Stephen scanned the surrounding area again, his eyes pausing at every outcropping, bit of brush, and whisper of sound. The dark red rocks worked as camouflage for most creatures, and the dust storms that usually hid their tracks didn't stir this far north, making it easier for predators to find them. The high ground wasn't enough to protect them, not with their fire burning, but Father had insisted upon it.
Stephen rose, moving away from the ledge and towards the pool of water.
This was the one and only time of year they truly bathed. Not just a quick splash on the unclean parts of his body, but immersion, purifying. Their skin was too other and different to make this safe on the lowlands where even the weakest predator could see their thin, fragile hide. They were prey-like in scent and creation, if not in practice.
The years, of which Father never seemed to lose count, had made familiar the smell of excrement and the Gilfla skins they used to cover themselves, causing the scent of his own flesh to seem unnatural in comparison.
He removed his clothing, stretching out and clamping his jaw down, not reacting to the painful, stinging cold. It took him a minute of flexing and loosening his muscles before he was able to adjust enough to wash. The water was gritty and red with dirt, scouring his skin pink as it sloughed off the layers of animal waste and earth.
Quick and methodical, he washed himself, remembering to pay special attention the unclean parts of his body as he struggled to keep his breathing even. Despite his best efforts, his hands still shook and his teeth jarred together.
When he finished, Stephen stood up and beat his clothing against the rocks, puffs of dust filling the air, the ground vibrating under his feet and echoing off the cliffs below him. Their trip here was unwise, but it was the exposure that unsettled him. His manhood shrunk from the cold, knocked against his upper thigh, drawing attention to his vulnerable position. It would be an ideal time for an attack.
"It gets colder every year," Father said as Stephen walked back to the fire some time later, dressed and no longer shivering.
With one last look into the darkness, Stephen sat down, moving his hands closer to the heat and nodding. It didn't seem any cooler, but he was young and didn't have the advantage of pure human blood running through him.
"The fire needs to be hotter," he said, moving to their pile of Freshdi branches and throwing a few in.
"Don't waste any more. It needs to last us the night." Father's voice was like hard things rubbing together. His body had aged, wrinkled and slumped as if it grew weary of this life, but none of that could be heard in his voice. It was as strong and unmovable as it had been when Stephen was still an unsure child.
Stephen settled down into a crouch, not bothering to give the illusion of relaxation. Here, in this place, it was up to him to protect them both.
"Tell me about them again, Father," he said softly.
It was strange, the idea that Father had children and a wife before him. That he'd lived in a place where there were others of their kind, where small children could play in the sun, and there was peace. Maybe there Christmas day could mean something more than religious hymns spoken for a savior that couldn't deliver them from this place.
"He'd save us if he could, Son, but God doesn't live here. We're in the land of sin and darkness. It is up to us to purify this place and make it hospitable for us. God gave you to me to protect, and he brought us here for a reason. Trust in that."
Staring into the fire, Stephen listened to his father, his eyes unblinking. It was Christmas day, or as close to Christmas as his father could estimate with only the use of stars and moon cycles to guide them. This meant that instead of stories of what their life could've been like on their ranch, he'd have his father's tale of his dead family and their last Christmas on earth. The reverent tone his father used when speaking of those long dead loved ones brought a tightness to his chest, but he comforted himself with the knowledge that the dead should be honored, and even if he didn't inspire such looks of devotion, jealousy dishonored his father's teachings.
Hours after the words had faded, Stephen remained awake, gazing into the fire, listening to the wheeze of his father's breath, and wondering if the white spots before his eyes looked anything like his father's snow.
Connor woke up in his bed, blinking rapidly against the light coming through his window.
"You'll be late for school if you don't get a move on, sweetie," his mother said, her voice soothing the shakes that had thrummed over his limbs.
Connor relaxed into his mattress, clutching his blanket close, and shoving his head into the pillows. The heat from his slept in sheets banished the residual cold that seemed to stay with him after the dreams had faded. His bed tilted, his mother's lotion-softened hand running through his hair, moving it away from his face.
"Yeah, it's nothing - no big deal."
"Sure you don't want to talk about it?" Her voice was soft, concerned, weak.
"It's nothing, Mom. Really," Connor said, lifting his head up and giving her a smile. He didn't want to know where his thoughts came from on these mornings. "They're just weird. Nothing your smart, handsome, college-bound son can't handle."
"In that case," she said, standing up, "I'd rather have my good-looking son out of bed and into the shower before he's late for his hard-working mom's breakfast."
