I'll Be Home For Christmas by Niamh

 

Spoilers: Rain Of Fire, Season Four.

 

Notes: A big *thank you* to Dazzle, who was kind enough to offer a beta (and the "White Christmas" reference) for this monster. This is in response to the ACAngst Christmas Challenge.

 

 

I'll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love-light gleams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

 

***

He leaned his head against the window, watching snow swirl beyond the glass. Even though he'd seen it last year and the year before as well as the year before that, it still felt new. It was different from the other times he'd seen snow. Funny thing, that. Every time was so different, so unique, it always felt like the first time. The snow from his youth was nothing more than a hazy, frosted-over memory. He caught snatches of it here and there, usually triggered by the sound of a boot crunching into snow, or the scent of a wood-burning snow on a cold, wet breeze. But those memories were distant and disjointed. They almost didn't seem real.

 

He felt that a lot - the feeling of disorganization within his thoughts. Sometimes it seemed like more than his mind could keep up with. Sometimes it all seemed too fantastic to have been real. Angel's eyes strayed to the leaden sky, heavy with the promise of more snow. Had fire really fallen from above? Had it all really happened? He glanced at his reflection in the window and saw another one behind him. "You made it."

"You don't sound surprised." Wesley was standing behind him, arms folded over his chest, his eyes following Angel's. "It looks like more snow, doesn't it?"

Angel nodded. "It does."

He watched as Angel noticed his reflection in the glass. "Can't quite get used to it, can you?"

"Not yet."

There was a beat of silence. "You decorated."

Angel nodded. "I did."

"I thought last year was the last year." Wesley suppressed a smirk and arched an eyebrow.

Shrugging, Angel shifted in his chair. "So did I." His breath fogged the glass and he wiped it away, letting his hand linger against it. It was cold against his warm palm. That sensation had never lost its novelty. "It won't be the last year until it's really the last year, I guess."

***

Angel pushed through the Hyperion's lobby doors, his eyes darting around in search of life. Had the others survived?

He wanted to pray that they had. Whether it would have done any good, he wasn't sure.

"Angel!" It was Fred, her face streaked with dirt and tears. She was standing on the staircase. The rest of the troop, Wesley, Gunn, and Lorne, appeared behind her, similarly bedraggled. Blood, fear, and resignation hung heavily in the air.

Though now, as Fred hurried down the staircase, he could make out relief and hope as well, if only faintly.

"Good lord, Angel," Wesley said, moving stiffly down the stairwell, "we'd nearly given you up for lost." His eyes widened at the sight of the wound in the vampire's neck. A muscle twitched in his jaw. "You should have that looked at."

Angel stood silently, watching as they descended the stairway and approached him. They must have found Fred somewhere - she hadn't been there when...

Good thing. It would have killed her. It had nearly killed him.

But it didn't.

He began to wish it had.

"Um, Angel?" Lorne's voice worked its way into his reverie.

He looked over at the demon, silent.

"Correct me if I'm in the wrong here, but I'm thinking that we are so far out of our league, we might as well be playing ping-pong with bocce balls." He waited for a response, but was met with silence. "Wesley's right. You should get patched up."

"I'm fine," he said, his voice low and hoarse.

Gunn lifted an eyebrow. "Angel, that big-ass, gaping hole in your neck disagrees."

Wesley nodded. "Indeed. You need to be at one-hundred percent if we're going to go back after... that."

"Whoa, wait a second there, English. We're going *back* after that thing?"

"We have to persevere, Gunn. If we don't-"

"It will kill us either way." Angel's words had surprised even him. "It'll kill us whether we fight or not. This is what we do. We fight evil - not just the things we know we can beat, but all of it."

***

It was all so far away, so long ago. He leaned back in the overstuffed armchair, his eyes still trained on the world of white outside. The funny thing was that at the time, even he had believed himself. Being a Champion wasn't about choosing the battles you knew you could win; it was about having the strength, the willingness, the determination to fight even when you didn't think you stood a chance of winning.

"You don't have to stay here, you know," Angel said, still facing the window. He could make out his reflection. How strange. Still.

"I know."

Something moved into his line of sight and he smiled fondly. The small child in a lavender snowsuit moved about the snowdrifts clumsily. She lived two doors down. Her parents didn't like her visiting him. They didn't like anyone looking at her too closely. They didn't like the fact that she came over so often to listen to the fantastic fairy-tales Angel wove for her, stories about a girl, chosen above all others to fight and defeat evil, which she did with a group of devoted, loyal friends. He told her about a boy -- a vampire -- who had at one time *been* evil (she'd looked at him dubiously then) and who had spent hundreds of years fighting evil.

What was a fairy-tale without a little embellishment?

He had told her about the vampire's friends -- a half-demon, a demon-hunter (who wasn't that much of a demon-hunter), another boy who was angry at the world (and, sometimes, at the vampire in particular), a strange, quiet, though kind girl who had been lost in a foreign land, and, of course, the other girl -- the beautiful, funny girl with the visions.

Some stories, though, were not meant for children. He told her only the stories that ended with the group of friends victorious. He did not tell her stories of pain, of needless death, or of the ugly things people -- even friends -- say or do to each other.

The girl -- Tess -- loved his stories. She would sit primly on his couch, sipping the milk he would pour for her and nibbling the cookies the town's single ladies would often drop off for him.

Wesley frowned. "He's done it again."

Angel nodded. "She can't keep her balance."

"Electrical cord?"

"Probably. Most likely in between her shoulder blades. See the way she's trying not to move too much?"

Wesley looked away. "Vampires, demons... those things you expect to be evil."

"It comes in all forms."

***

He had showered, his body slouching beneath the scalding spray, greedily absorbing the heat. He watched the filthy, bloody water pool at his feet before swirling its way down the drain. The fight wasn't over yet, not by a long shot; however, rushing headfirst into battle when they were all battered and bloody was not the strategy of a Champion, it was the strategy of a suicidal lunatic.

Angel reluctantly turned off the water and toweled off before slinging the towel around his waist and padding out of the bathroom. He would heal more quickly than the others anyway - it gave him time to think of a better way to...

He stopped, all thought fleeing from his mind.

Cordelia swallowed. "Angel."

He stared at her for a long moment. The pain that had he'd gotten under control raged to the fore again. He had been preparing himself for the war - he hadn't been preparing for this particular battle. He didn't trust himself to move or speak.

"Wesley said you were up here." Her eyes darted to the wound at his neck.

Angel didn't respond. He ignored the sudden, sick urge to inhale -- he knew Connor's scent was clinging to her, he *knew* it.

"Angel-"

"Get out." He turned and faced his closet.

"Angel, please-"

"Get out. Now."

"No, I won't."

He had moved so quickly, it had surprised even him. He was in front of her, gripping her arms tightly as he glared down into her dark eyes. When he spoke, his voice was low, his tone even and measured. "Cordelia, get out. I won't tell you again."

"You can't push me away, Angel."

"I didn't push you away, you left willingly," he growled. And then you fucked my son. Was it good? Was it good for you, Cordy? Did he make you come? Did he make you --

"Ow! Angel!"

He let go suddenly. Yes, he'd had the desire to hurt her, to break her, to make her *hurt*. He'd wanted to make her hurt like he had. His head had swum with all the things he'd wanted to do to her - to the both of them.

And then... he couldn't. He couldn't do it - hurt her. Something sickened within at the realization. He stepped away from her, disgusted with himself now as well. "Just go."

"No, I won't. Push as hard as you want, but I'm not running off again." She lifted her chin as if to dare him to disagree, but Angel wasn't up for that particular fight. She watched him for a moment, unable to quell the uneasiness inside of her -- he was... different.

He was angry.

"Then let me get dressed."

She swallowed, suddenly cold. He was avoiding her eyes. "Angel?"

His head turned as he looked sharply at her. "Yes?"

"N-nothing." She stepped out of the room quickly without another word.

***

He watched as the child flung herself into the snow, flailing her arms and legs wildly, making snow angels. The left side of his mouth lifted up in an

almost-smile.

Wesley stepped out of the room quietly as Cordelia entered, taking the armchair opposite Angel. Reaching over, she grabbed his hand and squeezed it, their eyes meeting. She watched the lilac-swathed body with interest. "The cold makes it not hurt so much."

Angel nodded silently. "It's just strange, you know? It's... you're here, and I'm so, so relieved that you're here. I'm glad. I'm *happy* that you're here. And then I almost hesitate, because I don't feel like I *should* be happy." He exhaled a short, rueful laugh. "And then I see her, and it almost reminds me of the way I used to feel. And then I need to do something. I need to fix it. It's an urge. And no matter how happy I'm allowed to be, I still get that urge."

Cordelia sighed. "There will be times, Angel, when you can't fix everything. You can't always kick down the door and barge in, staking or decapitating the bad-guy. Sometimes you just have to show affection and acceptance, and try to make the bad parts in life a little less... bad."

His lips quirked. "Staking and decapitation were so much simpler."

"Being human isn't about simple."

"Tell me about it."

She pursed her lips. "Okay. It's about working through the day-to-day bad. It's not all apocalyptic demons and evil law firms. Sometimes it's about insecurity, self-loathing, bad parents... The demons normal people have to battle every morning. Showing her kindness now will do her far more good in the long run than decapitating her father would."

"I know which would make me feel better."

A smile passed her lips. "Some things won't ever change. But Angel, this isn't about making you feel better."

***

His fist connected solidly against the heavy bag with a satisfying "Thwack!" He hit it again and again, forcing his mind away from the festering ache inside as well as the irritating soreness that was seeping into his bones. They couldn't waste too much time licking their wounds now - that thing wasn't wasting any time and for them all to do so now would have been disastrous.

He hit the bag harder and harder; he'd been so close, close enough to kill or at least maim it, and he'd hesitated. Why? Those few precious seconds had nearly cost him.

But there was something...

*Thwackthwackthwack!*

Something about the eyes.

*Thwackthwack!*

He'd known them.

*Thwack!*

But from where?

*Thwack!*

And how were they supposed to beat it? How did you defeat pure evil? How were they supposed to find its weakness when it didn't appear to have one?

Angel's movements slowed, then stopped.

In order to defeat evil, one must first understand it and know it, become familiar enough with it to find its weakness and then strike, regardless of where that weakness may lie.

Only pure evil can truly understand pure evil.

Something leaden settled in Angel's gut. They had the resource, but were they all desperate enough to tap it? And once they had tapped it, how did they control it? Could they be prepared for all of the possible ramifications if this didn't work? For that matter, could he?

***

The little girl pushed herself up from the snow angel and, having spied her friend's face in the window, waved. Angel nodded, the smile having faded from his lips.

Cordelia regarded him. "Would it kill you to wave back?"

He shrugged. "I don't wave."

"She's six. Wave."

Angel watched as the child fell down to make another snow angel. "I let her play in my yard. I don't have to wave."

"Well there's fool-proof Angel-logic for you."

He looked at her. "There have been plenty of times in my life when I've been a fool."

"You get no argument from me."

