Rating: R, with one NC-17 chapter – Language, sexual content.
Category: AU, angst.
Content: many, both conventional and unconventional
Spoilers: Very few, but some information through ATS’ early Season Four is involved.
Disclaimer: The characters in the Angelverse were created by Joss Whedon & David Greenwalt. No infringement is intended, no profit is made.
Distribution: Wherever you want
Angel sat at his window and watched the snow fall.
He thought idly that at least tonight the snow was beautiful — thick and soft and deep, coming down in round, fat flakes that seemed to shine in the night sky. Too often, in the previous two years, he had watched from this same window as hailstones pounded down, rattling against windowpanes and pavement. Or as sleet turned the streets and sidewalks to so much gray mush, almost impassable to humans, and ever more inviting to things that were not human.
But this night’s snow was gentle, even peaceful. The sounds on the street were muffled, and the ground sparkled in an almost unbroken field of white. Angel wasn’t sure — his memory might have failed him, he thought, because he’d been in southern California for so long — but he thought that this was what a real winter would look like.
No, he corrected himself. A natural winter. Because he remembered well that, however unnatural this might be, it was all too real.
From the small bed beside him came a soft rustling of blankets; Angel half turned as the woman there pushed herself up on her elbows. “Did you rest well?” he asked.
Buffy shrugged. “As well as I ever do.” Her voice was flat and businesslike. Angel had a momentary recollection — piercing, fleeting — of the way her voice used to sound, musical with humor and spirit.
Then again, he also used to hear doubt there, and fear. He used to wonder if Buffy was at the breaking point, to be afraid that she had reached it. Now she’d found her strength, and there was no point in wondering if the change was for the better. It had to be.
“Snow tonight,” he said as he went to the weapons cabinet, selecting the arms for their nightly patrol.
Buffy swung her legs off the edge of his bed. She took the few steps required to cross his cramped little apartment and went straight to her clothes, still hanging on the spindly rack near the heater, where Angel had placed them to dry hours before. “Good,” she said. “They won’t hear us coming.”
Always thinking about the fight, Angel thought, with something that was both wistfulness and pride. These days, he knew, there was little enough else in their world to think about. But he still admired her focus, wished for it himself.
Because, despite his place at her side, Angel knew his own weakness. He still longed sometimes for things to be the way they had been in the beginning. When they fell in love, when she laughed and played and teased, and he had been so caught up in her joy. When he had thought he might find his own place in the world, really stand at her side, instead of just watching her back.
But that was before the Winter, and therefore belonged to another world altogether.
Wesley jumped — then felt the familiar wave of embarrassment. Buffy had, somehow, managed to startle him again, with that, no less, by saying Boo, of all things —
He turned from his shelving to see her smirking slightly at him, as usual. “Feeling kinda tense there, Wes?”
“More than usual? No,” Wesley said, setting his books down on a shelf. He’d finish later; keeping the Sunnydale High library in order was a largely a matter of make-work now. The few students who still bothered to attend classes did so mostly out of the need to be with others their own age. If possible, what few academic leanings they’d ever possessed had diminished still further. But order had to be maintained, after all. “Which is to say, yes, still rather tense indeed.”
Buffy’s smile became a little more genuine, and Wesley felt heartened. In the past few months — as the crisis had grown more dire — Buffy had finally begun to show some signs of warming to him. Well, perhaps ‘warming’ was too strong a word. But the bitter rejection she’d met him with, the strong resistance to his very presence — that at last was fading.
Perhaps she’d finally forgiven herself for Rupert Giles’ death. Or perhaps she’d just begun to accept the fact that, after the Winter, she needed another Watcher.
But Wesley couldn’t fool himself into thinking that he would ever have been her first choice.
Buffy pulled her navy woolen cap down a little more firmly about her ears. “Angel and I are gonna head out on patrol,” she said. “Standard operating procedure, unless the demons are up to something in particular tonight.”
“I don’t believe so,” Wesley said. “They’re still quiet — fourth day in a row. Which of course means they’re planning something again. But you should take advantage of the break. Gather your strength. You push yourself too hard.”
Buffy sighed. “If demons were any better at organizing, they’d have figured out by now not to give me and Angel any days off.” She did not acknowledge Wesley’s last remark.
He decided not to press the issue. The burgeoning truce between him and Buffy was too fragile to upset on this slight point; also, the mention of Angel always left him feeling slightly disquieted. Wesley had never come around to his predecessor’s acceptance of his Slayer’s love affair with a vampire. “However, I did receive a report of Initiative patrols in the northern part of town. Near the warehouse district. So you’ll want to steer clear.”
