A/N: Hey everyone, I did not mean for a month to pass by without updating, but with the holidays, family visiting, and my chronic migraines flaring up, I just needed a break! I know you all understand. I don't know when the next chapter will be posted because I'm still working on it, but I will try to get my muse fired up to finish it! Thanks for your patience! And happy new year! :)
CHAPTER 27 – RETALIATION - pt. 1
"The problem is that the Garden District is so vast," Roman explains as we discuss strategy for another mission. "It's larger than any of the other districts due to acres of farmland, and therefore, the people are spread out."
"So it's been harder to find them."
Roman nods. "Exactly. I think on our next journey, we'll need to focus on the more populated areas of the district."
"Which are probably more guarded," I say.
"Perhaps. I think we should head out soon. With the fall harvest, there should be a lot of activity."
"I'd advise against that, cousin."
Roman and I look up to see Conan standing in the doorway.
"I strongly feel you should postpone your expedition."
"Why do you say that, Conan?" Roman asks.
Conan walks into the room and joins us at the table. "I believe the weather is about to take a turn for the worse. A winter storm is on the way."
"But it's early in the season for a snowfall," Roman says.
"Early, yes, but not impossible. You know it's happened a few times before. Remember that bad winter about ten years ago?"
"How sure are you about this?" I ask Conan.
"Well, no weather forecast is 100% accurate, but I know a lot about Astoria's weather patterns, and my gut tells me we have a winter storm coming our way. Please, consider postponing your expedition, at least for a few days until we know for sure."
"A winter storm would seriously hamper our efforts," I say, looking at Roman.
"I suppose it couldn't hurt to wait a few days to see what the weather does," Roman agrees.
"In the meantime, cousin, may I suggest we begin stockpiling enough to food and necessities for everyone?"
Roman nods. "You are right, Conan. We should start now."
"Let's get a group together for a hunt," I tell the men.
"You're going to postpone the mission all because your cousin has a 'feeling'?" Grayer complains to Roman as we tromp through the woods on a hunting excursion.
Roman stops walking and turns around to look Grayer in the eyes. "No one questioned the Ancient One when he predicted Angel's arrival."
"That's different. The Ancient One is a seer. Your cousin is not."
"You know, they have these people in my world that study and predict the weather all of the time," I say to break the tension. "We call them meteorologists."
"And let me guess…they're right every time," Grayer says with a sarcastic tone.
"No, they're not always right. In fact, sometimes, they're surprised. But that's not the point. The point is that Conan has picked up signs that a winter storm is coming. It's best we be prepared lest we all starve. Agree?"
Grayer rolls his eyes. "Fine," he mutters. "I just hope we're not out here wasting our time."
"We're not wasting our time," I tell him. "We're feeding hungry people. Our efforts out here are never wasted."
"Guys, quiet," Walker says, holding up his hand. "I think I just spotted a herd of deer up ahead."
Being quiet is not exactly easy considering the ground is covered with dry leaves, but I'm glad to have something else to focus on other than Grayer's perpetual bad mood. One deer will feed many. More than one deer will feed a lot more. The four of us move in for a closer look as quietly as possible, and sure enough, we see a small group of deer.
I reach for the crossbow I'm carrying and load it with an arrow. Walker is already aiming his to shoot. Next to me, I spot Grayer concentrating on the herd with a tight grip on his knife, poised to throw it at the herd any moment.
"We should aim for them at the same time or they'll all spook and run off," Walker whispers.
"I know the drill kid," Grayer says. "We've done this quite a few times before."
Walker rolls his eyes in response.
Sensing the men need a little direction, I jump in. "Look, let's make this easy. Walker, you take the one on the left. I'll take the one in the center. Grayer, you think your knife can hit the one on the right?"
"As long as he doesn't move, yeah, it'll be a piece of cake." Grayer gives me a look as if I have insulted him in some way, then looks to Roman. "What's the matter, Roman? Are you feeling left out because you didn't bring a throwing weapon?"
Roman just smiles. "We'll see how glorious you feel when we encounter a wolf and all you've got is your puny knife."
"Guys, how about a little less bickering before these deer run off?"
Roman nods. "Apologies, Angel. Please, let's get this deer hunt over with so we can hurry back home."
The deer, fortunately, are still grazing in the meadow. I nod at Walker, who nods back, and on the count of three we make our move.
The three deer fall to the ground. The villagers will eat good tonight, and for many more nights too.
The ground was covered with a light dusting of snow, but the roads were clear at least. I drove slowly around the winding road, not wanting an accident to ruin the weekend I had planned for Buffy and myself.
She sat next to me and fiddled with the heat knobs again. She was always cold. I had some ideas in mind to warm her up though.
"Are we almost there?" Buffy asked, like an impatient child on a road trip.
"I think so. It should be just a few more miles up ahead."
