All About Spike - Print Version
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Who's Afraid of Red, White, Green
By LadyCat, Estepheia

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Monday, December 1, 2003

"Oh my god, it's so pretty! Can we keep it? Pretty please?" Harmony squeed, bouncing up and down and clapping her hands, oblivious to the incessant phone ringing that emanated from her deserted desk. Her enthusiasm was completely unbecoming for both a creature of the night and the assistant of the CEO of an evil multi-dimensional corporation.

"What the hell is that?" Angel asked, arms folded, craning his neck and squinting at the huge and dazzling object that had completely taken over the hallway outside his office.

The phone rang.

"Well, it's a Christmas-tree, boss," Harmony informed him in her best duh-voice, her pitying glance clearly saying 'don't you know anything?'

"I know what it is," Angel said with false patience. "What I want to know is, what's it doing in my lobby?"

The phone rang.

"Your lobby?" Spike said, drawn to the hot spot of bossy ire like a stray cat to a fish-monger's trashcan. He sauntered up to the older vampire, stopped right by Angel's side, arms folded in front of his chest—imitating Angel's posture—and studied the enormous pine tree before him. "Last thing I heard, your supreme sourness was just runnin' the place. Didn't know you owned it, too."

The phone rang.

Angel studiously ignored the blond annoyance, though the tangible aura of his displeasure went up a notch. "Harm. The phone?"

"Oops. My bad. Sorry, boss." She scurried back to her desk to answer the phone and hopefully to mix him his morning blood.

Angel scanned the room full of the Monday morning crowd of briefcase-carrying lawyers, secretaries, scientists, and security guards who had stopped on their way to their offices and labs and were now lingering in the lobby, gaping at the huge tree in various stages of incredulity and unease.

The pine tree was enormous, more than twenty feet high. Its evergreen branches laden with red and white striped candy canes, red ribbons, glitter balls, and tinsel in silver and gold. Ornaments added a carefully orchestrated wave of color, warm gingerbread-men and the cold, clean line of snowflakes keeping the eye from being overwhelmed. Hundreds of burning candles, real ones from the smell of it, flickered slightly whenever the elevator doors opened to admit more W&H employees. Fake snow covered the floor around the tree and something sparkling amongst the whiteness hinted at the presents a tree like this invariably represented. A strong scent of resin, beeswax, oranges, gingerbread, with a hint of moist, dark earth filled the lobby.

Beside Angel, Spike was greedily breathing in the mixture of scents. His obvious zest didn't exactly improve Angel's mood. "Lorne!" Angel yelled.

"Let me guess, you think it looks a bit bare without entrails and such," Spike commented, sarcasm tinged with just a hint of pettiness. Gesturing towards the crowd of suits he added, loud enough for everyone to hear: "You could eviscerate a few of your law-thumpers here, string 'em up, like you used to. Would make the rest of 'em feel right comfy and nostalgic, I bet. Plus they'd work their evil little asses off, so as not to be next on the chopping block. "

There was a hush and all eyes turned to Spike. Several people turned a whiter shade of pale.

Angel shot him a withering glance. "He's kidding," he barked into the nervous silence.

Spike smiled evilly.

"Angelcakes," a cheerful voice could be heard, and then the green-skinned demon barged through the crowd, two stressed looking personal aides trundling in his wake frantically balancing cell phones, writing pads, and a dozen mail order catalogues.

"Isn't it ab-so-lute-ly gorgeous?" Lorne exclaimed, beaming with pride. His blindingly red and white suit had obviously been picked to match the candy canes on the tree, and the lapel of his jacket boasted a twig of mistletoe. "Best pine to be had, flown in especially from Canada, no expense spared, and we didn't even chop it down. See that Italian terracotta pot? Roots still intact. Once Christmas is over this fantabulous puppy will walk free."

"Not literally, I hope," Angel said with a frown. He was about to say more but was interrupted by Fred's arrival.

"Oh Lorne, it's absolutely beautiful!" she exclaimed, taking her time to admire it.

"You do realize this is the first time we've ever had a Christmas tree in this building, right?" Knox told her quietly, but loud enough for the two vampires and the Pylean to make out his words.

"Really?" Fred asked him, "but I mean, how can people not celebrate Christmas? It's like the best time of the year, right? What with the cookies, and all the nice smells, and the eggnog. Who'd want to miss out on all that?"

"The whole birth of the savior thing? The firm wasn't really big with the 'saving' theme," Knox explained, grinning ruefully. "But you know, it does kinda spell 'Under new management,' so yeah, I guess it's cool. I'm sure it will be lots of, you know, fun, once we all get used to it."

"You'll see, by the time it's Christmas Eve you'll all be full of anticipation, just like the rest of us, Knoxy, and hanging your stocking from that umpah-umpah machine."

"Yeah, you're probably right. Anyway, I'll be in the lab." With a cheerful wave and a nod towards Angel and the other members of the new management, the scientist headed for the elevator.

Meanwhile, Lorne seemed to take Angel's prolonged silence as complete approval, and he continued babbling about all the things he had planned, including several parties that the bossman was expected to attend.

Wesley approached cautiously when he noticed the congestion in the lobby, looking from tree, to Angel, and finally to Lorne. "It is rather festive," he commented slowly, feeling out each word before speaking it. "You did say you wanted something, um… upbeat, Angel, didn't you?"

Angel's frown deepened.

"Lorne, can I talk to you for a moment?" he said, gesturing towards his office. "Now?"

"Well, I guess Cameron, Drew, and Lucy can wait. Let me just postpone my breakfast appointment and then I'm all yours, oh bossy one." Lorne dismissed his two aides with a string of rapid instructions, before following Angel to his office.

Spike was the first to shrug and swagger after them, thumbs hooked into the waistband of his pants. Fred and Wesley exchanged a glance and silently tagged along as one.

"I don't remember asking you, Spike," Angel said, a sour look on his face.

"Wanna sue me for takin' an interest?"

Angel sighed. But he waited until Wesley had closed the door, before addressing Lorne: "So, what's with the tree, Lorne?"

"It's my little drop of white paint, muffin."

Definitely not the response any of them had expected. "Your what?"

"Well you know what they say, sweetcakes, there's black and there's white, but add just one drop of white to the black and it will be forever gray. The tree, the parties, the sweet anticipation of presents galore are my drop of white, and I'm going to make it as big a splash as possible."

Lorne rubbed his hands, oozing determination and a busier than thou vibe. Nobody present had the heart to burst his bubble.

"See," he beamed, again deciding silence was approval, "I knew you'd see my point. And now, my precious, you'll have to excuse me, because the lovely Ms. Barrymore and I are supposed to discuss cameos for Viggo and Elijah in part three, and if I'm very, very lucky I might even get her signature on this itty bitty contract here, which could turn this hot local band I came across, Dingoes something or other, into another Evanescence caliber success. Remember Daredevil? Think bigger. Toodles!"

And with that he swept out of the office.

The others stared at the spot the Pylean had just vacated, and at each other. The almost oppressive silence lengthened.

Finally Angel said what everybody was thinking: "If there's one thing we have enough of, it's shades of gray."

Spike sighed. "Word, mate. Word."



Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Law books smelled of old glue and the dryness of paper. It wasn’t as bad as the smell of age and gravitas of Wesley’s office, but it was enough to bring home each and every day how different Gunn’s life was now.

His office smelled like pine today. Wesley glanced at the wreath hanging around the doorknob as he and Angel strolled in. “You, as well?”

“Me, you, everybody.” Not that Gunn was really complaining. He had no problem with Santa Lorne, although he had to draw the line at the button Lorne had tried to get him to wear. Red and green was never—never—gracing his lapel.

“He’s everywhere.” Angel took the only remaining chair, grimacing an apology as Wesley perched on the edge of Gunn’s desk. “He’s plotting with Harmony to make a blood-flavored eggnog!”

Gunn and Wes exchanged a look. “How. . .thoughtful of him,” Wes said diplomatically, while Gunn tried not to make a Mr. Yuck face. “With any degree of success?”

“Not yet, and I—Eve. Welcome back. Have a good Thanksgiving?” No one could mistake Angel's tone for sincere.

Eve sauntered into the office, employing that incredible talent of hers to make everyone in the room but herself and Angel superfluous. “You definitely like to make waves, don’t you, Champ?”

“Well, you know me,” Angel returned, leaning back in his chair. “I’m a wave-maker. What are the Senior Partners upset about this time?”

“Oh, not the Senior Partners. They couldn’t care less about a giant tree adorned with the symbols of rebirth and holiness.”

“Oh, good. Let me just call Lorne, and he’ll get the créche scene set up.”

Eve’s smile went tiny. “Sure. Nothing like a little nativity to brighten up those long winter days. But you might want to have a care about your employees, Angel. Scuttlebutt’s not too thrilled with the way you’re handling what is traditionally a gloomy time of the year for us.”

“Great.” Angel smiled, retroactively warming to Lorne’s idea. If Eve was opposed to it, it had to be a good thing, right? Noticing Wes and Gunn’s distinct disinterest, Angel rose. “Why don’t we take this to my office? Gunn, Wes.”

They filed out, leaving Gunn and Wes looking at each other bemusedly. Conversations with Eve always went like that, but Gunn wasn’t interested in trying to figure out—again—why he didn’t trust her, even after the almost-strangulation. “Man, there’s something wrong with a company that hates Christmas,” he said instead. “It’s the best time of the year!”

“Commercialism run rampant, convicts dressed in red velvet and false beads, dangling children on their knees? Blood-eggnog? Lets not forget Christmas carols repeated ad nauseam, either. Oh, yes, I can see how this would be a favorite of yours.”

Snorting, Gunn propped his feet up on his desk. “Bah, humbug to you, too. Nah, Christmas isn’t about all that. It’s about big ass trash-can fires you gather ’round, singing the hymns my mamma taught me. About takin’ a night off from hunting, since even the vamps celebrated Christmas Eve.”

Scrounged up feast of whatever they could buy, no one complaining that it wasn’t enough, or it wasn’t as fancy as the stuff some of the folks they saw walking down the street had. Presents that were made or bought through pawning your own stuff. The gifts were nothing special, no toys or fancy brand-name sneakers, and were most often weapons, but they meant something. Each and every item, every moment, was worth more because they had so little else.

And here he sat in a leather chair that cost more than the entire gang used to spend on food in a year, dressed in tailored Armani from neck to feet, not to mention the shoes, looking at his collection of vintage Bandai toy robots, about to make plans with Wesley to have lunch at Vincenti’s—guaranteed to cost Wolfram and Hart a few hundred.

What would Alonna say if she could see him now?

Somehow catching his mood, Wesley’s cynical expression faded. “I was planning on being here, this Christmas,” he said, remembering awkward, downright painful family dinners and deciding there and then, that even the chance of seeing his mother didn’t make up for the dread he felt at the thought of facing his father again. He swallowed, then added diffidently “I don’t have a bonfire, but would a fireplace suffice?”



Wednesday, December 3, 2003

She'd only caught a glimpse of him, and he had every right being here—unless you were talking to Angel, of course, who still officially maintained that even the other side of the planet, a place as far as Afghanistan, wasn't far enough for Spike to be. But the secretive hunch of his leather clad back and shoulders and the way he'd been using the huge Christmas tree for cover, stayed her foot after only four steps up. Curiosity piqued, Fred stealthily crept down the stairs again, turned left and approached him from behind

"Spike? What you're doing?"

That caused a guilty flinch, from both Spike and the wiry man he'd been talking to.

"Keep it down." The vampire shushed her, grimacing and making frantic waving movements with both hands, before cordially patting the back of Number Five's successor and stuffing a handful of crumpled dollar bills into the man's jacket pocket. Edgar, the new mail guy, gave Fred a doubtful glance but after another reassuring pat on the back he shuffled onwards with his mail cart, heading for the CEO's office to collect Angel's outgoing mail.

"Fred, what're you doin' here? Aren't you supposed to be in your lab, spending your overtime poring over some prehistoric katana breadknife?" Spike accused her.

It was late. And quiet. All day Christmas carols had been playing from hidden speakers, but that had thankfully stopped once the majority of the workforce had left the building, heading home after a long day's work. Now the only people left in the building were a handful of scientists, the cleaning brigade, and a few people working overtime.

Fred held up the brown paper bag with the green logo. "White chocolate mocha and chocolate chip cookies. I could have sent someone, I guess, but I needed a break anyway. And the place is just round the corner. So, uh, did I just see you bribe the new mail guy?"

"Bribe? Uh… you know, that's such an ugly word."

"And kinda accurate, too."

Spike pouted. "Yeah, alright, so you caught me. What're you gonna do about it?" he asked defiantly. "Smack me?" He segued neatly into a friendly leer.

"Of course not, don't be silly. But seeing that we're friends, well, kind of, at least I think we are, you know, after everything that happened and all—unless you don't want to be…?"

"No! I mean, yeah, chums… that is, friends is fine," Spike hurried to say, aiming for nonchalant but missing by a mile when his tongue stumbled over the unaccustomed word.

"Good," Fred gave him a wide smile and tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. "That's settled then. As I was saying, seeing that we're friends and all, maybe you should tell me what you're up to, so I can either act as your co-conspirator and help you plot, or I can then smack you… uh, your wrist—strictly as a friend, of course."

"Of course." Spike nodded, then frowned and lowered his voice. "Don't fancy talking 'bout this outside Mr. Grouchypants' office though; bloke’s got a knack for blending with the woodwork to eavesdrop. But if you wanna take this some place else?"

A few minutes later they were behind closed doors in Fred's office. Fred was perched on her desk, sipping her mocha, while Spike swiveled back and forth in her chair, wolfing down one of her cookies with obvious relish, eyeing Fred's mocha greedily, and prattling on about how the best cookies he'd ever had were made by…

"… Willow. Hers were the best. Dunno what the secret ingredient was, guilt maybe, 'cause whenever she was on a guilt trip? Cookies—even for the evil likes of me. I remember thinking she should have spats of evildoin' way more often, if only for all the excessive baking that went on afterwards…."

The fact that Spike had a sweet tooth piqued Fred's interest—especially in the light of Angel's utter disregard for real food—but she wasn't easily distracted. The discovery was therefore translated into the mental equivalent of a neon-yellow post-it saying 'Vampires-Food-Waste disposal?' and pinned to the big white board in that remote part of her brain that was devoted to gathering scientific data on vampires, before her mind returned to the matter at hand. "The mail guy?" she prompted, and both the swiveling and the chatter stopped.

The look on Spike’s face clearly said he'd hoped she'd forgotten and that at least half of the prattle had been a diversionary tactic. She peered at him over the rims of her glasses, unaware that it made her look like a benevolent but stern headmistress.

"'S about Buffy," Spike admitted, his rueful smile bordering on sheepish. "Just cause I don't want her to know I'm no longer a pile of dust, doesn't mean I don't care how she's doin'. Her, and the 'Bit. Don't fancy pumping Mr. Marbleface here for information, though. He's not exactly big with the sharing."

"Yeah, we kinda noticed," Fred nodded sagely. "Has he always been like that?"

Spike exasperated grimace was answer enough.

Taking Fred's conspiratorial smile as encouragement, Spike continued. "So, I asked Edgar, the mail guy, to give me a heads up when Angel gets letters or postcards from them. Apparently they're still doin' the grande tour of Europe."

"You can't open Angel's letters." Fred exclaimed, scandalized.

"Wasn't going to. I think. Just wanted to—" Spike broke off and shrugged. How could he explain to her that he simply yearned to hold some kind of tangible proof in his hands that Buffy and Dawn were indeed safe as houses? That they were buying Italian shoes and boots by the cartload and having themselves a good time, wherever they might be?

"—look at the postmarks? Know where they are?" Fred completed his sentence.

Maybe he didn't have to explain after all. "Something like that."

"Let me get this straight, you want to know how Buffy and Dawn are doing, but…"

"An' the others too," Spike interrupted, then shrugged diffidently. "Just curious."

Fred nodded. "But you don't want them to know you're still, you know, around, and you don't want to ask Angel?"

"Got it in one. Knew you're the smart one in this whole gig." Spike jabbed his index finger in her direction, grinned, and snatched another cookie.

"Right," said Fred. "I think I know just the right person to ask."



Thursday, December 4, 2003

“Okay!” Fred reported breathlessly, hurrying back to her lab table and picking up the phone. “I’ve got the cinnamon! There was some in the big coffee dispenser down the hall, which makes awful coffee but always has sugar and cinnamon around.”

“Like a Starbucks?” the voice on the phone replied. “I miss Starbucks. The mochas aren’t mocha-y enough, here. And add a teaspoon to the mix.”

For a demon law-firm, the building was eerily quiet past ten o’clock at night. People were still around,  but most of them were hard at work on their overtime projects, not relaxing. Then again, Fred didn’t think most people thought staying at their desks or, you know, labs was the equivalent of relaxing. Although it was odd that Wolfram and Hart closed at five, like normal businesses. Their clientele were primarily night-creatures—shouldn’t they be open at night? Particularly since their brand new boss was a vampire? Not that Fred minded either way, really. She’d always been a night-owl.

“Cinnamon mixed. It’s so weird that I had all the ingredients here except cinnamon.”

“You had molasses in your science lab?” the voice asked. “Sift the mixture until it’s all one color, and I thought you were doing normal experiments—like with sulpher and acid and cool things like that?”

“Oh, we do those, too, but Knox and I are still working on combining spells with quick-release machinery, like I was telling you about, for Wesley? And you know how weird magical ingredients are.”

“Yep, I most definitely indeed-y do. There’s as many newt eyes as there are—garlic cloves!”

“Exactly!” Fred agreed with a chuckle. “And the fridge is always full of weird things people leave—I found three sticks of unused butter!” Her spoon dragged through the powder and spices in the bowl, destroying each slash of color and creating a brown-white mass. “All mixed,” she prompted her teacher. “Now what?”

“Now, we get messy. Add in the butter, a little at a time, and where’d we leave off?”

“You were going to tell me about Buffy, in exchange for Angel,” Fred answered, balancing two bowls with some confusion. Knox kept saying she was hell on wheels in a lab, but Fred certainly didn’t see it. The bowl was going to slip any—

“Drat!”

“Are you okay?” the phone babbled anxiously, rocking back and forth on the table while Fred picked up a piece of butter and made a face at its newly bespeckled condition. “Cause I can jiffy up a healing potion for you—okay, it’s not actually a healing potion so much as something that makes your skin feel tingly and good, but it works whenever Dawn burns herself, and she always calls me Glinda whenever I do.”

Unwrapping another stick, Fred plopped it onto the dry mixture and picked the phone back. “Just me being clumsy, no injuries needing tending. So, Buffy?” she prompted, stirring the butter in.

“Right. You know, we should do this more often. Talk, I mean, the two of us. And, um, not just for Willow Rosenberg’s Resouling, which is why I thought you were calling. I. . . like talking to you. Brainy girls need to stick together!”

“We should. I’m always up really late anyway, and hey—if I call you, that means Wolfram and Hart pays!”

“Does that mean Wolfram and Hart listens? Never mind, Initiative flashbacks. So, you wanted Buffy-gossip in case Angel asked. Well, lets see. Holidays are of the bad with us—it’s bears and syphilis over pumpkin pie on the better years—and she’s still having trouble with the whole letting go part.”

That was, well, confusing, mostly, so Fred concentrated on the parts she understood. Or didn’t understand, but felt she could at least question. “Letting go?” Molasses was a dark, rich brown, slowly bleeding into the normal cookie-dough color. “Letting go of what?”

“Um. . . remember you were saying about your lab? That it was yours, and you didn’t want anyone else taking over, because then it would be someone else’s?”

Fred hadn’t meant to spend so much time talking about herself, but Willow was right—brainy girls needed to stick together, and it was so nice to talk to someone who understood, but wasn’t potentially evil. “I remember.”

“Well, it’s kinda like that. Buffy’s lab was the world, and her gadgets and doodads and discoveries were all averted apocolypses and a lot of pain. It’s hard letting go of that, cause pain starts being an old friend after a while.”

There was something in Willow’s voice, like maybe she had her own reasons for knowing that particular old friend—but then, so did Fred. She took out small handfuls of dough, shaping them between her fingers before plopping them onto a tray that had never once seen the inside of an oven.


“So, yeah,” Willow continued with a little laugh. “Not easy. And Spike’s death is hitting a lot harder than she expected, too. But it’s getting easier and oh! They aren’t even going to be here for Christmas!”

“Okay. . ?”

“They’re going to Paris! Since we’re in England, it’s not that expensive to hop over to the Continent, you know? So as a surprise, Giles paid for a trip for Buffy and Dawn to go to Paris and, I quote ‘get fat on French food and drool over French men’. They’re so excited! And Giles is so happy that they’ll be out of his hair for a while!”

“He’s being upper-lippy, isn’t he? Wesley gets like that sometimes, especially when Charles starts talking about American sports.” Her gingerbread men were shaped funny. Very blobby looking and crooked, and they could be gingerbread demons, couldn’t they? Or maybe just plain old gingerbread cookies? “Three hundred and fifty degrees, right?”

“Three five oh,” Willow confirmed. “So yeah, they’re going to do a Summers Sisters Tour of Paris—Dawn wants to go to a talk on ancient languages at the University, though, and Buffy’s so glad that she can’t, since it’s invite-only.”

“Oh, is that Ashman’s lecture? About the myth of Indo-European base-language and how it’s really demonic? I can talk to Wesley and get her tickets! Um, unless Buffy would be mad at me?”

“No! You can get tickets? Get tickets! Get two! I can hop down to Paris for a day—Kennedy wanted to go to a martial arts seminar the same day, this is perfect, and you can really get tickets?”

“I’ll talk to Wesley first thing,” she promised. “But I don’t want Buffy mad at me. She sounds pretty scary.”

“Oh, pish, you leave Buffy to me. She can go clubbing or get her nails done or something.”

Fred added a few more discreet questions about the original Slayer until she was sure she could give Spike a nice little report. Dawn, too, since Spike had—belatedly—mentioned the others. Wait, wasn’t there more than just Giles?

“How about, um, Alexander? Is he going to be in England, too?”

