disclaimer in part 1
"So how many sheets did we murder for this ritual?" Buffy asked as she selected a white robe out of the box that Giles had brought forward shortly after eleven.
"I’ll have you know that these are top-quality robes," Giles huffed. "I had them on order before all this started. With all the witches in Sunnydale, I do better business at Beltane than a candy shop at Halloween."
"Yeah? Where did you order them from, Big Thor’s Pagan Supplies for Trucks?" Buffy asked, holding up her arms—from which roughly an extra foot of empty sleeve hung.
"Take off that extra-large, give it to Riley, and find a small," He snapped. No one insulted his merchandise. "Did you think these were one size fits all?" Instead of giving the robe to anyone, she just tossed it back to him with a smirk, and began to dig in the box again. "I’d have thought you’d be grateful," he muttered. "After all, this ritual is somewhat similar to traditional Wiccan and Druidic ceremonies—or they’re somewhat similar to it, it’s hard to tell. In any case, our options were white robes or skyclad."
She looked up at him quizzically. "Skyclad?"
"Naked," Tara supplied calmly as she held a small robe against her front, changed her mind, and went back for a medium.
Buffy looked at Giles, her eyes wide.
Smirking, he nodded.
Buffy bent her head back to the task at hand and began to dig through the robes more frantically. "I’ll take the robes," she said.
"I thought you might."
Wesley jumped. He’d been walking the circle of the sacred dell with his copy of the Elysian Prophecies in hand, double-checking their preparations, and he hadn’t been paying attention to anything else.
In a reaction that had nearly become a reflex in his time with Angel, he snapped around toward the source of the sound and whipped a knife out of the belt-sash of his robe.
Unfortunately, the knife was an athame that Giles had given him "on the house" for the ceremony. It was thus unsharpened and rather useless as a weapon.
Fortunately, Faith and Gunn had little intention of harming him.
"Whoa!" Faith said, holding up her hands as they both leaped back. "Better switch to some decaf Earl Grey, there, Wes."
"I’m sorry," Wesley apologized, blushing invisibly in the dimness. "You startled me."
"It’s dangerous to surprise anyone in this group, isn’t it?" Gunn asked. "What should I do, blow a horn in front of me?"
"That might actually be wise," Wesley said, slipping the athame back into his belt.
Not for the first time, Gunn cursed Wesley’s absolute straight-faced, deadpan sense of humor. It was impossible to tell when the man was joking or not. He wondered if it was a British trait, or if Wesley was weird even over there.
"What’cha doin’?" Faith asked.
"Just double-checking," Wesley said, returning to the Prophecies.
"Isn’t it called ‘octuple-checking’ after this many times?" Faith asked innocently.
Wesley turned and gave them the evil eye, but the two miscreants just smiled back.
"She’s right," Gunn agreed, pointing at Faith. "You got a real obsessive-compulsive thing going here."
"Oh, yes," Wesley said sourly. "I know it’s quite silly of me to wish to be prepared when our ‘greatest foe’ arrives. I do apologize for it. You must think me a lunatic. But indulge me anyway."
"Jeez, no need to bite our heads off," Faith said.
Gunn had been reminded of something by Wesley’s rant. "Do we have any suspects on ‘the Horned One’ yet?" He asked.
"Far too many," Wesley replied absently, kneeling to examine a crystal that had been positioned in the notch between two rocks that had once been one—which were in the exact location and position that the Prophecy said they would be. This thing was scary.
"Yeah," Faith agreed. "I bet a lot of demons have horns."
"A lot of demons, several gods, and at least one angel."
"Gods?" Faith said. "Yeesh. Do they give any easy ones?"
"Not that they bother to write prophecies about."
"Well, I guess a god would count as our greatest foe," Gunn said.
"Why do you assume that the ‘Horned One’ is our foe at all?" Wesley said. "For all we know, the Horned One could be coming to help us with out greatest foe. All we know for sure is that they’re both arriving tonight."
"Good point," Gunn agreed.
"Prophecies are tricky things," Wesley said. "But here’s a question for you: in the past week we’ve defeated Belial, one of the most powerful beings in existence. We’ve also destroyed Angelus, the enemy who cast his shadow on all of our lives for years. If neither of them were our greatest foe, then who is?"
Wesley stood up and turned back to them, and for the first time he realized just how young they looked, with their customary armorlike leather covered up by the soft robes. "Think about it," He said. "I know I am."
