Winter

Last year, he had gone. Done the dutiful thing and gone. Hadn't really had a choice, no excuses he could have conceivably made which would have been accepted. Gone, the gift of airfare a humbling experience in itself.

The actual being there had been worse than humbling. If there had been outright condemnation, it would have been better. That, he could have borne with some measure of grace. It was the things unspoken, or spoken around, that made it so hard.

Hard enough this the alternative seemed endurable by comparison. At first, of course, he'd thought staying in Los Angeles for the holidays would be fine. His friends would be around, there would no doubt be no halt in the fight against Evil, and he might even barely notice missing being home -- however awful it could be -- for the holidays.

As the holiday drew closer, he found himself re-thinking that. Plans were actually discussed. Cordelia, placing garland along the front of the hotel desk, had mentioned going home. Her home. To parents who, while no longer the social elite of Sunnydale, nevertheless had a place for their daughter in their lives.

Gunn, on the other hand, was already home -- turning his warehouse into a surreal wonderland with decorations obtained from no-one-asked-where. Kids who didn't necessarily live there were starting to show up, staying for the week or so when the place became a Home rather than just a place to sleep in safety. It was a bit bizarre, watching the tough gang leader smiling and kidding around about who got to play Santa for the littler ones.

Wesley envied them, strangely enough. Street children, just surviving, without family except the one they had built together... and he envied them. They had someone who was willing to build a world of warmth and magic for them, even if it couldn't last longer than a few days.

He'd been tempted to invite himself over, but there had been no easy chance to do so. The longer he waited, the more self-conscious he became about asking. Finally he realized that perhaps it was just as well -- he didn't exactly fit in with Gunn's rag-tag horde of children. The off-hand invitation they had finally received had only been for the Christmas party, the night before Christmas Eve.

Wesley had watched as Angel had tried to beg off accepting -- the amused smile on Gunn's face told Wesley that the man had invited him primarily for the amusement of watching such. Gunn had spared Wesley that much. With a quirk of that same smile, a wave of his hand and a shake of his head, he freed them all from the need to make excuses.

Even if one of them might have secretly preferred to have those excuses swept away, to be dragged forcibly into someone else's good cheer. But Gunn had left the invitation unspoken, ungiven, and now Wesley was faced with trying to celebrate alone -- or with Angel. Convincing the vampire to do anything which smacked of good cheer was daunting in itself. Doing it around Christmastime was akin to telling a five year old he had a dentist's appointment -- without, perhaps, the yelling and kicking.

That didn't mean he didn't have to try it. Faced with the prospect of embarrassing the hell out of himself by asking, or simply being alone for the entire holiday season -- he opted for asking. Shortly after Gunn's aborted party invite, Wesley tried to broach the subject.

"I was wondering..." he asked as Angel gazed at Cordelia's tree, probably as mystified as Wesley about how she had convinced the dark-haired angel on the top to don a black duster over its traditional white robes. Something that, in Wesley's opinion, fell under the heading of "Things Man Was Not Meant To Know."

Angel looked over. "Yes?"

Wesley found himself, as usual, losing his nerve to actually say what he meant. "With Cordelia out of town, the business is...rather closed, more or less, as you said. For the holidays."

Angel nodded. "Could always prowl the streets looking for random evil, but the last minute shoppers might get in the way. You're welcome to head home if you want."

"Yes, thank you..." he answered reflexively, then ducked his head. "But I was actually inquiring... that is to say..."

Angel waited, patiently.

Wesley sighed, and forced it out. "Did you have any plans, yourself?" All right, sort of forced it out. It was the prelude to an invitation, at the least.

"For Christmas?" Angel asked with a half-smile. "I don't really celebrate."

"No," said Wesley, and he meant 'not for Christmas...' but Angel must have taken it as agreement, because he nodded, and turned back to the tree. Wesley opened his mouth to explain, to offer the invitation, but was distracted for the moment by the sight of Angel looking at the tree. Cordelia had been careful to keep the decorations safely non-religious, unoffensive to a vampire, and in so doing had created a nice, traditional solstice tree.

But Wesley didn't care about the tree. He cared about the man--vampire who was looking at it with an expression on his face that made Wesley want to walk over and touch his arm, say something just exactly right so Angel would....

"No, he said again, and swallowed his awkwardness, just for a moment. It tasted better going down than it would coming up, most likely. "I don't celebrate either. Christmas, that is."

Angel looked at him again. "No? Too commercial?"

Wesley met his gaze head-on, and was mildly amazed by this fact. "Too Christian."

Angel blinked in surprise. "You're...not?"

Wesley shook his head. "A common misconception, due my training, I think. When one speaks Latin and is familiar with Catholic rites of exorcism, people tend to assume things." The words rolled off easily, safer ones than those he was trying to get around to.

