Chapter Twenty-Five

"Are you sure about this?" Angel helped Connor into the Hyperion. His son could barely walk, his pale face sweating. His breath ragged in and out, shallow and painful sounding. Each pant made Angel ache. Being a father could be so amazingly hard. "You should still be in the hospital."

Connor's head shake was nearly imperceptible. "I could be… endangering the innocent. Leda was pissed …when I proved slightly challenging. The demoness added…me to the list long ago. I just need… rest now. Willow said so." He gasped. "Besides, they'll see… how fast I heal there."

Angel looked up at the rising moon, shining in the front windows. "All good points but you're resting in your bed and letting us take care of things."

Connor sighed. "I don't have the strength to argue."

Angel took him up the elevator and installed him in his room. Ratter didn't leave her pillow. She turned her cool feline gaze on Angel as he turned on the TV and put the remote on the night stand within easy reach. Connor eased himself onto the other side of the bed from his pet. Angel fussed with Connor's pillow then covered him up tightly. "We'll be up every so often to check on you."

Connor nodded wearily. "I expected that. When Willow gets a chance, I want to see her."

"I'll let her know."

Connor shut his eyes, asleep before Angel got to the door. Angel headed downstairs. The hotel was still nearly empty even though night had fallen. Most of his friends were either out looking for the demon or Leda or with Gunn at the funeral home, guarding Fred's body until the cremation tomorrow.

When he got to the library, Angel found Spike, Giles and Lorelei working the books. Spike glanced up at Angel then quickly away. Angel understood. He had wanted the Shanshu for himself. When Spike first got it, he lorded it over Angel. That didn't last long. Like Darla, Spike found going back to human almost a curse. Some days, he could barely look at Angel. Angel half expected Spike to ask to be turned again. He wondered what his answer might be.

"How is he?" Spike mumbled, finally glancing up. His red eyes reminded Angel how much Spike had liked Fred.

"Rough." Angel flopped down on a chair. "He should have stayed in the hospital but Connor has such a stubborn streak."

Spike snorted. "Imagine that."

Ignoring Spike, Angel gestured to the research articles. "Are we getting anywhere?"

"Not as far as we should be. Finding something on the Balam isn't easy nor is Mayan a language any of us are fluent in. Dawn should be back soon. She was helping with the funeral. Tomorrow after the service and the memorial here at the hotel, Willow plans on using her tracking spell," Giles replied.

"What we need to do is be ready to support Buffy if the worst happens," Lorelei said in obvious counselor mode. "Killing demons is one thing. Killing a rogue Slayer is another."

"Which is why I plan on taking care of Leda," Angel said, knowing he wouldn't be able to control that. He'd do his best, at any rate. He had enough deaths on his conscience; one more wouldn't matter much. "It was hard enough on Buffy going after Faith all those years ago."

"I'm afraid it would come to this," Giles said, polishing his lenses. "If this has to be done, I'd rather it be you who did it."

"Don't worry on that account." Angel glanced toward the window. "I can't believe we still haven't gotten any further. The Council, a school full of Slayers, Wolfram and Hart on the case and one psycho pathetic Slayer and some jaguar demon-goddess are giving us the slip."

"It is embarrassing," Spike agreed, his lip curled.

"Maybe we need to start thinking like a teenaged girl to catch Leda," Lorelei suggested and three sets of masculine eyes fixed on her. The psychiatrist shrugged. "It's been years since I was a teen."

"Still closer to it than any of us, dear." Giles smiled at his lover, gesturing to the otherwise masculine room.

"I'll give it a shot." She got up. "I'm going to check on Connor. If he's not still sleeping, I'd like to talk to him. What he just went through…well, he could use help coping. He and I had been making a little progress before he got hurt."

"Thanks, Lorelei. I'm sure he could use someone to talk to and that isn't my strong suit," Angel admitted reluctantly. "I want to be that person but I'm not. I'll do whatever I can to help, whatever you think I should do."

"I'm sure he knows that you want to help." Lorelei patted Angel's shoulder as she sailed past.

The front door opened as Lorelei was heading for the stairs. Dawn came into the library, greeted by relieved expressions.

"Just in time, li'l bit. We need a translator," Spike said, waving a hand at the stack of books.

Sighing, Dawn joined them. Angel decided they could handle the research. He opted for joining Buffy and Faith out in the night.

XXX

Connor slumped against the bathroom vanity. He looked like death but at least his hair was combed. He knew that Fred's memorial was going on downstairs. He couldn't argue that he had been well enough to attend the funeral but he could at least pull on one of the new outfits his father had bought him and ride down the elevator. At least, that was his thought process. His wounds still weren't healed and he hurt like hell but he wasn't bleeding though his dressings any more. The effort of sponging off in the sink and dressing had left him shaking and sweating. The meds Willow gave him were helping with his addiction but that meant the only painkiller allowed was Tylenol.

"You survived pain like this in Quor-Toth with no pain killers at all," Connor reminded himself, pushing off the vanity.

