And the Rest Is Silence
By Amywyn

Disclaimer: We know the drill by now. I don’t own them. Not a one. They belong to Joss, Mutant Enemy, the WB and the wonderful actors and actresses that give them life and make them so easy to invite into my living room every week. It’s their playground - I just made up the game and borrowed the players. And I promise to return them relatively unmolested (Joss did more to them than I ever could have come up with anyway). As for suing - I’ve got CDs, books and cats, which do you want?

Timeline and spoilage: This is post-Becoming, pre-Anne fic. I know - it’s old. I had started it a *long* time ago, and then set it aside to deal with other things. But then, re-watching "Dead Man’s Party," a certain line made me think of it again. And once I was thinking of it, it wouldn’t leave me alone ‘till I wrote it, so here it is. Contains the quote from "Dead Man’s Party", and specific quote spoilers for "The Dark Age," "Lie to Me," "Innocence," "Passion," "I Only Have Eyes for You" and (for obvious reasons) "Becoming." Some minor "Anne" situational references.


Buffy: You have no idea how much I've missed you - everyone. I wanted to call everyday.
Willow: That doesn't matter Buffy, it doesn't make it okay that you didn't.

- BtVS, "Dead Man’s Party"

~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~

Chapter 1

*I never knew what enough was,

Until I’d had more than my share.

I let the darkness in,

and it was then that I lost the dare.

It was then that I lost the day.*

This was what her life had been reduced to. A sparse, one-room apartment in yet another city where she knew no one and no one knew her. No heat, no lights, undrinkable water and only rats and cockroaches for company. The duffel bag with its meager supply of clothing at the side of the bed her only possessions, with just enough money left in her pocket after paying the rent to eat for the next couple of days. Somewhere in the distance a child screamed and a couple fought, the sounds of others lives passing as easily through the walls as the wind.

Buffy brought her knees up closer to her chest and pulled the thin, threadbare blanket tighter around her shoulders, huddling further into the bedsheets in an attempt to escape the drafts and get warm. She laid her head on her upraised knees and closed her eyes, waiting for the exhaustion to overcome her.

It was a futile effort on both counts. No amount of huddling would hold off the wind that whistled, unchecked, through the little apartment, and her eyes would never close tight enough to block the images that her mind continually brought forth.

~Close your eyes.~

Buffy’s eyes snapped open, all thoughts of sleep fleeing as the simple sentence echoed through her mind.

No. Not again. She would not do this again.

Her fingers released their grip on the blanket, allowing it to fall, unnoticed, from her shoulders as she reached up to cover her face with her hands. The heels of her palms pressed painfully into her eyes, until all she saw behind her eyelids was a shifting, pulsing blackness.

She moved her hands up along her temples, pulling her hair away from her face as she waited for her vision to return. As soon as the room around her was once again clearly visible she scooted to the edge of the bed and walked quickly over to the door, not bothering to lock it as she left the tiny room. It wasn’t as if she had anything to steal anyway.

She wrapped her arms about herself as she moved down the dark hallway, silently stepping over one of the other residents of the roach-ridden, rat-infested apartment building. Usually she would have tried to get him up out of his drunken stupor and into whichever room he thought he belonged in, knowing full well that if the super caught him he would be back living in a cardboard box. But right now all she could think of was getting out of the building.

The walls were closing in around her, pressing down, cutting off her air. The ever-present stench of poverty and hopelessness that permeated the decrepit building wasn’t helping either. The smells that she always associated with this place she couldn’t bring herself to call home were threatening to make her gag.

She sprinted across the room that passed for a lobby, noting with no surprise that the so-called night watchman was sleeping in his little bullet-proof glass and barred box. Again.

She hit the sidewalk at a near-run, unconsciously moving as if she knew where she was going, and wasn’t just running aimlessly from demons only she could see and hear. Walking with no purpose after dark in any city was an open invitation to more predators than just vampires, and Buffy simply didn’t want to deal with either at the moment.

She walked for several blocks, a small part of her mind taking note of precisely how far she had walked, what corners she had turned and stores she passed. She would not get lost, no matter how hard she tried. Years of patrolling had ingrained the habit in her, and the last few months had only sharpened it to near-perfection. She could always find her way back to anywhere, it was where she was going that she lacked.

Lightening flashed across the sky, followed quickly by a loud clap of thunder. Buffy stopped, looking up into the clouds, trying to gauge whether or not she had time to make it back to the apartment building. At the thought of the tiny, oppressive room her stomach began to churn again, and she ducked beneath a doorway awning, deciding that even if she did have time, she wasn’t going back there for a while.

She dropped into a crouch, leaning back against the stone wall that made up part of the doorway of the little shop. Her eyes scanned the mostly-deserted street from her vantage point, probing the shadows and alleyway entrances, peering warily into the few passing cars and taxicabs, looking for dangers of both the living and un-dead kind.

