Touchstone

Touchstone

By Maren
Author's Notes

She’s a guidance counselor, and he wouldn’t have expected that even though he knew she did something like it that last year in Sunnydale. His memories of her are in black and red, vivid colors surrounded by sharp sounds and sensuous smells. He thinks of her in constant motion, vibrating with power even in the moments she’s stationary so it’s jolting to see her sitting behind a desk bathed in late afternoon sun, so still that the only movement he can see are the dust motes that dance around her bowed head.

She’s reading something but the window in her door is small and the angle isn’t right so he can’t see what it is, can only see that it has grabbed her attention with an intensity that he’s only seen when she’s got a weapon in her hand. He can’t sense her power any more and wonders if that’s because of the changes in him or her. Her beauty is still undeniable; upswept blonde hair that shines in the natural light, tasteful grey sleeveless sheath dress that shows off her figure without flaunting it, and he wishes he could touch her to see if her skin is still as soft as it looks.

He’s been standing here, staring at her through her door for too long. He can feel the eyes of the teacher he’d asked for directions on his back and given the way she was looking at him before, he can guess that she’s just about to approach him to ask if he needs help knocking on the door.

The door is made of thick wood, to keep it soundproof he guesses, and his knuckle stings a little from the quick raps, his knock a little too forceful in his nervousness. He doesn’t like to label the feeling, doesn’t want to feel nervous around this woman in particular because what they’ve shared should transcend something as mundane as anxiety. But it’s been a long time and things have changed, things that shouldn’t have changed and he knows it’s his fault.

The sound of his knock doesn’t draw her attention away from her reading, but she does lift a hand to gesture for him to come in. He rubs his stinging knuckle for a second before grasping the handle and angling it down, stepping just inside the threshold to the sunlit room.

“I’ll be just another second, Blair,” she says absently, tucking a stray piece of hair behind her ear. He wonders who Blair is, if it’s a woman or a man she’s expecting and a burst of unwarranted jealousy flares in his gut. It doesn’t matter that he has no right to be jealous, absolutely no right at all to think of her as his, but logic has never really entered into the reality they share. The simple fact is that there is nothing that could ever make his heart give up on feeling it should own hers. But he’s used to the rebellion of his heart and he’s become an expert at closing it off, crushing it when it comes to her.

His love for her is not why he’s here.

There is a moment when he isn’t sure what he should say, what the first words should be between them after all the time that has passed with no words at all.

“Buffy,” he ends up saying. It’s simple, but it’s the only greeting they’ve ever needed before.

The sound of his voice makes her breath hitch in her throat. It’s a voice that has haunted her, awake and in dreams, for over a decade of her life and there is no mistaking it. There will never be any mistaking it, no matter how much she may want to forget. She slowly looks up from the psychologist’s report on one of her students and sees him for the first time in nearly five years. Sees his solid, muscular body framed by the door, the slight tan of his skin, the sun playing over the mahogany of his hair, making it glint with a slight red tint here and there in a way she’s never seen before. . .

He’s human, and she knew that, but there’s still a visceral reaction to seeing him standing in the sun, a jump of her heart and the urge to fling herself over the desk to knock him into the shadows. She struggles against the urge and wins, and when her eyes meet his they are as free from emotion as she can make them. There is no point in letting him know that he can still affect her more deeply than anyone else she’s ever known.

She looks at him, his gaze magnetic just like always, and she fights to keep breathing, in and out, calm and cool and collected. The look he is giving her is pure Angel—intense and unfathomable and she hopes that for just this once her expression is blank enough that he can’t read her every thought and feeling. It’s a façade, but she’ll take any defense she can get as she decides what she could possibly have to say to him.

