The buzz was like nothing else she knew because it's really all there was. She hated it; it marked her, made her different. God, how very different. So she got to dress like a dominatrix and she was good at her job. It didn't make up for wanting just to...sometimes...touch someone. But that was strictly out of the question. She remembered, all too well, remembered the thing with John, where she melted his car and just about fried him.
It still hurt to think about it.
John was the first kid at the academy to reach out to her. It had been nice, sweet, even; a little boy offering a freaky girl his little car. She still clung to that trust he had in her mind - the open expression as he tried to hand her his toy. She tried to block the rest of it though, the smell of metal reforming, of plastic melting, of singed hair; the screams. John's body, jerking on the ground.
Yeah, that was the thing she tried not to remember.
Sometimes though it sneaked back in, that little sliver of memory. There were others, too; her first (disastrous) and last kiss; the stares she got from the other kids, Ms. Thorpe's pinched face that only grew more cold and angry as time passed. "You must learn to control yourself, Gwen," she said, over and over to the little girl. "The instant you slip, someone, someone like John gets hurt." The name Ms. Thorpe substituted later was Bobby, the cute boy she'd kissed at her first dance.
That summer, her sixteenth, Gwen didn't even bother going home. She took the money for the train ticket her parents had sent her and went...somewhere else. Not California, not to start off with. Too crazy there; too many things to go wrong. But on the border of Arizona and Mexico, she found out she could make big money hotwiring cars for chopshops.
So her first job out of high school was boosting cars. She was so good at that one of the local desperadoes decided she might make a good driver. So she did that for a while. And, after she had to leave him twitching in his own fluids for trying to get the jump on her, she headed north. Not back to Wisconsin, she had her pride thankyouverymuch but to St. Louis.
Gwen made her way across the West, never staying in one place too long but honing her skills as she traveled. Cars gave way to ATM's. Easy enough to get into, once you zap their little brains...after you made sure to zap the camera.
All right, so she had a record. Somewhere. Or she would have, if she hadn't found the right hacker to pull her photo i.d. out of the system. And since then, she'd never looked back. Do the job, get the money (a percentage up front, always), get rid of the goods, move on to the next score.
Gwen was living the good life.
So why was she here, perched on the steps inside Angel's hotel?
He was probably gonna ask her the same question. She sighed, rubbing her gloved hands over her hair. So, Gwen, she asked herself, what are you gonna tell him?
The hotel door opened and Angel walked in with a swoop of that long coat of his, followed by his posse. Cadre? Whatever. Rising, she gave them a smile. "Hey."
The girl stuttered to a stop, her eyes nearly swallowing her face. "Uh," she pointed, "Electro-girl!"
"Her name is Gwen, Fred." Angel said it placatingly, his hands patting the air as if to settle one of them down. "Gwen."
"Angel," she said.
"Gunn, the guy you killed," the black man said, a frown settling on his features. "But I s'pose I oughtta give you props for bringing me back."
"That means we're good?" Gwen asked.
Gunn stared at her flatly then nodded, albeit jerkily. "We cool." He hook a thumb at the girl next to him. "Fred." The thumb tilted towards the girl. "Now that we've got the intros out of the way, what're you doing here?"
"I came to see you. Angel." She added his name, thinking he might like to know that.
"A-all right." Angel nodded while walking up to her. "My office is this way." He gestured for her to proceed him. He closed the door behind him and hesitated, his head lowered, glancing at her out of the corner of his eyes. "So. What brings you here?"
"About the Axis of Pythia," she said and stopped, the words just running out.
"My friend is still missing," Angel said, moving around the desk. He motioned at her to sit and she did. "I," he sighed. "She's in a better place."
Gwen blurted out, "Your girlfriend's dead?" before thinking.
Angel stiffened slightly, emotions crossing his face too quickly for her to read. "No. She's not dead. She's," his voice trailed off and he looked past her, saying, "she's in a better place."
"Okay." She wasn't sure how to process that. It was kinda weird. "Vegas?"
He met her eyes then, choking on something that sounded like a laugh. "You should talk to Gunn sometime," he said after getting control of himself. "He has a thing for Vegas, too."
"Who wouldn't? All the glitter." Angel trailed his fingers across the desk blotter, obviously lost in thought for a few seconds. She could afford to wait, after all, she wasn't even quite sure why she was here. But the silence made her uncomfortable and she rose from her feet, moving jerkily on her side of the desk. "I'm not really sure why I'm here," she said.
Angel lifted his head, giving her a long stare. Still quiet.
"I mean, I have places to go." She twisted her fingers together in her gloves. "Things to, to...."
She shrugged. "Whatever gets you through the night."
"Obviously, it doesn't," Angel said, "or you wouldn't be here, now."
"Maybe I would." Gwen tossed her hair, folding her arms, strong; confident. "I mean, I did shock you. And your friend."
"Yeah," Angel said, "but you gave me the Axis."
"Not exactly the same thing."
His turn to shrug. "It got me the info I needed."