"Especially when those rites of exorcism actually work," Angel said, looking a bit confused. "So... you manage to fight the forces of evil without believing in...?"

"Christianity," Wesley said, trying to cut himself off from engaging in the philosophical debate over the existence of good and evil without believing in a certain type of Supreme Being.

Angel plucked at the back of his collar, bending his head forward. "Of course. Sorry... none of my business, really. So you wanted to take off?"

"No, I-- I meant, yes, I would like the time off. But--" He wanted to kick himself. It wasn't supposed to be this difficult. Inviting Angel to his apartment to partake in a celebration, just the two of them...alone....

Suddenly Wesley wondered if maybe he shouldn't be trying to invite him, at all.

"But?"

"But what I meant was, if you didn't have anything to do," he found himself speaking in a rush. "You'd be welcome to..that is.. if you wanted to come over...." And why did he feel like a seventeen year old, suddenly?

As he waited for Angel to answer, Wesley felt that old awkwardness making its way back up his throat, apparently missing its familiar home in his mouth. Angel's expression didn't change much -- the hint of something that spoke of understanding and the other, vaguer hint of something else Wesley had never deciphered -- then he shook his head. "I appreciate that, Wesley, but it isn't necessary." The polite, distant tones he used with strangers, clients, and employees who overstepped social bounds.

Who presumed, for a moment, that they might be able to bridge that gap between fellow-fighter-of-evil, and friend. And that was enough of an effort, surely. There was only so far one could go, before one offended. Wesley looked down at the floor. "No, of course not."

Was there an easy exit? Could the floor open up and swallow him, or was it too much to hope that there would only ever be one Hellmouth in the world?

He could only hope he didn't succumb to the impulse to ask again, to reiterate his invitation and explain...beg, didn't he mean to say? Since the alternative was being alone, and he really did want to be with Angel. Or was that even more of the pathetic? If Angel wanted to spend any off-hours time with him, he would have said yes already.

"Well," he added, filling the silence with sound that seemed too loud when he heard it swirl around his ears in the almost empty lobby, "I'd best be getting home, if I'm to miss those last-minute shoppers."

Angel nodded. "Not a bad idea. Good night, Wes."

Wesley turned to go. He wouldn't look back at Angel. If he did... He might open his mouth again. As he walked out the front door, however, he heard Angel's voice echo out behind him. "Drive carefully..."

He almost stopped.


Stopping for groceries and other supplies, then putting everything away and cleaning the kitchen kept him occupied for nearly two hours. He didn't think about why he was keeping himself occupied -- he'd spent all day yesterday reading, studying one of the books he'd managed to acquire a month ago -- traded for favours, since he couldn't afford to stock a Watcher's library.

Yesterday had passed quickly enough, and this morning he'd started reading again, lasting only until lunchtime before restlessness drove him out of his flat. The late-season Christmas shoppers were indeed both a traffic hazard and a social headache, but at least his own shopping list was relatively small. Most of what he needed he already had, and the few additions were easily obtained at places not frequented by the mad Christmas shoppers.

It was still a somewhat disturbing feeling to be able to walk home in shirtsleeves in this season. If he were back in England, he'd be bundled up against the weather, but here in Los Angeles, there was no snow, no soft covering of white to blanket the pine trees. No pine trees -- one purchased them from a commercial lot, in fact.

One purchased the fake snow-like covering, as well. It was almost enough to make him want to pray for snow. He knew better than to tempt fate, however -- he might want snow, but it was a sure bet most of the other residents of Los Angeles did not. The city certainly wasn't up to handling even a short flurry, and what good would that do him, except remind him further of what he didn't have? No snow, no warm living room from which to watch it fall. No huge tree, no crackling fire, no mother happily bustling about making sure everyone was overfed to the point of immobility.

Just Wesley, alone in his flat, and running out of meaningless things to do to occupy his thoughts. With the evening not quite upon him, and nothing to do unless he were to turn on the television to watch one of the endless Christmas specials that filled every station, there was a definite danger that his mind might turn to what he didn't have here tonight. Though, of course, it already had.

Busy. Remain busy. If he found something else to prepare, to arrange... but there was nothing. Everything was in place. Perhaps, then, he would simply begin early. He'd intended only a simple observation of the day, nothing fancy for there was only he, here. He didn't need fancy. But perhaps a more elaborate ritual would at least take more time.

So of course he didn't have anything to create a more elaborate ritual. Wesley sighed, and sat down in the living room, staring at the spot where there should have been a fire. At least had he had company, he could have spent the time...in company.

What might it be like to be social with Angel? To share something beyond racing down corridors or across carparks, chasing or fleeing the too dangerous to destroy. Or, of course, passing each other books. Research and coffee, food after a long night. That Angel would cook for them... There was something of friendship in it, but only at Angel's discretion. Something he chose to give to Wesley, Gunn, and Cordelia, with no willingness to accept anything in return.

