Watchers Council – Athletic Field – That Evening
Skye faked right, and then swiftly turned left. Jennifer had just enough time to utter a surprised gasp as Skye’s hand shot out and yanked the slayer backwards and against her. Skye easily wrapped her right arm around Jennifer and laid her fangs against the girl’s bare neck.
The crowd let out a surprised cry.
“Oh…sorry Cleveland,” Faith’s voice said. “And that concludes the vampire staking competition for this evening. The judges will give their scores in just a moment…”
Skye let Jennifer go and immediately morphed back into her human face. Jennifer bowed her head and let the rubber stake she was holding drop to the grass as she walked dejectedly off the field.
No one on the Cleveland bench said anything as the slayer walked under the stands and sat down at the far end, not looking at anyone.
“And the scores are in at ninety-eight points Australia, eighty points Taiwan, and fifty points Cleveland. Let’s give all our slayers, our friends from Vampires Anonymous, and the Council’s Skye Talisker a hand for their good sportsmanship and a very, very exciting competition tonight.”
The Cleveland team sat glumly on the bench, no one moving or speaking as the crowd applauded.
“Hey,” Shannon said, “You guys did your best. That’s all that counts.”
No one replied. The girls looked down at the ground.
Ethan stood up suddenly. “All right!” he said sharply, as he lifted his thermos off the bench. The Cleveland team looked at him, waiting.
“Ethan, please…” Shannon said quietly. “If you’re gonna tell us that work like that out in the field’ll get us and everyone around us killed, we already get that. Just…don’t tell us anything. Okay?”
“Here,” Ethan said, handing the thermos to Bailey. She took it from him. “Take one swallow and pass it along. Do as I say!”
Bailey unscrewed the top of the thermos and took a delicate sip. To her surprise, the liquid inside was warm and sweet and spiced just right.
“Hot cider!” she exclaimed and took another big swallow.
“Here now! I said one swallow – and I mean it!”
Bailey passed the thermos along and each girl in turn took a swig from it.
“This is not how my mom makes it,” Jennifer said.
“How unfortunate for her…” Ethan muttered.
“What’s in here?” Jennifer asked.
“Gimme that,” Shannon said, before it reached little Cindy. She sniffed at it. “I don’t smell anything,” she said. She hesitantly took a sip, then looked at Ethan. “What is in this?” she demanded. “It’s really good.”
Ethan shrugged. “Apple cider…spices…that sort of thing…”
A couple of the girls giggled. “Can I have some more?” one of them asked.
“Absolutely not!” Ethan said. Tyeesha took the thermos, bypassing Cindy.
“Hey, I want some, too!” Cindy said.
Shannon poured a small amount into the cup and held it out to her. “This is enough.”
“But that’s not anything.”
“It’s enough for now…” Ethan said, taking the thermos back. “Now then, tomorrow’s the last test. Speed and agility. It won’t be easy. You’re all tired. So you all need a good night’s rest.”
“C’mon, guys,” Shannon said. “Let’s hit the showers and say goodnight to your families.”
The slayers got up and walked toward the locker room.
“Hey!” A man’s voice called from under the stands.
“Go on ahead,” Shannon told the girls. “Bailey’s in charge.” Shannon waited and her brother Kyle emerged from the shadows. “You’ll get ’em tomorrow night,” he said, smiling gently at her.
Shannon sighed. “We’ve already lost the tournament, Kyle. There’s no way to make up the points at this rate.”
“You can still win it,” he said, smiling. “But the other two teams have to really suck. A lot,” he needled. “Maybe forfeit…”
Shannon frowned sourly at him. “Where’s Cody?” she asked irritably.
“Chattin’ up some pretty girl in the stands.”
“Oh. And no pretty girl for you? Or did they all run when they saw you?” she taunted.
Kyle looked narrowly at his baby sister, but a smile played on his lips. “I’m already chattin’ up a pretty girl. Prettiest, bravest…I’m real proud of you, Shannon.” The smile faded from his lips. “Cody is, too. And so’s Dad. And Mom –”
“Mom’d rather be home sewing lacy dresses for cousin Aileen.”
