SKIN TO SKIN

            In the midst of heading to bed, Angel had just pulled off his shirt when he heard someone come into the lobby downstairs.   Assuming it was a potential client, he tossed the shirt back on and headed down, buttoning on the move.

            Downstairs, a young woman had entered the lobby and now stood looking at the red pentagram on the floor.  They really needed to do something about that, he thought for probably the thousandth time.  The girl's dark hair hung loose around her shoulders, and she wore battered jeans and a paint-spattered chambray shirt.

            "Can I help you?" he said, hitting the last stair.

            The girl turned, startled.  Her eyes widened when she saw him.  He came hesitantly toward her.  He'd seen her somewhere before.

            "Angel," she said.  "That's your name, right?"

            "Yeah."  He peered closer at her.  "Gwen?"

            She nodded.

            "I almost didn't recognize you.  You look . . . a lot different."  The loose clothes were a far cry from the provocative, skin-tight leather she'd worn before.  But when she tossed her head, pitching her hair back, he caught a flash of the familiar arrogance.   "Why are you here?" he added.

            "I--"  And suddenly the arrogance was gone, as if someone had flipped a switch.   "This is probably a bad time for you.   I can come back later.  Or . . . just go away and not come back at all."

            Angel leaned against the reception counter and regarded her narrowly.   "You came here for a reason, I assume?"   Her fluster surprised him.  It was as if she'd suddenly developed an entirely different personality.

            "Yeah, I did."  She took a step backwards.  He noticed the gloves then--fine, skin-tight black leather that covered her hands just to the wrists.   "But I'm thinking now it wasn't a good idea."   She turned, walking toward the door.

            "Gwen."  Something had to be wrong, he thought, to explain her odd behavior.   He pushed away from the counter to catch her just as she set foot on the first step, on her way to the door.   His hand closed around her arm and she froze there, her eyes closed for a moment.  Then she looked over her shoulder at him and swallowed.

            "If you need something," he said, "if you need my help . . ."

            She blinked, suddenly strangely vulnerable.   He'd seen that in her, too, before, when he had touched her.   Now there was a layer of chambray between his palm and her arm.   Still, she turned toward him, looking down at his hand.

            "I do need something," she managed.   "But I have no right to ask you for anything.   I mean, you barely know me.  And I tried to kill you."

            He shrugged, releasing her.  "A lot of people try to kill me.  I try not to take it personally."

            She rubbed her arm where he'd touched her.   The contact, simple as it was, seemed to disconcert her.   To be honest, its effect on him was anything but calming.   He crossed his arms over his chest, suddenly far too aware of the possibility of touching her.

            "So," he ventured, "you got a demon to kill, nest of vampires…"   It was too much to hope, though, that it would be that simple.

            She just looked at him, her softly tilted green eyes unreadable.   She had no makeup on at all, he realized abruptly, no lipstick, nothing on her eyes.  Finally she said, "Did you find her?"

            "Yeah."  He shook his head a little, unable to quell the pang of sadness.   "I don't think she's coming back."

            "Oh."  Gwen's voice was small.   "I'm sorry."

            "Yeah."  There was really nothing more to say.

            Gwen regarded him again for a moment that might have gone on too long.   It didn't bother Angel; he was used to waiting--listening, pausing for thoughts to gather.  He just looked at her, absorbing her.  Patient.

            She moved then, grasping the wrist of one glove with the other hand and peeling it off.  She held her hand out toward him, her fingers extended.   Almost reflexively, he echoed her movement, lifting his own hand until his fingertips touched hers.  The soft sizzle of electricity shimmered over his skin.   She had some control over it, he knew, but even this small contact would have been uncomfortable for a human being, though not deadly.

            He understood before she even spoke, knew instinctively why she had come.  He shifted his hand, folding his fingers through hers, until her palm touched his.

            "My whole life," she said, her voice shivering, "you're the only person I've ever met who can touch me."

            "That's why you came here?"

            "Yes."

            "I won't sleep with you," he said, because he still far too often spoke without thinking, and because the buzz of her current against his skin made him want to taste her again.

            She yanked her hand away from his, her face gone suddenly hard.   "Did I ask you to sleep with me?"   She jerked her glove back on.  "God.  Bastard."

            "Gwen, I'm sorry.  I just--"

            "Do I look like I came here for sex?"

            He had to admit she didn't.  And then stumbled over the realization that it had been deliberate.   She'd come frumpy to avoid misunderstandings, and he had blundered right through all her cautiousness.  "No," he said.  "You look like you came to do some painting, or maybe hang a little drywall.   Which is handy, because I actually have some work you could do."

            The frail attempt at humor fell flat.

            "Won't or can't?"  Her voice was still hard, and she had put the confident sensuality back on--armor, he understood then--with little more than a shift of her body.

            "Won't."  He said it a little too firmly, mostly because parts of himself were in need of reminding.   Then he shrugged, to take the edge off.   "It's complicated.  Nothing personal."

