Author's Notes: Season 1, set between "Parting Gifts" and "Somnambulist". Thanks to Kelley and Laurie for the beta, and to the Angel Fanfic Workshop. Distribution: Please ask.
Disclaimer: The characters described within are property of Mutant Enemy Productions, 20th Century Fox, Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt and associated individuals/companies. They are used without permission, expectation of profit or intent of infringement.
Prologue: Monday, December 20, 1999.
Bob locked his apartment door behind him. Then he fastened the deadbolt. And put on the chain. Reaching down, he slid the last two bolts into place, and gave the doorknob a small, sharp twist, just to be sure.
Heaving a sigh of relief, he kicked off his black, shiny boots and slipped the red felt hat from his head, tossing it onto the cluttered dining room table, where it sat like a big red exclamation mark amongst the final demand letters and disconnection notices.
Still five days to go until Christmas and already he was exhausted. Every year he promised himself that this one would be the last. This year it absolutely would be, no question. He was getting too old for this shit.
As he sat down on the threadbare sofa and removed his white beard, the feeling of unease that had followed him home crept over him again. Bad time of year to quit smoking, he thought, reaching for the almost-finished bottle of scotch on the coffee table. He drained the remainder of the liquor in one swig and rested the empty vessel on his padded stomach, the glass clinking against the gold buckle of his black patent leather belt.
God, he was so tired. Maybe he'd caught something from one of the hundreds of children who'd clambered into his lap over the last few days. Enough of them had been snotty-nosed. Maybe if he closed his eyes for a moment, just to muster enough energy to get out of the damned prickly red suit...
The bottle hitting the floor woke him with a start. He must have dozed off completely, and now he felt truly awful. Perhaps some aspirin would help.
Bob stumbled into the bathroom, the long legs of his Santa suit almost tripping him as he made his way to the medicine cabinet on the wall. He opened the mirrored door, and then slammed it shut, with a gasp, leaving the aspirin and all the other contents untouched.
Jesus Christ, he couldn't see himself! He looked wildly around the small tiled room. Everything else appeared normal. He held up a hand in front of his face. Nothing -- no red sleeve, no chewed fingernails... He pressed his palm against the deteriorating mirror, and it made a misty halo on the cool glass. When he withdrew it, a few greasy fingerprints remained.
Shit -- maybe he was dead! It was the only explanation. Dead. Oh God oh God oh God... His stomach clenched and he grabbed for the sink with trembling hands. This couldn't be happening.
What if he was a ghost? Could he walk through things? Bob charged at the wall, and there was a resounding crash as he cannoned into it, almost knocking himself senseless. It hurt, and threw his ghost theory out the window. Little beads of cold terror-sweat trickled down the back of his neck. What the hell was going on?
Maybe it was just him that couldn't see -- himself. Some sort of selective hysterical blindness maybe? He needed someone else to see him. Anyone just to smile and nod; acknowledge his presence. He dashed for the door, fumbling with the locks and chain, and finally out into the courtyard of the apartment building.
Nobody was there.
"Hello, anybody?" he yelled, his voice bordering on hysteria as it echoed off the buildings around him. With a small, strangled noise of desperation, he began running towards the street, the adrenaline of total terror overriding his fatigue.
He burst from the car park, onto the sidewalk, and down the road, past his grimy apartment building and the poorly maintained houses of his neighbours. Gathering speed despite his cumbersome clothing, he bolted between the broken-down Ford pickup that sat on blocks, and a rusty Buick, and out into the street.
There, at the corner of the block, was a group of people, walking home from their Christmas shopping, arms full of bags and parcels. He stumbled towards them.
"Hey, you there!" he shouted, waving his arms. The people looked around, startled. One shrugged and they continued walking, a little faster than before. "Look at me!" Bob screamed. He was now only about 20 feet from them, standing in the middle of the road. He should have been a very visible, odd sight, in his red suit, leaping about in the street like a lunatic.
"Where the hell is that coming from?" One of the men looked straight past, or rather through, Bob.
"I don't know, but it's freaking me out." A woman clutched her bags closer to her body, and the group began to hurry off.
Bob stood there, incredulous. They couldn't see him either. God-in-heaven, what had happened to him? He turned and fled into the night.
Chapter One: Wednesday, December 22, 1999
"What's this?" Angel's voice startled Cordelia.
Standing atop his desk, her balance was precarious, at best. Damn vampire, how could he be that big and still move around the place in complete silence?
"Jeez, Angel, stalk much?" She glared at him, wobbling on her heels, and losing her grip on the large piece of tinsel she was trying to attach to the ceiling. It coiled to the floor like a gaudy snake.
Standing, hands in pockets, in the doorway of the shadowy office, he looked more annoyed than when she'd dropped peanut butter in his bed. "What are you doing?"
"Well, duh, putting up the Christmas decorations," she said, accepting his hand, and descending with as much grace as her skirt would allow. His deepening scowl indicated he could see the little crescent-shaped dents her stilettos had made in the mahogany desktop. Obviously he was unaware how trendy distressed wood was.
She moved to retrieve the tinsel, but Angel planted his boot on it. "Can we not?" he said, pointing towards the main office, where the dusty mid-afternoon sunlight filtered in slanting beams through the windows, causing a myriad of decorations to sparkle and shimmer.
"Angel, just because we're poor doesn't mean we shouldn't celebrate. This is my first Christmas in LA and I won't have you brooding all over it." Cordelia was pleased how steady her voice was, when her insides felt more like jello in an earthquake. This was going to be harder than she thought.
Last Christmas she was skiing in Aspen, wearing designer everything, getting bundles of money from her parents, and wasting altogether too much energy hating Xander Harris. It may have seemed like the worst Christmas ever, what with the broken heart and the hole in her guts, but this year felt twenty times worse. Fifty, maybe.
This Christmas she had no money, no family, and no friends -- well, none that were actually alive.
And there it was again -- the grief. Simmering under the false cheer, threatening to burst out at the worst possible moment. Her chest ached and her throat closed up. Damn you Doyle for leaving -- and for leaving the visions. An ornament or a piece of jewellery would have been way more appropriate.
Maybe Angel sensed her melancholy, because he let out a long, audible sigh. "Christmas is just another reason for stores to con people into buying things they can't afford, to give to people they don't even like."
Okay, Angel, way to spread the cheer. No, dammit, she would not let this get her down. They were going to have a nice Christmas, even if it killed her. And not even Angel could stand in the way of Cordelia Chase on a mission.
She tugged at the tinsel. "Listen to you, Ebenezer. Christmas is not just about presents. It's also about eating yourself silly and drinking way too much. Though in your case, that's the same thing, isn't it? What do vampires do at Christmas? Drink a turkey? Can the undead get salmonella?"
Angel lifted his foot. That was easier than she thought. Round one to Queen C.
"Hello? Angel? Corde -- oh there you are." Wesley's head appeared around the office door.
"Wesley." Angel nodded towards the skinny Englishman.
"Hey, Wesley, how are the rogue demons?" Cordelia smiled, knowing her mockery of his self-imposed title drove him nuts.
"As I explained before, they're not... Oh, super, Christmas decorations! May I help?"
"Give me strength," Angel muttered. He took a deep breath, then another, and motioned to the doorway, his mouth setting in a grim line. "You can do what you like out there, but my office is a Christmas-free-zone."
"Fine, party-pooper. Wesley and I will aaah!" Cordelia threw the piece of tinsel to the floor, one hand flying to her face. Oh, God, here it came. Brain-bender the second. And it was a hell of a lot more painful than brain-bender the first.
"We'll what?" Wesley frowned. "Smack ourselves in the head?"
"No -- she's having a vision." Angel's voice became fuzzy and far away. Screaming pain cracked through her skull, the pressure building and pounding behind her eyes. They were gonna pop out, she was sure of it. Angel's fingers closed over her shoulders, his touch barely registering in her howling brain as she crumpled to the floor.
Then came the images -- fast and blurred, and it was hard to make them out. The place she saw was almost comforting in its familiarity. But something was very, very wrong. Cordelia's heart hammered in her throat, her hands sweating and shaking, despair wrenching at her gut.
"Good heavens, it looks rather dramatic," Wesley's voice grew louder in her ears as the vision began to fade.
Cordelia opened her eyes gingerly. Angel was kneeling over her, his face contorted with about as much concern as she'd ever seen him express. She sucked in a deep breath. "Please tell me I'm not drooling."
"No, no drool." He reached up to his desk and caught a tissue between his fingers. "But, there's -- a thing..." He pointed to his nostril.
Oh, yay, now she was shooting stuff out her nose. She felt a pang of nostalgia for the drooling as she accepted the tissue, noting with gratitude that Angel and Wesley were both pretending to be interested in other parts of the room.
After a few moments of blowing and wiping, she felt strong enough to sit up.
Angel sat back on his heels. "Could you make anything out?"
She knew where it was now -- the place she'd seen. "The mall".
"Demons are attacking the mall?" Wesley sounded excited.
"I don't know," she said, vaguely annoyed that the source of her pain seemed to be making him so darn cheerful. "All I saw was the mall and Santa's grotto. It was empty."
"The mall?" Angel helped her to stand.
She shot him an irritated glance before pulling her arm away. "No dumbass, the grotto. We have to go and check it out. Someone was really, really scared. Oh, God, I felt it, Angel. I felt someone's feelings..." Now she was shaking. Doyle had never mentioned anything about feel-o-vision. It truly, monumentally sucked.
"It's okay, we'll sort it out. Coming, Wesley?" Angel grabbed for his car keys.
The thought of the mall terrified Angel. Everything he despised under one roof -- crowds, commercialism, mirrored walls -- and Muzak. Plus, his last mall visit had contained just a little too much rocket launcher for his liking. A shudder jolted down his back as he huddled under the blanket in the back seat of the Plymouth. If it hadn't been for the anguish in Cordelia's voice, he would have been tempted to send Wesley alone. And he wouldn't have caved when she insisted on driving.
The tires squealed as they took a corner too fast. "Cordelia, please be careful," he moaned, his stomach lurching along with the car.
"Would you rather drive? Oh, that's right, you can't, what with the setting sun shining in the windows," she snapped. "I'm doing the best I can. This thing handles like a tank."
Angel made a mental note to limit Cordelia's use of his car to emergencies. They screeched around another corner. Make that life or death emergencies.
"Look at that. Why does everyone leave their shopping to the last minute?" Wesley said. "I always have my Christmas shopping done by Aug-argh!"
Angel could only guess that Wesley's head had collided with the raised roof of the convertible, as they bounced over a speed hump. "Cordy," he grunted.
"Keep your fangs on," she said. "I'm used to driving cars that actually have shock absorbers."
Mental note number two. Avoid arguing with post-vision Cordelia.
"You'll be driving one missing half its transmission in a minute," Wesley said. "Okay, Angel, we're in."
"Thank God." Angel discarded the blanket and sat up. "I'm driving home."
Wesley turned around in his seat. "Sunset's over an hour away."
Angel took a deep breath to calm his churning stomach. "Then we'll kill time."
Angel emerged from the elevator into his own private hell.
The mall consisted of five levels. The center of the building was an atrium, through which something charitably described as a sculpture thrust its way towards the domed glass roof. Stores ringed each level, and the pedestrian areas were decorated with mirrored pillars and potted shrubbery. Every available surface and window was festooned with wreaths, tinsel, glass baubles and lights that flashed in a multitude of colours and patterns.
And it was busy. Shoppers moved as one huge, amorphous blob, ebbing and flowing from store to store. Angel figured it was probably normal, being three days before Christmas. Or maybe it was always this crowded. He tended to avoid anywhere that teemed with this much humanity.
Being here was causing him more discomfort than the Wrentarth talon that Cordelia and Doyle had dug out of from between his shoulder blades last month.
Someone bumped him as they bustled past, barely glancing up to apologize. The tense atmosphere was aggravating his already anxious state. He could smell the frustration. It oozed off people as they hurried about, struggling to move through the crowds.
The carols blaring from tinny speakers proclaimed this was a time for peace and goodwill. A time to celebrate with family and friends. A time to be full and happy and generous. Yet all he saw was people too stressed to smile at each other.
He had liked Christmas, a long time ago. The memory of sweet little Kathy was still vivid. She would help their mother re-set the table, on Christmas Eve, after their evening meal had been cleared away. Together, they would place the traditional loaf of caraway seed and raisin bread on it, alongside a pitcher of milk and a candle. He always tried to sneak a bit of the bread. His mother always caught him.