Kyle stopped and shot a questioning glance at Ethan. Ethan shrugged.
“Yeah…yeah, you’re right…but it’s not because she doesn’t care. It’s cause she’s – you scare her, Shannie. She doesn’t get what you are. She knows – she understands – that you’re a slayer. She just doesn’t connect. Someday she will. Until she does, Cody and I are here. And even after she does…” He smiled.
Shannon grinned back him. “I gotta join the team, Kyle.”
“I know. Go ‘head.”
Shannon nodded and started to jog toward the locker room. She stopped after a few strides, turned and dashed up to Kyle, then hugged him. “Thanks, Kyle. Thanks for being here.”
Kyle grinned, and then flicked his finger sharply against Shannon’s head. “Go…” he said. She grinned back at him, turned, and jogged off to the locker room.
Kyle’s eyes shifted to the stands, where Cody was busy with a very pretty girl about his age. His eyes fell on the vampires in front of the stands below them. “That’s the vampire Shannon’s told us about, right?” Kyle asked Ethan. “Skye?”
“Yes,” Ethan said.
“I’d like to meet her,” Kyle said, “but Shannon’s been careful not to introduce us. I think she’s a little worried that either Cody or I’ll get…smitten with her.”
“I can introduce you, if you like,” Ethan offered.
“Yeah. Yeah I would. This Skye’s been real good to Shannon even if she is a vampire.”
“Come on, then,” Ethan said. He held out the thermos to Kyle. “You might do well with a bit of this first, though.”
Kyle took a healthy swig of the “hot cider.” He blinked in surprise at Ethan, then smiled and chuckled. “Kyle Matthewson, by the way,” he said, holding his hand out in a formal self-introduction. “Shannon’s brother.”
“Ethan Rayne,” Ethan grinned back and shook his hand. The two walked out from under the stands to the area where the vampires stood, talking and joking amongst themselves.
Neither of them noticed the quiet man standing under the stands and watching as they walked past.
Washington Office – Same Time
Autumn O’Mara turned off the television set showing a closing shot going into a commercial of the Cleveland team looking glum on the bench.
“Your girls aren’t doing too well,” Agnes’s voice said from the sofa where she was sitting, apparently knitting something.
“No,” the Congresswoman agreed. “It’s a pity. The town could use the morale boast that a win would bring…the entire country actually.”
“I just don’t understand,” Agnes said, not bothering to look up from her task.
“What don’t you understand?” O’Mara asked, as if already knowing where the conversation was going.
“Helping them. Do you think if they knew the truth about you, that they would help you?”
O’Mara said nothing at first. “It’s just…too soon,” she finally answered.
“You’re right, it’s too soon. It wouldn’t be far fetched to say never. Look at all the speculation they give Muslims and Mormons who run for office. When it comes to you? A demon? Forget it.” She continued to knit, not looking up.
“Not all demons are evil,” O’Mara told her. “We’re not evil.”
“I know that. You know that. But the majority of people sitting around watching these Games, those people at that Council…they don’t. And many of them would just as well kill you than give you the time of day. But you…” Agnes shook her head. “…for some crazy reason, you believe in them.”
“I do,” Autumn replied as she looked out over the lights of D.C. “For better or for worse, I have the power to make people change. Maybe not tomorrow, and maybe not during my term, but definitely within my lifetime.”
“You truly believe that?”
Autumn O’Mara had a melancholy grin on her face. “I have to.”
Watchers Council – Guest Dormitory – Late, Same Night
“Look,” Vanessa said, “I don’t care what Adrian said! He’s not a slayer, he’s a watcher. They’re trained to be too careful!”
Tory grabbed Vanessa by the arm. “You can’t go by yourself! What if you get lost? What if you get attacked by a vampire or –”
“Scared I can’t handle myself?” Vanessa threw back hotly.
“Ness, it’s not that. We don’t know our way around here. And I don’t know about you, mate, but I can understand only about half the things these Americans say! What if you have to talk to one of them?”