* * *
"Do I really have to do this?" Buffy whined.
"I’m afraid no one else can," Giles replied.
"Fine, fine," Buffy surrendered. "Please tell me that the prophecy doesn’t rule out cue cards."
"No," Giles deadpanned, handing her a stack of index cards. "It doesn’t."
"Thanks," she said sarcastically, shuffling through them. "Tell me again why I’m stuck with the public speaking?"
"Not all of it," Giles said. "And it’s because you’re our queen."
"But my mother is not only alive, she’s right here," Buffy protested. "Shouldn’t I be a princess?"
Giles shook his head. "A leader is the person who does the leading. All of us—even she, even I—have come to obey your orders more often than we try to give them. That makes your mother the dowager queen, and you the actual ruler."
"I’m going to tell her you said that."
"Please don’t. She’s far too young a woman to be a ‘dowager’."
"If you say so." Then an idea struck her, and her face brightened. "What about a king? Shouldn’t there be a king out there, doing most of the talking?"
Giles shook his head, grinning ruefully. Why couldn’t she be this resourceful in her studies? "There were some societies in the ancient world where the king was nothing more than the consort of the queen. Strangely enough, I think our little society is much the same."
Though they hadn’t noticed it while it was happening, they both suddenly realized that the area where they stood speaking had become much brighter. The others had lit the great fire.
Giles glanced at his watch. They couldn’t depend on Angel’s instincts to guide them this time. Unlike dawn, midnight felt no different to him than it did to anyone else. Thus: watches. It seemed surreal, even for them, to count down to an occult ritual on a digital watch with Indiglo™.
"Come along, then," Giles said. "It’s time."
Midnight. The flames rose high into the night, and Buffy summers stepped out into the circle. On her head was a crown of spring flowers. In her right hand was a sword. In her left were the index cards.
Nervously, she cleared her throat several times, and began to read:
"I step into the circle on this holy night,
I step into the circle and I call:"
Oz began to beat on the drum—lightly, with his fingertips, a two-beat-rest rhythm, the rhythm of a heartbeat.
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
"I call forth the Lightning Warrior,
Who holds thunder in his hands
And brings life from the Earth.
Come step into the circle on this holy night
Come step into the circle, I Call."
Riley stepped forward into the circle, holding a gun in one hand and a sickle in the other. Both had caused some controversy: Giles had argued that a sword was more traditional as a ritual weapon, until someone pointed out that the Lightning Warrior needed to "hold thunder in his hand". Riley had argued that he’d never actually used a sickle. Not as a farming tool, at least. Giles, still smarting over the gun, pointed out that the sickle would have to do as a symbol, unless he knew where he could get a combine at this hour.
Something was happening. Buffy could feel it. Something strange, but wonderful. Everything was becoming more real somehow. The night was coming alive around her: her soft robe whispered against the bare skin of her arms. The sand shifted under her feet. The wind sighed around the rocks. She could hear the skittering of the night-creatures outside the circle of the firelight, more interested in the warmth than the two-legged intruders who brought it. The moon and stars shone down more clear-bright than she, a city girl, had known they could. Riley had told her, and she’d believed, but she’d never imagined.
As Riley approached her, she could smell him: sweat and wood-dust competed with what she considered to be Riley’s "normal" smell, but couldn’t overpower it. But there was something else. Something more.
Something earthy. Something she’d only smelled before when she—and he—were at their wildest. Something musky and essentially male.
She could feel the drumbeat entering her blood. Wild, yes. Something wild was happening. She looked into his eyes and she saw it there, too. She looked around at the circle, and she saw it in them, as well. Shuffling impatiently, tapping their feet, keeping time. The men more than the women, Angel and Oz most of all.
She threw the index cards into the fire. She couldn’t forget the words any more than she could forget to breathe.
Giles watched in awe as Riley dropped to one knee in front of Buffy, bowing his head. He thought, but couldn’t be sure, that he heard the younger man murmur "My queen."
Buffy stepped forward and raised her sword, and Giles—wondering just how closely this ritual would mirror the ancient druidic ceremonies—had a moment of fright, but then Buffy touched the tip of the sword lightly to each of Riley’s shoulders—
She’s knighting him?
--then reached down, pulled him to his feet, kissed him, and released him in the direction of his assigned place in the circle.
