Watchers Council – Workout Room – The Next Morning
"Look," Robin said, exasperated, "it wasn’t like she was trying to get out of patrol. She probably got a little distracted by something. She has every intention of doing her best."
"You don’t speak for Shannon," Kennedy answered him. "Dawn’s her Watcher."
"And Dawn agrees that she should be suspended."
Robin pressed his lips tightly together and shook his head slowly.
"And even if Dawn didn’t agree," Kennedy continued, "I’d still put her on suspension. It’s a team effort, Robin. One of my girls gets in trouble, we all answer the call. But we all stay out of trouble – we don’t go looking for it."
"Cut her some slack," Robin said sharply. "She’s had a lot happen to her in one year and a lot of loss. And none of you seem to notice that Lorinda’s been on her case twenty-four-seven. I don’t see any team coming to her aid on that."
"She’s a slayer, she’s gotta be able to take on a snot-nosed bully."
"It’s not about taking on a bully!" Robin’s voice rose.
"Hey!" Kennedy shot back, then added sarcastically, "Slayer hearing – you don’t have to yell."
Robin glared at her. "It’s not about the bully," he said with quiet intensity. "It’s about the truth that bully hammers home."
"Huh?" Kennedy looked at him, genuinely confused.
"Shannon’s been taking a lot of grief from Lorinda and that bunch. Besides their tactics, they make remarks about her upbringing, her home life, her family, and—"
"So Shannon was born to white trash. Doesn’t mean she is white trash."
Robin laughed in bitter disbelief. "You’re just as bad," he said.
"Her family’s poor and not well educated. But they drove all the way here
from Nebraska when her watcher was killed. They cared enough about her to come
here and take her back home for her grandfather’s funeral—"
"Okay, okay, they’re nice folks. Big-hearted. Salt of the earth. Great. But Shannon is not that. Shannon is a slayer – a damn good one. She’s got the potential to be outstanding, first class – maybe as good as Buffy or Faith..."
"Or you?" Robin muttered.
"What happened to your slayer hearing?"
Kennedy huffed at him. "Listen, she’s got it in her to be an incredible slayer. But she’s not gonna make it on my watch if she keeps disobeying and getting herself in trouble and not paying for it. What if Vi hadn’t found her or what if one of the other girls had gone in to help and gotten hurt too, what would you say about that? Would you say, ‘oh let’s give Shannie a little break, Lorinda called her a name today’? Give me a break, Robin."
"No, Ken. You give Shannon the break."
Kennedy squared against him and said quietly, "I gave her a break by letting her come out on patrol last night after she cut classes for most of the day. And then she got in trouble with a simple vampire staking. She’s letting her emotions and her anger distract her. And that almost killed her. You want to be the one to tell her grieving parents she died because you thought she should get a break?"
Robin’s dark eyes held Kennedy’s for only a moment before he looked down.
"I’ve talked to grieving parents, Kennedy. How many have you spoken to?" Kennedy said nothing and turned away, so Robin continued. "And I’m telling you, right now, if you don’t help this girl the way I’m suggesting, I’ll be talking with Shannon’s parents real soon. But then again, maybe I’ll have you do it since you obviously know it all."
Without another word he turned slowly and left the slayer in the workout room. Kennedy watched him until he had gone through the door, then turned away as the door clanked shut.
Giles and Becca’s House – Kitchen – Same Time
"Okay, spill it," Becca said as she fed the baby. "Rupert?"
"Hmm? Yes? What?"
Becca wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and then cleaned the mushy mess from the baby’s chin. "Are you worried about Ethan or Shannon or both?"
Giles looked seriously at her then folded his hands on the kitchen table.
"It’s not worry – it’s more like..."
"Being on alert?" Becca asked.
Giles shut his mouth tightly and nodded.
"Those markings on Ethan’s back are really bothering you, aren’t they?"
"Yes. But it’s more than that. It was just far too easy to get Ethan back once we found him."
"Do you think it’s not Ethan?"
Giles shook his head. "No, it’s Ethan. It’s definitely Ethan."
"It could be a trick," Becca offered. "You told me how good the First was at impersonating others, and there was that Faithbot from Vor last year."
"Dr. Miller has ruled out both…But I don’t think Ethan’s being used by some power – at least not at this juncture," Giles continued, thinking out loud.
Baby Elizabeth dribbled orange-colored apricots back down her chin and waved her arms up and down.
"So maybe those markings were put on him while he was in Vor, but they don’t mean anything here in this dimension," Becca said.
"I’d like to believe that, I truly would. But I’m more inclined to think that those markings signify domination by an other-worldly power who may actually be waiting for the right time to...spring a trap or launch some sort of evil."