He knew, in his more clear-headed moments, that it was more about Angel, than about those he wasn't spending time with. Nothing so inherently unpleasant about himself, Cordelia, or Gunn that made Angel prefer solitude to their company. But at times like these, when he was sitting in his flat alone, thinking about how few people there were in the world who did want to spend their free time with Wesley Wyndham-Price -- he wondered if he really had any hope at all.

As he sat here in a room not nearly cold enough to make one think of fall, much less the dead of the year, he wondered if Angel were thinking how relieved he was to have escaped what would have been a pitiful and painful social engagement. The thought of another day, another two days in his own company was enough to make Wesley shudder.

Perhaps he should invite himself after all into someone else's holiday cheer, even if it was also someone else's holiday? He might feel out of place in Gunn's warehouse, but the man wouldn't turn him away. And among the crowd of lost souls that Gunn had managed to acquire, would one more be noticed?

It would at least give him something to do for a few hours. Unfortunately, the party wasn't until Saturday, leaving him with the entire rest of the week with nothing to do except brood. Perhaps he should go find an open bookstore which didn't mind browsers who stayed all day.

He glanced over at the clock, and decided it was late enough to at least begin. Perhaps the calming familiarity of the rituals would help take his mind off everything else. As he moved to turn out the lights, Wesley spared a final thought for what this might have been. Would Angel have been interested in the meaning of the rites? The words, the symbols, and what lay behind them?

Two and a half centuries ago, Angel had grown up in a Christian household, but his ancestors had very possibly performed these same rituals, with much the same words. It would have been something, possibly, that he could give, if Angel would have accepted. Something shared.

And even if Angel had thought them meaningless, or had had no real interest in the stories behind the rituals, he would have been here to talk to. But he suspected Angel would at least have listened with some interest, if only...if only....

In a far distant world, where fantasy lived, then 'if only' would be because Angel wanted to know because Wesley deemed it important enough to share. There would be no look of politeness on his face; the expression would be of appreciation and enthusiasm, and perhaps even -- this was fantasy, after all, Angel would join in the ritual which would cause him no harm or discomfort, as none of it was Christian.

Angel had touched countless objects in Wesley's presence that were considered holy symbols to some religion or other. It made a warped sort of sense that only the images and relics of the religion Angel's human self had been taught to respect could harm the vampire's body.

Would the demon within Angel have rebelled at the thought of participating in anyone's religion? Perhaps, but it was the man who controlled the demon; Wesley had seen that on too many occasions to count. It was the man whose company he was, let's face it, missing tonight.

And even if the rituals did cause Angel discomfort, Wesley could easily leave them aside for a time, spend the evening simply relaxing and talking, and observe his rituals after Angel had gone. In that fantasy world where he was not, as he was now, setting candles and incense around an otherwise empty, lifeless flat. Where he was the only one who smelled the thick, rich scent of cinnamon and frankincense filling the room, where only one place was set at the table for the winter's night feast.

Not completely lifeless, this ritual. Plants abounded, at least, although they were less than likely to talk back to him. There was holly scattered about, the yule log absent, of course -- no fireplace. And mistletoe, sacred as the rest for all its popular meaning. Cordelia had hung some in the hotel and cheerfully kissed Gunn when he'd unknowingly passed under it.

Wesley would never have dared use it that way, of course. Not that he thought it improper, just that it demanded a boldness he did not quite have. He sternly told himself to stop dallying, stop musing on things that were not to be, and get on with things. But at each step in the preparations, he found himself pausing. Wishing, in half-formed thoughts, before dragging his focus back where it belonged.

"Enlightenment in darkness, hail the god and goddess who bring clarity and open the deep of winter."

He felt the swirl of energy within him with the beginning of the ritual. Perhaps it was just as well Angel hadn't attended, Wesley realized belatedly. It might have been awkward to stand here, naked, in front of his employer.

The beginning of winter, the time of reflection. Perhaps Wesley had been getting too much of a head start on the season, with his recent dwelling on his own situation. Then again, it was the status of the inner man, the soul, that was being reflected upon, not the body. The soul...was that alone as well? And had his reflecting done him any good?

"The fourth station of the year signifies enlightenment, when the light is reborn within the womb of darkness," he continued his chanting quietly, words flowing unbidden, the ritual so well memorized that he could have thought of nothing but his dreams, and finished the ceremony complete.

He wished the darkness would end. The promise of winter, that spring would come -- his own personal winter seemed to have held him fast. He wished... what did he wish, for the season, for himself? Renewal. Not, perhaps, a new life, but a renewal of the indefinable magic that had once graced his old one.

