Chapter Forty Six: Shocked Shadows
Summary: End of the trial and learning the news at home.
Spike could feel the bounds of the spell tying him to Xander. It was a strange feeling, like Xander was beside him even when he wasn’t. Robin kept staring at them, as if the green man saw something in them, something other, and was comparing it to the reality. It spooked him a bit, but he didn’t mind. Robin was good people in his book
Testing the pull of the tether, Spike shuddered. When he was too far away from Xander, the tether would send warnings out to him, starting with a light tickle running up and down his spine until finally it would send a burst of pain and transport him to Xander’s location. The fact that something had that much power over him was unnerving, but he would put up with it for Xander’s sake. After all, it was one more way he could keep his mate safe in these troubled time.
The trip back to the court house was silent. Everyone was on guard. W&H were going to try something, that they were sure of, but no one knew what or when.
They filed into the court room and awaited the judge, the opposition’s lawyers looking smug.
“I’ve looked over everything and thought carefully about this,” the judge began. “With the evidence presented, the only compassionate thing I can do is allow Alexander Harris to remain where he is. It is obvious his family loves him. It is also obvious that the Council of Elders wish him to remain there. I am also ruling that Wolfram and Hart are to take no actions against Alexander Harris or anyone he considers family and/or friends without just cause. If you are found in violation of this I will punish you to the full extent of this court. I’m sure you know what that means. New houses are so hard to come by these days.”
The W&H lawyers paled, one dropping into his seat. All nodded.
“Good. Case closed. Have a good day.”
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Robin said as he followed them out of the court house.
“The judge’s ruling against the idiots?” Doyle asked. Robin nodded. “Neither were we. I figured we’d win and have to spend our time still fighting them off. That was kind of shocking.”
“No really,” Spike said, walking with his arm around Xander. “He must know what they’re like if they don’t get their way. So he just preempted anything they might try.”
“They’ll still try something,” Angel added.
“Yeah, but not yet,” Spike said. “They’ll wait until they’re not being watched as hard anymore. Especially since they’ll think we’ve lowered our guard at that point.”
“Definitely not going to be lowering our guard,” Angel growled. “We’re going to work on the protections around the hotel and the ones on all of us. I don’t think they’ll hesitate to take one of us out to get to Xander.”
Xander shivered and pressed closer to Spike. He didn’t like this, but it was true.
“Why couldn’t we go home a different way?” Spike groused, holding onto his trembling mate.
“Because this way we could be assured you arrived at your destination,” Robin explained. “Despite the judge’s words, I wouldn’t put it past the senior partners to divert your journey to a place of their choosing. This ensures that you get home since the portal was created by an Elder.”
“Well, at least it’s a short trip,” Doyle said with a shrug as he landed on the ground outside the Hyperion.
“That too,” Robin laughed, reaching down to help the seer up.
As the others exited the portal, the front door to their home opened and a black blur slammed into Xander, nearly knocking him over. Smiling widely, he hugged Hella to his chest, letting her rumbling purr sooth him. He had missed his little hellcat. He had missed his home. Noise at the doors caught his attention and he watched as Angel and Spike stared at Cordy, identical expressions of shock on their faces.
“Hi guys,” Cordy grinned. “Surprise.”
“What? How?” Angel stuttered.
“If you’re asking that then Doyle’s falling down on the job,” Spike snarked as he walked up to Cordy. “Can I?” She nodded and he placed his hand over her stomach,concentrating. Xander realized he could feel an echo of what Spike was experiencing and vowed to talk to the others about it, but for now he focused on the fluttering beat his mate could feel.
After a moment Spike dropped his hand and stepped back. “Congrats.”
“Thanks,” she whispered, throwing her arms around him in a hard hug. “Dru says girl.”
“She’ll probably be right,” Spike nodded. “I can’t tell yet though. A few months and I will.”
Spike stepped back over to Xander and wrapped his lover in a loose embrace, both watching as Angel strode over to Cordelia, staring hard down at her. When she started to get that irritated look, he pulled her into a hug, whispering too softly for even Spike to hear. She sniffled and hugged him tight before he handed her back to Wes.
“We’re going to have to do some renovations,” Doyle said contemplatively. “Not quite safe as it is.”
Angel groaned. “I have to spend more money?”
