Welcome Home, Rupert Giles (PG)
Author brutti ma buoni
Genre Gen, ghost story, canon compliant
Setting the autumn of 2001, following The Gift. It stretches the time between Bargaining and After Life somewhat, probably to about a week.
Thank you to my flisties rahirah, beer_good_foamy, velvetwhip, gillo, moriwen1, snogged, lutamira. When they heard my distressed meeping over not being able to complete my first fic, they rallied with prompts. The prompts are what is haunting Giles – except Beer Good's, which was 'a spell that can only be broken in an American accent'. That one may have been quite twisted for this, but it is there.
Oh no, not again.
It was all that had time to go through his mind, before Giles slumped, unconscious, to the floor.
The late Douglas Adams and his pot of petunias would be proud.
Giles had his fair share of ghosts, come the end of September 2001. The rest of the world was dealing with hell and horror on the East Coast, but Giles's brain was elsewhere as he traversed from California back home. He registered fleeting relief that air traffic had got back to normal, and then resumed his writing.
He'd been writing, on and off, ever since May. Once he'd recovered sufficiently from the spear to the chest and fighting the hell god, and all that.
There comes a time in every Watcher's life when he must take stock. Inevitable as the night following the day, comes this time. A time of review. Of recording. Of bringing together the papers and the photographs, the training logs, the diaries. Of completing the last paragraph, ruling the last line. Signing on the last page.
Declaring the last of Buffy Anne Summers, Slayer (d May 2001).
It was somewhere in mid Atlantic that Giles found he had reached that point. There was nothing more to be said. He'd known his Slayer for five years, indeed rather less than five years. He could have written more about her personality, her presence, her individuality, what made her marvellous. But he had already substantially transgressed the boundaries of Watcher reports, and he suspected anything extra would simply never be read. He stared, for a while, at the page blank after his last signature. Nothing more to write about Buffy Summers.
His neighbour, a previously utterly self-involved businessman, had started to twitch in concern before Giles managed to stop staring at the page, unmoving for perhaps an hour or more. He closed the book, and told himself that life went on.
Though not, of course, Buffy's life.
In London, the usual guard drew up to meet him. The Head of the Council, the supporting cast of senior Watchers, two debriefers who would soon be assessing his fitness to take up other duties. And Wyndham-Pryce, who shook him firmly by the hand and commiserated with him for all of ten seconds before reaching for the records. "Are these they? Splendid. Of course, we had captured a great deal of what was missing after 1999 in recent months following Ms Summers' rapprochement with the Council, but they will be invaluable, quite invaluable."
It was at that moment that Giles remembered there would be other Slayers. In fact, there presumably already was one, young and untried and about ripe to die- If she'd been called when Buffy died, she would now be approaching the median survival period. Extraordinary that he should know that so well, and yet have managed to wipe it out of his mind. The Council rolled on, even when its servants could not.
Quentin was bluff and manly in a mildly comforting way. He must have been out of practice at this, given Buffy's comparative longevity, but equally Giles was far from the first Watcher that Travers would have seen through this phase. Giles vaguely recalled Denton, the only Watcher he could remember seeing after losing a Slayer, sitting in Travers's study, reporting in a ghostly voice the exploits of- Had it been Flora? Or Fiona? She hadn't lasted long. Giles had dropped in for a signature and project approval, and found himself drawn into an hour of sympathetic listening and nodding, taking in little and caring less. Pastoral care, don't you know? Marvellous.
And now it was his turn.
At least Quentin had known Buffy. Giles didn't have to convey her essence to him, trying to imprint her on the world even as she rotted into it. He merely talked, quietly, rather apologetically if anything, about how joyous he had found parts of the last years, and what a part she had played in making them so. Quentin nodded, and poured as necessary.
Towards the end of the evening, Giles found himself fixed in the Head of the Council's gaze. "You won't be coming back, will you?" It was somewhere between a decision and an instruction, but Giles had no intention of disputing it. If it saved him a week of debriefings and an exit interview, so much the better.
