a slayer’s not a game. We’re all Harry Potter-ing around with these dumb Games while there’s real work that has to be done.”
“It’s only among the slayers in training…and it’s only one squad,” Robin said. “It’s good publicity; it makes us more –”
“What – marketable?” Buffy asked. “You’re sooo starting to sound like Jim Pollan…besides, you heard what Will and Ro are planning. This year – slayer tournament. Next year, magic tournament…”
“Well, that is a bit Tri-Wizard-y,” Robin said, chuckling. “But this competition is fostering –”
“– camaraderie and understanding.”
“We are talking about slayers,” Buffy said.
“We’re also talking about kids.”
“You never stop being a school principal, do you?”
“You ever stop being a slayer?”
Council Athletic Field – That Afternoon
Faith’s voice boomed over the roaring crowd. “Of course she’s gonna somersault over the top of the dragon’s head! Whoa! She just cleared the flame by inches! Here’s the thrust and – oh man, tough luck, Taiwan! Marsha the Dragon has ended this test for the Taiwanese as she pins number nine, Liu Chen, to the ground with her tail.”
“I’ve been asked to remind everyone not to be alarmed. Marsha is a friendly and gentle dragon who has been spelled to make her much larger than her actual size of two feet from tip of nose to tip of tail. And the slayers have all had magical protections put on them to safeguard them from being singed by the dragon’s breath, not to mention the electrical force field generated by Miss Gwen Raiden and held in place high above us to keep Marsha within the stadium. Now, let’s have a hand for Liu Chen…”
Ethan sat at the far end of the Cleveland bench and watched as the little strawberry blonde slayer, Cindy Loomis, absently ran her hand over the stray lock of hair that kept sticking up atop her head. Her eyes were wide and her mouth slightly open as she breathed heavily in the muggy heat.
“Now here comes number four, Molly Hodges, of the Australian squad. Hodges was ranked number one in the world against earthbound, quadruped demons…”
“Got yer bag of marshmallows?” Jennifer nudged ten year-old Cindy as Marsha the Dragon, spelled by Willow to be as large as an elephant, playfully breathed a plume of fire over her shoulder at the Aussie Slayer.
Cindy looked up at Jennifer with wide eyes. “She’s so big,” Cindy said quietly. “And…and I think she’s having fun!”
“Looks to me like she’s gonna keel over from heat stroke,” Jennifer said.
“I mean Marsha,” Cindy said. “She’s really big, and she’s just playing out there!”
Shannon looked from the other end of the bench to Cindy. The girls shifted uncomfortably. “Hey,” she called. “If Marsha’s playing, you play, too.”
Ethan looked at Shannon and smiled slightly. She caught his gaze and returned the small smile.
“Oh yeah! Australia’s in trouble as Molly Hodges struggles with the dragon’s tail. Oh! Watch out! That was one hot flame! Marsha’s really having a blast out there today, folks!”
Cindy caught her breath as another flame issued from the dragon, along with a thunderous roar.
“I-I can’t. Shannon, I can’t! Please. Send Bailey.”
“Bailey’s not my choice, Cindy,” Shannon said calmly. “You are.”
“But I can’t! She’s so big! I’m a vampire slayer, not a dragon slayer! I–I –”
“If I may –”
“No, you may not, Ethan,” Shannon said sharply.
“I was only going to say –”
“We’re in a competition here!”
“That the little girl is right.”
“Ethan, please stay out of –”
“That dragon is the size of a mastodon,” Ethan continued. “Two mastodons. And here she is,” he indicated Cindy, “just as tiny as a little mouse. Funny. Rather puts me in mind of the old saying…that elephants are afraid of mice. Can’t see them so well, I suppose. Makes them nervous to have one dancing about underfoot…”
Cindy looked down the bench at Ethan, blinking her wide eyes at him.
He reached down and picked up a thermos, unscrewed the lid and took a swig from it. He sighed in satisfaction, watching as Marsha the Dragon dispatched the Aussie slayer with a quick flick of her tail. The slayer went sailing towards the boards at breakneck speed, only to be stopped gently by an invisible magical buffer zone around the perimeter of the field.
“And that’s the end of the line for Australia, as Marsha the Dragon has tossed this slayer aside…”
Molly dropped easily to her feet, but then went to one knee, exhausted from the fight. Marsha thumped quickly to the girl and stopped in front of her. Molly stood quickly in defensive posture, but Marsha extended her neck and brought her nose to within an inch of Molly’s. Suddenly the dragon’s tongue shot out and licked the girl under the chin.
