Part I: Hell
There was a certain irony about the whole thing.
Thanksgiving had become Angel's favorite holiday. Gathering with the sad remnants of his family for a day of celebrating the rare and precious things they had to be thankful for gave him something to look forward to.
And then there was food. It seemed the gypsy magick that had finally anchored his soul had also changed other things about his vampire physiology -- like the fact that he could suddenly taste regular food. Sure, he was violently ill hours after eating, since his body still couldn't eliminate waste, but what really mattered was that his taste buds worked. So he spent Thanksgiving gorging himself until he was sick, and that came a very close second to the family thing. Turkey and dressing, jeweled onions and green bean casserole with extra French-fried onions, bread and pudding, cranberry jelly and sweet potatoes, bread, four kinds of pie, and chocolate mousse, which Connor procured just for him. A little slice of Heaven.
Which blissful experience made the current situation doubly ironic.
Angel was no stranger to the horrors of Hell -- he had spent a hundred years being tortured there. Seen its evil spat out on the Earth in every conceivable form, from will-destroying gods to bloodthirsty demon armies. He had seen his home blanketed in evil's perpetual darkness as it blocked out the sun. Seen fire screaming from the sky, hatred and resentment sewn in the hearts of his loved ones in its name. He had experienced the worst that evil had to offer.
And still, he had never witnessed anything quite as diabolical as the mall on the day after Thanksgiving.
Popularly known as Black Friday. They said the name originated from the fact that it was this day that brought most retail businesses out of net loss for the year, but what he was looking at, hearing and smelling, made him wonder. Perhaps Black Friday really referred to the fact that the war he and his family won hadn't truly saved humanity from evil for a thousand years after all.
The truly dastardly part was how he'd been corralled into this manifestation of malfeasance, this stinking temple of Mammon created of glass, concrete and human greed by the underhanded, guilt-driven machinations of his only son. He had money to spend, and apparently absolutely had to have Angel along while he spent it.
Angel suspected there was something else going on in Connor's tack-sharp mind, but he was unable to figure out what it was as of yet.
Why the boy couldn't shop on the Internet like a normal human being escaped him. He found that particular invention to be by far the greatest of his very long lifetime. Mostly because he could send gifts and obtain needed merchandise without ever encountering any of this.
Throngs of groaning, sweating, miserable human beings packed together like Turkey-stuffed sardines, crawling up and down the distastefully tiled hallways like overdressed cattle. Children screaming, throwing tantrums to possess RIGHT NOW things that "Santa" (i.e. Mom and Dad) would no doubt be bringing them in 30 days anyway. Endless lines forming not only at cash registers, but in store aisles just to get a look at the quickly dwindling selection of merchandise. Jingling Salvation Army and incessant ho ho ho-ing mall Santas. The endless, repetitive, mind-numbing Muzak renditions of classic Christmas carols. He was fairly certain "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" would be the soundtrack of his nightmares for a long time to come.
His memories of Hell were blurry and faded, but he wouldn't have been at all surprised if they closely resembled this. Connor dragged he and Illyria along from store to store as he searched for "just the right gift" for someone whom he refused to identify. Angel suspected there was a girl involved -- what else could possibly attract a 19-year-old male into the mall on Black Friday? Illyria was, as usual, observing everything around her with an air of disdain and the aura of a person who would obliterate everything she saw if she still possessed her full powers. Which of course, she didn't, but as it was, he kept an eye on her for any sudden movement anyway.
With his unlife being what it was -- specifically, a big, steaming pile of depressing offal -- Angel was hardly surprised when the middle of the mall exploded in a maelstrom of concrete and tasteless salmon tiles, disgorging a creature that looked like something out of a Japanese creature double feature. Fifty feet tall at least, equipped with six flailing arms and an assortment of tentacle-like, talon-tipped appendages, its scaly hide the color of rich grapes, and its cavernous mouth containing thousands of jagged teeth, each easily the length of his arm, gleaming as if possessed of appetites of their own as their owner screamed.
