THE CHRISTMAS PARTY
Note: This story is my reply to Jen's challenge. The requirements were as follows:
--Favorite Holiday Song or just a special song that perhaps breathes nostalgia
--a gathering or private party for two
--something that twinkles--lights, stars, Charles Gunn's eyes--anything, just
as long as it twinkles
--Make up your own clever Master Card ad
--the quote: "Two guys in red suits, people, how hard can it be?"
--some kind of snow story
--reference to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album
--Specific Hamlet or Oscar Wilde reference
"Remind me again why we're doing this?" Angel asked, the annoyance in his voice evident. He was walking down the huge staircase that led to the lobby of the hotel, fussing with the bow tie of his tuxedo.
Cordelia looked at him from behind the reception desk, smoothing her sleek black dress with her palms. "Because David Nabbitt invited us, that's why." She picked up her compact and flipped it open, checking her makeup one more time. "Besides," she said, applying a little powder to her nose, "he's paying us. Consider it a job." Snapping the compact closed with a click, she looked at Angel again, noticing he was still fidgeting with his tie. Sighing heavily, she set the compact on the desk and walked over to him. "Here, let me do it." She reached up and started to expertly tie the bow tie.
Angel stood there rigidly as Cordelia put the finishing touches on his tie. "I don't know why I just couldn't wear one of those clip-on ones."
Cordelia paused momentarily, gazing up into the vampire's face. "You can't wear a clip-on tie to a millionaire's party. That's just sotacky!" She continued her task, pulling the knot tight. "What I don't understand is why you couldn't tie this thing yourself. I mean, what did you do in the days before clip-on ties?"
Raising one eyebrow, Angel answered simply, "Darla."
"Oh. Yeah," Cordelia said sheepishly, grinning slightly as she straightened the tie and took a step back. Then she shrugged and said, "And then there were those eighty years or so when you lived liked a bum and had no need for black tie clothing." She gave him a wink.
Angel smirked. "Funny."
"Thanks," she muttered, smoothing the wrinkles from the front of his jacket. "You look nice."
"So do you," Angel replied. The sound of the front door opening caught his attention and he and Cordy turned to face the person who had opened it.
Wesley descended the steps that led to the lobby, a wide grin on his face. "Greetings, all. My, Cordelia, you look smashing."
Cordy grinned and nodded at him. "You look pretty good yourself, Wes. It's amazing what a little cleaning up can do for a man."
"Cute. Very cute." Wes walked over next to Angel, feigning shock as he covered his cheek with his hand and said, "Oh my god! We are wearing the same outfit! We simply cannot go out in public dressed the same! What will people think?!"
Angel rolled his eyes and exchanged a look with Cordelia. "Hello, Wesley."
"Okay, let's get this party started. I'm here!" a voice resounded from the front entrance.
Six eyes turned to face the source of the voice. Gunn stood in the doorway, dressed to the nines and grinning widely. He let out a whistle as he eyed the three people carefully. "Wow. Look at you. Miss Cordelia, you look stunning. Wesnice tux. Angel." He walked down the steps and surveyed the tall vampire closely. "I'm impressed. I didn't think you owned anything that nice."
"Gunn," Angel said deliberately. He had learned to take Gunn's comments with a grain of salt. "Thanks for coming."
"No problemo," Gunn said lightly, still smiling.
Cordelia, who had been staring speechlessly at Gunn since he walked through the door, finally spoke up. "You know, seeing you in that tux reminds me of one of those Master Card commercials. 'Manicure: $15. Sexy black dress: $125. Seeing Charles Gunn in a tuxedo: priceless.'" She winked at him, giggling.
Gunn flashed her his 1000-watt smile and tugged at his lapels. "I know I look good. The only way I can look better is to have you on my arm." He pushed out his elbow, offering her the crook of his arm. She smiled and slipped her arm through, reaching for her wrap and her purse. "Let's go."
She and Gunn walked out of the hotel arm-in-arm, Angel and Wesley following close behind.
Angel's sleek black car came to a stop in front of David Nabbitt's mansion. A young man in a valet's uniform approached the car with a smile. "Welcome to Mr. Nabbitt's residence."
Opening the driver's side door, Angel stepped out, glowering down at the young man. He held out the keys, dangling them from his fingers over the kid's open palm. "Be careful," Angel muttered. Ever since his car had been temporarily stolen, he had been overly cautious about who drove it.
"Y-Yes, sir." The kid clasped his fingers around the keys tightly when Angel dropped them into his hand. "H-Have a nice night." The young man averted his eyes from Angel's intense stare and slid in behind the wheel. He drove the convertible away slowly, both hands gripping the steering wheel like a little old lady.
"Geez, Angel. Lighten up," Gunn muttered as he stood next to Cordelia at the edge of the sidewalk.
Angel watched his car disappear around the corner, then finally turned to join the group.
"He doesn't know the meaning of 'lighten up', Gunn. It's hopeless," Cordy said, squeezing his arm.
Wesley turned towards the house, eyes wide. "Very impressive. Although I must say that it looks a bit like a fortress with all the cast-iron fences and vines. All it needs to complete the package is a drawbridge."
"Well, consider the package complete, then," Cordelia commented, nodding in the direction of the house.
"Oh my," Wes breathed, stifling a chuckle.
The four of them strolled slowly up the front walk, awed by the sight in front of them. The huge house loomed above them, the full moon shining brightly over head. Lights burned in all of the windows and especially from the front entrance. There indeed was a drawbridge, and it was lowered, acting as a bridge over what appeared to be a moat surrounding the house. There were Christmas lights everywhere, cheerfully twinkling around every window and in every tree, helping to take the edge off the medieval castle look of the place.
