Author's note: This story takes place in season 1.

A Candle in the Darkness

by Jeanne Rose

Wesley swirled his egg nog in time with the jaunty rendition of "Jingle Bells" and surveyed the office thoughtfully. Contrary to his expectations, the agency Christmas party was proving to be a fair success. A variety of past clients and friends were mingling comfortably. Cordelia had decorated the office with paper snowflakes and plastic holly vines and lighted candles, complementing the small Christmas tree Wesley had purchased and trimmed in the corner. David Nabit had generously provided an amazing array of hors d'oeuvres and drinks - in fact they had barely been able to restrain him from burying them in full service catering.

The only lack at present was the head of the agency himself. Wesley was frankly surprised that Angel had lasted as long as he had. He had given in quite reluctantly to Cordelia's insistence that they host this shindig, and accepted the necessity of showing up and interacting politely with their guests with the same dour fatalism with which he let them dig bullets out of his back. The last time Wesley had seen him, he had actually been smiling at something Melissa was saying, but that was some time ago. No doubt he had slipped out to the roof for a little relief from the crowd.

Wesley downed the rest of his egg nog, picked up a small package from under the tree, and went up the elevator.

Angel stood at the edge of the roof, wrapped in his long coat and silhouetted against the city lights. Wesley closed the door quietly and crossed the roof to stand beside him. It was a spectacular view. The lights of the city were augmented by a cheerful sprinkling of decorated homes and businesses. The air was a bit chilly, but for the moment the wind had died down.

Finally Angel stirred, acknowledging his presence. "How's the party?"

"Fine. We're running out of egg nog, but I think it may be just as well."

Angel turned suddenly. "Are people starting to leave? Cordelia will kill me if I'm not there when people leave."

"No, I think it'll be a little while yet," Wesley reassured him. He took a breath and held out his gift. "Merry Christmas. It's . . . not much . . ."

Angel took the package from him and held it awkwardly. No telling how long it had been since someone had given him a gift. "Open it," Wesley prompted.

Angel pulled off the wrapping paper and turned the book over in his hands. It was too dark to read the title, Wesley realized -

"Renascence and Other Poems, Edna St. Vincent Millay."

- except of course that this was Angel, who could see in the dark.

"I thought this was out of print," Angel added.

"It is," Wesley agreed. "This copy was given to me by my grandmother."

Angel opened the title page and peered at the inscription, which Wesley knew bore the date of another Christmas some 18 years ago, written in his grandmother's flowing hand. "You sure you want to give it away?" Angel asked hesitantly.

"Yes."

Angel turned a few pages.
"All sin was of my sinning, all
Atoning mine, and mine the gall
Of all regret . . ."

Wesley shook his head in amazement. Trust Angel to instinctively locate that particular passage. But would he read the rest of the poem? Certainly not for any urging on Wesley's part. He held his tongue.

Finally Angel closed the book, wrapped the paper back around it and tucked it carefully into the pocket of his coat, dismissing the implications of the passage. "Thanks." Wesley heard no irony in his tone.

"Merry Christmas," Wesley repeated.

They stared out at the lights together for a few minutes more until Angel asked, "Wesley, are you a Christian?"

Wesley considered. "Only culturally, I suppose. My father was Anglican, but he certainly took me to Watcher's Council meetings more often than mass." He wondered what had prompted the question. "You were raised Catholic, if I remember correctly."

Angel nodded. "I remember Christmas as a child. Decorating the house with holly vines. Leaving out bread and milk for Mary and Joseph. Lighting a candle in the window to let them know they were welcome. Walking to mass in the snowy streets." He paused. "Of course, after I became a vampire I hated Christmas."

It was not difficult to imagine that the notion of peace on earth and good will toward men had not appealed much to Angelus. Wesley found he didn't care to know about Angel's Christmas memories from that time period. "And now?"

Angel was silent so long Wesley thought he wouldn't answer, but finally he said, "It's hard to celebrate the birth of a Savior who didn't come for you."

Wesley turned to him. "What do you mean?"

