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Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

By Eliz
ealutz(at)hotmail.com

Summary: One year after "Amends," Angel struggles with the holiday spirit.
Spoilers: Contains a pretty well-known, extremely general SEASON 4 SPOILER regarding Angel... BEWARE! Hey - you probably have heard it already... but if not, you've been warned - don't blame me, 'kay? As for the rest, it's just purely mushy, very hopeful speculation on my part! ;)
Disclaimer: They're not mine. Sadly, they never were. I just sneak them away from the big guy every so often for a little fun. And, as usual, I'm quick to suggest that I treat them a lot better than their *cough* actual owner ;).
Author's Notes: The timeline for this story is exactly one year from "Amends - A Buffy Christmas". This is fluff, people!! Fluff I tell you! And maybe a teensy bit of angst... oh c'mon... this is ANGEL we're talking about, there has to be at least a little ...

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Part 1

Angel was nervous. It wasn't just his normal low-level of anxiety either... this was approaching full-blown nail-biting terror. He looked around for a moment as though seeing his surroundings for the first time - wondering what the hell he was actually doing in here. A kitchen was no place for a vampire. He was expecting something very tragic to happen at any moment. As it was, he'd already singed his fingertips on the stove and had a coughing spasm from the garlic the elderly lady had inadvertently put in the bag with his purchases. It wasn't her fault by any means... she'd been doing him an enormous favor by giving him such detailed recipes and instructions in the first place. And she'd insisted on doing the grocery shopping for him, telling him to go into the stores nearby and find "something pretty to take to that girl you're always thinking of". He'd fled eagerly, not realizing that garlic played a BIG role in the elderly woman's cooking habits.

But it was Christmas, and Angel needed to get it right this time. This was the first Christmas he'd planned for in hundreds of years, and to say he was a little rusty would be like saying Christmas had gotten a 'little' commercial. He sure hoped he'd get points for doing his best. Buffy was bringing her mother over to the mansion for Christmas Eve - and the idea filled Angel with absolute panic. What could he possibly have to say to Joyce Summers? "Hi, Mrs. Summers, gee... sorry I stalked your daughter, made her desperately unhappy, told you I slept with her, threatened you, threatened HER, then came back from HELL and tried to pretend it all never happened... hors d'oeuvre?"

That didn't sound particularly good... but he was running out of time to search for topics of conversation. Buffy and Joyce were going to be arriving shortly, and Angel was in the process of running around frantically, trying to make certain he hadn't forgotten anything completely obvious. He checked the roast beef in the oven one more anxious time before darting out into the dining room to minutely examine the table settings. He was glad he'd taken the time to consult a few people before this extravaganza - Cordelia especially. She'd walked him through the finer points of the dining experience several times just to make sure he had it right. Now he knew the difference between a salad fork and shrimp fork... to bad he wasn't serving salad OR shrimp tonight. He twitched a wrinkle out of the tablecloth and smoothed the napkin at Buffy's place. It didn't need it at all, he just wanted to soothe himself for a moment with thoughts of her.

He still couldn't believed she'd stuck by him through everything that had happened. She was so wonderful... beautiful... perfect. He realized he had a dopey smile on his face and couldn't have cared less. He couldn't wait to see her... and it had only been hours. She'd rushed over as soon as she could get away from the house this morning, eager to spend time with him while he was in Sunnydale...

The doorbell rang, echoing through the stone foyer of the house, and Angel felt like his stomach dropped right to his toes. They were here? Already? He wasn't... he didn't...

The strident call of the doorbell came again, just as Angel had figured out he'd rather escape through the window rather than face what was on the other side of that door. Trying to laugh at his own response - but still afraid it was the appropriate one - he dragged his unwilling feet over to the door to unlock it. Buffy came bouncing in first, excitement flushing her cheeks and making her eyes sparkle. She filled his eyes, his heart - he couldn't see anything but her. He wanted to grab her, kiss her, run his fingers through her hair as he had earlier in the day when she'd emerged from his bedroom wearing a wink and a Christmas smile.

