Part 1

Sunlight lanced through the majestic Douglas firs to dapple the inside of the Cherokee as it wound its way along the two lane county road leading to Pine Crest. Mountains rose massive and brooding to the left, and a sheer drop to the right ended far below in a snowy, mist-veiled valley. The mist blazed silver and gold in the morning light, transforming the view from merely beautiful to a vision of paradise out of myth and legend.

Paradise. Eden. Right down to the serpent lurking somewhere out there among the pristine beauty, thought Buffy.

She turned to look at the man behind the wheel. Agent Winfield Scott Hancock of the Serial Crimes Unit of the FBI was handsome in the clean, neat way that would have made a fine recruiting poster for the Bureau. He had dark hair, warm brown eyes and a swimmer’s physique, and Buffy felt a little bit guilty thinking about him in those terms. But the guy was attractive. No use trying to kid herself about it. And there seemed to be none of Angel’s brooding darkness, nor any outward sense that any of Buffy’s own desperate internal battles raged within him. But she knew that the appearance deceived.

No one could do the work Agent Hancock did and not harbor a very black and cold space in his soul. No one could long witness man’s unbounded cruelty to man and not lose more than a little bit of his own sanity and faith. Evil was hard enough to face when it was an external, alien presence. But for Hancock, the demons and monsters of the world were all too human, all too personal and immediate.

That was not an evil Buffy knew how to fight, and it was one that frightened her more than any demon could.

“How do you do it?” she asked.

“Do what?” asked Hancock.

“How do you do what you do day in, day out, and not come to a point where you just want to put a gun to your head and blow your brains out?”

Hancock paused, then said, “It’s not hard, really. Whenever I think I can’t do it anymore, that it’s not worth the personal cost, that I can’t face another monster, all I have to do is pick up an active file off my desk and look at yet another teenage girl who will never have the chance at life that you and I take for granted.”

He nodded out toward the magnificent landscape beyond the windows. “She’ll never get to see these mountains or another sunset. She’ll never love or laugh again. She’ll never know what it’s like to hold her newborn child in her arms and see all the mysteries of the universe embodied in that small and vulnerable human being. She’ll never know all the myriad joys and sorrows that make our lives so precious because someone took away everything from her. Someone decided she wasn’t a person.”

“But it won’t bring them back. Nothing you do, no revenge, no retribution will ever bring them back,” said Buffy, lost in her own past and speaking as much to herself as to Hancock.

“It’s not about revenge. It’s so I can say to that girl’s picture ‘You were a person. You had value. You mattered.’ I’m sorry if that sounds terribly philosophical, but in this job you tend to think about things like that a lot.”

Buffy turned her gaze back to the beautiful valley with its shining mists and suddenly realized that, however much she’d lost over the years, she still had her friends. She had hope. And she had other sunsets to look forward to. Maybe not many, but that was still more than the girl in the morgue had.

Her cellular phone jolted her out of her thoughts and she hastily fumbled it out of her pocket.

“Summers,” she said.

“It’s me. I’m with Giles and Mickey and a Dark Angels quick reaction squad on the Gulfstream. We’re about an hour out of the airport.”

Mickey. Only Willow could get away with calling Sergeant Aston ‘Mickey’.

“Oh, Willow. Hi. Great. I just picked up Agent Hancock. Once he gets settled I’ll head back to the airport again and meet you there.”

“There’s something else.”

“Uh, oh. I really don’t like the way that sounded. That had a lot of that ‘We’ve got a problem’ ring to it,” said Buffy.

“Yeah, well, I don’t know if this is a problem or not. It’s just a thing.”

“A thing?”

“A strange thing. And I’m not saying it’s bad strange or anything, just that it’s kind of unusual strange.”

“Okay, I pretty much got the point,” said Buffy. “Now, how about some ‘thing’ specifics, here?”

“Well, it’s just that Angel’s sort of missing. As in gone. At least that’s what the ops center just told me.”

“What do you mean, Angel’s gone? Gone where?”

“He’s just gone,” said Willow. “He took Hudson and a lot of surveillance equipment with him. I don’t know where.”

“What the hell would he be doing with Hudson? No, don’t even try to answer that. If Hudson’s in on it, I’m sure violence is at least a minor component of it.”

“And Angel was on that ‘Death to Vampires’ kick when you were in Hell. Maybe they’re freelancing.”

“Freelancing. And this doesn’t fall into the ‘bad strange’ category why?”

“I’m just guessing, Buffy. I don’t know anything else. I just thought you should know.”

Buffy sighed into the phone. “You’re right. I don’t mean to get down on you. This damned case is just really starting to get under my skin, that’s all.”

“It’s okay.”