"Then we should keep Ethan under wraps until—"
"Until what?" Giles asked. "Until the mountains fall and the seas dry up? Until he is a very old man and has forgotten what the world looks like?" He shook his head at her. "There’s no telling how long the force that made those marks will lie dormant. He and I and the others who raised Eyghon carried his mark for twenty years before anything happened. Are we to hold Ethan here for years – or indefinitely?"
"I didn’t mean we should keep him captive. He’s been building a friendship with Willow. I mean, maybe we should keep him close to us for a while..."
Watchers Council – Willow’s Classroom – Early Morning
"Hi Will." Dawn walked up to the front of the empty classroom and sat in the first seat, front and center.
"Didn’t get enough school? Need some extra learnin’?" Willow smiled at her from behind her desk.
"No, plenty of school – too much, even. But extra learnin’? Yeah, I think I could use some."
Willow put her lesson plan book aside. "What’s up?"
"Well," Dawn replied, "obviously not me and not my slayer, either. We’re both kinda down. Will...what was it like? For you, I mean? Being Buffy’s best friend? Did she ever, like, go to you for advice instead of Giles? Or did you just go and give her advice whenever you—"
"Whoa, whoa! No one gave Buffy advice. Not if they wanted to keep all their limbs." She laughed. Her laughter faded quickly as she saw Dawn’s downcast expression. "Having a hard time with Shannon, huh?"
"See!" Dawn said. "I knew you’d understand—"
"Hold on," Willow said. "Everyone’s having a problem with Shannon, lately. Sorry, you’re not special."
"Well, shouldn’t I be? I mean, I’m her Watcher and—"
"Dawnie, being her watcher doesn’t make you and Shannon best buds."
"I get that. That’s why I’m asking you about what it was like for
you and Buffy. I mean, Buffy had you and Xander – and even Mom – when she
couldn’t go to Giles with stuff. But Shannon’s parents aren’t here, her
mom doesn’t really get the slayer thing, she’s not part of any crowd, her
only friend is Norman and that’s by e-mail – and I’d punch Lorinda in the
nose for her myself if I thought that would help!"
"Well, who does she have to go to when it’s really obvious she doesn’t feel comfortable going to her watcher? It’s not like she has any friends in her section. And the senior slayers like her, but they’re years older, so she doesn’t really fit in with them either. So who’s she got, Will? And don’t say Robin."
"No," Willow sighed. "Ro’s planning to tell Robin to back
off a little where Shannon’s concerned."
Dawn looked surprised. "Why?"
"He and Ken got into an argument. He tried to convince her to take Shannon off suspension."
"He can’t do that! Ken and I discussed that, and we both decided she should be on suspension for—"
Willow waved her hand. "I know, I know. And you’re right. She should be, and she is, completely on suspension from patrol for the next three weeks. Not to mention one week’s worth of after-school cleaning for cutting classes yesterday."
"He thinks he knows so much," Dawn said irritably. "If he hadn’t butted in our conversation in the hall yesterday, she probably wouldn’t have run off and missed the rest of the school day."
"So it was Robin who made her run out of the building?" Willow asked skeptically.
"Well, maybe I had something to do with it, too. Will—"
"Dawn, don’t worry so much about who she has to talk to. If you’re going to be her watcher, the first thing you have to learn is to stand back and just...watch. She’ll come to you when it’s time. Don’t try to rush it. Okay? Just be ready when she finally does come to you."
Willow looked at her and smiled softly. "Well...you remember how Buffy was with you when you were growing up?" she asked gently.
"Yeah..." Dawn said.
"Not like that," Willow suggested with a rueful smile. "Let her breathe on her own now and then."
Xander’s Apartment – Living Room – Same Time
Xander yawned and rubbed his face as he walked to the door. The hard knocking started up again. "Hrrrmmm," he grumbled.
Giles stood impatiently as the locks were thrown and the door opened revealing a disheveled Xander in his undershorts.
"My god," Giles deadpanned, "you look awful."
"Huh?" Xander’s half-closed eyes opened a bit wider. He touched his face with both hands, then looked down at himself as Giles walked past him into the apartment.
Xander turned around. "Huh?"
"I know you’ve probably got a lot to take care of today, but I was wondering if you would mind accompanying me on a little...excursion this morning."
Xander squinted at Giles, yawned, then grunted. He walked past Giles and sat heavily down on the couch. He leaned back against it and let his head fall all the way back over the top. Chin towards the ceiling, he asked, "Where?"
"Well, our first stop is the armory. I – I’d like us to bring some...small... weaponry with us."
"And it would be very helpful if you could please meet me there as quickly as possible – say ten minutes? Fifteen, if you like..."
Giles waited a beat then added, "Xander, no one knows about this. I’d like to keep that way."
"See you in ten minutes."
Giles got up and left the apartment quietly. The door shut with a click.
Xander started with a snort. "Huh?!"