A delicate cough interrupted those happy, warming memories, and to Angel it was like being dipped into an icy lake. His eyes darted past his smiling love to her not-so-smiling mother. He gulped quickly, hoping he hadn't somehow irrevocably ruined the evening already. "Buffy... Mrs. Summers..." he murmured around the huge lump in his throat. He took their jackets, not allowing his fingertips to dwell for one millisecond longer than completely appropriate on Buffy's shoulders. He hung them in the hall closet, thrilled to be able to focus on such a mundane task. When he turned back to them, he was more in control over himself. Guardedly not looking at Buffy, he smiled politely at Joyce and invited them into the living room to sit down. Here was where his preparations had been the most focused. He had a tree, and candles, and mistletoe... though he'd carefully removed the 'Angel' and 'Buffy' stockings that had hung from the hearth earlier in the day. He hated doing it, because Buffy had painstakingly made them herself... but she was the one who suggested it. "Look, Angel," she'd soothed, "you and I both know this isn't going to be easy. But I really want you and my mom to get to know each other a little better." She'd caressed the letters of their names on the soft felt for a moment before continuing. "Let's not tempt fate, though, okay?" He'd grudgingly agreed, privately relieved. It was going to be hard enough to get through this evening without a million little reminders of how integrated his life already was with Buffy's - and how they'd hidden it from her mother on countless occasions. Unfairly.

"What a lovely tree, Angel," Joyce commented, walking around it and admiring the ornaments that Buffy had helped him purchase. She continued around the living room, studying the stone carvings that decorated the stark walls. Angel remembered being surprised when Buffy suggested that he keep the mansion when he moved to L.A., instead of just getting a smaller apartment. He was glad now that he'd listened to her - any little edge to win her mother's favor was a boon, and Joyce seemed fascinated by the architecture of the house.

"Thank you," he replied, considerably cheered by her apparent approval of his holiday decorating scheme. He knew he should be more concerned with what she thought of him personally... but he picked his battles with an eye to win. Start small - that was the key these days. "If you ladies will excuse me for a moment, I need to check on dinner." Catching Buffy's eye as he made his escape, he tried to convey that he wanted her to stay with her mother. The last thing he needed was for Joyce to wonder what Buffy and he were up to in the kitchen. Thankfully, she didn't follow him.

In the kitchen, the culinary gods were being relatively kind to him. Things seemed to still be roasting, boiling, and simmering as he'd planned. After running a discerning eye over everything, he decided that he hadn't actually needed to come in here after all... except purely for the sake of escaping the tension in the other room. He stirred and prodded a few more things just to kill some time before reluctantly reemerging into the living room. Buffy and her mother were sitting on the sofa, apparently having a quiet talk. Angel came to inescapable conclusion that it was about HIM when it ceased immediately upon his entrance, compounded by a guilty look on Joyce's face and a frustrated set to Buffy's mouth.

Sighing, he seated himself in one of the other chairs and smiled at Joyce. After a moment, he noticed Buffy gearing up to start the small talk. He was relieved she was taking that responsibility off his hands - he wasn't any good at it to begin with. "So, Mom... Angel just got back into town a few days ago," Buffy began.

"Oh?" Joyce commented with a smile that Angel recognized with a start as being one of profound relief that the silence was being broken. Was it possible that Buffy's mother was as uncomfortable in this situation as he was? The idea mystified and reassured him simultaneously. "And how are you liking living in Los Angeles?"

"It's..." Angel hesitated, wondering how to describe his spartan and lonely existence fighting evil in a place he didn't particularly want to be, "... nice," he finished lamely.

Joyce smiled encouragingly. "What exactly is it that you're doing there?"

"Uh..."

Buffy jumped in quickly to rescue him. "Angel's doing the same kind of stuff I do here, Mom... you know. Well, not going to college, or working part time... but the slaying part... that's similar."

Angel's wild-eyed look in Buffy's direction seemed to convey his conviction that she was helping a little TOO much. He smiled weakly at Joyce.

She didn't seem surprised... but she didn't seem impressed, either. "So you don't have a job?" she pursued.

"Well, I..."

"It's practically a full-time job for Angel, Mom. I mean, he can't work a job during the day because he's... well... and, then he couldn't hunt all night, that would be..." Buffy appeared to be gamely ignoring Angel's panic in her desire to reassure her mother.

Joyce's lips were set in a thin line now, which worried Angel. He'd seen that expression on her face before - most notably the first time he met her, while standing in her living room absurdly late at night with her blushing, stuttering under-age daughter. "So you don't have a job," she repeated flatly.

Angel fought the ridiculous urged to giggle, knowing it was simply an emotional reaction to extreme stress. "Not as such," he conceded, trying to ignore the hand-waving going on at him from Buffy's end of the couch.

