The Hyperion beckoned with its dark, outsized splendour. Connor had not been here since he had started his frantic search for Cordelia. Back then, it had been full of Jasmine's worshippers and their happy chatter, flooded with light and full of the colours Lorne had ordered to provide Jasmine with appropriately divine décor.
All those colours were gone now, not faded but replaced with determinedly polished ebony furniture and red carpets. This clinched it, and so he was no longer surprised when he smelled formaldehyde.
"Seems juggling two sets of memories has improved your mental faculties," Lilah Morgan said from where Angel's office used to be. She leaned on the doorframe and regarded him and Lyta with her lazy, amused look. "I was expecting you to go to the office."
"But this is the office now, isn't it?" Connor returned. "The other place is just something where glass and steel are reconstructed, and they'll need more than a year before they finish. And I was thinking about what you did to Mom and Dad. Substituting me for their daughter. You'd want such a switch for your new base – you gave Angel the old building, and took his home."
"It does have a certain elegance, don't you think?" Lilah agreed. "And I did die here, so I am somewhat attached to the place. After all the disasters with their other employees, the Senior Partners finally listened to my suggestions." She smiled at him. "Who says Wolfram and Hart doesn't reward loyalty?"
He could hear his own heart beat, and Lyta's. The air was full with the sterile, chemical stench of an untertaker's residence; it seemed as epitomize the perversity of Wolfram and Hart. As confused and unhappy as he had been here, this had been something of a home once. When he had lived with Fred and Gunn here, he had scorned them for their attachment to Angel yet had come to listen for their steps in the night, their laughing, noisy attempts at cooking, even their worried nagging about his absences. In retrospect, he knew this had been the first time he had lived with something like a family. After Angel banished him, he kept returning in secret, until he found Cordelia. The Hyperion might never have been the content paradise the Rileys lived in, but it had been a home to people trying to do good things nonetheless, and seeing Wolfram and Hart absorb it, just as they had taken everything else from Angel and the others, awakened an anger in Connor that had nothing to do with his own guilt.
"It's not her," Lyta said in a low voice, and startled, he looked at her. She was watching Lilah with a slight frown; her body was tense, but there was no sign of the Ladies' presence. Lilah inclined her head.
"Ah, the infamous Ms. Hall. No, Connor, I didn't call the Furies. Mind you, I did get a kick out of the idea. Your darling daughter and her mother cut my throat, your mother was a complete bitch who killed a bunch of my colleagues once and made me beg for mercy, your father was a self-righteous bastard who locked me up with her and later had the nerve to lecture me about morality, and his last stunt at playing the hero got the only man I ever loved killed, so seeing his little boy hounded to madness and death? Is a perk. But I'm a lawyer first and foremost. I arrange things, I represent. Care to guess whom?"
"The Senior Partners," he said, anger rising. "That's nothing new."
"Not in this particular case, or rather, we've taken another client. Bad guess, no cookie. Guess again."
"Why don't you quit the games and tell us?" Lyta said harshly. "You might be dead, but the rest of us still have a life to live. Stop wasting our time."
"Funny that you speak of time," Lilah replied, now positively purring, "but you'll have to wait a bit longer to be let in on the joke. Excuse me for a moment."
She vanished into Angel's office. Connor could hear her talk on the phone, telling someone to come down. There was no reply; some moments later, a door opened and shut somewhere in the third floor. Then the elevator, the machine that had baffled him in his first days and which Gunn had often complained about because it was such a bitch to repair, started moving.
The familiar scent hit him a few seconds before the doors of the elevator opened and he saw her. He had held her hand when she was three and frightened at her first day at kindergarten. He had pulled her braids, he had told her stories, he had been teased mercilessly by her about the first girl he crushed on.
Only none of that had ever happened at all. Not to him.
Out of the elevator, white-faced and heart racing, stepped Mercy. His little sister.
"Am I good at recruiting angry teenage girls or what?" asked Lilah smugly.
Mercy stared at Connor. "I didn't know it was you at first," she said, tonelessly. "But I did start to remember Grace, after Mom and Dad had gone to Wolfram and Hart with you. Only nobody else remembered her, and I had to find out. So I went to Wolfram and Hart as well."
Her eyes, carrying accusations of betrayal like fish caught in a net of violent rage, were her sister's eyes, staring up at him. Were Jasmine's eyes. He could feel himself falling, falling, like he had done when the Beast had thrown him out of the window effortlessly, only this time there was no ground to stop anything anymore.