"So how do you know about this cabin?"
"Doyle knows a guy. I guess it belongs to him and he owed Doyle a favor. I think he uses it for hunting and fishing. It's pretty isolated."
"So in other words…we can be as loud as we want?"
I glanced at Buffy and smiled at her. "Yeah, we can be loud. Well, you're the one that makes all the noise. Me not so much."
Buffy moved her hand to touch behind my neck, gently massaging it. "That sounds like a challenge to me. I'm going to make you howl."
She leaned forward and kissed the side of my neck.
"We're never going to make it to the cabin if you keep doing that."
Buffy laughed softly. Her breath tickled my ear. "What if I don't want to wait?"
"You're just going to have to tough it out," I teased her, though the waiting was difficult for me as well.
Up ahead, I saw some movement near the bushes alongside the road. I eased down on the brake and brought the car to a stop.
"Why are we stopping? Did you change your mind?" Buffy leaned forward to kiss my neck again.
"No. Look up."
A small deer, probably a fawn, emerged from the bushes. The animal gingerly stepped on the pavement with its hooved toes. Behind the fawn, a doe appeared. She followed the younger deer and skipped ahead, then stopped in the middle of the road. She looked at my vehicle just a few feet away, and it didn't faze her at all.
"Maybe you should honk the horn to get them moving," Buffy suggested.
I tried that, but the deer continued to stare at my car, unmoving. I looked to Buffy. "We may be here a while."
"Good thing you didn't hit them. That would not have been pretty."
"Yeah, no kidding. Can you imagine the damage they would have done to my car?"
Buffy smiled at me. "I was referring to there being deer guts everywhere, but yeah, your car would be sad sight too."
I shrugged. "Well at least we'd get a meal out of it."
Buffy hit me lightly on the arm. "You're horrible," she teased.
"What? You've never had venison before?"
Buffy cocked an eyebrow at me. "No. Have you?"
"Back in my Ireland days, but not very often. If you were poor, meat was scarce. But it wasn't bad if I remember."
Buffy grimaced. "If you say so."
"Maybe we should go out for it sometime. This time, you'll be the one trying something new."
"Only if I was starving and stranded in the woods and had nothing else to eat would I eat a deer."
Behind us, a car tooted on its horn, and I realized the deer finally crossed the road.
"You know, I've had deer blood before too," I said with a laugh, if only to get a rise out of Buffy.
It's cloudy the next afternoon as Walker and I are on watch. From the west, I can see dark clouds starting to roll in, and every now and then, a gust of wind makes the tree branches shake. Beside me, I see Walker wrap his thin coat over him a little tighter.
"You think Conan's right?" Walker asks. "About the weather?"
"It's very possible, yes."
"Well maybe it'll be a blessing in disguise."
I look at Walker, unsure of what he means. "Why do you say that?"
"Because if a blizzard is coming, it'll at least keep the Invaders at bay."
Now Walker looks at me, confused. "You don't think so?"
"I think we should never let our guard down when it comes to the Invaders."
"You think they're planning an attack on us?"
Walker looks nervous, and I almost hate to break it to him. "Of course they're planning an attack. You don't think they'll retaliate against us after the damage we did to them in the Sea District? No, they're coming after us for sure. Which is why we need to be extra vigilant. But you're right, maybe the winter storm is a blessing."
"It keeps us here to defend the home base."
Walker nods, then resumes his scanning of the horizon with his binoculars. I've got my sights on the clouds. As I look at the endless gray sky, I feel something cold and wet hit my cheek. From the corner of my eye, I spot a white flake floating in the air. Then another. And another.
Walker puts his binoculars down and looks at the snow falling. "Well, I guess Conan was right."
"Yep, Conan was right."
"Grayer's going to eat crow," Walker says with a laugh.
Buffy and I watched the snow falling outside from the comfort of the couch. We were huddled underneath a blanket with the fire and hot chocolate keeping us warm.
"Does it snow in Ireland, or is it always cloudy and rainy?" Buffy asked me.
"Yeah, it snows there, but maybe not as much as the rest of Europe. Ireland's weather is pretty mild most of the year."
"Maybe one day you could take me there," Buffy said. Underneath the blanket, she snuggled up against me a little closer.
"I'd love to take you to Ireland. It's beautiful there."
"It's beautiful here too." Buffy looked up and smiled at me. "Thank you for taking me here."
"Happy Valentine's Day," I said, though technically, it was a few days away.
"Happy Valentine's Day," she said back, then moved forward to kiss me. I tasted chocolate on her lips.
The snow, light at first, picks up by later that afternoon. By evening, it's coming down hard. The wind has picked up too, howling and blowing snow every which way. It continues for days, and we have to work around the clock just to keep a path cleared so we're not snowed-in.
