Buffy hefted the strap of the backpack back up to her shoulder as she tried to quietly jiggle the lock and keys to her apartment. After nearly thirty-six hours aboard a charter bus, all she could think about was her bed, with its soft cotton sheets and down comforter. Giving up the stealthy approach, Buffy pounded heavily on the door. The noise echoed through the empty corridor, a subtle reminder of the late hour. Inside, she could hear movement, then some not-so-quiet cursing. Buffy smiled to herself. It felt good to be home.
Dawn opened the door, wrapped in her blue terry-cloth robe, and scowled at her sister before grabbing her into a fierce hug. Buffy wrapped her arms around her and gave an extra squeeze, letting Dawn know she had been missed too. Dawn broke the embrace and looked pointedly to the clock on the wall.
“Did you lose your keys, again, Buffy?” Dawn asked, grumpy. Her long brown hair, mussed and uncombed, tumbled down and around her shoulders like a rumpled, silken sheet, framing her heart-shaped face. Dawn scowled down at her sister, using her advantage in height -- nearly six inches -- to good effect. It was amazing, Buffy thought, how Dawn had matured, from awkward teen to beautiful woman.
“No. Just too tired to work the lock,” Buffy said, walking past her sister and into the living room where she dropped all her bags with a heavy, metallic thump. Without breaking her stride, Buffy walked to the tiny adjacent kitchen, her sister on her heels. Taking out a glass and filling it with water, she went to a cabinet and took out the bottle of ibuprofen. “I just spent 15 hours riding next to a lady who raises chickens...in her house. Did you know they make diapers for chickens?”
“Really? That's disturbing."
“Yeah, on a lot of levels."
“Ok, enough about chickens! Tell me about what happened. Dream Hunk. Olivia. What’s Bobby up to. All of it!"
Buffy opened her mouth to reply, but the deep voice of a man cut her off.
"Buffarito! Back to civilization after bumming around the heartland, huh?" His single eye twinkled with good humor. His tone was light as he looked at Dawn lovingly. His hand lightly raced along the arm of his wife as he passed by her, the gesture completely natural. He pulled Buffy into a quick embrace and pecked her cheek in warm welcome.
“Buffarito?” Buffy, who loved Xander dearly, would never understand why he had such a fascination with mutating her name. He never did that with Dawn, other than calling her Dawnie like everyone else. Some she didn’t mind, but others, like Buffarito...
“You like that one?” Xander returned to Dawn’s side and draped his arm around her shoulders. Dawn gathered her hair to the side to keep the weight of her husband’s arm from pulling it and leaned into him. “Dawn thought of that one after we were talking about that night you went all glutton and ate 10 bean burritos from the the taco truck outside the gym. Good times. Funny times.”
Buffy smiled at her friend. It had been weird, at first, one of her best friends dating her little sister. But once she came to see how well they suited each other, she was truly happy for them.
"So, angels, huh?" Xander asked, prompting her to fill them in on the latest development.
"More like Heavenly dick-heads," Buffy replied. She walked over to the fridge and opened the door. Various boxes of take-out greeted her. “Any of these good? I think those boxes from Fritella’s were here when I left.”
"The Thai ones are from last night," Xander pointed out helpfully. Buffy grabbed the two containers and opened them. Inside she found chicken sate and pad thai from her favorite Thai restaurant.
"Buffy, forget about your stomach for one minute and tell me what happened." Dawn’s foot was tapping furiously on the kitchen tile. "Last thing I heard was some ghost killed Olivia and a bunch of hunters, your mystery man knew Bobby and Angels wear trench coats!"
"Alright, alright," Buffy said, rolling her eyes at her sister's demands. She emptied the cartons onto a plate and popped it into the microwave. "What do you want to know?"
"Everything! Who is the dream hunk?"
"His name is Dean Winchester." Buffy's food dinged and she removed the steaming plate. “He was killed by this demon bitch named Lilith because he made a deal to trade his soul for his brother's life-"
“Wait, this Dean guy is dead?” Xander asked, confused.
"Was,” Buffy replied around a mouthful of noodles. “But that angel guy, Castiel, he brought him back from Hell, all shiny and new. Seems he sent me there as backup while Dean had to crawl out of his own grave."
"What the hell? Angel dude is a dick if he made him do that," Xander cried out, memories flooding his mind as he remembered Buffy having to do the same.
"Why did this Castiel bring him back anyway? And why send you? Why not Bobby?" Dawn asked as she stole a slice of chicken from her sister's plate. “Oh, is that why you were the only Slayer having the dreams? I thought you just didn’t want to share.”
Buffy paused for a minute, chewing her food as she bought time to think. There was one thing she wasn't ready to share just yet.
"Oh, you know, the usual. It's the end of the world. Blah, blah, blah," Buffy said. Her sister and brother-in-law shrugged at that news. It wasn't the first time they'd heard that. “Lilith is trying to break the 66 seals and release Lucifer."