On unsteady feet, he slowly made it to the elevator. There were more people downstairs than Connor expected. He supposed he was surprised by how many friends Gunn and Fred had, mostly because the monster-killer lifestyle didn't allow for much socializing. He recognized a few of the junior Slayers from the school and some of the guests were surely Watchers and other members of the occult community. Connor felt both glad that Fred had so many friends and deeply sad that so many people were in pain because he messed up.

He jumped, feeling a hand touch his shoulder, instantly regretting the suddenness of his movement. Faith gave him a wry look. "Sorry. You looked ready to fall over."

"Probably am," he said. "I just wanted to pay my respects."

"I get that. Why don't you sit down and I'll send Gunn your way?" Faith pointed to a nearby chair.

Connor shrugged. "I'm not that weak," he lied. "I can handle this."

Faith didn't seem to believe him, looping a strong Slayer's arm around his shoulders. Connor allowed himself to lean against her. He found his father and Buffy before he managed to find Gunn in the knot of people. Angel didn't seem particularly happy to see him.

The vampire's eyes wept over him. "Should you be up?"

"I must really look awful if everyone keeps asking me that," Connor huffed.

"You did nearly die," Buffy replied gently. "It's a pretty good guess you shouldn't be walking around."

Faith shifted her grip on him. "I've been trying to make him sit."

"Seriously, I just want to pay my respects then I'll go back to bed, promise," Connor protested. "If I sit, I might never get up."

"All right. Gunn was in the next room where the buffet is laid out, the last time I saw him. I'll help you there," Angel offered, holding out a hand.

Connor tightened his grip on Faith. "Faith's helping."

"Besides, I'm way nicer to hold onto than you." Faith smirked. "At least from his point of view."

Angel snorted and spearheaded their way through the crowd of angry mourners. As Gunn came into sight, Connor felt his nerve flee. What could he possibly say to this man? He was the reason Fred was dead. He freed up his grip on Faith and stumbled forward.

To his surprise, Gunn reached out and put a hand on Connor's shoulder. "Thanks for coming down. I know you're in pain. It means a lot to me."

Connor felt the dams in his eyes filling to capacity. "I'm so sorry, Gunn. I should have been better."

"You saved our son. That's more than you know." Gunn squeezed Connor's shoulder. "Go get some rest. Take some food."

There was an automaton tone to that invitation. Connor didn't doubt Gunn had made it a dozen times today and he didn't argue. There was nothing he could say to compensate for the loss. He should just let Gunn get back to his friends. "If there's anything I can do."

"When we find the bitches, you can help kill them," Gunn answered grimly.

Connor offered up a flat smile. "I'm the Destroyer. That's somewhere still in me."

"I'm counting on it." Gunn gave Connor's shoulder a final pat.

Connor noticed Angel didn't look happy with the idea that the Destroyer could still be lurking inside his son. "I'm ready to go back up."

"Do you want something to eat?" Buffy asked, reaching for a plate on the buffet.

Connor shook his head. "I'm pretty worn out." It wasn't a lie. Maybe he was hungry, just a little, but he didn't feel like he belonged with the rest of the mourners. He turned, intending to head upstairs.

"Connor, handling the rogue slayer isn't your responsibility," Angel said as he took over Faith's spot in helping Connor along. "It's mine."

Connor glanced over at Faith who shrugged. "Fine, but the demoness killed even more of my friends. I am going to help," he said in a tone that brooked no argument and Angel didn't offer any. He merely helped Connor back to the elevator and then into his room.

"It's not your fault, Connor," Angel said as Connor slipped back out of his clothes and into his sleepwear. "Gunn doesn't blame you."

"You don't know that."

"Actually, I do," Angel replied with such conviction Connor believed him.

Still, "It doesn't really change anything." Connor sat heavily on the bed, feeling as if that little trip downstairs had been all the way to the moon and back.

"It changes some things. I'm an expert on carrying guilt that isn't necessarily mine." Angel spread his hands wide. "I can tell you this, Connor, let this burden go."

"I'm trying," Connor said, his head dipping. "It's hard."

Angel rested a hand on Connor's arm. "I know. Believe me, I know."

Sighing, Connor nodded. "I know you do. I need to do better, just all around better."

"I believe you have it in you." Angel's tone was so compassionate Connor couldn't ignore the implications.

He shot Angel an appreciative look then a knock on the door made Ratter jump. The cat scurried under the bed as Buffy came in with a tray of food.

"I know you said you weren't hungry but I thought you might change your mind so I brought up some stuff that doesn't need to be kept cold," she said.

"Thank you, Buffy. I appreciate it."

She set it down on the dresser. "Willow says she'll be up later. Anything I can do for you, Connor?"

"You've done plenty, Buffy. Thanks, I'll try to nibble on some stuff," he said. "You and Dad should go back downstairs. I'll watch some TV and rest. Leave the door open a crack in case Ratter wants to leave the room, thanks."

