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"How do I look?"
Forrest puts down the issue of Femme Fatale that's been commanding all his attention for the past half hour, and gives me once-over.
"Like an Iowa hick all dressed up in his Sunday church suit on a Monday," he declares, and goes back to his magazine. With friends like these...
"Should've known better than to ask you," I grumble, and stomp to the bathroom to check myself in the mirror. Okay, my tie's not crooked, my hair's not sticking out, my shirt is clean, and I didn't miss any spots when I shaved. This is good. I can do this. I can get through this evening without making a moron of myself. Really.
Back in the room, I take a quick inventory. Flowers -- check. Gift -- check. Car keys -- check. Umbrella -- check. Forrest watches me from his chair and makes snarky remarks, but I ignore him. He's just jealous 'cause he hasn't got a date on Valentine's Day.
This is my first formal evening out with Buffy. We've done all the usual college dating stuff -- parties, movies, picnic lunches. Hell, we've even killed demons together, and once you've done that with a girl, you know it's for real, right? But this is totally different. We're driving to Santa Barbara. We're having dinner at a French place with a name I can't pronounce and a star in the Michelin Guide. I had to make the reservation a month in advance. I've rented a sporty little Miata convertible, fire engine red with a white top, way cooler than the battered Initiative-supplied Jeep I usually get around in. My AmEx bill at the end of the month is going to be murder, but I don't care. I've got a dozen red roses, the perfect gift in my jacket pocket, and three condoms in my wallet. This is going to be the best Valentine's Day ever.
A clap of thunder greets me as I step outside. The light drizzle that had been coming down most of the day has turned into a serious downpour, and I have to step carefully to avoid the puddles on the path. I don't care, though. For the first time in my life I really get what Gene Kelly's character must've been feeling in "Singing in the Rain." If I could sing or dance myself, I think I would. But I can't. So I don't. I get into the car, all sober and non-musical, toss my umbrella under the seat, turn on the ignition, and drive.
I feel incredibly self-conscious as I enter Stevenson Hall and walk down the corridor toward Buffy's room, clutching my roses and my dripping umbrella. There are all these girls coming and going, and they smile and giggle at me as I walk past. A few recognize me and say "Hi." I feel like they all have X-ray vision, and are looking straight through to the three foil packets tucked away in my wallet. I have to fight back an insane urge to stop and explain to them that I'm not doing all this just to get laid, that this is going to be the bestest romantic evening ever, that the condoms are there only 'cause Buffy's been dropping hints that she's getting ready to take that next step, and I'm damn well gonna be ready if she decides that tonight's the night.
I knock on Buffy's door and hear her call out, "Just a minute!" Thirty seconds pass. The door opens. My jaw drops.
She's wearing this little slip of a dress, filmy lavender silk with thin straps that leave her arms and shoulders bare. The skirt comes about half-way down her thighs, and she's got these sheer stockings or pantyhose or whatever, and high-heeled lavender sandals with straps that criss-cross over her ankles, and her legs are long and smooth and breathe, Finn, it's very important to breathe at times like this.
"You look great," I manage to say, and my voice doesn't squeak at all. Well, maybe a little.
"Thanks. So do you." She steps aside to let me into the room. "Ooh, are these for me?"
"Huh? Oh, right." I remember the roses. "Yes. Happy Valentine's Day." My IQ has dropped about fifty points since she opened the door. This is not good.
Buffy gives me a quick kiss, and digs a cheap plastic vase out of the closet to put the flowers in. As she moves about the room, I keep taking in more details -- they way she's got her hair pinned up into a neat French twist, with just a couple of perfect spiral curls hanging down over her left ear; the black velvet choker around her neck, with a silver heart-shaped clasp. The little amethyst earrings. She's so gorgeous, I again have to remind myself to breathe. This is probably a good time to say something suave and witty, but those fifty missing IQ points are really making a difference, and all I can manage is, "Nice dress."
"What, this old thing? Just something I had lying around." She stands in the middle of the room, raises her arms above her head, and twirls like a ballerina. The skirt swirls around her, and I catch a glimpse of lacy garter, the exact same shade of lavender as the dress and the shoes.
God loves me.
She puts on a little black raincoat that covers the dress -- a shame, but inevitable under the circumstances, I suppose -- and we walk out of the dorm hand in hand. Outside, the rain is coming down in solid sheets of water. I start to feel a little worried about the roads, but there's no time to really think about it, because Buffy has to sidle up really close to me in order to fit under the umbrella. She slips her arm around my waist, and her right thigh brushes against my left every time we take a step. My whole body's thrumming, like a low-grade electric current jumping across my skin. Once again, I regret my inability to sing and dance.