Her gaze was repeatedly drawn to a trio of telephone booths across the street. Their soft florescent light seemed to beckon her, giving false promises of warmth and security, solace and comfort. The devices they housed offering the possibility of a conversation that did not necessarily have to involve a choice of drink. Conversation that could, instead, be about love and home and forgiveness and hope.

The numbers were there, easily recalled, having been consistently, though not consciously, recited over the past few months, usually in situations like this. When the fact that all she had left behind was a mere ten buttons away, when the means to have a destination again was illuminated before her like a sign from God, and all she had to do was pick up the receiver and dial.

Willow or Xander, Giles... her mother; the possibilities ran through her mind once again, each one picked up and lovingly examined before being tossed away out of fear and shame. How could she face them again? Ask them for shelter and comfort?

An image of Willow, her hair standing out as the brightest thing in the suffocatingly white hospital room, rose in Buffy’s mind. And another, of Willow looking anxiously around the schoolyard, as Oz pushed her wheelchair into the building. No, she could not call Willow. Could not face the questions she was bound to ask, could not tell her over the safety of a phone line what the spell had done, how high the cost of those last moments with Angel had been.

Xander? Buffy dismissed that idea more quickly, the memory of something in his eyes the last time they spoke holding her away from the possibility. Not Xander.

~You walk out of this house, don’t even *think* about coming back!~ Her mother’s words echoed back to her, still holding the power to hurt immeasurably, even nearly three months later. In her head, she knew her mother had not meant them, but her heart was another matter. She would not call her mother.

That left Giles. And she had as many reasons not to call Giles as she had not to call anyone else, maybe more. He had lost Jenny because of her, not once but twice. He had been tortured because of her. And she had abandoned him without so much as a note to explain why. She had failed him more thoroughly, more often than anyone else. So why did her mind refuse to let this possibility go as it had the others? Why was she suddenly standing outside one of the little silver booths with its little door grasped firmly in her hand as the rain finally began to fall?

Buffy stepped inside, pulling the glass and silver door closed behind her, blocking out the light rainfall. Her eyes glued to the phone before her, she slumped against the side of the booth, unable to force her legs to hold her up any longer. She slid down the panels, bits of metal scraping painfully against her back through the thin material of her jacket and top. She never even noticed, just continued to stare up at the phone with a mixture of hope and revulsion.

*****

Giles paced back and forth across his living room floor, his white-knuckled grip on the phone receiver in his hand threatening to break the small plastic device in two.

"You’re absolutely certain? There’s no poss..." He pulled his glasses off his face and tightly pinched the bridge of his nose in a gesture Buffy would have recognized instantly, forcing himself to get his voice under control, trying not to take out his frustration and disappointment on the woman at the other end of the line.

"Yes, yes, of course. I understand." He tossed the glasses in the direction of the coffee table, not actually noticing whether they made it or not. "Thank you for your help."

The phone rattled loudly through the quiet apartment as he put the receiver back in its place more forcefully than he’d intended.

"Again."

Placing the phone back down on the desk with a bit more care, he walked over to sit down on the couch, drained both physically and emotionally from yet another dead end. One more place where she was not. One more person who could not help. One more failure in a never-ending parade of them.

He dropped his head into his hands, his thumbs pressing gently into his temples, fighting a headache born of lack of sleep and weeks of worry.

The image of her as he had last seen her, a glimpse caught out of the corner of his eye as Xander helped him limp from the mansion, flashed across his mind. Rather than push it away in the usual manner, he lingered over it, clinging to it, taking what comfort he could from it. Fighting one of Angel’s minions, her body moving in the same lithe, deadly grace he well knew, she was the only thing in the memory that appeared real. The minion, Xander, the statue... the entire room seemed muted and colorless around her.

Followed closely behind that memory was another, and another, as if it had been a dam holding back all thoughts of her that did not involve looking for her. Flashes of her smile, something he had missed even before she had left, snippets of conversations and arguments... he closed his eyes and let them come, savoring what images he could call up, allowing the memory of her voice to wash over him.

Buffy standing beside him, looking down at the ashes of what had once been a friend. ~Lie to me.~

Sitting before him, her legs pulled close to her chest in an unconsciously protective gesture. ~I think its a little late for both.~

The feel of her arms wrapped tightly around him, as they wept for lost loves in a dirty, wet alleyway outside of a burning warehouse. ~You can’t leave me. I can’t do this alone.~

He pushed the memories aside, along with the lonely, lost feeling that accompanied them, reaching out for the gin on the table in front of him. The remaining ice cubes clinked gently against the sides of the glass as he raised it to his lips and finished the drink in one swallow. He set the empty glass back down on the newspaper on the table in front of him, watching with a strange satisfaction as the condensation darkened the article that had lead him to call the woman at the L.A. Youth Crisis Center.