The crowd roared with laughter and then applauded the young slayer and the tail-wagging dragon.
“I’d say that dragon is a mite too playful for her own good…” Ethan mused aloud. He turned his head slightly and looked sideways at Cindy, who still stared at him. She quickly turned her head away and blushed, not hearing the announcer call her name.
“Cindy! Cindy, c’mon, you’re up!” Shannon said.
Cindy stood, and several pairs of hands slipped her flame-retardant vest on her. They tugged the flame-resistant gloves onto her tiny hands and gave her the long, wooden spear with the blunted tip. The spear was twice as tall as she.
“And there seems to be a slight delay,” Faith said, “as number one, little Cindy Loomis, is fitted for battle. In the meantime, the Watchers Council would like me to tell you that…”
Somewhere in the stands, someone began a rhythmic stomp-stomp-clap-clap. Another picked it up and another until the announcer’s voice was drowned out by a chant coming loud and clear from the Cleveland Branch section of the stands.
“Dah Hoo Doh Ray! Dah Hoo Doh Ray!”
The Australian and Taiwanese teams looked up at the crowd. Adrian Smith quirked an eye at his squad. “Strange chant,” he said. “Yanks…”
Marsha, picking up on the excitement, jumped and gamboled about the field.
“They’re playin’ your song,” Shannon smiled at Cindy, who stood under uncomfortable layers of protection. “Cin! Go…” she gave Cindy a gentle push. The girl stood transfixed at the sight of the leaping, snorting dragon.
Shannon looked at the rest of the team. They all gave a shove and Cindy stumbled out into the bright light of day. The crowd cheered and Cindy turned to see her teammates standing and clapping in time as they, too, chanted, “Dah Hoo Doh Ray!”
She gulped, turning her head away. Suddenly, she caught sight of Ethan, standing just below the awning. She saw him look out and up-up-up at the oversized Marsha the Dragon. Then, with deliberate slowness he looked all the way back down at her. The little girl and Ethan locked eyes for a moment.
Shannon saw the exchange and came to stand beside Ethan. “No spells, Ethan!” she warned.
“Not a one,” he said, smiling.
“Hey! What the hell!” Tyeesha said, as Cindy shook off her fire-resistant gloves. The little slayer took off the asbestos vest, as well.
“Just a minute folks…” Faith said, “it seems like Cindy Loomis is removing her protective gear. It’s optional, so the choice is hers. Remember, they’re already under magical protection from the flames…”
Marsha the Dragon saw the tiny girl from the far end of the field and roared in delight. She leapt high in the air and flew almost straight up, until her nose hit the nearly transparent bubble of electricity that canopied the field. Marsha got a little shock and swooped down and away from the force field. She flew straight toward Cindy, landing heavily on the ground about twenty yards away.
“And here’s the face-off, folks, as – wait a minute! Cindy Loomis is crouching down in the grass….”
“There’s the girl,” Ethan said quietly.
“Cindy, get ready!” Bailey cried out.
Cindy remained crouched, the long spear in her hand, hidden in the neatly cropped grass.
Marsha the Dragon tilted her head at the tiny girl. She half-hopped toward her, stopping a little way from her. Cindy remained motionless.
“What is she doing?” Jennifer said. “Cindy! For crying out loud, you can’t hide!”
“What is she doing?” Shannon asked, as the dragon edged closer to the slayer.
“She’s learning,” Ethan replied.
“Huh?” Shannon said, but Ethan was focused on Cindy, who held her position quietly until the dragon’s body blocked out the sun, casting Cindy in shadow.
The crowd hushed. Marsha lowered her long neck and brought her snout down to the top of Cindy’s head, sniffing the errant shock of strawberry blonde hair that stood up on top of Cindy’s head. Marsha wagged the tip of her tail.
Then she lowered her snout and turned her head until she was eye to face with Cindy. Cindy did not look into the dragon’s eye, but kept her gaze averted and remained still.
Marsha nudged the slayer a little with her massive, leather-scaled forehead. Cindy gave a little with the nudge, but didn’t move.
Marsha gave a puzzled whimper and lifted her long neck and head. As she did so, Cindy scooted under her, poking at the dragon’s ankles with quick, sharp prods of her blunted spear.
