Skin Deep

Skin Deep

Sometimes I think I hear him cry. I wake up with a start, senses on overload, and am half way to the frig, where his bottles are lined up next to my blood bags, before I realize that his crib is empty. I stand there without purpose, at a loss, but unable to move. Sometimes I feel like I've been standing for hours before one of the others finds me and leads me back to my bed. If not for the imagined sound of his cry, I doubt I would ever leave the comfort of that little island.

I know that Wesley is out of the hospital and sometimes I can hear hushed and urgent voices outside my door. I know Wesley wants to come in; has things he needs to say to me. Through the fractured sunlight, I watch the dust float, but I make no effort to go to the door, to let him in to make his peace. My peace has been shattered and there's nothing left in me to give.

Cordelia keeps the refrigerator stocked and sometimes she tries to make pleasant small talk. Funny, for a while there I was sure I fancied her, thought she'd make a fine mother to Connor. I remember watching her move through the lobby at the theatre where we went to see the ballet and thinking what an incredible woman she was. Possessed in the ballerina's dressing room, I thought her skin was as lovely as any I'd ever seen, but now it doesn't matter. Her smile is too big and too white and too intimate; it irritates me and reminds me of what she was like back in the day. Back when she was a high school debutante, full of herself and self-important plans for the future. Who the hell cares anymore?

I just. want. something. I don't know what it is, but I feel like screaming at the stars for their part in this horrible drama. Once, in a fit of sheer remorse, I trashed my room, yanking dishes from cupboards and books from shelves and was about to upend the bed when the door flew open and three wary faces appeared.

Lorne spoke first. "Dollface, you're bein' awful hard on your stuff. I mean it's not the fault of your stuff, right?"

I glared defiantly at him and tipped the bed over, moving past the mess towards the lamp, which I flung against the hall.

Gunn tried next. "Hey, man, you gotta chill. Really. We'll help whatever way we can, but stop with the destruction already, would you?"

Fred appeared from behind Gunn's oversized body, wringing her hands and chewing on her bottom lip. "Angel," she started. I silenced her with a glance.

"Leave. Me. Alone." I muttered, sending an original Degas slicing through the room like a frisbee.

Gunn barely had time to push the others behind him and pull the door closed before the framed oil painting shattered against the wood.

I looked around, surveying the damage, looking for something else to destroy. I yanked open my closet door and saw the stack of sketchbooks. If I really wanted to give myself something to regret, I could shred the pictures I'd done over the years. I pulled the first book off the top of the pile and flipped open the stiff cover. I recognized immediately a drawing I'd done, from memory, of the house in Ireland where I'd grown up. I'd managed to capture most of the detail; vampires have long memories. I pulled the page along the spiral binding and then tore it into four pieces. My sister: Cathy. Ripped to shreds. Mother. Father. Then several pages of Darla, many of them rendered in smudged charcoal, many of them pornographic in nature. Soon the entire book lay in ruin, drifts of heavy paper littering the wooden floor.

It hardly made any difference to me as I surveyed the remains of so many memories. I reached for the next book and fingered the cover before flipping it open to reveal…her.

Suddenly all the fight went out of me. The sight of her stopped me cold. I traced a finger over the blurred edges of her cheek, wiped away an imagined tear, traced the pout of her generous lower lip. Her eyes, shaded carefully with azure pastel, regarded me with kindness and I had to shut my own blank eyes to their steady gaze. I turned the page: Buffy asleep, curled contentedly on the sofa at the mansion, a lock of pale hair drifting over her smooth cheek. I remembered, I thought, the exact day I had drawn this picture. How precious she had seemed to me, how full of trust and love. I'd sat across from the couch in an armchair, and sketched in the shape of her small, fierce form without once looking at the paper. I could do it again from memory if I had to.

I closed the book. I hadn't the emotional strength to go any further; my heart was battered. I stood up and surveyed the wreckage of the room. Yes, it was a mess, but certainly not any worse than the rest of my life. After all, one couldn't say that I'd done the best I could have.

Indeed: I could have stayed in Sunnydale, stayed with the woman whom I loved beyond compare, found a way to make it work without risking my soul, or her life. I could have found a way to save Darla from Wolfram and Hart's evil plots. I could have recognized in Wesley, not fatigue, but something more complicated. I could have saved my son. But instead, I allowed myself to become distracted by the trappings of a world of which I was not really part.