A distinct buzzing sound suddenly blared out from the kitchen, and Angel sprang to his feet eagerly. "Excuse me," he blurted out, rushing into the kitchen once more. Saved by the bell, he thought happily, turning the timer on the oven off. He yanked open the oven door and heaved the roasting pan from the rack, setting it down with a thump on the counter, trying desperately all the while not to get too close to the scent of cooking garlic wafting from it. Task accomplished, he leapt back out of range, carefully considering his next move. The next time he asked sweet, elderly Mrs. Simmons for help with learning to cook, he'd better remember to tell her about his 'allergy' to garlic. He decided to attack the potatoes next - primarily because they didn't contain any of the herb in question. After spooning them quickly into a bowl, he poked at the green beans with a fork, trying to determine if they were done. Still a little hard... perhaps he'd better give them a few more minutes. That would give him time to open the wine - the only thing he'd actually be consuming at dinner. He grabbed the wine bottle and stared at it... hard... realizing in an instant that he didn't actually own a corkscrew. Damn. He briefly considered simply fleeing the house in terror - leaving Buffy to explain his deranged behavior to her mother - then decided that he'd have to figure out a different method. He eyed the bottle thoughtfully for a moment, then moved in for the kill.

.

"Look, Mom... he's doing his best to impress you... do you think you could cut him a little slack?" Buffy pleaded with her mother, trying not to wonder what the origins of all the clanks and thumps coming from the kitchen were.

Joyce was oblivious to them. "I'm fine," she said demurely to her daughter, sitting on the couch as though her backbone was made of steel. "We're all fine."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Not fine," she insisted. "Can't you talk to him?"

"I did. I asked him how Los Angeles is. He didn't seem to have a lot to say on the subject."

"But... how can he tell you what it's like? He's fighting demons on a daily basis there, Mom... he doesn't think you want to hear about that stuff."

"He's right," Joyce acknowledged. She sighed, finally facing her daughter, concern etched on her features. "Why can't you have a normal boyfriend, Buffy? Why him? Can you tell me that?"

Buffy froze, surprised by her mother's question. "Because he makes me happy," she replied softly. "Because I don't have to worry about him getting hurt because of me. Because he's strong and handsome and wonderful. Because I'm in love with him..."

Joyce held up her hand to forestall her daughter's flood of words. "I just don't..."

Buffy winced at a particularly loud clang. What the hell was Angel doing in there? It didn't sound like cooking... "Um... can you hold that thought for a second, Mom? I want to see if Angel needs any help." She saw her mother's obstinate expression, but jumped up anyway. Explanations had waited for almost three years already... no reason to rush them now. She hurried down the short hall to the kitchen, pushing the door open. "Angel, what..."

The love of her life was sitting on the kitchen floor, vamped out, with a wine bottle dangling from one of his fangs.

He looked up guiltily at her entrance, still attempting to either tug himself free, or remove the cork from the bottle, she couldn't tell which. Starting to giggle helplessly, she moved towards him, ignoring his garbled attempts to speak. She tried to take the bottle from him, but he hung on tenaciously, twisting his neck this way and that as he viciously worried the cork from its seating. It finally came free, and he carefully set the bottle down on the table next to the hysterically laughing Buffy before prying the cork off his fang and regarding it unhappily. "I think I hurt myself," he rasped around his fangs, looking at her piteously, which only made her laugh harder.

She finally managed to calm down enough to wipe the tears from her eyes. He was still staring at her, looking as sorry for himself as a vampire could, his golden eyes glowing faintly in the dimly lit kitchen.

"Oh... c'mere, you," she giggled, grabbing his hands and dragging him closer. "I'll kiss you all better..." Pulling his head down, she caressed his mouth with hers gently, lovingly, until she felt his incisors retract and his face smooth into its more human aspect. She finally released him, backing away slowly. "All better?" she teased.

He looked thoughtful for a moment, then grinned. "I think I still feel a tinge..."

She giggled again and slapped his hands away. "Later," she promised. "Right now you have dinner to think about. Do you need any help? I mean, besides the obvious?"

Sighing, he headed back towards the stove. "I guess I have things under control," he hedged. "Now that the wine is open..." that prompted another round of snickers from Buffy "... all I have to do is get this stuff to the table and we're ready. Do you want to get your mother seated?"