Wesley came back into the room. "I'm afraid Gunn won't be able to join us this year. Apparently he's in San Francisco, tangled up with a nest of Vathek demons."

Angel pursed his lips and nodded. "What about Fred?"

"She has a prior commitment she couldn't break, I'm afraid. Visiting her parents." Wesley looked slightly wistful.

"You miss her, don't you?" Angel asked.

"Very much."

"Time passes, and it gets harder and harder for families to get together for the holidays," Cordelia murmured, her gaze still on the little girl.

***

"Angel, you're nuts!"

The vampire didn't respond to Cordelia's exclamation; he stood his ground. He took note of Connor skulking in a corner, but paid him no mind. "Releasing Angelus is the only way to beat this thing."

"While I definitely see your logic, Angel, I can't help but agree with Cordelia to a certain degree. This... plan of yours has a great deal of room for error. How on earth can we be expected to get Angelus to cooperate with us? He's not the most..."

"Sane? Non-violent? Trustworthy?" Cordelia supplied.

"I was going to say 'obliging,' but those do work just as well," Wesley murmured. "Angel, Angelus is technically you, without your soul. What is there that he can understand, that he can do, that you can't?"

"It's not a matter of 'can' or 'can't', Wesley, it's a matter of 'will' or 'won't.' I think that maybe having a soul keeps me from really seeing, really *understanding* evil. I've known it, sure, but it's been a long time since I've been intimate with it, since I've felt it under my skin and in my blood."

"Angel, there are some things you *shouldn't* become that intimate with," Cordelia said, her voice soft.

He looked at her, his eyes hard. "Cordelia, I'm aware of the things I need to do. I have accepted that responsibility. I have accepted what has to be done in order to fight this. I'm sorry you saw all that you saw, but remember - you've lived with the knowledge for only a short while. I've lived with it for over a hundred years - I've lived with the guilt and the knowledge that I harbor a monster. We both know what I'm capable of. I at least understand that that aspect of me can serve a purpose. If it means you stake me when it's all over, then I suppose that's what it means."

Her jaw tightened, and for a moment it seemed as though she was going to say something. She didn't.

"There's got to be a way to release my soul under controlled circumstances, saving it to be reinstated. Wesley, see what you can find out."

Cordelia, arms folded across her chest, sent him a dark look. "You already know what it takes to release your soul, Angel."

Angel's face remained neutral. "I think it's safe to say that I've never been further from perfect happiness than I am right now." He watched her with bland, expressionless eyes and saw that she paled slightly. "This time, we'll have to settle for a spell."

***

"You're really happy here, aren't you?"

Angel nodded contemplatively.

"This place has really come along, you know. God, when you got it, it was such a dump," Cordelia murmured, passing from room to room, her eyes drinking in every detail. "You put a lot of work into it."

"I thought it was worth the effort. It's a really great house -- it was built back in 1915, and the structure was sound. It just needed a little--"

Cordelia grinned. "A little paint, a little sanding, a little wrecking-ball renovation?"

"It needed work."

She nodded. "I have always wondered something though: why the Eastern Seaboard?"

Angel shrugged, having vacated his spot by one of the large windows to join her. "Best place for a new beginning is a new place. Besides," he said, as though listening to a voice only he could hear, "my work is done for the time being. I'm not needed back there anymore."

"I know, but it's so far from everything... I'd think that with everything, you'd maybe not want to be so remote."

"You already know, Cordy. That world's not mine anymore. I don't fit in it anymore, not with the normal speed, normal strength, normal eating habits..." He sighed. "I'm here, and from what I've been told, I've earned it."

"You don't sound like you believe that."

He was quiet for a minute. "Some days I don't."

***

"And hello again, Beautiful!" The voice was like satin and velvet twined with silver and leather, so similar and at the same time so different from its usual timbre. His smile curled the edges of his mouth and sent something hard glittering in his eyes. He had pushed himself to his feet after he'd fallen from the convulsions.

Cordelia didn't respond. Angel had told her to leave while Wesley performed the ceremony. He'd told her, then he'd asked her, then he'd begged her to leave; he hadn't wanted her to see him like this. Perhaps he'd forgotten that she had already seen him like this. She'd watched as he had screamed in agony, the pain of his soul being torn from him too much for him to endure in silence. Silver light, so bright it hurt her eyes, had seemed to evaporate from his body like steam. Wesley's voice, slow and strong, had chanted in an unknown language -- it sounded like Latin, but not quite -- as the mist gathered and swirled its way to the iridescent sphere. What was it called again? The Sphere of... something that sounded like "xylophone." It had glowed brightly with the strength of Angel's soul as Wesley quickly ushered it out of the hotel's large, deserted ballroom.

When Angelus was done doing whatever it was Angel knew he had to do, the sphere had to be broken, which would return Angel's soul to his body. The key had been to keep Angel as ignorant as possible about what was going to be done to him (as well as with the container bearing his soul), because whatever Angel knew, Angelus knew, and some knowledge was better off *not* shared. She kept her head raised, meeting those dark eyes.

"Oh yeah, doing the whole 'not-talking' thing to me. Let me give you a hint, Cordy: ignoring me won't make me go away. You of all people should know that."

"Don't call me that," she said, fighting to keep her voice still.

"But that's my *special* name for you. Or is it the *other* me you'd rather hear it from?" Mock-contrition settled on his features before dissipating suddenly. "Then again," his gaze slid from behind the bars to settle on Connor, "maybe it's *his* 'special' name for you. Is that it?" His grin widened as the blood drained from her face. "I've gotta ask you this, Cordy. Why go for the acorn when you can have the whole damn oak tree?" He smiled lewdly. "And I'll tell ya, it's quite a--"

"Oh my god," Cordelia breathed, stepping back as the blood rushed from her face. Oh god. He knew. He *knew*. He'd seen them. Her knees felt suddenly weak. She'd thought he had only suspected. She hadn't thought he actually *knew*.

Connor came out of the shadows, stepping between Cordelia and the cage, his blue eyes narrowed in jealousy and possessiveness. "Don't even--"

Angelus chuckled, leaning nonchalantly against the bars of his cage. "I haven't done a thing, Junior. Unless you haven't noticed, the gang of merry men here has prevented that -- quite efficiently, I might add." Another smile crossed his lips. "But then, the night is still young."

Wesley was suddenly behind Cordelia and she started slightly at the sound of his voice. "As fascinating as this is, we've little time for this right now, Angel."

The thing that wore Angel's face snarled at Wesley. "Saving the world. Sorry, Wes, not really my speed. Don't know why the idea even occurred to me -- I guess I just wasn't feeling like myself."

"What you don't seem to understand is the fact that your lack of cooperation will result in nothing but your eradication along with everyone else and everything else on the face of the earth. This thing that we're up against doesn't care who or what it kills. Its non-discriminating appetite is for death, chaos, and destruction. But then, you already know that -- or you should already know that."

The vampire's cruel, mocking smile faded into a thin line. "Apparently I thought I'd like the chase. I think I just might."

"Then you understand what it is you need to do?"

He smiled serenely and there was a beat of silence. "I understand better than you think. Just don't get in my way."

***

Angel was back in the overstuffed chair, staring out the front window again. The little girl was hard at work in his front yard, making a snowman. A fire crackled comfortably in the fireplace, and Cordelia and Wesley were discussing whether or not it was natural that Angel actually *liked* eggnog. It was Wesley's hypothesis that the consistency of eggnog was similar enough to that of blood that it was a matter of nostalgia for Angel. It was Cordelia's theory that it had been so long since he'd consumed any *real* food that even eggnog was appealing.

So, this was life away from the Hellmouth -- he wasn't sure how he'd imagined it, but he was pretty sure that this wasn't exactly it.

"So, do you like it here in the Great Frozen North?"

He looked over at Cordelia, who was standing by the large green tree that graced the living room. Angel watched the colored lights flash against her face and hair for a moment before answering. "I do."

Slowly, she smiled. "You have no idea how glad I am to hear that."

"You have no idea how relieved I am to be able to say it." He pushed himself up from the chair and approached Cordelia, bringing his hand up to touch her hair. He took a lock of chestnut between his fingers and felt the way the strands slipped against his skin. "I wasn't sure I was making the right decision." He paused, his eyes traveling her face. "And there are times when I wonder--"

"Angel, you could spend the rest of your life wondering how things might have changed based on one decision or another. Wondering about it won't change it, and usually what we wonder isn't anything like what would have *actually* happened. Our decisions, even the bad ones, turn out for the best." She grinned. "As it turns out, inevitable stardom did *not* turn out to be the best choice for me."

"And choosing instead to become half-demon?"

Cordelia shrugged. "Best thing I could've done. Ever. It's twisty and turny, but hey, that's destiny for you." She closed her eyes as his hand tw ined into her hair. "Live in the now -- that's why you're here, living, breathing, giving off heat, and..." she looked at him, a grin forming, "wearing tan."

He tugged self-consciously at the thick turtleneck sweater. "I'm trying to branch out."

"Oh, believe me, I've noticed." The grin faded and was replaced with a more serious expression. "All kidding aside, Angel, I know what that choice meant, and I know -- I know with everything in me -- that this was the right choice for you. You've tasted eternity, and it was a taste that got bitter after awhile. You have been granted mortality -- and you deserve to embrace it. It's a gift, and it doesn't last forever. Enjoy it."

Wesley looked over at them from the other chair where he'd been watching the snowman form with interest. "She's grown quickly, hasn't she?" He tilting his head in the direction of the dark haired girl in the front yard.

"She has." Angel's gaze followed Wesley's. "It's strange; I'd never really paid much attention to children -- the way they grow and develop -- before Connor. But I didn't get to see him grow. When her family moved in, she was practically still a baby. It'll be interesting to watch her grow up."

"And it will be interesting to see what she grows up into," Wesley added.

Angel looked at him and said quietly, "There's always so much potential in children, isn't there?"

After a moment, Wesley nodded somewhat sadly, his attention back to the swirling snow outside. "Don't you think she's cold out there?"

The other man looked out the window for a moment. "She knows she's welcome here. She always has been."

***

"So, was it good for you?"

Cordelia shifted uncomfortably in her chair, her grip on the crossbow damp with perspiration. It was her turn to watch him, to make sure he didn't escape. At least, that was the premise. Her watch had turned into a dark game of psychological "Twister", and she was counting down the minutes until Gunn came to relieve her.

"Come on, Cordy, we're old friends. You can tell me -- did he make you come?"

She kept telling herself that this wasn't Angel -- not the Angel she knew, anyway. She kept repeating the mantra to herself, but it didn't keep his words from conjuring up images of Connor's fumbling, inexperienced hands on her body, and though she had showered many times since, the memories left her feeling dirty.

"So, what was it that did it for you? The fact that he takes after his old man?" Angelus brought his face to the bars and caught Cordelia's eyes with his own hard stare. "Tell me, did you lay there and imagine me on top of you? Were they my hands? My *mouth*? Was it *my* cock?"

She looked away, burning with embarrassment and indignation.