“He’s still in the states. Andrew’s with him, and he won’t let Xander get all broody, but. . . Buffy’s trying so hard to be happy, you know? And he’s just not ready for that. Anya’s death hit him pretty hard.”

So someone other than Spike had died. Fred had been careful not to mention Spike at all, not sure if she wanted to tell Willow or not. On one hand, she knew the secret would stay secret, and Willow might have good advice on how to handle the volatile vampire. On the other, it wasn’t her story to tell—and Spike didn’t want Buffy to know he was back, yet. So she just thought about it, and the other girl who’d died in the fight, and watched the misshapen, gingerbread-demon-men get plump.

“So, that’s us. Everybody’s gone except me, Giles, and a few of the Slayers who don’t have homes they can easily go to, and we’re hoping it’ll be quiet.”

“Quiet is underrated. And these gingerbread men smell delicious!”

“They should taste it, too. So? You promised, information for information. I wanna hear about Mr. Grumpypants’ reaction to a big giant tree in the middle of his lobby. Oh! Can you put a menorah up there too? Just for me?”

Fred laughed—she could never stay pensive when talking to Willow. “I’ll talk to Lorne,” she promised. “And it wasn’t his initial reaction to the tree—it’s what happened when Eve called him on it!”



Friday, December 5, 2003

They had become a familiar sight at Wolfram & Hart: the two bickering vampires. Nobody ever dared mention it when the boss or his associates were within earshot—and everybody knew about enhanced vampire hearing—but there was a pool going on: when Mr. Angel would finally cave and give Mr. Bloody the car, credit cards, and office he so emphatically demanded.

"You're enjoyin' this, aren't you? Ponce." Spike spat out, trying to keep up as Angel briskly strode through the lobby, heading for his secretary's desk. "Stridin' through the corridors, barking orders. You, mate, are watching too much West Wing."

"Go away, Spike."

"Wish I could. As long as you hold the purse strings there's not much I can do, is there? And you know it. Legal difficulties, my ass. You're saying your evil little pen-pushers can't whip up a few fake IDs in a heartbeat? Tell me another one. The only reason I still haven't got a dollar to my name is you."

Angel stopped so abruptly, Spike almost bumped into him. He pulled a checkbook out of his breast pocket and stood, pen poised. "How much?"

"How much can I get? Never mind. Double it anyway."

Angel glowered, but he put the checkbook on the reception counter, and the silver pen flew over the paper as he jotted down his signature.

On the other side of the desk Harmony was beaming. Silently voicing a 'yay!' she gave Spike an enthusiastic thumbs-up, but her face instantly smoothed into business-like impassiveness when Angel straightened.

With obvious reluctance Angel tore out the check and held it out to Spike who snatched it out of his hands, looked at the sum, muttered an obscenity and stuffed it in his duster pocket.

"And where will you go, Spike? Europe? Buffy?"

For a moment Spike looked tempted. But then he shook his head. "Who says I'm going anywhere? Could go to New York, open my own agency, maybe. Spike Investigations. Got a nice ring to it." He caught Angel's glower and smirked.

"Spike, I'm not in the mood for—"

Angel stopped in mid-sentence when the feral scent of a predator caught his attention. Beside him, Spike inhaled audibly.

"Ewww, what's that smell?" Harmony exclaimed.

The three vampires turned as one towards the source of the scent. Lorne was striding towards them, chattering amiably. He was spearheading a small crowd of young men who's torn jeans, gaudily printed T-shirts, and imaginative hairstyles were extremely out of place—even in a place where the staff were used to sights like a vampire CEO, ugly demon clients, and a horned, green-skinned entertainment division department head—who was currently dressed in a glittery disco suit that gave him a 70s Saturday Night Fever look—only in burgundy red.

"Oh, aren't you guys just lucky? Look who's here," Lorne exclaimed and gestured towards the two somberly dressed vampires. "Our most esteemed—although slightly stingy—boss…"

"Angel," the smallest one of the new arrivals said, and greeted both vampires with a polite but aloof nod. "Spike."

Spike frowned, snapped his fingers….. Wolf-boy, Willow's ex. Whatsisname?

"Oz," Angel said without inflection. "How you been?"

"Good. You?"

"Not bad." Angel couldn't resist a sweeping gesture that summed up the whole of W&H. "Kind of moved up in the world."

A snort came from Spike, but thankfully, no comment.

Meanwhile, Harmony had been silently bouncing up and down, but now she couldn't contain herself any longer.

"Devon!" she squealed. "Hey! Remember me? It's me, Harmony. Harmony Kendall? Cordy and I used to come to all your gigs!"

"Yeah, cool, uh… hi … uh… Harmony," was the lukewarm reply.

"Oooh, you guys know each other?" Lorne asked. "Dannykins, why didn't you tell me you know our Angelcakes here."

"It's been a few years," Angel answered in his stead.

Oz nodded.

"Isn't that just fabulous," Lorne boomed, either oblivious to the tension or blissfully ignoring it. "You must have so much catching up to do, don't let me keep you from reminiscing to your little hearts' content. I can feel the warm fuzzies already."

He transferred his attention to Devon and the other Dingoes. "Come on, you puppies, we don't need Danny right now, do we? I'm sure we can chit chat about royalties, guitar playing lessons, and contracts without him, at least for now."

"You okay with that, dude?" Devon asked.

Oz nodded slowly.

Nobody spoke, while the red glitter ball and the remaining Dingoes waltzed out of earshot.

"Hey, you think your mate there, Devon, be willing to share some of that weed I smell on him?" Spike finally broke the silence.

"Could be," Oz shrugged, then transferred his attention to Angel. "So," he said to him. "Are you evil?"

"Who, me?" Angel squeaked. "No! Why do people always ask me that? Just because I'm running an evil law firm doesn't mean I've gone soulless—think of it more like a fifth column thing. A Trojan horse."

"Who's the horse?"

Angel frowned. Beside him, Spike was shaking in silent laughter. Not exactly rolling with the punches lately, Angel shot him an exasperated glance.

"And you, Spike? Still chipped?" Oz asked.

Spike sobered. "No. But I got myself a soul now."

Angel rolled his eyes heavenwards and crossed his arms in front of his chest, looking every inch like a man forced to listen to a long-winded, boring story for about the zillionth time.

Behind him, Harmony's expression was almost identical.

"And how's that working out for you?" Oz asked.

"Fine," Spike said, perking up at Oz genuine looking interest. "I mean, it took some getting' used to, but—" Seeing Angel's beset upon expression Spike stopped himself. "How 'bout we go for a drink later?"

"That'd be cool." Oz said amiably.

"So," Angel cut in. "About this werewolf thing…"

Oz twitched his eyebrow a fraction. "Pretty much terminal, if that's what you're asking."

"Funny. Look, we ran into a werewolf girl a few weeks back, she's having a bad time of it. . . maybe you'd like to, I don't know, help her out, show her the ropes?" Asking for favors from outsiders was not something that came easily to Angel and it showed. He was dithering somewhere between smarmy, demanding, and awkward. "Her name's Nina," Angel added, somewhat clumsily, and jotted down her name and address on the back of one of his business cards.

"Yeah, okay." Oz pocketed the card and shrugged, unfazed.

His good deed done, Angel shifted uncomfortably. He and Oz had never really had any meaningful dialogue before, and Spike was being at his most infuriating and not yammering on and on, the one time Angel would've liked him to. "So. . . Lorne's trying to sign the Dingoes?"

A ghost of a smile appeared on Oz's face. "Looks like. Nice tree," he added, nodding at the giant structure. "But don't you think the reindeer are a bit over the top?"

"The what?" Spike and Angel chorused.

Oz pointed at an antlered, doe-eyed head that peeked out from behind the tree and tentatively licked one of the candy canes. "The reindeer?"

***

Three chaotic hours later, everybody filed into Angel's office for a much needed pow wow.

Spike grimaced when Eve sauntered inside. "Oi, why's she got to be here? And same with wolf-man," he waved a hand at Oz, slouched against the wall, "no offense. Thought this was for the upper echelon only."

"Which doesn't explain what you're doing here, Spike, so sit down and shut up." Grinning, Spike did as ordered, setting off alarm bells in Angel's head. Spike never did what he was told. "We've got reindeer."

"The one in the lab broke at least a dozen cultures of Knox's latest experiment," Fred reported, nibbling on a gingerbread cookie. She sat perched on the armrest of one of Angel's club chairs. Spike nudged her, holding his hand out for a cookie. "We're lucky he wasn't working on a new Ebola virus. He'll be really upset when he finds out he has to start from scratch. Cookie anyone?" She passed them around

Angel ignored the interruption. "Would someone please explain why we have reindeer?"

The crack team that used to be called Angel Investigations, helpers of the helpless and highly intelligent good guys, shifted nervously and eyed each other, none of them wanting to be the first to speak. It had taken the better part of three hours to herd the nine reindeer into one of the bigger conference rooms, and Angel had no faith that the locked door would hold them for much longer.

"Okay," he said into the continuing silence. "Someone want to tell me what to do with nine reindeer?"

"How about we give Dancer, Prancer and the rest to the zoo?" Gunn suggested, and bit into a cookie.

"Ah, yes, the zoo, that's wonderful!" Wesley jumped on the suggestion, a faint crease in the corner of his eyes showing his annoyance that he hadn't thought of it first. "A donation from Wolfram and Hart to help spread the holiday spirit. Lorne, I assume you can spin it appropriately?"

"Oh you can leave that to me," Lorne replied cheerfully. "I have a contact at the zoo. Don't ask, these days everybody and his dog thinks he's destined for show business. I'll tell them to send their transporters. How about tomorrow? Then there'd be time for our staff to bring their kids. Won't the little ones be happy to sit on Santa's reindeer? With a bit of make-up we could even give one of them a red nose—"

Angel didn't bother pressing his intercom key. "Harm!"

The door opened at once and his secretary rushed in, steno block in hand.

"Call the zoo," Angel barked. "Work with Lorne and his contact, but I want this official, and quick. And Harm? Make sure the deer haven't done any damage to that conference room? I really like the chandelier in there."

"Nancy-boy," Spike muttered, in muted counterpoint to Harmony's cheerful, "Right-y-oh, boss."

Oz edged over to the table, ignoring the chattering. "So," he asked Angel casually. "Is this a typical day at the office?"



Saturday, December 6, 2003

"The 1983 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon is currently at eleven hundred per bottle, Sir," one of the younger, more eager assistants reported. "Should I place a bid?"

"Absolutely! Go for it," Lorne told him. "Go up to twelve, no, thirteen hundred, if necessary. And then have it gift-wrapped and fed-exed to Mr. Newman. Yikes, I just hope he doesn't use it for one of his salad dressings."

The young man bent over his keyboard to type in his bid. Meanwhile, Lorne moved to the next desk to peer over a second assistant's shoulder at the computer screen.

"A genuine Japanese katana? Hey pumpkin, do you have any idea how much these cost? Talk to me again once he has another hit like 'Dances With Wolves'—until then he'll have to make do with an autographed baseball by Babe Ruth or maybe a 1930s Ty Cobb sports card." Lorne said, and headed for the next desk, but then he relented. "You know what, let's make it both. I'm a sucker for 'Field of Dreams,' and you never know when he'll strike gold again."

Wolfram and Hart didn't grind to a halt just because it was a weekend, but it did slow down noticeably, from a hectic polka if you will, to a slow fox-trot. On Saturdays nine tenths of the staff were recharging their (metaphorical) batteries at home with their SOs or even their kids.

Yes, even W & H employees had family, at least some of them did. Lately, a few people in Lorne's division had even brought framed photographs of their loved ones to work, and they didn't even get overly nervous when Lorne picked up the picture to admire the little darlings. Maybe the realization had finally sunk in that sacrificing one's firstborn was no longer required for advancement within the firm. Lorne thought it was a victory of sorts.

They said, evil men had no songs. Lorne had caught several people humming Christmas tunes these past few days and while he didn't deliberately check out their auras, he had picked up a vibe of tentative holiday cheer. As much as he enjoyed dealing with the stars, these signs of progress were even more rewarding, yesterday's reindeer prank notwithstanding.

Lorne checked his watch. "Almost five. Listen, guys, why don't you finish what you're doing and then head home? Do your Christmas shopping. Recuperate. This can wait till Monday."

He waited patiently until they'd filed out of the office, then poured himself a seabreeze and turned on his computer. He still had his own Christmas shopping to do. Thank heavens for online shopping.

 Humming contentedly, Lorne started searching for that perfect gift, determined to make this the best Christmas ever.



Sunday, December 7, 2003

Harmony had always known she'd never go to college, so dying hadn't actually screwed up any plans. But sometimes she felt regret—not the kind Angel felt for killing people, which was, you know, silly, since that was what vampires did: kill. But for things she could no longer do. Like going to Harvard and becoming a lawyer, like Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. Because you probably had to be alive to do that.

Still, being a vampire wasn't so bad, especially these days. No more smelly coffins in dank basements—unless your name was Spike and you felt you owed it to your reputation as the Slayer of Slayers to shack up in a cemetery. No superstitious peasants with pitchforks and torches invading an honest undead working gal's apartment. But the best thing about being undead? No more PMS. And super-strong nails. Yay!

Ego, Peep Show, or After Hours?

After a moment of deliberation, Harmony picked up the little magenta bottle of nail polish and shook it vigorously. Definitely Ego. Pink and glitter were her favorites, and so far Angel hadn't complained or requested more conservative colors.

In the background, Julia Roberts was about to show those mean, nasty ladies at the boutique that she was not to be walked over just because she looked like a hooker. It was Harmony's favorite part, and she paused to watch, before giving her toenails a second coat.

If only men were like that Edward guy in real life: chivalrous, generous, and romantic. Take Spike, for example. He had a kind of Richard Gere look to him, sexy, good looking—and he was a much better lay, according to the latest rumor Lornytoons had told her. But his fashion sense? So retro. And his manners? Pre-Flood caveman kind of outdated. Maybe Lorne could arrange for the Fab 5 to make over Spike?

Giggling at her own thought, Harmony returned to painting her nails and the very familiar plan to lure Spike into her bed again. Even if he spent all his time moping about the Slayer, well, he hadn't gone to her. That made him fair game, right? Okay, so he hadn't come to see her after the weird blood-eyes thing. Really, was it her fault she'd bitten him? Then again, when had her Blondie Bear ever not liked biting during sex! But fine, if he wanted to play hard to get, Harmony could play along. She liked chasing—probably a vampire thing, but she really, really did.

Harmony smiled again, put the brush back into the bottle and blew on her nails, willing them to dry faster.

She had money, a job, and her eyes set on a cute guy, what more could an undead girl ask for?

* * *

The very instant the elevator doors opened, Angel knew that Spike was there. One didn't need a vampire’s sense of smell to detect cigarette smoke and it was kinda hard to miss the music that echoed hollowly in the almost empty parking garage.

Angel sighed and headed for the Viper. His Viper.

The windows had been rolled down and a black clad elbow was sticking out of the driver's window.

Angel stopped beside the driver's door and leaned down, one hand on the roof, the waxed varnish almost sensuously smooth underneath his fingertips. "Aerosmith?" he asked after rifling through his memory for a moment.

"Toys in the Attic," Spike agreed. Eyes closed, he'd been bobbing his head to the music, but now he peered up at the older vampire, his usual expression of defiance firmly in place. "You got twelve cars to choose from, you don't need the Viper," he said, sounding tired. "So sod off."

Angel scanned the parking garage, but they were alone. The building was notoriously quiet on Sunday evenings. The car was cold, no heat radiating from the engine. Judging by the blue cloud of cigarette smoke that loomed over the car and the overflowing ashtray, Spike had been sitting here for hours.

Angel walked to the other side, opened the passenger door and slipped inside. He wasn't a great fan of classic rock, but compared to some of the stuff Spike liked to listen to, this was almost civilized.

"God, I miss my old wheels," Spike sighed after a while, when Angel made no move to evict him. "The deSoto didn't have a fancy stereo like this one, no CD player or anything.  Had character, though,  in spades."

They listened quietly and it was only when the song ended, that Angel realized Spike was listening to a local radio station instead of a CD or tape.

"About that company car you asked for..." Angel said awkwardly, half way into the next track, 'Sweet Emotion.'

"Don't overexert yourself," Spike interrupted and patted his duster pocket that still held the check Angel had given him. "Got money now. Enough to get something cheap."

Angel knew he'd regret it, but he said it anyway: "You can use the Viper till then."

"Was going to anyway," Spike scoffed.

"Fine. Well, now you're doing it with my permission."

"For Christ's sake, Angel, you really have a knack for takin' the fun out of everything."

"Yup, that's me," Angel admitted resignedly and leaned back, resting his skull against the headrest and closing his eyes.

A frown appeared on Spike's face. "You feelin' alright?" The question slipped out before Spike could stomp on it.

"No," Angel admitted without opening his eyes, " and for once it's got nothing to do with Buffy, or infinite remorse, or even you."

"Wanna talk about it?" Spike elbowed Angel between the ribs to get his attention and pushed the open flask in his hand.

"No." Angel stared at it for a moment, then took a hefty swallow, and returned the flask.

"Thank god," Spike snarked. "Had me worried there, for a mo."



Monday, December 8, 2003

Monday mornings were always quiet and sleepy, people too busy guzzling coffee and dealing with leftover paperwork from the Friday before to be very talkative. Everyone stayed in their departments until it was time for the regular daily meetings, stumbling through the halls and trying not to appear half-asleep in front of their employees. Stress was higher than usual due to a weekend spent present-shopping, and even the cookies Lorne had stashed everywhere weren't really helping.

Harmony, however, was as cheerful as ever, handing out drinks as people arrived in Angel's office with a syrupy greeting and a commercial-bright smile probably practiced the same time Cordelia discovered her mega-watt grin.

"It's the weirdest thing," Gunn was saying to Fred, holding the door for her as they entered. "I mean, usually I show up, and there's my coffee on my desk and my cases all laid out. Today? Nothing. No coffee, no papers, just my desk, the same way it was last week."

"Um, Charles, you do realize that could be taken as kinda chauvinistic, don't you?" Fred offered an apologetic little half-smile to soften the criticism, waving hello to Wes as he entered behind them. "Wanting your secretary to do all those things for you?"

"Could be, 'cept my secretary's a guy—at least, I think he is. Some kind of Frolox demon. Not sure if they have genders, actually. And he—it?—didn't call in either, and that's never happened, before. He hates when he misses a day, always goes on and on about it when he comes back."

"Really? How odd. Ah, yes, Harmony, thank you." Wesley absently sipped his tea. "I had a meeting scheduled with someone from Accounting today, and he didn't show either. I checked with the secretary down there, and no one's seen him since Friday around lunch time."

Fred looked suitably concerned, and then confused. "Hey, actually, have any of you guys seen Knox? He's usually so punctual."

"I'm sure he'll show. He's never far from you, is he."

Fred looked faintly hurt, but when Wesley didn't say anything further, her face smoothed. "It's just weird," she continued, ignoring the interruption, "since I know he wanted to get here early so he could finish up working on the broken katana—the one that wouldn't let itself hurt innocents, remember? We're making a lot of progress," she told Angel, the king reclining behind his desk.

"You told me that the last time, Fred, and I still believe you." The response was automatic, Angel too busy piecing together conversations that had started before he was within hearing range. "So that's, what, three people who didn't show? Is that a problem, Wes?"

"Well, ordinarily I'd say no. This is a large organization and our benefits include a rather generous set of both sick and vacation days. However, since two of the three missing are known to be quite punctual and would call were they sick or in some other emergency. . .perhaps. It could be that wires were simply crossed."

"Knox wouldn't take off without telling me," Fred defended.

"And this one's for you, Spikey," came from the corner. "It's a special blend—I even added burba, just for you." When Spike reached for the cup without looking, Harmony pulled it away. "Thank you, Harmony," she said primly.

That got Spike's attention—and the rest of the room's. "Huh?"

"I go out of my way to get you burba weed, the least you could do is say thank you, Spike." she told him, handing over the mug. "I'm not your secretary."

While Spike processed that, Angel cleared his throat. "Thanks, Harm. Keep the door partly open."

"Sure, boss," she chirped, flashing Spike an unreadable expression as she left.

"So. Wes. You were saying?"

"Quite." Watching Harmony chase Spike had become an entire-office diversion. The bets flew fast and frequent, particularly among the secretaries—Wesley's own was wonderful for keeping him up to date on gossip. Not bothering to hide his amused smile, Wes turned his attention to the more pertinent matter of the case of the missing employees "I suppose the simplest thing to do is contact all the supervisors, have them report any employees who are missing and haven't yet called in."

"We've got everyone's home number on file," Lorne contributed. His entrance was remarkably inconspicuous, although his outfit was not. He was a walking, talking gold lamé Christmas ornament. "And I've got all my notes on who's been naughty or nice to use as a reference."

"Very well. Harmony?"

Angel winced. "You don't have to shout, Wes, I told her to leave the door open for a reason."

Harmony sashayed back into the office, waving her palm-pilot. "I've already got the list, boss! There are forty-three employees absent today, but only nine aren't using their vacation days or didn't call in this morning. I've got names, if you want them."

"That low?" Spike  swirled the remaining dregs of his blood thoughtfully. "In a company this large? Must be that ‘eviscerate tardy employees' policy. Say, didn't you get rid of that?"

"Shut up, Spike. Harmony, go make the calls. Lorne, double check your list and then get on the line with Harmony—if they're at home, tell the suspect ones you want to find people for carolling and you heard they have good voices or something. It doesn't matter what."

Fred stood up as well. "I know Knox's home phone, and his cell, so I can do that, Lorne. I'll let you know what I find out." Hurrying down the hall, she missed the looks the remaining members of the office gave her.

"I think I'll do the same, actually," Gunn said, without the overly anxious tones Fred had used. "Something could be wrong, you know, and well, it's pretty cool having a secretary. I should take care of him. Uh. It?" Waving his goodbyes, he followed the others out of the office.

"Well, well," Spike said. "Alone at last. Should leave you two to do that whispering thing, then, shouldn't I?"

Angel mimed hurling his stapler at Spike's head. "Yes. Leave. Now."