He and Darla had made their own traditions. They'd dressed in fine clothes; sauntered about whichever town they were in, finding gifts for each other. Some were purchased, some were stolen, some were killed. They had enjoyed themselves, in their own way.
Drusilla had loved it best of all. Her favourite game was to sneak up on a group of carollers -- see if she could snatch someone away, unnoticed, and drain them before the song had ended. The strains of something pseudo-traditional caught his ear, dragging him back to the dark, lamp-lit streets, laughing as he watched her pick out victims like candy from a shop window. He could almost smell the blood, and his stomach twisted and yawned with familiar need.
And then came the nausea and self-abhorrence that had filled so many Christmases since -- the ones spent laying in gutters, filthy and awash with despair -- and the sharp memory of standing on the ridge in Sunnydale, waiting for the sun to take him.
Coming here was a bad idea.
"Oh my God!" Cordelia squealed, startling him.
Wesley tensed, his eyes lighting with anticipation. "What is it? Do you see something from your vision?"
"Victoria's Secret. We have to go in!" she clapped her hands and dashed into a shop.
"Cordelia, this is no time for shopping," Wesley called. She didn't turn around, disappearing into the sea of undergarments. He sighed. "I guess we should go in and wait for her."
Angel nodded. The last thing he wanted was for them all to split up. He didn't trust his reactions, alone in this place. Plus, they had about an hour up their sleeves. How long could this small diversion possibly take?
Angel glanced over at Wesley, his impatience growing. "Time?"
"Two minutes after you last asked." Wesley sounded more than a little irritated. He was also quite pink in the face, apparently embarrassed by their proximity to women's intimate apparel.
Angel shifted in his seat, and felt his anxiety crank up another notch. Thank goodness he didn't have any blood pressure, or it would have been going through the roof now. "That makes twenty minutes. Do you think she's all right? Maybe she had a vision, and fell, or something attacked her in there..."
"I'm sure she's fine," Wesley said, through gritted teeth.
Another bored-looking man, seated at the far side of the waiting area, smiled at them. "Women, huh?"
"Quite." Wesley nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on his feet.
This, then, was obviously normal. Angel breathed a sigh of relief. Of course -- that man had been there at least as long as him and Wesley. Angel felt an unusual sense of solidarity with him, and managed a smile and a nod in the man's direction.
Another few minutes passed. Angel's normal ability to sit and contemplate the universe seemed to have deserted him. The whole vibe of the mall made him too tense. Perhaps a quick circuit of the store was in order, just to make sure nothing demonic was going on. He stood up, and then sat down, and then stood up again. "I'm going to look around a bit. Wesley?"
"Er, no, thank you, I'll just wait here until one of you returns," Wesley replied, still staring with immense interest at the floor.
Angel wandered about the store, relieved to be doing something, and marvelling at how women's corsetry had changed over the years. He'd seen his fair share of it. Gone were the bones and cruel, pinching corsets that Darla had laced herself into, and he had frequently torn off her. This stuff was light, lacy, and he guessed much more comfortable -- and easier to remove. He reached out to feel a floral-patterned bra, and his fingers pressed against the underwire. Okay, so maybe not that much more comfortable...
"Can I help you sir?" A woman's voice startled him.
"Uh, no, I'm -- just looking." He snatched his hand away, wondering if he looked as guilty as he felt -- a pervert fondling the underwear.
"Something for your girlfriend?" she said, persistent. "We have a lovely range of camisoles, if you're not sure of her cup size."
"Cup size?" Angel looked around for a means of escape, his stomach knotting. Racks of coloured silk and lace loomed around him like a maze. He was out of his depth. He didn't belong here, amongst these people, and this new-fangled corsetry that he didn't understand.
The woman looked at him with undisguised pity. "Okay, maybe we'd better try nightwear. I can show you something in a nice mauve satin."
"No!" he barked, and then held up his hands when she jumped and pressed her fingers to her mouth, shocked. "I'm sorry, I -- I'm just waiting for a friend."
She backed away. "Well, why don't you go sit in the waiting area, sir?"
"Of course, sorry." He nodded, relieved to be off the hook. Turning his back on the startled woman, he hurried back to the safety of the changing rooms.
As Angel neared the place where he'd left Wesley, the sound of a commotion caught his attention.
"I can assure you that's not what I was doing." Wesley's voice grew louder as he appeared around the corner, flanked by two security guards. "Angel, help me!" he said, at their eyes met.
"What happened?" Angel asked, holding out a hand to stall the men.
"We caught your friend here trying to get into the women's changing rooms," one of them said.
Wesley frowned. "I was just trying to see if Cordelia was all right," and then he mouthed 'vampire', motioning towards the changing rooms with his eyes.
Angel inhaled, taking in the scents around him. Humans, perfume, a little sweat. No vampire. He shook his head.
"Ah, well, there you go," Wesley muttered, drooping a little.
"Where are you taking him?" Angel addressed his query to the other guard.
"Manager's office. C'mon pal," the man said, pulling on Wesley's elbow.
Cordelia checked she was buttoned up correctly, and gathered the assortment of bras and panties she'd tried on. Once, she would have considered wearing Victoria's Secret as a lowering of her standards. These days, her budget was too tight even for these prices. Her old stuff would just have to hold together a little longer, because she sure as hell wasn't going to stoop to cheap and nasty.
When she entered the store, she'd been consumed with the thought that just trying on new stuff would make her feel better. But all it had done was depress her more. Window-shopping was a soul-destroying experience -- one she figured she'd never get used to. She missed the dainty little bags and things wrapped in tissue paper. Coming away from a shop empty-handed defied the natural order of the universe.
She emerged from the changing rooms to find Angel, standing awkwardly, hands deep in the pockets of his duster. His expression changed from near-panic to relief when he spotted her.
"Hey, Angel," she said, glancing around. "Where's Wesley?"
"Store security took him away," he said, looking miserable again.
Her eyes widened with surprise. "Oh, is that what the commotion was? Boy, you can't take him anywhere. I didn't pick Wesley as a pervert."
"He thought there was a vampire in the changing rooms."
She stiffened, and he must have noticed, because he added, "Don't worry, there's nothing here. I'd sense it if there was."
She began to chuckle, despite herself. This could only happen to her in a mall. "I guess we should go rescue him."
"Guess we should."
Cordelia approached the changing-room assistant and handed over the things she'd tried on. "Thanks, I'll leave these for today." She held back one bra, a gorgeous azure floral pattern. Just one thing. It would make all the difference if she could only have this. But that would leave her without enough money for next week's food. Sighing, she added it to the pile.
"You're not buying anything?" Angel asked, looking confused.
She put on her biggest fake smile. "No, didn't really like any of it."
"And it took you thirty minutes to come to that conclusion?" he muttered, falling in behind her as she headed for the doors.
"Hey, you wanted to kill time," she said, wanting to put as much distance between her and the blue satin as possible, before her resolve crumbled.
Angel wondered if a man's place at the mall was solely to sit around and wait for people. He and Cordelia were perched on the low couch in the Management Office's reception area, waiting for Wesley to come out. The severe-faced woman at the desk said he was 'being interviewed.'
The room was sterile, cream-on-cream, with recessed lighting, and more of the potted palms that filled the rest of the mall. Prints of famous paintings hung on the walls, set in generic chrome frames that insulted the genius of the work contained within. A corridor ran off to the left, office doors set at regular intervals between the ceiling-to-floor one-way windows that served as walls. One of them contained Wesley -- his smell hung in the air, proving he'd passed this way recently.
With a sigh Angel picked up a magazine, flicking the pages with little interest. Perhaps there was some enchantment placed on waiting rooms which made time move slower there than in other parts of the universe. At least in hell things had rollicked along at a fair old pace...
A sense of release washed over him. The sun was down. Even buried here, encased in the monolith that was the mall, he felt it slip below the horizon. Now, if he wanted to, he could leave. He rose, more out of frustration than actual intent to follow through on his instinct.
"Angel, what are you doing?" Cordelia asked, the tone of her voice clearly transforming the words to 'leave now, buddy, and I'll stake you dead.'
He raised a finger to his lips. He could hear voices. She opened her mouth again, but stopped as he cocked his ear closer to the source of the sound.
A woman was talking, her voice raised, which is what had brought it into his hearing range. "He's just gone, and that's not like him. He's usually so reliable. I can't get hold of him at any of his numbers -- it's like he vanished without a trace. That's both of them now. We should call the police."
"I said no. We don't want that sort of publicity," a man's voice replied, semi-threatening.
"Well, what do you want me to do, just hire another, pretend nothing happened?" the woman snapped back.
"Yes, that's what I want you to do. Get another stupid Santa, or get yourself a new job."
"Do you know how hard it is to find a good Santa at this time of year? And what happens if the next one disappears too?" The woman's voice held a touch of panic now.
"I don't care. Just get another one." The man's voice grew louder, and the door of the closest office flew open. The owner of the voice stormed out, and down the hallway, where he went into another office and slammed the door behind him. The glass wall rattled.
Angel took his opportunity, and slipped into the room the man had just vacated. The woman -- a nicely dressed lady in her late thirties -- looked at him with misty eyes. "I'm sorry, sir. The public aren't allowed in here."
"What happened to the Santas?" Angel asked.
"Oh, God." She went very pale, and sank down into the chair behind her desk.
Cordelia came in the doorway behind him. "Angel?"
He motioned for her to enter, and she closed the door before sitting down.
Angel produced a business card from the pocket of his duster, placing it on the desk where the woman could see it. "I know you have a problem, and I think we can help. I'm Angel." He held out his hand.
"Miriam Saunders." The woman shook it, business-like, but he could feel the tremor in her fingers. "Have a seat, please."
"So, what's going on?" he said, settling into a chair.
Miriam studied the card for a long time, and it was obvious she was debating whether to tell him everything, or throw him and Cordelia out. Finally, she took a deep breath. "I know this sounds crazy, but both of our Santas have disappeared. They went home two days ago, and never showed up for their next shifts. Nobody has heard from, or seen either of them since. It's like they've vanished into thin air. It's -- frightening."
"Well, boy, have you picked the right team for the job," Cordelia said, bursting into her less-than-subtle sales pitch. "At Angel Investigations we specialize in unusual cases, for a reasonable fee -- or store credit."
Angel groaned inwardly, but Miriam seemed more than happy to consider what Cordelia was saying. "If you'd like to see the grotto, maybe you could find some clues?" she said.
"We'll consider taking the case, on one condition," Angel said, wincing as Cordelia elbowed him in the ribs.
"What?" Miriam rubbed her temples with both forefingers.
"That you release our friend. He was in Victoria's Secret..."
"Oh, yes, the peeper. I suppose so, as long as nothing like that ever happens again," Miriam said, frowning at Cordelia's snort of laughter.
It was Angel's turn to elbow Cordelia. "I promise, Ms Saunders. He'll be perfectly well behaved."
Cordelia watched, rather bored, as Wesley and Angel strode around the periphery of the empty grotto that she'd seen in her vision. As grottos went, it was nothing special. A two-foot high white picket fence surrounded a sugar-pink castle, in the doorway of which stood a large gold and velvet throne. Leading up to that was a meandering fake brick path, weaving between plastic fur trees covered in artificial snow and red glass baubles. At the entrance to the whole thing was a gate, adorned with a sign that advised the grotto was currently closed. Overall, the effect was pretty tacky.
Miriam Saunders stood to one side, her face displaying an odd mixture of scepticism and expectation.
"Oh, dear, another one gone?" An older man's voice over Cordelia's left shoulder made her gasp and wheel around. "Sorry sweetie, didn't mean to startle ya," he said, his face crinkling into a warm smile.
"That's okay -- Jack," she said, reading his name badge, which also proclaimed that he was store security. He looked way too old and frail to be able to secure anything, but to say so would be rude. Not that it usually stopped her, but he had such a pleasant, grandfatherly quality about him, she decided to hold her tongue on this occasion.
"Such a darn shame. The little kiddies will be so disappointed if there's no Santa," Jack said, his blue eyes peering at her through thick, wire-rimmed spectacles.
"Did you see what happened to them?" she asked. Surely a security guard would need to be perceptive as part of his job.
He shrugged. "Well, Missy, yes and no. I seen 'em all right, but nothing funny happened while they were here. They just went home and never came back, both of 'em. Breaks my heart to see the little'uns disappointed. I'd volunteer myself if I wasn't so old and skinny."
