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 Marrakech, 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—"


"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