Angel watched Cordelia’s brightly-coloured coffee cup drift back to the table, and swivel back and forth on its saucer. They were all huddled in a booth in the furthest corner of the food hall, sheltered behind a large potted plant, where it was less likely that early-morning shoppers would notice the strange sight of floating china, and little packets of flying sugar.
Jack sat on the long moulded plastic bench, between Angel and Wesley. He’d come with them quietly, and seemed more than shocked at the current situation. Angel could hear he had a heart murmur, and he definitely smelled human. Hardly the usual ‘big bad’, as Buffy used to call the villain du jour.
“Well?” Wesley motioned to Cordelia’s chair. “Would you care to explain this?”
“Missy, I’m so sorry,” Jack said, addressing Cordelia, but staring with unwavering attention at the serviette twisted between his bony fingers. “I didn’t mean for this to happen. Honestly, the last thing I wanted to do was hurt anyone.”
“Really,” Cordelia snorted. “What kind of nasty old man goes ‘round making Santas invisible?”
Jack’s blue eyes filled with tears. “That’s not what I was tryin’ to do.”
“What *were* you trying to do?” Angel asked, unable to help feeling sorry for the man. Sure, he’d made Cordelia invisible, but the vibe he was giving off shouted ‘victim’ more than anything else.
Jack raised his head to look Angel square in the eye. “I wanted to hide.”
“You wanted to make *yourself* invisible? Boy, did you ever mess up,” Cordelia said.
Angel held up a hand to silence her, and for once, it worked. “What were you trying to hide from?”
“No, you don’t understand,” Jack said, his eyes sparking. “I didn’t want to hide anyone, I wanted to hide the lie.”
Cordelia’s cup banged against her saucer loud enough to make Wesley jump. “Cryptic, much?” Her voice resonated frustration.
“I’m sorry, I’m not explaining this very well.” Jack cast his eyes around the table, and took a deep, shaky breath. “When I was younger, Christmas was different. The kiddies looked at Santa and they saw the magic. They believed, you know? All those shining eyes, the little smiling faces…”
“I think I’m going to barf,” Cordelia interrupted.
Jack shook his head. “Exactly my point. These days everyone is so — cynical. Even the kiddies seem jaded and old. They don’t see the miracle anymore. I just wanted to hide the fact that the Santa in our grotto wasn’t the real one.”
“You do know Santa *isn’t* real, right?” she said. Angel could imagine the look on her face. And if they didn’t get this fixed, he’d have to make it a regular exercise.
“Of course,” Jack sighed, “but the kids should have some time to believe. They grow up too fast these days.”
“So it was a concealment spell.” Wesley got a notepad and pen out of his jacket. “Do you remember what the ingredients were?”
Angel half-listened as Jack listed what he had boiled, dried, and ground up to sprinkle on the sugar-coated cookie. He wasn’t much with spells. Mainly he was concentrating on the noises around him. The chink of cutlery, the murmur of conversation, footfalls and rustling bags — the sounds of humanity. It didn’t bother him as much today as it had two days ago. Perhaps he was getting used to it, being around people.
Doyle flashed into his mind. *‘She’ll provide a connection to the world. She’s got a very — humanizing influence.’* Thank you, Cordelia, he thought, watching her bagel descend, partially chewed, onto her plate. Doyle had been right. Angel wondered if his friend would have been proud of him at the moment, drinking coffee at the mall, in the midst of the pre-Christmas rush. No, probably not. Doyle would have been too preoccupied with not being able to see Cordelia.
Angel smiled and took another mouthful of coffee.
“A-ha!” Wesley’s exclamation brought his full attention back to the conversation at the table. “You say you substituted skink’s eyes for newt?”
Jack nodded. “It’s impossible to get newt at this time of year. Everywhere I went was sold out.”
“A common amateur’s mistake — or so I’m told,” Wesley said. “Responsible for many a spell going wrong.”
“Can you fix it?” Cordelia asked. Jack and Wesley both looked in the direction of her voice.
“Maybe,” said Wesley.
“No, I’m sorry miss. I didn’t really know what I was doin’ to start with,” Jack said, at the same time.
