GODSPEED, LITTLE MAN
Sweet dreams, little man
Godspeed, little man
Oh, my love will fly to you each night on angels' wings
--Dixie Chicks--Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)--written by Radney Foster
Taking down the crib had been a pure act of will, and even now Angel was having a hard time forcing himself out of bed. The empty space there in his room where the crib had been seemed to echo. If he closed his eyes, he could summon the memory of the sounds: Connor's soft, irregular breathing, the rapid patter of his heartbeat. And the soft baby smell, the one that lingered thickest right at the crown of his head, where a small pulse beat in the triangular fontanel.
He sat up in the bed. He should have moved to another room, instead of staying here in the ashes. But he couldn't do it. Couldn't force himself away from the echoes, the memories. They were all he had left.
He could hear voices downstairs--Fred and Gunn. Laughing. He'd been so deep in his own problems he'd missed everything that had been happening there, but now he heard it in the lilt in Fred's voice, the warmth in Gunn's. Cordelia, Angel knew, had left a couple of hours ago to get dinner with Groo.
Good for them. Somebody around here ought to be happy.
Grudgingly, he forced himself to his feet. Having Cordelia back, having her there to listen, to snap him out of himself a little, had helped, but it still hurt. More than he thought he would ever be able to bear. He'd lost people before, but not like this.
(So helpless, that's the worst of it, nothing at all he can do, Holtz's hand hard on Connor's small neck… Just take him, take him, don't kill him, God, please don't kill him…)
He dressed, buttoning buttons, straightening his collar, the movements automatic, almost numbing in their familiarity. There had been other rituals, up until that day, rituals he'd only begun to fall comfortably into. These were proving the hardest to let go. (Heat the formula, not too hot, change the diaper, cuddle him close, smell the soft, sweet smell…)
He's gone. He's gone and even the darkest magic isn't going to bring him back and you just have to live with it. Forever.
He was dressed, outwardly aligned, buttons straight, fly zipped, shoes tied. All the careful rituals complete, except for the ones he needed to forget. He went downstairs.
"What about cheeseburgers?" Fred was saying. "We haven't had cheeseburgers in…" She stopped to contemplate.
"At least twenty-four hours," Gunn finished for her, and she grinned brightly at him, her eyes shining. Gunn kissed her, then leaned back.
"Should we go get some?" Fred said.
"I gotta go out in about fifteen minutes." Gunn's tone was apologetic.
"Yeah. Gotta see a guy about a demon."
Angel stepped into the lobby. "I'll go with you, Fred."
Fred started a little, looked at Angel, sobering. "You want to go get cheeseburgers?"
Angel shrugged. "Why not?"
"I don't know. I just--" She broke off as Gunn nudged her gently with his elbow. "Okay, then, Angel and I will go get cheeseburgers. Be careful, Charles."
Fred approached Angel almost cautiously. "So…how are you doing?"
"Better," he said, making it sound reassuring. He touched her back, guiding her toward the door. "It's a nice night for a drive, and I haven't been out in--too long. Let's go get some cheeseburgers."
He drove in silence. Fred seemed comfortable in it; it was one of the things he liked about her. Cordelia would have tried to pry more feelings out of him--though he had to admit she was starting to get it, starting finally to understand how much he needed sometimes to just settle into his own thoughts. Gunn would have cranked the radio, and Wesley--
He pushed the thought aside. He couldn't bear to think about Wes right now, couldn't bear to remember the hideous, wrenching realization of betrayal or the horrible, uncontrollable surge of his own rage.
(You're dead, you hear me, you son of a bitch you're dead, dead…)
"Where are we going?" Fred ventured after a moment, her voice barely audible.
"I don't know. Where does a person go for cheeseburgers this time of night?"
She smiled, seemingly relieved he'd even heard her. "McDonald's should be open."
"Right, and up the street a little."
He went through the drive through, where she ordered enough food for six people, then he headed for the highway.
"We're not going home?" Fred said. Her voice drawled a little, heading back into the Texas accent she'd been gradually shedding since she came home from Pylea. Angel missed the slow lilt; there was a unique music to it he'd enjoyed listening to.
"I just want to drive for a while, if that's okay with you."
She shrugged. "Sure." She opened a cheeseburger and started to eat. "Going anyplace in particular?"
She glanced sidelong at him, but didn't ask the obvious question. He was glad. He didn't want to try to explain himself.