            Her eyes flashed.  "Like to get these things settled up front, huh?"

            "Mostly I'm just kind of an idiot."

            That drew a smile from her, much to his relief.   "I guess it's good you know your weaknesses."

            "I keep a list."

            "Can't go out in the daylight, not much for solid food, and I'm guessing you don't spend a lot of time in church."

            "You did your homework."

            "I did."

            He considered for another too-long moment.   "Come back tonight," he said finally.   "We can go for a walk.  Cup of coffee.  Maybe a pastry if I feel like throwing money around."

            She took a step backward, her smile oddly sad.   "All right.  I'll see you then."

#

            He didn't want to hear all the things Fred and Gunn would say if they knew what he was up to, so he gave them the night off, with orders to go somewhere fun.  They were all too willing to oblige.

            Sunset, then, found him kicking back with liquid dinner, all alone in the big, echoey hotel, just the way he liked it.   One of his sketchbooks lay on the table; he picked it up and paged through it.

            Cordelia.  Cordelia.   Cordy, Cordy, Cordelia.  Jeez, Angel.  Obsessive much?   Of course, he had eight full volumes of nothing but Buffy upstairs on a shelf, so it wasn't exactly a new character trait.   He'd had more before his old apartment had blown up.   Then there had been the Darla collection, which he'd burned.   He almost wished he hadn't, now.   He should draw her again.  Connor should know what his mother had looked like.

            He turned to a blank page and began to doodle.   The action relaxed him, and helped him ignore the fact that the blood he was drinking was cold and tasted like dead pig.   No matter how long he abstained, no matter how deeply repulsive the thought of killing became to him, the craving still lingered.   There just wasn't any good substitute for hot, sweet, human blood.

            So he doodled.  And the pencil lines came together to make Gwen.

            Probably not a good idea.  But it made an interesting change from Cordy, Cordy and more Cordy.   Which he found depressing, anyway, knowing he would likely never see her again.

            He went through eight pages before he got her eyes right.   His pencil had slid down into the slant of her cheekbone when he heard the door open.

            And there she was.  He looked up.  He could see her from where he sat, behind the reception counter, but she hadn't seen him yet.   He allowed himself a minute to watch.

            She hadn't come frumpy this time, but she wasn't sleek leather and bare belly, either.  She'd taken a middle road this time, with snug jeans and a soft, loose blouse.   And the gloves, of course.  Angel looked down at himself, realizing he had no idea what he'd thrown on when he'd gotten out of bed.  Black pants, black shoes--that was a given.  At least the shirt was green.

            She walked softly down the stairs, crossing the lobby toward the circular couch.  "Angel?" she finally ventured.   "Hello?"

            He closed the sketchbook and stood.   "Over here."

            "Oh.  Hi."   She started toward him; he met her at the counter.   "It's . . . it's dark out."

            "Yeah, I know," he said.  "I can tell.  Shall we?"

#

            They walked for a time in silence.   She seemed uneasy, but he didn't really know her well enough to be sure.

            "It's a pretty night," she said after a while.

            "It is."

            "Do you miss it?  The sunlight, I mean."

            "Sometimes."

            She shook her head.  "It must be strange."

            He shrugged, smiling.  "I'm a freak."

            Her eyes shot to his and she smiled, too, tentatively.

            They had reached the coffee shop.  Not necessarily the best in the area, but the closest.   He held the door for her and they went in.   He didn't really want anything, but bought himself a latte, anyway, just to be sociable.

            "Do I get a pastry?" she asked, her eyes challenging him playfully.

            "Sure.  Why not?"

            "You're quite the big spender," she said as they sat at a table by the windows.  The place was nearly empty, only a few customers waiting at the counter and no one else at the tables.

            "I don't know.  It seems about right.  I mean, this isn't a date, right?"

            "No, I guess not."  She pulled the glove from her right hand.

            "Then you owe me a buck and a half for the caramel brownie thing.   I'll spring for the coffee."  Her eyes narrowed and he added, "I'm kidding."

            "Do you want some?"  She pointed to the brownie.  "Do you even eat this kind of thing?"

            "Sometimes.  But no, thanks."

            She eyed him as she broke pieces off the brownie.   "So how do you get to be your brand of freak?"
            "You get bit."

            "Just like the stories say."

            "Pretty much."

            "So you didn't choose this."

            "No."

            She seemed to absorb that.  "I've been this way as long as I can remember.   You?"

            "Since 1753."

            Her eyes widened.  "Wow."

            And there wasn't much more to say about that.   He leaned back in his chair, sipping his latte.   He could taste the sugar, and the bitter coffee, but the flavors didn't blend well in his mouth.  Drinking it at all seemed suddenly pointless.  He set the cup back down and looked at Gwen.

