Carry On, My Wayward Son

 

Thanks as per usual to alwaysjbj for beta work and reassurance.

A quick A/N: the story is told in alternating POVs between Angel and his father. Spoilers present for AtS seasons 3 and 4, with two quotes borrowed from episodes 3.22, Tomorrow, and 4.1, Deep Down. Rated PG-13. Standard disclaimers (not mine, pose 'em like sometimes-porny action figures for fun and not for profit, Joss please don't come take my new iRiver) in full effect.

And now, on with the story:

 

Carry On, My Wayward Son

Angel found himself thinking of his father more and more often as he watched Connor sleep, watched tiny fists clench and unclench and little legs kick against invisible enemies. He wondered if his father had ever watched him like this, if he’d ever crept from the bed to watch his son toss and turn in his fitful infant slumber; if he ever counted tiny fingers and toes repeatedly, just to reassure himself of their reality; if he took comfort in the tiny sighs and lusty sobs, the placated murmurs and tearless wails, the scent and the softness of the plump delicate bundle, the utter trust implicit in the drooping of a sleepy little head onto his shoulder. He wondered if any of those things had made fatherhood real for him, had ever been as welcome as food or warmth… had ever been proof of his own reality, of his own, very mortal version of eternal life.

Angel had lived for centuries by now, recognized that eternity was, conceivably, his to know. His sense of his own permanence had been both blessing and curse in the years since his turning; he had relished it, resented it, and had spent much of the last several years of his life in the pursuit of Shanshu in order to do away with it once and for all. But despite all he knew of his own immortality, that uncomfortable but still-joyous facet of his existence, he had never truly felt it—down deep in his bones, running through his blood and into the depths of his soul—until he’d looked into the wide eyes of his wailing infant son in an alley.

He knew that his own birth had been a similar achievement for his father—he had certainly heard it often enough, in encouraging tones that seemed to fade all too quickly into venomous allegations as he grew from infant to youth to adolescent on the slow yet frighteningly swift road to manhood. He had been his father’s one chance at eternal life, at living long after his bones had turned to ash. A bittersweet irony, really, how well he’d followed through on that burden—though he knew as clearly now, just as he had when he’d walked from his family home in the last wanings of sunlight that he would see as a mortal, that he would never be able to make his father proud, to live up to the legacy in which he had been instructed since birth.

It was that surviving belief—that he was, in a sense, an everlasting disappointment—that colored every feeling, every thought he had about his father. Despite the guilt that he felt for the vengeance he had wrought upon his family, the bitterness he had felt on that final living day still rankled, ran deep. It was the reason that he had forced himself to give over such thoughts in the wake of the soul—before Connor’s birth had changed everything. Knowing how things had ended, he found it hard to believe that the tender moments he experienced with Connor had ever been a part of his relationship with his own father. In more rational moments, he knew, of course, that society had been different then; the expectations for fathers ran much more towards keeping their families housed, fed, and ‘respectable’—in moral, intellectual, and religious terms—than to the nurturing of children. The father’s was the hand of discipline, the voice of law.

And truthfully, discipline and law, moralizing and venom, were all that he could remember of his father anymore. Those memories were the reasons that he swore to himself that he would never tread that same path, that his hands would be loving and nurturing, his voice reassuring and wise. He would support and encourage, count digits and administer bottles, change diapers and read bedtime stories. He would be everything his father had not.

~*~*~*~*

He had always wanted a son.

Of course, fathering a son was practically a requirement for any lasting sort of success; this he knew, had internalized it since his own father had held him on his knee only long enough to convey the importance of his status as heir. Suitably impressed, he had taken the sacredness of his duty to the family name seriously indeed, had grown into a serious, sober young man who read thoroughly his Bible, attended mass, made regular confession and honored his elders. He had channeled his precocious nature into a pursuit of socially acceptable and financially rewarding knowledge, dedicating himself to the study of commerce, spending hours by the Galway docks to get a feel for the rhythm of the marketplace. His apprenticeship had been pursued with the same zeal that he had always applied to his scholarly and religious interests. In the end, all of his efforts had been given the greatest reward for which he had ever held hope: he had been handed the capital with which he’d begun his career as a merchant by a father beaming with pride and glowing with a glee that came only from having the highest of expectations met and met well.