Then Lyta put her hands on his shoulder, and said to Mercy:
"Revenge is your right. But it will leave you dry and empty and will return nothing to you. Believe me, I know. The Ladies are offering you the chance I never had. You can be satisfied with what you have already. He's paying; believe me, he's paying, and your sister will haunt him till the end of time, but he's still there. You don't have to destroy him."
Lilah clapped her hand together, once, twice, three times, each time sounding as she fired a bullet in the still, sterile air.
"Such laudable sentiments," she said. "It must be the aura of this hotel – brings out pretentious speeches from everyone as if Angel were still there. Well, Ms. Hall, you don't have to mourn your own fate anymore. Now if Wonder Boy had killed you, this wouldn't be necessary, but the Senior Partners have decided to consider the expense anyway and make you a truly generous offer. You see, our sweet Mercy here has volunteered to become the next vessel of the Furies, since you seem somewhat reluctant to carry out their will. As an added bonus, they throw in one of our patented memory wipes. Think about it. You want your husband and your son back? Well, why not. Wonder Boy's little girl Jasmine orphaned enough families for us to pick and choose from."
"Mercy," Connor said desperately, "Mercy, don't do this. Look, if you want me to go to jail, I will. If you want me to jump from this building, I will. But don't be a part of her sick game. Don't become a killer."
She crossed her arms, looking absurdly like she had done when his mother had told her she couldn't stay up till midnight. "Not like you, you mean," she replied. "And I don't want to see you dead, you bastard. I want to see you suffer. Do you know, I can't even be sure Grace liked Bon Jovi because you do as well?"
He knew, then, what Angel must have felt that day when he and Justine had put him into a coffin. But if he was Angel then, Mercy must not be allowed to become Connor. Maybe none of the memories he had of her were his, save for the last year, but he loved her. He couldn't let her be sacrificed to the horror of the past as well. Mom and Dad couldn't lose her as well.
"Lyta..." he began. Lyta interrupted him. Addressing Lilah, she said contemptuously: "Do you really think the power of the Ladies is yours to deal and dispense with? We were ancient when the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart still begged for crumbs from the table of the Old Ones, woman. We chose the vessel, and it is not that girl." Almost without a break, she added: "And I don't want your fake memories."
"What about the genuine article then?" Lilah returned.
For the first time, Lyta looked startled. "What do you mean?" she asked warily. Lilah clicked her tongue.
"While the Senior Partners might be momentarily weakened in this dimension, they do have other resources, everywhere. There are dozens of dimensions, and hundreds of worlds, Ms. Hall. There is even one where you did not go on a date that night, and your son was never abducted. Do you understand what that means?"
She smiled to see the colour drain from Lyta's face. Only then did Connor notice that Lyta still had her hands on his shoulders; he could feel them tremble.
"Everything there is as it should be. Your son is still human, still a child, and still with you. True, there is still the potential in him, but this time, you'd know. You'd know far better than the Lyta of that world does. Your son needs you, Ms. Hall. Will you fail him a second time? Or will you let us make another switch? I'm sure the Ladies could be persuaded to accept a new vessel then."
Lyta's hands fell away, and Connor turned around. He saw her crying, silently, desperately, and thought, with a numb ache spreading through every fibre of his being: That's it. She will accept the deal. How can she not?
Then he looked at Mercy, whose eyes wandered between Lyta and Lilah, confused, unhappy, but determined to go through with something she couldn't possibly comprehend. There is always a choice, whispered the voice of his mother in him, or maybe it was three voices, all sounding as one.
"I'll make the necessary preparations then," said Lilah with a self- satisfied victory surrounding her like another elegant costume.
They had called him the Destroyer once. But he could choose what to destroy. He was done with letting others make the choice for him, and with standing by while destruction took place.
Connor whirled and with a single blow smashed Lilah's skull. He heard Mercy's outcry; Lyta did not react at all. Lilah crumpled as Jasmine had done, and for a moment, he was standing in that street again. Then reality reasserted itself, and he knew he had to act fast. The mass of bones and brain matter on the floor continued to twitch; it would not be long before it reassembled itself. Hastily, he pulled out the knife he had procured before they came to the Hyperion, and with the long practice of a lifetime spent flaying animals began to cut.
