And Your Enemies Closer
(the 'Ten Things Connor Learned About Fred' Remix)
Copyright April 2012
Disclaimer: Characters from Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
This story is a remix (done for Remix Madness 2012) of "Summertime Blues", by Selena.
Connor had to stay with them, with Fred and Gunn, for after he and Justine had succeeded in entombing his birth father for the murder (among so many others) of his true father, Justine had disappeared. She did that, too often, going missing for days while she sought out liquor and reckless solo combat and he knew not what other unwholesome diversions. This time, however, she did not return … and, as he quickly learned, she had left the rent in her small apartment too long unpaid while the two of them planned the details of their shared vengeance, so that he came back one day to find a new lock on the door and, once he had effected entry regardless, her possessions removed. (To storage, in fact, though he did not know that and assumed they had simply been stolen.)
He had survived under far more harsh conditions than homelessness in Los Angeles, but the absence of either companionship or purpose weighed on him with greater keenness than any other deprivation. So, telling himself he was only reconnoitering to be sure they did not suspect, that they had no trail to follow which might allow them to find and salvage his hellish father from that eternal underwater prison, Connor returned to the Hyperion.
And stayed, for there was purpose even in the pretense, and accompanying Gunn and Fred in the hunt for their missing leader (and teammate; Connor truly did wonder what had become of Cordelia, and truly did work to find some clue as to the cause of her disappearance), offered plentiful opportunity to kill others of Angelus's ilk. Which, to their credit, the other two embraced with a brisk professionalism of which Holtz would certainly have approved.
In the shared purpose, in the search and the preparations for battle, Connor found camaraderie, and understanding, and a familiarity and even grudging affection for these two who were so earnestly dedicated to doing good, however inexcusably they had allowed themselves to be deceived by the smiling demon they had accepted as leader. They were slow and weak and far too lacking in the necessary ruthlessness, but they were also courageous and true-hearted, and Connor increasingly reproached himself for his weakness in regretting the hidden wall he had built between himself and them by the secret he kept.
More and more, however, he found himself studying Fred. Gunn was worthy of respect, but relatively easy to understand, for he had Hotz's determination and will without the complexity that had kept Connor's true father always something of a mystery to him. Fred, on the other hand, seemed always capable of revealing something new and unexpected, and in the weeks and then months that passed while the search continued, Connor began to watch for and list the revelations with curiosity, and then interest, and finally eagerness and carefully masked delight.
– one –
She was extremely intelligent.
No, more than that: she was smart. Holtz had respected education, but spoken long and often about the difference between intellect and wisdom. Fred's intellect was obvious and unmistakable, but in her speech she continually went on such endless and seemingly disconnected tangents, it was easy to dismiss her as impractical or even scatterbrained. She was not. You had to learn to think in certain ways to have any hope of understanding her, but the truth was that her mind habitually embraced so many different levels, simultaneously, that her tongue — and her listeners — had difficulty following the entirety of her thoughts. To the extent that understanding was possible, however, those thoughts seemed always to be on point, sometimes disturbingly so. Fred was intelligent and smart.
(She had not, however, been enough of either to realize how Angelus had used her, and Gunn and Cordelia, to cover and facilitate his own depredations. Even practically focused intellect, then, provided no reliable immunity against blindness to the obvious.)
– two –
She was strong.
The very thought seemed ridiculous on first consideration; Connor could easily have snapped her neck with one hand that had three broken fingers. She was almost exactly the same height as he was, but where he was whipcord lean, Fred was frankly wispy. Her endurance was remarkable, however: not only in how long she could keep going under duress, but in how easily and cheerfully she would pop up again at dawn, ready to embrace whatever the new day brought, regardless of how brutally their mission had tested her the night before. And, though she looked as if she might cripple herself even trying to lift a sword, once the fuel tanks for a flamethrower were strapped to her back and a goal was in sight, she would forge ahead as nimbly as if wearing nothing more cumbersome than a shawl.
It was not strength as Connor had ever understood it, but that did not mean it was not there in her. Yet one more of many, many seeming contradictions.
In the city that was now his home were no warriors worthy of his mettle, but Connor found himself suspecting that, in the 'Texas' that had birthed this woman, there might be some sufficiently formidable that he would enjoy matching himself against them.
– three –
Her appetite clearly had a supernatural aspect to it.
In Quor'toth, the rules regarding food had been simple. You ate when you could; when food was available, you ate all you could; when food could not be found, you did without until you could change that situation. In the normal order of things, there was little middle ground between 'gorge' and 'starve'.