While the adults huddle together, the children are restless. Myles begs his father relentlessly to let him go outside to play in the snow. We do let the children out occasionally. They need sunlight and fresh air, and nobody enjoys being cooped-up in the tunnels day in and day out. But the fear that the Invaders will strike makes Roman wary to let his children out.
"Maybe when it stops snowing, son," Roman tells him.
Myles turns to me. "Is it still snowing, Angel?"
He knows I just came from outside. I stare at Myles' pleading blue eyes, and don't know what to say. Roman gives me a warning look, but it's nearly impossible to say no to a face like that. Behind him, little Serena is anxiously awaiting my answer too. "It's uh…off and on. Maybe you better wait until you father says it's okay to go."
The children now turn their pleading eyes to their father.
"Please, father?" Myles asks.
Roman sighs, then finally relents. "Alright, but only for ten minutes. Get your coats."
Myles and Serena cheer, then race down the hallway to their bunker.
Roman looks up at me. "This has been hard on the children."
I nod. "What was an adventure for them at first has now become being cooped up all the time."
"Exactly. It's hard to not allow them to have a little fun."
The children are back, bundled up in record time with coats, hats, and gloves.
I feel a tug on my pants, and look down to see Serena staring at me with her big blue eyes. "Are you coming too, Angel?"
I give the girl a smile. "Sure, I'll come. Sounds like fun."
We take the children to a sheltered area with a lot of mountainous rock for cover.
"I'm going to build a snowman!" Myles says and grabs a handful of snow.
"I'm making footprints," Serena says as she runs over fresh patches of snow. She takes a tumble a few moments later, but laughs as she wallows in the slush.
I can't help but smile as I watch the children having fun.
Outside our isolated cabin, the snow had covered the ground in a thick blanket.
"Oh it's so beautiful," Buffy said as she stepped outside. Her boots made impressions in the snow as she took a few steps.
"You know what this makes me think of?" I asked her.
Buffy turned to me and smiled. "I know. It makes me think about that day too." Buffy moved closer and placed her gloved hands onto my shoulders. "I'm so glad it snowed that day. When I think about how close I came to losing you. If you had gone, we would have missed our chance to be together."
"I'm glad we didn't."
"I guess some higher power up there is fighting for us to be together."
I wrapped my arms around her and pressed her closer to me, then kissed her. When we finally came up for air, I saw a glint of excitement in Buffy's eyes.
"Come on!" she said as she grabbed my hand and led me to a fresh patch of snow. "Let's build a snowman!"
"I don't really know how."
Buffy looked at me, surprised. "What? You mean in all of your days in Ireland, you never built a snowman?"
"Back then, snow was more of an inconvenience. Plus, we didn't always get enough. I guess you'll have to show me how."
Buffy frowned. "I don't know how either. I grew up in southern California, remember?" Her smile then returned, and she reached down and grabbed a handful of snow. "I guess we could give it the old college try though. How hard could it be?"
Our snowman, if you could call it a snowman, turned out to be a lump of snow with two sticks for arms and rocks for the facial features. We never could get the snow perfectly rounded.
"Well, it sort of resembles a snowman," I said.
"No, it resembles a sack of potatoes."
Buffy caught my gaze and laughed.
"Although, despite my lack of experience with snow, I have discovered that there's something I'm very good at."
"What's that?" I asked her.
"Making snowballs!" Buffy shouted before hurling one at me. It hit me on the shoulder, and was quickly followed by another one that hit me in the face.
I wiped the cold snow off my cheek and pretended to be angry. "You're going to pay for that, you know."
Buffy ran off with me chasing after her. I grabbed fistful of snow and threw it at her back. She ducked behind a bush and popped up seconds later. She threw more snowballs in my general direction before taking off again.
I reached for another handful of snow and circled around the other way, meeting her head-on. My snowball landed on the side of her face, and Buffy took off running again.
We continued that way for a while, playing like kids on a holiday from school. Finally, I managed to catch up with her and scooped her up from behind. Buffy alternated between laughing and screaming. Then somehow, I lost my footing, and we both tumbled to the snow-covered ground. I tickled her and made her laugh some more. We moved around the snow for a while as she tried to get me back. Eventually, we both needed to catch our breath, and I smiled at her as she lay beneath me.
Buffy reached up to touch my face. Her gloves were wet with snow, and she smiled at me. "I like this side of you."
"What side of me?"
"The side of you that's carefree and playful. The side that's not so serious all the time. I didn't get to see that side of you very often when you were a vampire."
"I thought you said my serious side was sexy."
"Oh, it is. But I like this playful side of you too."
I leaned down and kissed her, and then we begin to have what Buffy liked to call a serious make-out session right there in the snow.
"Angel?" she said after a while, interrupting our moment.
"I'm cold again."
"Oh. Then maybe I better take you inside and warm you up."
Buffy smiled. "Yes, I think you'd better."
