The former Angel Investigations crew took their respective places in their new headquarters: Angel’s office. Gunn stood, feet spread wide, arms crossed over his expensively clothed chest and waited with the quietly controlled violence of a gladiator before a fight.
Wesley and Fred were joined at the hip, as usual, seated close together on the leather couch. Fred sat perched on the edge of the cushion, her ankles crossed delicately. A pile of books sat on Wesley’s lap and he clung to them as if the knowledge in their pages would steady the nerves that hadn’t quite recovered from yesterday’s ritual.
A cell phone seemed permanently attached to Lorne’s ear as he paced a corner of the room, gesturing wildly as he used his witty banter to soothe the easily ruffled feathers of one of his most popular celebrity clients.
Spike was the only one absent, having trailed Connor almost immediately after he’d left. Angel had called him, given him access to one of the necro-tinted cars, and sent him after his son with the charge to keep him safe. Spike hadn’t questioned him at all; a terse agreement holding a promise that Angel instinctively knew only Spike’s death could break.
Watching his soldiers prepare for this meeting made Angel uneasy. None of them seemed to be in top form; everyone’s demons were close to the surface today, including Angel’s own. Cordy’s presence calmed him, no doubt. It was just that having Connor out of his sight made him unaccountably nervous.
“Let’s get started, then,” he said, calling everyone to attention. Once all eyes were tuned on him, he continued. “Connor’s gone. He went back to San Francisco to learn more about Jace and Eve’s plans. Spike’s trailing him, keeping an eye on him.”
“Do you think that’s wise, Angel?” Wesley questioned. “Connor has been through a lot in the last day or so.”
“He has,” Angel agreed, “but he wanted to go. He suggested it.”
“He’s betrayed us before,” Gunn said darkly. “How do you know he won’t do it again?”
Angel’s hands fisted in anger at Gunn’s comments. It didn’t matter that they’d so clearly mirrored his own a few hours before. Hearing it come from someone else was an insult. One he tried hard not to react to.
“He won’t,” Angel said hoarsely. “He’s changed.”
“I’m not so certain,” Wesley cut in. “Connor has a history of appearing devoted but having loyalties elsewhere, especially with our enemies.”
“But he’s not like that now,” Angel defended him, his jaw clenching.
Wesley shrugged. “He wasn’t before the memory restoration spell.” Tapping the books on his lap, he continued. “I’ve been researching the memory restoration, looking for side effects. It seems as if there are no lasting ones. We were able to restore Connor’s memories early enough so that his new, more stable self will be able to compensate for the instability of his old one.”
“Well, then that should take care of it. No more psycho Connor,” Cordy said.
Wesley frowned. “That’s a hypothesis only, Cordelia. It’s entirely possible that he will choose to discard his new memories, deciding that they’re fantasy and can’t be trusted. We can only hope that he will embrace them and let them take over the darkness from his past. What we should’ve done is had Lorne read him before he left.”
“Oh, I didn’t think of that,” Fred said absently. “I suppose that would’ve helped.”
Lorne shrugged. “I don’t know if I could’ve done anything. The boy’s aura is probably messier than Florida in hurricane season. I might not have been able to get any kind of reading that would make sense.”
“We can’t do much about it now,” Fred pointed out. “I think we should just stick to what we can do before they attack. Do we have any clue when that will be?”
Angel nodded. “Connor said it would be right after the full moon, which is in just over a week. He said that Eve has someone here on the inside who will neutralize our security. That’s about all he knew.”
A frown still marring his handsome face, Gunn shifted slightly on his feet. “I’m still uncomfortable with the kid being undercover. I’ve just got this feelin’ that he’ll betray us. There was this look in his eyes—” Gunn stopped abruptly when he saw the thundercloud growing on Angel’s face.
“He’ll be fine,” Angel said, now more to convince himself just as much as everyone else. He’d been secure in Connor’s loyalty before this meeting started, but all this talk was stirring up his doubt again.