"Bah, humbug to you, too," Spike muttered, closing the door behind him.

"He seems to take particular delight in tormenting you," Wesley noted.

"And the rest of you enjoy it too damned much," was the grumpy reply. "But—he's actually right. Nine people out of a company that numbers in the thousands? That's pretty low."

Wes smiled, but allowed the change in subject. "There was a fairly severe punishment for unexcused tardiness before we were here, as Spike also mentioned. Perhaps the fear of its enforcement is slowly wearing off?"

Not that either of them believed that. "So what happens when they aren't at home? You don't think they're at home, either, right? Fred's going to be upset about Knox."

"No, I don't think that's likely, and yes, she is. This could be the beginnings of some new kind of attack, though, which concerns me more than Fred's distress over a specific employee."

Angel's grin wasn't friendly. "That's a roundabout way of saying you don't like Knox either, isn't it?"

"I have no idea what you're accusing me of," Wesley replied innocently. "This could, however, be quite serious, Angel. It could be the work of some random demon, but at least three of the nine missing persons are in very high positions." Wes stood as he thought, pacing back and forth in front of Angel's desk, tossing out an idea with each direction-change. "They could be working together on something and were abducted because of it—or because someone wanted information about the five of us. It could even be something the Senior Partners are engineering."

"Oh, come on. Do you really think the Senior Partners are going to kill their own staff?"

"I don't see why not, if it furthers their goals. You know as well as I the kind of ruthlessness we're dealing with here."

Angel waved his hand, stopping Wes from getting into a familiar discussion. "Okay. We'll talk about it after we've established they aren't home or had some kind of emergency. In the meantime," he checked his stack of papers, "I have to the call the zoo. Lorne, apparently, thinks it'd be a good idea for the CEO to make sure the reindeer are settling in to their new homes."

"Ah yes, the. . ." Wesley's voice trailed off, his eyes meeting Angel's in sudden understanding. "The nine reindeer."



Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Predictably, getting the reindeer back from the LA zoo was a hell of a lot more complicated, stressful, and not to mention expensive, than getting them there in the first place. Because after Gunn had pointed out the loss of face that going back on one's donation entailed, Angel had grudgingly green-lighted the—costly—acquisition of nine real, unenchanted reindeer and then helmed a complex rescue operation.

The switch had been made in the middle of the night, under a chilly full moon, and now the nine reindeer were in the big conference room again. Under Angel's baleful gaze, the smelly beasties were trying to graze, furrowing the ground with their hooves in search of moss and other greens, and completely ruining the plush carpet in the process. He'd liked this conference room! They were never going to get the smell out.

"Which one do you think is Knox?" Fred asked.

Angel rifled through a dozen versions of 'Who cares,' decided that they all sounded rude instead of hard-boiled, and silently folded his arms in front of his chest.

"Who cares? Un-mojo them all an' you'll know soon enough," Spike answered in Angel's stead, and sauntered in to join them. He nodded at Fred and was rewarded with a friendly, but slightly distracted smile.

There was a rumpled look about him, and the customary cigarette smoke miasma was not only stronger than usual, but also laced heavily with booze. In other words, while Angel had spent the better part of last night making sure the W&H field unit got Prancer, Dancer, and Knoxy back in one piece, Spike had been on one of his benders. Life was so unfair. Angel's mien darkened even further.

"Hey, you're looking pretty grim this morning," Spike greeted him.

"You're pretty cheerful this morning.  Also pretty drunk," Angel pointed out, the accusatory tone in his voice hard to miss.

"So I had myself a few drinks. What's it to you?" came the indignant reply. "Ran into an old mate last night. Played cards, talked about old times." He rubbed his hands and looked around searchingly. "So. Who's gonna do the hokey pokey? Where's Percy?"

Wesley was bent over several books, attempting to determine just what spell to use. He didn't acknowledge Spike's comment. "I believe this spell should do it."

Angel hovered over his shoulder. "Cloutiér's reparare-spell? That's not too hard. . ." He studied the requirements needed and then turned to actually see Wesley's face. "So? We have all of these things?"

"Of course." Speaking quietly on his cell phone—they all had one, although only Angel used it with any real frequency—Wesley asked someone named Carol to bring several items up to them. "The ritual itself should take only about an hour."

"Well, I'll leave you two cowboys to it. Don't bother saving me a seat," Spike declared and headed for the door. "You can give me a heads up later. Not that I care."

Fred checked her watch and took her leave as well.

"So who's this old friend?" Fred asked, as she followed Spike out of the conference room and to the coffee vending machine. "I didn't think you had any friends. Except me, that is." Her apologetic smile took the sting out of her remark.

Spike pointed at the machine and when she nodded punched in the code for coffee with milk and sugar. "Someone from Sunnydale," he divulged reluctantly. "He's looking for a job. I promised to ask Angel, but with the foul mood our head honcho is in… well, you saw him." He handed Fred the full Styrofoam cup and pushed the buttons for his own hot chocolate.

"And? Is he evil? I mean, your friend?"

"Clem? No, 'course not." Spike scoffed. "What makes you think I only know evil people?"

"The fact that you've been evil a lot longer than you've been good?" she offered.

Spike accepted that with a good-humored smile. "Listen," he said. "About what you did for me, calling Willow, finding out how everybody's doing…. I just wanted to say thanks. It meant a lot to me."

"That's what friends are for, right?"

"Right," he said and raised his cup with a grin. "Say, you wouldn't have some more of your cookies to go with this, would you?"

***

"So, tell us, what is the last thing you remember?" Wesley asked, pen poised over his notepad. Beside him, Gunn was leaning against the desk, looking suave.

Their interviewee, a slightly plump man in a rumpled suit, folded his hands nervously. According to his file he worked in Accounting and during his screening Lorne had marked him as 'okay but lacking in backbone.'

"Nothing, I mean, I was working. Or, well, actually, I was taking a coffee break and going through my mail. I ordered this book on Amazon and I always have those delivered here because—"

"What book?" Wesley asked reflexively, while jotting down notes.

"Oh, uh, do you really think that's important, sir? I mean, what do my reading habits have to do with getting turned into a reindeer?"

"Mr. Elliot, please answer the question," Gunn joined in, a courtroom-edge to his voice.

"It's uh, it's called 'Narcissus in Chains' and it's not what you think, it's just some vampire novel, for… uh… for my niece, for her birthday… uh… Christmas…."

"Yes, thank you," Wesley interrupted the man. He stifled a sigh.

"So, what happened after you opened the package?" Gunn asked.

"Oh, uh… I was kneeling on the floor in the conference room, chewing on some carpet…"

"When you were taking your break, was the door open or closed? Could anyone see you? You said you were drinking coffee. Where did you get it? Did you make the coffee yourself or did you get it from the vendor in the hall?" Wesley questioned him, determined to get to the bottom of this mystery.

"Oh, uh… I … uh… never drink coffee, it gives me heartburn, you know."

Wesley exchanged an exasperated glance with Gunn. This was a lot more insight into the banal underbelly of Wolfram & Hart's staff than either of them had ever wanted. And there were eight more interviews like  this to conduct. It was going to be a long day.

***

Seven hours later, all the ex-reindeer had been thoroughly debriefed.

"It would seem most of the victims were alone, either in their office, or lab, or in one case in the men's restroom when the transformation occurred," Wesley reported his findings. He dropped his notes on Angel's desk.

"At least we were able to rule out potions." Gunn joined in. "Three of the victims didn’t eat or drink anything."

"So, we have to assume the spells were pinned to some other object, like a magical seal or unleashed via a curse of protection, so that whoever touched that object was exposed to the spell. For all we know the spell could have been cast on the elevator button." Wesley continued.

Angel frowned. He'd expected more. A lot more. "Eve?"

"Whoever did this covered his tracks well," she said. "Our seers haven't been able to come up with anything, and our spell detectors never noticed anything unusual on Friday.   A skilled mage, however, might be able to evade our standard security measures, provided he has an accomplice in the building."

"That's just great. You're telling me we don't know anything, it could happen again, and we might even have a traitor in our midst?" Angel summed up the situation.

"Yup," Eve nodded.

Wesley and Gunn nodded.

Angel sighed. "Sometimes I really hate this job."



Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Spike was loitering in the hallway, a common occupation for him. “If he’d just give me a bleedin’ office, like I’ve asked,” he grumped to himself. “Not so hard, is it? Got a nice one up near Gunn’s, too, all vacant now, isn’t it? Still smells like blood, even.”

He wasn’t going to, though, not unless Angel found him a job to go with the fancy office. Chief Executive of Annoying Angel, maybe? Supervisor of Sarcasm? The area around Harmony’s desk emptied while he toyed with different titles, so he headed over. “Harm,” he greeted, eyeing her mug of blood. She could be stingy with the damned things, sometimes.

“Blondie Bear!” Harmony’s squeal was as ear-piercing as always. “I’m off in a few minutes, want to buy me lunch?”

“Uh, isn’t it pretty much daylight outside?” Couldn’t a bloke just get a mug of blood now and again? Without having to dig into the reserve Angel’d given him? Then again, Harm probably had a corporate card of some kind.

“Silly. What kind of evil law-firm doesn’t have sunless ways of getting to the really interesting places?”

Point. He’d just thought most of them were Angel-reserved. Plus, Spike still had no idea what was happening about the reindeer-cum-people, and Harm seemed to be right in the thick of things. “This wouldn’t be lunch of the solid-kind, would it?”

Delicate eyebrows rose and then, slowly, understanding dawned. “Oh, you mean human food. Well, sure, we’re going to Camile’s. It’s owned by a vampire, so they’ve got everything. Her blood-pudding is to die for. If we weren’t already dead, of course. Now, you go stand right there,” she pointed to the specific spot, “and I’ll just grab my card.”

“Right, then. Just no talking about sodding clothes or shopping,” he demanded, moving to where she had pointed. She did have a corporate credit card, the lucky bint. Angel set her up real nice, and what did Spike get? Bit of cash. Stingy bastard. Spike contemplated stealing the card, but gave up on that quickly. More fun to steal cash from Angel—more profitable, too, since cash couldn’t get cancelled. “I mean it, now, no talking about some new frock or—Harm!”

She smiled radiantly, pointing above his head. “Mistletoe, silly. Now hold still.”

“No, I am bloody well not holding—Harm!” Dancing back a few steps, Spike kept himself poised and ready to run. Bit of a shag was one thing, but kissing?

“You’re making everyone look,” she told him.

“I don’t give a damn about—what the hell are you doing?”

“Mist-le-toe,” she said slowly. “It’s when you stand under a bit of that green stuff—what’s it called?”

“Holly.”

“Thanks! I knew you’d know that, you always know such weird stuff. Anyway, you stand under this little spriggy-thing of Holly and you get to kiss whoever is standing under it with you. So, since you’re standing under the mistletoe, and so am I, we get to kiss.” Satisfied she’d explained everything, and ignoring the fact that Spike was no longer under the mistletoe so much as cowering from it, Harmony leaned forward to claim her reward.

Spike shied away, backing up until he thumped into a wall. “Harm, that’s a game for tweenies trying to find their first sweetheart.”

“Tweenies? What a cool word! And no, it’s not. I once saw a movie where, like, these really old married people did it. And why are you way over there, anyway? That’s not where the mistletoe is!”

By now there was a crowd. Not a large one, but gossip flew on winged sandals in this bloody office, and Spike knew he better stop this and stop it now. “Harm, I’m not int—”

Spike remembered how quickly Harmony had melted into a puddle of goo after his come-hither look. She’d obviously been taking notes, or maybe the soul was making him more vulnerable to unhappy females. ‘Sorry sod’ was a term that sprang easily to mind. Or ‘sucker’.

“Fine.” Stepping back under the mistletoe, he gave her a short peck on the check.

She pouted, adding in two liquid eyes, and why the hell wasn’t he running off now? “Oh, for bloody—Harm, I gave you your kiss.”

“That wasn’t a real kiss, Spike.” No stupid cutsifying of his name or the insipid nicknames she frequently used. None of her ear-stabbing whining, either, just a small comment, free of any kind of affectation.

So he kissed her for real.

When they finally broke apart, there was cheering and wolf-whistles coming from the enlarging crowd. Simpering under the attention and waving little hellos, Harmony linked her arm through his and started prattling on about Camile’s and the lovely treats it had to offer a bloke who liked his blood with a little substance.

And Spike. . . let her.



Thursday, December 11, 2003

When Wesley stepped into the office, his notebook and a small stack of personnel files tucked under his arm, Angel was more than glad for the interruption. He closed the folder he'd been poring over for the past hour and tossed it back on the daunting to-do pile. Most of the things that needed the CEO's seal of approval were inexplicably trivial. Where were the big decisions? The grand evil schemes he was supposed to uncover and then put a stop to? How Holland Manners had ever found the time to be actively evil was beyond Angel. How much havoc could one wreak by green-lighting or impeding the installment of unisex restrooms?

"Any new leads in the reindeer case?" Angel asked, rubbing his neck in a doomed attempt to get rid of the knotted tension that seemed to have settled in his bones and muscles for good these days.

Wesley gave him a concerned look but answered the question. "Progress? Yes. New leads? Not exactly. However, according to my secretary there is a rumor going round that the spell was cast by an employee with a grudge, possibly someone we fired or demoted when we took over."

"You mean revenge?" Angel tried the thought on for size, then nodded, more than familiar with the concept of holding a grudge. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense."

At that the door was flung open with aplomb and Lorne walked—no, barged in. "Not at all! Are you out of your mind? I know I said hope springs eternal, but the chances of coming back from that string of turkeys? It takes more than a cameo in a Tarantino movie to come back from oblivion. No can do. Just tell him, okay? Later, bye." Lorne snapped his cell phone shut and put it into his jacket pocket. "Sorry to keep you two little birdies waiting."

Waiting? Angel peered at his day planner.

"I asked Lorne to meet us here," Wesley explained.

"I hope you called me here to tell me you found the dastardly fiend who sabotaged our holiday cheer. I mean, why would anyone want to ruin Christmas?"

"Actually, I was wondering if you could help us with the investigation. We are fairly certain that someone inside the firm is at least partially responsible. I'd like you to 'read' some of our suspects," Wes said and handed Lorne the personnel files.

"Yikes!" Lorne took the files, but he handled them reluctantly, as if he expected them to bite. " I felt queasy for two weeks after the last time. Do you have any idea what it's like to look at auras like that?"

"I thought we fired the worst cases." Angel said.

"That doesn't mean the remaining people are choirboys." Lorne told him. "If I'd recommended firing everybody with a smudgy creepy-crawly aura, then this place would be as deserted as an auditorium after Courtney Love has been introduced."

"Just do what you can, alright?" Wes said diplomatically. Angel looked ready to explode, and Lorne's prattling wasn't helping.

"Fine, fine, your order is my humble obedience. But kindly remember that there are drugs that can block me—remember the doctor with the palate for the extraordinary?"

Wes and Angel both looked at him until the demon sighed and nodded.

"Oh, by the way," Lorne added, slipping two folded sheets of paper out of the breast pocket of his jacket. "This is your secret Santee, mince pie," he passed one sheet to Wesley, "and this one is yours, Angelcakes." He held out the paper to Angel who made no move to take it.

"My what?"

Lorne ignored him. "If it hadn't been for Harmony…"

"Harmony," Angel interrupted, his tone boding nothing pleasant for his busybody secretary.

"… I would never have known about this quaint little custom. You secretly buy presents for one person and someone buys presents for you. We should have organized this already, round about Thanksgiving, but I guess you  all forgot. Don't worry, you don't have to spend more than fifteen or twenty dollars, your miserliness. Now, I've got to scurry—you wouldn't believe the calls I'm getting lately. Ms. Roberts is not someone you ignore." Dropping Angel's piece of paper on the desk, Lorne turned on his heel and headed out. By the time he reached the door he was already pressing the speed dial of his cell phone. One last "Toodles," and he was gone.

Funny how the silence always took on its own hum in reaction to Lorne's loud, powerful presence.

"A secret Santa. I've heard about them, of course, but I haven't ever—" Noticing Angel's expression, Wes' took on one of gentle reproach. "It won't harm you to interact with people, you know."

Angel eyed the piece of paper on his desk with distaste.

"You could at least take a look…." Wes suggested, following his gaze.

"I don't have to," Angel said sullenly. "With my luck there's probably Spike's name on that. Actually, I don't think luck's got anything to do with it. I'm sure Lorne rigged the whole thing."

Wes didn't answer. He unfolded his piece of paper and smiled, pleased.

"If I do this Santa thing, do you think fate will spare me from any more attempts to ruin our Christmas?" Angel pondered, straight-faced.

"I don't think the universe works that way," Wesley stated with a sad smile.

"No," Angel said resignedly. "No, I guess not!"



Friday, December 12, 2003

"This is all Spike's fault," Angel said with conviction, as he squinted at the desecrated tree.

Friday morning. The usual early morning bustle of arrivals had come to a sudden halt. People in suits were standing in the lobby, whispering and pointing at the tree, clutching their briefcases uncertainly. The awe with which they'd regarded the tree and the good cheer of the past few days was gone. Now they kept a healthy distance from the tree—and from their boss.

Blood. Everywhere. Dripping from thick reddish strands of flesh that hung from evergreen branches; thickly covering tinsel, glitter balls, and candy canes; drip—drip—drip—raining to the floor in scarlet splatters that bore a startling resemblance to red paint.

The 'Jingle Bells' soundtrack wasn't exactly helping either. On the contrary, its merry jingle seemed to mock the sight of blood and gore.

"I hardly think that Spike—" Wesley started.

"He's the one who had to bring up entrails," Angel interrupted him, slightly unnerved by the sight. It brought back painful and brutal memories of the first few Christmas trees he'd 'decorated' - in the 1890s. "Obviously he gave our reindeer friend some ideas."

"Speaking of the devil…." Gunn gestured towards the approaching vampire, but the nod with which he greeted him was friendly.

"Swell," was Angel's only comment. Storm clouds seemed to be gathering above his head and a deep frown creased his brow.

"Well, well, if it isn't Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. What are you starin' at?" Spike turned to follow their gaze and inhaled audibly at the gory sight. "Oh bugger!"

"Yeah."

"Does the impeccable Hulk know 'bout this yet?" Spike scanned the crowd, but the gaudy demon was nowhere to be seen.

"Nope." Gunn answered. "But I figure he’ll go ballistic, once he sees this."

"Angel, please tell me it's not human," Wesley said in a hushed tone, dreading the answer.

"It's not," Angel said curtly.

"It's pig," Spike elaborated.

"How can you tell?" Gunn asked. Both vampires stared at him, eyebrow raised. "Stupid question, I get it. Forget I asked," he backpedaled.

"I'll call the lab. I'd like a proper analysis." Wes said and brandished his cell phone.

"Is it my imagination or are these people giving us funny looks?" Gunn asked, referring to the growing crowd of restless lawyers and executives.

"I believe you're right," Wesley agreed.

"They're afraid." Spike gave the older vampire a sideways glance. "I can smell it."

"Wes?" Angel said, sounding like a general deploying his troops, a sure sign that he was truly and utterly brassed off. "Find someone who can clean this mess up. Get a wizard to do it, or a dozen cleaners; I don't care. Just do it. I want that same tree sparkling and glittering and smelling of pine and resin and candy just like it did before. I don't want a single drop of blood to remain."

Wes nodded, and headed for his office, already mentally rolodexing through the list of warlocks and mages that occasionally worked for W&H.

"And you, Spike," Angel continued and stabbed an accusing finger at the younger vampire. "You—"

"What did I do?" Spike interrupted indignantly. "It's not my fault—."

"Shut up, Spike. It's time for you to earn your pay."

"What? That measly check you gave me?"

Angel ignored the interruption. "Do something useful for a change. I want you to help Wes with this investigation. Find out who did this, and I'll give you your own office."

With that Angel stormed into his office and slammed the door shut.

There was a stunned silence—except for the voice of Dean Martin singing 'Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,' and a muttered "Drama queen."



Saturday, December 13, 2003

Spike stared at the piece of paper, head tilted quizzically. The paper was simple white with black writing, clearly legible even for a vamp who didn't admit to being a bit near-sighted when not vamped out. It was obvious, really, with the words written in clear, Queen's English. Except in the way it completely wasn't.

"No, no, I am not going to listen to a—ah, there's my Blondie Bear!" Lorne broke off haranguing some starlet or has-been to beam at Spike. The phone went into his pocket, but his hand didn't come back out. He was probably afraid that he wouldn't feel the vibrations without touching it, but there were a few of Lorne's own staffers betting that he slept with the thing, rather than lose contact with it. "You look like the rugs been done pulled out from under you, Bl—Spike, all right, all right, no more nicknames. Anything I can do to help?"

Spike didn't lose the expression, just pushed the paper out. "Yeah. Explain this."

"Why, it's your Secret Santa assignment. I know I explained it to you."

"Yeah, you explained. You conveniently forgot to mention the bit about me havin' to buy for Ang—"

"Hey, there, speed racer!" Lorne interrupted hastily. "Don't forget that ‘secret' part."

Spike's expression would've melted lead. "It's Saturday. Anybody's who's here is down making sure the tree—uh, makin' sure it's all pretty, just the way you'd set it up." So far, they'd managed to keep Lorne from finding out what had happened to his tree. Spike didn't think they'd be able to keep the secret for much longer, but then, he hadn't thought they'd be able to keep it for a full twenty-four hours. "Anyway, no one's around, least of all the bog-trotter with a big head. You rigged this, you green bastard."

Lorne drew himself up his full height—which was just a smidge taller than Spike was. "I did no such thing. Into the hat they went, and I pulled out names one by one. . . unless they were buying gifts for each other, then I went with the runner up."

Losing patience rapidly, Spike waved the piece of paper in the air. "I've got to buy something for Angel! I don't even like the fat bastard, let alone want to spend my money on something for him to throw away, soon as he figures out it's from me!"

"Except, it's a Secret Santa, so he won't know it's from you."

Spike snorted. "Right. Angel ever tell you how good our sense of smell is? He'll know it's from me. Plus, I'm not buying him," he peered at the paper again, "bloody hell, I don't know."