Now he understood. The prophecy, despite its helpfulness on where and when to go and what to bring, and what to do with them, had been remarkably close-mouthed on the "stage directions" of the ritual itself. It had only said "Fear not for what you shall say and do, for the words shall be as the very air you breathe, and your feet shall know the steps in the sand."
He watched, and he understood. And he believed.
And as he believed, he could feel the dance starting to grow in his own feet.
"I call forth the Guardian of the Night,
The Righteous Beast with a soul where there should be none,
Who watches over the helpless in the dark."
As she repeated the refrain, Angel stepped forward, carrying his broadsword and wearing a hooded black cloak over his robe. Like Riley, he dropped to one knee in front of Buffy, and like Riley he was knighted, kissed, and sent on his way. There was one difference: his face was human when she touched her sword to his right shoulder, but when she touched the left, he snarled forth his demon-face. The Guardian of the Night was not a man—not just a man, anyway. He was the Righteous Beast. So let it be.
"I call forth the Walker of the Twilight,
She who has gone into the Darkness,
Yet returned as a brighter light."
Faith stepped forward. Instead of kneeling, she held out her sword in a gesture that was half salute and half challenge. Buffy crossed the sword with her own, then reached out her free hand. Faith clasped it and they pulled each other close with the swords still crossed between them. They kissed over the crossed swords, then Buffy turned Faith in the direction of her place and let her go.
Buffy stuck her sword into the earth and left it standing. None of the rest of them would be knighted. All of them received a kiss as a benediction—generally on the cheek or forehead, though she did kiss Willow and Cordelia’s lips—but none of them with the passion that she had shown Riley and Angel.
"I call forth the three who are as one:
The Witch of the Glass Pathways,
The Silent One,
And the Gentle One."
Thump, thump. Thump, Thump.
"I call forth the Magician,
the wise counselor
who knows the price of folly."
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
"I call forth the Guide, she who sees the gods’ light."
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
"I call forth the Young King,
War-chieftain of the lost."
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
"I call forth the Coyote,
Who cures and kills with laughter."
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
"I call forth the Punisher."
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
"I call forth the Scholar."
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
That left only her mother outside the circle. Buffy, who had guided everyone to their places, had returned to her own in the center, standing before the fire. And there was only one gap left in that circle, one that made a straight corridor between Buffy and her mother.
Silence fell. Oz stopped beating the drum. The others, who hadn’t even realized that they were clapping and stomping in time, all but dancing in their places, went still.
"And I call forth the Mother of the Heroes,
Dam to one, mother to all,
Nurturer of bodies and healer of spirits,
More mother to them than their own dams is she."
The Heroes didn’t bother to hold back their whoops and cheers as a teary-eyed Joyce joined the circle, greeted by a rib-cracking hug from her daughter.
Buffy took her spot on the outer edge of the circle—between an honor guard of the Lightning Warrior and the Guardian of the Night. It was the Magician and the Scholar’s turn to talk.
From where they stood in the circle, directly opposite each other, Giles and Wesley stepped forward. Giles held a great oaken staff—again, taken from his own store’s stock room—while Wesley carried a simple quill pen. Both the Magician and the Scholar required a book as part of their ritual props. The Prophecies themselves served nicely.
"We have come together on this holy night," Giles pronounced. "The night of the Sun’s ascendancy, the night that He Who Has Died and Risen comes to his bride, the night that their passion brings the new bloom of life."
"All who have been called are here," Wesley declared. "And we are two sevens. All conditions are met: we have given gifts of rare oils—" The rare oils had been used in lieu of kerosene to get the fire going. They had done that job so well, that the more common oils they’d brought "just in case" had proven unnecessary. "Let the priestesses bring forth the other gifts."
Willow stepped forward first, holding the incense that the ritual had called for. "We offer sweet incense," she said as she tossed it into the fire. "May its smoke rise to the gods’ nostrils and be pleasing."
Tara followed behind, holding the herbs. "We offer these herbs, food and medicine to us, gifts of the Earth, wife and mother to the God."
As the shower of sparks that had once been a handful of leaves and powders rose toward the sky, Willow and Tara turned to Giles and Wesley, and Oz began to beat on the drum again.
"Dance!" Giles shouted suddenly, turning out to the circle. "Let this holy place, this holy night, and our joy bless each other!"
The people in the outer circle were startled, so startled that it was a moment before they realized that their feet were already moving, that the tambourine was already in Cordelia’s hands.
Giles turned back to the inner circle, and his eyes were Somewhere Else. "Before you we come," He chanted. "With dance and with drum, we come."