What was it about his karma that had him continually coming up against mutant cousins of Godzilla? This just wasn't turning out to be his... century. With a sigh, he nodded to Illyria, and accepted the enormous broadsword she conjured from thin air. His companion pulled a matching one for herself out of the same nowhere. As she swung the blade up to eye level, Angel caught a glimpse of the gem-encrusted hilt, and groaned when he realized that these were the same blades they had used to defeat Wolfram & Hart's failsafe demon in the first battle of the bloodiest war in his memory.
The war that had lost him almost everyone he cared about. He could only hope that they were acting quickly enough to avoid that sort of collateral damage this time.
While Illyria jumped in and occupied the beast's attention by chopping at its feet and spewing awkwardly worded insults about its virility and lineage, Angel quickly scaled the nearest support column to the roof. A network of beams webbed the acoustic tiled surface of the ceiling. A quick swing from one support to the other (much like a giant monkey-bar, he observed irrelevantly) brought him within easy leaping distance of the creature's head. There was always a weakness in the head or throat of reptilian creatures like this.
It also turned out to be the perfect viewpoint to see that someone else was already on the case, riding high on the creature's armored spine, getting ready to slam a similar sword to his own into one of the unprotected ridges just beneath the edge of the monster's skull.
There was no mistaking her. Even if the incongruity of the scene weren't startling enough to identify her beyond a doubt -- the tiny, fashionably dressed blonde woman wielding a sword nearly twice her size with deadly, expert precision -- the thump and roll his dead heart performed at the sight of her left no doubt. It was a reaction only one woman in all the cosmos had ever elicited from him.
Of all the mall monsters in all the dimensions...
Buffy was, as she had always been, a creature of violent beauty. Quick, efficient, lethally strong, her total concentration focused on the life or death task at hand. She clung to the creature's twisting, writhing neck like a jockey, struggling for enough leverage to get the sword into position. Angel had thought many times before while watching her in battle that she looked like a cross between some fierce avenging goddess and an erotic--
"HELLO! Were you planning on jumping in anytime this century? Shortening mortal lifespan, here!" she screamed.
The bare touch of panic in her familiar voice snapped him out of his melodramatic reverie. Angel tried to tamp down his schoolboy elation at seeing her enough to focus on the problem at hand.
The fact that he had been so overwhelmed by her appearance that he'd forgotten what he was doing surprised him. When was the last time anything or anyone stimulated him enough to break him out of the oppressive funk he'd lingered in since the war and his harrowing trip to Romania?
The last time he saw Buffy, in fact. Two days before Willow and a veritable army of the most powerful witches in the universe had wiped the remainder of the dark armies out of this dimension. Buffy had been clothed in silver chainmail that looked like something out of a Tolkein story, fine and form fitting, and she had never looked more like a goddess. He had literally frozen where he stood and stared at her for what felt like hours.
It was hours later that they'd had their most recent argument, and there hadn't been a word between them in the year since.
"ANGEL!" Her shout this time held more than a little annoyance.
He shook his head and gave himself a mental kick for letting his attention wander again. Once he got a good look, it only took a moment to discern the problem Buffy was having with the monster. Her position perched precariously on the spine didn't giver the proper angle or leverage to plunge the sword upward, under the skull plate and into the brain. She would require a solid, stone-still place to brace her weight so that she could shove the sword in full-strength on her first try. They needed to stop the thing dead where it stood, not permit it to thrash around in agony and rage, possibly stomping what innocent bystanders into pudding that hadn't managed to flee the scene.
They could worry about the thing's origin and whether a magickal dinosaur would even have a brain if the plan didn't work. Which, of course, it would.
