We three kings of Orient are Bearing gifts we traverse afar. Field and fountain, moor and mountain, Following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect Light.
The band of roisterers tripped and stumbled their way over the Bifrost Bridge, on their way back to Valhalla. Two stragglers, bringing up the tail end of the procession, had their arms thrown over each other’s shoulders, in the mistaken but common belief that this would help them stay upright. One of them was Eric the Ochre. He’d really wanted to be Erik the Red, but that name had already been taken. So had Scarlet, and Crimson and Carmine, and all the other really good red words that go with Erik. So had all the Eriks with a k, come to that. Eric the Ochre had been the best one left.
The other straggler was Harold Snaggletooth. Remember how you hated going to the dentist, but your Mum always made you go anyway? Harold’s Mum had overindulged him until it was much, much too late. Now that he was dead, he didn’t mind so much, though, especially when he saw how fearsome Harald Bluetooth looked when he snarled. Or grinned.
They were singing. Possibly, it could be called singing. They were also gesticulating wildly with their free arms, under the impression that this went with the tempo of the singing. Eric’s horned helmet was dangerously and insecurely lodged, courtesy of a horn rammed into his belt, and it slipped now, as he doubled over in his attempts to keep his balance while still singing and gesticulating.
The helmet fell to the icy surface, and rolled downhill towards the unprotected edge. Eric lunged after it. He was in no fit state to catch it, though, so it would have tumbled off the bridge, all the way back to the Earthly Midgard, with Eric close after it, had it not been for a solitary observer who snatched the thing up and handed it back to its owner. Eric gave the man a hug, which was difficult, because the man seemed to be incredibly short and rather bulky at the back, and then he staggered off to join his drunken friends.
The stranger was, in fact, sitting on the side of the bridge, which is why he’d seemed so short to Eric. His bare feet dangled over the edge. A small cloud had bumped up against the frosty arc of solid light, and he was stirring it up with his toes. He watched Eric and Harold and the others, slipping and sliding their way into Valhalla, with a species of envy. He’d never been in there. He didn’t know whether he would be allowed in, and he hadn’t tried. But it looked like fun.
He didn’t belong here, but he did like to visit. He liked to visit a lot of the afterlifes, in fact. And the afterlives. He’d always liked to travel. It broadened the mind. He ran his hand over the surface of the bridge, braided sheets of red flame, blue air, and green water, primal elements become a leaping arch of frozen fire from Earth to this particular paradise. It was beautiful. He kicked at the cloud, moodily.
Not that there was anything wrong with his own place, of course. No, of course there wasn’t. How could there be anything wrong with eternal bliss? Absolute and everlasting perfection could never be… boring, could never make you feel… satiated. Could it? He thought of a diet made exclusively of Mars Bars, and then hastily banished the thought.
No, he could never say that Heaven was… boring. Well, he’d never say it as such, because he didn’t want to finish up in the other place, along with all the rest of them who’d not been entirely satisfied. So no. He just liked to get out and about a bit. See some of the otherworlds. Nothing wrong with that.
If there was nothing wrong with that, then what happened next was surprising. It could be said that he jumped a mile when he heard the soft flutter of wings behind him. It would be wrong to say that. He jumped considerably more than a mile. But then, he felt the tug as a presence pulled him back to Bifrost. Suddenly the bridge seemed colder against the salient parts of his anatomy.
“Balthasar! I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
Cautiously, he craned his neck around. Behind him stood a vision of light and angelic wings. Oh yes, and angelic irritation.
“Do you think I haven’t got anything better to do than to hunt through the dimensions for you? Can’t you stay where you’re put?”
The angelic irritation ratcheted up a notch.
“Yes, you think I haven’t…? Oh, never mind. I’ve got a job for you.”
“Yes, Balthasar. Have you got cloth ears? You might want to fettle out Caspar and Melchior from whichever rock they’re hiding under. It’s another gold, frankincense and myrrh job.”
Balthasar gasped with shock, and scrambled up from his precarious seat, his own wings fluttering to maintain balance.
“But… but it surely isn’t time for the Second Coming yet? Not yet…”
The Archangel silenced him with an upraised hand.
“No, of course it isn’t.” He sniffed disdainfully, and looked down his patrician nose at the smaller angel. “Not just yet. This is an entirely secular job.”
He explained. Balthasar was confused. He explained again, a shade more tetchily. Then he handed three exquisitely decorated boxes to Balthasar.
“And don’t mess it up. This job’s had enough going wrong as it is.”
The Archangel’s expression was prim and his voice sour, and Balthasar wanted to tell him not to get his knickers in a twist, but he knew very well that Gabriel didn’t wear knickers. Instead, he just said, “No, Gabriel,” and tried to look trustworthy. He’d really enjoyed the last gold, frankincense and myrrh job, and he didn’t want to get thrown off this one.