As the small group neared the entrance, sounds of music and talking grew louder, floating on the breeze to their ears. Cordelia tightened her grip on Gunn's arm and inhaled deeply. "Ahhhthe smell of wealth. There's nothing like it!" Gunn looked down at her and chuckled, shaking his head.
Stepping into the front room of the mansion was like entering a whole new dimension. The floors were marble and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling at fifteen foot intervals, bathing the room in bright, warm light and casting intricate designs along the walls. The huge spiral staircase wound up to the second floor on their right. People milled about, dressed in their best, most expensive outfits while servers wandered through the crowd carrying trays of champagne.
Even Angel seemed impressed. And a little jealous. "I lived in a mansion and it was nothing like this," he muttered under his breath.
"Hey! Guys! Glad you could make it! It's great to see you!" David Nabbitt emerged from the throng of people, walking up to Angel and shaking his hand rapidly. "Merry Christmas!"
Angel pulled his hand from David's grasp and smiled slightly. "Merry Christmas, David. Nice, uh, place you got here."
"Oh, this?" David asked, nonchalantly gesturing around the room. "It's nothing, really. But I'm glad you like it."
"Like it? Like is not the word, David. I would sell a kidney to live here," Cordy said excitedly, looking around, her eyes wide. "How many rooms do you have?"
David thought a moment. "I'm not really sure. I know that there are at least 15 bedrooms in the east wing."
"Wing? Did you hear that, guys? He's got wings!" Cordelia's smile lit up her face.
Gunn grunted next to her. "Big deal," he muttered gruffly, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other.
Angel sensed the turn this conversation was taking and steered it back to the topic at hand. "What exactly is it you want us to do?" he asked David.
David looked up into the vampire's dark eyes. "Well, I kinda just need you to keep a look out. You know, keep your eyes open forunfriendlies. I've been gettingthreats lately."
"What kind of threats?"
David leaned in closer, cupping his hand around his mouth. "Death threats. Things like, 'Have a merry Christmas 'cause it'll be your last.' Things like that."
"Any idea who's making them?"
"No. That's what I was hoping you'd tell me." David looked around nervously, waving at someone in the distance.
Wesley looked at him curiously. "If you don't know who's making them, why did you invite a hundred people you barely know to your home?"
David shrugged, seemingly confused by Wes' question. "Because I'm rich and it's what I'm supposed to do." He shook his head as if to say, "Duh!"
"I see." Wes shared a brief glance with Gunn and rolled his eyes. "That makes perfect sense."
"Socould you kinda wander around and check things out for me? That'd be great. And don't hesitate to call on me if you need backup. I'll be ready." David smiled at all of them, excitedly nodding his head.
Angel raised his eyebrows, keeping a straight face. "I doubt it will come to that, David. But we'll keep it in mind." He turned towards his colleagues. "We should split up. I'll take the main party area. Wes, you take the east wing. Gunn, Cordy, you take the west." He turned to head into the main room.
"Hey. I don't need a babysitter," Cordy protested.
Angel stopped and turned to face her, his dark eyes intense. "Cordelia, don't argue. I don't want you to be alone in case you have a vision. Okay?"
She retreated, holding up her hands in surrender. "Okay. Sorry."
"Fine. Let's go," Angel said bluntly, then turned and headed into the crowd.
David shrugged and looked questioningly at the remaining three. "Not much into parties, huh?" he asked, gesturing to where Angel had just disappeared.
"Angel's not much of a people person," Wes offered simply.
"No, I guess he wouldn't be," David replied. Then he shrugged again and smiled. "Hey, well, good luck!" And he disappeared back into the crowd.
Gunn and Cordelia followed Wesley up the stairs. "For someone who's not too good with people, Angel sure did pick the most crowded room in the joint," Gunn muttered.
"It's not fair," Cordy whined from beside him. "We get invited to a swanky party where I *finally* get a chance to schmooze with the big wigs, and what am I doing? Wandering around the part of the mansion where there are absolutely *no* people with James Bond and Shaft!"
"Hey!" Gunn protested. "How come all black men who look good in a suit and are suave with the ladies are always compared to Shaft? Can't a brother be compared with someone elselike Denzel, maybe?" He looked down at Cordelia, concentrating a little too long on the way her dress accentuated hermore flattering endowments.
"Which brings me to my next point," Cordy answered. "Denzel could be here at this moment. But will I ever know? NO! Why? Because Angel is the one who gets to rub elbows with the celebs while *we* do all the legwork. Fame and fortune are totally wasted on him. But I, on the other hand"
Wesley cut her off. "Cordelia, you knew this was a job when we got the invite. Mr. Nabbitt is paying us quite a lot to keep him safe and we owe it to him to make sure we do a thorough job." They were at the top of the staircase and he looked to his left and right, brow furrowed in thought. "Nowwhich is the east wing and which is the west?"
"I think that's the west," Gunn said, pointing to his left and taking a step in that direction.
Wes did another survey, then shrugged. "Very well." He started walking towards what he assumed was the east wing. "Oh, by the way," he said, turning to face the other two, "I think we should meet back here in an hour to touch base. Unless, of course, there's an emergency. We all have our phones, right?"
"Yeah, sure. Whatever," Gunn said, waving Wesley off. "Come on, Cordelia."
Cordelia started following Gunn down the vast hallway, taking two steps for every one of his. "Fine, let's just get this over with so we can get back to the party. I thought I saw Meryl Streep downstairs. I just *love* her."
"You're not going to bitch the whole time, are you? 'Cause if you are, I'll have to kill you," Gunn commented.
"Yeah? You and what army, hot shot?" Cordy retorted.
Wesley listened as their voices disappeared down the hall, then turned and headed down his own designated corridor.
