Of course, Faith was there. We know she was there. Her shoes left tracks on the front steps in blood; I didn't know the kind of shoes, but Cordy did. And we found her knife -- the one Buffy gave her, the one she always kept on her body -- next to Buffy's body. Faith was there, she knew what happened, and she didn't come to us. She took off right away, ran like hell, and if she slowed down at all it was to call Gunn. So probably she's guilty.
I want to believe that. I have to believe it.
I dropped down from the fire escape, about thirty feet from Connor. Close enough that he could see and hear me, far enough that, if he decided to attack, I'd have a chance to prepare myself. Or just run. I'm not a big fan of running from a fight, but I'd only been out of the box for a couple of weeks; I wasn't even a match for a regular human, at that point.
Connor didn't attack. I didn't run. We stared at each other for a moment, and then he said, "They found you."
"Yeah," I said. "You had to know they would, sooner or later."
"I didn't think they were that smart," Connor said. From almost anyone else it would have been a taunt or an insult. From him, it was simple. That was how he evaluated them, but he'd realized he was wrong. "Connor, I want you to hear me out."
"You didn't kill my father." It stung, hearing him call Holtz his father; it always does. But this once the pain was eclipsed by relief -- unexpected and exhilarating.
And then I could only feel confused; I'd planned out what to say to convince him, not what to talk about afterward. I honestly didn't believe we'd get to an afterward. I could only stare at him. He was wearing clothes he had to have gotten from a thrift store or a charity. He hadn't bathed recently enough. He wasn't starving, but he was even thinner than he had been when he emerged from Quartoth. He was glaring at me, and his hands were clenched around a stake. He looked so young.
"Where are you living?" I said. "Are you -- are you okay there? Is there something you need?"
Connor cocked his head at me. "You're not mad."
A month of starvation and hallucination. Dark and cold and hunger beyond anything I'd ever imagined. The knowledge that I was in hell before hell, that nothing awaited me but more fear, more madness, more terror. All of that wrought by my son. It frightened me that I was telling the truth when I said, "No. I'm not. You -- you were mistaken, and you were upset."
"I was mistaken," Connor said. "I was wrong." His head dropped; oh, God, he felt bad about it. He regretted it. I could feel something go warm and liquid inside my chest, something not unlike hope.
"It's okay. I'm okay. It's all over now." I tried taking a few steps forward. Connor didn't run. Good sign, I figured. I'd take what I could get. "Listen, Connor -- or, or do you want to be Stephen? If you do, I can --"
"Connor's fine," he said. "It doesn't matter."
Maybe that meant Connor wanted to be my son again. I wanted it to mean that. "I could get you something to eat. There's a diner a couple blocks over, open all night. Have you had a hamburger yet?" I haven't had a hamburger yet myself; they came along after I gave up solid food, and it wasn't one of the things I got around to on my one non-day of humanity. But to judge from all the commercials and billboards, and the sheer number Gunn could put away, they must be pretty good. The sort of thing Connor might like.
He walked closer to me, studying my face. His body was still tensed, poised to strike, but I knew he wasn't planning an attack. He just didn't know what to do. At last he said, "I was living with Justine. She gave me a place to stay."
I remembered the one time I got to punch Justine in the face. I didn't savor it enough at the time. "You were living with her, but -- you aren't now?"
"Not since yesterday." He shrugged with one shoulder. "She's the one who killed my father. I got her to admit it."
I hadn't planned on saying this for a long time to come, but I knew I had to try. "You still have a room at the hotel," I said. "You still have a place with us, if you want it. We could use your help."
Connor was surprised, I could tell. And doubtful. But he didn't walk away. "We'd fight vampires together," he said. "And demons."
"That's right." Angel & Son, Killers of Supernatural Evil Since 2002. I tried to step down hard on my surge of enthusiasm. "We could do a lot of good together, Connor. More than we could do alone. And you'd be with people who care about you." I was icing that last sentence; when Cordelia referred to Connor, she was obviously trying to be polite -- and Gunn didn't bother trying. But I knew they'd accept him in the end.
We stood there in the alley for what seemed like an eternity. I was nervous, even fidgeting as he weighed the decision. He, on the other hand, was very still. Finally, he said, "My stuff is still at Justine's place."
