THE LIFE CYCLE OF THE CRACKING MOSH TOAD (fragor beelzebufo), by A.C.E. Jenkins. by kalima [Reviews - 9] |
Written for dettiot Prompt 1: Ten and Anya in a bar, post
-Doomsday/post-Hells Bells, commiserating on their problems and discovering that Pete's World is the world without shrimp. The idea for Anya’s business venture comes from a BtVS spec script outline written a zillion years ago. Many thanks to willowgreen for the quick and dirty beta. Obviously, familiarity with Buffy the Vampire Slayer will help the reader's enjoyment of this story.
Anya plucked another tissue from the yellow daisy Kleenex box and blew her nose - very loudly. The tissue joined an ostentatious pile of others on the table.
She wasn’t actually sick, wasn’t even subject to the billions of parasites, bacteria, and assorted viruses that attacked humans. Not anymore. She just wanted people to stay away.
She probably needn’t have bothered with the ruse of the cold. The Tic Toc Round the Clock Lounge was, apparently, where humans came to die, slowly, nursing a vodka tonic over the course of an afternoon at the video poker machines. Still, she wasn’t taking any chances.
In the days after the Wedding That Wasn’t, she’d come to dread any situation, place, or thing that necessitated speaking to strangers who might be tempted (for reasons they never quite understood at the time and usually couldn’t remember afterwards when it was far far too late) to open up to another complete stranger about their asshole jerk of an ex (who, she was certain, couldn’t possibly compete with the jerk who’d ripped the still-beating heart from her then-human breast and stomped on it with his stupid human two left feet before kicking it under a moving bus to be smashed as flat as a cartoon character under one of those … flattening things they always had in cartoons). If the complete strangers talked about “love gone wrong” she was contractually obligated to do something about it. And face it, most people, human or otherwise, didn’t have a lot of imagination when it came to vengeance.
“I wish he was dead!” gave her exactly zip to work with. How dead? Fried or pickled? How many pieces of him should be left, if any? She’d have to coax and cajole and practically write the scenario herself, and frankly, she was beginning to feel that her creativity could be put to better use. The vengeance business was not as fulfilling as it once had been. Not that she could say that out loud. D’Hoffryn had eyes everywhere. She was sure she’d seen one hovering around the Michelob sign.
Through her time at the Magic Box, Anya had discovered that she preferred, by far, the energetic distraction of enterprise. And after all she’d been through lately, commerce was her balm of Gilead, her blankie, her afternoon in bed with ice cream and soap operas all rolled into one. It was, if not better than the very best sex, at least on par with really good sex. She was full to bursting with ideas for how to turn a profit into even more profit. Whereas, when it came to serving up vengeance for wronged women that weren’t her, she often drew a blank.
She used to say (in all seriousness and a trifle sanctimoniously, she’d admit) that vengeance was its own reward. But real vengeance was waving your filthy rich happiness under the nose of your puffy-faced, dog-sorry, hung-over ex.
And to that end she was sat in a dimly lit back booth in a dark corner near the restrooms of The Tic Toc Round the Clock Lounge pretending to have a nasty viral infection so the lovelorn would stay the hell away. On the seat next to her, a laptop, a green plastic file folder labeled “Prospectus” and a canvas tote with the screen-printed logo of her latest venture — Demon Energy Water — ready to be presented to her potential partner(s).
Demon Energy Water was only the beginning of a glorious sports nutrition empire. No one else was doing demon glandular extractions, but what with all the increase in multi-dimensional activity she couldn’t afford to wait. She had an entire line of Demon Energy products planned — bars, powder mixes — plus endorsements from sports celebrities. The endorsements were still in the planning stages, but what semi-attractive young golf pro or basketball player currently promoting underwear wouldn’t jump at the chance?
She licked a bit of sugar from the rim of her glass (lemon drop martini, yum!) and considered. If the harvest of key ingredients worked out, then the next step was a good outsource for manufacture. She wouldn’t even have to go through demon channels for that. And she could totally handle sales and distribution from the Magic Box in the beginning. Why, in under a year she could find herself the next darling of the Home Shopping Network.
