Watchers Council – Dining Hall – Later
"You want another?" Norman asked.
Lorinda brought her face up from the mug of hot cocoa, a smear of whipped cream across the top of her upper lip. "But this is my second one!" she smiled shyly.
"That's okay!" Norman said. "This is my third! Uh…you have a little uh…whipped cream…kinda…"
"Where?" she asked.
"Right, like, over your lip." He rubbed his finger across his own to show her where.
Lorinda raised the tips of her first two fingers to her lip and lightly wiped the whipped cream off. Then she stuck her fingers in her mouth and giggled.
Norman blinked, then laughed, too.
"You missed a little, 'Rinda." A hand shot out and lifted up a dollop of whipped cream from Norman's hot cocoa. Suddenly, whipped cream was smeared across Lorinda's mouth and nose.
"Hey!" Lorinda stood up fast, toppling her chair. Fists raised, she stood in a fighting stance, the whipped cream still smeared across her face.
Shannon faced her, arms crossed and eyes narrowed. "Now that's a pretty picture," she sneered. "Draw that, Norm!"
"Shannon! Shan, what are you, nuts?" Norman cried, crossing to Lorinda. He handed her his napkin. "What's up with you?" he demanded of Shannon.
"Oh, little southern gentleman to the rescue of the poor little maiden in distress?" Shannon snarled back.
"That's damsel in distress," Norman said angrily. "And what the hell is your problem?"
Watchers Council – Dining Hall Entrance – Same Time
Little Cindy Loomis, her errant lock of red hair standing up straight atop her head, pulled Ethan Rayne along by one hand. She stopped so suddenly in the doorway of the cafeteria that the tall Brit nearly tumbled over her. He caught himself just in time and saw where she was pointing.
"Thank you, Cindy, yes," Ethan said as Shannon and Lorinda faced off, a mere inch from one another. "Now rejoin the squad and continue practicing your high kicks."
As Cindy scampered away, Ethan took in the scene, a grin forming on his lips.
Watchers Council – Dining Hall – Same Time
"Keep your hands off, 'Rinda, or you'll lose 'em both when I'm done with you!"
"Shannon!" Norman cried. "Just take it eas –"
"I didn't do anything!" Lorinda objected in a high-pitched whine. "We were drinking hot chocolate! Is that some kinda crime?"
"Yeah, contributing to the delinquency of a minor!"
"Minor?!" Norman said.
"You are so weird, Matthewson!" Lorinda said scornfully. "If you were a real girl, he wouldn't even look at anyone else!"
"Hey, that's enough!" Norman said, rounding on Lorinda.
"If you were a real slayer, you'd have the training squad!" Shannon shot back.
Lorinda's mouth dropped open. "You bi –"
"Ah, young love…and the poisonous sting of jealousy…"
The three youngsters turned to see Ethan standing and chuckling as he lit a cigarette.
"Well, right now, Shannon," Ethan continued, "no one has the squad. They're outside, practicing their moves on their own. I certainly hope they don't hurt themselves." He turned his narrow gaze to Lorinda. "We all know how unattended slayers can be, left to their own devices."
Shannon began to smirk, but then saw the look on Norman's face. He was looking at Lorinda, who appeared quite stricken.
"I –" Lorinda began, searching Ethan's sharp, clear eyes. "I wasn't…I didn't do anything…I was…" She blinked, and Shannon saw that she was close to tears.
"Oh, nice!" Shannon said scornfully. "You gonna turn on the waterworks now? Go 'head. Nobody's buyin' it."
"Shan…" Norman said softly.
Lorinda suddenly looked very sad. She turned to Norman. "I'm sorry," she quietly. "Thank you for the hot cocoa."
She picked up her jacket from the back of her chair, and without another word, she left quickly, brushing past Ethan and leaving him, Norman, and Shannon standing in silence in the empty dining hall.
"Shan…what is wrong with –?"