With a last look of scorn, Gabriel was gone in a silent rustle of feathers. Tucking the boxes away, the angel walked back across the bridge to where its guardian, Heimdall, lay sleeping. The god’s brow was tightly furrowed. Balthasar thought that he must be having a nightmare about the Ice Giants, who were doomed to try and pass him, and to cross this bridge, in the End Times, so that they could destroy Valhalla. He bent down and gently massaged Heimdall’s temples until the god’s face relaxed into more normal sleep. Balthasar couldn’t bear to see a creature in pain, and besides, it was advisable to keep on good terms with the doorkeepers of each afterlife, if he wanted to visit again.
Then Balthasar went to find his friends.
Like the majority of angels, Balthasar had been on the right side… well, the winning side, and that was always the right side, wasn’t it?… in the War in Heaven. Unlike the majority of angels, though, he hadn’t completely cast off his old friends. He always believed that there had to be a chance of forgiveness for them, even for Lucifer. He thought that it was no wonder Gabriel was so sour. Balthasar knew what it was like to lose a brother.
He wondered whether that belief in forgiveness was why he’d been given this particular job to do. He wondered if it was why he’d been given the previous one, too, and why he’d been allowed to have fallen angels, demons, helping him. To show them that they were still part of Creation, and not forgotten, perhaps? That redemption might apply to all, even the denizens of Hell? Who knew? There was that whole business of ineffability, when all was said and done.
He at last found Caspar doing something unspeakable at the races, and Melchior just doing something unspeakable. When he broke the news to them, Melchior smacked his fist into the palm of his other hand, and jumped up into the air with a whoop.
“Now we’re really cooking,” he chortled.
Balthasar looked behind him, suddenly nervous.
“I sincerely hope not.” Then he felt as prim as Gabriel. Melchior punched him playfully on the shoulder.
At the time they were sitting on a wisp of cirrostratus cloud, being whisked along by the jet stream. Caspar reached down and idly stirred the stream, causing an unlooked-for tornado in Lapland. Fortunately, its only effect was to carry a few startled reindeer up into the stratosphere, although the Fiji islanders who were on the receiving end of an apparently divinely ordained fall of minced and patéed reindeer were even more startled. Only remotely aware of this, Caspar looked anxiously at his friends.
“The last job was pretty momentous. You’re sure this isn’t the Second Coming, because…”
He trailed off, but he didn’t need to continue. Scriptures weren’t very clear on what would happen to the Fallen Angels, come the Second Coming. They all worried about it a bit, even the senior ones. Balthasar patted his shoulder comfortingly, and his wings, on automatic reflex, closed around Caspar, as though to shelter him from harm. As soon as he realised, Balthasar, a little red-faced, folded them neatly back into place.
“No, old chap, absolutely not. This is nothing to do with religions or beliefs, or anything like that. It’s to do with prophecy. The plagues and fiends that should have been brought into play were signed away, and that was a good thing, but it meant the reward couldn’t be given. Another way has to be found to bring the intended culmination to fruition. That’s our job.”
The other two gaped at him in awe.
“That one? We’re going for that one?” Caspar stumbled over the words.
Melchior looked thoughtful.
“But why the gold, frankincense and myrrh? They’re royal gifts – or they were, last time, with prophetic meaning. I mean, gold was the symbol for kingship on Earth, frankincense for divine authority, and myrrh foretelling death. So how will that work now?”
“No, no,” said Balthasar. “It’s true, last time, it was all about kingship and divinity. These things have got other properties, though, and this time we’re using them magically.”
He took out the three boxes and laid them on a strand of cloud that was thicker than the rest. Melchior reached out to the one marked ‘GOLD’, and Balthasar rapped his knuckles.
“I only wanted to look,” said Melchior, in a tone of voice that might be described as sulky, if you weren’t talking about a demonic fallen angel.
Balthasar sighed, and then opened the three boxes. One contained a significant quantity of rough nuggets of gold. The other two were empty.
“Shopping, then? I know where we can get a really good deal on both of them. Totally legit, you know.”
“No, Melchior. We don’t want the dried stuff for this, no matter how superior it is. We need it fresh from the tree…”
“Oh, no! Not camels again? It took me decades to get rid of the smell of unwashed carpets. And I wouldn’t think you’d forget your one in a hurry. The things that beast could do with a half pound gob of cud...”
Melchior’s expression was one of blissful remembrance. He’d stolen that camel afterwards, and it had won him a fortune in bets. Balthasar could only shudder as he recollected the evil beast.
“We need to go to Punt. That’s where the best stuff comes from, for this purpose, anyway.”
Camels were involved. They cost some of the gold, too.
What with Melchior complaining that his camel still stank of old rugs, and Caspar moaning that his was just a disjointed bag of lumpy bones, Balthasar was getting a headache by the time they reached what had once been Punt.
Things had changed. Considerably. However, although they took some finding, and with every mile a Purgatory of whining from the other two, the trees that supplied frankincense and myrrh were still present in some areas, and in abundance. So were AK 47 automatic rifles, which hadn’t been an issue last time.
It was when Caspar’s camel, which he’d named Florence in memory of a certain young lady who’d led him a merry dance, had her ear nicked by a stray bullet that they decided that payment for goods received might be the best choice.