The door opened and a couple of people at the poker machines raised feeble arms to ward off potential killing rays — which was just sad as they weren’t even vampires. There, in the ironic glare of Sunnydale’s sunniest sunshine, stood a total eclipse of a man. Anya could almost hear the accompanying soundtrack as he gazed upon this wild, uncharted territory. Tall and thin, and coifed in a way designed to make you think he’d just rolled out of bed, he embodied the kind of rakish self-assurance that only someone not born and raised in Sunnydale could get away with. If this was her contact, he was wearing a fabulous designer illusion.
A dilettante, she reckoned. And a little bit foxy.
No sooner had she thought that thought then his head swiveled like an owl’s. He flashed very white teeth in a lightning grin and, with hands in trouser pockets, strolled her direction.
One hand flew to her hair of its own accord while the other got busy sweeping the mountain of Kleenex onto the floor beneath her feet.
He slipped into the seat across from her, propped his elbows on the table top and his chin in his cupped hands. He suddenly looked terribly fey. Or possibly, gay.
“Hello. You must be my appointment with destiny.” Oh god, and English too, she thought. Actual words seemed incapable of leaving the gaping maw she called a mouth. He frowned, a little uncertainly. “You are a beautiful woman in the last booth near the back, aren’t you?”
“Oh, yes!” she managed to squeak. She straightened her shoulders with a little shimmy and held out her hand. “Absolutely. Demon actually. Anyanka. You must be Mack.”
He unfolded his arms in a sinuous, almost lazy fashion and shook the offered hand. “Yes, I suppose I must be.” His flesh was cool and dry as talcum powder. “I ought to be if I want to pull this off. But … I can’t tell a lie. Well, that’s not true. I can. Have done. Boy, have I. Whoo. Told some whoppers in my time, but I won’t just now because you look like a nice enough demon, and it’s possible you had no clue what you were getting into—“
He stopped and fixed her with a look of such grave hope and weary pessimism that she felt petty and small and unworthy and she didn’t like it, not one bit. The skin around his eyes crinkled as if he were about to smile. He sucked in a hiss of regret between his teeth. The words that followed were like air released from a balloon.
“See, thing is, your fellow won’t be joining you today. He ran into a bit of a traffic … well, more like a bit of traffic ran into him, or, more specifically, a Chevy Tahoe. Terrible tragedy. I could have gone after him, I suppose, but it was the middle of rush hour on the Interstate. What am I, a Glarghk Guhl Kashma’nik? I mean, come on!”
“You do know his name’s not really Mack, right? Also, not precisely a ‘he’ and yes, a little bit. Dead. Sorry.”
“You killed my potential business partner?”
“Of course not! I didn’t force him to jump the barrier, did I? And I tried to warn him. ‘Hey, buddy,’ I said, ‘stop,’ I said, or maybe, ‘look out for those cars,’ something like that, words to that effect anyway, but did he listen? He did not. Well, all right, no, he couldn’t listen on account of him being Rwasundi and not exactly having ears.”
He paused - not, she suspected, because he needed to breathe — and tugged an earlobe. “Fascinating species, the Rwasundi. They’ve got excitable tachyons where you and I have noses. It’s the most rudimentary of time manipulation, probably developed ages ago as a way to escape predators. Or to catch fish. Anyway, I assumed, as would anyone familiar with the Rwasundi, that there’d be a quantum shift long before the truck hit. Funny that. About assumptions. Not funny ha ha. Just funny ironic. I’m the Doctor by the way. Lord of Time. Pleased to meet you.”
“Doctor? Who? Lord of what?”
“Or Doctor What, lord of who.” He chuckled for a moment before noticing her lack of amusement. “It would be funny if you knew me better.” His rubbery lips formed into a serious moue, and he folded his hands on the table. “Anyanka - may I call you Anyanka? Here’s the thing. I really really can’t allow you to harvest the glandular secretions of the cracking mosh toad. Mosh toads happen to be an endangered species on Flox–”
“They’re not endangered yet,” she said. A little too quickly. Which he noticed. “That is to say, I would never harvest ingredients from an endangered species. I’ve done my research.” She fumbled in the file folder for the scholarly papers that would substantiate her claims. “Studies indicate that with sustainable practices the cracking mosh toad will be cracking and moshing for countless eons to come — “
No need to mention she’d solicited a Rwasundi business partner so that the mosh toad’s glandular secretions could be harvested before it became an endangered species.
