The portal zapped closed and Buffy rolled onto hard, cold stone. She looked up when she found her feet, but above her already was a demon; it was a like a giant wasp, maybe a hornet, flying at her sting-first.
The thing was bigger than her. Ready for anything, though, now she’d landed in this hell dimension, Buffy leapt and swung her scythe.
“Ow; holy crap!” It was only as the shock reverberated up her arms that Buffy realised the wasp was a statue, made of metal.
Once she’d fallen, back on her toes, Buffy looked up at the thing again. Squinting in the nighttime, she realised it wasn’t even moving. There was just a glow on it; shadows.
It wasn’t buzzing either – the noise was coming from behind it. Cheery, rabbley, not so threatening…
She was standing outside a McDonalds. A real live one-step-up from the DMP McDonalds, advertising something called a McChicken Premiere.
As she moved towards it, a group of men fell out of the brown front doors, laughing amongst themselves. Buffy paused. One of them was wearing a white Adidas cap; another a blue Fred Perry polo shirt. Some of them had sodas; fries… They were all wearing sports trousers, which was strange.
The head of the group, in a lime green polo shirt, was waving a flyer around. It was for a nightclub – Vodka Revolution – and Buffy could just make out the address…
Looking around, Buffy realised she was really there. She was in Hell. There was a shopping mall behind her. Waterstones. The Gap. She was in a grimy British high street. She was, apparently, in Watford.
“Hey, lads, what’s this?” Mr. Green started up when he saw her. Buffy blinked, spinning back to face him. She was a little confused to find he was holding out his arms in front of his friends, like he was keeping them back. “Ohhh, steady now…”
A chorus of “Ohhhhhh-ho-hohh!” came from behind him. Buffy raised her scythe and a couple of them broke into titters.
“You all right, buffting?” Mr. Green continued, pinging the T as he moved forward. He was grinning manically, like he’d already turned that vodka one too many times.
It was a little intimidating, but a heck of a lot less than Buffy had been expecting. “Sure,” she said, smiling sweetly back. She didn’t lower her scythe, because she had a mission, after all. “I’m just looking for… D’you know where guys like to hang out around here?”
The men seemed to perk up at this.
Before any of them could say anything, though, she added, “Apart from Mickey D’s, obviously.” This was banter; she’d heard of it. She glanced sceptically at the sign above them. “I mean, isn’t that kind of for kids?”
For a moment there was a pause. And then – “Ooooooooh!” came the chorus as this particular burn sank in. “You tell her, Ry!” one added over the roar.
Mr. Green, who was possibly Ry, chuckled at her. “Have you lost your boyfriend?” He looked amused, and pitying, and strangely like he might be willing to help a pretty lady with an axe. Buffy figured she still had it. “Well…” He put a hand on his chest. The flyer crumpled. “I can’t resist no lady in distress…”
He nodded, emphatically. Buffy waited.
“At a time like this,” he continued, in a lurch of drunken energy, “blud needs sustenance. So the banter can go on. Luckily enough,” he added, holding up a finger, “we got shitloads of places round here. McDonalds is one.”
This raised a cheer behind him; the group were set off by the restaurant’s unearthly glow.
“Burger King is another, up the road.”
“Booooo…” the crowd jeered, making their loyalties known.
“And then there is a Subway,” Ry suggested cautiously, “if you’re hungry for onions and shit.”
The crowd were not sure about this. “Hmmmmm,” they said.
“And then there is Nando’s,” he finished, seriously.
“What’s Nando’s?” Buffy asked, confused.
One of the guys, of course, couldn’t help but mutter, “I told you we should’ve gone to Nando’s.” It was the one in the white Adidas cap.
“Shut up, Callum,” another said, slapping the brim of it down across his face.
Turning to assess the insubordination, Ry tutted, sighed and looked back at Buffy with light in his eyes. “Let me explain…”
Buffy thought the group might have accompanied her. For better or worse, though, they went their separate way. Ry explained, “Nah, nah, it’s free entry into Revs, innit. We’ve only got ten minutes and Stony needs to go to the bank. The one up the top’s run out of cash.”
She wished them luck, because even with her limited experience she figured ten minutes was tight to go by the ATM and then queue up at a club, but, hey – they’d probably done it before. Without them, Buffy continued up the long high street, under an overpass towards a series of chain stores that were slightly less exciting than the ones near McDonalds.
Why are they called high streets, anyway? Buffy wondered as she walked. This isn’t high up at all. Brits were weird.
