Disclaimer: Characters and situations owned by Joss Whedon and company.
Thanks to: Kathy, for beta-reading.
Author's note: Originally written in December 2005, but posted somewhat belatedly.
Five Ways To Celebrate Christmas
Daniel Holtz has made his pact with Sahjan a century before Victoria and Albert would introduce German Christmas customs to England. Pinetrees and the songs that went with them would have been unknown to him even in the happier years of his life. But he is a faithful son of the Catholic church, and at first in Quortoth, he tries to keep track of the passage of time, the days, the weeks, the months. He tries to observe the most holy of days, Easter and Christmas.
In the end, he only manages it once before the struggle for survival becomes too all-encompassing not to lose track of time altogether. He has found a cave that, after all the flesh-eating winged demons that clung to its walls were burned out of it, makes for a passable shelter. There is enough time to carve wood into something like a crude cradle, when before he has carried the baby in slings. As he speaks the Pater Noster and the Ave Maria, it occurres to him that he, too, has been given a son by God.
The howling of the creatures around the cave makes for an ill replacement for heavenly choirs, but for the first time in a long while, he smiles, and bends over the cradle. The child, obviously unconcerned by the noises around them, gurgles and lifts its fists to tug at his beard.
"Merry Christmas, Stephen."
Apocalyptic signs on the left and the rampaging Beast on the right don't exactly contribute to the Christmas spirit, but Fred has remembered the time of year, even if no one else does, if only because her parents called and asked why she wouldn't come home for the holidays. Saving the world never sounded like such a lame excuse, even if it was true. She'd give anything to escape from Los Angeles right now. When she looks at Charles, she sees the death of Professor Seidel he has denied her, and the worst thing is, she doesn't know whether she's horrified because he did it or furious because he took the decision from her. When she looks at Wesley, she sees ill-concealed longing and a way out, or maybe a way in to that state he's been in ever since Justine slit his throat, and she doesn't know whether she's more repelled or attracted, either.
Anything but thinking of that, so Fred does her research and wonders why Cordelia and Connor haven't been back at the hotel since everyone came back from Wolfram and Hart, because that seems like a harmless thing to wonder in comparison, but when she asks Angel, he nearly bites her head off. Well, not literally. There are times where she really doesn't understand him. He risked everything to save Connor from the zombies, and Fred really believed they were doing better, and then he doesn't want to spend Christmas with his son? Doesn't seem right. Even if Fred herself still hasn't forgotten Connor lied to her for three months and will never ever trust him again. But he's not her son, he's Angel's, and Cordelia is Angel's best friend, and Angel not wanting her around either is just wrong.
Putting the research aside for the moment, Fred decides to wrap up some presents. Perfume for Cordy, because she remembers the one Cordelia used and knows that if she picked shoes or anything else, she's bound to choose wrong. For Connor, she just picks some jeans and a shirt because he doesn't really care what he wears but she knows quite well he needs something new. At the last moment, before she leaves the hotel, Angel calls her.
"Wait," he says, and presses something in her hands. It's a small package, and seeing the inscription, Fred gives him a grateful smile.
Cordelia looks tired and surprised when Fred shows up, and hugs her. There is something different about her, though Fred couldn't say what. Connor doesn't look surprised, he asks her directly what is wrong, and whether they found out anything new about the Beast, and for a moment, Fred feels a pang of sorrow because obviously he can't think of another reason why she would come. Then she remembers the sea again, but for some reason, her old rage still won't come back in full force.
"Christmas presents for you two," she says a bit flustered. "From all of us."
This earns her a doubtful look from Cordelia, and a confused one from Connor, but he opens the package from Angel. Fred doesn't ask whether he recognised the writing. The present turns out to be a beautiful dagger, and for a moment, there is a tiny smile. Then Connor asks Cordelia what exactly they're supposed to celebrate at Christmas.
"The nativity," Cordelia says, and while something in Fred registers that this is an unusual term for Cordy to use, she can't help but feel heartened by the way Cordelia suddenly looks luminous.
Lawrence and Colleen Riley missed their son during his first term at Stanford, but they didn't want to embarrass him by showing up all the time. Colleen is quite insistent on the subject.
"I went all the way to New England to be on my own and Mom still took every weekend flight, remember? It was horrible. We're not going to be like that, Larry," she says, and Lawrence agrees. So when Connor comes up for the holiday break, they haven't seen him for a while. His sister Mere looks somewhat disgusted at the fuss her parents are making, and teases him mercilessly about the fact he finally got around to a hair cut.
"Admit it, you wanted to look more manly for the college guys, you girl," she says and he grimaces at her and says he wishes he were an only child, which makes her giggle, so he tickles her and soon Mere screams with laughter.
Colleen watches them and feels content. She had been a bit nervous about whether college would change her boy, but so far, it hasn't. Connor had always been such a happy child. Why, she can't even recall a serious sickness in his entire childhood.
