Summary: An answering machine message proves to be an irresistible lure to Spike as he dwells on his feelings for Buffy.

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters portrayed here, they remain the property of their respective owners/creators.

Rating: PG-13, for themes and language.

Time Frame: Two days after the final battle with Glory in "The Gift." (spoiler warning!)

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (eilandesq@aol.com) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.


ECHOES

There is silence for a moment, then I hear the tone of the phone ringing on the other end of the line.

The telephone was a curiosity for the rich when Dru turned me. It wasn't until after Peaches got his soul and Darla had abandoned us in disgust that I actually used one. . .handy gadget, it is. Letters are fine for a lot of things, but being able to hear the voice of the person you're communicating with can give you a world of information that words on a piece of paper never will.

I hear the phone on the other end ringing for the third time, then comes the click. I close my eyes again and just listen.

"Hi, you've reached the Summers residence. No one's here right now-"

Buffy's voice is calm, remarkably so considering when she made this recording. Joyce's voice used to be there, and stayed there until two days after she died. I know this because when I first heard the news, I called Buffy. The machine picked up and I heard Joyce's friendly voice asking me to leave a message. I was about to do so when Buffy picked up the receiver and said, "Hello?" in a dead voice that made me shudder to hear it. I broke the connection and went into a lengthy brood that would have impressed Angel before I got my nerve together to leave flowers for Joyce. . .that didn't go well at all. When I called again, after the whole fiasco with the Niblet and the spell to try to bring Joyce back, Joyce's voice had been replaced by Buffy's. . .in a way, I felt I had missed my chance to say goodbye to her. Joyce was all right: she would have taken my bloody head off in an instant if she thought I was a real threat to Buffy, but she treated me with respect. . .can't ask for more than that, really.

". . .but if you leave your name and number, Dawn or I will get back to you as soon as we can. Thanks for ca-"

I hang up the receiver. I know very well how that machine works: lurking around that house as much as I did before Buffy caught on to what I was up to let me figure out a lot of things. Hang up the phone before the message ends, and nothing is picked up by the recorder. . .not even the click of the connection being broken. I could do this a thousand times, and as long as no one picks up on the other end, there will be no record of what I had done, unless the neighbors complain about the incessantly ringing phone.

They're all at Buffy's funeral. . .I can't be there, because it's outdoors and in full daylight. . .just like Joyce's was. They're having a memorial service at the Summers house after dark, and I'll be there. . .right now, I'm in Harris' apartment, waiting out the sunlight. Dawn's been staying here, too. . .she refused to enter her house after we brought Buffy's body back, and I can understand it: nothing but ghosts there now.

I press the redial button for the fifteenth time: another great invention. Phones have gone from cranks to dials to buttons, and now I can repeat this torture I have devised for myself by the simple actions of pressing the redial button and then hanging up when the time comes. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The click comes again, and as Buffy begins to speak, I concentrate on the sound of her voice, remembering what it sounded like when she was happy (I was deeply pissed off at Red for a while after that spell fiasco a while back, but lately I've been thinking about how her voice sounded under its influence. . .I miss that), and when she was so angry that I would swear that the walls would come down from the sharpness of her tone. That quiver in her voice when she was on the edge, but desperately trying to hold on. I listen, then break the connection again.

I want to drop the receiver once and for all and find a dark corner to hide in until the others come back and take me to the memorial, where I can remember Buffy with a bit more dignity than I've shown in the last forty eight hours. Rupert had to drag me away from the scene. . .daylight was approaching and I would have been dust rather quickly if he hadn't. I wasn't consciously committing suicide-I just didn't want to leave that place, because it would be admitting that she had died there. Pointless and irrational. Death does that to you.

I press the redial button again, and this time I think of Buffy's eyes as I listen. Everything about her was glorious (arrgh, can't I think of a better word than that for her right now? No, it fits. . .associations with deceased hellbitches aside), but her eyes were the center of her being: pools of green electricity that shouted to the world what she was thinking. I could learn more from a single glance from Buffy than I could from listening to most people for decades, if not centuries. I knew her, knew her too damned well, and I had to watch as my taunting to her last year came true in the most agonizing way possible. . .a fitting punishment for me.