It was Melchior who negotiated with the gnarled old woman who seemed to be growing to resemble her gnarled old trees. All the time, she had her arms folded, and she tapped her foot impatiently, a forbidding scowl on her face. Having spent some time in other countries, Melchior could almost imagine her with rollers in her hair, and a hairnet. And possibly holding a rolling pin. He felt that he wasn’t doing his best work in these circumstances.
However, in return for a share of the gold, she agreed to let them tap her trees. She watched throughout the proceedings though, that permanent scowl on her already wrinkled face.
When they’d finished, out of petty spite, Caspar insisted that they left all the evil beasts together, the camels munching on the woman’s Boswellia and Commiphora trees as she threw rocks at them and screamed imprecations. Even Balthasar had to smile.
Back on the wispy cirrostratus cloud, Balthasar spoke a few words over the two newly filled boxes.
“There, that little cantrip should keep them fresh until we need them. Everyone ready for phase two?”
“Balthasar? Balthasar? Why aren’t we moving?”
“You’ve forgotten? We need to be invited. Well, you two do. We’re waiting for the summons from the first person to sing Our Carol. Shouldn’t be long now.”
Somewhere on a run-down housing estate in Leeds, England, a small child was practicing a new song. The eight year-old boy had been playing at soldiers in his bedroom when his ten year-old brother tried to get him to join in the carol that his sixteen year-old cousin had taught him last year. The ten-year old was proud that he’d remembered it. At last, Johnny put down the battered plastic cavalryman, and joined Stevie, their childish trebles rising high into the sky.
We Three Kings of Orient are, One in a taxi, one in a car, One on a scooter, beeping his hooter, Smoking a big cigar.
O star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect Light.
“I don’t know the way… There was a Star last time…”
“Idiots! Just follow the Hollywood star…”
Balthasar found himself putt-putting towards Los Angeles, cars and trucks screaming past him as he tried to get the hang of the little scooter. There was a foul-smelling cigar in his mouth. He threw it away.
And then he threw it away again.
He gathered all his dignity around him, or as much as a man on a scooter can, as he threw it away for the nth time.
“Now, Look…” he muttered, threateningly.
The magic knew exactly how much to push. The cigar did not reappear. But he was still on a scooter, with an uncontrollable urge to beep his horn.
Melchior and Caspar had found each other by the time that Balthasar joined them. The taxi driver was waiting, demanding payment. With a sigh, Balthasar once more dipped into the little box of gold. No one seemed to understand the term ‘necessary business expense’, where he came from.
At last, though, they were installed in a cheap hotel room. Caspar and Melchior had argued, but Balthasar held the purse strings, even if they weren’t actually his funds. That was when he revealed the details of the next phase. He was greeted by stunned silence. And then…
“I should coco!”
“Have you taken leave of your few remaining senses?”
“You’re going to be the one doing that, right?”
Balthasar went over it again.
“Listen. The frankincense needs to be massaged into the skin, along with a few other little ingredients, easily found. Likewise, the myrrh needs to be mixed with some other bits and pieces, and ingested as a potion, given from the hand of his beloved.”
“If you think I’m going calling on the Slayer, you must think I want coals breaking over my head!”
Melchior had clearly spent too much time in Yorkshire, recently.
“And if you think I’m massaging an avenging vampire, well…! See these claws? No way.”
Perplexed, Balthasar looked for the least noxious surface in the room, and sat down on the corner of the bed.
“This is how it has to be, for the magic to work. Damn it all…”
He blushed a little, to the sound of their giggles, and set himself a small penance for the language.
“Melchior, you can talk an Eskimo into buying ice creams. You have talked an Eskimo into buying ice creams. A whole ice cream franchise, in fact. We’ve got a Slayer…”
“Oh, very well, the Slayer who’s no more than a woman in love who wants to be with her man…”
“Yes, right. Well, you can do it, Melly. You get the myrrh. And you, Cas, you get the frankincense. I’ll look after the gold.”
Both the demons looked mulish, but then Caspar was struck by a thought.
“What on Earth does this frankincense do?”
It was Melchior who answered.
“Medicinally, frankincense is antiseptic and anti-inflammatory to lung, genital and urinary complaints, digestive tract ulcers and chronic diarrhoea. It’s used in the treatment of breast cysts and to increase menstruation. Cosmetically, it’s excellent on mature skin and acne, and helps counter bacterial and fungal skin infections, boils, hard-to-heal wounds and scars, and distended varicose veins. Emotionally, it’s been used throughout the ages to enhance spirituality, mental perception, meditation, and consciousness. It fortifies and soothes the spirit as it slows and deepens breathing. It is said to release past links and subconscious stress.”
There was a thoughtful silence.
“Oh,” said Caspar. “So, the mature skin, I can see. I mean, he’s almost three centuries old, so a good moisturiser would come in handy…”
“Perhaps it’s the releasing past links that does the trick?”
“I can see that the whole breathing thing would be good…”
“It’s not just one thing, Melly. It’s all of them and more. I told you, it’s the magical properties, too. And using it on the outside in conjunction with the myrrh.”
“So, what does the myrrh do?”
Caspar looked genuinely interested, and Melchior surprised them both again.