Getting up from the couch, he turned his back on the remaining stack of newspapers on the table and wandered over to the window. He stared out at the shadows that danced across his lawn in the half-moonlight, trying hard not to look at his own haggard appearance reflected in the glass.

Buffy, where are you? What happened? he silently pleaded with his missing Slayer - his friend. He was lost and he knew it. A Watcher without his Slayer, with nothing to do but wait and worry.

What had happened to make her run? What had been so awful that she couldn’t tell them? The fight with her mother, getting kicked out of school, the murder charges... all could have been dealt with if only she had come to him; let him help. She had to have known that, so what else could it have been?

As much as he needed the answer, he also dreaded it. The mansion had been eerily still when he and Xander had returned there hours later, and the sight of the dormant stature, its eyes staring blankly into him, had filled him with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. His fear of the place and the urge to leave the silent building had been nearly as strong as when Angel had first brought him there.

He hadn’t had the energy to analyze it then, and had since used what energy he did have searching for and worrying over Buffy, deliberately pushing away the thought of what the sword lying abandoned next to the statue might have meant every time it presented itself. He had an inkling of a theory, and it was a possibility he didn’t want to think about.

He leaned his forehead against the cool glass, suddenly too tired to even hold his head upright.

~Don’t be sorry. Be Giles.~

~I still don’t see how she could have forgiven him.~

~You can’t leave me. I can’t do this alone.~

Why, Buffy? And, god, where are you?

*****

Chapter 2

*There will be no prayers on your return,

and there will be no party thrown.

And you will find your inheritance

is the silence that’s grown

It is the seed that you’ve sown.*

Willow leaned gently against the gravestone, staring morosely down at the freshly turned dirt. She had been staring at the same pile of dirt for nearly two hours now. She was beginning to think they had the wrong grave.

When she had thought about what it was like for Buffy to patrol, the word boring had never been added to the list of adjectives. She had always considered it exciting, to be honest. Well, in a dangerous and scary kind of way, but exciting all the same. Over the weeks that she and Xander and Oz had taken over the duties, she had had to revise her opinion.

Boring, interspersed with a few moments of near-panicked, terrified excitement.

How had Buffy done this night after night... alone more often than not? Even setting aside the actual slaying part of it, just the wandering through the silent gravestones was enough to send her into a soul-searching depression... and she had Xander and Oz with her. Buffy had done this on her own, with no one to chase away the silence in the hour after hour that nothing happened.

Willow wanted to abandon the nightly ritual after only the few weeks she had been doing it... could she really blame Buffy after years?

Forcefully pulling herself away from that line of thought, Willow lifted her eyes from what would hopefully be David Paresis final resting place to survey her companions. Her gaze fell first on Oz. He knelt a few feet away from her, his fingers gently tracing the name on the gravestone in front of him. She smiled despite her growing boredom and depression.

How she would have gotten through these last couple months without his quiet, gentle support she didn’t know. He had been on the patrol with her as often as Xander, only missing a few nights out of necessity. No matter what else was going on, gig or no gig, he was there. On the evenings the Dingoes were playing, he simply searched the various graveyards afterward until he found her in the night, and added his own dry wit to Xander’s more obvious humor to help chase away demons no one could truly see.

And it was so much more beyond just that, too. Beyond the dark nights, beyond the boring or frightening patrols, there were the afternoons when he would listen to the same story a dozen times without complaint. The times far too great in number to count when he would smile and agree with her hope - no matter how unfounded and blind it was - that this time Giles would find her. And the times that he held her as she wept when Giles didn’t.

There were times that his presence alone soothed her. Tonight was one of those times.

She shifted her gaze to Xander, and she had to force back an immediate annoyed response to what she saw. He was leaning cross-legged against a marble headstone, eyes closed, breathing deep and even, obviously asleep. Somehow, she had expected better of her oldest friend.

But, then again, she had expected better of him for the last two months and she had been continually disappointed. One would think she would learn.

Xander didn’t seem able to talk about Buffy at all. Not in any way, shape or form. Any time her name came up in conversation, no matter how, his eyes immediately fell to the ground at his feet; as if there were some kind of answers lurking in the dirt. He would get defensive for little or no reason, and was downright antagonistic about the patrols.

Willow let out a sigh, shaking her head in frustration at this latest act of defiance to their patrol effort. At least Giles had been up-front about not wanting her to patrol and why. Oz, too, had voiced a few objections. Both of them, however, had eventually accepted that she would not, *could* not, let it go and done what they could to help with little more complaint. Xander, on the other hand, while following along dutifully behind her each night, never let her forget that he was against it.