Once, he had seen opportunities and grasped at them. Once, there was more than a duty, a purpose, in fighting the darkness. There had been a joy in recognizing the light. The light was still there, but it had somehow become something separate to protect, and he had forgotten how to reach out and share in it himself.

Now he was simply going through the motions, as if waiting. Waiting for the winter to end. He closed his eyes and whispered his request. Let the winter end.

He sat in silence for some time; when he opened his eyes the incense was burned halfway down, the candles flickering from accumulated wax. Where there had been a sense of longing inside him, there was now only nothing. Silence.

Winter.

He bowed his head. Perhaps, then, it was not meant to be just yet. A few words, to bid good night to the powers that watched and witnessed, and then he was done. Wesley sat in silence for some time; when he finally stirred the candles were flickering, and the incense almost gone. The flat was quiet and still once more...and the evening was still too early. Hours yet before he would have the excuse of bed to distract him.

If he had only gotten something from the ritual, something he could dwell on and think over...something nicely vague and revealing he could contemplate all night. He caught sight of the phone -- it would not be too early to call his parents' and wish them a happy holiday.

So why did his fingers shake just a little as he dialed for the overseas operator?

Probably because the confused kindness in his mother's voice as she greeted him, the questions she wasn't asking, about why he wasn't there, weren't the sort of things he wanted to contemplate. He did manage to speak with her pleasantly -- politely, both of them pretending it was pleasant -- for a few minutes. Then, without warning, she said, "Oh, here's your father."

Wesley's throat tightened as he stopped himself from telling her not to pass the phone to him. Then it was too late. "Wesley," came the stentorian voice, and he could feel himself shrinking three clothing sizes and the room getting taller around him.

"Yes..." he answered, fighting the grip on his vocal cords, choking out what he hoped was a calm and reasoned answer to the simple question of... Are you indeed Wesley.

"So," his father continued, stern tones making Wesley wonder what he had done wrong lately for his father to be lecturing him. Or worse. "I suppose your work," and there were very clear quotes around the word, "Has kept you from joining us?"

And how could there be so much said, in so few words? And though the reply was a lie, if taken in the most literal terms, perhaps it wasn't, at that. His work, what he did now...No. The work he wasn't doing for the Council, yes. Would it always lie between them? "I apologize, father," he said in a smooth voice, long years of practice keeping the tremble unheard. "I wish I could have been there." A blatant lie, not one his father could call him on. Not and maintain the facade that was so important to them. His stomach was beginning to clench, though, and he was glad he hadn't eaten more at supper than he had. Bloody hell -- one phone call and he was ready to lose it all.

"And I wish..." his father's voice was so close in his ear that the man might have been standing next to him. Over him. What did he wish? To have a son who wasn't quite so much of a disappointment? To never have had a son at all? "Perhaps next year, then," his father concluded, and how could Wesley hear the falsity in those words? His father was as relieved as he, that he had not come. Hoped as much as he that Wesley would never, again.

Wesley closed his eyes, and prayed for the strength to end the conversation quickly and without revealing how much that hurt. "Perhaps, yes..." he agreed, but it was the unspoken sentiment that he was confirming. Upholding, even. "May it... May it find you well, Father," he finished, a familiar phrase. Something simple. Nothing he didn't mean, and it signaled goodbye in their family, without having to actually speak that word.

His father returned the phrase easily, hanging up before either could say another word. Wesley set the receiver down and asked himself what had possessed him to place the call. Granted, had he not, his mother would have rung him. This way at least he knew it was over.

He glanced out a window, catching sight of the flash of light as a neighbor across the alleyway arrived home. Wesley strode forward and pulled his curtains closed, then turned, the flat seeming all the more empty. Anything should be better than this, he thought. But there wasn't anything. Nothing, unless, perhaps a walk. He would be doing no more than he was now, but at least he would be moving about as if he had something to be doing. He looked down at himself.

Perhaps some clothing, first.

He looked at the clothes he had left lying on the end of the sofa. Dress shirt. Tie. Jacket. Carefully-pressed slacks. All the trappings of Wesley, rogue researcher. Perhaps not tonight, after all. Perhaps instead he would go for a ride.

Into the closet, and a half-smile at that, for the leathers. Why not. It was winter, it was dark, and if he could get off the main roads, there would be no shoppers to avoid. Just the thing to take his mind off how utterly depressing his solstice night was being. He smiled to himself -- and perhaps he could top it off with a wreck, and total his bike and break a leg?

He shook his head. Just his luck he'd tempted fate right there. He dressed quickly, regardless, and went around the flat blowing out candles and extinguishing the incense with silent whispered thanks to whomever was still listening, that they had given him this much.


