Chapter One

a forsaken cry

Ghosts or visions, she did not know which, had plagued her ever since she had left Sunnydale. She closed her eyes, and clenched her fists as though willing her tormentors to disappear. When she opened her eyes they were still there, standing either side of her.

"Tears are a sign of weakness," commented Kendra. Buffy had missed the serious young woman; her accent, like a scent or a photograph, elicited memories that she had long been trying to bury.

"They get in the way of priorities," the second apparition added. The sight of Jenny was even more painful

as it brought up the guilt and sorrow she felt for Giles with the ever present longing to see her Watcher again.

"They are a method of avoiding them even; a little girl's way of getting attention," Kendra persisted.

"We shouldn't be surprised, really. She always was more emotion than duty. Not killing Angelus the first time she had the chance being a case in point."

Buffy visibly flinched at the last remark. "Make your point," she managed to say eventually and commanded wearily, "give your message and leave me alone."

No one had noticed her weeping into her hands, held up to shield her face. The slight breeze caught her blonde hair as she sat on a bench in one of Los Angeles' parks. The park was still fairly full; people made their way home or supervised children as they played with sail boats in the man-made lake. One child threw stones at a boat and made mock bomb sounds at each impact. Laughter could be heard from a group of teenage girls every time the park's gardener knelt down; his shirt rose up his back every time. A man in city clothes walked and read a newspaper at the same time. He bumped into a young professional couple, equally engrossed. The evening was very pleasant, so no one noticed the young woman sitting on one of the benches off to one side of the winding path.

"This is getting embarrassing" Buffy finally admitted to herself as she brought her grief into check.

She wiped her eyes and blew her nose on a handkerchief. Standing up with a determined effort, she realised that she was now alone in the park.. She looked at her watch and cursed her weakness; she would be late again for work, as a waitress at a nearby diner. She stepped on to the path to commence her journey and discovered she was not alone; the two apparitions were still there, facing her.

"Your responsibilities lie back in Sunnydale," said one.

"Your friends need you," said the other.

"Enough!" Buffy stepped away, her hands on her ears. She turned round to face them. "You could at least stand next to each other. I'm getting tennis-watcher's neck looking backwards and forwards between you." Kendra and Jenny did as they were asked and Buffy was momentarily shocked. "Now go away," she commanded hopefully. They remained. "I knew that was too good to be true," she sighed and started to walk away from the women.

"That's right, ignore us. Ignore your responsibility."

"Think about yourself and no one else"

She kept walking. "If you were really who you appear to be," she said defiantly without looking behind her, "you wouldn't be treating me like this. I'm not answerable to some figment of my madness."

Jenny caught up and stood in Buffy's path. "You want me to be nice," she spat. "Your boyfriend snapped my neck or had you forgotten?"

Buffy let out an involuntary sigh at having the memory dragged from the depths she had confined it to. "You are not real!" She screamed.

Jenny's form dissipated. Buffy quickly looked round and found Kendra had also left the scene. She looked down at her feet. "All I want is a normal life," she whispered.

"That's a high ambition for a slayer," came another familiar voice. Buffy turned around to see Theresa, another of Angelus' victims sitting on a nearby bench. "Be careful, Buffy you don't fly too close to the Sun," the ex school friend then similarly vanished.

Buffy looked at the vacant bench. "I'd be happy to just catch a glimpse" she said as though the ghost was still present.

She exited the park trying not to think about the last few minutes. Were ghosts visiting her? Or were the apparitions a tangible sign of her a gradual descent into madness, brought on by grief, guilt and loneliness? She realised that she really did not care which was true. Since the night she had killed Angel, Buffy could not summon any enthusiasm for anything other than getting through each day. Like the miles of a journey, each day distanced her from that moment. Eventually it would disappear over the horizon as Sunnydale had on that coach journey weeks before.

A normal life was impossible, she knew; she had nightly slain countless vampires since her arrival in the city. She had, in fact, never been more in demand and was getting tired at the effort. The demons seemed to travel in groups of three or four in that perversely titled City of Angels. Each night Buffy was less certain she would see dawn. But, again, she really did not care.

Suddenly someone grabbed her from behind and pulled her into an alley off to one side. Buffy spun round on impulse only to receive a painful blow to the side of her head that sent her falling back on to the hard ground. The back of her head hit the floor causing her vision to go cloudy. The assailant was on top of her quickly and pinned her arms with his legs. "Hello little girl" he said mockingly.