Chapter Forty Seven: Skittish Shadows
Summary: Things start to heat up and heat up
There was a strange feeling swirling around the hotel. It was more than just the new magic being worked in. Much more than the construction happening to update the building. It had nothing to do with the construction workers and the caterers called to feed them. Instead, it was a feeling that left Xander twitchy and jumpy, only feeling safe snuggled down between Dru and Spike in their suite. He had mentioned it to the others, but Doyle wasn’t seeing anything, Angel and Spike promised to be on the look out and Dru was strangely silent. Overall, he wasn’t comfortable. Something was going to happen and he had a feeling it wasn’t something good.
“What’s wrong, luv?”
Xander looked up at his Mate, shrugging slightly. He didn’t know how to explain his feelings more than he already had. Just feeling strange.
“Still?” Spike asked, sitting down and curling around Xander. “I’ve had Wes look and see if anything was coming up, but there’s nothing other than that idiot Hellgoddess in Sunnydale.”
Maybe that’s what I’m feeling, Xander wrote. That hadn’t even occurred to him. The presence of Charity, Faith and Mr. Giles had become common place and he had forgotten they were actually hiding from the insane demonic deity.
“Good chance,” Spike agreed, hugging him tightly. “But we’re working on it.”
Do we know who her host is yet?
“No clue,” the vampire admitted. “But we’ve got it narrowed down. Whoever it is works at the hospital.”
We need to figure it out soon, Xander scribbled. Or we’ll all be in danger.
“We will, luv,” Spike promised. “We will.”
Warm and cool flesh slide together, followed by ragged moans and breathy gasps. Shivering, Doyle arched into his husband’s touch, almost desperate. Angel chuckled, pressing the smaller man down into the bed as he tormented pale skin with teeth, lips and tongue. Red marks sprung up in his wake, littering that fragile skin with his claim. The demon in Angel loved seeing his husband wearing his marks, ownership visible for all to see. Hot hands tangled in his hair and pulled him up so their mouths met in a needy kiss. Doyle wiggled until Angel was settled between his legs, hard flesh meeting between them.
“Angel,” Doyle gasped, rocking up into his husband’s solid body. “Please.”
Angel didn’t reply verbally, instead he slid a hand down and under, fingers somehow already slick finding and breaching the guardian muscle. It was only moments before Doyle was begging, body writhing under Angel’s as the larger man carefully prepped him. It wasn’t really needed with how often they made love, but Angel still took his time, showing his love with careful touches.
Fed up, Doyle snarled and pushed hard, rolling Angel off. Before the vampire could react, he was slathering a layer of lube over Angel’s cock and sliding himself down on it. Moaning and shaking, Doyle paused when he reached bottom, the stretchy burn almost more than he could handle. He loved that part. The borderline between pain and pleasure when he took his husband into his body. Cool hands curved around his hips and he met Angel’s eyes, smirking as they flashed between gold and brown. Slowly he began to move, easing up just a bit before sinking back down. Beneath him, Angel panted needlessly, hands still gently cupping his hips. While Doyle loved how gentle his husband could be, he rather wished Angel would lose control and just take him. Other than the quickly fading marks the vampire left, Angel was never rough, never harsh and Doyle was set on changing that.
With a wicked grin he rose up farther until Angel was barely connected to him. He waited until Angel’s hands tightened slightly as the vampire fought for control, then he slammed down, nearly screaming as Angel’s cock managed to hit just so on his prostate. Angel’s hands convulsed on his hips, sure to leave bruises. Still the vampire held on to his control. So Doyle did it again, and again, until finally Angel snapped, flipping them back over and pounding into Doyle’s body. The half-demon reveled in the feeling, knowing he was going to be feeling it for days. But he didn’t care. At that moment it was the most perfect sensation in the world. Then Doyle was screaming as his orgasm hit and sharp teeth sank into his neck and the world whited out.
“Took you long enough,” Spike remarked from the doorway.
Angel glanced up at his Grandchilde, growling a little. “What are you talking about?”
Spike only smirked. “Remember it has to go both ways.”
The dark vampire watched as the blonde walked away, the door shutting softly behind him before he looked down at the dazed man in his arms. Then he realized what Spike had meant. There on Doyle’s neck was a Mate bite. For them to be fully Mated, Doyle had to mark him as well in blood and semen. He met serious green eyes and wondered what was going through his husband’s mind.