Buffy said a word that made Wesley blush slightly. “Wes, you keep saying that the demons are gonna off those Initiative guys sooner or later. And you know, it makes sense, because since when do demons need human henchmen anyway? They’re lamer than the lamest demon I ever ran across, which is pretty lame, if you count the slug demon from last December. But sooner has definitely turned into later.” Her mouth twisted in a sneer that told Wesley the truce was just about over. “Another Wesley Wyndham-Pryce plan flakes out. Boy, who woulda thunk it?”
Wesley tried to think of something sarcastic to say in reply, failed as usual, and settled for, “Just stay out of their sight.”
They stepped out of the stacks into the main area of the library. Angel was standing against the counter, as ever dressed in black, somber. “Hello, Wesley,” he said. Angel never failed to be polite, which unsettled Wesley all the more. He just nodded in reply.
Buffy smiled a little upon seeing her lover; Wesley told himself, as he often did, that perhaps enduring Angel’s presence was worth it, if it provided Buffy with the little pleasure she still had in her life. “Southern part of town for us tonight. Feel like checking out Hillcrest Cemetary?”
“Thought you’d never ask.” Angel almost smiled. As the two turned to go, the library doors swung open again.
“Hey, Miss Calendar,” Buffy said amiably, waving as she went out the door. Angel nodded quickly as he followed.
“Hey, guys.” Jenny Calendar waved back with one hand; in the other, she held a cup of coffee.
“Bit late for caffeine, isn’t it?” Wesley said. “You’ll be up all night.”
“It’s not for me,” Jenny said, holding the mug out to him. She was wearing the green sweater Wesley liked so much, a leaf-patterned skirt he didn’t remember seeing before. “You were looking a little worn-out earlier. Thought I’d provide a pick-me-up.”
Wesley could feel the smile spreading across his face, as well as the embarrassed urge to check it. However, it didn’t matter; he could smile or beam or out-and-out glow at Jenny Calendar if he wanted to. And, generally, he did want to. But it didn’t matter, because she didn’t notice.
Apparently Jenny stopped noticing a lot of things around the time Rupert Giles had died. Wesley had, of course, realized how devoted the two were to one another during his first, brief stay in Sunnydale. Neither Mr. Giles nor his fiancee had had much use for Wesley in those days, but the attraction and trust between the two was evident, as was Giles’ joy in the woman he had intended to marry.
When Wesley had returned to Sunnydale, he had done so for Giles’ funeral — a ceremony held on a cool, bright day. He remembered seeing her standing by the grave, in a black dress and veil, and his own shock at the blankness of her stare.
Whatever light within Jenny had dimmed when her lover died, her inner strength and kindness still survived. Wesley felt grateful to have her friendship, at least; without hers, he would have had no one’s. But the care and attention she gave him reflected nothing deeper. It was the same sort of impersonal nurturing one might give a fern. Wesley didn’t even expect anything more.
After all, Rupert Giles was the true Watcher, the true love. He was just the replacement.
Buffy trudged through the snow, listening to its cornstarch crunch against her feet.
She knew, rather than heard, that Angel was behind her. His stealth was more than a match for the snow. She half-smiled, thinking, Neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night shall keep ensouled vampires from their rounds.
Once she would have said it out loud, to see if Angel would get the joke. By this time, she was pretty sure he wouldn’t. Besides, if she were joking out loud, someone or something might hear. She’d learned the hard way that it paid to be careful.
“Buffy,” Angel said, his voice low. In warning. She stopped moving, listened. More cornstarch crunching, farther away — a group, maybe three or four. Human, maybe. Or maybe just human-sized.
She pulled out her stake, began moving toward the sound as lightly as she could. Once again, she knew Angel would be behind her; in some ways, predictability could be a good thing.
They moved toward a hedge — no point in not using cover if you had it, particularly on a night when your dark patrolling clothes stood out against the snow. She bent low, felt Angel crouch down next to her. Buffy tried to peer through the hedge, but could see nothing but shining green leaves tipped in white.
But she could hear.
“I bet it’s another freakin’ coffin,” someone laughed. A man, or — Buffy glanced over at Angel at last, saw him shake his head slightly. Not vamps, then. But they weren’t ordinary people, either; it had been more than two years since ordinary people had been outside in Sunnydale after dark.
“They wouldn’t go to all this trouble for a vampire coffin,” another man’s voice said. “It’s probably some magical artifact.”
“I hope it’s not another trans-dimensional liquifier,” a third man sighed. “I do not want to spend another two months pouring concrete for new floors.”
“Doesn’t matter what it is,” said a fourth voice. Buffy tensed in recognition. The tone was commanding, dry, familiar.
