Tokens of Here and Now
Summary: Angel finds an unlikely ally and realizes destinies and prophesies are a fool’s game. Set during and after NFA.
Los Angeles, California
His world was made of hellfire, blinding smoke and pain, lots of pain. Tearing, pounding, crashing, cutting, searing pain that dug deep, deeper than his torn flesh and broken bones, pain that rivaled any he had suffered in hell. It was the kind of pain that would follow him forever, echoing into oblivion, etching into his soul, adding yet another mark to the scarred essence that made him Angel.
The sky was scorched black above him. Its roiling darkness crisscrossed with lightning made of fire, as burning ash fell like snow, turning to slow moving rivers of mud once it hit the flooded streets below. For twelve square blocks surrounding the alley that Angel had designated as their rally point, the world had gone to hell, almost literally.
The clash of steel against steel, the cries of the dead and the dying, the roar of the victorious created a symphony of carnage. And everywhere there was fire. It danced its sinful dance to the beat of the battle, hissing its approval at the mighty show of bloodshed, embracing the dead when they came within reach, consuming them as they screamed.
Death trolled the alleyway turned battlefield. With dark unseen hands it reached out and with a cold, gossamer touch it took, seemingly at random. The rider of the pale horse had already claimed Wesley in the fight against evil, and it was little consolation that his murderer had been taken down too, but a little was better than nothing, especially when they were playing such deep odds.
Angel had felt certain Gunn would go down in the first wave of demons, his wounds were mortal, and he was bleeding out quick. But the human that he had fought against and fought with, the man who had quite by accident and nearly against his will became Angel’s friend, had prevailed against the first onslaught but had been felled by the second.
As he had proclaimed, Angel fought his way through the endless stream of demons until he stood before the dragon. The creature loomed over the bedlam of butchery, rearing back on its hind legs before lunging forward, its mighty maw opening and unleashing hell’s fire. Its destructive power was indiscriminate in who it maimed and killed, which favored Angel as he stalked ever closer to the beast, slicing through his enemy with every step.
Born of the primordial chaos of the planet’s beginning, living in the cataclysmic environment of noxious gasses and creation’s fire, the creature seemed very much at home in the destruction that had befallen the streets of Los Angeles. Talons the length of a man’s arm gripped and shredded overheated asphalt as it worked its way down the alley, its body movement a cross between a jaguar and a serpent. Its scales gleamed like black pearls under moonlight, mesmerizing as they reflected nearby blazes. Angel might have thought them beautiful if he wasn’t trying to figure out a way to pierce the beast’s natural armor with his sword.
He knew the lore behind dragons, had once killed an evil shaman who had claimed to have begun life as a dragon in the ancient kingdom of Elam, but he had never seen one in all his years on Earth. So, Angel was going on what he knew. If the thing bled than it could be killed, and what surer way to make something bleed than five pounds of lethal steel slicing through its hide.
From the first strike, Angel knew that this would be a fight with no second place, no runner up. Losing meant dead and not in the way that he had been dead for over two centuries. This would be dead-dead, as in no more walking around being a champion for the side of good. Of course, Angel had never seen the outcome of his preemptive strike against Wolfram and Hart as anything but a one way ticket to dead and gone, but he had every intention of saving a seat on that flight for as many as he could take with him.
So, he fought. He fought when the demons were so thick they were all he could see. He fought after his ribs were broke by a well swung tail, after he was nearly charbroiled by the dragon’s hellfire breath, and nearly skewered by an opportunistic demon from the Fell Brethren. Angel fought on and on, when he should have just lain down and died.
His arms were shredded and bloody and he shouldn’t have been able to lift them, let alone use his sword, but with a strength born of will alone he wielded the sword with deadly accuracy. Slashing, stabbing endlessly, he nicked away at the dragon’s scaly armor. A wound here, a wound there, and the beast howled in anger and pain, lashing out with its mighty talons, snatching up Angel in its ruthless claws.
The beast took to the sky with Angel in its deadly grasp. Like a whirling dervish of destruction the two combatants rose into the blackened sky. Angel could hear the air rushing by his head and the steady thump-whoosh of the dragon’s wings. He could smell the approaching dawn hidden under the black clouds of smoke and could feel his broken ribs grinding together within his crushed chest. And he knew with a clarity that he had experienced only twice before in his entire existence, that his time on this planet was just about up.
With his vision narrowing, he arched his back within the grip of the dragon, and plunged his blade into the scaly brute’s shoulder where its armor had been weakened. In an instant blood rained down upon him. Black blood that splattered across his tattered chest and soot covered face creating some macabre version of a Rorschach test.
The dragon screamed in agony, throwing its head back violently, pitching the two of them into a chaotic roll. Angel found himself free of the crushing grip of the beast but it did him little good twenty stories above the ground, so, he held tight to the hilt of his sword, still buried in the dragon’s torso. It was his only hold he had on the violent, spinning descent that had the air squealing past his ears and world rushing up to meet him.