On the one hand, she understood why he didn’t want her doing this. Protective was one thing; it was kindof sweet actually, but the way he was going at it was anything but. Snide comments that never quite managed to not be cruel seemed to be almost all he could come up with to say to her anymore. And then there were these asinine, childish stunts - delaying the time they started by any means possible, deliberately forgetting the weapons so they had to go back... falling asleep on the job.

Or at least pretending to. As she continued to watch him, his eyes blinked half-open and then immediately shut again.

She didn’t bother holding back her annoyance this time.

"Xander," she said, her voice tinged with exasperation, "you may as well give it up. I know you’re awake."

His eyes came fully open at her statement, fixing on her face immediately.

"The point is, I could be at home, in bed, asleep instead of staring at a boring pile of dirt. Who was the brain trust that decided this guy would join the ranks of the Army of Darkness anyway?"

Hurt flashed quickly, briefly in Willow’s eyes, and for that brief moment he regretted the words. Just as quick came the weary, already-defeated anger, and he regretted them even more.

Not that he would tell her so.

"Fine." she finally said, her voice soft and tired, "Whatever. You were right, I was wrong, and now you can go home and get your beauty sleep."

Oz came up quietly behind her and she slipped her hand into his, her eyes never leaving Xander’s face. She turned without a word and began the short trek back to Oz’s van, Oz following along without protest or question, his fingers tightening briefly on her own in comfort.

Xander’s eyes closed for a moment in both anger and shame, then he was pushing himself up off the ground and trudging after them, knowing that no matter how mad at him Willow was, they would not drive off and leave him in the middle of Sunnydale Cemetery on his own.

When he reached the van Willow wouldn’t even look at him, keeping her eyes focused on the deserted street ahead of them, her mouth set in a thin line of anger and eyes full of betrayal and sadness.

He winced as the sound of the engine split the night, staring down at the floorboard between Willow and Oz, knowing that Willow had not deserved that. Hadn’t deserved anything he had been dishing out over the past few weeks, in all honesty.

"Sorry." he finally said, when the silence became too much for his conscience to bear.

Willow started at the sound of his voice, her head turning slightly in his direction, eyes still flashing things he had never intended to cause. She turned to look him fully in the face, wondering what brought on the apology; wondering just what part of his recent behavior he was apologizing for.

"I just," he paused, unsure how to adequately express himself, "hate this."

Well, that was lame. But it seemed to have worked, at least a little bit. Willow’s eyes were no longer angry at least. Now they were just sad. *Much* better.

"I mean," he began again, "we really don’t know what we’re doing or how to do it right. I hate that one of us could get hurt or killed because of some stupid mistake that we probably wouldn’t even know we were making."

Willow said nothing, just letting him talk it out as much as he needed to.

"I hate that Giles is getting older by the day. I hate that Buffy’s mom can barely speak to any of us..." his voice trailed off, as always, at the mention of her name. Softer, quieter, he finally continued, "I hate that we don’t even know..."

"I know, Xander." Willow interrupted him, unwilling to let him finish that thought aloud. "I know. It’s okay."

She flashed him a quick, sad understanding smile, then turned back to face the ribbon of road in front of them. Her hand reached out, and Oz’s was there almost before she knew what she was reaching for. She squeezed his fingers once, then just enjoyed the comfort of his touch for the next several minutes.

Silently, privately, each of them finished Xander’s aborted sentence. I hate that we don’t even know if she’s alive.

*****

Chapter 3

*Cause you were the one sure thing.

The one sure thing.

Maybe I’m not crazy, just inconsolable.

Inconsolable.*

How long Buffy sat huddled at the bottom of the phone booth she had no idea. Not that it mattered... to anyone. It wasn’t as if there were someone waiting for her to come home, no one would wonder where she was. There was not one soul here to miss her.

The rain had come and gone, then come again. It still pattered softly, soothingly against the glass of her tiny shelter. Very few cars had passed by, carrying those inside to their various destinations, safe and warm. And they had all just passed by. No one had stopped; not one man, woman or child had taken a moment to ask the small shaking figure in the pale booth-light if there was anything wrong, anything they could do.

Are you lost little girl? Can’t you find your way home?

Buffy doubted that any of them had even noticed her there, and she was suddenly so lonely it was almost a physical pain. She missed her mother. She missed Willow and Xander and Oz, even Cordelia. She missed Giles. She missed them all so much it stole her breath. Did they miss her this much, too? Did they wake in the morning without the memory of her absence, only to look around and remember?

Were their hearts as broken as her own?

Buffy turned her eyes back to the phone above her, the numbers running insistently through her mind as her gaze traveled over the silver and black shape. She slowly reached out a hand to steady herself as she rose back to her feet, gently touching the glass at her sides as if afraid that the entire thing would shatter around her like a dream if she moved too quickly.

