TITLE:  The Very Best Time of the Year

AUTHOR:  Eloise

RATING: PG13

DISCLAIMER: Joss and ME own Wes, and all things Angel. I'm only playing with them. I promise not to hurt them. Much.

NOTES: It occurs to me that I have been rather mean to Wes recently. I've had him smothered to death (and resuscitated) in 'Present Imperfect'; I've had him tortured in 'Soul Cages', and I've had him locked under the stairs in 'The Caged Birds Sing'. And my name isn't even Joss Whedon!

So I decided to write him a Christmas story, with pressies and candy and a happy ending. Or not. Story is set Season 3, after 'Fredless', but before 'Billy'. Big hugs and thanks to Lonely Brit for the wonderful beta – go read her wonderful fics at Wesleyfanfiction.net!

Title of the fic and chapter titles come from the John Rutter carol – 'The Very Best Time of the Year'.

Chapter 1: Catch a Star and Fly Away

'Feels like you could reach and touch the sky'

Or catch a star and fly away;

Feels like you could wish for peace on earth,

And all at once it would come some day.'

'Bugger'

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce whispered the swear word under his breath, as he attempted to navigate a course through the throng of Christmas shoppers, all seemingly hell-bent on getting their purchases to the checkout before him.

Soulless vampires, zombie corpses, demon gore splatter, he could handle. But face him with the prospect of buying presents for his co-workers, and he was reduced to a bumbling nervous wreck.

'Ow!' He heard his own voice rise to an embarrassingly high-pitched squeak, then reached down to rub his grated ankle.

'Sorry, hon, didn't see you there.'

A cherub-cheeked blonde woman smiled at him insincerely, then overtook him, as he hopped a little on one foot, trying to save the other from further damage. He made a mental note to avoid all new mothers, and their weapon of choice – baby buggies.

He should have done this weeks ago, or followed Angel's example and ordered on-line. But he had never liked this particular season, and had steadfastly ignored its onset, until he realized that there were only four days left until Christmas. And he did not dare show up at the office without gifts.

Angel and Gunn, he knew they couldn't care less about presents. But Cordy had actually gone to the trouble of issuing them all with a list of her preferred gift choices, neatly catalogued and cross-referenced by price and place of purchase. If only she put some of that military precision and intricate planning into the organization of the office, their filing system wouldn't be the idiosyncratic mystery it so depressingly was.

He had managed to give Fred her present before she had left to visit her parents. A facsimile of Einstein's 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity which he had tracked down at his favourite bookshop, hidden among all the dusty ancient commentaries and prophesies. She had squealed with delight and had given him a brief awkward hug, which he had returned just as clumsily, his chin bumping against the top of her head.

He sighed heavily, and hefted his soon-to-be purchases towards the checkout, where a mother (sans pram, thank God) was attempting to juggle two Barbies, a Nintendo, a skateboard and an over-tired toddler. Beside her, a boy of around seven was kicking his obviously expensive branded trainers against the counter.

'Mom! I want Grand Theft Auto!'

'Scott, sweetie, you're too young.' She shifted the now screaming toddler onto her hip, and dumped her purchases onto the counter, shushing the little girl gently.

'But Jack's getting it!'

The whine in his voice was clearly familiar to her, and Wesley found himself feeling incredibly sorry for the harassed woman. If he had behaved like that when he was a child… No. He made a conscious effort to not think about that. Not now. Not at this particular time of the year.

*~*~*~*

'Tis the season to be jolly, fa la bloody la, la, la, la, la.'

He stamped his feet on the wet pavement and pulled the pac-a-mac raincoat around him tightly. A fine mist hung in the night air; he had been working for eight hours straight, and the rain had drizzled unceasingly all day, seeping through his clothes and chilling him to the bone.

It wasn't fair. Every year he got stuck with the same assignment. Never Australia, where you ate Christmas dinner on the beach and came home with a tan. He wouldn't even have minded Germany or Switzerland. At least there you got proper snow, the prospect of some skiing and a couple of mugs of mulled wine. No, he got landed with Britain, and all he had to show for his efforts was a thumping headache, a stinking cold, and if he was lucky, a newspaper full of soggy chips.