"No. I believe I am done with the Council." It sounded more final than he intended, but there was no surprise on Travers's face.
"Yes. Field Watchers usually are." Giles let that ripple out into the quiet room. The inhumanity of what the Council asked of its servants scarcely needed underlining further.
"Rupert," said Quentin, at last – the first time he had used Giles's first name. The first time anyone had, annoying vampires apart, in some considerable period. "You have told us everything, haven't you?"
"Oh yes," said Rupert Giles, sipping sherry. Any role that he might have played in the death of a man named Ben could not have been further from his expression. Internally, however, it burned. But there was really no point in lamenting further. He was no longer part of the Council. Its ethics were of little concern.
He slept that night, for the last time, in one of the Council's guest rooms. He dreamed of falling.
Giles's move to Bath was dictated by inertia more than interest, decided at a distance and arranged through agents and friends. He liked the place well enough, and it seemed an obvious choice. He couldn't face London, didn't want the noise and the proximity to Council premises. Other southern options (and a Giles would never live in northern parts) seemed defeatist. "Giles? Oh, he moved to the south coast." "Saffron Walden." "Back to Oxford, though of course he has no post." No. "Rupert has moved to the Bath area," however? Acceptable. The sort of place a distinguished retired librarian might go to die.
Rupert Giles was fifty one. The future gaped, somewhat.
The place near Bath was more than pleasant, however. Giles found himself rather proud of it as he began to move in. Bigger and grander than his Sunnydale abode, and he had been pleased to find he could afford it. Retroactive pay for 18 months of Watcher activity built one a gratifying nest egg, but the property market in Britain had gone mad in his absence, so being able to purchase somewhere attractive outright was a surprise.
It was old enough to be picturesque without being sufficiently old to be inconvenient. Large windows, rather than low beams, and mellow stone in lieu of ancient timber. He moved in quickly, camping out while essentials were delivered from the right sort of stores (he was to get to know the John Lewis delivery folk rather well).
But he did have a telephone line in place from the outset, so he knew very quickly when it became clear that Buffy was alive after all.
The house was quiet around him as he sat, silently, drinking good whiskey out of blasphemous plastic, and trying to absorb what he had just heard.
It was discombobulating. He'd cut ties with Sunnydale, recognised that it was time to let go, taken up Britishness like the native he was, and now, quite impossibly, he was jerked back across the Atlantic to the position he had once held. He went, of course, but he never intended to stay.
Later, he might wonder whether anything else had a hand in that. Whether it was something more than a mature recognition that it was time to move on.
The house felt reproachful when Giles finally resumed his aborted residence. You bought me, then you left me. I was cold, I was empty. Fanciful garbage, of course, inspired by little more than transferred guilt over the mess he had left behind. But he'd told Buffy the truth: he had to go. For her own good, but also for his. He had given up the Watcher life, and it was past time to relinquish his hold.
She was an adult. She would cope. So would he.
As the weeks passed, and the phone did not ring again, he failed to stop thinking about her. Until the house began to provide him with distractions.
At first, he was oblivious. Giles had spent more than enough time around the paranormal to spot it, but also more than enough time around the superstitious to wish to avoid being counted among their number. And he was somewhat distracted, somewhat – not elderly, but ageing, certainly. He struggled sometimes with surnames, and felt tired when the young people were still full of activity. He tried not to notice his own failings.
All of which is to say that it was perhaps not Giles's fault entirely that it took him at least three months to notice that his house was haunted.
Not, it must be made clear immediately, haunted in the tacky, Hollywood sense. This ghost had no time for scary noises, nor for bloody apparitions or cold spots. (That is to say, there were both scary noises and cold spots, but that's what you get for living in rural Somerset when you've got used to California life.)