"No, they wouldn't have been *my* hands, would they?" The vampire's smile widened enough to show a flash of white teeth. "Because my hands would have been around your throat, instead of--"

"That's enough!" Cordelia yelled, standing. She was trembling; whether the tremors were from fear or anger, she wasn't sure.

Angelus' smile only grew in intensity. "It's what you're afraid of, isn't it? It's what you expect from me now. And that's because you seem to think you know me now -- that you understand me." He chuckled. "And that understanding makes you superior in your own mind, doesn't it? Because 'higher beings' don't have history like the rest of us do, right?"

She refused to comment, to participate in this dance, but he went on regardless. Even though he was the one in the cage, Cordelia felt trapped.

"That's right. You're nothing but goodness and light these days, aren't you? But you've forgotten that the two of us aren't that different when all is said and done."

"And that's the second craziest thing I've heard in two days," Cordelia said, trying to retrieve the acerbic tone she was usually so familiar with.

"Is it?" He slowly paced the cage, never taking his eyes off of Cordelia. His movements were sleek and graceful. "Somehow I don't think so. We're cut from a similar cloth, you and I. You might have seen some of the things I've done, but at least I was merciful enough to *kill* my victims."

Cordelia didn't want to look at him, but instead found herself staring at him in disbelief.

"No, you wouldn't see the similarities, would you? You were quite gifted in the art of cruelty, Cordy, and you *loved* it. You knew how to make it last, and you knew how to make them suffer, because you liked it. It was quite the turn-on, let me tell you."

"You can't possibly compare the things you did to my--"

"Actually, I can," he said, cutting her off. "See, *I'm* a soulless demon, in case you missed the memo. Torture, chaos, murder -- it's fun to me, not that I really expect you to understand. But it's kind of like my modus operandi -- it's what I do. Now, *you* claim to be Miss Glowy Higher-Being with the vast insight and the limitless benevolence, but have you so easily forgotten *your* past?" He arched an eyebrow. "What's your excuse?"

Cordelia tightened her jaw and glared at him, while a tiny snatch of conversation tugged at her:

//God knows we've been through a lot together.//

//That's really all I was trying to say, that we've been through so much together, you and me, as *friends.* You've seen the - good, and the not so good.//

//Just like you have in me. And, for the record, the good I've seen far outweighs the bad.//

//Thanks. You too.//

Soft chuckling pulled her away from the memory. Cordelia arched an eyebrow at Angelus, trying to recover some of the savoir-faire that she used to have an ample supply of. "So what you're trying to say is that spreading a few rumors is equal to--"

His sudden outburst of laughter startled her. "Yeah, you keep telling yourself that. What you did really didn't *hurt* anyone, right? Because you got *no* satisfaction whatsoever by keeping the lower masses under your perfectly polished boot. Their misery *never* made you warm inside, did it? Because you've *always* been a higher-being in training, right? Yeah, your methods weren't really my speed, but the raw material was there." He gripped two bars and pulled himself against them, his face only barely pushing out between the bars. When he spoke, his voice was softer -- a lover's voice twined with lust. "I saw so much potential in you in those days," he said, his voice growing softer and more musical. "And just when I thought you were beyond help, you surprise me yet again by fucking my own kid's brains out."

She hefted the crossbow and aimed it at him. "It wasn't anything like that --"

Angelus rolled his eyes. "Right. Let me guess: You really didn't mean to, it was just a *very* dark time." His gaze, once warm and inviting only days ago, was now cruel and taunting. "Well that makes it *all* heroic, doesn't it?"

Cordelia froze as her own words were hurled at her, hitting her with a force she hadn't been expecting. Something cold and heavy settled in her gut as she gripped the crossbow tightly. She wanted to shoot, she wanted to hit him square in the heart and smile as his smug expression dissipated into dust. She wanted to do a million things...

"Cordelia, your cavalry has arrived," Gunn said, pushing his way through the wide double doors. In his hand he held two large Styrofoam cups. "It ain't Starbucks, but it'll do, right?"

Woodenly, Cordelia took the proffered cup. "Thanks." She started to walk away, but Gunn grabbed her arm.

"Hey, you okay? You look a little..."

She shook her head, dismissing him. "Just tired. It's been a long day. Days."

Gunn's dark eyes darted to where Angelus stood, watching both of them with unabashed interest. "Has he been... doing anything?"

"Nothing out of character," she said, her voice tired as she trudged out of the ballroom. Her steps were slow and heavy, the sound of her footsteps echoing through her head. She couldn't get Angelus' words out of her mind, regardless of how hard she fought them.

***

"'Christmas with the Rat Pack'? 'Christmas with Bing Crosby'?" Cordelia was incredulous. "This is what you call Christmas music?"

He smirked at her. "Given that Bing Crosby sang 'White Christmas,' he's actually what a whole lot of people would call Christmas music," Angel said, pressing "play" on the CD player.

"Okay, just because you used to hang around with them doesn't mean that you're obligated to *listen* to them now."

"I never said I hung out with them. We just... mingled in the same circles, played tennis a few times, met for drinks... I never even *met* Bing Crosby."

"But I bet you wanted to, and that's just as bad," she teased.

"Hey, any word on Lorne lately?" Angel asked, looking at Wesley as he changed the subject.

"From what I understand," Wesley answered from the chair, "he's doing rather well. I think he's quite pleased with the way the new and improved Caritas has turned out."

"Nothing's blown up then, I take it," Angel said.

"Not yet, at any rate," Wesley replied.

The other man nodded. "The last time I heard from him was when he called about six months ago -- said he might be in the neighborhood around New Year's, so we'll see. He came by a year or so ago for what he called a 'very belated housewarming.' It was good to see him." He stopped for a moment, remembering the visit. "It was a little harder than usual to keep him incognito, and I'm willing to bet that the neighbors that I *do* have were talking about it for weeks, but it was still good to have him here."

"And did your... ah... little admirer have the pleasure of making his acquaintance?" Wesley said, smiling slightly and tilting his head in the child's direction.

"Absolutely. Mutual adoration at first sight." He paused. "She even sang for him."

There was a beat of silence.

"She sang?" Wesley asked.

"Well it was more her showing off her 'I'm a Little Teapot' skills than trying to find out her destiny, but... yes."

"You should invite her in," Cordelia said, approaching the window. "She looks cold."

"She'll come in if she wants to, and only then."

Cordelia glanced at him. "Her parents don't like her talking to you, do they?"

Angel sighed and shook his head. "Well, realistically, would you? This is a world where grown men who are taken with children are perverts and sexual deviants." His brow furrowed and his expression saddened. "And when an assumption will do, why bother getting the truth?"

She smiled softly and moved closer to him, resting a hand against the warmth of his face. When she spoke, her voice was soft and tender. "Or it could be that her parents are just do the big suck as people." Angel looked up and caught the glint in her eyes. Cordelia grinned wickedly. "Goodwill toward men, right here. Limited time only."

The three of them settled into companionable silence, their gazes shifting between the fireplace and the front window. Before too long, a woman came trudging through the snowdrifts, her strides marring Tess' army of snow angels. Three pairs of eyes watched as the woman gestured at the child, pleading and pointing back toward her own house. The lavender-hooded head drooped as she pushed herself to her feet and reluctantly took her mother's hand.

With speed Angel hadn't thought he'd possessed any longer, he was at the front door and opening it, wading out into the knee-deep drifts. The cold hit him instantly, and he wrapped his arms around himself. Mother and daughter had already turned and were heading back to their own home.

He called out above the wind, "She's fine here, you know."

The woman stopped suddenly. She stood there rooted in place for a few seconds before she could think of anything to say. Turning slowly, she brought her hand to her face. Dark hair like her daughter's tangled as it got caught up in the wind. "I'm sorry if she bothered you. Tess knows she's not supposed to leave the yard. Her father and I worry..."

Angel swallowed against the surge of warring emotion. The woman's movements were slow and clumsy, her eyes were dull and bloodshot, but he could sense crimson trickle of blood sliding down her chin, behind her hand. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end; he couldn't smell the blood, but knew -- knew inherently -- that it was there. She had come out before the bruise had had a chance to show up. "She's really okay here. I... I don't mind. She just..." he looked at the snowman and snow angels -- a child's presence, even when no child lived there. "She just plays. She's not hurting anything."

"Maybe some other time. It's getting dark now." She resumed tugging on Tess's arm. As she tried to follow her mother's steps through the deep snow, she turned and offered a parting wave. Again, Angel smiled and nodded in return before turning around and heading back into the house. He closed the door solidly behind him. His entire body was inundated with the cold and he moved back into the living room where Cordelia and Wesley were watching him, both with identical expressions.

"I take back what I said about the decapitation," Cordelia muttered.

"You've got to be freezing, Angel. Go dry off some." Wesley managed a small smile for his friend who turned and went upstairs in search of something slightly drier.

Cordelia's voice followed him: "And still you couldn't wave?"

***

Her footsteps echoed through the hallways as well as her head. Angelus' words still clung to her, taunting her. She stopped, trying to tell herself that *that* hadn't been Angel -- not really, anyway. That wasn't him. There was no way he would have ever said those things to her, no matter how angry he was, or how true they were.

But the thing was, that *was* Angel. It had always been easier to keep them separate before, but after *seeing* everything he'd done during the course of his vampiric existence, it became harder to keep Angel and Angelus separate. When she'd been... up there, wherever "there" was, the line between the two of them had been completely and irrevocably blurred.

Or, at least it had been blurred until the bastard started talking to *her*.

Angel and Angelus were not so easily categorized, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jekyll was handsome, suave, and genteel -- a gentleman in every way. Hyde was a regression. His behavior and appearance were both animalistic. Both entities were distinct; they were, in effect, two completely different individuals occupying the same space. But where Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were separated by a wall, Angel and Angelus were separated by a screen door. They were more unified than Jekyll and Hyde, but both sides were so different they might as well have belonged to different people.

But they *weren't* different people.

Cordelia sighed hard. It was Angel's soul that made him so completely different from... not only Angelus, but every other vampire in the world. It was his soul that allowed him to feel remorse and guilt. It was his soul that had kept him from being the killer that he'd once been. Angel's soul kept him from doing a lot of things.

Of course, she thought, remembering the days of Connor's infancy, Angel's soul allowed him to do many things as well.

"Cordelia!"

It was Wesley. She slowed her steps. "What is it?"

He seemed somewhat uncomfortable. "I... I overheard some of what he was saying to you. You really shouldn't pay any attention to him -- his demon is running the show now."

Cordelia's face remained neutral. "Wes, it's still Angel. Deep down, it's still him."

Wesley was quiet for a moment. "Cordelia, when Harmony came to visit you, we told you that the demon was able to take over her personality, her memories... everything that made Harmony..." he almost grimaced. "What made Harmony... well, Harmony. You didn't believe us until it was almost too late. But, when all is said and done, the vampire demon that inhabits the dead body is a demon -- it's not that person. Yes, it looks like, sounds like, and even acts like that person, but it's not -- not completely, at any rate, because the thing that makes a person unique is the soul. When you take away the soul, you take away the capacity for repentance, love... every emotion we associate with humanity."