Fred always looked as if she was starving … but, blessed suffering Jesu, how that woman could eat!
Connor had on many occasions survived for days on what Fred ate for breakfast every morning. Her appetite at other meals was less ravenous, but almost as robust. Another puzzle: in this land of indecent plenty, there was such a surfeit of food that people would devote an almost religious dedication to designating what was 'healthy' and what somehow (this week) failed to qualify for that category; Fred, in contrast, blithely disregarded all such guidelines. She loved all food, but seemed to flourish on — and prefer — what was generally dismissed as 'junk food'. (Did these people deliberately shape their language to not match reality? any food that was not poisonous, was food … and sometimes even a certain amount of poison could be tolerated, for a time and if no alternative was available.) 'Junk', in this sense, had no meaning.
Particularly not for a woman who could happily subsist on chimichanga omelets, blueberry pancakes, hot dogs-chilidogs, cheese fries, street-grilled bratwurst, pretzels large enough (though too flimsy) to use as shackles, peppers of searing intensity (Connor could endure them without showing pain, but Fred enjoyed them), pineapple-jalapeño-anchovy pizza, kimchi by the gallon, and a bewildering variety of the overarching venue called 'tacos'. It was not beyond comprehension that her body could burn through such a load on a regular basis; Connor had known several types of creature, not all of them demonic — klathwaer, for instance — that daily consumed more than their own weight. The astonishing thing was that such a rampant metabolism had not killed her through starvation within a week of her arrival in Pylea. Somehow, against all likelihood, her system must have made the adjustment … and quickly.
Extremes were one thing. When you observed someone who could reach either extreme, and apparently with ease, that called for attention.
Which led to the next thing:
– four –
She was a survivor.
This took considerable time to recognize, for the awareness trickled in by a number of different paths, and the thread that connected them all was not immediately apparent at first. Connor had been able to see aspects of this attribute, but failed to grasp the central meaning of it until the comparisons between her time in Pylea, and his in Quor'toth, became too numerous to ignore.
Until returning to Los Angeles, he had never known anything other than hunger, danger, pain, privation, endless vigilance, the eternally shifting razor-balance that separated hunter from prey. That was his baseline, as Fred would have said in speaking of a comparison experiment. The accrued lessons of a lifetime had honed him into a pitiless predator, a weapon, the thing that the most dangerous creatures of a continent had called "the Destroyer". (On one of the 'nostalgia' channels at the Hyperion, Connor had seen depictions of a warrior about whom it was sung that he had "kilt him a b'ar when he was only three". On establishing what a "b'ar" — bear — actually was, Connor had been impressed, for he had been more than eight years old before killing anything so dangerous without aid from his father. Then he had learned that the song was one more example of the strings of lies that these people called 'hyperbole'.)
On the other hand, Connor had been inured to an unrelentingly harsh life from earliest memory, and for the first years Holtz had been there to protect and teach and guide him … and Holtz had broken his own body, if not his will, in the task of shielding his son until Connor was old enough to take responsibility for the greater portion of scouting and fighting and hunting for them both.
Fred, by contrast, had been reared in ease, in sloth, and then been catapulted unprepared into Pylea with no warning or protector. Terrified, untrained, unready, she had survived. By fleeing, and hiding, and stealth, and theft, all of which made it possible to underestimate her. But she had survived, and rallied to save Angelus (fool!) at significant risk to her own safety. Granted, her mind had come close to breaking under the ordeal … but 'close' was another way of saying it had not happened.
The small, helpless things that hid and fled were survivors, too, and it was easy and tempting to apply such a reassuring, dismissive designation to Fred.
Easy. Tempting. And dangerously mistaken. Because …
– five –
She was a committed and deadly fighter.
This was so incredible that, had Connor not spent his entire life unflinchingly looking at things as they were, and not accepting the deadly lure of first appearances, he would have been able to overlook and deny it. He had almost done so, actually, in the beginning, for much of what made this so was subtle and difficult to detect and recognize.
Her dedication was not simply a theoretical or general matter devoted to the concept of the mission; in every fight, she was there in each decision and act and call of warning or for support. Her seemingly negligible strength was utterly focused to the necessity of every pivotal moment, and that lightning brain apparently could track and choose from innumerable possible choices to apply the one that was best for the immediate instance.
It went deeper than that, however, and the truth was so simple as to be nearly indiscernible, and so astonishing that one had almost to force the unwilling brain to accept it.