Abruptly, he changed the subject. “Wes, I want you to focus on how to shore up our security around here. See what spells you can find to protect us, and see what loopholes they might be exploiting. I want them to get into the building, but I don’t want them to be able to kill me without warning.”
“I’ll help Wes,” Fred said.
Angel nodded his consent. “Gunn, gather anyone from your sources here to defend the building if it is overrun. I need your strength this time, not your brain.”
Gunn frowned darkly, but nodded.
“What should I do, Angelcakes?” Lorne asked.
“See if you can figure out who on our staff is the betrayer, and how they plan to get in.”
“Tall order, Boss, but I’ll work on it.”
“Good. Everyone get to work. We’ll meet back here tomorrow to discuss our progress. Cordy and I are meeting with Connor in a couple of days to find out what he’s learned. We need to have a plan by then. A good plan.”
As his motley crew walked out the door, Angel felt a wave of apprehension wash over him. For the first time, he had doubts about their ability to succeed. They’d all be tested severely. Would they come through for him when it mattered most?
Only time would tell.
“It’s the day after tomorrow, Jace,” Eve said, staring him down and willing him to put her off again. “I called him this morning. He wasn’t there. We gonow.”
Jace smiled at her indulgently. “I know, baby. That’s why I came prepared.” He whipped open his duster in the way of a street vendor selling watches, his grin just as smarmy. A myriad of weapons glinted in the dim light of the warehouse.
Eve’s smile lit up her whole face, her eyes sparkling with devilish excitement as she strode over to him and stuck her hands inside his jacket. She ran her fingers over the weapons strapped to his hips and sides, then drew her hands over his back and clutched him to her. She felt the hilt of his sword press up against her hip and she sighed, closing her eyes and leaning her head on his chest.
“I knew you wouldn’t let me down,” she said softly squeezing him. She was practically choking on the syrup she fed into her voice. If it hadn’t been for his shitty mentoring, they wouldn’t even need to go after the damn kid.
Finally, she pulled away from him. “I’ve been checking around. He hasn’t been to see his granny or lil’ sis. Last sighting I had of him was entering his apartment the night we saw him last. He disappeared into the night.”
Jace nodded. “There’s this place he goes to when he wants to be alone. He took me there once. That’s where we’ll look for him first.”
“Look for who?”
Jace and Eve whipped around so fast they stumbled. A thunderstorm gathered on Eve’s face as she took in the infuriatingly nonchalant pose of their errant ward.
“Where the hell have you been?” she growled, forcing tears to flow into her eyes and her face to transform into that of a worried aunt. She crossed the room, a look of utter relief mixed with fading fear for Connor’s life. “We’ve been so worried about you!”
Jace hung back, finally closing his mouth as Connor walked toward them. The look in the boy’s eyes was disconcerting.
“Hi, Jace,” Connor said quietly, a smile stretching at the corners of his mouth just briefly.
“Connor,” Jace said, nodding. “We were worried about you.”
Connor sighed, flopping into a folding chair they’d kept nearby for rest during sparring practice. His movement held every ounce of the carefree collegiate. He looked up at them and shrugged. “I needed to be alone for awhile. Get my shit together, you know?”
They just stared at him. Connor rolled his eyes and stood to his feet. “Jeez, you two are worse than a couple of prison guards. It’s not like I broke parole or something. I wanted to be at top form for this thing we’ve got planned. I can’t fight the world’s biggest badass and not be at my best, right?”
“Right,” Eve said, looking at him warily. “Where did you go?”
He nodded in Jace’s direction. “That place he was talking about when I came in. There’s a nature conservatory not too far out of the city. I needed to relax. To meditate. To train in my own way. You said we had two weeks until the full moon, so I was trying to use it to my best advantage.”
Connor relaxed inside a bit as he watched the tension start to drain out of Eve’s shoulders. “Look,” he said, raising his hands in a gesture of peace. “I knew if I told you I wanted to leave, you wouldn’t let me. But I had to. You guys don’t get it; sometimes there’s this psycho me that just wants to break out, and I had to smash him back in again.”