Cordelia nodded and sighed. A five-year-old would probably crush him. She wondered why he was still working, instead of enjoying a nice retirement with his wife and family. Maybe he didn't have anyone. Like her.
Jack glanced at Miriam, and then smiled at Cordelia. "Better be on my way, don't want to get in trouble for loitering. Nice to meet you." He tipped his cap and ambled off.
Wesley approached her, looking puzzled. "It doesn't appear to be in any of the more common mystical formations." He glanced up at the turret of the fake castle.
Cordelia couldn't help herself. "Peeper, Wesley?"
"You had to bring it up." He crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at her.
"I'm sorry, it's just -- what on earth were you doing?" She tried to suppress a grin.
"I was so sure she was a vampire," he said, bewildered. "Very pale, you see. I ran in after her and she started screaming. I can assure you I had only your safety in mind."
"Well that's a relief." Cordelia attempted to remain straight-faced. "I don't think I could bring myself to shop for your present at 'Dirty-Old-Men-R-Us's House of Trenchcoats'."
To her surprise, Wesley's face lit up. "You're buying me a Christmas present? I'm so touched."
She smiled and nodded, regretting her runaway mouth for one of the few times in her life. Not only did she not have enough money for new underwear, now she didn't have enough money for Wesley's present either. What did stuffy English guys like, anyway? Bowler Hats? Umbrellas?
Angel's voice broke her train of thought, as he stopped beside them. "I can't find anything unusual."
"Nor I. It would really help if we could interview one of the Santas -- see if they'd noticed anything out of the ordinary," Wesley said.
Cordelia rolled her eyes. "If the Santas were around to be interviewed, then Miriam over there wouldn't need us in the first place."
At the mention of her name, Miriam Saunders began to approach, her expression now a mixture of scepticism, expectation and hope.
"Perhaps we could hang around the next Santa, watch for -- something," Angel said with a marked lack of enthusiasm, like the last thing he wanted to do was return to the mall.
Miriam sighed; obviously realising they'd come up with nothing. "Finding a decent Santa at this time of year is going to be difficult, maybe impossible."
"What about the last two, do you have their addresses?" Wesley asked.
She nodded. "We keep comprehensive records on all our Santas. You can't be too careful these days, considering they have close contact with children. There's a lot of weirdos about." Her eyes narrowed at Wesley, who turned a vivid shade of pink again.
Cordelia wondered how she could ever have seen such a 007 quality in someone who turned out to be, well, just a 0 really.
Angel looked eager at the prospect of moving their investigation elsewhere. "If we could have their details, please, we'll investigate their homes. Look for signs of foul play."
"We're not supposed to give that information out..." Miriam hesitated, perhaps still wary of revealing everything to three strangers, and then shrugged. "One can't hurt, I guess. They're back in the office."
Angel turned so fast that his coat flew out in a wide arc behind him. For a split second Cordelia smiled as she remembered Doyle's comment about how hot it made the vampire look. What did you call something that made you sad and happy all at once? Bittersweet?
Then she realized Angel was covering ground at significant pace, and took off at a jog to keep up.
Cordelia screwed up her nose in distaste as they drove along the dingy street. She studied the square of memo paper that Miriam had scrawled the name and address on. Bob Kowalczyk. Just another faceless victim in the procession of people who lost themselves in LA every day.
Shit, she'd spent too much time hanging around with Angel -- now she was starting to think like him.
"Here, stop!" she shouted, snapping out of her reverie just in time to realize they were about to sail past Bob Kowalczyk's apartment building. Cursing under his breath, Angel braked hard, sliding the back end of the Plymouth around and fishtailing slightly as he managed to make the driveway -- just.
"Jeez, and you complain about my driving," Cordelia muttered, climbing out into the parking area. Angel looked like he was about to protest, but just shook his head instead.
"Which one is it?" Wesley said, trying to extricate himself from the back seat and straighten his glasses at the same time.
She peered at the address again. "Apartment 10."
"Over there," Angel pointed to a ground floor dwelling. The lights were all on, and the door stood wide open.
They all gathered in the little covered porch, looking inside. Wesley took a small axe out of his jacket.
"Wesley, you took that to the mall?" Cordelia gasped.
"Shoppers can be brutal," he replied in a hushed voice, stepping into the apartment with care, weapon at the ready. "I once got a black eye at the Harrods sale. Who knew that half-priced cashmere sweaters could turn people into complete maniacs?"
"Thank God the mall guards didn't search you, or you'd been in jail by now," she muttered, following close behind him.
Angel waved a hand in the doorway, and then slipped inside. "He's dead."
Cordelia's skin prickled. "How can you tell?"
"I wouldn't have been able to come in otherwise."
She scanned the small, shabby room. It was a dump. Perhaps that was why, even with the front door wide open, it hadn't been robbed. Nothing worth stealing.
The dining table was covered in what looked like bills. A Santa hat sat in forlorn solitude in the middle of the pile of envelopes and paper. The sofa looked like an over-cuddled teddy bear; you knew it used to have a pile to the fabric, but it had long since been worn away -- yuck, by people's butts -- and now it was only visible in any great quantity on the cushion corners and along the top of the backrest. An empty bottle of scotch lay on the floor in front of it. There were no signs of a struggle, no blood, no nothing.
"It looks like Bob owed quite a few people money," Wesley said, leafing through some of the correspondence. "Perhaps someone came to collect on a debt."
Cordelia took a wad from the table, and surveyed them with growing scepticism. "Somehow I don't think the power company is in the habit of murdering their customers. Or California Bank & Trust. Or Visa. Or American Express. Or MasterCard..." she said, tossing each bill back on the pile as she went. "Boy, he owed a lot. Maybe he killed himself. Bills this big would make me pretty suicidal."
"Not out of the question I guess," Angel said, shrugging, his eyes scanning the room.
A cockroach scuttled across the floor. Since the plague in Cordelia's old apartment, they freaked her out even more than usual.
She screamed, loud and long, bounding onto the couch, and making Wesley throw his handful of final demand notices in the air.
"Good Lord, Cordelia, it's just an insect," he chastised, as the bills fluttered to the floor around his feet -- poor man's confetti.
"I think I've got Post Dramatic Stress Disorder." She slumped into a sitting position, then thought better of it, and stood up again, the old springs creaking in protest.
Wesley rolled his eyes. "That's Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I very much doubt you have it."
"Yeah, well you're not the one having the big bug flashbacks," she snapped, flapping her hands and looking around the floor to see where the disgusting thing had gone.
"I cannot believe that after all your years living on the Hellmouth, you place the common cockroach at the top of your list of scary things," he said, shaking his head.
God, Wesley could be a pain in the ass. She took a deep, patient breath. "One: I happen to have had a very bad cockroach experience recently," she said, "and two: they're not top of the list. Roman sandals are. Especially worn over socks."
"Guys, in here." Angel popped his head out of the bathroom door. Cordelia shot Wesley her best aggrieved look, and went first, keeping an eye out for the cockroach.
As soon as she got in there, she wished she'd let him go ahead of her. The room reeked of mildew, and there was a nasty ring around the tub. She didn't even want to look at the toilet.
"Yech. I don't think anything demonic killed Bob. I think his own lack of personal hygiene did him in." She wrinkled her nose.
"I can smell it," Angel said, his nose twitching.
She rolled her eyes. "You and everyone for six blocks. Someone really should have introduced the guy to bleach."
"Not the mildew. Fear," Angel replied. "It's stale, but still quite strong. He was terrified."
"And now I'm so pleased I didn't have time for dinner," Cordelia said, turning and pushing her way back out, past Wesley.
She hesitated in the middle of the living room, wondering if she was safer in there with the cockroach, or outside with people from the lower socio-economic bracket.
Wait a second, she was the lower socio-economic bracket. Okay, now she was in serious danger of feeling sorry for herself again, and she'd decided against that. Suck it up, Cor, find some clues.
The front door still stood ajar, and she automatically went to close it. It had a bunch of locks on the back, all unbolted. She stared at them for a moment. There was no damage to the door -- so the guy had let himself out, and left the door open. Must have been in a hurry. Angel said he smelled fear. Something had scared Bob Kowalczyk enough for him to bolt from his apartment and leave it wide open. Maybe it was the cockroach.
"I seem to have come up with more of nothing than usual," Wesley said, as he and Angel emerged from the bathroom-from-the-black-lagoon.
"He ran out of here, scared out of his wits, and never came back," Cordelia said, pointing to the door.
Angel appeared to take a deep breath. "No demons have been in here."
"Ugh, enough with the bloodhound act," she said, an involuntary shudder dancing down her back. "I just want to go home and take a shower."
"I'll call Miriam in the morning and tell her that Santa is dead," Wesley said.
Santa is dead. God, it sounded so morbid. Cordelia sighed -- what else could she have expected from spending Christmas with a tortured vampire and the world's worst Watcher? "Great, excellent, that's settled then. Now can we go?" She headed for the door. If anything else squicked her out tonight, this was going to gown down in history as the Christmas of Barfing.
Chapter Two: Thursday, December 23, 1999
"Morning!" Cordelia breezed into the office. It was a beautiful day, if a little cool. But sunshine of any temperature lifted her spirits. Plus, a hot shower and a good night's sleep had left her feeling refreshed. Her decorations twinkled as the breeze from the door made them dance.
"Cordelia," Angel said, turning from the coffee machine to greet her. His face was grave. "Can you finish making this and bring it through?"
She clicked her tongue in exasperation. "Have your arms fallen off? I'm not a glorified waitr -- ooooh, right." She glanced through into Angel's office and saw Miriam Saunders sitting, pale-faced, in one of the chairs. "I get it, coffee's for her, right? Right."
Cordelia finished mixing the toxic-looking brew, and carried the mug into Angel's office, placing it on the desk. Angel picked it up, slipped a coaster underneath, and then sat back in his chair, pressing his fingers together in front of him.
"He must have had my card in his wallet. He had no family, so they rang me. I had to identify the body," Miriam said, her voice tremulous. She picked up the coffee, took a big sip, and pulled a face as she swallowed. Carefully she placed it back on the coaster and pushed it away from herself.
Angel nodded for a moment. "Did they say what killed him?"
"Heart attack. And his feet were all cut up -- like he'd run a long way without shoes. They said it was as if he'd died of fright." She took a deep breath. "That's not the worst of it. While I was there, Ed showed up."
"Ed?" Cordelia asked, getting the sudden, bizarre vision of a talking horse on stretcher.
Miriam reached for a tissue from the box on Angel's desk, and dabbed her eyes. "The morning Santa. They found him washed up on Venice Beach -- in his pyjamas."
"It's okay, Miriam, we'll get to the bottom of it," Angel said, leaning forward. "Can you tell us anything else? No matter how strange it seems, it could be important."
"Well..." Miriam hesitated for so long that Cordelia thought she'd forgotten what she was saying. "It might just have been the lighting in there, but he looked kind of -- fuzzy."
"Fuzzy?" Cordelia echoed.
Miriam nodded. "Kinda indistinct -- not solid. I dunno, I was really tired, my eyes were all blurry. It's probably just my imagination."
"Good morning, all." Wesley's voice made them all look towards the door. "I was just about to call Ms Saunders, but I see she already knows about the sad demise of Bob."
"Did you manage to get another Santa?" Angel asked, turning his attention back to Miriam.
"No." She shook her head miserably. "They're all booked. All the reputable ones are, anyway. I know Bob was a bit of a loner -- and from what you say he must have had his fair share of personal problems -- but he was so reliable, and great with the kids. He's been with us almost ten years. Replacing him is going to be really hard. You're sure watching someone would help?"
"Greatly," Angel said, nodding.
The idea hit Cordelia so hard, she nearly fell over. "Angel, why don't you be Santa?"
"What?" He looked up at her, alarm written all over his face.
"What better way to catch the culprit than to go undercover?" she said.
"That would be wonderful. It would solve both my problems," Miriam said, perking up. "I just have to ask, how are you with children?"
Angel was turning a peculiar shade of grey. Cordelia wondered how many children he'd dealt with in his pre-soul days, and how many had survived the encounter. Best not to dwell on that. "He's great with kids, aren't you Angel?" She nodded at him, prompting a response.
He rose out of his chair, glaring at Cordelia. "No. I'm not doing it. You can forget it right now."