He didn’t even glance at the sheaf of papers she thrust at him, but kept his gaze steadily, unrelentingly on her face. He blinked once. Twice. “It becomes endangered because of you.” Great. He read minds too. “Endangered because of you and a drink that makes the human race just a little bit superhuman. Ten years from now, every sports team franchise on the planet is bankrupted. Who wants to work in a factory making fancy trainers when they can run barefoot over hot rocks for hours with no ill effects? No one, that’s who. Industries falter, the global economy is in chaos. All well and good, except for the fact that your sports beverage also manages to destroy an entire eco-system on an entirely different planet.
“Out of desperation the Floxian government has asked me to intervene. The situation is now so critical that it can only be halted retroactively. I’ve traced it to the source and the source, Anyanka, is you. So here I am getting retroactive on your arse.”
He paused. “Did that sound anything like Stallone?”
“Not in the least.”
“I am such crap at American accents! You’d think I’d be pitch-perfect, wouldn’t you? I mean, considering? Seriously, by all accounts, you should be hearing everything I say in a perfectly nuanced early 21st century SoCal dialect right now.” He collapsed dramatically against the banquette with a sigh of disgust. A moment later, he rallied. “Ah well, I suppose it’s one of the subtleties my TARDIS can’t quite manage, dozy old thing.”
TARDIS. That rang a very loud bell. “I’m sorry. Who and what did you say you were again?”
“I’m the Doctor. Time Lord.”
She stared at him amazed. “Wow.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot.”
“No. I mean, wow. Seriously. You’ve got a lot of balls.”
He blushed and mumbled, “Just the usual amount, I’m sure.”
“Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but…” She leaned forward, and he tilted his head a bit to catch her whisper, “you don’t exist.”
“I know! That’s what makes my being here so much fun. Occasionally. Sometimes. Actually, I’m not having much fun at all lately. Don’t know why I keep lying about it.”
“Because you’re pathological?” Anya offered. She didn’t give him a chance to deny it. “Look. I get it, all right? The jig appears to be up. Okay. Fine.” She gulped down the rest of her drink, and began to gather her laptop, promotional tote bag, folders, power point presentations, projected sales, colorful pie charts and graphs, stoking her outrage so she wouldn’t burst into tears. “You want the action all to yourself, go ahead, flush my hopes and dreams down the toilet. I’m not in a position to stop you, but don’t insult my intelligence.”
“I can assure you,” he said, “I don’t want any part of this action, and I don’t recall insulting your intelligence in the slightest. On the contrary, I’ve developed a deep respect for your … business acumen.”
“Oh please! I wasn’t born yesterday--”
“Or even the day before yesterday.”
She slapped the table top. “Stop! Stop being glib! I have had it up to here with glibness, flippancy, and the excessive use of post-modern irony!”
“I happen to know that Time Lords don’t exist, okay? Gone the way of the dodo and the cracking mosh toad. It was all the talk in Arashmahaar a few years back. Rifts in the continuum suddenly appearing. Gateways to dimensions thrown open all over the place, worlds without shrimp — a freaking dirigible crashed into the executive abattoir! Everyone was buzzing about opportunities for advancement and conquest. Because no more Time Lords lording it over the rest of the universe, or the many dimensions of hell, or the circles, levels, and transcendent states of being therein. Blew themselves clean out of temporal continuity. Ding Dong the witch is dead. Except we replaced the word ‘witch’ with ‘arrogant assholes who think they’re better than us.’ There were lots of theme parties as I recall.”
His face, a mask of reserve for most of her speech, perked right up at the mention of parties.
“Really? Did people dress up like me? Because I know it should be flattering, but I find it all a bit – wait, there wasn’t any sort of … scritching going on, was there?”
“Could you be any more self-involved?”
“Well, I am the last of my kind.”
“Only if you pulled the cosmic trigger,” she said. “So, either you don’t exist, or you’re a lying murderer.”
“No reason I can’t be both,” he said. And the way he said it — careful, quiet, each word like a step onto a frozen lake. She could hear the sonorous cracking of the ice just under the surface. One more step and the cold would swallow them both. If she’d had breath to scream she might have.