There’s a simple answer to his greeting, and she’s pulled to breathe his name from between her lips but she struggles against it because she decided long ago that if she ever saw him again, she wouldn’t fall into the trap of habit. There’s a glass paperweight that sits on her desk, etched with the words that have become a mantra to repeat whenever her thoughts turn to him. Now that he’s here, standing like a sun-god in her office and glowing with a life that compels her to go to him just so she can see if he is as warm and alive as he looks, it’s a mantra that takes on extra importance.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. ~ Benjamin Franklin.

Her fingers find the paperweight on their own accord, touching it lightly and she lets the cool smoothness bolster her resolve.

“What are you doing here, Angel?” She’s broken from the routine, deliberately, but things haven’t ever been simple between them and now is no different.

Why pretend, when it only makes it that much easier for her to think that things could be simple if they were anyone other than who they are?

The coldness in her voice and her carefully shuttered gaze are exactly what he expected but her reaction to seeing him again still hurts in that place inside of him that still foolishly dreams of spending what’s left of his forever with her.

There doesn’t seem to be any benefit in stalling and if she wants to skip the greetings and get straight to the point, he certainly hasn’t done anything that would give him the right to complain.

“I need your help.”

The stiffening of her body is nearly imperceptible and if he weren’t so attuned to every detail of her he probably wouldn’t have noticed. There’s no other reaction for several long moments as she stares at him, her finger playing absently over a glass paperweight that sits on her desk. He’s distracted by the movement, by memories of her fingers moving over his skin with a light feathery touch that defied the strength they contained. He knows she could pick up that thick, heavy piece of glass and have it crushed between her fingers in seconds. Suddenly he’s aware of her power again, all illusions of its disappearance, her disguise of normality here in high school in Virginia, dissipating so that she’s vivid again. Pure, unadulterated Buffy and the pull she has over him increases exponentially.

She breathes out the ghost of a laugh and his eyes fly back to her face in time to see her shake her head.

“Of course,” she mumbles, more to herself than to him. Then she’s looking straight at him and she suddenly looks tired, drained of the energy that animates her even in her sleep. “Demon or apocalypse?”

“It’s a long story. I’d rather not get into here,” he said, glancing back over his shoulder to see the teacher from before, still watching him from her classroom door. There’s enough distance that he doubts she can hear what they’re saying but in the end she’s just a convenient excuse to give him more time. For three years he’s wanted nothing more than to find Buffy and explain, apologize for his mistakes and ask her if she’d be willing to give him one more chance. Now that he’s here with her, can see her and hear her voice and touch her, if he dared, he’s not ready. “Could we meet later, for coffee or dinner maybe?”

“How about you give me the Cliff’s Notes version now, and then I’ll decide if I need to hear more,” she replies, gesturing to one of the chairs that sit in front of her desk. She leans back and crosses her legs, one knee over the other and he feels a spark of desire at the simple movement. He remembers what the backs of her knees taste like, the sound she makes in her throat when his teeth nibble the sensitive skin.

Swallowing, he nods and steps fully into her office, swinging the door closed behind him. He avoids the chair, moving instead to look out the window at the bank of trees with their fiery blaze of autumn leaves. The view is beautiful and he wonders, inanely, how she managed to score a corner office her first year at this school.

She sighs and he can hear the edge of irritation in the sound. This isn’t the way he wants to do it. Not that any of the ways he’s considered over the past three years would be any easier.

Reluctantly, he turns away from the view and looks straight at her, apologizing with his eyes even as opens his mouth to give her the short version she asked for.

“Wolfram and Hart is after my daughter.”

At first she’s confused, because Angel has a son, not a daughter and Connor has been taking care of any threats just fine on his own for years now. Then she remembers that Angel is human and more than capable of fathering children in the good old-fashioned, non-miracley way, and her stomach knots with sudden nausea. She swallows back the bile that is rising in her throat with alarming speed and tries to suck in a few breaths of clean air without gagging on it.

