Disclaimer: Not mine, not making money.

Author's Note: Post-Becoming, pre-Anne; Buffy has been missing for months. Angst alert, maybe angst squared just to be on the safe side.

By a Thread by Coast2Coast

Chapter One: Distant Intimacy

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 and considered 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 if they would let him come along as often as he was able. 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, her head sagged in defeat and she moved slowly to place the receiver back in its cradle.

'Hello?'

Her hand stopped short of its destination at the sound of his voice. Her heartbeat quickened and her hand shook slightly as she pulled the receiver back to press it against her ear. Her knees went weak and she found herself 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 sorry. God, Giles I'm so sorry.

'Is anyone there?'

He's gonna hang up...

Again she tried to 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 pity's 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, indrawn breath and another brief sound – perhaps a voice – a fragment of a word? 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. Rain. It's rainfall.

Was it raining? He had been at the window a moment before and 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 was clearly discernible over the soft patter of rainfall wherever she was; a soft, aborted sound, a quiet little cry that was painful to hear.

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

|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/

'Buffy?'

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 you.

Tears were now streaming down her face; she didn't even bother trying to stop them. 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.

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 all right. Are you all right?

What if she was hurt or dying and he was 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 she needed to say formed easily in her mind, giving them voice was simply more than she could achieve. 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 her simply refused to allow her to answer him; the 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 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?

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.

"Buffy, please..." came his voice again, no longer a question, "please... say something… say anything… just answer me. I need to know if you're all right. Just tell me you're all right."

|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/

Fear, she could hear it now; above the pain, above the loss, above the desperate hope was fear for her. 'I just need to know you're all right...'

I'm not all right. I'm not all right at all. I can't sleep for the dreams. I don't have the energy to eat. There is evil and danger everywhere, not just on the Hellmouth. 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, 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 glass 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 all right would not be enough; he needed to know she was all right here, with him.

His fear was dissipating along with her crying, being replaced by sorrow and despair and a sense of futility that he was losing this tiny, one-sided battle. He had to speak what he knew to be true; make her at least begin to see the truth of it, before he lost her forever.

"Buffy, you did what you had to do. What we all needed you to do. You saved us, if not from harm then from doom." He paused at the harsh intake of breath he heard distantly, barely audible above the increasingly loud skitter of rain in the background.

Buffy, please! We can fix it. Whatever it is, we can find a way to fix it. Just talk to me. Please.

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.

'Buffy, you did what you had to do. What we all needed you to do.'

She gasped sharply at his interpretation of her actions on that hellish night.

'You saved us, if not from harm then from doom.'

Somehow, he had known what she was thinking; that she was the instrument of their misfortune. He had snatched away her certainty of the rightness of her position with his simple declaration of his point of view. She wavered.

It would be so easy, just one sentence, one word and he would come. 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.

|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/

As the silence continued, becoming louder and louder, drowning out the soft sound of rain over the fragile connection, he felt her slipping away. Despite the fact that she was still there, still listening; he was losing her.

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 tracking down his cheeks now fell into his hand, slipping silently 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 its' 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 be with him for just this moment.

It was time to end this. She could not go home. 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, her hand reaching up in preparation to cut this tenuous link to home and hope. She didn't deserve comfort; 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, was it?

Her voice, when she managed the words, was little more than a whisper. Three words were all she could force past the tightness in her throat. It wasn't enough, not nearly enough; every word ever spoken, 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.

"Giles, I'm sorry." she said, unsure if she was apologizing for the phone call or for running away.

|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/

He sat silently, listening to the rain on her end of the line, no longer feeling able to speak.

'Giles, 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, sorrow and more pain than any one person should ever have to bear. And he could sense the finality in them. It took a moment for the truth of it to sink in.

No...

Something in him snapped. He would not allow this. It would kill him. Or her. Probably both.

He bolted upright from the couch to a standing position and bellowed into the phone. Behind his words were all the frustration and worry and grief and pain of the past three months.

"Young lady, you will not hang up that phone! Do you hear me!"

|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/

The shock of hearing him use that tone of voice - a demanding, strident shout - startled her into immobility.

Her hand froze, millimeters away from the cradle. Only a slight movement would sever the link between them; forever. The need she felt to protect him from further contact with her warred with the volume of trust, respect and confidence she had in him and an ingrained link to her sense of self-preservation that insisted she obey him. The two were equally weighted and she hesitated - hung purposelessly in a void. All will and judgment seemed to have left her.

|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/

The white-knuckled grip Giles maintained on the phone was causing a shooting pain from his wrist up his forearm and into his elbow, but he refused to loosen his hold on this tenuous life line. He imagined he could hear her breathing over the rushing sound of rain. Not good enough. She must listen to him… and respond.

"I said 'You will not hang up that phone.' Do you understand? Answer me this instant!"

|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/

"Yes." It escaped her lips without thought or volition on her part.

|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/|\/

'Yes.'

The single word was no more than a whisper; and the most beautiful sound he had ever heard in his life.

A relieved sigh gusted from his lips as he raised his face to the ceiling in a silent prayer of thanks. He dropped back to his seat on the couch and returned his concentration to the phone.

"Buffy, listen to me," Giles spoke hurriedly, desperate to get the information he needed, had tried to obtain for months. "Everything else can wait or be damned, but I need to come to you. Tell me where you are."

End Chapter One