SALINITY

By - D.M. Evans Disclaimer - Let's hear it from the Hallelujah Choir, Joss Whedon owns all. I own nothing. I make no money from this. My only goal is to have a little fun and give the readers a little something to sink their teeth into. Feedback - Yes please, ripewickedplum2@Yahoo.com Summary - Connor has more to worry about than the crowds at the Fourth of July party. Gunn and Fred are hot on the trail of someone who could expose where Angel has been imprisoned and by whom. Rating - R for violence and mild sexual contact Spoilers - none really, takes place before Deep Down.

In the vampire's hotel, Connor curled up in the room over the one Gunn and Fred called their own. He could easily hear everything they said. They forgot all the time how keen his hearing was. If they knew, they just wouldn't talk about things they didn't want him to hear inside the hotel. Of course, they didn't expect him to be eavesdropping; at least Fred didn't.

Connor suspected Gunn would think him capable of anything. Things were uneasy between them. Connor didn't particularly like Gunn. Most of the time he was okay. Connor knew instinctively there was much he could learn from Gunn, but it was Gunn's habit of taking control of things, of telling him what to do, his constant treating Connor like a child that rankled. Connor could be, admittedly, stubborn and he was used to only answering to Father. He hated answering to Gunn. His companions both treated him like a child who needed coddling by Fred and disciplined by Gunn and it grated on him. Connor had never been a child as far as he was concerned. He had handled things that would make their blood curdle.

But he understood that part of Gunn's problems were because Gunn didn't trust him and vice versa. He found Connor creepy, especially when Connor just silently observed things. Connor had started doing it honestly to learn things from them since there was so much he didn't know. Father always said you learned more with your ears open and your mouth shut but Gunn found Connor's intensity unnerving. Connor had seized on that psychological weapon, using it to keep Gunn off balance. If Gunn didn't want to be around him, that left Connor free to do what he needed to, namely to make sure that they never found Angel.

So far it hadn't been hard. He was fairly sure that no one had seen what he and Justine did. He hadn't expected how hard his companions would try to rescue a demon, though. He had begun to wonder if they were depraved themselves to long to have a monster back in their midst, or if they were deceived by Angel. But as Father often said, the devil will show you bright things, many colors. He missed Father keenly. The boy screwed his eyes shut against the swell of emotion, wishing Father's death to be a bad dream that he would soon wake up from.

"We're running out of options, Charles," Fred was saying, breaking into the painful reminiscence. Her voice was muffled by the flooring and ceiling materials as pocked as they were with holes and weak spots. "No!" Gunn replied. Connor could picture the glower on Gunn's dark face, the hardness of his eyes.

"Charles, we have no idea where Angel and Cordelia are. It's been over a month and we're no closer to finding either of them. We have to call him."

"We're not calling Wes," Gunn said.

Connor seized on that name. He had heard it before. Wes was the one God acted through to deliver him to Father. He wished they would call Wes, not because it might help them find Angel since that would never do. He wanted to see the man who had rescued him from the demon claiming to be his father.

"We're not dead in the water, Fred, not yet," Gunn said and Connor's gut clenched. They couldn't know anything. That was impossible. The beach had been deserted. Angel himself had chosen the lonely spot for his tryst. Angel hadn't wanted anyone seeing whatever it was he planned to do with the half-demoness. So, what did Gunn think he knew?

Connor flattened even further on the dirty floor, pressing his ear to the dusty boards to be sure he didn't miss anything.

"You heard something." Connor could almost picture Fred bouncing excitedly at that.

"An Oceanid, Halimeda," Gunn replied. "She says she knows something about Angel's disappearance."

"Just Angel?" Fred asked.

"Yes, she wants to meet us at the Marina del Rey jetty for the Fourth of July festivities."

"She didn't say anything about Cordy?"

Connor heard the disappointment in Fred's tone. His own heart thudded madly. All the other so-called leads that had been peddled to Gunn and Fred had always told them what they wanted to hear; Angel and Cordy had disappeared together. Connor could safely discount those leads. He knew they were just attempts to get something out of his companions. This was different. A creature had information on Angel alone and that might mean it was real.

Connor had no idea what an Oceanid even looked like but the very name made him very nervous. If this was some kind of ocean demon, he could be in trouble. His companions had gone silent after Gunn assured Fred that it was only about Angel. No more plans were discussed. The bed springs squeaked but not much. Connor took that to mean they were going to sleep and not doing whatever it was they did occasionally that made lots of noise.

Connor crept to his own room, flopping on the hard, uncomfortable bed. He had to find a way to get to this demon before Gunn and Fred did. He mulled over the obstacles to this. He didn't know what an Oceanid looked like or how to kill it. He didn't know where this jetty was, let alone the significant of the Fourth of July festivities. He could hardly ask Fred what an Oceanid was or she'd know that he was listening in.

Damn, if he didn't lack time to figure out a way to handle this problem. Maybe Justine would know what an Oceanid was. Her life could depend on this ,too. They didn't want Angel to be found because he would kill them. There was no doubt in Connor's mind about that.

Connor waited for a while, hoping to give his companions time to go to sleep then he headed out into the night, trying to find Justine. It wasn't an easy thing to do in a city the size of Los Angeles. He checked first the place they left messages for each other but there was none. He checked her regular haunts without luck. Finally, as the sky began to lighten, he headed for home, making a final pass by the message drop. He saw Justine walking away from the drop to her car.

"Justine," he called.

She snapped around nervously. She shoved back her washed-out red hair. "Connor, I just left you a message. There's a party this weekend. There might be vampires. It's in their territory."

"We've got bigger problems," Connor said, jogging over to her. "Tomorrow, Gunn's meeting with an Oceanid at the Marina del Rey jetty."

Justine's pale face crinkled. "So? Hasn't he been meeting with everyone and anyone trying to find a clue to where Angel is?"

Connor shook his head. "This is different. This creatures said she knew where Angel was. Alone. She's not trying to sell both him and Cordy together."

"Damn." Justine stamped the ground. "What are we going to do about this?"

"Do you know what an Oceanid is or looks like?"

Justine shifted her weight, running a hand through her messy hair. "No. Any chance you can keep Fred and Gunn from meeting with this thing?"

Connor sighed, stuffing his big hands into the pockets of his baggy pants. "Not without hurting them. I tried faking being sick like you suggested that time they were going to meet with some vampires selling information but that only made Fred stay behind with me."

"Hurt them." Justine's voice went cold and hard. It gave Connor pause.