No, this ghost was concerned with Giles. The things that made up his core and identity. His tea tasted foul, and bore no relationship to the alleged provenance and type. A few stiff conversations with Bath's finest tea merchant later, and Giles eventually conceded that he was not being bilked by that upright citizen. By then, he had begun to notice deep discomfort with his glasses, whose frames never quite appeared the same when he put them on each morning. That had to be encroaching senility. His clothing appeared to itch where it had never itched before. That, he put down to a change of fabric softener. Nonetheless, the weight of annoyance began to tell. He became less enamoured of the house.
It was the day when his glasses became contact lenses, and his favourite suit became a bad knock-off of Spike's late effort at costume drama that Giles finally accepted this was something more than a trifling annoyance, and was instead something of concern.
Unfortunately, at that precise moment, the uneasy spirit attained a new level of strength and activity. It knocked Giles firmly on the head with something unidentified.
This was the point at which Oh no, not again seemed to be the only reasonable response. That, and unconsciousness, of course.
When Giles awoke, he was no longer alone. Muzzily, he registered both surprise and familiarity. He had been so firmly alone, lately, whereas for such a long time, he had been part of a group, whose clustering around his injured bedside had come to feel quite commonplace back in Sunnydale.
This time, though, the grouping – although overwhelmingly and also familiarly female – was largely of his own generation, and significantly more bespectacled and grey-templed than the good cast of Buffy's supporters .
"Rupert Giles," said one of them, warm though questioning. "You're back with us. Welcome."
"Who-" he attempted, though it came out more like "Hrgl". But the unknown woman appeared to understand.
"We are witches. I'm Dervla, these are my sisters. We are part of a coven some way off. Usually, we wouldn't dream of intruding, but this place has been rather getting onto our radar of late. Quite a distinctive signature. So, after a bit of a spike in activity yesterday, we thought we'd pop by and see how things stood. Lucky we did." She paused. "Though I expect you would have worked things out. You're quite used to this, I believe."
Giles managed another mumbling gurgle. It was interpreted as, "No, dear, we didn't move you. Just popped you in the spare room while we sorted out the mess you'd made in your room when the ghost attacked. Bit of blood, lot of broken glass. Nothing serious." Giles twitched. "Never mind, dear. You can buy a new mirror. John Lewis is marvellous, don't you think? Try to get some sleep and build your strength up, hmm?"
And she wandered off. Giles, absent any other good suggestions, slept.
It took three days for Giles to be able to conduct a civilised conversation without a splitting headache. At which point, the uninvited but extremely welcome guests began to drop their domestic facades. They were powerful women, especially en masse, and the four who had 'popped by' the several dozen miles from their Exmoor home were collectively formidable.
"There simply isn't anything here, Rupert," said Loveday, after their fifth day of exhaustive searching. "Not a blip. No history of hauntings. The vendors were obviously glad to get shot of the place, which made us suspicious, but there's not a vestige of a sign of demonic or paranormal activity here."
She paused. Dervla quietly entered the room behind him, and Giles's hackles rose, just a fraction. Loveday continued. "Except- We can't help but notice that the most obviously unquiet spirit in this house is you."
Dervla said, over his shoulder. "We hypothesise that the house acts as an amplifier of feelings. Any unease might grow into something a trifle more substantial, given time. Which might explain the previous owners' feelings. But in your case, with your level of supernatural awareness and experience of magic- Well. Amplifying something that is already quite loud can produce unpleasantness."
"Are you saying that I hit myself on the head?" Giles didn't really attempt to put any surprise into that. His life had become sufficiently recursive that self-induced unconsciousness felt rather a logical move.
"I am saying," said Loveday, quietly, "That you are a deeply troubled man and that unaccustomed solitude has not assisted you to deal with that, to the point where you became positively a danger to yourself."
"And," added Dervla, always softer in presentation, "We feel we might be able to help you with that. If you would welcome it."
