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.


"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."


"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