He turned away from her. "I promised Father I would cling to the good. That doesn't include hurting humans. I'm not...it's wrong."

"Wrong?" Justine snorted, grabbing his arm and whirling him around to face her. "Them wasting so much time on a vampire is wrong. What if they find the thing that murdered your father? What happens if they fish Angelus out?"

Connor walked in a tight frantic circle around her, burying his hands in his hair. "I know what happens if Angel is found. That's why I have to find this demon before Gunn does."

"Connor, tomorrow's the Fourth. Do you have any idea how many people will be at that jetty?" Her eyes went flinty. "Thousands."

Connor's jaw dropped. He shuddered. "That's not possible."

"Trust me."

Connor shook his head. "Doesn't matter. I'll have to find the creature there before Gunn does."

Justine sighed. "Fine. I'll meet you there...somehow."

"Thanks."

"And I'll see if I can find out something useful about these Oceanids."

Connor's eyes brightened slightly. "I'll try to do that, too."

Connor left her, knowing she was unhappy. He couldn't help that. He didn't want to have to hurt Gunn and Fred to stop them. Beyond the fact it was wrong and it would implicate him in what had happened to Angel, he didn't want to hurt them. Gunn could be a jerk but they were good to him. They did their best to make sure all his needs were met. Fred tried to make him feel like family and they did their best to make him feel better about Angel being gone. He had even come to regret having to lie to her. No, hurting them wasn't in his plans. He'd have to outwit them.

Connor went home and crawled into bed. Hopefully he'd catch a few hours of sleep before he tried to plan his next move.

* *
*

Connor thumped down the stairs, purposely making noise. He couldn't remember which of them had been creeped out by his silent ways, calling them unnatural but afterwards Connor made an effort to emulate teenagers he saw on tv; loud, brash, annoying. He found it odd and difficult but it put Fred and Gunn at ease. He used 'normal teenager' like a skin, particularly when he wanted something from them. He had quickly learned a smile could get him most of what he wanted from Fred. Gunn was far harder to manipulate so Connor rarely tried. He was far more comfortable with grating along with the older man.

Fred looked up from the thick book she was reading. "Hey sleepy head. You've slept in pretty late." She glanced at the clock and saw it was nine in the morning. "At least for you."

He beamed at her. "Couldn't sleep most of the night."

Her head bobbed, her long hair waving. "Too hot, I know. We can't really afford the air conditioning here. It's too old and money's tight. But it could be hotter. There was the time, growing up in Texas, it was over a hundred for most of the month. I thought I was going to sweat to death."

"I'm pretty used to heat," he assured her, not really knowing what air conditioning was or why it was important. He could probably learn more if Fred would let him out of the hotel. They liked to keep him close, too close. He had to sneak away if he wanted freedom.

Fred smiled and tucked a lock of his errant hair behind his ear. "You probably are at that. I bet you're starving. Let me go get you breakfast."

"I can forage for myself, Fred. You don't have to wait on me."

Fred got up. "Last time I let you do that, you ate all the Twinkies and the Pop-tarts and Charles pouted for days because there wasn't any left for him. You sit. I'll make you something healthy. What would you like?"

"Whatever." He shrugged. "I'm not picky."

Fred grinned. "So long as it's not tomatoes."

He laughed. "No tomatoes. They're nasty."

"You like them on pizza and in Spaghetti-O's."

"Completely different," he assured her.

"Only up here." Fred ruffled his hair then headed for the kitchen.

Connor slipped into her vacated seat, hoping to figure out what she was reading. He only prayed that the book was in English. She did read things that weren't. He had trouble enough reading English. Father only had a tattered Bible to help teach Connor to read. His writing skills never extended beyond scratching his letters in the dirt. The link between reading and money was one of the reasons he had to keep Gunn and Fred happy. Connor hadn't even known what money was before coming here and he heard them arguing over it. He learned from that fight that he needed an education that he didn't have in order to get a job.

Connor glanced at the pages Fred had left the book open to. One was a drawing that he found compelling. Waves with whitish-gold foam caps concealed bare-bosomed women playing under and through them. Something about the rosy tips of their breasts, the soft, sensual lines of their hair made him feel funny; tingly in what Father had termed sinful parts when he caught Connor touching himself there.

Connor hadn't known it was wrong to do so. He had been curious as to just what his body was doing since it had been new and different. To his surprise, touch was oddly pleasing in that condition. Far less pleasing had been Father's reaction. Connor shut his eyes against the memory of the switch that had split the skin of his back and the feel of the sharp rocky precipice under his knees where he had been made to kneel for hours, praying until the blood from his torn flesh attracted unwanted attention.

Connor tore his eyes from the provocative picture and forced himself to try and make sense of the words on the opposite page. He saw the word, Oceanids, or at least he thought it was. The mostly naked girls in the waves must be what they looked like. He didn't see any notations on how to kill them or if they could come onto land. Connor assumed they could if one was talking to Gunn. He was still puzzling through the words on the page when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He glanced up into Fred's brown eyes and smiled again.

"It's a neat picture," he said, eyeing the plateful of toaster waffles smothered with some kind of red sauce, dark almost like blood but lump. Puffs of white stuff surrounded it.

"Greek myth," she said, handing him the plate then picked up the book.

"You said we weren't allowed to go without clothes," Connor said, flicking a finger at the picture. He remembered the big talk he had to have with Gunn about always wearing clothes in the hotel. Connor didn't get it. Back home, if he was hot, he'd strip unless he knew about a forthcoming battle where he'd need the added protection. Gunn had ranted on seemingly endlessly about the fact Fred had seen Connor naked. Connor tried to remember this world was different but it was hard; you had to wear clothes even if you were sweaty hot; baths didn't weaken and sicken the body and you were expected to take bathes daily, not twice a year; the toilet was not a cistern of good, cool waters; doors were for knocking on before entering; Gunn's truck and all the cars he saw weren't trying to eat the people inside and didn't need killing.

"This was from thousands of years ago, Connor. It was a different time."

"But they're in the water. I mean, you don't wear clothes in the water, right?" He met her eyes.

Fred sucked in her lower lip, futzing with her glasses. "Actually you wear a bathing suit, clothing just for swimming."

Connor's brow beetled as he poked a finger into the whipped cream. "That makes no sense."

"It does for modesty's sake."

"But you don't wear clothes in the tub."

"That would make it hard to get clean, now wouldn't it?" Fred watched his finger poking in and out of the whipped cream. "That's whipped cream and strawberry syrup. I hope you like it. I decided to splurge a little."