"So, what, we're supposed to just conveniently forget everything he's ever done, every person he's ever killed? We're just supposed to pat him on the head and say, 'Oh, well, it wasn't *really* you, after all.'" Bitterness and frustration were writ large on her face.

"No, not at all. But the least we could do is keep in mind that Angel is perfectly capable of reminding himself of all the things he's done in the past. He hasn't forgotten, and he is committed to atoning for those things. Essentially, his soul has made him take responsibility for an entity that he had no control over."

Cordelia exhaled, frustrated. "Wesley, you can't separate Angel from Angelus. You *can't*."

They had, by this point, reached the lobby. Wesley headed into the main office and took a seat behind the desk. Though the sight was a familiar one, it still seemed out of place to Cordelia. His lips pursed, Wesley pulled open one of the desk drawers and retrieved the sphere, wrapped up in chamois. He set it on the desk and began peeling away the layers of cloth until it was completely unwrapped. The globe shone with incredible brightness -- silver light with ribbons of color rippling through it like the Northern Lights illuminated the small, dark office.

She exhaled softly. "It's... it's beautiful."

Wesley looked up into her face. "It's Angel. This is what makes him..." he shrugged. "Angel." He began wrapping the sphere in the cloth again. "You see, The Sphere of Xyne-Hrone can act as a holding area for an individual's soul."

"Just like the other orb thingie?"

"The Orb of Thesulah acts as a spirit vault, specifically for rituals. The Sphere was used as an ancient mystical form of torture -- the individual's soul and consciousness would be trapped in the sphere while the body was left to atrophy and decay -- a human body without its soul is... nothing. Once the body was dead, usually the globe would be broken, and the spirit would be doomed forever in this realm."

Cordelia blinked. "And Angel was okay with this? You didn't happen to leave out the 'doomed forever' part, did you?"

"Angel was aware of the necessary risks."

"And he's..." she nodded at the globe, now wrapped in cloth, "in there?"

Wesley sent her a level gaze. "Essentially, yes."

"And he's sentient?"

"To a certain degree, part of him is."

Cordelia was quiet for a moment. "Do they all glow like that?"

"Actually, from what I found in my research, they do not. Some souls give off no light whatsoever, while some act as black holes, actually absorbing light." Wesley put the globe back in the desk drawer.

"There's a moral correlation somewhere in that equation, isn't there?"

"Well, do keep in mind that this was at one time a punishment -- there isn't any chart by which to gauge a soul's worth, because--"

"Because only really lousy people got this treatment."

Wesley nodded. "It was believed that the more tainted the soul, the less light it would give off. However, I'm sure there are other factors to consider: the individual's capacity for kindness, love, remorse... Basic human traits. I said that usually the globe was broken after the body died; however, sometimes, in cases of incredibly corrupt souls, they were not released at all."

***

It was well past midnight, and Angel sat, staring at the fireplace. His face reflected almost nothing as the flames reflected in his coffee-brown eyes. He was sometimes able to lose himself this way; his eyes followed the patterns in the bright orange and yellow flickerings as they lapped against each other, and his mind carried him back to other days. Sometimes the memories were good; tonight, however, there was a hint of sadness etched on his face.

"What are you thinking about?" Cordelia's voice was soft in the dark room, and Angel had almost tuned out her presence completely. Almost.

He was quiet for a moment or two. Then, "Connor."

She didn't respond, which was good; there was no appropriate response.

They sat there for many minutes, until Cordelia spoke again. "Angel, you know I'm really not one for the sage advice. I mean, I've never really been a fan of fortune-cookie philosophy, but you have to believe that no matter how horrible an event can be, there is a reason for it. The things that we are allowed to change, we are allowed to change for a reason -- that's the biggest thing my visions ever taught me. There are some things we can change, and we *should* change those things. But there are some things that we can't change -- that *you* can't change -- and no matter how many times you go over it in your head, there is nothing you could have done differently. It happened the way it was supposed to happen, no matter how badly you want to believe otherwise."

"But he was my *son*."

"Yes, he was. And no one is ever going to be able to take that away from you. You were a father. You have memories that some people never get the chance to experience. You were loved by a beautiful baby boy."

"But--"

"No buts. Angel, it happened. No matter what you think, there was nothing you could have done about it."

"So I'm supposed to make myself believe that The Powers had nothing better to do than to give me something I could never, ever have otherwise, only to take it away?"

"Angel, you know why it happened the way it did. And if it hadn't happened that way, then things would have gone a lot worse, believe me."

He shook his head. "I'm not sure they could have gone any worse."

***

Cordelia wrapped her arms around herself. The fire had stopped trailing in bright streams from the sky, but the smoldering smell of Los Angeles was a constant reminder of the carnage, even though it was days past by now. She could still hear alarms and sirens wailing in the distance and only hoped that there would be a city -- a world -- left once this was done and over with.

She also hoped that Angel was right, that his soul was keeping him from seeing the solution to the problem. She couldn't stand to bear the consequences if he hadn't been right. She hated to think that they were getting ready to unleash Angelus on Los Angeles if he'd misjudged the situation, even slightly.

The rest of them -- Wesley, Gunn, Lorne, and Fred -- were preparing Angelus for his big night out. She hated him for his arrogance -- well, she hated him for a lot of reasons, but most recently his arrogance. Angelus was certain that they would be bringing back the head of the Beast tonight.

She also hated the fact that the others seemed to believe him.

Nothing about the plan had left her with a warm, fuzzy feeling, save for the fact that if things began to look like they were going to go wrong, it was Cordelia's job to break the sphere and release Angel's soul for reinstatement. Though the plan was far from fool-proof, Cordelia was to sit on the roof of the Hyperion with a walkie-talkie and wait for Wesley or Gunn to give her the signal. It was her responsibility to keep herself and the sphere safe.

The walkie-talkie crackled to life. "Cordelia? Cordelia, do you read?"

She picked it up, pressing down on the side button. "I'm here, Wesley."

"We're just about ready to go -- we should have fairly long range using these, but I will check in on occasion to make sure we're still connected."

"Gotcha."

"Wesley out."

Shaking her head, Cordelia held the cloth-covered ball in her lap, cradling it gently. Handling it gave her a sense of ease, as though Angel were with her. Well, she thought with a wry smile, in a very abstract way, he kinda is. "I don't know if you can hear me," she muttered to the sphere, "but I've got to know -- how does it feel to be the glowy one for once?"

There was, of course, no answer.

She sighed. "You know, I know you have a whole bunch of faith in this plan, Angel. And I know that you believe down deep in your gut that this is going to work. But if it doesn't... Angel, if this doesn't work, you've got to know..." she trailed off. "Whoa. Not very easy for me. Listen, if this doesn't go as planned, and we all die in the big fiery horrible, I just want you to know..." She closed her eyes and shook her head. "Hello, talking to a glowing ball now."

Then she remembered what Wesley had told her -- it was almost sentient. It was every part of Angel that mattered.

Gnawing on her lower lip, Cordelia pulled away a corner of the cloth. Her face was reflected in the comforting glow as slivers of color danced before her. There was no other word for it -- it was beautiful. It was almost too beautiful. She cleared her throat of tears and inhaled deeply. She needed to tell him this. "I love you, Angel. And I'm sorry."

The only response was the silvery glow that seemed to caress every angle of her face.

The silence was shattered by the rusty hinges on the rooftop door. Connor's head peeked out from around the heavy door. "Cordy? I thought I heard something up here..."

She covered the globe and forced a smile, though her face had been plunged back into darkness. "Hey, what brings you up here?" The peace she had been experiencing was replaced with a kind of sticky awkwardness. A surge of annoyance welled up in her chest and she pushed it back with determination.

"I was just noticing the calendar in the hotel lobby," he said, his voice low and smooth, and just a little too musical. That always bothered her, the way he spoke. He sounded too much like Darla that way, she supposed. It wasn't the kid's fault, but it was still there.

"What about it?" Her hand absently rubbed against the chamois.

"It says that tomorrow is Christmas."

Cordelia opened her mouth to object, that it couldn't have been Christmas already, because...

Because, what? Because she would have noticed something in her paranoid amnesiac delusional-spy state? Because when she was transported back to her teen-aged self, the first thing on her mind would have been peace on earth and goodwill toward men? Because *after* she got her memory back, she would have been completely consumed with the search for the perfect present? Those shopping trips would most certainly have been scheduled around her nervous breakdowns and Connor's deflowering.

She blinked, feeling suddenly disoriented. "It is?" She exhaled, and the sound that came out was almost like a giggle, only tinted with hysteria. "Christmas. Well, I guess time flies when the world as you know it is falling apart."

He came closer and drew himself down on his haunches. Cordelia could see what was left of the city's lights reflected in his eyes. Again she stiffened. Darla's eyes. "My father told me about Christmas. He told me that it was a time for being thankful for the blessings we have been granted."

Cordelia was about to point out that, in actuality, it was Thanksgiving that was intended for blessing-reflection, but then remembered that Holtz, being old-school English, probably didn't see fit to educate Connor on that particular holiday.

Connor rested on his knees so he was eye to eye with Cordelia. "I wanted to tell you how thankful I am that you are around. I am glad that you are... with me."

Cordelia's eyebrows quirked slightly and she smiled unsurely. "Well Connor... that's very," she paused, looking for the right word, "nice."

His eyes mirrored her uncertainty while his hand made a bold move for her thigh. Cordelia grabbed his hand and moved it away. "Connor, this *really* isn't the right time. Actually... I'm not sure there *is* a right time for this."

His face fell, and for a moment he looked like the child he was. "But, Cordelia... you said..."

"I said that I wanted you to have something real. I said that you never had a childhood, or a family or friends or anything that's real, and if this is the end, I want you to have something that is. That's what I said, Connor." She grabbed his hand and held it tightly. "But the thing is... the thing is, I was wrong, Connor. I wanted so badly to give you something that was real, but I don't think I did."

Tears had pooled in his eyes. "But you did. It was real -- I felt it."

Cordelia choked out a short bark of laughter and rubbed at her burning eyes. "Connor, the things that were real were sorrow, pity, despair..." she trailed off, her dark eyes holding his lighter ones. "But none of what should have been real -- passion, attraction, romantic love -- none of that was there."

"Then why did you?"

"Because, you needed something that I could give." And because I needed something that you couldn't ever give me, not in a hundred-thousand years. Cordelia swallowed. "I..." I shouldn't have. It wasn't right. I was wrong. Oh boy was I wrong.

"No, I don't believe you. You're just saying this... You're saying this because -- because *he* made you say it! You're saying this for him! He doesn't want us to be together, Cordelia. He wants to keep you from me -- don't you see it? Can't you tell? He--"

The presence of her hand, warm and reassuring on the side of his face stopped him.

"Connor, your father has nothing to do with this."

The boy stood. "Yes he does," he hissed. "He's the only reason you ever do anything! He's the reason you came back here. He's the reason you *left* me! He is *always* the reason for *everything* you do!"

