Wordcount: This part, 5475.
Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Boss Whedon and his merry band of Mutant Enemies.
Summary: Ten days after the final battle in LA, allies gather to search for survivors and attempt to understand the events that led them there.
I knew I shouldn't have started posting this until I had finished writing it...
Connor fell asleep in the double bed of his budget motel room and dreamed of his childhood. He was in the backseat of the old Volvo, but instead of his father in the driver’s seat it was Angel, and though the face of the woman riding shotgun was hidden from view, he knew with the certainty of dream-logic that it was Darla. Connor kept asking if they were there yet, to which she would answer, “No, dear,” while Angel sang Cat Stevens, loudly and off-key. When Connor spotted a Dairy Queen, Angel pulled up to it and bought them each a blood-flavored ice cream cone. Bethany was attending the drive-through window, and she leaned out as she handed the cones to Angel, fluttering her lashes and thanking him profusely for saving her.
The high-pitched beep of the alarm on Connor’s digital watch was almost a relief, but by the time he found it on the bedside table and got it to turn off, he was thoroughly annoyed and as awake as he was going to get. He sat up and scrubbed his hands over his face. “Okay, everyone,” he said out loud to the empty room. “Eardrums, stop ringing. Subconscious mind, stop tripping me out. Hormones, stop thinking about Bethany. Got it? Got it.”
His hormones obeyed, albeit sluggishly, but he and Bethany had agreed to meet at ten o’clock at the Starbucks around the corner, so he couldn’t stop thinking about her entirely. Besides, it was too early to try to deconstruct Lorne’s words, and it wasn’t as if Angel was there to offer any food for thought.
He deliberately got to the coffee shop before ten so that he would be there before she was. They were staying at the same motel, but she didn’t know it, as he had managed to suavely see her to her door and then depart without mentioning that he was just going back to the front desk to get a room for himself.
It took about ten minutes after Connor had purchased his first cappuccino for Bethany to enter and glance around the room for him. He hailed her from his table and then hurried over to meet her at the counter before she could order. “Hi. Pick your caffeine, I’ve got it.”
The corner of her mouth twitched into a smile. “Vanilla mocha latte,” she said to the barista, and then to Connor, “But I can pay for it myself.”
He affected a hurt expression. “I’ve been waiting to buy you coffee since yesterday. Don’t take this away from me.” She acquiesced without further resistance, and he ordered a replacement for his finished cappuccino.
They chose a table conveniently located some distance from any other customers, but it took a while for any private subjects to come up anyway. It hadn’t been hard for them to agree to get together again today, not because of Lorne’s parting words but because there was so much they both needed to talk about and nobody around to listen but each other. Connor had been a little nervous that one of them was going to start getting overly emotional about something-- Angel, or the ruin of LA, or the burden of having abilities that needed to be kept secret-- but, on the contrary, they both seemed to forget every meaningful topic as soon as they sat down. It was just so much more engaging to expound on the finer points of the illustrations on their cups, and the attitudes of Pasadena residents relative to those outside of it, and how there should be a law passed to forbid Greenday from releasing any more albums.
Finally, there was a pause in conversation as Connor waited for Bethany to come down from a giggle fit. She sighed, her smile fading slowly, and asked, “So are we just giving up now? He doesn’t want to be found, so we’re not going to find him?”
He shrugged. “Can’t say that was my plan exactly.”
“And your plan exactly was...?”
“What?” He widened his eyes. “So I was supposed to have one ready? Okay, hang on and I’ll come up with something real fast.”
Of course he had neither the intentions nor the capability of instantly forming an agenda, but Bethany knew to not take him seriously and accepted the following silence with nothing but a smirk to precede it. She stared into her latte for a moment, and when Connor realized that the liquid in the cup was swirling independently, he stared into it too. “You can stir things with your mind,” he said. “That is...so incredibly cool.”
She smiled modestly. “Keeps me from getting spoons dirty. How much time do you have?”
He automatically cast a glance at his watch, then grasped her actual meaning. “The rest of the summer,” he replied.
“You were going to spend the whole summer looking for Angel?”
“Well, no. I mean, I’ve only got the cash to last a week or two, but I expected something to change before it was gone. And if it didn’t, well, I could probably count on not finding anything after that point.”
