It was raining outside. It was always raining outside. Buffy watched the rain out of the corner of her eyes as she bent over the chipped Formica table, refilling the mugs of the two morose Verglos demons. She asked if there was anything else they needed, and they just looked at her for a long moment, their saucer-sized vermilion eyes damp and shining in the gray light.
“Nothing you can get us.”
“Alrighty then. Well, I’ll just be back to check on you in a little bit.”
Buffy returned the carafe of coffee (or what passed for it here, Schraz could never get the flavor quite right) to its place on the warmer and went to stand at her favorite spot behind the counter, close enough to the ice machine that she could almost pretend not to hear the music from the jukebox. She leaned on one elbow and casually scanned the sparse crowd of assorted demons. Everyone seemed to be munching contentedly enough.
Schraz, a red-skinned demon with what looked like a severe, full-body case of acne, was seated at one of the corner booths, chatting up a group of Ferith demons that had arrived earlier that week. Next to them, the temperamental jukebox was churning out a strange mix of screeching and growling. Schraz had stocked the jukebox with an eclectic combination of Earth music, from doo-wop to reggae to electronica, but he also seemed to have a nostalgic fondness for the music of his home dimension, which was, to Buffy's ears, pretty much unlistenable. At least it helped drown out the constant pounding of the downpour against the roof.
A loud mechanical rumble cut through the drone of the ice machine and the muted cacophony of the demon music, causing Buffy to whip her head around, suddenly alert. But, of course, it was just it. The squat machine rattled ominously for a minute, its three handles vibrating slightly before the right nozzle dripped a thick splorch of something milky, yet acid green. Buffy’s lip curled in disgust and she purposefully turned her back on it.
Content that no one seemed to need help at the moment, Buffy allowed herself to drift, her unfocused eyes a watching point just on the other side of the glass door. Out there, past the familiar beveled aluminum handle and friendly “Pull” sign, was nothing. Nothing but that wall of rain and the seemingly endless fields of sticky gray muck. But that rain… There was something mesmerizing about it. The thick sheets it fell in, the way it almost seemed to have a rhythm, a pattern, like waves on the ocean. The way she sometimes felt as if she could almost see through it, beyond it to the other worlds she knew were out there. See through to home. But she didn't want to imagine her home as blurred and rain-washed as here. Home was where the sun shone.
Still, everyone at Schraz’ knew there was only one way out of this strange little pocket dimension that had gobbled them up. And that was through the rains. It was always the same. Someone would be here for a while, eating at the diner, shopping in the store, working out in the gym. And then they’d walk outside and vanish for good. Of course, it was possible that they'd wandered too far from Schraz’ tiny oasis of civilization and gotten lost. Without any identifiable landmarks, you could wander until you collapsed and were swallowed by the mire. But Buffy didn't think that was what happened. At least, she hoped not. When someone vanished, everyone said that the rains had taken them. And it was better to believe that that was true than to believe that they were all stuck here like spiders washed down the drain. Schraz even swore that he'd gotten repeat customers a couple of times.
Buffy would walk out there about once a week. Or rather she'd walk out once in what felt like a week, time was hard to keep track of in a place with no clocks or calendars or even a discernible difference between day and night. Sometimes she’d wander blindly, looking for anything that seemed like an opening or a portal among the featureless gray. She never found anything and she’d always wind up panicking as the red light of Schraz’ tall truck stop sign began to blur away into the gloom.
Other times she’d just go and stand out there, willing the rains to take her away, back to Dawn and Willow and Xander and Giles. To home, to Sunnydale, to her life, and her purpose. She’d stand, getting steadily wetter, as she tried to visualize the Magic Box or her house or the UC Sunnydale campus or the Espresso Pump. She'd try to see them in crystal-clear detail, hoping that the stupid rains would get the hint. But after a while, the details would start to blur and slip away and all she'd be able to see was the leaden wall of precipitation as the chill soaked into her skin.
In the end, she'd always trudge back disappointed. She’d walk past the line of eyes in the diner, through the door to the shop, picking up another bottle of travel-sized shampoo, and taking it to the neat line of avocado-colored showers stalls in the back of the ladies restroom. She'd carefully wash off all the muck before collapsing into the bed in her sparse little room. On these occasions, no one ever stopped her or asked any questions. They all knew. They’d all tried the same thing many times.