"You can get him anything you want, sugar-plum. Just don't spend more than twenty dollars or so, and you'll be fine."

The sheet pressed up to his nose, Spike read over it one more time. Not that the name, or the brief guidelines Lorne had typed up had changed. "You're out of your horned head. I'm not spending my money on a Manilow CD!"

"Actually, it's his money, isn't it?" Lorne pointed out. "And besides, the holidays are about spreading good cheer and renewing old family ties! Shouldn't you maybe try and bury that big ol' hatchet? For me? Look, Spike, it's just one gift. Then you can go back to hating him."

The momentary drop of good spirits made Spike stop worrying about what he was going to get for Angel to really look at Lorne. They'd done a good job of not letting him know about the tree-desecration, but Lorne wasn't stupid. He knew there was something they were hiding from him, and he'd find it out soon enough. Plus, he'd been running himself ragged since Thanksgiving; it was starting to take a toll.

"You aren't gonna go all green and muscley, are you? Getting enough sleep and all that?"

‘Duh' said Lorne's expression. His eyes were still tired, though.

"Yeah, yeah, all right. I'll buy him something. Not promising he'll like it," Spike cautioned. "But I'll try. Now, what the hell are you doing here on a Saturday, anyway? Can't find a nice girl to rub your horns?"

Lorne laughed, the hand-permanently-attached-to-his-cell-phone already up and traveling back to his ear. Spike hadn't even heard the vibration. "No time. Now you just run along and find something sweet for your grandsire, okay?"

Waving, Spike watched Lorne, dressed in pure silver today, stride down the hall talking animatedly. "Hey, wait!" he called as Lorne disappeared entirely. "If you're organizing this, who's buying something for you?"

But the Pylean was already gone.



Sunday, December 14, 2003

Silence. Darkness. Then, suddenly, a shrill, jarring sound, sending a surge of adrenaline through him; causing Wesley's heart to take a frightened leap and then thunder along like a stampeding thoroughbred.

The phone rang.

His hand shot out to grab the receiver. It was instinctual; conscious thought never came into it. Not answering the call was inconceivable. There might be an emergency, an accident, a family death, even an apocalypse.

"Just wanted to check if you're in. How 'bout you fix me a drink and I pop over an' tell you what I found out?" the caller said without preamble.

Wesley fumbled for the alarm clock and blearily stared at it. Blinked. Tried to work out the arithmetic of going to bed at half past two and being woken up at….

"Ground control to Major Tom?"

"Spike? Is that you?" Wesley struggled for restraint. In times of stress or adversity one was always required to slowly count to ten and then fall back on good manners, but at the crack of dawn?

"Course it's me. How many more people do you think tall, dark, and pompous asked to help with this investigation?"

"Of course I'm in," Wes said, referring to Spike's opening remark. "Where else would I be at five thirty in the bloody morning? On a Sunday morning?"

"Five thirty? Already? Guess that means breakfast, instead of drinks, huh? Oh well, hope you've got bacon and eggs." Click.

"Spike?" But the call was already disconnected.

***

By the time the doorbell rang, Wes was in the process of getting dressed. He had managed to take a quick shower—instead of the long drawn out bath cum breakfast cum morning paper he'd envisaged for somewhere around 11 or 12 in the morning. He slipped into his shirt and shoes and quickly tried to make himself presentable, even if only for a punk vampire.

"Rise and shine," Spike greeted him when the door swung open.

"What makes you think I'll invite you in, Spike?" Wesley asked.

Something in Spike's expression hardened, but his smile never wavered. "Was gonna appeal to the whole fellow countryman thing, but that never worked with Giles either so I decided to go with bribery." Spike said and held up a donut box. "He and Buffy always fought over the ones with jelly."

"Timeo danaos-"

"-et dona ferentes. Yeah yeah. I'm not Angel, I don't misplace my soul every few years, and even if I did, I was never much into killing people in their own beds."

"Very well." Wesley said, remembering that he could always revoke Spike's invitation with a spell. "Do come in, Spike."

Spike made an exaggerated step inside, mocking Wesley's caution, and shoved his bribe into his host's hands, before taking his coat off and tossing it into Wesley's arms.

"Nice digs you got there," Spike said, looking here, looking there. He picked up a framed photograph. "She's classy," he said. There was an unspoken question in his voice.

"She's dead," Wesley said tersely, and hung up Spike's duster. "Why don't you go into the kitchen? I'll be right with you."

Spike put the photo down, nodded and took two steps towards the kitchen before he froze.

"Just as I thought," Wesley stated, his suspicion confirmed. "I'd wondered if you needed an invite in your non-corporeal form. Apparently not."

Spike shrugged, not even bothering to fake contrition. "I bet you read my file over at W&H. How many pages was it, then? So I read your place; makes us even.”

"Would you like tea or coffee? I'm afraid I have to ask because your file, while extensive, doesn't cover your breakfast preferences," Wesley said, sarcasm almost obscured by a soft chit-chat tone.

Spike smirked and formed an L with his fingers. "A drop of milk, two sugars."

Wesley only shook his head and led the way into the kitchen.

***

Wesley couldn't muster much of an appetite at this early hour, but the vampire ate with great gusto, polishing off Wesley's customary Sunday cooked breakfast, consisting of bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs, mushrooms, and beans at frightening speed.

It evoked a sharp pang of nostalgia, reminding Wesley of the old days, before the Hyperion; when Angel had occasionally cooked breakfast for his friends—even though he'd never eaten with them. Not human food anyway.

"So, what was it you found out?" Wesley asked and switched the kettle on for more tea. He was skeptical because Spike's file hadn't exactly pegged him as a great thinker.

"Thought I'd check a few butchers, you know, see if they sold pigs' entrails and a few buckets of blood to a one-time customer."

"And?"

"Pot of gold. According to one Louis Sanchez the stuff was ordered and paid for via credit card by a certain Mr. Angel, some big shot lawyer guy who works for this lawfirm, what's it called? Wolfdeer and Heart or something," Spike reported, trying—unsuccessfully—to mimic a Hispanic accent. "And delivered to this address."

Spike produced a slightly smudged business card. Wesley took it tentatively, not wanting to leave his finger prints on it. It was one of Angel's cards. On the back there was an address, apparently written with a fountain pen in neat capital letters.

"I checked the address," Spike said, before Wesley could ask. "One of the firm's informants. Guess what address he delivered the blood 'n guts take away to?"

"Wolfram and Hart."

"The same. Parked his van in the basement garage and buggered off to have lunch for two hours. When he came back the goods were gone and there was this envelope with money instead." Triumphantly, Spike held out a torn envelope, of the kind normally used for paychecks.

Wesley stored the card and the brown paper manila in a ziploc. The forensics lab would be unmanned right now. He could of course get on the phone and order a few lab technicians to break off their weekend and come in to analyse the evidence, but after a moment he decided against it. Monday was early enough. After all, no one had really come to harm.

Wesley fished a jelly donut out of the box Spike had brought. "Looks like you've been busy, Spike. To what do we owe this sudden and uncharacteristic diligence?"

"Want my own office, don't I? And a decent paycheck." Spike took a hearty bite out of a cruller.

"You also want to stick around in case we unearth more information about the shanshu prophecy." Wesley stated, watching the man before him very carefully.

Spike met his gaze. "Can you blame me?"

"No," Wesley answered with a thoughtful shake of his head. "No, I suppose not."



Monday, December 15, 2003

The elevator dinged pleasantly, doors sliding back smoothly. Mornings were Angel’s favorite time of day: before all the problems started, before he remembered just how much work was piled onto his desk. When it smelled of coffee and the blood Harmony always had waiting, and people were still sleepy and cheerfully greeting each other ‘hello’.

Angel checked on the tree first, relieved to see not one drop of blood or viscera still clinging to it. He was confident that Wesley, at least, would figure out who had done it, and then he’d happily pound the culprit into a bloody pulp, thereby taking care of the problem entirely. And he’d be able to do it without Lorne knowing.

Sounded like a damned fine Christmas to Angel.

Turning around to greet one of the many people bustling through the main lobby, Angel let the cheerful words die unsaid. Underneath all the beeswax and nutmeg was the smell of fear and distrust. No one would meet his eyes, and when Angel got annoyed and forced a secretary to say hello to him, her scent was nervous and her face was totally blank.

That was unexpected. As he progressed deeper into the office, the stares got more and more hostile, almost daring him to prove. . . something. Attempts at speaking provoked one-word answers and even Harmony seemed curiously subdued as she handed him his morning mug of blood. It was frustrating, and confusing, because Angel had been congratulating himself just recently on starting to win over the employees.

Apparently not. It was way, way too early in the morning to deal with this, which meant his first stop wasn’t his own office.

“Ah,” Wesley said by way of greeting, already hard at work behind his desk. “I take it you’ve noticed?”

“The distrust and suspicion? Hard to miss. Do we have any idea why?”

Wesley smiled and casually mentioned, “I think I’m going to have to give Carol, that’s my secretary, a raise. And before you ask, she’s been completely vetted. I trust her.”

“Oh?”

Gesturing to the sheet resting on the desk, Angel picked it up and read it briefly. Then a second time, much more closely. “Huh. Can I use your phone?”

* * * *

The gauntlet of suspicious stares as he left Wes’s office was just as disturbing as before, but this time, Angel didn’t bother trying to meet anyone’s eyes. He was a man on a mission, so of course the expected distraction appeared ten feet outside his office.

“I did warn you.” Arrogant, self-confident, and with a sing-song ‘I told you so’ underneath the words. Eve. Perfect.

“You need a bell,” Angel grumbled, stalking inside.

Eve followed, settling herself onto the edge of his desk. Her tiny, enigmatic smile told Angel he’d misstepped somewhere. “I told you there was going to be an employee problem, Angel. You chose not to believe me.”

“No, you told me that spreading holiday cheer was going to cause a problem for a firm that traditionally considered this the ‘gloomiest time of the year’, end quote. This doesn’t look like a reaction to Lorne’s good will towards man.”

“But it’s a problem, Angel,” Eve insisted, “one you’ve shown no interest in addressing. You know what they say about forest fires.”

“Get a lot of water and you can put them out?” Angel leaned back in his chair, fingering a message with casual confidence. “This is the first time it’s been a problem, Eve. Kindly wait until I’ve attempted to do something, before tossing around forest-fire metaphors? Especially when I doubt you’ve ever dirtied your hands in something so common as a fire. Ah, Fred, there you are.”

Momentarily startled at the greeting, Fred cut her eyes towards Eve and then plastered on a simpering smile. Closing the door behind her, she handed over a one-page sheet. “I can add the toxicology reports as well, if you think that’ll help. Not that that many people can read a tox report, but in the interest of fairness. . .”

“No, I think this’ll be fine, Fred. Wesley briefed you on the rest?”

Her hair, curlier than ever, bounced as she nodded furiously. “He’ll have the results back this afternoon.”

“Thanks, Fred.”

She waved goodbye, scooting out around Eve’s very palpable presence, again closing the door behind her.

“You know Eve, if you want to take credit for things, you should really understand what is going on, first. This,” he waved the sheet of paper, “is an explanation signed by several people—including your old head of the science department—that the viscera found on the tree was, in fact, pig. Not human—which would be what everyone’s so worried about, in case you missed that particular rumor. The memo’s going to be circulated to all departments, and if anyone has a problem, well, you heard Fred. They’re welcome to look at the toxicology reports.”

Eve didn’t lose  one iota of her arrogance, but Angel could smell a thin undercurrent of nervousness. Better than morning coffee, that.

She got to her feet, putting a little distance between herself and Angel. “Nice work. Your team moves fast.”

No, Wesley’s secretary was going to get those bonuses she wanted, but Eve could find that out herself. “Thanks. You know, that means a lot coming from you.”

“I’m sure. Now, about who’s done this. . .”

“Oh, not to worry. I’ve got my best detectives working on that right now,” Angel boasted, careful not to mention that Spike was one of those ‘best detectives’. Hopefully, he’d never hear about the blatant exaggeration. He’d probably believe it, and Spike channeling Philip Marlow was too horrible to contemplate. Then with a winning smile, Angel administered the killing blow, “If you want, I’ll cc you onto the reports?”

Who knew that office lingo could be so very humiliating? The smell of burnt tires trailed after Eve as she left, but Angel didn’t call for Harmony to open the door and let in a little air. Right then, it was better than the smell of morning coffee mixed with blood.

* * *

When, after their lunch break, Wesley and Gunn returned to their respective offices, Spike was already behind Wesley’s desk, going through a stack of files.

“Those are mine, thank you very much,” Wesley said, allowing his irritation to filter through. Resolving to lock his office next time, he reclaimed his files and shooed Spike out of the chair.

“Just checking if there’s anything from the lab yet,” the vampire explained.

“This is the one,” Wesley said and handed him the report. “It’s not much,” he summed up the science team’s finding. “The business card is one of Angel’s, bearing his finger prints, yours, and those of a third person, presumably your Mr. Sanchez. The envelope yields no new prints either. We use the same envelopes here for internal messages and for paychecks. In fact, according to this,” Wes tapped the file Spike was scanning while listening, “it actually came out of this building.”

“What about the handwriting?” Gunn said, leaning against the door frame.

“There’s a preliminary graphologist’s report attached to the file. The usual disclaimers about how they don’t have a lot to work with, because the letters are blockletters, and because the writer of that address may have consciously tried to conceal his normal hand. Hmmm, male, in his forties or fifties, educated. Possibly European.”

Spike snorted, disgusted. “Well, that was useful. Means you and me both are suspects, don’t it?”

Wesley raised an eyebrow, staring steadily at Spike.

“Oh, come off it! I didn’t do it and you bloody know it.” Spike didn’t bother to add anything in his defense, just stared right back at Wesley, arms folded and jaw thrust out. “Should be me giving you the damned eye, shouldn’t it?”

Snickering, Gunn waved a hand between the contest of wills. “Relax. We know you didn’t do anything, Spike. You aren’t a good enough actor to pull that kind of surprise off.”

“Hey!”

* * *

The forensics office was quiet, almost everyone still at lunch or discussing the memo the CEO had issued. Gossip seemed to be leaning towards trusting the information, since the new boss hadn’t lied to his employees, yet, and no one was missing from work, now that the reindeer had been turned back into people.

A lone figure sat at his desk in the back, adding the finishing touches to a report he was going to deliver to his boss in a few moments. Harold was a fairly new employee, and while he wasn’t too certain about the current CEO and his staff, he had a good idea what his direct superiors were like and wanted to make sure everything was perfect. He liked his job, and the glowing praise he’d received for analyzing a simple handwritten note meant he had a chance to really prove to his superiors that he could go far.

“Excuse me?”

Glancing up, Harold smiled a politely. “Yes? Can I help you?”

“Yes, please. Just hold still a moment.”

Light flashed in a green-and-red swirl, the sharp scent of peppermint overpowering the smell of ink that always hung over the whole room. A few seconds later a low siren sounded over the intercom, a female voice saying, “Unauthorized spell-casting on level fourteen. Unauthorized spell-casting on level fourteen.”

“Oh, bugger. Did they have to be quite so fast?” Hastily penning a note, the spellcaster picked up the  papers on Harold’s desk and hurried out of the room.

Within ten minutes, the entire forensics department was being waved away while Wesley and Spike both peered at a small, fake Santa Claus, dressed in a fur-trimmed red suit, arms and head moving mechanically as it boomed out a cheery ‘ho, ho, ho’.

“That’s just sick,” Spike said.

“Yes, they are rather annoying.” Wesley carefully removed the note, sealing it in a clear plastic bag before reading it. “‘Ho, ho, ho’? The handwriting is the same as before,” he added, handing it over to Spike.

No one noticed the glassy blue eyes of the Santa doll moving.



Tuesday, December 16, 2003

"That is one creepy little doll." Spike perched on the arm of Wesley's chair, staring intently at the Santa doll, still cheerily ho-ho-ho-ing away. "Are its eyes actually moving, or is that just one of them optical illusion tricks?"

"I'm not sure. Sometimes I think they're actually watching—oh, yes, come in," Wesley called when someone knocked on the door.

A thread of cooler air slipped inside before their visitor. "This is cozy," Eve greeted them, noting how closely the two men sat together. "I thought I'd see what Angel's two ‘best detectives' were up to."

Spike, in the process of giving Eve the bird, paused and silently mouthed ‘best detectives'. A maniacal grin appeared before he managed to smooth it away. "Oh, that's just clever," he said with a patronizing drawl. "Me'n Head Boy here have never heard that one before."

"Are you here for a purpose, Eve?" Lab tests hadn't revealed anything noteworthy about the doll, other than a lingering aura of magic surrounding it, so Wesley was trying more conventional means of divining answers. A spell book lay open in his lap. "Or are you here just to administer your daily dose of insulting innuendo?"

Lips twitching with that condescending little half-smile, Eve said, "According to the mystics, Harold never left the building. Too bad. I kind of liked your kidnapping theory."

"Yes, thank you," Wesley said, surreptitiously elbowing Spike to prevent the vampire from reacting with his usual indignation. "Any other messages? No? Please close the door on your way out, then."

Spike scowled. "What the bloody hell was that for? We don't even have a kidnapping theory, that was just something Gunn tossed off."

Wesley ignored his ranting for a few moments, sitting up straighter and flipping through the spell-book. "Are you done being defensive now?"

"Yeah, I think she's gone. You're thinking what I'm thinking?" He waved a finger in front of the Santa doll, plastic eyes definitely following each sweep.

"I'm thinking we have a trickster," Wesley said grimly. "One who's willing to remove anyone who knows too much. Well, then." Checking the book one more time, he said, "We'll start with the same spell we used on the reindeer. If you could please hand me the aniseed? It's just to your left."

Retrieving the small container, Spike glanced from the doll to Wesley and then the door. Spells always made him feel itchy. "Don't need me, do ya?" he asked. "Probably just be in your way, wouldn't I?"

Shaking out a small amount of the spice, Wes nodded absently. "Of course."


* * *


Money.

Dosh. Dough. Bucks. A lovely bundle of green bills so fresh off the printing press they still stuck together—and no, they weren't fake, he'd checked before signing the receipt with a mocking William T. Bloody. When it came to Wolfram & Hart, it was better to err on the side of caution.

As he walked through the mall, hands shoved into the pockets of his coat, fingers of one hand curled protectively around the wad of dollar bills, Spike was very much aware of the fact that this was the first real wealth he could call his own in over four years.

He'd called the old poofter stingy, but in truth, it was a decent enough sum. Enough to go on a nice bender, buy some clothes, and even shop for this stupid secret Santa thing Lorne had saddled him with —that, after paying off some of his debts.

"Hey, isn't that, you know, dirty money, you've got there?" Clem had asked a few nights ago, when Spike counted enough bills on the table to cover for last year's loan and then some. "Don't take this the wrong way, Spike, I'm sure your new… uh, the people you work for… uh, with, are really great… once you get to know them, but these guys make their money the evil way, dealing in body parts, curses, and mayhem."

Spike had scoffed at that. "I'm not on evil's payroll, if that's what you're thinking. Comes out of Angel's pocket. He owes me, not just for going up in flames in his stead, but… well, he just does, okay?"

But Clem was right, even laundered through Angel, who's reasons for signing up with this Grisham meets King deal Spike still didn't get, the money was at least grimy, no matter how crisp the bills were to the touch. Maybe that's why it was burning a hole in his pocket?

How else to explain the little blue jewelry box with the silver unicorn pendant inside, that was currently located in the other pocket? And he wasn't even Harmony's sodding secret Santa. He had also somehow ended up with expensive Swiss chocolate for himself and for Fred as well—amazing how much that skinny chit could eat; two bottles of Single Malt—one for him, one for Wes; a blue silk tie patterned with little black jaguars that could pass as panthers for Gunn. And he'd bought a couple of CDs for Lorne as part of a long-term strategy to sway the other demon away from his Vegas tunes. The only one he hadn't bought anything for was, of course…

"Can I assist you, sir?" the shop assistant repeated and Spike realized his feet had carried him into Nordstrom, which wasn't quite the same as Harrods, but would have to do. He squinted at her: blonde, pretty, extra points for calling him 'sir' without discernible irony.

"Yeah, luv, maybe you can. Look here, I need something for my grand-uh… —father."

"How old is your grandfather?"

"Positively ancient," Spike grinned.

"An electric blanket maybe? The new models have remote control and sensors to monitor body temperature and adjust automatically for personalized warmth and the ultimate in comfort," the shop assistant told him. "Very popular with the elderly."

Spike checked the price tag. Two hundred bucks? He winced.

"I was thinking along the line of twenty quid," Spike said.

The shop assistant's smile never wavered. "How about our selection of woolen socks then?"



Wednesday, December 17, 2003

The apartment was clean and bright, white walls and big picture windows. Cookies were baking in the oven, warm chocolate and the sharper edge of cinnamon blanketing the small apartment the way a cozy blanket did. She could’ve had a bigger place, now that Wolfram and Hart was paying her tab, but Fred liked her tiny, three-room home. It was a brighter, airier version of her cave, back on Pylea. She’d been here for several hours already, Wesley’s casual reminder about paid vacation days prompting her to take the afternoon off.

“Okay,” she muttered to herself. “I’ve got Uncle Ted and Aunt Charleen, so that means. . . I’m done! Well, except for Mom and Dad.” Christmas cards were scattered around her postage-stamp kitchen table, red envelopes contrasting with sparkling gold and silver script. The messages were mostly cheesy, since Fred harbored a secret love of sappy, silly Christmas cards, but she penned in her own greetings to lessen the overwhelming schmaltz.

“Dear Mom and Dad,” she said as she wrote the words. “Hi! How are you both? I’m sending you a box of gingerbread cookies I made myself. Yes, really, all by myself, and they’re good, too! Work is hectic and crazy, but we’re making time to spread some holiday cheer, so I thought I’d send a little to you guys as well. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas—I know mine is, so far. . . ”

* * *

“Okay, boss,” Harmony said, voice worn down to a clipped, worn parody of her puppy-like eagerness over the past two hours. A pile of envelopes, pre-addressed and stamped, were placed on his desk, her smile a valiant effort in chivvying her boss along. “This is the last stack. Promise.”