"Lucifer, the King of Hell? That Lucifer?" Xander asked, starting to get twitchy. Buffy could see the beginnings of panic form in his eyes. She knew if she didn't stop him soon, the babbling about nonsense would start soon.
"So I’ve been told. Cas the Ass says Dean and I are the only ones who can stop it. Apparently the end of the world isn't enough for them get off of their fluffy clouds and do something useful."
"If you and Dean have to stop this, why are you here? Alone?" Dawn demanded to know.
"What? I'm just going to tag along with two guys, that I barely know, as they travel across the country solving supernatural cases? This is real life, Dawnie. I can't just do that."
"Hey, Faith and Angel are doing just that!"
"I am not talking about Faith and Angel tonight. Dawn, we'll talk in the morning."
"Fine. But then you're going to tell me everything!"
Buffy tossed her bags onto the floor when she entered her room, the hidden weapons making a loud clink as they bounced around together. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, Buffy rubbed her temples. Her head still ached. That itself was puzzling; she never got headaches. She'd talk to Willow in the morning if it persisted. Maybe she knew of some herbs or something that would help.
Buffy started stripping her clothes off and tossing them in her hamper. She needed a shower. Badly.
Going to the in-suite bathroom, she quickly changed her mind. What she really needed was a steaming hot bath. Turning on the faucets, she began to fill the tub. On a whim, she tossed in the lavender bath salts as well. Lowering herself in, she paused for just a second as her skin adjusted to the temperature.
As the hot water worked her body into jelly, Buffy's mind traveled to the day before, when she had said goodbye to the Winchester men.
It was early afternoon. The September sun was shining down brightly as she walked out of Bobby's house, bags in hand. The men were gathered there in the parking yard. Dean and Sam were talking beside the big black car the former constantly called his 'Baby'. A '67 Chevy Impala, she had been informed by an annoyed Dean. Bobby, who was driving her to the bus station in Sioux Falls, was leaning casually inside the hood of his truck, replacing the radiator belt. At least that's what she thought he had said he needed to do. Car parts still made no sense to her.
The screen door shut with a loud bang, drawing all eyes to her. She instantly connected with Dean's, their translucent green color flashing something she couldn't read. Things had been awkward between them since the angel's visit.
"It's going to be about fifteen minutes till I get this back on, Buffy," Bobby called out as he looked up at her.
"Take your time, Bobby," Buffy called back to him. Unsure of where to go after she had deposited her bags in the back of the truck, she was surprised to see both brothers walking toward her.
"Buffy." It was Sam who addressed her, smiling with an easy and genuine charm. She hadn't had much of a chance to really get to know the younger Winchester, but she liked him well enough, though she felt he was hiding something. "I, uh, wanted to thank you, again, for helping Dean out like you did."
"No big," Buffy replied, smiling back at him. She could see Dean looking at her but she kept her gaze on Sam. "All part of Slayerhood, helping the damsel in distress."
"So, where are you going now?" Sam laughed, earning a punch to the arm from his brother, who surprisingly kept quiet. Buffy could see he was trying to not smile as her eyes flickered over him. She quickly turned her attention back to Sam, who was trying to keep the conversation light.
"Home. Back to L.A. I've gotta get back to my classes before all my students leave."
"Oh, you're a teacher?" The idea obviously seemed to surprise him and Buffy felt the sting to her ego. Was she ever going to get used to people's judgment of her blond hair and Southern California accent?
"Kinda. I own a dojo where I teach self defense," Buffy replied, trying hard to keep the hurt from her voice. She hoped Dean hadn’t heard it. “It’s a flexible enough job that it doesn’t really interfere with Slaying.”
“What styles do you teach? I saw that you used a lot of Jeet Kune Do when you were fighting yesterday.” Buffy was impressed. Most hunters she knew didn’t know one form from the other.
“Yeah, I do. We teach mostly Krav Maga, Jiu-jitsu, Jeet Kune Do, and then basic to advanced Kickboxing.”
“Do you find that when you’re using Jeet Kune Do, the influence of Wing Chun to be...” Sam started to say but was interrupted by his brother.
“Dude, stop geeking out like that. It's embarrassing." Dean said, his tone making the words playful.
"Maybe if you studied it more, Dean, I wouldn't always beat at hand to hand," Sam replied and Buffy laughed. It was easy to see why Bobby loved them.
"Maybe next time we can spar a little," Buffy said. "Compare techniques."
"That mean you're planning on coming back, princess?" Dean's green eyes locked on hers and for a moment, the world fell away.
"You never know." The words were spoken lightly-teasingly- but even without meaning to, they were heavy with promise. He smirked and her heart skipped a beat when she saw that he had heard it too. He stepped closer, his eyes glancing down her body before he turned to his brother.
"Sam, give us a minute,will ya." Buffy could see that he was reluctant to it, but Dean turned and stared at him just before he rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders.
"Yeah, sure,” Sam said. “Buffy, it was great to meet you. Take care.”
Buffy nodded back at him but he had already turned around and was walking over to Bobby, who seemed to be nearly done with the belt.