"Sure," Buffy replied promptly. "By the way, Angel... you're doing great so far, okay?"

He nodded silently, but didn't look convinced. Buffy turned to go get her mother, hearing him groan behind her. "Damn... I'll bet the greens beans are dead by now..."

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Part 2

For Angel, dinner couldn't possibly have lasted any longer. First of all, he was trapped at the table with all that garlic... burning his eyes and his throat unmercifully. By the time Buffy figured out what was going on and explained to her mother why he was wheezing and his eyes were tearing up, he'd drained most of the wine bottle by himself. It didn't help the burning, but it did put a new, more mellow, perspective on the evening. He just wished it had lasted longer, because he was stone cold sober again when Joyce bluntly asked him what his plans for the future were.

When he'd haltingly admitted that he wasn't sure, Joyce had cast a significant glance at Buffy, who'd glared rebelliously back at her mother and refused to comment. It had made for tense dinner non-conversation... because neither woman spoke for the rest of the meal, and he was still too sunk in his garlic-induced misery to start any small-talk on his own.

The one bright spot had been that Joyce seemed to genuinely enjoy the meal... and Buffy had eaten it with an enthusiastic appreciation that had charmed him.

Now, clearing the table while Buffy and Joyce waited for him by the tree, Angel felt his feet dragging and his will flagging. At this point, he couldn't imagine what had ever possessed him to agree to such a ridiculous idea. Had he willingly subjected himself to this? Or had it been Buffy's idea? Now he couldn't remember, but he felt very put-upon either way. It just wasn't worth...

Buffy's silvery laugh reached his ears, making him smile spontaneously. The sound immediately soothed him, calmed his agitation and brought back to him the reason he'd decided to do this at all - Buffy. He wanted her to be happy, and he knew that her mother's opinion meant a lot to her. So... the plan had been to win her mother over with his breathtaking culinary skills and sparkling personality. He now realized, listening to Buffy giggle in the other room, that maybe that hadn't been the wisest - or most realistic - course. Perhaps it was time to try a little good, old-fashioned honesty.

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He stood in the arch of the doorway for a long moment, staring at the two women. Whatever friction his relationship with Buffy might be causing, the two were obviously very close nevertheless. They were discussing something quietly on the sofa, Buffy's feet drawn up underneath her body as she leaned closer to hear what her mother was saying. Joyce might never have noticed him standing there at all - but Buffy looked up after only a moment, her whole face brightening at the sight of him. She immediately hopped up and crossed the room to his side. He watched her approach, happy at least that she seemed to think the evening was going well. He wondered if it were simply her incurable optimism, or if she was better at reading her mother's emotions than he was. The latter was certainly possible...

"Ooh! Mistletoe," Buffy commented perkily.

Feeling as though fate were toying with him tonight, Angel looked up - only to see a sprig of mistletoe hanging directly over his head. He lowered his eyes to observe Buffy still making a beeline for him. Trapped. Helpless. Most certainly at her mercy.

An abrupt cough came from across the room just as Buffy cornered him - causing her to spring guiltily back, and him to jerk as if he'd been shot. Joyce's voice seemed absurdly loud and accusing to his ears. "It's about time for us to be heading back home, don't you think, Buffy?" Angel cast a hunted glance at Buffy, and moved away from the tempting sprig of Christmas cheer before grabbing her hand gently and leading her over to her mother. Joyce was already halfway to the front door. Angel hurried to catch up. Fetching her coat from the closet, he courteously helped her into it.

"Well, Angel... this has been a lovely evening," Joyce said.

He searched her tone for any sign of sarcasm, and was surprised to find none. She almost sounded sincere. Almost. "Actually, Mrs. Summers... there's something I wanted to give you... a Christmas present of sorts." He ignored Buffy's wide-eyed, inquiring gaze, instead focusing fully on her mother's face, trying desperately to convey his sincerity in this moment. "I know you don't think much of me," he started softly, fighting not to drop his gaze. Seeing that she was about to politely protest, he shook his head and continued. "No... I wouldn't either, if I were in your place. But... that aside, I want you to know that I live my life - such as it is - to protect your daughter from harm. I want her to be the oldest, happiest Slayer ever... and you may not believe that of me now, but just please... please give me a chance to prove it?" He'd been turning this over in his head for weeks, and he'd wanted to finish his pledge firmly, but instead he found himself entreating her to trust his words.

