Disclaimer: Please see Part 1, Chapter 1

SHADOWED SOULS Part 2

Chapter 1

"Would you like another soda?"

Dawn's head snapped up so fast she nearly pulled a muscle at the quiet, familiar voice behind her. Swivelling around on the bar stool, she looked straight into a pair of twinkling, cornflower-blue eyes:"Connor!"

"Hi." Connor slid on the empty bar stool next to her, as most people in here were dancing to the band, surprisingly good for a teenage hangout, if a little too urban gothic for Connor's personal taste.

Aware she was rivalling the Cheshire Cat with her grin, Dawn mentally strove for a cooler façade - and found it as the uncomfortable thought occurred that if Connor had followed her up here, then she now had her second consecutive stalker 'boyfriend'. The wattage in her return smile dimmed slightly as her twice-singed romantic yearnings battled her happy hormones. "Hi, yourself. Are you on vacation?"

"No I just started here this semester. I'm a freshman over at Morton Hall."

"You're going to college here?" Dawn again battled a simultaneous urge to jump up and cheer but also to make sure she could reach the pepper spray in her purse.

"Yeah," Connor looked her right in the eyes, his expression telling her exactly who was responsible for his decision to switch to UC Sunnydale. "About that soda?"

"Uh, yeah, thanks." Despite the intensity of Connor's look, something inside her unclenched, at least a little. Neither RJ-turned-out-to-be-a-vampire nor Stefan-turned-out-to-be-a-demon-hitman, had ever held her gaze for longer than a second before their eyes slid away. Connor was making no excuses about his reason for being here but neither was he giving off any really creepy signals; his eye-contact was direct but not over-long into discomforting psycho-staring.

"So what's this place like?" Connor asked as he gave the order to the barman.

"It's okay..." Dawn conceded.

"...but it's not The Bronze."

"How do you know about The Bronze?" Dawn spoke more sharply than she intended; her own unfortunate experience with her first two boyfriends and Fallon Mady's tragic death had made everyone jittery, looking for ulterior motives and double-meanings in everything said.

Connor rolled his eyes in that inimitable way only people aged thirteen to nineteen an manage to pull off. "It's all I've heard since I've been here. Everyone makes it sound like The Bronze was a cross between Woodstock and Live Aid."

Dawn grinned. "A lot of stuff went down at The Bronze. Defining moments, you know?"

Connor raised an eyebrow sceptically, listening attentively as Dawn began to regale him with some obviously-intended 'I'll show you buster' outrageous tales of The Bronze, and making sure his face betrayed only keen interest. In fact he did know, because he had made it his business to find out. There was very little you couldn't find on the Internet these days or in books - if you knew what sites to surf and what books to look in.

Bad Tan's retro-attempt to stake 'Spike' rather than shoot him like any sane 21st Century scumbag – modern criminals not being known for either their in-depth knowledge or fandom of pre-firearm murder methods - led one to a certain inescapable conclusion; a conclusion reinforced when Connor did a little digging on Wolfram & Hart after seeing Spike and Dawn enter the powerful law firm's building, at which point he discovered that the entire place had been constructed from roof to basement with something called necrotempered glass. Necrotempered glass, according to mystically oriented websites and literature, was designed solely to enable demonic entities to whom sunlight was fatal to be able to move about in daylight. A website called Demons, Demons, Demons had listed the small number of sunlight-intolerant species 'common to this dimension' (which was a brain-hurting thought for another day), and top of the list was 'vampire', natch.

To say that the Demons, Demons, Demons website had been a revelation was - well, it was like Connor's entire belief system being hit head-on by a Mack truck. If even less than ten percent of what the website stated as fact was actually true, everything Connor thought he knew about 'reality' was only good to be shredded into confetti and flushed down the toilet.

The website had many hits a day, the vast majority of visitors, Connor realised, not believing a single word of it; already brighter than most, Connor had quickly been able to recognise what in Politically Correct terms would be called 'the practitioners'. They disguised their web postings and emails with the jargon of the ordinary visitors, but Connor had quickly clocked the subtle phrasings, word structure and maturity of writing that showed those ones knew what they were doing, using the website's garish, 1950s B-Movie design to disguise that it was real, like a woman who disguised a priceless diamond by making it 'just one amongst many' on a necklace of obviously worthless glass beads.