Connor eyed a finger full of the cream then popped it into his mouth. His eyes lip up as he sucked on the digit.

Fred laughed. "Good?"

He bobbed his head. "Very." He took another taste of the cream. "Tell me about the Oceanids." He shoveled a mouthful of waffle in.

Fred did just that as he devoured his breakfast but there was precious little he could use in what she related. Until yesterday, Fred had considered the Oceanids to be merely myths that she had so enjoyed reading about as a kid. They seemed to be a type of nymph but Connor didn't know what that meant. In answer to that question, Fred told him what they were and how there were notorious for seducing and breeding with humans. She didn't know what kind of powers Oceanids had other than they could breath under water and there was no mention of magic.

Connor wondered if they could be killed as easily as a human if they were close enough to interbreed. He felt an ugly pang of conscience at the thought of killing someone who looked so human. He had to remind himself it wasn't human and it represented a real threat to him. A cold chill settled over him with the thought, 'what if a real human did find out what happened?'

"Are the nymphs demons?" he asked, hoping to hear the word, 'yes.'

Fred brushed back her hair, giving him a curious look. "Why do you ask?"

He pushed his cleaned plate away. "Just curious."

"I don't honestly know if you'd consider a nymph demonic. They tended to be more harmless than that."

"Who's harmless?" Gunn asked as he came into the room.

"Nymphs," Fred said and Gunn shot her a hot look.

Connor knew enough to know that meant Gunn didn't approve of her talking about nymphs to him. He couldn't figure out if Gunn attempted so routinely to keep Connor from learning anything dealing with Angel's disappearance was because Gunn didn't trust him or if Gunn just didn't want to get his hopes up.

"Are we ready for tonight?" Fred asked.

Gunn nodded. "We're set." "What's tonight?" Connor asked, trailing a finger through the remains of strawberry syrup. He licked it off, watching the glances between the pair. He could read them easily. Gunn's eyes were saying 'keep quiet' and Fred's replied, 'no.'

"It's the Fourth of July," Fred said.

"I know."

"No, you don't understand. It's an important day. Have you seen all the ads on tv?" Fred asked.

"I don't like commercials," Connor replied, vaguely remembering muting out obnoxious ads braying about the fourth.

"It's America's Independence Day," Fred said and Connor looked at her blankly.

"The British used to rule this country," Gunn said, reading the expression.

"But no more?"

"You got that right," Gunn said with so much pride Connor wondered if he had had a hand in that personally.

"So you celebrate," Connor said.

"Now you're getting it."

"How?" Connor sat back, looking at them expectantly. He honestly had a yen for learning new things. He had been starved for knowledge more so than he had known until coming to this world. Father had done his best to fill his head but as Connor was discovering, Father's knowledge was out of step with the world.

"Well, friends and family get together," Fred said. "That would be us." She smiled softly, touching Connor's shoulder.

"You barbeque, eat like pigs, drink beer, play basketball," Gunn said with a wistful look, like he was remembering something long gone, something he had once enjoyed.

Connor knew that feeling. He missed hunting Skee-bils.

"No drinking for you," Fred said, pointing at Connor. "You can play lawn games, volley ball, cards, go swimming, all sorts of stuff. It's just a time to relax and have fun."

"Music, beer." Gunn smiled at the reiteration. "And the fireworks are the best part...after the beer and music."

"What's beer?" Connor asked brightly, eager to try something that Gunn obviously enjoyed. There were certain benefits to emulating the older man even if Connor didn't always see things Gunn's way.

"Something you're too young to worry about," Fred said, leveling a glare at Gunn.

"What are fireworks?" Connor pressed, figuring if he showed enthusiasm they'd be bound to take him with them. He had no intention of being left behind.

Fred gave Connor an apprehensive look, spinning a long strand of her hair around her finger. "They can be a little scary. They're really loud, like a gun but they're bright and beautiful, all kinds of colors spraying like stars across the sky like magic. Only it's not, pure science is all," Fred said and started on exactly how they worked.

Connor let his mind go blank after Fred started yammering about black body radiation versus gas-phase emitters. All the science stuff meant nothing to him. He had absolutely no scientific knowledge but it made Fred happy to tell him about it. Connor started wiggling as Fred launched into the color differences between potassium perchlorate and strontium carbonate and how the International Commission on Illumination had come up with a chromaticity diagram to achieve positive primary color fractions.

He tried not to fidget. He had come to the conclusion that it didn't hurt to just get lost in thought because letting Fred talk made her feel happy and that she was helping him to learn. He had nothing against that. His mind bobbed back to consciousness hearing that pine root pitch could be used as a fuel. He knew what pitch was. He had burned up demons with it but then she went on to how multi-break shells needed break charges as well as bursting charges and it was all he could do not to fall out of the chair and into a deep sleep.

Gunn's hand fell on Connor's shoulder and he whispered, "I know how you feel, man. Just nod and smile."

Connor widened his smile to the almost painful limits.

"I know you boys aren't listening to me," Fred scolded. "Go wash up the dishes, Connor."

"Okay." Connor gathered up his plate and headed into the kitchen. Even over the water, he'd be able to hear them talk, if they started discussing plans for tonight. He started washing dishes, hearing foot steps; Gunn's. He looked over his shoulder.

Gunn smiled at him. "Fred said you liked the whipped cream."

"Yeah."

Gunn pulled open the fridge. "Bet she didn't tell you the best way to eat it."

Connor raised an eyebrow as Gunn lifted the whipped cream can up to his mouth. He sprayed a blob of it on his tongue then winged the can to Connor. The boy caught it, soap sliding down his arms, dripping from his bony elbows.

"Go ahead," Gunn said, grinning.

Connor opened his mouth and filled it with cream. He laughed around the mouthful.

"Good, ain't it?" Gunn held out his hand for the can.

Connor swallowed, licking his foamy lips as he handed the can back. "This beer stuff, it's good?"

"As long as you don't over do it," Gunn said.

"Can I have some tonight?"

Gunn held up a hand to ward Connor off. "Not on your life. I let you get drunk, it's my hide Fred will tan and put on the wall."

Connor grinned, finding that image interesting. "Please," he pleaded.

"Have more whipped cream," Gunn said, flinging back the can.

Connor pouted but took another hit of dairy product.

"Charles!" Fred stomped into the kitchen, swiping the can. "Don't teach him that."

"Hey, let the kid have some fun."

"What next? You'll teach him to drink the Hershey's chocolate right out of the container?" Fred put the whipped cream back in the fridge.