On the highway, with almost everyone driving home from shopping, the outbound lanes were fairly clear. There was something here, something in riding the bike that he could just sink into. The power of the beast, of course, and the knowledge that only his own skill kept it from throwing him off. Not so different from riding an barely tamed horse, except faster and louder.

The growl of the engine, even over the muffling of the well-padded helmet, was soothing in a strange way. Wesley could watch the road winding ahead of him, occasionally glance up at the stars. Faded, here, against the city lights. Not the pinprick dots of brilliance you could see on a cold night in the English countryside, standing wrapped against the wind, staring up.

But something familiar, all the same. Something that almost spoke of winter, spoke of night and the power that came with being close to the earth, close to the seasons. Much as he missed the rituals done on the family's estate, full circle gathered around, he was startled to find he had some measure of...acceptance, at this.

Not quite peace, of course. But he was beginning to feel that if this was his life, his fate to be alone and doomed and desperate, he could at least bear it. Perhaps that was the message he'd been sent. Answer to his prayers, that he had the strength to endure this.

He felt a shaking near his heart, as if the energy he'd channeled was finally bleeding out of him -- then realized it was the pager he'd automatically slipped into his inner pocket. Pulling off to the shoulder, he pulled the pager out and squinted to read the number in the light that came from a billboard overhead. '333333'

The Bat-Signal. Angel's little joke, since if you turned the pager upside-down, it spelled "EEEEEEE" which was fairly close to the sound Cordelia had made when he and Wesley had chased one of the flying mammals out of the hotel attic and down the main stairs, directly into her path.

Angel had these odd little moments of humor, which he seemed to try to shrug away if you called him on them, as if he wasn't even allowed to enjoy a tiny bit of levity in his unlife. Wesley smiled briefly, remembering the first time Angel had made his joke. Wesley had started to laugh, delighted at seeing it happen, before Angel had shrugged and Wesley had felt only nervous. His smile began to fade before he realized what this page meant.

He and Angel had evil to fight. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed the number at the hotel.

"Angel Investigations... We help the hopeless..." Angel's voice came over the line, still sounding a bit embarrassed to be spouting Cordelia's alliterative catchphrase.

"It's Wesley. Is there a problem?"

"Oh. Yeah..."

He waited patiently, trying not to allow himself to grow excited. There was trouble afoot, else Angel would not have paged him. Nothing to be happy about. Even if it meant getting to do something. With Angel. He reminded himself he might well get stuck at the hotel doing research while Angel went out to do the actual saving of the world, or whatever was in trouble this time.

Depression stabbed at him once more, and he fought it off. There was work to be done. Even research was better than what he'd had planned for the weekend.

"I think there's something happening. Here. At the hotel," Angel said into his ear. "Lights keep flickering on and off, and there's nothing wrong with the power. Music playing... I don't know if we're talking poltergeist, or what."

"When did it start?" Angel didn't sound exactly upset by his apparent visitor -- with good reason. Given what they usually faced, a poltergeist was akin to having rats in the basement.

"This afternoon. At first I wasn't sure if anything was really happening. When a book flew across the room, I figured it was time to call you."

"Yes, I suppose we'd best look into it, if only to make sure it doesn't disturb Cordelia's..er...unique filing system. I'll be there shortly."

"Good. Thanks...um, sorry to interrupt your night off and all."

Angel rang off before Wesley had the chance to explain that he'd interrupted precisely nothing. Perhaps that was best, he thought as he kickstarted the bike again and pulled back into the sparse traffic, trying to remember where the next exit lay.

He managed to get turned around fairly quickly, and sped a bit on his way to the hotel. Perhaps it wasn't necessary -- certainly speeding tickets weren't an acceptable work expense. But he couldn't quite fight off the feeling of excitement. It was wrong, he told himself. He should be concerned. Worried.

Anything except grinning like a moron as he rode through the streets of Los Angeles. There was evil to fight. Well, perhaps just a disgruntled spirit who needed a stern talking to, but either option meant that his expertise was required.

When he pulled the bike to a stop in front of the Hyperion, he noticed that the lights were indeed flickering. Through the glass doors, he could vaguely make out a dim glow that disappeared at irregular intervals. He could detect no sensation of an otherworldly presence -- nothing like the dark foreboding when they had first come to this place and found the evil which had infested it. Still, there was no reason to think that he would feel the presence of a mere poltergeist from outside on the sidewalk.

Perhaps that meant it was a simple ghost with little power to do more than annoy. Wesley headed to the front doors, worried when the thought didn't please him. Exorcising a poltergeist of little power would take half an hour, tops. Then he'd have to make his excuses and go home, again. Or wherever. Perhaps he could try to do this ritual slowly, as well.

Pushing the door open carefully, he looked around the lobby. There was no sign of Angel. Cordelia's Christmas tree was a tall dark presence in the room, but it wasn't the tall, dark presence he was looking for. The light seemed to be coming from the lift shaft, and Wesley walked over to investigate.

