The Case Of The Missing Santas. 2

Part 2: 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.

Part 3

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