How much stuff could he have? Then again -- if Connor only had a handful of possessions in the world, all the more reason for them to be important to him. "We can go by there, pick it all up. My car's just a couple blocks over --"
"It's right here," he said, gesturing at a building across the street. "I was going to go get it as soon as I knew where I could put it. I mean --"
Connor's face was uncertain, uneasy, but there was a hint of a smile. I thought, thank you, Powers, or whatever got us to this place. Was that Holtz? I was willing to thank him too. I was illuminated by a spirit of charity and goodwill almost unlike anything I'd ever known. Fate had granted me mercy. Fate had given me back my son. The world -- even the grubby apartment building we walked into, the foul-smelling stairwell we climbed -- was a better place than I'd hoped. I thought I would even be able to be civil to Justine, if the situation demanded.
The situation did not demand. Connor pushed the door open, and I saw Justine.
He went to a back room, and I could hear rummaging. "I have some clothes, and a blanket, and glasses that make the sun not as bright. Justine said these were the right things. She might have lied. She lied a lot. Will you tell me if they're not right?"
"I'll tell you," I said slowly. I stepped through the doorway. The smell of the blood was overpowering; I couldn't smell anything else. I was nauseated and hungry at the same time. What I saw, what had become of Justine --
Angelus would have approved.
This is what Holtz taught him to be, I thought. You can teach him better. You still have time. He still has a chance.
Connor came out from the back with a bundle tied up in a bedsheet. He didn't even have a box to call his own. He didn't look at Justine. "Can we go now? I don't want to stay here."
I didn't look at Justine anymore either. I held out my arm to him. "Let's go home."
"Hey, Broodmaster." I look up to see Cordelia standing over me. I didn't even notice her entering the cabin; I've got to stay focused better than this. Now, more than ever, I need to be sure what's going on, so I can figure out what to do.
She sits by my side on the cabin's small sofa and slides one arm around my shoulders. "I'd feel guilty about leaving you in here all by your lonesome for so long, if I didn't know you would have been just as broody with me here."
"I'm sorry." I apologize to her so often, now. She's heard little else from me, this last year, and I know she worries about the silence. I don't know what to say to her, anymore. The one thing that claws at me, the one thing I can't stop thinking about -- it's the one thing I can never tell her. To avoid betraying my son, I betray the woman I love. As traps go, this one's pretty effective. I made it well. "But I wasn't in here the whole time."
"The sun just went down --" I hold up the ski mask, and she smiles. "You had a serious case of stir crazy, didn't you? Well, tomorrow morning we get to L.A. Then we can get this trial thing over with." She strokes my hair, and her touch feels so good. If only I could relax into it, just concentrate on the way she can make me feel. "We can send the guilty party to jail."
I tense up, though I try not to let her see it. Cordelia keeps on making comments like that -- "the guilty party," "the person that's responsible." It's like she's avoiding Faith's name. Like she might share the same suspicions I do.
Oh, God, it would feel good to tell her my fears, to hear hers in return. But if Cordelia doesn't guess -- if the secret is still mine and mine alone -- it has to stay that way.
"I'm not in such a hurry to get back to L.A.," I say. That's as close to the truth as I can come. Cordelia slumps forward, her hands on her knees. She looks dejected, and I already miss the warmth of her arm against my shoulders. "What's the matter?"
"I just wish --" Cordelia looks upward, and I realize with an unhappy jolt that there are tears in her eyes. There's no fight in her, and I realize for the first time how long it's been since she had that fierce will. I used to think it was as much a part of her as her skin. But she's adrift now, because I cast her off. "I wish I could make this better for you."
I take her in my arms and hold her close; that's as much comfort as I can give. It's not in anyone's power to make this better for me, or for anyone. But I know how badly you can want to do that for someone else. How badly it can hurt when you realize it's impossible.
Buffy and I patrolled together almost from the beginning. There were exceptions, sometimes; every now and then, she and Faith would pair up, and I'd go out with Connor. I always felt a little better when I could watch over Connor myself. But Buffy asked for me, and she hadn't asked anything else, and I could give her this, at least.
And deep down, I thought of it as something I could give myself, as well. I loved Cordelia. But every day I knew more and more -- I still loved Buffy.
"You sure we're not wasting our time at the tar pits?" Buffy said. We were riding along in my convertible, her gold hair fluttering in the breeze. She'd all but given up makeup and fashion, but there was something new and alluring about her now, her unadorned face, the simple lines of a T-shirt and jeans -- "Angel?"
"Oh, right. Why would you think we were wasting our time? Cordy had a vision." Cordy's feet had been dangling above the ground. I hooked my fingers in her shoelaces, and she smiled down at me. I forced myself to remember the beautiful way Cordelia smiled.