Watchers Council – Infirmary Recovery Room – Minutes Later
"Willow, Dawn, good morning!" Dr. Miller greeted the two women. "Here to see our two patients?"
"How are they?" Willow asked.
"Well," he said as he led them into the recovery room, "I still have Mr. Rayne under sedation. He’ll come out of it in a little while."
Ethan lay, pale and thin, in the bed before them. "Shannon is in the far room, on the left. She’s weak and tired more than anything else. She woke up this morning, first thing, which is a good sign."
"Oh," Dawn said. "Is she awake now? I’d like to see her."
"Actually, she just dozed off again a few moments ago. I’d prefer it that she isn’t wakened right away."
"Was anyone with her? The nurse – was she around when Shannon woke up?"
"No," Doctor Miller replied. "Not the nurse. But Robin Wood was here. He came in late last night when he heard about the attack. Sent Vi off and stayed by Shannon’s side all night long. Are you all right, Dawn?"
"Yeah," Dawn said irritably. "Great."
"Thanks, Doctor Miller," Willow said.
The doctor nodded and left the room.
"C’mon, Dawnie," Willow put her arm around Dawn’s shoulders, "I’ll buy you a cup of—"
Council Grounds – Same Time
"Hmm?" Giles asked as he and Xander picked their way carefully across the frozen grounds of the Council.
"I wish I’d brought a thermos of coffee." Xander’s words came out on heavy breaths of steam. He looked around as though just noticing he was outdoors. It was a gray winter’s day; clouds obscured the morning stars.
Xander carried a tranquilizer gun, and Giles held a carbine rifle and a bowl filled with red, raw hamburger that was already developing a coating of ice crystals. The two men looked out in opposite directions in the sallow light of early morning.
"So...unless we’re going to a picnic," Xander said, indicating the bowl of hamburger, "I’m gonna assume that stuff is bait for whatever it is we’re after."
"Your assumption is correct."
"Great. Carnivorous, must-be-tranquilized-or-killed thingamajig on the loose. That is what we’re hunting right?"
"To be honest, I don’t know what we’re hunting. And I much prefer to think of this as a search more than a hunt."
"Well that clears everything up."
"Xander, the dead carcasses that began turning up...they don’t quite follow the same killing pattern as the ones the Shadow Demons were responsible for, do they?"
"Yeah, we’ve been scratching our heads over that one. Faith says maybe
another Vor-demon is in the area, left over from—"
"After all this time has passed?" Giles asked. "I don’t think so."
Xander glanced at Giles and waited for him to continue.
"I’ve seen bowls of food left out near the wood on my walks. At first I thought one of the girls was feeding a stray cat or dog or something. But a couple of times I also saw fresh kill near the food. A squirrel once and an opossum, both of which had been ripped apart, but uneaten. So, I began to do a little surveillance around the area. Yesterday, early in the morning, I saw Shannon place food in a bowl out by the thicket at the edge of the wood. Then she pulled up and discarded a dead animal carcass."
Xander stopped abruptly. "But why would she want to feed a beast from Vor?" he asked Giles’s back. "And clean up after it?" Giles stopped and turned back to him. "I mean," Xander said, "no pun intended, but that’d be one hell of a pet."
"But you see, I really don’t think it’s anything from Vor."
"That doesn’t make me feel any better."
"Suppose you are a young girl with unique powers that must be kept secret."
"Okay, it’s a stretch," Xander said with a slight grin. "But I’m with ya."
"You’re away from home and friendless, the others who share your powers are not amenable to having you in their midst. Your one confidant, your watcher, was killed protecting you. You’re given a new watcher whom you don’t want while another you do want is re-directed elsewhere. A close family member dies over what are supposed to be the happiest holidays of the year, and all this while you do a hazardous job which could end your life in an instant. You are barely thirteen. A fairly lonely existence, wouldn’t you say?"
"Give it to me straight, Giles. I can take it," Xander quipped.
"But you do see where I’m going with this?" Giles asked. "Shannon’s found something. Some animal or creature that’s probably as lonely and angry as she is."
"And she’s identifying with it."
"And growing very fond of it, I assume," Giles said. "It was in this area that the vampire caught up with her."
"Wait – you mean she’s feeding a vampire?"
Giles gave him a look.
"Okay, sorry I asked. But you think she slipped away from Vi and was heading here last night to check on her little...Chia Pet?"
"Oddly put, but essentially correct."
"‘Yes’ woulda done it," Xander said. "So. We’re gonna hunt it down. Look, don’t get me wrong, but if this is the thing leaving dead animals all over the place, then it needs to be killed before it starts killing something or someone bigger. But how do we do that without hurting Shannon?"
Giles sighed. "We’ve both known many slayers – some up to the task and some not. But there are those few who understand right away that their own internal struggle is far worse than the one at the end of a stake, that the human struggle is the true test of their strength. Buffy understood that. And in a less positive way, so did Faith."