"We pray you find it pleasing, and we beseech you: come among us," Wesley said.
The inner circle felt their own feet begin to move.
Willow felt the words shaping her lips around themselves, rather than the other way around. These words had been written in her brain from the moment she’d been born, as much a part of her as the language centers that had held them, waiting for this moment to be spoken: "We call to you: Stag King," she cried into the night.
"Oak King," Tara added.
"Lord of the Hunt,"
"Lord of the Dance,"
"He Who Dies and Rises Again"
By now the outer circle was spinning around at a dizzying pace, dancing counterclockwise—widdershins—though only Angel knew why. The inner circle was turning in the opposite direction, not so fast but speeding up until
Both circles stopped dancing as everyone stopped to see where Cordelia was pointing. For a long moment, there was nothing but the desert night beyond the large gap in the rocks that she was pointing at, but just before some asked what she’d seen, something stepped through.
Compared to many of the things they’d seen, the new arrival was actually rather mundane. He had a magnificent rack of antlers and gleaming black hooves instead of feet, but other than that, he was just a man. A beautiful, muscular man with dark skin, dark eyes, a ruggedly handsome face, and gleaming black hair that reached his shoulders. But still just a man.
Or rather, he would have been, if he hadn’t also been twenty feet tall.
He entered the circle with a slow, stately dignity that made it seem as if he was wearing the richest of royal robes and carrying tokens of office, despite the fact that he was actually naked. Grass and flowers sprung up in each hoof print he left behind.
"I assume this is the Horned One?" Oz asked dryly as Willow and Tara’s retreat brought them next to him once more.
"Cernunnos," Tara breathed.
"Is that good?" He asked, never taking his eyes off the huge figure approaching the fire.
"He’s God embodied as the sacred masculine," Giles pronounced in awe. Like anyone, he returned to his native tongue—scholar-speak—in moments of great excitement.
Under any other circumstances, Oz might have quirked an eyebrow and said "Huh." He was pretty sure he understood, but still…
"He’s the God," Willow said, answering as if Giles hadn’t. "He’s the King of Witches, he’s everything…everything male. He’s in the storm, and the fire, and—"
"Enough," He said gravely. His voice was deep, rich, and resonant. "You have called me, and I have come, as the prophecies foretold." The Scooby Gang and Angel investigations had encountered several beings of cosmic power and importance in the past several weeks, but only Cordelia had experienced something holy. The feeling of awe, of power, of majesty, was overwhelming. Some part of them, some deep-buried spirit-instinct, made them want to drop to their knees. "I have come to—"
The atmosphere shattered like fine crystal and they all whipped toward the younger Slayer. She’d dropped her sword to the ground and she was covering her face with her arms, and she was screaming.
"Faith?" Joyce asked. "What is it, honey? What’s wrong?" Later, she would remember that that was the first time she’d called Faith "honey". As if she was her daughter.
"Babe?" Gunn asked, tentatively putting an arm around her. "You okay?"
"Get away from me!" She screamed, throwing his arms off. "Don’t touch me!" She backed away from the circle, looking around wildly, everywhere but at Cernunnos. "Don’t look at me! Don’t…I’m…" She spun on her heel and sprinted up the trail.
"Oh, bugger," Cernunnos swore, something that would have drawn incredulous stares if the mortals hadn’t been more worried about Faith. "Faith, wait!" He called, reaching out after her fleeing back. "You can’t—"
She hit something solid but invisible just as she was about to cross the ridge out of the circle. She bounced and tumbled all the way back down the trail.
"—Get out once the ritual has begun," he finished.
The Heroes crowded around Faith’s fallen form, with Giles, Joyce, and Gunn crowded closest.
"Faith? Are you all right?"
"You’re not hurt, are you? Anything broken? Twist anything?"
"Don’t look at me," Faith moaned, curling up into a fetal ball. "Don’t see me. I’m bad. I’m bad."
"She’ll be okay," Cernunnos said. His voice was still deep and resonant, but he’d shed the formal language. Somehow, it seemed to fit better. "None of you can be hurt as long as I’m here. Don’t worry, this is just something that happens to people who enter Divine Presence with a guilty conscience."
Most of the people gathered around Faith took some reassurance from that. Cordelia, however, had a different reaction.
Cordelia got mad.