Her expression was empathic. “Had a nice little mental picture of a reunion with the gang, right? Me too. I kept thinking like I was just going to walk into the hotel and he would be there, and Cordelia would be there, and she would run over and hug me and start yelling at me for losing touch...”
Connor’s throat constricted, fighting the responsibility that had just been thrown into his lap. The thought that he would have to be the one to break news like this had never occurred to him, and the shock of it seemed to still the words before they could come. “Cordelia,” he said quietly, concentrating on clear annunciation. “She died. Some time this past year.”
“Oh God.” Bethany’s hand over her mouth and the quivering reflections of light on her irises said all that needed to be said. “I thought she was just...busy...”
It was the grief that Connor had wanted for himself, the visceral reaction that he knew Cordelia’s death deserved but which he was no longer able to feel. It only made matters worse to have nothing in mind that he could conceive of saying to comfort Bethany. He didn’t even have details about the circumstances, or a place where the two of them could bring flowers. “I’m sorry,” he said, hating the phrase. “I didn’t know you knew her.”
A few tears dripped down Bethany’s cheeks, which oddly enough served to dissipate some of the tension. It at least gave her something to do, as she bent her head to wipe them away, and an excuse to break eye contact. “It’s alright,” she sniffled. “We weren’t exactly close, it’s just...she was nice to me, you know? She was out there helping people. And she was young.”
“It’s not fair,” he agreed. “I think that’s part of what this is all about, for me. People like her shouldn’t die young.”
“So you want to be a hero?” Her eyes were blazing with the vivid contrast of a woman in tears, but her voice was steady and the question was direct.
“I don’t know,” Connor admitted. “I can’t answer any of these questions I have-- about Angel, myself, the Apocalypse That Isn’t-- not without being here and seeing it in person. I can’t leave yet.”
She flashed him a smile, a startling expression not only for its sudden appearance but for its veiled ferocity. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“I honestly have no idea.”
“Let’s go in. Cross the barrier. See what we can see.”
Connor took a good long look at every part of the coffee shop surrounding them. He knew that nobody had been eavesdropping on them, but he couldn’t help it. What Bethany was proposing was exhilarating, but dangerous in more ways than he thought he could list. “There could still be stuff in there,” he started.
“Stuff we can’t handle?”
He thought about that. “Probably not. I mean, with my brains and your good looks...”
She snickered. “What do we even need superpowers for, right?”
“Here goes nothing.”
They were already relatively close to the barrier, but after leaving the Starbucks they took a short detour to hit a convenience store. They didn’t know how long they would be out there, and Connor insisted they stock up on energy bars and fill his Nalgene bottle before crossing into no man’s land. Bethany laughed when she saw how attentively he had packed the single bag he had brought for the trip. “Boy Scout, huh?”
“See, everyone thinks the Scouts are funny, but nobody turns down a drink of water when I’m the only one who brought any.”
Sudden concern crossed her face. “You think I should find somewhere to buy a bag? I only brought a suitcase, and it’s back at the motel...”
He shook his head. “I can carry enough water for both of us. And we might have a chance to do some looting later on. There have to be some resources in there, I just don’t want to have to fight anyone for them—-“ He suddenly realized that they had reached the counter and were having their conversation in front of a very nervous-looking cashier. “You know how intense these paintball tournaments can get,” Connor continued as he dug out his wallet. It wasn’t the best cover-up, but it got them out of the store without having the police called.
They passed the door to the underground club on their way through the quiet part of town, and Connor hesitated, wondering if Lorne was still there. It was a pointless train of thought, though—- the empath demon was already part of the past, and there was no sound of music this time anyway. Nothing else about the area had changed, aside from the light of late morning. It was still as quiet as the grave and humbled underneath the shadow of the giant barrier, and this time it instilled a sense of reverential fear. Trespassing in the unknown land was no more or less than their intentions, but a wall like this one wouldn’t let them pretend that what they were doing was anything but trespassing.
“We have to make sure nobody sees us,” Bethany stated as they approached the blockade, her voice quavering slightly.
“There’s nobody around to see us.”
“We have to make sure,” she insisted. “We’re breaking the law. Oh God, this is crazy, maybe we should just go.”
