"Are you okay? Are you hungry or anything?" he asked when they were almost to Sunnydale. They had rode most of the way in silence. She preferred it that way and he seemed to recognize that. One thing about her time with Angel, she had never minded the moments of silence they shared.
"I," she paused and thought over his question. "I feel like it's a dream. Or a nightmare. And I guess I am hungry."
Angel pulled into the parking lot of a gas station that also served as Sunnydale's only truck stop and shut off the engine. "It's the only place I could think of that is open and that serves food," he said without her having to ask.
"You don't have to thank me. You should have mentioned food earlier. It's not something I think about. You must be weak."
"Actually, I don't feel weak. I mean, I know I should eat, but I hadn't thought about it until you mentioned it."
They met at the front of the car and walked to the greasy spoon part of the building. Buffy had to admit now that she thought about it she was hungry. She should have been famished considering how long it had been since she had eaten.
A year. She would be twenty-one now. "Bummer, I didn't get my birthday drink."
"My twenty-first birthday."
"Oh, I suppose you didn't. I didn't think you drank."
"I don't," she said simply with a shrug. "I had one experience with the college beer drinking thing and that was enough for me." She was missing a year of her life. This was not what Angel and Spike had gone through, dying and rising as a vampire a few days later. Not that what they went through was small or anything, but neither really seemed to have enjoyed their lives as a human. Buffy, on the other hand, did like her life. Even if she was not happy being the slayer all of the time.
She ate a huge burger and a side of fries. She washed down the greasy meal with a thick chocolate shake. She felt like she could eat a whole meal again. "I guess I was hungrier than I realized."
"I guess so."
She glanced out the window. "I guess it's time for us to go." It was close to sunrise. They had not said much while at the restaurant, but she was thankful for his thinking of her well being. Since her mom died she really had not had anybody around to do that for her.
"I guess it is."
Buffy found her thoughts jumbled and confused. She was both frightened and excited as Angel's Plymouth passed the sign announcing they were entering Sunnydale. She had no idea what to expect from her friends. How would they react? Would they be happy to see her? Or were they enjoying life not battling demons and vampires?
"Where are we going?"
"It's almost four in the morning. I thought it might be prudent to wait until tomorrow to show up with such a surprise."
"Oh, yeah, I suppose you're right." It had yet to sink in that she could not walk through her front door as if nothing had happened. Distantly her mind registered that all was not well in Sunnydale.
"I can't believe this place."
"Buffy, have you looked out your window?"
"Huh? Oh yeah." She was now forced to look at what she had been trying to avoid. Demons running rampant. Vampires feeding on people in public. She realized that her body had already gone into slayer mode. She was ready physically for whatever came her way. Life on the hellmouth was never dull.
"We'll work on it tomorrow. You need some rest."
She let out an audible sigh of relief. She felt like she could take on the world, so feeling weak or tired was not the issue. She did not want to deal with it tonight as selfish as that may seem. She suspected Angel understood and that was the reason he continued driving toward the mansion.
She walked to the front door, recalling the last time she had been there. She had saved his life knowing he would leave her. It might have saved her some heartache to just let him die, but she did not have it in her to do that. She loved him and refused to watch him die.
"Kind of dusty."
"Yeah, I guess it is," she said, though she had not noticed. "Way to pay attention, Buffy." An entire nest of vampires could have been there and she would have walked in without a clue.
"It doesn't look like anything's changed. I'll start a fire to get the chill and dampness out of the air. You can take the bed. It's probably not clean."
Buffy ran her fingers through her hair, pushing back her bangs from her face. "I just need a bed, Angel. I'd sleep on the floor at this point I think."
"You look exhausted."
"I feel," she was not sure how she felt. She felt strange, not tired but she could not put a name to it.
"Don't worry about it. I'm going to be up for a while, so get some rest."
She glanced at her clothes. "I wish I had something a little less formal to sleep in."
He gestured to a duffle bag he had set on the floor by the front door. "I always keep a bag in my car. You never know when a job is going to take longer with no sewer access. There's a shirt and a pair of sweats you could wear."
"Thanks. You're a godsend."
"I think we've seen evidence tonight that you're the godsend, but I'll accept your gratitude."
She opened the bag, and sure enough found a shirt and a pair of sweats that she would swim in. It was better than the dress she was wearing, though. She could not believe she just thought of getting out of it now.
She took the clothes and walked to the stairs that would lead to his old bedroom. "You're not going to sleep?"
"Not right away, no."
"Where will you be?"
"I meant to sleep."
"Oh," he shrugged. "There are plenty of other rooms, Buffy. I won't bother you."
