S is for "Self-Esteem"
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For my best bud and partner in crime, Maquis Leader. I'm so sorry you're feeling down! I hope this cheers you up a little.
Timeline – Just after the climactic fight scene in Smile Time.
* * * * * *
Angel kicked aside some of the stuffing that littered the ground as he made his way to Gunn. The human employees of the station were still moving slowly and unseeingly, going about their tasks as though it were a normal day.
"You okay?" he asked Gunn, who was staring at one of the cameramen.
Gunn shuddered. "Gives me the damn creeps, that's all. Come on, let's go find Wes and Fred and get the hell out of here."
Before Angel could reply, there was a rumble and an explosion that shook the building. Angel and Gunn ducked as dust rained down on them.
"What the hell was that?" Angel exclaimed, straightening up. "Fred! Wes!" he called, dashing down the hallway toward the hidden room he'd found on his first trip to the station.
Gunn began to follow, but he stopped and glanced around at the camera crew and other station employees, who were groaning and shaking their heads as they came out of whatever spell they'd been under.
"Oh my God!" one of the women gasped, gaping at the wreckage of the set. "What's going on?" She glanced at Gunn. "What happened here? Who are you?"
"Um... be right back," he told her, backing down the hallway Angel had run down. "Angel! Fred! Wes!"
He followed the voices of his friends into the bowels of the building. Angel sounded agitated, and that was never good.
" – so it's gone."
"Yes, it does appear as if the structure... or device, or being... the demons were using as a life force repository is – "
"So why haven't I changed back?"
"Angel – "
"Why am I still a freaking puppet?!" he bellowed, and Gunn slipped into the room just in time to see him stamp his little felt foot. He barely stifled his laughter, coughing into his hand.
Angel turned to glare at him, but when he shook his head and made a 'not me' gesture, Angel whipped back around to face Fred.
"Well?" he demanded.
Fred opened and closed her mouth a couple of times. "Maybe it'll take some time?" she asked, helplessly raising her hands. "We should probably get back to the lab so we can do some tests."
"That might be tough – " Gunn started, but Angel interrupted him, pointing a stubby finger at Fred.
"You said destroying the life... force... thing would change me back!"
"I said it should change you back – it's not like any of us have dealt with this kinda thing before, Angel!"
"Hey, guys, we got bigger problems," Gunn said.
Angel whirled around. "And what's that supposed to mean? Just because I'm small right now doesn't mean I can't still kick your ass. Just ask Spike!"
"I didn't mean it like that," Gunn said, bridling. "I just meant that the employees are awake."
"Uh oh," Fred said with a frown. "How are we gonna get out of here?"
Wesley picked up his satchel. "Perhaps they're still confused enough from their ordeal that we can simply slip past them."
"Who are you people?" A voice came from behind them, and they all spun around. A middle-aged guy in a sweater vest with a headset on was staring at them. "What's going on around here?" He stepped closer, peering at Angel. "Did he... talk? Is he moving? By himself?"
Angel glanced at Wes and then went limp, falling to the ground. Fred quickly picked him up, cradling him in her arms as Gunn grabbed Angel's sword. Angel's group began advancing down the hallway, backing the man away from the hidden room.
"I think you may still be a little disorientated," Wesley told him, his voice dripping with concern. "It was a horrible ordeal, wasn't it?"
The man's look of confusion grew. "I don't remember... what's happened? I..."
He stumbled over some debris in the dark hallway and Gunn reached out and grabbed his arm to steady him. "It's okay, sir," he said soothingly. "Everything will be okay now..."
They walked in silence, the man still confused and all three of them thinking furiously about what to say and how to get themselves out of the building. Angel twitched in Fred's arms, clearly not enjoying having to stay motionless.
"I'm... I'm not quite sure how to explain it," Wesley hedged. "It seems that – "
He was interrupted by a bloodcurdling scream. The man jumped and gasped and the other three all glanced worriedly at each other, swiftly moving back towards the main part of the station.