Marsha’s head turned this way and that, as she tried to find the source of the irritating poking. She couldn’t see what it was that was vexing her, and began to alternately lift her legs in a jittery dance.
Shannon grinned. “Go, Cindy!” she said.
Confused, the dragon began to nervously nip at the air, little bursts of flame shooting from her nostrils.
The crowd began to come alive as they watched the little slayer below the dragon’s belly zig and zag as she jabbed the creature’s ankles harder.
“She’s going to lose,” Ethan said.
Shannon shot him an angry glare. “Whatta ya mean?”
“She’s gotten lost in the moment, feeling the power of her own mind over the dragon’s.”
“You’re right…” Shannon agreed. “She’s gotta get onto its back if she’s gonna strike the back of the head. She’ll never score if –”
“She’ll never get that far,” Ethan said. “She’s forgetting – that dragon can fly.”
As if on cue, Marsha’s wings spread out wide. Cindy saw the shadow on the ground and ran out from under the dragon. With slayer agility, she jumped and grabbed the leading edge of one of Marsha’s wings and jabbed the soft underlying tissue hard with the spear.
Marsha roared at the sharp pain and raised her wing high. Cindy let go and dropped to her feet on the ground as Marsha lost her balance and fell away to the right. The dragon rolled on her side, unhurt, but completely confused.
Cindy charged it with a primal cry and scaled it as it rolled to right itself. She almost slipped on the leathery scales, but clung on and reached the dragon’s spine just below its shoulders.
Finished with the annoying game, Marsha spread her wings again, and began to ascend. Willow stood, ready with a spell should something bad happen, but Cindy scrambled on hands and knees up the dragon’s spiked spine and, straddling the neck like a bucking bronco’s, brought the blunt end of the spear down with two hands against the back of the dragon’s head.
Marsha, wings flapping, held her position about fifty feet above the field.
“Oh my – Cindy Loomis has just scored! She wins! She wins the dragon trial for Cleveland! Little Cindy Loomis has done it for the United States, proving you can’t judge a book by its cover!”
The crowd roared with delight.
Marsha the Dragon, still in flight, reflexively raised her wing, dipped her head, and brushed the tiny annoyance quickly from her neck.
“Cindyyyyyy!” Bailey cried, realizing the peril.
The cheer turned into a gasp as the crowd watched the tiny girl tumble head over heels from the dragon’s neck.
Willow, caught up in the excitement, had raised her hand too late to stop the girl’s awkward fall.
Cindy came to dead stop, head first, five inches above the ground. She hovered, as her body righted until she was face up, then she floated gently to the soft grass below.
Medics, watchers and the Cleveland team rushed the field as Cindy sat up in the grass, unharmed, her lock of strawberry blonde hair at an almost perfect ninety-degree angle atop her head.
Marsha landed heavily in front of her and lowered her head down to Cindy’s. Then she nudged the slayer with her snout and Cindy looked into one of the beautiful golden eyes. Cindy smiled and hugged the dragon about the face, her short arms not quite reaching around the dragon’s long jaw.
Watchers Council – Coven Room – Early Evening
“I don’t care who it was,” Willow said. “In fact, I’d like to give whoever it was a medal for their quick thinking. Not to mention it was a beautiful levitation.”
The Coven sat and stood in various places about the room, staring blankly at her.
“C’mon,” she grinned. “Don’t be modest. You saved a slayer from a real disaster out there. Which one of you was it? Jeff?”
“Not my thing, you know that.”
Andrew shrugged and smiled. “I wish,” he said.
“Guys!” Willow said in exasperation, though still smiling. “Dawnie.”
“Will, I can float things, but not like that. That was like air-ballet.”
All heads turned toward the doorway. Shannon stood, half inside the Coven Room. “I don’t mean to interrupt.”
“Hey, Shannon! Way to go!” The Coven greeted her. “Great job! You guys are the best!”
Shannon smiled and nodded at the Coven. “Uh…guys…I think I know who caught Cindy when she fell.”
They all looked expectantly at her.
“I mean, I didn’t actually see him do it, but I saw Ethan lower his hand and put it in his pocket just after Cindy touched down.”
Dawn and Willow exchanged a look. Willow smiled. “Thanks, Shannon,” she said. Shannon nodded and began to leave the Coven room. “Hey, Shannon,” she called. The slayer turned back around. “Tell Ethan thanks.”