She will help him. There was never any doubt about that but she wanted to pretend for a few precious seconds that it was in her power to say no to him. So she pushed and now she’s seconds away from shattering into a million, irretrievable pieces. Her hands and feet are so cold, like her heart has redirected all of her blood to the vital organs so that she can survive some mortal wound. The last time she felt this way she was lying naked in Angel’s bed; the time before that she was lying in her back yard with Warren’s bullet in her chest.

It occurs to her that all of it must be showing in her face, that all of her work to hide the feelings he can still invoke in her has been obliterated in seconds and she spins around in her chair so that her back is to him. She can see the ruin of her face reflected in the window.

“Buffy. . .” he begins, heavy with regret in a way that is so familiar to her because it’s the way he sounds in her dreams, the ones where he comes back to her. She nearly chokes on a laugh as the thought that maybe they were prophetic after all flits wildly through her mind. It shouldn’t hurt this much, not when she was sure she’d moved past him, but it’s clear now that she’s been kidding herself.

She wants to interrupt whatever he’s going to say, because she won’t be able to stop herself from screaming if he apologizes to her and she’ll hate him if he doesn’t. Her mouth opens and she doesn’t know what she’s going to say but it doesn’t matter, anything is better than hearing him say one more word.

The door swings open and she’s saved by someone else speaking her name.

“Buffy! Good, you’re still here. I thought I might have missed you and I need a ride to. . . oh, sorry, I didn’t realize you weren’t alone.” Blair’s chirping voice trails off and Buffy takes a deep breath, trying to compose herself as much as possible before she spins around to look at the young slayer who is standing in the doorway, eyes darting back and forth between she and Angel.

“It’s ok, we were just wrapping things up. Let me grab a few things and I’ll meet you at the car,” she says, her voice more even than she would have thought possible and Blair only frowns a little before nodding and turning back around.

“Buffy. . .” he begins again but the interruption has given her just enough of a distraction to pull herself together. She shakes her head to cut him off and stands on legs that are only slightly shaky. Pulling her suit jacket off the back of her chair, she shrugs it on and grabs a stack of files to shove in her bag.

“I need to take Blair and meet the other girls for a training session.” She looks at him, sees the agonized concern in his face and she wants to punch him. Instead she glances at her watch and calculates the time she’ll need to finish the workout. To get herself ready to see him again.

“You can come by the house around 9:00. I’m going to just assume you haven’t lost your knack for stalking, given that you’re here right now, and that you know where my house is.”

There is a flicker of something in his face, maybe annoyance but she isn’t sure, and then he’s nodding.

The house is small—real estate agents would call it a quaint cottage to increase its value and it wouldn’t be a bad description. The wood siding is somewhere between cream and yellow in color; it’s hard to tell for sure in the dark. He’s standing on a wrap-around porch, awash in the scent of the fall-blooming flowers and bushes that fill the front yard. Her house is nestled in a thick grove of trees at the end of a long driveway and it occurs to him that it’s private and homey and exactly the type of place he would have pictured her living. The type of place he used to daydream about living with her, before his dreams had actually come true.

He shifts the sleeping bundle of three-year old that’s perched on his hip and winces at the corresponding pain in his ribs. He’d gotten a little too close to losing that last fight, close enough that he’d decided to swallow his shame and fear and come here, to her. It isn’t that he hasn’t wanted to come before; it’s something he’s thought about every day since he left. But he’d left for a reason and as ill-advised and indulgent as that reason had been, he couldn’t take it back. Couldn’t take back the pain he’d caused.

She probably hates him. He knows he deserves nothing less. But she is who she is and he’d known, deep down, that she wouldn’t turn them away no matter how she felt about him personally.

Another door that he’s standing in front of, hesitant to knock because he knows what will happen on the other side won’t be easy. It will not be easy to tell her how he’d wasted his humanity for two years after he left. It will be harder, still, to see her next to his daughter, not because he could ever regret Katie’s existence but because he knows it is his fault that she isn’t theirs.

Katie shifts again, her head moving so she’s looking up at him with drowsy, half-closed eyes.