“That’s what you said three stacks ago,” Angel accused. Glancing up in time to see Harmony’s smile waver, he forced one of his own. “It’s okay, Harm, really. It’s—” he checked the clock on his desk, “—seven p.m. Go home.”

“But if we want to get all these mailed out in time for the holidays. . .”

“Harmony.” Who could have possibly guessed the socialite bimbo from high school, and the vampire so bad she was too pathetic to stake, would become a sincere, efficient secretary? Well, Wes had, since he chose her, but Angel still marveled at the transformation. “I can finish all of these myself, I even have that nifty sealer you gave me, so I don’t have to lick the envelopes. Go home. Please.”

“Okay-dokie,” she replied, cheeriness restored. “You have my home number, right? If you have any problems? Not that you would, of course, since you are the CEO, but, well, just in case?”

“Harmony. Go. Home.”

“Night!” Hastily scampering out of the office, she doused the single light at her desk, grabbed her purse, and was gone in another blink.

“What, she thought I was going to keep her here all night?” Angel demanded to his empty office. The office said nothing back to him, so he bent his head to his task. Thousands of cards. Each requiring a brief, personalized greeting from the new CEO of Wolfram and Hart, and a clear, legible signature. Harmony had been adamant about that, and no, they couldn’t use a machine. “I should be grateful they don’t want it in blood,” he’d told her. And then had been very grateful when she told him that she’d weeded those requests out.

It wasn’t actually that bad, despite his cramping hand. The ‘personalized greetings’ were a problem, but Harmony had thoughtfully included a brief note detailing pertinent facts about each person or organization he was sending to. She even had a few possibilities already chosen, every once in a while, so he could just copy those down. A few of the lines sounded like Lorne had ‘suggested’ them. Add in his stylized ‘A’, and then all Angel had to do was seal the envelope with the little tube of water topped with a sponge that Harmony had given him.

It was time consuming, but Angel really had nothing but time at the moment. Wes and Spike were making slight headway with their unknown Loki, although the added twist of being unable to turn the unfortunate. . . Angel paused, trying to remember the name—Harold! To turn the unfortunate Harold back into a human meant someone was trying to clean up their mess. Wesley had a few more spells he wanted to try, and Harold didn’t seem to be in any kind of pain. Spike was behaving, Wesley had reported, and was occasionally even helpful.

Mostly, signing company cards meant he didn’t have to think about signing the cards meant for the friends he considered his family. He was halfway through those, the remaining two waiting in his drawer to be taken out as soon as he’d finished this last stack. Harmony’s warnings about how long the mail took to reach its recipients, even with the short cuts Wolfram and Hart could command, meant he really couldn’t procrastinate anymore, if he wanted them to arrive on time.

Picking out the card for his first recipient had been easy. Anything vaguely humorous would go over well, and he’d chosen something making fun of Dr. Suess’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. All he had to do was write one of the personalized greetings he’d written all afternoon, and sign it. He just had no idea what the say to Buffy.

He’d scribbled out a few messages the night before, and he tried a few more now. ‘Love you’ was the easiest, but also the most loaded. ‘I miss you’ was out too, since Angel was too busy to miss anything but free time to sit and brood. Eventually he wrote something patently fake and awkward, signed it ‘sincerely, Angel’, and made a note to send along a cookbook specializing in cookies with the card, his way of addressing the lingering metaphor between them without actually talking about it.

He would always love Buffy, Angel knew, but they both knew their lives were too complicated for them to ever really get back together. At least, that was what he told himself every time he thought about Buffy, and how there really wasn’t any reason she couldn’t come visit him. . . But, one of the things he loved was her strength, and her ability to make up her own mind. That helped him address and seal the card, dropping it onto the ‘to be mailed’ pile.

The last card was covered in silvery snowflakes so intricate they looked like stars. The inside read ‘May your holidays be bright’. It was a simple, nondescript card, but the paper was textured, and of much better quality than Hallmark’s usual cardboard. The writing was calligraphy, a faint tinge of ink-smell still hanging around it, proof that it really was hand-written and worth the amount Angel had paid.

Connor’s card.

He couldn’t sign it, or even leave a return address on the envelope. He couldn’t attach any of the presents he wanted to send. He probably shouldn’t even send it at all. But Angel, despite being a brooding, violent, repentant vampire, was also a father. Who loved his son.

Angel stared at the card, the front-cover trembling lightly. Slowly, carefully, he tore it up into tiny pieces. Then he gathered his stack of signed-and-sealed letters to take to Harmony’s out-box.



Thursday, December 18, 2003

It was almost midnight, when the doorbell rang. Probability said it had to be his employer, but probability was malleable and mutable around him, therefore he had a spell ready before opening the door. The spell seemed to wriggle and squirm in his hand and around his fingers like a living thing, eager to erupt.

"Eve, welch Glanz in meiner bescheidenen Hütte, as the Germans say," Ethan said with an insincere smile, when he recognized the late visitor. He shoved his hands into his pockets, unobtrusively storing the thaumaturgical charm away. "Oh, I'm sorry, German's not your thing? Welcome to my humble abode, then. Looses a bit in translation, of course, but the sentiment's still there."

"Cut it out, Rayne" Eve replied, not in the mood for fake politeness, and pushed past him into the small, cluttered, apartment. She didn't bother looking around, knowing everything inside right down to the extra buttons for the garish shirts the English warlock preferred.

"Can I offer you something. A biscuit maybe? They're good. Your lovely Miss Burkle made them and was kind enough to share," Ethan said, pointing towards a small tupperware dish that held a handful of gingerbread cookies. There was a malicious glint in his eye.

Eve had no intention of touching either food or drink. "Enjoying yourself?"

"Who, me?"

Eve didn't sit, either. "Cute. Whatever you have planned for Saturday, cancel it. You've already gone too far with the Santa stunt."

Ethan smiled, unfazed, and perched comfortably on the armrest of his shabby sofa. "What makes you think I've got something planned? Would I do something as perfidious and anti-social as disrupting the big office shindig everybody's so looking forward to?"

"Do I have to remind you of your goals, Ethan?" Eve asked, smiling sweetly, but in a voice made of steel. "Funny. I was under the impression that they were whatever we want. We didn't get you out of Initiative custody so you could indulge in your pranks. There are bigger things at stake."

"I had to cover my tracks," Ethan said with a shrug, entirely unrepentant.

"If you had kept your head down, as planned, there would have been no need to turn our graphologies expert into a laughing Santa," Eve pointed out. "And besides, you should have killed him. The minute Wesley breaks your spell—and trust me, he will find a way—our jolly Santa will spill the beans and blow your cover."

"Trust me, no one, not even your clever Ex-watcher, will be able to undo my little ho-ho-ho spell.  It's got a fascinating little failsafe woven into it; I just wish I could see his face when he realizes that the spell acts like a yo-yo, always snapping back into place. " Ethan smiled. "It should keep him busy for weeks."

"Let me put it to you like this, Puck," Eve said. "If you blow your cover, you're no longer of use to us. So you better make sure our jolly Harold either keeps up his ho ho hos or stays silent forever."



Friday, December 19, 2003

More signatures. Angel stifled a sigh. Beside him, Gunn was leafing through stacks of paper and opening folders, preparing documents for Angel to sign. Oh yeah, they were doing good.

“Another foster home?” Angel asked, unable to muster great enthusiasm.

“A stipend and a few donations. Plus, you’re agreeing to act as mediator in a territorial dispute.”

“That’s good, right?”

“Since the two demon tribes in question customarily use human blood to consecrate newly conquered ground, getting the affected parties to shake hands—or in this case to slap flippers—should really reduce the missing persons count all around Santa Monica Bay. So yeah, I’m thinking go team.”

“Flippers?” Angel shuddered inwardly, having seen enough underwater sea life last year to last him way into the next century.

The door banged open, startling the occupants of the room. “Well, if it isn’t our friendly boss-man and our lawyer extraordinaire!” Lorne was practically vibrating with suppressed emotion. “Just the two people I wanted to see!”

Angel and Gunn exchanged a glance. Lorne had been rather inconspicuous the last few days, and they’d been so busy congratulating themselves on keeping him from knowing about the desecrated tree that they hadn't really paid attention to what he was doing. “Uh. . . can we help you?” Angel asked awkwardly.

“I have an itsy, teeny, speck of a favor for you to consider, sweet-tarts,” Lorne said. The constant patina of cheerfulness was cracking, but the effort put into maintaining it masked the actual emotion underneath. “The big holiday shindig tomorrow. . .” Blank stares. “You do remember the office party I’m planning? What I’ve been spending all my time doing, the past few weeks?”

“Sure,” Angel hastened to say.

“We remember,” Gunn said soothingly, trying unsuccessfully to encourage Lorne to take a seat. “And we’re all going, we promise. You just make sure you’ve gotten enough sleep! And lets not talk about staking out territories again, ’kay?”

“I’ll sleep,” Lorne promised, “after you two promise me that you’re going to make sure nothing interferes with my party. Nothing!”

“Lorne, no one’s going to interfere with your party,” Angel began.

“Sugar plum, you may be the swankiest CEO in our fair city, but good at hiding things you aren’t.” Lorne patted Angel’s shoulder and finally sat, losing a bit of his manic energy now that he’d gotten his request out. “I heard it through the grapevine by Friday afternoon, though your little under-the-ivy trick was appreciated.”

Angel shifted uncomfortably. “If you knew, why didn’t you say something?”

Lorne actually smiled for the first time. “And stop you from turning into a big grumpy Mamma-bear? Wouldn’t miss this for all the Oolong in China, dumpling. Even got our two favorite green and pleasant men playing Holmes and—well not Watson, but Riggs maybe, if Mel Gibson were British, that is. But the deer and the entrails were just minor annoyances, whereas this? This is a party.”

He beamed, then added: “And this time there won’t be any clients to get in the way of everybody’s divertimento.”

Everyone in the room remembered what Lorne considered a party, and the lengths he’d go through to ensure its success. “So you want to know. . .”

“What you’re doing about security.”

“Ah. Gunn?”

* * *

Hands-free headsets made filing your nails while talking on the phone so easy. “Wolfram and Hart,” Harmony said to the most recent caller. “How can I help you?”

“Is Angel there?”

“I'm sorry, sir, but Mr. Angel is in a meeting right now. Can I take a message for you, or perhaps redirect your call?”

“No, a message is fine. Can you let him know that Xander Harris is going to be—”

That's why the voice was so familiar! “Oh. My. God. Xander?” she squealed. “Is that really you?”

“Uh. . . yeah,” he said carefully. “And you are. . .?”

“Harmony! Oh, my god, this is so cool! How are you!”

“Harmony? Who never talked to us in High school and graduated into the ranks of the fanged and furious?”

Hey! If she could put aside his years as a loser to be friendly to him, shouldn’t he be a little nicer in return? “Well, duh, how many Harmonys do you know?”

“Didn't you. . . get staked?” He sounded more confused than accusatory, so Harm was willing to overlook his bluntness.

“Oh, no, silly.”

“So you're what, working for Evil Inc now?” Xander hazarded. “Manning the switchboard of doom?”

“I'm Angel’s personal assistant,” she corrected him proudly. “Without me this place would so shut down. I mean, the fearsome Angelus? Such a baby in the work place. I have to do all his copying, and if he doesn’t get his blood on time? Grouchy is putting it mildly.”

“That's. . . kinda freaky. Wait, Angel has paperwork?”

The wave of laughter was so familiar they could have both been back in high school. Not that they had talked in high school, unless exchanging insults counted. “He's the CEO, of course he has paperwork.”

“CEO, huh? I bet he likes his fancy initials. Okay, listen Harmony, I need to talk to the Broodmeister. Something legal I need his help with. Buffy said he might be able to pull a few strings, put me in touch with the right people, that kind of thing. When can I see him?”

"Oh, sure. He's pretty booked up," she warned, scrolling through Angel's schedule. "Not that he keeps to the schedule that much."

"Guess a schedule would get in the way of his mysterious appearing and disappearing, huh."

"How about I just pencil you in?” she said, privately agreeing. “Say around ten o'clock on Monday? Otherwise you’d have to come in after his meeting with the groxlar beasts. Angel kinda killed one of them by accident, then another to prove a point, and he’s going to be really touchy after that meeting, so you definitely want to see him before."

“Okay, Monday at ten it is.”

* * *

“Mr. Bloody? Hello?” A head peered into the office Spike had usurped while Wesley was upstairs looking for spell ingredients. A muted ho-ho-ho could be heard, muffled by several sofa cushions. The sound was rather grating, Spike thought, but Wesley’s chair was comfy and the man kept a box of English toffees in his top drawer, right next to a loaded gun.

“Didn’t I tell you to call me Spike?”

“My apologies, it’s just… you wanted to be informed if a certain event occurred.”

Event. . .? “Oh right.” Suddenly remembering what a visit from the mailman would mean, Spike hopped onto his feet. “Well then? Don't be shy, mate.”

He snatched the offered envelope from the other man’s hand and turned it in his hands. France. According to the postmark Buffy was in sodding France. The only good thing ever to come out of France was booze. Okay, some of the food as well. Oh well, maybe Buffy’d put on a pound or two.

He held the envelope up against the light, but the stationary was too thick. At least the handwriting looked steady and strong. For a moment Spike was tempted to pry it open. Very tempted. See what she said about Angel, see if she mentioned the dearly departed at all. Not that she would, really, since she thought he was a pile of dust. . . wouldn't she? He could be so careful, too: steam the seal open and no one would be the wiser. . . . Except he'd made the decision to keep his presence from her life, and that meant in all ways. She deserved a chance to be happy.

Unwilling to let go of this most tenuous connection, Spike reluctantly handed the letter back. “Thanks, Edgar. ‘Preciate it. Here.” He dug out a few dollar bills and handed them over, before leaning back in Wesley’s chair

Ho-ho-ho the muffled Santa doll seemed to mock him



Saturday, December 20, 2003

"Isn't he gorgeous? I wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating crackers…."

"To die for. But don't let Harmony hear you. She seems to think she's got him collared and housebroken."

If there was one thing this party had too much of, it was dull, brainless chatter. Ethan transferred his attention to the black-clad object of their desire, who was animatedly talking to the band's bass player.

Tuning into the conversation was easier than turning the dial of a radio. All it took was a bit of concentration and a tiny pinch of magic—not enough to trigger the internal spell alarms, of course—and voilá! Audio:

"… spent five hours watchin' my hand move," the vampire was saying, holding one hand in the air as if inspecting his nails. Something in the tone of his voice suggested that this was not just a fond memory but an oft-told anecdote. "Of course the acid made Dru's ramblings even more cryptic than usual, and unlike me she never cared much for music…"

Despite feeling just a twinge of envy for having been on the wrong side of the planet in 1969, Ethan smiled, and took a sip from his bourbon. Not a bad brand this, by all means, even though he preferred single malt scotch himself. He was standing half way up the stairs, leaning against the railings. It was the perfect place to listen and watch, to skim the crowd like a dragonfly hopping from one conversation to the next.

Most of the chats he listened into as people passed him on their way up or down from buffet to bar to dance floor, dealt with routine day-to-day backstabbing, who had a crush on whom, or the deplorable cuts on the year-end bonus checks. Who'd have thought that evil lawyers and their retinue could be so dull?

Spike's Woodstock story was at least amusing, and Ethan stayed tuned in for a while, automatically greeting people who passed him on the stairs, until a name caught his attention.

"Did you hear about Harold? They had him back in human form for like five seconds and then? Zap! The spell kicked in again and he was back to no-stop ho ho ho," a gleeful voice recounted. Ethan recognized the woman it belonged to: Dana, typing pool, second floor—pretty, with big knockers, and more than a passing interest in Ethan, but sprouting the charm of a vulture.

"If they ever get him back for good, we'll never hear the end of it," a second voice answered—one of the secretaries from the third floor. "Such a bore."

So the ex-watcher had already managed to temporarily dispel the transmogrification spell? Impressive.

Ethan scanned the crowd. Mr. Wyndam-Pryce obviously had marching orders to mingle, for instead of working magic in his office, he was hovering in Miss Burkle's vicinity, who in turn was flirting with Dr. Knox, one of the white coats who in Ethan's mind had looked good in fur and antlers. So easy to stir up trouble there, all Ethan would have to do was subtly strip away some manners, lower some inhibitions…. Nothing like a good free-for-all to liven up a half-dead party.

Tempting. But he shook his head. Not spectacular enough. Better go with plan A. Ethan smiled and began to slowly gather his power, sipping it out of the air and siphoning it off the people in the room, then funneling it into the gaudy tree that dominated the lobby, creating a kind of doorway, that worked almost like a lit runway. In the distance, on another plane, something dark and twisted stirred, slowly drawing near. Naturally, it would trigger a full-scale security alert the minute it entered this plane to merge with the tree but by that time it would be to late to—

"I wouldn't do that," Eve sing-songed with a smile that was as radiant as it was fake. She nodded politely at a group of secretaries who were heading upstairs towards the gallery.

Ethan started, irritated by the fact that he hadn't noticed Eve's approach.

"If that tree so much as sways," Eve warned him, once the secretaries were out of earshot, "our deal is off. Terminated."

"I distinctly remember the esteemed head of our entertainment division saying this puppy should walk free," he remarked, peeved that Eve had guessed his intentions correctly.

"And I distinctly remember telling you to keep your nose clean." Eve retorted.

"Oh, very well." Ethan acquiesced easily. Fighting with someone to whom 'terminated' didn't always mean a pink slip wasn't a good move for someone intent on surviving. He could always use the trick later, too, since she hadn't said he couldn't do it—just not now. "Such a grinch, my dear. But very well, I'll be good. Now if you'll excuse me, this party may be seriously lacking in mayhem, but there's plenty of candy, and I'm feeling a bit peckish."

He left Eve standing there and headed downstairs towards the buffet table where he'd spotted a delicious young intern. Maybe Ethan could first lure him under the mistletoe and then drag him off to one of the empty offices? Even Eve couldn't begrudge an old mystic the chance to get laid.

The party was actually in full, merry swing, the Dingoes had done tasteful and sometimes extremely artful renditions of various Christmas carols and were scheduled to go back on stage for another set later. People were laughing cheerfully and while it wasn't quite the bash Halloween had been, it was doing pretty good for an office that had traditionally ignored this particular holiday.

"Merry Christmas, you ding-a-lings," Lorne caroled, two-stepping his way over to Spike and Oz, standing by the buffet. "Try the eggnog. Guaranteed to make you see mistletoe!"

Spike immediately dropped the ladle, glancing furtively around him. Spotting Harmony in animated discussion with a cornered Angel, he relaxed. "S'got alcohol in it, right?" he asked. "Not any of that fake stuff."

"That is pure, genuine moonshine, my sarcastic little lush. Drink up me hearties, yo ho!"

That was a little more effusive than usual. "Partaking early?" Wesley guessed. He'd hovered in the vicinity, eavesdropping on Spike's tale of how he and Dru had met Jimi Hendrix—presumably an outrageous lie but still an entertaining story—but now he sidled closer.

Lorne graced him with a superior look. "A Host," he said clearly, "never partakes until the last bell has rung, the last cab door has been slammed, and the clean up crew is doing your dirty work. I am simply high on life and a successful party." Waving cheerily, Lorne danced his way over to another part of the room, single-handedly spreading cheer and far too many mixed metaphors throughout the room.

"Well, he seems happy," Wesley popped a California roll into his mouth.

"Blech. You eat that?"

"What, sushi? Well, I admit I'm not a huge fan of avocado, but I rather like this current trend."

Spike made a face, staring at the second piece Wesley picked up. "Raw fish. Nothin' civilized about eating raw fish."

"Certainly healthier than some of the other options." Wes nodded vaguely at the wide array of choices available—everything from a dozen chocolate dishes to a small table covered in black and reddish substances that were being consumed with gusto by the handful of vampires that Wolfram & Hart employed beside Harmony.

Spike ignored the thinly veiled hint and the platters of blood pudding.

"Gotta go with the vampire, there." Oz smiled. "Fresh, yeah, but not fulfilling to your average predator."

"Oh? And why's that?" Wesley asked, amused that the were-bass-player and the second souled vampire seemed to be in agreement.

"Too cold," they chorused. "Plus, there's the whole slime factor," Oz added.

"Yeah, and some of the stuff they put in with it!" Spike pointed at a maki that contained smoked salmon and creamed cheese. "I've lived in New York, mate. You don't put lox on seaweed."

"Try the tuna ones," Wesley suggested. "They taste almost like beef."

Spike made a face, sticking to his cup of eggnog and wandering away. Let those two battle out the merits of raw fish, which didn't taste at all like beef, because it was, well, fish. Half-heartedly skirting Harmony, who was looking for him, Spike ducked around the table to bump into—"Hey, Edgar."

"Ah, Mr. Bloody," Edgar responded cheerfully. A pretty young intern, blond and not too steady on his feet, was hanging off the mailman's arm and blushing furiously. The boy looked like a male version of Harmony, dim, but still an attractive piece. Spike grinned, not the least disturbed about Edgar's choice. "Havin' a good Christmas, are we?"

"A bit orthodox so far," Edgar replied, "but I'm working on that."

"That's the spirit," Spike gave the old bloke a heart-felt thumbs-up and watched him lead his tipsy young conquest away. Heck, it was the spirit of the evening. Why break with the good ole' English tradition of getting some on Christmas?

Harmony was standing by the bar, absently swishing to the canned-music beat. Smoothing his coat and brushing back his hair, Spike lowered his voice to a sexy drawl. "Hello, Harm."



Sunday, December 21, 2003

Shopping the Sunday before Christmas probably wasn't the smartest thing to do. The crowds of frantic shoppers—primarily men searching for their sweethearts—and squalling, whining kids being tugged along by frazzled mothers, made for a hellish experience. A little boy about thirty feet away screamed at the top of his lungs, demanding another piece of chocolate. The sound meshed unpleasantly with the too-loud Christmas carols playing in the background, adding to the touch of hangover from last night's party. He felt weird in the shops, too, since he could now afford a hell of a lot more than he used to. All of it could've been forgivable, though, if Gunn could just find the last few gifts he needed.

