“Oh my gosh, Connor, you have to look at this stuff!”
Fred’s excited voice rang out from the back of Angel’s apartment. Just a few moments later, her pixie face peeked around the door into the living room, her bright smile making her eyes shine.
“I totally found the best stuff!”
Angel looked puzzled. “What were you doing, Fred?”
She had the grace to blush. “Well, see Cordy was looking in your closet for something she needed and she asked me to help because she said that I’m good at that kind of thing, well better than she is anyway, at least that’s what she said, and so we were looking around and I found this box marked ‘Connor’ and I opened it up and there was all this cool stuff in it!” She took a deep breath. “So I thought Connor might want to look at it.”
A blink from the big guy was her only answer for a moment. Angel regained his composure a mere second later. “O-o-okay.”
“It’s all right, isn’t it?” Fred asked anxiously, her eyes wide as she bit her lip in worry. “I mean, didn’t you save it for him?”
More like so Angel wouldn’t forget, but it basically amounted to the same thing, didn’t it?
“Yeah, it’s fine,” Angel agreed. “As long as Connor wants to.”
Connor looked up at his father, an amused smile gracing his lips. “I don’t see how I can pass it up. What’s in there, Fred?”
“Oh, goodie!” she squealed, running over to the couch and sinking into its cushy depths. “Come sit here!” she patted the seat next to her and Connor complied.
Opening the lid to the box, Fred oooed and aahed over the contents for a few minutes, pulling out items one by one and placing them on the coffee table.
She beamed, picking up a teddy bear that had obviously seen better days. “Mr. Snuggles!” she squealed. I haven’t seen him in so long. You used to sleep with him all the time.”
A strange look passed over Connor’s face as he looked at the grubby toy in Fred’s hands. It amazed him that one small item could look so roughed up, especially since he hadn’t been with Angel for very long as a baby. A few months at most before Holtz stole him away. Yet the small toy looked very worn, as if it had been tugged around carelessly and loved a great deal.
Almost against his will, Connor reached out and took the soft toy in his man’s hands, the large fingers surrounding the brown bear and sinking in the plush fabric. The bear blurred before his eyes as tears stung him, and he swallowed against the lump in his throat. He looked up quickly at Angel, who’d come and sat across from them on the coffee table. Cordy sat next to him, sliding under his arm and snuggling into his side.
“How did it get so . . .” he trailed off, not trusting himself to look at either Angel or Cordy at that moment.
“Skuzzy?” Cordy finished for him, a smile in her voice. She reached out a hand and trailed it over the bear’s fur, as if petting him. “This little guy saw a lot of action after you were taken. We all held it at one time or another, just wanting to be close to you again after you were gone. I think some of us even slept with it.”
She didn’t say who, but Connor’s eyes flew instantly to his father. Angel swallowed, his eyes dark and fathomless. He finally shrugged slightly, as if he didn’t know quite how to explain himself. It seemed so simple.
“It smelled like you. Like my baby, my son. I just couldn’t let go.” Angel’s deep voice warmed Connor, and his tears spilled over, tracking down his face.
Connor clutched the small toy to his chest, burying his nose in its head for a moment, smelling the surprisingly comforting scent of his father mixed with the smell of a baby: powder, milk, and love. Strangely, the toy didn’t look out of place in the arms of a grown man.
The sight of him brought tears to everyone’s eyes.
“Can I keep it?” he asked hoarsely.
Angel nodded, not able to speak. Finally, he said, “It is yours. Of course you can have it.”
“Now the pictures,” Fred declared, picking up a small album and thrusting it into Connor’s hands. “Here! You look though them and we’ll fill you in.”
Connor set the teddy bear in his lap, then opened the album with no small measure of apprehension. He was still trying to absorb all of the negative feelings he’d had toward his father in the first version of his life, and that part of him was repulsed by celebrating any time he’d ever spent with these people. The new part of him, though, was of complete opposite opinion, desperately needing the acceptance and love he knew he was going to find inside.
The first picture made his breath catch, tears blurring his eyes for a moment. The photo was of Angel, Cordy, and baby Connor at the hospital, Cordy cradling Connor in her arms and smiling sweetly. Angel was perched on the arm of her chair, his arm slung around her shoulders, a huge smile on his face, the likes of which Connor had never seen in this life or his other one. The love Angel felt for his child was almost palpable, so visible it was in his expression. He stared down at the cherubic face of his son, his hand reaching out to stroke the baby’s soft cheek, the pride and joy overflowing from the photo and into adult Connor’s heart.
He swallowed audibly.
“Oh, that one’s so cute,” Fred commented, smiling. “That was right after you were born. We took you to the hospital to make sure you were okay. We didn’t know what to expect from the child of two vampires, but they checked you out and said you were perfectly healthy and normal.”
Connor nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and flipped to the next picture. More of him as a baby, being held by everyone, but mostly by Cordy or his father. He stopped cold about six pictures in, the one in front of him making his mouth drop open in disbelief.