“My turn now?” Doyle asked huskily.
Angel shivered and nodded. Spike was right, they had taken long enough.
“She knows,” Mr. Giles whispered, staring in shock at the phone in his hand. “She’s on her way here.”
“The Hellgoddess?” Angel asked, taking the phone from the Watcher and hanging it up.
“Yes,” the mortal blinked. “She’ll be here soon. That was my contact back in Sunnydale.”
“Well, guess we don’t have to look for her host anymore,” Spike shrugged.
“She’s powerful,” warned Mr. Giles. “And strong. It won’t be an easy fight.”
“Three vampires, a slayer, a witch, two Watchers who can do magic and a half-demon,” Spike listed. “It won’t be a stalemate fight. We’ll win.”
“Don’t get too confident, Spike,” Angel told him. “I’ve researched her. She’s a higher level demon goddess.”
“Not too confident,” Spike replied seriously. “We won’t get out of it unscathed, but we will win.”
Mr. Giles bounced his gaze between the two of them. “While that is all good, we need to find some protected place for Charity.”
“Caritas,” Doyle offered, walking into the room. “Lorne’s got a anti-violence spell on the bar. She’ll be safe there.”
“You already asked him?” Angel asked, smiling down at his Mate.
“Yep,” Doyle smiled back. “Didn’t tell him the particulars, but did say I had a few non-combatants I needed to get out of the way.”
“Thank you,” Mr. Giles said, sagging in relief. He straightened up. “We should send them over soon. She’ll be here within a few hours.”
“I’ll take them over,” Spike stated.
“Tell Lorne we’ll call when we’re done,” Angel told him.
Spike nodded and headed to gather Xander, Cordy and Charity. Caritas would be the safest place on this realm for them. And if it wasn’t, Lorne would know where else to send them.
Chapter Forty Eight: Saddened Silence
Summary: Things go terribly wrong
Rating: R (for fighting and language)
Warnings: Hightlight for warnings.Character Death Remember though, not all is what it seems.
Some inane pop song pumped through the club’s speakers, and a slime dripping Chaos demon warbled along on stage. Xander ignored the off-tune singing, instead focusing inward and along the link between him and his Mate. He could feel everything Spike felt, from the slight hunger to the pre-battle nervousness. He kept his own emotions in check, knowing now was not the time to distract his Mate. Beside him, Charity bopped along to the music, humming quietly.
“Honey buns, we should head to the back room,” Lorne said suddenly, his red eyes staring intently at the young girl.
“What’s wrong?” Cordy asked seriously, glaring at the green demon.
“Nothing, nothing,” Lorne rushed to reassure her, his voice cracking slightly. “I just think it would be best if we moved somewhere a little more private.”
Staring at him suspiciously, Cordy nodded and urged Charity up and into the back room. The sound of the music cut off as the door closed behind them. Once in the room, the ex-cheerleader turned on the Host.
“What is going on Lorne?”
He glanced at them, then pulled Cordy off to the side. Xander strained to hear what they were saying, but they were talking too low. Cordy’s gasp of pain and shock told him clearly that all was not well. He glared at them, waiting for them to come back over. Cordy’s face was pale and her eyes large and damp. Lorne gave her a quick hug and then left them alone.
What?, he scribbled sharply.
“There’s going to be a death,” she said quietly so Charity wouldn’t hear.
“Lorne doesn’t know,” she half-sobbed. “All he knows is someone is going to die.”
Blinking heavily, Xander turned back to the link, locking his worry down and paying all the attention he could. From the spike in Spike’s emotions, he could tell that She had gotten there and the fight was going to start. Then there was fear, anger, an orgy of emotions, and then a deep pain that echoed deep in his heart, all followed by a wave of pure rage. His mouth opened in a silent scream as Spike lost all control. And the world went black.
Cordy held Charity as the young girl cried softly. Xander’s seizure had shocked both of them and when he passed out both had nearly screamed. Somehow they managed to get him on one of the couches where he now lay too still. Part of her wondered just what had happened to make Xander lose it like that while the rest really didn’t want to know. It had to be something terrible, something to do with their family fighting that Hellgoddess. A reaction like that meant something really bad.