The strange glow was coming from the basement, and if Angel was dealing with whatever it was, that was where he'd be as well. As he headed for the basement stairs, Wesley heard a loud Gaelic curse. Angel. And confirmation that the poltergeist was, indeed, downstairs. Wesley hurried on, knowing he'd need to gather as much information as he could before he'd know what sort of supplies and incantation he'd need.

He stopped halfway down the stairs, though, when he saw what the ghost had done. Clothing was strewn everywhere. In the middle of the room was Angel, trying futilely to reclaim the laundry that was being tossed in every direction. Wesley smiled, then laughed.

"Oh sure," Angel said a bit crossly. "It's not your underwear it's throwing around." He reached up, and then, amazingly, jumped up to snatch at a pair of black boxer shorts, but they flew past him with an almost audible zing, landing atop a tool shelf.

"Sorry," Wesley apologized, not trying too hard to control his smile. He continued down into the basement, ducking clothing and boxes of softener.

"No, I'm..." And Angel looked a bit sheepish, but whatever he was going to say was cut off by that same pair of boxer shorts flying off the shelf and landing on his head. He snatched at them, and this time did manage to keep hold of them briefly before the errant spirit got away with them again. When his face was visible once again, that sheepishness was giving way to a reluctant smile. "It's been like this since I called," Angel said, shoving a handful of other captured laundry into the washing machine and slamming the lid shut on them with a satisfying clang.

Wesley bit back a comment he only just in time realized was not something he wanted to say aloud. Nor did he want to be thinking the thought that accompanied it. But the sheepish almost-smile was adorable. Wesley wished he could have been in a position to elicit the expression more often. Or ever.

Instead of voicing any number of embarrassing things, Wesley studied the room. "It's only been acting up lately? Have you ever noticed anything to suggest a poltergeist, before now?"

"No, not really," Angel replied, grabbing at the washing machine lid, which was being pried up from underneath his hand. Too late, for whatever clothing had been safely stored away in there flew away like four-and-twenty-blackbirds from a cut-open pie. "I...am sincerely wasting my time on this one, aren't I?" he added, letting go of the lid and letting it flip back open.

"It would appear so, yes," agreed Wesley.

"I was going to say," Angel continued, shrugging gracefully, "I thought it might be the holiday season that has it so... riled up."

"Hmm." Wesley frowned. "It's possible. Or it could have been sent to you, as harassment - not that Wolfram and Hart would resort to such...ineffective means of distracting you."

Angel gave him a flat look. "I've been down here all evening. I'd say it was effective."

Again Wesley tried to fight off the smile. "Yes, well, perhaps we should simply get rid of it, and later we can try to determine why it is here."

Angel looked vastly relieved, nodding as he asked, "What do you need me to do?"

They got down to business, and if business was more of a pleasure to Wesley tonight than it should have been, he tried to hide it. If handing Angel the volume containing the Mesopotamian Ritual of Lesser Spirit Removal meant that their fingers touched, so be it. Accidental, casual touches weren't to be avoided when doing business. Or obviously encouraged....

It did not take them long to perform the spell to rid the hotel of its guest. Disappointed at how quickly the work was through, Wesley kept the emotions from his face as they put everything away. The poltergeist had done its job well; Wesley suspected Angel would be finding socks for weeks.

The conversation became stilted and uncomfortable, as it always did when he found himself alone with Angel. Soon he would have to make his excuses and leave -- ignoring the fact that he wanted to stay, no matter how unable he was to find something they could talk about, something they could do which would give him a reason to remain.

He reminded himself that Angel's discomfort -- obvious, though the vampire tried to hide it -- was reason enough not to tarry. He'd called Wesley in to help him get rid of a pest. There was certainly no need in becoming one, himself. Even if all he wanted was someone to spend the holiday with.

He made his goodbyes as best he could. Tried not to think of the flat at home, if it could be called home. Tidy. Well-ordered. Empty. With one last glance at the tree, now bathed in the electric lights of the lobby, and Angel beyond it, Wesley turned to leave. Thinking that, perhaps, like the dark angel atop the tree, he was meant to stand alone, after all.

What made him turn back to look? Just the desire to memorize the lines of Angel's shoulders, the cut of his hair, to imprint it on his brain so he could carry it home with him? To have some company to ease his solitude, even if imaginary?

For a moment he saw Angel, standing quietly near the front desk. His head was down, and Wesley felt safe to look his fill for a second. Not long enough that Angel, who could hear that he had not left, would look up to inquire why he was still standing there.

He couldn't quite make himself move -- the door beckoning behind him, and he just wanted to scream, beg to be allowed to stay where he could, at least, sometimes be wanted.