"If they didn't want you to do that, they wouldn't put a nipple on it," Gunn argued. "Besides, look at him. Dental floss is thicker than he is. Let him have sweets."

"Fine. Charles' stash of Ho-Ho's is up there." Fred pointed to a cabinet higher than Connor could easily reach.

"That's not playing fair, woman," Gunn said, pulling her into an embrace, tickling her.

Fred giggled as Connor leapt up and got the Ho-Ho's. He peeled it out of the wrapped and shoved one into his mouth whole.

"No class," Gunn said, shaking his head before letting Fred go to rescue his ho-ho's.

"Where are we going tonight?" Connor asked, going back to the dishes.

"You'll be staying here," Gunn said. "Fred and I have work to do."

"But you said it was celebration time." Connor put on his best pouty face, the one that used to move Father into letting him a few minutes more of sleep or a few minutes less of scripture.

"We should let him come along, Charles. It is about Angel," Fred said.

Gunn made a face like he was biting back anger. "Do you promise to let me do the talking, Connor? Last time you scared away that Nek demon."

Connor hung his head. He had purposely terrified the thing even though he knew it didn't have anything important to say. He just didn't like the way the thing had been eyeing him. He shouldn't have lost his temper. "Sorry. I'll be so quiet you won't know I'm there."

Gunn mulled that over. "Okay, but you let us do the talking. You're just there for the party part of it."

"Where's it gonna be?"

"At one of the big firework shows," Fred said. "Now, it's going to be very crowded. I know you don't like crowds so you can stay very close to me if you need to."

Connor nodded not missing the jealous look Gunn shot him. Connor didn't understand it but he knew what it meant. "Who knows what now about An...Dad."

"An Oceanid, that's why I was looking at that book," Fred said.

"Someone at this club I know told me about this Oceanid who wants to meet with us. She's supposed to know about Angel," Gunn said.

"What's she look like? Like that picture?" Connor asked.

"You don't worry about it. You're leaving the talking to us, remember? In fact, you don't even come to the meeting. You stay on the blanket," Gunn said and Connor opened his mouth to protest. Gunn silenced him with a glare. "You're just there for the music and fireworks. You concentrate on checking out the action."

"Charles." Fred nudged him.

"What? He doesn't even know what that means," Gunn said, "Come on, you and I need to talk about tonight."

Gunn led Fred out of the kitchen. Connor slapped the sponge into the water. He knew exactly what Gunn had meant. His companion forgot he did watch tv. He had picked up the slang pretty fast. He knew Gunn meant for him to look at the girls at the jetty. Any other night, that might intrigue him. Connor knew that Sunny had planned on doing more to him than press her lips to his but she never got the chance. He wanted desperately to know what should have come next. He pulled the plug on the done dishes and crept as silently as he could towards the big office, the one Gunn had appropriated for himself.

Connor knew it was his father's. Angel's scent clung to everything, a familiar musk that underlaid Gunn and Fred's scents. The books were something he figured Angel would like, based on the gifts he had given to Connor. He imagined Angel hiding out in here away from the sun that would cleanse the earth of his foul presence. Connor had to make sure the office's new occupants wouldn't do anything to undo his good work.

Connor listened to what little Gunn actually knew about this Oceanid. At least he had a place to meet her and what Gunn had been told Halimeda looked like. Connor burned the details into his memory; long curly black hair and a trident pendant studded with pearls. Once the conversation turned back to finances, Connor headed out to pass on the information to Justine.

*
* *

Connor laid on the towel next to Fred and Gunn's blanket. It was so crowded at the marina he was afraid to move. Before they had come here, Gunn had barbequed some hamburgers on the grill in the hotel's courtyard. They had tried to pretend to be carefree but Connor sensed the underlying somberness. He felt a nubbin of guilt over it. He was directly responsible for it, at least in part. He didn't like lying but he was amazingly good at it, given the evidence at hand.

It was several hours before dark when Fred had asked Connor's help in carrying a cooler to the truck. They headed for the marina and Connor regretted his insistence on coming along. There had been no choice, of course, but he just didn't know how to handle this many people. All the towels, blankets and lawn chairs were touching. More people thronged around those who got there early enough to find a spot. He was surrounded on all sides by humanity. He could barely breathe normally and he felt like he was coming out of his skin.

He had no idea how he'd find Justine in this sea of people. He only hoped she had gotten his message. He needed to get away from Gunn and Fred so he could try and find the Oceanid. It would help if he wasn't too frightened to move.

The sheer amount of sights, sounds and smells overwhelmed his delicate senses, leaving him despairing of ever being able to find Halimeda before Gunn met with her. He still didn't even know what he was going to do when he found her.

"Maybe you should put on more suntan lotion," Fred said, eyeing him uneasily. "You're getting pink."

"Maybe you should have bought him SPF 50 or smother him in that colored junk you put on your nose." Gunn grinned. "He gives all new meaning to white boy."

Connor subconsciously scrubbed at his greasy forearm. He had gotten a sunburn a few weeks ago and it had taken Fred the better part of an hour to calm him down. Quor-Toth's sun hadn't been so bright; more reddish and dim. He'd never had his skin go red and bubbly before. He thought it t was some of his parents' demon aspects surfacing in him, making him as vulnerable to the sun as vampires were.

As she sprayed him down with something for burns with aloe, Fred told him all humans could get sunburnt if they were out too long unprotected. It hurt miserably, especially when the blisters began popping and oozing. He hadn't been able to sleep that night. At least he healed quickly, layers of skin peeling lizard-like from his body and scalp.

"Here, Connor." Fred handed him the lotion bottle.

"It smells funny." It did. The potent scent of coconut made his nose burn.

"Okay, but don't cry to us when you're red as a baboon's butt," Gunn said, his eyes shutting.

Connor wondered how Gunn could be so seemingly calm then decided it was because there was no point in worrying about it until whatever time had been selected for the meeting. There was nothing to do but lie back and relax like everyone else.

Only he wasn't good at relaxing. Connor decided as he slathered his bare skin with lotion. He had no experience with just lying down, doing nothing. It was incredibly dull. He had brought his Gameboy but he already had become too good at the game, so it wasn't as thrilling as the day Fred introduced him to computer games.

Fred picked up the bottle and squirted another dollop of lotion into Connor's calloused palm then took the bottle away for her own use. He rubbed the lotion on his legs, the soft, almost golden-brown hair there matting up under the lotion. Connor hadn't wanted to wear shorts. He wasn't used to them and it hadn't helped Gunn had laughed and said Connor had chicken legs. Connor didn't know what it meant but he recognized it as an insult. He just thought he looked dumb in them.

