Scenery changed, as it does, endlessly through the hours and hours of the ride. Connor couldn't take his eyes away from the bus's window, not because it was terribly beautiful scenery but because he had been subconsciously expecting it to become more and more ominous the closer he came to Los Angeles. True, there had been no reports of the physical damage extending beyond the limits of the city itself, but how was he supposed to know what he was looking for? This was his first Apocalypse.
Except it wasn't, he corrected himself. Images sliced through his mind: a woman with a worm-eaten face, a horned creature they all called the Beast, a night that might have gone on forever. He considered the memories briefly and then ignored them. The knowledge he had from his other life might help him someday, but not like this.
For obvious reasons, there weren't any buses running into LA itself, but he had found a route that went straight to the nearest disaster relief center. It wasn't until they had crossed into Pasadena that the first sign of destruction appeared: the skyline was wrong. It wasn't demolished, and he couldn't have pinpointed which parts were missing, but it didn't look right. For the first time, Connor felt his heart twist. It had all been so impersonal until now, so unreal. But he had watched the silhouette of that city approach him slowly when he was a little kid in the backseat of his family's old Volvo, and ever since, it had always brought back that same feeling of wide-eyed excitement. Was the past he had known going to be taken from him along with his original history?
A collective murmur of dismay went up from the other passengers, who all seemed to notice the mangled skyline about half a minute after Connor had. He wasn't sure if he had better eyesight than everyone else or if he had just been paying closer attention to their surroundings, but the latter explanation didn't seem too likely. They were all going this way for the same reason, no doubt, and he didn't presume himself to be the only one who was feeling uneasy about what he was going to find there.
The bus unloaded at a convention center, which wasn't what Connor had anticipated any more than the sedate landscape of the journey had been. There were signs and Red Cross banners up everywhere, though, so he knew he was in the right place. With LA no longer in view, the other passengers loosened up a little and made themselves busy with luggage and chatter, and Connor shouldered his backpack and entered the building.
It might as well have been a convention, instead of actual disaster relief, by the looks of it and the activity going on within. Yet again, Connor had to ask himself what he had thought it was going to be like in here. The gory parts were over; the wounded had made their way to hospitals, and though bodies were still being recovered, the majority of them had been found and identified. Even the intensity of emotional reactions had died down: enough time had passed for everyone to go through panic and come out the other side. The atmosphere in this big, neutrally colored hall wasn't a happy one, but nobody was screaming or even crying. At this point, they all just wanted some answers, and they were willing to stay calm and focused to get them.
It was harder than it looked. Connor found that out firsthand. He started at one of the information tables without a line, staffed by a pretty blonde woman in her twenties who smiled at him with understated sympathy. "You want to look up a survivor?" she asked.
He hesitated. There wasn't an easy way to explain that the person he wanted to find was unlikely to be listed among survivors no matter what had happened to him. "A few," he said.
She reached into a box under the table in front of her and pulled out a large binder, opening it to show him before handing it to him. "Everyone who checked in with us is listed alphabetically, last names first," she said, "except for the most recent ones." She pointed to two loose pieces of paper in the front, full of names listed randomly. "We're doing our best to get them all into the database, but all we can do is print another copy every time the list is updated, and this is the latest version."
Connor thanked her and turned to find a place to study the names, stopped only by her sudden question, "Is anyone looking for you?"
He looked back. She was holding out a clipboard with a pen, clearly indicating that he should sign in. He shook his head. "I don't think so. I'm not from around here." Fortunately, that didn't spark any questions about where he was from. He wasn't sure he really knew.
The room had a handful of round tables encircled by folding chairs, all of them occupied by people poring over documentation or talking to each other. There was one table that seated just one person, a girl about his age, and Connor headed for it immediately, not only because she was a redhead but because it was good to see he wasn't the only one who was taking this on by himself. She glanced up and nodded when he asked permission to join her, then went back to reading from the binder in front of her, identical to his.
Connor wasn't a detective. When it came right down to it, his only real plan had been to get as close as possible to ground zero and see if any enlightenment came of it. White sheets of paper covered in an endless stream of unfamiliar names and phone numbers had not been what he expected. And he really had to stop thinking that way. He sighed and searched his memory—both of his memories—for people who might be listed.