"Excuse me," he muttered, trying to keep from running over a little girl and bumping into someone to his right. "Sorry."

"No—Gunn?" Angel backed up to let the little girl run to her parents, looking confused. "What are you doing here?"

"Shopping for gifts," he answered, nodding at the bag Angel was clutching in his hands. "Same as you."

"Oh! Um." Angel moved the bag behind him, inadvertently smacking into someone else. Untangling with profuse apologies, Angel moved closer to Gunn. "Yeah, I'm shopping." His eyes looked hunted. "What of it?"

Laughing, Gunn pointed to a relatively empty cul-de-sac created by a quirk in the architecture. Angel took the suggestion gratefully, beating Gunn there by fifteen seconds. "Surprised to see you out here," Gunn said cheerfully. Nothing like laughing at Angel to brighten your day. "Lots of crowds, lots of kids. . . not exactly your style. You do know you can order online, right?"

"What? Oh, Harmony tried to show me, but I don't like buying things without seeing them." Angel glared at the bustling crowd, "Hey, aren't people supposed to be finished shopping by now?"

Shaking his head at Angel's occasional naiveté, Gunn tried to see in the bags. "You shopping for your Secret Santa or for all of us? Something for me in there?"

"No!" The bag was whisked away. Angel was losing the haunted look in favor of the far more familiar long suffering expression of a man used to his friends laughing at him. "No peeking. Not until whenever Lorne says we exchange gifts, anyway."

"So there is something for me! Whaddya get me?" Deciding to ham it up, since Angel was looking so dour, Gunn made a quick grab. He would've tussled more, when he saw a fine young lady exiting Victoria's Secrets and glance his way. "Come on, you can tell me early."

Angel just gave him that oddly paternal smile that he could pull up from out of the blue. "I'm not telling you early, Gunn. You have to wait until Wednesday, like everyone else."

"Aw, man! Where's the fun in that!" Still smiling, but losing the overeager child attitude, Gunn nodded towards the still teeming crowds. "If you've got your Secret Santa's present already picked out, wanna double team it? Protect each other's backs?"

"They aren't enemies, Gunn," Angel said with some exasperation. "They're just people. Just normal, ordinary people trying to live their lives. . ."

Gunn knew Angel well enough to know what he was actually saying, but chose not to talk about it. Otherwise Angel would start brooding, and the point was to make Angel stop brooding and have a merry Christmas. "They may be ordinary people," Gunn said instead, "but some of those women have a mean upper cut if you get in their way. You wanna protect my back while I head into Tower Records? I figure there's something in there I can buy for Lorne."

"Really?" Angel asked, following Gunn back into the throng. "I hadn't thought to go there. . ."



Monday, December 22, 2003

"Hey, Harmony."

"Good morning, Mr. . ." Harmony blinked. And then blinked again. "Wow," she said faintly.

Her visitor shifted nervously, ducking his head. "Yeah, I—"

"You learned how to dress! Oh, my god, Xander Harris! You're actually kinda… well not hot, but definitely okay!" She was around the desk giving him a thorough once over while Xander shifted on his feet. "Oh, my god! Look at you! I never would've thought a charcoal pinstripe is your color, but I really like it. Brings out your eyes. Well, eye, but still. Very chic. So, who is she?"

"Uh, she?" Xander glanced around in nervous confusion. "There's a she?"

"Of course, silly," Harmony dimpled. "Whoever dressed you. The Xander Harris I knew couldn't tell Wal-Mart from Armani." She tilted her head and reconsidered. "Or, you could tell but didn't care—and to tell the truth, I'm not sure what's worse, the not knowing or the not caring."

"Ah, Harmony, with the not gaining of tact. Good to see you, too. And I dressed my own self, and even picked out the clothes I'm wearing with only the help of a very male salesmen who happens to like seeing the inside of my wallet, and so makes sure he does a good job. Is Angel in?"

"He'll be out in a second, he's having a meeting with the upper-level staff." Harmony reseated herself, and started typing away, trying to look efficient and important. The Monday three days before Christmas wasn't a busy day, even for the secretary of the CEO, but Xander didn't need to know that, right? "So, is there a she? Or even a he? That's it! That's why you're dressing so well: You're gay!"

"What?" Xander paled, backing up physically. "No! Harmony, I'm not gay. Just because I've finally got the snappy-dressing thing down does not in any way mean that I've suddenly become gay!"

"Who's gay?" Angel asked, picking the worst possible moment to interrupt.

"Xander is. Actually, that explains a lot," Harmony said.

"I'm not gay," Xander repeated with a little more force.

"Yeah, whatever." Harmony waved his objection away, firmly entrenched in her new-found conviction, and changed the subject: "Do you need more blood, boss? Xander, can I get you a cup of coffee?"

"We're fine, Harm." Angel ushered Xander into his office and offered him a seat. "I'm assuming this isn't a courtesy call."

"I've got two Slayers up on assault charges," Xander said without preamble, "and the 'I didn't know my own strength, your Honor'-defense? Doesn't look like a winner, not with two girls who look like they can't even lift their pompoms without help. And letting the slayer strength thing out of the bag? Probably not such a swell idea."

"Probably not," Angel agreed. "But why—"

"Why Wolfram & Hart? The Council has reformed, but their red tape brigade are buried up to their necks in tax and insurance stuff. Buffy and Giles thought you might have a few lawyers to spare." Xander relaxed having said his piece, then blinked. "Did I say 'spare?' I don't mean 'spare' spare. We just want to borrow the guys, pick their brains, metaphorically speaking, of course."

Angel considered this for a moment. He pressed a button on his intercom thingy. "Harmony? Find Gunn and have him join us."

* * *

"Come on, Harm." Spike tried the sweltering gaze that usually made Harmony melt and acquiesce, not because he thought it would work but because it was too much fun to stop. "I'd like to think of it as a memento."

Harmony was trying to glare, but embarrassment made it difficult. Besides, his request was kind of flattering—in a typically male, insensitive kind of way. Still…. "Spike, I'm not signing a photocopy of my butt. I don't even know how you made me do that!"

"Er, I didn't. You did that cause Edgar dared you to. Said it was some holiday tradition or whatnot, and you hopped right on." Pushing the piece of paper forward, he wheedled, "C'mon, pet. It's a cute butt?"

Harmony went through a variety of visible emotions, from flustered to pleased, and finally settled on annoyance. "You're just making fun of me."

"No, I'm not," Spike began, distracted by the sight of Gunn leaving Angel's office.

"Give me ten minutes," Gunn was saying. "I think we can take care of this before it ever goes to court."

"Great," a startlingly familiar voice answered. "Buffy will be pleased. Actually, that goes for all of us."

"Bollocks," Spike muttered.

"Okay, fine," Harmony acquiesced after a few more moments of being grateful vampires couldn't blush. "I'll sign your photocopy."

But, though the piece of paper was sitting on her desk, Spike nowhere in sight.

* * *

An hour or so later, Xander folded a few sheets of paper and stuck them in his briefcase. "Thanks. This'll help a lot."

"More than happy to," Gunn answered, standing to shake Xander's hand.

"So if something else were to happen. . ."

"I think Wolfram and Hart can provide legal counsel to the Slayers," Angel said carefully. "It would have to just be counsel, not actually representation, but I think we can manage that without offending anyone."

Gunn laughed. "This from the guy who killed the last few representatives sent to meet him! Call me direct, Xander, next time something comes up. If I can't figure anything out over the phone, I have a few guys I trust who can fly out and take a better look at the situation."

"And bye bye red-tape. Thanks. Fighting evil is one thing, but this lawyer stuff? Scary." Xander shook Gunn's hand firmly, not even flinching when Angel offered his. "Buffy says she sent you a letter, so I don't have to say anything. Giles and Willow both say hi, Faith rolls her eyes, and Dawn sticks out her tongue at you. I think that covers just about everybody?"

"It does." Angel hadn't done a lot of speaking, just watched the way Xander acted and reacted to Gunn's various proposals. "Thanks. It was good to see you, Xander."

Xander grinned, for a moment looking like the sixteen-year-old brat Angel had first met. "I've been bribed to be nice to you, you know."

"Oh, of course." That reassured Angel the way nothing prior had, and he made up his mind. "How long are you in town? Would you like the grand tour?"

"Some other time maybe?" Xander answered, faintly surprised. "How about I give you a call next time I'm in LA?"

"Sure. Call the main number, Harmony can patch you through." Harmony, handing over a stack of mail to Edgar, made an 'ok' symbol as soon as one hand was free. "It was good to see you again, Xander. Really."

Though Xander was nodding absently to Angel’s awkward show of friendliness, his attention was clearly on something else.  His eye never leaving a spot just beyond Harmony’s shoulder, he said, "Yeah, you too. Hey, uh, Angel? Isn't a chaos mage a little overqualified to be a mailman?"

Three pairs of eyes immediately focused on one very surprised Edgar, who immediately dropped everything and ran.

* * *

The ensuing pursuit would have made any action movie director proud: French Connection, only on foot. Okay, there weren't any explosions or real collisions, but other than that, the chaos mage gave everybody a run for his money. With a spryness that belied his age, he dodged people, ducked underneath obstacles, pulled chairs, trash baskets, and other office equipment into his pursuers' paths, leaped over desks, and almost flew up the stairs taking several steps at once. Several times a muttered word of power created a bright flash and then a billowing, sickly green smokescreen appeared from nowhere. Once Ethan even pulled the neat trick of going through a wall. All the chase needed was an andante soundtrack instead of Lorne's rather syrupy Christmas tunes.

It was a desperate, against all odds effort, because the chaos mage was of course hopelessly outnumbered. Wolfram & Hart's regular security team soon joined the merry chase, employing walkie-talkies and cameras. Occasionally one of the other employees made a half-hearted attempt to grab the running warlock, probably hoping to gain favor with the new management.

Ironically, more often than not, clerks, lawyers and even Eve didn't impede the fugitive but stumbled into the way of the pursuers instead. At one time, Angel and Eve ended up on the floor in an embarrassing tangle of arms and legs.

The chase ended as suddenly as it had started with the opening of the elevator doors. Spike stepped outside and moments later the chaos mage barreled into him, knocking them both off their feet.

"Grab him, don't let him escape!" someone yelled, and prompted by the familiar voice Spike obeyed, efficiently capturing the struggling and cursing mail-mage in a tight headlock.

Spike looked up with a grin that was half confused and half triumphant and right into the gobsmacked expression of his former comrade-in-arms, Xander.

"Spike?"

* * *

Xander kept shooting Spike looks as Angel explained what had been going on the last few weeks. "Yup, sounds like Ethan's brand of wacky fun. Giles was so hoping you were still stuck in some Initiative lab."

"Ethan?" Angel asked, right on top of Wesley's, "Initiative lab?"

"This is Ethan Rayne. Old friend of Giles', and when I say old, I mean back in his hell-raising days, and nobody fill in any blanks for me, okay? Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Anyway, he comes in and periodically raises hell for the sake of raising hell. He turned Giles into a Fyarl demon a few years back, and Buffy's ex-army boy-toy arrested him. Haven't heard from him since."

"Not for lack of trying," Ethan muttered.

Xander didn't even bother glaring. "He's annoying, and his idea of 'funny' is the painfully dangerous kind, but he's not really a big thinker."

"I understand," Wesley answered. "I think Mr. Rayne and I should go have a chat somewhere quiet. Angel? Would you care to join us?"

While Angel and Wes talked about 'arrangements' for their prisoner, Xander finally turned enough to look Spike directly in the face. "So. Alive. Angel told you where. . ."

"Yeah. Paris, now."

"Yeah." Spike had hunched himself into the corner, looking almost forlorn as he was studied. "Wanna tell me how this happened?"

"Not without a beer or three."

"I've got time. And you're buying."

* * *

Spike brought two beers over to a secluded booth, taking a few swallows. "So, you're gay now? Can't say I'm surprised."

"Yeah, well, same to you. Except with the no longer being dead. You're quite the roly-poly. Actually it wouldn't surprise me if you were gay, either. Bleached hair? Painted nails? Way more bells than me suddenly knowing the inside of a fitting room."

"Very witty. You wait the last few hours to say all that?" The beer was gone before he realized it, and he signaled the waitress for a refill. "You can't tell her."

The bar wasn't crowded, but the noise meant they had to lean in a little to hear each other. "Tell me why."

Spike shrugged. "Already said good bye, didn't we? Sides, she's happy over there playing mother-hen to a bunch of Slayer-chicks. Leaves her time to a be a sister to Dawn, maybe find a bloke that won't die on her." He made a face. "Or be dead, even."

"Stranger things have been known to happen. Wanna tell me how you played the Jesus-card?"

That was a slightly longer story, even with the heavy editing Spike did. "So, we've got no idea who's sending these mysterious packages, or why. Just that they control my bloody life. Oh, and I get to annoy Angel, always a good time."

Xander raised his mug. "I'll drink to that."

While they waited for round number two—three, for Spike—he asked, "So, what about you? Heard you're in Cleveland with Andrew, now?" He glanced significantly at the left eye.

"We manage the Hellmouth there, yeah. Well, 'manage' meaning we try and keep the Slayers from doing things like get thrown in prison. It's different than Sunnydale. And I'm doing okay. Thanks."

A puddle of beer made a decent pad to doodle in. "Are you going to tell her?"

Xander just shrugged. "Your call."



Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Wesley listened to the loud, familiar trill, wondering why the connection always crackled and popped with static whenever he ordered take out from the restaurant round the corner, while long distance calls sounded like the other person was in the same room.

After three rings his call was answered. "Rupert Giles."

"Wyndam-Pryce here."

"Ah yes, Wesley, I've been expecting your call. I was talking to Xander earlier. So, Ethan is up to his old tricks again?"

"He turned nine of our employees into reindeer, and another one into a laughing Santa doll. He also redecorated our Christmas tree with pigs' entrails."

"Yes, that does rather sound like Ethan. So he really is roaming free again," Giles said. "Oh well, I never expected the Initiative to hold him for long."

Wes couldn't be certain, but was there a wistful note in the other man's voice? He filed this curious observation away for later reference. "Forgive me for being so blunt, Rupert, but there may not be much time. If Rayne has an accomplice inside our firm I need to find out who it is and what their plan was, before I have bigger problems on my hand than a cursed Santa doll. I'd appreciate every bit of information you might be willing to share."

"Well, Ethan was never much of a team player per se," Giles mused. "Too mercurial for long-term partnerships, but given the right incentive, by which I mean significant amounts of money, he's perfectly capable of making an effort."

"What you're saying is, maybe he has an accomplice and maybe he doesn't." Wesley summed up, frowning. "What else can you tell me? Who is he normally affiliated with? What does he do when he doesn't mess with people's holidays?"

* * *

Spike felt strangely morbid, prowling through the deserted corridors of Wolfram & Hart again. It smacked of nights filled with boredom and self-pity, spent slipping through walls and locked doors, when nothing Spike did seemed to make a dent in this world.

Things were different now: he could feel the slight draft of the AC on his face and taste all the stagnant office smells in the air. If he reached out with his hand the walls would be solid and impenetrable to his touch and unless he was prepared to use force, locked doors could keep him out. But other than that?

Maybe it was true: the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.

"Didn't think I'd ever get the opportunity to tell you this, but what you did in Sunnydale, well, I never thought you had it in you, Spike. Guess I was wrong," Harris had said awkwardly, then he'd smiled and stuck out his hand.

A compliment from Harris? Should have tasted like nectar, but somehow didn't. Still, Spike had shaken the proffered hand, muttered a half-hearted reply, and driven Xander to the airport in Angel's Viper.

"It's kind of ironic, don't you think? You and Angel, fighting the good fight side-by-side?" Xander had mused, as he got out of the car. "I'm sure he appreciates the extra muscle if not the scathing sarcasm. For what it's worth, I'm glad you found a new gang to hang out with."

And now, after returning the borrowed car, Spike found himself playing ghost again, looking for… God knows what.

It wasn't until he stood right in front of it that he realized that his feet had carried him to Lorne's post-it studded door. It was slightly ajar, allowing a thin shaft of light and the hummed notes of a Christmas tune to escape.

"Working late, mate?" Spike asked and pushed inside without knocking.

The green demon was seated at the far side of his office where a cluttered dressing table with a round mirror gave the room a touch of backstage Vegas. Without his obligatory cell phone, a seabreeze in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, Lorne looked unusually relaxed.

"Working? No, not cutting it that close, muffin. All the gifts have been sent; my lonely Hollywood hearts are shipped off to Brazil on a Christmas pleasure cruise, press coverage and ego-stroking all inclusive, and everything's set for tomorrow's Christmas dinner. My work is done," Lorne recounted happily. The ice-cubes in his glass jingled.

"Good," Spike said gloomily.

"So, how did it go, vanilla?"

Spike grimaced at the nickname, but decided it was better than being called Spikeycakes or something even more ludicrous. "How did what go?"

"Your reunion with your old… friend?" Lorne asked gently.

"Harris?" Spike rubbed his neck. "Should be on a plane to Cleveland by now," he evaded the question, but then he reconsidered. "Say, Fred mentioned you used to be some fancy barkeep…."

"Barkeep?" Lorne demanded with fake indignation, puffing out his chest, one hand resting where humans had their heart. "I'll have you know Caritas was the finest karaoke club this side of the continent. What Rick's Café was to Casablanca, Caritas was to LA. Until it got all blown up once too often."

Spike nodded absentmindedly, focusing on his own problem. "And people could talk to you about… well, things, right? Pour their hearts out over a bottle of vodka an' you'd read their fates and whatnot?"

"Auras, sweetpea. People sing me a little ditty and I read their auras."

"Don't need the empath, just the bartender, I think.  Tell me, what am I doing here?"

"Come on, blondie, you don't expect me to answer that, do you? I'm not that good. The meaning of life is something you'll have to work out on your own."

"No, I mean 'here'—at Wolfram & Hart. What's my function? What am I supposed to do?"

A kind of professional zeal seemed to take over the empath demon. "First you plant your hot little tush on that chair over there, while uncle Lorne mixes you a stiff one, and then you can pour all your woes into my kindly disposed ear."

Lorne opened a cabinet, revealing a well stocked bar. "Let me guess: bourbon?"

"Yeah, make it a double," Spike said gratefully, but he didn't sit. Instead he began to pace. "Something Harris said made me think. Why am I still here? Angel has a bunch of soldier boys at his beck and call. He doesn't need yours truly to chip in a few punches. Wouldn't mind workin' under Fred, but I'm not big with the science stuff."

He stopped to accept the drink Lorne handed him and stared at it for a moment, as if the amber liquid held the answers to all his questions, then tossed it back with the ease of the practiced drinker.

"And playing detective with Percy?" Spike continued. "Heck, I couldn't even rat out Edgar, or Ethan, or whatever he's called. Thought he was a swell guy, talked to him about football and the motherland and whatnot. A brilliant sleuth I am. Better change the Holmes hat for a thing with bells on it, since I'm nothin' more than Angel's court jester."

"Aren't you being a little harsh on yourself? Maybe it's you who needs this place and some of the people in it? Angel is your—"

"Angel!" Spike interrupted, spitting the name out like a bitter taste. "Angel got this gig handed to him on a silver platter and now he expects everybody to jump when he snaps his fingers. Why should I take orders from a ponce who's lost his bite? Maybe I should leave, now that I can. Do my own thing."

"Okay, bourbon, if that's what your unbeating heart tells you to do, this demon here is not going to tell you not to. Believe me, I know all about new beginnings. But do me a favor: if you decide to take a hike, please wait till after Christmas? I agonized for two hours over tomorrow's seating order. Talk about embarrassing, after all there's only six of us, but we have all so many skeletons in our closets, it gets kinda crowded."

"I don't have to sit next to Angel, do I?"

"Fred's to your right, Gunn to your left."

"What about the food?" Spike asked. "If you're serving sushi again I'm outa—"

"Mexican."

"That's alright, then."

* * *

"Good evening, sir," the security guard greeted him when Wesley approached his desk, even though a 'good morning' would have been more appropriate. Technically speaking, it was already several hours past midnight.

"Good evening, Carter," Wesley replied and set down his mug of steaming hot tea, before opening a thin binder and quickly leafing through his notes on yesterday's disappointingly inconclusive interrogation and his earlier conversation with Rupert Giles.

He was determined to get back to business as soon as possible. What he hadn't told Giles was the fact that Records didn't have a file on Ethan Rayne, not a single word, either on paper or in the computers. That was a mystery in itself. If the chaos sorcerer had a history as a troublemaker, like Xander had suggested and Giles confirmed, then W&H should have a thick dossier on him. Who'd have the power to destroy such a file or make it disappear? The same people who'd sent their cyborgs to attack the building? Who'd known where to look for the Staff of Devosynn?

"Did our guest behave himself?" he asked.

The security guard gestured towards the small monitor screen where a black and white Ethan  paced restlessly up and down in a bare white cell, like a caged leopard. "He's been like that for hours. Maybe he's—"

"Claustrophobic? Well, that would certainly make my task easier," Wesley said, studying the imprisoned chaos mage.

As though sensing his scrutiny, Ethan Rayne raised his head and gazed right into the security camera,  his eyes staring directly at Wesley, and a defiant, almost smug expression settled on his features. Maybe this wouldn't be so easy after all.



Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Secret Santa gift for Angel left in Lorne's care? Check. Other gifts slipped under the tree? Check. Right, once more unto the breach and all that rot. Spike took a deep breath, adjusted his coat, brushed some imaginary lint off his brand-new pants, and strode through the open door into Angel's inner sanctum.

"So, when do we get to open our prezzies?" he asked with more cheer than he actually felt.

"And a very nice evening to you too, Spike," Fred greeted him, part sugar, part spice, while Angel remained silent, acknowledging Spike's arrival with a cursory nod. Spike thought he looked slightly constipated from the effort. Obviously, Angel had received the same 'play nice' lecture Lorne had given Spike.

"Fred, you look smashing! I like the hair," Spike exclaimed, pointedly ignoring his gloomy looking grandsire. "Very fetching."

