Angel remembers hearing stories about it. He was in hell at the time, but children talk and he’s pieced together what happened after Buffy stuck a sword through his gut. He remembers being more concerned with Buffy’s aborted run to L.A. and the problems she faced there—a whole new facet of guilt—but now he thinks about Joyce. About the woman who was so frustrated and out of anything recognizable as an option that she said the unsayable. And then spent the rest of the summer trying to unsay it and wishing it wasn’t the right thing to have said.
Angel knows exactly how she felt.
It’s why he’s standing here, peering up at a what used to be an apartment complex. It still houses people, though they don’t pay rent for their crumbling, filthy rooms. At least, not the kind the city takes its tithe from. Angel stares up at the window he knows is correct and once again wonders about what he did. He knows it’s the right thing. But right doesn’t mean ‘good’, he’s learning, and parenting is fraught with the kinds of dangers that a champion for light doesn’t know how to navigate.
He’s terrified, and he’s lonely. If Cordelia were here, she might be able to distract him long enough. But she’s not, and as much as her disappearance worries him, it’s not her he’s spent the last few hours tracking.
The stair well contains dirty humans on dirtier concrete. The smell of urine is prevalent, and inside he roars to think that his son, who should’ve had the best there was to have, who should be just starting his senior year in high school, flush with promise and thinking about which colleges his old dad is going to pay for—that this is his life. Unwashed masses that exist from one toke to the next. Predators more dangerous than the face Angel hides, because these seduce so much faster.
His son. His child is here, facing this. Without loving arms to protect and shield what should be a precious innocent from the horrors of the world. There’s no light here, no hope. And it’s where Connor’s gone to lick his wounds and try his best to find what he’s never found. Peace. Safety.
For the first time, he truly understands the pain Joyce must’ve felt.
The room is on the third floor, silver flaking off the 306 on the cheap, beaten grain of the door. Angel touches it, knowing he can’t go any further. He’s not even sure he wants to. He can hear Connor’s ragged breathing, the slight hitch of pain on the end of each inhalation—he’s hurt. Not badly, the scent of blood is washed away with stinging antiseptics Angel notes he has to resupply. But Connor—his son—is hurt.
His hand is turning the knob before he remembers he won’t be able to go in. The cheap lock crumbles under a father’s fear, the door swinging open. As dirty as the rest of the building, there’s a pallet on the floor and not much else. A book, a tossed off t-shirt. Connor, sitting underneath the window, looking up.
Connor’s face is so small. His mother’s grace and cunning lay close along the small frame that is her legacy. His eyes are like looking in a mirror, for all their grey instead of brown—tormented, hard, and not totally sane. “What?” he asks. His belligerence makes Angel remember the books he devoured with such enthusiasm six months before. Things he read for that far away day when Connor wouldn’t be his baby boy anymore.
Connor’s laugh shouldn’t be so brittle. So sad and broken. “You kicked me out. Don’t tell me I still get to be mothered now that I’m on my own.”
“I’m not mothering you,” Angel protests, knowing he is. Connor needs it so very badly, walls of broken dreams preventing from accepting the simplicity of fatherly care. He doesn’t even recognize it, not truly or he would’ve seen Fred’s artless acceptance for what it was. “You’re hurt. Don’t tell me something clipped you.”
Connor looks back out to the window. Pain like Angel’s never seen before makes lips purse and for a moment, he swears Connor looks ready to cry. Hands rub over his belly where a bandage lays close to the skin. “There was a boy on the stairs. He wanted my dinner.”
Angel clenches his jaw, aching in sympathy. The boy from Quortoth would’ve expected the innocence of a child to hide guile and deceit. But Connor isn’t that boy anymore. He saw a child—something that deserved his protection, not his distrust.
“Good. It’s clean?”
“Stop mothering me.”
Angel nods though Connor isn’t looking at him and leans against the barrier. “No.”
A flicker of smile, soft and welcoming—he looks so young, just a boy—and Connor tilts his head just a little. “I’ve always wondered something. Come in.”
Angel catches himself mid face-plant, waving his arms as he straightens. “What did you always wonder?” he asks, hoping he doesn’t show his amazement.
“If you’d catch yourself before you hit the ground.” Connor’s done, then, and turns back to stare through cracked, smokey glass to try and pinpoint stars.
Angel doesn’t try laughing. He can’t, yet. He does come close enough to touch, sitting beside and a little behind his son. Bugs writhe underneath the pallet they use; he can hear their scrabbling and crawling, the scritch of tiny feet trying to move. Angel wants to squash them all.
“It’s not bad,” Connor says eventually. There’s something soft and needy that Angel’s never heard in his son’s voice. It makes him go rigid, trying to determine what Connor wants and how Angel can give it. “The cut. He ruined my shirt, though.”
“You can get another one.”
He’s so close. Probably the closest ever, other than when they fought. Only Cordelia could get close to him, and Angel remembers being jealous of her. Connor’s hair smells of shampoo—Fred’s, stolen from the hotel, no doubt—and greasy meat. The antiseptic is still there, but fading under a slow, rising wave of. . .
“I can’t see the stars. There were so many at home. I had to learn constellations so I’d always know where I was. And there were gorana that would swoop down at night. Man-eating owls. But I liked looking at the stars anyway. They were so calm. Peaceful.”