She’d never had a little sister, but she had some vague idea that this was how it felt to see your little sister get picked on. Faith had done some terrible things, but she was still a Warrior, a Champion—hell with that, she was till a human being, damn it, and to see him reducing her to this…
She whipped around and stormed across the circle to where the god was still standing. "Okay?" She shouted. "In what sick and twisted alternate universe is that—" She pointed to where Faith still lay on the ground, though the people gathered around her were now staring in horror and disbelief at Cordelia. "Even a fucked-up version of okay?" She demanded.
Cernunnos squatted in front of her, getting as close to looking her in the eye as he could. She still had to look up. "And what would you have me do?" He asked.
"What would I--? What--?" She spluttered. "Help her! I talked to the Metatron. I know you have a miracle left in your clip, so use it to help her. After how many times we’ve saved your world in just the past few weeks, I think you owe us that much."
White-faced and terrified, Willow grabbed her by the shoulder and started to pull her away, while Angel stepped between the Horned One and the May Queen and, his hands clasped in a prayerful manner, began to bow. "Please forgive her, my lord," he said. "She’s…very young, and doesn’t know—"
"I know enough," Cordelia said, pulling her shoulder away from Willow. "I know he can kill me just by wanting me dead, then send me to some Hell or make me something icky for my next hundred lives. I know that. And believe me, I’m just about scared enough to turn this robe brown."
Angel took a deep, unnecessary breath, unclasped his hands, and stood straight.
"But I’m not going to just stand around while he does that—" She pointed across the dell to where the rest of the group had stood up and spread out. All of them were pale and frightened. But they were also straight-standing and determined. Giles stood directly in front of the place where Joyce and Gunn were tending to Faith, shielding it. "—to Faith! Any kind of god that would just walk on by and let that happen belongs on the other side of the battle lines."
Cernunnos slowly rose back to his full height. Even Cordelia couldn’t help but take a step back as he did so. But after that first step, all of them stood their ground. Why not? Even if they could leave the dell, where could they run to?
So they stood their ground and waited for the lightning.
Cernunnos simply stood, staring down at them for what seemed like forever, his expression unreadable.
Then he put his hands on his hips.
Threw back his head.
The laughter was deep and rich and it rolled across the desert like rain clouds. Sick animals who heard that laugh immediately either died or became well. Cacti burst into full, glorious rainy-season bloom while an ancient saguaro crashed to the ground and began to rot. A kangaroo rat lay down and gave birth to her litter. Not far away, a rattlesnake did the same thing.
"Brilliant!" He said. "Well said! And to think that you, of all people, were the one to figure it out."
The Gang relaxed with an audible sigh of relief. They apparently weren’t going to get vaporized right away.
"What? Figure out? What did I figure out?" Cordelia asked, completely perplexed.
"What it’s really all about," Cernunnos replied. "You’re not Our slaves. You’re not here to kiss Our asses." He paused a moment. "We would’ve made your lips a lot bigger if you were," he muttered before going on. "You’re Our children. You’re here to grow up, and we’re here to help you. And guess what? You just stood up to me, demanding what you knew was right rather than stroking my ego. And more importantly, in your case, you were standing up for someone else." He reached down with a hand nearly the size of her torso and patted her on the head. "Very good. You’re learning."
He stood up straight again and cracked his knuckles. "So! Right. It just so happens that I came here tonight to perform that one miracle that Cordelia is talking about. Next question is: are you sure this is what you want me to do?"
Cernunnos’ simple, straightforward, workman-like language was more than a little confusing to those in the group who, accustomed to dealing with supernatural beings who had more to prove, expected more formality. So it was that Giles and Wesley were still dumbfounded and stammering when Buffy spoke up:
"What do you mean? Of course we want you to help her. Why would we want anything else?"
"Because I can do anything," Cernunnos explained. "I’m—" and then he spoke a word similar to the word Cordelia had heard the Metatron speak. Obviously the same language. It was a strange singular-plural word that their minds couldn’t quite grasp. Each of them knew that, even though they were hearing "a god" or "the God" or "God", that the true meaning of the word was outside their reach. "Life and death are my particular specialty. I am the dying and the rising god, after all."
They all stood dumbfounded, utterly stunned at the enormity of what they were being offered.
"Anything," Cernunnos prompted them after they stood in silence for a few moments. "Anything at all." He paused. "Well, not anything. I’m not going to change the nature of the world for you. No world peace, no end to hunger or disease, no getting rid of all the demons. That’s up to you. But on a more personal level…Rupert," he pointed. Giles jumped, and put his hand on his chest in a ‘Who, me?’ gesture. "I could give you Jenny back."