It was moments like these that Angel seriously considered staking himself. He looked at his watchit had only been fifteen minutes, but it felt like the eternity his existence had granted him.
"so then he hit me. Hit me! I couldn't believe it. Do you have any idea how humiliating it is to be beaten up by your eight-year-old cousin at a family reunion? Especially since I was fifteen at the time" David continued incessantly, unaware that Angel had long ago tuned him out.
"Sounds like fun," Angel muttered, looking around the room hopelessly.
David didn't notice the incongruity of Angel's comment. He just continued to share his life story with the vampire. "Then, when I was sixteen, I started taking boxing lessons. I was going to show that little brat a thing or two at the next reunion. But I discovered that I was prone to nose bleeds and had to give it up. I mean, who knew that just the sight of a boxing glove would elicit such a massive flow of blood from my nostrils? And it was like that with anything remotely violentkarate, judo, tae kwon do, ballet. Finally, I gave up and started working with computers. Computers can't beat you up. Computers can't talk back. Well, actually they can. But they can only say what you program them to say. And I did show that little bratty cousin of mine a thing or two. The very first software I designed was a computer game called 'Vengeance Is Mine.' I designed the bad guy after my cousin and made him die a horrible, fiery death. Gave it to him for Christmas that year." David stopped momentarily, laughing at the memory. "God, I hate family reunions. Actually, I hate my family. I never had any brothers or sisters. It was just my parents and my endless collection of cousins. Did you have any brothers or sisters?" He looked up at Angel.
Angel had missed most of what David had said, but caught the last few sentences. "I had a sister."
"What happened to her?"
Looking David squarely in the eye, Angel answered in his most menacing tone, "I killed her."
David raised his eyebrows and backed away a half step, swallowing hard. "OhThat's, uh, n-nice." He jammed his hands in his pockets and fumbled with his keys for a moment, looking at the ceiling. "Well, um, I think I should greet some more guests. I'll, uh, catch you later, 'kay?"
"Later," Angel said, relief washing over him. He nodded at David and watched as the little man walked away into the crowd.
Wesley walked slowly down the corridor, his footsteps clicking on the pink marble the only sound. He stopped in front of a large mirror that hung on the wall, a small mahogany table holding a crystal vase full of flowers in front of it. He ran his hand along the side of his head and grinned widely at his reflection. "The name is Wyndham-Price. Wesley Wyndham-Price," he said in his best impression of Agent 007. He tugged at the hem of his tuxedo jacket, straightened his tie, and leaned down to smell the flowers.
"Ahhhroses," he said softly, then looked around to make sure no one was watching him and broke one off, placing it in his lapel as a boutonnière. "There," he said, "that's better."
He turned from the mirror and scanned the vast hallway, still slightly awed by the expanse of it, and shook his head as he thought of his own flat in comparison. Angel lived in a hotel with a hundred rooms to himself, Cordelia had a lovely, rent-controlled apartment that, granted, she shared with a ghost, but which was still lovely all the same. Hell, even Gunn probably had a nicer place than he did. "Oh well," he sighed aloud. "No time to dwell. I've got investigating to do."
Turning on his heel, he continued down the hall until he reached the first door.
"So this is how the other half lives," Gunn commented as he and Cordelia strolled down the hallway.
Cordelia surveyed the place in wonderment, a wide, child-like smile lighting up her face. "Isn't it great? A place like this could use a woman's touch. Particularly a woman with exquisite taste and grace, someone who can really appreciate the finer things in life. Namely, me!" She giggled.
Gunn looked over at her, one eyebrow raised. He shook his head and snorted lightly. "So I guess this means you want a rich man, huh? Probably one who's barely breathing, I'll bet. You know, I can see that. Poor widowed Cordelia, crying alligator tears of grief for her 90-year-old husband who has just keeled over, while his children and grandchildren plot your death and scheme to get the millions Pops just left to you." He smirked amusedly.
"Very funny," Cordelia said. "How shallow do you think I am? I want more than money out of life. The man I marry needs to be handsome and smart and funny and brave as well as rich."
"Damn," Gunn responded, slapping his hands together in mock disappointment. "You had me pegged to a tee. That is, until you got to the 'rich' part." He winked at her.
Cordy smiled back at him. "Four out of five ain't bad, though."
Suddenly, Gunn stopped, gesturing to Cordelia to do the same.
"What is it?" Cordy asked in a hushed tone.
"Shhh," Gunn whispered, pressing his finger to his lips.
The two of them listened in silence. Then, after a moment, Cordelia spoke up. "I don't hear anything."
Gunn glared at her. "Shut up!"
Cordelia pressed her lips together tightly, fuming. She was about to say something when she heard what Gunn had been shushing her about all along. Voicessoft, hushed voices coming from the room right ahead of them. She reached for his arm and grasped it in her hands. "Who is that?"
"Gee, Cordelia, I don't know. I left my x-ray glasses at home." The expression on his face was a mixture of impatience and amusement.
Sticking her tongue out at him, she said, "I think we should go in and see."
"Really? Why didn't I think of that?" Gunn asked sarcastically. He stepped cautiously towards the door, Cordelia in tow, still holding on to his arm. "Be quiet," he reminded her as he reached for the doorknob.
"You look like you hate these things as much as I do," a feminine voice said softly.
Angel turned towards the voice and saw a petite woman with long, auburn hair beside him. He nodded to her in acknowledgement. "I'm more of a quiet evening at home kind of guy, actually," he answered, smiling slightly.
"Then why are you here?" the woman asked.
"Business," Angel said simply, scanning the crowd. He had found no one unusual yetwell, at least no one less than human at any rate.
The woman sighed and moved a little closer to him. "Me too," she said, sighing. "That's all these things are good forbusiness."