The pride that he had always felt in himself for living up to his duty now transformed itself into pride for this tiny being in his arms—the son that he needed for societal reasons, yes, but for whom he had prayed for motives other than inheritance. He wanted to know the joy of watching his boy grow, watching him become strong of body and of mind; he wanted to beam proudly when his child was a success, was a boon to the family name. The babe in his arms would grow up strong—only days old, and already a strapping lad with a firm grip and a fine set of lungs. Handsome and well-formed, his boy was, and he was certain as he stared down into wide, alert eyes that there was a wisdom inside them that mirrored his own.

His son would make him proud, he thought with a smile as he lowered the child back into his mother’s arms for feeding. His Liam would be a fine young man.

~*~*~*~*

Angel didn’t think that anything could’ve hurt more than the forced installation of his soul, could’ve made him long to curl in on himself and surrender to the desperation and torments of his own heart and mind. He’d thought—as he huddled desolate in a ship bound for America, as he’d scrounged in alleys for rats enough to sustain him, as he hid himself away from the outside world as much as possible—that nothing could be worse than facing the blackness of his deeds, the agony of knowing that he was a nightmare in and of himself.

But then, he’d watched his son sucked into a hell dimension into which he couldn’t follow. Then he’d retreated into this room, and faced the blackness of charred walls and vacant infant furniture. Then he’d known torment unlike any he’d ever imagined possible.

Every hope, dream, fantasy, and ideal; every plan he’d made, looking down into bright, smiling eyes; every castle he’d built in the sky, the steps to which were paved with the miraculous, impossible existence of his beautiful boy… all of it vanished in mere moments, into the portal in Holtz’s wake. His son… his hope… his future… his reward… his treasure. Connor was lost to him.

Unable to think, to move, to speak, too far gone to feel anything but crushing, overwhelming grief, he made Connor’s room his own. He held the teddy bears that smelled like him beneath the smoke they’d absorbed, he sobbed into blankets in which he’d swaddled his son only hours before. He forced himself to continue, to still his hand as it reached to close around a piece of the splintered wood that surrounded him. He sat in the shell of a room and became a shell of himself as he slowly came to terms with all that would never, could never, be.

~*~*~*~*

He had been sitting on the unforgiving wood of the dinner bench since long before the morning light began to slowly brighten the sky from the ebony of night to the indigo of pre-dawn. He stared at the unadorned wood of the door, features frozen, body tense but mind roiling.

He had made his way to the sitting room moments after hearing Liam’s heavy step on the loose floorboard and the quiet scraping of the door being pulled firmly, if carefully, closed. For the first hours of his vigil, he had allowed himself the luxury of his reading chair, its padded seat and back offering comfort to a body upon which time was beginning its ravages. As his thoughts grew more tumultuous, as his disappointment and feelings of failure overwhelmed his concern, he had moved himself to the uncovered bench for the remainder of his wait. He would endure the torment of the merciless surface until Liam returned home, until his son could face the wrath burning in his chest, growing with the passing of every moment. He deserved no comfort—not if he had failed as a father to this extent, not if he had fathered a drunkard and a layabout and given to him the well-respected family name to drag into ruin.

The sky lightened further, even the most determined of the stars surrendering their positions as the creeping gold edged ever higher from the horizon. Shafts of light pierced the gloom of the main room, and a door opened behind him. He didn’t turn, never dropped his gaze from the door. “Stay in bed until I send for you. Your mistress knows that breakfast will be delayed.” The maid’s quailing, “yes, m’lord,” failed to register; he noted only the sound of her chamber door closing again, as it coincided with the slow opening creak of the surface upon which his eyes had been trained.

“’Tis nice of you to make your way homewards again, my son.” The fury he felt—for Liam’s failings and his own—colored his tone, made the words markedly vitriolic.

Liam’s face showed fear for far too brief of an instant before it resumed the air of disgusting self-assuredness to which it had been trained. “Well, then, Father. Wouldn’t want to worry ye unnecessarily, and my business has seen itself concluded. Seemed fitting to make my way back to the loving arms of family.”

“You will mind your words, Liam.” Voice calm, hands shaking, he stood, the action taking longer than he intended as his spine staged a rebellion against his heretofore harsh treatment of it.