Angel could sense Cordelia’s temper snapping, like the air around him shifted somehow. For a split-second he imagined an invisible Cordelia beating Jack to death with a half-eaten bagel. He’d had too much caffeine, obviously. He put his cup down, and pushed it away.
“Thank you, Jack. I think we can take it from here.” He rose and offered Jack a hand, helping the old man to his feet.
“Angel,” Cordelia said, and he could hear her teeth were gritted.
“Leave it, Cordelia,” he said. “Jack’s going to go home now, lay his uniform away, and never dabble in the dark arts again, right?”
“Certainly, sir. I’m so sorry. So sorry,” Jack shook his head towards Cordelia’s seat and performed the customary tip of his cap. Wesley stood aside, letting the old man out of the booth. They watched in silence as Jack shuffled away.
“Why didn’t you tell him what happened to the other two?” Wesley asked, putting his pad and pen away.
“What good will it do, other than give him a coronary?” Angel said, thinking of the heart murmur.
“Well, that would cheer me up,” Cordelia sighed.
“Really?” Angel raised his eyebrows.
There was a long silence. “No,” she finally said. “I guess he learned his lesson.”
“I almost feel sorry for him,” Wesley said. “What do we tell Miriam?”
“Nothing.” Angel shook his head. There was no point. The police wouldn’t believe a word of it anyway.
“Hey!” Cordelia’s voice was so close to his ear it startled him. “If we don’t tell her something, we can kiss our store credit goodbye. And, invisible or not, I want to shop. Of course, if I stay invisible, I might not need to pay for anything…”
“Cordelia, really,” Wesley said, looking shocked. “You’d steal?”
“Or I could walk up to the counter and scare the crap out of the assistant,” she snapped. “Either way, not getting much shoppy satisfaction otherwise.”
Here they go again, Angel thought. He rubbed his temples, willing the sudden yearning for a nice brood in the dark to disappear. Except disappear was probably an inappropriate word right now… “We’ll tell Miriam what happened, just not who. He’s learned his lesson. All he wanted to do was make things better. It backfired. It happens to all of us, now and then.”
Cordelia stretched out on Angel’s couch, nibbling on the sushi he’d bought her and Wesley for lunch. Miriam had taken the news well, all things considered. The main thing was that she’d promised to send vouchers. Hopefully they’d arrive in time for the post-Christmas sales. That blue bra better still be there…
“Eeeeww, God, Wesley, what the hell are you doing in there?” she said, wrinkling her nose as the stench from the kitchen began to invade the rest of the basement apartment.
“Working on your cure, I hope,” he called. There was a small ‘pop’ and a puff of smoke, followed by the clatter of Wesley slipping off his stool.
Angel rose from his chair, where he’d been resting, eyes drooping, looking like any moment he’d fall into a coma of vampiric proportions. Cordelia realized he’d probably been awake most of the last three days.
They hurried into the kitchen, where a sulphurous green cloud hung around the oven, tendrils creeping outwards like some ghostly form of ivy.
“Is that it?” Angel asked, blinking through the haze.
“I think so.” Wesley replied, as his head appeared over the top of the table again. “Cordelia, if you’d like to try this.” He poured the contents of the saucepan into glass beaker, and held it out in front of him. The mixture bubbled and frothed with a suspicious fervour.
“Sure, it smells a lot like my cooking, so no big deal,” she said, trying to convince herself it wouldn’t be as barf-worthy as the odour suggested. “What’s in it?”
“Uh, probably not a good idea to ask,” said Angel, who had accompanied Wesley into the little magic shop in Koreatown that they’d stopped at on the way home.
“Lizard guts. Got it.” She smiled. “I’m smiling at you, by the way.” God, it would be such a relief not to have to explain every facial quirk. Assuming it worked, if course. It was Wesley she was relying on here. Taking a deep breath, she wrapped her fingers around the beaker. “I’ve got it, Wesley, you can let go.”