She reached a hand into her pocket, pulling out its contents. Amid a couple of gum wrappers and some pocket lint was a small handful of change. She pulled out the pennies, silently counting the silver money. Nearly three and a half dollars... waitressing had its advantages after all. A survey of her other pockets produced another couple of dollars.

Just a voice, for just a moment. Is that so much to ask?

Trying not to second-guess the decision, she dropped the coins into the phone in quick succession, then dialed the number that was at the forefront of her mind.

Far too many miles away, a phone began to ring.

*****

Chapter 4

*There is no mystery to be revealed

and so we tell the truth and then run.

I love you because I love you

and I did think that you were the one

And now I see who you’ve become.*

Joyce stood in the doorway of her daughters room, watching the curtains billow in the soft evening breeze. Assuring herself, she supposed, of her only child’s continued absence.

How many times in the last months had she done this? Ran up the stairs and into the open door of the small bedroom after having heard, or, more likely, imagined, some sound. A whisper of movement that reached her no matter where she was in the house; the echo of a voice filling her with hope that Buffy was once again safe in her room, talking on the phone... calling out to her (Mom...).

Sometimes she forgot, for just a moment... and sometimes she could hear her so clearly it made her want to weep all over again when she remembered. When she had run to this empty room, only to be greeted with this deafening silence. Too many times for her sanity to count. It was nearly a daily ritual. A sad, pathetic daily ritual.

She stepped further into the room, slowly making her way over to the bed. With one hand she reached out and smoothed a non-existent wrinkle from the comforter, righting a pillow to its proper place against the headboard. She turned in a slow circle, searching for any sign that anyone had been there, knowing no one had, hoping she knew wrong and hating the hope for its mere presence.

Nothing. Not one thing touched. Not one single thing moved one single inch from when she had done this very same thing yesterday. Hated hope quickly turned to even more hated disappointment and loss.

With a sudden burst of energy and fighting tears, she went over to the bookcase, shifting knickknacks and stuffed toys around on the shelves, checking for dust, busying her mind and hands with the mundane task. She had done that alot lately. She had slowly, over the course of Buffy’s absence, turned into a cleaning hermit.

She was afraid to leave the house. Thoughts of a missed phone call (I’m homesick... can’t I come home...) or, God forbid, Buffy coming home to an empty house kept her trapped inside its walls more effectively than if she were living in a prison. Work had become something of a torture to be endured.

She could transfer the phone, but it still left the house unattended for the better part of five days out of the week. What if Buffy came home and she missed it? Would her wayward child stay, or leave again if Joyce wasn’t present to hold her there? She ended up running home to check every few hours... calling her silent house in the vain hope that Buffy would, just once, miraculously be there to answer. (Hello...)

Going out where she couldn’t forward calls was simply not an option. And so, with nothing else to do but sit and replay the last moments she had seen her daughter, she had cleaned. And cleaned, and cleaned, and cleaned. Every surface was spotless, every dish scrubbed, every cabinet, closet and drawer in perfect, organized order. No house she had ever lived in had ever been cleaner.

But cleaning in Buffy’s room never had the calming effect cleaning the rest of the house did. She could lose herself in the mindless task in any other room, the smell of cleaning fluids overpowering all else, the repeated scrubbing of already-clean surfaces holding her attention for hours until she exhausted herself. But here in Buffy’s room she found herself doing more just touching and holding than cleaning. Besides, a part of her rebelled against doing anything to take what little of her daughter was left away.

The bedsheets hadn’t been washed since Buffy had left, though Joyce couldn’t, didn’t want to, count how many times she had cried herself to sleep in her child’s bed, clutching Mr. Gordo or Snowy Bear tight to her chest. A few stray blonde hairs still clung to the old brush laying on the vanity, alongside a nearly empty jar of face cream and a half-used bottle of hairspray. Little things Buffy had left behind as useless and easily replaceable. Little things Joyce was reluctant to throw away.

Sadder, energy drained, still clutching one of Buffy’s childhood toys, she wandered over to the open window. She looked out across the lawn, her eyes drawn to the shadows dancing in the moonlight. Knowing what she knew now, she couldn’t help but watch the shadows... and wonder if the shadows were watching back. Even if she hadn’t been tied to the house out of fear of missing her daughter, she might have been tied to the house out of just plain fear after leaning what she had managed to pry out of that stuffy librarian (Watcher, mom, he’s my Watcher...).

She looked down at the doll in her hands. Mr. Gordo. Buffy’s favorite. The one she could remember tucking in with her daughter for years. The one that had gone on every trip and every sleep-over until Buffy was too old to not get teased by the other girls. (Come on Mom, I’m a big girl, remember? I don’t need a doll to sleep anymore...).

Yet another thing Buffy had left behind.