That was not what she was worried about. He had been so distant toward her that she was not sure how to tell him she did not want to be alone. Her mind was still overloaded, the images of Sunnydale out of control etched on her mind. Yet fuzzy memories of a place where there was no chaos were still there in the recesses of her mind. Buffy did not want to admit it, but she was afraid.
When she woke the next morning there was an imprint on the mattress made by a form larger than hers. She smiled slightly and ran the palm of her hand over it. She stretched, feeling like a child playing dress-up in the too-large clothes. Her eyes felt raw and she suspected she had cried while sleeping. She glanced to the window, wondering what time it was. She saw the keys first and then the piece of paper underneath them.
If you want me to go with you I'd be more than happy to, but you will have to wait hours to see your friends and family. I expect when you wake up and see the new day that you will not want to wait that long. Please take my car and do what you need to do today. I will come by your house after sunset if you are not back by then. I know Dawn and your friends will be as pleased to see you as I was.
Buffy clutched the note to her chest and smiled as she slid the keyring over her index finger and spun the keys around. She was still not sure what to feel about being back, but she was determined to make the best of it. What other choice did she have?
First thing was to find Dawn. She wanted to see Willow, Xander and Tara but Dawn was priority one. She had no shoes to wear, the ones she had on last night would not exactly go with Angel's sweats and shirt. So she was barefoot when she left the mansion and walked to Angel's car.
The day was like any other in California. The sun was shining. Being the end of May, the air was cool but would turn warm later in the day. She knew it so well yet things looked different to her today.
She drove the short distance from the mansion to Revello Drive almost ramming Angel's car into various objects as she saw the evidence of long-term chaos and destruction in her town. It had not looked this bad last night in the dark, but in the light of day it was clear things were not well on the hellmouth.
She let the car idle after putting it in park on the street across from her house. The yard was well cared for at any rate and she wondered who was taking care of it. Or was someone else living there? These questions were what led to her parking on the street instead of the driveway.
"Here goes nothing," she said and climbed out of Angel's car. She probably looked ridiculous. If the house was empty or her things were still there she would change. If it was not empty and strangers were living in her house she would probably have a break down because she would have no idea where Dawn or the others were.
She walked up the steps that led to the front porch and hesitated. Ring the bell or walk in under the assumption someone she knew was still here? Where did Dawn go after she died? To their Dad's? She should have thought of that possibility before leaving LA with Angel. But she had not been able to think much beyond the basics of survival last night.
She rang the bell and turned to face the street. The area here looked all right, not as affected by whatever had taken over Sunnydale. But still she noticed a difference. Houses that a year ago were open and welcoming now had bars on the windows.
"Hello. May I help you?"
Buffy turned at the sound of her own voice, her eyes wide. The Buffy Bot? She thought it had been destroyed.
"Oh, it's me. I mean, it's you." The Bot looked genuinely confused and Buffy felt sorry for her for a minute. It was sort of her after all. "But you're dead."
"Guess not even death can stop me." The Bot looked at her with a blank face and Buffy realized she had probably exceeded what she was programmed to understand. "Is Dawn home?"
"She's in the shower. I was just making her breakfast."
"Yes, I do. I'm getting quite good at it."
Buffy could not help but smile. "Can I come in?"
The Bot frowned, as if thinking over the question. "It is your house. Of course you can come in."
"Thank you. I'm going to go see Dawn."
"She will be happy to see you."
"Thanks," Buffy said and bounded up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
She rapped lightly on the bathroom door with her knuckles like she had done many times over the years. It had really been only one year, but Buffy had memories of Dawn since she was five years old.
Buffy took a deep breath as she twisted the knob, pushing the door open.
Dawn was in the process of putting eyeliner on, so her eyes were focused on the bathroom mirror instead of Buffy. "I'm almost done. I'll only be a few more minutes. I'm sorry I'm running late, but my alarm didn't go off."
"Dawn," Buffy interrupted.
"I'm going to be late for my job on my first day! This is insane. Stupid alarm clock." She finished with her makeup application and washed her hands.
"Dawn," Buffy said again.
She glanced at Buffy as she wiped her hands off on a towel. "Where did you find those clothes? Are those my dad's or something?"
"Don't call me that," her sister said through gritted teeth. "I've told you that you can't call me that."
"Would you look at me?"
Dawn dropped her hands by her side then and looked at Buffy. Buffy watched as her eyes widened as understanding seemed to wash over her. "You, no, you, you're dead." Buffy saw the tears forming in Dawn's eyes, lots of them and rushed to her.
"It's okay. I'm here," she whispered as she took her sister into her arms.
"It can't be. You jumped off that tower. I saw you." She drew herself away from Buffy and rushed downstairs. Buffy followed as Dawn went into the kitchen and saw the Buffy Bot. "It's really real. You're really here."
"How? Why? When?"