A calmness suddenly came over Buffy. Despite being weak from nights of slaying and lack of sleep, she knew she could throw off this demon, but she could not bring forth any desire to do so. "Don't worry," she said almost soothingly. "I won't struggle." She turned her head to one side offering her neck to be taken into oblivion. After all, she thought, living in exile is just another way of dying.

"Oh don't say that little girl" the man said " It's more fun when they struggle"

Buffy remained silent and still. She closed her eyes to prevent tears. When oblivion was a long time arriving she opened them in horror and threw off her attacker. The man was dead before he hit the far wall.

Day followed night followed day. Buffy followed a set routine of work, rest slay and work. She puzzled over why she kept up the slaying, eventually putting it down to a sense of guilt at ignoring her calling. She convinced herself that was the reason; she could not sit behind a closed door all night when innocents were falling victim to demons outside. However, she also saw the futility of it. She was well aware that the slaughter had been going on for centuries, including the time she had spent in Sunnydale. Ultimately, however, it gave her life meaning. At any rate, it occupied her mind before she had to surrender to sleep and all the untouchable horrors that brought her.

A week after the attack in the alley Buffy found herself walking through the park. It was after midnight, she had finished her shift and was on her way back to her apartment. It had been a particularly irritating evening with awkward customers making unrealistic demands on her attention. One diner, who had drunk too much for his own good, had slapped her on the behind. She had lashed out and nearly broken his nose. She was fired on the spot. As such, she was insanely pissed off. Any vampire that dared to challenge the slayer this night was in for a hard time. Despite her appearance, the vampire that did dare was not deterred. Buffy regarded her challenger with the eyes of a hunter eyeing its prey. "Oh good," she said gleefully, "I was so hoping to kill something tonight."

The demon in human form was not perturbed by her remark. "You must be the new slayer in town who has been whittling away at the undead," he sneered, "It's been a long time since I drained a slayer. This time I think I'll kill rather than convert. The last slayer I converted became rather tiresome. You know, too clingy and possessive. She rather cramped my style."

Buffy was genuinely amused. "You finished?" She mocked. "I must check one day just how many slayers there have been. I've lost count how many vamps I've dusted who claim to have killed one."

"Watch learn and die slayer."

"Yadda yadda yadda," she responded and high kicked the vampire in the chin.

The demon stumbled back but remained on his feet. He made a quick response of ramming Buffy in to the nearby bushes. As they both fell with the momentum of the charge, Buffy rolled back and flipped the demon over her head into more bushes. These were full of thorns and it took him precious seconds to extricate himself. It was just enough time for Buffy to make up the distance between them and lunge with the stake she had taken from the inside pocket of her jacket.

She drove the weapon into the vampire's heart and, as she did so, she caught the glint of metal out of the corner of her eye - a knife held in his left hand. The foe turned to dust but, for some reason, the metal object did not fall to the ground. For a moment Buffy was puzzled at this until she realised that the blade was firmly lodged in her right side, just below her ribs.

"Oh dear," she said matter of factly. "Now that can't be good." Pain finally registered over adrenaline and Buffy crumpled on the spot.

Chapter two

a place to rest

The teenager sat on her hands beneath the bus shelter, her legs swung back and forth, matched by her companion, pacing left to right pass her.

"Xander, you're making me nauseous," Willow said.

"Now, Willow, don't try to sweet talk me or Oz'll get jealous. I really don't want to make Oz jealous. Believe me."

The young woman smiled, which briefly mesmerised Xander. Why had he never noticed how her smile could light up a dark place?

"You're afraid of my boyfriend. That's so cool."

"Be kind. He is a werewolf three days a month. Besides, you're afraid of my girlfriend," Xander countered defensively.

Willow laughed. "Xander, you're afraid of your girlfriend."

"You've never been shut in a broom cupboard with her as often as I have."

"I'd rather not know much more than that please." Willow turned up her nose at the thought. "Mind you," she added, "there was this one time..."

The two close friends talked some more, but both avoided the reason they were at the bus station in the first place. Since Buffy had left Sunnydale the gang had taken turns to both stand vigil against her possible return, by acting as a welcoming committee of sorts, and to maintain a vampire-watch. Both tasks had proven unsuccessful; no Buffy, very few vampire kills. The latter was not for the want of trying, however.

"It's time we set off for the cemetery" Xander said finally. The sun had long since set.