“Now, Father,” Liam slurred, stepping further into the room. “You’re of an age where greeting the sun is no longer wise, unless you be greeting it upon waking. Leave the night to the lads, aye?”

The temerity of the words—the utter disrespect, so marked in contrast to the words he remembered uttering to his own elders, even in the face of the rare harsh rebuke—snapped the already-taut thread of control that he had managed to maintain. He poured his anger, his grief, his frustration, and his shame into the dive he took towards his son. Liam’s drunkenness and his fury made his success rather easier than he had predicted; the main door gave a resounding crash as Liam’s solid form was slammed against it, his father’s hands fisted in his sweat- and ale-soaked shirt and his face inches from Liam’s own flushed, inebriated one.

“You are a blight upon this family, Liam, and all that we have worked hard to become. Do ye think so little of your mother, of your name, of me that ye care not what our friends and neighbors say in the streets?”

“They’ll say what they like,” Liam shot back angrily, drunken haze burning off quickly under the heat of his father’s ire, “as will ye. Ye’ve not failed me yet in the voicin’ of my failings, Father.” Recovering himself, he brought his arms up and broke his father’s grip on his shirt before entwining his own fingers in nightclothes and spinning, pinning the older man much as he himself had been trapped. “And as to your question—this name is not some vaunted prize to which I need aspire. It’s been given me… ye did that, m’lord, independently of me. I’ll not have ye tossin’ your gift back in my face over concern for Galway’s thoughts of me. ‘Tis my life to lead ‘til its conclusion.”

He felt the sharp pain through his skull as it contacted with heavy wood, watched his son sneer angrily in his face, heard him denigrate the importance of the family name. He experienced it all as though in a trance, as though the utter unfathomability of the scene in which he found himself an actor had transformed the action into a metaphysical morality play of which he was both author and audience. His son stalked away from him, leaving him to stare numbly after, a position in which he remained long after he heard Liam noisily ensconce himself in his chamber. That arrogant, dismissive child in a man’s body couldn’t be his son, couldn’t be the boy in whom he’d placed so much hope, so much faith and promise—and yet, incontrovertibly, he was.

~*~*~*~*

Angel didn’t take happiness lightly, wasn’t one to accept positives without examining them thoroughly for the ebony-black lining he was certain they possessed. It was these linings upon which he depended, these that kept his soul anchored, that took the bliss out of joy and left him with a vague warm feeling that was the most he could afford for the sake of his soul. But Connor’s return from Quor-Toth—even as a feral warrior with divided loyalties and skewed perceptions—was a gift horse into whose mouth he didn’t want to look. He had grieved so deeply the loss of his son, felt so acutely the pain of shattered dreams and hopes that faded into nothingness, that he wanted nothing more than to hold the boy before him, even as he told himself that the arms that returned his embrace may well wield a weapon designed to end his life.

Wary though he knew he should be, the sheer brilliance of the happiness that suffused his being when the damaged boy smiled at him, sparred with him, fought at his side, protected him… Angel couldn’t force himself to diminish the importance of each of those moments. He treasured them as signs that all was not lost, that his son was coming back to him, easing his way slowly through the seemingly insurmountable darkness, edging his way back into the light of a father’s love. He refused to question each occurrence of something like tenderness, like fellowship, like affection, like family, allowing his heart to take precedence over his mind and choosing peace and hope over safety.

The blow that Connor landed—the blow that told Angel just what a fool he’d been, that left him frozen on the sand beneath the ravening figure of his own grown-too-soon child—had been far more effective than the boy could ever have imagined or hoped. The punch broke Angel’s spirit, defeated him in a way that even the soul hadn’t managed. The guilt attendant upon the soul he had earned, every blood-soaked memory bringing its own peculiar pain, but of this one sin he was innocent. He had murdered Holtz’s family and incurred his wrath, but he hadn’t willingly surrendered his son to his enemy’s clutches, and he hadn’t murdered the man he now knew—with heartbreaking clarity—was the only father his son had ever known.

The weight of the irony of his fate—that the one crime he had not committed would be the one for which he paid most dearly—was heavier than the steel coffin into which his son placed him, exerted pressure greater than that of the deepest fathoms to which he would ultimately drop. Acceptance, like a mysterious sort of grace, washed over him, and allowed him to grant a pardon the boy didn’t want from him now, claimed not to want ever; despite Connor’s denials, however, Angel knew all too well that he would seek peace in the years to come. He remembered the vow he’d made to himself as he held the tiny slumbering form of the vindictive youth before him, swore anew that if these were his last words to his son, they would not be knives with which Connor could flay himself when realization of his actions finally came.