An Austin 1100 drove by too quickly, its tyre slicing into the muddy puddle at the edge of the kerb, sending a deluge of oily water over his already saturated clothing.

'Merry bloody Christmas to you too, mate!'  He shouted, waving an invisible fist impotently at the retreating rear lights of the vehicle. He sighed heavily, and moved back into the shadow of a large oak tree. He pulled the enchanted raincoat over his head, and folded it in on itself, zipping it into a little pouch and clipping it to his belt. Then turned his attention to his now visible wings.

They were in a sorry state. Damp and bedraggled, they hung limply from his back; a variety of broken twigs and wet leaves entangled in the translucent gossamer. He reached his hand behind his back and began to remove the debris

Still, at least he only had one more house to do. After that he could head home to enjoy a hot bath, and an even hotter toddy. Maybe he could persuade the boss to crack open that twenty five year old Glenfiddich he'd been saving for a special occasion. After all, it wasn't every year you finished your Naughty/Nice list three days early.

And it wasn't as if that had been a particularly pleasant assignment.  The naughty list was getting longer each year. Kids these days didn't know they were born. They spent the whole year whining and fighting and generally behaving like a bunch of spoiled brats; then come Christmas morning they expected to find a stockingful of presents.

That was another thing. Since when did stocking mean pillowcase, or even worse, sack? He was sick and tired of the whole thing. If he had his way, he'd give them a taste of the old days. A couple of lumps of coal in the bottom of an otherwise empty stocking would soon teach them to curb their avaricious ways. The boss had vetoed that suggestion pretty quickly.

'We've got to move with the times, Norman. We can't afford a PR disaster like that.'

It was all right for him. He only had to go out once a year, and even then he had proper transport. Plus he didn't have to listen to all that whingeing and moaning. He just left the goods, drank the milk and cookies, and then pissed off back up the chimney. Ho bloody ho.

Norman removed the last slimy leaf from between his wings, straightened up and gave them an experimental flutter. He rose several feet into the air and hovered there, until a sudden desperate tickle in his nose became a violent sneeze, which catapulted him backwards into the upper branches of the oak tree. He realized, with a growing sense of resignation, that tonight was not going to be his night.

He was beginning to disentangle his wings from the branch on which they had become snagged, when he realized that his current vantage point gave him a perfect view of the final house on his list.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a notebook, turning to a page near the end.

NAME: Wyndam-Pryce, Wesley James

AGE: Seven years and nine months

CURRENT LIST STATUS: Nice

Hmm. Not that that meant anything. Last year, Dave had been assigned to Hampshire, and had put most of the brats on the Nice list. He didn't know why, it wasn't as if they got a Christmas bonus for it, or anything. He had been sent to Birmingham, God help him. It was bad enough having to listen to Slade's 'Merry Christmas, Everyone' playing incessantly, without having to actually visit the city that had spawned them.

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Even the name reeked of obnoxious upper class arrogance. The kid probably had the best of everything, and was used to having his every whim indulged. Well, he would see about that. He edged along the branch to get a better view of the child in question.

The little kid that he saw through the bedroom window looked anything but spoiled. He was sitting at a wooden desk, his chin cupped in one hand, studying a rather large book. The pages seemed to be crammed with text, and every now and again he would scribble frantically in a notebook that lay open on the desk next to him.

What struck him most about this room was the lack of toys. Every room he had visited on his route so far had been stuffed to bursting point with toys. This reminded him more of a schoolroom than a child's bedroom. There were rows of shelves on the walls, laden with various scholarly volumes, rather than the more typical children's storybooks. A few treasured items were scattered amongst the books; some tin soldiers carefully placed next to a wooden fort; a worn, but obviously well hugged teddy bear half hidden behind a leather-bound tome.

The child in question was small for his seven years; when seated at the desk, his toes barely touched the floor. He was clad in blue and white striped pyjamas, and currently his face was screwed up in concentration, the tip of his tongue protruding from his lips. The light from the table lamp was reflected in gold-framed spectacles, which completely failed to hide huge blue eyes.

No, he was pretty sure this was one unspoiled kid. Norman took out his pen and put a tick beside Wesley's name in the Nice column. He closed the notebook and was about to leave when the bedroom door opened. The effect on the little boy was amazing. His head came up smartly, his shoulders and back suddenly stiff, rigid with tension.