Connor raised an eyebrow, vexed. Why did she sound scared all of a sudden? “We don’t have to do this if you don’t want. But I swear, nobody’s around. I would hear them.” And if that failed him he would smell them, but he didn’t think girls were usually into hearing about olfactory peculiarities.
Bethany took a deep breath. “I do want to do it. I’m just being...it doesn’t even matter if I get in trouble with the law anymore. I keep forgetting.”
They had reached the wall, and Connor touched it with both hands, testing the material. “What do you mean?” he asked as he leaned into the plastic.
“Kind of a long story.”
“I’ve got all summer, remember?”
She made a sound that was half sigh and half chuckle, and leaned up against the wall next to him. “Okay, so, after I found out what Wolfram & Hart wanted out of me, I cut my ties to them and I thought I was done with it. But even after I left LA, I kept being approached by suits—- and sometimes people without suits—- and actually, a couple of demons, too. They never tried to hurt me physically, but they kept making me offers. Like, financial stuff, or scholarships, or jobs. A few times it was when I was getting kind of desperate, but I learned to research where they were coming from, and every single time, there was some connection to Wolfram & Hart.
“It freaked me out. They couldn’t touch me as long as I didn’t have any legal obligations to them, but I realized that if I ever got in trouble with the law, they were either going to be representing me, or they’d be on the other side. Once in a while my telekinesis would spaz on me and I’d break something, and I was so afraid of being sued for it that I would just leave the town. It’s been hard to put roots anywhere.” She looked up from the ground, meeting his eyes. “But now there is no Wolfram & Hart, so...let’s go wild, I guess.”
Connor had stopped exploring the barrier, completely drawn in by the glimpse into Bethany’s recent history. It was more than she had revealed about herself since he had met her, and he had an inkling that there were few who had heard even that much. “Don’t worry,” he said, putting a grave emphasis on each word. “We won’t take any risks we don’t have to, okay? And if things get bad, I won’t bail out on you. I swear.”
She rewarded him with a delicate smile and nodded. “Well, this isn’t any less crazy, but I’m feeling okay. Are we going to scale this thing?”
He turned his attention back to the wall and slid his fingers beneath one of its plastic panels. “I was thinking more like…yup. It’s bendy. Stand back.” He wedged himself between the first layer and the wooden one behind it, and with a few awkward and somewhat painful punches, he had a hole ripped through. He kicked out the edges to make it into a nice human-sized hole, and stepped away, pulling the flexible layer of plastic out to open the entrance for Bethany.
She ducked and stepped through without another word, and Connor tossed his backpack in and then followed, letting the panel fall back into place. He thought that the damage would be concealed when seen from the other side, but the deserted area around it probably meant that it didn’t matter either way.
Bethany was standing with her arms crossed, surveying the surroundings, when Connor straightened up and joined her. “Wow,” he said after a short silence. “This looks just like Los Angeles would look if it were totally abandoned.”
What fallout was visible from their standpoint was negotiable; it was the stillness that unnerved Connor. Somehow it seemed so much more obvious on this side of the barrier: there was nobody here. Aside from himself and a cute redhead and a few crows doing their tough-guy hops along the pavement, there was really, really nobody here. It was the first time LA had ever made him feel like his presence there was noticeable.
“Which way?” said Bethany.
He shrugged. “Straight ahead should bring us closer to ground zero. We won’t find much around the edges.” Privately he wondered how the state had chosen where to erect the fence. He couldn’t see any significant difference between the side of it he had just left and the one he was standing on now, at least for a few blocks in front of him. Maybe it was all just arbitrary, because nobody involved actually knew where the doom and demons were supposed to begin.
They had been walking in relative silence for about twenty minutes before they found either doom or demons, and then it was a little of each. Bethany spotted a derelict building, an apartment complex bearing wounds that were clearly the result of recent events: it wasn’t old enough to be abandoned, and no other structure around it had any damage to match its rent edges and scorched walls. “Let’s go in,” said Bethany.
After the obligatory discussion—- Connor wouldn’t call it an argument—- about whether there could be hidden enemies in there and whether the building’s structural integrity was weakened enough to threaten collapse, they entered the lobby and stood there blinking away the darkness and listening.
At first it seemed they were listening to more silence, but then there was a muffled groan, making them both snap their heads around to seek its source. Connor’s acute hearing found it first; or at least, led his vision to spot a twitching foot poking out from the hallway. Bethany was looking the other way, and he touched her shoulder to point it out to her.