Click. Wait. Press the button. Wait. Listen. This time, I try to remember how she smelled. The tang of perspiration after she tore through a small crowd of vampires and tured back to me with a disgusted expression. The scent I associated with the rare moments when she was content in my presence. . .it always reminded me of cinnamon and roses. The faintly acrid smell when she was staring at me in a towering rage. . .I was quite familiar with that one. The faintly musky scent as she looked at me with resignation as we prepared for the final battle-

I hang up the receiver forcefully, and I begin to cry. Hardly the first time I've ever done that. . .there were times when I despaired of finding a cure for Drusilla, and there was nothing nearby to kill to let the tension out. . .a good long cry always did the trick. Of course, anyone who saw me doing it was not going to be long for this world. . .at least until this damned chip screwed up my unlife. These days, I just made sure that no one would see me-

"Spike."

Slowly, I raise my head, and Tara is there, looking at me with an expression that I can not decipher. I don't know her as well as the others. . .she is quiet and seems to seek out the shadows that Red and the others cast, to hide behind. I saw what Glory did to her hand, and knew that until she lost her marbles, she had remained as silent as I had with death and madness staring her in the eye. Hard not to respect that, even in someone who had no particular reason to like me much. I force a smile and reply, "Hello. . .thought everyone would be at the service."

She looks at me with sad eyes, then responds, "I went back to get some clothes for Dawnie. . .I heard the phone, Spike." She inclines her head at the phone next to me, then elaborates, "I didn't want to pick up, in case it was someone who didn't know me who wanted to leave a personal message. I listened through three cycles, Spike. . .I know what you were doing."

A lie comes unbidden to my lips, but I can not bring myself to utter the words. I blink hard, wishing that I could summon one of my old rages and snarl at Tara for intruding on my grief and compulsive self-torture. I shake my head and whisper, "I suppose that you'll tell all of the others what I've been up to. . .doubt it will surprise any of them."

Tara sighs, then walks over to sit next to me on the couch. We both sit silently as the seconds tick by, then she turns to me and replies, "Spike. . .my mother died three and a half years ago, after a long, lingering illness. You've seen the rest of my family, so it probably won't shock you to hear that I was much closer to her than I was to any of them.."

I nod, and Tara continues, "After she died, I withdrew from just about everything. Dad and Donnie were actually decent to me during that time, but nothing helped. Then one day, I remembered a tape that I had of her reading some old stories about witchcraft to me. It was the only remaining recording of her voice. I found that tape, and I played it over and over, until it started to sound scratchy from use. I didn't care. I would have listened to that tape over and over forever, but after two months my father caught me listening to it just as Mom was describing a particularly arcane ritual."

I frown, guessing what probably happened next. Tara nods and elaborates, "He took the tape out of the player, and scolded me for engaging in idolatry and wickedness. 'The dead are the dead, Tara,' he told me, 'and dwelling on them can only lead to evil. . .just like witchcraft.' He took the tape and tossed it into the basement furnace, and left me down there, sobbing."

My expression tightens, and Tara sees it and gives me the ghost of an appreciative look before concluding, "It was right there that I knew I had to leave that place. I made plans, left, and never looked back until they showed up here wanting to drag me home."

I nod again, and Tara meets my eyes with a bit more force than I am used to seeing there. She sighs and comments, "Spike. . .even if you end up being a good guy, I doubt we're ever going to have too much in common. You've spent too much of your existence trying to hurt people, including people I love more than anyone else in the world." She pauses, then gestures at the phone and adds, "But this. . .this I understand, Spike. Buffy was worth loving, and the fact that you realized that, even as late as you did, means something to me." She stands up, then concludes, "I'm going back to the Summers' house, and I'll take the tape out: someone might record over it, and they might regret it later if they do. I'll keep it safe in case anyone wants it."

I sit silently, stunned, and Tara takes my silence as assent as she turns to go. I shake off my lethargy and call out, "Tara."

She turns back to me, and I concentrate on keeping my composure as I whisper, "Would you let the others know. . .I wish I could be there for Buffy."

She looks at me sadly and replies, "They know, Spike. . .they know." Shaking her head, she walks away and slips quietly out of the front door. I wait a moment, then begin to cry again. . .in gladness that Tara will be saving a small part of Buffy, and in despair over that being all that is left of her. I glance at the clock: the hours before I can leave to join the others will seem endless. Helplessly, I wait and remember her.


As before, comments are welcome and desired.