“Medicinally, myrrh improves digestion, diarrhoea and immunity…”
“Does he have diarrhoea a lot?”
“Shouldn’t think so. Do you want to know this stuff?”
“Sorry, Mel. Yeah.”
“It treats coughs, gum disease, wounds, candida, overactive thyroid and scanty menstruation. Cosmetically, myrrh is an expensive treatment for chapped, cracked or aged skin, eczema, bruises, infection, varicose veins and ringworm. Emotionally, it’s been used almost forever to inspire prayer and meditation, and to fortify and revitalize the spirit.”
“Well,” said Caspar, “that has to be good, doesn’t it? Revitalizing the spirit? I’m not too sure about some of the others though, but it does seem good for renewing the blood… It’s a vampire we’re talking about here.”
There was another thoughtful silence, broken by Balthasar.
“Thank you, Melly. Now, can we get on? I’ve said that it’s the magical properties of both of them. The frankincense unguent needs to be massaged into all body parts, followed within an absolute maximum of two hours by the myrrh potion from the hand of his beloved. And it must be done at midnight on Christmas Eve.”
“The last gold, frankincense and myrrh job wasn’t at all complicated! Get the stuff, ride those wretched camels across trackless deserts, give the gifts, get out quickly and quietly and don’t visit Herod. Why is this so bound up with conditions?”
Balthasar shook his head at Caspar’s question.
“I really don’t know. I suspect it’s because the other chances have been given back, and pretty definitively too. Only an unlikely set of circumstances will result in the right outcome now. This has to be a sort of million to one chance, and we’ve got to bring that about.”
“So he’ll definitely be human?”
The angel sat quietly for a moment, before replying.
“No,” he said, at last. “No, that possibility has gone. He drank Hamilton’s blood, remember.”
“Yeah,” said Melchior. “He’s never going to get over that. But he could learn to live with it?”
“Yes, he will. And he’ll be alive. He just won’t be exactly human, but that’s the best we can do. A human with a demon still in him, but a beating heart, and he can go out in the sun. And still strong.”
“A bit like the Slayer, then.”
Caspar nodded, thoughtfully.
“A good match.”
“So, Cas, Melly, we’re good to go?”
“Yeah, but you get to do the massage.”
Balthasar bitched and whined, but Caspar and Melchior had logic on their side. This was a job for an Angel. In the end, Melchior got the myrrh, Balthasar the frankincense, and Caspar looked after the gold. What was left of it.
Born a king on Bethlehem's plain, Gold I bring to crown Him again, King forever, ceasing never Over us all to reign.
O star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect Light.
Caspar looked at the ever-increasing mound of supplies in the middle of the stained and foetid bed. No self-respecting demon would sleep in anything so dreadful, but there was nothing there to hurt their purchases. In fact, the sheer press of humanity that had left reminders of itself might aid, rather than hinder, the magic, even though standard humanity couldn’t be the outcome.
He opened the boxes. Frankincense and myrrh, looking good. Gold, looking depleted. There wouldn’t be much of a gift there. But perhaps that was the point, he reflected. This was about a gift beyond price.
Frankincense to offer have I. Incense owns a Deity nigh. Prayer and praising all men raising, Worship Him, God on high.
Angel – the vampire called Angel, that is – rose one mid December afternoon to find a letter on his doormat. It was in a pretty, gold-edged envelope, and addressed to him by name. He’d no idea who might know where he was now living, in this run-down but spacious basement apartment. He’d got used to space, and wanted to keep it, even though the Hyperion was gone. Lost and gone, along with his human, and not so human, family after the LA debacle. He hadn’t tried to forge any new connections. Not yet. The old ones still hurt too much.
The contents of the envelope were even more of a surprise than the envelope itself.
Wickedly Good Body Care has a Heavenly present for you, purchased by a friend.
Your Christmas gift is a luxurious whole body therapy treatment, comprising:
Indian Head Massage
Full body aromatherapy massage
We use our own special lotions, to an age-old secret recipe, guaranteed to make you feel like a new man.
There was more, words extolling the virtues of this unlooked-for gift. The letter also said that Wickedly Good’s most experienced therapist had been asked to call on him at 9.00pm on 24 December.
It might, of course, be a trap, from someone he’d upset, and there were plenty of those to choose from. But it didn’t smell like that. It smelled of honesty, and well-meaning earnestness. Goodness. Of course, you could buy spells to give such a glamour…
He put the letter on his desk. The date was a good week away. He’d think about it.
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume Breaths a life of gathering gloom. Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Buffy had brought Dawn back to Sunnydale. For the time being, at least. She wasn’t sure why. The town was being rebuilt a few miles away from where it had been before. It was amazing how many buildings had gone up in the time since she’d dumped it into the Hellmouth. Now, Dawn was off with her new friends for the night, and Buffy had been Christmas shopping. On her own. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been alone when Christmas shopping. There had always been friends. Or Dawn. Or her mother. It was an odd feeling, definitely unsettling, and perhaps that’s why she wasn’t paying attention as she fumbled for her door key, while juggling the bags and packages.