She looked back at Angel and mouthed the name of the Initiative’s strike-team leader — Finn? Angel nodded in agreement. So, she thought with a flash of excitement, the famous Finn is screwing up, and lucky little me is here to hear it.
“Doesn’t matter?” the first voice said. “Come on, Riley, how can you say that?”
“Walsh says we guard it, we guard it,” Finn said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s a vampire coffin, trans-dimensional liquifier or a tub of Parkay. And we sure the hell don’t blab about it on patrol, Graham. Come on.”
As their footsteps moved further away in the snow, Buffy grinned. Too late, sucker, she thought.
“They’ve found something,” Angel whispered.
“Wow, way to state the obvious,” Buffy said. Angel looked a little hurt; once, he would have known that her put-downs didn’t mean anything. But back then, her put-downs really didn’t mean anything. But as she looked into his dark eyes, she regretted snapping at him. Sure, he was predictable, and he was obvious, but he was — Angel. Her backup. Her boyfriend.
All she had left.
Buffy put her hand on his shoulder; as ever, her touch seemed to smooth over his hurt feelings. “Sorry. Just dreading telling Wesley about this. Because you know what he’s gonna say.”
Angel sighed with her as they both said, “Research.”
The elevator dived down into the depths of the Initiative; Riley imagined that he could feel the stone closing in around them. He’d been imagining that more and more, lately — not exactly a healthy impulse, he figured. Ought to stop that.
But he still felt the weight of it as he stepped out into the Initiative labs. And his claustrophobia intensified as he saw who was awaiting him — not just Walsh, but —
“Brother,” Adam said, reaching out with his human hand. “It is — good to see you.”
As ever, Riley resisted the urge to attack — that thing — to yell that he wasn’t its brother, its lackey, or its friend. However, he suspected that only the last was true. Adam was looking at him somewhat strangely, even by Adam standards. “You have come from above. From the Winter.”
“Of course,” Riley thought. Silently he added, Like every other night for the past two years. Then again, Adam did have something of a tendency to stress the same points over and over again.
Adam bowed his head, as though considering something. Riley had learned that this was, by far, the most dangerous time to confront Adam. He remained silent, at attention, as though the creature really were his commanding officer. Walsh, his real commanding officer, was half-smiling at him. Approving of his obedience. Riley felt his back teeth clenching together, hard.
“You have come to report to me.” Adam looked as though he would say more, but he asked only, “What word?”
“Quiet. Unusually so. Not even a nest of vampires to be found.”
“I don’t like it,” Maggie Walsh said, folding her arms in front. “The word must be out. They have to be planning.”
“They cannot plan,” Adam said. “They can only execute the plans of others. Our own demons are silent, because we wish it. The others — if they knew, they would attack.”
Knew what? Riley wondered. But he had long since realized that the best means of gathering information within the Initiative was not to ask questions. Better by far to be quiet and wait.
Walsh gave Riley a perfunctory nod. “That will be all, Finn.” He walked away slowly, moving quietly up the metal steps of the catwalk as he listened to her saying, “If anything else were able to harness this power –“
“Do not fear, Mother,” Adam said.
The “Mother,” as usual, freaked Riley out enough to get him to stop listening and walk away faster. He cast one glance down into the research well, hoping that what he saw would shed some more light than it had before. But, no, all he saw were a couple of white-coated researchers huddled around — something.
Well, he’d find out. In the meantime, there were a few jobs left in the Initiative that he didn’t mind much at all. With a slight smile, Riley half-jogged to the mess hall, grabbed a couple of apples, and headed to unit 941.
He punched in the security code and stepped through without fear. It had taken him a couple years to get to this point; he was the only member of the Initiative who’d reached it, probably the only one who ever would, and with good reason. “Brought you something,” Riley said easily.
“Big fuckin’ deal,” Faith said. “The zookeeper brought the monkey some fruit. Gee, ya think maybe you could get me an inner tube to swing from?”
Riley sighed. Not one of her good days, then. “The inner tube wouldn’t be much good without rope,” he said.
Faith ran one hand through her long hair — almost to her waist, now — and glanced sideways at him. “If you were really my friend, you’d get me some rope.”
He caught himself looking up at the steel rafters of her cell. “Faith,” he said quietly. “You promised you weren’t going to think like that.”
“No, I promised I wasn’t gonna talk like that,” Faith said. “You can control every other damn thing about my life, Lee, but you can’t control how I think.”
Riley didn’t let the anger get to him anymore; he knew that her rage was directed at Walsh, Adam and the Initiative. In the past few months, she’d grown to know it too. But he was still the only outlet she had, and Riley was willing to bear the weight.