“Daddy, I’m cold,” she says in a near whisper and Angel hugs her closer, ignoring the pain in this side. He can’t stall any longer, so he grabs the brushed silver door knocker and bangs it twice.

The door swings open and she’s standing on the other side, dressed in a pair of well-worn jeans and a fitted black hoodie that hugs her curves. Her feet are bare on the wood floors and he can tell her long hair is still a little damp from her shower. Her eyes are fixed on his face, carefully avoiding the bundle in his arms.

“Come in,” she says and he has the ridiculous urge to remind her that she shouldn’t be issuing invitations after dark but he instantly realizes that she, of all people, can take care of herself. “I have some coffee brewing. . . decaf. Would you like some?”

He nods and watches her turn and walk through a door that he assumes leads to the kitchen. Something brushes against his ankles and he looks down to see a fat grey cat rubbing against him. Katie must see it too because she wiggles against him in a silent demand to be put down. He sets her on her feet and watches as she bends down to pet the so-far tolerant feline.

“Careful,” he reminds her.

They are standing in a tiny entryway that leads into the main living space, and he can see a big well-worn chair sitting next to a fireplace from his vantage point. The pictures on the mantle are mostly of familiar faces—Willow, Xander, Giles, and a slew of Buffy with Dawn. When he gets to a photo near that middle, pain tightens his chest. It’s Connor, standing between Dawn and Buffy with the kind of smile on his face that Angel would have sold his soul to see, before. Connor has his arm around Dawn in a proprietary way that speaks volumes about the nature of their relationship and he closes his eyes to block out the sight, because he had no idea and he should have known, should have been here to see it develop and hear Buffy complain about his horny son stalking her little sister.

“That’s a pretty new development. . . Dawn and Connor.”

He turns to see her setting two mugs of coffee on a side table, her gaze lighting on the picture before landing back on him. Swallowing past the lump in his throat, he nods, then watches as her eyes slide from his to the child who is bent slightly over as she pets the cat with gentle strokes. She crosses her arms, wrapping them around her waist and he can see her worrying her upper lip with her teeth in an unconscious display of emotion. He feels another stab of pain, just like he knew he would, regret so intense that all he wants to do is pull her into his arms and tell her he’s sorry until she believes him.

Instead he touches Katie’s head to get her attention and looks at Buffy.

“This is my daughter, Kathleen. She goes by Katie,” he says and Buffy’s eyes fly to his, her understanding of his daughter’s namesake written in her gaze. Before he can give into the rapidly escalating desire to touch her, he continues the introductions, bending down so he can look his daughter in the eye. “Katie, this is Buffy, the woman I’ve been telling you about.”

Katie looks up at her, the light of excited understanding in her eyes, like she’s been told that Buffy is Santa Claus and the way he’s built Buffy up to her, he thinks maybe it’s a pretty close comparison.

“Hi Buffy!” she chirps in her baby voice and Buffy’s smile is automatic and only slightly broken. She drops into an easy crouch and reaches out to hesitantly touch a blonde curl, slipping her thumb and forefinger around it briefly before letting go.

“Nice to meet you, Katie,” she says and his fists clench at the sound of grief in her voice.

He thinks that he should never have come here. He has no idea how he’ll ever gather the strength to leave again.

She feels every nerve in her body, a riot of activity that her skin can barely contain. The man she has loved since she was 16, the only man she cannot get out of her heart or head no matter what happens between them, is standing in her house with a beautiful child that is not hers. A little girl with his dark brown eyes and blonde hair that falls in loose curls down her back.

The thought that Katie looks like she could be their child is quickly followed by the reminder that she’s not and the realization that he certainly has a type, and maybe that’s all she ever was. An approximation of some archetype: little blonde with a little bit of supernatural ability, just like Darla, who came before and Nina who came between. She doesn’t know who came after, and she doesn’t want to, definitely doesn’t want to know if Katie’s mother is a witch, a demon, or worse, another slayer.