"And so does Shannon," Xander said quietly. "This’ll be a hard lesson for her."
"One of many," Giles said frankly.
They walked on in silence.
Watchers Council – Infirmary Recovery Room – Moments Later
Ethan’s eyes fluttered open. He stared up blankly at a white ceiling and heard a woman’s disembodied voice calling from a distance, "Mr. Rayne?" He closed his eyes.
When Ethan opened them again, he looked from side to side. A machine on his left was beeping annoyingly. Medical tubing ran from poles to his arms, and he sensed bandages on his foot and felt a terrible pain along his right inner thigh. He took one deep breath to clear his head and immediately coughed.
On the sound, Shannon looked over from her own bed and got up on her elbows. She felt a little dizzy and knit her brows together for a moment until it passed. Then she looked at Ethan again.
"Hey. Are you awake again?"
Ethan lay very still. He shifted his eyes to the right, took in the little girl in the other bed, then looked up at the ceiling again.
"Hey. I’m Shannon."
"Well," Ethan croaked out. Then, purposefully, he drawled, "Heyyyyy..."
Shannon looked at him curiously. "Do you, like, know where you are?"
Again, he looked towards her, taking in the young face, blue eyes, and long hair.
"Like, Heaven?" he sneered through the pain.
Shannon giggled in spite of herself.
"Is something funny?" he asked irritably of the ceiling.
"I’m Shannon. We met before. You’re Ethan. Ethan Rayne."
"Oh thank you," he deadpanned, "I’d forgotten."
"Wow, sarcasm. They said you were full of it. You don’t remember me, do you?"
"And who...who are you again?" Ethan asked, turning his head stiffly.
"Shannon. Shannon Mathewson."
"And why should I remember you?"
"You were here when – when the Fire Eater..."
"Ah, yes. That." He waited a beat and added, "Killed my dog."
"Yeah. And...my watcher."
"So, you’re a slayer."
"Now I am. When the Fire Eater killed Peter – he was my watcher – I was really just a scared kid."
"And now we’re all grown up and fearless, are we?" Ethan attempted a half-smirk, which turned into an immediate grimace of pain.
Shannon said nothing for a moment but watched the sorcerer twist himself to get comfortable. "Do you want me to call Dr. Miller?"
Ethan shot her a disdainful glance.
She shrugged. "Guess not."
Ethan closed his eyes and tried to fall back asleep as Shannon looked on. After a moment, he said, "And is there a reason for you to stare at me?" His eyes still closed, he continued, "Oh, I’ve got it. The Fire Eater killed your watcher. And it’s all my fault. Right?"
"Oh, don’t spare my feelings, I’m sure the whole Council blames me for it. Or at the very least, Ripper – uh, Mr. Giles – does."
Shannon shook her head. "No," she said. "Nobody blames you at all. How could anyone blame you? You helped destroy it. You and your dog... Rupert." She hesitated, but getting no reaction from him, she continued. "And he...helped me, too...he..."
Ethan lay quiet, eyes still shut. "Oh, just forget it," he heard the girl say.
Ethan opened his eyes then and turned his head toward her once more. Now it was she who stared straight up at the ceiling. He looked at her hard. "I do know you," he said slowly. "Your watcher was killed protecting you from the Fire Eater. You went berserk! They had to strap you down in order to give you something to calm you, but you still got off a good one on that Nurse Ratchet, or whatever her name is. And Rupert calmed you down in his doggie way by bringing you...what was it, some stuffed toy or—"
"It was a white rabbit, a stuffed Easter Bunny. I still have it."
Shannon turned her head toward Ethan and shot him a dirty look.
"Oh goody," he said, "I’ve made a new friend. And at my age – imagine!"
"Why would anyone want to be your friend?" Shannon muttered.
"Oh, I have my charms. And what about you? Any friends? Any charms? So far, I see evidence of neither."
"You talk like Giles," Shannon sneered.
"Oh!" Ethan half-shrieked with a smirk. "Cruel child. I’m stricken."
Shannon turned her head towards him again, prepared to say something very rude, then saw that he was half-smiling up at the ceiling. "You... should be ‘stricken,’" she tested.
"I have been," Ethan smiled more broadly. "Many times. And by meaner little slayers than you."
"Like who?" Shannon lifted herself on one elbow and turned toward him.
Ethan glanced left and right and then looked fully at her. "Like," he said in a whisper, "Buffy."
"Buffy? Why did Buffy hit you?"
"She’s a beast."
"No she’s not."
"Have you met her?"
"Well, yeah, we’ve all met her. But I don’t really know her that well."
"Believe me, you don’t want to."