Giles stumbled back another step, his hand clutching his heart.
"Cordelia," Cernunnos turned his huge, glistening black eyes on the defiant seer. "Don’t you miss Doyle? And wouldn’t you be just as glad if he would take his visions back?"
Like Giles, Cordelia stumbled a few steps away, as if she’d been struck."
"Willow? Xander? Don’t you think that Jesse deserves the same chance at a life that you’ve had? Alonna doesn’t need to stay dead, Gunn."
The final person he turned his gaze on was Angel. "I could give you life," he said. "Real life. Eating food, raising children, walking in the sun. You could even keep your strength. Easiest thing in the world."
They all stood in silence for a moment longer, trying to process it, but it was too big. Everything they’d ever hoped for, everything they’d ever dreamed of but written off as impossible, was there for the asking. One miracle, for services rendered, theirs free and clear. One miracle, and only one.
Angel was the first to speak up. "I couldn’t do that," He said. "I couldn’t live with myself, knowing that I’d bought my life with someone else’s. So…thank you. Thank you very, very much, but…let someone else have it."
"The same goes for me," Giles spoke up almost immediately. "I’m quite sure that Jenny is happy where she is—yes?" He asked anxiously.
Cernunnos nodded. "Oh, yes." He said. "Everyone I mentioned is in one of the Shining Realms. They’d have to be, or else they wouldn’t be mine to offer. I’d have to fight the Lower Beings for them."
"Then it would be very selfish of me to ask you to drag her out of there for me. Besides, in the years she’s been gone, my own life has…" He involuntarily glanced toward Joyce. "Moved forward. Perhaps it is better for us both the way things are."
"I can take the headaches," Cordelia said. "The world’s full of aspirin. Help Faith."
Willow and Xander looked at each other, then back at Cernunnos. "Help Faith."
The others had only themselves, and the offers made to them to think about. No need to check with anyone before answering: "Help Faith." "Help Faith." "Help Faith."
Faith was sitting up, cradled in Gunn’s arms, listening. Her tears and her protests were starting to take on an entirely different tone: "No…guys, please…you can’t. Not for me…"
"They already have, sweetheart," Cernunnos said. He crossed the circle, and although he did so in only a few strides, and he certainly didn’t seem to shrink in any way as he did so, he was only slightly taller than Riley by the time he reached her. A tall man, nothing more.
With hooves. And antlers.
He reached down and took Faith by the hand, and hauled her to her feet. "Come on, lass, up on your feet. I want you looking at my eyes, not my hooves. Always stand on your feet and look in the eyes when you’re in the presence of a god, it’s what we made ‘em for. It’s mortal rulers that need their egos boosted by all that groveling."
All but struck speechless, Faith took a moment to collect herself. But as she did so, she did as she was told. And she found that the eyes of Cernunnos were…familiar. They were like Angel’s or Gunn’s—or rather, Gunn’s and Angel’s were like his—kind eyes. Gentle eyes. Eyes that loved her, but asked more than a quick fuck or an ego boost. Eyes that asked more than she thought she could give.
"So," Cernunnos said. "The people have spoken: they want me to help you. How may I do that?"
She couldn’t believe this. They’d all…they’d given up a miracle. For her. She’d never met people like this. Ever. If you’d told her, once upon a time, that they existed, she would have called you a liar, or them fools.
She would try to be worthy of that. Try to be worthy of that miracle.
She could wish her whole betrayal undone, but that might disrupt their defeat of the Mayor. She could…
No. She knew what she needed to do.
"Can you bring Lester back?" She asked.
"Of course I can," Cernunnos replied. "But are you sure that’s what he wants? It’d be awful selfish of you to pull him out of Heaven just to salve your guilty conscience, don’t you think?"
She hadn’t thought of it that way. "Probably," she admitted. She started to run her fingers through her hair, then clenched her fists in it instead. "I can’t even pick the right miracle," she said, her voice quavering on the edge of tears. "Give it to someone else before I fuck it up."
She’d started to curl in on herself, but then there was a rough, callused hand was under her chin, raising her eyes again until they met Cernunnos’.
"I said to look me in the eye," he said sternly. "It’s the responsibility of everything with a soul to look the gods in the eye." Then his face softened. "Come on, now, it needn’t be so bad. Let’s ask Lester what he thinks."
