Her fingers gripped the bone white china coffee mug, absorbing the heat through her chilled body. Damp strands of blonde hair clung to her face. A shaky sigh escaped between her lips.
What was she doing?
Her eyes closed and a shiver ran through her body.
Why did she come here?
She tucked a strand of wet hair behind her ear as her eyes stayed trained on the dark liquid. She brought the mug to her lips, tasting the bitter flavor.
She looked up at the man with the kind brown eyes. “Um, sorry. What was that?”
Concern flickered in his eyes. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah.” Her voice lacked conviction and the man tried again.
“Do you need anything?”
She let out a murky laugh. “Directions to the nearest shithole of a motel.”
The man’s brow furrowed. “Well, there’s always Sunnydale Motel.” He studied her for a moment. “You look kinda familiar, and at the risk of sounding like an idiot: do I know you?”
She focused her gaze on his face. “I doubt it.”
He didn’t believe her, she could tell. “Okay, well, have a good night.” She watched as he said something to a sweet-looking redhead and walked out the door. As soon as he disappeared, the redhead glanced over at her.
She blinked. Hard. She knew that girl.
The redhead’s look of confusion morphed into recognition. She hesitantly walked over to her table. “Buffy?”
“Um…” Damn, why hadn’t she thought of people remembering her? Surely not everyone from the class of 1998 had left Sunnydale.
“Buffy, right? I’m Willow, Willow Rosenberg. We had computer class together with Ms. Calendar…” The redhead, Willow, trailed off. She didn’t dare venture too far into the past. “How have you been?”
“Uh…um, fine.” Overstatement of the year, Buffy thought.
Willow nodded, the same concern rippling in her eyes. “Right. Where’ve you been?”
She had no choice but to answer. “LA, mostly. Sometimes in New York.”
Willow smiled. “Wow, big cities.”
Buffy stared at the overly bright smile. Yeah, she thought sarcastically. Living the life. “Just simple stuff.” Change the subject. “What about you?”
“Oh! I’m working here, obviously. Xander, you remember him, right? He saw you and asked me if I recognized you, and sure enough!”
Buffy just smiled weakly, waiting for her to continue.
“Anyway, he and his wife own the place, but she’s pregnant and sometimes asks me to fill in when she’s not feeling too good. But my actually job is computer repairs, stuff like that. It’s nice; I can pretty much do it from my house.”
Buffy let Willow babble on about her girlfriend, Tara, and their new kitty. It sounded so…normal. The ache of wanting the normalcy startled her.
Shit! She’d missed what Willow had said. “Huh?”
Willow’s expression was somber. “Have you talked to him?” There was no question who the ‘him’ was.
“Not recently,” Buffy answered, trying to sound normal. “But, you know, we kinda lost touch after high school and…” The unspoken second reason hung thick in the air.
“Well!” Willow nearly shouted, breaking the unease. “What brings you back to Sunnydale?”
Good question. “Business,” Buffy lied with a shrug. “I didn’t really know if anyone was still here.”
Willow slid into the vacant seat. “Yeah, I know. I thought about leaving, but Tara and I love it here. Plus, we’re looking to adopt and better to raise a kid here than in LA.” Her eyes widened as she glanced at Buffy. “Not that it’s bad! It’s just…different.”
At her stricken expression, Buffy’s lips twitched. “I don’t have any kids.” Then the brief grin disappeared, the frozen face back.
Willow seemed oblivious. “Oh, trust me. I never thought I would either, but Tara loves them.” Suddenly her expression turned curious. “So, where’re you staying?”
“At…Sunnydale Inn,” Buffy lied, punctuating her words with an obligatory smile.
Willow’s eyes brightened gleefully. “Nice! They have the best scones at breakfast. Anya gets a shipment in the morning from them and they’re gone by 8:30.”
“Anya?” Buffy echoed in confusion.
“Xander’s wife,” Willow explained and then paused thoughtfully. “You know, you might remember her. She came midway during senior year. Cordelia Chase was always sucking up to her because of her stepdad.”
Buffy nodded absently. She actually had no idea who Anya was. “Listen, I should get going.”
The five words prompted Willow to spring out of the seat. “And I should get back to work. But, hey, the four of us are going to the Bronze tonight, wanna join us?”
Every thought in Buffy’s mind was screaming ‘No! Get away!’ “Sure,” the word slipped out. “What time?”
God, she was an idiot.
Buffy stared down at the crumbled bills in her hand and let out a low sigh. “Okay.” She pressed the money into the dyed blond woman’s weathered, old hands.
Her heavily made-up eyes blinked as she counted the bills. Buffy couldn’t help but stare at her red lacquered nails.
“Eighty?” the woman asked her in the same monotone voice, making her question sound more like a statement.
“Yes.” Buffy cleared her throat. “Two nights, please.”
The crayon eyebrow rose at her impeccable manners. She slowly turned around and grabbed a seemingly random key and handed it over. “Room 217.” She placed the money into the register and looked up with a blank face.
Buffy could feel the heat spreading across her cheeks as she pocketed the key and backed up, moving towards the elevator. “Thank you.” The words felt so out of place and awkward.
The woman just nodded tiredly, resuming her crossword puzzle.
Buffy located the elevator and pressed the UP button. Goosebumps trailed up her bare arms. What was she doing here?
A job, she thought firmly as the doors slid open. She needed a job that didn’t involve drunken idiots pawing at her. She stepped in the rickety elevator and let out a deep sigh. Had she ever thought she’d be staying here of all place?
Visions of home baked apple crisp and cider danced behind her closed eyes. Her mother’s specialties. No, she decided swiftly, she wouldn’t tell her mother she was here. If she did, there would be coddling, scolding and her mother’s desperate attempts to get her daughter to talk about him. The other him.
The doors groaned open and Buffy followed the numbers to her room, unlocked it and pushed the squeaky door open.
It was dirty and dusty. The covers were stained and there was a distinct smell coming from the closet. She didn’t even venture into the bathroom.
“Welcome home,” she murmured and pulled back the covers. The pillow was annoyingly flat and the bed was hard, but she fell asleep instantly.