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.