"Norman…lad, would you mind terribly giving us a moment?" Ethan said, gesturing between himself and his slayer. "Shannon and I need to have a little watcher-slayer heart-to-whatever-it-is-slayers-possess-that-counts-for-a-heart talk?"
"Huh? Oh. Yeah. Sure…" Norman gathered his coat and his gloves, his hat and scarf, his book bag and his papers and charcoals and looked once at Shannon. She did not look back at him, but glared at the spot where Lorinda had stood.
Norman began to speak, then closed his mouth and left with a polite nod to Ethan. Ethan patted him on the shoulder as he walked by.
"Right," Ethan said. "Well then –"
"You're not my watcher, Ethan!"
"I am when you are in the role of squad leader. You were supposed to be fulfilling your obligation to that role when suddenly, poof, you disappear into thin air, leaving the trainees without any guidance."
"Funny you should use the word 'poof'…"
"The only funny thing right now, Shannon, is how silly you look to the squad and to Norman."
Shannon spun angrily around. "What do you know? Huh? You've never loved anyone in your life! You don't know what it's like!"
"I know what it's like to hold onto someone out of fear of losing them. I know what it's like to hold on so tightly that the other person is practically smothered and struggles to break free. Shannon, holding on that tight will only make Norman turn away with no need for extraneous flirtations."
"A lonely girl with no clue how to make friends, let alone earn herself a boyfriend. Yes, you actually did earn your relationship with Norman. But it didn't happen overnight. And because of that, it won't disappear overnight either, no matter what charms or coquettish behavior that young lady exudes."
"You understand me, quite well. Shannon, Lorinda only knows how to flirt. She only knows how to tease and how to annoy. She doesn't really know yet how to be a friend or how even to be friendly. And Norman, bless his clueless soul, doesn't know how not to be. But he does know who his real friends are. And he knows whom he cares about more than anyone else. And that, my Little Blue Slayer, is you."
"She put on a big act. And now he's takin' her side."
"True, Lorinda is capable of award winning performances. But that wasn't one of them. And Norman wasn't taking her side. I daresay he's more concerned about the way you acted than he is about anything Lorinda did."
Shannon looked at the abandoned hot cocoa mugs sitting on the table. "I want to sit and have hot cocoa with him," she said. "I don't really think he's going for Lorinda…but she's such a…and he's so…"
"Don't sell Norman short. Nor yourself, for that matter. Look, your squad is outside practicing by themselves. They've probably broken each other's arms, legs, and heads at this point. Why don't you go finish up with them? We can talk later if you like, or perhaps you might want to talk to Dawn or Skye. But no matter what, you should have a conversation with Norman. And one with Lorinda. That much I insist upon, as your squad watcher."
Shannon heaved a heavy sigh and began to walk out of the dining hall. She stopped as she reached Ethan and adroitly snatched the cigarette from his lips, dropped it on the floor, and ground it out with the toe of her shoe.
He blinked at her.
"You're a bad influence, Ethan," she said, half-smiling. Then she left.
Watchers Council – Classroom – Later
Taking a sip of his water bottle, Robin watched a red-headed boy raise his hand. "Umm, Mr. Wood," the boy began when Robin pointed at him. "How do we know we've got what it takes?"
Several other children looked at Robin expectantly, as if they had been wondering the same thing.
Robin recapped his water and set it down. He looked past the class at the far wall as if he were lost in thought.
"With hard work, solid training, and the right support," he told them, "everyone in this room can be successful."
Sunnydale – Claremont High School – Night (Flashback)
The heel of Robin's boot collided with the side of a vampire's face. Both landed awkwardly, but it was Robin who found his feet first. Reaching into his leather jacket, he produced a stake and moved in for the kill.
A swift punch to the chest, however, sent him reeling backward into the brick exterior of the varsity gymnasium. Momentarily stunned, Robin coughed as a sheet of ash hit him square in the face. When the dust settled, he looked up at a familiar smiling face.
Karen Sturgess held out her hand to help Robin up. Her stake was already tucked securely back into her jeans pocket.