Angel calculated the best spot below Buffy to land, several feet below her, sheathed his own sword deep into the special belt inside his coat, and jumped. He got hold of the creature by pulling back its scales and gripping the flesh beneath, and pushed upward, using his legs to keep purchase while he turned his shoulders into a convenient brace for Buffy's feet. He used his strength and reflexes to keep mostly still while riding out the creature's wild motion. Without a word between them, Buffy immediately took the opportunity he presented, stomping down hard to make sure her feet were secure on his broad shoulders. He felt her slight weight push down, then shove suddenly upward.
The whole thing happened much more quickly than he'd anticipated. The creature gave a shriek that shattered nearby windows, and then it was plummeting downward, he and Buffy still clinging to its back. Luckily, Angel wasn't woolgathering this time, and managed to brace his own legs against the scaly armor, grab Buffy around the waist, and leap off the monster into the rafters before it crashed into the floor.
Hanging by one hand fifty feet above, the only damage they sustained was a gush of mall monster gore that splattered on them as the thing exploded on impact.
They both stared down at what was left of it, letting yet another near death experience sink in. Buffy was breathless, hot and trembling in his arms, and Angel's mind snapped to places probably left unvisited. She had gained weight in all the right places, which were soft and crushed against the front of his body, her slender arms wrapped around his neck, that arousing breath directly in his ear.
He swallowed hard, turned his head, and kissed her. It was long and lingering, and he in no way planned, or even made the conscious decision to do it, but she didn't seem to mind. After a shocked moment when she froze in his embrace, she kissed him back with equal fervor. Their arms tightened around one another, bodies pressed hip to hip, and for a long, sweet while, Angel forgot everything else -- who they were, where they were, what had just happened, and all the reasons why this shouldn't be happening. All that came before... and the fact that they were hanging from the ceiling of a mall that had just been attacked by Gamera.
That final thought crashed down on both of them at the same time, and they ended the kiss with a soft sound that echoed in his mind like a gunshot. He couldn't stop staring at her blushing face, but she kept her gaze cast anywhere but at him.
"I think you can let go now," she whispered.
Angel could think of nothing that he wanted to do less.
Awkward didn't begin to cover the situation, and Hell metaphors were becoming more apt by the moment.
He called an independent cleaning crew he'd become acquainted with during the war that specialized in disposing of dead things most humans would rather deny existed. They arrived in their usual HAZMAT disguise, wielding impressively fake DEC credentials -- not that mall management was in any mood to check carefully. The wheels of denial were turning, and the quicker the small lake of green and red ooze was scraped off their battered tile, the quicker they could begin to spin stories of exploding water mains and birds that nested in the rafters attacking shoppers in their panic.
Angel, Buffy, Dawn, Connor, Illyria and Xander sat nearby at the still intact coffee shop, where some brave or possibly stupid soul was doing a brisk coffee business to gawkers and workers alike.
Dawn stared at the green and red muck as it disappeared into the cleaner's large vacuum devices.
"Festive," she observed, and sipped her mocha latte. The comment drew a loopy grin from Connor, who had apparently inherited Darla's way with people, since the pair got to chatting as if they had known one another their whole lives.
Angel was starting to suspect they had at least known one another more than an hour or two. He wondered if the youngest Summers was to be the recipient of the gift Connor had been hunting so meticulously for, and how the Hell it was that his life could possibly be wrapped up with such a fine bow of coincidence. If it was coincidence at all.
The twosome closed themselves off in a cozy little world for two, ignoring the tension among the rest of the group with the special enthusiasm reserved for the young and flirtatious. Or the well-prepared.
None of which applied to him. And from the deadly expression on Buffy's face as she bored holes in her cup with angry eyes, to her.
He understood her hostility on some level. They hadn't parted on good terms after she and the Slayers fought beside him, Illyria and Spike during that final battle. He had tried his damndest to explain his decisions over the past year. Attempted to make her understand the necessity of fighting from within the belly of the beast, of crossing the thin grey line he had always carefully straddled. But she had been weary, worried and angry, still bleeding from old wounds both physical land emotional, and her rage at Spike's deception hadn't helped matters. In the end, they had parted with hurtful and emotional words.
