The Ceremony of Innocence
Summary: Giles returns to Sunnydale to help the Scooby Gang prevent yet another impending apocalypse. The task at hand forces everyone to think about their relationships with the others and about their roles in life.
Disclaimer: I own nothing and turn no profit.
Timeline: Somewhere in season 7
Author's Note: This is a work in progress, and the more I work on it, the more it turns into a character study as opposed to a plot-driven piece. I think that's fitting for a Buffy fic, though, in keeping with the series. While Sunnydale and an impending apocalypse are the backdrop, the story itself is about people and relationships (not necessarily romantic). I'm only including this A/N so you know what you're getting into since not everyone likes character-based stories.
Yet Another Author's Note: The title is a line from a poem which will be incorporated in later in the fic…
Feedback: Pretty please! Feed me, feed me!!! Should I continue?
Chapter 1 -- News From the Home-Front
Giles clicked on his computer with the same caution he always displayed around the incomprehensible device. He was quite certain that the ruddy hated him in the extreme, in spite of Willow's repeated reassurances that computers were usually not capable of independent thought. It was her amendment of 'usually' that had always gotten him. Whatever may have been true of most computers, his hated him. It was less than a year old and he had already been forced to bring it into the shop three times.
Though, in the computer's defense, the third time had been entirely his fault. Who would have guessed that candle-wax could cause so many problems with a computer's inner workings? The technician at the shop had looked at him as if he had completely lost it when he explained that he had been casting a combination exorcism and blessing on the damned thing when the melted wax had somehow managed to get through the casing and onto the motherboard. His own fault for not doing it while Willow had still been there. No doubt she could have handled not only the exorcism but also the resultant mess.
Oh, well, at least now he had access to the Council's online database of demonic trends. And email, of course. Willow had helped him set up an account and had written down detailed instructions as to how to use the different features. It even usually worked. Although he had somehow managed to find his way onto several mailing lists for demonic porn and pre-approved credit cards accepted in finer hell-dimensions everywhere. Also pills to increase the size of his horns by two inches guaranteed. The things you could find on the World Wide Web…
Chuckling to himself and shaking his head, he sat down at the computer and logged on to the Internet. Willow had shown him a spell to increase the speed of his dial-up modem to slightly better than that of a digital connection, and he used it now. The screen flickered in protest for a moment before settling down, and he logged on to his email account.
Mostly junk, as per usual. Another credit card offer. Deleted. Underage demonesses. Deleted with a disgusted oath. Online interactive voodoo dolls, including an effigy of the Slayer. Deleted with a laugh and a mental note to mention it to Buffy next time they spoke on the phone. It would amuse her, he was sure. An online circular from Stygia's most popular weapon's smith. He saved that one for later perusal. After all, Buffy and Willow both had birthdays coming up.
Ah, a note from Willow. Smiling, he opened the email and read over it.
Willow was doing quite well, taking his teachings and those of the Coven to heart and moderating her use of magic as much as possible. It was still, occasionally necessary, of course, to help Buffy and the others, but she was always very carefully. Classes were going well and she hoped to be able to graduate only a semester or so behind-time, and with honors.
Dawn was making friends and scoring top marks at school, staying out of trouble and occasionally accompanying Buffy on patrol. She seemed to be picking up a remarkable amount of what Buffy had to teach her.
Anya had renounced her position as a vengeance demon once again and this time actually seemed to mean it. She had even contracted Xander's firm to repair the damage to the Magic Box, or possibly just tear down and rebuild the store. Anya was hoping to reopen by this time next year. Willow expressed a great deal of sympathy and empathy for Anya. After all, Willow knew from experience exactly what she was going through.
Xander was doing well at work, Giles saw, and had, by some fluke, turned into the responsible adult in the group. He was not dating, although he had several friends from work and was spending some time socially with Anya. Willow was hopeful that they might reconcile completely eventually.
Spike was… "Insane in the basement?" he whispered, shaking his head and looking even more befuddled than he felt.
Bemused he read on. Ah, another vampire with a soul. The damned things seemed to flock to poor Buffy, as though her life were not complex enough already. He seemed mostly over the insanity now, although he did still have his moments. Willow was not sure yet whether his soul was really agreeing with him, she wrote, but she had high hopes for him.
Giles could tell that she was empathizing with Spike's plight as well as Anya's. It would take Willow a long time to completely overcome last year's badness. It would happen, but it would take time. In the meantime, she would have to work through a lot of pain and guilt and, no matter how much good she did, it would be a long time before it seemed to even approach being enough. Giles understood. He had been there himself.
He smiled as he read on. Willow had saved the news she knew would interest him most for last. Buffy.