There was a crowd gathering around the door leading to Gregor Framkin's office, all talking in excited voices. The man who'd found them in the hidden room hurried to see what was going on, but Angel's friends hung back.
"What's going on?" Angel asked, his voice muffled against Fred's side.
She jumped, pushing his head away from her. "That tickles!"
Angel turned in her arms, straining to see over the heads of the station employees. "I can't see anything!"
"It's possible the puppets killed Framkin and left his body in his office."
"Tying up loose ends before the big finish?" Gunn asked, raising an eyebrow, and Wesley nodded.
"He might still be alive – we should go see if we can help him," Angel said as he wriggled in Fred's grasp.
"Angel," she warned, struggling to keep hold of him. "I'm gonna drop you!"
"Fine with me! We should go help him! We need to know if – "
"Angel," Wes broke in. "It's highly unlikely the demons told him anything about your condition or how to resolve it. Our energy would best be spent attempting to leave without being detected. A talking puppet capable of independent motion is not going to be helpful in that."
Angel sighed dejectedly, his whole body seeming to deflate. "Fine," he growled, his face scrunched in an exaggerated scowl. "Get us out of here."
They slipped past the crowd and made it out of the station building without being noticed; the employees were all preoccupied by the grisly scene in Framkin's office. Several people were outside the building, obviously having gathered there after the explosion. They gave Fred strange looks for carrying what seemed to be a large plush toy, and when Angel instinctively flinched from the sunlight, throwing his hands up to avoid it, there were a few gasps.
"See, Angel," Fred whispered, picking up her pace. "We wouldn't have been able to get out of here if that thing had changed you back!"
"Don't wanna be a puppet, Fred!" Angel growled out through pursed lips. "The sunshine does feel nice, but it's really not worth being made of felt."
"We'll figure it out, Angel," Wesley said as the reached the car.
Wesley and Gunn slipped into the front seat while Fred slid into the back, still cradling Angel. As soon as she closed the car door, he began squirming again.
"Let me go! God, your hands are cold."
Gunn snorted. "I don't think you need to be talkin' bout anyone's cold hands, man."
"What are you doing?" Angel asked as Fred reached over him to buckle him in.
"I'm putting on your seatbelt – wouldn't want you to – hey!" She pulled her hand back, rubbing it where he'd smacked her.
"I can do it, Fred. I'm a puppet, not an infant! Okay, does that sound really weird to anyone else?" Angel struggled to buckle the belt with his uncoordinated cloth hands.
She smiled apologetically. "Sorry... you're just so – "
"Don't say it!" he growled, pointing at her again.
" – Cute!"
Slumping in his seat, Angel sighed despondently. After a moment spent staring out the window and sulking, he looked down and picked some lint off his shirt.
Fred reached over and pulled some out of his hair. "You're a mess."
"Need a shower."
Gunn laughed. "Might not be a good idea... you'd be so waterlogged! Wonder if you're machine washable."
"What?" he yelped.
"He'd take forever to dry," Wes added.
"We could try the dryer," Fred suggested. "Low heat, less chance of shrinking that way – "
"Everybody shut up!" Angel yelled, waving his hands in the air. "I am not machine washable, and you are not putting me in the dryer!"
"It was just a suggestion, Angel."
"Well, it was a stupid one! Forget it!"
There was a moment of tense silence, and then Angel said, "Okay, so the life... force..."
"Repository," Wes supplied.
"Yes, thank you – I knew that! Life force repository is destroyed. Hopefully it had more of an effect on bringing the kids out of their comas than it did on turning me back to me."
Wes was concentrating on changing lanes in the snarled LA traffic, but he glanced over his shoulder and told Angel, "As soon as we return to the office, we'll make some calls and find out how the children are doing."