And so Schraz’ had become her whole world. Buffy worked in the diner during periods that she arbitrarily called day and divided her “nights” between the diner, the gym, and her room. There was a TV in her room but, for some reason, it seemed to be stuck in the year 1973. At least the reruns of Star Trek were alright. What would Xander say if he found out Buffy was watching and enjoying one of his favorite nerdy shows? That she now knew most of the lines to “The Trouble With Tribbles” and “Dagger of the Mind” by heart? God, sometimes she missed her friends so much she ached.
Buffy’s work in the diner allowed her to pick out pretty much anything she needed from the store, which stocked an odd variety of things from truck stop and convenience store favorites such as junk food and travel-sized toiletries to some truly bizarre demonic staples. Shrunken heads, weird pulsating seed pods, sealed packs of some kind of ominous black gel, were just a few of the oddities that Schraz sold, traded, or just gave away to the visiting demons. Schraz had some kind of transmutation ability, the power to create virtually anything out of the primordial mud of this place. Which was of the good, Buffy supposed, because otherwise she'd have starved long ago, and been very wet and uncomfortable in the process. But while this place was a refuge of sorts, it also felt terribly like a trap. Not that she thought there was any conscious entity behind the trap. For a while she'd had the the hypothesis that Schraz had somehow created this place, nabbing people and demons up for some sinister purpose. But then it'd become clear that he was as stuck as any of them, just better able to make the most of it.
Until recently, Buffy had had something to distract herself with in the form of a TV-star-handsome busboy named Groo. At first, when Groo had come in, covered in sludge, she’d mistaken him for human. But then she'd seen his eyes. They were an opaque, unnatural shade of indigo. Beautiful in their way. But the wrong blue, Buffy hadn't been able to keep herself from thinking sometimes as she looked into them.
Groo and Buffy had struck up a friendship of sorts, then a relationship of loneliness and convenience. The sex was good, if uninspired. Afterward, they'd spent long hours lying listlessly together on Buffy’s small bed, talking to drown out the incessant pounding on the roof. They rarely got very personal, preferring to stick to stories about monsters fought and evils thwarted.
Apparently, Groo had been some kind of champion among his people. He'd proven so talented in the field of combat that they'd been forced to overlook his obvious deformity, and given him a very long name which apparently meant “the brave and undefeated”. At the mention of Groo’s apparent “deformity”, Buffy had laughed.
“She laughed at that too.” Groo had smiled.
Buffy had known by then that “she” referred to his “princess”, the woman that Groo had stepped through the portal to find. Groo had explained that in his home dimension, people who looked like the two of them were generally treated no better than beasts. But then he'd been told of a destiny, a prophecy which had led him to his princess. She'd turned out to be a beautiful woman from another world who had been given the throne of Groo's kingdom because she was “cursed” with the power of visions. Buffy had refrained from telling him that a female ruler was a queen, not a princess. And she hadn’t needed to ask why being able to see the future would be called a curse. She knew enough from her own life to see why that might be true.
“She also looked like us. Like a human, as you’d say. I’d never thought someone who looked like us could be beautiful before.”
Groo’s story was a little hard to follow. He tended to get caught up in the epic battles and miss some of the smaller, more important details. Plus he told everything in the flowery yet repetitive language of some of Giles' more boring books. Apparently, the gist of it was that Groo and his princess found out that they were being used by the true rulers of the kingdom, some kind of shadowy, evil cult thing. Along with the princess’ companions, including one which Groo puzzlingly described as some kind of man-monster, they were able to overthrow the bad guys. Hurray! But the princess, despite having told Groo she loved him, had decided that she had to return to her own world. Less hurray. To be with Groo would mean losing her visions and she’d explained that she needed them to help the people back home. So she’d left with her companions: it’d been up to Groo to form the new government. That hadn’t worked out. Buffy hadn’t said anything, but she hadn't been exactly shocked. Groo was a sweet guy, but Buffy thought that he lacked a certain edge and force of will that was necessary for true leadership. So the brave and undefeated had been quickly overthrown. But at least now he’d been free to pursue his princess. Only… he’d found himself here instead and gotten stuck.
The last time Buffy had seen him, he’d been sitting on the end of the bed, staring blankly into space.
“She didn’t really love me, did she? My princess. If she did, she would have found a way that she could stay, or that I could come with her.”
Buffy hadn’t known what to say, but she'd suspected he was probably right. A few hours later, Groo had walked out into the rains and disappeared.