Angel closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath. How he ever came to be in this position, he would never fully comprehend. Perhaps it was Miriam's crying, or Wesley's incessant attempts at logical persuasion. No, it was Cordelia. No matter how hard he tried to resist her, he always ended up doing exactly what she wanted. One day he would have to figure out how she did it, before it got him into real trouble. Or maybe that horse had already bolted.
"How do I look?" he sighed.
"Hang on, I'm not quite done!" Cordelia's voice floated over the concertina partition set up in Miriam's office. Her bra flew over the top of the particle-board barrier. "Oops, Angel, throw that back?"
He bent to pick it up with some difficulty, his enormous padded stomach getting in the way. The soft fabric of the bra was faded, and kind of thin in patches. He rolled it between his fingers. Not really the sort of thing he would have expected her to be wearing under those glamorous clothes she liked so much. It smelled like her -- a mixture of skin and perfume, and it was warm, her body heat still contained within the fibres.
His fingertips tingled, and his chest felt tight. Touching Cordelia's bra was weird; too intimate. This was her underwear. The heat seeping out of it came from her... Okay, he shouldn't have thought that. He hastily tossed it back.
"Thanks," she called. There were a few moments where fabric rustled, and a zipper closed. "Okay, I'm coming out. Ta-daa!"
Cordelia emerged from behind the screen, and did a little twirl.
"You look... Hey!" Angel protested, a little offended, as she burst into a fit of giggles.
"I'm sorry, it's just..." She pressed a hand to her mouth, having limited success at stemming the tide.
It wasn't doing anything for his already shaky confidence. "Do I look right? I mean, I can't see in the mirror, so it's hard to tell."
She smiled and nodded. "You look perfect, Angel."
God, this was so, so wrong. A vampire in a Santa suit. And his assistant in something that left very little to the imagination.
"Angel, what? I can see a frown under all those white curls," she said.
"Isn't your dress a little -- well -- there's more to the -- that's it?" he asked as she shook her head.
"Pfffft. I'm the sexy helper, you're the fat old guy. You can't look cool all the time. Live with it -- or be undead with it, whatever," she said. "We should see if Wesley's ready."
"Okay, I guess so. Let's go," Angel said, taking another deep breath. His gut churned, and he hesitated with his hand on the doorknob. Surely there had to be a way to avoid this. To prevent dozens of warm, chubby children, sugar-sweet, climbing into his lap. Crowds of people would be watching him...
Angelus would have enjoyed this. He felt a sharp prod in his back.
"Angel, what is it?" Cordelia asked, poking him again.
He shuddered. "I'm not sure about this."
"Of course you are. Store credit, remember? Bailing is not an option." She gave him a little shove in the right direction.
Cordelia admired her reflection in the mirrored glass as they walked down the hallway to collect Wesley. Angel's flustered reaction to the shortness of her dress had given her an idea. How many good-looking, single fathers were there in LA? Would they like to sit on her lap, perhaps? Oh wait, Angel would probably give them the third degree and scare them off, like he did with all her dates. How was she ever going to find a man who wouldn't run a mile when he found out what she did?
They stopped outside the room where Wesley was getting changed.
"Decent, Wesley?" Angel knocked on the door.
"I don't think that word could be used in relation to this costume, but yes, I'm dressed," Wesley replied, his voice even more clipped and uptight than usual.
Angel pushed the door open, and he and Cordelia both stared at Wesley in silence for a good five seconds. He was dressed as an elf, in a red velvet jacket and matching red leggings. A pointy little hat rounded the outfit out nicely. But there seemed to be a problem with the groin area of his tights. In fact, he looked like the Dirk Diggler of Santa's workshop.
"Wow, Wes, is that a stake in your pants or are you just pleased to see me?" Cordelia said, dragging her eyes away from the large bulge.
Wesley glanced downwards. "Yes, it is a stake, actually. We don't know what sort of evil may be lurking in Santa's grotto. I'm ready to do battle should anything attempt to attack us."
"As comforting as that sounds, Wesley, it looks like you're ready to do something else," she said, shaking her head. The man was clueless.
"It appears to have slipped from its original position in my waistband," he conceded, looking embarrassed.
Angel frowned. "After what happened yesterday -- perhaps it would be better if you left the stake behind."
"Very well," Wesley signed, turning his back and removing the offending object. "Ow!"
"Splinter, Wes?" Cordelia giggled.
"I don't see why I couldn't be Santa," he grumbled, glaring at her over his shoulder.
"Oh gee, the peeper with a woody in his tights? Yep, that would go down well with the parents. Miriam already thinks you're a weirdo. I'm surprised she even let you be an elf," she said.
"Yes, I see your point." Wesley nodded. "A blood-sucking creature of the night is a much better choice -- no offence, Angel."
Angel took a deep, hitching breath. "Let's just get on with this, shall we?"
They made their way down to the grotto in silence, armed with a sack of candy and a Polaroid camera. Miriam's list of instructions rolled over and over in Cordelia's head. Always keep your hands in view. One piece of candy per child. Keep the line moving. Hard-sell on the photos.
Her heart stopped for a second. What if vampires didn't show up in photos? Oh well, too late to worry about that now. They'd deal if it happened, though she wondered with increasing anxiety if a bunch of angry parents -- with photos of their children levitating in front of Santa's throne -- would jeopardise the promised store credit.
They let themselves in the rear of the display, through a little gate in the white picket fence. There was already a line of noisy children at the front entrance. Angel seemed to be having trouble with -- well, it wasn't quite obvious with what. But he was hanging back, turning this way and that, rubbing his palms on his padded belly.
"Just get in there already," she groaned, dragging him by one arm to the large, plum-coloured velvet throne.
"I can't do this, Cordelia," he muttered, his voice muffled by the white nylon beard and moustache.
"Course you can. Remember, just ask them if they've been good, what they want for Christmas, and tell them you'll see what you can do. Easy." She smiled, hoping it looked encouraging. The last thing she needed was Angel freaking and scaring the kids.
He lowered himself into the ornate chair. For someone who was dead, he was doing a heck of a lot of deep breathing. Could vampires hyperventilate? At the rate he was going, she was probably about to find out.
"Ready?" Wesley asked, from his position at the front gate, craning his neck to see them between the trees.
"No," said Angel.
She nodded. "Yep, let 'em in, and keep your eyes peeled."
The first child came towards them. He was the living incarnation of a four-year-old Dennis the Menace, mischief all over his face and a plastic bow and arrow strapped to his back. His mother stood back near the entrance, probably pleased to get rid of him, even if just for a moment.
Angel lifted the boy onto his knee. "Uh..."
Cordelia rolled her eyes. He'd forgotten his lines already. "Have you been good?" she hissed under her breath.
"H-have you been good?" Angel repeated.
The kid sighed like some cynical old guy. "Yes."
"Uh... have, I mean, what do you want for Christmas?" Angel stumbled over the next part.
"I want a Game Boy, and a skateboard, and a football, and car." Dennis the Menace rattled off his Christmas list.
"You're too young to drive," Angel said, his white eyebrows going up.
"No, no! You'll see what you can do," Cordelia whispered. This was like acting class for the retarded.
Dennis hopped to the floor. "You suck," he said, kicking Angel in the shin. Cordelia heard a growl rumble through the Angel's chest as the boy stomped away. Okay, this was going well. Not.
The next child was a little girl, about six, her huge green eyes framed by a mass of blonde curls. She held out her arms to Angel so he could set her on his knee. Surely this one would be easier than the baptism-of-fire kid who was now loudly complaining to his mother that he didn't get a piece of candy.
"Oh, crap, we forgot about the candy," Cordelia said, picking up the bag which she'd stashed behind the throne.
"Have you been good?" Angel asked the little girl. She nodded, but didn't speak. "What do you want for Christmas?" He looked up at Cordelia, eyes clearly asking if he was doing it right this time. She smiled.
The little girl remained silent. Cordelia held the bag of candy out, raising her eyebrows at Angel. He took a boiled sweet and offered it to the child. Her giant eyes filled with tears.
"Wha -- what?" he asked. "What did I do?"
"Don't you remember what I said last week?" the girl sniffled, breaking her shy silence.
"Um, no," Angel replied, looking panic-stricken.
"Well, if you can't remember that I'm a diabetic, how are you going to remember where my house is?" she asked, her lower lip jutting out.
Angel didn't reply, he just lifted the girl from his lap, and rose to his feet.
"I can't do this," he said again. He took a couple of large strides, and before Cordelia knew it, he was a rapidly diminishing red figure in the crowd.
"Sorry, sweetie," she said to the pouting child. "Santa has to pee." With that, she jumped the white picket fence, and sprinted after him.
Cordelia ran through the mass of shoppers, trying to keep up with the fast-disappearing Angel. It was amazing that someone with half a ton of Dacron padding in his jacket could move so quickly. Just as she thought she'd lost him in the sea of shoppers, she caught a flash of red going into the men's room. Wow, maybe vampires really did pee.
Angel leaned on the porcelain basin, trying to ignore the trembling in his hands, and his lack of reflection in the mirror. The white tiled room was mercifully empty, with just the incessant echoing drip from a leaky faucet to break the silence. Nobody there to see his fear, his shame.
If it weren't mid afternoon, he could get out, just climb in the car and take off.
This had been a bad idea. All those children, life pumping through their veins -- so close to the thin, soft skin. Their smell... Saliva flooded the back of his mouth.
The swinging door of the bathroom flew open, crashing against the doorstop.
"Angel, what's going on?" Cordelia barged in, her short velvet skirt flaring around her legs as she strode towards him.
Not now, Cordelia. Please, leave me alone. His throat felt thick and tight. "I can't do it. All those people..."
Her breath rushed out in a little noise of exasperation. "Oh, for God's sake, don't tell me you've got stage fright. Hello, grrrrr, remember? Big scary vampire? Kicker of demon butt? They're just little kids, they can't hurt you."
"I'm no good with humans. I don't know what to say to them. I -- I made that girl cry." He wiped his hands over his face, pushing the annoying nylon beard down, off his chin. Why couldn't Cordelia just leave him alone? Didn't she understand what he was? What every primal instinct was screaming at him to do? She was just a human -- she couldn't begin to fathom the want, the raw need. Stupid girl! Ignorant, trusting Cordelia...
"Improvise," she said, oblivious to the battle he was waging. "Just say whatever feels natural."
He banged the basin with his hands, shouting, "Nothing feels natural. None of this is natural. Look at me!"
His eyes snapped up to the mirror, and where his own face would have been, there was only Cordelia's reflection, staring at him, startled and upset. "Angel..."
He turned and sat on the vanity, looking into wounded brown eyes that filled him with remorse. "It's easy for you, Cordelia. You've been doing it your whole life. You're so confident with everyone," he said, softening his tone.
"Well, I must be a better actress than I realized," she sighed. "Angel, I'm scared all the time. Can't you tell? I have no idea what I'm doing in this city. Just when I thought I'd worked it out, Doyle died, and now I've got these visions, and they scare the crap out of me..." She started blinking, like she might cry. "I'm just making it up as I go. We all are. Wesley is. Doyle was. You have to, too."
Angel stared at her; opened and shut his mouth a couple of times. It wasn't like Cordelia to come out with something so personal and -- well, deep. He hadn't realized she was having such a hard time. She was always telling him he had to get more involved, show more concern for those around him. Maybe she was right, because he'd missed this one, big-time.
The bathroom door squeaked open. Cordelia flung an arm in the direction of the noise, one accusing finger pointing. "Don't even think about it, buddy. Use the one upstairs." The startled man retreated without protest. Her eyes were still firmly fixed on Angel. "So, are we ready?"
He shook his head, remembering the crowd that awaited him at the grotto. "It's not just that I don't know what to say. It's hard for -- other reasons."
"Such as?" Cordelia stepped towards him, frowning. He couldn't look her in the eye any longer, and dropped his head. "Ohhhh," her voice betrayed sudden realisation. "But you're good now."
"I am. But having a soul doesn't mean the demon isn't there. I still want..." He knew he didn't have to finish the sentence. "It's always there. You don't know how hard it is."
"Yes I do," she countered. "Angel, I know what it's like to want something so badly, and to deny yourself. This whole mall is a testament to that, for me. I have nothing, and now I can't buy stuff to fix that."
His hands tensed, fingers gripping the Formica mouldings. She didn't understand, she never would. "Dammit, Cordelia, you can't compare your need to shop with a vampire's bloodlust," he said, looking up again. Her face burned with an intensity he'd never seen before. There was real pain there, and a look that he felt in his gut. "Okay, maybe in your case, you can."