In every combat exchange, there was one approach that would serve best. At the beginning of each action, even before the action began or the need for it could be seen, there was one position that would confer the greatest potential benefit. In every change of direction or focus or intent or tactics, there was one corresponding action that would bring a distinct and often decisive advantage. And the one central feature about all these things was that they could not be known or chosen in advance. As a fighter, you made the best use of everything you had and knew and could see, but some things could not be seen until they began.
In every such case, Fred was already there.
If there were three corridors through which an enemy could attack, Fred would be oriented toward the correct one and with the strongest wall at her back. If a vampire stepped in and swung high, she was already dropping and striking low. If a Kosh'tscho demon needed to get in close to use its foreclaws, it would first have to get around the parking meter that had somehow found itself between the two of them before the demon had turned toward her.
Connor's senses were significantly more advanced than those of any human. He knew, he could see that Fred was not anticipating these attacks or making the advantageous choices deliberately. She just somehow, always, seemed to be in the exact right place or doing the exact right thing at the exact right moment. Blind, stupefying good luck.
Every. Single. Time.
Connor did not fear her. His strength, his speed and skill and ruthlessness and agility, were beyond anything she could possibly match or for which she could compensate by any conceivable artifice. But he determined that, if ever it became necessary for him to contest with her, he would not in any way allow himself the error of presuming that he had the advantage.
– six –
She took joy wherever she could find it.
She loved food. She loved knowledge. She loved the people around her. She loved preparing for a fight, and relaxing after it. She loved explaining to him the choices available in a coffee shop. She loved sappy late-night television. ("Sappy" was a term Connor had considerable difficulty in understanding, though Fred had devoted a great deal of effort to defining it. Ultimately Connor had decided that, if Fred enjoyed watching it and Gunn enjoyed watching Fred watch it, it qualified as sappy.)
One night, the three of them went searching through one of Los Angeles's many dance clubs, in hope of finding some vampire or another who might be able to offer a clue regarding what had happened to Angelus and Cordelia. (Fred and Gunn still assumed that the two disappearances sprang from the same cause. If anyone knew Angelus's fate, Connor wanted the opportunity to kill that individual before he, or she, could speak; if anyone knew Cordelia's, Connor was fiercely determined not to allow any escape before he had heard the story.) Unfortunately, not only were no helpful informants present, there seemed to be no vampires at all in attendance. Rather than move on to some hunting spot of greater promise, however, or return to the Hyperion for further and perhaps more productive planning, the other two decided to fall in with those dancing.
And, unexpectedly, they were not good at all. They could fight together like a flawless ballet (Connor had watched ballet on television once, at Gunn's insistence; while approving the precision of movement, he found every other part of it boring, annoying, incomprehensible, or all three), but on the dance floor they had trouble maintaining the same rhythm, moving without bumping into other dancers or each other, even — it truly appeared — hearing and responding to the same music. Perhaps it was because they were both laughing so hard.
Connor did not see any humor in the situation. Levity, perhaps, simple good spirits; that would be understandable, even if the source of levity was likewise impossible for him to make out. Clearly apparent, however, was the genuine, unforced pleasure Fred drew from what had been a meaningless indulgence in pointless activity. Even if he could not understand it, Connor would endure much to see her smile again in such a way.
The odds were high that, eventually, Connor would have to fight them or leave them behind. He was prepared to do whatever had to be done. And he knew that, should such a time come, he would deeply miss that smile.
– seven –
In any card game, of any kind, she was a vicious, relentless predator.
While Connor saw little purpose in games that had no physical component, he understood the value of anything that sharpened focus and concentration and nimbleness of mind … and, besides, would give at least one chance to anything that Fred enjoyed. Against his expectations, it turned out that it was Gunn, not Fred, who provided the most entertainment. Gunn loved her, that much was well established, but he was a proud competitor and a seething and graceless loser, while Fred …
Fred was lethal.
Five-Card Stud, Seven-Card Stud, Razz Poker, Omaha Poker, Three-Card Poker, Texas Hold 'em, Horse, Pai Gow, Let It Ride, Montana Red Dog … regardless of the game, the result was the same. Fred could master the rules as quickly as they were explained (more quickly, sometimes), formulate and apply intricate strategies on the fly, shift approaches at will, remember every card that fell — in the current game or any preceding — and unfailingly detect and interpret and destroy any attempt at a bluff. Connor's concentration was better than Gunn's, his instincts not as good (not for poker, at least), but more and more he found himself playing not to win but to facilitate the next disaster Fred would wreak on the both of them. Gentle and loving and supportive everywhere except in battle, Fred saw this as battle, and was not only incomparably skilled, but utterly merciless.