"I don't know," Buffy said with a shrug. "I wish I could explain it, but I don't know myself."
"When did you get here?"
"Last night in LA. Angel drove me here."
"He's back at the mansion. We stayed there last night deciding that four in the morning probably was not the time to drop in here with such a surprise. Besides, I didn't even know if you were still living here."
"You came back to Angel?"
"No, Dawnie. I showed up on the dunes in LA. Remember them?" Buffy realized Dawn probably would not remember them, because they had been in Sunnydale when Dawn was the age to go on the same field trip Buffy had.
"Here's your breakfast, Dawn," Buffy Bot said setting a plate of scrambled eggs and toast in front of her with a glass of milk. It looked pretty good.
"Would you like something to eat?"
"No, thanks, I'm fine," she said. "What is she doing here anyway? I thought she was destroyed."
"Willow fixed her. We needed you to be here for the social service people and as the slayer."
"She's been slaying?"
Buffy recalled the scene she and Angel had driven through last night. "Not doing a real good job of it."
"Well, no, we can only send her to patrol cemeteries. She can't take on the big things."
"I like slaying. Vampires are evil and need to be staked. Except Spike."
"Yes," Buffy said with a roll of her eyes. "Did I hear you say something about a job?"
"Yeah, I got a job at the new Barnes and Noble."
"We have a Barnes and Noble?"
"Yes, just opened about a month ago. You, I mean the Bot, wouldn't let me get a job until school was out."
"Well, how about I drive you there? I have Angel's car."
"I can call in sick."
"No, you can't call in sick on your first day of a job."
"Buffy, my sister doesn't come back from the dead every day."
"Yes, and if you could walk around telling people that was the reason you wanted the day off it would be different."
"I can never tell anyone anything cool that goes on in my life."
"I know, it's terrible. Eat, and let's go."
Buffy looked at the Bot and wondered what they would do with it now that she was back. She could not look at that thing every day knowing the reason Spike had it made.
"Where are the others?" Buffy asked as Dawn finished the last of her eggs and emptied the glass of milk.
"Well, that's a long story."
"Give me the short version," Buffy prompted as they headed out the door and across the street to Angel's car.
"Xander's working construction on the new high school. Tara's dead. Willow's in England getting some help from Giles because Tara's death sent her off the deep end. Magically speaking. Anya's still here working at the magic shop."
"We don't know. He disappeared a while ago and no one's seen him since."
"Is he? I mean, is he dead?"
"I don't think so. He did leave a note. He stuck around for about six months, but I don't think he could stand it here without you."
Buffy started up Angel's Plymouth and put it in gear. She was feeling conflicted now. Last night when she had offered to help protect Angel from Connor she had not been thinking. Emotion had driven her to say the things she did. Dawn needed her. Buffy could not just up and leave for LA. She was not sure what she was going to do.
"Will you be here tonight?"
"Yep," Buffy said simply. "I'll pick you up and we can get something to eat or something. And then we'll surprise Xander."
"He's going to be thrilled. We all missed you, but it took Xander a while to realize you were really gone. I guess because he had been there when The Master stuff happened."
"Dawn, it's okay. You can talk about it."
Tears were rolling off Dawn's cheeks again as Buffy pulled into the Barnes and Noble parking lot. Buffy was getting choked up too. "I'm so glad you're back, Buffy," she said reaching over to hug Buffy. "I missed you so much."
"Me, too, Dawnie. I'll see you tonight, okay."
"You won't leave? I'm not dreaming."
"Of course not. I'm back, Dawnie. I'm here."
Buffy was not sure it was good, but was glad Dawn thought so. She hated the idea of Dawn being hurt or missing her. Buffy had given her life so that Dawn could have one. It had been an easy decision to make. Buffy's life would never be about anything but the death and destruction of slaying so she had believed she was giving up very little.
Buffy wiped Dawn's tears away with the back of her hand and kissed her on the cheek. "Go, or you're really going to be late."
Buffy watched as Dawn walked toward the store's entrance, driving away only after she could no longer see the form of her sister through the windows. "She's so grown up," Buffy said wiping away her own tears.
Having no idea where to find Xander, Buffy's next stop was the magic shop. She made Anya promise she would not tell Xander if she saw him before Buffy saw him. She was not sure how good Anya's word was, but it was a risk she was willing to take. She did get Giles' number so she could call him. She did not ask about Willow, afraid of what Anya might say.
She was curious as to what had happened. Dawn's short version of things left Buffy feeling more curious than before. It was after noon by the time she finished at the magic shop. She stopped at the butcher's nearby and bought Angel some pig's blood. She was not sure what he drank these days, but it was what she was familiar with. He should be awake by now and she found next to Dawn he was the one person she wanted to talk to most.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com