Willow sighed and remained seated. "I don't know why we bother hunting," she sulked. "We never make a kill."

"Yea, but Wills, we made progress last night. That vampire ran away from your stern look."

"No he didn't. He just felt sorry for me."

Xander smiled. "Just think though, when you're an old and your grandchildren ask what you did when you were young, you can say you hunted demons to make the world a safer place and they'll look at you as a cool old lady." He started to walk to the exit.

"Yea, that'd be cool. But, Xander." He was still walking away. "Xander." He turned round. "Suppose they don't ask?"

"Then you can still tell them regardless. Repeatedly like only a grandmother can." He resumed walking. "Anyway, we have to put on the appearance that there is someone here to keep them in check."

In truth, they were not making much impact at all. Instances of disappearances and raids on blood banks had increased over the past few weeks, and reports of gangs of violent, apparently drug-influenced youths attacking people at night was becoming the norm.

Xander stopped walking and turned round. Willow had not made up the distance. He was about to say something when he noticed she was staring transfixed in another direction. He followed his friend's line of sight and saw that a bus had just pulled in. It was the last one that evening and they would normally have waited for it to empty.

"Willow, come on. It'll be the same as last night and the night before..." He stopped in mid sentence when he noticed a petite blonde girl start to descend the steps of the bus. Willow turned to him. No words were necessary as he walked up to her and let her put his arm round him.

Buffy reached the bottom step and put her right foot on the tarmac. Her leg gave way and she stumbled. The next passenger offered a helping hand.

"Now that's got to have been embarrassing," Xander commented.

"Which is a good job we didn't see it."

Buffy let the passenger help her to her feet and made a faint smile of gratitude. She looked round at her surroundings, not noticing Willow and Xander in the shadows of the shelters, and slowly made her way to the exit. She looked round again a few times as though checking no one was following and, when at the gates, made an equally cautious approach before stepping on to the road behind the station wall.

Xander and Willow silently decided to follow and watch rather than run and hug Buffy, sensing their friend did not want to be found yet. They hurried to the exit so as not to miss her, but found that she had not gotten far. It looked as though she was heading towards the nearest cemetery, but instead she walked past the entrance and sat on a nearby bench. It was then that they decided to approach her.

"Buffy ?" Willow asked gently so as not to startle her.

The approach did not work as Buffy leapt up and stepped back from them, leaving just enough distance between to be able to make whatever physical response was necessary. After long seconds she realised who was before her. "Shit, you scared the living daylights out of me." She then visibly relaxed, but still kept her distance.

"Hi, Buffy how's life kicking?" Xander asked matter-of-factly.

"It's good to see you, Buffy," Willow added with more feeling.

"Fine and ditto," Buffy responded in turn.

There followed an awkward silence. Once again it was Willow who eventually spoke up. "We saw you get off the bus and...followed you," she looked sheepish. "We didn't know whether to call out or not. You appeared occupied in thought," she added quickly.

"I was... yes I was definitely occupied in thought."

"Where are you headed ?" Willow asked.

"I... I have to do something. I was just thinking what sort of approach I should make when you jumped me," Buffy added the last bit to cover her hesitation.

"Can we come along?" Willow asked trying to appear as though she were making everyday conversation, such as between friends who had seen each other every day, as opposed to those who had been apart for weeks.

Buffy looked briefly panicked but hid it straight away. "No...that's OK, but I have to do this myself."

"Hey, we could be of assistance," Xander offered. Willow looked at him sardonically. "Well we could be moral support then."

"No, honestly guys...I need to go alone. It could be dangerous and...and in fact I really should be going now."

"But, we haven't seen you for so long and besides," Willow looked at Xander, "we've been practising... you'd be surprised how effective we are."

Buffy began to look desperate. "Please... look I have to go now. Keep away and I'll fill you in tomorrow." She edged backwards from them and stumbled slightly.

" Now you're scaring me... a lot," Willow said and made to approach Buffy.

"Yeah and then some" Xander added.

"Well you don't have to be here. I crept out for a reason," Buffy said desperately. Willow and Xander looked alarmed at their friend's change of tone. "Take a hint already!" The slayer added for effect.

Willow looked pained and Xander annoyed. "Buffy don't cut us out. Not again. You're not invincible," he preached.

"Loneliness can kill just as surely," Willow added.

"That's right."