"It's so hot," he moaned.

"It's okay to take off your shirt," Gunn said, sitting up so he could do that himself. He wadded his shirt up and put it under his head.

Connor stripped his t-shirt off and felt oddly exposed. He never had any problem with being naked but with this many people he didn't want to be armor-less.

"I'll do your back," Fred said, motioning for him to turn around.

Connor looked at her baffled then saw her put some lotion in her hands. He tensed as she touched him, working sun block into his fair flesh. It was too foreign to him sitting with his back to someone. You didn't offer your back to anyone. It could be a fatal mistake.

"You're shaking," she said and he looked over his shoulder at her, his eyes like two blue pools of fear. "It's okay, Connor. I'm not going to hurt you."

"I know," he said but remained unable to quell his body's subtle betrayal.

"It's hard being vulnerable," she said, softly.

Connor bowed his head, unable to answer her. Shame at showing weakness rouged his gaunt cheeks. He tried not to stiffen up as her hands moved closer to the top of his waistband. He had never been touched so intimately by a woman before. Of course, all the female contact he ever had could be summed up by a few friendly touches from Fred and Justine on his shoulders, arms and head and that weird yet wonderful pressing of lips with Sunny.

She had tasted of hamburger and unbrushed teeth but he hadn't minded. He remembered the shock of the first dry touch of her lips. His father used to kiss him on the forehead after he had nightmares but it was a totally different feeling. The second kiss had been better, wetter. The way her soft tongue pressed the tip of his, he wanted to feel that again. Evidence of that stirred in his sinful parts just thinking about it.

Connor squirmed out from under Fred's hands. "That's good."

"Yep, you're done." She put the lotion in his hands then laid down. "Do your chest."

Connor smeared himself with SPF 30, still thinking about being kissed. He'd like to try it again and it would only be better now that he'd been introduced to toothpaste. He found most things in his new home strange and often scary, but he liked brushing his teeth. It beat using a scrap of cloth and given his sense of smell, he appreciated the cleanliness of everyone's breath.

Somehow, he knew enough not to try kissing Fred or Justine. Honestly, he had no desire to kiss either of them. He found nothing alluring about either of them. They were his friends and he instinctively knew the difference between friendship and physical attraction. He was willing to bet if Fred ever kissed him it would feel like Father's lips against his forehead, comforting but in no way arousing.

He wiped his greasy hands, glancing around at the crowd, trying to sift through the sounds bouncing around the marina. Various radios, the raucous conversations, the live band no one seemed to be paying attention to all filled the air. It was better than listening to Gunn and Fred's whispers. They weren't saying anything of interest to anyone but themselves; love stuff Connor didn't want to hear. It wasn't meant for his ears.

He played with the Gameboy for a while, hoping for darkness, or at least a chance to escape his companions. Finally they were quiet, apparently drowsing next to each other. His throat ached with thirst so he decided to get a drink before he snuck away. Gunn's bottle of Budweiser glistened golden in the sun. Connor reached for it and Gunn's hand shot up, capturing his arm.

"Don't even think about it, kid." Gunn's dark eyes flashed a warning.

Connor scowled. "I'm thirsty."

Fred's eyes opened into cattish slits. "Are you sneaking alcohol?"

"But I'm thirsty."

"You know where the soda is," Gunn said, shoving him back.

Connor pouted. "I"m bored."

"Go find something to do," Gunn said.

"Give him some money, Charles." Fred nudged her lover.

Gunn sat up, fished out his wallet and peeled out a twenty. "Have fun. Just be back here before the fireworks start. That'll be around eight-thirty."

"Okay."

Connor snatched up the money and took off. He couldn't believe his good luck. They actually sent him on his way, cash in hand. He didn't immediately head toward the spot he knew the meeting was to take place. He didn't want to look suspicious just in case Gunn was following him. Connor bought himself a root beer, wondering why it didn't looked like Gunn's Budweiser but it was sweet and bubbly and he liked the way it danced on his tongue. He got a hot dog loaded with chili, cheese and onions which he devoured and regretted not getting a second one.

He slowly made his way to where Gunn said he was going to meet the Oceanid. He only hoped he saw Gunn coming because his ears rang from all the noise. He felt half deaf. He nearly plowed into Justine before his nose told him she was there. Connor was suddenly struck by how much better she looked at night. In the harsh light of day, Justine looked older, like her anger and sadness was burning her up from the inside out. She walked like she was carrying armor, reminding Connor of the Breliens, a nasty demon with a shell of bone even he found hard to crack.

"I thought I'd never find you," she groused, hauling him off to the dubious shade of a palm tree. Her eyes raked over his bare-chested form. "That's a new look for you."

Connor closed his arms over his chest, wondering if this was what modesty felt like. "It's hot."

"No shit, kid." Justine blew at a strand of lank hair hanging in her face. "I can't believe you found out where they're going to meet this thing."

He shrugged. "Gunn and Fred forget how well I hear. But if Gunn gets here before the Oceanid does, we're in trouble."

"Got news for you, Connor. If he sees us together, there'll be hell to pay."

Connor bobbed his head. "I know. I can't hear anyone coming in this din and I can't sniff them out either. Too many smells."

"Sniff?" Justine cocked an eyebrow. "You can smell us?"

He blinked. "You can't?"

"Not in the way I think you mean but some of these people are pretty ripe." Justine curled her lip at a passing band of teens. "You are an amazing predator, Connor."

A wide, self-satisfied smile split his pale face. "Thanks."

"So our big plan is to sit here and wait for her?" Justine asked.

"Pretty much. Get a beer. It's good." He waggled his IBC bottle.

Justine laughed. "Connor that's root boor. Soda, not real beer."

His face fell as he gave the bottle a look of betrayal. "Well, it's still good."

"You're better off sticking with root beer. Real beer interferes with your reflexes and your smarts."

Connor wrinkled his nose. "Then why drink it?"

"It can make you feel good."

"Oh."

They settled in and watched the crowds for any signs of Gunn, Fred or the Oceanid. Connor related what little he had learned about them as they stood watch. The sun dipped below the horizon with no sightings. Finally, Justine wandered off to get more drinks.

Connor thought he caught a whiff of her approach through the crowd when a child on a nearby blanket stood up, his hand clutching a brightly flaming stick. Brilliant licks of flame spat off it. Connor's eyes bulged as he backed away from the display of demonic magic. A hand touched his sticky sweaty shoulder nearly sending him into the tree branches. "What's wrong, Connor?" Justine asked. He just pointed, his body tensing for action. "That's just a sparkler, Connor."