"Hmmm," Angel said, not knowing what else to say.
"So" she continued. "I'm Isabel. What's your name?"
"Angel," he replied, looking down at her.
"Angel as in guardian angel?" She laughed briefly.
Angel shifted uncomfortably. "Something like that, I guess."
"What is it you do? Actor? Producer? Agent?" she asked him.
"Investigator," he answered.
"Ooh. So you're a private dick," she said suggestively, looking him over.
Angel felt her eyes on him and shoved his hands in his pockets, clearing his throat. "Um, well, I'm actually working right now. Security. I really shouldn't be socializing."
Isabel leaned in closer, resting her hand on his arm. "Too bad. It could've been reallyfun. It was very nice meeting you, Angel." She leaned up and kissed his cheek, then walked away, slowly swinging her hips.
A waiter passed by carrying a tray of champagne and Angel grabbed a glass, downing it in one large gulp. He placed the empty glass on the tray and grabbed another one before the waiter departed.
It was going to be a *very* long night.
Turning the doorknob slowly, Wesley pushed open the door and walked inside. The light was on, casting the room in a dull, orange-yellow glow. He looked around, taking a mental inventory of the items in the room and keeping his eyes open for anything unusual.
The room itself was rather unusualmedieval-era furniture cluttered the room and black velvet curtains hung from the windows. Wesley stepped further inside the room to get a closer look. Two of the walls were lined with bookshelves, brimming with books, and Wes was naturally drawn to them.
Perusing the titles, head tilted to one side, his eyes widened at what he saw. Volume after volume of Dungeons and Dragons books, all in chronological order, lined the shelves. Wes turned to look at the room again, understanding at last why the room was furnished the way it was. In the corner, the shiny purple cape David was so fond of wearing hung on a hook.
Chuckling softly, Wes shook his head, returning his attention to the books. There were many other kinds of books as wellincluding demonology and mythology books. There was one in particular that caught his interest. It was a copy of a rare demonology book that Wes had always wanted but could never find. Carefully, he removed the heavy volume from the stacks and opened it with glee, relishing the antiquity of it. His eyes scanned the pages quickly.
The thought crossed his mind to slip the book inside his coat and just "borrow" it for a while. But he decided against it and reluctantly moved to replace the book in its slot. He pushed the books beside it to the side and lifted the book to push it back in, when the floor beneath his feet started rumbling. Thinking that it was just another tremor in LA's long history of tremors, Wesley thought nothing of it. That is, until the wall started moving as well.
Startled, Wes dropped the heavy book on the floor and grabbed onto the bookshelf for balance as the wall did a complete 180, taking him with it. When the movement finally stopped, Wes found himself plunged into complete darkness.
"Oh dear," he muttered softly.
"On the count of three," Gunn whispered over his shoulder to Cordelia. "Onetwothree!" He pushed open the door quickly and pulled Cordelia with him through the door.
The sound of a woman screaming greeted their entrance. "What the hell?" an angry man's voice growled.
"E-Excuse us," Cordelia said quickly, tugging at Gunn's arm, trying to pull him back into the hallway.
But Gunn couldn't tear his eyes away from the scene. It wasn't everyday you walked in on two people in such acompromising position. He was going to have a little fun. "Sorry to disturb your little private party, but we're working security for Mr. Nabbitt and we are obligated to report anyunusual activity. So we are going to have to take your names for our report." He started rummaging in his pocket, acting as though he was reaching for a notepad.
The young woman clutched the sheet to her chest and started to cry, babbling nervously. "Bob, do something!"
"Gunn! What the hell are you doing?" Cordelia insisted, nudging Gunn in the arm.
Brushing her off, Gunn continued his little charade. "I know this must be embarrassing for you, but it's procedure. I'm sorry." He fought to keep a straight face.
"Please, sir. We weren't going to take anything. We were just." The man's tense voice trailed off.
"We know what you were doing," Gunn stated in his most authoritative tone. Then he seemed to let up. "Okay, tell you what. Since you weren't causing any trouble, I'll let you go with a warning. This time." He looked at them sternly. "Now why don't you go and join the party?" He raised hi eyebrows pointedly.
"We will, sir. Thank you," the man answered hurriedly.
Gunn nodded. "Very well, then. Have a good night. And don't let us catch you two again." He closed the door, pushing Cordelia out behind him.
Cordelia turned and slapped him on the chest. "What was that?"
"What? I was just having a little fun. I mean, who goes to another man's house to get busy?" Gunn asked, smiling.
Glaring at him in disbelief, Cordy's expression slowly turned into a wide smile. "You know, I *know* that girl. She beat me out for the part of Ophelia when I auditioned for 'Hamlet.' She couldn't act her way out of a wet paper bag. *Now* I know why she got the part."
"I wonder what she was auditioning for in there?" Gunn cracked, motioning to the door.
Cordelia giggled, then swallowed her laughter as the two people hastily exited the room, not making eye contact and fumbling with their clothes.
"Have fun!" Gunn called after them, his remark met with a pinch on his arm. "Ow! What was that for?"
Cordy narrowed her eyes at him. "You're terrible!" She laughed again. "But that little tramp deserved it!"
Gunn started heading towards the next room. "Well, we know what was behind door number one. Time to sneak a peek behind door number two."
"Can't wait," Cordelia remarked, following close behind.
"I'm in Hell," Angel muttered to himself under his breath. "No, wait. Hell was more fun." He plastered on the brightest smile he could muster and greeted David, who was heading towards him, much to Angel's chagrin.
"Great party, huh?" David asked cheerfully, standing next to Angel and patting him on the back.
"It's fine," Angel answered shortly. "Get any more calls?"