It does make her wonder where mommy dearest is, and why her supernatural ass can’t protect her own daughter.

Abruptly standing up, she gestures stiffly to the living room.

“Why don’t we sit down and you can tell me what you want from me,” she says, turning to grab the abandoned coffee mugs. She hesitates, looking at Katie before addressing Angel. “I’m sorry; I didn’t think to ask if she needs anything. I have milk and orange juice.”

He shakes his head. “No, she’s fine. It’s actually past her bedtime. Do you have somewhere she could lay down while we talk?”

A knot forms in her stomach, a solid ball of anxiety that she’d managed to break up a little during training, and after, when she’d stayed late to run through a few extra katas. The thought of him, of them being in her bedroom makes her feel sick but the guest room bed is piled with laundry that she hasn’t had a chance to put away and there’s nowhere else. The thought that she could refuse, suggest that maybe he find a babysitter and come back tomorrow, races through her mind before she can censor it out. It’s tempting, but the fact is that even if she didn’t want to get this over with as soon as humanly possible, it isn’t in her to turn him away.

She inclines her head toward the bedroom doors just down the hall and concentrates on making sure her voice doesn’t shake when she answers.

“You can put her in my bed. Last door on the right.”

He picks up his daughter and she turns away, walking into the living room so that she doesn’t have to watch him take that pretty little girl into her bedroom. A long time ago she used to daydream about a night like this, in a little house with Angel and a child that looked like a perfect blend of them. But those dreams died for good when he left her alone in his bed, her body still humming with the aftermath of having him so deeply inside her she thought she might break apart around him right before she did.

She sets the mugs down on the coffee table and sits in a corner of the couch, curling her legs up under her to warm her chilled feet. Grabbing a throw pillow, she hugs it to her chest and waits for his return, her thoughts once again returning to seeing him in the sunlight. It was the first time and she can’t stop thinking about how good humanity looks on him. He has always been the most beautiful man she’s ever seen, and the light tan only makes him look better. It occurs to her that he must spend a lot of time outside and she wonders if he takes his family on picnics, to the beach, to the playground. The tears that she’s been holding back all afternoon threaten to fall but she hasn’t allowed herself to cry over him for quite a while and she angrily rubs her eyes, unwilling to start now.

What good will it do, to cry for a past that she can’t change, for a future she can never have?

When he returns to the living room he finds her curled up on the couch, a tense expression on her face, her eyes staring blankly into the empty fireplace. Even now, with no makeup and the strain of his presence written across her features, she is the most beautiful woman he has ever known. He pauses in the threshold, unwilling to cross over because to do so will mean that he has to explain and there is no good explanation for his choices. There are excuses, and reasons that he thought were unavoidable at the time, but he knows she won’t find them acceptable and part of his journey back to being a man has been realizing that they weren’t.

They were together when it happened. Together and together, her warm body nestled against him as she slept in the aftermath of a new beginning for them. When he took her to his bed that night, he told her he thought they could make it work if they were very careful, and he had meant it. He loved her, had never stopped loving her or admiring her or wanting her and when he stripped of her clothes and touched her for the first time in five years, he was careful not to get completely lost in her.

So when he woke up, in pain and gasping for air, it took him by surprise.

The sound of her rustling movement catches his attention and he watches as she glances away from the fireplace and looks at him.

“Do they only want her because it will hurt you, or is there some other surprise you want to let me in on?”

It takes him another second to reorient himself to the present and he takes a deep breath, lifting a hand to rake through his hair. He moves into the room and stands in front of the fireplace, looking more closely at the photos as he gathers his thoughts. She looks happy in them, full of life and energy and he’s struck with the difference between then and now as she sits behind him, folded in on herself, her voice laced with distrust.

She makes an impatient sound in her throat and he sighs, turning to face her and the repercussions of his actions.