“Tory! I am going out! I’m going to catch up to their patrol and see what they do and where they go. This is my one chance. I’m takin’ it.”
“But Adrian said they’ll take us along for –”
“For a little tour of the Hellmouth. Tor, everyone knows I got this lead slayer gig because Adrian pushed for it. Because he feels sorry for me! I’m not a crackerjack slayer and that’s all there is. I’m off patrol when we get back home. I’ll never be sent out again. So I’m going out to see these slayers in action. They’re the best there is. If I can’t be best, I at least want to have a look at it. Before I go back home to sit and knit…”
“I’m going with you, Ness.”
“Yeah, me too,” another voice came from behind them.
“Molly! What are you doing out of bed?”
“Followin’ you two.”
“No. You are staying right here. Stay with the younger ones and keep an eye on ’em.”
“Not fair! I want to go –”
“You’ll have plenty of chances to go on patrols at home. This is my last chance to be near the action. But I’m not going to get the lot of you in trouble doing it! Tory, you’re in charge of the squad while I’m gone.”
“No…” Molly said. “Tory should go with you, just in case. I’ll keep an eye on the others.”
Tory stood, arms crossed and looking Vanessa in the eye.
“If they find out, Tor, you’ll be in as much trouble as me,” Vanessa said.
“I’ll risk it.”
Vanessa huffed. “All right then. Let’s be off!”
Watchers Council – Security Center – Same Time
“Well, she’s thinking about her team, that’s for sure,” Robin said to Adrian Smith.
“She always does,” he said proudly. “She’s going to make a fine watcher some day. If only she’d open her mind to the idea…”
“One down…” Robin said, as the two Australian girls skittered through the halls of the Watchers Council. “…and here comes the second.”
They watched as the tiny Taiwanese slayer from the night before bounded back down the hallway and out of sight. Within moments, the little girl returned, Jiao right behind her.
They reached the stairwell and Jiao stopped the girl in her tracks. She held the little girl by the shoulders and spoke seriously to her.
“She is telling Mai to return to the dormitory,” Li Fu translated. The girl looked about to cry. Then she pursed her lips together and gave a quick nod to Jiao.
“That didn’t take much,” Robin said.
“They are trained to respect their leaders,” Li said, with a quick glance at Adrian, Ethan and Rowena.
“Don’t look now, mate, but I think we’ve just been insulted,” Adrian said.
“Oh, I’m certain of it,” Ethan replied.
Watchers Council – Grounds – Same Time
“I got ’em at twelve o’clock!” Madison’s voice came over the two-way.
“Twelve o’ – Maddy, what the hell are you talkin’ about?” Shannon snapped at her. “Are you still at the south exit?”
“Yeah, I mean, roger that!”
“Maddy, shut up with the radio-talk! Take your two and meet us by the gate – and stay in the shadows! Robin’s got this place wired with cameras you don’t even see.”
“Ten-four, Team Leader!”
Shannon rolled her eyes at the ‘ten-four’ and Bailey snickered beside her. “C’mon, Bay, let’s go…”
The two girls trotted along the building, in the shadows below the security cameras so that they wouldn’t be seen.
Watchers Council – Security Center – Same Time
“Where’s Cleveland?” Robin wondered aloud, as he and the three watchers continued to stare at the empty hall in the security cameras.
“Robin, you there?” Kennedy’s voice crackled over the radio.
“Yeah. Whatcha got?”
“Something you don’t, I’ll bet…five little slayers in a row heading out the front gate.”
“What!” Robin hit a couple of buttons, switching from the interior security cameras to the exterior ones. “Are you…sure?” his voice tapered off as he saw the short shadows moving along and exiting the Council grounds. “How the hell did they get past the security cam –” He stopped himself and he and the two other watchers turned and looked accusingly at Ethan.
“What?” Ethan asked. “You don’t think I had something to do with it?”
“Hmph!” Li said. “If you have performed no magic, then perhaps your slayers are accustomed to sneaking away.”