Buffy Summers, for whom Giles had once threaten to thrash a principal in order to keep her from getting expelled. Buffy Summers, who had burnt down not one but two high-schools during her teenage years. Buffy Summers, who had been labeled as everything from a 'loner' and a 'troublemaker' to 'antisocial' and a 'bad influence'. Buffy Summers… Sunnydale High's most well-liked Guidance Counselor, trusted and respected by students and faculty alike.
Giles smiled and shook his head. Although Buffy might have been surprised to hear it, Giles was not in the least surprised to hear that Buffy was distinguishing herself in the role of Guidance Counselor. She was a damned fine Slayer, certainly, but he had known that there was more to her than that the first time he had watched her draw a young and incredibly shy Willow out of her shell. She had not been that popular in high-school, certainly, but she had still managed to touch a lot of lives in a very positive way, quite aside from saving many of those lives. Willow, Xander, Cordelia, Anya, Giles himself…
He could not help but feel a flush of paternal pride when he thought about all the people Buffy had affected simply by being herself. That, more than any feat she had performed as Slayer, moved him. It was difficult to articulate exactly why, but he felt every bit as proud of 'Buffy the Guidance Counselor' as he did of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'. After all, anyone could take a sharp stick and jab it into a member of the walking undead. It took someone with real spirit to help struggling youngsters. And, although Buffy might have claimed that she did it for the money, he knew better and he knew that she did as well.
His own reply to Willow's note was longer than her original message, but held news of much less consequence. The new horse he was considering buying. How Willow's favorite mare was due to foal any day now. How his flower-garden had sprouted a number of unusual flowers overnight, more suited to Costa Rica than England and would Willow know anything about that? The weather had been unseasonably sunny, actually rather reminiscent of California this time of year, and damn he missed it and all of them so very much…
Shaking his head, he erased that last bit and rephrased the comments on the weather in a more cheerful tone. It took him three tries to remove the last trace of homesickness from that paragraph, which in itself gave him pause. Homesickness? Except that he was home. This estate had been in his family for generations, so why did he feel so damned…
"Homesick," he sighed, shaking his head.
He added the usual messages of affection to everyone: Give Dawn and Buffy each a hug for me. Tell the others I love and miss them. It was good to hear from you again, and I'm pleased that you're doing so well…
"So why in the bloody hell do I feel so damned homesick?" he sighed as he typed a cheerful closing paragraph without particular conviction.
And the answer to that was so simple that even, as close as he was to the problem, he could not miss it. Sunnydale was home. Willow, Buffy, Dawn, even Xander and Anya, were his family. He missed them all so dreadfully, more even than his deceased parents. As much as he enjoyed hearing from them, he hated it, too, because it hurt. Every time he heard of some defeat or obstacle that one or the other of them had suffered, he found himself wishing he could be there to comfort them. Every time he heard about some new victory, he wished he could be there to celebrate with them.
He kept telling himself that he was doing the right thing, stepping into the shadows so 'his children' could finally grow into the independent adults that they were meant to be. But even independent adults needed friends and confidants, another part of his mind insisted. Which begged the question of whether he wanted to go back for them or for himself. That ambiguity was the only thing that had kept him from booking a one-way ticket to Sunnydale international airport. And he had wanted to, had more than once been ready to do just that. And he had held himself back because no 'child' that age wants their 'father' hovering about sticking his spectacle-clad nose into their business.
Of them all, he thought that only Willow was really able to view him as more than just another father-figure. Which was rather ironic because, of them all, Willow was the one he felt most paternal towards, especially recently. Aloud and in the presence of others, he lied shamelessly on that particular point, claiming that Buffy was most like a daughter to him, Willow most an equal and a friend. He had told Willow that once after he had brought her back to England. She had looked him in the eyes, had seemed to look right through him and had said "sure, Giles" in a tone that clearly said "you're lying and we both know it".
He hit the 'send' button, grateful that Willow was easier to lie to via email than face-to-face. She knew him too well. He had shown her too much of himself after Buffy had died the second time and even more after he had brought her back to England. It had been important to him that she understand that she was not the only one who had let the power take control of them instead of taking control of the power. He had told her everything, things that not even Buffy or the priestess to whom he made periodic confessions knew about.
He had told her things that he had not even acknowledged to himself in better than twenty years. And Willow had told him everything in return. More times than either of them could count, she had sat in his living room, clutching a cup filled with a small amount of tea and a much larger amount of brandy in her shaking hands, and had just talked. Sometimes she talked about her anger and grief over having Tara taken from her.
Mostly, though, she just talked about Tara. Tara's shy smile. How that smile had made her eyes sparkle with that inner light that Tara had not even known that she possessed. Tara's gentle, cool hands. Hands as good at cooking and sewing and gardening as they were at casting spells. The magic that Willow claimed was even more a part of Tara than it was of Willow herself. Willow's magic came from without, Tara's from within. Tara's magic was a thousand times more subtle, Willow had explained, and infinitely more beautiful. She could have caused so much harm with her magic, but she never thought to do anything with it but fight the good fight.