With that, her eyes flew wide. "What?"
"Hoy! Lester!" Cernunnos called. "There’s someone here who wants to talk to you."
The Heroes could only stare, dumbfounded as a figure appeared in the middle of their Beltane fire, seeming to simply coalesce out of the shimmering heat-haze. At first, standing in the middle of the fire, the figure was a mere silhouette, but as it stepped down to the desert floor, it resolved into a young man. He was short, perhaps no more than Faith’s own height, with round cheeks, thin red-brown hair, and a bit of a potbelly. He wore a tweed suit and brown shoes. He was the movie stereotype of the shy research scientist, who never even approaches The Girl and who only speaks out with confidence—or at all—on his subject of expertise, but never stops speaking once he starts.
"Yes, sir?" The new arrival asked.
"Lester!" Cernunnos greeted him, half-turning and waving him on, pulling Faith forward at the same time. "Lester, this is Faith. I believe you’ve met."
Lester leaned forward, squinting his eyes and raising his hand to adjust glasses that were no longer present or necessary. He peered at Faith, who was standing pale and still, for a long moment, then nodded his head. "Yes, I believe we have," He agreed.
"Oh, good," Cernunnos said, his sunny grin revealing canine teeth longer and sharper than the human norm. "You’ll have plenty to talk about, then." With that, he stepped back, leaving the field empty between the Slayer and the spirit.
The rest of the Heroes stood in silence. For the two participants in the moment, the rest of the world went away.
Faith swallowed hard and looked at the face of the man she’d murdered. He was younger, and his glasses were gone—who needs glasses in Heaven?—but otherwise, he looked pretty much the same. He said nothing, simply watching her gravely.
She tried to speak, but her mouth and throat were too dry. All she could manage was a rusty whisper. She swallowed hard, licked her lips, and tried again. "Lester? That really you?"
He nodded. "It is. Or at least, it was."
She swallowed again, but this time there was a hard, aching lump in her throat. "I. Am so. Sorry," she said. "So, so sorry. I don’t know what else to say, but—if it makes you feel any better, I went to jail," she said desperately. "I spend my days working in the laundry, fighting off 300-pound butches and getting beat up by the guards when I hurt ‘em too bad. I wanted to stay, to pay my dues, but—"
She noticed that Lester was simply standing and letting her talk, looking entirely unmoved. "Do you want it back?" She asked, breaking off in the middle of her other topic, even more desperate. "Your life? He’ll give it back if I ask him to," she waved at Cernunnos, who was leaning against a large boulder with his arms crossed. Moss was spreading across the boulder at a visible pace. "If you want it."
"No, thank you." Lester said. "It’s been two years. Life has moved on without me. I’m better off where I am."
"Then is there anything else I can do?" She pleaded. "Anything at all. Please. Please let me—"
"What can you do?" He shrugged. "I’m dead. You killed me. I was about to achieve international acclaim because of your ‘Olvikan’. It was the culmination of my life’s work. Imagine it: me, discoverer of an entirely new type of dinosaur. A limbless carnosaur. Perhaps a giant, ancestral snake. An entirely new branch on the evolutionary tree. That’s more than I ever dared to dream of achieving, back when I first studied archaeology. That’s what you took away from me."
Faith bowed her head and swallowed hard. Her eyes were starting to sting, but she refused to cry. She had no right to cry, not in front of the man she’d murdered.
"Do you remember what I asked you?" He asked. "Before you started stabbing?"
"Why," she answered in a strengthless whisper.
"What was that?" He asked, cupping a hand to his ear.
"Why," she answered more strongly, raising her head again. "You asked me why."
"That’s right," he said. "And you didn’t know. You didn’t even know why you were killing me. I didn’t know why I was dying, and that, as they say, was the unkindest cut of all."
Faith took a deep breath, raised her head a little higher, and looked straight into Lester’s eyes. It’s the responsibility of everything with a soul…
"I’m sorry," she repeated. "I know it doesn’t mean shit, but it’s all I can say. I’m sorry."
Lester stood silent for a moment, his eyes searching her face. Evaluating. Re-assessing. "I found out why once I crossed the veil," he said at last. "They stop hiding things from you after you die. I learned that I had a tiny, sacrificial part in saving the world. If it hadn’t been you, it would have been somebody else."
"That doesn’t make it okay that I did it," She said.