Cordelia was everything that was good in my life -- the one who kept A.I. sort of solvent, the one who had the visions that guided our missions, the one who listened to my problems and laughed at my jokes, the one constant in what seemed like an endless sea of change. And she did that cute thing with her nose when she smiled. How could I not fall for her? But if Cordelia was my anchor in that sea, Buffy was still the star I steered by.
I had remembered Buffy as a girl, both in good ways (her innocence, her giddy humor, her open and unguarded heart) and in bad (her jealousy, her self-absorption.) And though I could remember that girl with love and gratitude, I no longer needed someone like her in my life. My love affair with Buffy was like -- heaven. Cordelia, on the other hand -- loving Cordelia meant having both feet planted firmly on the ground. That's what I told myself when I fell for Cordy, when we became a couple, even when we went to go get Buffy and bring her to Los Angeles.
The truth was that Buffy had changed as much in our three years apart as I had. The jealous, self-absorbed girl was gone forever -- but so were the humor and the innocence. Buffy was someone new now, and all I knew about this new woman was that she was haunted.
I understood that. It was the first thing I ever felt like we'd shared, down deep. And that one connection was awakening the need for more. Something I'd thought was dead in my heart was only dormant, and it was springing back into wakefulness and life.
"Cordy's visions are always right, huh?" Buffy always spoke very politely about Cordelia. She never used to. That alone told me that she wasn't saying all she felt about Cordy and me.
"They always have meaning," I said. I could smell the tar; we were getting close. "We've misinterpreted them before. And sometimes they don't arrive for the reasons we expect. But each vision is important, yeah."
"And she takes it really seriously."
"Yeah," I said. "Cordelia's as serious about her duty as you and I are about ours."
"Our duty," Buffy said, and then she laughed. I didn't have time to wonder why. As we took the final corner, I could see the shadows of various shapes surrounding the tar pits. Some of those shapes were the plaster models of the creatures who had died there in millennia past -- sloths and saber-toothed tigers. But some of them weren't.
"Cuzfau beast, nine o'clock," Buffy said, taking up her crossbow. I nodded as I grabbed my sword from the backseat. I was thinking a stealthy approach, get on either side of it, which the beast totally blew by seeing us, snorting and charging.
I ducked out of the way, looking back just in time to see that Buffy hadn't moved at all -- she was just staring at the fucking thing --
"Buffy!" I turned on my heel, tackled her hard and knocked her to the ground about four seconds before the Cuzfau beast would have gored her. Instead it hit my car, which was not good for the paint job, but secondary to the fact that Buffy and I were flat in the dirt. And the beast was coming around for another charge. And Buffy still wasn't moving.
"Buffy, come on, pull it together," I panted, hauling her to her feet. "What's wrong?"
She laughed at me. "What ISN'T?" Then she spun around and fired at the Cuzfau beast. The arrow split its eye. It stumbled, staggered and fell, its gigantic head landing on my trunk.
"Buffy --" I looked at her, and I felt so many things at once -- anger at her for not taking this seriously, fear for her, compassion for the pain I knew she was still in, and God help me, desire from the long-remembered feeling of her body beneath mine, on the ground. "What happened here?"
"We killed a monster," she said flatly. With a glance over her shoulder, she checked out the rest of the La Brea park. "There's a couple more. None this big, though. We can polish 'em off in a jif."
"You know what I mean," I said.
"What? You noticed that I'm not my usual super-Slayer self? That things aren't hunky-dory, gold-plated, shiny great with me? I noticed that way back around Willow's funeral. Or was it Xander's? The one with the big yellow wreath, anyway. Not that you'd know, since you weren't there."
I was in a box at the bottom of the ocean at the time, which is pretty solid as excuses go, but arguing with her wasn't the point. "I want things to be okay with us, Buffy."
A faint smile played on her lips. "Define 'okay,' Angel."
Buffy was standing so close to me. I wished I had something of Cordelia's -- a ring or a token or something -- that I could take hold of, to bring her here in this moment, make her real and not a memory. "I don't know that I can."
It was a small admission, but it was enough. Buffy kept smiling, but her expression was wistful and sad. Familiar. I slumped against the side of my car, folded my arms against my chest. "I love Cordelia," I said, because I had to say it. I needed to hear it.
"You guys are good for each other," Buffy said. "I can tell. You're happier now, Angel. Not in a curse-happy kinda way --"
"No," I added quickly.
"-- but in a day-to-day kinda way." She watched one of the Cuzfau beasts coming closer, sniffing the air to see what had become of the large one. It would find out pretty soon. Then she looked at me again. "You're not like you used to be. All that stuff that used to drag you down every day, give you nightmares every night -- you've put it behind you."