“What one is that?” Cordy asked, craning her neck over his lap so she could see the picture, albeit upside down from her vantage point. She laughed when she saw which one it was. “Oh my gosh. I’d forgotten totally about that. You used to love it when your dad went into vamp face.”
A ghost of a smile washed over Angel’s face as he remembered it. “There’s a story behind that. When we first brought you home, you cried nonstop and I couldn’t figure out how to make you quiet down. I fed you, changed you, sang to you—”
“That made you cry harder,” Cordy interrupted with a laugh.
“—but nothing would work,” Angel finished, ignoring Cordy’s comment. “I was at my wits end and in my anger, I vamped out. You immediately stopped crying and you actually liked it. It comforted you.”
“It was like you knew that was who your father really was,” Cordy said, smiling. “It was so sweet.”
The look Connor gave Angel in that moment was almost indecipherable. Hell, he didn’t know what to think. The thought of the baby self not being scared by his father’s vampire visage was ludicrous. Suddenly he had to see it again, just to know for himself.
“Do it, Dad,” he asked quietly.
Angel was startled, both from the request and the fact that his son had called him “dad” for the first time since he’d been returned to him. “Change?” he asked.
Connor nodded. “I want to see it.”
Angel stared at him for a moment, then let his human features slip away and his demon emerged. Bottomless yellow eyes stared unashamed into his son’s, and the love that shone there took Connor’s breath away.
For a moment, time stood still. Connor stared wide-eyed into his father’s gaze, feeling trapped. The picture had stirred so many feelings within him. Seeing himself, as a helpless child in the arms of a monster had offended his old self so much that he thought he might burst from his skin. But more telling was what his new self felt now as he looked directly into the eyes of his demonic parent: it just felt natural somehow.
Abruptly, Connor stood, clutching the teddy bear and photo album to his chest. Eyes darting around nervously, he swallowed, mouth dry. Finally, his eyes rested on Angel’s. The worry there was almost his undoing.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t—” he stopped, looking down at the items he grasped. “I need to be alone.”
“Of course,” Angel said hoarsely, standing and trying his best not to give into the temptation and snatch his son up in his arms. “The guest bedroom is down the hall, first door on the right. Get some rest. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Connor nodded, then headed unsteadily in that direction. Cordy stopped him with a hand on his arm as he passed her. “Good night, Connor,” she said softly. “You know we love you, right?”
He just nodded, then hurried away before he burst into sobs on the spot. He was so confused. It warred within him, the desperate need for his father’s love and the hate that bubbled just beneath the surface. So he did what he did best: escape into the darkness.
He felt safe in the dark.
It was a startling realization. Connor lay awake in a strange bed, in the spare bedroom of his father’s apartment, staring up at the ceiling. Thinking back, he realized that he’d always felt safer in the dark. As if he could hide himself from everything evil there. As if there was something in the dark that he knew instinctively would protect him.
It wasn’t until the nightmares, his old memories, started to come that he felt afraid of the night. Now that he had those memories back, he felt safe again. Having his father and near step-mother next door didn’t hurt things any. Connor didn’t remember feeling so much love since before his parents died. It amazed him.
It scared him to death.
He didn’t deserve the love that Angel and Cordelia so unconditionally heaped upon him. He’d done horrible, unforgivable things to Angel after he’d returned tot this dimension from Quortoth. He’d tried to kill his own father more than once, not to mention taking away his happiness with the one woman who meant the world to him. Every fiber in Connor’s being shouted at him that he was a traitor. A betrayer. A son who didn’t deserve to live. And yet, somewhere deep inside, he wanted to commit those atrocities all over again. The dark part of him craved the excruciating pain he felt when he tortured his own father.
More than anything, Connor wanted to rise above that and be the son Angel deserved to have. To be the son he’d been for the Riley’s. The fatherhood Angel had been denied and the childhood Connor had had stolen from him.
It was all quite clear to him now. He had to go back. Had to stride back out into the bright sunlight and face two people who were determined to destroy everything that mattered to him. Two people who were determined to use him to destroy the only father he had left. He had to stand there, be burned by the sun and their lies, and smile the entire time. Or at least look like he was devoted to them and their insane cause.
Connor flipped over abruptly onto his stomach, burying his tear-stung eyes into his pillow. His fists gripped the edges of it tightly, squeezing the cotton fabric until his fingers ached. He moaned into his pillow, the anguish inside tearing him up.
The last thing he wanted to do was go back, to leave this idyllic existence with a family that loved him and walk right back into the demon’s lair. Just the thought of seeing Eve and Jace made his stomach churn in revulsion. They’d betrayed him. Jace had betrayed him, even after Connor had trusted him and practically loved him like a surrogate father.