Cordelia felt the words like physical blows. "Connor..." She set the globe down and stood. "Connor, this is not the time to--"

"No! No more words!"

She wasn't sure which shocked her more -- the fact that he had hit her, or the fact that she hadn't seen it coming. Her entire face ached and her eyes were stinging and watering. She looked up -- her vision was blurry -- and saw him staring down at her. Cordelia felt cold suddenly, because he wasn't looking at her with remorse or even the faintest hint of surprise. He was looking at her with hate. He was looking at her the same way he had so often looked at Angel. Cordelia got to her feet -- she had landed on her hands and knees -- and held the icy glare.

"I loved you, Cordelia. I tried to let you know. I tried to tell you so many different times -- I loved you so much. I loved you more than he ever could -- don't you see that? He can't love you -- he's just a monster, he *can't* love you. Why don't you see that? Why can't you understand? How can I make you understand?" He moved toward her, his hands coming up to touch her face.

Her lips curled slightly, almost reassuringly, a sharp contrast to the fear now evident in her eyes. "Connor, I *do* understand. I do."

"No, you don't." His tears were streaming now as his fingers moved into her hair. "You can't understand me, because you're in love with him. You can't understand how much I love you, Cordy."

Cordelia tried to step away, but Connor held on to her face and head too tightly. His mouth was suddenly pressed against hers in a clumsy kiss.

When he broke the kiss, Cordelia looked searchingly into his eyes. She tried to see what was there, and tried to call on whatever ability The Powers had bestowed on her. It was there, deep inside, and she needed to get it out again. Like a tumor, the anger and hatred inside Connor had metastasized.

"Connor," she said slowly, "we can make this better. We can. I know it. I never intended to hurt you."

"I know you didn't, Cordelia. You're in love with him, and he's in love with you. I thought you could love me in the same way -- I thought I was enough like him for you to..." he trailed off, shaking his head.

"You are. You *are* like him, Connor. Don't you see it?"

A brief smile lit his features. "I am?"

"Yes," she said, crying freely now. "You are."

Sadness touched his eyes again. "There's only one difference, Cordy."

She sniffled. "What's that?"

"I'm not a Champion."

With a violent twist, he snapped her neck, letting the body fall in a heap next to the covered sphere.

Connor pulled back suddenly, almost surprised at what he'd done. "He was right. I'm not. I never will be."

Suddenly, he heard movement outside of the hotel. He crouched down and crept to the edge, peering downward.

They were leaving. Wesley, Gunn, and his father were leaving the building. Connor frowned. It would have been far more practical for the vampire to take to the rooftops. Why hadn't he?

Connor looked around quickly before gathering Cordelia's limp form in his arms and grabbing the bundle she had been holding when he found her. Silently, he went through the rooftop access door and slipped into the shadows of the hotel.

***

Several hours later, a lone figure jumped from the top of a fire escape. It fell to the ground gracefully and almost silently before straightening bent knees and looking around. Angelus smiled to himself; there were few things he liked better than a good chase. His contentment was soured only slightly with the knowledge that Wesley and Gunn were somewhere, lurking, following him, just to make sure he didn't "step out of line." He smirked. They obviously didn't know him well at all. Their ignorance would serve him well.

Angelus sighed in contentment. He'd long known how to beat the Beast. He'd known it even before that filthy soul had been spirited away into hiding. It was that damned soul that had made this task so difficult. Angelus was nearly tempted to forego the entire plan and go with his instinct -- feed.

But then, he'd have far more time to feed if he was able to *prevent* the world from ending. He didn't have to like it, but that was logic for you. Though he would have been happy to pick up a snack somewhere -- this was a disaster, the world was ending, and it was looking like all four horsemen were saddling up for a hell of an apocalypse. But for some reason, the streets were deserted. It was nothing like disasters back in the day. Back then, the air was rife with the sweet smell of fear and people were ripe for the picking.

"Ah, the times they are a-changing," he muttered, picking his way through the empty streets toward the Sky Temple Club.

From above, Wesley and Gunn were watching.

Gunn's eyebrows lifted. "What's the deal with returning to the scene of the phenomenal ass-whooping?"

"Well, this is the center of the destruction. It does make sense to return here," Wesley said, sotto voce. "He's going back to beard the lion in his den. Perhaps he thinks he's got something to prove." Wesley was quiet for a second. "We should go down there."

Gunn was incredulous. "Just in case that thing needs any help getting us killed?"

"No, wait," Wesley murmured, his eyes on the abandoned building. "He's scouting. I can see him."

Without warning the earth shook violently. A deep roar sounded from the demolished club and the two onlookers quickly made their way to the Sky Temple Club.

Angelus had cornered the lion in its den, much to their surprise.

***

At the Hyperion, Fred and Lorne were still busy handling the overflow of calls. Vermin as well as assorted reptiles were appearing in plumbing, birds were flying into windows, and blood was working its way through faucets and water fountains.

"Locusts?" Lorne was saying. "Try and hold them off with a little 'Raid' until we get there, sweetie. Ciao." He hung up. He looked at Fred, who was looking more than a little overwhelmed.

"It's been like this for days. There's no way we'd ever be able to handle this many calls," she said, shaking her head.

"Well muffin-top, let's hope that the crew can handle the big baddie." He paused, red eyes gazing upwards for a moment. "Cordy still on the roof?"

Fred nodded. "She seemed to think that it was the best spot to wait, just in case she had to..." she trailed off. "She thought there was a better signal up there."

Lorne nodded, his lips pursing.

Noticing his silence, Fred frowned. "What?"

"It's probably nothing, sugarpie." He was already heading toward the stairs.

"Do you mean that in the 'I hope it's nothing' way, or in the 'it's really nothing' way?"

Lorne's only response was to take the stairs more quickly. The access door was somewhat difficult to push, but they managed.

The rooftop was deserted, aside from the abandoned walkie-talkie. Fred picked it up as Lorne looked around.

Fred's voice was soft. "She's not here."

 
Lorne chewed on his lower lip. "Let's check rooms before raising the alarm."

It wasn't long before they found her in Angel's bed. She was curled on her side, eyes closed, cradling the sphere in her arms. The covering was long gone and the room was bathed in light so bright, it made Cordelia's hair seem silver.

Fred sighed in relief as a shadow settled on Lorne's brow. She rushed to the bed and grabbed Cordelia's shoulder, shaking her. "Of all the times to take a nap," she muttered.

Cordelia's head lolled unnaturally to the left. Fred froze.

"She's not there," Lorne murmured.

"But..." Fred was shaking her head as she dropped to her knees. "But... no, it's not..." She shook Cordelia harder. "Cordy, get up. It's not funny, Cordy. Angel's gonna be mad that you're foolin' around. Get up. Just... Cordelia, get UP!"

A soft green hand landed on Fred's shoulder, squeezing it gently. "C'mon Fred, we've got to--"

"NO! No, Lorne. Angel's gonna come back, and he's going to find her, and she's been goofing off, and then he's gonna be mad, and then she's gonna leave again, and I don't *want* Cordelia to have to leave again! It was so hard the first time, and she can't leave again. She can't leave Angel... she can't leave us. She did once already, and she only just came back, and she... she CAN'T leave again, Lorne. She can't."

Lorne gently brought Fred to her feet. "She already has, sweetie. She already has." He reached down and brushed a stray lock of hair away from Cordelia's tear-streaked face. "And I'm willing to bet it was through no choice or fault of her own." He scooped up the globe in steady hands and steered Fred out of the suite.

***

The air was heavy and hot, smelling of sulfur and decay. Wesley swallowed as she led the way up to what was left of the Sky Temple Club. They kept their weapons close to their sides, though Wesley was beginning to experience very sudden and very severe doubt. The earth had stopped shaking, and the ear-splitting roars had stopped. The knowledge only left him with a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach.

They reached the large room, still littered with well-dressed corpses. The stench was stronger here due to the blending of fire, smoke, and bodily decay. Wesley swallowed reflexively.

The room was empty, save for the bodies. Both the Beast and Angelus were nowhere to be had.

"This is bad," Gunn murmured.

"Very bad," Wesley agreed.

Gunn's eyes scanned the carnage. "It ain't dead."

"How can you be sure?" Wesley asked.

Gunn looked over his shoulder at Wesley, grinning. "Come on, Wes, I've seen all the movies. There'd be a bigger finish. There always is."

"If you're subscribing to the James Cameron philosophy of apocalypses, may I please ask what kind of karmic gotcha comes next?" Wesley asked.

"Either it killed Angelus and went off in search of more innocents to slaughter, or it's hiding, waiting for us." Gunn was quiet for a second. "And the gotcha comes when we realize that Angelus led us in here before taking off."

They stood there for a few seconds, waiting. Nothing happened.

"Not feeling any karmic gotchas," Gunn muttered. They both turned and headed quickly for the exit.

Once they were out on the street, Wesley looked at the sky, his frown deepening. "We need to regroup."

Gunn was shaking his head. "What we need to do is find Angelus before he starts feeling snacky."

"What if the Beast teleported itself out of the club?" Wesley was looking up and down the abandoned streets, searching for any movement, any sign of anything. "Wouldn't Angelus have followed?"

Gunn shook his head and began to run, taking the route back to the Hyperion. "But how would he have known where to follow it to?"

"Because he knows it," Wesley answered simply. "And, unfortunately, now we know where neither the Beast nor Angelus is."

Gunn looked down at the battle-axe he held. "I'm thinking I'm gonna want a bigger one of these regardless."

*

Several floors below Cordelia's body, Lorne and Fred were in the lobby of the Hyperion. He'd been calling into the walkie-talkie for nearly a half-hour before Wesley's voice came through the small speaker.

"Ah, Wesley... Wes, there's a problem."

There was a beat of silence. "We're on our way back."

Lorne's eyebrows rose. "You mean it worked? Ding-dong the Beast is dead?"

"No."

Lorne was suddenly cold. It didn't take empathic powers to hear it in Wesley's voice. "You lost him, didn't you?"

"He lost us. He's out there, Lorne, and there's no way to guess where he's gone to."

The tiled floor began to shake and a deep rumble erupted from below.

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but I hope it's the same place where you all are heading." They jumped to their feet and raced out the hotel's door. "It's here, Wes. It's *here*."

***

Angelus crept through the museum. He could hear the heartbeat, and was almost surprised that the kid came back *here* of all places. Prey weren't supposed to lead predators back to their homes. It was bad strategy.

Unless, of course, the kid thought he was going to be able to gain home field advantage by bringing him here. Angelus crouched, blending in with the shadows while he listened, the broadsword he held on his back offering a satisfying weight. There were so many noises that had the potential to expose Connor's hiding place: a breath, a heartbeat, even the scent of his perspiration could give him away. Vampires gave away no such hints -- there was no heartbeat, no breath, nothing that gave away his vantage point.

He simply waited. Connor would come to him. It was the same mistake he would have made had he been younger; impatience had always been and would always be the downfall of the young.