She flopped down on her little bunk in her stark room — stark even by the standards of someone who’d spent half his life in army barracks. He had considered asking if he could bring Faith a few things — nothing that could be a weapon, just a couple of posters and some tape, or a blanket that would give the room a little color. Or maybe some clothing besides the shapeless blue scrubs they saw fit to give her. But Walsh would just have given him that look, the one that saw right through him, and assigned someone else to Faith duty. Which wouldn’t do either of them any good.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know how you feel.”
“You know how I feel?” Faith raised an eyebrow. “That’s pretty rich, Lee. You haven’t been a prisoner for two and a half years.”
“They keep you in a cage,” Riley said. “They keep me on a leash. Not that much of a difference.”
“Bullshit. You get to walk around. You get to go outside –“
“Outside’s not what it used to be,” Riley said. “Not in Sunnydale, anyway.”
Faith was quiet for a while. Then she said, “What was it tonight?”
“Snow,” Riley said. “If you didn’t know why — I mean, if you just saw it — you’d say it was pretty.”
“Bet I wouldn’t,” Faith said, snatching the apple from his hand.
“You?” Riley smiled then, was relieved to see her smile in return. “No, you probably wouldn’t.”
Angel brushed snow from his hair again, saw that Buffy was beginning to struggle as she made her way through the drifts. Perhaps six or eight inches had fallen already, and the sky was still thick with flakes. Buffy was only a few feet ahead of him, and her form was already indistinct, clouded by the falling snow.
He wanted to catch up with her, and he didn’t. If she wanted to talk to him, she’d be talking. And when she wasn’t in the mood to talk, he had long since despaired of finding the right things to say. But that didn’t stop him from feeling slightly lost as he watched her, half-hidden from his sight, making her way uneasily through the snow, uninterested in his help.
And then he heard it — not even a scream, just a cry.
Angel froze in place; Buffy kept trudging on, and he said, as quietly as he could, “Stop.”
She stopped and turned her head; even in the heavy snow he could sense her starting to listen, call upon her own abilities to sense what he sensed.
Footsteps in snow — something falling — and again, the cry —
As one, Angel and Buffy turned and began running toward the sound. A nearby alley seemed to provide the best path; as they ran, Angel realized Buffy was falling behind in the snow. He’d have to start alone.
He emerged onto the street to see two vampires after one girl. Apparently they’d just seized her; one had grabbed her arms behind her back, and the other was slipping on the icy curb as he clutched at her shoulder. The girl still didn’t scream for help; instead, she kicked the vampire in front of her in the crotch.
It doubled over with a screech; Angel felt himself smile as he ran toward them. Amazing — you so rarely saw humans fighting worth a damn —
The vampire behind the girl shoved her roughly to the ground, but before it could pounce Angel had skidded up behind it and slammed his stake into its back. Grey dust was soon lost in the swirl of snow. Angel jumped over the girl to do the same for the one on the ground. Easy kills. They must have been new.
“Good shootin, Tex.” Buffy’s voice came from behind him. As she stumbled toward him, she pointed at the girl, who lay still in the snow. “What the hell was she doing outside?”
“Let’s find out,” Angel said, kneeling by her side. He noticed, as he turned her over, that she wasn’t dressed for the weather at all — a thin sweater and a silk jacket, cloth gloves that were already soaked through.
And then he saw her face.
“It’s Cordelia Chase,” he said.
“What?” Buffy peered over his shoulder. “What’s she doing in Sunnydale?”
Angel shrugged. Like most sensible alumni of Sunnydale High, Cordelia Chase had moved away shortly after graduation. Apparently she’d gone to Hollywood and found success — Angel remembered some group excitement when she’d appeared on the cover of a magazine — but otherwise he knew little of her.
Cordelia was staring up at him, clearly dazed and disoriented. Angel could smell the faintest tracings of blood, resisted the urge to touch his fingers to her temple, where he sensed the wound. “They hit her head,” he said. “We have to get her indoors.”
“Angel?” Cordelia whispered.
“That’s right. It’s me,” he said. “Don’t worry. You’re okay.”
“Oh, thank God,” she breathed. “Angel, I had the most awful dream –“
“It’s okay,” Angel said, picking her up in his arms. Buffy began heading back toward the alleyway, and he followed. “You’re okay, Cordelia. We’re getting you someplace warm.”
“I dreamed — I dreamed I messed up everything, Angel. I changed everything, and it was all so terrible –“
“It’s okay,” Angel repeated, paying little attention to her delirious ramblings. “Don’t worry.”
“It was just a dream –“
“That’s right,” Angel said. “Just a dream.”