Unfortunately for her, there was one particular weird Brit whom she was intent to save – no matter that this didn’t seem all that much like hell. As it was, none of the late night crowds seemed to notice her scythe, so there was definitely something hinky going on, but there was nothing else to help her get a clue.
The front of this ‘Nando’s’, when she found it, was fairly unassuming. It had sounded like the place Spike would most likely end up because it was the spiciest option, but it was all big glass windows and green and a big red sign, like it belonged on a leisure park.
Buffy went in anyway. It was nice enough. Lots of dark wood. It didn’t seem like they were closing yet, because the tables were pretty busy. Most of the booths at the front of the restaurant had people sitting at them, and there were people waiting at the tills by the grill.
It was only a couple of moments, too, that Buffy was dithering in the foyer before someone came over to her, grabbing a menu from the rack. “Hiya!” the server said. She had a nose piercing and her badge said her name was Ayesha. “Is that a table for…”
“Uh…” Buffy began, not sure how to say she was there on a hunch.
“One, yeah?” Ayesha confirmed, as if she was saving Buffy from embarrassment. Above the rack of menus there was a tray or something, like an ice-cream rack, with sticks set in it standing upright. They had wooden chickens on the end of them, painted green. Ayesha grabbed one with gusto. “You been to Nando’s before?” she said before she started leading Buffy through to the other side of the restaurant.
This was one of those things people joked about in the Metro: she was going to end up eating half a chicken just to avoid the embarrassment of saying she didn’t mean to be there. “I don’t think so,” Buffy hedged.
“Oh, is it?” Ayesha said, sounding surprised. She looked at Buffy askance, because apparently no one ever said no to that question. Or at least maybe not on a Friday night. “Well,” she continued perkily, “you’ll be fine. Pick whatever you like; order over at the bar with your table number, then you pay for everything and then we bring it to you. There’s sauce and cutlery and stuff on the side; get whatever you want. That Coke machine’s not working,” she pointed to an old school soda dispenser built into the wall near Buffy’s table, alongside cutlery, plates and what looked like a larder shelf of sauces in glass bottles. “But the one over the other side’s all right, if you want a soft drink. Or we’ve got beer and stuff.”
Still looking around, Buffy tried to get her bearings. “Sounds…” Complicated. “Great,” she went with, smiling as she put her scythe down by the table. Everything was saying this place was Portuguese, but the theme looked pretty African to her. It was weird.
She sat down anyway. Ayesha cast her a pitying smile before she left, stabbing the chicken stick into a thing that sat in the middle of Buffy’s table.
OK. So, Buffy knew she could still walk out. She owed nothing to Watford, and especially not one in a hell dimension. Nonetheless, she tried to get her bearings anyway.
Over by the tills, there was one of those things cooking shows always called ‘the pass’: a countertop with heat lamps above it. The sort of thing you had if you were fancier than the Doublemeat Palace. A chef was loading it with dishes: shiny hunks of chicken with sides of fries; something that looked like pitta bread with a mini terracotta pot of something on the side.
Buffy watched as Ayesha headed back over, picking up two plates of chicken before she sauntered towards a table just a few away from hers.
“Half a chicken with peri-peri chips and a spicy rice. Extra hot.”
One of the guys at the table raised his hand. “Oh, ta, love. That’s me.”
Buffy did a double take. This was a guy in his late twenties, maybe, wearing a pinstriped shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a tie around his neck – loosened. He had curly brownish-blond hair and he was sitting at the table with two other men, both of whom looked older than him – one by not so many years (he took the second plate of chicken) then the other by at least a couple of decades.
The server said something and the guy chuckled. It was Spike. It really was. And… He was sitting in a chicken restaurant with Ethan Rayne. The other guy – was that Mr. Trick?
“What the actual hell?”
She said it louder than she’d intended to. Ayesha looked round, confused. Spike, he looked round – and his eyes went wide. “Buffy?” he said, sounding like he always had, blinking like his eyes were deceiving him. Buffy stood up. “No,” the guy added, tracking her movement with a look like devastation in his eyes. “You can’t be here.”
“Uh…” Ayesha began, looking confused. “Is she…?”
The guy glanced her way. “I mean,” he ground out, before looking back to Buffy, “I didn’t think your plane landed till tomorrow.” He implored her, “Get over here and meet the lads.”
Buffy didn’t need asking twice. She took her scythe and left the chicken stick where it was.
Spike had a nice life now that he was dead. It was a weird dimension he’d ended up in, after Sunnydale. Sort of like groundhog day; sort of like an advert for JD Sports; it was all very mediocre. As far as he could tell, most people here had once been a magical creature of some kind, whether a vampire or a witch, warlock or a djinn, only now that they were dead, for their sins, they’d ended up in a world without magic. Each one of them was back to living out a mortal existence without strength or skills or anything they might have depended on to see them through back in the day.