Then, a breath. It was a soft exhale, as though steadying himself for battle.

The smile darkened. He waited in silence and stillness. He waited until he couldn't stand it anymore, until the urge for battle nearly made him snarl in anticipation. And yet he waited.

***

It wasn't long before Wesley and Gunn came running up to the Hyperion.

"It's still in there," Fred said. "It's... waiting for us." She looked up at Wesley, her face tight with anger and determination. "Wesley, Cordy's in there. She's--"

"What? We have to get in there." Wesley headed for the front door while Gunn looked up at the building, his mouth set into a hard line.

"It's not... quite that simple," Lorne said sadly. "Cordelia's dead."

There was a tense silence. "She's dead?" Wesley asked, his voice soft. "Did it... how?"

"Her neck's broken. She was in Angel's bed with her neck broken."

Wesley was quiet for several moments. He swallowed, almost hesitantly. "What about the sphere?"

Lorne held up something wrapped in a pillowcase. "Here."

Wesley took it gingerly. "We need to go in. The weapons cabinet is in there..."

"Because we all know how well weapons worked the first time," Gunn said. He looked up at the Hyperion. "But it ain't looking like we've got much choice here."

"Gunn, you and I will go around back to the garden entrance -- it's nearest the cabinet. Lorne and Fred, divert it."

"Um, as bait, may I add something here?" Lorne asked. Three pairs of eyes invited him to continue. "Why have we not broken the sphere yet? Because if Angelus is AWOL, then aren't we pretty much guaranteeing that we've got double the carnage going on?"

***

Angelus had heard the footsteps, light and quick though they were, he still heard them and had time enough to react before Connor's body flew at him. Angelus pivoted and landed a well-placed roundhouse kick in the center of Connor's chest, the force of which, coupled with Connor's own speed, sent him flying back.

"Home for the holidays, Junior. Aren't ya glad to see your dear ol' Dad?"

Connor recovered quickly, but Angelus had gained the upper-hand for the time being. He hefted Connor up by the shirt and dropped him. The boy landed solidly and glared up at the vampire.

"You have your mother's eyes, boy. I don't think I ever told you that. Then again, what with the Captain Nemo adventure I probably had more important things on my mind." He morphed out of his human face. "Like how many ways I was going to kill you. Then maybe I'll rip your eyes out and frame them -- a little something to remember you by."

Connor arched an eyebrow and smirked. "You talk too much."

"And you should be thanking me for delaying the inevitable." He advanced, pulling the sword out of the scabbard.

***

The four in the Hyperion were armed, though scarcely ready to fight. However, Lorne couldn't help but think, casting an eye around the lobby, sometimes life didn't ask you if you were ready for anything. He was poised by the circular settee, Wesley and Gunn were by the weapons cabinet, and Fred was armed with a crossbow on the second story landing where she guarded the sphere.

Wesley and Gunn charged first while Fred took careful aim with the crossbow. A few of her shots hit, but were -- as they would have guessed -- were ineffectual. The thing in the lobby looked up where Fred had situated herself and pulled the misfired bolts out of itself.

"Fred! Move!" Gunn yelled, charging the Beast again, swinging the axe for all he was worth. The blade embedded itself in the flesh, but otherwise there was no effect. With a flick of the wrist, Gunn was sent flying through the doors to the garden.

Fred had scrambled up the stairs, searching for something -- anything she could enhance the crossbow with. "Wesley!"

Wesley ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

"Give me your sword."

Without a word, he handed it over. Fred began working to modify the crossbow to accommodate the sword's blade. "We need Angel, Wesley. We *need* him."

From below Wesley could hear the horrible sound of weapons being turned on their users and bodies landing heavily against walls and floors.

"I agree," he said, his voice grim. He hadn't wanted it to come to this -- Angel had already fought the Beast once, with horrible consequences. Once the vampire had come to him with the idea of releasing Angelus, Wesley had been dubious, until he saw how confident Angel was.

But Angelus was nowhere to be seen.

Wesley grabbed the globe from the pillowcase and hefted it toward the wall. Instead of the welcome smash of tinkling glass, the sphere landed in the Beast's outstretched hand. Something akin to panic clutched at him and Wesley swore under his breath. Whatever it was, this Beast knew about the sphere.

It knew. How in the name of all that was holy could it *know*?

Suddenly, Wesley felt the illumination of dawning comprehension. Of course it knew. Without a word, Wesley grabbed the sword Fred had been trying to modify and launched himself at the Beast. All he had to do was get the Beast to drop the sphere, even if it was as it was batting Wesley away. He had to do something -- anything -- that would make the Beast *drop* that ball. He ran down the stairs before leaping at the Beast, the blade heading straight for its throat. Then, there was a horrible, sickening crack and they all watched in disbelief as Wesley was flung back at the stairwell.

Wesley felt the side of his face hit the floor hard, and he knew instinctively that the things that were broken in him were irreparable. He looked up and saw the Beast looking down at him, satisfaction and then confusion crossing its rock-like face. In spite of the pain rocketing through his body, Wesley smiled. His hand was curled around the sphere and he found some satisfaction in the knowledge that his last act on earth would be the reinstatement of Angel's soul. He lifted his hand and brought it down hard, the glass splintering in his hand, each sliver slicing into his palm.

Ribbons of blinding light swirled around the room, illuminating every corner and shadow. The streams were gone as suddenly as they had appeared and the Hyperion was once again plunged into darkness.

***

Angelus smiled. The kid was tiring out. Given the stench of junk food that emanated from the place, that wasn't much of a surprise. He blocked a kick that was sloppy and caught Connor by the calf. He yanked hard and watched the boy land flat on his back. Bringing the broadsword to the boy's chin, Angelus cocked his head thoughtfully.

"And I think that means I win. Get up." When Connor didn't move, Angelus reached down and grabbed his shirt, effectively pulling him to his feet. "The old man mustn't have taught you well -- honor thy father, Connor." Angelus leaned in close, his face mere inches from Connor's beaten and bloody one. "You don't get it, and you never did. You had the potential either to take after the demon in me, or the soul. And while I'm positively *thrilled* that you're opting for the darker path, there's only room for one of me in this world. You're crowding me out, Junior."

"*You* aren't my father."

The demonic visage disappeared, revealing the human face once more. "Oh, but I am. Every aspect of me is present in you, even my demon. And you can't take it, can you? You fight the potential for evil that resides in you, and you're too weak to embrace anything else, so you end up... here, on the bad end of the sword. Oh, and me." He pressed the edge of the sword against Connor's neck and smiled when he saw the boy's fašade fall away, revealing naked fear.

Suddenly Connor did something unexpected. He smiled.

Angelus looked at him quizzically. "Something to add, have you?"

"Even after all this is done, after you've killed me... you're still going to be beaten. The Beast --"

"Is you," Angelus supplied simply. "And there you have my second reason for looking forward to this. Killing you only ensures my existence. Survival of the fittest, Junior. Can't argue Darwin, right?" Dark eyebrows lifted in mock surprise. "Oh, you didn't know? See, I figured it out pretty early on. I wanted to kill you right away, and it was pretty tempting, but that damned filthy soul just kept... getting in the way. Turns out I wasn't wrong -- my child was going to turn out to be the scourge of mankind. Why fight the unfightable when you can catch it at its most vulnerable?"

"I'm still going to win." His smile turned from smug to triumphant. "I killed Cordelia."

"You did *what*?" he growled, his eyes glaring yellow at Connor.

The smile grew. "I killed her."

"You know, beating me to the punch isn't the way to get on my good side, Junior. You have *no* idea how long I was looking forward to that." He laughed mirthlessly. "But then again, now I get to kill you. I call that an up-side." Angelus pushed the blade hard and watched in rapt fascination as Connor's head fell to the ground as his body crumpled, twitching.

The museum was immediately illuminated as bolts of multicolored light shot through broken windows, striking the vampire's body with such force it sent him careening into a glass museum case of ancient Native American pottery. The body was still.

***

Fred pushed herself up, shaking. Wesley was still at the bottom of the stairwell, not moving, but nothing remained of the Beast. There had been no thundering roar, no mystical-metaphysical-whammy, no crumpling into a pile of smoldering ash. Gunn had made it to his feet and was leaning against what was left of the door to the garden, his arm around his ribcage.

Lorne's head appeared behind the reception desk. "What... happened?"

It was there and then it wasn't. It was just... gone. The hotel was in shambles, but most everyone seemed okay, more or less.

Fred rushed down the stairs, slipping down the final five steps to land on her knees by Wesley's side. "Not again," she breathed. "Oh god, not again." She gingerly reached down to touch Wesley's neck. She waited for many seconds, waiting.

There was nothing.

***

Angel's legs were weak beneath him. He turned away from the body of his only son, his internal chill too much to bear. For a moment there had been dizziness and disorientation, and for a moment he had been afraid that the de-souling process hadn't been successful. Then, as memories began seeping into his consciousness, he realized that it had all gone a little too well. He closed his eyes and rubbed his hands over his face, feeling the tears against his fingertips.

It was done. The Beast was defeated. It was over.

It was finally over.

Angel turned and headed for the exit when suddenly his knees buckled as another flood of memories washed over him.

//I love you, Angel. And I'm sorry.//

"No..."

//...how does it feel to be the glowy one for once?//

"God, no..."

//...tomorrow is Christmas...//

//...time flies when the world as you know it is falling apart...//

He could hear her; he could hear her so clearly. His hands shook and his stomach churned. He had started crying, harsh, loud sobs that made him choke. No, it couldn't have happened that way. It couldn't have.

//...I wanted so badly to give you something that was real, but I don't think I did...//

//...It was real -- I felt it...//

//...none of what should have been real -- passion, attraction, romantic love -- none of that was there//

Angel shook his head mutely. They were nothing but his demon's fantasies -- nothing more. They weren't anything more than sick, twisted fantasies.

//...he is *always* the reason for *everything* you do...he's just a monster, he *can't* love you//

//...we can make this better...//

Angel gagged, his sobs turning to dry heaves. He'd killed his son because he'd had to. And now he was wishing that Connor was alive so he could do it all over again. Again and again -- it would never be enough; it would never ease the wrenching pain in his chest.

//...thought you could love me in the same way...//

//...you *are* like him, Connor. Don't you see it?//

//...there's only one difference, Cordy...//

"No. No, no, no... nonononono." Angel lowered his forehead onto the cold floor. "No more. Make it stop. Please stop..."

//I'm not a Champion.//

His sobs were deafening in the empty museum. He ached inside, and it was unbearable. Connor, dead. Cordelia, dead.

Who else?

"Champion." The voice sounded as though it was inside his head. It was soothing, with a musical quality that was almost preternatural.

He shook his head, his forehead still pressed against the tile floor of the museum. "I'm not a Champion."

"Champion, stand."

"I can't."

"You must."

Very slowly, he lifted his head. The museum had faded away and he found himself bathed in light. There was nothing anymore -- the museum was gone, Los Angeles was far away. It wasn't *gone*, it just wasn't there. Carefully, Angel got to his feet. There was nothing but white -- there were no shapes, no people, nothing but white light.