Shannon looked at Willow for a moment, and then smiled. “No,” she said. “I don’t think he’d really like that. I don’t think he wants a big deal made about it.” Shannon smiled a little wider, and left the Coven Room.
Dawn walked up to Willow. “Y’know, Dawnie,” Willow said, “Giles may be right about him.”
Dawn smiled dubiously. “He’s still Ethan, Will. Saving a little girl from crashing to the ground in an organized sporting event isn’t asking much from him. But when this is over, he’s gonna be the squad’s lead watcher. I’m still not comfortable with that. And I don’t think Ethan is, either.”
Watchers Council – Guest Dormitory – Same Night
“Are you sure about this, Ness?” Tory, the Aussie slayer who lost against the K’mnta demon, asked.
“Course I am!” Vanessa said haughtily. “Are you with me or not?”
“But shouldn’t we be resting up for the next test?”
“There’s time. Besides, we’re not going to fight or anything. We’re just going to follow along behind and see what they do. I’d like to get a look-see at one o’ their vamps.”
“I’ve heard they wear bonzer clothes!” Tory said.
“Oh, you and clothes! Give me your lippy, dearie!”
Tory handed a glitter lipgloss stick to Vanessa. “Wait, what about Adrian?” Tory asked.
“He can find his own lippy!” Vanessa said.
The girls laughed.
“He’s probably rootin’ that Taiwan watcher.” The girls stopped laughing and began to twitter at the remark. “He won’t know we’re gone. All right then, let’s go…”
Vanessa poked her head out of the dormitory door and looked both ways down the hall. No one was in sight and the place was quiet. She motioned for the girls to follow her and she led them down the corridor.
“Are you sure it’s this way?” Tory asked.
“Down these stairs, to the right and back the way we just came. They meet there before they go on patrol. That’s what that Robin bloke was tellin’ me…” She opened the door to the far stairwell and led them down the staircase. The door closed slowly and quietly behind them.
The girls all stopped in place, halfway down the stairs. “Taking the team for laps at this hour?”
The girls turned. Adrian Smith, their watcher, stood looking knowingly at them from the top of the stairs. “You really are a determined bunch,” he said. “But it’s lights out time for all good little slayers and their lead slayer,” he said, looking pointedly at Vanessa.
“Right!” Vanessa said. “C’mon then, you heard him, we need our rest!”
The girls moaned and walked back up the stairs, past Adrian and through the doorway at the top of the steps. Adrian stopped Vanessa. “I know you want to see an American slayer squad in action, Vanessa. But let’s set our minds to the task, eh? Once the games are over, I’ll ask Ms. Allister if perhaps you can’t join one of their patrols. Fair enough?”
Vanessa smiled at Adrian. “Thanks, Adrian. I’d like that, I really would. But what about the others? They need to see what a slayer squad like these Yanks can do. They need to see what other places –”
“Vanessa…you’re as good as any of them. Better, I think. Our girls will learn more from watching you, as their leader, than they will watching some American team go through the motions of a nightly fight they’re probably weary of waging. You’ve great spirit, Vanessa! And you’re the brightest we’ve got.”
“But not ace.”
“Who says you need to be ace? You’re steady and sure. And these girls rely on and respect you for it. They look up to you. And that, my girl, is a far greater talent than being the best at dusting vampires. Let’s use it wisely, then, eh?”
Vanessa sighed and smiled at him. “Right, right…” and she too climbed the stairs and went up through the door, the watcher following behind.
They came out on their floor and walked down to the bend in the hallway. They turned and the sounds of their feet died away.
Two heads poked out from around the other side of the turn. “Shannon was right!” Tyeesha said to Madison. “We can’t let those Aussies outta our sight.”
“Yeah,” Madison agreed, as they walked quietly back to their dorm and the rest of the waiting Cleveland squad.
They had just rounded the corner. The corridor was silent except for the uneven hum of a fluorescent light. Out from a shadowed corner stepped a petite Taiwanese slayer. She looked down the hall after the two Cleveland slayers, and then swiftly and silently ran back to her squad.
Watchers Council – Security Center – Next Morning
“So you see why we’re concerned,” Robin said as the lights came on and the little Taiwanese slayer’s image faded on the wall. Robin stopped the LCD projector.