“No. No, it’s not. I’ll see you when you get in. And tell Giles … tell Giles I’m really looking forward to seeing him, and the three of us are definitely going to spend a nice, long dinner together tonight.”

As Buffy put the phone back in her pocket, Hancock said, “Everything okay?”

“Oh, just fiancÚ problems.”

“Sounded like more than that.”

Buffy hesitated, but was pretty sure the agent couldn’t have heard Willow’s end of the conversation. Hancock had enough reservations about being directed to work with a civilian without the topic of vampires or trips to Hell coming up.

“Nah. I mean, all men act weird when they’re confronted by the specter of Holy Matrimony, don’t they? At least, I think that’s what Cosmo said, but I could be paraphrasing with bias.”

“He’s getting cold feet?”

“No, that’s not it. We’ve known each other for a long time, but neither one of us are quite the same people we were when we met,” she said, realizing that Hancock couldn’t know how literally she meant that. “And twelve hour days at the DH Group for the last nine months haven’t helped. Then there’s the time in the field on this investigation. None of it has exactly worked miracles on the domestic side of my life.”

“Life has a real knack for getting in the way of happily ever after,” said Hancock.

“Seems like we always just get to the point of having it all, then something comes up to pull us apart again. I don’t get it. It’s like a curse or something. You were married. Is it just me, or is this sort of thing common?”

“Can’t say whether it’s common. This job isn’t exactly what you’d call normal,” said Hancock. “Problem is, I’m a field agent who works serial killer and sexual predator cases for a living. This is not a recipe for a stable, happy family life.”

“I know you have kids. Saw the pictures in your wallet the last time you sprang for lunch.”

“Yeah, two kids. Boy and a girl. Great kids who I don’t see nearly as often as I should. I try to tell myself I’m making this world a better place for them by doing this job, but I doubt those big-picture excuses matter to them when Dad isn’t around for Christmas.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it. What you’re doing is good work, Hancock. You make a difference. Not too many people can say that.”

“Except, even with what I said before, sometimes I wish someone else would make the difference for awhile, you know?”

Buffy smiled sadly. “Oh, yeah. I definitely know.”

*                              *                              *

Zabuto — all six-feet seven of him — was looking at Hudson with an expression that would not have been considered out of place had it been hacked into an ebony log with a dull ax.

“Problem, bro?” asked Hudson, who was as dark and tall as the Watcher, but totally bald and with a physique that would have done a heavyweight boxer proud.

Angel, who had never exactly thought of himself as small, was starting to reconsider that self-image in the company of the two human mountains.

“You are a Dark Angel, no?” asked Zabuto.

“The darkest, actually,” said Hudson, flashing a flawless and expansive smile.

Zabuto regarded Angel coldly across the booth in the small Fort Lee, New Jersey luncheonette. “I don’t want him here. The Dark Angels may have been compromised.”

“He stays,” said Angel. “I’ll vouch for him. Let it go at that. The reason I wanted to see you again is I want you to lay it all out to Hudson in person before we head off on this little op of yours. He needs to hear it from you, and I want to make certain I’ve got all the details. Hud knows this business better than I do. He might notice something that I don’t see. Maybe even something you don’t.”

The Watcher looked decidedly unhappy about that, but he looked pretty unhappy about everything. After a long gap of silence, he said, “Very well.”

“So, let’s take it from the beginning,” said Angel, eager to have the meeting done. The imposing Watcher made him decidedly uncomfortable. No, that wasn’t entirely true. Angel’s conscience haunted him more than Zabuto’s dark, incisive gaze did.

“As I said to you earlier, the Slayer is in very great danger from a number of sources. I’m not certain of the details, but whatever is going on, it is very big. Mr. Hudson, have you ever heard of either the Avatar Project or Protocol 17?”

Hudson shook his head.

“That is too bad. Unfortunately, those two names were as far as I managed to dig,” said Zabuto. “I first became suspicious shortly after the Slayer returned from the demonic plane. Until recently, I had considerable influence and contacts within the Watchers, even though I was not a member of the Board. I began to hear rumors from my sources that the Board felt it had a weapon at its disposal that it could use in place of the Slayer to confront the Elder Powers in the final stages of the Armageddon Agenda. The term ‘Avatar Project’ was mentioned in that context on a number of occasions. Then about seven months ago, the rumors changed. Something had gone wrong. The Board became isolated, refusing to communicate with the rest of the Watchers. Security and secrecy were tightened. Everything became compartmentalized, on a need-to-know basis. Individuals who had formerly been forthcoming with information were suddenly unwilling to talk. Several of the most productive sources turned up dead.”

“And you have no idea what the Avatar Project was?” asked Hudson.

