He'd fallen back asleep when the update came, sometime in the early morning hours.
Crackle. Hiss. "Anybody there? Hello?"
"Hello, yes," Giles said, grabbing up the walkie-talkie from their makeshift strategy table. "Faith?"
"We found the scythe. The blade. The handle's missing, but there's no mistake."
The news hit him like a punch to the gut, leaving him incapable of protest when Dawn sprang to her feet and snatched the two-way radio away from him.
"And Buffy? Any sign of her?" she asked, hurrying to the lip of the crater.
"I can't see you. Where are you? Light a flare."
A green light bloomed far below, just as he caught up to Dawn. Giles squinted, but the rhythmic back and forth of the pale green light was all he could make out in the twisted landscape.
He took the radio back. "And how are you doing, Faith? Are you and Kennedy all right?"
"Five by five, G. Plenty of food and water, no injuries. It's creepy as fuck down here, though. Like a graveyard, and not the good kind." There was a brief pause. "A couple hours ago, it sounded like there were voices. People talking. That's how we found the scythe, actually. We thought it might be Buffy, and headed that way."
Again, his breath left him. I'm getting too old for this, he thought. I can't bear it any more. And wasn't that why he'd fled for England last year, and only returned under threat of apocalypse?
How many more times could he be asked to endure this torment? How many more times could he bear waiting to find out whether the woman he loved like a daughter had survived yet another battle with the forces of evil, and not have his heart give out from the strain? A piece of his soul died each time, and perhaps all of him had when Buffy had leapt to her death to save the world. He hadn't been able to love her the same way since, not now that he knew the inevitable agony that awaited him a second time.
Dawn shook his arm. "They heard Buffy? Is Buffy okay?"
"Did the voices – was one of them Buffy's?" he croaked into the two-way.
"Hard to say. Most of the noises down here end up being rats, or buildings settling. I can't tell you how many times we thought we heard somebody only to find nada."
"Unless you count demons," Kennedy said. "We've run into –"
"Shutup, you'll panic the kid," Faith hissed.
Giles tried to turn away, but Dawn was too fast for him. She'd wrapper her hand around his, and brought the two-way to her mouth. "Demons? What about demons? If Buffy's hurt she won't be able to –"
"Don't worry. All we saw was some little troll thing that was more scared of us than Andrew would be of it. It looked harmless. Look, we know we've gotta be close. We're gonna keep looking, and we'll let you know the minute we find something. How's Willow doing with the locator spell?"
Willow, who'd joined them, held her hand out for the walkie-talkie. When Dawn handed it to her, she depressed the button and said, "It's working for those of us up here on the rim. I can find each of us every time. You guys aren't showing up on the map yet, but I figure any minute now."
"Copy that, Big Red. Give us a buzz when we do."
Beside him, the two girls, buoyed by the news, conversed animatedly, a rapid back and forth of 'what if's' and high-pitched exclamations that made the dull ache behind his eyes throb mercilessly. Giles bit back the invective on the tip of his tongue, knowing it was lack of sleep, and a certain amount of remorse, making him so irritable.
He hadn't gone a half dozen steps when he was waylaid by Xander, who stopped him with a hand to the forearm and a low, "Giles, how long can a person go without water? Because it's been four days now, and if we don't find Buffy soon…"
However close they'd once been, Giles had been absent from the children's day-to-day lives for close to two years now. He no longer recalled how to do this, how to be their mentor and father figure. The absolute trust they'd placed in him these past few days, the way they looked to him to solve their problems, like the teenagers they once were, was more than he could bear.
Especially in light of the recent unpleasantness with Buffy, whose opinion mattered most to him. She'd made it clear he no longer held that esteemed position in her life by literally and figuratively slamming the door in his face. All over that – vampire.
That cursed nuisance who'd clouded her judgment. And probably gotten her killed, or at least grievously injured, if what Faith had told him was correct. Buffy had remained behind out of concern for the foul creature, rather than use good sense and evacuate with the others. They'd had to leave her behind, or risk perishing themselves.
Xander's hand tightened around his forearm, and he shook off the fruitless train of thoughts. If recent history served, he would spend enough time brooding over it when sleep next eluded him.
What had Xander asked? Oh. Yes.
"For the average human, four to five days without water would likely result in fatality," he said. "But Buffy is far from average, Xander. We shall have to hope her remarkable constitution will allow her to survive for much longer."
"And we'll find her before then."
Giles could hear the unspoken request for reassurance in the boy's voice. He held back his sigh, and dredged up the energy necessary to respond with the confidence the younger man needed to hear. "I am certain of it."