Then he blinked. Angel was speaking to someone. He took a step closer and listened.

"Yeah, I know you have a party to get to, Bernie. I... no. We're even." Angel's voice was placating, as if whoever he was talking to were impatient with him. Angel was nowhere near the complex phone that Cordelia had insisted they needed in order to be the high-tech office of the future. Therefore it was unlikely Angel was using the speakerphone -- even if Wesley thought he knew how to use it in the first place. So who could he possibly be talking to?

No one, Wesley realized as he took a very quiet step back towards the pool of light in which Angel stood. He was talking to empty air.

"Thanks," Angel said quietly to the nothing that surrounded him, and around them, the lobby lights flickered once, and then brightened again. Unsure of what he was seeing, Wesley made to back away, sneak out the door before Angel could turn his head in the wrong direction.

Then he scuffed. How his boots managed to scuff on the carpeted runner he would never know. Whether he had done it on purpose, whether someone had just been looking down and laughing at him... But he scuffed, and Angel looked up.

Angel's expression turned to one of guilt. As if he'd been caught... but doing what? Wesley narrowed his eyes. Suspicious, though he had no idea what for. Angel had done something and he was looking at Wesley like he couldn't possibly think of yelling at him when he so clearly deserved it.

"You rigged that," he accused, not sure where the realisation had come from. Or why. Why he would do such a thing, such a pointless and...and....

"Wes, I..." Angel started, and stopped, looking guiltier than ever.

"Why? What possible reason could you have to call me here for...for nothing?" Wesley asked, his mind shutting down around him. For what? For an evening of research and ghost-chasing and the sorts of things they did together every day.

"I'm sorry."

"You're sorry?" Why? Why was he sorry? Why had he done it in the first place? "I don't understand."

"I just," Angel began, then looked away, shuffling slightly as if he wanted to bolt and knew he couldn't. Shouldn't. Wesley found himself growing angrier. "Just couldn't think of anything else."

That stopped him. "What?" he asked, when there was no further explanation forthcoming. "If you were bored, there are plenty of movies on cable," he snapped, still angry but growing confused.

Angel didn't say anything, but he could see his words had hit Angel hard.

"Were you? Bored? Or did you just want to see how fast Wesley would come running if you called? Did I pass the time trials?" Strange, that a heartfelt invitation to share his holiday would stick in Wesley's throat, but these sort of hurtful words bubbled up from nowhere.

"It's not like that. I wasn't testing your loyalty," Angel protested. "I thought... Was it all that bad, being here?"

He clamped his jaw down on admitting he hadn't been doing anything. Or that he'd been wishing he could stay, just a moment ago. But to have been toyed with, for whatever reasons Angel thought he had, made him want to turn around and leave and -- And what? Never return? He scoffed at himself. "Why, Angel?" he asked, less harshly than before. Yes, he wanted to be here. Wanted it more than anything. But under pretense?

He had more pride than that.

So he waited, watched as Angel tried to think of something to say. Finally he just repeated, "I couldn't think of anything else."

"You said that already," he answered stiffly, and then again, softer. "You said that. But what does it mean?"

Angel curled his hand into a loose fist, and hit it quietly against the top of the counter. Shuffling. Looking as awkward as Wesley felt around him whenever he tried to discuss anything more personal than which demon had silver blood or the proper consecration of a ceremonial Mithran dagger.

For a moment, he saw himself in Angel, and in that moment, he began to wonder. "What did you want, Angel?" he asked, this time his voice was devoid of anger. The gentle tone must have been enough, for Angel looked up at him. There was something in his eyes which made Wesley think of loss.

"I wanted you to be here."

It was... something unexpected. Something simple and far too complex, and there was a flare of warmth or pain or maybe it was joy, somewhere inside his ribcage. It had been so long, it was hard to tell the difference. "You wanted me to... why?" It should have been enough, that he was wanted. Not for his books, or rather, his skill in perusing Angel's books. Not for his questionable talents at metaphysical fisticuffs. Just his presence, as he had been wanting Angel's, though possibly not for the same reasons.

Perhaps it was that it was more than enough, and so he had to question it. That something good had dropped into his hands seemed like it might be a prelude to the snickering of some eternal footman, and so he had to ask why.

But Angel just looked away again, conversely stepping forward, towards him. He tried to figure out what could possibly have driven Angel to interrupt his holiday -- free of the intrusive humans spoiling his precious solitude -- to finagle a way to bring *him* over.

As if a simple phone wouldn't have sufficed.

That made him pause. Would it have sufficed? Well, yes, obviously -- he'd tried to invite Angel over and been...turned down.

There was something here that he simply wasn't getting. He took a step, one foot closer. As if a few less carpet fibers between them would lessen the distance between confusion and understanding. "If you wanted to spend the evening with me," and the words tasted strange in his mouth, like the metallic tang of fear, but different. "Why didn't you..."