As she whirled to face him, he was overcome by an indescribably odd sensation. It was as if a giant invisible hand had slammed into him, laying pressure all over his body but removing it quickly enough to spare him the brunt of the immense strength that he instinctively knew was there. The whole experience took less than a second, and by the time he had stumbled backwards and regained his balance, the only thing that registered about it was Bethany standing before him. “Sorry,” she said, reinforcing her sheepish tone with a dark blush. “I have—used to have—this thing about being touched. I’m mostly over it, but you kind of startled me.”
“I’ll remember that,” he said breathlessly. It was too bad, he thought, that she was embarrassed by the incident. That kind of power made him want to see her try some experiments.
She fidgeted. “You saw something?”
“Oh, right. Over here.” He led her to the corridor. A figure lay in front of the elevator doors there, a scruffy man with a baleful glare. Although he was the owner of the foot that Connor had seen, the foot wasn’t one of a pair: there was no blood to explain it, but the right leg was completely missing from the hip down.
Bethany emitted a little shriek when she beheld the grim sight, and Connor stepped unobtrusively between her and the cripple. “Let me handle this,” he murmured.
“What? No! We have to help him, get him out of here!”
“No we don’t.” Connor got down on one knee for a closer look. “We just need something wooden. He’s a vampire.”
With the deranged snarl of the trapped predator, the vampire attempted to lunge at Connor. Of course he succeeded only in rolling and flailing, and Connor struck with one hand and pushed him back away. From behind him he heard Bethany’s sharp intake of breath.
“What happened to your leg?” she asked the vampire in a near-whisper.
“What do you think happened, bitch?” he growled back at her. “It turned into ashes.”
Moving slowly out of respect for what he had just learned about Bethany’s phobia, Connor stood up and guided her away from the corridor with a light touch to her elbow. “Stay here,” he requested when the vampire was once again concealed from her vision, and then he left her side and found a wooden chair to break.
The vampire had nothing else to say to him, having recognized immediately that it stood no chance of survival. It stayed in its human visage right up to the point that it exploded into ashes, and Connor spent the next few hours with that disdainful face painted on the insides of his eyelids every time he blinked.
“How did you know it was a vampire?” Bethany asked him a bit later on. They were walking through a low-income part of town, or what used to be part of town, anyway. The destruction here was still minimal and randomly spaced, but the stores and residential buildings on either side seemed hollow with abandon. Connor and Bethany had chosen to walk down the center of the road rather than use the sidewalks—- it was the only way to not feel closed in.
“I don’t know,” he answered truthfully. “I think it’s just part of my powers. Vampires can sense each other, and I have most of the vampire advantages, so...”
“So it’s kind of like you are a vampire. I get it.”
Connor frowned, surprised by his own consternation at the remark. “I’m not,” he said. “I’m alive.”
Her pace didn’t slow as she looked up to meet his eyes in the bright sunlight. “Well, obviously. But, I mean, if your mom was a vampire and your dad was a vampire, doesn’t that mean you’re at least part vampire?”
“No. It means I’m, uh... It means I’m a freak, but I’m human. See, vampires are human bodies, but they’re dead and reanimated. I’m alive and I have no demon, so I’m human. I couldn’t be anything else.”
“Oh.” She chewed her lip for a moment and looked straight ahead. “So, Mr. Human Freak Guy, you know your stuff, huh?”
He shrugged and nodded. “As far as vampires go. Holtz really ground it into me.” He saw her brow furrow slightly at the name, and added, “The guy who raised me in the demon dimension.”
There was a pause. Connor found himself sunken in thought again, more deeply than he really wanted to be. The ghost city around him offered no distraction, hardly seeming to change as they walked. It was difficult to get a sense of how big Los Angeles really was until trying to cross it on foot.
Bethany was, again, the first to speak. “Are you immortal?” she asked.
Connor reeled slightly. “God, no. I mean, I age. I grew up from conception like everyone else.”
“Still,” she persisted. “What if you just don’t know yet? You said you have most of the vampire advantages, so...”
“Immortality isn’t an advantage.” The words came out without any forethought, but they felt right. “Not when you have a soul. Your mind changes when you get turned into a vampire—they can handle living forever. We can’t.”
“Even you? Even Angel?”