Adrian Smith sat, red-faced and silent, beside Li Heng Fu, the Taiwanese watcher, who stared straight ahead, with chin held high.
“Of course,” Robin chuckled, “slayers will be slayers. But we want to be sure that they don’t get out and into harm’s way…”
“If they’re slayers,” Ethan said, lowering the cold thermos from his lips, “in harm’s way is exactly the place they should be.”
All eyes, even Li’s, turned and looked at him.
“Ethan!” Rowena said, “that’s not funny.”
“Lucky I’m not joking then,” he said. “Look, these girls’ natural inclination is to be ‘on’ at all times. They don’t want to dance around on the green grass with Puff the Magic Dragon!”
“Hey!” Kennedy shot him a contemptuous look.
Ethan ignored her. “This competition,” he continued, “is whipping them into a frenzy for which they have no outlet. Rather like vampires surrounded by the smell of blood, but with no prey in sight…” he smirked.
“I apologize.” Li’s stone-cold voice cut through the room. “I apologize to our hosts and to our co-competitors,” she turned and looked deliberately at Adrian, “for the shameful activity of my slayer in the hallway last night. She will be removed from the competition and the team will be put on probation when we return to Taiwan.”
“Whoa, whoa, just a minute…” Kennedy said.
“Ms. Fu,” Rowena smiled gently, “your girls are no more in the wrong than Mr. Smith’s or Mr. Rayne’s. The only reason we brought you in here was to make you aware that they are up and about at night, as Mr. Smith himself found out. They perhaps need to be more closely chaperoned so that they don’t wind up outside the grounds, or get into any other mischief.”
“Look, even if they didn’t get into trouble,” Robin said, “there’s always a bunch of reporters hanging around just waiting to snap a picture or get a statement.”
“Y’know,” Kennedy smirked, “the paparazzi are probably a bigger threat than the vampires.”
Rowena looked at the three watchers. “How about this…let them complete the competition. If there are no more infractions of the rules and the codes, we’ll forget it happened and no harm done.”
“Why don’t we take ’em along on a little patrol after it’s all over?” Kennedy suggested. “I think we can probably convince a couple of the squads to take ’em around after the competition. Y’know, tour ’em around the places we go…”
“That’s an idea,” Rowena said. “They’d be with seasoned slayers who could show them around and tell them all kinds of stories…it might help keep them in at night to know that’s the reward for following the rules for lights out.” She grinned.
Adrian smiled and nodded his head. “That is very gracious! Thank you.”
“We are grateful for your kindness,” Li said with a modest nod.
“Oh goody,” Ethan said, “we’re going on a school outing.”
The two other watchers exchanged uneasy looks at Ethan’s sarcastic remark.
“Do you really think that’s going to placate them?” Ethan asked.
Rowena huffed. “No. So just in case, I’ll have Willow put a –”
“I say, let them go out,” Ethan cut her off. “Let them sneak out and see what they do. That’d be a real test, wouldn’t it? To see how each group works as a team in a real-world situation? Whether or not they find trouble is immaterial. We could have a squad or two on hand to jump in and ‘save the day,’ if they do run up against something.”
“Aside from the gross irresponsibility of it,” Robin said, “and the fact that these are very young slayers with–”
“With superhuman strength and exceptional drive and spirit,” Ethan countered.
“Yes.” Everyone turned and looked at Li. “I like what Mr. Rayne has said. He is right. I would like us to let them go, but not to tell them. To see who it is that shows the spirit to leave the dormitory and to seek out the streets of an unknown Hellmouth. To see which team works cleanly and co-operatively –”
“I agree!” Adrian said suddenly. “Let’s let them have a fair go at it. If you don’t mind providing the protection of Ms. Rosenberg’s Coven and, of course, your own senior slayers, Ms. Allister. But not so the squads would know…let them think they’re on their own, away from the eyes of family and friends and –”
“And watchers,” Ethan said quietly.
“This is totally out of the question,” Rowena said. “There are liabilities to consider.”
“Everyone in the competition signed a waiver, did they not?” Ethan asked.
From a corner of the room, a blonde head lifted from its bowed position. Buffy looked across the room at Rowena. Rowena looked back at her for a long moment. “Yes, so I’ll defer,” Rowena said, splaying her hands. “It’s your call.”
Buffy continued to look at Rowena.
“Cut ’em loose.”
End of Act Three