"I know you've been researching the Master," Angel said, looming in the doorway of Rupert Giles' office.
It was difficult for Giles not to flinch at the vampire's approach-- to raise a cross in his face and grasp for the nearest effective weapon. He knew that Angel had a soul, and that he'd tracked the latest Vampire Slayer toward Sunnydale when she left Los Angeles with the intent to help her in her fight; Giles had verified as much through other means, though he found it ironic that in escaping the destruction when the alien ship vaporised much of LA he'd also lost his muse to the extraterrestrial war. Still, he'd been helpful from time to time, so Giles made an effort to tolerate his presence.
"Yes, the vampire king," he replied. "I've tried to learn as much as I can about him for the day that he rises. I've been-- informed-- that in case of apocalypse the Slayer may be coaxed to return to her primary duty, but the United States military is not in the habit of crediting 'signs and portents' without some sort of documentable proof, even in this day and age."
He knew his tone was bitter; but it had been a rough few months since the last time Buffy Summers had deigned to visit him. He received the occasional report via email-- more reliable than physical mail at the moment, alas, given the damage done to the interstate highway system and the retasking of many underemployed mail carriers to more urgent reconstruction projects-- but she rarely even called. In the meanwhile, he and the very few others aware of the supernatural influence in the town had faced a praying mantis creature feeding on the students; a hyena possessed zoo warden; an ancient incorporeal demon named Moloch; and several other extremely dangerous foes judged by the government 'too inconsequential' for her to be recalled to Slay them.
From the hints he'd had so far, the Master's rising would be far from inconsequential. But he needed something to actually show them, more than a minor earthquake and a few strange, apparently unrelated events that hadn't even made it above the fold of the local newspaper. 'Hometown girl' Agent Winter's exploits still took up more weekly column space than mere faucets pouring blood, cats giving birth to snakes, and the like. And if he hadn't recruited the computer teacher's help after the Moloch incident-- something else the Council would scoff at-- he wouldn't even know that much.
Angel had narrowed his eyes at the mention of Buffy. "You've read all the Slayer lore there is, right?"
Giles sighed. That was part of the problem. "I've studied all the extant volumes, of course. But the, uh, most salient books of Slayer prophecy have been lost. The Tiberius Manifesto, the Pergamum Codex...."
"The Codex?" Angel repeated.
"It's reputed to have contained the most complete prophecies about the Slayer's role in the end years. Unfortunately, the book was lost in the 15th century."
"Not lost," Angel shook his head. "Misplaced. I can get it."
He sounded very sure about that. "That-- that would be most helpful, yes."
"Consider it done," Angel said grimly, then vanished like the shadow of the night he was.
Giles decided, after a moment's thought, that he would not ask how Angel knew the book had been misplaced-- nor how he had retrieved it. Some truths, it would not help to know.
He revisited that sentiment again days later, sitting at the central table in the library with the translated prophecy from the Codex laid out before him. The Slayer must face the Master if the ancient vampire was to be defeated, that much was clear; there was no other way to stop him from opening the Hellmouth. And Giles had transmitted the page that stated as much, along with his translation, straight to Council Headquarters as well as the temporary capitol in New Mexico. Combined with the news clippings, the truth was unavoidable.
But the prophecy had stated one more truth as well, on a separate page he had not sent to either authority. The Slayer must face the Master, yes... but she would die in doing so.
Perhaps he would feel more conflicted about the omission if he had actually ever worked with his charge; he could not say. Giles felt regret that a young life would be cut short, as he hoped he always would, but he didn't know the girl, and he did know Willow Rosenberg, Xander Harris, Amy Madison, Jenny Calendar, and Faith Lehane, a Potential whose Watcher had got her out of Boston just before the aliens had destroyed that city. She was slightly younger than the others, but no less dedicated to the cause; he'd given up trying to keep her, or any of the others, out of it. In the absence of his Slayer, he had acquired other charges whose fates he could not ignore.
One girl's death-- incidentally, a death which would free the Council from their swiftly palling contract to assist the United States government, a fact Travers had been quite keen to point out during his last call from the Council's retreat in the British countryside-- seemed quite a small price to pay, in exchange for theirs, and for the billions of others who would fall when the Master's minions burst forth.
He took a long sip from his half-full tumbler, then looked up in resignation as the library doors burst open. Buffy Summers-- in her persona as Agent Winter, unrecognisable as a high school sophomore in all-black quasi-military gear-- strode into the room, and he sighed, standing to greet her.
"Hey, Giles," she said, calmly. "So. I hear it's apocalypse season. What's the what?"
"Ms. Summers," he greeted her formally. "I thank you for your prompt response. All signs indicate that the Master is about to open the Hellmouth, and that only a Slayer may stop him."
"Read the deets on the prophecy on the way over," she shrugged. "Got any new news on where exactly I can track him down to do the job?"
She seemed-- healthier than he had expected, given their last encounter; she had seemed weary then. Or perhaps-- merely wary of the dual demands on her life? Her eyes were unbruised, her posture erect, the visible portions of her limbs showing slender muscle rather than strained leanness. And she wore a gun and other apparent soldier's gear with as much thoughtless familiarity as a student carrying a backpack.