"But she saved the wor—"
"Oh come on!" Ethan tossed his head back and forth on the pillow. Then lowering his voice again, he said, "It was the witch that did it. It was all the witch. The Little Red Witch. First, she resurrected the Slayer. Then, when the First came along, she called all the potential slayers into full slayer-hood. It was magic, not some hormonally unbalanced bi – uh, Buffy – who saved the world."
"That’s not the story I heard."
"Of course not, you live in Slayer Central. But where I come from, we know who turned the tide with the First. We know who could have destroyed the world herself in spite of the slayer’s efforts to stop her. Nothing trumps magic, dear girl. Not slayer’s strength nor watcher’s wiles. Remember that. Nothing."
Ethan looked at her in earnest. "Why do you say that?"
"Because Xander was the one who stopped Willow from destroying the world. And it was their friendship – their...uh, love...as friends – that made Willow stop."
Ethan made as if to say something, then stopped and closed his mouth tightly.
Shannon saw that the half-mocking, half-playful look had left his face and he now regarded her seriously. She looked away self-consciously, then lowered herself quickly onto her back again. "Geez," she said, "I really hate being in bed like this. I really hate this whole place, y’know."
Ethan turned his own head toward the ceiling again, and the smirk returned to his face. "Would you like me to conjure a stuffed rabbit for you? Or how about a duckie? Then you mightn’t be so blue."
"No," Shannon said flatly. She was very quiet for a few moments.
Ethan had begun to doze again when she brought him back to full alertness. "There’s – there might be something else, though," she said.
He opened his eyes.
"Maybe," she said. "If you – if you’d maybe, sorta, consider it."
"Well," Ethan smiled, intrigued, as he turned to look at her again. "Maybe I would. What is it? Money? No. No – shoes! Women love shoes. I’m not good at clothing, though, I should warn you. Once conjured myself a pair of Italian loafers – genuine brushed leather and quite becoming – but the ruddy left one kept tapping at odd moments. Couldn’t control it. I’d be standing on queue or sitting to dine or some such thing, and the bloody shoe would just begin to toe-tap. Finally had to—"
"Not money, not shoes or clothes or – or anything like that," Shannon said. "Willow won’t do it. And Jeff could, but he wouldn’t either, and they’d both tell Dawn if I asked and – and I just don’t know how or I’d do it myself, and even if I did, I don’t have any magic skills and—"
"See here," Ethan said. "Lower your voice and look at me."
Shannon turned her head to him.
"What is it you want me to conjure?"
Shannon stared at him hard, squinting at him.
Ethan rolled his eyes. "You can size me up all the live-long day, but it won’t get you what you want. So out with it then." He smiled slowly and conspiratorially. "What does the Little Blue Slayer want from the Big, Bad Sorcerer?"
Council Grounds – Near The Thicket – Same Time
They were hidden off to one side near the thicket, watching the hamburger in the bowl freeze. Nothing stirred except the ice-coated branches of some thick, bare bushes as a slight, arctic breeze blew past.
Xander shivered and hugged himself for warmth. "So, what do you think?" he asked.
Giles frowned, casting his eyes left and right. "I think we’ll not find it unless we delve into the woods."
"I knew you were gonna say that," Xander groaned.
Giles began walking toward the thicket.
"Hey, Giles, wait a minute."
Giles turned as Xander strode up to him. "Let’s think about this for a second, several even. Beast from Vor – or some other hell – with verrrrry sharp teeth for tearing up animals and eating raw meat, hides in woods where no one can get him. Her. It. Whatever."
Xander ignored the comment and continued his scenario. "Old – no offense – ex-Watcher with bad heart goes out with young, handsome carpenter to hunt dangerous Maybe-Vor-Thing with what? A dart-gun and a target rifle? I say, ‘Save a bullet – bring a slayer’."
"We’re here now. Let’s go," Giles said and began to break through the thicket.
Xander looked after him incredulously. "Giles! This isn’t my idea of a good, sane plan."
Giles disappeared from sight. His voice floated out to Xander. "Are you coming?"
Council Grounds – Center of the Woods – Seconds Later
A few moments later, Xander pushed through the thicket and found Giles waiting for him and looking off into the depths of the woods.
"You’ve probably scared the bloody thing off," Giles chided. "How can anyone make so much noise moving over the ground without a tractor?"
"I work the wood, I don’t walk through it," Xander muttered as he looked around. The woods lay all about them, and the thicket was now behind them. Xander looked up and saw that even the bare branches of some of the trees still created enough of a canopy to shroud them in near- darkness and almost total silence.
"You’d never know the city limits of Cleveland is just outside all of this," Xander whispered as though not to disturb anything.
"Don’t worry," Giles said, hiding amusement at Xander’s uneasiness. "I was a crack shot with firearms in my youth." He walked further into the woods.
Xander followed. "Yeah," he muttered nervously, "back in the 1800’s."