She’d got the door open, and was dropping things onto the hall table, when a voice came, behind her.
The inner clench she felt wasn’t a vampire-warning sort of clench, nor even an Angel-warning-entreaty-go-away-come-here-please sort of clench. The voice had sounded like dark velvet (but it wasn’t his dark velvet), and the feeling that she got was soothing and calming (although not the peace of perfect tranquillity that he had always been able to give to her, when he wasn’t giving her other sorts of feelings, of course), but the clench in her gut was Demon.
She always kept a stake on the hall table.
She whirled round, the sharpened piece of wood in her fist, but all she saw was a blur. When she looked up, there was a handsome man in a dark suit, clinging to her ceiling, like a lizard.
“Please, Miss Summers… I… I’m from… well, I’m a messenger, really. I’m here to help.”
Buffy had learned that there were three great lies.
‘I’ll call you back.’
‘The cheque’s in the post.’
And worst of all? ‘I’m from the … – I’m here to help.’ Insert Government, Powers That Be, Watchers’ Council, or any other body of choice.
Nowadays, she generally found that she preferred brutal, naked, demonic truth. This sounded rather like lie number three. And he was a demon. Or, her gut told her, a Demon. There was definitely a capital letter job about this one.
“Get down from there! You really don’t want to make me come up and get you. I’m so not wanting to redecorate at this time of the year!”
Melchior considered how to present his case to her from his perch on the ceiling, how to say something that wouldn’t result in bloodshed and a hasty retreat.
“I’m here about you and Angel…”
He didn’t even get chance to finish the sentence. Her beautiful face, which had been flushed from the cold evening air, now reddened with anger.
“No! Not one more word. I do not want to discuss that ever again. Get down here!”
Melchior looked at her anger, the anger that was her shield, but what he felt was her pain, the sword through her heart. Demons know all about pain. They are, after all, creatures of Hell. They aren’t all bad, of course, but they do know all about pain. The demon allowed her pain to wash over him. He tasted every little nuance of it. Loss. Abandonment. Guilt. Blame. Failure. Loneliness. Remorse.
The three of them had stood in an alleyway in Los Angeles only the night before, and watched Angel pass by. The taste of the pain had been exactly the same. Threaded through it had been the same refrain, a canticle of prayer, almost.
I couldn’t bear it again. Better apart. I couldn’t bear more pain. And it’s better for him/her.
“I can make it go away you know. I can stop it altogether.”
“Your pain. I can take it all and lock it so tight and so deep that you will never feel it again. Ever. He’ll just be a fond memory, never more than that. No more yearning, no more pain. You could move on.”
Melchior wasn’t lying. Pain answers to a demon, like a sheepdog to a shepherd.
Buffy tried to imagine herself without this running, rotting sore of guilt and blame and loss. Thought of a life where Angel was no more to her than her other boyfriends had proved to be. Fond memories, and people with whom she could perhaps be friends. Angel could never be a friend.
She’d learned a lot though, since those days. We are the sum of our experiences. Take any of it away, and we are diminished.
“No. Even if you’re telling the truth. No. I’ll keep what’s mine.”
“Good. Now, if I come down from here, do you think we could talk? I can stay here as long as you can stand in that hall, but we’re both getting a crick in our necks. You can keep the stake.”
“What is it you want to talk about?”
And he meant it. For the first time in his existence, perhaps, Melchior was going to rely on the unvarnished truth.
Angel sipped the warm blood thoughtfully. The letter from Wickedly Good rested on his knees. He’d been arguing with himself about what to do. This was so obviously a trap that perhaps it wasn’t. The therapist would be here in about an hour. He could leave now, and walk the streets for a bit, or he could wait and see what turned up. He rather thought that he should do that, and simply behead whatever walked through the door.
Those were his first thoughts. But there was another tiny voice, the voice of his second thoughts, maybe. Humans are creatures of sensation, needy for the touch of another human. Demons are even more so, and that applies especially to vampires. For so long now, he’d been without the touch of a hand, a simple hug, the normal physical contact that every being craves. To feel that again, even the impersonal touch of someone simply doing a rather intimate job… his very skin cried out for it.
He drank the remaining blood in one quick swallow, and headed for the shower.
Melchior refilled the two glasses of egg-nog. He did this in the old-fashioned way, getting out of his chair and walking to the kitchen, and ladling more egg-nog. He could have done it by simply thinking it, transposing the air in the glasses and the egg-nog in the bowl, but he thought that Buffy maybe needed a little time alone.
He’d told her a few things she didn’t know. A lot of things. He’d told her of the forgotten day, and how Angel had traded his humanity to keep her alive. Of how he’d traded himself to give his son life and sanity. And how he’d traded his promised shanshu to save the world from the Apocalypse.
When Melchior went back, she was still sitting just as he had left her. He put the glass on the table by her chair and sat down again, but it was several minutes before she said anything, and then it wasn’t what he had perhaps expected. He’d thought she would rail about why Angel hadn’t told her any of this, but she didn’t.
“Why are you here?”
“We’ve brought a gift.”