Time passed as they waited, Charity moving from Cordy’s arms to curl up next to Xander. The lack of news was beginning to stress the ex-cheerleader and she swore she’d smack all of them when they finally got there. More time passed and she began to wonder about the nature of the universe and if anything other than the thoughts in her own mind were real. Shaking off the odd thoughts, she focused on the two across from her.
The door flying open startled her and she toppled off her chair. Sitting on the floor, she watched as a blood smeared Spike raced across the room, pushing Charity aside and gathering Xander into his arms. She noticed absently the bloody tears rolling down the blonde vampire’s cheeks as he rocked his Mate.
“Angel?” she asked quietly when the vampire entered the room. His eyes were just as wet as Spike’s, the faint tracks of wiped away tears on hischeeks. Doyle, Wes, Faith, Tara, and Mr. Giles filed into the room after him. Cordy rushed over to Wes, checking him for injuries. Then she noticed their missing member. “Dru?”
Tara began to cry, deep body wracking sobs and Faith gathered the witch into her arms, leading her over to a chair.
“Dru didn’t make it,” Wes said softly. “She came up with an idea.”
“Didn’t tell the rest of us,” Doyle added quietly.
“She and Tara switched features,” the ex-Watcher swallowed. “Glory went after what she thought was Tara, thinking her a weak target. She put her hands into Dru’s head-” He turned green and ran to the bathroom hidden off to the side.
“It seems she can suck energy and thoughts from people’s minds,” Doyle said emotionlessly. “But it doesn’t work right on vampires. It weakens her instead of strenghening her. Dru knew it somehow.”
“Where is Dru?” Cordy whispered.
“One of Glory’s minions saw what was happening and staked her,” Doyle told her flatly. “Enough damage was done that we could easily force her back to her host form and kill him.”
“Xander felt it,” she told them, watching as they all paled underneath bruises and blood. “He had a seizure and passed out.”
“Every member of the Aurelius family felt it,” Doyle told her.
“No, I mean he felt it,” Cordy stressed.
“He felt me,” Spike said hoarsely. “Told him to keep the link closed. Told him it was too dangerous. Silly boy.”
“Will he be okay?” Charity asked timidly.
Spike tried to smile to reassure her. “In time.”
He was standing in a field of flowers, the sun shining brightly down on him. Movement from his left drew his attention and he turned to watch a familiar figure dance among the multitude of blooms. He blinked in shock and stared in wonder at the way the sun brought out the highlights in Dru’s hair.
“Hello Kitten,” she smiled, coming to a stop in front of him.
“Dru?” he whispered, jumping at the sound of his own voice.
She giggled. “Who else?”
“Where are we?”
“Dreamland,” she told him, swaying slightly. “They’re letting me have a few minutes with you.”
“The Powers,” she smiled.
“You died, didn’t you?” he whispered, reaching out to touch her face.
“Someone had to,” she sighed. “I chose myself. It’s all for the best.”
“Has you and Daddy,” Dru told him. “But don’t worry Kitten, I’ll be coming back.”
“Sooner than you think.”
Chapter Forty Nine: Living Silence
Summary: The group begins to deal with the aftermath
Spike held on to his Mate as the young man slowly regained consciousness. After losing Dru, he wasn’t going to let Xander out of his sight. Burying his face in Xander’s neck, he listened to the steady heartbeat and felt the pulse beneath his lips. Here, at this moment, he knew somehow that everything was going to be alright.
“Spike,” Angel called quietly. “We need to be getting home.”
Sighing, Spike sat up and loosened his grip on Xander, letting the young man sit up as well. But Xander made no move to rise, instead he reached for his notepad and began scribbling out a frantic message.
I saw Dru.
“Where?” Spike asked, wondering if the young man had lost his mind. Dru was gone, dust covering the ground.
Dream. Spike, she said she’s coming back.
“What?” he yelled, pulling back to stare at his Mate.
She told me she’s coming back. Sooner than we think, he paused and glanced slightly at Cordy. Can we have Lorne check how, just in case.
Spike caught the look, eyes widening. “Angel, go get Lorne please.”
“Why?” the older vampire demanded. “We don’t need Lorne, we need to go home and rest.”
“Angel, if Spike thinks we need Lorne, maybe we do,” Doyle said quietly, touching his husband’s arm. “Go get him.”
Huffing, the dark vampire headed out to find the green demon, muttering under his breath. A few minutes later he returned with the Host in tow.