“That all of ’em?” Kennedy’s voice crackled again.
“Yeah…” Robin said. “Stay close on them, okay?”
“We’re on it, chief. We got Casey and her partner on the Dingo Dames and Hadley and her partner on Maiden Taiwan. Buffy and Faith are farther down the line,” Kennedy said. She hooked her two-way back onto her belt and turned to the two slayers with her. “Okay, let’s move before they give us the slip, too.”
The slayers headed off, following the Cleveland squad.
Cleveland City Streets – Minutes Later
Vanessa and Tory stopped and scooted behind some empty cardboard boxes in an alley.
“I heard it that time!” Tory said in an urgent whisper.
“Okay, listen, let’s let whoever it is get close enough. Once they pass, we’ll take ’em from behind.”
“But what if it’s just some homeless person or maybe a drug dealer?”
“Like they’re any match for us, either?” Vanessa tossed off.
Tory smiled uncertainly and backed up against the wall of the brick building, hidden in the shadows with Vanessa.
Not far behind, a lithe, petite figure appeared at the end of the alley. Jiao waited a beat before heading into the dark, foreboding passageway. She walked so quietly that Vanessa and Tory could not hear her approach, even though they could see her.
She passed them, intent on following where they must have gone.
“Gotcha, you little sheila!” Vanessa had Jiao by the arms from behind. Jiao bent into Vanessa, about to toss her bodily, but Tory was already in front of her and grabbed her about the head, holding her doubled over.
The three girls struggled and all of them went down awkwardly onto their knees.
Watchers Council – Council Security Center – Same Time
“Yeah,” Kennedy’s voice crackled once more over the radio. “We’re all heading toward a convergence point on the corner of East 17th and Hamilton. Casey and Hadley are just around the bend on the other end of the alley. Faith and Buffy are with the regular patrol. They’re gonna swing around and scare the slay outta these SITs!” Kennedy laughed.
“Oh man, I wish you could see this!” Casey chuckled over the radio. “The three of ’em are fallin’ all over each other!”
“Casey, cut the chatter,” Kennedy said. “Don’t give us away.”
Alleyway – Same Time
“Well, well. Looks like some people just can’t get along. Even when they’re out for a friendly stroll…”
Vanessa, Tory, and Jiao all stopped scrabbling on the ground and looked up, surprised. Shannon stood grinning, her team fanned out on either side of her.
“Uh-oh,” Tory said. “Busted.” Jiao looked up scornfully at her.
Vanessa stood and dusted herself off, matching Shannon’s smile and crossing her arms. “Looks like we musta left the gate open, girls,” she said to Jiao and Tory. “The dogs have gotten loose.”
“You guys are so disqualified!” Madison said.
“What for?” Tory said snottily. “We’re just takin’ a walk. Same as you…”
“We’re followin’ you to see what kind of trouble you’re makin’ and we’re reporting it back to –”
“Can it, Maddy,” Shannon barked. “We need to all get back before they find out any one of us are gone,” she said.
“Why?” Vanessa asked pointedly. “Why do you care? What, you gonna get punished for being out after midnight?” She dropped her smile and strode toward Shannon. “You got everything to gain from our getting caught out of bounds after curfew. After all, your team’s basically out of the competition. It’s just between us and them now,” she nodded at Jiao.
“This not your business!” Jiao said to Shannon. “This matter is between us,” she nodded at Vanessa.
“Good god, dearie, you wanna fight?” Vanessa taunted.
“You’ll let a personal matter ruin it for your teams?” Shannon asked. “What the hell kinda squad leaders are the other branches turnin’ out?”
“We left our teams home!” Vanessa countered. “So they wouldn’t get in trouble if we got caught.”
“Oh yeah? What about her?” Shannon pointed at Tory.
“She’s my best mate. I don’t go nowhere that she don’t go with me.”
“Wait a minute…was that English?” Shannon smirked.
Vanessa flipped Shannon off.
“Bitca!” Tyeesha cried and moved forward menacingly. Madison and Cindy grabbed her arms and stopped her.