“A gift.” It was a statement, not a question, and he didn’t like the sound of it.
“Yes. A gift. But you have to finish the delivery.”
“What sort of gift?”
“A new life.”
Her attention snapped back to him, from wherever it had been.
“He’ll be human?”
The hope sketched across her features was pitiable, as he shook his head.
“No. That isn’t…possible. But he will live. Do you want that?”
“No happiness clause? His soul would be…fixed?
“No getting toasted by the sun?”
“As much sunbathing as he likes.”
“And the demon will be gone?”
“I don’t understand?”
“Your strength and power is demonic. When you came back from the dead, did you come back without that?”
“Neither will he. He will be like you.”
“He’ll be mortal?”
“He’ll be like you.”
“What does that mean?”
“I think you and he might like to find out together. I’m not sure I know, exactly.”
“So, what do you know, exactly?”
“Buffy, there’s the whole ineffability thing going…”
“Something so big that it can’t ever be known. The Grand Plan is pretty ineffable to us. You two are part of it, just as the rest of us are. And some things you have to work out for yourselves. You came back from the dead, and you can bring him back from the dead, too. Like you, he’ll be different from what he was before…”
“Will he still remember everything he…did?”
“When he was soulless? Yes. It was never going to be any different, whether he got humanity or not. You know that’s true. Perhaps part of what’s been happening this last few years has been to let him find out who he can be, regardless of what he is? Don’t you think?”
“What would I have to do?”
“Give him this to drink sometime in the two hours up to midnight on Christmas Eve. Sorry about the conditions. It’s a magic thing…”
He held up a small, elegant cut glass bottle in deep sapphire blue. The facets sparkled prettily.
“It’s a potion.”
Again it was a flat statement from her, not a question.
“Yes,” he agreed, and waited for her reply.
Buffy sat sipping her egg-nog, abstracted in her thoughts. Here could be the fulfilment of a cherished dream, a dream that had been forced down into the very darkest corner of her psyche for such a long time. But would it work? And not just the potion. Would IT work? Her and Angel.
The potion first, though. It might be a poison. So many people had tried to kill them both. Melchior was persuasive, but then so he should be. He was a demon, and they were good at persuasive, weren’t they?
“Why don’t you just give it to him?”
“It has to come from the hand of his beloved. You are still that, aren’t you?”
Was she? Was she still anything at all to him?
“What if I’m not his beloved anymore?”
“You mean you don’t love him?”
She didn’t dignify that with an answer. Melchior smiled at her, a surprisingly tender smile. For a demon.
“If you aren’t what you once were to each other, it simply won’t work. There’ll be no other effect.”
“That’s all it’s going to take? Me giving him this to drink?”
“No. Something has to happen at Angel’s end of this, too. That’s arranged.”
“Who’s doing that?”
Balthasar stood nervously outside the basement door, waiting for a reply. His wings were neatly folded away, invisible to anyone on this plane, and he had a pile of baggage at his feet. He knocked a second time. Just when he thought that it was all going to fail again – and he dreaded to think what Gabriel would say to that – the door swung open. He and Angel looked at each other silently for a moment, and then Angel stood back to allow the angel entrance.
Balthasar wrestled with the bag, and the folding treatment table, both of them unofficially borrowed from a holistic therapy salon, although the contents of the bag were entirely his. He’d objected to the borrowing, but Caspar had been quite firm. He’d said he wanted a bit of the gold left, at least. And they’d take the equipment back afterwards.
So, Balthasar wrestled with his accoutrements, until a strong hand reached out and took the treatment table from him and, in silence, the door was closed behind him, and he was escorted into the sparely furnished apartment. Angel turned and stared at him, disconcertingly.
“You aren’t human.”
“Neither are you.”
“Who are you?”
Balthasar was incurably honest. It was built into him, after all.
“Someone who wishes you no harm.”
“Why are you here?”
“Because it’s time.”
If those answers were enigmatic, they seemed to satisfy Angel, although of what, even Angel couldn’t explain, afterwards.
With a small sigh of relief, Balthasar pointed to the one comfortable chair in the room.
“If you wouldn’t mind? We’ll start with the reflexology, I think.”
Angel sat, and an angel knelt at his feet, a magus bearing a gift. Balthasar took out his towels and unguent, and anointed those finely moulded, shapely feet with softly soothing aromatic oils. Then he lifted the right foot, and started to work.
By the time he’d finished the reflexology and the head massage, Angel lay with his eyes closed, utterly relaxed, sprawled in the chair, hands loosely spread over the chair’s arms. Balthasar rose, as graceful as the vampire, and opened out the table, spreading clean white towels over it. When he spoke, his voice was so soft that it seemed the man in the chair couldn’t possibly hear.
“Would you care to undress and lie face down on the table?”
He walked over to the other side of the room and, with a natural delicacy, turned his back. When he turned again, his charge was lying naked on the table. He felt a surge of emotion, and he didn’t fight it. This task was about love, and you needed love to bring it to completion. Angels are good at many things, and love is one of those things. Balthasar understood, then, that this was absolutely right, that he be the one here, now. Not Caspar. Not Melchior. Him. The angel. It could never have been any other way.