Behind him, he could hear retching noises, and then Lyta's voice murmuring something to Mercy. He noticed Lilah didn't bleed; the preservation fluids in her had replaced everything else. Feeling the skin part under his fingers, he felt a spark of gratitude at all the various rituals he had been forced to look up together with the others during the reign of the Beast. He wouldn't have remembered, either, if Lyta had not mentioned the Thessalian witch earlier.
Thessaly, whispered Fred's voice in his mind, where the witches gnaw the skin off men's faces for their spells.
When he had finished, Lilah's face and her tongue were nailed to the wall. "You bastard," she said, a distorted, tortured voice.
"Tell Mercy that this is what her life would have been like," Connor said, surprised by the pang of pity he felt for Lilah. "Tell Lyta there is no dimension with her son human, that you only wanted her to give up her connection with the Ladies so you could use Mercy as your assassin."
It wasn't really important whether he guessed correctly; he knew from the books that Lilah would have no choice now but to do everything he had ordered her to do, and this was about Mercy and Lyta.
Dully, Lilah repeated his words. Only now did Connor permit himself to look at Mercy. There was no hate in her face anymore, but what had replaced it wasn't much better. She regarded him with the horror of facing some unnatural abomination. Well, if this stopped her from thinking alliances with Wolfram and Hart, let alone volunteering to carry ancient gods, would help her in any way to deal with her grief, it was worth it.
"I'm sorry," he said, and meant so much more than he could possibly express. Mercy wiped her mouth from the traces of spittle that were still clinging there, glanced at the wall and rushed out of the hotel.
"It is over," Lyta, who didn't look much better than he felt, said softly. "She does not burn with it anymore, and the Ladies are content with what they achieved."
"There is one more thing," Connor said, and the part of him that was the son of Lawrence and Colleen Riley, who was toying with the idea of becoming a vegetarian, finally caught up with him and threatened to make his stomach turn.
"My father... one of them... told me a legend once. About the Kindly Ones, and how they could open the earth and make it swallow a sinner for good."
"I thought you wanted to live," she said.
Slowly, carefully, he took Lilah's face from the wall.
"But she doesn't," Connor said. "Her Senior Partners own her, like a puppet. And they'd continue to use her, even as she is now. She did say the truth, you know; Jasmine and Cordelia killed her. If nothing else, I owe her peace."
Looking down to the floor where Lilah's body lay, he added: "And I owe it to the house as well. So much happened here, so much suffering; it is drunk and full with it. It shouldn't be used anymore, not by anyone, and especially not by them."
"I'll ask them," Lyta said, and when she closed her eyes, he realized her tears had not stopped until now.
An hour later, Los Angels experienced a very minor earthquake. There were no lives lost, and hardly any property damage. All the more surprising, thought the people in the neighbourhood of the Hyperion when they returned to their homes, that the old hotel, which had withstood so many decades, was finally gone.
Third Street in Santa Monica bustled with tourists, musicians and locals; by anyone's standards, it was a beautiful, achingly normal summer day. Lyta sat beneath the hedges cut to resemble dinosaurs, and listened to someone playing the guitar for a while. Then she told the boy sitting next to her, who was silently eating the ice cream she had bought him:
"I failed, you know. I failed you. I would have taken her offer."
She forced herself to look at him. Like herself, he still wore bruises, but they had already begun to fade.
"I thought I was stronger than this, but I..."
He put the ice cream away, and to her surprise took her hand.
"You saved my life," he said. "You really did. And I think you saved Mercy. Lilah would have given her some other means to take revenge if you didn't exist, and then my parents would have lost her as well."
"You should talk to your parents," Lyta said hesitatingly. "Not now, perhaps, but after some time has passed. When they have had the chance to grieve for their daughter, and to adjust their memories."
He didn't say anything, but she thought she spotted a flicker of hope in his blue eyes. Gently, she squeezed his fingers and then let his hand go. They continued to sit in companionable silence for a while, and she wondered whether this was actually peace.
"You never told me your son's name," he said, out of the blue, sounding like a young boy again. "His name," she repeated, and then replied, feeling the familiar sadness but also, strangely, pride: "Daniel. His name was Daniel. But that was when he was human. Now, he is Dream of the Endless. Oneiros, the Lord Shaper."
When Connor, spontaneously, with widened eyes and without a moment's hesitation, whistled and exclaimed "wow", only to look deeply embarrassed a second later, she felt a faint smile creeping up and knew that healing had, indeed, begun.
For both of them.