Wesley Wyndham-Pryce wasn't there. Cordelia Chase…no. She had been dead before he was even reintroduced to his past with her and the others. He closed his eyes, reliving the sensation of her body moving beneath him, and tried to mourn. It didn't work. It never did. He returned his attention to the list of survivors and flipped to 'G' for Charles Gunn. This could be a real lead if he could find him…but again, unlisted. He felt a triumphant prick of excitement when the last name 'Burkle' popped into his head, until he remembered that she was the one who had become the god-woman, Illyria.
Connor skimmed the two pages of non-alphabetized names, and then, feeling stupid, checked under 'A'. Nobody there with less than two names. He sat back and rubbed his temples.
After a few moments of idly scanning the room in search of inspiration for his next step, he redirected his gaze to the girl sitting across from him. She was still absorbed in her own search and hadn't said anything, but she was easier on the eyes than anything else in the vicinity, and he was interested in her steely look of concentration as she ran her fingers down each column of names and then flipped the page. He wondered what her story could be. A sad one, probably, if she was here by herself. But then, the same could have been said of him, and he didn't think he was such a sad story. Just a confusing one.
He had watched her turn at least three pages before he realized what it was about the action that was really fascinating him. Her hand was gliding over the binder in a natural arc, but the paper wasn't touching it. There was a thin line of space between the page and her fingers every time, noticeable only because of his angle and proximity, and as far as he knew, completely impossible. Baffled into silence, he stayed still and waited for the spectacle to repeat.
"This is bull," she said suddenly, looking up without warning. She clearly wasn't expecting him to already be staring at her—why would she be?—and the shock of being discovered so abruptly almost made him fall out of his chair. He smiled wanly as he righted himself, wondering if it was possible to get a miniature version of the spell that had changed everyone's memories regarding his past. One that erased those last few seconds would do just fine.
However, she seemed to think that she was the one at fault, as evidenced by her slight blush and dropped eyes as she muttered, "Sorry." Connor didn't even have a chance to deflect the apology before she looked right back up and continued in her original indignant tone, "It is, though. I mean, what are you getting out of this? Anything?"
"Not really," he admitted. "But I'm not really sure what I'm looking for."
"My point exactly. Nobody is. So we've got lists of survivors—great. Does anyone in this place have some real explanation on what actually happened? How much more vague can the news get? I mean, I don't think they've even decided if they want to call it a natural disaster or an act of terrorism."
Connor nodded slowly, re-evaluating the girl's purpose here. If she was grieving for lost loved ones, she was certainly being stoic about it. "Natural disaster," he replied. "At least, that's where it's leaning in the recent stories. I think they'd prefer terrorism, but they can't find anyone to pin it on."
"Yeah? Well, that's progress. I guess. Maybe."
He found himself grinning, not so much in pleasure or amusement as in defense against the absurdity of the situation. "No, you know what's progress? Yesterday I read an article that used the word 'dragon' without putting it in quotation marks."
That squeezed a grin out of her too, but she was clearly serious and wanted him to know it. "Read anything about Wolfram & Hart? I mean, anything that makes the oh-so-radical connection between every branch in the world shutting down and LA going insane on the very same day?"
He gaped at her. Of course there was a connection; he might have known more about it than most, but any fool could make the logical leap. Nobody was talking about it, clearly not wanting to be the conspiracy theorists during these troubled times, and it was driving Connor crazy. But he hadn't been speaking to this inexplicably talented stranger for five minutes and she was already dropping the former law firm into the conversation with casual ease. All he could think to say was, "You know about Wolfram & Hart?"
"Yeah, I was kind of a project there for a while." She put a wry note to the words, but didn't meet his eyes. "Got straightened out, though. What about you? Demon protégée? Teen avenger? Just politically well-informed?"
Connor restrained himself from answering too quickly. He didn't actually know anything about her yet, he reminded himself, and there could still be supernatural dangers waiting for him. Hell, there could be anything waiting for him, damned if he knew. "Straightened out of what?" he asked. "I mean, just so we're clear, you know they're evil, right?"
"Yeah. Got that memo." She paused, and they sized each other up for a moment. Her bright hair was the perfect frame for the bold look in her eyes; she seemed like someone who was habitually unafraid, not because she was innocent of the hardships in life but because she knew she could take care of herself. Finally she sighed and pointed to a pen she had left lying in the middle of the table.