Why didn't you say yes, when I fumbled my way through asking you over? Because he had sounded like a complete moron, of course. A babbling fool, and the English language, allegedly his native one, had deserted him then, as it was deserting him now.

"Because I didn't think you'd say yes. Unless you thought I needed-- um. I just thought...since you don't celebrate and Christmas really isn't one of my favorite holidays either what with it being Christian and all, I couldn't exactly invite you over for...the holiday."

And that made him smile, ever so slightly. Still not exactly sure why Angel had done this, but amused all the same at how clumsily they had both gone about this admission of wanting to spend time together. "I never said I didn't celebrate, Angel. I simply don't celebrate Christmas."

Angel tilted his head, and Wesley tried hard not to think of him as a rather large, confused Saint Bernard. Especially not with a keg of rum around his neck. Or at least under one arm. "Er... I didn't think Windham-Pryce could possibly be a Jewish name..." Angel said finally. "It didn't even occur to me. What can I say-- I'm a moron."

This time Wesley did laugh. He shook his head.

There was a pause. Then, "Kwanzaa?"

"Try again. I'm sure you'll get it this time," he said, encouragingly. Almost kindly, if it weren't for the ridiculous desire to keep laughing. How could he be relieved, if they hadn't actually managed to communicate yet?

There was the ghost of a smile on Angel's face. Had he hired it to appear there, or was it a legitimate haunting? "Um...Ramadan?"

"Truly, Angel," he began, laughing once, and the smile spread across Angel's face.

"It's the winter solstice tonight, right?" Angel said, rubbing at his hair. "I mean, it's either that or the Festival of Crinth, and unless you're actually a Krontesh Demon in disguise..."

"Crushdash lilka," Wesley replied with a straight face. Krontesh for 'you've found me out'.

Angel's mouth quivered; suddenly he was smiling again. Then his eyes went wide with realization and his face grew serious once more. "Oh -- when you invited me over tonight, you...you wanted...for Solstice."

It had taken them this long to translate one simple invitation from Wesleyan to English. Not that it had really been a simple invitation at all, but... Wesley nodded. Simple. Direct. He was beginning to suspect it would benefit them both if he invested in a translator. Take their half-said sentences and turn them into English. Or Irish Gaelic, or Latin....

Possibly they could work up a series of hand signals.

Wesley swallowed another laugh. But he did say, "Angel, would you care to spend the solstice with me?"

Angel answered, "I'd like that."

And for a moment they both stood there, looking at each other, smiling. Then Wesley coughed and said, "I suppose...since I have the other helmet...." And he was back to speaking gibberish and cursing himself for not simply asking if Angel wished to accompany him back to his flat.

"You need a helmet to celebrate the Solstice?" Angel asked, obviously picturing some death-defying bonfire-leaping which required protective headgear.

"I meant the motorcycle helmet."

Another quirk of the smile that Wesley saw so infrequently. Angel had known which helmet he meant. "Yeah. Y'know... pink really isn't my color. " Angel paused. "Which is why I'm not at all happy with what Bernie did to my first load of laundry. While he was quote-practicing-unquote. Is there any reason we can't spend the solstice here?"

"I-- no. That would be fine." He didn't know how he'd managed to say it without stuttering. Or inadvertently turning the offer down. He took another step closer and realized now that he was staying, he had no idea what to do next.

It helped that Angel obviously didn't know, either.

"What exactly do we do for the solstice?" Angel asked finally. "I mean, aside from not wearing helmets."

"Er.. we..." They didn't do anything, because it had all been done. The ritual, the observances, the prayers. Wesley stopped at that thought.

The prayers. Wesley ignored Angel's question for a moment. He'd prayed for winter's end. An end to the loneliness and bleakness.

Angel stood there, watching him, his expression turning confused as Wesley didn't answer.

What was this, then, if not an ending? He wasn't alone. He wasn't...alone. Distantly, he said, "Actually, I've done all of the formal things already," he said slowly. "The rest is... mostly about contemplation."

"Contemplation of what?"

"The inner self..." But perhaps Angel did a bit too much of that already, as well. "The coming year."

Perhaps not just an ending, Wesley thought as Angel walked a bit closer. Perhaps, like the spring that was promised at the end of winter, it was a beginning. Because despite whatever else he might want, the beginning of a real friendship was enough. Wesley took another step closer, then paused when Angel's expression changed.

"What?"

Angel looked...nervous. But he glanced up again, and half-smiled. Wesley followed his gaze and laughed when he saw the mistletoe.

"Yes, well--"

He was cut off when, as he looked back down, he found Angel close -- closing in, then there. Lips pressed on his.

When they broke away, he heard, "Happy Solstice, Wesley."