“And what about you?” Vanessa said. “You got your entire team out here! Talk about not watchin’ out for ’em…”
Shannon shifted her weight uncomfortably and looked from side to side.
“We’re a team!” Jennifer said. “We stick together no matter what. Even if we’re all getting punished for it. Wherever one is, that’s where we all are.”
“Yeah!” Cindy said.
Watchers Council – Security Center – Same time
Kennedy laughed lightly into her radio. “Hey, Council, are you hearin’ this?” she chuckled.
A sudden, howling shriek pierced the air and everyone went silent. “What the hell!” Kennedy said, as an urgent call came from the regular patrol heading down a connecting alley.
“I have two down! What the hell is this thing!”
“Slayer Patrol One,” Robin called into another microphone, “Patrol One, what’s your location?”
“What the hell was –” Bailey began to say, but was immediately interrupted as Kennedy ran up from behind her. “All right! Everyone! Back to the dorms! Now!”
All the girls looked up open-mouthed at the slayer as she ran past them toward the other end of the alley. Kennedy stopped halfway down and turned back to them. “I told you maggots to move! Now move! Shannon! Get them home!”
“Okay! Okay!” Shannon said to Kennedy’s retreating back. “C’mon, you heard her! Let’s go.”
“Where did she come from?” Vanessa asked. “Was she tailin’ us?”
“What is tay…” Jiao let the word trail off.
“Or did you bring her with you, you little snitch?” Vanessa turned on Shannon.
“I’m as surprised as you are,” Shannon said. “C’mon! Whatever it is that’s going on can’t be good, and we can’t get in the way.”
“Shannie, use your radio!” Bailey said. “We can find out what’s going on!”
Shannon quickly unhooked her two-way and switched to the correct frequency. There were screams and shouts from a variety of slayers, including Kennedy and Faith. Suddenly, Buffy’s voice sounded on the radio. “Send backup! The new construction site near – uhf!”
“We gotta go help!” Jennifer cried.
“No!” Shannon said. “Bailey! You and – what’s her name again?” Shannon demanded.
“Tory. You both take everyone back to the Council. Go in the front gate and don’t mess around! You do whatever you’re told once you get there, and no back-talkin’! Anybody who back-talks – and that goes for you, too, Miss Shrimp on the Barbie – is gonna answer to me after they’re done with you! Got it?”
“We can fight, Shannon. We can help!” Cindy said.
Shannon blinked at the ten year-old, and then smiled. “I know you can, Cin. But this fight is not the one to break you in on. You can help by getting yourself back home safely. I’m counting on you and everyone else to follow orders exactly. Okay?”
Cindy nodded. “Be careful, Shannon.”
“You got it!” Shannon looked down the alley, where the sounds of the battle were now within easy earshot. “Tory, Bailey – hurry up.”
Vanessa nodded at Tory and she and Bailey joined up together. “Well,” Tory said, smirking. “You’re our lover-ly tour guide. Lead the way.”
“We’ll see you back there,” Shannon said. Without waiting for a reply, she radioed in. “This is Shannon. We’re about one block from the trouble,” she said, breaking into a run, Jiao and Vanessa alongside her. “We’re going in to –”
“No!” Robin’s voice came over the two-way. “Get your squad and the two other girls back here on the double!”
“The squad’s coming back. Jiao, Vanessa and I are almost –”
The three slayers stopped in their tracks when Faith was thrown past them. She hit hard against a trash dumpster, denting it. She fell face forward onto the ground, stunned.
The demon that had thrown Faith stared the three young girls down. It stood in the midst of hurt and semi-conscious slayers. Kennedy jumped on it from behind and suddenly Buffy came from nowhere to roundhouse kick it in the ribs.
The demon stopped struggling with Kennedy and looked furiously at Buffy. Then it threw Kennedy off like a rag doll, the slayer rolling several yards before she stopped against a wall. Meanwhile, the demon took on Buffy.
“This isn’t right!” Shannon said, her radio still live. “It’s…it’s small. It doesn’t even look healthy…How can it be so strong? It even looks like…like it’s half human!”