"I know," Buffy conceded. "But there's less blood and gore involved." She looked blankly at the space between them and spoke to it as though thinking out loud. "Everyone I get close to either dies or betrays me or grows to hate me: Angel, Jenny, Kendra... mom," she listed as though reciting a litany.

"What are you afraid we will do?" Willow asked, concern clearly written on her face.

Xander was not so understanding. "Yea, what heading do we come under ?" He said with heat in his voice. "Or should I take a hint ?"

"Do you really need to ask that?" Buffy looked genuinely hurt and Xander felt bad in turn. "I would die for you both," she continued glassy eyed; her right arm was held to her stomach as she emphasised the word die. "You must know that."

"Buffy don't." Willow wanted to hold her.

"I would give my soul for you. Second only to my mom you are what makes my whole crappy life bearable. It would just be more bearable if I knew you were behind your front doors where I know no demons are invited."

"Hey," said Xander attempting to lighten the mood, "you're not normally so glass half empty. Where's that smile in the face of adversity we've all come to know?" He lifted Buffy's chin.

She looked at him in disbelief, missing his attempt at levity or perhaps resentful of it. "Damn you...damn you," she repeated but with more heat to her voice. "Where is it written that I must be universally the happy girl? Just because you don't always see tears doesn't mean I'm always happy. I have a right to be miserable, sad and depressed and...tired." She backed up to the wall and lowered herself to the ground. She pulled her knees up to her body and rocked slowly. "So tired."

Willow had remained silent. She had been too shocked at seeing her friend breakdown before her eyes. She eventually lowered herself to Buffy's eye-level and took her hands in her own. "We'll go home."

"Like hell we will." Xander walked round to face Willow.

"We will go home," Willow repeated looking at him but not relinquishing her hold of Buffy, who had laid her head on her knees and was looking off to one side as if oblivious to her surroundings. "Buffy has a job to do and she'll do it better knowing we are safe."

Xander rubbed his eyes. "OK, Willow I concede the point, but... in this instance we can't leave her. I mean look at her. She couldn't defend herself in this state. I'm willing to bet that if we come back tomorrow morning she'll still be sitting here."

Willow couldn't help but admit he was right. "Buffy, let us take you home."

"I can't go home."

"Why not, Buff?" Xander asked. "Your mom will be relieved to see you. She took your leaving hard."

"Not yet. Please willow." Buffy looked into her friend's eyes.

"We'll go to Giles then," Xander suggested.

"Buffy ?"

She nodded and allowed Willow to help her stand. Xander went to take her other hand but Buffy flinched back against the wall, her eyes fearful. He would have felt offended had he not already been confused. Willow led the way whilst the young man kept an awkward distance to the rear.

They made slow progress to Giles'. Buffy did not seem in a hurry and several times stopped for a rest, which further convinced her friends they had been right to stay with her. They finally reached Giles' house after what seemed an age of walking. It took almost as long for the Watcher to come down to the door. Willow held back a smile when he appeared in a tweed dressing gown.

"Willow, this had better be urgent... although, I hope not serious, of course," he stuttered awkwardly. He eventually registered Buffy's presence.

"Hello, Giles nice dressing gown," she said with a tired smile.

"Buffy...hello...come in come in... all of you go in the living room whilst I go and get dressed." He felt unable to say anything else despite having rehearsed this moment many times since Buffy had left.

Giles eventually came down stairs. He found Buffy huddled up in the corner of his sofa. The pose made her look even smaller than she was. Clearly something was up as not even Xander appeared his normal animated self. "It's good to see you again. How are you...?" He sighed. "I have numerous questions to ask which can all wait until later, I suppose." He looked to Willow, appealing for some guidance.

Willow returned his gaze. "Buffy didn't want to go straight home yet," she offered.

The Watcher looked back at his charge and was relieved to see that she was asleep, lying foetus like. "Willow w.. when did she come back? Why didn't you phone me? What is wrong?".

"Hey Giles... one W at a time," Xander interrupted. "we met at the bus station, by chance actually. Buffy got off the last bus and sort of crept out of the depot. I swear she would have hid in her own shadow if she could."

"But we followed her". Willow added slightly guilty.

"She acted strange from the outset; no smiles or fond reunion hugs. It was though she didn't want us to find her. I actually thought for a while that she was possessed."

Willow looked at Xander. "Did you think that as well? I wish you'd told me; I was thinking the same."