At the last moment the dragon attempted to right itself, stretching its wings wide and reaching for the ground with its hind feet. But they had come into fast and steep and the second the animal’s giant claws connected with the ground, the two warriors were catapulted into an uncontrolled and violent somersault. Dirt and debris exploded into the air in two separate lines, mapping Angel’s and the dragon’s destructive trajectory.
With a bone jarring thud, Angel’s course abruptly ended. If he had breathed the air would have been knocked out of him, but that didn’t stop the pain from spearing through his body. With a grunt and groan he tried to get to his feet, stumbling once, twice before landing on unsteady feet. Dust still hung in the air, clouding his vision and with narrowed eyes he scanned his surroundings. He had lost his sword somewhere between the crash landing and where he had come to a sudden stop, and weaponless was not what he wanted when the dragon came at him again.
Angel followed the shallow trench his body had carved out of the ground, noticing for the first time that he was in one of the city’s smaller, older cemeteries. He might have laughed if it wouldn’t have hurt so much, realizing how close he had come to pinballing through the many gravestones. There were two dozen grave markers along the path and he’d missed everyone one of them, bouncing off an old oak in the end.
If Angel thought he was in bad shape, he realized quickly that his opponent was in worse shape. The dragon was propped up against a small mausoleum that was heavily influenced by Greek architecture. One wing lay limply along its open side, while the other angled back and away from the animal almost looking disjointed. Snatching his sword from the ground he limped in the direction of the wounded animal, intent on finishing the beast off before it could get a second wind.
Willpower was a wondrous thing in any situation, but, in a battle to the death, when the body was broken and bleeding, it was essential to survival. It was through sure willpower that Angel was able to grasp the sword and stand before his scaly adversary. Eyeing the dragon with the eyes of a victor, Angel took in every wound he had inflicted, noted every labored breath the beast took.
His sword felt light in his hands, the ever increasing weight, gone. For the first time, Angel realized the quiet that surrounded them, the sounds of battle muted by the distance he and the dragon had traveled. The air held the fragrance of wet grass, not hellfire and smoke, and for that moment in time, Angel found himself oddly at peace. It was as if he had fallen into the eye of the apocalyptic storm.
A slight breeze brought with it the hint of smoke and blood, and that was it for the momentary calm. With purpose, he stepped forward while raising his blade. His purpose was clear he would run the dragon through. But as Angel approached he noticed the beast clawing at his chest with his one good claw, as if something horrible was burrowing its way under the scales.
Cautiously he made his way closer, his battered muscles wound tight, his sword ready to strike. Black eyes, like polished obsidian, glanced up at him before dropping back down, his talons ripping at the armor like scales covering its breast. The animal seemed frantic to Angel, which wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but he would have expected the dragon to be more concerned about the sword in Angel’s hand then whatever was bothering him on his chest.
With a frown creasing his brow, Angel watched as the dragon alternated between clawing at its chest and beating upon it with a talon covered fist. And that was when he saw it, a glyph, barely visible in the inky color of the animal’s scales. It was an ancient, demonic glyph, one that he had seen before during his time in hell. A slave’s glyph, the kind that bound the wearer to a specific demon.
Why is it desperate to be free of its master? Angel wondered, setting off an unsettling tingling sensation at the base of his skull.
Running on instinct and without much thought, Angel lunged forward, his sword raised. At his sudden approach the dragon reared back, its good claw raised in an attempt to ward off a blow that never came. Instead, Angel used the sword’s edge to pry underneath the marked scale sitting dead center in the beast’s chest. Shimming the sword, Angel eventually pulled the blade back, popping the scale from the dragon like an old bottle top.
Bright light, brighter than the sun, poured out from the creature’s open chest, blinding Angel and causing him to stumble back with his free arm over his eyes. There was heat building within the light, like a furnace that had just kicked in, and Angel could almost swear he heard crystalline bells that might have been beautiful in another situation. Blinded and wary, Angel used the heat on his face and the sounds of the tiny bells to track his foe.
Hold thy hand, Champion.
Angel stumbled back, daring to open his eyes as the light ebbed slightly. He had heard the voice plainly but not with his ears. The smooth, accented baritone had been in his mind, like a thought, but not his own.
“Why would I do that?” Angel asked, knowing the voice was that of the dragon.
I mean thee no harm.
Angel had a smart retort concerning that statement but it died before ever reaching his lips. The bright light died to a gentle glow, and where there had once been a wounded dragon as black as hell itself, stood a slightly less wounded dragon of the brightest silver and deepest red.
“What-“, Angel stopped, not certain what he wanted to ask.
I was enslaved six millennia and eight past. When my captor was doomed to hell, he bartered me for his black soul.
Angel dropped the flat side of his sword down on his shoulder, resting the weapon without abandoning it altogether. “Demon?”
Not precisely. A wolf or of greater clarity, the Wolf.
“You were sold into slavery to Wolfram and Hart?”
The beast nodded his massive head before extending a curled claw, like a fist upturned.
Thou have freed me from mine shackles and for this I offer to thee a token of my gratitude.
Angel found himself holding out his hand, mesmerized by the warm, white glow as it grew brighter, the rays spilling into his upturned palm like sand slipping from the dragon’s grip.