            Something about her drew him, and it wasn't just that she was extraordinarily pretty.  It was, he thought, the depths of her loneliness.  He himself had gone nearly a century with very little human contact, but he'd been partially insane through most of that time, and when he'd dragged his mind back to functionality, his isolation had been by his own choice.   He couldn't imagine what it must be like for her, young and lovely and alive, to never have been able to touch another human being.

            His attention drifted to her hand, ungloved, breaking off small pieces of her brownie.  The silence between them was odd--not really comfortable, but not really strained, either.   He wondered what she was thinking.

            "Don't stare at me," she said suddenly, tightly, without looking up.

            "I'm sorry.  I was just thinking."   He slid his hand across the tabletop toward her, palm up.   Her eyes went wary for a moment, then calmed.   He wondered suddenly if she'd ever been able to trust anyone, either.

            After a few seconds of silent consideration, she accepted what he offered, touching the tips of her fingers to his outstretched palm.

            "You have pretty hands," she said, as her fingertips drifted across the lines of his palm, until the heel of her hand rested on his fingers.   He curled his fingers against her wrist.   He could feel her pulse.

            "Cold, though," she added.

            "Cold hands, warm heart," he said, fairly lamely, he thought.

            "Cold hands, dead heart, as I recall."

            "Well, whatever."  It seemed to him a bit rude for her to point that out.

            "I'm sorry.  I didn't--"

            "Forget it."  He looked at her hand, lying soft on top of his.  "Let's go.  Walk a little."

            "All right."

#

            He took her to a park not far from the coffee shop, where there were benches, flowers, trees.  They walked hand-in-hand through the darkness.  Her grip on his was almost too tight, as if she was afraid he might let go.   A buzz of current moved between them from time to time.

            "Does that bother you?" she asked.

            "Not particularly."  It aroused him more than anything else, but he wasn't about to tell her that.

            The park was dark and deserted.  They sat on a bench, her hand still curled into his, and he fell into silence, listening to the night.  There was no moon, and the deserted park was only partially illuminated by overhead lights.

            "I've always wanted to do this," she said.

            "What?  Sit around in the dark and wait for muggers?"

            She laughed.  "No.   Sit on a park bench and hold a man's hand.   Although it could be really entertaining if someone tried to mug us."

            "It could, at that."

            Her hand shifted in his, and he felt the little bite of electricity again.  He wondered what prompted it, why her control seemed so erratic.

            "Are you okay?"  He wasn't sure why he thought she might not be.

            "Yeah.  It's fine.   I'm--"  She turned to look at him, her face so close to his.   He could see a vague shimmer of tears in her eyes and it touched him.   Made him wish he could fix everything that might be wrong in her world.  But he knew he couldn't.   No one could.

            "I'm fine," she finished, and turned her gaze forward again, blinking, as her hand tightened on his.

            It was the blinking that got him.  Brave, defiant blinking, fighting back that little shimmer of emotion he was sure she hadn't wanted him to see.

            He reached over with his free hand, touched her chin and gently turned her face back toward him.  When he leaned forward, she didn't draw back, so he took that as acquiescence and gently set his lips against hers.

            It was a much more careful, deliberate kiss than the one they'd shared before.  He still wasn't sure why he'd kissed her then; wasn't completely sure why he was doing it now.   Maybe it was the pervasive loneliness in her wide eyes, or the ache that had been eating at him since he'd realized Cordelia was forever beyond his reach.

            Pushing the thoughts out of his head, he gave himself up to it, everything in him focused on the movement of her soft mouth.

            Her free hand, still gloved, rose to his face, touching his cheekbone, sliding back into his hair.  Her mouth pressed his open, and he let her inside.

            Now this he could taste.  The warmth and textures of her mouth, her tongue, her pulse.   It was skin and flesh and heat, things vampiric taste buds craved.   He pulled her closer, his arm going around her, his hand sliding under her blouse, up her back.  Her skin crackled against his hands, the current rising even inside her mouth.   He pressed deeper, clutched at her slim back, reveling in the novelty of it, but she suddenly broke away, pushing back on the bench, letting go even of his hand.

            "It's too much . . ." she managed, gasping for breath.   She pressed her fingers against her lips.   "Too much."

            "Are you okay?"

            "Yeah."  She laughed wryly.   "And you thought I wanted sex.  Hell, it'd probably kill me."

            "I'm sorry."  He wasn't sure what he was apologizing for--his earlier blunder, the fact he'd kissed her, the state of her life in general.

            Or maybe he was sorry because she had just shrugged her armor back on--the cool arrogance in her eyes, the belligerence in her posture as she stood.  He liked the soft, willing woman much better.

            "I need to go," she said.  "This was a bad idea."

            He came to his feet.  "No, it wasn't."

            "It was."  She softened again, just a little.  "It'll just make it harder, knowing what I'm missing."  She turned, moving away from him.

            "Gwen."

            She stopped, but didn't turn.

            "This doesn't have to be the last time."

            He couldn't see her face.  But she stood still for a moment before she gathered herself and went on her way.  He watched her go, until she disappeared into the darkness.

END.