The highway was fairly quiet this time of night, just the way Angel liked it. He settled in for the drive while Fred dug into a second cheeseburger.
"It's okay if you don't want to talk," she said suddenly. "But it's okay if you do want to talk, too."
He looked at her. She was, as always, utterly sincere. "Thank you, Fred."
She nodded, her eyes sad. "I miss him, too."
The silence fell again, warm with the breeze scudding over the open convertible. It smelled heavy with car exhaust, smog, the occasional too-sweet perfume of tropical flowers--
Not generalized fear, like the deep, underlying odor of every big city he'd ever visited. This was specific, and fresh, and nearby.
He slowed down, unmindful of the few cars forced to slow down behind him. One driver flipped him off as he whipped around, shouting curses out the window. Angel slowed to 35, sniffing the breeze.
There. A car pulled over on the side of the highway. A woman there, and now he could smell a man, as well, and he pressed his lips together at the brittle odor of violence.
He swung across two lanes of traffic, making Fred drop her cheeseburger and hold both hands protectively over her head. "Angel--"
"Damsel in distress," he said, and slid to a stop behind the dark, silent car, brakes screeching. He vaulted over the door and was at the other car in half a heartbeat.
The man had a knife. He hadn't done anything with it yet, and he wasn't going to, because Angel clamped a hand around his wrist and twisted. Just once. Bones crunched under his fingers and the knife fell to the ground. The man howled in pain as Angel jerked him around, grabbed him by the collar, and snarled into his face.
"Let's try that scene again, huh? Only this time how about I play the victim?"
The man just gaped at him, sobbing. Angel slugged him in the face and he dropped unconscious to the ground.
Angel turned to the woman then. She seemed rooted to the spot, her eyes wide.
"Are you okay?" he asked gently.
She nodded numbly, then said abruptly, "Connor."
Angel froze. For a moment, the ground seemed to tilt under him. The edges of his vision went black.
(Black asphalt under his hands, gravel imbedded in his palms. Rift in the very fabric of reality and Connor gone--portal closed behind him--Connor gone.)
The woman dove back into the car and Angel saw it then--the booster seat in the back, the little boy sitting there, wide-eyed. He was three or four, blond, scared.
"Connor," the woman said, grasping at her son, pulling her to him. Angel stared. A hand touched his elbow, gentle.
"Angel?" Fred said. "Is everything okay?"
"Yeah." Angel was barely aware of forming the word. "Yeah, it's okay." Numb, he fished his cell phone out of his coat pocket. "Call 911."
Fred took the phone and stepped back a bit. The woman had her little boy in her arms now, and turned toward Angel. "Thank you so much."
Angel nodded. "We…um…Fred, over there." He gestured vaguely. "She's calling the police, and we'll get somebody to take care of your car." He swallowed, forced himself to look at the little boy. "Is he okay?"
"He's fine," the woman assured him. "He just…if you hadn't…" She looked away, fighting to control the shudder in her voice, the tears welling in her eyes.
Reflexively, Angel reached for her, laid a hand on her shoulder. She flinched, but didn't pull away. "It's all right," he said.
Fred came up next to them then, holding a hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. "Does anybody need an ambulance?"
The woman shook her head. "No."
"Just the police and a tow truck," Angel said. "They'll be here soon. We'll stay until they come."
With his mother's reluctant permission, Fred took the little boy (Connor, his name is Connor, you can think it, it won't kill you) to Angel's car and gave him a cheeseburger. Angel popped the hood of the woman's car and began to poke around, trying to figure out what was wrong.
"Did it just stall out?" he asked.
She didn't answer right away; her attention was focused on her son, eating and laughing in the other car with Fred. Angel waited.
"I'm sorry. What did you say?" she said finally, rubbing tears from her eyes before she turned to face him.
He repeated the question. "It stuttered a few times first." Then tears spilled heavy from her eyes. "What would have happened if you hadn't come along?"
It wasn't the kind of question that either needed or desired an answer, so Angel just watched her, giving her silence to fill if she wanted.
She just looked at her son, watching him laugh, her mouth taut, obviously fighting more tears. Finally, quietly, she said, "I wasn't worried about me. Not really. I couldn't stop thinking, 'What will he do to Connor after he kills me?'"
(What will they do to Connor? Vivisection, torture, dismemberment--what will they do if I'm not here to protect him?)