“Katie is special, like Connor. She’s stronger, more coordinated, more developmentally advanced than she should be at three years old. I don’t know why . . . if it’s some quirk left over from the demon or something else.” He pauses, watching her as she takes in the information without any overt reaction and he supposes that there are very few things that can surprise her anymore. He still isn’t completely sure why it surprised him the first time Katie fractured his finger as she gripped it with chubby baby fingers.

“Wolfram and Hart didn’t come after us until about 6 months ago. They sent some operatives and I killed them. The next time, they sent more. The last time they sent three Fyarl and I barely made it out alive.” He lifts his shirt and angles his body so that she can see the yellowing bruises that mottle his chest and abdomen. Her eyes widen at the sight of the claw mark that slashes from his left nipple to his navel and he wonders what she would have thought if she saw it two weeks ago when it was still raw and oozing.

The centuries of honing his fighting skills have prepared him far better than he first thought, but he is still human, with a human’s mortality and a human’s endurance and eventually they will send a force that he can’t beat.

He believes that Buffy can handle anything they throw her way. Believes it enough that he’ll bet the life of his daughter on it.

She nods, slowly, and her eyes don’t leave his chest until he has pulled down his shirt to cover the wounds again. Then she looks up at him, pain pinching at the corners of her mouth even though he can tell she’s trying to hide it from him. “Her mother is a slayer, isn’t she?”

The thought has occurred to him but the ugly truth is that he doesn’t have a single memory of the woman who mothered his child. He was beyond drunk when he spilled into her and she was dead and buried before he even knew that Katie existed. He’s not ready to tell Buffy this, can’t stand the thought of seeing her look at him with the disgust that he more than deserves, so he hedges and hopes she won’t push.

“Maybe. I honestly don’t know and she died before I could ask her.”

Her face blanches and she hugs the pillow tighter to her chest. “I’m sorry,” she murmurs, and amazingly, he believes that she really is. His head begins to pound, a dull thumping pain that starts in his temples and moves into his neck. Every throb is accompanied by an accusation, the knowledge that he doesn’t deserve her sympathy. The state of his life those first couple of years was no one’s fault but his own and sometimes he thinks he may regret those wasted years even more than he regrets his time as a serial-killing vampire.

He moves forward, closing the distance between them until she is only inches away. Dropping into a crouch so that he can be at eye level with her, he meets her gaze with his own and hopes that she can see how deeply he means every word he’s about to say.

“Buffy, I’m the one who’s sorry. I don’t want to hurt you any more than I already have—that’s not why I’m here. If I could go back and change one thing in my life I’d go back to the night I turned human and. . . .”

She makes a strangled noise in her throat and scrambles away from him, across the couch and on her feet on the other end of it so fast that trying to follow the movement nearly knocks him off balance.

“Don’t. Just please don’t,” she pleads, her hand up, palm facing him as though she can ward off his words. He swallows, hard, and lifts a hand to rub the temple that is suddenly pounding even faster than before. When she’s sure he isn’t going to continue, she drops her hand and turns her back on him. He can see the tremble of her shoulders, and he isn’t surprised to hear a hint of tears in her voice.

“Why did you have to come here, Angel? Why not go to Faith, or one of the other dozens of slayers that litter the planet?”

His answer is immediate because there isn’t anything to consider, nothing but a simple, fundamental truth.

“Because I trust you. Because it’s my daughter, and it’s you.” TBC…

The End

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Author's Notes:
Rating: PG
Summary: Everything he has done, every life he has lived, he evaluates in reference to her. She is his touchstone.
Author's notes: In my grand IWRY tradition, I’ve managed to start a fic that is begging me to flesh it out more than I intended when I started writing. WIPs suck, this I know, but hopefully you will bear with me for this the way many of you did with “Weight of Life”, last year’s IWRY entry. Many thanks to Lee for the beta and listening to me angst about not finishing it before the posting date.

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