It will protect the heart, beating or not, and render to it its greatest need and fondest desire.
In awe Angel felt the warmth slowly glide up his arm, dispelling the cold of the night and the bitterness of the battle. It was as if the white light was filling up all of his fractures, fusing him back together. The dark, cold hollows that had been eating away at his soul were suddenly no more, filled with bright light and a glow he was reticent to describe. But if he had to, Angel would have said, he felt alive even though his heart still not beat.
Heart, his mind prompted. Greatest need? To win the battle he had begun and save what friends he had left.
Do not fear, Champion. That need will be granted. The Wold will be denied his victory.
Angel watched as the dragon backed away from him, his mighty wings stretching, the damage of the battle before all but gone.
Fondest desire, fondest desire. The words nearly sang in his head.
The dragon tested his wings, flapping them once, twice as he prepared to take flight.
Time is fickle, Champion. The past is never faithful, memories they do fade and fall as dust no matter how long thee live. And the future, she answers to herself, bound to no master.
Angel slipped the medallion about his neck, his mind swam, as thoughts and dreams he had locked away for years ricocheted through his head.
The present, the here and now is all any can hope for.
The dragon’s silver scales grew brighter, glowing, consuming the creature, forcing Angel to stumble back and away with his free hand covering his eyes. The light enveloped him, spreading farther and farther, engulfing the graveyard and the streets beyond. And still it grew, washing over the alleyway where Spike and Ilyria stood shoulder to shoulder, their backs against a blood splattered brick wall.
It grew and grew and grew, rivaling the coming dawn, vanquishing the darkness and its army. There would be reports of gas mains exploding of a meteorite strike but none would know unless they had fought and bled in that alleyway. And for Angel, the cover story the world came up with didn’t matter. That was the past. The present called for him to bury his friends. And the future? Well, he’d have to see what his heart said about that.
* * * * * * *
Italy near the Swiss border
Gentle fingers skimmed along his flesh, tracing the ridge that defined his pectoral muscle before delving into the shallow valley above his sternum, only to retreat in the direction in which they came. Back and forth, and back and forth her fingers danced until she finally charted a course to the silver medallion sitting in the slight hollow made by the apex of his ribs.
He didn’t need to open his eyes to know that she was studying the round medal, but he did anyway. If the truth was told, and he’d be happy to tell it, Angel was addicted to watching the woman half lying atop of him. He’d acquired a taste for it eight years before and no amount of rehab was going to cure him.
“It still feels like a dream,” Buffy said, her voice soft as she contemplated the silver medal the size of dollar coin, rubbing it between her thumb and forefinger.
Angel hummed noncommittally, his fingers having found their own path of interest along her bare hip.
“A good dream,” Buffy went on, knowing full well her lover was not about to break character and start yakking away. “A reeeally good dream. With extra yummies on top and everything.”
Angel gave a soft chuckle, bringing his free hand up to trace a wayward strand of hair that had partially fallen in Buffy’s face. “I like the yummies on top,” he revealed with a suggestive, sideways glance as he tucked the errant strand of hair behind her ear.
Buffy’s smile grew wide as she slowly sidled herself up his body, covering him with her own. “Yes, you do,” she purred, her brows arching knowingly at the reaction she stirred in her lover’s body.
Angel’s large hands smoothed down Buffy’s back, mapping out the curves of her waist before gently taking possession of her hips. Every inch of Buffy’s lithe form had been rebranded into his memory over the past twelve days. Every moan and sigh recorded in his mind, every laugh there for him to recall again and again. Her scent filled his senses and her love marked his soul anew.
A soul that would not flee from happiness.
The dragon’s gift glowed softly between them, a silver-white beacon of their lost love reborn. They had both sacrificed greatly. Maybe too much, maybe not enough, but that was neither here nor there, for Angel had had an epiphany standing in that graveyard in Los Angeles, the dragon medallion humming in his hand.
He’d suffered for his past and had made them both suffer for a future that was never certain. Angel had forfeited his humanity to the Powers in ordered to save Buffy, but she had died anyway. Sure, Willow had brought her back but would she have died in the first place if he had been with her. Angel couldn’t say, and that was the point. If the past was never absolute in their world, then how could the future be?
So, with the dragon’s gift around his neck and the battle against Wolfram and Hart temporarily won, Angel had sought Buffy out, finding her in the picturesque Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy. She was traveling with Dawn and Willow, making their way to Paris to meet up with Giles, Xander, and the remaining Potentials, when he had spotted her making her way to some internet coffee bar.
Angel might have said it was destiny that they met again over coffee, but he’d given up believing in destinies and prophesies. He believed in Buffy and that spark in her eyes, the one that she couldn’t conceal fast enough behind her protective mask. He believed he should kiss her and he did, much like he had done on the boardwalk during the day that never was.
The past was the past. He would fight, not for the hope of redemption because that was out of his hand and in the realm of the future, but because it was the right thing to do. And he would do it side by side with Buffy facing whatever the future might bring them. The here and now of it, that was all that was certain, and it was all that either one of the asked and more than they had ever dared to hope.