Right, deep breaths, hold your nose, down it in one swallow, Cordelia thought. Don’t dwell on the contents. She grasped her nostrils, screwed up her eyelids, and gulped the foamy liquid. Little abrasive chunks of something caught on the back of her tongue, and the vapour burned her throat and nose. She got half of it down, and then gave up, banging the beaker down on the bench top.
Her stomach did a somersault, lurching and heaving. “Look out, sushi coming back for an encore,” she gasped, falling onto her hands and knees.
A cool hand rubbed her back. “Take deep breaths,” Angel said. “It’ll pass.”
Cordelia gagged and swallowed, trying in vain to keep the vile liquid down. Angel’s hand continued to glide up and down her back, and she was grateful he was there. It made her remember when she was a little girl, and their housekeeper would sit with her if she was sick. Once, after she’d come back from having her tonsils removed, her father had come into her room and read her the Wall Street Journal until she fell asleep.
But now they were both gone, taken away from her by the IRS, and she’d ended up here, on Angel’s kitchen floor, about to puke her guts out. Thinking about other stuff only worked if it kept your mind off the original stuff, she thought ruefully.
She felt Angel’s fingers hook under her hair, pulling it back in case she threw up. Thank-you, Angel. Nothing worse than having to wash puke out of your… “Hey, how did you know where my hair was?”
His hand stilled. “Same way I knew where your back was.”
Cordelia opened her eyes, and there were her fingers, splayed on the linoleum in front of her. Sure, they were kinda stained-glass-window in appearance, and she could still see the floor though them, but it was a major improvement. “Wesley, if I didn’t feel like I was about to go all ‘Exorcist’ here, I’d kiss you,” she gasped.
“Really? Have a peppermint.” He bent down, holding a box of tic tacs under her nose. She held up a semi-visible hand to accept one.
“Will it get better?” Angel asked, helping Cordelia into a sitting position.
Wesley nodded. “As she digests the antidote, she should get steadily more — vivid.”
Cordelia took a few deep breaths, and popped the mint into her mouth. She felt a little better now, barf-wise, but very, very tired. “Can I lay down for a while?”
“Sure,” Angel nodded. “I was going to have a nap myself. Then I’ll take you home.”
“Great.” She smiled, thinking how wonderful it was that he could actually see it — or at least through it. “Wake me up at sunset.” Hauling herself to her feet, she marched past Angel, through the living area, and flopped down on his bed.
“That’s fine, Cordelia. I’ll take the couch,” Angel’s voice was sarcastic, but faint, and getting fainter by the second. Within moments, sleep took her.
Cordelia sat in Angel’s car, outside her apartment building. Every ounce of strength had vanished from her body, but it was worth it. She looked down at her hands, now almost completely solid again. Thank God. Wesley had saved her, and she hadn’t even had a chance to thank him properly. By the time she’d woken from her nap, he’d gone home.
Angel came around and opened the passenger door. “Come on, I’ll help you inside.”
“I’m fine,” she said, trying to stand. Her knees quaked and buckled. “Okay, maybe a little with the damsel in distress.”
He pulled her to her feet, supporting her with an arm around her waist. “Are you sure you’ll be all right on your own?”
She shot him a suspicious glance, as he helped her along the pathway. “You been playing with that sensitivity stick again?”
“Playing with what? Oh — that. No.” He chuckled. “It’s just that someone recently told me that I should be more considerate of others, pay attention to their feelings, get involved more. I think maybe they had a point. I’m trying it out.”
“Oh,” she said, taken aback just a little. “Sounds like this person knew what they were talking about. Dennis!”
Her front door swung open, and they staggered towards the sofa, collapsing in a heap on the cushions. Angel sighed, and looked around the room. “Why aren’t there any decorations here? I though you were big with the tinsel.”
“But not big budget with the tinsel,” she replied, easing her shoes off. “Since I spend most of my time at the office, I put it up there instead. Figured I’d get to see more of it.”
“Oh.” He looked uncomfortable. “You should take tomorrow off.”
“Well, duh, it’s Christmas. If you want me to come in you’ll have to pay triple-time.” She shook her head in resignation.
“No, it’s fine. Stay here. Are you sure you’ll be all right?” he asked, getting to his feet.