“Aaaanyway … ” he sighed, stretching the word out forever, the longest segue in the history of segues. His mouth twitched a smile of sorts. “It takes one to know one, Miss Anya Christina Emanuella Jenkins, born on the fourth of Ju-liar.”
“That’s not fair!” she cried. “I was forced to create an identity to avoid persecution. I had to survive, live a life as a human for years. You’ve got no idea what that’s like–“
"It’s hard, and very messy.”
“Messy. Disgusting. I thought I’d never get used to it again. Urination, menstruation, defecation, copulation–“
“Oh, everyone says that makes up for the rest, but that’s only because the pleasurable sensations make you forget how messy it is until you’re lying in a clammy puddle of it. I mean, ejaculation? Hello? And have you ever witnessed childbirth? That’s like every disgusting messy human thing in one painful eighteen hour ordeal.”
“Sore feet, mucous gumming up the works, fragile bones, itchy skin, coughing, pissing, shitting, dying— why? What for? Love doesn’t change any of that. Love just makes it … makes it …”
It seemed, in that moment, that her heart completely forgot it wasn’t a human heart anymore, and that it had no damned business being stuck in her throat, choking her like that. The vengeance demon shortly known as Anya Christina Emanuella Jenkins, burst into tears, sobbing out the pieces of her broken heart. Pieces she was quite certain had already been cried out of her half a dozen times already.
Mortified, she ducked under the table to retrieve a Kleenex. They were all dirty, of course, either stuck to the floor or shredded by the heels of her shoes. A fresh crop of tears at the indignity of it all kept her under the table for another minute. When she finally reappeared he was holding out a clean white handkerchief; a very nice one made of something softer than cotton and lustrous like silk but, she suspected, not from Earth.
His face, likewise not native to Earth, was wide open, ancient and childlike, eyes a little misty, lips hovering between compassionate, beatific regard and a grimace of empathy.
“Thank you,” she said, blowing her nose for real this time and mopping her eyes. “You’re kinder than most lying murderers I’ve met.”
“High praise, I’m certain.”
“I don’t suppose I could talk you into a partnership, perhaps sixty/forty? With your knowledge of the future impact on the Floxian environment and my business acumen I’m sure we could find a way for everyone to come out a winner.”
“I’m sorry, Anya, but everyone coming out a winner is part of the problem. The matter of super humans and all the shenanigans they’ll get up to. I’ve saved the 2012 Olympics once already. Don’t see why I should have to do it again. I am sorry, but I really, very seriously, can’t allow it.”
“Well, la di da. You must be the genuine article, because you’ve got the arrogance part down pat.”
“It’s not arrogance,” he said wearily, “I just know how things are supposed to be in this case. It’s a curse, not some kind of godhood.” He gave a short bitter laugh. “If I were a god I’d do a lot of things differently, believe me. I’d make sure the Daleks were completely eradicated the first time round then I’d open a hole in the space-time continuum, reach through and bring her back to me. The universe could go hang--”
He drew in a sharp breath and shot her a look — guilty, horrified, but it was too late. She’d seen it, the germ of his desire, the flame she could fan into inferno. The aspect of the demon descended upon her, covering the human she’d once been like a mask of stone.
“You need only wish it and so it will be.” Her voice was a fingernail drawn across the tight skin of a drum, a humming vibration just beneath the words that seeped into the deepest recesses of the psyche. “Ultimate vengeance upon your enemies.”
“Stop. I don’t want–”
“But you do. I see it. And how could you not? You must have so many dreams of vengeance when you’re lying in your bed. Alone. Thinking on all you’ve lost. All your – oh, oh all of your children! All your mothers, fathers, cousins, friends … and … lovers. How sad. How tragic. You’ve done so much for the Universe. It isn’t fair.”
“Just wish, wish, and —“ She snatched something out of the ether and closed her fingers around it, the bars of a cage– “all your enemies trapped in amber–” Her fingers unfurled and a ghostly flower blossomed in the air– “all your loves set free–”
Anyanka, the demon, rasped out an ecstatic laugh. “Rose. Rose the light, the burning great Destroyer, and you, the darkness, the animating Force, united, and through your union the Universe shall be Uncreated and Created and Uncreated and Created and — and — and — OH!”