. . . misery. Exhaustion so deep it smells of cold, aching tears. The kind of loneliness he sensed in Buffy, when he saw her after Joyce died. And in himself. The kind of pain that comes from self-realization, learning that being unique is sometimes the worst thing to ever be.
He’s unprepared when Connor abruptly leans back. It’s so wildly out of character—so exactly what he wants—that he stays frozen while Connor shifts and turns. And then Connor’s practically in his lap, Angel’s arms linked around his waist, head tucked underneath Angel’s chin. It’s perfect. It’s the connection that Angel’s craved since the moment his son was taken from him. It’s unreal.
“I miss the stars,” Connor says again. He sounds sleepy, now, like a child. Fretful, though, and Angel recognizes that tone of voice. It used to be a wail, not a quiet murmur, but the tone’s the same. And Angel’s response is the same, tightening his arms to hold his son and murmuring, “Shhh. Daddy’s here.”
He knows as soon as he says it that it’s the wrong thing to say. Connor will be angry at him now, accusing him of patronizing a boy that hasn’t been a boy in too many long years. He’ll lose the closeness that’s almost—almost—soothing enough to replace months under the ocean.
But Connor doesn’t do anything but snuggle slightly closer. It’s wrong, Angel knows that, but habit has him rocking slightly, thumbs running in fitful patterns. “I can’t sleep,” Connor murmurs, still so young and petulant. “I’m so tired.”
Angel leans down closer, gathering his son and holding him close. This is a gift, a precious gift, and Angel doesn’t want to do anything to disturb it. But Connor is shifting now, the smell of misery and need rising a notch higher. Angel’s not above feeling vindictive at the ribbon of guilt in the morass coming from Connor. But guilt can be for later, when he’s not holding his son and wishing he could say that he loved him.
“Please,” Connor whispers. “I’m so tired.”
“I know. But it’s okay now,” he says, repeating the mindless reassurances he’d given to a squalling infant. “Daddy’s here and it’s okay now. Daddy’s here.”
Connor shifts abruptly, trying to shove himself deeper into Angel’s hold. “Please,” he repeats. Little boy so scared, needing so much.
But he’s not a little boy and Angel knows what he needs. He can feel it against his hand and his stomach rolls. Holtz wouldn’t have given this to Angel’s son and Angel. . . Angel hurts too much for Connor not to. More guilt Angel can handle. His son’s sleeplessness, his need, he cannot.
“Shhh,” he soothes. The backs of his fingers brush against where he knows he’ll go, feeling heat and hardness. For a moment, he’s irrationally proud that in this he is truly Angel’s son—then he ignores the thought, not wanting to compare. Not now. “I can help you fall asleep.”
Connor’s hips rise, pressing himself more firmly against Angel’s hand. “Bad,” he murmurs. “He always said. . .”
“No. You’re—you’re with Daddy now,” Angel says softly. “And Daddy says lie still. Let me help you fall asleep.”
The ratty jeans are undone in a moment, the button holes soft and loose after so much wear. Angel pushes the jeans down, left arm immediately rewrapping itself around Connor’s middle. Connor makes a soft, moaning sound as he’s released. It’s beautiful.
It’s to that sound Angel curls his finger around his son’s erect cock. He strokes slowly, up and down and up again, soft while Connor gasps and thrusts up involuntarily. “He said—”
“But Daddy’s here now. And Daddy says hush.” The word is salted ice on his tongue, but he can’t stop saying it. He was the Daddy for such a short time. “Just to help you sleep. That’s all Daddy wants.”
Connor nods, head lolling on his neck. “Mmm.”
Angel lets go long enough to lick his own palm—he tastes familiar salt and unfamiliar bitterness. Connor moans as he’s gripped again, thrusting lazily. “That’s right,” Angel encourages, as if this were a bike Connor was trying to learn to ride. “That’s good. Does that feel good?”
“Yeah. Yeah, Daddy.”
Angel knows that it’s a combination of Connor’s exhaustion and suddenly stimulated hormones that’s keeping Connor trance-like and suggestive. He knows that any sudden sound will break Connor free. But there are no sudden sounds, the apartment building and outside street eerily quiet against the slid-scrape of flesh on flesh.
Angel strokes faster, experimenting to find what makes Connor gasp and what makes him moan. A hint of nail under the head sends Connor twitching and gasping at the same time. Angel repeats it, loving the sound. A happy sound from Connor, no matter how produced, is to be cherished.
He can tell when Connor is close, thin hips jerking upward instinctively into his palm. “It’s okay,” Angel murmurs. “Daddy says it’s okay. It’s okay, Connor.”
Connor’s whole body twitches and Angel hears a quiet, “Daddy,” as Connor spills himself—and falls almost instantly to sleep.
Sounds of life return gradually while Angel holds his sleeping son. He’s done this before, a tiny baby asleep on his great chest, and it makes him ache in the exact same ways, this time. Asleep, Connor is the peaceful boy Angel remembers. The one Angel loves best in the world. The one he’ll do anything for, even if it means punishing him. Even if it means crossing boundaries. Right or wrong.
Hours later, Angel tucks his son under threadbare blankets and smooths back hair he recognizes by feel if not by sight. Kissing his forehead lightly, Angel slips outside. The air is cooler here than in the apartment, a breeze almost freshening the air. It feels nice. Especially on his sticky palm.