“What can I do for you, honeycakes?” Lorne asked Spike.
Xander shoved the notepad into his hands, letting him read what he had told Spike.
“Is this a problem?”
Xander snatched the pad back. Depends on who she comes back through.
Lorne blinked and paled to a lighter shade of green. “Oh hell,” he whispered. “Sing something Spike.”
Softly, Spike began singing a lullaby that Dru often sang when Xander was first with them. The young man smiled at his Mate and snuggled into his arms, listening to the quiet words.
“Enough,” Lorne said after a lines. “She is coming back, but no worries on that front. I’m not exactly clear on the how, but it’s not that way.”
Xander slumped and Spike sighed in relief. That was one problem down. “You don’t know how?”
“Sorry, honeycakes, but that’s hidden even from me.”
“If it’s hidden that well, then it means someone higher is in charge,” Doyle said. “Could be the Powers or it could be the Elders.”
“Yep,” Lorne nodded. “Either way, she is coming back and fairly soon.”
“That’s…” Angel trailed off.
“Creepy,” Cordy offered. “But I’m glad.”
“So am I,” Wes added, hugging his lover close to his chest.
“Thank you,” Spike said, rising off the couch and pulling Xander with him. “Thank you for a lot.”
“No problem,” the Host grinned. “As long as I’m not doing the fighting, it’s all good.”
Xander grinned and hugged the green demon before following his Mate out the door, leaving the others to say their own goodbyes.
“So the flowers will be over there and the arch will be there,” Cordy pointed. She was standing the main lobby of the hotel, one hand on her belly as she made the final plans for her wedding. “The caterers will be setting up the reception in one of the upper rooms.”
“It’ll look beautiful,” Wes said, kissing her softly. “Now, go rest for a bit before they start setting up.”
“I love you,” she whispered, kissing him back.
“I love you too.”
“Enough of the sap,” Spike said as he walked by. “Go lay down, princess. You have a lot to do today.”
“I will,” she promised, giving Wes one last kiss before heading to the elevator.
“Is everything ready?” Wes asked, once his bride-to-be was out of earshot.
“Of course,” Spike smirked. “When she comes down, everything will be already set up.”
“Good,” Wes smiled. “Thank you, Spike.”
“Hey, she’s carrying the first baby in the family, she deserves the best for her wedding.”
Xander smiled at Cordelia as she danced the first dance with Wes. The wedding had been beautiful, even out doing all the plans Cordy had made. She had almost cried when she came down to see everything all ready set up for her. Now, she danced happily in the arms of her husband and Xander couldn’t wish anything more for her.
“Do you want this?” Spike asked, coming up behind him.
Xander shook his head. He didn’t want a public wedding. They were married, hell, beyond married. He didn’t need to show the world with a party. Anyone that mattered could see the bond between him and Spike and their family knew, that was all he cared about.
“Okay, but if you ever do,” Spike left it there.
Smiling, Xander turned and pressed a hard kiss to Spike’s lips, sending waves of love and happiness down their bond.
“Break it up,” Doyle intruded, laughing. “This is Cordy’s big day.”
Spike only flipped him off before turning Xander around so they could watch as she danced with the father of the bride. Angel carefully led her around the dance floor, all the while whispering something to her. With the squeal she gave, it must have been about whatever present the dark vampire had gotten her and it must have been a good one.
Spike stepped away from Xander and held out his hand as more and more couples began to crowd the dance floor. Beaming, Xander took his hand and they moved to join the crowd, dancing to the slow song, content in what life had brought them, despite the pain and loss they had suffered.
Chapter Fifty: Silence Fading Into Shadows
Summary: An end to things and new beginnings
Angel and Spike paced the lobby, each shrill scream echoing down to them. Every sound had them wincing and restraining themselves from rushing up the stairs. There was nothing they could do up there. No, they were needed down here, making sure none of their enemies used this chance to attack.
Xander brushed dark hair back from Cordy’s forehead, pressing a gentle kiss to her temple. The ex-cheerleader screamed again as another contraction ripped through her, cursing at the top of her lungs about the need to kill all men. Beside the bed, Doyle laughed and offered her another spoonful of ice chips. She took the melting ice gratefully, leaning over to kiss his cheek before settling back against Xander’s chest.