"Yeah, well ... I didn't fancy saying it out loud. It's bad enough having my own mind come up with such thoughts without having them agreed with. Two years ago my thoughts didn't stray beyond ...teenage things ...boy teenage things... you must remember those, Giles."

"Yes... yes I think I can just about recall, thank you."

"Back on track please boys." Willow interrupted. "Buffy acted strange and we expressed our concerns...she then broke down. It was terrible, Giles. I mean I've seen her distressed before, but never to the point where I've feared leaving her alone."

The three friends were jolted out of there conversation by Buffy crying out Angel's name. Xander instinctively went to her side and put his arms around her shoulders.

"Oh, Angel you're here," Buffy wept. "I'm so sorry, I had to do it. Please forgive me

please." she keened .

Xander eventually felt the weight or her body drag and he realised she had fallen back asleep. He was reluctant, however to relinquish his hold, despite the fact that he was only there as a pseudo Angel. Finally, satisfied that she wasn't going to wake, he laid her down.

"I think we can rule out possession," Giles said. "Mental trauma seems more the problem... Xander, you're bleeding," he added suddenly.

Xander jumped up quickly and examined himself. Willow was at his side in an instant, concern on her face.

"Where?... Oh wait a minute there's no wound. It's just on my shirt... ewww... where did it come from ?"

"Oh no... Buffy." Giles noticed the origin of the blood.

They all looked down to see blood staining Buffy's blouse. It had been obscured previously by her jacket, the lining of which was also affected. Once again Xander was at her side. He carefully lifted her blouse slightly to reveal a violent wound below her right ribs. Willow gasped and Xander looked up at Giles, a child-like expression seeking reassurance from an adult. Suddenly Buffy awoke. She screamed and lashed out at the person holding her blouse, catching him a glancing blow to the head with her left hand that sent Xander toppling backwards.

"Buffy!" Willow screamed.

But she was on her feet and backing herself up to the door. "Don't any of you know the meaning of consent?" She shouted wiping her hands down her front frantically, making them worse in the process as they became coated in her own blood. She eventually noticed. "So much blood ...that shocked me." She said cryptically and slowly started to wipe her hands again. Giles started to move towards her but was stopped by her sudden glare at him.

"The wound, Buffy. How did you get the wound?" Willow asked trying to elicit a response.

Buffy looked down and calmly surveyed the mess that was her blouse and stomach, the two indistinguishable. "I got careless... staked a vamp without checking his hands first. Can I sit down Giles?" She asked politely, looking up her teacher. "My legs are a bit unsteady."

"We've got to get you to a hospital."

"No!" she cried. "No thank you," she added politely again.

"But your seriously hurt, Buffy. Don't be silly," Xander tried to reason.

"Xander is right," agreed Giles "you cannot stay here. You... you are in serious danger of..."

"I'm dying, Giles... at least I ... I would hate to think that all this pain and mess is for nothing. Please, Giles I would really like to sit down." Willow went to her side and led her back to the sofa. She lowered her

down. "Thank you."

"I'll go and boil some water to clean your wound," Willow offered.

"Yeah I'll ... help Willow." Xander and Willow left the room.

Giles went to hold Buffy's hand but again thought better of it. He took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes.

"So hi, Giles. Tell me, what's been happening whilst the cat was away ?"

"...there's been a fair bit of activity with...with no slayer around."

Buffy nodded her head and winced slightly as the movement caused a wave of nausea. "LA was ... active as well. No surprising, I suppose being a city and all."

"Buffy this is ..." Giles floundered.

"Surreal?" Buffy offered.

"Why didn't you tell us about your injury?"

"I honestly didn't think it would take this long," she said absently, seemingly ignoring the question. "my damn slayer-strength kicking in to protect me. I've been wandering around aimlessly for three days. I've just had a thought," she said suddenly going off track. "I sent Angel to Hell. I mean there actually is a Hell right?" Giles nodded in silence. "That means there must actually be a Heaven... they sort of go as a set don't they? I wonder if I get an automatic pass, or is there a middle ground that all past slayers have to reside for past mistakes?" she paused and Giles did not feel able to bridge the gap. "Willow and Xander are taking a while... I guess that means the ambulance will be arriving soon, huh?"

Giles nodded. "I'm sorry, Buffy but you knew we couldn't watch you..."

"That's all right, Rupert. I'm a little disappointed but don't harm done"

Her eyes closed.

To be continued