"You have done well, Champion. You have succeeded."

"I killed my son," he managed, brokenly. "I killed him, and..." And I would have done it again. I *wanted* to do it again.

"You have done well. You have done what we have asked."

Suddenly the white light was gone, and he suddenly found himself in the Hyperion's lobby. There was no trace of the pentagram on the floor, and the woodwork had been polished to a high sheen. It was spotless.

It wasn't real.

"You did it, Angel."

Angel spun on his heel and saw Lorne leaning against the reception counter.

"You're not real."

"We thought you would be more comfortable hearing this in familiar surroundings, from someone you know."

Angel suddenly felt numb. "Cordelia's dead, isn't she?"

"She has passed on, yes."

Angel closed his eyes. "Who else?"

"The one you knew as Wesley."

He shook his head and rubbed at his face. "I haven't succeeded. I killed my own son -- and then wanted to do it over and over again for what *he* did. That isn't success."

"You have fulfilled the prophecy of the vampire with a soul."

Anger warred with despair and anguish. "So, what? Connor was just another *test*?"

The thing wearing Lorne's face smiled sadly. "You were meant to know love and grow stronger because of it. You were meant to know loss and grow stronger because of it. You were meant to know sacrifice and grow stronger because of it. You were meant to see that you can defeat the evil residing within you. You were meant to learn how to look beyond your own sentimentality and fight that which you love."

"He was a test. Nothing more."

"Not a test. Your final lesson."

Angel moved to the settee and sat, resting his head in his hands. "So the plan all along was for me to be able to kill my own son. Great cosmic joke."

"It was never a joke, Angel. Had you not been able to identify the evil in Connor, he would have killed you, and the Beast would have been victorious."

"I don't understand. I don't understand how a *child* -- *my* child could have... become that. He was just a baby. It wasn't that long ago -- he was just a baby."

"The Tro-Clan prophecy foretold a confluence of events that would bring about the ruination of mankind. The arrival of the one you called Holtz was the first in a chain of events. This was the final event in that same chain."

Angel sat there for what felt like an eternity. The being that wore Lorne's face sat down next to him, smiling gently. "It is time now, Angel."

He looked up, perplexed. "Time?"

"You have fulfilled your destiny as the vampire with a soul." He paused for a moment. "It is time for your..." a small smile curled his lips. "I believe you have often called it your 'Shanshu.'"

Angel shook his head slowly. "No. No, I can't. I don't want it. Not if this is the price."

"It is not a matter of price, Angel. It is a matter of destiny. This is your final phase as the vampire with a soul."

"Why do you keep saying it that way? 'The vampire with a soul.'"

"Because that is what you are, Angel. This has been your destiny. And now that your destiny as the vampire with a soul has been completed, it is time for you to move on."

"To what?"

"To your life."

"And another destiny?"

"Everything has a destiny, Angel. Every man, woman, child, animal, demon -- all of them have destinies. Sometimes destiny is to have a child, while other times it is merely to show kindness to another. If you are to choose life, you will undertake yet another destiny, because you will again be in the world -- as a living thing."

He sighed, suddenly tired. "I don't want it. I don't want another destiny, I don't want another life. I don't want any of it."

"You do have a choice, Angel."

His shoulders sagged in defeat. "How is there a choice?"

"You can choose to become a mortal being, or you can choose an afterlife." Angel opened his mouth to say something, but Lorne held up his hand, stopping him. "In that afterlife, you will be reunited with the ones you have cared about and lost. But, please Angel, do not make this choice lightly."

"I know what my answer is."

"Don't give it to me yet. Go back. Think about it. I will come back to you for your answer."

The hotel lobby faded into white and in an instant Angel found himself in the alleyway where the Plymouth had been hidden. His movements were wooden as he lowered himself into the driver's seat. He reached for the ignition; the keys were still there. How thoughtful of the Powers to keep his car from being stolen.

He pulled up to the Hyperion, shocked to see its state. He vaulted out of the car and ran up the front walk, bursting through the front doors. As he did so, he saw Lorne, Gunn, and Fred kneeling around something. He smelled blood on the air and knew in an instant that it was Wesley they were surrounding.

Gunn saw him first and wrapped his fingers around the weapon nearest him: a stake. He was up in a fraction of a second, poised in front of the rest of the group. "Hey, look at that, you came back to gloat. Come on, you an' me. Let's do this."

"Gunn, it's me."

"Well, gee, I should just take your word on that then, shouldn't I?" He bent his knees slightly, ready to attack. "You'd better find a way to prove it."

Part of him wanted to feel the wooden stake plunging into his heart. He wanted the all-over ache to stop as he disintegrated into dust and ash. It would have been so easy to fool them -- all of them.

But he didn't.

 
Angel stared at Lorne, unable to think of anything to sing. Connor's words about Christmas kept coming back to him, taunting him. He drew in a shuddering breath. "What child is this, who, laid to rest on Mary's lap is sleeping..." His voice cracked on the last word. Angel swallowed. He couldn't go on. He couldn't sing it. Hopefully it was enough.

 
The room was silent, until Lorne stood. He shook his head in astonishment. "It worked. It actually worked."

Angel's shoulders sagged and he nodded. "We need to..." He made himself look down at Wesley. He knew without knowing that it had been the hard marble stairs against his spine that had... "We need to take care of them."

"Angel," Fred said, her voice soft. "Angel, Cordelia..."

"I know."

"We don't know how it happened. We thought that maybe..." Her mouth moved, but no sound came out.

"I can imagine what you thought, Fred. I know what happened to her." His eyes went to Wesley's form again. "We need to call the coroner's office. I'll be upstairs." He trudged up the stairwell and followed the hallway to his room. The sight of Cordelia on his bed made his chest contract painfully. Even without knowing, Connor had known what would have had the greatest impact. Her body there, like that, was far too fitting and far too appropriate. In the not-so-deep reaches of his memory, he recalled placing a dark haired woman out on a bed, setting the scene with meticulous care.

Angel knelt by the bed and brushed the hair away from Cordelia's forehead, running his thumb along the bridge of her nose and across her cheek. "I loved you," he murmured. "I don't know exactly when it happened, or how, but it did. Then I hesitated, and I lost you. For good."

He ran a hand through his disordered hair and looked up across the room. His eyes fell on the Axis of Pythia, still standing quietly on his dresser. Without thinking, he lunged for the axis. It worked once, it could work again -- this bridged all dimensions. *All* dimensions. He could find her again, and they could work out a solution.

There was nothing he and Cordy couldn't fix. Nothing.

Angel sat on the floor, holding the axis tightly. He closed his eyes and began reciting the chant he thought he'd long forgotten. He could feel the axis begin to hum in his hands and knew that its golden glow was surrounding him as he began to feel like he was falling. He fell for what seemed like forever.

"Angel?"

His eyes flew open and he looked all around, but saw nothing.

Then, her voice, so close to his ear. "Angel, I'm here."

"I can't see you, Cordy."

"Angel, I'm here. I'm right here."

His eyes were wide open and he swung his head wildly, trying to see her in the nothing. When he spoke, his voice was laced with panic. "Cordy, I can't see you. I need to see you."

She materialized before him, and beyond her a blue simple room swirled into existence. "I'm here, Angel. I'm right here." She was in front of him, her hands on either side of his face. "See? Right here all along. Never further away than your friendly neighborhood mystical axis."

Angel closed his eyes and leaned into her touch. It was barely there -- no more than a whisper against his skin, but he could feel her on his soul even if he couldn't feel her with his flesh.

"I didn't know it would end this way," he said, struggling for composure. "It wasn't supposed to end this way."

Her thumb traced its way across his cheek, swiping at a tear he hadn't felt fall. "Yes, Angel, it was. It was for us, anyway -- me and Wes."

"No, I refuse to believe that. I refuse to believe that you were destined to die at my son's hands. I refuse to believe that Wesley fell to his death down a flight of stairs. That was *not* the way this was supposed to work, Cordelia."

"Yes it was, Angel. That is exactly how it was supposed to work. That's the funny thing about destiny; we don't always like how it turns out, but we have to gain comfort in the knowledge that even when things turn out badly, the eventual outcome is good."

"All things happen for a reason?" he said angrily. "No. There is no good reason why you had to -- why that had to happen to *you*."

"We can't see it now, Angel. But it's up ahead, far ahead, like a strand of yarn in an intricately woven rug. You have to believe that."

"There's nothing to believe, Cordelia; I've made my choice."

"Don't be hasty, please?"

"What, so I can become another cog in the PTB machine? I've been down that road, Cordelia. It didn't go so well."

"Angel," she said soothingly, her fingers tracing patterns all over his face, "this is what you've been waiting for. This is the culmination of years -- decades -- of atonement. You have the chance for life -- a *real* life, with sunshine and breathing and heartbeats. Don't give it up for the afterlife. Not yet. The afterlife is eternal. Mortal years are limited. Enjoy your mortal years, Angel. You'll have all of eternity after they're through."

"I ca- I can't do it alone, Cordy. I need you."

Her voice was soft as she stroked his hair. "You're never alone, Angel. Haven't you figured that out yet? You reach people. You reach out to them, and they see something in you -- maybe it's something they see in themselves, maybe it's something they'd *like* to see in themselves, but people recognize something good in you. You shouldn't deny anyone that."

***

Suddenly, unexpectedly, he was falling again. Though her hands were gone, Angel could still feel Cordelia's warmth against his face. He never felt himself land, instead blinking and sitting straight up before realizing that he was on his bedroom floor. Cordelia's body was gone from the bed. The hurt had returned now, inside and out. He stood, rubbing a hand across his face, and padded out of his room and down the hallway to the lobby.

He was unsurprised to find it empty. There were, however, voices coming from the garden. Angel walked slowly to the hole in the wall that had been the door to the garden and looked outside. Gunn, Lorne, and Fred were all seated on the stone benches outside, speaking in hushed tones. He watched them from the shadows for a moment, marveling at the way the sunlight bounced across Fred's hair.

The urge to join them was overpowering.

Lorne noticed Angel's presence first. "Morning, big guy."

Angel blinked and glanced up at the sky. "Yeah, it is. I guess. I mean, it's been..." He stopped. "Morning."

The silence extended for several agonizing seconds.

"The coroner's office came in the wee hours," Gunn said. His voice was slightly hoarse, as though he'd been crying. "You weren't in your room, so..."

"I understand," Angel said softly.

"We were just talking," Fred said, getting up from the bench. "You could... You know, I was gonna say you could join us, but..." she looked upward and shook her head, instead choosing to climb the steps up to where Angel stood in the shadows, protected from the sun's rays. "We were talking about what's going to happen next."

Angel pressed his back against a nearby wall and slid down until he was sitting. "Next?"

"Yeah," Gunn agreed. "You know, I know some guys. It'd take a couple weeks, but we could get this place back up to spec in no time."

Angel's eyes traveled over the destroyed lobby. "No, I think it's time we moved on."

"Moved on, like finding new headquarters?" Fred's voice was hopeful.