Money. Social outings. Sex. Daydreaming about little league and kindergarten. I had no business allowing myself to drift from the reality of my life. I am not human. I would do well to remember that. At least when I was with Buffy, I was constantly reminded of how close to the surface the demon really was. Skin deep. On the prowl, waiting for me to screw up and let him out. No one knew how desperately Angelus wanted her. Her name was his mantra. Having her close was never easy, but at least I knew who I was and what I was fighting for.

I'm not saying that Connor was a curse. Blasphemy. All I'm saying is that he wasn't supposed to be possible and having him, holding him made it easier to live a lie. The lie being: 'I'm almost human, I can have an almost human life, with almost human desires and longings.' Instead of focusing on the task at hand, I focused on the daily joys. Fine if you've got a beating heart, I guess, but out of reach if you're only flesh made animate with borrowed blood.

That's when I decided to leave my room and face whatever acrimony awaited me downstairs. Thing was, I'd have to be honest with them and I wasn't sure I knew how to do that anymore.

***

"Angel?" Cordelia's eyes sped over my face and I could see that she wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.

"Cordy," I replied. "Where's everyone? We need to talk."

Cordy blinked, doe-like, and stood, closing the laptop. "Everyone's in the kitchen, I think, making lunch or coffee or something."

I nodded. "Can you get them, please?"

"Sure," she said, backing away from the desk as though she was afraid I might disappear.

"I'm not going anywhere, if that's what you're thinking," I said.

She did smile then. A small, tight smile like she knew what was coming.

"Go on," I urged her, settling into a chair.

I waited, rubbing a hand across gritty eyes. Moments later, they filed in. Gunn. Fred. Lorne. Wesley and Cordelia whispering in the rear. It was the first time I'd laid eyes on Wes since Connor had gone missing (I couldn't bring myself to say he was dead), and I was shocked to see that he looked even worse than I imagined I did.

"Good," I said.

"Are you going to fire us again?" Cordelia asked, foregoing any small talk and jumping right in with her usual lack of tact.

"No," I said. "There's work to be done and I need you people to do it."

"Well, that's a big relief," she said, shooting a meaningful glance up at Wesley.

I could see Wesley trying to catch my eyes but I wouldn't allow him to pin me down. Instead, I looked at my hands, long fingers knit together to keep them from skittishness.

"I have to leave LA for a bit," I said. A plan, of sorts, had suddenly come into my head and I wanted to give it voice before I lost either nerve or reason. "I don't know when I'll be back."

"What're we supposed to do?" Gunn asked.

"Whatever it is you normally do," I said, shrugging. "I trust you to look after things for me while I'm gone."

Lorne stepped forward and I could sense that he was trying his damnest to read me, to get a handle on what my intentions were. I deliberately blocked him, met his wary eyes with steeliness.

I headed back toward the stairs. The sun was dipping in the west and I had little time to spare.

"Angel?" Wesley's voice stopped me, cold. I couldn't turn to face him. "Please, Angel, we need to talk."

"Not now, Wesley," I said, without turning. I gripped the banister so tightly I could hear it creak.

"Angel, I…"

I held up my hand, shaking my index finger in a gesture that I hoped would caution him. Instead, he bounded up the stairs arriving to stand one step above me. "Please don't go all silent on us. If you would only allow me to explain…" Wesley faltered. "If I could just…"

"Just what, Wesley?" I questioned. "What do you think you can say to me that will make this all better?"

Wesley hung his head and I stepped around him. "That's what I thought."

***

Sunnydale was dark and quiet when I arrived. Buffy's house was dark and silent, too. I stood under the front porch light trying to remember the last time I'd been here. She'd have questions and I had no answers to give her.

I knocked. Moments later, the front door opened revealing a bleary-eyed Willow. She stood open-mouthed for a moment before taking my hand and drawing me inside.

"Gee, Angel," she said. "What are you doing here? I mean, you being here can't be a good thing, right? Is everyone okay? Wesley? Cordy?"

I didn't know exactly what to say to her, so I lied. Seemed I was getting rather good at that. "We're all fine, Willow. Where's Buffy?"