"Of course."

After they left, Connor got up and picked two spring rolls off the plate, settling back in bed to watch a little TV, finding some NCIS reruns. He liked Abby. To his surprise, there was no shrimp to pick out of his spring roll and reward Ratter with. His spring rolls were fusion food, filled with rice noodles, kiwi and strawberries, sweet, tangy and delicious.

Connor dozed off to the sounds of Abby and Tim geeking out, Ratter stretched out alongside him, but hearing an unhappy and unfamiliar voice, he woke with a start.

"So you're the junkie that let Fred die."

Connor didn't know the woman in the doorway but she looked hard. A scar seamed her cheek, pulling her lip into a perpetual frown. "I tried to save her," he replied, the words ringing hollow and weak even to him.

"She said you were Angel's son. Must mean you aren't all human." Her cold gray eyes went icier.

"Does it matter?" Connor laughed bitterly. "Guess it does. I would have saved her if I were human. Who are you?"

"Does it matter?" she mocked him. "Fred and I were in the physics program together until the bad stuff came." She touched her scar. "Fred and Gunn taught me how to kill the demons." Her eyes narrowed. "Doesn't look like it would take much to kill you."

"Claire."

At the sound of Gunn's sharp tone, Connor relaxed. He couldn't fight inside the hotel, even if he wasn't so badly wounded, and Connor didn't like his chances of surviving another fall out the window.

Coming into the room, Gunn stared at her. "What are you doing up here, Claire?"

"Taking care of something you should have," she replied grimly, her fist balling in her trouser pocket. Connor wondered what weapon she might have in there.

Gunn caught hold of her arm. "I don't think so. Connor isn't to blame."

Claire yanked away. "What's another demon gone?"

"I'm half human," Connor muttered. "That mattered to Fred."

"Enough to trust Josh to his care," Gunn said. "Connor saved our son. He tried to save Fred but he was outnumbered and hamstrung by protective spells. Not to mention he'd been shot. He almost died trying to save Fred. I know you miss her, Claire. We all do, but hurting Connor won't bring her back. It'll just make more people sad."

Claire snorted. "Looks like he'll take himself out with his habits so I guess I don't have to bother. I'll be downstairs."

Connor watched the woman go with relief. "Thanks, Gunn. I know I've already said it but I'm really sorry."

"I know, Connor and I know you tried. You didn't abandon her." Gunn crossed the room.

"But I wasn't good enough." Connor's breath hitched. A sudden upwelling of tears came faster than he could stop them. He covered his face. "She's right. I'm a useless junkie."

He felt Gunn's hand on his shoulder. "I'm not convinced even if you weren't addicted, that it would have ended differently. You still couldn't have fought."

Hearing the strain in Gunn's tone, Connor dropped his hands, looking up. The man was crying, too. "I know but it doesn't help."

"Yeah, I know."

Scrubbing his hands over his eyes, Connor murmured, "You should probably get back downstairs, Gunn. They'll be wondering where you went."

Gunn nodded, leaving Connor alone with his thoughts. It wasn't a pleasant place to be. Connor tried to lose himself in the TV show that was barely registering and in stroking Ratter's fur. In spite of himself, he drowsed, only surfacing from slumber when he heard someone else enter the room. Connor blinked blearily, pulling Willow into focus.

"Sorry, didn't mean to wake you," She said sheepishly.

"It's all right. I wanted to see you." He sat up, trying to smooth down his hair. He gave it up as a lost cause.

"What can I do for you?" Willow, sitting on the corner of the bed, turned her face to Connor, her expression open and a little curious.

"If I had been sober, I would have been faster, smarter. Fred might be alive. I know there's a quick way of sobering heroin addicts. I want you to help me do it."

Willow's eyebrows rose. "That's dangerous."

Connor snorted. 'I'm half demon. I just survived a triple impaling on a cast iron fence. If regular humans survive the treatment, I'll make it."

Willow tapped her fingers on the mattress. "I want you to heal up for another few days first, Connor. It'll traumatize your body less."

For a moment, he thought about arguing but there was no point in it. "Fair enough," Connor said. "Thank you, Willow."

"You won't be thanking me when we start this," she replied cryptically.

Dire predictions of not, when Willow left, Connor slept more easily, happy with his decision.

XXX

"I was expecting something to attack today," Buffy said, sliding into bed with Angel.

He wrapped an arm around her. "I know. It would have been the perfect opportunity."

"If Leda has any input into what the demoness is doing, she was probably smart enough to know there would be enough firepower here at the wake and enough anger to put them down hard." Buffy scowled. "So why do I get the feeling that someone was watching us?"

"Hypervigilance." Angel pulled her closer. "Or they were using magic to spy on us. It's a possibility."

"So long as they don't realize we're trying to spy back." Buffy let her eyes close. "This needs to end, Angel. We've already lost too much."

"I'm damn tired of losing people I care about," he rumbled.

"It ends here. We're going to stop them," she said as if will alone would make it happen.