"No, my little lamb," Lorne said, interrupting gently. "What I think our Dark Knight is trying to say is that his role in the PTB Circle of Unlife is just about coming to a close."

There was silence as Lorne's words sunk in.

"You're going to be... mortal?" Fred asked.

"We'll see."

"So it's... over?" Gunn was shaking his head. "The mission? It's just... gone?"

Angel shook his head. "It's not over. Not for you. And I don't even think it's really over for me. It's just going to change slightly."

***

"You made the right choice, Angel." Cordelia's voice was soft and he could almost feel her breath in his hair.

He smiled, closing his eyes. "I need to hear that every now and then." His eyes opened. "Just like I need to see you every now and then."

She smiled at him. "I'm always around, Angel. Haven't you figured that out yet? Any time you think of me, it's for a reason. We're around you. Let yourself, and you'll feel us here." She stopped. "Now that sounded creepy. And a little lewd."

He chuckled. "I think I know what you were getting at. It's just... It's just so nice to *see* you. To feel you. I miss it so much."

"I do too. But don't wish for this to end too quickly. It'll go by fast enough on its own."

The grandfather clock in the hallway chimed. "It's three in the morning," Angel said, yawning suddenly and rubbing his eyes.

"You still haven't turned those circadian rhythms around, have you?"

"I'm getting there. It'll happen." His hands came away from his eyes and he leaned back into the couch, just looking at her.

"You need to go to sleep," she said. "You've got glassy-eye." When Angel shrugged noncommittally, she lifted an eyebrow at him. "Hey, tomorrow's a big day. You should be well-rested."

Angel's mouth quirked in disbelief. "Big day. Right." He paused. "Will you be here?"

"Of course."

***

He'd only been asleep for four or five hours when his still-somewhat-sensitive hearing picked up a soft rapping. Blinking slowly, Angel lifted his head up. The room was flooded with sunlight, but that hadn't been what woke him. Stretching, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and yanked on a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt. His bedroom had certainly been warm enough, but the rest of the house was likely to be chilly.

His bare feet were almost noiseless as he jogged lightly down the stairs and pulled open the front door. He blinked. "Tess?"

The little girl raised dark brown eyes at him, bloodshot with tears. Her face was stark white -- even her lips were pale and the light dusting of freckles on her nose stood out at him.

It was an expression, he realized with sinking dread, he knew well. He pulled the door open wider and ushered her inside. She was still in her nightgown; she had pulled a coat on and her feet were in sodden slippers. "Come on," he said gently, taking her small, cold form into his arms and bringing her to the living room, "you need to get warmed up."

She was shaking, though Angel wasn't convinced it was entirely from the cold. He placed her on the couch in the living room and pulled the soaked bunny slippers from her feet. He pulled a thick throw blanket around her, then knelt by the couch and held each tiny foot between his palms, trying to warm them. "I'm going to get a fire going again. Will you be all right?" he asked gently. She nodded, tears already pooling in her eyes and sliding down her cheeks.

Angel turned and busied himself with the kindling. Whatever it was, whatever had happened, whatever that *bastard* had done to her, he was going to pay for it. When the flames caught on the kindling, he turned around to face her. She was wrapped in the blanket watching him with large, uncertain eyes. "You're going to be okay," he said, pressing the back of his hand to the side of her face -- she was still cold. He sat on the couch and swallowed as she leaned against him wordlessly. There was something still unsettling about human closeness. It nagged at him until he realized: she felt safe here. "What happened?" He didn't want to ask, he didn't want to know.

"I couldn't wake Mommy up."

The breath stilled in his lungs. "What do you mean you couldn't wake her?" He knew the woman took prescription pills, maybe--

"She was bleeding. I put a band-aid on it, but she wouldn't get up." She curled herself up into a tighter ball. "She had a hole... I put a band-aid on it, but..."

Angel closed his eyes. Not today. Not on Christmas morning. Not like this.

"It was just a little hole." Tess pointed to a spot on her forehead, just above her eyebrow. "The band-aid covered it. I couldn't make her get up though, and I couldn't find my dad..." She twisted around and looked up at him. "Will Daddy be mad I didn't call 911?"

Angel smiled sadly and tugged the blanket more securely around her. "No, he won't be mad, Tess." He swallowed. "I'll do it for you." Slowly he pushed himself up from the couch and disappeared into the kitchen to find the phone.

As he dialed, he could almost hear Cordelia's voice. "Even when things turn out badly, the eventual outcome is good."

Epilogue:

"Block, Tess! Block!"

"You try blocking!" Tess called back, her crescent kick catching the vamp in the chest. "Blocking doesn't make dust!"

He sat atop the crypt, his legs crossed at the ankles as he watched. "Come on, we practiced this! You look sloppy out there!"

"Yeah, well maybe *he's* a little more unpredictable than you are!" The newly risen vampire caught her by her coat and sent her sailing into the wall of a mausoleum.

Angel lowered himself to the ground. "Tess?"

"I'm okay!" Then, "Damn it all."

Fear clutched at his chest. "What is it?"

She stood suddenly and glared at the vampire advancing on her. "There is a *rip* in my pants," she said, gesturing angrily to her knee, where the black leather was indeed torn. "Do you have any idea how completely unfixable leather is? Do you?" She looked askance at Angel. "No more kid gloves. He made me rip my pants."

He nodded, fighting the grin. "Go for it."

She vaulted herself over a tombstone, throwing herself at the vampire's body. Both of them landed with a hard thump on the frozen ground. "You *really* need to have a better appreciation for fine leather." She punched the vampire full in the face, stunning him. The stake came down hard and the vampire exploded into dust.

"Not bad, but you still need to learn how to block better." Angel was standing over her, offering her his hand. "And I already told you how hard it is to slay in leather pants."

She looked down, examining the rip at her knee. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Leather pants evil. Got it." Tess arched a dark eyebrow at him. "And besides, if Slayers were meant to block, they would be called Blockers. Hence, I must spend less time blocking and more time slaying." She grabbed his hand and pulled herself up. "Right?"

He sent her a stern look. "And Slayers who do not learn how to block properly are called 'replaced.'"

She sighed, rolling her eyes. "Yeah, okay Dad."

He looked at her, a strange expression settling on his face. "You know, you don't have to..."

"Call you that? Why not?" She smirked. "'Cause you're on the clock right now as the Super Serious Watcher-Guy?"

"No," he said, uncomfortable. "Because I'm... not."

Tess looked at him, startled. "What?"

Angel shifted uncomfortably, obviously embarrassed. "I'm not your father, Tess."

"Well, I know *that*. But..." she stopped, choosing her words carefully. "After they found my father and the gun, it was you kept me from going into a foster home. I don't know what strings you pulled, or who you know, but you kept me from getting lost in the system. You adopted me. You are my guardian. You fixed my skinned knees, taught me how to ride a bike, and you've glared disapprovingly at every single date I've ever brought home." Her lips quirked in a grin. "And, hey, you taught me how to use a quarter-staff, a broadsword, and you gave me my first stake. Those aren't the sort of thing a girl forgets." The grin softened. "No, you're not my *father*. But you're my dad, and I'm better off for it."

He stared at the seventeen year old, dumbstruck.

She blinked. "And I think I just violated about fifteen different teenage-codes."

"I won't say a word about it." He gently bumped against her, nudging her shoulder with hers. She rose her eyebrows at him before leaning against him.

"We need to get back," Tess said as they moved like a single unit, maneuvering around tombstones and through snowdrifts. "One more sweep?"

Angel nodded. "I'm pretty sure we'll still have a home to go back to. Fred's not due to fly in from Houston until later tonight. Gunn and Lorne know how to hold down the fort."

"Well, Uncle Lorne *did* say something about a 'special' holiday punch he had wanted to try..."

They were quiet for a second.

"One more sweep," Angel said decisively. "And we'll make it quick. I don't know if I trust Lorne's 'special' anything."

Tess nodded, tucking her scarf back into her coat. They walked in companionable silence for awhile. Tess had grown to be nearly as tall as Angel; their strides were equally long, and they both kept a fairly brisk pace.

Anyone who had ever looked at them had always assumed that they had to be father and daughter. Tess had dark hair and coffee colored eyes that seemed to naturally complement Angel's own dark good looks, though his own hair had begun to show signs of silver growing around his temples and his eyes were occasionally seen behind a pair of glasses. Both of them had dry senses of humor, punctuated by occasional bouts of melancholy.

But they were both generally happy people.

They had been walking in comfortable silence, until, "Do you ever worry, Dad?"

He looked over at her, almost unsure of whether he'd heard her right. "I shouldn't even dignify that with an answer. Of course I worry."

"Do you ever worry about me? That..." she chewed on her lip "that I might die? Doing this, I mean. Doesn't it... scare you?"

Angel sighed hard. He'd had this talk already with Giles. That it wasn't smart for him to have insisted that *he* was the best Watcher for Tess. Giles warned him about emotional ties, he'd warned Angel that he was going to end up doing Tess more harm than good. In the end, Giles had warned Angel that most of the harm Angel did was going to be done to Angel. He hadn't listened.

"It does. I'm not going to lie and say it doesn't. But, the way I see it, I've known a few Slayers in my time, and those experiences that I've had can do nothing but help you. I have the advantage of experience, Tess. I worry, but I try to balance that worry so it doesn't eat me alive." He stopped walking and faced her. "Life is a gift, and it can be taken away at any time, which makes it all the more precious. I will always do everything in my power to make sure nothing happens to you."

She swallowed. "But Slayers die. Well, except for Buffy Summers, apparently. And I *still* say she should have been set up with a pretty sweet 401K for all her trouble..."

He chuckled. "Yeah, except in most extreme cases, Slayers die. So do Watchers. It happens. But someone told me once that of the things that happen in our lives, there will be some things that we are meant to change, and some things that we are not meant to change, and no matter how hard we struggle against it, the things that are destined to change will change."

"And the things that aren't destined to change, won't?"

"Pretty much. But the important thing is to keep the knowledge that whatever happens, happens for a greater reason that may not be immediately apparent."

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "Kinda fatalistic."

"Not always," he said. "See, it's the willingness to keep going, to keep fighting, even when you know what the outcome might be, the willingness to do what you know you're supposed to do that makes champions." Angel looked over at Tess. "I think you're coming along fairly well."

Further away, Cordelia and Wesley watched, unseen.

"She's turned out rather well, I'd say," Wesley noted.

Cordelia nodded. "I always knew Angel was going to be an excellent dad. He just needed the right opportunity." She watched them for a moment. "He's finally learned that it isn't genetics that makes a parent, it's the unconditional love of a child."

"It was a hard lesson bought, wasn't it?"

"And at a hell of a price."

Wesley was silent for a moment. "The hardest thing you ever had to do was telling him to live, wasn't it?"

She looked sad for a moment. "Very much so. But it was the way it was supposed to be. She needed him more than I did. Besides, I can be patient. Angel and I will have eternity to be with each other -- Tess doesn't. Not yet."

 

End.

 

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