The man who had entered the room was the kid's dad; of that there was no doubt. The genetic inheritance obvious in the same dark hair, the startling blue eyes. However, where the child was slight of frame, the man stood at least six feet tall, well built and athletic. He was clearly not happy, as evidenced by the frown that creased his face. This did not bode well for Wesley.

Norman wondered briefly what this quiet little kid could have done to incur such apparent displeasure. He sincerely hoped he was not going to have to put Wesley's name in the Naughty column. The man held out his hand to the child, and Wesley surrendered the notebook, his hand trembling visibly. The contents of the notebook only served to further infuriate the man, and he gestured to the door of the bedroom. The little kid slipped down from the chair and crept out of the room, clearly terrified.

He frowned in consternation. Despite his oft-professed impatience with the youth of today, Norman did not like to see a kid in trouble. He still wielded the power of the wish, even if he had not exercised it for several centuries, and he was sorely tempted to intervene.

What he was considering was extremely rash. It was absolutely, expressly forbidden to meddle in mortal affairs. The boss was adamant about that. It was the reason for the big split between him and D'Hoffryn. Nick had insisted that the power of the wish was far too dangerous to be subject to the whims of mortals. D'Hoffryn had disagreed. Most of his kind had sided with the boss, leaving D'Hoffryn to recruit his vengeance demons from scorned, hurt mortals. And that hadn't really worked out so well.

The boss had set up his own operation, vowing to observe, rather than interfere. He wielded the power of the wish on one night a year only, and even then it was a symbolic gesture, rather than an actual answer to a specific wish.

Norman knew if he did this there would be hell to pay; he only hoped that his metaphorical interpretation of the boss's warning was correct. He would probably get sent to the Outer Hebrides, maybe Siberia, next year. Or even worse, Birmingham again. Then he remembered the look of terror in those huge blue eyes, and decided that maybe Birmingham wasn't such a bad place, after all.

He unzipped his raincoat and pulled it over his head, rendering himself invisible once again. Then slipped off the end of the branch and climbed onto the windowsill of the bedroom. Lifted up the sash window and crept noiselessly into the room.

The first thing he noticed about this particular house was the extreme quiet. He had got used to the bustle and noise of mortal preparations for Christmas; a soundtrack of cheesy seasonal songs and traditional carols, underscored by the sound of laughter and petty squabbling. As he made his way down the wide staircase, the only sound he heard was the tick of the grandfather clock.

A door opposite the foot of the stairs opened, and Norman pressed himself back against the oak panelled walls, momentarily forgetting his invisibility. The boy's father emerged from the room, his hand closed firmly around his son's arm. The child's glasses were now missing, and it was clear that Wesley had been crying. The man led him down the hall and stopped at a door set into the staircase. He reached into his pocket and removed a key, which he used to unlock the door. Norman stifled a sigh. This could not be good.

The little boy was having a hard time controlling his terror. His legs trembled visibly, and Norman could almost hear his heart hammering in his chest. He obeyed his father, though, stepped into the darkness of the cupboard. The man locked the door, and returned to his study, leaving the key in the lock.

He crept downstairs silently, tiptoed along the hallway until he came to the door. Reached out his hand and turned the key very slowly. He felt the mechanism give way, and eased the cupboard door open a fraction, just enough to slip inside.

The boy made a tiny noise, somewhere between a gasp and a whimper, and scooted back against the wall of the cupboard.

'You're not real,' he whispered desperately.

He wasn't talking to him, of course. The kid had no idea he was in there; he was addressing the anonymous terrors that dwelt in his imagination. Norman slipped the raincoat off carefully and smiled at the child in what he hoped was a non-threatening way.

'Hey there, Wesley.'

Again there was a muffled squeak, and Norman pressed his finger to his own lips, shushing the little boy gently.

'It's okay; I'm not going to hurt you. See?' He spread out his arms, palms up, demonstrating his lack of threat. He was rather amused to note that the little boy's natural curiosity was overcoming his initial dread.  He was staring at his wings.

'Are you a fairy?'

He bit back a sarcastic retort, reminding himself that the boy was asking an innocent question. Besides, if their union got wind of what he was doing, he'd get hauled over to head office to face a disciplinary committee of exceedingly pissed off fairies.