I stood up and helped Buffy to her feet. Then when she wasn't expecting it, I scooped her up into my arms, which made her laugh.
I carried her back inside the cabin.
By the time winter officially arrived, it had already had Astoria in its grip for weeks. The temperature barely made it above freezing most days. And even when the snow did have a chance to melt, it wouldn't last for long before another blast would cover the ground again. And not just snow, but freezing rain too. According to Conan, it was one of the worst winters Astoria had ever experienced.
The weather kept us from fighting, while the risk of hypothermia forced us to take shorter guard shifts. Food was beginning to become scarce. And since we were all keeping such closer quarters, a cold virus began to make its rounds.
"Here, breathe some steam." Althea places a steaming bowl of water on the table in front of me in an attempt to alleviate my nasal congestion.
"Thanks, Althea." She nods, then moves on to her next patient. I lean over the bowl and cover my head with a towel to help keep the steam in.
"Althea? I need your help."
I recognize Alicia's voice, who sounds panicked. I remove the towel from my head and look up.
"What's the matter, Alicia?" Althea asks in a calm voice.
"It's Walker and the girls. Walker's been sick to his stomach ever since last night and the girls have been vomiting since early this morning."
I exchange a look with Althea and can almost read her mind. It's just what we need…a stomach virus making the rounds too.
I wake up hours before dawn. My congestion is better, but something else is wrong. The contents of my stomach swim around until I feel it coming up. Luckily, I make it to the trashcan in time. When I finally feel that I'm not going to lose it again, I carefully stand up and make my way down the hallway for some of Althea's ginger tea. Looks like the bug has me now.
Later, Roman gives me a concerned look as I meet him for our morning guard shift. "You okay?"
I ease myself into a sitting position and wince, careful not to jostle the meager contents of my stomach this morning. "I've been up since two in the morning with the trash bucket by my bed."
"You too, huh?"
I nod. "It's easing off some. It could be the virus, but I can't be certain it wasn't something I had at dinner. What about you?"
"Same. Nauseas all night, but it's easing off. Can't say that about everybody though. Althea says it's getting worse."
"Guess these things just have to run their course, huh?"
Roman nods, then grabs his binoculars to scan the horizon.
I don't mention it to Roman, but I really hope today is not the day the Invaders decide to retaliate. I'm feeling too weak to fight.
It's going to be a long day.
Over the next few days, the stomach virus continues to spreads. I'm still feeling a little sick myself, but others are definitely in worse shape.
Althea, who feels bad herself, looks worn out from taking care of everybody else.
"Can I help you with something?" I offer.
Althea smiles at me. "Thank you, but I've done all I can do. Sometimes these viruses have to simply run their course. How are you feeling?"
"Not as bad as these guys." I glance at the man on the cot who suddenly rolls over to vomit in a bucket. "Althea, why don't you sit down? You look exhausted."
"I am." Althea takes my suggestion and sits down at a nearby table. "I just don't understand."
"Don't understand what?"
"I've been so diligent about washing my hands and keeping these areas clean. I'm used to being around sick people. I know all of the precautions. So how did I manage to get this bug too?"
"It's a strong virus and we're living in close quarters. Everyone it seems has been feeling ill."
Althea nods. "That's what really concerns me. All at once, it seems everyone has come down with this strange bug. Some not as bad as others, but I'm very worried about the ones that are in worse shape."
"Yes. They should have gotten better by now. They're losing fluids at an alarming rate, and it seems as if the more water I give them, the worse—"
Althea trails off and becomes very quiet, as if lost in thought. She looks worried.
"Althea? What is it?"
"Just a minute." Althea rushes to the kitchen area and returns with a small plant in her hand. It's an herb of some variety, and its once green and vibrant leaves are now wilted and brown.
"It needs water," I tell her.
Althea shakes her head. "It's had water. It wasn't like this yesterday."
I'm not sure where she's going with this, but from the look on her face, I can tell the news isn't good. "Althea? What is it?"
Althea looks up from the plant and stares at me. "I think I know why everyone is feeling ill. It's the water. Our water supply has been tainted."
"Do you mean the Invaders…?" I don't finish my question. I don't have to.
Althea nods. "I think so."
"How sure are you that it's the water?"
"Well, these are the signs of water poisoning, and everyone has been feeling ill. Some more than others though. Angel, you store bottles of water in your bunker, right?"
"Yes, water from the spring."
"So do we. But not everyone here does that, and that would explain why some are sicker. They've been drinking the contaminated water."
"And I started feeling sick after dinner, after I drank from the tainted supply."
"We need to stop further consumption of it, before this situation gets anymore out of hand."
"Althea, how bad could this get?"
Althea looks to the sick lying in cots, then turns back to me. "If their immune systems are weak and they're exposed to it for prolonged periods of time, then this situation could very well be fatal."