Behind Buffy, it made another wet splorching noise. One of the Verglos demons let out a heavy sigh. Buffy needed a fantasy, desperately. Something to take her mind off her musings. She would concentrate on the door and make someone come through it. She'd done it a thousand times. The only question was who.
Angel had been an early favorite, stepping slowly through the door, hair dripping and eyes all sad and soulful the way they’d been that night when everything had broken irrevocably between the two of them. But thinking about him had always left her feeling hollow and melancholy, and that fantasy had dried up over time. She’d thought about Riley sometimes, throwing open the door, zap-gun in hand, military-issue tank top clinging to his muscular chest, ready to pull a Rambo-style rescue mission. But she couldn't quite imagine him coming for her and, worse, she was never entirely convinced that she wanted him to.
Of course, there’d been Willow and Xander, together or on their own, grinning like fools and running across the diner to throw their arms around her. Sometimes, just to mix things up, she’d even cast Anya or Tara as her unlikely rescuers. Or the whole gang would bust through the door together in one confused mess. And Giles. Now there was a perennial favorite. Stepping across the threshold and polishing his rain-covered glasses, looking up and smiling that warm, fatherly smile he seemed to reserve for her. Sometimes, ironically, it’d be Dawn, saving her this time. Some days she’d be all smiles and overly casual jokes, others she’d berate her sister for leaving her behind. But Buffy didn't see Dawn often. Mostly she preferred to imagine her happy, elsewhere.
After a while, Buffy had started throwing in people who couldn’t come to her rescue, or who she knew never would. Her dad, calling her by pet names he hadn't used since she was a little girl, gesturing to a car improbably parked outside and telling her that she was going to be late for the ice show. Oz, sidling casually in and greeting her with a simple “Hey” as if no time had passed. Ms. Calendar, Billy Fordham, and Xander’s dead friend Jesse had all made their own appearances. Her mom, smiling gently, untouched by rain, warm and bright and smelling slightly of waffles.
Lately, just to keep things interesting, she’d even started digging into the truly extended cast of her life. Jonathan, Amy, that girl who'd sat three rows behind her in 11th-grade Chemistry and chatted loudly through the teacher's explanations. Random teachers, guidance counselors, and even that math professor she’d had in her first semester at UC Sunnydale with the halitosis and the toothbrush ears. It was when even the thought of his wrinkled face filled her with longing that Buffy realized how deeply she missed home and longed for familiar human contact.
Even her enemies were starting getting a place in the rotation.
The Mayor, stepping through the door with that casual ease, looking around with disdain, obviously underwhelmed by the hygiene standards of the diner. “Now, really Buffy. Is this where you saw yourself at this point in your life? You had the potential to do so much better. But, of course, after what you did to my Faith, you deserve so much worse.”
Faith herself, crashing roughly through the door. Sometimes she would give Buffy that devious, disarming smile that seemed to invite Buffy to join her in a breathless run down winding, narrow paths through the darkness. Others, she would just growl with near feral rage and spring at Buffy.
Angelus, swaggering in, Drusilla swaying dreamily behind him. “Aw, poor Buff. You know I never really saw you as the service industry type. But then, I always saw you more as the dead and brutally mutilated type, so there's that.”
Adam, Mr. Trick, Kaikistos, Dracula, The Master. Anyone remotely interesting that she’d fought would show up at one time or another, offering an invitation back into her life, into the fight.
Sometimes it'd be the Anointed One who would come for her. His open child’s face would look up at her, eyes wide and dark and guileless, and he would hold out his hand to guide her to her destiny.
Of all the people she'd imagined, the one that seemed the most infuriatingly inconstant was Spike. Sometimes he was in full-on Big Bad mode, every inch the vampire that she’d first seen in that alley behind the Bronze, all swagger and ill intent. “Slayer. Good seeing you. You know, I’ve been just so bored with nothing decent to kill.” And then sometimes he’d have shifted slightly into the Spike that she’d known that other night in the same alley, years later. Still sinister, still dangerous, but with something else, some note of longing slipping into his smooth movements. “Come on, Slayer, you know you want to dance.” Yet other times he’d stand in the doorway and stare at her the way he had from the bottom of the staircase on the night she'd jumped, the night he'd told her that she treated him like a man.