"I'm up. I'm up." He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, arms stretched above his head.
He smiled and joked for a few moments, finally breathing a sigh of relief when she shut the door. He didn't drop the jovial expression until he heard the pots and pans clanging together in the kitchen. He wasn't in his room, but back in a cold, dark place with the sound of a crackling fire.
"I don't understand, Charles. We should have heard something by now." Fred's voice rose and fell, the scent of fear sharpening as the days went by.
Stephen wondered why, after all this time, they didn't remember just how good his hearing was.
Maybe because she was worried, and Gunn was silent but for his deep intake of breath. They'd been having the same conversation for weeks. They would mention leads, decided not to tell him about the latest one until they had proof of where Angel was, and now it was time for Gunn to calm her down with large, heavy hands. It reminded him of how Father could gentle the smaller, less fierce animals with his calm, slow heartbeat and steady movements.
They never expected him to slit their throats with the makeshift knife he kept palmed in his left hand.
Making his way down the stairs and outside to the place where the flowers grew, Stephen took a deep breath, satisfied that he'd made it without either of them seeing him. They appeared to be good, to care for him, but, Stephen reminded himself, they knew what his fa - what the demon was, and they chose to work for him, to protect him. They were his enemies.
"Hey," Gunn said, the creak of the door giving away his presence half a second before Stephen heard the words. "Fred and I are going out for burritos. You wanna come with?"
Stephen continued to stare at the flower in front of him. He'd asked Fred and Gunn the name of it the night after Angelus had gone into the ocean, but he couldn't seem to remember it. Yet, somehow, everything else that happened that evening was clear in his mind. They'd destroyed a demon nest, Gunn had showed him the proper arrangement of the weapons cabinet, and Fred had told stories from when he was still an infant. They were still happy then, reassuring him that Angel was fine and that he and Cordelia just needed some private time. As if Stephen was too young to know they assumed the two were somewhere fornicating.
"I could eat," Stephen said, mimicking the phrase that Gunn so often said.
"Please, kid, you ain't fooling me. You're always hungry," Gunn opened the double doors and led them inside. "Almost eat more than my girl."
"You're coming," Fred said, poking her head out from the office door. "We were planning stop by Armola's, but you liked the chicken burritos at Arroyo's better, didn't you? I prefer tacos and enchiladas, and there was this little place near the college I went to that sold the best shredded beef ones. Much better than any I've - I think the rice is a little spicier at Armola's, but they're right down the street from each other, and the time it'd take us to go to both really isn't that long at all."
Stephen nodded his head and grinned at her, his cheek muscles straining under the effort.
"I'll just set these down." She walked out of the office, gesturing to the stack of books in her arms, her arms looking too fragile to carry something that large without help.
"Connor and I'll wait outside for you." Gunn turned his back to them both, assuming Stephen would follow.
A vision flew through Stephen's head at that moment; a picture of Gunn lying on the floor of the Hyperion with Stephen looming over him, fists moving quick and deadly, rupturing skin. "It's not my name. Never my name. Never my father. I'm not his son."
Instead, Stephen followed behind him, reminding himself that humans were not to be harmed. God would punish them in His own time.
"I'm worried about you," Tracy breathed, her neck thrown back as Connor's mouth moved against her throat.
Connor followed the blue veins on her neck with his teeth, marking her. "What about?"
"You're not - oh god," her words cut off as she moaned, "you - ahh - you've been acting strange lately."
"Strange how?" Connor asked, pulling back to stare at her, her eyes still closed as his fingers continued to move between her thighs.
"You're just not here with - don't stop, please, don't stop -"
"I'm with you," he said, leaning over to cover her mouth with his. Teeth scraped against her lips. "Don't I feel here?"
"Yes - yes, you're here. You're here." She said, trying to move closer to him. "Love you, Connor. Love you so much."
And with that, his desire was gone. She was too pale, too thin, and she - no. Connor shook his head, pushing himself away from her.
"Connor, what's wrong? Connor? Talk to me. What's going on?"
He leaned toward Cordelia - no, no this was Tracy. His Tracy. The girl he loved. The girl he met in kindergarten, had climbed trees with in junior high, and had been dating since he was fourteen. "I'm fine. Just got a little dizzy."
"Are you sure?" She said, running her hand down the side of his face. Her blue eyes so concerned
Other eyes, blue and filled with worry, pain. Another hand - calloused and male, cupping his face as a lick of pain crossed his chest.
Connor leaned forward his mouth on her again, kissing her breathless. "Couldn't be more sure."
"Ok, if you say so."