"I'll see what's up with the contract, see if there's any repercussions that might come back to bite us in the ass. I've seen enough demon puppets to last me a very long time." He felt the weight of Angel's stare and turned around in his seat. "Um... present company excluded. No offense."
"None taken," Angel said sullenly.
"I wonder..." Wes said after a moment. "Were they demon puppets... or puppet demons? Demons who took the shape and form of puppets when they were called forth? Or perhaps demons who are puppets? From a dimenson where all demons look like puppets? Or where all puppets are demons?"
The car was silent, and he glanced around. "Sorry. Just thinking out loud."
"Would definitely explain Chucky," Gunn mused.
"And Talky Tina," Angel added. When the others stared at him in confusion, he prompted, "Twilight Zone. The original? Black and white?"
There was still no reply, and he sank back against the seats. "God, I'm old."
Fred reached out to pat him on the hand, but ultimately decided against it, tucking her hand back against her side. "We'll... um... you and I can go to the lab, Angel. Figure out how to fix this." She eyed him, contemplating what she'd need. "Let's see... a full spectrum photoanalysis – "
"Angel – "
"No pictures, Fred." Angel glared sternly at her, but it had zero effect in his current form.
"Angel, they're for tests – you do want to figure out how we can change you back, don't you?"
"Yeah, but pictures? They'll be on the walls in the break rooms in like ten minutes!"
"We'll let you burn them when we're done, if you want." she promised him.
He growled in dismay, crossing his stumpy arms over his chest. "Fine."
* * * * * *
Angel sat on the edge of an examination table in Fred's lab, swinging his legs back and forth as he waited for her to return. He'd been poked, prodded, x-rayed, and photographed for more than two hours, and now he was waiting for the results.
"Self-esteem is for everybody," he sang under his breath, and then he groaned. "Oh, dammit, it's in my head! If those freaking puppets weren't already dead, they'd be in for some serious hurt!"
He drummed his fingertips on the metal surface of the table, but the muted sound it made only worsened his mood.
"Fred!" he yelled.
She stuck her head into the room. "You need something, Angel?"
"How long is this gonna take?"
She shrugged as she came into the room, a large manila envelope in her hands. "I don't know, Angel, might take all day. We could be here all night."
"Anything I can help with?"
She stared at his four-fingered hands. "Probably not. Why don't you go get some rest? You've been busy for a few days, no chance to sleep, we all have – do you even need sleep?"
Her question was answered as Angel gave a huge yawn. Fred would have been able to see all the way to the back of his throat, if he'd had one. She did her best to hide her smile, but he saw it.
"Don't say it," he said wearily.
"I won't," she promised. She handed him the envelope. "Go get some sleep or something, and here – take these. It's all the pictures; we're done with them."
"And?" The look he gave her was hopeful, but his brow furrowed in despair when she shook her head.
"Nothing there. But we're still working on some of the other tests."
Angel sighed as he jumped off the table. "Fine. I'll be in my office. Call me if you find something."
"Will do," she told him, trying to stifle her own yawn. Angel noticed, of course.
"You don't have to work all night," he said grudgingly after a moment.
Fred smiled tiredly. "I can always sleep afterward. See ya, Angel."
Angel trudged slowly through the building, ignoring the stares he got from employees in the corridors. The staring bothered him – his jaw tightened and his fists clenched, one of them slightly crumpling the envelope he held – but he forced himself to ignore it.
"So much for authority and respect," he muttered.
When he heard a muted snicker behind him, the dam burst.
"That's it," he snarled as he whirled around. There were several young men in very expensive suits staring at him, not bothering very hard to hide their laughter. "If you value your life and your health, or even your job, you'd better get your asses out of my sight and hope I don't find out your names."
His voice shook with rage, and their laughter disappeared as they realized how serious he was.
"Yes, sir," one of them said quickly, and they hurried down the hall.
"Still got it," Angel said as his fists unclenched. He stood a little straighter and strode down the hall as fast as his tiny legs could carry him.
