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The last days and nights in Los Angeles, free of prison but not yet free to leave the city, had been an eerie mixture of wandering through the past and getting ready for the future. He had gone back to the Hyperion, but he hadn't really slept there, not because of the memories but because after weeks of being locked up, walking and running and the free sky, even if it was the cool November sky, was more attractive. As was getting back to fighting demons and vampires; no lack of them in Los Angeles, never. He didn't have to hold back anymore, and though the familiar rush of the fight was followed by the equally familiar shame afterwards, the awareness that he was every bit as inhuman as the creatures he killed, it set him free.

Taking the bus, he reached the suburb where his family-that-wasn't had lived, and visited the cemetary he had done his best to stay away from. The urns with their ashes were hidden behind a stone slot, and there was no sense of anything human left. Nevertheless, he let his hand rest against the stone. Oddly enough, it wasn't the photos he thought of, the ones the detectives had shown him again and again in recent weeks, it was the first memory he was sure had been real, celebrating his graduation from high school in a joyful, messy family meal. It left him with a sense of fragile peace.

The other thing he did while in Los Angeles was waiting for something he had asked Philipp to sent to him from Savannah via Federal Express, and on Monday, it arrived, just in time for his departure for Gotham. On November 14th, it would be exactly one year since Connor had come to New York to live with Harry Osborn. While they had been in Egypt during the summer, he had found something that he knew he wanted to give Harry to honour that day, though the prospect made him nervous in a way even the Beast had not. Perhaps it was too much, or altogether the wrong gesture. But he couldn't imagine not doing it, either.

Harry wasn't the only one he had a gift for. As it seemed he would have to be an uninvited guest at St. Bruce's manor for a few days, Connor figured a gesture of gratitude was in order. The problem with millionaires was, of course, that they could buy themselves pretty much everything they wanted, and if you didn't particularly like them, you had no idea about their personal tastes which made a handmade gift equally impossible. Besides, presenting Bruce Wayne with a weapon would probably be seen as a threat instead of a peace overture. This left Connor with an appeal to St. Bruce's sense of humour, a visit to Chinatown and the aquisition of a bag of grasshoppers in eatable, i.e. frozen form.

All in all, he left Los Angeles for Gotham with even less luggage than he had arrived in New York with. The jeans and shirt he had worn when they arrested him in Savannah and which had been given back to him upon his release, the things he had had with him on that day, including the few items he always carried around, such as Daniel Holtz' letter and Harry's first gift, the silver flask with the Larkin poem, the grasshoppers for Bruce Wayne and the item that mixed the joy and expectation at the prospect of seeing Harry again with alternating embarassment and hope. He held it in his hand during the journey, freed of the small Egyptian box made of sandalwood it would be in once he presented it, and felt it grow warm, absorbing his body heat. Connor looked at it, and suddenly was sure it was wrong. Too old fashioned, too melodramatic, too -

Then he remembered the letter Harry had written to him, and it seemed right again. To hell with second thoughts. This was his anniversary present, and yes, he meant every implication of it as well.

In his left hand lay a simple silver ring.
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Two days in Boston, and the oddness of living with both of his parents at the same time hasn’t lessened. It reminds him of swimming in cold water. The water carries you, and flows everywhere around you, it makes you believe that you belong to it in a way you do not belong on land, and it nourishes you. But you still know it can’t last. You have get out sooner or later, or you drown.

So far, Connor has avoided arguments. He has managed to say what he wanted to say to Angel, and he is glad about it. But after the second breakfeast and Darla looking at him with her too familiar eyes while she asks Angel something, or rather starts and then stops, and Connor finishes her sentence without a thought, he knows he has to get out soon, or he won’t be able to any more. They are his parents, all the parents he has left; he has accepted that now. They just can’t be his life.

Emily was supposed to be his life, or at least the next twenty years of it, and she’s gone. So are Mom and Dad and Mere, but apparantly Connor Riley is not, because Connor finds himself missing Stanford when that Spike guy shows up with a few pointed quotes from some Victorian tripe about faithless lovers until Angel snaps at him. Which would have been unnecessary. Connor doesn’t know Spike, and consequently, Spike’s opinion doesn’t really affect him. But the quotes which he can’t identify – because sure, some of the Victorians were bad, but did someone actually publish that stuff? – remind him he used to enjoy his English literature classes. And the psychology classes. College in general. Back when he wanted more than demon fighting. Even further back when he didn’t want any demon fighting at all.

So Connor calls the TA of his favourite professor, mostly because it’s better than another round of wondering what Emily is doing right now in Reloin, and hears what he has already suspected: he has lost his place at Stanford. It’s been a minor miracle they didn’t chuck him out after all the absences last term due to travelling with Justine. His most recent flight did it. It shouldn’t matter, not with everything else that has happened, but somehow, it does.

“Look, I know your parents died,” the TA says. “They still haven’t caught the arsonist, right? Has to be brutal. But rules are rules. If I were you, I’d audit classes and try for readmission next term.”

“Thanks,” Connor replies, and hangs up. It’s amazing to think he could actually do that. Try and pick up his old life again. A part of it.

Then Harry's email arrives, and he wonders whom he was kidding. He’s not going to return to California. The realisation that he wants to finish college remains acute, though. New York has universities. He could try to get admitted there. His grades are still impressive enough.

A child laughs in the streets, and he’s back in Greece again, watching her become light. Go through the portal.

Following an impulse, he announces he’s going out, and predictably enough, Angel and Darla look at each other, and Angel obviously is on the verge of saying he’ll come along, but Darla puts her hand on his, and he refrains. It’s one of her more obvious strategems, a gesture of trust that demands repayment in the form of returning.

After walking for a while, Connor decides to visit Buffy Summers, both because he doesn’t think he thanked her back in the plane for her part in getting Emily to safety, and because she’s the only person here who could tell him how Justine is. She had promised to keep in touch with her, after all. Connor knows that sooner or later, he’ll contact Justine directly. The letter he had left her had been a goodbye, but he can’t let her believe he’s still wandering through the wilderness somewhere, trying to be a hermit or trying for an early death. Maybe by now, she won’t think of him as anything but a soldier who deserted his post anymore, but she needs to know he’s alive, and that his reasons for leaving are not the same as his reasons for not returning. He can’t stand the idea of her imagining him as some sort of suicidal martyr. Being despised as a deserter will be better. And he worries about her. With Buffy here, does she have anyone who could be her friend back in L.A.?

Because he’s thinking of Justine and Los Angeles, he first assumes what he sees when he turns around a corner is a trick of the imagination. Angel’s old car, the Plymouth, the one Angel had given him and which he has left behind together with everything else. Standing parked near a bar. But it’s still a coincidence, and so he walks over to check. The license plate is the same.

He doesn’t have time to think about the implication, though, because the door of the bar opens, and out in the cold November night, wearing clothes that are clearly more fit for California, comes Justine.

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abetterlie

July 2010

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