But, she realized, looking back out the window at the dancing, watching shadows, Buffy had left Mr. Gordo behind long before she had left Sunnydale. There was little room to hold onto childhood toys for someone who was no longer allowed to be a child. Mr. Gordo had gone the way of baby blankets and bedtime stories, goodnight kisses, lullabies and tucking in rituals. Set aside when they no longer fit and eventually lost and forgotten in the very adult world of demons, vampires and saving the world.

After that thought, predictably, came the anger that always accompanied such thoughts. Anger at Buffy for keeping this a secret, anger at fate for doing this to her daughter, anger at that Mr. Giles (Just Giles, Mom, no "Mr." He’s just Giles...) for being a part of it in any way... and anger at herself for not seeing it until she was forced to.

She reached up and pulled the window down, putting the fragile frame of glass between herself and the night, cutting off the soft breeze. The curtains slowly fell to rest against the wall, their restless movement ceasing with the quiet thud of wood against wood.

Turning away from her own reflection in the glass she placed Mr. Gordo on Buffy’s pillow, sparing one more moment to feel his soft pink fur against her palm. (Baby mine, don’t you cry...) Her hand ran once more over the comforter, more as a means to soothe her own raw nerves than to erase wrinkles in the fabric. (Baby mine, dry your eyes...)

She stood for a moment looking down at the empty bed, her throat painfully tight, her eyes brimming with unshed tears. (Rest your head close to my heart, never to part...) She made it all the way to the door before turning back one last time, having lost the fight with herself to, just one of these nights, not cry. (...baby of mine.)

A flick of a switch plunged the room into darkness, (Goodnight, Mom...) but she still couldn’t bring herself to close the door.

 

*****

Chapter 5

*Cause you were the one sure thing

the one sure thing

Maybe I’m not crazy, just inconsolable.

Inconsolable.*

Giles had been considering going to bed to not sleep when the phone rang. The shrill sound sent his headache into before unknown levels of pain.

He stared at the offending object, considering letting the machine pick it up. The image of Willow, Xander and Oz as he had last seen them, loading themselves with weapons from the locker in the library in preparation for the night killed the thought.

The three had taken over the Slaying duties as best they could. He didn’t like it, but no amount of lecturing had been able to sway Willow. Someone had to do it had been her argument, and, unable to sufficiently dispute her logic, he had finally agreed to stop harassing them each night if they would let him come along as often as possible.

Until his Slayer returned, he would be their Watcher. And he swore to himself that he would be a better one to them than he had been to Buffy. He would not fail these three children as he had obviously failed her.

He picked the phone up after its fourth ring.

"Hello?"

*****

He’s asleep, I’m waking him up.

Three rings. She had been counting, questioning the wisdom of this a little more with each ring, what little resolve she had crumbling a bit more with each passing moment.

He’s not home.

Four rings. Her eyes began to burn. In all the time it had taken her to pick up the phone and dial, she had never considered the possibility that no one would be there to answer. Giving in to the unexpected disappointment and allowing herself the luxury of tears, she rested her head in defeat against the side of the phone and slowly moved to place the receiver back in its cradle.

"Hello?"

Her hand stopped short of its destination at the sound of his voice, as close as the receiver in her hand, so far away there were times she thought she may never hear it again. Her heartbeat quickened and her hand shook slightly as she pulled the receiver back to press against her ear. Her knees went weak, and she found herself once again supported by the glass walls around her, her head resting lightly against the phone.

"Hello?" He sounded tired, exasperated. Her eyes shut tight, trying to stop the tears that were now flowing freely down her cheeks.

She drew in a breath, opening her mouth to speak... but no words would form. Guilt, shame and fear rose up and wrapped around her, robbing her of her voice. Giles... His name sat unspoken, lodged in the back of her throat. I’m sorry. I’m safe, not happy, but okay... I’m sorry. God, Giles I’m so sorry.

"Is anyone there?"

He’s gonna hang up...

She opened her mouth to again try and speak, needing to keep him on the line, to hear his voice for just as long as she could. Her face crumpled as her mouth again betrayed her, refusing to allow her to form words.

What came out was a choked sob.

*****

Silence. Whoever had decided to call him at this hour of the night said nothing in response to the standard greeting. He sighed inwardly, far too tired to deal with prank calls at the moment. For Gods sake, just bother someone else tonight...

"Hello?" He repeated the question for the second time. Again, he received only silence as an answer. No, not complete silence.

Static... was that static? A soft sound of an indrawn breath. A moment of a voice spoken, a word begun but not finished... there was someone there. He could hear them over the... no, that wasn’t static he decided, as a gentle rumble came across the line. Rainfall. It’s rainfall.