"No," he agreed sharply. "It doesn’t. But still. It was fated to happen. As unfair as it was, it was necessary." He paused thoughtfully for a moment. "To tell the truth, that provided a bit of comfort."
He paused again, stroking his chin, clearly still evaluating her, trying to decide what to say. For the first time, she noticed that he was changing: he was growing slowly taller and straighter, his belly was flattening and his shoulders widening. "I found out why it was done," He said. "And I found out why you were the one to do it. So much of you, nature and nurture, was violence. I saw your pain, and your loneliness. The love and attention lavished on you by the only real father you’d ever known until you loved him, too. Until you didn’t care that he was evil and you’d do anything for him. I saw what had happened to you, and I saw what became of you, and I found…I found that I couldn’t hate you."
Faith could only blink and stare in confusion and disbelief. "What are you saying?" She asked. "You saying it’s okay?"
"No," He said sternly. "It’s not okay. It’s never okay. Nothing can make it okay, not even the fact that I’m happy where I am now. Someone with your kind of power needs to understand that."
"I do," She answered miserably. "And I’m just sorry—"
"That’s why I put you through all this, even though I don’t hold you any grudge anymore."
Faith was utterly lost. "But…you just said…"
"I’m not saying it’s okay," He said. "You need to understand that, and remember it. What I’m saying is that I forgive you. Do you understand the distinction?"
Faith could only nod mutely. Her voice was gone. The tears had finally come, but for a different reason. She couldn’t remember any time in her life—ever—when she’d been this happy. Of all the joys in all the worlds, forgiveness is perhaps the greatest of all.
Lester was looking more angelic than human now. His suit had turned a soft white and started to glow, while he stood straight and tall and broad-shouldered and muscular.
"A few weeks back, you died," he continued. "And you came back. That means you have a new life. You’re starting clean. Don’t make the same mistakes with this one."
"I won’t," she promised fervently. "I’ll remember you."
"Good." With that, he took her head in his hands, bent his own head and kissed her forehead. "Go forth and sin no more," he murmured. Then he released her, walked back into the fire, and was gone, as if the fire was a doorway he had walked through. And perhaps that was the case.
The silence held for a moment. Then it was broken by a strange sound. The Heroes all transferred their attention from the fire to Faith, who was standing with tears streaming down her face, making tiny half-laugh, half-sob sounds of pure joy. Then the sounds grew and swelled and the sobs faded until she burst into full, joyous laughter and everyone present realized at the same time that this was the first time they’d ever really heard her laugh.
But now she was. She stood there, her arms and her face raised, laughing ecstatic joy and gratitude to the sky, as if Lester was listening from beyond it.
They all converged on her, and there were hugs and congratulations and—
If it had been anyone else, they probably wouldn’t have noticed. But when a god wants your attention…
"I hate to break this up," Cernunnos said as they all turned to him. "I really do. But we’re burning moonlight, and there’s a lot of work to do yet. I came here to do a miracle, and that’s what I intend to do."
"But…" Buffy said. "That just now wasn’t a miracle?"
"Pfft," Cernunnos waved the question away. "Summoning a spirit at a mystical nexus point? On Beltane? I’ve done card tricks that were harder. Any one of your magic-users could’ve done it if they’d thought of it."
Giles, Wesley, Willow, and Tara all looked back and forth at each other, dumbfounded. It was true. It would have been easy for them, let alone Him. Why hadn’t they thought of it?
Too used to the misery, perhaps. Too accustomed to accepting it.
Cernunnos smacked his hands together and began rubbing them, like a man eager to get to work. "Oh, no. I have some Wonders To Perform tonight, children."
"You already know what you’re going to do," Buffy said. "You always did."
"Of course," Cernunnos said.
"Then why?" She asked. "Why the questions? Why let us think that was our only chance?"
"You needed to be clear on what you really wanted," He replied. "I offered you all things that you wanted with all your hearts at one time or another, but instead you chose to help a member of your family. Which is just what needed to happen. You see, I'm not some genie, who has to give you your wish, trying to get out of it for as little as I possibly can. I’m not a fairy-friggin’-godmother, and I’m not some tempter devil trying to screw you over. I’m a god. That means I want to do what’s really best for you. But I didn’t want you to go away from here feeling cheated. I wanted you to make those decisions yourselves."
"So what are you going to do?" She asked.
"Just what I said I was going to do in the book," he answered. "I’m going to help you defeat the one enemy that you never could."