Some of them did fine – got on with life, had children even, though the kids they produced were generally weird… Some others went mad, unable to cope with what they’d once been. It was difficult, when you first turned up. A lot of things were the same here, commercial things mainly, but the culture was a minefield. None of the celebs were the same. People who couldn’t cope, they did it for themselves within about six months.
Most of the ones who’d been around longer figured this was probably a mistake. If anything, this place had to be purgatory, and taking the quick way out had to be a route to one of the nastier hell dimensions. Or maybe it wasn’t and they were all living out a sham… But who wanted to take that risk?
Really, Spike didn’t know. Over the last couple of years, he’d come to not even care. He’d landed a job at Dixons head office, over in Hemel, and hadn’t bothered to give it up; he drove an Audi; he was working on his novel that wasn’t about his life as a vampire, because there had been too many of those. He’d got drunk at the office party last Christmas and gone home with Annabel in PCs. It was a nice life.
Of course, somehow he still ended up in Nando’s on a Friday night. It wasn’t anything sinister: he dreamed of Sunnydale sometimes, and yeah, he could admit it was nice to catch up now and then with two blokes who did the same thing. Even if it was these losers.
“What you’re saying, mate,” Spike told Ethan when they’d come back from the tills, “is you’re a hippy.” Trick was doing the napkins and that. Spike had the beers.
They’d been in The Moon Under Water before this, so he was a bit worse for wear. Trick drew a line at line at Wetherspoons food, of course. “Now that’s where you’re, frankly, plain wrong,” Ethan came back at him, eyes lidded as he sat down. “At least I’m not living out a cheap, Janie Jones cliché.”
That was uncalled for. Besides, the Clash knew what they were about. End up making payments on a sofa or a girl… DFS had just had their last bit out of him. “We ain’t talking about me,” Spike came back at him, flicking the green chicken stick in the middle of their table, number 13. “We’re talking about your penchant for essential oils and white magic you know does fuck all.”
Ethan was the manager at the Holland and Barrett in the Harlequin. He’d had some job with the same chain down in Camden when he’d first arrived – copped it after six months with the Initiative, the poor sod – and they’d shipped him out here as a promotion. Now he spent the whole day selling protein shakes to muscle heads and patchouli oil to ill-advised teen goths. “There’s nothing to say there is no magic in this world,” he insisted, the way he always insisted. “Only that we haven’t found it.”
“Your faith in chaos is disturbing,” Spike replied, before taking a slug of his beer.
How they’d met, Spike couldn’t really remember. He’d gone into the shop to buy some arnica, possibly, likely that time he’d whacked his head on the doorframe coming home from the pub one day. No one could do deals with a face like a prize fighter. He did recall that at some point during a transaction he’d made a joke about Fyarl demons and they’d come to realise they knew a whole load of the same people. And so on and so on.
Ethan had already been in contact with Trick. He’d been around for a few years now – started in Los Angeles with KPMG and ended up in Rickmansworth, though he spent most of his time in the City. Of all of them, his job was the cushiest: it mostly involved schmoozing wankers from Whitehall, as far as Spike could tell.
Right now, he was back with the sauces. “I got Medium and I got Hot,” he said, dumping the heavy bottles on the table with some napkins, passing Spike a knife and fork. “You can’t want Extra on your fries,” he said definitively. Of course, he’d just come out on the train, so he wasn’t that pissed. “They’ve got the peri-peri on them; you gotta taste it.”
Spike shrugged, because he was happy to be led. “Cheers,” he said, raising his beer as Trick sat down. He and Ethan followed suit. “Here’s to another Friday night in this hellhole.”
Something caught Spike’s eye, just about the time he took another sweet, hoppy gulp. Where he was sitting, he was facing the door, and he thought one of the new customers coming in was holding a big, shiny red axe – the sort of thing… But it wasn’t – it was just her bag. Even from this awkward angle, though, she looked fit. She was definitely on her own. Spike made a mental note.
“So, whaddaya know,” Trick said, apparently in no great rush to catch up on the boozing. “The Wolfram and Hart merger’s gonna go through.”
This, at least, was a distraction. “You’re joking,” Spike replied, quite happy to do the drinking for him if that was the news. “What, did they forget to lay out the anti-competition laws in this place?”
“I think they might’ve paid them off…” Trick drawled, as if Spike was naïve.