“Those are two very different questions,” he informed her, but she limited her response to a sidelong look at him, and he was stuck trying to answer anyway. “There’s not enough vampire in me to handle it. I think I’d go crazy if I lived for a hundred years, let alone to infinity. I can’t even grasp it in concept.”
She held her silence, leaving him time to ponder the second part of her question. He was still feeling uncomfortable about her hypothesis regarding his mortality, though, and he took the chance to turn it around on her. “Would you want to be immortal?”
“Kind of,” she said quietly. “It would be nice to have enough time to do everything you really want to do. To make up for the mistakes you make when you don’t know any better. It seems like there’s never enough time.”
He considered this, wondering more about why Bethany would feel that way than whether he did. Before he had thought up anything to say, she spoke again, in a much less serious tone. “But that’s wishful thinking for you. In the real world I’d probably go crazy from it too.”
“It wouldn’t drive Angel crazy,” he said slowly. “Or it would have already, I think. But he doesn’t want it. For him it just means he has to watch everyone die while he goes on and on redeeming himself.”
“So living forever only works out when you’re evil. Doesn’t seem fair.”
Connor could only agree, though he refrained from making any cynical comments about how nothing was fair—he liked to think that Angel wouldn’t be cynical if he were here for this talk. The imagined presence of the vampire’s sad wisdom was reassuring, somehow, and Connor continued it out loud: “That’s got to be why he tried so hard to save everyone else. It gave him a chance to live through us.”
“Yeah.” Bethany’s voice sounded fond, but it was a while before she looked his way again. The ghost town around them didn’t seem to interest her either, nor the crows that kept landing and relocating on signs and rooftops, just the empty road laid out in front of them. “Angel was upset when I wouldn’t stay,” she said after a minute or two. “He said he could give me a safe place for as long as it took me to stabilize. Even kind of hinted that there was room for someone like me in his little business. Funny thing was, though, he never tried to change my mind. He just said he was there if I ever needed a friend, and he let me go.”
“Why didn’t you?” asked Connor. “Stay with him, I mean.”
She shrugged one shoulder. “I just needed to be the one taking care of myself for a while, I guess.”
“I can understand that.”
That seemed to be all the discussion she wanted on that topic, for she changed it swiftly. “So that Holtz guy was kind of like a father to you?”
“Kind of, but now that the sentiment is gone from that life, I’m mostly just vaguely mad at him.” Connor kicked a rock in front of him, wondering as it rolled away if it was a real rock or some stray debris. “Honestly, that’s part of why I don’t like thinking about the whole mess. Holtz was one of the only things that really mattered to me, and now I know he’s crazy and dead and incredibly wrong, and I can’t even bring myself to care. Makes me feel like a robot.”
“Okay,” she said, “But, I don’t know. Three fathers and only one of them was an asshole? Sounds to me like you got off easy.”
“That’s one way to think about it,” Connor mused. “Of course, Angel had his asshole years too.”
“Were you there for that?”
She asked the question in a sharper voice than he had heard from her yet, and he looked over at her to see that she was giving him a piercing stare, her arms crossed against her chest. “No,” he replied.
“Then don’t complain about it. His past is his own business. People change.”
A few tentative apologies later they were walking in silence again. Connor wasn’t sure how to ease the friction: he was sorry, but he was sorry that he had accidentally upset her, not that he thought he had done anything wrong. Clearly she could identify the distinction, and though she told him not to worry about it, further attempts at conversation slid off of her.
Evidence of the battle seemed to be in a holding pattern for a long ways; now and then they would see a building that was smashed beyond repair, but those were few and far between. Most streets were empty of cars. Once they crossed an intersection that was nothing but cars, blocking it off in every direction, apparently the site of a large number of residents giving up on that method of escape when it proved too hectic. Here and there, power lines were ripped down, and all over the place there were items lying in the road that just didn’t belong there: a battleaxe, a shining metal mask, a briefcase full of legal documentation.
Fortunately, they saw no bodies at all. Even at the automotive pile-up, each car held no passengers, and though there were a few spots on the pavement that looked and smelled suspiciously like blood, their origin was left uncertain. Connor had little doubt that these were the killing grounds, but the government’s work here had made a difference and he was grateful for it.
