I'll Be Home for Christmas: Part Four - Disclaimers in Part One

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

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

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

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

There was nothing.


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

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

It was finally over.

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

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


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

"God, no..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

//I'm not a Champion.//

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

Who else?

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

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

"Champion, stand."

"I can't."

"You must."

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn't real.

"You did it, Angel."

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

"You're not real."

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

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

"She has passed on, yes."

Angel closed his eyes. "Who else?"

"The one you knew as Wesley."

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

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

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

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

"He was a test. Nothing more."

"Not a test. Your final lesson."

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

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

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

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

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

He looked up, perplexed. "Time?"

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

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

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

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

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

"To what?"

"To your life."

"And another destiny?"

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

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

"You do have a choice, Angel."

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

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

"I know what my answer is."

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

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

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

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

"Gunn, it's me."

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

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

But he didn't.

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

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

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

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

"I know."

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

"I can't see you, Cordy."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Don't be hasty, please?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

The urge to join them was overpowering.

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

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

The silence extended for several agonizing seconds.

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

"I understand," Angel said softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was silence as Lorne's words sunk in.

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

"We'll see."

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Of course."


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

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

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

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

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

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

"I couldn't wake Mommy up."

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

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

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

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

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

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



"Block, Tess! Block!"

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

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

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

Angel lowered himself to the ground. "Tess?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tess looked at him, startled. "What?"

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

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

He stared at the seventeen year old, dumbstruck.

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

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

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

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

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

They were quiet for a second.

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

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

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

But they were both generally happy people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And at a hell of a price."

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

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