He dipped his fingers into the unguent, and started to massage Angel’s back. His hands worked their way over alabaster-pale skin, and muscles that seemed softly rounded, but were as strong as corded steel. His touch was expert, as he worked the frankincense into every square inch of skin, the coolness of death warming beneath his hands, the magic inherent in the body like lightning beneath his palms.
It’s a black calumny to say that Angels are neuter, are without genitals, and beyond the urges that gender brings. After a while, the angel had to start to use those mental devices that males of all species use to control themselves when overstimulated. So did the other Angel.
“What if I give him this, and he doesn’t actually want what it will bring? How can I know anymore?”
How can I possibly know whether he still cares about me? I don’t know him now, I’m sure I don’t. Everything’s different. We’re all of us different.
“Buffy, he has made decisions for both of you, and the decision he made in each case was to let you go. It seemed to him to be the best thing for you, at the time. You, too, have made decisions for both of you, and you, too, have chosen to let him go, because it seemed the best thing to do for him, at the time. But, the karmic balance still isn’t level. This is a decision you need to make for both of you.”
“What if I make the wrong one?”
“There is no right or wrong, there’s just a decision. What you decide will determine which paths you walk, that’s all. What does your heart tell you?”
“What do you know about it? You’re a demon!”
“Doesn’t mean I haven’t got a heart. It just means that I made particular choices. Now, I have to say, we don’t have a great deal more time. The car’s outside. Do you want some more egg-nog, while you’re thinking?”
The cavernous room, a room that had been empty of all feeling except darkness and isolation, was now filled with the redolence of frankincense, warm and welcoming, soothing and healing. It wrapped them both around, as the angel worked his magic.
Balthasar had asked Angel to turn over. Angel had hesitated, but then had complied. When he did so, Balthasar saw the reason for his hesitation. Neither of them made any effort to cover what was revealed. He looked into Angel’s eyes, and Angel returned his gaze. For an instant, the two of them were falling into each other, into the infinity of the demon and the angel, and then Balthasar ran his scented fingers down the vampire’s scented cheek.
“Be at peace,” he murmured.
Angel’s gaze fell away, his eyes closing as his body relaxed, and he opened himself up once more to the long-denied sensation of a loving touch. Balthasar couldn’t help it. As his hands soothed and kneaded, he allowed the vampire’s fire to flow into him, over him, through him; and he knew that his own heavenly radiance was suffusing into the demon’s skin and muscle and bone.
And this, he thought, is how it has to be. This is why Gabriel chose me. Or was told to choose me. He knew that this would happen, and that I would be consumed, and consume in return. This is an essential ingredient of the magic. It’s as unlikely as it gets, that an angel would love a demon, although I already love two, and it’s the final piece in this part of the spell’s puzzle.
And he continued, trailing their melded, healing fire over the demon’s skin. And when he came to the most intimate parts, Angel’s hand, the hand that had been languidly trailing over the edge of the couch, shot out and grasped the angel’s wrist.
“Be still. Be at peace. This must be done. It will be all right,” the angel murmured, softly.
And it was.
Caspar had settled all their bills. There was very little gold left, now. He’d found some action in a seedy building off a dank and dirty alley, and there was a lot of money changing hands. He was tempted – more than tempted – to refill the little box. He knew that he could do that, if he wagered what was left. He could play any game that was going, here, and walk out with the box stuffed full of high-denomination bills. It would be no trouble at all, and he was sure that, if everything went well with what his friends were doing, Angel and Buffy could use the money.
He opened the lid, and the remaining nuggets glittered in the lamplight. His fingers closed around them. What he felt in the box was…different. Transmuted. He let them go again. He’d at last understood the purpose of this gift. With a last, regretful look at the impromptu gaming tables, he headed out into the night.
When Balthasar had finished his work, he’d told Angel to remain still and relaxed for a while. Angel didn’t think he could have remained anything else. He felt as though he’d been to Heaven, and he wondered again just who his visitor was.
Balthasar was pottering around in the kitchen, making them both a cup of tea, when Angel at last sat up on the table. Then, he cautiously stood up. His knees held, but only just. Wrapping a blue towel around himself – although thoughts of modesty seemed slightly absurd, now – he started towards the bathroom.
“I… I’ll… I, erm, I’ll just grab a shower…”
Quick as a wink, Balthasar emerged from the kitchen, and steered him towards the chair.
“Nonono… Absolutely not. The unguent will keep on working, and its job isn’t finished yet. You mustn’t wash it off… Here, sit down here and rest for a while…”
As he talked, he spread a large white towelling sheet over the chair.
“See? The oils won’t get on the chair… Just sit down comfortably…”
Angel nodded weakly as he was pushed down into the chair. Just then, a knock came at the door.
“No, Angel, you stay there, I’ll get this for you…”
Balthasar hurried to the door. His internal clock told him that it was getting late. It was only a few minutes to midnight, and why the H… heck had Melchior left it so late to bring Buffy? When he opened the door, though, it was Caspar.
“Where’s Melchior?” he hissed.