As soon as Connor glanced that way, the pen jumped off of the surface, apparently of its own volition, and in the blink of an eye it flew into its owner's hand. She let go of it again and let it hang in the air, between their bodies so that it wouldn't be obvious to anyone else in the room. After completing a few gravity-defying spins and twirls, the pen hopped into her front pocket and was still. Connor had half expected her to finish the display by sending it into his open mouth.
"Looks like fun, right?" she said. "Thank the god of your choice you didn't meet me when I had a little less control than this. Fun didn't enter it. The lawyer people, they knew what I could do, but they thought they could make a tool out of me. Just something they do to people, I guess. But I got help from someone else, so…lawyer-free, here."
Connor stared at her face, then at the pen in her pocket. Then he realized that that made him appear to be staring at her breasts, so he looked back up at her face. "I'm invulnerable," he blurted.
She propped her chin up on her hand and looked him over wordlessly, making it even harder to find the right words to complete the thought. "Not totally invulnerable," he stammered, "but I was hit by this van, and I didn't get hurt, and then later, well, I have super strength too. And my senses are better than, I mean, I don't want to brag, it's just…that twirly pen thing you just did! I have powers too!" He winced internally as his little monologue collapsed to a halt. She was going to think he was a supernatural poser.
"How's that working out for you?" she asked.
"You believe me?"
She shrugged. "Why shouldn't I?"
He could think of a lot of reasons she shouldn't, but he wasn't about to look this particular gift horse in its mouth. "Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Immediately?"
The question didn't seem to surprise her, but she shook her head. "Not immediately, anyway. I'm not done here." She gestured at the binder still open in front of her.
"Oh. Right." He frowned. "Who are you looking for?"
"I'm looking for the guy who helped me. You?"
Connor ran a hand through his hair, wondering how long it was going to take to answer that question, and also wondering if the guy who had helped her was going to beat him to buying her a cup of coffee. "I'm looking for my father," he said finally. "Or one of them, anyway."
There was no turning back after he had said that much. He started by giving her the bare bones of the story, but it seemed that every facet of his life required additional explanation before the whole of it could be understood. She asked the right questions to make it cohesive but said little else, and he managed to successfully wrestle his way through his first-ever experience with complete divulgence about his lineage.
"So you were there that day," she said when he had reached a tentative stopping point. "You fought with him?"
"Just a little. He asked me to leave, and…" And he had left. There was nothing to add to that. "You think I should have stayed? I must sound like a complete pussy to you. I probably should have stayed."
She giggled, a sound too childlike to be mocking. "Let go the conclusions, yeah? I don't think you're a pussy. I just wanted to know if you knew anything about this whole ultimate destruction battle day that you weren't saying."
"Oh." He appreciated that she was trying to clear his conscience, but he couldn't move on just yet. There had been too many days of retrospect, reviewing the choice he had made after hearing the doomed vampire's plea. He wanted to try to justify it to her, just to have someone else who could judge him. "I couldn't stay. If I did, I might have helped a little, but I couldn't have saved his life and I couldn't have saved my own. He knew it was the end. He made the end. All those years he spent hiding who he was and what he was doing, and then one day, he just decides to put it all out in the open and fight the enemy right in the middle of the city—that's a kiss goodbye if I ever saw one." Connor paused, suddenly aware that his voice had become rapid and grim. His audience of one was respectfully attentive, waiting. He continued: "By the time I saw him, everything was laid bare. He couldn't have lied to me if he tried. There was only one thing he wanted, and that was for me to survive.
"So what was I going to do then? How do you tell yourself that picking up the heroism gig just in time to die for it is more important than giving a real hero his last wish?"
There was a silence. Connor didn't know if he had justified the choice. The judge's only real reaction was to meet his eyes solemnly and give a small nod. It was finally off his chest, though, and he was ready to let it release him when she said, "You really think he's gone?"
"I don't see any other possibility," he replied, wishing the words wouldn't sound as defeated as they felt.
She nodded again, then closed her binder decisively and stood up, pushing her chair out from the table. "Come on. You've got connections, let's see if we can follow them to some real answers. There has to be some trace left of your superhero vampire dad."
Connor was taken aback, but he got to his feet, ready to follow. "I thought you wanted to find the guy who helped you."
"I do. It's the same guy." Without giving him a chance to react, she shifted the binder to one arm and held out the other. "I'm Bethany."
"Wow." A smile rushed his face like a mugger, and he shook her hand. "Connor. Hi, Bethany."