"I heard that."
They hadn’t gone very far before the thicket disappeared from view in the gloom. Xander stopped, and in a normal voice that sounded like a shout in the silence, he said definitively, "You really don’t think this creature is supernatural, do you?"
Giles shook his head. "I suspect it’s something earth-born and feral. I believe it may be a coyote or—"
Giles was interrupted by a low, menacing snarl. It was coming from alongside him. Xander, on the other side of him, heard it, too. He peered slowly around Giles toward the sound.
Giles saw Xander blink and then squint at something. Xander raised the tranquilizer gun carefully. "Do you have it?" Giles whispered.
The snarl grew in intensity.
Suddenly, something shot out of the woods so fast that Xander didn’t have time to adjust his aim. The beast leaped and crashed into Giles at chest-height, and the carbine discharged, sending an errant shot into the air. Giles cried out as he fell into Xander, and the two of them landed hard on the frozen ground. Xander’s hand hit a sharp rock, and the tranquilizer gun was dislodged and skidded away on the icy surface.
The beast was on Giles, snarling and viciously biting, and Xander was pinned beneath them both. Xander heard Giles scream and flailed his right arm hopelessly toward the tranquilizer gun, which was far out of reach.
Suddenly, his hand struck the sharp rock again. He cupped it in his palm and with all his might pulled and pushed and rocked it out of its frozen bed. He fumbled it in his hand, turning it point-out. Grasping it tightly, he swung it up in a wide arc and with his entire arm brought the point to bear against the side of the beast’s head as the creature tore deeply into Giles’s shoulder with its teeth. Again and again Xander hit it, until dollops of blood hit him in the face.
Giles struggled with the beast, pulling out handfuls of matted fur and grunting and crying out as the creature tore through his coat and into layers of skin and flesh.
With a growl of his own, Xander drove the pointed rock hard against the beast again. It cried out in pain, released Giles, and before either man realized, had retreated into the woods, bounding quickly away into darkness.
"Unnnnnhh..." Giles groaned, rolling off Xander and onto his left side.
"Giles! Giles!" Xander got quickly to his knees and took stock of the older man’s condition. Wordlessly, he pulled Giles into a sitting position, then took off his own coat and covered Giles’s shoulders. Then he stripped off his sweatshirt and his shirt beneath it as well as his belt. Within minutes, Giles had a makeshift bandage and sling made from Xander’s shirt and belt. Xander quickly pulled his sweatshirt back on and picked up the two guns. Then he bent down and put Giles’s arm about his neck and lifted him up.
Giles wobbled a bit, then steadied. Xander looked over his shoulder to see if the beast was coming back. "Can you walk?"
"I don’t seem injured beyond my shoulder. I’m a bit shaken, but no more immobile than one would expe—"
"Again, ‘Yes’ woulda done it," Xander said softly, clutching Giles to him and gripping his wrist tightly. "Let’s get outta here." Xander half-carried Giles from the wood and back into the thicket. A few yards in, Xander heard a rustle somewhere close behind him, and he softly swore. "Go!" he said, pushing Giles headlong through the thicket.
Giles, propelled forward on Xander’s shove, stumbled through the several remaining feet of thicket and onto open ground. He fell hard on both knees and broke his fall with one hand just as the report from the carbine cut through the air.
Giles gathered his legs beneath him and turned, half sitting on the ground. "Xander! Xander, answer me! Xander! Are you all right?" He held his breath, but no other sound reached him.
He heard the rustle and snapping of branches and twigs and looked anxiously around for something he could use to strike the beast. But then Xander emerged from the twisted mass of vines, a little out of breath and looking stunned. "I missed it," he said.
Both men regarded one another quietly. Then Giles asked, "Did you get a good look at it?"
Xander shook his head. "All I saw were teeth. Long, yellow teeth and the blackest mouth I’ve ever seen."
Giles shook his head and looked down. "I doubt it will follow us out into the open, especially in daylight," he said.
Xander looked around. The sallow glow of dawn had given way to gray-white winter daylight. "We’re not sticking around to find out," Xander said as he bent over and helped Giles back onto his feet. The two made their way quickly and silently from the thicket and back toward the Council.
Watchers Council – Infirmary Recovery Room – Same Time
"So, you’ll think about it?" Shannon asked, trying to sound casual.
Shannon’s eyes darkened, and she scowled. "Okay," she said, "How much?"
"Well, well. Aren’t we the little business monkey?"
"How much? Fifty? A hundred?"
Ethan gave her a baleful look. "You insult me."
"A thoooooouuuusand?" Shannon mocked.
"Hmm...insult me further."
"You don’t think I can pay you."
"Now you really insult me. I know you can’t. My services come at a dear price. Dear girl."