I open the car door for her, hold the umbrella up so she can get in without being rained on, then run around the other side and climb into the driver's seat.
"Nice car," she says. I grin at her.
"What, this old thing? Just something I had lying around." There, an actual joke. My brain must be growing back.
My plan was to take Route 1 all the way to Santa Barbara, but as we approach the entrance ramp, there's a bunch of plastic cones blocking the way, and a Detour sign pointing to a service road to the right of the main highway. Great. Some night to pick for construction work. Nothing to be done about it, though, so I guide the Miata where the signs tell me. The service road is not paved too well, and we bounce around quite a bit as I steer through the curves.
"Sorry," I mutter.
Buffy gives me a bright smile. "Not your fault."
"Maybe we should've taken the Jeep after all." This is not a good night to be driving an unfamiliar car. The windshield wipers are barely making a dent in the torrent, the thunder and lightning are really distracting, and the road is badly lit. I'm going slow, barely breaking 20, and I still feel like I'm fighting a skid on every turn. It doesn't help that I'm really way too tall to be driving a Miata. Even with the seat pushed all the way back, my legs feel scrunched.
"Figures, doesn't it?" Buffy sighs. "The first big storm of the year, and it's on Valentine's Day. I think the Hellmouth does things like this on purpose."
"It's definitely evil weather," I agree. "I don't suppose there's some Slayer thing you could do to get rid of it?"
"Sorry. Best I can manage is a rousing rendition of 'Rain, Rain, go away.'"
"Some mystical force for good you are. Can't even fix the weather."
"Well, what about you? No high-tech Initiative gadget to zap the clouds with? No-- Umph!"
I never do find out how she meant to finish that sentence, because at that moment the road disappears from under us. Well, not literally. But there's an unexpected moment of weightlessness, followed by a bone-jarring thud as we come down about a foot below where we were a second ago. Water churns on both sides of the car as the wheels spin and spin and get no purchase.
"What the--" I shift into neutral, and the churning stops. "Shit!"
"What was that?" Buffy asks, sounding a bit breathless.
"I think we hit a pothole."
"That's not a pothole." She wipes the condensation off her window and presses her forehead against the glass to look out. "That's a lake."
She's right. I can see the muddy water lapping at the door, a few inches above floor level. Must be over a foot deep. "I think we're stuck."
"Oh," Buffy says in a small voice. "So what now?"
"I guess we call Triple-A and get a tow." This sucks. If we're more than fifteen minutes late for dinner, we'll lose our reservation. My perfect romantic evening is turning into a disaster. I reach toward the glove compartment, then freeze as the true depth of my stupidity sinks in. "Oh hell."
Buffy gives me an uneasy look. "What?"
"I left my cell phone in the Jeep."
"Oh." Her voice is barely audible this time, but the disappointment in her face is clear. I lean forward and bang my head on the steering wheel a couple of times.
"I'm sorry. I'm an idiot. It's all my fault. I'm sorry."
"Hey!" She reaches over and rubs my back between the shoulder blades. "Chill out, Riley. It's okay. You don't control the weather."
"I should've checked the weather report. We should've left earlier. I should've taken the phone. Hell, I should've taken the damn Jeep." I punctuate each "should've" with another thump of forehead on steering wheel. "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry --"
"Riley!" She grabs my collar and hauls me upright in my seat. "Stop that. You'll give yourself a concussion. Look, it's no big. This is California, everyone has a cell phone. We'll wait until another car comes by, and ask them to call for a tow truck."
We haven't seen another car since we got on this goddamn road. I take a deep breath and force myself to calm down. "You're right. I'm sorry. Didn't mean to throw a fit. We'll wait."
"Good. Glad we got that settled. Let's see if we can get some music on."
I fiddle with the radio for a bit, eventually tuning in a local classic rock station. Sting's mellow voice flows from the speakers with barely any static.
"Forget the weather, we should always be together, And any other thought is unkind."
Sounds like good advice to me. I reach over and stroke my hand lightly over Buffy's hair. "Thank you."
She catches my hand in hers and presses it against her cheek. "For what?"
"For not freaking. For not getting mad. For sitting here with me and being so utterly, heart-stoppingly beautiful."
"Heart-stoppingly?" She scoots over and slips one hand inside my jacket. "Feels like your heart is going just fine."
Her hand is small and soft and warm. Her smile is bright and teasing. She traces light circles over my chest, strokes her thumb lightly along my collarbone… Is it me or is it suddenly hot in here?