At first, there was a temptation to keep wandering off to the side to inspect a smashed-in wall or pick up a medieval weapon, but as those sights became more commonplace, both Connor and Bethany became more driven. They walked straight ahead whenever they could, and when their path was blocked or terminated in a dead end, Connor would seek another route and point it out for Bethany. Once, she telekinetically lifted a bulky beam away from the alley he had selected, but for the most part she seemed to prefer to leave things as they were, picking her way around rubble and broken footing just as he was.
“Connor,” she said suddenly, startling him. Neither of them had spoken for at least an hour. He turned to her, and she continued humbly, “I’m really tired.”
Connor’s breath caught in his throat. “I didn’t realize—- let’s rest, yeah, sit down. Have some water. I’m so sorry, we’ve been walking so long and I just didn’t think—- I’m sorry.”
She half-smiled and pointed to the closest intact building. “Office lobby,” she said. “I bet there’s a couch in there.”
There was, and they both took one end of it and passed the Nalgene bottle back and forth over Connor’s backpack, which he had placed between them. Connor hardly felt any fatigue, but he was just as hungry as Bethany, and by mutual agreement they finished off most of their provisions.
“I didn’t mean to get all moody on you,” said Bethany after finishing her last energy bar. “I’ve just been thinking about...about eternity, I guess. Living forever. It must be so lonely.”
“Yeah,” Connor agreed cautiously, not quite ready to test the waters of this kind of talk with her again.
“Of course, most people seem to be pretty lonely anyway. You know the divorce rate is up to...um...a lot?”
He nodded. “Not sure if having infinite time to work on things would make that better or worse.”
She laid an arm over the back of the couch and rested her head on it, facing him. “Did your parents get divorced?”
“No, they’re still together.” He paused. “Or, they split up about a hundred years before Darla staked herself to give birth and Angel took me home. Sorry, any question you ask me about myself, I’m probably going to have two answers.”
Bethany’s eyes had started to widen near the middle of that comment, and now they looked as big as pancakes. “No shit,” she said. “Darla? Her name was Darla?”
“Yeah.” He frowned. “Why?”
She emitted a short laugh of disbelief. “He wouldn’t tell me who she was.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. I guess it’s, well, kind of personal.” She laughed again, then stood up and stretched, locking her hands above her head. “Want to get going?”
He sighed and vacated his end of the couch. “You’re really not going to say any more about this, are you?”
“Maybe someday,” she allowed as they headed back outside.
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re kind of a mysterious lady?”
“Says the guy who was born to two vampires and raised in a demon dimension.”
He raised up his arms in a theatrical gesture, said, “Touche,” and let the subject fall away to wherever all the others had gone. Their interaction felt a little easier after that point, though, and they started swapping remarks about what they were seeing around themselves.
It was getting worse, Connor noted, and had been since they left the outskirts of the city. As they got deeper into LA and found themselves in the districts that had until recently been the busiest, richest, and most famous, there were larger holes in everything and larger chunks of things in the way. There was even a distasteful smell in the air—sulfur, or something like that. They were definitely getting close to the center of the action, whatever that was.
The most ominous element of the landscape, though, was in the empty spaces between skyscrapers that Connor slowly began to realize were abnormal. He had a sudden flashback to the skyline as he had seen it from the bus into Pasadena, and winced at the thought of approaching the heart of that ruination. Again he was the first to notice, but he didn’t need to explain it to Bethany. As soon as her vision could make sense of the wide expanse of missing buildings, her mind did too, and Connor saw her flinch and shudder before she regained her steady gait.
Before long, there was one more oddity in front of them that Connor had to analyze. It was down on the ground, a motionless streamlined shape somewhere in front of him, but the improbable enormity of it made it difficult for him to gauge its distance. After a few minutes he got impatient and asked Bethany, “Do you see that?”
She didn’t, at first, but then she reached out a hand and swept it along the outline of the shape. “You mean that thing? I thought it was part of the ground...but it’s not, is it? It’s a…I don’t know.”
They kept approaching, the shape getting bigger and crisper in Connor’s view until finally the connection between his eyes and brain kicked in and he stopped in his tracks. “Bethany.”
She stopped too, raising an eyebrow at him.
“You know what that is?” He took a deep breath. “That’s a...that’s a dead dragon.”
Part 1~*~Part 2~*~Part 4