"Nope. Not yet. But that doesn't mean anything, as you well know. I'm sure whoever is making them is just biding his time, waiting for the most unexpected moment to make his move."
Angel rolled his eyes. "Possibly. "
"You know, it's not very nice to threaten people. Especially during Christmas. It's not veryChristmassy. I call the guy 'The Grinch' because he's trying to steal my Christmas away. Well, we won't let him, will we, buddy?" David said, patting Angel's back again.
Angel shrugged him off, trying not to be too obvious about it. "That's why you're paying me," he said under his breath.
"What was that?" David asked.
Angel looked down at him. "I said, 'Everything will be fine, you'll see.'"
David grinned. "That's why I'm paying you." He paused, then took a breath and started to speak again. "You know, I remember the last time I saw 'The Grinch.' Not the one with Jim Carreyby the way, I think there are a few of the Whos herebut the animated one. I must've been about twelve. I was in the den on Christmas Eve. It was snowing outside and I remember pouting because my mom wouldn't let me go outside and play because it was too cold. Anyway, I was watching tv, flipping through the channels, when I came across itthe movie. At first I was going to just flip right past it, but it was at the part where the Grinch is going to everybody's house and stealing their decorations and gifts and stuff. Remember that part? Anyway, I remember feeling really bad for those people because all they wanted was a nice Christmas and here was this big green guy ruining it. But, of course everything turned out alright. I mean, how could it not? Dr. Suess wrote it, for Christ's sake. Oops, can I say 'Christ's sake' on Christmas? That's probably sacrilege or something. The last thing I need is to be damned to Hell on top of everything else. Well, anyway, that Christmas turned out to be one of the best ones I ever had, despite being forced to stay inside because of the snow. Because I vowed never to be like the Grinch. I was going to try to spread joy at Christmas. That's why I always throw these silly parties."
Wow, Angel thought to himself. It really *is* possible to sleep with your eyes open. He shook his head and glanced down at David, who was actually standing silently next to him. "That was agreat story," he said, feeling obligated to say something.
"No, it wasn't." David looked up at Angel, a resigned look on his face. "I'm boring you."
Angel tried to cover. "No, you aren't. Really. I'm just not much of a party guy, is all." He tried to smile.
"I understand. I" David began, but stopped short when he saw Angel stiffen and look around. "What is it? Vampire? Demon? What?"
"Stay here," Angel instructed and started walking through the crowd to the front of the house. He passed by a waiter and grabbed the tray he was carrying, holding it up over his head on his fingertips. When he reached the foyer, he smiled at the young man who was walking through the front door shedding his coat and lowered the tray, offering him some champagne.
The man smiled back and reached for a glass, nodding in Angel's direction. His expression quickly turned from one of cordiality to one of surprise as he froze, then disintegrated into a pile of dust on the floor. Angel straightened and shoved the stake back into his inside coat pocket, turning to head back into the party.
"Wow. That was *so* cool!" David exclaimed from the doorway. Then a puzzled expression clouded his face. "Waithow did he get in uninvited?"
"David, you have a sign outside the door that says, 'Welcome! Please come in.'" Angel eyed the shorter man carefully, brushing off the last remnants of dust from his tuxedo.
"Oh. Well, I must have that removed at once," David said sheepishly, blushing slightly.
"Good idea." Angel walked past him into the main room and handed the tray back to one of the waiters.
"Oh dear," Wes repeated as he waited for his eyes to get accustomed to the darkness. Cautiously he slid his right foot out in front of him, feeling for any potential obstacles. When he found none, he took a small step forward, holding his breath as he did so.
He reached out and ran his fingers along the wall, searching for a light switch. The wall felt like it was made of stone and the coolness of it seeped into his skin. He grinned widely in the darkness when he felt the familiar shape of a light switch under his palm.
"Excellent!" he exclaimed, securing his forefinger and thumb around the switch and pushing it up. His joy quickly turned into panic, though, when he found himself falling instead of seeing light.
He didn't fall far because almost as soon as the floor disappeared from beneath him, he landed hard onto another one. He opened his eyes and shook his head to clear it, looking around him. This room was lit, although very dimly, and Wes could make out certain objects in the room such as a table in the corner and a metal folding chair directly in the center of the room.
Getting to his feet, he brushed off his tux and looked around again, puzzled. Seeing no visible means of escape, he wondered how in the world he was going to get out of there.
" 'He took me by the hand and held me hard; then goes he to the length of all his arm; and, with his other hand thus o'er his brow, he falls to such a perusal of my face as he would draw it. Long stay'd he so; at last a little shaking of mine arm and thrice his head thus waving up and down he raised a sigh so piteous and profound as it did seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being: that done, he lets me go: and, with his head over his shoulder turn'd, he seemed to find his way without his eyes; for out o' door he went without their helps, and, to the last, bended their light on me.'" Cordelia smiled.
"What the hell was that?" Gunn asked over his shoulder, throwing a perplexed glance her way.
"My audition," she answered. "The one Miss Mattress Back sabotaged."
Gunn shrugged. "Don't sweat it, Cordelia. We both know you should've gotten that part." He grinned at her.
"Thanks," Cordy said shyly, a slight blush crawling up her neck.
"Okay, we're here," Gunn replied, stopping in front of another heavy wooden door. He leaned in and pressed his ear to the surface.
Cordy tugged at his arm. "What are you doing?"
"Trying to see if there are anymore surprises waiting for us behind the door," he quipped, winking at her.
"Well?" Cordy inquired.
Gunn shook his head, a disappointed expression on his face. "Nope. All's clear."
"Darn." Cordelia grinned.
Gunn turned the doorknob and peeked inside. "Come on, let's check it out."
"and then the guy says, 'Two guys in red suits, people, how hard can it be?'"