Buffy wriggles out of her raincoat, folds it, and puts it under the seat. She loosens my tie, pulls it over my head and tosses it on the dashboard, then starts unbuttoning my shirt. I'm just about to reach for her when she sits back and says, "Hey! What's that?"
"What's what?" My thoughts are so scattered, it takes me several seconds to realize that she has discovered the breast pocket of my jacket, and the little gift box I have stashed there.
"Is that a present?" She actually bounces in her seat. Her eyes are huge, and she looks about ten years old. "Is it for me? Gimme!"
"Now?" I croak. She's still bouncing. I can tell, by the way her breasts move with each bounce, that she's not wearing a bra.
"Yes, now! What can I say, I'm into instant gratification."
Not mine, obviously. I take a deep breath to collect myself. This is actually a really good time to give her the gift. I'd planned to do it during dinner, but dinner appears to be cancelled, and this will make for a nice distraction as we sit here waiting to be rescued. Not my first choice of distractions, maybe, but still nice. I turn on the ceiling light so we can both see better, and hand her the box.
"Happy Valentine's Day."
For someone who claims to be into instant gratification, Buffy sure takes her time opening a present. First she peels off the red satin bow and sticks it in her hair. Then she oh-so-carefully removes the pieces of tape holding the gift wrap together and takes off the paper in one intact sheet. Only then does she open the green velvet box and takes out the silver charm bracelet inside.
"You like it?" I can't help it, I'm grinning like an idiot as I watch her turn it over in her hands. I spent nearly three weeks searching every jewelry shop in Sunnydale to find the right charms. There's a heart (of course), and a pair of ice skates, a daffodil ('cause Willow said it's her favorite flower), a cross, and a sword. "I couldn't find a stake -- go figure. So I got a sword instead. That's kind of Slayerish, right?"
"It's perfect." She holds out her arm. "Put it on me."
Special Forces training has given me one very important social skill -- my hands don't shake when I'm nervous. I loop the bracelet around her wrist and close the clasp in one try, no annoying fumbling or tugging. Then, since I'm holding it anyway, I raise her hand to my lips and kiss her palm. Then her wrist. Then the inside of her elbow. She's wearing a light, citrusy scent that's driving me crazy. I pull her toward me, and a moment later she's in my arms, straddling my lap, her hands cupping my face.
"Thank you," she says softly, then frowns. "But I didn't get you a present."
I touch the red bow in her hair. "Yes you did."
She kisses me, and suddenly it doesn't matter that we're stuck in a giant pothole in the middle of nowhere on the rainiest night of the year. In fact, the idea of being stuck here for the rest of the night is starting to seem rather attractive. Especially when Buffy starts to rock her hips back and forth, rubbing herself against me. My reaction is pretty damn obvious, even through the various layers of clothing, and she makes a satisfied little sound in the back of her throat and presses her lips harder against mine.
I slide my hands down Buffy's back and under her skirt. My fingers find smooth, bare skin, and for a moment I think she's actually not wearing anything under that dress, but further investigation reveals the presence of a thong. I tug at it impatiently, anxious to get it out of the way.
Buffy raises herself up to give me a better angle, bumps into the steering wheel, and ends up honking the horn with her butt.
We both jump, then break out laughing.
"Maybe," Buffy chokes out between giggles, "maybe we shouldn't be doing this in the driver's seat."
I nod. "Good thought."
This leads to a great deal of wriggling, squirming, and twisting of limbs as we try to shift ourselves over to the passenger side without crushing each other or dislocating anything. By the time we succeed, we're both breathless and sweaty, with our hair mussed and our clothes rumpled -- and we haven't even started on the good part yet. What the hell ever possessed me to rent a car without a back seat? I must've been delirious.
Buffy must be thinking the same thing, because she says, "So why'd you pick this car anyway? Not to criticize or anything, but I've seen bigger sardine cans."
I shrug. "I really wanted a convertible, and this was the only one available at the rental place." Somehow, spoken out loud, it sounds a lot stupider than when I was just thinking it to myself.
"Ah." Buffy nods, a mock-solemn expression on her face. "Of course. It's very important to have a convertible on a beautiful night like this."
"Hey, I arranged this two weeks ago! How was I supposed to know it was going to rain?"
"Poor Riley." Buffy gives me a quick kiss. "You planned it so carefully. And it's all gone so..."
"Horribly, disastrously, apocalyptically wrong?"
"I try not to say 'apocalyptically' unless there's an actual apocalypse involved. But I'll give you the 'wrong' part... Riley?"
"Why did you want a convertible?"