Some masochistic part of him wondered if she regretted that last argument, now that Spike was gone. Again. Probably for good, this time.
Most of him, however, had absolutely no desire to know the answer to that particular question. If Spike had been destroyed in the war, or even in some other action in the line of duty, his feelings might have softened some. But since his grandspawn had been beheaded by a Blancache demon during a drunken bar fight in a dive outside of Houston, Angel had a difficult time conjuring any sympathy at all.
And he absolutely did not in any way miss the bleached-blond pain in his ass, either.
Before their fury after the last battle, there was the humiliating incident in Rome, with the Immortal, when she had avoided him like the plague, and sent him packing with ridiculous platitudes delivered by Andrew, of all people. Before that had been the only slightly less humiliating cookie dough dismissal, and the few passive-aggressive, long-distance low blows and insults in between.
Come to think of it, didn't he have a bit more reason to be upset with her than vice versa?
Maybe. But either way, he and Buffy were not currently at one of the higher points of their long relationship. A year and a half of silence, with nothing but investigator's reports to even let him know she was alive, plus the particular circumstances of their reunion today didn't seem to be assisting the comfort level of their current situation as they pretended to have coffee, watched the cleaning team, and ignored the obvious coupling activities of their companions.
"Buffy," he finally said, breaking the silence.
She dragged her gaze from her cup to meet his in such slow motion that he would have sworn the effort was painful. Or maybe it was the dread of their eyes finally meeting, which he fully shared.
"I'm sorry," he apologized, hoping that would ease whatever was the most acute of the transgressions hanging between them. Not the least of which, he supposed, was his uninvited kiss during the culmination of the battle.
She took what sounded like a deep, cleansing breath, her eyes ticking away and back again before she finally replied, "There's no reason for you to be, Angel. I didn't exactly try to stop you."
Ah. So she had chosen the kiss, then. Great. He didn't know if that was better or worse than all the other reasons they might not be the best of friends right now.
He shrugged, his latest remorse washed away by the simple magick of her voice, the haunted green of her eyes, both so familiar, and both still with the power to knock him off his feet if he'd been standing. That look made him think that the age difference between them might not be so emotionally or psychologically relevant as it once was. The recollection that her life had been so difficult wrapped around his heart and squeezed hard. He reached out by reflex to take her small, warm hand. Comfort for them both.
"Not just for the kiss," he explained.
Her face softened, and she gave his hand a squeeze in return. He could swear that she was almost smiling, and wished with all of his might that she would. He missed it.
"You're still playing Master of Guilt, huh? I thought you would have given that up by now. What with saving the world and all."
He did smile, but it felt sad and weak. "Some things never change."
The tension between them eased somewhat as they gazed into one another's eyes, and a decade of shared feeling and memory washed over them. It seemed, for that one precious moment, like nothing bad had ever separated them, and their friendship and love were stronger than they had ever been. The sensation was almost physical -- electricity shooting from their joined hands to tingle over his skin.
Six years to the day after the last time he made love to her. The day when all their cares had dropped away for a little while, and they had been fully open to one another for the first and last time in all the years they'd known one another. The remembrance struck him like a blow straight to the chest, and he reeled back in time with the force of it. He could smell the perfume she used to wear. Feel her hands and lips on his flesh, their heartbeats thundering together as they careened over the precipice of ecstasy together, again and again...
She had promised to never forget. He knew she'd had no choice in the matter -- that day never existed at all, except in his memory. He had chosen to keep the bittersweet pain of it, kept it sacred, pulled it out to console himself more than once when things in his life were at their bleakest.
But over time, he had forgotten too. Until just now. Until that look of loss and longing in her eyes, the simple touch of her hand reminded him. It was all still there -- the joy, the hope born and crushed... the soul-deep love -- just waiting for this moment to bring it crashing back again.