It wasn't, in the event, either Dervla or Loveday that Giles finally talked to. That waited for Giles to find his own space within the coven's Widdecombe home, and to build up his mental and physical strength sufficiently to confront his internal conflict. Then longer, until he picked the right member of the coven to talk to.
Her name was Althanea, and she was younger than he would have expected. Perhaps all those years in Sunnydale had finally killed off his age-related prejudices. She looked bruised by life, heavily tattooed with designs somewhat incongruous to her current activity (rather leaning on the deformed skulls and satanic symbolism). She was also not one of Dervla's class of warmly chatty witches, more concerned with succouring humanity than the defeat of dark powers. She sat, quietly apart, luminous with power and – he thought – understanding.
One day, in the library, Giles found himself alone with Althanea. She was browsing, apparently, though he suspected she was keeping watch over him. It seemed the moment to say something, if he were going to say something.
"I killed a man." Apparently, he was going to say something. That.
Althanea turned to face him, and drew up a chair. "Only one?"
"Well…" Giles tried to tot up. "Probably several Knights of Byzantium too. But I feel rather differently about those who have opted to-" Well, opted to save the world, from their point of view; it was scarcely their fault that had ended up putting the life of one young girl was in jeopardy. He silently remembered too the various people of Sunnydale who had died while he was distracting Buffy with other missions. The high school students at graduation. The Initiative chaos. He'd probably killed a fair few humans by act or by inaction, when one looked at it that way. "This isn’t making me feel better."
"What is different about this man?" Althanea leant over, and brushed the back of her hand over his. Nothing more, but a spreading calm came from the touch. Not alone, Giles. Someone who will listen.
"He was a vessel for a god. A good lad, I think, though by the end his own need for survival was rather warping his judgment. But he was normal, hardworking, wanted to become a doctor, of all the selfless professions. And within him, he carried the most dangerous adversary we had ever encountered. We couldn't kill her, though we had hurt her. So I killed him while she was weak. Nobody else knows."
Althanea didn’t respond. Asked only, "Why didn't you tell them?"
Giles thought back to the chaos under the tower. "It wasn't important at the time. Glory was gone. Other people had died- Someone who mattered very much to us all had died. We were mourning her."
Althanea evidently knew plenty about Sunnydale, though Giles had never spoken of it with her. Hardly surprising, perhaps. "But now Buffy is alive, and now you have space to remember. And I don't in any case think you concealed that killing purely because you were distracted by other events."
There was a silence.
"No. You're quite right. It troubles me deeply. If I were a soldier, perhaps it would have been my unquestionable duty – it was, quite evidently, the safest option for the world. But I am not, and never have been, sworn to do anything other than protect humanity as a whole. Not to choose one man over another. Not to hurt one innocent to save another."
There was a further silence. Althanea brushed her hand against Giles's once more.
"It was a difficult choice," Giles said. She did not respond. "I did what I thought was best. I took no joy in it. I would defend it had another done it."
Althanea's whole palm covered Giles's clenched fist.
"God, I wish it hadn't been me."
Something broke inside Giles. Had he been a different man, he might have wept. As it was, he merely absorbed the feeling of his own distress, acknowledged. Quite likely the house would have no power over him, if he chose to return. But laying a ghost of his own creation was scarcely the priority now.
"He'll never forgive you. You will never hear him exonerate you of the guilt, and no one else's view really matters. There never will be absolution for this, beyond what you can offer yourself," said Althanea. Quite calm, quite remorseless. And yet without judgement. "But you might find it helpful to talk about it further. Perhaps with someone who has experience of this kind of decision."
Who could such a person be? Giles couldn't immediately think.
A week later, however, he found himself back in a place he had never expected to revisit.
"Could you ask Mr Travers whether he will see me?"
Giles didn't expect Quentin to have answers, still less absolution. But if the Watchers' Council had any meaning, it must be a place where people like Giles could talk about the sacrifices they had made in saving the world.