Fred thanked him with a blush and a radiant smile. She had indeed taken the opportunity to dress up and her hair cascaded down in a mass of beautiful pre-Raphaelite curls. When Wesley and Gunn arrived shortly afterwards, it became apparent that Spike was the only one who hadn't made a visible effort to smarten up—although new pants had to count for something, right? Angel, Wes, and Gunn all wore expensive Armani suits, ties, and shiny new shoes. Lorne looked his usual self, dressed in a striking suit that looked like golden velvet; if he ever grew tired of the garment it would make great covers for sofa cushions.

"Whoohooo, you made it!" Lorne gushed, as though Spike were the guest of honor and his social calendar had made his attendance doubtful. Maybe he was trying to make up for Angel's lack of enthusiasm. "Are those pants new? One of these days you have to let me dress you in something other than black."

Spike suppressed a shudder, but he let the enthusiastic party demon drag him to the table.

A large circular dining table was set up in the middle of Angel's suite with white table linen, expensive crockery and cutlery, and a silver candelabra holding flickering tapers. Lorne hadn't lied when he'd told Spike he'd be sat between Fred and Charles, but he'd failed to mention that Angel was seated directly opposite him, glaring over the holly and pine Christmas-y centerpiece that issued peremptory marching orders for all to be merry. At least Wes, who had been placed to Angel's right, next to Gunn, seemed in a cheerful mood.

When the caterers arrived with more than a dozen lidded dishes and placed them on two smaller side tables, Spike sniffed. Various greens, potatoes, roasted goose, apple sauce, cranberries, chestnuts. Mouthwatering aromas, but….

When the caterers had left, Spike turned to Lorne. "I thought you said we were gonna eat Mexican?" he said accusingly.

The green demon passed him a Plexiglas pepper mill with crushed red chilies inside. "Now it's Mexican, hotness," he said, smiling.

For several minutes the only sounds were requests to pass the sauce, beans, or another helping of meat, the clatter of cutlery on plates, and contented chewing. Lorne had picked a good restaurant. The food was excellent, on the traditional rather than the Nouvelle cuisine end of the culinary spectrum, and everybody, even Angel, enjoyed the smells, flavors, and textures of the dishes. There was a very basic pleasure in sharing a meal with friends, something Angel had almost forgotten. The desire to relax, to allow the ever present tension in his gut and shoulders to uncoil and slither away, warred against and surrendered to a lesson learnt the hard way, namely that the universe never ran out of other shoes to drop.

"So, what did you find out about our guest?" Angel reluctantly broke the silence, turning to his right.

Wesley put down his knife and fork and dabbed his mouth with his napkin, organizing his thoughts before replying. "The fact that Rayne worked in the mail department, able to enter offices at will under the pretext of delivering mail, suggests that he was planted here as a spy rather than a saboteur. I doubt anyone would go through the trouble of planting him here for a few Christmas pranks. In fact, I'm certain our recent troubles were entirely Rayne's idea. From what I've been told he's a chaos worshipper with quite a history in that respect."

"Do we know how he got Numero Cinco's job in the mail department?" Angel asked.

"Not yet. Due to the holidays several people in the personnel department are unavailable and Rayne is uncooperative—so far. I could, of course, use force," Wesley said matter-of-factly, "but I don't think that will be necessary. Apparently Rayne was held prisoner by a covert government organization called the Initiative—one more avenue of investigation that is closed right now, but will reopen after the holidays."

Spike silently put down his cutlery, the mention of the Initiative labs draining all flavor from the  meal.

"Looks like Christmas is the natural enemy of a proper investigation," Gunn chipped in as he ladled more potatoes onto his plate.

Wesley nodded and carried on. "Mr. Rayne is a man who values his freedom. I'm certain the prospect of having to spend additional years in confinement will prove persuasive. He knows he's not getting any younger. Believe me, soon Mr. Rayne will tell us everything we want to know."

Angel nodded. Wesley didn't have to tell him that if Rayne remained unhelpful it might be necessary to resort to force after all. They couldn't afford to be lenient, not when they'd set up camp in the belly of the beast. Given half a chance Wolfram & Hart would swallow them whole, or chew them up and spit them out. Angel sighed and pushed his plate away, having lost his appetite.

Fortunately, the others seemed just as keen on changing the subject. By the time the chocolate cake had been reduced to mere crumbs and the dishes were cleared away, everybody was in good spirits and chatting about everything that wasn’t work. Even the two vampires felt strangely included.

Around ten o'clock Lorne excused himself and disappeared in the bathroom only to reappear a few minutes later in a red and white Santa costume. It was a plain outfit, no glitter, no white feather boa, just a fake beard and a cushion to create the illusion of a rotund belly. Even so, Spike thought Lorne looked as camp as a row of pink tents.

"Even if I live another hundred years, this one will stay with me," he whispered into Gunn's ear. The other man nodded slowly.

"I was going to book John Rhys Davis to play Santa, and give you your presents," Lorne said cheerfully.

"Who?" Fred interrupted weakly, stunned by the vision in red, white, and green.

"Gimli," Gunn and Wesley answered as one.

"But then I decided I’d rather have this honor myself," Lorne continued, unaware that he looked more like the Grinch who stole Christmas. He smiled and reached into the large sack he was carrying and fished out the first present.

* * *

Angel had barely unwrapped his parcel and was giving the two pairs of fine looking woolen socks a puzzled look, when the buzzer sounded.

"Lorne?" Angel asked, wondering if the Pylean had any more amusements lined up for the night. He had absolutely no intention of letting carol singers, strippers, Siegfried and Roy, or even Elvis himself into his apartment—not tonight, not ever.

Lorne raised his hands defensively. "No more surprises, pleasant or unpleasant—at least none devised by this party planner. Unless you count the carol singing—which we simply have to do. You know you have a place in my heart, Angelcakes, even though I must admit your high C scarred me for life—and your high B for that matter—but singing is my first love. There can be no Christmas without the do-re-mis, comprende mon capitan?"

The buzzer sounded again.

Irritated, Angel dropped the socks on the table and headed for the door. The surprise visitor was just that, a surprise. "Eve?" Angel was so thrown off kilter he automatically took a step back and Eve, impeccably dressed in a very revealing cocktail dress and high-heeled Manolo Blahniks, chose to read this as an invitation and quickly slipped inside.

"Now that we've established that you still remember my name, shall we find out if you remember how to mix a dry martini?" She said and let her creamy shawl slide to the floor, revealing bare shoulders. "And before you ask, stirred is fine."

Moving lithely and seductively like a siren from outer space, she walked passed Angel into the living room only to stop in her tracks. "Oh, you have visitors."

Her surprise didn't fool Angel for one second, but he decided to maintain the charade. "We're having a little Christmas party," he said, explaining the obvious.

"How quaint," Eve replied, with just the tiniest hint of poison. "It's good to see that you've got your priorities right, champ."

It was the kind of remark Lilah might have made under the circumstances, Wesley thought. Sans the use of stupid nicknames, and with a great deal more panache. A sudden pang of loss sliced through his hard-earned holiday cheer and he reached for his wineglass.

Meanwhile, Angel made no move to mix the requested martini. Instead, he folded his arms in front of his chest and glowered at her. "Was there something you wanted?"

Unfazed, Eve stepped towards the table to greet the others with a nod. She swiped up the socks, eyebrows raised, and dropped them disdainfully. "Socks. The gift that warms the heart. Someone must really like you."

She turned around and opened her purse. "I was on my way to a party, when I realized I'd forgotten go give you this…." She held out a sealed envelope to him. "It must have landed on my desk by mistake. The mail department has been absolutely chaotic since Edgar's capture—rather ironic, don't you think? Anyway, I thought it might be important, so I stopped by the office and here I am."

Stone-faced, Angel took the envelope. It bore the stamp of the legal department. He slapped it against his palm a few times, then turned abruptly and held it out for Spike to take.

"What, I'm your guinea pig now?" Spike spluttered.

Angel looked heavenwards. "It's yours. Your 'present,' if you will."

"Oh?" Spike took the envelope, touching it gingerly, like it might explode—or turn him into a reindeer. In this place anything was possible.

"It's customary to say thank you," Eve suggested, meaning both Angel and Spike.

"Don't let me keep you from your party," Angel replied.

"My martini?" Eve insisted with a strained smile.

Exasperated, Angel gave Lorne a nod, and the Pylean walked up to the bar to mix the requested drink. Anything to get Eve to leave.

* * *

Wolfram & Hart wasn't in the habit of locking people up, as they made most of their money avoiding confinement for their clients. Nevertheless, they were equipped for exceptions, like Pavane or Ethan Rayne. No expense had been spared in furnishing the labyrinthine basement of the LA branch with a dozen holding cells and in making each as secure as Fort Knox. More so, in fact. There were enough magical wards and technological barriers in place to impede every method of communication known to mankind. Prisoners were completely incommunicado, unless Wolfram & Hart lifted those barriers deliberately.

There were three security guards who's only task were to keep their eyes and ears open and watch the various surveillance monitors: small CCTV screens, a silver scrying bowl of enchanted water, and a little scarlet demon in a cage that looked like a winged lobster, and was primed to shriek at every change in the flow of magic within a twenty yard radius. Sorcerers could be slippery customers and Ethan Rayne had therefore received the full treatment.

Getting out was impossible. Getting in wasn't, not for someone who knew Wolfram & Hart inside out. It didn't take long and the three security guards were soon snoring peacefully, with all the alarms disabled.

"We had a deal," Lindsey McDonald said, as he opened the door and stepped into Rayne's cell, a loaded gun in his hand and a death sentence in his eyes. "And you didn't hold up your end of the bargain."

"After four years without I needed to know I still had the magic touch," Ethan said with a shrug.

The chaos sorcerer was clearly outmatched; much older than the young lawyer, unarmed, and impeded by enchanted handcuffs. Without the ability to magically boost his strength and speed, he was a tired man in his fifties, physically weakened by four years of imprisonment. Trying for the gun was too undignified, so all he could do was meet his end on his own two feet. Ethan slowly got up from his bunk, and approached the newcomer.

The two men stared at each other for a moment.

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you," Lindsey said, raising the gun until it pointed at Ethan's head. His voice sounded strained.

"The world is more interesting with me in it?" Ethan suggested with a charming smile that never reached his eyes.

When Lindsey hesitated, Ethan lifted his gaze from the barrel to the young, clean shaven face before him, and to the angry frown that seemed to be a permanent fixture.

"You should have seen the look on Angel's face," Ethan said, and a spark of genuine mirth lit up his face. "When he saw the reindeer. Priceless. I'm just sorry I never got to unleash my big surprise. That really would have brought the house down."

The hand with the gun wavered.

* * *

Okay, so she had absolutely no business being here at this time of night, but as long as the guards who manned the security desk in the ground floor lobby didn't know that, this should work, right? After all she was the boss's personal assistant. That probably meant extra security clearance. Harmony took a deep breath and banged against the locked glass door to get their attention. When the two men looked up from their card game, she waved and flashed them her best toothpaste commercial smile, the one she and Cordy had practiced in front of the mirror, back in the day when they were still in High School. Back when Harmony still had a reflection.

"Hi Carlos, hi Pete," she greeted them, when the little loudspeaker hummed with static.

"Evening, Miss Kendall," Carlos' voice filtered through. "Working on Christmas Eve?"

Harmony affected an exasperated eyeroll. "Would you believe that the big bad boss decided to work tonight? And that he needs me to find his files for him?" Sure, it was a grossly unfair exaggeration, because bossy wasn't that workaholic-y, but hey, a little lie here or there never hurt anyone, right? Right?

The guards checked their CCTV screens, toggling switches and scanning the perimeter of the building from various camera angles. Pfft. Anyone would think she was trying to smuggle in a whole SWAT team.

When they were satisfied she was on her own, Carlos released the locks of the door, while Pete checked his watch and entered her name and the time in the log. Harmony took the opportunity for a bit of chit chat, although the suspense was killing her—figure of speech, of course—then ran her ID card through the scanner, officially checking in, stepped into the elevator, and pushed the button for the fourth floor.

Next stop? Christmas.

* * *

"Well, aren't you going to open it?" Eve asked, watching Spike turn the envelope in his hands.

"What? You tellin' me opening this is the height of tonight's entertainment? Didn't think you'd be that hard up," Spike retorted, but he couldn't quite conceal his own curiosity. "And besides, shouldn't Angel here ask me that?" A quick sideways glance revealed little. All Spike got for his trouble was Angel's usual marble physique and a minute shrug, which might mean anything between 'it's no big deal' and 'your call.' A fat lot of help that was. Well then. Poker face in place, Spike tore the envelope open and peered inside. Bingo! The poker face fled and made room for a grin.

At a tilt of the envelope a driver's license, fake birth certificate and several other papers tumbled out and scattered onto the table. Spike shuffled them around gleefully. Finally! All the documents he needed to lease a flat, maybe even open his own business, and semi-legally own a car. "About time too," he griped. "Hope they stand up to scrutiny." But the possessive way he was handling the papers belied his harsh tone.

"Congratulations, sugarlicious," Lorne exclaimed. "You're a real boy now. Or well, a step closer anyway."

Charles picked up the driver's license and smirked at the photo, then gave Spike a chummy slap on the back. "That makes you almost legal, man," he said cheerfully. "Meaning you can have your own car. What's it gonna be?"

"Had a deSoto for years. Starlight black. Maybe I should get another one," Spike pondered. "Least I know how to fix it when it acts up."

Wes smiled, even added to the discussion once or twice, but mostly his attention was on Eve. There had to be a reason for her visit—other than the one she'd tried to feed them.

Meanwhile, Fred was beginning to feel kind of sorry for their unwanted guest. Not in a big warm and  fuzzy way, since you didn't feel that way about someone you didn't trust, but Fred did feel a slight pang of guilt, because Eve was so obviously the outsider here and so utterly unwelcome. Angel's animosity reminded Fred of her own high school days when a girl with brains and a talent for physics was about as popular as dog turd on a brand-new shoe.

It was obvious that Eve was waiting for an invitation to stay. Nobody could make a single martini last that long. Maybe Eve didn't have anyone to celebrate with? Okay, so most likely she was the enemy, and kind of condescending too, but she was here to help them keep Wolfram & Hart running, which meant that maybe she should have been included in this secret Santa thing from the start.

Fred felt she should probably say something nice to Eve. But what? Everything she could come up with sounded so lame in her head, it made her wince. Plus it sounded kind of insincere.

It was Lorne who solved her dilemma, a perfect host as ever. "So, Eve, while the boys talk about wheels and horsepower, how about I fix you another martini?"

* * *

Why wait? Waiting was for 'good' people—with lots of self-discipline, not for an undead working gal like her. And besides, she'd always been allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. No reason to break with tradition just because she was dead now.

Harmony crouched in front of the huge tree and worked her way through the two dozen or so parcels that had been placed underneath it. Why was Fred's stack so large? Harmony glared at it. Recognizing Spike's handwriting on one of the cards she snatched up the box, shook it, then sniffed. Chocolate? That was lame, but okay. Nothing romantic. Good. She put the parcel down and continued her search.

There! Her presents. "Yay!" At the top of the pile lay an elegant looking envelope. That had to be some gift voucher from Angel. The only questions were, how many zeros—and clothes, shoes, or perfume? She pondered for a moment. Clothes, definitely clothes. Angel was a man who saw the sense in having a large wardrobe, unlike a certain other vampire. She put the envelope down. Better to open it in front of the boss. And she should probably rehearse some kind of thank you speech. Keep the boss happy—that was her motto.

The next parcel she picked up looked really extravagant: shiny paper, a huge bow and little jingling bells hanging from it. This had to be from Lorneytunes. Harmony's mien darkened. Nothing from Spike? Not even a tiny weenie present? So typical. Men. All the same, playing with a poor girl's feelings and then? Poof, turning into frogs.

She was about to stomp off in a huff when she spotted it. It was only a small box, almost inconspicuous next to the larger parcels, but it looked a lot like a jeweler's box.

"Yay!" she squealed again and was reaching for it when, behind her, she heard the sound of a gun being cocked.

"Sorry to interrupt, my dear," a male voice said, "but I have to ask you to step away from that tree."

* * *

There was a marked difference between blowing a person's brains out at point blank range and killing at a distance with the stroke of a pen, or through a spell. A thin line—which, to Ethan's great relief, gun-toting lawyer-boy had pulled back from at the last minute. Apparently young McDonald was not yet jaded enough to do in cold blood what he wouldn't hesitate to do in the heat of anger. Some leftover cowboy ethic, no doubt.

It had been a close call, though. Deep inside, Ethan was more shaken than he cared to admit. For more than a dozen rapid heartbeats, he'd stared death in the eye, or, more specifically, in the barrel, before his employer had lowered his gun and stepped aside. "Alright. Bring the house down. Then get the hell out." And with that Lindsey McDonald had disappeared. Literally.

And now, against all his principles, Ethan was playing cowboy himself, aiming the gun he'd found in Wyndam-Pryce's desk at the dumbest vampire he'd ever met.

Slowly, Harmony turned around, startled when she recognized him.

"Edgar?"

"Ethan Rayne, my dear. I'd give you my card, but…." He shrugged.

"Ethan, right. Ooops, my bad," Harmony replied, smiling sheepishly, and completely ignoring the gun he was pointing at her. Her attention seemed to alternate between Ethan and the stacks of presents beneath the tree. "Say, aren't you supposed to be, you know, like pretzeled up in leg-irons and thumbscrews or something? I mean that's what they do with evil warlocks, right?"

"I got bored." Ethan gave her a cold, appraising stare. Shouldn't she be partying her undead little heart out? Did her presence here mean that Angel was nearby, working overtime? He'd broken into Wesley's office, but he hadn't checked Angel's.

"You know, while we have this chance, I always wanted to thank you. I'm, like, your number one fan," Harmony confessed, almost bouncing. She certainly had the fangirl effusiveness down to a tee.

Ethan was slightly taken aback. "Oh? Do tell."

"It's true. I didn't recognize you at first, but you're the one who created that enchanted candy."

Ethan preened momentarily, then looked confused. "And you remember this. . ."

"Oh, my mom went on an insane shopping spree, buying all these Prada boots and shoes with matching handbags, only when she was back to acting her real age she thought they were too daring and gave them all to me." Harmony's face shone with happiness at the memory. "It was awesome. Better than Christmas. And I have you to thank for it. And the year before that? Halloween? I only just found out that it was your spell that turned me into a super—"

"I'm touched." Ethan interrupted. "I'd love to stay and bask in your admiration, but frankly, I'm on a bit of schedule. Now raise your hands and get away from that tree, if you please." He made a shooing gestured with the hand that held the gun. "Now."

"I'm a vampire. You can't kill me with that," Harmony said, not moving an inch. She did consider vamping out, but decided against it. It always smudged her lipstick.

"So true," Ethan said smoothly. "That's why I'm aiming at your pretty face and not your brains."

"What?"

"I'm counting on your desire to stay pretty. Hands, please?"

"Wow, that's really… wow. Smart, I guess," Harmony pondered, nodding slowly. "And so mean! After what I just told you. I mean, we're both evil, right? Well kinda. Shouldn't there be something like professional courtesy between us or something?"

"Absolutely. Note my use of the word 'please.' Now, my dear, if you'd extend me the same courtesy?"

"Oh, right." She nodded and started to raise her hands, but then she changed her mind and gestured towards her presents. "It's just, is it okay if I pick that up first? I think it's from Spike and—"

"Wouldn't dream of getting between you and him," he lied, giving Harmony's backside a lecherous appraisal when she bent down and swooped up the little jeweler's box. He nervously waited for Harmony to open the box and mendaciously admired the silver unicorn pendant—which he found painfully cheesy but which was greeted with a squeal of happiness. He even allowed vampgirl to fasten the necklace round her neck, before chaining her to the stairs that led up to the gallery, using a pair of handcuffs swiped from the incapacitated security guards in the basement.

Time to concentrate on the summoning. He'd laid the groundwork from the moment Lorne dropped his 'this puppy walks free' comment, performing the main ritual in his own apartment, far away from scrutiny. All he had to do now was push open the door to the dark plane and issue an invitation. The final moments were still the hardest. He was sweating by the time the spell was complete, the slow gathering of power always more complicated than a quick smash and grab, especially without a chance to siphon raw power off a party in full swing. Gradually, slowly, he felt the dark entity draw near. There was no swirly portal, no flashy sound or ILM effects, only a dull, rumbling groan, as the dark entity merged with its intended host.

And of course the blaring siren of the security alert, trigged by the unauthorized spell-casting.

Ethan took in Harmony's expression of shock and smiled, feeling victorious. Oh yes, he certainly hadn't lost his touch. Now the question was: stay and gloat or high-tail out?

* * *

Eve's unscheduled presence had cast a chill on the festivities and brought all conversation to a grinding halt. After about ten minutes of awkwardness, Lorne decreed that every secret Santa gift had to be bought with an amusing story—a true one—and they were soon laughing in spite of Eve's unwelcome presence.

Fred's slightly too scientific high school anecdote wasn't actually funny, but the garbled delivery was utterly endearing. Even Angel was charmed, particularly when she ooed and ahhed over the Mexican cookbook that proclaimed the best, fastest, and tastiest way to make tacos known to man. It was obvious from Gunn's smug expression that he was the buyer, though Fred was very careful to keep her thanks directed at her general 'secret Santa' and not anyone in particular.

To earn what turned out to be a tastefully wrapped facsimile edition of The Original Illustrated Strand Sherlock Holmes, Wesley—on his third glass of wine—told a story about how he once won three demon slave girls in a game of darts. The lewd teasing that followed made him flush, but the story about returning the girls—without taking them up on their, ahem, skills—was just as hilarious and got him over the self-conscious fidgeting quickly. Spike smacked him on the shoulder before reaching for his own gift, saying, "That's what you do with three girls? Give'm back? You got a lot to learn, young Padawan."

Angel blinked at the unknown reference.

"Right," Spike said, pulling out a button-down blue T-shirt. "Got two possible choices for this, and Angel, if you sodding well bought me clothes. . ." Fred snickered, which immediately pegged her as the buyer, and Spike imperceptibly softened. "Not wearing it, mind," he announced at large. "But, well, blue's not a bad color. Not as good as red, though."