Damn. I was really hoping she wouldn't ask that. I rack my brains for a non-idiotic answer, but the only thing that comes to mind is the truth. "Because I'd never driven one before, and I really, really wanted to."
"I see." She nods again. There's a little twitch at the corner of her mouth. "So we're stuck here in a giant pothole, with no cell phone and no dinner, because you were lusting after a car."
"That's basically it, yeah." I sigh. "Should I go out and drown myself in a puddle, or would you rather kill me yourself?"
"I don't know, let me think about it." She tilts her head to one side, frowns a little, and bites the inside of her cheek. I've seen her wear that exact same expression while pondering a tricky question on one of Professor Walsh's pop quizzes. "I think maybe I'll let you live this once. But only this once."
"You're too good for me," I declare, and kiss her. She kisses back, enthusiastically. I love it when she's enthusiastic.
The kiss lingers. Our hands wander. Doesn't take long before we're sweaty and breathless again, but this time it's in a good way. Buffy lifts herself up off my lap just enough to let me get my hands under her skirt again. I pull the thong down to her knees and slip one hand between her thighs. She moans softly and tilts her hips, pressing herself against my fingers. She's warm and slick, and her eyes are closed, and she's gripping my shoulders so hard it actually hurts a little, but I'm way too far gone to care. I want this girl. I want this girl. I want this-- oh, God…
She lets go of my shoulders and slides her hands down my torso to my belt. As she starts to unbuckle it, my two remaining brain cells manage to remember the condoms, which are in my wallet, which is in my back pocket. I'm trying to figure out a semi-graceful way to get at it without interrupting too much of what we're doing--
And there's a jolt, a thud and a splash as the car drops down another couple of inches into the mud.
"Whoa!" Buffy straightens up abruptly, and bangs her head on the roof. "Ow. What was that?"
"I think--" My voice comes out as a croak. I stop, swallow a couple of times, and try again. "I think it's just the car settling a bit. The ground must be pretty soft from all the rain." I reach for her again, but the jolt seems to have broken her mood and she sits back, leaning away from me. She seems totally oblivious to the fact that her panties are down around her knees and her boyfriend is about to go insane.
"This is getting ridiculous," she mutters.
"Getting?" I choke back a laugh. "I think we've passed ridiculous a couple of miles back, and are rapidly approaching ludicrous."
"We need to get out of here."
"Well, as soon as somebody comes by--"
"Which will be sometime next week if we've lucky." She shakes her head, looking determined. "We'll have to get ourselves out. Any suggestions?"
I resign myself to the inevitable. "Why don't you get into the driver's seat, and I'll go out and push?" What the heck, the cold rain will probably do me good.
Buffy's expression changes from determined to apprehensive. "Riley, you know how I am with driving."
"Come on, it's not like you have to go far. Just out of the pothole."
"This is a stick shift."
"So? I'll show you how to put it in gear."
"All you need to do is--"
"Put you left foot on the clutch and--"
She shakes my shoulders for emphasis this time, and I break off speaking and look at her. "What?"
"Wouldn't it make more sense if you drive and I push?"
Oh. Right. I forgot. Slayer strong, boyfriend stupid. Of course it makes more sense if she pushes. I'm probably a sexist pig for forgetting that. Except what kind of pig will I be if I sit here, warm and dry, while my girlfriend goes out into the rain and the mud to push the car?
While I'm sitting there trying to think it through, Buffy takes matters into her own hands. She straightens her clothes, clambers off my lap and back into the driver's seat, takes off her sandals, and puts her raincoat back on. Then she wipes the condensation from the window and presses her face against the glass to look outside.
"I don't think I should open the door," she says. "The mud will pour in." She rolls the window all the way down, and climbs out.
I shift over to sit behind the wheel. In the rearview mirror, I can see Buffy trudging around to the back of the car. She's already soaking wet, and her hair is coming down. I feel like a total shit.
When she starts to push, I put the car into gear and step on the accelerator. The wheels start to churn, and I wince at the thought of all the muddy water they must be spraying her way, but after a few seconds I can actually feel the Miata start to move forward by fits and starts. Damn, she's strong…
The front of the car is starting to tilt upwards a bit now, as Buffy pushes us out closer to the edge of the pothole. I accelerate harder, there's a sudden lurch forward as the wheels finally get some traction, and a moment later we're on solid ground again; just like that. I brake immediately, and reach over to open the door for Buffy, who's already running toward it.
Oh, man, this is worse than I thought. She's shivering, totally soaked, and covered with mud from the waist down. And the look on her face… I would've thought, even with the rain and the mud, that she'd look at least a little pleased at being able to get out of here, but she looks completely bummed. Depressed, even.