"What?"

"Sparkler. It's a...well, it's not exactly a firework." She handed him another root beer. "It's something parents give kids to play with to celebrate the Fourth."

"It looks dangerous," he siad, giving the sparkler an offended glare.

"Only if you hold it too close to your clothes, or you whip it around and brand your friends or step on it barefooted once it goes out or set your lawn on fire." Justine's face wrinkled up. "Okay, it really is a dumb toy."

"Yeah."

"Connor, you do know what fireworks are, don't you?"

He shrugged. "Fred said it was loud and bright and a bunch of science junk I didn't understand."

"They're very loud. You're gonna think the heavens are opening up." She shot him a sympathetic look.

"Is it dangerous?"

"Only if they go wrong and head for the crowds."

Connor made a face. "I don't like this holiday."

"It's not so bad. They synchronize the fireworks with the music which is kinda cool if you go in for that kind of thing.'

Connor shrugged and slumped back down against the tree. Justine sat with him. Their meager patch of earth wasn't much but it was all they could find that didn't already have bodies claiming it. They were grateful for that much especially since standing vigile for hours wasn't something Justine wanted to do.

Suddenly, Justine jumped to her feet. "Guard my drink, Connor. I have to find the potty."

Connor watched her run off, puzzlement creeping into his face. The way Justine moved didn't look like she was in need of bodily relief. She seemed suddenly terrified. Connor knew the look of fear, how it made people act. He saw it in Justine. He glanced around and didn't see any reason for it; more kids with sparklers; some teens throwing their bodies around to music; kids with glowing sticks that they were spinning around their hears. Nothing seemed the least bit threatening. A tall, lanky man paused in front of him and gestured to the bare patch of ground Justine had just vacated. "Do you mind if I sit?" he asked with a soft accent.

"A friend's sitting there," Connor replied.

"Just for a moment to catch my breath?" The man pleaded, doing a good job of looking honestly hot and sweaty. "This heat is dreadful."

"Okay, I guess."

The man folded up beside Connor in a slightly ungainly tangle of thin limbs. Connor studied him. Tousled dark hair, cool blue eyes, a curious scar blueish-black stubble over pale cheeks; Connor deemed the beard messy. Someone had tried to kill this man, slit his throat good and proper. Connor wondered how he'd survived but more importantly had there been a reason for it. Had he just allowed a very dangerous man to sit next to him? Connor's body tensed ready for action.

"Thank you," the man said, his eyes shutting as he leaned back against the tree. Maybe he was just tired and had been a victim of violence. Connor heard about random violence all the time on tv, but he refused to relax just yet. Justine had been afraid of something. "I was beginning to think I would suffer heat stroke before I found a place to sit. There is quite a crowd here."

"Too many people," Connor agreed as the wind shifted, letting him get a good whiff of the man, overpowering the effluvia surrounding them. He knew that scent. He had picked it up around the hotel faintly. There was only one person he hadn't seen in order to associate them with the smells of the Hyperion. Could this be Wes? If it was, it couldn't be by chance he was here. "My friend's gonna be back soon," Connor said but doubted that. He had to get rid of this man, even if it was Wesley whom he had been wanting to meet. He knew it must be getting close to time for him to return to Gunn and Fred and he still hadn't seen any signs of anyone matching Gunn's description of the Oceanid.

The man's eyes opened. "Yes, I too am waiting for a friend. Well, she doesn't know I'm here. I thought I'd surprise her."

"Good luck finding her. My friend's probably lost in this crowd," Connor said, jerking a thumb at Justine's bottle of Coke as proof she did exist.

The man laughed softly. "Easy to do. I suppose I shall not find her sitting here but I appreciate the moment's respite." He gathered himself up to stand and knocked into Justine's Coke. He caught it before it spilled everywhere. "Ever so sorry."

"That's okay," Connor said, watching the man upright it. Did his fingers brush over the mouth of it in a strange, unnecessary manner or was he being his usual paranoid self? Was the soda bubbling more than it should?

"Thanks again." This time the man got up and was gone. Connor picked up Justine's drink and got up, looking for her. Time was frittering away. He hated this feeling of helplessness. He knew he was in danger of getting caught but it didn't mean he would give up so soon. Should he have said to the man that he was Connor and that he had been looking for him? What if he was disremembering the man's scent from the hotel? He could only assume Wesley didn't want to see him since the man had never made an effort to do so. Or had today been Wes' first chance to meet with him and Connor had scared him away? What if Connor himself was the man's alleged friend?

"What did he want?" Justine's voice hissed from behind Connor.

He whirled, hating that his senses were so overwhelmed that he could be snuck up on. "Who?"

Justine plucked the bottle of Coke from his hand and took a deep swallow beofre he could tell her he thought something might be wrong with it. She didn't seem to taste anything wrong. He was just paranoid. After all, what could the man have done to the drink and why would he do anything? "Damn it's too hot. The man who was sitting with you."

Connor shrugged. "Nothing. He just wanted to rest for a minute. He doesn't like the heat either. How'd you see him?"

Justine flushed, realizing she just let on that she hadn't gone to the restroom. "Never mind." She drained away the rest of the soda.

"What time is it? If I don't get back soon, Gunn and Fred are going to get suspicious."

Justine glanced at her watch. "Eight o'clock."

He scowled viciously. "I don't have much time."

"Maybe we should split up," Justine said, putting her hand on her forehead, swaying a bit. "This heat is really getting to me. I feel like I'm half drunk."

"Maybe you should sit and let me do this," he fretted. Connor didn't want to have to worry about her in battle.

"Don't be silly. I'm fine. It'll cool off now that the sun's down," Justine said. "I'll head this way."

Connor nodded and watched her go. He didn't know how far afield he should roam from the meeting spot. Had he heard Gunn right? Maybe the meeting would be on the strip of restaurants, bars and shops or closer to the docks. He glanced back to see if he could still see Justine. To his surprise he did. She was leaning on the tall man who had sat beside him and they were walking off. She looked all cuddly with him, the way Fred sometimes did with Gunn. Connor noticed she was walking a little funny but she did say the heat was making her feel drunk, whatever that meant. Maybe she was the man's friend. That made sense to Connor. After all, Wes made it so he could be given to Father and Justine but surely Justine wouldn't just abandoned the search for the Oceanid to spend time with this man. She probably was talking him into helping.