Eve shot him a funny look, undoubtedly remembering the Connor before the memory change. Finally, she nodded. “We probably wouldn’t have let you go. But at least you could’ve left a note saying that you would be back. I was starting to think that you’d gone to screw it all up.”
Connor laughed. “What, and miss out on the action? No way. I’m ready to fight the big bad evil.”
“Good,” Jace said, standing up straight. “So how about we train?”
A defiant chin raise was his only answer. Connor set up to fight, dropping his backpack at his feet and standing at the ready. “Bring it, old man.”
Jace stepped up, an unreadable expression on his face. His fist shot out, catching Connor in the chin and throwing him across the room and into a pole.
Breathless, Connor stared wide-eyed at Jace. “Guess somebody’s been eating their spinach,” he joked, not quite believing the obvious. “Looks like I’ll have to break out the big guns.”
“I’m ready, superkid.”
Connor shivered. Somehow that nickname now had a deadly ring to it.
“So how’s he doing?”
Anxiety colored every word Angel spoke. He squirmed in his seat, Cordy’s hand on his thigh the only thing keeping him from jumping up and pacing in the aisle near their booth.
Spike sat across from them, calm and collected in his trademark duster. Defiant against California’s non-smoking laws, he pulled out a cigarette and lit it, knowing that the late-night diner probably wouldn’t kick him out for it.
“He’s doing well, all things considered,” he finally said, his face serious. “Gave me a bit of a scare there at first, though.”
“Why?” Cordy sounded anxious, too.
Spike shrugged. “You shoulda seen the act he put on for them the first day he showed up at the warehouse. Psycho bitch was there with her puppy. Both of ‘em looked like they’d just seen a ghost, but the kid played it cool. So cool I thought he’d been foolin’ us the whole time.”
Angel frowned, a crease forming between his eyes. “You don’t think he was?”
“I would’ve,” Spike said, knocking his cigarette against an empty coffee mug and dropping the ashes into it, “but that was before I saw him a few nights ago. He was crying.”
“Was he okay?” Cordy asked.
Spike nodded. “Wasn’t hurt or anything. Just sad, I guess. He had a picture in front of him. His back was to me and I could see it; was of the two of you and him as a baby. I realized then how conflicted he is. He’s loyal to you, I think, but they’re messing with his head pretty bad.”
Shoulder’s sagging in relief and weariness, Angel nodded. “Thanks for looking out for him, Spike.”
“He isn’t hard to watch. Does pretty much the same thing every day. I think he’s making it easy on me.”
“He knows you’re there?”
Shrugging, Spike dropped his cigarette butt in the cup and reached for his drink, taking a large swallow. “Think so. He kinda looks over his shoulder like he knows I’m there. Always a little smirk on his face when he does that.”
Cordy leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. “What are they having him do during the day? Do you know more about their plans?”
Spike shook his head. “No, but Eve’s boy toy got a burst of juice from someplace. He’s all fired up and is giving Connor a run for his money. The kid’s kinda scary when he’s fighting him. Reminds me of Angelus.”
“Don’t say that,” Angel growled. The last thing he wanted his son to inherit was anything from his alter ego.
Spike just shrugged again. “Can’t help it. It’s true. Anyway, I think they’re trying to mess with his head. Make him hate the sight of the guy or something. And since he looks so much like you—” he trailed off.
Cordy sat back again and sighed, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’m worried about him.”
“We all are,” Angel said softly.
Spike shifted in his seat uncomfortably. “I think you should be worried. He’s been changing, little by little. I think he’s still on our side, but he smiles less and less. I think they’re starting to get to him.”
Angel bit back a growl. “We’re meeting with him tomorrow night, though, right?”
Swallowing the last of his drink, Spike answered, “Yep. They’re giving him the night off. I’ve got someplace for us to meet. We should be all set.”
After his words died away, they sat there in silence. Nobody wanted to say anything. It seemed as though enough had already been revealed for one night.