Wes stood on the other side of the bed, his hand being constantly crushed by his wife as the pain of childbirth hit her. He wanted a way to ease the pain, the drugs the healer had given Cordy had only dulled it at bit. The healer had told them that pain was necessary during birth, ensuring all was going well. Cordy, of course, didn’t take that well and had berated the poor demon until he was nearly cowed, but he stood firm on that point. Now, hours later, Wes wished he had given in and given Cordelia something a little stronger.
“Perfect,” the healer proclaimed, glancing up from his position between the pregnant woman’s legs. “It is time to push now, Mrs. Wyndam-Pryce.”
“Finally,” she snarled. As the next contraction hit, she did as she was told and pushed, wanting to finally hold her little girl.
More pushing, and screaming, and Cordy was finally handed her daughter. From over her shoulder, Xander smiled down at the red, wrinkled little face, easily seeing the beauty she would be when she grew up.
“Her name?” the healer asked, cleaning off his hands and reaching for the certificate.
“Abigail Cheri Wyndam-Pryce,” Cordy declared quietly, stroking a finger over one plump cheek.
“She’s perfect,” Doyle told her. “I’ll go let big brave men know that’s it’s over.”
She laughed. “Tell them to get their asses up here.”
“You make beautiful children,” Wes said, taking Xander’s spot behind Cordy.
“We make beautiful children,” she corrected.
I wonder when?
“When what, luv?” Spike asked, looking down at the young man resting against his chest.
When Dru’s coming back. I miss her.
“I don’t know,” Spike answered. “But I miss her too.”
Think Robin would know?
Spike grinned and shook his head. “We never even thought to ask. We can do that tomorrow, okay?”
Xander nodded and placed his notepad to the side, turning to place a kiss on Spike’s lips. Asking Robin could wait.
“I was wondering when you were going to call,” the masked man said, exiting from the portal that opened in the lobby.
“Took Xan saying something for any of us to think of it,” Spike admitted drily.
“He always sees to the heart of things,” Robin remarked, giving the young man at Spike’s side a hug. “I’ve also brought presents from the Council for the new baby and mother.”
“Cordy will love that,” Spike smirked. “Glad to see ya.”
Robin smiled. “So you have a question for me?”
“About Dru,” Spike nodded. “We were wondering when she’s coming back.”
“Hmm, I heard the Host told you,” the green-tinted man said, tilting his head to the side.
“All Lorne said was soon. We were worried about her coming back through Abigail,” Spike told him.
“No,” Robin stated. “Abigail is a new soul. The PTB and the Elders decided that would be for the best. Otherwise you would have been given the second last Slayer reborn.”
Spike blinked. They had never thought of that. Slayers were often reborn if they had unfinished business. And from what they heard, that Slayer had a lot of unfinished business.
“Druscilla will be back,” Robin told them, leading them over to the couches. He sat down. “She is being brought back in a very special way. There is not much I can actually say about how she’s being brought back.”
“We figured as much,” Angel said, coming down the stairs. “But when is important.”
“Why?” Robin asked, looking up at the dark vampire. “Why is it so important?”
“What if we’re not here?” Angel retorted. “What if there are complications that need special help? We can plan better for her return if we have some idea when she’ll be coming back.”
“All good points,” Robin admitted. “I cannot give you an exact date.”
“How about a general idea?” Spike asked. “Maybe what season? What month? Something like that.”
Robin smiled at the blonde. “She will be back in the winter, but before the Earth’s turn.”
“So some time in November or December?”
Robin nodded. “Yes. But that is all I can say.”
“That’s good enough,” Spike told him. Xander grinned beside him. “We have some idea now. Thank you.”
Xander bounced off the couch and over to hug the Council representative.
“You’re welcome,” Robin said, hugging Xander back.
“It’ll be good to have the whole family back again,” Angel said quietly. “Cordy really wanted Dru’s opinion on clothing for Abigail.”
“That is not the only reason,” Robin said.
“No, but it’s the only one she’s giving,” Angel smiled. “So, this winter. That’s not that far.”
“No,” Robin agreed. “You will have her back soon.”
Robin stood, handing over two packages before calling up a portal. “Just remember, not all is what it seems.” And with that he walked into the vortex.
“What’s that suppose to mean?” Spike shouted after him, but only laughter drifted back. “Really, what does that mean?”
Angel shrugged. “We’ll find out this winter.”