"But not your girl," Gwen said softly.
Fingers tapping lightly on the blotter, Angel leaned back in his chair. Something in his face told Gwen that maybe this wasn't the first time that he didn't get the girl. "So, um, I just wanted," her voice trailed off.
"Gwen, is something wrong?" He was on his feet almost before she could realize it.
"I heard your answering machine, you know," she said. "'We help the hopeless'. Catchy."
"You didn't come here to talk about my answering machine," Angel said.
"No, not really." She turned slightly, so she wasn't facing him. "When I was a little girl," she said, amazed that her mouth was moving, that these words were coming out, "my parents sent me away to a school in Wisconsin. An academy. Like those English boarding schools. And I got to go home every summer, at least until my parents made arrangements to keep me elsewhere." She gestured to the window. "Your friend, is he okay? I mean, he is okay, right?"
"I did shock him." She tried to keep the 'dummy' out of her tone.
"He went to the hospital," Angel said, coming around the desk. He settled back against it, on her side now, his hands curled around the edge. "They said he checked out all right."
"Good." Gwen nodded to emphasize her pleasure. "I was afraid....."
"Afraid you might have killed him?" Angel asked when she didn't go on.
"Afraid I might've damaged him," she corrected. "I did kill him."
Angel folded his arms, head cocked to one side. "And you saw him. He's all right. Well, as all right as someone doing this job could be." He hesitated then asked, "What's this about, Gwen? You can tell me."
"Just like your answering machine," Gwen said, a little grimly.
"Something like that. Are you in trouble?" His voice was low and gentle, so much so she almost wanted to cry.
"No. I mean," she twisted her hand in the air, "no more than someone doing my job could be."
"Then what is it? Something to do with the school? Your parents?" He shifted slightly, not quite entering her personal space.
"I...when I was a kid at that school, there was a little boy. His name was," she choked but stopped Angel from moving closer with an upheld hand. "His name was John. I'm a freak and he just wanted to be nice to me."
"Gwen," Angel said softly.
"Shut up. So, John tried to give me his toy car. I mean, it wasn't anything, just a little piece of metal and plastic." She closed her eyes and could smell it, could hear it all over again. "My gift," Gwen snarled those words, "destroyed the car and because he was touching it, I," she wrapped her arms around her middle, "I killed him. I shocked him the same way I did Gunn. He was trying to be nice to me and I...."
God, how did he move that fast? How did he manage to get his arms around her and hold her, touch her hair, without her even realizing it? She squeezed her eyes closed, her head pressed against his chest and she couldn't cry. Salt water on her skin was too good of a conductor. How long ago had she learned that? How long?
"Gwen, it was an accident, what happened with John. It's not your fault."
"It is too," she whispered. "I-I knew what happened when I touched things. I knew it. And Ms. Thorpe told me to never touch anything, ever, without my gloves and I took that car and John." She sucked in a deep breath. "He died because I was stupid."
Angel's fingers moved soothingly over her hair. "No, Gwen, you weren't stupid. Alone. Wanting some comfort. Just like everyone else."
She sniffled. "But."
"No. If you'd acted in anger but you didn't, did you?" He guided her around so he could look at her, meet her eyes. "Did you?"
Gwen shook her head, not really trusting her voice.
"Isn't that enough?" Angel asked gently.
"Not for John," she said.
"Maybe not but," he seemed to be searching inside himself, "maybe you could do something."
She rubbed at her eyes, curious. "Something like what?"
"Write a letter," Angel said. When she gave him a bemused look, he went on defensively. "Hey, I read it in Dear Abby. You write a letter to the person who died and then you burn the letter." He removed his hands from her shoulders and tucked them into his pockets self-consciously. "I don't know, it could help," he muttered, almost under his breath as he turned away from her.
Lightly laying a hand on his shoulder, Gwen gave him a shaky smile when he looked back at her. "Got paper and a pen?"
Night spread out over the city; a blanket of hazy darkness. Angel stood on the roof of the building with Gwen. She held a folded piece of paper in her hands as she spoke to the sky.
"I never got to tell you how much I appreciated your kindness, John," she said. "I know this doesn't really make up for anything but I hope you can forgive me." She held out her hand.
Angel said, "Let me," and struck the lighter. Both he and Gwen had to cup their hands around the flame to make sure the paper caught.
When it was burning well, not likely to go out, she sailed it out over the edge of the roof. The updraft caught it, taking the ashes higher until they dashed apart.
"Well," Gwen said and started as Angel flicked the lighter again.
Flame licked at another piece of paper and he thumbed the lid shut, dropping the lighter back in his pocket to watch the page burn. He looked like he was carved of fire for an instant, the way the colors played across his skin. Releasing the page as the fire ate dangerously close to his skin, he watched as it slipped over the edge of the building.
Gwen watched with him as the fire snuffed itself out.
"It doesn't really help at all, does it?" he asked, not looking at her.
Searching her feelings, Gwen found she couldn't lie. "Not one damned bit."