A small smile forced its way across her face. "Possibly not the best analogy, I admit. But I didn't just mean the shopping part. I guess Christmas is making me think about what I had before, and what I have now. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for my job, and my apartment, and my ghost. Sometimes I'm even grateful for Wesley showing up -- though usually that's when I've been drinking -- but it's gonna take time to adjust, y'know? I thought I was there, and now I'm not so sure."
"I get that." Angel nodded. His arms and chest relaxed a little, his mind calming and clearing. Cordelia often left him confused and bewildered, but her last statement made too much sense.
"We just have to deal. You have your demons, I have mine. Doesn't mean we can hide in the bathroom forever. Now put your whiskers back on, and get out there. Okay?" Cordelia said, smiling. As she did, the scared, vulnerable girl transformed back into the person he knew.
He could feel his lips quirking in response. "I'll give it one more try."
"Good. But I warn you now, I catch you nibbling on any of the kids, and I'll stake your undead ass."
"Understood," he said, pulling his beard back into place.
When they arrived back at the grotto, the place was in a near state of pandemonium. Cordelia couldn't quite believe her eyes. Wesley was sitting, cross-legged in the entrance, telling a story, with a group of raucous children in front of him.
"And then the Rogue Demon Hunter cried, 'you'll never take me alive!' and the Golvar demon raised up its mighty tail..."
"This story sucks!" That sounded like Dennis the Menace. A plastic arrow bounced off Wesley's chest.
"Who did that?" he demanded, getting to his feet. All the children started cheering Dennis on. A rain of candy wrappers and bits of screwed-up paper accompanied the second arrow.
"Stop that right now! When your parents come back..." Wesley huffed.
"Problem sir?" Jack the security guard seemed to appear out of nowhere. Cordelia recognised him from yesterday, and wondered again why he was working at his age.
"I'm quite capable of controlling a group of mere children," Wesley said, smoothing down his jacket and flicking a candy wrapper from his shoulder. As his eyes followed it, he noticed Cordelia and Angel, and hurried over to them, leaving Jack to deal with the junior uprising.
"Thank goodness you're back. Those children are evil." He looked at them fearfully.
Cordelia couldn't resist. "I cannot believe after all your -- weeks on the Hellmouth, that you place a bunch of little kids on the top of your list of scary things."
Wesley looked like he was really going to lose it this time, but just as she thought he was about to shout at her, Angel's quiet voice cut in. "Wesley might be right. Perhaps one of them is evil. We still don't know what happened to Bob and his counterpart. Cordelia, take photos of all of them. Wesley, record names and addresses -- pretend we're running a competition or something."
"And what will you do?" Cordelia asked.
"Smell them," Angel said. "Nothing else, I promise."
She tried to get a good look at what small part of his face she could see through the fake facial hair. "Will you be okay?"
He nodded. "Humans, I have trouble with -- evil, I can handle."
Cordelia raised the Polaroid camera and took a quick photo of child number forty-seven, perched on Angel's knee. Angel blinked and rubbed his eyes, as he had done the previous forty-six times. The flash had to be hurting him, but he hadn't complained once. And, on the bright side -- no pun intended -- he was visible in every single picture.
Not only that, but he seemed to be getting better at the conversation part of the job. Go figure -- Angel can't cope with normal people, but give him the possibility that one of them might be something icky and dangerous, and he calms right down.
Why did she always end up hanging with the weirdos of the world? Did she give off some sort of vibe that attracted the geeky, the emotionally stunted, and the not-always-human? Like Doyle. Her heart stabbed in her chest. Dammit, why was repressing this sort of thing so hard lately?
"Hey there, missy." Jack's voice interrupted her train of thought, for which she was kinda grateful. "I brought you nice folks some snacks, compliments of Mrs Field's Cookies." He held out three paper bags.
The thoughtfulness of the gesture touched her. This poor old guy probably had nobody, and yet, here he was bringing her baked goods, instead of feeling sorry for himself. There was a lesson to be learned in that.
She studied the packages. They were labelled in shaky handwriting -- 'Pretty Girl', 'Elf', and 'Santa'. "Oh, how sweet," she said, giving him one of her biggest smiles as she accepted the gifts. "You chose these specially?"
"Yeah." Jack nodded, his eyes twinkling with delight. "Yours are chocolate chip, the English guy's are bran -- he seems like he needs the fibre -- and Santa's are sugar-coated. I thought he looked a little pale."
Her heart was going to melt, she was sure of it. Was it legal to adopt a grandparent? "Thank you, Jack."
"Least I could do. I'm just so pleased the kiddies didn't have to miss out today," he said. He looked at his watch. "That's me done. Time to head home."
"To your family?" she asked, hoping for the best.
He shook his head, looking a little sad. "No, sweetie, just my cat."
So, she was right, he was all alone. In forty-five years that could be her. Minus the nose-hair, of course.
"You have a nice Christmas, Jack," she said, and for the first time, it wasn't just a throwaway remark.
"Won't you be back tomorrow?" He frowned, his forehead a lattice of wrinkles.
"I don't think so." She glanced at Angel, who was waiting patiently while the little girl described the dollhouse she wanted, right down to the fittings in the bathroom. The kid had taste.
"Well, good day then," Jack said, tipping his cap again. She watched him walk away, a frail old figure, quickly swallowed up by the crowd.
Angel stretched out on his couch, listening to Wesley and Cordelia bicker in the kitchen. It had started as soon as they'd gotten back to his apartment, all three of them exhausted from their shift in Santa's grotto -- an experience he wanted to put behind him as quickly as possible.
He wondered if Wesley was going to continue hanging around. From what he could make out, the ex-Watcher had little money, no way to get back to England, and very little purpose in life -- other than trying to live up to his principles by hunting demons. And judging by his fighting skills at Cordelia's eye auction, he was lucky to have survived this long on his own.
"How come Angel only got one biscuit?" Wesley sounded suspicious.
"Okay, so I ate the other one. I was hungry. Looking beautiful is gruelling work," Cordelia replied.
"It was Angel's biscuit, Cordelia. Shouldn't you have asked first?"
"Pffft. Angel doesn't eat."
"I can eat, I just don't need to," Angel called, wanting them to stop, but lacking the energy to go in there and referee.
"Well, I was hungry," she shouted back. "And it seemed a shame to waste it on someone with your stunted sense of taste."
"My sense of taste isn't stunted," Wesley said.
"Unlike your sense of style."
Angel groaned and pushed himself off the couch. It was impossible to relax with those two carrying on like children. He'd had enough of children to last a lifetime, which -- in his case -- was really saying something. He rounded the corner, glaring at them both. "Wesley, you can have the other cookie. Now, both of you, sit down, be quiet, and I'll cook you dinner." The immediate silence was worth the effort.
It was obvious, Angel thought, watching his two colleagues shovel eggs into their mouths, that neither of them had eaten well lately. No wonder they'd been fighting over a giant sugar-coated cookie like it was made of gold. This was another one of those things he should have noticed, if he hadn't been so busy wallowing in his own grief and guilt over the-day-that-wasn't, and Doyle's death.
"So," he said, putting his cup of coffee down and gazing into it. "Are you both -- all right?"
Wesley and Cordelia both stopped, mid-chew, and stared at him.
He glanced up at them. "I mean, you know, are you okay? Any problems you want to tell me about?"
"Has someone spiked your blood?" Cordelia arched one eyebrow at him.
Angel shifted in his seat. This wasn't quite the reaction he'd hoped for. Of course, they were probably both too proud to admit that they were struggling. Cordelia had already revealed far more today than she would have liked, that was obvious. "No -- I just wondered..." he abandoned the sentence, and turned his attention back to the coffee.
"I'm fine. Thanks for asking," Wesley said. "And by the way, these eggs are truly excellent. Again. You could go into business, you know, if the detective agency thing doesn't pan out."
"That's -- comforting," Angel replied. Silence blanketed the room again, broken only by the chink of forks against plates, and the sounds of chewing.
"So, what's the plan?" Wesley asked, as he passed the last plate to Cordelia.
She took it from him and towelled it dry. "Don't ask me -- Angel's the boss. Angel, what's the plan?" she called.
"Well, generally after the drying comes the putting away," Angel replied, walking into the kitchen, wishing they'd both give it a rest and leave him alone. "Are you two planning on going home any time soon?"
Wesley shook his head. "Someone has to watch you."
"I don't need a Watcher," Angel said, alarmed. The last thing he wanted was the two of them sniping at each other all night. He had some quality sitting in the dark planned, followed by a spot of brooding.
"I know how much you love to play statues with the lights off, but if you run away in terror some time between now and nine o'clock tomorrow morning, we'll be back to square one," Cordelia said, rubbing the back of her neck, looking tired.
With a sigh, he realized they were right. While fleeing in terror wasn't his style, they had no idea what had happened to the other Santas, so it made sense that someone observe him for the next twenty-four hours.
"I'll take first shift," Wesley offered, taking the tea towel from Cordelia and hanging it on the rail.
She sank into a chair, her face blanching. "I think you might have to take all the shifts, Wesley."
Angel was at her side in a flash. "You okay? Is it a vision?"
"No." She shook her head. "I'm just tired, I think. How old were those eggs?"
"The eggs were fresh. Maybe you caught something at the mall," he said, worried. Cordelia had been nothing but vibrant and healthy since he'd bumped into her at that Hollywood party.
She sighed, and looked around for her bag. "Maybe I did. Can you take me home?"
"Okay, but you call me if you need anything," he said, going for his car keys.
"Excellent." Wesley smiled. "And on the way home we can swing by my place and collect the Monopoly board."
Angel resisted the urge to punch Wesley in the face. Hard.
Cordelia let herself in, and dropped her bag on the floor. Back against the door, she slid into a sitting position. Every muscle ached, her eyes burned, and chills trembled through her body. She felt a gentle tug on her sleeve. "Oh, Dennis," she sighed. "Please, run me a hot bath." After a few moments the sound of running water floated out of the bathroom. It was warm and inviting, and the thought of sinking into the hot, foamy goodness spurred her back to her feet.
Unbuttoning her top, she dragged herself towards the bedroom. This was just perfect -- because not enough awful things had happened to her in the last couple of weeks. Nothing capped off the Christmas from Hell better than a nasty, infections disease. Oh well, at least if her appetite was ruined she wouldn't mind so much that all she had for Christmas dinner was a frozen macaroni cheese and a couple of apples.
She shook her clothes free of her pale, clammy body, leaving them on the bedroom floor, from where she knew Dennis would collect them and put them in the laundry hamper. With a final effort, she stumbled into the bathroom, where the warm steam enveloped her. She sank down into the water, letting it swirl around her throbbing limbs, and a few tears slipped down her face. She wasn't crying, really, because then she'd be breaking her promise to herself. What her eyes did of their own accord had nothing to do with her.
Chapter Three: Friday, December 24, 1999
Wesley jolted awake. Bugger. He'd meant to stay alert, keep an eye open for anything suspicious, and instead he'd dozed off under a blanket on Angel's couch. He looked at the luminous dial on his watch. The soft green numbers showed four-twenty-two a.m. He remembered someone mentioning to him that the hour between four and five was when the undead walked the earth. His flesh prickled and he pulled the blanket up under his chin.
"Cold, Wesley?" Angel's voice made him jump. In this instance the undead weren't walking -- they were reading a book in the chair opposite him.
"No, no, just a bit peckish actually," Wesley replied. As if on cue, his stomach rumbled. He remembered the giant, sugar-coated biscuit, still sitting in its paper bag on the counter. It was calling to him. Angel turned back to his book as Wesley folded back the blanket and padded, barefoot, into the darkened kitchen.
By the dim glow from the microwave display, he located the bag. His stomach growled louder, sounding very much like the Golvar demon he'd been telling the children about earlier that day. Not that they'd been particularly interested. No respect -- that was the problem with the younger generation.
Taking a plate from the cupboard, Wesley unravelled the crumpled edge of the bag, lifting it open to expose the biscuit, in all its sugary glory. "Oh my."
"What?" Angel asked.
"You might want to take a look at this."
Cordelia shifted, restless, and pulled the covers up higher.
"Dennis, I'm ignoring you, if you hadn't noticed," she grumbled. In response, the bed started shaking. Or possibly it was an earthquake. She sat up, ready to run for the doorframe. In her experience, earthquakes weren't just tectonic plates jiggling around -- they were often portents of apocalypsey things about to happen. But everything else was still and quiet.