Watchers Council – Security Center – Same Time
“Shannon!” Robin said, “Get the hell out of –”
“It’s wearing a dress!” Vanessa said. “Demons have really bad taste in clothes on this continent!”
Ethan snatched the microphone from Robin’s hand. “What do you mean?” Ethan demanded.
“Well, it’s an ugly dress…” Vanessa said.
“Bloody hell! Shannon! Tell me what the demon looks like!”
“It…it looks like a-a person. But it can’t be a person. It’s all kinda distorted and…puffy and…major eww.”
“Can you see its eyes?” Ethan asked.
“We’re in a dark alley!” Shannon snapped. “Oh…wait a minute. Yeah…they’re kinda green and glowy like…like a firefly.”
Ethan’s face went slightly pale.
“What?” Robin asked. “Ethan!”
“Shannon, tell me exactly where you are, right now!” Ethan spoke directly into the speaker.
“Alleyway, midway down the block between the corners of…”
As Shannon spoke, Ethan snapped his fingers at Robin, who pulled up a computerized map of Cleveland.
“Shannon?” Robin called. “Shannon! Ethan, what do you thi –” Robin, Adrian Smith, Li and Rowena all looked around the room. The mage had disappeared.
“Call Will,” Rowena said.
Alleyway – Same Time
The demon had Shannon by the throat and had raised her off the ground. Her feet dangled almost a yard off the pavement.
Vanessa, with a wild cry, rammed the demon with all her might behind the knees, only to be answered with a quick heel to the stomach. She went down, clutching her midsection and coughing.
Jiao Lin had back-flipped and catapulted herself up over the demon’s head, scissoring the demon’s neck with her legs. It had little effect, and the small slayer hung upside down until the demon easily yanked one leg hard, wrenching it cruelly. The little slayer cried in agony just before her head hit the pavement. Vanessa tried desperately to kick the demon’s legs out from under it as Shannon struggled to break free of the choke-hold, her vision fading.
The demon kicked Vanessa in the face and she rolled toward Jiao and lay still. Jiao reached over to see if Vanessa was still alive. She breathed a sigh of relief when the slayer moaned and blinked. Vanessa sat up quickly, hand to her head.
She and Jiao watched in horror as the demon began to shake the nearly unconscious Shannon by the neck. They looked at each other, then at each other’s wounds.
“Can’t do this alone. Together then, mate?” Vanessa asked.
Jiao Lin nodded, her black and bloody pony-tail bobbing. The two stood shakily, locking arms.
“On three,” Vanessa said.
“Three!” Jiao cried immediately. They rushed the demon.
Ethan appeared just as the two girls were thrown back, arms still linked, and tumbled in a tangle of arms and legs. But the charge had loosened the hold the demon had on Shannon and she sat, dazed and swaying on the ground.
The demon leapt and opened its mouth unnaturally wide. Its jaw and teeth seemed to morph into the jaw of a wolf or dog and it grabbed the disoriented slayer by the throat. It clamped down as Ethan uttered an unintelligible cry.
A wide burst of green energy caught both slayer and demon. The demon screeched in agony, its mouth opening wide and its head twisting unnaturally. There was a snapping sound as the eyes widened in shock, and then the limp body of the demon fell off to one side as Shannon fell to the other, unconscious.
Vanessa and Jiao quickly hobbled over to Shannon. Casey was by her side. “She’s okay. She’s alive,” Casey said. “I don’t think the bite’s very deep…”
Buffy went to Faith’s aid, the slayer still laying on her side, half-conscious.
Ethan walked up to the demon’s corpse as the slayers from the patrols gained their feet or sat up, groaning. Kennedy radioed in to Robin.
In the fading green glow, the dress-clad demon began to change shape back to what was its true form.
“Oh my god,” Casey said as she stood peering down at the body. “It’s – it was – a woman!”
“A woman changed by a spell,” Ethan said grimly. He sighed.
