Title: I'll Be Home for Christmas

Author: Niamh

Rating: A good healthy "R" for language, violence, and sexual imagery.

Spoilers: Everything, then some, and a little bit more. Actually, everything up to "Apocalypse Nowish." I wrote this directly after that ep, so this fic is what I had speculated at the time. Obviously, that's not how it turned out... so I guess what we're left with is an Alternate Universe of sorts.

Disclaimer: These characters are the property of Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt, Mutant Enemy (Grr! Arrgh!), and Twentieth Century Fox. They are being used without permission; no profit will come from this infringement. Tess is mine.

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

More Notes: Yes, I realize that this is a Christmas fic and that I'm posting it in APRIL. :) (Ergo, the fic is a little... out of season.) See, it was sitting on my hard drive, and about a month ago I started thinking about doing a non-holiday sequel for it and figured it might be a good idea to post the original before I started even THINKING about a sequel.

***

I'll be home for Christmas

You can plan on me

Please have snow and mistletoe

And presents on the tree

Christmas Eve will find me

Where the love-light gleams

I'll be home for Christmas

If only in my dreams

***

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

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

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

Angel nodded. "It does."

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

"Not yet."

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

Angel nodded. "I did."

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it didn't.

He began to wish it had.

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

He looked over at the demon, silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

"I know."

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

What was a fairy-tale without a little embellishment?

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

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

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

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

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

"Electrical cord?"

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

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

"It comes in all forms."

***

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

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

He stopped, all thought fleeing from his mind.

Cordelia swallowed. "Angel."

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

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

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

"Angel-"

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

"Angel, please-"

"Get out. Now."

"No, I won't."

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

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

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

"Ow! Angel!"

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

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

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

He was angry.

"Then let me get dressed."

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

"Being human isn't about simple."

"Tell me about it."

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

"I know which would make me feel better."

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

***

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

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

But there was something...

*Thwackthwackthwack!*

Something about the eyes.

*Thwackthwack!*

He'd known them.

*Thwack!*

But from where?

*Thwack!*

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

Angel's movements slowed, then stopped.

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

Only pure evil can truly understand pure evil.

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

***

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

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

He shrugged. "I don't wave."

"She's six. Wave."

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

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

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

"You get no argument from me."

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

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

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

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

"Very much."

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

***

"Angel, you're nuts!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Angel nodded contemplatively.

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

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

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

"It needed work."

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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