Ethan, as usual, was somewhere else, “I don’t understand why Wolfram and Hart have an interest in this dimension. There are no demons, no underworld for them to exploit…”
“Maybe not the skills,” Trick agreed, with the jaded voice of someone who’d spent too long in the City. Maybe on earth as well; Spike had never asked how old he was back home. “But the knowledge… Oh, there’s gotta be enough here to run the apocalypse ten times over.”
It was mad. Everyone had souls here, at least as far as Spike could tell. Maybe they weren’t bothered about what they’d done before, but he didn’t think there were many that would go for wrecking the world back home. “They won’t find anybody,” he said dismissively, scowling when Trick looked disbelieving. “Most people here were fledges,” he insisted, “or they’re normals. There’s no telling where in the world the big cheeses have gone, even if they haven’t fallen into some warmer climes of brimstone.”
Case in point, Spike liked to think he’d made a dent in the world of evil, and yet here he was, living it up in the naff end of Watford High Street.
“He’s not wrong,” Ethan cut in, musing over his beer. Spike raised a hand to say thank you. “Nobody asks and nobody tells about the time before. They’ll have a job on their hands.”
“If they’re connected to upstairs,” Trick came back, like they were fools, “they got records. They’ll find a way.”
That was the moment when the food arrived and Spike was given the shock of his new life. Buffy, god if it was Buffy, she came over and all of his attention switched towards drinking her in. This was the wrong place for her, this hell. You can’t be here…
Of course, he still heard Trick mutter, “Like that…”
It was awkward for the first few minutes. Ethan’s portobello-and-halloumi burger turned up; Buffy looked like she didn’t know what to say, hunched in her chair while Spike could only offer her a chip. She seemed to like the peri-peri salt, so he offered to split the chicken with her as well – went and got another plate, some more cutlery.
“Don’t worry, it’s not you I find at fault,” Ethan was saying when Spike got back. “If anyone it’s Ripper – he should’ve known I wouldn’t be off to Belmarsh. You had no reason to mistrust them.”
“If you’re talking about the Initiative, then bloody yes she had a reason – and it was in my head.” He said it without heat, but it needed to be said… He smiled at Buffy nonetheless, presenting her with the spoils of his trip to the sideboard. “Point is, though, it’s water under the bridge.”
Buffy took the various bits tentatively, so Spike got on with the divvying up. “The point is,” Trick took over, still looking at Buffy suspiciously. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“What do you mean I shouldn’t be here?” Buffy replied, still holding her big red bag in her lap. “I’m here to rescue Spike.”
It was possible his heart would split in two. Sinews would tear just like this chicken breast from its leg, spicy juices dribbling him into his shoes. “Buffy,” Spike said anyway, eyes still on the chicken as he moved the breast to her plate. “You can’t rescue me.”
“Why not?” the poor girl insisted.
Unwilling to say it, Spike glanced at Trick, who was thinking about things far too big and complicated for Spike’s dull, simple, boring life. Ethan, likewise, was looking down at his veggie option glumly.
And so, as usual, it was left to old Spike. “Because you’re dead,” he told Buffy, as gently as possible. “You died the same night I did. In Los Angeles. I held you and you died.”
She looked at him, and Spike felt the moment all over again. They'd been past their sell-by dates, the pair of them, so when the moment had finally come it had seemed all right, almost, for them both to go together. It had been enough for him – a reason to give into this existence he had now.
“Don’t imagine we don’t hear about it,” of course Ethan added unnecessarily, interrupting Spike’s moment. Presumably it was because he was drunk. He’d taken the lid off his burger and was attacking it with a knife and fork.
“Shut up, you,” Spike told him, shaking his head before he looked back to Buffy. She was in denial, scoffing as though she hadn’t just felt that glimmer of perfect connection they’d finally had that night. “Love, you must’ve been somewhere else,” Spike tried to explain. Some nights the thought was the only thing that got him to sleep, when booze and the women of the Under Water failed. “The sort of place you should’ve been. You aren’t here to rescue me.”
Buffy’s conviction was wavering. She had one hand resting on the table, near her plate of chicken, and that was shaking. For one instant, Spike wished he hadn’t had so many beers tonight, because then he probably would have felt much less as though he wanted to burst into manly tears. “But I have to be…” was what she said, her eyes all big and needy. “I… I don’t remember what happened before I came here.”
“I told you,” Trick said, wiping his face with a napkin. It was all so simple for him and his sobriety. “Something’s going down with Wolfram and Hart – and you’re a portent, honey. If you ain’t a mole.”
“Well,” Buffy replied, sniffing and screwing her face up and raising her chin with a hand on her big red bag. Fuck, Spike was in love again. “Then they have no idea what’s coming.”