The covers flew back, exposing her to the chilly air of the bedroom. "Dennis, I swear, what's gotten into you?" She grabbed the sheet, irritated, and tried to pull it up. Dennis pulled back. A short tug-of-war ensued, until she refused to participate any longer, laying back down, blanketless and defiant. She was not getting up at quarter past five, no matter what he did.
Without warning, all the drawers and cupboards in the room flew open, their contents exploding into the air and scattering across the floor. Okay, that was the last straw. Now she was really pissed.
"Dammit, Dennis, I am so gonna kick your insubstantial..." Oh, shit. Cordelia was certain she was waving a finger in front of her face. In the artificial light from the street that filtered through her window, it should have been easy to see. So where was it? She glanced down at herself and saw only empty bed, and an indentation in the rumpled sheet where her thighs should have been. "Oh, crap." Heart in her throat, she scrambled out of bed and into the bathroom. The light flicked on as she leaned over the sink, looking into the mirror.
Nobody looked back. She was invisible.
Okay, this was -- unexpected. Cordelia patted her arms and legs, and then her stomach, and lastly her breasts. Oh, thank God, they were still there. She was solid enough, just see-through. She wandered, slightly dazed, back into the bedroom, picking her robe out of the pile of clothes on the floor, and slipping it on. As soon as it covered her body, it too disappeared. Interesting. She kicked a few sweaters aside to unearth her slippers. As each foot nudged inside, they vanished too. She shook one off, and it re-appeared.
"Well, look at us, just a couple of invisible room-mates," she said, hoping that verbalising it would make it less spooky. The wall knocked twice. So, Dennis agreed -- it wasn't just her sleep-addled brain giving her the wiggins. No wonder he'd been going crazy trying to get her attention. "I'm sorry I ignored you," she sighed. Dennis, obviously feeling a little guilty, began picking up her clothes and folding them.
Cordelia put her slipper back on, watching it dissolve again. Invisible. Wow, that was shitty. She'd come to LA to get away from shitty things -- like vampires and hellhounds and mayors that turned into giant snakes -- and the IRS. Although, she had to concede, you never really got away from the latter. She'd had such high hopes of fame and fortune, sacks of money and rich, eligible men lining up to wine and dine her. It was supposed to be easy and happen right away.
But what had she actually ended up with? Russell Winters, donkey demons, Spike and his little torture pal, detatcho-limb guy, cockroaches, vengeful ghosts, Doyle frying himself, drool-o-vision, almost having her eyes removed for the highest bidder -- and now this. This sucked most of all. Okay, no, Doyle dying sucked most of all, but this ran a close second. And the timing sucked too. It was a yuletide suck-fest.
How on earth was she supposed to go to auditions in this state? As far as Cordelia could remember, there were no Academy awards for 'best actress in a transparent role'. Her inevitable stardom seemed a lot less assured right at this moment.
She sank down on the edge of her bed, elbows on knees and face in hands. "Okay, Universe, I give up. I don't care about having a nice Christmas anymore. I'll embrace the crappiness, I promise. Please, just fix this." Silence pressed around her.
A one hundred and fifty dollar dress, salvaged from her Sunnydale wardrobe, slipped onto a hanger and floated into the wardrobe -- and suddenly it all made sense. "I'm still being punished, aren't I?" she asked the air.
Cordelia had thought that was all over when she moved into her new apartment. Finally she had something nice, where she could be herself again. I've already paid, she thought. Paid for being super-bitch Queen C, for being haughty and self-centred. Obviously she hadn't paid nearly enough. Not for all the misery she put people through. People like Willow -- and Marcy.
Oh, God, now there was a relevant memory -- Marcy, who turned invisible because everyone ignored her. Marcy who had idolised Cordelia and her gang. They'd been so awful to her. Cordelia remembered how that had ended. Tied up on the May Queen throne while a scalpel danced inches from her face.
Psycho girl never got a chance to finish the job, so now the universe was doing it for her, and for all the others like her. What better punishment for vanity than invisibility? Plastic surgery won't fix this one.
And then the most awful thought of all struck. "Oh my God, how am I going to put my makeup on?"
The doorbell made her jump. "Cordelia?" Angel's voice was tense. Was everyone determined not to let her sleep today? She tied her robe around her, and then remembered that it didn't really matter. She could be naked and he'd never know. With a sigh she shuffled to the front door, and pulled it open.
Wesley and Angel stood in the doorway, both looking anxious.
"Thanks Dennis," Angel said, stepping inside and looking around the darkened room.
Cordelia's skin crawled. Angel couldn't see her either. And he had super-hero eyesight. She swallowed hard. "It's not Dennis, it's me."
"Cordelia?" Wesley gasped, reaching out and waving his hand in front of him.
"Ow! Look out, you just about poked me in the eye!" she snapped, jumping backwards. Turning to Angel, she said, "Whatever this is about, it better be good. As you can see, I'm having a bit of a visibility problem."
"Yes, yes, very interesting." Wesley nodded, rummaging in his satchel. He held out a crumpled paper bag.
Cordelia took it and peered inside. "You came all the way over here at the crack of dawn to bring me a stale cookie for breakfast?"
"No, look at it again, Cordelia," Angel replied.
With a sigh, she took another look, and chills raced across her invisible skin. The damn thing was glowing. Not that brightly, which is why she'd missed it at first glance. A sort of iridescent blue that pulsed in and out, like it was breathing. She looked at Wesley and raised an eyebrow. He was standing there, looking creeped-out, as she floated the bag in mid-air.
"For those of you who can't see my expression," she said, "please refer to Wesley's face for a good imitation. What the hell is going on?"
"Why don't we all sit down?" Angel gestured towards the couch.
"You two sit. I'll stay over here. I don't want your bony vampire butt in my lap." Cordelia began to imagine the endless possibilities for being injured that came with her condition. Being sat on, having doors slammed in her face, getting run over... She clapped a hand over her mouth in horror, as it all became crystal clear.
Angel and Wesley perched on her sofa, placing the cookie in the middle of the coffee table, where it cast an eerie blue glow. Dennis must have disliked it as much as she did, because he chose that moment to turn on the lights, drowning it out.
Cordelia began to pace the floor, her feet almost keeping up with her spinning brain. "That cookie was meant for Angel, because he was dressed as Santa," she said, thinking aloud. Angel and Wesley's eyes tracked her voice as she moved. "But because I ate it, I disappeared. That must be what happened to the other two."
"It makes sense. Miriam said that one of the bodies looked fuzzy," Angel said, nodding.
Cordelia didn't like where her train of thought was leading her. "No wonder Bob freaked out in his bathroom -- I know I had a Sunnydale moment when I looked in my mirror -- and no wonder both men ended up dead. You two have only been here a few minutes and I've already nearly lost an eye. Being see-through is dangerous. Fear may have killed Bob, but I guarantee the other one had some sort of accident because nobody could see him. They both died as a result of being invisible."
"Yes, but Miriam identified them at the morgue -- so at least we know it wore off," Wesley mused.
"Or perhaps it only works on people while they are alive," Cordelia said, shuddering. "Angel, have a bite. Of the cookie, not me. Maybe...
"No, no, I can't have both of you invisible." Wesley glanced up, looking panicked. Except he looked at where she had been when she spoke, not where she was now. For some reason, that freaked her out most of all.
"I'm over here, Wesley," she said, hugging her arms around herself.
"Well, for God's sake, stand still so I know where to look." He turned towards the sound of her voice. Okay, now it looked like he was ogling her breasts. Nothing new really, but still kind of yucky.
Angel rubbed his face, looking tired. "Why don't you put on a hat, so we know where your face is?"
"Fine in theory," she said. "But -- watch." She shook off one of her slippers, and it revealed itself. The look on both their faces would have been hilarious in any other situation.
"Fascinating," Wesley breathed, as she put it back on.
"I'm glad you're so excited by all of this." Cordelia slumped into a chair. "Forgive me if I don't share your enthusiasm. This Christmas officially can't get any worse."
"I'm sorry. This was supposed to happen to me," Angel said, rising and coming over to her. He reached out to her, resting his fingers on her in what she hoped was supposed to be a comforting gesture.
"Angel, do you know what you're touching?" she said, teeth gritted.
"Not your shoulder?" He snatched his hand away.
"Not quite," she sighed.
"Cordelia, where did you get these from anyway?" Wesley asked, pointing to the cookie.
He was unbelievable, thinking of his stomach at a time like this. She wondered if he would hear her coming before she kicked him in the shin. "If you're hungry, there's cereal in the kitchen."
His face lit up. "Well, yes please, I'd love some. But I was more interested in the magical qualities of the biscuit, rather than its nutritional value."
"I -- I'll make eggs," Angel said, looking relieved to have an excuse to escape after his unintentional fondle.
While Angel poached, or scrambled, or whatever you did with eggs to make them edible -- Cordelia hadn't gotten around to working that out yet -- she sat down next to Wesley on the couch and recounted her conversation with Jack, the security guard. It wasn't that she needed to sit next to Wesley, but the closer her voice was, the better his ability to "look" at her face, rather than the wall beside her. It made her feel better -- enough to risk the odd poke in the eye.
"He was such a sweet old guy," she sighed, turning the cookie over and over in her hands. "Do you really think he knew what was in these?"
"Hard to tell," Wesley replied, eyes turning towards the cookie, which even to Cordelia herself, looked like it was spinning in mid-air of it's own volition. Little grains of sugar dropped off and fell to the floor. He jerked his head up, as if struck by a thought. "Dennis, can we have the lights off please?"
Cordelia felt the rush of cold air a second before Wesley's glasses flicked off his face, flew in a spectacular arc over his head, and landed behind him on the sofa. "That's his way of saying he doesn't like you," she said, retrieving them. "It's okay, Dennis."
The lights clicked off, and Wesley got down on his hands and knees, nose touching the floor.
"Sorry, are we interrupting your morning prayers or something?" she asked, mystified.
"It's not the biscuit. It's the topping," he replied. "Come down here and have a look."
She didn't need to bend all the way down. The little blue specks on the polished wood pulsed just bright enough for her to pick them out. "Just another reason why sugar is bad for you," she sighed.
Wesley got to his feet, dusting himself down. "I think we need to make another trip to the mall. There's a security guard I'd really like to have a chat with."
Angel pulled Cordelia's bedspread around him. For the third time in three days he was crouched in the back of his car while they drove to the mall. It was like some sort of recurring nightmare that he couldn't seem to wake up from.
He stifled a yawn. The sun had come up while they ate breakfast, and waited for the mall to open for the day. Trying to keep human hours was messing up his sleeping patterns, and he was tired. Maybe this is what it was like for people who worked night-shift. For Buffy, patrolling the graveyard when other girls her age were tucked up in their beds. His heart squeezed tight in his chest, as he recalled how beautiful she had looked in the sunlight, turning towards him as he strode out to meet her -- to kiss her...
"I don't see why I couldn't drive," Cordelia whined from the front passenger seat. "Wesley had his turn yesterday."
"Because, Cordelia, I'd rather not have to explain to the fine constabulary of Los Angeles why I was a passenger in an apparently driverless car," Wesley replied.
"Yeah, it would look weird," Angel agreed. The last thing in the work he wanted was for Cordelia to take control of his car again. Especially with him as a passenger.
"This coming from the guy in the Laura Ashley shroud," she said.
The sound of an apple being bitten filled the air, and then the sharp smell of Granny Smith tickled Angel's nostrils. It was followed by Cordelia's sigh. "What?"
"Nothing," Wesley said.
"You have 'something' face." The sound of leather squeaking indicated she'd turned in her seat.
It was Wesley's turn to sigh. "I was just thinking how happy I am that food becomes invisible as soon as it goes in your mouth. Otherwise breakfast would have been a rather stomach-churning affair, as would your consumption of that apple. Oh, dear God, woman. Stop it!"
"What's going on?" Angel said, trying to peer out from under the bedspread.
"It appears that when Cordelia pokes her tongue out, the chewed-up food on it becomes visible again," Wesley answered. "As will my omelette, if she keeps that up."
"You'd deny an invisible girl her only pleasure in life?" Cordelia sounded mock-hurt.
"Oh, well, carry on, if your pleasure includes wearing the remains of my breakfast," Wesley snapped.