"This doesn't mean you're getting out of your final paper," he said as he grasped her pre-offered hand and stood.
"You're welcome," she said, her tone teasing.
They moved away from the gym, toward the front of the building. "You shouldn't be out this time of night," he said as he brushed some ash off his jacket.
"I was just looking for you," she replied innocently. She took a piece of paper out of her pocket. "I just got this today."
Robin took the paper and opened it, a smile forming on his face immediately. "Congratulations. San Diego was your first choice, right?"
"Yeah," she replied. "My cousin lives down there. It'll be nice to be around some family." She paused. "Mr. Wood, without your help, none of this would have been possible."
"Karen, you did all this yourself."
"Still…" She stepped forward to give him a hug. "Thank you."
He returned the embrace. "I still expect that paper."
Watchers Council – Classroom – Resume Present Day
Robin collected his thoughts and began to speak. "For every slayer, watcher, or witch the path to success is different. We aren't going to force any of you to do anything that you aren't comfortable with. You'll learn from us, and when you feel comfortable and when we as your teachers feel that you're ready, then you'll be given more responsibilities. You'll patrol, you'll help us train slayers, or you'll begin studying more advanced magic. But not before you think you're ready."
The red-headed boy nodded, satisfied by the answer.
Robin took another swig of water and continued speaking, "Having said that, let me stress that sometimes dangers can appear when we aren't looking for them and we find ourselves unready. A few years ago, two of our watchers encountered such a situation…"
Lake Erie – Late Evening (Flashback)
A pair of bright headlights, belonging to a black SUV, cut through the fluttering dregs of Cleveland's latest snow fall as the vehicle traveled down an empty access road leading towards a large shipping yard. Cutting easily through the four inches of accumulated snow, the driver eased the car onward while the occupant of the passenger seat looked out the window.
Council SUV – Same Time (Flashback)
"I still can't get used to the snow. Think they'll cancel school?" Dawn asked, her tone a bit too excited for someone who was years past being affected by the local school board's weather closures.
"Probably," Giles replied with a sigh from the driver's seat. He peered through the windshield with a look of indignation. "You know, when I was in school, we never missed any days. We…"
Dawn cut him off. "…had to walk to and from school, in two feet of snow, uphill both ways, with no gloves or boots, in a hand-me-down jacket? I think I've heard that one before."
Giles shot her a look. "Actually, I was going to say that we never got snow. Just rain." He was quiet for a moment before speaking under his breath. "A-And I had very nice boots."
Smiling to herself, Dawn set her gaze back toward the snowy night. Frowning, she turned to the car's GPS unit, then back to the window, and then back to the unit again. "Umm, Giles, I think we're lost."
"Nonsense," he replied simply. "I'm using that G-S-P device."
"GPS," Dawn corrected. "And it's wrong." She pointed at the screen. "Look, it says were next to Terminal Tower." She pointed out her window. "And that is Lake Erie."
Giles turned the car through the gate of a massive fenced-in lot containing a labyrinth of stacked shipping containers of various colors and sizes. He looked between the window and the GPS and tapped the screen. "Huh."
He tapped again.
"Maybe the storm's interfering with the satellite signal," Dawn suggested as she pulled out her cell phone. Flipping it open, she sighed when she received zero bars.
Shifting the car into reverse, Giles began a K-turn. "We'll go back the way we came. I should be able to follow our tracks. At least until…"
The sudden decompression of the front left tire halted his thought. The car skidded backwards a few feet, but did not spin out. Giles groaned and put the car in park. He gave Dawn a stern look, as if to say "stay in the vehicle," and then exited the car, leaving the driver's door open.
Leaning over the center console, Dawn called out, "How bad is it?"
Outside the car, Giles carefully knelt down next to the deflated tire. His brow furrowed at the sight of something protruding from the wet rubber just at the edge of the wheel well. It was cylindrical, about half an inch in diameter, and a dull white in color, almost ivory. Reaching forward, he gave it a quick, unsuccessful tug.