Connor was certain that the veins in Gunn's head would not actually explode from the clash between his hatred of losing and his determination not to scream at the happily gloating victor sitting across the table. But it was always fun to watch and see if he would be proved wrong.
And when, in desperation, Gunn persuaded them to switch to pinochle … oh, it just got worse.
Or, depending on one's viewpoint, so much better.
– eight –
He had not fully recognized it at the time, but she could easily have attributed his resistance to toothpaste (or any hygiene product, for that matter) to slovenliness or rebellion. Connor knew himself to be stubborn — his father had encouraged the trait in some matters, beaten it out of him in others, and striven ceaselessly to be sure he understood the difference between the two categories — and knew he had resisted many well-meaning suggestions from sheer contrariness. Fred merely asked, "Why not?" when he refused her latest offering (while he loved the unspeakable luxury of showers, he flatly vetoed the use of soap), and paid attention when he explained how too many conflicting odors overpowered his ability to discern subtle differences in scent when he was on the hunt. Then she took him on an expedition to acquire and test different soap/shampoo products until they found a few that would meet her purposes without hindering his, and her innocent pleasure in this new set of discoveries removed any annoyance her insistence might have engendered.
She got him to use the toothpaste, too. Long-term planning, she called it. He did not understand what she meant by that, and did not really care. He simply did it to please her.
In some things, listening and paying attention were not enough. That was why, though Connor could deal with pretending to help them search for Angelus, he did not like to talk about how his feelings for his two fathers compared and contrasted. She was coming from a perspective too alien from his for any common ground to be possible, so generally he did not speak of the matter on his own and evaded it when she tried to address it.
The thing that brought them closest to unbridgeable conflict, however, was the movie Dances With Wolves. Explanations of context and cultural legitimacy and the primacy of the individual conscience had no meaning for Connor; to him, the reality of the situation was clear, which was that Dunbar had forsaken his own people, not only subsuming his identity and values to those of the tribe he joined, but renouncing his oaths of allegiance and aiding that tribe in war against those he was pledged to serve. Preference did not replace loyalty; sentiment could never justify treachery; duty always, always took precedence over personal desires.
He tried, again and again, to explain. She listened, but she could not understand. Somehow, this made the gulf between them greater than if she had simply dismissed his arguments without consideration.
– nine –
She could. Not. Cook.
Not even Gunn's devotion to her was enough to make him pretend otherwise. Connor might have done so (once again, some tolerance for poisons) but, though he was capable of subterfuge when the situation demanded it, he disliked lying to Fred when it could be avoided. Fortunately, none of her sense of esteem depended on this particular talent, and she accepted Gunn's theatrical groans and Connor's hasty demurrals with good humor. (It did raise serious question as to how she had failed to kill herself with her own cooking in Pylea. Perhaps, like some creatures, she was immune to the toxins she herself produced.)
In time it was established that, with reasonable care, she could do a decent job with microwave popcorn.
– ten –
She cried sometimes, but never from weakness.
Nor ever where he could see, or where he should have been able to hear. Connor was fairly certain that Gunn did not know, because Gunn was hampered by only human hearing. Connor thought he understood. Rightly or not, she equated Angelus's goodness with the good he had done for her by bringing her out of a reality that would never have been anything to her but alien and hostile: Angelus saved her, therefore Angelus was a savior. In solitude she wept for him (which was obscene), and probably for Cordelia as well (far more justifiable, but Connor suspected that her sorrow there, while real, was not as great), and this grief was painful to her so she chose not to share it.
It was wrong. She should have been able to see the truth of what Angelus was. That she could not, that she seemed almost to prefer her blindness, was a wrong that Connor did not believe he could ever quite forgive her.
Still, he did not like to hear her cry. When it happened, he would go hunting on his own, and those vampires he found suffered terribly before being returned at last to their constituent dust.
~ – ~ – ~
Connor watched, and noted and thought about what he saw, and used it all to build a growing composite picture of the totality of Fred Burkle.
And, when she pressed the stun-gun against his chest and triggered the charge, when Connor's muscles convulsed under the force of a current too enormous even for the Destroyer to overcome, he discovered yet another thing:
There was always something more to be learned about Fred.
And, the moment you forgot that, you were lost.