Angel pulled the bedspread closer around his head, suppressing a growl. "If you two don't stop it..." He felt the car glide gently over the speed bump that signified their entrance to the car park, and threw off his cover. The corner draped over Cordelia's shoulder, and for the first time that day he could see the contours of her body. Something that could have saved him from excessive embarrassment earlier.
Cordelia stood behind Wesley and Angel, who were seated in front of Miriam Saunders' desk. She'd discovered on the way through the mall that it was the safest place to be, if she didn't want to be walked into, or kneecapped with a shopping bag.
Miriam was looking through the staff database, a frown marring her tired face. "Are you sure his name was Jack?"
"Yes, an elderly gentleman, by all accounts. He wore a security guard's uniform," Wesley replied.
"I'm sorry." Miriam shook her head. "There's no Jack working here."
"You've got to be frickin' kidding me," Cordelia huffed.
Miriam's head snapped up. "Who said that?"
"I did," Cordelia said. Okay, sure, they'd decided that Miriam wouldn't be able to handle talking to an invisible person, but this was now beyond a joke, and Cordelia wasn't going to stay silent.
"That's Cordelia," Angel said, casting an irritated glance in the direction of her voice. "She's sort of --invisible."
"That's what happened to Bob and Ed," Wesley added. "And we believe it's as a result of a biscuit Angel was given by this Jack fellow -- which Cordelia ate."
"Invisible," Miriam echoed. "Because of a biscuit. This is a trick, right?"
"Honey, I wish it was." Cordelia moved around to Miriam's desk, picking up a marble egg and tossing it from hand to hand.
Angel leaned forward. "Remember Cordelia said we deal with unusual cases? This is one of them."
Miriam's eyes were glued to the marble egg as it plopped backwards and forwards.
"Jeez, it's rude to stare," Cordelia said, putting the egg back down.
Miriam went a couple of shades paler, and began to hammer on her keyboard with alarming force. "Here -- we had a Jack working here eight years ago, in security. According to his records, he had to take compulsory retirement because he was too old."
"It looks like Jack decided to come back to work," Angel said.
"And we have to find him. Perhaps we should split up," Wesley suggested. "That way we can cover more ground."
Angel looked uncomfortable with the suggestion, and Cordelia remembered his comments in the bathroom the previous day. The whole place must give him the wiggins. She tried to imagine walking along Fifth Avenue, and not wanting something from every shop window. She couldn't. "Are you sure?" Her voice made Miriam jump.
"Yes, that's usually how it works," Wesley said.
"I was looking at Angel when I said that," she sighed. Having no visible body language was proving to be a real hamper to effective communication.
Angel nodded, rising from his chair in a slow, deliberate movement. "I can move faster alone."
"Cordelia had better come with me." Wesley got up and shouldered his satchel.
"Great, I get to hang with the geek," she muttered.
Wesley scowled in her general direction. "Well, since nobody can see you, it's hardly going to ruin your image, is it?"
"We'll meet at the Grotto in thirty minutes. Check your watches." Angel said, heading for the door.
"Check." Wesley held up his wrist.
Cordelia glanced down at her arm automatically. Oh, of course. Invisible. She felt it with her other hand. No watch anyway. Like it or not, she needed Wesley as a timekeeper, as well as a shield from the crowd. She squared her shoulders. "Lead on, satchel boy."
Forty minutes later, Cordelia and Wesley stood in front of the Grotto. The large sign at the gate now informed shoppers that Santa was so busy making presents that he'd had to take the day off. Cordelia grabbed Wesley's arm, raising his watch level with her face. "He's ten minutes late. Do you think he's okay?"
Just as Wesley was about to reply, Angel swept into view. Cordelia looked hopefully at him for a moment, and then realized that she wasn't going to prompt a response that way. "Any luck?"
"Sorry, no." He shook his head.
Wesley removed his glasses and began to polish them with his handkerchief. "Perhaps if Angel invested in some laboratory equipment, I may be able to determine the chemical composition of the biscuit topping. Unfortunately that may take some time, and these things usually..." He trailed off, his face betraying the fact that he'd almost revealed something he'd been trying to keep secret.
A tide of panic washed over Cordelia, her heart leaping into her throat. The sudden rush of adrenaline made her dizzy. Angel's eyes flicked straight towards her, and she knew he could hear her fear -- or smell it. "Stop sniffing me," she said, her voice sounding more strangled than she intended.
"Wesley, what were you saying?" Angel asked.
"Oh dear, I don't want to alarm anyone. It's just that invisibility spells tend to have a compounding effect." Wesley's polishing grew more vigorous. "The longer you're transparent, the harder they are to break. In the worst cases, people have been known to lose solidity, and cease to exist altogether. I fear time is of the essence."
Cordelia sank onto the nearby imitation park bench. Okay, she took back what she said earlier about Christmas not being able to get any worse. It just did.
"Cordelia?" Wesley looked around, placing his glasses on his nose. He reached out and felt the air around him. "Oh, heavens, it's happened already."
"I'm over here, dumbass," she sighed. Angel tracked towards her voice, and sat beside her. At least he didn't sit on her, she thought.
"We'll fix this, I promise," he said, leaning his elbows on his knees, his hands pressed together.
Before Cordelia could reply, Angel's far arm shot out, latching around someone's wrist. He tugged, and Jack stumbled into her range of vision. He looked old, sad, and seriously surprised. He couldn't be evil -- could he?
"Wha -- what's going on?" he stammered, looking at Angel's hand, and then at his face.
Cordelia sucked in an angry breath. "Oh, boy, do you have some explaining to do."
Angel watched Cordelia's brightly-coloured coffee cup drift back to the table, and swivel back and forth on its saucer. They were all huddled in a booth in the furthest corner of the food hall, sheltered behind a large potted plant, where it was less likely that early-morning shoppers would notice the strange sight of floating china, and little packets of flying sugar.
Jack sat on the long moulded plastic bench, between Angel and Wesley. He'd come with them quietly, and seemed more than shocked at the current situation. Angel could hear he had a heart murmur, and he definitely smelled human. Hardly the usual 'big bad', as Buffy used to call the villain du jour.
"Well?" Wesley motioned to Cordelia's chair. "Would you care to explain this?"
"Missy, I'm so sorry," Jack said, addressing Cordelia, but staring with unwavering attention at the serviette twisted between his bony fingers. "I didn't mean for this to happen. Honestly, the last thing I wanted to do was hurt anyone."
"Really," Cordelia snorted. "What kind of nasty old man goes 'round making Santas invisible?"
Jack's blue eyes filled with tears. "That's not what I was tryin' to do."
"What were you trying to do?" Angel asked, unable to help feeling sorry for the man. Sure, he'd made Cordelia invisible, but the vibe he was giving off shouted 'victim' more than anything else.
Jack raised his head to look Angel square in the eye. "I wanted to hide."
"You wanted to make yourself invisible? Boy, did you ever mess up," Cordelia said.
Angel held up a hand to silence her, and for once, it worked. "What were you trying to hide from?"
"No, you don't understand," Jack said, his eyes sparking. "I didn't want to hide anyone, I wanted to hide the lie."
Cordelia's cup banged against her saucer loud enough to make Wesley jump. "Cryptic, much?" Her voice resonated frustration.
"I'm sorry, I'm not explaining this very well." Jack cast his eyes around the table, and took a deep, shaky breath. "When I was younger, Christmas was different. The kiddies looked at Santa and they saw the magic. They believed, you know? All those shining eyes, the little smiling faces..."
"I think I'm going to barf," Cordelia interrupted.
Jack shook his head. "Exactly my point. These days everyone is so -- cynical. Even the kiddies seem jaded and old. They don't see the miracle anymore. I just wanted to hide the fact that the Santa in our grotto wasn't the real one."
"You do know Santa isn't real, right?" she said. Angel could imagine the look on her face. And if they didn't get this fixed, he'd have to make it a regular exercise.
"Of course," Jack sighed, "but the kids should have some time to believe. They grow up too fast these days."
"So it was a concealment spell." Wesley got a notepad and pen out of his jacket. "Do you remember what the ingredients were?"
Angel half-listened as Jack listed what he had boiled, dried, and ground up to sprinkle on the sugar-coated cookie. He wasn't much with spells. Mainly he was concentrating on the noises around him. The chink of cutlery, the murmur of conversation, footfalls and rustling bags -- the sounds of humanity. It didn't bother him as much today as it had two days ago. Perhaps he was getting used to it, being around people.
Doyle flashed into his mind. *'She'll provide a connection to the world. She's got a very -- humanizing influence.'* Thank you, Cordelia, he thought, watching her bagel descend, partially chewed, onto her plate. Doyle had been right. Angel wondered if his friend would have been proud of him at the moment, drinking coffee at the mall, in the midst of the pre-Christmas rush. No, probably not. Doyle would have been too preoccupied with not being able to see Cordelia.
Angel smiled and took another mouthful of coffee.
"A-ha!" Wesley's exclamation brought his full attention back to the conversation at the table. "You say you substituted skink's eyes for newt?"
Jack nodded. "It's impossible to get newt at this time of year. Everywhere I went was sold out."
"A common amateur's mistake -- or so I'm told," Wesley said. "Responsible for many a spell going wrong."
"Can you fix it?" Cordelia asked. Jack and Wesley both looked in the direction of her voice.
"Maybe," said Wesley.
"No, I'm sorry miss. I didn't really know what I was doin' to start with," Jack said, at the same time.
Angel could sense Cordelia's temper snapping, like the air around him shifted somehow. For a split-second he imagined an invisible Cordelia beating Jack to death with a half-eaten bagel. He'd had too much caffeine, obviously. He put his cup down, and pushed it away.
"Thank you, Jack. I think we can take it from here." He rose and offered Jack a hand, helping the old man to his feet.
"Angel," Cordelia said, and he could hear her teeth were gritted.
"Leave it, Cordelia," he said. "Jack's going to go home now, lay his uniform away, and never dabble in the dark arts again, right?"
"Certainly, sir. I'm so sorry. So sorry," Jack shook his head towards Cordelia's seat and performed the customary tip of his cap. Wesley stood aside, letting the old man out of the booth. They watched in silence as Jack shuffled away.
"Why didn't you tell him what happened to the other two?" Wesley asked, putting his pad and pen away.
"What good will it do, other than give him a coronary?" Angel said, thinking of the heart murmur.
"Well, that would cheer me up," Cordelia sighed.
"Really?" Angel raised his eyebrows.
There was a long silence. "No," she finally said. "I guess he learned his lesson."
"I almost feel sorry for him," Wesley said. "What do we tell Miriam?"
"Nothing." Angel shook his head. There was no point. The police wouldn't believe a word of it anyway.
"Hey!" Cordelia's voice was so close to his ear it startled him. "If we don't tell her something, we can kiss our store credit goodbye. And, invisible or not, I want to shop. Of course, if I stay invisible, I might not need to pay for anything..."
"Cordelia, really," Wesley said, looking shocked. "You'd steal?"
"Or I could walk up to the counter and scare the crap out of the assistant," she snapped. "Either way, not getting much shoppy satisfaction otherwise."
Here they go again, Angel thought. He rubbed his temples, willing the sudden yearning for a nice brood in the dark to disappear. Except disappear was probably an inappropriate word right now... "We'll tell Miriam what happened, just not who. He's learned his lesson. All he wanted to do was make things better. It backfired. It happens to all of us, now and then."
Cordelia stretched out on Angel's couch, nibbling on the sushi he'd bought her and Wesley for lunch. Miriam had taken the news well, all things considered. The main thing was that she'd promised to send vouchers. Hopefully they'd arrive in time for the post-Christmas sales. That blue bra better still be there...
"Eeeeww, God, Wesley, what the hell are you doing in there?" she said, wrinkling her nose as the stench from the kitchen began to invade the rest of the basement apartment.
"Working on your cure, I hope," he called. There was a small 'pop' and a puff of smoke, followed by the clatter of Wesley slipping off his stool.
Angel rose from his chair, where he'd been resting, eyes drooping, looking like any moment he'd fall into a coma of vampiric proportions. Cordelia realized he'd probably been awake most of the last three days.
They hurried into the kitchen, where a sulphurous green cloud hung around the oven, tendrils creeping outwards like some ghostly form of ivy.
"Is that it?" Angel asked, blinking through the haze.
"I think so." Wesley replied, as his head appeared over the top of the table again. "Cordelia, if you'd like to try this." He poured the contents of the saucepan into glass beaker, and held it out in front of him. The mixture bubbled and frothed with a suspicious fervour.