Watching them be swallowed up by the crowd, Justine so close to him, Wes was nearly carrying her, Connor decided that must be it. They were pretending to be a couple while they searched. He went back to his own search. He saw someone closer to the water that had long curly hair. He pushed his way closer, hoping this wasn't another false alarm. He caught up to her near to a palm tree, seeing the trident with pearls on her blue shirt. He grinned and reached out, catching her hand. She yelped and looked over at him, her long swag of raven hair whipping.

"You scared...." her voice died as the color raced out of her face.

He pulled her against the tree with him. She smelled of salt and sea. "You're Halimeda, aren't you?"

"You know my name?" Her eyes widened. "You were the one..."

"The one what?" Connor's voice went cold and sharp as a knife's edge.

"You were on the boat," she said, trying to pull away but she couldn't break his grip.

"And you plan on telling that to Gunn." His eyes narrowed, his face taking on a dangerous cast. "I can't have that."

"Um...okay, all I wanted was a little money to pay off a loan shark." She tittered nervously. "You wouldn't think my kind would get into that kind of trouble but..."

"I don't have any money but that doesn't change things." Connor showed his teeth in a predatory smile. "You're not going to be saying anything."

"What? You're going to kill me? In this crowd?" Her blue-green eyes looked a little emboldened.

"I can do it so fast that they'll never even know it happened," he promised her.

She grabbed a lock of her long hair with her free hand, tugging. "I'll scream."

"You won't have a chance to," he said, pinning her to the tree.

Halimeda swallowed hard, her eyes meeting his. "My silence can be bought with other things."

"My way's more permanent, safer that way." He nodded knowingly.

"Mine is more pleasurable," the nymph told him.

Connor paused, thinking about that. "What?"

"Like this." Halimeda drew him closer, her eyes locking with his.

Connor stared into those blue-green orbs. The color of them seemed to swirl and move like a tempest. He felt like he was falling into them. He was barely aware of her hands roaming over him. He couldn't move, trapped like a slukh in Nekidto jelly.

"See, isn't this better?" Her lips nipped his chin as he let her arm go. She pinched one of his nipples with her long, pearly fingernails, pulling it. "Do you like that?" she asked, then brushed her lips against his, lightly then more insistently. Her mouth opened and she sucked his tongue into her mouth.

She tasted salty. This was what Connor had been wanting to do. He remembered that much but why was he doing it with this creature? He couldn't recall that. He didn't even know where he was. All that mattered was the way she made him feel. He felt his manhood straining against the confines of his zipper.

She grabbed him there, squeezing gently. "Oh yes, you do like this. Did you know that a man has a better orgasm, ejaculates more when his air supply is cut off. Aren't humans strange things? You're about to find out if that's true."

Halimeda's fingers kept massaging him through his pants as her lips met his again. The threat didn't penetrate the briney fog he was in. Warm, saline fluid found its way into his mouth but Connor didn't care. He thrust against her hand then something started screaming in the reptilian part of his brain; you're in danger. Too late, he realized she had ensorcelled him.

Connor fought to find a way out of the strange spell he was under. How could he have just let himself be taken so easily? Her eyes, he couldn't look into them any more. It took all his will to shut them as more and more sea water flowed out of the Oceanid and into his lungs. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't think. His body was responding only to her touch. He ejaculated even as he fought to shove her off of him before her magic drowned him.

He couldn't break the link between them so he tried something different. He could barely hold his breath, trying to cut off the flow of water into him as he wrapped his arms around her and squeezed for all he was worth. The linkage broke and water flooded out of him as her lips left his but he didn't relax his death grip. Halimeda gurgled as he broke her ribs and kept squeezing. He heard her back snap. She went clear like a jelly fish and ruptured in a flood of sea water, drenching him. Connor fell back against the tree, choking. He coughed up water, looking around shakily. Had anyone noticed? Everyone seemed too wrapped up in themselves. Connor wiped the foam off his chin, noticing the trident pin on the ground. He picked it up.

Shakily, he headed back for his companions. He tossed the pin in the first garbage can he found. He didn't see Justine anywhere. He'd have to leave her a note. A young woman lurched into his path, her large breasts barely covered by the bikini she wore. She had several glowing rings around her neck. Her eyes were glassy and she seemed unsteady on her feet. She grabbed his hand. "Awww, baby, did someone push you into the water?" she cooed and her friends giggled.

Connor knew he looked pretty well drowned. His hair was matted down and his pants clung to him. He didn't answer her.

"Don't waste your time with the skinny ones," one of her girlfriend's called.

"He's too small. Toss him back," another added.

The girl giggled. "I think he's cute." She took off one of her glowing rings and looped it around his neck, kissing his cheek.

One of her friends pulled her off Connor. "Sorry. She's a little drunk."

"No problem," Connor muttered, starting on his way faster now.

He was staring at the red and blue glowing ring around his neck when he heard Gunn's voice. "Connor! There you are! What happened to you?"

He looked over and saw Gunn was heading in the direction of the meeting spot. "I fell in."

Gunn snorted. "I can see that. Fred's waiting for you. Oh, and Connor, you have lipstick on your cheek." The older man grinned and headed off.

Connor touched his cheek, wondering what lipstick was. He all but jogged back to Fred's side. She looked at him curiously as he collapsed down on the towel. "I fell in," he said before she could ask.

"I see you were having fun." She tapped his cheek.

"What's lipstick?" he asked. "I saw Gunn and he said I had some."

Fred dug out her purse from the beach bag and fished out her compact. Connor saw the red imprints of lips on his cheek. Fred took a paper towel and wiped them off. "That's lipstick. You found some friends, I see."

Connor shrugged. "Just hung out. She gave me this. What is it?" He fingered the glowing ring.

"A glow stick. It'll last for a few hours. Get settled. The fireworks should start soon. Want some chips?"

"Yes please," he said, lying down, feeling very satisfied with himself. He hadn't really wanted to kill to keep his secret. Okay, killing demons who threatened to expose him was all right. That was what he was supposed to do. He hadn't been sure he could kill Halimeda even though he threatened to. She had seemed too human. Of course, her attempting to kill him was all the justification he needed to destroy her. He was safe again.

Connor munched the chips while Fred fiddled with the boombox. He listened to the announcer over the sound system going on about the Fourth of July, welcoming everyone to the Marina and telling them the FM station to tune to to co-ordinate the music to the fireworks. Fred scooted closer to the edge of her blanket and smiled at him.

"Here we go."