Angel watched the man who had been talking burst into such a fit of laughter that his entire body started to shake and his eyes squeezed shut. The man had stopped Angel as he was making his way back through the crowd after dusting the vamp. Apparently, the guy thought Angel was someone he knew and had immediately started talking to him and calling him "Jerry."
"What's the matter, Jerry?" the guys said, calming a little and patting Angel on the shoulder. "Don't you get it? He was looking for two guys in red suitsat a Santa convention!" His laughter increased in intensity once again and he grabbed his side as tears started rolling down his cheeks.
"I get ityou know, 'cause Santa wears a red suitcute," Angel said evenly, chuckling fakely.
The sound of a cell phone ringing interrupted the man's elation. Reaching inside his pocket, he pulled out the small black phone, flipped it open, and pressed it to his ear, plugging his other ear with his finger so he could hear the person on the other line.
Angel took this opportunity to escape, nodding at the man and starting to walk away.
"Hey, Jer!" the man called after him.
Reluctantly, Angel turned to look at the man over his shoulder, eyebrows raised in question.
The man made the universal "call me!" symbol with his free hand and grinned at Angel.
Angel gave the man a tight smile, nodded again, and walked away, quickly retreating to the far wall.
Wesley stood in the secret chamber, looking around him. Then he sighed deeply and said out loud, "I can get out of this. I just need to think." He walked over to the metal folding chair in the middle of the floor and bent to sit, then halted and straightened again.
He studied the simple chair closely, circling it slowly and kicking it gently with his foot. Nothing happened. Confident that sitting on it wouldn't open another trap door, he lowered his tall, lean frame down onto it, resting his chin on his fist. Letting out another sigh, he leaned back and removed his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose. He sat there a moment, eyes closed, thinking. Then he sat up straight, replaced his glasses on his nose, and looked around again.
The walls were smooth and were painted white. Or maybe off-white; he couldn't tell in the dim light. He visually searched their surfaces for another switch of some kind, or even for an outline of a door or something. He didn't find anything. He looked up to the ceiling, which must have been at least 10-12 feet above his head, and found more of the samenothing. That is, of course, except for the little trap door he fell through a few minutes before.
"Oh dear," he muttered yet again, unable to think of anything else to say.
"I can't believe you. You don't know what you're talking about," Gunn said, slightly disgusted, as he and Cordelia exited the last room of the corridor. They had found nothing out of the ordinary in any of the other rooms and, being bored, had entered into a discussion which had subsequently become quite heated.
Cordelia looked at him incredulously. "Excuse me? I happen to know a lot about the subject, thank you very much."
Gunn shook his head. "If that were true, you wouldn't have said what you did. That just proves your *lack* of knowledge about the subject." He laughed and looked down at her.
"Yeah, well" Cordy responded weakly and turned away from his gaze, setting her jaw indignantly. "I still say 'History' is the best album he ever did," she muttered under her breath.
"See? There you go againdisplaying your ignorance. If you knew anything at all, you would have no question that 'Thriller' was Michael Jackson's best album. I mean, 'Beat It,' 'Billie Jean,' not to mention 'Thriller.' There's absolutely no contest, Cordelia. Besides, he made that one back when he was still a brother. That's bonus points." By now, they had reached the top of the staircase and Gunn paused and turned around, grasping onto the railing. He seemed to be waiting for her response.
"Alright, alright. You win. But I *was* only two years old when that album came out. So cut me some slack." She flashed him her best Hollywood starlet smile and linked her arm through his. "Now come on, let's go mingle before Angel catches us having fun and stops us."
Gunn eyed her closely, eyes twinkling, a slight grin curling up the corners of his mouth. "As long as you know I'm right," he said smartly, winking at her.
"Yeah, yeah. Come on." She tugged on his arm and started pulling him down the winding staircase.
Tugging at his tie, Angel leaned against the fireplace. He was really starting to doubt David's claim of death threats. There hadn't been any calls since they arrived and that one vamp had been the only unwelcome guest the entire evening.
He looked around at all the people milling about the huge ballroom. They were drinking and laughing and dancing. And they were so phony that Angel was seriously considering making an exception to his no-bite policy. Okay, not really, but the thought had crossed his mind briefly during the last half-hour or so.
Then his worst nightmare flashed before his eyes in the form of David Nabbitt coming towards him, looking as if he were ready for another round.
Angel decided to be proactive this time and headed David off at the pass. "David. Hi. Can't talk now. I think I spotted another oneuh, over theresomewhere. Stay here. I mean it." He grasped David's shoulders in his hands and pushed him over by the fireplace, giving him a curt smile. "Stay." He put up one of his palms and looked intently at David.
"S-Sure thing, big guy. Go get 'em," David said enthusiastically, slapping Angel on the back. "I'll be here when you get back." He grinned widely up at the tall vampire.
Angel nodded. "Great. See ya." He turned quickly and headed off into the crowd, searching for a place where he could hide for a while. Halfway through the crowd, however, he felt a hand grasp his arm and he turned to face its owner. "Isabel," he said, surprised and a little annoyed.
"Hi," she breathed. "Still working?" She smiled at him and drew her hand slowly down his arm.
"Uhyes, actually. I'm kinda on a case right now," Angel answered, turning to go.
But her fingers tightened around his arm again, keeping him in his place. She leaned in closer to him and placed her other hand on his chest, snaking it under his jacket. "Can't you take a little break? All work and no play makes Angel a dull boy."
Angel swallowed nervously and pulled her hand out from under his jacket. "No, really. I can't. You see, I'm" he began, looking around. He spotted David over by the fireplace standing on his tiptoes and craning his neck to see where Angel went. Damn, Angel thought, then grabbed Isabel and pulled her onto the dance floor. "Let's dance," he said urgently, wrapping his arm around her waist and burying his face in her neck, hiding it from David.