Taking a deep breath, Angel looked up into the furious, unmoved eyes of his son and spoke a litany of absolution. “Someday you’ll learn the truth, and you’ll hate yourself. Don’t. It’s not your fault. I don’t blame you… Listen to me. I love you. Never forget that, Connor. Never forget that I’m your father, and I love you.”*

~*~*~*~*

He had given up hope on having pride in his son, had decided to settle for minimizing the public harm and shame that Liam’s activities would do to his hard-won reputation. Small fortunes had been distributed in the least-savory quarters of Galway, working from the docks inland, as had Liam in a twisted parody of his father’s own youthful career path. Whores, barkeeps, gambling den proprietors, and a motley cast of unfortunates upon whom Liam had tested his fists had benefited from his self-centered benevolence; word of his son’s misdeeds had been kept to mere whispers behind closed doors—a mercy, that, given how vast was the reach of Liam’s lechery.

As happens with all such things, however, there comes a point beyond which influence cannot be extended, events that are simply too significant or scandalous to contain. And so it was with a mixture of resignation and shock that he opened the door to the maid of a family friend, a woman who was, by her tearful, shame-faced admission, carrying his grandchild. Liam had, of course, denied her allegations, talking in circles and dissembling until an icy glare had served as notice that he would perhaps survive the night only by keeping his mouth closed.

Liam’s father hadn’t seen any reason to involve the boy’s mother—her heart was delicate enough without adding to her strain, and though she was aware of her son’s failings, she remained ignorant of the true extent of his debauchery; it was a protection that her husband had gone to great lengths and expense to ensure.

Hours of heated discussion later, discussion which saw yet another exchange of blows between Liam and his father while the horrified young servant girl looked on, a tentative solution had been reached. The girl would travel to London and would be installed as a domestic on the staff of a merchant friend of Liam’s father. He would, of course, provide a recommendation praising the excellence of her services—a phrase he came to regret when he heard his son’s amused snort in response—and would mention in the same letter the tragic death of the young woman’s husband, the need for her to escape Galway and its memories and raise her child in a city in which she could be unencumbered by constant grief. A not-insignificant trust would be given her as well, in exchange for her silence and near-immediate departure; she would be given two days in which to order her affairs.

Fourteen hours later, he was advised that the conference had been all for naught—the girl had hemorrhaged, and while she herself would live, the child would not. Had it not been bad form to praise such tragedy as a miracle, he would certainly have done so; as it was, he couldn’t help that the thought passed through his mind more than once.

The thought had occurred to Liam as well; it soon became apparent that the entire situation had impacted the young man in a way that could only be described as miraculous in and of itself. Late nights of carousing were replaced by attendance at family dinners and observance of household rules, careless and sloppy dress replaced by tailored items that had remained unworn since being commissioned, derisive comments about God and his grace gave way to quiet perusal of the Bible and a wakeful, alert presence at mass. In the face of tragedy, his son was becoming the man that he had hoped for as he watched him grow from precocious youth to scoundrel. Almost imperceptibly, he began to relax, began to give Liam more autonomy, began to treat him as an adult worthy of respect and confidence.

It was the reawakening—the realization, however temporary—of all of those hopes, dreams, and long-buried wishes that made this oft-repeated vigil so painful. So many nights he had waited in this room, watching the door from the bench or his reading chair, waiting to yet again attempt to impress upon his son the importance of who he was; so many nights, he had failed miserably. To have tasted success—to have seen for a far-too-fleeting period the man that Liam could be if only he would allow himself to mature, to surrender himself to order and regularity instead of hedonism—and to have it ripped away so abruptly carved a gash into his spirit, a gash large enough to sever his heart from that of his son henceforth.

He said not a word when Liam returned, smelling of cheap alcohol and cheaper company. He merely stood and turned his back, carrying his taper from the room, leaving his son to find his way through the waning darkness as best he could with his impaired faculties. Only when he reached the door to his chamber did he speak.