Caspar shook his head as he stepped into the apartment. They looked at each other in consternation. There were only moments now, and if this failed, who knew how it could possibly be brought about again?
And just as Balthasar was about to close the door, a breathless Melchior ran down the stairs.
“Where’s Buffy?” hissed Caspar and Balthasar together.
Balthasar glanced over his shoulder to see that Angel was watching the huddle at the door carefully. His hand was inching beneath the chair, and the angel could see the glimmer of a steel blade.
And then Buffy appeared. Melchior shut his eyes, and when he opened them again, he grabbed Buffy’s wrist and pulled her into that fragrant, calming atmosphere.
“You’ve got ninety-three seconds. Make your mind up quickly. Make every second count.”
She nodded and walked forward in silence. As she did so, the past simply fell away and became as nothing.
Angel stood, a hunted expression on his face as his gut clenched in that old, familiar and much-missed way. He tried to stay calm, and as he breathed in the scented air he, too, felt the past fall away. They looked at each other for seconds, for an infinity of time, a kiss and an embrace offered across the oceans of space between them.
Buffy heard Melchior whisper, “Fifty-five seconds.”
She didn’t move any closer, holding the distance between them.
“Am I still your girl, Angel?”
She thought that he wouldn’t answer, as he stood, simply looking at her. Then she caught the faintest whisper of his reply.
“Do you trust me?”
His voice was stronger now, although the answer was the same.
She pulled the exquisite blue glass bottle from her bag.
“Do you trust me enough to drink this?”
“What will it do?”
“It will kill you.”
Seconds ticked by, and then he strode forward, in a blue towel that was suddenly far too skimpy, and took the bottle from her hand. He drank the contents in one quick swallow.
“Ten seconds. Caspar! Your gift. Is there still time?”
Caspar already had the last nuggets of gold clutched in his hand, and he nodded at Balthasar. He strode to the pair who stood, immobile, the empty bottle clutched in Angel’s hand. Swiftly, he lifted the vampire’s other hand and pressed the nuggets into his palm. Then he took Buffy’s unresisting hand and closed it over the gold, and over Angel’s hand.
And then the clock on the mantelpiece struck the hour.
Angel sank to the floor, the demon flashing across his face, warring with the human for control. His body felt as though it were on fire, the potion and the unguent reaching towards each other and burning to ash all the substance in between. He thought he screamed, but his entire being was one tormented, eternal scream, and he couldn’t be sure of anything else.
“What have I done?”
Balthasar heard Buffy’s whisper, and saw her turn, her hand ready to take Melchior by the throat and choke something from him. Possibly the life. He took that vengeful hand in his own, and Melchior took the other.
“Sssh,” said Balthasar. “Everything will be well, I promise.”
Buffy stood, between the angel and the demon, and then she tried to tug her hands loose. They didn’t let go.
“I’ve got to go to him! He’s in pain.”
The angel squeezed her hand.
“Birth is pain, and so is rebirth. You remember this.”
She did, indeed. She remembered the pain as she punched her way out of the grave, and she also remembered the aching loneliness and fear. Angel needn’t bear those, even if he must bear the pain. She wrenched her hands out of their grip, and ran to her lover. The three looked at each other, and joined her. This wasn’t like last time. Perhaps they were all part of this, too.
The four of them soothed him and stroked him and held him close as the magic ran its course.
And then it was done.
They helped him to his feet, and Balthasar primly refastened the towel, which had come loose. Angel looked at them all in wonder.
“What have you done? What’s happened to me?”
“Buffy will tell you,” Caspar said.
He took Angel’s hand, and carefully unfolded the clenched fingers. The gold nuggets were still there, coated with smears of blood where they had dug into the flesh in Angel’s paroxysms of pain.
“I reckon there’s enough there for a couple of rings, don’t you? Good rings. Rings that will last for a very long time.”
Then he walked back to his friends.
“I think I can hear someone singing our song. I think that must be our cue to go.”
Angel took Buffy into his arms and watched as the three linked arms.
“Thank you, guys…”
And then the three were gone, although Angel was sure that he still had his demonic hearing intact, because he thought he heard squabbling about who would return the scooter. Then his attention was claimed by someone much nearer home.
The three of them sat on the edge of Bifrost Bridge. It was early morning, and last night’s roisterers were still fast asleep. The Bridge stood in a cerulean sky, and they looked all the way down to Midgard, below.
“We ought to go and report back, you know.”
“In a minute. I just love the view from up here.”
“I loved the view down there. But yes, this is nice.”
And so an angel and two demons sat kicking their heels against the rainbow bridge. They had delivered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and they had each found their own additional gifts of honesty, love and truth. And because of all that, two beings down below were finding each other. The Powers be thanked.
Glorious now behold Him arise, King and God and Sacrifice. Alleluia, alleluia! Sounds through the earth and skies.
Summary: If something was meant to be, then someone has to make it happen.
Feedback: Pretty please. Send it to Jo
Rating: G Summary: If something was meant to be, then someone has to make it happen.
Feedback: Pretty please. Send it to Jo Story Index Home