Was it raining? He had just been at the window a moment before, he had seen no signs of an impending storm. He spared a glance out his front window. Not a drop of rain... not even a cloud in the sky. A long-distance prank call? His grip on the receiver tightened. Buffy?

"Is anyone there?" Answer me, damn it. He had to be sure it was her, that his mind wasn’t just playing a cruel trick on his heart. Please, God, let me be right.

There! A sound clearly discernible over the soft patter of rainfall where ever she was... a soft, aborted sound of voice that could not even be called the beginning of a word. A quiet little cry that was painful to hear.

"Buffy?" Her name was a question, tentative and quiet, barely audible over the phone line.

*****

She gasped, her head snapped up, eyes going wide at the whisper-soft sound of her own name against her ear. How had he known it was her? How could he?

Giles...

Why did he have to sound so hopeful? And why did that have to hurt so much... cut so deeply?

God, Giles, I miss you... I never knew I could miss anything as much as I miss all of you.

Tears were now streaming down her face unchecked, she didn’t even bother trying to stop them. They rolled silently down and off her cheeks to land somewhere at her feet. It took all her energy to keep from sobbing out loud, her breath coming in short gulps of air she could barely control.

It hurts.

"Buffy, please..." came his voice again, no longer a question, "please... just answer me."

She didn’t answer. She couldn’t.

*****

He could hear her on the other end of the line, voiceless, broken sobs with sharp edges that tore at him, heart and soul. Every cell of his being wanted nothing more in that moment than to wrap her in his arms, safe and warm... to bring her home and make sure she never had to cry again.

That wasn’t possible, he knew. But surely if he could just get her to speak, keep her talking for a little while...

We miss you. We need you... here, safe. We need to know you’re alright... are you alright?

What if she wasn’t okay? What if she was hurt, or dying... and he now much too far away to do anything more than listen to her weep over the phone line? Possibilities ran through his mind, each one more horrific than the last.

More frightened than hopeful, he could only keep trying.

Just one word, Buffy, please...

"Buffy, please," he could hear the anxiety - the pleading, terrified desperation in his own voice, and didn’t care. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered if he could just hear her voice. "Please... just answer me."

*****

She didn’t answer. She couldn’t.

Though the words to say would easily form in her mind, giving them voice was simply more than she could do. Despite the entreaty in his voice, despite the fact that his own pain and loss was something as easily heard as his words, some part of herself simply refused to allow her to answer him. Some small part of her that knew he could talk her home.

She was close to breaking as it was... so close.

All it would take would be one word, one small surrender, and in the space of a few short minutes, she would be gathering her meager belongings, staring out the window of her tiny apartment, waiting for him to show up like a white knight in shining armor, ready to free her from her self-imposed prison... to carry her away from her solitude and loneliness.

The selfish need to let him do just that burned in her chest like the need to breathe.

Oh, Giles, I want to come home... I want so much to come home...

"Buffy?"

But I can’t. Not now. Maybe not ever.

*****

"Buffy?" he asked again. The soft sounds of crying still came across the line... he knew she was there. Why didn’t she answer?

Though some logical part of his mind argued that if she had the breath to weep, she could have spoken, but the emotional and frightened part of him could not shake the imagined picture of her lying broken and bleeding somewhere far away. Why else would she have called? Why else wouldn’t she speak?

Answers to his questions presented themselves and he pushed them away, finding no comfort in them at all. Unfounded fear was preferable for the moment to the pain those answers caused.

"At least tell me you’re alright... I just need to know you’re alright." It was a lie and he knew it. He needed her home. "That’s all."

*****

"At least tell me you’re alright." Fear, she could hear it now... above the pain, above the loss, above all desperate hope was fear for her. "I just need to know you’re alright... that’s all."

I’m not alright. I’m not alright at all. I can’t sleep for the dreams... I don’t have the energy to eat. And every moment I don’t see him, I see you.

She closed her eyes, and the images were there without effort. Her Watcher and friend, who had always been there for her no matter what, heartbreakingly pale in the morning sun, broken and bandaged and hurt... for her, all because of her.

With the memories came control... her sobs slowed, became easier to keep silent. She raised her head and opened her eyes, still seeing the image she knew she would remember for eternity in place of the rain-slicked street before her.

Can you move your fingers yet? Is Xander’s arm still in a cast? What about Willow... can she walk?

She shouldn’t have done this, should not be putting him through this torment for a few stolen moments of reassurance for herself. This, of all that she had done in recent memory, felt the most selfish and cruel, worse in her own heart and mind than what Angel must have done to him. Breaking his fingers herself might have hurt him less than this.

She should not be doing this to him... it was too cruel.

*****

The sounds of her sorrow and pain began to fade in the moments after his request. She didn’t believe it any more than he did. Just knowing she was alright would not be enough; he needed to know she was alright here, with him.