Slowly the image of Spike formed in her mind. She saw him saunter in, miraculously dry. He'd lean against the vinyl of a nearby booth just so, giving her a wry smile. “So this is where you’ve been keeping yourself all this time, Slayer.” His expression would soften just slightly and he'd take a step forward. “I’ve been looking for you.”
It rumbled again, plaintively this time, breaking her out of her reverie. Argh! Why did she have to keep thinking about Spike? Especially like this, with even a sliver of hope that he might really come for her. Yeah, he’d seemed to love her, but how long would the love of a soulless demon really last while she wasn't in the picture for him to obsess over? And why did she even want him to?
Schraz was jerking his head at a large reptilian demon sitting at the bar. Oh yeah, it did look like his plate had been scraped, possibly even licked, clean and his mug emptied.
Buffy walked over to the reptile, doing her best to paste a smile on her face as she did.
“Was everything to your satisfaction, sir?”
“F-f-fine, f-f-fine. It would have been better if-f it had wiggled more, but f-for an es-s-stablishment like this-s? Better than I was ex-xpecting.”
“I’ll let the cook know. Now, can I get you any dessert?”
“I could comns-sume more. What do you hav-ve?”
“Well, we have pie. Our flavors right now are blackberry, l’chuk berry, and uh… key lime I think. We also have Mississippi Mud Bars and Krisirian Larval Pods. And uh…”
Buffy lowered her voice, speaking in an undertone that she hoped the demon wouldn’t catch.
“F-frozen yogurt? I have never tried this-s. Tell me. What is-s it like?”
“Oh, it’s, uh, sweet and cold. It comes out in kind of a swirl. We have two flavors right now. Dill pickle and black olive.”
Buffy tried not to make a face. She'd had explained the concept of frozen yogurt to Schraz, but he’d never really seemed to understand which flavors were appropriate and which were distinctly not.
“But, er, if you want my suggestion, I’d really recommend going with the blackberry pie.”
The demon shook his head slowly.
“I don’t like berries-s. I do like the s-sound of this froz-zen yogurt though. I will take both dill pickle and black oliv-ve. S-s-swirled.”
Buffy forced a smile.
“Great. I’ll get that right out for you.”
She turned, silently cursing the demon using a creative assortment of oaths that she’d picked up during her stay here. He had to go and order the yogurt. She grabbed a bowl from the stack on the counter and marched toward the finicky machine with the same determination that she’d once taken into battle. She held the bowl with one hand, careful not to touch its bottom to the slotted drip catcher underneath the machine, which was covered in drying lumps of green and black, pooled together into a sickening mixture. With her other hand, she carefully, oh so carefully, eased the middle nozzle towards an upright position. Nothing… She eased it up a bit more. Still nothing. Just a little more… Splurch! There was an awful wet noise and suddenly the monstrous machine started to disgorge its contents over the bowl and, rapidly, her arm. She tried to pull the handle back down but it wiggled loosely, doing nothing.
In frustration and disgust, Buffy slammed the bowl and its sloppy contents on the counter a bit too roughly, causing a loud cracking noise. Great, if everyone hadn't been looking at her already, they were now. She smiled apologetically at the crowd and caught Schraz’ eye.
“Uh, cover me for a minute. I’ll just… clean this up.”
OK. First, she needed a small bucket or something to catch the frozen yogurt. It had stopped cascading out of the machine but was still falling in fat little trails and landing heavily on the already overflowing drip-catcher. It made Buffy think somehow of slugs giving birth. Did slugs give birth? Well, slimy slug demons maybe? Ugh. She pushed the thoughts from her head and hustled to the back to get something to clean up with.
Under the sink, she found a small red bucket, normally used to hold sanitizing solution. She grabbed it and shoved it under the dripping machine before rushing back and thrusting her arms under the faucet of the little hand-washing sink, watching the sticky green liquid flow down the drain.
The cook, Yavis, gave her a sympathetic look.
“You could say that. Ugh! I keep telling Schraz to fix that machine! And maybe add some edible flavors. But he just looks like me like I’ve got turnips growing out of my ears.”
“You know, I’m not sure what you’ve got against the flavors we have. The dill pickle is quite nice I think.”
“Yeah, well you also love the Krisirian larval pods.”
“And I still say you don’t know what you’re missing. They’re a real delicacy where I come from.”
“I’ll pass thanks. But I’d still rather serve them any day over that stupid yogurt. Ugh. I'm starting to have nightmares about the stuff.”
As they talked Buffy poured warm, soapy water into the mop bucket. She was just grabbing the mop from its hook on the wall when she heard the door opening.