She surprised him again by staring straight into his eyes and nodding. "I believe you'll try, Angel. I may not seem like the most open-minded and understanding of mothers -" Buffy made a small sound of protest, "- but I believe you have my daughter's best interests at heart." She paused, not seeming to know what else to say... but for Angel it was enough. He felt relief pour over him as a balm that soothed away all the uncomfortable, awkward moments from earlier in the evening.

Joyce finally turned away from him, looking for her daughter. "Buffy?"

Buffy - who had been watching their exchange with rapt attention - blinked, then closed her gaping mouth and smiled at her mother. "Do you think I could stay for a little longer, Mom? I promise I'll be home in an hour... or two, tops," she wheedled.

"I suppose," Joyce agreed doubtfully. "Just be certain you let me know when you get home... I'll be waiting up," she warned Buffy, while staring pointedly at Angel.

"Thanks, Mom... I'll walk you out to the car, okay?" Buffy slipped past Angel to follow her mother through the door, both of them disappearing into the night.

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"Well, my mom seemed to really like your present," Buffy sighed softly against his shoulder, her eyes fixed on the Christmas tree lights.

Angel finally released some of the tension he'd been under the entire evening with an uncharacteristic chuckle. "Thank God for that. I was pretty worried about it." He tilted his head to lay his cheek on her shining fall of hair, feeling her snuggle more fully into his side, drawing her feet up to burrow them under one of the warm pillows.

"I know," she giggled in response. "Presents?" she suggested hopefully a moment later.

"Not until morning. We agreed on that," he reminded her patiently. She was planning on coming over again on Christmas morning, sans her mother this time, to celebrate with him alone. He was greatly looking forward to it. He could almost feel Buffy's eyes devouring the wrapped packages under the tree... trying to determine by shape alone what they held. He grinned a little, glad he'd taken the time to conspire with Willow on a few of her gifts.

She pulled slightly away from his side suddenly, turning the full force of a cute pout on him. "Please?" she pleaded adorably.

He laughed out loud this time, dragging her back against his side. "No. You can wait if I can."

"No... no I can't," she wriggled against his grasp, trying to move into a position where she could try the pout again. He resisted firmly, knowing he probably wouldn't be able to deny her twice. Trying to distract her, he brought up her mother once more. "I'm glad you think tonight went well, Buffy - I wasn't so sure I was going to make it."

She stilled, considering his words. "You did look slightly like you were a flight-risk a few times, but I think she's warming up to you. I mean, she let me stay a little longer tonight without a fight."

"Just a disapproving glare," Angel pointed out.

"Oh, that wasn't much of one, though. I've gotten much worse, believe me," Buffy assured him. "Anyway, I think the turning point was what you said to her."

"I was so relieved she believed me," Angel admitted, pulling a little wrapped gift out of his pocket. "I had these as a backup bribe, but..." he lied smoothly.

Buffy snatched the box off his palm before he could even blink, and had the bow and paper off in a frenzied blur of movement. She opened the box and froze, staring at the diamond earrings within.

"I know, they're not really personal, but I figured, hey - can you go wrong with diamonds?" Angel explained to her, before noticing that Buffy's eyes were huge and glimmering... and she was almost salivating on the stones. "Uh... Buffy?"

Swallowing quickly, still staring at the earrings, Buffy nodded at his inquiry.

Smiling at his love, Angel wrapped his arm around her shoulders and leaned close to her. "YOU wouldn't happen to be willing to take those off my hands... would you, sweetheart?"

Buffy made a drooly sound that didn't necessarily resemble an affirmative, but Angel took it as such when she clutched the box to herself and finally dragged her eyes off the shimmering diamonds to meet his eyes. She saw his grin... then looked down at the stones again... then back up to see him wink. "These... are for... me?" she whispered.

"All along, baby... all along."

She immediately abandoned the earrings to kiss him soundly, her slim arms wrapping around his neck. "I love you," she murmured shyly into the hollow of his throat before moving back a little to gaze up at him with a smile.

"I love you, Buffy," he whispered back, thinking that the diamonds didn't even compare to the brilliance and beauty of her eyes.

Grinning slyly at him suddenly, she glanced over his shoulder at the doorway. "So... you wanna try out that mistletoe now?"

Finis.

Season's Greetings! :) Thanks for reading... feedback, as always, is greatly appreciated. :)

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