"I can think of something else we can do" she whispered into his ear as she wrapped her arms around his neck and snaked her fingers through his hair.
Oh boy, Angel thought to himself as he closed his eyes and tried to ignore the feel of her hands on him.
"Of course!" Wes exclaimed, grinning widely. "Why didn't I think of it before?" He shook his head at his own absentmindedness and reached into his jacket pocket for his cell phone. All he had to do was call Angel and explain what happened and he would be out of there in no time.
He flipped open the phone and pressed 1 on the speed dialAngel's cell phone number. Putting the phone to his ear, he waited for it to ring. Nothing happened. Then, he heard a recording telling him that a connection could not be established.
"Great," he muttered, heaving an exasperated sigh. "Just bloody wonderful." He flipped the phone shut and drew back his hand as if to throw it, but the faint sound of a crash stopped him.
He perked up his ears and tilted his head to the side, listening for another sound. Then he heard itthe distant sounds of voices. Standing, he started circling the room again slowly, trying to determine where the voices were coming from. He stopped abruptly by the table in the corner, hearing the voices become louder. He pushed the table out of the way and there it wasa ventilation grate.
Kneeling down beside the grate, he tilted his ear against it. The sounds of people bustling about drifted up to him. "Hey!" he yelled loudly. "Can anybody hear me? Up here!" He waited for a response, receiving none.
He sighed and lowered his head momentarily, looking at the floor. Then he looked up and grinned. He had an idea.
"Isn't this great?!" Cordelia exclaimed with glee. "So much money, so little time."
Gunn shook his head, rolling his eyes. "There's much more to life than money," he said, looking down at her.
"Yeah? Like what?" she challenged, grinning evilly.
"Well, likelove, for instance," Gunn replied, unblinking.
Cordelia pinched him on the arm. "Why, Charles Gunn, I had no idea you were such a romantic." A wide grin spread across her face.
He blushed slightly. "There's a lot you don't know about me, Miss Chase." Then he grabbed her with both arms and swung her onto the dance floor, her laughter filling his ears.
The string quartet was playing "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," and the sultry voice of the jazz singer belted out the lyrics.
Cordelia and Gunn danced in silence, her cheek resting against his shoulder, his arms circling her waist. He started to hum along to the song, his soft voice drifting down to her ears. She smiled and tightened her arms around him.
Isabel had kept him on the dance floor through three songs and the fourth was now beginning. Her hands had moved gradually lower with each song and were now on the verge of passing the point of no return.
Angel pushed her away, trying to smile. "I, uh, really should get back to work. I'm working security and I have lots of things tosecure." He uncircled her arms from his waist and pushed them to her sides. "It wasnice dancing with you."
"The pleasure was all mine," Isabel breathed, licking her lips and looking him over. "I'd like to return the favor sometime."
"Thanks. But I'll be busy then," Angel said quickly, turning to head back towards where he left David earlier. He figuredthe lesser of two evils.
He was almost to the fireplace when he spotted Cordelia and Gunn dancing. "Hey!" he said with uncharacteristic happiness.
Gunn glared at the intruder, his dark eyes narrowing when he recognized the vampire. He stopped dancing and Cordelia straightened and pushed away from him. "Hey, Angel. Having fun?" she asked, smiling.
"Don't ask," Angel muttered. "Did you guys find anything?" He was hoping they'd say yes so that he would have something to do.
"Negative," Gunn replied, shaking his head. "We checked the whole west wing and nothing."
Cordy interjected, "Well, nothing otherworldly, at least." She giggled and winked up at Gunn.
Angel looked at them, a confused expression adorning his face. "Am I supposed to guess what you're talking about?"
Gunn waved him off. "Never mind."
"Where's Wesley?" Angel asked the pair.
Cordelia and Gunn looked at each other, eyes wide. Then Cordy looked at Angel, a sheepish grin on her face. "Oops. We were supposed to meet him. We, uh, kinda forgot. He's probably still waiting for us at the top of the stairs."
"Angel! There you are! What took you so long?" David asked, approaching the trio with a huge smile on his face.
Angel, his back to David, rolled his eyes at Cordy and Gunn. Then he turned to face David. "I lost his trail. I had to find him again. Everything's alright now." He turned back to his friends. "I'll go look for Wesley. You two stay here andkeep him occupied," he said, his voice low.
"Sure thing, boss," Cordelia remarked.
Wesley had managed to work the grate open and was presently on his hands and knees, crawling through the vent. He figured as long as he kept moving towards the voices, he would eventually find his way out.
He wiggled his nose against the dust that he was inhaling. He felt a sneeze coming on, but he was trying to stifle it because he was uncertain about the stability of the vent and didn't want to make any sudden moves.
"I'll bet they forgot all about me. They're probably laughing and eating and having a great time while I'm up here, crawling through a bloody vent. As long as Cordelia and Gunn and Angel are happy, who cares about Wesley, right?" he muttered angrily, sliding his knees forward.
His forward progress was halted, however, when his pant leg got caught on something. "Splendid," he whispered impatiently, tugging gently on his pants, trying to free them. They wouldn't budge. "Bloody hell!" he exclaimed, and forgetting his previous policy about no sudden moves, yanked his leg roughly as hard as he could.
It worked. His pants became unsnagged. However, so did his entire body. The vent collapsed and both it and Wesley went crashing to the floor below. When the noise had stopped and the pieces ceased falling, Wesley opened his eyesfirst one, then the other.
Twenty startled faces, each one topped off with a chef's hat, were staring down at him.
"H-Hello," Wes replied, trying to smile.
"He wasn't there," Angel proclaimed, walking up to the spot where Cordy, Gunn, and David were standing.