"Now what were we doing again?" The smile on his face felt alien and predatory.
"Check the doors. Connor and I are in front."
"Angel, this is a small airport. We've already taken precautions, and I doubt there's any dang -" Wes stared at the vampire for a moment before breaking into a smile. "Fine, but there's nothing to worry about. We did an excellent job setting up her security."
"I just want to be sure. I -- this is her first vacation. I don't want -"
"Don't worry, Dad." Connor said, laying a hand on his dad's shoulder. "Everything's fine. We'll protect her."
They exchanged a smile. "Ready?" Angel asked, relaxing a bit under the touch.
"Yeah." He said, moving to the door, side by side with Angel.
The doors opened, a rush of cool air filling the airplane. It smelled clean.
They moved out of the door and down the steps of the plane, Angel slightly ahead of Connor. His bulk worked as a shield for his son as their eyes swept the airport. Connor's thoughts were empty of anyone but himself, but he could tell from his father's nodding that he was in contact with the others.
As much as Connor was trying to focus on possible threats, his eyes kept focusing on the long expanses of white snow. Real snow. Completely unlike he'd imagined it.
A moment later, Jasmine appeared on the steps, her dress flowing behind her as she smiled at them all. She moved down the stairs, Gunn and Wesley at her side with their weapons drawn.
The procession made their way to the limo, visibly loosening as they managed to get closer to the car without incident. Angel made it first, opening the door and beckoning them all through.
Connor settled himself into the seat next to Jasmine. There was something wrong here. Something false, but after looking at everyone else, he focused his eyes outside the window. None of them seemed to notice.
"Now this is what I'm talking about. I could get used to this," Gunn said, opening up a drawer and pulling out a beer.
Drinks were passed around, and the remainder of the car ride was silent. He knew the others were speaking to one another; occasionally a laugh would escape them, but aloud there was nothing. It was as if he were deaf. Either way, he was excluded.
"Don't worry, Connor. It'll come to you one day as well. Just be patient." Jasmine said, squeezing his hand as their limo came to a stop. "We're here."
Connor took his first step out of the vehicle, the snow crunching under his feet.
"Isn't it perfect?" She whispered, standing at his back. "Isn't it beautiful? Everything you imagined it would be."
Connor looked into her eyes and wondered how she could see so much of the others and so little of him. Not only was he set apart from the rest of them, but he was only a shadow for her as well.
"Yes," he said, moving to pick up the snow. It wasn't soft but solid and heavy. Sharp edges dug into his palm as his fingers started to tingle and go numb.
This was what his first father had seen, but it wasn't like he'd described it. Connor turned to look at Angel, already at the door, moving from one key to the next and mumbling about how someone should color code or make tags for them if they wanted people to ever get into the places they rented.
"How long will we be here?" Connor asked Wes.
"As long as Jasmine wishes. She hasn't given us a specific date for our return, but considering her success in England and France, I imagine we could be here for quite some time."
Nodding, Connor looked over to see Angel finally managing to find the right key and opened the door. Angel's rarely seen smile flashed as he waited on the porch for the others.
"You're bleeding," Wes said, drawing his attention away from his father as he followed Wes' eyes to his hand.
His palm had a shallow slice. The blood ran across his fingers and fell onto the white ground, staining it crimson.
"Always am," Connor replied, walking towards the house. "It just doesn't hurt anymore."
He glanced back once before the door into their new home shut behind him. The snow had been desecrated; everything was red and glistening.
"We're going to make you better, Connor. We'll figure something out."
The words drifted to him through the void, and he did his best to latch onto them. The fuzziness in his mind could pick out the familiarity of the voice even if the words didn't make sense.
"That one wasn't real. I - I killed her. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. My baby. You didn't deserve her." Even though he spoke the words, they felt far away. They were drifting from him, and he couldn't catch them. Couldn't prove them. Couldn't show his parents that weren't his parents that they weren't real, and this wasn't real.
"Listen to the doctor, honey. He's here to help you."
He opened his eyes and tried to grab onto his father's hands. Not his God given father. Not his demon father. This was the imposter father. But he couldn't move. His head, arms, and legs were strapped, held down. "Where did he go? What did he do to me?"
"Nothing, son. They're not here yet, but they're coming. They'll make it better. I swear."
"I wanted it to end. I just wanted to stop." Connor whispered
There were tears then, coursing down this father's face and falling onto Connor's cheek, and Connor remembered his own falling onto Holtz. Crying for his father. Mourning for a life built on lies and deceptions.
If there was a God, he didn't live here either.