"Yeah?" Their air around them was filled with a heavy and awkward sexual tension.
“I know that last night, some things were said that were pretty fucking weird. Creeped the hell outta me, anyway,” said Dean. She could see that he was just as weirded out as she was to be together with him again. The two of them had been mutually avoiding each other.
"Yeah, not everyday you get told that," she said. "That's a new one, even for me."
"I just don't... fuck. Listen, I don’t want you to get involved in this mess, ok. Me and Sam will sort this out.”
Buffy looked sharply at him. She could see that he had really struggled to get that out. The laughing and joking Dean was gone. Worry etched his face, at least she hoped it was worry and not some macho-he-man crap again.
“Dean, it’s sweet that you think you can stop me, really it is. But I’m the Slayer. This is what I do. I shouldn’t have to keep telling you that. Accept it and move on.” Buffy said, staring him in the eyes, letting her power well up inside her for moment. He must have sensed it because he broke eye contact. She held out her hand, business card extended between her fingertips. “Here’s all my contact information. We will get started on learning all we can about Lilith and the seals. Anything we find I’ll tell Bobby. He can let you guys know.”
A small part of her hoped he would give her his number. The thought sent a tiny thrill through her, reminding her of being a teenager again. Dean didn’t disappoint.
“This my number. You find anything, call me.” Dean pulled a wadded piece of paper from his jean’s pocket and held it out. Buffy took it, their fingers lightly touching. She chastised herself as she had the sudden thought of kissing him. That wasn’t a road she could go down. Instead she looked at his handsome face and smiled at him, happy when he smiled back.
The warmth she had felt at that simple gesture had stayed with her as she rode the large express bus home. Even thinking about it now, as she lay in the tub, brought a smile to her face. After pulling the drain plug, she stood up and wrapped a towel around her body.
Looking at the clock on her mismatched nightstand, she realized she has soaked in the tub for longer than she had thought. Slipping on a pair of cotton shorts and a tank top, she pulled back the covers to her bed, ready to climb in when she became overwhelmed with the feeling that she wasn't alone.
Muscles tensed, Buffy spun on her left heel, kicking out with her right foot in a powerful reverse roundhouse.
Castiel caught her leg easily enough, his face grave as always as Buffy stared at him, anger shining through in her eyes. That kick was one of her specialties and it pissed her off that he had deflected it so easily.
"What are you doing here? Getting your kicks watching women undress?"
"You have to stop it." Castiel released her leg and quickly placed two fingers to her head. Darkness overtook her and she felt herself falling, and then there was nothing.
"What, Sam," Dean said, finally looking up from his book. They were in another run down motel in another backwards town. This time tracking down what they hoped was a lead on an unbroken seal. The inside of the shabby motel room was littered with books. They had taken every book they could fit in the Impala from Bobby's house, spreading them around as they looked for answers.
"Did you find anything?" Sam asked. Dean could see his brother's face was drawn in concern and he silently cursed himself. The last thing he needed was Sammy worring about him.
"No, nothing yet. Why?"
"You've been on the same page for ten minutes. What's going on with you?"
"Is it Buffy?"
"What makes you think that?"
"I don't know. Is it?"
"No. Now drop it. This ain't the Dr. Phill show."
"Whatever. It's ok if you like her, you know."
No, it's not, Dean said in his head as he thought back two nights ago.
"You two are the only ones who can stop Lilith from setting Lucifer free upon the Earth," Castiel said to Dean and Buffy. "He must never be released."
"Why is it so important that we do it? Don't want to crimp your halo?" Buffy said. Dean could see that her body was rigid and contempt dripped from her every word. He couldn't say he blamed her.
"The Apocalypse can only be stopped by The Sword and Shield of Michael." The angel answered, hesitant it seemed to reveal more than the bare facts.
"We find you some angelic armour and that stops all this crazy shit?" Dean asked, standing and walking closer to Buffy.
"The Sword and Shield are not weapons. They are vessels."
"You mean some poor slobs you use as a meat suit? That's your secret weapon?" Dean spat out angrily. Fury built up inside, making his jaw clench and hands curl. He had read about what happened to vessels of Heaven. It wasn't pretty.
"Wait," Buffy said, her voice full with disbelief. She put her hand on Dean's shoulder, giving it a small push backward, effectively placing her small body between the two men. "We're the vessels, aren't we."
The angel paused, looking between the two of them before he nodded.
"It was prophesied millennia ago that The Sword and Shield would unite, and only then would Lucifer be stopped. We have been waiting, watching the signs. This is our only chance to defeat him. You have no choice, it must be done."
"Like hell we don't. I know that you have to have permission from your meat suit." Said Dean. This was getting worse and worse. Each new piece of information only seemed to make this whole crazy situation worse.
But the Angel wasn't there to hear his protests. Just as mysteriously as he had arrived, he was gone.
"I really don't like that guy."
Dean came back to the present and looked back at Sammy. His brother would never understand, he always fell for that mushy true love crap. He wouldn't understand that Winchesters didn't get happily ever after.