The picture wasn’t even framed, but it held Connor’s attention so acutely that the average observer might think it had been dipped in gold. One strong finger reached out and traced the edges of the faces in the picture, trembling. A hot tear tracked down his cheek, glittering in the moonlight that filtered through his open bedroom window.
It felt crowded in this room. Stuffy. As if there weren’t enough oxygen to breathe. Nothing had changed since he’d been in L.A., yet everything had changed. The dreams he’d experienced while sleeping in the bed on which he now sat had become his reality. He did have a vampire father. He did have a psychotic side to himself.
It was that psychotic side that had him scared. His feelings were in such a jumble right now and had been since his memories had returned; clear as day and full force enough to practically knock him over backwards. He’d thought, having dreamed them, that the ritual to restore his past would be relatively easy. But he hadn’t been prepared for the hatred, confusion, and self-loathing of his old persona to wash over him like lava from an unexpected volcanic eruption. He’d felt burned by them, the confidence his new life inspired a mere misting of cool relief, but not enough to stem the hatred that had welled up within his soul.
A muscle twitched in Connor’s jaw as he stoically turned his gaze back to the picture. His finger curled away from his father’s face as he tried to keep the growl deep within him from escaping in a mindless, animalistic roar. A tightly coiled beast lay within his chest, demanding vengeance. Demanding retribution. Demanding punishment for the man who’d given him life and then failed to protect him from the monsters in the world.
Every moment, that beast within him grew larger, fueled by the fury he felt every time he battled with Jace. It had been just under a week since he’d returned from L.A., a week in which he’d been floored by the increase in Jace’s strength. He’d battled the older man with everything in his arsenal, but he’d fought long and hard before he saw any progress. It was as if the Jace he’d known had left and been replaced with a man who had the strength of a vampire.
Connor’s eyes darted away from the picture even as his fingers curled more tightly around its edges, bending the paper. Jace had the strength of Connor’s father. The looks of his father. And deep within his dark brown eyes, there was a hint of the struggle that Connor had seen so plainly in Angel’s gaze. Oh, Connor knew that Jace’s turmoil came from a different place, but he could see that Jace was a man apart, a man who was driven by darkness now, but tempered by a conscience that wouldn’t die. He could see it in Jace’s eyes every time he came at him, and it fueled the pain and anger in Connor’s chest.
Turning to the only strategy he could think of, Connor took his fury out on this look-alike, hoping that it would fool his psychotic personality into feeling vindicated. Hoping that Connor’s amalgamated self would have the strength to keep his sword in check when he faced Angel again.
His new self, the one who’d been loved and coddled by the Rileys, lay huddled in a corner of his mind, cowering away from the beast. And every day, as his darker side grew stronger, and the settled, happy person he’d been got weaker.
Standing, Connor moved to the head of his bed and slipped the picture under his pillow. Looking at it only brought him pain. Only reminded him that at one time, the people in that picture had loved him, yet let him be destroyed. They said they loved him, but they’d lied to him.
They were coming tonight. Angel, Cordy, and Spike were going to meet him in less than an hour to discuss Eve and Jace’s plans. Something within Connor recoiled at the thought of betraying Jace and Eve. It made no sense, though. A week ago, that same conscience had rebelled at the idea of betraying Angel and Cordelia.
Connor had never been so confused in his life. He felt like a rubber band being fought over by two hyperactive fifth graders, pulled in two directions so strongly that he didn’t know how to deal with it.
A million questions plagued him. Did Angel really deserve to die like Eve claimed? He had committed untold atrocities in his years as a vampire. The sense of justice instilled in him by Holtz wouldn’t allow him to dismiss that past. And did Connor really love his father? Or was it all just another lie? Was he taking the love he’d felt for Mr. Riley and turning into a false sense of love for Angel?
Either way, the hate from his past had been eating away at the loyalty he’d felt toward Angel, like the darkness filling a sky after the sunset. He could barely remember the warmth of his father’s love from just a few days ago, and as the midnight in his life wore on, Connor wondered if it had ever really existed.