But he had been there to protect him. And he had failed. Trusted too completely (why, Wes?). And Connor--his Connor--was gone.
He blinked, feeling tears in his own eyes. He hadn't cried for Connor, not really, hadn't let himself. He certainly didn't want to do it here, now, by the side of the dark highway, in front of this woman who needed not his grief, but his strength, some sense that, at least for now, she was safe.
But then he said, without realizing it was coming, "I lost my son."
She looked at him, eyes widening a little. "I'm sorry." It sounded almost reflexive. Laughter drifted from Angel's car, little-boy laughter, sweet and open. What would Connor's laughter have sounded like?
"His name was Connor, too."
"Oh." The woman's voice was tiny, her mouth round around the quiet word. Angel stared at her without seeing her.
(So small, how do you hold something that small without breaking it--how many of these small things did you break, did you drink, and now yours is gone because you don't deserve that smallness and that soft warmth--)
"I'm sorry." He nodded mutely. "How long ago?"
"A few days. Just a few days."
Her hand on him, her fingers closing around his arm, startled him. "How old was he?"
He didn't want to talk. He'd talked enough to Cordy, hadn't he? Words were hard--they were so thick and heavy and they felt like barbed wire coming out of his throat. "Just--a few months. He was just a baby."
Her fingers tightened a little. "I'm so sorry."
Angel's throat had gone thick; he swallowed hard. He couldn't speak, couldn't see through the blur. He wasn't going to cry, not here, wasn't going to lose control.
(What you see is the Quor-toth, the darkest of the dark worlds…)
"My first baby was still-born."
He looked at her, abruptly jerked back to the present. Her voice was soft and careful. "I'm sorry," he said automatically.
"He was perfect, so beautiful, and I held him for a while before they took him away."
(What's the closest emergency room to your place, Wes?)
She was looking right at him now, into his eyes, and her face was a smear of pale color in the darkness. "That was six years ago, and I still remember exactly what he looked like."
(Steel-gray eyes, round, soft face, sparse, pale hair. That little smile.)
"It was hard to let him go, but I finally realized I could, because I loved him. I loved him as much as I could, in the time I had him. And that was okay."
Angel looked toward his car, at Fred and the little boy Connor. They had finished their cheeseburgers and were playing rock, paper, scissors. "I've never loved anything or anyone the way I loved him. And now it's--" (Even that fear. It's not terrible, Wes. It's beautiful.)
She squeezed his arm, let go. "I know."
Tiny heartbeat under his fingers, miniscule pulses in tiny toes. Was it too much to hope that he was still alive? Even in that place, if he were still alive…perhaps Angel could go on if he knew that.
A police car pulled onto the shoulder and two officers stepped out. Angel blinked, pulling himself back to the present. "I'll take care of this."
"Thank you," the woman said. "And I really am sorry about your son."
He nodded. There were no words, at least none that he could summon. He forced a vague smile and went to meet the police officers.
Back at the hotel, Gunn had returned. Fred took her bag of cheeseburgers and headed upstairs with him, leaving Angel alone. He was grateful for that. He wasn't sure what he was going to do, but he knew he needed to do it by himself.
He trudged up the stairs to his room. His silent, empty room. But when he got there, it was neither empty nor silent. Slowly, he closed the door behind him. "Cordy?"
She sat on the floor next to his bed, legs curled up under her. "I'm sorry." Her voice hitched. "I know I shouldn't sneak into your room when you're not home."
"It's okay." He settled onto the floor next to her. "You okay?"
Her face crumpled. "No. I was trying to have a happy dinner with Groo and I kept thinking, 'It's time for Connor's bottle. I should call Angel and remind him.' And I started crying before we even got to the soup."
Angel put his arm around her, pulled her into him. She was warm and alive and as she settled against his chest her breath puffed past the plackets of his shirt to touch his skin. "You loved him," he said.
She nodded, not looking at him. He tucked her a little closer, craving the contact, the warmth. "Of course I did."
"What else could we have done, then? We loved him as much as we could for the time we had him." And, saying the words, he suddenly knew it was true. He had loved Connor--still loved Connor--with everything he had. With all his soul.
Maybe someday it would feel like enough.
He pulled Cordy half into his lap, kissed her face--presumptuous, perhaps, since she'd just come from dinner with Groo, but she didn't pull away--then laid his cheek against her hair and closed his eyes.