But in the end, Connor knew he would go. He knew he would get up in – he checked the clock – three hours and leave his father and the rest of his family, and go back to bring down the beast from within. He would lie, he would manipulate, and he would betray. He would come dangerously close to rekindling the insanity that was forced into silence deep inside him.
Desperately, he sought forgiveness for the things his old self had done, all in the name of vengeance.
It all came down to one simple reason: redemption.
An apprehensive breath was sucked into Connor’s lungs as he looked across the apartment at his father and Cordelia. Bathed in soft morning light, they were sitting close together on the sofa, their heads touching, their voices in soft whispers. Angel had his arms around Cordelia and she had her hands on his chest, playing with the edges of his shirt. They had contented smiles on their faces and every few moments, he could hear the slight hint of a feminine giggle or a masculine laugh.
He hated to interrupt them, but there was no other choice.
Walking over near them, Connor cleared his throat, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his baggy cargo pants.
Angel and Cordy turned smiling faces to him, but they made no move to separate.
“Hey, sunshine. Sleep well?” Cordy asked, grinning at him.
“Um, yeah,” he lied, his face serious. “I need to talk to you guys.”
Cordy sat up, moving off Angel’s lap and onto the cushion next to him.
“What is it?” Angel sounded apprehensive, his eyes darkening with concern.
“I need to go back.”
A stunned silence greeted his declaration. Cordy swallowed and Angel shifted in his seat, and then they both looked at each other, exchanging a glance that held an entire conversation from the day before. It looked as though they wouldn’t have to ask.
“When?” Angel’s simple question seemed to throw Connor off guard. He hadn’t expected his decision to be accepted so easily.
“Today. I’ve already been gone for too long. Jace and Eve will come looking for me, and I don’t want them to find out I’ve been here.”
“What do you plan to tell them?” Cordy looked at him with concern etched on every feature.
Connor shrugged. “That I went away to meditate, I guess. I’ll think of something. I just want them to think I’m still on their side.”
“Are you?” Angel asked bluntly, shoving away the guilt.
Connor’s mouth dropped open in shock. “No!” his voice was hoarse. “Of course not. You’re my father. I just found you again. I’m not going to try to kill you. If I wanted to, I would’ve done it already.”
“I’m sorry, Connor, but I had to ask.”
“I know. But I can’t let them try to kill you without me. At least if I’m back there, I’ll know how to stop it.”
“Are you sure that you can handle being undercover like that?” Cordy asked. “You’ve been through a lot in the last twenty four hours. A lot of emotional strain.”
“Yeah,” Connor sighed. “But I think they’re more comfortable with me if I’m in pain. I’ve tried to be happy around Jace and he doesn’t take it very well. He thinks I do it to hide something. And Eve,” he shuddered, “she doesn’t take any change very well.”
Angel’s countenance darkened, his fists clenching into the armrests of his chair. “Do you know their plans?”
Connor nodded. “Some of it. Basically all I know is that they plan to strike right after the full moon. Eve has somebody on the inside of Wolfram & Hart who can neutralize your security. They want to do the hit the next day. I don’t know anything else.”
“I’ll come with you,” Angel said quickly, suddenly feeling as though Spike wouldn’t be enough. He needed to protect his son. “I’ll just hide out and see you when you aren’t with them.”
“You can’t,” Connor said, his eyes meeting Angel’s. “They keep tabs on me around the clock. Once I went to a club and Jace reamed me out about it the next morning. Said that I was compromising my training or something. They have spies, and they’ll see you.”
Angel looked frustrated. He’d have to send Spike without telling Connor. “Then we’ll meet with you in a couple of days, in secret.”
“I think that could work. I’m sure I’ll know more by then.”
Silence fell over them, an uncomfortable fog that made them choke. Connor stood hastily.
“I’d better go before it gets too late. If I leave now, I can be back before nightfall.”
Standing too, Angel and Cordy moved closer to each other, as if their shared presence would give them strength. After a moment’s hesitation, Cordy jerked forward and drew Connor into a quick hug. He awkwardly returned it.
“Be careful, Connor,” she said softly. “We don’t want to lose you again.”
“I’ll be careful.”
He seemed to hesitate for a moment, then turned to leave, grabbing a backpack from the couch.
“I’ll call you,” he said without looking at them, then strode toward the door. Angel followed, determined to see him out even though he felt as though his son was leaving and never coming back. Even so, he couldn’t seem to find the wherewithal to reach out and hug his own son.
Connor paused, his hand on the doorknob, as if he’d forgotten something. His mouth pursed into a frown. In one swift movement, he dropped his bag and turned, reaching for Angel and pulling him into a hug. He squeezed him tightly for a mere second, not even long enough for Angel to hug him back.
“Bye, Dad,” he whispered, then released him and escaped out the door.
Angel stood in stunned silence staring at the half-open portal. Cordy came up behind him and put her arms around his waist, squeezing him gently.
“He’ll be back, Angel,” she reassured him.
Angel just swallowed against the lump in his throat and shut the door.