"More than your child’s allowance can cover even if you were to pay me it every week for a lifetime. Specialized work, you know."
"Your family is filthy rich, then?"
Shannon huffed out a laugh.
"Planning to knock over a bank? May I suggest something in a black spandex ski mask and leotard."
"I – I can pay you. I have something. Something worth a lot of money."
"What is it?"
"Not now. Not here." Shannon fell silent.
"And a woman of intrigue, to boot."
"Who’s intriguing?" Willow asked as she entered the bright recovery room with a book and a laptop computer in her hands. "How are you two feeling today?"
Ethan and Shannon held their gazes for a beat before Shannon looked over at Willow.
"Hi. Can I get out of here now?" she asked brusquely.
Council Grounds – Same Time
Giles and Xander huffed along toward the Council building. "You know," Xander said, "there was something else."
"Eh? What, what else?" Giles asked as Xander hastened them both along.
"Besides the teeth, I mean," he huffed in the cold air. "Eyes." Xander swallowed. "Two of the blackest eyes I’ve ever seen. Like...like black holes. Wild and black and like..."
"Hell?" Giles offered.
Xander shook his head.
"Ah," Giles said. "Like Willow, when she—"
"No," Xander said, as though the thought hadn’t occurred to him. "Like... Buffy’s eyes – that night – when we first found her. After Willow brought her back." Xander breathed heavily and slowed their pace a bit. "Crazed," he continued more quietly. "Scared. Un-trusting. Ready to fight anything. It was like looking into Buffy’s eyes that night, and I—" He stopped altogether and looked at Giles. "I couldn’t – I guess I turned the gun away just as I pulled the trigger."
Giles regarded Xander closely for a moment.
"Sorry," Xander said.
"For what? Having compassion, even for something that strikes out and maims?"
"No," Xander said, moving them forward again. "For letting compassion get in the way of destroying something completely evil."
Giles regarded him seriously then said, "Don’t be so hard on yourself. I’ve been doing just that with Ethan for decades now. And look at him – he’s nearly developed a conscience. In another thirty or so years, he may almost have been worth the effort."
Xander let out a laugh and resumed their trek toward the Council. The slayer on grounds patrol saw their approach as they crested the rise and immediately ran out to help, calling for assistance on her two-way radio.
Watchers Council – Infirmary Recovery Room – Same Time
"Can I?" Shannon asked the redhead, repeating her request. "I feel fine. Besides I gotta do something impor—"
"Not until Dr. Miller clears you," Willow said. "Which shouldn’t be too long; you look pretty perky."
Shannon made a face and looked away. Willow glanced quickly at Ethan, whose face was unreadable.
"Dawn’s coming down to tutor you today, so I thought I’d bring your History of Magic textbook and—"
"Where’s Robin?" Shannon cut her off curtly. "Robin’s my tutor when I get behind."
"I know," Willow said firmly, "but he has an appointment for a fitting for a new prosthetic, so Dawn’s taking the session for him. Is that a problem?"
"Doctor Miller!" Xander’s voice boomed through the infirmary. All three turned their heads toward the sound.
"Yes," they heard the doctor call back, "we got the call – we’re setting up for him in here. Come quickly."
"I’ll be right back!" Willow told Ethan and Shannon as she deposited the book and laptop on the bedside cart and left the room.
The nurse appeared in the doorway and began to hurriedly pull the curtains around the two beds.
"Nurse, would you mind terribly handing me that bathrobe and pulling this center curtain between us?" Ethan asked politely. "I’d like to get up."
"I’m sorry, Mr. Rayne, but you’re not supposed to be out of bed," the nurse replied.
"Oh," Ethan said, with a casual wave of his hand, "I don’t think it would be a problem, do you?"
The nurse’s expression turned blank, then slightly puzzled. "I – don’t think – it would be a problem," she said vaguely and took the gray, terry bathrobe from the chair. She walked, uncertainly, between the two beds and, to Shannon’s amazement, pulled the curtain abruptly between them. Shannon sat upright and heard Ethan saying ‘yes’ and ‘thank you’ from the other side of the curtain. Then he dismissed the nurse, who left the room quietly.
Shannon stared hard at the curtain. Suddenly, Ethan appeared from around the other side wearing the long, gray robe. She smiled in amazement. "Show me how to do that!" she said.
"What? Put on a bathrobe?" Ethan smiled. He put a finger to his lips and limped very slowly out of the room.
No sooner had he left than Shannon threw off her covers and nearly jumped out of bed. She walked to the locker and found her jeans. She had only gotten one leg in when the nurse reappeared. "And where do you think you’re going?" the nurse asked.
Shannon waved her hand at the nurse just as she had seen Ethan do. "It really doesn’t matter, does it?" she asked the nurse, imitating his inflection.
The nurse’s expression turned puzzled for a moment. Then she said, "It most certainly does. And you’re going right back into bed!"