"Sure, it smells a lot like my cooking, so no big deal," she said, trying to convince herself it wouldn't be as barf-worthy as the odour suggested. "What's in it?"
"Uh, probably not a good idea to ask," said Angel, who had accompanied Wesley into the little magic shop in Koreatown that they'd stopped at on the way home.
"Lizard guts. Got it." She smiled. "I'm smiling at you, by the way." God, it would be such a relief not to have to explain every facial quirk. Assuming it worked, if course. It was Wesley she was relying on here. Taking a deep breath, she wrapped her fingers around the beaker. "I've got it, Wesley, you can let go."
Right, deep breaths, hold your nose, down it in one swallow, Cordelia thought. Don't dwell on the contents. She grasped her nostrils, screwed up her eyelids, and gulped the foamy liquid. Little abrasive chunks of something caught on the back of her tongue, and the vapour burned her throat and nose. She got half of it down, and then gave up, banging the beaker down on the bench top.
Her stomach did a somersault, lurching and heaving. "Look out, sushi coming back for an encore," she gasped, falling onto her hands and knees.
A cool hand rubbed her back. "Take deep breaths," Angel said. "It'll pass."
Cordelia gagged and swallowed, trying in vain to keep the vile liquid down. Angel's hand continued to glide up and down her back, and she was grateful he was there. It made her remember when she was a little girl, and their housekeeper would sit with her if she was sick. Once, after she'd come back from having her tonsils removed, her father had come into her room and read her the Wall Street Journal until she fell asleep.
But now they were both gone, taken away from her by the IRS, and she'd ended up here, on Angel's kitchen floor, about to puke her guts out. Thinking about other stuff only worked if it kept your mind off the original stuff, she thought ruefully.
She felt Angel's fingers hook under her hair, pulling it back in case she threw up. Thank-you, Angel. Nothing worse than having to wash puke out of your... "Hey, how did you know where my hair was?"
His hand stilled. "Same way I knew where your back was."
Cordelia opened her eyes, and there were her fingers, splayed on the linoleum in front of her. Sure, they were kinda stained-glass-window in appearance, and she could still see the floor though them, but it was a major improvement. "Wesley, if I didn't feel like I was about to go all 'Exorcist' here, I'd kiss you," she gasped.
"Really? Have a peppermint." He bent down, holding a box of tic tacs under her nose. She held up a semi-visible hand to accept one.
"Will it get better?" Angel asked, helping Cordelia into a sitting position.
Wesley nodded. "As she digests the antidote, she should get steadily more -- vivid."
Cordelia took a few deep breaths, and popped the mint into her mouth. She felt a little better now, barf-wise, but very, very tired. "Can I lay down for a while?"
"Sure," Angel nodded. "I was going to have a nap myself. Then I'll take you home."
"Great." She smiled, thinking how wonderful it was that he could actually see it -- or at least through it. "Wake me up at sunset." Hauling herself to her feet, she marched past Angel, through the living area, and flopped down on his bed.
"That's fine, Cordelia. I'll take the couch," Angel's voice was sarcastic, but faint, and getting fainter by the second. Within moments, sleep took her.
Cordelia sat in Angel's car, outside her apartment building. Every ounce of strength had vanished from her body, but it was worth it. She looked down at her hands, now almost completely solid again. Thank God. Wesley had saved her, and she hadn't even had a chance to thank him properly. By the time she'd woken from her nap, he'd gone home.
Angel came around and opened the passenger door. "Come on, I'll help you inside."
"I'm fine," she said, trying to stand. Her knees quaked and buckled. "Okay, maybe a little with the damsel in distress."
He pulled her to her feet, supporting her with an arm around her waist. "Are you sure you'll be all right on your own?"
She shot him a suspicious glance, as he helped her along the pathway. "You been playing with that sensitivity stick again?"
"Playing with what? Oh -- that. No." He chuckled. "It's just that someone recently told me that I should be more considerate of others, pay attention to their feelings, get involved more. I think maybe they had a point. I'm trying it out."
"Oh," she said, taken aback just a little. "Sounds like this person knew what they were talking about. Dennis!"
Her front door swung open, and they staggered towards the sofa, collapsing in a heap on the cushions. Angel sighed, and looked around the room. "Why aren't there any decorations here? I though you were big with the tinsel."
"But not big budget with the tinsel," she replied, easing her shoes off. "Since I spend most of my time at the office, I put it up there instead. Figured I'd get to see more of it."
"Oh." He looked uncomfortable. "You should take tomorrow off."
"Well, duh, it's Christmas. If you want me to come in you'll have to pay triple-time." She shook her head in resignation.
"No, it's fine. Stay here. Are you sure you'll be all right?" he asked, getting to his feet.
"Yes, go home, you're freaking me out now," she said, smiling.
Angel backed towards the door. "Okay, but any problems, call me."
"Go!" she cried, waving him away. "And, Angel..."
He smiled. "You too, Cordelia."
Epilogue: Saturday, December 25, 1999
The display on the clock said ten am. Cordelia stretched and yawned. Had she really slept for thirteen hours? It felt like it. She was warm, rested, and... She jerked upright in bed, her hands flying up in front of her. They were solid. Not translucent, not even slightly fuzzy. Solid, solid, solid. Oh thank God -- the best Christmas present a girl could ever have.
The smell of brewing coffee snapped her out of her silent celebration. Bless you, Dennis. Real coffee, too, not that nasty instant stuff she normally had to make do with. She wondered where he'd gotten it. Maybe Dennis was a cat-burglar while she was off fighting the demons and other nasties of LA. Cordelia pulled the bedspread up to her chin, taking a deep, satisfying whiff.
Another smell caught her attention. Sage? Onions? Perhaps Dennis was making -- stuffing? Oh, poor thing. She should probably break it to him that there was nothing to stuff. He was going to be so disappointed. Maybe she could spread it on toast or something -- it would probably be tastier than plastic macaroni. To her relief, her stomach didn't heave at the thought of either. Actually, she was kind of hungry.
Someone knocked on the front door. Before she could lay a hand on her robe, she heard Angel's voice, low, almost whispering. "Come in, Wesley."
What the hell was Angel doing in her apartment? It was Christmas morning. Wasn't he supposed to be back at Brood Central, vamp-napping the day away?
"I must say, Angel, this had better be important, dragging me all the way over here on -- goodness mmph." Wesley sounded like he'd had a hand slapped over his mouth.
This was too weird. Cordelia tugged on her robe, jammed her feet in her slippers -- hey, look, still visible -- and marched into the living room. "Holy crap."
The room was festooned with tinsel, and other Christmassy objects. A little tree sat on the coffee table, with tiny bud lights twinkling on and off. Angel stood in the center of the room -- beside an equally startled Wesley -- wearing the apron that she never used.
Cordelia blinked a couple of times, and pinched herself on the arm. "Angel, what are you doing? Are you possessed?"
"No." He sounded wounded. "I'm roasting a chicken. The store was all out of turkeys." There was a long pause. "Dennis is helping." A bang on the wall indicated that, indeed, Dennis was a willing participant.
She sank down into a chair, taking in the room one more time. "I thought you didn't like Christmas."
"Maybe it's not so bad." He shrugged. A soft 'ding' came from the kitchen. "Oh, time to stuff."
As soon as he was out of the room, Wesley came over to Cordelia. "I see you're looking, er, more like -- something, today."
She glanced down at herself and smiled. "Thanks, Wesley. I mean it. You really came through for me yesterday."
The sound of plates and cutlery rattling around made his self-satisfied grin vanish, and he nodded his head in the direction of the kitchen. "This is most unexpected. Are you sure he hasn't turned evil?"
"I'm pretty sure Angelus didn't cook. He liked his food raw." She shuddered.
Wesley rubbed his hands together. "Well, I must say, if Angel can cook other things as well as he does eggs, I'm looking forward to this. Fancy a game of Scrabble while we wait?"
"You carry Scrabble around with you?" She tried not to laugh.
"Travel Scrabble," he replied, as if that justified everything.
She rubbed her forehead with one finger, perplexed. So much for a lonely Christmas Day, sitting in front of the TV with a frozen meal and only a ghost for company. Instead, here she was with her two friends, a nice cooked lunch on the way, and she wasn't invisible anymore. On the whole the day had turned out really well. Perhaps this wouldn't end up as the worst Christmas on record, which, after everything that had happened over the last few weeks, was -- unexpected. She felt the smile begin at her toes and spread all the way to her lips. "What the hell. Just let me wash up and get dressed, and you're on."
Cordelia pulled on her clothes, squeezed the last of the water from her hair, and taking a hairbrush in one hand, wandered into her bedroom. Showering always made her think profound thoughts. Maybe it was from the hot water on her head, she wasn't sure. Today, for the first time in weeks, her shower thoughts hadn't been all about Doyle, and finances, and her stuttering acting career. They'd been about the vampire stuffing a chicken in her kitchen, and the English guy setting up Scrabble on her coffee table. Okay, so maybe that didn't qualify as profound in most people's dictionary, but in the Cordelia Chase book of serious thoughts, it came pretty damn close.
She'd laid out her gifts to Angel and Wesley on her bed, prior to getting in the shower. She'd intended to give them out yesterday, but the whole see-through thing had kind of forced everything else from her brain. They weren't very exciting, but in the small time she'd had after they finished Santa-ing, combined with her limited budget, it was all she could manage. With a sigh, she sat down beside them.
Hold on -- there was something different. A third gift nestled beside them on the duvet, wrapped in silver paper and decorated with a glittery bow. A small rectangle of red card had the words 'From Santa' written in Angel's handwriting. With a small squeal, she picked it up, squeezing it. Soft. Little tingles of excitement fluttered in her stomach, just like when she was a little girl. Okay, patience was not one of her strong points. It needed to be opened, and now. She slid her fingernail under the flap at one end, popping the wrapping open and peering inside. A flash of blue satin made her gasp.
"Oh my God," she breathed, tearing the paper off. How did he know? Her mind flashed back to him, watching while she wrestled with her conscience outside the Victoria's Secret changing rooms. He'd noticed. Who'd have figured? Without warning, her eyes filled with tears.
For no apparent reason, she suddenly thought of Aura and Harmony, and what they would be doing this morning. In their expensive houses, with their stuck-up families, and their piles of presents. And at that moment, she wouldn't have swapped where she was for the world. The little piece of blue satin in her hands had more thought in it than any of the presents her friends were opening. She wiped a tear away with the heel of her hand, and began to laugh.
The squeak of a floorboard made her jump. "Angel, how many times do I have to have the 'stalker' talk with you?" She frowned, and he stepped into her room, looking embarrassed. She wagged a finger at him. "I swear I'm going to put a little bell on you."
"I just wanted to see if you liked it," he said, shuffling from one foot to another.
"Of course I do. It's a bit -- personal, I mean -- hello, underwear -- but I love it. Thank you," she said.
He looked at his hands, and then out of the window, avoiding her eyes. "I didn't know what to get you, and you seemed to really want that. I know underwear is usually for lovers..."
"Ew! Let's just leave it at 'thank you,' shall we?" she said. "And thank you for today, too. This is all so great."
He perched on the end of her bed, stiff and nervous. "Uh, are you all right?"
"Again with the big sensitive thing. Did you inhale the aerosol snow?" she asked. Twice in three days was just too weird.
He looked uncomfortable. "Well, after what you said in the men's room the other day..."
"And isn't that a strange sentence?" she interrupted. "Sorry, go on."
"I was worried." He looked her in the eye. "So -- are you?"
She thought about it for a long, strange moment. About everything that had happened that week, and especially that morning, and there was only one clear answer. "You know what? I really am."
His smile changed his whole face. "That's -- good."
For a moment they sat in silence, not quite sure what to say next, and then Wesley's voice floated through from the living room. "I've set out your letters, Cordelia!"
"Oh, right, Scrabble," she said. "I can't believe I'm doing this. And I can't believe you're cooking something besides eggs. Who knew you were a gourmet?"
"I'd save your judgement until after you've eaten," he chuckled, rising and motioning towards the door. "Coming?"
"In a moment." She nodded.
As soon as she was alone, she stripped off her top and threw the old, disintegrating bra in the hamper. Beaming now, she put the new one on. "Hello, silky goodness," she giggled, pulling her sweater back over her head.
Then she gathered up Angel and Wesley's gifts, and sighed a long, contented sigh. There was good food to eat, friends to share it with, mall vouchers on the way and new satin against her skin. It was a pretty good Christmas, after all.
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