She froze. Had any of the current guests gone to try their luck outside? Or was this someone new?
And then she heard a heartbreakingly familiar voice addressing the crowd.
“’Lo all. I’m looking for a girl. Blonde. Pretty. Answers to Buffy. Anyone seen her?”
Buffy was vaguely aware of the mop clattering out of her hands. She abandoned the mop bucket, running out of the kitchen, her sneakers pounding against the linoleum. And there he was, standing right in the middle of her dining room, coat dripping a puddle onto the floor. Oh weird, Buffy was able to register, brown hair, at the same time as most of her mind was consumed by oh, my God, he’s here. He’s here. He came for me. Someone came for me.
Her momentum never slowed, she had to get to him, had to touch him, had to confirm that this wasn’t just an especially weird and vivid daydream. She was so determined to get to him that she forgot about the puddle of melting yogurt which had slowly spread across the floor in her absence. She slid wildly forward and barely caught herself on the counter, gripping it with white knuckles, staring. All eyes had turned to her. Including his. They widened, filling with wonder. And then he seemed to be soaking her up, taking in every detail. She knew he must be noticing, in turn, the ugly waitress’s uniform, the lack of make-up, the lusterless hair, fed on a steady diet of bad shampoo. She wondered if he could see the weariness that always seemed to rest in the back of her eyes.
And she was likewise absorbing the sight of him. The hair was the weirdest: longer now, past his ears, a thick strand clinging to his forehead and threatening to drip into his eyes. He seemed thinner, more stretched out. There was a gauntness to his face. Spike's clothes at least appeared to be his regular all-black attire, but this was difficult to be sure of, covered as they were in the thick, slate-colored slurry.
And then, to her surprise, his lips quirked into a smile and he half-collapsed into a fit of laughter. And Buffy, to her even greater surprise found herself laughing too, doubled over the counter.
It was all so absurd. This was certainly not how either of them had imagined first being seen by the other, after all this time. They would have preferred to look a little more dignified. To not be covered in mud or slipping on pickle-flavored yogurt. But none of that mattered. It was crazy to think that it could matter in the face of the enormous relief that he was here. That someone had come.
The laughter lasted for a long moment as the patrons stared at them in amazement. Then Buffy's eyes met his and something intense and powerful flashed between them. Wow, Buffy thought. That is exactly the right shade of blue.
The laughter evaporated and suddenly they were both moving. She was at his side in an instant. They stood, inches from each other, close enough that she could smell earth and wet leather and beneath that, just faintly, the achingly familiar scent of cigarettes and whiskey and blood. And there was that look, that old awe that she’d been so certain would be gone by now. Almost without thought, she reached out and gently touched the side of his face. It was cool and speckled with beads of water. Smooth skin stretched over bone. Solid. His eyes closed in pleasure for a moment, but then flickered anxiously open again. Buffy got it. He was afraid that if he looked away for an instant she might disappear.
It was Buffy who finally broke the silence.
“You’re really here.”
“Yeah. And you.”
Spike smiled and gently touched a strand of hair that had fallen loose from her ponytail, tucking it behind her ear.
Buffy was suddenly intensely aware that she and Spike still had the diner's undivided attention. They were the best entertainment anyone had had in weeks.
She spoke softly, not taking her eyes off of Spike.
“Uh, just a second.”
She caught Schraz’ eyes. He grinned at her and raised his eyebrows.
“I, uh, I’m gonna take my break.”
She turned back to Spike, who, thankfully, had not disappeared.
“So, uh, what now? Do we go…?”
She gestured toward the door.
“I… uh, was kind of hoping for a moment to catch my breath. It's been a bit of a rough trip.”
“But you don’t need to breathe.”
Looking at him she could see that he did look exhausted. There were dark circles under his eyes and she’d never seen him quite so thin. But she was relentless. She needed to get home.
“Oh, come on Spike!” She cried, bouncing on the balls of her feet, filled with a strange, bubbly energy. “I’ve been waiting all this time! You can rest when we get back to Sunnydale. I’ll... I'll get you all the blood and cigarettes you need. A year’s supply! God, it’ll be so good to see everyone again! How’d you get here anyway? Did Willow do a spell or something like that?”
“Something like that…”
If Spike seemed a little reluctant to follow her as she dragged him out the door and into the rain, Buffy barely noticed.
She was going home.