It had not taken long for Willow to feel comfortable enough talking to Giles about Tara for her to open up completely. Tears in her eyes and a smile on her face, she had told him about their first time, about how Willow had been nervous but Tara had been more nervous, and yet it had been Tara reassuring Willow instead of the other way around.
There had been bad times, too, of course, as there were bound to be in any relationship, but Willow had hardly been able to remember these, and so she had dwelled on the good times. Giles had just listened because it had seemed what Willow needed then. Tara had been a charming young girl, and they had loved each other dearly. He could hardly begin to imagine what her murder must have done to Willow.
He remembered Willow's surprise at discovering that he was not angry, that he understood. That was when he had begun telling her about his own past, and when Willow had begun to feel safe enough emotionally to tell Giles everything about Tara. It took her months, though, to tell him what had been at the crux of her breakdown. One night, months after Willow had started telling Giles about Tara and how lost she felt without her, Willow told him about the shooting itself. He had, of course, known the details, but not from Willow's perspective. He had been stunned when Willow had quietly concluded "it should have been me standing by that window".
He had done the only thing he could do after that. He had held Willow in his arms as she sobbed herself to sleep. Then he had picked her up, carried her to her room, and put her to bed, all without waking her. He had sat with her all night, mostly thinking about Jenny's murder, but also about Buffy's loss of Angel and Willow's of Tara. At the time, he had reflected that the Fates seemed to have something against happily-ever-afters. It had been the first time he had held Willow as she had cried herself to sleep, but it would not be the last. Not by a long-shot.
When Tara had been murdered, Giles had felt Willow's soul screaming in agony. Even if the Coven had not asked him to go to her, he would have, just to comfort the bereft young woman. She had been in Sunnydale, he in England, and he had felt her sense of loss and emptiness. He, the Coven, and probably every Sensitive in between had felt her anguish. And then her anger.
More than anything, he had wanted to deny that one of 'his kids' could be capable of so much anger. Not one of them. That kind of anger belonged to men like 'Ripper' and Ethan Rayne. Old, embittered, used-up old sorcerers who had gone on one too many trips to the brink. To feel such things from Willow, though… it had been horrible. To vicariously experience her sanity unraveling like that had been almost too much to bear.
Then the Coven had started talking about 'stopping' her, and they had meant banishing her to a Plane where she could not harm Earth. A meeting had been conveyed within a few hours of Tara's murder. Willow was beyond powerful. She was power itself. Not everyone in the group had been able to feel the things that Giles and a handful of the others felt from Willow, but they could all smell impending doom, thick in the air like the smell of burning leaves in the fall, presaging the coming of winter.
Meetings of the Coven were generally very orderly affairs. The members were all incredibly powerful, but not particularly vain or prideful. Each member paid the others all due respect. Although all meetings were conducted with a Speaking-Staff, there were seldom interruptions, except for the occasionally words of agreement. The meetings, as a result, tended to be quite, orderly affairs where a great deal was discussed and decided, usually over tea and biscuits.
This meeting, though, had been different. The Speaking-Staff had been invoked, but no one paid it the slightest attention, and it was soon forgotten altogether. Everyone was scared, shouting to be heard, generally ignoring everyone else whether they agreed with them or not. Arguments broke out that probably would have ended in fist-fights for any other group. There had been a horrifying split-second where Giles had been worried that Phoenix was about to turn Skye into something nasty when Skye contended that killing Willow was probably the only way to stop her.
That moment had passed quickly, Phoenix scoffing dismissively and quietly asking Skye if she was ready to incur the karmic backlash of such an act. The girl was mad, did not know what she was doing, Phoenix pointed out. Skye had conceded this, but had pointed out that banishing her to another dimension was probably a worse punishment than death and what if Willow's power only grew while she was 'away'. Might she not be angry and seek retaliation against not only the Coven but against humankind in general?
This had caused another uproarious outburst and the meeting had once more deteriorated to chaos. Giles had tried to make himself heard over the shouting, urging calm and careful deliberation, but no one had been able to make out a single word he was saying. The noise had stopped as abruptly as it had started, every head turning to the sound of the Speaking-Staff being forcefully struck against a ritual gong. Cassandra, a seer who had long since grown tired of life and visions, stood by the gong, the Speaking-Staff still in her left hand, which was now held high over her head. A few calm words regarding the sanctity of the Staff and the camaraderie and solidarity which were a part of being a member of the Coven were sufficient to recall everyone in the room to themselves.
Giles had requested the Staff then, but Cassandra had ignored him. She quietly volunteered to be the one to go. Giles had overruled her and all the rest. Willow was one of his kids. She was his responsibility. He had been the one to introduce her to magic as anything other than sleight of hand. He would go. He would stop her or die trying. The others had been startled, most actually horrified. They had not wanted him to go, afraid that he was too close to the situation, afraid that he would get himself killed even if the magic they lent him did not consume him.