'Not exactly. I suppose you would call me an elf.'

'And you can really fly?' he sounded breathless with excitement.

'That's what the wings are there for, kid.'

And you can make yourself invisible?'

The kid didn't miss a trick.

'One of the perks of the job.' He winked conspiratorially at the child. 'Can you imagine the fuss if you mortals found out we actually existed?'

He was pleased to note that the little boy was almost smiling. Then Wesley hesitated, and rubbed the bridge of his nose nervously.

'Um, how come you're here? Is it something to do with the Winter solstice?'

'Nah. Nothing as exciting as that.  I'm on what you might call a fact finding mission. You were on my list.'

Immediately the child's face creased with worry.

'Am I in trouble?'

'Oh, no, no way, kid. In fact, you're top of my nice list this year. Thought I'd do something extra special for you.' He paused, and gave him an encouraging smile. 'If you don't mind me asking, how come your Dad locked you in here?'

The eyes dropped, and Wesley began to pick at a non-existent piece of fluff on his pyjama trousers.

'I – I was lazy. I didn't do my translation properly.' He raised his eyes reluctantly, obviously hoping that this was enough information.

Norman swallowed down the hot surge of justified anger at the child's treatment. That was it. This child was going to get a wish, consequences be damned. He slipped his hand into his pocket, and brought out a small sprig of holly.

'Take it.' He held the twig out to the boy, and Wesley took it carefully, balancing it his open palm.

'Make a wish. For something good. I promise it will be granted.'

The little boy eyed him doubtfully, and Norman smiled reassuringly. 'Don't worry. Just wish. Everything will be fine.'

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce closed his eyes tightly, and wished.

*~*~*~*

Wesley took a sip of the sixteen-year-old Lagavulin, and savoured the antiseptic sea tang of the Islay. It was more astringent than the delicate Highland malts, and he inhaled over the mouthful, enjoying the smoky aftertaste.

He could feel the weariness in his joints, and he gave the muscles in his upper arms a brisk rub. Then eyed the purchases he had made, now set out before him on the low coffee table. Gunn had been quite simple to buy for; he had lamented quite frequently the lack of decent films to play on his recently acquired DVD player. He had bought 'Malcolm X' for culture, and 'Blade' for a laugh, knowing Gunn would appreciate the joke - a 'good' vampire played by a guy called Wesley.

For Cordy, he had gone with a selection of exorbitantly expensive cosmetics straight off her list. He had learned early on that the person who knew best what Cordelia needed was Cordy herself. For an actress, she was surprisingly poor at hiding her disappointment when she received a gift of which she did not approve. Then again, tact and diplomacy were never words that sprang to mind when considering her character.

Angel had been more of a problem. He always seemed to end up buying the vampire books. Perhaps because he had been conditioned as a child to view books as an appropriate gift choice. He had finally bought him an early edition of Joyce's 'The Dubliners', partly in response to Angel's literary tastes, but also as a quiet in-joke on the whole epiphany thing.

He took another drink from the tumbler and set it down on the table beside the packages. Then stood up and went to the hall cupboard to fetch wrapping paper and sticky tape. He stood on tiptoe, reaching up to the high shelf, feeling blindly for the correct box. He lifted down a long white shoebox, and took off the lid. It wasn't the right one, but the contents of this box made him catch his breath.

Nestled within the dark tissue paper were a number of childhood treasures.  A small set of beautifully painted tin soldiers, a dog-eared copy of 'Biggles' which he had managed to keep hidden from his father, and one of his favourite toys, a Commando Action Man, dressed all in black, complete with a tiny perfect crossbow. He wasn't exactly sure when he had been given it, vaguely remembered being stunned to receive such a frivolous gift. Reaching into the box again, his hand closed over something prickly, and he gasped, withdrew it quickly. At the bottom of the box lay a tiny holly sprig, amazingly still shiny and green. He picked it up gingerly, and wondered where the hell it had come from.

He set the box on the floor beside him, and turned the twig over in his hand. One of the sharp points of the leaf pressed into his thumb, and he dropped it immediately, raising his thumb to his mouth automatically. He barely had time to acknowledge the taste of iron before he swayed, then crumpled to the floor very quietly.