"I don't know that I can ever put it behind me," I said. "But -- as much as I can -- I've made my peace with the past." And Cordelia helped me do that. She was the one who made me leave the nightmares behind. So why was I still looking down at Buffy and wanting to kiss her? If I'd made peace with everything else in my past, why not her?
Buffy stepped a little closer and put her hand on my arm, and I felt myself slipping, falling, tumbling down to a point where I was going to lose control. But then Buffy said, "Let me make this easy for you."
She squeezed my arm once. "You're not what I need anymore." Then she walked off, toward the Cuzfau beast. I tried very hard to just feel relieved.
I hold Cordy for the longest time, trying to take some of her hurt into me. God knows a little more won't do any further damage. Back when Buffy was alive, I dedicated a lot of energy to proving to Cordelia that I loved her best -- paying her extra attention, making sure I listened to her opinions, treating her like a princess. I tried not to think that I might be trying to prove it to Buffy, too. Least of all to myself.
She gave up heaven to be with me. If I'd been there as she chose, I could've told her she was making a mistake.
"When is this going to be over?" Cordelia whispers against my chest. "When are you gonna come back to me?"
If only I could make her understand that I belong to her a thousand times more than I did before. That in this last year, when I've been so unsure of what I knew, of whom I could trust, I came to love her so much more than ever. Cordelia's strength, her courage, her ability to endure my silences and selfishness -- God, I don't deserve her. I want to try to deserve her.
But I can't devote myself to her until I know the truth, until I know what else I have to do.
"Cordelia," I whisper, brushing the tears from her cheeks with my thumbs, "I'm so sorry."
The pain in her face vanishes, replaced by fear. "Are you breaking up with me?"
"No! God, no." How could she think that? How could I even let our relationship get to a point where she could think that? Cordelia looks stricken, and I feel slightly sick as I realize that she's been hurting even more than I knew. "Listen to me. I know I haven't been there for you like you deserve. But don't think I don't see that you're there for me. Okay? I don't want to lose that. I don't want to lose you. I love you, Cordy."
"Then talk to me," she says. Her chin is set. "I love you too. Love is not our problem. We have, like, bags of love. But I need some trust here, Angel." Cordelia takes a deep breath, blows it out, then continues, "If you want to talk about Buffy -- that's all right."
Does she mean Buffy's murder? Does she suspect the truth?
I realize it all in a flash -- the truth I've been hiding from, the truth I don't want to face, is the only thing that can possibly make things right between me and Cordy. But it might also destroy my son. The one person I love more than I love her.
"I don't need to talk about Buffy," I say, and I try to mean it. "I want to talk to you. I miss talking to you." I hadn't realized how true that was until I said it, and I smile gently at her. "Remember that? All those late nights sitting on the foot of the bed, talking for hours?"
"Pretending we weren't flirting." Cordelia's smiling a little too, and the sight of it breaks my heart. She was always the one I talked to -- about everything, but especially about Connor. How I felt when he returned from Quartoth. Whether we should try and tutor him for a G.E.D. About the way he liked to chew on my fingers when he was teething.
I'd give anything to be able to talk to her about that now. Cordy might understand. She might help me. On the other hand, she might not.
Carefully, I say, "After the trial -- let's go away together. Just you and me. We can take a couple weeks to recover from all this. And we can talk."
"We could also talk right now," she points out. I don't answer. She slumps a little, but she nods. "Okay. After the trial. Let me think of some vacation spot that's not sunny this time of year."
"I hear Alaska's dark," I say. Then I think maybe that doesn't sound too appealing. "We could see the Northern Lights."
"Sounds nice," she says faintly. Apparently Alaska doesn't rank very high on her life of romantic destinations. Without asking anything else, she gets up and goes to the door. "I'm gonna find Fred. She's probably more bent about this whole Gunn thing than she's letting on."
"Good idea," I say. Cordy doesn't answer, just goes out the door.
I am about one day away from losing her. I might also be one day away from losing my son.
We should have expected trouble, that night. Each of us was patrolling alone.
Dangerous and stupid thing to do -- but relationships were so strained by that point that we had a better chance of concentrating on our own. But I still should have known to watch Connor, stay with him.
He'd complained about the Brotherhood of Amesace often enough. "They worship demons," he would say. "This is reason enough for us to act against them." Faith and Buffy agreed with him. Faith and Buffy didn't know what Connor meant by "act against."
But I'd told myself, over and over, that Connor did what he did to Justine out of understandable emotional pain. Justine killed the man he thought of as his father. She made him believe a lie that led to his hurting and torturing me. When he learned the truth -- he lost it, that's all. I've lost it before. It's a passing thing. What matters is what you do afterward.
