"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believeth in me shall not die..."
When Giles had been a fresher, he had gone to Sunday evensong every week. New College, in which Watchers traditionally matriculated, had a choir of international reputation, but that wasn't why he had gone, initially; it was expected that apprentice Watchers would be as respectable and conventional as possible, and regular attendance at chapel was part of that. He hadn't believed in the service even then, but he'd liked the long, narrow space, the steep tiers of elaborately-carved pews, the stained glass windows so high up. New College was one of the ancient colleges of the university, and, of course, the chapel was one of its oldest and most beautiful structures, especially when it rang with the pure voices of the boys. He'd listened to the priest intone the Collect for Aid against All Perils, "Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night," while he watched the gleam of sunset fade from the windows and thought that a Watcher could hope for that, even if he didn't have faith in the power invoked. Evensong had been one of the few of the Council's expectations that he hadn't grown to resent.
After he'd returned from London, he'd gone to the service as usual--there was certainly no latitude for him, given what had happened--hoping to find some relief from the sick numbness inside him. Instead, he had been disgusted by the falsehood of it all. He stared coldly at the reredos behind the altar, so beautiful to him as a younger man, with the knowledge that it was a nineteenth-century reconstruction. He winced every time he passed under the hideous modern stained glass window that ruined part of the antechapel. And the words of the service...he could scarcely bring himself to mutter them politely, even under the watchful gaze of his tutor. It was intolerable, and after his graduation, he had done everything he could to avoid attending Christian rituals.
He could not, however, avoid this one. He held himself perfectly still in the pew as the minister read out the service for Buffy, but he wanted to shout aloud at the hypocrisy of it all. Buffy had not been theologically-inclined, but with her experiences, she could no more believe in the traditional Christian God than he did. No, her universe, like his, was ruled over by a congeries of mysterious, arbitrary, and dangerous powers, to be supplicated when necessary and avoided whenever possible. They were not to be loved, or trusted, or turned to for comfort in times of sorrow. Even the ones which were allegedly benevolent towards humans had seen nothing wrong with cursing an innocent girl to fight every night of her life until she died. Giles did not care one whit about the Lamb of God; he cared only for the lamb he himself had led to slaughter. But the appropriate thing had to be done for the public eye.
And in the public eye, the death of Buffy Summers belonged to her father, her sister, even her high-school friends, but scarcely at all to an aging shopkeeper whose relationship with her had always seemed a trifle suspect. He had had no say in what happened to her after the police had taken her body. He wondered if anyone would even notice if he left. He looked over at Willow and Tara holding hands, Anya leaning against Xander, Dawn clutching her father, and decided that no one would. After that realization, it took only a moment for him to stand and slip to the back of the packed church.
Outside, it was overcast. At least the Californian weather had decided not to be damnably, cheerfully improper for the occasion, as he'd worried it might be. He walked towards his car, head down, hands jammed into the pockets of his jacket. But he caught the whiff of cigarette smoke, and when the hand fell on his shoulder, he thought only: Of course.
"I knew you couldn't be that much of a hypocrite," Ethan said.
"You seem to have been more honest than me today," he answered, lifting his gaze to the other. He was so thin, his hair cut much too close to his scalp. Signs for Giles to read, but there was no will in him to decode them. "Since you didn't go in at all."
"Not even for you, Ripper. You know how I feel about Christian rites."
"And you know how I feel about Buffy." Giles leaned on a fence and looked up at the blank sky. "Come for vengeance?"
"Well, since you mention it, yes, but it seems it'd be coals to Newcastle at this point." Giles didn't respond. "Did pretending that you believe she's gone to heaven to sit on a cloud and play a golden harp all day help?"
"Not in the slightest."
"Pity. But I could've told you that in advance. Counterfeiting faith doesn't do any good. It's why I've never bothered."
Giles stared at him. "What, exactly, do you believe, Ethan? Enlighten me."
Ethan's expression of amused cynicism melted away under his look to something much less readable. "Well..." He sat next to him and lit another cigarette. Giles rejected the offered pack with a tiny shake of his head. "Chaos tells us little about grief, Ripper, except that it exists and passes away into something else, as everything does. In the meantime..." He shrugged. "What's gone is gone. We do our best to forget."
"That's not particularly comforting, either."
Ethan looked at the end of his cigarette. "I've never found it to be, no." After a moment, he forced a smile and said, "But, unlike the folly practiced by your friends back there, it makes no fetish out of pain. Or guilt. It frees one to do what one will to ease the burden."
Ah, there it was. "Does it?"
"Indeed." Ethan threw away the cigarette, put his hand on his shoulder again, and leaned close. Giles didn't like having him that near, not when the appeal in his eyes was so direct and honest. "Ripper, there's no need for you to suffer so much. Let me help you this time. You know just how many things I can do to make you feel better."
"Better, Ethan?" He pulled away. "Are you sure you don't mean worse?"
"Well, different, at any rate. That's what you want, isn't it?"
Ethan's idea of comfort: trading one pain for another of his own choosing. It was all too evident, looking at his gaunt figure, what twenty years of that, from Randall to the present day, had done for him. "What I want, Ethan, you can't give me. And I'll kill you if you try."
Ethan slid two fingers between the buttons of his shirt. They were cold. "Then let me give you what you don't want. You may find that you change your mind."
"Counterfeit faith again?" Giles rose. "Didn't we already decide that there's no comfort to be found that way?"
"Once it was you I believed in instead of them, you know," he said. "That faith haunted me for years. But it's long gone."
"So what do you believe in now?" Ethan stood as well, and his eyes were challenging.
"Buffy." He looked at the ground. "I believe in Buffy."
"A dead god?" Ethan laughed bitterly. "Are you sure you're not a Christian after all, Ripper?"
He didn't answer out loud, even after Ethan was gone, but he thought it, again and again. They were fools, and he was a fool, and there was nothing to choose between them.
Finally, he turned the collar of his jacket down and went back into the church.