They were losing her-- the Watcher's Council-- if, indeed, they'd ever had her at all. The young woman standing before him was not the Slayer Buffy Summers whose file he had studied after Merrick's death; she truly was Agent Winter. Perhaps Travers was not entirely unjustified in casting her off, to consider the night's events her Cruciamentum and start anew with the next Slayer. At this stage, she was not even truly necessary to the alien fighting force; her team had already thinned the survivors of the crashed ships to less than a third of their original number, according to the evening news.
Another pang of guilt shot through him; but he quelled it with a grimace and replied. "Not in specific. One of our contacts, however, gleaned the information that the Master will try to bring you to him; and that the guide is likely to come in the form of a small child."
The doors of the library swung open again, unexpectedly, as Giles spoke; he glanced over again, half expecting to see one of the children returning on some invented pretext to get a glimpse of the infamous Slayer, and was surprised to see two other, very familiar faces entering instead.
"By that you mean the Brother Luca message," one of them said: a dark-haired man in glasses, his button-front half-undone over a white A-shirt in a style long since made iconic by the news media. The infamous engineer toted a laptop computer case in one hand and a heavy duffel in the other. "The Isaiah 11:6 message - the 'little child to lead them'? Not a coincidence he disappeared after posting it, in my opinion; pretty sure he's actually working for the other side."
"Yeah, and for what?" the other spoke up, the very fit, dark-skinned Air Force Captain famous for teaming up with the first man to take down the alien mothership. "Not gettin' killed when the dude kills everybody else? Enough folks dead already 'cause of the aliens-- you'd think that would inspire a little loyalty to the species, you know? Nah; I think he was legit, but this Master's actual minions finally got to him. I mean, this kid's supposed to lure the Slayer down to her death-- what, does he actually think she'll come along just like that if she knows who he is?" He was more formally dressed than his compatriot, in military garb with his own duffel and several weapons hung about his person.
"Given that, in fact, she is planning to walk willingly into the Master's lair...." Mr. Levinson drawled with a teasing smirk, setting his laptop case on the table.
"A'ight. You do have a point there," Captain Hiller shrugged, dropping his bag by a chair.
"Ex-- excuse me," Giles stuttered, frowning at the both of them, then over at Buffy. "What are they doing here? I thought it was made clear that your duty to the Council has precedent...."
"In case of apocalypse, break Slayer, I know. Oops; I mean, summon Slayer. Who, according to Council policy, is meant to fight alone. And die alone. Young and often. Believe me, I've looked into the records-- I've got a pretty good info team on my side." Buffy grinned over at Mr. Levinson, then; he grinned back, in a proud, fraternal sort of way.
"Well, this Slayer doesn't fight alone," she continued, nodding next to Captain Hiller. "I'm sixteen years old, Giles; and I don't plan on dying anytime soon. So if that's all the more info you have....?"
Giles stared at the three of them, dismayed; and as he studied them, he heard the muted echoes of additional voices out in the hall, undoubtedly the rest of the colourfully nicknamed 'Team Up Yours'. This was not what he, or the council, had intended at all.
"He's... underground. Trapped in the original Hellmouth. Wherever that might be," he said.
Levinson patted his duffel. "Though as much. Good thing I tracked the epicentre of all those old earthquake records... not to mention, packed the sunlamps."
Buffy grimaced. "Caves. My least favourite-- well, next to least favourite-- battlegrounds. Well. Into the breach, guys! Giles, directions to the basement?"
"The... the what?" he objected, faintly.
Captain Hiller raised his eyebrows. "Guy whose main job is to fight the evil in this town, don't even know his office is built right over it? Man, now I owe Major Mitchell a twenty."
"Don't be too hard on him, guys," Buffy shook her head at them, smiling wryly. "Not like he has the same resources we do, especially these days. Basement, Giles?"
"I rather thought," he managed to rebut, "that is to say, the destiny of the Slayer...."
"Nevermind; found the map," Levinson interrupted, pointing at the wall. "Looks like... stairs are over here!"
"C'mon y'all," Hiller replied, pushing back through the doors to address the rest of their men. "Time to kick the tires and light the fires, boys!"
"See you in a few, Giles," Buffy waved at him as she and Levinson followed the Captain. "One way or the other, this shouldn't take long."
Giles sat dazedly back down at the table as the doors shut behind them, then took another long sip from the tumbler. No; that had not at all gone as he had expected.
Idly, he opened the Pergamum Codex again, to recheck his translation... and blinked, resolve cracking through with unexpected hope, as the ink on the page squirmed and wriggled into a slightly different configuration.
The lore regarding the Codex stated that there was nothing in it that did not come to pass. Generations of Council scholars had interpreted that to mean infallible, not self-updating... but then, that was far from the first thing the Council had got wrong, wasn't it?
He sighed, then flinched in startlement at the sound of crashing from out in the hall-- and the screaming forms of his students running in, chased by snarling vampiric minions. Time to do his part, then, after all-- and do his best to survive to see the Slayer's triumph.