“Yes, go home, you’re freaking me out now,” she said, smiling.
Angel backed towards the door. “Okay, but any problems, call me.”
“Go!” she cried, waving him away. “And, Angel…”
He smiled. “You too, Cordelia.”
Epilogue: Saturday, December 25, 1999
The display on the clock said ten am. Cordelia stretched and yawned. Had she really slept for thirteen hours? It felt like it. She was warm, rested, and… She jerked upright in bed, her hands flying up in front of her.
They were solid. Not translucent, not even slightly fuzzy. Solid, solid, solid. Oh thank God — the best Christmas present a girl could ever have.
The smell of brewing coffee snapped her out of her silent celebration. Bless you, Dennis. Real coffee, too, not that nasty instant stuff she normally had to make do with. She wondered where he’d gotten it. Maybe Dennis was a cat-burglar while she was off fighting the demons and other nasties of LA. Cordelia pulled the bedspread up to her chin, taking a deep, satisfying whiff.
Another smell caught her attention. Sage? Onions? Perhaps Dennis was making — stuffing? Oh, poor thing. She should probably break it to him that there was nothing to stuff. He was going to be so disappointed. Maybe she could spread it on toast or something — it would probably be tastier than plastic macaroni. To her relief, her stomach didn’t heave at the thought of either. Actually, she was kind of hungry.
Someone knocked on the front door. Before she could lay a hand on her robe, she heard Angel’s voice, low, almost whispering. “Come in, Wesley.”
What the hell was Angel doing in her apartment? It was Christmas morning. Wasn’t he supposed to be back at Brood Central, vamp-napping the day away?
“I must say, Angel, this had better be important, dragging me all the way over here on — goodness mmph.” Wesley sounded like he’d had a hand slapped over his mouth.
This was too weird. Cordelia tugged on her robe, jammed her feet in her slippers — hey, look, still visible — and marched into the living room. “Holy crap.”
The room was festooned with tinsel, and other Christmassy objects. A little tree sat on the coffee table, with tiny bud lights twinkling on and off. Angel stood in the center of the room — beside an equally startled Wesley — wearing the apron that she never used.
Cordelia blinked a couple of times, and pinched herself on the arm. “Angel, what are you doing? Are you possessed?”
“No.” He sounded wounded. “I’m roasting a chicken. The store was all out of turkeys.” There was a long pause. “Dennis is helping.” A bang on the wall indicated that, indeed, Dennis was a willing participant.
She sank down into a chair, taking in the room one more time. “I thought you didn’t like Christmas.”
“Maybe it’s not so bad.” He shrugged. A soft ‘ding’ came from the kitchen. “Oh, time to stuff.”
As soon as he was out of the room, Wesley came over to Cordelia. “I see you’re looking, er, more like — something, today.”
She glanced down at herself and smiled. “Thanks, Wesley. I mean it. You really came through for me yesterday.”
The sound of plates and cutlery rattling around made his self-satisfied grin vanish, and he nodded his head in the direction of the kitchen. “This is most unexpected. Are you sure he hasn’t turned evil?”
“I’m pretty sure Angelus didn’t cook. He liked his food raw.” She shuddered.
Wesley rubbed his hands together. “Well, I must say, if Angel can cook other things as well as he does eggs, I’m looking forward to this. Fancy a game of Scrabble while we wait?”
“You carry Scrabble around with you?” She tried not to laugh.
“Travel Scrabble,” he replied, as if that justified everything.
She rubbed her forehead with one finger, perplexed. So much for a lonely Christmas Day, sitting in front of the TV with a frozen meal and only a ghost for company. Instead, here she was with her two friends, a nice cooked lunch on the way, and she wasn’t invisible anymore. On the whole the day had turned out really well. Perhaps this wouldn’t end up as the worst Christmas on record, which, after everything that had happened over the last few weeks, was — unexpected. She felt the smile begin at her toes and spread all the way to her lips. “What the hell. Just let me wash up and get dressed, and you’re on.”