Adjusting his weight for better balance, Giles leaned in, and with both hands on the object, pulled forcefully. With a loud pop, he fell backwards onto his butt and watched as the remaining air escaped the deflating tire. He looked down at his hands. The object was long, about nine inches total, narrowing from base to tip where it curved inward like a fish hook or an animal's claw. A faint tinge of crimson stained the ivory surface.
Immediately, Giles checked under the car for the origin of the flat but found nothing. The snow beneath the car was a clean white. He stood up and looked outward at the containers. The perimeter of the lot was lit with dull yellow streetlamps, their light blurred by the softly falling snow. Visibility wasn't ideal, but it was clear enough for Giles to make out some footprints in the fresh snow. They were too large to be made by any native animals, and they were certainly not human.
"Giles?" Dawn called from inside the car. "Do we have to change the tire?"
Giles didn't answer, instead moving to the back of the SUV. He opened the back hatch and lifted a storage panel, retrieving a crossbow and a hunting knife from within.
"Giles?" Dawn was now leaning over her seat watching him. "What's going on?"
The sudden, audible footsteps behind him were answer enough. He turned and watched as two dozen demons began slowly closing in around the car. They appeared to be from varying species – some tall, others short; some covered in coarse fur, others with a thick scaly dermis; all of them had claws.
"Lock the doors!" He closed the back hatch and rushed around the side of the vehicle to the passenger door. Dawn took the weapons from his arms as he climbed in and slammed the door shut. For a moment neither of them moved, just watching as the demons formed a perimeter around the car.
"Can you drive on a flat?" Dawn asked as she checked her phone once more, but still didn't have a signal.
"We're going to find out," the elder watcher replied as he started the engine. A few of the demons stepped back at the unfamiliar sound. He shifted to drive and pressed down on the gas, causing the car to lurch forward toward the maze of shipping containers. The car squeezed between a pair of large scaly demons, one of which scratched Dawn's side door with a clawed, five-fingered hand.
"Giles, the exit is the other way," Dawn supplied urgently, as she undid her seat belt and swiveled in her seat to watch the demons' pursuit. They disappeared from view as Giles maneuvered the car between two rows of stacked containers that led to the back of the lot.
"I can't exactly turn around at the moment," he replied, somewhat frustrated. "Are there anymore behind us?" His eyes darted up to the rearview mirror.
Glancing back down, Giles saw the cause of Dawn's frantic call. Just ahead of them, a shabbily dressed homeless woman had emerged from inside a large yellow container.
Giles barely missed the woman as he swerved the wheel. The sudden correction sent the car sliding to the right, where it caught the open door of another container just beside the front right headlight. The force of the impact killed the SUV's forward momentum, causing it to violently spin around, slamming the driver's side into the container, where it finally stopped.
The last thing Giles saw before the world went black was the empty passenger seat next to him.
Council SUV – Later (Flashback)
Giles groaned into the air bag that he was currently using as a pillow. He sucked in a sharp breath as he moved his head, clearly in pain. A small trail of dried blood leading from his temple to just below his jaw indicated the source of the pain.
He groaned again.
There was no answer.
The silence seemed to clear the fuzz from his brain. Sitting up – though still holding his aching forehead – Giles blinked several times and looked up. "Dawn?"
The passenger seat was empty save for a pile of broken glass, no doubt the remains of the shattered windshield.
"DAWN?" His cry was now urgent. With some difficulty he pushed aside the air bag and climbed across the center console, stumbling out into the frosty evening. Taking a moment to steady his feet, he looked around, unable to locate either Dawn or the homeless woman. The snow had picked up, but not enough so that it covered up half a dozen fresh tracks leading up to the car and then away from it.
Heading back to the car, Giles located the crossbow and removed it from where it had wedged between the center console and dashboard. He reset the stake on the spring and unhooked the safety. Stepping away from the car, he began to follow the tracks in the snow.