"Well, maybe he'smingling," Cordelia offered. "He *is* Mr. Bodyguard to the Stars, remember?" She smiled widely, giggling.
"Yeah, maybe." Angel looked around the room, searching for his associate, then turned back to Cordelia. "I tried calling him, but there was no signal. I don't see him anywhere."
"Looking for me?" Wes asked casually, sauntering up behind Angel.
Angel spun on his heel to face him. "Yes, actually. Why didn't you check in?"
"I was, uhbusy." Wes raised his eyebrows at the vampire.
Angel looked at him closely, wanting to ask, but refraining from doing so. "Find anything unusual?"
Wes cleared his throat and shrugged. "No. Not especially." He smiled slightly, glancing briefly at David.
The five of them stood in silence for a moment, each one shifting their weight uncomfortably from foot to foot. Finally, David broke the silence. "Uh, guys?" he began timidly. "I h-have a confession to make."
Angel looked at the little man closely, his dark eyes piercing. "There were no threats, were there?" he asked calmly.
David looked into the vampire's face, a small, closed-lipped smile on his face. "No. There weren't." He looked down at his feet.
"I knew it," Angel muttered under his breath.
"What?" Cordelia exclaimed, glaring at David. "You mean to tell me that you sent us on a wild goose chase? I missed the entire party for nothing?"
Gunn leaned in closer to her and whispered, "I wouldn't say for *nothing*." He winked at her and placed his hand on her back.
Cordelia looked up at him and grinned.
David kicked at something on the floor. "I'm sorry, guys. But I didn't think you'd come just because I asked. You see, these people here aren't my friends. I don't have any friends, e-except for you. And I thoughtI thought that if I didn't pay you, you wouldn't come. So I made up the story about the death threats to make it seem like a job. I'm really sorry." He looked up at them, scanning each of their faces one at a time, a puppy dog look in his eyes. "Besides, I needed you here so that I could give you this," he continued, smiling. He reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope, handing it to Angel. The words "Angel Investigations" were written neatly on the front.
Taking the envelope, Angel eyed David closely, a puzzled expression crossing his face. Then he flipped the envelope open and lifted the flap, reaching inside and pulling out a folded sheet of paper. Unfolding it, his eyes quickly scanned the page. After a moment, he looked up at David, a slight smile on his lips. "This is the deed to the hotel."
David nodded, laughing nervously. "Yeah. I got to thinking about it after you asked me about ways you could pay for the hotel. So I sat down with my accountant and we talked it over andI decided to just go ahead and buy it. Your name is on the deed. You own the place outright. Merry Christmas."
A genuine smile spread across Angel's face. "I don't know what to say. Thank you." He extended his hand to David, shaking it firmly. "Merry Christmas."
"Oh my gosh! That is so sweet!" Cordy squealed, leaning forward to give David a big hug.
Gunn looked over at Wesley, who was dabbing his eyes with his handkerchief and trying not to be too obvious about it. He had the perfect opportunity to tease Wes, but decided to bite his tongue, electing instead to put a hand on his shoulder.
"This is so great!" David gushed, looking over Cordelia's shoulder at the three men.
The party was over and the people were filing out. All that remained was the usual mess left after a party. The four people of Angel Investigations huddled by the fireplace, watching David Nabbitt say goodbye to his guests. Cordelia sat on the step in front of it, shoes off and dangling from her fingers. Wesley sat beside her, rubbing his lower back and grimacing at the pain. Gunn leaned against one side of the fireplace heavily, while Angel did the same on the other side. Both men's ties were undone, the top buttons of their shirts hanging open.
"What time is it?" Cordelia asked from her perch in front of the fireplace.
Gunn looked at his watch. "Almost 3:30," he announced, yawning. "Man, I'm tired. What a night. Yo, Angel. If this party had lasted any longer, you'd've had to stay here all day. He laughed briefly.
Angel turned a tired gaze to Gunn. "Don't even joke about that," he said evenly.
"Incoming," Cordelia said, referring to the woman headed their direction. She watched as the woman made a beeline towards Angel.
"Last chance, cowboy" the woman said seductively, leaning against the vampire. "The night is still young." She laughed, throwing her head back.
Angel gripped her shoulders in his hands and held her at arms' length, wrinkling his nose at the smell of liquor on her breath. "You should go to bed, Isabel," he said sternly.
"That was the idea," she said, giggling. She brushed her fingers across his cheek.
"I mean alone," Angel clarified.
Isabel pushed out her lower lip in a pout. "Aw. You're no fun."
"You can say that again," Cordy muttered from the floor.
Angel glanced at Cordy, then turned back to Isabel. "Go home, Isabel."
She shook her head to clear it. "Fine," she slurred. "Be that way." She turned to go, stumbling slightly, then quickly regaining her balance. She turned back around to face Angel, fumbling in her purse for something. Finding what she was looking for, she held a small white card out towards him. "If you ever change your mind."
Taking the card from her hand, Angel said, "Goodnight."
As she walked away, Gunn asked, "What does the card say?"
Angel read it aloud. "Elite Escort Service. Available day and night."
"I'll bet," Wesley muttered, chuckling as he rubbed his neck.
Gunn chuckled as well and soon Cordelia joined in.
"What's so funny?" Angel asked, feeling left out of the loop. The question only made everyone laugh harder.
Finally, Cordelia swallowed her laughter and stood up, looking at Angel closely. "She's a hooker, Angel." She tried hard to keep a straight face as the giggles continued behind her.
"Ohoh!" Angel said, realization penetrating the shell of fatigue that surrounded him. Then, after a moment, he said, "That explains why she said she was here on business."
Another round of laughter echoed through the ballroom.
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