Willow shot a glance at the clock over the mantle and said, "Patrolling, I guess."

"Oh, right."

"You could wait if you want. I'm sure she'll be…happy to see you."

Willow was never all that good at hiding anything but I didn't bother pressing her. I nodded my thanks and headed back out into the night.

I found her in the first cemetery I tried. She was sitting on a flat slab of marble, rolling her stake like a baton through her fingers. I stood for a few long moments in the shadow of a yew tree, watching her as I had done years before. Partly it was a test, to see if she still had that sixth sense where I was concerned. I watched in amazement as she slid off the cold stone and did a complete 360. I took a step forward, out from behind the tree, and waited.

The look on her face, part joy, part disbelief was heartbreaking.

"What's wrong?" she whispered.

I shook my head and she moved toward me with surprising speed, halting when she was but a breath away. "Angel," she said, "what's wrong."

"I don't know how to live in this world," I managed to say, dragging the words one by one past the lump in my throat.

"Tell me about it," she said, humourlessly.

"Can you take it away, Buffy?" I asked. "Can you take the pain away?"

I watched bewilderment and then something else bloom in her eyes. "You know I would if I could," she said, sincerely.

I placed the flat of my hand on her chest, over her heart and felt its human rhythm pulsing there. I shoved, hard, and she stumbled back, tripping over a small tombstone. (Perhaps the tombstone of a child, I thought, altogether aware of the irony.)

She landed gracelessly on her rear and I was on top of her.

"Angel," she said, breathlessly. "What are you doing?"

I hooked my fingers in the top of her scooped shirt and wrenched the fabric apart. Beneath the torn scraps, her breasts were covered in sheer fabric, nipples already attentive beneath the bra. I'd had too little experience with her body, and the sight of those perfect breasts made me instantly hard.

I ran a rough hand over the hard peaks and bent low to kiss her slack mouth. She was conflicted, I knew, but there was no turning back. I could feel her hands resting firmly against my chest in a vain effort to loosen my hold on her, but she wasn't really struggling with any degree of enthusiasm.

Then, I felt her mouth open and her tongue slip forward, touching mine with an electric jolt. I felt her mouth and body sink into the kiss and, strangely, I felt my own body retract.

I stopped, my lips humming from their contact with hers. She curled those little hands up into my hair, holding me close and whispered: "It's okay, Angel, do what you need to do."

There was no hesitation; I was off her in an instant, away from the intoxicating smell of her and her easy trust in me. She had no business believing any of my motives, no reason to trust me and yet there she lay, perfect breasts exposed to my starving eyes and the disinterested moon.

She held out a shaking hand, but her eyes were firm. "Come here," she whispered.

"I can't," I said, softly. "I came here to hurt you and I can't."

She stood then, gathering the torn shreds of her shirt around her lovely body. "I know, Angel. I know what you want."

"I don't think you do, Buffy," I said, shaking my head sadly.

She smiled a small, weary smile. "I think you'd be surprised." She moved closer and I willed myself to stay still. "We're so…far away from one another," she said, inches away from me. She lifted her luminous eyes to meet my gaze.

"I know. I don't know how to get back."

"At least you were brave enough to come, Angel," she said.

"I'm not sure about that," I said, reaching out a finger to trace the trembling curve of her lower lip, trying to smooth away the rough desperation of my kiss. " I wanted to erase..." I stopped, realizing that I could offer no adequate explanation.

I looked past her, across the cemetery, into the distance and felt grief rise, bitter and thick, from the pit of my stomach. Connor would never have a proper burial. Christ, he hadn't even had a proper life. Was this what it was like to be mortal? I wondered. Every emotion raw and too close to the surface? All the things I hadn't allowed myself to feel for Buffy, I'd embraced with my son. Now he was gone, but she was here.

"You would have let me?"

She looked at me and I saw, in that brief second, her blinding love for me. More than skin deep. She smiled.

"You wouldn't have let yourself, Angel."

I shrugged off my duster and wrapped it around her shoulders. "You'll be…." I couldn't finish.

"I'll be right here," she said, her fingers drifting across my knuckles.

I nodded and turned. I didn't look back, but I know she waited until I was hidden once more by the clutch of trees that edged the graveyard. I know she's waiting still.

THE END

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