He'd put it all aside. Buried it deep beneath years of horrors and other joys, plans and schemes and responsibilities. It had been so easy to let it slip away when there were so many other sources of pain and happiness in his life. The deepest, most powerful one... it was just easier to let it go.
Now every moment of that single day sat hard on his chest, staring him in the face, holding his hand. The tears she cried as she vowed she would never forget superimposed over the battle-weary face of the woman who didn't remember. The woman whose hard years had dulled some of the shining light of spirit he had once seen in those eyes. The light that once captured him and saved his soul and pathetic unlife more times than he could count.
Yet another impediment standing between them. Yet another burden of guilt he tried not to think about anymore. So much... so much time and space and pain...
"Sorry. My mind wanders sometimes," he muttered absently, not thinking that she might want to know more about his strange form of PTSD until concern flashed across those eyes.
She tried to cover worry with levity. "Anything you want to share with the class?"
Part of him was desperately glad when Illyria rose from her seat, followed closely by Xander, and the two stood beside his chair.
"I like this one," the former goddess in the shell of Fred Burkle intoned, "It laughs at my humor. I think I will keep it. It has been some time since I had a pet."
Xander grinned like a fool. "I'm sort of in the mood to be kept."
Buffy rolled her eyes and laughed -- a sound like music that moved through Angel like a cool breeze, soothing burning wounds he'd been busy picking open for the past few hours.
"Why don't we all go somewhere for dinner?" he heard himself asking.
"Um, actually..." Connor interrupted. "Dawn and I were just talking about catching a movie on campus. I can take her back to her dorm afterward." He paused, and then added with an insincerity that almost made Angel smile, "Of course, you guys are welcome to come along..."
Angel shot Buffy a look. "I didn't know Dawn went to UCLA too."
The wall came down in her eyes, and the smile vanished as she yanked her hand away from his. "We haven't exactly been in updating mode," she snapped. "A lot of things have happened that you don't know about."
She fairly jumped from her seat, and glanced around as though about to wrangle up her sister and friend to join in her exit. He watched her realize that they were both adults who had no intention of leaving with her, set her jaw, spin on her heel, and march away without another word.
All remaining eyes came to rest on Angel, who was occupied with watching the love of his life walk away -- again.
"Damn it," he grumbled to himself. "Connor, can you get back to campus okay?"
His son smirked. "Sure, Dad. I didn't just say that Dawn and I were leaving anyway."
"I am also capable of procuring return transportation to our lodgings once I have made use of my new pet," Illyria informed him.
"Yeah, great," Angel said as he walked away slowly, trying to give himself time to think of what the hell he was going to say once he caught up with Buffy. He didn't particularly care if the former god's new "pet" made it through the experience in one piece.
Feed Ducks Visit Ducks
Rating: NC-17, ultimately. *G*
Summary: There's a lot of reasons why the day after Thanksgiving is the worst shopping day of the year. Black Friday, 2005 (For those unfamiliar with the term, that's the day after American Thanksgiving, when everybody in the universe goes holiday shopping)
Warning: Cliffhanger in this part! Smut in the next. ;)
Spoilers: Everything is fair game. Come on, haven't we all seen NFA by now?
Disclaimer: All these years later, still not mine. Blame Joss and Fox.
Author's notes: Rusty ain't the word for my fanfic gears. I had a really hard time finding the rhythm of B/A after spending the last few months focused on original characters WHO HATE ME! I did my best, though. I'm terribly sorry about the two-part cliffhanger thing. I had originally planned just to write a short, sweet piece, but the story -- and the deadline -- got away from me, alas!
Feedback: Oh yeah. It's been a while.
Distribution: Chrislee's Octaves of the Heart (http://www.octavesoftheheart.com/) for the 6th Annual IWRY celebration! Ducks' Fanfic: http://ducksfanfic.denialbubble.com; anyone else, please ask