“You…you killed a human being?” Vanessa asked, stunned as she supported Jiao Lin by the shoulders. “We aren’t supposed to…”
“I had no choice,” Ethan answered quietly.
“But a binding spell –”
“Didn’t work. I tried it while you two were sailing past me at the speed of light.”
He moved forward and knelt down beside Shannon. Buffy began to say something, but stopped as she watched Ethan take the semi-conscious girl out of Kennedy’s arms and into his own, holding her before him and supporting her head from behind.
Shannon blinked her eyes open. “E-Ethan…Rupert…I saw…Ru…”
“Quiet now,” he said softly. “Everything’s all right now. It’s all over. Everything’s all right.”
“No. It was a human being. It was a woman.”
Shannon’s eyes filled with tears. “Human? Is she dead? Did I…?” Suddenly, she was crying. Ethan pulled the slayer toward him until her head rested against his chest. Then he wrapped one hand about her head and held her quietly.
“There now,” he told her. “It was I who did it. You didn’t harm anyone. It was all me.”
Shannon cried softly against him. “There’s the girl,” he told her, his voice soothing. “There’s my…” he hesitated for a beat. “Slayer…”
He held her gently and lowered his chin until it came to rest atop her head.
Nearby Construction Area – Same Time
The shadowed man who had stood under the stands earlier that night stuffed a small piece of plain, folded paper into the chain-link fence surrounding the nearby construction zone, and then quietly stole from the scene.
Watchers Council – Athletic Field, Beneath the Stands – Next Afternoon
“Hey!” Vanessa called to Shannon. Shannon and Jiao looked over at her and smiled as she limped up to them. “I’ll sign yours,” she said, indicating the cast around Jiao’s ankle, “if you sign mine!” She held out her left arm, in a cast and sling.
“Well,” Shannon grinned, “you two ready for this?”
“No!” Vanessa laughed. “This is worse than the other night! I mean…look, I’m not gonna be on patrol anymore when I get back home. Don’t look so surprised. If we had been allowed to compete with our teams, you’d see – I’m just not that good. The youngest SIT on our squad is a better slayer than I am. I just…I wanted to know. I wanted to know just once…what it would be like to be really good…”
Jiao and Shannon blinked at her.
Large tears fell from Vanessa’s eyes. “They’ll make me a watcher,” she said quietly, “when we get back. I guess that’s not so bad, if that’s what you’re called to do. But I was called as a slayer. I just wish I was as good as you two…”
She dragged her right arm across her eyes.
Jiao, on her crutch, hobbled up to her and laid her small hand on Vanessa’s sling. “You are good,” she told Vanessa. “You are fighter. You are friend. You are next to Jiao – anytime.”
“Yeah,” Shannon said. “Next to me, too! Anytime!”
Vanessa sniffled and looked at the two slayers. “You guys speak the worst bloody English I ever heard,” she grinned.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” the announcer’s voice blared across the field.
“Here we go…” Shannon said.
Watchers Council – Center of Athletic Field – Same Time
The three squads stood on the raised platforms, the Taiwanese on the highest level as the champions, followed by the Australians in second place, and then the Cleveland squad on the lowest riser, last.
The three lead slayers for the squads were called in turn – Shannon, Vanessa, and finally, the champion team’s Jiao.
There were raucous and deafening cheers for all as each slayer made her way onto the field. Once all three stood with their teams, Rowena Allister presented the large trophy to Jiao Lin.
Jiao took it and looked at it. Carefully cradling it in one hand, she lowered herself on one crutch down to the grass. She looked at Shannon standing to her left, and to Vanessa to her right. They took her meaning and stepped down to the ground as well and stood on either side of Jiao.
All three smiled, each putting a hand on the trophy. Jiao Lin, Vanessa Taylor and Shannon Matthewson raised the trophy as one, sharing the moment with each other as their own teams jumped off the risers and began to pound each others’ backs, laugh and celebrate.
Watchers Council – Conference Room – Next Day
Rowena and Robin frowned as Ethan entered the room.
“Thank you for seeing me,” he said.