So I told myself, until that night.
I went by the Brotherhood's "temple" purely as a precaution. If they were up to some of their nastier tricks, it would be fun to scatter them, get them scared. I also thought it was possible that I might run into some of the others; we all kept pretty close tabs on our local cult-in-training. Faith watched them pretty carefully, and I thought Wesley did sometimes. Connor went by there almost every night he could.
As I got closer, I breathed in, checked for his scent. Sure enough, Connor had come this way tonight. He'd traveled on these same rooftops not long before.
When I got a little closer, I smelled the blood. The smell of the blood was overpowering; I couldn't smell anything else. Not Connor, not anything, just the thick heat of blood.
I went straight to their roof, went down from the fire escape and looked in the window. Just what I saw in that first glimpse told me I would be able to enter. No invitation necessary. No one left alive.
They'd fought their attacker. Some of them had weapons in their hands, and one woman had slivers of skin under her fingernails. But they'd had no chance. A few clues -- a broken doorjamb, a bent lampstand -- revealed that their attacker's strength had been far greater than human.
This room reminded me of slaughters I'd committed, of Darla's first lessons, of Spike's more striking work. But most of all it reminded me of Justine, or what was left of her when Connor was done.
Could he have done this? I asked myself. I knew the answer was yes.
I worked fast. I grabbed up a scrap of torn clothing and wiped down every surface that could have a fingerprint -- doorknobs, light switches, tabletops. I scraped under the dead woman's fingernails, removed the skin so nobody could identify it. There were all these bits of junk lying around that might have been touched as well, so much stuff I decided to toss it rather than try and rub it all down. Pizza boxes, braids of hair, CD cases, a bronze cup, some head-shop incense burners -- it all went in a trash bag.
Some of that might have exonerated Connor. No -- nothing could excuse what had happened in that room. Nothing. But could it have helped the others understand? I'll never know. Before I could think of it as anything besides fingerprint surfaces, I'd already dumped it in an incinerator.
When I was done, I went out the way I came in. I didn't ever see the scene at the front door. If I had -- if I'd seen Buffy lying there, dead for the third and last time -- would I have done anything differently?
I don't think so.
There's a knock at the door. Cordelia, I think, with a rush of relief. Then I realize that she wouldn't knock on her own cabin. "Who is it?"
"It's me." Connor opens the door, looks around. "Where's Cordelia?"
"Off talking to Fred." I take a moment to calm myself, then gesture to the sofa. "Do you want to sit down? We have soda in here. Maybe a couple of candy bars, too."
"I'm good," he says. "I was watching Gunn. I don't trust him."
Why? I want to ask. Do you not trust him because you think Faith's guilty, and you hate Gunn for helping her? Or do you not trust him because you don't trust anyone? Are you still judging everyone, all around you? Are you still the jury and executioner, too?
Instead I say, "How about pretzels?"
That hits the spot. Connor smiles, and despite everything, I'm warmed by the sight of that smile. "Pretzels would be good."
I toss him a bag, and he tears it open and begins wolfing it down. Cordy's drummed something resembling table manners into him, but he still has a predator's instincts about eating. Go fast, hold it close, or someone will take it from you.
He's been so hurt. He's suffered so much. I don't judge him for what he is, whatever he is. And I want so desperately to tell him to go -- to lose us at the train station, or just jump off the train right now. Connor could hide someplace the Watchers would never find him, live his life as best he could. Sooner or later, I know he'll learn. I know the good inside him will win out. He just needs time.
But I finally I know -- I can't keep protecting him. The cost has already been too high. Buffy's life, and the lives of those seven people, Gunn and Faith's safety and freedom, Cordelia's peace of mind.. As long as Faith was on the run, I could bury these thoughts under the hope she was guilty. But now, with the proof at hand, I can't hide from it any longer.
Maybe everyone was right about Faith. Maybe she did do it. I hope to God she did.
If she didn't, though -- if tomorrow we learn that she went there after the murder and saw Connor leaving, or even saw him committing the crimes -- then he'll have to face justice.
"Did they have pretzels when you were alive?" he says. He doesn't ask about my life much.
"Not in Ireland," I say. I wish he'd let me hug him. It would feel so good, just once, to hold my son in my arms again.
"Too bad," he says. "They're good." He smiles up at me, like the young boy he still is. Connor's eyes are like mine, his hair and his nose, but that smile -- that's Darla's. I recognize it well.
It's the strangest feeling, recognizing Darla's face, and feeling love.