"What's wrong?" I ask. "Besides the obvious, I mean."She raises her eyes to meet mine, and I can see her lower lip trembling a little as she struggles for composure.
"The two rear tires are flat," she says.
Oh. Of course. Why didn't I think of that? It was the one last thing that hadn't gone wrong tonight, so naturally we were due.
This would be a great time for me to come up with some brilliant plan, but I'm at a complete loss. I can't even think of anything comforting to say. All I can do is sit there and wish for the Hellmouth to open up and swallow me. Of course given the way things have been going, this might actually happen before the night is over. But at least then I'd be out of Buffy's misery.
She squirms out of her muddy raincoat and tosses it on the floor, not even bothering to fold this time. "Ugh," she says, and I see that her dress is splashed too, all around the hem.
"I'll pay for the dry cleaning," I tell her. She doesn't look especially cheered to hear it.
She takes her stockings off and drops them in a sodden little heap on top of the raincoat. Just to think, when this evening started we were probably both looking forward to those stockings coming off. But now she just huddles there with her bare legs and her ruined little dress, looking all cold and shivery and while she's still the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, I'm thinking now is not the time to be telling her that.
I take off my jacket and hand it to her. It's a sign of how miserable she must be that she just takes it without even a token objection, or a crack about my Teutonic attempts at chivalry. We sit in silence for about a minute before I decide that I can't take it anymore. Something must be done. Now. Before I go insane.
Then again, maybe insanity isn't such a bad idea after all. I think over my options for a few seconds and decide, what the hell, might as well go for it. I open the door and duck outside, ignoring Buffy's startled shout behind me.
Brrr. Water. Lots of water. Lots of really, really cold water coming down on me in bucketfuls. I stand there for a bit and let it soak me, then splash over to the pothole and jump in with both feet. It's not quite knee deep on me, but it's plenty deep enough, and I hop up and down a few times to make the mud splash up more. Then I squelch back to the car and get in.
Buffy stares at me like I've grown horns and a tail -- which, around here, is a distinct possibility. I resist the temptation to check myself out in the mirror.
"Riley, what the hell are you doing?"
I grin at her, knowing perfectly well I must look like a lunatic. "If you're going to be all wet and dirty and cold, then I should too."
"You're insane," she announces, but she no longer looks hopelessly miserable. It's hard to tell in this light, but I think her eyes are laughing just a bit.
"Sure," I say. "But can you blame me, under the circumstances?"
"You're insane," she repeats, but now I'm sure she's smiling. "I'm stuck in a broken car in the middle of nowhere with a homicidal maniac."
"I am not homicidal."
"Are too. I've seen you kill things."
"They were demons."
"Does no-- why are we having this conversation?"
"Because you're insane."
"Oh, that's right. I forgot."
The conversation kind of peters out after that, but the miserable mood is broken. I turn on the heater, and within a couple of minutes the car is warm enough that we both stop shivering. We may be stuck here for the rest of our lives, but at least those lives won't be shortened by pneumonia.
"Look," I say after a while, "I'll make it up to you, okay? We'll go out on another night, any place you want, and pretend it's Valentine's Day. I'll do the flowers-gift-jacket-and-tie thing again, and everything."
"You don't need to--"
"I want to. It's the least I can do after this disaster. I bet it's the worst Valentine's day you've ever had, huh?"
"This?" She snorts. "This is nothing. Two years ago I got turned into a rat."
Maybe I'm more insane than I thought. I'm sure I just heard her say she got turned into… "A rat?"
"Yeah. Okay, it wasn't actually on Valentine's day, it was a couple of days later, but Valentine's Day started it, so the association kind of stuck."
Do I really want to ask? Probably not, but I will anyway. "Why did you get turned into a rat?"
"Because Cordelia broke up with Xander."
I knew it. I shouldn't have asked.
I sit and mull this new information over for a while, and I can't help it -- I start laughing. Not like a big belly-laugh or anything -- more like a sustained snicker. Or a chuckle. Or something. Buffy glares at me.
"What's so funny."
"I'm just thinking…" It's hard to get the words out past the laughter, and I have to stop and start again. "I'm just wondering if that's why Willow told me you like cheese."
Buffy keeps up the glare for another couple of seconds, and then she starts laughing too. We just sit there and snicker, or chuckle, and every time we stop we look at each other and it sets us off again. I know there's a hysterical element to it, because the joke really wasn't that funny, but it feels good to laugh, so I go with it, and Buffy does too.
And that's how the nice policeman finds us -- sitting there, wet and filthy, laughing our heads off. Who says you can't have a happy ending on Valentine's day?