A Sousa march spilled out of the radio, kicking it off. Thunderous booms rocked the night air and the sky filled with light. Connor froze in terror as brilliant bits of light showered to earth like the tears of a demon. More cracks and even more light. The air filled with the smell of gun powder. Connor was only dimly aware of all the cheers around him as he tried to get to his feet and run. Fred caught his hand, dragging him down onto the blanket with her.

"It's okay, Connor. That's just the fireworks. They won't hurt you." She stroked his face, seeing his terror. "Look at them. They're beautiful. I know they're loud and a little scary but it's okay. Ooo, see that one?" She stabbed a finger at one that was spiraling higher then split into a myriad of white lights. "It's safe as houses here."

"That's fireworks?" he asked, still not convinced. "Not a demon?"

"No demons, Connor. Just lie down. Remember what I told you about them. No magic, just science." She pulled him close, feeling him shake. "Just listen to the music and watch the lights dance."

Connor squirmed free and flattened out on the blanket with her. He relaxed in slow measures, watching the sprays of colors. Reassured it wasn't an attack, he found himself liking them. He particular liked the purple ones that opened like flowers and the ones that kept making bang after bang as they flew higher. When the finale erupted, he couldn't take it all in. There was too much light and sound. His nose was deadened from all the chemicals released in the atmosphere but he didn't care.

Fred patted his arm. "Wasn't that fun?"

He sat up. "Yeah. They do this every year?"

She nodded. "At New Year's Eve, too. I wonder where Charles is. Maybe we should go look for him?"

"Did he say to?"

"No. I don't think we can move through this crowd," Fred lamented as partygoers got up in droves and headed off now that the fireworks were done.

"He'll find us. If it takes much longer, I'll go look for him," Connor said, taking his shirt back out of the beach bag and puttin it on.

They didn't have long to wait for Gunn's return. His face said it all. Connor remained stoic as Gunn reported that Halimeda had never showed up. Fred tried to comfort him, thinking he had to be disappointed that the lead to finding his father had fizzled out before it truly ever began. He put on a sad face while inside he was dancing. He felt like the fireworks were going off inside him, bright and beautiful. The monster would remain imprisoned and life would go on.

*
*
*

Connor stretched out on the courtyard steps, breathing in the sweetness of the night-blooming jasmine. Three days had passed since the Fourth and he couldn't find Justine. He normally wouldn't worry but how she was acting when he last saw her made him nervous. He'd never seen her so friendly with a man before. He hadn't thought much about it at the time, too preoccupied with the Oceanid but now it bothered him. He didn't know exactly why it bugged him other than he had a bad feeling about it.

"Connor, where are you?" Gunn's voice boomed inside the hotel.

"Outside!" Connor got up and went inside. Gunn and Fred were in his office. "What's up?"

"We got a tip that there's gonna be a big party tonight in vamp territory. Want to help do some hunting?" Gunn asked.

Connor gave him a suspicious look. "Are we hunting for real or are we asking for clues to find Angel and Cordy?"

"Strictly search and destroy, your type of stuff. We haven't heard a thing about these vamps knowing anything useful," Gunn replied and Connor fought down the smile conjured by the thought of being let loose on vampires.

"Don't worry, Connor," Fred said, putting her arm around his waist. "We'll find him," she added, totally misunderstanding why Connor had asked his question.

"I can't believe I got stood up on the Fourth," Gunn grumbled, headed for the weapon's cabinet in the other room. "I was sure that was gonna pan out."

"It's okay," Connor said, disengaging from Fred to follow the other man.

"No, it's not. You need your father," Fred said without a hint of doubt. Connor was glad she couldn't read his mind. "You don't have to act so brave."

"And what if we don't find them?" Connor persisted.

"We will," Fred assured him.

"What if they don't want to be found?" Connor suggested, not sure why that popped into his mind but he could think of several ways to make Gunn and Fred give up if he followed this path.

Both of them gave him peculiar looks. Gunn paused, turning away from the weapons and asked, "Why would you say that?"

Connor gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Angel and Cordy were meeting for a date when they disappeared. Maybe they went off together."

"No way, man." Gunn glowered at the smaller boy.

"They wouldn't do that," Fred said, her face pale.

"Why not? Don't lovers run off all the time to be alone?" Connor crossed his arms, staring them down.

"Yes, but Angel and Cordy wouldn't just run off. They'd tell us they'd be gone and they'd never stay away for weeks," Fred said.

"Not if they wanted to be alone," Connor argued.

"You don't know them." Gunn stabbed a finger at him.

"Connor, Angel wouldn't leave you behind. He loves you," Fred said, renewing her one-armed embrace.

Connor moved out of her grip, turning his back to them. "I'm not the son he wants. He wanted his baby back." It was surprisingly easy to make that sound painful, on the edge of tears.

"It's hard, Connor. We weren't ready for you to be all grown up, particularly overnight from our point of view," Fred said. "But that doesn't change the fact Angel loves you and he'd never just desert you."

Connor turned back to them. He knew he wasn't convincing them to give up and he was making them mad at him. He wasn't ready to give up, however. "Okay. You said Angel was cursed, that's what made him good and not the monster who slaughtered Father's family. You also said if Dad got happy, he'd be Angelus again. Fred, you told me that beaches are romantic and that's what Angel wanted for Cordy. What if Cordy made him too happy. He could be Angelus right now. He'd only come back to kill us all if he thought it was worth his time. Maybe it's just as well he's gone."

The room went deadly silent. Connor thought he had won and this would end the search. Either that, or he overstepped and they were going to be really furious with him. Finally Gunn said, "You're a scary little man, do you know that?"

"Charles," Fred hissed, slapping at the air between them. "Connor, please don't think that way. There's nothing to be gained by thinking the worse."

"Fred's right. Until we know different, we operate like our friends have been kidnaped and we work to find them," Gunn said. "Now are you coming with us to dust some vamps?"

Connor stared at him, not surprised that Gunn thought his word was the end all, be all of the conversation but he knew enough to let it pass. He grinned. It didn't take much effort to fake enthusiasm for vampire killing. "I'm coming."

Connor went for the weapons. He might have failed to convince his companions to give up their quest but at least he managed to escape the Lebib demon this time. Angel's suffering would continue as it should. Connor smiled again. If he could lucky, this was the party Justine had told him about and she'd be there. Then he'd be able to stop worrying about her. All he had to do was keep one step ahead of Gunn and Fred, and his secret would stay safely locked in the saline depths of the ocean. It was a dangerous game but those were the kinds he excelled at.