Zabuto shook his head. “Not specifically. I think from what I have learned that they may have been trying to create some sort of new weapon for the Eternal War. Something powerful and under their control instead of being directed by destiny and prophecy. This had become very critical, as Miss Summers had proven far too unreliable to be useful to them. There was no time to train a new Slayer to the level of skill that would be needed, and with the death of Elisa Hunter, they believed they no longer had the Dark Hunter as an alternative, either.”

“Sounds like Board thinking,” said Hudson.

“You said something went wrong,” Angel prompted.

Zabuto nodded. “Yes. I believe that the Avatar Project escaped their control. Whatever this thing is, it has the Board frightened. Recently, I discovered that they plan on taking very final measures that they believe will eliminate all their problems simultaneously: the Avatar Project, the Cabal — and Buffy Summers.”

Hudson scowled. “The Cabal’s back in the game, huh? The Dark Slayer’s all-time favorite cult.”

“Yes. I am convinced that the Elder Powers are manipulating them toward Armageddon again, but I don’t know exactly how. But whatever it is, the Board does appear to be intent on including them in any ‘final solution’.”

“And this ‘final solution’ would be?” asked Hudson.

“I don’t know. Protocol 17 was mentioned, and I believe the time for executing it is drawing near. I know that Miss Summers has tracked something evil to Oregon. That evil may be the result of the Avatar Project. The Cabal is also somewhere in the area. There are too many strands being woven together. I suspect that whatever Protocol 17 is, the Board will implement it very soon now that all the actors in the drama are in one place.”

“What about the Dark Angels? You mentioned they might be compromised,” said Hudson.

“I do not know for certain. But the Board appears to have been much too well informed about Miss Summers’ activities since she became the Dark Slayer. It is only a logical and prudent conclusion.”

Hudson looked at Angel. “I don’t like this, bro. Alpha squad’s already in transit. Probably already on the ground. If there’s a Board operative mixed in …”

“Then Buffy’s in serious danger,” Angel finished.

“We’ll give her a heads-up, definitely. But we need to get more solid intel on this stuff,” said Hudson. He turned to Zabuto. “Where’s the Board holding court these days?”

“The Washington, D. C. office.”

“Great. The District of Corruption. Perfect swamp for the Board,” said Hudson.

“First thing we have to do is warn Buffy. Then we need to get to the bottom of Avatar and Protocol 17,” said Angel.

“I am afraid I will not be able to help you further,” said Zabuto, gathering his things to leave. “With Board assassins seeking me, I would only endanger your efforts. I wish you good fortune.”

“Zabuto,” said Angel quickly. “Thank you. For Buffy and for me.”

Angel could read no emotion in the expressionless face and dead eyes.

Eventually, the Watcher said, “You are a good man, I think. A very great shame, when a demon destroys a good man. A terrible sin. I hope you find happiness with her, reborn one.”

Angel watched Zabuto walk out into the grayness of the overcast day and wondered if, were the roles reversed, he could ever be so forgiving. He doubted it.

*                              *                              *

The winter shadows were lengthening into the ominous ghosts of late afternoon by the time everyone was settled into Pine Crest’s one decent motel. Hancock had wanted to examine the body of Sharon Davis as soon as possible, but the time he spent with Buffy and the local Sheriff’s department in getting up to speed on the events surrounding the murder meant that it would have to wait until the next day.

Buffy didn’t mind. She dreaded having to face Sharon, dreaded having to confront another entry on her ever-growing list of failures. And she dreaded having to look into another pair of cold and lifeless eyes and know that it was all because of her, that it was Buffy Summers’ damned destiny that had brought death to yet another innocent human being.

So it was with at least a temporary feeling of relief that she wandered into the motel’s comfortable wooden common room to sit by the fire and try to forget the world with a long-neglected romance novel. But as she entered the room, she saw that she wasn’t alone. Giles sat by the flickering hearth, a leather-bound book by his side, lost in thought as he stared distantly into the ever-shifting heart of the flames.

He looked so alone and sad, and it pained her no end to know that she was the cause of that loneliness. For so long, teaching her and guiding her had been his reason for being. They’d given structure and purpose to his days, and filled the empty spaces of his life with something resembling a family. But the child had grown into a woman, and the student had become skilled enough to need more than any one teacher could give. And so others had come to increasingly take Giles’ place in her life. Angel had claimed the woman. Sergeant Aston, swordmaster Takeda Munenori, and even the Dark Hunter itself had claimed the student. It didn’t leave much room for Rupert Giles, friend and Watcher, and the guilt of that twisted in Buffy’s stomach like a hard knot.

God, she loved that man. He had sacrificed his entire life for her, had been a father to her when her own father had so often failed at that role. He didn’t deserve to be shut out of her life.

She walked over and sat down across from him in an overstuffed chair.