"Pay your fine," Santa Lorne commanded.

"Well, since red is such a good color, gonna tell you about a demon named Sweet." That very heavily edited account of Sunnydale Sings! bled into Gunn telling Fred and Spike, since the others knew already, about the first time Angel had to sing for Lorne.

"That's not a personal story," Angel grumbled, but since he'd already opened his woolen socks, he figured he was owed the humiliation. Gunn, meanwhile, crowed over the basketball-hoop-trashcan combo, immediately tagging Wesley as the buyer and slapping him on the shoulder in thanks.

"This is perfect," he laughed. "Just what I wanted. Thanks, man!"

Lorne pulled out the final present, a small, inexpertly wrapped parcel, and stared at it in some surprise. "Did we miss someone? Who's this one for?" Without waiting for an answer, Lorne read the nametag and did a double take. "For me? But I'm Santa!"

"Oh, open the bloody thing already," Spike grumbled, half-smug, half self-conscious, earning himself several surprised looks.

Still slightly shell-shocked, Lorne unwrapped two CD's. The artwork was obviously amateur and the CD's, when removed from the case, had been burned on a home computer, but the way Lorne stared at them belied their unprofessional appearance. "Are these who I think they are?" he asked.

Gunn picked up the second CD. "Want to fill us in?"

"These are two of the hippest and hottest underground bands out there," Lorne said with mounting enthusiasm. "They—"

A sickeningly familiar siren warbled through the party, a female voice calmly announcing that a spell was being performed on the fourth floor. Wesley and Angel barely had enough time to look at each other and say, "Ethan," before a subharmonic growling interrupted them.

* * *

The private elevator connecting the penthouse suite with Angel's office clearly wasn't built for seven people and it took considerable shuffling until they'd all squeezed in. The ride down lasted only two minutes or so, but it seemed to take longer, much longer, especially to those with a propensity to breathe.

"Let's just hope we don't have a power failure," Spike said gleefully, relishing the way Eve blanched at the thought.

As it happened the elevator did not get stuck, but safely delivered them all into Angel's office, where they were greeted by shrill screaming and loud thwacking noises, both emanating from the lobby. The windows were set on opaque, so it was impossible to identify their source, however, behind the milky panes loomed a dark moving shape. Angel was the first to rip open the door and storm out into the lobby.

Spike and Wesley weren't far behind, the latter pulling a gun from his jacket pocket even though their target looked impervious to bullets:

Instead of Lorne's Christmas tree, a vast and imposing mass of roots and branches, about four or five times the size of the former pine tree writhed and swayed in the lobby, as though buffeted by a strong breeze. If it weren't for the ever-burning candles and the red and silver Christmas decorations—now in disarray—one would never have believed that this could be the same tree. The trunk was thicker and more gnarled, and its roots had punched several holes in the beautiful terracotta pot, causing black earth to spill onto the floor. Dark and twisted, these roots were crawling across the floor like snakes, trying to burrow into the ground. In one spot they had already wormed their way under the wooden parquet and were trying to burrow through solid concrete—with disconcerting success. Higher up, a contorted tangle of thick black branches whipped through the air like tentacles.

The screams were issuing from two different sources. For one thing the tree seemed to have grown a large mouth, which it used to screech loudly. The shriller screaming, the one that was peppered with insults and curses, came from Harmony, who was holding on to the handrail of the stairs with both hands, while a branch that had wrapped itself around one of her feet was trying to pull her towards the gaping tree-maw.

"Oh bugger," Spike said, voicing what everybody was thinking.

* * *

Fighting against evil plant-life did not top Angel's list of fun things to do. Dusting other vamps or axing a Suvelte demon, those were good for the soul. But wrestling a tree? Didn't even make the top twenty. The last one had cost him two outfits, the one borrowed by Groo, and the one he'd worn himself.

Angel was leaning strongly towards dipping into the armory of W & H's very own evil SWAT team and getting a nice little flame thrower to take care of Treebeard's evil twin. But he didn't like change much, and having to break in another secretary when this one went up in flames as part of the collateral damage? He'd rather deal with another ruined outfit.

Decision made in under a second, Angel hurled himself at the tree, targeting the serpentine vine that grasped Harmony's ankle. Beside him, Spike was doing the same thing, getting in the way, as usual. Dodging branches that were swatting at them with more nimbleness and speed than a tree had any right to possess, the two vampires unleashed a flurry of kicks and blows, hacking away at the possessed plant-life like two princes competing for a sleeping—or in this case, screaming—beauty.

With Spike on his way to Harmony, Angel was free to concentrate on more important things: like giving their foe a good clobbering. With single-minded determination, he fought his way to the main trunk and started to pummel away, in the hopes of hitting a vital organ.

"Let go!" Spike yelled, meaning the handrail Harmony was clinging to. He grabbed the vice-like branch, ready to pry it off her leg.

"I can't," she yelled back. "Ethan…That sick bastard chained me up, right next to the psycho tree! If I see him again, I am so going to kill him."

Chained? Spike spotted the handcuffs and groaned—ordinary cuffs would’ve been snapped in a second, which meant these had to be enchanted.

"Key?" he shouted over the din of thwacking and splintering sounds. About three yards away, Angel grunted, doubling over in obvious pain, pummeled about the head by a thick branch. Spike paused to gloat, his happy grin immediately turning into a grimace of pain when suddenly a sharp piece of wood skewered his belly—not just drawing blood but running him through like a wooden foil. Another branch wrapped itself around his leg and then he was lifted off the ground like a pinned beetle, arms and legs flailing in the air.

"He put it on my desk." Harmony pointed one foot in the general direction of her workplace, too wrapped up in her own problems to be aware of Spike's predicament.

Fred had no intention of joining the hand-to-branch combat, but her instincts told her to help Harmony. Taking a safer, less thorny route, she'd arrived a few seconds later than Spike but still in time to catch his question about the key and Harmony's reply. "Key. Desk. Right, I'm on it," she shouted, and edged away, careful to stay out of branch's reach. The desk was on the other side of the lobby and it seemed the tree was still growing, leaving barely enough room to maneuver.

Meanwhile, the others hadn't just stood there gaping, they'd taken action. Wesley had emptied the clip of his gun into the writhing mass, aiming—for lack of inviting targets like big eyes or a soft underbelly—at the creature's maw and trunk, but without discernible effect. Gunn had paused a moment to watch the slugs hit bark and solid wood. Obviously, the grotesque tree was impervious to ordinary weapons fire.

"I have spell books in my office," Wes muttered, and rushed off.

"I'll be right back," Gunn said, practically at the same time, heading back into Angel's office, rudely shoving Eve out of the way. A moment later he held the ancient katana that adorned the wall behind Angel's chair in his hands, a weapon he'd long itched to touch. He reverently pulled the blade out of its lacquered sheath. Oh yes, this baby was wicked sharp. Not some dull fake showpiece but the real deal. Gunn turned on his heel and rushed back to the lobby to hurl himself into the melee.

In his office, Wesley scanned the bookshelves. The more potent spell books were locked up, practically out of reach, but what about a simpler spell from one of the lesser grimoires? He pulled out a thick volume, put the gun down on his desk and began to hurriedly turn the pages, reading while he slowly walked back into the lobby.

Lorne had made a half-hearted attempt to save the presents from destruction but when a forceful blow from a swishing tree-limb smacked the Santa hat off his head, missing his horns by less than an inch, he decided that caution was the better part of valor. He was now hiding behind Harmony's desk, clutching a penknife.

Eve made no move to get involved. Staying well out of harm's way and looking poised and elegant in all that turmoil, she watched silently as the two vampires battled away. When Spike was lifted off his feet and flung into the air like a toy, the only thing she lifted was a perfectly plucked eyebrow.

Spike shouted as he was first dragged almost into the ground, then tossed high into the air, off the branches with a sickening slurp to land on the upper level balcony. Perfectly placed to see a slightly rumpled looking Englishman, gleefully watching the mayhem below.

Spike picked himself up, slower than usual, because well, there was a hole in his belly. "Look who's here," he grinned wolfishly, covering a grimace of pain.

Ethan swallowed. "When will I ever learn?" he muttered, taking a tentative step backwards.

"You're a bloody disappointment, you are," Spike told the chaos mage, stepping forward.

"You have to understand," Ethan hastened to assure him. "It's nothing personal."

Beneath them the sound of fighting continued. Both men had to duck a sweeping branch. From the looks of it the pine needles had hardened into needle-sharp thorns.

"Undo it," Spike ordered.

Ethan took another step backwards, hands raised. "I can't."

"You called it, so send it back," Spike insisted, following up.

"It doesn't work that way," Ethan admitted resignedly.

He sounded truthful, but Spike hadn't forgotten how Ethan/Edgar had fooled everybody at Wolfram & Hart, projecting an image of reliability and harmlessness while pushing his mail cart around. In order to fool not one, but two vampires the man had to have lying down to a tee. On the other hand, if what Ethan said was true and he didn't have the power to stop his creation, well, there really was no reason to keep him alive, now was there? Unless one counted the unwritten rule that champions—and Spike still didn't feel comfortable with that label—never killed an unarmed man.

"I'm not going back," Ethan stated, an edge of panic creeping into his voice. He was still slowly edging backwards, and—when Spike regarded him with a puzzled frown—explained: "Prison. Not going back there."

Spike hesitated. From below, a shout of pain could be heard, then a curse. At least Harm was no longer screaming her lungs out—hopefully that meant Fred had managed to unlock the handcuffs. But other than that it didn't sound like the fight was going well. Spike sighed. He'd probably regret this but still…. "Get lost," he said, dismissing the old mage with a flick of his fingers. "But if I ever see you again…."

Spike didn't wait to see if the other man was running or not. He leapt over the balcony railing and back into the fray, his landing cushioned by the tree itself.

"What took you so long?" Angel asked, when Spike reappeared beside him.

"What? You can't do a measly tree all by yourself?" Spike snarked, humming a few bars of a merry tune that Angel couldn't quite place.

Angel was bleeding from a few minor cuts and lacerations, his expensive suit torn in a dozen places, and he was breathing heavily from the exertion—but there was a wicked gleam in his eyes. He'd done considerable damage already, not so much to the trunk but to the tree's roots and limbs, causing splinters to fly in all directions. Unfortunately the creature seemed unimpressed. It was still growing, as if the entity from beyond was still funneling mass and energy into its tree-host.

Standing next to Harmony's desk, Wes was reciting a spell from his book, protected from attacks by Gunn and his katana, who was methodically chopping at wayward roots and branches.

Meanwhile, Fred and Harmony rummaged through the drawers of the desk, tossing out hairbrushes, lipsticks, bottles of nail polish, and other fashion accessories.

"It has to be here somewhere," Harmony assured her nervously, then squealed. "There! I told you, didn't I?"

Fred grabbed the can of hair spray. "Does anybody have a light?" she yelled.

It was Lorne who handed her a silver lighter.

Can in one hand, the lighted zippo in the other, her index finger poised on the can's nozzle, Fred approached the evil pine. For a moment the creature seemed to pause, to regard her curiously, but then half a dozen branches rushed towards her, eager to bash and tear her to pieces.

"Take this, you ugly thing, this is for trying to ruin my Christmas," Fred exclaimed, aiming her can at the nearest branch and pushing the button. With a 'fump'—resembling the homely sound of a gas stove being lit—the hair spray ignited and a small plume of flame licked at the hostile tree. The thorn-like needles burnt up like matches in noisy little explosions, reminiscent of Chinese firecrackers, singeing the branches they protruded from, even leaving a few small fires behind. The little hot spots winked out rapidly, extinguished by the fire-suppressant spell that had been cast on the tree to protect it from its hundreds of enchanted candles.

Even so, the effect was gratifying. With a loud groan the evil tree recoiled. In fact, even the gnarled roots that had been crawling towards the humans shuddered, and then started to slowly move backwards, away from the fire. The tree was afraid.

Encouraged, Fred stepped closer, producing a few more fiery bursts from her improvised flamethrower, causing more fires to spring up. The tree monster trembled and shuddered, then shrank some more, looking like an injured animal about to slink back to its lair to lick its wounds.

Beside her, Wesley was still reading from his spell-book, his voice raised, ensuring with his incantation, that the dark entity had only one possible avenue of escape: back to the plane it had come from.

A few more bursts of fire and suddenly Angel and Spike were without opponents, as the branches before them first sagged limply to the ground, then stopped moving altogether. The dark entity was gone, leaving in its wake a lot of splintered wood, a completely ravaged Christmas tree and a big pile of squashed presents.

For a moment there was silence. The only sound was the strained creaking of the gutted tree.

Then: Clap! Clap! Clap! Eve stepped forward. "Congratulations," she told Angel. "I always knew you'd be good at pruning."

Spike grinned and clapped Angel on the shoulder, breaking into the song he'd been humming earlier. "He's a lumberjack, and he's okay...."

That's when the sprinklers activated.



Thursday, December 25, 2003

The sprinklers were turned off easily enough, but not before everybody was thoroughly drenched. The only one mostly dry was Eve who'd been the first to take cover in Angel's office when the downpour began.

With a few hurried phone calls Wesley forestalled the arrival of fire trucks, ambulances, and of course the police, alerted security to the fact that Ethan Rayne was at large, and organized medical care for the disabled guards in the basement, while Angel stood facing the lobby.

"Well," Eve said, tucking a single wet strand of hair behind her ear and glancing at her watch. "You sure know how to throw a party."

Fred and Harmony glared at her. Both were completely soaked and standing in a growing puddle of water, their hair and makeup a bedraggled mess. Fred lifted the hem of her expensive dress and gave it a tentative wring. Water splattered out, dotting Angel's carpet with yet more stains.

"Party's over," Angel clipped without turning around. "Thanks for coming." He stepped back into the battered lobby, where Lorne in his soaking wet Santa suit was trying to adjust a bit of tinsel that was tangled in a drooping branch.

Eve dimpled, but didn't argue. Her shawl was still upstairs, but she didn't mention it—never turn down an excuse for dropping in at an uncomfortable time, after all. She stuck out her chin and then her chest, gearing up for the final parting shot—that never came. No one was looking at her; everyone was watching Angel.

"Look at my poor tree!" Lorne exclaimed when Angel briefly touched his shoulder, but he let go of the tinsel.

If it hadn't been for the fire-suppressant spell, the entire tree would have been a goner. Even so it was a sad mess: half of its needles burnt or at least partially singed; the terracotta pot cracked, black earth spilling to the ground to muddy the water from the sprinklers; most of the glitter balls had exploded, so there were thin shards everywhere, crunching under every step.

"Do you think it's dead?" Fred asked, stepping closer.

"Is there such a thing as first aid for trees? I could, um, check the Yellow Pages, maybe?" Harmony offered.

"A druid or shaman might be able to help," Wesley suggested softly. "Provided we can convince him to enter the premises."

Angel didn't reply. He didn't turn when Eve left, in fact, nobody paid attention to her departure. He stood motionless in the midst of the wreckage, his face a mask of indifference, as if calmly taking stock of the destruction.

The presents looked like a complete write off, many were crushed completely, their contents shattered, while others were soaked, their wrapping paper soggy, the bows drooping sadly. The smell of expensive liquor lingered in the air, battling with the stench of singed pine needles.

Spike stepped up to stand beside the older vampire. When something crunched beneath his boots he bent down to retrieve—a bottle-neck. The cap was still sealed, but most of the bottle was missing, with only a few shards held together by the soaked label. Obviously, his present for Percy hadn't survived the evil Ent's onslaught. Bugger. Spike dropped the piece of glass. "A bleedin' shame," he muttered, meaning not just the spilled whiskey, and shot a sideways glance at the other man.

There was no reaction, but Spike liked to think that he still knew how to read Mr. Broodypants' keep-out face. Angel had fought the hardest against getting immersed in Lorne's holiday cheer, but now that the event was ruined, the disappointment hit him hardest.

Spike dug out his flask and gave Angel a nudge. Angel accepted wordlessly.

"Hey, this one looks alright," Gunn said, picking up a small parcel that had miraculously escaped destruction. He squinted at the smudged writing on the card, then handed it to Fred. "Looks like it's for you, unless you know someone called Eredu."

"For me?" She took the parcel eagerly, glanced at her watch and beamed. "Hey, guys, you know what? Merry Christmas!"

There were smiles and shoulder slapping, even a few awkward hugs—they weren't big on hugging really, and the wet clothes just made it worse—but the feeling behind the gesture was real. Sifting through the wreckage, they were able to salvage enough presents to bring back some of the earlier excitement and holiday cheer: like the Lakers' season ticket Wes had gotten for Charles; the dented chocolate box Spike had bought for Fred, which she opened at once and offered around; the authentic Toledo blade Angel had procured for Wesley; a few books, CDs, even a toy robot, that was damaged but not beyond repair.

"This looks like it might be for you," Angel said to Spike, handing him a small stack of cracked jewel cases. The top one bore a yellow cover, with big black letters saying 'Never Mind the Bollocks' and in yellow on red the name of the band. Without great hope, Spike pried the case open, but for once he was in luck. The inlet was soaked, but the CD was in perfect nick. He went through the stack: PIL, some more Sex Pistols, Ramones… somebody here knew his taste.

"You do know I haven't got a player, right?" Spike muttered with a sideways glance.

"The Viper does," Angel said ambiguously. "And what makes you think they're from me?"

Spike frowned. Now who, if not Angel, would be stupid enough to give him CDs when he didn't have a player? A stray thought raced through his mind, almost too fast to hold on to. Almost. Harm?

He spotted her behind her desk, making arrangements for an emergency cleaning brigade to come in ASAP and made a mental note to thank her later.

"Actually, this is—was—from me," Angel said awkwardly, holding a soggy parcel out of Spike's reach. "I'll get you a new one. I—"

"I want to see it," Spike demanded.

The wet paper tore easily, revealing a leather-bound book with empty pages and a silver fountain pen.

"The only reason to give a diary is so the giver can steal it back, see what the other person's thinking," Spike grumbled, but he pocketed the pen and tucked the diary under his arm.

"Hope I'm not interrupting a moment here, but this one has your name one it, Angelcakes," Lorne said and handed Angel a crinkled and only slightly soaked envelope.

When Angel tore the envelope open, two tickets fell into his hands. "Giselle?" Angel read out loud.

The tickets were emblazoned with a coat of arms showing a lion and a unicorn. Underneath it said Royal Opera House—Covent Garden. The date given was January 12th.

"Should be right up your alley, what with the tragic contrasting of the human an' the supernatural world—at least that's what it said on the website." Spike mumbled.

"This is from you?" Angel asked with an almost accusatory tone of voice.

"You didn't think I only got you socks, did you?" Spike scoffed. "Don't get me wrong, I still can't stand you. I only did it for the karma." He spread his arms wide, looked heavenwards and shouted: "In fact, I'm expecting some sort of karmic payback any minute now."

Angel glanced at the tickets in his hands, at the row and seat numbers and the way the price had been circled—twice!—with a red felt pen, and the faint beginnings of a smile tugged at his lips.

"Give the Queen my best," Spike said with a two-fingered salute, still looking as if he expected the skies to open and rain dollar bills on him.

"This second ticket, who's that for?" Angel asked.

"How should I know? Take Percy. Ballet's more fun if you've got someone to pass you a hanky once the tears start to roll."

"Well, then you better pack a hanky," Angel said.

"Huh?" It took a moment for the words to fully register, but when they did Spike shook his head in horror. "Oh no! You've got to be kidding," he exclaimed. "I'm not setting foot in a bloody opera house full of poofters to watch a few blokes in tights prancin' about. No way!"

Angel's smile took on a wicked, almost evil slant. "Get packing," he said.

"Over my dead body, you ponce!" came the indignant reply.

Wes nudged Gunn with his shoulder. "Do you think the two of them will ever get on?" he asked. They'd observed the spectacle quietly, leaning against Harmony's desk, arms folded over of their chests, occasionally dipping into Fred's box of Swiss chocolates.

"Isn't this what people mean when they say 'like a house on fire'?" Gunn snickered.

Lorne sidled up next to them, cheerfully munching on someone's abandoned gift of honey-covered nuts. "Does anybody else here feel trapped in an episode of Starsky & Hutch meets Friends meets Twilight Zone, with just a dash of Ann Rice on top?" Lorne asked cheerfully.

"Would that be one of those things you think about, but never say aloud, because then you'd be considered really weird, except if you're us, of course, when you'd just be normal?" Fred mused, popping another piece of chocolate into her mouth.

"Hey, at least life is never boring with those two around." Gunn observed. "Loud and annoying maybe…"

"I suppose that's true." Wesley smiled.

"You know," Fred pondered, "all in all, it wasn't such a bad Christmas. I mean, okay, some of the presents got squashed, we're all soaking wet, and probably about to catch pneumonia—"

"We have no idea what that Ethan guy wanted," Gunn picked up the thread.

"Or who he was working for, or if there was some ultimate evil plan we missed in all the mayhem," Wesley continued.

"But we'll find out sooner or later, right?" Fred finished. "Because the bad guys always try again, which means we have at least enough time to gloat over the presents we did get, before the sneezing and the coughing sets in. I don't know about you guys," she smiled radiantly. "but I had a great time."

"Yeah, she's right," Gunn agreed and turned to Lorne. "It was a great party, man. You sure know how to bring the house down."

"There was supposed have been carol singing and eggnog before we unwrapped our presents," Lorne complained half-heartedly.

"No, it's always fighting before presents." Angel said, limping towards them. "But since no one got dead from this fight, I'm thinking we got off easy."

"You call a hole in the gut easy?" Spike groused, but he hastened to join the others before all the chocolate was gone.

"We could still sing, I guess," Fred said dubiously, then her face brightened. "Hey Spike! I heard it on good authority, that you're a decent singer."

"What? No! Where the hell’d you hear that?" Spike sputtered.

"Oh, it's true," Harmony piped up. "Blondie Bear likes to sing. Okay, so he normally needs to be drunk to do it, but, hey—"

Blondie Bear glared at her. "I'm not going to sing, Harm."

"I suppose I could…" Angel started.


THE END