Back in the car, Dawn's phone lay on the floor among the shattered glass. Two bars appeared next to the signal icon.
Freight Container Lot – Moments Later (Flashback)
Giles walked for several minutes, winding through the maze of containers, before a quick motion to his right drew his attention. He quickly spun around but saw nothing, only causing a sharp pain to his still throbbing skull.
He moved onward only to stop ten feet later when a thunderous metal clang sounded above his head. He looked up but saw nothing but a stack of containers seven units high.
He moved on, until the flicker of a light became visible at the end of a lane. As he rounded the corner, the area brightened up from the light of a large industrial drum that housed a small fire. Adjacent to the drum was a blue freight container, its sliding door half open and emitting more light from within.
Giles approached cautiously, keeping his finger on the crossbow's release. When he reached the door, he peered inside. To the right were several crates lined up together like a table and chairs. A candle was flickering away on one of the crates. To the right was…
Giles charged forward to where Dawn lay on an old rusted cot. Her face was bloody from a few gashes, and her breathing was ragged. He placed his hand to her neck, detecting a weak pulse. Setting down the crossbow, Giles removed his jacket and placed it over Dawn's shivering body.
Behind him the sliding door opened fully, and a large demon stepped in; it was the same one that had scratched Dawn's car door. Giles stepped in front of Dawn and reached for the crossbow, raising it before the eight-foot demon could close in on him.
Giles leveled the crossbow on the demon's red eyes and said, "Don't come any closer!"
The demon tilted its head as if trying to understand and then took another step into the container.
The demon did so and stared at Giles curiously. For the first time its body became visible. Its skin was dark and leathery, most of which was covered by shabby rags, not unlike those worn by a homeless person. Its claws were gone, apparently retracted, and its expression was almost placid.
Giles lowered the bow slightly. "You?"
The demon took Giles's hesitation as an invitation to move. It stepped toward Dawn slowly, as if to avoid any hostility, and withdrew a small satchel from its clothing. Reaching inside the bag, it withdrew a finely ground powder and began to sprinkle it along Dawn's neck.
"Now wait," Giles began, but trailed off as Dawn's breathing evened out. Kneeling down, he checked her pulse again; it was stronger than before. Looking up, Giles noticed that the demon was now spreading the same powder over the cuts to Dawn's face. He watched as the abrasions faded, not completely but enough so that they wouldn't scar.
Its work completed, the demon stepped back and moved to the other side of the makeshift home.
Giles watched it for a moment before clicking back the safety on his crossbow. He slung the bow over his shoulder, knelt down, and lifted Dawn into his arms. She was still unconscious, but no longer in immediate danger.
Securing Dawn in his arms, Giles stood and moved to the exit. At the door he caught the demon's gaze. "Thank you." His tone was genuine.
Once outside, Giles noticed that the inhabitants of the freight containers had come out of hiding. Humans and demons stood in doorways on the ground and above.
To his left, in a bright red container, a large fur-covered demon was using its sharp claws to fillet a fish for a smaller adolescent of the same species. To his right, two humans and a horned demon stood around a flaming barrel attempting to warm their hands.
Giles continued his walk until he reached the long row that led to the wrecked car. As he rounded the corner, heading toward the SUV, a voice from behind him called, "Don't come back."
Giles turned to see the homeless woman he'd almost hit with the car. He opened his mouth to speak, but she disappeared before he could get a word out.
Chastised, he continued on to the car. Upon arriving, he carefully laid Dawn on the undamaged side of the backseat, then moved to the front to look for Dawn's phone. Once he had it in hand, he dialed a familiar number and waited for the call to connect.
"Robin. I've been in an auto accident, and Dawn's hurt," he said.
Watchers Council – Classroom – Resume Present Day
"The point…?" Robin remarked as he addressed the class. "Even the most veteran of watchers might find themselves facing the unexpected. That means always be on your guard, but never jump to conclusions. No matter your age or experience, there're always new things to learn."
End of Act Two
On to Act Three