His fear was dissipating along with her crying, being replaced by sorrow and a different kind of fear. The fear that he was loosing this one-sided, tiny battle.

"I... I won’t ask you to come home." Another lie. A last ditch effort to keep her on the line, give him a chance to talk her into doing just that. "I promise." An empty promise he would not be able to keep... he held tightly to the hope that he would get the chance to make that up to her.

Buffy, please... we can fix it. Whatever it is, we can find a way to fix it. Just come home.

As when he had first picked up the phone, there was now only silence and the sound of rainfall from the other end.

*****

Though she had her breathing under control she could not stop the tears. They still flowed down her cheeks, leaving her eyes red and aching and her throat tight with the desire to speak or openly sob... she wasn’t sure which.

"I... I won’t ask you to come home. I promise." Her eyes closed again for a moment, as she heard the lie for what it was... and missed him all the more for it.

But you will, you know you will. And I don’t know that I can say no.

After all, it would be so easy, just one sentence, one word... and she could go home. So easy to do, and yet so difficult she wasn’t sure she could do it. Had she stayed and allowed them the opportunity to heal her, she knew, she would not need to be afraid of it now.

But she hadn’t... and she was.

I thought this would be better. For me, for you... for everyone. I was wrong, nothing could be worse. I just figured it out too late.

*****

As the silence continued, becoming louder and louder, drowning out the soft sound of rain over the fragile connection, he knew he was no longer loosing... he had already lost. Despite the fact that she was still there, still listening; she was already lost to him again.

He sank slowly to the couch and allowed his head to fall forward, covering his eyes with the hand that wasn’t clutching the phone as if he could hold her on the line with the force of his grip. It was only then he realized that he himself was crying, though he couldn’t remember when he had started.

The tears that had been tracing down his cheeks now fell into his own hand, slipping quietly through his fingers. He had failed again; he would lose her again.

Please, God... I’ll do anything... please...

"Buffy?" Her name was little more than a whisper, forced past a lump of pain and loss that had lodged itself in his throat. In moments, he knew, it would be he that wept without words while she listened.

*****

"Buffy?"

Her free hand reached up to join it’s twin in cradling the receiver at the defeated sound of her name in his pain-filled voice, wanting and needing to reach out to touch him... to hold him - to just be with him for just this moment.

It was time to end this. She could not go home; he could not settle for anything less. Holding him prisoner on the phone, listening to him ask for words she could not give, was not mending her heart... only shattering what was left of the pieces.

This had to stop now... and yet, she could not leave him like this. Could not break this connection, however distant, and leave him again without a word. Not again.

She leaned forward, her head resting against the cool metal of the phone base, her hand reaching up in preparation to cut this tenuous link to home and hope. She didn’t deserve it... certainly not now. Her eyes closed and she drew a breath, fighting against a fresh wave of despair, determined to give him what she had wanted and needed when she picked up the phone to call in the first place - just a voice, for just a moment.

It really wasn’t so much to ask, after all.

Her voice, when she managed the words, was little more than a whisper... two words all she could force past the tightness in her throat. It wasn’t enough, not nearly enough; every word Shakespeare had ever written shouted from the rooftops would not be enough to make up for all the pain she had caused. But it was all she could do.

"I’m sorry." she said, unsure if she was apologizing for the phone call or for running away. Probably both.

Her fingers fell downward onto the cradle without giving him the chance to reply... without giving him the chance to talk her homesick loneliness into overcoming her fear and shame.

*****

He sat silently, listening to the rain on her end of the line, no longer able to speak and neither able nor willing to cut the connection himself.

"I’m sorry."

The whispered words, when they came, were barely audible... but he heard them; he heard everything in them. Guilt, shame, fear, loneliness, loss and sorrow. More pain than any one person should ever have to bear. And, before he could draw a breath, he heard the soft click of a line broken, a connection severed... a battle lost. It took a moment for the truth of it to sink in.

No...

"Buffy?" He called out to her, desperately trying not to believe she was gone, straining to hear the rain that had been a sad soundtrack throughout the one-sided conversation.

There was nothing... nothing but a silence grown loud enough to be deafening.

After a few moments, the sound of a dialtone assaulted his ears, seeming loud and harsh after the quiet of the dead line.

The phone landed with a clatter on the floor at his feet as he covered his face with both hands and began to quietly sob.

*****

Buffy stared for a moment at her own fingers depressing the lever on the phone, almost in shock at her own action.

Slowly, carefully, she placed the receiver back in it’s cradle. The breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding came out on a sob, and she fell to her knees in the bottom of the booth, arms wrapped tightly around herself in a lonely embrace.

Outside her small glass and steel shelter, the soft rainfall became a downpour, drowning out the sound of her weeping in the night.

THE END

(aren’t I cruel?)