He pushed open the door to his office, yelping when a bright flash went off in his eyes.
There was another, and another, and he shielded his eyes. "What the hell?"
Familiar – and unwelcome – laughter filled the room.
"Say cheese, mate."
The blonde vampire sat on the couch, a camera in his hands. "'lo, Pinocchio."
"Gimme that camera!" Angel lunged for him and Spike scrambled to his feet, holding the camera to his chest.
"Uh, no. No chance in hell I'm letting this go by without having some proof. This one I'm never letting you forget." He held the camera over his head as Angel leapt for it. "Come on, Angel. If you can get it, it's yours."
Angel's face contorted with fury. He knew that he could reach it if he wanted to – that wasn't the point. With a primal yell, he kicked Spike in the knee as hard as he could.
Spike bellowed in pain, dropping the camera neatly into Angel's hands as he doubled over, clutching at his knee. "Bloody hell! That hurt, you little git!"
He jumped at Angel and the two of them went down in a tangled heap, rolling around on the floor and crashing into furniture.
"Didn't we already do this?" Angel grunted, punching Spike repeatedly in the nose. "I kicked your ass, if I recall."
"I'm gonna rip your little arms off!" the other vampire snarled.
"Try it," Angel growled, shifting into gameface.
Spike's eyes widened as he burst into laughter, all thoughts of battle instantly disappearing. "Oh my God," he choked out. "You look absolutely ridiculous!"
Angel flopped onto the floor on his back, his gameface sliding away. "Shut up, Spike."
"What's this?" Spike grabbed the envelope and began to open it.
"Hey! Don't!" Angel sat up, but Spike held the envelope out of his reach. Pictures slid out and rained down around them. Pictures of Angel in all his puppet glory, from every angle.
Spike laughed and snatched at them. "These'll do!"
Grabbing the pictures back, Angel headbutted him so hard that he fell backward, his head bouncing off the carpet.
"I've had enough of you," Spike spat, grabbing Angel by the head as he leapt to his feet.
"Hey! Not the hair! Ow!"
Spike held him off the floor and dangled him at arm's length, laughing as Angel swung, helpless, feet kicking ineffectually.
"Spike! Put. Me. Down!"
Reaching up, Angel only just managed to grab onto Spike's arms. With no fingernails, his felt fingers slipped and slid over Spike's coat, scrabbling uselessly at the leather. He began to swing, building up momentum.
"Now what ya gonna do, wee puppet man?"
Using the momentum he'd built, Angel swung his legs up and wrapped them around Spike's neck. A quick twist and flip, and Spike went flying across the room to slam into the door, letting Angel go in the process. He landed on his feet, unlike Spike, who lay dazed in the doorway.
Angel scurried over and kicked him the rest of the way out of the office, slamming the door shut behind him.
"And stay out," he muttered, gathering the pictures up off the floor. Catching sight of one of the pictures, he frowned.
"God," he groaned. "Look at me... this better wear off soon!"
He studied the pictures. In all of them, his face – absurdly exaggerated and clownish as it was – looked drawn, angry, sullen.
"Not only am I a puppet, I'm a grumpy puppet."
Angel thought of the way he'd snapped at his friends, who were trying so hard to fix this for him, and he sat down on the carpet, ashamed, the pictures cradled in his lap. He looked down at his hands, flexing the ridiculous fingers. Bunching one hand into a little fist, he stared at it with a dejected sigh.
His frown slowly disappeared as he remembered what he'd done to Spike – twice – and the demon puppets who'd done this to him.
"It's not so bad, I guess... I can still scare the employees – and kick ass. Very handy at the asskicking. Whole element of surprise thing. So, it could be worse. Just have to think positively."
Collecting up the pictures and the camera, he headed for the elevator. "So, I'll be the picture of positive puppet thought – for the rest of today. Maybe even all of tonight. But tomorrow, this had better be gone, or someone's losing limbs!"
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