"Remember that woman that was here earlier," she says to Lawrence, "the one who collected for that orphanage?"
Her husband nods. It was a horrible story. California is full of cults, but the Jasmine cult last year had apparently left a lot of orphans behind as their parents committed mass suicide; at least, that was the most likely explanation the police had come up with when faced with their disappearance.
"We should have given her more," Colleen says. "We're so lucky with our children. Sometimes, I wonder what on earth we did to deserve such happiness."
There is always a melancholy about Angel at Christmas, Wesley has noticed. Given what Giles had deigned to share in those chronicles Wesley had read during his brief and unfortunate stint as Watcher in Sunnydale, it probably is related to memories of Buffy and that strange miracle which occurred back then. Spike's current stint as Marley newly made flesh can't help, either.
Of course, Wesley himself is anything but happy around Christmas as well. True, the very climate of Los Angeles ensures there is not much resemblance to anything in his childhood, but sooner or later, one of the thousand ghastly recordings played in every single shop will by accident happen to be a carol one of his parents happens to be fond of. In this regard, Wolfram and Hart is a true haven. At least the muzak played in its elevators is the non-holiday-related type.
Fred is in Texas for the holidays, and Gunn is using his new legal splendour to fulfil some childhood dream by travelling to Aspen, but Wesley, who has no intention of leaving the asylum of his office until December 27th, isn't surprised to find Angel there as well, sitting in chief executive lounge and staring through the necroglass.
"I don't think it will snow this year," Wesley says softly, and full of sympathy.
Angel stirs, then looks at him, dark eyes impenetrable. "Probably not. Want to get drunk, Wes?"
"Absolutely," Wesley says gratefully. It's only then he notices Angel has been drawing again, a face, but before he can take a closer look at the sketch, Angel stands up, tears the sheet away and puts the crumbled paper in his pocket. Then he saunters to the bar to get them glasses.
Wesley assumes it was a drawing of Buffy, or of Cordelia. At least there was something vaguely familiar in the very brief glimpse he caught. And who else could it be?
"God bless us," Angel says, pouring in Scotch for the both of them, voice almost as bitter as the drink, "each and every one."
Humans have this habit of looking up their relations at Christmas, at least once a year, but Lorne isn't that desperate. But Las Vegas isn't a good idea, either – there might be pals of Mr. Destiny Exploitation who remember him – and besides, Angel might find him there, if he cares to. Lorne has asked him not to look, but he doesn't trust in his champion's word anymore. Or maybe he doesn't want to know whether Angel cares enough to break it. All of which is assuming Angel survived the Charge of the Grey Brigade. Another thing Lorne doesn't truly want to know.
So he finds himself sitting in Rome, of all places, playing the piano and singing for a number of expatriates who tell themselves that a singer in his outfit is an example of "the true Fellini touch". And then, suddenly, he hears a voice.
"I've got a request. The Way We Were."
Lorne remains silent for a while. Then he sighs.
"So you did listen to my Barbra Streisand collection that year," he says, and turns around.
The kid looks unchanged, mostly, from when Lorne saw him last, in the Wolfram and Hart training room where Spike had been getting pummelled by Illyria. Fun times. Back when they were all protected by the glorious mindwipe their Fearless Leader had sold himself to the Senior Partners for.
"Sometimes," Connor says, and Lorne realizes that his diagnosis was off. The kid has changed. The old sadness is back, but tempered.
"And what brings you to the Eternal City, compadre?" Lorne asks, half hoping, half fearing the reply.
"I'm looking for…" the boy begins, and suddenly Lorne can't bear to hear it.
"I don't know where he is," he interrupts. "Let's keep it that way, be a good kid for a change, hm?"
The kid just looks at him, and suddenly, it occurs to Lorne that without the glare, it's not really his father whom he resembles as much as his mother. He has her eyes. Which isn't that reassuring a thought.
"I know you don't know," Connor says. "I was gonna say I'm looking for friends and family, okay?"
Suddenly, he smiles, which he used to only during the early Jasmine days, and for that brief visit in the belly of the beast earlier this year. It's something not connected to either of his parents, and for some reason, it causes Lorne to feel a lump in his throat. Then the boy continues:
"And I guess I found some."
Some part in Lorne thinks he should just stand up and leave. He doesn't want to get close to anyone and anything connected to Angel again, and certainly not to this particular child. But the other part which has been lonelier than even among the music-hating folks home in Pylea these last few months blinks a few times. Then he starts playing the piano again.
"I'll have you know, kid," he says over the first few notes, "that I wish Barbra had never recorded that song. But a request is a request. Merry Christmas."
"Come on, you know you think it's awesome," Connor says and pulls up a chair as Lorne begins with The Way We Were.