“Just keep your head between your knees,” a calm quiet voice urged her. “Good girl. There you go–“
A wad of wet paper towels was placed on the back of her neck. Self-awareness oozed into her bones, until at last she felt a bit more solid. She patted her face to be sure. No ridges or excess vein-iness—
Panic promptly set in.
“Oh my god, did I faint? Oh my god, did anyone see me?”
“Well, I did–“
“Someone important! Did you see any eyeballs floating around? Maybe a wisp of smoke that smelled like poo?”
“Floating eyeballs? Nooo… As for the wisp of smoke, hard to say, we’re awfully near the loo, but no. No I don’t think so.” He patted her reassuringly. “No one here but us chickens. And the bartender. His name is Bob. Oh, and Marty, Mrs. Chin, and Nola Ruiz on Jacks or Better, Texas Fold ’em, and Deuces Wild respectively.” He waved in the direction of the gamblers and they sort of waved back, although without actually looking up from the screens. “No one saw you fail to trap me into wishing for the utter destruction of the Universe and its outlying areas if that’s what you’re worried about.”
She put her face in her hands and wailed, “You’ve ruined everything and-and-and ruined everything. I was going to buy my way out of my contract.”
“With money?” She gave him a ‘well, duh’ look, and he quickly amended, “I mean, money’s not exactly the preferred currency of Arashmahaar, is it?”
“No, but I could afford to go part time that way. More of a sideline, and not so much a calling. I’m no good at it anymore. Obviously.”
“Oh you shouldn’t take your failure with me as an indication of your skill or qualifications. I’d count that in the ‘self-preservation trumps all’ category, if I were you.”
She heaved a sigh. “Eventually I’d hoped to buy a dilapidated villa under the Tuscan sun.”
“Money isn’t going to help you out of this, Anya, and you know it.”
“Don’t you understand? I made a mistake!” She caught her breath, looked around anxiously. Voice pitched to a desperate whisper she repeated the horrible truth. “I made a mistake.”
“You were vulnerable and in pain. They took advantage of you. That’s what they do. It was coercion. You could contest the contract–“
“That’s not how it works, Doctor. Besides, it’s more than that. It’s me. I don’t know how to be anymore. Not demon. Not human. I don’t have any friends. I thought I did, but … but I make everyone uncomfortable — ‘ooh, that Anya, she’s so literal and off-putting and she won’t stop crying–‘“
“Marty and Mrs. Chin don’t seem uncomfortable in the least.”
“They’re under a spell! The V2000 Poker Machine is designed expressly to siphon life energy into the San Andreas Fault!”
“Really? Buh. I’ll have to look into that.” A hurried pat-pat of various pockets resulted in a small notepad and pencil stub from inside his coat. “Poker machines, San Andreas Fault. Check it.”
Anya opted to examine the acoustic tiles on the ceiling instead of the floor between her knees. “I can’t believe I closed the Magic Box early and bought sexy new underwear for this.”
“Er… you did what now?”
She rolled her head and cast a baleful eye his direction. He was trying to comprehend something too horrifying to contemplate if the trenches in his forehead were any indication. “Oh for the love of Bob!” she cried. “My sexy new underwear has nothing to do with you. Geez! Paging Doctor Vain, emergency ego-dectomy stat. I wasn’t even expecting someone like you to show up if you’ll recall.”
“So… you purchased lingerie for the Rwasundi?” His eyebrows disappeared under his spiky fringe, but he hastened to add, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
As if she needed his tacit permission somehow. Males!
“It’s a perfectly viable negotiating tactic. I mean, who doesn’t feel more confident and powerful in red silk underwear?”
The deep furrows were instantly replaced with a grin that encompassed his entire body. “Oh, I like that! Yes. That’s a neat little twist on playing your cards close to the vest. Sensual intimidation. Brilliant! I’ll have to remember that the next time I’m face to face with a mad empress or a megalomaniacal bio-engineer. Or Bigfoot.”
She thought the bit about Bigfoot might be a joke so she chuckled. He joined her and they were merry for a half a second before the inevitable long uncomfortable pause set in.