Then he had found the Watcher Diaries website; the connection between Rupert Giles's 'Buffy Summers' and Dawn had been obvious, as, to Connor, had been the sections where Giles must have edited and censored text. Much of what Connor guessed to be the really sensational stuff had, understandably, been expurgated from the online version of the Diaries that dealt with a still-living Slayer.

After that, it was a piece of cake to get the low down on Sunnydale. When the original Spanish settlers came, they named the place 'vale of the sun', Sunnydale, which was still its official name, but despite the derision of the Alcalde and other local prominent citizens, the ordinary Spaniards had soon begun using the indigenous Chumash Indian description of the area as a spirit gateway to evil, or Boca del Inferno: Hell Mouth. The ancestors of the current Sunnydale population had arrived a few years later, perpetrating against the Spanish the same genocide they had previously used to exterminate the Chumash, but the new English Protestants also came to believe the Spanish name, which they rendered Hellmouth.

As far as Connor had been able to ascertain, the residents of Sunnydale collectively epitomised the cliché, 'there are none so blind as those that don't want to see.' The entire population, including the Police Department, Fire Service and Sunnydale Memorial Hospital, had seemed to live in sort of wilful denial while at the same time keeping a weather eye on their resident Slayer, Buffy Summers. The entire graduating student body of 1999 - with families and local dignitaries present - had ended up battling a gigantic snake ten storeys high, yet the population had remained remarkably untraumatised.

What had actually solidified Connor's determination to come to Sunnydale into adamantine immovability was the fact that several months ago Sunnydale had made it into Ripley's Believe It Or Not when the whole population of 32,000 plus residents took their summer vacation at the same time. Virtually the entire town had packed up and gone to the mountains or the coast or for the skiing on the same day. What Believe It Or Not did not mention, however, was that they had taken everything with them; houses had been stripped of furniture, fixtures, fittings and all valuables; all Sunnydale banks denuded of cash.

That had happened a week to the day before an extraordinarily violent but localised earthquake had sent the town to the bottom of a crater, meaning that the death toll in the disaster had barely reached double figures. After several months of the populace wrangling with the state authorities over compensation and relocation, Buffy Summers and her sister had returned from a lengthy sojourn in Rome to set up home in an old rambling house that had survived the disaster, where they were rapidly joined by a seemingly ever-increasing number of children, teenagers and twenty-somethings, whose common denominator was that they were all female. The displaced population of Sunnydale began to rebuild the town, New Sunnydale, on the sides of the crater valley, in proximity to the 'Summers' place', or rather the work was actually being done by a local construction company operated by the Slayer's good buddy, Xander Harris, which Connor wasn't putting down to coincidence.

"...I'm sorry I had to leave so abruptly in LA." Dawn finally finished. "I had trouble with a guy – Stefan - things were getting a bit hairy."

"You mean Bad Tan?" Connor asked. Correctly interpreting her wary look, he went on, "I saw him at the Rosita Museum. I thought he looked like bad news."

Dawn looked embarrassed. "Oh yeah, in spades. I hate to say it 'cause it makes me sound sooo much the Drama Queen, but he was stalking me and -"

"Oh, that." Connor shrugged and took a sip of soda, smiling at her reassuringly. "Dawn, I come from Los Angeles. In the weird-and-wacky town that is LA, being stalked is practically a rite of passage for a girl. You know, Junior Prom, Senior Prom, My First Stalker-"

Dawn laughed, a light, lilting sound that hit Connor hard in the chest and slid down into his stomach; it was as if he had just taken a swallow of real hot chocolate, made with milk and pure cocoa, and just a splash of sweet liqueur like Amaretto. Then he sensed the underlying relief in Dawn's tone, and the slight widening of her eyes as if she was surprised by the sound of her own merriment, indicating that recently at least, she had had few occasions to laugh.

This is going to be one hell of a steep learning curve, Connor acknowledged as he smiled at Dawn Summers and resolutely ignored the snide voice that tagged on the proviso: assuming you survive it.

Continued in Part 2 – Chapter 2…

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