"Have you ever wondered why Christian symbols are deadly to vampires? Why crosses? Why holy water? Unless . . . "

Wesley suddenly felt very much out of his depth. He had never heard Angel talk this way, never imagined that he might harbor a belief in God deep in his guilt-racked soul. What echoes must this season stir in a mind once inculcated with the availability of forgiveness for the penitent?

Wesley tried to remember what else he knew of Christian theology. A Biblical phrase surfaced like flotsam in his mind - "He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." He thought of the man standing beside him and suddenly felt his skin prickle.

"Are you sure?" he asked finally. "That you're out in the cold, I mean. Even if you're a vampire, you do have a human soul. Perhaps it can be saved."

"I can barely stand to go inside a church. Even if I could, who could hear a confession like mine? And what penance could ever be enough? I can't even hold a Bible." The words were quiet, the anguish in them buried so deeply that Angel's voice was calm.

"You could pray."

Angel shook his head. "I couldn't. Not after what I've done."

"Then how do you know?"

Angel shifted uneasily. "I guess I don't."

Another Biblical phrase popped into Wesley's mind, and this one he spoke aloud. "'I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.'"

Angel did not reply. Instead he tipped his head back and looked up at the sky. Wesley joined him. Here in the city the stars were muted, but one or two bright ones shone through the haze.

"When I was a child I used to look up and try to find the star that the wise men saw, but there was never one that was bright enough to lead the way."

Wesley sighed, wondering if anything could penetrate the shield of despair Angel always drew about himself against the terrifying danger of hope. He gestured toward the book in Angel's pocket. "Do you know how the poem ends?" he asked. Angel said nothing, so he quoted from memory.

"The world stands out on either side

No wider than the heart is wide;

Above the world is stretched the sky, -

No higher than the soul is high."

Still Angel said nothing. Wesley gathered his courage and suggested softly, "Maybe grace is only out of your reach as long as you deny it to yourself."

Without waiting for a reply, he turned and went back down the stairs.

* * *

When all the guests had gone home and even Wesley and Cordelia had wished him a merry Christmas and left, Angel shut the door behind them and stood alone in the office. His eyes lingered over the tree and decorations, wondering whether Cordelia would be back later to clean them up or if he would be stuck doing it. The fake holly vines did remind him of his childhood home - a memory with some sweetness despite its bitter end.

He turned out the lights and stood for a few moments in the darkness, enjoying the silence. At least this Christmas eve had turned out better than last year, when he stood on a hilltop over looking Sunnydale, waiting for the sunrise to come and destroy him.

A lot had happened since them. He took Wesley's book from his pocket and held it in his hand. It was a generous gift, from a generous heart. Cordelia had given him a dark green sweater which he would now have to wear - though in truth it wasn't so far from something he would have chosen himself. He wasn't sure what he could give either of them in return that could possibly repay them for their friendship.

He thought back to the conversation on the rooftop. He wasn't sure why he had confided his thoughts to Wesley. The high holy days did sometimes bring odd remembrances, stirring old questions, old longings.

He went to the window and looked out onto the darkened street. It was after midnight, and a rare stillness had fallen over the city. There was almost no traffic. Miraculously the City of Angels seemed to have slowed its hectic pace for a moment on Christmas eve. It gave him a strange feeling of connection to all of the souls that slumbered in that stillness, surrounded by family or alone, some at peace and some restless with worry, with fear, with loneliness.

Once or twice before in the deepest hours of the night he had felt the world crying out for help in the darkness - a wordless, insistent plea arising the collective unconscious of humanity. So much pain, so much confusion, so much darkness, so much guilt. It resonated with his own hunger for answers, for guidance, for hope. Tonight, again, the question hung like a tangible thing in the air - was the star of Bethlehem the answer to that plea? And, if so, could its promise ever reach past the barriers of his own unique damnation?

He didn't know. But he turned and found a large candle, lit it, and set it in the window. It burned like a tiny star in the darkness, the only kind of prayer he dared to offer. On this night, an invitation. He did not expect an answer. But still he sat in the darkness and watched it burn.

Then his ears picked out the faint sound of a radio playing. A single tenor voice penetrated the stillness.

"Come, oh come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns lowly exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come for thee, oh Israel."

Hope - tremulous, unexpected - sent a taproot out of nowhere into Angel's heart.

The End

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