Cordelia pulled on her clothes, squeezed the last of the water from her hair, and taking a hairbrush in one hand, wandered into her bedroom. Showering always made her think profound thoughts. Maybe it was from the hot water on her head, she wasn’t sure. Today, for the first time in weeks, her shower thoughts hadn’t been all about Doyle, and finances, and her stuttering acting career. They’d been about the vampire stuffing a chicken in her kitchen, and the English guy setting up Scrabble on her coffee table. Okay, so maybe that didn’t qualify as profound in most people’s dictionary, but in the Cordelia Chase book of serious thoughts, it came pretty damn close.
She’d laid out her gifts to Angel and Wesley on her bed, prior to getting in the shower. She’d intended to give them out yesterday, but the whole see-through thing had kind of forced everything else from her brain. They weren’t very exciting, but in the small time she’d had after they finished Santa-ing, combined with her limited budget, it was all she could manage. With a sigh, she sat down beside them.
Hold on — there was something different. A third gift nestled beside them on the duvet, wrapped in silver paper and decorated with a glittery bow. A small rectangle of red card had the words ‘From Santa’ written in Angel’s handwriting. With a small squeal, she picked it up, squeezing it. Soft. Little tingles of excitement fluttered in her stomach, just like when she was a little girl.
Okay, patience was not one of her strong points. It needed to be opened, and now. She slid her fingernail under the flap at one end, popping the wrapping open and peering inside. A flash of blue satin made her gasp.
“Oh my God,” she breathed, tearing the paper off. How did he know? Her mind flashed back to him, watching while she wrestled with her conscience outside the Victoria’s Secret changing rooms. He’d noticed. Who’d have figured? Without warning, her eyes filled with tears.
For no apparent reason, she suddenly thought of Aura and Harmony, and what they would be doing this morning. In their expensive houses, with their stuck-up families, and their piles of presents. And at that moment, she wouldn’t have swapped where she was for the world.
The little piece of blue satin in her hands had more thought in it than any of the presents her friends were opening. She wiped a tear away with the heel of her hand, and began to laugh.
The squeak of a floorboard made her jump. “Angel, how many times do I have to have the ‘stalker’ talk with you?” She frowned, and he stepped into her room, looking embarrassed. She wagged a finger at him. “I swear I’m going to put a little bell on you.”
“I just wanted to see if you liked it,” he said, shuffling from one foot to another.
“Of *course* I do. It’s a bit — personal, I mean — hello, underwear — but I love it. Thank you,” she said.
He looked at his hands, and then out of the window, avoiding her eyes. “I didn’t know what to get you, and you seemed to really want that. I know underwear is usually for lovers…”
“Ew! Let’s just leave it at ‘thank you,’ shall we?” she said. “And thank you for today, too. This is all so great.”
He perched on the end of her bed, stiff and nervous. “Uh, are you all right?”
“Again with the big sensitive thing. Did you inhale the aerosol snow?” she asked. Twice in three days was just too weird.
He looked uncomfortable. “Well, after what you said in the men’s room the other day…”
“And isn’t that a strange sentence?” she interrupted. “Sorry, go on.”
“I was worried.” He looked her in the eye. “So — are you?”
She thought about it for a long, strange moment. About everything that had happened that week, and especially that morning, and there was only one clear answer. “You know what? I really am.”
His smile changed his whole face. “That’s — good.”
For a moment they sat in silence, not quite sure what to say next, and then Wesley’s voice floated through from the living room. “I’ve set out your letters, Cordelia!”
“Oh, right, Scrabble,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m doing this. And I can’t believe you’re cooking something besides eggs. Who knew you were a gourmet?”
“I’d save your judgement until after you’ve eaten,” he chuckled, rising and motioning towards the door. “Coming?”
“In a moment.” She nodded.
As soon as she was alone, she stripped off her top and threw the old, disintegrating bra in the hamper. Beaming now, she put the new one on. “Hello, silky goodness,” she giggled, pulling her sweater back over her head.
Then she gathered up Angel and Wesley’s gifts, and sighed a long, contented sigh. There was good food to eat, friends to share it with, mall vouchers on the way and new satin against her skin. It was a pretty good Christmas, after all.