“Polite-Ethan,” Buffy remarked. “An even weirder concept than Watcher-Ethan.”
Ethan ignored the comment and sat down beside Giles. “I asked for this meeting and for Ripper to be here because there is something about that attack the other night that has me worried.”
“Well, stop worrying,” Dawn said, smiling slightly. “We think your fast thinking saved a lot of butts out there. I have to admit…you might really make a good watcher.”
“No,” Ethan said bluntly. “Not if this attack is what I think it was. If so, every one of those slayers was put at risk…because of me.”
“Accountable-Ethan,” Buffy chirped. “And the hits just keep on coming…”
“How so?” Robin asked.
“That woman, whomever she was, morphed into a-a creature with a doglike head and snout as soon as it leaped onto Shannon.”
Giles turned his head and looked at Ethan.
“It grabbed her by the throat, viciously. Its jaws were completely around Shannon’s throat and were about to bite clean through. Had I been just a second off, Shannon would be dead.”
“Credit-Take-y-Ethan…” Buffy said.
Ethan’s hand came down on the table. “Damn you! Shut up and listen!” Buffy’s eyes, along with everyone else’s, went wide for a moment. “Yes! I am taking credit, but not for saving them!” He turned to Giles, who sat staring hard at him.
“You say,” Giles said, “that it changed into a wolf or dog and went for Shannon’s throat, and would have bit clean through.” Giles looked across at Faith. “Sound like a recurrent scenario?”
“No, like a replay.”
Giles rolled his eyes.
“Like that night…” Faith said.
“In the woods,” Xander continued for her.
“When I killed the dog,” Ethan said flatly. “Even Shannon said she saw ‘Rupert’ when the demon tried to bite her.”
“You think,” Robin said, “someone was using the slayers to bait you, to lure you into a trap? That doesn’t really make any sense…”
“Not bait…” Ethan said.
“A taunt,” Giles concluded, and looked at Ethan.
“A poke in the eye and a laugh,” Ethan said grimly. “Someone who knows what happened that night in the woods made sure to recreate it for my benefit.”
“Who’ve you pissed off recently?” Giles asked. “It’s got to be a fairly adept mage. And who besides us would have known about the night you killed the dog?”
“That’s just it, I can’t think of anyone. I’ve been a non-user of magic for months. Had no contact with anyone in the usual – or even the unusual – circles, except for Lupo.”
“What’s a Lupo?” Xander asked.
“Well, of course it wasn’t him,” Giles dismissed the notion easily. “But who?”
“Who indeed,” Rowena said, with a nod at Robin.
Robin pushed a manila folder toward Ethan. Ethan reached for it and opened it.
“That’s a report from the field investigation,” Robin told him. “The woman is Mary Bennett, twenty years old, a student at Columbia. She was last seen at a classical music concert about two weeks ago. Nice girl, good student…studying history…nothing to suggest she was anything but a victim herself.”
Ethan slowly turned the page of the report as Robin spoke, then stopped. There in the folder was a small, folded piece of plain paper.
“We did a sweep of the area,” Robin said. “That note was found tucked inside the page wire fencing that surrounds the construction site.”
Ethan unfolded the paper and Giles looked over his shoulder at it. He noted the slight paling of Ethan’s face. “Not so funny,” Giles asked quietly, “now someone’s doing it to you, eh?”
“Ethan,” Rowena called. “Ethan, do you know who left it? Any idea?”
Ethan blinked at her, his eyes wide. “I really – I haven’t a clue,” he lied easily.
Giles stared hard at him.
“All right,” Rowena said, “we’ll decide what kind of precautions need to be taken and….”
Rowena’s voice droned in the background as Ethan stared down at the handwritten note. The words were written in an erratic script, a sloppy inkblot smeared halfway through the message.
Giles, still staring intently at Ethan, turned his attention once again to the cryptic message: “Turnabout is fair play…”
Fade to Black
End of Games
Next on Watchers…
In the 100th episode of Watchers, a supercollider accident causes other times and dimensions to bleed into our own, bringing old friends and enemies along with them.