And Cassandra, who had offered to go in the first place, had again claimed possession of the Staff. He had expected argument, but had gotten an endorsement from her instead. Cassandra quietly avowed her belief that Giles had a great role to play in all of this, but not the role they all thought. It was his place to go, she explained mildly. He would be able to do what none of the others could. She had not yet been privileged to see exactly what, but she felt it was so. The others had acquiesced. None of them really liked it, but that did not change facts. Cassandra knew things. If she said that Giles had some great role to play in this, that only he could succeed in stopping Willow from triggering an apocalypse, then it was so.
It had hurt so badly when the others had channeled almost all of their own power into him. Humans were fragile vessels, and magic a volatile cargo. He had walked into it knowing that this process alone might kill him. For Willow, he had been willing to chance it. He had gone to Sunnydale confident that he could bring her back from the darkness into the light, and equally confident that he would die a short time later. As it had turned out, neither had been true. Xander had been the one to bring her back and the magic had not killed him.
He had puzzled over these facts for the two days he spent in the hospital after his fight with Willow, until he had received a call from Cassandra informing him simply that it was time for him to play his part. He had understood, then, perhaps as a result of the magic and abilities that he had gained from Cassandra herself. Although he gave the others their powers back just as soon as it was clear that Willow was no longer a threat, he had retained some measure of all of it. It continued to crop up unexpectedly from time to time, even a year after the fact. The magic had not burnt him out from the inside. It had strengthened him beyond words.
Whether the understanding came from Cassandra's power to see into the future or his own knowledge and understanding of Willow, he had known exactly what needed to happen. Willow had been nearly catatonic, finally allowing herself to mourn for Tara, for her victims, for the world she had nearly destroyed. Giles had quietly announced that he was taking her back to England. Buffy and Xander had protested, saying that she needed to be with her friends right now. Refusing to entertain their arguments, Giles had assured them that he would care for her and not allow any harm to befall her.
Willow had been sure that the Coven was going to imprison or execute her, but she had quietly told the others that it would be okay, that she would go with Giles and everything would be just fine. They had left that day. Willow had not spoken a word after that for almost a week.
Giles shook his head, considering. Willow had suffered so much, would continue to suffer. Magic for her was not like magic for him or any other member of the Coven. It was not just some tool or inborn ability, not something you could use and then forget about until you needed it again. For Willow, casting a spell was like grabbing a tiger by the tail. No matter how good, how skilled, how careful you were, it was always going to be dangerous.
Unlike Giles and the others, though, it was not something she could just ignore, either, not something she would ever be able to ignore. So Willow would continue to struggle with it, probably for the rest of her life. Sighing and shaking his head, he turned off the computer. The phone rang immediately.
"Hello?" he inquired, turning on the speaker-phone and settling onto the couch with a new volume on demons that he had ordered.
"What are you doing?" a low voice inquired mildly.
"Reading, Cassandra. Which you should know," he pointed it.
"Allow me to clarify, Ripper," Cassandra said, her voice strained.
Giles frowned, not only at her use of the nickname 'Ripper', but also at her tone of voice. She had just come out a vision. He would have recognized that quiet, shaky, not-quite-there tone anywhere. If he had been face to face with her, he knew that her eyes would have been fixed and glassy, her face set into an expression that would have unsettled most people. It was an expression that would not have been out of place 2,000 years ago on a priestess in some temple to Apollo, communing with her gods and the ghosts of the underworld. Telling the future.
"What are you doing in England?" Cassandra continued, her voice flat and expressionless. "When you are needed in Sunnydale…"
Giles blinked. She was not just out of a trance. She was still in one. "Am I needed in Sunnydale?" he inquired, trying to get more information from her. That was never an easy task. Cassandra was notoriously inexact. She knew almost everything, but she seldom spoke freely about any of it.
"The Beast slouches towards Bethlehem."
Giles frowned. Biblical references? That could not be a good sign. "Tell me more."
"The blood-dimmed tide is soon to be loosed."
Giles sighed and took off his glasses, absently cleaning them. "How long do I have?"
"Not long at all. Together, the father and his girls may yet overcome, but time grows short."
"Cassandra, I need specifics, please," Giles told her, picking up his phone-book and looking up the number to the airport.
"Answer unclear. Try again later."
He rolled his eyes. "Welcome back, Cassandra."
"What'd I say?"
"Oh, nothing intelligible," he assured her wryly.
"If I remember more, I'll call you."
Giles nodded. "Thanks. I'll be in--"
"Sunnydale. Stay safe, my friend."
"You, too, Cassandra," he told her, sighing and hanging up. Shaking his head, he picked up the phone again and dialed the airport.