“Ye had a chance, my son—the Lord gave you that. What ye’ve done with it, ye’ll burn for. Live your life the way you see fit, boy, but never doubt that as long as I draw breath, I shall declare myself firmly in the opposition of anything you do. You will always be my son, Liam—but from this day forward, I no longer feel for you as a father should. Whether that be my sin or yours, I’ll leave to better than myself to judge.”

~*~*~*~*

For so long had he fantasized about this moment: while his stomach contracted from hunger, while his skin cracked under the constant assault of salt water, while his mind grew dimmer and more surrealist with every passing minute of physical and sensory starvation. Early in his captivity, when his mind was clear, he had planned what he would say to Connor if he ever found him again; as his senses dimmed and his hunger grew, his fantasies of their confrontation grew increasingly violent, ending only after he had focused all that was left of his waning energy on the avoidance of thoughts of his son.

He refused to fulfill the prophecy, even in fantasy—he would not destroy his son.

The meeting came faster than Angel had expected; in truth, it came long before he was ready. In the absence of Cordelia’s soothing words, with only his own recently-regained sensibilities as a guide, Angel was woefully unprepared for both the strange combination of venom and wistful tenderness that filled his own heart and for the single-minded vengeance that ruled his son. As he stared into Connor’s twisted, ruthless face, he had to force himself to reconcile this bitter young man with the beautiful, sweet infant he had held not so long ago. His beautiful boy… though now, despite the promise of their beginnings, that boy had become the son who’d abandoned him to the ocean’s waves, who’d left him to disintegrate into madness.

Try as he might—and the months beneath the fathoms had given him nothing but time to try—he couldn’t pinpoint a single instant in which it had all gone wrong. The road to the present had been paved by a thousand moments, both negligible and glaring, and there was now no way to avoid what must come next. Whether it had been designed by fate or just his own arrogant folly, the end of this path was decided, inescapable.

“I love you, Connor. Now get out of my house.”**

The words were attended by a physical pain more acute, more all-encompassing than he had ever known—greater than the soul, greater than starvation and insanity, greater than the pain of having lost his infant son, greater than that son’s betrayal. So much greater because Angel knew, beyond all doubt, that his words would sound the death knell to his relationship with his son. All these years, all these vows… and he’d become his father after all.

~*~*~*~*

It was a simple matter, really; not much of a capital layout in terms of the wealth that poured into his coffers from the ships that docked daily in Galway’s ports. A small degree of finesse was required as well, but he hadn’t reached his status in either society or business without having long since mastered the mores of his world. He’d become so much more adept at the situation since that first timid, frantic knock a year before; the situation had arisen a few additional times in that interim. A fare to the New World, a small purse to take along, a job for a father or a brother or a small plot of land; these would be hers, if she agreed to take herself and the bastard swell she carried to other shores. He had enough of Liam as it was; grandchildren were not something he was willing to consider, and so these offers had become nearly as commonplace as the smell of smoke and drunkenness that clung to his son, that seemed to have permeated his flesh as the physical emblem of his forsaken status.

As he readied his offer, counting coins and signing over the unfortunate’s ticket, he found himself with a decidedly unchristian thought beating a constant tattoo in his mind—one for which he felt not nearly the weight of shame that he knew he should. He could say, with no real measurable degree of dishonesty, that he did not hate his son—most days, he thought as little as possible of him, choosing to avoid the disappointment by focusing instead on his beautiful daughter, on the potential for a good marriage for a young woman as lovely and well-bred as she was demonstrating herself to be. But every so often, thoughts of Liam slipped through the boundaries he’d erected, leaving a bitter taste in his mouth, leaving him to doubt the correctness of his own decisions and the quality of the life he had led, the choices he had made. It was in those rare gaps when his antipathy slipped, when his heart twisted with the frustration of an emotion that he had sworn he would no longer acknowledge in connection with his firstborn.

It was into one such rare gap that the most common of the uncharitable thoughts took up residence in his consciousness, seized him and refused to let go. One day—one day all of his machinations and efforts would fail, and Liam would have a child for whom he would have to admit responsibility; such was the wages of sin. A son, he couldn’t help but hope. This crushing disappointment, this rage… Liam would know this, too, if the universal justice to which he clung was indeed a real thing. And then—only then—would the circle would be complete.

*From AtS episode 3.22, Tomorrow. **From AtS episode 4.1, Deep Down.

 

 


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