Watchers Council – Infirmary Triage Room – Same Time
"Did you see it?" Willow asked as Doctor Miller left the room to get some cauterizing materials.
"Just teeth, and a lot of hair," Xander said. "And eyes like—" He cut himself off as Ethan limped into the room.
Everyone looked at him. "Here I am!" he proclaimed cheerily. "What can I do? Pass the hors d’oeuvres tray?"
Giles looked haggardly at Xander. "Take me back to the woods," he said.
Ethan’s eyes sparkled playfully in spite of the pain he felt as he hobbled around to face Giles. He peered closely at Giles’s ashen face and then at the torn shoulder. His smile faded. "Here now, what’s all this?"
Giles looked at him sideways as Ethan pulled the blood-soaked shirt away from the shoulder. Xander moved toward the sorcerer, but Giles stopped him with a quick look.
Ethan stared at the shredded flesh for several seconds, his face serious. "Well," he began slowly. Then he smiled quickly and said, "You still enjoy a good, hard bite, I see. That little woman of yours is quite the hellcat."
"Leave him alone," Xander said.
"Yeah," Willow chimed in to stop the confrontation. "You should be in bed. I’m calling the nurse."
"It’s all right," Giles said quietly. "There’s not much more damage he can do to me than he’s done befo – OH!"
Ethan had cupped his hand over the bloody, shredded shoulder. "Oh Ripper, really...don’t be such a nancy."
Xander looked at Willow. "What’s he doing?"
"Ethan," Giles rasped, "you’re not to use any magic in this—"
"Oh. So you’d rather explain this mangled shoulder to the little wifey, eh?"
"Look," Ethan said seriously, "I won’t do a total restore. I’ll leave you with a few scratches so she still has something to yell at you for, yet you won’t have to lie to her about being attacked. She’ll be relieved you’re all right, maybe even give you a nice tumble as a reward. I’m doing you a favor!"
Giles looked at him angrily. "We have hard and fast rules here," he began as Ethan crossed his arms, "about using healing spells."
Ethan eyes twinkled. "Just the way you like it."
Giles started to list to one side. Ethan caught him by the side of the neck
with one hand and steadied him. They could hear the doctor’s footsteps
"Now listen, mate," Ethan said quietly. "I can do this before that quack of a doctor returns, and by tonight you’ll be tossing little what’s-her-name in the air. Or, I can leave you in his hands to have your veins burnt shut and your shoulder stitched to your neck. Which will it be, which will it be...?"
Giles looked away, his eyes beginning to lose focus.
Ethan brought his face very near. "I’ll give you a lolly if you promise not to cry..."
Giles looked up confusedly at him. Then he half-smiled and nodded his head.
Ethan’s own smile dissipated, and without further fanfare he reached his hand forward, grasped Giles’s injured shoulder, and concentrated. Within a fraction of a second, his eyes darkened and his veins stood out fully on his face. The change was so abrupt that Willow took a step back in surprise.
"What the – ?" Xander began. But before he could finish, Ethan’s face returned to normal, and the sorcerer slipped his hand from Giles’s shoulder. Ethan, drained from the exertion, teetered a little and blinked a few times.
Doctor Miller re-entered the room.
"All right, Mr. Giles, let’s look at that shoulder." He saw Ethan. "What are you doing out of bed? Nurse!" He walked around Ethan angrily and began to look over Giles’s wound. "What! How?" Doctor Miller ran his hand over Giles’s shoulder and walked around behind him. "This shoulder was a mess. How – ?"
Ethan raised his hand with some effort and waved it awkwardly at the doctor. "Oh, you know how id iz wi’ some wounds," he said woozily. "A li’l blood makes sem seem...so mush worse, don’t shoo thing?"
The doctor opened his mouth to speak, appeared confused, then looked at Giles. "Well, Mr. Giles," he said, "a little blood...can make them seem... so much worse...This isn’t too bad." He shook his head and blinked. Then he took Giles’s arm and flexed it. "Hurt? Not much, hmm? Good. I don’t need to make any stitches. I’ll have the nurse apply a good, strong antiseptic and put a bandage on it for you." He turned to leave, then looked back at Giles again. "You really are a bleeder," he said, shaking his head.
Giles nodded in thanks.
"Mr. Rayne, you need to be off that leg."
Ethan swayed left then right. "Jus swut I was sinking," he said and promptly passed out on the floor.
Council Grounds – Center of the Woods – Moments Later
In the woods, beneath a pile of bramble was a dark opening to a den. Large drops of blood were spattered about on the icy ground and on the gnarled mass of branches. From inside the den came the sound of rustling and scratching and the unmistakable whimpers of pain and distress.
Suddenly, an unearthly wail emerged from the deep stillness.
Onto Act Three