“Oh, hello, Buffy,” he said.

She just looked at him for a long moment, uncertain what to say. He’d grown older in the twelve years since she’d left Sunnydale and wandered out into the cold desert of her own desolate soul. There were more lines in the still handsome face, and there was a good deal more gray in his hair. Yet for all that, Giles was still Giles, a fixed and familiar landmark in her dark, fog-shrouded universe. More than Sunnydale or Los Angeles before it, he was her home. And damn her for not understanding that sooner.

“Whatcha thinking about?” she asked. “That e-mail from Angel? I’ve got Aston working on that. No need for you to worry about it. If there’s a Board mole, Aston’ll find him.”

“No, I wasn’t thinking about that. Well, a little. The Board never ceases to appall me. But I was thinking about England, mostly. I was thinking that perhaps, after this, it might be time to go back. It might be time to let you get on with your life with Angel and the DH Group, and to stop trying to play Watcher to a bright, strong, beautiful woman who no longer needs one.”

Buffy felt a tightness in her chest, a sudden coldness.

“But I do need you,” she said.

He smiled sadly at her. “It’s very sweet of you to say it, but we both know it hasn’t been true for a very long time. You don’t need a Watcher anymore.”

“Giles … I …”

She couldn’t finish the sentence, and shook her head as she tried desperately not to give in to the despair that was warring with whatever small amount of self-control she could manage.

“Buffy, there comes a time when the parent must let go of the child, when the teacher must recognize that it is time for the student to take her place in the world as an independent person. I think that time has come for us. I think it came a long time ago, and I’ve allowed my feelings to get in the way of what’s best for you.”

There was a tinge of anger beneath the sharp sadness when she spoke.

“What’s best for me? You’re what’s best for me, Giles. If you want to go, go. But don’t tell yourself it’s for my sake, because I won’t be better off without you.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you,” said Giles. “I just thought …”

“You thought wrong,” she said unsteadily. “Maybe I don’t need Giles the drillmaster anymore. But I need Giles my friend very, very much — more than I have words for. I know I haven’t been very good about showing it, that I’ve always taken you for granted. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t need you to watch out for me, to care about whether I live or die, to just listen to me when everything in my life seems black and hopeless. I love you, Giles. Don’t you ever think I can do without you.”

“I … didn’t know you felt that way. Am I so blind?” he asked, although it sounded like a question directed at himself rather that at Buffy. He stared at the fire as he continued. “By all rights, you should hate me for what I’ve done to your life. When I see how much being the Slayer has cost you, I wonder if there is really any justice in this universe, and whether I am in my own way as much a monster as the things you fight. To take a young, innocent girl just starting her life, and to tell her that if she has entertained any hopes and dreams for her life, she must abandon them; to tell her that she will spend the rest of her days in fear for her life and the lives of those she cares about; to tell her that she will almost certainly die before she ever has a chance to really live — what kind of evil, cruel legacy inflicts that on a child? And what kind of demon am I to be party to it? You don’t know how many times I’ve wished I could give you your life back, wished that you were never the Slayer.”

Buffy moved her chair closer to him and took his hand in hers. “This isn’t the life I would have chosen for myself. I admit that. But a lot of people in this world aren’t given much of a choice in their lives. I was born the Slayer, but it’s your friendship and your guidance that have made me into someone who can look herself in the mirror in the morning. Elisa never had that kind of love and support in her life, and it wasn’t until I came to share her past that I was really able to appreciate what you’ve meant to my life, and how much less of a person Buffy Summers would be if she’d never met you, or Willow, or Angel. So don’t you dare wish the last sixteen years had never happened, because you’d be taking away everyone and everything that gives my life meaning.”

Giles reached out with his hand and ran it lightly over her cheek, brushing away a single tear that had rolled free. He touched her hair softly and gazed at her with eyes that seemed to speak volumes, yet which so rarely revealed the human being that lived behind them.

“You will always be the most important person in my life, Buffy. Nothing will ever change that. Whether I’m here or halfway around the world, I’ll still always be there for you. You know I would never turn you away or forget about you. How could I? How could I ever turn my back on the one perfect gift this universe has seen fit to give me?”

Buffy smiled. “Perfect gift? Perfect pain in the ass, you mean.”

It was Giles’ turn to brighten. “Sometimes.”

“So, are you going to hang around at least until I learn to follow instructions?”

“I don’t have quite that many centuries left, I’m afraid.”

“Ooh, and the Watcher runs it in for the two-point conversion.”

“Excuse me?”

Buffy rose and stretched.

“That’s just football speak for ‘time to go eat’. C’mon, I’m starved, and I promised Willow a meal that doesn’t come from the office cafeteria for a change.”

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