“Yeah, well, you know, I suppose I should get back to the Magic Box.” She grabbed her laptop and pressed it tight to her chest with an arm of steel. As a seeming afterthought, she airily swept the tote bag (containing her business prospectus) from the seat and slung it over her shoulder. “Those quarterly reports don’t report themselves–“
“Right. Ri- ight. Yes, you probably ought to do that,” he said, trying like hell to pry her fingers from the cotton webbing. He tugged hard. “But, you see, the thing is…”
“Oh god. Not another ‘thing.’” She jerked her shoulders in a forceful shrug and tried to twist away from his grasp, and after that the grapple was on in earnest.
“’Fraid so,” he said between gritted teeth. “I’m going to have to, you know, destroy — ow, ow — all your notes, files, formulas, emails — no biting! — correspondence, hard copies, scribbles, doodles, faxes and photocopies concerning -- concerning Demon Energy Water - quit it, I mean it, I’m not fooling around here — Sports Beverage and–”
He did something sneaky using shifty no-fair time manipulation, so that suddenly she was on the opposite side of the table, tote bag and laptop wrested from the claws of her hands– “You might experience a slight headache in a few hours. Sorry.”
“I need my laptop! It’s got my stock listings. And Quicken!”
“Not to worry.” He slammed the computer on the table, flipped it open and drew a pen from his breast pocket — no not a pen, some kind of high tech wand. “This will only target the files and information I’ve got flagged and tagged.” With an annoying theatrical flourish, he aimed the wand at the keyboard. A high-pitched squealing, whirring noise came out of the wand, and the bubble tip glowed blue. The LCD screen jumped nauseatingly. Suddenly images began to race and roll and skip and bounce too fast for her to catch even though it felt awfully like she was watching her life flash before her eyes. There was a puff and the screen went blue.
“Oops,” he said.
“What? What. Did. You. DO?” This last word was yelled in his ear. Her fingernails penetrated his coat sleeve like flesh seeking missiles.
“No, no, wait. I can fix this, really – I just need to — a little bit of — there, that’s got it. Right-o.”
“Welcome, you’ve got mail.”
“That’s from me,” he said, entirely too self-satisfied about it for his own good. “Don’t read it until I’m gone though.” Then he was.
“What? What? Wait–“
Gone, just like that, like he’d never been there. The punters at the poker machines were still entranced. Bob, the bartender still watching ESPN. She still had the laptop, but the tote bag with the cute logo on it and all her paperwork in it had gone with him.
Later, back at the Magic Box, she looked for her backup disks in the slot under the register drawer. Gone. The photocopies of documents related to Demon Energy she had stored in the safe, gone.
She logged on to Cafepress and, to her surprise, the logo design was still available. It was a clever design, even if there wasn’t a drink to go with it. In fact, the lack of an actual beverage called “Demon Energy Water” seemed to make the logo more appealing. Something to do with post-modern irony she supposed. She’d sold twenty eight bags and seven t-shirts in the last few hours.
She opened the email with trepidation and a strange sense of hope.
Subject: Hearts and heroes.
Date: error unspecified
From: The Doctor@TARDIS.co.uk
Can’t believe you’re still using AOL, LOL!
Even though I couldn’t let you build your Energy Drink Empire, I really loved the logo design. Hello Kitty meets Monster Toad! Cheeky. With luck, the proceeds might help fund a Tuscan holiday. Or at least keep you in stocks, bonds and Lemon Drop martinis for the duration.
BTW. Sunnydale might experience a bit of seismic activity, oh, say, soon-ish. Nothing to worry about. Just me cutting off the V2000’s life energy supply. Things should settle down after that. Sort of. Well, a bit. Or at least after a fashion in as much as they can. Do me a favour and check on Marty and Mrs. Chin for me. Ta.
Look. I know things seem bleak at the moment. I wish I could tell you it gets better quickly, but you, of all creatures, know that’s not often the case, especially when you live in Sunnydale on the Hellmouth where all happiness must be pried from the jaws of whatever’s trying to devour you on any given night. Just believe me on this one thing:
Anya Christina Emanuella Jenkins will be remembered, not because she was wealthy, but because she was terribly, terribly brave.