Xander nodded and moved away. A helicopter droned in the distance, pitch rising and falling as it swooped in and out of the crater, searching for survivors. Giles watched it for a time, wondering if they were searching for someone in particular, or simply searching.
They'd rented a helicopter themselves, that first day, when it had become clear nobody would be capable of descending into the remains of Sunnydale in the immediate future. Giles had paid for the endeavor but remained on the ground, allowing those with better eyesight to accompany the pilot.
Under other circumstances, he suspected the youngsters might have rather enjoyed themselves. Xander had made a crack about his military prowess before running bent double for the helicopter, despite the fact that the blades weren't even spinning. The girls had pressed their faces to the windows, eyes wide with excitement when the helicopter had lifted off. The children, full of hope, had waved goodbye to him, only to return disappointed hours later.
Dawn had been inconsolable.
Not for the first time in the past few days, he thought wistfully of Riley and the Initiative, aware of the irony even as he did so. But the Initiative, no matter how he despised them, might have succeeded where he had failed. It was perhaps one of the few instances in which the military's technology and resources would be far more useful than the arcane and mystical methods upon which their small group typically relied.
He hadn't the foggiest how to contact the soldier, however, and Giles did not trust a matter of such delicacy to the military in general. No, they were on their own. They hadn't even the Council to rely upon.
But when had they ever, truly? They'd always been on their own, relying upon one another as they were now, and mostly successfully at that.
They would prevail again, he told himself.
He almost believed it, too.
It was the moment of truth.
Willow had performed the locator spell three times now without a hitch, pinpointing Faith and Kennedy's exact location each time. For the past eighteen hours, the two Slayers had searched in ever-widening circles from where they'd found the scythe, without luck. It had been almost five days since the collapse of Sunnydale, five days since Buffy had disappeared. Despite his reassurances to Xander, Giles knew time was running out. A successful locator spell was crucial to ensuring her survival.
The group gathered around Willow held their collective breath as she began the spell. The witch finished her incantation, and then there was a flash of light and a puff of smoke.
Willow stared at the parchment in front of her.
"What is it?" Dawn said. "Where's Buffy?"
"I must've messed up…" Willow scowled. "Let me do it again."
The others stepped back, instinctively giving her space. Willow repeated the proceedings, and was again disappointed with the outcome.
Giles refused to give voice to the obvious implications of the spell's failure. Admittance was tantamount to acceptance. "Perhaps the other spell?"
"But that one isn't as precise," Willow said. She met Giles' eyes, and understanding flashed between them. "You're right; I can at least get them headed in the right direction."
Dawn brought her the necessary ingredients, and Willow began again. Using the spell, she located first Faith, then Kennedy. "Okay, Buffy," she muttered. "Where are you?"
"It'll work this time," Dawn said, her tone far more confident than Giles would've thought possible. "I didn't let her say goodbye. Buffy said goodbye the other time – when she – but I didn't let her say it this time. So it has to work."
Giles stifled a cry, fists clenched, teeth clamped to the inside of his cheek. Dawn's unwavering faith, her childish but tempting logic, was like a lance to his heart. He hadn't said goodbye either. Nor had they reconciled. Not properly.
But he would. He would make amends the moment they found her.
Willow repeated the process a third time. When the incantation was complete, she let out a hiss of frustration.
"Willow?" Dawn said, her eyes huge.
"I – I don't know what's wrong, Dawnie. The spell says – okay, remember that time when I came back from England, and I was invisible to you guys? And you were all invisible to me? I did a locator spell on you then, and it said…"
"Well, it said you didn't exist. Kinda like now. According to this..."
"Buffy doesn't exist," Giles finished. He was surprised at how steady his voice sounded. His insides were roiling, his breakfast close to ejecting itself. He supposed Xander would say he had his British on.
Dawn blanched. "Doesn't exist as in a magical 'oops the Hellmouth made her invisible'? Or doesn't exist as in…"
Giles didn't answer. Nobody did. He opened his mouth, but couldn't force the words out.
Willow's eventual response was a distant buzzing in his ear, her words nothing more than nonsense to him. Giles found himself at the edge of the crater, peering down into it as though he could discern where his Slayer was, even from this distance.
Somewhere behind him, Dawn's desperate voice rose in pitch and volume with each hysterical word.
This is it, he thought to himself. It's over. She's gone.
When Giles realized the feeling coursing through him was predominantly relief, he fell to his knees and vomited.